he following night, Nick prepared to refocus his investigation on Todd Sweeney. Sure, it was rather unethical to investigate someone while he was technically still a client, but being ethical didn’t pay the rent. At least, he assumed it didn’t; he had never really tried. “Since this is technically a new case, I should make a list of expenses I can add to Margery’s bill. Todd’s office is in town, so I can’t charge her for hotel bills or plane tickets or souvenir snow globes… What, then?”
He lit a cigarette and took a slow drag. Holding in the smoke, he waited for some chemically-sparked inspiration. “I could always use some new equipment. With the money she’ll be getting from Todd, she can afford to buy me some new toys. Unfortunately, the only place in town that sells my kind of toys is Little Brother’s.” That would mean seeing Sophia. Talking to her. And lately, it just didn’t feel right. “Well, it will be worth an awkward conversation to score a few grand in gear. I’ve suffered a lot worse for a lot less.”
Sophia’s rusty, brown car was parked by the front entrance. It was an older model that still ran on gasoline. It broke down constantly, which was an increasingly expensive problem. It was getting harder and harder to find a mechanic who knew how the old engines worked. The last mechanic had told her he couldn’t fix it because he didn’t have the proper vacuum tubes.
“Still, I hope she never gets rid of it,” he thought, rubbing the hood. “We always have the best conversations when I drive her home. God, I wish her car would break down just one more time, so we could talk like that again. Being stuck together just makes things easier. Always easier when someone can’t go away.” He had a sudden flash of Sophia tied to a chair. He headed into the store, smiling.
A customer was returning one of Little Brother’s most expensive items: a personal spy satellite. The satellites were cheaper than the ones used by governments, as they flew at a much lower orbit. Unfortunately, the customer explained, this one had flown too low. He had to call the fire department when it became stuck in a tree.
As usual, Sophia was in the back, doing her best to stay away from customers. The tiny speakers in her earrings played music only she could hear. Her head was swaying gently. She wanted to dance but forced herself to stay still. The last time she had given in to the urge, she had pirouetted into a wall.
Nick headed for the camera counter, which was out of her line of sight. He already had a camera but, like any technology, there were always newer and nicer models to replace it. He slammed his money pouch on the counter and told the salesman, “Show me the latest and greatest thing you’ve got.”
“Certainly, sir. I have here a camera so new that it technically won’t be invented until next Thursday. It can take photos at forty-three yottapixels. That’s forty-three septillion pixels, which is slightly higher resolution than real life. Compared to this camera’s photos, physical reality is grainy and pixelated.”
Nick knew he was exaggerating but, as Margery was paying, it didn’t seem to matter. He bought the camera, some extra batteries, and a telephoto lens long enough to give a horse an inferiority complex. “I’d better get out of here,” he thought, “before Sophie sees me.”
As he walked across the parking lot, he heard a strange, whistling sound. An immense, wrought iron buffet table was falling from the sky. It was hard to tell for certain, due to its speed, but it looked like an antique. The buffet table hurtled over his head and crashed on the pavement, crumpling like a soda can.
Bewildered, he stared up at the sky. As before, there was no sign of its source. No planes, no helicopters, no autogyros. Suddenly, he realized who had been trying to kill him. Only one person could drop furniture from an empty sky. “Missed me again, God!”
Nick parked at the bar across the street from Hand to Mouth and waited for Todd to leave for the evening. To help pass the time, he counted his money. Margery had emptied her private investment account to cover his fee, selling forty-three hundred shares of Sphinx Tech, a company that made toupees for hairless cats. She hated to do it but, if Nick could prove Todd was the killer, she would have plenty more cash coming her way.
Some movement in the lot caught his attention. Peering though his camera’s zoom lens, he watched Gordon walk from the restaurant toward his car. Todd rushed out behind him, yelling something. The distance made his words inaudible. He grabbed Gordon’s belt and violently yanked down his pants, revealing several large plastic bags tied to his legs. More yelling. Embarrassed, Gordon piled the bags in Todd’s hands, pulled up his pants, and trudged slowly to his car. Gordon drove off, and Todd returned to his office.
Waiting. Smoking. Twiddling of thumbs. Bored, Nick toyed with his navigation system. Pulling up a local map, he found that Donald Canard’s house had recently been flagged “For Sale.” Donald wasn’t asking for much, possibly because his house was next door to the Vancouver Scream Therapy Center.
A car pulled into the lot and slowly circled the restaurant. Nick took a few photos, even though it was far too dark to see the driver. A brilliant flash of white. Tongues of fire lapped at the restaurant’s sides. Tires squealing, the car sped away like a gazelle with an inner ear disorder.
He connected to the local security computer. “There’s been an explosion at Hand to Mouth. Looks like a pipe bomb. I’m sending photos of the suspect’s vehicle, which is now heading south on Westside Highway. Send a security patrol and a fire truck immediately. Victim heavily insured.”
“Message received.” The computer’s voice was annoyingly polite, like a flight attendant or a museum tour guide or a Canadian. “My records show that Hand to Mouth has a contract with Happy Bunny Insurance. A security patrol car is on its way after the suspect, and a fire truck will be at Hand to Mouth in approximately four and a half minutes.”
He left the bar and pulled into the restaurant’s tiny parking lot. He sprinted to the windows outside Todd’s office. The inside was entirely obscured by smoke and flames. While he waited for the fire truck, he tried to light a cigarette off the blaze but only managed to burn his fingers.
Two windows down was a brightly-colored pane of stained glass. Barely visible inside, Todd Sweeney cried out for help. Waving for Todd to step back, Nick hurled a trash can through the glass. He pulled off his jacket and tossed it across the window frame, covering the jagged knives of broken glass. Grabbing Todd’s arms, he pulled him out and dragged him away from the burning building.
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Wergild,” Todd wheezed. He sat in the grass at the edge of the lot, coughing violently. “I must be cursed. First a murder, and then the building catches fire while I am in the restroom, the only room without a window that opens. I must remember to tell Margery that her bloody stained glass artwork nearly killed me. I am sure she will find it most amusing.” But Nick wasn’t listening. He was too busy watching his leather jacket burn.
A fire truck pulled into the lot, sirens blaring. Its rear doors opened, releasing half a dozen men in silver jumpsuits. The truck’s octopus, a bright yellow, eight-legged robot the size of a horse, came scurrying out after them. The firefighters connected a hose to a nearby hydrant, the octopus dragging the other end to the flames. Once in position, the robot forced its spiked legs into the blacktop, anchoring itself to the ground. It switched on the hose, releasing a blue torrent of water and chemicals.
Moments later, a white convertible rolled into the lot. A woman in a lime green pantsuit, apparently the claims adjuster, hopped out and brought Todd some papers to sign: “Acknowledgement of fire fighting attempt”, “Waiver of water damage claims”, and “Withdraw of fire damage claims in the event the fire was started by a malfunctioning Schlock Products™ freezer/oven combo.”
The firefighters and their machine managed to extinguish the blaze before it spread beyond Todd’s office. They covered the burned area in yellow warning signs and stapled plastic sheeting in place to keep out the rain and insects. As the bomb had struck a load-bearing wall, they also brought in a pair of hydraulic jacks to support the roof until repairs could be made.
Once the insurance crew left, Todd gestured for Nick to come closer. “I believe I know who started the blaze,” he said, his voice strained from coughing. “Unless I miss my guess, there is a good chance they were also involved in Renée’s murder.”
“Well, don’t keep it to yourself, Sweeney! Who was it?”
“Scunner Consulting. It is a social activist group headed by a man named Reid Mason. They protest businesses all over the country: zoos, chicken farms, that genetics lab that makes the apples that taste like bacon… and, lately, Hand to Mouth. Mason claims that he has nothing personal against me, he just hates my restaurant. He finds it disgusting, the rich eating the poor. He even writes articles about it for the newsfeeds. I believe the last one was called ‘An Immodest Proposal.'”
“And you think he hates it enough to have Renée killed?” Nick asked. “How can anyone hate something that much without being married to it?”
“He has tried to put a stop to the restaurant many, many times, but nothing has worked. Perhaps he finally resorted to murder. And now, arson.” Todd sighed, staring at the hole where his office used to be.
“If he did it, I’ll find proof. – For the right price, I can prove it’s him, even if he’s innocent.” Of course, Nick was just joking. Mostly.
Nick smiled, putting away his notebook. “Hey, I know what will cheer you up… A circus ringmaster hires a new performer. That night, the owner of the circus comes to watch the new act. The performer walks to the center ring, grabs a man from the audience, and takes a bite out of his neck. The owner says to the ringmaster, ‘Damn it, I told you to hire a human cannonball!'”
Todd was too depressed to laugh.