I sat in the back seat of a large sedan nestled snugly between two muscular masses of wolf. My unannounced visitors had given me a businesslike frisk and relieved me of my gun before escorting me to their vehicle, which was waiting outside. Without a word to the driver, the car pulled away from the curb and began to swerve through the light traffic. Soon we were on our way out of town and headed into the gathering dusk.
One of the wolves sniffed the air, then leaned in slightly closer to me and sniffed again. "Were you in a monkey bar?" he asked.
I smiled wanly. "My business takes me all kinds of places," I said, "like tonight for instance. I never expected to be on my way to... where exactly are we going?"
"We're going to a little place outside of town. We thought it would provide the kind of private atmosphere that stimulates conversation."
"Well, I'm a pretty good conversationalist. You don't have to take me anyplace special. What did you fellas want to talk about?"
"We'd prefer to wait until our accommodations are a bit more private, if that's all right with you."
"Sure, sure. Whatever you say." I tried to remain calm. This was starting to look like a one way ride. I tried to think of all my options, but found that I didn't have very many. If these were the wolves that had arranged Marlene's death, they wouldn't hesitate to kill me. Marlene's murder had to be spectacular to serve as a warning to her husband, or to punish him. But my murder would be businesslike - tying up loose ends with a couple of slugs in the gut, and then leaving my carcass in the desert for the scavengers to find. I'd have to come up with some kind of gambit if I wanted to save my own fur, and it was going to have to be a good one.
I was so caught up in my cheerful musings that I barely noticed when the car turned off the road. But when I did realize it, I noticed two things right away. One was that we weren't terribly far outside of town - hardly what I'd consider body-dumping territory. The other was that we actually seemed to be headed someplace. I could see some lights up ahead at the end of the road. As I watched, the car crawled up the long drive and passed the front of an isolated Mexican restaurant. We circled around to the back and pulled to a stop. The wolves hustled me out of the car and in through a small back door. I found myself in a small, private room just big enough to accommodate a few restaurant tables. Suddenly I wasn't sure just what was going on.
"Have a seat, Mr. Spaniel," said the one wolf, the one who had done all of the speaking so far. I picked a table and sat. The two wolves took the seats across the table from me. "Would you like to see a menu?" the wolf asked me.
This was beginning to get positively surreal. "No, thank you. My stomach is feeling a bit jumpy at the moment," I said.
The wolf nodded. "I understand. It was necessary for us to bring you here. We simply want to ask you a few questions. We'll pay you for your time, of course."
I wasn't sure what to make of this. "Why didn't you just come to my office?" I asked.
The wolf shrugged. "We wanted to talk to you as soon as possible. Also, there are certain reasons why we choose to conduct our affairs outside of the city limits."
I was wary, but I was beginning to think this might not be the nightmare scenario I'd feared. The wolf seemed reasonable enough. Why not talk to him? "So," I said, leaning back a little in my chair, "ask away."
"We understand that you are involved in the investigation of an accidental death. Is that so?"
I wasn't sure how to play it. I usually don't discuss an investigation while it's in progress, but I had a feeling the wolf and his mute twin might be pretty persuasive if pushed to it. Also, I wasn't sure which answer was the right one. He could just be fishing to find out if I knew Marlene had been murdered. A wrong answer could be fatal. I figured I'd try and walk the tightrope, and not volunteer any information. "Yes, I'm currently working on a case like that. There are some unusual circumstances surrounding the accident, and I'm trying to tie up any loose ends."
"I see," he said. He paused a moment, then asked "And exactly how long have you been involved in this investigation?"
I thought for a second, then said "Just about twenty-four hours."
"So may I safely assume that you are investigating the death of Mrs. Marlene Milkbone?" I swallowed and nodded my head. The wolf looked at me without speaking for what seemed like an eternity. His partner cracked his knuckles, and the sound seemed to echo off the walls of the small room. Finally the wolf said, "Mr. Spaniel, my partner and I find ourselves in a somewhat delicate situation. We also have an interest in this case. Unfortunately, being strangers in town, our resources for gathering information are somewhat limited. I was wondering if you might be willing to share some of what you've uncovered with us. It's possible that we may also have some information of our own that could be helpful to your investigation."
The ball was back in my court. Was he trying to find out what I knew? I imagined what their "interest" in the case might be, but then again my imagination hadn't been very accurate so far. I decided to play it straight. If they wanted me out of the way, they could easily have done it by now without going to all this trouble. "All right," I said, "I can tell you some of what I've uncovered. It would be easier though if you could give me an idea of what you're trying to find out."
He nodded, then said "We want to know who killed her."
I was taken aback. Could this be for real? Were these guys who I thought they were? Playing my cards close to my chest was getting me nowhere. I was going to have to start asking some questions of my own. I began carefully, "I know that her husband had some trouble a short time ago, some trouble involving a very well-known, influential family from back east. I believe that this family might have reason to be angry with Hanover Milkbone, perhaps even angry enough to want to take revenge. Revenge is often the motive in murder cases. At this point, however, I have nothing to substantiate this theory - it's just guesswork. Still, it's the best lead I've had so far. Now, if you gentlemen know something about this that I don't, I would certainly appreciate it if you could let me in on it."
The wolf looked down at the table for a moment, then looked up at me and said, "I know this family you speak of. And while I cannot say how they would react if one of their own flesh and blood were killed, I can say that they are honorable people. I doubt they would take the life of an innocent woman for something that her husband did."
"Ah... with all due respect, you'll have to forgive me if I find that a little difficult to believe. After all, the family I'm talking about didn't become well-known for acts of charity and human kindness."
Suddenly the other wolf spoke up. "A debt of honor must be paid," he said. His voice was deep and he sounded as if his throat was filled with coarse gravel. "And it can only be paid by the man who owes it. It's true that sometimes doing business, a warning must be sent. Then, you do what it takes to send a warning. But when a debt of honor is owed, no warning is needed. The man who owes it knows who he is, and he knows what to expect." He fell silent and glared at me.
"You see, Mr. Spaniel," the other wolf said, "the man who is in charge of this family has two brothers who are very dear to him. This boy who died was the son of one of those brothers. Like his father, he wasn't part of the family business. He was a good kid - a bit naive - but with a big heart. He was always trying to make the world a better place. Eventually he went into the union and became an organizer. He was young and idealistic, you know what I mean?" I nodded my head, and he continued. "He never wanted anything to do with the rest of the family and he even went so far as to change his name so nobody would know who he was or where he was from. He didn't want the family's reputation to interfere with his work. They let him go his own way, never got involved with his business, and he never asked them for any help." He paused, then said "But then he was killed and... well, family is still family."
"And a debt of honor," boomed the other one, "is a debt of honor."
I let out a long sigh. The pieces were all beginning to come together. "And why did you think I'd be able to help you?"
"As I said, we're strangers here. This man might have other enemies, local enemies, who would do such a thing to his wife. Or maybe somebody had it in for her alone. In either case, we'd like to know. Let's just say it will help us to plan the rest of our visit accordingly. You are a native, and you are already investigating the case, so we thought you would be our best bet for finding out this information."
"I see," I mumbled. "Well, I'm afraid that right now there's not much more I do know. Hanover Milkbone's enemies are mostly professional, no one who'd do anything like this. And his wife was a choir girl, as far as I've been able to figure out. It seems like my best lead has just been pulled out from under me. But it's still early in the investigation. I've still got some legwork to do."
"We would consider it a personal favor if you could inform us of any significant developments." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a stack of bills. He counted out five fifties onto the table. "Will that be sufficient to compensate you for tonight's inconvenience?" he asked. I nodded, and he slid the bills over to me. I took them and stuffed them in a pocket. "We are staying at the Hotel Esperanto, Mr. Spaniel, room 906. Please call us if anything comes up. The driver will take you back to your apartment; he'll give you your gun back when you arrive there. I hope you'll forgive us for not accompanying you, but it's late and we're rather hungry."
Thus dismissed, I left the room and went out to the car. I stared out the window all the way home. I tried not to think about anything. I was beat. The driver deposited me on the curb in front of my place, handing me a small paper bag before I left the car. He pulled away and I went inside, taking the gun out of the bag and sliding it back into its holster as I climbed the stairs. I opened the door to the apartment and flipped on the lights.
It was clear something was wrong. The coats from my hall closet were piled in a heap just inside the door. I drew my gun and stepped cautiously inside, making sure to check behind the door. Then I proceeded down the hall, gun drawn. The place was a shambles. Someone had gotten in and ransacked it while I'd been out with the wolves. The cushions from the sofa were on the floor, a chair was overturned, and a glance into my kitchenette showed that all the drawers had been pulled out and the cabinets emptied. I canvassed the whole place with my finger on the trigger, but whoever had done the job was long gone. I ended up in my bedroom. All the clothes from my closet were heaped on the floor, along with the contents of my dresser drawers.
Suddenly, I was just dog tired. I picked up the bedclothes from where they were piled, kicked off my shoes, tucked the gun under my pillow, crawled in to bed and pulled the covers up over my head.
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