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I thought of phoning Whitaker with my discoveries, but something still wasn't right. It all seemed too easy.

That’s when the cops showed up. They knocked twice, for politeness sake, but they were inside before I could say, "Who's there?''

There were two of them. The older guy took a step toward me. He looked worn out, the way you look after 35 years of walking the beat and all you want is some shut-eye.

"You Crockett?''


The younger cop exploded, giving me a shove that crushed my cigarettes."Stop playing footsie with Murphy. Let me work him over, Murphy. I'll get some answers out of him.''

The young one was the kind of guy who would boil his mother's cat if mom served up skim milk instead of 2 percent. The type who would put a pound of lead in the cantor if he slipped over the Torah reading.

"Go back to the car, Thoreau,'' Murphy said wearily.

Young Thoreau left my office.

"I hear you're a friend of Titus Whitaker's,'' Murphy said.

"He hired me to look into Muriel Forest's murder, but I read in the morning friendly that you boys have that one all sewed up.''

"There's somebody who'd like to see you, Crockett.''

"I was just about to go down to the five and dime for a tempe burger and a black coffee. Ask your friend to phone my girl for an appointment.''

"How about an appointment now?'' he said, pointing the business end of a .44 my strike zone.

I didn't argue. In my business, one strike can mean you're out.

In truth, I was glad to be out of the office. Murphy, young Thoreau and I piled into a late-model Acura, Thoreau behind the wheel and Murphy in the back seat with me. Thoreau gunned the import into traffic while keeping a watchful eye on me through his rear-view mirror. Nobody said anything and it gave me plenty of time to look at the scenery.

We were heading away from the beach and into the mountains. Thoreau pulled off the main road onto an old dirt track. It ended at an electronically controlled gate, behind which stood an immense colonial mansion. The gate opened and Thoreau moved the vehicle along the driveway to the front door.

"I didn't know the police also doubled as a taxi service,'' I cracked wise as we went inside.

"We do if the price is right,'' Murphy said.

They led me through a series of sumptuous rooms, then up a couple flights of stairs, down a hallway, through a passageway and into an elevator. The doors shut and we descended as the machine's motor purred.

When we reached the bottom we walked through some more rooms, out intricately carved French doors, across a magnificent Chinese garden, until we came to some more French doors, tracked mud across a sumptuous Persian carpet, went down a couple flights of stairs and turned through several hallways appointed with Louis XIV furnishings. It was clear my new friends had no idea where they were going.

"Let's take the service elevator down,'' Thoreau suggested.

"No, I think we need to catch the moving sidewalk,'' Murphy countered.

"Where exactly is our destination?'' I lit an Old Gold.

"That's for us to know and you to find out,'' Thoreau said with a hint of menace. But he seemed to have lost most of his conviction somewhere between the wine cellar and the hall of mirrors.

While the two cops consulted a map, I wandered off. A nearby communicating door led to the vestibule where we had entered a quarter of an hour earlier. The butler was waiting for us. I whistled and the boys caught up.

The butler led us into a room off the foyer we hadn't seen before. A man faced the window, a silhouette to the mid-afternoon sun.

"Welcome, Mr. Crockett,'' he said, turning. He was of medium height, with black hair and a moustache. Narrow eyes and mouth and an undistinguished nose. His suit fit him just so, but no better. At first glance, there was nothing unique about the man facing me, except the scar that ran long and deep, like a railroad through a gorge, across his right cheek.

An uneasy silence hung over the room, and I realized everyone was waiting for me to finish making these mental notes.

"We brought him, just like you asked, Dr. Vector,'' Murphy said.

"Scotch and water, Mr. Crockett?'' my host said as he put a glass of scotch and water in my hand. I could tell this Dr. Vector was a man used to having things his way.

"Yes, thank you, Dr. Vector, is it?''

"Dr. Victor Vector.''

"Victor Vector?''

"Victor Vector.''

The echo was even worse in the mountains.

"And now that I've done something for you,'' he said, eyeballing my glass, "I'd like to ask you a favor.''

"What would that be?'' I took a nip.

"Mr. Crockett, I would like you to bring me a poodle.''

"Well, Dr. Vector, I get a C-note a day plus expenses. You'd do better to ask one of the boys here to take the squad car down to Poodle Emporium.''

"No, it's a particular poodle I want.''

"They can follow directions,'' I said and immediately recalled the safari through Vector's house.

"Let me come to the point.'' Vector's voice suddenly had an edge to it. It matched his scar. "I want Muriel Forest's poodle.''

"The dead woman? I know all about that case.''

"I'm afraid that neither the morning paper nor the unfortunate Titus Whitaker gave you the full story.''

"Care to fill me in?''

"With pleasure.'' Vector offered me one of his sumptuous Ming Dynasty recliners.

"One request,'' I said as I parked my keister in the Corinthian leather. "Can we do this without the Greek chorus?''

Vector threw a stern look at Murphy and young Thoreau and they passed out of my sight toward the door. When I heard the slam, Vector began his singular narrative.

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