"I am a scientist, Mr. Crockett, with a taste for the finer things as you can see. Here in my mountain Xanadu, I am free to conduct my scientific experiments. But I am also a man concerned with justice. And I have invited you here today to help me see that justice prevails.
"Five years ago I, together with a business associate, chartered a private airliner. My partner's name was Guy Forest. And the charter pilot was a young, devil-may-care named Titus Whitaker. The freight we paid Mr. Whitaker very handsomely to fly from Bermuda to Grand Rapids was a shipment of poodles.''
"How many poodles would that have been, Dr. Vector?''
"A gross of poodles?''
"That's right. A few days later we discovered one of the poodles missing. It was never found. Some six months later, Forest bought Whitaker's charter company and formed Friendly Guy's Airways. He became Whitaker's boss.
"At least as far as work was concerned. Whitaker was having a secret affair with Muriel Forest, who had left her husband and disappeared some months earlier.''
"It seems to me that, aside from Muriel, you were the only one holding all the pieces to the puzzle,'' I said. "You knew where Guy Forest's wife was, even if he didn't. And you knew that Whitaker was sleeping with his boss' wife. So you began to blackmail Whitaker. If you kept silent, Whitaker could keep Muriel and his job.''
"It's token blackmail, I assure you. I just use it for mad money.''
"Did you murder Muriel Forest?''
"How absurd! I told you, Mr. Crockett, I am interested in justice, not murder. Whitaker is a romantic sort. I suspect he took one of the poodles and gave it to Muriel. Now that she is dead, I think we can return the dog to its proper owner, no harm done.''
I was smelling something rotten and it was Vector's story. "I can understand your concern for justice, Dr. Vector. But aren't you going to extremes over some poodles?''
"These are very good poodles.''
I promised the mad scientist I would look into the matter and call him if I turned up anything. The boys gave me a ride back to my office. Once they were out of sight, I climbed into my car and drove down to Muriel Forest's beach house.
The police had made only a casual search of the place. That was good for me. It didn't take long to find what I was looking for.
She was white like dove's breasts. She had short willowy legs and a tail that stuck out like the pout of a woman you know is going to break your heart. She had intelligent eyes. But I knew better than to fall for a pair of headlamps. She had a yap that made you want to smack her five minutes into the romance. The little red bow in her hair was an apt finishing touch.
"I looked at her collar, studded with fake gems, and read her tag. "Come on, Fifi,'' I said gathering her in my arms. "Let's get out of here.''
The safest place to stash her was my apartment. There was something more to Fifi than just pedigree. I locked her in my laundry closet and went back to my office.
The window air conditioner was blowing sweet and cool air as I sat down at my desk and dialed Friendly Guy's Airways. I wanted to know the date those poodles took that flight from Bermuda to Grand Rapids. The party on the other end told me they flew on March 8, 1995, Titus Whitaker piloting.
And one more thing: a dog was missing when the plane landed.
So far, Vector's story checked out. But something about that date was familiar. I needed some sea air so I put on my Bermuda shorts and headed to the beach.
Lieutenant Fresser was having lunch at a hot dog stand. I ordered myself a red hot with plenty of extras and asked how the Muriel Forest case was going.
"Slow,'' he replied.
"I ran into a couple of your boys today,'' I said. "It looks like Murphy and Thoreau are on Vector's payroll.''
"It wouldn't surprise me. Most of my men are on Vector's payroll. There's only one thing.''
"Theres no Murphy or Thoreau on the force.''
I swallowed my dog, gulped down a diet soda and told Fresser Id see him in the funny papers. Walking back to my office, I passed a pet store. I stopped to look at the Cocker Spaniels in the window. Somebody jostled me from behind.
"I'm terribly sorry,'' said a woman with a poodle running on high-test the end of a leash. I absentmindedly knelt to pet the dog. I scratched it behind the ear and my hand brushed over its collar. Then I remembered March 8, 1995.
I drove home, took Fifi out of the closet, removed her collar and locked her back in the closet. For the next half hour I performed some chemistry experiments I remembered from high school. Then I made a balloon blow up with vinegar and baking soda just for laughs. After that I called Fresser and told him to meet me at Vector's place in an hour with as many men as he could spare.
"But they're all on the take from Vector,'' the lieutenant said.
"It doesn't matter now.'' I placed the receiver in the cradle.
I had Fifi in my arms as Vector greeted me.
"Good work, Crockett. I'll trade you that poodle for a scotch and water.''
"Sounds like a fair trade to me.''
He took the animal. A storm seemed to pass over his face and suddenly he didn't seem to want to be my bartender anymore.
"Are you certain this is the dog?''
I let him squirm another minute. I wanted to enjoy it. I could be dead the next minute.
"You mean the collar? I removed the emeralds before I came here.''
"Very clever,'' he said.
"Let me see if I can understand what happened,'' I began the wrap-up. "On March 8, 1995 a shipment of jewels was diverted from its flight between Europe and the United States. The airplane was forced to land in the Canary Islands. I believe you were there when it landed.
"When it departed, a certain quantity of emeralds was missing. You flew to Bermuda where the emeralds were attached to some dog collars.You purchased a gross of poodles, fitted several with emerald collars and the others with matching collars studded with fake jewels."
"Very good, Crockett. Do go on."
I did. "You didn't calculate Whitaker's romantic streak. He took one of the dogs and presented it to his girl. For years he's lived with the guilt of having stolen that poodle. He calls it his indiscretion. But he had no idea of the real cargo he was carrying. By sheer statistical prowess he picked one of the dogs with the real emeralds.''
"Bravo, Mr. Crockett.''
"Thank you, Mr. Forest. You are actually Guy Forest, partner and jilted lover, arent you? Now, I'm willing to bet that Vector is dead and you killed him. Maybe he wanted to keep that last dog collar from you. Maybe it was because in the end he sided with Whitaker and Muriel against you. Was it because you robbed him of his share of the wealth?''
"All of the above. Vector lived all here those years and never told me Muriel was here. I had to track her down myself. By the time I found her, she was dead. Surely my depriving Vector of his $2 million pales with his depriving me of Muriel.''
"I'll let the judge decide, Forest.''
"How long have you known I wasn't Vector?''
"I admit I was confused when your corrupt cops didn't know their way around the place. I figured, hey, it's a big house. But Lieutenant Fresser had never heard of Murphy and Thoreau. On a small island everyone knows everyone else. That's something you big city folks forget.''
"So how come you didn't know?''
"Would we have had nearly as suspenseful a story if I had, Guy?''
It required a few subtle akido moves to persuade Forest to donate his revolver to my jacket pocket. By that time the cops arrived. Since they were on the take from Vector, not Forest, they willingly brought the suspect downtown.
|Fresser was in his monk's cell of an office when I stopped by headquarters. He had the look of a man who had been up all night and had coffee for blood.|
"There's one thing I don't understand, Crockett."
"What's that, Fresser?''
"Who killed Muriel?''
"Who killed Muriel?'' When the echo died I gave Fressers question some good hard thought.
"No idea," I said as the sun
rose to what would be another magnificent day.
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