I hate the winter. I really do. The blizzard we’d just experienced had all the mischief-makers bottled up in their homes, which severely restricted the opportunities for a professional snoop like me to leverage man’s fallen nature into the kind of gravy poppa needed to keep himself in cigarettes and new fedoras.
The intercom buzzed, so I flipped the switch. “What you got, Sheila?” I asked without much hope.
“I’ve got another woman on the line who says that she thinks she lost some jewelry in her driveway before the snow storm and she’d like you to find it.”
“I suppose the suggested terms are ‘fee based on successful recovery’?”
“You guessed it!”
“And I suppose she’d like me to bring my shovel?”
“No, she says she’s got a variety for you to choose from.”
“Well, tell her to forget it! I’ve already been out on two similar calls and each time, as soon as I got the driveway cleared, the client came out on the porch, yoo-hooed, and claimed to have just found the missing jewelry under the couch.”
I clicked off the intercom and began daydreaming about moving the office to Costa Rica. I had just slipped into a reverie featuring Sheila typing up million-dollar invoices by the swimming pool, wearing a bikini one size too small, when Wronwright clomped into the office.
Clad in a padded, red-and-black-plaid coat, old green dungarees, mukluks made from what appeared to be the hide of a mange-afflicted moose, and an enormous fur cap with flaps tied down tightly over his ears, he looked like one of those doomed characters in a Jack London story.
“Morning, Wron. Somebody jump your claim up there in the Klondike?”
“What?” he inquired, in a loud voice.
“Skip it. Pour yourself some coffee.”
I had heard of snow blindness, but not snow deafness. Then I saw the problem. I crooked a finger and gave a come-hither waggle. He approached the desk, and I stood up, reached over, and undid the knot in the leather strings under his chin which he had used to secure the ear-flaps. They promptly curled upwards, giving him the appearance of a Tibetan yak herder.
“Oh, sorry,” Wronwright said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with these ear flaps. I bought this hat online, and I’m a little disappointed in the quality.”
“Who’d you buy it from?”
“Perdurable Arctic Clothes Outfitters.”
“Hmm. Sounds a little dodgy.”
The intercom buzzed again. “Sheila, I’m not taking any more calls from cagey old ladies who happen to have snow-covered driveways.”
“No, no snow-bound matrons. I’ve got a Mr. Herbert Lord on the line. He’s an attorney, and he wants to know if he can come around immediately.”
“This isn’t about that unpaid hat-cleaning bill is it? I told the dry-cleaning guy not to wash that fedora in a machine; it looks like a fur-felt boonie-cap now, and I’m not paying for that.”
“No, this sounded like the kind of business where we get paid.”
“Ok. Tell him you’ll check my calendar, wait for 20 seconds, and then tell him there’s an unexpected opening in fifteen minutes. If he gets the idea we’re busy, we ought to be able to ratchet the fee up a bit.”
“How about if I tell him the police commissioner flashed the bat sign in the sky, and you won’t be back for an hour?”
“Keep it up and see if I take you to Costa Rica.”
“Never mind. Just tell the legal eagle to flap on over whenever he’s ready.”
While we waited for Herbert Lord, Esq., to arrive, Wronwright peeled off his winter-wear and hung it up, making the coat-rack look like a Siberian scarecrow. I sipped some java and fantasized about rubbing suntan lotion on Sheila’s back out by that swimming pool in Costa Rica. (I had forgiven her for the Batman crack). Eventually there was a tap on the door and Sheila ushered in our new client.
Lord was a slender man of medium-height, impeccably tailored in a solid-gray suit, starched Egyptian-cotton shirt (blindingly white), a red and blue bow tie (tied so neatly that it looked like a clip-on, but I knew better), a black cashmere overcoat and a black suede newsboy cap. He was probably in his mid-fifties and was no more than an occasional drinker; I could tell from the crystal clarity of his piercing blue eyes and his healthy complexion. He doffed his hat, smiled at Sheila – his eyes scanning her from golden head to shapely foot, with a slight pause as he took in the softly assertive contour of her white turtle-necked sweater – and then turned to me. Sheila returned to the anteroom, and it was a measure of the man’s iron will and singleness of purpose that he didn’t snap his head around to watch the alluring yaw of her matchless callipygian charms as she withdrew. I introduced myself and my partner, and we all sat down.
“Detective Paco, I am so glad you could find the time to meet with me, especially on such short notice. First off, let me say that my firm represents a very important client, and there will be a need for complete confidentiality and the highest level of professionalism on your part.”
“On our part, you mean.” I hooked a thumb in Wronwright’s direction.
“Um…m’y-e-s,” he responded somewhat dubiously, glancing at Wronwright, who, unfortunately, had chosen that precise moment to discover that a chocolate bar he had left in his pants pocket had melted. “In any event, I might as well get down to cases. Our client is none other than the President of the United States. That’s right, gentlemen, the President himself.”
I don’t know what he thought my response was supposed to be; gabble something like, “Gawrsh, the President?!?”, or maybe place my hat over my heart and stare earnestly into the middle distance. What I did was noisily slurp my coffee.
“So, I take it that the need to consult with a private shamus means this is a personal matter of some kind, not anything connected with official government work?”
“Er, yes, Mr. Paco, exactly so. You have, ahm, grasped the situation perfectly.”
“Ok. How’s about helping me get a better grip by spilling the details.”
“Yes, very well.” He shifted uneasily in his chair and sighed. “I know this will probably sound a little strange, but bear in mind that President Obama spent his formative years in Hawaii. As a young man, he got quite caught up in traditional Hawaiian mythology, and, although in almost every other respect, he is an exemplar of logic and clear-thinking…I beg your pardon Mr. Wronwright?”
Lord was looking angrily at Wron, whose ears had acquired the color of a fire engine. “Oh, nothing, nothing. Heh. I was just talking to myself about how this melted chocolate looked like horse…uh…poop. That’s all.”
“Yes, well…Where was I? Oh, right. Barack Obama took to heart one ancient superstition of the native Hawaiian islanders.”
I poured myself another cuppa joe. “He’s not planning on throwing Biden into a volcano, is he?” I was thinking that you didn’t have to be a fan of Hawaiian mythology to want to see something like that.
“No, we scotched that idea. He’s become obsessed with a sort of good luck charm.” The attorney cleared his throat and blurted out the rest. “Mr. Paco, the President’s geckos have escaped.”
I exchanged a glance with Wronwright. “Excuse me; did you say the President’s geckos? You mean those little lizard things?”
“Precisely. You see, in Hawaiian lore, the gecko was revered. It was considered the earthly manifestation of the great mo’o, a kind of dragon god that was a guardian spirit of the natives. Barack Obama…in, er, a merely figurative way, you understand…has come to see the gecko as a guardian spirit of his presidency. He keeps a number of them in a terrarium in the residential quarters of the White House. One of the housekeepers accidentally broke the terrarium on the day of the State of the Union Speech, and the geckos skittered away. Given the generally poor reception to the speech by…um…”
“Practically everybody?” Wron added helpfully.
“Well, not everybody, but pretty close. Anyway, the President is convinced that the speech went badly because his geckos escaped. He is frantic to have them found.”
I shook my head. “Sounds to me like you should be calling the Orkin Man. Or maybe one of those exuberant Australian snake-handlers that you see on the nature channels. Or Charles Johnson."
“Oh, no, Mr. Paco, we can’t call the Orkin man or any television people. We can’t count on any outside commercial outfit to maintain secrecy on this. Who’s Charles Johnson, by the way?”
“Forget it. Inside joke. So, what kind of sugar are we talking about on this arrangement?”
“I’m prepared to offer you a one-thousand-dollar retainer, and a thousand dollars for every gecko you find.”
“How many are there?”
“Seven. Originally there were eight – each gecko theoretically representing good luck for one year of Obama’s presidency – but shortly after the inauguration, one of the lizards got frightened and lost a tail when the President lined the bottom of the terrarium with a newspaper that had a photo of Helen Thomas. He got depressed and eventually died. The President thinks this accounts for his not entirely successful first year.”
I was pretty sure I heard Wronwright mutter something about the Titanic’s not entirely successful maiden voyage, but Lord was fooling around with his Blackberry and didn’t seem to hear.
“Listen,” I said, “why not just buy some more lizards?”
“The President has had these for several years and has formed a strong attachment to them. In fact, he thinks they helped him win the presidency. He’s thoroughly familiar with even the most miniscule physical aspects of each gecko and would spot a bunch of ringers immediately, and that would never do.”
“Ok, count us in. Of course, we’ll need to get access to the whole building.”
“You’ve got it. Now, it might be advisable if you were to show up under cover of a pest-control firm. We don’t want anybody in the White House to know what’s really going on.”
I saw Wronwright’s eyes light up. “A disguise? I’ve got just the thing!”
“Very well, then.” Lord rose to leave. “I’ll call later today and finalize the arrangements.” We shook hands again – Wronwright inadvertently depositing a gob of chewy nougat in Lord’s paw – and saw our new client out; stopping him in the anteroom, of course, long enough to make out a check for our retainer. Then we returned to the office and plotted strategy.
Wronwright was washing his hands at the sink in my office when a rather key problem occurred to him. “Say, Paco, how do you catch geckos, anyway?”
To be continued