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Yarbo Slarg, P. I.

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Yarbo Slarg, PI


Ugly. Well. In polite society they sort folks by physical appearance, but never use words like 'ugly' or 'horse-faced' or 'too tall'. I move in less elevated circles. This broad had nothing to recommend her. Besides all of the above, her hair was stringing in her face and she was thin beyond belief. The small ice chest she carried looked to be more than her body could handle. She plunked it down on a coffee table -- the one fronting the big comfy couch where I liked to entertain my usual clients, well-rounded women with low morals, short skirts, and nice chests.

And lost dogs. That was my specialty. Finding lost dogs. Now and then, when funds got short, I'd stoop to tracking deadbeat husbands, but that kind of work comes with its own set of dangers so I stuck mostly with dog recovery.

"There," said the tall famine victim. She slumped into a chair and uttered the words that explained so much and yet told me nothing at all. "Donnie sent me."

Of course. Leave it to Donnie to send me a client straight out of a nightmare.

"Donnie?" I grasped at a straw of hope. Maybe she had the wrong office. "I only know one Donnie. Lives in Cedar Rapids. Crouches in front of a computer all day scouring the known universe for -- um -- rare photos."

"That's him." She grinned. Just to complete the image, her teeth were crooked. "He said you like clients with an ice chest. This one is full of MGD."

Nice chest. Ice chest. Right. Donnie was down to sophomoric pranks. No, that's not right. High school jokes would be a step up for him. But the MGD was a nice touch.

I opened a notebook. She handed over a business card. C. Morgan Smith, BS, MS, PhD, Professor of Physics. The card bore the logo of a local college. The woman might be anemic but she obviously was no brainless tart. Just my luck.

"So -- should I call you Morgan or Ms. Smith?"

"Morgan is fine, Mr. Slarg." She displayed those horrid teeth again. "That's a funny name. Eastern European extraction?"

"More like fictional extraction." I shrugged. The name was just one of those anvils to pack through life. Changing it was too much trouble and would deprive my few friends of a ready source of humor. "My grandfather had a habit of changing names along with his locale regularly. Slarg was the one he was hanged under. My father kept it for sentimental reasons, I imagine. As for Yorba, I think Dad was drunk when he filled out the birth paperwork. I was supposed to be Zorba, which would have been bad enough." I picked up her card. "Since we're going on about names, what does the C. stand for?"

She blushed. I can't tell you how long it had been since I'd seen a woman do that. "Candace. My mother labored for many years under the delusion that I was best suited to be a Hollywood actress. I was supposed to be Candy Morgan, superstar." She sighed and the blush began to fade. "Even now she bursts into tears when I visit her in the home. She's okay after a few stiff drinks."

"Life is full of disappointments," I offered. "But you're a physics professor. That must be a really interesting field to be in." Okay, it wasn't much of a line, but I wasn't trying to get her on the couch. I have standards. No matter what Donnie says.

"I really wanted to be a fighter pilot," said Morgan. "But the Air Force turned me down. So did the Navy."

"Well . . ." I searched for a polite response. "Um -- you're tall for a woman, but lots of fighter pilots must be as tall or taller."

"Oh, it's not my height." She waved a dismissive hand. "And my eyesight is fine. It's just that I look like a consumptive. I'm not, but those fools the services employ as doctors refused to believe that I was healthy in spite of my appearance." Her shoulders slumped. "I tried to put on weight and bulk. No go."

I got the impression that Morgan didn't get out much and probably had no close friends. It was time to get down to business -- since the couch was not an option. "What can I do for you, Ms. Smith?"

"Find my dog." She proffered a small framed photograph. "His name is Pookie."

My disbelief must have been apparent. Morgan laughed. "Yes. Pookie. He's an ugly little spud. A good match for me, I think."

"I -- ah -- he is kind of odd looking. Not that you're . . ." I was trying to be polite -- and failing miserably. "Anyway, he'd be hard to miss in a lineup. How did you lose him?"

"Someone broke into my house. They didn't take much. A laptop and some of the more expensive pieces to my home entertainment center. But the door and back gate were left open. I assume that's how he got out." She frowned. "He's gotten out before, though, and always came back at meal time."

"A laptop, eh? That could be a problem. Depending on what you have on it, you could become a victim of identity theft."

"Not a chance. The contents are heavily encrypted and the laptop is booby trapped."

"Ah. Good. I encrypt my own system. What do you mean, booby trap?"

"My encryption is DOD stuff. Probably unbreakable, unless the thief has access to a super computer. If the case is opened without neutralizing the trap, a small explosive charge destroys the hard drive and a bright orange fluid is ejected. Whoever was handling it would probably be wounded and dyed orange. I suspect we'll be hearing about that soon."

"Um. DOD? You work on government contracts?"

She blushed again. "I -- ah -- shouldn't have mentioned that. Can we get back to my missing dog?"

"Okay. You searched the neighborhood? How long has it been since the break-in?"

"Day before yesterday. I walked the whole area several times. Our security people are concerned with the stolen laptop, but no one cares about Pookie. Except me. That's why I came to you."

I had to ask. "How in the hell do you know Donnie? He's not the sort to rub elbows with physics professors."

"Oh, I've never met him. We both play bridge. Online. He's very good."

"Bridge? Donnie? The guy who thinks farting should be an Olympic sport? Bridge?"

"I don't know about his other -- ah -- interests, but he does play bridge."

I was stunned. It was as if certain parts of reality had taken a break for lunch. While I contemplated a radically changed Donnie paradigm, she wrote a check. I took it and nodded. It was somewhat more than my standard retainer, but not alarmingly so. The address on the check was at the college. She anticipated my question and wrote a street address on the back of her business card.

"Morgan, I'll go out this evening and make a check of the neighborhood. You should probably walk along with me -- so the locals don't think I'm a pervert of some kind."

"Why would they think that?"

"Kids. When it comes to missing dogs, my best source of info is kids. They see all sorts of things that adults don't."

"I understand. My house at about six, then?"

"You got it. See you then."

She walked with a slouch and kept her head down. I've seen other tall women do that. Her choice in skirt and blouse only served to emphasize her slight frame. I shook my head and went to put the beer in the refrigerator. Fashion for the skinny is not my job.

We didn't get a chance to hook up for a neighborhood dog search. Morgan called that afternoon to report that her laptop and electronic equipment had been recovered.

"The guy's in the hospital," she said. "The cops said he's coated with orange and bleeding from multiple openings."

"They get upset about the laptop being rigged with explosive?"

"Not after our security people had a word with them."

"Okay. Did the perp say anything about your dog?"

"Yeah." Morgan paused. "He claims to have been hired to kidnap -- I guess the right term would be dognap -- Pookie. Whoever hired him was pissed about his stealing the other stuff. He gave the dog to them."

Muted voices began sounding alarms. "Why would anyone want your dog?"

"Good question. I asked the security chief that very thing. He was sympathetic, but now that the laptop has been recovered, he has no further interest. I still need you to find Pookie."

Who would want an ugly mutt? "Um -- you might get a call or note with a ransom demand. It happens more than you might think."

"Ransom? For Pookie?" She fell silent for a long moment. "I see what you mean. I'd pay to get him back. How much do they usually ask?"

"Five hundred bucks. Maybe a thousand. More if the animal has special value. I don't think Pookie falls into the 'special' category."

"So what do I do when they call -- or write?"

"Pay the money. I can help. They won't want trouble. You'll get your dog back."

She said a bad word. I was surprised that she even knew that one. I'm sure her face was red with embarrassment when she mumbled something and hung up.

So that was it. I thought. I had my retainer fee and Morgan would soon have her dog. All would be right with the world.

The faint voices in my head warned otherwise, but I never listen to those clowns.

Night Ride

The gray guys were efficient, I'll give them that. One woke me by clapping his hand over my mouth and nose. I found myself staring into the barrel of a small handgun. Forget the so-called silenced guns you see in movies. For heavy action pros carry a rifle. When they want to be quiet a .22 pistol is just the ticket. Not as impressive as a M1911, for sure, but two or three small caliber holes in your skull will punch your ticket just as well as the big Colt -- without a lot of noise and less mess. No slugs to be dug out of walls. No splatter of blood, brains, and bone for the forensic guys. Clean.

"Get dressed."

Explanation enough for me. I got dressed. A couple of my ex-wives had often whined about my habit of neatly arranging clean underwear, a fresh shirt, and belted trousers on a bedside chair. They called it Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I called it being prepared. You never know, I argued, when you might have to throw on clothes and go somewhere in the middle of the night. Too bad none of the wives were there to see how right I was.

"Downstairs," hissed the other gray man. He handed over my wallet and keys. "Quietly now. We don't want to wake anyone else."

I wanted to wake the neighborhood, but not at the expense of absorbing a few bullets. The neighbors were mostly decent sorts anyhow; the kind of people who didn't play loud music at all hours and who nodded and said a word or two when you met in the hall. In other words, I had no reason to want them dead. We took the stairs. Quietly.

We got into a nondescript white van. I think it had a faded company logo on the side, but it was too dark to tell for sure. Maybe it was just graffiti. One abductor settled into the second seat with me. The third seat was already occupied by a third gray guy and C. Morgan Smith; BS, MS, Phd. She watched the proceedings with intense interest. I don't think she was frightened. Only very curious. Probably being kidnapped was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her.

The van left the city heading south on the interstate. Four hours later we were in New Mexico parked beside a convenience store. One by one, the gray guys got out and used the restroom. I was escorted to the can for my own purposes. Morgan likewise. She was very red in the face when they returned. I imagine she'd never done her business in front of a man at any time -- and most likely never at gunpoint.

One of the men brought coffee and doughnuts. When he handed a cup to Morgan, she just shook her head. "I don't drink coffee. Thanks anyway."

The man never blinked. "Tea?"

"Well . . ." She glanced at me, then nodded slowly. "Tea would be fine."

"They don't have anything fancy," warned the man.

"Just black tea would be okay."

A few minutes later we pulled back on to the interstate. Morgan had her tea. I felt a hell of a lot better about our situation. The gray men had been paid to kidnap us -- murder wasn't in the bargain. Then nagging internal voices reminded me that the same might not apply to whoever they delivered us to. So worried was I that it was all I could do to put away three doughnuts and a cherry tart.

The water bottles they provided must have been laced with a sleeping drug. The last thing I remember as seeing a sign that read: Albuquerque, 65 miles.

I awoke in the dark and lay quiet for several minutes. There was no sense of movement save for the muted whisper of air flowing from a nearby vent. That died away after a few moments and I heard indistinct voices. I tried to sit up. Metal scraped. A sudden jerk on my right arm stopped me. I eased back down. Footsteps sounded. The door swung open.

"Awake at last, eh, Slarg? Sit tight. I'll unlock the cuffs and you can join us. Your lady friend has been up for nearly an hour."

"She not my friend. A client."

In the light from the doorway I could see that the man working on the cuffs was old, very old, bald of head, wrinkled and blotched to the max. He handed me a key. "I ain't steady enough to work the lock. Get yourself free and come on. The members are waiting." He hobbled toward the door.

I unlocked the cuffs and stood up, rubbing my wrist. "Members?"

"Just get a move on. Roy will explain."

He shuffled into the adjoining room. I stepped through the door and stopped. It took my eyes a moment to adjust. Four men sat at a table. The old man who'd given me the key eased into a chair at one end. At the opposite end sat C. Morgan Smith. She gave me a wry grin and sipped her drink. Tea, probably.

"Take a seat, Slarg," ordered the only man besides me with any hair. "Name's Roy. We never had no reason to include you in this affair. Plan was to get your girlfriend here by taking her dog. After she hired you to find the mutt we figured we'd better bring you in too. You might have got curious when she disappeared."

I sat. One of the old characters clutched a monstrous handgun. I'd seen one before and couldn't remember what it was called, but I knew it threw a slug suitable for taking out light armored vehicles.

"Coffee?" asked the man to my left. Magnified eyes peered at me through black framed lenses. The effect was disconcerting. "Bobby will fix up some bacon and eggs in a bit."

I reached for the pot and a cup. "What can I do for you gents?" The old farts all wore shoulder holsters sagging under the weight of large handguns. I always go out of my way to be polite to strangers lugging hand cannon.

"We don't want nothing from you," said the guy with hair. "It's your girlfriend who's gonna help us."

I glanced at Morgan. She sat staring into her cup. A slight smile touched her lips. I considered several things she might be able to 'help' the old boys with and discarded them as unlikely. I nodded toward the guy with hair. "You must be Roy?"

"I'm Roy. Bobby got you outta the sack. Calvin is the one with the coke bottle lenses. You don't need to know the others. You'd just have to forget the names later."

Forgetting the names later implied that there would be a time when this was over and that I would still be breathing. "So what do you want with Morgan? And she isn't my girlfriend. She's a client."

Roy smirked and looked at Morgan. "Yeah. Not really your type, eh, Slarg?" The men all laughed. Roy sighed. "More than you know. More than you know."

"More than I know what? Nothing that's happened in the last day or so makes sense, including your little gang of ancients." Okay, so I was treading the limits of sanity by the time I said that, but my never ample patience was running thin.

Roy leaned closer to Morgan. "You want to tell him, honey? Or should I?"

She looked up. "They think I'm a Martian."

Bobby chuckled. "We don't think it, Slarg. We know it. And she ain't no lady. Nor a man, I reckon. Whatever. Morgan here is going to show us how to get to Mars."

"Um . . ." Words failed me. No matter what my ex-wives and former girlfriends might claim, there are times when I can be literally struck speechless.

"There's less of that gravity stuff on Mars," explained Roy. "We figure to live a lot longer without so much strain on our hearts. Besides, I want to ride around on them canals."

"Not to mention the women," added Calvin.

I managed to make a sound. "Women?"

"Sure. You know. Like that princess old John Carter squired around."

"That would be Dejah Thoris," said Morgan. She looked at me and shrugged. "Even physics students like to read fiction."

"You're not helping. These guys are serious."

"You damn right we're serious," cried Roy. "Now tell her -- it -- to explain exactly how we can get to Mars."

"You can't get there from here." Okay. Trite. I know. I just didn't think.

One Way Ticket

The old man with the monster handgun was on his feet faster than I could credit. He stuck the muzzle in my face and stuttered something I didn't understand.

"Sit down, Cleaver!" shouted Roy. "And watch out with that damn gun! You're liable to twitch and blow his head off."

Muttering, the man sat down. "Cleaver has a speech impediment," said Roy. "But he knows how to use that gun. Careful what you say."

"D - da - da - damn r - r - ri . . ."

Bobby touched Cleaver's arm. "Enough. We get the drift. Calm down."

I took a deep breath. "Roy. All you guys. There isn't any air on Mars. No canals. No bosomy princesses. Nothing. Just dried up sand and rock."

They looked at me like I'd just said something filthy about my Mom or ventured an opinion about how the Statue of Liberty might look without that robe.

Roy smiled. "He's fallen for the cover story, boys." Their glances turned to pity. Roy shook his head and went on. "Same bunch of guys at NASA what made up the moon landing stuff, Slarg. All those Mars rovers? Fiction. Made up. Them boys have a big room down in Texas where they make all the movies and stuff. Ain't none of it true."

I didn't know what to say. Again. How had these old men found out that Star Chamber operatives produce all kinds of purported scientific data and videos at a facility in south Texas? There must be some gaping holes in our security.

"Look, Roy . . ."

Before I could go on, Morgan stood up. "It's all right, Mr. Slarg. I'll do what they ask."

"But, you can't . . . you don't . . ." She hadn't given me the secret sign of the SC. The woman was obviously bluffing.

"Now we're getting somewhere!" cried Bobby. He sat back, gasping. I hoped none of the men got too excited. Dead bodies are always a problem.

"I can't tell you how to reach Mars," said Morgan. "I'll have to take you."

"Dang me," mumbled Calvin. "That's even better. You'll just drop us off?"

"Nothing could be simpler," said Morgan. "I can have a saucer here in a few hours." She produced a small device similar to a flip phone. "You gentlemen will have to decide where you want the pilot to take you. There are some lovely hotels on the Grand Canal. He will have brochures."

Roy stared at Morgan. "What about . . . money?"

"Well, you'll need funds. Do you have gold?"

"We got gold!" yelled Bobby. "Roy was right. Gold talks -- even in Martian."

"All right, then," cooed Morgan. "I'll just make a call." With that she activated the device. I closed my eyes and turned away as blue light filled the room. I knew a Star Chamber brainwipe transmitter when I saw it.

After the last man had been hauled away and the cleanup crew had finished their work, I had a chance to talk to Morgan.

"Why didn't you give me the SC secret sign? I could have zotzed those guys anytime if I'd known you were one of us."

She smiled in that demure way women do, even women with hardly any flesh on their bones. "I'm not a Star Chamber agent, Mr. Slarg."

"But . . ."

"I am an agent for the Imperium," purred Morgan. "You don't know about that." She held up the transmitter. "Where do you think the SC got these?"

"You mean . . ." A funny blue light filled the room.

So, it was all a dream. Heh. Funny dream, though. I've never had a thing for skinny women. Not that I know of anyhow. And you'd think I would know.

Wouldn't you?


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