The stars bleed quietly overhead as a bespectacled man creeps furtively through City Park. His eyes never leave the white, white van gurgling its way down Spotted Fever Road, opposite the City Hall. It is a van he has been tailing since late afternoon.
As he oils gently from nook to nook — here behind a solemn bench, and there beneath a flat, river-smooth stone — he pauses, squelching slightly, to write things down in the small, ring-bound journal he clutches tightly in his right hand, its nestled sheafs of paper rustling dramatically. This man is Lex Flypaper, amateur sleuth and aspirant playwright, and he is on the clock. His new two-act crime thriller, Young Yaxley’s Yawp, has run ashore right before its grand finale. Inspiration is required, and plenty of it: a good, hard evening’s snooping is the cure.
The white, white van had caught his peepers that afternoon, juddering past his scuzzed-up writing hole at Mungo’s Collect Call Juice Bar. Lex had been chipping away at his old jibber-jabber, plugging down virgin pina coladas and ruminating furiously over the final scene in his script. Imagine: Yensen Yaxley, intrepid square-jawed private eye, caught in the abandoned mineshaft when his cunning scheme backfires. Enter Hambone, ringleader, accompanied by nameless goons et al.; biffo, pow, whangzo! down goes Yaxley under the onslaught. But then… what? What next? What, indeed? Lex has to have a clanker of a climax, a denouement befitting the award-winning author of popular hit Suddenly a Roscoe in the Night. But sitting at Mungo’s Collect Call Juice Bar, he hadn’t the foggiest what it was.
And then the white, white van had bungled by, sputtering and wheezing like his Aunt Maude’s pet goat Crawdad, and the good old sleuthing juices had risen up inside, staining the back of his mouth with the taste of grit and five-buck whiskey. He’d slammed some change down on the table — startling poor Mungo at the bar — flipped his sleuthing hat onto his dome and ventured forth like an avenging angel. An angel with an affected scowl and a guaranteed bestseller burning a hole in his back pocket. An angel with a license if not to kill then to at least borrow books at a reasonable rate. An angel with no time to waste on ringing bells.
So here he is — crouched behind the giant commemorative goat statue in City Park as the van draws to a stop, fuming gentle plumes of smoke that spiral softly away into the air. Lex is alert and aware, ears peeled for the first faint susurrations signaling the approach of City Park’s famously rabid squirrels. For the moment, there is nothing. The van’s door opens, and a woman steps out. From the way she stands, Lex knows her name is Renee, and the large name badge pinned helpfully to her jumper confirms it. Hello, it reads. I’m Renee. Lex is suspicious. He does not trust the name badge and her name could be most anything. Criminals often disguise their true identities, he knows, with an instinct born of practice.
Weak strains of music drift out from inside the vehicle. Lex recognizes the happy pop-ballad melodies of the heavy pirate electronic band All Hands to the Disco Deck and bops along in spite of himself, accidentally knocking off his specially-constructed sleuthing hat. With a grave countenance, he retrieves his hat and fixes it firmly back on his noggin, reminding himself that this is no time for levity. It is time to watch, and time to wait. Investigation is a virtue. Still, it is a struggle not to succumb to the hypnotic suggestions coded into the upbeat pop anthems from the van, and Lex nearly reveals himself with an injudicious squawk.
The woman, who we shall call Renee, is consulting a clipboard, scratching at flyaway strands of wispy brown hair with an expression of puzzlement. She looks familiar. She looks to the van. She looks away, and back at the clipboard. Where has Lex seen her before? He racks his brain, struggling to recall, and Renee strides purposefully to the back of the white, white van, stowing the clipboard at her belt and pulling out a long, menacing halyatchkie stick instead. She must be a deliveryperson, Lex knows, because no one else bar guardians of the city’s vast (and secret) subterranean containment complex are permitted to carry the formidable weapons in public. It only remains to be seen what she is delivering.
Lex cracks his neck, straightens his hat and gets down to brass tacks, flitting expertly from bush to shadowed bush. With grace and gumption he sidles slyly through petunias and slips past rabid squirrels brewing battle plans and ambuscades to trap unwary citizens in the dark. Undulating slightly, he manages to position himself behind the counter of one of those Paradox-in-a-box Snack Shanties that had been popping up around town, nudging aside the slack-jawed snoring doofus slumped upon the bar.
From this new vantage point, he can clearly see the back of the white, white van as Renee prepares to open it. Despite Mayor Jacqueline Hyde’s new Street Safety campaign, Spotted Fever Road was nearly deserted, which was stupid because it was a Tuesday and the mayor’s monstrous doppelganger always stayed in to watch the latest episode of America’s Funniest Home Eviscerations.
The van’s doors open noiselessly. White smoke billows profusely from within, making Renee cough and wave her halyatchkie stick in a vain attempt to clear it. It is now or never. Lex rolls over the Shanty’s counter, executes a leaping pirouette that would make a proud dancer cry, twirls around a nearby hooded agent of an ever-generous multinational conglomerate and ends up plastered to the back of one of the van’s doors, swinging gently as he intently peers through the tinted windows at what Renee tugs from inside.
Studying the back of her head, he knows now why she looks familiar. Renee is a founding member of the League of Uptight Citizens, as shady a group of civic do-gooders as Lex has ever had the misfortune to stumble across. One of their members had had the gall to use his play as the subject of a weekly book club, when it was so clearly not a book at all. When would people learn?
In the shallow crescent of light cast by distant, bleeding stars, Lex can make out what looks to be an Esky. You know, one of those bright-green, portable fridges you take to the beach to signal to others that you’re having a great time with cool beverages, and isn’t it so hot today, and, boy, wouldn’t a cool, refreshing beverage be just the thing for a day like this? If only everyone had something like this to take the edge off, you muse aloud, settling back with an ice-cold can as your neighbors scream in anguish and bury their face in mounds of boiling sand and bubbling pools of tar to escape.
Renee goes to open the bright-green chest and Lex cranes his grotesquely extended neck around the door for a better look, all the while scribbling furiously in his notebook. The possibilities are boundless: an illegal shipment of assorted greens by the Salad Mafia; an overheating doomsday device from one of the scorned geniuses of TUGG; maybe a dry-ice machine, just the thing Lex needs for the big dramatic finish of Suddenly a Roscoe in the Night at the Spasming Hill Drama Parlor and Scriveners’ Club next week. While theft is below him, the needs of the stage are paramount. Drama transcends the legal system, and a magistrate would laugh any charges brought against him out of court.
The chest is opened; copious amounts of smoke continue to issue forth. Renee prods the contents with the halyatchkie stick, and mutters to herself. She puts aside the stick, and mutters to herself. She reaches inside the chest and pulls out something from within, all the while muttering to herself.
The object now withdrawn is quite obviously an aluminum drinks can. Printed on the side, in smooth, professional letters, are words Lex had thought he’d never see again. Sodanational Brand Soda Beverage, reads the label. It is the mark of a sinister company that was driven out of town two years ago and more when they attempted to brainwash the entire populace into drinking their awful swill, and — far, far worse — refused to pay their taxes, or observe the local practice of monthly human sacrifice to ward off retribution from angry pagan gods.
Why now, why here? This smacked of some greater conspiracy than even Lex had thought was possible. Tailing this van had seemed like an innocent excursion at first, promising fun, fresh air, and exciting car chases set to thumping electronic soundtracks. But now something had changed. Now they would be after him.
It is at this moment that Renee whirls around and catches sight of the lurking sleuth suckered to her rear van door. She curses, thrusting the fateful soda can back into the smoking chest and brandishing her halyatchkie stick, but Lex has already issued a sibilant reptilian hiss from his gaping mouth and scampered off into the night, performing vigorous parkour in his escape that elicits murmured praise from passers-by.
Renee slams the van’s white, white back doors shut and watches the vaulting, tumbling figure vanish into darkness, growing pale as she slides slowly down to sit upon the ground. She pulls out the clipboard and stares at it despairingly, as if pleading for an answer. The halyatchkie stick falls from her trembling hands.
But it is not hers to question why, only to deliver, or to die.
Overhead, in the side-table pockets of distant galaxies, lonely stars bleed out silently upon the baize of space and time. In Spasming Hill, in City Park, packs of rabid squirrels throw back their heads and chatter darkly, celebrating their first kill of the night. And in an alleyway, out by the edge of the financial district, shadowy figures in drooping, torn suits colored a menacing charcoal gray gather around a figure whose own suit fits much better; and the starlight flashes brightly off the soda-can shaped pin attached neatly to its breast.