A call came in on my cell phone and I almost let the answering service pick it up. I was, after all, in the middle of a stake-out. To be honest, it was actually a spy job for the wife of a middle-aged sleaze bag who was busy popping his secretary at the old Do-Drop-Inn Motel. I figured I already had enough photos, but the wife had money, and another night’s work meant a badly needed C-note. I stared at the phone until the fifth chirp, and then picked it up.
The call was from Jack Mahoney, my one and only friend at the Creston police department. He was at the scene of what looked like a murder and said that the victim had my business card tacked to the wall by his phone. He added that I might as well show up and volunteer information, otherwise Lieutenant Bratton would have me hauled in later. I knew he was right, so I packed up my camera gear and headed toward the address he had given me.
I hadn’t told Jack at the time, but I already knew who the stiff was. I had a pretty good guess when he first called, but the address he had given me confirmed my suspicions. After all, there weren’t too many guys in town who would have had my business card unless they had fished them out of the ‘free meal drawing’ bowl at the local Burger King. There were even fewer who were candidates for murder. Frankly, until now, I hadn’t really considered Irving French one of those candidates. I guess I should have taken him a little more seriously.
The first, and last time, that I had seen Irving French alive was after the initial phone conversation I had with him. It was a typical day at the office for me – I was leaning back in my chair with my feet on the desk, and waiting for some beautiful dame in distress to glide through my door. The phone jangled like a windup alarm clock and I placed a bet with myself as to who it was. The odds were pretty heavy that it was either a bill collector or a salesman, but I tried my luck anyway.
The guy on the line sounded almost apologetic, and definitely nervous. As he talked, I tried to picture the face that went with the voice. I had him pegged as a fairly small, middle-aged man, with non-descript features. Of course that description would fit about 80% of my clients, with most of the rest of them being alimony-seeking women. As usual, I didn’t pay a lot of attention until after I had a chance to give him the spiel about what it would cost. I figured no sense in exerting myself until I was sure I was on the payroll. I gave him the usual price per day, plus expenses bit and got ready to wait while he mulled it over. I didn’t even have time to catch my breath before he agreed, and then asked me to meet him in front of the lion’s cage at the city zoo. He said it was one of the few places he felt safe. I figured he was a little wacko, but what the hell. Never judge money-paying clients too harshly I always say.
It was still fairly early in the morning when I got to the zoo and, being a weekday, there weren’t a lot of people in the place. It wouldn’t have mattered much, though, because I could have spotted Irving in a crowd. He’s standing with his back to the Lion’s cage, hands on the railing, glancing nervously from side to side. He looks pretty much as I pictured him, though I hadn’t figured on the electric blue, hand-tied bowtie. I show him my laminated I.D. and offer a hand. He apparently misunderstands the gesture, because the next thing I know he pulls out a wad of cash and sticks it into my outstretched paw. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I slip it into my coat pocket and nod toward a nearby park bench.
Though he acts awfully jittery, it doesn’t take long for him to spit out his story. The first part sounds pretty familiar, what with the parts about being followed, and fearing for his life. The next part gets a little bizarre though when I ask if he has any idea about who might be threatening him. He pauses, leans slightly toward me, and says point blank that it is a rabbit. I try not to smile or bust out laughing, what with him being so serious and all. Besides, I like the feel of his dough in my pocket. It takes a bit for me to recover, but then I go into my usual line of questioning. The more we talk, though, the more I feel like this guy has memorized every minute of “Harvey”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and the killer rabbit scene from the old Monty Python movie. I ask if anyone else has seen the ‘perpetrator’, and get the expected answer. Seems that it waits until he is alone to show up. I suggest that maybe a big dog might be a solution, but he says that he tried it and that the dog ran off after the first encounter. I’m thinking of telling him to speak softly and carry a big carrot, but stifle it. Instead, I tell him, as straight as I can, that I will start looking into it immediately.
I’m still thinking about the conversation as I pull into the apartment building parking lot. In spite of myself, I feel a little twinge of guilt for this one. Its not like I brushed off his story completely. I figured maybe someone human was trying to spook him with the rabbit gag, so I did some checking into his background. After a couple of days I had to admit that this might be the one person in this country that no one could say they truly liked or disliked. He had no immediate family, no girlfriend, no boyfriend, no enemies. He went to work, in a little office, in a big company, and didn’t socialize with his co-workers. A picture like that made me wonder if he might be in the witness protection program, but even that didn’t pan out. I finally had to conclude that the most threatening thing in his life was an overactive imagination.
Spotting an open parking spot, I swing the old sedan in and shut off the engine. Jack meets me at the police line and escorts me to Irving’s apartment. Along the way I tell him that, yes, the victim was a client, and yes he felt like he was in danger. I also tell him that the client didn’t go to the police because he wasn’t sure they would believe his story. As we enter the apartment I see that there must have been a hell of a fight. Jack sees the look on my face and explains that it was the noise that caused the neighbors to call the police in the first place. We walk to where the body is neatly chalklined, and I bend down to get a better look at the damage. In spite of the blood and lacerations, I can clearly identify the face as Irving’s. Jack says that it looks as if someone has taken the claw end of a hammer to him, but I can’t shake the picture of large, rectangular, buck teeth. Jack mentions that the physical evidence guys found what looks like animal fur under his fingernails. I stand up, mumble something about Irving’s dog, then head for the door.
* * * * *
A few nights later I get a call from Jack and he tells me that I can pick up a copy of the police report at the station. Now I don’t like going to the station voluntarily, but I’m curious as to what the official police slant is. When I arrive, the desk sergeant scowls in my direction, then hands me a sealed document envelope with my name on it. I figure I’d be pressing my luck if I read the report where he could see me, so I head back down the stairwell. Stopping just inside the exit door, I tear open the envelope and pull out the report. My fingers fly through the pages like refugees from an Evelyn Wood seminar as I search for some rational explanation. Frustrated, I toss the report into a trash basket and step out into the thick night air. As I had expected, the coroner bailed out and listed the cause of death as ‘massive physical trauma of unknown origin’. For my money, though, it was clear that poor old Irving died of the bite of the hare that dogged him.