My secretary, Millie, was busy filing something and I was busy enjoying the view of her shapely rump.
"You'd do better looking over our new client's file than watching my bottom," Millie said. She wasn't psychic; she just knew me quite well.
"Clive Jaxon," I said, "an illustrious inventor, along with his brother, Cliff Jaxon. His brother was just murdered, and Clive Jaxon wants the world's last remaining private eye to take on the case. He's due in a few minutes. Close enough?" I asked, smiling as she turned to face me.
"I suppose," she said, a bit regretful that I had reviewed things.
"Besides," I added with a grin, "I preferred that outfit you wore at the end of our last case."
Her face pinked, showing she remembered the brief outfit -- not much more than a bikini with pantaloons and shirt out of nearly transparent material. "I was just trying --" she started, defensively.
"I know," I said, dismissing it with a casual wave. "You were trying to prepare me for that zonker who was coming in. She was really a knockout. Who knew those aliens could change their bodies that way?" Actually, it had only been a few years since the zonkers came in their faster-than-light fleet and started trading with us. There was still lots we needed to learn about them. Including how their faster-than-light drive worked.
This entire operation -- 'Mike Spillane, Private Eye' -- had been set up with the magnificent trust my father had left me. Even though I had solved several cases, the media always handled it in the manner of: 'Rich boy actually solves a case!' which irked me, but I did nothing in response. Now I had another important case, the death of a noted scientist.
In that way she had of following the working of my mind, Millie said,
"It's a shame about Cliff Jaxon. The two brothers, on their own, were doing a great job of catching us up to where the zonkers are."
"I appreciate your vote of confidence," a new voice said.
I looked at the open door and saw Clive Jaxon standing there. I knew it was him, because the file had contained photos of both of them. "Mr Jaxon!" I said. "Come on in, and let's get into this." We shook hands, and I indicated a chair by my desk for him to occupy.
"They killed him with his own hammer!" he said, indignantly.
"'They'?" I asked. "Was there an indication there were more than one?"
He shook his head. "No. I meant, that was what the zonkers did."
"You think the zonkers killed him?"
"Who else?" he asked. "We were closing the gap, and they resented it."
"They seem to be a peaceful race."
"When it suits them," he said with bitterness in his voice. "That's why I came to you, Mr Spillane. There no longer are any independent investigators on our planet, and all the officials will lean over backward to accommodate those damned zonkers. I need your help!"
So we went to the scene of the crime.
I didn't find out the following until later.
He looked at the bloody ballpeen hammer in his gloved hand and at the crushed skull of the man on the floor. "Damn you, Cliff Jaxon! Why did you have to be that way? Now you see what you made me do?" He looked at the hammer in his hand, then looked at the nearby window. It was night outside. His mind raced. Night, but many stores were still open.
With care, he put the hammer on the floor and headed out the door, a plan now fully formed.
The nearest store had a hardware section. He selected a ballpeen hammer, paid with cash, and went outside. There was an alley to the right, and he went there and waited. Waited until he heard footsteps approaching. Stepping out, he smiled a greeting at the man coming toward him, waited for the man to pass, then slammed the hammer against the unprotected head.
He had looked before he struck, saw no one, and now he looked again. Still no witnesses. He left the hammer beside his victim and strolled away.
The next store was a grocery supermarket. He went inside, as he knew they carried a multitude of things -- and found another ballpeen hammer. As before, he waited for someone else to be in line at the checkout, paid in cash, and left.
There was no alley nearby, but there was a recessed doorway. He stood several minutes until someone -- alone -- walked by. Then he was behind the victim and the hammer claimed another life.
Back in Jaxon's neighborhood, he found another workshop with lights on. He tapped on the door, then entered. "I'm glad you're up!" he said to the man at the work table. "Cliff Jaxon said you might have a ballpeen hammer he could borrow."
He could tell from the smile of recognition that he was right; the neighbor knew Cliff Jaxon. Willingly, he dug out the hammer that quickly became a murder weapon.
Some of the yellow crime scene tape still hung at the door to Jaxon's workshop. Clive Jaxon showed me around. On one counter was a sheet of thin metal that looked like copper. There were several concave depressions scattered around it and wires clipped to it. The wires connected to something that looked like a power coil.
"That was Cliff's current project," Clive Jaxon said. "He used the hammer to make those depressions."
"Police took the hammer, of course," I said. "But do you know if Cliff might have a picture of it somewhere?"
"I'm sure he must have," Jaxon said, starting to open drawers in the counter. "Cliff was a stickler for details. In fact," he added, pulling out a file folder, "it's probably in here." He rifled through the folder, grinned, and pulled out a photo. "Here it is! He wrote details on the back," he finished, turning the photo over to show me. He lifted an eyebrow. "Got some kind of expert to take that to?"
"Yeah," I said. "Can you make me a copy of the picture?"
"Certainly," Jaxon responded, slipping the photo into a printer. Handing the copy to me, he asked, "What kind of expert?"
"One who should know something," I said, folding the picture and putting it into my shirt pocket. "I'll report back when I have something," I told him, then turned and left.
I generally used The Professor as my source of information. He was called The Professor because his regular hangout was the public library, and he was always reading and studying there.
But this wasn't a case for The Professor. On my last case, my client was a zonker, Iltoo'toom, whose brother had been killed. The zonkers had watched a lot of our old TV shows, and Iltoo'toom was convinced a private eye was needed on the case. Since I am the only one left on Earth, I was his obvious choice. Now Iltoo'toom was my obvious choice.
Because he had been a client of mine, I had no trouble seeing him. Because he knew what I was used to, he appeared in human form. He looked at the photo copy, then looked at me quizzically. "I didn't realize humanity was so advanced," he said, softly, as he returned the picture.
"We've had ballpeen hammers for over a hundred years," I said. "Of course, this one is different from what we're used to. Cliff Jaxon made it." I was working on a hunch -- or, more accurately, an educated guess. What I saw at Cliff Jaxon's lab didn't look like anything connected with Earth engineering.
He nodded. "That explains it. He is talented."
"That's close, isn't it?" I asked, hopefully.
He nodded. "No less than I would have expected. Not far from FTL."
"FTL -- faster than light, right?" Wait until I tell our scientists!
"Of course. We expected Cliff Jaxon to approach the solution. He is very wise."
"Was," I corrected. "He was murdered last night."
"What a pity!" Iltoo'toom said. "Well, there is still his brother."
"Yes," I said, rising. "There is. And I need to see him. Thanks for the help?"
Outside, I got in my car. Now, let me explain something: These days, most people float around in hovercrafts and only motorcycles or bicycles -- or pedestrians -- use the streets. Me? I drive a reconditioned '57 Chevy, the classic Bel Air. Because so few people drive, potholes are not repaired on a regular basis, so I have to drive carefully, but I'm proud of my classic! (One of these days I'll need to install lifters under it, but I don't want Millie to know! She's always razzing me about my wonderful antique.)
I owned another antique from the old days -- a .44 automatic. These days, everyone had needle guns. I had even let Millie talk me into wearing needlegun armor, kinda like a bulletproof vest. I was even wearing it now. Not that I expected the zonkers or anyone else to shoot me, but just because it made Millie feel good.
Anyway, I did have a phone in my car. I don't like those things people carry, but I saw nothing wrong with a private eye having a phone in his car. It was voice operated, so I said: "Office."
Millie's cheerful voice said, "Mike Spillane, Private Investigator." No matter how I complained, she wouldn't say 'Private Eye', claiming it was demeaning.
"I'll be there in about ten minutes," I said. "Call our client and see when he can meet me."
"Making headway?" she asked, a touch of disbelief in her voice.
"I think so," I said. "Call him."
In less than ten minutes I was in the office. Millie greeted me with, "Your client should be here soon. He had farther to go, but isn't driving an antique."
I ignored her dig at my classic car -- sort of, anyway -- and responded with a dig of my own. "Just don't turn on that blasted Crime Wave channel," I told her. "It can't predict crime any better than that old Weather Channel could predict weather."
She sniffed, said: "It adds an authentic flair!" -- but didn't turn the screen on.
When Clive Jaxon walked in, there was. . .suspicion?. . .on his face. "You found out something?" he asked.
"I think so," I said -- just as something tinkled on the floor and there was an explosion of gas.
"Look out!" he said, as I lifted a hand to cover my nose.
My hand never made it.
The next thing I knew, Millie and I were in quicksand, almost up to our necks, and it was dark.
"What happened?" Millie said in confusion.
"The killer got us," I told her, grimly.
"I'm sinking, Mike! We're gonna die!"
Remembering something I read, I said, "Try to relax. We're lighter than the quicksand. Lean back, try to float."
"It's. . .pulling me. . .down!"
"You're fighting it!" I said. "Just relax, and lean back, the way I'm doing."
". . .Better," she said, breathing hard. "Yes, you're right. How did you know?"
"Read about it," I said. "Breath slower. Relax." After a pause, Millie asked, "How did we get here?"
"I'd say the killer brought us, in a hovercraft. Dropped us off."
"But. . .where's Jaxon? He was with us."
Grimly, I said, "Jaxon must have taken an antidote. He's the killer."
"But -- he hired you!"
"I know. I think he believed the media. Just thought I was a lamebrain trying to be a detective, and that he'd put the police off by hiring me. Guess he brought you along because he was afraid I had told you my suspicions." While talking, I had been looking around. My eyes were adjusted to the dark.
"Millie; take off your blouse."
"What? Mike Spillane, you keep trying to get me to undress!" Millie accused, defiantly.
"Guilty as charged," I said, grinning. "But this time I have a good reason: It could save our lives!"
"I don't. . .how? I mean. . . ."
"I'm wearing a short sleeved shirt," I explained. "Your blouse is long sleeved. I see a long branch I think I could reach with it, and pull us out of here. We might be able to float, but we can't swim. We've gotta get outta here."
". . .Oh! Yes, I see it. Mike, you come up with the darnedest excuses -- but this time I can't argue."
"Do it easy," I warned her. "Slow and easy. Don't want you sinking."
I could hear her moving, trying to control her breathing, but moving. Soon she said, "Here it is."
I took her bundled-up, sodden blouse and stretched it out, then rolled it into a ball with the blouse itself in the middle and the sleeves wrapped around it all. Now I had to catch the limb. . .without having the effort make me sink.
It took three tries. On the third try, the sleeve wrapped nicely around the branch and held when I pulled at it. I reached out a hand for Millie. "Hold on," I said. Without a word, she clasped my hand and I began pulling. The branch bent, but didn't break. Slowly, I pulled us toward what I hoped was the edge of the quicksand.
In minutes, we were both out and I managed to slap the blouse so the sleeve came unwrapped. "Now what?" Millie asked. "I have no idea where we are."
"Me either," I said, wrapping up the blouse.
"I'm not putting that sloppy thing back on, Mike. Besides, the mud's doing a good job of covering me up."
"That, and the dark," I said, holding onto the blouse as I looked around. Then I added, "Even in a hovercraft, Jaxon had to have a clear trail, room enough for the craft to get through." Then I spotted it. "There! We came out right by it. Come on, let's get outta here."
We weren't ten feet into the woods when Clife Jaxon stepped out.
"You continue to surprise me, Spillane," he said, aiming his needle gun at Millie. "It's easy to see your secretary doesn't have armor on," he said with a tight grin. "I won't hesitate to shoot," he added. "I can still throw the two of you in the quicksand and dispose of you."
"Don't you want to know how I figured it was you?" I asked.
"And give you time to figure out an escape? No way! It's obvious you deduced Cliff was working on the FTL drive, and decided I was jealous of him. I know you're likely wearing needlegun armor, so you'll do what I say or I'll shoot your girl."
"Why should I care?" I said, feeling the blouse in my hand. "You've made it plain you want to kill us anyway."
"Because you don't want her to suffer," he began -- just as I snapped the blouse out like a whip and was rewarded with perfect aim. The blouse sleeve wrapped around his gun hand. I yanked, and dove for him.
It was a short struggle. I outweighed him, and strength was on my side. I tied his hands together with the blouse.
"He still owes you for the case," Millie said. "You solved it."
My lovely assistant was right, of course. "And," I added, "He owes you for a blouse."