It wasn’t every day we got brought in for a murder. Hell, it wasn’t every day we got brought in for anything official. Luci and I were the second-best option an animal could get in this city. If the cops didn’t believe ya, or couldn’t be bothered to help, then you came to us. Not to say we haven’t had our fair share of murderous monkeys or thieving tapirs, they just never started out as cases in that sense. It was always a suspect suicide or a possibly misplaced family jewel. But there was no denying it that this case was a bona fide murder investigation from the start.
“That is one dead stiff.”
Luci had never been very tactful. It just wasn’t in her nature. It wasn’t in any rat’s nature. You couldn’t really blame her for it, though most people did. I suppose that’s why she hired me. Out of all the prospects, a sheep probably wasn’t top on the list of potential investigators. But Luci did all the real work. I was just there as her buffer.
“We’re very sorry for your loss,” I told the grieving widow. It didn’t matter how many looks of disappointment I gave Luci; it never would change her. But I wasn’t likely to change either, so I gave her one anyway.
“It’s just so horrible,” the widow said. She was a beagle, like her husband. Past husband. They were a well-off couple, that was for sure, living in the upper half of the city where all them rich animals lived. They made their money from various business holdings and what not. The victim, Mr. Budeaux, wasn’t exceptionally bright, but he had enough business sense to get by in life.
“He was pushed?” Luci asked, already staking out the scene, eyes jotting around between the body that lay on the ground and the broken railing that sat a few feet above our heads.
“Just horrible,” the widow repeated. She put her face in her hands and started to sob softly. I handed her my handkerchief and placed a comforting arm around her shoulder. “I don’t know why anyone would want to kill my Bobby.”
The door sprung open with the commanding force that only Chief Inspector Amadeus could afford. His large, greyhound frame filled the entryway, blocking the view of his fellow officers. “How in the hell did you beat us here?”
Luci twitched a smile and stood with her hands behind her back, staring Inspector Amadeus down. “Us rats know how to get around.”
Inspector Amadeus huffed and finally stepped into the foyer. Officers Pete and Millie filed in after him. “This is a dog’s murder investigation,” he announced. As if that weren’t obvious to everyone in the room. “It’s no place for rodents.”
Inspector Amadeus wasn’t naturally a speciesist at heart. But if anyone could get on someone’s nerves to bring out the worst in them, it would be Luci. Not that it ever bothered her.
“If you have a problem with me, take it up with the boss,” she said, her face twitching in that way it did when she was excited. I could see it in the glisten of her eyes. She had already found something we all had missed just by standing in that room.
“Oh, I will,” Inspector Amadeus warned. “You may be a part of this investigation, but I’m in charge here, understand?”
“Of course, of course.” Luci put her hands up and smiled as she backed away. “Take it away, Inspector.”
Inspector Amadeus huffed again and walked over to the body. He snapped his fingers and Officer Pete jolted, rushing over and pulling out a notebook. He rustled his corvine feathers and prepared to take notes. Meanwhile, officer Millie pulled a camera out of her bag and started snapping away, her feline eye catching onto every detail.
“Obvious spinal fracture,” Inspector Amadeus said as he crouched down and examined the body. “Fell face-up. Must have been facing his attacker when he was pushed.” He glanced up at the balcony overhead. “Must have been a struggle.”
At this Luci turned her head and squeaked softly. It was a familiar squeak that both I and Inspector Amadeus had heard plenty of times before. It was her not-so-subtle way of indicating someone was wrong. Not that Inspector Amadeus would ever admit to it.
“Something to say, rat?”
“Sir, no, sir!” Luci gave a fake salute and then turned and squeaked again.
Inspector Amadeus growled and walked over to Mrs. Budeaux. “Tell us everything that happened.”
Mrs. Budeaux thanked me for the handkerchief and handed it back before calming her breath and making her statement. “It was just a quiet night at home,” she whispered. “I was in the kitchen, preparing for dinner. That’s when I heard my Bobby cry out. Then there was this horrible thud. I-I didn’t know what to think. I grabbed a knife and raced out to see. And I-I found him like this!” She started to sob again and turned into my hold, burying her face against my shoulder.
“There, there,” I said, patting her back. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, don’t you worry.”
“Who else was in the house this evening, ma’am?” Inspector Amadeus asked.
“Just two others,” Mrs. Budeaux responded. “Our maid, Liliane, and our nephew, Oscar.”
“Both dogs?” Inspector Amadeus asked.
“Actually,” Mrs. Budeaux said with a little hesitation in her voice. “Liliane is a fox. It was my husband’s idea to hire here, you know. He was always so…accepting.”
It was all starting to make sense. A well-off beagle entering a mid-life crisis. A young, attractive fox in need of work. A blossoming love affair. The only question left was which one had gotten to him first.
“Well, I think that’ll explain everything right there,” Officer Pete said. “Where can we find this Liliane?”
“Oh sure,” Officer Millie said with a roll of her eyes. “Blame that fox. That’s real original.”
“Hey, I understand biases have led to false arrests in the past, but sometimes the fox did do it.”
“And what proof do you have,” Luci said, stepping up to the group once more, “that fox did it in this case?”
Officer Pete started to speak, but then snapped his beak shut.
“Any jury will convict her regardless of proof,” Inspector Amadeus offered.
Luci stood before him, looking up into his sharp, gray-blue eyes. “Then I’d guess you’d better make sure she actually did it before bringing her in, huh?”
“I suppose you have another theory on what happened?”
“I have many.” Luci slipped away, standing by the foot of the victim and examining the splinters of wood surrounding the body. Inspector Amadeus and the two officers waited for a beat, foolishly expecting her to elaborate on that statement.
“Liliane and Oscar are both upstairs in their rooms,” Mrs. Budeaux said. “I’ve told them to wait there until you all arrived.”
“Well done,” Inspector Amadeus said. “We’ll go take their statements. C’mon.”
The official forces made their way upstairs, followed by the still crying widow. I began to follow after them, but stopped at the foot of the stairs when I noticed Luci slipping off into another room. Most of the time it was best to let Luci do her own thing. But she hadn’t told me not to follow her, and curiosity always did get the better of me. Guess it’s a good thing I wasn’t born a cat.
“Can you believe the nerve of that dog?” Luci asked as soon as I had stepped foot in the room after her. She always had a knack for knowing where everyone was at all times. We were in what I could only assume was Mr. Budeaux’s office.
“He’s old,” I offered. “Hard to break habits.”
“Yeah, and habits he’s passing on to the rest of the police.” Luci sat herself down at Mr. Budeaux’s desk and started ruffling through the drawers. A lecture on proper crime scene edict would mean nothing, so I stood by the door and kept watch.
“What are you looking for?”
“Just following up on a hunch,” Luci said. Which didn’t exactly answer my question, but what else was new?
“How’d you know there hadn’t been a struggle?” I asked.
“I don’t,” she replied. She had apparently found what she was looking for, flipping through a stack of paper receipts. “I just know that the victim was facing the railing when he fell, that’s all.”
“How’d you know that then?”
“His paws had lacquer on them,” she explained. “And there was additional straining in his shoulders.”
“How could you tell there was straining in his shoulders?”
“Aha!” Luci jumped up, holding one of the papers triumphantly in hand. She shoved the rest back where they belonged and scurried out of the room. “Come along, Ray, we have business to attend to
Rainforest Woodworking wasn’t exactly the workshop of choice I’d expect for a dog like Mr. Budeaux. But if he was as accepting as his wife claimed, it might have made sense he’d hire workers from a local shop on the East end of town. It was about as stuffy and humid in the office as I’d expect the actual rainforest to be. But it made sense, given the employees who worked there.
The crocodile at the front desk smiled at us as we approached. He had a hungry look in his eyes, but that was just how most reptiles looked at ya. Made it hard to read ‘em, to tell if they were telling the truth or not. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m gonna need the personnel file of whoever worked on this job.” Luci placed the receipt down on the desk. The crocodile looked down at it, then back up at Luci in a languid fashion. Maybe all that heat was making him tired like it did me.
“On what authority?”
“Official authority.” Luci pulled out the badge she had fashioned herself. It was technically the third one she had made, as the other two were confiscated by the boss before. Not that it stopped her from making more. “Lucinda Apparatus, AMPD.”
The croc blinked slowly, his smile seeming to grow. “Of course, officer. One moment.” He took the paper from her and slid off behind a door, moving so slow you’d think he was a sloth in reptile skin.
“Watch the door, Ray.” Luci hoped herself over the counter and started rummaging through what was there. I slid to the side, able to see through a window in the door if anyone was coming. The croc had disappeared to the left, where a small section of bookshelves sat filled with binders. The rest of the workshop area was filled with other reptiles, each working away at their own stations. The sawdust and wood shavings filled the air like snowflakes on a windy winter day.
“As I suspected,” Luci mumbled to herself.
Luci suspected a lot, and she wasn’t one to tell anyone what it was she suspected. I knew it was pointless to ask, but it never stopped me before. “What’d you find?”
“Everything I needed.” With that, Luci was hopping back over the counter and walkin’ right out the door. The crocodile had found what he was looking for and was heading back, but it didn’t matter. We had gotten what we had come for, so I slipped out after Luci and followed her into the mist that had started to descend upon our city.
Luci walked a few feet away and then stopped so quick I almost ran her over. After teetering for a bit, I regained my footing and looked around to try and spot the source of her stillness. When I checked to see if I could follow her gaze, Luci was staring down at her feet, chin pressed hard against her chest.
“What’s the trouble?” I asked. I only half-expected a response. Once Luci got to thinking, it was like the rest of the world didn’t even exist.
“Everything about this case is troubling.” Luci huffed and sat herself down on the curb. It was getting to be that time of night when most animals were tucked away in their homes, enjoying the warmth as they settled down after dinner. But a city isn’t like most places, and even with a thinning crowd it was still bustling around us. But when I sat down on the curb with Luci, it was like I was seeing the world through her eyes a bit. Like everything else had disappeared until there was only the case before me.
“Anything specific I can help with?” Truth be told, I didn’t often find myself in a position to help Luci that wasn’t keeping watch while she snuck around. But every now and then I liked to feel I earned my keep.
Luci looked at me with a question in her eye. Then she smiled and chuckled softly to herself. “Of course, you don’t know.”
“Probably not,” I admitted. Unlike Luci and Inspector Amadeus, I was fully capable of admitting my faults.
“Let’s start at the beginning. Troubling thing number one. Ask yourself why we were hired, Ray,” Luci started. She leaned back on her hands, stretching her legs out past the curb. Not far enough to get run over, but still close to it to send my heart rate up a bit.
“Because we’re the best investigation team in the business?” I offered.
Luci smiled and shook her head. “Yes, but that’s been true since we started working years ago. And we’ve never been called in on a case so quick like this. So, what’s changed?”
I thought back through the last couple of months, but I couldn’t think of anything that would warrant such a change in heart at the AMPD. So, I shrugged and took a guess. “Politics?”
Luci cocked her head to the side and stared at me with her glossy eyes. “Wow. Your wild and unbased guess was actually correct.”
“If it’s correct, then how do you know it was unbased?” I countered.
“Because I know you, my friend.”
I nodded and conceded her victory. “So, politics is the first troubling thing. What’s the second?”
“The truth of what happened to Mr. Budeaux.”
“He wasn’t murdered?” I guessed.
“Batting a thousand today, Ray,” Luci said with a pleased smile. “Yes, Mr. Budeaux was not murdered. At least, not intentionally. We’re looking at manslaughter at best.”
I looked up at the clearing night sky. It wasn’t always easy following Luci’s train of thought. But I went over the steps she had taken and hoped I came to the same conclusion she had. “The railing wasn’t installed properly.”
“The railing wasn’t installed properly,” Luci confirmed.
“That is troubling,” I said. “But if we know what happened and who did it, why aren’t we telling the police?”
Luci looked at me, but her gaze was a million miles away. “That question brings us back to our first troubling point.”
“Politics.” Luci sniffed and rubbed at her nose, tweaking her whiskers all out of place. “Do you want to know what I found at Rainforest Woodworking?”
I tried not to sound as eager as I was when I said, “Yes.”
“Shelter seekers,” Luci said. “Reptiles of all sorts who aren’t allowed to be here.”
If I had a mind like Luci’s, I might have been able to spot them while I was keeping watch back in the workshop. But I never knew what to look for until it was too late. It may have taken me longer to know what Luci knows about the case, but I knew my way around the law.
“If we tell the truth about what happened, then they’ll open an investigation into the workshop,” I said. Luci had gone back to staring out at her feet, but she nodded.
“So, we find ourselves in a predicament,” Luci continued. “If we assert the truth, we ruin one animal’s life and put dozens more at risk. If we do nothing, that feral canine friend of ours is likely to send an innocent to jail. Therefore, it becomes imperative that we lie.”
“What kind of a lie?” I asked. It wasn’t the first time we’ve lied before, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. It came with the job, I suppose. A sort of unwritten rule of the private investigating business.
“One that relies on the help of an old friend.”
It wasn’t exactly the warm welcome we had been hoping for. Then again, hoping for a warm welcome from Malory Malaheim was probably the wrong move in the first place. She was about as cold as the stiffs she worked on.
Her harsh exterior and no-nonsense attitude never phased Luci, though. It was probably why they got along so well in the first place.
“Come now,” Luci said, giving her best try at charm. “Surely you want to help avoid such a scandal.”
Mallory looked at Luci over the rim of her glasses. “I do not allow my personal sympathies to interfere with my professional work.” She looked back down and continued filling out the very report in question.
Luci leaned forward and covered the page with her hand, earning her a huff from our Vermilingua friend. “You have the opportunity to make a big change in the city here. Imagine what will happen if they get outed as the source of this death.”
“Maybe they should have thought about that before they went and failed to install a safety railing correctly.” Mallory gave us a tight smile, and nudged Lucy’s hand out of the way. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.”
Luci stood up straight, but she wasn’t done yet. One thing you could say about Luci was that she never went down without a fight.
“This comes from the top,” Luci said. Mallory squinted up at her. Luci raised her hands a bit and shook her head. “Don’t ask me why, but it’s the boss’ choice.”
“You have a work order from him or something?”
“No. But I have this case.”
Mallory and I both stared at her, waiting for more. But she seemed to think that statement alone was enough to justify her claim. “I think she needs a little more than that,” I said.
“Boss called me himself,” Luci said. We had gotten the call just as we were getting ready to close up for the day. I had been so excited about the job I nearly knocked my desk over, but Luci had remained calm and cool as ever. “Had me on the site before the officials, even.”
“And that’s supposed to mean something?” Mallory asked.
“Have you ever known the boss to do that?”
Mallory shuddered, because Luci had a part of a point. The boss never had called Luci in on a case himself, and even when he did, it wasn’t until they were long into the investigation and had nothing.
“What are you saying?” Mallory asked. “That the boss knew or suspected migratories were involved? That he hired you because he knew you would figure it out and find some way to avoid it all?”
“Incredibly astute as always,” Luci said. She leaned on the desk again. “Say, you wouldn’t be considering a change in careers anytime soon, would ya?” Then she looked back at me with a playful smirk.
“No,” Mallory said. “But I do have to get back to work at this one. So, goodbye.”
Luci nodded and left without another word. She had done all she could, and it was just a matter of waiting to see if that was enough.
The next day, the medical report confirmed the theory that Luci had concocted. Mr. Budeaux had suffered a sudden heart attack. The surprise and intensity of it had caused him to fall into the railing with such force that it broke and sent him falling to the floor below. The report stated that the heart attack would have killed him, even if the fall didn’t.
Inspector Amadeus made some big deal about how we had stuck our noses in a business that wasn’t even a business after all. But we didn’t mind, especially not when the boss himself rang us up to offer his thanks for our help in the case. Not that he said it so many words, but Luci’s suspicions about why we had been called in the first place certainly seemed to be true.
Now, I don’t want anyone going around thinking those who were responsible got away scott-free, of course. The reptile who had done the job at Mr. Budeaux’s was deported back to the Rainforest. As for the rest of Rainforest Woodworking, Luci set up an agreement between the workers there and a sympathetic training company that would make sure everyone had the tools and knowledge needed to perform their jobs accurately.
Our cases don’t always have such neat and happy endings. But that was how our first official case straight from the top ended. Alright, so it wasn’t as bona fide murder investigation-y as we thought. But it does go to show that not every old dog is incapable of learning new tricks. For the sake of every rodent, reptile, and rabid animal in the city, we just had to hold out hope that the boss would continue on this path and change the trajectory of the AMPD along with him.