The Maltese Groundhog

This story was the first place winner of Mysterical-e’s 2007 Bloody groundhog Day Mystery contest and will soon be reprinted in volume 17 of the Indian Creek Anthology series published by the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group.

The Maltese Groundhog (Excerpt)

By T. Lee Harris

The door opened, admitting three more patrons and buffeting Carroll McDermett with another blast of frigid January air. This was good news for Viv Tremane, the owner of the diner, but bad news for a guy just trying to stay warm. McDermett hunched his shoulders, laid his dog-eared book face down on the table and took a sip of the cooling coffee. Correction: cold coffee. He set the cup aside with a grimace and picked the book up again.

A shadow fell across the page. He looked up as Viv replaced his cold coffee with a fresh, hot cup. “If you didn’t dawdle so, it wouldn’t get cold.” Her soft southern accent seemed at odds with the strident New York tones of her patrons’ conversation. “It’s warmer in the kitchen. Ah keep tellin’ you that.”

He laughed and shook his head. “No thanks. When I go into the kitchen I always seem to wind up washing dishes.”

“That’s because you’re too cheap to buy your dinner any way else.” She pointed to a folded newspaper on the seat beside him. “You gonna read that thing? Couple others want a look at it if you don’t.”

He handed it to her. “Why do I need to read it? I can tell you what it says. It’s all that Hitler guy bullying someone else and all the politicos throwing presents at him hoping he’ll stop. Won’t work. Can’t buy off a bully.”

Wind gusted again, heralding another customer and the other patrons burst into a sudden chorus of wolf whistles and catcalls. Turning, Viv chuckled, “Talk about politicos….”

Newly elected councilman Cameron McDermett, Carroll’s elder brother, wearing full evening dress, closed the door against the wind, then stood momentarily self-conscious at the reception. Suddenly, he broke into a huge grin and swept the silk hat from his head in a deep bow. “Thank you, thank you, my constituents. I’ll trust you to remember to cast your vote for McDermett in the next primary.”

Laughing and joking with patrons all the way, he came back to Carroll’s booth. “Heya, Viv. Business looks good.”

“And you look like the cover of a Hollywood magazine. Where are you off to lookin’ like Fred Astaire?”

“I’ve been invited to a reception at Gracie tonight. Big do for the upcoming World’s Fair and you don’t go into the presence of Mayor LaGuardia looking like a schlub.”

“Don’t want to go into the Presence half-frozen, neither. I’ll get you a cup of hot coffee.” She started away, remarking over her shoulder, “I’m afraid the silver service is out of the shop for cleaning. You’ll have to make do with plain crockery like the rest of us plebeians.”

Laughing, Cameron slid into the opposite bench from his brother, dropping his topper and silk scarf onto the table. “Now, why did I know I’d find you here?”

“Because I’m always here in the evening? Now, why did you want to find me in the first place? If you tell me Ma needs her toilet fixed again, I’ll deck you, rented tux or no.”

“Pop fixed it himself. Anyway, you can’t hold me responsible for that, it was all Claire’s doing. If you want to deck her, fine by me, but Ma will have something to say if you punch our sister.”

Viv set a steaming cup on the table, then hurried off to tend another customer, leaving the brothers to talk in private.

Cameron cradled the cup appreciatively and said, “Actually, I came to tell you I may have a job for you.”

Carroll looked skeptical. “Does it pay? That last fiasco at the Leiber jewelry promotion ended up costing me.”

“That was all a misunderstanding. I got it back for you, didn’t I?” At his brother’s glare, he continued, “Look, this is cake. All you have to do is pick up a stuffed groundhog here in New York and deliver it to a friend of mine in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.”

“A stuffed what?”

“Groundhog. It’s an animal – but it’s dead. Otherwise it wouldn’t be taxidermied.”

Carroll rolled his eyes. “Okay. Let’s try it this way: Why would someone pay me good money to take a dead groundhog to Pennsylvania? Deathbed wish?”

It was Cameron’s turn to roll his eyes. “Remember Rudy Pearcy?”

“The guy you roomed with in law school?”

“That’s the one.”

“Wasn’t he the one you got drunk with at Coney and–”

“Yes. That’s him – anyway, he’s working as an aide for the senior senator for Pennsylvania and his boss wants to present the critter to the mayor of Punxsutawney. Some sort of promotional thing. Groundhog Day, tourism, that sort of deal. Problem is, the senator wants a photo shoot with it before the presentation, but the taxidermist can’t get it to them before the first of February. That’s too late.”

Carroll stared.

“If I can get this thing into Rudy’s hands, it’ll be big brownie points for him as well as me. Favor is a good thing in politics, little brother.”

“They need me for this?”

“It’s cash, Carroll.”

At his brother’s dubious grunt, Cameron withdrew his billfold, extracted a ten and slapped it onto the table. As it disappeared into Carroll’s jacket pocket, he added, “Consider that a retainer. I’ll get it back from Rudy later.”

Noting the well-worn book between them, the elder McDermett prodded it. “You’re not reading that thing again? You must have it committed to memory by now.”

“Hey, this Hammett guy knows how it is. Being a private investigator isn’t easy.”

Cameron stirred sugar into his coffee and sipped thoughtfully. At length, he ventured, “Carroll….”

“Ah. Here it comes.”

Ignoring the comment, he continued, “Your name has been cleared, why don’t you rejoin the police force?”

Carroll pursed his lips and regarded the scarred table top in silence.

“You were a great cop – decorated for bravery several times over. The force needs good men like you. I was talking to the Commissioner the other day –”

Carroll sat back and replied evenly, “Maybe you ought to point out to your pal the Commissioner that if he got rid of all the bad eggs, not just the ones who screw up publicly, maybe the good ones wouldn’t stay away.”

Cameron raised his hands in surrender against an old, unwinnable argument. “I know … it’s just … well … you need a job.”

“I have a job.”

“One that pays.”

“I’ll have you know a client just gave me a ten dollar retainer.”

For a moment, Cameron stared dumbfounded into his brother’s impassive face, then burst out laughing. “All right. This round to you.” He glanced at his watch and yelped, “Cripes. I’m gonna be late.” Grabbing his hat and scarf, he stood and tossed a business card on the table. “There’s the address of the shop. Mr. Schwarzkatze is expecting you around eight tomorrow morning.”

Carroll picked up the card, then called after his fleeing sibling, “Expecting me?”

Cameron paused with his hand on the latch and called back, “Of course. I knew I could count on my baby brother. Drive safely!” With a jaunty wave, he plopped the silk topper on his head and was gone.

Carroll regarded the small card with a scowl. “Bastard.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s