Private detective Mickey “Spike” Leroux and his able assistant, Archie Oberman, are on the case of an international plot to make everybody even more stupid than they already are.
The teaming cobwebs obscured almost completely a faint outline upon the wall marking what I believed to be the hidden doorway. The shape of it flickered under the beam of my torch and with a fireplace poker found leaning nearby I cleared the sticky dressing all away. Rather badly hidden for a secret entrance, I thought, but shy angels never did the Devil thwart and I felt we’d arrived at the linchpin of the matter. I then remembered an intriguing detail from an old Victorian novel about a horrid effect in an unholy attic, and I began feeling all around the embossed hinting of a doorway, seeking the catch which I hoped would open the secret compartment. “This could be it,” I said.
I kept thinking of the note from Siegfried Glenn at Interpol a week earlier. An organization known as GAMA had been experimenting with contaminants in the water supplies at various locations in the states with a brain numbing compound that turns men into subservient dupes. The implications were global of course, hence the urgency. A few more subservient dupes in the US would hardly be noticed. Interpol implored me to investigate. The thing had the potential to spread wide and cause havoc. Now we were here in the basement of a well known soft drink magnate seeking a client ledger that would shed light on the international finance behind it all.
Oberman stood back, wary of the shed heaps of cobspin, prodding me with unhelpful suggestions as I labored, which was his habit. “Perhaps the mechanism is hidden away at a distance,” he interjected.
The basement was cluttered with homely furnishings and wooden crates stacked high and the wall around the clearing I’d made was set upon by the mass of it. With the prospect of moving anything encumbered by the juxtaposition of everything else, I stood for a pause and turned the lamp back to Oberman, the beam reflecting upon the oiled leather of his eye patch. “We’re missing something Archie,” I said. I felt urgent the need to repair to the realm of the living above us and we climbed back up and out of the basement through the old servants quarters and pantry stores at ground level of the estate.
The clock tower of the east wing struck eleven as we took relief from that stuffy confine and emerged into the cool, misty air, the imposing hulk of the mansion behind us and a cheerless, shrouded half-moon hovering behind it. We entered the gazebo and sat at once on a wrought-iron bench as I peeled my gloves and pulled out my pipe. “What we have here, Archie, is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.”
“Like the Tarkington Case?” Oberman offered.
“Not like that,” I replied. Annoying as Oberman was, he functioned as a kind of sounding board for me, and had unfortunately become a key part of my method. Two good ears and one good eye, and a gift for nudging my thinking in lateral jogs with his obtuse observations. The kindly mope had managed to save my neck more than once as well. The fellow had a decent heart, and it was not lost on him that he’d found a sure footing in this employment.
“Tarkington was more the forgery wrapped in an imprimatur, but dash all that, I’ve got an idea.”
I instructed Oberman to call Ms. Toledo at the offices and arrange a flight for two to Bangkok and have Giles, our handyman, see if he can find the Geiger counter. I needed also to meet with that dolphin trainer in Miami, what the devil was his name. I had suddenly realized the broad strokes of this puzzle would not be found behind trick doorways, convenient as that would be. A vast network of political chicanery and diabolic mischief will not be exposed without meeting strange people in exotic, far flung locales.
But as we made our stealthy way back to the Range Rover we encountered some uniformed brutes claiming to be estate security. Without the draw of weapons they bid us stay and then chatted via radio with some commander type using code words in an attempt to obscure their intentions. Sensing an opportunity, I signaled Oberman to stay off any show of resistance. Marched to a nearby gravel service road, they sacked our heads and placed us in the back of a black SUV.
We soon arrived at the secret underground lair of the mastermind behind whatever in blazes this was all about. A hostess posted at the entrance of the hall offered us a brochure, and winking, said, “this will explain everything.” I waved her off politely and said, “oh, no thank you. I think I know where this is heading.” Oberman took one and squirreled it away in his coat pocket, muttering something that I couldn’t quite make out.
An enormous cavern with vaulted ceilings and gaudy red draping everywhere, the GAMA headquarters gave off a vibe somewhere between Nazi bridal suite and Holiday Inn breakfast lounge. One wall was lined with refreshment tables, including juice dispensers and waffle griddles. A low stage at the end was festooned with bunting and appointed with two large upholstered chairs and dainty side table. The security detail invited us to indulge in a late supper and then promptly left us, locking the entrance behind them.
“It’s all a ruse, you know,” I offered, as Oberman surveyed the platters of bacon and breakfast links. I’d managed to pluck out the heart of the matter during the ride over, deducing that the security guards were actors and things were being staged for our benefit. What exactly was being misrepresented, and by whom, I’d not quite worked out. “The enigma itself is wrapped up in a stratagem disguised as a pretzel of byzantine logic.”
Oberman took a bite of sausage and began to laugh in a way quite unlike himself. His eyebrows arched up in a mixture of delight and surprise and he pointed at me. His manners, now oblique to the norms of decorum long established in our relationship, had caught me unawares and it taxed my balance. I immediately assumed the buffet had been tainted with some exotic drug and he’d come under it’s hypnotic spell. “Don’t take another bite!” I shouted.
But he waved me off with dismissive gestures and sauntered over, producing the brochure from his pocket, and handing it to me. “We knew you wouldn’t take it,” he snickered. I looked down at the pamphlet in my hand, reading, “Happy Birthday You Pompous Over-Educated Shithead!”
All at once, multicolored balloons fell from sprung traps above and the room was soon abuzz with laughing, familiar faces. “Surpise!” everyone was shouting above their own din. Utter pandemonium as my thoughts rushed through a review of all the elaborate preparations and deceptions that must have been carefully devised. A complete take-down, this was, of my entire career and reputation as an indefatigable sleuth of matchless wit and cunning. Outed, as it were, as a poser, a sophomore.
“Well, old chap, how’s it feel?” Oberman had a look of defiance I’d never before seen rising in his face. “How’s it feel down here on Earth with all us mortals?” Surrounded by family, friends, long lost acquaintances and a few obvious hangers-on, I felt at a loss for words. This too, I surmised, was part of the plan. “Nothing like the gift of humility, you jolly rotten prick,” I replied. And the room roared with laughter and we all had a smashing good time.
I did make those guards for actors though. I was onto them, damn it. And what of GAMA? Will the stupefying of the Earth’s population continue unabated? What if it spreads beyond the borders of the United States? These questions nagged at me from behind the rousing celebratory antics that consumed us for the rest of the night, as the dawn-stalking clocks registered worry, foreseeing something perhaps sinister. What is it, I asked myself, keeps us from the knowledge of our own fates?