“Nobody Can Ride Your Back if Your Back’s Not Bent”

I’ve been doing this job since 1939, so you’d think that, after four years, I’d be better at picking locks. But for some reason, my delicate little fingers just can’t handle that kind of precision, even with the set of first-rate tools my old boss bought me for my twenty-fifth birthday.

However, unlike him, I came equipped with feminine wiles, which I’d used tonight to scam the maid’s key from the sap at the front desk of this seedy hotel. In no time at all, I was tossing this room, quickly and quietly, but to no avail. “Where is that blasted thing?” I whispered.

“Behind you,” answered a growl that did, indeed, come from behind me.

“You must be Mr. Benallie,” I sighed as I turned to face him.

The shadowy figure cocked his head. “You have me at a disadvantage. I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“The name’s Edith Beran, private investigator,” I told him. “Edie to my friends. You can call me Miss Beran. Tell me where it is.”

“You have no idea what kind of trouble you got yourself into, little girl.”

“First off,” I replied, “I’m not so little.”

“Look at you!” he laughed. “You can’t be over five feet tall!”

“Five-foot-one,” I said, “in heels. And second, I know all about trouble. That’s why I took precautions.” In the blink of an eye, I drew a .38 revolver out of my purse and aimed it at the center mass of the figure. “Six precautions, in fact. Now hand it over.”

I couldn’t see him very well, but it was clear he was tightening his legs and shoulders to pounce. “You can’t hurt me with that,” he warned.

My thumb pulled the hammer back. “I don’t want to go home with only five bullets, Benallie. Silver ain’t cheap.”

He grunted, relaxed, and put his hands where I could see them without having to be asked. “Vazquez told you about me, then?” He stepped into the light, revealing a face full of hair and fangs. He was pretty intimidating, but he was no Lon Chaney.

“Vazquez just gave me a photo of the necklace. I filled in the rest.”

“Clever,” he replied.

“I’m getting tired of asking this question, Benallie: Where. Is. The. Necklace?”

Very slowly, and very cautiously, he reached into his jacket pocket and produced a black, velvet bag that he placed on the nearest dresser. “It’s not a necklace,” he told me.

“Is it made of iron and silver and turquoise and wraps around your throat?”

He nodded.

“Then it’s a necklace.”

From the doorway, a stout man in an expensive suit cleared his throat. “He’s right, you know. It’s not a necklace. It’s a collar.”

“Vazquez!” Benallie snarled. He charged, only to come to a halt two steps later.

“I may only be able to tell you what to do when it’s in my possession,” Vazquez said with a smirk, “but, as long as it exists, there’s nothing you can do to hurt me, dog.”

I lowered my gun. “Hey, nobody said nothing about controlling people.”

“That’s not people,” Vazquez sneered.

“What did you think this was all about, Miss Beran?” asked Benallie.

“Petty theft,” I replied honestly, feeling pretty stupid as I did. From the first moment he walked into my office, Vazquez smelled, like two-day-old fish in a municipal dump, but I had bills due, and he offered me a bonus. It was just a stolen magical artifact, I thought. How much trouble could it be? “Rats,” I muttered.

“Edie,” Vazquez began.

“Miss Beran to you,” I reminded him.

“Look at him. Do you think that should be running around, a slave to its appetites? You have no idea what his kind are like in the wild. You didn’t see what my ancestors saw when they arrived on this continent four hundred years ago. They saw animals that needed to be tamed.”

“He doesn’t look like an animal to me,” I said. “I mean, there’s the snout and all the teeth, but when the moon goes down, I’m betting he cleans up pretty good.”

We cleaned them up. We cut their hair. We made it so they could be seen in public. All they ever cared about was their loincloths and their chanting and their dancing…” He groaned. “… All that dancing, to appease gods of mud and feathers.” He shook his head. “We showed them a real god.”

“I don’t think that’s really your place,” I said.

“I don’t care what you think,” he replied, sliding a thick newspaper out from under his arm and rolling it up. “I hired you to find my collar, and that’s what you did.”

“Has anyone ever told you you sound exactly like a villain in a dime-store novel?”

“You’re dismissed, Edie,” he said.

“Miss Beran.”

“I don’t care.” He turned to Benallie and yelled, “Bad dog!”

I frowned at the door, and then at Vazquez, who was starting to beat Benallie with the Sunday late edition. I cleared my throat. “One last question.”

“What is it?” Vazquez snapped.

“Did I hear you right earlier?” I asked. “Mr. Benallie can’t attack you so long as that necklace is intact?”

“So?” he replied.

I raised the revolver and fired at the velvet bag, which exploded into satisfying sparks. I told Benallie, “Sic ‘im.”

Benallie grinned.

I never had much of a stomach for blood, so I left the two alone and headed for the lobby. It’s a good thing I ask my clients for three days of my fee in advance. Too bad about the bonus, though.

On second thought, the look on Vazquez’s face when I closed the door was all the bonus I needed.

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