I was sitting in my office at the Bear With Us Detective Agency, going through my back cases. With so much crime to deal with in El Bruno, it was hard to keep track. I had worked my way through the alphabet up to the Ps.
There it was: Piper, Peter. He had tried to play it cool. He hid the stolen goods in the trunk of his car and tried to ease through the gate at the Bear Nays Mustard and Ketchup factory.
Like no one would catch on, no one would smell pickled peppers? He didn’t count on Buster T. Dawg’s schnuffling schnozzola. It was Buster’s first day at the gate after returning from DC where he had been filling in for McGruff the Crime Dog. Nor did Peter Piper ponder my professional police procedures that produced the motive for Peter pilfering the peck of purloined pickled peppers.
I had tailed Tom-Tom, Piper’s son to the El Bruno Farmers Market. His plan was simple: steal a pig and off you run. He even chanted as I followed him down the street.
“To Market, to market to steal a pig, then home again, home again, jiggety-jig.”
At home, he had the charcoal pit all set up and had his sign ready to go, “Pipers’ Pork Ribs With Pickled Peppers.”
The two could either rot in jail for several months or go into partnership with the mayor on the Ribs and Peppers Bistro. The Pipers were proof that certain crimes pay well. The R&P Bistro was a big hit.
The thought of ribs with pickled peppers made me hungry. I dug into my drawer and brought out a plate of donuts with powdered sugar on them. Just then the intercom sounded with Beartina, my gal Friday’s voice.
“That actress Queenie Bianca is out here. You know,
‘The Fairest of Them All.’ She has her tanning expert with her. Should I send them in?”
Queenie entered with her latest facelift. It was the
“Caught in the Wind Tunnel” model. This might have been her fifth tuck.
The guy with her had been a leading man a few years back, but rotgut firewater had ruined his voice. He was reduced to non-speaking extras roles: rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief.
You get the idea. His name was Rex Tanner, and he was often referred to in the movie press as “The King of Tanning.” He sold a line of suntan lotions and ran an annual Venice Beach tanning contest.
They sat in chairs in front of my desk.
I slid the plate of powdered sugar donuts toward them.
From the looks of their noses, they had already eaten several powdered donuts on the way to my office.
“What can I do for you?” I asked.
“Neve Bianca,” Queenie said. “I need you to find her, Bearstone.”
I knew about Neve Bianca. She had been a rising star in Hollywood. She had jet black hair and a pale complexion that producers had gone wild over. She was Queenie’s daughter from her marriage to the late Duke Bianca, the Hollywood director. Several years back, she had disappeared.
“She said she was getting out of the business three years ago,” Queenie said. “Her picture vanished from Casting Central, but now it just came back on their website. They’re calling her ‘The Fairest of Them All.’
That title belongs to me.”
“Any idea where she might be?” I asked, munching on a powdered donut.
“That’s why I brought the King of Tanning,” Queenie said. “Cough it up, Rex.”
“Look, I got a general idea, but no exact address,” He started out in his squeaky voice, as if he was going to run up the clock and down again. “We were pretty tight back then, she and I, but…”
“What Rex is trying to say is they had a thing together until he found out she was cold as ice when it came to taking care of a man,” Queenie said. “Rex came back to Queenie, and he’s a happy man.”
“Yeah,” Rex said. “Neve’s heart belonged to only her.
Our plan was to head for El Lobo and live on a boat at the Hi-Ho Harbor. She said she had connections on one of the wharfs, but I never got that far. We had a big argument, and she took off. That’s the last I ever saw of her.
“Which wharf? Do you remember?”
“Seventy, maybe,” Rex squeaked.
He was annoying, this mouse of a man. I wouldn’t urge a farmer’s wife to take her carving knife to Rex, but if it happened, I could sympathize.
Queenie dropped a couple of Benjamins on my desk, and it was time to say bye-bye. I was glad when they both left.
I told Wolfie T. Wolf about my new case.
“El Lobo, that’s practically home to the Wolf family,”
Wolfie said. “And Neve Bianca, that babe. She was one of my favorite stars. Bearstone, I should come with you. I haven’t been there in years.”
“This town has sure changed,” Wolfie said.
“You mean it’s gotten bigger?
“No, looks like most people have left town. Pull up to that bum with the Nitro Vino bottle over there. Maybe he can tell us something.”
“This used to be a prosperous town,” Wolfie said to the bum. “What happened?”
“Big shippers left town. Place fell apart.”
“Which way to the wharfs?” I asked.
“I’ll help you if you help me,” the bum said.
“Okay,” I said.
“You go down a mile to the Dell,” the bum said.
“There’s a farm there. Guy’s got a wife and a kid.
There’s a nurse living there, too. There’s a cow and a dog and a cat and a rat. The rat steals the cheese, and that’s where you two come in, you see? The cheese stands alone. You guys are the big cheese, right? Well, I need a loan. Can you stand me a loan? Ten bucks? A fin? I ain’t et in three weeks.”
I couldn’t follow his train of thought, but I liked the old bum’s spirit. I handed him a double sawbuck and a couple donuts. He was grateful.
“You get to the farmer’s place and turn right,” he said.
“The wharfs are a half mile down.”
I thanked him and started to drive off.
He was singing a jingle about the Hi-Ho Dairy as we left.
We got to the wharf area in a few minutes. It looked like there were eight wharves in all, so much for Rex Tanner’s guess at seventy. Wharves A, B, and H had fallen into the bay. C and F were in bad shape. Wharves D and E were up and running. They had been remodeled and were filled with small shops and restaurants.
“Well, I don’t see any Wharf Seventy,” Wolfie said.
“Did we get a bum steer from the tanning king?”
There was no mistaking. When she took off her helmet, it could only be one person. Neve Bianca stood next to us in all her beauty. The guy next to her looked familiar, too when he took off his helmet.
“It’s Doc Holliday,” Wolfie said. “He’s in all those action thrillers, The Bourne Appendix, The Scum of All Fears, The Stunt for Dead October.”
We watched the two walk down Wharf D and turn into unit 7. It was a motorcycle shop. We followed them in.
“Can I interest you two gents in a new Harley,” Doc Holliday asked as we entered.
“It would be fun,” I said, “But we’re here on different business. I’m Detective Bearstone Blackie. This is my associate Wolfram T. Wolf. We’re here to make certain that Neve is safe and sound. Her mother Queenie Bianca hired me. She’s worried about her. She hasn’t heard from her in three years.”
“Ah, yes Queenie,” Neve said. “She’s probably more worried about the attention she won’t be getting when another Bianca re-enters the movie game.”
“Maybe so,” I said. “She cared enough to force Rex to tell us which town you might be living in. Neither one of them has much of a career left in films. Maybe a few cameos.”
“That will happen to all of us,” Doc said. “That’s why we’ve gone into the motorcycle business, a life and an income outside of movies.”
“So Rex and Queenie are still propping each other up,”
Neve said. “I guess they’re made for each other, but not for me. Around him, I always felt frozen, like I should be in one of those glass display cases you see at the butcher shop. And around her, I always felt like we were competing to be the fairest of them all.”
“I’ve got a three picture deal with Warners,” Neve said. “The Girl With the Razor Tattoo, The Hornets Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked Over the Dragon. So, you see, Bearstone, I won’t be competing with Queenie for the fairest title. She can have that.”
“Tell him about your name,” Doc said. “It will make a big impression on your mother.”
“I’m going to Anglicize my name,” she said. “No more Neve Bianca. Queenie can have Bianca to herself. Here’s my new card.”
The card read:
7 D Wharf
El Lobo, CA
I handed her my cell phone.
“Please press call and talk to Queenie?” I asked. “Just for a minute. I want her to know you’re okay.”
She paused a moment, then took the phone and smiled her famous smile at me.
The minute took an hour and a half, during which it was decided that Queenie would always be The Fairest and Snow would always be The Edgiest. Hi-Ho Harleys would be one of the sponsors of the Venice Tanning Tournament, with Doc Holliday and Bearstone Blackie as two of the judges. Also, Rex and Queenie would get walk-on parts in The Girl With the Razor Tattoo.
It was a touching scene with smiles and tears, many coming from Wolfie who had discovered his inner biker. Doc Holliday made the Wolf street legal that afternoon, selling him a Harley Superlow, and of course a helmet and a black leather jacket.
The back of the jacket read, “Wolves Love HOGS, Hi-Ho Harley, El Lobo, California.”
How could any wolf resist?
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