From the author: This story appeared in Jim Baen's Universe magazine and in Best of Jim Baen's Universe in 2006. It was inspired by the age-old questions that have stumped philosophers, academicians and rank and file humans for centuries: When you put two socks in the washer and only one comes out, where do the other socks go? Why is my wallet in the freezer? And who put an empty milk carton back in the fridge? Harry Ferguson, assistant DA, is not only plagued by such questions, he has a murder to solve.
“Can someone explain to me what a box labeled ‘cookware’ is doing in the upstairs guest bath?”
Harry Ferguson looked up from the laptop perched atop the kitchen table to see his wife, Marilyn, standing in the kitchen archway rooting in her purse for her keys.
Across the table from Harry, his teenaged daughter, Kim, looked up from her last bite of Rice Krispies. “I didn’t do it.”
“Don’t look at me.” Her younger brother, Scott, had already deposited his dishes in the sink.
“Gosh,” said Marilyn, still rooting. “Must’ve been those darned cookware fairies. Harry, honey, if you could move it back down... Oh, here they are.” Marilyn produced her car keys with a flourish. “I'm off. In the car, kids.”
Scott was already out the door with the delicate patter of size eleven sneakers. His sister followed at a more decorous pace.
“Sure you’ll be okay here with Megan?” Marilyn asked Harry. “What if you have to go to the office?”
“I’ll just take Meg with me. Gwen loves her.”
“Hm. How does the DA feel about it?”
“He’ll love anything that contributes to the prosecution of a case, even if it involves a five-year-old in the law library. He might even hire her. After all, she knows everything.”
Marilyn laughed and kissed his cheek. “Good luck.”
Good luck. He’d need it, he mused over his coffee. It was a bad time to have moved into a new house, but moving was always a pain in the wazoo, and the real-estate market did not obey human whim.
Which made his personal and professional life a matched set; the case he was working on was equally disobedient. They had a body--Marcellus Boite, owner of a downtown gun shop. They had a suspect--Ernest Combs, a small time embezzler Boite had the misfortune to hire. They had a motive: Boite had recently reported to the police that some inventory was missing. They had opportunity: Combs had no alibi for the time of his employer’s death. They had suspicious behavior: confronted with a police presence, Combs fled, though he claimed an emergency at home.
What they did not have was a murder weapon.
Boite had died of a single .38-caliber bullet to the head, but no gun had been found during the search of Combs’s home and car, and no record existed that he had ever owned one. Till now, he'd been a “numbers” man--mangling accounts not people; his thefts had been confined to the virtual world. His fingerprints were everywhere at the crime scene, but then he worked there. The only place they mattered was on the conspicuously absent murder weapon.
Harry grimaced at the taste of his coffee and went to the fridge for milk. The carton was empty.
“Damn.” He was in the act of putting the carton back when he caught himself and sheepishly threw it in the trash.
Returning to his makeshift laptop, he read Combs’ criminal record again, slowly. A tiny sound from the foyer made him glance up expecting to see Meg. The words “How're you feeling, sweetie” stalled on his lips when he realized there was no one there.
“Winslow, leave the ficus alone!”
There was a rustle of foliage and the soft thump of little cat feet. Harry went back to the futile task of trying to pry leads out of Combs’ file.
Ernest Combs was a man without a life. A man who could be reduced to a birth date, a list of schools, a series of dead-end jobs, and a succession of unspectacular crimes. Maybe, Harry thought, he'd committed murder out of boredom, figuring that prison had to be more stimulating than life on the outside.
The rustle of ficus leaves repeated. Without raising his head, Harry said, “Winslow! You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”
“What’s that mean?”
Harry jumped. His youngest daughter stood in the foyer, still in her PJs, a stuffed Pooh bear tucked under one arm.
“Hi, sweetie,” he said, wondering what had made him think he could work at home. “Feeling better?”
“I’m hungry,” she announced and flounced into the kitchen to pull herself up into a chair across from him.
He wasn’t getting anywhere with Ernest Combs anyway. He rose and began a search for breakfast cereal. “Glad to hear it. What'll it be?”
“Scrambledy eggs. Please, Daddy?”
He made the mistake of looking at her. The sweet heartshaped face with its chocolaty brown eyes, the silky auburn hair, tousled from sleep. Her Pooh bear smiled amiably at him from under her chin.
“As you wish. If I can find the cookware.”
They’d been in the house for about a week and had yet to cook. They’d unpacked cereal bowls and flatware and little else. Nothing was where it belonged, every available corner was piled with boxes, the furniture was half-arranged. As were Harry's thoughts. He felt guilty for not unpacking, but knew if he unpacked, the guilt of not working on the case would be just as intense.
Belatedly, Harry recalled that the cookware box was in the upstairs bathroom. He dragged it down to the kitchen, popped the lid, and rummaged for a sauté pan.
“Daddy? What sort of animal lives in a closet?”
Goody, Harry thought, a five-year-old joke. “I give, honey, what lives in a closet?”
“Dad-dy,” she said in a tone of voice that suggested he had slightly less wattage than an oven light.
The phone rang and he leapt to get it before the voicemail kicked in, giving Megan the universal shush sign, finger to lips. “Ferguson’s.”
“We may have a problem,” his assistant, Gwen, said without preamble. “We’ve got two weeks to build a case. Not four.”
“How did that happen?”
“Fortis pled personal duress. Her baby is due in a month and a half. She told the judge it might be early. Which is such bull. Merle Fortis has delivered two weeks late three times running. And, if that's not bad enough, the date change lands us with a different judge: 'Technicality’ Quinn.”
Harry rolled his eyes. Justice Erica Quinn had earned her nickname for an unparalleled record of throwing cases out on technicalities.
“Yeah, I know,” Gwen said, as if she had heard his eyes turning in their sockets. “I have some case law for you, counselor. I know Meg’s not well, and I’d bring it to you, but John’s got me on the Edwards case. I’m not even getting a lunch break.”
“Meg’s well enough to ride in the car.”
“Great. I’ll leave the stuff on your desk."
Harry rang off, his mind tilting slightly at the thought of trying to mount this case in two weeks. His eyes went unfocused to the ficus benjamina by the front door. It seemed to have blossomed. A bright red sock was cradled among the leaves.
Damned cat. He retrieved the sock and shook out the ficus debris. A ‘watched’ feeling made his nape hairs prickle; he turned to find Winslow regarding him quizzically from the middle of the staircase. A strange creature whose behavior was less than catlike, Winslow followed his favorite human everywhere. He allowed himself to be led on a leash. He fetched. He stole socks.
Harry shook the sock at him. “Winslow, I’m sorry we haven’t found your cat toys, but...” He knew a moment of guilt as the tabby's dark yellow eyes gazed back at him, soulful and doggish. He decided he’d buy a catnip mouse today. A red one.
“Hey, Meg, honey, how about breakfast at Applebee’s?”
“Fortis will move for dismissal due to insufficient evidence.” Those were the first words out of Gwen’s mouth when Harry entered the office. She smiled when she saw Megan standing in the doorway behind him. “Hi, sweetie. How’re you feeling?”
“My nose is sniffly.” She demonstrated.
“The case law?” Harry prompted.
Gwen ignored him. “Poor baby. Want a tissue?” She snatched one from the box on her desk.
“Gwen, the case law?”
“Oh, yeah. Here.” She moved to his desk and bent to embrace a stack of legal books. A rainbow of little vinyl tags sprouted festively from the pages.
“The blue ones,” Gwen said, “are cases in which the defendant worked for the victim. The red ones deal with search and seizure powers. In the yellow ones the defendant skipped bail. Purely cautionary.”
“Any of them give you gooseflesh?”
Gwen swore that when she encountered items that 'meant something' she felt as if someone were blowing on the back of her neck.
“Anderson vs. the State of California,” she said, then added, “Want me to show you how to use that tissue, sweetie?” She was smiling past Harry at Megan who was snuffling into Pooh’s ear.
Gwen, he thought, is a mother waiting to happen. “I can arrange for you to borrow her.”
“Hah. Go study your case law, counselor.”
Homeward bound, Harry was jarred out of his ruminations by an irregular thudding on the back of his car seat. “Meg, please stop that.”
The thudding was replaced by steady pressure.
“Megan! Stop kicking my seat.” He glanced up into the rear view mirror, half expecting to catch an urchin grin; she was gazing out the window.
She faced forward. “I wasn’t kicking your seat, Daddy.”
“You were pushing it with your feet.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
He pulled the car into the driveway contemplating how to handle the fib. “Look, honey. I realize I wasn’t paying as much attention to you as I should have at breakfast. But you really need to refrain from these little demonstrations of-”
“Can I watch TV, Daddy?” Megan asked as they came through the front door.
Harry tripped over a pair of shoes left smack in the middle of the entry and hopped forward, trying not to topple over.
Meg giggled. “You look like a kangaroo.”
“Thanks. Yes, you may watch TV.” Chances were, she’d fall asleep and he would get some work done...and he wouldn’t have to enforce naptime.
Harry went back to the kitchen--noting with annoyance that he’d forgotten to turn off the lights--and started weeding through the case law. As Gwen predicted, he found Anderson vs. the State of California interesting. Because the prime suspect had worked for the victim and the crime had occurred in the workplace, the judge had extended the search warrant to the home of the suspect’s ex-wife, which was between his office and home. There they'd found the murder weapon.
Combs didn’t have an ex-wife, nor even a girlfriend. But the scenario of him dumping the weapon between work and home seemed plausible. The police had gotten to Combs’s house within thirty seconds of his arrival, surprising him as he came out of his kitchen. He'd had no time to hide a weapon. Yet no weapon had been found.
Harry went over the timeline: Mrs. Boite called 911; the arresting officers spotted Combs’s car less than a half-mile from the crime scene and tailed him back to his house. They'd lost sight of him for about twenty seconds when he ran a light. He’d had no time to take a detour. If he dropped the gun somewhere, it had to be in a direct path between the crime scene and his house.
Harry checked Combs's phone records. Prior to the murder, he'd called only two numbers with addresses in the target area. Ignoring the stentorian falsetto of Muppets filtering in from the living room, Harry e-mailed the numbers to the lead detective, tagged ‘urgent.’ Then he wandered the house, thinking, turning off lights, straightening pictures, moving things from one place to another. He mulled over Ernest Combs as he ‘tsked’ over the state of the upstairs bathroom, wondering why a row of hair clips marched across the top of the toilet tank.
Combs had a motive.
He dumped the hair clips into a drawer.
Of course, it was a motive that worked for a number of people, including the victim’s wife.
Combs had opportunity.
He moved mouthwash from the floor to the medicine cabinet.
Closing the cabinet, he caught movement in the mirror-someone passing the open bathroom door. Meg was too small for him to see more than the top of her head in the bathroom mirror.
He poked his head out into the hall. There was no one there. He started down the hall toward the master bedroom. An inhuman shriek greeted him at the door and Winslow shot out into the hall like a furry cannon ball, He ricocheted off Harry’s knees, and skidded toward the staircase.
Heart pounding, Harry teetered on the bedroom threshold with the eerie feeling there was someone standing behind the half-open door. He sucked in a breath and barged into the room, slamming the door against the wall. No one was behind the door.
Harry shook his head, clucking ruefully at himself. He was as bad as Winslow--jumping at shadows. Dufus.
The phone rang, drawing him downstairs.
“Checked those numbers,” Gwen told him. “Both businesses. A Blockbuster Video and a pawnshop.”
“Pawnshop? Okay, let’s get-“
“Done,” Gwen said. “Detectives Price and Kirwan are on it even as we speak. If that’s not where Combs disposed of the weapon, maybe it's where he purchased it. You coming to work tomorrow?”
“That’s the plan. Marilyn got another professor to cover for her. I can’t wait to get back. A half-moved-into house is...damned distracting.”
As he rang off, the cartoon voices from the living room cut off in mid squeak. “Daddy, Winslow and I are gonna take a nap.”
He turned to find Meg standing in the foyer with the cat draped over one arm, looking singularly more relaxed than it had the last time he’d seen it. Meg padded upstairs and Harry went back to his case. He was deeply engrossed when he got an e-mail from Detective Price announcing that the pawnshop was a dead end. The owner, Bill Greeley by name, recognized Combs, but had never sold him anything. He’d done a background check on Combs the first time he tried to buy something, uncovered his criminal record, and refused service. Which didn’t keep Combs from trying. He denied that Combs had ever tried to sell him anything.
So, Combs didn’t get the gun at the pawnshop nor, if the owner was to be believed, did he dump it there. Then... Harry called up a manifest of Boite’s missing inventory. What better place for Combs to arm himself than his employer’s stock? Combs' harassment of the pawnshop owner might just be a means of covering his ass.
“All right.” Harry leaned closer to the screen. There were indeed a number of .38-caliber guns missing--five Smith and Wessons, two Colts, and a couple of Glocks.
Harry’s train of thought was derailed by what sounded like a police chase being conducted at warp speed by chipmunks. “Meg, turn that down!”
The cacophony continued. Harry popped up from the table and crossed the foyer to the living room. “Meg, I asked-“ He stopped. The TV blared toons into an empty room. He turned off the TV and went upstairs where he found Meg fast asleep on her bed, Winslow sitting Sphinx-like at her feet.
“I gotta get back to the office,” Harry told the cat, who yawned.
Downstairs, the front door opened. “Dammit, Harry--you left your shoes in the middle of the entry!”
Harry had left his shoes neatly on the mat behind the ficus, but decided to let it go. He was sincerely glad Marilyn was home, because it meant he could remand stewardship of the house to her, recover his wits, and get to work.
“So now you know Combs had a weapon, right?” Marilyn asked as she settled under the covers.
“If he’s the one who stole the guns, yeah. The murder weapon was a .38--probably a Smith and Wesson. That narrows it down to five guns in Boite’s missing inventory. If the murder weapon came from Boite’s inventory.”
“But if we don't find the gun, Combs may walk.”
“Meg’s going to school tomorrow, right?” Harry asked, yawning.
“I’d rather keep her home one more day, but I’ve got it covered. You can return to work, counselor.”
“God bless you,” Harry murmured. “This house is...creepy.”
Reality began to recede toward sleep. “Shoes,” he mumbled.
“Daddy? Dad-dy!” Meg was a blur in the dim light. “Daddy, something's under my bed. Make it go away.”
Like a well-trained dog, he rose, trailed her docilely to her room, and looked under her bed. “Nothing there, muffin.”
“I bet he went back into the closet.”
He straightened. “Oh. Do you want me to chase him away?”
“No, I don’t mind him being there. I just don’t like it when he crawls under my bed. He wakes me up.”
“Okay. Well, um, you stay in that closet then, you hear?” he said to the half-closed door.
Meg beamed. “Thanks, Daddy.”
The next morning, Harry packed his briefcase and escaped the house gleefully, leaving Marilyn in charge. He piled the two older kids into the car and ferried them to school, absently pondering the connection between Combs and the pawnshop; wondering if there wasn’t more there than met the eye. Maybe...
“Hey, Scott. Stop kneeing me in the back.”
“You’re pushing on the back of my seat,” Harry complained, pulling into the turnaround in front of the high school.
Kim shot a grin back at her brother as she opened her door. “Busted. See ya, Dad.”
“I wasn’t pushing on your seat,” Scott said. His door slammed.
“Yeah, right,” Harry muttered. “Nobody kicks my seat. Nobody leaves the TV on, or the bathroom lights, or the water. Nobody leaves shoes lying in the entry.”
He pulled away from the school trying to regain his concentration. Was the pawnshop owner witness or accomplice? If Combs was ripping off his boss, the guns had to go somewhere. It might be productive to bring the guy in...
“Dammit, Scott, I said stop!” Harry’s annoyance guttered in the realization that Scott was on his way to Algebra 101. He pulled over against the curb and craned his neck around to peer down the back of the seat, expecting to find that Winslow had snuck into the car.
Great. Now I’m having back spasms.
By the time he stepped out of the elevator into the DA’s office, Harry was much more chipper. He had a hunch. He told Gwen as much the moment he entered the office.
“You hide it so well,” she said, straight-faced.
Not long after, Harry found himself behind a two-way mirror in an interrogation room watching Detectives Price and Kirwan question Bill Greeley, pawnshop owner. Greeley stuck doggedly to the claim that he knew Ernest Combs only as a nuisance who continued to try to buy weapons and ammo he wouldn’t sell him.
“I’m a law abiding American citizen, dammit,” Greeley said for the fiftieth time. “A card-carrying member of the NRA and Neighborhood Watch. I don’t sell guns to criminals. Ernest Combs was a criminal.”
Detective Price looked into the two-way, rolled his eyes, and mouthed “No go” to the invisible Harry.
“I think he’s being straight,” Price said later. “The way his eyes bugged out when we asked if he’d purchased arms from Combs, I thought he was going to have a coronary.”
“Maybe he's a good actor,” Harry said.
“Yeah, but Combs isn’t. Practically the first thing he said when the question of gun ownership came up was, ‘I can’t buy a gun in this freakin’ town. I tried.’ Maybe he was planning all along to use this guy as a sort of alibi--you know, establish that he’d made repeated attempts to buy a gun and failed.”
"I still think that gun is hidden somewhere on his property," said Detective Kirwan. "We mentioned that we’d interviewed Greeley. He seemed completely unconcerned, then asked if we'd finished tossing his house. Said we’d better have put everything back where we found it. Said he’d hold us responsible if there was any damage to the place. He seemed a little angsty about it.”
“Chitra, we’ve turned that whole damn place over,” argued Price. “The gun's not there.”
Harry chewed his lip. “He was exiting the kitchen when the arresting officers entered the house.”
The detectives nodded.
“So they started the search there.”
"We dismantled the kitchen," Price said, "pulled appliances out from the wall, even looked for hidden compartments.”
Kirwan added, “First, we thought it was in the broiler pan because the door was slightly ajar--and stuck, as if it had been closed in a big hurry. Maybe he started to stash the gun there, then changed his mind. Maybe it was a deke.”
“He didn’t have time to change his mind,” objected Price. “And why bother with misdirection? We searched everywhere.”
“Was he nervous about the search?”
“Yeah, he was. But apparently he didn’t need to be.”
After lunch Harry paid a visit to Combs’s house. It wasn’t much more than a shoebox with a peaked roof, but it had obviously just been through a major remodel. Combs had moved in a scant three months before. There were three rooms downstairs: living room, kitchen, bath. The furnishings were simple but tasteful. And they were of a quality beyond the means of most store clerks. There was a hand-knotted silk Persian carpet. The kitchen had Viking appliances.
Suppressing envy, Harry checked the broiler tray, the lettuce crisper, and the garbage disposal, knowing the detectives had already done that. Then he moved to the second floor.
Up a flight of spiral stairs he was confronted by a single, long room with a sharply peaked ceiling that ran the length of the house from front to back. The bed was cherrywood, with side table and dresser to match. A wardrobe stood at the end of the room opposite the door. A wood-burning stove hunkered halfway between in a wide gable, its pipe extending up into the ceiling. Ashes littered the floor in front of it, a souvenir of the police search. Every drawer and cabinet hung open.
Harry had bubkes. No clues, no epiphanies, not even a niggle. He went home to the joys of unpacking.
“Any idea where the cookware went?” Marilyn followed her voice into the foyer. “I’d swear it was right here by the table this morning.”
“It was. I brought it down myself.” Harry mounted the staircase, intent on a quick change into a sweat suit.
“Huh... By the way, you left every light on downstairs this morning.”
He stopped halfway up the stairs. “No, I didn’t. I only left the foyer light on.”
“Oh. Must’ve been Scott.”
“Wasn’t me.” Scott’s voice floated from the living room on a raft of video game sound effects.
Marilyn gestured ‘never mind’ and headed back into the kitchen. “If I can’t find the cookware there'll be no dinner tonight--unless you want to order out.”
“Pizza!” yelled Scott.
At the top of the stairs, Harry nearly collided with Kim who'd appeared on the landing cradling a box.
Kim nodded. “It was in the upstairs bathroom.”
“Again? I brought it downstairs,” said Harry.
“Sure, Dad.” Kim gave him an indulgent smile, then carried the box downstairs.
Marilyn had come out of the kitchen again. She winked up at Harry. “Poltergeists. They also got Scott’s homework.” When Harry didn't laugh, she followed him up to their bedroom. “No breakthroughs on the case?”
“No.” He sat heavily on the bed, shaking his head. “That gun has got to be in Combs’ kitchen. He flat-out didn’t have time to hide it anywhere else.”
“But they searched the whole house.”
“Yeah? How about the turkey carcass left over from Thanksgiving?”
Harry smiled. “Checked it. No gun.”
Harry Ferguson had long been accused of living in his head. At the moment his head contained an exact replica of the floor plan of Ernest Combs’ house. As he padded down his own staircase to let the cat out, he recalled how many steps were in Combs’. Returning upstairs, he was disoriented by the sight of a transverse hallway instead of a right angle turn into a loft.
“Daddy?” Megan’s voice issued tentatively from the semi-darkness of her room.
He crossed to her door. “You’re supposed to be asleep.”
She was sitting up in bed, hands in her lap, watching him solemnly. “I need you to talk to him again. He won’t obey me.”
“The thing in my closet. He keeps going under my bed. He snores.
Harry smiled. “He snores.”
“Okay,” Harry crossed to the closet and opened the door quickly, as if he expected to surprise something out of hiding.
Meg cleared her throat delicately. “He’s under the bed, Daddy.”
Harry got down on hands and knees and peered beneath the bed. His eyes locked on a darker patch of dark that seemed to be blocking the glow of Meg’s nightlight. A frisson ran up his spine before he could chide himself for being over-imaginative. Had to be a stuffed animal. He started to reach under the bed for it and was vaguely ashamed when his hand refused to move.
“You there,” he said, making his voice menacingly deep. “You’re upsetting my little girl. I must ask you to stop hiding under her bed. Please return to the closet.”
He straightened and looked at Meg. “Okay?”
“Thank you, Daddy. You sounded mean. But could you check and make sure he’s gone?”
“Oh...sure.” He peered beneath the bed again. Odd. Now he could see the nightlight through the bed skirt. He straightened. “Gone.”
Meg smiled and held out her arms. “Thanks, Daddy. You’re great.”
He hugged her. “Glad you think so.”
He passed the closet on his way out, half of a mind to open the door and peek. He didn’t.
Saturday morning Harry realized he’d dreamed about Combs’ house all night. Waking in his flat-ceilinged, perfectly square bedroom was disconcerting.
After breakfast the family dispersed and the house, empty and quiet, seemed to give up a huge sigh. As did Harry. He sat at the kitchen table for a while, savoring his coffee and mulling over the case...for all the good it did.
Coffee exhausted, he wandered upstairs and found every light on. He made a complete round, shutting them off--bathroom, Meg’s room, Kim’s room, Scott’s room, the master bedroom. Then he headed back toward the staircase determined to do some gardening.
The bathroom light was on. Again. He remembered turning it off.
He approached the room cautiously, nape hair at attention. The door was ajar, and he swore he saw movement through the slit between door and jamb. He slapped himself mentally. It was probably an electrical problem. Even new houses could have electrical problems.
He stood uncertainly in the doorway. Then, swearing under his breath, he thrust the door open. It impacted the wall with a padded thump.
Harry entered the room fully, turned, and swung the door shut, belatedly considering what he’d do if there were someone there. It closed with a swish and flap of the bathrobes hanging on the back.
Harry chuckled. Alarmist. He let the door swing half-open and turned his attention to the light switch. It was in the ‘on’ position. He flipped it on and off, then wiggled it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a shadow slip past the bathroom door and down the hallway. He lunged at the door and flung it open.
He took a deep breath and stepped into the hall, looking both ways and wondering if stress caused hallucinations. Shaking his head, he turned and nudged open the bathroom door.
A thin, dark, little man with startlingly pale, protuberant eyes blinked up at him. He was wearing black pants and matching long-sleeved turtleneck sweater. He looked like a mime who’d forgotten his makeup.
“Nuts,” he said in a high, nasal voice.
“What...what are you doing in my house?” Harry asked around the lump in his throat.
“Ex-cuse me. This is really embarrassing.”
“What are you doing in my house?” Harry repeated.
“Uh...I work here.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m the Thing That Hides Behind Doors. Did I scare you?”
“Hell, yes! I thought I was going to turn around and find you sneaking up behind me.”
“Oh, not me. That would be the Thing That Sneaks Up Behind You. He’s off today. Now, if you’ll excuse me...” He started to turn away.
“No, I won’t excuse you! You work here?”
“Yessir. Really, I oughta get going. I’m not supposed to talk to you. Wow. This is weird.”
“No kidding.” Harry’s heart rate slowed. The guy didn’t seem dangerous, just incoherent and nervous. “Who are you?”
“Didn’t I say? I’m the Thing That-“
“Hides Behind Doors. I caught that. I just don’t know what it means.”
The guy fidgeted, his big watery eyes bobbing this way and that. “It means...well, pretty much what it says. I hide behind doors. I’m a-a Thing.”
“A thing...” Harry shook his head. “What do you mean 'a thing?'”
The protuberant eyes flicked back to Harry’s face. “I really shouldn’t be talking to you. Can I go now?”
“Go? I find you in my bathroom and I’m supposed to just let you go?”
“Aw, c’mon. I promise to do better. Only don’t tell the Boss.”
“How about the police?”
He seemed puzzled. “The police? What would the police care? This isn’t their jurisdiction...is it?”
“I'm willing to find out.” Harry stepped backwards into the hall.
The little fellow quivered and glanced feverishly about. “Oh, jeez, mister. I don’t want-” His eyes darted to a spot over Harry’s left shoulder and froze there. “Oops.”
Harry swung around. A tall, thin, sepulchral fellow faced him across the upstairs runner. He wore a black serge suit with a long coat and string tie. Sad, dark eyes were a perfect match for the doleful set of his mouth, while graying eyebrows arched toward a distant hairline. The man inclined his head.
Harry dropped into a posture he'd seen in a Jackie Chan movie. “Stay back. I know Kung Fu.”
“Of course you do, sir. But I came only to apologize.”
“For the behavior of my staff.”
“Your staff?” Harry realized he was echoing, but could think of nothing remotely intelligent to say.
“The Household Things. I am, I regret to say, the Chief Thing for this domicile. I am forced to admit, sir, that in all my years in your service, I have never had such a raw and undisciplined crew.”
“You’ve...you’ve been in my service,” Harry echoed, “for years.”
“Well, not your service precisely, sir, but your family’s. In fact, I’ve been in service to this family since you married and rented that quaint little cottage on Sepulveda.” He said “quaint” with the same disdain Scott showed when he said “peas.” “Your personal staff are quite good, if I do say so myself, but these other Things...” The sad eyes rolled heavenward.
“What do you mean ‘things’? What things?”
“Well, sir, since you inquired--there are three classes of Things in your service. Personal Things (which include myself and immediate staff), Furnishings Things, and of course Household Things such as the Thing That Hides Behind Doors.” Contempt curled his thin lips. “It is the last group that has caused the trouble, I fear. They are inexperienced and cocky, which I suspect comes with attachment to one of these ‘designer’ homes. Modern conveniences, indeed.”
“They’ve caused trouble?”
“Oh, sir, surely you’ve noticed how clumsy they are. Never waiting long enough to turn on lights you’ve turned off; open doors you’ve closed; close doors you’ve opened. And they are too ambitious altogether. Why the Thing That Lurks in the Closet of your youngest daughter’s room has been bucking for a promotion to Thing That Hides Under the Bed since you moved in. He’s disturbed the dear child a number of times. No, I fear your Household Things are utterly without experience and poorly trained."
“Especially in comparison with your Personal and Furnishings crews.”
“Ah,” Harry said, as if he understood one word of what this odd man was telling him. “Those crews are...more experienced and better trained, then.”
The funereal fellow drew himself up to his full height, reminding Harry of the quintessential butler. “I pride myself on it, sir. As I said, your Personal Things have been with your family since your first rental. And even your Furnishings Things have been with you long enough to understand your comings and goings--with the possible exception of the Thing that came with your new car.”
“A Thing came with my car?”
“Yes sir. The Thing That Kicks the Driver's Seat. He’s the newest member of the crew. But I have confidence that in a few weeks time, he’ll get the hang of it.”
“M-my car has a Thing.”
“Yes sir. As do all your major appliances.”
“Appliances...as in our washing machine and dryer?”
“The Thing That Hides Socks.”
“The Thing That Drinks the Last of the Milk and Puts the Carton Back Empty.”
“I thought that was my son.”
Jeeves beamed. “As you were meant to, sir.”
“Is there a Thing That Feeds Pâté to the Cat?”
“That would be your youngest daughter. You also have a Thing That Rumples the Carpets. In some homes he would also do bedspreads, but you have a cat for that purpose. Cats are honorary Things,” he added.
Harry rubbed his temples. “You and your staff work at scaring us?”
“Oh, no sir. Our purpose is to engage you, keep you on your toes, make your lives interesting. And of course, to give your home a personality--to make it feel lived-in.”
“Lived-in? It feels haunted. And I’m not engaged, I’m frustrated.”
“For which I am profoundly sorry, sir. Were your Household Things better trained, you would never have noticed us at all.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“You never noticed us before.”
“Wait a minute. Are you responsible for carting our cookware all over the house?”
“You see--that’s exactly what I mean. That unfortunate incident was perpetrated by the Thing That Misplaces Your Belongings--a Household Thing unversed in the Protocols. No Thing under my tutelage would have made such a gross error as to move that box to the target area so quickly.”
“Target area? Protocols? What are you talking about?”
“Domestic Protocols, sir. You can’t run a household without them. Take, for example, your cookware. Protocol requires that the movement of such articles be made in logical increments over time so that if the movement is noticed it can be easily attributed to the natural propensity of people to displace items that are in the way. So your cookware should have been moved from the kitchen floor to the top of the refrigerator, or to the floor of an adjacent room. Then it should have been moved to sit among those boxes that are still halfway up your staircase.”
Harry detected a note of reproach in that “still.” “We’ve been busy.”
“Of course you have, sir. And so, unfortunately, have your Household Things. They saw fit to take your cookware directly from the kitchen floor, under the table, to the upstairs bathroom atop the étagère.”
“The shelved unit above the toilet tank.”
Jeeves shrugged as if that should be the most obvious thing in the world. “A simple case of geometry. Each house is divided into quadrants. Likewise each room. Articles are moved so as to end up in the quadrant opposite the one in which they were originally located. So, from the lowest point along the southwest wall of your kitchen...”
“To the highest point on the northeast wall of our upstairs bathroom.”
“Precisely, sir. You have a keen grasp of the situation.”
“Thanks. So, everything we own is going to be moved around like this forever?”
“Oh no, sir. Every object has a particular place in which it belongs. We move only objects that are not where they belong. The cookware was on the floor under your kitchen table. Not at all where it belonged, sir.”
“Uh-huh. Does everybody have...Things?” "
“Every man, woman, and child who inhabits a domicile built or remodeled since 1900."
“They call them domovoi, sir. Siberia is not the backwater you might think it is. Now, sir, I really must go. I’ve broken Protocol in discussing this with you, but I felt an apology was imperative.” He executed a smart little bow and said, “Good-day, sir. I promise we will do better.”
Harry reached out to prevent him from leaving, but the front door banged open, startling him.
“Da-ad!” Kim’s voice carried up the stairs. “I brought some friends home. We’re going to the den to study.”
Harry took his eyes off the Head Thing for only a second, but it was enough. He was gone.
“Hey!” Harry stage whispered. Then louder: “Hey! Where’d you go?”
“The den, Dad. Why?”
Harry crossed the hall to look down the stairs. Kim had poked her head back into the foyer and was peering up at him.
"It's nothing. Just...have fun.”
“Yeah. Right. Fun.” She disappeared.
Harry made a systematic search of the second floor, but found nothing. He spent the remainder of the day in a state between credulity and denial. He considered telling Marilyn, but she’d only say he was over-stressed. Was he? Undoubtedly. But he’d never heard of stress manifesting itself as a six-foot-seven “Jeeves” archetype who claimed he’d been working for you unseen for umpteen years. No, he couldn’t tell Marilyn.
In the end, he decided there was only one person in the family who wouldn’t think he was nuts if he started asking questions about Things That Go Bump in the Night, and she was at the mall.
To kill time, he ran experiments. He collected odd items--useless keys, a penlight, one of Meg’s bevy of Furbees--and put them in places they definitely did not belong. Then he went into the kitchen and unpacked the remainder of the boxes there. When he went back to check on his experiments he met with uneven results. The keys and Furbee were gone, the penlight was right where he’d left it.
He embarked on a systematic search of the premises based on what Jeeves (possibly a figment of his imagination) had told him about protocols. He’d left the Furbee on the hearth in the living room; he looked for it on the bookshelf on the opposite side of the room. No luck. He moved to the foyer next. Nothing.
Okay. Cut to the chase. If our Things are extremists, then the Furbee should be... He sprinted upstairs to Meg’s room--opposite side of the house, second floor, opposite quadrant.
The Furbee was sitting atop the window casement in Meg’s room.
Next, he looked for the keys. He’d left them under the sink in the kitchen. He found them, as insanely expected, atop the étagère in the upstairs bathroom.
What did that mean? That there really were Things living in his house that misplaced toys, lurked in closets, and returned empty cartons of milk to the fridge? Or that he was coming unglued?
Marilyn arrived home with Megan at last, sporting Macy’s bags. They marched through the front door and up the stairs, brushing past Harry where he hovered on the landing.
“Hi, hon.” Marilyn airmailed him a kiss. “Meg, sweetie, I’m going to go put my things away, then I’ll help you with yours.”
“I’ll help her,” Harry volunteered.
Marilyn stopped and stared. “You? Mr. Wad-it-up-and-throw-it-in-the-nearest-drawer?”
“I don’t-” Harry began and stopped. He didn’t. But apparently Something did. “I’ll be careful.”
“Uh-huh. I’ll inspect the results.”
Marilyn sailed into the master suite with a rustling of bags. Harry meanwhile, ushered Meg into her room and emptied the contents of her bag onto her bed.
“Look at this pretty dress Mommy got me,” she enthused, holding up the article.
“Oooh,” said Harry. “Let’s hang it up.” He snagged the dress and opened the closet.
“Mommy cuts the tags off, first,” Megan said.
“Oh. Well, you can do that the first time you wear it, okay?”
Harry made a big deal out of finding a hanger, pushing aside clothes to peer into the closet’s dark corners. Nothing.
“Say, Meggie...about the guy who hides in your closet.”
“Uh-huh.” She was standing next to him holding another dress.
“Is he there all the time?”
“No. Only at night.”
“You’ve seen him?”
“Uh-huh.” She handed him the dress.
“What does he look like?”
“He looks like that guy in the funny Frankenstein movie. The one with the buggy eyes.”
“He looks like Marty Feldman?”
She shrugged and went back to the bed for another outfit. “But he wears a black super-hero suit.”
“When did you see the funny Frankenstein movie?”
“Only a little of it. Then I sneezed and Mom made me go back to bed.”
“So you don’t mind this guy being in your closet?”
“Uh-uh. He finds lost stuff. Besides, I’m kinda scared of the dark sometimes, so I’m glad he’s there. But I don’t like it when he hides under my bed. He snores. The other guy didn’t snore. And I’m afraid if he stays there, the other guy won’t come back.”
Harry sat weakly on the foot of the bed. “The other guy?”
“Yeah. The one who’s s’posed to hide under my bed.”
“And what does he look like?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. I’ve never seen him. But he bumps so I know he’s there. But he doesn’t snore.”
“How long have you known about these...guys?”
“Well, before we moved, I thought they were there, but I wasn’t sure. I thought they might be piglets of my imagination.”
“Figments, honey,” Harry corrected absently.
“Oh. Anyway, I wasn’t sure they were there until we moved into this house. That’s when I saw them. I think they're elves.”
Elves. “Are...are you sure?”
She gave him a wounded look. “Daddy, I saw them. I wouldn’t make something like that up.”
No, Harry thought, she probably wouldn’t.
Lying in bed that night, he went over it drowsily for the zillionth time: the Thing lurking behind the bathroom door, the Things in Meg’s room, the experiments that seemed to prove Jeeves’ Domestic Protocols.
Suddenly wide-awake, Harry found his head galloping with wild thoughts. He rolled out of bed, pulled on a tee-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, then hesitated. How do you contact someone who wants to remain hidden? Someone who may very well be, as Meg put it, a piglet of your imagination?
He tiptoed into Meg’s room and poked his head into the closet. “Hey,” he whispered. “You. Thing That Hides in the Closet--I need to talk to your boss.”
The closet was silent. Meg mumbled in her sleep.
“Please. I really need to talk to the-the Chief Thingie, or whatever you call him.”
Still nothing. But the feeling of being watched sent serious willies up his spine.
“C’mon guy. I’m not kidding. This is important!”
Harry stifled a yelp and spun around. Jeeves stood behind him, his basset eyes glistening in the light from the hall. Harry hurried him out of Meg’s room.
“All that stuff about protocols and procedures--that applies to all Things everywhere?”
“Well, of course, sir. Without protocols, you have chaos.”
“And the protocols are always the same?”
“Okay. You implied that our Household things are rookies because they came with a new house.”
He nodded solemnly.
“What about a house that's just been through a major remodel, new appliances, furniture, window treatments, the works? Would that have a rookie crew?”
Harry clapped a hand on the tall guy’s shoulder. “Jeeves -- may I call you 'Jeeves?' -- you’ve been immensely helpful. Thanks.”
“'Jeeves' is fine, sir.” He smiled in a way that reminded Harry of the Eeyore puppet perched on Megan’s bedpost. “Is there anything else?”
“Yeah. Are you guys some kind of...elves?"
Jeeves looked positively morose. "We've been called that, sir. But we are Things. Nothing more; nothing less."
"Great. Thanks. I’m going back to bed now. Have a nice night, Jeeves.”
“Thank you, sir. And you.”
“We’ve been over this, counselor,” said Detective Price. “If Combs had a gun, he didn’t hide it here.”
“I think he did. Just not where we expected.” Harry stood in the entry of Ernest Combs’s cottage, flanked by Detectives Price and Kirwan. “You thought he’d hidden it in the broiler pan, right?”
“Right,” said Kirwan. “But he hadn't.”
Harry glanced through the kitchen portal to the Viking range, then made a beeline for the stairs.
“Where are you going?” Kirwan asked.
Harry didn’t answer. He wanted to say something nonchalant and cocky, something James Bond might have said, but as he might be about to make a fool of himself, he stifled the urge.
On the upstairs landing, he turned and scanned the attic bedroom’s left-hand wall. It was dominated by the woodstove. Heart pounding, mouth dry, Harry moved to the stove, aware of the eyes on his back. He looked up, following the stovepipe. About six feet off the floor a handle stuck out of the pipe. It looked like a tapered spring with a porcelain knob at one end. Above it, a metal cuff encircled the pipe.
“What’s that?” Harry pointed at the handle.
“Flue handle,” said Price. “You turn it to adjust the flow of air.”
Harry turned the handle. Something rattled down the stovepipe and dropped heavily into the firebox. He opened the stove door, squatted, and peered in. There, at the bottom of the empty firebox was a handgun. Harry pulled a pen out of his coat pocket, fished the gun out, and held it up for inspection. It was a .38 Smith and Wesson.
Kirwan made a sound like a cat hocking up a fur ball.
“I’ll be damned,” said Price.
"I don’t get it," said Kirwan, watching Harry bag the gun. "How’d you do that?”
Harry shrugged. “Just a hunch.”
“Some hunch. There is no way Combs had time to come up here, slide that cuff up, and slip the gun onto the flue.”
“Yeah,” said Price. “And even at that I’d swear we looked there. C’mon, Harry, how’d you come to think of it, really?”
“Something a...a friend of mine said about what happens when you put things where they don’t belong.”
“Let me guess,” said Kirwan. “A forensics guy?”
Harry waggled his head. “Not exactly. Just someone who knew a Thing or two.”
This story originally appeared in Jim Baen's Universe.