Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Adventures of Tax Madison Part One: Bigtop Bedlam

“He has just slid from fashionably late to severely displeasing me,” a very flustered Cherry muttered, pushing the dark brown hair from her eyes as she scanned the vast gathering before her for Tax. “The party started at two and I told him one o’clock. It’s 2:30. His chronic lateness is progressing into the late stages usually reserved for Alzheimer patients.”

“Way to belittle a terrible condition for a joke,” said Diedrich, making sure to stay out of swinging reach. “We all know where he is.”

Cherry sighed, “Meh, fine. Let’s go. The magician doesn’t come on for another hour so we’ve got at least two hours to get back. I love birthday filler.” It was Marin Swexter’s eighteenth birthday party and she had invited the entire school for a day of clowns, magicians, animals, and salacious dancing to contemporary rap hits. Tired of seeing other kids of her level of affluence throw atypical parties again and again on television, Marin had convinced Daddy that she needed a party that would celebrate her whole life, beginning with her love of animals and ending with her current pursuits of expensive clothing and ugly overpriced handbags. It was definitely not the type of party Tax would typically attend.

Cherry and Diedrich pulled up to a modest establishment with an elaborately painted sign barring the proud title of “Markandeya’s Tea Room.” Markandeya had opened the tea room in Septentrio ten years before, emigrating from India during the sand spider incursion that had decimated his and many others’ homes. Bringing with him a love and intimate knowledge of tea, Markandeya was loved by all in town for his cheery disposition and heavenly tea.

Ripping open the door and slamming through the wooden beads behind it, Cherry growled, “Where is he?” Markandeya smiled and pointed to the open portal in the back right corner of the deep red room. Cherry hurried to the side room through deep brown and auburn cushions that surrounded the low tables that were scattered throughout the room, each shining like a beacon as wicks slowly melted the surrounding wax. Coming into the room, which had a small sign with “VIP Room” written across it in faux-Indian style, Cherry saw the culprit responsible for her most unpleasant of moods lying across several cushions with a small cup of tea wedged into his hands. He was, as always, wearing his signature glasses, the frames having a circle over the right eye and a square over the left. Ten years ago he had sworn the fashion would catch on. He was still waiting.

“Tax, get up and pay Markandeya. We’re leaving,” Cherry said, her frustration obvious.

“I don’t need to pay Markandeya, I’ve got a running tab here. You know that. So kick back and try this tea. It’s absolutely amazing and I have two empty cups here waiting for you guys. What’s it called, Deya?”

“Pouchong, my friend. I’m glad you like it,” Markandeya shouted back.

“Sounds good to me,” Diedrich said as he pulled his tall, athletic body down to the table and graciously took the cup Tax poured for him.

“Whoa, no you don’t. Both of you said you’d come to this party and I promise you, you will be held to your word.”

“Take it easy, Cherry, we’ll get there eventually. Right now, just sit and chill for a bit. Besides, Ted’s not here so I’m assuming we’re represented at the party. Who’s he chasing these days?” Tax asked as he tried his best to keep his hair out of the tea cup as he lowered his head for a sip.

“My guess would be a girl but we all know that’s up for contention,” Cherry said as she flopped down, admitting defeat.

“There we go,” Tax said, passing her a freshly poured cup. “Indulge yourself upon this nectar of the gods and appreciate how much more peaceful and enjoyable our current surroundings are as opposed to our intended destination.”

“Ugh, there’s no winning with you. What makes you so opposed to attending this gathering of our peers? You know someone of your standing is expected to show once you commit.”

“Yeah, someone of my position...sure, let me get on that when I’m done kissing all of the babies that are lined up around the block waiting for my healing saliva… Alright, that was a little much, but if you must know, seeing an avaricious young girl gorge herself on purses and smother herself in makeup as she revels in her own decadence with those of her own kind whilst surrounded by a circus atmosphere, while thematically interesting, isn’t that high on my list of things to do. Actually, it’s right behind getting Mariah Carey to sign my copy of Glitter and just edges out dragging my knees across two miles of broken glass only to be kicked in the face.”

“Point taken, but you said you were going to be there. I’m sick of you not showing up when you say you will,” Cherry said.

“Hey, when you need me, do I show up? When that giant, prehistoric mole was reawakened by that construction crew, did I not get there in time with the ray gun that that eccentric scientist had developed to defeat the menacing rodent? Or what about that time the always quirky, always deadly TerraBill had captured you to power his mind-reading squid of doom. Was that squid not calamari before you had met a most unfortunate fate? Or the time in the sewer, when the…”

“You said we’d never bring that one up,” Cherry cut in.

“Alright, but you clearly see where I’m going with this.”

“Yeah, you’ve clearly elucidated your point. My hat and my pants are most willingly off to you, man of men. Let me just bask in your glory for a moment.”

“Well said, I think we...”

“Still basking. Just give me a minute.”

“Funny. Now let’s…”

“Not done yet.”

Several minutes passed as Diedrich and Tax let Cherry drive her joke into the ground as was her typical modus operandi. Looking at his watch, Diedrich took a final swig of tea and stood up, saying “Alright Cherry, time to go. Play the trump card and let’s bounce.”

“Trump card? I’m intrigued. Do tell, Cherry, do you gots the way to move me?” Tax asked, staring straight into Cherry’s steely brown eyes that were surrounded by thick magenta rimmed glasses.

“Ignoring your cheeky and clichéd reference, Blondie here does in fact speak the truth. This whole time we have merely been toying with you, knowing all along we could get you to come in a moment’s notice. You know as well as us what this magic kryptonite that brings the almighty and unsettling Tax to his knees groveling for us to take him to this party is.” Cherry smiled. She knew she had him.

“There is no way she’d go to that,” Tax said, doing an unconvincing job of hiding his alacrity through a thick screen of skepticism.

“Well, if you must know, her father and the Swexter’s father (and bottomless money pit) were old college pals. As a result, one Maxine Marigold is currently at the Swexter compound, last seen situated in a corner drinking punch whilst trying to avoid the eyes of roving angsty suburban white males making their rounds to display not only their thug mentality but also their keen knowledge of brands, which are prominently emblazoned on their chests.”

“You do indeed know how to twist the knife in most appropriate ways. But enough banter. We must press onward to adventures and worlds unknown despite what perils await!” Tax said, rising to his feet, his heart a-flutter. Walking out the door with his companions in tow, Tax put the dirtied cups and empty tea pot on the counter next to the cash register. “Just keep putting it on that tab.”

“I will,” Markandeya said, “But you know our deal.”

“Yeah, if I don’t pay up within the fortnight, you cut off my pinky or slaughter my first born or whatever your people’s custom is.”

“We burn your house and then forcibly feed you your pets. Your cultural sensitivity knows no bounds, Tax. You take care.”

“You, too, Deya. Give Aamani my love.” Tax pushed open the door and they were soon on their way to the party.

Ten minutes later, Tax and his esteemed associates piled out of Diedrich’s black Honda Civic, affectionately dubbed “Monsieur Generic,” and were now faced with the neo-colonial façade of the Swexter mansion that was now titivated with banners proclaiming the wonder and miracle that their daughter made it to eighteen without choking on a silver spoon. Meanwhile, the thumping bass of the dance music mixed with the cries of elephants and donkeys created a most beautiful cacophony as Tax and Cherry began to ascend the stairs and Diedrich tossed the valet his keys. Running to catch up, Diedrich grabbed Tax’s shoulder. “Tax, I know, as you’ve stated many times in the past, you don’t need help with women. But I also know that Max is a little different than usual, so, I mean, you don’t have to take this but, I got this pendant out of the quarter machine when I was going for a bouncy ball. It’s kind of cheesy and seems like just the thing you’d give her. So here.”

He handed Tax a small plastic container that held a pendant around three nickels in length. It was an image of a hand in ‘Rock On’ position. “Thanks, Diedrich. You know, I very well just might give it to her. I’m much obliged by such a gracious gesture though, as you said earlier, I need no help with girls.”

“If by no help you mean always sending me in to do recon,” Cherry cut in.

“I haven’t done that in years. With the way you are now, they’d probably think you were hitting on them,” Tax shot back.

“Cute. I’m sure my boyfriend would appreciate such sentiments.”

“I don’t know if Cap’n College would be able to comprehend such sentiments.”

“At least he shows up on time.”

“So he can tell time.”

“Alright, that’s enough” Diedrich said, exasperated. “As we cross the threshold into this social gathering, I expect you to stop bickering like the old married couple you are and have some sense of composure. Especially you Tax. As the leader of this merry group, when you offend someone or commit some kind of party faux pas, it reflects poorly on all of us.”

“Jeez, you actually sound like you care. I think Cherry will agree that it is much more enjoyable to revel in our rogue adventurer status.”

“No doubt, player,” Cherry said, pounding Tax’s fist. Despite their quibbling, Tax and Cherry were, in reality, thick as thieves. Tax wasn’t as against going to the party as he implied and Cherry knew it. He was just undermotivated to break out of his usual weekend routine, which usually involved hanging around the tea room or embarking on some kind of adventure to save the city from its latest threat. But he wouldn’t even do any of that without Cherry. Without her masterful planning skills, Tax, Diedrich, and Ted would most likely all sit around in their underwear all day reading comic books…not that there is anything wrong with such pursuits.

Entering the house, Diedrich and Cherry stopped to talk to the proud proprietor and his wife while Tax made his way through to the backyard, where he found the party in full swing. By the pool, scores of people were bumping and grinding to the pounding beats the DJ was spinning while animals that had escaped the petting zoo were mixing into the crowd. To the left by the hedge maze, an inebriated clown was struggling to make balloon animals for the amused and sarcastic onlookers while a mime in a blue beret tried to trap him in a box. A Ferris wheel was located near the second garage and was being manned by a most grungy of carnies that was unabashedly looking up from his convenient vantage point. The more exotic animals—such as the elephants, giraffes, leopards, and tigers—were being stabled in front of the pool house. In the center of the yard was a yellow and red tent, much like a circus big top that housed a dining area with almost enough tables and chairs to seat the numerous guests at once despite the unlikelihood of everyone choosing to dine at the same time.

Out of the hundreds of people wandering around, Tax could see several notables. Mayor Stypson was wandering around doing his usual gladhanding shtick while Jack Camini, the local weather man, was making sure everyone knew just how pretty he was. Also, he was there. The man behind all organized crime in Septentrio. The man responsible for countless deaths, ruined families, and not to mention numerous minor inconviences. It was the man Tax and his friends had given many sleepless nights by foiling his schemes. It was none other than Saxon DeWappo. And not only was he at this party, he was talking to Max’s dad. Why a saint like Memphis Marigold would ever talk a cur like DeWappo was beyond Tax. “Wow, could you scowl a little harder? You haven’t twisted your face yet.”

Tax turned around. “Ted, how have you survived here this long without us is beyond me. How’ve you gotten by?”

“Like that,” Ted said as he pointed to the pool filled with several girls floating in chairs sunning themselves. “It’s a rough existence but someone has to do it, right mon frére?”

“Ted, I’ve known you since we were in diapers and you’ve been chasing girls since you were able to walk and yet you’ve never had a girlfriend (besides the one we don’t count). I’m pretty sure you’re like a dog chasing a car, you wouldn’t know what to do if you caught one,” Tax said.

“Meh, at least you’re off the ‘Ted’s Gay’ bandwagon.”

“It’s too bad you’re not.”

“Speaking of incompetent chasing, I saw Max hanging around the giraffes about ten minutes ago. She looked kind of lonely.”

“Oh, I see. Did she now?”

“Yeah, it was a good thing the captain of the football team came by to cheer her up and take her for a spin in his Corvette.”

“That guy has to be handy for something. But seriously, is she hanging out there?”

“Was there a hint of concern in your voice there, Tax, old man? If you must know the truth, yes she is hanging out over there. No she isn’t alone.”

“Who’s she with?”

“I don’t think you want to know.”

“Actually, I kind of really do as it would be more conducive to my elaborate scheming if I wasn’t hit with any surprises upon my arrival at the animal menagerie.”

“I fear it’s the one that doesn’t count.”

“Janice? Ugh, our collective ex-girlfriend strikes again. It’s amazing how she plagues me from the grave of our dead relationship. She’s done this to you too hasn’t she?”

“Yeah, and Diedrich. There seems to be a certain level of malice for anyone we want to date because that of course would put her on par with them and as she has made very clear to all of us, no one is on par with her. You sure this Max girl is worth going over there for?”

“I have no doubt that the juice is most assuredly worth the squeeze. Ever since she transferred from that private school last year she caught my eye and I started talking to her a couple weeks back shortly after you, me, and the rest of the crew had gotten the cure on that mountaintop for that plague that only affected Russians that DeWappo had MacCranium fix up to get the Berezovsky mob out of town. Turns out, not only is she a most appealing to the sight, what with her green eyes that call out to you under the low-hanging part of her long dirty-blond hair, but she also has a lot of the same interests as me. And, well, I can’t quite rationalize the rest.”

“Then go lock that action down before someone else does. My only warning is that she seems kind of like the cultured, arty type. And, the name?”

“Yeah, I know. Tax and Max. It’s hackneyed and a bit disturbing. What’re you going to do? And hey, no one’s ever going to line up perfectly and being cultured isn’t always a bad thing.”

“Wow, this chick already has you selling out. Now away with you, go chase your lovely Beatrice.”

“Alright. Later on, cap’n. Good luck in all your current endeavors,” Tax said as he shook his dear companion’s hand.

His conversation finished, Tax began to make his way towards Max. Ably avoiding the Mayor behind a butler and calmly walking past the glare of DeWappo, Tax only had to get through the throngs of dancers to make it to her. As he slowly pushed his way through the crowd, he felt a hand grab his side and slide down his leg. “I was hoping you’d make it to my party, Tax! I should’ve trusted Cherry would get you here!” It was Marin, wearing a tight fitting shirt and tattered jeans that probably cost more than two weeks of groceries. Her skin was clearly spray tanned and her face revealed several coats of makeup, the last layer featuring a heavy coat of glitter. If it wasn’t for the makeup and manner of dress, she could have been a beautiful girl. She had pleasant green eyes and several different colors of hair, none of which were original.

“Cherry’s pretty persuasive. But hey, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. You’ve done quite a swell job with this shindig,” Tax said, hoping Marin would be distracted by a butterfly or some other innocuous creature.

“Did you just say swell? That’s so cute, by golly. You’re just a really impressive guy, Tax,” Marin said.

“Well, uh, thanks,” Tax said. It was uncommon to get praise from his peers as they somewhat saw the high adventures Tax and Co. embarked on as kind of stupid. Yeah, they were saving lives and doing good, but they weren’t getting anything out of it, except maybe a mention in the paper and the scorn of DeWappo, who was held in high regard by the student body through his generous scholarship foundation and support of various sports and numerous town functions. Half the students probably lived in housing DeWappo built whether they knew it or not.

“I mean, it’s really amazing that someone, you know, kind of average, can do the things you do. I mean, you’re not rich or anything.”

“Thanks, Marin. That means a lot, especially coming from someone as affluent and important as you. You enjoy you’re party.”

“Oh, I am, but don’t think you’re going to get away without giving me a present or at least a kiss on the cheek.”

Tax panicked and fumbled through his pockets trying to find something to give her. Curses, no spare change. He’d have to give her the pin. It was that or have to deal with Cherry calling him ‘Glitter Lips’ for the rest of the month. “Uh, here you go. Thanks for reminding me,” Tax said, cursing the crazy broad for inadvertently pilfering his icebreaker with Max.

“Thanks a lot, Tax. You’re so sweet! Thanks again for coming!” Marin wandered off back into the crowd and could be heard shouting for the bartender.

Ugh, now that that’s over with, Tax thought, I can finally continue with my quest, despite the fact that the odds are stacked against me and I’ve now lost at least six planned lines of dialogue now that the pin has been lost. Nonetheless, I will slay the Goliath of Max’s shyness and we shall rule this world in suburban bliss. Snaking his way through the rest of the crowd. Tax finally saw her, standing by the monkey cage with Janice. Walking up, he said, “I see you’ve already found the most intelligent guest already,” Tax said. “And, hey, Janice is here, too!”

“Oh so clever, Tax. It’s funny that you came right now, we were just talking about you,” Janice said.

“Of course by talking about me you mean you were unabashedly trashing me with half truths and exaggerations. Thanks, it’s most appreciated. Anyways, you enjoying your talk with Janice, Max?”

“Well, you know me, I don’t enjoy anything more than a solid conversation spiced up with a little feces-throwing, sir,” Max said with a smile.

Tax sighed. Oh man, she’s so clever and she just snubbed Janice. Don’t screw this up. “No doubt. So, how’ve you been, Max? I haven’t talked to you in far too long.” Tax leaned in towards Max and boxed Janice out of the conversation.

“Yeah, it has been a while. But the paper says you’ve been keeping busy. I saw you helped the beekeeper recover his prize hive back from those black market hustlers that had roamed into town. Very impressive. As for how I’ve been, I’ve been pretty swell. Just painting and hanging around Cosimo square.”

“Ah, the Cosmio square. Where hippies and commies meet to talk about how oppressive the government is and how much better it’d be if they were running it. I heard the atmosphere is good though.” Tax, what the hell are you saying, he thought in alarm.

“Yeah, sounds like you’re a fan. Maybe if you came and checked it out with me it wouldn’t be so bad.”

“I wouldn’t take him anywhere if I were you,” Janice said. “I took him to my grandmother’s funeral and he knocked over the casket.”

“First of all, you were the one who knocked over the casket. You see, Max, I was wheelchair bound with a broken leg at the time courtesy of a mutated kangaroo and that maniac wheeled me straight into the casket. I still have nightmares of that old lady being dumped onto my lap,” Tax said indignantly.

“Well, maybe if you had just let the kangaroo do what it wanted to, you wouldn’t have been in a wheelchair. Really, who told you to fight a mutant kangaroo?” Janice said.

“It was attacking a daycare center and it had already consumed two dogs and a bicycle. But you’re right. A broken leg isn’t worth saving a bunch of small children from the unforgiving jaw of a brain-addled, steroid-laden kangaroo. And besides, I wa--what the heck is going on?” A scream and large commotion had just broken out near the pool.

Tax saw Cherry rushing around frantically and he chased her down with Janice and Max behind him. “Cherry,” he said. “What’s going on?”

“It’s…It’s Marin, she’s been murdered!”

“There’s no way anyone would ever murder that airhead,” Janice said with an air of incredulity and jealousy about her person, “This is another one of her attention-getting pranks. As if this party wasn’t enough. You can’t seriously believe this hoax, Cherry. Even though you run around with Tax and them, you’re still smart enough to realize it.”

“You think I didn’t consider that you condescending witch? I saw the body so cut the attitude and at least try to act like you have even the remotest sliver of what might resemble a soul. It’s pretty hard to fake a double tap to the head and the acrid smell of blood rising from stained grass around her,” Cherry said, doing her best to restrain herself from choking Janice death and then dancing in celebration upon here vanquished foe.

“Where’d they find her body?” Tax asked, continually pumping his hands as he scanned the crowd.

“Behind the pool house near the bushes. The way house is shaped and the greenery arranged, the body is nearly impossible to see until you’re right on it so it’s a safe bet that that’s where the killing took place,” Cherry replied.

“Sounds logical though we shouldn’t assume anything until we get a clear look. Go find Ted and Diedrich while I find the officer in charge,” said Tax.

“Alright. We’ll meet in front of the Ferris wheel in fifteen minutes,” Cherry said. “And Tax, be careful. That was a pretty brutal killing and the killer most likely knows we’ll be looking for him.” She then turned and began to make her way through the frightened and panicking crowd of people that was anxiously tarrying about in chaotic fashion.

Tax turned to Max. “If you’d like me to help you find your dad before I go looking for the police, I’d be more than willing to. I think its best if you stick with someone until the killer is found.”

“Well I appreciate your concern, sir, but if you don’t mind, I think I’ll stick with you through this mess. I’ve always wanted to see the legendary Tax Madison in action and…” Max sighed. “Well, Marin wasn’t my best friend but I’d still like to do what I can to see this thing through.”

Tax thought for a minute. On the one hand, he had been looking forward to spending time together with Max. On the other, was Max truly aware of how dangerous the situation was? She had never been involved in anything like this. Tax had learned to take for granted how competent Diedrich, Ted, and Cherry had become and wasn’t used to having to constantly think about protecting someone out on one of his adventures. Then he looked her in the eye and put has hand to his forehead. “Against my better judgment, I’ll let you tag along and witness my legend under the condition that at the first sign of danger, you run for cover. And if someone starts shooting, hide behind Janice, only water kills her kind.”

“Oh ha, ha. I’d expect that from you, Tax. You never really did get over me,” Janice said. Her face slowly deepened into a dark shade of red and Tax was surprised her hands weren’t bleeding from how hard her fists were clench.

“You’re absolutely right, Janice, and that’s why I’m asking you to get as far away from me as possible whilst I solve this most enigmatic of cases. I can’t have your radiant beauty distracting me…and I’ve already had my daily allotment of scorn for the day. C’mon Max, let’s go get solving this thing while Janice finds someone to endlessly excoriate so she can regain her inherent sense of superiority.”

It didn’t take Tax long to push through the crowd and find the officer in charge. He sighed. As if this day couldn’t get any worse, he thought. Of all of the police officers on the force, they had to send Sgt. Bathers, that incompetent pompous know-it-all. Sgt. Bathers was currently involved with creating a perimeter and loudly stating over a megaphone that no one was allowed to leave the party until the case had been solved. Of course, he quickly reassured them that with him on the case, it would indubitably be solved in most expedient fashion.

Tax and Max approached Bathers, who scowled when he caught sight of them. “I knew it wouldn’t be too long before you showed up. You always seem to on the high profile cases, you glory hound.”

“Of course, since there’s so much glory to be gained from an eighteen-year-old girl’s death. Which side are the cameras on? I want to make sure they get my good side,” Tax said. “Now, putting our differences aside, can we please work together to take this poor girl’s slayer down? I think a combined effort could be most effective in overcoming our current foe and solving this mystery.”

Bathers scowled. “Ha! Me team up with you? You’re just a smug teenager who’s gotten lucky a couple times. Regardless of how highly Chief Neppin thinks of you, I think I can handle this on my own. So, if you’d excuse me, I do have work to do. Go play your little game elsewhere, young man.”

Tax turned and trotted angrily toward the Ferris wheel with Max following in his wake. She jogged to catch up with him and grabbed his shoulder. “What’s his deal? I thought the police loved you guys and your daring and cheeky escapades.”

“I really thought I had mastered sarcasm until I met you. It simply exudes from your person. But to answer your query whether or not you were really asking for the most part, the general population of the police force does respect us but, unfortunately, there are some who aren’t fans,” Tax said. “Maybe it’s my garish demeanor or my rogue charm but for some reason, Bathers has never liked me. It only got worse after I disproved his conclusions in the mystery of the maliciously murdered midget. He had renowned LP activist Gerry Salvemanter pegged as the murder and had her lined up on death row. Fortunately, Cherry and I didn’t buy his findings and, with a little good old fashioned sleuthing (in addition to Cherry beating information out of several accomplices), we found the killer to truly be Marshall Mardsen, the landlord. It seems that, through some odd chain of events and an assortment of contractual loopholes, he was able to collect life insurance on his tenants. I blame needless bureaucracy, personally. Anyways, Bathers wasn’t too pleased about the public humiliation that ensued as well as the departmental wrist slap that came with it. He’s since been carrying a terrible chip on his shoulder and this chip is now a hindrance in the solving of this most heinous crime.”

“All right. I followed most of that spirited rant, but…an LP activist?”

“Yeah, you know, LPs, little people. An LP activist literally defends the rights of the little guy. You really need to get with the times. Current vernacular dictates that LP no longer possesses the semantic charge of ‘a long-play record’ but in fact currently represents a cross-section of the population…hey, there’s Cherry. It looks like she procured the rest of the crew. Most excellent. Let’s go loiter with them in a productive fashion. And hey,” Tax grabbed Max by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes softly and paused for a moment.

“Yeah?”

“I want you to know that no matter what, I’ll never forgive you if you embarrass me.”

She smiled and leaned in. “I can’t guarantee you not being embarrassed but I think the best guarantee that I won’t be is if you stay about ten feet away from me.”

“Yeah, you’ve got to maintain your high social standing.” Tax leaned closer and Max laughed.

“Don’t get greedy,” she said as she turned to join the gathering.

When they walked up Cherry was pacing back and forth in front of Ted and Diedrich, who were sitting on the steps leading up to the Ferris wheel. Ted was stroking his goatee in a way that made his mustache similar to that of Snidely Whiplash, Diedrich was slowly rubbing his hands, and Cherry was letting out a stream of indiscriminate obscenities that didn’t quite line up but were uncouth nonetheless. Seeing Tax and Max, Diedrich jumped down from the steps. “Cherry, relax on the sailor routine they’re here. What’s the plan Tax?”

Tax smiled and scratched the back of his neck, “We’ll take the typical route. Diedrich take Max and you two ask around Marin’s friends. Cherry, you stay on the underneath and see what you can pull from all the talk that’s floating around. Approach if it’s real juicy but I’d prefer you stay invisible. Don’t get in too deep alone. Ted, you and I will stay our usual trajectory in such matters. Which of the usual miscreants have you seen around this place?”

“I think I saw Paulo Starkster trying to keep a low profile near the bar. Should we rustle him and a couple of the other usuals up?” Ted said.

“Indubitably,” Tax said. “We’ll all meet back here in three hours and hopefully sort this most unfortunate business out. Diedrich, make sure Max doesn’t screw up…Break!”

As the others went off on their missions, Tax and Ted began theirs as well. “Ted, I know this is usually more in Cherry’s realm but…”

“Yeah and she looked a bit pissed but it would be unseemly for you to ditch Max for Cherry,” Ted said with a crooked smile, “Yet I can’t help but wonder why you would ever pick me as your unseemly cohort in this business. I can only deduce that you paired her with Dieds because it’s so hard to resist such a charming young man as myself, even if Tax Madison is so sheepishly pursuing you. Hey, there’s the roundheel!”

“Yeah, I wonder why I didn’t leave her in your care. Now let’s get that scoundrel! Hey! Paulo! Get that ugly mug over here!”

A small weasel of a man looked up from his cigarette and saw who was calling and quickly turned and ran. Tax and Ted just sighed and began their pursuit. Paulo started to cut across the lawn, leaving a trail of already bewildered onlookers in his path. Seeing Tax and Ted right on his tail, he took a quick right and jumped the buffet table and then pushed it over, sending an iced swan to its demise in a see of gravy, chicken wings, garnish, and other delectables. Tax and Ted took a hard left to avoid the mess and tried to cut Paulo off as he threw the perplexed caterer in their path. Shoving the unfortunate gentleman out of the way, Ted took a diving leap and took Paulo to the ground. “Let’s go talk somewhere more private,” Ted said as he grabbed Paulo by his shoulders.

“Sorry for the intrusion, my good sir,” Tax said, picking up the caterer and dusting him off. “I must give you my compliments on the fine spread you had set up here for this event; I found all of your selections to…”

“Tax! C’mon!” Ted yelled.

“Excuse me, sir,” Tax said, leaving the perplexed cater to follow Ted as he dragged the sorry lackey behind the animal cages and the keeper’s truck and threw him down.

“After that little stunt Paulo, I’m going to go ahead and assume you know something so why don’t we skip the usual ‘You twos gots the wrong guy’ bit and just tell us what this all about,” Tax said, stretching his arms.

Paulo leapt up and tried to run but Ted grabbed him by the collar and slammed him to the ground. “Sit and talk a bit, pal,” Ted said, patting Paulo on the shoulder.

“Look, you fellas just startled me is all and when I get jumpy I start to hoof it. Don’t mean I know what yous wants. You gots to stop picking on me like this,” Paulo said.

“We’ll refrain from such action when you’re no longer showing up when anything goes awry,” Tax said, moving on to leg stretches. “Are you still moonlighting for DeWappo when you’re not running for the Ukrainians at the docks? Would it be too bold to say they had something to do with this?”

“I don’t know. I’m a busy guy, fellas. It’s hard to keep track. How ‘bout I call you guys when I dig something up?”

“I’m afraid that our current situation garners a certain level of rapidity. Spill now before I have to get ugly. Ugly of course meaning I’d begin to engender harm upon your person.”

“I don’t know anything so back off. I don’t need you endgenderin’ anything on me, you sicko.”

“Ugh. Ted, don’t you hate it when this happens? All I want is a little bit of info and Paulo here suddenly forgets we’re buddies. I’m going to be honest, it quickly becomes aggravating and I’ve been known to have a temper about such things. A girl dies and a rat like you is scurrying about her party. We find you, you make haste and try to lose us. Clearly, you know something and you’re hiding it. This game really makes me want to hurt something.” Tax slammed his fist right next to Paulo’s head and grabbed him by the shirt. “Start talking or start bleeding. What do you know?”

“N…nothing important.”

“Not good enough.” Tax backhanded him and slammed him against the back the trailer that was attached to the truck. “Spill it you accursed reprobate.”

“Look, I really don’t know anything about the girl’s murder. All I know is Boris up at the docks said that Barry Swexter was working a deal with the French and it went sour not too long ago.”

“Who are the French? Are we talking about an entire country or just several individuals of French ethnicity?”

“Don’t get smart. It was a fella by the name of Luc Brassard. Know him?”

Tax thought for a moment with his hand balled under his chin. “Yeah, he’s an importer/exporter of antiques and other things that don’t end up on the invoice. But he doesn’t deal in Septentrio, he’s more of a fixture down south. Why was Swexter dealing with someone like that?”

“Got me. Are we through?”

“Not quite yet. You still haven’t explained why you’re here.”

“DeWappo decided he wanted a bit of extra muscle around for the party. I needed the money and didn’t ask questions. If you ask me, I think he caught wind of the deal and wanted himself covered if Brassard made his move today.”

“Guess he was safe in his assumption. It might get rough around here soon, Paulo. I’d highly recommend you make yourself scarce in a most efficient fashion…and can you stay out of trouble for once?”

“It’s easy for you to say, all up on your high horse. I gots to eat and you don’t have to tell me that I’m not the smartest guy around. Work is scarce for a dumb mook like me.” Paulo got up and rubbed the dust off his clothes.

“Don’t give me that excuse. There’s plenty of honest work around here. You’re just looking for an easy buck so your pathetic endeavor for my pity was merely wasted breath. Leave now while I’m still in a good mood.” Tax leered at Paulo as he scurried off. Ted leaned on the trailer and laughed.

“That never gets old, mon frére,” Ted said, still in a fit of laughter. “I really liked the backhand and ‘Start talking or start bleeding’? Real classy. I’m glad you went the extra mile on that one.”

“Hey, Cherry’s usually the bad cop, give me a break. Besides, how threatening can you be when your limited to expressing yourself monosyllabically? But this raises a lot of questions, it does indeed. This thing just got considerably messier. How is Swexter involved with Brassard? Was Brassard culpable for this murder? I mean, I heard the guy was rough, but he’s not a monster. I really don’t think he’d involve family members. Of course, if he’s trying to make a play for this turf, he might not be below playing dirty if he thinks the move will give him ground. We’re going to have to do a lot more digging to find out what his game is regardless of whether or not he’s involved. Just remember, even if this does smack of some kind of mob hit, we can’t rule out any possibilities. That said, if it was a hired hit, the killer is most likely not on the guest list but is one of the hired help for the party. Friends and family typically aren’t mercenaries on the side. Let’s look around a bit more and see what the others can turn up as well.”

Tax and Ted continued to wander around, asking questions and quietly canvassing the field looking for anything odd or out of place. The caterer had a legitimate alibi as did the bartender. While Tax tried to focus on the task at hand, he found his mind preoccupied with not only what Paulo had told them but also Max. Was it a bad idea to send her with Diedrich? He was certainly amiably and had rather striking features. Sure he could be trusted but she certainly wasn’t beholden to Tax and could decide that he wasn’t the one she was interested in. Tax quickly dismissed that line of thought. There was no reason to worry about such things, especially when there is a murder to be solved. If he wanted Max to like him, botching a murder case probably wouldn’t be conducive to any sort of intended wooing. He needed to focus.

“Hey, Tax! Ted!” a police officer said as he walked up to the two as they were finishing their interview with gentleman watching the ball pit.

“Officer Stevens!” Tax said warmly. “Hey, I heard your wife just had a baby. Congratulations!”

Stevens rubbed the back of his neck and smiled. “Thanks, Tax, but I’m afraid I didn’t come over here to talk. Now I don’t agree with it but Sgt. Bathers has demanded that everyone, even you, gather in the big top dining area so they can all be individually interviewed. I know that it’s messing with you helping out but…”

Tax sighed. “It’s alright, Stevens. We’ll go over without a fight. It’s not your fault. If you could just do me a favor and make sure we get interviewed early on so we can get back to work.”

Tax and Ted made their way towards the ungainly big top where they saw hoards of people gathering. “This is absolutely pointless,” Tax said as the continued walking towards the tent. “There’s no reason to interview everyone. It’s just going to lead to a ton of needless paperwork. Why doesn’t Bathers just admit he needs everyone to gather in one place so he doesn’t have to worry about anyone slipping out or interfering with the crime scene?”

“It does seem pointless until you think about Bathers. Late-thirties, kind of dumpy, constantly working. How many chances does he get to talk to this many good looking girls? I don’t blame him one bit for abusing his position of power. And, hey, it gives us a chance to regroup with the others and see what kind of info they’ve gathered and how enamored with Diedrich Max is by now.”

“Aye, very true,” Tax said as they shuffled their way into the tent and looked for the rest of the gang. Browsing the tent, Tax could see what kind of effect this whole ordeal was having on his classmates. A general look of shock and confusion seemed to blanket the listless crowd, who were all slumped in their chairs, some with their heads down on the fold-out tables. It was quite a contrast from the jovial feel that the party had only an hour before. Finally in the far left corner of the tent, Tax saw Cherry waving her arms wildly in an attempt to get his and Ted’s attention.

Arriving at the table, Tax found Diedrich sitting next to Cherry and an empty seat while Max was sitting alone on the other side. Tax couldn’t help but smile at the thoughtfulness. “Gentlemen, welcome to our merry party. We were just discussing how enjoyable your excessive tardiness always is,” Cherry said as they sat down, Ted making a beeline for the seat next to Max and swerving at the last moment to the other side of the table.

“Sorry, Ted was the one they handed the memo and we all know his literacy is dubious at best” Tax said.

“When you’re this pretty, being illiterate really isn’t a problem. And if a book isn’t worth adapting into a movie, is it really worth reading?” Ted said, putting his elbows on the table and resting his chin on his hands. “But now that Tax and I have arrived I feel we should get to the business at hand. Max, despite Dieds slowing you down, how’d your rounds go?”

“Believe it or not, Marin’s friends weren’t wholly logical or very much helpful on the whole but they did—”

“Diedrich, I believe Ted addressed Max,” Cherry said. “I’m sure she’s more than capable of giving an account of your journeys and I for one would appreciate the logic and clarity only a girl can bring.”

“Sure,” Ted said, “as well as the addition of who was wearing and what and fifty or so ‘likes’ and ‘totallys’.”

“Yeah, but, like, it’s so totally important to know what everyone is wearing,” Max said as plainspoken as possible. “So, like, me and Diedrich, we were so like, ‘Let’s figure out this mystery’ and so we…alright, I’m stopping there. Marin’s friends for the most part were in shock but what we could gather from them is that she definitely had no idea anyone was trying to kill her.”

“And,” Diedrich added, “to file under flimsy suspects, the animal keeper, Bob Vicardon, was seen yelling at Marin earlier. Apparently, she’s the one who freed all the animals that were running about when we got here.”

“Unless he’s a member of PETA, I don’t think he’d go as far as murdering her. Nonetheless, we should keep him in mind if nothing else comes up,” Cherry said. “As far as my report goes, I’ve got one lead that we should at least take notice of. Remember last year Marin had a fling with Sam Elando, the pool boy? Apparently, her father caught wind of it and Sam was promptly fired. To add insult to injury, Marin has completely ignored him at school and denied anything ever happening.”

“That’s rough,” Ted said. “But I know Sam and he’s recently replaced Marin with a far more attractive and reasonable-type broad.”

“Yeah, ignoring the broad comment for now, it’s still a pretty weak lead but it’s better justification than the upsetting of a petting zoo. Aside from that, I really didn’t gather much. The carnie working the Ferris wheel, Ike ‘Twitchy’ Stevenson, is creepy but he’s got a solid alibi. It seems his ability to make people uncomfortable came in handy because someone can recall him leering at them nearly every minute of the day. The clown, Allen Gardi, has been working parties for the past fifteen years without incident so I’d say it’s unlikely that he’d finally go off the deep end, especially at such a well paying gig. The mime, despite his clashing blue beret, seems pretty harmless and I don’t think he even speaks English. So all and—”

“Wait a second,” Tax cut in. “You say he doesn’t speak English? What does he speak?”

“C’mon, Tax, he’s a mime,” Cherry said. “What do you think he speaks? He doesn’t wear a beret for nothing.”

“So he’s French. Do we know anything about his background?” Tax asked as put both hands on the table and pushed his shoulders up with anticipation.

“No but I’m sure a quick phone call to Neppin could settle that. The mime’s name is Jacques Grenouille,” Cherry said. “What’s this about?”

Tax leaned back. “Turns out Swexter made a deal with that shady French importer Brassard that went sour a little while back. DeWappo brought extra men with him just in case so there’s a good chance he knew something was going to go down. Brassard is obviously new to the area and I wouldn’t be surprised if he brought his own hit man in to do the job.”

Cherry thought for a moment and replied, “Yeah, but that still doesn’t make sense. If Brassard was going to take anyone down because of a bad deal, he’d go for Barry Swexter, not his little girl. Taking out family members is usually bad for business.”

“Well, we have to look at what we’ve got,” Diedrich said. “We know Swexter has issues with Brassard and now his daughter is dead plus we have a mysterious French mime in our presence. On the other hand, we have the pool boy and the angry animal keeper.”

“I know I’m new to this but I think before you take any more wild stabs in the dark, you should give your police chief friend a call and get the background on this ‘insidious’ mime,” Max said. “Personally, I think you’re grabbing at straws here. Mr. Swexter likes authenticity so he would have definitely went with a French mime. But, I mean, if he knew Brassard was going after him, I’m sure he would have had a thorough background check on all of the hired entertainers.”

“Wow, well said, Max,” Ted said applauding. “I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m putting in my vote now to remove Tax from the group and instate Max as our new leader.”

“I agree. I mean, no matter who the leader is, Cherry will really be running the show so we might as well trade up for something prettier,” Diedrich said.

“Hmmm, I don’t even know if you’re complimenting or mocking me,” Max said with a smile.

“We never compliment anyone,” Tax said. “Unless we’re vying for baked goods as Cherry knows well.”

“At some point, my mother will catch on to that and someday you’re going to enjoy a batch of strychnine brownies,” Cherry said.

“But she thinks we’re such nice boys,” Diedrich said. “And I quote, ‘why can’t you date someone like that Diedrich? He’s handsome and funny and not at all like that boy you’re seeing now.’ She also said something like that about Ted once but I think that was more geared towards your brother.”

“Again with the gay jokes? You really need to expand your repertoire,” Ted said.

Cherry smiled and rubbed Ted’s head. “It’s your own fault for using hair gel.”

“You know, it’s really amazing you guys have every accomplished anything. I think it’s high time you made that call,” Max said.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Tax said. “Where’s Stevens? There he is. Stevens! Stevens!”

Hearing Tax yelling for him, Stevens capably snaked through the crowded tables and made his way to Tax. “Hey, Tax, you needed something?”

“Yeah. Sorry to flag you down so boorishly but is there any way I could abscond your radio momentarily to get a hold of Neppin? We might have a lead we need checked.”

“Yeah, sure, not a problem,” Stevens said, unclipping the radio from his shoulder and handing it to Tax.

Pressing the button on the radio down with his right thumb, Tax brought it to his mouth. “Sandy, you there? It’s Tax.” Sandy was the slightly older woman in charge of dispatch at the police station. She had dealt with Tax on more than one occasion and always had an extra muffin waiting for him when he stopped by the station.

Letting go of the button, the radio suddenly sprang to life with a loud hiss and a garbled reply coming forth. “Hey Tax! How’s it going? I heard you were over at that party. Shame about that girl. I’m sure you want me to patch you over to Neppin.”

“Be much obliged if you did, m’lady,” Tax replied.

“Alright, just hang on a second.”

Tax waited about fifteen seconds before he heard a familiar voice coming through the radio. “Is that you Tax my boy? I knew I’d be hearing from you sooner or later about this case. Got any good leads yet?”

“We just might. It might be kind of shaky but we were hoping you might be able to spread some light on it. If it isn’t too much trouble, see what you can get us on Jacques Grenouille, G-R-E-N-O-U-I-L-L-E.”

“Alright, give me fifteen minutes and I’ll get right back to you.”

“Thanks, Neppin. I always appreciate all the help you give us.”

“Think nothing of it Tax. You’ve given me quite a hand through the years yourself. Neppin out.” A jolly round man with graying, well-combed hair, nice round cheeks, and a menacing stare, Neppin was now in his early sixties. He had slowly risen through the ranks of the Septrino police during the last forty or so years and was the current chief of police for the past fifteen years in which a dramatic drop in crime had been seen. Chief Neppin had been an ally of Tax and Co. for quite a while, ever since Tax helped Neppin with a hostage crisis at the Septentrino First National Bank.

“Since its going to take the Chief about fifteen minutes to radio back, would you guys mind if I get all of your statements now?” Stevens asked, producing a pen and a pad of paper.
“Sounds most efficient,” Cherry said. “You can start with me.”

While Stevens questioned the others, Tax began to think about the case. There were a lot of questions raised but no real answer as to why Marin was killed. Of course, none of the murders Tax had solved had ever had any real reason behind. But still, this murder was…different. It almost felt like a mistake. But that didn’t matter. A motive would undoubtedly turn up sooner or later no matter how senseless. What mattered was finding the killer and Tax felt like he was getting closer. The mime seemed to be a good fit but there was something off. From what Tax saw, he was too competent of a mime, too into the act. Professional killers were good at blending in but not that good.

“Well, Tax,” Stevens said, flipping over a new sheet in his notebook. “I’ve covered everyone else so I guess it’s your—”

“Stevens, this is Neppin,” the radio on Stevens shoulder barked. “Put Tax on.”

“Not a problem, sir,” Stevens said releasing the button and passing the radio to Tax.

“Hey, Neppin. Tax here. What’ve you got?”

“I don’t know how you do it boy but it looks like you’ve already found our prime suspect. This Grenouille of yours is a highly decorated ex-marine from France’s Troupes de Marine. The Troupes de Marine are highly trained and dedicated to external operations, many of them under the radar. There’s no doubt about it, Tax, he’s a highly trained killer and certainly fits the bill of a paid mercenary. I’ll radio Blathers and tell him to round him up for questioning. Well done, son.”

“Isn’t that always the way?” Cherry said. “We pull just as much weight as Tax yet Neppin gives him all the credit.”

“Please, Cherry,” Tax said, handing the radio back to Stevens. “Neppin knows it was a team effort. I’m just the star player so more of the credit naturally gravitates my way. I’m afraid that’s just the cost you incur for associating with a luminary as myself. At least you’ll never get a sunburn while you’re in my shadow.”

“The only thing I’m impressed with is your knees, Tax,” Cherry said. “It’s a wonder they don’t buckle with every step under the immense weight of your ego.”

“Alright,” Deidrich said. “Now that you’ve both gotten a couple jabs in, let’s go track Blathers down and make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

Ted nodded his head. “Besides, all of this borderline flirtatious banter is going to give Max second thoughts about congregating with Tax in any manner.”

“Ted, I’m right here,” Max said aghast. Everyone got up and began to make their way towards Bathers on the other side of the tent.

“I know,” Ted said, winking as he put his hand on her shoulder. “And to answer that look in your eyes, I am single as shocking as it may be.”

“Max,” Tax said. “I should’ve probably let you know this earlier but the thing about Ted is he’s really just a cleaner version of the gentleman working the Ferris Wheel.”

“Yep,” Cherry said. “He’s only a little bit of grease, a wife beater, and a couple missing teeth away.”

As they were finally zeroing in on Bathers, a portly police officer ran up to him gasping for air and after resting with his hands on his knees for a moment, whispered something to Bathers that made Bathers’ mustache twitch with excitement. The two then ran off towards the hedge maze where a group other officers where already gathering.

Tax smiled. “Well this is rather intriguing. Isn’t that where our dirty marsouin of a mime set up? I believe that’s our cue to rush in with ancillary information to help wrap this case up quite neatly.”

Tax walked up to Bathers with the others behind him. Bathers was watching as two other police officers were in the process of cuffing Grenouille and reading him his rights. Tax tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Looks like you found your man, Bathers.”

“As a matter of fact, son, I have. And I don’t think you’re going to be able to somehow undermine me this time,” Bathers said smugly, tucking his thumbs in the corners of his jacket.

“As hard as it may be to believe, I actually came over to tell you we suspected this gentleman as well. You see, he’s actually—”

“Yes, yes, yes, a French army type and all. Chief Neppin informed me over the radio as per your request. But I fear all that you have turned up is purely circumstantial. Officer Wilkins over there,” Bathers said, motioning to the portly officer Tax and the others had see run over to Bathers, “came up with the hard evidence. While doing a search of all of the staff’s personal effects, he came upon a Mauser HSc pistol in Grenouille’s miming bag. That, my boy, is pure, irrefutable evidence that this man is the cause of that poor girl’s death.”

Tax paused for a moment. “Did you say a Mauser?” he asked, his hand stroking his chin and his eyes squinting in thought.

“Maybe you should try listening better next time. Yes, it’s a Mauser. A nasty little pistol if I say so myself,” said Bathers.

“Then he’s innocent,” Tax said.

“What?” Bathers said. “Absolutely ridiculous. It was found among his personal effects. It even has white face paint on it.”

“Yes, it being found among his personal effects is troubling as well. The face paint only helps my belief that this man was set up….unless,” Tax snapped to complete alertness, his hand removed from his chin and a keen, determined look in his eye. “Bathers, it was the clown. Where’s the clown?”

“Please Tax, you can’t be serious,” Bathers had a tone that bordered upon pleading. “The clown? Allen Gardi? We have proof right here that it was Grenouille—”

“Gardi. Where is he?” Tax interrupted, teeth grit.

“We let him leave right after the gun was found in Grenouille’s bag,” Bathers said. “He’d been begging us to let him leave all day as he had an important Bar Mitzvah to make early tomorrow. He was already going to have to drive through the night as it is. And in that silly clown van, no less. Not that it makes any difference. It’s clear to me we have the man responsible.”

Tax stared at Bathers for only a moment and let a “Grrrrrah!” rumble throw his throat as he turned around angrily and started stomping away at a fast pace. “Cherry, where’s Stevens? We need his radio now!”

“He’s back at the tent, Tax. What’s going on?”

“I’ll tell you when it’s settled. Right now, you and Max need to get Stevens’ radio and tell Neppin to set up road blocks to stop Gardi. Ted, Dieds, we’re going to try to catch him now. Let’s get to Dieds’ car. C’mon!” Tax said as he began to sprint towards the tennis courts where the cars were parked.

Racing through the lawn, Tax saw the grass speed through his line of vision as he pushed himself to run faster and faster. He clenched his fists hard and stuck his chin down, breathing furiously. He could feel his hair being pushed back off his faced and riding behind him in the wind. He felt the jolt when his feet first hit concrete and then the relative softness of clay tennis courts as he made his way onto them. Coming to the Diedrich’s car, he turned to see if the others had caught up with him. Diedrich rolled down the window. “What’re you looking at? Get in.”

Tax jumped into the back seat as the car wheeled out only to see Ted turned around grinning at him. “Wow, Tax. You were really hauling back there. If you ever ran besides when we’re in situations like this, you’d probably be pretty fast.”

Tax gasped for air as he tried to reply to Ted’s barb. His hair was disheveled now and his glasses kept sliding down his nose thanks to the sweat. His companions, while a little sweaty, showed no other signs of their recent dash.

“Save your breath, Tax,” Diedrich said. “We all know you have a hopelessly witty reply. You’re just lucky I gave Cherry a spare set of keys to the car in case I ever lost mine…and pretty lucky she remembered to toss them to me as we started to run off, too. Otherwise, we’d have had to trouble with the valets.” Diedrich was now gunning his car out of the Swexter estate, rowed trees and the thorny gates whizzing behind him.

“Cherry seems to have a talent for that,” Tax said. “But to the matter at hand. Gardi left only a couple minutes before us and certainly not at the speeds we’re currently achieving. I have a feeling he’s going to trying to get out of town as fast as possible so I think we should head for the overpass on McTiernon Boulevard. It’s the closest connection to the interstate.”

Diedrich nodded as he punched his car through the twists in turns of the hilly road that led to the Swexter mansion. Finally arriving to the traffic light and swinging a right onto Fiernon Lane, Diedrich pushed his car to the max, knowing the road was straight and flat. The relative sparseness of road soon gave way to strip malls and offices as they closed on the center of Septentrino and the overpass on MicTiernon.

“Dieds, Tax, I know the circumstances aren’t the best but I’ve got to be honest with you. I love it when we get the opportunity to be in a high speed chase without any fear of punishment from the law. I mean, seriously, we’re doing about 105 right now, fuel efficiency be damned!” Ted said gripping his seat and rocking back and forth excitedly. “Wait a second guys. Up ahead. Do my eyes deceive me or do I see a van with the disturbing image of a clown on the back?”

“You do indeed,” Tax said, reaching for a seat belt as Diedrich pushed his poor Civic even further. The van was getting closer and closer and they could see it beginning to enter the traffic that was gathering at the traffic light ahead that had recently turned green. The van sidled its way into the right lane and took a quick turn onto Dixon Avenue. Ted slowed down as he entered the traffic and followed suit turning on Dixon.

“Looks like you were wrong about the overpass,” Diedrich said.

“Well we still found him, didn’t we?” Tax said. “No need to doing anything drastic now that we know he’s not skipping town. Dixon doesn’t lead anywhere but to more strip malls and shady apartment complexes. Let’s just follow him quietly and see what he does.”

They slowly followed the van down Dixon for several miles until it pulled into the Heritage Harbor apartment complex. It was an older complex as belied by the white peeling paint on the sign at the entrance as well as the 1980s boxy design of the apartment units with the mocha-hued textured walls and thick brown metal window frames. As the sun was starting to go down and the gloaming began to set in, the van stopped at a unit on the far end of the complex and a man in bright yellow clown gear slipped out of the car and began slinking his way up the stairs.

Tax, Ted, and Diedrich watched as the man entered the apartment on the far left-hand side of the building. “Alright,” Tax said, unbuckling his seatbelt. “Ted and I will go in after him while you go find a payphone and get the police over here.”

“Why do you and Ted get to go in?” Diedrich asked, disappointment visible on his face.

“Dieds, you know Ted and I have a longstanding vendetta against clowns ever since—”

“I don’t think we have to go into that again,” Diedrich said. “Fine, I’ll make the call. But you have to promise me that you’ll score me some oversized clown shoes as a trophy.”

“Done,” said Tax as did his best to quietly open the door and slip out of the car. Diedrich walked down towards the front of the complex as Tax and Ted quietly stalked up the stairs of the apartment complex making sure to step as lightly as possible. Coming to the door, which was painted the same ugly brown as the window frames, Tax made sure to duck out the sight of the peephole. Putting his hand on the door, he tried to turn it. It was locked. He put his ear to the door and tried to listen to anything going on inside. All he could hear was a lot of rustling and then footsteps heading for the door. Looking back at Ted, Tax motioned him to tell him Gardi was coming. They both stood up and leaned against the side of the wall alongside the door. Feeling the vibration of the footsteps coming closer, they tensed, ready to pounce. Suddenly, the phone rang and the footsteps stopped for a moment. The door swung open and a plainclothes Gardi stepped out.

Tax dove at Gardi who was just starting to form a surprised look when he slammed against the door and he and Tax slid to the ground. Kneeing Tax in the face as he tried to get up and escape, Gardi reached desperately for the door handle to help himself up. Grabbing the out reached arm, Ted bent it and spun the man around on his back and used his knee to keep him pinned down. Ted smiled. “Well after that, I really hope you’re right about Gardi being the guy, Tax.”

Tax wiped the blood that was starting to trickle down the side of his mouth. “Oh, you don’t worry about that. I don’t think it was Gardi but it was definitely the guy you have pinned down. If I’m right, Gardi’s either dead or tied up inside.”

“You punk kids can’t hold me like this!” the man underneath Ted said. “Let me go!”

“Oh, we’ll let you go as soon as you’re in police cuffs,” Tax said. He rubbed his cheek. “Ted, am I still pretty?”

“Looking just dandy. Chicks dig the swollen cheek look man. Makes you look like you’ve got a crooked smile or you’re sucking on an everlasting gobstopper or something.”

“Yeah, ol’ Slugworth would pay out the ear to have this piece of candy. I’m going to go check the apartment and hopefully free the real Gardi.”

Tax walked into the dingy apartment and looked around. He was in a hallway that led to the living room while the bedroom door was directly to his left and the kitchen entrance was directly to his right. There were clothes scattered all about the floor and circus and other clown related posters strewn about the walls in no particular order. Walking into the living room, he found two ratty recliners with a table in between them facing an old television with a bent antenna. Hearing a muffled noise in the direction of the bedroom, Tax turned around and made his way to the bedroom.

He found more clothes scattered about and a mattress sitting on the right hand corner of the shag-carpeted floor. A mirror was shattered in the right hand corner of the room near the window and a lamp was broken across the floor. Following the wave in the shag carpeted created by something heavy being dragged across it, Tax found himself in front of a closet. Opening it, he found a man with a huge welt on his head tied up and gagged on floor. Taking out his knife, Tax proceeded to free the balding and bewildered gentleman. Pulling his gag off, the man uttered a groggy “Thank you” as Tax dragged him from the closet to the mattress.

“Don’t worry about anything, sir,” Tax said. “We’ve called the police and if I’m not wrong, I hear sirens coming in the distance.

Half an hour later, Tax, Diedrich, Ted, Cherry, and Max were all gathered in Neppin’s office, a chaotic room with stacks of paper everywhere and wanted/missing posters covering the walls. The one personal touch Neppin had ever bothered to put in the room was an old leather bag full of golf clubs in the corner. He never golfed but he had been known to throw the clubs across the room in anger as well as chase reporters out with his nine iron. Now sitting behind his desk, Neppin put his feet up and cracked open a bottle of Coca-Cola. “What can I say?” he said with a shrug, looking at the group facing his desk. “You make my job a lot easier. Great bit of detective work there Tax, figuring out it was actually the clown.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask you about that, Tax,” Cherry said. “Just how did you figure out it wasn’t the mime?”

“Seriously? You didn’t figure it out already?” Tax said incredulously, pulling the ice pack away from his face. “It became quite obvious to me when Bathers said they found the weapon in his bag. Any sort of highly trained mercenary wouldn’t keep the murder weapon about his person, especially with the police swarming the area. Still, that wasn’t enough to convince me. Maybe he incompetent or just didn’t have the opportunity to get rid of the weapon. No, what really did it for me was the pistol. A Mauser? No self-respecting Frenchman, especially a French marine, is going to be caught dead using a German pistol.”

Cherry paused for a moment. “Wait…so, you came to your conclusion that he was innocent based almost solely on your stereotypical view of French-German relations?”

Tax nodded and smiled. “You bet I did and I’m certain if you asked the mime, he’d agree with me. Despite giving up his life of violence to enjoy the simple pleasures of miming, he undoubtedly would never brandish a German firearm under any circumstances”

“Well, alright,” Ted said. “So you’ve explained how you discounted the mime. But how’d you make the jump to the clown.”

“There were several things. First, the clown and the mime were set up right next to one another, giving the clown easy access to the mime’s personal effects. Second, did you see that clown? He was absolutely terrible, miffing balloons left and right and his juggling was atrocious. I knew Swexter would only hire top quality performers, so I just assumed he was slightly inebriated at the time due to a hard life of clowning. Once Bathers said he’d let him drive off, I knew that wasn’t the case. As inept as Bathers may be, he’d never let someone drive off inebriated meaning the clown was most likely an imposter. Finally, the face paint on the gun. There were only two people there with white face paint and if the mime was innocent, then the clown was the other clear suspect. The fact that he had already fled the scene only gave credence to my suspicion. The only thing we don’t have now is a clear motive.”

“Well it might make it a little clearer if I told you that the real identity of the clown was one John Tuttlelino, a known professional killer from New York,” Chief Neppin said, sitting up in his chair. “If what you told me about Swexter and his dealings with Brassard is true, I think it answers any questions as to the motive. It looks like Brassard is playing hardball and we’re going to have to be ready for it.”

“I guess we don’t really have a choice,” Tax said. “But I fear the hour is getting late and it’s time we should all depart company and get some rest.”

After all shaking hands with the Chief, Tax and the others began to make their way out of the station. As they walked out of the station, Tax pulled Max aside. “Hold up a second there, Max. So what’d you think of today?”

“Well, I mean, I don’t quite know what to say, sir. It was really awful what happened to Marin but I’ve got to say, it was pretty exciting to see you save the day by making a bunch of sweeping generalizations. Does that happen often?”

“I wouldn’t say it was the first time. If you stick around, I’m sure you’re bound to see it happen again. Speaking of which, would you find it too forward of me to ask if you’d like to get some tea or something after school sometime next week?”

“I don’t think I’d have a problem with that as long as we don’t get caught up in some kind of ridiculous chase or something. My dad usually likes me home early on school nights.”

Tax laughed. “I’ll see what I can do but I can’t make any guarantees.”

4 comments:

Ben Pearson said...

Great stuff Jared. I'm looking forward to the next adventure.

Sarcasm McGee said...

Good to see that you're keeping a rigorous schedule and posting on time.

Layla said...

Thanks for writing this.

Alan Trehern said...

Yeah! It's been officially 2 YEARS since this first posted! Congrats!