WORK IN PROGRESS/PLEASE COME BACK LATER
JUST BROWN, MA’AM
By G. L. Rix
The burly ex-cop known as Brown flicked his business card expertly out the window of his junker car and right into the surprised face of his future client, Maisey Gilroy. He’d been aiming at her broad white forehead but had hit her broad white teeth instead. He heard the card clunk. It made him remember the spitballs of his youth.
Both of them watched the expensive square of paper flutter like a dead butterfly down to the yellow-striped concrete of San Antonio’s most economical parking lot. He certainly wasn’t going to get out of his car and retrieve it for her, but by the affronted look on her middle-aged face, Miss Gilroy wasn’t going to bend down and pick it up either. A puff of unseasonably hot air mussed Brown’s beard.
Before Brown could open his mouth and stick his foot in it one more time, a tall and tattered black man rushed the car, grabbed the card from between Miss Gilroy’s feet, and stood triumphantly blowing the dirt off it right into her face. Brown could not repress the giggle rising up his diaphragm. He didn’t even try.
To her credit, Miss Gilroy bit her lips in an effort to control herself, but finally grinned, then chuckled, then brayed out laughter. Brown opened his car door and got out. He got yellow paint on his shoes. The lot had just been relined.
“Thank you, Mr. Bell,” he told the homeless black man still clutching his business card. “Is this the right lot?” he asked.
Brown wanted to hold his nose. The fruity ketosis of the old man’s breath was gag-worthy, but common courtesy required restraint. Mr. Bell had a self-appointed job around here and did it with dignity. Even the cops left him alone.
“Yes, sir, it is,” the black man replied.
Brown noticed Mr. Bell had checked the landmarks around them before replying. As if not quite certain where he was. And indeed, they weren’t in the actual parking lot Mr. Bell usually claimed as his. Brown fished in his pants pocket and came up with a ten-dollar bill.
“Thank you for your recommendation, Mr. Bell,” he said. Then he glared at the San Antonio councilwoman resting her butt on the side of his car. And just to make his point more forcefully, he formally shook Mr. Bell’s hand and did not wipe his own now-damp hand off on his pants afterward.
She got the message. “Here, Mr. Bell. Thank you so very much.”
Brown continued glaring at her until the five in her hand became two fives, then became three fives.
Mr. Bell beamed. “I can eat at IHOP now!” he declared, walking away without another look at either of them.
“And that’s where he’s headed too,” the detective told his newest client. “You can watch if you want to.”
Maisey Gilroy, the oldest and most cantankerous of San Antonio’s remaining city councilwomen, shook her head. With one hand she distanced herself from Brown, and with the other she tried to snap her purse shut. And of course she had missed stepping into the fresh paint.
Brown noticed her eyes darting in all directions. They were the only two people in the parking lot. What was she afraid of? She was the one who insisted on meeting here. Brown twisted around and finally located the cameras. They were being filmed. Everyone was always being filmed. Didn’t mean anyone ever looked at it. He shrugged.
“Mr. Brown,” she said.
“Just Brown, ma’am,” he replied. It was his automatic response. And it usually worked.
“Mr. Brown, you were recommended. And I remember your record. From your police days. I need you to do a job for me.”
Brown had stopped listening the minute she’d repeated Mr. Brown. Maybe she was a slow learner. “Just Brown, ma’am,” he told her.
“Mr. Brown,” she said, her voice rising at the end. “There’s a situation in our office that needs your particular brand of investigation. I’m prepared to . . .”
“To address me properly?” Brown asked.
“It’s just Brown, ma’am. Not Mr. Brown. Not Señor Brown. Not anything else. Just Brown. Let’s see if you can say it.”
Councilwoman Gilroy’s eyebrows rose to her hairline. Brown watched in amazement, wondering if they’d finally vanish into her hair. They didn’t, but it came close. Her mouth thinned to a rigid ribbon of scorn, or distaste. He couldn’t tell. It certainly wasn’t humor.
“Mr. Brown,” she continued.
Brown threw up his hands and then kicked the front tire of his car. Councilwoman Gilroy flinched and dropped her purse. A lot of crumpled up yellow-lined paper popped out onto the ground. The kind grade school children have to use. Another puff of hot air swished the paper under his car. Unless Brown crawled under the car to get them, they might end up anywhere.
“Just how important are they?” he asked his client. Brown wasn’t going to make a move without her orders. And when she ignored his question but began to flutter her hands as if she were trying to decide whether to go after them herself, Brown growled.
Miss Gilroy’s eyes widened and she took a step back, but she didn’t do that trick with her eyebrows again. Brown wasted another minute watching, but the eyebrows stayed where they were supposed to.
“Move away from the car door, ma’am,” he ordered. He used his old ex-cop voice, and it worked.
The relieved look on her face made him angry. He was too big to get under his car. The best he’d be able to do would be to stick his head under and see where the papers had gotten to. Then maybe, just maybe he’d be able to reach them. He hoped his fee would be worth it.
Brown got on his hands and knees, then lowered himself to the ground with a lot of posturing and huffing and curses. He hoped Miss Gilroy’s ears burned.
They were in luck. The papers had come to rest in a depression within arm’s reach. Brown grabbed them in his fist and scraped his knuckles on the concrete getting back to his feet. Small spots of blood pooled in the cuts. He sucked them dry without thinking about it. Curious about what had nearly been lost, Brown un-wadded the papers and read a few of the details. It wasn’t anything he was interested in.
He handed them to Miss Gilroy without comment. For a moment they stared at each other over the roof of his car. “What is the case you want to hire me for?” he finally asked. They were still the only two people in the parking lot. He wondered why. Wet paint never kept anyone out before. It was mid-noon on a work day in a parking lot in the middle of downtown San Antonio. The lot should have been swarming with customers.
“It’s an intellectual property theft sort of case,” Miss Gilroy told him, interrupting his reverie.
Brown frowned. Intellectual property theft was a little out of his experience. His last case had been finding a lost cat. And what were the papers he’d just retrieved for her but the missing information? He hoped not, of course. He wanted an interesting case, but unless he was mistaken, the notes had been a recipe for pound cake.
Councilwoman Gilroy seemed to read his mind. She nodded at him. Grinned in an inappropriately girlish manner that she seemed to think was winning. And then thrust the papers back into his hands.
Shit. It was a recipe. So Brown brought out the big guns—his fee. “I charge a minimum of five-hundred dollars a day, he told her, escalating his real fee by fifty percent. “In advance. And I charge expenses on top of that.”
Miss Gilroy kept grinning. With dismay, Brown realized he’d fallen into her trap. Money didn’t seem to faze her. With a flip of her wrist a checkbook appeared out of her damned purse. Then an expensive ink pen. Brown wished he’d ambled off to the IHOP with Mr. Bell when he had the chance.
“Mr. Brown, someone in my office has stolen my family’s recipe and I want you to—”
“Brown, ma’am. It’s just Brown. And I’m not going to kill someone over a pound cake.”
The councilwoman’s jaw dropped open. Brown saw a bit of drool in the corner of her mouth before she snapped it shut. “No one said anything about killing someone, Brown,” she protested in a loud voice.
He felt triumphant. She’d finally said his name right.
“Isn’t that the recipe you have in your hand?” he asked, looking bored. He didn’t eat pound cake. He liked brownies.
“It is, Mr. Brown.”
Validation was short-lived. He decided to let it slide. “So how is your recipe stolen if you have a record of it in your hands?”
“You don’t understand. Until now, only my family made this particular brand of cakes. Now anyone who wants can make it.”
That was true, he supposed. “Do you sell the cakes?” he asked. “Is someone cutting into your profit or pretending they are you?”
“That’s not the point, Mr. Brown. They took something that belongs to me.”
“But you’ve still got it,” he said. “Right there in your hand. Okay, okay, okay, okay,” he said at her infuriated posture. If she’d had one of her famous pound cakes in her hands right then he figured he’d soon have it thrown at his head. “What is it that you want me to do? Exactly.”
“Find the culprit, Mr. Brown. Then call in the police.”
Brown snorted. The San Antonio Police would sure appreciate getting called in to arrest a pound cake pirate. “Get in the car,” he told her. “I’m tired of standing out here in the heat.”
Of course, it was hotter in his car. He stopped Councilwoman Gilroy from complaining before she complained by turning on the air conditioning. Driving around downtown San Antonio while Gilroy railed and protested and accused him of kidnapping would be quite refreshing. Brown loved a challenge.
He had a bet going with himself. When all was said and done, at the end of this day (for it wouldn’t take more than a day for him to solve this case), she’d still be calling him Mr. Brown or Detective Brown or Officer Brown any other version she could think of just to get his goat.
Brown drove them past the Alamo first. It shut her up for a moment. “I always expect it to be bigger,” she finally said, surprising him. Brown also always expected the Alamo to be bigger. And not such a garden spot. And not at the edge of downtown San Antonio, either.
He headed toward the Tower of the Americas next. He often called it the Sky Needle instead. Watching the elevator go up and down always made him nauseous. It was designed so you could track it from outside. “Is the recipe on that notepaper you brought with you in your own handwriting?” he asked.
“No, this is the stolen one.”
Brown guessed she meant it was the copied recipe her dastardly fellow employee or boss had made. “Well, do you recognize the handwriting?” he asked. He took his attention off the elevator and stared at his passenger.
“It’s printed,” she said. “One of the cursive fonts from a computer word program.”
“Okay. Did you check everyone’s computer for that particular font?” Was he going to have to ask her everything?
“Don’t be silly,” she whined. “It was the first thing I did. I looked at the desktops and the personal smartphones too. Everybody had that font and cursive available to them.”
Brown scratched his head. Then quickly put both hands back on the steering wheel. “Was anyone super mad at being searched?” he asked. “Or, better yet, did anyone think it was funny?”
Miss Gilroy glared. “No,” she told him finally, her voice clipped.
Brown was skeptical. If it had been him accused of stealing, he’d have been raging mad. Coming up on the parking lot to the Tower of the Americas for the third time, he suddenly decided to go around the block again. He’d had a sudden idea. Maybe Councilwoman Gilroy was telling the absolute truth and no one in her employ had resisted her search of complained about her interrogation.
That could mean that everyone was in on it, like “Murder on the Orient Express.”
“So nobody got mad or thought it was funny?”
Brown repeated his question just in case she hadn’t understood him. He pulled into the loading dock San Antonio’s convention center. “Let me see that.”
Miss Gilroy handed over the purloined recipe with a tight-lipped smile. Brown narrowed his eyes, suspicious of her sudden silence. He glanced through the recipe, then read it slowly from top to bottom, then from bottom to top.
“There aren’t any measurements here,” he announced.
“Naturally not,” she crowed.
Brown understood immediately. He did know how to bake. Without the measurements, the recipe wouldn’t work properly. But there were several ways to get around that, time consuming though they were. He decided to ask her something else about the recipe.
“Are all the ingredients correct? Nothing left off. Nothing added?”
Councilwoman Gilroy’s smirk told him everything he needed to know. She’d sabotaged the recipe in two ways: by not providing the measurements and by either adding to or subtracting from the ingredients. He wondered why she really wanted to hire him. She hadn’t lost anything.
Driving around in circles between the big tinker toy monstrosity known as the Alamodome and The Tower of the Americas and back through the convention center had gotten boring. Plus, Brown was hungry.
Spur of the moment, he headed them out of the downtown area planning to get Councilwoman Gilroy to treat him to lunch at Bird Bakery. Councilwoman Gilroy strongly objected. Of course, he hadn’t told her his planned destination either. Who could resist Bird Bakery?
“John!” she yelled as he braked while turning onto Broadway.
Brown winced. She’d finally left off with the Mr. Brown and gone for the jugular. Brown’s name wasn’t John, but it was an intelligent guess.
“Jack!” she screamed. “Stop this car immediately!”
Brown would have liked to indulge her. He was tired of her company. But if he let her off as ordered she’d think she’d sussed out his true name, and he couldn’t have that. And it wasn’t Jack, either.
He gassed the car until he was racing down Broadway at forty rather than thirty. Feeling a little bit like a modern day Rumpelstiltskin, Brown wondered how to get paid for her wasting all his time like this.
Obviously she’d been bait. There was no stolen pound cake recipe. His old friends in the police force were pulling one of their gags again.
Why did his having only one name irritate everyone so much?
“Juan Carlos!” the councilwoman yelled.
Brown laughed and swung the car into the left lane. “Marco! Philip! God damn you! Let me out of this car!” she cried.
Bird Bakery was right there. The parking lot full to brimming, as always.
Brown’s junker automobile didn’t come with automatic door locks, but Maisey Gilroy didn’t seem to know this. Brown slowed, made a sudden right turn into the strip mall parking lot that housed his favorite bakery, then stood on the brake pedal.
Of course he’d added seat belts (complete with shoulder harnesses) to his ancient vehicle. He wouldn’t have jammed on the brakes like that otherwise. He wanted Councilwoman Gilroy out of his car, but he didn’t want her thrown through his windshield.
Shakily, she exited his car. Brown got out as well. He wanted to make sure she got herself safely into the restaurant. Right now she was twitching like she had the chills. He winked at her to get her attention off herself.
“It isn’t John. Nor Jack. Not Marco. Not Philip,” he told her.
Brown gave her a stern look, but he was grinning inside. Maybe he hadn’t hidden it as well as he meant, though. Miss Gilroy was sour-faced, bared teeth fairly chattering to take a bite out of him. He stepped back a pace.
Suddenly serious, Brown told her “I’m sending you a bill for five hundred dollars Make up anything you want to explain to the police department how you ended up at Bird. Tell them you found out my first name is Crispin,” he said. “Yes, Crispin.”
Miss Gilroy snorted.
“Brown, ma’am,” the detective told her. “Just Brown.”
Councilwoman Gilroy stomped through the parking lot and into the restaurant. She’d calm down in a minute.
A couple of blocks away Brown wished he’d followed Maisey Gilroy inside to buy a dozen of the tiny cupcakes Bird was famous for.
Copyright by Gretchen Rix 2019