It was hot for once, for one damned day up here in the Far North. Tacoma (The City of Arson) lay smoldering in this mighty heat, down below me, down there in what we like to call The City of Destiny, no matter how stupid other people might think we are. In the old days, Tacoma – up here in the State of Washington – was said to smell bad, especially by the jealous citizens of Seattle. They said the smell was overwhelming, something like a couple of football fields’ worth of two-day dead geoducks smoldering on a bed of burning cow pies. They had quite a flair for language in the old days, up in Seattle, but now it was different. Tacoma was nice now, it was a nice place, the pulp mills gone and with them the mighty smell. The town was gone too, but if it had been there, it would have been nice enough.
It was a nice enough day, too, although it was hot as hell. I’ll let you know right from the beginning that I’m a Tacoma guy myself, a T-town lifelong resident. I’ve even got an office up in the old Rust Building down on Pacific Avenue and I’ve got two windows in that office and one of them looks one way and one looks the other. Neither shows me the desolation of Downtown Tacoma (The Downtown of Lost Hope,) for reasons I’ll try to explain.
On slow days – and I’ve had a couple – a lot of people ask me (more people than you’d think) how a woodpecker like me got into the private eye business. I tell them that the Woodpeckers, at least my branch of them, are an old detective family in Taco Town. We go way back, in other words. My dad Woodrow was a detective before he went down to Hollywood and got so famous and his mother and most of my cousins and my twin sisters were all detectives. Most of us were in the detective business, is what I mean to say, that is, the bunch of us who grew up around Snake Lake. We pecked around, we stuffed things in holes and hoped to find them again. We tapped out messages. We packed heat. We climbed transoms. We never – never – worked for the heat. They wouldn’t have a woodpecker on the force, they said, even if hell froze over and the woodpeckers had the only acetylene torch in town. (This is unlikely. For instance, it takes about three hundred woodpeckers just to do a decent weld with an acetylene torch and to my knowledge hasn’t been attempted since 1938 when the shipbuilding business was booming locally. Incidentally, it’s a fool of an arsonist who has to use an acetylene torch, as my uncle Woodman used to say.)
On this day, this hot day – did I mention that? – I kicked closed the bottom drawer of my desk, the one with the nearly empty bottle of Old Hercules in it, and looked idly through every chamber of my rod. I couldn’t afford the Federal tax on ammo, so I’d packed the chambers full of acorns and pine nuts. I might be virtually unarmed, but I wasn’t going to go hungry. It was too early for lunch. If I’d had a secretary, I would have insisted she call herself Frankie.
“Hey Frankie, ” I would have yelled to her over the intercom, “what’s on the agenda for today, baby?”
“Well, boss,” she would have said breathily, crossing her leggy gams, “there’s that little matter of the Missing Downtown. You were going to call it the Case of the Missing Downtown, in fact.”
“Oh, yeah,” I would have said. I would have remembered, then, oh yeah, I would say to myself, there’s that little matter of the entire downtown business section just disappearing out of view. Yeah, I would have thought. I’ve got to get on top of that one.
I pushed aside the tattered curtain with my foot and looked out one window. Sure enough, the guy had been right. Where Downtown Tacoma had once been, draped over the seven hills, there was nothing, nothing at all.
The Rust Building was still there, otherwise what building was I in? But the rest of downtown was missing. A lot more was missing; Frankie, for instance. Oh, some people were around. Some birds, as well. They were all right. The people, though, wandered aimlessly. You couldn’t hear a phone ring. You couldn’t start your car if it was in Downtown Tacoma. I could look down from my office on the top floor and see people staring at their cars, hands in their pockets, if they had pockets, if they had cars. I stared down at them and after awhile tried to make a couple of calls. Nothing. The phones were on, but there were no rings and no dial tones and you could only hear anonymous voices talking about how they couldn’t get anyone on the phone, except, of course, for the people they were talking to, none of whom seemed to be downtown, and none of whom seemed to be able to get downtown because it had evidently disappeared, just the way the guy had said.
Earlier that morning, I’d heard a voice. It wasn’t Frankie’s voice, that was for sure.
“Hello. Anyone around?”
There was a guy out in my empty reception area. I tried not to look at Frankie’s little plaid coat still waiting for her to come back as I let him in to the inner sanctum. The guy was regular-looking, a middle-aged white human in a checked suit that must have had Sears all agog in 1977, but when he handed me his embossed card, I suddenly got that solid feeling a detective gets when he knows he’s got a client who’s going to be able to pay the fee. His card told me he was a guy from down on Pacific Avenue. Most important, he was the owner of a place called the Eye Shoppe, and that place was a goldmine, as I’d heard tell my whole life. Old men in Tacoma said there were things in the Eye Shoppe that could sense the stars, that could see clear into the wings of a wasp, that could plumb the depths of the Sound and the far reaches of the night sky, that could stop Time in his tracks. This guy was muscular, with the weight of the known world pushing down his businessman’s shoulders. His card, embossed as it was, told me his name was E.Z. Haag.
“Well, Ed,” E.Z. Haag said, settling himself into my good chair, “it’s bad, Ed. Downtown seems to be gone, pretty much. For instance, there’s no one down on Pacific Avenue anymore except grifters and no-goods and bankers and very few of them want cameras. Between you and me, I can see their point. Why would you need a camera if you live in a cardboard box and can’t even afford to go to the Harbor Lights Restaurant for lunch every day? But it’s still no damn reason to disappear everything.”
“I get it. You’re in the camera business.” I lit up a Lucky.
“Yeah,” he snarled, leaning forward and fixing me with his steely fixative of a gaze. “It’s called the Eye Shoppe and eye is a camera, get it? Except nowadays, people seem to think that cameras should be digital or made of cardboard and be able to be just thrown away after one use.”
“Very small grifters and no-goods could live in them then,” I said helpfully.
“Bankers. Small bankers, maybe. Never mind. Go on.”
“There was a day in this town, Woodpecker, when cameras told the story. Men used to run from cameras. If you had a camera you might have all sorts of evidence. For instance,” and here he looked furtively around, “maybe the Galloping Gertie Bridge fell down one fine day.”
“You’re kidding,” I said, leaning forward and glancing from side to side and lighting up a Lucky with the Lucky I already had burning. This was news to me.
“I’m not kidding,” he said, seriously enough. “I’ve got the proof – or at least I did have the proof until someone walked off with Downtown Tacoma and took my negatives with it. There was more, too, lots more. There were naked local babes and pictures of arsonists, lots of secrets of the town.” His voice got faraway and he had a gone look in his eye. Abruptly, he threw some money on the desk. “Help me,” he said and then he got up and went away.
I had nothing else on my plate, after all, and I could see hundreds in the bills he’d thrown down. I was a Woodpecker, after all, and certain traditions run deep. I tried not to think of the deep tradition of stupidity that ran down my family tree like a lightening scar. It was probably as deep in our family as sapsucking or woodpecking or an interest in homicidal acts.
“I’m all yours, E. Z.” I said, but he had gone.
What was that he’d said? The Galloping Gertie Bridge might have even fallen down?
I climbed out on my windowsill and took off and flew over to the 11th Street Bridge and sat up on one of the towers and did woodpecker things for awhile, avoiding the question. Woodpecker things have mostly to do with preening and wondering if it’s lunchtime yet. After awhile I forced myself to look at it out of the corner of the eye on that side, which looks pretty much sideways anyway. What a relief, there it was, the big old green bridge, the double-poled monstrosity that somehow binds the Olympic Peninsula and Tacoma in a marriage of profound uncertainty. Galloping Gertie, she was called by everyone. You could drive over the Galloping Gertie Bridge, but she swayed treacherously from side to side, she buckled and rolled and rumbled. You’d be driving your bread truck, say, (if you drove a bread truck) from Gig Harbor over to Tacoma and the bridge would be galloping so hard that you’d be driving up a shaky asphalt hill and you’d see the car in front of you literally disappear down another. Kids used to dare each other just to walk across it. It was huge, it must span a mile, I guessed. When I thought about it, there was probably some small chance it might fall down, but it had never really occurred to me or anyone else in Tacoma. Tacoma is, after all, the City of Optimism (The City of False Hopes) and we don’t go around looking for trouble. It just seems to find its way here, although how it could do that with the bridge fallen down I couldn’t see. This guy E.Z. Haag was obviously crazy, I thought. All I had to do was stretch this case out over a couple of weeks and collect a few more hundreds and all would be well. I flew back to the Rust Building and dove in my window and sat at my desk for a while and then I went down and tried to start my car but none of the keys I had fit anywhere in it. I tried to talk to some people who were just aimlessly standing around with nowhere to go, but a lot of Tacomans have a hard time talking to a woodpecker. I’m used to it. I flew off and sailed up in the air and launched myself out over the bay.
I love the Great Northwest. I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again. It’s just entrancing that the sea makes a big dish in the land and the land is covered with great trees and grass and everything green. There were a lot of seagulls around as usual and even some kingfishers over on Fox Island. No eagles in sight. I landed in Gig Harbor near where those geese nest in the big wine-cask barrels out on the Tides Tavern deck and I ordered up the Halibut and Chips and Pound O’ Fries and a pitcher of Alaskan Amber and sat outside overlooking the dock and counted the starfish and ate and drank beer and threw the seagulls some fries. I had to think and seagulls quiet down considerably when they’re eating French Fries. Here’s what I was thinking:
That there’s a thin line between humans and birds, and one of the places on earth where that line hits the ground is in Tacoma. You could fall in love with a human, if you were a bird, and this is the place in all the world where the romance would have a better than normal chance of at least lasting a week or two. You could murder a bird, or a bird could murder you, and there was a good chance of the cops paying attention for a couple of weeks. Why this was so, I didn’t have a clue. But I’d noticed it was true and I’d be the one to ask, if you were in a questioning mood, even though I wouldn’t be able to give you much of an answer.
On top of that, the client agreed with me on at least one thing, the downtown was missing, even though we lived in it, we were a part of it, part of the fabric of it, in fact. But then we parted company. He saw the bridge down and I saw it up. He seemed to not know the difference between humans and birds exactly. I looked over at the Galloping Gertie Bridge and much to my surprise, there it lay in a crumpled, submerged heap, most of it sunk to the bottom of the Tacoma Narrows. The bridge was down. The guy had been right. The human had booked me on a genuine case. Most of my jobs the last few years had been bird jobs, the usual stuff, hummingbird murders, mobbing mayhems, small-bore, three-day cases.
You’re probably thinking by now that an entire pitcher of beer in the middle of the day should be too much for one woodpecker, and you’d be right as far as that went, which wouldn’t be far enough. For a capitalized Woodpecker, it isn’t half enough beer. There’s a difference, you see.
It was hot, did I mention that? I had thought enough, or so I thought. I had to get started and since the job was, as I understood it, to find out what happened to all the stuff that was in the Eye Shoppe,including confusing negatives and something about naked local Babes, then there was only one place to start and that was in the Downtown of Tacoma which had disappeared – for some – as well. The peripheral issues: why some saw a bridge and some didn’t, why it was so hot, where Frankie had got to, why some lived and why some died, would have to wait.
I flew back toward T-town, but first I set down on Mystery Island and stopped in at this big old fir tree that looked vaguely familiar, something I thought maybe I’d been fond of when I was a kid and so I took the time and looked for some stuff I might have left uneaten or left forgotten. There was something I’d pecked into holes there, from when I was a kidling. Nothing much was left; some caps from a cap pistol of long ago, barely intact, a moldy old bug, inedible. I flew back toward Tacoma, bloated and still thinking when someone took a shot at me.
The shot missed me, that’s the long and short of it. It was a little long or maybe a little short, but it just whacked a couple of my tail feathers and screamed off into the Northwest air, to land with some plunk in the Sound, I supposed. I was so shocked. I was frightened. I had that horrible feeling anyone gets when they are threatened. I panted. I dropped and whirled and fell and pulled up and looked around and tried to figure where it came from and breathed real hard and panted some more and maybe whimpered some because somebody taking a shot at you never gets any easier, no matter how many times it’s been tried, no matter how tough you’ve convinced yourself you are. I thought, for a moment, that I had probably spent way too much of my life convincing myself of things that were not true, that were not right.
I flew up high and top-arced and got some speed going and dove down in a long slant over the dead flat calm bay toward Tacoma. I looked ahead and sure enough, the downtown was just as gone as the Bridge, but it wasn’t crumpled and destroyed. It was just gone. I was sort of scared. Everything else was there; the Brown’s Point Light, Point Defiance, Point No Point, all the local points were still there. It was just the downtown area that seemed to be gone, or had a mist just appeared? It would have to be a pretty thick and pretty localized mist, I thought. It was hard to think where mist would come from on the hottest day of the year anyway. I began to pull up as I crossed the Thea Foss Waterway, watching carefully, as only a bird in the air can, and as I slowed, as I banked down, suddenly, dimly, the downtown emerged, its clock tower, its railroad past; it emerged, indeed, like something rising from out of a mist that wasn’t even there. I could see the downtown, the old train station, the Glass Sculpture Bridge, the bums by the Greyhound Bus station. Towering above it all, making a peak to it, was the ironwork tower and the copper roof of the old familiar Rust Building and I flew up to the top floor and sure enough, there was my old familiar office. I looked at my phone and my filing cabinets made of old madrona wood and the little reception room where Frankie didn’t sit anymore. I took a deep breath and turned around on the window sill and looked out over the bay and there was the bridge, as intact and complete and as right as anything real. Well, I thought to myself, we seem to have a mystery here.
A woodpecker, after all, is so often looking for things he’s already hidden away that I had the creeping feeling that I was to blame somehow. Had I pecked a big hole and put downtown Tacoma in it and then just forgotten all about it? Had I made enemies whom I’d stuffed away and forgotten? I ate a few pinenuts out of the chambers of my old .38, then I ate all the acorns and found some ammo and loaded it up and put it in my back pocket and went to the Men’s Room. There was only me among the old tiles. The sun slanted in the window. It must have been a hundred degrees in there. For a woodpecker, those old-fashioned stand-up urinals are a godsend. I took the elevator to the lobby and walked down to The Eye Shoppe on Pacific Avenue. I try not to fly around town, it makes people nervous.
“Ed,” said E.Z. Haag, sitting behind the counter, sweltering, “I’m depressed. You don’t seem to be getting the job done.”
“A job like this takes a lot of thinking,” I said grimly. “Besides, you only hired me this morning.” I looked around and indeed, The Eye Shoppe had been cleaned out; not a camera, not a lens, not a telescope, not a roll of film in the place.
“When did the bridge fall down?” I asked.
“It was years ago, I think,” he said. “I remember my father talking about it. It twisted loose in the wind. I have the negatives he shot, or I did have them. There was some sixteen millimeter film, black-and-white, and a roll of color as well. There wasn’t a date on anything, though. But it was years ago. There’s a conspiracy to keep it hidden from us.”
“To keep hidden from us that there is no actual bridge there?”
“That’s right,” he said somewhat defiantly.
“What have we been driving on since then,” I asked reasonably. “What have we been seeing there? I don’t use it much, but it seems to BE there. I’m not hearing any complaints from the public.”
“Read the Gig Harbor paper, such as it is. They don’t see a bridge there,” he said glumly. “Check it out. There’s lots of things in this town that aren’t there anymore. Whatever happened to those little green bags your burger came in at the Frisko Freeze, for instance? Where’s that nightclub down on the shorefront that was made from an old ship?”
He had a point. These things had mystified me as well.
“For instance, people who leave downtown Tacoma these days never seem to come back,” he said. “The downtown population is getting smaller and smaller. The drugstore counter downstairs in the Rust Building has run out of tunafish and Cokes. Some businessmen, unable to deal with their cars, just walk away and never return. If you look in the phone book, they just aren’t listed anymore.”
“Cars were never listed in the phone book,” I said.
“The people, they aren’t listed anymore.”
“Oh,” I said. I knew what he meant. My whole floor on the Rust Building was empty except for me. I hadn’t had a tunafish sandwich and a Coke in over a month. One minute I saw a bridge and the next I saw it fallen. People were leaving and that’s probably what had happened to my secretary, Frankie. She’d walked out, high heels and all, and she’d never returned.
I knew something had been bothering me, on top of everything else, on top of being shot at. Frankie was gone, and I’d been trying to convince myself that she’d never even existed.
Frankie existed somewhere in that gray area between humans and birds, of that I was sure. I just wasn’t sure how to get there, although you’d think I’d be the one with the map. I’d better point out, as well, that Frankie was a dame like no other dame I’d ever known. She was really something. She looked like everything you ever imagined wouldn’t be yours, ever. She had eyes like the deep night sky. She had lips that were the two lips of doom. She had legs that went up to the top floor, maybe beyond. The rest of her, as we detectives like to say, wasn’t bad either. What Frankie was doing in Tacoma, the City of the Future (the City of Going Nowhere,) I could never figure out, to tell you the truth. She might have left years ago. She might have been wearing expensive dresses with shifty hemlines and shoulder pads a mile wide. She might have had on black lipstick and no underwear in Spain. She might have had the world on a plate, might Frankie, and yet she’d wound up working for Ed Woodpecker, Private Eye, in the Rust Building, high above a town that was too little and too late for the likes of someone like her. I didn’t get it. And besides, it seemed she didn’t even work for me anymore. It had been several days now and she hadn’t been back, hadn’t called. The handwriting was on the wall, although I didn’t want to read it.
We hadn’t been getting along, Frankie and me, I guess you might say. There was that little matter of me asking her to marry me and her refusing, or at least maintaining a kind of silence that stones might envy. After that incident, she wouldn’t even go downstairs and have lunch with me anymore, claiming that there was no tunafish down there and that she liked a Coke with her lunch and, besides, the seats at the lunchcounter didn’t turn around smoothly anymore. I couldn’t argue with her, although I tried. There was that little matter of her being bothered because I was a woodpecker and she – theoretically, anyway – wasn’t. Theoretically, there was a theory, but I hadn’t been let in on it. The line between woodpeckers and humans is a thin one, as far as I’m concerned. All I could think of was the way, in happier times, she’d twirl lazily on the easy-turning aluminum stools down at the lunch counter of the Rust Building, her high heels strapped around her ankles, her little plaid skirts floating in the breeze, laughing as we ate tunafish and drank cokes, vanilla in my case and plain in hers.
Finally, I went through her desk. There was nothing in there except a couple of old copies of “W” magazine and some female makeup implements I wasn’t exactly sure of the uses for. Stuck in one corner was a newspaper ad for something going on at the Tacoma Dome tonight. I could only read the date and not what the event was. Maybe she’d be there. Hmmm, I thought. (That’s the way I think.) I should pursue the money, find the Missing Downtown and solve the mystery of the looting of the Eye Shoppe, or I could look for my girl, the one girl I’ve ever loved, the girl of all my dreams – even the bad ones. Look for the woman, that’s what French detectives say, as if they didn’t have better things to do, which they don’t. I didn’t either, I thought. E.Z. Haag would have to wait, I thought.
The Dome is one of several interesting things about Tacoma (The City of Interesting Things.) It’s made of wood, number one, and that’s a fact that’s bound to get any woodpecker’s attention. It’s huge, it’s big, I thought. Right then, someone smacked me hard right in the back of my woodpecker head. My thoughts stopped right then and there.
Woodpeckers have heads that are designed to hammer holes in wood and so are a kind of combination of a maul and an adze. Luckily, whoever it was hit me on the maul part and so my head snapped forward sharply and the adze part unfortunately drilled my bill so far into my desk that when I came to, I couldn’t lift my head up at all. My bill must have been stuck a full two inches into old alder. Even semi-conscious, woodpeckers are famous for peripheral vision, Woozy as I was, I could easily see that there was no one holding a gun on me. There was no one there at all, in fact. I twisted my bill around and back and forth and eventually got the point out and then I rubbed the back of my head which had a big knot on it. I opened my bill more than a few times to make sure it worked and when it did, I took a fistful of aspirin from Frankie’s bottom drawer and staggered out to the elevator and then down to the street. I needed to drink. I didn’t need to think.
I staggered to the Point, a new bar on one of those old blocks that come to a sharp triangle point in Tacoma. I drank myself silly there. No one talked to me, not even Parky, the barkeep. He stared at me, though. He stared at me good.
“Hey. Woodpecker,” he said after awhile.
“Yeah, what?” I growled.
“I’ve got a guestion for you. What would you think? Think about it. I hear things in here. Now, the other day, a little bird told me something …”
“There are no small birds, only small parts for birds,” I said. “No bird has had a good part in a movie since “The Crow” or “The Birds.”
“I’m not talking about the movies, I’m talking about a little bird that was in here the other day. The little guy was drunk and cryin’ his eyes out.”
“A wren? A pee-wit? An empidonax flycatcher?”
“How the hell would I know? He had some yellow on him, under his throat, maybe.”
“Ah. A warbler.”
“Could have been, could not have been. Like I say, I don’t give a flying fuck at the moon and a half. Birds come, birds go. Between you and me and a hole in the Dome, most of ’em require, you know, a swipe of the bar rag across the stool, if you know what I mean, I mean, begging your sympathy and all, not that you have any problem, you know what I mean.”
I knew what he meant, but I ignored it. “What was the little guy cryin’ about?” I asked as if I didn’t really care.
“You hear a lot behind this bar,” he said meditatively. I reached in my pocket – I have a pocket – and found a couple of bills with numbers on them he liked.
“He was worried about the Dome,” said Parky brightly, pocketing the cash. “A lot of birds are worried about the Dome, or so it seems.”
“Yeah. You hear it all around. Haven’t you heard it all around? I mean from birds. Humans don’t give a flying fuck, frankly.”
“Have you seen Frankie around?
“You’re like a broken record, Woodpecker. Isn’t that frankly-Frankie joke ever going to stop fascinating you?”
“Don’t give me a lot of shit, Parky. Stick to the subject.”
“The subject being …?”
“The subject being that I gave you money to give me information. What do the birds fear or hope about the Tacoma Dome?”
“The little guy didn’t say. That’s all I know. That’s my information. Want your money back?” He looked tough and determined. I didn’t want my money back. I didn’t want to fight. I just wanted Frankie back. I staggered outside and straightened myself up and I walked the few blocks up through the old brick warehouses to the TacomaDome. The back of my head still hurt like hell.
Let’s face the facts. Someone had taken a shot at me. Someone had hit me on the head. Whoever it was had gone undetected by me, a professional detective. This was not good. None of it was good.
I slipped across the parking lot and pushed inside the huge wooden shell through a hole, one of the first holes, a hole my dad was reputed to have first pecked when he was but a fledgeoid. (Woodpeckers have amazingly short life spans if you talk to humans, who use an entirely different numbering and time system than woodpeckers do.) I squeezed inside the mighty wooden edifice and looked around, I could see that the Dome was full that night. It looked like a sports crowd, maybe boxing, because I didn’t see any babes around. The whole vast Dome was full of the kind of guys you can see anytime around Tacoma, but only rarely in one place – without babes. I could see that some of the biggest wigs of a town known for its bigwigs were there: the Harbormaster, for instance, the head of the Water Company, The Amusement King. I knew a lot of these guys from as far back as High School.
And most amazing of all, they all rose up and shouted and raised their arms in unison. Most of them raised two arms, in point of fact. Some of them raised each other’s arms. They shouted out that they would take care of their familys’ values.
“I will take out the garbage,” they shouted. “I will spend more time with the kids.” They wanted to let the world know that they were not going to be Deadbeat Dads. They did the Wave. They danced the dance, they moved the moves. There was a feeling of raw emotion and unbridled brotherly commitment surging through them, as if two opposing football teams had fallen in love, each with the other and had each just got up nerve enough to ask for a first date.
Up on the stage of the Dome, a voice thundered out to them. A big fat man was shouting out over the booming sound system:
“We want to be sensitive! We want to celebrate, c’mon, yeah, yeah!” I couldn’t make out every word. The sounds seemed to overlap in waves of misunderstanding.
“We’re guys! We think women are fascinating! But Lord God, doesn’t it make you weep to understand that we are not women? No, we can never be women, even though we think they are the greatest things in the world. They produce children at literally the drop of a hat but we do not want them to come to these rallies! They’d just be in the way! Women are the sort of people who wouldn’t understand the true difference between a real Frisko Freeze Burger and the sodden imitation being sold in this very dome! The emotions engendered by all this male bonding would be too much for them. OH, GOD! OH, JESUS! I will, I will, keep my promises to their sacred and fecund selves!” They panted and shouted and wept and raised their arms. It was manly and yet it was embarrassing. Ah, I thought. (That’s the way I sometimes think.) So these were the Seekers I’d heard so much about. Why would Frankie have wanted to come here on this night, or if she wasn’t going to be there – and I could see she wasn’t – why was she even interested in these idiots? I noticed that up behind the big fat man there was a huge projection screen. Images came and went upon its face, sometimes the crowd would see itself, sometimes the speakers on the stage, sometimes they would see scenes from the area projected, birds of the area, for example, flying over the various scenic points. Birds. A few Seekers had begun to notice the images of birds massed, pushing against the Galloping Gertie Bridge; of birds, massed, having their way with the clothes of babes; of birds, massed, setting fires all over town. From the stage, over the choir and the orchestra, a shout rang out.
“Fire! Fire in the dome! Arsonists in the dome! Run for it!” I ran for it, all right. I flew for it. I got out my Dad’s hole and, it being dark outside, clawed my way down to the ground.
Woodpecker feet are excellent for this kind of task and, unless you’re an owl, you don’t want to be flying around Tacoma (The City of High Voltage Lines) at night. The parking lot was quickly filled with human men running into that night, down onto the docks themselves. The fire engines were coming and I walked away, uptown, thinking, hopping, actually. I didn’t smell any smoke. I hadn’t seen any flames, except flames on film. Flames on film. Cameras. Hmmm.
Cameras and birds, I thought. Birds stole downtown? The pigeons and the gulls and the crows, even the woodpeckers? Why? To get the negatives away from E.Z. Haag? Because the negatives show birds dragging down the bridge? We are creatures of the wind, birds. I remembered that up on the screen were pictures of someone who looked for all the world like Frankie, of birds taking her clothes off. Did birds steal the downtown area as well as her clothes? If so, it was probably pigeons, but the plot could possibly include crows or ravens or thrushes or peewits. They stole pictures of Frankie, I was willing to bet, all of them. I looked in my wallet and, indeed, the picture of Frankie I’d had was gone. On the other hand, I was a bird, or something. We are the wind, we birds. I knew that and I’d probably packed the knowledge away for a rainy day, of which we have a few up here.
All birds know the story, one version of it or another. Should I tell the story to E.Z. Haag? Here’s a scenario, I said to myself. Maybe E.Z. Haag’s father had caught birds in action. Maybe the films showed birds dragging down the Galloping Gertie Bridge, birds dragging the halter tops off barely reluctant babes with breasts, birds in the depths of the night sky, winging across the moon. of birds as arsonists. Well, it was a thought. Birds, after all, are so much a part of the wind that they might as well be the wind itself. Certainly, we follow the wind’s directions, we birds. Did arsonists? They, as well, I thought, are creatures of the wind, of the air itself. The Carbon Family, who ruled Tacoma’s tawdry crime life in years past, were said to have once employed birds, even woodpeckers, as arsonists. There were whispers in the bird community, I’d heard them all my life. My Uncle’s voice: “It’s a fool of an arsonist, kid, who has to use a torch …” Wind, birds and arson. The City of Coincidence, the City of Conflagration. Fire burns the air. It was a thought.
I saw Frankie, then, under a streetlight. She was hanging out with some birds. The streetlight – like all the others in town – flashed blue and then went out. Sirens shrieked over the city. My heart was suspended somewhere between rising and sinking. There was flame in her hand as she lit a cigarette. The firelight showed her face for a moment and then she was gone.
Under the flickering streetlight, Frankie was hanging out with birds. I slowed down. I looked behind me. In front of me, there she was. She and her friends. Something was coming clear to me, but I wasn’t sure what it was. There was a nighthawk with Frankie, a guy I’d seen around Taco Town since I was a kid. Smartass. There was the usual collection of useless crows, cackling and clorking as if they had something really to talk about beyond their petty concerns. There was an owl or two. Night birds, you know the crowd. Jays with dark glasses. Birds smoking cigarettes. Crows: that pretty much says it all.
“Long time no see,” I said to her because it was all I could think of to say. She was beautiful. I knew enough not to tell her she looked beautiful. She would have thought I was crazy. She thought I was crazy anyway.
“The whole point ,” she said, peering at me, “the whole point is that we are married already. You seem to have conveniently forgotten that part, pal.”
“Don’t call me pal, honey,” I whined. “You can’t be that mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at you, little buddy,” she said, smoking her cigarette and looking imperious. “I’ve forgotten all about you, to tell you the truth. Ever since you forgot you married me … well, I’ve decided to just write you off. What an idiot you are. I can barely believe it. I’ve written you off, pal.”
I had to think about this. Were we really married? I stared up at her. She towered. I am a woodpecker, after all, and she is someone whose ancestors presumably evolved swinging from the low branches of savannah trees on a continent largely ignored by woodpeckers. They stretched, in other words. She was very tall, formidable you might say, but as beautiful certainly as any human or bird could be. There was just something about her. She got to me.
“C’mon, baby,” I said plaintively.
The birds around her clucked and growled, not much singing, because it wasn’t that time of year, of course. It sounded like they were laughing at me. They all lit up cigarettes.
“I don’t get it,” I said, lighting up a Lucky. “What do you care about the Keepers?” Silence all around. I winked at Frankie.
“Which one of you bastards hit me on the back of the head?” I asked.
“Fuck you, pal,” laughed a blackbird. He lit up a big match for no reason at all and then blew it out. He laughed again, but this time it was an ominous laugh, “Either you’re with us or you’re against us, Woodpecker. And so far it’s been looking like you’re against us.”
“That’s why you conked me on the head? Because I’m not part of something I don’t even know about?”
“Don’t be naive, Woodpecker,” said an owl. “We all know what we’re talking about here, except maybe one or two of us who seem to think they’re humans and not birds? He stared pointedly at me. Then he turned his head completely around and looked pointedly behind him.
“I only hear rumors, I’m a little out of touch,” I said as apologetically as possible. “It’s not easy working among humans. After awhile you lose track of important events.”
“I can understand that,” said the owl. “Even now, things are going so slow it’s driving me nutty.” He whirled his head back around to the front.
“It’s because of me, isn’t it,” said Frankie. “You all have to really slow down because of me being here, don’t you? I suppose I should just leave,” she sighed and blew cigarette smoke out in a big blue cloud.
They all chimed in; no, no, she shouldn’t leave, don’t be like that, Frankie, they said. We’re only doing this because of you. And of course she stayed. I wasn’t the only bird knocked out by Frankie, I remembered that she’d told me that she’d got interested in birds all of a sudden, maybe in her last year at Stadium High School, and she started looking at birds, then feeding birds, read a couple of Roger Torey Peterson field guides and evidently married me, a bird. She was a quick study. She wasn’t that far out of high school, anyway. She was a baby, really, in human terms. By birds’ standards, she was ancient, of course.
“Let’s be frank here – sorry, Frankie,” said one of the hawks in a gentlemanly manner. “All I mean is, we’re talking about some kind of essence here, the essence of inter-species activity perhaps. Bird-human marriages – I know it’s a delicate issue – well, they seem downright bizarre to a lot of people and worse to most birds.”
“Damn straight,” said Frankie, somewhat defensively it seemed to me. She still looked beautiful. We were all smoking now. Sirens wailed around us but no flames shot up into the night air above the docks. No weird or flickering shadows spread out from the dark figures of any of the fleeing humans or standing birds. There were no flames at all, in point of fact.
“Hey, look,” said the nighthawk, blinking furiously, “I personally don’t care, I mean it’s all right with me. Whatever. I just mean that a lot of people find it … you know, a somewhat difficult issue to deal with. Directly.”
“Well,” I said. “Ok, I see what you mean. Look, I’m probably at fault here. Ok, so there may be something in the idea that Frankie and I are already married. It probably happened pretty quickly, see? You have to understand that, sweet as she is, she doesn’t really comprehend the huge metabolic differences between Avian-Americans and so-called humans.”
Frankie raised her big eyes to the night stars and sighed loudly. A couple of her bird buddies laughed sympathetically.
“Ok, I’m probably entirely at fault,” I whined, like the sapsucker I am. “I admit I got fascinated with humans when I was little. It was obviously because my Dad spent so much time with them down in Hollywood. It was natural that I would be interested and want to know more.” I wanted her back, this much was clear. Snickers ran through the little group like candy bars running around the ankles of adult humans.
“Look,” I said. “I’m probably the only one here who makes an actual living in the human world. You don’t have to tell me the problems involved. It’s true; you’ve got to slow down some, to be sure. Even then, humans seem laconic, at best, to most birds. I know this. It may be the reason humans seem to live a long time, that’s what birds think, for the most part, am I right?” They mostly nodded yes. The way I try to explain it, if anyone (like Frankie, for instance) were ever interested, is that birds download information in much the same way that digital information is downloaded over the short-wave bands of the human radio. All a human hears is a burst of noise, (I’m guessing here) but with the same information, at a much different time scale, birds are hearing – seeing – the equivalent of, say, the Library at Alexandria. For instance, the songs of birds must be slowed down, way down, to have even a hope of the studied understanding or attention of humans and bird songs are the least complicated of bird utterances, of bird downloadings.
“What about the Mob?” I asked. “Is that what this is all about really?”
“We’re not a fucking mob, pal,” said a hummingbird, a tough little sonofabitch with a lot of rufous and iridescence. I’d seen the type. These are the kind of wiseguys who regularly grab sap from a sapsucker’s legitimate workplace. They think they’re smart because they’re so small.
“What the hell are you thinking about?” snarled the little bastard.
“Aren’t crows prone to mobbing?” I asked more calmly than I felt. I lit up another Lucky. A lot of corvid activity is bizarre by anyone’s standards, so I felt I was on semi-safe ground. For instance, stuffing pine nuts in holes already pecked by hard-working woodpeckers might be equated with banking; that is, putting things of value in holes that others have labored years to produce and taking an extraordinary profit for it, gaining power by exploiting the honest efforts of others. You were always pretty safe going after the tattered reputations of crows.
“We’re ravens,” said the two big guys (or girls, it’s impossible to tell with ravens and they’ll tell you much the same story.) “Mobbing is for amateurs who have problems with hawks. We don’t have any problems with hawks now, do we?” They looked archly over at three hawks in the shadows. They were blinking. Hawks don’t like nighttime, except for nighthawks, of course and even the one nighthawk had on dark glasses; French ones, if I’m any judge.
“Is this about the bridge?” I finally asked. “Is this about the bridge falling down or not really falling down and downtown disappearing or not really, and the strange mist and a robbery downtown from a place called the Eye Shoppe?” They all looked guilty as hell, except Frankie. She always gets that kind of wide-eyed look when she realizes that I’m a lot more on top of things than she ever thinks I am. I tried to laugh, but I have to admit that I was pretty damn nervous. A mist had begun to seep in around us.
The hummingbird had a gun. It was a little gun, but I’m a little guy. I grabbed Frankie and ran for it. She had on high heels and I had to reach up to grab her hand, but she went with me, which surprised me. I wanted to fly, even at night, but I knew I couldn’t drag Frankie up there with me.
“C’mon, baby,” I growled. “Keep up with me.”
“Oh, Ed,” she whined plaintively, “Don’t drag me. Don’t run away from me. Don’t fly, please don’t fly off and leave me again. I love you.”
That stopped me. She loved me. Me. A woodpecker. Me, a Woodpecker. My heart went all gooey, as gooey as a melted Brown and Haley (Makes ’em Daily) Candy. I pulled her into an abandoned doorway in the old Brown and Haley (makes ’em daily) Candy factory. The smell of chocolate and pecans was all around us. The mist was all around us too. It was thick and getting thicker, wet and getting gooey. It began to swirl around her little pumps and she stood up on her tippy-toes and she looked so cute that I had to grab her around the knees and just give her a hug.
“Married or not, babe, hitched or unhitched,” I gabbled, “I love you. You’ve got to believe that.”
“Love isn’t everything, Ed,” she said, looking down at me with what seemed to be little droplet tears in her big eyes. “A lot of people think love is everything, and I suppose it is to them, but to me it isn’t, see? I think there are higher standards and I’m going to try to hew to them instead of just wasting my life on someone I love.”
“You love me. You said it again.”
“Of course I do,” she said. The mist was up to her waist now which meant that all she could see of me was my hat. “Of course I love you, you stupid woodpecker. I loved you from the first minute I saw you. There’s something about you that just makes a gal like me want to go down to the Thriftway and buy some birdseed.” This, of course, was one of our problems. She insisted on thinking that I liked birdseed, which is only nominally true. I prefer insects, grubs and a nice single cheeseburger with onions from the Frisko Freeze, to tell you the truth, but I never had the guts to tell her that. Maybe that’s one reason I’d forgotten we were married. Too much birdseed. I had to sneak it away and give it to titmice down at the Titmouse Shelter on Division Ave. so she’d think I was just gobbling it up.
Footsteps in the mist. A streetlamp trying to cut through. The shadow on the shattered bricks. The sounds of breathing, mine and hers.
A bullet floated down the alleyway in slow motion, spinning slowly and looking for me. It cut a long funnel through the mist. I pulled Frankie down into the thick stuff as it shot past, it didn’t make a sound. From far away, you could hear the bang from the gun. That was a fast bullet, I thought.
Running, pulling. Why do babes always keep their high heels on at times like this? C’mon. Panting. Into another doorway. Breathing. Listening. My gun is out. I have a gun.
“Honey,” she whispered. “Honey, this is stupid. It doesn’t even seem vaguely real.”
Another bullet came twisting through the fog, searching down the brick tunnel. It smashed flat on a brick. Far away, I could hear the blast.
“Not real? Are you crazy? What did you think that was?
“What was what?” she asked. Omigod, I realized. The bullet had been moving so fast that she didn’t even see it. Why were we still talking and seeing each other if the outside world seemed to be switching on and off between bird time and human time? Was this love?
“You tell me. Is it love? Is that why you don’t see the bullets?” I tried to keep my voice down.
“Yes,” she said firmly, as if we were now getting to the actual point of a discussion. “I’ve never understood why you seem so dense on the subject. Love is a place of absolute safety and infinite hope. I love you. You love me. What bullets?”
One of the things I like most about being a detective is freedom from the kind of pointless ambiguity that practically overwhelms most people. When you’re a detective, you take on a case and the case – just by virtue of being a case – has an end and that’s because it either comes to a solid, non-ambiguous solution or because whoever was paying you just isn’t paying you anymore. So, you walk away. You are neither judge nor jury. You’ve done your job. You’re just the detective. Walk away. Fly away. A lot of people – even a lot of birds – might consider my attitude hard-boiled, but you have to remember that any bird will inevitably have profoundly mixed feelings about the concept of hard-boiling anything, even thoughts. This case wasn’t over, that much I knew. My wallet (I have a wallet) was still full.
Frankie and I were breathing hard, but we seemed to be alive, if not exactly safe. There were no bullets anymore. We had determined we were in love. How bad could it be? The fog lifted a bit and you could see the little lights of Gig Harbor out across the great bay. It seemed to be getting hot again, even though it was night. I felt positively human. I reached up and took Frankie’s hand and told her I agreed with her about anything she might think or say and she laughed at me in a nice enough way and we crept in the overshadows of the scalloped awnings up Pacific Avenue, right into downtown Tacoma, right to the Eye Shoppe and there was light there and inside was E.Z. Haag, working late, talking on the telephone.
“I’m on the phone to my little sister down in California,” he said as he let us in. “She thinks it’s peculiar that I’ve hired a woodpecker.”
“People in California are so peculiar they’ve lost all perspective on what peculiar actually is,? I said reassuringly.
Frankie looked up at the tall walls. “Hey. What happened to that big picture of me that used to hang up there?” she demanded.
“They stole everything, I told you, baby,” I said.
“They’re stealing pictures of me? That isn’t good.” She was in what I like to describe as a state of flounce.
“You’re right,” I said. “In fact, they even got the picture of you I carry around in my wallet.”
“Well, that’s alright,” she said, looking for an ashtray and a place high enough to sit so she could cross her legs correctly. “I hated that picture,” she said, lighting up a Lucky. E.Z. Haag hung up the phone and twisted the top off a beer with “Ice” in its name. He drank and then he surveyed us.
“Once this town was the Hub of Northwest Industry,” said E.Z. Haag. “We were a Place to Learn, a Place to Live, a Place to Relax, Play and Shop. Best of all, we were a place where the goddam Eye Shoppe made money year after god damn year.” He paused. “And then there was nothing,” he said softly, but not so softly we couldn’t hear. “And then we were no more. You’d have thought the Mountain had erupted and wiped us all out. What’s up, Ed?” He looked at me searchingly. “Turned anything up?”
“Here’s the deal, E.Z.,” I said, as gently as I could, “and it’s not a good deal, as far as I can tell. We’re in a weird place.”
“You don’t have to tell me that. This town used to be Beautiful, Progressive, Convenient and Inviting,” said E.Z. Haag with some emphasis. “Now it’s just weird. I used to enjoy my work. I used to want to work twenty-some hours a day. Now all I want to do is sleep. In this town, We Liked You and We Knew You’d Like Us. We Were the Place to Visit”
“We were the City of Chrysanthemums,” said Frankie helpfully.
“We were Interesting,” said Ed, encouraged. “We were the Nerve Center for the County, we were just a Bridge Crossing from Gig Harbor (Land of Intrigue and Quiet Beauty,) we had a Heritage we would Long Wish to Remember, we were the possessors of the Third Longest Suspension Bridge in the World …”
“Until the fucking thing fell down,” Frankie interjected softly.
Both E.Z. Haag and I looked at her. “Where did you hear that?” we both said, practically at the same time.
“It’s common knowledge,” said Frankie, although she seemed a little flustered.
“No, it isn’t,” said the big man. He looked suspicious. He looked over at me. “It isn?t. Not among humans, it isn’t.”
“I didn’t say a thing to her,” I said.
“He never tells me anything,” complained Frankie. “It wasn’t him that told me, anyway. You can believe that. No, it’s common knowledge among…”
“Who? Birds?” he asked.
“You see,” I tried to shut her up, “I’ve had a kind of revelation, a kind of human shoring-up of something birds pretty much take for granted. It’s good for me, if you see what I mean.”
“I don’t care what you mean,? said E.Z. Haag evenly. “And I don’t care what’s good for you. I’m beginning to get suspicious.”
I probably shouldn’t have, but I told him the easy part, how I had figured out that there were two different times operating in Tacoma – the City Out of Joint – and that therefore Tacoma-in-Washington-State should properly be likened to the Mystery-Spot- in-California, or the innumerable attractions like it: the Whirlpool-of-the-Woods or the Elves-on-a-Spot or The Mystery Tree or the Goofy House in Pucay, Indiana. Tacoma – in the State of Washington – just had some Time anomaly going for it, perhaps some random fluctuation of the magnetosphere, perhaps some unimagined – even by birds – symmetry.
“You’re about as crazy as a hoot owl, Ed,” said E.Z. Haag.
“No, I’m not,” I said. “And technically, there is no such thing as a hoot owl.”
“I know that,” he said testily. “It’s a kind of figure of speech.”
“Don’t try to confuse me,” I said.
“Birds,” said E.Z. Haag. “I knew it. What is it with you, Ed? Were you lying to me when you said you didn’t know about the bridge going down?”
“No,” I said. “I live in both worlds. Sometimes it takes me a while to catch up in one or the other.” I tried to be gentle with Frankie. “Was it that bunch you were with under the streetlamp? Did they tell you about the bridge?”
Frankie looked guilty. “I’m not supposed to say.”
So the old stories were true, I thought. The old Tacoma bird stories about arson and the wind and the big war and the welds that sank the ships, the bad welds by birds that dropped the old iron bridge into the drink. Birds don’t understand humans well and birds in Tacoma have always wondered if the humans knew the same story. I knew they didn’t. Maybe I was the only bird who did.
E.Z. Haag looked troubled. “I used to have pictures of birds pulling on the bridge, of birds making the bridge fall down. I used to have pictures of birds with torches talking to Carbons. I used to have the whole story. And then the birds got the negatives. You’re just fronting for them, Ed.”
“Then why did you hire me?” I wanted to keep him talking. He had that crazy look in his eye that guys in his position in the movies get when the movie gets to this point. He looked nuts and talkative, in other words. He would tell me anything because he was going to kill me, that sort of thing.
“Look, E.Z.,” I babbled. “From what I can see, there are two times operating here. Let’s call them bird time and human time.”
“Let’s,” chirped Frankie cheerfully.
“Now in one or the other – say in bird time in Tacoma – bullets are flying and synchronies of birds and bridges are wreaking havoc and at the same place, there’s also human time in Tacoma, and that’s where things are disappearing and reappearing in a seemingly random manner – random unless you count the kind of human who might try to manipulate the situation.”
“You’re saying my photographs and equipment and negatives have been randomly manipulated?”
“Did I say randomly?” We stared at each other. This involved me turning sideways. He looked guilty enough for both of us.
“I know you’ve still got the negatives, E.Z.” I ventured. “It’s easy enough to pretend to clean out your own store. I know something else, too, that you’ve been holding the bridge collapse pictures so that you might blackmail the town. If the town finds out the bridge collapsed years ago, then they’d have to ask some real tough questions about the facts of their own existence. Every Tacoman thinks he?s been over that bridge and if it wasn’t there, then where is he? See? It’s existential, practically. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had pictures of birds committing arson and worse. You want to blame something on the birds in order to protect yourself.”
“I’m confused,” said Frankie, vaguely. “I wonder if it’s too late to go see a movie.”
“Well, the birds are guilty, Ed. You know that as well as I do. You know the story, don’t you?” E.Z. Haag was looking shiftily around. I wondered if he had a gun.
“How did you find out there was a story?”
“A little bird told me.”
“A pee-wit? An empidonax Flycatcher?”
“How would I know?”
“You seem to have your methods.”
“So do you. And your methods seem to have turned up nothing. I heard you were with the cops at the dome tonight.”
“If you?ve heard that, you’ve been talking to the cops. Were those all cops in the dome, all of them?”
“Didn’t you figure that out, Woodpecker? Of course they are. Some of them are honorary cops, but a cop is a cop. It was a Keepers meeting to talk about the mobbing. Mobbing, get what I mean? And Woodpecker, it seems to me that you’re the head of the whole damn mobbing plot. A guy like you thinks he can come into a town like this and just marry a little gal who’s … who’s …”
Omigod, I thought. Now I get it. Of course, this guy used to have Frankie’s picture up in his store. He was the only person close enough to me today to get into my wallet and grab her picture from there. Yeah, my wallet usually lies out, I probably left it in the reception room. This guy’s in love with Frankie, I thought.
“You’re in love with me, aren’t you,” asked Frankie. She tried to make the stool she was perched on twirl, but it wouldn’t. “I remember you. You were a senior at Staydumb High School when I was a freshman. You were considered quite a catch.”
“Someone caught me. I’m still caught, more’s the pity. But now all that’s going to change.” He looked at her with a deep look in his eyes.
E.Z. Haag had a gun, it turned out, a little nine mil Glock but it was enough to kill a woodpecker. He pulled it out of his shoe and laid it on the empty counter and looked solemnly at it.
“You may very well be right about the time anomaly, Ed,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of it, frankly.”
“Frankie,” said Frankie. “My name’s Frankie.” She was nervous, I could tell.
“Your picture used to hang right up there. I’m in love with you, baby, and so are half the guys who used to make up Downtown Tacoma.”
“Yes, of course,” said Frankie, staring at the gun. “Yes.”
He picked up the pistol and pointed it at me. “Ed, now that you’ve made an investigation, I realize that the birds don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I had to find out. I used a bird to get to the birds.”
I jumped him then. I had to. It’s traditional. I flew straight at him. This confuses humans, I’ve generally found and it certainly did in this case. Instead of firing the gun, he shrieked and covered his head with his arms. I grabbed his gun and threw it as far away as I could. I pulled my own .38 and held it on him and pulled Frankie behind me and we got the hell out of there.
Frankie had a convertible and she seemed to have no trouble at all getting it started. She fired it down Pacific Ave. through Tacoma at night. We sped down Jackson and hurled ourselves out onto the Galloping Gertie Bridge as it began to sway ominously in the night wind, twisted by one of those erratic blows from the South that make the big monstrosity sway and buckle. The huge green old thing was stretched out across the dangerous water, its thin thread of a roadway pulled up twice by tall vertical towers made of ancient metals and chemistry which crossers-over are assured are stable enough but which may not be. On this night, some few cars whirred over the modern grid of asphalt on steel. The pavement hummed. The little lights shone. The clock ticked, and then they were gone. She stopped the convertible in the middle of the span and after awhile, no other cars came across. The bridge began to sway and twist. It creaked and groaned. Above us, cables snapped like gunshots.
“Why in God’s name are you a detective?” Frankie asked me suddenly, coolly. The convertible was in neutral with the engine running still. She had thrown a bandanna with pictures of cowboys on it over her head and tied it under her chin.
“I don’t know, really.” I said. “Drive on. Let’s get out of here.”
“What are you nervous about?” she asked gaily.
“I’m not exactly nervous,” I said. I wasn’t nervous because I knew I could fly. Nothing could happen on a bridge that I couldn’t handle. In fact, when you think about it, a bridge is a clumsy kind of flight. It’s a suspension, in other words. If I was nervous, it was because I didn’t see any way I could save her if the bridge went down.
“Why are you a detective?” she asked again.
“I suppose being a detective has basically something to do with asking questions.”
“That’s the truth. You got that right,” she said. “Detectives are trying to figure something out,” she said, “if you really want to simplify it. So love,” she said, “is a mixed blessing, huh? In other words, the detective’s best friend,” she said, “is also the detective’s worst enemy. You can’t figure love out, right?”
“Well, right,” I said. “Just don’t forget anger and recrimination and bullets here and there and now and again and as well the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist sometimes,” I said. “Some people are in detection for the action. Some people are in it for the money. No one’s in it for love.” She laughed at the idea of me making any money from detecting. She kept the books at Ed Woodpecker, P.I., after all.
“Well, yes,” she said. “But love is bigger than murder, if you’re feeling it, if you’re in love, isn’t that true?”
The bridge nearly turned over. I figured honesty might make her drive on. If the bridge collapsed, she would die because one measley woodpecker wasn’t strong enough to save her from falling. “I can’t imagine love and murder in the same room,” I said, hoping that would please her.
She turned off the engine. It was dead silent except for the occasional crack of a cable bursting and the howling of the wind as it rocked the great, green bridge and it twisted underneath us.
“Right!”she shouted earnestly. “That’s what I mean! If there’s murder in the room, there’s no love and if there’s love in the room, no murder.”
“Not in any room in Tacoma. Not that I’ve seen.” I tried not to panic, but I got myself perched up on the seatback just in case.
Her eyes were big. “Love is bigger than questions or rape and bigger than corruption and hypocrisy, bigger than incest and rage, bigger than evil, bigger than money, bigger than … everything. Love is trust.”
I couldn’t argue with her. She was saying that love – of all things – was what our ?V hers and mine ?V what our whole story was about; that our ?V hers and my – story might have been some kind of adventure, might have been some literate conventional detective story with the chattered shadow of the Venetian blind across the arching black panther ashtray, the syringe nearby, or the bluesteel gun with smoke threading from its hot barrel. Instead, this story turned out to be about love, pure and simple. And it was therefore a story about eternal love, because that’s what Frankie and I are all about, whatever you might think about it. The fact that I am a bird and she a human has nothing to do with eternal love, it turns out. Or everything to do with it.
I noticed birds on the bridge, a mob of birds, by the looks of things. Then the bridge fell. It heaved and it cracked and it twisted itself loose from whatever great suspension held it there. With a scream, the great mob of birds lifted off and made a split-second decision and all turned at once and all flew to the spot in the air where Frankie hung suspended, the convertible falling beneath her, where she hung before the falling that would lead to her certain death on the black water beneath. Her eyes locked with mine. I tried to grab her as she dropped, but then the mob swarmed over me and got under her and nicely pushed her out of the way of the crumbling tower and then bounced her two or three times in the sucking air and pushed her out of its whirlpool of death and then bounced her down to the shore and eventual safety.
Through it all, she had only looked into my eyes and smiled and smiled. I guess her point was that there had been nothing to be frightened of all along, but I was still scared to death. I’d nearly lost her. She was safe. She’d made friends in both worlds and now I could see why.
“A bridge is a suspension. It is a kind of flight. Maybe there’s some secret in this,” she shouted at me, as I flew straight up, laughing and crying. I’d had it with my life, that much I knew. There had to be more to life than just asking a lot of questions.
Today I caught a heck of a nice Carpenter Ant out over the Nisqually Basin while doing a little surveillance on Grape Island for a new client. I like Carpenter ants and hadn’t had one in
years, not since the family used to camp out in the Mystery Island cedars when my Dad wasn’t working so much down in California. I’m trying to get out of the office and do a few more bird things lately, I swear. I met a nice girl, a bird in fact, in fact a woodpecker from that bunch over on Mystery Island and it turns out she’s quite interested in detection and humans in a general kind of way. But Frankie’s come back to work now, so she doesn’t really stand a chance.
Frankie sits outside my office with her legs crossed and her nylons straight and she reads detective magazines and does her nails under the yellowed light of a copper lamp shaped like a fish with an amber lampshade on its head. Inside my office, I yearn for her, even though she’s just outside.
“Tacoma,” Frankie said once, long ago, “is a mysterious place, and that’s about all there is to it.”
That isn’t all there is to it, of course, but it’s nice she thinks so.