This chapter was a one-shot for The Sparkle and the Snark-Filled Twilight Humor Contest. Thanks to Pastiche Pen for hosting the contest and giving me a reason to start thinking about ferret jokes in the first place. Thanks also to mellyfrisco6 for cheerleading and helliex88 for being the best sort of friend: the sort that tells you the truth when you ask for it.

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Ferret Farming

Jasper

"It's my brother," she sobbed, wiping her baby blues with delicate hanky corners. "He's disappeared."

I shoved the tissue box closer to her. No way was that tiny piece of fabric going to last long.

Why do I always get the crying dames? What about the Lauren Bacall hair-in-her-face you-know-how-to-whistle babes?

I made a mental note to start factoring tissue costs into my fee.

"When was the last time you saw him?" I inquire, trying to look as interested in her story as her body. Trying not to focus solely on the appealing way her knees bounce together softly as she sobs. Flawlessly rounded calves are capped by dimples perfectly sized for the flat of my tongue, syncopating together, apart, together, apart to reveal just a sliver of lacey darkness….

"Two days ago." A feisty blow furls the hanky.

She's a tiny thing. The back corner of my mind considers what a good sign that volume of lung power could be.

I lean back in my desk chair, appraising her while waiting for her tears to stall.

First of all, are we sure the tears are genuine?

Natch, I answer myself. No self-respecting broad blows her shnozz like that in front of a guy if she can help it. Maybe if I was 30 years older than her and gone to seed. And I ain't that.

"You're sure he's not holed up somewhere sleeping it off?"

Her sobs dwindle to sniffles; she's ready to talk some more. "That's what the police said." Her voice assumes a husky, obviously mocking, condescension, "Pshaw! Kids these days get a wild hair 'nd decide to go off 'to find themselves'. You watch, little lady. He'll be home before you know it with stories about waking up in a Tijuana whorehouse."

More tears spill, fresh rivulets squeezed out by black fringe. Her cheeks are flushed with emotion, her bosom now hypnotizing me with heaving ups and downs.

I'm beginning to feel flush myself in a far different part of my geography.

Concentrate, Jasper.

"What makes you think they're wrong?"

Her chin flies upward as her eyes flash fire. "He's not like that, Mr. Whitlock. He's a good boy who looks after our mother. Not an evening goes by that he doesn't check in with Mom to let her know where he's at. To see if she needs anything. "

She's a sparky little thing, too. I'm tempted to make her scold me again.

I light a stogie, drawing a hard puff to mask my amusement. Even 'good boys' have been known to do things that are 'not like that' once they hit college.

I rush to reassure her, flashing a conciliatory smile, "No harm meant. Just that, in my line of work, sometimes we go looking for folks that aren't exactly lost. What's your theory about where he is?"

"Well, isn't that why I'm here? If we had been able to find him in the usual places we certainly would not need you."

Yep, that ire has a satisfying smack. "No need to feel defensive, Ms. Masen. It's my job to ask even obvious questions. Where was he when you saw him last?"

"He dropped by my job on Tuesday. I work in lady's lingerie at Nordstrom's. He just….wasn't himself, you know? Eddie's never jittery and agitated like that. He swore that nothing was wrong so I figured he'd been taking Adderall or something for exams again. He's always so particular about his grades." Parallel pools of blue sorrow search my eyes for understanding. "I had all these customers so I told him I'd talk to him later." She blows her nose again, not as stridently this time. "I didn't know there wasn't going to be a later."

"Any chance he was up to anything shady? Maybe not quite on the up and up?" My cigar may as well be a lollipop. I'm working it hard.

"Well…" her voice trails off.

The side of me that will never be a gentleman rejoices. It looks as if some light coercion is in order.

I lean closer, dropping my head to establish and hold her eyes. "I can help you find him. But I'm gonna need you to trust me. What are you not telling me?"

She begins to wring the hanky, giving the cloth a thorough working over that makes me squirm in my chair more than a little. Torment rages across her porcelain features until her body stiffens, signaling her decision made. "Ferrets," she whispers, her eyes steadfast on the bit of linen.

"Beg your pardon?" I inquire in confusion.

She continues in a stronger voice. "He kept saying crazy things about 'ferret sperm' and 'all that money' and stuff that didn't make any sense. That's why I told him he needed to go." Renewed tears ensue. "He was scaring the customers."

Shaking my head back and forth, I begin,"You'll have to forgive me, Ms. Masen…"

"Call me Alice," she sniffs.

"Alice…but I'm not following…"

"FER-RET SPER-M," she enunciates painstakingly. The way you speak to those 1-800 yahoos you have to call for help with your cable service but don't speak clear English. "My brother was selling ferret sperm."

"How would he…? Whoa, wait; forget that. Never mind." Still befuddled, I realize I'm thinking aloud.

Mortified by the unbidden image of fuzzy hand jobs for jizz collection, I hit that stogie hard again, wondering how much porn I'll have to watch to purge that particular graphic.

My mouth continues to spew idiocy without consulting my brain first. "There's a market for ferret spunk?"

She shrugs, an erotically dainty gesture. "They're adorably fuzzy pets."

~i~

Alice wasn't especially helpful at supplying leads, knowing the names of only two of her brother's friends. In fact, Eddie's only friends work with him at one of the university's research labs. I'll have to wait 'til after lunch to speak to them.

That makes my first order of business easy: visit my former landlord. Lucky for me I used to rent a room above Ventura's Pet-o-Rama.

10:00 A.M.

It's been 30 minutes since Alice left my office.

Eddie has been missing for 37 hours.

A chime announces me as the door behind me swings shut with a pneumatic whoosh. Trying to avoid wrinkling my nose at the zoo smell, I spy a scraggly blond ponytail below a 4 inch bald spot trying to untangle a ball python from his shoulders. Wiping his hands on dirty jeans, he greets me like a fat woman to a tub of ice cream. "Jasper! I knew you'd miss the old place. Just so happens I have a room recently become available. We could hang out like old times." Chuckles like he just can't wait.

"James." He gives me a reproving look but doesn't bother correcting me. Damn straight. Dude keeps telling me his friends call him 'Ace' but I'm not bromantic like that. He never seemed to get the message that the running buddy thing wasn't gonna happen for us. "I'm here on business"

I did some work for James a few years back when he needed to find out who was teaching his macaws to say, "Polly wants a blowjob." Hi-larious as that may sound, those birds are expensive. That job also taught me that James had some pretty creative ways of keeping his costs low when importing his stock. Those stinking macaws had to have health certificates and shit.

"Here for that sugar glider, then? Knew you'd cave eventually."

Ugh. "Can you get me a ferret, James?"

He whips his head around to face me with suspicion, all traces of humor gone. "Is this a trick question? You know they're not legal in California. What makes you think I can get contraband beasties? My business is strictly legit. See for yourself; check my records."

I don't think he could have looked more insulted if I'd called his mother ugly.

I snorted, "Yeah, we both know how dry the ink is on your records. Look, I'm not here to break your balls. When my little niece told me that the only thing she wanted for her birthday was a ferret, I knew you were the man who could make it happen."

Flattery works every time.

"Why didn't you say so instead of trying to give me a heart attack? For you, Jasper, I can make anything happen!"

I give him my broadest smile, "I knew I came to the right place."

'Strictly legit' my chiseled tush.

We retire to his office to work out the details. I assure him that money's not an issue when he starts to outline costs. Seems that there're lots of palms to be greased in this transaction. When I tell him my niece wants to pick out her own pet he starts to backpedal. I finally tell him that I want to inspect his supplier's operation to make sure my sister's family doesn't get the plague or some shit. When I give him a knowing look about not trusting his word regarding health conditions he's suddenly Mr. Motivated all over again.

James promises me that he'll call me after he 'talks to a guy'.

~ii~

I catch some lunch after leaving James, it being too early to visit Eddie's friends. I consider going to the gym but decide there's no time for that. The thought makes me grumpy. I work hard to make this body the temple that it is.

It's 12:45 P.M. and I'm having flashbacks to my college years. What I can remember of them, anyway.

It's been nearly 4 hours since I spoke with Alice.

40 hours since Eddie was last seen.

Alice told me that her brother works in the Reproductive Research lab here at UC San Diego. I doubt that I'll need a PhD to find a connection to my investigation here.

Stopping at the administrative office for directions to the research lab, I stifle a snicker as their Admin points out the two boys in question. If I had put an ad on Craigslist for 'college geeks' I would have immediately rejected these two as too stereotypical. Both had the bad haircuts, Hanes T-shirts and too-stiff jeans required for Revenge of the Nerds poster boys.

"Heidi out there said you could tell me about your research. So, what do you two do here besides watch the rats hump?"

Maybe it's just me but watching overachieving kids do a spit-take never gets old.

One kid starts spraying his Red Bull like a tagger before I have finished my question.

"Nah, that shit gets old by the second day." Thing One gives me an appraising look then turns to his friend, "Bet you absorb the caffeine faster that way, taking it up the nose."

Thing Two doesn't seem to find this information comforting.

"Aw, Dude, that's disgusting!" he coughs, wiping his nose and mouth on a sleeve.

"Sorry to startle you boys. I'm Jasper Whitlock, Private Investigator."

My extended hand, or maybe it's my statement, generates a stare from both boys; one with a tight jaw and defiant eyes, the other with what looks to be escalating panic.

Seating myself on the edge of a table, I shake my head and tsk at them. "See, this is where you two shake my hand and introduce yourselves. Go ahead; you don't want your Mom to feel like a failure 'cause you're this old and don't have any manners. You know Moms have a sixth sense when it comes to party fouls. Watch, your cell's gonna go off any minute."

Thing Two, still looking like a bunny caught by a Maglite, actually shoves his hand in his pocket.

"I'm Paul. Is there something we can help you with?" Thing One/Paul makes it clear that helpful is not precisely what he's feeling right now.

"You were going to tell me about your research?" I coaxed.

"You were going to tell me who you are?"

"Jasper Whitlock, but I think I said that. Eddie Masen's family hired me to see what I can find out about his disappearance."

"Eddie really is missing?" Thing Two either has a squeaky voice or he's not getting enough oxygen.

Paul throws him a STFU glare before returning his eyes contemptuously to me. "We're comparing the rates of DNA fragmentation in zygotes created by ICSI to that produced by spontaneous fertilization."

"Intracytoplasmic sperm injection" interjects Thing Two, who still hasn't introduced himself.

I nod my understanding as Paul continues, "And this is Seth."

Seth manages a little wave.

Something doesn't add up so I query, "Wasn't that topic covered pretty extensively by Attila Jakab at Yale?"

I'm rewarded by the exact same dumbfounded looks of a few minutes ago.

I shrug self-deprecatingly, "I dabble."

It's no surprise when Paul is the first to recover. "That study only quantified the rate of DNA fragmentation. We're developing selection criteria for individual sperm selection."

Well, why didn't you just say so?

"But it's not as if you two are the primary investigators, right? What part do you guys have in this?"

"The part where we clean cages, catalog specimens, feed the animals; I really like that part…" Seth is apparently eager to list their duties in detail.

I doubt I have enough time this week to let him continue. "So, simply stated, ya'll have access to a ton of animal spunk."

Seth giggles loudly, "Ew, It's everywhere! You'd think, considering their size, ya know? we'd have to keep a bunch of them to have a decent supply but when they blow a load they really…."

Another pointed look from Paul and Seth's mouth swings closed like a spring. "Seth loves chatting about our work with anyone who'll listen but we have things to do. You said something about Eddie being missing?" His heavy brow furrows but his voice doesn't communicate the same concern.

"Yes, indeed." Now that they know I can talk the talk it's time to get down to it. "When was the last time either of you saw him?"

Paul seems to consider this but something about his eyes piques my notice. "Well… we all worked Tuesday afternoon but I left at 4:30. Seth's his roommate, though."

We both turn to regard Seth, who looks like he's ready to bolt again.

"Yeah," his head bobs vigorously, "We were all here on Tuesday."

"Tuesday, got it. His family saw him Tuesday, too. Has he been home since? Do you know where he might be?"

His voice squeaks higher than one of the mice.

"Which one? I mean, which question do you want me to answer," he wipes his now sweaty forehead with the Red Bull stained sleeve, "first."

"I'll let you pick." I'm wishing they'd let me smoke here 'cause it would be so wrong to laugh at this boy.

"Ok, …well," another brief swipe at his forehead. Seth is clearly not used to lying. "I don't think he's been home. I mean, I'm not sure that he hasn't been home. I just don't think he has. That's not really so unusual, though. Sometimes he studies in the library overnight so he's not tempted to raid instead."

My face must be hollering 'confused' because he continues rapidly, "WoW…World of Warcraft? He has this 57th level Knight Elf with some fuckall healing spells. You combine that with his attack XP and our guild..."

Maybe I can simply hold a cigar and pretend to smoke. He's giving me everything but what I want.

Raising a hand to halt his tangent, I wonder, "Isn't two days a long time to be in the library?"

"I was hoping maybe he'd hooked up with a girl," he blurts, turning scarlet.

"Does he have a girlfriend?" I stifle a sigh, hoping we're finally getting somewhere.

"No….."

"What about ex-girlfriends? Do you know anyone he's interested in?"

"Umm, no and no." When I throw up my hands in exasperation he continues defensively, "Hey, a guy can hope. Look, Eddie's a really great person. I tell him all the time that he just needs to speak up a little more, make himself more available, maybe join a club…"

Paul's starting to seriously piss me off with his interruptions by now. Not because he needs to let Seth continue blathering but because Paul isn't interrupting to be helpful.

"Would you look at the time? Seth, I'm sure Mr. Whitlock has plenty of other people to talk to and we" he grabs Seth by the crook of the arm, looking as if he'll drag him away if he has to, "have poop to scoop."

I hand them each a business card with instructions to call me if they think of anything else. I'm nearly to the door before I turn to ask, "What kinds of animals did you say you're studying here?"

"Gosh...we didn't! We have…hmmm, you've seen the rats…plus there're monkeys, rabbits and ferrets. Most of the important mammal grou….ow!"

I can't be sure, 'cause I didn't see it, but I'd swear that Seth just took a hard blow to the ankle.

I don't make it to my car before my cell vibrates.

"Hey, it's Seth. Meet me at the back of the Fine Arts building in 30 minutes."

I wouldn't miss it for the world.

~iii~

Exactly 30 minutes later I'm standing at the far end of a lightly crowded gallery corridor. I make a mental note to thank Seth for giving me a chance to appreciate the outstanding UCSD student body.

2:30 P.M.

It's been 42 hours now since Eddie went missing.

Feeling a movement to my left, I turn to see Seth facing away from me, pretending to be engrossed in a misshapen piece of plastic and McDonald's wrappers that's somebody's demented idea of art. I wait for him to speak first. He called this meeting.

"Pssst, Mr. Whitlock," he whispers out of the side of his mouth.

"I'm right here, Seth."

"I'm worried about Eddie." He's still trying to pretend we're not speaking to each other.

"We're all worried; he's been gone a long time already. You're a good friend to want to help."

"I won't be that good a friend if I disappear, too. "

I turn quickly to search his face. "What are you boys up to, Seth." My manner neither questions nor requests, a growling demand for information.

He's stealing glances to both sides of us, his back ramrod straight, shoulders picket fence stiff.

Kid's taking this cloak and dagger stuff way too seriously.

"Shhhhhh! Keep your voice down!" Sweat has started to collect along his hairline.

My patience, never in great abundance, is completely spent. I snap more harshly than intended, "Cut the crap, Seth. Your friend's situation gets worse with every minute that passes and the time for games is past. You need to man up, spill what you know, and spill it now."

He's fretting with the edges of his pockets. "It's bad."

"I got that feeling." Deciding that he needs a nudge, I probe, "Tell me about the ferrets."

I've seldom seen brown skin blanch so profoundly. "It was Paul's idea."

"Another surprise."

"I don't think Paul knew this was going to happen. I know he comes off like a tool but he's really not a bad guy." Seth's eyes are a somber plea for understanding. I start to feel bad for this poor kid who seems to believe there's good inside everybody. "Paul's afraid that telling you too much will only end up hurting Eddie worse."

My opinion of Paul is not as generous as Seth's.

He finally groans a strangled torrent of sound, "Eddie and I just wanted to be able to pay for school. Maybe have a little spending money, too? We thought maybe we could do all that and help little children have adorably fuzzy pets. That's win-win, right?"

"Until somebody gets hurt."

~iv~

I try to convince Seth to follow me to someplace he can talk more comfortably. He says he needs to get back before Paul misses him. Something tells me that Paul misses very little. For that matter, I wonder how Paul could possibly fail to notice what a mess Seth is right now. If today is any indication, though, he might be like this all the time.

4:00 P.M

Nearly 7 hours since I spoke with Alice.

Eddie has been missing for 44 hours now.

I glance again at the address Seth has given me, trying to gauge how much longer my drive will take.

Seth hands me a grease stained napkin containing an address. "I found this in Paul's backpack after you left. All I know for sure is the guy's name is Eleazar or something like that but I've never been to this place and I've only seen him once. Paul set up this connection and he's the one who made all the deliveries."

"What do you think happened? Why Eddie suddenly disappeared?"

"He was just acting funny. Kept telling me that the numbers didn't make any sense. Finally, day before yesterday, he told me he'd been calculating how many shipments we'd made and their statistical outcomes. Eddie's real analytical like that. Me? Give me hard science any day: all I need are cytology slides and a microscope and I'm a happy man. Sometimes I go home with blue fingertips 'cause I get so preoccupied mounting slides...."

Hands on both shoulders, I shake him gently but the kid doesn't seem to notice. "Focus, Seth. Eddie's analysis?"

"Oh, right. He said, even if you assumed the worst case fertility outcomes, we had already delivered enough jizz to put 2 ferrets in every home in California. Something else had to be going on."

Suddenly, the world got a tiny bit darker but I didn't have time to speculate. "Spell it out for me like I'm stupid, will ya? What are you talking about?"

"Our little swimmers weren't just giving anklebiters alternative pets. I think Eddie figured out what else they were being used for."

"And what would that be?"

"I wish I knew."

I drive past the address twice, once from each direction so as not to raise any suspicion.

My eyes roll as my cell vibrates against my chest, making me wonder if Seth has thought of something else. To my surprise, the caller ID indicates James.

"Jasper, my man! You're in luck! I talked to my guy who talked to another guy and –BAM- we can get your precious niecey a date tomorrow morning with some of the sweetest ferrets you'll ever lay eyes on. Did I say you could count on me or what?"

I pull the car to the curb, parking a block away from my destination. I'm too distracted to stroke James' ego right now but I force saccharine enthusiasm into my tone.

"What a guy! I knew you'd come through for me! Little Jessie is going to be so excited."

He chuckles with satisfaction and gives me an address and time to meet him the next morning. While writing the address, I mentally tag this meeting as 'worst case scenario number one'. Hopefully, I'll have Eddie back sooner than that.

See, I don't have a niece or a sister. I wince at the thought of trying to find a broad willing to let me borrow her kid to call me Uncle Jasper for a few hours.

Pushing those thoughts aside, I focus again on the two addresses in my hand, flabbergasted to see that they're the same: 5323 El Cerrito and 5323 El Cerrito. Botanica Montoya. I imagine and reject a shload of possible connections between jizz and herbal remedies.

I walk in to the building oozing warmth and personality. "Hi, I'm looking for Eleazar?" I give the man striding toward me my most ingratiating smile.

"I am he. Como puedo ayude? How can I help you?"

"Are you Mr. Montoya?"

"No, that would be my brother-in-law, Iñigo."

I turn away and pretend to cough in an effort not to laugh in the man's face. Recovering my composure, I inquire politely, "Your bother-in-law is Iñigo Montoya?"

"He is. Do you know him?" He has a heavy barrio accent that I haven't noticed before now.

"No, no I don't…it's just…Iñigo Montoya. Never mind." I wipe moisture from my eyes, trying to regain control.

He crosses his arms, giving me some definite attitude.

"You don't think I know what you're dying to say? You wanna say, 'Hello. My name is Iñigo Montoya. You kill my father. Prepare to die', right? Pfft. Like we haven't heard that before. In our country Iñigo is a proud name. A man's name. Here, he gets no respect and everyone makes a joke of him."

I must need serious work on my poker face because he abruptly starts laughing so hard he grabs his side as if he's pulled a muscle. Then he hooks a finger in his cheek to mimic a fish caught on a lure.

"Phew! That never gets old. And you fell right into it! You looked like you were going to offer me money not to cut you." He's still chuckling softly as he continues, the barriospeak completely gone now. "Seriously though? Senor Montoya's name is Tomas. I hope you'll forgive me; things are so slow around here I have to make my own fun."

Fucker. I reach into my back pocket for my wallet, shaking my head.

"Where are my manners? I haven't introduced myself yet. I'm Agent Whitlock with the INS. We got an anonymous tip…"

Now it's his turn to sputter. "Hey, no offense or anything. Just trying to have a d, few laughs, right? Everyone here has a green card. Whoever gave you that nosey-ass tip was lying to cause trouble."

Time for my million dollar smile as I finish retrieving my wallet. "Punk'd! Thought I'd give you one of my personal favorites, seeing as how you're such a big joke fan. It is so cool that we have that in common."

Handing him the picture Alice gave me I continue, "I really am Jasper Whitlock but I'm here investigating the disappearance of a local college student. Have you seen this kid anywhere?"

I'm taking a huge gamble here but I'm starting to get the feeling that I need to find Eddie soonish. Other than the moronic jokes , this guy doesn't give me the dangerous vibe. I've decided to get straight to the point and see where it leads me.

He hands back the picture, not meeting my eyes. "No, I don't think so. He doesn't look familiar."

I'm used to people lying to me, in my line of work, so I'm suspicious of everyone already. They all seem to be making my job easy today, though.

"Fine, don't tell me. Let's try this one instead: what connection does your store have with ferrets?"

His eyes are wide, his pupils dilating quick as a wink. He takes an involuntary step backwards, muttering, "Ferrets? Like, the adorably fuzzy pets?"

I hesitate a moment to repeat my mantra: insulting witnesses is counterproductive, insulting witnesses is counterproductive.

"You got it. Fuzzy. Adorable. Now, tell me why would my pet store friend tell me I can get a ferret here?"

His eyes honestly start to bug while the rest of his face contorts. Looks like he's trying to make a decision and finding it painful.

He exhales a forceful mixture of sigh and groan, apparently unhappy with whatever decision he's reached.

"All I ever wanted was a job where I could take care of my family, put food on the table, maybe have a plasma TV. Is that so damn much to ask? Noooo, I have the bad luck to fall in love with a beautiful woman who has a prick for a brother. So I've got the job, the family, the TV but I've also got this pendejo who thinks letting me marry his sister makes me his bitch! I'm done with this. If I have to pack up Carmen and the boys and move them to effing Montana, fine. I always wanted to open a smoothie shop…"

If I were a more patient man, and that's a Dallas-sized if, I'd let him talk until he got to his point. I make a mental note to try putting Seth in a room with this guy just to see who'll talk the longest.

"Whoa, Eleazar, dude! Don't pack the van yet. What do your domestic problems have to do with ferrets and my missing kid?"

"Anything for a buck, that's him. I don't even ask what he does with that stinking stuff those kids bring me; I don't want to know. I just do what I'm told. Take what they bring, store it in the fridge, pay them, mind my own bidness. But I'm not going to jail. Family or no family."

Eleazar looks dangerously close to a panic attack and he hasn't told me anything useful yet. "Hey, nobody said anything about jail. You tell me what you know, help me find this boy, and nobody has to know you were involved."

He's wary but seems to be thinking 'in for a penny, in for a pound'. Or however they say that in Spanish.

"Ok, here's the deal. Until a few days ago, I didn't know there was anybody but this Paul kid involved with Tomas. He was the only one making deliveries and we always met somewhere else, never here. So, out of nowhere, in comes this kid," indicating the photo still in my hands, "asking for me by name. I'm a little freaked but he's got the stuff and tells me Paul couldn't make it before I even had a chance to ask. I figure, whatever. I'm minding my own bidness, right? Then, Monday, I come in to work and Paul's here, arguing with Tomas. I couldn't hear much but Tomas sounded pissed. He's one scary-assed cabron when he's mad, too. The only thing I heard clearly was Tomas telling Paul to 'fix it' or he would."

This is the very thing that's been worrying me since 9:00 A.M. The thing I've been hoping, without much faith, wasn't happening.

"Are you telling me that Tomas is scary enough to kill a kid?"

Eleazar shrugs, his eyes stoically blank.

"I don't know. Probably, but I don't know how deep this goes. I can tell you I wouldn't want to be somebody messing with his cash flow."

I rub my eyes, trying to think.

"This doesn't make sense. Obviously your brother-in-law is up to something shady enough that he needs it to stay quiet but, what? What about ferret spunk is so goddamn special that it's worth making someone disappear?"

Eleazar is suddenly the voice of reason.

"Does it matter? So we find out he's been adding jizz to the concoctions he sells the curanderos? They don't care and the FDA'd shit a brick if they got a look at our products anyway. The way I know Tomas, though, that's not where he's making his money. He's had some even scarier vatos with tats like la M in here but, you know, I'm minding my own bidness. He's also gotten calls from dudes with Russian accents or some shit a couple of times. But does knowing all that get your kid back?"

His reasoning smacks me between the eyes like the Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. He's right, of course. I'm not the police. My job is to find Eddie, sooner rather than later.

As if on cue, the cell vibrates again. This time it is Seth.

"Hey, Seth. What ya got for me?"

He sounds spooked, ready to lose whatever thin control he has to begin with.

"Mr. Whitlock, Paul freaked about something and it looks like he's buying plane tickets. He's not even trying to hide shit any more; he didn't even clear the history on the desktop. He just left and I'm going to his house to head him off. I thought you'd want to know."

Fucking kid's heart's too big for his own good. I force myself to use a reasonable voice.

"You did a good thing by calling me, Seth. Give me Paul's address; I'm on my way. Listen carefully, though, 'cause you won't do Eddie any favors by getting yourself hurt."

I'm trying hard not to say 'killed'.

I hear Seth take a deep breath as I continue, "You need to promise me NOT to go inside Paul's place until I get there. You got that? Keep him from leaving but wait for me to go in."

"Ok, whatever, but we need to do it now. I've never seen Paul like this and I don't know what he'll do." His voice is strained with effort as if he's running.

"That's fine, I'm leaving right now. One more thing: print whatever you can about the tickets he booked and bring it with you. Can you take care of that for me?"

I write down the address Seth gives me as I head for the door.

Hesitating at the threshold, I pause just long enough to reassure Eleazar. "Looks like no one needs to know I was here. I appreciate your help, though."

"de nada, bro. Selling smoothies is looking better and better."

~v~

I call the police en route to Paul's.

Of course, San Diego traffic makes a 20 minute drive into 45.

6:00 P.M.

9 hours since Alice sat in my office.

46 hours missing.

Detective Emmett McCarty and I go way back. He's giving me his wise-ass grin as I arrive to flashing lights and two police cruisers. Paul's front door is wide open.

Emmett leans into my open window, already laughing.

"What took you so long? You missed all the fun; we've already got the little shit cuffed and Mirandized."

"You look happy as a dog with two tails, Detective. What'd you do to make you smile like this?"

"I knocked on his door, asked 'Have you heard the Word of God today' and proceeded to barge right in. That's when your little friend shows up and start's rushing through the place yelling, 'Eddie' like he's in a revival of Streetcar or something. I haven't had this much fun in months."

He's pretty damned pleased with himself.

I'm annoyed that I did all this work just to miss all the action.

"You found Eddie?" By this time I'm out of the car and headed to the sidewalk.

"Oh, yeah. Stanley Kowalski there found him bound and gagged in a closet. He's a little sore from the ordeal but he'll bounce back. Perked right up once his sister got here."

Alice is here already?

I mutter my thanks to Emmett and push off toward the apartment door. The apartment is bright like every light in the place has been turned on.

Seth spots me first. "Mr. Whitlock, we found him! Eddie, this is the guy I was telling you about."

Eddie looks just like his picture and nothing like his sister. Recessive genes, maybe.

His face is scored by exhaustion but his eyes are moist like he's been working at holding back tears. Damn I hate to see men cry. Even when they're young and look like they're the sensitive type anyway.

He grabs my hand. "I am so grateful for everything you've done for me and my family today."

"Just doing my job, kid. I can trust you to stay out of trouble from now on, right?"

He nods vigorously, the picture of earnestness in every bit of his body language.

"Yes, sir. From now on, we're paying tuition the old-fashioned way: student loans."

Alice steps around him to place her hand on my arm. Her hand burns through my shirt and up the length of my arm. In less than a second her touch affects both of my brains (the big one and the little one) like fast-acting venom.

My blithering mind fails me completely. I'm afraid I feel drool trickling down my chin.

I focus long enough to notice how much smaller she is than me. She's smiling through her lashes and I see a hint of hot pink lace flanking her cleavage.

Hot pink and lace. Two of my favorite things.

"We really are grateful, Mr. Whitlock. Aside from your payment, if you can think of anything else we do to say thank you…"

Her smile tells me she knows she doesn't have to finish her sentence. That she knows exactly what she's doing.

I squeeze her hand and turn to escort her from the apartment. "I'll have to give that some serious thought. Didn't you say you work in lingerie?"

Something tells me this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

A/N – It became quickly apparent while writing the one-shot that I had too much story in mind for a one-shot. I made adjustments to my story line and life went one. After the story was posted for the LJ contest I finally wised up and realized I could write more chapters. Chapter 2 will be up in the next couple of days.

Definitions and References:

Lauren Bacall/"You know how to whistle…"To Have and Have Not, (1944) – the birth of the noir blonde bombshell.

Ace Ventura, Pet Detective (1994) – The gold standard of detective parodies.

Revenge of the Nerds (1984) – Very funny movie with lots of young boys who grew up to be big TV stars.

ICSA and Atilla Jakab – This guy is doing astounding work to decrease side effects of in vitro fertilization. .org/article/S0015-0282(05)03327-3/abstract. PM me if you want to discuss this.

Botanica – A shop that sells herbs, charms and other religious or spiritual items.

Como puedo ayude – How can I help (you). – Spanish

Inigo Montoya – that whole schtick is from The Princess Bride (1987)

INS – (for the foreign readers) Immigration and Naturalization Service

pendejo – insult with various translations including idiot and asshole. - Spanish

cabron – also has many translations but usually means bastard. - Spanish

curanderos – herbalist or other healer without a medical license. - Spanish

la M – Mexican Mafia

Have You Heard the Word of God Today? - Cheech & Chong's Wedding Album (1974) – prevented me from disparaging any religious group

Streetcar – Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams play, Elia Kazan film (1951)

Stanley Kowalski – Marlon Brando's role in the film listed above.

"This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." – Casablanca (1942)