Hard Boiled Looks and Overdue Books

A Lance Sidesaddle Saga

A pale and merciless sky stretches to infinity over the vast Mogollon Plateau. Towers of summer thunderheads mass on the far horizon, dark undersides laced with ragged lightning. This land is barren, empty, save for two fast ponies rushing down the precarious face of a rugged escarpment, dodging among dark shadows of massive boulders. The lead horse carries two, a sinewy hombre in a black hat and a slim woman in leather with a fringed buckskin skirt. And although she hangs on tightly, she does not want to be with that man, or on that horse.

Their pursuer is a muscular fellow of rugged good looks, tall, capable, a man of heroic stature and unbending intent. Face set in purposeful lines, his squinted eyes seek out ahead for the best place to overtake the fleeing pair. Yah, it’s me, Lance Sidesaddle, defender of the peace, hot on their trail.

I must catch them, and soon, for less than a mile from the dust of Ol’ Paint’s thundering hooves is a sheer drop where the mesa was carved away by glaciers aeons ago. Durn those pesky glaciers. The woman does not want to be on that horse, but at this frantic pace among the rocks, to jump means certain death. The man, facing multiple life sentences for hoss stealin’, stage robbin’, and out-of-season apple bobbin’, has nothing to lose. To this nefarious all-purpose hoodlum of the Southwest, an innocent life means less than zilch. Shady Grady – the unprincipled cadis not a man. He is a twisted, ugly thing. Bleah.

I see my advantage as our horses hit the flat. Just a hunnert feet from where the mesa ends and the wild blue yonder begins, a small wooden cabin stands. I can just catch them by the time we reach it, and then…

I’ll get to that. For now, I’m aware only of the steady beat of Ol’ Paint’s mighty hooves, an insistent drumbeat across the hard-packed earth. I call on my trusty steed to pick up the pace and he responds magnificently. The gap closes as we near the cabin, but will it be in time?

A sudden distraction, shockingly out of place in this vast and arid wasteland – a beguiling, sensuous aroma. I peer into my lock-box memory but at the moment come up with nada. It’s too far out of context. But as I close in on the fleeing pair, I’m certain of one thing: in the rustic cabin ahead, something yummy’s in the oven.

At the last instant, Grady veers his mount sharply, directly into the cabin’s dark open doorway. I gasp – this is idiocy, suicide! The girl’s scream is torn away on the wind. The horse and riders are swallowed whole and vanish. For me there is no choice, for heroically follow I must. Ol’ Paint re-doubles his stride, plunging fiercely toward the pitch-black opening. I think I see movement inside, and ready my lariat for the capture. First I’ll yank Grady roughly to the ground, then the girl will fling herself into my manly arms, her tears of gratitude anointing my weathered face.

This moment of forgivable hubris evaporates with a soft pop as my trusty horse suddenly, from a full gallop, sits down, puts on the brakes, skids to a stop, comes to an abrupt halt, et cetera. I have a momentary split second to form the quizzical thought: And what about me?

The three laws of motion authored by Sir Issac Newton in the seventeenth century dole out my fate. An object in motion tends to remain in motion.

Me = Object.

Helpless, I remain in motion, right between Ol’ Paint’s pointy ears, perfectly through the uprights like a game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. I glimpse a noncommittal shrug from the noble steed as I fly past and into the cabin’s darkened interior, falling, falling, falling…

Everything. Goes. Into. Slow. Motion. I drift downward, prepared for a bone-shattering impact followed by an eternity of inky blackness. No matter. It will be worthwhile if I can save the girl. But I feel myself, as in a dream, make soft contact with what seems to be a long wooden table. My body in slo-mo drapes itself comfortably into a chair and across the cool surface in a friendly way, as if I’d been sleeping face-down for half the afternoon. A heavenly aroma graces my nostrils, an aroma that can waft only from a plate of Grandmother Sidesaddle’s chocolate chip cookies. Grandma, is that you?

I open my eyes, and see books. Bright lights, clumps of people with curious faces, and books. Thousands of books, shelves of books that stretch into the hazy distance in all directions, and right before me, a plate of perfect cookies!

Slowly I raise my head, disoriented, searching the eyes of the silent onlookers, looking in vain for Shady Grady and the girl. But no matter. My eyes fall to the glorious plate. MMM – mmm! I sit up alertly and extend a questing hand…

Mz. Maven Bookwhiz of the Preskitt Public Library adroitly snatches the plate away, bearing the life-giving confections out of my reach and to a place of repose in the staff lounge. She tosses a stern reminder over her shoulder.

“You were snoring, Mr. Slapswaddle. Silence in Your Public Library. Please.”

A chorus of giggles rises from the hushed assemblage as they begin to drift away to the other tables. I hear someone’s whispered remark, “She tried everything to wake that inflated putz. Cookies. How brilliant!”

I ignore the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and quiz myself: What Am I Doing In My Public Library? No matter. I rise from my chair, resolute, once again a figure of authority, totally in command.

“Nothing to see here folks. It’s over. Return to your homes.”

Muffled sniggers and shushing sounds from the vigilant staff follow me outside. I sit on a bench and take stock. It’s a beautiful day in Preskitt, town that I love. But no wonder I fell asleep – it’s the middle of the afternoon! And I, defender of the peace, prowl by night. What am I doing up at this hour? And then it hits me like an impertinent flash flood.

I was staking out the library to discover the criminal perpetrator behind an overdue book. Any one of Preskitt’s two-bit hoodlums could be responsible. These vermin are after the book because of an upcoming lecture by a noted detective, announced in the Yavapai College adult ed catalogue:

Apprehend your inner sleuth!

Visiting lecturer and noted case-solver, Shirley I. Buttinsky, will talk about admission to her Hard-boiled School of Detection. One session only, Dancing Divots Golf Club. Bring yourself up-to-date on Modern Methods to Foil the Criminal Mind. Prerequisite: Hard Boiled Crime Detection for Dimwits, by Ace Beagle, available at Preskitt Public Library.

Having met Mz. Buttinsky once at a lecture in Fargo, I am obviously far too advanced to spend time in such a class, but my sidekick powers awoke from their slumbers as I read the ad, and informed me politely that all the hoods in town will be there. Why? They will be thinkin’ they need to think like the forces of Good are thinkin’ – such as the cops, school crossing guards, and li’l ole me.

The Ace Beagle book is indeed a classic, and valuable. Pluswhich, anyone who studies its pages would know how to work it either way – good guy, bad guy. I’d been pleasantly surprised that Your Public Library boasts a copy. I’d come to peruse the book, but some Devious Perpetrator had got there first, lifted the valuable tome from the Crimestoppers section, and skipped, spoiling the class for everyone else. How antisocial. Hard-boiled Crime Detection for Dimwits is not for dummies.

But no matter. The class is tonight, I must obey the hour. I walk swiftly to my trusty truck Ol’ Paint in Preskitt’s totally up-to-date parking structure, and head off in the gathering dusk.

It is full dark when I reach the mucho-swanko Dancing Divots Golf Club. A slender crescent moon hangs over the black rim of distant hills. Nice meeting room close to the front desk, should hold about a dozen students. Or villains-in-waiting. I’m strategically early. I want to take the roll personally, it will read like a who’s who of nefarious local bad people. Hmm, I say to myself: Self, you must be a little too early, because you’re the only one in the swank meeting room. So I’m sitting here entertaining me with various crime-foiling methods and this interloper lopes in with a vacuum cleaner.

He’s got a nerve, this one, opens his fat yap and says, “Scuse me, buddy. Gotta sweep.”

I clear my throat. “Isn’t this the Hard-boiled Crime Detection lecture?”

“They moved it because of the turnout. Main auditorium down the hall.”

I amble on down to the auditorium. Man! Packed to the rafters it is, a hubbub of furtive conversation amid the exchange of sly winks and nods. I was right, this is Grand-larceny Central Station.

Preparing her materials on the small stage, a charming woman, quite a figure for a legendary crime-solver. Wow. Her off-pink pantsuit is tight in all the right places. Long auburn hair flows over smartly-padded shoulders with the luxuriant sheen of a caramel apple. Her glistening lips approach the microphone, delicately shaping the elegant words, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…,” thus proving she can count higher than your average sound engineer.

I clamp down on the fleeting thought that I’d like to invite her out for miniature golf and a chili dog, and focus on a glaring fact: when I met the legendary crime-solver in Fargo eight years ago she was gray-haired, a bit zaftig, and past sixty. So I can’t help wondering: exactly whom is this impostor, anyhow?

The last seat is taken, I’m forced to stand at the back of the hall. However this works to my advantage, I can see every one of Preskitt’s neer-do-wells, including – yes, there he is – Shady Grady, perched in a chair by the door directly beneath a big black hat. He’s hunched protectively over something bulky in his lap. Can it be? It certainly can. A library book! My sidekick powers tell me it’s either overdue or illegally purloined. But that distinction will have to wait.

The satin voice of the super-glam Mz. Buttinsky floats from the PA system.

“Uno, dos, tres, quattro, cinco, seis, siete…”

With a small smile, she clears her ladylike throat and begins her lecture. In seconds the crowd is raptly attentive, attentively rapt, totally in her thrall, clinging to every silken syllable she softly speaks. She moves through the basics: hunches, intelligent guesswork, clues, forensics. For an impostor, her talk is nicely paced. She slinks to and fro, fro and to. After about ten minutes, she throws a few puzzlers to the audience.

“Alright everyone,” Mz. Buttinsky, or whoever, continues, “here’s a situation for you. Suppose you are the teller of a bank, let’s say Bank One. Someone comes to your window and hands you a note which says, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free… oops wrong note. Which says: give me all your dough. Then you notice the note is written on a Bank Two deposit slip. What do you do?”

Shifty Sam raises his hand, “I know, I know. Tell him to fill out a Bank One withdrawal slip or go back to Bank Two.”

“Very good. Yes sir, you at the back.”

I already have my hand up. “Actually, for your information, no self-respecting bank robber would waste their time holding up that bank. They sent me a letter admitting they have insufficient funds.”

A chorus of agreement transforms into muffled titters. The lecturer smiles coyly and continues.

“Now suppose you are a bank manager. You arrive at work this fine morning and see a long chain attached to one of your ATMs. What do you do?”

This time Shady Grady gets his hand up first. “Look at the other end of the chain. If there’s a bumper attached to it, then – ”

“Right,” I interject commandingly. “Then advertise the bumper and the chain for sale, cheap. The crooks will call you.” I fold my arms confidently, trying not to appear too smug. Let them chew on that for awhile.

Mz. Buttinsky throws a pert feminine scowl my way. Grady turns around and says petulantly, “No fair, my hand was up. What I was going to say is, look on the bumper and write down the license plate to tell the heat, er, I mean, the nice policemen.”

“Very good, class,” Mz. Buttinsky beams at Grady. The injustice! If only she knew?but on she goes. “Now we will have a break in the lecture, during which all of you will write a short exam.”

Groans, and the usual shuffling as test papers are handed out, pens are borrowed, assorted attendees dash for assorted rest rooms. Mz. Buttinsky announces that we have thirty minutes, and departs the stage. All heads bend to the task of completing the short exam. It’s quite simple for me, I reminisce over my long and illustrious career as I read it through. Then I hit my worst nightmare: an essay question. Write a concise short essay on cleanliness, mystery, and religion.

I throw down my pencil in disgust, thinking ‘Holy Smoke, I haven’t had a bath in 35 years, how can you expect me to remember now?’

Without warning, my super-sleuth intuition nudges my elbow and I look up. A-ha! Our Mr. Shady Grady is not in his seat! And our fair instructress is likewise nowhere to be seen. Undetected, I slip out the rear exit.

Outside, all is dark. And quiet. Too-o-o-o quiet. But I hear distant, whispered voices, and can barely discern two figures standing near a shadowy row of golf carts in a pool of dark. As I creep stealthily toward them in the dimness, my foot encounters a discarded Atkins Shake. The empty can rolls toward the furtive pair, rattling and bouncing against the curb. Abruptly the two leap into a golf cart and whirr away on the path toward the first tee.

I, too, leap upon a waiting vehicle.

A dark star-flecked sky stretches to velvet infinity over the Dancing Divots Golf Club. Towers of summer thunderheads mass on the far horizon like stacked bagels. The darkened greensward is barren, empty, save for two vehicles lumbering along the smoothly-paved cart path, dodging between the arcs of spray cast by ominous sprinkler heads that pop from the turf and squirt menacingly in all directions. The lead vehicle, a golf cart, carries two, a sinewy hombre in a black hat and a slim woman in a smart pantsuit. I think I hear the smart pantsuit reciting T.S. Eliot, but the words are torn away on the wind. Although she hangs on tightly, she does not want to be with that man, or on that golf cart. Or. Does. She. Really?

Their pursuer is a hefty fellow of once-rugged good looks, formerly of heroic stature. Face set in purposeful lines as he tries to control his roaring vehicle, this man’s eyes squint through billows of smoke for the best place to overtake the fleeing pair. Yah, you got it – me. Kaff kaff.

In the rush to pursue these evildoers from the parking lot, I’d leapt astride the last in a lineup of shadowy vehicles. I thought I’d copped a small airplane – stubby shapes protrude from the sides at a rakish angle – but actually it’s a three-bank lawn mower. Bravely I accept the hand Blind Fate has dealt me. This will surely be an epic struggle – noisy, smoky internal combustion versus silent, clean electric power – if I can avoid slicing myself to ribbons in the process.

I must catch them, and soon, for less than a chip shot from my wildly whirling blades is a sheer drop where the cart path was shorn away by developers hours ago. Durn those pesky developers. The woman Shirley surely does not want to be on that cart, but fleeing between the hissing sprinklers at eleven miles per hour, to jump would mean certain drench. Facing multiple slaps on the wrist, the teacher-impressin’, up-stagin’, library-book robbin’ driver has nothing to lose. To this nefarious all-purpose hoodlum of the Southwest, an overdue book means less than zilch. Shady Grady – the unprincipled cad – is not a man, he is a twisted, ugly thing. Most likely with a twelve handicap. Bleah.

But hark! Borne on the otherwise-fragrant evening breeze, a sudden olfactory disturbance, shockingly out of place in this lush golfer’s paradise. I rummage through my mental lock-box and come up with – yes, there it is! A porta-toidy. I can just catch them by the time we reach it, and then…

I’ll get to that. For now, I’m only aware of the mower’s powerful motor, the hum of the studded tires on pavement, the insistent sharp sibilance of the menacing metallic blades. I drive my foot more roughly against the pedal, calling on my trusty steed to pick up the pace and it responds magnificently: a quarter-RPM more. The gap closes as we near the porta-johnny, but will it be in time?

Then Grady makes a deadly blunder. He sees the muddy ditch and veers off the paved surface, up the gently sloping green. The conveyance slows to a virtual halt, its rear wheel spinning against the slick grass in soggy futility. And in that instant, I pounce.

I drive my smoking, whirling contraption gently but firmly against the golf cart’s nose, and their machine begins sliding backward. Both of them are standing now, frantic, looking for a way to jump clear, but there is no escape. Grady finally makes his move and leaps from the cart, backward, away from the gnashing blades. But he fails to see that I have fiendishly pushed them hard against the dark opening of the porta-biffy. He vanishes from sight with a blood-curdling yell of anger and resignation that fades from hearing.

I shut off the motor and all is still, save for the hissing sprinklers and distant curses echoing from beneath Grady’s big black hat, discarded and alone on the porta-pooty’s seat. The woman is standing in the golf cart, clutching the roof. Even in the faint starlight I can see she’s lovely. Take away the circumstances – her foul foul plot, her impersonation, the stolen library book – and I could see asking her out for a bowl of chili. Sorry toots, I have a mission.

“Alright, Mz. Impostor, or whomever you may be,” I snarl with unshaven masculine innuendo. “I need to see Your Library Card.”

Sadly, she can only shake her head. That clinches is – without a Library Card, my last hope for her is inexorably dashed.

“Alright, then hand over the book. Your clever little game is up.”

She bats her false eyelashes coquettishly, but her heart’s not really in it. Meekly, she extends a large heavy-ish object into my waiting hands. I flip on my patented Lance Sidesaddle Spy-Lite, and my eyes behold the sacred cover. The title alone speaks volumes: Hard-boiled Crime Detection for Dimwits, by Ace Beagle.

Car headlights rake across the green, coming downhill toward us through the blackness. The flashing reds and blues atop the white cars give the impression a birthday cake is floating toward me through the night.

In seconds we are surrounded. Detective Nabster approaches.

“Sidesaddle! What have you got?”

“Arrest her, Frank. She’s impersonating the famous detective.”

“Which one?”

“Shirley I. Buttinsky.”

“No, really, you were doing fine.”

“Anyhoo, she enlisted Shady Grady to steal this valuable book from Your Public Library. A con for a con. You’ll find him under that hat in there.”

It is over within minutes. The pert pretender gives me an assortment of hard-boiled looks as she’s led away in handcuffs. The smart pantsuit merely snubs me. I don’t mind. But I do begin to wonder – why is it whenever I meet someone I really like, she’s about to be arrested?

The disingenuous duo is placed in separate patrol cars. Soon the birthday cakes recede over the rise and I am once again alone in the dark. Alone that is, except for Detective Nabster’s parting words ringing in my ears:

Nice work, Sidesaddle.

I’ll have them engraved on my arm forthwith. Grateful yet manly tears well in my eyes. At last, a gram of respect from the local gendarmes – and he actually pronounced my name correctly!

Once again I allow myself to feel the warm glow of satisfaction, the sense of lending a helping hand, the humble pride of the unsung hero. The girl is gone, but her devious plan has been foiled. Preskitt, the town I love, will pass another night in peaceful dreams. Mz. Bookwhiz at Your Public Library will be grateful to get the Ace Beagle volume back. MMM-mmm! I can almost smell that plate of cookies.

My single spur chimes a contented rhythm as I climb the rise, heading for my trusty truck in the peaceful Arizona night.

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