John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton
jheaton

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FIC: The Christmas Canine Caper

Title: The Christmas Canine Caper
Fandom/Pairing: Community; Jeff/Annie
Spoilers: None. Mmmmaybe through 2.04 if you stretch the definition of the term
Rating/Warnings: PG for a few mild profanities
Word Count: 8,430
Disclaimer: Community and the related characters are © 2010 Sony Pictures Television Inc. and Universal Media Studios.
Notes: This is a sequel to Trouble in the Turkish District, a Community AU fic set in the 1940s, but no knowledge of that story nor of the show is necessary. Thanks to htbthomas for giving this the once-over and identifying some spots that needed to be clarified.


My name's Jeff Winger. Back in the day, by which I mean until three months ago, September 1947, I was a lawyer, and a damn good one. I suppose technically I wasn't a lawyer, at least not in the sense of having gone to law school, and as it turned out that was the sense that was important to the bar association and the law firm I worked for, so I was fired. I ask you, how is that fair? For Pete's sake, lawyers lie for a living. They should have given me a raise, not fired me.

In any event, now I'm working for a private detective, putting my skills sifting through paperwork and asking questions to good use and learning the ropes of the business. Most days, it's a pretty good gig. And then there are the days I have to listen to a pipsqueak whine about his lost dog.

Said pipsqueak, a skinny little bald guy with horn-rimmed specs, was sitting across from me in the front office of the agency, talking rapturously about his pet Dalmatian. I've met guys who don't talk about their wife and kids the way this guy was talking about his dog. It was a little creepy, to be perfectly honest about it. Finally I had to put a stop to it.

"Look, Mr. Pelton," I said, "I understand that you love your pet--"

"Mr. Chips is not just a pet, Mr. Winger!" Pelton said. "He's family. The only family I have!"

I pinched the bridge of my nose to stave off the stress headache I felt coming on. "I apologize. Be that as it may, we don't really deal in lost dogs here. Have you tried the pound?"

"Mr. Chips is far too intelligent to go to a place like that."

"My thinking is that if he's there, it wasn't altogether voluntary on his part."

"He's not there," Pelton said. "Dogs who end up at the pound are dogs that run away, and my precious pumpkin would never run away. The only possible explanation is that he was dognapped!"

"Look, Mr. Pelton--"

"And I know just who did it!" he said, talking over me. "It was Steven Spreck! He's always hated us."

I jotted down the name on the note pad in front of me. "OK. What makes you so sure this Spreck guy took your dog?"

"Well, as I say, he's always hated us."

I waited for him to continue, but he just sat there looking dolefully at me. Finally I said, "specifics would be helpful."

"Well," he said, "he's the principal of City High, which is the arch-rival of Greendale High, where I'm principal. He's jealous that mine is the better school, and of course he takes it out on me."

"Of course." I wrote "rival high school" under the name. "Go on."

"And he's hated Mr. Chips ever since he beat his mangy Weimaraner for Best in Show at last year's Denver Kennel Club Dog Show."

I added "dog show" to my notes. "So you think he dognapped Mr. Chips because ..."

Pelton looked at me like he couldn’t believe I'd asked something so stupid. "Well, the next dog show is less than a month away, isn't it? Obviously he's trying to eliminate the competition."

"Obviously," I said, writing "obviously" on the pad. Why was I writing any of this down? "Well, based on what you've told me, he would certainly seem to have a motive. But motive isn't evidence. Nor is a--" I hesitated, trying to think of a tactful way to phrase it. "--supposition by a rival."

Pelton looked heartbroken. "So you won't take the case?"

Behind him, I saw the door open and my boss step into the office. Thank God, I didn't want to deal with this screwball for a minute longer. "I'm not the one to make that decision," I said, smirking in anticipation of his reaction to meeting the head of the agency. "Craig Pelton, meet Annie Edison."

His double-take was everything I hoped it would be. Annie Edison was a woman who turned heads wherever she went. Sometimes it was because she was the youngest female private detective in the state; more often it was because she was one of the most beautiful female anythings anywhere. Given his demeanor and mannerisms, I had the feeling in Pelton's case it was the former.

"Mr. Pelton's dog is missing," I explained as he stood and they shook hands. He was even pipsqueakier than I thought; he was only a few inches taller than Edison, who was just a little over five feet tall. "He believes it was taken by a rival dog owner in order to remove it as competition in the forthcoming dog show."

Edison came around to my side of the desk, sliding my note pad closer to her and frowning as she read it. "I see." She looked at Pelton. "You're the principal of Greendale High."

He brought his hand to his chest in surprise. "Why, yes," he said. "Forgive me, but you're not--"

"A former student? No, I graduated from Riverside High," she said. "I was on the debate team as a freshman. I remember you from the Greendale Invitational."

"I'm surprised I can't say the same," Pelton said. "You're a very attractive woman." Hm, maybe I was wrong about him.

"I've grown up a lot since then. Now then," she said, returning to his side of the desk and sitting in the chair next to his, "tell me all about your dog."

Pelton's face lit up and he launched into an ecstatic recitation of his dog's virtues. It was the smartest, bravest, handsomest, and altogether most perfect Dalmatian in the world. It was his boon companion, his best friend, a true member of the family. It was too much for me, but Edison was eating it up, and her wide, sympathetic eyes encouraged him to even greater rhetorical heights. I didn't like where this was heading.

Before long, Pelton was in tears and Edison was patting him gently on the knee. "Don't worry, Mr. Pelton, we'll find your dog." This only made him cry harder. I kind of wanted to cry too, but what could I do? Dames are suckers for a sob story.

While Edison tried to console the sobbing man, I pulled a standard contract out of my desk, fed it into my typewriter, and started filling in the blanks. Once Pelton had calmed down, I slid the contract across the desk to Edison, who walked our new client through its details and secured his John Hancock on the bottom line.

"If you'll be home this afternoon," Edison said, rising from her seat, "Mr. Winger and I will stop by to look for clues." Oh, brother. Pelton also stood, and Edison walked with him to the door, reassuring him that it was only a matter of time before he and his dog were reunited. Once he was gone, she whirled around and stomped toward my desk with fire in her eyes. She grabbed my note pad off the desk and shook it at me. "You call these notes?"

God, she was sexy when she was angry. It's not like I ever intentionally tried to make her mad, but the thought did cross my mind occasionally. "It's a lost dog, for Pete's sake," I said. "How was I supposed to know you were going to take the case?"

"Whether we took the case or not is irrelevant! What if this turns out to be part of an international ring of dognappings? We would have needed that information down the road."

"An international ring of dognappings?"

"Purebred dogs are very valuable, Winger. In any event," she continued, "he is our client and we have nothing to put in his file but 'Steven Spreck rival high school dog show obviously'."

I sighed. "Fine. I'll type up something. I can remember what he said."

Edison's anger disappeared and she gave me a bright smile. "Just the part before I got here, I'll type up my own record." She tossed the pad onto my desk and disappeared into her office.

I'm not much of a typist--back at the firm, I had a girl who did this kind of thing for me--and I'm particularly bad when I'm trying to write at the keyboard, so I wrote my report in longhand on a legal pad before turning to my typewriter. Edison had no such handicap, so naturally she finished well before me. When she emerged from her office, she was carrying a manila folder, which she placed into one of the half-dozen file cabinets that lined one side of the outer office.

Coming over to where I sat, she hiked herself up onto the desktop and watched me type. I forced myself to keep my eyes on the keys. I had a weakness for a nicely turned ankle, and Edison's were as nice as they came. "You're really terrible at that," she said, not unkindly.

"Thanks, Edison. I'll mention you said that when I nominate you for Boss of the Year."

She smiled. "So what are your plans for Saturday?"

I looked at her, puzzled. "I don't know, nothing in particular. I'll probably go to L Street in the evening, see if I can find a honey to keep me company. Unless you're asking me on a date."

"No," she said with a snort. "Nothing personal, but I don't date my employees."

"It's hard not to take it personally when I'm the only employee you've ever had."

"Don't flatter yourself, Winger. It's always been the policy, even when my father owned the agency."

I let it drop. "Fine. Wait," I said, a horrible thought occurring to me. "You don't need me to work, do you?"

Now she looked puzzled. "No, of course not. Who am I, Ebenezer Scrooge?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

She stared at me disbelievingly. "This Saturday is the 25th." I looked at her blankly. "It's Christmas."

"Oh. Yeah, I guess it is," I said. "Well, I guess the bar's out then."

"You're not doing something with your mother?" she said incredulously.

"No. We never made a big deal about Christmas, not after my dad left anyway." That was the understatement of the year. Once my dad walked out on us on Christmas morning the year I turned nine, Christmas was literally a non-event in our house. Just mentioning it was enough to make my mom fly into a rage. One year I watched her chase a group of carolers down the street with a broom, screaming that she would have them arrested for trespassing. "And even if it was, I'm sort of avoiding my mom right now. She thinks I'm still a lawyer."

Edison snorted again and disappeared into her office, and I turned my attention back to my typewriter. Five minutes later, she was back. "You're coming with me to Shirley's."

"What, now? I'm still working on my report."

"Not now," she clarified, "Saturday. Shirley invited me over to her house to have Christmas brunch with her and her boys." Shirley Bennett was a registered nurse whom Annie's father had helped with a nasty divorce, and since then she had been a loyal "friend of the agency," part of a loose network of informal operatives who helped in various ways. "And when I told her you had no plans, she told me you were welcome too.”

"Gosh, that's swell of her," I said, my mind racing as I tried to think of a way to get out of it.

"And don't you dare try to get out of it," Edison said, looking stern. "She was thrilled to have another guest." Dammit! "How's that report coming?"

"Slowly," I admitted.

"Let me see that handwritten sheet you're working from." I slid it across the desk to her. "You have nice handwriting for a man," she said, reading it over. "I couldn't read half of what my father wrote when I typed up his reports.” She looked up. “And the answer is no."

"I wasn't aware I had asked a question."

"You were wondering if I was going to get so impatient waiting for you to finish that I would type it for you." True. But I wasn't going to say it. What am I, a goon? "But I don't want to sit around here all day when we have a client waiting for us. And since this is perfectly legible and reasonably comprehensive, you can put it in the file as is."

I ripped the paper out of the typewriter, wadded it up, and threw it away. "It would have been nice to know that before I wasted so much time trying to type it," I said petulantly.

"Stop it, Winger, you're making me cry," she said, perfectly deadpan. "Get your coat, let's go look for that dog."

When we got downstairs, I saw a cab waiting by the curb. "I see what you're doing here," I said approvingly. "Pelton's paying our expenses, so we're taking a cab to the pound even though it's close enough to walk. Edison, you have the mind of a lawyer."

She made a face. "Ugh. Why would you say such a horrible thing?" She opened the back door of the cab and climbed in. I followed, and found our driver to be Pierce Hawthorne, another friend of the agency. He used to be a big shot corporate executive, lost it all in the Depression, and now drove a cab. "As it happens, we're not going to the pound. We're going to see Mr. Pelton."

I rolled my eyes. "See, that's that lawyers do," I said. "We're all about billing the client for as much as we can get away with. For example, making an unnecessary cab trip to a client's house to give the illusion that we're taking his case seriously."

"I am taking it seriously!" she insisted. "Maybe it's different in a big firm, but for an independent operator like me, client service is everything! Why do you think Pierce and Shirley and Abed are willing to help me out the way they do? Because my father took care of them when they needed it. It's not just about making a buck, it's about building lasting relationships."

"Fine. Just wake me up when we get there." I leaned back and brought the brim of my hat down over my eyes. If we were going to waste time making pointless trips to look for non-existent clues to a dognapping that didn't happen, I may as well try to take a little nap on the way.

Edison had other ideas though. "Speaking of relationships," she said, "why haven't you told your mom you're not a lawyer anymore?"

"It's complicated," I said, still leaning back, hoping she'd take the hint.

She didn't. "How is it complicated?" she said, sounding genuinely perplexed. "Tell her what you told me. She'll be proud of you for landing on your feet."

"You don't get it," I said, giving up on the idea of trying to catch some shut-eye. "My mom always told me how special I was, how I could do anything I put my mind to. Finding out I'd been fired, that I lied my way into the job in the first place, it would break her heart."

"You think she doesn't know you lied your way into the job?"

"What the hell does that mean?"

"For Pete's sake, Winger, how dumb do you think your mom is?" she said scornfully. "It's one thing to fake a diploma, but are you telling me you sat around for three years pretending you were in law school first?"

I was speechless. She was right. Of course my mom knew I hadn't gone to law school. She'd probably been waiting for the ax to fall for years. I can't believe she never mentioned it. A warning would have been nice, frankly.

"Call your mom," Edison said flatly. "It's Christmas, she wants to hear from you."

"She hates Christmas."

"But she doesn't hate you." We rode in silence for a few blocks. "Do you know why I took this case?" she said finally.

"I think I've made clear that I don't."

"It was what Pelton said about Mr. Chips being his only family," she said, ignoring me. "I don't want anyone to have to go through Christmas without ..." She trailed off without finishing the thought.

I glanced over at her. She was staring straight ahead without really looking at anything. I couldn't really see her eyes, but I knew what I'd see in them if I could. She was rarely maudlin, but her eyes often betrayed a deep sadness when she talked about her dad, who had died suddenly when she just nineteen years old. I hated seeing it. And apparently I even hated not seeing it if I knew it was there. I sighed. This woman would be the death of me, I knew it.

It wasn't too much longer before we arrived at Pelton's house, a little clapboard number in Coldwater, a small town in Greendale County. It was painted white with black spots. "Wow, he does love his dog."

The inside of the house was just as odd. Which the exception of a few framed photographs of an unattractive woman who bore a strong resemblance to Pelton--his mother, he said, from whom he had inherited the house after her death--every picture in the house was a photo, painting, or print depicting a Dalmatian. There were a half-dozen plush Dalmatians sitting atop his bed, which was covered by black-and-white spotted linens. The furniture was upholstered in Dalmatian-patterned fabric. Every shelf held at least one Dalmatian figurine, and most had more than one. And I don't think I have to tell you what his tablecloth and dinner plates looked like. It was the weirdest goddamned thing I'd ever seen.

Edison, though, took it in stride. She listened attentively as Pelton talked about how difficult it had been to paint the house, which he had never even known existed until after his mother died; acted interested as he told us about this Dalmatian statuette or that set of Dalmatian salt-and-pepper shakers; and didn't even crack a smile when he admitted his secret shame: that some of what he told people were Dalmatian-patterned items were, in fact, Holstein-patterned. But all the while, her eyes were on the move, taking note of every detail, any little thing that looked out of place or seemed unusual. More so, that is.

Once the tour was complete and we were back in the parlor sipping tea out of spotted teacups, Edison started asking questions. Most of them were about things we didn't really need to know--how long Pelton had owned Mr. Chips, what he liked to eat, that sort of thing--but she slipped in a couple of questions about what she'd observed during the tour. The gap between the fence and the ground in the corner of the back yard? No, Mr. Chips would never even dream of leaving the yard; he was far too well trained for that. The collar with attached dog tags on the end of the leash hanging near the front door? Only used when he and the dog went out for a walk. Otherwise, Mr. Chips never wore a collar, lest it chafe his delicate neck. I dutifully recorded each question and answer, relevant or otherwise, in a small notebook, trying to make sure they were up to Edison's exacting note-taking standards.

After wasting several minutes on this mostly pointless endeavor, she drained the last of her tea and placed her cup and saucer on the coffee table in front of her. "Well," she said, "I think that's everything I need to know. You have any questions, Winger?"

The only one that sprang to mind was, "what the hell is wrong with you," but I figured that wasn't exactly the sort of thing she had in mind, so I just shook my head no. She told me to record the information from the dog tags on the collar by the door while she explained the next step in our investigation to Pelton and he chose a photograph of the dog to lend us. Once we were finished with our respective tasks and hands had been shaken all around, we made our way out front, where Hawthorne was waiting for us. "So what did you tell him?" I asked.

"That we would drop in on Mr. Spreck and look for evidence there."

"And what are we actually going to do?" I asked, dreading the answer.

"Drop in on Mr. Spreck," she said simply.

"Oh, for the love of-- Look, Edison, you know as well as I do where that dog is," I said, "and unless Spreck moonlights as a dogcatcher you know he didn't have anything to do with it."

Edison waited until we were back in the cab to respond. "Does the number 6,000 mean anything to you?"

"It does not."

"It's the number of hours of investigative work you need to put in before you can get your license," she said.

Come to think of it, that did sound familiar. Before Edison hired me to be her leg man, I looked into being a private eye myself, but found that unlike the bar association, the P.I. licensing board actually looked into the backgrounds of people who want to be licensed investigators. "Who says I want to get a license?"

"Who cares what you want? I want you to get one," she said. "You'd be a lot more useful if you were licensed. Right now I've got no problem sending you off to talk to lowlifes in a dive, but with a license I could send you to talk to respectable people too."

"Hey, I can deal with respectable people just fine," I said, offended. "Just last week you were saying how good I was at getting the girls downtown to hand over copies of documents." I was good at getting dates with them too, but never mind that. I had a feeling Edison wouldn't approve.

"That's only after I took you around and introduced you at the places we have to deal with all the time. If those girls leave, and most of them will, I'll have to do it all over again. And the public records office, the utilities, the police, they represent a tiny fraction of who we might have to deal with. There are dozens of banks around here, thousands of private businesses. We'd never get to them all even if I was inclined to try. One time in a hundred you might be able to get what we were looking for just on the strength of your personality and your silver tongue, but ..."

"But if I could flash a winning smile and a license, I'd be in like Flynn."

"Precisely." She gave a smile. "I knew you were more than just a pretty face."

I preened a little at the compliment. Sue me, I'm vain. "So what does that have to do with our going to see Spreck?" I asked.

She rolled her eyes. "I take it back. We're following a lead from our client. That's investigating. We can count this time toward the total hours you need."

"The lead's no good."

"We don't know that."

"All the evidence points in that direction."

"All the evidence we've seen so far. Who knows what we'll find at Mr. Spreck's house?"

"I know what we're not going to find," I said. "Anyway, how is padding my hours so I can get my license faster any different from my old law firm padding our bills?"

"Because it's a stupid rule!" she said, suddenly angry. That surprised me, because Edison loved rules. "I had my three years in. I could've been the youngest private detective in the history of the state."

"I thought you told me you were the youngest."

"The youngest woman. Pete Crenshaw, Bob Andrews, and Jupiter Jones were all younger than me. Which is crap," she said, sounding even angrier, "because even if they were 'junior assistant deputies,' they weren't compensated so those hours shouldn't have counted." I had no idea what she was talking about, but I hated to interrupt a good rant, and like I said, she was really damn sexy when she was in a lather. "I was actually on the payroll, but I didn't have the hours, because I could only work part-time while I was in school. It took me almost a full year after I graduated to get my hours."

She sat back with a huff, her arms crossed across her chest. I had a feeling there was more to it to that, but she obviously wasn't in a mood to talk about it, so I chatted with Hawthorne about boxing. We agreed that the LaMotta fight in November had been fixed, but disagreed on who should've won the Louis-Walcott bout earlier this month. He actually thought Louis had earned the win. No wonder he lost his business.

Before long we were back in the city. We stopped at a phone booth so Edison could call Spreck. "Good news," she said as she climbed back into the cab, "Spreck's home, and he said we were welcome to stop by."

"Good. I'd hate to waste a trip," I said, as sarcastically as I could manage. She didn't rise to the bait, so I tried another topic. "So how about Pelton's house? Pretty weird."

That got a smile out of her. "It was a little much. I mean, my father loved to fish, but ..."

"But he didn't paint fish scales on the house?"

"Exactly."

"It was owls with my mom," I said. "She has a curio cabinet filled with nothing but owl figurines, and one entire shelf with all the ones I've given her." I had sent her another, a sterling silver one, on her birthday earlier this year. It occurred to me that I didn't know if it had joined the others in the cabinet, and suddenly I felt terribly guilty about not having visited her lately.

Edison was nodding. "It's a safe gift for someone who's hard to shop for. Almost everything I ever gave him had something to do with fishing, or had a fish on it, or something like that," she said. "Last year ..." She trailed off, and while part of me wanted to ask what last year's gift would have been, I had a feeling that it would just lead to her getting emotional again, and I wanted to avoid that if I could.

But she didn't leave it up to me. "I was going to surprise him on his birthday," she said. "I told him that I was going to wait to get my license, so I could get the first one issued in the new year? But I had taken the exam without telling him, and once I found out I had passed, I went downtown to pick up the license and get it framed."

She stopped there, but I knew the rest. When she got to the office afterward, she found her father slumped over at his desk, dead from a heart attack. Maybe that's why she was so down on the licensing law, because it had gotten in the way of her being in partnership with her dad, even if for only a few months.

I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything, nor did Edison. Hawthorne filled the silence talking about his mom, whose body, he said, had been converted into Energon particles and sealed in a Mason jar on his front porch until science had progressed to the point where her body could be reconstituted. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about, and I thought it would be best not to ask.

Spreck lived in a third-floor walk-up in a slightly run-down building on the South Side. He welcomed us warmly into his apartment, which was small but immaculately neat and tastefully decorated in blacks and dark grays. That described him pretty well, too; he was a Negro, on the short side, and sharply dressed in a crisp white shirt and charcoal trousers with creases that looked like you could cut yourself on them.

Edison introduced us and explained why we'd come. Spreck shook his head in disbelief and invited us to sit down. As we did, a large dog came bounding into the front room and started barking crazily at us. I'll admit it, I jumped a little. It's not that I'm afraid of dogs, you understand, but it was pretty big and it took me by surprise. "Frederick!" Spreck said sternly, and the dog immediately stopped its barking. "Lie down!" It did.

Edison, who hadn't flinched at all when the dog came running into the room, looked at me and said, "I wish you were that well trained."

Spreck laughed. "If only it were that easy! My job would be a quite a lot easier if my students listened to me the way Frederick does." His expression darkened. "Or if Craig had listened when I told him I don't have his dog."

"You've spoken to him about it?" Edison said.

He nodded. "He called me first thing this morning. It's absurd, of course. Why would I steal a dog when I already have the most perfect dog in the world?" he said, reaching down and scratching the Weimaraner between its ears. "But even if I was inclined to, I would never steal his. It would destroy him."

"Mr. Pelton indicated that you might like to see that happen," Edison said.

"Please. He's the one who personalized the rivalry between our schools."

"And the dog show?"

"I'll admit that Frederick losing Best in Show last year stung," he said. "But ..." He trailed off. Edison and I looked at each other. I inclined my head slightly toward Spreck: are you gonna try to make him keep talking?. She shook her head: no, just wait.

When he continued, his voice was thick with emotion. "Frederick is the only family I've ever known," he said. "I never knew my parents. Growing up in an orphanage, scraping my way through college ... it didn't leave much time for relationships. For me, losing Frederick would be like losing a child."

"Mr. Pelton said much the same thing when we spoke," Edison said, half to herself.

Spreck nodded. "Exactly. I know he feels the same way about his Mr. Chips as I do about my Frederick. Even if I did hate him as much as he thinks I do, I couldn't deprive a man of his only family."

Edison stared at him intently. Finally she said, "I believe you, Mr. Spreck." She stood and extended her hand to his. "Thank you very much for agreeing to speak to us."

Spreck also stood, looking somewhat surprised. "It was no trouble at all," he said as he walked us to the door. "And please, let Craig know I had nothing to do with this."

"We will," she said. "Thanks again."

"So what was that about?" I asked as we walked downstairs. "He says he didn't do it, you say OK, and that's it? You don't even ask to look around?"

"Says the guy who thought we shouldn't have come here in the first place."

"That's beside the point!"

"It was obvious the minute we pulled up the dog wasn't here," she said, exiting the building and getting back into Hawthorne's cab. "I live in a building almost exactly like this. There's no way he could hide a second dog in an apartment that size. And there were no white hairs. They would've stood out against that gray upholstery."

"But--" I stopped. What was I doing? Edison was right, I never expected to find the dog here, so what was I complaining about? "Fine. Good point. Now what?"

"Now Pierce is going to drop you off at the pound so you can find out if Mr. Chips is there."

"You're not coming too?"

"I think you can handle it. Unless," she added with false sweetness, "they start barking."

"I was just startled."

She raised her eyebrows. "Whatever you say, Winger. Once you've found out whether the dog is there, head back to the office and get started typing up the notes from our talks with Mr. Pelton and Mr. Spreck. I expect to close the case no later than tomorrow, so if you start now you may have it done by then."

"Funny. And where will you be?"

"The Greendale County courthouse. I want to follow up on an idea I had while talking with Mr. Spreck."

"Really?" I wracked my brain trying to think of something Spreck had said that would warrant a trip back to Greendale County, and drew a blank. "I don't--"

"It doesn't matter. Just an idle thought I wanted to check up on." The cab stopped, and I looked out the window to see the city pound. "I'll call the office later to check up on what you found."

"Why don't you just wait?" I asked. "This won't take long, then we can both--"

"No. I don't know how long it'll take me. It's not even connected to the case, really. And it may not amount to anything." She paused, thinking. "If the dog is here, call Abed, ask him to come down and take some pictures of it so we can prove to Mr. Pelton that it's not some other Dalmatian."

"Whatever you say, boss. I'll be waiting for your call." I got out, and I watched the cab speed away before heading inside. Pelton's dog was there, of course, as I'd been saying all along. I shook my head. We'd wasted hours driving around conducting needless interviews when we could've had the case closed ten minutes after Pelton left this morning.

I hoofed it back to the office, stopping by the coffee shop owned by Abed's father to pass along Edison's request and to get a sandwich to go. Abed was enthusiastic about the assignment, and as usual he couldn't help comparing it to one of his favorite radio shows. "I'm like Jimmy Olsen to Miss Edison's Superman!"

"Who does that make me?" I asked, not sure I wanted to know the answer.

"Well, she saved you from that mad scientist, so ... Lois Lane."

Figures. You get rescued from certain death just once and all of a sudden you're a damsel in distress. "Just develop the pictures as soon as you can and bring the prints by the office." Edison hadn't actually said anything about prints, but if the point was to convince Pelton his dog was in the pound, we'd need a set. "Come to think of it, make two sets." Pelton would probably want copies.

Back at the office, I sat down at my typewriter and slowly transcribed my notes between bites of my sandwich. It was slow going, and more than once I found myself thinking wistfully of my secretary back at my old firm. And not for the usual reasons.

Abed showed up at the office about an hour later. His explained that he'd taken the pictures and developed the pictures, but that the negatives needed to dry before he could make the prints. I wasn't sure why he hadn't just called to tell me that, but I was was glad to see him. I had him sit down on the other side of the desk and read my notes to me, which had the dual benefit of allowing me to focus fully on the keyboard and getting him to shut up about radio shows for once. Don't get me wrong, I like listening to the radio as much as the next guy, even enjoy talking about it by the water cooler once in a while, but Abed took it to extremes. He was a good kid though, and with his help I finished faster than I thought I'd be able to and with a lot fewer mistakes.

We had just finished up when Edison came in, looking disgruntled. I was surprised to see her so soon, especially since she hadn't called. "Didn't find what you were looking for, I take it?" I said.

"No, I found it," she said, pulling a kraft envelope out of her bag. "But I had to agree to let the county clerk take me out to dinner to get my hands on it. I was able to push it off until after Christmas, at least, but still." I felt a weird twist in my gut at hearing that. I told myself it was because I didn't approve of some sweaty, balding bureaucrat extorting a date out of someone who was obviously way out of his league. "And it wasn't until after I agreed that he bothered to tell me he didn't have one of the documents I needed. I had to make a trip to Denver City Hall for the other one."

"Hope it was worth it," I said.

"I think it was. Since Abed's here, I assume you found the dog?"

"Yup. Right there at the pound. Less than a mile away. Unlike, for instance, Greendale County."

"How'd you know it was Pelton's dog and not some other Dalmatian?"

"Because I recognized the pattern of his spots from all the photographs I--" I broke off, noticing Edison's smirk. I had never met anyone so adept at making me look like an idiot. "Fine, it wasn't entirely a wasted day. So now what?"

She glanced over her shoulder at the clock above the door. "There's not time for him to come up here to get Mr. Chips before the pound closes for the night."

"Hold on a sec," I said. "Why is the dog at the city pound if it ran away from a house in the suburbs?"

"Maybe he jumped onto a passing train," Abed said. "Lassie did that once."

"Sure, why not," Edison said. "We'll call him tonight, have him come here so we can prove to him it's his dog. He'll need to be here first thing, though, the pound may be closing early tomorrow."

"What makes you think that?" I asked.

"Probably because tomorrow is Christmas Eve," Abed said.

"How does a Muslim know that and you don't, Winger?"

"I told you we didn't celebrate Christmas!" I said. "And Abed probably knows because his shows are being interrupted for special programming."

"Actually, Jesus is a fairly important figure in Islam," Abed said. "He's regarded as one of the prophets of the Lord that preceded Mohammad."

"Oh, that's right!" Edison said. "I remember reading that once."

This conversation was dangerously close to spinning out of control. "What does this have to do with anything?" I asked.

"Nothing," Edison said. "It's just interesting."

I didn't get paid enough for this sort of thing. "Yeah, fascinating." I picked up my typed notes. "After I file these, can I go?"

"Let me take a look at them first," she said, snatching them out of my hand and giving me a paper cut in the process.

"Ow! Ask next time, Grabby Hayes." Abed nodded approvingly. At least someone around here appreciates me.

"Boo hoo. These are fine, by the way," she said, handing the notes back to me. "Call Mr. Pelton before you go, ask him to come to the office at 9:00 tomorrow. Make sure he brings the registration papers and the collar. Abed, can you make those prints tonight?"

"Sure," he said. "Mr. Winger didn't say how many pictures you wanted, but I figured one picture of each side and one each of his front and back would be plenty. It doesn't take long to make eight prints."

"Good. Slide them under the door tonight so we'll have them first thing tomorrow. And good thinking on the two sets of prints. Mr. Pelton will want a copy to keep." With that she turned and went into her office, closing the door behind her.

Abed tilted his head to one side. "It was your idea to make two sets of prints," he said, sounding confused.

"Don't worry about it, Abed," I said. "There's no better feeling than getting praised for something you didn't do."

Once he was gone, I picked up the phone to call Pelton, noticing as I did so that Edison was on the other line. I wondered briefly who she might be talking to, but set it aside when Pelton answered and I delivered the message. He was thrilled, wanted to come down right then, but I assured him that while it wasn't possible to retrieve the dog tonight, I personally had seen it and could assure him it was in no danger. Privately, I thought another night away from Pelton might do it some good, but I kept that thought to myself.

After filing my notes, I knocked on Edison's office door and stuck my head in. She was at her typewriter, presumably writing a report on whatever she had done in Greendale County. "I'm on my way out. You need me to do anything else before I go?"

She didn't look up from the typewriter. "No, thank you. I'm leaving myself once I finish this." She stopped typing and looked over at me. "Don't let Mr. Pelton go to the pound before I've had a chance to speak to him, OK?"

"Got it. See you tomorrow." I hustled out of there before she changed her mind.

I found Pelton waiting for me when I arrived at work the next morning. He was pacing back and forth in front of my office door like a caged animal, and when he spotted me at the end of the hall, he ran to me and grabbed my arm. "Mr. Winger! Oh, thank goodness you're finally here! I've been beside myself worrying about Mr. Chips! Is he here? Can I see him?"

I gently detached Pelton's hand from my arm--not as easy as it sounds, he had a pretty good grip on it for some reason--and continued down the hall toward the office. "Your dog isn't here, Mr. Pelton. Once we get into the office, I can show you some pictures we took last night." I hoped. Abed was reliable, but who knows what might have happened? I paused to unlock the door, then continued, "We'll need to wait here a bit before we go get your dog. Miss Edison wants to talk to you about something."

He wasn't happy about that, but he was mollified to some degree by the photos. I invited him to take a seat, but he was a bundle of nervous energy, and instead resumed pacing. I hoped Edison wouldn't keep us waiting too long.

She didn't. It was just a few minutes later when she walked into the office, followed closely by an unexpected guest: Steven Spreck, dressed to the nines in a gray pinstripe suit. When Pelton caught sight of him, he gave a little shriek and rushed over to him, grabbing him by the lapels and trying to shake him. "What did you do with Mr. Chips, you monster?"

Spreck pushed him away easily. "I told you yesterday, I haven't seen your dog in months," he said, smoothing his lapels as he spoke. "I know you don't think much of me, Craig, but I can't believe you think I would stoop to stealing another man's dog."

"No one stole your dog, Mr. Pelton," I said. "He's down at the city pound. I saw it with my own eyes."

Pelton looked stricken. "I-- I just can't believe Mr. Chips would run away," he said. "He's always been such a good dog!"

Edison had missed all this, having gone into her private office as soon as she arrived. When she emerged, she had taken off her coat and hat and was carrying the kraft envelope she'd brought back from the county clerk's office. "Gentlemen, if you'd have a seat, there's something I wanted to discuss with you both." They each took one of the chairs in front of my desk, Pelton taking care that his chair was a sufficient distance from Spreck's.

"When Mr. Winger and I visited Mr. Spreck's apartment yesterday, I was immediately struck by the feeling that I had seen him somewhere before."

"You said you recognized me from a debate tournament," Pelton said. "Maybe you saw him at another tournament?"

She shook her head. "I considered that. But I dropped out of debate after my freshman year, and we didn't debate City High that year. No, it was something else. It came to me when he told me that his dog Frederick was his family. I remembered you had said the same thing about your dog, Mr. Pelton. And I remembered the pictures of your mother I had seen at your house. And when I looked at Mr. Spreck and imagined him with white skin and glasses ..." She let the thought hang there.

The two men looked at each other, taking in what she had just said. I was sitting across from them, and now that Edison had mentioned it, I couldn't not see the resemblance. It wasn't just physical either. Their voices, their mannerisms ... I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before.

"I don't believe in coincidence," Edison said, "and when I see two men who have as much in common as you two, it makes me wonder." She opened the envelope. "It took some doing to find what I was looking for," she said, pulling two sheets of paper out of the envelope. "Well, not this first document. Even Mr. Winger here could have gotten a copy of this."

"Hey!"

She gave Pelton one of the sheets, and handed me the other. It was a carbon copy of Pelton's birth certificate. "It was a different story when it came to you, Mr. Spreck. Your records were sealed. It took everything I had to get the county clerk to open the file for me." She pulled another two sheets out of the envelope, handing one to Spreck and the other to me. It was another birth certificate. I compared the two, and found, unsurprisingly at this point, that the two men had the same mother.

"I don't know the whole story," Edison said, "and everyone involved is long dead, so we'll never know. But a white girl, a black boy, a small town ... it's easy to imagine a child born under those circumstances might end up in an orphanage. And maybe that young girl came to the big city to get away from the stares and whispers, met a nice young man, maybe had another child, one she could keep."

No one spoke for a long time. Pelton kept looking back and forth between the document in his hand and the man next to him. Spreck was doing the same. Edison was looking at them, and I was looking at her.

Pelton was the first to speak. "This is quite a shock." He looked at Spreck, who was nodding in agreement. "I'm surprised you would go to all this trouble."

"Once it occurred to me that you might be related, I had to look into it. I couldn't have lived with myself otherwise. This is no time of year to be without family." I felt another little stab of guilt as she said this. "I can't be with mine, but if I can help someone else be with theirs ... that makes it a little better."

Pelton stood and gave Edison a hug. "Thank you. Thank you so much."

"It was my pleasure, Mr. Pelton." she said. "Now go get that dog and introduce him to his uncle."

Both men laughed. Pelton hugged her again, and Spreck followed suit. They left the office together; Edison stood in the doorway, watching them walk down the hallway. As they disappeared down the stairs, she turned to me. "Write up a report about what happened this morning," she said brusquely. "Longhand is fine, but use carbon paper. Seal the original in an envelope, sign the back across the flap, and put it in the Pelton folder. Make a new file for Spreck, and put the copy of the report and his birth certificate in it, in another sealed and signed envelope." She didn't wait for me to respond, just went into her office, slamming the door behind her.

I did everything she asked, then sat at my desk thinking about what she'd said this morning, about what she'd said to me in the cab the day before. I picked up the phone and dialed a number I'd sort of been trying to forget. I took a deep breath when I heard the familiar voice on the other end of the line. "Hi, Mom," I said, a little nervously. "It's Jeff."

When I hung up about a half-hour later, I looked over to see Edison leaning against the jamb of her office door with a grin on her face. "My mom wants you to come to dinner on Sunday," I said.

"I'll bring dessert," she said, still grinning.

I couldn’t help but smile back at her, a small, soft smile that felt completely unfamiliar, like I'd never smiled in quite that way before. It felt nice. "You were right, by the way. She knew."

"I usually am," she said. "Remember that and you'll go far in this business. And from now on, make your personal calls on your own time." Talking with Edison gave me whiplash sometimes. She looked up at the clock above the door. "I don't know about you, but I've got better things to do on Christmas Eve than hang around here." She went back into her office and came back wearing her coat and hat. She was halfway out the door when she stopped, turned back, and gave me a long hug. When we broke apart, she looked up at me, her big blue eyes shining. "Thank you, Jeff."

I felt that unfamiliar smile creep onto my face again. "Thanks for making me do it."

"Pierce and I will pick you up at 11:30 tomorrow, OK?" And with that she was out the door. I watched her go, and for the first time in years I found myself looking forward to Christmas.
 
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