The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2009 Results

The Case of the Cinnamon Canary

Copyright © David Campbell 2009

Tallulah McLovely was trouble. I knew it the moment the door opened. She leant casually against the doorframe and tossed her head. Hair the colour of honey rippled like a field of corn kissed by the breeze.

"Hello, lover," she breathed.

"Er…ah…come in," I mumbled in a passable imitation of English. I fully intended to stand and offer her a chair, but my legs had suddenly turned to jelly. The same could not be said for another part of my anatomy, so there were two perfectly valid reasons for remaining seated. It also meant that I could concentrate fully on the vision before me.

She had a figure that made an hourglass look like a grandfather clock, the face of an angel, and a walk that suggested her hips were independently sprung. Her legs began at the ankles and went up so high I got a crick in my neck just looking. She was wearing a white blouse that left little to the imagination and a red belt that had probably been advertised as a mini skirt. This miracle of feminine pulchritude perched carefully on the edge of my desk and leant forward, a slight smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "I need your help," she murmured.

She was wrong. I was the one who needed help. My eyes almost fell out of my head and plunged into the valley of delight that had opened up before me. I forced myself to lift my gaze. There was a light dusting of gold stars on her cheeks and eyelids.

She laughed. "My name’s McLovely, Tallulah McLovely. My friends call me Tally." She opened her purse and extracted a photograph. "I need you to find something for me. It’s a bird, a very valuable bird."

It was my turn to smile as my heart rate returned to normal. "A falcon, by any chance? A Maltese falcon?"

She frowned. "No. Why would you say that? It’s a canary. Worth a small fortune."

I was staring at a picture of a small golden bird, exactly what one might expect to find in a cage hanging near the kitchen window of a suburban brick veneer. "A canary?"

"Yes. A solid gold canary with diamond eyes. A Cinnamon Canary, to be precise. It belongs to Daddy and it’s been stolen. I know who took it and I need you to get it back, darling. Discreetly."

"Discreet is my middle name," I stuttered. "Philip Discreet Chandler, at your service. Investigations R Us. No questions asked, no legal assignments refused. A hundred bucks an hour, plus expenses."

"Daddy," she said, in a voice that reminded me of the distant tinkling of sleighbells on a winter evening high in the Swiss Alps, "Daddy runs a hedge fund."

"Uh huh. I see." I made a quick note in the diary. Big money. Good fee.

"No, I don’t think you do!" There was something in her voice that made me look up. "He’s the managing director of a company dedicated to the preservation of Cypress hedges. They’re targeted by arsonists, so Daddy has set up a fund to help protect and rejuvenate them. The Cinnamon Canary was a present he bought for me. For…assistance rendered. And now it’s gone. It’s mine, you see. And if you could retrieve it, I’d be ever so grateful!"

I fought to concentrate, steepling my fingers and tapping them against my teeth. Someone had once said it made me look intelligent. "And you know who’s taken it?"

"Indeed I do. Two hoodlums by the name of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. They’re in the fencing business and they hate Cypress hedges. Daddy can tell you everything you need to know."

And so it was that a short while later I turned my battered Holden in through two massive wrought iron gates and trundled along a gravel driveway towards a house designed in a style much favoured by retired porn stars. I walked up a short flight of steps and into an entrance hall that could have comfortably accommodated a symphony orchestra in a rousing rendition of the 1812 overture, cannons and all.

Tally led the way up a long, curving staircase and I dutifully followed her legs, wondering what I might find at the top. Of the staircase, that is. I was in for a surprise. We walked into a bedroom and there, standing beside a huge four-poster bed, was a man in his sixties. Grey hair, ramrod straight, with a gun held against his right temple by a tub of lard in a suit.

"Daddy!" Tally gasped and took a step towards the bed.

"That’s far enough, sugar-lips!" The voice came from behind the door, and a second man appeared, also with a gun. I didn’t know weasels carried guns. "Well, well…two for the price of one. We know who you are, doll-face, but what’s with the dude?"

"He’s a…friend of mine. His name’s Bob. Bob Mitchum." Tally was quick off the mark, I had to give her that. I thought it wise to remain silent.

"Sweetheart, you have a very naughty Daddy!" The blancmange was clearly angry. "The Cinnamon Canary we went to so much trouble to steal is a fake!"

"A fake?" Tally glanced at Daddy, who merely grimaced and looked somewhat grey around the gills. The piece of tape stretched over his mouth made any other response impossible.

"Yes indeedy," chortled the weasel. "A solid-lead, gold-painted fake! But now that you’re here, Daddy is going to tell us where the real one is. Because if he doesn’t, you’re going to have a little accident. In fact, several little accidents!"

"Now now," murmured the whale. "Curb your natural instincts for a moment. I do apologise for my friend’s…ah…enthusiasm. All you have to do, my dear, is persuade Daddy here to tell us where the real Cinnamon Canary is and you’ll live to see another day. Otherwise…well, Mister Lorre does have some rather unsavoury habits."

"Oh I do, I do," giggled the weasel. And he ran the tip of his cold, hard barrel slowly down the valley of delight that had so recently reduced me to babbling incoherence. I still thought it wise to remain silent. Premature miscalculations can have unfortunate consequences.

Tally shot another glance at Daddy. "Don’t tell them anything! Perhaps, gentlemen, we can come to some sort of arrangement. Where is the fake?"

Greenstreet reached into a bag on the bed and produced an object wrapped in red cloth. He removed the covering and revealed a small golden bird. "See!" He pointed at a scratch on the head. The dark colour underneath indicated quite clearly that the bird was, indeed, not solid gold. "It’s a paint-job. And just what do you mean by arrangement?"

"Well, if I can persuade Daddy to tell me where the real Cinnamon Canary is, will you let us go? I’ll give it to you if you’ll spare our lives."

"Oh sure, sure, baby-cakes," Lorre sniggered. "And have you blabbing all over town just who took it?"

"And why would I do that?" Tally smiled like the cat that’s just discovered the cream. "If I say it’s been stolen then I lose everything. You see, it’s not insured. So I don’t want anyone thinking it’s disappeared. Otherwise, how could I sell the fake?"

"But...but…that’s illegal!" I couldn’t help myself.

"Really, darling…would you rather be dead?" And she patted my cheek. "So you see, gentlemen, it’s a win-win situation. You get the real Cinnamon Canary and avoid having the police after you for multiple murders, while I get the fake and the chance to keep breathing. Oh, along with Daddy and Bob, of course."

There was silence except for the trilling of birds outside the window. Greenstreet looked at Lorre, then back at us.

"Okay, you’ve got a deal." He shifted his vast bulk away from Daddy, but still kept his gun carefully aimed. "No tricks, now!"

Tally walked across the room and three pairs of eyes followed every undulation. Daddy simply stared at the floor. Tally gently removed the tape from Daddy’s mouth and held his face in her hands. "You know it’s for the best," she murmured. "Come on now, tell me where it is or we’ll all die."

"No!" Daddy’s response was immediate, explosive and, in the circumstances, somewhat disappointing. "I’m not giving those crooks anything! And you…you should be ashamed of yourself! You’re nothing but a lying, conniving…." Whereupon Tally replaced the adhesive firmly across his mouth and silence once more descended for a moment.

Greenstreet sighed. "Oh dear…what a pity. It seems we will have to do a spot of killing after all. I think we’ll begin with Mister Mitchum. Perhaps the sight of blood will change Daddy’s mind." The weasel moved towards me, licking his lips.

I decided it was time to earn my pay. Otherwise it seemed likely that the services of Investigations R Us would be abruptly terminated. "I know where the Cinnamon Canary is!"

"Really?" Greenstreet couldn’t keep the incredulity out of his voice. "And how might you know that, dear boy?"

"Simple deduction. Where is the best place to hide a golden canary?"

Greenstreet and Lorre furrowed their brows, but Tally didn’t hesitate.

"The aviary! Of course, the aviary!" And, as if on cue, the trilling of birds once more filled the room. "I’ll go and get it!" Before anyone could speak she was at the doorway. "But how will I recognise it? There are dozens of birds in there and they all look the same!"

Lorre guffawed. "Jeez, sugar-plum, it’ll be the one that ain’t moving. Some dames got cottonwool for brains!"

Tally hesitated. "Still…I’d better take the fake with me. That way I can compare them and be sure."

Greenstreet stared at her for a moment. "Very well, but I’ll be watching from the window. One false move and I’ll put a bullet or two into your boyfriend here." I glanced around, but it seemed he was referring to me. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or terrified.

Tally grabbed the fake bird and left at a run. Greenstreet moved to the window, motioning me to stand beside Daddy. The weasel then produced a length of rope and proceeded to bind us together, back to back. It wasn’t exactly how I’d hoped the evening might turn out.

For a few minutes there was nothing to do except stare at a blank wall and envisage what delights might come my way as a reward for finding the Cinnamon Canary. I was sure that the divine Tally would have to show her gratitude in some mutually agreeable way and had just begun to dwell on the intimate details when there was a shout of triumph from outside.

"Found it! But it’s very dirty…I’ll just give it a quick clean."

"I don’t care what it looks like! Get it up here immediately!" Greenstreet was obviously not a patient man. Nevertheless, it was a good three minutes before Tally reappeared, holding two golden birds that were identical except for the prominent scar on the fake. She tossed the paint-job on the bed and handed the other to Greenstreet.

"Beautiful, beautiful," he mumbled, turning it over and caressing it lovingly.

"Hey, boss." It was Lorre, with a whine in his voice. "Can we kill ’em anyway? I ain’t killed nobody for a while." I was beginning to take a serious dislike to the weasel but, fortunately, his overweight partner was a man of his word.

"Mister Lorre, I said we were civilised gentlemen and I meant it. We will simply disappear, leaving an absence of dead bodies and a theft that never occurred. Satisfaction guaranteed all around, I would have thought."

And so they departed, Greenstreet still gloating and Lorre looking distinctly unhappy. The sense of anti-climax was overwhelming, if somewhat comforting.

I let out a long, slow whistle of relief. "Nicely done, Tally! They swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Now get these ropes off and I’ll call the police. They won’t get far!"

Tally moved in close and kissed me on the cheek. Then she removed the adhesive from Daddy’s mouth, thereby releasing a torrent of invective that would have done a wharfie proud. But the tirade wasn’t directed at Greenstreet and Lorre, it was hurled at Tally. She simply stood there, smiling sweetly, until the shouting degenerated into a stifled gurgle.

"Silly Daddy," she said eventually. "Thought you could get rid of me with a fake, did you? Surely you owe me a little more than that! After all, I have been good to you, haven’t I? Very, very good?"

I desperately wished I could have seen the look on Daddy’s face, for this conversation was making no sense at all. Although an awful suspicion was beginning to dawn. "What on earth is going on here? Untie us, for heaven’s sake!"

Tally came round to my side again and, for a moment, I could have sworn there was a hint of regret in her voice. "Sorry, darling, I can’t do that. Places to go, people to see. And a very expensive bird to sell." Whereupon she picked up the fake from the bed and gazed at it fondly. Then she took the red cloth and rubbed it vigorously over the scar. It vanished. "Marvellous what you can achieve with a dash of mascara," she said.

I could sense Daddy struggling for words, so I helped him out. "You mean that’s the real one? But how…?"

"How did I get rid of the scar on the fake?" She couldn’t hide the triumph in her voice. "Easy!" And she pointed to the dusting of gold stars on her cheeks and eyelids. "Just another paint-job. And you darling boys had better hope that help arrives before those two realise they’ve been fooled again." With that, she blew us both a kiss and waltzed out the door.

There was silence for a good half-minute and then Daddy sighed. "Bitch!"

I had to ask. "So…Daddy?"

"Of the sugar variety. But she needed a lot of sugar. Far too sweet for me. I was trying to pay her off. More fool me!"

"And me. The name’s Chandler, by the way, Philip Chandler. I’m a Private Investigator. What do I call you?"

"Humphrey. Sir Humphrey Bogart, protector of hedges and sucker for gold-digging females, to give you the full picture. What do we do now?"

"I guess we roll. Not much else we can do. Out the door and down the stairs. Then, if she’s left the front door open, along the drive and into the street. We just keep on rolling until somebody finds us."

And so that’s exactly what we did. Which explains how that photograph, taken by a brat of a thirteen-year-old with a mobile phone, appeared on the front page of the daily paper the next morning. Under the headline: PEER AND P.I. 'JUST GOOD FRIENDS'.

But I think I’ll leave town for a while.

David Campbell is a Melbourne writer who has won awards for short stories and poetry (both traditional and free verse). He has contributed to three poetry books for children and published a collection of short stories and a book of bush poetry (details at: David’s winning entry in Best of Times #6 appears in Award Winning Australian Writing 2009 (Melbourne Books).