The great boy detective had eyes like a snake and skin like a worm. I approached him in an alley, under the lines and lines of washing.
He was staring up at an air-conditioning unit, which was barely holding on under the window.
‘I don’t trust machines,’ he said.
‘Nor do I,’ I said.
‘It’s as if they could turn at any moment.’
‘Yes, as if they all had minds of their own.’
‘Yes, as if everything we did was to suit their minds and not our own.’
‘As if we were only living to carry them on.’
We pondered a minute in silence. There, in the alleyway.
‘I’ve been approached by a missing woman,’ I said.
He looked at me funny and I patted his shoulder.
‘Her sister is missing. They’re twins, spitting images of each other. Only one is missing an-’
‘An eye,’ he said.
Cold shot up my spine.
‘How did you know?’ I said.
‘She works at the pharmacy.’
I clicked my tongue. Of course he knew, he had his grandparents.
‘She pays well,’ I said.
He turned and looked at me. ‘I’m on another case,’ he said.
‘Ok,’ I said.
He watched the air conditioning unit for a moment. I noticed it had deposited a fair pool of fluid on the gravelly street beneath it. The fluid was rust colored and had a stale smell coming off it.
I removed the little divalproex sodium pill and held it in front of his nose.
He grabbed it. ‘Whose is this?’ he said.
‘What do you mean the pharmacist’s?’ He said it snappily. I got the sense he was spiraling into one of his moods.
‘I mean her sister,’ I said. ‘She’s on it.’
He held up his hand. ‘Divalproex sodium.’
‘Yes. Three-thousand milligrams a day.’
‘That’s extreme mania,’ he said.
‘I know,’ I said.
He held the little pill in both hands and just stared at it.
‘Why didn’t you show me this sooner?’
‘I mean, is ‘missing woman’ not enough?’
He squeezed the pill in his fingers. A number of lights went on in his head. He set off like a rabbit from the sound of a shot.
We came into a public area and did not run but walked as quickly as we could.
I caught up with him. ‘To the boardwalk?’ I said.
‘The boardwalk?’ he said. ‘No, no, no.’ He walked with his whole body tense like a little boy soldier. ‘Not the boardwalk.’
‘The night market?’
He shook his head. ‘No, no.’
We turned through a wet market full of tanks and ice chests and women smoking cigars and slipping out huge fish from hills of ice. They beat their cleavers so the fish heads flew off like bars of soap.
The great boy detective and I walked shoulder to shoulder and weaved in and out of the older people shuffling their feet and dragging their fingers through produce.
I caught my breath. ‘But if she’s off her pills. Even just for two or three days. Won’t that swing her into withdrawal?’
‘Maybe,’ said the great boy detective.
‘So maybe she’ll go to the boardwalk and buy some.’
‘I don’t think so.’
We came to the section of fruit and dry goods. The great boy detective stopped in front of a fruit stand piled with jujubes, starfruit and cherries. The fruit seller sat reading a newspaper, with his feet on a box and his butt in a soft armless camping chair.
The great boy detective stopped and stared.
‘What is it?’ I said.
He walked to the man and snatched his newspaper. The man spilled out of his chair and lifted his hand to beat the boy, but then saw clearly who it was and stood patiently until the great boy detective might return it. ‘Sorry, sir,’ the man said. He had taken off his cap and held it in his hands.
We looked at the newspaper. On the final page: One Night Only. Ride Dr. Z’s Dirigible to the Forever World. And in a little picture: a man with a bald head and an enormous black beard.
‘Zelazny,’ I said.
The great boy detective agreed.
We arrived at white-gabled house with two-stories.
The house had a lawn and a fence and a little wood gate.
The great boy detective knocked on the door and a voice yelled at us from inside to come in.
Here were two getting up in age, bundled in their armchairs and shivering.
The floor in front of them was stained with the heat and now the absence of a radiator.
‘We’re so happy you’re here,’ said the husband, his expression like a little happy lamb.
‘We’ve been so cold,’ said the wife. ‘So c-cold.’
‘Have you any notion as to where the radiator fled?’ said the great boy detective.
‘Not I,’ said the husband.
‘Not I,’ said the wife.
The great boy detective tried every window and inspected every door. We conspired in the kitchen.
‘Do you pity the old?’ he said.
I must admit, I never think about the old. ‘I do not,’ I said.
‘May I whisper you a secret?’ he said.
I bent my ear. He stood up on his toes. ‘I have two at home,’ he said.
He had told me this before. He seemed to find ways of telling me every few months. It seemed he needed to tell it to me. He had no one else to tell it to.
He walked through the kitchen, trailing his fingers on the counter tiles, from smooth to grout, smooth to grout, until he came to the cupboards.
‘The funny thing,’ he said. ‘Contrary to our deepest fears, the old never leave their house.’
‘Sure they do,’ I said. ‘How else would they escape?’
‘They don’t escape. They stay.’
The great boy detective held his finger before his lips and prepared his fingers on the final cupboard’s handle. He indicated my gun. I prepared it at the cupboard. With supreme enunciation the great boy detective mouthed, One. Two. Three, then flung open the cupboard.
An enormous man leapt from the counter and onto the floor. Resembling a human hand, he spun around. He was like a frog made of white skin. His eyes were enormous. He was perhaps ninety years old. I trained my gun and we pursued him up the stairs.
However, upon reaching the second floor, the great boy detective did not immediately follow the breathing—which was obviously coming from the room at the end of the hall—but detoured to the bathroom.
‘What are you doing?’ I said, my gun still ready and aimed in the direction of the breathing. I leaned against the doorframe of the bathroom.
He was standing on a small stool to reach the medicine cabinet. ‘Did you see that man’s eyes?’ he said.
‘Not at that moment,’ I said. I had been too afraid of his nakedness.
‘If you do not keep your machines oiled,’ he said. ‘They break. We’re at the brink of a destruction, I think, because of lack of concern for the aged.’
He rifled through the medicine cabinet. A number of the orange RX bottles fell into the sink.
Finally, he obtained a tiny white bottle with a teal nipple-lid, which he promptly unscrewed.
‘Bimatoprost,’ he said. He leaned his head back, pulled down his eyelid and shot drops from the bottle inside. Blinking, he squirt more drops in his hand and extended his hand toward me.
I smelled it. ‘Smells like water,’ I said.
‘It is water,’ he said. He handed me the little bottle. I glanced at the label. Bimatoprost. Room temperature. Harry.
‘So what, it’s solution?’ I said.
He looked at me like I was a chimpanzee in a birdcage. ‘You don’t mix bimatoprost with water,’ he said. ‘You’re saying someone’s tampered with it.’
‘Yes, but who—those two downstairs?’ He pointed at the tight seem around the nozzle of the bottle. There was no sign of damage at all.
‘Then, do you mean the pharmacist?’
He nodded patiently, or distractedly. ‘That’s exactly who I mean.’
He reached into the cabinet again and this time slid out a second identical bottle and shook it.
‘Nearly empty,’ he said. ‘And look.’
I looked at the label. ‘This expired today.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘So the pharmacist sent the new dose a week early and those two bumblers downstairs cracked a new one open.’
‘Nobody likes squeezing blood from a stone,’ I said, shaking the near-empty bottle.
He shrugged. ‘Nobody likes being cheated with water.’
He always got me. I was like a mosquito in his hands. I still held my gun, but it drooped. And in the silence, the backroom lungs swelled like a cave full of bats. Shuddering, I pretended I was only cracking my neck. ‘So she planned this month’s ago,’ I said.
‘I believe that’s the case,’ he said. He popped the near empty bottle in his pocket, then pointed at the one in my hands. ‘You hold onto the fake one. We’ll need it for evidence.’
He turned in the direction of the breathing, as if it had only just started. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘No sense in delaying it any further.’
He shut the medicine cabinet and came out of the bathroom. We walked down the hallway. He put his hand on the door and looked at my gun. When he pushed it open, I held out my gun and stepped in first.
The man from the cabinet was now on the floor by the window. He held his legs to his chest and his chest swelled in and out. What light came through the window made the stray hairs of his skin glimmer like a spider’s web after rain.
‘I don’t want to shoot you,’ I said.
The man did not stir. He kept his eyes closed and his head down.
‘Have you been in great pain?’ said the great boy detective.
The man looked like an empty glove. He peeked out from under his hands. His eyes looked like unpolished brass.
‘It’s unfair, isn’t it?’
The great boy detective came to kneel beside the man. He took the little bottle and unscrewed the teal lid, then gently pulled the man’s eyelids up. They unfolded like flaps.
I kept my gun trained forward but, for the sake of the sake of the man’s privacy, turned my head away.
The man tucked his eyes into his palms and his shoulders began to shudder.
We gave him a few moments, then led him back down the stairs.
The man came to his post in front of the recliners and the couple hungrily removed their slippers and socks.
‘You found it!’ said the husband.
‘Thank god’ said the wife. ‘We won’t freeze.’
The man arranged himself more perfectly on his knees and elbows, with his forehead resting on the backs of his thumbs.
The husband, shivering like a young animal, tried to scoot his easy chair closer to the radiator. The wife rested her heel on the old man’s tailbone. As he inhaled, her foot tilted, and as he exhaled, it straightened.
‘He’s been in real pain,’ said the great boy detective. He nodded to me and I produced the counterfeit bottle. ‘Someone has tampered with your medications.’
I squeezed a little of the bottle’s contents into my palm and let both wife and husband smell.
‘I smell nothing,’ he said.
‘Smells like water,’ she said.
‘It is water,’ said the great boy detective. He dropped the empty bottle in the husband’s lap. ‘Use this one instead. There’s a little bit left.’
I noticed a puddle of something collecting under the old man’s face. It gathered on the floor between his elbows. A small pool of tears—the build up in his eyes had finally released.
When it became dark, we strolled through the neon night market and ate red bean waffles with tiny wooden forks. The night market sellers were a great deal more showy than those in your typical wet market. Vendors fired up their food stands under the night sky and called out to each other in couplets of poetry. Ten dumplings a day! Keeps the doctor in pay! Children walked around with shapes of the presidents’ faces drawn in sugar and held on a stick. Street musicians were chased out but quietly snuck back in.
Under a quieter blue light, a stall of live fish. The great boy detective stopped at the tank of eels. He put his hands and face against the glass. The tank was big enough to fit him inside. But instead of him inside, it was a dozen writhing eels.
I poked at my waffle. True, it was our tradition to always celebrate after a case. But still, we had a missing woman on our hands. ‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘How is helping you with appliances, helping me with a woman?’
He did not turn away from the eels. He sighed, which fogged up the glass. Thus obscured, their eyes looked like black beads in a storm. ‘What did we learn today about the radiator?’ he said.
‘The radiator has glaucoma,’ I said.
‘Is this common?’ he said.
I shrugged. Nearby, an older bearded man handed out red miniature fishing nets to six girls surrounding a small tub of clownfish.
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Isn’t that what happens when you get old?’
He shook his head. ‘Medications,’ he said. ‘Whether it is a radiator, planer, or sawhorse, there is proper care and improper care. Those two bimbos wouldn’t know proper care if it burst their stomachs. That’s why we have doctors and pharmacies.’
He turned away from the eels. ‘I’m enjoying the market,’ he said. He grabbed me by the sleeve and pulled me around like I was his brother. ‘And how many days do we have?’ he said.
‘Two days now.’
We slipped through the dense crowd. The great boy detective suddenly stopped.
We stared at a balloon salesman.
In a sea of perhaps a thousand heads, there arose a large stack of balloons. They were so brightly colored it was as if they were not made of latex, but of shined porcelain. They were bigger than basketballs and there about thirty total, in pink, and green, and blue, and yellow, and purple. There were enough balloons perhaps to lift a small child into the sky.
‘I want one,’ said the great boy detective.
But we were frozen in a sea of eyes. The balloons drifted away from us.
I lifted the great boy detective onto my shoulders. Pursuing balloons, we bottlenecked in an alley. It was as if humankind would overwhelm the city and our bodies would burst through the walls.
By the time we had escaped the alley, the balloons had already vanished. We had come to the aqueduct, wide enough for only two passing gondoliers at a time. The balloon salesman must have crossed one of the footbridges and slipped into another alley.
I lowered the great boy detective to stand on his own. There was a kind older pinwheel salesman with his pinwheels arranged beside the canal. I motioned toward them, but the great boy detective’s watch alarm beeped. ‘How many days, one more time?’ he said.
‘Two,’ I said.
‘See you tomorrow,’ he said.
He left through the alleys toward his grandparents’ house.
Heading home, I caught sight of something like a small creature rolling around in the dark. When I touched it, it was only paper. I unfolded it. Surrounded by tigers and flames on the page, the Great Zelazny stared up at me.
Bob Selcrosse grew up with his mother, selling books, in the Pacific Northwest. He is now working on a book about a book. It is based in the Pacific Northwest. The book is The Cabinet of Children.