What's the secret behind the Doohickey?

A chapter from the new mystery novel by Pete Hautman.

"Who is Caleb Hardy?"

"He was my grandfather," said Nick.

"Oh." Gretchen frowned. "On your mother's side?"

"Yeah, but I never met him till after she died. He shows up at her funeral. Ten years ago. I go to bury my mother and find out I have a grandfather. My mom didn't talk much about her family. Now he's dead too."

They were heading east on Old Spanish Trail, winding out of Tucson toward the Rincon Mountains in Nick's '65 Corvette, cherry red, the sun low in the sky behind them.

"I'm sorry, Nicky."

"It's okay. We weren't exactly close."

Nick sensed a darkening at the edges, the shadow not of sorrow, but of guilt. He should be feeling grief and sadness at the old man's passing, but it was as though someone else's grandfather had died, someone he'd never met. Did that make him insensitive? Cold and heartless? He turned his head to look at Gretchen, something he did as often as possible. He loved the slight upturn at the end of her freckled nose, the way her mouth never quite closed, the faint creases left behind by laughter and too much sun, and her eyes, two perfect turquoise disks. No, not cold, not heartless.

Gretchen grinned, then looked away, running fingers through her short, sun-bleached hair. "So, you'll have to go to Bishee tomorrow?"

"The lawyer said he wanted to meet with me. I'm Caleb's closest living relative."

"Maybe you inherited a fortune."

"Not from Caleb I didn't. He lived in a shack out in the desert. I saw the old man maybe a dozen times in the last ten years. He always hit me up for money. Always looking for people to invest in some crazy scheme. Last time I saw him, he tried to talk me into selling the store and going into business with him. He'd invented some sort of kitchen gadget and wanted me to help him sell it. He'd decided I was some sort of marketing wizard. Because of that article in the paper. I told him I was too busy with the store. He was pretty disappointed. I felt sorry for him. Gave him a few hundred bucks. No, I don't think I've inherited squat. Doesn't matter, though. I'm doing okay. Vince and I have been really busy at the store. We're thinking about expanding. Maybe even sell franchises."

"Maybe you'll be the next Gap."

"You never know."

Nick thought about his plans for Love & Fashion, the clothing store he and Vince Love had opened two years ago. Business was good. In another six months, after the Christmas rush, he planned to move out of his apartment upstairs from the shop and convert it into additional retail space. He'd be able to afford a house. He wondered what kind of place Gretchen would like to live in. Would she want to stay in town, or move up into the foothills? It was one of the many things he wanted to discuss with her. He felt as if his life was just beginning. Then he remembered Caleb and wondered how it felt to be dead.

"I suppose I'll have to pay for his funeral," he said.

"Can they make you do that?"

"I have no idea." He downshifted as they came up a rise; the growl of the Corvette's engine rose in pitch. "You know what was the last thing he said to me? He said, 'I ain't gonna live forever, Nick. That was a month ago. He was right. Look."

Nick pointed at the Rincons. The ridges had turned the dark gold of buckwheat honey; the saguaros stood out like stubble. He pulled onto the shoulder and stopped, then turned to look back at the source of the light: the sun sinking behind the Tucson Mountains on the far side of the valley. The yellow orb slowly melted onto the jagged peaks, a cloudless sunset, turquoise kissing gold. Neither of them spoke. After a time, Nick put the car in gear and pulled out onto the road.

Gretchen said, "You know what I like? I like watching you drive. You try so hard to be perfect."

Nick did not know what to say to that.

Gretchen asked, "Are you the same person when I'm not with you?"

"No." Nick reconsidered. "Yes."

Gretchen laughed.

A mile later Nick asked, "Do I turn here?"

"No. The next one. Javelina Way. Nicky?"

"Yeah?" Nick hit the signal and guided the Corvette onto a wide street lined with identical low-slung side-by-side duplexes: slump block walls, flat roofs, decorative ironwork over the windows. Most of the homes had low-maintenance landscaping: crushed rock studded with assorted cacti. The neighborhood was a shallow cut above a trailer park.

Gretchen said, "When you meet my dad ... he's kinda strange, okay?"

"I know, he's got underdeveloped social skills. You've been prepping me for months. I am fully prepared."

"We'll see. Just don't start talking about sex, okay?"

"Why would I do that?"

"You wouldn't. But Bootsie would."

"I'VE OWNED A FEW businesses," Nick said. "Had a little juice stand over by the U of A campus. Did that for two years. Had a detailing shop up on Grant. That was good until some Mexicans opened up down the block and undercut me, so I sold it to a Vietnamese family who undercut the Mexicans, and I got into jewelry: Mexican silver, Polish amber. Black Hills gold. Called myself Objects International." Nick laughed self-consciously, sipped from his glass of water. He talked too much when he was nervous. He hoped he didn't sound racist, talking about Mexicans and Vietnamese that way. The look Bootsie was giving him could have meant anything. The guy looked like a boiled potato.

Failing to get a read on the old man, Nick continued, "I had a booth at the gem show, and a spot out at the swap meet. Sold wholesale to some of the truck stops. It was a good business, but I was working out of my car. So I partnered up with a buddy of mine, and we opened Love & Fashion. Today is our second anniversary. Showed a profit both years." He hoped he didn't sound too boastful.

He and Bootsie Groth were embedded in matching burgundy leather recliners facing a television. An episode of Star Trek played silently across the screen. A TV tray between them held a bag of tortilla chips and a bowl of bean dip. Nick had the impression that their warp engines were about to come online.

Bootsie tipped his head back and poured most of a can of cream soda into his mouth. His hand wrapped the soda can, thick fingers overlapping the tip of his thumb. He belched, sending a tsunami up his prodigious abdomen. Bootsie was encased in burgundy warm-ups nearly the same color as his recliner. It was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began.

Nick suspected it was mostly Bootsie.

"Gretie says you live there," Bootsie growled.

"I have an apartment above the store. It's just temporary. Vince--that's my partner--Vince and I are plowing our profits back into the business. We plan to branch out, maybe open a store up in Scottsdale. Maybe sell franchises."

"You play any sports?"

"I'm pretty focused on business these days."

Bootsie's wide mouth shortened. His bristly gray hair seemed to stand up even straighter. "No sports?"

"I play a little racquetball."

"Huh. You got any hobbies? A guy has to have a hobby."

"Well ... I collect Motown records. LPs. You know--Little Eva, the Four Tops the Supremes ..."

The old man stared at him blinking small round eyes. "What's your last name again?"

"Fashon," said Nick.

"What kinda name is Fashon?"

Perfectly natural, Nick thought. The old man just wanted to find out what sort of guy was going out with his daughter. Nick wished he could offer something other than a list of his possessions and businesses. The problem was that Nick thought of himself in exactly those terms. He was a guy who wore Bally loafers and cotton chinos and listened to Motown records and drove a vintage Corvette and sold leather fashion accessories for a living. Probably not Bootsie's kind of guy, but it was who he was.

"It was my father's name. I never knew him."

"You look like a Swede. All that blond hair. I bet your old man was a Swede. You ever smile?"

Nick grinned, embarrassed. Was he coming across as too serious?

Bootsie stared at him, then grunted. "Now you look like a guy got away with something."

Nick's smile collapsed.

Bootsie grabbed a handful of chips. He gestured at the plastic carton of bean dip. "You're kinda skinny. Have some dip."

Nick scooped some bean dip with a single chip and ate it, feeling self-consciously dainty. He wondered what he might have been eating at Platanos. He wished Gretchen would come back into the room.

"It's got beans in it," Bootsie said, watching him.

Nick nodded, agreeing that yes, the bean dip did have beans in it.

"I bet the girls really go for a guy like you. Skinny and good-lookin'."

Nick washed the chip down with a gulp of water.

Bootsie leaned toward him and lowered his voice. "I hear you sell some kind of sex clothes." He laughed, a shrill hee hee hee, gripping the arms of his recliner. Coming from this obese old man, the high-pitched giggle was as incongruous as the name Bootsie.

Nick set his face in what he hoped resembled a smile. "We sell Mexican and South American leather goods. Purses, vests, jackets, sandals--stuff like that. A lot of exotic leathers--"

"Erotic leathers?"

"Exotic. Capybara, llama, lizard. Quality goods, not like that junk they sell down in Nogales. Not what you'd call 'sex' clothes."

"Gretie showed me that newspaper article. Looked like sex clothes to me." Hee hee hee! The old man's belly continued to slosh even after his laugh had faded. His hand dropped into the bag of chips.

"Not really," Nick said, keeping a close eye on himself. The article in the Star had been about how a few innovative shops like Love & Fashion were bringing retail customers back to downtown Tucson. Unfortunately, of all the items carried by Love & Fashion, the paper had chose to run a photo of a matching goatskin bra and garter belt from Venezuela, a one-of-a-kind item that was more for display than for sale. The article had attracted some curious trade over the past few weeks.

"You know what you should sell? You should sell leather jockstraps." Bootsie dipped a fistful of chips into the bean dip, inserted them into his mouth, chewed.

Nick had been worried about making a good impression. If things with Gretchen worked out as he hoped, this creature might become his father-in-law. Nick stifled a shudder. If he could get out of there without upending the bean dip onto the old man's head, he would consider the visit a success.

"Our most popular items are purses and belts," he said. "We really don't do much in the way of intimate apparel."

Bootsie said, "What the hell. I got no problem with sex clothes. I use to be a cop. I seen it all."

Gretchen had just come into the room from the kitchen. "Don't mind Daddy, Nicky. He's an idiot."

Nick said, "You were a cop?"

"Twenty-five years. So how come you named it that? Love & Fashion?"

"Well, my partner's name is Love, and my last name is Fashon, so we added an I to my name and called the store Love & Fashion."

"Sounds like a couple of fairies," Bootsie remarked, blinking. "Gretie's last boyfriend was a football player."

"He was a rugby player, Daddy. And he was an idiot, too."

Bootsie shrugged. '"What the hell do I know? I'm just the old man."

"You don't know much, that's for sure," Gretchen said.

Bootsie scowled at his daughter, then returned his attention to Nick. "So how old are you? Forty? How come you don't have a wife and kids, a guy your age?"

"SO WHAT DO you think?"

"About what?" Nick sped up to make the light at Alvernon.

Gretchen swung the back of her fist against Nick's shoulder. "About my dad."

Nick licked his lips. "I'm glad I finally met him."

"You're avoiding my question."

"I think your dad's a nice old guy."

Gretchen snorted.

"I liked his leather jockstrap idea," Nick said.

"Yeah, I'm sure it would be a big seller."

"How did he get that name?"

Gretchen crossed her arms over her seat belt. "His real name is Harmon. When I was a kid, we had a dog named Bootsie. Black with white feet. When the dog died, Dad decided he wanted to be called Bootsie."

"He must've liked that clog."

"He hated the name Harmon. But imagine bringing a friend home from school and having your dad come up, 'Hi, I'm Bootsie.' Imagine introducing him to your boyfriend. Imagine what my mother had to deal with. But you know what was worse for her?"

"It frightens me to imagine."

"Him being a cop all those years. He lived and breathed his job. Brought it home with him every night. It was all he'd talk about. My mother was like a spare hobby for him. First the job, then the dog, then me, then--maybe--her. It takes her twenty-five years to get him to retire; six months later she dies."

Startled by her vehemence, Nick said nothing.

"Thank God you're not like that," Gretchen said. Her frown suddenly became a smile. "But I'm glad to hear you like him, even if it's not true."

"I do have to say I was a little bothered that he thought I was forty," Nick said.

"He was only off by four years," Gretchen said, grinning.

"Four years is a long time," Nick muttered.

"Not to Bootsie. He's seventy-six."

"Yeah, and I bet he wouldn't like being called eighty. Also, what was with the chips and dip? I thought you said we were going there for dinner."

"That was dinner," Gretchen said. "There was a bowl of salsa there, too, don't forget."

"What was that? The salad?"

"Exactly. What's really sad is that he doesn't have to live like that. He's got plenty of money saved up, plus his pension, plus social security, and he hardly spends a dime of it. I worry about him. One day some con artist is going to sell him a desert time share or something."

"He didn't strike me as the gullible-victim type."

"He's getting older. When are you leaving for Bisbee?"

"I told the lawyer I'd be there at noon tomorrow. It's a two-hour drive. Vince is going to run the store. When he heard Caleb died, he was pretty upset ... speaking of gullible-victim types."

"Who, Vince?"

"Yeah. A few months ago he invested in one of Caleb's inventions. The Inch-Adder. A belt extender. For middle-aged, horizontally challenged cheapskates who don't want to buy a new belt every six months. I warned him, but Caleb sold him on it. Poor Vince thought he was gonna strike it rich."

"Good thing your store's doing so well."

Nick nodded. It was true. Business was up. The future had never looked brighter. He was a successful businessman riding in his classic Corvette with a beautiful woman by his side. I am a happy man, he thought. Life is sweet.

It suddenly occurred to him that there was no real reason to put off the chocolate torte and Dom Perignon. Dinner with Bootsie Groth was not exactly Platanos, but the moment felt right. A few bites of chocolate, a glass of champagne, and who knew where the conversation might lead? Maybe Bootsie Groth would find himself with a son-in-law.

"Do you have room for dessert?" Nick asked.

"What did you have in mind?"

"A little place I know called Chez Fashon."

"I've heard of it. It's supposed to be très exclusive."

Nick turned west on Broadway, his heart racing.

"I think he likes you," Gretchen said

Nick could not imagine how she had come to that conclusion, but he saw no point in arguing.

Gretchen sat forward. "What's going on?"

Nick slowed, hearing sirens. "I smell smoke," he said.

"There! Something on fire."

The sky glowed jagged orange with false sunrise.

"My god, it's up by the store." He sped up, turned at Sixth. "Oh." Nick let up on the accelerator, staring. He felt himself crumbling, collapsing from the inside. "Jesus." The car slowed, drifted across the centerline.

"Nicky!" Gretchen grabbed the steering wheel, guided the car toward the curb. "Stop the car, Nicky."

Nick braked, but his eyes stayed with the fire trucks, the men in yellow slickers, the shouting and hoses, the flames. His front wheel scraped the curb; the car stopped. The firefighters were hosing down adjacent buildings while Love & Fashion, his apartment, his record collection, his clothing, the chocolate torte, everything he was and everything he owned, crumbled within a tower of flame.

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