Gunsel and GretelEsther M. FriesnerIt was a hot, humid, L.A. afternoon, a day when the ceiling fan just stirs the air around slow, like a witch's brew, the kind of day that makes me ask myself why I ever left the cool shade of the German forests for this city, this office, this job. Lucky for me, all I had to do to find the answer was open the paper and see Hitler's smiling face. There are worse things in this world than muggy weather, hard-nosed cops, and overdue dentist bills.I was about to meet another one.I knew she was trouble the minute she ankled into my office. They always are, if they're coming to see me. Somehow I never seem to attract the sweet young things trying to get their own back from some kiss-and-tell toad or the frumpy hausfraus out to nail Prince Charming for getting horizontal in someone else's glass coffin; just the dames.This dame I knew. I watched her baby blues go wide when she recognized me. I kind of enjoyed it. Yeah, we had a past, and if they ever wrote it up in the history books it'd make Waterloo, Pearl Harbor, and Custer's Last Stand read like The House at Pooh Corner. "Hello, gorgeous," I said, taking my feet off the desk. I accidentally stepped on the cat's tail. He screeched, but things are tough all over. "It's been a long time. What's a nice kid like you doing in a dump like this?"She had the class to lower her eyes. You come face-to-face with the person you think you bumped off years ago and a little embarrassment's only good manners. That's what I always say. "I'm—I'm sorry," she mumbled. "When I saw the name on the door, I never thought—""—that it was me? Why should you? Give your mind the five-cent tour down Memory Lane, sweets. Aside from shacking up with me, leading me on, running out on me and leaving me for dead, you didn't once think to ask my name. Never formally introduced, and us nearly a lifetime item. Tsk-tsk, what would Emily Post say?" I grinned until I could feel the tip of my nose touch the tip of my chin.She gave me a hard stare. "Like that would make a difference." She always was feisty, more snap to her than a box of rubber bands. That's okay: I like them feisty. "That's a man's name on your door.""It's a man's world, sugar.""You're operating under false pretenses.""You should feel right at home." The cat jumped into my lap. I petted him until he started shedding, then I dropped him to the floor. I don't give a damn what they say: Black fur does show on a black dress. "So, now you know it's me, I guess you'll be going. Drink before you leave? For old times' sake?" I opened the bottom drawer and took out the bottle and a pair of glasses.She shook her head."Mind if I indulge?" I didn't wait for an answer; I poured a tall one and knocked it back fast and smooth.She gave me the fish-eye. "How can you drink that stuff?""In case you haven't noticed, cupcake, I'm sitting down. You can do the same, or you can leave. The door works both ways."She sat down on the only other chair in my office, looking about as comfortable as a beautiful princess at a wicked stepmothers' convention. Her hands closed tight over the clasp of a cheap red plastic pocketbook balanced on her nyloned knees. Her whole outfit screamed two-bit canary with a sideline in grifting. I gave her the once-over, saw how she'd changed. The years had been pretty good to her. Last time I saw her, she was a skinny little piece of cheesecake; too skinny for my taste.Tastes change; so had she. She'd filled out nice, real nice. She was still trying to play the innocent, though. That was a laugh. If there was ever a tough cookie, she was it, and believe me, I know tough cookies.She finally found her tongue. It was right there in her own mouth. For a change. "I'm not going to lie to you," she said. I managed not to laugh. "Even if you are . . . who you are, I still want you to take my case. I came here because a friend of mine—one of the other girls down at the La Zazz Club—gave me your name. The one on your door, I mean.""The La Zazz Club," I repeated. The name rang a bell—it was a notorious jive joint—but that was all. I tried to think if I ever had a client who worked there.I get quiet when I'm thinking. My visitor didn't like things quiet. She started yakking to fill up the silence: "My friend said you helped her out of a tough bind. She said you got the job done and you didn't ask the wrong kind of questions to do it. She said she'd trust you with her life, that you're the best in the business.""Flatterer.""I mean it!" She slammed a fist down on my desktop so hard it made my glass clink against the bottle. I took this as a sign to fill it up so it wouldn't make too much noise and upset the neighbors. "I've got a real problem. I need help."This time I sipped my drink slow. "Keep talking.""It's my brother. He's disappeared."I thumbed back the brim of my hat and set down the empty glass. "Some reason the cops can't handle this?"She didn't say anything. That said it all. "In case it's slipped your pretty little mind, sweets, my past association with your family hasn't exactly been a romp in the forest. I wasn't looking for you to show up on my doorstep, but Destiny's a funny dame. She's got a way of giving you the brass ring with one hand and ripping your heart out with the other. You want me to go out there, pound shoe leather and get my Sunday-go-to-meeting broom all dusty looking for your brother? Trying to find him? I'm about as interested in finding that scrawny little bastard as Japan is in giving back Mongolia. Find yourself another sucker."That was when she turned on the faucets. I watched her smear her mascara into skid marks for a while, and when I saw she was crying real tears I reached up my sleeve and tossed her a handkerchief."Please, don't turn me down," she begged, dabbing at her eyes. "You can't; you're my last hope.""That so?" I thumbed my hat back again, only this time I pushed it too far. It fell off my head and rolled around on its point until the cat jumped on it and crushed the brim. I lost my patience and turned him into a toad. He gave me this ominous croak that as good as told me he was going to accidentally-on-purpose use my shoes for a litter box as soon as I turned him back. I've lived with worse threats."Your last hope, well, well," I repeated as I grabbed my hat off the floor and put it back on. The toad hopped away to sulk in a corner. "And here you were just now, saying I was your first choice. Either the honeymoon's over already, or you're not playing it square with me, sugar. I wouldn't recommend that.""I'm sorry." She took a deep breath. It did things. "I lied.""I'd like to say I'm surprised, cupcake, but since it's you . . ." I shrugged. "Tell you what, you give me the facts in the case, I listen, and maybe I take it. Maybe not. No promises. Okay, one: You lie to me again, you're out of here on your cute little bustle. Got it?""Got it." She sniffled one last time, but the fire was back in her eyes. She got out her compact and started repairing the damage while she told me the whole story:"It's been two weeks since I heard from Hansel. That's not normal; we're close. Usually he calls me every other day, or I call him. We get together on the weekends, catch a movie, maybe take a drive up the coast.""With the war on?" I gave her a warning look. "What's your car run on, Coca-Cola? Even I can't make gasoline out of thin air."She shrugged, but she didn't backpedal. "It's his car. I guess I never thought to ask him where he got the fuel for it. It's a fancy ride, powder blue Packard sedan, white leather seats."I snorted. "The Easter Bunny bring it? No one makes cars that look like that!""You got enough money, you can always find someone to make you anything you want," she said. She talked like a woman who knew."So your little brother did all right for himself, and pretty fast, too. The pair of you couldn't have been in this country much longer than me.""We came over in '38."I whistled, low and long. "That is fast for someone to make good; especially for a johnny-come-lately punk like your brother. I'm impressed. What's his racket?""I don't know. He never told me."I got up and went for the office door. I threw it open and told her: "Get out."She didn't move a muscle. "It's the truth. The one time I asked, he gave me the brushoff. Said something about being in public relations.""The kind the cops run you in for when they catch you trying it in Griffith Park?" I would've laughed, but I sort of forgot how.She stood up. "You said you'd listen. I said I'd tell the truth. So far I'm keeping up my end of the deal."If she was waiting for an apology, she was going to be twice as gray and wrinkled as me before she got it. Still, I closed the office door. "All right, sweets, you made your point. I'll listen." She gave me a look like ex-wives give their husbands when the bastards swear the check is in the mail. "Like I said, my brother and I have always been very close, but that doesn't mean we're all over each other's business. Ever since our mother died, we looked out for one another. Daddy never had time for us; he had to earn a living, put food in our mouths. Being a woodchopper's no ball.""Can the sob story and cut to the chase," I told her."I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."She had me there. Last time our paths crossed, she almost took care of me. Permanently. I went back to my desk and motioned for her to go on."Like I said, he calls me a lot, so when I didn't hear from him for two weeks straight, I got worried. I went over to his place, the Chez Moderne apartments." The Chez Moderne . . . Ritzy name for what was basically a rundown old hotel so far downtown that the cockroaches had to take the streetcar. Not the address I'd expect of the man who owns his own powder blue Packard. I shot her a searching look but it bounced right off. If she'd ever wondered about why her brother drove that but lived there, she didn't let on."I had the extra key, so when no one answered my knock, I let myself in." She shuddered, remembering. "The place looked like an earthquake hit it. Someone had been there before me and they tore it up, top to bottom.""You sure? Maybe your brother just wasn't a very good housekeeper." Her eyes poured me a double dose of arsenic, straight up, so I stopped trying to pass for one of the Marx Brothers."Everything was ruined. Whoever'd done it even sliced up the mattress and ripped the lining out of the drapes. The bathroom floor was wall-to-wall pills, all the empty bottles smashed in the bathtub."I didn't like to bring up what could be a pretty ugly possibility, but I had to ask: "Any blood?"She shook her head. "I was thankful for that much. My first instinct was to go to the cops, but when I got home, there was a letter waiting for me. It was from my brother."I held out my hand, waiting for her to cough it up. I kept on waiting."I burned it," she explained."How convenient.""You don't understand: I had to!""Why?""Because he told me to. He didn't want me getting involved. It was too dangerous. If they got their hands on that letter—""Not so fast. Who's 'they'?""He didn't name names. The same creeps who wrecked his place, I suppose.""Tough call. What else did the letter say?""It said that he was going away for a few weeks, maybe a few months, on business. He didn't come right out and say so, but he hinted that this was it, the big score, something that was going to put the two of us on Easy Street for the rest of our lives. He said he'd be in touch, and for me to sit tight until I heard from him again.""Did he say how he'd contact you?" She shook her head."So tell me this, cupcake: If you're such a good little girl—keeping your nose out of your brother's business, not asking questions, burning that letter strictly on his say-so—then why are you here? Why aren't you back in your own place, sitting tight like he told you?"There were tears starting up in her eyes again. "Because he's not the one who wrote that letter.""Not his handwriting?""Nothing that amateurish. But I could tell. Someone dictated every word he wrote; it didn't sound like him at all. That was when I decided to get help. That was when I came to you. Will you help me? Please?"I wrinkled my nose. Her story smelled worse than Fisherman's Wharf, up Frisco way. This dame was spinning a yarn with more loose ends than Rapunzel's marcel wave and expecting me to buy it. She had brass, but all the nerve in the world can't make up for being stupid. Trying to play me for a fool is real stupid.She'd done that once before, in the Old Country, her and her rotten little brother. I didn't see so good back then—try to find a decent eye doc in the sticks—but so what? There's not much worth looking at in the heart of the Black Forest. You seen one squirrel, you seen 'em all. That was how those brats managed to give me the runaround. Every time I told the punk to stick his finger through the bars of the cage where I had him locked away to fatten up, he'd stick out a chicken bone. The gristle should've tipped me off. Too soon old, too late smart, like they say. As for her, I had hopes: She was a sweet little thing and I was lonely. If they ever made a movie of my life, the screenwriters'd have to call me an old maid or a career gal or just not the marrying kind because the truth would bring the Hays Office down on their necks faster than a well-oiled guillotine. And before you get all hot under the collar, thinking she was just a kid and I was some kind of monster, let me clue you in on something not everyone knows: She and her brother were no babes in the woods, no matter how they twisted the story later. They might've looked like kids, small and scrawny on account of growing up at the Hard Knocks Hotel, but they were both safely past the age of consent when they came nibble-nibbling at my door. And believe me, she let on like she would consent any day, if I didn't pull a Betty Crocker on her. So that's why he was in the cage but she had the run of the place. Oh yeah, she played innocent-but-willing-to-learn, and she played it good.That's why I believed her when she said she didn't know how to tell if the oven was hot enough. That's why I stuck my head in first, to show her how it's done. My head was full of stardust, dreams of her and me in that kitschy little woodland cottage, me with my feet up on the pile of kiddie bones, her by the oven, baking gingerbread, everything strictly Ladies' Home Journal.Next thing I knew, my face was full of live coals. She'd shoved me into the oven, locked the door, freed her brother, and beat it.I'd be a pretty poor witch if I didn't keep an escape spell on the tip of my tongue at all times. But she didn't know that. By the time I got myself out of the oven and under the pump, drenched but extinguished, those two were long gone. Them and my life's savings in gold.Like I said, we had a past.That's why I didn't have any second thoughts about nailing her with the same toad spell I used on the cat. It was sweet: One minute she was standing there trying to work the bunco, the next she was squatting on the floor, brown and lumpy as a bowl of boardinghouse oatmeal.I picked her up easy and dropped her on the desk, then poured myself another drink. This time I got out some cookies to go with all that milk. One chopper left in my head and wouldn't you know it's a sweet tooth? In between sips and swallows, I told her the score:"Next time you want to work the old shell game, sister, make sure you've got a real chump on the line. That, or get your story straight. First you act all surprised to see a woman gumshoe, then you say your friend gave you the lowdown on me. And she didn't mention that little detail? Next we've got the little matter of your brother's fancy car and his invisible means of support. A smart cookie like you wouldn't grill him for some answers there? I'm not buying. As for that letter you say he sent you, the one you knew he didn't write . . . Why'd you act like it was the real McCoy when it came to doing what he said, burning it, only the next words out of that pretty little mouth of yours were 'I knew it wasn't really his'? Your story's got more holes in it than Dillinger. I think you need a little time to think over what a bad girl you've been. You sit right there while I do some digging on my own. Okay, cupcake?"I wasn't dumb enough to expect an answer. Toads talk less than Charlie McCarthy when Bergen's in the can. I left her with the empty milk bottle and nabbed her purse from the floor. When I dumped it out on the desk, she jumped off and flopped around my ankles, croaking like crazy, but she couldn't do a damn thing to stop me.I found what I was looking for inside a little plaid change purse. It was a piece of onionskin paper, folded up small. Dear Gretel, it said. You were right, Mr. LeGras doesn't really care about me, no matter what he says. I'm just another one of the hired help to him, and now he's come back from San Francisco—one of his "business" trips—with that so-called English valet, Carlisle. English! The closest that dog biscuit's been to England is the seat of Mr. LeGras's tweed pants.When I told Mr. LeGras how I felt, he gave me the brushoff, said it was all my imagination, threw me some extra scratch and told me to go out and buy myself a good time. No one treats me like that and gets away with it. I'm getting the hell out of here, but before I go, I'm going to leave Mr. LeGras something to remember me by. Or should I say I'm going to take something?The black bird.Yes, that black bird. The one I told you about, the one you say can't possibly be real. But it is real. Real enough to be the source of Mr. LeGras's fortune. Real enough to do the same for us. Think of it, my dearest sister! No more warbling your heart out in cheap dives like the La Zazz for you, and for me, no more faking that a pig like Mr. LeGras is my maiden dream of love.I looked up from the letter. "The black bird," I said aloud. "That's a step up from stealing gingerbread."The brown toad gave an inquiring croak from the floor."Don't tell me you never heard of the black bird, sugarplum," I told her. "Every two-bit hustler and small-time hoodlum in this town knows about the black bird. You want I should draw you a map or just write you a screenplay? Get your hands on the black bird and you're set for life, and I'm not talking ration books, I'm talking gold; solid gold."I went back to the letter: I'm going to make the big touch soon, this week. If I don't, I might wind up plugging Carlisle first, making the snatch second. It's easier for me to hide a bird than a body, ha, ha. Soon as I knock over the bird, I'll get word to you. When that happens, meet me up at the place on Lake Arrowhead and we'll blow this pop stand. I'll be waiting. Love, Hansel.I folded the letter and put it back in her purse. "I love the way he keeps calling him Mister LeGras," I told her. "Even when he's talking about playing him for a sucker. That's class." I crossed my arms and stared down at her. "So you did like he told you: You waited for word, but the week went by and all you came up with was a goose egg. You went over to his place, maybe thinking he lost his nerve and hadn't done it, maybe scared he had, and then decided not to cut you in on the score after all. When you found his place wrecked like that, you must've figured that he didpull off the heist, only sloppy. LeGras caught wise before Brother Dear could make his getaway, but not before the goof managed to hide the swag. So LeGras hired some muscle to get back his property, probably told them that if they wanted to practice their tap-dancing on the little creampuff's face, he wouldn't mind."The toad launched a rapid-fire burst of angry croaking, slapping its feet on the linoleum floor. I clucked my tongue."Hey, I'll talk about your brother any way I want, angelcake. You think he walks on water? He's still a weasel, a slimy little gunsel who got in too deep and who might be getting in deeper as we speak, courtesy of a pair of cement overshoes. Hard to walk on water then."The toad made a mournful sound and turned its back to me. Its lumpy little shoulders were working like an oil rig in a dry hole. I didn't know toads could sob. Against my better judgement, I felt like a heel."Can the waterworks, sweets," I said, squatting down in front of her. "I'll help you, only not the way you asked. We don't need to find your brother. We need to find the bird."The toad anted up a croak that was as good as a question. I got her drift. "Because if his place was torn up as bad as you say, I'm willing to bet they were after a clue to where he stashed the bird," I explained. "Maybe they found one, maybe not. If they did, well, it's lights out for Hansel; nothing I can do. But if they didn't—" The toad looked hopeful. "—then he's still alive. LeGras wants his precious tweetie back; he won't let his goons kill the rat until it squeals. If we can find the bird before Junior cracks, we've got a bargaining chip that just might save the little reptile's bacon."The toad croaked at me indignantly. I snorted. "Yeah, yeah, so reptiles don't have bacon. You want to play egghead games or you want to save your brother before they send him back to you in a box?" The toad looked sorry for having brought up the whole subject. I patted her on the head and said, "Never mind, honey. Let's hit the bricks. Our next step is back to Junior's place so I can—"I never got to finish saying what I had in mind. A galaxy of stars exploded inside my head and my next step was sprawled flat on my face on the office floor. That's life: Sometimes it hands you a gingerbread house, sometimes it shoves you headfirst into an oven, and sometimes it's happy to have some gorilla sneak up from behind and bean you with a blackjack. When I came to, I got a firsthand idea of what Junior's ravaged apartment must've looked like. Someone had torn through my office like a two-headed ogre with a migraine. I pulled myself to my feet using what was left of my desk and surveyed the damage.There were papers everywhere, not a drawer left in place. My file cabinet was stretched out like a coffin, my chairs were kindling, and something very important was missing from the room:My client. I didn't need a crystal ball to tell me what had happened, though I could've used the entrails of a black he-goat to fill in the details. The same goon-or-goons-unknown who had ripped up Junior's digs had come a-calling at my door. They'd probably been tailing Gretel, looking to put the snatch on her. I guess some whiz kid figured that if Junior wouldn't sing to save his own skin, maybe he'd twitter through a scale or two to save his sister's. When she came to see me, all nice and private, they got their chance. I touched the egg growing out of the back of my skull and winced. "That's no way to treat a lady," I muttered. I crossed to the coat closet, avoiding shards of glass and piles of chocolate-chip crumbs. They'd busted my cookies. Nobody busts my cookies.Lucky for me my uninvited guests had left my broomstick alone. Probably thought it belonged to the cleaning lady. I appreciate opponents with no imagination; it's no loss to the world when I put them away for good. My head was still spinning, but I'd flown with hangovers that were a damn sight worse. Now I needed just one more thing before I could hit the wild blue yonder . . . "Here, kitty," I called. "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty! Here, Bogey, come to Mama." The first thing they teach you in my line of work, even before you get within spitting distance of a magic wand or a cauldron or that plug-ugly black pointy hat, is that you don't go up without a co-pilot. You can't. Cats and witches don't hang out together just for the conversation: We need the beasts to power our brooms. Witches know that every living thing's a source of potential energy. You ever spend a whole day watching a cat? Most of the time he's curled up asleep in the sun, when he's not feeding his face. All intake, no output; the perfect storage battery. Get enough cats together and you could launch a flock of B-29s."Bogey-boy, come on, I need you. Puss, puss, puss. Bogey, I'm calling you, you mangy fleabag! Get over here, Bogey, I mean it!"Nothing. That wasn't unusual. You show me the cat who comes when he's called and I'll show you an enchanted prince waiting to be kissed. That, or a sick cat. But I was doing more than just beating my gums: I was using his name as the focus for an attraction-spell. If Bogey was anywhere within the sound of my voice, he'd be dragged in and set down at my feet in two minutes. "Bogey, come here!"Two and a half minutes later, I was worried. Nothing could keep Bogey from responding to my attraction-spell if he were alive. "If anything's happened to him . . ." I gritted my teeth. He was more than just a cat to me: He was my partner. No one takes out my partner and gets away with it.Suddenly, I heard a weak sound coming from the corner behind my toppled file cabinet. "Bogey, is that you?" If I was the churchgoing type, I would've wasted time saying a little thanksgiving prayer. Instead, I got right to work, moving the cabinet so he could get out. "Hold on, kitty, Mama's coming."It wasn't a kitty; it was a toad. I forgot that I'd pulled the old shape-change on him before, when he got on my nerves. I was forgetting a lot of things, mostly thanks to that lump on my head. "Hold still, kid; this won't take a second." I made with the mystic bushwas to restore him to his original shape. There was a hokey puff of smoke as the spell hit him. "It's about time!" Gretel snapped at me. Her eyes flashed all around my wrecked office. "Thorough bastards, aren't they? Serves you right. Now, where's my purse? I'm getting out of here." She started pawing through the rubble.I grabbed her arm and pulled her back. "Not so fast, sugar. Aren't you forgetting a little something?""You mean my brother?" she shot back, jerking out of my grasp. "Hardly. He's all I'm gonna be thinking about the whole way to New York City, which is exactly where I'm headed as soon as I find my purse." She went back to digging up the ruins, a regular Schliemann in shantung.I hauled her back to face me a second time. "Cool your heels, sweetiepie. What's all this about New York?""It's the farthest away from here I can get, that's what," she said. "By bus, anyway. Maybe you didn't see the pair of thugs that were just in here—""They gave me the bum's rush to Slumberland before they bothered to introduce themselves," I replied with a twisty little smile. It hurt. "So there were two of them, you say?"She nodded. "Big ones. Ugly, too. A couple of reject heavyweights from palookaville.""Names?""I heard one call the other Max; that's all I know. Max was the one who slugged you.""Max, huh?" I made a mental note to give Max a tour of the La Brea tar pits from the bottom up when our paths crossed again."Anyway, it turned out they'd been spying on us for a while, probably standing out in the hall, eavesdropping, so they knew what you'd done to me. As soon as you were down, Max's partner said, 'Okay, grab the toad and let's blow!'""How did you manage to get away?" I asked."As soon as I knew they'd come for me, I hid. That's how come they tore up the place, looking for me. They just happened to find the other toad first." She shrugged. "I guess I'm a lucky girl.""Sure you are." I pretended like I believed her, but I had a feeling it hadn't gone exactly the way she told it. More likely she'd done something to draw those two goons' attention to where Bogey was hiding, then hopped away fast while they bagged the wrong batrachian. "So, they say anything else?""Only that Mr. LeGras would be real glad to get his hands on me. That's when I figured it all out: LeGras was going to use me to make Hansel tell where he hid the black bird.""I'm surprised you didn't go along quietly," I said. "Why pass up a chance to help your darling little brother? You the same girl who was just telling me how close the two of you are?"She looked away. "Not close enough for me to want to share the same grave. Even if they'd managed to grab me, bring me to LeGras's place, do . . . things to me, Hansel wouldn't talk. I know him, and he knows LeGras. He used to say that once LeGras squeezes the last drop of juice from a lemon, he throws the peel away.""Can't say I know a lot of people who save it, sugar," I said."You know what I mean! Once Hansel tells LeGras where the bird is, LeGras's got no reason left to keep Hansel alive!""So he'll clam up? Even if it means buying a few more hours at the cost of your life?""Even if it buys him a few more minutes," she replied. "Why the hell you think I'm heading for New York?""That would not be advisable."Both of us turned at the sound of an unfamiliar voice from the doorway."Mr. LeGras, I presume?" I said."The same. May I come in?"He asked, but he didn't wait for an answer. He barged into my office like he owned the place. For all I knew, he did. He was a big man, but he moved silently and gracefully. So had the Hindenberg. Our Mr. LeGras would have to watch himself. Offhand, I could name five, six practicing fairy godmothers in the downtown area who'd get one eyeful of that pumpkin-shaped body and try turning him into a coach-and-four. He was impeccably dressed in a dapper white suit and Panama hat, a fresh red carnation in his buttonhole. He balanced his enormous bulk on a pair of obscenely tiny feet in glittering black Oxfords, real Italian leatherwork. A silver-headed mahogany walking stick in his left hand took some of the load off. A pearl-handled revolver in his right put some of the heat on.He was alone. That did surprise me. I'd expected him to show up backed by the two apes who'd wrecked my office, at least. He was a confident s.o.b., our Mr. LeGras. Maybe he'd make a confident toad. I smiled."Pray, put any thoughts of thaumaturgy from your mind at once, gnädige Hexe," he said. His voice was deep, with a raspy wheeze that made me want to start smoking cigarettes just so I could quit the habit. "Oh yes, I know you for what you are. A man in my position is not without his sources of, aha, reliable information. Knowledge is power. So too are certain, hrrrumph, connections. They permit one to take the appropriate precautions proper to the immediate circumstance." He held out his hand. At first I thought that maybe he was cuckoo and wanted me to kiss it, like he was the Pope or something. Then I saw the little jade-and-pearl ring crammed onto his pinky. It gave off a protective aura strong enough to fade the letters in a locked grimoire at fifty paces. Any witch stupid enough to try casting a spell at that boy would have it bounce back in her face and do triple damage.I forced myself to keep smiling. "I guess you want me to be impressed," I said. "Your reactions are of startlingly minuscule importance to me, my dear," he replied. "I have done you a kindness by allowing you to perceive the ring's power. In ordinary circumstances, it remains hidden until aroused. You should thank me for sparing you a very nasty—and perhaps fatal—surprise.""Thanks," I said, deadpan. "I'd offer you a seat and ask you to stay to tea, but your boys took care of my chairs."He laughed. Everything shook except the gun. "You have a sense of humor. Good, good. I find it much easier to deal with people who see the inherent absurdity of life. They are far less likely to take a foolishly heroic stand on matters that do not, in essence, involve them.""Oh, I'm no hero, dumpling," I replied. "I'm just a poor old lady who wants to get her pussycat back. Your boys picked him up by mistake.""So we discovered in short order. The same, hrrm, person who supplied me with this ring perceived our mistake even without bothering to remove the unhappy creature's toad form."I wondered which of my colleagues was down-and-out enough to take LeGras's money and be his sorciére de joie. Then I decided that I was happier not knowing anyone that desperate. "No surprise there," I said. "Bogey's more than my cat, he's my familiar. All us girls in the life can tell another witch's familiar on sight, no matter what shape it's wearing. Bring him back to me and you can have the girl. Hell, you can have her now. Take her. She was just telling me how much she misses her little brother. It'd be cruel to keep them apart."LeGras laughed again. "Ah! An excellent jape. The Algonquin Round Table is the poorer for your absence. Rest assured, it is my intention to reunite brother and sister with due celerity, to the ultimate benefit of, ahem, all parties concerned.""How sweet. Well, don't let me keep you."He didn't take the hint. "I am afraid, my dear, that I have not made myself clear: I have come for the young lady, but prudence dictates that you accompany us as well." He made a discreet but unmistakable motion with his gun.I don't believe in wasting time on useless arguments, especially when my respected opponent has six hot-lead arguments at his disposal. "Mind if I get my hat?" I asked.LeGras made me a dancing-school bow. "Not at all, dear lady. Fetch your gloves as well, if you so desire. How I deplore the growing disregard for the proprieties of personal appearance in today's society! The numbers of young women I have seen traipsing about with neither chapeau nor chaperone would break your heart.""You're assuming I've got one." I breezed past him to the closet. I could feel him tracking me with the muzzle of his revolver the whole time, feel his fat little trigger finger itching to punch me a one-way ticket to hell if I tried anything funny.I'm a witch, not a comedian. I got my hat off the top shelf of the closet and dropped the old butterball a curtsey. "Ready when you are, sweets."LeGras herded us out of my office, down the hall, and into the wheezy old rattletrap of an elevator. There were four passengers in it plus Steve the shaft-monkey. None of them seemed to notice that the two lovely ladies accompanying the personable fat man were doing so under pearl-handled protest. Le Gras's pet witch probably slapped a no-see-'um charm on his gun.His car was waiting for us right outside my office building, a Cadillac the color of fresh cream. There was a big goon uglying up the space behind the wheel. I wondered if it was my buddy Max, but the circumstances weren't social so I couldn't ask. LeGras jerked his head, silently ordering us into the back seat. He climbed in after, shut the door, and gave the order: "Home."I wondered where "home" was. I was betting it was somewhere up in the Hollywood Hills, a popular nesting spot for the cash, flash, and trash crowd. I had the window seat, with Gretel wedged in between me and LeGras. I guess I could've tried something smart, like pulling a Houdini when the car stopped for a traffic light, but I didn't. I knew that if I skipped, Gretel'd be stuck paying the full bill.Yeah, tell me I'm a sucker. Then tell me something I don't already know.I like riding in cars. You get places faster when you fly a broomstick, but in cars you don't get bugs in your teeth. I leaned back against the upholstery and closed my eyes. For all I knew this was going to be my last ride; might as well enjoy it. If I was going to die, at least I was wearing a nice hat for the occasion. LeGras didn't know it, but there was a reason I'd grabbed this little beauty out of the closet instead of rummaging through the office wreckage for the hat I'd been wearing earlier. This hat was special. This hat stood up straight and proud, and not just because I'd asked for extra starch at Ling Po's Genuine Chinese Hand Laundry.This hat was packing a rod.I had it all planned: We'd get to LeGras's place and he'd bring us face-to-face with Hansel—unless he handed us over to his goons for some preliminary softening up first. He'd try to make the little gunsel sing, but he'd come up against the biggest case of laryngitis known to man. Then he'd start putting the screws to Gretel. The most he'd get out of that would be some cheap entertainment for the hired help. I had LeGras and his gang of creeps pegged for the type who got their kicks watching a woman get hurt. He'd keep his gun on me the whole time, but not his eyes. He'd have more . . . amusing things to look at.That was when I'd ask if I could take off my hat and stay awhile. Maybe I couldn't use the wand to hurt him while he wore that stupid ring, but I could use it to create a distraction, like setting the place on fire, or breaking the water mains, or making Max's head explode like a party balloon full of brains and blood. You know, little things. And in the confusion, I could get Gretel and me the hell out of there, easy as—"We're here." LeGras's wheezy voice busted up my pretty dreams. I opened my eyes in time to see the car pull up in front of one of those bijou hideaway hacienda-style mansions. It had a tapestry brick driveway, brutally neat flowerbeds, and an ornamental pond where a quartet of swans paddled around looking bored. Silent film stars used to buy up places like this by the bagful, like penny candy, only to toss them back on the market at a dead loss when the talkies showed no signs of going away. It was tucked into the armpit of a mountain with the nearest neighbor located a body-drop below. A butler answered the door. He looked like a refugee from a Karloff flick. He bowed slightly to Gretel and me and asked if he could take my hat."No thanks, Spooky; it's carrying my personality," I told him."It is also carrying a concealed weapon," he replied, slick as a lounge lizard's manicure. "I regret to inform you that all such artifacts are powerless within these walls."I goggled at him like a sea bass with goiter. LeGras escorted me over the threshold, chortling. "Do not be surprised, madam," he said. "I have long been a collector of esoteric souvenirs. The black bird is merely the, hrrrm, most profitable in a series of the same. I am sure you would agree that any malefactors interested in thieving such items must of necessity be versed in the Darker Arts. With that in mind, it would be unwise not to place certain, ah, protective wards upon my property. Just as your ordinary homeowner might have the double security of a high fence to keep housebreakers out and a vicious dog to deal with any who do get in, I too have diversified my defenses. Some, like Stanton here, detect the presence of uninvited magic or magical appurtenances. Others, like this ring which you have already noted—" He flashed his pinky at me. "—repel outright sorcerous attacks. Now be a good little witch and hand over the hat."Nobody ever called me a good little witch. Nobody still in need of oxygen. I glared daggers at Stanton, but I gave the big stiff my hat. What choice did I have? He pulled out the hidden rod and held it out for his boss's inspection like a cat proudly puking up mouse guts on the doormat."A magic wand," LeGras said, tapping it aside with the nose of his revolver. "How quaint. Thank you, Stanton, you may dispose of it.""Very good, sir." The butler's hand closed on my rod. There was a grinding sound and the whole thing broke into a million splinters. This Stanton wasn't your everyday butler. I turned to LeGras. "Zombie or golem?" I asked."Golem," he replied. "Zombies do not afford quite so much upper body strength, and one does need to feed them on occasion. Shall we proceed?"Stanton led the way into the depths of LeGras's house, down a hall and up to a pair of heavy double doors. At a touch of his hands, they rolled into their wall pockets silently, revealing a parlor big enough to host a ball game. It'd have to be for the girlie league, though. Everywhere I looked, I saw chintz, gilding, and froufrou. It was like being trapped inside the brain of a wedding cake designer gone gaga.In the center of the floor was a plain wood kitchen chair. A man was tied to it. It was Hansel. Big surprise. The thick velvet drapes were drawn tight and there was only a single lamp lit, but I could see him good enough. He'd changed about as much as his sister. The grubby-faced kid who'd been too scrawny to pop into my bakeoven had grown up into a man with the body of a has-been athlete and the face of a cherub.That cherub should've been more careful about where he flew. He'd obviously glided into the bad part of town where some punk grabbed him by the wing and used his face for a punching bag. I wondered whether Hansel's lips were always that pouty or if they'd just swollen up from the beating. One eye was battered shut, the other squinted sullenly in our direction. If he recognized me, he didn't let on. Then again, seeing as how he was flanked by a couple of burly chaperones, maybe he didn't want to get s
anked for talking to strangers."How goes it, dear boy?" LeGras exclaimed, sidling up to Hansel. He passed his walking stick and gun to one of the two guard-goons. "Have you taken advantage of my absence to repent the error of your ways?""He ain't spilled nothin', Boss," the second ape said."Ah." LeGras turned to me and shrugged apologetically. "Dear lady, you must forgive Max. He lacks the benefits of a course in proper English."Max, huh? Hel-looo, nurse. I did my best to keep a poker face. "I don't know, sweets," I said. "That's pretty bad grammar. Someone ought to teach him a lesson.""Perhaps. In the meantime, I would prefer to limit my attempts at, ha, pedagogy to this young man." He approached Hansel and stooped over—not without a whole lot of effort—just so he could be at eye level when he wheezed: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships? No longer, alas. Such a needless waste of beauty when beauty is ethereal at best. You disappoint me deeply, my boy. You might have spared yourself this.""Save it," Hansel growled. "I didn't talk for these creeps and I'm not talking for you. Think I can't see who that is?" He nodded in our direction. I gave Gretel a sidelong look. She was staring at her brother, tears streaming down her cheeks, but unless you were close enough to see them in the dim light, you'd never have known they were there. She didn't make a sound. A pair of granite bookends, those two. "You wasted your time, bringing her here," he went on. "I know I'm a dead man, no matter what. Say I did tell you where the black bird's stashed, you want me to believe you'd let me go—me or her—like nothing ever happened? Fat chance."LeGras took that last remark personally. "You would choose to perish knowing your innocent sister must share your fate?"Hansel grinned, showing off some recently administered gaps in his pearly whites. "Yeah. So? I'd die knowing that you'll never see the black bird again in this lifetime. Who says you can't take it with you?"LeGras waved one fat hand languidly. "Edgar, my things," he said. The goon who wasn't my pal Max fetched a green tin box from the shadows and set it down on the table holding the lamp. LeGras opened it and took out a pair of black rubber gloves and a neatly folded white cloth. While LeGras pulled the gloves on, Edgar spread the cloth over the tabletop, then reached into the tin box and started laying out the tools."Stanton, see to the lady," LeGras directed. The golem butler grabbed Gretel and hauled her forward. Max got another kitchen chair and more rope from somewhere behind the Louis-the-Whatever settee and tied her up like the Sunday roast."Never send a boy to do a man's job," LeGras murmured, an ugly little smile on his blobby lips. "You see, lad, the question is no longer if you will die but how long you will be about it. You are about to have a demonstration of what awaits you, performed with the kind assistance of your own dear sister." He picked up one of the tools from the white-shrouded table. Lamplight glittered along the edge of the blade like a string of fresh-dipped rock candy.Hansel went pale. He opened his mouth—nothing came out—then closed it and tightened his jaw. I knew that look. Tough guy.I've got no use for tough guys. I had to leave my home in the Old Country when the tough guys took over. I know their kind: They're real brave as long as they outnumber you, or when it's someone else's neck on the chopping block. Dig the brown-shirted bastards out of their burrows one by one and they stop barking and start whining, no teeth and all tail.That's why I spoke up when I did: "Hey, LeGras, do you like to waste time?" He stopped making goo-goo eyes at the blade and gave me a slow, contemptuous look. "I assure you, madam, I shall proceed with all requisite alacrity." He snapped his fingers. Max made a move for Gretel. She screamed like she was auditioning to play an air raid siren.I laughed. LeGras raised one stubbly eyebrow. "You take pleasure in the impending misfortunes of others? How . . . unsuitable a character trait in a woman. I can't say I approve.""I'm not laughing at her," I told him. "I'm laughing at you. You're a fool, LeGras, a fat fool." Legras's driver made a grab for me, but I held up one hand and talked fast: "Call him off, LeGras, or kiss the black bird goodbye.""Hold, Geoffrey." LeGras's trained gorilla stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of his master's voice. LeGras himself set down his sharp, shiny toy and came over to me. "What are you saying, my good woman? That you have some arcane knowledge that may facilitate our search? That you would be willing to place your sorcerous powers in my service to the end of recovering the bird?""Right you are, cupcake." "And I suppose your price will be their lives?" He didn't even bother looking back at his prisoners, he just shook his head and said, "I am afraid that would be out of the question."I blew his words away like they were smoke rings. "What do you take me for, a sucker? Me bargain for their lives? What's the matter, gumdrop, your mama never read you any fairy tales at bedtime? Do you even know who I am?"It was a beautiful thing, watching the little lightbulb go on over LeGras's head. "You mean to say that you are that witch? My word, this is an honor." He grabbed my hand between both of his and shook it briskly. The rubber gloves squeaked and left my palm all sweaty. Beaming, LeGras babbled on: "How fortuitous. Of course you would never ask for their lives in fee. Not after what they put you through, eh? Pardon my previous ignorance, but it is understandable. Anyone who has ever heard your story assumes that you perished in the oven where that graceless cocotte left you. Well! This puts quite a different complexion on things.""I'll say." I got my hand out of his clutches and wiped it dry on my skirt. "You want my powers at your service, you got 'em. Pay me what you paid the gal who conjured up that gangbusters ring of yours. Say, not to cut my own throat or anything—" I gave Max a Wouldn't you like to try? leer. "—but if you need magic to trace the bird, how come you don't give your bought-and-paid-for witch a call?"LeGras made an irritated noise deep in his jowly throat. "The unmannerly hag left my employ some months ago, complaining that I did not show her the respect her art deserved. She is of no further consequence, thanks to you. Sorcerous aid will make the search for my treasure far less tedious. Can you locate the black bird for me, my good woman?""Depends," I said. "Can you locate my cat?""Your . . . cat? Ah! Your cat, of course." LeGras smiled. "More than reasonable. Restore the black bird to me and I promise you that not only shall you have your beloved familiar back, but that you shall also remain on permanent retainer in my employ. You shall find me to be, er, decidedly generous.""So I hear." I stared at Hansel and made sure to do it so that LeGras got my meaning. "Okay, LeGras, bring me my cat and we'll get started.""Madam, I beg your pardon but you will only receive your cat after I am again in possession of the black bird. Those are my terms and I promise you, they are not negotiable.""In that case, I hope you packed a lunch because this job's not going any further without Bogey. I told you, he's my familiar. Do you even know what that means? He's the supernatural servant I hired at the price of my soul the minute I got into the life. I give the orders, he carries them out; we're a team."LeGras curled his lip. "So you are powerless without him?""Applesauce!" I snapped my fingers under his nose. "He didn't turn himself into a toad, did he? I've got plenty of Moxie on my own, but he boosts my capabilities. It comes in handy for the big jobs. You want someone to dig you a grave, do you give him a spoon or a steamshovel? Bogey's my steamshovel.""I see." LeGras barked a few commands to his boys. Edgar scuttled out of the parlor quick and came back quicker. He was holding a toad. He would've handed it over to me when his boss stopped him. "Before I allow this charming reunion, fräulein Hexe, permit me to remind you that I am still protected." Again with the pinky ring. I was sick of the sight of it. It made that pudgy white finger of his look like a grub wearing a garter belt."Think I was going to pull a fast one?" I smirked. "Nothing could be further from my mind.""Is that why you came into my home carrying a concealed weapon?""Which your butler destroyed. I'll send you a bill for the replacement as soon as I'm on your payroll. Look, LeGras, I admit I was thinking about using that rod, but that was before I realized we're playing on the same team. I don't bite the hand that feeds me. Heck, until I get me a decent set of dentures, I'm not biting anything tougher than a slab of gingerbread. All I'm gonna do is restore Bogey to his true form. That okay by you, Boss?"Boss. LeGras liked the sound of that, I could tell. "By all means." He waved his hand at me like he was the sultan of Turkey ordering a harem girl to dance.I'd give him a dance.The spell for the restoration of an enchanted being's true form is short and sweet. I got through it faster than a chorus girl with a playboy's bankroll. Edgar was still holding Bogey when the change hit. One second he had his hands wrapped around a toad, the next he was holding eight-foot-six of bright green demon by the tail. Bogey's head turned slowly, his eyes a trio of pits filled with the fires of Hell, his jaws dribbling sulfurous foam, razor-sharp fangs set in a permanent come-to-Papa leer. He snapped off Edgar's head with a crunch like a little kid biting a lollipop.Cat shape or true shape, Bogey never did like anyone to pull his tail.Max was next on Bogey's disassembly line, followed by Geoffrey the driver, followed by Stanton. It took Bogey a couple of tries to swallow the golem, but he managed. I'd probably be up all night, nursing him through the bellyache. I was sorry that I couldn't give my old pal Max a personal thank you for what he'd done to my office and my noggin, but you go bother a demon at dinnertime. LeGras was the last to go. The fat man fell to his knees, waggling his pinky ring at Bogey. "You can't touch me!" he squealed. "I am proof against all magical attacks! It will go ill with you if—" Bogey made four neat bites out of him, then spit out the ring like it was a watermelon seed. He always was a show-off.I pocketed the ring and rattled through the spell to return Bogey to feline shape. A demonic familiar has his uses, but a cat takes up less room at the foot of your bed. While Bogey sat there washing up after his feed, I untied Gretel's bonds."How—how did you do that?" she gasped, rubbing some circulation back into her hands. "Doesn't that ring—?""—work?" I finished for her. "Yeah, it works. But it only repels magical attacks. Nothing magical about a demon turning mortals into chop suey; it's what they do, if you give them half a chance. I gave Bogey a whole one.""How kind of you," said a prim voice behind me. "That is more than I shall give you."When you've been in my line of work long enough, you can tell a lot from a voice. I didn't even have to turn around to know that this one belonged to someone young, healthy, British, and armed. The last part was a gimme: He had a gun jabbed into my shortribs hard enough for me to know what caliber."Mr. Carlisle, I presume?" I said. I played it cool, but mentally I was kicking my own tail seven ways from Sunday. How could I have forgotten about Carlisle, LeGras's sometime valet and full-time prettyboy? The first rule of a good gumshoe is to keep count of your enemies, their weapons, and how many rounds they've already squeezed off. If you screw up the first one, don't bother about the other two; you'll be too dead to care."Correct, madam." I felt the gun ease off some and heard the creak of shoe leather on parquet as he took a step away from me. "Please face me. I dislike shooting anyone in the back unless absolutely necessary.""Not cricket, huh?" I did what he said, turning around and sizing him up. He was easy on the eyes, I'll give him that, one of those tall, thin, English blonds so pale-skinned that a good blush would probably make his cheeks explode. He had a pickpocket's long, delicate fingers. At the moment one of them was wrapped around the trigger of a .45."One must play by the rules, mustn't one?" He waved me aside with the heater, then fixed his eyes on Gretel. They were blue and steely, like his gun. "Free him." He nodded at Hansel."That's it?" I asked while Gretel attacked her brother's bonds. "'Free him'? You don't want to get in line to slap him around until he tells you where the black bird's stashed?"Carlisle's laugh was about as warm and human as plate glass shattering. "Do you mean to say you haven't guessed the truth even now? A fine detective you are! I should stick to baking gingerbread if I were you.""Don't be too hard on the old broad," Hansel said. He was on his feet, one arm around his sister. "She's sharp enough, when love's not making her stupid.""Besides," Gretel chimed in, smiling like a fallen angel, "it's not like we wanted a smart cookie for this job."The truth dropped on me like a grand piano, and the song it played when it hit was Variations on a Theme for Suckers. "You were all in this together from the start," I said. "You knew that if you snatched the bird, LeGras and his goons would hunt you down no matter how far you ran or how long it took. You had to get them out of the way, permanently, so you could lie back and enjoy your loot in peace.""Precisely," Carlisle said. "But given the fact that Mr. LeGras was so well protected—by physical as well as arcane resources—we stood in need of someone of your particular talents. We knew that if we drew you in, you'd find the way to dispose of him for us. We were right."I watched as Hansel slipped his other arm around Carlisle's slender waist and gave him a kiss on the cheek, so as not to distract his aim. So all that talk about the two of them being rivals was just a lot of jive cooked up to make me dance to their tune. If I had any more egg on my face I'd be an omelette.Bogey gave me a worried look and meowed. Carlisle laughed again. "Poor pussy. You'd like to destroy us as well, wouldn't you? But I'm afraid you'll remain a cat for the duration. If your mistress so much as begins to utter her demon-freeing spell, I'll kill her by the third syllable." Bogey's tail drooped. I felt the same way."Game, set, and match, Carlisle," I conceded. "Since you've got me licked, do an old lady a favor? Before you rub me out, I mean.""How can I refuse so elegant a plea? What do you want?""The black bird," I said. "I want to know how you managed to hide something that size from LeGras and his goons.""She really isn't a very good detective, is she?" Hansel giggled. "The hell with her and her last requests, she's too stupid to live. Shoot her and let's blow.""Not so fast." Carlisle could've been the love child of Vincent Price and Leslie Howard, a good-looking bad guy who liked to watch his victims squirm. "It's a not unreasonable request. Let us show her, by all means."They took me out of the house and down the front walk to the pond. As soon as I locked eyeballs with the swans, I knew. Swans are nasty, evil-tempered creatures with vicious streaks a yard wide. Three of the birds sailing across the water looked like they'd wreck their own nests just to throw an eggnog party, but the fourth . . . "You bastard," I breathed. "You sharp little bastard."Carlisle was loving it. "'The Purloined Letter' never does go out of style. Care for a closer look before you die?""Don't bother on my account.""No bother, my dear," he replied, like we were all sitting down to cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey tea. "None at all. Hansel, if you would—?""I'm not wading in there." Hansel pouted like a hell-spawned Shirley Temple. "Bad enough I had to let LeGras's apes work me over and now you want me to get my pants wet?" "Would it be the first time?" I muttered.Carlisle made an impatient sound. "Very well. Gretel, you do it.""Me?" she squealed. She eyed the birds nervously. The three genuine swans gave her the glad eye, a trio of feathered sharks. "Why do I have to? I'm with Hansel: Shoot her now."Carlisle sighed. "Whether I shoot her now or later, we must retrieve the bird sometime. Get it."Gretel began to whimper. "But I'm scaaared! Those swans bite. Can I at least go into the house and get a golf club or something to—?"Carlisle shifted the gun. "If you don't do as I say, I'll be pleased to teach you the meaning of the word expendable, my dear." Grousing and whining, Gretel kicked off her shoes, stripped off her stockings, hiked up her skirt, and stepped into the pond. "Here, goosey," she called timidly, holding out one hand to the ringer swan. "Here, nice goose-goose-goosey. Come to Mama." The way all four of the birds kept their distance, she might as well have been waving a hatchet. Hansel and Carlisle observed her fruitless efforts at poultry-herding with rising amusement, laughing until the tears ran down their faces."Good Lord!" Carlisle exclaimed, gasping for breath. "That girl couldn't get a goose at a stag smoker.""Let the old doll do it," Hansel suggested. "She wanted to see the black bird so bad, make her work for it.""A capital notion," Carlisle said. He gestured meaningly with his gun. As a disgruntled Gretel waded out of the pond, I sloshed in past my ankles. It took me all of twenty seconds to cut the right swan from the flock and herd it onto the grass, much to the astonished whispers of Carlisle and his cronies. I'll tell you a little secret from my long-gone childhood: Before Hansel and Gretel, before the gingerbread cottage, even before I first heard the Black Arts whispering my name, I was a snot-nosed German peasant brat like ten thousand others. And when you're a dirt-poor farmer's daughter, you know the first job they hand you, almost as soon as you can toddle? Goose-girl. The three of them gazed at the phony swan like it was the answer to the fifty dollar question on Beat the Band. Carlisle said a few words over the critter's head: Its neck shortened and its webbed feet went from black to red while its plumage went switcheroo from white to black as a cheating woman's heart. The bird looked around stupidly, honked once, settled down on the grass and laid an egg.A golden egg.Gretel pounced on it like a studio head on a starlet, but Hansel got there first and strong-armed her away. "What's the big idea?" she shrilled. "I earned this!""The hell you did," he countered, shoving her away a second time. "I guess it was your face got treated like a tough steak? If anyone earned anything, it's me!" The overconfident little creep bent over to seize the egg. He learned the error of his ways when his adoring sister kicked him in the pants, sending him headfirst into the pond. He got up dripping duckweed and grabbed her by the ankle, dragging her into the water with him. The swans took off, flapping their wings and making enough racket to wake the dead. "Children, please." Carlisle rolled his eyes like a woman who's wondering whether retroactive birth control isn't such a bad idea after all. "The bird will lay more eggs; there will be enough for all of us, in time."The pair of them paused in mid-shindy. Hansel glowered at the English prettyboy: "This is between me and my sister.""Yeah!" Gretel hauled herself out of the muck bottoming the pond and tucked a dripping lock of hair behind one ear. "Don't tell us what to do. You wouldn't even be in on this caper if not for Hansel. He was the one who made sure LeGras got an eyeful of you up in Frisco, but he could've picked any other two-bit swish for the job. We were the brains, you were just the bait. You think you're the only pebble on the beach?""No," the limey admitted. He raised the .45. "But I am the only one with a gun. And now that I come to think about it, I don't believe I want to share at all."He sent a bullet whizzing past Gretel's ear. Any closer and you could call the story "Hansel and." Brother and sister exchanged a look, then took to their heels like they had a flock of Zeros on their tail. Carlisle squeezed off a few more shots to speed them on their way. The black bird honked like crazy at the sound of gunfire but stayed put surer than if someone had driven a railroad spike through its foot. Carlisle laughed like a crazy man.He was anything but."Now that's what I call sporting," I remarked. "Aren't you afraid they'll come after you . . . sister?"He quit laughing and flashed me a look like a shiv, sharp and ugly. "How did you know?" His features started to blur at the edges, then to run like cheese on a griddle, but his grip on the .45 was rock-solid."Maybe I'm not such a bad shamus after all. You were the one who lifted the disguise spell off the black bird. That means you had to be the one who slapped it on in the first place." I looked over to where the goose was still trying to take it on the lam, in spite of the invisible tether holding her down. "Pretty impressive sorcery from a sugarpuss-for-hire. That little holding spell you've got on the goose confirms it: You're one of us, sister."Carlisle's prettyboy looks were all gone by the time I finished. His slender body filled out, his short blond hair went long and gray, and his gigolo get-up flashed into a heap of gypsy-bright glad rags. Me, I prefer to work in traditional black, but it's not like we're unionized.A witch can wear what she wants."You dare include me in your pathetic, penny-grubbing witcheries?" my newly-unmasked colleague countered. "You are a petty hireling, I am a mastermind! I used those stupid mortals as my tools: They did the dirty work, I reap the prize. And it was so easy!" She threw back her head and laughed. "Like you, I was a refugee, a despised foreigner in this so-called 'Land of the Free.' Free! All things here have a price, all costly. I lived hand-to-mouth on their sufferance, accepting the pittance they deemed a 'fair' wage for my services. Bah. I spit on their 'fair' wages." She did, too. Bogey jumped out of the way. It was all he could do. She'd sold her soul to his Head Office, same as me, so he was powerless to attack her, with or without my say-so: professional courtesy.I didn't like her spitting on my cat, but there was something I liked even less: She was riding the Red broomstick. If she was so in love with Comrade Stalin's way of doing things, why did she bother coming here when she left the Old Country? Maybe because back then, Iron Joe was in Hitler's pocket deep enough to call him sweetheart? I got a bad feeling in my gut. If they ever got up another witch-hunt in this country, I'd know who to blame. "There was a better way, I knew it," she went on. "A road to the big score, a clean shot at Easy Street. No more dabbling in love potions and impotence tonics, no.""Six of one—" I began. She ignored me. She was tuned in to Life Can Be Bitterful and she couldn't hear anything else."My chance came when LeGras hired me. While in his employ, I discovered he possessed the black bird. I resolved to make it mine, to use it to obtain luxury beyond my wildest dreams.""Sweet dreams," I remarked. "That must've been when it hit you: You couldn't use your magic to pull off the heist because you set up most of the spell-shielding tools in this dump before you found out about the bird. That must've stuck a burr under your saddle."She ground her teeth together, remembering. "A galling situation, but temporary. It was only a matter of finding the proper cat's-paw for the job.""Namely Hansel? I'll bet he jumped at the chance to get rich quick. Greedy little bastard."Her lip curled. "Will it surprise you to learn that the lure of gold was secondary in persuading him? Who would expect a common gunsel who sold his favors to be a romantic at heart? It was simple to disguise myself as Carlisle and seduce him, then open his eyes to the possibility of obtaining a fortune at his former master's expense. I even made him think it was his own idea. Oh, I am brilliant!""And still you chased him off like that? After all the two of you meant to each other?" I clicked my tongue. "Flirt."The look on her face would give Beelzebub a case of frostbite. "He is lucky I let him escape alive, him and his floozy sister. Do you think I ever intended to share anything with them?""That goose can lay enough gold eggs to satisfy everyone in L.A., if you don't count the boys down at City Hall. What's the matter, Einstein? You can't divide by three?" "You would ask me to retain them as my partners? To trust them? You?" She sneered. "How long do you think it would be before they decided there was one too many hands in the egg basket and shoved me into a bakeoven, hmmm? Perhaps you did not learn from your previous experience with those brats, but I am no such fool. Farewell." She was done with the .45, so she turned it into a hankie and waved bye-bye with it before picking up the goose and starting to go."Hold it, sister!" I called after her. "You think you can just walk away from this?"I'd been dealing with mortals too long; I forgot what it's like to confront one of my own people. I just got my last word out when she turned on me faster than milk on a hot summer day and slammed me with the same lousy immobilization charm she'd used on the black bird. I felt my feet root themselves so firmly to the ground that I knew my ordinary escape spell was useless. A team of hopped-up gophers couldn't dig me free. Unless she ended it or something ended her, I was planted for the duration. Maybe I couldn't move, but I could still fight. I struck back with my own incantation. It left my fingertips like a bolt of lightning, but it hit her like a splash of cheap cologne. "My specialty is shielding spells," she said, coolly wiping my splattered sorcery off her face. "Or have you forgotten all I did for LeGras? None of your puny magics can touch me. Now will you let me leave in peace, or do I make you regret it?" She didn't bother waiting for an answer. I was beneath her contempt. When she showed me her back, she might as well have slapped my face."Aloha," I growled, and whispered the rest of what I had to say.The black bird exploded in her arms like a honking cherry bomb. Feathers flew everywhere, blood drenched her carnival-colored skirts, and one webbed foot landed smack on top of her head like the latest word in Paris millinery fashion. She whirled on me, shrieking: "What have you done?! What in seven hells have you done?!"It was my turn to gloat and I did it pretty. "Just a little something for the war effort, sugar. My war. How long you think it'll be before the cops show up and find me stuck here? Bogey's a sloppy eater. With all the blood he spilled inside that house, they're gonna be asking a lot of questions, like about what happened to LeGras and his buddies. If my neck's got to pay the final bill for your shell game, I'm making sure that you don't get anything out of it except a couple slices of white meat and a belly full of might-have-beens." I slipped my hands into my pockets, casual, and added: "Don't you listen to The Shadow, sister? Crime does not pay." I tried to ape Lamont Cranston's creepy laugh; it came out a cackle. "And fools do not live!" she screeched, her empty hands filling with the biggest damn fireball I'd ever seen in all my years of witchcraft. That was when I knew I'd bought me some serious trouble. You don't use a fireball unless you mean business, and a witch only means that kind of business when she steps into a no-holds-barred duel-to-the-death of sorcery. Fireball spells contain the power of five hundred thousand sticks of dynamite. Casting one takes so much out of you that you're useless for a week after. On the other hand, one is usually all it takes. A fireball spell is so much destruction tucked into one little package that it's a good thing only a few witches know how do it. Too bad I'm not one of them.When she saw me standing there, not even trying to conjure up a fireball of my own, she smiled. For a second I knew how Poland must've felt when the Wehrmacht swept over the border. My last thoughts, just before she pulled back her arm, took aim, and let fly, were: Thank the Powers there's nothing like this in mortal hands, and I hope there never will be or we can kiss our broomsticks good-bye.Then the flames hit me.* * *I put back the glue brush and smoothed down the edges on the latest newspaper clipping in my scrapbook. The accident was still fresh enough for the dailies to use type so big I could read it without my glasses. The gas company kept yapping about how gas was safe, blaming the whole thing on customer negligence, saying that Mr. LeGras or one of his servants must've done something wrong with the pipeline to call up the biggest explosion in the history of the greater L.A. area. They were partly right. LeGras did do something wrong, sure enough, but the only pipeline with his name on it was the one that went straight to hell.Bogey jumped up on my desk and sat on the open scrapbook, forcing me to pay attention to him. He was born a demon, but he's all cat at heart. I'd be peeling gluey newsprint off his tail for hours. "Want your toy?" I asked. I took the silver chain off my neck and let him swat at the little jade-and-pearl pinky ring dangling from it. While Bogey played ping-pong solitaire, I marvelled how something so small had contained power enough to save my skin. Bogey's too. He'd ducked under my skirts just as the fireball hit.Hit and bounced straight back onto the one who'd launched it. Thanks to the shielding spell on that little ring—a spell she'd set in place herself—the rogue witch got everything she'd been aiming at me, only tripled. Her own shielding spells couldn't stand up to that. There wasn't enough of her left to grease the wheels of a kiddie car."That was a close one," I told the cat. "Too close. When I couldn't take her down with my magic, I knew I'd have to turn her own against her. Too bad I had to blow up the bird, but I had to make her mad enough to want me dead. Lucky I managed to slip this baby on my finger in time or she'd've got her wish."Bogey caught the ring with a left hook, yanking the chain out of my hand. I let him chew on it awhile. "I'm getting too old for this job," I sighed. "Even a cat can play me for a sucker. Gretel did it too, easy; too easy. I knewbetter than to trust her, but still I let her reel me in like a prize marlin. Suckers make lousy detectives. Pretty good corpses, but lousy detectives. Maybe it's time I retired, found a cozy cottage up the coast, got back into the bakery business, a little baby-sitting, six of one—"My office door flew open with a bang. She was five-foot-six of danger, half of it legs, the other half fireworks. "I need your help," she said. She had one of those breathy voices that leave you gasping for air like you've just been kissed, long, hard, and professionally."It's my stepmother. I—I think she wants me dead."I nodded her into a chair. When she crossed those gams, my little dream house on the coast went up in a fireball bigger than anything LeGras's pet witch ever threw at me. Oh sure, I knew the odds were stacked against her giving me a tumble, but I do my best work when I've got more stars in my eyes than Graumann's Chinese Theater's got in their cement.That was when I knew that this was how my life was going to stay, until the day they chucked my broom into the janitor's closet at the L.A. morgue: one case after another, rubbing elbows with the dolls and the deadbeats, the chumps and the chiselers, the gophers, gorillas and goons, with maybe a princess or two thrown in to keep the game interesting. A whole lot of fairy tales and not enough happily-ever-afters.But hey. That's the way the cookie crumbles. Or the gingerbread.