Use the calendar to the right to read Part I (June 18) and Part II (June 19).
THE CASE OF DUSTY LIZARD
I was staking out Li’s again, carefully monitoring my fluid intake. Dusty might have taken the time to identify my regular car, so I was using my own nondescript minivan for the occasion. Almost on cue, Dusty arrived with Weatherman, the two kids, and the ever-present camera. She was clearly a cool customer. Despite my investigation, Dusty stuck to the same dinner routine, including the innocent looking encounter with the manager who once again couldn’t seem to operate the camera. Eventually she left. But before she climbed in the minivan she paused, looked across the street directly at me, and waved. Cool customer, indeed. I watched Dusty go and then continued waiting and watching. She was not the target tonight.
Around midnight the lights went out in Li’s. I slipped out of the van and walked quickly toward the rear exit of the restaurant. I hid behind a dumpster where I could watch the staff leave. Last to leave, of course, was the manager. As he locked the door I stepped behind him and struck a hard blow across the base of his skull. He fell in an unconscious heap. He would have a headache the next day, but otherwise be none the worse for wear. I quickly searched his pockets until I found the memory card. Dusty wasn’t the only cool customer in this case.
Back at my office I slipped the memory card into my laptop. I expected the photo viewer to open and reveal pages of authentic looking government documents. But it didn’t. Instead, the video player opened and a list of file names appeared marked simply “Episode 1,” “Episode 2,” etc. I clicked the first one and a moment later watched an old British police box racing through the cosmos, the familiar opening sequence of the BBC sci-fi TV show, Dr. Who.
“It was never espionage,” Dusty said.
I hadn’t heard her come in, but there she sat in the same client chair with a camera in her lap.
She continued, “I have friends in China who enjoy Dr. Who, but their government has declared it ‘capitalist propaganda’ and banned the show. I’m a smuggler, I suppose, but not a traitor.”
“And your contacts at the NSA?” I asked.
“They developed a high-capacity memory card for NSA agents,” she explained. “They slipped me a card. My husband – NSA calls him Weatherman, I think – loads the episodes. I take them to Li’s. Somehow they get to China.”
She paused, looking intently at me.
“The question,” she said carefully, “is what you’re going to do about this now that you know. There are no government secrets at issue, but people could still get in trouble.”
“The NSA hired me to prove that you were giving classified documents to the Chinese,” I replied. “That appears to be so much egg foo yung at this point.”
“Is there anyone who actually finds you clever?” she asked dryly.
“My mother, I think. What I was going to say is that NSA didn’t hire me to collect random information for them. They hired me to prove that you are giving classified documents to the Chinese. Since I don’t have proof of you doing that, I have nothing to say to the NSA. I can just report that I was unable to prove their theory. Of course, that won’t stop them from hounding you. They’ll find someone else to come after you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said with a smile. “The memory card you have is the first half of the last season. One more card and I’ll be done.”
I smiled back, extracted the memory card from my laptop, and handed it to her. She inserted it in the camera, shook my hand, and left.
A week later the NSA suits returned.
“I missed you guys,” I said cheerily.
“Don’t be smug,” the first suit said. “What have you learned?”
“I learned that I really like sesame chicken,” I replied.
“Okay, okay,” I said quickly. “I learned that Dusty isn’t giving any of your precious secrets to the Chinese.”
“Exactly how do you know that?” the suit asked.
“Because I, um, obtained one of the memory cards and there were no documents on it. Only an old British TV show. If anything, she’s trying to help oppressed people and bring down a totalitarian regime. You should be thrilled!”
“Did you look at the entire memory card?
“And then you gave it back to her?”
“Yes. It’s harmless.”
“Did it ever occur to you that Dusty let you see what she wanted you to see?”
“I don’t see how …”
“I told you hiring this guy was a mistake,” the second suit said to the first. “He’s such a moron.”
“Not only that,” the first suit said. “He’s fired.” Then they left.
I sat and thought about the case. Dusty had waved at me as she left Li’s. Is it possible she followed me and then pretended to arrive for dinner? Is it possible the memory card was planted for me to find? Am I really a moron? I needed to know.
I jumped in the car and raced to Dusty’s address, a cozy house on a quiet side street.
There were no cars parked outside. I walked quickly to the door and noticed an artistic sign that said “Bramble Cottage.” Strange. There were no brambles in the well-kept yard. I knocked hard, like the little sign taped on the door said to. No response. I knocked again. Nothing. I leaned over to the front window and peered inside. The place was empty. Dusty was gone.
When I got back to my office I found an envelope slipped under the door. Inside was a single Uno card – a reverse card to be exact. I understood Dusty’s message. She had turned the tables on me. She had won. I had lost.
I leaned back in my chair and put my feet up on the desk. I studied the card and thought about Dusty for a long time. There would be another opportunity for this master detective to go head-to-head with the master spy, but not today. I put the Uno card in Dusty’s file, locked my office, and went to eat at Li’s.
I loved this story. Of course I loved it: it’s all about me, and I’m terribly vain. Thank you, Jeff, for leaving me as a villain. I liked being the villain.
Today was my twentieth wedding anniversary. I had half an hour free before Darling Husband came home. What to do? Pre-write The Blog, work on assessing an essay, or take the tripod out in the 100 degree heat index and get the camera ready for a shot of us heading out to dinner?
Here’s the shot of us heading out to dinner. You can’t tell, but I’m completely sweaty from hauling the tripod all around the front yard.
Darling Husband gave me these lovely flowers, which really make the picture, don’t they?