Clad in a full French maid's outfit, I pulled a tray of cookies out of the small oven in our loft. Love makes you do strange things.
"Just one more batch to go, mademoiselle...or should I say monsieur?"
Ashley, my mocha skinned girlfriend, kissed me on the lips, playfully fluffing my layered skirt. I loved when she did that. "That mustache looks ridiculous. Who do you think you are, Hercule Poirot in heels?"
She herself wore a stylish black pantsuit. With her petite figure, long wavy hair, and button cute face, she'd look good in anything, but I really dug the plunging neckline...And the glasses.
The delicious aroma of my sugar and chocolate chip cookies, and my triumph in the kitchen put me in a jaunty mood. "Mademoiselle, you forget that I grew zees mustache naturally. Besides, I could not find heels in size 14." I imagine she'd eventually find me some online, but at the moment I just wore men's...dress shoes.
"I can't believe we're using cookies to catch a kidnapper."
"Honey, your cookies are amazing enough to catch anyone. I wish I could cook like that!"
"I did notice you sneaking quite a few."
Ashley toyed with my oversized princess sleeves. "Your friends were right, you would make someone a fine wife one day."
I put my hands on my hips. "Ash, did you pick this couple out because they were biracial?"
She gave me a look that said `Is that a problem?' "They're local. The guy works at the auto repair place you go to. I thought we needed some cases under our belt...or, in your case, a cummerbund."
I rolled my eyes. "I think the guy is going to cut me a special deal, and charge me extra."
"Switch has to start somewhere, sugar."
We called our detective agency `Switch' because my girlfriend assumed the Philip Marlowe role while I, in drag, played the role of `sexy' female mascot. Our gimmick to lure in customers.
When we solved our first case, I just happened to be wearing a dress on account of a crazy game show. Our client, the host of a popular cooking show, got framed for murder. Proving his innocence made headlines, forever branding me "The dress guy." I could have just as easily been stuck wearing a chicken suit.
So now I walk around town in girly outfits and pass out business cards.
A low whimper reminded me I wasn't the only mascot. Ashley had picked up a cairn terrier from the animal shelter a few weeks ago. Ordinarily, Tinky was a bundle of energy, and would have been making all sorts of snags in my stockings trying to get at the cookies, but on that particular day she seemed...listless, not even wanting to leave her pet carrier. I think she got into something, I don't know. "When am I supposed to take her to the vet again?"
"Three o' clock. She can still eat, I don't think it's that serious."
We were renting an office space above a liquor store. Not ideal, but we knew we had to stretch out our game show winnings as much as we could until the agency really took off. Plus the landlady let us remodel as much as we wanted, and keep a dog for no extra charge.
The front door had been built to look like something out of an old detective movie, with a frosted glass window. In back, cleverly hidden behind Japanese paper screens, we had the bed that we shared.
For my secretarial duties, I had a solid oak desk with a posh leather chair and a brand new laptop. My `boss' had her own desk, from which she kept watch on news reports with her radio, TV and computer. Mine, on the other hand, resembled a crafting table. I thought it smart to supplement my income between cases by selling handmade stuff online. I guess I always kinda enjoyed such unmanly hobbies, I just never knew that a sexy woman would be encouraging me to do them...or telling me she couldn't sew if her life depended on it.
I slid another tray of cookies into the oven. "Explain to me again how this is going to work."
"Eight or nine times out of ten, a kidnapper turns out to be someone related to the child. I've sent invitations to both the child's parents—"
I frowned. "Won't that piss them off? I mean, we're supposed to be looking for the kid, not...decking the halls!"
"I...kinda hinted that we already solved the case."
I reddened. "What! This is so not going to work!"
She was staring at my stocking clad legs. Kind of flattering, actually. I blushed.
"C'mon, princess! It's a divorce situation. Odds are fifty-fifty we'll have the suspect in the room! I think if we just put them in a room together, one of them will break down and confess, either accidentally or on purpose."
"Who do you think did it? The dad? It's the dad, right? Moms usually get the custody."
Ashley only shrugged.
"Yeah, but both of them came to us for help on this one. Don't you think it's a little ridiculous for the kidnapper—"
"Not at all. You ever watch Columbo? The killer sometimes ends up being the first guy to call the police. Establishes an alibi."
I opened my mouth to say something in reply, but at that moment I heard a knock at the door.
In a very emasculating fashion, Ashley gave me a kiss and told me, "Keep cooking, honey. I'll get it." Honestly, it kinda turned me on when she treated me like that.
The child's father had arrived. He smelled like petroleum and cigarettes.
Bald, thick limbed black man, wide around the middle, face like a bulldog. He had not brought cookies. In fact, he'd showed up in a blue auto mechanic's jumpsuit, stained and smudged with grimy engine chemicals. "Where is my daughter!...And what's this bullshit about a cake walk?"
The firs time Mr. Tulliver came to our office, he called me a faggot. I actually belong to that one percent of crossdressers who prefer women, but it's hard to convince people of this when you're wearing panties.
When he first inquired of our services, he wanted the child found yesterday, and wasn't willing to pay us a dime. Guess he thought we were psychics or something. Ashley chalked it up to pro-bono PR work.
My girlfriend gestured to the velvet couch, the one with the hide-away-bed I sometimes used. "Please take a seat, Mr. Tulliver. We'll have the matter resolved shortly...would you like some cookies? They're made from scratch!"
The man gave a grudging nod, so I brought him a tray. I could tell by the look on his face that he regretted accepting the offer, but ate a couple anyway.
"Hey, these ain't bad! Whooo—" Ashley's nonverbal reply made him scowl and not say the rest. After all, he'd be complimenting the `fag.'
I gave Ashley a look that said, `He's our guy, isn't he?'
She telegraphed, `Probably.'
"Okay," Mr. Tulliver grumbled. "How long do I have to wait for my...resolution?"
The mother had delayed in showing up. Ashley had to stall for time. "We've invited some other guests. Please be patient."
Our guest looked like he'd just eaten a lemon. "You'd better not be wasting my time. I got a job, you know. You mark my words: I can make things damn unpleasant for you, and your so-called `agency.'"
The door swung open, and in came Mrs. Tulliver, well, technically Ms. Williams.
White woman, mouse brown hair, about as physically fit as her ex. Looney Tunes pediatrics scrubs. She had some cookies in a tin, but she dropped them on the floor when she saw who occupied the couch. "You!* I should have known my deadbeat ex-husband would be the one pulling this shit!"
The man got up, raising his hands defensively. "Now listen, baby, I ain't got nuthin' to do with no missing kid! This was Ray Finkle's idea `cuz his sissy faggot ass don't know the first thing about solving a damn kidnapping case!"
The woman put her hands on her hips. "I think she's solved it just fine!" I guess Ms. Williams was trying to flatter me by using a feminine pronoun, but I actually found it insulting. "Where are you hiding her!"
"Baby, I don't know what the fuck you're talking about! You always complain that I don't spend enough time at home, and you think I'd have the luxury of sitting around and caring for that brat?"
"That brat is your daughter."
"Well thank you Captain Obvious! My point was I don't have no damn time to babysit! That's why the courts awarded her to you!"
I gave Ashley a face that said `I kinda think you don't have it solved.'
It was then that Ms. Williams noticed some orange yarn sticking out of the man's chest pocket. "Robert, what is that?"
Mr. Tulliver suddenly looked guilty. "What is what?"
"That!" She stabbed the pocket with her finger.
Now her ex looked really shifty. "Baby, it's not what you think. I found it—"
"Don't baby me!" She yanked the yarn, and out came a girl's doll.
I and Ashley stared at the man in shock.
My girlfriend's face was saying `Told you so.'
"Robert!" Ms. Williams shrieked. "Whare are you hiding my fucking daughter! I swear to God I'll call the police!"
"I told you I don't know! She left that in my trunk! I was only taking it to the detective so—"
"Bull shit!" The woman whipped a phone out of her purse.
At this precise moment, the smoke detector told me I'd ruined the cookies. I rushed over to shut the oven off.
Great. The loft had absolutely lousy ventilation. We'd have to live with that smell for a good week.
As I tried to salvage what I could from the batch, Ashley slapped me on the butt. "Forget it. It's fine. Why don't you go take Tinky to the vet? It's about time for her appointment."
"Oui oui, madame." I paused. "You think you got the case wrapped up?...I admit the doll's pretty damning evidence, but—"
Ashley's expression reflected uncertainty, but she only replied, "I got this. He'll probably break down and tell us where Kimberly is in a second. Take care of the dog."
Carrying Tinky was like hefting around a bowling ball. Too many table scraps. Also, I was getting dog hair all over my brand new outfit. Still, I enjoyed the exercise. I carried the mutt downstairs through the liquor store.
I got a lot of stares, but I was used to it.
Not much I can say about Ruthie's Spirits. Liquor was about all she had there, and there wasn't that much room to move around. If you wanted something other than booze, cigarettes or a two liter of Pepsi, you had to go down the street to the gas station, and it had a weird musty smell that didn't seem to go away.
I skirted a display of whiskey, passing Ruthie, our landlady and alcohol vendor.
The woman had bony, masculine features and stringy blonde hair. Having a tattoo and a head bandana seemed to be a job requirement for ladies in that neighborhood, and she had both. "Aww, is little Tinky not feeling well?"
"Um, I'm not really sure. She's not acting like herself. She's not going to the bathroom like she's supposed to, either."
"You know, she might just be stopped up. I know you feed her a lot of stuff you probably shouldn't be giving her. You might want to try a tablespoon of castor oil."
"Thanks. I'll...keep that in mind."
As I shoved the front door open, the woman said, "Hey. I, uh, noticed you and Ms. Jones have been getting kinda busy up there..."
Warmth rushed to my face. Was she referring to what I thought she was? "Uh, yeah. I...think our agency is just about to take off, and we'll have some real money coming in."
Ruthie rolled her eyes. "Terrific. Do me a favor and move the bed before your next `flight.' I saw some plaster from the ceiling coming down the other day."
Embarrassed, I quickly made my escape.
I had my Corolla parked out front. Since Ruthie wasn't too keen about a lot of signage, Ashley ordered a custom magnetic sticker to go on my door, to make my vehicle a billboard. Ironically, the newest thing on that car. I had a huge dent in the rear fender, all the hubcaps were gone, and rust had set in the areas beneath.
I buckled the dog into the passenger seat. She had gained enough weight to set off the sensor.
I didn't realize that I'd forgotten to lock up until I got in the driver's side and noticed a light skinned figure in a denim pinafore and striped shirt sitting in the back seat.
"What's wrong with your dog, mister?"
The girl's hair had been done up in cornrows. I could definitely see the resemblance to her father in the eyes and cheeks. "Uh, I don't know yet. I'm taking her to a vet."
"Why are you wearing a dress?"
I shrugged. "My girlfriend likes it that way...Have you been staying at your dad's house all this time?"
She shook her head. "Naw, I ran away. There's a tree house over at my friend's place...Are mom and dad still fighting?"
"What, did you see them upstairs?" It seemed unlikely, as a minor wouldn't be allowed into Ruthie's, and no one had informed her about the back stairway.
I know, stupid question, but honestly I was wondering if me and Ashley might have a little girl that looked just like her, and not really thinking about my words.
"So they fought here too, huh? Figures!"
I felt sorry for her. "That bad at home?"
"I dunno. Usually it's...okay, but last time daddy threw a chair. Can you blame me for running out?"
"Um...I guess not."
"What's this I read about cookies?"
"Have you been reading mommy's mail?"
Kimberly's facial expression said `maybe.' "I took my bike down to 7-11 to get a pop, and I saw mom's car. The invite was on the front seat. Cookies, please."
I glanced out the passenger window. Sure enough, a pink Schwinn with sissy bars and streamers had been propped up against the wall of Ruthie's establishment. "Guess it makes sense that you found the place. You are within walking—"
I couldn't finish. I saw red and blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror.