I stared at the little man in the Brooks Brothers suit that was just a tad too long in the sleeves despite the extra padding in the shoulders, trying to think of some way to frame my question without looking like an idiot. I could tell by his expression I blew it.

“A thylacine is not a musical instrument, Mr. Doverman. It was a carnivorous marsupial once indigenous to Australia and surrounding islands. You may have heard it referred to as a Tasmanian Tiger.”

“I might not be up on my zoology, but I have a fair grasp of grammar. Your use of the past tense suggests we’re dealing with a stuffed animal?”

“Not at all,” he said, his grin making me wish I hadn’t asked. It was the kind of grin you get before being told all about the spacemen in the attic or invisible dinosaurs swimming in the pool. By the time he’d finished with the dramatic pause, I was ready for anything. “This animal is a genetic recreation of a formerly extinct animal. It cost a fortune to engineer and is, to date, the only living specimen since the last know thylacine died on September 7th, 1936.”

“Let’s be sure I got this straight. These tigers died off. 85 years later, you had one whipped up a lab and then promptly lost it.”

“It was stolen,” he insisted, his puffy cheeks darkening to better suit his indignation. Suspecting he had a lot riding on getting this tiger thingy back, I made note to adjust my fee. Restored reputations didn’t come cheap.

“It shouldn’t be hard to pin down who pinched your science fair project, and I can’t imagine it will be that hard to track. One-of-a-kind items usually leave a wake as they move from port to port. I’ll need a list of everybody who had access to it.”

“The only people who had access to the specimen were the lead geneticist, Doctor Mannering, and his assistant.”

“You got a name that goes with the assistant?”

“Doctor Helen Wardlow, and I can vouch for her.”

“Why are you so sure she didn’t make off with it?”

“Because she’s my fiancée.”

I started to tell him at least half of my cases involved guys who’d placed too much trust in their fiancées, but backed off, remembering the last time I’d tried to convince a guy his old lady was trouble. It had earned me a set of bruised ribs that were still sore two weeks later when they found him with a 38 caliber hole in his head. They picked up his fiancée at the bus stop with the gun that made the hole in her purse.

“Okay. How about a list of people who knew about the project?”

“There were several other investors, but they certainly had nothing to gain by sabotaging the experiment.”

Despite his objections, I pried the list out of him, along with a list of anyone who’d provided materials or cleaned up around the lab. What started on a post-it-note spilled out onto a sheet of loose leaf, filling one whole side before he started on the film crew he’d hired to document his triumph.

“What were you trying to accomplish here?” I asked, setting down the pen to flex the cramp out of my hand. “I get the idea you weren’t spending all this money for the love of science.”

“I don’t see how it’s any of your concern,” he said, tilting his head back so I’d be sure to notice he was staring down his nose at me. “All you need to know is that I’m willing to pay you a considerable sum to get my property back.”

“I don’t like you, Mr. Albert Fierro the Third,” I said, tossing his calling card at him and standing up to show him my nose was longer. “I don’t like your finishing school diction or your high and mighty attitude. I don’t even like your face. No amount of money could compensate me for the nightmares I’ll have after spending time with it.”

“Are you finished?” Fierro asked. His eyes looked bored, but his fingers were doing a number on the arms of my chair. He would have made a good strangler.

“I got more. The only thing your case has going for it is it’s wacky enough to make me curious, and curiosity is a vice of mine. You want me to find your tiger, you need to keep me interested. I ask you for information, I expect you to feed it to me unseasoned with any attitude.”

“I planned to provide a service, selling them to collectors with a taste for the exotic,” he said with a sigh. “You can’t get more exotic than an animal that is officially extinct. We started with the thylacine because we had an ample amount of material to work with, but the possibilities could be endless. Just imagine how much we could get for a mammoth.”

“Sounds screwy, but I’ll buy it,” I said, sitting down and offering him a pen.

The check for my retainer signed, Fierro drifted back to his palace in the clouds, probably to wash away his distasteful association with a mere mortal with honey dew and nectar. I opened a window to let out the lingering stench of too much Louis Vuitton and see if the cold air might shock some sense into me. It didn’t work. I was too invested in seeing the number on the check on my desk pop make the jump to my bank statement. The whole set up stank. I was pretty hard on Fierro, and he took it a lot better than he should have. Guys like that don’t tend to let it slide when the peasants get uppity. It made me wonder if any of those other investors were the type who offered their partners a trip to the bottom of the river in lieu of payment. It would explain why Fierro got all cagey when I hit him up for names.

If the mob was involved, it was more than Fierro’s reputation on the line, and I’d undercharged him. I spent the next hour or so mulling over his list with my own nectar from the bottle under my desk. None of the names of Fierro’s investors looked familiar, but that could have been because the names were fake.

After handing off the list to my secretary, Marcy, who hardly ever punched holes in the wall or drank herself into a stupor when hours of research produced nothing, I concentrated my efforts on seeing how far out my client had waded. A cursory glance at the tax records suggested he was in pretty deep. I didn’t know who’d put up most of the funds for his ghost zoo, but it hadn’t been him. The guy was broke. Not broke in the sense normal people were broke, but rich people broke. He wasn’t going to be begging for a payday loan at 500 percent interest to keep his lights on, but what he had was tied up in property he didn’t fully own. I started worrying about his check clearing. I decided to ask Dr. Mannering how he was paid.


Judging from Mannering’s digs, he wasn’t paid much. I’d expected to find him in a luxury apartment somewhere in the East Manufacturing and Warehouse District, not next door to an actual warehouse. It was the kind of place that rented by the week and asked for the money up front. For a lot of tenants, their next address was the River City Correctional Center.

A kid on the front steps with a pair of wires hanging from the sides of his knitted ski-cap came back from whatever trip he was on long enough to look me over and decide I didn’t have anything to offer. Before he headed off again, I flagged him down with a $20. It was enough to make the headphones fall out onto his lap, but he still didn’t seem like he was ready to make a commitment.

“What’s that for?”

“I’m going put on a show for one of your neighbors and I want to be sure I’m singing the right tune. Know anything about a guy named Mannering?”

“I don’t chill with any of these losers,” he said, hugging himself through layers of flannel. “I’m just passing through.”

“This guy would stand out. He’s a middle-aged white guy. Probably keeps to himself. Dresses like a professor.”

“Oh yeah,” he said, showing some signs of life. “The dude with the dope girlfriend. What’s up with that?”

“Lots of guys have girlfriends. What’s the mystery?”

“The guy’s a stiff. My granddad has more going for him than this guy and he’s been dead for ten years. I see this girl coming and going from his apartment all the time and she’s fire. I mean a real babe. I figure she’s his daughter, or a social worker or something, but then one day I catch them kissing on the stairwell. It wasn’t no peck on the check neither. They were slobbering all over each other.”

I asked for a description of the woman and got a blurb from the back cover of a smutty paperback. By the time he was through, we were both sweating. Scraping away the hyperbole, I came away with a picture of a blonde twentysomething who liked to wrap her long legs in silk stockings under shorts that might have made a decent belt. I considered she might have been a working girl, but judging from the description of her, Mannering wouldn’t have had enough in the budget to afford her.

I asked a few more questions, but my friend had checked out on me once we got past the woman. I dropped the $20 in his lap and tip toed up a set of steps, too narrow for anyone over the age of five, to reach the second floor. It took some guess work to find apartment number seven, since nobody had bothered to stencil in the numbers, but I was fairly confident I had the right place when a woman peeked out of the door across the hall and asked me if I’d come for the old dude.

“You’re a cop, right?” she asked, pushing a wailing moppet back into her apartment with her leg while her hands worked on stirring something that smelled faintly like breakfast in the plastic bowl she held, despite it being past noon.

“What makes you think the cops would be interested?”

“Guy like that living here? He’s gotta be hiding from somebody.”

“Not from me. I just want to ask him a few questions,” I said, rapping on the door. I only hit it twice before it popped open, but there was nobody on the other side. I didn’t bother to call out before stepping in. I’d stumbled on enough stiffs to recognize the stink they put off, even when it wasn’t that bad yet. By the look of the body I found sprawled across the bed, I’d say this one was just a few hours from full-on ripe. Mannering stared up at the cracked plaster with eyes that had already started to film over. The blood on his shirt had already faded to a rusty brown.

“Holy shit!” said the woman behind me in the doorway of the bedroom. I’d been so busy following my nose I hadn’t noticed she’d followed me in.

“Get that kid out of here and call the police,” I ordered, stepping forward to block the view from the kid clinging to her pants. “Tell them there’s been a murder.”

I had about 20 minutes to get to know Dr. Mannering before the cops showed, 15 if Rickman answered the call. Not being on Rickman’s buddy list, I needed to get what I could before finding myself on the wrong side of the door.

I didn’t need to poke around in the wound to know Mannering had been shot with a 45 since the Glock 30 that killed him was sitting next to him on the bed on top of a gray overcoat. The presence of the gun suggested a mob hit, or at least a pro, but I wasn’t so sure. Mannering’s shirt was unbuttoned, his belt was off, and his fly was open. There was a glass on the floor next to a stain that smelled like bourbon, and another glass sitting on the night stand. Hit men don’t tend to share a drink with their mark before dispatching them, especially not in the bedroom.

There was nothing in the apartment to suggest a scientist had lived there. There was a book on extinct animals, with the chapter on the thylacine marked with an envelope, but it wasn’t what I would call peer reviewed. It was more like a coffee table book found in the discount section of Barnes and Noble. There was an ash tray, and while I didn’t find any lipstick on any of the butts, the mix of Marlboros and Virginia Slims hinted at a mixed crowd.

Having gotten all I could from the crime scene, I wasted the time I had left brushing up on Tasmanian Tigers. All of the pictures in the book were in black and white, but I didn’t think the ugly dogs with the tiger stripes would have looked any better in color. Why anybody would want to bring these things back to life was a puzzle I wasn’t bright enough to solve.

“Lost another client?”

I looked up to see Glenn Kraft floating in on a cloud to the accompaniment of a heavenly choir. I must have had stars in my eyes because Glenn turned back toward the door he’d just came through, probably expecting to see Lady Godiva.

“That bulge in your pants for me?”

“That’s my natural state when there’s a dead body in the next room and Rickman isn’t the one asking me to explain how it got there.”

“You got lucky I was in the area when the call came in. There’s a blonde who works at the Waffle House a few blocks down who takes the police discount more seriously than most. You would not believe the things you can accomplish in a half-hour lunch break.”

“I did mention there was a body in the next room, right?”

Glenn followed my gaze to the bedroom door and then stomped off to spend about ten minutes with the late doctor while I checked out the décor in the kitchen. There wasn’t much to see, but I noted two jars of instant coffee on top of the microwave. It might not have meant anything, but the presence of breakfast blend next to decaf made me wonder if breakfast for two had been a regular occurrence. I checked the sink and dishwasher, expecting a surplus of cups and plates to back up my hunch, but Mannering had been good about doing the chores.

Back in the living room, Glenn was telling the plain clothes boy who’d showed up to call for the coroner on his way to guard the front door.

“What’s your connection,” Glenn said as I walked up on him.

“The guy worked for my client. I wanted to talk to him about some missing property.”

“You suspected him of taking it?”

“I hadn’t gotten that far into it.”

“What kind of property we talking about?”

I handed him the book and pointed at the picture of the ugly dog.

“The dead man was a wizard tasked with bringing back the dead. Supposedly whatever magic he used worked, but Lazarus didn’t stick around. Somebody pinched the pooch.”

“That guy was no wizard,” Glenn said, handing me the book. “He was a small time con with a big imagination. We’ve hauled him in countless times for bilking people with more money than sense.”

“So he wasn’t a geneticist?”

“Not even close.”

“That clears up a lot,” I said, feeling like a sap for buying into Fierro’s story. I told him about the possible mob connection and about the hot blonde with the long legs who probably smoked Virginia Slims and had an aversion to caffeine, assuming the breakfast blend was for Mannering. Glenn seemed to favor the version of the story where gangsters discover a well-known scam artist had been the recipient of their money and came to collect, but I could tell he would have rather it had been the blonde. I told him I’d let him know what Marcy came up with, and headed out before the rest of the circus showed up.

The revelation Mannering was a con man should have been the end point. No scientist meant no thylacine. It hadn’t been stolen because it had never existed in the first place. The case was solved except for one detail I felt obliged by the ridiculous fee I was charging Fierro to look into. How did Dr. Helen Wardlow, the very trustworthy fiancée, fit into it?


For all installments of “The Tiger,” click here.