Tag Archives: population-pressure

Who will save us from ourselves? (S)

Seen from the door of the upscale cafe, three women sat frozen in a ‘tableau vivant’. Heads together, hands clenched in their laps, only their scarlet lips moved, and those movements were barely perceptible.  Renada’s friends wore colourful print dresses and their hair was beautifully coiffed.  They epitomized the new middle class of educated working women, and they shared a deep concern for environmental protection.  Renada glided to the vacant chair, hating to disturb their concentration yet anxious to hear what so enthralled them.

“…the fetus was normal. She didn’t want to chance it.  Many babies look normal on ultrasound, but you can never be sure,” Andrea said, sotto voce.

The three young women looked up and smiled as Renada sat down. She was the only one of the group with a baby with a small head. Microcephaly, it was called.  Max was born before the health authorities had warned the public about the virus.  She thought Max was perfect, but later her doctors told her his head was smaller than normal and his brain would be affected.  What was normal, she had wondered as she studied her beautiful baby boy. She hadn’t brought Max with her today, hating how these women stared at him and angry at her hypersensitivity.

“We’re not having a child until they discover what’s happening, or someone makes a vaccine for that virus. It’s just too risky.” Maria said.

“No one with a brain is getting pregnant,” Andrea said, eliciting an abbreviated laugh from the other women.

Renada wasn’t upset. She had her own ideas about what was happening.  In Brazil, almost three million babies were born annually.  The number of babies born with microcephaly was typically under two hundred per year, but that number had risen to over four thousand in association with the recent appearance of Zika virus carried by mosquitoes and possibly transmitted through semen. Controversy erupted in the medical and scientific professions.  What was the evidence for the virus causing this increase in microcephaly?  Could it be caused instead by the pesticide used to kill mosquitoes?  Why had the criteria for classifying microcephaly changed?   Could the virus really be transmitted through humans?  Lacking answers, the authorities had still issued warnings against travelling to infected countries or becoming pregnant if living there.

“Are you sure this isn’t a ploy to reduce the birth rate?” Renada asked. Her husband believed that a declining birth rate would be the end of the growth economy.  He made it sound like a bad thing, but she couldn’t agree. Never-ending growth was illogical.

“Why be concerned about the population here?” Emilia said. “Brazil’s fertility rate has declined a lot. On average, women are having fewer than two babies now.”  Her large dark eyes looked disappointed, not angry, Renada thought.  They’d had this argument before.

“You know it’s not just the fertility rate,” Renada said. “It’s the numbers. Brazil’s population is four times higher since 1950.  We’re the fifth largest country by population in the world.”

“Population density in the north is ten times lower than the coast, but we have more microcephaly here in the north,” Emilia said, smirking. Renada shrugged, feeling defeated once again.

She couldn’t win the argument because Emilia was right. Reducing population growth in Brazil, where the ability of the land to feed the people was still greater than the population, wasn’t as important as reducing it in India or England.  Brazil had plenty of land, if you included the rain forests.  Still, maybe that’s why the outbreak had started here.  Maybe it was a testing ground.

The unsubstantiated threat of damage to the developing fetus had been enough to slow conception rate, or so the papers said.  She’d read an article about couples choosing not to have children because of concern for an uncertain future on a planet that was facing ecological collapse within the century.  Although few people were swayed by distant threats, the Zika virus was here right now.  With a vaccine said to be two years away, most women, like her friends, would wait to conceive.

Earlier that week, Renada had an epiphany when she read that El Salvador, the most densely populated country on the continent, had asked women to delay conception until the outbreak was contained. No government had ever warned its citizens not to get pregnant, and this would be very difficult in a Catholic state where the poor could ill afford contraceptives but were most likely to be infected.  To support their recommendation, the government had made a commitment to increase access to family planning resources as part of their emergency response to Zika.  This was the beautiful part of the plan, she thought.  When over fifty percent of births were unintended, access to free family planning would reduce population growth even after a vaccine was developed.  Was this also happening in northern Brazil, she wondered?  Could this be a the start of a global plan to reduce the population?

That’s why she’d come to the café today. Emilia’s husband was a font of knowledge on Brazilian politics and population growth, which was why Emilia had effective counter-arguments to all of Renada’s positions.  But could she worm this information from her friend?  She decided to pose the question directly.

“Do you know if the government has instituted access to free family planning?” she said, looking around the table but expecting Emilia to answer.

“We all use it, of course,” Andrea said. “It costs so little.”

“For us,” Renada said, “but for the poor, the cost is a reason not to use it.” She saw Emilia squirm, fighting an urge to speak.

“Yes, they’ve opened clinics and asked doctors to provide free condoms and pills,” Emilia said. I suppose we’ll all be paying for that.”

“Odd. I’ve seen nothing in the papers about free birth control,” Maria said.

“That’s because of the Church,” Emilia said, and Andrea nodded. They’d all seen the articles advising against abortion for women infected with Zika, but the Vatican had been silent on contraception so far. Renada thought it far more likely that the corporations would object if the number of consumers dropped.  She suspected Emilia was too cautious to suggest that there was a long-term plan by governments to contain population growth.  Once contraception was freely available, babies could be planned, and this was a good thing, she believed.  “Naturally, they’ll only provide free contraception for a couple of years, until the vaccine is ready,” Emilia said.  She was smirking at Renada, as if reading her thoughts.

Renada smiled back. If this virus were truly being used as a ploy to reduce population growth, perhaps it was only meant to be a delaying tactic until a better solution emerged.  “There could be other reasons for the microcephaly,” she said, “or the population may demand that free contraception methods be continued.”  Arranging her expression to try to appear innocent, she said, “It’s not possible to see into the future, but you have to agree that population growth must cease eventually.”

“Of course, and it will. Most countries show declining population growth rates already, if you discount immigration.  There is no need to invoke some scheme by our government.  I’m surprised at you.  It’s  tourism that’s suffering the most, and you haven’t mentioned a conspiracy there.”

“What do you mean?” Renada said, feeling her face warm under the scrutiny.

“Airlines and cruise ship lines are waiving cancellation fees for pregnant women. More than half the people in the United States said they won’t vacation here or Central America until this outbreak is contained, and I doubt if they’re all pregnant.  I’m waiting to see what happens at the Olympics in Rio, whether fewer tourists will attend.”

“Ah,” Ranada said, “and cruise ships and airlines contribute huge amounts to global warming. Any global pandemic will reduce travel, and especially if people believe the virus can be transmitted between people and not just by mosquitoes.”

“Why are you smiling, Renada? That’s terrible.” Andrea said.

“Because she wants there to be a conspiracy,” Emilia said. “You thrive on them, Renada, but I have no idea why.”

“Don’t tell me all of you can’t see where our country and our planet are headed. There are too many people consuming too much, and we show no signs of controlling our addiction.” Her friends were looking at her wide-eyed, not because they didn’t agree with her but because she rarely displayed her passion. “I need to believe that we will be saved from the worst that’s coming.  Andrea, you say we’ll be saved by technology, but there isn’t enough time.  Now I’m wondering if we have evidence that our behaviour is being manipulated in our own best interests.  Fear of Zika is leading us to control our population growth. We know there are corporations that manipulate us to achieve their goals, but surely there are others with benevolent motivations who work silently against them?  Believing in a conspiracy helps me maintain my hope and sanity.”

Emilia’s eyebrows were raised, and she was no longer smirking. “You surprise me again, Renada. Most people who imagine conspiracies see malevolence, but you see good intentions.  Unfortunately, I’ve never heard of a secret group manipulating people for their own good.”

“What about the Church?” Ranada said, and heard a sharp intake of breath from the three women. Maria and Andrea began speaking loudly, angry at Ranada for even suggesting this, but Emilia looked thoughtful.

“You’re talking about people in positions of power but not accountable to anyone. That eliminates organized religion, government, and even corporations.  If I were imagining a secret group, arrogant enough to believe they know best how to run our world, I’d put my money on the old, guilty, ambitious and extremely wealthy,” Emilia said.  “There are many who have made fortunes over their lifetimes, but now, as the end approaches, they may feel the urge to leave the world in a better state than they found it.”

“You mean, after a lifetime of plundering the environment for profit?” Maria said, looking doubtful. “It would be difficult to replace what’s been poisoned and consumed.”

“But not impossible. And changing the course of humanity?  What could be more satisfying to an oligarch with visions of ultimate control?” Emilia said.

“People who leave a legacy will want others to know about it,” Renada said. “If this is a secret society, their efforts would never be acknowledged.”

“Not to be the bearer of bad news, my dear, but my husband says that we have already left it too late,” Emilia said, “so if there are altruists working behind the scenes, they aren’t working fast enough.”

“You talk as if money was enough to change our course,” Renada said, “but it’s only a part of the solution. We need to be led to stop consuming, just as we were manipulated to start down that path in the first place.”

“That won’t work,” Emilia said. “The reason we were made to believe consumption was wonderful is that we were being promised something better.  A new car, a refrigerator, whatever.  Giving up what you have enjoyed or believe you deserve doesn’t make anyone feel better and provides no motivation for change.”

“Then we need to sell the benefits of a simple life,” Renada said.

“Most on this planet already lead a simple life,” Andrea said. “They want more of what the wealthy have.”

“Besides, Renada, you argue against yourself. If we had no ambitious, greedy people, who would save the planet for you?”

This time, all the women laughed.

***

A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that the climate impact of having one fewer child in America is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, including driving a high-mileage car, recycling, and using efficient appliances and light bulbs. But what if your greatest contribution is not something you do but someone you raise?

Bumper Stumper (L)

It was past noon, and Amy and Marvin were driving back to their detective office after loading up on sustenance from Costco.  The tiny Bolt electric car could barely hold their month’s purchases.  Amy’s carry bags contained a high sugar and fat content while her young employee, Marvin, chose fresh fruit, nuts and veggies. Marvin was smirking because Amy had a piece of Danish on the left corner of her mouth, and he had no intention of telling her.  “Look at that weird bumper sticker.” Marvin’s index finger pointed  at the hybrid car stopped in front of them at a red light on Granville Street. “What do you suppose it means?”

Amy squinted through the wet windshield at the sticker, her middle-aged eyes crying out for progressive lenses. STOP the POP was written in pink lettering on a blue background. No line of small print indicated who had sponsored the slogan or what it might mean. She considered pop music or pop-up ads on websites, both sources of annoyance, but the three Ps looked more like bellies in the late stage of pregnancy. “I bet it means stop population growth,” she said.

“Whoa! That’s the first one I’ve seen like that. I wonder if they get much flak.” As Marvin uttered those words, the passenger door of the Prius swung open and the driver pushed a woman out onto the road. She rolled towards the curb and didn’t move. The door slammed, the light turned green, and the hybrid sped off.

After a second of paralysis, Amy shifted from drive to park, turned on her emergency flashers and jumped from the car. She ignored the horns from cars behind her beeping at the delay. The woman at the curb was young and attractive, dressed in blue jeans and a fitted black blazer.  She wasn’t breathing and her neck was frosty to the touch. Marvin, seeing Amy shake her head, told the 911 dispatcher that there was no rush. Amy had seen dead bodies before, but something about this one hit her hard.  To be tossed out like garbage at the curb made her blood boil.

 

Amy recognized Detective Roger Arnold when he showed up a few minutes later and loomed above her. She’d bumped heads with him on a couple of cases, and from the look on the detective’s annoyingly attractive face, he wasn’t thrilled to see her. In fact, he pretended not to know her and asked for her ID.  Meanwhile, a traffic cop was diverting the cars in the lane behind her Prius, and two cops had hastily erected a small tent enclosure around the woman’s body.  The coroner’s car parked pull around the corner. The body would be removed soon, but the image of a discarded woman would be with her forever.

“I’m Amy Sinclair, and we’ve met before. Here’s my business card, and I’ll jot my home phone number on the back for you.” He took the card, brow furrowed, and started to say something, then changed his mind. She handed him her driver’s license and told him what she could remember about the car, which wasn’t much.

“You call yourself a private detective and you missed the plate number?”

Amy shrugged. “Sorry about that.” Her disappointment was reflected in the detective’s weary face. “But what about the bumper sticker?”

“Useless, and there are too many green or blue hybrids in this city.”

Amy chewed on the end of her pony tail, something she did when she was annoyed. Marvin, her boy wonder, said she looked like a rabbit when she did that. Mind you, a very attractive rabbit, he’d added. “Any traffic cameras?” she asked.

“Not near this intersection, but maybe we’ll get lucky and see someone speeding through the one at 70th. Is this your son?” Marvin smiled and Amy scowled. Marvin wasn’t young enough to be her son, although his dress choice was that of a preteen trying to find a unique style. Today he was wearing tight black jeans, a black knit V-neck sweater and a white bow-tie spotted with rain.

“I’m Marvin Brenner. I work for Amy, and here’s my address and cell number. I’m pretty sure the first letter on the license was an H and they were Beautiful B.C. plates.”

“Thanks. That’s something useful.” The detective closed his notepad and returned their licenses. “We may have follow-up questions.”  Amy watched with more than curiosity as he turned and got back into his unmarked car. The man was damn good looking, she thought, but she couldn’t interpret his parting expression, a strange mixture of embarrassment and annoyance.

“I think he likes you,” Marvin said, “but not at his crime scene.”

 

Back at their office above the Pet Food Store Amy asked Marvin to look into missing persons. As usual, Marvin’s desk on one side of the room was annoyingly tidy.  Hers at the other end looked like a tornado had landed and she hadn’t the insurance to cover the cleanup. She had no luck tracking down the bumper sticker on the internet. It annoyed her that the detective had discounted what she saw as a critical clue. It was a unique slogan and could help identify the car. Most of the environmental messages available as bumper stickers were negative, but she caught herself chuckling over one: If environmentalists breathed their own exhaust, there’d be no global warming.

There wasn’t a website for Stop the Pop, but there were dozens of sites that sold bumper stickers made to order. “Marvin, when you get a moment, find out if there are local groups interested in population control.”

“I could make a Stop the Pop website with a comments page.”

“Not a bad idea, Marv. And you’re the guy to do it.” Marvin enjoyed web design just a little too much. Amy still felt guilty when he fell so easily into her traps. To be honest, she also found it easy to be sidetracked from the jobs she was paid to do.

 

The whole episode slid to the back burner. Meanwhile, Amy tied up a couple of loose ends for a customer who might just pay their bills this month. Marvin’s new Stop the Pop web site had attracted two regular visitors a day — Marvin and his mother who suffered from dementia and enjoyed clicking on Marvin’s site to see the changing colours and expanding bellies. She wouldn’t have been pleased with the written content that suggested couples consider adopting or going childless to reduce the human burden on the planet. Marvin was slumped down at his desk, looking as if he’d just heard that vegetables cause cancer.

“I guess the web site’s a bust?” Amy asked, lounging on the corner of his desk and narrowly missing squashing a SpongeBob SquarePants collectable doll.

“Apparently if people don’t find your site, you don’t find them,” Marvin said, spouting a slightly modified version of their agency’s motto. “I’ve tried getting other websites to link to mine, but there’s no interest.”

“Hardly surprising. It’s not an acceptable position to take, although it’s one I’d support. Maybe that’s why she kept chewing on the relation between the body and that bumper sticker. Was there one?  She’d love to show Roger Arnold that he’d missed an important clue.

Marvin pulled out a long envelope and placed it on Amy’s lap. She slid out two pink and blue bumper stickers. As far as she could recall, the stickers looked much the same as the one they’d seen on the Prius. “Two stickers? Is one for your bicycle?” Amy asked.

“Ha.  There’s one for the front and one for the back bumper,” Marvin said, “so they’ll see you coming and going.”

“Just as long as they don’t see me coming and keep going,” Amy said. “And thanks for this.” It was a long shot, but the price was right.

“I still think it’s a waste of time, but hey, go for it,” Marvin said, as his shoulders rounded the third thoracic vertebra and headed home to his desk.

 

Five days later, Amy pulled off the bumper stickers, or what was left of them. They’d been defaced several times.  The first change had been STOP the POOP accompanied by two used doggie-bags tied to the back bumper. Later this morphed into WE STOOP to POOP. The front bumper sticker lasted a little longer, having gone through various iterations and paint-overs that eventually led to the simple command: POO. Then some imaginative kid had added the letter H and an outline of a bear. The age of the defacers was pretty obvious.

“Apparently the medium is the message,” Marvin quipped.

Amy leaned back against the door of her parked car and studied the courthouse that was being consumed by green vines growing from an over-fertilized roof garden. The inquest into the death of the woman had just ended. “OK. I guess they were both bad ideas,” she said. “But the inquest concluded that Carla Perez died a suspicious death.”

“Yeah, I’d say it’s suspicious to die from poison and be shoved from a car in broad daylight the middle of a city. It’s almost as if the guy wanted us to see the car with its bumper sticker. Did you catch the name of the drug?”

“A mixture of two drugs. One was an opioid, fentanyl. The other I’d never heard of.”

“Carla was an environmental activist, but her sister, Shauna, couldn’t say what groups she was associated with. I guess they didn’t spend much time together.”

“She’d never seen her in a hybrid with that bumper sticker,” Marvin said, perching precariously on the tiny bumper of Amy’s little electric car. “Mind you, Shauna didn’t look like someone who’d know a hybrid if she saw one. Did you see that fancy outfit Carla’s sister was wearing at the inquest? Prada if I’m not mistaken, and bedecked with jewels to die for,” Marvin waved his hand like a fan to cool his fevered brow.

“Apparently the car is still a non-person of interest,” Amy said, ignoring his blather.

“Ha. A hybrid driver against population growth. Got to be an environmentalist,” Marvin said.

“The dreaded E-word. Yes, they’re all terrorists, or so sayeth our government,” Amy said, wondering if she should remove her own bumper sticker: May The Forest Be With You. “With our new anti-terrorism legislation, there could be files on all the environmentalists and we might know who’s sporting that particular bumper sicker.”

“I’ll pass that brilliant idea on to Detective Arnold, shall I,” Marvin said, looking skyward and flicking a bit of bird poop off his pants.

“Shelve that one, kid. I’ve got another brilliant idea instead,” Amy said, sliding into the car. Marvin moaned and followed, and they headed back to the office.

 

“Our perp won’t come to us, and we can’t find him. What do we do?” Amy had assumed her teacher’s pose in front of Marvin’s desk. This required carrying around an ancient wooden yard stick to rap knuckles when required.

“Give up?” Marvin replied, eliciting a sigh from Amy followed by a poke in the ribs.

“Think, don’t just cave. The sister’s got access to much more information from the police than we have, and as you so droolingly noticed, she’s loaded. I say we get her to hire us.”

“Just how do we get her to do that?” Marvin said, twisting SpongeBob’s arm and provoking a yodel.

“I’ve done my research. Shauna has already hired someone, so that means she’s motivated to find out more about her sister’s death. And before you ask why she needs us, I already know which detective she’s hired — Blakley.”

“That ass? Why would she hire him?”

“Blakley’s an ass but his ass is connected,” Amy replied.

“Yeah, to his frontal lobes.”

“Granted, but that means we can move in on his turf and she’ll be more receptive. And after all, we’re the ones who reported the incident. We can tell Shauna what we discovered with the fake bumper sticker ploy.”

“And what would that be? Doggie doo comes in little baggies?”

“No. The stickers annoyed people. Maybe the perp in particular.”

“I’ll give you one thing. That idea is thin enough to be called transparent.” Marvin said.

“Well, we do have something else. The only thing they didn’t talk about at the inquest was the temperature of the body,” Amy mused. “I touched her and she was as cold as Pluto. Blakley won’t know that.”

“They did say Carla had been dead a while before she was tossed out,” Marvin said.

“Dead where? In outer space?”

“She couldn’t have been dead long. She’d only been missing two days.”

“Why put her body in a fridge or freezer if you’re going to toss her out?”

“Good place to hide it?”

“I happen to know you haven’t got room for ice cubes in your freezer,” Amy said.

“Maybe the perp was in the cold storage business,” Marvin suggested. “He put her in with the sides of beef for a while.”

“Until he came up with the brilliant plan to shove her out of the car on Granville Street?”

“OK, there are some parts of the scenario that don’t fit yet.”

“We’re getting nowhere. Let’s just talk to Shauna and see whether she’s interested in telling us what she knows.”

“And if she’ll pay us,” Marvin said, whipping out his wallet to display the sad lack of folding money.

 

“Well, that worked out better than expected,” Amy said after they returned to the office. She crunched down on her reward for a job well done, the contents of a large bag of caramel corn with yummy caramel-coated almonds.

“If you’re expecting nothing, then I suppose you’re right,” Marvin replied. Amy waited for him to say something about her junk food choice. He opened a bag of raw almonds and waved them at her instead. “She won’t pay us unless we find something out. That doesn’t seem fair.”

“That’s because she won’t fire Blakley.”

“Yeah, she already bought the bull,” Marvin said sourly.

“Still, we have more information than we did before. She was willing to lend us Carla’s computer. Blakley got it after the inquest and said it was a blind end. Of course, that just makes me more interested to find out what he missed.”

“You and me both, but it’s going to take a lot more time to go through all the stuff on here. Maybe I’ll start by doing a quick search for STOP the POP.”

The office was quiet with the exception of the crunching of almonds, so Amy jumped when Marvin shouted, “It’s here. A big document on STOP the POP. It’s inside a folder inside a file on carbonated beverages.”

They both looked at each other and said simultaneously. “Carbonated beverages?”

“Like pop.” Marvin said.

“Yeah, like pop. You know, there’s a lot of evidence linking soda pop to heart attack and stroke, not to mention diabetes. Why didn’t I think of that? Remember when the mayor of New York tried to ban the stuff? But that bumper sticker, the pink and blue, the swollen bellies. What was that about?”

“I’m having trouble remembering what the sticker even looked like, except it was damn hard to make out. That website I made? I’m such an idiot.”

“And I’m not an idiot? I just rode around with poo on my car for a week.” For a few moments, the room was dead silent, not even a jaw chewing. “Let’s start again and think about what we know. A dead woman was thrown from a car. Her body was cold, as in kept somewhere cold after she was killed. The car she was in was a hybrid with a logo that promoted banning carbonated drinks. Her sister says she was an activist, and the file you’ve found proves she was working against the soda industry. I’d say she knew whoever was driving that hybrid car.”

“OK. I’ll read everything in the file and see if I can come up with some names, or at least a place to start looking,” Marvin said.

 

“Carla belonged to a group called the Food Police, and she has an email contact with them called Jake. She’s also got the names of two soft drink lobbyists in her file,” Marvin said.

“I say we hit the Food Police first and see what they can tell us,” Amy said.

“They’ll tell us not to drink sugary beverages.”

“Too late,” Amy said, slurping down the last of an energy drink. She had a quick glance at the sugar level printed on the side of the can while avoiding Marvin’s stare. “The lobbyists may be strong-arming the Food Police.”

“Sugary syrup doesn’t get you killed,” Marvin said.

“Tell that to the bugs swimming in my hummingbird feeder,” Amy said. “Besides, this could have nothing to do with the job and everything to do with the people she knew.”

“Is this Jake guy at the Food Police suspect numero uno?”

“I wonder if Detective Arnold might tell me whether he interviewed him.”

“I don’t think Arnold is going to tell you anything,” Marvin said.

“Why not? If he hasn’t looked at Jake yet, he might thank us for the idea.”

Marvin shrugged. “I think he’s shy with you. Why don’t I call?”

“I saw him first,” Amy said, and they both laughed and grabbed their phones.  Amy glared at Marvin and he put his phone down. The call was short and Amy frowned.

“They’ve already got a suspect. It isn’t Jake, and he says to leave it alone.”

“Did the police even interview Jake?”

“You just heard what I heard. I have no idea.”

“See. He gave you nothing.” Marvin gloated.

She wondered why the detective had been so gruff with her. What had she ever done to get under his skin? Her phone beeped a minute later with a text: Sorry, boss hovering. Jake wasn’t interviewed.” She lifted her head up to tell Marvin the good news, but he was laughing and waving his cell phone. Looking down at her phone, yup, the text was from Marvin. She really needed those progressives. She let her annoyance die down before grabbing her bag and heading for the door.

Marvin jumped up to follow. Amy glared at him to stay put, but he said, “You need me. I know where Jake lives.”

 

Jake Cain occupied one of the condos built for the Vancouver Winter Olympics and abandoned when the athletes’ feet left town They took the elevator to the second floor and Jake was waiting at his door when they exited. He was thin, young, and skittish. Amy introduced them as private investigators looking into the death of Carla Perez. His clammy hand handshake complemented his sweat-beaded forehead.

“I told the police what I know,” Jake said as he twisted a woven friendship bracelet around his wrist.

“Maybe you can tell us about the Food Police,” Amy said, trying to appear friendly and calm when she felt like helping him twist the bracelet tighter. She followed him into a tiny bachelor pad loaded with electronic stuff and not much else. There were takeout boxes spread liberally around the level surfaces like objets d’art. Clearly, he didn’t police his own food, she thought. They all squeezed down onto the sofa.

“I joined the Food Police a couple of years ago. A few of my friends joined, and we all thought it was important. Safeguarding the food supply, making sure industry looked at nutrition and not just cost. Anyway, Carla joined a year later. She wanted us to be more active, but the Food Police have their ways of doing things. Slow and steady. After a while, she didn’t bother coming to the meetings.”

“Did anyone else want to be active?” Amy asked.

“Nah, not that I remember,” Jake said.

“Well, did anyone else stop attending meetings when Carla left?” Amy asked.

“Now that you mention it, there was one guy who stopped coming about the same time Carla left. Mind you, that’s not uncommon. Some people lose interest when they find out they can’t manipulate the group. We have our own agenda.”

“Did this guy had his own agenda?” Marvin asked.

“Yeah, he wanted us to make bumper stickers. We have a tiny budget, and some of the slogans he came up with were pretty lame.” Amy pulled out a print of the bumper sticker Marvin had made and showed it to Jake. “Yeah, that was one of them, although the Ps didn’t look like these ones, they were just regular Ps.” Amy heard Marvin snicker from his end of the sofa. “It took everyone too long to figure out what Stop the Pop meant, like pop culture, popcorn, soda-pop, or even fireworks.”

“Do you remember his name, maybe where he lives?” Marvin asked.

“Sure do. He’s in this building, two floors up. Name’s Ivan something. I see him in the basement parking lot. He has a new bumper sticker on that Prius every other week, and they’re still lame.”

Amy and Marvin looked at each other when he mentioned a Prius. They thanked Jake and took the elevator back to the lobby. Marvin headed outside to get the apartment number and buzz Ivan. When he didn’t get an answer, Amy let Marvin back in and they both took the elevator to number 404. Ivan didn’t answer their knocks so Amy sent Marvin down to the underground parking lot to look for the hybrid. He returned a few minutes later.

“There’s a blue hybrid with a sticker— I drive fast for slow food — so either he’s in there or out somewhere on foot.”

Amy knocked loudly this time, rousing a neighbour who said he hadn’t seen Ivan in days. When asked if he knew where Ivan worked, the neighbour said he thought he had a job at a bottling plant in Surrey. Amy and Marvin took the elevator back to the ground floor. The dragon boats in the small harbour were dragging their loads back and forth under the Cambie bridge.

“Do you think he took a runner after he killed her?” Marvin said.

“That, or maybe he’s been put into cold storage,” Amy replied. “I suppose I should tell the detective what we’ve discovered.”

“First we should go to the sister and let her know we’ve found the Prius and have the name of the person who might be driving it. She might agree to hire us now. Marvin’s body spoke in a language that didn’t need translation.

 

“Well, that worked out better than expected,” Amy said, sensing déjà vu. She licked the icing off half of the Oreo before consuming the cookie parts. The bag was half gone.

“Not much cash for our effort,” Marvin said, placing a slim bit of folding money into his wallet.

“We’ll get more money if we locate Ivan. That’s what she agreed.” Amy dangled the Oreo bag at Marvin and got a grimace in reply. “They do tours in that bottling plant. You could take the tour and keep an eye out for cold storage facilities. I’ll go talk to the employment office and see if they know where Ivan went.”

“I’m surprised you don’t want to do the tour and get free samples of their healthy beverages,” Marvin said. Amy gave him the finger. It was her pinky finger because she considered herself a lady, but they both knew the pinky held the same meaning as the middle finger.

“Let me finish my repast and we can be off. There’s a tour at two o’clock. Wear something warm.”

 

The employment office confirmed that Ivan was employed by them but hadn’t appeared at work since the day Carla was shoved from his car two weeks earlier. His job was to drive the refrigerated sample truck around the city. Meanwhile in the factory, Marvin discovered the Cola challenge was rigged. The company sample he was given was colder than the other brand.

“There’s only one cold storage unit on site, and it’s mobile. There’s a little truck they drive around and hand out samples of their beverages, and they ask people to fill in comment cards. Guess what? It’s been missing for a couple of weeks,” he said.

“Guess what back at you? Ivan drove that truck,” Amy said. “Find the truck, find Ivan. The timing’s right. Carla could have been in the truck for a while before she ended up in Ivan’s car and he tossed her out.” Amy looked at Marvin, eyebrows raised expectantly.

“Why transfer her body?” Marvin asked.

“Maybe he had to return the truck to the warehouse.”

“We can talk to Arnold. But leave him a message that you’re coming in with information.”

“Why? So he can avoid us?”

“No. So he can prepare for you.” Marvin said cryptically.

 

“We found the hybrid, we know who the owner is, and he’s been missing for two weeks, just like Carla,” Amy said, allowing herself to enjoy a moment of satisfaction at their masterful sleuthing. The detective was nibbling on one of the donuts she’d bought to the police station at Marvin’s suggestion, and Arnold was ignoring her. She wouldn’t have picked him for a sprinkles man. “I need to know if you’re even looking for Ivan, or maybe the police have run across the soda truck? He could have been driving it.” The detective kept nibbling and examining his donut, probably hoping the hole would fill in. “It was the bumper sticker that led us to him. Remember when you said that was next to useless information? Clearly it wasn’t. Well?”

“Are you done yet?” Detective Arnold asked, wiping his lips. A couple of sprinkles clinging to his upper lip made Amy smile. His eyes lit up.

“Are we done what? Solving your case?” Amy asked. Marvin let out a small gasp behind her. OK, she was doing it again. No wonder the detective reacted to her the way he did. But he was so patronizing, even when he didn’t speak.

“Maybe you’d like to know that our suspect, not this Ivan fellow you’re talking about, has just confessed, and we didn’t need a bumper sticker.”  There was a stunned silence while Amy absorbed this revelation.

“What about Ivan? He’s missing. The pop truck’s missing. His car fits the description.”

“Maybe he pushed a dead woman from his car. But he didn’t kill her.”

“You seem pretty sure.”

“We have the drug used to kill her, handed to us by our suspect.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of nailing it, I suppose.” Amy’s shoulders drooped, more in annoyance than surrender. “What’s the motive?”

“The suspect won’t give us a motive.”

“But you need a motive to make your case.”

“Don’t worry. One will turn up.”

“Maybe it’s in the back of that soda pop truck?”

“OK. We’ll put out an APB for the truck. Let me guess. You don’t have a description or a plate number.”

“Get them from the company. I don’t work for you. I work for Carla’s sister.”

“Carla’s sister? You mean Shauna, the woman who just confessed to killing her sister?”

 

“Wow. I didn’t see that coming,” Marvin said, squeezing SpongeBob for support.

“Why did she offer to pay us to find Ivan? It doesn’t make sense.” Amy said, noticing a slight whine to her voice which she was trying to hide by filling her mouth with a chocolate donut. All she could think about was the grin on the detective’s face. He clearly loved it that she’d screwed up big time. Then, how pitiful was it for her to grab the box of remaining donuts when she left?

“It makes sense if she wanted to keep us busy and out of the way,” Marvin said.

“Why did Shauna confess? And why hold back the motive after you confess?  How did Ivan get involved with disposing of the body? What’s his relation to Carla’s sister?” Amy was pacing fast now, the sugar in the donuts doing their usual thing with her neurons.

“Ivan’s got to be the key to this. Find the truck. Find Ivan.”

“And find the motive,” Amy added.

“Amy, maybe we should let this one go. The money’s dried up.”

“Don’t be so sure about that. She said she’d pay a reward if we found him.”

“That was before they arrested her.”

“Also before she got out on bail. I just checked and she’s been released and gone home.”

“Well, I’m not going over there to question a murderer.”

“I didn’t ask you. I’m going alone.” Amy picked up her bag while Marvin said what sounded like a final farewell to SpongeBob before reluctantly following her.

 

“Shauna’s not home,” Marvin said, his face pressed against the bars of the wrought iron gate. The buzzer had gone unanswered, and the driveway was empty. “Do you think she jumped bail?”

“I’m surprised she got bail, but maybe she killed Carla accidentally,” Amy said.

“She accidentally gave her sister an overdose of fentanyl?”

“Could be she made a mistake?”

“She thought she was giving her botox, maybe?” Marvin said. Amy started to smile at the thought until she remembered poor Carla lying next to the curb. Then her gaze focused on the refuse lying near the gate. She bent to pick up one of a half a dozen cards, smeared with dirt and tire tracks. She was about to drop it when Marvin took it from her.

“These are the cards we filled out at that bottling plant when we did the sampling,” he said. “What are they doing here?”

“This could be a link between the sister and Ivan,” Amy said.

“Or Ivan’s truck,” Marvin said. They both peered through the gate hoping to get a glimpse of the truck. “It could be around back or in a garage.”

“No way,” Amy said. “The police would have searched this place.”

“Maybe it wasn’t here when they searched.” Amy watched as Marvin pulled himself up, using the iron curlicues to support his trim frame. He was over in an instant.

“A quick look, that’s all,” Amy said, but she didn’t think it would be quite that quick. Marvin was back over the gate in less than a minute, followed at the heels by a black Scottish terrier with an angry bark.

“What? It’s big for its type,” Marvin said. “And look at those teeth. Well, OK, maybe it likes you.” Amy was scratching the dog’s head between the bars of the gate.

“Now it’s your turn to say hello and scratch her head.” After the Scottie passed approval on Marvin, he hopped the fence again and walked to the back of the property. Amy watched Marvin talk to the dog, and the dog appeared to be listening. He was gone longer this time.

“No truck, but there are tracks too big for a car, and there are a couple more of these sample cards round back.”

“The soda truck was probably here, and maybe not that long ago.”

“It hasn’t rained for a couple of days, and the cards are muddy.”

“Do I see more cards over there?” Marvin said, pointing down the road. They walked over and kept walking for half a mile, finding a couple of cards littering the curb every hundred or so feet. “Let’s go back and get the car.”

They followed the trail of cards, lost it twice and picked it up again. The trail ended in a parking lot under the Granville Street Bridge. “I’m beginning to think we’re going to find that truck pretty soon,” Amy said, scanning the line of hybrid taxis, parked cars and delivery trucks filling a huge area. “What a mess under here.” She turned to follow Marvin’s gaze. He was staring at a truck under a tarp, bumper exposed, with a sticker that read: Friends don’t let friends drink Coke.

“Hmm. Double meaning there for someone against the soda industry,” Amy said. “That looks like our truck.” They walked over to the vehicle and pulled up the tarp on the driver’s side. The door was open and the keys were in the ignition. “Try the back,” Amy shouted.

“Don’t need to. I can smell him. It’s too bad we didn’t find the trail sooner.”

“Let’s look inside anyway. It could be a pack of dead Scotties,” Amy said. Marvin grimaced and they opened the door. The once-refrigerated truck, now at ambient temperature, was replete with bags of test sodas ready to fit into sample dispensers. Wedged into a far corner was a curled-up human body with a distended belly. “Don’t go in,” Amy said, covering her nose. Marvin’s face to turn from green to white. “I’d sure like to know if it’s Ivan and how he died.” Marvin turned green again.

“Overdose of botox maybe?” Marvin suggested when his colour had normalized.

“It could be Shauna’s handiwork since we followed the truck from her house, but we need to know the timing. Maybe she was in police custody when this happened.  Could you call the detective?”

“What? We’re not going to fight over who gets to call him?” Marvin said.

“The detective and I aren’t speaking,” Amy said, emitting a small sigh.

 

“I have to admit, that’s good work,” Detective Arnold said, standing next to the soda truck. He was still avoiding her eyes, and Amy gave him a cool reception right back. “It’s lucky the guy in the back of the truck, Ivan as you probably guessed, was able to leave that trail of cards for you to follow. He was sitting on another hundred or so cards.”

“Thanks,” said Marvin, turning to Amy and popping his eyes. She knew he wanted her to acknowledge the compliment, but she couldn’t bring herself to say anything. She nodded instead which didn’t mean much when he wouldn’t look at her.

“I’ll let you know when we find out the time and cause of death,” he said.

“You will?” Amy blurted, incredulous. She couldn’t believe he would give up information without her even asking.

“It’s probably the work of Shauna, and we have her for one already.”

Amy bit her tongue and tried to smile. It probably looked more like a grimace, she thought. Marvin wasn’t fooled, but apparently the detective was because he blushed and then left in a hurry to talk to the Crime Scene Investigation Unit gathered around the soda truck.

“I’m going home,” Amy announced. “I’m bushed from following the berry trail through the forest.”

“What about us getting paid for finding Ivan?”

“You still think she’s likely to pay us after what the detective just said?”

“What if she’s not responsible for Ivan’s death? What if the death has the same signature as her sister’s but she didn’t do it?

“That’s a lot of ifs, Marvin. She confessed, remember? Besides, we’d need to find her first.”

Marvin took off on the run. Amy watched as he caught up with the detective, they exchanged a few words, and he ran back to her. “She’s been arrested again,” Marvin said.

 

Amy sent Marvin to the lawyer’s to try to extract some information. When Marvin returned, Amy was searching her desk for something sugary or salty or both. She’d already consumed the rest of the Oreos, but something more was required to stimulate her pink brain cells. She figured she wasn’t old enough to have little gray ones.

“I was right, boss,” Marvin said, bowing low in either respect or mocking, she could guess which. “Shauna recanted her confession when she heard that fentanyl was only one of the drugs her sister had in her system, and probably not the one that killed her. Her lawyer says finding Ivan was key to her defense, and she’ll be writing us a check. And before you ask, I couldn’t get any information from him about why she confessed in the first place and handed over the fentanyl.”

“What about the trail of sample cards leading from her place to Ivan’s body?”

“She’s got an alibi for every minute, so if Ivan went to her place in that truck, maybe to implicate Shauna, someone else must have taken him or maybe found him there. Guess the best news?” Marvin was rubbing his hands together. “The lawyer said she’ll pay us the big bucks if we find out who killed her sister and Ivan.”

“That’s great. Any bright ideas about where to start? Assuming she’s innocent which seems a bit unlikely at the moment?”

“No. You’re the boss. I just do what you say.”

“Since when?” Amy said, waving her pinky. “But I do have one idea. It has to do with someone we’ve met and we should look at more closely.”

“Blakley, the private dick.”

“No. I can’t see a connection there.” Amy gave Marvin time to ponder while she continued her search for a sugar fix.

“Ah-ha. Jake, the guy in the same building as dead Ivan, the guy who knew Carla.”

“Bingo.”

“I could do my pizza thing,” Marvin said. “You saw all that junk food in his apartment, and it’s almost dinner time.”

“Remind me again? What’s your pizza thing? An impersonation based on that shirt you’re wearing?” Jackson Pollack could have designed the shirt to look like a pizza with all the fixings, and she chuckled when Marvin stuck up both pinkies. “Let’s save that talent for a special occasion,” she said. “This time, I want to do a little more research and some pre-planning before we go knocking.”

 

While Amy spent time on the phone with various members of the Food Police, she sent Marvin to surf the web for Jake, the guy he had first picked out as suspect numero uno.

“We had that all wrong. It turns out Jake was the one pushing the bumper stickers, not Ivan,” Amy said. “Ivan was just trying to interest Carla in going out with him, according to two of the Food Police members. When Carla left the group, so did Ivan. I suppose Jake could have given bumper stickers to Ivan at some point. When I asked about the STOP the POP sticker, both people I talked to couldn’t remember that specific one. They did remember the one that read I drive fast for slow food and they didn’t like it because they said it advocated speeding.”

“I found out something interesting about Jake,” Marvin said. “He’s got a degree in organic chemistry and he’s working on a Master’s. That would make him a good fit for the drug angle.”

“Fentanyl’s a street drug. The sister could have bought it. But there was another drug in the mixture, so you could be right. What we really need is a link between Jake and the sister.”

“The police could get phone records,” Amy said, “although they probably don’t know about Jake because we didn’t tell them.”

“Jake would have a burner phone anyway, if he’s involved in the drug trade.”

Amy imagined Marvin honing his detective skills by watching Breaking Bad and The Wire. When her phone rang, Arnold’s name popped up and she signalled to Marvin that the detective was calling. She listened for a while, but when she started to ask questions, he hung up. “Great,” she said. “Conversations with him have to be one way. His way. There wasn’t enough fentanyl in Carla’s system to have caused her death. It was the other drug that did it. I scribbled down the name, 5-thio-D-glucose, and apparently it killed Ivan too. See what you can find out about it.”

 

“That poison is interesting, boss. It tastes just as sweet as sugar but it causes convulsions and death at high doses. Not a sweet way to go at all.”

“They both died of a toxic sugar overdose?” Amy’s eyes had bugged open.

“Looks like it, and the detective says they’re hunting for the chemical now. Without it, and with the retraction of the confession, they’ll have trouble holding Shauna. They’re also having a problem with the time of death because of the refrigeration.”

“Sounds like Jake is still in the frame,” Marvin muttered as he pulled up information on the modified glucose molecule from the web. “Gee, you can buy this poison from a dozen chemical companies, if you have an account.”

“Can you find it in a university chemistry lab?”

“OK, I see where this is going. But even if the police find it in a lab where Jake worked, how will that help us tie him to the deaths?”

“Where would you hide a tree?”

“In a forest,” Marvin said.

“Where would you hide something that’s as sweet as sugar?”

“In the second drawer down, left side of your desk.”

“Snooping again, Marvin? Actually, I was thinking about the sample truck that Ivan drove. I know it’s full of bulk bags of sugary soda, but what if the poison was in one of the bags, hidden in plain sight.” Amy said.

“The police have the truck. Won’t they be looking for the poison?”

“They definitely will if we tell them what we know. They can check for Jake’s fingerprints in the truck while they’re at it.”

“You go girl,” Marvin said. “We’ll still collect from Shauna if Jake’s the killer, right?”

“Yeah, but we’d have a better chance of getting paid if we can figure out why Jake did it,” Amy said.

“We still don’t know why Shauna confessed,” Marvin said.

“I’m thinking she shared an opioid with Carla and she thought that’s what killed her, so she confessed out of guilt. Then, when it turned out fentanyl wasn’t responsible, she retracted her confession.” Marvin’s head moved back and forth before he nodded agreement. “Now let’s say Jake hides the poison in the truck. We don’t know why yet. He doesn’t mean to kill Carla and Ivan, but they drink the Kool-Aid by mistake.”

“I’m supposed to imagine that Ivan’s idea of a fun date is taking Carla for a ride in the sample truck and sharing a cola?”

“I’ve had worse dates,” Amy said, glaring at Marvin. “Can you call the detective and tell him about Jake?”

 

“Look at that dragon boat. I didn’t know they could to move that fast.”

Amy glanced around. “That’s a two-seater kayak, you fool.”

“Who’s the fool. Jake’s sitting up front.”

They both watched Jake reach behind him to lift up a plastic bag occupying the front cockpit, open it, and dump the contents into False Creek. Then he grabbed his paddle and made for the dock at the False Creek Community Centre.

“That’s a littering offence,” Marvin said.

“More like a poisoning offence,” Amy said. “He’s now officially a serial killer if the poison was in that bag and we see fish pop to the surface.” She phoned the detective whose name now appeared at the top of her popular list. When he answered, she didn’t say a word, just listened and hung up. It was becoming their thing.

Marvin was pointing. “Arnold’s standing across the street and he saw it all. The police cruiser will be there in a minute.” She watched as the detective gave her a lame wrist wave. Even his wave irritated her.

Amy watched as Marvin ran across the road to touch base with his new buddy. They laughed at something, then talked a lot. Marvin finally ran back with a smile on his face. “I told him that the poison is very soluble. It’s too late to recover it but they should get a water sample to test,” Marvin said.

“Well, what did he say?” Marvin could be really annoying too, she thought.

“Oh. Sorry. They’re going to take Jake in for questioning while the lab does the tests for the poison.”

“No. I mean, did they find poison in the soda in the truck?”

“No. No poisoned bags of soda, and the truck had been wiped clean of prints.”

“Damn. I liked that idea too,” Amy said.

“But,” Marvin said and stopped talking until Amy gave him the evil eye, “there were traces of the 5-thio-D-glucose dried on the floor, maybe from a liquid spill.”

“Goodie. Jake cleaned up and left Ivan in the truck.”

“Why not leave Carla there too?” Marvin asked.

“Maybe they didn’t die together,” Amy suggested. “Can you go back to Dudley Do-Right and find out how long Ivan’s been dead.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot,” he said, looking contrite. “The detective said they could have died at the same time, but because they don’t know how long Ivan was in the refrigerated truck before the refrigeration died, the time of his death is fuzzy. Shauna could have done it, I suppose, but Ivan had the sugar toxin, not fentanyl, in his system.”

“Maybe the combination killed Carla sooner,” Amy mumbled, pulling her iPad out of her bag. “My little list here is going to come in handy,” she said. “You should keep one too, if you want to grow up to be a detective.”

“I’ve got a brain instead,” Marvin replied, tapping his temple. “Just ask me a question.”

“OK, why did Jake lie to us about the bumper stickers. If they were his idea, why not claim them? Why did he give Ivan the credit?”

“Because you showed him Stop the Pop. Maybe he realized that someone saw the sticker when he pushed Carla from the car. Ivan became the fall guy.”

“That’s OK as far as it goes. But remember what Jake said? All Ivan’s ideas were lame. Why did he say that?”

“To make us think they were lame?”

“Now go back to the first day. What did we think that bumper sticker meant?”

“You thought it meant stop population growth.”

“And what did Jake say people at Food Police thought it meant?” She watched Marvin hum and haw.

“I don’t remember.”

“And that’s where my notes come in. Jake said no one at Food Police could figure out what it meant, and he mentioned pop-music, popcorn, soda-pop, and fireworks. What he didn’t mention was population. Plus, there was something very odd about those Ps that made me see swollen bellies, but Jake said the Ps on the sticker were normal. I know they were weird, so why did he lie? When he said that Ivan made the stickers, it didn’t bother me, but now we know it was his design. What does that tell you?”

“He’s a lousy artist?”

“It tells me that I was right all along. The sticker was advocating a stop to population growth.”

“Why would the Food Police be interested in a sticker like that?”

“They wouldn’t, and the people I spoke to don’t remember seeing that sticker. That’s in my notes too.” Amy patted her tablet. Notes are good things.”

“There is something interesting about this sugar poison that isn’t in your notes,” Marvin said, tapping his head and smiling. Amy shrugged, hoping that his memory was better than it seemed. “The poison sterilizes mice.”

“What? You said it caused convulsions and death.” She knew she looked scary when her eyebrows met in the middle and tried to merge with her hairline.

“If you eat a lot of it, sure, but just a little bit sterilizes mice.” Marvin said defensively. He was looking anxious about the monobrow, she thought.

“Does it sterilize humans too?   No forget that. No one would know.”

“Yeah, it’s not exactly been tested. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it worked the same way.”

“This could be our motive. Say Jake’s plan is to sterilize people because the world is overpopulated, and he has to guess what concentration of poison to use. He puts too much into Ivan’s cola bag. His plan may be to use Ivan’s sample truck to test it, then who knows, get a job in the bottling company to spread it further. Ivan and Carla are the first to sample the stuff and they die.”

“He jettisons the rest of the poison in False Creek so he won’t get caught with it?”

Amy nodded. “I think he should confess to the lesser charge of killing sperm,” Marvin said. “Look, there’s the police cruiser taking samples of the water.” Amy got in her car and motioned for Marvin to follow.

They drove up Burrard towards their office. I’m just going to make a quick stop at that nice little restaurant,” she said, waiting for Marvin to groan when he saw her choice: Death by Chocolate. “While I’m gone, why don’t you give the good detective a call and see if they’ve got Jake in custody yet? Then we can let that lawyer know we’re expecting payment,” Amy said.

 

When she got back in the car with a suspiciously large cake box, Marvin was smiling. “Jake’s in custody and he already admitted to adding the poison to the cola.”

“And? Was I right about the population part? We’re you right about him using the poison to cause sterility?

“Right on both counts. We make a good team, boss. Detective Arnold wants you to come in for debriefing,” Marvin said, giggling. He loved the term debriefing.

“Now? Before I have my cake?”

“You have your cake. You just can’t eat it too. It shouldn’t take long and we’re only a few blocks from the station.

Amy backtracked to Sixth Avenue and drove to the police station near the Cambie Bridge.

“You’re going to give him your cake?” Marvin said, when he saw Amy reach into the back seat for the cake box.

“Yeah, I’ve been feeling bad about taking back my donuts the other day. It’s a peace offering. Besides, there’s another one in the display case at the restaurant.”

“Lucky it’s a big cake is all I can say.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Are we feeding the force?”

“No. Just a detective’s ego, and that’s even bigger than a police force.”

 

When they exited the elevator, Detective Arnold was waiting to escort them to his office. His eyes looked into hers and he smiled. His smile grew wider when his eyes landed on the large cake box. Amy laughed to think how the competition engendered by those who worked within a command structure and those who avoided one, like Amy and Marvin, often ended up in a quicker resolution to a case. “What’s that? More donuts for me? Oh, I mean donut,” the detective said.

“No, a cake this time, and sorry about that,” Amy said, deciding not to finish the sentence. That way sorry could be used for anything offensive that she’d done. She handed over the box, sending her saliva back where it started. There would be other cakes.

“Jake has confessed to accidentally poisoning Carla and Ivan, but I need you to go over how you worked this out.”

“You mean, how a useless bumper sticker led us to the suspect?” Amy said. Marvin coughed.

“OK. You got lucky there. A license plate would have been even better.”

“Except you might have missed finding Jake that way.”

“How did you find Jake?”

“On Carla’s computer that no one bothered to search properly. It was Jake who lied about Ivan being responsible for making the bumper stickers, but the third bumper sticker was how we found Ivan.”

“The third?”

“The second one was on Ivan’s car in the underground, and the third was on the sample truck under the bridge.”

“What are you, a bumper sticker buff?”

“No, just observant,” she said, trying to look demure. Thank goodness Marvin had hounded her into peeling off May The Forest Be With You a few days ago. You never know when you might want to hurl someone from your car, and at the time, Marvin was a candidate.

“Marvin, you picked up on the fact that the poison causes sterility?” Detective Arnold asked.

“Yeah, not that it matters if you’re dead.”

“It’s important because it looks like Jake’s motive wasn’t to kill but to sterilize,” the detective said.

“I supposed they’ll have him evaluated by a psychiatrist?” Amy asked.

The detective shrugged, as if he’d lost interest in what happened as soon as his part of the job was done. Amy figured that might let him sleep better at nights, especially when a perp got off on a technicality. Amy and Marvin filled in what details they could, signed their reports and stood up to leave.

“Yeah, well thanks for your help on this case. The lawyer’s pleased his client has been released, so I expect you’ll get paid for your efforts,” Arnold said.

“Just what we deserve, not what we want,” Amy said, wondering what it would be like to have the security of a regular salary. Oh yeah, she’d done that and this was way better.

“Before you go, would you like to have a piece of your cake? A piece, mind you?”

“Well, if you insist, I won’t say no,” Amy said, sitting down faster than he could change his mind.

“I’m sorry, but I’ll have to leave. I hear my mother calling,” Marvin said. Not outside the realm of possibilities, but Amy knew exactly what he was doing.

“Are you sure, Sugar?” she said, getting a flash of pinky from Marvin on his way out, and a stunned look from the detective.

“It’s just a little joke. About the case.”

“Yeah. Around here, they’ve started calling it Sugar Blues.”

“Good one. Talking about sugar, should I cut?” Amy said, whipping out a large Swiss Army knife. “It’s got a special blade just for cutting cake.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Yup.” He had a smile to die for, and if that wasn’t worth a Black Forest cake, what was?

 

***

 

A Little Housekeeping (S)

“We could rent a furnished house for the weekend.”

Ryan’s eyes narrowed as he considered my suggestion. “Good one, Maggie, but they know where we live.”  He was referring to his parents who would be flying in that evening. Housecleaning was something we rarely thought about, except in emergencies like this. “I’ll take the kitchen, and you do the rest.”

I sighed. His voice told me he wouldn’t be open to considering another suggestion. The division was more than fair. The kitchen was home to grunge layered upon grunge. In the last few months, I’d gone through a vegetable canning period, deep-fry period, salsa period, and had recently entered the dreaded puff pastry phase. Ryan said an archaeologist would feel right at home in our kitchen, mapping our culinary history like fossils at Olduvah Gorge.

I dreaded cleaning the furnace room, so I’d left it until last hoping Ryan might have finished the kitchen and would offer to help, especially if I deployed my seal pup eyes. No such luck. He was still scouring away at the deep-fry period and refused to look at me when I suggested he could use a change of scenery.

Even the vacuum cleaner didn’t want to visit the basement. The canister refused to follow me until I yanked on the hose and gave it the excuse to slam into my shins before it tumbled the rest of the way down the stairs. The racket gave fair warning to all living creatures in the vicinity.

In addition to the spiders, the occasional field mouse migrated to the warmth of the furnace room using the musty dirt floor of the crawl space beneath our bedroom as a kind of rodent freeway. They’d plop over the edge of a long horizontal opening about five feet up from the baseboard, lured, I suspected, by aromas from the kitchen. Our Burmese cat, captivated by their nocturnal mutterings, would wait patiently for a victim, grab it in her mouth, and then trot to our bed. My shriek was used as an excuse for Starbuck to drop the mouse and enjoy an instant replay of the capture. But in spite of her successes, mice kept appearing which is why I found myself stapling eight feet of fine wire mesh across the opening of the crawl space when I should have been vacuuming the floor. In the back of my head, I could hear my mother-in-law chiding, “Maggie, those things carry diseases, you know.”

I was balanced precariously on the ladder and just starting to unroll the mesh when I noticed a pair of large red eyes at the far end of the crawl space. I knew they didn’t belong to Starbuck because she made it a rule never to raise her lids during daylight hours. Perhaps a skunk, I thought. There was no odour, but a house that sheltered a family of skunks was often the last to know about it. As I took the precaution of backing down the ladder, I was amazed to see the eyes spring towards me. This was not normal skunk behaviour, and I jumped the last two rungs and ran for the door, my feet hammering in time with my heart. As I pushed the door shut, it smashed solidly into a creature at my heels, leaving the front part of its body jammed between the door and frame.

It was the size of a large dog, but unlike any I had ever seen. The jaws were massive, slavering, and full of four inch long teeth that belonged in a prehistoric shark. It came equipped with powerful hairless shoulders and horrible sharp nails that were doing a great job ripping up my linoleum. Aside from the incessant snapping of jaws, the thing made no noise. I pressed my back against the door as hard as I could while keeping my legs well out of reach of the teeth and nails. I screamed to Ryan for help.
He came on the run but stopped short to gape in amazement. “Get the poker,” I shrieked as I tossed my head toward the fireplace. Ryan grabbed the poker and began vigorously banging the creature over the head, trying to make it pull back into the furnace room.

“What is this thing? What did you do to make it so angry?” he gasped, sounding more mystified than terrified. I had no ready answers.

Although I was cringing at each whack, the creature seemed unperturbed and the door wasn’t going to last long. I couldn’t believe that it might win a battle against two adversaries twice its size. When Ryan tried to spear it through the mouth, it snapped down on the iron poker, bending it effortlessly. I turned to Ryan with eyes so wide they hurt. He wedged the bent poker under the door. “Keep a foot on the poker and push hard on the door,” he ordered. “I’ll be back in a second”.

Ten long seconds later, he returned with his chainsaw. I was dubious, but it started up on the first try, and the ferocious head was lopped off in a single pass.

“Brilliant move!” I hugged him, feeling proud as could be. Clutching sweaty palms, we stared down at the creature lying in two pieces in an expanding pool of blood, and we tried to make sense out of what had just happened.

Adrenalin-shaken and confused, I phoned the police. I must have sounded distraught since the officer asked if I were on medication. Pulling myself together, I managed to describe the encounter as simply as I could, but as soon as I said that the creature was the size of a huge dog, the officer immediately assumed it was rabid, and since neither of us had been bitten, he lost interest. He told me the body would be picked up later that afternoon for rabies analysis. Ryan and I agreed that whatever was downstairs, it was not a rabid dog.

It was no surprise to us when a short hour after the “dead animal pick-up” we received a phone call from Dr. Carson at the Baltimore County Office of Disease Control. He had already examined the creature and was now anxious to see where it had been found.

A few minutes after Ryan left for the airport to pick up his parents, I opened the front door to a serious-looking young man wearing spotless white overalls with the Baltimore County logo stitched across the top pocket. I smirked when I imagined how clean they would be after a tour through our crawl space. I reviewed the incident with him, stressing how the animal was extremely strong and aggressive. “I did nothing to provoke it. It just came at me with those terrible fangs.” Dr. Carsan gave me a look that I had trouble interpreting.

I led him down to our furnace room. It was none too clean after a hasty mopping, and apparently not yet dry since he struggled with his balance and finally grabbed the ladder for support. I had to force myself to enter the room, and I shifted continuously from one foot to the other, trying to convince myself that, logically, there couldn’t be another one of those creatures on the planet. “What do you think it is?” I asked, not really expecting him to reveal much.

“No idea. Never seen anything like it,” he shrugged. “We’ll need to compare DNA sequences with our database, but I won’t have the results for at least a couple of weeks.”

“So it’s not a dog with rabies?” I drawled, a satisfied smirk spread over my face.

He ignored me and pointed to the crawl space. I nodded, so he climbed the ladder and switched on his high intensity flashlight, but he was at the ledge for only a moment before he jumped down and stared up the opening, his face as white as his lab coat.

Within seconds, the entrance to the crawl space was filled with the drooling jaws and muscular shoulders of several creatures. So much for logic, I thought. I streaked from the room again, but Dr. Carsan didn’t move fast enough. A beast leapt from the wall and bit through his neck, and when I turned to pull the door shut, I saw his lifeless body drop to the floor and disappear under more creatures.

I stumbled upstairs and ran for my Honda civic. My trembling subsided briefly until I saw more of the beasts digging out of the ground and heading for our neighbours’ homes. Just up the road, a car had pulled over and inside, a woman I thought I recognized was waving her arms and screaming for help. Several creatures were tearing their way through the metal of her rear window frame, and all I could do was press down hard on the accelerator.

Closer to town, I heard the sounds of shots and sirens mingled with screams. Although the elevated expressway was clear of the beasts, thousands of them loped below me. Then the car flew past the sign for the Baltimore zoo and I shouted, “Hallelujah!” The safest place for me was behind bars.

Veering off the road, I drove into the zoo parking lot, but the zoo was closed for the day and the main gate was locked. Luckily, Starbuck had taught me a thing or two, and with the car wedged tight against the fence, I climbed up on its roof and hoisted myself over. I landed noisily on top of the corrugated iron roof of the concession stand, hung from the edge, and dropped to the ground.

The large mammal building was closest and I ran to it. Several cages were unoccupied and one was unlocked. The smell of excrement in the recently vacated gorilla enclosure was painful, but some of my dread subsided when I closed the door to my cage and collapsed in a corner. In my panic, I’d forgotten my cell phone and could only imagine what was happening to Ryan. My neighbours were an orang-utan two cages down and a cougar opposite me. We looked at each other anxiously.

Just before sunset, the zoo was discovered. Several of the beasts slavered around the place for a couple of hours, but surprisingly, they paid little attention to us. The only time they turned in my direction was when a bout of self pity caused me to sniffle noisily. Needless to say, I stopped.

 

For two days, I sat in a semi-stupor while trying to block out the distant screams of slaughter. I drank from a water bucket and, like the cougar, I reserved the far corner for a litter box. The cougar never stopped growling at me and the orang-utan sat almost immobile with his back pressed against the wall and his two large pink feet pointing at me. Both my neighbours seemed to be trying to direct any attention my way.

I spent most of my time scratching flea bites and trying to figure out where the creatures had come from. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been torn apart by those dreadful jaws. Remembering how the first one had so easily bent the iron poker, I knew they could get to me if they’d wanted. I imagined a galactic sporting event where our planet provided the prey while aliens gambled on the outcome. The score was not looking good for the humans.

About noon on the third day, all was ominously quiet with the exception of my grumbling stomach. I had almost talked myself into making a short foray to the concession stand when the creature I was watching suddenly froze in position. I stared at it for several minutes, but it remained lifeless. Finally it dawned on me, accompanied by some mental kicking of my backside, that the creatures must be machines. While considering the implications and my next move, a thrumming noise started overhead and became progressively louder. Something large settled down nearby, shaking the building as it landed.

Minutes later, a tall spindly-looking humanoid appeared at the door of my building and lurched towards my cage. My swollen eyes warily followed his movements, and my robot-sensing organ, finally in working order, was dinging a warning.

“You are safe now and can come out,” it said in a monotone, the words originating from a small device at throat level. When I failed to respond, it said, “The custodians are no longer active.” I watched in a state of confusion as the creatures slowly morphed into compact irregular masses that resembled harmless rocks rather than monsters.

I stood up shakily but felt no desire to leave my cage. First I needed some answers. “Why am I alive?” I squeaked. I had been brooding over this question for days. Now I’d been told I’d somehow avoided being butchered by custodians from hell.

“Custodian vision is sensitive only to movement. We remotely programmed them to detect human smell and human vocal sounds before they attack. You survived because your smell was masked by the odour of other creatures here, and apparently you did not talk.” It paused briefly before adding, “You are now free to join the others who avoided detection.”

Not so fast, I thought.  I waved my arms wildly, “So you are responsible for this carnage? Why?”

At my outburst, the alien stretched himself taller as if surprised or perhaps perplexed. “We saved your planet by eliminating the excess human population. Your species would have consumed everything.”

My jaw dropped. “But the creatures appeared all at once, from below ground. How did you do that?”

“Custodians were placed on this planet at the time your species first evolved in order to manage certain inevitable situations. They made use of available raw materials and planet core energy to multiply and then lie dormant beneath the crust of your planet. We sent activation signals only when it became necessary.”

He started to leave, but paused at the door and turned back. “We sincerely hope that it will not become necessary to activate the others.”

***

This is the kind of dream I’m glad I don’t have very often.

Man’s Best Friend (F)

Brian opened the back door and invited Alfie into their cozy kitchen.  He trotted over to his padded bed near the stove and settled down with a contented sigh and a small belch.  Emma shot her husband an annoyed look.

“What?  It’s cold out there,” Brian said.

“You’ll spoil him.”

“If we’re cited again, we could lose him.  You should never have left him in the car with the windows up last summer.”  When Emma frowned, Brian turned to Alfie instead. “It’s not like you’ll run away, will you?  Where would you go?”  He placed a cup of fresh water next to his bed.  “She thinks you can’t understand a word we say, but you know lots of words, don’t you boy.”  He patted Alfie who looked at him with large brown eyes.

“Can you understand what he says?” Emma asked, smirking.

It was a strange question, almost as strange as their interview before they brought him home. As well as answering the usual financial questions, they filled in a form that was used to match owners with their perfect companions.  They indicated that they preferred a quiet companion, not too energetic but affectionate, and they were willing to do some training.

“The great thing about Alfie is that he can’t talk so he can’t criticize,” Brian said, pleased to see Emma’s raised eyebrows at his less than subtle complaint.

Alfie had turned out to be a much better companion than any pet they’d ever owned.  The program had started ten years earlier when a severe world food shortage led to the outlawing of household pets.  As a result of the public outcry, a viable alternative presented itself.  Pet owners from affluent countries, who had previously spent billions of dollars a year on pet food and medicines, could now adopt starving climate refugees as companions.  In return, they agreed to provide modest living quarters, nutritious meals, a video player (deemed environmental enrichment), and a signed contract not to mistreat in any way.

“So he’s learning your language but you don’t understand his?  You might be interested to know that I found him using my iPhone today,” Emma said. “He was texting.”

“What?”  Brian couldn’t hide his shock. He stared hard at Alfie, and for the first time, the adoring gaze looked more like scrutiny.  His face felt warm.  “He knows how to text?”

“There are no rules against it, apparently.  I checked.”

Brian nodded absently.  He wondered why he felt so upset by this news. Eventually he said, “I don’t feel good about him using an iPhone.”

“Aha.  I thought that might bother you. I think it’s a question of loyalty, don’t you?”

“What you mean?”

“If he has internet friends, where does that leave us?”

Brian was quiet as he mulled over this statement. Emma was right. What was the point of having a pet if it wasn’t loyal?  “I see what you mean. So we shouldn’t let him use an iPhone?”

“I would say not,” Emma said, pursing her lips.  “That would definitely spoil him.”

***

The American Pet Products Association says that sixty billion dollars will be spent on pets in the US alone in 2015.