Yarrow House

House on the Loose

I was creeping over the bridge into Seattle, morning traffic being what it was, as always, when my cell phone rang. Damn, that Raine, it was her turn to answer the phones. But no, she probably didn't feel like talking to anyone so she let it ring through to me. I answered: "Moss and Raine, Detective Agency. We find things."

"Moss." It was Raine. "I'm with a client. You'd better get over here." She gave me an address in Interbay.

"Better go have some coffee," I advised her. "Traffic's so bad, I could get there faster by skateboard."

"However," she said and rang off. Raine's not one to waste words. You'd think she had to pay for every syllable, the way she parcels them out. We've been partners for a long time, now, ever since she dragged me off the street as a young punk. I could probably count every word I've ever heard her say.

Like I said, it was at least an hour to Interbay. I pulled up at the address Raine'd given me. Vacant lot, newly vacant it looked like. Raine and the client sat on the steps to the yard, paper coffee cups in their hands.

"I go on vacation for a week, and when I get back, my house is gone," the client said before I even shut the car door.

Raine introduced us. "My partner, Moss. Hiram Brewster. Lost his house." Hiram looked like a man who liked his beer, a paunchy 50-something, with a red face and a little gray ponytail.

"Ms? Mrs? Miss?" Hiram asked me as he bird-dogged me into the yard.

"Just Moss," I said.

We looked around the ragged hole left by the house. "It was my family home," Hiram said, from over my shoulder. "I grew up in that house."

The yard had all the trimmings of an old place-lilacs and snowball bushes, a garage too small for current cars. I poked my head in through the garage door. Only things parked in there now were a couple of bikes and a push mower.

Raine was on her cell phone, or maybe just avoiding conversation with Hiram. I quizzed him about the house. It turned out Hiram hadn't really been living in the house. "After my dad died, six months ago, you know, I just closed the house up."

"So, who'd want your house?"

"I don't know; there's guys who do that, you know, go around and steal houses."

I assessed the likelihood of a random stranger stealing a vacant house. Probably worse than winning the lottery. "I don't suppose you'd have a picture of the house?" I changed tacks. He whipped one out of an inside jacket pocket. A kid-sized Hiram stood between a beefy couple on the front porch of one of those little bungalows that sprouted like mushrooms back in the 1920s. "Who took the photo?" I asked.

Hiram scratched his head and finally shrugged. "I don't remember."

We batted a few more ideas around about who'd want the house. Ex-spouses being one category, but no, it seemed that Hiram lived in world filled only with friendly, supportive people without the glimmer of a criminal twinkle in even one eye.

We told Hiram we'd call him when we found the house.

"Doesn't seem like you'd haul a house all that far," I remarked to Raine, as Hiram roared off in a Ford (double-cab pickup).

She just laughed.

"Well, would you? How many houses have you seen being hauled around?"

"Frequency doesn't equal distance, you know." She climbed into her old Valient and roared off to cash the check.

We met back at the office and started tracking down the house. You'd think something the size of a house would be pretty easy to find. Raine toiled through the yellow pages, checking out the logical lead-house movers. I called my mole in the construction permit department. A house had to go somewhere. And wherever it went, someone had to have had a permit to put it there. I could hear my mole's computer keys clicking away too long to be good news. "Nothing like that in the last couple months," she said. "They may have got the permit for some other purpose, you know. Remodel or something."

"Yeah, or skipped the permit. Thanks anyway."

Raine had struck out with her survey of house-moving companies, too.

"Looks like the house thief stuck to the illegal route the whole way," I observed. "No permits, no legal movers. No tracks, left." Then I started thinking about tracks. "Actually, I take that back, I bet there are tracks. I'm going back to look at that yard."

I cruised the yard again. Sure enough the muddy tracks of what was probably the truck that hauled the house away headed down the alley. I followed them until the mud had worn off the wheels. A couple kids rode by on bikes. "Hey, you kids." They pulled up short, nervous probably about what some strange adult wanted from them. "Did you see that house get hauled away?"

No they hadn't, but Bobby had. We went to find Bobby, who it turned out, planned to become a detective when he grew up. "I got the truck license." He whipped a little notebook out of his back pocket and flipped through the grimy pages. Pulled the notebook close to his chest when I leaned over to look at it. That boy knew his business. He reeled off the license, which I jotted down in my own little grimy notebook. "Do you want their descriptions, too?" he asked. "The guys driving the truck?"

"Never hurts," I agreed. Very professional descriptions. I gave him my card, just in case he ever wanted a job.

I called Raine and gave her the license number of the truck so she could start tracking it down. I picked up my usual lunch on the way back to the office. While the computer ground through the database, I spread the burger and fries out on my desk.

Raine pulled out a juicy grilled eggplant sandwich. "What deli did you get that at? Salameria?" I asked.

"Made it myself." She took a bite.

My mouth started drooling. I examined the burger. "Want to share?"

Raine gave me one of her looks. "You should learn to cook."

The computer beeped success and spit out the name of the owner of the truck, one Roy Perkins, along with his address and phone number.

Now, getting information from a guy when he doesn't want to give it is a trick. Of course sometimes a guy does want to give. If you're lucky. Usually in this work, nothing's that easy. Roy Perkins was sort of in between. He wanted to be coaxed. Even more he wanted to be paid. Fortunately we were talking beer budgets here. That and the specter of losing his mover's license for not having a permit to move the house, produced an address in Burien. We drove over to make sure the house was still there, or actually there, depending on how much weight you wanted to put on Roy's honesty.

There it sat, still on its piers in the middle of a ragged lot. We called Hiram and told him where his house was. Hiram said he'd be right over.

Our contract says find, not return. Once we find the object of interest, our job is done. Or I should say, once we get paid our job is done. Finding is the easy part.

When Hiram banged on the door of the house, a guy who looked a lot like Hiram poked his head out. Hiram conveniently embroiled him in a serious one-on-one yelling match. All about who found what. Like I said, we were the ones who'd done the finding and now it was time to get paid. I inserted myself between the two and presented the bill.

"You find things?" House Guy demanded.

I nodded. "And when we find them, we get paid," I said to Hiram as ominously as I could manage, which I've been told is pretty ominous.

"Then I want to hire you," House Guy said.

"They work for me," Hiram yelled.

"Worked," Raine corrected. "And you owe us the rest of our fee."

"What's the job?" I asked House Guy.

"Finding a certain piece of paper in this house," he said waving his hand back over his shoulder at our recent successful location job.

Hiram's face cracked into a bitter little smile. "You didn't find it either, did you?"

Well to make a short story shorter, House Guy's name was Buster Brewster, brother of Hiram.

"Dad was a champion in the chili cook-off circuit," Buster said like it was an explanation. "He died without telling anyone his secret ingredient."

"And whichever one of you finds his recipe is going to be the next champion, I take it," Raine remarked dryly.

"You stole the house so you could search it for the recipe?" I yelped.

"Dad left that house to me," they said in unison.

"About the rest of what you owe us, Hiram, ..." I broke in. Hiram ignored me. This is the part of the business I hate. I've had to go so far as to threaten to break an arm to get paid, and I just don't like it.

"We'll take that job," Raine said to Buster. "Half the fee up-front; the other half when we find it." She'd bumped up our usual fee, I noticed. The extra amount just about covered Hiram's unpaid bill. Buster whipped a checkbook out of his jacket pocket, wrote out a check, and waved us into the house.

Wandering around in a cold old house that more than one someone has already pawed through is a lousy way to find anything. And having the two Brewster brothers lurking in the doorways or peering over our shoulders didn't make it any better. Raine was taking her usual approach, which mostly looks like wandering around staring into space. I pretended I was going through the piles of paper spread around on every surface. But the truth was, if the recipe had been in those piles, one of the brothers would have already found it.

So mostly what I was doing was trying to get a feel for the guy who hid the thing. Once you knew that, you were half way to knowing where he'd have hidden it. I pumped the brothers about their father, but all I got was sibling rivalry. The man had apparently liked competition. Maybe that was all I needed to know.

Raine and I finally pushed the piles on the kitchen table aside and took a much needed break from the dim dusty rooms. Some jobs, you just don't win. And the moment when you know it's hopeless isn't necessarily the moment when you stop, unfortunately. We'd been through the whole house and hadn't found any chili recipes, which was odd when you thought about it—maybe it was a clue—but entertaining desperate thoughts like that was just avoiding having to call it quits.

Buster and Hiram carried on in a back bedroom, arguing over other stuff. Raine sat staring at the ceiling, her eyes tracing along the cracks like she was reading them. I thought about Old Mr. Brewster, sitting here reading those same cracks, waiting for some kettle to boil, or looking up at them while assessing the taste of the chili. Hadn't those boys ever eaten their dad's chili? Didn't they remember the taste? My feet bumped a cardboard carton full of seasonings that had been pushed under the table. I pulled it out and rummaged around yet again in the jumble of boxes, bags, and bottles.

Raine stopped reading the cracks and considered the carton. She started lining the contents up on the table in neat rows. "Lots of cinnamon," she said. "Some people use it in chili."

"Think we could convince them to pay us if we found the secret ingredient, instead?" I wondered out loud.

"Probable secret ingredient," Raine corrected, as ever, the stickler for words. We presented our hunch that cinnamon was probably the secret ingredient.

"So being as we found the secret ingredient—probable secret ingredient," I corrected myself, "and being as your dad probably didn't need a written recipe; it was probably in his head, and if he was so paranoid about other people learning his secret he probably didn't even write it down, I think you should pay us our finder's fee."

"Fees," Raine corrected.

Buster wasn't having any. "I hired you to find the recipe, not make it up." In every job there comes a time when it's time to stop looking. Making the best of a hopeless situation, we terminated our contract with the Brewster brothers, both sides calling it a loss.

"I think we'd better cash ol' Buster's check as soon as possible," I observed on the way to the car.

"Going there now."

We were pulling onto 1st Avenue when Raine added, "Did you notice how much nutmeg there was in that box?"

"Thinking of entering a chili cook-off?" I asked her.


One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2014