Skyler Hobbs peered down his long nose at the little man seated next to me on the sofa.
“I must advise you, Mr. Schumacher, that my good friend here does not wish me to take your case.”
Arnie Schumacher, owner-operator of Arnie’s Electronics, turned to goggle at me, his eyes huge and watery through thick spectacles. “But why? I have not even told you my problem.”
I shrugged. I’d voiced no objection, but Hobbs had ferreted it out just the same. That’s the trouble with befriending a man who thinks he’s the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes.
“The doctor,” Hobbs said, nodding at me, “feels you have siphoned customers from his computer repair business by undercutting his prices. Do you deny the charge?”
Arnie looked bewildered.
I handed him one of my business cards: Jason Wilder - Computer Doctor.
“Don’t mind Hobbs,” I said. “It’s his idea of a parlor trick. Probably spotted kilobytes under your fingernails. Still, he’s right. How can you afford to work so cheap?”
Arnie looked from me to Hobbs and wrung his hands. “Because, gentlemen, I am not really working. The items repair themselves—as if by magic!”
I stood, ready to usher him out. Dealing with Hobbs was all the insanity I could handle.
But Hobbs had that gleam in his eye. The one that said, Aha! The game is afoot. He took his pipe and tobacco from their place on the mantel and settled into his rocker. “You have my full attention, sir. Pray continue.”
The story was quickly told. Arnie had opened shop in the 60s, fixing toasters and blenders, and graduated to TV and stereo equipment. He’d done all right until the past few years, when everything became computerized. Now most of the work was in computer repair. But his eyesight was failing, technology was passing him by, and he’d found himself up to his neck in unrepaired equipment and unpaid bills.
“Though it shamed me greatly,” he said, “I was about to declare bankruptcy, when the magic started. One morning I came downstairs—my wife and I share a small apartment above the shop—and went down to the basement, where I have my workshop. Everything in the place had been fixed!”
Hobbs’ eyes shone. “And you attribute this to magic.”
“My wife, she thinks it must be angels. Me, I just don’t know. But my business was saved. The faster work came in, the faster it repaired itself. I felt guilty taking money for nothing, so I lowered prices, and customers came in droves.”
“Assuming we believe any of this,” I said, feeling snarky, “why come to Hobbs? Sounds to me like you’ve got it made.”
“I do,” Arnie said. “I do. But it is not right. A man should work, and receive fair compensation for his labors. I come to you, Mr. Hobbs, to discover the truth of the matter. Will you help?”
Hobbs made an O of his mouth and blew out a large smoke ring. Pursing his lips, he sent several smoke bullets through the target.
“Mr. Schumacher, I find this matter to be of the greatest interest. The doctor and I will be only too happy to assist you.”
Happy. That was me. Too happy for words.
That night, Hobbs and I hid behind stacks of boxes in Schumacher’s basement. Hobbs had insisted we needed bait, so despite my objections we’d hauled a dozen unfixed computers from my own shop and stacked them on the long workbench.
As we waited in the darkness, I whispered, “All right, Hobbs, you’ve put me off long enough. I want to know what’s going on.”
“You observed, of course, that this establishment is located next to a Wells Fargo Bank.”
“Sure,” I lied. All I’d noticed was the MacDonald’s across the street. I could almost smell Big Macs.
“Is it not possible,” he said, “that our client’s late night visitors are attempting to tunnel into the bank and break into its vault?”
“Maybe. But if that were so, we’d have seen evidence of digging.”
“Not if the thieves are exceedingly clever. In any case…”
As Hobbs paused, I heard slight sounds from the floor above. The click of a key in a lock, and the creak of footsteps.
“In any case,” he said again, “we shall soon know. I am quite certain our quarry has arrived. Now, Watson, would be the time to produce your trusty revolver.”
“Wilder,” I whispered. “And you know damn well I don’t own a gun.”
But I began to wish I did. The creaking had moved to the stairs, and a moment later the basement door opened. Florescent ceiling lights blinked on, and we crouched lower behind the boxes.
“Damn!” said a hushed voice. “The geezer’s got a lot of new shit.”
“Cool,” came the reply. “We’ll make a haul on this.”
As the voices moved to the center of the room, I shifted to a crack between the boxes.
Two teenage boys in ratty T-shirts and low-slung jeans stood at the workbench, examining the repair tags.
“Dibs on this HP,” one boy said. “All it needs is a network interface.”
“I’ll start with this laptop,” the other said.
Both selected tools from the table and set to work. These didn’t look like bank robbers to me.
I turned to Hobbs and raised an eyebrow. He merely nodded at me. If this performance surprised him he did a great job of hiding it.
We watched a while longer, seeing nothing but quick and competent repair work.
Finally Hobbs stood, pushing the boxes aside, and aimed a bony finger at the two astonished boys.
“Stop!” he said in a commanding voice. “Dr. Watson here is armed, and if you attempt to flee he will surely shoot you.”
I shook my head. “Wilder,” I said, “and I’m not shooting anybody. But I would like to know what the hell’s going on.”
Next morning, we sat in a plush private office above the flagship store of the worldwide mega-chain, Schumacher’s Shoes. Facing us across an enormous desk was a beetle-browed man bearing a distinct resemblance to our client. The brass nameplate on his desk read Marvin Schumacher, President and CEO.
Though Marvin looked younger than Arnie, his hair was thinning, and he’d tried to cover it with the silliest comb-over this side of Donald Trump. His whole office, in fact, seemed modeled after the board room on The Apprentice. He fixed us with a Trump-like scowl.
“So you know,” he said. “You telling Arnie?”
“I know,” Hobbs said, “that you hired those lads to help your brother. And I believe I know why. But before determining a course of action, I wish to hear the tale from your own lips.”
“You‘ve met Arnie,” Marvin said, “so maybe you understand. He’s always been too proud for his own good. Won’t accept charity, even from his own flesh and blood. I called my old high school, got the names of those computer geeks, and gave them a key. You know the rest.”
“You chose well,” Hobbs said. “My friend here has inspected their work, and judged it to be excellent.”
Marvin nodded. “Arnie had a sweet deal going, until you stepped in. Any chance you’d accept a . . . retainer, to let the magic continue?”
Hobbs leaned forward, rubbing his hands together. “The question I must ask, Mr. Schumacher, is this: Precisely how much is your brother’s happiness worth?”
The apartment above Arnie’s Electronics was shabby but clean, a description that also served for Arnie’s wife. We sat at their kitchen table pretending to drink weak, tepid coffee from cracked mugs.
“I still can’t believe they were bank robbers,” Arnie said. “I saw you leading those guys away, and they looked like kids. I mean, who but kids would wear their jeans belted down around their knees?”
“All part of their disguise,” Hobbs said, “and no small factor in their ability to elude the authorities. Those desperados are wanted in seven states, and you have performed a great service in bringing about their capture. And it will please you to know they have already received new suits of clothing—bright orange prison uniforms.”
Hobbs hefted a large suitcase onto the table and popped it open. Inside were bound stacks of crisp hundred dollar bills.
“The reward offered by the FBI,” he said, “totaled one million dollars. It is yours, with the compliments of your government.”
Arnie stared, his mouth working but emitting no sound. His wife began to cry.
I felt my own eyes welling up, and steadied myself with a swallow of bad coffee.
Arnie found his voice. “A million dollars. You may call it justice, Mr. Hobbs, but I still call it magic. This time, however, I will not complain. But you and your friend did all the work. You must take half.”
I choked on my coffee. By the time I could breathe, Hobbs was already shaking his head.
“Your generosity is overwhelming,” he said, “but we must decline. The by-laws of the Consulting Detectives Union are quite strict in cases of this sort. The most we are allowed to accept is one percent.”
Two weeks later, we got a postcard from Hawaii, first stop on the Schumachers’ round-the-world cruise. Arnie was officially retired, and shedding the skin of his old life.
Things were going well for me too. With my share of the ten grand, I’d hired the two computer geeks to work part-time at my shop. Business was booming.
“Quite satisfactory,” Hobbs said. “Everyone appears to be living happily ever after.”
“Just like a fairy tale,” I said. “It’s almost enough to make me believe in magic.”
Hobbs snorted and turned to find his pipe.
I just smiled. Hobbs’ head was swelled enough already, so I had to be careful with compliments, but I was pretty sure Arnie was right. There had been magic at work.
The magic of Skyler Hobbs.
© 2011 by Evan Lewis
This story will soon appear in a new fairy tale crime anthology from Untreed Reads, edited by John Kenyon.