Brow Beat

A Macadamia Charles, Basketball P.I., Mystery
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The Unibrowser is the new browser skin that enables you to surf the web with your favorite player, Anthony Davis. After you download and install the Unibrowser, a connected pair of eyebrows will appear above the address bar on your web browser. When you encounter something Anthony finds intriguing, he will raise one brow. When you surprise him, he will raise two. And occasionally, a little Anthony will appear to offer tips on basketball, the Internet, and life! The Unibrowser is compatible with all major web browsers and operating systems. Download today!

UNIBROWSIN'

(art by J.O. Applegate)

I installed the Unibrowser and poked around a little on some statistical databases. Anthony Davis’ advanced stats elicited a raise of both brows, and rightfully so: He was having a terrific season. It was fitting that he’d made his first All-Star team, even if it was as a replacement for an injured Kobe Bryant.

But I couldn’t understand why Anthony Davis had contacted me. Was it just a guise to get me to download this silly web app? The Unibrowser was the linchpin of a promotional push built around A.D.’s star turn at the upcoming All-Star Game on his home court. But if they were marketing it hand-to-hand to graybeards like me, their branding needed a serious tune-up.

After my fifth click, though, I got it. Brow and browser melted, top to bottom, and were replaced by a full-screen animation of Pierre the Pelican—not the newer, gentler Pierre, but the old one with the red beak—cackling with his head tilted back. A goofy, grinning image of Anthony appeared. 2Pac kicked in: “I ain’t got no motherfuckin’ friends.” It was “Hit ‘Em Up,” the great dis rap. (It was also appropriate; Anthony had a rep as a loner.) A lowlight reel followed—a montage of every time Anthony was dunked on, had his shot blocked, or generally just looked foolish. Pierre checked in every now and again to laugh at the young forward’s misfortunes. After a minute or so of this, the volume on “Hit ‘Em Up” dropped so we could hear Anthony on The Dan Patrick Show before his rookie year, saying he’d like to try to shut Kobe down. “Tell Kobe I’ll be waiting,” he crowed, only half in jest.

Next, I saw 2013 Kobe going off on the then-Hornets, soon-to-be-Pelicans. Kobe’s gaudy game numbers flashed on the screen as he splashed jumpers over Anthony’s long, outstretched arms. A lightning flash of images—I can only assume they were all Anthony getting bested—and a chopped-and-screwed Pierre cackle, and then black-screen silence. A moment later, everything on the computer, even the Unibrowser, was restored.

I texted Anthony. “I’ll be on the next flight to New Orleans.”

***

So Anthony had talked some playful noise at Kobe in a radio interview almost two years earlier and was now replacing Kobe in the All-Star Game? I didn’t think it was enough to set Kobe off, but I figured I’d take the direct approach. Kobe had become uncommonly blunt in the twilight of his career. I sent him a text.

“Did you mess with Anthony Davis’s skin?”

“Brow? LOL. If he has problems with his skin it’s probably cuz he’s like 17. Tell him to get some benzoyl peroxide!”

I also had to consider Goran Dragic, Boogie Cousins, and Mike Conley, the other candidates for Kobe’s surrendered All-Star spot. Dragic was a fearless competitor, always looking for an edge. Boogie was a loose cannon and immature enough to consider a prank like this. And Conley’s game and manner were stealth; I couldn’t write him off.

Finally, there was Pierre, undeniably a bird of interest. The new mascot of New Orleans had begun the season looking more like a psycho rooster, sporting a grisly red beak and laughing eyes. The basketball public quickly decided Pierre was terrifying and turned him into a punchline. Tricking your friends into looking at pictures of Pierre was the basketball version of Rickrolling. Then, just a few days before Anthony hired me, a made-over Pierre showed up with Botox-raised eyebrows, a new, yellow beak, and a Jay Leno chin. The team issued a press release explaining that he’d broken his nose playing ball and required reconstructive surgery. There was a photo of Pierre, beak wrapped in gauze, giving a thumbs-up to the camera. It was about as convincing as a hostage video.

A mascot forced into a surgery he didn’t want had plenty of reason to strike back at his team, and what better way than to clown the star player while appearing in the form the team deemed unacceptable?

I needed to bring a mascot P.I. on the case, for investigative and political reasons. The Mascot Guild was still upset with me for attending a 76ers game in 2012 in a Big Shot costume, and for not using a mascot P.I. in my investigation of the other Big Shot, the one who hijacked a t-shirt cannon and fired it at Doug Collins.

It would be important to pick the right mascot P.I. Charles Oak Tree and his canine associate McRough had proven reliable, but this case required a gentler touch. It was All-Star Weekend; I couldn’t have them busting heads at the Shooting Stars Challenge. So I called Joe Carry Barrel instead. Joe was a six-foot-tall badger who carried a barrel full of tools to use in his investigations. We’d worked a Burnie case in Miami back in ’93. Joe Carry’s scanner picked up some walkie-talkie traffic that led us to the culprit.

After I checked into my hotel, I blasted a few-dozen NBA people with the following text. “In NOLA for the festivities! What’s good?!” My purpose was twofold: (1) to dispel any notion that I was here on a case; and (2) to get invited to as many parties as possible, as that was where I might get good intel from the tipsy and loose-lipped.

Anthony and I met in the hotel’s restaurant for a late breakfast. He wore a checkered blue button-down shirt that looked like a tablecloth across his broad shoulders.

“No disrespect, ‘cause I appreciate what you’re doing for me, but this is going to have to be quick,” he said. “Media day starts soon and I’m a Jam Session Ambassador.”

“Who do you think did this?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I hired you.”

The restaurant’s hamburgers were generously sized, but Anthony’s looked like a slider in his giant hands. Mine looked generously sized.

“How are things with the team?”

“No problems.”

“Opponents?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary.”

“What about Pierre?”

“Me and Pierre are cool. I mean, we’re different—he’s a Pelican and I don’t eat seafood. But we both like to soar and swoop. And I feel him on the beak, man. It’s like my brow.”

“Except you didn’t shave your brow.”

Anthony shrugged. I suspect we both felt a little embarrassed and sad for Pierre.

“Any enemies, then?” I asked. “Besides the person who ruined your skin?”

“The person who took my Snuggie.”

“Who was that?”

“I don’t know.”

“When was that?”

“A few weeks ago,” he said. He put down his burger. “Look, I can get another Snuggie. But I want to know who ruined the Unibrowser. This was supposed to be my big weekend and now half these kids are clowning me when I show up to these events, yelling ‘Kobe.’”

“What do you do?”

“What can I do? I laugh it off. But it still hurts.” In the shadow of his size and talent and instant millions, it was easy to forget that Anthony was only 20 years old. He inhaled what remained of his burger and iced tea and left some money on the table. “I gotta run, Mac. You’ve got my number if you need me.”

Five minutes after Anthony slid out of the booth, Joe Carry slid in. He set his barrel down beside him.

“Coincidence of coincidences, Mac.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“Pierre hired me to solve the same case.”

“No, no, no. I don’t like this.”

“Why not?”

“Loyalty is to one client. Our clients might be adverse.”

“You always said your loyalty is to the truth.”

“I’m not going to pay you if Pierre is. And I’m going to run this by Anthony.”

Joe Carry waved his arm, as if to say be my guest. “You receive any threats yet?” he asked.

“Yeah, cute, Joe. This is a real case, you know. It’s not just an excuse for you to pass out again on Bourbon Street.”

“I’m not joking.” He opened his barrel and produced an envelope on the front of which was written his name. He handed it over to me. Inside was a single sheet of paper on which someone had typed:

IF YOU BADGER THE WRONG PEOPLE YOU’LL FIND YOURSELF IN A BARREL FULL OF CONCRETE IN THE MISSISSIPPI.

“You ask them who left it?”

“Bike messenger.”

I shook my head. Joe shook his.

“All-Star Weekend,” he said.

“I’ve always stayed away.”

***

Conveniently, Pierre and Anthony were scheduled to be at the same Jam Session event at a grade school in Magnolia Oaks. Joe Carry and I got there early.

“This is where Juvenile’s from,” I observed as we crossed the parking lot.

“I don’t care for Juvenile,” said Joe Carry.

Inside we found school staff and Adam Silver, along with a bunch of his underlings. Anthony hadn’t arrived yet. Pierre sat in a corner, looking as sullen and weary as his new face would allow.

“Two P.I.’s for the price of one,” the bird cracked.

“Something like that,” I said. “Anthony hired me.”

“You look good, Pierre,” said Joe Carry.

“I’m not happy about the surgery,” he said.

“Maybe you’ve just got to get used to it,” said Joe Carry.

Pierre sighed. “You guys don’t understand. I was this before this organization hired me. I was Pierre. I was a pelican. I had a red and angry beak, though I am not an angry bird. I allowed them to buy me off. I did this for silver.”

“Adam Silver?” I asked.

“Every day I look in the mirror and see the sale of my integrity. This franchise may someday move again, may change mascots again, may deem me no longer worthy of the cheap laughs of the moneyed spectators and assorted school children I’m sent to entertain. And what then? What have I then? A nest egg? That is but a metaphor for the stuff of my actual life! For the delicate shell upon which my dear mother stood to warm me and gird me for the cruel world to come.” He looked up to the ceiling. “Forgive me, mother!”

I exchanged a wary look with Joe Carry.

“That is the thing, as a mascot,” Pierre continued, dropping his voice to a near-whisper. “One often—perhaps always—finds oneself in service of folly and greed. But one cannot fear folly, for it is where our greatest accomplishments begin.” Pierre looked to the ceiling again. “Love thy enemy. Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon!”

Joe Carry and I traded a second glance.

“As for the greed,” continued Pierre, “I keep it away from my heart. At least I did. Now it is my albatross. I should not use that term. It is my burden.”

“I understand,” I said. “But what about the case? Any thoughts on that?”

“Frank.”

“Frank?” I asked

“Frank the Pelican,” interjected Joe Carry. “This is why you hire a mascot P.I.”

“Thanks for the scoop,” I said.

“He’s my brother,” said Pierre.

“Why would Frank do this?” I asked.

“He doesn’t like me and he doesn’t like A.D.”

“Why’s that?”

“Frank saw my surgery as a betrayal, and he thinks Anthony is soft.”

There’s nothing cheaper than accusing someone of being soft. It’s an annoyingly common aspect of basketball cases. And any kid like Anthony—tall, skinny, and skilled—will have a hard time avoiding the label. I’ve often wondered if Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, and Kevin Garnett would have had the same fire had their profiles not made them such prime candidates for the epithet.

“Frank’s always been suspicious of Anthony,” continued Pierre. “Top pick and all. But he got really upset when he heard about him traveling with the Snuggie. He told me he was going to snatch Anthony’s Snuggie and cut me.”

“Cut you?”

“Frank’s a street tough,” said Joe Carry. “He carries a knife.”

Our talk was interrupted by the arrival of Anthony, and the attentions of the commish.

“I’m really excited for this event,” said Anthony, putting on a happy face for the big boss.

“I’m really #excited, too!” said Silver.

“Wait, did you just talk in hashtag?” asked Anthony.

Silver smiled.

“I saw Jimmy Fallon do it,” said Anthony, “but that was by making the sign with his hands and saying ‘hashtag’. But you just did it.”

“Cheap parlor trick,” muttered Pierre.

“That’s #marketing, Anthony,” said Silver, raising his voice. “That’s why I’m running this motherfucker!”

The room went silent.

***

In addition to being a basketball case and arguably a mascot case, this was also was a software forensics case, which was not an area of expertise for Joe Carry or me. We scheduled a meeting with Toby Briggs, the Pelicans’ web producer and the designer of the Unibrowser.

He suggested a bar called The Sitting Duck. It was on the ground floor of an old brick building in Gentilly. Outside, a neon sign showed a duck seated on a bar stool drinking a hurricane. Inside, drawn shades kept the room dark. The air was thick and damp, as if the bar were haunted by the swamp that preceded it. Wooden benches and tables bore decades of carved profanities and initials. An old, upright piano stood against the far wall, but there was no music. There were only the murmur of conversation from the bar’s few patrons and the occasional clink of ice in glasses.

I didn’t like the quiet; it offered little privacy. I liked it even less when I saw Jeanie Buss sipping a whiskey and leaning over an e-reader. Obviously, I had no desire to discuss an investigation that could potentially focus on Kobe Bryant within earshot of the president of the Lakers.

“Whatcha reading, Jeanie?” I asked.

“Mac! Joe Carry! Good to see you. Just a little Søren Kierkegaard.”

“More like Børin’ Kierkegaard,” said Joe Carry.

“Shut up,” I told him.

“He’s not for everybody,” said Jeanie. “By the way, Mac, I picked up some almond pralines for you. I’ve got them back at the hotel.”

“Wow, thanks,” I said. “How’d you even know I was in town?”

“You texted me, you Maloof! And Kobe told me you’re working the Anthony Davis case.”

I pretended like this was nothing; to his credit, so did Joe Carry.

“Listen, guys,” she said. “Is it true that Adam Silver’s been talking in hashtag?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m afraid it is.”

“Damn. I was hoping to get there first.” She shook her fists. “So close!”

“Close only counts in horseshoes and Pythagorean won-lost calculations,” said Joe Carry.

“All-Star Weekend,” said Jeanie. “It’s a goddamn minefield.”

Joe Carry and I made our way to a booth in the back, occupied by a young white guy in a black Pelicans tracksuit. His hair was blow-dried back. It was a very earnest hairstyle.

“Mr. Charles, Mr. Barrel.” He stood to shake our hands. “Toby Briggs.”

“Call me Mac,” I said, as we sat ourselves on the other side of the booth.

“I’m glad you guys are on this case,” he said. “These last few days have been devastating.”

“What do you think happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Toby. “I wrote the code. I stored the file on the team’s server in a password-protected folder. I’ve checked the logs and there’s no sign of entry, no sign of anything, really. I triple-checked the file before I uploaded it to Anthony’s website, which I also manage, and to the iPhone and Droid app stores. Everything was fine. And then the next morning, I started getting the texts. I looked at the upload date, and someone put up a new version that night on all three servers.”

I just nodded, trying to keep up. Joe Carry stroked his barrel.

“The weird thing,” continued Toby, “is that there was no sign of someone accessing the original file on the Pelicans’ server. So maybe someone hacked Apple, Droid, and Anthony’s site. Or maybe there is a security weakness on my end, though I doubt it. Which leaves,” he dropped his voice to a near-whisper, “some higher-up doing the dirt and then erasing their footsteps.”

“Can that be done?” asked Joe Carry.

“You know, previously I would have said no. But look at all this news on the NSA, and the secret backdoors they implant in security software. How am I to know what preceded me here, what the higher ups do?”

“Are you saying the NSA did this?” asked Joe Carry.

“That’s not necessarily who I was thinking of, but you never know.”

“I assume you’ve kept copies of both of the skins.”

“I have. I’m still combing through the code for clues. Lotta SLOCs.”

“SLOCs?” asked Joe Carry.

“Source lines of code,” I replied. “You mascot P.I.s are so narrow.”

“Occasionally in these software sabotages,” explained Toby, “the perpetrator will leave a little note in the code, something that doesn’t manifest in the presentation. Just a line or two for the investigators. But so far we have nothing.”

“All those images and video clips—do you have those?”

He opened his laptop. There was a picture of a calico cat—a cute little thing—and a slobbery St. Bernard.

“Aww,” said Joe Carry. “Those yours?”

“Yeah,” said Toby. “The little one, that’s Bear. And the big one is Hugs.”

“Cuddly guy?” I asked.

Toby smiled. “Yeah,” he said. He opened a folder with seemingly endless rows of thumbnails. “These are just the stills in the montage at the end. There are 5,000 in all.”

He handed us each a thumb drive with the complete set.

The relative silence of The Sitting Duck meant that everyone turned when the door beside the bar creaked open. An old woman hobbled out. She wore a knee-length Larry Johnson Charlotte Hornets jersey and flip-flops.

“Grandmama,” whispered Joe Carry.

After seating herself at the piano, she tilted her head back to the ceiling, eyes closed. She remained in that position for an uncomfortably long time.

From the first melancholic notes, I recognized the tune as “St. James Infirmary Blues.” And Grandmama owned it. She was a virtuosa. It was as though the ghost of James Booker were playing marionette with her fingers.

She might have played for three minutes or thirty; I couldn’t tell you. And she never actually sang. But sometime around the middle of the song, she began to emit this haunting, deep-throated hum in the tune of the vocals. I was reminded of the Tuvan throat singers of Inner Mongolia.

When she was done, she hobbled back through the open door beside the bar and closed it.

A single tear streaked Toby’s cheek. “Sublimation,” he said. “We are, each of us, capable of great ugliness and great beauty. We must choose beauty.”

“Toby,” said Joe Carry. “Do you know where I could find a good reuben?”

Toby jerked upright. Even I did a double take. The crassness of Joe Carry’s appetite had broken the spell of Grandmama’s performance. “What?” Toby asked.

“I’ve got a craving for a reuben,” said Joe Carry. “My grandmother used to make them for me. She played the piano.”

“Well, that was something, wasn’t it?” Jeanie Buss stood beside our table. I hadn’t even noticed her approach. “If you see Anthony, tell him I’m sorry it had to be Kobe embarrassing him on that video. Tell him to view it as a rite of passage. One day Anthony will be in that role. His future is bright.”

***

Stepping out into the sunlight was electroshock. Joe Carry and I were so dazed, I’m sure we looked like we’d been drinking all day.

“I’m going to grab a bite and head back to the hotel,” he said. “I need to take a look at the files and think on this one.”

“Me too,” I told him.

I let him get about two blocks ahead before I started following. The nice thing about tailing a mascot is how much they stand out. You don’t have to take so many risks.

There was too much with Joe Carry on this case that didn’t add up: The weird churlishness with Jeanne, the non sequitur inquiry about reubens, the constant stroking of the barrel. This wasn’t the Joe Carry I knew.

He seemed nervous as he walked, his head on a swivel. At one point I had to duck behind a newspaper stand. Another time I dashed into a doorway.

And what was up with Jeanie? She just happened to be at the bar at which we were conducting our investigation? And then she tried to leave some sort of mind-game message for Anthony? Did we have a leak?

At last, Joe Carry approached a block-long, concrete parking garage with a row of businesses on the bottom floor. One of them was “Reuben’s Soup and Sandwich Company.” Maybe he really did crave a reuben. I wasn’t sure if that would make his behavior more or less strange.

But Joe Carry walked right on by the restaurant’s entrance. He continued down the block and made a right and then another right, down a quiet, narrow street called Union. I couldn’t follow too closely now—foot and car traffic were sparse and I was liable to turn a corner right into Joe Carry himself. It looked like he had ducked into a garbage strewn parking lot, but my surveillance was interrupted by a voice across the street.

“What you looking for, sir?” It was an old guy walking a pit bull, and there was a hard edge to the “sir.”

Why didn’t you badger him, I wanted to ask, though I knew better than to make a scene. “Just trying to remember where I parked my rental,” I said quietly. “I’m not from here.”

“I’ll say you’re not,” he grumbled.

I turned, but by then Joe Carry was gone.

***

After a shower and a quick bite at the hotel, I walked over to the arena. It was All-Star Friday, which meant first the Celebrity Game and then the Rising Stars Challenge, in which Anthony would take part. Pierre would be in the building as well. I texted Joe Carry suggesting he join me but got no response.

I’d scored an all-access pass, enabling me to wander the locker rooms and back halls. It was still an hour before tip-off of the celebrity game, so I didn’t expect to find many NBA people, but I figured Zach Lowe, celebrity game coach and noted mascot obsessive, would be worth a chat.

But first I encountered Toby.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Mandatory attendance for tech employees,” he explained. “Everyone’s vigilant after the wifi debacle in Dallas in 2010. I don’t know if you appreciate this, Mr. Charles, but All-Star Weekend is a huge deal, and it’s also a time when things just tend to go bad.”

Things tend to go bad when people are driven by ego and money and power, which is the NBA world 24/7/365. I was sick of hearing about All-Star Weekend like it was the Bermuda Triangle of the NBA season. If All-Star Weekend’s so bad, why is Nick Cannon always smiling?

I had just turned the corner into the tunnel when I crashed into something fluffy but firm, like a refrigerator wrapped in a giant Snuggie. I looked up to see a pelican’s red beak.

“Pierre?” I asked. As soon as I said it, I knew it wasn’t him.

*Click*

I looked down to see the hallway’s fluorescent light reflecting off the open switchblade in the bird’s talons. “You know who I am,” he said.

“You’re Frank.”

“And do you know what I’m about to do?”

“Yes,” I said. He had given me an opening. “You’re about to get your mohawk caught in that damn hanging wire.”

As he looked up—almost involuntarily—I swept his leg and took off sprinting back towards the court and the stands. I don’t know if he fell or how hard, but I soon heard his footsteps closing in on me. He cursed me through his closed beak. We had another 30 or so yards to go, and my legs were burning. I couldn’t slow down, though. What if he stuck me before we left the tunnel, leaving me to bleed out on national television?

There it was, practically glowing with invitation. Just before the mouth of the tunnel, one rack of basketballs, four orange and a fifth in red, white, and blue. I swear I could feel Frank’s breath on my neck as I lunged for the rack and sent it crashing down behind me. Frank chirped a curse and—THUMP—landed hard on the wood floor, while his knife skittered out of his reach. We were now within sight of the early-arriving fans. I looked up to see a group of schoolchildren laughing and pointing at the prone bird. I picked up the knife to return it to Frank, but he ran back into the tunnel rather than face the humiliation.

“That was quite a stunt.” It was Jeanie Buss again. This woman was everywhere.

“I wasn’t stunting, Jeanie,” I managed, still gasping for breath.

“That looked like the old Pierre,” she said. “Is this Throwback Thursday?”

“Today is Friday,” I said. “By the way, can you tell me about this wifi debacle at Cowboy Stadium?”

Jeanie tilted her head like she was confused but didn’t stop smiling.

“At All-Star Weekend in 2010,” I clarified. “I heard it was a real mess.”

“Never heard of it,” she said. But there was a twinkle in her eye and a smirk on her lips. She held up her index finger, a signal to wait, and walked several feet to a duffle bag on the floor. She reached inside it and produced a crinkly plastic bag held closed by a fancily tied ribbon. She handed the package to me. “Almond pralines!” she said.

***

From there I worked fast. Within five minutes, I had the info I needed. I called Joe Carry. He sounded terrible.

“Did I wake you?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “What’s the story?”

“I think I figured it out.”

“It’s Toby, right? I’ve got something on that.”

When Joe Carry appeared ten minutes later, he wasn’t alone. Pierre was with him.

“Your brother tried to cut me,” I told Pierre as I handed him the knife. “With this.”

“So what do you got?” asked Joe Carry. He seemed irritable.

“Toby lied to me about why he’s here today. So I looked into his background—he’s a Cincy guy. He was a team manager under Huggins.”

“His pets are named Hugs and Bear,” recalled Joe Carry.

I nodded.

“Bob Huggins’ nickname is Huggy Bear,” said Pierre. “And a cat named Bear is a bearcat.”

Joe Carry patted him on the back.

“So,” I continued, “I looked at the dates and he was at Cincy—”

“—When Ruben Patterson was there?” Asked Joe Carry. “You saw how he perked up at the mention of a reuben.”

“Yup.”

“He couldn’t stand the idea of a new ‘Kobe Stopper’,” said Joe Carry. “I went through those images and there were three of Ruben stuffing Kobe. I figured that’s what this was about.”

Patterson had been a star for Bob Huggins at Cincinnati in in the 90s and then, in the NBA, had dubbed himself “The Kobe Stopper” for his pugnacious defense against the Lakers’ star (even if the numbers didn’t fully back him up).

“The Huggins tracksuit,” I added.

“The Huggins hair,” Joe Carry replied.

The only question that remained was whether Toby worked this alone. Now seemed as good a time as any to ask him.

We stalked the halls, the three of us, Pierre holding a knife that I doubted he’d use, but that helped restore a little of the edge he’d lost to surgery. Joe Carry just seemed lost.

“What’s your story?” I asked him quietly. “I followed you to that backstreet earlier. You weren’t there to get a reuben.”

Joe Carry sighed. “Smack, Mac. China White. I’m off the wagon.” He tapped his forearm. “Fur covers the trackmarks.”

Now it all made sense.

Maybe Toby knew what was up as soon as he saw us. Maybe it was the knife in Pierre’s hand. Either way, he took off running, his lanyard flapping with each manic stride as he led us out of the arena.

We gave chase, but it was a struggle. Toby was in his thirties. I was in my fifties. Pierre was a glum bird. Joe Carry was a strung-out six-foot badger carrying a barrel of tools.

“You think this is done?!” shouted a voice from behind. I looked back and saw Frank, his Mohawk profiled against the lights of the arena, his beak flashing red as he passed beneath the streetlamps. A new switchblade glinted in his right hand. I was naïve to think he’d had just one.

Toby dashed through the parking lot and onto the sidewalk, where he caught the first waiting cab.

We piled into the next one, though the cabby seemed none too pleased to have two mascots in the backseat.

“You start discriminating, I’ll report your ass to the Taxicab and For Hire Bureau,” said Joe Carry.

“Follow that cab!” I barked. I looked behind us and saw Frank climbing into his own taxi. We were about to become a caravan of chase through the Big Easy.

Toby’s cabbie drove with abandon, and ours and Frank’s matched him like a good game of HORSE—three cabs accelerating inexplicably into the pedestrian-filled streets of the French Quarter. I clutched a couple twenties to throw at the driver when we disembarked, as I knew we would do so with great urgency.

The squeal of breaks and aerosol of tire rubber announced the end of the motorized portion of our chase. Drunken tourists shouted at us and flung beads as we ran toward the pillared entrance of the famous Café Du Monde. All this for beignets?

Toby clearly knew Du Monde well, and was dexterous to boot. He wound between the tables like water around rocks. Pierre, Joe Carry, and I were less graceful, and even less so when Toby grabbed a freshly served platter of beignets and hurled it at us. I ducked as the platter whizzed past my head, but a powdery beignet grazed my eye, leaving a dusting of powdered sugar on my eyeball and lashes. “Hey!” shouted one of the victims of his beignet theft shortly before she hit me across the chest with a swing of her handbag.

I looked back and saw Frank gaining on us, waving his switchblade overhead like he was Edward Scissorhands signaling for his tab.

Toby took a surprise turn into the kitchen, a hot, tight, bright space that became a scrum on our arrival. It was a dizzying mass of collisions, made particularly dangerous by the presence of vats filled with hot oil.

But Toby knew what he was doing; he grabbed a giant plastic tub of flour and flung its contents behind him. I ducked and covered my eyes, but Pierre wasn’t so lucky.

“I’ve been blinded!” he cried.

Immediately I found my own tub of flour and flung it at Frank’s face, which was wild with bloodlust as he descended upon his prostrate brother. Frank screamed in agony, and I was able to step on his arm and pry from his weakened grip the second switchblade of the day. I folded it up and put it in my pocket as I followed Joe Carry on the chase of Toby.

“Birds in the kitchen!” I heard someone yell behind us. “I’m calling the health department!”

Toby led us out of the restaurant, over the grass and the railroad tracks, all the way down to the waterfront, where the mythic Mississippi flowed brown and slow beneath the sepia glow of the city lights. Toby was already in the water when we arrived, splashing about in his tracksuit.

“Come to shore, Toby!” I shouted. “This isn’t worth it.”

He stopped to tread water and face us. “No!” he shouted back. “I’ll swim to Morgantown.”

Huggins was in Morgantown now, at West Virginia University.

“Technically, it’s possible,” said Joe Carry. “If he doesn’t catch hypothermia and he can swim against the current and the rivers aren’t frozen over. They do connect.”

“If you stay out there, you’re going to catch hypothermia!” I shouted to Toby.

“I feel fine!” he shouted back.

“Ruben was a great defender!” I said, hoping to soften him up a little. And it was true. Ruben was quick, strong, and tenacious.

“Kobe padded his stats against Ruben in garbage time!” shouted Joe Carry. He pounded a fist into the water for emphasis. It sounded like he choked a bit on the resulting splash.

“I don’t doubt it!” I added.

“What do we do now?” asked Joe Carry.

“Wait, I guess,” I looked at Joe Carry. He was far from the self-assured P.I. of yesteryear. While he was still sharp, he seemed jumpy and out-of-sorts. “You really should get clean, Joe Carry.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

“Sorry,” I said. “I meant it as a friend.”

Pierre stumbled beside us, huffing through his slackened beak.

“Can you see okay?” I asked him.

He grunted.

I turned back saw no sign of Frank. I didn’t ask Pierre what had happened.

“Pierre,” said Joe Carry, “you’re a pelican. This is what you do. You’re a bird of prey who swoops into the waters to catch your food. Why don’t you go get Toby?”

“Joe Carry!” I didn’t think I’d hear that kind of nonsense from a mascot P.I.

“I am an entertainer,” said Pierre. “Not a predator. I wish Toby peace.” He stopped to cup his talons around his beak. “I wish you peace, Toby!” he shouted. “I forgive you!”

“What about Anthony?!” replied Toby.

“I can’t speak for him!”

Toby didn’t say anything for a while. He just kept treading water. “I want Anthony to forgive me!” he shouted, finally.

“Well,” said Pierre. “I don’t think you’re going to find his forgiveness in the river!”

I looked at Pierre. The glum bird of just minutes before now stood straight and hopeful. I was reminded of Roy Hibbert.

Toby began his long, slow crawl stroke back to shore.


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