DEDICATION

This book is dedicated to my father, Jim Clark, the “absent-minded professor/inventor,” my three wonderful brothers and to the special friend who first suggested I write a mystery story.

INSPIRATION

“I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed I suppose.”

– P.G. Wodehouse

“Logic will take you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere.”

– Albert Einstein

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and take as many people with us as we can.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien

TITLE

Action Men with Silly Putty:
A Jack Donegal Mystery

By Susan Joy Clark

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1 – Toy Men, Threatening Thugs and a Teddy Bear

Chapter 2 – Bocca Della Verita, The Mouth of Truth

Chapter 3 – Our Hero Makes Use of a Photo Booth

Chapter 4 – We Pursue Thugs, Armed with a Strange Weapon

Chapter 5 – We Become Spies at the Expense of My Dignity

Chapter 6 – Picasso Was a Playa

Chapter 7 – Music as Psychological Warfare and the Most Esoteric Security Code Imaginable

Chapter 8 – A Doubly Alarming Incident and Our Continued Investigation

Chapter 9 – We Make a New Friend (Or Foe)

Chapter 10 – Mr. Geek Chic and I Investigate at the Fashion Institute of Technology

Chapter 11 – I Scoot My Boot Right Into Trouble

Chapter 12 – “You Are No Match for Jack the Techno-Freak!”

Chapter 13 – Finding the Missing Link (And a Hopalong Cassidy Holster)

Chapter 14 – When Geeks Go To the Dark Side

Chapter 15 – We Discuss Viking Metal, Wagner, Looney Tunes, Cults and Computer Hacking Over Tacos

Chapter 16 – The Master of the Esoteric Password

Chapter 17 – The First Ever Door to Door Robotics Salesmen in the History of the Universe

Chapter 18 – A Little Bit of Jacqueline, a Little Bit of Françoise, But Where is Venus?

Chapter 19 – Venus Opens the Door

Chapter 20 – Hometown Heroes Celebrate in Style

About the Author

CHAPTER 1

TOY MEN, THREATENING THUGS AND A TEDDY BEAR

“Two thousand? Do I hear two thousand?” The gavel pounded a staccato punch. “Sold to the man in the back with the blue fedora!”

And so, that’s how our adventure started. I didn’t expect an adventure. The auction sale seemed rather dull – I’m not especially interested in antiques — my chair was surprisingly hard, and I was starting to feel the California sun burning the back of my neck.

Let me introduce myself. I am Andy Westin, marketing manager for Out of the Box Toy Design. That $2000 purchase was a 1915 Steiff teddy bear, and the “man in the blue fedora” was Jack Donegal, my boss, president and founder of the company. We had traveled to California to participate in the San Francisco toy fair, and the auction was Jack’s notion of some side entertainment.

It’s true, you might not expect most 40-year-old men to be very interested in a 1915 teddy bear, but Jack is not most men. His purchase wasn’t quite so strange when you consider that he is in the toy industry. He is as interested in history as he is in the futuristic possibility of technology. He also has a predisposition for fuzzy creatures like his beagle, George, currently under the care of his neighbor, Ellen Danforth.

The estate which held the auction had been owned by the late Georgina Elwood, California wine heiress, a recluse known to be eccentric and interested in extravagant collections of various kinds. Jack could come off as a bit of an eccentric himself, but I had learned that, like many of the great inventors of the past, his great brain came hand in hand with some peculiarities. He wore two-toned wingtip shoes he’d bought for swing dancing, a trench coat that was lumpy in the pockets with what he called “unnecessary necessaries” and a fedora which gave him the look like he had stepped out from a piece of 1940’s literature or maybe a movie, one involving a Mobster or a detective.

Jack began walking slowly away from the auction grounds with bear and, absentmindedly, with paddle in hand, staring off into the distance. I knew that he was lost in his own thoughts, probably on some invention of his. The gears were always turning in his brain. I had learned not to underestimate him, that just when he is staring into nothingness and looking like some sort of dopey fish, that is just when the most brilliant idea is about to strike.

Jack is far from stupid. He can speak to me in great technical detail about his projects until my eyes glaze over, and I am dreaming of disco fries smothered in cheese and gravy – I enjoy disco fries – his words hovering somewhere in the stratosphere above my head.

Jack’s brain liked to think in the abstract, but when it came to practical details, he had no sense of time management… or time. He had tried many things to help his weakness, programming his phone to alert him with obnoxious alarms at critical times. I am a different sort, and organization is my natural state, so Jack would often rely on me for the practical things. So, between the two of us, with his ability for the abstract and mine for the concrete, we make more of a complete man.

Even though I hated to interrupt his private thoughts, I told him, “Jack, I think they expect us to return those paddles.”

He turned to me and said, “You’re right. And I almost left with an extra souvenir. Would you return it for me?”

“Sure,” I said, taking it from him.

“Why don’t you take the bear and put him in your bag?” Jack asked me. “You never know when it might rain.”

I was carrying a bag with our company logo, Out of the Box Toy Design, printed in the Joker font with a jack in the box, a pun on Jack’s own name. I took the bear and put him in the bag, and went off to return our auction paddles. My left wrist started vibrating.

I looked down at my vibrating wrist. I’d almost forgotten I was still wearing a model of Jack’s Spy Communicator Watch. It seemed a little short of the dignity of my current setting. It was large and, in both colors and material, reminded me of the Swatch watches popular in my youth. Jack had designed watch communicator toys that were several steps up from the cheap Cracker Jack decoder rings of my childhood.

Now, mine was vibrating and blinking a series of digits across its face, 851216. My watch had decoding features, but I had memorized this particular word in this particular simple kid-friendly code. It was “Help,” each number from one to 26 corresponding with a letter in its proper sequence. It was an easy one to remember, 8-5-12-16.

I scanned the crowd for Jack, feeling a bit annoyed. “Help! Help what?” Wasn’t that what I was doing already, helping? Did he need help locating a restroom? Did his shoelaces come untied? Did he have a sudden orange creamsicle craving emergency? I sighed. It was ridiculously hot out here. I was in danger of my skin turning the color of my hair.

I tried messaging “What?” back to him, but I hadn’t quite learned how to use the thing properly. When I heard police car sirens, I gave up and started weaving through the crowd towards him.

I looked back and spotted his fedora among the crowd. I made my way back to him.

“Andy, you won’t believe it,” said Jack. “I’ve been threatened by two thugs with a knife.”

“Only threatened?” I asked, looking him up and down and relieved to see no gaping wounds. “Where are they now?”

“They fled,” said Jack.

“What did they want from you? Money?” I asked. “Were they corporate spies from Bandai after your plans for the DROOG robot?” I was only half kidding with the last statement.

“Well, I don’t know,” said Jack. “They seemed to mistake me for someone else, a Dalton Starks. I’ll tell you the story…”

We continued along the red brick driveway that wound down to the street below. Jack proceeded to tell me the story as we made our way from the driveway down to the street. Jack said, “Two men approached me as I was standing here. One man, a tall dark-haired man in sunglasses, came over to my right side and said to me, ‘Dalton Starks?’ in a way that didn’t seem too friendly. I said to him, ‘You have the wrong guy.’ ‘Likely story,’ said the guy on my left to his friend. Then he said to me, ‘Aren’t you one of Brad Dorsey’s men?’ ‘Look, I don’t know what you are talking about,’ I said to him. The one man turned to the other and said something to him in another language. Then, the guy on my left turned back to me and pulled out a knife.”

Jack turned to me, thrusting his right hand at me, demonstrating how the man had held the knife to him. “More on the knife later. He pointed it right at my gut. ‘We know you have them. Where are they?’ he asked. I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m not who you think I am.’ ‘Come with us,’ he told me. The guy on my left grabbed my elbow. I said, ‘Why in the world would I do that? If you’re going to stab me, I’d rather you stab me out here in the crowd with all these people,’” Jack turned to me with an intense look and a raised eyebrow.

Noting already that Jack had no bloody gash anywhere, I assumed he made a good move. “No kidding?” I said.

Jack continued, “Meanwhile, I secretly messaged you from the Spy Communicator watch.”

I put my hand in my pocket, and the men seemed to assume I was reaching for a weapon. This Dalton Starks must be a formidable guy. The man on my left grabbed my wrist to seize what he thought was a weapon. The fire engine with siren blaring came down the street just then. It turns out that a woman on the grounds had fainted from heat exhaustion, and an ambulance responded. This seemed to make the thugs nervous at first, and they kept looking over their shoulders in that direction, but seeing the emergency response was unrelated and at a bit of a distance, they relaxed. I kept watching out, however, and when I noticed a police officer at the scene, I called out and flagged him over. That’s when the two fled. The police officer took after them on foot, but they had a bit of a head start.”

“Wow,” I said, imagining a police officer running in this great heat. “I hope the cop isn’t the next person to suffer from heat exhaustion.”

“Well,” said Jack, smiling. “Let’s just hope the bad guys succumb first.”

“It looks like your failure to cooperate with their threat unnerved them,” I said. “It was fortunate that the police officer showed up when he did.”

“Providential,” said Jack, “not fortunate.”

I let the comment pass. “You were going to tell me more about the knife.”

“The knife was interesting. It had a short blade and a highly decorated handle,” said Jack, calling it something like a skeen doo.

I shook my head. It always amazed me that Jack was an encyclopedia of obscure facts. “A skeen doo hickey?”

“A skeen doo, s-g-i-a-n space d-u-b-h, skeen doo,” said Jack to me, spelling it out like he was a kid again at a spelling bee.

“Strange spelling. Sgian dubh. What is it?” I asked him.

Jack told me, “It’s a traditional Scottish knife worn in the sock while wearing a kilt.”

That brought up a rather bizarre mental picture. I gave Jack a funny look. “The men weren’t wearing kilts, were they?” I asked. It was hard for me to imagine two tough bad guys in plaid skirts and knee socks. I couldn’t imagine why any man would voluntarily wear a kilt, national pride notwithstanding.

“No,” said Jack. “They were wearing pants. I would guess the man is a weapons collector.”

We hailed a taxi at the bottom of the hill.

“What’s next on the agenda, Andy?” Jack asked me.

I looked at my iPhone and accessed the agenda calendar. “Next on the agenda…a visit to the Musée Mecanique at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.”

“Ah…the Musée Mecanique,” said Jack. “A toy man’s inspiration. We’ll have a fun afternoon, won’t we, Andy? In spite of those thugs.”

I understood his feelings. We were flying home to New Jersey the next day, and I was glad we had some fun on the horizon. Of course, in our line of work, work and play were fairly well intermingled.

I directed the taxi driver to Musée Mecanique at Fisherman’s Wharf, and then, turning to Jack, I said, “You said the knife was decorated. What did it look like?” I asked him.

“I can draw you a picture,” said Jack. “It was silver with Celtic knotwork. Also, worked into the handle, was a crest with a symbol called a Thor’s hammer and some Futhark runes.”

“Some Futhark… Excuse me? Or excuse you, whichever the case may be.”

“Futhark runes, the oldest runic alphabet.”

“Ah. And you know this because?”

“Oh, just one of my little hobbies. Don’t you have any hobbies, Andy?”

I stared at him in disbelief. He was probably secretly fluent in Elvish and Vulcan as well. “Oh, I have hobbies,” I said. “I play racquetball sometimes. I … I…”

“You made me that keychain with the jigsaw once.”

“Yes, yes, I did that,” I said, feeling slightly affirmed.

Jack gazed off into the distance for a moment and then turned to me. “There is one more interesting detail. After they exchanged words in the strange language, the first man raised his sunglasses as if to look at me better. He had one bright blue and one deep brown eye.”

I started to whistle “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” It wasn’t my favorite song in the world as I’m not too fond of getting looped up and seeing pink elephants or walruses with egg men or whatever it is you’re supposed to see while under the influence, but it was that line “the girl with the kaleidoscope eyes.” It seemed fitting.

“Heterochromia iridum,” said Jack. Here he was with his obscure encyclopedia facts again. I wondered what it would be like to play against him in Cranium or Trivial Pursuit. He probably had all the cards memorized. “A rare genetic condition. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed in dogs before but never in humans.”

He was right. I remember seeing a sheepdog once with two differently colored eyes.

Jack pulled out a notebook and attempted to draw the knife he had seen. Jack is skilled at drawing either with pencil or with computer, and sketches out his own toy designs; however, the rough motion of the taxi with sudden stops and turns interfered with his usual adroitness. While he was attempting to draw the intricate design, the taxi made a tight, rapid and sudden left turn, smashing me into the door. When his pencil continued past the edge of the notebook and nearly stabbed me in the side, he called it quits.

“Well, I can play back the interaction with the two men on the pathway,” Jack told me.

“Play it back, how?” I asked.

He pulled back his coat sleeve a little bit, revealing his own Spy Communicator watch. I had almost forgotten that it also had an audio recording feature.

You recorded the whole thing?” I imagined Maxwell Smart deliberately speaking into his watch with all the discretion of a man in neon camos, but assumed Jack must have kept a lower profile.

“Well, actually, I wanted to try it out in an atmosphere outside of the lab, before we went into production anyway,” he told me.

“If we are going to play it back, shouldn’t we be using the Cone of Silence?” I said, eying the back of the taxi driver’s head. I doubted very much the taxi driver was a secret agent for KAOS, but in a modern paraphrase of a line by a classic American writer, I am too fond of TV, and it has addled my brain.

Jack played the recording to me, and it sounded very much the way he had remembered it. Their voices had foreign accents, something Eastern European, Russian perhaps.

“Somewhere,” said Jack, fishing in a pocket of his trench coat, “I have a handheld gadget that translates 40 different languages. It has voice recognition. If we can play the clip into the translator…”

He pulled out a Charms pop and handed it to me. He pulled out a second Charms pop, a plastic cowboy and Indian we’d picked up as freebies at the toy convention and a musical bouncy ball in our own toy line. I tried holding on to the awkward conglomeration of objects. I caught the ball before it went ricocheting off every surface in the taxi while playing the “Rubber Ball” song. The last thing we needed was for the taxi driver to have a full blown panic attack.

Jack’s coat was like the coat you’d expect to see on David Copperfield — the magician, not the Dickens character. I half expected to see an endless rope of rainbow-colored handkerchiefs, a dove and a rabbit appear out of his pocket. Jack pulled out a GPS device, some extra batteries and then finally, the language translator. This particular trench coat had two breast pockets, two side hip pockets and some hidden interior pockets, and they were all, as far as I could see, filled to overflowing.

From the recorder watch, Jack captured the line where they spoke to each other in the unknown language. It was this, “Pogled na prstima. On ima ruka Starks. On mora da ga bude. On nosi ijegov prsten.”

“It recognizes the language as Serbo-Croatian,” said Jack.

“Well, that would make our suspects Serbian,” I said, “Or would it make them Croatian?”

“Could be either one,” said Jack. “But these men seemed more Serbian in appearance, with a bit of color to their skin. The one wielding the knife had light hair but black eyes, and the one with two differently colored eyes had very dark hair.”

I looked down at the skin on my own arm. A person didn’t need to be very dark to be darker than me. If I was any paler, I’d be transparent. The California sun had done little to change that, since it was necessary to coat myself in sunscreen. I had three ranges of color: white and freckled, more freckled and boiled lobster.

“Croatians are fairer and tend to be blonde and blue-eyed,” said Jack.

“Well, maybe your guy with the knife was Croatian, and your guy with the one blue eye and one brown eye is undecided,” I said.

The translator not only translated the message into English. It also spoke it. “Look at his fingers. He has the hands of Starks. He must be him. He wears his ring.”

I then turned my attention to Jack’s hands. They were long and skinny, what some people call piano hands. He did wear a ring, not a wedding ring, but a club ring from college. Jack looked at his ring too and gave it a twist.

Jack had a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, though perhaps Jack’s more impressive degree came from the other institute of technology, MIT. Jack’s degree from FIT was not in fashion design – that would be ironic, considering the man preferred his ties covered in cartoon characters — but in toy design. His great imagination and artistic skill had compelled him to participate in the Comic Book Club. Jack wore, believe it or not, a Comic Book Club ring. I guessed that was not as embarrassing as going to conventions in full Superman gear, cape, tights, leotard and all, though, privately, I like Superman as well as the next guy. The fact that there were two such geeks, that is to say, talented geniuses, wandering around on the earth was a revelation to me. Moments earlier, my mind had grappled with the idea of kilted criminals, and now, my mind had a still stranger concept to wrestle with, a fanboy turned supervillain.

Jack put the language translator and other paraphernalia back in his pockets. “Andy, I’m missing something,” he said. He began to pull things out again, including a couple of Charms lollipops.

“How can you tell?” I said, laughing. “Are you missing the blue raspberry flavor? That’s my personal favorite.”

“Andy, no, this is serious. I’m missing something important.”

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

I hate to admit it, but, at this point, I wasn’t considering his worry too seriously. This was coming from a man who, just hours earlier, was searching confusedly for the sunglasses propped on the top of his own head. Jack is a genius – I have no doubt about that – but he could also be selectively dopey when his mind was working hard along a certain track. He was in good company with the greats. I had read once that the great writer G.K. Chesterton tried to order a cup of coffee at a train station ticket window and that Albert Einstein, a genius in math, had once given the wrong change to a bus driver.

Jack started unloading his pockets again and piling objects onto the seat between us: a pocket electronic Sudoku puzzler, a Nano Pet that surely must be dead from neglect, a flash drive in the form of a Superman figure and a cord for recharging his devices. Jack was every mugger’s dream. He was a veritable walking Radio Shack.

Returning to the thread of our previous conversation, I said, “Well, if it’s true that this Starks has a ring just exactly like yours, that does narrow it down a bit. How many Dalton Starkses have there been in the history of FIT at the Comic Book Club? The Alumni Association might help us locate him,” I told Jack.

Jack sighed and returned his gadgetry to his pockets. “That is, assuming he doesn’t mind being located,” he said.

“I wonder,” I said to Jack, “how well did they see your ring? There are all types of club rings: Masons, Rotarians, fraternities…”

Jack had begun flipping through the auction catalog. “I’m looking to see if there’s a section for weapons,” he said.

“Do you think it’s likely that an elderly spinster would be collecting weapons?” I asked him. Like the estate owner, I have a spinster aunt, and I would be pretty shocked if one day I visited her, and she had a couple of crossed battle axes over her doorway. It would more likely be something froufrou with a big bow on it.

Jack’s face sank, and I could see I’d made my point, but he continued flipping through the book.