STEPHEN P CARP AND THE CASE OF THE CORAL RUBY
by Nic Foley
The name’s Stephen P Carp. Detective. Hardass. Fish.
I’ve been in the underwater sleuth game for over 20 years. I’ve seen every kind of low-life criminal this ocean has to offer. But every once in a while, it serves up a juicy piece of battered mystery, with a side of fried murder.
That day started like any other. I got out of my fish-bed, put on my fish-coat and fish-hat, and swam outside my fish-apartment. I’m a fish. It was raining. Which was unusual because I live underwater. “Typical”, I said to myself, even though it wasn’t. I put a cigarette in my mouth and lit a match. It went out immediately, due to me being submerged under the sea. I sighed. “Looks like it’s going to be one of those days.” I called a cab and made my way to the office, downtown.
“Carp, you’re late!” I heard, as I entered our little detective office. “That’s the third time this week. If this continues, I’m gonna have to find myself another partner.”
It was the voice of Hank Troutman Jr, a tough fish who had an eye for crime. We’d been detective partners for a long, long time. Almost a week, in fact. If there was one thing I knew about Hank it was that he liked to keep himself to himself. Also, he liked jigsaws.
I poured myself a cup of coffee. “I’ll get here whenever I damn-well please, Hank! I live by my own rules. I’m Stephen P Carp. Detective. Hardass. Fish.”
“We’ve had a call from the mayor.” Hank told me. “She wants to see us at the museum, right now. She’s got a job for us. Don’t blow this one, Carp. I know you’re a hardass..”
“And a fish.” I reminded him.
“…but we need to crack this case. My wife has just laid fifteen thousand eggs and I don’t know if I’m cut out to be a father. The childcare fees alone will be through the roof… I would hypothetically need to steal some kind of expensive jewel just to be able to afford it!”
“I’ll try to keep my hardass-side under control, Hank. Not just for you and your wife’s many eggs, but also for Justice.” Justice was my pet cat. Being a cat and therefore not possessing the ability to breath underwater, he would tend to live on dry-land, and I hadn’t seen him for 37 years. I finished off my coffee and we made our way to the museum.
Mayor Maggie McSalmon met us outside the museum building, which was covered in police tape. The look on her face seemed to say Carp, Hank, good to see you.
“Carp, Hank, good to see you.” She said. “I’ve got a case that needs cracking, and I think you two are just the kind of fish to crack it. This town’s prize possession, the Coral Ruby, was stolen from the museum late last night. We need you to find out who took it, and return it.”
Mayor McSalmon led us through the police tape to the crime scene. “I’ll leave you to it, detectives.” She said. “If you need any help, let minnow.”
“Racist” Hank muttered to himself.
We surveyed the crime scene. Nothing was unusual here except for a conspicuous lack of expensive Ruby. I took a gill-full of thick ocean air. Something smelled fishy. Which was a normal smell …a little too normal, if you ask me. I noticed a strange shape imprinted in the dirt by the exit door.
“Take a look at this, Hank.” I said. “Looks like a size-13 fin-print. You know, like the kind of print a human foot might make in dirt, only via the means of a fish’s fin, rather than a foot.” The words ‘Cod & Son’s Finest Fin Wear’ were still visible in the wet dirt.
“It’s probably nothing.” Hank said, whilst removing his dirty size-13 ‘Cod & Son’s’ fin wear.
This case was not going to be easy.
Hank was reading through the museum’s security files from the night before. “Looks like there were only two people left in the museum at the time of the robbery,” he announced, “the museum curator and a security guard.”
“Well,” I said, “let’s find out what they know.” We made our way upstairs to the curator’s office. I knocked on the door, it slowly creaked open. No one was home.
The place was a mess. I picked up a newspaper that had been left on the office floor and carefully read the headline…
“MUSEUM CURATOR…”, it began. This was a good start. We were looking for the museum curator at right this moment. But there was more of the headline to read, so I continued reading.
“…MISSING.” it concluded. I sighed. Another dead-end.
I noticed a second newspaper on the floor. I examined its headline…
“MUSEUM CURATOR…” – Another good start. We were still looking for a curator and this second newspaper might know where he is. There was still more headline to read.
“…FOUND…” – A breakthrough! With any luck, the rest of the headline would give us his whereabouts, breaking this case wide open.
“…DEAD BENEATH PILE OF NEWSPAPERS IN OFFICE.”
I looked down.
The conveniently prophetic headline was right. There, slumped on the floor in front of me, was the de-boned body of the museum curator. A fish cut down in his prime. The poor thing had been completely battered and then wrapped in newspaper, along with what looked like fried slices of potato. A tiny plastic fork lay nearby. The murder weapon.
“Looks like it’s going to be one of those days” I said to myself. I tried to light another cigarette but was once again foiled by the surrounding ocean.
“I’ll call the station and get a team down here to clean up this mess.” Hank told me, making his way back downstairs.
My head, much like the rest of me, was swimming. Who would do such a barbaric thing to an innocent museum curator? What was the meaning of the fried slices of potato? Also, why did the Mayor make that terrible fish-pun, earlier? That was ridiculous.
So many questions. As my mother always used to say, “Stephen, a question is like an apple and the answers are all grapes, and I am the banana in the fruit bowl of life.” She was a big fan of healthy-eating.
Being a top-notch detective, I detected the crime scene with my detective skills. I noticed an arrow crudely sketched on the floor, drawn in what looked like blood, but was almost certainly ketchup. It was pointing towards a piece of folded paper, a few feet from the body.
I unfolded this mysterious note. It was written on office stationary, but not just any office stationary. Printed at the top of the page were the words “From the desk of Detective Hank Troutman Jr.” I would have found this to be strange, but the handwritten message on the paper read “I was killed by the museum security guard, not by Hank. The security guard stole that expensive ruby thing too. Once again: Hank is innocent, promise.”
Finally, we had a lead.
Hank reappeared in the office doorway. “I called the station. They said they’ll be here in five minutes.”
“We’ve got no time to lose, Hank. We’ve got a murderous, jewel-thief, security guard to catch!” I said. “Also, have you seen the curator’s handwriting on this note? It’s exactly the same as yours! You guys must go to the same calligraphy class!”
Hank just stared at me. His expression seemed to say Wow, you’re an amazing detective, Stephen. And such a hardass.
“I’ll wait here for the clean-up team to arrive.” Hank told me. “You go and find this security guard.”
I found the security guard on his cigarette break, in the alley outside the back entrance of the museum building, a damp cigarette hanging from his guilty mouth. Not to imply that he stole the ruby or murdered the curator using his mouth, just saying that, you know, he looked guilty …and he had a mouth? Oh, forget it.
I casually approached the guard. He had a shifty look about him and I didn’t want to spook him. I had to play it cool.
“Need a light?” I asked, coolly.
“Sure.” He said.
I coolly struck one of my matches on the wet bricks of the museum building’s outer wall. It didn’t light.
“What’s your name, friend?”
“John West Tuna, but people usually call me Westy.”
“Well, Westy, I’d like to ask you a few questions regarding the events that unfolded last night.”
“Did you, you know, steal the Coral Ruby and murder the museum’s curator?” I asked, really casually.
“Look, mate, I ain’t guilty. He told me he’d pay me a small fortune if I told you that I stole that ruby and whatnot. I told him I would, but I really don’t want to get mixed up in all of this mess. I didn’t do it. He did it.”
“What do you mean? Who did it? Who’s this ‘he’ you speak of? Tell me, Tuna!”
“It was Ha…”
At that moment I heard a deep, loud rumbling sound as if a piano was being pushed across a rooftop. Then a sharp, clattering sound, as if a piano was being pushed over an edge. Then a whoosh-ing sound, as if a piano was falling through the air.
I looked up.
“Look out! A piano, Tuna!”
“A piano tuner? Why exactly would I need to ‘look out’ for someone who tunes pianos for a living? That’s probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever…”
And thus, John West Tuna, also known as ‘Westy the shifty museum security guard’, was crushed by a falling piano.
“Looks like it’s going to be one of those days”. I sighed.
I went back to the curators office to tell Hank what I’d witnessed but he was nowhere to be found. I told the cleanup crew – who were currently dealing with the awkwardly limp body of the unfortunate museum curator – that they could also expect to find a squashed security guard in the back alley. The looks on their faces seemed to say Thanks, Carp. Keep up the good work.
So many questions were floating through my mind; Could the late security guard be trusted? If so, who had tried to frame him, before he was unexpectedly caught between the chance meeting of a falling piano and the pavement? And why did the museum keep its piano collection on the roof?
Yet again, I was searching for answers to too many questions. Like my mother always used to say… “Stephen, the truth is like a flying-leg drop: Sometimes you won’t know it until it hits you in the face.” She was also a big fan of pro-wrestling.
I needed to figure things out. And with Hank missing, I had to figure them out alone. I went to the nearest bar and ordered a drink.
“One drink please.” I said to the bartender, who was casually polishing a glass to within an inch of its life.
“Care to be a bit more specific with that request?” He replied, with a tone that seemed to imply that he wanted to hear my entire life-story. I told it to him.
“Well, it all started when I was born…” I began.
An hour or so later, I was approaching the end of my tale. By now, the bartender had polished a hole straight through the glass he was holding, rendering it useless as a vessel for transporting liquids from table to mouth.
“…And that’s everything that’s happened in my life up to this exact moment.” I concluded.
The bartender was frowning at me now, with a look that could have easily been mistaken for anger. “I am angry,” he told me. “and if you don’t either order a drink or get out of my bar, I’m going to get really angry.”
I wasn’t listening to him, though. I was too busy trying to work out who had stolen the ruby from the museum and stolen the lives from two innocent fish in the process.
“Maybe it was the mayor?” I wondered, out loud.
“Are you serious? What’s wrong with you? Can’t you put 2 and 2 together?” Asked the now quite red-in-the-face bartender.
“Sure I can. 2 and 2 …makes crime.” I told him, pretty triumphantly.
“No, I mean, can you actually add the numbers 2 and 2 together?”
I looked at him, blankly. He sighed.
“IT WAS HANK!” He shouted. “IT WAS OBVIOUSLY HANK!”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It was Hank who stole the Coral Ruby. It was Hank who killed that curator guy – probably because the curator was unexpectedly in the museum late at night when he stole the ruby, and he couldn’t leave a witness alive. It was Hank who tried to bribe the security guard in to being a fall-guy, and it was Hank who dropped a piano on the poor guy’s head when he nearly spilled the beans!” The bartender was now visibly shaking in what some could have construed as rage. “How are you not getting any of this? I thought you were a detective!”
“I am a detective, and I think I just solved this crime: It was the Hank!” I told him, even more triumphantly that before. “Hold that drink order, bartender; I have a partner-in-crime to catch! …Meaning that he is my detective partner and that he’s apparently also a criminal, not that we would both commit crimes together, obviously. I mean, I’ve literally only just found out that Hank’s a fan of crime, so I couldn’t possibly be his crime-partner in that respect… Oh, forget it.”
I picked up my fish-hat and fish-coat and left the bar.
The deep-sea air was wet against my face as I made my way up the steps of the detective office of Troutman & Carp. The room was just as I expected it to be, besides a conspicuous lack of one Hank Troutman Jr.
I slumped down in Hank’s desk chair. How could Hank do this? I thought the myself. He always seemed like such a good guy. I glanced over Hank’s desk. I noticed a receipt for a pair of size-13 ‘Cod & Son’s Finest Fin Wear’ – the company slogan clearly visible across the top of the receipt “Perfect for maneuvering pianos across rooftops, or your money back!”
“Hmm.” I said out loud, to myself.
I then noticed, for the first time, his 6 pristine framed collections of tiny plastic forks, each of which were much like the one that was used to kill the Museum Curator. There was one fork missing from the collection.
“Huh.” I continued.
Finally, turning my head slightly to the right, I noticed a picture of Hank and his wife and their fifteen thousand newborns. His wife’s face had been covered with a cut-out photograph of an attractive mackerel. The photograph was stood next to a stack of Hank’s office stationery. On the top of which were printed the words “From the desk of Detective Hank Troutman Jr.”
“Ahh.” I concluded.
All the pieces are finally fitting together. I thought, as I accidentally knocked one of Hank’s completed 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle off the desk. This particular jigsaw seemed to have been depicting an elaborate jewel heist.
I needed to catch Hank. But where would he be? I ignored the jigsaw mess and checked out Hank’s noticeboard for clues.
The noticeboard had a ‘To-Do’ list pinned to it. The list had three items scribbled on it:
– DON’T steal the Coral Ruby.
– DON’T catch the last bus out of town.
– DON’T sell it for loads of money on the black market and live happily-ever-after with attractive mackerel abroad.
“More like a ‘To-DON’T’ list!” I said out loud to myself, chuckling and making a mental note to tell the Mayor about my joke later that day.
The note was obviously some kind of code. A code I had to crack. But how? I heard my mother’s voice in my head…
“Stephen, a code is like a lion-tamer; Sometimes you have to walk the tightrope between the jugglers and the clowns, but you’ll always end up on the trapeze in the end.” She loved the circus, my mother did.
And then, unexpectedly, I heard the bartender’s voice in my head…
“HE’S DOING THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT THE NOTE SAYS! OBVIOUSLY!”
I looked at the clock on our office wall. The last bus out of town was in 2 minutes. I had no time to lose.
I darted out of the office and down the street, just in time to see the last bus drive past. The face of my old buddy Hank zoomed past me in a blur in one of the bus’s rear windows.
It was too late. I had failed.
I hunched myself over on the cold bus stop bench. It was still inexplicably raining. I caught my reflection in a puddle. The face that greeted me was tired and old. The last few hours of non-stop detective-ing had aged me considerably. The realisation that my old pal Hank Troutman Jr was secretly a hardened criminal was taking its toll.
‘How could you do this, Hank?’ I said to the puddle.
I thought about all of the times Hank and I had shared together.
There was that one time, when he took candy from a baby. At first I thought this was odd, but Hank later told me the baby had been in deep water with the mob and had committed several major counts of investment fraud. The candy was taken as evidence. Evidence which Hank then, oddly, consumed.
And then there was that other time, a few years ago, when he told me that he’d once murdered a museum curator and stolen a priceless jewel. That was weird.
Come to think of it, maybe Hank isn’t really a nice guy at all.
My reflection swam in the bus stop puddle. For a long moment, I looked deep in to my own sullen eyes… and then I saw it! A glint, a spark of something that seemed to be the righteous determination of my younger self, shining through in bright orange light. (Only later did I realise it was actually a light reflecting in the puddle from the sign of a passing taxi.)
I rose from that cold, poignant bus stop bench as a new fish. I was going to catch Hank Troutman Jr if it was the last think I’d do. I flagged down a passing taxi and told the driver to ‘step on it’.
‘Care to be a bit more specific with that request?’. The driver replied.
‘Step on the gas’ I explained, ‘and follow that bus!’
We tailed the bus as it made its way casually out towards the city limits. I was starting to think that Hank may have fallen asleep in his seat when the bus pulled up next to an dark alley and my old detective partner appeared and walked shiftily into the darkness.
I got out of my taxi. The driver gave me a look as if to say ‘You haven’t paid me any money, but I understand that what you are doing is far more important than you paying for my services at the moment, so please continue with what you are about to do. I am honoured to have been of service.’ I followed Hank into the shadows.
The darkness didn’t last long. I rounded the first corner and was completely illuminated by a large, bright, neon, flashing sign that read ‘Welcome to the Fabulous Black Market!‘. A smaller sign beneath it held the slogan ‘Home of Murder, Extortion and Sweet Old Nana Mary’s Quaint Haberdashery & Slaughterhouse‘ And an even smaller sign beneath that had a message scrawled on it in angry block letters: ‘NO HARDASS FISH DETECTIVES ALLOWED!‘
I was going to have to watch my back. This part of town worked outside of the law.
The narrow, cobbled street was packed. Each side was lined with make-shift market stalls, manned by every kind of vagabond, trouble-maker and do-no-good-er the city had to offer. They were all selling their illegal wares to each other in loud, competing voices, like a high-street butcher might sell a prime steak to a passing meat-collector.
“Crime! Get your crime here! Best crime in the city! Buy one crime, get one free! For a limited time only!” Boomed one particularly fancy looking jellyfish, as I made my way past his elaborate and obviously mob-funded market stall.
A crab wearing a shabby doctors lab coat and carrying a plastic bag in one of her claws scuttled past me in the opposite direction. “Organs!” she cried, “Get your bodily organs! Get ’em while they’re fresh. Spleens are currently half-price. Best innards in the city.”
I was losing site of Hank in the busy street. I started to push through the crowds. Just as Hank rounded the next corner, my path was blocked by a persistent street seller.
“You there!” he said, “Can I interest you in some concrete shoes, my friend?”
“No thanks” I said, trying to edge around his side.
He moved in front of me again. “Best concrete shoes in the city! One size fits all! Make ’em sleep with the fishes… in style!”
This guy wasn’t going to quit, and Hank was getting away. I had to use all of my sleuth skills to overcome this moment. My years of experience had to be put to work. I had to think fast.
“No thanks” I said.
He now had a sad look in his eyes. A look that seemed to say that his concrete shoes business wasn’t doing very well. Possibly due to the fact that most ocean life doesn’t have a need for concrete shoes, as most ocean life doesn’t have feet. Also, most ocean life can breathe under water.
“Please?” He said.
I had to think even faster.
“No thanks” I said again.
“Ok” he said. He seemed to shrink down as he dejectedly moved to the side to let me pass.
It worked! But celebrating my sleuthing achievement would have to wait. Hank had already completed items one and two of his office ‘To-DON’T’ list and I wasn’t going to let him complete item three. I needed to save the Coral Ruby and bring Hank to justice. (I mean, justice as in the legal concept, not my long estranged pet cat).
I skidded around the next corner and collided with a couple of goons heading into Nana Mary’s. They gave me a loathsome look as they scrambled to collect their dropped knitting needles, button collections and bloodied meat cleavers from the cobbled street. Awkwardly skirting past them, I noticed Hank just ahead of me. He had his arm outstretched, about to hand over the Coral Ruby to what was obviously an antique-dealing mobster in exchange for what can only be described as ‘a lot of money‘.
“Hank Troutman Jr, hold it right there!” I shouted.
Hank looked over with wide-eyes and a look on his face that seemed to say I can’t believe you caught me, Carp! You’re such a cool guy and you dress well, too.
He shoved the antique dealer out of the way before vaulting over a nearby market stall and into a thin, dark alley. An alley that I knew was a dead end. This was it. I’d cornered him.
I headed down the alley, mentally patting myself on the back for doing such great detective work, but when I reached the end, Hank was nowhere to be seen.
I sighed. “Looks like it’s going to be one of those…”
“…Days, Carp?” A voice behind me said. It was a familiar voice. A voice with a certain Hank-ish quality to it.
Something very sharp was being pressed hard against my back.
“So, you figured it all out, didn’t you, Carp? Cracked this case wide open, haven’t you?”
Whoever this was behind me, they certainly meant business. I had to think fast. “…no?”
“Do you think I’ve come this far to let a half-wit detective like you stop me now? Do you think I’m going to just let you take the Coral Ruby from me and ruin my life?”
Now I was almost certain that the person behind me was in fact Hank. Like, 95% sure of it.
I had to think even faster “…erm …no?”
“I can’t let you do that, Carp. This is the end for you. Say goodnight, old partner.”
I span around to face Hank and darted backwards as he lunged at me with the sharp thing. The sharp thing, as it turns out, was a sharpened fishbone. Later, I would be informed that the fishbone was previously owned by the now boneless museum curator.
“A fishbone, Hank? That’s barbaric! I could easily choke on that!”
Thankfully though, choking on a fishbone was not on the agenda for me that day.
I was literally just about to do something amazing to stop Hank once and for all, when a hand came out of the darkness behind Hank. A hand holding a beer glass. A beer glass that looked like it had be polished to within an inch of its life. The mysterious hand brought the glass down on top of Hank’s head, knocking him out cold.
The glass-wielding figure became clearer in the dim light. It was a barman. The same barman who had wanted to hear my entire life story, earlier.
“Last orders.” He said, triumphantly.
This didn’t really make sense as a kind of verbal tag line to the act of taking down Hank with the glass, but I let it go. This guy had just saved my life, after all.
“I knew you’d land yourself in some serious trouble sooner or later, detective.” He said. “So I followed you down here. Lucky for you, I also brought this glass.” He gave me a look that seemed to say I couldn’t have done it without you, Carp. You truly are amazing. Now, please recite the number ‘Pi’ to 1000 decimal places.
Lucky for him, I could in fact recite Pi to 1000 decimal places. Did I not mention to you that I can do that? Well, I can. So I did. He left not longer after I started.
Not long after I’d reached the 1000 digit of Pi, the police, the press, and Mayor McSalmon herself all turned up. Hank Troutman Jr was fin-cuffed and hauled into a police van.
“Looks like he was the catch of the day” the Mayor said, with a huge grin on her face.
“Yes.” I said. I then told her about that ‘To-DON’T joke I’d made earlier. She rolled her eyes. I took this to mean that my joke was so good that it briefly loosened her retinal muscles, causing an inadvertent eye-rolling motion.
Mayor McSalmon reached into her coat pocket and brought out a folded newspaper. She handed it to me.
“Congratulations, Carp” she said “You’ve made the front page!”
I unfolded the newspaper and read the headline.
MIDDLE EASTERN FISH-CRYOGENICS PROFESSOR CAUGHT BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLAICE
“But this has nothing to do with me…” I said.
“No, not the main headline, down there!”
I followed the Mayor’s gaze down to a tiny box in the bottom corner of the page. It read:
LOCAL DETECTIVE BARELY SOLVES OBVIOUS CRIME
I made front page news! This was a proud moment in the life of me, Stephen P. Carp. Detective. Hardass. Fish.
“Looks like it’s going to be one of those days!” I exclaimed, happily. It was now approaching 11:05pm.
The mayor’s chauffeur-driven car pulled up nearby and the mayor headed towards it. She went to get in to the back seat, but not before turning back to me with a look on her face that seemed to say You are utterly invaluable to this town, Carp. Never change.
“Do you know why I came all the way down here just to give you this newspaper, Carp?” She said.
“No” I said. “Why?”
“Just for the halibut.”