Authors: John Swartzwelder
Tags: #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Private Investigators, #Mystery & Detective, #Humorous
The Exploding Detective
Frank Burly 3
I suppose the
first thing I should do is apologize for the billions of dead. And that I do.
Humbly. And sincerely. When a man has done something wrong, I feel, it’s that
man’s duty to own up to it. And I do. I’d apologize more fully, but I’m falling
off a cliff right now.
They say a human
body can’t fall at more than 120 miles per hour, but that’s because they’ve
never met me. Of course, I had a jet pack on my back. And rockets.
This was my first
test run with some new equipment I’d just bought, and so far it wasn’t working
out as well as the advertisements had promised. Instead of streaking through
the sky like a bolt of lightning, I was whistling down the side of a cliff like
a sack of cement.
The ground was
coming up at me pretty fast, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that the
ground was more afraid of me than I was of it. I read that in an article
somewhere. But I was still worried. There were boulders down there too. And
boulders aren’t afraid of anything. (Same article.) The good news was that this
all might be just a dream. The bad news was that of course it wasn’t.
It pays to stay
calm in these kinds of situations. Ask any test pilot. You’re supposed to just
relax, take it easy, calmly access your situation, then come up with the right
answer. Right now. Really fast. It’s that easy. I calmly ran down a mental
checklist of all the things I needed to do in the next eight seconds. The first
thing on the list was to try to cut down my speed somehow, because my nose was
starting to burn like a blow torch as I approached Mach 1. I figured the
quickest way to slow down would be to take off my jet pack and throw it away.
So I started undoing the straps.
I managed to get
the first strap loose – and I know what you’re thinking: he’s half way there –
but the loose strap caused the jet pack to slide over to one side and begin
propelling me in a different direction, away from the ground, which I was just
about to hit, and towards a riverbank full of alligators and African natives
with spears. The fact that the spears were made of rubber, and the alligators
were members of the Screen Actors Guild and were at that moment arguing with
the director over the sound an alligator makes, didn’t make them any less
frightening. Avoiding the alligators now moved to the top of my list of things
The jet pack had
slid down to the small of my back by now and there was no way I could reach
back there and switch off the engine. I tried anyway, twisting myself around
just enough to destabilize the whole machine. I spun around in a circle, then
shot straight up into the sky. Then I roared back down at the alligators again,
causing several of them to faint, and one of them to walk off the picture.
For the next
twenty minutes my flight path gyrated wildly, from the ground to the clouds
then back towards the ground again. One minute I would be banging on the
passenger window of an airliner motioning for some old lady to let me in, the
next I would be half flying, half running, over the rapids of the Central City
River, dragging fishing poles and determined fishermen behind me. I guess I
must have been quite a sight. Everywhere I flew I kept hearing: “Now I’ve seen
everything!” and then a gunshot.
Finally I managed
to reach the throttle control on the jet pack and shut the engine down. I was
only a few feet off the ground at this point, so I dug my heels into the dirt
to try to slow myself down, somehow managing to dislodge a huge rock, which
began rolling after me.
I started to run,
with the rock right behind me and gaining fast. At the last moment, I managed
to avoid it by diving into a pit. A pit full of rocks! I screamed and screamed
While all this
was going on, an unusual crime was taking place in Central City’s industrial
people with blank expressions on their faces were breaking into warehouses and
chemical plants, ignoring the money and other valuables they found and,
instead, hauling out dyes, pigments, polyvinylchloride, Styrofoam, chemical
abrasives, and corrugated cardboard. They didn’t seem to mind that a large
crowd of people had gathered to watch them, or that half the Central City
police force was shooting at them. They just kept stealing.
bullets didn’t seem to have any effect on the robbers at all. They just bounced
off them. A few onlookers borrowed the policemen’s guns to take a crack at it
themselves, but they couldn’t do any better. There seemed to be no stopping
these strange thieves.
would stop on their own accord, adopt a listening attitude, then change
direction and begin loading other items onto their trucks. The police stood by
picking their noses helplessly, while the crowd pressed closer, picking their
noses with interest.
Just when the
strange criminals were loading up the last of the trucks, I crashed into the
middle of the street from twenty thousand feet. I had finished my disastrous
test flight and was on my disastrous way home. The startled criminals
scattered, leaving their booty behind, and the police took off after them, baying
I was pretty
badly smashed up, and my clothes were covered with all kinds of debris from my
flight: bits of broken tree branches, fishing poles, “No Trespassing” signs, a
couple of monkeys from the zoo, and some library books. I looked like an old
dumpster someone had set on fire.
resentment of my intrusion changed quickly to interest when they realized how
horrific my crash was, and how badly I was hurt. I wasn’t as interesting as the
crime they had been witnessing, but I was something. Everyone crowded around.
Some even resumed picking their noses.
“Don’t move him,”
cautioned one member of the crowd.
“I thought you
were supposed to move them,” said another.
“Well, don’t move
him too far, that’s my point.”
When I had
regained consciousness, and they had finally stopped moving me - I was 150
yards away by then - they asked who I was and what my dramatic entrance was all
about. That was my cue. I started fishing charred business cards out of my
smoldering pockets and handing them around.
proclaimed that I was “THE FLYING DETECTIVE.” They were actually just my
regular cards that say “DETECTIVE.” I had written “THE FLYING” in with a
pencil. No point in throwing away all those old cards I had.
I was starting to
interest the crowd very much. Not only was I severely hurt, and might die, but
I appeared to be some kind of super hero. There had never been any super heroes
in our town before. They didn’t know why. There just hadn’t. They plied me with
questions. What powers did I have? Super heroes, as they understood it, had
special powers. What did I have going for me?
I informed them
that I was not a super hero. But I was the next best thing. I was a licensed
private detective - with a difference. The difference being that I was
jet-propelled. That meant I could solve their cases for them at supersonic
speed, so there would be less waiting. And at a bargain price, so they’d have
some money left.
“Aren’t you that
Frank Burly who works over on Third Avenue?” someone asked me. “That guy nobody
“Well, yes and
no,” I told him. I was Frank Burly, of course, but I was under the impression
that a lot of people liked me. That I was quite popular. So the answer had to
be “yes and no” there.
The crowd was
beginning to lose interest in me now. They had thought I might be some kind of
superhuman being. Apparently I wasn’t. I was just an ordinary human, the same
as you and me. They had seen people like you and me before. Lots of times. A
few people started to drift away and look for a different crowd to be in, one
that had found something more interesting.
One guy was still
a little interested in me. He examined my card again, then raised his hand. “I
don’t like my neighbor. Can you get rid of him for me?”
A guy on the
other side of the crowd looked at him in horror. “Hey, I’m your neighbor.”
The first guy
glanced at his neighbor, then looked back at me. “I was thinking maybe you
could vaporize him with your eyeballs or something.”
Fred…” began the neighbor.
I told the man
that The Flying Detective would be glad to look into his problem for him,
though his vaporizing idea was out. I had no super powers. I thought I had just
made that clear. But something could probably be done. Just call the number on
the card and we could set up an appointment.
Then I prepared
to make my dramatic exit, blasting off into the unknown, from whence I came.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my jet pack going. One of the crash landings I
had made on the way to this crash landing must have dinged up something
important. I kicked it, to see if that would do anything. It did. It started a
fuel leak in the engine and a small fire on one of my legs. I kicked it again.
More leaks. More leg fires.
I got out my tool
kit and started fiddling with the engine. Some of the more handy guys in the
crowd tried to give me pointers, but I told them to just let me do it. I can do
it. Just melt back into the crowd and leave this to me.
a half hour had gone by with no more talking, just hammering, cursing, and
wrenching, the crowd began to disperse. An hour later so did I. I never could
get the damn thing going, so I had to walk home. It wasn’t a very good
advertisement for how fast I was.
talent has to have a gimmick. It had taken me a long time to learn that. I had
spent my entire career watching detectives around me becoming rich and famous
and internationally respected, while I had trouble making my rent each month.
And all because the other detectives had talent and I had none. It didn’t seem
fair to me.
Maybe, I thought,
this was something the government should fix, the way they fix everything else.
I sent a letter to them suggesting this, and they said they’d get right on it.
And while they were working on it, they suggested, I could pass the time by
voting for them. But the months went by and the problem wasn’t fixed. Then, not
long before the epic first flight you have just read about, I stumbled on the
answer to my problem. I found the perfect gimmick. A gimmick that would propel
me to the top of my profession at 800 miles per hour. A jet pack.
I found it in the
back of a copy of 2
Detective Stories magazine, which I was reading in the hopes of picking up some
rate professional tips. It
was an old Himmelbitter (“Heaven Biter”) Mark 2 that had been built during the
fading moments of World War II - built with a very specific purpose in mind.
In early 1945,
the advertisement breathlessly revealed, the Nazis were starting to have
premonitions of their own deaths as the Allied army got closer, so they began
making preparations to go to Heaven and take it over. They planned to take out
St. Peter with long range atomic cannons, blast open The Pearly Gates with
gelignite, then swarm through the clouds with jet packs, running down the
angels and forcing them to work for their new German-speaking “Creators.” The
ad didn’t say whether their plan worked out or not, but I’m guessing it didn’t.
My prayers aren’t answered very often, but when they are it isn’t in German.
The Heaven Biter
that was for sale had been completely rebuilt, the ad said, and was guaranteed
to “Fly Faster Than The Angels,” a claim which took on an ominous tone when you
knew the whole story. Still, you like to have guarantees for things like this.
When the jet pack
arrived I was amazed at how heavy it was for how small it was. They really knew
how to build ‘em in those days. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe that’s why it was
heavier. Maybe if they’d known how to build it, it wouldn’t have been so heavy.
thrust during takeoff, I added a couple of small rockets I found in a women’s
fashion magazine. That was bad ad placement, it seemed to me. Still, they got
their sale. So I guess they knew what they were doing. I guess that’s why
they’re in the advertising business and I’m not.
My first test of
the jet pack didn’t work out very well, as you have just read, so I decided to
do a little practicing before I launched myself into the public eye again. The
public expects professionals to know how to use their equipment. You don’t
expect dentists, for example, to be torn to shreds by their own drills or
smothered by their own smocks, or baseball players to get caught in their own
mitts. You expect them to know how to use their equipment properly. Same thing
with flying detectives and their equipment.