Ten thousand dollars.
Ned felt like he was holding a handful of Monopoly money, rather than real cash. He stared at his hands in disbelief.
“Told you this would be worth your while,” said Emerson Cod, the private investigator who had recently enlisted the Pie Maker’s help in clearing the name of a dog named Cantaloupe. He took a bite of apple crumble as Ned looked over his cut of the case.
“Ten thousand dollars…” Ned said, still looking down at his hands. He was silent for a few more moments.
Emerson spoke up. “You alright there, Pie Maker?”
Ned nodded. “More than alright.” A grin spread over his face. “This - this is enough to pay my apartment rent for at least a year! Or make payments on this place… My student loans… A new oven!” Ned was practically vibrating with excitement.
Emerson allowed a small smile to creep onto his face. This was a whole new side of the Pie Maker that he’d never seen before. Quiet conversations in Pie Hole booths and professional facades in front of police officers and the coroner had nothing on the ecstatic man that sat on the stool beside him now.
“Back rent for the apartment... this on the restaurant loan…” Ned muttered, spreading his handful of $500 bills on the counter in front of him. “And the culinary school loans…”
Emerson’s amused smile turned into a frown. This guy was at least ten years younger than him, and was deeper in debt than Emerson ever had been. He almost felt bad for the Pie Maker.
Ned whispered to himself for a little while longer, flicking through his take from the case. Eventually, he stacked it all into a neat pile and looked at the PI sitting on the stool beside him.
“This is… Wow. Thank you, Emerson.”
Emerson shifted uncomfortably. “No need to thank me, Pie Boy. You’re the one with the magic finger.”
“Well, still. This is…”
“There’s more where that came from, if you and I make this more than a one-time thing,” said Emerson. He didn’t love the idea of splitting his rewards with someone else, but when that someone else could literally ask the victims in his cases who their killers were, well. He could make an exception.
The Pie Maker, on the other hand, looked unsure. “I don’t know… this seems kind of dishonest, don’t you think? Something feels wrong about this.”
Emerson stared at him. “Come on, Pie Boy. You have a gift - you might as well use it for something good, like catching killers. I mean, it don’t get much more benevolent than that. And if you make a little cash on the side, that’s just icing on the cake. Or pie.”
“Icing doesn’t go on pies.”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
Ned groaned, looking apprehensive.
Emerson sighed. “Listen. You got room in your calculations for a celebratory dinner tonight?”
The Pie Maker looked down at his stack of cash. “I think so.”
“Then let’s talk more about this later. Preferably over a couple of juicy, tender, thirty-dollar steaks.” Emerson grinned at the thought.
Ned did not. “I’m a vegetarian.”
Emerson’s face fell. “Oh.” Then his eyes widened. “Oh.”
At six forty-five, Ned headed downstairs from his apartment and got into his car. He smiled a little as he cranked it and drove away - to think that if he’d left another month’s rent unpaid, and he’d have been sleeping in here instead of his apartment. And now - ten thousand dollars…! He felt guilty somehow, like using his power to get money was cheating, but on the other hand, the extra cash lining his wallet was going to be his saving grace when the end of the month bills came around. A little more money from a few more cases could go a long way...
He pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant Emerson had mentioned and took a deep breath. It had been a while since he’d been anywhere this nice, and he spent a few minutes trying to fix his hair in the rearview mirror before getting out of his car.
“Hey there, Pie Boy,” came a voice from just a few feet away. Ned yelped.
“Whoa! Emerson! Where did you come from?”
Emerson pointed. “Right there.” Sure enough, his white Lincoln was parked a few spaces away from Ned’s car. “If you’re done with your hair, we can go inside.”
Ned blushed and combed his fingers through his hair self-consciously one more time. “Okay. Let’s go.”
The two went inside and got seated, and ordered soon afterward. Emerson didn’t even need to open the menu, already certain of what he wanted: medium-rare porterhouse and sweet potato fries. Ned ordered a pasta dish off the vegetarian menu, reminding himself that he didn’t need to order the cheapest thing on the menu anymore. When their food came, Ned happily dug into his noodles, while Emerson looked distastefully at the Pie Maker’s entirely meatless dish.
“You said you were a vegetarian?”
“Yeah. My first night at boarding school, there was an… incident with a chicken leg that I didn’t want repeated. I haven’t eaten meat since I was nine.”
“Couldn’t you just touch it twice and then eat it?”
Ned grimaced and shook his head. “It creeps me out. I can do it with cooked vegetables, though, but sometimes they taste a little off after being… re-deaded, I guess.”
Emerson looked down at his plate, where a few pieces of roasted squash and broccoli sat forgotten beside his steak.
“You want to see it, don’t you?” Ned asked.
Ned nodded his assent, and Emerson speared a piece of roasted squash with his fork and put it on Ned’s plate. The piemaker tapped it once, and the slice brightened to a flashy yellow, though the brown roast marks and seasoning remained. Another tap, and it shriveled and darkened to its original state.
“That’s one hell of a trick. If you wasn’t so dedicated to that pie shop, I’d tell you to join the circus or something.” Emerson turned back to his steak, moving his plate infinitesimally closer to himself and away from the Pie Maker.
Ned poked his fork into his pasta, suddenly not hungry. He thought back to a few days before, the first time he met Emerson at the morgue. He’d spent the entire drive there worried that he was heading right into a trap, that the PI had told someone his secret and government agents or scientists in white lab coats would be waiting for him. But all that had happened was exactly what he and Emerson had planned at the Pie Hole the night their partnership had begun. Ned met Emerson at the morgue and brought a dead man back to life for thirty-three seconds, which was enough time to find out his killer. No scientists, no lab coats, just a slightly suspicious coroner who was easily persuaded into silence by a Benjamin or three. Still...
“Emerson… you’d never turn me in, would you? Like, for a reward or something?”
“For the record, if I was, I wouldn’t just tell you. But I’m not. Why turn you in for a measly one-time reward when I can have the gift that keeps on giving?
Ned stared down at his pasta, unable to meet Emerson’s eyes. “What if… this was a one-time thing, and I wasn’t a gift that kept on giving. Would you want the one-time reward then?” He swallowed nervously, throat suddenly dry.
Emerson watched him carefully, then spoke up. “Look, Pie Maker, I’m not going to blackmail you. If you want, we can both walk out of this restaurant ten thousand dollars richer, part ways, and never see each other again.” He paused and waited for Ned to meet his eyes. “But I don’t think that’s what you want to do. I know you liked the look of that cool ten thousand in your hands. And don’t think I didn’t see you light up like a Christmas tree when you started talking about getting a new oven.”
Ned thought wistfully of the three-rack electric convection ovens gracing the centerfold of the monthly bakery catalogs he got in the mail.
“I know. I just feel like - like it’s cheating somehow, you know?
“Listen, Pie Boy. A lot of the time, these things end up as cold cases, or the wrong person is convicted -”
“Or dog,” Ned interjected, thinking of Cantaloupe.
“Or dog,” Emerson nodded. “The police look for the easiest solution, and if something fits, then they don’t dig any deeper. Like this case. They assumed it was Cantaloupe that attacked Leonard Gaswint -” Leo!, Ned’s brain supplied unnecessarily, “- and didn’t consider the possibility that it could have been another dog. And now, Cantaloupe the harmless Chow is back with her family, and there’s a crazy, murderous secretary locked up, thanks to us.”
Ned bit his lip and nodded. Emerson could tell he was getting through to the Pie Maker, and tried not to grin triumphantly.
“And about the ‘cheating’ thing.” Emerson thought for a moment, and decided to stick with the dog theme. He was getting somewhere with that. “Do you think it’s cheating when a police dog sniffs out drugs, rather than a police officer finding them?”
Ned shook his head.
“The dog has a gift. He can’t help that he’s good at what he does. And it helps put criminals behind bars. You following me?”
The Pie Maker nodded. “I think so.” He opened his mouth to say something else, but was interrupted by a woman’s voice.
“Mr. Cod? Emerson Cod?” Emerson and Ned looked up to see a woman who looked to be in her thirties, two young kids in tow.
“I’m Emerson Cod,” said Emerson Cod.
The woman smiled. “I thought so. I just wanted to thank you for your work on the case surrounding my great-aunt, Annabelle Archibald.”
“Oh, of course - Annabelle Archibald, the Artichoke Artist.”
“That’s the one. It’s given us such peace of mind, just - just knowing what happened, and all. I just wanted to thank you for figuring it out.” One of her kids tugged on her arm, and she swayed in place a little as she spoke.
“Well, I appreciate that,” said Emerson, who looked like he wanted to return to his steak. “You have a good evening, now, Ms. -?”
“Angela. Angela Archibald.”
“Well, Ms. Angela Archibald, you have a good evening, and call me if you need any investigating done.”
“Will do, Mr. Cod.” Angela Archibald looked to Ned, who had been watching the conversation as if it were a tennis match. “And is this your…?”
“Business partner,” answered Ned before Emerson could speak. “I’m his business partner.” He glanced at Emerson, who looked pleased.
“It’s nice to meet you. And thank you again, Emerson.” Angela Archibald bade Emerson and Ned goodbye, leaving the two alone at the table once again.
“Business partner?” asked Emerson.
“Business partner,” Ned answered.
Their waitress brought by their checks and filled their glasses one last time. Ned looked down at his check and grinned. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” he told Emerson, and did some quick math. Below his twenty-seven dollar charge, he wrote in a seventy-three dollar tip, and then placed a hundred-dollar bill in the black check-holder.
“Feeling benevolent, Pie Boy?”
Ned nodded. “Even if she has to split it with the others, nothing makes your night better than seeing that on a check.”
“You sound like you know from experience.”
He nodded again. “I worked in restaurants all throughout college, and then for a few years afterward too, until I finally saved up enough to open the Pie Hole. I delivered for Susan’s Tortes and Crepes my whole sophomore year of culinary school before the owner would finally let me work in the back of the house.”
Emerson hummed. “There’s a lot I don’t know about you, Pie Maker.
“I think there’s a lot I don’t know about you, Emerson.” The two considered each other before Emerson spoke up.
“...So, this deal. Does it mean I get discounts on pie?
“Hmm. Whenever you come in to talk about a case, first slice and coffee’s on the house. How’s that sound?”
Emerson considered it. “Deal.”