Bedtime Stories . One Man's World . The Mispronouncer . Downloads . Support
HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


                There was no way to tell if a plastic sheep was really missing from the nativity scene in Mr. Hawd’s front yard. Duffy had to take Mr. Hawd’s word for it. But why would Mr. Hawd offer to pay Duffy a thousand dollars to find a plastic sheep that wasn’t really missing? Of course, he was only willing to pay if Duffy found the sheep, so Mr. Hawd wouldn’t be out any money if a sheep wasn’t gone. The job could be an elaborate prank. It was possible.

               “You say the sheep was right here?” asked Duffy. He gestured toward the side of the nativity scene nearest to him with his chin since his hands were buried in the pockets of his knee-length overcoat.

               “Where are you pointing?” asked Mr. Hawd.

               “Right here,” said Duffy. “I’m pointing with my chin.”

               “Your chin’s inside your scarf,” said Mr. Hawd.

               “This side right here closest to me,” said Duffy. “The sheep was here?”

               “That’s right,” said Mr. Hawd. “With all the other sheep.” He wasn’t wearing a coat. He wasn’t even wearing a sweatshirt. He stood in the wet snow in a black t-shirt, jeans, and the most boot-like slippers imaginable. He had the decency to look cold, though. He must not have anticipated many questions when he offered to show Duffy the spot from which the plastic sheep had gone missing. Snow had begun to fall again in the early evening twilight and some of it disappeared in Mr. Hawd’s snowflake-colored hair.

               The nativity scene was elaborate. Mr. Hawd had constructed the stable backdrop and manger from rough-hewn lumber reclaimed from the demolition of a family cabin. The characters and animals were made of translucent plastic illuminated from within, their cords concealed beneath a layer of dirty straw. There was a Joseph, a Mary, a baby Jesus, two cows, a donkey, an innkeeper lurking on the periphery, four shepherds, and a ton of sheep.

               “How many sheep are there?” asked Duffy. He adjusted his gray stocking cap so it covered the tops of his ears.

               “19,” said Mr. Hawd. “So you can see why I’m upset that someone stole one of them.”

               “I can?” asked Duffy. “I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job here, but it seems like 19 is more than enough. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nativity scene with more than three or four.”

               “But 19 is an unpleasant number,” said Mr. Hawd.

               “You could put another one back in your garage so there’s 18,” said Duffy.

               “Absolutely not,” said Mr. Hawd. “The conceit of my nativity scene is that the shepherds brought their flock with them to see Jesus.”

               “So these sheep weren’t in the stable already?”

               “No,” said Mr. Hawd. “As I said, the shepherds brought them. Three or four sheep would look ridiculous. Even 20 isn’t enough, but 20 is enough to imply that there are more, it’s enough to look like a flock at a glance. But it’s barely enough. 19 might do it, but it’s an unpleasant number. And 18 sheep doesn’t imply more sheep, it just looks like a small flock.”

               “How big were flocks of sheep back then?” asked Duffy.

               “I have no idea,” said Mr. Hawd. “Can we go back inside? I’m wet and I’m cold and most of these questions don’t require us to be looking at the scene of the crime while I answer them.”

               “All right,” said Duffy. “But I may have to come back to investigate a little more.”

               “Fine,” said Mr. Hawd. “Give me a second.” He trudged around behind the nativity scene and flipped the switch on the power strip affixed to the back of the stable. The light bulbs inside each character and animal came on casting a plasticky glow over the snowy front lawn and across the icy sidewalk into the slushy street.

               “Come on,” said Mr. Hawd. “My wife’s making me some hot cocoa.”

               Duffy gave the nativity scene one last look. There were too many sheep. They overwhelmed everything else. As he followed his own footprints in reverse to the house, Duffy also noted Mr. Hawd’s use of the word “me” instead of “us” when declaring for whom Mrs. Hawd was making the hot cocoa. Would Duffy really be excluded from the hot cocoa? And who had taken the missing sheep from the nativity scene? To one of these two questions, a definitive answer was forthcoming.

               Duffy followed Mr. Hawd into the kitchen through a side door and stamped snow off of his shoes onto the holiday floor mat as Mr. Hawd scurried to the counter where a single mug sat steaming for only him. “Thank you, Honey!” called Mr. Hawd into deeper reaches of the house.

               “You’re welcome, Honey!” came the reply, swollen heavy with affection.

               “Why not just buy a replacement sheep?” asked Duffy. “Seems cheaper than paying me a thousand dollars to find the stolen one.”

               “You can’t buy them anymore,” said Mr. Hawd. He scraped the top of his tongue with his upper teeth. He’d probably burned it with cocoa. “The whole set is decades-old. I inherited everything from my father when he died a few years ago. Except for the stable and manger which, as I said, I built myself.”

               Duffy felt ridiculous standing on the kitchen floor mat with his boots, coat, gloves, scarf, and hat on, but Mr. Hawd showed no sign of inviting Duffy to make himself more comfortable. “What does it look like?” asked Duffy. “The missing sheep, I mean.”

               “Hmm,” said Mr. Hawd. “White. Like your classic wool color. Four legs. Very similar in size to the other 19 sheep. Very similar to the other 19 sheep in most ways, really.” He furrowed his brow as if thinking deeply about where next to take his description.

               “Yes, OK,” said Duffy. He didn’t want to insult Mr. Hawd by making his disdain for his response obvious. “But is there anything to distinguish it from the other sheep? Or from some of them, even? I need to know what I’m looking for.”

               “Ah,” said Mr. Hawd. “Yes. Did you notice how some sheep are standing facing the manger and some are standing facing the shepherds?”

               “I suppose so,” said Duffy.

               “Well, the stolen one was facing the manger,” said Mr. Hawd.

               “But how will I know that if I find it?” asked Duffy. “Isn’t that more about how you arranged the sheep rather than something specific to the sheep itself?”

               “No,” said Mr. Hawd. “Because the ones I faced toward the manger are the ones with expressions of reverence in their eyes.”

               Duffy decided to try a different approach. “Is there anyone you suspect of taking the sheep? Any enemies? Someone you know who might have wanted it? Someone who seemed to admire the sheep more than most people?”

               “No,” said Mr. Hawd. He paused. “Shouldn’t you be taking notes?”

               “I have a good memory,” said Duffy. The truth was that he did not have a particularly good memory – he supposed it was somewhere in the neighborhood of average – but he wasn’t going to bother fishing his notepad out of the inside pocket of his coat unless it seemed like Mr. Hawd might tell him something useful. “So you can’t give me a single name? There’s no one you think I should look into first?”

               Mr. Hawd shrugged and dropped his empty mug into the sink where Duffy was sure he heard it crack. “As far as I know, everyone likes me and everyone likes the nativity scene and would never do anything to compromise it. Aren’t you the private investigator? Isn’t it your job to find suspects?”

               “I do that by asking questions,” said Duffy. “Would it be possible for me to talk to your wife?”

               “Sure,” said Mr. Hawd. “Call out a question. She’ll hear you.”

               “You can’t call her in here?” asked Duffy.

               “She’s settled,” said Mr. Hawd.

               Duffy cleared his throat, which took longer than he thought it would once it got revved up. Finally, he called, “Mrs. Hawd? Do you have any idea who could have stolen the sheep?”

               There was no response. Duffy and Mr. Hawd stood in silence for a full minute before Mr. Hawd said, “Well, she’s too settled to answer. But I know what she’d say.”

               “What would that be?”

               “That everyone dislikes me and anyone would be happy to compromise the nativity scene by stealing a sheep.”

               “So the opposite of what you said?” asked Duffy.

               “Yep,” said Mr. Hawd. “That’s what attracted us to each other.”

               “The opposite of what you said,” said Duffy. “But exactly as helpful.”

               “Exactly,” said Mr. Hawd.

               “So there’s either no clues or everything’s a clue,” said Duffy.

               “Sure,” said Mr. Hawd. “But when you really think about it, there’s no difference between those perspectives.”

               “That is what I was thinking,” said Duffy.

               “And that’s why me and Mrs. Hawd work so well,” said Mr. Hawd. He smiled. “Well, even though I’m not very confident you’ll find my sheep, this conversation has made me feel better about the other blessings in my life. I’m only paying for the sheep, though!”

               “Well, shoot,” said Duffy with a razor-thin smile. “I should go poke around the nativity scene some more. See if there’s any physical evidence.”

               “Ah, of course, of course,” said Mr. Hawd. “But now that it’s dark, people are gonna start driving by to look at it, so would you mind wearing an old bathrobe and a towel on your head while you look for clues so you blend in?”

               “I understand that you’re my client,” said Duffy. “But you haven’t paid me anything yet. And I have to draw the line somewhere.”

               “Could you at least hide behind the stable when you see headlights coming down the street?”

               “I’ll try,” said Duffy, but he knew he would not try.


               Following the little path that he’d worn to the nativity scene with repeated trips through the snow, Duffy noted that the descent of the sun had adversely affected the temperature. Adversely if one hated cold, that is, which Duffy did. A mug of hot cocoa would have done wonders for his core temperature. He pulled his hat down so that his ears were concealed completely and swatted a few snowflakes away from his face as if they were festive gnats made gregarious by the joyous season.

               Duffy crunched past the wooden stable to the sidewalk where he turned to survey the nativity scene as a whole. The sheep really were an oppressive presence. He couldn’t imagine looking at the quantity of plastic sheep currently crowding the scene and thinking there needed to be one more.

               What kind of evidence was he looking for? What kinds of clues? Footprints were out of the question; the snow around the nativity scene had been packed hard, lumpy, and slick by the boots of passing children who wanted to see the plastic animals up close, teenagers hopping out of cars to take ironic selfies with the inn-keeper (he had a stupid expression on his face), dads who fancied themselves handy inspecting the carpentry, borderline idolaters kneeling by the manger to ask Jesus for signs, and, presumably, the thief. But there was no way to distinguish any one set of prints, especially with new snow continuing to fall.

               Duffy approached the sheep and stooped to look them in their faces for signs of reverence.

Was there really a difference between the eyes of those Mr. Hawd had positioned to face the manger and those he had pointed toward the shepherds? If there was, Duffy could not discern it. It was either beyond him or a product of Mr. Hawd’s imagination.

               “Hey, one of the shepherds is a real guy!”

               Duffy turned to see a car parked at the curb. Both windows on the passengers’ side were rolled down and out of the back leaned a girl of about 10. She wore a yellow coat and a stocking cap of a paler shade of yellow. In the front seat, a woman who Duffy took for the girl’s mother looked at him with mild curiosity. Beyond the woman, Duffy could see the shadowy figure of a man with his hands on the steering wheel. Duffy couldn’t tell if the man was looking at him or not.

               “Dad, do you see?” said the girl. “One of the shepherds is a real guy!”

               Duffy couldn’t hear the father’s response. He turned back to the important work of looking for…something. But there was nothing to look for. What if he did find a green thread, say, snagged on the head of a nail protruding from the edge of the stable? What possible justification could there be for assuming the thread came from an article of clothing belonging to the thief and not an article of clothing belonging to any number of other people? He wanted to walk away from the nativity scene to continue his investigation somewhere else. Anywhere else. But he felt self-conscious doing so with the family in the car at the curb watching him. He didn’t want them to think he was fleeing the little girl’s observations about him.

               “Why doesn’t the real shepherd have a curved stick like the other ones?” asked the girl.

               “It’s called a ‘crook,’” said her mother.

               “Why doesn’t the real shepherd have a crook?” asked the girl.

               “Maybe he lost it,” said her mother.

               “But the other ones didn’t lose theirs,” said the girl.

               “That’s right,” said her mother. “Well, maybe he’s the worst one.”

               Duffy turned to face them. “Did you steal a sheep from this nativity scene last night?” he asked.

               “Are you talking to me?” asked the woman.

               “Any of you,” said Duffy. He walked toward the street, further eclipsing the holy light of the nativity scene with every step, his shadow falling across the car like sin.

               “We didn’t steal anything,” said the man from within the car.

               “Did you see someone else steal a sheep from this nativity scene last night?” asked Duffy. “Or have you heard who might have done it?”

               “We don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the woman.

               “What’s he talking about?” asked the girl. She sounded scared, but didn’t look it.

               “He lost one of his sheep,” said her mother.

               “It’s probably because you don’t have a crook,” said the girl, addressing Duffy directly. “If you had a crook, you wouldn’t lose your sheep. You’d be a better shepherd.”

               “A crook won’t make a bad shepherd a good shepherd,” said the girl’s father. “It’s an attitude thing. It’s about taking responsibility.”

               “I’m not a shepherd,” said Duffy.

               “See?” said the man in the car. “No responsibility. Roll your window up. We’re leaving.”

               Duffy watched the car pull away from the curb, glide down the street, and disappear around the corner. He hoped he hadn’t just watched his best chance of cracking the case drive away. Surely not. Surely there would be better clues than that.

               It wasn’t about the thousand dollars. The money would be nice, but Duffy was doing okay on that front for now. It was about building his reputation, getting some positive word-of-mouth circulating. He needed some good wins if there was to be any hope of establishing himself as the Multioak area’s go-to private investigator. He needed some clear-cut successes that would get people talking. Something that might get him on the evening news or into the Interpreter-Tribune. He didn’t know if finding this plastic light-up sheep would get people talking, exactly, but he knew that failing to find it sure wouldn’t do anything for him.

               Duffy looked to the homes belonging to the Hawds’ neighbors on both sides. The houses were dark. He turned and saw lights in the windows of the house directly across the street. Maybe they had seen something. Maybe they knew something. Maybe they’d offer him some cocoa, piping hot.


               None of the neighbors had seen anything, knew anything, nor had anything helpful to offer. None of them invited Duffy in off of their frozen porches. He knocked on doors up and down the street on both sides and came away without a single clue. Which almost didn’t seem possible. To not even get a bad clue? For none of the Hawds’ neighbors to show any interest in speculating about the crime? For no one to falsely accuse someone they didn’t like out of spite?

               One lady in the most burdensome nightgown Duffy had ever seen said she’d never noticed the Hawds’ nativity scene before. She said, “I look at the road while I drive, and only the road.”

               “But you can see it from here,” said Duffy. “Look.”

               “I don’t look at other people’s property unless I’m invited to do so,” said the woman. “Invited by the owner, not by you.

               When Duffy asked a house of bleary-eyed grad-school dropouts how they felt about the Hawds, their self-appointed spokesman said, “Neutral.”

               “You don’t feel anything about the Hawds?” asked Duffy.

               “I didn’t say ‘nothing,’” said the spokesman as he adjusted his glasses with both hands. “I said ‘neutral.’” Huddled behind him, the roommates’ expressions supported this claim with their neutral formats.

               Duffy could tell when someone was trying to bait him into a philosophical argument, and he would not strike at it like a famished fish drawn to a hook lowered through an imperfectly circular hole in eight inches of ice.

               He left the Hawds’ neighborhood with little sense of where next to turn, rebuffed by the victim, the potential witnesses, and the scene of the theft alike. Duffy supposed he could check pawn shops, but it seemed unlikely that the thief knew how much the sheep might be worth. If he had (Duffy assumed the thief was male, but that was not supported by any clues), surely he would have taken more of them. Duffy wasn’t even sure he knew how much the sheep might be worth. All he knew was it was worth a thousand dollars to Mr. Hawd, but there was certainly no guarantee anyone else would pay that much for it. Duffy doubted any of his Multioak underworld connections would have heard anything about the stolen sheep. Drugs, jewelry, cars, electronic devices: these were the kinds of stolen goods his underworld connections kept tabs on. Vintage Christmas decorations were not in their purview, and furthermore, going to the trouble of asking them about the stolen sheep would be embarrassing. They would laugh at Duffy. His underworld connections were occasionally helpful, but they were not considerate of his feelings, or anyone’s.

               Miriam had gotten home from work less than a minute before Duffy pulled into her driveway. Duffy saw the lights come on inside of her house one by one as he sat in the car giving her time to put her things down before knocking on her door. Duffy and Miriam had been dating for seven months. Miriam had been the one to inspire Duffy to become a private investigator. “You could be a private investigator,” she’d said to him one night over drinks at Barl, which was a portmanteau of the word “bar” and “Carl,” which was the first name of man who owned it. “Why not call it ‘Car’ instead?” Duffy had once joked to Carl. He couldn’t remember if Carl had laughed or not.

               Duffy’s cell phone vibrated in his pants pocket. He hiked his coat up around his waist – a difficult thing to do while seated in his car – and pulled the phone out to see that the caller was Miriam.

               “Why are you sitting in my driveway?” she asked.

               Duffy peered through his windshield at the house and saw Miriam’s solid silhouette in the furthest left dormer window on the second story. “There you are,” he said.

               “Come into the house,” said Miriam.

               “Is the front door unlocked?” asked Duffy.

               “No,” said Miriam. “But it will be by the time you get to it.” She hung up and Duffy saw her figure dart away from the upstairs window, leaving the curtains swaying.

               Duffy and Miriam got takeout and ate it in the TV room without so much as opening the wooden doors that concealed Miriam’s TV within her big block of an entertainment center.

               “You seem upset about something,” said Miriam. She sat at the edge of an easy chair perpendicular to Duffy on the couch, leaning out so that any food falling from her plastic fork would land on the wood floor.

               “I do?” asked Duffy. His falling food always ended up in his lap no matter how he sat.

               “You seem like you’re trying not to seem upset,” said Miriam.

               “I started a new case today,” said Duffy. “It’s not going well.”

               “The great Christmas decoration heist?” asked Miriam.

               “I know I’m not the most experienced investigator,” said Duffy. “So maybe this doesn’t mean much coming from me. But I’ve never seen such a lack of clues. It doesn’t seem possible.”

               “You looked for footprints?” asked Miriam. “A crime in the snow seems like a great opportunity for footprint clues.”

               “I looked,” said Duffy. “The whole scene is trampled to oblivion.”

               “What about hoof prints?” asked Miriam, grinning.

               “The shepherds wouldn’t let one wander off,” said Duffy. “They’re real pros. They’ve got crooks and everything.”

               “What if they were distracted by looking at God incarnate?”

               “They’re plastic,” said Duffy, tiring of the bit. “The shepherds, baby Jesus, the sheep, all of them.”

               “Well, what do I know?” asked Miriam. “I’m not the private investigator. You are. But it seems to me that it isn’t possible for there to be no clues.”

               “So, what, you think I didn’t look hard enough?” asked Duffy.

               “No, I’m saying you’re not thinking about it correctly,” said Miriam. “Because not finding any clues is a clue in itself. If none of the neighbors saw it happen, then that probably means it happened when no one was up, right? So that’s a clue. If no one can think of any possible suspects, then maybe it was random, which means you’re not looking for an enemy or rival of the victim, you’re looking for the kind of person who would commit the crime randomly, like a high school or college kid who thinks it’s funny to run off with an old-fashioned plastic sheep from a nativity scene. So that’s another clue.”

               What Miriam said made some sense to Duffy, but he was in no mood to allow his mood to be changed. There was a part of him that wanted to remain doomed. But he also did not feel like Miriam understood how unhelpful every investigative step he’d taken so far had been. “You don’t get it,” he said. “Could it be that the sheep was stolen while everyone was asleep? Sure. But it could also be that the sheep was stolen while everyone was up, but not paying attention. Or maybe everyone saw it, but they all lied to me, or forgot, or, I don’t know, thought they were dreaming. Could no one think of a suspect because the theft was random? Maybe. Or maybe everyone’s just very bad at identifying possible suspects. Maybe Mr. Hawd is too dense to recognize the people who hate him or the people who covet his flock of sheep. So, sure, yes, maybe I could infer a few clues from the apparent lack of clues. Or the lack of clues could be an accurate representation of what’s available to know about this case. And I know which I think is more likely.”

               “But isn’t that what being an investigator is?” asked Miriam. “Don’t you just fumble around in the dark until you trip over something useful?”

               “No,” said Duffy. He did not feel like elaborating.

               “So what are you going to do?” asked Miriam.

               Duffy heaved a sigh that caused his fork to tremble a load of food onto his lap. “I’m going to visit pawn shops and contact my underworld connections.”

               “I won’t hold my breath for good Christmas gifts this year,” said Miriam.

               “I’m doing fine,” said Duffy. “Financially speaking.”

               “Maybe that’s your problem,” said Miriam. “Maybe you’d be more motivated to solve this case if you didn’t have a safety net. Those private eyes in old movies seem like they’re always on the verge of living on the street.”

               “I’m plenty motivated,” said Duffy. “It doesn’t help when you question my motivation.”

               “Then I’ll say something supportive,” said Miriam.

               “Like what?” asked Duffy.

               “Something about how it’s good you’re going to use your underworld connections because what’s the point of having them if you aren’t going to use them?” said Miriam. “I’m still composing it.”

               “Don’t bother,” said Duffy.


               The next day, Duffy visited all of the pawn shops in Multioak and Dalcette. The effort was a bust. None of them had the stolen sheep, and none of the pawnbrokers had any recollection of someone bringing in a plastic sheep to pawn.

               “It’s a collector’s item,” Duffy told a pawnbroker wearing three layers of insulated vests over a white t-shirt with spotty sleeves. “It’s worth…hundreds.”

               Even this more humble valuation earned a skeptical snort from the pawnbroker. “I’m not giving you hundreds for it,” he said.

               “I’m not offering it,” said Duffy. “I’m asking if someone else brought it in.”

               “And I told you no one did!” shouted the pawnbroker, abruptly furious.

               “I’m leaving, I’m leaving,” said Duffy, his gloved hands raised and conciliatory.

               “I’ll give you 20 for it at most,” said the pawnbroker. “But I have to see it first.”

               In Dalcette, a pawnbroker with his arm in a candy cane-striped sling which he rested on his shelf-like belly showed Duffy an entire section of his shop dedicated to decorative yard sheep. There were a dozen of them.

               “These aren’t plastic,” said Duffy.

               “Nope,” said the pawnbroker. “They’re all made of iron and cement. Heavy suckers. Too heavy. I’d rather have a real sheep fall on me again than one of these suckers.”

               “Again?” asked Duffy.

               The pawnbroker indicated his broken arm.

               On a whim, Duffy looked one of the iron-and-cement sheep in the eye for even a hint of reverence. Not only did he not see any reverence, but up close the eye didn’t even look like an eye. It was like staring into a sidewalk.

“Ah,” said the pawnbroker. “You’re a connoisseur.”

“What do you mean?” asked Duffy.

“You know to look ‘em in the eye,” said the pawnbroker. “Did you see it?”

“See what?” asked Duffy.

“The feeling in its eye,” said the pawnbroker.

“Which feeling was I supposed to see?” asked Duffy.

“The feeling of knowing it’s heavy,” said the pawnbroker. “When I look these sheep in the eye, I can almost hear their thoughts. I’m heavy, I’m heavy, I’m heavy.”

               “I saw nothing,” said Duffy. “Are these sheep Christmas decorations?”

               “No,” said the pawnbroker. “These are everyday decorative sheep. But I’d recommend standing them on a cement slab ‘cause otherwise they’ll sink into your yard up to their bellies.”

               “I guess I’ll be going,” said Duffy.

               “Try to lift one,” said the pawnbroker.


All of Duffy’s underworld connections hung out at Cue & A, a pool hall flanked by derelict buildings. “Cue” was spelled C-U-E like a pool cue and the “A” stood for either “alcohol” or “ambience” depending who you asked. Most people said it was “alcohol.” The sidewalk in front of Cue & A was split and buckled enough to hamper wheelchair accessibility despite the pool hall’s single story and wide entrance. Not that Duffy was in a wheelchair. But contacting his underworld connections often put him in doubt of his future physical well-being. Of course, if one of the criminals who hung out at Cue & A ever beat him up to the point where he was confined to a wheelchair, Duffy doubted he would come back, not even if they held a pool tournament for the disabled. Duffy didn’t like pool and he wasn’t good at it.

               “Hello!” called the bartender as Duffy shuffled through the door and stamped slush from his boots. The bar was strung with garland wrapped in red and white lights. Atop a pool table too battered for use sat a squat, bushy Christmas tree with bottle-shaped gifts arranged around its base. There were two games of pool in progress. An audience of one man ambled back and forth between the two games, beginning to comment and then thinking better of it over and over.

               Duffy approached the bar.

               “Hello!” said the bartender again in the same tone and at the same volume. He was young and had chosen to center-part his jaw-length hair against better judgment. He wore a long-sleeved t-shirt with ragged cuffs at the wrists that seemed to indicate a nervous sleeve-chewing habit.

               “I’m looking for Warren,” said Duffy. “Or PJ or Billy.” These three were the sum total of his underworld connections.

               “Billy’s in the back,” said the bartender. “Just knock on the door. You know how?”

               “There’s a special knock now?” asked Duffy. Depressed as he was about his inability to unearth a good clue that might lead him to the missing sheep, the prospect of learning a special knock that would grant him privileged access to a criminal’s office excited him.

               “It’s not a special knock,” said the bartender. “Just a regular knock.”

               “So you were asking me if I know how to knock on a door in general?” asked Duffy.

               “Yes,” said the bartender.

               “I do,” said Duffy. He wound his way through barstools floating away from the bar and deserted pool tables to the hall at the back of the room. He passed three restrooms on his left – one for men, one for women, and one perpetually out of order – and arrived at an unmarked door on his right. He knocked a normal knock with less proficiency than he would have expected, and was glad the bartender wasn’t there to see it.

               “Come in,” called a voice from within.

               The office was longer than it was wide, and Billy sat at the far end behind a metal desk painted white. Behind him was a row of file cabinets that did not contain files. The walls were covered with posters promoting pool table advancements dating back decades. The floor was scuffed white tile. In front of the desk was an upended chair, its legs splayed in the air like those of a dead beetle.

               “Flip the chair over and have a seat,” said Billy. His dark hair hung down over his forehead far enough to brush his eyelashes when his eyes were open. He smoked a sweet-smelling cigar and wore black suspenders over a blue-and-green checked flannel shirt. He wore diamond studs in each ear; the one in his left ear was bigger and squarer than the one in his right ear.

               Duffy set the chair upright and sat in it. “I was wondering if you could help me with something.”

               “Still looking for that motorcycle?” asked Billy. Cigar smoke escaped from both corners of his mouth.

               “No, no, I found that,” said Duffy.

               “Did my tip help?” asked Billy.

               “Yes,” said Duffy. “I sent you a thank-you note. Didn’t you get it?”

               “Oh!” said Billy, smacking the top of his desk with an open palm. “Yes! I did get that. Very sweet of you. So what can I do for you this time?”

               Duffy relaxed a little. He hadn’t been certain the thank-you note was a good idea, but it seemed to have softened Billy up, so he was glad Miriam had suggested it. “I’m looking for something else this time,” said Duffy. “I’ve got a new case.”

               “Maybe I can help,” said Billy. “What’s missing?”

               “A plastic sheep,” said Duffy. “A Christmas decoration stolen from a nativity scene. It’s a collector’s item.”

               Billy frowned. “What would I know about a plastic sheep?” he asked. “I don’t know anyone who deals in plastic animals.”

               “Right, yes, I know,” said Duffy. “But I haven’t had much luck anywhere else, so I just wanted to exhaust all my options. I didn’t want to give up without talking to you.”

               “But why me?” asked Billy.

               “Uh, because you’ve got your ear to the ground,” said Duffy. “You hear things. You know things.”

               “Not about plastic sheep,” said Billy. “Never about plastic sheep.”

               “Not that I thought you stole it,” said Duffy. “Or any of your guys. But maybe you heard someone mention it. Or…or...uh, you saw it in the back of someone’s truck?”

               “You think I associate with people who steal plastic sheep?” asked Billy. “That’s the kind of business sense you think I’ve got?”

               “Well, no,” said Duffy. “I don’t think the theft is related to your business at all. I just thought I’d check with you on the off-chance you happened to know anything. I actually think the thief is probably a kid. A high school kid who stays out late. Maybe he took it as a prank.”

               Billy rose from behind his desk. “You think Patrick did this?”

               “No, no,” said Duffy. He stood too, defensively. “Who’s Patrick?”

               “My son,” said Billy. “You came here because you think he stole this sheep because he’s in high school and he doesn’t have a bedtime while he’s on Christmas break and his friends call him Prank Lord.”

               “Not true,” said Duffy, stumbling on the chair as he tried to back toward the door. “This is the first I’ve heard of any Prank Lord’s bedtime!” He turned his back on Billy and hurried out the office door and back up the narrow hallway. He heard Billy huffing after him. The Cue & A’s bartender and its few patrons looked up as Duffy entered the main room at a clumsy run pursued by their boss.

               “Beat this man up!” shouted Billy from close behind Duffy.

               Duffy tried to throw a barstool at one of his approaching assailants, but one of its legs struck the edge of a nearby pool table and it spun harmlessly to the floor. He turned to vault over the bar, but that’s as far as he got before someone broke a pool cue over his head and he went down.

               Minutes later, as Duffy staggered back to his car on shaky legs with an airy whistling whirl in his head, he thought about how nice the temporary use of a wheelchair would be, even on a sidewalk in such awful condition.


                “You’re not going to believe this,” said Mr. Hawd when Duffy knocked on his front door the next morning.

               “What?” asked Duffy.

               “The thief struck again last night!” said Mr. Hawd. He stood on the welcome mat on his front porch in bare feet with one of his all-weather slippers in each hand.

               “He did?” said Duffy. “What did he take?”

               “Another one of my sheep!” said Mr. Hawd. “I’m down to 18!”

               “I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Duffy. “But I have some news that might cheer you up a little. I found the first one.”

               “The first what?” asked Mr. Hawd.

               “The first sheep that was stolen,” said Duffy.

               “You have it here?” asked Mr. Hawd.

               “It’s in the back seat of my car,” said Duffy.

               “I need to see it before I pay you,” said Mr. Hawd. “Let me put my slippers on.”

               “Of course,” said Duffy.

               Mr. Hawd went back into the house and closed the door. Duffy went to stand by his car in the driveway, squinting in the winter sunlight flashing on the snow.

               When Mr. Hawd came out again, he was wearing different slippers which did not seem fit for the conditions. They were visibly soaked through by the time he made it to Duffy’s car. “Let’s see it,” he said.

               “Right here,” said Duffy. He opened up the back door so Mr. Hawd could look inside.

               Instead, Mr. Hawd climbed into the back seat with the sheep and closed the door. Not knowing what else to do, Duffy waited outside the car. After a minute, Mr. Hawd knocked on the window. It took Duffy a moment to realize Mr. Hawd expected him to open the door for him.

               “That’s not the first sheep,” said Mr. Hawd as he climbed out of the car. “That’s the second sheep.”

               “Not possible,” said Duffy. “I found it yesterday evening before the second one was missing.”

               “That can’t be,” said Mr. Hawd. “The first one had a reverent look in its eyes. This one does not.”

               “It does,” said Duffy. “This sheep was positioned to face the manger, I know that for a fact. You wouldn’t have positioned a sheep without a reverent look in its eyes to face the manger. Right?”

               “Right,” said Mr. Hawd. “And I would not have positioned that sheep to face the manger because it does not have a reverent look in its eye!”

               “But I know this one was facing the manger,” said Duffy. “I know it.”

               “How do you know?” asked Mr. Hawd.

               “I can’t reveal that,” said Duffy. “Look at me. Look at these cuts and bruises. You see how much trouble I went through to get this sheep back for you?”

               “This is the second sheep,” said Mr. Hawd. “I offered a thousand dollars for you to find me the first missing sheep, but this is the second one.”

               “If you won’t give me the thousand dollars, then I won’t let you have this sheep,” said Duffy.

               Mr. Hawd opened up the back door of the car, reached inside, and pulled out the irreverent sheep.

               What could Duffy do? Try to wrestle the sheep away from Mr. Hawd, take a swing at him? Call the cops and accuse the old man of welching on their deal? The last thing Duffy wanted was more investigators showing up. Who knew how many clues he’d left at the scene last night in his desperate, scrambled state? Incriminating boot prints in the snow, threads from his scarf snagged on the manger, insomniac neighbors wandering over to see what the fuss was about and recalling a furtive figure in the morning’s wee hours. A scene littered with clues, each pointing in the same direction, bellowing his name.

               “How much will you pay for the second sheep?” asked Duffy.

               “What’s your address?” asked Mr. Hawd. “I’ll send you a thank-you note.”


               At 2:00 in the morning, Duffy woke up and could not go back to sleep. He felt drawn from his house by something less substantial than a clue, but nonetheless compelling. He slid his coat on over his pajamas, pulled his stocking cap onto his head, wrapped his neck in his scarf, stepped into his boots, and stuffed his hands into his gloves. As he walked from his apartment to his car, Duffy felt like the motion of his body, the very fact of his status as an animate being, made him an intruder. This was the time of the year and this was the time of the night and these were the weather conditions for stillness.

               As Duffy drove around, he tried the radio for a while, but the sounds of human voices, whether speaking or singing, grated on him.

               His excursion was nearing the one-hour mark when he steered down a street almost entirely devoid of Christmas decorations. It was possible that the residents had unplugged their lights when they went to bed, that their trees were hiding behind opaque curtains, but Duffy saw no collapsed inflatables, no shadows of icicle lights dangling beneath gutters, no rotund Santa cut-out silhouettes. The neighborhood looked like it belonged to late January, crusted under snow unsoftened by holiday cheer.

               But then, in a stumpy cul-de-sac protruding from the street he was on, a soft ground-level gleam of light caught Duffy’s eye. He turned toward the glow, easing his car past trucks backed crookedly into driveways and two empty garbage cans half-encased in a drift like Dante’s Satan. Duffy winced as he ground the side of his front tire against the curb while parking. He got out of his car, leaving the engine running and the heater sighing after him. There, in the middle of the front yard of a dark, bland cube of a house, tethered to an outlet on the porch by an orange extension cord, was a single plastic sheep illuminated from within.

               Duffy walked to the sheep, punching noisy holes in the surface-layer snow with his boots. This had to be the sheep, didn’t it? It looked like the others. Same color, same size, same posture, legs in the same position. But there was only one way to be sure. Duffy knelt in front of the plastic sheep to meet its gaze.

               No. This was not the missing sheep. There was no trace of reverence in this sheep’s eyes. Even Duffy could see that in the eyes of this sheep, there was only contempt.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you make you use of your underworld connections? Could you make better use of them? How so?

  • What are a few of the best clues?

  • What are the top three emotions you’ve seen in the eyes of a plastic animal?

  • What do you think can be fairly inferred about a shepherd who does not have a crook?

  • How many sheep does it take to make a flock? How many sheep does it take IMPLY a flock?