"Some asshole kidnapped my snake."
"That sounds like a hell of a case."
"I'm serious, man."
"So am I."
"You don't believe me?"
"Not really, no."
"I thought you would. That's why I came to you."
"Just so I'm clear, by 'kidnapped' you mean someone actually stole your pet snake?"
"Yes. And her name is Ginger."
"The snake or the kidnapper?"
"Are you sure Ginger didn't, like, slither off somewhere?"
"Seriously, who put you up to this?"
"I can't believe you think this is a joke."
"It was my cousin, wasn't it?"
"You know what? Forget it."
I took another sip of my banana milkshake and glanced around the Dairy Queen in search of an accomplice.
"You're videotaping this, right? Declan wouldn't go to all this trouble and not get this on camera."
Johnny slammed his fist down on the table.
"Damn it, Jed! I'm not fucking around here!"
"All right, take it easy. I believe you."
"About goddamn time."
"You have to admit, it's not the easiest sell. I'm also not sure which is more disturbing - the fact that someone went to the trouble of kidnapping your pet snake or that you actually named a reptile after a Spice Girl."
My old friend smirked despite himself.
"You're an even bigger smart-ass than I remember."
"Fair enough. Now why don't you take me through this thing from the top?"
Johnny plucked a crinkled photo out of his wallet and handed it to me. In the picture he was leaning against the turnbuckle of a professional wrestling ring with a yellow python with brown patches draped over his shoulders.
"That's my baby," he said.
"I can see the resemblance."
I pointed at the tattoo of a yellowish-brown python spiraling around one of his sinewy forearms.
"Oh, yeah. I got inked for Ginger's birthday a few months back. I've had her for nearly three years now, Jed. I make my entrances with her around my neck and keep her ringside during my matches and everything. I can't wrestle without her."
"Any idea why someone would want to take your snake?" I asked, handing back the photo.
"Christ, I don't know. You're the private investigator."
"I'm a bouncer, Johnny. Not a PI."
"That's not what I've heard."
"My old man is the one with the license. I just help him with some of the leg work from time to time."
"So do some leg work for me now and help me get Ginger back. You should have seen the cops this morning, man. They laughed at me while I filled out the theft report."
"I'm sorry, bub," I replied earnestly. "I can't help you."
Johnny gripped my forearm as I stood.
"Baton Rouge, man."
My heart skipped a beat.
"That was a long time ago, Johnny."
"You owe me."
"You sure you want to play this card?"
"I am. I got nowhere else to go."
I took a deep breath, my mind scrambling to find an alternative solution.
"I know some excellent private investigators. Why don't I give you some referrals?"
"So they can laugh at me too? No. I want you."
I sat back down. Johnny let out a huge sigh.
"Thank you, Jed. Thank you so much."
I sucked back on my milkshake until the straw made a slurping sound. Some people complain about Dairy Queen and say they don't make quality shakes. I say that's bull. They're the only place that mixes their syrup with real bananas and that makes all the difference in my book.
I set aside my frosty treat and looked at my old friend. It had been a long time since I had last seen Johnny Mamba. Instead of the buff young wrestler I remembered, he now looked nearly a decade older than his thirty-six years. Although still muscular, he'd lost a lot of mass and his skin now appeared more loose and leathery than tight and tanned. Crow's feet had crept their way around his eyes and his hairline had started to recede. The years he'd spent punishing his body on the professional wrestling circuit had definitely taken their toll.
"Let me see that picture again," I said finally.
Johnny slid the photo across the table.
"Can I have this?"
"No way," he said, snatching it out of my hands.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket. Johnny clued in and placed the photo flat on the table so I could snap a pic.
"Good enough. Now tell me about the, uh ... abduction."
"It was after practice last night. I left her in a sack in the locker room while I showered like I always do. When I came out she was gone."
"How long was your shower?"
"Five minutes or so."
"Who else was there?"
"Nobody. I usually stick around after practice and work with the rookies so I'm always the last to leave."
"Johnny, if this really is a kidnapping then you would have received a ransom note."
Johnny produced a crinkled print out of an email from his web mail account.
Date: August 12, 2011, 10:57 AM PDT (CA)
Ten thousand dollars or you never see the snake again. You have three days to get the money.
Johnny stared at me with saucer plate eyes.
"What do you think?"
"I need you to forward me a copy of this. You still have my email?"
"What about email@example.com? Does that mean anything to you?"
"I find it curious the kidnapper would send you a ransom note via email, but I guess that might explain why you were given three days to secure the funds instead of one."
"I doubt they would know how often you check your email and they had to ensure they gave you ample time to receive the message. Any idea how the kidnapper got your address?"
"Every wrestler's email is posted on the XCCW website."
"X-Treme Canadian Championship Wrestling. Fastest growing professional wrestling promotion on the west coast."
"I've never heard of them."
"It's a great circuit. Quality talent, awesome schedule, lots of exposure. You ever thought about a comeback? XCCW would be the perfect place for you to - "
I silenced Johnny with a glare.
"I was just throwing it out there," he said quietly.
I let it go and tapped my finger on the print out.
"No offense, Johnny, but why would someone in their right mind expect you to pay ten thousand dollars for a pet? Couldn't you just buy another snake for a fraction of that amount?"
"I love her, man. I'd pay anything."
"Odds are whoever took Ginger knew that."
"What are you saying? That the son of a bitch who took Ginger knows me?"
"Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying. Do you have any enemies? Anybody that would want to hurt you?"
"No way, man."
"Anybody at XCCW?"
"Are you kidding? I'm like Tom Cruise at a Scientology convention at that place."
"How about the money? Can you afford to pay the ransom?"
"I got some coin squirreled away for a rainy day."
"And how many people are aware of that fact?"
Johnny shrugged, tucking his long hair behind his ears.
"A bunch, I guess. My Nana died a few months back and left me about twenty grand."
"You never played connect the dots much when you were a kid, did you, Johnny?"
He blinked a few times. After a moment, it clicked.
"Oh, shit! You think they knew about my inheritance?"
"No one without intimate knowledge of your relationship with Ginger would waste time with a scheme like this. How many people does XCCW employ?"
"Maybe sixty or so, including wrestlers and staff. I haven't been back since Ginger was taken but I can show you around if you need me to."
"No, I want you to steer clear of there for now," I replied. "Best thing you can do is lay low and let me do my thing."
"You got it, Jed. So what do you charge for this kind of thing?" he asked, cracking open his wallet.
"Just your word that this squares us," I said, sliding out of the booth. "I'll be in touch."
"Are you sure? Isn't there anything else I can do?"
"Yeah. Get to the bank."
I tossed my empty cup in the garbage and ordered another large banana milkshake to go.