The Hardass gently set his salad fork next to a little silver pitcher of hazelnut yak cream. He dabbed his lips with a crimson linen napkin before speaking.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, rising and smoothing the wrinkles out of his immaculate Kiton 3-piece, "could I have everybody's attention, please?" He pinged a fondue fork against his wineglass.
"You have our ears, sir!" said a crew-cut young man halfway down the long dining table.
"Oh, please! Don't call me sir," said the Hardass, blushing modestly. He ducked so he could see past the chandelier. "Who called me sir? Marcus? Marcus! My name is Tanner, and that's what you call me here. We're not on duty, Marcus!" He jabbed his fondue fork at the rookie and winked roguishly.
"I'm sorry, sir--I mean, Tanner! We're just so excited to have you back and acting so, well, I, uh..."
The Hardass smiled ruefully. "I completely understand. It is quite a change. That mysterious month that I was mysteriously missing and had mysterious things done mysteriously to me really changed my outlook. But enough about that. If I start talking about it now, I'll get all weepy again. We're here to celebrate!"
A cheer romped around the room like a perverted otter, touching everybody in special places.
"You still haven't told us why you invited us out to this mansion you never told us you had, Tanner!" said longtime detective partner One-Eyed Jack.
"Oh ho ho! You're right, Jack! The head wound makes my mind wander. Oh, and golly, I still feel horrible about hitting you in the eye with that minivan last year. I was such a jerk!"
"Tanner, man, that's all in the past. It probably really was your turn to pick the radio station anyway," Jack said, gesturing cheerfully with his tumbler of brandy. "Besides, you've been doing nothing but apologizing ever since I showed up tonight."
"You're worth it, you winner, you. Ladies and gentlemen, I got you all together tonight because I missed your smiling faces, this you know. But I have another surprise for you. Something the ladies will particularly appreciate," he said, lowering his tone, being ever so careful that he did not allow it to descend to the carnal rumble of yestermonth; the one capable of vibrating the clasps off bras at twenty paces. The voice that claimed an infamous legacy of deafened wrongdoers and liberated breasts now sported a raiment of crystalline mirth.
"If you'll all follow me to the greenhouse, my chrysanthemums are in bloom!"
Squeals of delight and appreciative cheers bounced around the dining hall like rubber clowns.
"Now, now, calm down! The poodles are trying to sleep!" the Hardass said, giggling into his fist. "Please!"
He led the group of merrymakers across a twilit courtyard and into a magnificent two-story greenhouse with ivy-covered marble pillars and a decorative pool in the center.
"Friends, please enjoy the sights and smells at your leisure. When you're done, don't forget to pick up your gift basket on the way out. Dancing is next, followed by checkers!"
Chuck Franklin, the Chief of Police approached with his hands behind his back.
"Wait, wait! Before we go and check out all of your beautiful flora, we'd all like to give you this. Welcome back, Tanner!" He held out a giftwrapped box.
"Aw shucks, Chucks! You shouldn't have!"
The Hardass daintily unwrapped the package, careful not to tear the shiny wrapping paper, by slowly removing the adhesive tape.
Inside was a plastic container.
A white plastic jar.
A white plastic jar with a red lid...
The Hardass stared. His jaw unhinged as a bolt of pain shot through his head and he collapsed to his knees.
The cheering stopped abruptly as several partygoers rushed forward to catch him.
"Hey, man, are you okay?"
"Give him some air!"
The Hardass was helped to his feet. Standing on his own, he expertly cataloged his surroundings with his flint-grey military-grade eyes.
"To hell with air," he growled. "I need some strippers, a glass of liquid nitrogen with lemon and a goddamn explanation."
He noticed the jar of Fluff, still limply grasped in Franklin's hands.
"Gimme that. And some friggin' toast to go with it."