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Robert Weinberg (b. 1946) is a renowned collector and specialist in pulp magazines and pulp art who turned to writing, starting with a series featuring occult detective Alex Warner in The Devil’s Auction (1988). Lois Gresh (b. 1956) is a computer programmer and systems analyst. Their skills came together on the techno-thriller The Termination Node (1999). Their other collaborations include The Science of Superheroes (2002) and The Science of Supervillains (2004). Lois tells me that she once worked in a research establishment very similar to the one described here, but to say any more would spoil the story.

Once upon a time, after returning from the bank where I had the pleasure of making a six-figure deposit of the week’s earnings, I casually asked my boss, Penelope Peters, what special talent made her so incredibly successful. After all, Penelope, due to a genetic imperfection in her cells, suffered from extreme agoraphobia. She was unable to leave her home without suffering major panic attacks that left her a total mental and physical wreck. Yet, working from her office deep in the heart of Manhattan, she earned astonishing sums week after week solving problems that stumped the highest and the mightiest throughout the country, and sometime even the world. Having served as her assistant; chief bottle-washer; and eyes, ears, nose, and legs for the past five years, I had witnessed her genius so often I had become inured to her working miracles. I just wondered how.

“Brains and personality,” answered Penelope, with the barest twinkle in her green eyes. It was the punch line to one of the oldest and dumbest jokes around, and she loved using it.

“Yeah, right,” I countered, “save it for the newspapers. Tell me the truth. I’ve devoted the past five years of my life running errands, going to used book stores, attending board meetings, and catching crooks for you. It’s time I learned the secret handshake.” Then, to show that I wasn’t actually annoyed with her, I added, “Please.”

“Oh, well,” said Penelope, rising from behind her imposing ebony desk in the center of her office. “You won’t believe using the Magic 8-Ball, I assume?”

“Nope,” I replied. “Nor the ouija board explanation or the sack of old bones in the closet. I want the real stuff. So I can finally make my own way in the world, starting with a big advertisement on the internet: ‘Sean O’Brien, Investigations; formerly employed by the notorious Penelope Peters, World’s Premier Problem Solver. ‘“

Penelope frowned. “You’re not really thinking of leaving?” she asked. “It would take me years to train another assistant.”

“Decades,” I replied, with a grin. “It would take you decades. If not lifetimes.”

“Besides,” she said, “I haven’t sent you scouring used book stores for years now. I buy everything off the internet and have it delivered by Fed Ex.”

“There was that time I took the ferry to Hoboken-” I began, but she cut me off with the wave of a hand.

“Enough, enough,” she said. Penelope walked to the mahogany floor-to-ceiling bookcases that covered the left wall and laid one hand on the top of a well-read volume. “Everything I know I learned from studying this book. Read it, absorb it, and don’t forget it. That’s all you need to do to be just like me.”

That I doubted. I stand six foot two, weigh two hundred and forty pounds, and made it through college on a football scholarship. I have a degree in accounting, a detective’s badge, and a black belt in karate. I’m a fast talker, possess a near-photographic memory, and know how to follow instructions. My hair and eyes are black as coal, and nobody mistakes me for a movie star. Any resemblance between me and my boss is purely imaginary.

At five foot seven, 110 pounds, with green eyes and brown hair, Penelope Peters might have made it as a top fashion model if she lost fifteen or twenty pounds and could manage to leave her home on assignments. Since the second option was out of the question, she obviously saw no reason to consider the first. Not that I think she would have bothered. Penelope didn’t like taking orders from anyone, which was why she had set up her consulting business years before, when her agoraphobia was just starting to act up. In the time since, she’s become the problem solver that other problem solvers come to when they’re stumped. Her IQ number is off the charts, and her office is filled with rare trinkets and expensive gifts sent to her from satisfied clients throughout the world. Her brains didn’t come from any one book. But, I’m no dummy. I know what my boss is like. Besides, I was curious. I took the book.

“The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” I read aloud. “Sherlock Holmes? Everything you know, you learned from Sherlock Holmes?”

“Elementary, my dear O’Brien,” said Penelope, with a smile.

“He’s not a real person. He’s a character in a book.”

“Real or not, he knew the secret to solving mysteries,” said Penelope. “Any sort of mysteries, be they problems with business to problems with murder.”

“Which is?” I asked.

Penelope removed The Sign of Four from my hands and flipped the book open to what had to be a familiar page. She read aloud,”… when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

“That’s it?” I said, somewhat doubtful. I must admit I wasn’t particularly impressed. Which explains, I suppose, why I’m the assistant and Penelope is the boss. “That’s all?”

“Nothing else,” said Penelope carefully sliding the book back into its place on the shelf. “A sharp mind, an attention for detail, and that sentence is all you need to solve the most perplexing puzzles ever encountered.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“You’ll see,” said Penelope.

I did, of course, less than a month later, when Penelope solved the murder in Monkeyland.

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