A "Marty Masur" Middle-School Mystery
I skidded my dirt bike to a hard stop as my cell phone went bleedle-deedle-deet a second time. Other kids use pop songs for ringtones, but for me a cell phone is serious business.
As in, my serious business.
And who am I?
I'm a guy who likes asking questions, not so much answering them. You wanna know who I am and what's my business? Hang out with me sometime, if you can keep up, and figure it out for yourself.
"Masur," I snapped into the business end of the phone.
There was a pause. Then a voice as soft as rose petals and as sweet as a Sunday afternoon when your homework's all done said, "Emile?"
"Marty," I growled back.
There was a pause. "What?"
"Marty Masur," I said. "No one calls me -- " A little vomit came up the back of my throat. "That other name."
The voice, when it came back on, was very small and very meek. "I'm sorry, uh, Marty. But I'm in a lot of trouble, and -- " There was a little hiccup before the rest of the words came gushing out. "Sarah Hanson told me you're a guy who helps people out when they're in trouble."
So that was the score. "Tell me your name and where can I find you," I said. "And you better have some money when I get there. I don't solve problems for free."
"How much money?"
"At least sixty. There's a new Assassin's Creed coming out at the end of the month, and I aim to grab the first one onto the shelf."
* * *
Her name was Lea Foster, and she lived in the Periwinkle subdivision on the west side of town, in one of those brick McMansions that looks like the Jolly Green Giant's idea of a dollhouse. I shot my bike up the sidewalk, popped it over a stone step onto the porch, and banked to a stop in front of my new client. "I'm Marty," I said. "That makes you Lea?" She nodded. "Nice to finally get a name to go with the face."
Yeah, she was familiar. Lots of kids swarm the hallways of Ziegman Middle School, but if you keep alert, it's easy enough to catalog them all even without a set of identifying labels.
And this was a girl I'd definitely noticed.
She was tall and willowy, with grave green eyes in a face that didn't show a zit or a birthmark. She had dirty blonde hair, long and thick and made for braiding, but she wore it free down past her shoulders. Her tan would have told me she was outdoors a lot, even if I hadn't seen her on the soccer fields at school, but she was dressed up now in a pale blue dress that hung past her knees. At least it wasn't frilly.
But mostly what I noticed were what most twelve-year-old boys notice about fourteen-year-old girls when they go squeezing past them in the hallways. Girls her age are almost a half-a-foot taller than boys my age, which means boys my age can't help noticing anything that girls her age happen to have bulging out in front and hanging just a few inches south of the collar bone.
Lea Foster had a couple of those items. I briefly reacquainted myself with them before looking back up to meet her eyes. "You said it was a rush job?"
She nodded. "It's two jobs, actually. One's a rush, and the other's -- "
I dropped my bike on the porch. "Show me the rush job, then."
She pushed open the front door and led me into a foyer so dark and cold you could keep iced lemonade chilled in it for a week. "My parents are out running errands, and you need to take care of it before they get back," she said as she led me upstairs to the second floor.
"And the job is?"
She answered by pushing open a door and pointing into the bedroom beyond. I stuck my head in, and whistled.
A couple of bobcats strung out on Redline and powdered donuts could've made that kind of mess, but they would've needed a couple of hours to do it in: Someone had torn the sheets and quilts and drapes off the peach-colored canopied bed; gutted and eaten out the insides of a half-dozen books; and hurled and trampled a heap of school work and a box of pastel chalk all over the floor.
And that someone was still there, sitting in the middle of the floor, grinning at us.
It was a dog, a skinny thing with dark, bristly hair and ears that pointed straight up like a pair of cowlicks on a devil. It was small but wiry, built like a cross between a German shepherd and a coyote. It sat on its butt and panted happily at us, its tongue hanging sideways out its mouth. It only needed to whizz on the corner of the bed -- putting its signature on the scene, so to speak -- to look prouder of its labor.
"You don't need me, you need a maid service," I said.
"I don't mean the mess," she said, and for the first time I heard a temper inside that voice -- a thorn nestled inside the rose petals. "I mean the dog." She pointed at it, and it wagged its tail happily.
"So what do you want me to do?" I asked. "Spank it?"
"Get rid of it! Find out who it belongs to and take it back to them!"
"You mean it's not yours?"
"No, it's not mine! Do you think I'd keep a dog like that?"
Now her complexion curdled, and I saw she was wearing makeup because I could see the little cracks in it as she grimaced. I could also see she was right to be insulted by my assumption. She was the type to keep a lap dog -- one of those floppy little things you could stick a pole onto and use as a mop. Not this kind of dog, which obviously needed about twenty acres and a family of squirrels if it was going to be kept properly exhausted.
"So what's the story?" I asked.
* * *
It wasn't a long one, and it wasn't complicated. She'd come home from visiting her grandmother, who lived a couple of blocks over, and when she got upstairs she'd found this canine whirlwind closed up in her bedroom. Naturally, she had no idea where it came from, and naturally she realized it had been put there with malicious purpose. "Someone's trying to get me in trouble," she said, and big wet tears welled up in her big green eyes. "If my mom comes home and finds this mess and this dog," she wailed, "she'll think I snuck it in here!" It was only a fluke that she got home earlier than she'd planned, so she could call me out to help fix things.
I told her I could get rid of the dog -- that was no problem, it had a tag and everything. "That's great," she said. "But for your other job -- " And now her eyes glinted with anger. "I want you to find out who brought it up here. I've got a couple of ideas -- "
"Save 'em for when I get back," I said. "I should get the dog out while I can, and you should start making repairs before your folks -- "
Lea grabbed my arm. I levitated all over. But then I heard what she heard, what had made her panic.
It was the front door opening downstairs, and voices. I heard a woman say, " -- dropping a bicycle right where we need to -- "
I didn't need to hear any more. "Stall 'em," I growled.
She went out while I went in. The dog jumped at me, like a linebacker going for a tackle. I scooped him out of mid-air and hugged him to my chest. Voices on the stairway -- Lea was talking loudly -- told me that retreat was cut off in that direction. A quick look out the window showed a drop onto the roof of the porch, but I wasn't about to chance that kind of exit with twenty pounds of squirming dog in my arms. Instead, I ducked through a half-open door.
It led into en suite bathroom. There was a second door, and I gently toed it open and found an adjoining bedroom beyond. I hopped through and pulled the bathroom door shut behind me.
The voices were now just outside in the hall. Lea was pleading, almost crying over the sharp reprimands of a man and woman. I took a chance peeking out. Their backs were to me as they bawled Lea out.
I ran a dry tongue over my bottom lip and looked around. There was another bedroom just on the other side of the hall, and on instinct I danced into it before anyone could turn around to spot me.
It faced onto the back yard, and better still there was a French door leading onto a balcony running along the back of the house. The dog tried jumping out of my arms, and I stifled its squeal as I levered the door handle with my elbow. I got out just in time, and scuttled away when I heard Lea's dad say, "Honey, you left the balcony door open again." At the far end I found another French door and ducked back inside. It looked like a guy's bedroom -- messy on purpose -- and when I looked out into the hall I spotted another staircase going down the back way. I took it, came out in a kitchen, and went out a side door. A moment later I was back on the porch.
That's where I dropped the dog. "Whhhhtt!" I whistled softly as I picked up my bike. "Wanna go, boy? Wanna go home?" The dog gaped and grinned like that was the most sensational idea he'd ever heard, and three seconds later he was running alongside my bike, trying to bite the front wheel, as I raced down the street.
"Off the Leash"
I got the dog's name ("Barliman") and address from his tags. His owners lived only two blocks away, and I had him there in five minutes. A middle-aged woman with the face, whiskers and general shape of a walrus answered my knock, but she seemed only mildly surprised to see her dog with me. "What's he doing back here?" she asked as Barliman shot inside past her legs.
"I found him running loose," I said. "Is there a reward?"
"Reward?" She blinked her flat, sea-colored eyes stupidly. "No. Where did you find him? At the park? That's where Zachary was supposed to take him."
"Oh, Zachary's his walker? I didn't know that." I had no idea who "Zachary" was, but I tried to make it sound like I did.
She nodded. "Every day for an hour. Down to the dog park and off his leash so he can burn off some of that energy." She leaned heavily against the doorway -- I expected it to creak under the weight -- as she looked back over her shoulder at the clock. "He owes me another twenty minutes."
"I guess Barliman got away from him. He's at the dog park on Aransas Street? I'll go tell Zachary he can stop looking for him. I bet he's really worried."
"Oh, you don't have to -- Well -- " The woman got an expression on her face like you might get if you tried untangling a plate of spaghetti using only the power of your mind. "Hang on." She waddled back inside, and I kicked the doorjamb impatiently. But I was glad of the wait a minute later when she came back clutching three crumpled bills. "Here's a little something, just say to thanks for bringing him back."
I thought about offering to kick Zachary's butt for an extra twenty as punishment for almost losing her dog, but instead just thanked her and picked up my bike. After she closed the door, I sorted out the money.
Three ones. I was kind of hoping she'd accidentally mixed a five or even a ten in with them, but she hadn't.
* * *
And I was glad I hadn't made a side deal for a butt-kicking when I got to the park and got a look at Zachary. I went to a rough elementary school, so I can hit hard and I can hit fast, and I know where to hit people so they bend over, sit down, and don't feel in a hurry to get back up again real quick. But Zachary was out of my league. If he wasn't playing a defensive tackle for the Rams or the Patriots or a team from somewhere in between, it was only because there were laws stopping professional teams from hiring high school students, no matter how big and ugly and stupid they already were.
His shoulders looked like they were four feet wide, and he was more than half again that tall. He was scratching under a pit with one hand while also scratching at a patch of wiry black cheek fuzz with the other. I had to make a guess that he was Zachary, but it seemed a safe one, since he was the only guy in the dog park, and he had a leash, but he didn't have a dog. He scowled at me from under a caveman's brow as I skidded up to him. "Hey mister, you lose a dog?" I asked in my best "little kid" squeak.
"Oh. 'Cos you look like -- "
"Oh." I stood up so the seat of my bike didn't bite me so hard in the family jewels, and let my voice drop back to its normal pitch. "Because the fat lady who owns Barliman says if you don't have him back home in ten minutes she's going to call the high school and find another dog walker."
Zachary blinked and reared back. "What?"
A man of few words. His English teacher probably had to pry inside his mouth like a dentist to extract anything out of him.
I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. "I said you need to get Barliman back home in ten minutes. The fat lady sent me to tell you. You're Zachary, right?"
"Great. She gave me three dollars to come tell you. Now, if you do me a favor, I'll tell you where her dog got off to so you can go get him."
He blinked and did an expert and well-practiced impression of a dumb and easily baffled jockstrap. "What? I mean -- Where?"
"Uh-uh. You pay me first," I said. "That's okay, it won't cost you anything. I just want information."
His expression told me that my words might as well have been an algebra problem containing multiple variables, for all that he could understand what I was saying. So I leaned forward and explained it to him very slowly. "I'll tell you where the fat lady's dog is. But first, you have to tell me how the fat lady's dog got inside Lea Foster's bedroom."
He frowned, but a cagy look came into his eyes. "I dunno," he said.
"Oh, but you know what I'm talking about, right?" I replied. "Yeah, I know about Barliman getting up into Lea Foster's bedroom. And I bet you think that's where he is now, don't you? But he isn't there, Zach. And you're not going to know where to find him, so you can take him home, until you tell me how he got into Lea Foster's bedroom. Think about it," I added. "Think how much trouble you're going to be in if you can't give the fat lady her dog back."
I didn't like the way his meaty fists briefly bunched up. But he didn't do anything with them. He just surprised me with what for him was probably a soliloquy of Shakespearean eloquence and complexity: "I dunno where he went. I just let a guy borrow him."
"Just a guy, Zach? Just a stranger? You let a stranger go off with the fat lady's dog?"
"I know him." Zach seemed to think that was enough, but I waited for a name. Finally, though, I had to tell him what I was waiting for. "Sammy Taylor," he told me.
Then he lowered those thick, greasy eyebrows of his. "Now where's the dog?"
"Come find me when I got some more questions for you," I said, and shot away before he could lunge for my windpipe. I had a feeling I was going to have to squeeze some extra information out of him before I could wrap this caper up for Lea.
* * *
"Sammy Taylor?" Lea shrieked when I phoned her with the name. "I don't believe it!"
I was resting at a corner 7-11, having exchanged the fat lady's ones for a King-sized bag of M&Ms. I didn't want to see Lea again until the coast was clear at her place, and after asking in a friendly way if she was forgiven, grounded, or on her way to being enrolled in a Catholic girls' school on account of the mess in her room, I'd given her an update on my investigation. "So you don't believe it," I said. "Tell me who Sammy Taylor is that you don't believe he's the one who put the dog in your room."
She said nothing, and I could picture her squirming miserably. Actually, I could picture her squirming to lots of different adverbs, but "miserably" seemed the likeliest. "Sammy goes to the high school. He's friends with my brother, Rob."
"Do either you or your brother know a caveman named Zachary?"
"What? No, I don't know any cavemen. This is the twenty-first century, and cavemen are extinct."
I rolled my eyes and described the shaved gorilla I'd met at the dog park. "Oh, Zachary Finch," she said. "Yeah, he's a friend of Rob's. They're both sophomores."
Well, at least one of them is definitely sophomoric, I thought. "Does Zachary or Sammy have a key to your house?" I said aloud. "Could they get in?"
"No! Don't be stupid. Why would either of them have a key?"
"To put the dog inside your house, Lea. It's the only way it could get in there, unless Santa brought it down the chimney."
"I was going to tell you," she said, and her voice coiled tightly with fury. "I'm pretty sure it's Rob who did it. My brother."
"But Zachary didn't give the dog to your brother. He said he gave it Sammy."
"I don't believe it," she said. "It was Rob. Or Melanie Hyams," she added with a spasm of anger.
"So where can I find these guys?" I sighed.
"Rob said something this morning about going to the library. Melanie can go drown herself for all I care."
She said something else, but just then I saw a big black truck go cruising past, and I missed what Lea said as I ducked and turned my back to it. The gorilla from the dog park had a driver's license, I saw, because it was the gorilla from the dog park driving it. When I came up for air, I asked Lea to text me a picture of her brother so I could recognize him when I found him.
* * *
Not that I expected to find him at the city library. What kind of high school sophomore hangs out in an old folks' resort on a bright, crisp Sunday afternoon?
But Robert Foster would, I discovered. And I also found out why.
I spotted his reason for being there before I spotted him. She was a red-head with long, curly hair, a green sweater and a tartan skirt, and white stockings that went all the way up. She wore a badge identifying her as a library volunteer, and she was shelving books in the section where a high school sophomore with spiky, frosted hair and a soccer jersey was studying.
Or, where he was pretending to study. Better still -- where he had spread some books around in front of him. As for what he was actually doing: Rob Foster was leaning back in his chair, his feet perched against the edge of the table, grinning at the girl while manically clicking the button of a mechanical pencil.
I might do some Sunday afternoon studying too, if I had that kind of thing to study.
Neither Rob nor the girl knew me, but I didn't want them to spot me either, so I ducked into the stacks. I found a nice spot to spy on them from, and on a hunch I had my cell phone out when she slunk slowly past him, put her hand on his shoulder, swung around the other way, and put her mouth to his.
I dove out of sight after snapping the picture in case they noticed the flash, and scurried over to another vantage point.
If they noticed anything, neither one did anything about it. I peeked out again, watched for a moment, then pulled down a random book and slouched over to a table near where I could listen to them. I didn't expect to hear anything, and I didn't, except for some ooey-gooey flirting and some talk about an upcoming party. But that was interesting enough, and I took a lot of mental notes for later use.
I waited for maybe fifteen minutes before deciding I was wasting my time. Before I could get up and leave, though, the girl got a message on her phone, and after glancing at the screen she told Rob she had to get back to work, and she left him there. I watched him for a bit as he bent back over his books, then followed her out. I caught up to her in the periodical section, where I decided to tackle her directly.
"Hey, is there a vending machine around here?" I asked.
She did a little double take at me, then looked away. "No, this is a library. No food or drink allowed." She started collecting magazines off the tables.
"Really? Then how come the guy in the soccer shirt back there gets to eat donuts?" I pointed into the room she'd left.
She looked up sharply. "He's not eating donuts."
"Sure he is, a whole box of them. He's got a bottle of Coke out, too, and some potato chips."
"You're lying." Her expression curdled.
"Why would I? And how do you know he doesn't?"
"Because I know him, and he's been here all day, so where would he get the Coke and donuts and potato chips?"
I blinked. "He's been here since you opened?"
"That's right." She straightened up and glared down at me. "Our hours are ten-thirty to eight-thirty, you need a membership to check out a book, there's no food or drink allowed, and we politely ask liars to leave before we throw them out."
I shook my head. "We must be talking about different people then, because the guy I saw came in only about three minutes ago."
Her expression fell. "I guess we are," she snapped, and buzzed past me like a cloud of hornets.
I watched her for a little longer as she drifted around the main room of the library, because something about that phone message she got struck me as funny, and because she didn't once go back up to see Rob. About ten minutes later I saw what was bugging her, and it really bugged me when I saw it.
It was Zachary Finch. He came into the library and made straight for her. They talked for only a minute, but it was long enough for him to slip her a key.
"Deduce, He Said"
When I have an intellectual puzzle to sort out -- like a book report for English, or a rumor about a poltergeist haunting the school gym showers -- I like to go biking around Toomey Wilderness. That's a small nature preserve in the northwest part of town, with a small lake, a hundred-acre wood and lots of walking paths. I went there now, and rode around and around in a squashed-up kind of circle until I was ready to throw up. Then I rode down to the edge of the lake and chucked rocks at the spots where the fish were biting, on the off chance I hit something.
I did, but it wasn't a fish. I called Lea back. "I don't think your brother did it," I told her. "So who's Melanie Hyams?"
"Just a girl at school."
"Does she have red hair, like to wear green sweaters, and work down at the city library?"
There was a long pause on the other end. "She used to help out at the library," Lea said. "But I heard they asked her to quit because she was too stupid to learn how to put the books back."
"Maybe she just had her mind on other things," I said. "But why do you think she snuck the dog into your room?"
"Because it's the kind of thing she'd do."
"I need more than that if I'm going to accuse her of breaking into your house and trashing your bedroom."
"Well, who said anything about accusing -- ?"
"I thought you did. Isn't that why you hired me? You did hire me, didn't you?"
I let her breathe softly into the phone, and I closed my eyes while listening to it. I could almost imagine that soft breath coming through the phone to rub and tickle my ear.
"She's just a girl at school," Lea repeated.
I ground the heel of my hand into an eye socket and wished for something strong to drink. A double-Dutch chocolate milk with a shot of Hershey syrup would have done nicely. "Why do you think she'd do something like that to you?"
"Because she hates me."
I pushed her. "On account of -- ?"
"On account of a guy, okay?" She sniffed. "This guy," she repeated.
I wrapped my free arm around my chest to keep my heart from squeezing out through my rib cage, where it would probably flop around and die panting on the shoreline like a fish. "Who was the guy?" I said. "And what's the story?"
"It doesn't matter, does it?"
I was beyond caring now. At least, that's what I told myself. "Are you going to tell me, or do you want me to say the name?"
I heard her gasp. Then in a tight little voice she said, "It was Sammy Taylor. Okay?"
Usually when my hunches get confirmed I do a little dance. I do it privately, in my bedroom, in the closet, where no one can see, because my little victory dances are like something out of a Russian ballet. I go up on point, jump for the ceiling, twirl, and come down in a lazy spin while congratulating myself on my smarts.
But this time I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me.
Lea was still talking. Having gotten over the hump, she was rattling downhill fast. "It all happened last year, at school, you know, because he was still at Ziegman then, okay? I mean, he's a freshman now and he's at the high school, but last year he was -- Well, me and Melanie, we both wanted to go to the spring dance with him, right? But he asked me, okay, and we went. So that's the story, and she's hated me ever since!"
"So where does your brother fit in?"
That stopped her. "He doesn't. Does he?"
"He never went out with Melanie?"
"Oh, God! No! He's two years older than she is!"
But she's catching up fast, I thought. "Alright, calm down," I said, and changed my mind about sending her that picture I'd snapped in the library, of Rob Foster and Melanie Hyams practicing hands-free dentistry on each other. "I just wanted to be sure." I thought quickly. "Are you at home? What about your parents? Rob, is he there?"
"Who do you want to hear about first? Rob's not here, I'm grounded, and my mom and dad went out again. They won't be back until late tonight."
I had an idea, and I thought it could work, but it was chancy and would come to nothing if I didn't get over to her place fast enough. "Here's what I want you to do," I said. "Text your brother and tell him he needs to come home. But then you need to lock all the doors and windows so he can't get in."
"He has a key," she retorted.
"Sure he does," I told her as I straddled my bike again. "Sure he does."
* * *
I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the house next door, my bike in my lap like I was fixing the chain, when Rob Foster glided up on a ten-speed from the other direction. I watched from under my lowered brows as he leapt off with the graceful ease of a natural athlete, laid the bike against the porch railing, and sprang lightly toward the front door with his hand out.
And he almost broke his nose on it when it didn't open. His voice was muffled by the distance between us, but I could still make out the hard, crackling final consonant of the cuss word he said. He grabbed the door handle again.
Then from his front pocket he pulled out something that glittered metallically. My heart sank, then bobbed up again as he frowned down at it. I caught the glint of sunlight off the key ring as he searched it. He couldn't have had more than four keys on it, so it didn't take him long. Then he started feeling at his pockets.
I bit down hard on a grin as he slid his backpack off, searched it and all his pockets, reexamined his key ring, and finally gave up to beat on the door and press the bell. A minute later it was opened from the inside.
I decided to give them five minutes before calling Lea back, then gave them five minutes more in case they had fallen into a family quarrel. And then instead of calling her directly, I texted Lea to ask if she was free to talk. She texted back a quick ok that might have meant nothing and might have meant a lot.
"Did your brother say what happened to his key?" I asked as soon as she picked up.
"No, he just said he couldn't find it in his bag." Her tone turned shrewd. "How did you know he couldn't find it?"
"Look out your window so I can wave to you. Anything else get said?"
"He yelled at me for having everything locked up." She paused. "And I asked him if he's been hanging around with Melanie Hyams."
I patted myself on the back again. I was pretty sure just mentioning Rob's name in close proximity to hers would get her to say something. "What did he say about her?"
She tore into another gale. "He said he could hang around with her if he wanted, and that she works down at the city library besides. And I told him that she got fired and he said she didn't and that even if she did get fired she got her job back because she was working down there today. Is that true? Did you see them? Was she there?"
"Don't worry about it, Lea. You're more worried about Sammy, aren't you?" I listened to her breathing some more, but now it was ragged, and I imagined it as a hot wind that could blister skin. "Besides," I said, "even if Melanie and your brother are friendly now, I have a feeling they won't be friendly for very long."
Before she could ask what I meant, I hung up. I had wanted to ask her about Sammy, and where he might be hanging out, but after the way she exploded when I put Melanie's name and Rob's name next to each other, I didn't want to risk putting Sammy's in there too.
Because I didn't get an A in Mr. Erhardt's basic chemistry class for nothing, you know. I learned which kind of combustible chemicals you can mix for fun, and which kind you keep in cool, dry, dark underground bunkers on separate continents.
After hanging up, I rode my bike back to the library, where the prune-faced old bag at the front desk told me that yes, Melanie Hyams used to do some volunteer work at the library but no, she didn't anymore, though she was welcome to visit like any regular patron, and yes, she had been at the library all day, and was I or wasn't I going to check out a book? I told her I couldn't because I wasn't a member, and she went away muttering about kids today and their Twitter and their social media.
By now I was stupidly pleased with myself and my deductions, so stupidly pleased I didn't even notice the black truck parked out near the front of the library when I went out again. But even if I had noticed it, it wouldn't have done me any good. A hand the size of a catcher's mitt landed on my shoulder as the front door closed behind me. The owner of said hand spun me around, and once he had his other hand on my jacket he lifted me off the ground. I gaped back into a face that was as bristly as a boar's and twice as mean.
"Where's the dog?" Zachary Finch asked me.
"A Tangled Trail"
I let my mouth hang open and my tongue flap around for as long as I dared. "Ong ong ong," I said, hoping that someone would come out of the library and make Zachary put me down.
No one did. And no one was there to stop him when he used my shoulder blades to punch a hole in the wall, and no one was there to say a word when he put his face real close to mine and said, "Where's the dog?" again. His breath smelled like tuna fish.
"Didn't you find him, Zach? He should have been right where I left him!"
"Where's the dog?" His face flushed a very deep purple, which made the whites of his zits pop out even more vividly.
"I told you -- "
"You didn't tell me anything!" He bashed me against the wall again.
"I didn't? Aw, jeez, man, I'm sorry, I thought I did, right before I took off! Here, I'll make it up to you, I'll take you straight to him."
"Just tell me where he is!"
"No, I'll take you to him, it's the least I can do. And that way you'll know I'm being straight with you!"
Zachary's little piggy eyes gleamed darkly, and his mouth rolled up into a sneer. "Yeah, I guess you will," he said as he dropped me. But he kept a crushing grip on my shoulder as he dragged me over to his truck.
He wasn't taking any chances with me. He didn't relax his grip -- it was raising bruises, I was sure -- until he'd flung open the driver's side door and thrown me into the cab. As I scrambled over, he hit the automatic lock to keep me from jumping out the other side. "Where do we go?" he asked as the truck roared to life. He hit the accelerator a couple of times, making the engine roar again, as he turned on me.
I told him it was complicated and I'd have to give him directions. I thought fast and kept my mouth shut after we hurtled out onto Klaymer Avenue, and gave him some random directions to screw with his internal compass while I figured out a long-term plan to ditch him. He soon got suspicious at all the doubling back I had him doing, and I had to pretend like I couldn't find the landmarks I was looking for. But I knew all the back streets and alleys in the neighborhood from the three years I delivered papers in this part of town, and I soon figured out an escape caper. After that, I just gave him directions that would take us to where I knew I could lose him.
During those moments when I wasn't telling him to turn left or to go back or to keep an eye out for an apartment building with an ugly mural on its side, I started dropping hints about other business. "So I know you let Sammy Taylor borrow the dog for the afternoon. What did he say when he couldn't get it back to you?"
"Shut up," Zachary said.
"Really, he said that to you? You let Sammy Taylor talk to you like that?" I looked back innocently as Zachary glared at me. "You probably don't want to pay him any favors, then. I mean, look at the way he's got you in trouble." Zachary punched me in the shoulder, and I gasped. "But that's okay, he's going to be in a lot of trouble on account of some other stuff soon."
I let the bait dangle, and Zachary ignored it until after I had him turn into a neighborhood where the speed limit was only twenty-five -- more delay. Finally, Zachary bit. "What trouble? That Sammy's in," he asked.
"Trouble with the key, man."
"The key. The one Sammy gave to you so you could give it to Melanie."
He hunched his shoulders. "I don't know what you're talking about."
I laughed. "How dumb do you think I am? I've been running circles around you and your friends all afternoon. Do you really think I don't know about the key?" I shook my head. "If you wanted to do Sammy a favor, you'd tell him that he needs to get the key back from Melanie, 'cos she's not going to be able to do a thing with it."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Zachary repeated.
"You don't have to. Just tell Sammy that Melanie's stuck with the key. He'll understand even if you don't. Or don't tell him. That's what I'd do, because Sammy's a double-crossing rat-fink who -- Oh hey, stop here!"
I yelled this both because I saw Zachary was about to punch me again, and because I saw this was the spot where I wanted to be. My abductor pulled up next to a curb, and because he had brains like uncooked pizza dough he let me get out on my side of the truck. Once I had my sneakers on the street, I popped into a sprint that would have won me a medal at any state-wide track meet.
We were in a tiny residential neighborhood just in back of a strip center, with a water tower and a fire station just around the corner. I heard Zachary shouting hoarsely after me as I flew away, but though I didn't think he could catch me, I didn't look back. I couldn't afford to lose even half a second, because I didn't just need to keep out of his reach, I needed to get somewhere I could lose him. If I could just get past the fire station and around the corner out of sight for fifteen seconds, I'd be okay.
I pounded into a cul-de-sac and scorched a trail over the asphalt as I shot for the sidewalk between the fire station and the water tower. I felt my guts loosen when I heard the roar of a motor behind me -- Zachary was trying to catch me in his truck since he couldn't manage on foot. I hit the sidewalk just in time to hear the squeal of brakes, and I hooked a left around the fire station just as a truck door slammed shut. In front of me was a wooden fence fronted by a box hedge. I threw myself into a dark hole near the roots --
And slammed head-first into the fence. Thunder rang inside my skull, and I reeled back. But I kept my cool, and even though my brain was bouncing like Jell-O on a trampoline, I scuttled stomach down into the narrow space between the hedge and the fence. I kept to long, slow, deep breaths, and lay very still. This wasn't where I was aiming for, but I hoped it would work for the moment.
Footsteps pounded up, and through the gap beneath the hedge I saw Zachary's dirty sneakers. He paced up and down, and I heard him silently cussing. I'll say this, he was a lot more eloquent and inventive with the bad words than he was with regular ones. His feet came right up to my hiding place, and for a moment I thought he was going to bend down and peer under the hedge.
Instead, he took out his cell phone and made a call. Edited for cuss words and pauses, this is what he said:
"Hey. No, he got away from me. I dunno, he just had me drive around. Like a phishing scam or something. But hey, he did say one thing. He said to tell you that Melanie's stuck with the key. I dunno, he said you'd understand. He said you need to get it back. Yeah, I'd like to make him eat it too. Naw, I'm gonna go back to the library and mess his bike up bad, I made him leave it there."
I grinned at all this, though it wasn't a happy grin, and I didn't get to hear everything he said because once he got the idea for messing up my bike he started to walk away. But that was okay. I peeked out in time to see him vanish back around the side of the fire station, then I crawled back out.
The whole thing was going pretty good, and I was practically counting out the money that Lea Foster owed me. But I'd be spending it on bike repairs instead of videogames unless I got back to the library before Zachary did. I didn't know how long it would take him to untangle the trail I'd laid, but he had a truck, and I only had a short cut that had mysteriously gone missing.
Fortunately, I discovered that I'd only dived into the wrong hole under the hedge. The one I wanted was about eight feet down. I scrambled through it and the hole in the fence on the other side and came out in the yard beyond. The golden retriever whose yard it was jumped up and ran over with a short bark, but I only spared him a quick scratch behind the ears before dashing diagonally across the yard and vaulting the fence on the other side. That took me to another short street that came out fifty yards later directly behind the library -- the place Zachary had kidnapped me from twenty minutes before.
I chuckled as I wondered if he'd ever figure out that we'd driven almost five miles only to wind up two hundred yards from where we'd started.
* * *
My bike was still where I'd dropped it, and I scooped it up and pedaled down some back roads toward my house. I desperately needed to replenish my reserves after all the leg work I'd put into the case, and I also wanted a little time to plot out the next move. I knew where all the pieces now were, and I had a pretty good idea how they fit together. But getting proof was going to be tricky.
Then it turned out I didn't have to, because I had a visitor when I got home. My mom yelled for me after I slammed the door shut: "Emile!" I almost sprained something from wincing so hard at the name. "Is that you?"
"Yeah, but I'm only back for a little bit!"
"You have a friend to see you!"
I froze. A friend? All my mates know better than to show up unexpected at my house. I cautiously put my head into the kitchen.
My mom was cleaning the sink, and she looked up at me long enough to smile and to push back her brown hair with a hand encased in a yellow rubber glove. She didn't introduce me to my visitor, naturally, since she thought we knew each other.
For his part, my visitor just smiled and held up a baseball. "Hey man," Sammy Taylor said. "I just came over to see if you wanted to play ball."
"The Devil Shows His Cards"
I'm not the kind of guy who likes to play ball. If I was into team sports, I never would've become the ace trouble-shooter at Ziegman Middle School.
On the other hand ... there's playing ball, and then there's playing ball.
So I smiled back at Sammy Taylor, said that sounded like a great idea, and told my mom we'd be in the back yard. I didn't think Sammy would try kidnapping me, but I wasn't going to take any chances after the play date I'd had with Zachary, and I wanted my mom to know where to find me if I needed her.
It surprised me a little that my mom would accept a freshman like Sammy Taylor as one of my friends. For a start, he was almost a full head taller than me, and his face had lost anything that looked even a little bit like baby- or middle-school fat. He reminded me a little of Rob Foster -- he had the same lean build, like a basketball player, and he walked with a relaxed swagger. He was dressed like he hadn't changed from church, like he'd only unbuttoned all the tight bits: tan slacks, a blue Oxford shirt now rolled up past his elbows, a red tie casually loosened, and dark brown loafers. He had a ball cap set slantways atop his blonde hair.
I only vaguely remembered him from my sixth-grade year at Ziegman, and I never knew his name, but it only took me about five seconds to figure out who he was. I based my deduction partly on his age and partly on the fact that he looked like the kind of freshman that two eighth-grade girls would fight over. But mostly I deduced it from the fact that he was smart enough to track me down, and to introduce himself by saying he wanted to "play ball" with me. Sammy Taylor was the only guy I knew of who might fit both descriptions.
So when we were in the back yard, I put my hand up to receive the baseball. "Great to finally meet you, Sammy," I said.
"Same here, Marty," he said as he pitched the ball lazily at me. "I hear you're really good at fixing problems," he continued as I pitched it back.
"Where'd you hear that?"
"Oh, I called around. I was at Ziegman last year, you know, and after I talked to some people I figured out who you were and where I could find you. You know, I got a problem you could help me with." He tossed me the ball. "Same as you've got a problem I could help you with."
"What's my problem?"
"Zachary Finch," he said as he caught my pitch. "He's pretty mad at you. He lost a dog, and you won't tell him where it is."
"So I'll tell him where the dog is and then he'll be happy again."
Sammy shook his head. "He's going to be in a lot of trouble with the dog's owner, even when he gets it back, because he's had it out so long. But if you help me with my problem, I can talk to Zachary so he doesn't hold a grudge."
I could have told Sammy right then that I didn't need his help, because the dog was already back with his fat lady owner. In fact, I could hardly believe that none of these guys -- smart guys who'd pulled that canine caper on Lea Foster -- had thought to check if the dog was back in its own yard.
But I wanted to see what Sammy's problem was, so I just held up my hand and asked him to tell me his troubles. I caught the ball at almost the same instant I caught on to what he needed.
"I have a key," he said, "and I need to get it back to Rob Foster without him knowing I took it."
"You didn't take it, Sammy. Melanie Hyams took it off him, right?"
Sammy whistled. "They're right about you, Marty, you're pretty smart. Yeah, she took it off him, passed it to me. But she missed her chance to get it back on him. I could give it to you, though, and you could go see Rob, tell him you heard about his missing key, and pretend to look for it and pretend to find it."
"You could do the same scam, Sammy."
"I don't want him thinking I was anywhere close to that key."
Sammy had been wearing a relaxed smile all this time, but now it faded, and his face got very hard. "You've been acting smart up to now, Marty. So don't pretend you're dumb. You know what happened up in his sister's room, and who fixed it up that way. I'm guessing you got it cleaned up before Lea got in too much trouble, but I don't need Rob getting the idea it was me who did it. I'm his friend, but she's his sister, and he'd take her side over mine any day of the week."
I thought of how Lea's first instinct was to blame her brother for the frame-up. I wondered what she'd think if she heard what Sammy had said, and if she'd feel guilty for suspecting Rob.
"Maybe I can help you there," I replied. "But tell me why you did it, Sammy. I thought you liked Lea. She said you took her to the spring dance."
"Oh, well." He shrugged his shoulders, then snickered and threw the ball behind his back and caught it as it flew back over his shoulder. "That was last spring. Me and Melanie made a connection this last summer. Besides, Rob wasn't too happy about me dating his sister. It made things complicated between us."
"So you dumped Lea for Melanie. That still doesn't explain why you did the thing with the dog."
Sammy got an ugly look on his face, and he bounced the ball off his bicep a couple of times. "That was Melanie's idea. She said she wouldn't go out with me unless I did that thing, in order to prove to her I was over Lea."
I don't like taking showers, but Sammy's casual confession made me want to go out and get myself steam-cleaned all over. "You like Melanie that much, that you'd do that to Lea?"
"Haven't you seen Melanie?" He grinned, and hurled the baseball hard at me. "Didn't you see her at the library this afternoon? She saw you. She's the one who remembered you and told me where to find you."
Flattering as it was to hear that Melanie Hyams knew who I was, I didn't feel any more kindly toward her. But I wasn't being perverse or vindictive when I dropped the ball and took out my cell phone. "Yeah, I saw her this afternoon," I said as I advanced on Sammy. I opened an app and pulled up the most recent photo I'd taken. "I even took her picture when I saw her this afternoon." I held up my phone to show him.
The glint in Sammy's eye flared briefly then died as he took in the scene of Melanie and Rob. A muscle worked in his lean, tanned cheek. He stared at the photo and he stared at it some more, then looked away. "So that's how she got the key off him without him noticing," he murmured.
"She probably meant to get it back onto him the same way," I said. "She was probably going to try lots of times to get it back onto him." Sammy scowled at me, then looked away.
My heart was beating hard over a decision I had to make, and it kept beating hard even after I made it. "I won't sneak Rob's key back into his house for you," I told Sammy. "But I'll make a phone call to clear the coast so you can sneak in and drop it in his backpack or someplace. Or maybe you shouldn't be the one to sneak it in," I continued as my voice cracked. "Maybe you could give it someone else, and she could try sneaking it in. If she moved fast, there's a pretty good chance she wouldn't get caught."
Sammy Taylor held my eye for a very long time. Only once did his gaze dart briefly down to my cell phone, which still showed the picture of his girlfriend and his best friend kissing. Then he sighed.
"Well, if you can at least make that phone call, I can get Zachary to leave you alone."
"No you don't," I said. "The phone call is my favor to you. I already took the dog back to its owner. She just thinks it ran away from Zachary, so the Sasquatch isn't even in any trouble with her."
"Fah!" Sammy said. "You sure like to play it dangerous, kid. But I'll take that phone call."
So I made it, right there in front of him. I called Lea and told her to get herself and her brother out of the house on some business or other. She said she'd text me when they were gone.
Then I sent Sammy away, telling him I'd text him when I heard the coast was clear. But once he was gone and I was inside again, I called Lea back. "Never mind what I just told you, you and Rob stay there. But turn out the lights and lock the doors. Someone's going to try getting into your house, and that someone is going to use a key to get in. It's Rob's key they'll be using. And the person who comes inside with Rob's key is going to be the person who put that dog up in your room. That's the guilty person, and you'll know they're guilty because they used Rob's key to get in."
"Who is it?" Lea asked breathlessly.
"I don't know who it will be," I said truthfully. "I've just set it up so the guilty person thinks you're not home. So the guilty person is going to try breaking in so they can return the key to your brother's backpack."
"Rob really lost his key? So he's not guilty?"
Oh, he's guilty, alright, I didn't say. Just not guilty of that.
"The Key to It All"
I was halfway over to Lea's when I texted Sammy that the Fosters were gone. I figured that would give me plenty of time to get over there, even if he made straight for their place. I'd have even more time if he went to see Melanie, and arranged for her to try returning the key.
I didn't know which way I hoped it would go. I didn't think Sammy deserved the chance I was giving him, but I knew I had to give it to him anyway.
That's because I always try to play fair with my clients, and I'd sort-of taken him on as one. If he didn't take the chance I was giving him, it was his own fault.
Lea met me on the porch and let me hide my bike in the side yard. She was very excited about the mystery, and pestered me about who it was going to be. "I told you I don't know," I snapped at her. "It's been a huge mess, this whole thing."
She looked wounded by my tone, and I relented. "I'm just tired and jumpy," I told her. "I had a guy chase me, and another guy pop out at me, and I talked to a couple of really nasty people at the library." I looked at the time on my phone. "And at six hours, this case has taken longer than any other I've ever worked."
She took me inside and we made sure to lock the front door. Rob was upstairs studying, she said, and since his bedroom looked into the back yard no one would be able to see the light from the front. She told me I could come upstairs and keep her company in her bedroom while we waited and while she finished cleaning up the mess the dog had made. I told her not to be stupid, that the guilty person might see her through the window, and that we should wait in the kitchen.
So we sat in there. She gave me some milk and Oreos. I already liked her a lot, and a sweet thing like that made me like her even more.
* * *
We sat and talked very quietly for almost twenty minutes, and she'd almost made me forget what we were waiting for when we heard a scratching sound from the foyer. We darted over to the doorway and peered out. The top of the front door had a thick pane of heavily frosted glass set in it, but we could only see a shadow against it.
The key scraped at the lock again, and turned. Lea grabbed my hand. My heart did a triple somersault into the back of my throat and stuck the landing when it came back down.
The door opened, and a figure slipped inside. I only had to glimpse the length and shape of the silhouette to know who it was, and I ducked back into the kitchen to escape being seen.
Lea was too transfixed to notice my disappearance. For a moment she hung fire.
Then she shrieked. "Sammy!"
I crept into another room and hid myself. I didn't want to hear the yelps, the accusations, the recriminations, the tears.
But mostly I didn't want Lea to see my grin.
Because the idiot had done it. I'd given him a chance to throw the blame onto Melanie Hyams, where it most truly belonged. But the fool had decided to let her skate. He'd take the chance and he'd take the blame, because he was that silly in love with her.
And because he didn't really care for Lea. She'd see that now. It would completely break that crush she had on him.
So I grinned and did my really embarrassing victory pirouette in the Fosters' laundry room. I didn't have to hear the words -- Lea's yells and Sammy's protests, and then Rob's own shouts once he was down from his room. On and on they went as they went at each other, and as I danced up and down. They hurled accusations and excuses and threats, getting louder and louder and louder, and each blow they struck was a stone in the monument of victory I was erecting myself in my own head. And when their voices died and the front door slammed and all was quiet again, I had to take a moment to rub my face very hard and recompose myself so I wouldn't look as ecstatic as I felt when I came back out.
Lea was looking around the kitchen with an expression of loss and confusion when I emerged. Her lower lip was hanging down somewhere near her knees, and her cheeks were trenched with tears. She did a little double-take at me. "Oh," she said. "So that's where you were."
"Yeah. I didn't think you needed me there. Not for that."
She nodded, and heaved back a racking sigh. "You really didn't know it was him who did it?"
"Not for sure," I said. "I'm sorry it was."
"So am I," she said, and her voice cracked.
I thought about going over to put my arms around her, but she looked like she was holding it together too good for that kind of thing. Besides, I didn't want to look too eager.
But I didn't think it would do any harm to make a friendly gesture. The kind of gesture that might lead to friendlier ones later on, now that Sammy had been cleared away.
"So tomorrow's Monday," I said. "If you need someone to carry your books home, I'm available." I smiled. "I won't even charge you for it."
But she didn't smile back. Her frown turned thoughtful, and she looked over my shoulder into the distance. "Oh, that's right, I owe you something, don't I? Um, can I pay you tomorrow at school?"
"Or after." I shrugged awkwardly. "The book-carrying offer still stands."
But she only nodded vaguely. "That's okay. Tyler Richmond lives a couple of houses up. I can carry my own books, but I'll walk home with him." She avoided my eye as she said it.
* * *
I wish I could say I was shocked, gobsmacked, horribly betrayed. But my heart only made a slight lurch, the kind you make when you put your foot out for a step that's a little lower than you expect. And after that, everything went right back to where it was supposed to be.
After all, it made sense. Tyler Richmond was one of the stars on the Ziegman soccer team, and looked like a year-younger model of Sammy. More to the point: Lea Foster was fourteen years old and in the eighth grade, while I was a precocious twelve-year-old who was only in the seventh. And as she'd pointed out about Rob and Melanie: It was ridiculous for kids two years apart in age to go out together. All things considered, she'd let me down in a very gentle way.
So I told her she could pay me at school on Monday, and she thanked me effusively in a voice that was sweeter than everything she'd fed me, and then she told me I could let myself out as I seemed to know the way. I retrieved my bike and took a very long route home, so that it was nearly dusk when I got there.
My mom let me sit at the table for a very long time before asking me what the matter was. I decided to let her get the wrong idea, the same as I'd let myself get the wrong idea, so I told her it was about a girl.
And naturally she got hold of it by completely the wrong angle, and I got listen to a lecture about how I shouldn't be so shy with girls, and if I liked a girl I should tell her so, and above all I should show her in a very courteous and respectful way how I felt.
And I listened to it all without paying attention to one word of it, because that's exactly what I'd done and look at what it had gotten me: Just enough money for a videogame.