The first Buster Heyman adventure.
|Welcome to Old Growth. It's a beautiful town nestled in a valley, surrounded by redwood and sequoia trees. If you look closely at the main street, you'll notice something strange. No, its not Mr. Frigids Ice Cream or Hammerfell Hardware. Have a look at Big Zap Electronics.
What's so strange about it? We need to get closer, come on. Look at the prices of all the latest game systems. Prices so low, a worm writhing in the dirt could appreciate them. Why are they so cheap? Good question. The children in Old Growth play a game. The ultimate game. No one knows when it started or who started it or why it lasted so long. I could explain how the game works, but we'd be here all day.
Instead, we will follow a new player on his way to Old Growth now. His name is Buster Heyman, and his mother just died a month ago. Josiah Heyman, his father, used to be a big city detective. After his sweet Annabel passed away, he quit. The thought of Buster being alone hurt worse than losing her.
Detective Josiah Heyman poked his son in the arm, "You want to talk about this morning?" he said.
Buster nodded, "I smelled pancakes when I woke up. I ran to the kitchen and expected to see her. I felt so stupid." Since the funeral, Buster's mind had been playing tricks on him. It was nice to know her memory could ambush him at any moment. Each time it did, he felt the pain all over again.
"I'll tell you a secret. My mind plays tricks on me too. Which is why we are moving to my hometown with Aunt Millie." Mr. Heyman said. There was a faraway look in his eyes. "We need a fresh start."
Try to convince an eleven-year-old its a good idea to rip him from his friends and familiar surroundings during a difficult time. You have a better chance of catching lightning in a bottle. "How come I never met Aunt Millie?" Buster asked.
Det. Heyman shrugged, and a mysterious smile touched his face. "Aunt Millie is a little leery of the outside world. She believes Old Growth is the best place to live."
Buster was confused. "If Old Growth was so awesome, how come you left?"
Det. Heyman chuckled and then sighed. "I needed more than Old Growth to grow, do you know what I mean?" He asked. The smile remained on his face. It wasn't the fake one he wore at the funeral. This one felt real.
The trees on the side of the road were a blur. It made the truck look like it was going at light speed across the universe. In Buster's mind, this would be the highlight of his day. "No, I don't." He saw a sign that stated Old Growth was just ahead. "What is so great about this place anyway?"
"Oh, I think you have to find that out for yourself. Words can't do it justice." Det. Heyman said. He put on the blinker and turned down a road with a bridge. The truck rattled across it. "Which reminds me," He reached into the center console and produced a pair of real police badges, and tossed them to Buster.
The badges looked super cool. For a moment, Buster forgot his sadness and imagined he was chasing some thief down an alleyway. "I like the badges, dad, but what am I supposed to do with them?"
Det. Heyman rubbed his son's shoulder and asked, "What did I tell you about answers?"
It was a question Buster dreaded. Every time his dad asked it, Buster would reply with, "Answers are meaningless unless you know how you got them."
"And?" Det Heyman added.
"Not to judge until you have all the facts," Buster answered in a sullen tone. He couldn't wait to play some Alley Fighter Five when they arrived at Millie's. The happy moment had passed. All he wanted was to hide from the world.
The concrete ended and gave way to cobblestone streets and turn of the century buildings. Buster's eyes opened wide. "This looks like Danger City from Stupendous Sharkman," He exclaimed.
"It gets better. Wait until you see the ultimate playground." Det. Heyman said as he raised his eyebrow.
Buster scowled and shook his head. "I don't play anymore, dad. That's kid stuff. My friends and I hung out." Honestly, was Buster six again? "I don't see myself..." If you wondered why Buster trailed off, it was because the playground was unlike any other he had seen.
At first, the park seemed like any standard park. As they drove past, it became so much more. Modified WWII planes sat at the back. A great castle made of wood loomed in the distance and countless other attractions to fuel the imagination. For a moment, the weight of sadness lifted off of Buster.
"Something wrong, son?" Det. Heyman asked with a grin.
The only problem was his dad hadn't shown him sooner. "Okay, I take back what I said. Do lots of kids hang out there?" Buster's tone was mature. Underneath Buster's calm exterior, his imagination ran wild.
Again, the mysterious smile on his dad's face. "You could say that. I suggest you find out. The summer is wide open, and it's an opportunity to make friends before school starts. You can't do that if you hide behind your video game screen all summer."
Something in his tone made Buster want to know more. The playground invaded his thoughts like an army laying siege to a fortress. They pulled down an oak-lined street. Buster had to rub his eyes on more than one occasion.
They passed a house with children lined up at the gate. Two bigger boys were standing next to a velvet rope. Buster watched as they let two kids in and then pushed the others back. On the next street, A boy and a girl dressed like a king and queen holding court. Every street provided something new to see.
Back home, all of his friends were more interested in video games. So were most of the kids in school, for that matter. Most of them were nose deep in their cell phones. Buster used to be one of them. Here not a single child had a cellphone in their hand. "Does anyone here play video games? Or heard about the modern world?"
Det. Heyman chuckled and turned into a gravel driveway. "You'll have to find out for yourself. The answer may surprise you." He put the truck in park and unlocked the doors. "Aunt Millie is a bit different, but she is giving us a place to stay until we get on our feet. Be nice."
His dad spoke in the police voice, to show Buster he meant business. Buster was smart enough not to argue with him. Aunt Millies House was old and purple. It looked cool, but the color put him off.
The door opened, and a tall woman about his dad's age came out to greet them. Her hair looked like she had stuck her finger in a light socket. She dressed like a kid show character. Why anyone would wear so many polka dots was beyond him.
Aunt Millie waved and walked towards the truck. "Remember, be nice." His father reminded him.
"Josiah. Its been what, eleven years since I last saw you." She said as her polka-dotted arms wrapped around her brother. She turned and saw Buster. "You must be Buster." She turned back to Det. Heyman. "He sure looks like dad when he was a kid," she said.
"His mom says..." Det. Heyman trailed off and looked like someone stabbed him in the gut. Aunt Millie's face grew concerned, and then a forced smile appeared on her face.
"Your dad and I need to have a long talk. Ashton Warrick welcomes the new kids. Why don't you see if he's home?" She handed Buster ten dollars, "Lunch is on me today, and supper is at six. It'll do you some good to get acquainted with your new home."
Buster didn't want to leave his dad. He wanted to be there for him, and even the mystery of Old Growth couldn't cure him of the sadness he felt. "But dad needs me..."
Millie gave him a soft look and hugged him. It was familiar, comforted him, and soothed the ache in his heart. "You need to be a kid. It's our job to get you through this, not the other way around." She said. "Now, go."
Off buster went to explore the unfamiliar surroundings. The houses weren't similar. Each one differed in size and shape. Ashton's house looked out of place compared to the menagerie that came before it.
He grabbed the lion head knocker attached to the hardwood door. He rapped it three times and waited. A woman wearing a power suit with her hair tied back in a bun answered. "Can I help you?" she asked.
By this time, Buster was more confused. "Umm, is Ashton home. I am new in town."
"Are you here about the position?" The woman asked.
"Ummm...Yes?" Buster said.
"Upstairs, second door on the right." The phone rang. "Mrs. Warrick speaking. I am afraid he is in a meeting right now. Can I take a message." She paused and pointed up the stairs.
He looked at the pictures on the wall. Some were old. He stopped in front of one "Josiah Heyman and Randall Warrick KJD forever." was etched into the frame. What was the KJD? How did his dad fit into all of this? His need for answers drove him forward.
The answers came soon enough as he knocked on a door with a plaque on it. "Ashton Warrick, Chief of KJD." was all it said. A boy's voice came from the other side and said, "Enter."
Buster got the same sensation he did when he entered Captain Holtz's office back home. Everything was neat and ordered. Ashton dressed like a detective. A black button-up shirt, with grey slacks, and some stylish shoes. In a shoulder holster sat a foam dart gun.
Buster felt a little intimidated, like the first time he met Captain Holtz. "I am Buster Heyman. My aunt Millie said you welcomed new kids?"
Ashton leaned against the desk. "Heyman, you say? Are you, Josiah Heymans boy?" he asked. He was one of those soft-spoken kids, the kind you leaned in to hear.
"Yes, we just got here today," Buster replied.
"I see, so you'll know about the Kids Justice Department?"
Ashtons words grabbed Buster's brain and put it in a headlock. "Kid Justice Department?" Buster asked. It would be the first time he heard it, and wouldn't be the last time he said it.
"Come on." Ashton slid a trenchcoat over his shoulders. The look suited him. "Let's go for a walk. I'll let you in on the town's biggest secret, KJD included," he said
The problem with being a detectives son is the inability to leave any mystery, big or small, alone. Buster knew he was on the verge of a great discovery. "Lead the way," He said.
Mrs. Warrick was busy. A line of ingredients was on the counter. Buster remembered when his mom used to bake. She wasn't very good at it, and her cookies were akin to hockey pucks. He could still see her face covered in flour and a ridiculous grin on her face. He fought to hold the tears back.
Ashton noticed and hurried him to the door. "Mom, we are going out for a while. I'll be back in time for supper."
"Be safe," Mrs. Warrick said without looking up.
Once they were outside, Ashton pointed toward downtown. "We are headed there for the moment." He paused as they strolled toward the ornate buildings. "Why did your dad move back?"
"Mom died," Buster replied. "She was so peaceful near the end. She left before I could say everything I needed to." Buster said. A single tear fell from his eye. "Sorry, I'm acting like a girl."
"Tears shed for another isn't a sign of weakness, but are a sign of a pure heart, or so my father told me when Grandpa died," Ashton said. They stopped, and Ashton was locked in a staring contest with a kid wearing a three-piece Italian suit. The visual match lasted for thirty seconds. There was tension between the two children. Buster could've cut it with a butter knife. Thirty seconds later, Ashton looked away.
"Is there heat between you two?" Buster asked.
Ashton shuffled his feet a little. "His name is Eddy 'Battle Pass' Matarazzo. He is known for fixing fighting game tournaments."
Buster was lost, "How do you do that?"
"Eddy may look like a wiseguy, but he is brilliant with electronics. He'll rewrite code in a fighting game and adjust the damage of characters, so his people win." Ashton said.
"I don't think I have ever met anyone who could break a developers code," Buster said.
Ashton smiled. "Eddy is one of a kind. He likes to trick kids into putting up their treasured possessions and playing for keeps. Which is where the KJD comes in, we police the twelve and under."
"Could you repeat that?" Who could blame Buster for his disbelief? It's not every day one hears about a child police department.
"There are two faces of Old Growth. The first is the adult face. They go to work, attend PTA meetings, you get the idea." Ashton said. "Beneath the adult face of Old Growth is the society of children. Everyone tries to play by the golden rule. Not everyone does, and the parents don't always have time to deal with those problems."
"Does the KJD work like a real police department? You know evidence gathering, getting warrants stuff like that?" Buster asked. His curiosity was piqued, and KJD sounded interesting.
Ashton stopped for a moment and then chuckled. "We do gather evidence and build cases against suspects. We obtain our warrants from the suspect's parents. It doesn't always work. You know how some parents are."
Imagination represents the infinite possibilities of the mind. Busters was in overdrive. "What other groups are there?"
They passed by the kids dressed as King and queen. In front of them stood a group of children in medieval plastic armor. "These are the Castle Street Knights. They play fantasy games, sword fight, slay imaginary dragons, you get the idea. We rarely get calls from them. The knights are fierce competitors in the annual dart war," Ashton said. His feet shuffled against the ground.
"Dart war?" Buster asked.
Ashton tapped himself on the forehead. "Right, I forgot your new. I am used to new kids talking my ear off. It's refreshing to have listening ears for a change." He motioned for Buster to follow him. "You've seen the playground?"
"Yeah. I have never seen anything like it. Its huge."
Ashton chuckled, "Anyway, at the end of the summer, we have a dart war for first dibs. A team with first dibs gets to choose what area of the park they control. As you can imagine, the Castle is the prime spot."
Buster took a moment to think. "What about the town square? I think it would be a better choice."
"It's off-limits, so is the standard equipment. The parents decided to set a section of the park aside for the little kids." A ringing noise came from his belt. He pulled out a flip phone. "Warrick here. Really? I'll bring the new guy." He hung up. "We caught a case two streets over. We should check it out."
"I didn't say I wanted to go," Buster said, crossing his arms.
"Buster, if you weren't interested, you would have gone home by now. We have to make a stop before you meet your partner. So let's not dawdle."' Ashton said with a smirk on his face.
He was right, and Buster knew it. The whole meeting with Ashton felt like an in-game tutorial. He was tired of being sad. He couldn't help it, but doing nothing about it wasn't helping, in the least.
"Lead the way," Buster said. For the first time in two months, his sadness didn't weigh on him so heavily.
Ashton returned the smile. "Good, because our next stop is going to blow you away."
They approached a hideously pink house. It was bright and hard on Buster's eyes. "That's quite the color they have going on."
Ashton pulled his dart gun out. "Don't let house's color fool you, Mr. Schmidt designs dart guns for Adventure World. He sends his generic creations to his boss and saves the best for the kids in town. I had my sidearm custom made. It cost me a month's allowance."
"Where's the slide? Where do the darts go? How many feet do you get per shot?" Buster felt his face go cherry red. "Sorry."
"Don't be. When was the last time you got excited over anything that wasn't a video game?" Ashton asked. "Anyway, mine is battery operated, clip-fed, with turbofan propulsion." He pressed a button and released the clip. He pulled a dart and chucked it to Buster. "Looks like a normal dart, right?"
Buster weighed the foam projectile in his hand. "It's a little heavier than the average dart." He said, taking a closer look at it.
The dart found it's way back into the clip and slid back into place. "It has a tiny ball bearing in the tip. The wind doesn't take it as much and flies a little further." Ashton grinned as he saw the smile on Buster's face. "Starting to see the bigger picture a little?"
"How did all of this start?" Buster asked as they approached the garage. It didn't matter in the long run, but a child's curiosity is a hungry animal with an insatiable appetite.
"Nobody knows. My dad played the game when he was young, his dad played, and great-grandpa played. I am grateful it exists. It makes our town unique." Ashton said with pride.
A Slender man was doing complex math equations on a whiteboard. Next to it was a diagram. Taped to the board were dart gun designs. The back wall was an eye-popping display. Dart guns of every size and description sat on hooks and filled the whole space.
The slender man turned around and revealed his young face with mustache and goatee. "Ashton, hows the Razorwind working out for you?" he asked.
Ashton tapped the holster and said, "She performs, and is the most reliable darter I've ever used. I follow the care instructions you gave me to the letter."
"Good, the last thing I want is my creations to be treated like the common toy." He noticed buster and pointed. "Recruit?"
"Buster Heyman, I'm Josiah's son. We just moved here," Buster said. He extended his hand.
A look of relief crept over Mr. Schmidt's face. "Are you joining the KJD as your father did at your age? If so, I am more than happy to welcome you aboard. I issue the side arms for the department."
Buster couldn't imagine his dad playing cops and robbers. It was ironic because Josiah was a real detective in the city. "Was he any good?"
Mr. Schmidt got an excited expression on his face. "He was nothing short of impressive. Helped me out of a few tight spots, and did the job as honestly as possible. Josiah is a legend around these parts. I heard your mom was quite the looker..." He trailed off as the sadness took over Buster's face, and the heartbreak became visible.
Ashton jumped in before they got too deep into the subject. "The word you're looking for is anyway. My friend here needs the usual." He turned to Buster. "You don't get to pick your weapons. Mr. Schmidt chooses for you," Ashton said.
Mr. Schmidt stroked his facial hair. "The tragedy of my work is most kids will play with one my creations for five minutes before abandoning it for the one-eyed monster called television." He walked over to the wall of dart guns. "You're a Heyman. Josiah was an observant one like you. He was such a classic gumshoe when he played. He solved a couple of adult cases too. You have the same look in your eye he did at your age."
"Is this going somewhere?" Buster whispered.
"It weirds everyone out at first, but I promise it's worth it," Ashton whispered back.
Mr. Schmidt ran his hands down the wall of dart guns. "All of these are far too common for a legacy," he muttered. He walked over to his workbench and cackled with glee. "Of course, I knew I made these for a reason." He picked up the hunks of plastic. "Do you prefer a shoulder holster. or do you like it on your hip?"
It never occurred to Buster to place any dart gun in a holster. Then again, he never expected to live in Old Growth. "I'd prefer the hip."
"Meet the Lone Wolf eight-shot revolver. It comes with two modes of fire, standard slide pull or auto via turbofan. A button on the side switches between them for ease of use. A button releases the cylinder. I included two extra cylinders for quick reloads."
The lone wolf impressed Buster to no end. The metallic cover, and wolf shaped muzzle, gave the dart gun personality. The belt itself came with the reloads, a pair of metal cuffs with the key, and in a secondary pouch sat a flip phone.
Ashton looked at his Razorwind and then to the Lone Wolf. "How much for one of those?" He asked.
Mr. Schmidt sighed and took on a snobbish tone. "No, the Lone Wolf is destined to be unique. I found the right owner." He guffawed as he pulled an assault rifle with the same look as the lone wolf. "Here is your Dart war ordinance, The Pack Leader. Twenty four-shot magazines, accurate scope, with drum clip option. It has twin turbofan propulsion and can be taken apart for carrying ease. This thing launches the foam like a missile."
"This town is weird in the best way possible," Buster blurted out.
The trio broke out into laughter. "If my mom could see..." Buster's face fell to the floor. The tears came, which lead to anger, and Buster left the garage. Rage poured off him like Niagra Falls. It wasn't about her death, but all the moments, like this one, she would miss.
He grabbed a stick and pounded a light post. The metal rang with each furious blow. Nothing existed in those moments, but Buster, the oak branch, and the light post. She wouldn't be there to see him grow up, and it hurt worse than any cut or bruise. He resented the move. He felt guilty for not being there for his dad. Most of all, he was so tired of being sad.
A grownup hand touched his shoulder. "You okay, Buster?" Mr. Schmidt asked.
Buster panted, while his pulse pounded in his ears like a drum. The stick clattered to the ground. He steadied himself with his hand and leaned against the light post.
"How long have you been hanging on to all of that?" Ashton asked in a calm voice. He acted like it was an everyday thing. Like he had seen it before.
"Who knows? I feel a million pounds lighter and a little less sad." Buster said as he stretched out. He looked at the curved branch and picked it up. "I want to keep this."
Mr. Schmidt patted Buster's shoulder. "If you give it to me, I'll make something with it. Might take a day or two, but I promise it will be worth the wait."
"Okay," Buster said. He handed the stick to the toymaker, who stared at it as he ran a hand down it.
"What do you want to do?" Ashton asked. "I'd understand if you need the rest of the day to pull yourself together."
Did he want to go home and wallow in sorrow? The past few minutes aside, Buster had enjoyed the day a little. There was no sense in turning back. Not with a case to follow. Maybe if he helped someone else, it would help bring some honor to his mother's memory.
Buster stood and dusted himself off. "No, I want to finish the tour. We have a case remember?" He wiped his eyes.
"Alright. Mr. Schmidt, where is Jerica?" He asked.
Mr. Schmidt sighed deep and massaged his temples. "Missy Coolridge and Hayley Copper came over and whisked her away to the Future Debutante Society. Her mother refuses to accept Jerica wants to be a tomboy."
"How bad is it this time?" Ashton asked with a mischievous smirk on his face. Buster sensed there was an inside joke.
Mr. Schmidt smirked as well. "It makes you wonder what fashion designers are on."
"Ouch," Ashton said. He looked like someone kicked him in the gut. "In any event, we have a case. Jerica will be happy to be out of there."
The pair walked in silence until they came to a large house with a southern feel to it. "Head to the back yard. The Future Debutantes are the only group who don't fight in the dart war. They have their clubhouse and Missy's backyard. Oh, and it's unladylike to do such things, as Missy says."
"How upset is our presence going to make them?" Buster asked as they passed through the gate to the back yard.
"It's going to be interesting," Ashton said with a straight face.
"Ashton Warrick, Have you come to reconsider Missy's offer?" A voice with a southern twang said.
Buster looked at the height of Mrs. Coolridge's hair. It twisted and turned like a snake, and Buster could've sworn he saw a lock or two shift on their own.
"Is her hair going to attack us?" Buster asked in a low voice.
"Mrs. Coolridge is from Georgia. They are all about being polite and ladylike. Big hair is a thing down south, or so I've heard," Ashton replied. He cleared his throat. "No, Mrs. Coolridge, we are here on official KJD business. Meet Jerica's new partner, Buster Heyman."
"Well, bless my heart. The girls will be knocking on his door in a year or two. I assume you are staying with Millie?" She asked.
Buster moved his head before she could pinch his cheeks. "Yeah. What does she do? Dad never said."
"She runs Millie's house of tea and Conversation. Its a haven for little girls to engage in civilized play. I daresay Jerica could use some female company. If she spends too much time among the young men, people will talk." Mrs. Coolridge said in a critical tone.
Buster decided he was not very fond of Mrs. Coolridge. She was the kind of woman who believed her child was a complete angel and could do no wrong. In Buster's experience, those kids caused more trouble than anyone.
"My dad says girls are just as good as guys when it comes to police work," Buster said. In the city, girls were just as tough as the boys. His mom told him there was no such thing as a weaker gender. In short, Buster felt Mrs. Coolridge had outdated ideals.
Mrs. Coolridge smiled and tried to pinch his cheeks again. Buster would rather die than let this ignorant woman touch him. He dodged her hand again. "Bless your heart, young man. Aren't you the open-minded one," she said, moving out of their way. "Behave boys."
The backyard had a romantic feel to it. Not that Buster cared for romance. It was the Brussel sprouts on the plate of life. The clubhouse proved to be quite the spectacle. Baby blue paint offset by pink heart trim, and lace curtains adorned the windows.
"Missy and Hayley are going to react to your presence. Try to avoid starting a fight, or we may end up talking to Ms. Coolridge for the next hour."
Buster shivered and made a face. "I would go back and time and erase the first meeting." Something about her voice annoyed Buster.
The clubhouse interior was the safest place in the world. Battery operated tea lights and pillows of every color filled the floor. A carved wooden table and a miniature china cabinet looked out of place against the vibrant display.
A blonde with pigtails stood up and glared at Buster and Ashton. "Ashton Warrick, have you reconsidered my offer? Leave that silly department of yours, and work for us. We could use strong hands to keep the riff-raff out." She said in a sweet southern tone.
Mr. Schmidt told the truth about their attire. Pigtails wore a fashion don't in pink with a white unicorn in pursuit of a rainbow. Buster found he disliked her on the spot. Something in her voice grated on his ears, like nails on a chalkboard, or metal grinding on metal. Ashton winced as she spoke.
"We've been over this, Missy. I like working with KJD. Which reminds me, Jerica?" Ashton said out loud.
A frog wished he could be as green as Jerica's dress. "It's about time. I got the call half an hour ago." A closer look at the hideous garment saw frogs dancing on lily pads in a pattern. She tied up her wavy black hair and strapped her piece to her side.
Before Buster could say a word, the third occupant of the room was in his face. Of the three, she was the best dressed by a mile. Her dress was simple and understated.
"Oooh, he is cute. Is he, KJD Ashton?" She asked. Buster moved his head back to avoid the grubby hands.
Jerica pushed ahead of her. "Excuse, Hayley. She has personal space issues and is a little boy crazy. I'm Jerica Schmidt, KJD." She extended her hand.
Buster found an instant like for Jerica. Maybe it was the way she wore the dart gun or her deep blue eyes. Either way, he produced a smile for her. "Buster Heyman, recruit and the new kid in town."
Jerica's head snapped around to Ashton. "What took you guys so long. It doesn't take that long to explain how things work around here."
Ashtons face looked like cherry pie filling. "We got sidetracked at your dad's..."
"Stop talking. A dart gun was involved. It's all I need to know." She turned to Buster. "If dad gave you a unique darter, hold it out when you speak to Ashton. He'll retain what you say."
Ashton frowned and turned his back. "Go to Tweeter Ave. Picker is there doing prelim. Good luck, Buster, you're going to need it working with her."
"What took you guys so long?" She asked.
"I'll tell you on the way," Buster promised.
"...And that's why we moved here and why we were late," Buster said. He had gotten through the whole story without shedding a tear. It was a milestone. "Which reminds me." he tossed a badge to Jerica. "Since your my partner, you should have that."
"Oh, this is so cool. It looks so official. We use dollar store versions. I will take good care of it, I promise." Jerica slid it on her belt. "Thanks for not laughing at my dress."
"It's not that bad. I knew a mother who dressed her daughter in more hideous garments." It was odd for Buster to lie. His dad was a detective with a high solve rate, lying always proved futile. Yet, here he found himself telling one to make a girl feel better no less.
Jerica adjusted the green monstrosity she wore. "I wasn't expecting you to be so honest. Most boys our age like to lie about a lot of things."
"Partners have to trust one another. One time, my dad was caught in a real shoot out. His partner was going through a tough time and didn't tell him. It almost got them killed." Buster said in a solemn tone.
Jerica hung off every word. "What happened?"
"They held the line until back up arrived. My dad was mad. If his partner had told him what was going on, they could have adjusted the plan to fit the situation." Buster shivered. It sounded cool to have a Detective in the family, but it was scary some days. Buster was glad he quit. The last thing he wanted was to lose another parent.
Silence came from Jerica. Her hands pulled on her index fingers. "That makes a lot of sense. I am glad to be working with you."
Myron Helmsworth III, aka Picker, met them, with his finger all the up to the knuckle in his nose. Jerica shook her head. "Don't you ever get tired of putting that thing up there? Your head will cave in, you know."
Myron grinned and grabbed a tissue from his pocket and removed his finger. "I find it oddly satisfying." He saw Buster and extended the very hand with the nose finger. "Picker at your service."
Buster withdrew his hand. "Maybe after you've washed up. Buster Heyman, I am Josiah's son. What do we have?" His dad always said to take control of the scene the moment you arrive.
Picker sighed. "The ABC Gummer struck again. I already questioned the little kids. All of them said the same thing. Colt Pops, the Superbubble mascot, came and sold them ABC gum at ten cents apiece."
"Do we know how much money he swindled out of the kids?" Jerica asked.
Notebook pages flipped as Picker read through them. "Here we go. It took a while, but I estimate ten to fifteen dollars. Not much by our standards, but a fortune to kindergartners."
Buster looked at the tearstained children. It was one thing to trick someone older, but it was another matter to pick on a younger child. "Do you have any still in the wrapper?"
Picker pulled out a paper bag with the word "evidence" misspelled. He pulled out a piece and handed it to Buster. It looked and felt like the waxy wrapper of Superbubble. His finger ran along the smooth surface. Buster could feel the furrows in the gum. "Two big grooves on the side and three in the center, just like the real thing."
Jerica studied it and bent the package. "It moves like chewed gum, its the only way to tell."
"Anyway, I have to get this back to the office. Will you be keeping that piece?" Picker asked.
Buster studied the bright blue package. "Yeah, it would help to have a comparison. Sometimes my dad used evidence to gauge people's reactions to it."
"Thanks, Picker, we'll take over from here," Jerica said. She saw the thoughtful expression on Buster's face. It was the same look kids got when they were doing algebra. "What are you thinking, Heyman?"
Buster looked at the crying kids, and then back to Jerica. His stomach growled like an angry tiger. "We should check the candy store, and have some lunch."
"Why would we go to the Candy store?" Jerica asked.
"We have to Isolate the gum's source," Buster said. "My dad said, always chase every lead until you find the truth."
"I agree," Jerica said. "Come on. I will show you where it is."
The Sweet Tooth Candy shop was ten times better than any in the city. Candy from all over the world rested on the hardwood shelves. Gummy snakes eight feet long hung by the counter. Mr. Whistler greeted them with a smile. "Jerica, its been a while since I have seen you in here." He saw Buster and smiled, "You're a Heyman. I'd recognize that look in your eye anywhere. You're on a case, aren't you?"
"Is my family that well known?" Buster asked.
"Believe it or not. Your grandfather was sheriff. He wanted your dad to take his place. Your father had bigger dreams and chased them to the city," Mr. Whistler said.
"I heard the same from my dad," Jerica said.
"Love for the law runs deep in the Heyman bloodline." Mr. Whistler said. "Everyone was happy he came back and joined the sheriff's department," he added.
Buster nodded. "Do you have time for a couple of questions?"
Mr. Whistler leaned forward and propped himself up on the counter, "Fire away."
Jerica put the chewed gum on the counter. "What can you tell me about this gum," she asked.
Mr. Whistler picked up the offensive candy. "I can tell you the wrapper is from six months ago. Do you see the number on the side?" He showed Buster and Jerica. Buster looked closer, and sure enough, the numbers were on the side. "That's the production date, in case the company has to do a product recall. Your guy is also a pro. He included the comic that comes standard with every piece of Superbubble."
"Good, it gives us something for the guys at the office to look over. "Where is the office?" Buster asked Jerica.
"The old pool hall. Its almost finished being converted to the KJD headquarters." She paused and then smiled. "You want to see if the wrappers are all from the same month, don't you?"
"The gum has to come from somewhere. I don't think it's coming from here, though." Buster said, looking around. He noticed a camera above the door. "That camera would record any large purchases."
Jerica agreed. "Mr. Whistler would remember a large quantity too." She pulled her phone out, "I'll give Picker a ring and see if the dates line up."
Jerica stepped outside. Mr. Whistler leaned on the counter again. "Do you have any questions for me?" He asked.
"Why did my dad leave?" Buster asked.
"The town was too small for him," Mr. Whistler said. He sanitized the counter while he spoke. "Your dad was made to stand out. He broke a couple of poaching operations as a rookie. He helped a detective find a fugitive in town. Your mom was just as good as he was..."
Buster's jaw dropped to the floor. "Mom was a detective?"
Mr. Whistler set a picture on the counter. It was from a newspaper clipping. Sure enough, there was his mom standing next to his dad, gun badge, and all. "Detective Annabel Sharpe and Deputy Josiah Heyman Pose for a picture after capturing notorious mob boss, Salvatore Matarazzo."
gazed at the picture. "Any relation to Battle Pass?"
"Yeah, Salvatore moved here from New York. Our town isn't on any map. Salvatore asked for one favor from the feds, to keep his wife and son's whereabouts secret. He loved it here and wanted a normal life for his son," Mr. Whistler said.
Like his father, Buster hated unanswered questions. Why didn't his mom ever say anything about this part of her life? Why did his dad keep it a secret?. His dad had much to answer for when he got home.
"Thanks, Mr. Whistler. If I need anything else, we will be in touch." Buster met up with Jerica on the street. "I got more than I bargained for out of that interview." He said. His stomach growled again. "We should eat."
Jerica nodded, "Lets head to Apollo's diner. They have the best milkshakes."
Apollo's diner turned out to be and oddity. Amid all the old-style architecture was 60s style diner dedicated to all of the Apollo Space Projects. The owner, Mr. Launche, was quite the space race fanatic. In a glass case sat a shiny metal fragment. Mr. Launche claimed it was a piece of the famed Apollo 13 flight.
Jerica and Buster found a seat in the landing pod booth. The waitress came and took their order. "What took you so long in the shop?" Jerica asked.
"I had to know why my dad left Old Growth. My mom was a detective. She and dad captured Salvatore Matarazzo."
"That explains what happened to Eddy's dad, and why Dina never talks to Millie. Stories like that tend to be retold by the older guys in the coffee shop."
"I am going to get the whole story one way or another," Buster said in a determined voice. "Anway back to the case. Where do you find lots of chewed gum?"
Jerica thought about it for a moment. "Under the desks at school. The worst offenders get community service. Scraping gum from the bottom of desks is one of them."
"Do you keep records of that?" Buster asked.
"Yeah. Weird Billy takes care of the filing and a few other things. Why?" Jerica asked.
"Maybe our suspect was scraping gum for the last little while," Buster said. "It still doesn't explain how it goes from desk to package."
Their food arrived, and the young detectives' dove right into their meals. Buster hadn't felt this hungry in a while. Jerica watched him, "Can I ask you something?" She asked.
"You can ask me anything?" Buster said. He wiped his mouth with a napkin.
"Did you ever have a girlfriend or go on any dates?" Jerica's face went a lovely rose color.
"I hung out with girls after school sometimes. I never kissed anyone yet. I went to a middle school dance." Buster said. His ears felt like they were on fire.
Jerica looked interested. "What was it like?"
"Imagine a decorated gym, good food, decent music. Now add the boys and girls. What do you think they're doing?" Buster asked.
"Wouldn't they be dancing?" Jerica said.
"Wrong. The girls on are one side of the room, talking about the boys they like. The boys are on the other side of the gym talking about the latest video games. Two people are dancing in the center, namely the chaperones." Buster said.
Buster and Jerica started to laugh. "It all seems like a waste of time to me," Jerica said.
"Mom said..." Buster trailed off for a moment and held back his sorrow. "Mom said it was practice for when we got older."
"People need to practice standing at opposite ends of the room? Weird," Jerica said with a giggle.
Buster laughed with her. "Could you imagine that class. Room standing 101. If you are standing in the center, you're doing it wrong."
Jerica rolled with it. "No, No, girls at one end boys at the other. We can't mix the genders. Our room standing may turn into a dance."
Buster and Jerica laughed for several minutes. Tears of joy fell from Buster's eyes, and Jerica smacked the table. "Thanks, Jerica, I needed a good laugh. Ashton seems serious all the time."
Jerica shoved a fry in her mouth. "Ashton is the son of the Preacher. He and his dad are a little at odds. His dad expected him to shepherd the young lambs and teach them about Bible stuff."
"Mr. Warrick was KJD when he was a kid. He worked with my dad. I wonder why he's against it now?" Buster asked as he slurped down some milkshake.
"I heard Mr. Warrick washed out of the academy. He took up the cloth after that," Jerica said. A smile was on her face.
"We are kids. Ashton might choose to shepherd the flock when he gets older. I like being a detective, but who knows tomorrow I might want to write novels or become a movie star," Buster said.
Jerica gave him a sideways look. "I think being a detective suits you...We have to leave now." She pointed to the door. Missy and Hayley walked into the diner. "I don't need to hear how unladylike it is to be an officer," Jerica said in a sing-song voice.
"Yeah, we should head to the office and talk to this Weird Billy of yours. Figure out who's been serving time scraping gum," Buster said.
As they passed Missy, Hayley shot a hateful look at Jerica as they left. "I wonder what I did to make her mad?" Jerica asked.
Buster shrugged and pointed to the building with a pool stick over the door. "Who knows. Is that where we're going?"
A kid wearing a desk uniform greeted them at the front counter. "Jerica, I thought you were with the Debutantes Society today?" The kid gave Buster a look of resentment.
Jerica shook her head and spoke like she had some horrid taste in her mouth. "Thank goodness a case dropped in our lap." She stood next to Buster and smiled. "This is Buster Heyman, my partner. He gave me this," Jerica said as her hands held up the badge.
"Yeah, Ashton told me about him. He doesn't deserve to bask in your radiant presence. I should be at your side. Our love will protect us through the danger. This man is an uncultured lout..."
Buster went to speak, and Jerica covered his mouth. "Stay out of it, Buster." She rounded on the kid behind the desk. "Put a sock in it, Amos. I'll give you a black eye for those words."
Amos snorted. "I'll believe that when I see it. Honestly, the longer you deny the connection between us, the more pain you cause us."
Buster had to pull Jerica back. She was strong for her size, and her fist whistled a hairsbreadth away from Amos's nose. "I'd quit if you were my partner. You should be in the looney bin," She said. Buster struggled to keep her from jumping the counter.
"Relax, Jerica, Amos has the right to his opinion." Amos sat up straight and gave Jerica a smug look. "It doesn't mean anyone cares about it, but he is entitled to his opinion." Amos scowled. Buster derived satisfaction from the moment.
Jerica laughed wickedly. "Do the KJD a favor, Amos, rejoin the theater. It suits you better."
"What was his problem?" Buster asked. They walked into what used to be the kitchen.
A roll of the eyes and Jerica spoke bitterly. Not just any bitter, grapefruit bitter. "He read a book about destiny and soul mates. He wants to marry me when he's older, and have a dozen kids."
"My mom said I'd know when I met the right person. I don't care too much about that stuff right now," Buster said.
"My thoughts exactly," Jerica said. She yanked buster back from the door to the kitchen. "Before you meet Billy, you should know he acts like a robot."
"Cool." Buster strode into the back.
A kid wearing a white lab coat was examing a lego structure of some kind. His head whipped over to the door and stared at Jerica and Buster. "Two life forms detected. Initiating facial recognition program."
He stared at Buster and covered the distance between them in seconds. "Initiating comparison with kid offender database. Zero matches. Scanning features and running them against previous members of KJD. The closest comparison, one Josiah Heyman."
"That's amazing," Buster exclaimed. "I am his son Buster." He extended his hand. Jerica batted it away. "What gives?"
Jerica pulled him off to the side. "Billy has some form of autism. He has a thing about being touched. His mom watches the Station in case Billy melts down."
The problem with being eleven is you have to test every rule. Buster strode up to Billy and held out his hand. Jerica inhaled a deep breath. Billy looked at his hand. "Initiating high five protocol." He slapped Buster's hand. "Protocol concluded. Follow me."
"Can I bring Jerica?" Buster asked.
Weird Billy looked over at Jerica. "Request granted."
Jerica stood beside him. "Why didn't he freak out?" She asked out of the side of her mouth.
"When I lived in the city, I pulled a major prank on the Special Ed class. Something to do with a bucket of water above a door. An expensive computer got damaged. Mom was..." Buster went silent for thirty seconds. He remembered the argument with his mom. How one look from her could instill shame in him. How one kind word could make the world smile with her.
Jerica put her arm his shoulder. "Was she a good mom?"
Buster nodded, "The best." He wiped his eyes and cleared his throat. "Anyway, I was facing expulsion, and with good reason. Mom said I did what I did out of ignorance, and offered a solution that worked for everyone. I spent a whole semester in that class during homeroom."
"Was it tense?" Jerica asked.
"At first, it was. I had a lot of time to figure out who was approachable and who wasn't. The kids who were off by themselves, I left alone. The talkative ones would allow you to greet them if you were careful."
Billy stood in front of a closed door. "Please do not touch the displays." The door clicked, and Billy stepped inside.
Mrs. Garret was a bit on the big side but was friendly and nice. She looked surprised to see Billy in the room. "Did you make some new friends, Billy?" She asked. Mrs. Garret scrutinized Buster and Jerica. Her eyes burrowed deep into Buster's head.
Jerica's mouth was open. She pointed a shaking finger at something behind Billy. Buster turned and saw a replica of the Mona Lisa in lego. In another frame, The Last Supper.
"This is the coolest thing I have ever seen," Buster said in an awed tone.
"Initiating pride sequence," Billy said with a smile.
"They are so beautiful. Thank you for sharing it with us, Billy," Jerica said, taking a closer at the replica of Starry Night.
Mrs. Garret relaxed and seemed pleased Billy had shared his work with anyone. "Who are your parents?" Ms. Garret asked.
"I am Josiah Heyman's son, Buster. Well, my real name is Ben. My parents started calling me Buster when I got in trouble."
Mrs. Garret got a dreamy look on her face. "Josiah is the one that got away..." Her face was the color of beets, and she covered her mouth. "How is Josiah doing?"
Jerica stepped in front of Buster. "He's staying at Millie's. Give him a call." She looked at Buster, "We should get on with the case."
Jerica was right. They had a job to do. "Billy, has anyone been sentenced to community service recently?" Buster asked.
Billy ran back out to the metal cabinets. He opened a drawer and pulled out a small stack of files. "Search complete. Additional parameters?" he asked.
"Can we isolate those cases where gum scraping was involved?" Jerica asked.
"Error. No gum scraping duties in recent files. Would you like to see previous files involving gum scraping?" Billy seemed to be enjoying himself.
Mr. Whistlers' words echoed in the back of Buster's mind. "Can I see the felons assigned gum scraping duty six months ago?"
"Starting search," Billy said. He opened a second drawer. "Three kids were assigned gum scraping six months ago." He set the files on the counter.
Buster and Jerica had a look through the files. Jerica looked through the files. "Anyone stand out?" Buster asked.
Jerica slid a file over to Buster, "You tell me."
Buster looked down at the report. "Eddy Matarazzo? It says here he is serving a one-month grounding. I saw him standing on the end of his driveway on the way in with two goons."
"Does not compute. Eddy prefers video game scams," Billy said.
Buster slid the file back. "I agree with Billy. Unless the evidence points to Eddy, we should put him off to the side for now."
"Clinton McCormick still has two weeks for bullying. I don't think he's our guy. He prefers to throw his weight around." Jerica pushed the file off to the side. "Pete 'Peaches' Cobbler is away on vacation. We have nothing."
The files were stack neatly and put away by Billy. Buster decided to try another tactic. "Billy, do people volunteer to help scrape gum?"
"Processing request...no information available. Suggestion, speak to Janitor Craft, he oversees the school's community service." Billy had a smile on his face.
Jerica looked a little annoyed. "We should be going after Matarazzo. I know he's behind it somehow." She said with clenched teeth.
"Look, I get Eddy's done some bad stuff in his time. My dad would never try to collar someone unless he had the evidence to prove it. Show me the evidence, and I will help you. If you don't have any, we should talk to the janitor," Buster said. He understood Jerica's frustration. His dad sometimes got that way about his cases.
Jerica crossed her arms and pouted a little. "Fine. I think this is a big waste of time."
A million comebacks were rolling around Buster's head. "The only way we'll know is if we go looking for answers. It is our job to find the truth about what happened."
Jerica turned her back. "What if I don't want to go?"
"Then I will stay here with you until you feel like going. Our target will strike again, and a lot of kid's feelings will get hurt. That's not our problem is it?." Buster tried to sound like he didn't care at all.
Billy put the files away and went to his display room. Buster barely noticed as he stared at Jerica. His dad once said, "Stare your suspects down.