Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Mysteries & Detective Stories, #Mystery and Detective Stories, #Detective and Mystery Stories
"We'll dig holes," he announced one day last summer. "And cover them with sticks and stuff. You know, like the pits they catch tigers in."
Actually I think he just wanted an excuse to dig. From the time he was little, Parker has been the kind of kid who mines his backyard with holes and tunnels. He loves the smell of dirt and roots and stones and can spend hours underground.
I prefer sunshine and fresh air myself, so my hole was only waist deep, but Parker's was already over his head and just wide enough for him and a shovel.
After an hour or so, I heard Parker yell something. Hoisting myself out of my hole, I walked over to his. There he was looking up at me. He must have dug down more than six feet, and he couldn't get out without my help.
As I pulled him up I started laughing.
"What's so funny?" Parker wanted to know.
"All you need is a honey jar on your head," I told him, "and you'd look like Pooh in the heffalump trap."
"Ha, ha," Parker said. I could tell he wanted me to take his work seriously. He was covered with mud and his jeans and shoes were soaked from the rainwater in the bottom of the hole.
Like a mining engineer, he studied his excavation. "Do you think it's deep enough?"
"Another week and you'll be shaking hands with the Chinese," I said.
"Be serious, will you?" Parker started gathering little sticks and laying them over the hole. "Come on, Armentrout," he muttered, "get some leaves and help me cover it up."
When Parker was finally satisfied, we sat down on a boulder near the fort. With the sun shining down through the thinning leaves, it was just like old times-until Parker suddenly turned to me and said he remembered where he'd seen the dead man.
EMEMBER THAT DAY
last summer when we were going to work on the fort but your mother made you go the dentist instead?" Parker asked.
I nodded. As soon as school let out in June, Mom was always dragging me off somewhere horrible. The dentist, the allergist, the math tutor. If it were up to her, my whole vacation would be spent in boring air-conditioned offices, little boxes where somebody is always poking needles in your arm or adjusting your braces or drilling you on fractions and percentages.
"Well, I rode my bike out here anyway," Parker said. "Just me and Otis. And I saw that gray van again. The guys on the motorcycles were sitting around like before, smoking dope and drinking beer."
He looked up from the stick he'd been whittling. As usual, his hair almost hid his eyes and he had to toss it back to see me. "The dead man was in the van. I
saw his face when he left." Parker paused. "Of course, he wasn't dead then."
"No," I said, trying to sound sarcastic, but Parker didn't notice.
"I was hiding in the woods, right over there behind that tree." He pointed and Otis ran off, thinking Parker was throwing something for him to fetch. The poor dog sniffed around, even pawed at the dead leaves, and finally came back with a stick Parker must have thrown last week.
"He was real close, Armentrout, not more than a few yards away," Parker said.
I raised one eyebrow, a skill I've worked hard to develop. "Come on, Parker," I said. "You think the dead man is some guy you got a glimpse of way last summer?"
Parker frowned and threw the stick for Otis. "There was another man driving the van, older, kind of slick-looking."
He paused for a moment, his frown deepening. Suddenly he snapped his fingers and leaned toward me. "I've seen him too!" he said. "You know where? At the Olde Mill!"
"So?" I said. "Lots of people buy antiques there."
Parker tossed his hair back, too excited by his own thoughts to pay any attention to all the cold water I was throwing at him. "What if Evans is involved in some kind of drug thing?" he asked.
"You've been watching too much TV," I told him. Why couldn't he just forget about the dead man? It was a nice afternoon, and I wanted to enjoy the sun while it lasted. Before long it would be too cold to lounge around in the woods like this.
Parker straightened up and glared at me. "Just listen to me, Armentrout, will you? A few nights ago, I went over to the shop, looking for Pam. I was walking up to the back door when Evans came out with another man. They talked for a few seconds, the man put some boxes in the back of a snazzy-looking BMW, and then he left. Pm sure it was the same guy I saw driving the van."
"So what's that got to do with drugs?"
Parker sighed as if I were too stupid to talk to. "Don't you see? The guys in the van are dealers. We've seen them here in the woods selling stuff."
"But where does Evans fit in?" I was thinking about what Mom had said. Maybe Parker was so jealous of Evans that he was making up stuff about him, first thinking he was a murderer, now thinking he was a drug dealer.
"It's just a feeling I have," Parker said. "The boxes could've had something in them, I don't know." His voice trailed off, and he started picking at the frayed edge of a hole in his jeans.
For a while neither of us said anything. Otis gnawed his stick, growling softly, and the woodpecker continued to hammer away. The sun was sinking down behind the trees, and the air was cooling fast. To my embarrassment, my stomach rumbled loudly, reminding me it was time for dinner.
"So what are you going to do?" I asked Parker as we pedaled slowly home.
He chewed his lower lip thoughtfully. "Keep an eye on Evans, see what I can find out."
"You could tell Sergeant Williams," I said.
Parker shook his head. "We need more evidence, Armentrout." He sat back on his seat, hands in his pockets as we coasted down a hill. "We'll go over to the Olde Mill tonight, okay? I'll come by around nine and get you."
Before I could say yes or no, Parker turned the corner and sped away toward his house, hunching low over the handlebars like a racer.
True to his word, Parker showed up at quarter to nine. Luckily Mom was too busy helping Charity with her homework to notice me leaving the house. Dad didn't notice either; as usual, he was in his study doing something with his computer.
Before we'd gone two blocks, we heard the clink clink of dog tags behind us. It was Otis, of course.
Parker glared at him. "How did you get loose?"
Otis barked and wagged his tail, then ran on ahead, circling back every now and then to make sure we were still behind him.
"No matter where I go," Parker said, "he tracks me down. I just can't get away from that dog."
When we got to the Olde Mill, the shop was dark. In the moonlight, the chrysanthemums in the barrels flanking the front door were the color of blood, and the tiny panes of glass in the windows glinted dully. The old-fashioned sign, hand-painted by Pam, creaked as a little gust of wind sent a swirl of leaves dancing across the deserted parking lot. With its stone walls and green shutters, the shop looked like a fairytale cottage, not the sort of place anyone would expect to find drugs or murder.
"There's nobody here," I whispered to Parker.
"He lives in the back," Parker said. "Come on, we'll sneak around the corner and look in the workroom windows."
"Are you sure we shouldn't just go to the police?" I knew I was being a coward, but I couldn't help it.
"Are you kidding?" Parker stared at me. "Who'd believe us? You know what a model citizen Evans is, giving money to the high school and the library and all. Like I told you, we have to get some proof."
Then, warning Otis to be quiet, Parker led me around back. Squeezing between a bush and the wall, we edged up to a window and peeked in.
The first thing we saw was Pam. She was sitting at a worktable cleaning the face of an old doll. At first, I thought she was alone, but after a few minutes Evans came into the room. While Parker and I watched, he put his arm around her. Then he bent down and kissed her, a long kiss, the kind that makes you sick in movies when they show it up close and you can see teeth and lips and neck muscles and stuff.
Next to me, Parker cursed, the worst words I'd ever heard him say, but I didn't blame him. I felt like swearing myself.
Finally Evans straightened up. Hefting the doll, he tilted it back and forth, grinning. Pam looked up at him and said something. She was frowning, but Evans just shrugged, patted her head, and laid the doll down on the table. Then he started kissing her again.
Parker muttered a few more terrible curse words and backed away from the window. His face was pale and angry in the light streaming through the dirty glass.
At that moment, Otis scared up a cat from somewhere and started chasing it across the gravel parking lot, barking loudly. Immediately the back door opened and Evans was standing there, frowning at us.
"I came by to get my mother," Parker said, walking right up to him.
Evans didn't step aside. He stood where he was, blocking the doorway, and Pam joined him.
"Parker, what are you doing here?" she asked. In all honesty, she didn't look pleased to see us.
"I was just getting a little hungry," Parker said, "and I was wondering when we were having dinner, that's all."
Parker was trying hard to sound sarcastic, but I knew he was upset. And who could blame him? This late and no dinner? I'd eaten at six, a big helping of steak and potatoes, salad, and chocolate ice cream, and I was already starving again.
"I told you I had to work late, honey." Pam squeezed around Evans to see us better. "I left a frozen pot pie in the freezer. Didn't you see it?"
"I don't call that dinner," Parker said.
Evans reached into his pocket and hauled out a moneyclip stuffed full of bills. Selecting a twenty, he offered it to Parker. "Get yourself something at the Dairy Queen," he said. "Your Mom's helping me with an important shipment."
Parker ignored the money and Evans. "Come on, Pam," he said. "Let's go home."
"Honey, you heard what George said." Pam's voice had a pleading tone that reminded me of Charity trying to wheedle a favor out of Dad. "Take the money and treat yourself and Matthew to something nice. Banana Loveboats or triple scoop cones."
While Pam and Parker stared at each other, Otis ran back into the parking lot. At the sight of Evans he growled deep in his throat, and Parker grabbed his collar.
Evans frowned at the dog. "I forgot to congratulate you two on your appearance in the paper." He gave Parker and me a long, hard look.
Parker shrugged and busied himself petting Otis while Evans lit a cigarette. Exhaling a long, slow curl of smoke, he said, "It's getting so a man can't take an early morning ride without somebody reporting him to the police."
In the silence following this remark, I stole a quick look at Pam. She was leaning against the doorframe, and her hair was backlit so it glowed around her head like a halo. It was too dark to see the expression on her face, but I did notice her hand reach out and rest lightly on Evans's arm.
"Fortunately the police don't take kids very seriously," Evans added. "I guess you just got a little carried away playing detective, right?" He smiled now, one arm around Pam, the other hanging loose.
Pam shifted her position and the light over the door shone down on her face, bleaching it white, casting shadows over her eyes.
"Take the money, Parker," she said, "and get something to eat. I'll be home in an hour or so."
Without looking at either one of them or taking the money, Parker turned away. "Let's go Armentrout," he said.
Just once, when we were in the shadows on the sidewalk, I looked back. Evans had put the money into his pocket, and he and Pam were embracing again, their bodies black against the light behind them.
ALKING BACK TO
my house, Parker and I didn't say much. Even Otis was kind of subdued. Instead of running in circles, sniffing everything, he just plodded along beside Parker, looking as glum as he did. Sometimes I think Otis picks up all of Parker's moods, reads his mind or something.
Finally I said, "Well, the van wasn't there."
"No." Parker kicked a stone and Otis chased it kind of halfheartedly. "Something's worrying Pam," he said. "Did you notice how tense she was?"
I nodded, remembering her face with the harsh light over the door shining down on it.
"Evans was pretty nervous, too," Parker added.
"At least the police took you seriously enough to talk to him," I said.
Parker glanced at me. "Just because we didn't see anything tonight doesn't mean Evans isn't involved,"
he said. "What about keeping the Olde Mill under surveillance?"
I started to make another joke about watching too many cop shows, but I stopped myself. Parker was looking at me like a little kid, anxious, worried, maybe even scared.
"For Pam's sake," he said before I had a chance to say anything.
"If Evans murdered that guy, what about her? Either she knows something or she doesn't. Either way, she could be in danger."
We were standing still now, under a streetlight, staring at each other. All around us, the neat lawns of Woodcroft lay in shadow. Lamps and TVs glowed in windows, a car drove slowly past, its headlights sweeping bushes and trees, a few crickets chirped. Everything seemed so normal and safe and calm. Yet Parker and I were talking about murder and drugs and stuff. It seemed so unreal I wanted to laugh.
"Every day after school, we'll hide in the woods behind the shop and watch," Parker said. He wasn't joking. He meant it. "I don't want anything to happen to my mother."
So, for a week, Parker, Otis, and I spent our afternoons in the woods behind the Olde Mill. Both Otis and I would have preferred going to the quarry. Even digging heffalump traps was more fun than watching little old ladies coming and going with antiques. But we couldn't drag Parker away from the shop.
One afternoon, a woman got out of a Mercedes with Pennsylvania tags and went inside the shop. We heard the little bell over the door tinkle, and I imagined Evans stepping out of the back room, grinning his big grin, welcoming another blue-haired lady.
While I was dozing off waiting for her to come out, Otis growled, and Parker grabbed his collar. Our enemy had just stepped outside. We watched him carry an oak washstand to the Mercedes and lash it securely on the roof. When he was finished, the woman thanked him and drove away. Evans waved and went back inside.