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Authors: John Lekich

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BOOK: The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls
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Usually when my uncle is in jail, it's only for a couple of months at a time. I've always been able to stay with one of his longtime associates in the house Uncle Andy rented. Unfortunately, most of the associates that Uncle Andy trusts are in jail or out of town right now. Also, thanks to Uncle Andy's most recent incarceration, he fell behind on the rent and we had to move out of our latest house.

My uncle is under the impression that I am staying with some good friends of Cindy's while she has sublet her local apartment to make some extra cash. He thinks Cindy's friends are a very nice couple called the Hendersons. This is only partially true. Until recently, I was staying with a couple called the Hendersons. But they weren't all that nice. At least not as nice as my version of the Hendersons.

Not that things didn't start out okay. When Cindy went off to learn how to be a professional card dealer, Mrs. Henderson did her best to make me feel at ease. The thing is, I don't think Mr. Henderson was all that keen to have me around. He kept dropping these little hints. Like, “How long is that kid going to keep eating us out of house and home?”

To be fair, Mr. Henderson was dealing with a few domestic problems of his own. He was way behind on the bills and his landlord was getting impatient. I've been around a few rent dodgers in my time. So you'd think I'd recognize the signs. For example, Mrs. Henderson started getting very nervous and apologizing for no particular reason. “I'm sorry, Henry,” she said, putting her hand over mine. “Truly sorry.”

The next day, Mrs. Henderson sent me to the store to buy a few groceries. When I came back to the apartment, I could tell something had happened as soon as I put down the bag.

You end up experiencing a lot of different emotions when you spend time in strange houses. After a while, you sense certain things as soon as you get inside. Like when a place is vacant or when someone's on vacation. There's just this empty feeling that comes over you.

Of course, now and then, the feeling is totally wrong. So the first thing I did at the Hendersons' was check the closets and the drawers. Except for a few hangers, the closets were empty. And all the drawers made that hollow sound you get when there's nothing left inside. I looked around for a note. But I couldn't find one anywhere.

I sat down to think for a while. Since I had no place else to go, I would have stayed in the apartment for as long as I could. But I heard someone coming down the hall. Then I heard a man's voice. It was the landlord, talking to a couple of other people.

Thankfully, the apartment was on the ground floor. So I just opened a window and climbed out as quickly as I could. I heard the key in the lock as I was making my way out. I didn't even have time to grab the bag of groceries. The good news? By the time they were inside, I was already running across the courtyard.

After I finished running, I figured out a few things. I knew I was never going to see the Hendersons again. Just like I knew Cindy wasn't going to call back and check up on me. It's not that they didn't care, exactly. It's just that they got caught up in their own problems and concerns. When they did, other things—like taking care of someone else's kid—kind of fell through the cracks.

When I was a little kid, I remember asking Uncle Andy why my mother had to go away and never come back. He put his arm around me and said that life was like this big magic trick that nobody could figure out. “This is the way it works,” he said. “One day somebody's here. And the next day they're gone. It's not your fault, Henry.”

“But they're still gone,” I said.

“That's right,” said Uncle Andy. “They're still gone.”


ver since my mother died, my Uncle Andy has done his best to look after me. I'm not saying he doesn't have his faults. But I have watched him try to be a totally good person, even though it is clear to just about everyone that he has no natural talent for it. It's funny how you can feel so close to someone, even though they are far from perfect. But that's exactly the way I feel about my uncle.

For better or worse, I take after my uncle in many ways. Like Uncle Andy, I have never been able to say no to a challenge. Of all the weak spots in my character, the weakest is that I can never resist a bet. No matter how foolish. Someone could say, “Henry, I will bet you five dollars that you can't eat a hotdog while standing on your head,” and I would automatically have to prove that I can.

One of the things I like best about my uncle is that if I said I could eat a hotdog while standing on my head, he would back me up one hundred and ten percent. He is constantly bragging about how I'm some sort of boy genius.

It all started with the special intelligence test they gave me back in elementary school. I was eleven years old when they put me in this room with several people whose job it was to test me on different things. I scored way higher than anybody my age without even trying, which my uncle has never forgotten. When I started to show some natural curiosity about burglary, he said, “What do you want to know that for? We have documented proof that you are smart enough to become a lawyer and steal the legal way.”

Of course, life with Uncle Andy always had its ups and downs. But I really miss the ups. In fact, the thing I miss most is that we used to live in a real house. It was only a rental, and it looked a little sad from the outside. The paint was flaking a bit and a few of the porch steps were loose. But the best part was, it always felt like home.

I'm sure some people would consider my former living arrangements rather unusual. I mean, not everybody has the unique privilege of living under the same roof with an assortment of small-time crooks. But that's where my Uncle Andy was thinking ahead. The beauty of this arrangement? Even when he was being temporarily detained by the judicial system, there was always someone to look after me.

You can't always count on a steady income from breaking the law. Sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don't. So Uncle Andy would often take in boarders from among his various associates. Rent was always what my uncle liked to call “very democratic.” If you happened to be doing well at the moment, your rent was high. If you were down on your luck, your rent was practically nothing.

It is a well-known fact that responsibility can be very exhausting. That was the great thing about living in the same big house with a lot of irresponsible people. On their own, they would let a lot of parental-type things slide by. But as a group, there was always at least one person who could handle feeling responsible for a short period of time. When they got tired, somebody else usually took over.

You would think that a bunch of lawbreakers on the premises would be nothing but trouble waiting to happen. But nobody ever stole so much as a matchstick under our roof. It was considered very bad manners to steal from your own place of residence.

If you were going to live in our house, you had to obey a strict set of rules. Of course, when I was a little kid, I wasn't supposed to know what the rules were. After pulling my first heist with Uncle Andy at the age of seven, he tried his best to keep me from the details of the burglary business. Of course my natural curiosity got the better of me. So it wasn't long before I discovered that the house rules were posted in everybody's room but my own.

I think it is a sensible set of rules, especially if you ever find yourself living under the same roof with an assortment of burglars and con artists. So I've decided to list them below.

• Should you encounter any problems with law enforcement, do not give them this address.

• No stealing on the premises. (This means YOU!)

• No talking about stealing in front of Henry.

• No swearing or coarse language in front of Henry.

• You will be expected to perform at least one domestic chore per week. (Feel free to let Henry see you doing this.)

• Should you fail to perform said domestic chore, you will be required to help Henry with his homework.

• If you do not feel qualified to help Henry with his homework, you must go to the library and select a book you feel he might enjoy. (Do not steal the book.)

• Family game night is mandatory. (Unless professional obligations intervene.)

My favorite rule of all was the one about family game night. Uncle Andy made this rule because he didn't want anybody to sit in their room and brood or mope. To encourage what my uncle called “wholesome social interaction,” he came up with the idea of having a game night every Friday.

He got his hands on some old-fashioned board games. You know, games like Monopoly, Sorry! and Clue. You might not think that grown men would relate to games like that. But you would be very wrong. It wasn't long before they were all playing Sorry! or Monopoly with unabashed zest. Everybody would shout and laugh or ask me to blow on the dice for good luck. It was a lot of fun.

I tend to look back on those more innocent days with a lot of affection. For one thing, I had learned to be independent at a very early age. I had my own room and never had to share anything unless I wanted to. As long as I kept my grades up, and did my share of the household chores, I was treated like a reasonable facsimile of an adult.

There were other benefits as well. You would be surprised at how many things you can learn from living with an assortment of small-time crooks, things that have nothing to do with avoiding the police. Some of these things can even be enlightening when it comes to understanding human nature.

For example, I've always found Wally Whispers attitude very inspiring. Wally's real name is Walter Gurski. But everybody calls him Wally Whispers because he can't talk above a whisper. I asked him why he was unable to raise his voice, and he said it was because of an unfortunate encounter with a very angry individual. “I cannot elaborate any further,” explained Wally. “I do not wish to alter your viewpoint on the basic goodness of human nature.”

That's Wally for you—always very considerate. The reason he started teaching me how to pick locks is because I was in the habit of forgetting my house key. As a result, I would often have to wait a long time in the rain before Uncle Andy showed up. I started to complain to Wally that Uncle Andy wouldn't let me leave a key under the mat. But Wally said that hiding a key outside your home was a very bad idea. “It is like having a neon sign on your doorstep that reads
Please steal anything you consider valuable

Then there are all the clever devices you can buy to hide a spare house key outdoors. “You can put your key inside a fake plastic rock that looks quite authentic from a certain distance,” Wally explained. “Also there is an outdoor thermostat with a hinge that opens up to miraculously reveal your key.”

“That sounds very clever to me,” I said.

“Oh yes, such gadgets are extremely clever,” agreed Wally. “Except for the fact that house burglars peruse the very same catalogues as the people who want to hide their keys.”

Wally suggested that it would be way smarter for me to keep a skinny little tool called a lock pick buried in the flowerpot next to the front door. That way, I would not have to leave a spare key lying around for someone else to find, and I could always use the pick if I forgot my key. “Listen carefully to my instructions,” he said, “and you will never have to stand in the rain again.”

At first, I felt quite guilty about learning how to pick a lock. But Wally said it was just like learning survival skills in Cub Scouts. “You know how they teach you to rub a couple of sticks together and make a fire because somebody forgot to bring matches?” he asked. “Well, this is practically the same thing. Only usually much less hazardous than playing with fire in the woods.”

Wally would never admit it, but I think he was proud to be teaching me what he knew about locks. “When it comes to challenging a young person's coordination and mental agility, your computer games and your Rubik's Cubes are child's play when compared to picking a sturdy lock,” he said.

It wasn't long before Wally began to brag to the others about my lock-picking abilities. “This kid has the touch,” he would say. “He is going to become a big-time surgeon, if the concert violin doesn't get to him first.”

Of course, some of Uncle Andy's associates doubted my talent. That's how I started participating in a series of friendly wagers. For example, when I was ten, they asked me to try and open a locked door without using the key. Instead of a key, I was given a lock pick. My uncle and his friends placed their bets and put a pile of cash on the table. I was told that if I could pick the lock in under three minutes, all the money on the table would be mine. I opened the door in under two minutes.

After that, a number of Uncle Andy's friends began to take a personal interest in my development. Before long, I learned the fundamentals of how to forge an
, hot-wire a car and pick somebody's pocket on a crowded bus.

None of my uncle's colleagues ever encouraged me to use such skills for financial gain. They were just showing off to me a little. In the words of Mr. Cookie Collito, who can hot-wire anything on wheels faster than it takes to butter a piece of toast, “If we were farmers, we would teach you how to grow corn. But we are not farmers.”

Almost all of our boarders in the rented house were men around my Uncle Andy's age. The one exception was Madam Zora, who made her living as a professional fortuneteller in a downtown tearoom. She would forecast people's futures by looking at the lines on their palms or turning over special cards with drawings of things like skeletons and devils on them.

When she wasn't working, Madam Zora let me call her Cindy, which was her real name. She said that people would never believe somebody called Madam Cindy could accurately predict the future. Cindy always seemed to have time to help me with my arithmetic or bake brownies for the class party on Valentine's Day.

BOOK: The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls
10.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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