“Gayle Trent has penned a wonderful read that this reviewer thoroughly enjoyed and couldn’t put down. Spending the afternoon with Myrtle and Tansie was a delight. A very highly recommended book.” – Fallen Angel Reviews
Don’t that grass smell good? I’ll probably sneeze my head off the rest of the evening, but it does smell good. Lenny is giving the yard one last goin’ over before fall gets here. You’d think that by the first week in October, we’d be through with yard-mowing. It’s supposed to frost tomorrow night, so I reckon this’ll do it. Yard-mowing is something normal though, and peaceful, especially after what happened last night.
Faye called. “Mother,” she said, “has Crimson said anything to you about the thefts that’ve been taking place at her school?”
“Not a word!” I was shocked Sunny didn’t talk to me about it—me bein’ a detective and all. Sunny is my sunshine, you know. That’s why I don’t call her by that hippie name her Mama gave her. “What kind of thefts?”
“Well, on Monday, it was a bicycle. Tuesday a clarinet was taken from the band room, and on Friday, the cafeteria came up twenty dollars short.”
“Don’t that beat all?” It’s unusual to have that kind of stuff happen around here. We have a pretty low crime rate…at least, most of the time. “Do they have any leads?”
“I don’t know, Mother, but Crimson has been acting really strange lately. When I asked her about the thefts, she—”
“Surely you don’t think she had anything to do with that stuff?”
“Do I think she’s a thief? No. But I do think she might know something…that she might be protecting somebody.”
I sighed. “I’ll have a talk with her.”
“Please don’t tell her I said anything. Be tactful.”
“When have you ever known me not to be tactful?” I asked.
Faye humphed. “I’ll be tactful and not answer that.”
After that, we said our good-byes and hung up.
Not long after I’d talked with Faye, Lenny called to see if he could come by and mow the yard today. I told him he could, and then I asked him if he’d heard anything about the thefts over at the middle school. Even though he’s in high-school, the high-schoolers and middle-schoolers ride the bus together; so I figured Lenny might’ve heard people talking.
I’ve become sorta partial to that young ‘un this summer. God love him, he’s been through the mill. His daddy had some sort of breakdown—I’ve heard whispers about drugs—and had to go into a rest home—I’ve heard whispers about rehab. Then, instead of staying home and taking care of her young ‘un like she’s got some sense, Lenny’s mother up and takes off to go “find herself.” Now, if that ain’t hippie nonsense, I don’t know what is. Poor little ol’ Lenny didn’t get to go “find himself.” He got to find himself jerked up—plumb uprooted—and sat down on Delphine’s front stoop.
You remember Delphine, don’t you? She’s the one that makes that peanut butter fudge that’s so all-fired good.
Anyway, Delphine is Lenny’s grandmother on his daddy’s side. I’ve been hopin’ Lenny’s daddy would get better and come live with him and Delphine, but so far it ain’t happened.
Delphine lives just down the street from me. Hers is the little white house with the blue shutters. It’s nice…neat as a pin…but Delphine doesn’t have a lot of money. That’s why Lenny went to mowing yards this summer…so he could get some of the things sixteen-year-old boys like—music, more’n likely—although he might be saving up to buy a car or something.
He mows for me, Tansie, Melvia…not for Bettie Easton, though. Her snotty little grandson mows her yard…when he feels like it, from what I gather, because sometimes you drive by her house and you can hardly see the house for the weeds. It looks like it’s been abandoned.
Not that it’s any of my business, but Bettie pays that boy—Brandon, I believe his name is—twenty-five dollars to mow her yard, plus his parents give him a big ol’ allowance, plus they buy him anything he wants. But, again, that’s none of my business.
Still, the Bible talks about sparing the rod and spoiling the child; and that Easton boy is spoiled rotten.
Of course, my own beautiful granddaughter Sunny—or Crimson, as her mother and everybody else calls her—ain’t had to want for very much in her life either. Well, what’s a grandchild for if not to spoil? I reckon Bettie feels the same way about that Brandon, so now I’ll have to ask the Lord to forgive me for passing judgment. He knows I just get myself worked up about Lenny and his sad situation.
But back to what Lenny knew about the robberies.
“I heard some people talking about it,” Lenny said. “Somebody said a bike got stole, and I also heard something about some money.”
“That’s what I heard,” I said. “A bicycle, a clarinet and twenty dollars from the lunchroom. That’s what I heard.”
“Who do you think would do such a thing?”
“Gosh, Ms. Crumb, I don’t know. I could probably give you a list of high-schoolers that’d do it, but I don’t know any of the middle-schoolers that well.”
“Is there any way a high-schooler could’ve done it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Me, either. All the kids I’ve met at Sunny’s school seem to be good kids, but you never know. Also, I wonder why they’d steal bicycles and clarinets? Seems like an odd combination to me.”
“They’ll probably pawn ‘em,” Lenny said.
“Pawn ‘em? Why, that thought never occurred to me. Have you ever considered going into the detecting business?”
He laughed. “No, ma’am.”
“Well, I think it’d be worth you lookin’ into.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said, “but for now I guess I’d better stick to lawn mowing.”
I waited until after Lenny had collected his mowing money and left to call Sunny. Faye hadn’t called me ‘til after the young-un had gone to bed last night, so I’d had to wait until now to call her. Not that it did me any good.
“I can’t talk right now, Mimi. I’m studying with a friend.”
“Oh, well, Claire won’t mind if we talk a minute.”
“It’s not Claire,” she said. “It’s Al.”
“Al! Where’s your mother? Does she know there’s a boy—”
“Alicia.” Sunny huffed. “Her name is Alicia, and her nickname is Al.”
“Oh. Well, I—”
And then, I’ll have you know, she hung up on me. I never thought she’d ever treat me that way! We’ve always been so close.
Maybe Faye was right. Maybe Sunny did know something…and it was up to me to find out what it was. I decided right then and there to go undercover.
* * *
Mrs. Anderson, the secretary who ought to have retired two hundred years ago, sat staring at a computer screen. I cleared my throat, and she eventually looked up at me.
“How can I help you?” she wheezed, not an iota of recognition in her face even though I’d met her just last month.
“I’m here to see your resource officer,” I said. “Would you let him know Myrtle Crumb is here?”
I was glad I’d worn my gray trench coat because it apparently lent me an air of authority. Mrs. Anderson got right on the horn and told Officer Wilbur Brody that I was waitin’ to see him.
When poor ol’ Officer Brody ambled into the office, I could see why he didn’t inspire much respect or confidence, bless his heart. For the world, he reminded me of Oliver Hardy. Remember him? He was the fat half of Laurel and Hardy. So here was Hardy in a brown and khaki police uniform. I half expected him to waggle his tie. No wonder thieves were pickin’ the school clean.
“Mrs. Crumb?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Is there some place we can speak privately?”
“Uh…sure. Come on back to my office.”
I followed him down the hall. I reckon if you were lookin’ for a good place to beat your head against the wall, Officer Brody’s office would be it. It was a little cube made of cinderblock. He’d tried to liven the place up a bit by taping up safety posters, but it came across as depressing to me…like the kind of place that’d make you want to beat your head against the wall. So there you go.
He sat down at a gray metal desk and motioned for me to sit in one of the straight-backed chairs opposite him. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Crumb?”
I sat, placing my pocketbook on my lap. “I’m here to help you, Officer Brody.”
“I know about the robberies; and as a seasoned detective, I’m here to lend you a hand.”
“Thank you, but—”
“What evidence do you have so far?”
“Look, I appreciate your—”
“You’re welcome.” I waved away his gratitude. “Now let’s get down to business before anything else gets stolen.”
“But, Mrs. Crumb, I can’t accept your help. I don’t—”
“Of course, you can. Let’s put pride on the backburner now, shall we? It won’t cost you a thing to have me onboard, and I’ll let you take all the credit. Where do you need me stationed…you know, to work undercover?”
Officer Brody sighed. “Try the cafeteria. See if they’ll let you volunteer in there if you wanna work some place.”
I pointed my finger at him. “You got it.” I got up and headed for the lunchroom. Maybe havin’ me help solve this case would be a boon to Officer Brody. It seemed to me he could be a bit more aggressive…plus he could use all the self-confidence he could get.
I went down to the lunchroom. There was a woman there about Faye’s age. She had light brown hair pulled back from her face and she was wearin’ one of them ugly Ruth-Buzzy-from-Laugh-In hairnets. She smelled like fresh bread.
“Hi,” I said. “Officer Brody sent me down here to work undercover. I’m tryin’ to help him catch ya’ll’s thief.”
The bread lady swiped her wrist across her forehead. “Fine with me, honey. We need all the help we can get.”
She took me to a supply closet and got me a pair of plastic gloves, a hairnet, and an apron that went from neck to knees. Now, the gloves and the apron were no problem, but I didn’t care a bit for that hairnet. Not only was it ugly, I knew that thing would tear my hair all to pieces.
“I…uh…just had my hair done down at the Tilt-A-Curl yesterday,” I said.
“Well, honey, if you’re gonna work here, you’ve gotta wear the hairnet.”
I sucked up my pride and put the darn thing on. Sometimes you’ve got to make sacrifices in the detective business.
They were making hamburgers and French fries for lunch. The rolls were fresh, but the hamburger patties and French fries came out of the freezer in bags. We were givin’ the young ‘uns canned peaches for dessert. Not a lot of cooking involved, but the students didn’t complain. I guess they were used to it. Most of them have probably grown up eating fast food and done-fixed, heat-em-up meals. Still, I couldn’t help feeling like these young ‘uns were getting gypped.
I was spooning peach halves onto trays when I heard somebody say, “Good afternoon, Ms. Crumb. What a pleasant surprise seeing you here.”
It was Brandon Easton, Bettie’s grandson. You know who he reminds me of? That Eddie Haskell from “Leave It To Beaver.” Nice to your face and smarmy behind your back.
“Hello, Brandon,” I said. “For some reason I’d have pegged you for somebody who’d pack his lunch.” I meant I figured he was too good to eat in the lunchroom with everybody else.
He smiled. “Not today when you fine ladies are serving an American classic.”
See what I mean about Eddie Haskell?
“Are you working here now?” he asked.
“No, not really. These ‘fine ladies’ were a little short-handed today so I volunteered to pitch in.”
“That was very magnanimous of you.”
“Thank you.” I tried to either come up with a big word of my own or to say something that would show him I knew exactly what “magnanimous” means. Before I could do either, I spotted Sunny coming through the line. And she spotted me. Normally, that would be a good thing, but I could tell by the look on her face it wasn’t a good thing today.
I put my head down and went back to slopping peaches on trays until she got to me. I let her speak first because I thought she might want to pretend she didn’t know me. Wasn’t that magnanimous of me?
“Mimi,” she said through clenched teeth, her eyes darting from side to side. “What are you doing here?”
“I thought I’d volunteer at your school today.” I smiled. She didn’t.
A girl behind her who had the too mature, too perfect look of a dark-haired Britney Spears doll said, “You’re holding up the line, Crim.”
The starlet smiled at me, and I smiled back at her. “Are you a friend of Su—Crimson’s?” I asked.
Sunny hurried on down the line as the woman-child said, “Yeah. I’m new here, and Crim and I really bonded, you know?”
Then it dawned on me. “You must be Alicia.”
Another blinding smile—this time with a hair toss thrown in for good measure. “Al. That’s me. How do you know Crim?”
“I know her mother.”
Al nodded, took her tray, and moved along.
Near the end of the line trailed Claire, the girl who’d been Sunny’s best friend since they’d been in second grade. Poor little ol’ Claire looked like she’d lost her best friend…and she very well might have. Unlike the diva Alicia, Claire was wearing loose-fitting jeans and a top that covered her entire upper torso.
“Hi, darlin’,” I said. “Something wrong?”
Claire shook her head. “Nah, not really. How’re you, Ms. Crumb?”
“I’m okay. Listen, do you have a few minutes after lunch?”
She lifted one shoulder. “I guess. I’m supposed to go to study hall, but if you need something—”
“I’d like to talk with you a minute is all. I can have Officer Brody clear it with the study hall.”
“Officer Brody? Am I in trouble?”
“No, honey. It’s just that he’s the only person I know here, so I thought I’d ask him to take care of it.”
“Okay. I’ll come back here right after lunch.”
A few minutes later, Officer Brody came through the lunch line. Would you believe he looked surprised to see me?
“Mrs. Crumb, what are you doing here?”
Then it hit me. He was trying not to blow my cover.
“I just thought I’d help out the lunch ladies for awhile today,” I told him. I winked to clue him in to the fact that I understood the undercover game well.
He still looked confounded. Maybe he was better at his job than I’d originally given him credit for. Sometimes first impressions can be deceiving…although I didn’t think my first impression of Alicia or “Al” was all that far off the mark.
I leaned closer to Officer Brody so I could lower my voice. “Claire Davies will be a little late to study hall today. Clear that with her teacher, will you?”
“Uh…sure. I’ll do that.”
I nodded and gave the good man an extra spoonful of peaches. I intended to get the scoop on “Al” from Claire. Somebody who could make Sunny ditch both her best friend and her grandmother couldn’t be a good influence.
When Claire came into the kitchen after she ate her lunch, I took her out the door where the trucks make their deliveries. We sat down on the stoop.
“How’s school goin’ so far this year?” I asked her.
She lifted a bony shoulder. “All right, I guess.”
“You don’t look like it’s all right.” I brushed a strand of her blonde hair back off her face with my fingertips. “What’s the matter?”
God love her, she looked at me then and them big green eyes of hers were just full of tears. “Nobody cares about me anymore.”
“Baloney,” I said. “I care about you, and I know your Mama and Daddy love you better than anything on God’s green earth. Sunny cares about you.”
“Crimson don’t care about anybody except Al.”
I frowned. “I met Al today when she came through the lunch line. I don’t quite know what to make of her.” I waited for Claire to tell me what she thought of Al, but she didn’t. “Is she new here?”
Claire nodded. “She started a couple weeks into the school year. She was really behind in math class; and since Crimson makes some of the best grades in class, Ms. Kuzco asked her to tutor Al a few afternoons after school.”
“So that’s how they became friends.”
“Yep,” she said, flicking an ant off the top step. “Now they’re thicker than thieves.”
“Speaking of thieves, have you heard anything about those robberies around here?”
Claire bit her bottom lip. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Do you know something that might help me and Officer Brody find out who’s been doing this?”
“I said I don’t wanna talk about it.”
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Please, baby, if you know something, tell me. I promise not to tell who told.”
She put her head in her hands. “I can’t.”
At least, I believe that’s what she said. It was muffled.
“They have that on all them detective shows on television. Never reveal your sources. That’s what they say. And sometimes when they’re talkin’ about true stories, they’ll even black out the people’s faces so you can’t tell who they are.” I shook my head. “Still, I often wonder if it was somebody you knew, if you’d be able to tell it was them anyway. You know what I mean? Say, they said it was an anonymous source that worked at the Piggly Wiggly, and I knew you worked at the Piggly Wiggly and—”
“Crimson,” she said.
“What, sweetie?” I was still tryin’ to get my mind around whether or not I could recognize an anonymous source with a blacked out face if it was somebody I knew. I believe I could. Even if their voice was disguised, I think I could do it.
I looked over at Claire. “What about her?”
“I think….” She bit her lip again. “I think she might be involved with the robberies.”
# # #