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The Shady Sisters


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Acts of Balance


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Walking into the Wild
Broken Strings


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Ruth Willmarth


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Mad Season
Harvest of Bones
Poison Apples
Stolen Honey
Fire and Ice
Mad Cow     Nightmare
The above 5 novels in print, and now
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The Losing


Nancy's Books for Children:
The Pea Soup

Agatha Award 2006
Best Children's/YA Novel
Down the Strings
The Great Circus
    Train Robbery

Agatha Finalist


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Nancy Means Wright

The Great Circus Train Robbery

Chapter Two:  Sweet Potato Fries and a Colossal Circus Train

    Spence Riley was upended in his backyard gazebo, peering down at a model train car that had leapt off its track.  "Morning,"  Zoe said, but her redhaired friend was too absorbed in his baggage car to respond. 
     It was a red baggage car, with the words Billings Brothers Colossal Circus on its side.   Below the black letters, painted females in yellow tutus stood on their hands—or their heads—depending on the angle you looked at.   Above their puffy hairdos, she read:  Sensational Highwire Artists Perform Acts of Unequalled Skill and Daring!
     She knelt down for a closer look.  She was something of a highwire artist herself—well, more or less.  Hadn't she spent five days earlier that summer practicing to walk a rafter beam in an old barn that overhung a pile of rusted farm machinery—just to get into the spy club?  She was proud of that feat.  But not anxious to do it again, of course. 
     The baggage car was Spence's favorite of the eleven circus cars he'd received last Saturday for his birthday.  All eleven were squatting there on the track:  the blue-and-white steam engine with its red roof and headlight; the coal car with the crouching lion and tiger on its side; the water car with the grinning clowns.  The white bulldozer that Spence said was used to drag horse-drawn wagons off a flatcar.  The red passenger car in which the performers rode; the wild animal car; the carrousel car that played a lively tune as it dashed aroundthe circular track.  The orange tent-and-supply car that read Introducing Sally & Sooti, dancing bears.  And the canary-yellow caboose that announced World's Largest Wild Animal Menagerie and pictured a giraffe and a huge orange lion about to spring.  That one was Zoe's favorite. 
     The train was an old Lionel model that someone had long ago repainted as a one-of-a-kind circus train—this made it very valuable.  His grandfather had bought it on e-Bay, had it shipped directly to Vermont from the seller, and knew at once, he said, that "Spence would love it."  And Spence did.  He'd almost knocked his grandfather down hugging him.  Because the train was a collectible, his father made him set it up in the backyard gazebo that, like a bandstand, had open sides but a wooden roof to keep out the rain.  After receiving the train, Spence had only smiled politely to see Zoe's gift of four red juggling balls.  The real circus would be in town this weekend and she wanted him to get into the mood. 
     Right now though, she wanted to tell him what she'd seen in the yellow house down the street.  She might need his help.  She tapped his arm to get his attention.  "Listen, Spence.  Listen!  I've something important to tell you." 
     Spence wasn't listening.  "It keeps derailing,"  he said, squinting down at the rail car.  "We either got a kink in the track or a problem with the car.  I gotta figure out which." 
     "I think we have a criminal living down the street,"  Zoe said.  "He might be about to beat somebody up.  He might've already done it.  He might have a body buried in his basement."  She'd only just thought up the body in the basement, but it made the story more dramatic. 
     "I think it's a kink in the track,"  Spence said.  "Hold your story till I fix it." 
     She sighed.  She needed his full attention for such an important discussion.  She stepped out of the gazebo and picked up two of the three red balls she'd given him.  Sometimes the circus hired talented kids, and she was learning to juggle.  "You start with one ball in each hand, see?"  she told Spence—though of course he wasn't looking.  "Then toss the one in your right hand in an arc."  She'd learned this much the previous summer at a circus camp.  But she seldom got to practice because her father was always calling her to work in the apple orchard. 
     She got two balls juggling all right, but when she added the third, the three balls flew out in all directions.  One of them landed on top of the baggage car and Spence gave ahoot. 
     "Hey!  That did it!  You must of knocked something into position.  It'll run now, see?"  He put the car back on track, turned a knob, and all eleven cars puffed and purred around the loop.  Spence hummed tum-tum-tum, tum-tum-tum along with the train.  Spence's parents were musicians:  his father played electric guitar, his mother taught piano, and Spence was learning to play the cello.  Today he was wearing his favorite T-shirt:  BANDS NOT BOMBS. 
     "So have you seen this body in the basement?"  he asked, his eyes on the purring train as if they were talking about a stuffed bear and not a human being. 
     "I didn't say I knew there was a body, I just surmised (she'd come across that word in a book) from the way he acted."  She pulled out her notepad and read aloud the part about Boomer punching the sofa pillow. 
     Spence shrugged.  "The guy was just acting out his mood.  My mother does that when Dad comes home late from rehearsals.  Once she punched out a cushion and threw it on the floor.  She doesn't like this new woman who plays drums in his band.  Females should play violins and piano, not drums, Mom says." 
     "That's silly,"  Zoe said.  "Females can play anything they want.  My mother could take up the tuba, she says, or play outfield in a women's softball league." 
     "Why doesn't she then?" 
     Zoe thought a minute.  "Well, we need the money, so she has to keep teaching French.  That's what she knows how to do best." 
     "Uh-huh."  Spence was standing over the circus cars, hands on his narrow hips.  He was smiling at them, like they were puppies running in circles, chasing their tails. 
     "Anyway, Spence, this man wasn't just acting out his mood.  He was beating somebody up.  I mean, in his imagination.  But it might happen for real—and we've got to stop him." 
     "You can't stop somebody from doing something you don't know he's really planning on doing!" Spence glared at her.  He obviously thought she was over-reacting.  There was something rather literal about Spence that bugged Zoe. 
     He was a boy, that was his problem.  He was more interested in things that ran and tooted and smelled good enough to eat than in things of the imagination.  Like three red balls all moving in the air at once.  "Okay, I'll go to his house alone,"  she said.  "If I don't come out, you can call the police." 
     "You're going to see this bully?" 
     "Of course!  How can I find out anything unless I knock on his door and talk to him face to face?  Tell him we're neighbors.  Bring him some apples." 
     Spence looked skeptical.  "Apples aren't ripe yet." 
     "Some of the greenings are.  We can bring him a pie.  There's a frozen apple pie in the freezer.  Mom won't mind."  She poked a tongue in her cheek and felt it dimple.  She usually got a reaction out of people with that dimple.  "Besides, his house is full of snacks.  Chips and pretzels and fries." 
     "Sweet potato fries or plain potato?" 
     Spence liked sweet potato fries.  She'd discovered that one day when he ate up a whole plateful her mother had made.  "They looked like sweet potato fries,"  she said, keeping the tongue stuck in her cheek. 
     Waiting for his response, she juggled two red balls and then tossed up a third.  And kept them going a whole thirty seconds.  She watched the balls fly up and down and up again like a flight of birds.  She was dazzled.  She was doing it!
     Spence pressed another knob and the engine hooted and wailed; the train ground slowly to a halt.  He jumped up.  "Chips and sweet potato fries, huh?  So when are we going?" 


Chapter Three:  Apple Pie and a Perilous Mission

    Zoe's mother was pleased that she wanted to take a pie to the new neighbor.  "I'd meant to do something myself,"  she said, "but I've a paper to write."  Mrs.  Elwood was studying for an advanced degree at Branbury College French School.  She'd taken a pledge to speak French only, but had special permission to speak English with her family.  She would come home giving orders in French and not understand why her children didn't carry them out.  It was all rather convenient, Zoe thought. 
     "But just so you're going there with Spence,"  her mother said.  "We don't know who this man is.  He keeps to himself, we've noticed."  She pushed her damp hair back behind her ears; her face was perspiring in the August heat.  "I don't want you going alone,"  she went on as she wrapped the warmed-over pie in Reynolds Wrap and put it in a basket for carrying.  "Just bring back the basket." 
     "Okay, Mom."  Zoe was planning to meet her friend at four o'clock and they would go together.  They would find out what they could about this suspicious man. 
     But here was Kelby, trudging up from the backyard hut where the spy club held its meetings.  He'd painted five gold stars on his white T-shirt—although Zoe couldn't think what those stars might stand for.  All her brother did was spend two weeks each summer at Camp Abenaki, then come home to run the spy club and order its members about.  One day he'd be a CEO of something, their father said, and sit at his desk all day and shout things like "You're late to the board meeting!  You're fired!"
     "We just had a meeting.  Where were you?"  Kelby crossed his thin arms over his star-studded chest and stared his nasty stare.  You weren't supposed to miss a meeting unless you had a 103-degree fever.  A broken arm or leg was no excuse either, you could always hobble down to the hut where the meetings were held.  If you missed without a proper excuse you were demoted.  And Zoe was upward bound. 
     "I was working for the spy club,"  she said, thinking fast.  "I was planning a meeting with the enemy.  I'm going over right now to his house.  I'm taking an apple pie so he won't suspect anything."  All of which was true. 
     Kelby sucked in his cheeks, he was keeping up the stare.  He was either wondering what she was up to, or he was thinking how brave she was to walk right up to the enemy's door with an apple pie.  Though he'd never say brave to her face. 
     "I thought you'd be glad I'm going up there,"  she said.  "Spence is coming with me.  And you didn't clean the cat's litter box this morning.  It was your job.  I cleaned it for you.  I didn't tell Mom—this time." 
     "That idiot Spence is going with you?"  He waved away the litter box, though she knew he'd keep it in mind.  He called Spence an idiot because Spence refused to join the spy club.  Spence called Kelby an idiot, so they were even. 
     Butch Spinelli, who was second-in-command behind Kelby, trotted up behind his chief.  He wore untied sneakers that were always tripping him up, and a feed cap with the back pulled down over his butch haircut.  The bill poked out in the rear as if he was coming and going at the same time. 
     Butch pointed a grubby finger at Zoe.  "You weren't there." 
     "So?"  she said, glaring at Butch.  It was Butch's older brother who should've been the enemy, she thought.  The brother and a friend had blown up three mail boxes and a Portapotty with a homemade pipe bomb.  Now they were home awaiting a court hearing. 
     Kelby was quiet a minute—thinking, no doubt, of the uncleaned litter box.  Finally he told Butch:  "Zoe's on a special mission.  I knew she wasn't coming to the meeting." 
     Zoe smiled sweetly at the pair and ran next door.  She found Spence putting away the lawn mower for his father, who was in the gazebo locking together two new sections of track.  "Hi, there, Zoe,"  Mr. Riley said, looking up.  He was an older version of Spencer with his reddish hair and freckled face.  "What's your dad up to this afternoon?" 
     "The usual,"  she said.  "Cleaning out the barn.  Hiring apple pickers." 
     "Well, tell him to take a break and come over and see what we're doing." 
     She nodded.  "But first we have to deliver an apple pie." 
     "Ah.  Well, you can take it right in through the kitchen." 
     Zoe smiled.  Smiling was the best way to deal with friends' fathers, who were or weren't joking—it wasn't always easy to tell.  "We'll be back soon,"  she promised, and picked up a red ball that had fallen out of her pocket.  When he raised an eyebrow, she said, "I'm thinking of joining the Quirkus Circus when it comes this weekend." 
     "Really?"  Mr. Riley said.  "So what would you do?  Ride an elephant?  Walk a tight rope?"  He looked skeptical, of course, she expected that.  Grownups underestimated what kids could do. 
     "I'm learning to juggle.  But for now I can take tickets or usher and get in free.  Ms.  Dolores—she's the town librarian—has a niece who works at that circus.  She might take me to meet her.  You could come, too,"  she whispered to Spence. 
     "Dad would never let me work there,"  Spence said when they got out to the road.  "He says they exploit animals.  He doesn't even like the wild animal car on the new train, but Mom says it's just a train, so relax—and he does like trains.  But don't mention circus again in front of Dad." 
     "Okay."  She led the way down the street.  Mr.  Boomer's house was a small yellow cape.  A yellow garage leaned to one side, with the rear end of a dark green automobile poking out; it had a New Jersey license plate.  A row of yellow and orange chrysanthemums hung their heads in front of the house.  The two women who'd lived in the house before Mr.  Boomer, made lampshades.  Kelby had been suspicious of them, too, because once he saw a man going in who didn't come out; he said the Shady Sisters had turned the man into a lampshade.  She could see a lamp in the front window, and wondered if that was the man.  She slowed her step. 
     "Why are you stopping?"  Spence said, a step behind her. 
     "Nothing.  Just thinking."  She waited for him to come up beside her.  She felt better when he did—it was a perilous mission ahead.  Spence was a half inch shorter than she, but he was feisty when you got him going.  He played soccer at school; he was good and he was fast. 
     "Okay.  We're on."  She charged up the porch steps, took a deep breath and held up her fist, ready to knock.  Then looked back to be sure Spence was still there.  He gave a jaunty wave and winked. 
     She thrust up her chin and banged on the door. 


Chapter Four:  A Rack Of Guns and an Angry Man

    Zoe knocked three times, but no answer.  She was almost relieved, wasn't she?  They'd try again another day?  She knocked one more time, then sighed, and turned away. 
     "Look,"  Spence whispered, and nudged her elbow. 
     A frowning giant stood in the doorway in brown plaid slippers and rumpled blue bathrobe.  He appeared twice as big as he had through the back windows.  Even the dimple in his chin was a giant's dimple. 
     "Don't want any,"  he said when she held up the basket of pie.  "Go peddle ‘em somewhere else."  He went to push the door shut and she put her foot in it. 
     "Please,"  she shouted so her voice would rise to his ears, "it's an apple pie.  My mother sent it.  We live two doors over."  She pointed and the man narrowed his mud-colored eyes. 
     "She made it herself,"  Spence said.  "I mean, her mother did.  She grows the apples.  Or he does.  I mean, her father…." 
     "My father,"  Zoe said, "is an orchardist."  She took the pie out of the basket.  Surely Mr.  Boomer wouldn't shut the door on an apple pie. 
     The man hesitated.  She saw the muddy eyes blink, the hairy brows lift, the nostrils quiver.  He smelled the apples that were still warm from the oven and fragrant with cinnamon.  She could almost hear Spence salivating behind her.  Last May he'd won a watermelon contest sponsored by the library—he ate a whole watermelon in forty-five minutes and then broke the record for long-distance spitting.  Even Kelby was impressed. 
     The beefy arms reached out for the pie basket and held it to his chest where black hairs poked out between two missing buttons.  "All right,"  he said.  "But don't come round again.  This is a private home.  I'm a busy man."  The door slammed. 
     "Thank you for the pie.  Thank you for your hospitality,"  Zoe said to the yellow door. 
     "He'll eat it though,"  Spence said, taking the four front steps in a single leap.  "And there's no point going back.  He won't let us in.  Did you see that rack of guns?" 
     "What?  You saw guns?"  She hadn't looked beyond the man's wide whiskery face. 
     "In the front hall.  Just over his head,"  Spence said as they walked back toward his house.  The Riley's lawn was freshly mown and the grass fragrant with red clover.  It was all the sweeter after the unwashed smell she'd noticed when Mr.  Boomer opened the door.  "It was a rack with three antique muskets.  I've seen some like them in the Branbury Museum." 
     "You can't hurt anybody with antique guns." 
     "Oh yeah?  Just try firing one.  See what you can bring down."  Spence had a know it-all-look on his face.  A satisfied smile.  Each year he went to Fort Crown Point with their two fathers to see the Revolutionary War re-enactments. 
     She made a mental note of guns.  Guns were something she could relay to the spy club.  They'd be thrilled to think guns.  It would keep them guessing for days. 
     "Did you notice the smell?"  she asked, not to be outdone by the guns. 
     "Cinnamon,"  he said.  "Nutmeg maybe.  That's what Mom put in the pie she made one time."  His voice sounded nostalgic.  Spence's mother was too busy with her piano and singing lessons to make pies.  So Spence had a habit of hanging around the Elwood house during apple harvest. 
     "Not the pie.  Something in the house.  Can you record a smell?"
     "Not on my tape recorder.  I can try the i-Pod."  He'd gotten a reconditioned i-Pod from his father to download music on, lucky kid.  Zoe's parents weren't keen on electronics.  "All that stuff breaks down,"  her mother complained.  Though of course she used a computer to write her French papers on. 
     "I doubt it will work,"  Zoe said.  Now Spence was running toward his backyard gazebo, eager, she supposed, to get to his trains.  "Slow down,"  she called, out of breath.  "We have to make plans." 
     "Plans for what?"  he called back.  "We just did our plans.  Went there and he threw us out.  Me, I'm not going back."  His feet kicked up mown grass as he ran. 
     "Not to see him, no,"  she said when she finally caught up with him.  "But to see inside his house." 
     "What?  He's always in it, you said." 
     "Not always.  He has a car.  He has to buy groceries.  Toothpaste, shaving cream, root beer.  We'll wait till the car's gone, then go in." 
     "Break a window?  Nuh-uh.  I'm not doing that.  I can't be on the soccer team if I get in trouble.  Coach says so." 
     "I mean through the basement.  There's an old wooden door you can lift.  I'll bet a nickel it's not locked.  Kelby got in once when the Shady Sisters lived there.  He couldn't get upstairs, but he could prowl the basement.  And the basement is where—"
     "The body is.  Yeah, yeah, sure.  Tell me another."  Spence picked up the controller and the train thrummed along the track. 
     She had to make him listen.  Antique guns and a bad-tempered man.  A body in the basement—or the possibility of one.  She had to keep that from happening!  An awesome responsibility welled up in her head.  "We'll keep a watch.  I'll make a schedule." 
     "A what?"  he shouted over the rumble and clatter of the trains. 
     "A schedule,"  she hollered.  "We can't talk over the noise of that train!  To see when he leaves the house.  I'll make it up.  We'll spy on him starting at seven tomorrow morning." 
     "You can spy on him."  He knelt to caress his engine as it chugged to a stop.  "I'm not getting up at that hour." 
     "Then I'll take the early shift,"  she said.  "You can take over at nine.  We'll switch every two hours.  Keep each other informed on the walky-talky."  They were both angling for a cell phone at Christmas, but their parents weren't keen on making the monthly payments.  "If he gets in his car—off we go." 
     He stared at her.  "You don't mean—"
     "Of course I do!  How else are we to get in that house if he won't let us?" 
     Spence jumped up; he pointed a bony finger at her.  "I can't spend half the day spying and trespassing.  I've got research to do.  I'm entering a contest." 
     "Not another seed spitting contest!  That was disgusting." 
     "It's an essay contest for kids ten to fourteen.  About steam trains.  Dad found it on the web.  If I write the essay, he'll take me to the Springfield train show.  That's a big one.  And if I win—"
     "You get to ride the Orient Express through Europe." 
     "How'd you know?" 
     "You do?  Really?" 
     "Just kidding.  But I do get to ride the Durango and Silverton in Colorado next spring.  It's a steam train, a real one—they keep stopping to fill up with water to make the steam.  Dad'll come with me—I mean, even if I don't win the contest.  You go up this long valley through miles of wilderness.  Sometimes you're on the edge of a cliff—you see wild elk, wolves and grizzlies down below.  And if the train leaps the track—whee-ee…."  He flung up his arms, did a cartwheel and fell flat on the ground.  He grabbed his neck with his two hands and gagged, then did a slow agonized death on the grass. 
     It was all so ridiculous, she wasn't going to react.  But she would like to ride that train.  "If I pay, can I come along?" 
     He jumped up.  "If you help me research the trains.  I'm going to the library at ten tomorrow morning.  Ms.  Dolores has some books for me." 
     "She does?  Okay then, I'll go with you.  We'll start the spying at noon.  You can do your spying from two to three, and I'll take over again till five." 
     "What do you mean, my spying?  Spying is your idea."  Spence went back to his train.  He was getting more difficult to talk to these days.  He didn't go along with her ideas the way he used to.  It might have something to do with the fact that he'd grown a half inch just this last month and she hadn't grown at all.  Soon he'd be her height—and then what? 
     "My spying then."  She'd guessed she'd have to give in to him a little.  "So I'll be at your house at a quarter-to-ten.  I mean it'll be your essay, but I'd like to ride the train through those wild places.  I've got some money saved up." 
     "Well, okay to the spying,"  he said—with reluctance.  "But I'll have to ask Dad about the Colorado trip.  It might be a ‘men only' thing." 
     "Then when you get to be a man, you can go.  See you tomorrow.  Ta ta."  She waved a limp wrist and skipped lightly away. 


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