The Great Circus Train Robbery
Chapter One: The Grumpy New Neighbor Has a Secret
Sergeant Zoe had been lying on her stomach for three hours outside the house of the grumpy new neighbor. She was hot, sweaty, hungry and just plain miserable. She was writing down the neighbor's every movement for the Northern Spy Club—at least every movement she could detect through one of his unwashed windows.
Mr. Boomer eating ham and cheese sandwich, she wrote. Mr. Boomer pouring another Root Beer. Boomer eating french fries and rubbing his belly.
Boomer watching a ballgame on TV. Yelling, "Dumb Yankee! You're gonna strike out. You can't hit a mosquito!"
Boomer doing pushups on the living room rug. Boomer falling asleep on the rug.
She yawned. There was nothing suspicious as far as she could see: Boomer was just an old guy with a round bald spot on the back of his head and a round belly to match. Which he kept making rounder with glasses of root beer and plates of french fries.
Zoe was getting sick and tired of spying. But when she'd complain to Chief Detective Kelby, he'd say, "Stay there and suck rocks." If she let the enemy out of her sight, Kelby warned, she'd have to spend the night outdoors at the risk of "bears, bobcats, skunks and
spooks." She didn't want to meet up with any of those! Now she'd miss her supper. And supper was her favorite shepherd's pie, filled with fresh corn and buttery mashed potatoes. Just minutes ago she'd heard her mother calling her name—but wasn't allowed to answer.
It was her brother Kelby who wouldn't let her leave her assigned post. She'd been made Sergeant after bringing a pair of poisoners to justice—she stroked the shiny badge she'd earned. But now she wanted to be a lieutenant like Butch Green, who ranked last in her class at school, and Jake Botts, who was a year younger than she and had a nasty habit of eating raw onion sandwiches. Even her dog Gwendolyn got to wear a red flag attached to her tail at club meetings and was made a captain. It wasn't fair!
She heard a crackle in the bushes and something slithered over one foot. A snake? She shrieked and a door banged open at the back of the house. Boomer's belly filled the doorway. "Who's there?" he hollered.
She peered up at him. His face was coarse and unshaven, like he wanted to grow a beard but didn't have enough hairs. He might be a fugitive from justice, Kelby said, which was why two weeks ago Boomer had rented this yellow house in the small town of Branbury, Vermont, and hardly ever, ever went out of doors.
He was afraid of being recognized, Kelby had said. "He's hiding something. Some terrible secret. It's up to us to find out what it is." "Up to me, you mean," she'd said. "If you want to be a lieutenant," he said.
She did want to. But she didn't want to be caught by this man who had this terrible
secret. Hearing him step off the back porch, she pushed her face down into the crabgrass.
Then—uh-oh—a sneeze coming on. Ker-ker—she stuck two fingers under her nose to stop the sneeze but still it came out: Ker-ker-choo.
But when she sneezed she always sneezed three times, and out it came again. Ker-choo! Again, ker-choo-oo!
"Who's there?" he roared, and a pair of black boots stomped toward her hiding place. "Show your face. If it's one of you meddlesome kids, I'm calling the police!"
She inched back. Now she was the snake in the grass. But she was too big for a snake. Any minute he'd see her and nab her for trespassing. The police would take her to jail and then what would her parents say?
She heard a loud shrilling, like a scream in the night. It came again and again. Only it wasn't yet night and it wasn't a scream—it was the r-ring-r-ring of a cell phone.
"Hello…. What? Huh? Jus' a minute. Can't hear so well—have to go inside…."
The back door slammed. Saved by a phone call! She peered in through the window and there he was, talking on his phone. She wanted to leave this minute in case he came back out, but she wasn't off duty yet.
Boomer shaking a fist. Boomer yelling into the phone. Pacing the floor. Knocking a pile of books off a shelf. Boomer…
Now she was too excited to write. Boomer had a sofa pillow in his hands. He was slamming his fist into it. Slamming and banging and punching, then flinging himself face down on the couch. Who was he mad at?
His girlfriend told him off, she wrote. Then crossed it out—he was too old for a girlfriend—could have been an ex-wife. Somebody found out something bad he did and he didn't want them telling.
Found out what? She was writing so fast it looked like chicken tracks. Okay. He'd beat somebody up, and was in hiding. Right here. Two houses away from her own. Next door to over friend Spence, who'd helped her put away the pea soup poisoners.
She might not give these notes to Kelby at all. She didn't need Kelby with his big
shiny Chief's badge that was twice the size of her own. She pocketed her notepad and
started for home. Never mind she was leaving her post five minutes early. She heard a familiar voice behind Spence's house—her father's voice, calling for her! She shifted direction. She didn't want her father to find her in the new neighbor's yard. She ran through the south section of her parents' apple orchard and in through the back door. Up the back stairs to the bathroom where she soaked her sweaty face in a bowlful of cold water.
"Zoe? Your mother and I have been calling for fifteen minutes now. Answer please, Zoe."
"Yes, Dad?" she hollered out the window. "You were calling me? I was just up here in the bathroom, trying to keep cool. I had my head in the sink."
"No, no, I wasn't calling you," he said, blinking up at her, his eyes full of six o'clock
sun. "I was calling the pet pig."
"We have a pet pig, Dad?"
"You know who I'm talking about." He waved his arms and strode off toward the
apple barn. He wouldn't be in time for supper either. He never was. It drove her mother bananas.
"Zoe, dear," said her mother, standing in the doorway—her mother who did not care for the Northern Spy Club, even though it was named after her father's favorite Vermont apple. Her mother who wanted Zoe to spend the summer in camp, or reading a pile of books for the summer library reading program. (Of course she read those anyway.)
"I didn't know we had weeds growing in our toilet bowl," her mother said, pointing at
the shirt Zoe was shaking out into the toilet. "I guess I'd better spray a pest-icide in there, shall I?"
Zoe brushed the weeds off her pants. She did look a mess, it was true. But her mother didn't realize who the real pest was in this household. The real pest lived in the messy room across from the messy bathroom and spent all his time thinking up mean, dirty jobs for his younger sister to do.
"So there," she told the sink bowl and turned the cold water on, hard, until it sprayed up into her face. "So there, Kelby. You'll see!"
© Nancy Means