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Authors: Nancy Means Wright

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The Great Circus Train Robbery

BOOK: The Great Circus Train Robbery
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THE GREAT CIRCUS TRAIN ROBBERY

 

Nancy Means Wright

 

MONDAY

 

1

 

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 her 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
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
pesticide
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.

But this time she’d foil him. She wouldn’t show him what she’d seen at Boomer’s, oh no. She wouldn’t show him her notes. She’d go back to Boomer’s house and find out his terrible secret on her own.

“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!”

 

Tuesday

 

2

 

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 red-haired friend was too absorbed in his baggage car to respond.

It was a red baggage car with the words
Billing 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 high wire 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—and 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 and the red passenger car in which the performers rode. The wild animal car, the carrousel car that played a lively tune as it dashed around the 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. Spencer’s grandfather had bought it on eBay, 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. Since 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 a hoot.

“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.”

BOOK: The Great Circus Train Robbery
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