Tommy told her to stay away from the edge seven times. But Beth didn’t listen. He couldn’t very well stop her from being a fool when she was clear on the other side of the barn, could he?
“Mom told you to be careful,” he repeated. Usually, using the “M” word was the only thing that could make her listen. Many moms can make us behave with just a faint warning from the past. Tommy and Beth’s mom was most definitely that kind of mom.
But Beth wasn’t like you or me. Beth was, and still is frankly, a misbehaver from toe to hairtip.
Tommy, too, was no sample of sweetness, and frankly still isn’t, but he fancied himself packed with sense. Or, as he liked to call it, Sensibles — because that made him sound blessed by spirits.
They were in the barn that Mom told them to stay clear of. They were doing things Mom told them not to do inside the barn (the one that she told them not to be in). All in all, it was a disaster waiting to happen.
The roof, as it was, wore more holes than Mrs. Whisker’s swiss cheese. Sunlight poured into some areas of the barn, and not at all in others. The resulting shadows could move, dance, fly or do just about anything else your imagination allowed them to do.
Old piles of damp hay emerged from the floor like warts. They stunk the place up in that dreamy, moist cloud of decay that’s somehow pleasant if you’re in the mood to enjoy it.
So, inside this nest of wretchedness, Beth fell from the second floor.
It was a short fall, as most falls are. But Beth’s brain, being a rocket, managed to pack a lifetime inside three seconds.
When she first lost her balance and her right foot didn’t feel the floor in that special way it does when we’re grounded, she thought, “I wonder if my funeral will be sunny.”
She saw her parents sobbing. Her little casket perched above a hole in the ground in such a way that it could be shoved off its pedestal and slid straight down into the Earth.
She spotted Tommy playing her Nintendo DS while the priest spoke about what happens to girls who don’t listen to their mothers. Tommy winked at her, which meant he knew she was watching her own funeral. Then he dove back in to try to beat her high score in MarioKart.
By the time she was pondering the barn from an angle she’d never considered before, namely upside down while twirling, her thoughts had turned to the barn.
It upset her, as she fell to her death, that they would likely respond to her accident by tearing the old place down. Which would hardly be a reasonable way to face such a tragedy!
After all, if one girl could die in an abandoned building at any time then couldn’t all empty buildings be killers-in-waiting? Why not tear all of them down? The barns, the warehouses, the schools…
That’s where Beth’s head settled as she saw the ground below her get significantly closer at a good clip. She wouldn’t really miss school. Not only because she’d be dead and wouldn’t be around to miss it; but also because school was her least favorite way to measure the day:
Jump in mud
That’s a thousand times better than any school day, even one with a substitute teacher.
She caught a glimpse of Tommy the moment she hit the ground. He was yelling something. Probably, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”
Beth felt bad for her brother. He’d probably feel guilty when she was gone. He might not even play video games for three whole days. Okay, maybe more like two days. But still, their parents would…
Would they blame him? Would they blame Tommy? Would it be like the time Tommy let the dog out by accident and she got caught in the fence?
So Beth did what any other sister would do in her situation. She hit the ground hard. But as she hit the ground hard, she thought, “How strong are these floorboards anyways?” And, as if to say, “We’re not very strong at all, Beth,” the floorboards cracked under her butt, dropping her straight into a muddy soup below the barn.
Time slowed down to normal, as did Beth’s brain. Or what passed for normal, as there was almost nothing normal about what had just happened.
Tommy was still hollering above her, his fingers clenching his hair. Finally, he managed, “ARE YOU OKAY?”
“I think so,” Beth said, a little short of breath.
She didn’t really hurt anywhere at first. But later on, when the excitement had died down, she found a large splinter in the back of her leg. The scar would always be there to remind her to mind her brother.
On the long walk home they decided to keep the whole thing to themselves. Most parents will grimace at such a decision, but tough luck. The brother and sister had a secret and it welded them together in all the ways brothers and sisters should weld.
“Did your life flash before your eyes?” Tommy asked as they walked up the steps to their back porch.
“No, but the future did. And I’m having none of it.”
That, Beth thought, will be my secret for me, myself and I.
Mom always thought Jungle Jim was creepy, but I liked him. He sold ice cream and said hi to every kid in the playground. Sometimes, when a bunch of us said hello at the same time, he twirled in circles howling, “HELLOOOO!”
We laughed hard at that. The kids did. The grownups acted like they didn’t trust him.
The truth about Jim came out when Allison disappeared from the playground.
Her Dad was frantic.
He screamed, “ALLLLLLISOOOON!”, twirling around like Jim.
“Daddy?” Allison was across the street. I bet she was staring at toys in Walgreen’s window.
She crossed back without looking.
A car turned the corner, fast.
Jungle Jim jumped into the street and fell into Allison hard enough to knock her away.
Now he’s in the hospital. He’ll be okay. Allison’s dad is using his vacation to sell ice cream for Jungle Jim.
I think that’s super nice.
“Now I must gamble.” Sherlock’s eyes focused on something no one else could see. Numbers and data and a nose for human nature washed over a single slight sound that he’d heard three seconds prior. He hoped the sound would be slightly louder next time.
Holmes kneeled before a one ton safe in a bank, surrounded by gentlemen, friends of a famous boor. All of them wanted nothing more than to see him fail.
The day before, challenged by a man of leisure at M. Stringer’s residence, Holmes showed an emotion that cut through seven levels of impropriety. It took most in the room aback. For it is one thing to laugh loudly, with an abandon usually reserved for a child. It’s quite another to be an unwelcome guest in the Stringer home, and to emit such glee without a proper handkerchief. But most unsuitable, and the final challenge to all civility everywhere, was that it was the infamous Sherlock Holmes who laughed amongst London’s select.
To M. Stringer, it was a horn in the fog of his dull life. He followed the guffaw to our detective and he asked simply what was so funny.
“Your guest here,” Sherlock said, almost with a moan, “believes his safe cannot be cracked. What is it you said?”
The man he addressed, Edward Hopper, Manufacturer, was red in the face. His fists clenched tighter than his teeth, which could be heard crackling just underneath the contempt in the detective’s voice. “I said precisely what you said, Holmes. My company’s new safe is thief proof.”
“And I say that is a threat to my livelihood! Would you care to make a wager? I will open your safe in one try.”
“Preposterous! I will not be insulted like this!”
“If you wish to avoid the insult, you should not invite it in. Have you forgotten the wager?”
“Tomorrow. Noon. Sheffield Bank on …”
“On Baker St. Yes, yes I’ve been following your company’s claim that a safe for all secrets would be on the market by spring. Sheffield Bank it is. If I succeed, I get the contents of the safe. If I fail, I retire in disgrace, my friend.”
“It’s a deal. And you,” Hopper hissed, “are not a friend.”
“No need to be rude,” Sherlock said to the back of Hopper’s head. He turned to Stringer. “No verve in that one.”
“You do have a way, Sherlock. Even I’m irritated by you at times and I couldn’t care less about pot. Now what are you doing in my house? Besides antagonizing my guests.”
“Besides? Is there another reason I should be here?”
“I see. Well, your efforts to amuse yourself have shut down purse strings that are supposed to be opening by now for my wayward lads charity.”
Sherlock noticed everyone was glaring at him. No one was engaging M. Stringer’s associates, all of whom lined the corners, ledgers in hand, empty of numbers and figures for wayward boys.
“Sorry about that,” Sherlock said, as he reached for his clip. “How much to even the score do you think?”
“Oh, I’d say 100 pounds by now. Probably more with the holidays upon us.”
Sherlock’s brow raised and he snapped his clip shut. He put it back in his chest pocket. “Yes, well. Let’s hope I find something in the cracked egg tomorrow at noon, then.”
M. Stringer watched the detective take his long strides right out the front door. He shook his head, but he smiled.
In the bank, the gathering of a plurality of London’s wealth, formed a circle around the safe as if it were a dying dignitary. If Sherlock had his way, that’s exactly what it would be. The detective broke the envelope of silent anticipation with a nasty cough as he entered the circle and approached the safe with great speed. Like a child laying claim to the final candy in all the Queen’s kingdom.
The crowd moved to one side of the safe so they could get a better view of the tragedy or comedy that was about to unfold. Holmes ran his hand over the steel, knocked it with both sets of knuckles, and fell to his knees without laying down a cloth first. On any other day, that alone would have been the talk of the elite. But today was special. Today, Sherlock’s silent enemies, the leeches of high society, constantly in fear of taking one step too far and falling into another of Holmes’ traps, wanted to witness his end. They wanted to see him beaten, humbled, human. If anything could better him, it would be a ton of secured steel and a boast too far.
He yanked off his gloves, put his ear to the safe and gently twisted the safe’s dial with the very tip of his naked fingertips. His touch was so light it appeared as if he were trying to feel the strands of a spiders web.
“Now I must gamble,” Sherlock said. His eyes froze on Hopper. Hopper, for his part, was unsettled by this attention. His eyes darted back and forth from Sherlock’s to the safe’s dial. Finally, with a slight smirk, Holmes settled on the number 73.
Holmes turned the dial the other direction. All attention went to Hopper in that moment. Murmurs of “73. 73? 73!” and “Is it right?” and finally one voice pushed through them all.
“Is 73 the first number, Hopper?”
Hopper said nothing, which said everything.
When Sherlock put his ears to the safe again, the nerves in the room gave way to elation. For Sherlock, as if determined to give these men the pleasure of their lives, suddenly appeared frightened.
“Hopper!” Sherlock yelled.
“Mr. Hopper to you, Holmes.”
“Yes, yes. You came here last night to secure the safe.”
M. Hopper eyed his company and smiled as calmly as he could manage. “Of course I did. I wanted to make sure you hadn’t already sabotaged our product.”
Sherlock smiled, pleased at the inconvenience his reputation had caused. “Instantly, you are my second favorite person in the room. But as you protected the sanctity of the safe, was anyone with you when you were here?”
“No. I was alone.”
“I think not, sir.”
“Excuse me, but are you questioning my truthfulness?”
“I would never think of it,” Sherlock said as he stood and approached Hopper with the same gumption that unsettled them when he’d first entered the bank to play with his new toy. “But I do question your sense. Or should I say, senses. It was cold last night, was it not?”
“I fail to see…”
“Was it, or was it not one of the coldest nights of the winter?”
“I’d say yes, but…”
And in this cold, did you notice anyone outside the bank in need of cover? Someone small?”
“No,” Hopper said, simply. Everyone in that room had seen Holmes do this before. When he asked leading questions, he was leading you to your doom. The chill outside likely felt more welcoming than the chill in that room.
“Did you leave the safe unattended?”
“I did not.”
“How could that possibly be a curiosity?”
“For some poor soul is inside the safe right now.”
The chatter that echoed off the high ceilings was deafening.
“Nonsense!” Hopper yelled over the ruckus. “The shelves are too small for a man or woman to fit in!”
“Which is why I’m afraid a small boy or girl followed you into the bank last night, desperate to find some comfort and slipped into the safe while you were turned.”
“What simpleton would do such a thing?”
“A desperate and scared child, perhaps. Ssh!”
Hopper flinched. Shocked to be shushed, he would have protested if it hadn’t been for a small sound, barely perceptible in the silence that Sherlock had demanded.
“What was that?” one man called out.
“I did hear a cry!” said another.
A tall gentleman, pale and gaunt with ferocious eyes, ran to Holmes side. He put his ear to the safe.
The sound appeared to come from the safe. It was muffled, small, desperate.
“A child calling for help!” Holmes new companion cried. “Hopper!”
But Hopper was already dialing the rest of the combo. He swung the safe’s door open and the crowd gasped. They’d come to be entertained and they’d speak of this day for the rest of their lives.
For in the safe was not a child, but a dead fish. Its bulging eyes glared back at the audience to this mass deception.
Each man knew that, somehow, this meant Sherlock Holmes had won again!
The sound of one man clapping broke the silence. Everyone turned to watch Holmes trot up the steps to the balcony above. “One chance! And the safe is open.”
“What nonsense is this?” Hopper hollered. “The wager was to crack the safe!”
“And there it is. Open!”
M. Thompson (whom Holmes had revealed as an embezzler five years prior) asked loudly, “What are you playing at, Holmes? Where is the child?”
“Right there!” Holmes cried, with delight. He pointed to the thin gentleman who had accompanied Holmes at the safe. “Gentlemen, meet Jorge Garcia, master of puppetry and ventriloquism, favorite person in the room. His specialty, if you haven’t guessed yet, is in throwing his voice. You can see him every Thursday night at The Carriage House Theater with his wooden partner, Platitude Pete. Delightful stuff!”
M. Garcia took a bow but only the detective clapped.
“Jorge provided the voice of little Timmy, stranded in the safe, thanks to the negligent Mr. Hopper.”
“Held! Held neeeeee!” the ventriloquist cried out, with a smile.
“Which is the closest a man can get to saying Help me! without moving his lips.” Some men in the audience mouthed the word “help” as a test. They mumbled and nodded amongst themselves as Hopper boiled over.
“Then how did you know the first number was 73?” asked Thompson.
“That’s a simple matter of reading Hopper’s face. As my fingers moved the dial to the lower 70s, his eyes grew black and his blinking increased. But that trick is only good for one of the numbers. I wasn’t going to push my luck, so I signaled Jorge to give us his best holler-from-a-one-ton-safe voice.”
“Now see here! The deal was that you crack this safe, not manipulate every man’s sense of decency and chivalry!” Hopper shouted, his voice tinged with the crackle of a man who had lost a sizable portion of his reputation.
Sherlock sighed as he sauntered back down the stairs. “But that’s the point, man! You can make a safe as safe as its owners make it. A thief doesn’t care about the strength of the safe. A thief cares about how to get into it. This is why no safe will ever be free of the worst of us, present company included.”
“Where did the fish come from then?” asked Jorge, as he lifted the thing from the safe and dangled it.
“Our dear Hopper thought it would be a nice gift for me, should I succeed. Though I’m sure, if you asked him, he’d say he put it there to ridicule me as he’d planned to open it for me after I failed and revealed a treasure he thought me worthy of. Believe what you will, my esteemed audience, but personally I’m delighted to know that he entertained the idea that my success was possible. It’s more than his bravado would have us know.”
And, with that, the great detective, not yet ready to retire in disgrace, swept from the room as if late to his next game.
He didn’t trust his shadow. No, it wasn’t because it followed him everywhere. He’d heard enough of that joke from Step-Dad Dan.
The problem was it would hurt him every chance it got.
It started on the basketball court. His heel stuck to the ground when no one was anywhere near him. Then, outside the deli, he got bit on the neck. At least it bled like a bite.
Near sunrise, he perched on the wall behind his dorm, facing west so he’d see the shadow before it saw him. His fingertips brushed the grip of Dan’s Glock. Shadow would have a gun too, he guessed.
The sun pushed a bar of light over the mountains, too slim to make a shadow yet.
A van passed by, brights beaming.
He squinted in the headlight’s glare, but managed to glance at the shadow behind him, before he never saw anything again.