The Pepperoni and Cheese Detective Agency
“Hey, Parker, what’s that?!”
You look where Ash is pointing, but almost as quickly, you look back in confusion at your best friend. She’s lived in this town as long as you have.
“It’s the old Grimaldi place.”
“You mean the one nobody’s lived in for years, right?”
“So why is there a light on in that window?”
You look back, and sure enough she’s right. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“That if those counterfeiters your dad’s been looking for wanted to have a hideout, an old abandoned house no one’s used in years would be pretty much perfect.”
You grin at your best friend as you release the brake on your ten speed bike and zoom downhill to collect the third member of your team. You waited most of the summer to have a real crime to solve, and now it’s time.
The Pepperoni and Cheese Detective Agency is on the case.
You’re not surprised to find the third member of the agency in the shed in his backyard. He doesn’t see or hear you as he’s busy with the grinder. Charlie “Cogs” Washington is building something. Go figure.
“Cogs!” you shout.
He powers down the machine, lifts the safety goggles away from his face and smiles at you. “Hey guys!”
“What’s on the build list for today?” asks Ash.
“Eventually, it’ll be a mount for my camera so I can attach it to my bike helmet. It’s a ways from being done, though.”
“You might have to put this on hiatus, Cogs. We think we might have found the counterfeiters!”
You and Ash explain your findings about the Grimaldi place. Cogs looks skeptical.
“Maybe. I mean, I agree it would be a good place to hide, but someone might just have bought the place too.”
Ash brightens up. “We could call your dad and leave an anonymous tip for him to go check it out.”
You shake your head. “Dad said no more anonymous tips after that thing with the graffiti artists. And he’d know it was us. No one else in town calls to leave anonymous tips. Before we call the police, we need to be sure these are really criminals.”
“So how do we do that?”
Chosen: Walk up and ring the doorbell. You can pretend to be selling magazines for your school. See who answers the door.
“Hey, Ash, do we still have the order form we used in February when we tried to find out if Mr. Gordon killed his wife?”
Ash brightens and nods enthusiastically, though her expression falters somewhat. Apparently, she remembers how Mr. Gordon turned the hose on you in the second coldest day of winter. And then his wife — laid up in bed for weeks with mono — started screaming that she’d call the police.
“I kept a bunch of copies. Same plan as before?”
Cogs winces slightly, and you catch him looking at the thermometer on the wall of the shed. It’s cool for late May, but well above freezing, and he seems to relax.
“Same plan. Let’s go get the order forms and then Operation Black Olive is a go.”
Both your friends give a woop of joy. It’s a tradition that all the plans of the Pepperoni and Cheese Detective Agency are named after pizza toppings. Cog puts away his power tools and you all hop on your bikes to get to Ash’s house.
Anyone else would take a look at Ash’s bedroom and say “messy,” but it’s no surprise to you that she finds the stack of order forms in six seconds flat.
“Um, they’re crinkling the way paper does after it gets wet,” Cogs observes.
“Don’t worry, they’re just a cover. Nobody wants to buy these magazines, but it’s a good excuse to knock on the door. Let’s go.”
Twenty minutes later, you’re back at the Grimaldi house. If anyone’s living here, they really need to make some serious repairs to the property. You can see broken windows and cracks all along the facade. “Watch the windows,” you say, “keep an eye out for anyone watching.”
“I saw a curtain move upstairs,” Ash says, barely moving her lips. She’s always afraid someone will read her lips.
You walk as casually as possible up to the door and knock. Then you wait.
And knock some more.
Finally, you hear movement behind the door and a very severe-looking woman answers it. She frowns down at you.
“What do you want?”
“Ma’am, my friends and I are selling magazines to raise funds for the band camp our school is hosting. Would you be interested?” Your voice cracks on the last word, and you feel a cold sweat break out on your back. Doesn’t this woman ever blink?
Another moment goes by, then her lips go up into a smile you’re not sure you believe entirely. “Well, that sounds interesting. Why don’t you three come inside so we can talk about it?”
Chosen: Distract her and set your magnifying glass by that old yard waste before you go in. If you’re not out in a few minutes, there’ll be plenty of smoke to use as a distraction.
“Sure. We’d love to come in!”
Ash and Cogs don’t have great poker faces as they stare at you nervously. You hope you look a little smoother as you reach your hand into your pocket. You pull out the handkerchief you always carry (as you never know when a red checkered flag might come in handy), and with it, several of the coins in your pocket come spilling out.
“Whoops! Sorry, hold on, please!”
You scramble about grabbing the coins, but you also pull your magnifying glass from your other pocket. There’s yard waste next to the corner of the porch, and it takes you just a second to set up the distraction you’ll need in case something goes wrong.
The severe woman frowns impatiently until you’re inside. She gestures to a small, barely furnished kitchen, and you start to head that way. Then you see a man at the top of the stairs on your left.
“What’s with the pipsqueaks?”
The woman turns to him with a smile. It doesn’t sit right with you. “These youngsters are here selling magazines for their camp.”
“Yeah, but we don’t want no magazines.”
Her jaw tightens, but she maintains her smile. “Well, probably not, but we’re so new to the neighborhood. I thought it would be nice to let them see inside the house. I can’t imagine what they must have been thinking of people living in this old wreck.”
The man’s brow contracts a little. “Yeah. Yeah I guess. It’s a shame the furniture truck won’t be here for a few more days. It might make the place look a little more presentable.”
“Exactly.” The woman is looking at you, and you realize you might just have been staring a little too long. “Now let’s take a look at that form. I probably can’t afford anything at the moment, but we’ll just . . .” She stops, holding the form Ash handed to her. “Why does this say orders must be in by April 1st?”
Your mind goes blank, but luckily, Ash has an answer. “Oh, guys, we took the wrong forms!” She looks at you, barely hiding her bug-eyed fear. “These must have been from last year. I’m sorry ma’am we need to go talk to all the houses where we already sold . . .”
“Fire!” screams the man at the top of the stairs. He rushes down the stairs toward the door, and you bolt there yourself. You’re not fast enough though. He’s extinguished the fire with his boots, but in the process, he’s shattered your magnifying glass. He picks up the metal rim, then looks straight at you.
Ash and Cogs come barreling out of the door, and you take the momentum to get away as fast as you can. You rush to your bikes and you’re three blocks away before you notice you’re not being chased.
“We should throw those forms out.”Cogs is adamant. “That plan is jinxed.”
As you pull your bikes into the nearby playground parking lot, you take a moment to review the situation. “We don’t really know much more than we did before. They’re definitely hiding something with that whole ‘furniture truck’ thing.”
“I think I know what it is.” Ash looks a little shaken. “Right after the guy ran down the stairs, I heard something else coming from the top. It was a banging, like someone trying to get past a locked door.”
“No jumping to conclusions,” says Cogs. “Lots of things cause a banging.”
Ash shakes her head. “Three fast knocks, three slower ones, and three fast ones again. It had to be Morse code!”
You all stare at each other for a moment. This could be a breakthrough!
And the moment is broken when a police cruiser turns the corner. It might just be your dad’s.
As your father’s squad car passes by, you simply wave with the most sincere smile you can muster. Ash and Cogs go with your lead, and your father waves back. He looks a little preoccupied, and you can’t blame him.
“Aren’t we going to tell him?” asks Cogs.
“We have nothing to tell him. We have no evidence of any kind, and until we do, we can’t bother him.”
Ash frowns at you. “We have to do it, don’t we?”
You nod. You didn’t want to spend this kind of money — it took the three of you so much time to save up — but if you’re going to be real detectives, there’s no choice.
An hour later, you walk out of the camera shop with your first honest to goodness telephoto lens. It’s hooked up to Cog’s brother’s old camera that you must be very, very careful with.
As you bike back to the hill overlooking the Grimaldi place, your eyes just about pop out of your head. There’s a big van parked in front of the house. You look through the lens just in time to watch the man and the woman you met earlier climb into the van.
Chosen: If they’re both leaving the house, you can sneak in and see who’s upstairs.
“They’re both leaving!” You turn to Cogs and Ash. “Which means no one’s left in the house.”
“Nobody that we know of.” Cogs corrects you.
“We have to risk it. This could be our only chance to have a look upstairs and see what’s going on.”
Cogs looks apprehensive, but he always looks like that. You scramble back to your bike, and your friends follow close on your heels. Obviously, going in the back door is the better option, so you sneak in from the back yard of the neighboring house.
Ash can pick locks, or she says she can, but in this case, the back door is just about falling off its hinges. The hard part isn’t getting in, it’s getting in without making too much noise.
You’ve made it back to the main room with the big stairway. At the foot of the stairs, you turn to your friends and keep your voice low. “You guys head upstairs. I’m going to try to find the basement and look for the counterfeiter’s printing press.”
“Let me save you some time.”
So apparently the gang has at least three members. The man is a wall of solid muscle. You have no idea where he came from or how someone that big could have snuck up on the three of you, but he’s standing between you and the closest exit.
“There ain’t any printing press, and you sure aren’t going upstairs.”
Chosen: Try stalling and asking questions. Maybe you can learn what’s going on.
You gulp as this brute takes a step forward, but the most important thing is getting information.
“You’re not counterfeiters?”
He shakes his head derisively. “Is that what this was about? I told you, no printing press. It’s surprisingly hard to do that sort of thing by hand.”
“Wait,” says Cogs, “then what’s going on?”
“Oh, sure. I’ll just casually explain every little detail to you brats!” He gets a little closer, glaring at Cogs. “Did you think you were in a comic book? But now it’s my turn to ask the questions.” He looks at you. “That’s a very nice camera you’ve got there. So what exactly do your parents do that they let a little pipsqueak like you run around with such an expensive toy?”
Ash gasps. “You’re kidnappers! You want to know if you can get a ransom from our parents!”
The man looks impressed. “Well, we know who the brains of the operation is, now don’t we?”
“My dad’s the chief of police!”
You threw that last sentence like a weapon, but the man shows no fear. His expression changes to one of calculation, and you swear the temperature drops a degree or two.
“I’m not sure you’re telling the truth, but you just might be, and if that’s the case I don’t have a ton of great options right now.”
Suddenly he pounces. Before any of you can react, he has one huge hand around Cogs’s throat.
“If your friends try to run, or if you struggle or try to kick me or something, I will hurt you. I will hurt you a lot. Does anyone need me to demonstrate so you know I’m serious? “
“That’s what I thought. You!” He points a thick finger at you. “You wanted to see the basement, here’s your chance. It’s around the corner there. You’ll be staying inside for a little while as I take my little treasure upstairs away from here. Move.”
You try to hesitate, but Cogs lets out a whimper as that big hand squeezes a little. You make your way around to the other side of the stairway where another door may be seen.
“What about your partners?” asks Ash.
“They’ll either figure out where I went or I don’t have to split the ransom three ways. I’m not really picky about which. IN.”
You go in and down a flight of terrifyingly old stairs. Sunlight comes in to one corner of the room through an upper window that nobody bigger than a squirrel could get out through. The man follows you to the bottom, looks around for a moment to make sure there’s no obvious escape route, and then lets go of Cogs.
“Goodbye.” He says simply. He backs up the stairs, never taking his eyes off you. When the door shuts, you hear a scraping, and you’re reasonably certain he’s blocked it with a chair.
“Now what?” asks Ash as she checks Cogs’s neck for bruises.
Chosen: Search the basement for something useful.
“We have to get out of here!” Ash says
You hear the big man’s footsteps on the stairs going up to the third floor. He’ll probably grab whomever they kidnapped and maybe a few odds and ends, but you don’t have much time.
“Look around. Find something. Anything!”
The three of you scurry to the corners of the room. The basement has been abandoned for a while, so there’s not a great deal here, but behind the old water heater, you do find something helpful.
“Come on!” You race up the stairs with Ash and Cogs only a few steps behind you. In your hand is an eight pound sledge with a handle that probably broke last century. Using the sledge like a battering ram, the three of you knock the door clean off its rusty hinges. It’s awkward pushing past the chair on the other side, but nothing you can’t handle.
The big man is already at the bottom of the stairs, and he’s carrying a little girl — she can’t be more than five — in his arms. Well, maybe less “carrying” and more “restraining.” There’s no way she could get out of that grip.
They both see you at the same moment. The man swears, and the girl shouts for help right before he clamps his big hand over her mouth, silencing her. You see a moment of calculation in his eyes. He wants this to become a fight, probably because he knows he’d win, but he also doesn’t want to risk the girl getting away.
So instead, he runs.
There’s nothing you can do but chase after him. He’s out the door and rushing down the block, and you’re just barely keeping pace with him. He makes it to his destination, a car parked on the street, and roughly shoves the girl inside.
He’s very likely going to get away.
Chosen: Memorize the license plate, and maybe try to crack a tail light. Make the car identifiable so you can tell your dad and he can organize a search.
You run as fast as you possibly can. When the car really starts going, you’re going to lose it, but for now, you just might catch up. You bring the broken sledge up and hit the car for everything you’re worth. The left tail light shatters, and you get in one good whack on the trunk before the car speeds away.
“Parker!” Ash is yelling, but you hold up a hand to silence her.
“DJZ 1134,” you mumble to yourself. You look over at Ash. “License plate DJZ 1134. Remember that. Let’s go.”
Your father has been silent. That’s never a good sign.
He had told you that he couldn’t put out an APB on the car without knowing why, so you made him promise not to interrupt as you told the whole story. He’s a man of his word, but you can tell he’s reaching his breaking point.
When you finish, and you hold up the sticky note where you wrote down the license plate number, he looks first at Cogs, and then at Ash. When he’s absolutely sure you’re telling the truth, he stands, takes the note, and starts to walk out of his office.
There’s a finality in his voice, not to mention the way the door slams. You are in so much trouble you can’t even comprehend it.
After ten minutes of watching the clock, your father comes back with an officer you don’t know. “This is Officer Sampson. You will give him your statements. Do not deviate from the truth in any way. I will be back when you’re finished.”
It takes a half an hour for the three of you to give your official depositions, which you sign. When your father comes back, he takes the papers from Officer Sampson and skims them. When the officer leaves, your father takes a long slow breath.
“In addition to being your depositions, I am holding signed confessions from each of you that you committed breaking and entering and that you perpetrated fraud by pretending to sell magazines you didn’t have. If I were so inclined, I could also possibly make an arson case stick.”
You open your mouth to object, but one look at your father’s face shuts your lips for you.
“Along with a complete and utter disregard for the law, you were reckless and gave zero thought to your own personal safety. I want to be very clear about this. The fact that there ended up being a real crime involved here does not make your actions okay.”
He sets down the depositions. “Out of the goodness of my heart, I am choosing not to arrest the three of you at this time. I will instead take Ash and Cogs to their homes. If either of your parents feel that the best alternative is that you be charged with these crimes and given a criminal record and the legal punishments involved with them, I will be happy to oblige. And, Parker, if they go down, you go down, so you’d better hope for the best. Regardless, I promise all three of you, there will be consequences. So many, many consequences. Now let’s go. I’m taking you home.”
Not a one of you says a single word from that moment until you’re three-quarters of the way to Ash’s house. Speaking is not in your best interests, but while your father is at a stop sign, you spot something on the street, and this is too important to keep quiet about.
“I see it, Parker.”
There, you see a car with a broken tail light and a license plate of DJZ 1134.
Chosen: Suggest he pull over and keep watch over the car. Then he can radio the station and wait for backup.
“Dad, you have to stop!”
“I have three children in the car, Parker. That is my first responsibility. I can’t abandon the three of you to investigate the car.”
“Then just pull over here. You can radio the station and we’ll just wait until another officer gets here. If you drive off, the car might disappear before anyone else gets here.”
Your dad sighs and flexes his fingers on the wheel. After a brief moment which feels like forever, he signals and pulls the car forward into a parking space.
“Dispatch, this is Chief Whitcomb,” he says into the radio. “I’m at the corner of 10th and Wilson, and I have visual on the vehicle we’re searching for in relation to the kidnapping. I have underage civilians with me, and I need a patrol car down here yesterday.”
“Copy, chief. We’ll have someone at your position momentarily.”
“Momentarily” doesn’t mean what you think it means. The wait is intolerable. You don’t dare say anything to your father, and you’re shocked when he turns casually to you.
“Look to your right, about two o’clock. Is that the man?”
The big man is trying to look smaller. He’s remarkably nonchalant as he walks up to a new car, not the one with the broken tail light. He tests the door, and finding it locked, he pulls something from under his shirt. Faster than seems possible, the car door is open.
“Yeah. That’s him.”
“Stay calm. Don’t move, don’t draw attention to us. It looks like he’s going to hot-wire that car. We’re going to let him.”
“Where’s the girl?”
“An excellent question. She could be in one of the houses nearby, she could have gotten free.” He pauses a bit too long. “It could be a lot worse than that.”
As the man’s new car starts up, your father hesitates. The next decision might just be yours.
Chosen: Tell your dad to let the three of you out while he follows the car. You’ll snoop around the local houses to find the girl.
“Follow him, Dad.” In almost the same breath, you’re opening the car door.
“Parker, where are you going?”
“You said you can’t chase him with us. There’ll be an officer here soon. Go, please.”
Your father glares at you, but he nods. As nonchalantly as possible, he puts the car into drive and follows well behind the big man’s car.
“What now?” asks Cogs.
“You go wait by the car until the police get here. Ash and I are going to check out that house over there.”
“Why that house?” Ash’s brow is furrowed
“Because that’s about where the man we saw was coming from.” You tug on her sleeve and pull her along.
Ash’s eyes are as sharp as ever. “It doesn’t look like anyone is home in this neighborhood. He could have snuck into any of these houses with the girl. If he just needed a place to stash her for a little while, he could have just locked her in a closet or a bathroom. . .”
“Or a tool shed?” You can hear the muffled thumps coming from the locked door of the shed from twenty feet away.
Ash pulls out her pocket knife and goes to work on the padlock. By the time the police cruiser arrives, the lock is open, and you’re waiting with Cogs and the little girl. Her name is Emily, and you can completely understand why she can’t stop crying.
It’s a week later and the first time you’ve seen Ash and Cogs in that time. Your punishment has been strict. Every day you’ve been waking up to a backbreaking list of chores (including cleaning the gutters, blech) that you need to complete before your mother gets home from work. So far you’ve managed to get them all done, but it’s been a near thing, and you’re terrified to find out what would happen if you didn’t.
Despite that punishment, and despite not seeing your friends in so long, no one is speaking. You’re all too scared. Your dad came home early, Ash and Cogs already in the back seat of the car, and gestured for you to get in. He didn’t say a word all the way back to the police station, or even after he’d guided you into one of the interrogation rooms and closed the door behind him.
That was ten minutes ago.
Finally, the door begins to open again. Your father guides in a woman you’ve never seen before. She’s dressed in a prison jumpsuit and her hands are in cuffs.
“These are the children I told you about,” your father says.
The woman breaks into a huge, relieved smile. She gestures for permission, then sits across the table from you. Your father stands over her.
“I’m Emily’s mother,” says the woman. “I understand you’re the ones who found her, and I wanted to thank you and also explain a little about what happened. I used to be a counterfeiter years ago, but when I had Emily, I gave that life up. Then the woman you met kidnapped her. They were forcing me to go back to counterfeiting.”
“The FBI will be deciding if they want to send me back to prison since it’s a federal offense, but at least I know my daughter’s safe now. Did you know they caught all three of the kidnappers? The police have them in custody.” She looks up at your father. “Thank you again, Chief.”
“Just doing our job, but you’re welcome.”
“I wanted to offer a reward for the three of you. Without you . . .”
Your father cuts her off. “Absolutely not. These three children broke more laws than I care to count, and that’s not something to be rewarded.”
You lock eyes with your father, and you know better than to protest. He frowns down at you for just a moment before giving a resigned sigh.
“However, if you’re so inclined, I’m sure they’d be honored to know you and your family made a donation to a charity in the name of the Pepperoni & Cheese Detective Agency.”