A boy wants to hire the Merry Marauders to track down his missing dad. Five days previously, the dad left Tucson for Show Low in the Arizona White Mountains to find his runaway wife.
Impressed with the kid, they decide to give the search a few days, pro bono of course.
They are rewarded with jail time from the cops and far worse from certain of the townspeople. Plus, there’s an inconvenient murder to complicate matters.
Big Al glanced out the front office window of Engstrom Associates, Confidential Investigations, and remarked, “Hey guys. There’s a kid by the door. Holding onto a bike. Wonder what he wants?”
The bike was an ancient one speed, not an easy pedal. He was looking around, kind of tentative, as if trying to make up his mind about what to do next.
“Let’s catch him before he decides to ride off,” Jerry said.
It was Saturday afternoon of the first full week of June and Tucson lay sweltering in a run of daily triple digits. Inside the office, the air conditioning was cranked up and the four associates were engaged in the serious work of finishing off a quarter keg of Corona before it lost its fizz.
The keg had been purchased the week before for a wrap-up celebration. This quartet of part-time PI’s were feeling downright smug, having solved not one but two murders, the one recent, the second harking back some forty years.
The office was in a mini-mall, a row of assorted retail establishments, two restaurants, a mom and pop grocery, and a combined donut and Broasted chicken shop, a goldmine for its hardworking Asian entrepreneur. The anchor on the south end was a former ladies fitness salon, now sporting a for-rent sign. Anchoring the north end was a popular watering hole known as Brat’s Bar and Grill.
“Gus, go invite the kid in. Al, you check the fridge to see if it has something suitable to offer him.”
Gus headed at a trot for the reception area and the front entrance to keep the kid from getting away.
“There’s got to be a lonely bottle of Coke or Seven-Up hidden somewhere behind all of Gus’ Pacifico’s,” Al muttered while rummaging the office refrigerator. He spied two Cokes and a stray Seven-Up hidden in the back. Also noted two bottles of fruit juice belonging to health-conscious Jimmy.
By the time Gus led the youngster back into the office both were wearing a big smile on their respective mugs.
“He says his name is Billy. Billy Hardwick. Right son?” Billy nodded. “Okay, Billy, let me introduce you around. The tall drink of water with the aw-shucks expression is Al Winslow. He is also known as Mr. Super Sleuth.”
“He just now made that up,” Al interjected.
“His real handle is Mr. Super Slouch,” Jerry said.
“Don’t you guys like each other?”
“Sure, we like each other. His b-ball creds are impeccable. Played college ball for Arizona State.”
“Wow,” Billy said.
“I was pretty good, but not that good. Tried pro-ball, mainly a bench warmer my first and as it turned out my only season.”
“That’s our Honest Al,” Jerry said. “He tells it like it is. See the wastebasket over there? See the balled-up McD wrappers on the floor beside it? Now do you get the picture, Billy?”
“Don’t you listen to him kid. My shooting percentage was awesome.”
Gus continued. “The handsome dude with the smart mouth is Jerry Hunter. He was Special Forces, so you don’t want to mess with him.”
“Right,” Al added. “Unless you’re tired of living.”
Jimmy chimed in, “And the beefy guy with the ugly mug who went out to invite you in is our fearless leader. Meet Gus Engstrom, former small-town cop.”
With each introduction, the kid nodded, stuck out his hand and gave the associate a forthright, almost adult-strength handshake.
“Our Billy here knows his manners. Would you like a soft drink? Maybe a Seven-Up or a Coke?”
When Billy stood there, not deciding, Jerry added, “We also might have some apple juice which I could steal from Jimmy’s stash.”
“Yeah, apple juice would be great. My dad doesn’t like me drinking those others. Says they’re not good for my teeth.”
“Smart dad. So how can we help you?”
Billy gazed around the office, as if figuring out how to answer.
“Is this really a private investigator office? I mean what’s with the fitness gear and the pool table I see in the back?”
“In a way it is,” Jerry answered, “but we don’t have much business right now.”
“Just got done with a big case, though,” Al said. “We had a party for the two guys whose butts we saved.”
“And now we’re planning to get our own butts out of here. Close up shop for the summer,” Jerry said.
“Where are you guys going?”
“Jimmy here is headed for Montana with his new lady friend. He leaves the day after tomorrow and Jerry and his lady are headed for the Colorado Rockies to hang out and scare some trout, and me, it’s the call of the open ocean. Al here is going to stick around and mind the store.”
“Well, I guess I’ll be off since you guys are closing up for the summer.”
“Hold up a sec. We’d sure like you to tell us why you came by.”
“You sure you’re interested?”
“We’re all ears. Aren’t we, guys?” Jerry said, each responding with an affirmative grunt.
“I want to retain your services.”
“I like that,” Jerry said, “Retain our services. Yeah, the grown-up way of putting it. You’re a pretty smart fellow. What is it you want to retain our services to do?”
“I got some money saved up. I can pay you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Gus said. “Our first consultation is always free.”
“In fact, almost everything we do is free, or that’s the way it seems to work out,” Al said.
“We hate to charge, since we’re not very experienced in this PI thing,” Jerry added.
“Not what I heard. You guys are famous around here. You’re supposed to be the best.”
“You hear that guys?” Jerry said.
“Great to hear, even if undeserved,” Gus said. “So, let’s retire to our conference room where Billy can have a comfortable chair and tell us his business. It’s where we conduct the initial conference with all our important clients. Bring your glass of apple juice with you.”
“You sure, guys?”
“At least we owe you that initial consultation since you’ve taken the trouble to ride over.”
“Well let’s get this show on the road.”
Gus ushered Billy into their conference room with its impressive cherry wood conference table.
“Nice table,” Billy commented.
Gus indicated a chair for Billy at the end on the window side of the room. At the other end opposite was the AV screen. Billy immediately checked it out.
“What a neat screen. You watch movies in here, stuff like that?”
“No, that’s part of our audio-visual conferencing system. It’s how we confer with our Phoenix affiliate.”
“Don’t let Jerry here snow you. We’re the affiliates. Phoenix is corporate headquarters where the real pros hang out. Well, out with it. You’ve got our full attention.”
“Here’s why I want your help. It’s about my dad. I’m worried about him.”
“Is he in some kind of trouble?”
“Not the illegal kind. He hasn’t committed a crime or anything. He’s a great dad. The best.”
“We’re sure he is to have a son like you,” Jerry said. “Tell us why you are worried about him.”
“It’s my mom. Well she’s not my real mom, but my step-mom. She’s been gone almost four months. I don’t think she even told my dad before she took off. Dad tells me not to worry, but I know he’s worried sick about her. I’ve learned some stuff, some stuff I don’t think he wants me to know about. He’s trying to keep me safe.”
“So, your step-mom is missing. Have you or your dad gone to the Tucson cops? They deal with cases like that.”
Billy was thinking over how to answer them. “Well you see, she’s not exactly missing. My dad knows where she is. She’s in Show Low with my uncle Jeb. It’s kind of complicated.”
“What is it you want us to do? Maybe talk to your dad?”
Gus’ question made Billy realize he’d left out an important detail. “The thing is, he’s not here. He’s gone up to Show Low, and I’m sure it’s to try to bring her back. I think he’s putting himself in real danger.”
“Does this suspicion have to do with that stuff he doesn’t want you to know about?”
“That’s it exactly. He thinks it’s to rescue her. He thinks she doesn’t want to be up there. Maybe she’s even being held against her will. He thinks he can convince her to come back to Tucson. But that’s not how I see it.”
“Tell us how you see it.”
“About three weeks before he left, Jeb and another guy had a meeting with him. It was only the middle of the afternoon and I wasn’t supposed to know about it.”
“Then, how do you know about it?”
“I came home from school early because soccer practice was canceled. When I rode up on my bike I saw my uncle’s truck parked in the driveway. I didn’t want to be seen, but knowing about my step-mom and him, I was curious about why my uncle was there.
“I hid my bike and snuck around to an open window where I thought they’d be and listened in. The other guy with Jeb was real mean looking. I only heard the end part. They were telling my dad that Katie, that’s my step-mom’s name, is happy where she is and wants my dad out of her life. If he went after her, he wasn’t the only one who would get hurt. The mean-looking one said they might come back and hurt me as well.
“Dad’s not been the same since then. Kind of mopey and depressed. It has to be that meeting, the one I’m not supposed to know about.”
“So how is going after her keeping you safe?” Gus said.
“Well, he left me a note. The note said he was going up to Show Low to check on my step-mom and talk some sense into her. It also said he might do some fishing while he was up there, but I think that was to make me feel it was no big deal. The note said he’d try to phone regularly but for me to go visit my grandpa, my dad’s dad. He lives down in Tumacacori.”
“Maybe. But since I know about the warning, I figure it’s up to me to do something about it.”
“That’s a big responsibility,” Jerry said, before asking, “I’m curious, and I’m sure my fellow associates are as well, how old are you?”
“So basically twelve.”
But Jerry had caught the note of pride in Billy’s answer. “Hey Gus, what’s with the twelve. Billy said almost thirteen.” Jerry looked back at Billy, who was now beaming, and told him to continue his story.
“For sure I didn’t want my dad to know what I overheard. He has enough to worry about. I crept back from the window and hid until they left. I pretended to be getting home from school. I tried to act normal like nothing was wrong.”
“It must have been hard not saying anything,” Jimmy said.
“You got that right. There were several times I almost spilled. I might have too, except now he’s left for Show Low. I found out when I got home from school and there was the note.”
“When was this?”
“So it’s been five days, or six counting Monday and today.”
“Guess that’s right. In the note he said he’d try to call every day, but not to worry. That right there worried me plenty. He did call that first evening, so I know he got up there okay. He was at Big Lake with Smitty, the marina manager. Told me again not to worry, he’d be back soon.
“But no calls since then. Nothing. I tried his cell, but it went to voice. Then I tried Grandpa Kyle. He hadn’t called there at all.”
Going to see the PI’s had been a bold move on his part. It was at a point he was desperate to do something to help. He had summoned up his resolve and bicycled over to their office. Now he was glad. Even if they couldn’t help, he found them to be regular guys. They were listening to him like he was a grown-up. Took him seriously and didn’t talk down to him.
“How do you feel about your dad going after your step-mom?” Jimmy said.
“I was hoping he wouldn’t do it. After she left, me and dad did discuss the situation. He’s neat that way. Usually treats me like a grown-up, like you guys. I never felt right about her. It was obvious to me she didn’t like him nearly as much as he liked her. I told him right out that he should let it go. I told him I sure didn’t need a mom like her. The two of us would be fine without her.”
Billy knew he had gone out on a limb in giving this advice. He being twelve and hardly an adult. Deep down he knew his message would have been better coming from one of dad’s friends, adult to adult. What’s a twelve-year-old kid supposed to know anyway? The world of adults was still pretty much a mystery to him.
“It appears he didn’t take your advice,” Jerry said. “Good advice, though.”
“Second that,” Gus said. “We may be the adults, but sometimes we’re not as smart as our kids.”
Al couldn’t resist. “Easy for you to say, Gus, coming from the dude who doesn’t have any kids, or at least any you know about.”
“But Gus is right,” Billy said. By then he was feeling comfortable enough with these guys to speak up. “I kinda understand my dad. Guys get that way about girls even though sometimes it’s pretty dumb of them.”
“Are you speaking from experience?” Al said.
“Not my experience. But some of the older boys I know.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Jerry asked.
“No way. I got lots of time yet before thinking about that. And no way am I going to let a girl fool me the way my step-mom does my dad.”
“Good to hear. What do you want us to do?”
“Since you’re not the cops, I’ll tell you what I really want. I want you to go after him. Find him and bring him back home before he gets himself hurt, or maybe killed.”
Gus played the boss and answered for the others. “That’s a pretty tall order. But tell you what, we’ll hash it over. Give us your cell number. We won’t keep you hanging. You’ll hear from us either tonight or tomorrow morning early. That’s a promise.”
Billy thanked them. He shook hands all around and went home to wait.
Through the big window in the reception area, they watched Billy mount his bike and pedal to the intersection with Kinney Road and head down the bike path on Kinney.
“He sure is an impressive kid. Almost thirteen, he insisted. Going on thirty I’d say.”
“We owe him an answer, so let’s grab a refill and hash it over.”