by: Christopher Yensan
The first entry in The Calculator Kid series presents a mystery story uniquely inspired by both James Cagney in White Heat and Encyclopedia Brown, where we become acquainted with our lead detective, a shrewd wisecracker who is not above skirting the rules to solve a case….
The Calculator Kid Meets Doll Face
They call me the Calculator Kid, but you probably already knew that. In case you’re still behind the eight-ball, though, I’ll enlighten you. They call me the Calculator Kid because I always calculate a case dead on. I always get my man, and I usually get the girl, too. Now that we’re acquainted, let me tell you my story.
Last Thursday, about an hour before gym class, I was sitting in my office (which doubles as the boy’s bathroom on the second floor, C Hall, just down from the teacher’s lounge) on a stool I had “borrowed” from the janitor’s closet. I was reading the school’s weekly paper when this dame walks in. Normally no dames are allowed in the boy’s room, especially with my secretary out front screening clients, a little redhead that goes by the name of Melissa Marmot, who is also employed by the school as the hall monitor for first and third period. I trust her implicitly.
Anyway, this dame walks in and stands there, biting her nails and looking at the stalls.
“That’s a dirty habit, doll-face,” I said.
“What is?” she asked, looking scared.
“Biting your nails,” I responded. “Didn’t you ever take a health class?”
The mysterious dame didn’t say anything, just looked me up and down. Boy, this broad was a knockout. Her school uniform was strictly regulation, but nothing else about her was at all by the book. Her shoes were grass-stained and she had a rug burn just below her left knee, above her stocking, and a little scab had formed there. It was the kind of rug burn you might get playing Tiddley-Winks or Barbies in the living room, or playing doctor in some lucky schmuck’s carpeted basement. I made a mental note to dig out my plastic stethoscope from my toy closet when I got home from school.
“Sure, I took Health class,” she finally answered. “That’s why I don’t usually hang around the boy’s bathroom. It’s filthy in here.”
She had me there. The place was a dump. I used to frequent the teachers’ lounge and use it as an office of sorts, but the old farts in there really started getting on my nerves, sticking their noses into my business all the time, trying to get their mitts all over my cases, and I finally had enough. I moved into the boy’s bathroom about two weeks ago, just a temporary set up until I could get some digs somewhere a little less dingy. I had my eye on a nice little spot over by the library, in the ESL classroom, but I hadn’t worked out all the details just yet. It’ll happen soon enough, though, don’t you worry about that.
“Well, you’re here now,’ I said. “So spill it. Tell me what you need.”
“Who says I need anything?” she asked.
“I say so. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t need my specialized…ahem…services.”
“Grow up,” she said, sounding a little disgusted.
“Give me ten years, doll-face, and I’ll be happy to oblige.”
“My name isn’t doll-face, so please stop calling me that. It makes you sound like a bum. Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s rude to address a lady like that?” She glanced towards the door.
“No need to get touchy,” I said, doing my best not to sound hurt. “I’m all for equal rights. Just so long as a broad knows how to throw a decent tea party.”
“Look, I’m not interested in your cheesy politics, I just want you to find my Betty-Wetty doll!” She looked as though she were about to cry.
So that was it. She was looking for her Betty-Wetty doll. Not everyone is so up-front. Usually you have to start out tough, break the client down a little, and then when they get upset you act like Mr. Nice Guy. They get all confused, or they think they can trust you, and they usually end up telling you what they want you to do for them. Lots of people feel like they got something to hide, like you are going to judge them, but that isn’t my game. I leave that business up to the principal and the guidance counselor. My game is getting people what they want, and getting paid for it.
“My standard fee is thirty-five cents a day, plus expenses.”
“What kind of expenses?” she asked.
“Well, there’s notebooks and paper to buy, not to mention pencils and erasers. The clues don’t just keep track of themselves, you know. There’s also the personnel to take care of. You don’t think Ms. Marmot works for nothing, do you? That kid has a taste for chocolate milk like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Fine, I’ll pay your fee. It’s no problem anyway, I get an allowance of five dollars a week.” She shook her hair a little haughtily.
I let out a low whistle.
“Five dollars! Your old man must be loaded to give you that kind of dough on a weekly basis.”
“He does all right for himself. He’s a surgeon over at the hospital.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “My old lady needs a hip replacement, maybe we can trade favors if I find your dolly for you.”
“If?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “I thought you always solved your cases.”
“When I find your dolly,” I said reassuringly. “You’ll get your Betty-Wetty back, don’t you worry your pretty little head about that.”
She seemed satisfied, but a thought suddenly occurred to me. “Say, if your old man is set up like you say he is, why not just ask him for a new Betty-Wetty? I’m betting he’d get it for his little princess in a heartbeat.”
“Sure, I could do that, but then I’d have to hear him lecture me about responsibility and pride of ownership and keeping track of my belongings, and I just can’t go through all that again. Besides, my Betty-Wetty has a lot of sentimental value, if you know what I mean.”
I didn’t know what she meant, but I jotted the word ‘sentimental’ down in the margin of my newspaper and made a mental note to look it up in the giant dictionary in the library the next time I was at that end of D Hall.
“I’ll need to get an advance payment for at least three days in order to get started on the case,” I said. “Lots of people back out at the last minute, and I end up with the short end of the stick.”
“I haven’t got any cash with me just now —” she started.
“With an income of five dollars a week and a surgeon for a daddy? I don’t think so, sister.” I interrupted.
She sighed and dug around in her pocket for a minute before producing a crumpled bill. “You’re a nickel short, sweetheart,” I said, taking the bill from her and depositing it in my back pocket.
“Oh, I’m good for it,” she said, resembling sweet for the first time since she’d walked into my office. “I’ll make up the difference when you return my doll.”
That sounded promising.She blew me a kiss and walked out the door. I might have to put away the plastic stethoscope and go straight for the CPR kit, I thought. I hadn’t realized how worked up I was getting, but now that she was gone I went over to the sink and splashed some water on my face. I walked out the door a moment later and came face to face with Melissa Marmot.
“Hi-ya, kid,” I said. “How’s tricks?”
“Don’t hi-ya kid me,” she said angrily. She was positively fuming.
“Whoa! What’s eating you?”
“Oh, nothing that a crowbar and five minutes alone with Little Miss Sunshine wouldn’t cure.”
“You’re talking about—”
“I’m talking about Annabelle Frost, that little tramp you just agreed to do a job for.”
“I take it you two have met.”
“Met? Yes, we’ve met. We had adjoining carpet squares during naptime in kindergarten. She was always picked to go around and wake everyone up with Mrs. Harrison’s wake-up wand. You were there too, if you can remember that far back.”
Ah, yes, that’s where I knew her from, Mrs. Harrison’s afternoon kindergarten class. The next year we all moved on to Mrs. Colby’s first-grade classroom. Annabelle had moved away and hadn’t been seen since. She must have just moved back into town. I really hadn’t paid much attention to her. Little did I know how much a few years away would aid in her development.
“She thinks she’s so perfect,” Melissa Marmot continued. “Always telling everyone that her daddy is a surgeon. I bet a hundred dollars he did her entire science project for her last year. I mean, what fourth-grader designs and builds a working volcano on her own? Parents are supposed to help, not do the work for you.”
“Jealous much?” I snickered.
“Me, jealous? Jealous of that little —” She stopped. “I have to stop talking about her, because I am about to say something mean, and my mom always says, ‘If you can’t say anything nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all.’”
“Good piece of advice,” I said, mulling it over. “I’ll try to remember that one.”
“Look, I have to get to math class. We’re supposed to be practicing grouping ones into tens, and I don’t want to miss that. Will you be okay here by yourself for a little while?”
“You betcha, kiddo. You run along to math and make your parents proud. I’ll watch the office here for a bit more, and then head over to gym, see if I can’t make it all the way up the rope-climb today.” Ever since I had given up candy bars to try and get into shape my struggles with the rope-climb had been a running joke between us.
Melissa Marmot stomped off down the hall, removing her hall monitor sash as she went. Her gym shoes were squeaking on the linoleum like nobody’s business, and she had a little hole in the back of one of her stockings that for some reason gave me a little lump in my throat. I might as well tell you that Melissa Marmot and I had a history, although a brief one. We had kissed twice last year, once in the coatroom when we both happened to be running late for class, and once under the piano just after Sunday school. I suppose it didn’t mean much to either of us, we were just kids, experimenting, neither one of us thinking straight, but still I felt like we had shared a moment, especially the time under the piano. So if Melissa Marmot was jealous of Annabelle Frost, I wanted to know why.
I started my investigation by snooping around at lunchtime. I knew Melissa Marmot and Timmy Spittoon lived in the same neighborhood, so I started with him. The class clown, Timmy always had a group of kids surrounding him at lunch. He could be seen snapping and popping his gum all day long, which is why most kids called him Juicy Fruit. I had something on him, though. The reason he chewed so much gum during school was because he had a serious addiction to candy cigarettes, which had been banned from campus because of the negative message the school board felt that type of thing sent to kids. The minute that school let out, though, he would be out behind the main building, popping one of those babies into his mouth with a big sigh of relief. I even had the photos to prove it.
“All right, clear out, the lot of you,” I said, sitting down heavily in a chair at Timmy’s table and motioning for the other kids to beat it. “Me and Juicy Fruit have some business to discuss.”
“Say, what’s the big idea?” asked Timmy. “I was just about to do my impression of Principal Davis.”
I mimed holding a candy cigarette to my lips and inhaling, and he got the idea.
“Get out of here,” he said to the other kids irritably, unwrapping a fresh stick of gum and popping it into his mouth. “We’ll finish this up later.”
The other kids groaned their objections, but Timmy told ‘em to scram.
“What do you know about Melissa Marmot and Annabelle Frost?” I asked the second the table was clear.
“Oh, not much, just what you hear around the locker room,” he said.
“Is that so?” I asked. I tipped the metal folding chair I was sitting in back a little, and then brought it down on Timmy’s foot, hard. His face blanched, and he grimaced in pain. “I think you know something, Juicy Fruit. Spill it.”
“I was gonna tell you!” he gasped, starting to sweat. “Melissa was interested in this guy, and he dumped her for Annabelle! That’s all I heard, I swear! Now please get off my foot!”
I moved my chair and he crumpled to the floor, massaging his toes through his shoe. So Melissa Marmot was thrown over by some dirt bag for Annabelle Frost. Interesting.
“Who was the guy?” I asked in a tone that demanded an answer.
“I don’t know —” started Timmy.
I tipped my chair back again, but before I could bring it down on his hand he blurted out, “I think his name his Edwin! Edwin Gallstone, or something like that!”
I set my chair down on the floor and reached over and patted Timmy on the shoulder. “You’re a good kid, Juicy Fruit, you’re gonna go far.” I pulled a candy cigarette out of my shirt pocket and set it on the ground beside him. “That’s for later, our little secret.” Timmy quickly concealed the candy in his jacket, jumped up, and headed for the door. I saw him getting a bathroom pass a moment later, and I had a pretty good idea that the candy wasn’t going to last until after school.
After lunch I headed back to my office and used the student directory to look up Edwin Gallstone. There were no students by that name, but there was an Edwin Gallster, which sounded suspiciously close. He lived not too far from me, on Ash Street, so that’s where I headed after school. This Edwin character wasn’t at home when I rang the bell, but the woman who answered the door told me he would be home “just as soon as chess club was through.” She invited me in, and I settled myself in the kitchen with a glass of milk and a slice of apple pie.
“You the maid, or what?” I asked the woman, eyeing her apron suspiciously.
“Oh, dear, no!” she said. “I’m Edwin’s mother! Has he been telling kids that he has a maid at home?”
“Not to my knowledge,” I answered while gulping down a large hunk of pie. “This pie is terrific! Mind if I have another slice?” I had already cut another slice out of the dish, so the question was semi-rhetorical. Edwin’s mother pursed her lips and re-filled my glass.
I was just finishing my second piece of pie and contemplating a third when Edwin walked in the door.
“I’m home!” he called out in a feminine voice while throwing his backpack and coat on the floor and heading into the kitchen. He stopped short when he saw me at the table.
“Oh, Edwin, there you are! You’re little friend is here to see you. What was your name again?” his mother asked me.
“Edwin, good to see you!” I stood up from the table.
“I don’t think I know you —” he started.
“Ha ha! What a card!” I said, quickly glancing over at his mother. “He keeps the kids laughing all day at school.” I turned back to Edwin and put an arm around his fragile shoulders, steering him firmly out of the kitchen. “Let’s go into your room and play cars or army guys or something for a bit.” I followed Edwin up the stairs to his room, and he kneeled down to open up his toy chest.
“I don’t have a lot of cars,” he started, “but I have a pretty good collection of authentic Prussian soldiers from the Silesian Wars of 1741.”
“Listen, Edwin,” I said quietly, clenching my teeth and closing his bedroom door with an authoritative click. “I don’t give a darn about your sissy Prussian army, or your toy cars, or your chess club meetings. All I want to know is what the names Melissa Marmot and Annabelle Frost mean to you.” I walked over to Edwin’s toy chest, thinking I might need to slam it closed on his fingers if he clammed up on me, when I happened to notice something interesting.
“What’s this, Eddie-boy?” I asked, pulling a Betty-Wetty doll from his toy chest. I pulled the diaper aside and we both saw a small sticker on the doll’s rear end, a sticker that read ‘Property of Annabelle Frost.’
“I don’t know what that is — I’ve never seen that doll in my entire life,” said Edwin, looking as though he were about to cry.
“Oh, really? You have no idea? A bright boy like you doesn’t know where his toys come from? Maybe Santy Claus dropped it off here for you last night while you were dreaming of opening chess gambits or the War of 1741?”
“I swear I’ve never seen that doll before!”
“What do you take me for, a moron?” I threw the doll at Edwin, and it bounced off his left ear and landed on the bed. That was the last straw for Edwin. He started crying, softly, wiping his nose with his sleeve and looking away so I wouldn’t see.
“All right, all right,” I said, softening up a bit and handing him a wrinkled handkerchief from my jacket pocket. “No need to turn on the waterworks. Just tell me what you know, and everything will be hunky-dory.”
Edwin took the handkerchief and blew his nose loudly. He started to offer it back to me, but I waved him off, indicating for him to keep it. “Have your mom wash it and bring it back to me at school,” I said. “Boy’s room, C Hall upstairs, first or third period.”
After a moment, Edwin began to talk, shakily at first, but his voice grew stronger as his story progressed. “Melissa and I met each other years ago in reading class, we were partners for a project — you remember the panorama we had to make from the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear?” I nodded, and he continued. “Well, anyway, we were just friends. We used to pal around during recess and stuff like that, but last summer it turned into something a lot more serious. We went to the neighborhood pool a few times together, and then she invited me on her family vacation. It was fun, really fun. We went to Coast City and had ice cream —”
“Get on with your story, I haven’t got all day,” I interrupted.
“Sorry,” he continued. “It’s just, well, it’s just that she was different from other girls I had met at school. She always let me win at tag, she didn’t eat her boogers, and she has a great swing set.”
I already knew all about Melissa Marmot’s swing set, but I let him go on.
“Anyway, the summer was great, but the pressure of coming back to school was too much for us. Well, too much for me, anyway. And then I met Annabelle in math class, and I never even used to like math, but for a few weeks all I could think about was recognizing prime numbers and multiplying by powers of ten and how much time I could spend doing flashcards with Annabelle.”
“So what happened?” I asked. “Hurry up and get to the point, I got an appointment I need to keep.”
“Well, I saw Melissa Marmot in the hall a couple of weeks ago. She had become a hall monitor, and when I saw her in that sash something happened, I don’t know what. All I know is I wanted her back. I wrote Annabelle a note telling her as much, and passed it to her in fourth period. By the end of the day she wasn’t even speaking to me.”
“Is that so?” I asked. This wasn’t making any sense. “Then how did you come by that doll?”
“I keep telling you I don’t know! I’ve never seen it before!”
I had to get some air, clear my head a bit. The pie I had eaten earlier was now sitting like a rock in my stomach, and I needed some real food. I grabbed the doll off of Edwin’s bed, mumbled something about being late for an appointment, and headed downstairs. I passed his mother in the hallway but didn’t say anything in response to her questions about me leaving so soon or if I need a ride somewhere. I only vaguely heard her asking me if I had been born in a barn as I stumbled down the porch steps, the front door swinging wide open behind me.
By the time I arrived home my head had cleared a little, and I had an idea of what was happening. I ate dinner and did my homework, watched a little TV, and then headed off to bed to let the old subconscious work for me filling in the details while I slept.
The next day I had a plan. I decided to take the bus to school, which I didn’t usually do but I thought might be useful in gathering some more information. When I arrived at the office Melissa Marmot was there, looking sharp in her hall monitor sash and school uniform. She had a new pair of stockings on too, I noticed.
“Morning, Kiddo!” I said cheerfully as she handed me my messages.
I crumpled the papers and stuffed them into my pocket.
“No time for that,” I said. “I need you to get Annabelle Frost out of whatever class she is in and bring her over to see me right away.”
“But your messages!” she exclaimed. Your homeroom teacher is getting concerned, I don’t think she is buying the story that you went to Venezuela with your parents and —”
“We’ll sort all that out later,” I interrupted firmly. “Right now, I need to talk to Annabelle.”
Melissa mumbled something about Little Miss Sunshine, but wandered off to find her all the same. They were back in a few minutes, and Annabelle was shown promptly into my office.
“I found your dolly,” I said, tossing Annabelle’s Betty-Wetty to her. “She needs a diaper change.”
“Thank you!” Annabelle squealed, hugging her doll and laughing.
“And you can cut the act, I know all about you,” I added.
Annabelle looked up at me innocently.
“Why, whatever do you mean?” she asked with a voice that could melt butter.
“What does the name Edwin Gallster mean to you?” I asked point blank.
“Edwin? Nothing, we were just friends —”
“You can cut the cackle, sister, I know all about you two. You walked home from school together, he carried your books for you, you did your flashcards together, I know all about it.”
Anabelle didn’t say a word.
“Cat got your tongue?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if she had gotten to idioms yet in her language arts class, but it was worth a try.
“I don’t have anything to say,” she answered.
“Oh, don’t you? I happen to know that Edwin Gallster was breaking up with you just a day or two before you lost your precious Betty-Wetty. He sent you a note in fourth period. I have a whole row of witnesses who will testify to handing the note down to you. Got anything to say now?’
“That note could have said anything. It could have said, ‘I like your hair,’ or ‘Sally Humphries is fat,’ or any old thing.”
“Sure, it could have said anything, all right. But it didn’t. It said only one thing. It said, ‘I’m going back to Melissa Marmot’ signed Edwin Gallster. And I have a witness to prove it.”
Anabelle’s complexion turned wholey pale, and kept quiet.
“That’s right, baby, Sally Humphries, opened the note and read it before she passed it up to you. She told me all about it this morning on the bus, and she would be only too happy to tell that to the principal and the guidance counselor, if need be.”
“She wouldn’t —”
“Oh, she would indeed! She’d be only too happy to do it, too. You’re little revenge plot to frame Edwin for breaking up with you didn’t work out so well, did it?”
“All right, all right — so I planted the doll at Edwin’s house! It was easy, his mom thought I was dropping off fundraising forms for chess club, and I sneaked into his room and hid the doll in his stupid toy chest. So what? He could have taken it just as easily.”
“But he didn’t take it, and you better not go around telling anyone otherwise.”
“Or else what?”
“Or else people may just find out where Juicy Fruit gets his constant supply of Candy Cigarettes. I’m sure that’s a profitable little side game for you, isn’t it? I’m guessing you jack the price up on each box a few cents, get a nice little investment return on your weekly allowance, eh?”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Oh, wouldn’t I! I might just have a nice little photo of you handing him a box and taking money for it. I might just let that one slip to the school paper.”
“Oh, am I, sweetheart? Are you willing to take that chance? A good little student like you? You know if you get caught with prohibited material on campus it stays on your permanent record. It would be a shame to blow your chance at Cornell or Stanford because of a silly little grade-school break-up.”
Annabelle looked as though she might cry, but when she saw that wasn’t going to work on me she became indignant instead.
“You’ll pay for this,” she hissed. “I don’t know how, but I’ll figure out something.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sure you will,” I chuckled. “In the meantime, don’t forget about that little photograph.”
She turned to leave, but I stopped her before she reached the door.
“One more thing, sugar,” I said. “I looked up the word sentimental after our conversation yesterday. I think it wouldn’t hurt for you to refresh your memory on the meaning of the word. I left a bookmark in the big dictionary in the library to save you some time.”
Annabelle stormed out of the boy’s room, and Melissa Marmot sidled in.
“Another satisfied customer,” she grinned. “What did you say to Little Miss Sunshine to make her so angry?”
“Oh, not much. Just the usual.”
We smiled at each other, and then Melissa Marmot headed for the door.
“Don’t forget this,” I said, handing her a piece of paper.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“It’s Edwin Gallster’s phone number. You should give him a call.”
“Why in the world would I want to do that?” she asked, turning red.
“Just call him, kid. You won’t be sorry.”
“In the meantime there is that little matter of you being in Venezuela with your parents to clear up,” Melissa reminded me as we exited the boy’s room together.
“Honey,” I said, “I think I just got back into town.”
Christopher Yensan lives on a farm just outside Portland, Oregon, with nearly one hundred animals (including horses, dogs, chickens, cats rabbits, and ducks), many of whom have enjoyed several of his original manuscripts (and by “enjoyed” we mean “eaten”). He has written fourteen books, if you count the nine half-finished manuscripts collecting dust on his bookcase. He loves horseback riding, strolls on the beach, shiny things, and eating cereal. He hopes to someday grow up and emulate his hero — a young gumshoe known only as The Calculator Kid …