“Gosh,” Flint Burly said, “it looks like the whole town turned out for the picnic!”
“The whole town except for Lucy Diamond,” said Pixie Powers. “And she and I were bound to win the three-legged race this year!”
“Oh, I’m sure she’ll get here in time,” Flint said.
“She’d better!” Pixie said.
It was Memorial Day, and the people of Balmy Bay had gathered in McCarthy Park for the annual celebration. Music wafted from the bandstand. Some of the younger boys had started up an impromptu softball game, and a group of girls were jumping rope. Adults stood conversing in small knots under the shade of stately elms and maples. Wieners roasted over red-hot coals and Aunt Hortense stood proudly over her prize-winning potato salad, ready to start spooning out portions. Pitchers of lemonade tinkled on the tables. Roscoe, the custodian at the yacht club where the Burly Boys berthed their sloop Shamus, flashed a genial smile for everybody as he scurried here and there, scooping up the trash.
“Now where has that brother of yours gotten to?” Pixie asked.
“Oh, near the music, no doubt,” Flint said. “Probably practicing his dance steps for the sock hop in a couple of weeks.”
Sure enough, they found Chip before the bandstand, where most of Balmy Bay’s teenagers had clustered. Mickey Milk and the Milkmen were holding forth on stage, playing one dance tune after another. As expected, Chip was studiously attempting to master the Mashed Potato. Pixie ran to his side and joined in.
“Shootin’ spitballs!” Chip cried. “How’s my favorite gal?”
Flint was soon joined by Candy Horton, who arrived bearing plates heaped with potato salad and hot dogs.
“It’s another wonderful day, don’t you think, Flint?”
“It sure is, Candy!” Flint said.
“Your aunt’s potato salad is delicious!”
“And so are these hot dogs!” Flint said.
“I hope we do well in the limbo contest!”
“Oh, we’ll show them a thing or two, all right!”
Just then Flint Burly noticed the stranger. Although he didn’t presume to know every citizen of Balmy Bay, he had the man pegged as an outsider in no time. If his swarthy complexion, heavily shadowed jowls, and pointed Italian shoes weren’t enough to make him stick out from the crowd, the way he furtively eyeballed the proceedings was the clincher.
The music stopped, and Flint caught his brother’s eye and motioned him over. Candy, he saw, had struck up an animated conversation with Pixie, and he took the opportunity to lead Chip away from the crowd of teenagers. Discreetly, he indicated the stranger.
“Galloping comets!” Chip said. “That guy sticks out like a letterman sweater on a moose! Do you think he’s up to no good?”
“The way he’s furtively checking everything out makes me think he might be a look-out man,” Flint said. “I suggest we keep an eye on him in turn.”
“Then let’s enlist Jelly Roll’s help,” Chip said. “I want to practice some more dance steps before the games start. That Frug is giving me conniptions!”
The boys went off in search of their friend Jelly Roll Horton. They soon found him sitting on the grass under a tree. With him was Peanuts Salter, the tuba player in the school band, and Eddie Muskie, the captain of the chess club. Jelly Roll was reading aloud from a book, and as the boys drew near they realized that it was their latest adventure, The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Smuggler, as recounted by Jefferson W. Fairchild, the author of all of their published adventures. Still unnoticed by the trio on the grass, the boys listened for a few moments as Jelly Roll intoned:
The floor creaked under their shoes as the trio prowled through the dark, abandoned lumber mill. Flint, dark and intense, had the lead. Chip, a year younger and impetuous where Flint was cautious and deliberate, had to be restrained from dashing off, and possibly alerting their quarry to their presence. Jelly Roll, their stout chum and frequent assistant on their exciting mystery cases, brought up the rear. Unlike the impetuous younger brother, he had to be constantly urged not to fall too far behind.
Suddenly Flint came to a halt. “What’s that sound?” he hissed warily.
“Gibbering gumdrops!” exclaimed Chip. “I thought we were hearing the floors creak. But we’ve stopped walking and I still hear it!”
“Gosh, fellas,” moaned Jelly Roll in a quavering voice. “That’s my stomach rumbling! We haven’t had a bite to eat in nearly two hours.”
The Burly boys, sons of a famous American detective, threw back their heads and laughed good-naturedly.
Jelly tossed down the book. “Can you believe this garbage?” he demanded. “Not only is it the worst writing on the face of the earth, but this Fairchild bum always makes me out to be a food-obsessed maniac!”
“But you are a food-obsessed maniac,” Chip said, stepping forward. He and Flint laughed.
“Go ahead and laugh,” Jelly said. “But the last laugh’s on you chumps! Think about it for a minute. You’re both practically grown men. But what does it say on the back of all your books? For boys aged 10-14, that’s what. Doesn’t that tell you something?”
The brothers were no longer laughing. Flint shrugged and said, “Well, boys read about boy detectives. What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong is that we’re not boys anymore! They publish mysteries that adults read too, you know! Why can’t that damn Fairchild start taking us seriously? Sure, we were thirteen and twelve when the series started, but that was five years ago! We’ve grown up, damn it!”
Jelly Roll reached into his back pocket and pulled out a battered paperback. The boys saw that it was entitled One Fearful Yellow Eye, and it was written by somebody named John D. MacDonald. “This is what our books should be written like!” Jelly Roll said, waving the book in the air. “A book about men. And women. Real women!”
“Hey, can I see that?” Peanuts said.
Flint and Chip exchanged a glance. Neither spoke.
“Ah, the hell with it,” Jelly Roll said. “Let’s go scrounge up some hot dogs.”
“Not just yet,” Flint said. “Look over past the bandstand. See that man with the furtive look?”
“The fellow with the three-day growth of whiskers,” Chip added.
“I still don’t see him.”
“With the dark complexion,” Flint pointed out.
“Okay, I got him pegged,” Jelly Roll said. “What about him?”
“We need you to help us keep an eye on him,” Flint said.
“Why? Because he looks like a foreigner?”
“Not just that,” Flint said. “I suspect he might be a look-out man for some hold-up artists!”
But before Flint could elucidate further the speeches started. Pastor Whitehead mounted the bandstand and led everybody in a prayer. He was followed by Charley Langendorf, the head of the local chapter of the American Legion, who spoke of the need for our armed forces to halt the Domino Effect in Vietnam, no matter what a few crazy protesters in other cities might say. His speech drew a prolonged hurrah.
Finally Chief of Police Chalk took the stage. He sang Balmy Bay’s praises, specifically citing the city’s low crime rate, and concluded that one family was largely responsible for this shining record, the Burlys. “I know Slate Burly is wrapping up a case and couldn’t be here,” he concluded, “but let’s give those swell boys of his a great big hand. Flint! Chip! Step forward and be counted.”
But suddenly the boys were not to be found.
During the prayer, Flint had noticed that the stranger was acting particularly agitated. On a hunch, he’d whispered to Jelly Roll to start walking toward the ticket booth, which had been set up at the Hoover Street entrance to the park.
“You think somebody’s going to rob the proceeds?” Jelly Roll had whispered back.
“Why, that’s dastardly!” Chip had hissed. “The proceeds are slated to help out underprivileged Negro children in a neighboring community!”
“And they still will, if we have anything to say about it!” Flint had said.
No sooner had Jelly Roll ambled off than Flint observed that the stranger had noticed him and his eyes widened in consternation. The stranger lost no time in taking off after their stout chum.
“This way!” Flint said to his brother, and they rounded the bandstand and made a beeline for a copse of trees, all the while endeavoring to stay out of the stranger’s line of sight. Once under cover of the foliage, the boys broke into a run and soon emerged near the Hoover Street entrance. Before their horrified eyes they saw Jelly Roll sprawled on the ground, apparently knocked unconscious, and just beyond him Miss Sheets wrestling with three men for possession of the day’s receipts.
Running on the balls of their feet, they made not a sound as they dashed toward the tableau. Just as one of the swarthy man’s companions wrested the lockbox from Miss Sheets’s hands Flint brought him down with a flying tackle. That left the other two, but fortunately for Chip they were grouped closely together and he was able to topple them both with a hook slide. One of his victims, he heard more than saw, smacked his head against the table. As he pounced on the other one he saw Flint’s meaty fist land on his opponent’s jaw. The one below Chip was still squirming, but a rabbit-punch to the thief’s throat took care of that.
Back at the bandstand, Chief Chalk was calling for the boys to step forward for the third time, a puzzled look on his grizzled face. And suddenly they were there. But to everyone’s shocked surprise, they herded before them three dark strangers, all with hands bound behind their backs with their own neckties. Next to them marched Miss Sheets, the cashbox cradled in her arms, and a woozy-looking Jelly Roll Horton, who had nevertheless latched onto a hot dog on the way.
Explanations and congratulations followed, and when Chief Chalk left to cart the three thieves off to the jailhouse, Mrs. Edelweiss, who was in charge of the entertainment that year, called for the games to begin.
The water balloon toss and Hula Hoop contest were first, and the teenagers gathered together to watch their younger siblings participate. The limbo contest was slated next, to be followed by the three-legged race.
“I just don’t understand it!” Pixie Powers said. “Why hasn’t anyone seen Lucy?”
“Oh, haven’t you heard?” said Albie Snow, another of their classmates. Albie, Pixie remembered, was also Lucy’s next-door neighbor.
“Heard what?” Chip said.
“Lucy’s been missing for three days!”
“What’s that you say?” Flint asked intently.
“I’m surprised you hadn’t heard,” Albie said. “I thought for sure Mrs. Diamond would hire you fellows to find her.”
“You mean to say Lucy Diamond has vanished?!” Chip said.
“I thought I’d already said that,” said Albie.
“No wonder I haven’t seen her!” Pixie cried. “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Mrs. Diamond, either. The poor dear must be worried sick!”
“I’ll say,” Albie said. “To make matters worse, Lucy was acting quite strange in the days leading up to her disappearance!”
“How so?” Flint demanded, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
“Well, I have that on second hand,” Albie said. “From her mother, in fact. But I know this much for sure. She was dressing really strangely, and she’d let her grooming go entirely!”
“Not a living doll like Lucy!” Jelly Roll said, around a mouthful of wiener.
“I don’t believe it!” Candy said.
“So are we going to take on the case?” asked Jelly Roll.
Flint looked thoughtful, and after a moment shook his head. “We don’t handle cases like that, Jelly.”
“Like what?” Jelly demanded.
Flint fumbled for the right words. “You know the cases we usually work on as well as I do, Jelly. Smuggling operations. Missing Aztec idols. Weird goings-on in abandoned towers and ziggurats. Tracking down a teenaged girl who’s been acting strangely is a whole other ball of wax, best left to adult authorities.”
They all fell silent as Roscoe shambled by, stooping to pick up the three hot dog wrappers discarded by Jelly Roll. They all sensed it wouldn’t be right to talk about poor Lucy’s problems in front of a hired hand. But as soon as Roscoe had moved on, grinning and bobbing his head, Jelly Roll said, “That’s ridiculous, Flint Burly! It’s like I was saying earlier, we’re grown men now. How will we ever be taken seriously if we don’t take ourselves seriously?” Angrily, he yanked the paperback from his back pocket again and brandished it in the air. “Travis McGee wouldn’t hesitate to take on a case like this! In fact, it’s tailor made for him. Lookee here. Right here on the cover it describes him as ‘an amiable and incurable tilter at conformity, a hopeless sucker for starving kittens and women in distress!’ Why can’t we be like that? Why in hell can’t we help out a school chum in distress?”
“He might have a point there, Flint,” said the younger brother.
Flint again looked thoughtful. Finally he said, “We’ll do this. When dad gets home we’ll see what he has to say. That suit you, Jelly?”
“I guess it’ll have to,” Jelly Roll said.
Just then Mrs. Frost announced that the limbo contest was commencing. Flint took Candy’s hand and said, “Ready?”
“You bet I am!” Candy said.
And off they went, ending the discussion for the present.
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