The last week of the school year for seniors at Sleepyside Junior-Senior High was filled with three days of final exams, then a day off before a mandatory graduation practice on Friday morning. For Bobby Belden, finals were a necessary evil to get his diploma, but he was thankful that his grades were high enough that the distractions of the last few months had had little effect on his cumulative GPA. Unlike his older brother Brian, he would not be valedictorian, but he was content to know that unless there was a nasty surprise on his three remaining exams he would get to wear the yellow cord that designated him as an honor graduate.
The first day of exams had passed quickly and uneventfully, and now he was grateful for a quiet evening to study for the remaining ones. With his aunt Alicia due to arrive the following evening, he knew that he would prefer to visit than study. However, after an hour and a half of straight studying, he needed a break. He grabbed a glass of milk and a handful of chocolate chip cookies from the kitchen, then decided to check his email before returning to his books.
The dial-up modem eventually connected to the ISP’s servers, and as he hoped, he found a short note from Bethany. He quickly typed a reply and then scanned the rest of his inbox. Most of the messages were junk emails destined for his trash folder, but in the midst of them sat yet another email from Valerie Lynch that caused him to shake his head in disgust. After almost four months of avoiding her, she still had yet to realize that he wanted nothing further to do with her.
“Please, Bobby?” Valerie had typed. “It’s just one evening, and the five of us could all be together again. It would be just like old times.”
It was really too bad, he thought. It had always been assumed that he, Larry, and Terry would have a joint graduation party at the Lynch estate, much as Jim and Brian, and then Trixie, Honey, and Diana had held theirs at the Manor House. With the exception of Valerie, everyone involved had understood when he backed out of the plan and asked for a small celebration of his own at Crabapple Farm after the ceremony on Friday night.
Even if he had wanted to, which he most definitely did not, it was now too late to change the new plans. For the first time in school history, graduation would be held on the football field instead of the high school gymnasium. This meant that students were no longer limited in how many relatives and friends could attend. His extended family was taking full advantage of the opportunity, and Alicia was not alone among his relatives in planning to make the trip to Sleepyside. Andrew Belden would arrive on Friday morning, as would his cousins Knut and Cap. His party would be both a celebration and a mini-reunion, and it would be the first time Bethany and her family met his own extended family.
His smile at the thought of his girlfriend turned into a sigh as he contemplated Valerie’s latest missive. The last thing he wanted was for Valerie to attempt to come between him and Bethany again, and it hadn’t escaped his notice that she had made a point of referring to “the five of us.” He hesitated only briefly, then he opened his trash folder and moved the message back to his inbox. He clicked the forward button, then typed a short message to Mr. Lynch. I’m sorry, but ignoring her isn’t working. Please tell her not to contact me again.
“Wow, did you ever miss the fireworks last night,” Larry said, plopping down next to Bobby on the grassy lawn of the school commons area the next morning. “I don’t think I have ever seen my dad that angry.”
“The emails?” he asked quietly. At his best friend’s nod, he groaned. “I’m sorry. When she first emailed about the party, I figured that she’d get the message if I never replied. Instead, she just kept emailing. I knew replying back would just encourage her, and I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Don’t apologize,” Larry assured him. “You did the right thing. She wasn’t even supposed to be using the computer.” He sighed. “It’s too bad, you know. She had just started getting her privileges back, but now she’s lost them again. At this rate, she’s going to be grounded until she leaves for her new school in the fall.”
“Did your parents ever decide where she’s going?”
“It came down to either Eastland or Briar Hall, but they finally decided on Briar Hall. It’s enough of a status symbol to make Valerie happy, but from what I understand, it’s strict enough to make my parents happy.” He propped his chin in his hands. “I don’t get it. Di was already a teenager when my dad came into money, but the rest of us all had the same upbringing. Kind of the best of both worlds – nurses until we were old enough not to need them, but also parents and an older sister who were all really involved. Mallory and I are seemingly well-adjusted, but what happened with Valerie and Terry?”
“No idea,” Bobby shook his head. “I suspect a psychologist would point to your innate natures, but that’s all beyond me. So far, anyway. Trixie says I’ll be taking psychology classes at some point for my degree. Ask me then.”
Larry grinned. “Remind me. I think you just reminded me why I’m glad I’m going into business. I’m better with numbers than people.”
He chuckled. “I don’t know that I’d say that, but given your math grades, yeah, you’re a natural.” He hesitated, then said, “I haven’t really talked to him in ages, but is there any word on what Terry’s going to be doing after graduation?”
“Aside from mooching?” Larry rolled his eyes. “Dad’s giving him until the end of August when I leave for Penn State, but then it’s either find a job or enroll in the community college. It’s too late for him to go anywhere else next year.”
Both boys were silent for a few minutes, then Larry sighed. “We’ve both been so busy lately that we haven’t talked much, either. How are you doing?”
“I’m okay. Missing Brom. Trying not to freak over exams I haven’t really studied enough for.” He smiled faintly. “Trying to keep Mr. Halvorson happy.”
Larry laughed. “That shouldn’t be too hard.”
“I’m lucky. He likes me. Apparently, though, he liked me more before I became a homeowner, even if the cabin is still in probate. It helped when I promised not to take Bethany there without a chaperon.”
“Ahh. Have you decided what you’re going to do with it?”
He shook his head. “I want to fix it up so it can be used, but I’m going to stay at Crabapple Farm for the foreseeable future. It’d be nice to live on my own, but it probably won’t happen until Bethany finishes high school. No idea if I’ll live in it permanently. I suppose I could eventually add on to it so there’s enough room to make it feasible, but who knows?”
“There’s no rush,” Larry reminded him. “And hey. Giving up a little freedom isn’t a bad trade-off for being able to see your girlfriend whenever you want. At least you don’t have to worry about a long distance relationship.”
“True,” he nodded. He gave his friend a sympathetic look. “If it’s meant to be, it will work out somehow. I mean, don’t they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder?”
“Or wander,” Larry said dryly. He looked away. “I don’t even know if I’m ready to settle down, though, let alone if Jessa is.” He sighed. “You realize Mart was only a year older than us when he proposed to my sister, and she was the age we are now. Our parents married straight out of high school, too. What does it say about me that the thought of forever scares me? I’m not worried about Jessa finding someone else; I’m worried about me.”
“I think it means you’re normal.” Bobby assured him. “The world was different when our parents were our age, and well, Mart and Di might as well have been engaged in first grade. We all knew they were eventually going to get married. Even then, though, if he hadn’t gone to work with Mr. Lynch, I think they would have waited a few more years. Most kids our age still want to be kids for a while yet.”
“Why don’t you?” Larry asked. “I mean, yeah, I could make a big deal of you choosing to live at home during college, but I suspect that’s only because you’re trying not to freak out Bethany’s parents and not because you don’t feel ready to live on your own. There’s Mart, and even Brian dated Honey in high school. You’re following their footsteps. Why can’t I be that mature?”
“I don’t know that it’s a maturity thing,” he sighed. “It’s like I told Gordon a while back. We just know what we want and hang on to it when we find it. Heck, if it helps, Gordon’s nowhere near ready to settle down, and he’s Mart’s age!”
“Maybe a little,” he conceded reluctantly. “The thing is I need to talk to Jessa and see where she stands. I don’t want to hurt her, and if we break up, I don’t know whether it would be better for it to happen now or wait until the end of summer when I’m almost ready to leave.”
“Sooner rather than later. You may find you’re on the same page, but if not, it would be worse if she finds out you were just stringing her along.”
“I know,” he admitted. “Growing up sucks sometimes.” He looked at his watch and frowned. “I know we only have a few more minutes, but I have another dilemma I need to talk to you about, too. Any chance I could get you to do me a favor?”
“If I can. What’s up?”
“Well, while I’m thinking of ending a relationship, it looks like Harrison’s starting one. I kinda walked in on him and Miss Lefferts in the kitchen late last night when I was looking for a snack. They, uh, looked rather friendly, if you know what I mean. I don’t want to tell my dad, and they don’t know I saw them, but I was thinking, and well, you’re going to be a detective. Can you see if you can find out anything about her? Her personal life, I mean? I just don’t want to see Harrison hurt, and if she’s got a habit of seducing butlers in the homes where she works, well, I’d rather he know about it, you know?”
“Seducing butlers?” Bobby grinned. At Larry’s glare, he chuckled. “Sure. No promises, but I’ll see what I can find out. I’ll pick Trixie and Honey’s brains, too, to get their input.”
“Thanks, man. And seriously, keep track of your time and theirs and any expenses and I’ll reimburse you. I know PIs don’t come cheap.”
“Eh, don’t worry about it. I’m not a PI yet, even if they are. We’ll work something out later, but I’ll let them know you’re willing to pay for their time.” He groaned as a bell rang and he stood to his feet. “Right now, there’s a physics exam calling us.”
“Can’t we tell it it has the wrong number?” Larry joked, as he reluctantly joined his friend.
After the school day was finally over, Bobby drove Bethany home, then dropped by the Sleepyside Detective Agency before heading back to Crabapple Farm. He walked in to find Honey on the telephone and no sign of his sister, so he waved at Honey and went into the small kitchen to help himself to one of the soft drinks they kept in the refrigerator. By the time he had grabbed a can of strawberry pop and pilfered a package of Twinkies from Trixie’s stash, Honey was off the phone.
“Busy day?” he asked, taking a bite of one of the snack cakes.
“Not too bad. Trixie’s out working on a case, and I’ve been finishing up the paperwork on another. How are your exams going?”
“Not as bad as I’d expected,” he told her. The physics exam had actually gone better than he had expected, and with just one more the following day, he finally felt like he was in the home stretch. “I have to admit I’ll be glad when they’re all over, though.”
“I remember that feeling,” she told him with a grin. “At least you’ll have a few weeks to decompress before starting college.”
He chuckled. “Somehow, I don’t think they’ll be very relaxing.”
“Not around here,” she giggled. “Especially since I’ll need your help trying to get your sister to slow down a little.”
“Hey, I’m an intern, not a miracle worker,” he retorted with a laugh. “That reminds me. Larry asked me today to try to do a background check on someone. I told him I’d need your help with it, but would you be willing to help me? He said he’ll pay for your time and any expenses.”
“Of course. That actually sounds like good experience for you. What information did he give you? Name, SSN, anything in particular he wants to know?”
“It sounds silly, but he suspects Harrison is getting involved with Valerie’s new governess. He wants to, and I quote, ‘make sure she doesn’t have a habit of seducing butlers.'”
Honey’s hazel eyes widened. “Miss Lefferts and Harrison? Wow. I never saw that one coming.”
He nodded. “I’ve never met her, but I can’t picture Harrison involved with anyone.”
“Imagine a very straight-laced, prim and proper woman who rarely smiles. She’s got to be pretty close to six feet tall, and at least when she was my governess, she was rather overweight. Long gray hair that she always wears pulled straight back into a bun. She dressed nicely, but never in anything very flattering to her figure.”
“Somehow, I keep forgetting that she was once your governess, too,” Bobby admitted. “I think it’s because it’s hard to think of you having anyone but Miss Trask.”
“I try to forget it, too,” she sighed. “Miss Trask is one of a kind, and my dad’s ecstatic she agreed to stick around to manage the estate after I went off to college. However, I’m really not being fair to Miss Lefferts in my description. I was rather miserable back then, and she only made it worse, but she really found her niche working with troubled teenagers after my dad let her go. From what I’ve heard, she has a reputation as a miracle worker with them, and well, given some of the girls I knew in boarding school, there’s a definite need for that type of person.” She put her pen down on her desk and sat back in her chair. “So if Larry’s taken it upon himself to look into this, I’m assuming Mr. and Mrs. Lynch don’t know about the possible relationship?”
“No. Larry’s idea is that what happens on their own time is their business, and I suspect he’s uncertain how his dad would react. Given that he feels about Harrison like you feel about Miss Trask, he still wants to protect him if he can. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of anything unsavory in her past?”
She shook her head. “We can do some quiet inquiries, and of course, check for any prior marriages and divorces or any previous lawsuits. My hunch, though, is that she doesn’t have any ill intent. A governess after money or a sordid affair would tend to set her sights on the husband in the house, not on one of the other employees.”
“That was my thought, too, but then again, you never know anymore.”
“You’re far too young to be so cynical,” she teased him, but she sighed. “Sadly, you have a point. So for now, I’ll start thinking about the best way to go about this without raising any red flags. One thing to keep in mind, too, is that Harrison is a grown man. Trust me – I speak from experience when I say he doesn’t like anyone ‘snooping’ into his private life. I certainly don’t mind looking to see what we can find for Larry’s peace of mind, but if we do find something, we all need to be extremely careful how we handle it.”
“Good point,” he admitted. “I don’t know if Larry’s thought of that aspect yet.”
“Why don’t we shelve it until graduation is over?” she suggested. “Tell Larry we’ll do it, but remind him of the potential consequences first. Have him make sure it’s a risk he really wants to take.”
“Sounds like a plan. Thanks, Honey.”
“No problem,” she assured him. “Now I know your aunt Alicia’s supposed to arrive tonight, so when do you have to be home? If you have some time, I need a favor from you.”
He glanced at the clock. “Let me call Moms. I suspect I could stay an hour or so before she needs me. Last I heard, Aunt Alicia was working all day and then driving in.” He made a quick call to confirm his plans, then nodded. “I’m all set. What can I do?”
Honey took a piece of paper from underneath a folder on her desk and handed it to him. “We’ve been thinking about doing some rearranging in here, and I don’t want to have to tie Trixie to her chair to keep her from helping. Mind helping me move some furniture before she gets back?”
“Of course I don’t mind,” he said, then he did a double take as he glanced at the paper where she had drawn the layout she wanted. “Wait a minute. There are three desks on here.”
She nodded. “Trixie and I talked it over. You’re going to be working with us part-time, and even though you’ll really just be doing filing and reception work for a while, at least on your own, you need a desk. We can’t have you just standing around when clients come in.” Her eyes twinkled at him. “It’s actually in the back room ready to be brought out. Brian put it together for us, but since we hadn’t decided just where to put it until today…. ”
“Gleeps,” he said weakly. While he had tagged along with them on a few cases since first declaring his intentions to become a detective, he had always felt much as he had when he was six and trying to hang out with the Bob-Whites. Having his own desk suddenly made him realize that the two women really did take him and his aspirations seriously, and he pulled his sister-in-law into a tight hug. “Thanks.”
Working together, it didn’t take too long for the new desk to be brought in and all three situated the way Honey and Trixie had decided would work best. They had just finished when Trixie walked in and glared at them. “I was going to help with that!”
Honey grinned at her. “No, you weren’t. I would have called your husband to come and handcuff you if I had to.”
Bobby blushed, and Honey giggled. “Not like that!”
Trixie face reddened to match her brother’s, but she teased, “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. After all, how do you think I got in this situation in the first place?”
“Trixie!” Bobby groaned. “I don’t think I’m old enough to hear that!”
She giggled and relented. “I’m kidding, Bobby, but I really wish I’d had my camera out to get a picture of your expression!”
“Gee, thanks,” he said, rolling his eyes.
Still laughing, Trixie tossed her bag on her desk and sat down. “Seriously, both of you, thanks. It looks really good in here.” The telephone on her desk rang, and she answered it. “Sleepyside Detective Agency. May I help you?”
Bobby watched as she frowned and turned to him. “Moms wants to know if you’ve seen Valerie today. Larry just called looking for her.”
He shook his head in surprise. “No.” He waited until she hung up the phone to add, “She’s been emailing me for a few days now. I finally forwarded the last one to Mr. Lynch last night and asked him to tell her to stop contacting me.”
She sighed. “Apparently Larry didn’t go into details for Moms, but it sounds like she’s not where she’s supposed to be. If you do see her, let someone know.”
“If she comes to Crabapple Farm, I’ll probably ask Dell how to get a restraining order,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t come to that, especially since she’ll only be in town for a couple more months. Larry told me this morning that she’s going to Briar Hall next fall.”
Honey winced. “Poor girl.”
“From what I’ve heard, she wants to go,” Trixie reminded her. “She’s the kind of girl who will probably thrive there.”
“For her sake, I hope so,” she murmured. “On the bright side, I do see her fitting in there more than I ever did.”
He glanced at the clock. “I hate to say it, but I probably should head home. Aunt Alicia should be arriving before long.”
“Give her a hug from me,” Trixie requested. “I’ll try to stop over tomorrow to see her.”
“Will do,” he promised her, then picked up his backpack and headed out into the muggy evening.
Moments later, he pulled into the driveway of Crabapple Farm, closely followed by an almost new Honda Civic with Pennsylvania plates. He quickly got out of the older Civic that had been a hand-me-down from Mart on his sixteenth birthday and walked over to give his aunt a hug. “Good to see you, Aunt Alicia. How was your trip?”
“Not too bad,” she smiled tiredly. “Got held up by what looked like an accident on the Albany Post Road, but the police were already taking care of it. Other than that, not a bad drive, just a long day at work. You’re late getting home, aren’t you?”
“I stopped by the agency and lost track of time,” he told her, taking her bags from her. “Did Moms tell you I’ll be working there part time this summer?”
“And permanently after college,” she nodded. “Can’t say I totally approve, but you could do a lot worse. What does that girlfriend of yours think about it?”
“Right now, I think she’s just happy I’ll be commuting to White Plains for college,” he admitted with a grin. “But she seems supportive so far, especially when she realized that it would be a lot more dangerous if I worked for the police department. I’d thought about that, too, you know.”
Her blue eyes twinkled. “I’d rather have you be a private detective, too. I’m still thankful that’s the route your sister took, even if she did marry Wendy Molinson along the way.”
“Wendy?” Bobby almost choked.
She grinned. “That’s what his mother called him when he was a kid. Knowing her, she probably still does in private, even if he had to beat up half the boys in his kindergarten class before she stopped doing it publicly.”
“I don’t blame him,” he said in bemusement. “So how do you know about that?”
“Sleepyside is a small town,” she reminded him with a small laugh. “And I just might have had a friend with a younger brother who was among those on the receiving end of his wrath.”
He grinned. “Remind me to get more stories from you before you go home. Something tells me they’ll be very entertaining.”
Helen Belden had dinner on the table when the two went inside, and feeling guilty that he had not helped with the preparations, he insisted on doing the dishes afterward while his parents and aunt took their coffee into the living room. He had just put away the last dish when he was startled by the sound of someone knocking on the back door.
He hurried to the mudroom situated off the kitchen and cautiously peeked out the window, surprised and puzzled to see Terry standing there. He threw open the door and invited him in. “Hey, Terry. What’s up?”
“I’m in trouble, Bobby. Big trouble,” he groaned. “I know you won’t want to help, but I really need you, man.”
He pointed him to a chair at the kitchen table. “What’s going on?”
“Valerie had her weekly piano lesson in White Plains this afternoon. She left with Miss Lefferts right after lunch, but they never made it back home. Mom and Dad were trying not to panic, but then about an hour ago, a cop came to tell us they’d found Miss Lefferts’s car overturned in the ditch on Albany Post Road. There was no sign of either her or my sister. They’re still searching, but they’re not going to find them.”
“Why not?” he asked. He realized with a start that the accident Alicia had seen had most likely been the governess’s car.
“Because I’m an idiot. That’s why. You know I’ve been hanging out with the gang from Croton. Mostly kids who’ve already graduated and a few who dropped out a year or two ago. You and Larry were wrapped up with the wrestling team and your girlfriends, so I’d get together with them. There’s an old abandoned drive-in out there we’d use for parties. It was just supposed to be fun, you know? Somewhere to go where no one would bust us for beer or pot.”
“Marijuana?” Bobby asked incredulously. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You know better than that!”
He sighed. “Grow up, Bobby. I know you and Larry bought into the whole DARE thing, but real life isn’t that black and white, and sometimes you do things just because they’re fun or they feel good. The pot was safe, and I could handle that. The problem is that it didn’t stop there. After the cops broke up the meth ring here in town, Rick and Tony saw an opening in the market. They were already selling pot, so they talked Tony’s older brother Mike into helping them set up a lab. He basically took over, and next thing I knew they had roped me into pushing it for them.”
“Please tell me you’re not using that, too.” Bobby said flatly.
“No. I swear it. Some of the others are, of course, but that can really mess you up, and I needed a clear head for selling it.” He slumped down in the chair. “I actually got pretty good at it, too, but then I got cocky and started siphoning off some of the profits. You know, sell it for ten or twenty dollars more than I was supposed to, but keep the difference. Mike caught me last week. He’s demanding I pay back the difference, but I can’t. Dad’s already said he’s not giving me any more money unless I account for what I do with it, and I spent all I stole.”
“On what?” he asked before he could stop himself. “If you’ve been doing it for very long, from what I’ve heard, you should have made a killing.”
“Girls, mostly,” Terry flushed. “Stupid things. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to throw money away when you just don’t care.”
He sighed, putting two and two together. “So now you can’t pay them back, and they’ve realized that taking one of your sisters for ransom is a good way to get their money.”
“Pretty much. Only, what will they do to her before they even ask for the ransom? Mike’s already out for blood, and I don’t think he cares whose it is.”
His own blood ran cold as he realized his friend was in way over his head. “Do you have any idea where they might have taken them?”
“A few. Would you come with me to look? Obviously, I can’t go to the police about this, but I have to do something, and I need help. Mike, at least, has a gun, and I know Tony and Rick have switchblades that he taught them how to use.”
“We both need help with this!” Bobby hissed. “You’re past the point of worrying about whether or not you get in trouble. Two lives are in danger because of your stupidity!”
“Just forget it, Bobby,” Terry stood up. “I should have known you wouldn’t help me. I’ll just go on my own.”
At one point in the not so distant past, both Terry and Valerie had been among his closest friends, and thanks to Mart’s marriage to Diana, both were still technically family. Given Terry’s revelations, he wasn’t about to let his friend self-destruct, but he also realized this was beyond his ability to help. “Listen to me, Terry! Two months ago, my best friend was murdered. Then Trixie had to kill the murderer before he could kill her in her own home. She’s trained and has a gun. I’m not trained yet, nor am I armed, but you said they are. Just how are we supposed to help Valerie if we’re caught? They could kill us and not bat an eye!”
Terry barely paused as he headed for the back door. Bobby quickly moved to block it and yelled out for his dad.
Peter entered the kitchen seconds later, taken aback by the desperation in his son’s voice and surprised to see Terry trying to leave. “What’s going on?”
“Short story is that Terry suspects Valerie and her governess have been kidnapped. He knows where they may be, but he won’t go to the police.”
“Why not, Terry?” Peter asked, clapping the young man on the shoulder. “Look. If they’re really in danger, we need to do what we can to help them.”
“Bobby’s overreacting,” Terry lied smoothly. “I just wanted him to go with me to look for them. How am I supposed to know where they are?”
Peter shook his head. “If you didn’t have an idea, you wouldn’t be here wanting him to help you search for them. You wouldn’t know where to even start.” He gently, but firmly, led the young man back to the table. “I don’t know what you’re hiding, but you’re family, Terry. We want to help you.”
“Give me your ideas,” Bobby pleaded. “I’ll call Dell and pass them on as a tip. I’ll try to keep you out of it, and that’s the best I can do.”
“He’s not stupid,” Terry sighed. “He’ll still know it came from me, and he’ll put two and two together.”
“You love your sister, Terry,” Peter reminded him. “I remember a day a few years ago when all four of you were over here playing. You were about twelve, and Valerie had a close encounter with a copperhead. Do you remember how you reacted?”
“I was scared out of my wits,” he said. “I am now. I do still love her, Mr. B. And trust me – Mike is even worse than a copperhead.” He closed his eyes as he capitulated. “Have them check the old Moonlit drive-in in Croton. If they’re not there, Rick may have them at the house he rents there on the River Road. It’s the white house on the corner with Third. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that’s where the lab is, so the drive-in is where I’d look first. He’d probably not want them to see the lab.”
Bobby quickly grabbed the phone and passed the information on to his brother-in-law, who promised to get the Croton police involved as well. When he returned to the table, Terry looked at Peter. “You said I’m family and you’ve always been like a second dad to me. Would you go with me to talk to my own dad? I’ve got to talk to him before the police do.” He looked down at the table. “They’re going to find out I’ve been dealing drugs. It’s a long story, but that’s why they kidnapped Valerie and Miss Lefferts.”
Peter’s eyes widened at the revelation, but he nodded. “Of course.” He turned to Bobby. “Let your mother know I’ll be at the Lynch’s. I don’t know how long I’ll be.”
Feeling somewhat numb, Bobby nodded. He watched silently as Terry forlornly followed Peter out the back door, then went in the living room to apprise Helen and Alicia of the situation. When his mother patted the couch next to her, he sank down beside her.
She wrapped an arm around him, and without even thinking about it, he leaned into the embrace and rested his head on her shoulder. “Do you think this is my fault, Moms?” he asked. “Why didn’t I suspect what was going on?”
“No, it’s not your fault,” she assured him. “And how would you have known? Did you know who he was hanging out with or what they were doing?”
“I knew it wasn’t the best crowd,” he admitted. “But no, I never dreamed they were into drugs.”
“Are they a big problem in Sleepyside?” Alicia asked softly.
Helen sighed. “It’s getting there. You know there have been kids drinking and smoking cigarettes and marijuana since we were in school. It’s just gotten worse over the years, and the police busted up a meth ring last fall.”
Bobby nodded. “Terry said his friends in Croton saw a chance to take their customers when that happened. One ended, and another one started.”
“Which will hopefully be ended now,” Helen reminded him gently.
“Yes, but at what cost?” he asked. “What’s going to happen to Valerie and her governess? Then, what’s next for Terry? Mr. Lynch and Mr. Halvorson were able to come to an agreement that avoided legal implications for Valerie’s threats, but I doubt that even Mr. Lynch would be able to pull strings to get Terry out of drug charges. Even then, should he? Terry knew better than this!”
“I don’t know,” she sighed. “I wish I had answers for you.” She smiled faintly as she stroked his hair. “I miss the days when your hardest questions were ‘Is this labender or norange?'”
He leaned up and flushed at the very accurate impersonation of his childhood speech patterns. “Do me a favor and please don’t ever tell Bethany about that?”
She grinned at him. “You’re safe until you’re engaged. Then all bets are off.”
He groaned. “Gee, thanks.”
“Engaged?” Alicia asked, startled. “You’re not close to that are you?”
He shook his head. “Not for several years. It might be different if she was graduating, too, but she still has two years of high school left. I want to at least finish college before getting married. We haven’t talked about it yet, but we’re at least four, and probably six, years away from an engagement.”
She nodded. “Well, that’s certainly not rushing into anything.” Her gaze turned wistful. “If you’re sure she’s the right one, just be sure not to let her get away.”
“I won’t,” he said quickly. He seized the chance to steer the subject away from both himself and the situation with Terry and Valerie that made him feel so helpless. He looked at his aunt. “I don’t mean to pry, but was there someone you let get away?”
Alicia closed her blue eyes and nodded slowly. “Yes, there was, so remember I’m speaking from experience, young man.”
“If he let himself get away, you deserved better,” he told her.
She smiled sadly at him. “It wasn’t his choice, Bobby. Your grandparents didn’t approve of the relationship, and they sent me to Philadelphia to stay with Uncle Mart and Aunt Helen. We talked about eloping, but in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to go against their wishes. He understood, but I’ve regretted it ever since.”
“What were their objections?” he asked.
“I was only seventeen, you see, and he was quite a bit older,” she explained. “They thought I would make a ‘more suitable’ match in Pennsylvania, but I never found anyone who measured up to him.” She sighed. “I also distanced myself from your grandparents. I only saw them once more before they died.”
Helen gave him a squeeze. “And if you ever wondered why your dad and I never objected to your sister’s marriage, that’s why. We couldn’t let history repeat itself. I’m not saying someone has to be married to be happy or fulfilled, but they faced enough challenges without us adding to them.”
Snippets of conversations he had overheard through the years suddenly began to make sense, and he nodded. “I had wondered, but I remember Brian and Mart gave her a hard enough time to make up for it.”
“They finally came around, didn’t they?” Alicia asked.
Helen nodded. “Eventually, but it’s only been in the last year or so that they’ve seemed truly past it.”
“So did he ever find anyone else?” Bobby asked.
Helen shook her head no, but Alicia nodded. “From what I’ve heard, he’s been involved with someone for the last ten years or so.”
“Seriously?” Helen asked her sister, her eyes rolling. “You lived here long enough to know you can’t trust the grapevine. Yes, he dated her very briefly when she first moved to town, but he told me himself that they quickly realized friendship was all they would ever have together. They’re still friends, but that’s really all they’ve ever been.”
Alicia gave a sad sigh. “I almost wish they were involved. At least then he wouldn’t be alone.”
Bobby was just about to ask who they were talking about when a sense of deja vu swept over him as he heard a knock at the back door. “I’m almost scared to go see who it is.”
Helen squeezed his arm. “I’ll go.” She quickly stood and left the room, only to return a moment later with Trixie and Erica.
Trixie gave Alicia a hug, then sat down beside Bobby on the couch. “I still can’t get used to the back door being locked.”
“Me, either,” he told her. Crabapple Farm was famous among his family and friends for the open door policy that had prevailed for several generations, but recent events had caused Peter to decree that their safety was more important. He understood the reasoning, but it had been an adjustment for all of them. “While I’m glad to see you, what’s going on? I wasn’t expecting you tonight.”
“Dell got called in, and I felt a need to see my baby brother,” she told him with a smile. She turned to Helen. “Moms, do you mind if I borrow him for a few minutes? We’ll just be outside on the porch, then I’ll be back in to visit for a while.”
Curious, he stood and led his sister out to the porch, where they sat down on the swing. “So spill it. I’m curious and worried at the same time.”
“Sorry, but I really shouldn’t be telling you this, let alone having Erica or Aunt Alicia overhear. You have no idea what you did tonight. Remember the Stakeout Squad that Dan put together late last year?”
He nodded, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. “Yeah. Don’t tell me they’ve been working with Croton’s PD.”
Her eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“Wild guess,” he sighed. “I don’t know what you managed to find out from Dell, but the tip I gave him came from Terry Lynch. He showed up right after dinner wanting me to go help him look for Valerie. After he told me who was involved, I knew we were in way over our heads, and I insisted on calling Dell. Dad’s over at their house now, and Terry will probably never speak to me again.”
“Oh my word,” she breathed. “I know that when you mentioned that old theater as a possibility, he connected it with the meth ring’s hideout, but I didn’t realize Terry was involved. Is he part of the ring?”
He nodded miserably. “Did I do the right thing, Trixie? If I’d gone with him, we could have both wound up in more trouble than he’s going to be in now.”
“Listen to me, Bobby. The hardest lesson a detective has to learn is when to do something on their own and when to call for help. It wasn’t until Honey and I interned at the police station that I started to learn that, and looking back, it’s a miracle I didn’t get either myself or any of the Bob-Whites killed when we were teenagers. Remind me at some point and Honey and I will tell you about some of those close calls.” She took his hand in hers. “You did exactly what you needed to do tonight. Those men are dangerous, and they’re the type who will shoot first and ask questions later. I don’t know how deeply Terry is involved, or if he’s armed, but I know you’re not. The Stakeout Squad is heavily armed, and they’ve been through this before.”
“Terry thinks I betrayed him,” he said softly. “I feel like I betrayed him. What would you have done if it had been one of your oldest friends?”
“I hope I would have done what you did,” she told him. She took a deep breath, then continued, “I know you’re still grieving over Brom more than I can even imagine. Imagine how much worse it would be if you were grieving over Terry, too, or if we were mourning for you.” She reached out and wrapped him in her arms. “You’re my brother, and you have no idea how thankful I am we’re not going to be planning your funeral.”
His sister’s blunt words broke through, and he shuddered. “Me, too.”
Trixie and Erica had already gone home by the time Peter returned to Crabapple Farm late that night. Bobby had retreated to his room and called Bethany before making a pretense of studying, but as soon as he saw his father’s headlights turn into the driveway, he went back downstairs where his mother and aunt were still talking in the living room. They fell silent as they heard Peter’s approach, and Bobby’s heart pounded as he came in the front door. “What’s going on?” Peter sank heavily into his recliner. “The police found Valerie and the governess at the drive-in Terry mentioned, locked in the old projection booth. They’re alive, but they were both taken straight to the hospital. I don’t know if they were hurt, or if it’s just a precaution. Patrick and Robin were on their way to see them when I left.”
Bobby breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m glad they found them. Were the kidnappers arrested? And what’s going to happen to Terry?”
“All I know is that Valerie and her governess were rescued,” he told him. “I didn’t ask for details, but I’m assuming they were. As for Terry, well, let’s just say it’s a mess and leave it at that. If it helps, Larry and Mallory went home with Mart and Di to spend the night, and Chief Gillespie took Terry into custody.” He grinned slightly. “On a somewhat lighter note, Harrison also raced for the hospital as soon as we heard news of the rescue. Given his concern for the governess earlier, I suspect it’s not Valerie he was in such a hurry to see.”
Bobby managed a grin of his own. “I suspect you’re right.”
“But for now, it’s late, and I seem to remember you have an important test first thing in the morning. Go on to bed now and try to get some sleep.”
He heard the finality in his father’s tone and knew he wouldn’t get any more information from him that night. He stood, and as he did, Peter also stood and clapped him on the back. “Son, I know I haven’t told you this lately, but I’m proud of you, and I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Bobby said, swallowing past a sudden lump in his throat.
Morning came all too soon, and Bobby was relieved to see Larry slipping into his seat right as the bell rang. There was no chance to do more than nod at him before the teacher called the class to order and began passing out exam booklets, but the small smile Larry sent his way was at least reassuring enough to help him concentrate on the exam
Two hours later, he took a final look around the classroom as he turned in his textbook and shouldered his backpack. Larry grinned at him as he dumped his own thick binder in the trash can before walking out of the room. “We did it.”
“Assuming we passed, you mean,” Bobby reminded him. “That exam was brutal.”
“Nah.” Larry shook his head as they walked down the crowded hallway towards the front entrance of the school. “Not as bad as I’d expected.” He sighed. “I have to admit that I’m extremely grateful that I only had one test to take today. I don’t think I could have managed two.”
“Me, either,” Bobby agreed. “I can’t even imagine the night you had.”
Larry grimaced. “Tell me about it. Di made sure that I went straight to bed once we got to her house, but who could sleep? She told me this morning that Mom called to say Valerie’s going to be fine, but it sounds like she’s going to be in the hospital for another day or so. She should be out in time to come to graduation, though.”
“What about Miss Lefferts?”
“She’s going to be fine, too, well, except for a sprained wrist that will take some time to heal. Speaking of her, though, I’ll pay for anything you’ve already done, but call off the background check. Turns out Harrison had already told Dad that they’re involved, and if we find anything out, it’s just going to cause even more pain. He’s got it bad. You should have seen how worried he was last night.”
“Dad mentioned how quickly he left for the hospital,” Bobby told him. “And of course I’ll leave it alone. I talked to Honey, but that’s as far as we got. For what it’s worth, she said it’s really unlikely, and I think she’d know. She used to have her for her governess, too.”
“True. That does make me feel better,” Larry gave a half smile as they reached the relative privacy of his parking spot. “Thanks for sending Terry home last night. No telling what would have happened if you hadn’t.”
“What’s going to happen to him now? Dad said they took him into custody.”
“No idea. Dad figured spending a night in jail would be a good wake-up call for him, but he planned to call his attorney first thing this morning. They may try to work out some kind of plea deal since it was his tip that led to them breaking up the ring.” He sighed. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad that Chief Gillespie said that except for the ringleader, they were all amateurs. I suspect that’s why they didn’t realize that there was no way they’d get away with the kidnapping.”
Bobby shuddered. “Amateurs can be even more dangerous than professionals in some cases. From what I’ve read, they’re a lot less predictable.”
Larry nodded. He took a deep breath, then gave a small smile. “What’s on your agenda for today? I don’t have to be anywhere until I go back to Di’s for lunch. We’ll be going to the hospital after that. There’s nothing I can do about Terry, and I need to get away from everything for a little while. I just heard about a new arcade in White Plains. Want to go spend an hour seeing how many quarters we can waste playing pinball? We can take my car. There’s no sense in us both driving out there.”
He grinned. “Sure. Sounds like fun. Just let me call Moms so she knows where I am.”
They arrived at the arcade just after it opened for the day and quickly found two pinball machines side by side in the back. While they didn’t have long before Larry had to be back in Sleepyside, the hour they spent just being teenagers having fun was a welcome respite from the adult world that was so steadily encroaching into their lives.
However, the real world beckoned all too quickly, and they found themselves back in Sleepyside. After retrieving his car from the school parking lot, Bobby remembered his mother’s request that he stop by Mr. Lytell’s to pick up a few things on his way back to the Farm.
The transition of Lytell’s Grocery over the years never failed to amaze him when he remembered the small country store of his childhood. The small frame building with its rows of dusty cans and boxes had been replaced with a modern well-lit building with a wide selection of convenience store-type items, including movie rentals and fountain drinks. Gas pumps had been installed a year earlier, and with Mr. Lytell’s consistency in having the lowest price in the area, they were almost always in use during store hours.
As he walked in, he reflected that one thing would likely never change. Despite the new building and increased business, Mr. Lytell still ran the store by himself and continued to live in an apartment in the back of the building. He called out a greeting to the old storekeeper, then collected the items his mother wanted along with a bottle of strawberry pop.
“You know, if you’d put this in the fountain you’d make a fortune,” he teased as Mr. Lytell rang up his purchases.
“Not hardly,” Mr. Lytell snorted. “I admit it sells better than I thought it would, but you and your sister are still my best customers for it. So, are you ready for your big day?”
Bobby nodded with a sigh. “More than ready, I think. It was a real relief to finish finals this morning.”
“I heard they moved the ceremony to the football field this year to let more people attend. I suppose your extended family is planning to come.”
“Yeah. Uncle Andrew, Knut, and Cap are all flying in Friday morning, but Aunt Alicia drove in last night. She’s helping Moms with my party Friday night.”
An odd flicker crossed Mr. Lytell’s face, but it was gone so quickly that Bobby wondered if he had actually seen it. However, he had a sudden hunch and decided to take advantage of the surprisingly empty store. “Last night, I was dragging old stories out of Moms and Aunt Alicia, and well, I had one question I didn’t get answered. You’ve lived here your whole life, haven’t you?”
“That’s right. I’ve known your family all my life, too.”
“I don’t suppose you happen to remember hearing about a romance Aunt Alicia had at one point, do you? I wasn’t able to find out who it was, but I get the feeling she’s still hung up on him and too stubborn to talk to him. I’m trying to decide if I should interfere or let them both be lonely from now on.”
Mr. Lytell stared at him for a long moment. “Sometimes, it’s too late, Bobby. I happen to know he tried to talk to her a couple of years ago and she brushed him off.”
“That’s the sad part,” Bobby said. “She’s spent the last ten years thinking he was involved with someone else. It was only last night that she found out he isn’t, and well, if you know my aunt, you know she wouldn’t dream of pursuing anyone who’s already in a relationship.”
“She wouldn’t pursue anyone under any circumstances,” Mr. Lytell told him with a soft smile. “She might be young, but she’s still of the mindset that it’s the man’s place to do the chasing. She always has been.”
He took that observation as confirmation his hunch had been correct, but chose not to let on that he knew. However, he had an idea. “You’re right, she won’t. So would you do me a favor and talk to him? Leave it up to him to decide, but let him know she will be at both my graduation and the party afterwards at the Farm. He’s welcome to come to either or both.” He grinned. “Tell him I’m not expecting a gift. With people coming and going, it’s probably going to feel more like one of our Thanksgiving open houses.”
“I’ll think, er, I’ll let him know,” the storekeeper replied. His hands shook slightly as he straightened the candy displays on the counter between them. “I’ll make sure he thinks about it.”
“Thanks,” Bobby told him. “I know a lot can change over the years, but maybe there’s still enough there for a relationship.”
“Maybe,” he conceded. “Time will tell, young man. Time will tell.”
On Friday evening, the stands of the football field were filled with family members and friends of the graduating Sleepyside Junior-Senior High class of 2003. Behind the scenes, the graduating seniors milled about in a sea of dark blue caps and gowns, impatiently waiting the signal to line up for the march onto the field.
“Well, I’ve got to hand it to you, Belden. We made it after all,” Lori Carlson grinned. “If I don’t see you again, take care of yourself and that girlfriend of yours. She’s almost old enough to date now.”
Bobby laughed. While Lori’s taunts about Bethany’s age had originally been born of her own frustration with a failed relationship, the malice had worn off and it had become something of a familiar routine between them. “You won’t get rid of me that easily,” he teased. “Bronxville isn’t that far away.” He pulled her in for a friendly hug. “Concordia isn’t going to know what hit them!”
“Neither will Hudson,” she retorted, but her eyes were moist as she pulled away. “Make sure the campus is still standing when you graduate from there.”
“Eh, if they survived my sister, they can handle me.” He blinked back a tear of his own, but soon found himself enveloped in a hug from someone else. The greetings and goodbyes were bittersweet for a class that had largely been together since elementary school, but who were now about to spread their wings to make their own ways in the world.
Larry soon greeted him with a gentle punch on his arm. “Well, we’re finally here.”
He turned around, and his face lit up to see Terry standing behind his twin. “Oh, thank goodness.”
Terry reluctantly stepped forward. “Yeah. Thanks to Mr. Stratton arranging for me to take finals this morning. Look. I’ve spent the last two days thinking, and well, I’m sorry for how I acted the other night. I know you were trying to help, even if I didn’t think so at the time.”
“I’m sorry, too, but I really didn’t know what else to do. What’s next for you? I mean, are you still in trouble?”
“Big time,” he admitted. “Worst case scenario, I may get out of prison about the time you two finish college. Depends on whether or not they convict me of selling or just possession. Dad’s got his attorney working on it. I’m out on bail for now.”
“What about the others?” he asked quietly. “Are you in any danger from them?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “They were all arrested, and Rick and Mike have kidnapping charges as well. It helps, too, that they don’t know the tip came from me. As far as they know, it was just really bad timing for the bust.”
“And it helps being a Lynch,” Larry teased gently, but then he sighed. “According to your brother-in-law, Terry is the only one who actually made bail.”
A shrill whistle sounded over the cacophony. “Time to line up, everyone. Remember the order we rehearsed.”
“Follow me,” Larry said, grinning at his twin. “Thanks to alphabetical seating, you’re stuck with me tonight.”
It was the first time in months that Bobby had seen a genuine smile on Terry’s face as he responded, “And there’s no place I’d rather be.”
Strains of Pomp and Circumstance began to fill the air, and the three teens hurried off to their assigned positions. Only time would tell what would happen in their lives, but for now, it was enough that they were finally graduating.