Before I saw the dead body, I used to like raisins.
In fact, I used to love raisins: raisin toast, raisin muffins, raisin pudding, raisin cereal. Now I look at one of those dried-up grapes, and all I see is a dried-out corpse. This morning at the breakfast table Uncle Stoppard set a plate in front of me with two giant raisin muffins, steaming with melted butter. I must have had a funny look on my face, because right away Uncle Stoppard asked what was wrong.
"You promise you won't laugh?" I asked.
"Promise," he said.
So I told him. His cucumber-green eyes got squinty: it was his serious look. "But, Finnegan," he said. "And I don't mean to say it sounds weird," he said.
"But, why on earth should raisins remind you of that dead body we found in the -- " Uncle Stoppard stopped. He stared down at the muffin on his own plate. Then he stared at me. Then he stared at the muffin again.
"Because of the...rodents?" he said quietly.
"Yeah," I said. "The...rodents."
Uncle Stoppard's complexion began to match the color of his eyes. He pushed himself away from the table, scooped up our plates, and scraped all four muffins into the waste can.
"How do you feel about waffles?" he said.
I don't know why I felt that sick. I mean, yes, it was the first dead body I ever saw. But I should have been more comfortable. After all, my whole family loves dead things.
One of my grandmothers, for instance, was a paleontologist and collected fossils for museums. My grandfather worked in the Dead Letter department of the Tombstone, Arizona, post office. Aunt Verona became a taxidermist after she got out of the Army, and used to display all her preserved pets in mock battle scenes on her front lawn. Uncle Stoppard says her neighbors called the place "The WAC's Museum." Dad's favorite band is the Grateful Dead. Mom's favorite writer is Robert Graves. Both my parents were archeologists. I mean, are archeologists. I mean, both. Both are both. As of this moment they're alive, but considered legally dead, since they disappeared over seven years ago while searching for Tquuli the Haunted City somewhere among the frozen volcano-cones of Iceland. (It was written up in Peephole magazine.) How do I know they're alive? I just know.
I'm staying with Uncle Stoppard until my parents come back. To look at us, you'd never guess we were related. Uncle Stoppard is tall and muscular with wavy red hair, crinkly green eyes, and a big nose (he calls it aquiline). I am not tall or muscular, have light-brown hair, pale skin, and freckles. Uncle Stoppard says I have a moccachino crop, java eyes, and a triple-latte complexion with nutmeg sprinkles. Uncle Stoppard likes drinking coffee. He also likes using unusual words.
The only thing we share is our glasses. I mean, we both wear glasses. And, of course, we share the family fondness for dead things: I like ghost stories and Uncle Stop spends most of his time plotting to kill people. We've been living together a little more than seven years now, and I guess I've gotten used to living in his apartment in Minneapolis. I don't think about my parents as much as I used to. Now I only think about them a couple times a day.
Poor Uncle Stoppard. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned the raisins at breakfast.
Last year, Uncle Stoppard had a hard time eating because of fingerprints. He was reading all about fingerprints in these crime books of his and he learned What they're made of. Sweat. I mean, fingerprints are made of sweat, not the crime books. And sweat is full of stuff like ammonia, phosphate, uric acid, and cholesterol. Yummy, huh? Did you know that one of the fatty acids that oozes out of your pores is the same stuff that crayons are made from? Each time Uncle Stoppard picked up a pear or a sandwich, he thought about how those sweat chemicals got all over the food he was planning to eat. He thought about that a lot. Last year, he lost twelve pounds.
"That's all right," he used to say. "It's good for my diet."
Uncle Stoppard doesn't need to diet. He rides his bike and blades and lifts weights. He looks like one of those guys in the jeans commercials on TV. When he's not exercising, Uncle Stop writes murder mysteries. That's what I meant when I said he's always plotting to kill people.
His last mystery, Cold Feet, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks. That's as good as Stephen King. Cold Feet is about this killer who always leaves a pair of blue shoes next to the dead bodies of his victims. Lots of readers think it's funny to send Uncle Stop a pair of blue shoes through the mail. We have bags and bags of fan letters and packages stacked in our living room. In three weeks we've given away 200 pairs of blue shoes to the Salvation Army. Uncle Stop says it's a good arrangement since the Salvation Army likes saving soles.
Anyway, we found the dead body a week ago. I was still eating raisins at the time. It was the middle of June, on a gray and gloomy Sunday. I was helping Uncle Stoppard go through the mail. We have a system. First we put all the packages in one pile and all the envelopes in another. Then we divide the packages into two categories: Probably Shoes and Probably Not. The Probably Not packages are weird shapes that a shoe wouldn't be able to fit into. Some fans send presents like food, or homemade socks, or pencil holders, or pictures of themselves and their families. Some send typed pages of mystery stories they've written, hoping that Uncle Stoppard will get them published. Uncle Stoppard says he still has trouble publishing his own books.
I was about to rip open a large, flat package that looked like it contained another manuscript when I glanced at the address again. The name on the address was not Uncle Stoppard's. It said: Pablo DeSoto. We live in south Minneapolis near Lake Calhoun. Our building is made out of dusty yellow bricks (Uncle Stoppard calls them "marigold"), with green shutters ("emerald"), and a steep, slanty roof ("alpine"). It has two apartments on the very top, two in the middle, and one sort of half underground. The laundry room and storage rooms fill in the rest of the basement. Uncle Stop's and my apartment (no. 2) is in the middle level. Pablo (no. 3) is our neighbor across the hall landing. I figured that somehow Pablo's package got mixed up with ours in the hall. This happens about two or three times a week. Since we get so much mail, the caretaker puts our packages on our landing, next to our door, which is next to Pablo's door. And sometimes packages for Pablo get stuck with ours.
I ran down the hall stairs to the mail slots in the front entryway. The slots were too narrow for Pablo's package. Not wanting to leave it sitting on the floor, I ran back up the stairs to our landing and knocked on number 3. No answer. I went back inside our apartment and decided I'd try again later. I set the package just inside our door.
It was cold and windy outside, so I stayed in the rest of the day. By lunchtime, we still hadn't opened up all the mail. I counted twenty-two more pairs of shoes, including a pair of turquoise high heels and some indigo sneakers. Uncle Stoppard went back to his office and typed on his computer. I went to my bedroom and read comic books. This was supposed to be summer vacation. Where's the sun? The only bright spot in the whole apartment was the picture I kept on my dresser.
The picture is a color photograph of me and my parents. It was taken a month before they left for Iceland. My parents, Anna and Leo Zwake, were in Agualar, near Mexico, on an archeological expedition for the world-famous Ackerberg Institute. They were searching for an ancient Mayan city in the jungle. I was only a five-year-old kid, but they took me along with them. The photo was taken on a bright, summery day. We must have been having a picnic, because my parents are sitting on a blanket with plates and cups scattered around. I am sitting on my mother's lap. We are all smiling and squinting in the hot sun. It's the only picture I have of my family.
Funny, but I actually have memories of that day. I can remember the heat of my mother's pale yellow dress when she set me on her lap. I remember the thunder of my father's laugh. A nearby river murmured softly. Birds. Women's voices.
In the picture I am sitting next to a shiny figurine. It is one of the Mayan artifacts that my parents discovered on the trip. Once they unbury an object, clean it off, record it, videotape it, figure out what it is, and stare at it for a few days, they pack it up and ship it off to the Ackerberg guys in Washington, D.C. The figurine in the photo, the one I'm grabbing with my five-year-old paws, is a man sleeping on his side. He's made out of gold.
The small statue is called the Horizontal Man. I know this, not from memory, but from the notation on the back of the photograph. Written by hand, it says: "Anna and Leo Finnegan. With the Horizontal Man. Agualar." Agualar is a country near Mexico. I know, because I looked it up in an atlas.
Why didn't my parents take me to Iceland? Was I that much trouble in Agualar? I don't look like trouble in the picture. We all look happy.
Next to the photo, lying flat on top of my dresser, is something else my parents left with me: a Mayan gold coin. It's not really a coin because Mayan people didn't use money to buy things, they used chocolate. If a Mayan boy wanted to buy a new pair of sneakers, he would hand the shopkeeper a bag of cocoa beans. I call it a coin because it's round like a half-dollar and flat as a dime. And it's pure gold. It probably fell off some royal Mayan guy's costume. At least that's what I think from digging through a lot of history books at the library.
Later that afternoon I was still in my room when I heard footsteps on the front stairs. I thought it must be Pablo. I grabbed the package next to the door and stepped into the hall. Pablo's front door was open. I walked into his apartment. Pablo wasn't there.
"What do you want?" said an angry voice.
I spun around and saw a dark shadow. It was Ms. Pryce, the caretaker, standing in the doorway of Pablo's kitchen.
"You're not supposed to be in here," she said.
Uncle Stoppard says that Ms. Pryce has a monochromatic wardrobe. That means she dresses in only one color: black. At this moment, Ms. Pryce was wearing a black sweater, tight black pants, black socks, and black shoes. She had black lipstick and shiny black fingernails. Her spiky hair is shorter than Uncle Stop's. And much brighter. Ms. Pryce has hair the color of a summer sky. I wonder what color the sky is in Iceland?
Ms. Pryce was scratching her blue hair when she asked me again, "Why are you here?"
"This package," I said. I held it up like a shield in front of me. "It's Pablo's. I, uh, we got it by mistake."
"Just set it down someplace," she said. "And then leave. You shouldn't be in other people's apartments." I looked for a good place to put the package, someplace Pablo would see it right away.
"You don't see paper anywhere, do you?" asked Ms. Pryce. She pushed past me and stomped through the room. "I have to leave a message for Mr. DeSoto. Some people don't pay their rent on time," she said. "Some people are two weeks late. Oh, great, he didn't even bolt the back door. That's real smart."
I noticed a pad and pencil on a table next to the door. "There's some paper," I said.
She walked past me again and grabbed the pad.
"And some people get too much mail," she said. Ms. Pryce was busily scribbling a note on the pad, her spiky blue head bent down. She wasn't looking at me, but I knew she meant me and Uncle Stoppard when she made that comment about the mail. It wasn't our fault, we didn't ask for all that footwear.
That gave me an idea. Ms. Pryce obviously liked at least one other color besides black.
"Um, what's your shoe size?" I asked.
Ms. Pryce stared at me as if I were some unfamiliar and disgusting creature.
"Chew? Did you say chew?" she said.
"Shoe," I said. "But, never mind."
I was going to put Pablo's package down on the small table by the door, when Ms. Pryce said, "Leave Mr. DeSoto's mail in there." She pointed to the living room. Then she placed the pad back on the small table. "I want my message to be the first thing he sees when he gets back from that conference of his."
The living room had lots of tall, leafy plants and a big-screen TV. A fancy glass coffee table was covered with shiny magazines.
Something else sat on the table. Actually, it slept on the table. A small golden figurine of a man. The Horizontal Man.
The small golden man lay on his side with his head turned. He had round, staring eyes, thick eyebrows, a spiral navel, and he wore sandals and a loincloth made of feathers. A tiny knife hung on a belt. All of it was gold. Even his toes.
And there he was, sitting on the coffee table in Pablo's living room.
I ran across the hall, through our front door and into my bedroom. I stared at the photo of me and my parents. I grabbed a magnifying glass from my desk drawer and studied the tiny Horizontal Man in the picture. It was the same statue. It gleamed the same dull, yellow color.
I sat down on my bed, breathing hard. It felt as if I had just run around the block twenty times. What was the Horizontal Man doing in Pablo DeSoto's apartment? I ran back through the apartment and across the hall. Pablo's door was shut. I knocked but there was no answer. Ms. Pryce must have gone back to her apartment. Maybe she'd let me back in to take another look. I ran down the stairs to her apartment. She had her name stenciled on a purple card tacked to the center of the door: V. Pryce.
What was I going to say to her? What reason could I give her to let me inside Pablo's place? Ms. Pryce had very definite ideas about people being in other people's apartments. Maybe if I said he had stolen something from my uncle.
Luckily, I didn't have to lie. Unluckily, she didn't answer the door when I rang her bell. She must have gone out.
I ran back upstairs to our apartment and stood outside Uncle Stoppard's office. I hated to disturb him but this couldn't wait.
I opened the door and saw Uncle Stoppard staring at his computer screen.
"Finn, haven't I told you -- " said Uncle Stoppard.
"Sorry, Uncle Stoppard."
"You look like you've been running a marathon, Finn. What's wrong? Are you sick?"
I nodded. "Sort of. It's on Pablo's coffee table," I said.
"You threw up on Pablo's coffee table?"
"The Horizontal Man."
"You threw up on a horizontal man?"
"No. He's on the table."
"There's a horizontal man lying on Pablo's coffee table?"
"Yes, with the same feathers and loincloth and eyebrows and everything," I said.
Uncle Stoppard raised one of his eyebrows. "I hope you didn't disturb Pablo while he was entertaining guests."
"No, but -- "
"Haven't I always told you to knock first?"
"Yes, but -- "
"Speaking of which, you didn't knock before you came in here, either."
"But Ms. Pryce was already over there," I said.
"With the horizontal man?" asked Uncle Stoppard.
Uncle Stoppard tapped a pencil against his cheek. "I find it rather odd," he said, "that Pablo would throw a party this early in the day. I find it especially odd that he would invite Ms. Pryce."
"It wasn't a party," I said. "It was this." I handed him the photo.
"That statue is the Horizontal Man," I pointed out. "And that same statue is in Pablo's living room. On his coffee table."
"And Ms. Pryce...?"
I explained what Ms. Pryce was doing, and why I was over in Mr. DeSoto's apartment in the first place.
"Finn, how could Pablo possibly have this same statue?"
"I don't know, but he does."
"It's probably a replica."
"A what?" I said.
"Replica," he said. "When people go to museums and see statues they like, they can buy copies, or replicas, in the gift shop on the way out."
"Are replicas made of gold?" I asked.
"Not usually." Uncle Stoppard jumped up from his chair. "Oh, no!"
"What?" I said.
"The museum," he groaned.
"Any museum," he said. Uncle Stoppard flopped back down and gave me that squinty look. His serious look.
"I am so stupid," said Uncle Stoppard. "I don't believe how thoughtless I can be. Finn, you are living with an imbecile. A loon. And I don't mean the state bird." He took a deep breath. "The statue in Pablo's living room -- "
"The Horizontal Man," I said.
"Yes, the Horizontal Man," he said. "It may not be a replica -- "
"It may be the real thing."
"That's what I said."
"We have to establish our facts first, Finn. We don't want to just go ahead and accuse someone of stealing."
"You think Pablo stole it, too, huh?"
"I don't see any other explanation," said, Uncle Stoppard.
"But where did he get it?" I asked.
"That's where. I kept, your parents' stuff," said Uncle Stoppard. "In the basement."
There's a store in the Mall of America that Uncle Stoppard and I have visited a few times. It sells all kinds of optical illusions. They have these round spinners with spiral lines drawn on them. You spin them like tops, and if you stare at them long enough, you feel like you're getting hypnotized. That's how I felt now. Hypnotized. Unreal. Uncle Stoppard's office spun around me. My parents' things were locked up in a room in the basement? Why didn't Uncle Stoppard tell me before?
"I didn't tell you before," said Uncle Stoppard. "Because you were so young. And, quite honestly, Finn, I forgot. I am so dumb. That stuff has been down there for over seven years."
Uncle Stoppard explained that my parents, had left Agualar in a rush. A huge hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, which had been heading toward Texas, suddenly changed its course. Agualar was hit with hundred-mile-an-hour winds and a wave surge thirty feet high. My folks and their crew quickly crated up all the important artifacts, abandoned their tents to the blows of Hurricane Midge, and flew back to Minneapolis and Uncle Stoppard's apartment, bringing their golden discoveries with them. I guess my folks didn't have a regular house in those days. Anyway, my parents were snapped up by the Ackerberg Institute to work on another expedition in Iceland. They had to leave the very next day from Uncle Stoppard's apartment. So, they handed Uncle Stop their stuff from the Agualar trip (and me) and then zoomed away to the North Atlantic.
"Why didn't they take me?" I asked.
"They were afraid the extreme temperature change might be bad for you. You were just a little kid. Going from the tropical jungle to the frozen north might be unhealthy."
"But I like snow," I said. Which is a good thing if you live in Minnesota.
"Anna asked me to keep the stuff they found in Agualar and ship it off to the Iceberg Institute."
"Ackerberg," I said.
"Yeah. I have the address written down somewhere."
Uncle Stoppard's office looks like an explosion in a paper factory. He'd be lucky to find that address in another seven years. "Maybe I should look it up on the Net," he said.
"So there's gold locked up in the basement?" I asked.
"Not so loud!"
"I didn't know it was gold," he whispered. "And then I forgot about it I had other things on my mind at the time. My books and -- " Uncle Stoppard looked down at his sneakers.
"And me," I said.
"Lots of things," he said. "But I wasn't worried about anyone taking it. No one else knows it's down there."
"Except maybe the Ackerberg guys," I suggested
"I wonder why they never contacted me," said Uncle Stoppard.
I looked at the mountain ranges of notebooks, magazines, books, and unopened mail that bordered the walls of his office. A letter might lie there, like a Mayan artifact, undiscovered for centuries.
"The gold is safe," said Uncle Stoppard. "It's all boxed up."
The treasures of Agualar were right under Uncle Stoppard's aquiline nose. Under my own bedroom floor.
"I guess that talk about replicas and museums reminded me," said Uncle Stoppard. He stood up from his chair a second time -- slower this time -- and put his hand on my shoulder.
"Come here, Finn." He led me into the kitchen by the back stairway. He reached up, and took a small key that hung on a nail by the back door. Then he leaned over and handed it to me.
"This is the key to the storeroom," he said. "I haven't been down there in a while, but all the storage doors are numbered with the same numbers as the apartments. Go on down, and I'll be right with you. I have to shut off the computer."
A string of lightbulbs led to the back of the basement. You had to pull on a separate chain to turn each one on. And each time I pulled a chain, another part of the basement lit up. It was cool and quiet down there. The storage rooms were way in the back. Past the washing machines and dryers, past the big cleaning tubs and drains, past the switchboxes on the wall and the locked-up bicycles that belonged to the two nurses who lived up on the top floor.
Along a narrow hallway, were the storage rooms. Uncle Stoppard was half right about the numbers. There were numbers on the doors, all right. But not just one number. Two. Each storage room was shared by two different apartments. I stopped at the one that had "Apts. 2-3" painted on it.
That could explain how Pablo had the Horizontal Man. If it was the same statue that my parents dug up in Agualar, and had been locked inside here, Pablo could have seen it one day and decided to take it.
I wondered what other golden treasures from Mexico were buried inside, as I fitted the key into the shiny lock. It didn't turn. The key Uncle Stoppard gave me was the wrong key.
A funny noise came from inside the storage room. It was like the sound you make when you crunch up paper. Or when you burn waffles. Burn? Maybe there was a fire inside the storage room.
I hurried down the gloomy narrow hall and ran right into Uncle Stoppard's belt buckle.
"Now where are you going?" he asked.
"Waffles!" I said. "I mean, burning waffles. I mean, fire!"
"Fire...? I don't smell any smoke."
Uncle Stoppard was right. There was no smoke in the air. But there was another, unpleasant aroma.
"Smells like old cheese down here," said Uncle Stoppard, wrinkling his nose. Ugh. Very old cheese.
"And this is the wrong key," I said.
He took it from my hand. "It's the right key."
He fitted the key into the padlock and tried turning it. It didn't work for him, either.
"See?" I said. "It's the wrong key."
"No," he said. "It's the wrong lock. Look at this padlock."
The lock was bright silver. There was a thick black band around the bottom with the brand name stamped on it. Nothing could bust through that lock. "Looks good and strong," I said.
"And brand new. The lock that used to be here was old, just like this key."
The key was dull and smudged, like a dirty nickel. I glanced at the other locks on the other doors in that gray hallway. Only our padlock stood out, gleaming like a shiny, new dime.
"Someone changed the lock on us." Uncle Stoppard swore and punched the door with his fist. We heard the crinkling, scratching sound grow louder.
Uncle Stoppard looked at me, his green eyes as big as grapes. "Something's inside."
He shook his head.
"Thieves," I said.
"Finn, how could thieves padlock the door behind themselves?" Good question. I guess that's why Uncle Stoppard writes mystery books. He darted to a workbench in a corner of the basement and returned with a screwdriver and a hammer. "I read about this in one of my crime books," he said.
Uncle Stoppard placed the head of the screwdriver against the pin in the upper door hinge. He pounded with the hammer. In less than a minute, he removed both pins from the upper and lower lunges.
"Now all we have to do," he said, "is pull the door out like this and -- "
He stopped. The cheesy smell zinged my nose hairs.
"Finn," he said quietly. "Maybe you should go back upstairs. You shouldn't see this."
Too late. I already saw it. The body of a man sprawled on his stomach on the floor of the storage room. The body wore khaki shorts, and I could see that the legs were a creepy, blue color. All around the body were tiny, dark, dried-up blobs. Rat turds.
They looked like raisins.
Copyright © 1999 Michael Dahl
The Horizontal Man: Finnegan Zwake #1
Thirteen-year-old Finnegan Zwake is staying with his Uncle Stoppard, a bestselling mystery writer, and still hoping his parents will return from an archaeological expedition in Iceland. They disappeared there several years ago.
Life with his uncle is fairly normal -- until the day Finn discovers a body in the basement. A dead body. It's in the storage area where Finn's parents left behind gold treasure from their last expedition. And missing from the storage space is a magnificent Mayan gold figure, the Horizontal Man....
- Simon Pulse |
- 192 pages |
- ISBN 9781416986683 |
- October 2008 |
- Grades 7 and up