Mystery at the Fringe

Chapter 1

 

Sam Spada

 

Samantha Spadavecchia is the name and I've got my act together in spades. Sam Spade. You see, I'm a detective. A private investigator. I don't carry a gun, like the PIs on TV; I just use my wits.

Tell it like it is; I always say and I'm good.

My life as a PI began the boring summer my best friend went east to Toronto. I was eleven and had nothing to do but watch TV all day, every day. Mom soon put the kibosh on that. Then Mrs. P., an old lady down the street, lost her cat. I was 'on the job'. I found the orange tabby huddled under Miranda's porch. It took a can of tuna to get the silly thing out. Mrs. P. gave me two whole dollars. Hey, easy money.

That's when I decided to solve all the mysteries in Edmonton and make a fortune. And a fortune earned is a fortune spent, I always say.

Miranda said she'd help. I figured a little kid to boss around would be great. Besides, even a brilliant detective needs someone to discuss cases with. Someone she can trust like Sherlock Holmes had Dr. Watson.

Our first task was to learn everything we could about detection. Now, I knew a lot about mysteries. I'd read all the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. I'd watch lots of TV mysteries, too. I knew everything I could possibly need to know.

Miranda thought we should get a book on detection, codes, and disguises. I humoured her.

Do you know how many books the library has on detecting crime? You'd be forever reading and never doing. I told the librarian we solved mysteries. An advertising ploy, you understand. She suggested we read the mysteries featuring Sam Spade.

That's how Sam Spada, Private Investigating Agency, was born. I was Sam Spada, of course. My brother's old fort behind the garage became our office. We spent hours playing cards waiting for a case. But, our first case did not come to us. We saw it happen!

It was at Edmonton's Fringe Festival of weird and wonderful theatre. The heist I had to solve happened right before my very eyes!

You see, my older brother, Marc, decided to busk at the Fringe. That's playing music while standing on the sidewalk. People toss you money if they like what they hear. With Marc, I figured he wouldn't make a dime, but I was so wrong.

I tried to convince him to quit before he started. The Fringe attracted the best street performers. He just rolled his eyes. So, Dad drove us to Old Strathcona and let Marc out on Whyte Ave. because he didn't want to be seen with his parents. Like they'd scare away business. They knew half of Edmonton and their friends would give Marc lots of money if they knew he was their son.

After Dad parked, Mom insisted Miranda and I lather on sunscreen and wear our hats. I had my special detective hat on so I didn't mind. We then watched a clown act at the children's theatre stage. Afterwards, Miranda had her face painted while Mom and Dad enjoyed a couple playing folk music.

More than bored, I people-watched. As a detective, it's good to be observant and make notes. I had brought my little black book, so that's exactly what I did. The Fringe attracts people from all over Edmonton. I played 'try to figure out what people are like from their looks' game and wrote everything in the book I kept tucked in my detective hat.

My grandfather had loved the old felt hat I wore. He wore it every winter. I could see him now, a cloud of steam puffing from his mouth as he hauled me on a sled up the hill near the school. His ears would be red but he refused to wear ear muffs.

I ran my finger along the tartan band circling the crown. Nonno wore that band for Grandmama, or so he always said. That's where I got my red hair, from her Scottish blood. How I missed them both.

"What do ya think?" Miranda turned to show me her new face. Her cheeks were awash in sparkles and blue swirls. A tear drop glittered under one eye. She brushed back her hair so I could see it better.

Blonde and blue eyed with dimples, that was Miranda. Mrs. P. said she looked liked a cupid on a Valentine card. I'd laughed. Cupids are always naked. Miranda said I was rude. She thought I was jealous since my hair was the colour of carrots and I wore glasses. Me, jealous? I don't think so.

"Miri, you look great. Honest. Like a girl from New York - - all fancy." Stuffing my black book into Nonno's grey fedora, I jammed it over my orange curls.

The sweet scent of his shampoo tickled my nose. He was with me again. His warm smile flashing beneath his silver moustache and his dark eyes twinkling, like Santa's. Always he would laugh, a rumble deep in his chest, and give me a scratchy kiss.

I blinked away a tear. "Come on, let's find my parents."

They stood near the tiny artisan booths dotting the park. Mom gave us some tiny doughnuts to eat while Dad studied a booth selling wind chimes of clay, iron, and shiny metal. A feathery dream-catcher booth with the decorated hoops twisting in the breeze caught my mother’s attention. I wondered if the dangling feathers ever trapped nightmares. Somehow they seemed too pretty to catch the monstrous dreams I had.

"Let's go see Marc," Dad suggested after I had yawned, out loud, for the third time. Shopping is boring!

We sauntered through a small grove of fluttering aspens on our way to Whyte Ave. Huddled in the shade was an elderly Chinese man. He played haunting music on an instrument that looked like a cross between a violin and a cello. Behind him, an old bag lady scuttled through the trees. She glanced my way as she clutched a huge gym bag close to her chest. Guilty of something, I decided.

"Stop dreaming, Sam," Dad said, grabbing my hand, "or you'll be left behind. Even a kid as old as you can get lost in this crowd."

"And you know it's rude to stare at those more unfortunate than yourself," Mom added as we meandered through the mass of people. We crossed the railway tracks before reaching Whyte Ave. There Marc stood, playing his violin in front of a pancake house. A small crowd had gathered around him so we joined it.

Marc's music included Celtic, classical, and traditional fiddle tunes. Amazingly enough, the crowd actually enjoyed his playing. But, hey, after listening to a few pieces, I was ready to leave.

"I fancy a cappuccino," Mom said, eyeing the coffee shop across the street.

"Sounds good to me," Dad replied. "Sam, you and Miranda stay here with Marc while we go for coffee. We won't be long."

So there we were - - stuck in the middle of sidewalk with my brother and his 'fans'.

"It's too hot here," Miranda whispered. I spotted a wisp of shade in a nearby doorway so dragged her there. A 'For Lease' sign hung in the empty shop's window. We wriggled behind Marc's violin case and sat down on the doorstep. Shiny coins and a couple of crumpled bills lay in the red velvet case. I did a quick count. Marc's 'take' was seven fifty. Not bad for an hour's playing.

And I had said it couldn't be done. Boy, was I wrong.

As the last notes of 'The Irish Washerwoman' ended, a few more coins clinked into the case.

Eleven seventy-five if my eyes got it right. And, my eyes never failed when it came to money.

Then, Marc launched into his best fiddle tune, 'Devil's Dream'. He always started it slow, building to a rush at the end. This would make him lots. But how much? That depended on who listened.

I pulled the black book from my hat and glanced at the crowd. Miranda leaned over my shoulder to read as I wrote. She learned real quick.

Marc's best friend, Brent, stood to one side of the crowd; his muscular arm draped the shoulders of a pretty girl with ebony hair. Brent had also dyed his dull black.

Hey, they wanted to be twins.

I chuckled at my own joke. My motto is: If you don't laugh; no one else will.

A snake earring coiled up Brent's ear and a scraggly beard blotched his face. He had cut his T-shirt in a ragged line so it hung well above his jean shorts. The tongues of his runners panted like hot puppies and he was smoking. I wondered if Mom had seen him. His girlfriend also had a cigarette dangling from her brilliant black lips. She wore a red tank top and frayed jean shorts. Her feet were bare and black as soot.

I saw Marc glance her way as he upped the tempo of his song. He had pulled his Aussie hat down over his face - - an improvement, I might add - - and wore a treble clef earring. For some reason, probably because of lack of brains, he wore a black Pink Floyd T-shirt and long jean shorts. That was why the sweat dripped off the end of his nose.

Standing beside Brent was a family I'd seen at the face-painting booth. The little boy and his father wore ironed T-shirts with the Calgary Zoo logo. Even their shorts and Blue Jay ball caps matched. Blonde curls framed the boy's cap. Whiskers and a rabbit's nose decorated his face. His sister sat in her stroller staring at Marc with huge brown eyes. Her father's toe tapped the sidewalk as her mother nodded to the beat.

Standing beside the family, and almost in front of me, was an elderly lady with a large straw hat. The slight breeze puffing down Whyte Ave. rustled her flowered dress which was a splash of red and blue. Looped over her arm was a cotton shopping bag filled with small packages. I remembered seeing her buy a tiny dream-catcher while Mom bought earrings.

I wrote down she was someone's old-fashioned grandmother as she took, from a white straw purse, a tiny cloth handkerchief edged in lace. She dabbed it under her eyes. I wondered who in her past had also played 'Devil's Dream'.

As Marc again upped the tempo, a couple edged in beside Brent and his girlfriend. The girl's hair was a creation only found in a dye bottle.

Hey, that's what my baba says. Grandmothers say things like that. Sometimes their sayings even make sense.

Orange was this girl's hair on half her head, fluorescent green on the other. Tight black leather pants hugged her legs and a black bikini top, her chest. Dozens of silver chains hung from her neck and silver rings ran along the edges of her ears. The girl turned to say something to her boyfriend.

He was a sight for sore eyes. Sorry, Baba, again.

Bald he was, his head glistening with sweat. Several gold hoops hung from one ear and a spider tattoo crawled up his shaved head. A Chinese dragon with orange-gold scales and yellow whiskers coiled across Baldy's well-developed 'pecs', its black claws gleaming beneath three strands of gold chain.

Marc hit a wrong note and Baldy winced. His girlfriend giggled, covering her purple lips with fingers stacked in silver rings. Brent's girlfriend gave the girl an envious look and Baldy winked at her, curling his thumbs around the straps of his backpack.

Beads of sweat now dripped from Marc's chin as he concentrated on his fingering. How many times would he play the song?

Watching him made me hot. I took off Nonno's hat. It had baked my head and maybe even fried my brains. I tossed it beside Marc's violin case and it landed on its crown. Someone threw a quarter into it.

Hey, not bad pay for doing nothing, I thought as I pushed my glasses up my sweaty nose.

Faster Marc's bow flicked across the violin strings. Someone in the crowd started clapping and the others joined in.

Hovering near the back of the crowd, was the bag lady I'd seen earlier. A battered baseball cap covered her slate-grey hair; its Trappers logo smeared with grime. She paused in her hunt of a nearby garbage can to watch Marc.

The couple who had been playing folk-songs in the kid's area ambled up. The guy carried a battered guitar case decorated with stick-on flowers and peace signs. His dirty blonde hair, bound at the forehead with a beaded band, dusted his shoulders and a scraggly beard hid his chin. He had tinted, wire-rimmed glasses, frayed jeans, and leather sandals. His partner's hair dangled in a thick black braid down her back. Her vest sparkled with buttons and sequins of every colour and size. The sweet scent of a weird perfume wafted passed me. Miranda sneezed.

Marc fingers danced over the violin strings.

"He's never played this fast," I whispered to Miranda as the crowd clapped to the beat.

Brent hooted then Marc ended with a flourish, swiping the sweat from his forehead as he bowed.

The little boy, after a nudge from his father, unwrapped his clenched fist and let a shower of quarters fall into the case. Marc returned the little guy's broad smile.

My brother set his violin on top of his jacket then took another bow. Someone yelled 'Encore' and Marc whipped out his harmonica. I groaned.

He had only played a couple of bars when the girl in the stroller began to whimper. Her mother lifted her up as Brent moved to stand beside me. He pulled out his own harmonica to play the harmony to Marc's melody.

Hey, it didn't sound half bad.

But, the girl with the orange and green hair had had enough. She and Baldy turned to go. As they did, Brent's girlfriend uttered a cry and slumped to the sidewalk. The father of the two kids grabbed her as she fell.

"Cindy!" Marc cried, flinging aside his harmonica and lunging for the unconscious girl.

I scrambled to my feet but tripped over Miranda. I staggered to one side knocking Marc's violin. It gave a hollow cry.

"That was close. Marc'd have killed me if anything happened to that fiddle."

Miranda nodded as we slipped past the elderly lady in the flowered dress. She seemed bewildered by the turn of events. Brent shoved her aside as he pushed past us. Meanwhile, the woman rocked her daughter who now screamed her dislike of harmonica music while her brother clung to his mother's legs. Tears threatened to smudge his rabbit's whiskers.

As I wormed my way through the crowd surrounding Cindy, I saw Marc fanning her face with his hat and Brent patting her hand. Kneeling beside her, the folk-singing lady fumbled with her purse saying she had just the thing to help. Her husband had vanished. He must have known what she carried. So did we when she opened a tiny vial of the most evil smelling stuff I've ever sniffed. I choked as she waved it beneath Cindy's nose. Her eyes flew open.

Hey, no surprise there. The stuff would wake the dead.

"What happened?" Cindy asked, giving Brent a small smile.

"The heat," the lady said. "You fainted. Can we get her into the shade, boys?"

"This pancake house is air-conditioned," the father said. He still cradled Cindy in his arms. "She can sit in there and have something to drink."

He and Brent helped Cindy to her feet. She leaned heavily on Brent as she staggered into the restaurant. The folk-singing lady followed saying she would drive Cindy home if she needed more than a drink.

"Maggie'll take care of her, man," her shaggy husband said to Marc as the others disappeared into the pancake house.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crowd dispersed. Down the street, I saw the bag lady rummaging through another garbage can. Beyond her, bobbed the straw hat of the old-fashioned grandmother.

"Look!" Miranda cried, pointing to the violin case. I blinked twice.

Not a single coin glimmered on its velvet.

"I've been robbed!" Marc cried. "It's all gone before I could even count it."

"Twenty-one seventy-five," I replied without thinking.

"Oh no," Marc whispered staring down at his leather jacket. "This can't be happening."

I understood his pain.

"My violin. He stole my violin, too."

Marc sank to the sidewalk lifting his coat as if the instrument lay hidden beneath it.

"Who would take a violin and not its case?" Miranda asked.

Marc shook his head. "Who knows but, I'm going to get whoever did this!"

"We'll both get him," I replied, pointing at the bare sidewalk beside his case. "He also took Nonno's hat."

 

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