Grace Kelly and the Great Carnival Caper
*There’s a reference in this story to a fan fic story entitled, A Journey Into The Past, by Brenda A. I don’t believe A Journey Into The Past is housed anywhere on the Internet. It was an excellent piece of fan fiction, and was based on the theory that A.J. was ten years old when his father died, and in the car when Jack Simon was killed as a result of injuries incurred that night. Brenda wrote this story several years before the episode May The Road Rise Up aired.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Cecilia Simon issued final instructions as she dropped her sons off outside the front gate.
"You boys stay together. Rick, you're responsible for A.J. Don't you dare lose sight of him."
Rick slid out the wide rear door of his mother's '59 Chevy. The pale blue car had been purchased the year before with the help of a check from the insurance company. It replaced the red Buick that had been totaled the night Jack Simon was killed on a curvy canyon road, and his young son, A.J., injured.
"I know, Mom," Rick assured impatiently. "I know."
Eleven-year-old A.J. scooted out behind his brother and gave the heavy door a firm slam.
"A.J., don't wander off on your brother. And do as he says."
A.J. resisted the urge to roll his eyes. These same instructions came every time Rick was left in charge of him for whatever reason. He thought his mother would realize by now both he and Rick had the instructions memorized.
"Don't worry, Mom, I will."
"Are your watches set?"
Both boys dutifully looked at their wristwatches. By all accounts, including Cecilia's, it was three p.m. on Saturday afternoon, October 28th, 1960.
"I'll meet you boys right here at nine."
"Mom, that's way too early!" Rick protested as hoards of noisy kids rushed past them. "Things will just be gettin' goin' by then. Make it midnight."
Cecilia shook her head, "not
midnight. How about ten?"
"Make it eleven," Rick bartered playfully, "and you've got yerself a deal, Mrs. Simon."
Cecilia paused in thought. The scent of sweet cotton candy and roasting hot dogs wafted into the car. She could faintly hear the music that accompanied the slow whirling of the Merry-Go-Round, and the show voice of a barker trying to entice some youngster into giving his game a try.
The Coastal Cities Carnival came to San Diego each year on the weekend preceding Halloween. The event was held at the fairgrounds eight miles from the Simon home, and was filled with all the things kids love best; food, rides, games, and a haunted house. Jack had taken the boys every year for as long as Cecilia could remember. The only time Rick and A.J. missed the event was the previous year. Jack had been killed in August. When Halloween rolled around neither of Cecilia's boys mentioned the carnival they had always enjoyed so much. She could only assume attending the event without their father so soon after his death was too painful for either one of them to consider.
But this year was different, and for that Cecilia was thankful. She'd begun to see signs of healing within her sons and herself in recent months. She was happy when, in September, the boys began discussing the upcoming carnival, and began to squirrel away their spending money in anticipation of it.
Cecilia’s only reservation came from allowing them to attend by themselves. Of course, Rick was old enough to look after himself and A.J., but she'd heard too many stories about carnival people not to have a few concerns. However, she had no desire to spend the afternoon and evening at the raucous event, and after some thought had finally decided to allow them to attend alone. As she watched kids of all ages race by her car, many of them unsupervised, she supposed she was worrying for nothing. After all, Rick was sixteen. Provided he didn't lose track of A.J. in the crowds everything should be fine.
"All right," Cecilia finally agreed, "eleven it is. But on the dot." She held up a stern finger. "If I have to come in there looking for either one of you this will be the last carnival you ever attend."
Rick smiled and bent to kiss his mother's cheek through the open car window. "Gottcha, Mom."
A.J. copied his brother's action. "Got ya', Mom."
Cecilia handed each of her sons a five dollar bill. "That's to be used for your supper. Don't fill up on junk. And don't spend it all on rides and games and then forget to eat. Use your own money for that."
"Yes, ma'am." Rick's feet danced in the dust, just itching to make a run for the entrance booth. He stuffed the five dollar bill deep in a front pocket of his blue jeans. It joined the twenty-five dollars he already had there that he'd saved from his after-school job at the corner gas station.
A.J. pulled carefully folded money from his own pocket. In contrast to his brother, he fastidiously placed the five dollar bill his mother had given him between a five and five singles he had earned from his paper route. The money was neatly returned to the right rear pocket of his Levi's.
When Cecilia couldn't think of one other thing to caution her children about she bid them goodbye. "Have a good time. I'll see you at eleven."
Rick held up a thumb. "Eleven it is, Mom. Bye!"
"Bye, Mom!" A.J. waved.
Cecilia engaged the clutch and gas pedal. Being careful of the children crossing her path, she slowly eased through the massive field being used as a parking lot. She gave a final backwards wave out the window before turning down a bumpy row that would lead her to the street.
Rick snared his brother's shirtfront and took off running. "Come on, A.J.!"
The boys joined a fast moving line. They each paid the fifty cent admission price, and were then allowed to enter the vast fairgrounds.
The dirt path the brothers followed was wide and lined with long one story agriculture buildings on the east side, and portable booths on the west. The vendors in the booths were selling everything from saltwater taffy, to caramel apples, to soda, to corn dogs, to balloons, to turquoise belt buckles.
The six barns to the right of the dirt road were permanent structures owned by the city of San Diego. They still housed some livestock during the week the fair ran in June, but because the city was ever-growing and its agriculture area being overrun by expansion, the buildings were also used to display prize winning artwork, baked goods, and blue ribbon school projects done by local children. As happened every year when Costal Cities Carnival came to town, one of the barns had been converted to a haunted house. Rick pointed it out to A.J. as they passed.
"Look, there's the spook house. We'll wait until it gets dark to go in. It'll be better that way."
A.J. nodded his agreement. Like most eleven-year-old boys, there was nothing he enjoyed more than horror movies, monsters, and having his wits scared out of him in a haunted house.
Jack had been bringing Rick to this annual outing since he was five. A.J. joined the men in his family when he was just a little guy of three. By now the Simon brothers considered themselves connoisseurs of the event. They knew exactly which booths offered the best food, which rides lasted the longest and provided the biggest thrills, and which games were rip-offs, and which ones were run by at least halfway honest carneys.
Because the carnival came to San Diego during the Halloween season its workers dressed in costumes for this one weekend. Vampires, ghouls, werewolves, mummies, gypsies, ghosts, and pirates were in abundance. A large number of the smaller children frequenting the carnival with their parents were dressed up as well. Rick and A.J. used to do that in their younger years, but now it wasn't considered 'cool' among kids Rick's age to dress for Halloween. And since A.J. emulated much of what his big brother did, he decided dressing up wasn't cool either.
The brothers spent the next two hours working their way through the grounds. They were zipped on the Zipper, tilted on the Tilt-O-Whirl, scrambled on the Scrambler, and tossed around a multitude of other rides that weren't for the weak of heart or stomach. Enticing smells caused the boys to stop at a variety of food booths throughout the afternoon and do just what their mother had told them not to, fill up on junk. They encountered school friends in their travels, hooking up with groups of them long enough to laugh, gossip, and ride a few rides before they'd all go their separate ways again.
It was beginning to grow dark when Rick and A.J. made their way down the path lined with booths operated by game vendors. Rick stopped at four of them in a row, shelling out money for a chance to win cheap prizes. When he walked away three dollars poorer he mumbled to A.J. in disgust, "They're all rigged."
A.J. was much more selective in how he spent his money. He enjoyed watching his brother attempt to toss rings over the top of Coke bottles and lob ping pong balls into gold fish bowls, but he had no desire himself to partake in something he doubted he'd have success at. While Rick was engrossed in his games of chance, A.J. studied the remainder of the nearby vendors. He spotted a game that involved throwing darts at balloons of various sizes. From what he could ascertain, the smaller the balloon you hit the better the prize you won.
The blond boy pointed across the way. "I wanna try that one."
Rick nodded. They had a dartboard in their basement family room. Though Rick no longer made much use of it, A.J. and his friends enjoyed playing the game.
"You might have some luck," Rick said as they ambled across the dirt road. "You're good at darts."
A young girl Rick guessed to be about his own age was leaning on her booth's wooden ledge trying to get kids to plunk down fifty cents for a chance to throw three darts. Her oval face was small, and her complexion clear and creamy. Her eyes were a deep shade of blue, her coal colored hair straight and cascading to her waist.
"Step right up! Step right up! Three chances fer half a buck! Ya' can't beat them odds!
"Hey, fella! I can see your girlfriend eyein' these here fine necklaces! Come on in! Three chances fer fifty cents! It's an easy game! No one walks away a loser!
"Hey there, handsome, I bet ya' never lose at anything ya' do! Prove it to the little lady beside ya'!"
Rick had to admit the girl was a pro. She could tease with charm, and had a flair for the dramatic. She seemed to know just what line of bull to feed people in order to get them to stop and give her game a try.
A.J. was content to wait in line for his turn. Rick was content to wait with him and study from afar the attractive vendor in her skimpy costume. The teen wasn't exactly sure what the petite girl was supposed to be, but he was enjoying himself trying to figure it out. The black cotton dress she wore was sleeveless with a plunging neckline that ended in a wide tight U just above her breasts. A fair amount of cleavage was showing, and Rick didn't think she was wearing a bra. When she stood on a wooden milk crate to pull darts from the upper portion of the cork board Rick could see the hem of her dress was cut in ragged strips that traveled from just below her knees to halfway up her shapely thighs. Depending on how she moved a guy could get an appreciative look at an awful lot of this chick.
By the time the Simon brothers reached the head of the line activity around them was beginning to dwindle. It was almost five-thirty. A good portion of the carnival's patrons were taking a break from the activities to eat supper. Because there was no one else waiting behind Rick and A.J., the girl offered them her undivided attention.
"Hey, good lookin'," she drawled at A.J., "what can I do ya' for?"
A.J. plunked down his fifty cents. "Three darts, please."
The girl laid three darts in front of the blond boy. Without even seeming to aim, he hit three balloons in a row.
"Whewy! I got myself a hotshot here," the girl praised. She pointed to the prizes on the shelf behind her. Everything from plastic whistles, to stuffed animals, to jewelry was on display. She indicated which row of prizes A.J. was eligible for based on the balloons he'd hit.
The boy thought a moment then conferred with Rick. "I'd like to get something for Mom. Do you think she'd like that ring?"
Rick studied the cheap gold band A.J. pointed to with the large glass ruby in the center. He knew it probably wasn't worth anymore than the fifty cents A.J. had just given the girl, but he didn't want to disappoint his little brother by telling him so. Besides, none of the other prizes A.J. was eligible for were worth anything either, so what the heck, if the kid thought he was giving their mom something nice by picking out that ring for her then so be it.
"Sure, that's nice. Mom will like it."
"It's a dandy choice," the girl agreed. "But if ya' pass it by I'll give ya' two more throws on the house. If ya' hit your target both times I'll let ya' pick a prize from the second row."
A.J. eyed the colorful bracelets and necklaces in the row behind the ring. He thought a moment, then nodded his head. It would be neat if he could win his mother an even better piece of jewelry without it costing him anything extra.
The boy concentrated a little harder this time as he aimed for the smaller balloons inner mixed with the larger. He knew, based on the rules of the game, if he hit two small ones the girl would be forced to give him his prize, plus let him take another two throws for free.
A.J. drew back his arm and let the dart fly with a flick of his wrist. A tiny balloon gave a sharp 'pop' when the dart punctured it.
"All right, A.J.!" Rick encouraged. "Way to go!"
Much to the boy's disappointment, however, his next throw missed.
The girl winked at Rick and put two more darts in front of his little brother. "'Cause I like ya' and all, and 'cause you're tryin' to win a prize for your mama, you go ahead and take yerself two more throws for free on ole' Grace."
A.J. grinned with appreciation. "Really?"
This time both A.J.'s throws were right on target. He chose a beaded necklace for his mother, and then gave Grace fifty cents more for another three throws.
This action repeated itself several times until A.J. had amassed a bracelet embossed with colorful stones and a sweater pin to match. While the eleven-year-old was engaged in the dart game, Rick was engaged in a game of his own.
The lanky boy leaned against the ledge and flirted with the young vendor. "So, your name's Grace, huh?"
"You bet, buddy boy. Grace Kelly."
Rick gave a sarcastic snort. "Yeah, right."
"It is," the girl declared with indignation.
"Grace Kelly was an actress who married that prince a few years ago," Rick scoffed.
what? Ya' got such a small brain in
that head a' yours that ya' don't think there can be two Grace Kelly's in the
hadn't meant to ruin his chances with the girl by insulting her, so quickly
made amends. "No, no, I don't
think that. If you say your name is
Grace Kelly, then Grace Kelly it is.
I'm Rick Simon, and the kid with the eagle eye over there is my little
The pair came to a silent truce and talked on amiably while A.J. pursued the game. Rick realized Grace was no longer charging his little brother as she continued to place darts in front of him. The teen got the impression she was enjoying their conversation and didn't want to stop for distractions such as collecting money from an eleven-year-old boy.
The girl set A.J. up with more darts then turned back to Rick.
"Ya' all live 'round here?"
"Yeah. A few miles away in Mission Bay. I'm a junior at Mission Bay High. What about you? Where do you go to school?"
The girl stood up straighter and stuck out her chest as though trying to make herself appear older than she really was. "I'm outta school. I'm twenty."
Rick wasn't so naive as to believe that. He doubted she was much more than fifteen, but he wasn't going to risk insulting her again by disputing her facts. If she wanted to be Grace Kelly, and be twenty years old while she was at it, that was fine with him.
Rick's eyes traveled down her dress and back up again. They lingered for a subtle, appreciative drink of her breasts before returning to her face. "So, what are you supposed to be?"
"What am I supposed to be?"
"Yeah, you know. Your costume."
"Oh." The girl gave Rick a coy smile. "Ya' mean ya' can't figure it out?"
"Well, uh no, I can't. Though it looks really nice on you."
Grace fluttered her eye lashes at the entranced boy and teased, "Why thank ya' kind, sir." She inwardly giggled at the way Rick's face reddened at her flirting. Grace's carnival life had taught her long ago that two could play at this game.
"Actually, I'm supposed to be a wench."
"Yeah. Among other things, wenches were servants to aristocrats back in the renaissance times."
Grace hardly thought this red faced boy from the wealthy suburb of Mission Bay was ready to hear the rest of a wench's function. Therefore, she chose not to tell him that their services were also made use of in their master's bed.
Even with the free throws Grace was giving him, A.J. soon tired of the game. He collected his prizes and shoved them in a pocket of his pants. He turned to his brother as his stomach growled.
"Let's go get supper."
"Sounds good to me, kid." Rick looked at Grace. "Can you leave here for a little while and come eat with us?"
Grace thought a moment. Normally she only left her booth long enough to go to the bathroom and grab some type of food she could eat while she continued to work. It had been a long time since she'd sat down to a leisurely meal with other people for company. It would be nice to feel like a part of a family again, even if it was for only a half an hour with two boys she barely knew.
"If ya' kin wait long enough for me to close up my booth I'll come with ya' all."
"Sure," Rick eagerly agreed, "we can wait."
The girl quickly secured her cash box and prizes on a shelf
underneath the front ledge. She climbed up on the milk crate and loosened the ties that kept a red tarp rolled up above the booth's large front opening. Rick strained on his tiptoes to ease the tarp down with Grace. Once it was in place she called through its thickness, "Ya' all should see a few hooks out there under the ledge! Kin ya' guys tie it down for me?"
Rick and A.J. bent to peek under the wooden ledge. Just as Grace had said, there were three large hooks screwed into the bottom of it. The boys grabbed the short rope ties that ran through metal rings in the bottom of the tarp and wrapped them around the hooks. By the time Grace emerged from the back of the booth the job was complete.
No one had any particular food preference, so Rick led the way to a hamburger stand he knew to be good. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill.
"Here, A.J. I'll pay if you'll get burgers, Cokes, and fries for all of us."
The blond boy took the money. "Gee thanks, Rick."
"Sure thing, kid."
A.J. raced off to place the order while Rick guided Grace to an empty picnic table sitting under a floodlight.
The girl's entire personality changed in a way Rick couldn't quite explain. She seemed softer somehow, less aggressive and more feminine, as though the Grace he had met earlier was nothing other than a stage presence for the sake of her audience.
"Ya' didn't have to pay for my supper, Rick," she said in that sexy Southern drawl that made Rick's heart beat faster. "I brought money to buy my own."
"That's okay," Rick shrugged with nonchalance. "Besides, I asked you to join us. My dad always taught me if you ask a lady to join you for dinner you pay for that privilege."
Grace smiled. "Your daddy must be a very proper man."
"Yeah, he was."
"He...he was killed last summer in a car accident."
The girl's voice was wrought with sympathy. "Oh, Rick, I'm so sorry to hear that."
"Thanks. It's...it's been a rough year for all of us."
"How many of ya' all are there?"
"Just me, A.J., and our mom. But A.J. was with Dad in the car that night. He was hurt, but not so bad he didn't know what was goin' on."
was goin' on?"
"Yeah. They were trapped in the car for a long time before help arrived. Dad was...killed instantly. A.J., well A.J. knew Dad was dead. He's had a hard time gettin' past that."
"Poor baby," Grace crooned. She looked over at the blond boy where he stood at the booth awaiting their order. "He's such a cute kid. Real polite, too. Reminds me of my little brother, Dean Robert. They're about the same age."
many brothers and sisters do you have?"
The girl laughed at a joke Rick didn't quite understand. "Well, if nothin's changed since I left in February, I have six brothers and three sisters. I'm the oldest."
"Holy cow! Six brothers and three sisters! Your family is even bigger than my friend Carlos's."
"Usually we all travel with the carnival. But mama was real sick last winter after she had Jimmy Joe. He's the baby. Or least-wise for now he is. So come February, when it was time for us to pack up and hit the road again, Daddy didn't feel he could leave her. Instead of puttin' the burden of the younger ones on me, they decided I should run our booth alone and the kids would stay at home with them."
"Stay at home? Where's home?"
"When you're a carney there's really no place that's home, I don't suppose. But in our case we winter in Sotterville, Louisiana."
"Winter there? What's that mean?"
"W.C., the man who owns this carnival, runs it from February through November. We start in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and from there move to Florida. We travel up the East coast, across the Midwest, through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho during rodeo season, over to Washington and Oregon, then down to California and onto Texas until we make it back to Louisiana just before Thanksgivin'. We close down then until February. It gives everyone a chance to rest, repair their booths and rides, and spend time with their families if they have any. So by winterin' in Sotterville I mean that's where my family rents a house until it's time to go on the road again."
Rick's admiration was plain to hear. "Cool." He had always been lured by the call of the open road just like his Uncle Ray. He thought it sounded neat to get to see so many different places.
"What about school? Do you...did you go?"
Grace smiled and dropped her eyes. "I'm not really twenty. That's just what I tell nosey people who ask. My daddy and W.C. could get in a peck a' trouble if someone told the authorities I'm travelin' with the carnival without my parents along."
how old are you?"
"I'll be sixteen come next March."
"So back to my original question. What about school?"
"There's a couple folks here at the carnival that's got themselves a good education. They teach all us carney brats when we're on the road. They hold regular classes, or as near to regular as they kin git considerin' our schedule. W.C.'s strict about us learnin.’ We do homework and such just like ya' all do. Then when me and my family are in Sotterville us kids attend the public schools."
let you do that? I mean the principals
and school board let you guys come and go as you please?"
"There's not much they can do about it I don't 'cpect. A couple carnivals winter near there so they're used to it. Plus, they git a lotta kids who are passin' through each year 'cause their parents are migrant workers. Kids comin' and goin' day in and day out is a common thing for those parts."
Despite Rick's own dislike of school, he didn't think it
sounded like a good way to come by an education. His parents would never allow he and A.J. to be schooled in such a fashion.
Rick smiled at the girl and gave her a teasing wink. "I don't wanna risk gettin' you mad at me again, but I'm willing to bet your real name isn't Grace Kelly either."
The girl blushed. "Naw, that's just my stage name."
"Sure. A lot of us carney's take one. After all, would you want to strike a deal with a girl named Lenora Ruth Elsfelter?"
"That's your real name?"
"Yeah," the girl acknowledged glumly. "My mama and daddy weren't exactly thinkin' glamour when they picked that one out. Mama says she chooses practical names for children, not glamorous ones. She wants us all to be educated and work in offices. Me...well me, I'd rather go into show business. Someday I'ma gonna walk away from this carnival when we're passin' through Hollywood and never look back."
"I don't think Lenora Ruth is such a bad name," Rick offered honestly. "It fits you. It's spunky and soft both at the same time."
Grace laughed. "Spunky and soft, huh? Well, I guess that's me. My spunky side comes from livin' a carney's life since I was in diapers, and I reckon my soft side comes from bein' the second mother to a whole passel of little brothers and sisters."
Rick smiled with affection as A.J. joined them carrying a tray of food. "Yeah, I know what you mean. That kinda responsibility can soften a person up a bit."
The food was evenly distributed and a squeeze bottle of ketchup passed around. The trio laughed, joked, teased and talked while they ate. When A.J. insisted on buying everyone caramel apples for dessert as a payback for Rick treating them to supper, Grace was overcome by the brothers' kindness. It made her homesick for her own family, and even more grateful to these two boys who had befriended her.
Grace watched A.J. trot away to get the dessert. "You and A.J. are real nice, Rick. Your mama has done a good job in raisin' ya' up right."
Rick laughed. "I'll be sure to pass that along to her. She'll be happy to hear it, 'cause sometimes me and A.J. give her reason to wonder about that. Or so she claims when we've pulled some stunt that makes her blow a fuse."
The girl was both shy and flirtatious in her confession. "I can't imagine that either you or A.J. would ever give your mama reason to be upset."
"Well, let me put it this way, A.J. doesn't give her near as much reason as I do. But you stick around me much, kid, and you're bound to see me in a different light."
"I'd like that, Rick," the girl said demurely, while peering at Rick through her eyelashes. "To stick around ya,' I mean."
Rick swallowed hard. "I...I'd like that too, Grace."
The teen was just working up the nerve to reach across the table and take the girl's hand when A.J. returned with three large round caramel apples.
Geez, talk about lousy timing, Rick moaned to himself. As he bit into the crisp sweet fruit he wondered if there was some way he could get rid of A.J. for an hour or so. Just long enough to have some time alone with Grace. He wanted to be able to walk around the grounds with her while holding her hand. Maybe even go back to her booth and do a little necking behind that dropped tarp.
I could give A.J. some money and send him off to the rides again. He's bound to run across some kids he knows from school. But, damn, Mom will kill me if she finds out. Plus, it'd be just my luck that somethin' would happen to him. Sure as the world if I send him off alone he'll fall out of the Scrambler and crack his skull open or worse. Maybe I can convince Mom to let me come back here tomorrow without A.J.
While A.J. and Grace ate their apples and talked, Rick's mind went over that plan. Unfortunately, he couldn't imagine how he'd pull it off. For one thing, he'd probably be out of money, and for another, he doubted his mother would let him return. And A.J. would raise a holy fit if Rick came back to the carnival without him.
The entire situation made the teenager wish even more that he already owned that used motorcycle he had his eye on. Within just a few weeks he'd have enough money saved for it provided he could convince his mother it was a safe way to get around. Like all sixteen-year-olds, Rick longed for the freedom his own means of transportation would provide.
Damn! If I only had that cycle now, or even a car of my own, I could come back here without Mom or A.J. ever knowin'.
Short of disobeying his mother regarding his responsibility to A.J., Rick couldn't find a way out of the quandary. As Grace stood to thank the brothers for supper and return to her booth, Rick offered the only thing he could think of that would allow them to spend a little more time together.
me and A.J. were gonna go through the haunted house. You wanna come with us?"
The regret on Grace's face broadcast her indecision. "I really shouldn't. I need to get back to my booth."
won't be that long," Rick promised.
"Just one trip through, then I'll walk you back there myself."
The girl knew she should refuse. The money earned from her family's booth was their sole income for the year other than what little her daddy was picking up doing odd jobs back home in Sotterville. Yet she had often missed out on so much during her growing up years because of the lifestyle she lived. The things most kids took for granted, riding their bikes, walking to the local movie theatre with friends, or a Saturday night date, were activities Grace didn't normally get to partake in. For as long as she could remember, she'd worked alongside her parents at the carnival or tended to her younger siblings.
Grace smiled and took the hand Rick offered her. "Okay, ya' all have talked me into it." She looked to A.J. "That is if it's all right with A.J. for me to horn in on your fun."
Unbeknownst to Rick or their mother, A.J. was just beginning to get to the age where he had appreciation for an attractive young woman in a revealing dress. Had it been just a year earlier he might have resented this girl for taking up time Rick was supposed to be spending with him. But now all that was changing as the sixth grader stood posed on the brink of adolescence. While he understood that simply because of her age, Grace would be attracted to Rick, he could still enjoy her from afar. She was pretty and nice, and when she reached for his hand, too, he willingly gave it to her.
"I don't mind," A.J. smiled. "You can come with us."
With Grace in-between them, the Simon brothers headed for the haunted house. Two men dressed as executioners, in long black robes and wearing black hoods with nothing but holes cut out for their eyes, stood guard at the entrance. Children giggled with anticipation and nervous fright while waiting in line for their turn to partake in the evening's horrors. When Rick, A.J. and Grace were allowed in, Rick led the way with Grace in the middle and A.J. bringing up the rear.
Other than candles glowing in the bellies of pumpkins carved into howling monster faces and red spotlights mounted in the rafters, the barn was dark. The Simon brothers and Grace could hear the laughter and screams of children and adults somewhere up ahead. They followed the winding path of the people in front of them. Sometimes they were forced to crawl through narrow, black tunnels while moans and wails emitted from a sound system. Hands red with fake blood reached for them out of nowhere, grabbing onto a shirt or shoe and momentarily holding the 'victim' in place while he or she screamed and struggled to get free. In other places the brothers and Grace ran for all they were worth from costumed ghouls whose job it was to chase all who entered. They inched by a coffin with a closed lid. The three screeched in fright when the man lying inside heavily made up with white face powder, lifted the lid and rose to a seated position.
They passed by a man who appeared to be hanging from a gallows, and then one who appeared to have been beheaded by a guillotine. A bloody rubber face sat on a dinner plate below the display.
Grace couldn't recall the last time she'd had so much fun. When she and Rick found themselves momentarily alone in another cramped, dark tunnel with A.J. somewhere ahead of them, she willingly let Rick's lips meet hers. The teens exchanged two more kisses before a hand reached out and grabbed Rick's shirt. A deep voice moaned, "There shall be none of that in the tunnel of the dead."
The teens laughed self-consciously as they were forced to break apart and move on. A.J. was waiting for them outside the barn.
"Hey, what happened to you two?"
Rick reached out and tousled his brother's hair. "Nothin', kid. Nothin.’ We just got hung up for a second in that last tunnel."
The trio strolled in the direction of Grace's booth. Rick and A.J. untied the tarp while the girl walked around back. Rick helped her raise the heavy cover and secure it in place. She reached for her cash box and prizes in preparation of once again being open for business.
Grace sat the green metal box out of reach of her customers and undid the latch. Rick was getting ready to bid her a reluctant goodbye when her eyes widened and she cried, "No! Oh, no! No!"
"What is it, Grace?" Rick asked. "What's the matter?"
"Oh, no! No! Please no!" The girl turned to her new friends. "It's empty! My cash box is empty! Someone stole my money!"
Rick leaned over the wide ledge. His eyes scanned the interior of the eight foot by twelve foot area. "Are you sure? Maybe it fell out somewhere."
"No, no it didn't fall out! It was right here when we left for supper! Right here in this box!"
Tears welled up in the girl's eyes. "How could I have been so foolish? Other than some money I've sent home to Daddy, it had almost everything in it I've earned for the whole year. Almost two thousand dollars! That's my family's income, Rick. That's what we have to live on! And now it's gone. Oh why didn't I ask W.C. to lock it in his safe for me? I should have. I know I should have."
don't cry," Rick soothed. "It wasn't your fault."
ran down Grace's face as she openly wept.
"What difference does it make whose fault it is? It's gone!
All of it! How am I ever gonna
face my daddy?"
Before Rick could offer any further words of comfort two boys about eight years old came running up to the booth.
lady, did you have some money stolen?"
Rick looked down at the pair. "Yeah, she did. Whatta' you guys know about it?"
Freckles stood out on the pale face of the red headed boy. "We saw it! We saw three guys...monsters, come outta there with money in their hands!"
"Monsters?" Rick questioned. "Come on, kid--"
"No, really we did!" The boy indicated to his curly headed friend with a jerk of his thumb. "Didn't we, Davey? Didn't we see monsters?"
"Yeah, we did! It was Dracula, Frankenstein, and a big hairy werewolf. I think he was the Wolfman."
"Oh," Rick nodded with understanding, "you mean guys dressed in costumes."
"Uh huh," the freckled face boy adamantly shook his head. "I mean real monsters! I mean Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman. They weren't dressed up at all! That's who they really were!"
While Rick puzzled over this, other nearby vendors returning from their supper breaks or trips to the bathroom were discovering missing cash as well. A collective cry of despair went up until a portly man appeared on the scene. He was as round as he was tall with a bulbous nose full of broken veins. A straw boater was perched on his bald head, and a gold chain ran from the watch in the pocket of his black vest to wrap itself around one straining button.
The man waddled like an overweight duck as he approached his upset staff. He spoke out of the side of his mouth as though he had a cigar perched in one corner.
"What's the problem here? What's the problem?"
The vendors, including Grace, gathered around the man. It took him a few minutes to discern the facts as they all talked at once in excitable chatter, sounding more like squawking chickens than people.
The man lifted his hat and scratched his shining skull. "Well now, that is a shame. It surely is a shame."
A man whom Rick recognized as the one who ran the ring toss game shouted, "This is exactly why I've told you we need some security guards who travel with us!"
Other upset vendors joined in. "Yeah! We need security guards!"
"Security shemurity," the fat man scoffed. "I can't afford to hire any fancy security guards. What do you people think, I'm made of gold?"
"Well then, just what are ya' gonna do, W.C.?" A vendor demanded. "What ya' gonna do 'bout our missin' money? The season's almost over, and I just lost most of my earnin's for the whole year!"
"I'll call the police," the man promised. "I'll call them right now and have them come out and talk to you."
The group gave a collective groan.
"The police won't do anything! To them we're just a buncha no good carneys passin' through town who'll be gone come Monday morning!"
"Yeah, and they'll be happy to see us move on at that!"
Other vendors, like Grace, had reasons they didn't want to talk to the police either. In Grace's case it was because of her age and the fact she was traveling without her parents. While for others it was because they were wanted by the police in a variety of states for a variety of reasons they'd rather not have known.
"If you don't want me to call the police," the exasperated man said, "what exactly is it you expect me to do?"
The vendors were quite vocal in their suggestions, though none of what they offered proved helpful. W.C. finally held up his short fat hands. "The best thing all of you can do right now for yourselves and your families is return to your booths and open them back up. Leave the investigating to me."
"What are ya' gonna do?"
"I don't know yet, but I'll think of something. After all, W.C. Fields has never let any of you down before, has he?"
no one answered the man said louder,
"Well has he?"
A smattering of disgruntled mumbles came from the crowd.
"No, W.C., you haven't."
"No, I guess not."
"Except for that time I caught you in bed with my wife, I suppose not."
W.C. ignored that last remark. "Okay, then. Everyone get back to work and put on happy faces! He clapped his pudgy hands together. "Happy! Happy! Happy! We still have paying customers to please."
The man waddled off in the direction of his small, dilapidated trailer. Rick ran after him.
"Hey, mister! Is that all you're gonna do?"
"Do you work for me, son?"
"No, no I don't. But I'm a friend of Grace's."
The fat man turned away from Rick in dismissal. "That's nice, kid. Everyone can use a friend. But if you don't work for me, I'm not in need of your opinions, good, bad, or otherwise."
"But I thought maybe I could help. Some kids told me and my brother they saw three men coming out of Grace's booth."
"Three men ya' say? And what did these three men look like?"
By now A.J. and Grace had joined Rick. A.J. piped up with, "Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman."
W.C. reached out and patted A.J. on the head. "You're a cute, kid, but run along now, boy. Cute kids get on my nerves."
"No, really," Grace intervened, "really, W.C., that's what the boys told us."
W.C. waved his arms out in front of him, taking in the nearby costumed carnival workers. "Kids, I've seen at least three Dracula's tonight, four Frankenstein's, and more Wolfmen than I can count. Now just how do you think I'm going to find out which ones committed this crime?"
"You could ask all of 'em questions," A.J. offered. "You know, call them in your office and interrogate them."
"Are you a midget cop or what, kid?"
A.J. shook his head. "I just read
a lot of Hardy Boys books and watch Perry Mason."
W.C. gave a sarcastic smile and spoke to an invisible audience. "Did ya' hear that? He reads a lot of Hardy Boys books and watches Perry Mason. Whatta' ya' know, I've got the All American Boy at my carnival. And he even comes complete with big baby blues and dimples."
W.C. looked down at A.J. "Look, junior, I don't have time to interrogate every vampire on the place."
"But if you really wanted to find the money you would."
W.C. pushed A.J. aside. "Go away now, kid, ya' bother me."
blocked the man's path. "Would you
have any objections to me and my brother lookin' around and askin' some
"Objections?" The man threw back his head and laughed. "Hell no, kid, you can ask all the questions you want."
if we find the money what do we get in return?"
W.C. was momentarily taken aback by the teenager's brashness.
"You know somethin', kid, you and your little brother are startin' to become royal pains in my big fat backside, but despite that, I'm kinda takin' a shine to ya' both. You may not have much sense, but ya' got balls, that's for sure."
The man thought a moment. "All right, if you boys find the men who stole the money from my vendors, and you return that money to me, I'll give you lifetime passes to the carnival."
"Lifetime passes and all the free ride tickets we want," Rick countered.
Rick couldn't believe it when A.J. spoke up and added, "Plus twenty dollars apiece for our trouble."
"A.J.," Rick hissed under his breath, "don't be so greedy."
"Rick, I don't want lifetime passes to this stupid carnival! Who's gonna want to come to a carnival when they're forty years old?"
A.J. rolled his eyes at the big brother whom he had a feeling would never quite grow up.
Rather than get angry over the bartering, W.C. took it in stride. After all, he was a showman. "You fellas drive a hard bargain, but all right. Lifetime passes, all the free ride tickets you want, and ten bucks apiece for your trouble."
"I said twenty," A.J. argued.
The man laughed until his belly shook. "You don't miss a trick, do ya', shorty? Okay, twenty it is."
The portly man offered a squat hand to the Simon brothers and sealed the deal with a firm shake.
He laughed to himself as he walked away from them. "Crazy kids. They'll never find the guys, but if they're so stupid they want to spend the rest of the night trying, that's up to them. At least now I can tell the vendors I have two detectives on the case."
W.C. laughed at his own joke as he entered the trailer door that was barely wide enough to allow his girth to pass unhindered.
Rick and A.J. walked Grace back to her booth.
"He's a strange guy," Rick commented.
"I guess," Grace agreed. "My daddy calls him a colorful character."
"I don't suppose W.C. Fields is his real name, huh?"
"Nah, that's his stage name. His real name is Aloysius Percival McGruder. He changed it a long time ago. I reckon the 'Aloysius McGruder Coastal Cities Carnival' doesn't have quite the same ring to it the 'W.C. Fields Coastal Cities Carnival' does."
I don't suppose it does," Rick agreed.
"Is he honest, though? Will
he keep up his side of the bargain me and A.J. made with him?"
doubt anyone could ever accuse W.C. of bein' an honest man, Rick. He can be quite a scoundrel when he puts his
mind to it, but as far as the bargain he made with ya' all goes, he'll uphold
it. He never goes back on a
promise. That is, provided you and A.J.
find the money and return it to him like he said."
"We'll find it," Rick assured the girl.
"Well...well I don't exactly know right at now, but we'll begin by asking questions and following up on that lead those boys gave us."
was a lead?"
"I think so."
"But, Rick, it's like W.C. said. There's dozens of men here tonight dressed like that."
"But those kids said they weren't dressed up," A.J. pointed out. "They said the guys looked like Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman."
brows knit together in thought.
"Yeah, A.J., you're right.
That's what they did say, isn't it?"
Despite A.J.'s presence, Rick turned and gave Grace a quick peck on the cheek. "Look, Grace, me and A.J. gotta go. We've got a lotta work to do before we have to leave here at eleven. You open your booth back up like W.C. said. And don't worry. We'll get your money back."
Before Grace could say anymore the Simon brothers left her. They started with the nearby vendors, asking questions of each one of them in regards to what time they had left their booths and what time they had first noticed their cash missing. From there, the brothers spread out their search trying to find someone who might have seen the same men the two young boys had described earlier. Unfortunately, no adult was able to corroborate the boys' story. Although it was a disappointment, that didn't come as a big surprise to Rick. He assumed the remaining vendors had been so busy with customers they didn't have time to notice activity going on around empty booths. And with darkness having fallen completely while Rick, A.J., and Grace were eating, it would have been fairly easy for men to sneak in and out of the backs of the unsecured booths provided they stayed away from the floodlights.
The brothers moved on to a popcorn vendor two rows over from Grace's booth.
The woman chuckled as she poured melted butter over freshly popped corn. "Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman, you say? Sounds like the perfect disguises within three days of Halloween. But no, boys, I haven't seen anyone matching those descriptions doin’ anything I'd consider out of the ordinary."
"But the kids who told us about them said they weren't dressed in costumes," A.J. emphasized for the tenth time that evening. "They said that's what these guys really looked like."
"Well then, I feel sorry for their mamas," the woman laughed.
The dejected brothers gave the woman a downhearted "Thanks," and walked away.
"What are we gonna do now, Rick? We've talked to everyone who was close enough to see anything."
Rick replied with more confidence than he was feeling. "I know, but we just gotta keep lookin' and asking questions, that's all."
The brothers wandered the grounds for the next hour doing as Rick suggested. Just when A.J.'s tired feet were about to declare the investigation over, Rick came to an abrupt halt.
"Hey, A.J.! Look!"
The brothers were standing in the middle of the rides. A.J. practically had to shout to be heard over the excited shrieks of the kids, the noise of the machinery, and the loud music that went with the fun.
"Look at what?"
"Look over there!" Rick pointed to the Merry-Go-Round. "Look at the guy running that ride!"
A.J. watched as the tallest, skinniest man he had ever seen helped a child onto a large plastic horse. By Rick's estimation the man had to stand six foot five, but couldn't have weighed anymore than one hundred and thirty pounds. His jet black hair was made even darker by the oil that kept it slicked back off his forehead. His olive colored skin was smooth like a woman's, and he was dressed in black pants and a long sleeved black shirt he had buttoned to his neck. Even at this distance Rick could see an evil glean in the man's dark narrow eyes, giving them the appearance of belonging to the serpent that had invaded the Garden of Eden.
"What about him?" A.J. asked.
you were a little kid, wouldn't you think that guy looked a lot like
A.J. smiled at his big brother's wisdom. "Yeah, yeah I would. He's creepy lookin', that's for sure."
"No kiddin'." Rick beckoned for his brother to follow him. "Come on, let's move a little closer and watch him for a while."
The brothers stayed out of the man's line of vision as they stood behind him and observed. When another man joined him A.J. gasped.
And sure enough, it was. Or at least as far as Rick was
concerned. This man was as tall as his friend, though a hundred and fifty pounds heavier and twice as wide. He had a broad forehead with a thick fringe of short brown bangs that laid across it in an even row. His nose looked like a round blob of soft clay, as though it had been broken several times and molded back in position. His strong square jaw was set in a slack, dumb face that gave one the impression not all the lights were on in his upper story.
The brothers watched as the two men conferred for a few minutes. Frankenstein finally returned to the nearby airplane ride he was operating for the younger children.
"I think we're on to somethin' here, A.J."
"What are we gonna do about it? Maybe we should go tell W.C., huh?"
"Tell him what? That two of his own carneys are the thieves? Without proof he'll only laugh at us. Let's just wait it out a little while longer."
A.J. glanced at his watch. It was eight o'clock, which gave them three hours before their mother arrived to pick them up. He wondered if that was going to allow them enough time to wait like Rick suggested.
Fifteen minutes later A.J. had just returned with Cokes for both he and Rick, when a new man stepped up to talk to the one the Simons now referred to as Dracula.
Rick looked at A.J. and smiled with victory. "The Wolfman."
A.J. nodded while observing the new comer. At six feet three inches tall, and over two hundred and fifty pounds, he was burly like a logger. His rust colored hair was thick and bushy. It stood from his head in an unruly, dry mass that looked like it hadn't seen a comb in weeks. His full beard and moustache were in almost as sorry a condition as his hair. His bare arms were covered with thick, curly red hair as well. A.J. could also see a matted patch of chest hair poking through the two open buttons of his shirtfront. Even his ears had hair springing from them.
"These are the guys we're lookin' for, A.J.! I know they are."
Rick watched as Dracula and Frankenstein put up signs indicating their rides were temporarily closed. They ambled off with the Wolfman.
Rick threw his empty cup in a nearby trash container. "Come on."
A.J. tossed his own cup away. "Where are we goin'?"
"We're gonna follow 'em, that's where we're goin'."
With as crowded as the grounds were, it was easy for the boys to trail the three men without them being the wiser. It wasn't until the men broke free of the people and turned down a dark, desolate path, that Rick and A.J. had to proceed with caution.
The boys stayed well back, hiding behind trees and overgrowth, only continuing when Rick felt it was safe to do so. They could see the men were headed for a grouping of small trailers that sat down in a dark gully. Rick assumed these trailers belonged to some of the carneys, and was where they lived while on the road. They all appeared to have front hitches, which meant they could be hooked onto a vehicle and towed from town to town.
Some of the trailers had dim lights shining within. Soft yellow patches glowed out through tiny rectangular windowpanes, but Rick doubted that meant anyone was inside. With the carnival in full swing, most of the workers would be manning their posts.
The trailer the men entered was short and square. Rick moved forward, waving A.J. to follow. The boys made not a sound as they bent low and crept toward the trio's home. Rick rounded it until they were on the opposite side from which the men entered. He scanned the messy patch of dirt yard. A garbage can had been knocked over and rifled through by a raccoon. Empty beer bottles and old newspapers littered the area. He spotted a dented red metal lawn chair with rocking steel legs off to one side. He picked it up and carried it to a window. When A.J. saw what Rick intended to do, he frantically tugged on his brother's arm.
"No, Rick!" The boy whispered. "Don't do it!"
"I'm just gonna climb up and have a look inside," Rick whispered back.
"No! They'll see you for sure!"
"No they won't. Now let go a' me."
A.J. was forced to release his sibling when Rick jerked away from him. The teenager exercised caution while climbing up on the chair. His rubber-soled tennis shoes made no noise when they came to rest on the seat.
A.J. stood below and steadied the wobbly chair for Rick. The lanky teen kept his head close to the trailer as he inched forward to peer in the open window.
The trailer was no longer than fourteen feet from front to back and no wider than six feet. The tiny kitchen area and living space were one combined room. The sink and counter tops overflowed with dirty dishes. Rick eyes traveled to the back of the trailer where he could see a closed curtain. He assumed the sleeping area was behind it.
The men sat around the only table their home contained. They pushed a pile of newspapers, an empty whiskey bottle, and someone's shoe onto the floor. They didn't seem concerned about the dried ketchup and globs of gooey mayonnaise lurking underneath. Rick watched as a black metal cash box, not that dissimilar to the one Grace used, was pulled from under the couch.
The Wolfman lit a cigarette and opened the box. He lifted out more stacks of bills than Rick had ever seen in his lifetime.
"Quite a haul we made tonight, boys." His voice was guttural and deep, his words coming out in a thick growl. "Quite a haul."
leaned down and offered a hand to A.J.
"Come on," he whispered.
"You gotta come up and see this!"
"No," A.J. shook his head, "we might fall."
"No we won't! Come on."
Against his better judgment, A.J. joined his brother on the wide seat of the chair. Rick steadied the rocker by holding on to a lip of the trailer's metal slats. A.J. was forced to stand on his tiptoes to be able to observe what his brother was seeing.
Dracula took a swig of beer. The man's eyeteeth were so long and pointy A.J. swore they were fangs.
"How much is there?"
The Wolfman counted his neat stacks. "Over five grand."
Frankenstein's tone held a very unmonster-like tremor. "But now listen, you guys, listen to me. I saw some people talkin' to W.C. Yes, I did. I surely did. And I don't like that. I don't like it one bit. Huh uh, I don't like it at all."
Rick almost burst out laughing at the man's fear. Who would have ever imagined this big lug to be a chicken? It was like picturing an elephant dancing in fright of a mouse.
"Quit yer belly achin', Frank," the Wolfman snarled.
A.J.'s eyes widened at the use of the man's name. They grew even rounder when Frank replied, "I'm not belly achin', Harry, I'm juz tellin' you I don't like it when I see people talkin' to W.C. No I don't. Not one iota I don't. It makes my bunions ache somethin' fierce."
"First of all, I don't know what your damn bunions have to do with anything, and second of all, don't waste your time on W.C. He wouldn’t have enough ambition to get off his lazy old fat ass and come look for us even if someone was willing to lead him right to us."
Dracula burped his beer. "And no one's going to do that because no one saw us."
"See there, Frank, listen to Drake, he knows what he's talkin' about."
A.J. tugged on Rick's shirt until the teenager bent down. "Did you hear that?" The blond boy whispered. "Drake, like Dracula. And Frank like Frankenstein, and Harry like...well, like someone would name the Wolfman."
Rick gave his brother an indulgent smile and a nod before returning his attention to the open window.
"So are we gonna split tonight like we planned?" Drake asked.
Harry held the bills close to his nose and shuffled them with his thumb.
"God, I love that smell."
The dark headed man kicked the red head under the table. "Hey, Howard Hughes, I asked you a question. Are we gonna split tonight like we planned?"
"Yeah." Harry laid the money aside. "There's no use in stickin' around any
longer." He laughed. "After all, it's not like anyone has
anything left for us to steal."
"But what about the trailer, Harry?" Frank reminded. "Huh, what about the trailer? If we pull outta here with the trailer people are gonna hear us. They're gonna hear us. You know they are. And if they hear us, they're gonna know we was up to somethin.’"
Harry reached out a beefy hand and cuffed Frank on the side of his bony skull. "For pete's sake, Frank, you sound like an old maid virgin who's been thrown into a cell full of horny convicts. First off, we've got five grand. That's five thousand dollars in case you hadn't figured it out." Harry took in their dismal surroundings with a sweep of his arm. "What the hell do we need this shit hole for if we got all that money at our disposal? We're gonna buy us a new trailer, boy. A big one. One with a bedroom for each one of us, and maybe even a color TV set."
a color TV set! Can I pick what we
watch? Can I? Huh, can I?"
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yeah, whatever." The man leaned forward and motioned for the others to gather close. Rick and A.J. had to put their ears to the window to be able to hear his quiet words.
"Listen up. Here's the plan. After the rides close down at midnight we hang around with the other guys like we always do. You know, drink a few beers and play a few hands a' cards before callin' it a night. But not all of us at once. It'll look suspicious if we all leave together." Harry pointed at Drake. "So you leave first. Then a few minutes later, Frank will leave. Then in a little while I'll follow."
Frank sat up straight and protested with indignation. "Hey, how come Drake gits to go first? He always gits to go first! He does! He always does! It's always been that way. Why don't I ever git to go first?"
Harry reached over and cuffed Frank in the head again. "Because you're too damn stupid to go first, that's why! Now just shut yer trap and listen up.
"I'll come back here for the money and meet you guys at the truck. We'll take off without anyone bein' the wiser. They'll all think we're in here sawin' logs."
"Sawin' logs?" Frank questioned. "Why would we be sawin' logs, Har--
"Sleeping, you nincompoop! Sleeping! They'll all think we're sleeping."
"Oh. Well why didn't you just say that to begin with?"
Harry ignored the question to finish his original thought. "So anyway, they'll all think we're in here saw...sleeping. By the time they figure out what's really goin' on, we'll be long gone."
A.J pulled on Rick's shirt. The older boy carefully bent at the waist and listened to his brother's hushed words.
"We gotta get that money back to W.C. before they leave."
Rick nodded his agreement. He'd been thinking the exact same thing. He returned his ear to the screen and listened as Harry mapped out the thieves ultimate destination.
A nearby rustling of leaves caused A.J. to turn his head and squint into the darkness.
"Rick, I think we'd better--"
"Shhh, A.J.! I'm trying to hear what they're sayin.’"
A.J. looked over his shoulder again. Whatever was out there was coming closer with an excited pant.
"A.J., cool it!"
Rick clamped a hand over his little brother's mouth. The Wolfman straightened, cocking his head.
"Did you hear somethin'?" Harry asked.
"Hear something?" Drake questioned. "The only thing I hear is beer sloshin' back and forth in Frank's empty skull."
"Hey, that's not funny! Why are you always pickin' on me? You're always mean to me. You always have been! It's been that way ever since--"
"Shut up!" Harry commanded. "Just shut up and list--"
Before the man could finish his sentence a medium sized female mutt broke through the trees at a gallop. In hot pursuit was a male Great Dane who was enjoying playing this game of hard-to-get with the object of his affections.
The shaggy haired female was small enough to flee underneath the chair Rick and A.J. were standing on. When Rick saw the Great Dane was determined to take the same route his girlfriend had, he began shaking his head.
"No!" Rick cried in a strangled shout. "No, no!"
Before the boys could abandon their perch the dog was underneath it. The brothers felt like they were riding an ocean wave as they were lifted then dropped, lifted then dropped by the large powerful dog. And like surfers who could ride the wave no more, the boys were soon tossed to sea.
Harry yanked open the trailer's screen door and ran out into the darkness.
"Hey! What's goin' on out here?"
Despite a sharp pain in his backside Rick was the first to recover. He scrambled to his feet and grabbed A.J. by the shirt. He half dragged the blond boy to a nearby trailer. Just as Harry was rounding the corner of his own trailer, Rick and A.J. were diving under the one that belonged to his nearest neighbor.
The Wolfman scanned the dark area. Drake and Frank walked around from the opposite side.
"You guys see anything?"
"Nope," Drake answered, "didn't see nothin' but W.C.'s horny old dog tryin' to git hisself laid."
The Simon brothers lay flat on their bellies in the dirt. The trailer they were under sat so low to the ground that if Rick had been much larger he'd have never been able to fit. He hoped for all he was worth it was low enough to conceal him and A.J. from the men's view. If they started an earnest search, Rick and his brother were in trouble. There was no way they'd ever be able to shimmy out from under this tight space fast enough to make a run for it if one of the men happened to spot them.
Harry joined his cohorts. They were within inches of the Simons' hiding spot, standing so close that A.J. was able to count how many eyelets were in each of their shoes. The blond held his breath, sure that even the smallest sound now would give him and Rick away.
"Someone was out here," Harry insisted. "I heard 'em whispering."
"Aw, you're full of shit," Drake dismissed. "I didn't hear nothin.’ It was just that damn dog."
it wasn't! Look at that chair! Someone had it leaning up against our
"No they didn't," Drake negated. "The dog knocked it over."
"The dog mighta' knocked it over, but someone was on it."
Frank looked around, searching for hiding ghosts. "I don't like this. I don't like it at all. My bunions--"
"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, I don't wanna hear anymore about your damn bunions!" Harry shouted. "Now come on, let's fan out and search."
scratched his head. "Search for
"For yer brain! Geez, you idiot, for whoever had that chair up against our window, that's for what."
Frank's lower lip began to quiver and his head dipped Harry emitted a tired
sigh. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Don't cry."
"I...I...I'm not...I'm not crying."
"Yes, you are. Now stop it. I said I was sorry."
just that...just that...just that you guys are always picking on me."
put his arm around the big man's quaking shoulders. "Look, Frankie, I'm sorry.
I'm just a little tense tonight, that's all. Just 'cause of the money and everything. Now come on, you help me look over there and
Drake can look over here. Okay?"
"O...Okay. But only...only if you're gonna be nice to me."
"I am," Harry promised. "I'm gonna be nice to you."
"And Drake, too. 'Cause he's even meaner to me than you are."
"And Drake, too," Harry promised.
"Make him say it."
patience was quickly dwindling.
"Oh for God's sake, Frank, we don't have all night here! Now come--"
Frank crossed his arms over his wide chest. "Make him say it."
Harry turned to Drake and mouthed, "Say it."
shook his head. "No way! I'm not gonna say anything! You baby him. You always have. If you
Harry's beefy hand reached for the dark man's slender throat. "Dammit, Drake! Say it!"
"All right, all right. I'll be nice."
"Say it like you mean it," Frank demanded. "Say, ‘I'll be nice to, Frank.’"
"I'll be nice to Frank,” Drake mumbled. “There, are you happy now? Do you want me to kiss you, too?"
"That would be a welcome gesture. It would make up for a lot of hurts."
"Well, there's no way in hell I'm gonna do--"
Before the craziness could go any farther, Harry gave Drake a push. "You look around here. Me and Frankie will look over there. If you find anyone, don't let 'em get away. Break their damn legs if you have to, but whatever you do don't let 'em make a run for it."
A.J. swallowed hard and his legs twitched involuntarily when he heard that last command.
The three men gave the area a thorough search. Four times A.J. counted shoes passing so close he could have reached out and untied them. The fifth time a pair of shoes halted near his head. He swore he heard a man's knees crack as though someone was in the act of bending over. Rick must have heard it, too, because A.J.'s older brother grabbed his arm in a bruising grip. The blond boy knew that meant Rick might be dragging him out from under their hiding spot at any moment. His heart hammered against his ribs when he saw the man's hands come to rest on the dirt in front of him.
Just when A.J. was certain the next thing he was going to see was Dracula's face peering in at him, he heard a distant shout.
"Hey, you guys! Hey, W.C. is looking for you! He's in a helluva a toot 'cause your rides have been shut down so long!"
Drake shot to his feet and hurried away from the trailer. Rick counted two other pairs of feet trotting past. He could tell by the proximity of the voices that the robbers were gathered around their ramshackle home, and the fourth man was quickly approaching from a distance.
"Hey, where have you guys been?"
"Huh...Frank wasn't feelin' too good so we took a break!" Harry shouted in return.
Frank's heavy brows drew together. "Whatta ya' mean, I'm not feelin' too good, Harry? I feel just fi--"
Harry's heel came down hard on the big man's left foot.
"Ow! What'd you go and do that for? You said you were gonna be nice to--"
Through clenched teeth Harry hissed, "Shut up! Just do as I say. Now pretend you're sick, dammit!"
Harry's hand clamped onto the back of Frank's neck. He pushed the man's upper torso down until his head was hanging somewhere in the vicinity of his kneecaps.
Rick crept forward on his stomach just far enough to see the man who'd been sent to look for the trio of thieves join them. The teen recognized him as the carney who ran the Tilt-O-Whirl. Drake ushered him away from the trailer with a solicitous hand laid on his back, Harry following with Frank in tow.
Despite A.J.'s grip on his shirt, Rick inched forward again. He wanted to hear what the men were saying, but they kept moving farther and farther away. The teen could easily guess the robbers didn't want to risk their co-worker entering their trailer and spotting the stacks of cash that had been left scattered on the table. Soon, the four men were so far away that Rick couldn’t hear their conversation.
Tilt-O-Whirl operator eyed the doubled over Frank. "Geez, he does look sick.
What's wrong with him?"
"Nothin' serious," Harry said. "Upset stomach. We thought a walk in the open air away from the crowds might do him some good."
"Whatever," the man agreed. "But W.C. wants you guys back now. If Frank's too sick to come, leave him in your trailer and I'll see if I can run his ride and mine."
Harry nodded. "Thanks, Bucky. We'll do that. Tell W.C. Drake and me will be there in a minute."
“Will do,” Bucky agreed as he jogged toward the rides.
The Wolfman ushered Frank to the trailer and stepped inside with him.
Harry, I'm don't wanna stay behind. I'm
clamped his hand over Frank's mouth.
"Shhh! Now just be quiet
and listen to me for a second. You stay
here and guard the cash. Whoever was
out there might show up again. Me and
Drake will be back in a little while, got it?"
"Sure, I got it. I'm not stupid, ya' know. I'll stay right here. But don't you and Drake take off and leave me. You did that to me once before, remember? And it really hurt my feelings, Harry. It hurt me bad."
"We're not gonna leave you, Frankie. Besides, you've got the cash, you moron."
"Oh, yeah," Frank smiled in triumph. "I guess I do."
Harry exited the trailer to join Drake on the walk back to the rides. He gave one last glance around the small encampment before being swallowed up by the trees.
Silence prevailed over the encampment. Rick waited a full minute then allowed his tense shoulders to relax. His head fell to his arms. "Whew! That was close."
teen squinted at his sibling.
"A.J.!" He beckoned in
a hushed voice, "Hey, A.J., you
A.J.'s whisper came out in a hushed croak. "Yeah, yeah. I'm okay. I just thought...I thought Dracula was gonna find us for sure."
"So did I."
Rick started to wiggle out from under the trailer on his belly.
A.J. grabbed his brother's arm. "Hey, where you goin'?"
"We can't stay under here all night."
know that. But what are you gonna
gonna go in that trailer, get the money, and take it to W.C. like we
"But what if they come back?"
not gonna come back. At least not in
the time it'll take me to grab that cash box and run. Now come on!"
Rick jerked his arm free. "A.J., come on! Let's go! We don't have much time."
A.J. reluctantly wormed out from under the trailer's frame. He gave a cautious scan of the immediate area before rising.
Rick scrambled to the corner of the thieves' trailer and peered around it. He waved his brother to him.
"I'm gonna go in. You follow me, but wait outside. If you see anyone, you give me a shout and then run like hell."
Rick's index finger took up residence under A.J.'s nose. "You run like hell, A.J. Don't wait for me. You run if someone comes. Run back to Grace's booth. I'll meet you there as soon as I can. Got it?"
A.J. knew there was no use to argue with his big brother when Rick was this determined to accomplish a desired goal. "Okay, okay, I got it."
"Good. Now come on."
Although the encampment appeared to be deserted, Rick cautiously slid along the length of the trailer with his back pressed against it. A.J. mirrored his brother's posture while keeping a vigilant watch of the surrounding area.
Rick wrapped his fingers and thumb around the handle of the trailer's aluminum screen door and pressed in the latch. He gave A.J. a wink of encouragement as he put a foot on the first metal stair step. It was as he turned his body to enter that he caught sight of Frank. The large man was directly across from Rick, seated on the cluttered couch with his face buried in the luscious delights of a Playboy centerfold.
Like a submarine going into emergency dive mode Rick plunged downward. He stayed crouched on the tiny step a moment, the solid lower panel of the aluminum door effectively hiding him from Frank's view. When he didn't hear the man's thundering footsteps crossing the trailer floor in pursuit the teen carefully inched himself to the ground.
A.J. looked at his brother with confusion. "What--"
Rick's hand shot out to cover the blond's mouth. He shook his head no. With his hand still in place he inched forward, forcing A.J. to walk backwards.
Rick didn't stop their motion until they were secluded behind the nearby trailer they'd been hiding under only minutes earlier. When he allowed his hand to fall away from A.J.'s mouth the boy whispered, "What's going on?"
"Frank's in there. They musta left him behind to guard the money." Rick peeked around the trailer to make sure Frank hadn't followed them. All was quiet, and the robber didn't appear to be the wiser to their presence.
"If he's in there, how are we ever gonna get it back?" A.J. questioned.
"We'll just havta' wait a while. Maybe...well maybe he'll leave to go to the bathroom or to get something to eat."
"He'd better go soon because we don't have much time left." A.J. lifted his watch and squinted at the face. "It's almost ten o'clock."
"Okay," Rick acknowledged. "We'll hang out here for a while and if he doesn't leave...well, if he doesn't leave then I guess we'll have to go get W.C. But I don't know if he'll believe us or not. If he doesn't, then by the time he discovers we were right these guys will be long gone."
"Plus he won't pay us everything he promised," A.J. reminded. "And we've worked hard for it. We deserve it."
Rick smiled. He reached out a hand and ruffled it through his little brother's hair. "You're right, kid, we have worked hard for it. You bet we deserve it. You got a heck of a head for business on them shoulders of yours, A.J."
Twenty minutes passed in which no activity was seen coming or going from the trailer. Both boys were growing impatient, which forced Rick to decide a journey to the door was once more necessary. He and A.J. repeated their actions from earlier. This time, however, when Rick peered in through the screen he saw Frank's oversized body sprawled out on the sofa. His mouth was wide open, and he was drooling while rumbling snores lumbered from his throat.
Rick turned to his brother and gave him a thumbs up. He leaned close to A.J.'s ear. "He's sleepin' like a baby. I'm goin' in. You wait right here and keep your eyes peeled for trouble."
Rick entered the tiny space leaving A.J. to stand guard outside. Frank was half lying, half sitting on the sofa. The cash box rested between his spread knees. Rick swallowed hard before taking his first silent step across the sticky linoleum floor. Each time Frank's breath came out in a thundering snort Rick inched forward. His hand was just reaching for the box when the snores were cut off by a gulping attempt for air.
The teenager froze in place, posed to snatch the metal box and run should the big man awaken. Frank went right on sleeping while struggling to turn his bulk on its side. He buried his face in a ragged sofa cushion. He legs came together, tightly wrapping themselves around the box.
Damn! Rick silently swore at the vice-like grip the box was now contained in. Damn! Damn! Damn!
The lanky boy eased himself to his knees. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead as he reached for the handle of the box. He gave it a gentle tug, but was barely able to get it to move.
Rick's eyes never left the heavily sleeping man as he continued to work the box from between Frank's clamped knees. It was like reeling in a stubborn fish. The teen would pull forward, only to have to stop for fear too great a movement would wake the robber.
Easy, easy, Rick coached himself. Just take it nice and easy. There. Just one more corner to free and this baby will be mine. Maybe I should just give it a good tug. It won't matter if he wakes up then. Me and A.J. will be long gone by the time he stumbles outta here after...
Before Rick could finish his thoughts he heard A.J.'s strangled whisper and saw his brother's frightened face through the screen.
"Someone's coming, Rick! Hurry!"
"I think so! Hurry!"
"A.J., hide!" Rick cried just above a whisper. "Hide!"
"I'll be right out! But go on now! Don't let them catch you!"
Rick didn't know where A.J. disappeared to, but in a flash his brother was gone. The teenager could hear voices rapidly approaching the trailer. He could pick out Harry's deep growl and knew it had to be Drake who was with him. He took a frantic look around the small interior. When the men were almost to the door the teen gave the cash box a violent tug and scrambled for the faded curtain hanging at the rear.
sat up with a start. "Huh?"
Frankie, we're ba--" Harry's eyes
swept the room. "Where's the
Frank rubbed a hand over his sleep blurred eyes. "It's right here."
"Right here between my legs where it'll be safe."
"Between your legs? Whatta ya' mean it's between your legs? There's nothing between your legs, you idiot, and I do mean nothing!"
Drake swept dirty dishes aside while Harry threw newspapers and girly magazines over his shoulders in a frantic search for the cash.
"The box was right here, Harry," Frank insisted. "Right here between my legs when I fell asleep not ten minutes--"
"You fell asleep?" Harry roared. "You fell asleep! You goddamn fool! How could you have been so stupid?"
"I told you we should have never left him here alone!" Drake accused. "I told you!"
"Never mind what you told me! We've got to find that money!"
Rick stood pressed as tightly as he could between the narrow wall and the wide bunk the curtain had been secluding. His eyes swept the tiny space but there was nowhere to hide. He listened as the men tossed the contents of the trailer. He knew it would be only a matter of seconds before one of them yanked back the curtain.
A.J. crawled out from underneath the men's trailer and slinked to the door. Using only one eye he peered in through the screen. The three men were yelling at one another while throwing dishes, papers, magazines, and liquor bottles into the air. He didn't know where Rick was, but knew he had to be trapped inside. The trailer was so small the men were bound to find his brother soon.
The blond boy looked down at his black ankle-high Keds, making sure they were tightly laced. He took a deep breath and raised a fist. He pounded on the aluminum door making it rattle and echo.
"Hey, I'm out here! I'm out here, you bozos, and I've got all your money! All five thousand dollars of it!"
The three men whipped around as one just in time to see a blond headed kid race by their door.
"There he goes!" Harry yelled. "Grab him!"
"Run, Rick!" A.J. called over his shoulder. “Run!”
Rick didn't know who was more confused during those first seconds after A.J.'s disturbance, himself or the thieves. The three men fought their way out the door into the darkness. They paused for a brief moment trying to catch sight of the fleeing A.J., when the screen door was thrown open again. Rick sped past with the metal box tucked firmly under his arm like football.
The teen taunted as he ran for all he was worth, "Bettcha' guys can't catch me!"
A.J. was hiding in the grove of trees just beyond the trailer. He joined his brother, the two boys running side by side through the crowds.
"Stop those kids!" Harry yelled. "Stop 'em! They're thieves I tell ya'! Thieves! Stop 'em! Stop 'em!"
Rick and A.J. weaved in and out of people, rides, and vendors with the three men at their heels. Rick led the way to the Octopus where he and A.J. ducked under its twirling tentacles and kept right on running. Frank tried to follow, suit but underestimated how low the heavy cars dipped. An oncoming car laden with teenagers clunked him square in the forehead, sending him sprawling in the dirt with a pain-filled, "Ug!"
Drake and Harry were too close to him to be able to stop. Drake tripped over Frank. His breath was forced out of him with a startled "Oooof!" when his skinny rib cage was slammed into the hard ground. By then it was too late for Harry to heed the warning of "Look out!" from the confused but entertained bystanders. A spinning car rammed into the back of his skull, throwing him forward. He landed in a painful heap on top of Drake and Frank. The three battered men fought and clawed and scrambled to regain their footing, only to be repeatedly knocked to the ground by the fast whirling ride.
It was as the Simon brothers came to the row of game vendors that they shouted their triumph.
"We've got it!" A.J. cried. "We've got your money!"
Rick held the box aloft. "Three guys that work the rides stole it!"
Vendors spilled from their booths in mass and greeted the boys like returning war heroes. Someone ran to get W.C. It was when the fat man arrived that Rick and A.J. relayed their story for all to hear.
W.C. chuckled so hard his rotund middle shook like gelatin. "Well, well, well. The Bauman brothers. Together those three don't have the smarts to steal from themselves, let alone someone else."
Rick's astonishment was plain to hear. "You mean those guys are brothers?"
"Sure are, son. Harry, Drake, and Frank. Though I won't swear to it their mama laid with the same man every time she made one of 'em, if ya' get my drift. She used to work for me. As a matter of fact, those boys grew up traveling with this carnival. It's a damn shame they felt the need to steal from their own kind. A damn shame."
W.C. overtook the duties of returning the various cash amounts to their rightful owners. Not one cent was missing, which made the people even more grateful to Rick and A.J. The portly showman sent some vendors in search of the Baumans, then reached into his deep pockets. He handed each of the Simon brothers a lifetime pass to the carnival just as he had promised.
"The next time you boys visit my carnival, no matter what city I'm in, you come see me first. I'll set you up with all the ride tickets your little hearts desire."
"Thanks, W.C.," Rick said.
you, sir," A.J. echoed politely while holding out his hand. "But where's our forty dollars?"
dollars? What forty dollars?"
"You promised me and my brother twenty dollars apiece if we returned the cash to you."
W.C. scratched his head. "I did? Nah, kid, I don't think so. I'm a bartering man. I never pay cash for anything. I do all my business in trade."
came up behind the stout man and wrapped her arms around his big middle. "Grandpa, ya' promised. I heard ya.’ Ya' promised Rick and A.J. twenty dollars apiece for returning
the cash. Now come on. Pay up."
looked at A.J. and mouthed,
A.J. shrugged his shoulders. These unorthodox carnival people were more than one eleven-year-old boy had time to figure out.
W.C. put an arm around Grace's shoulders. "You're gonna make an honest man out of me yet, aren't you, Lenora Ruth? Oh, all right." The man pulled his wallet out of his vest pocket. He handed a twenty dollar bill to Rick, and one to A.J. He patted the blond boy on the head. "You drive a hard bargain, junior. And you're a pain in my fat backside, too. Now go play in traffic and don't bother me anymore tonight."
W.C. waddled off, leaving the Simon brothers alone with Grace.
"He's really your grandpa?" Rick asked.
Grace smiled after the man. "Yep. He's my mama's daddy."
Rick wondered what other interesting secrets this intriguing girl harbored. He'd love the opportunity to find out, and was just about to suggest A.J. go make use of some of those free rides W.C. would so willingly lavish them with, when the younger boy looked at his watch.
"It's quarter to eleven, Rick. Mom will be here soon. We'd better head back to the front gate."
Rick's sigh of disappointment came all the way from his toes. He stared into Grace's eyes with a longing he was destined not to be able to act upon.
"You go ahead, A.J. Start for the gate. I'll catch up in a few minutes."
Rick gave his brother a little shove. "Go on."
Grace stepped forward and kissed A.J. on the cheek. "Thank ya' so much, A.J., for all you've done for me tonight. I really appreciate it."
A.J. didn't know whether to be embarrassed or pleased over the girl's kiss. He ducked his head to hide his pink cheeks, gave her a shy little wave, and trotted off.
When the boy was out of sight the teenagers leaned into one another's arms. Their lips met and they exchanged a long kiss. When they finally broke for air Grace gently pushed Rick away from her.
"I've got to go, Rick. I've need to git back to my booth. But thank you. Thank you for everything ya' did for me tonight. And I don't just mean the money. I mean buyin' my supper, and takin' me to the haunted house, and...and just bein' my friend. I won't ferget ya', Rick Simon."
Rick smiled. He could still taste her sweetness on his lips. "I won't forget you either, Grace Kelly."
"Come see me next year when we're passin' through San Diego."
"You bet," Rick nodded. "That's a promise." Rick took a step forward and reached for the girl's hand. "I...I should have my motorcycle by then. Maybe, maybe we can go out on a date. A real date. Not here at the carnival, but to dinner and a movie somewhere."
"I'd love to, Rick."
Rick squeezed the girl's hand. "So would I."
His lips brushed her cheek in parting before he turned and walked away. He knew it was for his benefit when he heard her call from her booth, "Hey there, handsome, I bet you never lose at anything you do!
Out of the corner of his eye Rick caught the smile Grace threw him right before her attention was taken by a customer.
The light-hearted teen jogged through the crowd until he caught up with his brother. The boys relived their adventure in all its glorious detail as they made their way to the front gate. They were almost to the wide opening in the cyclone fence when from behind them they heard a cry of, "There they are! Let's get 'em!"
The brothers turned around to see a battered and bruised Harry, Drake and Frank racing toward them. Rick and A.J. kicked their heels into high gear.
"Run, A.J.! Run!"
Cecilia Simon glanced at her watch and saw it was five minutes to eleven. She applied the brake, letting her car idle a few yards from the entrance gate.
I suppose Rick will push it to the very last second, then in order to make it on time he and A.J. will come flying into the car like someone's chasing them.
The woman smiled while she patiently waited. She had no intention of being too strict. Provided the boys didn't miss her eleven o'clock curfew by more than five minutes or so, she'd allow the minor infraction to pass unnoticed.
I hope they had a good time. I'm sure it was difficult for both of them to attend this year without Ja...
The car door behind the driver's seat was yanked open and A.J. dived in.
"My goodness, Andrew, be careful! You'll take the door right off the hinges by pulling a stunt like--"
Rick scrambled in amidst of his mother's lecture. "Drive, Mom, drive!"
Rick slammed the door and hit the lock with his fist. He leaned forward and did the same to the lock on the driver's door. A.J. followed suit, using both hands to simultaneously lock the back door he was seated against and the front passenger door.
The boy whipped his head around, looking out the wide back window. Harry, Drake and Frank were only steps from the vehicle.
"Drive, Mom! Drive!" The blond commanded. "Hurry! We're being chased by the Wolfman and his brothers!"
"The Wolfman? What in the world--"
"Just drive! Please!"
Cecilia chuckled as she put the car in gear. Her late husband had always encouraged the boys' active imaginations and often played along with their games. Of course, Rick was far too old to be pretending to be chased by a wolfman, but A.J. was right at that crossroads between childhood and his young adult years. Cecilia supposed the carnival had brought back memories of his father for A.J. that might have rekindled some of the fun Jack used to indulge he and Rick in. And naturally, Rick would play along if he thought it would help A.J. heal a little more from the tremendous wound their father's passing had inflicted on his young soul.
"The Wolfman, huh? Okay, boys, hold onto your hats!"
Cecilia let out the clutch and hit the gas with so much force it threw her sons back against their seats. The Baumans were left waving their fists and cursing in a cloud of gravel and dust as the car sped away.
Cecilia slowed down as she pulled out onto the street. She glanced at her sons in the rearview mirror and smiled with affection. "Now what was that all about?"
A.J. sat forward and spread his arms over the front seat while enthusiastically recounting their evening. "Grace Kelly had her money stolen and W.C. Fields hired us to find it."
"Grace Kelly and W.C. Fields?" Cecilia echoed her puzzlement.
"Yeah," A.J. nodded. "Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman had taken it."
"Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman?"
"Yeah. So then me and Rick--"
"Rick and I, sweetheart."
"So then Rick and I tracked them to their trailer. But we fell off the chair and had to hide--"
Rick tapped his little brother on his shoulder. He shook his head, indicating for A.J. to stop his rapid-fire monologue. The teenager had a feeling if their mother heard the whole story she'd never let them out of her sight again. Or at least never let them come back to the Coastal Cities Carnival. And Rick could think of several good reasons why he couldn't allow that to occur.
exactly happened tonight, Richard? What
is your brother jabbering about?"
"Uh...well see, Mom, some of the vendors had money stolen, and A.J. and I just happened to...to run across the guys who had taken it. We told the owner of the carnival who they were. He's got some men out looking for them right now."
A.J. couldn't resist finishing the story. "And W.C. was so grateful for what we did that he gave us lifetime passes to the carnival, all the free ride tickets we want, and twenty dollars apiece in reward money."
"Twenty dollars apiece?"
"Yeah," A.J. nodded. "Only I had to remind him, and then he told me to go play in traffic. But he's Grace Kelly's grandpa, and really not a bad guy once you get to know him."
Cecilia shook her head as if to clear it of this wild yarn. "I think perhaps you boys better fill me in on a few more details regarding this story over breakfast in the morning."
That was fine with Rick. It would give him time to instruct A.J. as to what to say and what not to say.
Cecilia briefly stopped at a desolate intersection, then proceeded on through. "I hope neither one of you were in danger while pursuing these men you were just telling me about."
Rick winked at his brother and leaned back against the seat with his head cradled in his hands. "Nah, Mom. No danger. We never even got near 'em."
A.J. smiled and copied his big brother's body language. "No, Mom. No danger. We never got near 'em."
"Thank goodness for that. I don't know what I'm going to do with you boys. You just can't seem to stay out of trouble, can you?"
Even at the young age of eleven, A.J. knew just how to charm his mother out of a snit. He leaned forward again and planted a kiss on her cheek. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the bracelet, necklace, and pin he had won while playing darts at Grace's booth.
"I won these for you tonight, Mom."
Cecilia kept one eye on the road while she accepted the gifts. She acted as though they'd come from the most expensive jewelry store in San Diego. "Oh, honey, thank you. They're beautiful. I'll make sure to wear them to the PTA dinner next week."
Rick smiled and gave his brother a nod when A.J. returned to the backseat. A.J. smiled back, understanding now that there some things it was best if Mom never knew.
When the carnival came to town the following year Rick returned to squire Grace on the promised date. The young couple enjoyed themselves, but that was the last Rick ever saw her. The next year he was out of high school and working down in Mexico when carnival season rolled around, from there his travels took him all over the country and then to Vietnam.
It wasn't until Rick and A.J. returned from Florida and opened the Simon and Simon office in San Diego in 1980 that they made use of their lifetime passes again. Much like he had guessed would be the case when he was eleven, A.J. had no desire to go to the event, but Rick's enthusiasm for it couldn't be squelched.
The blond detective reluctantly let himself be led through the grounds that at one time had seemed so vast and full of fun. Despite A.J.'s initial resistance, he soon found himself swept up in Rick's excitement as they tried their skill at games they hadn't played in years, and ate food A.J. hadn't allowed to touch his teeth since entering adulthood. They asked around about W.C., but were told he had died nine years earlier, and that while the carnival was still run under his name, it had been sold. No one seemed to know anything about a girl who had called herself Grace Kelly.
Rick walked away from the vendors with a small smile. "I wonder if she ever got to Hollywood?"
"What did you say?" A.J. asked.
"Oh...nothing. It wasn't important."
It was getting late when the two men headed toward the gate that night. They laughed as they remembered the night twenty years earlier when they fled through it running for their lives. Rick pointed out the grove of trees leading to where the carneys' trailers were clustered, and A.J. reminded him of how he was forced to hide behind that flimsy curtain while the Baumans searched for the missing cash box.
Because of his reminiscing, Rick wasn't paying any attention when a man bumped into his shoulder.
"Sorry about that, bud..." the detective halted his apology in mid-sentence as he came face to face with the aging Wolfman. The man's hair was more gray now than red, but he still had the same strong body Rick remembered. And standing right beside him was a slightly stooped, emancipated Dracula, and a barrel chested Frankenstein with arthritic knees.
"Watch where you're goin'," Harry growled. He took a step forward then paused, studying Rick and A.J. from head to toe. "Hey, don't I know you two guys from somewhere?"
"No," A.J. shook his head in frantic rhythm. "I don't think so." He grabbed Rick by the arm. "Come on, Rick, we need to get go--"
"Hey, I do know you two guys! You're the punks that turned me and my brothers into W.C.! You guys are the reason we spent two years in jail!"
Rick backed up with his hands spread out in front of him. "Look, mister, that was a long time ago. Let's just forget about it and go our separate ways."
"Go our separate ways!" Harry clenched his fists and snarled. His brothers joined him in forming a tight circle around the Simons. "Do you know how long we've been lookin' for you rat finks? Do you know many years we've dreamed of twisting your scrawny little necks right off your shoulders?"
A.J.'s eyes flicked about the area, looking for a means of escape. "Nope, but I don't think we plan to stick around and find out either."
The blond detective curled his shoulders and ducked his head. He charged right in between Drake and Frank with that old familiar cry of, "Run, Rick! Run!"
Rick raced along side his brother all the way to the Powerwagon. His foot was on the gas pedal before A.J. even had his door closed. Once again, Harry, Drake, and Frank Bauman were left eating dust as they cursed the fleeing pickup truck and its occupants.
An attractive woman in her mid-thirties stepped out of the shadows of the large expensive trailer. Her long dark hair was pulled up in a ponytail, and she wore a wedding band on her left ring finger. She didn't turn when a slim man with rugged features slipped his arms around her waist. He bent his head and kissed her cheek.
are you doing out here by yourself, hon?"
"Oh...nothin' in particular."
The man looked across the parking lot. "What's going on with those crazy Bauman brothers now?"
The woman laughed. "Let's just say they were attemptin' to
settle an old score, and once again came
up on the losin' end of the deal."
"I don't know why you went and hired those boys back. Your dad said they were never anything but trouble."
The woman shrugged within her husband's arms. "I'll be the first to tell ya' my grandpa wasn't the most honorable man in the world, but he did look out for his family."
"But they're not family."
"Oh yes they are. They're part of this carnival, so they're family. Least wise that's what Grandps would say if he were here now. When you and I bought this business I vowed I'd be a good employer to these people who have so little. Sometimes bein' the owner of a carnival means puttin' up with the likes of Harry, Drake, and Frank Bauman."
The tall man shrugged. "Whatever. You're the boss. I'm just the bookkeeper."
The woman smiled as she turned within her husband's arms and planted a kiss on his lips. "A bookkeeper who also happens to be a tax accountant and a CPA." She took his hand and led him to the large, immaculate trailer that was their home away from home. Three little boys freshly bathed and in their pajamas eagerly awaited within for their bedtime story.
I ever tell you and the boys the story about Grace Kelly and the Great Carnival
Caper, as I've come to think of it?"
chuckled at his wife's words. "No,
Lenora Ruth, I don't believe we've ever heard that one. You've really met Grace Kelly?"
The woman smiled as she turned and got her last glimpse of the Powerwagon's taillights. "In manner of speaking, Tom, yes I have. I most certainly have."
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