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Death in the Fort - Chapter Three

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Jan Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Chapter 3

That box never made it to the garage. And anyone who knows Jessica and me won't be surprised why it didn't. The short story is, well, we went out drinking. I'll tell you the long story in a minute.

Jessica and I do the majority of our hanging out at a place called The Shady Nook on Parnell Avenue. And contrary to what you might think (or what everybody's been telling you) it is not a dump. Not technically. It is, however, the kind of place where the fussy type might catch herself glancing at the seat before she sits down on it. Jessica and I like it because the people are friendly, the drinks are cheap, it's across the street from a Dairy Queen, and, after a certain hour, it is usually deserted. Jessica and I can get pretty obnoxious. We've found it best to keep that fact to ourselves.

That night - the night of the box - Jessica and I trudged back from Darleen's to our house on Loree Street. It's the house that used to belong to Jessica's gross old drunk uncle before he died. (He's the guy who once called me an "old hooker." I think I was about 8 at the time.)

To say our house needs work is an understatement. The best word to describe the place? I guess crumbly would work. We live here rent-free, under the auspices of fixing the place up so Jessica's mom can sell it eventually. (She'll be waiting a while.)

So when we walked in and saw a chunk of the ceiling smashed down on the floor, we just stood there staring at it and not saying a word. Like the skilled carpenters we are.

"Well," I said. "What do you want to do?"

Jessica dropped Darleen's box on the floor - a little roughly, considering it could've contained something dreadful like a bomb or an array of Franklin Mint collectible plates - and said, "Let's get the tools."

It turned out "the tools" were two glasses of whiskey and a terrible version of Jessica singing an Earth, Wind & Fire song along to the jukebox at the Nook. The ceiling, as it turned out, was the least of our worries. The real trouble started when we got back home at 1 a.m. and thought it'd be a good idea to take that box out to the garage.

It was - how can I put this? - abso-frickin'-lutely trashed. The whole garage, completely trashed. Worse than usual, I mean. Boxes flipped over, stacks of newspapers pushed on their sides, old term papers scattered across the floor, my citizenship medals from Lakeside Middle School flung all over the place. (I took this opportunity to remind Jessica she hadn't received any. She thanked me.)

"Did they miss anything?"

Jaime Navarro from across the alley was standing in the doorway of the garage, wearing a The Ruts T-shirt and an apron. Poor Jaime. He's a single father raising three daughters - all the pretty princess type - and he was talking to us, completely unaware that there was a conspicuous pink barrette stuck in his hair. Jessica let out a really attractive snort and then started laughing at him, as if someone hadn't just torn through our garage like it was a free buffet.

"I don't think we were robbed," I said, picking up a pile of "Archie" comic books. "Nothing's missing. They didn't even take this." I held up a box full Jessica's stuff. It said "Adult Diapers" on it, and written in black marker: "Jessica's." She stopped laughing and gave me the stink eye.

Granted, we were joking, but it was that "I feel a little freaked out" kind of joking. The kind of awkward, chuckling conversation you make after a mild car accident or right after you see your professor in his bathing suit at the local pool.

"Somebody was obviously looking for something," Jaime flipped his barrette back and forth, utilizing the deductive skills he claims to have picked up recently from "Simon & Simon" reruns. "Everybody around here knows there's nothing in here."

"Not true," I said. "There's some good stuff in here." I picked up a plastic watering can and the bottom fell off.

He stared at me and then turned back into Matlock. "What's different here?" he said, looking around at our old roller skates and stacks of musty hand-me-down clothes. "What would somebody want?"

I thought he was being a little dramatic. But then Jessica opened her mouth, eyes wide as saucers, eyebrows stretched to the top of her head. She mouthed something - it looked like "I'm going to pee" - and, raising a shaky arm, she pointed one long finger at me.

I was holding Darleen's box.