Momma always said I slept like a nervous bird. When I heard the front door click open that night, I got up and peeked down the hall. It was Momma’s new boyfriend, Duane, and he was just closing the door behind him.
He looked real surprised to see me. “Oh, hi, Sprout. Just havin’ a smoke outside.”
I hated it when he called me Sprout. My name’s Kat. “You must have smoked a pack, ‘cause I heard you go out a long time ago.”
He laughed, but his eyes got kind of small and hard. “One cigarette. You were dreaming.”
Early the next morning I heard Momma’s cell ring. Momma rushed into my room. “Kat, get up. Something’s happened to Pop Pop.” We drove over to my grandfather’s house. There were lots of police cars and flashing lights. Momma told me to stay in the car. I knew something awful had happened, and my heart sort of shriveled up in my chest.
I started thinking about the day before. I was at Pop Pop’s house, teaching him how to use his new cell phone —
“Punch the number in first, then press the little green light. That sends the call.”
He chuckled the way he always does, specially when he’s laughing at himself. “I’m an old dog, Kat. It’s hard to teach me new tricks.”
He was gray and bent with big hands rough as tree bark, but his eyes had a kindness in them that shined like a light. “You’re not old,” I told him, “least not to me.”
Before I left, he hugged me and gave me a serious look. “How are things at home?”
I dropped my eyes. “All right.”
“That new fella, Duane, he’s treating you okay?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
My face got a little hot. I didn’t like Duane, but couldn’t say why. “He’s okay.”
“Are they using?”
“I don’t know, Pop Pop. I keep to my room, mostly.”
He hugged me again. “Listen, now that you’ve taught me to use this phone, you can call me anytime, Kat. I promise I’ll ans — ”
I jumped when Momma opened the car door. She was all in tears. “Pop Pop got robbed last night,” she said.
“Is he okay?”
“No, Kat. He’s not. Pop Pop’s dead. The burglar killed him.”
Momma held me for a long time. When I stopped crying, she said, “Kat, the police want to talk to you. Listen, honey, they don’t like Duane ‘cause he’s got a record. Don’t say nothin’ bad about him, okay?”
“Momma, he went out last night. I heard him.”
She gripped my shoulders so hard it hurt. “No, he didn’t, Kat. He was with me. Don’t say that to the police. Please, honey. Duane’s a good man.”
I talked to a nice police lady and didn’t say anything bad about Duane or Momma. Another policeman came in and the nice lady excused herself and joined him across the room. I looked down at the hole in the toe of my sneaker like I wasn’t listening, but I was. “The murder weapon’s missing,” he said in a low tone. “Something heavy, like a hammer.” She told the man about Pop Pop’s cell phone. The man nodded and said, “That’s missing, too, along with his wallet and cash.”
When everything in the apartment got quiet that night, I snuck out of my room. Duane kept his tools on a shelf next to the washer. I pulled a chair up and looked for his hammer. I’d used it just the other day and knew it had red paint on the handle. The hammer was gone.
“Whatcha lookin’ for, Sprout?” I jerked around and there was Duane. A cigarette dangled from the side of his mouth, and his eyes were all hard again, like little stones.
A pack of spiders crawled down my back. “Uh, a screw driver,” I answered, pulling one out of the tool box and adding real fast, “You’re not supposed to smoke in the apartment.”
He blew smoke from his nose and smiled like a snake. “Things are gonna change around here, Sprout. We’re gonna move out of this dump into your granddad’s house.”
I lay in bed with my door locked, trying to think what to do. When I finally dozed off, I dreamed about Pop Pop. He smiled down at me, held up his cell phone and said, “You can call me anytime , Kat. I promise I’ll answer.”
I woke up and snuck Momma’s cell phone from the hall table. When I tapped in Pop Pop’s number, it rang several times before going to voice mail — “Hi, this is Claude. Leave a message.” He did answer me! When I heard his voice, I knew what I needed to do.
I slipped out the front door and ran down 4th Avenue till I got to the alley that cut through to Pop Pop’s street. The alley was the fastest way back from his house to our apartment. There were a few lights along the narrow path, but it was mostly dark and scary in there.
I started down the alley, dialing Pop Pop’s number again and again. My legs were shaking, but the sound of his voice kept me going. Halfway in I heard it — the ring tone I’d put on his phone. It came from a humongous trash can under a dim light. I took the lid off and pulled hard on the lip of the can, tipping it over with a crash. Dogs started barking up and down the alley. I didn’t care.
I sifted through the smelly garbage till I found a plastic bag that buzzed with Pop Pop’s ring tone. The bag was tied shut, but a wooden handle with red paint on it had punched through the side. I put the lighted face of my phone up to the handle and saw a clear fingerprint in blood.
I dialed 911 and sat down to wait.
Warren C. Easley lives in Oregon, where he writes fiction and tutors GED students. He’s the author of the Cal Claxton Mystery Series: learn more at www.WarrenEasley.com.