The Case of the Long-Gone Lizard
Some cases start rough, some cases start easy. This one started with a dame. (That’s what we private eyes call a girl.)
It was a hot day in September. The kind of day when kindergartners wake up cranky from their naps. The kind of day when teachers pull their hair and dream of moving to Antarctica.
In other words, a normal school day.
I was watching a fly. He zigged and zagged over my desk. He flew barrel rolls and loop-de-loops. Near as I could tell, he was getting ready to sing "The Star Spangled Banner."
So I shot out my tongue and zapped him. Bull’s-eye. Midmorning snack.
"Nice shot, private eye."
I looked up. She was cute and green and scaly. She looked like trouble and she smelled like . . . grasshoppers.
Shirley Chameleon leaned on my desk. Her chartreuse scarf tickled my nose.
"Hey, Chet," she said.
"Hey, Shirley," I answered.
"Haven’t seen you around for a while," she said. "Where’ve you been?"
"Duh. Right here in class." I’ve always been fast with a comeback.
"Listen, I need your help," she said.
I checked out the classroom. Old Man Ratnose was busy grading papers. Tony Newt was scribbling rude designs on Walter Pigeon’s tail feathers while his brother stifled giggles. The other students were reading their books or quietly torturing each other. Kids.
"Okay, Shirley," I said. "Let’s step into my office."
We walked back behind the aquarium.
"Sit," I said. She sat. She turned a deep brown, to match the chair. Chameleons do that.
"Spill your guts," I said. She spilled.
"It’s my little brother, Billy," said Shirley.
I knew the kid. He had Day-Glo stripes and a bad attitude. He liked to light matches off his scales and put them out in his nostrils.
Pretty tough for a first grader.
"What’s up with Billy?" I asked Shirley. "Did he steal some kindergartner’s lunch money?"
"No, it’s not that, it’s— oh, never mind." Shirley shook her head and stood up. One tearful eye looked at me while her other eye watched a gnat flying above us. Chameleons do that.
"Yuck, stop it," I said. "Look at me with both eyes."
"I can’t help Billy unless you tell me what’s wrong," I said. "I need a lead."
"A lead. A place to start."
She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. I zapped my tongue out and nailed the gnat. No sense in wasting good food. But I almost choked on the bug when she finally answered.
"Billy has disappeared," she said. "He never showed up for school. I found his book bag on the playground, and I— I just know something’s wrong." Shirley turned a lovely shade of blue.
She was the kind of girl I could have fallen for. If I liked girls.
"Couldn’t Billy be playing hooky?" I said.
"The last time he played hooky without me, I tied his tail into a knot."
I blinked. No wonder Billy had a bad attitude.
"Still, have you checked his usual hangouts?" I said. "You know, the mall, the sandbox, the tattoo parlor?"
"I tried all those places," said Shirley. "No luck. He’s gone."
"I wonder where he went," I said.
"Oh, that’s great." She pouted. "You’re some detective. You’re supposed to know these things."
"I’m a detective, not a mind reader," I said.
She grabbed my arm.
"Chet, you’ve got to find him today, before the football game."
"Why? Has he got the football?" I chuckled.
"It’s not funny. My family is coming to the game, and I’m supposed to watch Billy. If he’s not there, my mom will kill me."
Shirley shuddered and turned a little green around the gills (or where her gills would’ve been, if she’d been a fish).
"So, you don’t have anything for me to go on?" I said.
"There is one thing," she said. "At breakfast he said he had to meet with someone named Herman." She looked down. "I think Herman’s nickname is Monster, or something like that."
Swell. Just swell.
The first case of a new school year, and already things were looking bad. The last time Shirley saw her little brother, he was talking about meeting a Gila monster named Herman.
And most first graders would rather spend summer vacation in a box with the bogeyman than spend a few friendly minutes with Herman the Gila Monster.
It was going to be a long day.
Copyright © 2000 by Bruce Hale
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