Middle school retrieval specialist Jeremy Wilderson must team up with preteen private detective Becca Mills once again to solve his most mind-boggling case yet in this action-packed MAX novel.
Ahh, summer vacation! Jeremy Wilderson, Scottsville Middle School’s first (and only) retrieval specialist, is enjoying a slower-than-usual season of retrieving (NOT stealing) lost objects in order to help the under thirteen population of Scottsville.
But crime doesn’t take a vacation! And when sabotage strikes Scottsville’s event of the year—the Summer Art Show—threatening to ruin the burgeoning painting career of Jeremy’s best friend, Case, it’s up to Jeremy to figure out what’s going on. Of course, his archrival Becca Mills, who just happens to think Jeremy, Case, and their friend Hack are involved in the crime, is also looking into it.
Jeremy has only a few precious hours to stop the sabotage before more contest entries—and kids’ dreams—are slashed and burned.
But Jeremy’s specialty is retrieval…not detective work! The only solution is to team up with Becca to solve the case, something Jeremy’s not exactly thrilled to do. Not to mention, he has to keep his alliance with Becca a secret from Case and Hack, who will disown him if they see him working with the enemy. Somewhere between being stuck inside an air vent and slathered in red paint, Jeremy has to wonder: is he in over his head?
I HAD NO IDEA TROUBLE was brewing until Case busted through my back door at sunset one Thursday during summer vacation.
Hey, don’t think that because I didn’t have my thumb pressed to the pulse of Scottsville’s criminal activity, I’d been slacking at my job. I’m not a crime lord, and I’m not a detective. My job starts after the crime has been committed, when the victim comes to me with a sob story and a slice of chocolate cake. That’s when I sneak in and retrieve the stolen object from under the thief’s nose.
But I had tried to pay a little more attention that summer. If I’d been more attentive during the school year, I’d have known that Mark Chandler was a dirty criminal psychopath posing as an innocent victim—definitely not someone who needed my help.
My contacts who usually told me when a potential client was looking for my skills, or any information I needed to retrieve something successfully, were gone. Cricket had packed up his impressive collection of denim clothing and left with his family for a few months in Canada, and Tomboy Tate had given me one last list of kids who were feuding (and thus may steal from one another) before going to summer camp.
The silence on the underground wasn’t too odd, or even worrying. Summers are generally pretty chill work-wise for me, so on the sunny July day when our story begins, I had biked, swum, and played video games with Case and Hack. Then Case went off to meet Elena Trujillo at Comet Cream, which is an ice cream parlor that he frequents because it’s a good place to find clients from all over town. I avoid it because Becca Mills—the tiny yet terrifying private detective whose goal was to see me in detention for life—knows this fact.
Fast-forward to an hour later, when Case burst into my house without knocking, eyes wild.
“Dude,” I said. I had been sitting near the back door, waiting for a job if one came along and wasting time with summer reading (To Kill a Mockingbird), so I was there to greet him. “Next time, don’t hold back. Just kick the door off its hinges.”
“We have a problem,” he said, shutting the door behind him.
“Yes,” a voice said. “A devious kid, wearing fingerless Eagles gloves and a shifty look, just infiltrated our house through the back door.” My seventeen-year-old brother, Rick, had made an appearance, coming in from the kitchen with a can of root beer. “Yet another illicit exchange for our Dr. Evil, and I appear to have stepped right into the middle. Oh my, what am I to do?”
“How about shut up and go away?” I said as Case pulled a pencil out of the back of one his Philadelphia Eagles gloves (which he always wore to protect his artist hands) and anxiously tucked it over his ear.
“How about no?”
“J,” Case said, peering out the back door’s window. “We don’t have time for this.”
“It’s summer,” I said. “We have all the time in the world.”
“She’s right outside.”
I went to the window and looked. Becca Mills was in my backyard, arms folded, grinning at Case and me through the window.
“I’m sorry, man,” Case said. “I didn’t know she followed me.”
“I expected better of your criminal friends, Wilderson,” she called. “Your forger should have known not to come straight here.”
I turned back to Rick, who was taking a long gulp from his can of soda. He didn’t seem to have heard. But I had to get rid of him before words like “criminal” and “forger” infiltrated his thick skull.
“Don’t you have homework or some college pamphlets to read?” I asked my brother.
He swallowed. “I’ll read the pamphlets tomorrow. And summer work is better done in the heat of desperation during the last week of August,” Rick said. “Preferably in my spare time between scrimmages.”
Oh, right. Football camp. Like he hadn’t mentioned that six times a day all summer.
Rick gestured to the window with his can. “Isn’t that the girl from across the street? You are in trouble.”
“Nope. I can handle her.”
Becca was still outside. I’d hoped she’d leave, but it looked like she wasn’t moving until she got what she wanted. I groaned and opened the back door. “Come on, Case.”
Rick shrugged and walked back to the kitchen. “Be careful out there.”
“Stay behind me,” I told Case.
Becca smirked at us. “Hello, Wilderson. Seems like you’re still waiting for your first growth spurt.”
I ignored the jab at my less than generous height. “What do you want?”
She ignored me and looked around the yard. “So this is why I’ve never seen you take jobs from home. They come here to the back door. I’ll have to watch you better.”
“This is my house, not yours. I believe that means you’re trespassing,” I said. “Not a great move for a law-abiding detective like you.”
“Is that what you say to everyone who comes back here to hire you? If your clients are allowed, then I’m allowed to come talk to a pair of thieves.”
“We aren’t thieves!” Case said over my shoulder.
Becca’s evil smile grew. “Felony in all fifty states,” she said, and Case tried to push past me.
“Hold on, man,” I said, holding him back. “Don’t let her get to you.”
“No one likes you, snitch!” he called to Becca.
“That’s enough.” I pushed Case inside my house. Turning back to Becca, I said, “I’d love to continue this chat, but unless you have something to say, I recommend you go. I have summer reading to do.”
Her smile slipped into a bitter scowl. “I know you did it. Case coming here proves it.”
“Proves what? I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I can’t wait until you tell everyone that going to a friend’s house is a crime. Now, good-bye.” I stepped back inside and closed the door.
“You can’t hide forever!” Becca called, but I ignored her again.
Case had his face against the glass. “She’s leaving.”
“Good.” I turned around to see Rick leaning against the stair’s banister. Oh, great.
“What did you hear?”
“Not a lot,” he admitted. “But you having a secret meeting in the backyard with a girl? That’s suspicious. The question is, should I tell Mom about this little get-together now, or should I hold out for a better offer? My integrity is strong, but it can be bought.” He grinned at me. “For the right price.”
Case glanced from Rick to me, breathing hard. He thought Rick was serious. But I’m familiar with my bone-head brother’s ways. He knew nothing, and therefore his threat was as empty as the top half of a bag of chips.
I pointed a thumb at the stairs. “Come on, Case. Let’s talk in my room. Rick’s not allowed to bother me there.” I glared at my brother.
“Wouldn’t dream of walking into your evil lair. I’d probably step on your fluffy cat’s tail, and ruin the joy of any diabolic stroking when you’re taunting your victims. I’d hate to put my baby brother out like that.”
“Oh, you got me a fluffy cat? You shouldn’t have. No, really, you shouldn’t have. I’m a dog person.”
Rick laughed. “Joke now, if you want. But if I see blood coming from under your door or smoke from above, I’m calling the authorities.”
“That was one time!” I called as I hurried Case away.
In case you were wondering, it was smoke. Case, Hack, and I were experimenting with invisible inks. Most of them are made visible with heat. We had a little accident.
“Okay,” I said once I’d closed the door. “What was that? Why was Becca here, and what was all that about a felony?”
“That’s what forgery is. A felony in all fifty states.” Case sat down on my bed, his dark skin paler than usual. “She made me tell them everything.”
“Hold on.” I ran downstairs, grabbed a can of root beer, and hurried back to my room. “Here,” I said, offering it to Case. “Drink up, and tell me what happened.” Case was high-strung, but he had never run into my house without the requisite social niceties before. Like knocking, or taking the time to catch his breath.
As Case chugged the soda, I thought about Becca’s appearance at my house. Now she knew where I conducted my business. That wasn’t good. I also didn’t like her threatening Case. Sure, Case was a forger. He was a talented artist who used his skills with pen and brush to create fake hall passes, late notes, and the occasional school project, but always for a good cause. Like me, he used his talents to help people. I’d never steal something outright, and he’d never fake an assignment to help a cheater or to give someone false credit. The way we worked was hardly a felony.
Well, I guess there was my last big job. I’d been tricked into stealing, outright stealing, the master key that unlocked every locker in the school for a guy named Mark, who used it to steal from everyone in the school—Case, Hack, and me included. I had to team up with Becca Mills to stop Mark and return the key to the teachers.
But Case couldn’t possibly know about the fact that I had worked with Becca. He and Hack hated Becca, and if they knew I’d worked with her Case wouldn’t be over here downing a soda in my room. He’d be screaming at me, vocalizing his betrayal in the loudest way possible. That, or avoiding me completely. Which was why I’d never told him or Hack about Becca’s involvement in that job.
It couldn’t be about a more recent job either. Since school had ended, I’d only retrieved a few retainers left at the public pool after closing time.
Like I said, work was slow over the summer.
Case slammed the empty can on my side table and belched. “Excuse me. Okay.” He sounded calmer, but I detected a small twitch in his fingers. Maybe it was just the soda.
“Okay,” I said. “What’s up? You look like someone stole your art supplies.”
“Not mine,” Case said. “But someone did steal brushes, and paints, and it’s bad. I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. Just tell me what happened.”
“I was at Comet, sharing a Black Hole sundae with Elena, when Becca Mills came through the door.”
“Well, she does like to get information there,” I said. “Did she see you?”
“Would I be here if she didn’t? She sat down next to me, trapping me in the booth between her and Elena. And here’s the thing: Elena helped her! They caught me like a rat in a trap, and then they played with me like . . . like . . .”
Case nodded. “I didn’t even know the snitch had friends.”
“It’s not too unbelievable.” Case gave me an odd look, and I added, “We’ve seen her at school. She sits with a group.”
“I always thought they just took pity on her,” Case said. His fists clenched.
“You okay?” I asked, pointing at them.
Case frowned at his gloved hands but didn’t unclench them. “She’s such a monster,” he said. “I mean, she’s always been, but today she crossed a line. She trapped me, J. They trapped me, Elena and Becca. Elena’s such a nice girl, most of the time. But then Becca showed up and they sat on either side of me, keeping me from moving. Becca was smiling the whole time, like she enjoyed seeing me squirm.”
“She probably did.”
“And Elena was just like her, in that moment. She didn’t say anything, but that smile was just like Becca’s. The snitch is poison; she taints everyone around her. You should have heard her. Becca, I mean. When I tried to get away, she mentioned the other schools I work at, naming people I’ve done jobs for. That’s when she mentioned how forgery is a felony and I should really sit back down.”
I thought of Becca standing near the edge of my backyard, reminding Case of their conversation. She definitely had a mean streak.
“I . . . I couldn’t take it, J. It was like I couldn’t breathe. I told her all about the stolen brushes.”
Um, what? “Stolen brushes?”
“You know, Heather Caballero’s stolen brushes. Heather hired Becca to find some art supplies that were stolen from her.”
“No, I didn’t know. Stolen brushes? Heather? And what do you mean you told her everything?”
“Becca had a list that Heather gave her of the brushes she had stolen. They’re good brushes, and she had a variety. A bright, a fan, an oval wash, a highliner, a round, and a one stroke,” Case said, counting them off on his fingers.
“I don’t know what any of that means.”
“Neither did Becca, but I did. She could have just asked Heather or looked up the different brush types online, but she asked me.”
“Heather might have told her what they looked like. She probably asked you just to see how you’d react.”
“I think you’re right. I wanted to be helpful so she wouldn’t bring up felonies again, so I gave her detailed descriptions of each kind of brush stolen. Heck, I drew pictures! But now she knows what to look for. She’ll recognize them when she sees them.” Case’s eyes scanned my room, like he thought the brushes would be lying on my dresser.
“Case. Case!” I grabbed his shoulders. “Calm down. I’m really confused. Why is this a problem for me?”
Case frowned. “You mean, you didn’t take the brushes?”
“Not my gig.”
“Oh.” Case looked relieved. “I mean, I know you don’t steal, but I thought it could be a case of misinterpreted ownership, and then after all that junk with Mark—”
“I swear, if I ever have a job like that again, I will tell you everything.” I’d promised my friends that I would inform them of any future jobs I took. Keeping the truth from Case and Hack while stopping Mark had been too hard, and, since it seemed unlikely I’d ever work with Becca again, it shouldn’t matter.
It seemed Becca had similar thoughts. Never mind her animosity during our backyard visit—the hatred had been obvious for weeks. On the last day of school and every time I ran into her around the neighborhood, she shot poisonous glances my way. Yesterday I’d seen her glare at my house. I was at my window, reading. She couldn’t see me, but it was like, to her, my house was evil because I lived there.
I had no idea why she was mad at me. I mean, we caught Mark, didn’t we? I may have broken a few rules in the process, but hey, she seemed fine with that in the end. Right up until she wasn’t. So what had happened?
I had a feeling this whole stolen-brush thing was going to come back around to punch me in the face. I sighed. “What happened with Heather?”
“Heather had a party yesterday, just for fun, but also as a release for everyone who’s participating in the art contest. Swimming, sodas, that kind of thing. According to the snitch, after the party, Heather noticed that some of her brushes and paints were missing. Her guests had already left, so she couldn’t ask them about it. So she hired Becca to find them.”
Why didn’t she come to me instead of Becca? Heather knew me; I’d done a couple of jobs for her in the past. Also, I charged way less than Becca for services rendered. Detective Becca Mills charged cash money for summer work. Why wouldn’t Heather hire me for a quick retrieval when all I asked for in return was that my name get passed on and maybe a slice of chocolate cake? Was there some kind of extenuating circumstance that made me unfit for Heather’s job, like a conflict of interest or something?
A nasty thought pulled me out of my trance. “You didn’t do it, did you?”
“Of course not. Why would I take someone else’s brushes when I have my own?”
“Sorry, man. I wasn’t thinking.” I rubbed my eyes. “Great. Another thief on the loose.”
“Story of your life,” Case said. “But if Becca listened to me, she’ll know not to accuse you.” When I raised an eyebrow at him, Case added, “I stuck up for you, you know. After I told the snitch all about the brushes. I mentioned how the brushes stolen were all specialized brushes, used for different purposes. An artist might know the differences between them, but you wouldn’t. I explained this, and I told her all about every kind of stroke each brush could make.”
I bet she loved that, I thought, smirking. Case tended to wax eloquent when it came to art. Also forgery, though he wouldn’t dare discuss that side of his craft with Scottsville Middle’s number one under-thirteen private investigator.
“She said she asked me because I’m an expert on art,” Case continued, “and because I was in the art contest and everything, but if that were true, she wouldn’t have threatened me. She suspects you. She had that evil grin she gets when she thinks you’re one step away from getting sent to military school. And now she let me go and followed me here, just because she was sure I’d tell you the game was up. I didn’t mean to lead her to you. I was just nervous. What if you had taken the brushes for a client who did know their art and which brushes to take?”
“I didn’t. And don’t worry about it. Becca would have come here eventually.”
“Yeah, she would. She’s convinced you stole the brushes and she’s coming after you.”
“She’s coming for us.” When Case gaped at me, I explained, “Think about it: just now, she called us ‘a pair of thieves.’ She knows you’re participating in the contest. I’d say she thinks we’re in this together and that I stole the brushes to give you an advantage.”
Case’s shocked expression turned into a mask of rage. He stood up so fast the soda can on the side table shook. “After I helped her and everything, that . . . busybody . . . thinks I’m the culprit? Me? Why would I steal someone else’s brushes? The contest? Does she think I think I can’t compete on my own merits and have to steal to make myself feel better about the competition?”
“You are nervous about it.”
“Everyone is. You know what this contest is like.”
I did. The Scottsville Youth Art Show and Competition was the biggest competitive event Scottsville held over the summer. Sure, you had your occasional street carnival and the Fourth of July was always exciting, with barbecues and parades and the fireworks, and of course, Rick and I dominating the Wilderson Family Picnic water balloon toss. But the art show meant not only outdoor festivi ties in the park, but prizes and glory for the competitors and bragging rights for their parents. Depending on how many sponsors they had, scholarship money could be even awarded to the winning artists. Those years always went down in history, and not always for the right reasons.
As far as I knew, the prizes this year were minimal. A picture of the winners in the local paper, the Scottsville Gazette, and some top-notch art supplies for each of the winners in three divisions: painting, photography, and sculpture. There was a Best Overall Art prize that was awarded to someone whose art was deemed the best in the whole contest out of all three divisions, and they also got art supplies, a picture in the paper, and the honor of having their art on display in Scottsville’s art museum until next year’s competition.
That last item might explain Case’s anxiety. My friend was such an artiste that he needed his work to be perfection before anyone saw it, which made him a good forger but a difficult person sometimes. The idea of his painting hanging in a museum for all to see probably gave him insomnia. I guessed the other artists were the same way, but Case took it to a level that proved that freaking out can be its own art.
“It’s guilt by association,” I told him. “Becca hates me, so she’s taking it out on you.”
“Oh, that’s a great detective strategy. Really sound logic, right there.” Case fumed and paced the floor, then added, “Heather’s not even competing this year. And if she were, she would have turned in her work weeks ago like the rest of us. It would be pointless for anyone to steal her brushes now. But no, that won’t matter to that monster Becca. Right now she’s probably out finding skewed evidence on both of us. Well, when I see her, I’m gonna—”
I grabbed his shoulder. “Okay, calm down. You didn’t do anything. Remember, she thinks I’m a thief, not you. She might think you’re involved, but if anyone’s on the hook for stealing brushes, it’s me.”
“Right.” Case took a deep breath and sat back down. “Right. You’re the one she’ll focus on. I should worry about helping you.”
“Don’t worry about it. Seriously.” I sat beside Case and smiled. “Yeah, she’ll come after me, but Becca’s a good-enough detective that after she works the angles and realizes it couldn’t be us, she’ll move on.”
Case looked skeptical. “You think?”
“She may want me roasted with barbecue sauce, but she has professional pride. She’ll find the right person eventually. And, anyway, you saw how good I am at dealing with her.”
He smiled. “You have had lots of practice.”
“I’m a master at Becca-wrangling. Leave this to me. You worry about the contest.”
“Then that’s okay.” Case flopped back on my bed. “I’m sorry I freaked out.”
“You’re wound tight because of Saturday.”
“I’m not wound tight. I’m exactly as anxious as I should be. Do you know how long I’ve been working on that painting?”
“At least as long as I’ve been hearing about it.”
“Months. And oh man, today is Thursday.” Case sat up as though he’d been kicked. “The contest is Saturday. Saturday is the contest. I need to go get ready.”
“What do you have to do? The painting is turned in. All you have to do is show up.”
“Show up and see everyone else’s art, all my competitors. And you’ve heard about things that happen at this contest.”
I frowned and raised a finger. “You mean like that time the two kids started brawling because—”
“Because one guy said the other’s painting looked a little ‘sloppy in the details,’ yes. They were both disqualified.”
“That was years ago. We were seven.”
“But you still remember it, right?” Case twisted the edge of his Baltimore Ravens jersey. “When we were eight, a girl made a sculpture that everyone said looked like it was made of earwax. We still call it the ‘Earwax Statue.’ And remember last year?”
“Some guy’s painting got made fun of. He lost. Right?” I honestly didn’t know too much about that one; after the contest no one talked about it again.
“Right! What if that happens to me? Or what if I spill lemonade on my pants, like that sculptor girl two years ago? She got her picture taken for the paper with a wet stain across her lap. That’s it—I have to go home and practice walking with a full glass.” Case stood and ran out of my room, downstairs, and out the back door. I heard the door slam.
“Thanks for the intel,” I said to my empty room. Then I lay back on the bed.
Case running off without a good-bye illustrated how freaked out he was about this contest. Sure, things happened at the art show, but not every year. Sometimes it was just an art show. An art show with nervous contestants and some quality prizes, but an art show. Maybe Case would calm down a little.
Right, and maybe he’d invite Becca over to play some Madden with Hack and me.
After seeing Case lose it over Becca’s interrogation and his almost-fight in the backyard, I was glad I’d never told him or Hack about my time working with Scottsville Middle’s most feared detective. I’d never be able to explain it in a way that would prevent Case from feeling betrayed.
But that was an old problem, neatly avoided. I had bigger things to worry about. I hadn’t lied when I said Becca was good enough to catch the real thief, but I also knew that she hated me enough to only see the clues that led to me, or worse, to Case and then to me. At least she would at first. She might move on, but only after harassing both of us for days. In fact, I couldn’t believe she wasn’t already knocking on my door, hand-drawn warrant in hand, ready to accuse me. That could get awkward if Mom and Dad and Rick saw. They wouldn’t understand. They’d think she was my girlfriend or something.
Ugh. Can you imagine, Becca and me? We’d get along like two betta fish in the same tank. At least, we would now. There was a moment at the end of the Mark job that I thought Becca and I could be . . . well, no longer enemies, but that passed quickly.
The best plan was to relax. When the detective came, I’d tell her the truth and send her on her way. Case and I were innocent, so we wouldn’t be in any trouble.
But trouble has a way of kicking in my door, no matter how many bolts I use.