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Authors: Lisa Bullard

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BOOK: Turn Left at the Cow
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There was quiet on the other side of my door and then Gram spoke up again. “All right. I know how upsetting this must be for you. I'll let you have some time to yourself. I'll put your plate in the refrigerator in case you want it later.”

And maybe her saying “later” was all it took, because my brain finally hit hibernation mode and I somehow fell asleep.

 

I woke up feeling like something inside my stomach was clawing for food. I picked up my cell to check the time: 3:23 A.M. I moved through the dark house as quietly as I could, got the plate of dinner out of the fridge, and nuked it in the microwave. Then I grabbed a fork and creaked open the back door, heading outside to the end of the dock to sit where I could swing my bare feet down over the edge. A busy breeze drifted its fingers under my nose; the lake smelled like secrets. Waves licked up against the rocky shore, and somewhere close by, a cricket violined his legs.

You almost could have thought it was an okay place to be.

I had just finished eating when the air shifted in that way that tells you somebody is hovering, even though you didn't really hear anything. I looked around and saw Iz standing behind me, outlined in stars.

“If you've come to push me in, you might as well get it over with,” I said. “Feel free to hold my head under water too—you'd probably be doing me a favor.”

“I couldn't sleep,” she said. “And then I looked out and saw you down here. Can I sit?” She shifted from one foot to another.

I shrugged. “It's a free country.”

She plopped herself down next to me, and I measured how much closer my toes were to the waves running up under the dock than hers were.

“Trav, that word you would have called me earlier if Kenny hadn't stopped you—I deserved that,” she said. “I'm sorry I was such a you-know-what.”

I shrugged again, but that invisible hand that had been choking me since earlier in the day finally eased up a little and words jumped to my lips, ready to pour out. But I still wasn't completely ready to admit what I was afraid might be true about Gram, so I let something else jump out instead—something that surprised even me.

“Do you think my father might still be alive?”

“You think he's alive?” She said it real doubtful. Then her voice shifted and she went on. “Because his being alive would explain how some of the money is turning up now.”

I nodded. Then I swung my head around and looked at her hard. “I'm trying to get used to the fact that everybody in this town is up in everybody else's business, but how exactly do you happen to know about the money turning up?” Then I added, “Not like you don't seem to know a little too much about everything.”

“But you really think your father—” she started in again, but I cut her off.

“No. This time you're going to answer my question. Tell me what you know about what happened today with the money.”

Iz leaned forward and peered down at her own toes. “Well . . . you know how when you were in the grocery store, you knocked over all those beans? The checkout girl is Kenny's sister Kari. She said she didn't introduce herself because you were already so embarrassed, but at dinner tonight she told this whole story about how they found some of the robbery money in the cash drawer and they called the deputy and everybody remembered you shopping there because of the beans and that's why Deputy Anderson wanted to talk to you.”

I could feel the gravity pushing down against my shoulders. I took a deep breath and noticed the strawberry smell of Iz's hair. But I didn't want to get distracted by Iz smelling good or gravity or anything else, so I forced my mind back to the point and said, “Okay, start over and fill in the blanks this time. Every last detail.”

She started talking slowly, like you do when you know somebody doesn't understand a whole lot of English. “Kari works at the grocery store. She saw you in there today, and sometime not long after that, Mr. Svengrud from the Big Store came over and asked her boss if he could check her cash drawer. Mr. Svengrud, he's a bigwig around town—you know, always donating money to church and stuff—and he's friends with her boss. So they looked through the bills in her drawer, and of course Kari was watching because she was worried maybe she was in trouble or something. And then Mr. Svengrud pulled out this certain stack of twenties. Only they were all the old-fashioned kind of twenties, you know, that look different than the ones now?”

She paused and I nodded.

“And Kari couldn't figure out why Mr. Svengrud was so interested in them. She's like Kenny, kind of—she doesn't pick up on details.”

Iz paused so long this time that I had to say, “And?”

“And finally Mr. Svengrud pointed out how even though they were the old style of money, they all looked brand-new. Really, really fresh. No way they'd been in and out of people's pockets for however long it's been since the government changed to the new twenties. And Kari would never have paid attention to them herself, but Mr. Svengrud, he notices stuff like that. Plus he's always been kind of obsessed with finding the robbery money. He's out digging on the island or trolling with this really expensive underwater camera all the time.”

I could see now where this was headed. I inter-rupted her. “Probably what really happened is some geezer at the old folks' home finally broke open his piggy bank. But this Svengrud guy and the local RoboCops think they've stumbled over the bank- robbery money? That's stupid!” I said.

“No,” said Iz, “that's not all. I had to Google it to understand, but there's this thing called ‘bait money,' and that's what this turned out to be.”

“You people are big on bait around here,” I broke in.

Iz sighed real big and went on. “‘Bait money' is money that banks keep alongside their other cash, only they write down the serial numbers of the bait money. Then, if a bank robbery happens and the bait money gets stolen along with the regular money, the police hand around lists of the serial numbers to the stores in the area. That way, if any of the money starts turning up, they can trace it to the spender.”

I thought about that for a minute. “You're saying that Svengrud got this list, like, fourteen years ago and hung on to it for all that time? And he just happened to pull it out the day I turned up in town to spend some cash? Or maybe it was just a slower-than-normal day here in Manure-ville, so checking out serial numbers seemed like a fun thing to do.”

“Well, he has been really interested in the robbery all along.” She sounded a little defensive; maybe I needed to lay off the “manure” BS before she got ticked off again.

Iz kept on. “Some of the Big Store money was on the list, and he started checking with some of the other storeowners, to see if any of them had been paid in bait money too. Maybe he figured he'd be more likely to collect the bank's reward if he could turn over lots of information to the cops. And when some of the money in Kari's drawer matched the list, her boss asked her who'd been in shopping that morning, and she remembered you were there because of the beans. So when they called the deputy, they mentioned that maybe you had been the one who spent it . . .”

She stopped talking again, and I guess we were both focusing on what she'd said, piecing it all together. Then Iz kind of breathed out, real soft, “I guess everybody jumped to the conclusion that you had the money. But if you're sitting here trying to figure it out, then you must not have it.
Somebody
knows where it is, but it isn't you—right?”

I thought about how back in the olden days, before CNN, those big volcanoes used to take everybody by surprise, and when they'd dig up the village hundreds of years later, they'd find people trapped midmotion in lava. I think a big part of me had been statued in place since Deputy Anderson had left Gram's house. My head had been on this big emotional merry-go-round, but otherwise I'd been frozen in time.

But something in that moment on the dock changed everything. I was done being a Whac-A-Mole, handy to have around for whoever wanted to take a whomp at me. The next person to decide I looked like the town scapegoat had better find himself another goat. There had to be a bunch around here.

So I said, “Look, I'm only going to say this once. I don't have a single clue where the money is. And I really wouldn't care, except it's all anybody in this town ever seems to think about. And now, according to the deputy, I'm trapped here with all these people determined to frame me unless I can figure out who
does
have it.” I could tell I was getting a little worked up but I kept going anyway. “So . . . you want to find the stupid money for some reason you won't tell me, and now I need to find it too, which I guess—whether you like it or not—makes us partners. We're like Bonnie and Clyde 2.0.”

There was this long silence, and then Iz said, “Uh, Bonnie and Clyde were bank robbers. We're the ones trying to catch Bonnie and Clyde.”

“Know-it-all,” I muttered.

“Rich California smart aleck,” she answered back. But she said it kind of sweetly this time, so I didn't mind. I mean, yeah, the girl was seriously annoying, and yeah, she was probably using me so she could collect the bank reward. But she was pretty hot, too. The hot thing seemed to be winning out over the other two, somehow.

I could feel her swinging her legs back and forth next to mine over the edge of the dock, but then she stopped. “So—don't get mad again—but do you really believe your father is still alive?”

I looked out at the dark lake stretching away from our feet. Had my father planted his bones in that big deep, or was he still walking around somewhere on solid ground?

The strange thing was, much as I couldn't wrap my head around what it would mean if dear Daddy-O was still around, instead of being dead the way I'd always been told, I had a whole different problem on my hands if it
wasn't
him spending the pirate loot. A problem that had been freaking me out even more than the possible reappearance of Ghost Dad. The problem I was finally making myself face.

I
had
spent lots of money in town that day. The bait money could have come from my hand. Because even though it was the one thing the town Gossip Girls apparently hadn't discovered yet—or at least, it hadn't spread as far as Iz—three people were in on the secret. I knew, and Gram knew, and she'd made sure Deputy Anderson knew too: The money I'd spent hadn't come with me from California.
My
money was still sitting in my bedroom. No, the money I'd spent in town had come from a person who had been in Cow Dung the whole time, before the robbery happened and ever since then, too. The money I'd spent had come from Gram.

So I wasn't thinking just about a daddy come back from the dead or how good it felt to talk to someone outside my own head or that word
partners
. Instead I was asking myself a question: If it was true that my father was Clyde, could it also possibly be true that my grandmother was Bonnie?

CHAPTER 10

“What do you think?” asked Iz.

I jumped a little when she spoke, and for just a minute there I wondered if I'd gone so long without anyone to talk to that I'd actually asked Iz my question about Gram. But I could barely say it to myself; I knew there was no way I'd said it out loud.

I hit the rewind button to figure out what Iz's last question had been. I was used to doing that; my brain is always bouncing around to different things when I'm supposed to be paying attention. It drives my teachers crazy, so I'd learned how to backtrack to the last question mark for those times I need to pull something out of my butt and save myself.

“I don't want to talk about my father anymore,” I said, thinking my way back to Iz's original question about whether my dad might still be alive. “And I don't want to talk about my grandma or Kenny or Kenny's sister or the deputy or Mr. Svengrud or the bait money.” Iz opened her mouth to say something but I kept right on going. “I'll talk about them all again tomorrow. But right now, uh-uh.”

It felt good—really good—talking to Iz about everything. But I wanted to think through this Gram thing some more before I called the FBI hot line, and if that meant our conversation was over for now, that was how it had to be.

Iz pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. “Okay. What do you want to talk about, then?”

My mind went as blank as a flat screen when the cable goes out. It was like Ma always says: I didn't think things all the way through. It just hadn't occurred to me that Iz would stick around once I'd told her I didn't want to talk about the money anymore—I mean, that was why she was hanging out with me, right? No way I was going to be able to come up with something else interesting to say. With the whole school switch-over, I had somehow become a complete dimwad at boy-meets-girl stuff. And Iz had made it clear there were land mines planted everywhere if I asked her the wrong question about herself. What did that leave us to talk about? Toxic chemical spills? The economic meltdown?

Finally, out of desperation, I said, “Uh . . . we could play ‘I'd rather.'”

“‘I'd rather' what?” she asked.

“Just ‘I'd rather,'” I said. “It's this game we used to play at my old school. My language arts teacher, Mrs. Z., she had us play it every Monday. She'd ask an ‘I'd rather' question, something that's personal but not personal-personal, and then everybody in class had to write an essay explaining why they chose the answer they did. And if she picked your answer as the best one, you won a prize. It was . . . fun,” I said weakly.

Any minute I was sure the stars were going to jump out of their constellations and spell out the word
dweeb
across the sky. I mean, there I was, alone with this hot girl, and I decided the thing we should do was play language-arts games? That was, like, all-star dweeb, man. World-heavyweight dweeb. Take-your-mother-to-prom dweeb.

BOOK: Turn Left at the Cow
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