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Brian and Sean woke to a loud pounding on their front door. "Go away! It's Saturday!" Sean grumbled and stuck his head under the blanket.
But as soon as he heard Brian, Mom, and Dad racing down the stairs, he tumbled out of bed, pulled on his jeans, and ran downstairs, too. Following the sound of voices, he burst into the living room.
A man and a woman were both talking at the same time. The man's face was red and blotchy, and he waved his arms excitedly. The woman wiped away tears and blew her nose.
Nobody stopped to introduce Sean, but it didn't matter. He recognized Mr. and Mrs. Kingsley Hopper—parents of the most spoiled seven-year-old brat he and Brian had ever met.
"Lester's bed had been slept in, and there was no sign of a struggle," Mr. Hopper shouted.
"You've got to help us! You're a private investigator. You've got to find our son!" Mrs. Hopper screeched.
John Quinn raised his voice. "Quiet, please," he said firmly.
Both Hoppers stopped talking and stared at him.
"Please sit down," Mrs. Quinn said. She led the Hoppers to comfortable chairs and patted Mrs. Hopper's shoulder in sympathy.
When everyone was seated, Mr. Quinn said, "Let's start at the beginning. When you discovered your son was missing, did you call the police?"
"Oh, no! We couldn't!" Mr. Hopper said. "The kidnappers warned us not to."
Sean poked Brian. "Who'd want Lester?" he whispered.
Mrs. Hopper pulled a folded paper from her handbag. Her fingers trembled as she held it out to Mr. Quinn. "This is the ransom note left by Lester's kidnappers," she said.
Brian and Sean jumped up and leaned over their dad's shoulders to read the note:
YOUR SUN HAS BEEN KIDNAPED. DO NOT GO TO THE POLICE OR YOU'LL NEVER SEE LESTER AGIN. GET A LOT OF MONEY READY. YOU'LL HERE FROM US SOON.
The ransom note was crudely printed, and some of the words were misspelled.
"Any chance Lester wrote this himself?" Sean asked.
Mrs. Hopper gasped. "How can you possibly think that Lester wrote his own ransom note? That's absurd! Besides, Lester is a very bright boy, way ahead of everyone in his class. He always makes A-plus in spelling."
"Uh, Mrs. Hopper," Brian suggested, "Lester might have tried to make the note look like someone else wrote it."
"Nonsense. What reason would Lester have for pretending to be kidnapped?" Mr. Hopper asked.
Brian shrugged. "Lester might have wanted to throw you off the track while he ran away," he said. "Didn't he run away from home last year?"
Mrs. Hopper gasped. "I don't care what you heard or read about in the newspaper. Lester did not run away. He simply wanted to visit his grandmother."
"In the middle of the night?" Sean asked.
Mr. Hopper turned so red he looked as if he might explode. "I can't believe what I'm hearing! Lester is a perfectly well-behaved child."
"That's enough, boys. Sit down," Mr. Quinn warned.
Brian and Sean knew they'd better keep their opinions to themselves, at least for now, so they went back to their chairs.
Mrs. Hopper burst into tears again. "We didn't tell you about a problem that makes everything much, much worse," she said. "The cold we thought Lester had ... yesterday his doctor found it was a lung infection. He prescribed medication that must be taken regularly or there could be complications."
"That's right," Mr. Hopper said. "Lester had his first dose at nine yesterday morning, and his second at nine last night. He should have another dose within twelve hours—by nine o'clock this morning."
Everyone turned to look at the clock on the mantel.
"Oh, dear," Mrs. Quinn murmured. "It's almost six-thirty."
Mr. Hopper nodded. "Lester's doctor said the dose could be delayed a short while, but absolutely no longer than eighteen hours. That means if Lester isn't found before three o'clock this afternoon, his life will be in danger!"
"Does Lester know this?" Mrs. Quinn asked.
"No," Mr. Hopper admitted. "Lester gets upset easily, and we didn't want to frighten him."
He looked pleadingly at John Quinn. "We're desperate, John. Please take the case," he said. "We're counting on you to find Lester."CHAPTER 2
Mrs. quinn left to get dressed, and Mr. Quinn opened his notebook. Brian and Sean sat very quietly, hoping that no one would notice they were in the room. They wanted to hear the questions their dad would ask the Hoppers, and they especially wanted to hear the answers. "Let's go over your activities last night," Mr. Quinn said to Mr. and Mrs. Hopper. "Were there any problems?"
"Oh, no," Mrs. Hopper said quickly. "None at all," Mr. Hopper added.
"You gave Lester his medicine?"
"At nine o'clock."
"Did he take it without complaint?"
Mr. Hopper hesitated. "He didn't like the taste of the medicine, but ..."
Mrs. Hopper interrupted. "He's a very dear, obedient little boy. He took a spoonful of his medicine. Then I tucked him into bed myself. He smiled and settled down without a fuss."
Sean glanced at Brian and slowly shook his head. That didn't sound like the Lester he knew.
"Have you called Lester's grandmother?" Mr. Quinn asked.
"Yes. She's the only one we've told, besides you. But she hasn't heard from Lester," Mr. Hopper said.
Mrs. Hopper clasped her hands to her cheeks. "Why ask about his grandmother?" she cried. "I know! It's because of what happened last year. You don't believe that Lester was kidnapped, do you?"
"As a private investigator, I keep an open mind while I collect facts," Mr. Quinn answered calmly. "I'd like to see Lester's room and examine your house."
"The house ... yes." Mr. Hopper gripped the arms of his chair. "We didn't get around to telling you that Lester's window was open, and the screen was lying on the ground. Whoever kidnapped Lester must have got in through his bedroom window."
"I'll check the windowsill and frame for fingerprints," Mr. Quinn said, "and the kidnappers' note, as well."
He stood up and said to the Hoppers, "Please give me your address and telephone number. I'll dress and meet you at your house within a half an hour."
Brian motioned to Sean, and they hurried upstairs.
"Do you think the Hoppers were telling the truth?" Sean asked.
"I don't know, but there's one way to find out," Brian answered.
Sean heard the shower turn on in his parents' bathroom. "Are we going to ask Dad if we can go with him?"
"No," Brian answered. "We aren't going to learn anything new talking to the Hoppers. I'd rather talk to the kids who live in the neighborhood. Kids pay attention to what's happening. They make the best witnesses."
Sean sniffed the air. The fragrance of French toast drifted up from the kitchen. "Bri, could we have breakfast first?" he begged.
Brian hesitated only a second. "Remember that Lester has to take his medicine before three o'clock, or his life's in danger," he said. "It's nearly seven o'clock. We haven't got much time, so we'll have to eat fast."CHAPTER 3
Brian and Sean hopped on their bikes and got to the Hoppers' home just a few minutes behind their dad. "You didn't tell me the Hoppers live right behind Debbie Jean Parker," Brian said.
"It's okay. She won't know we're here," Sean said.
"That's not what I meant. If anyone notices things, then blabs about them, it's Debbie Jean," Brian said. "I want to talk to her."
At that moment Debbie Jean appeared. "Hi," she said. "I saw you ride past my house."
"We're here on official Casebusters business," Sean said.
"You don't look very official," She said to Sean. "You've got syrup on your chin."
She laughed as Sean wiped his chin on the sleeve of his T-shirt, but Sean groaned. Why did Debbie Jean always have to butt in when he and Bri were on a case?
Brian pulled out his investigator's notebook and pen. He beckoned to some kids who were playing baseball in the street. "We'd like to ask some questions," he said.
"Sure. About what?" one of the boys asked.
"About Lester Hopper, starting with last night," Brian told them.
"Oh. You mean about the fight," Debbie Jean said.
"What fight?" Sean asked.
Debbie Jean preened. "I heard the whole thing," she said. "Lester's bedroom window was wide open. It's on the back of their house, opposite mine. He had to take some medicine, and he didn't want to, so he had a real screaming fit. His parents yelled that he had to take the medicine, and he yelled that it tasted terrible and he wouldn't."
Brian, who'd been writing as fast as he could to keep up, finally looked at Debbie Jean. "Did he take it?"
"They must have gotten some of it inside him," Debbie Jean said, "because I heard him choking and sputtering and yelling that he wasn't ever going to take any more of that horrible stuff."
One of the baseball players stepped forward. "She's right about that," he said. "I live over there—next door to the Hoppers—and I hear a lot of that yelling, too."
"Lester is a real spoiled kid," another boy said.
"He's rude to everybody."
"He's a first-class dork."
"A real brat."
"Why are you asking all this stuff about Lester? Tell me," Debbie Jean insisted.
"Sorry, no comment," Sean said with a grin. He loved bugging Debbie Jean. "Our cases are confidential."
"What do you mean, your cases? And what's confidential?"
"We really can't talk about it, Debbie Jean," Brian said. "But we appreciate your help." He thanked the ballplayers, too, and they went back to their game.
Brian made notes on what the kids told him, as he walked across the Hoppers' yard and down their driveway. Sean followed. Debbie Jean was right behind them.
"Does Lester have a bicycle?" Brian asked Debbie Jean.
"Sure," she answered. "Lester likes to make tire ruts across people's lawns after a rain. And he likes to ride as fast as he can down the sidewalk at people passing by, so they have to jump off into the street."
"What does his bike look like?"
"It's a mountain bike—green, with a chrome headlight and a matching water bottle."
Sean peered into the backyard and into the open garage. "I don't see a bike like that around here."
"Excuse us, Debbie Jean. Sean and I need to have a conference," Brian said.
Although she scowled at them, Brian led Sean into the Hoppers' backyard and around a tall clump of hibiscus. "We've got two facts," he said. "A missing bike and the information that Lester didn't want to take his medicine."
"We'd better tell Dad," Sean said. "Kidnappers don't take bicycles."
"Kidnappers?" Something fell through the bushes, landing at their feet. Debbie Jean scrambled to her feet, her eyes shining with excitement. "Is that what your case is about? Lester was kidnapped?"
"You're not supposed to know," Sean told her. "Nobody is supposed to know. The Hoppers don't even want to tell the police."
"That's okay. I won't tell," Debbie Jean said. "I'm going to help you solve the case."
"No, you're not," Sean said.
"I told you about the fight over taking the medicine, didn't I?"
"And I told you about the bike. Right?"
"So I'm going to help you. If you won't let me come with you, I'll follow you. You're not going to leave me out."
"Yes, we are," Sean said. "We're going inside the Hoppers' house to talk to our dad, and you're going to stay right here."
"We'll call you if we need you," Brian said.
Brian and Sean walked around to the front door and rang the Hoppers' doorbell.
"Hey, look, Bri. Dad's car is gone," Sean said.
Mrs. Hopper opened the door. Her eyes were puffy and red, and she dabbed at her nose with a wad of tissues. "If you're looking for your father, he just left," she said.
"Do you know where he went?" Sean asked.
She sighed and said, "He convinced us that his close friend on the police force can be trusted to keep quiet—"
"Detective Thomas Kerry," Brian interrupted.
"Yeah. Detective Kerry will work with Dad and not blab stuff to the newspapers and TV," Sean said.
Mrs. Hopper bent down and stared at them. "And the two of you are not to talk about what happened either," she said.
She began to swing the door shut, but Brian quickly said, "Sean and I are helping Dad. Could we see Lester's room? Sometimes kids notice things about other kids that adults take for granted."
"We don't take anything about Lester for granted," Mrs. Hopper began, but Brian smiled and interrupted.
"Please?" he asked. "We want to do everything we can to help find Lester in time. This may be important."
Mrs. Hopper stared at Brian and Sean for a long moment. Then she said, "Very well. Come in."
She led them through a hallway to the back of the house. Lester's bedroom was large and sunny, and everything was neatly in place.
"Don't touch anything," Mrs. Hopper ordered. "Lester is a very neat boy and likes to keep his bedroom tidy."
Lester or his mother? Sean wondered.
The phone rang in another room. Mrs. Hopper gasped. "That maybe the kidnappers! Don't touch anything!" she repeated, then ran to answer the phone.
Brian and Sean began to explore Lester's room.
Brian carefully examined the windowsill. He leaned out the open window to study the screen, which was still twisted and lying on the grass, and to see the hooks at the top of the window frame on which the screen had been hanging.
"No scratches around the eye that the screen had hooked into. No bent hooks at the top.
No one from outside forced this screen off the window. It had to have been opened from inside," he told Sean.
"That means Lester took off the screen."
"Or at least somebody inside the house did."
"Do you think Dad noticed?" Sean asked.
"It would have been one of the first things he would have checked."
Sean thought about it. "If Lester wasn't kidnapped—if he's just pretending to be—where would he go?"
"Did you see all of Lester's posters?" Brian asked. "They're all of caves. Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky."
Sean bent over the low bookcase. "He's got a whole bunch of books about caves, too." He stood up and looked at Brian. He could tell they were thinking the same thing.
"The only caves around here are the pirate caves, down at Hernando Cove," Sean said. He thought about what Brian's best friend, Sam Miyako, had told him about the pirate caves, and he shuddered. "Sam said that the pirate ghost who lives in the caves runs people through with his bloody sword. Then he feeds them to the sharks."
"Don't pay attention to Sam's stories," Brian told Sean. "You know they always give you nightmares."
"Sam knows five people who saw the pirate."
"Forget what Sam said. We're working on a missing-person case."
"Sam's not the only one who knows about the pirate ghost," Sean insisted. "Everybody knows the caves are haunted." He thought a moment and asked, "Lester wouldn't have ridden his bike in the middle of the night down to the pirate caves ... would he?" "The caves are dangerous," Brian said. "Nobody with any sense goes near the pirate caves, even in daylight."
"Who says Lester has any sense?" Sean asked. "Check the facts. Lester likes caves. The pirate caves are the only ones around. So ..."
Brian finished the sentence. "So that means we ride our bikes out to the caves to see if he's there."
"And run into the pirate?" Sean had second thoughts. "Lester's only seven years old. Maybe he's sitting somewhere in a movie theater. Or maybe he slept on park bench, and right now he's feeding popcorn to the ducks."
Brian shook his head and smiled. "Good try, but it won't work. The movie theaters in Redoaks aren't open all night, and if Lester had slept on a park bench, the police on patrol would have found him and picked him up." He paused. "If you're too scared to search the pirate caves, you can stay home. I'll go by myself."
"Scared? Who, me? I'm not scared," Sean answered. "I was just being a good detective by going over all the things that could have happened to Lester."
He turned at the doorway to face Brian. "What'll we do about the pirate ghost?"
"The ghost is only a legend," Brian said. "We don't know if it's true or not."
Sean gulped. "But we're going to find out," he said. "Right?"
"Right," Brian said. He lowered his voice so that if Mrs. Hopper happened to be nearby she wouldn't hear him. "We've got to find Lester before three o'clock, Sean. And we're not going to let a stupid ghost stop us!"
Excerpted from Beware the Pirate Ghost by Joan Lowery Nixon. Copyright © 1996 Joan Lowery Nixon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 18, 2013
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