The Treasure Of Dead Man's Lane
And Other Case Files
By Simon Cheshire, R.W. Alley
Roaring Brook Press Copyright © 2008 Simon Cheshire
All rights reserved.
I'm not very good at making things. Whenever I put together one of those do-it-yourself models (you know, fighter planes, sports cars, etc.), it always ends up covered in globs of glue. And with a piece stuck on backward. And another piece that falls off as soon as I put the "finished" model on my shelf.
So I should have known better than to try to fix my Thinking Chair. As readers of Volume One of my case files will know, my Thinking Chair is a vital part of my work as a brilliant detective. It's a battered old leather armchair, and in it I sit, and I think, and I mull over important facts regarding whatever case I happen to be working on.
My Thinking Chair had developed a small rip in one of the arms. One afternoon during Spring Break I was in our toolshed trying to patch it up with a piece of super-tough heavy-duty fix-it tape. Guaranteed 100% Bonding Power! it said on the roll. The trouble was, it was 100 percent bonding my fingers together.
Just as I was wishing I'd asked my very practical friend Muddy Whitehouse to do the job for me instead, there was a knock at the shed door. Immediately, I heard the sign fall off (the sign I keep nailing up outside, which says Saxby Smart — Private Detective) and sighed.
"Come in!" I called.
In walked Charlie Foster, a boy who's in my grade at school. He's an owlish kid, the kind of person who gives the impression of being chubby even when he's not. He wears tiny round glasses and has a habit of sniffing a lot.
He looked around the cluttered shed. Half of it, as always, was packed with old yard equipment and random tools and things belonging to my dad (I'd found that super-tape in one of his piles). The other half of the shed was crammed with my desk, my files, and my Thinking Chair.
He handed me the sign. "Hi, Saxby. This yours?"
You can tell he's not the sharpest nail in the toolbox, can't you? He was looking a little scared, and holding a slightly crumpled, handwritten note.
"What can I do for you, Charlie?" I asked. "Who told you to come see me?"
He sniffed in amazement. "How'd you know it wasn't my idea?"
"People who need my services don't usually show up looking like they don't want to be here," I said. "Besides, that note you've got there is written in an adult's handwriting. My guess is that someone's given you specific information to take along."
"Well, yeah," said Charlie, with another sniff. "My brother, Ed. He's nineteen."
"And why does your brother, Ed, need my help?"
"His comic was stolen."
My eyes narrowed. "Hm. Yeeees, I can see that that would be annoying. I don't want to sound rude here, but, um, wouldn't this be filed under Not That Important? Or maybe, I'll Go Get Another Copy?"
Charlie suddenly seemed to remember the note, and he smoothed it out a little and double-checked some of the writing. "The comic's worth a hundred thousand dollars."
"How much?" I gasped. "What's it made of, solid gold?"
I fell back into my Thinking Chair. This made the rip even worse, but right then I was only concerned with hearing more about Charlie's problem. Or rather, his brother, Ed's, problem. Charlie blew the dust off an ancient crate of paint cans and sat down.
"Ed collects comics," said Charlie. "He buys and sells them, and he's got shelves full of really old ones, worth a lot."
"Seeing as it's the middle of a weekday, and he's sent you instead of coming himself, I deduce he usually has to be somewhere right now. So trading comics is his hobby, not his job?" I said.
"Yes, that's right," said Charlie. "He works at that restaurant on Church Street. He's a chef. But he's hoping to trade comics full-time. Or he was, until this comic got stolen."
I settled deeper into my Thinking Chair, trying to ignore the low ripping noise coming from its arm. "So ... Tell me all about this comic, and what exactly has happened."
"It's the first issue of The Tomb of Death," said Charlie. He consulted Ed's note again. "Published in 1950. Only a few thousand copies were printed, and there are less than six still known to exist."
"And what's so special about the first issue of The Tomb of Death?"
"Dunno, never read it." Charlie shrugged. "But comics collectors dream of owning a copy. It's one of the most valuable comics in the world, Ed says."
"And when was it stolen?" I asked. "Give me every detail you can."
"Ed keeps it ... er, kept it ... in our wall safe. Dad had the safe put in because sometimes he keeps a lot of cash in the house, if he can't get to the bank after his store's closed. But Ed uses it the most. The Tomb of Death was in a see-through envelope, propped up against the back of the safe."
"And how long had it been there?"
"Ed inherited it a couple of years ago. Our grand-father was really into comics as a kid, and when he died, he left Ed two big boxes of old comics. And one of them was The Tomb of Death."
"It was always kept in the safe?"
"Always. Ed hardly ever took it out. It was way too valuable for that, and delicate too. It stayed in the safe twenty-four-seven!"
"Why didn't Ed sell it?"
"I think he was going to. But I'm not sure, you'll have to ask him."
"And when was it stolen?"
"Last weekend. Dad opened the safe on Monday morning, and it was gone."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
"Someone cracked the safe? There'd been a break-in?"
"Ed and Dad say no. We have an alarm system, and it was never triggered. The safe's got an alarm, too, and that didn't go off, either."
"Was it in there on Sunday?"
"Yup. Dad had put his store's weekend earnings in there. The comic was still in the safe then. Definitely. I saw it myself."
"So there'd been a lot of cash in the safe that night?"
"Yeah. That's why the safe was opened up Monday morning — so Dad could take the money to the bank."
Two important clues had already become clear to me. One of them was about the safe, about how someone had gained access to the comic. The second important clue was about the comic itself, about why the thief had stolen that, instead of the money that was there too. Can you work out what I was thinking?
Clue No. 1: If two alarms weren't triggered, and no burglar was involved, then the safe was almost definitely opened by someone who knew the combination!
Clue No. 2: If the thief took an old comic but left a pile of cash untouched, then the thief was almost definitely someone who knew how valuable the comic was. They knew it was worth more than that pile of cash!
"This is quite puzzling," I mused. "Didn't Ed go to the police?"
"They said there's nothing they can do about it. There wasn't a break-in or anything. It's like the comic just vanished into thin air, overnight."
I stood up decisively. "Okay, these are there two things I'm going to do, in reverse order: No. 2, I'm going to examine the scene of the crime; No. 1, I'm going to try and get this awful super-tough, heavy-duty tape off my fingers. Tell your brother that Saxby Smart is on the case!"
First thing the next morning, I took a bus to Charlie's house. As I rumbled through town, I called my super-brainy friend and all-around research genius, Isobel "Izzy" Moustique.
"How much?" she gasped.
"That's exactly what I said," I told her. "I'm on my way to the scene of the crime right now."
"A comic book that rare and valuable would be really hard to sell without attracting attention," said Izzy. "This must be a pretty stupid thief! There's no way they could do anything with that comic without getting noticed."
I shrugged. "They could read it."
"What? You're telling me a comic like that wouldn't have been reprinted and republished in a dozen different books by now? No, nobody would steal it just to see what was inside."
"I guess not," I said, trying to sound as unembarrassed as possible. "Anyway, think you could see what you can come up with? Information on recent sales of rare comics, that kind of thing?"
"Already on it," said Izzy. "Come and see me later."
As the bus chugged and bumped along the town's main shopping streets, something struck me about what Izzy had said. She was right — the thief would find it almost impossible to sell that comic without getting noticed.
Unless they didn't plan to sell it at all. Suddenly, I jumped up with a cry! It startled the old lady in the seat behind me.
"Have you missed your stop, sweetie?" she asked.
"No, I've missed an obvious suspect!"
She gave me a funny look. I think she thought I was a little nuts.
But there was an obvious conclusion to be drawn here. What sort of person would steal that comic book and not intend to sell it? Only one sort of person, as far as I could see! Can you see it too?
Another collector, like Ed! Someone who might want to keep the comic just for its rarity alone.
At last the bus reached my stop. The old lady clutched her shopping bag and watched me nervously as I raced to get off. I hurried over to Charlie's house. He took me up to Ed's room first, so I could finally meet his brother.
They say that the clothes you wear say something about you. If that's true, then the clothes Ed wore said something rather obnoxious. With a hand gesture added in for punctuation. He was, without a doubt, the scruffiest person I'd ever seen in my life. He looked like he'd found his T-shirt and jeans in a Dumpster, and he had a patchy beard that reminded me of chocolate sprinkles on ice cream. Apart from all that, he was simply a larger version of Charlie.
His room, tucked away in a converted attic at the top of the house, was his exact opposite. It was amazingly neat and clean. An entire wall was covered in white bookshelves, and placed on those shelves were hundreds — no, thousands — of plastic envelopes. Just visible inside each envelope was the outer edge of a comic book, and most of the envelopes had handwritten labels attached to them.
Ed was sitting in front of his computer. As soon as Charlie and I came in, he bounded over to me and shook my hand so enthusiastically I thought my teeth would come loose.
"Hi!" he said. "You must be Saxby. Charlie's told me all about your exploits, kid. I hope you're as good as they say you are."
"Better!" I declared with a grin. "Now then, tell me more about this comic."
Over some milk and fancy chocolate cookies ("Ooh, yes, I'll have another one of those," I said. "Thanks!"), Ed told us the tale of The Tomb of Death with a wild gleam of excitement in his eyes.
"Way back in the 1950s," he said, "The Tomb of Death was the first in a new style of comic books. Full of grisly stories about murder plots, evil curses, and horrible monsters. These comics were a hit. Kids loved them. And within a couple of years, they were banned!"
"Banned?" I said. "Were they really that bad?"
"Nah," said Ed. "They were funny! With a few scares thrown in, of course. The thing is, parents started saying they were a bad influence on children, and they were banned: The Tomb of Death,The Valley of Slime, all of 'em."
"I see," I said. "They weren't published for long, and parents would get rid of them wherever they could. Result: they end up collector's items."
"Precisely!" cried Ed. "There are certain comics that are legends in the world of collecting. Like, for instance, the Action Comics issue from the 1930s, when Superman first appears, or Batman's arrival in Detective Comics a little later. Or Issue Number 15 of Marvel's Amazing Fantasy — that's the origin of Spider-Man; that comic's worth a fortune."
"And The Tomb of Death is as famous as those?"
"Wellllll," said Ed, making a face and rocking his head from side to side. "It's less sought after, but it's so unusual, it's worth at least as much."
My earlier thoughts about another collector being the thief sprang to mind. "Did you keep the comic a secret? Did other collectors know you had it?"
"Of course they knew!" cried Ed. "I mean, what's the point of having the first issue of The Tomb of Death in your collection if you don't tell the world?"
"You weren't worried one of them might try to steal it?"
"To be honest, no," said Ed. "It was in that safe, locked away."
"And it never came out of the safe?"
"Never. Well, except for special occasions, and even then it never left my sight."
"What sort of special occasions are we talking about here?"
"Uh, lemme see ..." said Ed, wrinkling his nose in thought. "American Comics magazine did an article on my collection about a year ago. They took a picture of me holding up the comic. Then I took it to a trade show soon after that."
"What's a trade show?" I asked.
"Basically, a comics convention," said Ed. "Lots of traders, lots of buying and selling going on, comics publishers showing off their latest stuff, that kind of thing."
"An ideal opportunity for a thief!"
Ed shook his head. "That comic was in a sealed, see-through envelope that never left my hands. I even took it to the bathroom with me! It was perfectly okay."
"Was that the last time the comic was taken out of the safe?"
"No, there was one more time, about four months ago. I took it out to show Rippa. He's another collector. He's got a shop in town, directly across from the restaurant I work at. That's how I got to know him. Odd fella. Not really someone you'd trust."
"I see," I said quietly.
Ed could see what I was thinking. "I can see what you're thinking," he said. "No, he never even touched it. Anyway, you shouldn't ever touch comic books that old."
"Not touch them? Why?"
"They were printed on really cheap paper. High acid content in the wood pulp that was used to make it, you see, so after a few years the paper literally starts to crumble. That's another reason why certain comics are so rare. Most copies have simply fallen apart. You've got to keep the air off them, and keep 'em away from sunlight. Like vampires." He pointed to the neatly stacked comics on his shelves. "Why else do you think I keep all those in plastic sleeves?"
"So this Rippa didn't even touch it?"
"Nope. I did take the comic out, though, and turned the pages so we could both admire the thing. Wonderful smell comes off them, you know, the smell of history. Of course, I wore cotton gloves. Even the tiny layer of sweat on your fingertips can damage the paper."
All this time, Charlie was being oddly quiet. He kept sipping his drink and staring at the rows and rows of sealed-up comics.
"So," I said, "if the rest of the collection is kept up here, instead of in the safe, I assume none of these are anywhere near as valuable?"
"Correct," said Ed. "But there's some really interesting stuff here. Take this one, for instance ..."
Ed Foster might have dressed like a walking trash can, but he was clearly an expert on the history of comic books. He explained to me why some issues were more collectable than others (Issue 33 of The Amazing Spider-Man, for example, worth more than Issues 32 or 34 because it contains a really well-known story. Or Issues 12 to 22 of The Purple Avenger, worth just fifty cents each because the artwork was garbage. Fascinating stuff!). By the time Ed had given me his eager guided tour of the shelves, I was ready to rush out and start a collection of my own!
Charlie kept peeking over his brother's shoulder, trying to get a look at whatever Ed was showing me. Drips from his almost-empty glass plopped onto the carpet.
"Hey, Charlie!" cried Ed. "Watch it! You get any of that on these comics, and you're in for it! You know you're barred from the whole collection."
"Barred?" I said.
"Yeah," said Ed, eyeing his brother moodily. "Ever since I let him borrow one of my 1960s Fantastic Fours and he got jelly all over it."
Charlie stuck his tongue out at Ed. (Actually, no, he didn't do that. Actually, he said a short sentence which included the words "complete" and "you," and which I shouldn't repeat here!)
"Can I see the crime scene now?" I said quickly.
We went downstairs. The safe was recessed in the wall of the living room and concealed behind a painting that swung out on hinges like a door. The rest of the room was just an ordinary living room: sofa, a couple of chairs, TV in the corner. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Treasure Of Dead Man's Lane by Simon Cheshire, R.W. Alley. Copyright © 2008 Simon Cheshire. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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