So Here’s This Story…

A Treatise On The Acquiring of A Guilt-Ridden Confession:

A Kyle Hawthorne Mystery

by Keegan Blackler

Following a brief introduction by the author (which follows): This story isn’t as funny as I set out to make it, though it is funny. I guess story about domestic violence (against property, FEMINISMS (feminist organisms (super witty))) have a tendency to lean towards the serious. Still. I like Kyle, or at least I like the idea behind Kyle (that of a hardboiled boy detective, who actively practices his hardboiled arts). Oh, and Chris Caldwell, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. This is why.

***

Early on a Saturday morning in late October, the residents of the cul-de-sac at 104th and Pine were awoken by a heinous, grating noise: at the time, my best guess was that some outraged roboticist had finally grown the requisite balls and made a robot dinosaur and said robot dinosaur had been unleashed upon our little neighborhood and was currently consuming all the cars in a grand feast of steel and rubber.

This was not the case, but the noise was still enough to draw people from their beds, and, being people, we’d all come outside to investigate. Two houses down from ours, the Stephenson’s house, jammed into the wood chipper Mr. Stephenson had rented for the week, was a brand new, steel gray, top of the line mountain bike (I assume it was top of the line, I don’t know bikes). Specifically, Aiden Stephenson’s brand new, steel gray, etcetera etcetera. The two of them, father and son, were standing next to it, shouting their throats raw and bloody at each other. I only managed to catch the tail end of the conversation.

“Because you always blame me for everything!” screamed Aiden.

“Tell me—tell me why I shouldn’t blame you for this! What possible other explanation is there for this? Tell me!” replied his father.

“I! Don’t! Know!  Did you consider it might have been Austen?!”

“Hey, don’t drag your brother into this!” said Mr. Stephenson, pointing at their house. “Your bike, your problem! Now get your ass in that house, mister, and unless you can possibly, in some crazy world, prove to me that you had nothing to do with this, there is going to be no end to the shitstorm you are in store for!”

And it was there, right there, that I knew I had a case.

It was easy enough finding the window to Aiden’s bedroom—it was the one in the basement with the angry music blaring out of it. I didn’t recognize it, but then again, I’m eleven, and I don’t really do music. Should detectives do music? I should look into that.

A couple taps got his attention. He turned down the stereo and popped open the window. His eyes were red and watery, his nose runny, and his skin flushed. I saw fit not to point it out that I noticed this.

“Godammit, Kyle, what are you doing now?” asked Aiden. “Go home, I’m in enough trouble as it is.”

I made a point of ignoring him as I took out my notepad and pencil and began to doodle mindlessly. This was a flaw- and timeless intimidation technique of the hardboiled detective. “Did you do it?” I asked, without looking at him.

“What?”
I asked again, but switched up the tactics: this time I gave him a good dose of the stinkeye. “Did. You. Do it?”

“Wha—no. No, I didn’t trash my bike. I was asleep this morning, like everyone else.”

“Why is your dad so sure you’re the one who did it, and not just vandalism?”

“Because he blames me for everything!” He wiped a sleeve across his nose. I pulled out a packet of tissues I keep handy for that very reason and offered it to him down through the window, but he waved it away. Right. Never offer the tissues to teenage boys. An amateur move, and I should have caught it.

“Not good enough.”

He shrugged. “I guess—I guess he knows that I want a car, and not a bike, I mean, I’m fifteen for God’s sake! We talked about an old car, I worked my butt off for an old car, and then all of a sudden he decides I’m not responsible enough to own a car of my own!”

“Mmhmm. And why should I believe you, when you say you didn’t do it?”

“Because it’s still the only way I have to get around!

“Were you keeping the bike back here? Last night?” The backyard was the same as it’d always been—in slight need of mowing, and there was an old swing set that looked like it only got used once every few months.

Aiden shook his head. “In the garage.”

“Locked up?”

“No,” he said, sighing.

“And seeing as how I got back here without climbing the fence or breaking it down, I’m going to say none of the gates have locks either.”

“Meaning—“

“Meaning anyone who wanted it had access to both your bike and the woodchipper.” I bent lower and stuck my head in the window. “So if I’m going to help you, you need to think real hard about anyone who might’ve had it out for you.”

He laughed that bitter, derisive laugh that I suspect you only learn once you become a teenager. “You’re gonna help me? Please, Kyle, just go home.”

“Hey!” I pointed at him, directly like. “You’re in no position to turn away help of any sort, friend.” We were more acquaintances than friends, but I’d never heard of a detective who didn’t call people that, so I felt it was safe. “At worst, I get in trouble for sticking my nose in someone else’s business again. So tell me, anyone have it out for you? Austen? Jilted lover? Disgruntled former employee, convinced you stole his work?”

“Well, Austen is the only one of those that exists, so I’d say you should start there.” I wrote Austen in the torso of the t-rex I’d been drawing while he spoke.

“You sure? No lovers, jilted or other?” I asked, in an offhanded yet subtly pointed manner that I learned from Phillip Marlowe. I was an expert at it after only a couple months of practice, I’d decided. Like Marlowe, I only used it when I thought someone was holding out on me.

“I—no, no… lovers,” he answered, with a quick gone-and-back darting of the eyes. And now I was sure he was holding out on me. There were the rumors that Aiden Stephenson had been spotted with Nina Burnham kay-eye-ess-ess-eye-en-gee on the jungle gym in the park, and later with Jessie Wahlstrom behind the bleachers by the football field. And if he was trying hiding it from me, then maybe I had a lead. OR, maybe he just didn’t like the word ‘lover’, in typical teenage fashion. OR, maybe the rumors were unfounded schoolyard gossip. A disturbing possibility.

“Okay,” I said at last, flipping my notebook closed. “Austen home?”

“Man, I have absolutely no idea.”

“Go check!”

“I can’t, my dad’s here, and he told me not to come out of my room until I’m ‘summoned’, and I am not excited for that, let me tell you.”

I stood up and looked around again, this time at the side of the house. “Which window is his?”

“Far end,” said Aiden, reaching his arm out the window and pointing towards the left side of the house. The sill was well above my height, even my tiptoe height, so I grabbed a patio chair and climbed on top of that. Inside was standard fair—messy floor, messy computer desk, even the walls are messy with posters and pictures. The bed bugged me, though. Well made, with just the right lumps to signify a person sleeping comfortably away.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not well versed in the art of sneaking out, at least not in the middle of the night, but even I knew that this was a decoy. Under that blanket would be pillows, some clothes, maybe even a pair of shoes, but no Austen Stephenson.

“So,” I asked the boy in the window, “where does he like to hang out?”

Getting there meant riding my bike, an act that seemed somehow poignant, considering the morning. That meant stopping back by the house, which gave me the opportunity to pick up something else that I probably should’ve grabbed before talking with Aiden: my dad’s voice recorder.

That is not to say that I am somehow dissatisfied with the performance of my notepad—far from it. The notepad is trusty, loyal, and has Optimus Prime on it, but sadly it cannot record a guilt-ridden confession (at least, not in a manner that doesn’t look like it was scribbled by an eleven-year-old). Being able to procure a crisp and clear recording of a guilt-ridden confession is an essential skill of the hardboiled detective/plucky gumshoe, but rarely is one able to extract said weeping monologue within earshot of a proper authority figure. So I have to adjust, and because I only get $5 a week—$7, starting in January—I have to adjust again.

My dad kept his voice recorder next to the computer in his office, but sneaking it out was going to be a problem, because he was sitting there, typing away. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who’d decided to get an early start after being woken up by the bikechipping. This was going to require some more subtle maneuvering.

“Hey, Pop,” I said, walking into the office, quite subtly.

“Morning, Kyle,” he greeted me, without pausing or looking away from the screen. Just like an engineer would, I decided to assume. “Want me to make you some breakfast?”

“No thanks, I already grabbed some cereal,” I answered, even more coolly than the last line was subtle. Everything was going to plan.

“Well, I was thinking of making pancakes, so keep me informed if you get hungry again.”

“Sure thing, Pop.” Time for the killing stroke. “Hey, I’m gonna borrow the digital recorder for a while, ‘kay?” Masterful.

He reached for it, but let his hand hover momentarily. “What do we say?”

“Please.” I put out my hand, waiting. He held it out to me, just out of reach.

“Try to be careful with it, please,” said my dad, looking at me over the top of his glasses.

“I always am,” I insisted, waving the hand a little.

He inched the recorder closer. “And promise me that you won’t provoke anyone bigger into hitting you again.”

I hopped up and snagged the recorder from him. “Come on, Pop,” I said as I stuffed it in my coat pocket, “the are no promises in crime. Except that it’ll happen again.”

He snorted. “I think your mom and I need to have a conversation about your reading habits.”

I found Austen hanging out with Billy Tamlan and Jeremy Weimer—get this—at the jungle gym in the park. My mind went alive with quips about them “kay-eye-ess-ess-eye-en-gee-ing, but quickly put them at the back of my mind, considering my dad’s advice. All three boys were five years older than me, had at least a foot on me, and who knows how many pounds. Jeremy in particular was kind of chubby.

“Hey Austen,” I said with a genial wave, “mind if I ask you a few questions?” This was met with peals of laughter from the three on the play structure. On the ground below them was a plastic shopping bag filled with cans that, even from where I was straddling my bike, did not smell like they were for soda. It was starting to look like getting a confession would be easier than I thought. Phillip Marlowe sometimes brought whiskey when he needed to get information from someone, but I hadn’t imagined needing to resort to such tactics until, like, eighth grade.

Billy Tamlan recovered from his fit first. “Dude, who is this kid?”

“It’s my neighbor, remember? I told you about him. The nosy one.” He was right, I mean, it’s a detective’s job to be nosy, even when he’s not on a case. Austen was grinning when he said it, though, so I figured he wasn’t too worked up about it.

“Oh, right!” Billy clapped and hooted. “How you been, little man?”

“I’ve been all right,” I said appreciatively. “You?”

“Just fine, little man,” he said, smiling dopily. “How’s that sister of yours? She still into chicks?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll ask her girlfriend next time I see her.”

Billy turned to Austen, saying, “I like this kid.”

“What about you, Austen?” I asked, before we got even further off track. I also finally remembered to turn on the recorder. “How’s things at home? You and your brother getting along?”

He shrugged. “I dunno, fine, I guess. Sometimes we’re cool, sometimes we fight, you know how it is with brothers.”

I didn’t, actually. I just have the one older sister, though I do have uncles. They’re kind of like brothers, assuming brothers spend most of their time being disapproved of by my mom. Still, I nodded, if only to show that I was paying attention.

“These fights ever get… destructive?” Judging by the look he gave me, I gathered that, despite the beer, he could tell I was after something.

“What are you getting at, Kyle?”

“Where were you earlier this morning, at around five thirty?”

Austen looked at Billy, who seemed to be failing miserably at following anything after the exchange about my sister, and Jeremy, who’d fallen asleep or at least insensate. “Out,” he said at last.

“’Out.’”

“Out where?”

“Out wherever the fuck we feel like being out.”

“Out shoving your brother’s bike into your dad’s woodchipper?”

There was a pause, who he seemed to absorbed what I’d just said. What was he thinking? Was he wondering how someone as young and relatively inexperienced as myself had figured him out so quickly? Was he gripping with the quote-unquote “shitstorm” that would be coming his way as soon as he got home? Was he contemplating killing me and dumping my body in the stream, only to subsequently flee from justice, forever condemned to seek absolution for the heinous crime he committed in his wayward youth?

I was proven wrong on all guesses (except maybe that last one—who knows how a man will behave when facing an upheaval of all he has known and loved?) when Austen burst into hardy, meaningful, choking laughter.

“WHAT?”

Um, I thought, and said as much. On the list of expected reactions to being accused of crime, shocked enthusiasm was not, sorry to say, expected.

“Dude, dude,” Austen kept saying as he clumsily clambered down off the play structure and grabbed me jovially by the shoulders. He looked as excited as I might’ve if I’d just learned that dinosaurs were real again. “Dude. Tell me what happened, don’t skip any details.” I did, and I didn’t.

When I was finished, and they were done laughing, I asked, “So… you’re saying you had nothing to do with it?” I didn’t do the best job of keeping the disappointment out of my voice.

It was Billy who answered. “Little man, we were at a concert until, like, three, and them at Tami’s up to an hour ago, and then here. No real opportunity to be dickin’ around with anyone’s rides, y’know?”

I was beginning to. “You guys got any evidence to back this up?” I asked vainly.

Austen pointed at Billy—“Witness,”—and at Jeremy—“witness.”

Not to mention the fact that all three were clearly too tipsy to have gotten away from the crime scene as cleanly as the real culprit had.

“Besides,” chimed Aiden, “I can’t speak for my compatriots here, but I ain’t near stupid enough to try and pull any shit on our street anymore.”

“What do you mean? Why not?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“I don’t usually pull… shit… I guess, so maybe I haven’t learned this lesson yet. What are you talking about?”

“Phil!” was all he had to say to get it to hit home. Phil something or other lived on the corner at the entrance to our cul-de-sac. He was rather paranoid, and had a hyper sensitive motion sensor and connected floodlight pointed out over his yard. It wasn’t much of a stretch to think his set up also included—

“A camera,” I muttered. “Dang. Would your dad think to check with him?”

Austen shrugged. “Probably not, if he’s as sure it was Aiden as you said he is.”

“He sounded sure.”

“Then maybe you haven’t wasted your morning.”

Getting what I needed from Phil had been tedious and tangential to the course of the investigation (it had involved gardening), and seemed all the more so when I felt so close to the answer, but it had paid off in the form of a USB flash drive. I’d wanted to clutch it tightly in my fist forever and ever, like God’s Warrior wielding a rather undersized sword of Truth, but handing it over to Mr. Stephenson was one of the conditions to get him and Aiden to accompany me when I confronted one Nina Burnham. Or really, I got to accompany them when they confronted her.

The ride over was really, really tense. Like, super tense. Massive poop tense. Aiden, who I expected to be relieved at the news, just sat in the front seat fuming, and didn’t say anything besides the necessary directions. Mr. Stephenson, on the other hand, was visibly less angry, but he’d voiced concerns that Aiden had done something to Nina to warrant such vengeance. Like earlier, Aiden was reluctant to comment.

He was the first to reach the door, and used it as an opportunity to vent a little. Mrs. Burnham answered.

“Aiden? What’s the ma—“

He cut her off by simply holding up the picture Mr. Stephenson had taken of the woodchipper, complete with bike stuffing. Just in time for Thanksgiving, said the awesome part of my brain, but the part that didn’t want to get yelled at quickly stomped that down. Aiden, meanwhile, pulled from behind that picture the screenshot we pulled from Mr. Montgomery’s surveillance camera: a shot of a girl, Caucasian, approximately 14-16 years of age, with blond hair as long as her back, fleeing the scene of the crime just this morning.

Without a word, she closed the door, and we heard the sound of receding footsteps. Shortly thereafter, approaching footsteps. Nina Burnham opened the door.

“What the fuck, Nina?” Aiden growled, somewhat to my surprise. I’d expected shouting.

“Hey! Language!” interjected Mr. Stephenson.

“Fine. What the hell, Nina?”

Nina pushed the pictures out of the way. “What the hell, what, Aiden? What are you even talking about?”

“You trashed my bike this morning!”

“I did not!”

“Bullshit—“

“Language!”

“—we have a picture of you doing it!” He held up another screencap from the video. Nina barely glanced at it.

“I don’t know who that is, but it’s not me.” Behind her, Nina’s sister, Victoria, had poked her head out of a doorway. She had the air of a terrified chipmunk, and she carried herself so differently from Nina that it took me a moment to remember  that on better days they were, in fact, identical twins.

“No one else has any reason to!” Aiden insisted.

Nina raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think I have any reason to?”

“Because Jessie Wahlstrom has been telling the entire school that she and I made out, and you believed her!”

“And did you?” countered Nina, finally raising her voice.

“I asked you first!”

“Well, you’re a cheating scumbag, so really, who cares about what you want?” She stood back to slam the door in all of our faces, but was stopped by her own dad, who’d stepped out of what I guessed was the living room from behind his other daughter.

Looming over Nina, he said, “I do.”

“But, Da—!”

“Don’t you dare,” Mr. Burnham said with a finality that made me want to not dare anything, ever. He held out his hand to Aiden, who, suddenly quite submissive, silently handed over the photos. “Regardless of what this boy did or did not do,” said Mr. Burnham, looking them over,” someone ruined hundreds of dollars worth of Mr. Stephenson’s property this morning. So I need to start hearing some truth, right now.”

“I didn’t do it!”

“Yes you did!” shouted Aiden.

I did it!” screeched someone who was not Nina Burnham. “Leave her alone!”  Standing in the middle of the hallway, Victoria Burnham looked flushed, furious, and still absolutely terrified.

“Vicky?” whispered Nina.

“You said it,” her sister muttered. “He’s a cheater, and a douche, and, and, and you were spending all your time with him and no time with me.” She was in tears now, “So suddenly there was no more us and there was just you two, and it wasn’t fair! It wasn’t fair! Then he makes out with that whore and, and everybody knew it, but you didn’t do anything about it! S-s-so, so I did it for you!”

The silence that followed was thick as a milkshake—a poorly made milkshake with more syrup than anything.

“Well,” I said from where I was standing, still on the porch, “I did not see thi—“

“Go wait in the car, Kyle,” ordered Mr. Stephenson.

“Yes sir,” I answered promptly.

I was there for a while before I was joined by Aiden, at the same time the girls vanished into the depths of the house, so it was just the parents standing in the doorway.

“So, relieved?” I asked him, after sitting in silence for a while.

He turned to look back at me and said, “A little, actually.” He looked back at the house. “It doesn’t feel too great, though.”

“I know what you mean.” Before he joined me in the car, I listened to Victoria’s speech a couple times over, or at least what the digital recorder managed to pick up from inside my pocket, and where I was standing. I deleted it, though. It didn’t really strike me as the kind you hold on to as a matter of professional pride. “You know, jealousy is one of the most common motives in crimes of passion,” I told him, “but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a girl being jealous of her sister’s boyfriend.”

“I don’t think we’re going to be boyfriend and girlfriend much longer, Kyle.”

“Just seems queer, is all,” I said.

He settled back into the seat and closed his eyes. “You shouldn’t say ‘queer’, even if they say it in your detective books. It’s a hate crime to call something queer now.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know much about hate, Aiden, but I know plenty about crime, and I’m just happy this one’s solved.”

“You’re weird.”

“Nope. I’m hardboiled.”

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