Tommy Wexler and The Case of the Absconding Arsonist
by Rich Larson
It was another beautiful day in Summer Lake Creek: The birds were chirping, the sky was big and blue as anything, and the sun was shining so bright Tommy could almost hear it sing.
Of course, appearances could be deceiving! Summer Lake Creek might have looked like just another sleepy little town, but it had seen more than its fair share of mysteries. Tommy knew that better than anyone, except for maybe his dad, Sheriff Wexler.
The jovial, heavy-set officer of the law was currently sprawled out on the living room sofa, snoring thunderously. He had been up all night working his latest case, so Tommy was careful not to wake him as he set about making himself some eggs and bacon in the kitchen.
Sheriff Wexler frequently bemoaned the fact that Tommy, at the tender age of twelve, already had a keener eye for clues than most of the department — in fact, he often asked his son’s input on particularly tricky cases.
Tommy had always had a sharp mind and a strong sense of justice, both of which sometimes led to him getting in over his head. Luckily, he always had his two best friends, Lester and Molly, to back him up.
As he chewed thoughtfully on a crispy strip of bacon, Tommy couldn’t resist glancing over the case file left on the coffee table. Almost immediately, he experienced his usual buzzing sensation, from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, that always occurred when there was a mystery to be solved.
Smiling wryly to himself, Tommy gathered up the crumpled beer cans around his dad’s feet, threw them in a garbage bag, and went outside to get his bicycle.
• • •
The sun was seething and humming at him as Tommy biked over to Lester and Molly’s house. The Anderson twins had been born only thirty-eight seconds apart, but Molly wasn’t likely to ever let Lester forget who the older sibling was!
Lester wasn’t the bravest, and Molly wasn’t the brightest, but as a team they were nearly as good at solving mysteries as Tommy himself. They sometimes spoke in their own weird twin language, and they also had a strange, almost spooky ability to tell when the other was hurt or in distress — something that had come in handy on numerous occasions.
Tommy parked his bike on the driveway and bounded up the front steps to ring the doorbell. Mrs. Anderson, the twins’ slim, attractive mother, opened the door.
“Well, hello, Tommy!” she said brightly. “You must be looking for the twins.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Tommy said. “It’s a beautiful day for a bike ride.”
“Or maybe even for solving crimes?” Mrs. Anderson suggested, raising an eyebrow.
They shared a chuckle — Tommy’s knack for getting involved in boyish mysteries was legendary here in Summer Lake Creek.
“I’ll go get them,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Just a moment!”
Just a moment later, Lester and Molly appeared in the flesh. They were the same age, the same height, and they even looked the same: both of them had curly black hair and handsome, Mediterranean features. It was barely the start of summer, and somehow they were already deeply tanned.
“Hiya, Tommy,” Molly said, with her trademark, slightly crooked grin. “What’s the word?”
“It better not be ‘mystery,’” said Lester, with a small, cowardly groan. “I’ve barely recovered from the last one!”
“Who, me?” Tommy asked innocently. “I wouldn’t dream of dragging you guys into danger again! I just thought it was a nice day for a bike ride.”
He exchanged a wink with the twins’ mother.
“Little creep,” she said. “Tell your daddy fuck you, okay?”
“Sure thing,” Tommy assured her cheerily.
• • •
Half an hour later, the crime-solving trio were surveying the wreckage of Wally’s Liquor and Grocery. The store had been completely burned to the ground the previous night, and the culprit was anyone’s guess.
“So we just happened to take a bike ride to the scene of a crime, huh, Tommy?” Molly asked sassily.
“Okay, okay, you got me,” Tommy grinned. “I saw the case file on my dad’s desk this morning. What’s the harm in looking around?”
“That’s what you always say,” Lester moaned, as the trio pedaled closer.
Police tape was still flapping and flickering, wagging tongues in the breeze, and the air stank like burnt plastic. The store owner was busy salvaging what he could from the ashes.
“Gee, Wally, what happened?” Tommy asked, as he caught sight of the proprietor.
“Oh, hi, Tommy,” the mustachioed man said glumly. “Well, according to your father, it looks like arson, not an accident! Who would do such a thing? Unfortunately, there were no witnesses.”
Tommy’s detective brain went into overdrive immediately. “No” was not a word in his vocabulary — not when it came to crime solving!
“The fire started between two and three o’clock in the morning, isn’t that right, Wally?” Tommy asked, using his practically photographic memory to recall the case file.
“That’s correct,” the grieving store owner said. “It’s a franchise, kid. I’m not Wally. Nobody’s Wally.”
“You just leave it to me and my friends,” Tommy said. “I’m sure we’ll find a witness somewhere.”
His eyes meandered to the street corner, where he noticed something strange. Normally by now the town’s local loon, Old Man Pinkman, would be out on the sidewalk, holding out his Dodgers cap for spare change. But for some mysterious reason, he wasn’t.
• • •
“Boy, Tommy, I don’t know about all this,” Lester said fearfully. “I hear people say Old Man Pinkman eats kids for breakfast!”
“Aw, shut up, Les,” Molly said. “That’s just hearsay, and you know it!”
Tommy paid no mind to the twins’ chatter as they bicycled deeper into the woods. Old Man Pinkman lived out past the railroad crossing, in a threadbare tent patched with plastic tarp. Every kid in Summer Lake Creek knew to stay away from Old Man Pinkman’s tent, but Tommy was determined to find his witness, and he had a gut feeling in his stomach that Old Man Pinkman was involved.
As they diverged from the main trail, they had to dismount from their bikes and walk instead: the trees were thick, and the ground was muddy and uneven. Lester nearly tripped over a gnarled noose of a tree root, but Molly caught him.
That strange twin connection at work again, Tommy mused as he led the way to Old Man Pinkman’s tent. Sunshine was streaming through the trees overhead. They passed a small dead bird coated in some buzzing flies and Molly made a face — she hated flies. As they got closer to the tent, they saw several garbage bags full of beer cans and some clothes hung up on branches. Old Man Pinkman had many strange habits.
“We should just leave him alone,” Lester muttered.
Ignoring his cowardly friend, Tommy stepped forward to the mouth of the tent. “Excuse me, Mister Pinkman, sir,” Tommy called. “It’s Tommy Wexler and the Anderson twins! I was just wondering if I could ask you a couple questions.”
There was a mysterious rustling noise from inside the tent, then Old Man Pinkman emerged, blinking owlishly in the sunlight. He scratched at himself, leaving white marks on his vein-strangled forearms. Tommy suspected he had fleas.
“Lea’me ‘lone,” Old Man Pinkman said, not speaking clearly. “Already told you, bad boy. Bad, bad boy. Bad as your fucking daddy.”
“Say, Mister Pinkman, did you hear about what happened to Wally’s Liquor and Grocery?” Tommy asked.
Old Man Pinkman scratched himself even more vigorously, and Tommy’s detective brain went into overdrive yet again. Suddenly, he realized the scratching wasn’t because of fleas at all: it was because of guilt. Old Man Pinkman knew something about the case and didn’t want to admit it.
“Were you hanging around there last night, by any chance?” Tommy asked, keeping his voice cool and casual even though his mind was racing a mile a minute. His eyes went to Old Man Pinkman’s left hand. The skin of his thumb was red and bubbled, almost as if it had been burned.
“I don’t know nothing about no fire, Tommy,” Old Man Pinkman said, then trundled back inside his tent, still mumbling. “I’m busy every day. Busy every day.”
Tommy exchanged a meaningful look with Lester and Molly. “Guys, did you see his thumb?” he asked in a whisper. “I think he burnt himself, and recently!”
“Golly, do you think he was the one to set the fire?” Molly asked, wide-eyed.
“I think it’s just from how he smokes,” Lester said quietly. “You know, he burns himself smoking butts.”
“So we’re agreed,” Tommy said. “Old Man Pinkman just became our number one suspect.” He paused thoughtfully. “I say, we get him to confess. Molly, you have your tape recorder, right?”
Molly gave him a blank look for a moment, then she pulled the tape recorder out of her pocket, sliding her thumb along the cracked glass screen to unlock it. It was one of Molly’s many quirks: she loved being able to record their adventures, or make notes for herself about clues to puzzle over later.
“Great,” Tommy said. “And I brought something to convince him with!”
He unwrapped the object he’d been keeping bundled up in his sweater, and the twins’ eyes bulged in amazement.
All the color drained comically from Lester’s face. “Man, no,” he said. “Tommy, no! Like, shit. Like, fuck.”
“Is that your dad’s?” Molly asked dumbly.
“No cussing, Les,” Tommy said sternly, then, turning to Molly, “Yep, and he showed me how to use it, too. It’s a twenty-two.”
“Please, Tommy, let’s leave,” Lester said. “Okay? We can play PlayStation at my cousin’s.”
Molly smiled brightly. “Don’t be a pussy, Les. He’s not going to actually shoot it.”
“It’s just for show,” Tommy agreed. “Hey, Mister Pinkman! Get out here, and get on your knees!”
• • •
Old Man Pinkman sure was one tough nut to crack. Even with Tommy pointing his dad’s Glock at him, all he did was either blubber a bunch of nonsense or snarl at them. Lester’s griping wasn’t helping any, and even Molly, who was usually the braver of the two twins, was strangely nervous.
But that was a mystery for another time. For now, Tommy had to focus on his witness.
“Don’t get up!” he warned. “Keep squatting like that.”
Old Man Pinkman shifted, and Tommy could hear his bones crack-popping, the way his dad’s did when he leaned or stretched or swung. The trio had already done a thorough search of Old Man Pinkman’s tent, looking for gasoline or matches, but nothing had turned up, and everything smelled bad. They had also opened up the garbage bags, spilling the cans and bottles that Old Man Pinkman liked to collect.
“I understand why you did it,” Tommy said kindly. “I remember Wally shouting at you for hanging around outside the store. He said you would scare off the customers.”
Old Man Pinkman started to wail.
“I’m going home,” Lester said. “This is too fucked up. Molly. Come on.”
Tommy waited for Molly to reassure her cowardly brother, but instead she was nodding. “Let’s all go,” she said. “Nobody will believe him. We can just go.”
“I can’t believe you guys are ready to just give up on the case!” Tommy admonished.
“Talk normal,” Lester said, voice shaking. “Seriously, talk normal.”
Tommy pointed the gun jokingly at his friend. “Sit down, Lester.”
Lester’s eyes widened, and Old Man Pinkman, seeing his opportunity, suddenly sprang! Tommy found himself knocked to the ground, crunching on pine needles. The lanky, surprisingly strong criminal was on top of him, trying to take his dad’s gun, and Tommy had no doubt that Old Man Pinkman would not show the same restraint with it that he himself had.
Molly came flying in from the side and shoved the criminal away. Tommy, thinking quickly, seized an empty bottle from the ground and swung it at Old Man Pinkman’s head. The glass smashed apart, and a shard of it dragged through the man’s scalp so it squirted blood.
Any normal person would have been rendered unconscious immediately by the blow, but Old Man Pinkman just started to scream, his face contorted with a frightening expression of rage. Tommy seized another bottle and swung again. This time the criminal reeled away, stumbling to his knees.
It took five bottles for Old Man Pinkman to finally stop crawling around. Tommy didn’t want to do it, of course, but he had to keep Molly safe — and Lester, too. When he finally recovered his dad’s gun and sat down, panting, both his friends were crouched together, staring in awe. Tommy’s whole body was tingling.
“Thanks for saving me again, Tommy,” Molly said, blushingly.
“Golly, that was something!” Lester exclaimed. “No wonder you always win at arm wrestling!”
“Why did you do that?” Molly sobbed. “Why did you keep hitting him? Shit! Shit!”
Lester wasn’t speaking, but he was prying the tape recorder — no, the phone — out of his sister’s frozen fingers.
“Don’t,” Tommy said, taking the safety off his dad’s gun. “Come on, guys. I was defending you. If he had gotten a hold of this thing, he would have served us all a lead salad.”
But Lester was ignoring him, thumbing a number into the phone. Tommy made two quick strides and kicked it out of his friend’s grip.
“Lester,” he said. “Remember when I stuck needles in your hands and got Molly to guess if it was your left or your right?” He picked up the tape recorder and stuffed it into his pocket. “You remember?”
Lester nodded, staring at the Glock.
“If you don’t smarten up, I’m going to do that again,” Tommy explained. “But I’m going to shove the needle right through your eardrum so it pops, okay?” He gave his friends an encouraging smile. “We all need to relax. There was a pocketknife in the tent, right? So, we’re going to put the pocketknife in Mister Pinkman’s hand.”
Molly was starting to cry, but Tommy didn’t have time to comfort his friend. His fabled detective brain was awhir with activity: This was almost like solving a mystery, but in reverse.
“Molly, you’re going to say that you were biking in the woods, and Old Man Pinkman showed up and threatened you with the knife,” he said. “He made you get off your bike and go back to his tent. Lester, you were a bit behind because you stopped to look at a bird. When you heard Molly screaming, you ran up and found Old Man Pinkman trying to touch her pussy. So you threw a bottle at his head.”
Now Lester was starting to cry, too — that spooky twin connection again. “When did you show up?” he asked, choked.
“I wasn’t here,” Tommy said. “I was off looking for clues. That’s important, okay? I wasn’t here. Nobody mentions me.”
He unlocked the phone Molly and her brother shared, then found the false starts Molly had recorded, the moments where Old Man Pinkman, crouching and stuttering, had seemed like he was about to confess to burning down Wally’s Liquor and Grocery. Tommy erased them with a deft motion of his thumb.
“So, you guys give me a half hour to go put the gun back,” he told his friends. “Then you call your mom, and she can call the police.”
Molly was outright sobbing now, and Lester was comforting her, speaking to her in their weird twin language: aasif, aasif.
He didn’t really like the way they looked at him before he biked away.
• • •
Tommy had judged from the number of beer cans and from the sooty crater in the glass pipe on the coffee table, the one he usually shared with the twins’ mom, that his dad would still be asleep when he got home. Unfortunately, even the best boy detective in Summer Lake Creek could be wrong from time to time!
Almost as soon as Tommy stepped inside, Sheriff Wexler swept up from behind and ambushed him with a big bear hug. “Great to see you, son,” he said.
“Great to see you, too, dad,” Tommy said.
His dad’s hands found the gun and yanked it free from Tommy’s waistband. “I was mighty concerned about your safety, son,” he said.
The first slap snapped Tommy’s head back.
“Don’t worry, pops,” he grinned. His cheek stung and swelled. His eyes watered. “I’m responsible.”
He watched his jovial, heavy-set father check the load on the gun, breathe a sigh of relief to find all the bullets. Sheriff Wexler carried the handgun over to the cabinet and locked it inside. He put the key in his pocket.
“Don’t you ever fucking touch that gun again,” Tommy’s dad chuckled.
“Sure thing,” Tommy said cheerily.
But he couldn’t feel his lips moving as he said it. Sheriff Wexler picked up the dusty kitchen rug and opened the sliding door onto the deck. Tommy watched as his dad started whacking the rug against the wall, dull harsh thumps. He curled his knees to his chest and counted the little puffs of dust. His dad was always thorough, an important trait for any police officer.
He only stopped when his phone rang. Tommy’s ears were ringing, too, but he heard a few snatches of the conversation. When his dad ended the call, he was silent for a second. When he spoke, his voice sounded like a broken bottle.
“Sometimes I wonder just what the fuck I done to deserve you, Tommy,” he said. “I really do. I’m a lucky man.”
Birds were chirping out on the deck. The sun was hissing and roiling high in the clear blue sky over Summer Lake Creek.
Tommy was so grateful he almost cried.
Copyright © 2021 by Rich Larson