Chuck Dunwoody, Kid Detective P.I., gazed down at the dead body. He had been called to action by Spanky Crumbhouse, the red-headed third-grader on Thistle Lane, who found the body during his morning bike ride. The body’s legs were resting in a small stream, along with some of its hips and torso. The top half, ripped away as if by a large carnivorous beast, was twenty feet away with its head buried in the ground and its entrails arranged in a cryptic pattern. Chuck was performing his customary investigation of the crime scene, chewing on an old yellow No. 2 pencil and squinting at the carnage.
“You say you found it just like this?”
“Yeah, Chuck. Dust it for prints if you like. I was riding my bike on the trail over there,” Spanky said, indicating a footpath at the top of the hill, “when I saw this mess down here by the crick. And once I realized what it was, well, boy howdy I hightailed it to your treehouse toot sweet.”
Chuck nodded and took some notes in his small red spiral notepad. The pages were college-ruled. Flies had gathered around the sticky pools of blood that formed at each gaping half of the body.
“Whaddaya gonna do, Chuck? Call the police?”
Chuck shook his head. “No, Spanky. They don’t do small cases like this. You were right to come to me.”
“Do you want your 25 cents?” he asked, rummaging slowly in his overall pockets.
“Fee’s waved,” Chuck said. “This one’s on the house.”
“Gee, Chuck, that’s swell,” Spanky said, then squatted down next to the legs. “Reckon it was a man or a woman?”
Chuck was becoming impatient. He worked alone for a reason. “Say, Spanks, why don’t you run up to the pool and see if Matilda’s there. I could use her scientific opinion on something.”
“On what, Chuck? Have you already spotted a clue?” Spanky scanned the scene frantically, trying to spy whatever the famous Kid Detective P.I. was latching onto. The lower body was wearing a length of rope for a belt. It had no shoes on its feet, which minnows idly nibbled at. And the half-buried upper body, the part Chuck was squinting at, seemed shrunken and odd, as if it were deflated. The entrails really did seem to be in a pattern, as if someone was making a grotesque piece of art. The buzzing of the flies was audible and sickening.
“Just go get Matilda.”
“Yes, sir!” And Spanky lifted up his bike and ran it up the grass hill back to the footpath, then pushed himself along its winding way to the poolhouse.
Chuck Dunwoody removed his trademark green ballcap and set it down on the grass. He studied the gash of the torn body intently, even at one point lifting a flap of skin with the eraser end of his chewed pencil. Then he flipped to a new blank page in his notebook and drew a careful sketch of the entrails, making small notes around the edges about various points. By the time he was just finishing, the sound of two bikes caused him to look behind him. It was Spanky and Matilda bumping down the grassy hill.
Matilda jumped off her purple BMX and dropped it in the grass. She was still wearing her bathing suit with penguins on it. She was in second grade and was the smartest person in town, besides Chuck. “Oh!” she said.
Chuck saw the expression on her face, somewhere between stunned and curious. “You know who this is?” he deduced.
“Sure! It’s the guy who owns that pizza place on Mulberry and Fifth! What’s it called? The Speeding Tomato!”
“The one with a mole on his lip?” asked Spanky.
Chuck stood. “How can you tell?”
“Dig up his head and you’ll see. He always wears a rope belt, just like that one. I noticed because I was always kinda jealous.” Matilda was the youngest of nine kids, and always wearing hand-me-downs too big for her tiny body. Case in point: the pink flip-flops she had on were so big they were almost like clown shoes, and she had strapped them to her feet with two hair ties.
Chuck nodded in appreciation of her observational skills. “I don’t want to disturb the scene yet,” he said, “but I believe the body is a male between the ages of 35 and 50, which would match the guy you’re talking about.”
“Sorry I can’t remember his name,” Matilda said.
“His name is unimportant,” Chuck replied, staring once again at the entrails. “The name that concerns me is the one of the murderer.”
Spanky gasped. “You think it’s … MURDER?”
“Yes,” Chuck said, squinting in the afternoon sun. He picked up his green ballcap and pushed it back over his thick mop of curly brown hair. “And whoever did it really wants us to think they’re Demotic.”
“Demonic?” asked Spanky.
“Demotic,” said Matilda, “from a sub-region of ancient Egypt. But what makes you say that, Chuck?”
“Because I’ve seen this pattern before,” he said, pointing at the entrails. “Last spring, when I was doing my Social Studies project on Babylonia, I came across a photo of the Rosetta Stone in the World Book Encyclopedia. And this word was on it.” Chuck Dunwoody had a photographic memory. It was one of the main reasons he was the best Kid Detective P.I. in town, far better than that fraud Mumbles Gibble on the rich side of town, with his fancy garage office and his exorbitant $1.75 fee.
Matilda was looking at the entrails with renewed interest. “I think I see what you’re saying,” she said, “but I don’t know Demotic. Do you?”
“Not fluently,” Chuck said, “but this word is unmistakable. It’s the first word of the decree on the Rosetta Stone, the most famous one.” He paused for a moment, then turned at looked at the other kids. “Twenty-four.”
“Twenty-four? The number?” Spanky scratched his head. “Why would a killer spell that out?”
“I don’t know yet,” replied Chuck. “But I’d better figure it out soon, or something tells me we’re going to find 23 more people just like this one.”
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