THE HONUS WAGNER ADVENTURE
By David Phillip Bennett
| Mostly, I’m a quiet, maybe
even sullen guy. My mom is always trying to get me to smile. But I guess
I’m not the smiley type. I stay to myself but I do have one friend that
I go visit. We hang out in his garage, play darts and talk. That’s where
I was going the day my life changed, to Jason’s garage.
Usually, the only girl I saw in Jason's garage "office" was his older sister, Jen. I saw a tuft of red hair as I walked in and recognized the girl of my dreams, Anna Barner.
"Oh," she said, getting up from the old recliner. "I guess I better go now."
"Wait," Jason said. "This is my friend, Wes McDowell. He might have some ideas. Start over."
"What's the problem?" I asked, feeling my cheeks redden. Anna had never noticed me before, and I couldn’t help wondering what her noticing me now would do to our non-relationship. I sure hoped it would grow into something friendly and, maybe even, well, friendly would be a start.
Anna shrugged and sat down again.
"Do you know about my dad's problem?" she asked me her eyes searching my face for something that I hoped was there.
Oh, yeah. I knew a lot about Anna Barner and her family, such as it was.
"Yeah. Hasn't his leg healed yet?"
"No, and we're so broke, and he won't be back to work before school starts, so I started looking for a way to make some money.”
I nodded with understanding.
“I heard about a job that I might be able to get. Supposedly there was this old millionaire who died and left a bunch of money to help people who can't qualify for welfare. That fitted me and my family. When Dad got hurt, he went on compensation, but it isn't nearly what he was making, and it's too much for us to get welfare.”
"There was a weird qualification,” said Jason. “The person had to have red hair.”
I eyed Anna’s beautiful red locks.
"So I went around to the office,” said Anna. “At first, I wasn't going to go in, it looked so ikky, but I decided to see what they had to say. "The guy inside wasn't very old, and he had red hair just like mine."
"What do you mean, 'not very old?' " Jason asked.
"Oh, maybe twenty, twenty-five.”
I nodded thoughtfully like I agreed with her that twenty-five was not very old.
"He said it looked like I was qualified, by my hair color. Then he wanted to know if I could run a computer, and if I could write legibly and draw.”
“The qualifications required sound legitimate,” said Jason.
"The guy was creepy. When he smiled, it was only his mouth, you know? Anyway, he gave me the job, because, he said, I met the qualifications and could run his computer, and nobody else he’d interviewed could. I had to go every day, for three hours. Every day, seven days a week. Open up the computer's encyclopedia CDROM, and copy the text and pictures by hand, starting with the first file.
"He paid $50 a week," added Jason.
Anna stood up and went over to Jason's computer.
"It all sounded so simple. I mean, look. You've got the same encyclopedia."
She started it up and opened a file.
"That's where I started. I filled up twenty or thirty pages a day."
"That's a lot of writing," Jason said.
"Yeah, well, it wasn't all writing. I had to copy the drawings too."
"Did this redheaded guy have a name?" I asked.
"He said it was Don Sampson."
Jason made a note.
"What happened next?" I asked feeling like I was adding to the equation.
"Well, it was a Friday when I went there, and I started work next day. Sampson hung around for a couple of days, to make sure I knew what I was doing. Then he started going away as soon as I started work, and sometimes didn't come back. The office door has a spring lock. All I had to do was shut it when I left. The following Saturday, he came in and gave me a brand new $50 bill, and he did the same thing every Saturday after that.”
“And then?” prompted Jason.
"And then, today, when I went to work, there was nobody there and a sign on the door says the office is closed until further notice."
"And this Sampson guy hadn't said anything to you?" I asked.
"Not a word."
"Could you see inside the office? Was there anything left in it?" Jason asked.
"Oh, yeah. The computer and everything is still there.” “Hmmm,” I said hoping to sound like I was figuring it all out.
"I got an address for him from the building manager," she added.
"Let's see it," Jason said. "It's out north of Aldergrove. That's a long way to go on a bike. I'll ask Jen to drive us."
Since Jen got her licence, she's always looking for an excuse to drive somewhere.
"You want me, too?" Anna asked.
"Yeah, you'll have to point out Sampson to us."
The address was in the Grosvenor Estate industrial area. Part of it is still undeveloped and an old farmhouse occupied the property at the address Anna had.
"It looks sort of spooky," Jen muttered.
"Yeah," I said, "like, unoccupied."
"Knock on the door," Jason said to Anna.
"You really think there's anyone here?" Anna asked
"There's only one way to find out,” Jason said. “Come on, I'll go with you."
He banged on the door, with no response. Then he trudged off around the side of the house.
When he returned, along the other side, he shrugged and led Anna back to the car.
"Like you said, unoccupied. I looked in the windows and there's nothing there," he said.
"You sure this is the right place?" I asked.
Anna showed me the address. The numbers matched.
"Let's see if anyone's there," Jason said, pointing at a house across the street.
"Well, now what?" Jen asked, starting the car.
Anna said, "I need to get home. Dad's expecting me about now."
The street where Anna lives is behind a commercial block on the highway. As Jen stopped the car at the house, Anna sat up.
"Hey," she cried. "That's Sampson. What's he doing here?"
A small man with long red hair was walking down the driveway.
Anna jumped out of the car.
"Mr. Sampson," Anna demanded. "What's going on? Why is the office closed? What are you doing here?"
"Oh, uh, well, the office is, uh, closed because the term of your employment has expired.
I came to give you your last payment."
He reached into his pocket and drew out some money.
"What do you mean, the term of my employment is over?" Anna's round faced was flushed pink.
"Just that," Sampson said. "You've had your two months. Now it's time for someone else."
"You never said the job was only for two months," she shouted.
"Oh." Sampson got red in the face. "Well, it was. I'm sorry if I forgot to tell you. Do you want your money or not?"
Jason studied Sampson. He didn't seem worth a second glance to me. He wore dirty, threadbare jeans and a grubby T-shirt. Even his shoes were dirty.
Anna took the cash and Sampson stalked away, leaving her standing there, still pink in the cheeks, with her mouth open.
Sampson got into a shiny black old Pontiac Firebird and drove away.
Anna turned to us. "I don't know what to say," she said, and walked toward the house.
"Wait a minute," Jason said to Jen. "I want to look at something." He hopped out of the car and went over to the garage.
When Jason came back, he looked thoughtful.
"Can we drive around on to the highway and take a look at the front of this block?" he asked.
Jen parked halfway down the block. Jason walked from one corner to the other, studying the storefronts. A 7-11 convenience store, a fish and chip joint, and Flipps, a sports card and comics store. Beyond a vacant store was a used clothing store, and then another selling dance costumes.
"Well?" Jen said when he came back to the car.
"I think I'm getting a glimmer of an idea," he said.
Back home, Jason headed straight for his office. "I have to think and get on the Internet and do some research."
My stomach said breakfast had been a long time ago, so I said, "See you later," and left. I'm not sure he even knew I'd gone.
Sometime after I'd eaten, Jason phoned.
"Can you come over here later? Around nine o'clock?"
"Oh, sure, I guess so."
"Bring your baseball bat."
"Baseball bat? Why?" But he'd hung up.
When I got to Jason's, he was sitting in the recliner. Two adults were with him. Archie King, his next door neighbor, sat at the desk. A short brown-haired woman sat on the kitchen chair. Mr. King is retired policeman. Anna Barner slouched on the floor in front of the desk with a rather disheartened look on her face. I thought she brightened a bit when I showed up but I may have imagined it.
"Mrs. Bolton owns Flipps," Jason said, nodding at the woman.
Mr. King chuckled at my puzzled expression.
"You better explain that, Jason," he said.
"Well, Flipps is one of those stores we looked at this afternoon on the highway, right behind Anna's house. Do you remember what Don Sampson looked like?"
"Yeah," I said, "A little guy with red hair."
"I meant what he looked like. His clothes and stuff."
"Well, kind of dirty."
"Right. And you remember I went and looked at the garage."
He turned to Anna. "Does your dad always keep it locked like that?"
"I didn't know it was locked. He sold our car and there's nothing except some old gardening tools in there, as far as I know."
"Well, it is, with a big brass padlock, and the window's covered with cardboard, on the inside. I saw a lot of dirty footprints leading away from the side door. Like, fresh dirt. It was still moist."
"Like someone had been digging and didn't clean their shoes?" Mr. King said.
"Yeah. But I couldn't figure out why. That's why I wanted to look at the highway when we left, and that's why Mrs. Bolton is here.
"I think Sampson has tunneled under the alley from Anna's garage to Flipps."
"But why?" I asked.
"Remember I looked at all the stores along that block? Well, I couldn't see anyone breaking into a used clothing store or a dance costume place, or a fish and chip joint, and the 7-11 is open all night so, I thought Flipps was the target. But why would anyone go to all that trouble to steal old comic books or baseball cards? That was before I got on the Internet."
Jason nodded at Mrs. Bolton.
"Jason thinks Sampson is after a valuable collection of baseball cards I have," she said.
"Baseball cards?" I said.
"Yes. This set includes some of the very earliest ones issued. All together, it may be worth a quarter of a million dollars."
I gaped at her. "A quarter of a million dollars for baseball cards? I don't believe it."
She smiled. "I know, it sounds fantastic. But the person who owned them collected them for over sixty years, and they're almost all in mint condition. There are some that go back to the beginning of baseball cards in the nineteenth century."
"I didn't know they went back that far," I said.
"Oh, yes, back before the American League was formed."
"Why do you have them?" I asked.
"The estate asked me to value them. There's one card, for Honus Wagner, issued by the American Tobacco Company in 1909, that could be worth between $50,000 and $60,000."
"That's what I was researching," Jason said. "When I found out how much some these cards are worth, I phoned Mrs. Bolton to see if she had anything like that.
"When she told me what she had, I figured that's what Sampson is after."
"But wouldn't it be easier to break in the back door or something?" I asked.
"Yes, it would," Mrs. Bolton said. "But I've got a very good alarm system and unless he knows exactly where the cards are, it would take a long time to find them. By that time, the police would be there."
"Response time?" Jason asked Mr. King.
"Depends, up to fifteen minutes."
"Would that be long enough, do you think?" Jason asked Mrs. Bolton.
"I don't know. I guess it depends if he knows where the cards are. They're locked up in my safe, and he'd have to get it open. What I'd like to know is how Sampson found out about them."
Jason shrugged. "The point is, he knows, and I think he's finished tunneling. That's why Anna was fired. Tonight he'll get into the store. And we can catch him in the act."
"Why tonight? And why was Anna hired in the first place?" I said.
"I don’t know, for sure. It's overcast tonight, so it'll be good and dark."
"But he's going to be in a tunnel. Nobody can see him there."
"Call it a hunch," Jason said.
He turned to Mr. King. "Did you contact the police?"
"Yes," he said. "They'll have a couple of cars in the area, and the bike patrol will check the alley."
Jason turned back to me. “To properly answer your other question, I think he hired Anna to get her out of the house, so he could do his tunneling without being spotted if she came outside. With Mr. Barner in a wheelchair and unable to get out of the house, he thought he’d be safe.”
"So what are we supposed to do?" I asked.
"Well, with Mrs. Bolton's permission, I thought we might wait in the store for him," Jason said.
"All of us?"
"I think," Mr. King said, "what we should do is watch from a safe distance, say, Anna's house."
"Don't you think we'd should be in the store, to catch him?" Jason said.
"No, it could be dangerous. Leave that to the police. That's their job and they know what to do."
I thought Mr. King was right. I didn't relish the thought of a confrontation with Sampson. He wasn't a big man, but he looked bigger and stronger than me, plus he had to be a crazy, desperate sort of person to hatch such a plan.
Later we sat in Anna's darkened house, watching the garage and the back of Mrs. Bolton's store.
Two bike patrol officers rode down the alley a couple of times.
Near midnight, Jason whispered, "There he is."
I saw a figure walk to the garage. A street light made his shadow appear huge against the wall. He unlocked the door and slipped inside.
Several minutes later, I saw a faint flash of light through the glass in the door of the card shop.
"I wonder where the cops have got to," Mrs. Bolton muttered.
"I'll phone them," Mr. King said.
"How hard is your safe to open?" Jason asked.
"I don't know. I've never tried to break into it," Mrs. Bolton said, her voice shaking.
I stared out into the dark damp yard, breathing fast. My stomach churned and I felt like I had to pee. My hands were sweating on the bat's handle.
The bike patrol came down the alley again. They dismounted in front of the garage. A few minutes later, a patrol car parked at the end of the alley.
"I think he's coming out," Jason said. "I just saw a light again."
"I'm going outside," Anna said.
"No, wait, it could be dangerous," Mr. King said, but she was gone.
I saw dart behind a straggly forsythia bush and crouch there.
"Don't anyone else go out there," Mr. King said. "Let the police do their job."
Sampson stepped out of the garage with a plastic garbage bag slung over his shoulder.
As he started down the driveway, a bike officer stepped in behind him and said something. Sampson whirled around to hit the officer with the bag. It burst, scattering its contents on the ground.
"Oh, no. They'll get all wet and dirty," Mrs. Bolton cried. She ran outside.
Mr. King charged after her, with Jason right behind him. I followed but not so quickly as the others.
Sampson and the bike officers were wrestling on the driveway when I got outside.
Anna stepped from behind the bush. Did she think she should help the police officers? Sampson broke free and ran down the driveway. He grabbed Anna.
"Hold it," he shouted. He turned around, clutching Anna to his chest, one arm around her neck, and produced a switchblade knife.
"You stay there," he said to the officers. "Stay there, or she gets it." He held the knife to Anna's throat. She squealed, wriggling and struggling to get away. She kicked backwards and hit his shin.
"Hold still," Sampson growled. "Ow! Hold still, or I will cut your throat."
"All right," a policeman said. "Take it easy. Let the girl go."
"No. You back off. I'm not going back. Stay where you are and she'll be okay. Otherwise..."
He backed towards where I stood on rubbery legs. I really had to pee badly now.
The police continued to talk to Sampson. Anna wriggled and dragged her feet. Sampson shouted at the police and Anna.
"Use your bat," Jason whispered.
"Hit him with the bat."
At least, I think he said that. My head whirled. I clutched the bat, as Sampson stumbled towards us shouting and cursing and dragging my beautiful Anna.
I cocked the bat. Where to hit? Maybe his head?
"No, Wes," Mr. King shouted, as I swung.
His shout startled me, and the bat crashed on Sampson's shoulder. I think I pulled my swing at the last moment. I'd never hit anyone with a bat.
Sampson screamed, dropped the knife, released Anna. The police pounced on him, knocked him down and handcuffed him.
I dropped the bat and ran into the house, straight to the bathroom. I almost made it. I hate wet pants.
After I made sure I was presentable and went back outside, Mr. King and Mrs. Bolton were looking for spilled cards. The police car was gone and Jason was talking to one of the bike officers.
"That was a foolish thing to do, Wes," Mr. King said.
"It could have been a lot worse," the policeman said. "Don't interfere in a police situation. People could get hurt. We're trained to handle those situations. Don't do it again."
"But it didn't look like you were handling it," Jason said indignantly. "That's why I told Wes to hit him. I thought it would make Sampson drop the knife at least."
"It turned out okay, but like I said ...," the policeman said.
"How did Anna find out about the job?" I asked.
"Sampson got friendly with one of her friends, who told her. Sampson collects cards, too, and knows the value of the collection. He's also very familiar with prison. That's why he was so panic-stricken. He didn't want to go back.”
Anna smiled at me. “Thanks, Wes.”
And then the most amazing thing happened, she hugged me and kissed me on the cheek.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“Why don’t you guys come over tomorrow? I’ll bake a cake. I’ll make it in the shape of a W for Wes.”
“That would be great,” I said.
Jason smiled at me in a funny knowing way. And I couldn’t get the grin off my face.