THE CASE OF THE JOLLY JACK-O-LANTERNS

By Guy Belleranti

The angry voice caused me to jump back from the windows of the Haunted Haven Gift and Costume Shop. "Hey, boy," it snapped, "I want to talk to you."

Mr. Saunders, owner of the place, bore down on me, a carved pumpkin in his large hands. "Yeah, I mean you, Jason McKinley." He hefted the pumpkin within an inch of my nose. "You know anything about this jack-oí-lantern, about whatís been done to it?"

I blinked. "What do you mean?"

"My son, Mike, put it and two others on our outside display rack fifteen minutes ago. And now, just as Iím about to open up, I find someoneís ruined each one."

"Ruined them? How?"

"I carved a scary smile with sharp teeth and spooky eyes into each just last night, but now. . . . Look -- the teeth have been rounded off, some even cut out, and the mouth and eyes are friendly, almost jolly."

I studied the pumpkin more closely, then moved over to examine the two pumpkins by the store entrance. Sure enough, each jack-oí-lantern had happy eyes and a jolly smile.

"Did you do it, kid?"

"Me?" I asked.

"Yeah."

"I was only looking in the window. Just got here a minute ago."

Mr. Saunders stared hard at me through his wire-rimmed glasses. "See anyone else? Maybe running away or acting sort of funny?"

I shook my head. "I passed one of the guys from school, Billy Staples, right before I got here, but he wasnít running or anything. Just nodded at me and continued on. And letís see. . . . I saw Doc Garcia crossing over to his dentistís office. Thatís it."

The shop owner frowned. "Donít think Doc would pull a stunt like this. That Staples kid, though. . .he can be a real prankster I hear."

"Maybe your son saw something," I said.

"No. Mike unboxed the jack-oí-lanterns out here, then came right inside. Heís been hanging spider webbing from the ceiling over the Halloween costume aisle ever since."

"Still, it wouldnít hurt to ask him," I suggested. "If he was facing these big windows--"

"Good looking jack-oí-lanterns this year, Saunders," said a voice.

The two of us turned to find plump Doc Garcia on the pavement behind us.

"Not so morbid," Doc went on. "More friendly."

Mr. Saunders glared. "Well thatís not how theyíre supposed to look. Someone came along and changed them."

"No kidding?"

"No kidding indeed!"

"Dad, isnít it time we open--" Mike Saunders let the rest of the sentence hang as he joined us on the sidewalk. "Whatís wrong?"

"Someoneís got your Dadís dander up," Doc said. "Changed his jack-oí-lanternsí personalities."

"Oh." The teenager glanced at the pumpkins and then at his fatherís scowling face.

"You notice anyone hanging around when you put the jack-oí-lanterns out, Mike?" Mr. Saunders asked.

"Uh, no. No, I didnít."

"Not even Jason here?"

"No, Dad."

"How about that Staples kid?"

"Billy Staples?" the dentist asked.

"Yeah. Jason saw him around here and--"

"Wait," I interrupted. "All I said was that I passed him near here."

"Good enough for me."

"Now, Saunders--"

"Now nothing, Doc. Or are you gonna confess to it yourself?"

"What? Me?" Doc Garciaís face reddened.

"Why not. You said you liked the jack-oí-lanternsí expressions better this year."

"Yes, but. . . ."

I turned a deaf ear to the men, and re-examined the jack-oí-lanterns. I couldnít tell an older cut from a newer one. I lifted off the top of one, looked inside, then did the same to the others.

"Hey!" Mr. Saunders had turned his attention back to me. "What do you think youíre doing?"

"Looking for clues," I said. "Each pumpkinís empty. Did you notice that?"

"Of course. I wonít put candles in them until tonight. Hey, now what are you doing?"

I straightened. "Just checking around each pumpkin and on the sidewalk. I found something pretty significant."

"Significant? What do you mean?" The shop owner squatted, eyes to the ground. Mike and Doc joined him.

"Relax," I said. "Itís not something you can see. Itís something you canít see. Something missing. Something that gives me a pretty good idea about who altered the jack-oí-lanterns."

Whom Did I Suspect?

SOLUTION

"Mr. Saunders," I said, "you said you carved all three jack-oí-lanterns last night."

"Thatís right. So?"

"So then I donít think they were changed today," I said. "Or at least not after Mike put them out."

"Of course they were. When else--"

"The new cut edges -- theyíd look fresher, more recent if theyíd just been made. But they donít. Every cut edge on the pumpkins look the same, like they were made hours ago."

"But that canít be--"

"Also," I went on, "if the changes are new where are all the remnants from those new carvings?"

The shop ownerís mouth opened, then closed.

"Say, thatís right," Doc Garcia said. "There arenít any. So thatís what you meant when you said something was missing."

I nodded. "There isnít a single cut-off piece of pumpkin inside or outside of the pumpkins." I turned to Mike. "Did you see your father carving them last night?"

"Sure."

"And they didnít look like this when I was done," Mr. Saunders said. "And if youíre saying they did--"

Iím not," I said. "Someone did make changes by putting his own stamp of originality on the carving. Isnít that right, Mike?"

"Mike?" Mr. Saunders stared at his son.

"Mike looked away for a moment. "Sorry, Dad," he murmured at last. "I. . .I didnít think itíd be such a big deal. If you wouldíve let me help carve them. . . . Yeah, Jason, youíre right. I changed them. Then I put them back in the box. I thought we should have some friendly looking jack-oí-lanterns for once."

"And a nice change it is, too," Doc said.

"Well. . . ." Mr. Saunders looked at Doc, at me, then at his son. "Yes, I guess they do look pretty sharp at that." He reached out, put an arm around Mikeís shoulder. "Iím sorry, son. Sorry I didnít want your help last night. I guess I need to give up some control and let you have a little more input. I keep forgetting youíre not a little kid any more. Oh, heck, will you forgive me?"

The boy grinned. "If youíll forgive me."

Father and son shook hands.