What do you do when a contest turns into a murder mystery?
Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates author Caroline Carlson’s next book, The World’s Greatest Detective, follows the adventures of Toby Montrose, an assistant at his uncle’s detective agency on Detectives’ Row, as he teams up with Ivy Abernathy, the best sleuth around (even though she’s not allowed to prove it) to enter in her father Hugh’s titular contest.
But when a detective is found murdered in the Abernathy residence, it’s up to Toby and Ivy to solve the mystery — and avoid becoming victims themselves.
Read an exclusive excerpt from Carlson’s upcoming middle grade novel below. The World’s Greatest Detective hits bookstores May 16. Preorder it here.
Excerpt from The World’s Greatest Detective by Caroline Carlson
The Last Relative
Most people who made their way to Detectives’ Row were in trouble, one way or another, and Toby Montrose was in a heap of it. He had been living with his uncle Gabriel for only two months, but trouble had always been good at finding Toby. This time it had tracked him down more quickly than ever.
Currently, the trouble’s name was Mrs. Arthur-Abbot. She sat across from Toby in the one good chair Uncle Gabriel reserved for clients. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said to Mrs. Arthur-Abbot. “I don’t understand what you’re asking me to do.”
Mrs. Arthur-Abbot picked up the cup of tea Toby had brought her. She frowned at it. Then she frowned at the damp ring it had left on the dusty tabletop. “I want you,” Mrs. Arthur-Abbot repeated, “to tell me why I have paid you this visit.”
Her words didn’t make any more sense to Toby the second time he heard them. Somewhere in the walls, behind the peeling flowered paper and the pictures yellowing in their frames, a mouse scampered past. Toby hoped Mrs. Arthur-Abbot wouldn’t notice the noise. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he said, “but wouldn’t it be easier for you to explain to me why you’re here?”
Mrs. Arthur-Abbot set down her cup without drinking from it. Her gold bracelets clacked together on her wrist. “You are a detective, are you not?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Strictly speaking, Toby was only a detective’s assistant, but he didn’t think Mrs. Arthur-Abbot would like the sound of that.
“Then detect! Deduce! Study my person—the splatter of mud on my shoe, perhaps, or the faint scar above my left ear—and tell me what troubles have caused me to seek a detective’s assistance.” Mrs. Arthur-Abbot leaned forward, and Toby leaned away; the legs of his ancient chair creaked dangerously under him. “I’ve read my fair share of stories in the Sphinx Monthly Reader, young man, and I know how these things work. Hugh Abernathy is always able to determine his clients’ problems a good five minutes before they open their mouths. I’m sure any halfway decent investigator can do the same.” Her eyes narrowed. “Or aren’t you half-way decent?”
“I’ve read the Sphinx, too, ma’am,” Toby said quickly. He hated to admit it under Uncle Gabriel’s roof, but at least Uncle Gabriel himself wasn’t home to hear the confession. He’d asked Toby to watch the office for him while he went into town, and he’d given Toby the usual jumble of old case records to organize, but he hadn’t said a word about what to do if a new client came to visit. The thought probably hadn’t occurred to him. Mrs. Arthur-Abbot was the first new client Toby had seen since he’d moved to Detectives’ Row, and he’d been so surprised when she knocked on the door of Montrose Investigations that by the time he realized he didn’t have any idea what to do with her, she was already sitting in Uncle Gabriel’s parlor and asking for tea. “I can see you’re not willing to help me,” she said now, rising from her chair. “In that case, I’ll take my business to another agency. I’m told Mr. Abernathy can identify criminals by doing nothing more than glancing at their fingernails.”
“Wait!” said Toby. “Please don’t go!”
He wished he didn’t sound so small and panicked, but he had to fix this trouble before Uncle Gabriel came home. In the motorcar on the way from Grandfather Montrose’s, with his small suitcase bouncing on his knees, Toby had made himself three promises: he would be polite, he would not forget to use soap anymore, and he wouldn’t disappoint Uncle Gabriel. The third promise was the most important. He couldn’t lose a potential client, her mystery, or her undoubtedly hefty fortune to another detective—and he especially couldn’t lose them to Hugh Abernathy. Just the sound of Mr. Abernathy’s name sent Uncle Gabriel into a fury whenever he heard it. “If you’ll only sit back down,” Toby told Mrs. Arthur-Abbot, trying to sound a little less panicked, “I’ll deduce why you’re here.”
With a smile more fierce than friendly, Mrs. Arthur- Abbot slipped back into her seat. “That’s more like it,” she said. “Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Montrose.”
Toby wasn’t sure he’d be ready anytime soon. Two months of organizing case records hadn’t taught him all that much about the art of detection. He couldn’t afford to visit any of the famous crime scenes tourists were always flocking to, and Uncle Gabriel never took him along on business. Still, he’d read enough detective stories to know the sort of thing Mrs. Arthur-Abbot was expecting. He stared dutifully at her peach-colored silk dress, her tightly laced boots, and her untidy hair, searching for clues. He’d already learned a few things about her—she was rich, for example, and very unpleasant—but he was smart enough to avoid saying any of this aloud. Instead, he tried to imagine that he was Hugh Abernathy himself, pacing back and forth in his parlor in an issue of the Sphinx. What conclusions would the world’s greatest detective have drawn from Mrs. Arthur-Abbot’s appearance? He might have been able to tell by the number of bangles on her wrists if she’d been robbed by a jewel thief, or by the soles of her boots if she’d run away from a band of kidnappers. But nothing about Mrs. Arthur-Abbot looked all that unusual to Toby. He could feel his skin prickling with sweat, and he wondered if Mrs. Arthur-Abbot had deduced how nervous he was. Even the worst detective on the Row would have been able to manage that.
There was a twitch of movement over Mrs. Arthur- Abbot’s head, and Toby let his gaze slide upward. Dangling from the edge of one bedraggled window curtain was a small brown mouse. It must have gotten tired of running through the walls, but Toby didn’t think its new situation was much of an improvement: it clung desperately to the curtain fringe, hanging just above Mrs. Arthur-Abbot’s tangle of curls and looking for all the world like a fashion- able lady’s hairpiece. Toby knew he should be horrified, but he couldn’t help grinning at it.
“Is my predicament amusing to you?” Mrs. Arthur-Abbot asked. “Or haven’t you guessed it yet?” She raised a hand to tuck a lock of hair back into place, almost brushing the mouse’s tail as she did so.
Toby swallowed his grin. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said again. There was something unusual about Mrs. Arthur-Abbot’s hair, now that he thought about it. She seemed like a very neat person—the sort of person who wouldn’t be happy to find a mouse hanging over her head, if you wanted to be specific about it. Her dress was neat and her bootlaces were neat and all the buttons on her dress were fastened into the correct buttonholes. If Toby’s aunt Janet had been there, however, she would have taken a comb to Mrs. Arthur-Abbot’s hair with a vengeance. Had she been wearing something over her head? Toby stole a glance at the coatrack in the hall, where a wide-brimmed black hat hung from a peg, half-shrouded by a black veil. On the peg below that, Mrs. Arthur-Abbot had hung a long black coat.
Of course! Toby could have kicked himself. He’d been so shocked by the new client’s arrival that he’d barely noticed her clothes, but now that he saw them again, he felt sure he could guess why she needed his help. “You’ve just come from a funeral,” he told Mrs. Arthur-Abbot. For the first time in his life, he felt like the hero in a detective story, and the sensation was thrilling. “That’s why you were wearing a black coat and veil; you’ve been in mourning. Now, people at funerals don’t usually need to hire detectives, but something about the death seemed suspicious to you. You don’t think the person died normally.” Mrs. Arthur-Abbot was staring at Toby now, with her mouth slightly open; was that the sort of reaction people usually had to famous detectives? Toby hoped so. “There’s been a murder,” he announced, “and you want Uncle Gabriel to find the killer.”
Mrs. Arthur-Abbot sat back in her chair. She didn’t stop staring at Toby. Then, horribly, she began to laugh.
“A murder?” she said. “These are my motoring clothes! Haven’t you seen a lady’s driving veil before?”
Toby hadn’t. He’d only ridden in a car twice himself, and most of the women he knew weren’t rich enough to need driving veils. The thrill he’d been feeling melted away, and trouble wound itself around him like an awful, itchy scarf. “But you didn’t come here in a motorcar,” he said. “There’s not one parked in the street.”
“That’s because it was stolen!” Mrs. Arthur-Abbot crowed. “That should be obvious to any decent detective. A thief puttered away in my car while I was visiting my sister, and I walked here to find someone who could help me get it back. I can see that you, Mr. Montrose, are not that person. I only hope the line won’t be too long at Hugh Abernathy’s.”
“Won’t you wait for my uncle to come home?” There was that small, panicked voice again, sneaking out of Toby before he could fix it. “I’m sure he’ll be able to help you. He’s one of the best detectives on the Row, and—”
The mouse chose this moment to fall on Mrs. Arthur-Abbot’s head.
With a shriek, Mrs. Arthur-Abbot jumped to her feet. Tables overturned and knickknacks crashed to the floor as she tore through the parlor, swatting at her hair. One wild swipe of her hand knocked over the stack of case files that Toby had spent all morning putting in order. The mouse, which seemed to sense that it was in danger of becoming a murder victim, darted down her neck and slipped inside one of her capacious sleeves.
Toby jumped up, too. “I’m sorry!” he said for the third time. He batted at the part of Mrs. Arthur-Abbot’s sleeve where he thought the mouse might be, but this only made her shriek more loudly. Toby was surprised half of Detectives’ Row didn’t come running in hopes of finding a convenient crime in progress.
Eventually, Mrs. Arthur-Abbot’s shrieks turned into words. “This,” she sputtered, “is a sorry excuse for a detective agency!” She flung her arms wide. The mouse sailed out of her sleeve and across the room, where it took refuge behind one of Uncle Gabriel’s file cabinets; Toby wished he could do the same. “And you, boy, are a sorry excuse for a detective!” Mrs. Arthur-Abbot pulled on her long black coat and squashed her hat down on her head. “I don’t know why your uncle bothers to employ you, but rest assured he’ll be receiving a lengthy complaint from me, along with a bill for a new gown. I can’t imagine wearing this one again after it’s been so thoroughly moused.”
The trouble had really outdone itself this time. How many more crimes would Uncle Gabriel have to solve before he’d made enough money to pay for Mrs. Arthur-Abbot’s new dress? Hundreds, probably. “Thank you for visiting Montrose Investigations,” Toby said miserably, wishing he hadn’t promised to be polite. Mrs. Arthur-Abbot, who must not have made a similar promise, scowled at him and slammed the front door behind her, leaving Toby alone to start cleaning up the mess.
Until the year he turned eight, nothing very terrible had ever happened to Toby. He’d grown up in a stout white farmhouse where sunlight poured through the curtains his mother had sewn, and the old floorboards creaked with his parents’ comfortable footsteps. On his eighth birthday, the whole family, all three of them, had walked to the riverbank for a picnic. Nothing went the way they’d planned: Toby’s mother dropped the cake in the grass, and his father tripped and fell into the river, and a rainstorm swooped in from the west, washing away the lumpy frosting and making them all as damp as Toby’s father. It should have been a disaster. But Toby’s mother draped the picnic blanket over a branch to make a sort of tent, Toby’s father sliced the sodden cake, and they all sat in the grass, licking crumbs from their fingers and almost bursting with laughter.
Then Toby’s parents had left for a trip to the seashore, and Toby himself had been sent to stay for a week with his aunt Janet. Aunt Janet had six children of her own, whom she mothered with military precision; she administered a kiss to Toby’s cheek each morning after checking his fingernails for dirt. Toby had never heard her laugh. She had, however, cried exactly once, when the police officer from the seashore came to the door to tell her there had been an accident.
Toby hardly remembered the funeral. There had been eye-dabbing ladies in drab gowns and nose-blowing gentlemen in suits, he knew, but they’d floated around him in a thick black cloud, murmuring sad words he couldn’t make out. Since the rowboat his parents had disappeared in had never been found, there hadn’t even been any caskets at the front of the church. The only thing that had seemed real to Toby was the trouble. It wrapped itself around him for the very first time, filling his ears like cotton wool so he could hardly hear Aunt Janet saying she would take care of him from now on.
The trouble, however, had other plans in mind. After a few months of daily fingernail inspections, Aunt Janet determined that she couldn’t afford to care for a seventh child, particularly one who tracked mud across her carpets and often forgot to scrub behind his ears. “It’s fortunate your parents had so many relations,” she told Toby as she handed him off to his uncle Francis, who managed a fancy hotel. “Otherwise, poor dear, you’d have to be sent to an orphanage.”
The thought of being crammed into a cold, smelly bunk room with dozens of other miserable little boys turned Toby’s insides to jelly. A small piece of him still hoped that disappearing in a rowboat was just another kind of disaster his parents could fix, and that they’d turn up one day to collect him and bring him home. When this didn’t happen, however, he decided to be so well behaved and useful that Uncle Francis would have no choice but to keep him.
It didn’t work. Toby tried to help in the hotel restaurant, but when he spilled an entire bottle of expensive wine all over a loud and short-tempered duke, Uncle Francis hurried Toby along to Aunt Ingrid, who owned a bakery. When he fell asleep at the oven and burned the morning’s bread loaves, Aunt Ingrid sent him to Cousin Celeste at the hospital, and when Cousin Celeste couldn’t find the money to pay for the clothes Toby was constantly growing out of, she sent him to Uncle Howard at the stables. In this way, Toby was passed around the family like a bowl of cold mashed potatoes at dinner until the day three years later, when ancient Grandfather Montrose unfolded his newspaper, took one last wheezing breath, and passed away right in the middle of the society pages. The housemaid shrieked and sent for Aunt Janet.
“It’s a shame,” Aunt Janet had said as she packed Toby’s few belongings into his suitcase, “but we can’t avoid it any longer. You’ll have to go to your uncle Gabriel.”
“The detective?” Toby had asked. He was as fond of detective stories as everyone else in the city of Colebridge, and the outside pocket of his suitcase was stuffed with his parents’ old copies of the Sphinx Monthly Reader. Living on Detectives’ Row sounded a hundred times more interesting than pouring Grandfather Montrose’s medicines, and Toby said so to Aunt Janet.
Aunt Janet had wrinkled her nose as if she’d smelled something stale. “Gabriel,” she’d said, “is not a good influence. He spends his time rummaging through morgues and lurking in alleys, and as for his reputation—well, the less said about that, the better. He’s not fit to take care of a young boy, and I doubt he can afford to keep you on for more than a few months, but neither can the rest of us.” She’d snapped the suitcase shut and placed it in Toby’s hands. “Be good for your uncle, Toby,” she’d told him. “And for heaven’s sake, don’t give him any reason to turn you away. He’s your Last Relative, you know.”
That was why Toby had to be clean and polite, and why he couldn’t possibly disappoint Uncle Gabriel, no matter what kind of influence he was. Toby had learned enough about his family to know by now that if Uncle Gabriel couldn’t afford to keep him—or worse, if Uncle Gabriel didn’t want to keep him—he’d be sent to the orphanage, and that would be that.
Toby was still sweeping pieces of knickknack into the dustpan when Uncle Gabriel returned. “Good news, Tobias!” he said as he stomped inside. His enormous voice was slightly muffled, for once, by the pile of brown paper–wrapped parcels in his arms. “The butcher had a handsome stewing hen he needed to part with, so I took it off his hands. I’ll place it straight into Mrs. Satterthwaite’s stew pot, and we’ll all feast like kings for the rest of the week. Except for Mrs. Satterthwaite, that is; I expect she’ll feast like a queen.”
As his uncle teetered into the kitchen with his stack of parcels, Toby hid the dustpan behind his back. He was pretty sure most actual kings and queens would turn up their royal noses at Uncle Gabriel’s cook’s chicken soup, but he wasn’t about to do the same. He didn’t even mind the rubbery carrots. They probably didn’t have any carrots at all at the orphanage.
“So, Tobias,” said Uncle Gabriel, coming back into the hall, “did you solve any crimes while I was away?” He said this every time he left Toby in charge of the agency, and then he would let out a boom of laughter, and Toby would laugh, too. This time, though, Toby couldn’t even manage a chuckle.
He had to tell Uncle Gabriel about Mrs. Arthur-Abbot, her silk dress, and all the rest of it, but the truth was bound to make Uncle Gabriel upset, and Toby didn’t know where to begin. “I tried to solve the crime, sir,” he said; “I swear I did, but I don’t know much about motorcars, and I couldn’t figure out how to get the mouse out of the dress.”
This stopped Uncle Gabriel’s laughter in a hurry. He looked around the parlor at the crooked drapes Toby had tried to tug into place and at the files he’d hurriedly stacked. He peered at the dustpan behind Toby’s back. Then he frowned and ran his fingers over the bristles of his beard. “I can see that something unusual has taken place in this room,” he said, “but, as a professional investigator, I find it hard to believe that a well-dressed rodent could have caused quite so much destruction. As much as I’d enjoy deducing the true course of events, it would probably consume most of the evening, and Mrs. Satterthwaite sinks into a gloom when I pay more attention to my work than I do to her dinner. You’d better tell me exactly what happened.” He lowered himself into a chair, which creaked even more under his weight than it had under Toby’s, and pulled out the small blank book he carried with him to crime scenes. “The mouse was driving a motorcar, you say?”
“Not the mouse, sir,” said Toby. “Mrs. Arthur-Abbot. Only she wasn’t driving a motorcar; that was exactly the problem.”
In a rush, Toby told his uncle as much as he could bear to confess. Uncle Gabriel scratched away in his notebook, interrupting Toby every so often to ask a question about the soles of Mrs. Arthur-Abbot’s shoes or the precise species of the mouse. By the time Toby had finished speaking, his mouth was dry. Uncle Gabriel set his notes aside, and Toby tried to read them upside down to see if any of them said orphanage.
“There’s one more thing I’d like to know, Tobias.” Uncle Gabriel folded his hands together, looking grave. “When Mrs. Arthur-Abbot stormed out of our home, where did she go?”
Toby wished he hadn’t asked. “To Mr. Abernathy’s,” he said as quietly as he could. “I’m sorry to say the name, sir; I know you don’t like hearing it.”
“Mr. Abernathy!” said Uncle Gabriel. “That puffed-up, self-serving old ostrich! There’ll be no chance of getting the woman’s business back now, and I don’t suppose she’ll be recommending Montrose Investigations to any of her wealthy friends.” He slumped down in his chair and shrugged. “Truthfully, she sounds like an awful nuisance. I would have liked to get acquainted with her money, but I don’t envy Hugh Abernathy for having to tolerate her company.”
Toby thought there were plenty of reasons to envy Hugh Abernathy, but the idea of seeing Mrs. Arthur-Abbot again, even for a moment, made him feel queasy. “She wants us to pay for the dress that got ruined,” he admitted. “She said she’d be sending you a letter about it.”
“The peach silk.” Uncle Gabriel sighed. “I suppose it cost a fortune? Of course it did; the woman’s got her own motorcar.” He squinted at Toby. “You don’t happen to have any cash reserves hidden under your mattress, do you? Any gemstones scattered in the back lawn?”
Toby squirmed. “I was hoping you did.”
“I,” said Uncle Gabriel, “haven’t had a new case in weeks. I’m not the only one, either. Miss Price next door says business is as bad as she’s ever seen it. There are too many detectives in this town, Tobias, and there’s not enough crime to put food on all of our tables—or silk dresses on all of our backs, for that matter. If something doesn’t change soon, we’ll all be boarding up our windows by the end of the year, and Mr. Abernathy will have the whole Row to himself.” He pressed his fingers to his brow as though he felt a headache coming on. “Maybe I can persuade Mrs. Satterthwaite to make us a loan. Do you think she might secretly be a duchess?”
“Probably not,” Toby said glumly. He didn’t think secret duchesses usually found work as part-time cooks, and he was sure Mrs. Satterthwaite couldn’t afford even one sleeve of a silk gown on the meager paycheck they gave her every month. “This is all my fault, sir. If I could only do something to fix it—”
He hadn’t even finished his sentence before Uncle Gabriel started shaking his head. “My business troubles have nothing to do with you, Tobias, and I shouldn’t have brought them up. Forget I said a word. Eleven-year-old boys shouldn’t be worrying about money—and while we’re at it, they certainly shouldn’t be calling me sir. Do you understand?”
Toby nodded. He wondered what eleven-year-old boys should be worrying about, but this didn’t seem like the right moment to ask. He didn’t want Uncle Gabriel to call him an ostrich.
The clock on the mantel struck five, accompanied by a symphony of sharp knocks at the door—Mrs. Satterthwaite, prompt as usual. Uncle Gabriel stood up to let her in. Halfway across the hall, however, he paused. “There is one thing you can do,” he said, turning back to Toby. “The next time any clients show up when you’re here alone, why don’t you ask them to have a seat and wait until I return? That’s all a detective’s assistant really needs to do.”
So much for not disappointing Uncle Gabriel. “Yes, sir,” said Toby. “I mean—well—yes.”
“Excellent,” said Uncle Gabriel. The symphony of knocks had progressed into its next movement, much more energetic than the first. “Now, Tobias, let’s banish all thoughts of detection from our minds and think only of the mystery of tonight’s dinner.”
Inspector Webster’s Detection Correspondence Course
From the window of his bedroom at the top of the house, Toby could see the entire length of Detectives’ Row. To the east, it bumped up against the busy High Street, lined with mansions and shops; to the west, it sputtered out in a weedy little garden that Toby had never seen anyone tend. The detectives who lived at the western end of the Row were talentless newcomers—or at least that was what Uncle Gabriel said— and the nicer, eastern end of the Row was where the more successful investigators kept their offices. They had been there since the early days of detection, long before the famous Colebridge Cutthroat murders had captivated the city and turned half its residents into armchair sleuths.
Even now, the people of Colebridge loved a good crime.
The Cutthroat had been locked up in Chokevine Prison years earlier, but following crime reports in the newspapers, swapping theories about unsolved cases at dinner parties, and visiting famous murder sites on the weekends were still the city’s most fashionable hobbies. No one would dream of missing the serialized detective stories that ran in the Sphinx Monthly Reader, and every neighborhood park was full of children playing at sleuths and robbers. Even Toby’s parents had promised him that one day, when Toby was old enough, they would scrape together the funds to pay for a grand tour of Entwhistle House. That was where the Colebridge Cutthroat had planned to commit one last, terrible murder—and been caught in the act by a heroic young detective named Hugh Abernathy.
Hugh Abernathy wasn’t young any longer, but he was more heroic than ever, and he lived with his assistant, Mr. Peartree, in a tall white house at the easternmost end of the Row. Times were lean for the detectives of Colebridge: the surge of interest in crime solving had sent a number of criminals to jail and encouraged the rest to reconsider their careers. Still, crowds of visitors gathered outside Mr. Abernathy’s door each weekday morning, waiting for a chance to hire the detective or just to catch a glimpse of his famous silhouette. Toby would have liked to catch a glimpse of his own, but he didn’t dare join the crowds outside the door; he knew perfectly well what Uncle Gabriel thought of Hugh Abernathy. On the day he’d brought Toby to Detectives’ Row, Uncle Gabriel had spotted the stack of Sphinxes in Toby’s suitcase and wrinkled his nose as though he’d smelled something rotten. “Keep that nonsense out of my sight, Tobias,” he’d ordered. “Better yet, burn it. That miserable man may have charmed the whole city, but he hasn’t charmed me.” Toby had been shocked (didn’t everyone like Hugh Abernathy?), but he supposed it wasn’t easy for his uncle to live only a few houses away from the world’s greatest detective. After all, the Sphinx never published any stories about Gabriel Montrose.
Uncle Gabriel’s house, number one-fifteen, sat squarely in the middle of Detectives’ Row, although he was quick to tell anyone who asked that its walls tilted ever so slightly to the east. Toby’s third-story window gave him an excellent view of all the carriages and motorcars that squeaked down the street toward Montrose Investigations, though lately there hadn’t been many of either. More importantly, on the morning three weeks after Mrs. Arthur-Abbot’s disastrous visit, it allowed him to keep a careful eye on the mailbox that stood in front of the house.
Everything looked just as it usually did at seven o’clock on a Tuesday. A line of anxious clients was already starting to form outside Hugh Abernathy’s door. Miss March and Miss Price, the detectives who lived in the house next to Uncle Gabriel’s, were taking their morning constitutional down to the High Street, their elbows linked together and their heads bent low in conversation. Across the street, a girl stood on the curb looking bored as her small brown dog investigated a patch of weeds. (This was a little surprising, since Toby had never seen the girl or the dog before, and he especially hadn’t seen them at seven o’clock on a Tuesday. Then again, he’d been watching the mailbox for only twelve days.) And at two minutes past seven, just as Toby had hoped he would, the mailman strode down Detectives’ Row, reached Uncle Gabriel’s house, and stopped to remove a bundle of letters from his sack.
Toby catapulted himself away from the window, out of his bedroom, and down two flights of narrow, brown carpeted staircase. “Getting the mail!” he called as he slid across the front hall in his socks. Uncle Gabriel looked up from his desk in the parlor, but Toby was into his shoes and out the door before his uncle could ask any questions. It had been this way for the past eleven mornings.
Toby could already tell, though, that this morning was different. To start with, the girl across the street was still walking her dog. She wore a wool coat that looked too big for her and a pair of square-framed wire spectacles that kept sliding down the bridge of her nose, and she was staring intently at Toby. Toby stared back at her. The girl frowned. Finally, after what seemed to Toby like ages, she dropped her gaze and tugged her dog away toward the garden at the end of the Row, leaving Toby alone to sort through the contents of the mailbox.
There was the usual bundle of envelopes—bills for Uncle Gabriel, mostly, and letters from his few remaining clients. At least there wasn’t anything new from Mrs. Arthur-Abbot. Her promised nasty note had arrived last week, and although Uncle Gabriel hadn’t told Toby how much the peach silk would cost them, he’d sworn under his breath as he’d read the letter. In addition to the bills and notes, there was a catalog from a detection supply company, its illustrated pages full of advertisements for fingerprint powders and little pistols with ivory handles. There was also a square envelope addressed to Uncle Gabriel in elegant green calligraphy; it looked like it might be a party invitation. Uncle Gabriel would like that, Toby thought. He didn’t get invited to many parties.
At last, Toby reached the bottom of the mail stack. There, underneath the letters and bills, was a lumpy brown parcel stuck shut with an abundance of tape. To anyone who wasn’t a detective’s assistant, it would have looked very much like a plain, unremarkable package. Toby, however, knew better: unlike all the other pieces of mail that had landed in the box over the past eleven days, this package was addressed to him.
Toby grinned and did a little hop there on the sidewalk. He wanted to tear the brown paper open right away, but the dog down at the end of the Row was starting to bark, and the girl was frowning at him more intently than ever, so he stuffed the parcel into the back waistband of his pants instead and pulled his sweater over it as well as he could. It made a sort of crunching noise as he walked up the stairs and into the house. Toby hoped he didn’t look too suspicious. “You’re up early again,” Uncle Gabriel said as Toby handed him the rest of the mail. “What have we got today? Oh dear.” He flipped through the envelopes, sighing a little every time his fingers brushed against an unpaid bill. His desk was covered with stacks of similar envelopes; most of them were stamped PAST DUE in bright red ink, and one or two said FINAL WARNING. In front of them, the Montrose Investigations money ledger lay open to the page Uncle Gabriel had been studying. Toby wasn’t allowed to touch the ledger—it was another of the things eleven-year-old boys weren’t supposed to worry about—but he couldn’t help sneaking a look at it over Uncle Gabriel’s shoulder. All he could see were long, gloomy columns of zeroes.
“Uncle Gabriel,” said Toby, “do we have any money left at all?”
Uncle Gabriel looked startled. He pushed the stacks of bills to the back of his desk and snapped the money ledger shut. “You’re an observant child, Tobias,” he said. “It’s a useful quality for a detective to have, but it’s far less useful in a nephew.”
What Uncle Gabriel meant, as far as Toby could tell, was that he wasn’t going to answer the question. Toby wished he’d never asked it. His cheeks prickled with embarrassment, and he could feel the brown paper parcel sliding farther into the seat of his pants. It was going to be hard to move without crunching. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll go back up to my room now.”
“Well, there’s no need for that!” Uncle Gabriel stood up from his desk. “I’m famished, Tobias, and I suspect you are, too. Why don’t we see if we can scrounge up some food?”
“Oh! I can’t.” The parcel was heading down Toby’s pant leg now. “Not yet, at least. I’ve got to, um, get ready.” Uncle Gabriel frowned. “You look ready enough to me.” “My hair!” said Toby in a hurry. “I haven’t combed it! Aunt Janet always says you can’t eat a meal with messy hair.”
“That does sound like Janet,” Uncle Gabriel admitted. “I’m sure she means well, but I’d never dream of bringing that sister of mine along to a crime scene; she’d tidy up all the evidence.” He ran a hand through his own thicket of hair. “All right, then, Tobias. You make sure you’re suitably coiffed, and I’ll make breakfast. I think we’ve got just enough flour left for pancakes.”
Back in the safety of his bedroom, Toby shut the door, rolled up his pant leg, and let the parcel drop onto the carpet. His fingernails (freshly trimmed and very clean) were useless against the bulwark of tape, but this room had been Uncle Gabriel’s storage space before Toby had moved in, and all sorts of useful objects from previous cases were still stashed in boxes and stacked along the walls. In one of these boxes, Toby found a silver-handled dagger. Its blade was edged with something red that he hoped was rust. In any case, it was sharp enough to slice the parcel open.
Inside the brown paper wrapping were a small black notebook, a round fabric badge, and a thick sheaf of paper that had been folded over twice. The badge read JUNIOR DETECTIVE in wobbly embroidery, and the top piece of paper in the sheaf said INSPECTOR WEBSTER’S DETECTION CORRESPONDENCE COURSE, LEVEL ONE.
Toby flopped happily onto his bed and flipped through the pages of instructions and exercises. Inspector Webster had written out lessons on dozens of subjects, from deciphering codes to assembling disguises. It would take days for Toby to read through it all, but the advertisement in the back of the Sphinx Monthly Reader had promised that Inspector Webster’s correspondence course could turn even the most untalented beginner into a first-class detective in only three months, and a first-class detective was exactly what Toby needed to become. The sight of Uncle Gabriel’s money ledger had made him more certain than ever: if Montrose Investigations didn’t bring in more clients, the business would close, Uncle Gabriel would board up his windows, and he’d have no more use for a troublesome nephew who needed to be clothed and fed. Toby couldn’t risk that. He needed to make himself useful, and being useful meant making money. With two detectives on its staff, wouldn’t Montrose Investigations be able to solve twice as many crimes? Instead of pouring tea for new clients, couldn’t Toby impress them with his talents? Uncle Gabriel had already said he was observant, and now that he was a Junior Detective (Level One), he was sure he’d be able to learn enough to solve a few smaller cases here and there. He could make back the money he owed to Mrs. Arthur-Abbot, and he might even convince some of the people waiting outside Hugh Abernathy’s house to come down the street to Montrose Investigations instead. Uncle Gabriel would swell with pride.
For now, though, Toby would have to pretend that nothing had changed. He’d paid for the correspondence course with the last of the pocket money Grandfather Montrose had given him before he died, and if Uncle Gabriel learned that Toby had sent almost ten dollars to an utter stranger with only a stack of lessons to show for it, he’d probably send Toby to the orphanage on the spot. Even holding the papers from Inspector Webster felt dangerous in the daylight, so Toby rolled off his bed and stuffed them into his suitcase alongside his collection of Sphinxes. In spite of what Uncle Gabriel had said, Toby hadn’t burned the magazines; some nights he couldn’t sleep without reading a few more pages of a Hugh Abernathy story. The pages were smudged with soot and fingerprints, and the words were all familiar, but Toby didn’t mind. His parents had read those stories aloud by the fireplace after dinner— “The Adventure of the Clockwork Spider,” “The Case of the Fourteen Lemons,” and dozens of other tales that Toby knew practically by heart. As he tucked his new lessons away, it occurred to him in one wild and thrilling moment that someday, if he studied hard, the Sphinx Monthly Reader might even write stories about him.
Two floors below, there was a huge and echoing crash. “THAT PUFFED-UP, SELF-SERVING OLD OSTRICH!” shouted Uncle Gabriel.
Toby took the stairs three at a time. Even a junior detective could tell that something awful had happened.
Text copyright © 2017 by Caroline Carlson.