The great shelby holmes, p.1
The Great Shelby Holmes, p.1
For my fabulous agent, Erin Malone,
who has Watson’s heart and Shelby’s smarts
(and sometimes her mouth!), for your
excitement and enthusiasm since day one
Every writer needs a good story to tell.
So here was my problem: I had nothing to write about because nothing exciting had ever happened to me. Seriously, nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Diddly-squat. You’d think that someone who grew up on four different army posts in eleven years would’ve witnessed at least one exciting thing. Yeah, you’d think.
My life = boring.
Then we moved from Maryland to New York City, and my new neighbor tried to blow up the building.
Sure, it all started like your average moving day for the Watson family. I’d gotten used to the constant packing and unpacking that came with having a mom in the military. But this time was supposed to be different. Mom and I were going to settle here, in an apartment at 221 Baker Street. We were even flattening out the boxes and leaving them outside by the curb, instead of saving them for the inevitable future move.
Oh, and this was also the first time we were moving without Dad. As much as a writer needed to tell the whole story, I wasn’t ready to go there. Yet.
So yeah, it was your typical moving day. Or so it seemed. It figured that the moment Mom became a civilian and we were off the military post and allegedly safe, we found ourselves dodging an explosion.
Our entire apartment shook. Mom grabbed me and pulled me down to the floor, covering my head. The four bulky movers attempted to seek shelter behind our furniture.
The only person who wasn’t ducking for cover was our new landlady, Mrs. Hudson.
“Oh heavens!” she exclaimed with a shake of her head. “No need to panic, everybody! It’s really nothing.” She excused herself, muttering “I told her not today” under her breath.
Maybe explosions were a routine occurrence in this apartment building? If that was the case, I’d take the army post any day over some crazy New Yorker with a stick of dynamite.
The building was eerily silent for a few minutes, and we all returned to the business of moving and unpacking boxes.
Mom gave me an uneasy smile. “Well, John, it looks as if you finally have something exciting to write about in your journal.”
Yeah, though I could’ve done without the stress of thinking we’d been bombed. For some reason, my grandma insisted on giving me a journal for my birthday every year. They were half-filled with unfinished stories of space travel and doodles of my unoriginal comic book characters: Awesome Dude, Tarantula Man, Sergeant Speedo, and Amazing Girl.
I stuck to fiction since there wasn’t a reason to journal about my real life. Because my life was boring, dull, uninteresting, lackluster, monotonous, unexciting. (Grandma had also given me a thesaurus.)
I guess you could think that moving to a new place was exciting, but it was something we did so often that it was more of a pain. And it was hard. New friends, new teachers, new routine. Once I got all that down, the days on post would always run together: school, playground, homework, and bedtime. Repeat. Then we’d move and it would start all over again. It didn’t matter if I was in Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, or Maryland. Somehow, it was always the same.
All that was about to change.
“Sorry!” Mrs. Hudson reentered our apartment, pulling someone behind her. “You know what to do,” she ordered through clenched teeth.
A skinny white girl with bright red frizzy hair came forward. She had on an oversized white lab coat and goggles pushed up on her forehead. From the waist up, she was covered with black soot, except for where her goggles had been. She placed a hand on her hip. “I’ve been informed by Mrs. Hudson that my harmless and perfectly safe experiment has made for an unpleasant moving day for you. I’ve been instructed to apologize.” She sighed heavily.
Ah, did she consider that an apology?
“Thanks, dear. Do you live in the building?” Mom asked, always in a rush to make friends for me whenever we got to a new place (mostly out of guilt, since she was the reason we had to move so much). But this girl, who looked to be no older than seven, was way too young for me to hang out with. I just turned eleven. I didn’t need to spend the rest of my summer babysitting. Especially some weird science geek.
“Yes. Upstairs in 221B.” The girl walked over to Mom and extended her hand to shake. “How long were you in Afghanistan?” she asked.
My mom’s arm paused in midair as she glanced over at me. We were both thinking the same thing.
How did she know that?
The girl continued, “You’re an army doctor, I presume? And by the way you favor your right leg, it appears that you injured your left side somehow. Hip? I hear shrapnel can be quite painful.”
This was strange on so many levels. Mostly because whenever my mom’s military service and injury were brought up, people avoided eye contact and spoke in a hushed voice. Not this girl. Nope. It was like she was asking about the weather. Her tone was even while her gaze mostly remained on Mom, but occasionally her attention would switch gears as if she was looking for something.
Mom’s jaw was practically on the floor. “How did you—”
She was cut off by the sound of broken glass coming from the living room.
Awesome. Moving day kept getting better and better.
One of the movers removed a blanket that had been protecting a floor-length mirror.
“This wasn’t wrapped up tightly enough.” The guy shrugged and continued to unwrap the blanket. “Couldn’t be helped.”
“Stop!” the girl shouted at him. She strode over and examined the broken glass.
Mrs. Hudson laughed lightly to break the tension. “Oh, it’s just this thing she does.”
Um, okay. As if that explained what was going on. Were all New York City kids like that?
“Hey!” the mover yelled at her. “What are you doing?”
The girl was on her hands and knees, her face mere inches from the guy’s feet. Quickly, she jumped up and wiped her hands. “He kicked the mirror in.”
“I didn’t—” the mover began to protest.
She pointed to his shoe. “Based on the angle of the hole in the mirror, which is the size of the toe of your boot, the hole occurred at an upward trajectory, an angle that matches the height of our front steps. Therefore, I’ve correctly deduced that you did indeed kick the mirror while walking up the steps. While in all probability said event was an accident, it certainly was your fault.”
The only thing clear to me was that I now lived among bombers and freaks.
“Would you care for me to draw a diagram, or are you going to save us all time and confess?” The mover stood there, dumbstruck. The rest of us were shocked as well. Except for Mrs. Hudson, who seemed amused and a little bit tired.
The mover stuttered for a few moments before bending down so he was eye-to-eye with the girl. “Who are you?”
Her lips curled upward into a satisfied smile. “I’m Shelby Holmes. Detective Shelby Holmes.”
Since I was sick of unpacking I decided to spend the next morning outside, on the steps of our new home—a brownstone building in Harlem, which is way on the upper, upper west side of Manhattan. Mom was busy with meetings at her new job at the Columbia University Medical Center. She gave me permission to explore the neighborhood, as long as I was careful and remained in a ten-block radius of our building.
Careful? I’d rather take my chances on the streets of Manhattan than be stuck inside an apartment building with some girl who liked to set off explosives.
As much as I wanted to walk around my new neighborhood and maybe also meet some people who weren’t trying to kill me, I was a little overwhelmed. New York City was very different from anywhere else we’d lived. On the army posts, we were relatively contained. Now the possibilities were endless. I had no idea where to start. Did I head east? Or west? Or uptown? Or downtown? And which way was east? Or west?
Instead, I settled in with my journal. Yeah, it was old-school that I favored pen and paper over a computer. But there was something, I don’t know, more personal about writing a story out with your hand instead of tapping at a keyboard.
Not like I’d done a lot of writing lately.
I hadn’t written anything in months. I’d tried, but I just couldn’t do it. It was pretty ironic that when things were actually happening in my life, I froze.
But now … I suddenly had an itch to write. I looked at the blank pages, trying to find some way to describe what happened yesterday. How did this little girl know all that stuff about Mom? And the mover? I was fascinated, but also really, really creeped out.
I considered myself lucky she hadn’t turned her attention toward me.
Just then, the front door opened and shut with a bang. Without even turning my head, I knew my luck had run out.
Shelby skipped down the steps, leading a white-and-brown English bulldog on a leash.
“John Watson”—she nodded at me—“meet Sir Arthur.”
I reached down and petted the dog, who slumped happily and rolled over so I could rub his belly.
Great. The only living creature to welcome me to town was a slobbering dog.
“Well, he is British,” she remarked. “And the best dog ever. Since the Queen hasn’t seen fit to reply to my correspondence about making such an extraordinary animal an official member of the Order of the British Empire, I’ve taken it upon myself to honor him with the designation of respect he deserves and call him ‘Sir.’ ”
That dictionary Grandma had also given me was going to get some serious use if I kept talking to Shelby Holmes.
She bent down to give him a quick belly rub. “Well, we’ve got our rounds to make. Come on!”
The dog rose reluctantly and continued down the stairs.
“Wait!” I called out, surprising myself. Before I could really think things through, I decided to go for broke. “Can I come with you?”
Yeah, she was strange. But I had to find out how she’d done all that stuff yesterday. Okay, and I was a little intimidated to walk around the neighborhood by myself. Not like a tiny girl could do much to defend me, but at least we had Sir Arthur.
Shelby shrugged indifferently. “Suit yourself.”
As we walked down our street, lined with brownstones that matched our own building, Shelby launched into a detailed explanation of her “rounds.” Honestly, I could only follow part of what she said. She talked really fast and was rattling off a long list of people she always checked in with daily.
I did, however, understand one thing: Shelby Holmes was a very nosy girl.
I started to count the blocks as Shelby turned onto Lenox Avenue (that’s one block away from home). I was surprised by all the taxis and cars that whizzed by. There were so many things to take in: the noise, the stores with signs in foreign languages, the people, the different outfits (one guy had on colorful silk pajamas and a matching hat), and the crowds as we crossed 125th Street (now we were five blocks away from home, or was it six?).
I nodded at a guy who was selling hats at a stand. He had these cool twists in his hair. There should be no surprise that the barbers on army posts only knew one style: buzz cut. Nearly every single person we saw greeted Shelby by name.
“How’s it going, Sal?” she asked a jolly-looking man as we passed by a pizzeria. “Any news?”
“All’s good, Shelby!” He waved happily at her. “Do you and your friend want a free pie?”
“No, thanks,” she replied as she kept her fast pace up. Sal simply shook his head and walked back into his restaurant.
“Did you just say no to free pizza?” Who does that? And why was he offering it to her?
“I have things to do, places to be.”
Okay, but still. Who turns down free pizza?
I ignored my now rumbling stomach and tried to keep up with Shelby. It didn’t matter if the person was old or young, female or male, black or white (or Asian or Latino—and I thought army posts were diverse), everybody seemed happy to see Shelby.
They obviously knew something I didn’t.
“So this is a pretty friendly and safe neighborhood, huh?” I asked. I assumed a big city like New York wouldn’t be the kind of place where your neighbors were your friends, but maybe I was wrong.
“On who you are,” she said with a confident swagger that was usually reserved for professional ballplayers.
I did my best not to laugh at her. I mean, seriously? She wasn’t even four feet tall. The baggy jean shorts and purple T-shirt she was wearing made her skinny stature stick out even more. It looked as if her hair hadn’t seen a comb in months. She seemed exactly like the kind of person people would mess with.
But what did I know? I was the new kid, and everybody in the neighborhood seemed to respect her.
“Ah, just the person I wanted to see!” She jogged over to the corner, where a scruffy white guy with long dreads (I wished the army barbers could’ve seen this!) was going through the trash. “Seen anything unusual today?”
“Naw.” He rubbed his scraggly beard. “You know I’d tell you if I did.”
She nodded as she pulled out a banana from her oversized backpack. “Thanks, Billy.” Then she tossed the perfectly good banana into the trash can between them.
“Thanks, Shelby!” Billy removed the banana from the trash and shuffled away.
“He’s a freegan,” she explained, sensing my bewilderment. “He believes in only eating food that’s already been thrown away. Strange, perhaps, but it also means he’s quite knowledgeable about what people have in their trash. That’s a handy contact.”
I had no idea what she was talking about but nodded anyway. I figured it was time for me to get the answers I was really interested in. “How did you know all those details about my mom?”
“What?” She was examining the headlines of a discarded newspaper.
“How did you know my mom served in Afghanistan?”
“Oh, that,” she replied, like it was no big deal. Like everybody could read minds. “It’s fairly simple. First, your moving boxes had the names of a few army posts written on them, so I knew you were a military family. There was a medical license on the counter. The sole of your mother’s right shoe was worn down considerably compared to her left, which means she favors her right side. Based on the boxes, I deduced that an injury sustained during a tour of duty was likely. That meant either Iraq or Afghanistan. Judging by her age and her barely strained gait, I assumed she hasn’t been abroad in about two years. Therefore, Afghanistan was my conclusion.”
“But you were only in the apartment for a minute!”
“So?” Her attention was now on a few posted flyers.
“That’s really …” I struggled to come up with the right word. Everything she’d said was true. Every. Last. Detail. “Amazing.”
She lit up. “Why, thank you! It’s nice to have a contemporary appreciate my talents. For once.”
I asked the question I was afraid to know the answer to. “What did you figure out about me?”
She arched her eyebrow. “Do you really want to know?”
Yeah, no. No way did I want to know whatever theory she’d concocted about me. Because there was a very good chance she’d be right. I’d prefer to be left in the dark.
I had to get her off my scent. “But how did you do it?”
She exhaled loudly as Sir Arthur examined some weeds growing from the sidewalk. “I observe. Then I assemble all my observations into several different theories and pick the one with the likeliest narrative. It’s called deductive reasoning. I don’t understand why others don’t do it. I realize some people find my observations rude, but I do know when to stay silent. For instance, I didn’t bring up your parents’ divorce.”
I kicked a stray rock onto the road. At this point, I wasn’t surprised that she’d figured that out, too.
“When I was talking to the mover, your mom was twisting her ring finger, which no longer sports a ring. Force of habit, I presume. Six months ago?”
“Seven,” I answered glumly. Which was also the amount of time since I’d picked up a pen. Until this morning.
“My sincerest regrets.” She patted me on the back, which I could tell wasn’t a natural gesture for her. My own powers of observation told me that Shelby Holmes was not the touchy-feely type. And that she was disappointed her guess was wrong by a month.
Shelby had already figured out too much, so I tried to not show any emotion on my face as I thought about Dad. He was such a huge part of my life on the army post. Well, of course he was—he was my dad. He worked in the recruiting office and had better hours than Mom, so I would see him more. Then Mom went abroad and Dad was all I had until she returned. Now it was just Mom and me. Mom probably thought that being in a new home and city would make us miss him less. In fact, it made it worse. I felt even more alone.