Chapter One – Billy’s Big Problem
Our big old TV is driving me nuts—sometimes it works, sometimes, not. It’s one of the old ones about the size of half a refrigerator. My father said he almost got a hernia lugging it upstairs to our apartment.
It was late Sunday afternoon and I was watching my favorite movie The Hound of the Baskervilles lying on the living room couch. Sherlock Holmes is my hero. I especially like his movies starring Basil Rathbone. Many of the old time motion pictures were filmed in black and white, which makes them extra spooky.
I had the living room lights off and the curtains drawn because the darkness makes it feel like the inside of a movie theater. Suddenly the TV went nuts with a gazillion zig zaggy lines. So I walked over and whacked its side, then I heard an actor’s voice say Hello there! Hello there! Is something wrong?
The picture and actor then magically reappeared! My wife and I found him lying dead in Yew Alley face downward.
I was finishing a glass of orange juice and some cold popcorn when Sir Charles Baskerville’s lifeless body was found in Yew Alley, and the screen went nuts with zigzags, flickered, and died. Just like poor Sir Charles.
His lifeless body is fiction, of course, but the dead TV is not. It’s really starting to bug me. Big time.
“Hey, Mom. Can we get a new TV? Pleeeease! Ours is useless.”
“Only if you become rich and famous.”
My mother takes care of the household money—which isn’t a lot—so when she said rich and famous, she meant it.
“How can I do that? I’m just a kid.”
“You’ll have to figure out something then, or wait until you’re older.”
“I’ve figured out something already. Most new TVs have blue tooth. It’ll work really well with my hearing aids because the sound goes straight to my ears. It would be the best.”
I was born with a hearing impairment but my doctor noticed it early on. It’s a little bit of a bummer, but with them I can hear really well.
“That’s fine, Billy. However, they were expensive and require batteries.”
“Mom, don’t you see? It’ll be the same with a new TV. I’ll be able to hear super clearly.”
“That may be, but we can’t afford a new one right now. I don’t know anything about that electronic gizmo stuff. You know that. I barely understand how to text on my old cell phone. I do know, however, that new gadgets are very pricey. I don’t want to hear any more about a new TV.”
“You and Dad would benefit from a new one too, Mom. Just imagine having Hawaiian pizza and enjoying romantic comedies or one of Dad’s thrillers—”
“End of conversation, Billy.”
My mother is tough when it comes to debating or negotiating. She was the captain of her debating team at college. No wonder I hardly ever win.
I love my mom and dad but I wonder whether they ever think of me. I get confused as to what their priorities are because I’m thinking of them too. I certainly know mine and I intend to pursue them like making enough money to buy a new TV set.
Peter Fender and Sally Fender, my parents, brought me into the world about a dozen years ago—I celebrated my twelfth birthday three months back. We live in a two-bedroom apartment. It’s near the ocean in the town of Coyote Point, which is in the Pacific Northwest.
Coyote Point is a quiet place with about ten thousand residents, and has lots of neat features like Deadmen Bog, the Will-o’-the-Wisp Mansion, and old St. John’s Church.
My mother works in the bakery department at the A&B Grocery Store just outside of town. Her specialty is decorating cakes because she’s a really good artist. Often when she comes home she brings a cake or a pie that’s a day old. She gets them for half price.
My father runs a car repair garage down below our apartment. When he found the apartment for rent, he leased the garage at the same time for his business. It works out great for our whole family.
At 6:00 AM in the morning, he’s out of bed and having a shower. He starts early because he’s good at repairing cars and trucks and has lots of customers.
Today, before I went to school, he told me Major Tom has a problem with his busted-up old truck—something about the brakes—and Madame Toots—the local mystic has her beloved Mini Cooper in for exhaust repairs.
“When’s Dad coming upstairs for dinner? Maybe he can fix the TV,” I moaned, knowing that was highly improbable.
“He’ll be up soon, but you know your father. He’s a pretty good detective when it comes to finding problems with automobiles, but not so great with electronics.”
My mother has a point. Dad’s a whiz with car motors and transmissions but he’s plain ordinary with everything else except perhaps dancing and baseball.
Mom says he’s pretty hot dancing the salsa and the rumba. He also knows the names of all the New York Yankees, and dreams of traveling to New York City to watch a game in Yankee Stadium.
“I’m taking you to see a game someday,” he’d say to me. “We’ll have hot dogs and cold beer?” I think he means when I get a little older—and when he has more time. I’d like to spend more time with him now, but it’s difficult because he works really long hours.
“I need help with dinner,” said my mother. “Please turn off the TV.”
“That’s real easy, Mom, it’s pretty much dead.”
I rolled off the couch, walked over to the TV, and whacked its side again. The screen flickered to life then went completely black! It was finally kaput. I’d have to work on another strategy to persuade Mom that a new TV was really important.
“Do you know what a Black Mariah is, Mom?”
“Some kind of mushroom?” She laughed. “I have no idea.”
I persisted. “In a recent Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey, Jr., the opening scene has detective LeStrade ordering his officer to ‘Put them – the criminals – in the back of the Mariah.’” It was an old time horse-drawn wagon used by English police in the nineteenth century. They carried prisoners or dead bodies in it.”
“And when there’s a full moon, did you know that sometimes a Black Mariah floats over our own Deadmen Bog? It has four skulls on it, attached to each corner of the carriage.”
“That’s even more gruesome. Now wash your hands and help me clean the lettuce. No more stalling.”
“The skulls are the heads of the unfaithful husbands of Miss Denise Clapperman—she had four of them. She was also the first owner of the Will-o’-the-Wisp Mansion, which is right beside the bog. You know about the mansion, right?”
“Sure I do. I’ve heard there’s a new family living there now. And remember, I was also born in Coyote Point. I used to go to school with Ms. Clapperman’s six children. They were a very nice family. Unfortunately her husband passed away.”
“That’s what I mean—the husband. His head is on the Black Mariah.”
“No it isn’t. It’s in the cemetery at St. John’s Church with the rest of his body. By the way, where did you learn all this Black Mariah stuff?”
“Caspar Barnes, the town librarian. He helps me research information for my school projects on local history. Remember my project last year, the one about west coast indigenous settlements and early European explorers? He also helped me with research on the Black Mariah. Mr. Barnes is pretty cool.”
My mother cocked an eyebrow.
“You don’t want me ending up in it, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Without a new TV, I might die of a heart attack.”
She started laughing. “You’re too young to have a heart attack. But if you don’t get working on that lettuce, I’ll ground you for a week.”
“That would be worse than death!”
“Then get over here pronto.”
I realized it was time to change the subject. “What’s for dinner?” I asked with my stomach rumbling.
“Chicken stew and a salad.”
“What’s for dessert?” This is my favorite question around dinner time—or any time for that matter.
“I brought home butter tarts from the bakery.”
“Yum. How many can I have?”
“One. If you’ve finished your homework, you can have two.” She looked at me. “You have a project due, right?”
How does Mom know my school project on the early forms of human communication is late? Getting a second butter tart might be a problem.
“Get a move on with that salad. Your father will be upstairs soon, and he’ll be very hungry after a long day repairing cars.”
Our small apartment is one of two on the second floor—ours is above my father’s garage. The other apartment, which is above Gerardo’s Pizzeria, belongs to Miss Irena Balinkova. She told me she was a ballerina in Russia. I think she’s really a secret agent because she has a moustache—just like detective Poirot on TV.
Mother suddenly stopped what she was doing and looked down at my feet.
“Have you grown lately? Your pants look short on you.”
“My ankles have extended,” I answered. “Everything else is about the same.”
When I stand beside my mother, I’m almost as tall as she is. She’s five foot five, sometimes taller with a ‘big’ hair-do, or spikey heels when she goes dancing with my father.
“You’ll soon need new clothes. We’ll buy you new pants and shirts. What do you think?”
“I’d rather have a new TV.” I took a quick peek at her face.
She clenched her jaw. I need to search for another approach. Then a brilliant idea struck me like a thunderbolt.
“You know, Mom, I think a new TV would help me with my homework especially my projects.”
“It would relax me and I’d sleep better.”
“You mean after watching the Hound of the Baskervilles for the sixth time?”
“But you always end up thinking about the scary dog, then you have problems getting to sleep, and more importantly you can’t get up in the morning for school.”
“Not all the time.”
“All the time.” She grinned. “Nice try.”