“Do you think he’ll be any taller?” asked Big Boy.
Nelle squinted into the hot Alabama sun. It was a balmy seventy-eight degrees in December. So much for a white Christmas. They’d been standing on the side of the red dirt road from Montgomery for more than an hour. The only sign of life was the buzzards circling overhead.
“Nah. I reckon he’ll still be a shrimp,” she answered.
Big Boy took off his glasses and wiped the dust from them with his shirtsleeve. “Maybe he’ll be all fancy and big-city now,” he said absent-mindedly.
Nelle looked at him like he was crazy. “You remember that white suit he used to wear all the time? I think he was the only boy in Monroeville who even had a suit!”
Nelle was the kind of ten-year-old girl who wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress. She wore her usual tomboy outfit: beat-up overalls and white T-shirt, with bare feet. “Heck, he couldn’t be more highfalutin and big-city if he tried,” she added, spitting into the dirt and watching it turn burgundy.
Big Boy was a farmer’s boy; no matter how many baths he took, he always smelled like cows, something the girls never let him forget. Despite his nickname, he was not overly big for an eleven-year-old.
A red cloud rising from the horizon caught his eye.
They stood and stared at the gathering cloud as it grew closer. It took a few seconds before they could see a black speck causing the red tornado of dust. A minute later, the black speck became a fancy black convertible.
“Finally,” said Big Boy.
The closer it came, the faster Nelle’s heart seemed to beat. It had been over two years since their best friend, Truman, had been ripped from their lives. In the beginning, it seemed like she’d gotten a letter from him at least once a week—?stories about high-society life in New York, the endless parties, sightings of famous writers and actors, and skyscrapers tall enough to touch the sun.
Then, as winter gave way to spring, and another fall and winter passed, the stories grew shorter and shorter, until they tapered off altogether. She had not heard a peep from him for the past five months—?that is, until his older cousin Jenny received a telegram saying he, his mother, and stepdad were suddenly coming to town for the holidays.
“Maybe we should call him Sherlock. You know, for old times’ sake?” asked Big Boy.
Nelle broke into a smile, but it quickly faded. Truman was eleven and had been going to some expensive private school. He was sure to be different. Maybe he wouldn’t even remember them. Maybe he’d forgotten all the adventures they’d shared or even the mysteries they’d solved together.
The car came up on them fast. At the wheel was a dark-skinned man in a fancy tan suit, smoking a fat cigar. A woman was asleep in the passenger seat.
“Is that them?” asked Big Boy, excited.
A horn blasted, sending Nelle and Big Boy scrambling to the side of the road. As the car flew past, Nelle caught a glimpse of someone in the back seat, slumped out of sight, his white-blond hair blowing in the wind.
They were swallowed up in a tailwind of dust. “Come on.” Nelle spat as they grabbed their bikes and followed in the car’s wake.
The automobile eluded them, but Monroeville was just a dusty old hamlet and not so big that they couldn’t spot a fancy car like that. As Nelle and Big Boy rode through the town square, shopkeepers were just putting up their Christmas decorations, which was always a funny sight, given that a Monroeville Christmas was never like the snowy ones in the picture shows. A winter heat wave was not uncommon in these parts.
“Maybe we should stop and get a Christmas present for him?” suggested Big Boy.
“First we need to find out why he’s really here. Something smells fishy to me,” said Nelle.
In front of the hardware store, Nelle spotted Mr. Barnett, who had a wooden leg, holding a plastic snowman and staring off down the road. She followed his gaze right to the fancy car, which was parked smack-dab in front of A.C. Lee’s office!
Nelle and Big Boy ditched their bikes by one of the grand oak trees that ran down the center of Alabama Avenue. They made their way through a small group of gawkers surrounding the convertible. Truman was not in the back seat. But somebody had filled in the New York Times crossword puzzle with the scribbled scrawl of a child.
Nelle gazed up at the second-floor window of her father’s office. “Do you think . . . ?”
Big Boy shrugged. There was only one way to find out.
They tore up the stairs as quietly as they could, pausing in front of the second-floor office door on which was etched these words:
Amasa Coleman Lee
Financial Manager Editor at Large
Instead of knocking, Nelle motioned Big Boy toward an unmarked side door, which led to a storage room filled with boxes and cleaning supplies.
“What are we doing here?” whispered Big Boy.
She shushed him and closed the door behind them. They stood in the dark except for a crack of light that emanated from another door in the back of the room.
Nelle headed for the light. “That’s A.C.’s office,” she whispered.
They tiptoed forward until a voice stopped them dead in their tracks.
“Who does he think he is?” shouted a woman. “To do this around the holidays? That is so typical of him. Ruining it for everyone!”
Nelle looked at Big Boy. That was Truman’s mother, Lillie Mae, talking.
“Nina, Nina, don’t let him upset you so,” said a thickly accented male voice.
“Nina?” whispered Big Boy. Nelle shushed him again so she could hear.
“Mi corazón. He cannot win, he cannot,” said the man. “Isn’t that right, Mr. A.C.?”
“Is that Tru’s dad—?I mean, stepdad . . . What’s his name? Cuban Joe?” asked Big Boy. “And who’s he talking about?”
There was a pause. Nelle could hear a light tapping; A.C. always tapped a small pocketknife against a table whenever he was thinking.
Her father spoke slowly and deliberately. “...