12 Harry Hogan - The Moving Skull
The door of Hogan's Investigations flew open with a rush of cold air and a young boy came to a skidding halt. "Miss Bertie! Miss Bertie!" He was panting and gasping for breath.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Henry? What on earth...?" She pointed to a chair. "Sit down and catch your breath."
His head bobbed up and down as he plopped down on the chair. Then he looked up as Harry walked in behind him and quietly closed the door.
"Is that your bike in the driveway?" Harry asked him.
Henry's face turned red. "Sorry, sir... I was in too much of a hurry... I didn't... I mean... sorry, sir."
"This is Henry Lake," Bertie said. "Henry, this is Mr. Hogan. Now, why don't you tell us what's got you all hyped up."
His head bobbed up and down again and then the words poured out of him: "I found a skull up on the trail... well, it was off on the side, not right on the trail... and it wasn't plastic... it... it looked real... and..." He paused, gasping for breath.
"Henry!" Bertie handed him a bottle of water. "Slow down and start at the beginning."
Henry did just that. "Do you think someone was... maybe someone died out there?" His voice was hushed.
"Well, Henry, I suppose it is possible but since it was a skull you found, it would have happened a long time ago. I don't think there's anything for you to be concerned about now."
"Mr. Hogan is right, Henry. What were you doing out on the trail anyway?"
"I always go out there. I'm watching for the ferns to start growing so I'll know where to get the best fiddleheads."
Bertie laughed. "Technically, they are the unfurled fronds of a young fern and they are delicious when lightly fried in a little butter."
"Why didn't you just say edible wild plant?" Harry commented. "Now then, young man, can you show us where you saw this skull?"
As Harry backed the truck out of the driveway, Henry said quietly, "Miss Bertie, I miss you at the library."
"Why, thank you Henry. Sometimes I miss being there myself," she replied.
"Why did you leave?"
Bertie laughed. "I just felt like it was the right time to retire and let a younger person take over. It happens to most people as they get older, Henry. I'm sure Mr. Hogan knows what I mean."
"She's right, Henry. That's why I retired from the police force."
Henry was quiet for a minute. "But you're still a detective, so it's kind of like you just changed where you work."
Harry and Bertie laughed.
"I guess that's partly true," Harry said, "but now I work on my own and I can take a day off to go fishing anytime I want. Many people retire when they reach a certain age, Henry, so they can have the freedom to do the things they enjoy."
Henry thought about that for a minute, and then looked up at Bertie. "What do you do, Miss Bertie?"
"Well, I sometimes help Mr. Hogan with research."
"The way you used to help kids with research at the library?"
"The same way," Bertie replied. "But there are other things, things I never seemed to have time for when I was working."
"Is it like that for all adults?"
"For most, I suppose. I always wanted to have a small vegetable garden and I'm working on that too."
"I could help with that," Henry said. "I grew some peas last year and this year Mom said she might get me a couple of tomato plants. I could come and help you weed."
Bertie smiled at him. "I'll keep that in mind, Henry."
"Okay, here we are." Harry parked the truck near the trail entrance. "Lead the way, young man."
Henry scrambled out of the truck and started running.
"Don't run! There's no big rush. It's not going to run away," Harry said.
Henry stopped and waited for the two adults. "Sorry. I forgot older people don't like to run the way kids do." He grinned.
"I just like to walk," Harry said and mumbled under his breath: "Cheeky kid." Beside him, he could see Bertie was trying not to smile... but losing the battle.
"It's not very far." Henry set off again, at a slower pace, and they followed along behind him.
After about ten minutes, the boy began walking along the right side of the path, looking down. Several minutes later he stopped and bent down. He picked up something in one hand and then stood up again. "It's gone."
"Are you sure this is the right spot?" Bertie asked
"It's not easy to remember an exact spot on the side of a trail," Harry said. "Are you absolutely sure it was a skull? Could it have been a rock that looked like a skull?"
"Well, there's nothing here. Perhaps if we went a little further," Bertie suggested.
"But it was here, Miss Bertie. I saw it and it wasn't a rock. There were two eyeholes in it and a hole where the nose should be."
"I believe you, Henry," she said.
"Are you sure it wasn't plastic, like a Halloween decoration?"
Henry shook his head. "No sir. I would know if it was because I have a whole collection of them at home. Anyway, the plastic ones look fake. This one looked real and it was pretty dirty."
"And you are absolutely sure this is the exact spot?"
"Yes sir." Henry lifted a rock and then held out his hand, showing them a red marble. "I put this here to mark the spot."
Harry rubbed his chin. He believed the kid had seen something but was it really a skull? "Well, there's nothing here now. Perhaps some animal found it and carried it off."
"Who knows why animals do things?" Bertie said. "Come on, we'd best get you back before your Mom gets off work and starts to worry about you."
"Yeah, I guess so." They could hear the disappointment in his voice.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Harry parked in his driveway and they got out of the truck. Henry went directly to his bike and Harry called after him. "Be more careful where you drop it next time. Someone could run over it."
"Yes, sir. Thank you for picking it up." He stood still for a moment, and then added, "I did see a skull."
"We believe you, Henry," Bertie said. "I guess some other person - or animal - must have seen it too."
"Let us know if you see it again," Harry said as the boy started down the driveway.
"I will," Henry called back.
"You do believe him, don't you?" Bertie asked as they watched Henry pedalling away.
Harry leaned against the truck and said thoughtfully, "I believe he saw something. And he was bright enough to mark the spot."
"Henry is very level-headed," Bertie said. "There's just him and his mother and they rely on each other a lot. If Henry says he saw a skull, then he saw a skull."
"Then, let's hope he sees it again the next time he's out looking for your fiddleheads. That's a ridiculous name anyway. Why not just call them young ferns?"
Bertie burst out laughing. "Hard to believe a kid knows something you don't know, isn't it?" She opened the door of her battered jeep. "Never mind, I'll make sure you get the chance to sample them this year. Then you'll know what they are."
"It's still a ridiculous name," he said as he waved and walked towards his house.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Several days went by with Henry coming to report seeing the skull but when Harry and Bertie went to check it out, there was nothing.
Henry is getting frustrated. After a week of this, he comes to a decision and stops by Bertie's house. "I won't be in to bother you and Mr. Hogan about this skull anymore," he said.
"You're not bothering us, Henry. Are you giving up?" she asked.
"Maybe." He shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe I'll just stay away from the trail for a while. It's still a bit early for fiddleheads anyway."
"Perhaps," she agreed. "But are you sure you're ready to give up on the skull?"
He shrugged again. "There are lots of other places to look for skulls. I just think it's time to more on."
"I'm sorry to hear that, but it's up to you."
"Will you tell Mr. Hogan I said thanks for trying?"
"I will, and don't forget, if you change your mind, you can always come to us. Okay?"
He nodded. "See you, Miss Bertie."
"See you, Henry." She watched him ride away on his bike and, when he was out of sight, she picked up her phone and called Harry. She told him what Henry had said. "He looked so sad. I can't help feeling there's more to this."
"I've been thinking the same thing." He told her what he had in mind. "Tomorrow is Saturday, no school. Will you call him at home and ask him to meet us here at the office... say around ten?"
"I'll do that right away."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Henry's interest in the skull was apparently rekindled, for he turned up the next morning, a full fifteen minutes early.
Bertie pulled into the driveway a few seconds later and climbed out of her jeep. "Come on, Hogan, let's get this show on the road. I need coffee."
Harry laughed. "You're going to ruin Henry's good opinion of you."
She scowled at him. "Not everyone is a morning person, and I happen to one of those who's not. Get the door open so I can get a cup of coffee, will you?" She looked at the grin on Henry's face. "You think it's funny?"
"No." He shook his head. "Mom is like this when she gets home from work, if she's had a hard day. But she feels better after she gets a cup of tea."
Harry unlocked the door and she went straight for the Keurig she had brought in after getting two as house-warming gifts. He and Henry sat down and waited until Bertie joined them, both hands wrapped around her mug. "Okay," she said. "Tell us what you've got up your sleeve."
Harry grinned and shook his head. "I've been thinking. It's strange that Henry sees the skull, but when we go back with him, it's gone. And he marks the spot every time."
"I mark the spot so I know I have the right place." Henry said. "The side of the trail looks pretty much the same everywhere."
"That's right, it does, but you were smart enough to leave a mark."
"So, what's your point?" Bertie asked. "You think someone is doing this, putting the skull there, then moving it after Henry finds it and leaves."
Henry's mouth fell open. "You mean it's just a prank?"
"Partly," Harry said, "but I'd like to know who it is and where they got the skull. You said it was dirty?"
"Real dirty. And it looked old...or maybe the dirt made it look older than it is."
"Possibly, but I've been remembering a case from when I was on the force, one that never got solved."
"Did you have many unsolved cases?" Bertie asked.
"Just that one. It wasn't a high priority but it's always nagged at the back of my head," Harry said absently.
Then he looked at Henry. "I don't want you to give up on this just yet, Henry. I want you to continue walking up the trail but you don't have to rush back here to report."
"Then how will you know?" Henry was puzzled.
Harry reached into one of the desk drawers and handed Henry a phone. "This is what they call a burner phone. It's only good for ten days. I want you to continue going up the trail and, when you see the skull, all you have to do is call me. The number is programmed in."
"Okay." Henry put the phone in his pocket. "Monday, after school. Mom's off this weekend and we have things to do."
"See you, Henry," Harry and Bertie replied but he was gone before they finished speaking.
"Now, tell me what you're planning," Bertie said. And he did.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Monday and Tuesday were uneventful. Now it was Wednesday. "This game is starting to get monotonous," Bertie said, with a sigh.
Harry chuckled. "You wanted to be part of it."
"Is police work always like this?"
"Sometimes... sometimes things move fast, sometimes they crawl."
They walked up the trail to where Henry had seen the skull and took up their positions again, both hoping that today would be the day. But then, they had hoped that for the past two days, with no success.
A little over half an hour later, three boys about Henry's age came up the trail. One of them was swinging a plastic bag that appeared to have something inside it. They all stopped at the same place. They were giggling and as one of them stooped by the side of the road, another said, "You know Henry's soon going to catch on."
Harry rose from his position, quickly and quietly stepping to the middle of the trail. "How about you tell him instead?" He held out his hand. "I'll take the bag."
All three boys spun around and, when they saw Harry, hung their heads. They knew who he was and they knew they'd been caught. The bag was handed over. Harry glanced inside and saw the skull.
"Okay, now tell me what's going on here." All three started talking at once. "One at a time, please." Harry pointed to one of the boys, slightly taller than the other two. "You. What exactly are you doing?"
"We were just playing a prank on Henry, sir. Just having a bit of fun. He'll soon catch on to it anyway."
"And we know he collects strange things like this to study."
"Yeah, he's smart, Henry is, always got his nose in a book, but he's okay."
Harry looked at his watch. "You can tell him that when he gets here... in another minute or two." He knew Henry had joined Bertie right after school.
Sure enough, exactly one minute and twenty seconds later, Henry and Bertie jogged up the trail together.
"Well, well, well... what have we here?" Bertie looked at them sternly. "Up to mischief again, are you?"
"Just a prank, Miss Bertie," one of them said.
"Do you know these boys?" Harry asked as Henry stopped in front of them.
Henry pointed to each in turn... "Arnie, Willie and Paul. They're in some of my classes."
"They ever give you any trouble?"
"Nah, they just like to joke around a lot," Henry said. The other three were nodding in agreement.
"We didn't mean any harm."
"I'm sure you didn't," Harry said, "but tell me, where did you get the skull?"
"It's just an old thing we found off the side of the trail a bit farther on. We knew it would catch Henry's attention 'cos he collects them."
"Hmm, can you show me just where you found it?"
Three heads nodded vigorously. "Yes, sir." "Sure can." "No problem."
After walking about ten minutes, the three boys stopped and Arnie said, "This is it, just a few feet off the trail."
"Lead the way," Harry told him.
In the middle of a small dried up patch of mud, there was an old deteriorated cardboard box. Several large bones were still inside. The smaller ones had probably been carried away by animals. Harry pulled a pair of disposable gloves from one pocket and a large garbage bag from the other. He carefully put all the pieces of the box and the bones into the bag. He added the bag with the skull and tied it. "I'll take this to the station when I get back."
The four boys walked ahead, chatting and laughing, with Harry and Bertie following behind.
"Do you think it's what you had in mind?"
"It could be but I'll let the boys at the station figure it out."
"So, are you going to tell me?"
"The university was getting a new skeleton for the lab and one of their science teachers was going to take this one. It was boxed up, but when he went to pick it up, it was gone. It was low priority and soon got dropped."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Late Friday, Harry got a call from his former partner, Bruce Parkins. "You were right, Hogan."
"Good," Harry replied. "What happens to the remains now?"
"The University has a new one; the guy who was supposed to get this one has a complete one... I guess it gets dumped... unless you want it?"
"Great. Thanks, I'll take it."
There was silence on the other end for all of sixty seconds. "What? Did I hear you right?"
"You did." Harry chuckled. "The kid who was being pranked is into things like this and he was a big help. I'm sure he'd love to have it, skull and bones."
"In that case, I'll drop it off on the way home."
Harry hung up and called Bertie to make arrangements for them both to deliver the remnants of the skeleton to Henry the next morning.
© Fay Herridge
Published in Story Quilt, May 2021
Harry Hogan Series
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