By Kaye George
“Be sure you gouge out the eyes, Imogene,” Hortense filled the Dutch oven with water to boil the potatoes.
Immy attacked the spuds, peeling off skin and popping out the eyes with the pointed part of the peeler.
“Why do they call them eyes, Mother?” The operation was taking on gruesome overtones for the seven-year-old. “Potatoes can’t see anything.”
“Smart girl.” Her handsome policeman father strolled into the steamy kitchen of the single-wide, sipping a beer.
Mother giggled when he nuzzled her neck.
Sgt. Louis Duckworthy took another swig and ruffled his daughter’s straight brown hair.
“Tell me more about the purloined potatoes from your familial dining establishment,” Hortense said, salting the water and lighting the gas burner.
Louie put his beer down, sat beside his daughter, and winked. Immy loved the way her daddy winked at her when her mother used those big words. She stepped up her eye gouging to impress him.
“Hugh says the orders have been short,” Louie said, “especially on potatoes. It started about a month ago.”
“What does your father say?”
Louie’s brother Hugh and their father were co-owners of the Double D, the diner in Saltlick named for the two Duckworthies.
“Dad refuses to believe there’s a problem, but Hugh showed me the books and he’s right. Someone is filching vegetables.”
“Are the items being stolen previous to their reaching the diner?”
“Don’t know yet. I’m going to help him try to find out. Dad has been receiving the stuff and Hugh doesn’t trust our old man’s math. Dad got insulted when Hugh tried to double check, so I said I’d just happen to be there the next time a shipment comes in. I’m going early tomorrow, before my shift.”
Immy followed the adult conversation carefully, understanding most of it. She got the part about somebody stealing vegetables, and about her daddy going to the diner early tomorrow morning. She was sure she wouldn’t be permitted to tag along. If they knew about it.
When she heard her parents stirring, Immy, already dressed, crept out the back door and pedaled her bike the few blocks to the diner. She wanted to be hidden away before her daddy arrived.
Last night it had sounded like he was going to do some detective work, sneaking behind Grampa’s back to check up on him. Immy liked detectives. She was in the process of reading all the Nancy Drew books in the Saltlick library.
When she got to the diner, the sun was barely up. She scooted around the corner to the alley to stash her bike and herself behind the dumpster.
A truck pulled up and the driver jumped out and banged on the back door. Immy’s Grampa opened the door. They talked about the weather for a bit. It didn’t seem like it would rain soon. It was too hot for this time of year. Immy agreed. Especially behind the smelly dumpster.
“Hey, let me give you a hand.” Immy’s dad showed up as the truck driver started to hand over his clipboard. Louie took the clipboard and glanced over it. “Fifty pounds of potatoes, it says.”
She could see when she peeked out of her dark hiding spot. If anyone looked at her, they could probably spot her, too, but nobody did.
“Right here.” The driver threw open the side doors of his trailer and hopped up. He had a big belly like the Santa Clauses at the mall, but a short and brown beard, not long and white. He wore red suspenders, looking like Santa’s brother.
“Hand them down,” her dad called.
Immy’s dad counted the bags. “Four. You got one more?”
“Nope, that’s it.”
“We ordered five. Look around in there. Want some help?” Before the driver could answer, Immy’s daddy leaped into the trailer.
“Dad,” he called down after a minute. “We’re short one bag.”
Grampa scratched his head. “That’s never happened before.”
Immy could see her daddy’s face. He was frowning at the delivery man. Her daddy scribbled on the clipboard and handed it back to the driver. “That’s what we’re paying.”
“Can’t argue with that,” the man said. “I dunno why the order’s short.” He stuck his thumb through one of his suspenders.
Immy’s dad stood and watched the driver leave. When the truck was gone, he leaned down and peered behind the dumpster. “What in the blazes are you doing there, Immy?”
Relieved that he had found her and she didn’t have to squat in that smelly place anymore, she got up, stretched, and said, “I wanted to see how you do your detective work.”
He chuckled. “That wasn’t exactly detective work, sweetie. That was just checking out the delivery. If I found where the missing produce went, that would be detective work.”
All day at school, Immy thought about what her daddy had said. She lay awake that night thinking about it. Finding the missing potatoes would be detective work. Could she do detective work? That’s what Nancy Drew did. Would it be that hard to find out where the food was going? She thought long and hard about how to go about it, but fell asleep before she came up with a plan.
The next day, Lorilynne’s mother called and asked if Immy wanted to play and stay over for dinner. Lorilynne was her best friend in second grade. She didn’t live in Saltlick, but on a longhorn ranch a few miles outside town.
“Can I?” She jumped up and down.
“Your father isn’t occupied with his employment today, having accumulated a leave day. Inquire of him if he can transport you. I am consumed with preparations for the library board meeting this afternoon since I am bringing the comestibles.”
Her dad was outside, tinkering with his car. He straightened up and wiped his hands on a rag when Immy ran to him.
“Sure, cupcake, I can drive you. I’ll wash my hands and we’ll go.”
As her dad dropped her off, he cautioned her. “Don’t go anywhere else, now, you hear? Stay right around Lorilynne’s house.”
“Sure, Daddy.” Immy hopped out and ran to the front porch.
Lorilynne’s family lived in a real house, not a single-wide like Immy. After dinner at the blue wooden table in Lorilynne’s kitchen, Lorilynne suggested they go for a walk. They set off down the gravel road Lorilynne’s ranch was on, scuffing up dirt and giggling.
“Oh oh.” Lorilynne looked at the house they were approaching. “We went too far. I’m not supposed to go here.”
“How come?” Immy asked.
“That’s where Mr. Snodgrass lives. I don’t know why, but Daddy says not to go here.”
“Is it too far from your house?”
“I don’t think so.” She turned around. “See? You can see our house from here.”
They were in a dip in the road, so they could only see the top story of her house, but it was in sight, Immy agreed.
A loud voice startled them.
“Sooey! Sooey! Pig pig pig pig pig!”
“Look, he’s feeding his hogs,” said Lorilynne. “Let’s just watch that and then go back. They’re funny when they eat.”
Mr. Snodgrass, a medium-tall man wearing overalls and a bill cap, pulled a cart into the middle of the sty. He took a sack from it and dumped some kind of grainy stuff out into the trough, then added a bunch of vegetables. The fat pigs crowded around like they hadn’t eaten for days.
When Mr. Snodgrass took off his cap and mopped his forehead with it, Immy thought he looked like the man who delivered the groceries, with that big belly and short, brown beard.
Was Mr. Snodgrass the delivery man? Was he stealing groceries to feed his hogs?
After he went in, the girls whispered together. It was getting dark. The cart Mr. Snodgrass had used to haul food to the trough sat ten feet inside the sty. It had rained two days ago and the mud was extra yucky. The girls exchanged worried looks.
“I’ll go,” Immy said. “It’s my idea.”
“I’ll watch for Mr. Snodgrass. If I see him, I’ll hiss.” Lorilynne gave a hiss and Immy nodded.
Immy climbed over the gate and landed in the wet muck. She hurried to the cart and peered inside. There were several sacks in the bottom, identical to the sacks the potatoes were delivered in. She lifted a sack out and reached underneath. There was a flattened box with the word “Tomatoes” stamped on it. She heard a hiss behind her and headed toward the fence. Halfway there, she slipped and went face down in the muck. When she heard Mr. Snodgrass’s voice, she stayed down.
“Hello, there, darlin’.” Mr. Snodgrass stood beside Lorilynne in the road. “Kinda late for you to be out, isn’t it?”
“I’m just on my way home.” Lorilynne’s voice shook.
“Come inside. It’s cold out here. I have hot chocolate. With marshmallows.” His voice was soft and creepy.
“No thank you. I have to--”
Mr. Snodgrass grabbed Lorilynne’s arm and yanked her toward his house.
“No!” Lorilynne shrieked. “Let me go!”
In the light from the windows of Mr. Snodgrass’s house, Immy could see the man clap his hand over her friend’s mouth and drag her inside. Poor Lorilynne kicked and squirmed, but couldn’t get away.
Immy jumped up out of the mud, clutching the sack, clambered over the gate, and ran as fast as she could to Lorilynne’s house. She banged on the front door until Lorilynne’s dad opened it.
“He’s got her! Mr. Snodgrass has her!”
“Immy, why are you covered in--what’s that smell?”
She took two deep breaths. “I fell in the pig sty. Mr. Snodgrass took Lorilynne in his house.”
Lorilynne’s daddy grabbed her shoulders. “I’ve told her to stay away from--”
He pushed past her and pounded up the road. Immy set the sack on the porch and started after him.
“Wait a sec,” said Lorilynne’s mom. She picked up the phone and called emergency.
“My daughter’s been abducted by our neighbor.” She sounded calm, but was breathing hard. “Yes, he’s a registered offender.” After she told the police what had happened and where they were, she ran out the door. Immy followed.
When they got there, Lorilynne’s dad had kicked in the front door and punched Mr. Snodgrass in the jaw. Immy heard a siren, approaching quickly. She watched, wide-eyed, as her daddy jumped out of his police car, ran up the steps, and pulled Lorilynne’s dad off Mr. Snodgrass. He handcuffed Mr. Snodgrass. While his partner held him, Immy’s daddy squatted next to Lorilynne and asked her what had happened.
Lorilynne’s mother petted her daughter’s head. “You’re all right. You’ll be okay.”
As the two policemen were leaving with Mr. Snodgrass, Immy’s daddy stopped next to her. “I’m calling your mother to come get you. I’ll talk to you later.”
Immy was worried. He didn’t sound proud of her. She had saved her friend. Walking back to Lorilynne’s, Immy’s mother stopped their car beside her.
“Get in, Imogene.”
“I have to get something first,” Immy said. “At Lorilynne’s.”
“Good heavens, child. What is that stench?”
“Yes, that would have been my first guess.”
Her mother spread an old blanket on the front passenger seat and Immy got in. They drove with all the windows down.
“What did you leave at Lorilynne’s house?”
“Something I need.”
When they reached the house. Immy ran up the porch steps and snatched the potato sack she had dropped there. “See? Mr. Snodgrass was taking the potatoes to feed to his pigs. There are other sacks and boxes in his cart.”
“In the pig sty.”
At the next big family dinner, Immy felt like a detective. She told everyone, over and over and over, about The Case of the Snatched Potatoes. Her dad laughed when she said that.