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Kazu Jones and the Comic Book Criminal
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“I’m activating Grand Hacker’s laser eyes to incinerate the Mutilator.” March scrunched his face as he moved his plastic miniature to the back corner of the gaming mat.
I let out a huff. The Mutilator had me pinned in a corner of the nuclear junkyard, my back against an old reactor. March’s move could destroy me.
Owen, March’s uncle and our Game Master, tsked. “Doing so puts Golden Specter in danger. She may not survive the blast, especially if the reactor contains any radioactivity.”
Even in danger, I smiled to hear Owen say my character name aloud: Golden Specter. If only I could get kids at school to call me that.
As if he could read my mind, March said, “Kazu, the Golden Specter? More like Golden Cockroach. She can survive anything, even a radioactive explosion.” He rolled the dice and scoffed. “What?! Three? No way!”
“Grand Hacker singes the Mutilator’s eyebrows,” Owen said, and even I could tell he was trying not to chuckle. Owen’s dark curls were pulled from his pale face into a funky ponytail at the top of his head. He looked exactly how I thought March would look in twenty years. “Your blast distracts the Mutilator, and he turns his attention from the Golden Specter to your character.” Owen went back to studying his notes, which were splayed over the front page of today’s newspaper.
CindeeRae rubbed her hands together as March pushed the dice toward her. At first, I had been surprised that she liked playing Defender, March’s favorite role-playing game, nearly as much as March did. But I should have expected the theater nerd, who was also the newest member of our detective team, to enjoy a game where you got to act like a superhero on a special mission.
For the past month the team had been playing Defender on Wednesday afternoons at the Super Pickle: Comics and More. Owen owned the place, which was just outside our neighborhood, and I knew March spent most of his allowance here. He had hundreds of comics stored in narrow cardboard drawers that slid under his bed. On Tuesday nights he came here to play with his dad in a local tournament for a geeky card game called Sorcery. Owen had once told March he could start working at the Super Pickle when he turned fourteen, and ever since then March had become almost as devoted to Owen’s business as Owen himself.
CindeeRae twirled her caped miniature on the board like it was doing pirouettes. She had painted the figurine to look just like her, with flaming red hair and green pinpoint eyes. “The Lavish Director wants to know if it’s possible to use her telekinetic powers to launch the reactor onto the Mutilator’s head.”
Owen’s eyes glazed over as he stared at the newspaper, so I answered for him. “Golden Specter may have escaped the Mutilator’s grasp, but she’s still right there. Close enough that the reactor might crush her, too.” To emphasize my point, I reached across the mat and made my miniature jump up and down next to the villain. “This is a cooperative game, guys. We should be looking out for one another.”
“Oh, I see,” March said, his expression fake-serious. “Like when you time-warped me out of the game for five turns so I could break into the Mutilator’s lair and blow up his arsenal?”
“It would’ve worked if you had rolled higher.” I crossed my arms and leaned back in my chair, which bumped into CindeeRae’s. Owen’s store was cramped with boxes of comics sitting on rectangular tables that lined the walls, with even more boxes stored underneath. There was hardly enough room to walk around. The square card table had been squeezed into the center of the store, with most of the chair backs touching.
CindeeRae picked up her miniature and waved it around like she was trying to hypnotize us. “Lavish Director exercises her powers of compulsion to calm her teammates so they get along.”
Owen finally snapped to attention and stood, the newspaper clenched in his fist and his game notes fluttering to the floor. “I think this is a good stopping point.”
“What?” we all said in a chorus.
“But the Mutilator is right there.” March pointed at the board like we couldn’t all see the dark, hulking miniature.
“Sorry, guys.” Owen set down the newspaper and opened up the box so he could pack up the game. “This whole vandalism thing has got me a little distracted.”
The paper’s headline read “Vandal Hits Third Comic Book Store,” above a report on the graffiti that now plastered the front of Comic Warehouse in Lincoln Park. I only knew because I had read the article after my newspaper route that morning; all good detectives kept up with current events.
“They wouldn’t dare vandalize the Super Pickle.” March gently cupped the miniatures in his palm before setting them in the box. CindeeRae climbed under the table to gather Owen’s notecards.
“Maybe,” Owen said. “It’s just, this business hardly makes any money as it is. They say the hits might be gang-related, and if the Super Pickle became a target, that kind of publicity would end me.” He dropped the mat into the box and closed it.
March’s face darkened, alarm radiating from him like heat.
“Don’t worry,” I said, more to March than Owen. “It won’t happen. The Super Pickle will be fine.”
Even so, I couldn’t stop thinking about the article’s closing line, a conclusion that had probably worked Owen into an anxious frenzy: The vandal appeared intent on striking again.
I kicked my shoes off in the entryway to our house, Genki’s tail thwapping against the door as he ran to greet me. CindeeRae and I had spent the rest of the afternoon at March’s after our game got cut short at the Super Pickle. I came home just in time for dinner; no sooner and no later.
“Is that you, Kazu?” my grandma called from the kitchen, her voice stiff. Baa-chan had come to visit after Mom got sick last week, and I was still adjusting.
The smell of something spicy drifted toward me, and for the hundredth time I wished Mom felt good enough to make one of my favorites. Baa-chan knew I didn’t like spicy food.
“Do you need help?” I stopped at the end of the counter.
Baa-chan stood at the oven, stirring a big pot on the stovetop. She was wrapped in one of Mom’s fancy aprons with a thick ruffle at the bottom, and somehow it made her look smaller. Even still, I was certain she could command an army.
Unsure what to do with my hands, I clasped them in front of me. Genki stood at my feet, watching my face like I was sending a coded message.
“Sit,” Baa-chan said as she spooned something into bowls. I slid into a bar chair just as Genki sat back on his haunches.
Baa-chan turned to see us both, perfectly obedient. “Not you,” she scolded me. “Him.”
Genki’s tail beat the floor, as if he’d just earned a T-R-E-A-T.
“Help me bring dinner to the table, please.” She held out a bowl, split in half with rice on one side and what looked like stew on the other.
Without thinking, I wrinkled my nose.
“You haven’t even tried it,” she said, her eyebrows high and disapproving.
I stood and took the bowl, trying to shake the twisted expression from my face. “It looks good,” I lied. “What is it?”
As I followed her into the dining room, I watched the curry juice seep into the white rice, spreading slow and heavy like lava. Genki stayed behind, his tail still drumming the kitchen floor. Dad’s footfalls thundered on the stairs, and his hello bellowed through the house.
“Good evening,” Baa-chan replied.
After Mom had gone to the doctor last week, Baa-chan had flown into town from Nagano, Japan, where she and my grandpa Jii-chan lived. All week long, Mom had been pale and shaky, sleeping for hours at a time. When I asked what was wrong, Dad had mumbled something about her needing rest. “It’s nothing for you to worry about, Bug,” he had said, ruffling my hair. “And sometimes even moms need their mothers to take care of them.”
So while Mom recovered from her mystery illness, Baa-chan was here to parent us all, which was a lot like having a grouchy substitute teacher take over and give you more math homework than your real teacher ever would have required.
I sat at my place and fiddled with my soup spoon as Dad peeked into the dining room. From my spot at the table I could see that Genki had given up on getting a treat, dropping to a ball beneath the kitchen counter, his butt wedged beneath a chair.
“Howdy, Bug!” Dad eyed me for a second before noticing Genki. “You hungry, boy?”
Genki stood, nearly knocking over the chair and starting a whirlwind with his tail.
“That dog is spoiled,” Baa-chan snapped as she walked back into the kitchen. I rolled my eyes at Dad to let him know what I thought of that.
Dad winked before walking through the kitchen to the laundry room, where we kept the dog food. I could hear the clicking of Genki’s nails on the kitchen tile, marching in place as he waited for Dad to dish out his dinner. The clicking intensified, like he was performing the finale of a doggie tap dance. “Okaa-san,” Dad shouted; he called Baa-chan mother in Japanese because he said it was respectful. “Where’s Genki’s food?”
“In the garage,” Baa-chan said from the kitchen. “Dogs shouldn’t eat in the house.”
I caught my tongue between my teeth, holding it tight until the pinch made my eyes sting. Baa-chan insisted we follow her rules so she could lessen Mom’s load. It wasn’t working. In just one week, Baa-chan had become the heavy-browed boss of the house. But talking back to Baa-chan upset Mom, and I didn’t want to spend what little time I had with her apologizing for being rude to my elders. The garage door opened and closed, and I told myself Genki didn’t care where he ate as long as someone fed him.
Dad came back into the dining room, having left Genki in the garage with his dinner. I tapped my spoon on the curry bowl as Baa-chan returned, carrying a pitcher full of mugicha. She looked pointedly at me until I stopped the tapping, then sat at the table and shook her napkin onto her lap.
“Is Mom coming down?” I asked, drilling Dad with my eyes.
Baa-chan answered for him. “She’s resting. I’ll bring her dinner up when we’ve finished.”
Dad looked at the table instead of me.
Baa-chan’s face suddenly relaxed. “Please eat,” she said.
“Itadakimasu,” Dad said—which meant “I humbly partake” in Japanese—and scooped up a heaping spoonful. Then he stopped to ask, “What did you do today, Kazu?”
“We played Defender at the Super Pickle.” I held my spoon at my lips, tempted to stick my tongue out to test the curry. “But we didn’t play for very long because Owen is freaked out about the vandal hitting comic book stores.”
“What are we talking about?” Baa-chan leaned over the table as Dad shoveled another bite into his mouth.
“Some guy is spray-painting graffiti all over comic book stores,” I explained. “And March’s uncle was already thinking about closing the Super Pickle since it doesn’t make very much money. He might finally give up if the vandal hits his store.”
“Oh!” Baa-chan said before Dad could pipe in. “I saw that story in the newspaper this morning. It looks like the vandal is a street artist.”
“A what?” I finally took the bite of curry and moved it around in my mouth. My eyebrows shot up in surprise. It tasted like a cozy spot in front of the fire, not too spicy but warm enough to tingle my tongue.
“Street artists are serious about their craft,” she said. “And they use art to share a message. That doesn’t mean it would be right to vandalize your Super Pickle, it just means they have a reason for doing it that’s important to them.”
I squinted at Baa-chan, surprised she knew so much about graffiti. “Don’t tell March that.”
“March is serious about his comic book stores,” Dad agreed, his mouth half-full. “Especially the Super Pickle.”
I nodded, tired already of sharing this discussion with Baa-chan, who was making it feel more like a school lecture than dinner conversation.
“What do you think of the curry?” she asked.
I slowly chewed the bite I had just taken, waiting a few seconds before swallowing. “It’s okay,” I said. My mouth suddenly tasted sour from the fib I had just told.
“Hurry and finish eating.” Baa-chan finally picked up her spoon and dug through the rice and curry for a balanced bite. “You still have chores to finish before bedtime.”
I wrinkled my nose again, only this time on purpose. No one likes a grouchy substitute.
March pulled out yesterday’s newspaper after we finished lunch on Thursday, being sure to clean the table with a napkin before spreading out the article and smoothing it with gentle fingers. CindeeRae and I exchanged glances. I was pretty sure March planned to pitch a new case focusing on the vandal he and Owen were worried about.
He brushed down his shirt like it was a power suit. Actually, the crisp T-shirt he wore had Colonel Nightmare on the front, a mutant scientist from a comic whose face was covered in scars that looked like melted cheese.
CindeeRae had pushed her chair away from the table, helping her maintain a safe distance from the newspaper. Ever since we had busted the Denver Dognapping Ring, she had been wary of taking on another dangerous case.
But I was ready for a new challenge; it had been months since we had done any detecting. I shifted in my seat, waiting for March to speak, and when he didn’t, I let out a big huff. “Well?”
After one last deep breath, he finally began. “As you know, a vandal has struck three comic book stores in the Denver area.” March sounded like a newscaster; I imagined him practicing the speech early this morning after I had delivered his family’s newspaper. Before the dognapper case, when our detective team was just two members big, I would pick our cases and nag March into helping me solve them. Now that we were a team of three, everyone had to agree on which cases we took on. “According to this article, they expect him to strike again, and the Super Pickle is a potential target.”
March paused dramatically until a clanging from the kitchen broke the mood.
“Hurry up, March,” CindeeRae said, using her theater voice. “What are you proposing?”
He picked up the paper and held out the front page so we could see. “As you know, the last hit was at Comic Warehouse.”
The Denver Chronicle had reported on each of the three hits in the article. The first was at Mile High Comics, where a gigantic toilet bowl was practically buried by a mound of comics. In the second hit, the entire storefront of Comic Relief was covered with a picture of a landfill stacked to the clouds with comic books.
Despite herself, CindeeRae leaned forward to get a better look at the third hit, and together we peered at the picture. Comic Warehouse was a blocky brick building with no windows. The entire storefront was covered in a mural of a ginormous superhero guzzling a stack of comic books. It was pretty amazing—you know, if it wasn’t a crime.
March continued, “Owen knows the owner and offered to help him paint over the graffiti tomorrow. If we help, we could also gather clues. You know. For our new case: tracking down the comic-hating vandal.”
CindeeRae’s eyebrows shot up. “Wait a minute. It’s not a new case until we vote.” Her braids knocked against her shoulders as she shook her head. “Are we sure that hunting down a graffiti artist—”
“Vandal.” March’s head snapped up when he said it.
“Van-dal.” CindeeRae said each syllable like it was its own word. “Isn’t dangerous? I mean, we just barely got out of trouble for the last case we solved.” I could see her point. We had all been grounded for a few weeks after we busted the dognapping ring wide open with our detecting brilliance. But our parents and the police thought it was reckless and all kinds of illegal. We had to do community service for twenty hours each at the Denver Police Department’s K-9 unit and promise Detective Hawthorne we would never meddle in an open investigation again.
But that didn’t mean we couldn’t search for clues or gather evidence. I knew because I had asked. Detective Hawthorne had clarified that we could research crimes, but we couldn’t break any laws or interfere with police work; he then made us each write a paper detailing everything we had done on the dognapper case that was illegal or obstructive. The team hadn’t been happy about that assignment.
March’s lips tightened into a thin, straight line, and his eyebrows huddled up. “Investigating a vandal isn’t dangerous. Besides, it’s important to Owen and the other comic book stores.”
I was mostly on his side, even though I wasn’t as interested in bringing the vandal to justice as much as I wanted something to distract me from Mom’s strange illness and Baa-chan’s iron house rule. Plus, following a street artist would be cool. “But do we have enough clues to launch an investigation?” I met his eyes, willing him to give us more to go on.
He finally sat down, relaxing his shoulders as he slumped in his seat. “That’s why we need to visit the crime scene.”
Calling Comic Warehouse a crime scene definitely made the case more appealing to me. Not so much for CindeeRae, whose forehead wrinkled, a crease settling between her eyebrows.
The bell rang, followed by a momentary silence before kids barreled down the hallway outside the cafeteria, the chatter quickly becoming a thunderous pounding of feet and echoing conversations. March sighed. “We’ll pick this up later,” he said. He had just begun gathering his things when Madeleine Brown slithered through the door and stopped at our table, her fist falling like a paperweight onto the newspaper.
“What’s going on?” she asked. Tall, Korean, athletic, and bossy most of the time, Madeleine had joined our team to catch the dognappers last fall, hoping to free her own dog, Lenny. After we had cracked the case, she had gone back to her life as a fifth-grade soccer star, although rumor had it that she had just quit the team. No one knew why.
Madeleine seemed to have become a reformed bully after we closed the case. She wasn’t super friendly, but she wasn’t super mean either—she mostly ignored us, which is the best you could hope for with Madeleine Brown. I decided she had gifted us the power of invisibility, and I wasn’t keen on any take-back-sies.
“What do you want, Madeleine?” I asked, my voice pounding each syllable of her name.
Madeleine looked at the paper, a smile tugging at her lips. “Just wondering if you snoops were trying to crack this case, too.” She smoothed down her shirt, a bright orange jersey with a hedgehog on the front. “You know what they say about strength in numbers.”
I stood to toss my lunch sack into the garbage and then faced Madeleine across the table. “You want to join the team again?”
Madeleine shrugged. “Why not?”
“Because you were mean,” CindeeRae interrupted. “And bossy.”
March cocked his head as he watched CindeeRae and Madeleine face off, like they were a strange exhibit at the zoo. The silence swelled around us.
“I know I wasn’t the nicest person, but being on your team made me better,” Madeleine said quietly. “Right?” She looked at each of us, waiting for a response.
“I mean, yeah,” I said. “But how do we know you won’t change back?”
She searched the room as if she had hidden a cheat sheet somewhere. “I stopped those dog fighters from getting March.”
Madeleine had once saved March from the bad guys, turning back for him after he’d tripped in the abandoned amusement park where we were being chased. It was a moment that had surprised us all, maybe even Madeleine herself.
When we didn’t respond, she sighed. “Please?”
It was obvious Madeleine wanted to help, and the nice thing to do would be invite her back. But March, CindeeRae, and I were the team now, and I couldn’t make a decision like that without them. Besides, I wasn’t even sure I wanted her around.
When we didn’t answer, Madeleine’s expression hardened into a glare, and she mumbled under her breath, “You guys are jerks. I thought we were friends.” She spun around and stomped out of the cafeteria without looking back.
My gaze followed her and remained fixed even after she had disappeared down the hallway. “She’s not wrong.”
“Really?” CindeeRae’s lips puckered. “You want her to help us solve this case?”
“She was a lot of help busting the dognappers. Plus, she got nicer.”
“Wait.” March’s voice came out squeaky. “Does that mean we’re taking on this case?”
CindeeRae rolled her eyes, realizing she’d accidentally called March’s recent pitch a case. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
March looked at me, excitement making his smile all twitchy. “Kazu?”
I nodded. My chest fluttered at the idea of opening a new investigation, and I was so distracted by the feeling, I nearly jumped out of my skin when the second bell rang.
I snuck into the house without saying a word and climbed the stairs to Mom’s room before Baa-chan caught me. The door creaked as I pushed it open. I stepped inside, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, and Genki followed me. The blackout curtains were drawn, and the room smelled like damp towels and dirty laundry; I scrunched my nose as I walked closer to the bed.
“Mom?” She was lying under a heap of blankets, her head hidden. When she didn’t answer, I croaked, “Moooooom?”
“Mmmmm?” she moaned.
I dropped my backpack and climbed onto Dad’s side of the bed, careful not to jostle the mattress. “How are you feeling?”
Genki jumped up behind me and began digging around the foot of the bed to make a blanket nest. Even though we both knew this bed was strictly off-limits, Mom didn’t notice, and I let him stay.
“Tired.” She sounded like she was sleep-talking. And then she mumbled, so softly I wasn’t sure I heard her right, “And sad.”
Sad? Why was Mom sad? Had she been sad this whole time, or just today?
I thought back to when she had stopped coming downstairs after the doctor’s appointment, a little over a week ago—when Baa-chan came. Before that Mom had been perfectly healthy, going for a jog every day after sending me off to school and then working at the museum. But now her usually sleek and shiny hair lay matted and dull. Her brown eyes were surrounded by dark circles and her skin was pale. How could things change so quickly?
“We should go for a walk.” Maybe she’d feel better if she got up and felt the sun on her face. All the snow had melted while she’d been up here, and the change in weather might turn everything around.
She closed her eyes again and said, “I’m not feeling up to it, Kazu.” Her hand peeked from under the sheets and covered mine. It was still soft and warm. “I’m sorry.”
I nodded and smiled even though my eyes stung. “Can I just lie here with you for a while?”
“Of course, sweetie.” She closed her eyes and released a deep sigh. “Tell me about your day.”
I talked about playing Defender at the Super Pickle yesterday, and how March and Owen were worried about the vandal hitting his store next. She smiled when I imitated March’s stiff presentation at lunch, pleading with CindeeRae and me to take on the case. I told her that Madeleine wanted in, but CindeeRae and I weren’t sure about that.
“No meddling in police work.” Her froggy voice still had that annoying mom pitch, but this time the familiar tone echoed through my whole body, making all the heavy places feel suddenly light. Maybe Mom was getting better already.
“We won’t,” I said quickly. “I promise.”
I reached my foot out to scratch Genki’s belly and he rolled over, pushing his chest toward me. “Let’s watch a movie,” I said, but Mom had already fallen asleep.
Mom was sick or sad or something, and no one was telling me why. My heart swelled like a puffer fish, prickling in my chest as I imagined what might be wrong. What if, unlike what Dad had said, this was something to worry about? Maybe Mom wouldn’t get better, but worse, and he was just too afraid to break it to me.
A little detecting could help me figure it out for myself. I crawled under the comforter and snuggled as close to her as I could without waking her up. I had never had two open cases at the same time, but this might be the most important investigation of my life.
After school the next day, March, CindeeRae, and I grabbed our bikes and headed to Comic Warehouse. CindeeRae had play rehearsal that night—she was Ladybug in the local production of James and the Giant Peach—so we needed to hurry if we were going to help with cleanup and find the clues we needed for our investigation. As we waited to cross an intersection just three blocks from the school, CindeeRae squawked at something behind us.
We all turned to see Madeleine skid to a stop on her bike, her front tire nearly colliding with CindeeRae.
Madeleine unfastened her helmet and shook out her hair. It sprung from her head frizzy and wild. “Look,” she said, “I understand why you don’t want me on the team. So I’m here to ask for a trial period.”
CindeeRae folded her arms tightly across her chest.
“Let me work with you on this case.” Madeleine studied our faces, biting at her thumbnail. “If you don’t like working with me, you can kick me off the team. Anytime. No questions asked.”
“Did you follow us here?” CindeeRae asked, and when Madeleine nodded, she muttered, “Stalker.”
“Is that a no?” I asked CindeeRae.
“An observation,” she answered.
- A suspenseful yet small-scale mystery for lovers of comics, art, and adventure.—Kirkus
- A satisfying second installment in a fantastically fun series.—Booklist
- On Sale
- Apr 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers