BY CHRIS LAING
Copyright is held by the author. This story first appeared in Chris’s short story collection, West End Kids: Tales from the Forties.
“ANYBODY IN there?” It sounded like a girl’s voice.
“Oh, jeez,” Moose said. “What’s a dame doin’ down here?”
Our packing-case fort in the bushes was off-limits to non-members of the club. Especially members of the opposite, excuse the expression, s – e – x.
Ignoring the interruption, we continued searching for traders as we riffled through the comic books stacked in a Royal Oak milk crate. It was Lipinski’s turn to choose. “Read it. Read it. Read it. Got it. Got it. Oh. I ain’t seen this new Captain Marvel.”
“Hello. Anybody home?” The intruder was closer now.
Whitey crawled over to peek through the rip in the canvas door-flap.
He turned back to us and spoke in a loud whisper. “Yep, it’s a dame all right. Annie Rooney.”
Moose sprang up, banging his head on the low ceiling and staggered through the narrow doorway, the rest of us tumbling after him. Our self-appointed leader glowered at a short, blond-haired girl wearing a green dress. “Can’t ya read yet?’ He waggled a finger toward the corner of the fort. “That sign says NO DAMES ALLOWED.”
She took no notice of Moose’s gruff manner and looked up into his piggy eyes. “Good morning. I’d like to talk to you boys about joining the Safety Guards.”
Moose’s flabby mouth hung open as he stared at this nervy little dame with a what’s-goin’-on-here look on his mug. Maybe wondering, Is she trying to join our club? Maybe even take it over? Or worse, start her own club to rival ours? And what the heck are the Safety Guards?
After a long moment, he recovered himself. “I only got one word for ya.” Speaking like a leader now, he puffed out his big guy’s chest. “Amscray.” Then he huffed back into the fort waving at the rest of us to join him inside.
Next day, as we filed into Sister Theresa’s religion class, Annie Rooney nudged my arm and slipped me a note. I unfolded it inside my catechism and in her perfect penmanship it read, “Meet me at Gus’s after school.”
Yikes! Annie Rooney wanted to meet me.
My mind began to spin in a pleasant turmoil. I liked her. No denying that. This year I was surprised at how interesting the grade seven girls had become. Especially since they were such dopes last year. But why did she want to meet me? Was she still recruiting for the Safety Guards, whatever they were? Or was she interested in me? You know … interested.
I looked to my right, two aisles over, and met her steady gaze. I nodded in response to her note. Then Sister Theresa’s shrill voice shattered my daydream. “I’ll repeat this once more, young man, and only once. Now … name the seven deadly sins.”
Moose grabbed my arm on the way out of school. “Let’s go, pal. Don’t wanna be late for practice, eh?”
“Can’t do it. Gotta couple of errands to run for my mother.”
A question mark on his face, then a frown. “Oh, Okay. See ya tamorra.”
Instead of a regular handle, the screen door at Gus’s Confectionery had a wide metal push bar along one side, decorated with a decal of a brown corrugated bottle of my favourite soft drink – Stubby Orange. The same drink that Annie Rooney now waved in my direction as she leaned against the pop cooler in the corner.
“S-s-sure.” I sipped. And, boy, did I feel stupid when I accidentally bit the end off her straw.
She lived a few blocks from Gus’s and suggested that I walk her home. So we turned right on Ward Avenue and over to Emerson where a high-school guy mounted a delivery bike in front of Hemingway’s Grocery Store on the corner and almost ran into us.
“Watch where you’re walkin’,” he yelled at us.
“You shouldn’t ride your bike on the sidewalk,” Annie called back and he almost slammed into the hydro pole in front of Stan’s Fish and Chip shop as he turned back to answer her.
She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Some people have a lot of nerve, don’t they?”
We walked another block and turned onto Royal Avenue where I noticed several of the houses here had Victory Gardens in their backyards to grow their own vegetables; neat rows of staked tomatoes looking like soldiers on parade alongside one house and a sprawling, untamed squash patch in the front yard of another.
It occurred to me that I still hadn’t learned the reason for this meeting. Then, with a lilt in her soft voice, she said, “Last year I joined the Orphan Annie Safety Guard program. And I just received my renewal for this year.”
Aha, I thought, here we go.
We’d reached her house, a neat brick bungalow like those around it, but with sparkling white shutters and a gravelled driveway with an oily patch near the house where the car would be parked. Three concrete steps led up to the entrance door still smelling of fresh paint; a lion’s-head brass knocker and a screwdriver sat on a small table near the door awaiting installation.
We sat on the top step where Annie withdrew a folder from her science workbook and handed it to me. I spread it out on my lap and in flashy blue and red letters the cover proclaimed, “NEW! 1942 OFFICIAL HANDBOOK!” Captain Sparks was pictured in an air force uniform and oval-eyed Orphan Annie held a SAFETY GUARDS sign. Seated beside her was her mutt, Sandy, also with the vacant eyeballs and, like the captain, the dog wore an air force wedge cap.
Inside the folder were a membership badge and detailed information about the rules of the program, a special Safety Guard Defence Bulletin and an illustrated catalogue of gifts available to Safety Guards (“Hurry, offer good only while supplies last”).
“Wowser.” I handed back the folder. “So you thought you’d sign us up as members?”
“Well … yes.”
“And Moose was snarly at you so maybe I might talk the guys into joining?”
“And that’s the only reason you wanted to meet me?”
She paused a beat. “Not the only reason.”
I thought about that until it became too complicated. “How much does it cost to join?”
“Three box tops from Quaker Puffed Wheat Sparkies.”
“Hmm. I’m gonna hafta think about it. Maybe I could borrow this stuff and show it to the guys.”
She nodded those blond curls in my direction.
“So I guess we’ll hafta meet again,” I said.
She skipped up her front steps into the house and winked over her shoulder. “I hope so.”
Next day during recess, we were pitching pennies at the back wall of the school, closest to the wall wins. Moose scooped up his winnings and stood beside me. “Heard ya hadda little tit-a-tit with Annie Rooney.”
“Yeah. Heard ya were makin’ goo-goo eyes at each other on her front steps.”
“Said ya were doin’ errands for your mother.”
“Yeah, well …”
“You’re not gettin’ sweet on some dame are ya?”
“C’mon, Moose, you know me better than that. I wouldn’t break a club rule.”
“Well, I thought I knew ya.” He gave me a thump on the arm. “What were ya doin’ at her place, anyway?”
Good question, I thought. “Just talkin’ to her about that Safety Guards stuff.” My voice shaky with this half truth. “Thought we could shoot the bull about it at the club meetin’ tonight.”
He scowled at me. “Aw, nertz. I wouldn’t talk to her so she’s sendin’ you, eh?”
“Nah, it ain’t like that, Moose. You’ll see tonight.”
The gang crowded around the Safety Guards folder spread over two empty orange crates we ‘found’ behind the new Loblaw’s store in Westdale.
“Orphan Friggin’ Annie!” Moose stormed around the cramped space, knocking into us. “We don’t want nuttin’ to do with this sissy craperoo.”
“Aw, c’mon, Moose,” Lipinski said. “Lookit this neat Whirl-O-Matic Radio Decoder. When ya listen to Safety Guard radio program ya can decode secret message, it says.”
“Big deal.” Moose wagged a finger at the Lip. “What kinda messages?”
“Probly ‘bout spies and how to spot the enemy plane.”
Whitey flipped the folder over. “This Aviation Altascope Ring is real nifty, too. Ya look through the hole in the ring to tell the height of planes flyin’ over.”
“But lookit how much it costs,” Moose said. “Two box tops and 15 cents.”
Whitey fought back. “Yeah, but only 17 box tops and you send no money.”
“Hah!” Moose was in full rant now. “You gonna eat 17 boxes of Puffed Wheat? Y’ever taste that stuff? The damn box’s got more flavour.”
Dawson said he liked the Aviation Training Cockpit made from cardboard – 15 cents or 15 box tops. Complete with 16-page illustrated book.
“And if we join,” Whitey said, “even the membership badge is a three-way signaller. Says here, ‘hidden on the back of your Tri-Tone Membership Badge are two whistling tubes — one short — one long. They can be blown together — or separately’. Pretty good, eh?”
Moose’s face flared like a Roman candle. “What’s the matter with you guys? Can’t ya see this whole Safety Guards crap is just a way to sell Puffed Wheat and toys?”
Like I told my mother, Moose was a lot smarter than he looked.
Then the big guy turned to me. “So what d’ya think about all this stuff, lover boy? You brought it here.”
Another good question. What did I think? I wanted to get closer to Annie Rooney and the Safety Guard seemed to be a way to do that. But I’d known Moose and the gang all my life and I didn’t want to split the club. How’d I get into this mess? Where was King Solomon when you needed him?
I ignored his lover boy crack. “I’m still thinkin’ about it. Some of those things in the folder are nifty all right. And you know you’d love that Spitfire model, Moose. Jeez, if we didn’t already belong to a club, maybe the Safety Guards would be a good thing ‘cause we already do some of the activities to support the war effort.”
Whitey jumped in. “Yeah, we’re part of that newspaper drive every month. And we bin collectin’ scrap metal and aluminum foil.”
Moose kept pressing. “So what d’ya think?”
“Well, maybe only one of us should join,” I said. “That way we’d be able to order whatever we wanted from the catalogue and we could share the radio decoder and the signaller and the other stuff that comes with the membership.”
“Huh,” Moose said. “And who gets to be the member?”
“Let’s think about it ‘til our next meetin’.”
Moose waved his arms. “Okay. We’re done for now, everybody.” As we folded up the Safety Guards stuff, he grabbed my arm. “Here, lemme read about that Spitfire model again.”
My heart did a little dance when I saw Annie Rooney seated on her front steps waiting for me. I noticed the brass knocker was now re-attached to the front door. Her note said to meet her here after school for a “de-briefing.”
I sat beside her. “What’s a de-briefing?”
“I thought you told me that you listened to Boston Blackie on the radio,” she said. “Don’t you remember the episode where the spy was smuggled out of Germany and returned to Headquarters to report back? That’s a de-briefing.”
“Ah hah. And I’m reporting back to you.”
“Well, sort of, I guess.”
“So, are you my headquarters?”
“No, of course not, silly. I just wanted to know how it went when you talked with your friends about the Safety Guards.”
She flashed me a home-run smile. Boy, it was stunning. I even forgot what I was going to say until she poked me on the arm. Then my arm went numb. Holy Cow!
“The meeting,” she said.
“Oh, yeah. Well, some of the guys liked the idea of joining up and some didn’t. And, you know, our club already does some of the activities listed in your folder.”
“Oh.” Some of the spark left her eyes. “So will anyone join?”
“Not sure. At least one, I think. We’re gonna talk about it again at next week’s meetin’.”
“You sound disappointed.”
“Well … I need to sign up at least three new members to earn my captain’s wings.”
“And captains are the leaders of Safety Guard groups?”
“Well, yes. I guess so.”
“I see why you’d be disappointed if only one of our guys joins up.”
She squinted at me. “You’re not getting snippy, are you?”
“No, no. Not me.”
“Sounds like you think a girl can’t be a leader. Maybe you’re jealous that I’d like to become a captain.”
“Hold on just a sec.” I was pleading now. “That’s not what I’m thinkin’. I like you.” There, I said it.
“Well, you sure have a funny way of showing it.” She sprang to her feet and ran into the house, her golden hair bouncing on her shoulders.
I wandered home in a daze wondering where I went so wrong. I could hear Stan saying, “You sure made a fine mess of that, Ollie.”
Next day, I ran into Moose after he’d finished his paper route and was heading home along the railway tracks at the corner of Stroud Road. We weren’t far from the hobo camp located in the bushes alongside the tracks. Whenever we walked along the rails near the camp Moose always sang, “Hallelujah, I’m a bum.” He was singing it now but stopped when he spotted me and waved me toward him. “Lookit this, Bud,” he said, hoisting his Hamilton Spectator bag full of empty pop bottles. He shook the bag, clinking the bottles to make his point. “Betcha I’ve got four bits worth of empties, at least.”
“Whatsa matter, pal? Ya sound kinda crappy.”
“Oh, nuthin’. Just been thinkin’.”
He bellowed a big guffaw as he whacked me on the arm. “Well, ya don’t wanna make a habit of that.” Then his face screwed up in concentration. “As long as you’re thinkin’ though, think about this. Ya know where my route finishes, down Broadway?”
“And that empty feed store at the dead end there?”
“Well, this’s the second day in a row I seen two guys park a junky old truck behind that store.”
“Gotta be some funny business goin’ on, doncha think?”
“Does sound fishy. But there’s nuthin’ to rob down there.”
Moose lowered his voice. “Maybe this’s crazy, but they could be spies or sumthin’.”
“Ooooh.” I raised my eyebrows. “D’ya think it’s a job for the Safety Guards?”
“Very funny, wise-ass!” He punched me on the arm again. “I can just see Orphan Annie and your girlfriend ridin’ to the rescue.”
A low blow. And it scored.
Moose carried on. “So why don’t we sneak down there after supper and take a peek?”
I hesitated. “Jeez, I dunno. What if they really are bad guys?”
“That’s just it. We won’t know ’til we in-vesti-gate.”
I detected he’d listened to Sam Spade on the radio last night.
I’d just finished supper when Moose battered on my back door. I scraped my plate at the sink and my mother said, “You didn’t eat all your fried Spam. I thought you liked it.”
“Well, so do I,” she said. “But we have to make do. There’s not much choice with the food rationing on.”
She called after me as Moose and I bounded from the back stoop. “Back before dark, you hear? And no shenanigans!”
We crossed the tracks and hiked down Broadway almost to the dead end before we heard the approaching backfire of a rattletrap truck. We hid in some scruffy bushes and watched a rusted-out International truck chug by, a tattered tarp flapping over the cargo section. Two beefy guys rode in the cab, both wearing dark watch caps pulled low on their foreheads.
“Shit in a mitt.” Moose forced a whisper. “Those are the same guys I seen before.”
The truck disappeared around the back of the vacant feed store and we heard the engine cough to a halt.
“What d’ya think?” Moose said.
“Look like a couple of bruisers from a gangster movie.”
“Yeah, but maybe not. Let’s get a bit closer.”
We cut across the front of the store where several large NO TRESPASSING signs were nailed to the building. The customer entrance was boarded up and the windows plastered over with yellowed newspapers. You could just make out the faded gilt letters above the door, NICHOLS FEED AND SEED. No way to look in so we slid along the side wall and peeked around the back.
The truck was backed up to the loading dock, its ragged tarp pulled back now, and the two guys were filling it with crates and cartons from the storeroom.
“What d’ya think?” Moose asked me again.
“Think we should get the heck outta here.”
“Not yet.” He grabbed my arm. “We gotta be sure they’re crooks. Don’t wanna call the cops and find out they’re just movers or sumthin’.”
From behind us, a whiskey voice whispered. “Oh, we’re crooks all right.”
Our heads snapped around and we gaped at a third bruiser, grinning as he pinned us by our necks with his King Kong mitts. Then he hoisted us up, one on each shoulder, and carried us like sacks of grain to the loading dock where he tossed us to his pals. “Lock these nosy little buggers in the office for now and we’ll deal with them when we’re done here.” The boss continued to bark at his henchmen. “Lucky for us I seen them sneakin’ around the building when I drove up or they mighta called the damn cops. Hurry up! We gotta move all this stuff tonight.”
We sat on the floor with our backs to the wall. The tiny office was as empty as my mother’s food ration book at the end of the month. Not even a window in here. We’d already stumbled around in the dark, feeling in vain for anything to help us escape.
“So, what d’ya think?” Seemed like that was Moose’s favourite question.
“I already told ya what I thought. Fat lot of good that did me.”
The muffled grunts of the crooks or whatever they were continued to invade our dark prison, reminding us, as if we needed reminding, that time was running out.
“They’re gonna be finished pretty soon.” Most of the Moose’s usual bluster had deserted him. “Then they’re gonna deal with us.”
“I heard that.”
“So we gotta do sumthin’ fast.”
I searched through my pockets again: a couple of baseball trading cards, some Coke bottle caps and the stub of an eraser. “Still got that little penknife you stole from me?” I asked him.
Moose grumped. “I already checked my pants, I told ya. Oh. Waita minute. Yeah. It’s stuck inside my hankie.”
I heard him unfolding his crusty handkerchief. Disgusting. I hated to say it but I did anyway. “All right. Wipe off the knife on your shirt and pass it over.”
He handed me the knife then I helped him to his feet and pulled him toward the corner of our cell. “See that crack of light through the wall up there? Boost me up and I’ll see if we can make the hole bigger with this knife.”
“What a dumb idea.” Moose shook his head as though I were crazy. “What then? We gonna squeeze through the hole?”
“Got a better idea?”
That shut him up. “If the hole’s made bigger then maybe one of my baseball cards could slide through it.”
“Well, maybe somebody’ll see it. Like a signal.”
“Bin readin’ that Orphan Annie crap again?”
“C’mon, Moose. We gotta try sumthin’. We’re runnin’ outta time here.”
The narrow blade just fit in the tiny crack and some of the old wood flaked away.
I could feel Moose wobbling beneath me. “Hurry up,” he said. “I can’t hold ya much longer.”
I fitted one of my cards in the thin slot but it slid through and disappeared. Oh, no, I thought. Don’t let it be my Joe DiMaggio.
One more card left. I wedged it half in and half out of the crack, wiggling it so it might attract attention. Boston Blackie would have been proud of me as I continued with my makeshift signal for another moment.
A moan from the Moose. “My shoulders are killin’ me. Hang on!”
We tumbled to the floor with a painful thump where we remained in a frightened heap. We couldn’t hear the crooks on the loading platform and the murky silence provoked more dark thoughts in this dark place. Times like this I wondered if there might be some truth in all that stuff Sister told us in religion class.
“Anybody home?” A girl’s voice. From right behind us. Outside.
Moose wheezed. “What the …?”
I crawled over to the corner near the voice and whispered. “Who’s there?”
My heart did a summersault in my chest. “Is that the Safety Guard?”
I could hear her giggle. “What’s going on?”
Not a peep from Moose.
I explained our situation to her as quickly as I could. “And we don’t have much time.” I tried to keep the quaver out of my voice. “We don’t hear them movin’ stuff now.”
“Okay.” She sounded assured, in charge of the situation. “Hang on.”
A moment later, we heard someone fumbling with the padlock on our door and we cringed into the corner. Had they heard us whispering through the wall with Annie Rooney?
Loud thumps shook the door as though it were being kicked. “This key’s not workin’. Go tell the boss.”
We heard them scuffling. “Gimme that key,” his partner said. “Jerk can’t even open a padlock.” Scraping sounds and I guessed the other guy was trying the key
“Well, open the door, Big Shot,” the first one said. “Boss says we gotta let these kids go before we leave.”
The shrill of a whistle pierced the air, then again, a tone higher.
The boss’s angry voice made us jump. “Sounds like the cops. Leave them damn kids. We’re gettin’ the hell out of here.”
Then we heard frantic scrambling from outside the door and quick footsteps receding. Doors slammed and a moment later the truck backfired and rattled away.
Moose and I were still curled up in the corner hugging each other. After a few moments of silence we realized we might be safe. So we un-hugged right away.
A rap on the door. “Okay in there?”
Thank you, Lord. It was Annie Rooney. Moose and I tried to answer, both at once, then laughed with relief.
“Thanks to you we are,” I called back. “Got a flashlight with you?”
“Of course. The Safety Guard’s always prepared.”
“See if the key is still in the lock or maybe on the floor,” I said.
The snap of the padlock told us she’d found it.
Moose and I stumbled out of the black room, blinking into the twilight of the storage area. Then the three of us were holding on to each other, whirling in circles around the dusty room and whooping with joy as the tension released.
Exhausted, we flopped down on the loading dock.
When I finally caught my breath, I glanced at Annie Rooney. “So, how’d you find us?”
“Well, part of the Safety Guard’s Neighbourhood Vigilance program is to be aware of strangers and to note suspicious behaviour. And I saw those men in the truck yesterday and again today.”
“Why didn’t you report them?” I said.
“I wasn’t sure if I should. They could’ve been honest workmen.”
“Good thinkin’,” Moose said, shooting me a told-you-so smirk.
“So I followed them here and saw them loading their truck. It didn’t look right to me so I was hurrying along the side of the building to get help when …” She reached into a pocket and handed me my baseball card. I offered a silent prayer, getting my Joe DiMaggio back was almost better than being rescued. “…this card fluttered down in front of me.”
“Wowski.” Moose said.
“Then when I recognized your voice and realized you were in trouble, I scooted around near the truck and blew my Tri-Tone Signaller.
Moose rolled his eyes. “Oh, brother.”
“I guess they thought it was the police and that’s when they left in a hurry. But I wrote down their licence plate number.”
“Holy Moley.” Moose turned to me. “Good thing she’s on our side.”
On the way home we stopped at Gus’s and shared a bottle of red Cream Soda to celebrate our narrow escape. Annie Rooney fixed her steady gaze on the Moose and told him she planned to call the police station to report the suspicious behaviour and to pass on the licence plate number. “But I don’t have to mention that you and your buddy were also there.”
He frowned. “Waita minute. Yer not thinkin’ we’re part of the crooks’ gang are ya?”
“Of course not. Don’t be silly.”
She moved closer and lowered her voice. “But the police might suspect you could be involved. After all, you boys were in a vacant building posted with No Trespassing signs.”
She gave Moose a moment to digest that. “And you were there at the same time as three suspected criminals with a truckload of suspicious property.”
Moose’s eyes were squeezed shut for a moment. Then they popped open. “I guess you’re right.” He bobbed his head. “And my old man would kill me if the cops came around to our house askin’ questions.”
He waved his hands to move us closer together and leaned toward Annie Rooney. “Guess it wouldn’t really help the cops to know that we were there, would it?”
“It wouldn’t help them at all,” she said. “And those men won’t say anything because locking up kids must be some kind of offence.”
A big grin spread across Moose’s chubby face. “Well then, that’s great.” Then a pink blush coloured his cheeks as he turned to Annie Rooney. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome.” She moved closer to him and touched his arm. “Maybe you could do me a little favour, too.”
His chest puffed out. “Sure. Just name it.”
“Well, at your next club meeting you could mention to your members the value of having a Tri-Tone Signaller. You never know when it could save someone’s life.”
He narrowed his eyes at her and I could almost see the wheels churning in his head. Always wary about being bamboozled, he must have wondered: Was this dame serious? She sure looked like it, but… Was she trying to finagle something out of him? Probably, because everybody did that. But he was still the leader of the club, right? Of course he was. Then his features cleared and he grinned. “Sure, I’ll mention it.”
Moose walked back to pay Gus for the drink and Annie Rooney whispered in my ear. “I hope you don’t think that I saved you just to sign you up as a member of the Safety Guards.” This was followed by her Pepsodent-perfect smile and, as if by accident, her electric fingers brushed my arm leaving a disturbing tingle.
Was my face as red as that bottle of Cream Soda we’d just finished?
And did she save me just to recruit me as a Safety Guard?
Well, that was the 64-dollar question, wasn’t it?