While glancing back and forth from where he was going and at me ’n Riley now standing by his garage window at the same time, Mr. Condon, clicked his garage-door opener, then drove into the garage. We used that time like any 11-year-olds would. We ran like the dickens.
We headed back along his new wall till we got behind it, ran into my backyard and ended up on my back porch, breathing hard. I slumped down on the glider, and Riley did, too.
“Whew!” he said. “Do you think he saw us?”
“Of course he saw us! He was lookin’ right at us. I even think he saw you lookin’ in his window. Do you think he’ll do anythin’ about it?” I was worried, but I wasn’t exactly sure about what. I just knew we’d been seen doin’ something we shouldn’t have been doin’.
“Naaah.” Riley wasn’t worried like I was. That wasn’t his nature. He took things as they came. “And remember the cat excuse. That’s a good one.”
That didn’t help. I didn’t want to have to use an excuse at all. And I hated lying. I was a terrible liar.
I was waiting for my breathing to slow down. Whether that was from the running or the scare I’d had, I didn’t know. I was sure glad to have Riley there, though. His presence helped me calm down! Just the fact he wasn’t bothered at all made a difference.
It was about a half hour later, after I’d already checked that Riley could stay for dinner, that the doorbell rang. I thought of getting up and seeing who it was, but Ma was closer, even if she was fixing dinner, and I thought I’d just pretend I hadn’t heard it.
We sat on the glider till dinner was called, not saying much, just thinking. I was thinking about what to say to Mr. Condon the next time I saw him and that it might be better not to see him for a bit. That meant giving up being a sleuth, but I’d already realized it wasn’t a job I was cut out for. You have to be brave to be a sleuth.
I had no idea what Riley was thinking about. We’d mostly been quiet out there on the glider.
We went in to wash our hands. Ma’s real funny about that. No clean hands, no dinner. She meant it, too. We didn’t even have to be told any longer; we just did it. Then we walked into the dining room. Pa was there at the head of the table as usual. But that wasn’t all. Mr. Condon was sitting where Riley usually sat, right across from me!
I didn’t know how to react. Ma would skin me if I wasn’t polite to guests. But me ’n Riley were pretty sure by now that he was the kidnapper and molester. How was I supposed to calmly sit across from him at the dinner table and ask if the humidity was bothering him any? And then there was the small detail of him catching us red-handed peeking in his garage window. I could just imagine myself starting to swallow a big bite of Ma’s chicken-and-rice casserole with broccoli and cream-of-mushroom soup and sour-cream gravy and him asking, ‘You see anything interesting when you two were sneaking a look in my window this afternoon? Huh, Travis? Huh? Huh?’ I’d probably choke to death, him smiling down at me happily as I expired.
But Ma was the one to worry the most about, so I said hello, very politely, acting like nothing was up, and sat down. Riley did, too, but he couldn’t hide his feelings as well as I could. He looked very wary. Riley never was much of an actor.
Ma brought all the food in, and we started in. We don’t say grace. We might be the only people in Mississippi who don’t. I don’t much mind having to listen to it so long as it doesn’t go on forever, but when I’m a guest and they ask me to say it, well, that’s something else again. It’s easy to guess how I feel about that. Embarrassing! At least I never say the, ‘Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat’ one. I’d tried that one once. But I was ten then; I’m older now and know better. We weren’t having meat, anyway. We were having chicken.
When I’d been eating awhile, with the adults talking about adult things—like how he liked our town and was he finding everything he needed, that kind of talk—and there came a pause, Mr. Condon looked at me ’n Riley and said, “You two boys, I owe you an apology.”
Now that made me sit up straighter. Him apologizing to us? For once, even Riley didn’t even have anything to say.
He chuckled. “Your mother invited me to dinner, and I thought this might be a chance to talk to you. By the way, this food is absolutely delicious!”
“I’m a bachelor and don’t get meals like this very often. This is a real treat. And having the chance to speak to these boys’ curiosity is good, too.” Then he turned to us. “You are curious aren’t you? What boys aren’t? You’d like to know who I am, what I do, why I moved here, and why I built that wall? Wouldn’t you?”
He chuckled again and watched us. I don’t know what my face was showing, but I put my fork down. I wasn’t ready for another bite right then, that was for sure.
“I know something about boys—”
I gulped. Was he admitting it? Would he just come out with how he molested those boys right in front of all of us? Then pull out a gun and shoot us? All the while smiling?
“—and know if anything changes around them, they’re the first to want to know all about it. And here I came into your neighborhood and didn’t tell you anything about me! So I apologize and want to change that. By way of apology, I found your bikes and brought them back in my truck. I put them by your garage for you.”
I felt my face go pale, but he just went on without pausing. “Now, I could be mean and let you guess awhile at all those things, but you’d never guess right in a hundred years, so I should alleviate your frustrations and just tell you. Right?”
He looked over at Ma and Pa and smiled, his eyes twinkling. Would a kidnapper and a molester’s eyes twinkle? His sure did.
“So let me begin, between bites of your mom’s delicious dinner,” he said, looking straight at me. “First, I moved here because of a contract I signed jointly with the federal government and one of the government departments of Mississippi. They wanted to know something, and I’m the guy they called on.”
He stopped to take a bite and then chew it. Chewed it way too long, if you asked me. That chicken wasn’t tough at all! The way he was telling this, I could see he was trying to keep us in the dark as long as he could! Talk about frustration!
He swallowed, took a sip of the wine Ma had served the adults, wiped his lips with his napkin, carefully placed it back in his lap, then picked up his wine glass and took another sip, then his napkin, and I was ready to throw a roll at him. But finally he was done, and continued.
“Travis, and Riley of course, what I am is a zoologist. Are either of you familiar with that?”
Finally, Riley had a chance to talk and took advantage of it. “Sure. You run a zoo.”
Pa almost spurted wine, and Ma put her napkin over her lips to contain a laugh. I didn’t say anything because I had no idea what a zoologist was and didn’t want to get laughed at. Jeez! Give us a break. We were 11!
“Travis?” He wasn’t going to let me off the hook, was he? Well, two could play that game. “We’ve only studied science up to the R’s so far. We’ll probably get all the way through to the Z’s next term.”
Pa frowned. “Travis,” he said, but the way he said it seem to take about five minutes. He doesn’t like me being a smartass.
Mr. Condon shook his head and said, “That’s my fault. He thought I was trying to embarrass him and fought back. Good for you, Travis, standing up for yourself. And you’re right, it’s a scientific profession. And Riley’s right that it deals with animals. I’m a zoologist, and I’ve been hired to determine if an animal species has migrated to Mississippi. This hasn’t been its habitat before, but the population is expanding; it’s recently been taken off some endangered species lists, and the government wants to know if Mississippi now has a population. That’s the kind of work a field zoologist does. That’s what I’m doing. I spend my days out in the fields and woods, looking for traces of this animal, trying to determine if it’s crossed the Mississippi River and come this far east.”
Sometimes I could be just as spontaneous as Riley, although Pa usually called it impatience. “What is it?” I asked.
He laughed. “What I’m looking for is something I doubt you’ve ever heard of. It’s the swift fox. It’s the smallest fox we have in America, weighing about 5 pounds and standing a little less than a foot tall. It’s more the size of a cat than a dog. Its scientific name is Vulpes velox. It used to thrive in the plains of Canada but became close to extinction there. There were still some here, in the United States, mostly in the Dakotas, and now the population has migrated west to Montana and all the way south to Texas. I’m looking to see if it’s moved this far east.”
He took another sip of wine, was quicker with the napkin than before, and finished by saying, “That’s who I am, a scientist with a doctorate in zoology, and I’m here to do a scientific field study. And I hope to be your friend, too. I’m sorry if you thought I was being mysterious. So now you know, and if there’s ever anything you’re wondering about, just ask me.”
Riley was ready. “Yes, sir. Why the wall?”
He still smiled, but his eyes flickered a little, and I couldn’t read them. “That, Riley, is a great question, and I’ll answer it someday, but for now, I’m keeping it private. Just as I hope you’ll keep quiet about what I’m doing. I don’t want a lot of people to know. I don’t want people calling me to say they’ve seen something and it’s bound to be what I’m looking for. I don’t want people out in the fields looking for these foxes themselves, thinking they can make a buck or two if they find them. If they do that, the animals will hide and I’ll never find them.”
After that, the adults started talking again, and we never did find out what the wall was for before we had dessert and he left, patting each of us on our shoulders.
Me ’n Riley had a lot to talk about that night, laying in bed. Mr. Condon seemed nice. Like he liked us and liked Ma. Ma liked him, too, and she was pretty good at judging people. I told Riley that.
But it could be all a trick, Riley argued. He said Mr. Condon being jolly and all was probably a cover-up. He said all kidnappers and molesters had good cover-ups, just like we sleuths did using cats.
Riley said he could tell that Mr. Condon was concerned about us asking about that wall; he could tell the guy didn’t want to talk about it. Why? What was his reason for that? The only reason he could think of was it had to do with those molested boys. Could it be that maybe telling people it was his job to traipse all over the country was a good way to get away with looking for kids out there to kidnap and have his way with? Behind that wall. Both of the pairs of boys he’d taken had been from out in the country, where he could have been traipsing.
I thought Riley had a point, but I couldn’t help like Mr. Condon a little. He was friendly. How do you not like a guy like that? There didn’t seem to be anything sinister—a word in a lot of Hardy Boy books—or weird about him. I guessed we’d find out about the wall sooner or later. So I told Riley all that, and he told me I had my head up my bottom. Except he didn’t say bottom.
We spent much of the next day on my back porch. It was hotter than ever, hotter than Mississippi usually gets, and we just had no energy to speak of. We could see just a glimpse of the road Mr. Condon lives on through all the trees, and all the time we watched, he never left his house. Maybe he didn’t like the heat, either.
It was after dinner, and a little cooler out as it was getting to be dusk. The fireflies were just emerging, and we sat on the glider, digesting. Ma had made a peach pie for dessert. She always adds a few raspberries to it, says it adds a kick of tartness. I like it just fine.
We saw Mr. Condon’s truck cross the little gap we could see through. Odd time for him to be going out, I thought. Riley said maybe he was going out to dinner. If that were true, we should see him coming back anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour and fifteen. We waited but never did see him return by the time Ma shooed us up to bed.
She gave me the stink eye as I got to the stairs. I guess she had it in her mind what we did up there, and all that humming she’d done, which I’d taken to mean she’d accepted what we were doing, maybe it hadn’t really meant that, or the more she’d thought about it, she’d changed her mind. Obviously she now thought we gave each other the feeling every night. She had a dirty mind! We only did it most nights. Sometimes we were too tired and just fell asleep.
Which is what happened that night, too. Even though we’d spent most of the day doing almost nothing, I was plumb worn out. Seemed strange to me, but when I asked Ma about it the next morning, just me and her while Riley was taking a shower, she said I was probably going through a growth spurt, or just beginning one, and needed more sleep than usual. She said maybe in would be best if Riley slept at home for a few days.
“But Ma,” I whined, “summer’s almost over. Then you’ll say he can’t sleep here because of school and me needing more rest. We don’t have that much time left. It wouldn’t be fair to kick him out already.”
“Maybe his mother would like to have him there more. Did you ever consider her feelings?”
“Yeah. She doesn’t care if he’s there or not. Really. She even told him that. She pays no attention to him. He says he likes it better here because of how you treat him. He says he feels like he has a real mother when he’s here.”
That seemed to work, as I’d thought it would, because she didn’t say anything else about him leaving.
We decided to ride our bikes into town, check out the park to see if any kids our age were hanging around, maybe get up a game of something. If not, there was always the swimming pool. We put our bathing suits and towels in the saddlebags on my bike, just in case, and headed out.