Chapter 1: Earlier That Week… 1 EARLIER THAT WEEK…
Technically, Sloane’s Granny Kitty and Granny Pearl were to blame for the chain of events that left their granddaughter sliding toward her doom.
It was the first day of summer vacation and the grannies had agreed to help Sloane and Amelia with the YouTube movie they were making for their newly formed detective agency, Osburn and Miller-Poe Detective Agency. Building on their recent success in finding the Hoäl Jewels that had disappeared from town over 125 years ago, their detective agency focused on long-forgotten crimes.
Sort of like cold-case files for robbers rather than murderers.
As they researched their cases, Sloane and Amelia also put together documentary films about their investigations. Their YouTube channel now had close to a thousand subscribers, thanks to the publicity they’d gotten a few weeks earlier from finding the Long-Lost Hoäl Jewels (or possibly the Cursed Hoäl Jewels, depending on Amelia’s mood). However, that was down from slightly over a thousand subscribers just a week ago.
Possibly because Sloane and Amelia weren’t having very much success in solving their latest case: The Mysterious Incident of the Robbed Bank.
A bank robbery might sound interesting, but this one happened back in 1952. So, there weren’t very many people around who could tell them anything about it. Belinda Gomez, their favorite librarian at the Wauseon Public Library, was on vacation in the Poconos with her dog, Bunny. The board of the Fulton County Historical Society was mildly miffed at Sloane and Amelia for causing them a great deal of extra paperwork. While they weren’t technically banned from the museum, both girls felt it wise to let things cool down a bit before they asked anyone there for help.
That left Sloane and Amelia with the internet.
Which was very helpful when you wanted to watch funny videos. But less helpful when you needed to research a seventy-year-old cold case.
As a result, Osburn and Miller-Poe Detective Agency hadn’t managed to do a whole lot of successful investigating.
Which gave them even less to film.
With the result that their YouTube subscribers were dropping like flies.
Since they didn’t have anything else to show, Amelia had decided to film some reenactments of the 1952 bank robbery. Only, the bank wouldn’t let them inside. (Possibly because Amelia enthusiastically mentioned blowing up the bank vault just like the robbers had.) Then they tried using the post office since it looked a bit like an old-timey bank, but the postal workers had chased them away too. (Probably because Amelia had once again brought up the possibility of dynamite.)
Now they were left with filming what it might have looked like if the bank robbers had escaped by train. (There was absolutely no evidence that the bank robbers had done so. However, the Wauseon Train Depot was open to the public and looked satisfyingly old-timey too. Sometimes, you just had to make the best of what you had.)
Sloane’s two grannies stood on the old wooden train platform beneath the hot June sun. In spite of the heat, they both wore heavy wool overcoats, heels, purses, and wide-brimmed, veiled hats.
“Aaaaand… action!” Amelia cried, snapping together a black-and-white film clapboard in front of her phone, clipped to a tripod.
As Amelia hopped up into her director’s chair to squint at the screen on her phone, Sloane marched forward. She wore an old-fashioned belted raincoat with its collar turned up to half cover her face. The other half of her face was mostly hidden by a fedora pulled low so that Sloane could barely peer out from underneath it.
Carrying a battered leather briefcase, she walked past Granny Kitty and Granny Pearl. Looking as suspicious as she possibly could (which wasn’t very), Sloane headed toward the depot’s long brick-and-stone building with its sloping roof. She went up to the ticket counter and pretended to pay for a ticket. Fake ticket clutched in her hand, she joined her grannies to wait for a train that had come and gone more than seventy years ago. Making Sloane very late.
“CUT!” Amelia shrieked.
With a gasp, both Granny Kitty and Granny Pearl shrugged off their coats and hats. Beneath, they wore very bright, very flowered tracksuits and gold fanny packs. Out of these, they pulled handheld fans, which they turned on their sweaty necks and foreheads.
“Goodness!” Granny Kitty panted. “When you asked for our help, Sloane-y, I had no idea that it would involve so much sweating!”
Sloane took off her own coat and hat to reveal normal shorts and shirt. Since her costume hadn’t been as hot, she turned her own fan on her grannies to help them cool down. “Thanks, Granny Kitty. Thanks, Granny Pearl. Amelia and I really appreciate it.”
Sticking a fan down the back of her shirt, Granny Kitty perked up. “Oh, well! It will all be worth it if we help you get more subscribers. How’s the film looking, Amelia?”
“Um. Uh. Er… well…” Amelia replied, making faces at her camera screen. She wore a striped shirt, a white scarf around her neck, and a black beret on top of her very bushy red curls. A pair of pointy black sunglasses covered her eyes and a few of the many freckles on her face. (According to Amelia, this was how important film directors dressed.)
Joining her, Sloane and her grannies watched the video.
It showed a person walking.
And then standing.
Next to two other people.
That was it. That was as exciting as it got.
Oh, sure, Amelia had added a very dramatic film noir filter to the video. And yes, the costumes all looked very stylish.
But… it was still essentially a video of some dork walking past two other, older dorks.
“Do you really think this will get you more of that clickbait or whatever?” Granny Kitty asked skeptically.
“Maybe?” Optimistically, Amelia played it again. Maybe it would improve the second time they watched it.
It did not.
Slumping, Amelia sighed and swiped the hat off her hair too.
“Probably not,” she admitted, yanking the sunglasses from her head and the scarf from around her neck. She thrust them toward Sloane. “Here, take these, Sloane! I don’t deserve them! Only geniuses can wear such things! And I—I am clearly no genius!”
Amelia ended this statement with a hiccupping sob.
The grannies immediately switched into full-on granny mode. Setting down their fans, they patted Amelia’s head, pinched her cheeks, and assured her that she was absolutely brilliant. Quite possibly the most brilliant movie director to have ever lived, in fact.
“Even that Hitchcock fellow you like so well made some real stinkers,” Granny Pearl said, pulling a slightly melted candy bar from her fanny pack and handing it to Amelia.
Amelia went rigid, wailing, “You think this one is a real stinker too?”
She snatched the gooey candy bar out of its wrapper and stuffed it into her mouth for comfort.
Granny Kitty, Granny Pearl, and Sloane all looked at one another.
Because, yeah. What they had was pretty much a great big stinker.
“The problem,” Granny Kitty said as Amelia sniffled, “is that your case isn’t very interesting.”
“We’ve been listening to the two of you research all week, and there’s just no, well… zip to it.” Granny Pearl took Amelia’s hat, scarf, and sunglasses from Sloane’s hands. “What the two of you need is a better case. Something with a bit of style.”
“Oh, Pearl! What an excellent idea!” Granny Kitty agreed, plucking the scarf from Granny Pearl’s hands and winding it around Amelia’s neck again. “But wherever would they find such a case?”
“I’m glad you asked!” Granny Pearl smushed the beret back down onto Amelia’s fiery mane of hair. “Did you know that two million dollars went missing from a bootlegger’s home down in Toledo back in 1932?”
“Two million dollars!” Granny Kitty said with a very fake gasp as Sloane narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “From a bootlegger’s home! Oh, my! Aren’t the 1920s and ’30s trendy right now, Pearl?”
“They most certainly are, Kitty!” Granny Pearl slid the pointy sunglasses onto Amelia’s nose. “Exactly the sort of thing to win subscribers!”
Sloane narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms.
“Uh, grannies,” she began to say, only to be cut off by Amelia.
“Do you really think so?” she demanded. “Do you?”
“Oh, absolutely!” Granny Kitty slapped the black-and-white clapboard into Amelia’s hands. “?‘The Mystery of Bootleggin’ Ma Yaklin’s Missing Millions’ is guaranteed to win back all of those lost subscribers. And a few thousand more, besides, I should think!”
Amelia hopped down out of her director’s chair, tossing the clapboard to the side and sweeping her sunglasses right off her face. “Sloane! Sloane, what do you think? A female gangster! A lost fortune! Glamorous clothing! I think your grannies might be right!”
Though her friend tugged enthusiastically at her arm, hopping up and down as she did so, Sloane was slightly less convinced. Sure, it sounded good…
But her grannies were up to something.
She was sure of it.
(Sloane wasn’t just being suspicious. Her grannies were pretty much always up to something.)
Still, they had a point.
“Okay, but… didn’t you say these millions went missing in Toledo?” Sloane asked doubtfully. “I mean, that’s like a forty-five-minute drive from here. How are we supposed to get down there and back? Are you guys going to drive us?”
“You just let us worry about that,” Granny Pearl said sweetly, pinching Sloane’s face.
Sloane crossed her arms, more suspicious than ever. “Grannies, what are you plan—”
Amelia interrupted her. Taking Sloane by the elbow, she hissed, “Who cares what they’re planning! They’re helping us, right? We’ve got to get a better case than this one, Sloane.”
“Yeeeeessss, buuuuut…” Sloane dragged out the words, trying to figure out how to explain her suspicions to Amelia without being rude to her grannies.
The thing of it was, her grannies’ solutions to problems weren’t always exactly, strictly… legal.
Along with Sloane’s great-granny, Nanna Tia, Granny Kitty and Granny Pearl ran an illegal bingo game out of Nanna Tia’s living room. First, it had been to help pay for cancer treatments for Sloane’s mom. Then, after Maisy Osburn passed away, they’d just kept at it as a way to deal with their grief.
Sloane understood that. Having something to do was always better than being left alone with your thoughts when you were sad.
But she also wasn’t sure that whatever her grannies were suggesting wouldn’t get her and Amelia arrested.
Before Sloane could figure out how to explain all of this, Granny Pearl said, “Say, Amelia. Isn’t that your parents, come to take you to Miller-Poe Death Match Night or whatever it is you all do together?”
“Miller-Poe Tennis Night,” Amelia groaned as a sleek black van flew over the railroad tracks down on Fulton Street, leaving tire marks scorched into the asphalt. Then it careened around the corner and onto Depot Street. A flock of panicked turtle doves took off from where they had been pecking at some potato chips they’d found in the street. The birds landed on top of the old nineteenth-century buildings that still made up Wauseon’s downtown.
In a cloud of burning rubber, the Miller-Poe van screeched to a halt by the depot. Amanda Miller, Amelia’s mom, leaned on the horn as she rolled down the window and yelled, “Amelia! Time to go! Is that what you’re wearing? Why aren’t you dressed for tennis?”
One of the van’s back doors zipped open so Amelia’s half sister and half brother, Ashley Miller and Aiden Poe, could lean out to stare at Amelia. Both Ashley and Aiden were much older than Amelia, being students at the University of Toledo. They were home for the summer, which meant that Amelia had even more bossy, competitive people in her life than she had with just her parents during the school year.
“Yeah, Amelia,” Ashley barked in a voice as loud as her mother’s. “Nobody wears clothes like that to tennis.”
Pushing past his stepsister, Aiden leaned eagerly out the van. “What you need to do, Amelia, is—”
“Nothing!” Amanda Miller cut in. “Aiden, she needs to do nothing!”
Everyone in the Miller-Poe van sucked in their breath and clamped their mouths shut. The effort of it pushed out their cheeks, neck and jaw muscles straining. Clearly, they were all fighting to keep various bossy, judgmental comments to themselves.
They had bossed Amelia around her entire life, never once listening to what she had to say or bothering to really get to know her. When Amelia had finally scrounged up the courage to point this out to them a few weeks ago, they had all been mortified.
Because they really did love Amelia. And wanted what was best for her.
It was just really hard for the rest of the Miller-Poes to admit they didn’t know what was best for absolutely everyone. Or know everything about everything at all times.
Now, at least they were trying. But…
Well. Take right now. Every last one of the Miller-Poes was either gaping at Amelia in her striped shirt, scarf, and beret or else giving her the side-eye while trying not to gape at her.
Either way, Amelia could still feel the weight of all those held-back judgmental, bossy thoughts floating around in their heads.
Sloane gave Amelia a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder as Amelia’s dad, Alexander “the Judge” Poe hopped out of the black van to help load all the costumes and props into the back. As he did so, Granny Kitty and Granny Pearl suddenly acted like they were in the middle of a conversation.
“Yes,” Granny Kitty said, “it is a shame that Timothy Neikirk—you know Timothy Neikirk, Pearl? Tia’s boyfriend? Anyhow, it’s such a shame that he won’t be able to be a judge at this year’s Annual Ohio Peony Enthusiasts Competition!”
(Obviously, Granny Pearl knew that Timothy Neikirk was Nanna Tia’s boyfriend. However, Amelia’s father most definitely did not.)
“Yes, yes,” Granny Pearl clucked. “He was such a fine judge. Really, the very best of judges. I can’t imagine anyone else being a better judge than him. Wherever will the Ohio Peony Enthusiasts Club every find anyone who knows anything about judging at such a late date? It would take an incredible judge, indeed.”
Alexander “the Judge” Poe stuck his head out from the back of the van. He still clutched the cardboard box of costumes in his hands.
“What’s this about being a judge?” he cried. “Am I to understand that someone needs a judge?”
The Judge was, well, an actual judge. At the tall brick courthouse just down the street. He’d sat on the bench for years, and like all the competitive Miller-Poes, he prided himself on being the very best judge there ever was.
Granny Kitty and Granny Pearl knew this. So, Granny Kitty slyly said, “Oh, they don’t just need ‘a’ judge. No, ‘a’ judge will never do. They need an amazing judge. An exceptional judge. Whoever accepts the job for the weekend will have to be the very best judge.”
“That’s me!” the Judge shouted, shoving the cardboard box into Amelia’s startled arms. She drooped under the sudden weight, and Sloane had to jump forward and help her as Amelia’s dad ran back around the car to Granny Kitty and Granny Pearl. “I’m the best! I’m the top-ranked judge in Fulton County! Not a single ruling overturned in the past five years! I’d go so far as to say I’m the best judge in all of Northwest Ohio! Possibly all of Ohio! Did you know I was voted as having the ‘Most Distinguished Gavel-Pounding’ as voted by Lawyer Quarterly? And that’s a national magazine!”
Without waiting for the two of them to answer, the Judge demonstrated his gavel-pounding motion with an imaginary gavel.
“Oh, my. That is impressive,” Granny Pearl agreed, going all wide-eyed. Sloane squinted at her from the back of the van as she and Amelia managed to shove the enormous box into the cargo hold and slam the door shut. Batting her eyelashes at the Judge, Granny Pearl turned to her coconspirator. “What do you think, Kitty?”
Having hooked their fish, Granny Kitty proceeded to reel him in.
“Oh, we’re sure you’re a wonderful legal judge,” Granny Kitty said doubtfully. “But you see, what Timothy Neikirk needs is someone who knows how to be more than one type of judge. Someone who understands competitions. Someone with a sharp mind and keen instincts—”
“That’s me! That’s me!” The Judge practically jumped up and down as he insisted on it.
Leaning out the driver’s-side window, Amanda Miller cut in to support her husband. “No one has a sharper mind or keener instincts than a Miller-Poe!”
From the backseat, Aiden and Ashley helped out too. “Yes! We’re all the sharpest and the keenest!”
Amelia bet that neither of them knew what “keen” meant. It didn’t matter, though. Miller-Poes had to be the best at everything. And for once, she didn’t care. Amelia gripped Sloane’s arm excitedly. She didn’t know what a peony competition was—or even what a peony was—but she was sure it had to do with Bootleggin’ Ma Yaklin and her long-lost two million dollars.
As all the Miller-Poes continued to shout about how the Judge was the best judge there was and that he should definitely be the one picked to replace Timothy Neikirk, Granny Kitty and Granny Pearl exchanged a satisfied look.
They just had one final question. “Ah, but can you reschedule your cases? You see, this weekend’s competition is a two-and-a-half-day event. It’s quite the commitment. I just don’t know that you’d be able to pull it off.”
The Judge puffed up his chest. Even when not wearing his judge’s robes, he somehow gave the impression of wearing them. As though he were bigger and more solid than most people. As if he could step out in front of a speeding truck and stop it simply by holding up one hand, superhero style.
(It’s the sort of authority one gets when pretty much everyone at a job has to do exactly as you tell them to do.)
“Mrs. Osburn and Mrs. Dobbs, I assure you that I can rearrange my schedule quite easily! Tell your friend Timothy Neikirk that he can count on me to be the best possible judge he could have chosen.” Amelia’s father whipped out his phone and started jabbing at his screen. “I’m adding it to my calendar now.”
“Excellent. I’ll let the people at the Ohio Peony Enthusiasts Club know to expect you.” In an instant, Granny Kitty brought out her own phone and tapped at it swiftly. “All done! They’ll be expecting you at Tangle Glen down in Toledo on Friday afternoon.”
“Wait. What?” The Judge jerked his head up from his phone as behind him, Amelia and Sloane jumped up and down silently and punched the air. “Where? Isn’t the competition here in Wauseon?”
“Nope!” Granny Pearl clasped her hands together and smiled sweetly. Like a harmless little old lady. “It’s at Tangle Glen down on the Maumee River in Toledo. You know, the former mansion of notorious 1920s and ’30s gangster Ma Yaklin?”
“But—but—but—” The Judge’s mouth hung open, shoulders drooping and phone limp in his hands. “How will everyone I know in Wauseon see what a perfect judge I am?”
“We’ll make sure that they know.” Granny Kitty patted his arm soothingly as she led him back to the passenger seat of the van.
Amanda Miller had her phone out too. She had her blond hair pulled back into a tight, sharp ponytail. Everything about Amanda Miller was tight and sharp. If her husband gave the impression of being a boulder, she came across as a knife. “Don’t worry, dear. It looks like Tangle Glen is quite the luxurious inn these days. It will make for a lovely long weekend together with the family. We’ll all learn how to play—er, what did you call it? Peony? Is that a type of pickleball?”
“No, it’s a type of Frisbee!” Aiden called from the back, determined to show off what he knew. “I play it all the time on the quad down at the university.”
“Is not!” Ashley argued, convinced she was actually the smart one. “It’s a very particular type of cornhole, and I’ll have you know that I’m very good at it!”
“Why, peonies aren’t any kind of sport, you sillies!” Granny Kitty tittered, all sweetness and innocence as she shoved the Judge into the van.
“Nope!” Granny Pearl agreed innocently, slamming shut the door. “They’re flowers!”
“Flowers?” All the Miller-Poes except for Amelia gasped together in horror.
“Yes. Big, poofy flowers like pom-poms. They smell heavenly and come in all sorts of colors.”
The Miller-Poes didn’t seem to be either comforted or encouraged by those details. Together, they wailed, “We don’t know anything about flowers!”
However, while the rest of her family slumped in their seats, confused and horrified at the thought of spending a weekend not being able to pretend that they were the smartest, best people in the room, Amelia celebrated with Sloane.
“They did it!” Amelia cried, hugging Sloane. “Your grannies did it! They’re the best! They got us a case that has everything! Bootlegging! Missing money! A gorgeous mansion! And the costumes, Sloane! We’ll get to spend the weekend in 1920s flapper dresses! And we’ll get to have a sleepover together! I’ve never had a sleepover before, and I’ve always wanted to try one. This is going to be so much fun.”
Still chattering happily, Amelia climbed into the Miller-Poe family van. Normally, on tennis night, everyone else was talking and boasting while she just sat there, silent and miserable.
Today, those roles had most definitely reversed.
As the van limped away with far less energy than it had arrived, Sloane watched it go with a sinking feeling tugging at her stomach.
Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to Sloane until Amelia said it that she’d have to sleep away from home. All the excitement she’d been feeling shriveled up inside, leaving Sloane to press one hand against her stomach while the other reached up to tug at her ponytail in despair.
In just a few short seconds, everything had gone from being perfect to all wrong, all messed up.
She didn’t want to sleep anywhere other than her own home.
She couldn’t sleep anywhere other than her own home.
This case wasn’t the mystery she and Amelia needed to promote their YouTube channel.
It was doom.
Sloane’s only consolation as she followed her grannies across the railroad tracks was that at least this time, she and Amelia weren’t being set up the way they had been with the last mystery they solved. At least this time, no one would try to attack them.
Unbeknownst to Sloane, she was very wrong about both of these points.
She and Amelia were, in fact, being set up.
And they would be attacked before they solved the Mystery of Bootleggin’ Ma Yaklin’s Missing Millions.
It just wouldn’t be the same people responsible for both.