"Da! Da! Wake up!"
In his sleep, Boston Police Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn again was on the ground, a boy asleep against a warm brick wall. The other side of that wall, a city was burning.
"Da! Wake up!"
Cross-legged, his thirteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, sat on the rug beside his bed. Bathed in the light that came through the opened bedroom door, her curly blond hair gleamed; her brilliant blue eyes, as big as saucers, beamed at him.
"Why are you waking me up in the middle of the night?" He felt for Elsbeth. She was not in the bed with him.
"It's not the middle of the night, Da. It's only eight-fifteen."
"Right. I came to bed at six o'clock, didn't I? Having had no sleep at all last night." He had spent Saturday, Saturday night until four-thirty Sunday afternoon discovering the whereabouts of a woman who had taken a car from outside a pharmacy. The car was not hers. In a safety seat in the back of the car was a sixteen-month-old girl. The baby was not hers, either.
Flynn turned on his bedside lamp. He said to Jenny, "The question remains. Why is my bit of fluff awakening me in the middle of my night?"
On the rug between her knees were a hammer, a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, a flashlight, a box of gauze, and a bottle of tincture of iodine.
"Need you. Please get dressed and come with me." Without using her hands or arms, she stood up from where she had been sitting cross-legged. "As quick as you possibly ever can."
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"But I'm not dead yet, I don't think."
She picked up the odd collection of things from the floor. "Please hurry. I'll make you a cup of Red Zinger tea while you're getting dressed."
* * *
"Oof!" In the cemetery Flynn fell into a hole in the ground filled with dead leaves. "Oh, my God." He rolled over in the leaves and sat up. "For an instant there, I thought the grave had reached up and pulled me down. And before my fill of formaldehyde, too!"
After climbing over the cemetery's stone wall Flynn had followed his daughter up a hill thick with dead leaves. In the fog the tombstones were not at all visible at a distance; when they did loom into view they appeared bigger than they were. There was full moonlight in the low fog. Jenny had rushed on ahead without using her flashlight.
Holding his hand, Jenny had hurried him down the steps of their house and along the foggy Winthrop sidewalk.
"What's all this about?" Flynn had asked.
"What's a Billy?" Part of Flynn's mind was still in the bed, asleep. "A billy's a goat. Or a nightstick."
"Billy's my friend."
"Oh, I see. Of the male variety?"
"He's a boy."
"How do we know Billy, although I'm not sure I do?"
"He's been to the house." A goodly number of children wandered through Flynn's house, as he had five of his own. He could not swear to have studied them all. He doubted he had ever seen the faces of some--those who seemed to stand permanently facing the inside of the opened refrigerator.
"Is Billy at school with you?"
"He goes to public school."
"Is he in trouble?"
"He's in the cemetery."
"Dead or alive is he?"
"Discomfited," she said with dignity.
"Then he must be alive."
"Sometimes Billy and I meet in the cemetery. You know, to talk things over. Religion. Politics. Billy loves history."
"Why on earth do you meet in the cemetery?"
"It's quiet there."
"I expect it is."
"Sometimes we take the names and dates from the tombstones and imagine what the people, families must have been like when they were alive, you know? Billy and I make up stories about them."
"You meet this boy in the cemetery after dark?"
"Sometimes. Billy's not afraid of things like that. I know some people are."
"Not you, though."
"Besides, Billy's on the wrestling team. He says he's not ready yet for all the guys, you know, to josh him about seeing so much of me. A girl."
"Who'd believe that Billy and I just meet and talk? Mostly..."
"Who indeed? Especially after dark in a cemetery? I admit to a small degree of incredulity myself, Ms. Fluff."
"Here's the place in the wall we climb over."
"Where's the main gate?"
"Oh, that's way down the road. It's locked after dark, anyway."
"Ah, yes." Flynn lifted one tweed leg over the low stone wall. "I've heard people are dyin' to get into this cemetery."
By the time he fell she had disappeared uphill in the fog.
Returning down the hill, Jenny flashed the light on her father sitting on dead leaves. "Why are you sitting there? We're in a hurry."
"I'm resting," he said. "In the last forty-eight hours I've had two hours of sleep, I remind you. If you had asked me at five o'clock this afternoon how I envisioned myself spending the night, I doubt I would have said dashing about after you among tombstones in a fog."
"Oh, yeah." Jenny turned off the flashlight. "Did you find the woman and the baby?"
"I found the woman," Flynn said. "Then I found the baby. Would you believe the woman had hidden the baby in a clothes drier?"
"Sixteen-month-old baby." Jenny sniffed. Much had been expected of the Flynn children. "Ought to be able to make noise. Walk."
"Indeed, yes," agreed Flynn. "As well as fold her own diapers. The baby was peacefully, soundly asleep in the drier, which I would very much like to be at this very moment, myself."
"In a clothes drier?"
"How did you find her? I mean, the baby?"
"By telling the woman we weren't going to look for her. See? There's good in us all, if you can just believe it."
Jenny looked up the hill. "Billy still needs rescuing."
"Jenny, I doubt Billy's falling into a hole or whatever is a police matter."
"Are you sure you want someone of my august police rank involved in whatever foolishness Billy has gotten himself into?"
"I mean, why did you raise me from the nearly dead to come help you extricate your friend Billy from his discomfit in a cemetery?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why didn't you enlist the help of your brothers, Randy and Todd, who, at age fifteen, have already shown considerable resourcefulness in matters delicate and in?"
"Oh, Da." Jenny's voice dropped. "You know they're at the makeup basketball game."
"Sunday night? Oh, yes. I guess I forgot that." Flynn stood up from his mulch pile. "All right, then. If I'm Billy's only hope, lead on, MacFluff."
More slowly this time, Jenny led her father up the cemetery's hill.
"I must say," Flynn said, "you seem to have an uncommon working knowledge of this boneyard. After dark, and in the fog, too. Prior to this, I've only visited this particular piece of real estate socially."
Jenny said, "Me, too."
* * *
"Ah, well, lad: someone doesn't approve of you all that much."
Standing as tall as he could in the foggy graveyard, Billy's head was close against a tree.
His right ear had been nailed to the tree.
"Who did this to you?"
Billy said nothing.
"That's the way of it, is it?" With the flashlight, Flynn examined the carpentry closely. "Whoever did this to you did you no favors at all. That nail has a sizable head on it. And he nailed you flush to the tree. And you're not saying who did this to you?"
Billy said nothing.
Flynn handed the flashlight back to Jenny. He sat on the ground a couple of meters from the boy and the tree.
Jenny stood between them, looking back and forth from one to the other.
Flynn rested his back against a tombstone.
Silently, he proceeded to pack his pipe.
Jenny said, "Da? Aren't you going to do anything?"
"Anything about Billy?"
"I am doing something. I'm scanning my vast intellect, searching for a possible answer to the question I just asked your friend."
"Da, we must get Billy unstuck. He's been standing here two hours!"
"Has he, indeed."
Billy said, "Mr. Flynn? Pretty soon, I've got to pee, you know."
"Yes," Flynn said sympathetically. "In life, we all must face the inevitable."
Jenny asked, "Does your ear hurt, Billy?"
"Not if I stand still."
A well-built boy standing so still against a tree reminded Flynn of a sleeping horse.
Flynn asked, "Are you a member of a gang, Billy?"
"Never have been?"
Flynn lit his pipe. It was good seeing the flare of his kitchen match in the foggy, dark, cold cemetery. "Billy, you have displeased someone. That's the real problem to be solved. Before I get you unhinged from the tree, I would like to know whom you have displeased, and how."
Billy said nothing.
From the ground, Flynn looked up the half-grown oak tree. "And it's a fine, sturdy tree, isn't it? I daresay it will live another one hundred years or more. It won't even notice your ear is nailed to it. When your flesh begins to rot, your skeleton will drop to the ground. Probably the local household dogs will bury your bones for you."
Eyes visibly huge even in the dark, in the fog, Jenny said, "Da!"
"You see, Billy, someone wants you to make a decision, while you're standing there; prove something of yourself. Jenny said you love to read history. Are you aware of the history of what has happened to you?"
"But you'd like to know, wouldn't you?"
"No, sir. Not really. Not under the circumstances."
"But how are we to solve this particular mystery unless we review all relevant facts concerning it?"
"What mystery?" the boy asked.
"How we happened to find you standing upright against a stout tree, your ear nailed to it, after dark in a cemetery? For example, did anyone know you were meeting Jenny here tonight?"
"No, sir. Just Jenny."
"Then someone must have followed you here. And that someone did not expect you to be so quickly found, at least not until daylight, perhaps not until the demise and slow funeral of one of our citizens, which could be days hence." Flynn's hand scruffed the dead leaves beside him. "Sure, there's no gardening going on in this particular cemetery this dead season."
"Da." Except for the pliers, Jenny put her odd collection on the ground. "I'll free Billy myself."
"You're not a tree surgeon," Flynn said. "From your choice of implements, I'd say you have a dim future in any branch of surgery."
"I'll do it."
"I'm afraid I'm going to sneeze."
"It might solve your problem," Flynn said.
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"In the days of yore..." Flynn relit his pipe so he could enjoy the flare of the match. "...which was just after Once upon a time, Jenny, darling--"
Jenny expostulated, "Da, this is no time for a witty history lesson! I'm sorry I told you Billy likes history. Are you going to help Billy, or not?"
"I am helping him--when a miscreant displeased his fellow citizens, they sometimes would nail his ear to a tree, usually on the town square, usually on market day. This, of course, shamed the miscreant, a punitive device not much in vogue in these days of relentless understanding. The villagers would watch him. He'd be further shamed as he discovered no neighbors, friends, or relatives would do a thing to free him from the tree. Everyone would be waiting, you see, to see how long the miscreant would stand there in his public mortification and isolation before taking matters into his own ear, you might say, and rip his ear from the tree. I daresay a certain amount of wagering went on, with perhaps eyes on the clock. Or, I expect in some instances, calendar. By the end of this exercise in justice, not only would the miscreant be punished, for whatever he had done to displease his fellows, something of the miscreant's true character would have been revealed, to himself, and all others."
"Da! Is this true?"
"True as I'm sittin' here on the cold cemetery ground on a foggy night, my back resting not too comfortably against a tombstone, wishin' I were at home in my own wee bed hammerin' a pillow."
"Billy, what did you do?" Jenny asked.
"And to whom?"
"Okay," Billy said. "Leave me alone. I'll take care of it. I'll do it. Just not in front of you." The boy's voice deepened. "Thanks for trying to help, Jenny. Thanks for coming, Mr. Flynn. Now just please go away. Both of you."
"But your ear!"
"My ear's my business," Billy said.
"How much longer do you think you'll stand there?" Flynn asked.
"Not long. Now that I understand. I'll do it as soon as you're gone."
"Tear your ear from the tree, Billy?" Jenny was horrified.
Flynn put his cold pipe in his coat pocket. He stood up.
Jenny watched her father pick up the hammer, screwdriver, flashlight.
"Here, Jenny. You hold the light. Steady, now. I'm sleep deprived. Never was all that good at carpentry anyway. Remember the time, Jenny, I hung the closet door upside down?"
Flynn began to chisel the wood behind Billy's ear.
Billy asked, "Mr. Flynn, why did you decide to help me, after all you said?"
"Because I believed you would rip your ear from the tree soon after we were gone. You didn't offer me any lies as to who did this to you, and why. Hush, now. I'm concentratin'. I don't want to hurt the tree any more than I need to."
After chiseling the wood away from all sides of the nail, Flynn slid Billy's ear along its shaft, closer to the tree. With the pliers he then relieved the tree and Billy's ear of the nail.
"Ah!" Flynn said. "Jenny, we weren't a moment too soon!"
* * *
Alone, Flynn staggered through the front door of his house.
In the front hall, Elsbeth was just taking off her coat.
"I thought you were home hours ago," she said.
"So did I." He started up the stairs.
"The twins won the basketball game."
"All by themselves?"
"Did you get your messages? Sergeant Whelan called, sounding quite cheery. First he said to remind you you must be in court at nine in the morning. I forget which case. He stressed it was Courtroom 9. He won't be picking you up in the morning. And he said you have a meeting with Captain Walsh at two-thirty. You're to be fired. Apparently he called again, and gave the same message to Todd: you're to be fired tomorrow. It's past ten and I don't know where Jenny is."
Without turning around at the top of the stairs, Flynn said, "She's been with me. I left her in the boneyard, I suspect discussing inevitability with a friend."
"Oh, and Frannie?" Elsbeth called up the stairs. "The President of Harvard University called. He'd like you to call him back."
"Sure." Flynn closed the door to his dark bedroom. "Call the President of Harvard. Sure, sure, sure. Right away next week."
Excerpted from Flynn's World by Gregory Mcdonald. Copyright © 2003 by Gregory Mcdonald. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.