A chance meeting with a drug dealer named Spider takes Tom Austen into the grim streets of Vancouver's Skid Road, where he poses as a runaway while searching for information to help the police smash a gang that is hooking young kids on drugs.
Suddenly unmasked as a police agent, Tom is trapped in the nightmarish underworld of Vancouver as the gang closes in, determined to get rid of the young meddler at any cost.
" 'The coffin was open, the air black and musty all around.' Who could resist a mystery begun in such a fashion? This fast-paced tale of drug smuggling and deceit will be an instant success . . ."
Canadian Book Review Annual
The coffin was open, the air black and musty all around. With a pounding heart, Tom stepped close and saw the body of Count Dracula, his head on a satin pillow. Straining his eyes through the darkness, Tom saw blood on the vampire's teeth.
Without warning, Dracula began to move.
At first he only shuddered. But then, suddenly and swiftly, Dracula sat straight up, his terrible blood-stained fangs reaching for Tom's throat.
With a cry of fear, Tom jumped back. At the same moment, to his great relief, Dracula settled back and his head returned to rest on the satin pillow.
His body trembling, Tom turned to Dietmar. "This place spooks me," he whispered. "Let's get out of here."
Dietmar nodded, and together they ran up the stairs and stepped outside into hot sunshine. Above their heads, a sign read: Gastown Wax Museum . . .Visit The Chamber of Horrors!!
Dietmar laughed. "That was fantastic, Austen. When Dracula sat up, you almost jumped out of your skin."
"No way," Tom said, blushing under his freckles. "It takes more than a mechanical monster to scare me, Oban."
"Then let's go back. I didn't get a good look at the Space Creature."
"Forget it," Tom said, "I'm hungry. Anyway, there's my grandparents."
The two walked up the street toward a white-haired couple, who were examining leather belts on a push-cart.
"Hi, Nanny and Gramps," Tom said. "The Chamber of Horrors was great, especially when they asked to put Dietmar on display."
Nanny smiled. "We've another treat for you."
"Terrific!" said Dietmar.
Gramps studied the tourists wandering around Maple Tree Square, then took Nanny's hand and led the way along Water Street.
"Until recently," he said, pointing at the street's brick buildings, "these boutiques were just Skid Road flop joints. Then the area was redeveloped and named Gastown."
"What's Skid Road mean?" Dietmar asked.
"It's an old logging expression. In pioneer days, cheap hotels stood beside the roads along which logs were 'skidded' to the sawmills. So the poor part of cities like Vancouver and Seattle became known as Skid Road."
"Gastown doesn't look very poor to me."
"It's not any more, but Vancouver still has a Skid Road, just beyond those buildings."
"Skid Road sounds neat," Tom said. "I would love to explore there."
Gramps shook his head. "That's not a good idea, Tom."
"To start with, there's a lot of criminals in that area."
"Fantastic!" Tom said. "Maybe I could find a mystery to solve."
Nanny smiled at her husband. "Now you've said the wrong thing, Bob. You know Tom thinks only of being a detective."
Gramps nodded. "I guess that was a mistake. Well here's our treat, a meal at The Breadline."
"Bread?" Tom said, disappointed. " That sounds like a prison meal." Pausing to note the location of Skid Road, he followed his grandparents into the restaurant. The air smelled of freshly baked bread, and honky-tonk music came from an old-fashioned player-piano; on the walls hung ancient toasters, pots and pans, even a rickety sewing machine.
The hostess led them to a corner table, and handed out small newspapers. "Weird," Dietmar said, sitting down. "What kind of place is this?"
"During the Depression people were terribly poor,” Nanny explained, "and many had to stand in a 'breadline' to get free food."
Tom studied his newspaper, which was actually the restaurant's menu. "I think I'll have some Hard-Times Chicken Noodle Soup."
"I'll have strawberry shortcake," Dietmar said, "then deep-dish blueberry cobbler, oatmeal raisin cookies and a few cinnamon rolls."
Tom looked at his smiling grandparents. "Don't laugh," he said. "Dietmar isn't exactly fat, but he's the champ at pigging out."
"Now, Tom, be polite," said Nanny. "Dietmar is our guest."
After their orders had been taken, Gramps asked a riddle. "Why did Sherlock Holmes know that a train had passed a certain place?"
Tom scratched his head. "I should know that one."
"Because the train left its tracks behind."
Tom smiled with affection at his grandparents. He was having a good summer holiday with them, but now he'd discovered the perfect way to find some real excitement.
He would investigate Skid Road for crime.
The thought was so exciting, Tom didn't think he could eat. But each person received a miniature loaf of whole wheat bread, and his mouth watered. "I think I could live on bread and water," he said happily. "Prison can't be too bad."
Gramps shook his head. "I understand prison is a grim life, and very boring. It's true that crime doesn't pay."
Nanny smiled at Tom; "Speaking of crime, do you read detective books?"
"You bet. I've read everything possible about analysing clues, following suspects, that sort of thing."
"But how do you find suspects to follow?"
"There are criminals everywhere," Tom said. He looked around the restaurant, then lowered his voice. "Look at those men who just came in. If that fat one isn't a crook, I'll eat my hat."
All eyes swung to the entrance, where two men were discussing the player-piano. One, dressed in a business suit, was Japanese; the other also wore a suit, but it was badly rumpled and a big pot belly hung over the man's belt. His thin hair was combed straight back over a pink scalp.
"Disgusting," Tom said. "Look at that double chin, quivering like a turkey's wattle."
As Tom spoke, the man's eyes narrowed and he started in their direction.
"He heard you!" Dietmar whispered. "I think he's going to shoot us, and there's nowhere to hide!"
"Don't be silly," Tom said, his voice shaking. "That only happens on TV."
As the man reached their table he suddenly held out his hand and Tom jumped, expecting a pistol to blaze. Instead, the man shook hands with Gramps. "I thought I recognized you, Bob," he said.
"How are you, Inspector?" Gramps asked. "I believe you remember my wife Eve, and these two young gentlemen are from Winnipeg. Tom is our grandson, and Dietmar is staying with his relatives in North Vancouver."
Tom's face was scarlet. "Inspector?" he said, in a feeble voice.
"That's right. Inspector Mort, of the Vancouver City Police."
Dietmar roared with laughter, and even Tom's grandparents grinned. Tom felt like crawling under the table.
"What's the joke?" Inspector Mort asked. "This guy's face is as red as his hair."
Dietmar chuckled gleefully. "We've just had a brilliant lesson in crime-busting from Tom Austen, the defective detective."
"That's right," Gramps said. "Inspector, why don't you and your friend join us?"
"All right. " Inspector Mort beckoned to the second man, who came to the table. "This is Captain Yakashi, of the freighter M K Maru. He's assisting me with a case while his ship is docked in Vancouver."
Tom studied the captain's handsome face, disappointed he didn't have tattooes and a gold earring. Was he really a captain? Tom was tempted to wring out the truth with a few questions, but he didn't want to risk looking foolish a second time. Instead, he looked at Inspector Mort.
"What case are you on?" he asked timidly.
The Inspector turned a grumpy face to Tom. "That's a pretty personal question, young man."
Tom blushed again, and Dietmar giggled.
Gramps gave Tom a smile. "Don't be too hard on Tom, Inspector. He's fascinated by police work."
"Sorry," the Inspector said gruffly. "Well, son, it's a complicated case involving illegal immigrants from the Orient, but I can't give details."
Gramps smiled. "That's a good cover story, Inspector, but now tell us the truth. Aren't you really after all those drugs being smuggled into Vancouver on freighters from the Orient?"
There was a long silence, while the Inspector stared at Tom's grandfather. "Nobody believes the police these days."
Gramps looked embarrassed. "Now it's my turn to apologize." He waited for the waitress to put down their soup, then turned to the Inspector. "We were just discussing what prison life must be like. Could Tom tour your police cells? I know he'd be thrilled."
Another silence, and Tom thought Inspector Mort must have regretted choosing The Breadline for lunch. But the man surprised Tom by smiling, revealing a collection of big teeth. "Sure, son, I'll show you 'round."
Tom thanked the Inspector and turned to the soup, not wanting to tempt fate by asking about the drug smuggling, even though he ached to know more. When he had cleaned up his plate he looked at his grandparents.
"May Dietmar and I poke around Gastown?"
After a moment's hesitation, permission was granted. Inspector Mort made arrangements with Tom about the tour of the cells, goodbyes were said, and the boys found themselves back in the sunshine.
"I noticed a hobby shop earlier," Dietmar said. "Let's go and look around."
"I've got a better idea." Tom took out a map of Gastown. "How about finding some crooks?"
"Crooks like Inspector Wart?"
"His name is Inspector Mort, and that was a mistake." Tom dropped his voice to an excited whisper. "Listen, Dietmar, it's obvious the Inspector is searching Gastown for drug smugglers. If we can find them first, we'll be heroes!"
Dietmar shook his head. "I'm too young to die."
"Don't be a Nervous Nelly." Tom pointed to his map. "Here's a place called Blood Alley Square. That sounds perfect for a stake out."
When Dietmar hesitated, Tom grabbed his arm and they started walking. "I'll protect you," he promised. "This will be a great adventure."
"I need an adventure like I need a hole in the head," Dietmar muttered. "Let's forget the crooks and spend our money on some candy."
Tom dragged Dietmar into a doorway. "I'm glad you mentioned money," he whispered, getting out his cash. Quickly, he slipped off his shoe and put the money inside. "Do the same with yours so it won't be lost if we're mugged."
"Mugged?" Dietmar stared at Tom, his brown eyes wide. "I quit."
Nervous about facing Blood Alley Square alone, Tom managed a grin. "I'm just kidding. Come on, there's nothing to fear."
"Except having our ribs tickled by a knife."
"Not a chance."
After some twisting passageways, they emerged into a courtyard with cobblestones and maple trees. "It's not creepy enough," Tom said unhappily. He pointed to a bench. "Let's sit down and see what we get."
"Two sore rear ends," Dietmar predicted, "and maybe headaches as a bonus."
But Dietmar was wrong. After a few minutes of watching tourists wander through the square, Tom sat up and grabbed Dietmar's arm. "Look!"
"Over there, but don't stare." Tom flicked his eyes towards a passageway, where a man of about thirty, his head and beard a mass of curly black hair, was staring at the sky.
"That's our man," Tom said.
"Can't you see he's looking straight at the sun? Only a drug addict could do that, and not roast his eyeballs."
"Are you sure?" Dietmar said doubtfully.
"Sure I'm sure." Tom watched carefully, his suspicions confirmed when the man scratched vigorously at his hair and beard. "He's got lice from sleeping in opium dens."
The man reached into his shabby jeans and threw some fluff into the air, laughing as it floated away on the breeze. Then he scratched his beard again and looked at the sun, licking his lips.
"Nutty as a fruitcake," Tom whispered.
"Yeah, a real weirdo," Dietmar agreed. "Let's go home."
"Not when he could lead us straight to the smugglers." Tom leaned forward in excitement as the man crossed the square and disappeared into a narrow alley.
"We can't let him escape!"
Reluctantly, Dietmar followed Tom into the alley. At the far end they saw traffic, but the man was gone.
They ran to the end of the alley and then stopped short, amazed by the scene before their eyes.
"It's Skid Road!" Torn said, thrilled.
Old buildings frowned down, their walls streaked with dirt. Above doorways, battered signs read WESTERN POOL HALL and BEER PARLOUR. In the air was the noise and smell of the cars and trucks streaming past.
"Wow, this is great," Tom said. "And, look, there's the Scratcher."
Along the street, the bearded man stood talking to a woman wearing a purple blouse, red skirt and silver high-heeled shoes. As Tom and Dietmar watched, the Scratcher moved on. Before they could follow, a voice called: "Hey, boys."
At an open window above, a bleary-eyed face with several missing teeth was leaning out. "Seen my cat, boys?"
Tom shook his head, and they moved on.
"What a strange man," Dietmar whispered.
"I thought it was a woman." Tom looked into an abandoned building, its floor littered with broken bottles, then stared at an approaching man who wore a length of chain instead of a belt. "This place is a bonanza!" he said. "Everyone looks like a criminal."
The Scratcher was waiting for a traffic light. Tom took out his notebook to write a description of the man and note they had reached the corner of Cordova and Abbott.
Dietmar watched anxiously. "If a crook sees you making notes, you'll be killed," he warned.
"That doesn't worry me," Tom said. "But our good clothes make us stick out like sore thumbs."
"I'll go home and change," Dietmar said quickly, turning back.
"Oh no, you don't." Tom took a firm grip on Dietmar's arm. "Look, our man is moving. After him!"
The Scratcher walked quickly to Hastings Street, then headed west. After a block, he turned abruptly into a dark passage and disappeared. Tom hesitated, then went nervously down the passage to a door. It was locked.
Out of nowhere, a man's voice spoke: "Looking for something?"
Startled, Tom looked left and saw a window. Behind it, a red-moustached man sat with a newspaper, a cigar in his mouth. His eyes were unfriendly as he stared at Tom.
"Uh," Tom said, trying to think, "uh, my father said to meet him here."
The man sucked on his cigar, then exhaled a cloud of dirty grey smoke and gestured towards the street with the cigar's soggy butt. "This is a private club," he said. "Beat it, little man."
"But . . .”
"Yes, sir." Tom walked slowly back to the street, where Dietmar stood grinning.
"Curses," Dietmar said, "foiled again."
"Drop on your head." Tom made some notes, then he and Dietmar set off towards Gastown. Although Tom's investigation had been a dud so far, he felt good as he made a secret vow.
He would return to Skid Road.
Find Out What Tom And Dietmar Discover When They Return To Skid Road.
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Back to the list of Eric's books Back to Eric's Home Page VANCOUVER NIGHTMARE.Copyright 2012 by Eric Hamilton WilsonAll rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced inany manner whatsoever without prior written permission except in thecase of brief quotations embodied in reviews.