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The Prairie Dog Conspiracy

During a long, cold winter in his home town, young Tom Austen stumbles across some strange activity in an abandoned house.  Through the snowy streets of Winnipeg, aboard the historic "Prairie Dog Central" and during a Ski-Doo chase beneath the Northern Lights, Tom unravels the secret of "The Golden Child" and in the process realizes that the safety of one of his friends depends on him.

"'All the ingredients are here for a 'good read' - fast-moving action, suspense . . . well drawn setting, likeable characters . . . and a cliffhanger ending."

                                            The Ottawa Citizen

Chapter 1


The raid on the mystery house began at exactly 8:13 PM.  In charge of operations was Tom Austen, an eleven-year-old redhead soon to become a famous detective.  For now, however, he was only known for his many freckles and friendly smile.


         Beside Tom was Dietmar Oban, whose name was pronounced Deet-mar.  He had brown hair and eyes, and always wore the latest styles.  Dietmar's smile was usually self-confident, but this evening he looked plain scared.


         "You're crazy, Austen," Dietmar whispered.  "I'm not going inside that creepy place."


         Tom didn't reply. He was studying the abandoned house with its blank windows and peeling paint.  Icicles hung like crystal teeth from the roof, and a cold moon looked down from the black night.  The yard was deep with snow.


         “Did you hear me, Austen? I'm going home."


         Tom looked at him.  “What about the poems I’ve been writing for you to give Charity?  You wouldn’t want her to know who really wrote them, would you?”


        "I admit your romantic words have been a hit with Charity," Dietmar said, staring at the abandoned house, "but I’m not sure they are worth going in that place."


         "I've written a new poem," Torn said.  "It’s yours, the minute we complete tonight’s investigation of the mystery house.”


        “What's so important about this deserted place, Austen?"


         "See that attic window?  Last night there was a light up there, I’m sure of it.”


        "So tell the cops."


         Tom shook his head.  “I've already phoned in too many tips that didn't work out.  My reputation is lower than a snake's belly.  I've got to solve the mystery of this house without calling 911.  So we're going inside ourselves.  Nothing will happen.  Don't be scared, Dietmar.”


        “I still want to go home."


         "Relax - soon you'll be parked in front of your TV again.  For now, enjoy the adventure."
         "I don't like this," Dietmar muttered.  "Not one little bit."


         The boys began to break trail across the yard's icy crust.  The wind twirled snow-devils into their faces.


         “Look,” Tom said, pointing.  Another trail led across the snow from the lane behind the house.  "This trail is recent,” Tom said, kneeling to examine it.  "There's a bit of snow drifted into the footprints, so they were probably made last night."  He turned to Dietmar with triumphant eyes.  "And last night was when I saw the light in the attic."


        "Big deal," Dietmar muttered.


        The boys followed the trail.  The house had been empty now for a year.  The porch roof sagged under a weight of snow, and the living-room window was cracked.  The trail ended at a basement window.


        "It's broken," Tom said.  "I bet someone smashed it to get into the house."  He looked at Dietmar.  "My new poem's the best yet - Charity will worship you.  So don't forget to follow me."


         Tom landed in the basement with a soft thump. The air smelled of mold and rotting newspapers.  His flashlight beam travelled over a broken sofa and some old cartons, then found wooden stairs.


         Dietmar landed with a crash.  "Ouch!  I just sprained my ankle."  He hobbled in a circle, testing it.   "I'll wait here for you, Austen."


         Tom grabbed his arm. "You're a rotten actor, Oban.  Now follow me, and keep quiet."


         "I don't like this!"


         Slowly the boys tiptoed up the creaking stairs.  A door at the top opened with a rusty squeal, then there was a sudden scrambling sound.  As Dietmar yelped with fear, Tom swung his flashlight toward the kitchen counter, where a little brown mouse dashed into hiding.


         Tom's mouth was dry and his heart thundered in his chest.  The flashlight beam jiggled in his nervous hand as he and Dietmar entered the hallway.  The rooms were completely empty.  As they climbed the stairs to the second floor, every sound echoed between the bare walls.


         In the upper hallway, they found empty bedrooms and more stairs.  These were narrow, and the attic waited at the top.  Dietmar's breathing was rough.  Maintaining a tight grip on his arm, Tom gestured with the flashlight.


         "We're going up to the attic," he whispered.  “I’ll make a few notes, then we're out of here.  No problem.”


         Dietmar said nothing.  His eyes bulged with fear, and he was gasping for air.


         The attic stairs were covered with dust.  Tom rubbed his nose, afraid of sneezing.  The stairs creaked as the boys climbed to the top and opened the door.


         The attic was a single bare room with a sloped ceiling.  On the far wall was a closet, empty except for three wire hangers.  Tom kneeled in the doorway and swept the flashlight beam across the floor.


         "See how the dust has been disturbed?  Someone’s been up here recently."


        "So what? Let's get out of this place!"


         "In a minute."  Still kneeling at the door, Tom wrote in his pocket notebook, then looked at the bare walls.  "This could be a meeting place for some kind of gang.  It's perfect for criminals."


         "I'm going home," Dietmar said.


         "Okay, I just want to..."


         Tom's eyes grew huge.  From somewhere downstairs came the squeal of rusty hinges.

* * *


        Tom and Dietmar stared at each other, then desperately scrambled down the stairs.  They could clearly hear footsteps and the sound of hinges as doors were opened and closed somewhere below.


         “You idiot,”  Dietmar hissed at Tom.  “We’re doomed!”


         Tom flashed his light from room to room, searching for an escape route.  Outside one window was the porch roof with heavy snow.  “We can slide down the roof, and drop to the yard.”  With record speed, he pulled Dietmar to the window, and opened it.  The cold wind blew into their faces.


         “You first, Oban.  I’ll protect you.”


         “Why me?  Isn’t this roof safe?”


         “Of course it is!  Now hurry up!”

         Crawling out the window, Dietmar stepped onto the roof above the porch.  But the snow had a thick layer of slick ice on it, and Dietmar lost his balance.  He flew through the air with a cry, plunging into the deep snow.  Moments later he struggled free, and ran down the street.


         Attracted by the noise, someone was rapidly climbing the stairs.  Moving swiftly, Tom crossed the room and hid inside the closet.


         A flashlight beam travelled around the room, then a man stepped inside.  He was short and wore a parka.  Tom saw the man limp as he walked to the window.


         “Some crazy kid sneaking around here,"  the man muttered to himself, slamming the window shut.

         The flashlight beam travelled around the walls.  Tom shrank behind the closet door.  He listened to the man grumbling to himself as he left the room.  On the stairs, the limp gave his footsteps a distinctive sound.  When the man reached the attic, Tom stepped out of hiding.  Keeping his eyes on the ceiling, he tiptoed into the hallway.  The floor of the attic creaked as the man walked around.  Tom wondered what was going on.  One thing he knew for sure - he would soon return to the mystery house.

            What Does Tom Find Out When He Returns to the Mystery House? 

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THE PRAIRIE DOG CONSPIRACY. Copyright 2012 by Eric Hamilton Wilson
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