“Pandora doesn’t live here anymore.” That’s what the hand-written note said, and I couldn’t blame her. The door it was tacked to, and the wall on both sides, looked like they’d been hit by a flamethrower.
The seconds piled up following my third knock. I began to think no one else lived there either. The whole last month had gone like this, and my rent was overdue because of it. But the guy at Six Plum Drop Circle had called me.
I counted to ten as I stared at the blackened front door of the old house. A fresh plywood patch clung where one of its raised panels should’ve been, and three heavily charred spots showed around it. Several moments passed before I realized the door had once been red. Only a small area at the bottom had escaped the intense heat.
I turned to go, but halted at the sight of the solitary elm tree in the front yard. A three foot, round tunnel had been bored neatly through its dense foliage, branches and all. The gap revealed blue sky and part of a neighbor’s roof. A few singed leaves clung to the edges of the opening.
“What do you want?” rasped a timeworn voice.
I hadn’t heard the door open behind me. Tearing my gaze from the tree, I did an about-face. “Mr. Hammett? I’m Ben Cable, with A-1 Investigations. You asked me to stop by.”
“Oh… oh, yes.” The gaunt, white-haired man waved me inside.
I followed him in and sat where he pointed. “How can I help you, Mr. Hammett?”
He took a seat on a couch. “It’s about my granddaughter, Pandora. You saw the sign? She don’t live here anymore. I ain’t heard from her in a month.”
“But why the sign? I don’t understand.”
“Her friends kept comin’ ‘round. All times of the day they’d be ringin’ the doorbell, knockin’ on the door, an’ lookin’ in the window, huntin’ for Pandora. It’s hard enough gettin’ up outta my chair to get the mail every day. They was wearin’ me out. Besides, didn’t need them remindin’ me she was gone all the time.”
I nodded. “I can’t blame you for that. Could you tell me when you saw her last?”
“That was six weeks ago last Tuesday.” He picked up a small, cut-glass bowl from a side table. “Have a mint?”
“Thank you.” I unwrapped one and absently put it in my mouth. It must’ve been leftover from some 1946 wedding, probably his. “And how old is she?”
“Just turned nineteen a week after she left.” He lifted a pink North Fork Junior College sweatshirt from the other end of the couch. “I bought this for her birthday.” He crumpled it against his chest. “She never even got to wear it.”
I waited a few moments. “Can you tell me why she left?”
His lips tightened. “After the door got burnt she seemed upset. Two days later she’s gone. All she said was she was goin’ to a friend’s house in Ohio. Some place called Runcible.”
“The damage looks peculiar. What happened?”
“Dunno. It was durin’ a thunderstorm. There was this loud fizzing sound, then a flash, and a huge bang out front. When I looked, there was a panel blown out of the door. It was all burnt, like you see, and the tree had that big hole, clean through it.”
I twisted the mint wrapper between my fingers. “Did you call the fire department?
He gave me a look like a teacher disappointed by a slow student. “They come out and hosed everything down. Ruined my front hall rug too, but they had nary a guess what’d done it. They said lightning shoulda damaged my electric, an’ the tree was just plain weird. That was their exact words. They was still here when Pandora got home from class.”
“And you haven’t heard from her since she left?”
He shook his head. “Well, the first week she called me every evenin’. Then nuthin’. I tried calling her again and again, but never got any answer.”
“Did she say what her friend’s name or address was?”
His hand trembled as he handed me an envelope from a side table. “That’s her return address.”
A cartoon puppy on the sticker licked the name, Tammy Sperling, and her address. I tucked it into my notepad.
“How long had your granddaughter been living with you?”
“Ever since she lost her parents three years ago. She’d just got off the school bus when their place blew up. There was no fire or anythin’. It just exploded. Nobody ever found any trace of my son or his wife.” He wiped his eyes. “The house was blown t’ splinters, and they was just—gone.”