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<h2><u>''THE HEADLESS VENTRILOQUIST''</u></h2>
Once a year, Sister Berkis schedules all the orphan’s birthdays on the same Friday. It's a very fun day and they're lucky to get any parties at all, because the Bible doesn't say anything about birthdays. They should all be thankful!
It's a very special occasion. Not only are there hardly any chores, there's a sticky Patterson Bank lollipop for everyone, fresh blankets and Marvin Rat band-aids in all the footlockers, and a big show after evening prayer in the cafeteria. Betty likes the Bible puppet stories the best. Chester claps hardest for the local magician, Azmaldo, who makes his nickels and dimes disappear. Last year Vanity’s favorite part was the nervous fire juggler, even though they’d had to eat their lunches in the hallway for a month afterwards and the stage still smelled a little bit like burned bacon.
This year there’s a ventriloquist who’s driven all the way up from Creek City. He must really like the orphanage’s historic grounds, because he’s staying in the cramped musty guest shack next to the generator instead of the nice clean quiet motel down the valley.
“Do you orphans know what a ventriloquist is?” asks Sister Berkis as the man climbs the stage “It’s a man who tells jokes with puppets. Do any of you think you’d like to become a ventriloquist someday?”
“Yeah!” cries Billie.
“Sounds keen!” says Lucas.
“Will I look like him?” asks Vanity. Because there’s another adult in the room, Sister Berkis acts like she doesn’t hear.
The man in the shabby suit sits down on the stool and props his dummy on his leg. They look very different from each other. The ventriloquist wears stripes, the doll wears plaid; the ventriloquist has blond hair, the doll has red hair; the ventriloquist wears glasses, the doll is smiling.
“Say hello to the kiddies, uh, Gilbert. How about a joke for the nice boys and girls?”
The doll’s head swivels over. “Yeah, mac, I got a couple. What’s the difference between a piano and a zippo lighter?”
Turns out Vanity doesn’t know what a ventriloquist is after all. She thought they didn’t move their lips when the doll talked.
“Gee, Gilbert, I don’t know. What is the difference between a piano and a lighter?” He switches back to his puppet voice. “Well, one’s heavy, the other’s a little, uh...lighter. Aha.”
“I don’t get it,” Vanity hears Lucas whisper.
“Here's another!” says the ventriloquist. “What’s black and white and red all over?”
“A nun,” says Vanity.
“Ah, but I said red all over!”
Sister Berkis meets Vanity’s eye and stares for the rest of the show.
When the jokes are finally over, Vanity grits her teeth as Sister Berkis starts to move towards her. But then the lanky ventriloquist hops off the stage into the nun’s path and whispers in her ear. Vanity files by with the other kids and hears a few words: “money,” “conditions,” and “cops.” She looks back and sees that Sister Berkis doesn't look very happy.
And the doll's looking at her.
“<i>A nun.</i> I’ll have to remember that one, kid,” he whispers as Sister Berkis and the ventriloquist argue.
~ ~ ~
As Vanity sits alone at her breakfast table, she sees the burly custodian wheeling along a cart full of unfamiliar personal items. There’s a comb tangled with blond hair, a drained bottle of mouthwash, a flat pack of cigarettes, an empty earplug case, and a greasy shoe-polishing kit with an old frayed brush.
“This is all of the stuff that ventriloquist fellow left behind,” the custodian says, and Vanity realizes he’s pushed the cart up to Sister Berkis. “Should we hang on to it?”
“I really don’t know,” says the nun quietly. “I woke him this morning to take a phone call from his sister, and when he was finished he grabbed his suitcase and took off without so much as a glance in my direction. Family emergency, I’d presume.”
“Have his sheets already been taken for cleaning? Only I didn’t see...”
“I took care of that, thank you. You’re dismissed.”
When Sister Berkis goes on her rounds, Vanity slips past the custodians to the outer yard. It takes a little doing, but with patience she finds the heavy sets of fresh bootprints that lead into the dark swampy woods.
“Better not get my dress dirty,” thinks Vanity. “Sister Berkis will notice that for certain.”
But when she finds the corner of the ventriloquist’s case sticking out of the ground, there’s nothing for it but to haul it out and clean the muck out of the lock. She opens it up to see Gilbert lying inside with his stiff wooden grin.
“Oh, it’s you,” she says. “You can talk, can’t you?”
His painted eyes roll toward her. “Course I can, kid. I’m a ventriloquist’s dummy.”
“You’re not a dummy.”
“Well, neither are you, if I’m any judge. Wish I could say the same for my partner. If his brain caught on fire it wouldn’t melt a marshmallow.” His eyes flick over her shoulder. “I suppose he’s out here too, isn’t he?”
“Do argyle socks ever grow wild in this county?”
“Shouldn’t think they do.”
“Then I guess those are his feet sticking out of that ditch.”
“Serves that goober right.” Gilbert heaves a woodwind sigh. “You know, I'd heard about this place? I told my partner, 'Take the gig there! It doesn't pay, but if you stay overnight you can take some flashbulb pics and threaten to send ‘em to the state if the Sister don't pay up!' Guess I should have wised him up about a few things, huh?”
“The reason they call it <i>blackmail</i> is because there’s no axe handle long enough to reach the post office. I tell you, that sad sack had the cunning of a priest at poker night. I bet you he slept like a baby right up until she killed him.”
“I think you’re right. ” She reaches into the bushes, rummages around, and lifts out the ventriloquist’s head. When she checks it she smiles for the first time in almost a year. “Just as I expected.”
<b>WHAT DID VANITY SEE THAT CONFIRMED HER HUNCH?</b>
[[Check your answer|check1]] or [[skip to the next passage.|2]]Since the ventriloquist was sleeping by the noisy generator, it makes sense that he'd be using his earplugs. So why is the case empty? Why weren't they found with all his other effects?
Could be they got lost. Could be he put them in his pocket. Could be he left them in a motel way up the road. <b>Alternatively, it could be that he's still wearing them, and that was the suspicion that Vanity confirmed when she picked up his severed head.</b>
Your move, Sister Berkis.
<h2><u>''THE SQUARED-AWAY TIPPLE''</u></h2>
“I say this not because I’m trapped in a muddy box,” says Gilbert, “but because there’s clearly something wrong with you. Kid, we’d make a good team. You want to take this act on the road?”
“I can’t go anywhere while Sister Berkis is around,” says Vanity. “Trust me, she’ll make sure we’re caught if I try to escape.”
“That’s no problem at all, sister. Just get me to a phone. I’ll put on my Man’s Man voice and tell the cops to come dig up ol’ four-eyes here, and the next thing you know, dear old Berkis will be getting de-loused in county.”
“She’ll never see a jail cell,” says Vanity. “My mother’s pets never do.”
“Your mother? So you’re not quite an orphan.”
“Not for lack of trying.” Vanity strokes her forelock. She only does that when she's really trying to figure something out. “Tell you what, Mister Gilbert, I’ll make you a deal. You help me follow through on my escape plan and after that, we can be partners. Agreed?”
He looks at her tiny outstretched hand and puts his chilly wooden paddle against it. “So what do we do about Berkis?”
“The same thing you do with any rat. Poison its favorite treat.”
~ ~ ~
“An axe-crazy nun who drinks all day,” says Gilbert, as they watch Sister Berkis slurp her soup through the dirty lunchroom window. “If it weren’t in such bad taste it’d be a whopper of a joke.”
“I’ve got the punchline all lined up,” says Vanity. “I’ve been hoarding this dose of poison for almost a year. The only trouble is that I can’t find her flask. I know she must hide it somewhere in her office shack, but I never see it when I’m in there for punishment.”
“In my experience, people usually keep ‘em in desk drawers.”
“I think there’s nothing in hers but her pincushions. I’ve been planning to search the whole room more carefully, but I didn’t have anyone I trusted to stand guard. Until you.”
“How exactly am I supposed to do that?”
“I’ll stick you on her porch. If she sees you outside, she’ll scream and then I’ll jump out the window.”
“Well, fair enough, I guess. Check everything, kid. If a nun’s sneaking liquor in her office, she’s gonna have a real clever way to hide it. She may have even had something made special.”
Vanity sets Gilbert onto the rocking chair and slips into the office shack. The ceiling fan spins lazily overhead and ruffles the papers in the IN tray, but it’s still as hot as an oven inside. She has to try not to drip sweat onto any paperwork as she rifles all the drawers.
Most of the desk is still full of Berkis’s collections of pins, needles, and tacks. There’s a little bottle of cleaner to polish them with; Vanity unscrews the cap and sniffs. The cleaner smells really awful. "Not exactly a Manhattan," she thinks.
The last drawer has an old dusty bottle in it, half-full of brown liquid. The label says it’s a very special hundred-year-old whiskey. Vanity hesitates, then puts it back.
She cracks open the wardrobe. Inside is an old peeling globe, a cane, a few tattered hats, a box cutter, a wood axe and brown rag, a rusty lunch pail, and a silver case. Vanity opens the squealing lunch pail; at the bottom is a dirty fork, a couple sweets covered in flies, and a fat yellow banana. She tips out the silver case and a few unfiltered cigarettes roll under the wardrobe.
Vanity’s shoe wobbles on a section of floor; she pries the fork off the bottom of the lunch pail and uses it to lever up a loose board. Underneath are a bunch of film canisters. She shakes each, then pops one open and and holds the film strip to the sunlight. “So that’s where Uncle Toby went."
Five minutes later she slips Gilbert onto her shoulder and hustles for the children’s building.
“She’ll be dead by dessert,” says Vanity. “Her flask was pretty sneaky, but not quite sneaky enough.”
<b>WHERE IS THE SNEAKY FLASK, AND HOW DID VANITY FIND IT?</b>
[[Check your answer|check2]] or [[skip to the next passage.|3]]Well, it's not the rubbing alcohol she uses to clean the pins. That smells bad because it's <i>denatured</i>, meaning it's poisonous to drink and can really hurt you. You're much better off with a healthy drink, like skim milk or orange screwdrivers.
It's also probably not the dusty bottle of whiskey. Putting the pill in that might get Berkis sooner or later, but she's clearly not dipping into it every day. Besides, poison pills aren't as effective when dissolved into larger amounts of liquid. Ask your science teacher for more information.
But here's something funny: how come the teacher has a lunchbox packed with food shoved into her wardrobe? Why not keep it in her desk, or bring it into the lunchroom while she's eating? She clearly doesn't eat from it very much, since there's a fork glued to the bottom, probably with something gross.
And why aren't the flies that seem really interested in the candies crawling all over the banana? How come it's so yellow and bright?
<b>Vanity flipped the top off and discovered the banana was a secret drinking flask.</b> She dropped the pill in and never looked back. Nice try, Berkis!
<i>Fun fact! In the 1880s, some drinking enthusiasts filled fake rubber grapes with liquor so they could drink at the opera!</i>
<h2><u>''THE WESTBOUND RATHOLE''</u></h2>
The sun has vanished over the plains below. Vanity and Gilbert duck into the shadows by the road as as the police lights flash up past them, spraying mud every which way.
"You got a story for the cops, kid?"
"Not these cops." When they’re gone, Vanity races down into the churned tracks and towards the distant lights of the restaurant. She doesn't even slow down until they're all the way downhill.
“Winnifred's Roadhouse,” says Vanity. “And do you know what you find at roadhouses?”
“Yeah, roaches as big as cats and coffee you can fill in potholes with.”
“That’d be my fourth guess.”
When they’re down off the hillside and onto the level road, Vanity scrapes her caked shoes off on the clean asphalt. Gilbert tries to read the highway markers.
“So we've been jogging west, and that's towards Creek City...you been there? Trust me, it's nothing but busted antique shops and sad old men on stoops. We’re gonna want to catch a ride heading east up into the hills, towards New Dover...”
“I’d sooner play Sardines with a clutch of vipers than go back towards my mother.” Vanity jumps over a dead possum. “Have you heard of Amity Barlow?”
“Yeah, maybe. Ain’t she that rich widow?”
“Professionally, at first. Now that the smuggling and racketeering is paying off, I think it’s just a hobby. Her fiancés never seem to notice the springs are only broken in on one side.” Vanity slips through the fence and tugs Gilbert in after her. “No...we need to sneak into the back of a truck headed west.”
“Whatever you say,” says Gilbert. “I ain’t in much position to argue. There’s just one little problem: without asking, how can we predict which trucks are headed west? And don’t say license plates, because these rooster cruisers could be from anywhere.”
“I wasn’t going to say license plates,” says Vanity. “I can think of two other ways off the top of my head.”
“Well, I’ll be. Kid, I think you and me are gonna go far together.”
“Good,” says Vanity. "Let's start right now."
<b>CAN YOU THINK OF ONE WAY VANITY COULD TELL WHICH TRUCKS WERE HEADED WEST? HOW ABOUT TWO?</b>
[[Check your answer?|check3]]There's two ways to tell who's heading which way.
First, the truckers coming down from the hills will have muddy tires, since the hills are muddy. The truckers coming up from the plains have clean tires, since the plains aren't muddy.
But what about the plains truckers that happened to splash through a mud puddle? Or had to go offroad to pee, or cry thinking about their families? Or drove through the hill truckers' mud to get into the parking lot?
Fortunately, there's another way: the truckers heading east were driving away from the sunset. The truckers heading west were headed straight for it, and probably had their visors down to keep the sun out of their eyes.
Vanity and Gilbert find out that half the trucks are muddy and half are clean, and that almost all the muddy trucks have their visors tucked and all the clean trucks have their visors lowered. Satisfied with her logic, they get on a muddy truck with a tucked sun visor.
<i>You did it! Vanity's free and clear and Sister Berkis is in critical condition! Come back next time for Book #2: Vanity Barlow and the Drive-In Cannibal!</i>
<h2>Book #1 of the Vanity Barlow Adventures</h2>
[[For Psychopaths of Reading Level 3 or Higher.|1]]</center>