When Mrs. Diamond opened the door she looked as if she’d seen a brace of ghosts. “Why, Flint and Chip Burly! I was just about to call you boys and hire you to find Lucy! Don’t tell me you include mind-reading among your many talents.”
“Heavens no, Mrs. Diamond!” Flint said, blushing. “We just chased off a prowler from your yard!”
Mrs. Diamond clutched the collar of her chiffon dress. “A prowler, you say?!”
“Well, we don’t really know what he was.” Flint went on to describe the man’s appearance and his odd behavior. “Do you know anybody who matches that description, Mrs. Diamond?”
“Not that I can think of,” said Mrs. Diamond. “Do you suppose…that he might have anything to do with Lucy’s disappearance?”
“That we can’t positively answer, ma’am,” Chip put in. “But it seems funny that some strange man would come poking around your digs only days after Lucy turned up missing! If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this business it’s that coincidences are rarely coincidences!”
“Oh, my,” Mrs. Diamond said. “I can’t imagine what to think! But please, don’t just stand there. Come in. Come in!”
The boys hesitated. Their father’s admonitions rang in their ears. But they couldn’t very well refuse to enter, not while Mrs. Diamond stood there holding the door open. Finally, Flint roused himself and crossed the threshold. Swallowing with an audible gulp, Chip followed in his wake.
Mrs. Diamond seated them in the front room and offered them some cold milk, which the boys gratefully accepted. While she was getting it the boys took a glance around the room. It was very attractively appointed, and the brothers both noted that its furnishings were not at all dissimilar to the style favored by their mother. Over the fireplace mantel hung a portrait of the family. It had been completed, Flint and Chip remembered, only weeks before Mr. Diamond’s tragic death in a boating accident. Between the two beaming parents posed a thirteen year-old Lucy, already as pretty and wholesome as the young lady she would grow up to be. It seemed impossible to them both that she would willingly leave such a happy home, especially with the sock hop barely two weeks away. Could it be that their father really had erred in his assessment of the situation?
“Hey, Flint,” Chip whispered. “What are we going to do? You know what dad said!”
“We can’t very well just get up and leave!” Flint hissed back.
“Let’s just hear what she has to say,” Flint said. “Where’s the harm in that?”
Mrs. Diamond returned bearing a tray on which sat two tall glasses of cold milk. She handed them out to the boys, watched with satisfaction as they took appreciative swallows, then said, “I imagine you’ve heard about my poor Lucy.”
Flint cleared his throat. “Yes, ma’am. We understand that she’s been gone for three days, now.”
Mrs. Diamond glanced at her watch. “Nearly four, actually.”
“That’s right!” Chip cried. “Tonight it’ll be four days since Family Affair last aired!”
Mrs. Diamond nodded vigorously. “That’s when I knew that something was horribly wrong. Lucy loved Mr. French. Nothing in the world could make her miss that show.” With that, tears misted her eyes.
Chip hastily held out his glass. “Would you like a sip of my cold milk?” he offered.
Mrs. Diamond looked at him blankly for a moment, then shook her head. “No, thank you, dear.” She seemed to be in better control of herself now, as if Chip’s gesture had cheered her a little.
A silence ensued. Flint knew that, as detectives, they should be asking questions, but he also knew that their father had indicated in no uncertain terms that they were not to take this case. Thankfully, Mrs. Diamond jumped into the breach.
“Chief Chalk seems to think she wasn’t kidnapped, as he believes we would have received a ransom demand by now. And he was kind enough to check with all the hospitals in the area and, thank God, Lucy was not admitted into any of them.”
“That’s wonderful news,” said Flint.
“No kidding!” added Chip.
“So that just leaves one possibility,” Mrs. Diamond said, and her hands clutched at the string of pearls at her throat. “That Lucy left of her own volition.”
“No!” said Flint, realizing she was almost certainly right, but not knowing what else to say.
“I won’t believe it!” Chip said, finding himself in the same boat.
But Mrs. Diamond was forlornly shaking her head. “I’m afraid it’s true,” she said softly. But then an edge came into her voice when she added, “But I’m positive leaving home was most emphatically not her idea!”
“No?” asked Flint.
“Now that I can believe!” put in Chip.
Mrs. Diamond went on as if she hadn’t heard them. “And I’m certain she succumbed to malignant influences!”
Flint and Chip locked eyes. This was starting to sound uncomfortably familiar. “Malignant influences?” Flint asked, in a small voice.
“Yes. She started spending time with strange new people…but especially that Schwarz boy! She took up with a month ago and would hardly see anyone else! Siddhartha, he called himself.”
“Hominy! What a loony name!” Chip said.
“I’ll say it is,” Mrs. Diamond said. “I was simply aghast when Lucy brought him home. Why, he wore a string of beads around his neck! And open-toed sandals! Oh, if Lucy’s father had been alive…”
“Kaboom!” Chip cried.
A silence fell again. Mrs. Diamond was looking at them expectantly. Flint realized that he couldn’t keep on pointedly not asking questions. They were, after all, supposed to be detectives, even if only of the boy variety. At length he decided that making a few inquiries did not commit them to taking the case, and he said, “Was he from around here?”
“I should hope not. But tragically, I never asked. If we only knew where he came from…”
“We would have had a clue!” Chip completed the sentence for her.
Flint cleared his throat again. “What specific…uh…influences do you think he had on Lucy, Mrs. Diamond?”
Their hostess’s eyes fell. When she spoke her voice trilled with grief. “You boys attend the same school as Lucy. Surely you noticed.”
Flint closed his eyes in concentration. A moment later they snapped open. “Holy cow!” he said. “Even though I didn’t have Lucy in any of my classes this year, I remember seeing her around school. And, now that I think about it, I realize she had abandoned the grooming and hygiene that she always took such pride in!”
“Why, I’ll be a brittle pork rind!” Chip cried. “Even though Lucy is a year older than me, I’ve seen her around the campus, too. And I realize now that she’d taken to dressing in a most peculiar way!”
“Most peculiar indeed,” Mrs. Diamond said. “Why, do you know what that girl did? She…she started wearing her grandmother’s dresses!”
“Crawlin’ crawdads!” Chip said.
“What else, Mrs. Diamond?” Flint pressed.
“Well, that boy played the guitar, you know.”
“The guitar!” Flint said, remembering his father’s words.
“Yes. But he didn’t play any of the nice love songs Lucy liked so well. Or any of those dance tunes Mickey Milk and the Milkmen favor. He played these peculiar songs. Songs about purple mists, and about being able to see for miles and miles, and about hard rain!”
“Hard rain?” Chip said. “Doddering daffodils! Don’t they use that stuff to make A-bombs?”
“That’s hard water,” Flint said.
But Flint was thinking about the other things his father had told them. “Tell me, Mrs. Diamond. Did Lucy ever say anything to you about an anti-war movement?”
“Or anything about…uh…free speech or a…a democratic society?”
“Oh, please, Flint Burly. Now you’re starting to scare me! Why are you asking about these…things?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Diamond. I’m not trying to alarm you. But please bear with me. Did that Schwarz boy ever mention those things? Did he strike you as a political agitator, for instance? Or as a…a chemical guru?” “A what?”
“I’m not sure what it means either, Mrs. Diamond. But you hear things. About forces assiduously undermining our American way of life. Or something like that.”
“And you think this boy…”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Diamond. And again, please don’t be alarmed. I’m just fishing. Trying to get a handle on this…this beatnik. For all we know, he may not have a thing to do with Lucy’s disappearance. Come to think of it, it’s quite possible that Lucy may have fled to escape his clutches.”
“Say, I hadn’t thought of that,” Chip said. “Or maybe she ran off to get away from that mysterious stranger we followed here!”
“Oh, dear. I’d forgotten about him.”
“Have you seen any other strange men hanging around her in the last few days?”
“No. I can’t say I have.”
“How about a black car?”
Suddenly Mrs. Diamond sat stiffly erect. “A black car? Why, now that you mention it, I did notice a black car parked right up the street! I remember noticing it just yesterday. And, yes! It’s all coming back. When I saw it just parked there, I remembered thinking that I’d seen it before! But with all the worry that’s been consuming me, I guess I just put it out of my mind. What can it mean?”
“I wish I knew, ma’am,” said Flint.
“It might provide us with a clue!” Chip noted.
Flint took a sip of his ice-cold milk and pondered his next question. “Can you think of anybody else we could talk to, Mrs. Diamond? Anybody who might have a clue to Lucy’s whereabouts?”
“Well, there’s Susie Charmin, of course, Lucy’s best friend.”
“Oh, yes, “Flint said. “Lives over on Patton, right?”
Mrs. Diamond nodded. “Between Taft and Lodge. So how much do you boys charge? Or should I speak to your father about money?”
“Oh, no!” Chip blurted. “I wouldn’t do that!”
“What he means,” Flint put in, “is that we can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to take this job, Mrs. Diamond.”
Mrs. Diamond blinked. “Why ever not?”
‘Well, you see…” Flint began. “Our father…well…he seems to feel that Chip and I aren’t quite ready to handle a missing persons case. You see, we usually just tangle with smugglers, counterfeiters, pirates, and the like. Right, Chip?”
“That’s right, Flint!” “Then shall I talk to your father? Will he take the case? I just thought that since you boys are Lucy’s age…or a year younger, in Chip’s case…”
“I’ll tell you what, Mrs. Diamond. Before you talk to dad, let’s see what Chip and I can learn from Susie. If we turn up a solid lead, then we’ll talk to our father again, and take it from there.” Then a thought occurred to Flint, something he remembered that his father always did when he took on a missing persons job. Not that he had any intention of taking on the case, but if seemed like the right thing to do anyway. “One more thing,” he hastily put in. “Would it be all right if Chip and I had a look at Lucy’s bedroom?”
The look that came over Mrs. Diamond face surprised the boys mightily. For the first time since their talk had begun a smile brightened her features. “Certainly, Flint. Although I’m sure it won’t be of any help.”
“Why’s that?” Chip asked.
Sure enough, the moment the boys had climbed the stairs and entered Lucy’s room, they saw what Mrs. Diamond meant. At first glance, it was clearly apparent that the boys would find nothing anomalous that might point the way to where Lucy had gone.
“This room has been my only comfort,” Mrs. Diamond said. “Despite all the changes Lucy went through, she never changed a thing in here. It’s as if she knew that eventually she’d come back to her senses, and find comfort in the familiar.”
Neither Flint nor Chip had had many occasions to enter the bedrooms of their girlfriends, but they’d done so just enough to recognize a typical teenaged girl’s quarters when they saw one. Posters of Frankie Avalon, the Dave Clark Five, and Rock Hudson hung on the walls, interspersed with school pennants and pom-poms. The canopied bed was covered with stuffed animals and the vanity littered with bottles and vials and jars of cosmetics. A little bookshelf was filled with the adventures of the Merry Barristers and the spine-tingling mysteries of Nancy Reagan, girl detective. The room pointed to the past, not to the future or the mysterious present.
“Swinging meathooks!” Chip said. “It feels familiar, all right!’
“Have you had a good look around, Mrs. Diamond?” asked Flint. “You spotted nothing out of the ordinary at all?”
“Not a thing,” Mrs. Diamond said.
But then Flint’s trained eye spotted something sticking out from beneath a stuffed penguin on the bed. He strode over and yanked out what he recognized as a record album. Chip and Mrs. Diamond were instantly at his side, peering at the jacket’s cover.
“Why, I’ll be a monkey’s third cousin!” Chip cried. “Do you think it’s a clue?”
Depicted on the jacket where four scruffy people, two men and two women, all crowded into a bathtub. Next to the tub sat a naked toilet bowl.
“Who the heck are these oddballs?” Flint said, his lips curling with distaste.
“They’re called the Mamas and Papas,” Chip said. “They’re really popular, only they’re a little too…weird for my taste.”
“Are these more of those English moptops you’re always complaining about?” Flint asked.
“No, I think they’re Americans,” Chip said. “But not really American, if you know what I mean. There’s just something about them that isn’t wholesome. Why, their lead singer is almost as portly as our chum Jelly Roll Horton!”
Flint turned to Mrs. Diamond. “Ma’am, does this look like anything Lucy would have bought?”
“Heavens no!” said. Mrs. Diamond. “Lucy would never bring such horrible music into the house. Not that I’ve ever heard any of it, of course, but…look at them!”
“Hmm,” Flint said. “Might it have been a present from that Schwarz boy, do you think?”
“Yes!” cried Mrs. Diamond. “It must be! Another malignant influence!” And suddenly she had covered her face with her hands and her body shook with sobs.
Except for a gun-moll that the boys had crossed paths with in their sixteenth adventure, The Clue of the Chattering Tommy Gun, they’d never seen a grown woman cry, and both felt terribly uncomfortable. They stood watching her for a moment, but when Mrs. Diamond showed no signs of calming down they quietly let themselves out of the room.