Four children stood outside the large window of a shop. They were similar enough in looks that they were quite obviously a family. That is to say, one of them was standing, one of the two identical girls. This was Shirley, and she was quite dedicated to being polite and leading a good example at all times. This included holding perfect posture, even if she was just standing on the sidewalk waiting for a shop to open. Her vibrant red hair trailed down between her shoulder blades in a French braid. She occasionally turned her head this way and that. She was on the lookout for someone, acting a bit put out and impatient.
Her sister Alice had been fidgeting next to her and engaging her in idle chatter for the past few minutes. It came to a point where she hadn't been able to tolerate Shirley's stiff demeanor any longer. It was rather early in the morning and Alice was still letting out the occasional yawn. Her mind was still partially consumed with the silly dreams she been having the previous night
Shirley was never too interested in things such as dreams. Instead, she preferred to try and interest her sister in their summer reading for school. As the summer had just begun, homework was the furthest thing from Alice's mind and this put her a bid at odds with Shirley. For the moment she wanted to relax and have fun. Shirley hadn't quite unwound enough from the school year to the point where she would allow herself to do the same.
After growing frustrated with her sister for still being full of facts and figures, Alice had skipped over to the window of a shop two doors down. She had her nose nearly pressed up against the glass. Her palms were flush against the transparent surface, she hadn't a worry about leaving smudges because her attention was fixed on a puppy in the window.
Almost as if to mimic her, it had its paws pressed up against the other side of the glass. It was returning her gaze with big brown eyes. The little dog's tail wagged and its ears twitched, one of them milky white. The rest of the puppy's fur was a coppery orange. It seemed to be the only one out of its litter to be what Alice's mother would call a 'morning person.' There were four neat little balls of fur curled up together behind it, still sleeping.
It was a wonder, as the one enthusiastic little animal was starting to yip excitedly at Alice. It was likely imagining she looked like the sort of girl that would go ask her parents if she could have a puppy. It was conceivable that she was, and equally as likely she would pose such a question to her father that very afternoon if given half a chance.
The oldest of the lot of them was Troy. He had propped himself up against the shop outside which Shirley had diligently placed herself. One scuffed trainer was pressed firmly against the sidewalk and the other just so against the wall at his back. His eyes were closed against the early morning light, his head bobbing slightly to the beat of music pumped into his ears by tiny headphones.
Like his sisters, he was also capable of finding the balance between work and play. Of course, very unlike them, he did not have a twin to share that balance with him and so he spent more time relaxing and having fun than he did with his studies. This ended in more than one late night mad rush to get something done for classes the next day. His last science project had barely been in for the deadline, though it had received surprisingly good marks and a commendation from his teacher.
The headphones would likely spend more time in Troy's ears than out over the summer, causing who knows what kind of damage to his future ability to hear. None of his summer work would so much as even be glanced at until the last days of vacation.
The last of them was Oscar, the youngest if only by a year, with the twins between himself and Troy in age. He was down on his haunches with a rather glum look on his face, watching a line of ants march along the curb without very much interest. He had to bring one hand to his face now and then to push his glasses up and keep them from slipping off.
Oscar's glasses usually made people assume things about him, chiefly the fact that he was smart. He wasn't of the opinion that he was any smarter than any other boy. He tended to consider Shirley the genius of the family if one of them had to be such a person. It was often only because of her help with schoolwork that he was able to keep up with his classmates.
Oscar's glasses also gave him a look of innocence. They made his eyes look just a tiny bit larger than they actually were and gave him a bit of a doe-eyed look. This helped him get out of a scrape here and there because he was a lover of pranks and making mischief. The parents of the four of them had once said they were glad Oscar didn't have a twin as he made enough trouble for two people as it was.
The Alden siblings looked an odd combination indeed as they waited around for their Uncle Benny to come open up his candy store for the day.
Shirley looked up and down the street once again. She then glanced between her brothers. For a moment, she looked as if she was trying to decide between telling Troy he was doing irreparable damage to his ears and telling Oscar he was going to get his pants dirty. She remained silent, perhaps knowing from past experience that informing them of such things would cause no change in their behavior except perhaps that they might tease her.
Shirley also noticed her sister had her hands all over the window of the pet store. This only caused her lips to quirk into a slight smile. Alice had always been the biggest animal lover out of the lot of them, always seeking them out and observing them or playing with them when it was allowed. Alice would have been in that store wishing she could take any number of pets home, were it open.
Alice was drawn away from the window when her Uncle marched past with a jovial morning greeting, leaving the puppy to miss her attentions. She fell into step beside her uncle before they closed the small distance between themselves and the other three Alden siblings.
Benny Alden was as close to a kid as an adult could get, as one might suppose someone would have to be to run a candy store. He hadn't yet fully managed to grow up and it was one of the reasons the four siblings loved him so dearly. The four of them followed him to the door. He unlocked and opened it, causing a bell to jingle. They filed in after him as he started turning on lights and getting things ready to open for the day, all of them chatting.
Shirley was a little more relaxed and Troy had pulled one of his headphones free from his ear. Alice was the last to enter, her eyes glued to the pet store until it was out of sight. Just as the door of her Uncle's shop closed behind her, she saw a man at the door of the pet store. He was likely preparing for a day of business just like her Uncle was doing.
Uncle Benny was going to get them started with making some candy of their very own to present to their parents as an anniversary gift. He had been helping them and teaching them different sorts of things about what he made for his shop. Much of his merchandise was the same factory made candy you might find in any store. An equal amount of his stock consisted of specialty items from all sorts of different places. His gourmet homemade treats only took up a small corner of his shop. That being the case, they always sold out rather quickly.
They had been planning the final part of their candy making project to coincide with a time when one of the people who worked in the shop would be out in the customer area. That would mean Uncle Benny could be in the kitchen with his nieces and nephews, available for emergencies.
"Christine won't be in today. She called in sick and I couldn't get Taylor to come in on such short notice," Uncle Benny informed them. "It will just be the five of us. We'll have to make do somehow. I might be spread a little thin but I don't think it's anything to worry about. I'm sure we'll work something out and everything will go off without a hitch."
Uncle Benny was rather busy. He had to keep darting in and out of the kitchen every time the bell above the shop entrance rang. With the help he could provide, they were soon on their way to what they hoped would be a very tasty gift for their parents.
By the time the clock truck noon, none of them felt too much like eating because they had all helped themselves to some of their own creations. Only the ones Shirley had declared weren't quite presentable enough had been fair game. Even with all they'd eaten, there was a large crystal dish on the counter filled to the brim with chocolates in shining wrappers. It was time to start cleaning up the mess they'd made in their Uncle's kitchen. They did so happily. With the four of them it was quick work.
"I dare say that you all have put the place in better condition than you found it in. Thanks for cleaning up after yourselves, I must admit I didn't quite expect you to."
Uncle Benny had started talking just as soon as he had entered the room. Unfortunately his sudden entrance startled Oscar. The four siblings had been working in companionable silence for a few minutes to get everything spotless and shining.
Oscar's arm jerked, and the handle of the broom he was holding knocked into the candy dish on the counter. It spun down the length of the counter and right over the edge before any of them could so much as reach for it. It crashed dramatically to the hard floor and splashed into more minuscule shards than could be counted.
Oscar was looking mortified at his own clumsiness within seconds. Alice was sucking in her bottom lip, worrying it in an attempt not to cry. Troy's mouth hung open slightly and Shirley was glowering at their broken gift as if she could force the broken dish to put itself back together by sheer force of will. Unfortunately, not even the strongest of wills could fix such a mistake. The dish remained broken.
Uncle Benny moved quickly into action, crouching down to the floor. He started to delicately pick the luckily wrapped candies out of the mess of the destroyed dish. "Not much harm done, see? We can clean this up and get another bowl and nobody will ever know this one even existed. None of your hard work will be ruined."
Their candies were soon all bundled together in a brown paper bag on the counter. The four of them were still sweeping up the remainder of the dish as Uncle Benny tended to a customer. They had just put the broom away and had time to glance around at each other when Uncle Benny stepped back into the room. He wasn't able to say anything before the bell at the front entrance sounded once more. With their job done, they followed their Uncle out of the kitchen.
He was helping the woman pick out some sweets to send to her sister. She had to keep interrupting him to tell her two small sons to quit being so rowdy. Just as she was leaving with a smile on her face and a promise that she'd have to come back again some day, a man entered. He didn't wait for the woman to leave but instead squeezed past her while she was still in the doorway, muttering an apology to her.
"Ned! What a surprise. How are things two doors down?" Uncle Benny smiled at the new arrival, turning to his nieces and nephews. "Kids, this is Mr. Morris. He owns the pet shop just down the street. Ned, these are my brother's kids."
The four of them quickly introduced themselves. Ned Morris gave them a genuine smile, though it looked a bit thin as well as forced. He didn't seem as if he was in the mood for smiling.
"What's wrong?" Uncle Benny asked after a moment. "Why, I've never seen you look so grim in all the time I've known you."
"I've only just got a minute. I couldn't stand waiting in the shop for the police to arrive. I thought I'd start poking around a bit before they got here. I've talked to Fay next door and she didn't see anything, so I thought I'd chance coming in here."
Uncle Benny frowned slightly. "What is it, Ned? What's happened?"
"It's that new litter of puppies, they've been taken. I can only imagine someone thought to make a quick buck by selling them. Must have happened sometime in the night, though it's funny nothing else was missing. The front door was locked like it should be when I got there. The back door was left open. I'm very certain I locked everything up as usual last night and the door wasn't damaged. It's a very curious situation." Mr. Morris' forehead was creased with worry.
"It couldn't have happened in the night." Alice spoke up. "We were here early this morning waiting for Uncle Benny to come. I was looking at the puppies in the window, most of them were sleeping. That one with the white ear was all excited and happy..."
She was pouting as she trailed off. It was her turn to have a furrowed brow, looking like she was thinking about something very hard or just trying to remember something which was quite important.
"It was just after Uncle Benny got here. When we were coming inside, there was a man!"
"A man? What sort of man did you see, Alice?" It was her Uncle questioning her.
She gave a one-shouldered shrug and looked between her Uncle and Mr. Morris. "I didn't get a very good look at him. I didn't think anything of him, really. You had just arrived to open your shop for the day. I thought he was just a man who worked at the pet store getting ready to do the same."
Alice closed her eyes and chewed a little on her bottom lip. "He was wearing a red baseball cap and a dark green jacket. He had sunglasses. That's funny now I think about it because it wasn't bright at all. I saw something sparkle, I guess he must have had an earring."
They heard a car pull up outside and then car doors opening and closing, followed by a pair of men talking. It must have been the police Mr. Morris was supposed to have been waiting for in his shop.
"I had better go out and talk to them now. Mary might faint if they walk into the stop while she's there alone. I don't think she's ever so much as talked to a police officer before and of course she doesn't know anything. She arrived for work an hour after I'd discovered what had happened." Mr. Morris gave them a curt nod, momentarily turning his attention to Alice. "Will you come and tell them what you told me?"
She nodded and then looked to her Uncle. He came to her side, saying he would accompany them. Oscar decided he would go with them even though he hadn't seen anything. Shirley and Troy would stay behind and mind the store. Uncle Benny told them to lock the door as soon as the rest of them had left. They were only to through the door to anyone who happened by and tell them he would be back in just a few minutes.
They had only taken a couple steps out the door and were still close enough to hear Troy locking it behind them. Alice came to a halt and tilted her head to the side. She raised a finger to her lips for silence when her Uncle asked her what she was doing.
"Don't you hear it, that whimpering sound? It's coming from the alley there." She started walking in the opposite direction to that of Mr. Morris' store. She went past the shop on the other side of her Uncle's and into the mouth of an alley.
"I hear it now, too." Oscar raced ahead of his Uncle and his sister. Mr. Morris would have followed them but he had to go speak to speak to the waiting police officers.
After another second, Oscar let out a cry of excitement. Soon after Alice was echoing him with a surprised exclamation of her own.
Mr. Morris had raced into the alley at the sound of their loud voices, the two policemen close behind him.
"It's the puppies, they're here." Sure enough, there were four small furry lumps curled up in a box turned on its side. One of them stood up and yawned. He noticed he had an audience and yipped, toddling up to Oscar with a wagging tail. Oscar picked the puppy up and it licked his cheek, causing him to laugh.
Beside him, Alice's lips formed a worried frown, "There's just four, one of them is still missing."