Evan Baughfman


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Detective Walker and the Case of the Unknown Word

This was my attempt to write an elementary-age mystery in less than 750 words for a magazine's contest.


Detective Walker and the Case of the Unknown Word


Ashley Walker re-read the same sentence in her book six times.

Her twin brothers, Mason and Jacob, were to blame for her trouble. The fourth-graders were supposed to be working together as teammates in a video game, but it wasn’t clear that the boys were on the same squad.  Mason screamed at his younger-brother-by-thirteen-minutes for ruining their mission, while Jacob threatened to throw Mason’s controller into the pool if he wasn’t given more respect.

After reaching beneath a bed pillow, Ashley inserted a pair of earplugs that she used nightly to quiet the boys’ snores.  She smiled in the silence and leaned against a stuffed animal cluster.

For the seventh time, she read the words, “Alondra didn’t know what to do about the quarrel and wished her father would return to pacify the mob.

Then, she read the phrase for an eighth time.  A ninth.  Tenth.

Perhaps Ashley couldn’t blame her brothers, after all.  One word in the text kept throwing her off:  “pacify”.

How was that pronounced?  Immediately, “p-a-c” reminded her of Pac-Man, an arcade game she watched Mason and Jacob play at some pizza place.  In that case, “p-a-c” sounded like “pack.”

So…“pack-if-eye”?  What kind of word was that?

Well, it had to be a verb, an action word, because it had “to” in front of it.

What did it mean to “pack-if-eye”?

Reading was fun, but it wasn’t always easy.

The sixth-grader remembered what her English teacher, Mrs. Jackson, had said in class that year:  “If you come across a word you don’t know while reading, become a detective and use the clues around the word to discover its meaning.”

Ashley sat up straighter.  Time to solve this mystery.

She put on her Detective Hat, which closely resembled her Thinking Cap.

Detective Walker was on the case.

Her book, Temporary Queen, was about Princess Alondra, a teenage girl put in charge of her father’s kingdom while he was away.  Alondra had to deal with problems the King usually handled himself.

Currently, Alondra listened to villagers complain about rats attracted to garbage that castle chefs dumped into the streets.  Villagers wanted the chefs to clean up their mess, and the chefs wanted villagers to know their place. 

Alondra didn’t know what to do about the quarrel and wished her father would return to pacify the mob.”

Ashley knew that “quarrel” was a synonym—another word—for “fight”.  She deduced that “quarrel” referred to the argument between the chefs and villagers.  The “mob” referred to all of the angry people who looked to Alondra for help.

In her mind, Detective Walker then did some re-writing of the passage, removing the unknown word altogether from the end of the sentence:

“…wished her father would return to pacify the mob.”

The newly formed sentence now looked like this:

Alondra didn’t know what to do about the quarrel and wished her father would return to _______ the mob.”

Detective Walker had to fill in the blank with a word that made sense.

“…and wished her father would return to punish(?) the mob.”

No, Alondra wasn’t a cruel person.  She wouldn’t want the King to hurt anyone. 

“…and wished her father would return to send away(?) the mob.”

No, Alondra didn’t want to ignore her people’s problems.  She wanted everyone to be happy and calm, to get along peacefully.

A lightbulb went off under the Detective Hat.

“…and wished her father would return to calm down(!) the mob.”

Yes!  That was it!  Alondra was only a teenager.  She didn’t really know how to calm down angry people.  She would want her father, the experienced King, to return so that he could restore peace.

Therefore, to “pacify” must’ve meant to “calm down” or to “create peace”. 

The word, though, still bothered the detective somewhat.  It sounded strange.  Was it really pronounced “pack-if-eye”? 

Wait a second!  When Mason and Jacob were babies, their parents always gave them the same things to calm them down, to bring them some peace and quiet.  The objects were called “pass-if-eye-ers”!  Or were they spelled “p-a-c-i-f-i-e-r-s”?  They had to’ve been!

To “pacify” meant to “calm down” or “to create peace,” and it was pronounced “pass-if-eye”.

Case closed!  Another word added to the detective’s vocabulary.

Someone screamed in anger, loud enough to be heard through earplugs.  Ashley saw Mason shaking a fist at Jacob.

Detective Walker put her story aside, stood from her bed, and went to her brothers, hoping to pacify them before either one took things too far.