Black Duck by Janet Taylor LisleBlack Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle

Black Duck

byJanet Taylor Lisle

Paperback | September 6, 2007

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It is spring 1929, and Prohibition is in full swing. So when Ruben and Jeddy find a dead body washed up on the shore of their small coastal Rhode Island town, they are sure it has something to do with smuggling liquor. Soon the boys, along with Jeddy’s strongwilled sister, Marina, are drawn in, suspected by rival bootlegging gangs of taking something crucial off the dead man. Then Ruben meets the daring captain of the Black Duck, the most elusive smuggling craft of them all, and it isn’t long before he’s caught in a war between two of the most dangerous prohibition gangs.

"Riveting mystery and nonstop adventure." --School Library Journal
Janet Taylor Lisle was born in Englewood, New Jersey and grew up in Farmington, Connecticut, spending summers on the coast of Rhode Island. The eldest and only daughter in a family of five children, she was educated at local schools and at fifteen entered The Ethel Walker School, a girl's boarding school in Simsbury, Ct.After graduati...
Title:Black DuckFormat:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 7 × 5 × 0.64 inPublished:September 6, 2007Publisher:Penguin Young Readers GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0142409022

ISBN - 13:9780142409022

Appropriate for ages: 9 - 12


Read from the Book

A secret memory . . .What happened next that spring afternoon is something I know Jeddy remembers. I can see us standing there, two raw-boned boys beside the bootleg crate, seagulls wheeling overhead, making dives on a tidal pool up the beach from us. Almost as an afterthought we wandered toward this pool, not expecting to see anything. It came into view with no more drama than if it had been a sodden piece of driftwood lying on the sand: a naked human leg.JANET TAYLOR LISLEFor Richard Lisle, with love.This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to current events, locales, or living persons is entirely coincidental.Table of ContentsNewport Daily Journal, December 30, 1929COAST GUARDS KILL THREE SUSPECTED RUM RUNNERSFIRE ON UNARMED SPEEDBOAT BLACK DUCK WITH LARGE CARGO OF LIQUORNEWPORT, DEC. 30—Three alleged rum runners were killed by machine gun fire and another man was wounded near Newport shortly before 3 o’clock Sunday morning, according to the Coast Guard. The men were in a 50-foot speedboat well-known locally as the Black Duck.The boat, carrying a cargo of 300 cases of smuggled liquor, was stumbled on in dense fog by Coast Guard Patrol Boat 290. A burst of machine gun fire killed all three men instantly in the pilot house. A fourth crew member was shot through the hand. No arms were found on board.“The shooting is unfortunate but clearly justified by U.S. Prohibition law forbidding the trade or consumption of liquor anywhere in the United States,” a Coast Guard spokesman said in a statement to reporters last night. “These rogue smugglers threaten our communities and must be stopped.”Other details were not available as authorities kept them guarded.The InterviewA RUMRUNNER HAD LIVED IN TOWN, ONE OF the notorious outlaws who smuggled liquor during the days of Prohibition, that was the rumor. David Peterson heard he might still be around.Where?No one knew exactly. It was all so long ago.Well, who was he?This was equally vague. Someone said to ask at the general store across from the church.It would be a miracle if the man was still alive, David thought. He’d be over eighty. If he were anywhere, he’d probably be in a nursing home by now.But it turned out he wasn’t. He still lived in town. Ruben Hart was his name.The number listed in the telephone book doesn’t answer. There is an address, though. David has his mother drop him off at the end of the driveway. It’s June. School is over. He tells her not to wait.The house is gray shingle, hidden behind a mass of bushes that have grown up in front of the windows. David isn’t surprised. It’s what happens with old people’s homes. Plantings meant to be low hedges or decorative bushes sprout up. Over time, if no one pays attention, they get out of control. David’s family is in the landscaping business and he knows about the power of vegetation. He’s seen whole trees growing through the floor of a porch, and climbing vines with their fingers in the attic. Left to its own devices, nature runs amok.David knocks on the front door. After a long pause, an old fellow in a baggy gray sweater opens up. David tells him straight out why he’s come: he’s looking for a story to get in the local paper.They won’t hire me, but the editor says if I come up with a good story, he’ll print it. I want to be a reporter, he announces, all in one breath.Is that so? the man says. His face has the rumpled look of a well-used paper bag, all lines and creases. But his eyes are shrewd.I’m a senior in high school, David explains to build up his case. It’s a slight exaggeration. He’ll be a freshman next fall.He receives a skeptical stare.Then the man, who is in fact Ruben Hart himself, still kicking, as he says with a sly glint of his glasses, invites David in.My wife’s in the kitchen. We can go in the parlor.David has never before heard anyone say that word, parlor, to describe a room in a house. He’s read it in stories from English class, though, and knows what one is. The chairs are formal and hard as a rock, just as you’d expect.I suppose you’re here to find out about the old days, Mr. Hart says. His voice is raspy-sounding, as if he doesn’t use it much.I am.Must be the liquor Prohibition back in the 1920s you’re interested in, rumrunners and hijackers, fast boats and dark nights.Yes, sir!I wasn’t in it.You weren’t? David frowns. I heard you were.I wasn’t.Well.I guess that’s that, Mr. Hart says. Sorry to disappoint you.Did you know anyone who was? David asks.I might’ve. Mr. Hart’s glasses glint again.Could you talk about them?No.That was the end of their first meeting.A week later, David tries again. He’s done some research this time, found a newspaper article from 1929 about the Coast Guard gunning down some unarmed rumrunners, and learned the names of beaches around there where the liquor was brought in.The first rumrunners were local fishermen who wanted to make an extra buck for their families. They’d sneak cases of booze onshore off boats that brought the stuff down from Canada or up from the Bahamas. But there was too much money to be made, as there is in the drug trade today. Hardened criminals came in and formed gangs. People were shot up and murdered. The business turned vicious.My wife’s gone out, we can sit in the kitchen, Mr. Hart says this time.When they settle, David has his plan of attack ready.I don’t want to bother you, but I read about some things and wondered if I could check them out with you. Nothing personal, just some facts.Such as? The old man’s eyes are wary.Was Brown’s Beach a drop for liquor? I read it was.I guess there’s no harm in agreeing to that. Everybody in town knew it.And were there hidden storage cellars under the floor of the old barn out behind Riley’s General Store? Across from the church, you know where I mean?They’re still there, as far as I know.One other thing, David says. There was a famous rum-running boat around here named the Black Duck . . .That was the end of their second meeting.The man closes up, won’t even make eye contact. He says his heart’s acting funny and he’s got to take a pill. Five minutes later David is heading back out the driveway. He hitches home this time rather than wait for his mother. He’s touched on something, he knows it. There’s a story there. How to pry it out of the old geezer?He’s still wondering a week later when, surprise of all surprises, Mr. Hart calls him. He’s managed to ferret out David’s home number from among the dozens of Petersons in the telephone book.I’ll talk to you a bit. An old friend of mine is ill. You’ve been on my mind.David can’t see the connection between himself and some old friend, but he gets a ride over there as soon as he can. His father drives him this time, grumbling, You’re making me late. What’s wrong with riding a bicycle? In my day, we went everywhere under our own steam.David doesn’t answer. In a year and a half he’ll be old enough to drive himself and won’t need to put up with irritating comments like this.Sorry about your friend being sick, he says to Mr. Hart. They’re in the kitchen again. The wife has gone away to visit her brother out of state.Took a turn for the worse the beginning of the week, Mr Hart says. Jeddy McKenzie. He and I grew up together here. His dad used to be police chief in this town.He gazes speculatively at David. Ever hear of Chief Ralph McKenzie?David says no.Well, that was way back, during these Prohibition days you’re so interested in. The law against liquor got passed and the government dumped it on the local cops to enforce. That was a laugh. What’d they think would happen? Afterward, Jeddy moved away, to North Carolina. I always hoped I’d see him again. We were close at one time. Had adventures.What adventures? David asks.Mr. Hart’s eyes flick over him, as if he still has grave doubts about this interview. He goes ahead anyway.Ever seen a dead body?David shakes his head.We found one washed up down on Coulter’s Beach.David knows where Coulter’s Beach is. He swims off there sometimes. Was it a rumrunner? he asks.Mr. Hart doesn’t answer. He has watery blue eyes that wink around behind his glasses’ thick lenses. It’s hard to get a handle on his expression.This was in the spring, 1929. Smuggling was in high gear. Thousands of cases of liquor coming in every month up and down this coast. Outside racketeers creeping in like worms to a carcass, smelling the money. People look back now and think those days were romantic, all high jinks and derring-do. They’re mistaken.David has brought a notepad along, expecting to jot down interesting facts. Not romantic, he writes at the top of the page. (What are high jinks?) After that, he forgets to write. Mr. Hart’s raspy voice takes over the room.So, Jeddy McKenzie and I came on this body.ON COULTER’S BEACHTHE WIND HAD BLOWN IT IN.A stiff sou’wester was in charge that day, shoving the waves against the shore like a big impatient hand. Jeddy’s head never could keep a cap on in a blow. I remember how he walked bent over, holding his brim down with both hands. I stalked beside him, eyes on the sand.“Clean beach,” I’d say gloomily whenever we rounded a corner.We’d been hunting for lobster pots since lunch and would have gone on till dinner if not for the interruption. Marked pots returned to their owners paid ten cents apiece. We were fourteen years old and in dire need of funds. You couldn’t get a red penny out of your parents in those days. They didn’t have anything to spare.“There’s got to be some! It blew like stink all night,” Jeddy shouted over the wind.“Well, it’s blowing like murder right now,” I cried back, without an inkling of how true this was about to become.We rounded a spuming sand dune to a burst of noise. Down the beach, braying seagulls circled at the water’s edge.“Something’s driving bait. Maybe a shark,” Jeddy said. “Those gulls are getting in on the kill.”I shaded my eyes. “No, it’s something else. I can see something floating in the water.”“Dead shark, then.”“Or a dead seal. Too small for a shark. Come on.”We took off at a jog, wind tearing at our clothes. When we got there, though, all we saw was a busted-up wooden crate knocking around in the waves. Nothing was inside, but we recognized its type. It was a bootleg case, a thing we’d come across before on the beach. If you were lucky, and we never were that I can recall, there’d be bottles still wedged inside—whiskey, vodka, brandy, even champagne—smuggled liquor that could bring a good price if you knew what to do with it. Jeddy and I weren’t lawbreakers. We’d never even had a drink. But like a lot of folks along that coast we weren’t against keeping our eyes open if there was a chance of profit in it.“Coast Guard must have been sniffing around here last night,” Jeddy said. “Looks like somebody had to dump their cargo fast.”“Maybe. Could be it’s left over from a landing. They’ve been bringing stuff into the dock down at Tyler’s Lane.”“How d’you know that?”“Saw them,” I boasted, then wished I hadn’t. It was no secret that Jeddy’s dad was on the lookout for rumrunners. Police Chief Ralph McKenzie was a stickler for the law.Jeddy gave me a look. “You saw somebody landing their goods? At night?”I shut my trap and inspected a schooner passing out to sea. I knew something Jeddy didn’t.“What were you doing at Tyler’s at night?” he demanded. “It’s way across town from your house. Ruben Hart! You’re fibbing, right?”“Well.” I gave the crate a kick.“I thought so! Next you’re going to say it was the Black Duck.”“Maybe it was!”“You’re a liar, that’s for sure. Nobody ever sees the Duck. My dad’s been chasing her for years and never even come close. She’s got twin airplane engines, you know. She does over thirty knots.”I glared at him. “I know.”“So did you see her or not?”“Maybe I heard somebody talking.”“When?”“Couple of days ago. It’s dark of the moon this week. That’s when they bring the stuff in.”“Who was talking?”“I better not say. You’d have to tell your dad.”“I wouldn’t. Honest.”I shrugged and gazed across the water to where the lighthouse was standing up on its rock, high and white as truth itself.“Come on. I’d only have to tell him if he asked me direct, and why would he do that?” Jeddy said. “Did somebody see the Black Duck come in at Tyler’s dock?”“Listen, I don’t know,” I said, backing off. “I heard a rumor there was a landing, that’s all. Whoever did it could’ve cracked some cases to pay off the shore crew that helped unload. That’s one way they pay them. Everybody gets a few bottles.”“Well, you should know,” Jeddy said, sulkily. “Your dad is probably in deep with the whole thing.”“He is not!” I drew up my defenses at this. “My dad would never break the law. He might not agree with it, but he wouldn’t break it.”My father was Carl Hart, manager of Riley’s General Store in town. He was a big man with a big personality, known for speaking his mind in a moment of heat, but there was nothing underhanded in him. He dealt fair and square no matter who you were, and often he was more than fair. Quietly, without even Mr. Riley knowing, he’d help out folks going through hard times by carrying their overdue accounts till they could pay. He wouldn’t take any thanks for it, either, which is why my mother would find a couple of fresh-caught bluefish on our front porch some mornings, or a slab of smoked ham or an apple pie.“Now, Carl, what is it you’ve done to deserve this?” she’d ask, raising an eyebrow.He’d shake his head like it was nothing, and never answer.My father was tough on me growing up. He was an old-fashioned believer in discipline and hard work, far beyond what was fair or necessary, it seemed to me. There never was much warmth or fun between us, the way some boys have with their dads, but one thing I was sure of: he was an honest man. Whatever mischief was going on along our shores at night—and you’d have had to be both blind and deaf back then not to know there was a lot—it wouldn’t have anything to do with him.Jeddy knew it, too. “Your dad wouldn’t break any law,” he admitted. “I was only saying that.”“I knew you didn’t mean it,” I said.We almost never fought. Whatever Jeddy thought or felt, I understood and respected, and I’d step back and make allowances for it. He watched out for me the same way. I guess you could say we’d sort of woven together.Our mothers had grown up in town and been friends themselves all the way through school. When they married our dads, they became friends, too. In the early days there was a steady stream of lendings and borrowings, emergency soups and neighborly stews between our houses, the sort of thing that goes on so easily in a small town. Then, in the middle of one winter, Jeddy’s mother got sick. It turned out to be the flu that took so many that year.Her death stunned everyone in town, but it struck the McKenzies like an iron fist. Eileen was her name, and she’d been the heart of the family, the strong one in the house. Jeddy’s dad just collapsed. For a while, he didn’t go anywhere or do anything.Jeddy was seven at the time, in the first grade with me. I remember how I’d walk over in the afternoons after school and sit on his front porch in case he wanted to come down and play. Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t. I’d stay awhile—the place was too quiet to even think of knocking—then go off if he didn’t appear. We both knew without saying it that I’d be back the next day. It was a way we’d worked out to help him get through.Jeddy’s dad had been head man on a local chicken farm, but soon he quit that and began to commute over to Portsmouth to train for police work. The state force was just starting up. It pulled him away from old connections, including my parents, and maybe that’s what he wanted. Even when he was hired a year later for the job of our police chief, he kept his distance from us. He never spoke to anyone about the blow he’d suffered, but thinking back, I wonder if he wasn’t still trying to depend on his wife for a strength he didn’t have. Anyone visiting at the McKenzies’ could’ve seen it. He was keeping her around, strange as that sounds.Her coat and hat hung on a hook in the hall, as if she’d only stepped out for a moment. Her wedding china was on display in the parlor cabinet. Her sheet music sat on the piano. Her bold handwriting filled the book of recipes that lay open, more often than not, on the counter in the kitchen where Marina, Jeddy’s older sister, was now in charge. She’d been a frightened nine-year-old when her mother had died. Seven years later, at sixteen, she was running the house.It was Marina who served us supper when Jeddy asked me to stay over evenings. It was she who washed up after, darned her father’s socks, hung the laundry and took it down. She changed the beds, swept the floors, hauled in coal for the stove. With the sleeves of her school blouse rolled tight above her elbows (at this time, she was still only a high school sophomore) and one of her mother’s cotton aprons wrapped double around her waist, Marina handled all the jobs a grown woman would. I couldn’t get used to that, seeing a girl that age taking on what she did. Only a certain watchful gaze she leveled at the world gave a glimpse into what it must have cost her.“I’d tell you if I knew who it was at Tyler’s, really I would,” I said to Jeddy that day on the beach, to make things right between us.He nodded. “I know you would. And I wouldn’t tell my dad.”“Of course not.”“It’d be just between us.”“Always has been, always will be,” I announced. I couldn’t meet his eyes though. I’d already broken that trust. There was something I wasn’t telling him, something I couldn’t.Maybe he suspected, because he gave me a long stare. Then he let it go, didn’t say any more about it. I wonder, though, when he thinks back—as I know he has done plenty of times over the years, just like me—does he remember that conversation the way I do, as the first crack in our friendship? I wish I could ask him.What happened next that spring afternoon is something I know Jeddy remembers. I can see us standing there, two raw-boned boys beside the bootleg crate, seagulls wheeling overhead, making dives on a tidal pool up the beach from us. Almost as an afterthought we wandered toward this pool, not expecting to see anything. It came into view with no more drama than if it had been a sodden piece of driftwood lying on the sand: a naked human leg.A DARK-RIMMED HOLEIT’S ODD HOW A SHOCKING SIGHT CAN SHAKE your mind so you don’t at first register the whole, just the small, almost comical details. Like the hand complete with fancy gold wristwatch, wedding band and neatly clipped fingernails we saw bobbing on the water’s surface as we came toward the pool. Above it, swathed in a shawl of brown seaweed, a rubbery-looking shoulder peeked out, white as a girl’s. Above that, a bloated face the color of slate; two sightless eyes, open. And there in his neck, what was that? I saw a small dark-rimmed hole.The body was surrounded by floating shreds of what had once been a fancy evening suit. The feet were bare, with the same wrinkly soles anyone would get who stayed in a bathtub too long.“Looks like he’s been in the water awhile,” Jeddy said. “Is it somebody?”He meant, “Is it somebody we know.”“Don’t think so,” I said. “Anyhow, he was shot.”“Where?”“In the neck. See there?”Jeddy leaned forward to look. The hole was in the skin just above the collarbone. “Oh,” he said, and stepped back fast.“We could check his pockets,” he suggested. “See if he’s got a wallet or something with his name on it.”“Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll hold your hat.”He took it off and gave it to me, then bent to touch the body, which rocked a bit under his hand.“Maybe we shouldn’t disturb anything.”“Maybe not,” I said, as squeamish as he was.“My dad would look if he were here.”“He’d have to.”Jeddy squared himself and went forward again. Reaching into the water, he felt the sodden sides of what remained of the dead man’s pants for where the pockets would be.“I can’t feel anything.”“Try his jacket.”Jed patted down the black floating garment and shook his head. “Guess he lost everything at sea.”“Or he was frisked after they shot him,” I said. “Anything in his back pockets?”“You do it,” Jeddy said. He’d had enough.I went forward and felt around, trying not to brush up against the corpse’s skin. It had a cold, blubbery feel that turned my stomach. My hands ran into something. I brought out a pipe and a sodden satchel of tobacco.“Guess he was a smoker.”Jeddy took them for a look, then handed them back. “Are you sure that’s all?”“Yes.”“We need to tell someone.”“Your dad.”“Let’s go back to my house. I can call him from there.”After this, though, action seemed beyond us. For a time we stood rooted in place, staring at the dead man, and at the pool of gray water he lay in, and at the gulls who floated on the incoming swells just offshore, watching our movements with cold yellow eyes. Death was no more to them than a ready-made meal. Neither of us had seen a drowned man before, not to mention a corpse with a bullet hole in its neck.“I bet he was with the mob,” said Jeddy, who had no clearer idea than I did at this time what that might be. “Maybe he was in on the landings at Tyler’s Lane.”“Wearing an evening suit?”“Well, maybe he’s a high roller from Newport and he tried to double-cross somebody and they found out.”“Or maybe they double-crossed him.”The newspapers were full of such stories. My mother tried to keep me from reading them, but I got around her on that as I did on most things. Al Capone and his Chicago gangsters were in the headlines daily. In New York City, Lucky Luciano was fighting it out with a couple of other gangs, and from all accounts blood flowed regularly in the streets. It was thugs gunning down thugs for the most part, battling over territorial rights to extortion and payoffs.Right up in Providence there was Danny Walsh, one of the big-time bootleggers. He was always having people bumped off. You could tip your hat the wrong way at Danny Walsh and that was it, your number was up. To Jeddy and me, all this underworld activity seemed glamorous. We knew the cast of characters, we knew the lingo. Like a lot of kids at that time, we followed gangland murders the same way we read the comics.This body was real.“Whoever he is, those gulls are going after him soon as we leave,” Jeddy said.I examined the waiting flock. “You think they’d eat him?”“Sure, why not. Gulls eat everything.”“Well, there’s nothing to cover him with.”“Scare ’em off,” Jeddy ordered.For the next quarter hour, we threw stones and yelled and ran out in the water to make them fly away, which was a waste of time. Not a gull batted an eye. The whole group simply paddled sedately out of reach, then turned to stare at us again. Jeddy flung his cap on the ground. His temper could flare up quicker than mine.“Stupid birds!”“The only thing is to get somebody back here fast as we can.”“All right. Let’s go.”We began to run down the beach, stopping to heave more threatening volleys at the gulls. Even before we reached the first bend, we could see the flock edging closer to shore, getting ready to pounce.“Cannibals,” Jeddy panted. “Wish I had a gun.”Around the end of Coulter’s Point, we let loose and raced for our bikes.The person who answered at the police station was the force’s part-time bookkeeper, Mildred Cumming. She sounded sleepy when she took Jeddy’s call, but she’d snapped to a moment later.“A dead man? . . . Shot! Anybody from around here? . . . Right. I’m getting Charlie. Hold on, kiddo, don’t you go anywhere.”From the stairs in Jeddy’s front hall, I heard everything. The McKenzies’ telephone was new to the house, a wall model tucked into a special alcove under the staircase. The town had paid to have it installed so Chief McKenzie could take calls at home. Jeddy wasn’t supposed to use it, but this was an emergency.There was a long wait while Mildred went to get Charlie Pope, deputy sergeant at the station, who was most likely across the street at Weedie’s Coffee Shop, jawing and reading the papers. Normally, there wasn’t much that went on day to day in a hamlet our size. People knew each other too well. With only one road into town, any suspicious character who didn’t get noticed on the way in was sure to be pulled over on the way out. The whole police force amounted to only two individuals, neither of whom cared to carry a gun.“This is me. Yeah, I heard,” Charlie told Jeddy when he got came on. “It’s a man, you say?”Jeddy said it was.“What’s he wearing, could you see?”Jeddy explained about the evening suit.“Your dad’s not here. Gone to New Bedford to see a fellow. Back in a couple of hours. I’ll try to get a message to him. You boys stay where y’are. I’ll be at your place soon as I can.”“We’ll meet you at the beach,” Jeddy said. “There’s a pack of gulls down there getting at the body. We’ll stand guard till you come.”This caused an explosion on the other end of the line.“You stay put!” Charlie’s voice boomed out, so loud that Jeddy jerked the receiver away from his ear. “I don’t want you going down on that beach again! Now that’s an order!”Jeddy rolled his eyes and said all right. About then, the front door opposite me opened and Marina came in, her dark hair loose and streaming from the wind. A single glance at Jeddy on the phone was all she needed.“What happened?” she asked me.“We found a body washed up on the beach.”“A fisherman?”“Probably not.”“What beach?”“Coulter’s.”“What were you doing down there?”“Looking for lobster pots.”I avoided her direct gaze. With her hair blown that way and her face glowing from the cold walk home, Marina McKenzie was almost unbearably pretty. I was at the age where it embarrassed me to find myself noticing this.“Did you get any?” she asked.“No,” I said to the floor.Jeddy finished his conversation with Charlie and put the telephone receiver cautiously back on its hook.“We’re to wait,” he informed me. To his sister he said, “Charlie Pope’s coming.”Marina wrinkled her nose. “That weasel, why him?”“Dad’s in New Bedford. They’re calling him.”“Is it anybody from around here?”

Editorial Reviews

Lots of adventure and mystery. (VOYA)

Riveting mystery and nonstop adventure. (School Library Journal)

The setting's cinematic detail brings the exhilarating action close, and readers will easily see themselves in young Ruben. (Booklist)