The following day, when it was time for 'school', Joe sent Finny on an errand.
When she had gone, he waited for Casper, Onetooth and Worms to take their seats at the school table set up in Joe's office.
"Okay you three, listen up."
Not sure if they were in trouble or not, the three boys avoided Joe's eye so as not to become the focus of his attention.
A perfectly natural and praiseworthy reaction to authority that Joe had been expecting, so he continued.
"Tomorrow is Finny's birthday. The Mrs Joe and I are going to throw a surprise party for her at our gaff. You three are invited so here are the rules.
One, you each bring a gift, and it better be nicely wrapped. Two, be clean. Have a shower and make sure your clothes are clean.
If you guys dirty up Mrs Joe's furniture or leave finger marks on the wallpaper, she will not be happy with me, which means I will not be happy with you."
Joe then folded his arms and stared directly at Worms.
"Three. No dead things. Nothing to do with dead things. No nearly dead things. No bugs, slugs or any of the other nasty little things I've confiscated off you in the past.
" Even though Worms never looked up, Joe was confident his words had gotten through. He turned his attention back to the whole group.
"Finally, four. Have fun, be nice and remember that Silja will search you all before you leave. Any questions?"
The boys looked at each other, communicating in the silent language of nods, shrugs and glances familiar to their age group.
The result of this 'conversation' seemed to be that Casper, being the eldest, was nominated spokesperson. The nervous eight-year-old swallowed.
"Ummm, we don't wanna go."
That halted Joe for a second or two.
"You do know that there will be free food, right?"
Casper checked the faces of his friends before turning back to Joe.
"We don't think Finny likes us anymore."
It has been many years since Joe was eight, so juvenile logic was a long-departed stranger. However, he was about to get a visit.
Casper opened his mouth, but the voice came from Worms.
"We told everyone on her for stealing your gun."
Onetooth added his voice.
"An' I let the bear chase me right to her."
Casper bowed his head and finally got to add his piece.
"I let that lady catch me. Finny would have beat them if I hadn't."
It was one of those rare moments in Joe's life when he didn't know whether to laugh or blow his top. Instead, he chose a middle ground.
"You dozy little buggers." Joe drew himself up to his full height... Which was still impressive when your audience is only just over four feet tall, and put his fists on his hips.
"Finny has been miserable all week because she blames herself for nearly getting you all killed, or worse. She also thinks everyone else blames her as well... Including you three."
Joe didn't bring up the other likely reason for Finny's depression because he already felt bad about that and making himself look bad in front of these three wouldn't help matters.
"So. You will go to the party. You will bring presents. And you damn well will tell her you what you've just told me so she stops thinking you blame her. Got it?"
Three heads nodded, already looking relieved to learn that Finny didn't actually hate them after all. Worms stuck his hand in the air.
"Please Joe, we ain't got no money."
Muttering under his breath, Joe dug his hand into one of his duster's numerous pockets and pulled out a handful of chips.
The boys held their breath in wonder as Joe counted out five blue chips each into their grubby hands.
"Make sure you buy something Finny would like and not just what you would like."
"And make sure it's wrapped up all pretty like; she's a girl, and they like that sort of thing."
"Right, bugger off before she gets back."
There was a traffic jam at the door as all three boys tried to get out of the office before Joe changed his mind. It seemed, however, that they were too late when Joe's voice stopped them.
"Oi! Wait up." The boys slowly turned, tightening their grip on the chips in their hands. Joe treated them to a shark-like smile. "Do you know what receipts are?"
Freed from another hot afternoon in the factory, Casper Onetooth and Worms lost no time in putting distance between them and any remaining chance of being called back.
The first and most obvious destination where they could spend Joe's money was the square, and so that's where the three boys headed.
However, before even reaching the busy market area, Casper slowed to a halt and let the other two gain a few metres on him. He had had an idea.
"Hey, you guys go on. I'll catch up, okay?"
Onetooth and Worms were already in discussion about what to buy and only just acknowledge Casper before continuing on their way.
Casper watched them disappear around a corner before heading down Milton and turned right onto Santa Fe.
Crossing to the shady side of the street, but keeping safely to the kerb, Casper made his way towards Finny's new favourite hangout.
In the bookshop, Mr Trent avoided looking up from the counter for as long as he could and hoped the boy would go away.
It was the squeak of skin against glass that eventually dragged him away from repairing the cover of one of his latest acquisitions.
Only then did he recognise the boy to be one of Finny's companions,
and it was only this fact that stopped him from chasing the urchin off before his window became opaque with greasy finger marks.
Realising he was being watched, Casper bit the proverbial bullet and entered the bookshop.
Nervous habit making him note several possible escape routes should the man cut him off from the door, Casper approached the counter.
Mr Trent stood up straight and waited.
Casper sniffed, scratched under an arm... And also waited.
It was the shopkeeper who gave in first.
"Can I help you?"
Even before the question mark appeared, Casper replied.
"I wanna buy a book."
Forestalling the creeping deja vu, Mr Trent put both hands, palms down, on top of the counter and took a breath.
"Do you know the title of the book? Do you know who wrote it? Is it for you or a gift..."?
The deepening colour of the little boy's cheeks told the shopkeeper the story as well as any descriptive paragraph in a book. His expression softened.
Casper stared at him.
"Um... Yes." He swallowed. "But I dunno what one to get and I've only got five blue, see." Casper held out his hand to reveal the five cracked and faded chips."
The uncharitable side of Mr Trent briefly wondered where the boy had thieved so much cash from.
But buying books wasn't high on most people's survival agendas, so Mr Trent wasn't going to turn five blue away even if they were dripping blood and the body was lying in the street outside.
Consequently, the smile remained fixed on his face.
"Well, let's see." Putting aside the book he was working on, Mr Trent leaned down and retrieved another from under the counter. "This is what Finny is reading at the moment.
" He placed the book face up on the counter and turned it for Casper to see.
Though sun-bleached and stained and its spine taped over with that same sticky cloth stuff that Nurse Maisie used on bandages, the title was still readable.
The cover showed a picture of a teenage girl who, for some reason, was kneeling in a field at night and holding a big clock. Casper's lips moved silently as he read the title.
'The Secret of the Old Clock: A Nancy Drew Mystery.'
Above him, the shopkeeper was talking.
"Finny was reading books about the 'Famous Five'. Stories about four children and their dog who went on adventures together." He smiled wryly.
"But she seems to have lost interest in those after your recent escapades."
Casper held up the book with the girl on the cover.
"Can I buy this?"
"Well, you can," the shopkeeper scratched his ear. "But I think Finny has nearly finished reading it."
Casper's face fell.
"Oh." He thought for a moment. "Well, what about one like it that she hasn't read yet?"
Mr Trent looked down at the boy's new eagerness.
"Ahhhh. Again, there is a problem there.
I'm not sure which of the series she has read, and I'm sure you wouldn't want to disappoint your young lady by buying her a book she has recently completed."
Once more Casper's face fell, this time into a frustrated frown.
The two of them contemplated in silence for a moment until the shopkeeper had an idea.
"Follow me please."
Casper followed Mr Trent to a corner where a small section of shelves held paper and writing supplies. He bent down and lifted what looked like a thick leather-bound book.
"What about this?" He handed it to the boy.
Casper untied the leather thong that held the book closed and flipped through the pages.
"Huh? They're all empty. Where's the story?"
Mr Trent grinned.
"Ahhh, that's the beauty of this book. This is called a journal, and the story has yet to be written." The man watched Casper stroking the soft vellum pages.
"Perhaps the next time you and your friends go off adventuring Miss Finny could write it down so that the story is remembered."
Casper looked up, intrigued at the idea of being in a book.
"What do you mean."
The shopkeeper, warming to his idea, picked up a similar book from the stack on the shelf.
"As you have noticed, the pages are not paper. They are made from a thing called velum, and velum will keep its words long after paper pages have turned to dust.
There are documents written on velum over a thousand years old and still very readable." His smile broadened and Mr Trent raised a hand as if to frame some imagined scene.
"Long after you and Finny are dead, your story will live on."
Casper's imagination was captured.
"How much?" He breathed.
"For you, how about your five blue chips...? And I'll throw in a sheet of wrapping paper left over from Valentine's Day.
" He reached behind him and produced a sheet of pink paper decorated with red hearts.
Casper made a small sound in the back of his throat then eagerly handed over his chips.