Chapter 5: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)
Note: This is the fifth in a series that starts with Long Fiction for Middle Grades: Cross-Country Mystery Chapter 1. As I worked on editing this chapter, I realized I haven’t described anyone in the book. Descriptions are things I usually add during a later draft, so if you’re reading this now, I’m sorry for the missing parts.
Nanette had seen many strange things in her youth as an amateur detective, but nothing like this. She had a million questions, and Tim tried to answer as many as he could. He was quick to say that both he (with his long hair and ragged appearance) and the men in the black Suburban were from the future. The thieves had come back to scare the Hale family out of their trip, or perhaps to do enough damage to their property so the trip would be canceled.
“Don’t be scared off,” Tim said. “You are probably going to do a lot on this trip toward catching those thieves or they wouldn’t have been so anxious to stop you.”
“Do we have to be constantly on the lookout for more danger from the future?”
Tim gave her another one of his odd smiles. “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about them for a while. I believe that they are blocked from any more time travel for the next few months. They arrived in this time period. In the future, they have already lived it and can’t go back to it again. The next time you see those crooks, they won’t know who you are. They’ll be living in time normally, right along with you. Except that they are from the past and are still very dangerous.”
“But what about you? What were you doing in the future? How did you get back at just the right moment?”
“It’s kind of a long story. I actually went back to the past—the 1800s past, that is—to see if I could find out more about these men. That was foolish, it turned out. I came close to getting stuck there. I just made it back to the near future in time to find out about their plot to come back and bomb your porch. I had just enough time to travel here and get that thing away from your front door.”
“I’m going to need a chart or something to keep track of you! This is beyond confusing!” Nanette didn’t like this new time physics that contradicted her common sense and messed with her intuition.
“Don’t worry,” Tim said. “Just forget the time machine stuff. The machines don’t work just any old way you want them to, and I don’t think these thugs will be able to use theirs again for a while. It would be best you just forgot that today happened.”
“You must be joking! My yard has a large scorched patch, the stop sign is on the ground, and my heart is still beating like I’m on a roller coaster!”
Loud banging and clashing noises from inside the house suddenly made both of them jump and cry out.
“Charlie!” Nanette ran into the kitchen to find Charlie dropping cooking pans on the kitchen floor. Charlie smiled and said, “I make thunder!”
Nanette scooped him up and invited Tim into the house. After getting Charlie settled with some building blocks, she returned to her questioning of Tim.
“So what were we doing in the future? And what were you doing here a few moments ago? How did you know to leave?”
“Like I told you, I’ve been back to the 1800s, but I haven’t spent much time in your immediate future, so I can’t tell you. As to your next question—I was here a few moments ago? Are you sure?”
Nanette closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Please, please, please do not tell me that you have an evil twin!”
Tim burst out laughing. “Oh no! You don’t have to worry about that! I expect it was me in the near future, so I don’t remember it yet.”
Nanette rubbed her temples. She had never had a tension headache before, and she didn’t want one now.
“I’m not sure why I would travel so close to this same time. I must be about to miscalculate something.”
The doorbell rang, and Nanette answered to find the police. The neighbors had called 911, and, although Nanette had intended to make a full report to the authorities about the bomb incident, she wanted to talk to Tim first while he was still here. Who knew when he might shimmer and disappear like the Suburban?
Nanette answered the officers’ questions honestly, although she just said the car “disappeared,” without explaining that she meant “disappear” in the totally literal sense. One of the officers who had worked with her on the case of petty thievery in the neighborhood was disappointed that she had not gotten the license plate number. She couldn’t very well tell him that the car started shimmering just when she had a good view of the plate. “I think it was a paper temporary tag, though,” she said. “It happened too fast for me to get a good look.”
When Nanette returned to the living room, she found Tim and Charlie sitting on the floor making a house out of Charlie’s large sized connecting blocks.
“These are great!” Tim said as he stood up and stretched. “We didn’t have things like this when I was a child. We didn’t have many toys at all. But that was OK. We had so many chores we didn’t have much time for play.”
“Now about those thieves,” Nanette said. She didn’t want to waste any more time in small talk. “I need to know what we are getting into here.”
“Well,” Tim said, “If we’re finally finished with distractions, maybe you should get some paper and make notes.”
For the next hour Tim talked to Nanette about the stagecoach thieves, the gold that was stolen, and his friend Curt Hopewell. He also talked about the incident in the yard.
“That bomb was poorly made, but was still dangerous. These bandits are generally sloppy with their work, which is why they gave up their trades and became con men. They don’t like to work hard. Back in the 1860s they used scraps from a blacksmith shop and scraps from a tailor’s shop to fashion “gold detectors” that they sold by the dozens. They watered down cheap wine and sold it as cure-all elixirs. Sometimes they mixed their “elixir” with lard and sold it as “gold grease.” They claimed you could rub it all over yourself, roll down a hill, and only the gold—and nothing else—would stick to you.
“They never stayed in one area for very long. Unlike some swindlers, these fellows were always giving themselves away by talking too much or making over-exaggerated claims. They lacked the acting skills necessary to sustain a good con.
“Eventually they teamed up with a former Civil War soldier who taught them to use pistols and crude grenades to make money in an even “easier” way—by holding up shipments of gold headed for the East coast. The soldier eventually died in one of their raids.”
Nanette finally asked, “So do these thieves actually have names that you know of? You call them thieves, thugs, bandits, and all kinds of things except “Joe” or “Fred.” And what do they look like?”
“Well, they went by many aliases and I don’t know their real names. Depending on who I talked to, I’ve heard them called Albert Finch and Phineas Redhair; Dr. Ellery Brown and James Sinclair: and the Smythe Brothers, to name a few. And I don’t know if they are related or just boon companions.
“They both have brown hair with very average looks. One of them had a poorly made wig of some kind when he was using the alias “Redhair” but that is not his normal color. They were both a little taller than I am, and I’m about the same height as you, right? But a little shorter than Frank.”
“I’m 5 feet 8½ inches. So maybe they are 5’10” or 5’11”?”
“That’s about right. I haven’t had a good look at them without their hats and bandannas. You see, I didn’t know about them until they stole my backup time machine—and my neighbor Curt Hopewell with it.
“I must tell you that the first priority is to find Curt Hopewell. He was a good friend and he left some family behind. I’m not able to see whether he gets back to them or not, so I still have hope that we can rescue him and return him to his own time. I wouldn’t have bothered you and Frank if this was just an old timey burglary, but a good man has been separated from his family and both may be in danger. We should also try to get the time machine out of their hands so they can’t move around so easily.
“I’m sorry, but that is all I can tell you for now. I have an appointment to keep and I must go. Thank you for your help and hospitality—I hope I can make all of this up to you someday.”
“Can’t you stay around for a few days while we try to figure out how all this fits together? Our trip isn’t for another month yet!”
“I’m sorry—you know what they say about ‘time and tide wait for no man’? I may have outsmarted that saying a few times in my life, but I’m running out of exceptions. I do expect to see you sometime on your trip but I’m not exactly sure when.”
“Well? What’s next? How do you start the device that makes you shimmer and disappear?”
Tim laughed. “I’m not going to time travel right now. I actually have business in this time, believe it or not. I’ll just call a taxi.”
“Don’t be silly, no one calls a taxi in the suburbs. Let me drive you. Charlie likes car rides.”
“Drive me to the bus station then,” Tim said.
As Nanette drove home from the bus station, she turned off the radio to better ponder the mystery. Tim had wanted her to play the radio because he was still fascinated by the different musical styles and performances available in the 21st century. “When you wanted to hear music in the old days,” he said, “You sang to yourself. If you were lucky, you had friends who could sing better than you. I’ve lived a lot of time in this modern world, but I still can’t get over the great sounds.”
With the radio off, Nanette went over the afternoon’s events in her head and suddenly let out an exclamation and chided herself for being so slow.
When Tim arrived earlier, before the bomb, he had told her the most important priority was getting the second time machine. This second, more raggedy Tim, had told her the first priority was finding Curt. But the first Tim was from later in the future, so he must have some new information that indicated a greater danger from the time machine. If only she had remembered earlier to ask Tim about it!
When they returned home, Charlie was asleep in his car seat. After getting him settled for his nap, Nanette hurried to the front lawn to look for clues. She scoured every inch of the lawn, picking up every scrap she could find. She hoped that any useful clues hadn’t been blown away or picked up by helpful neighbors. Next, she investigated the ditch where the Suburban had crashed.
Back in the kitchen, she carefully looked at each scrap of burnt paper and debris from the lawn. The bomb had been placed in a cardboard box, she surmised, based on the many charred pieces of cardboard. None of them had any legible markings except for one. Smudged by mud and partially burned, the fragment said in tiny letters:
One other piece of paper also caught her eye. Crumpled and charred, a sliver of paper bore the words:
“ember the Al”
written in pencil.
Nanette puzzled over the writings. The first major stop on their trip (not counting an overnight motel stay in Asheville, NC) was with her Uncle Carl in Merrillville, Indiana. It seemed like too much of a coincidence, but was the writing on the cardboard scrap an address of a place located in Merrillville, Indiana? A quick check of the zip codes indicated that the zip code for Merrillville began with a “4”. Uncle Carl was out of town for the week, but she made a note to call and ask him to investigate any places that might start with “Josie’s J.”
As for the second clue, Nanette wondered if “Al” was the name of one of the crooks (maybe the Albert alias?) or one of their acquaintances. Or maybe it was short for a place name. Alabama and the Alamo were both stops on their vacation itinerary, so their names jumped to mind. “Ember” could be part of the words September, November, or December. Nanette wondered whether this could be a discarded note about a date and place the thieves would visit this fall. Or maybe “ember” was part of “remember.”
Nanette put the clues aside as Charlie woke up from his nap hungry for a snack. She sighed as she thought about the mystery and the danger of it all. Yet she went about her work with a spring in her step and a new zest for life. Nanette couldn’t help being happy to have a new mystery to work on.
End of Chapter 5
The next chapter can be found here: Chapter 6: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders).