Note: This is the seventh in a series that starts with Long Fiction for Middle Grades: Cross-Country Mystery Chapter 1. This is the last chapter before the trip.
After the first week of vacation the rain ended. The sun, now peeking out from behind fluffy cotton ball clouds, began to beckon the children to the pool, the park, and the bike paths. Even so, the mystery was never far from their minds as they went about their daily activities. The kids became especially watchful for black Suburbans, motorcycles, and PT Cruisers– the kinds of vehicles Tim Trave said the thieves had purchased at one time or another after coming to the future.
The mystery was strictly a family matter and the children tried hard to keep it absolutely secret. Nevertheless, some of their best brainstorming about the mystery happened when they were playing with their best friends Jason, Allen, and Kristy Hartman.
One afternoon, the Hale kids and the Hartman kids were licking ice pops and relaxing on the deck after a particularly active backyard soccer game. The game had nearly ended in a fight between Nathan and Peter about a technicality in the rules when Nanette brought out the ice pops just in time.
The sky was a clear blue with cirrus clouds that reminded Ashley of photos of the northern lights. They were quietly sitting there, watching the clouds when Nathan suddenly asked, “What would stagecoach thieves from the Old West do if they could somehow be transported into the future?”
At first Peter scowled at Nathan, thinking he was giving away the mystery. Nathan shook his head at Peter and added, “Just pretend!”
Allen (Peter’s best friend) said, “They’d be really bad drivers, because they were born before cars.”
Nathan disagreed. “I think you’re wrong. If someone could ride a horse well, then driving a car should be easy.”
“Yeah,” Jason grunted. Jason was looking at a comic book and trying not to drip ice pop on the pages. He was only half paying attention, but as Nathan’s best friend he decided to agree with anything Nathan said.
Peter, standing up for Allen, insisted he would watch out for bad drivers anyway.
“Bad drivers!” Charlie yelled, grinning and pointing his ice pop at Peter and Allen. Everyone laughed, dispelling the tension. The Harman’s didn’t have a sibling Charlie’s age, so Charlie just hung around with the bigger kids.
“What I want to know,” Ashley wondered, “Is how the thieves could get driver’s licenses at all.”
“Well, duh!” Peter said. “They are criminals! They don’t need driver’s licenses. They don’t care about following the law.”
Nathan wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know if you can buy a car without a license. Or maybe if you can buy a car, you can’t get a license plate or one of the expiration date thingies on the windshield.”
“The inspection sticker,” Allen said. “Maybe the thieves are forgers too and can forge their own license plates and inspection stickers.”
“That would be hard,” Peter said thoughtfully. He was trying to figure out how license plates or inspection stickers were made. He didn’t know and he didn’t think a person from the 1800s could figure it out either.
“Who says these guys are smart enough to do that?” Kristy wondered. She was petting Watson and dripping blue ice pop on his brown fur. “Anyone who would rob a stagecoach is foolish. My Bible verse this week said ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’”
“Yeah but you can be smart about books and school and stuff and not be smart about wisdom,” Jason countered.
“Well, I think all crooks are stupid!” Kristy argued.
“What about that guy in the papers that robbed the convenience store last week. He was so stupid, he filled out a raffle ticket with his real name and address before robbing the place!” Peter said.
“Yeah, but what about super-crooks? They build all kinds of super weapons and it takes the likes of Batman to stop them!” Jason said, flipping another page in his comic book.
“That’s not real life,” Nathan countered. “We’re talking about real life!”
“Like time travel is real life?” Jason mocked.
Nathan couldn’t think of anything to say to that without giving away the secret or looking like a goof.
After a pause, he said, “You know, the way we can fly around the world and get in our car from here to there probably would have seemed like time travel to people from long ago. It used to take all day just to go a small distance. Like from here to the mall.
“Yeah,” Jason said. “And think about how we can talk to people anywhere in the world. It used to take a year or something to get a message from America to England. Now you can talk on the phone any time you want.”
“Hey, you’re right!” said Allen. “So when you’re on this vacation, it can be like you aren’t even going anywhere. We could still talk every day.”
“Well,” Peter said. “We can talk any time we want anywhere we want but only if we have the money we want. And we don’t.”
“Oh, yeah,” Allen said, disappointed.
“Hey, want to help me test my short range communicators?” Peter said suddenly. “They won’t solve our long distance problem, but…”
“You mean walkie-talkies?” Nathan interrupted.
“No, more primitive than that.”
“Cup and string?” Allen asked.
“Better than that. Come see!” Peter bounded into the house and up the stairs. He came back with two remote control units and two baby food jars. The baby food jars had little red LEDs taped to the top, with a wire going through a hole in the lid into what looked like a blob of electrical tape inside the jars. Both remote controls had duck tape all over them.
“Where’d you get this junk?” asked Allen.
“I don’t know. Everybody’s got old stuff these days. The trick is to find some place to put it so Mom doesn’t throw it away before I can use it. I think these were from an old remote control toy car.”
“How do they work?”
“This remote…” Peter gave the remote with the silver “X” on it to Nathan. “…works this light.” He gave the baby food jar with the silver “X” on it to Allen. “And this remote…” He gave Nathan the other light (in the baby food jar with the gold “O”) “…works this light. “He gave Allen the other remote (also with a gold “O”).
“These remotes work by radio signals instead of infrared light, so we should be able to communicate, even through walls. I’m not sure how far they’ll work.”
Allen looked skeptical. “But what do you do?”
“Push the button,” Peter said eagerly “The other light lights up.”
“So,” said Nathan slowly as he watched his light blinking, “You use, like, Morse code or something?”
“No one knows Morse code anymore,” Allen said with disgust.
“We’ll make our own code,” Peter said. “We can have a few agreed upon messages. Like one blink means ‘come here.’ Two blinks mean ‘stay there.’ Three…”
“Cool!” Nathan interrupted, jumping up. “Let’s do it!”
Meanwhile, Ashley and Kristy went up to Ashley’s room to play dolls after a detour to the sink to wash the dog hairs off Kristy’s sticky hands. Charlie tagged along with the girls, because they paid more attention to him.
They dressed Charlie up as a cowboy while they played with the Western dolls, and when he got bored of their game Ashley put his blocks in the hall and told him to build a corral for the horses. She didn’t want him to make a mess in her room.
Thinking about Nathan’s question earlier, Ashley decided to turn the game into an investigation of the mystery. She “walked” Colorado Cora over to Kristy’s Arizona Annie and said, “Let’s take a time machine to the future! Wouldn’t it be fun to see what our town looks like in 150 years?”
“Sure!” said Kristy as ‘Arizona Annie.’ They put the dolls into two of Ashley’s boots and whirled them around. “Wooooooaaaaaahhhhhh!” They both yelled. Then the boots came to a standstill and the two dolls came out.
“Wow! “said ‘Annie’. “This place is huge! Look at all the big buildings!”
“Look!” squealed ‘Cora’. “Those tiny cabins move. They must be some kind of carriage—but where are the horses?”
“Look up there!” Kristy pointed Arizona Annie’s arm to the sky. “What are those giant noisy birds in the sky? They look scary!”
Ashley “walked” one of her more modern fashion dolls, named Marie, over to Colorado Cora and Arizona Annie and said loudly, “Haven’t you two ever seen cars and airplanes before?”
“Well, no,” said ‘Annie’. “We’ve—uh—we’ve lived our whole life in the country.”
“What about TV?” ‘Marie’ asked.
“We don’t know what TV is either,” ‘Cora’ said quickly.
“Sounds like you need some help. Where are you staying?”
“Uh,” said ‘Annie,’ “We just got here. Can you recommend a good boarding house?”
Ashley, playing ‘Marie’, rolled her eyes and sighed. “Well, how much money do you have?”
“We only have old fashioned money. See?” Kristy had Cora hold out her hand presumably full of pretend money. “Do you think it’s worth anything?”
Ashley snapped her fingers. “That’s it! I mean…” she changed to ‘Marie’s’ voice, “That’s great! Your old money is probably really, really valuable because it’s so old. Let’s go to the antique store and see how much they’ll give us for it.”
“Now can you help us get a place to stay? And is there somewhere we can rent some horses to get around?”
“I have some friends who have horses. But you’re not allowed to ride them around the city. You’ll have to learn to use a car. We could help you learn.”
Kristy and Ashley continued to play and Ashley thought she was getting some good ideas as to what the time traveling thieves might have done to survive in the present.
Suddenly, there was a commotion in the hall and a something flew into the room sweeping the dolls ‘Marie’ and ‘Annie’ off their feet. It turned out to be a combination of spring snakes (like the ones that jump out of fake peanut cans) attached to balls with rubber strings (like the ones used in paddle ball) that burst into the room. The snakes hit the wall and the balls whipped around the dolls winding them up in the string.
“It worked!” Peter called from the hallway.
“Hey!” Ashley yelled. “Leave my stuff alone!”
“We finished testing my communicators, and now we’re testing my quick-draw doll-catcher!”
“You’re messing up our game!” Ashley had a short temper when it came to her big brothers. “You take that thing and get out of here! You’re mean! You’re…”
No one saw Charlie step in the door with one of Peter’s baby food jar communicators in his hand. He copied Peter, aimed the jar at the wall, and threw. It hit with a crash, scattering broken glass on the carpet. Everyone became quiet, except for the excited 3-year-old, oblivious to the results of his action.
“It worked!” Charlie yelled.
End of Chapter 7
The next chapter can be found here: Chapter 8: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)