Note: This is the eighth in a series that starts with Long Fiction for Middle Grades: Cross-Country Mystery Chapter 1.
Somehow, between going to the pool, walking Watson, teaching Sherlock II to talk (which they never succeeded in doing), playing in the sandbox, and making a mess of their rooms (everyone except Ashley) the family continued to make progress on the preparations for the trip.
Finally, the Friday of departure arrived. Frank had to work all day, but they planned to take off as soon as he came home. The rest of the family scurried around finishing last minute details, saying goodbye to friends and pets, and packing the car so that they would be prepared to leave at the stroke of 6:00 pm.
Frank lined everybody in front of their white Suburban to take a photo before they left. “This is the ‘before’ photo,” he joked. “In three weeks we’ll take an ‘after’ photo to see how we’ve survived.” Nanette had a sudden vision of an after photo with all of them in the hospital or walking on crutches after tangling with the crooks. She shook her head, hoping the vision would disappear like an Etch-A-Sketch picture when you shake it. She had never worried about danger before. She must be getting old.
After months of planning, it seemed impossible that they were really on the road. Unfortunately, they were back at the house in about five minutes when they realized Nanette’s sunglasses and a cooler of snacks had been left on the kitchen counter. After the first false start, they really were on the highway and out of town.
The Suburban with its bench seats had room for eight, so the kids all had their own window seats. Charlie was in the car seat behind the driver, which was the most convenient spot for his safety seat. Nathan had the seat across from him with an empty seat between them. In the back seat, Peter was behind Charlie and Ashley was behind Nathan. The empty seats between the kids were already filled with their backpacks, pillows, blankets and other treasures.
Peter and Ashley started out with a fight over territory. Ashley’s brought a few of her Historical Miss dolls and one of them slid into Peter’s bug trap and set off an alarm. Then Charlie accidentally spilled milk on Nathan’s backpack, which prompted Nanette to remind everyone that only water was allowed in the car for drinking. “Detective” Frank reminded Nanette that she was the one who filled Charlie’s sippy cup, but Nanette said this was still a good reminder to everyone.
“Motorcycle!” Ashley yelled from the backseat, remembering that they were on the lookout for the stagecoach thieves.
“Driver’s an old man. No bandanna either,” Nathan said.
“PT Cruiser!” Peter yelled.
“Looks like another family on vacation,” Frank said. “Kids in the backseat with pillows.”
Watching for motorcycles, black Suburbans and PT Cruisers kept the kids from focusing on any problem inside the car for too long. They didn’t see anyone who matched the description of the stagecoach thieves, but they didn’t lose enthusiasm for looking.
Traffic was slow around Greensboro and Winston-Salem, and after taking time to stop for a meal, the sun had set and it became too dark to see other cars clearly. The children watched a Scooby Doo video and fell asleep before they arrived at the Motel 6 in Asheville, NC after 10:00 pm. A slow start, but they were happy to be on the road.
Thankfully, their room was on the first floor and they parked right in front of it. Charlie and Ashley stayed asleep as Frank and Nanette carried them to their bed. Nathan and Peter woke up enough to lay their sleeping bags on the floor. They didn’t even bother to change into pajamas before sinking onto their pillows. The whole family was exhausted and fell asleep within minutes.
Nathan awoke at 2 am to the sound of mechanical growling outside and the flash of bright lights in the room. At first he wanted to pull the sleeping bag over his head and go back to dreamland. Then he remembered the time machine thieves, and instantly his eyes snapped open. He sat up and listened carefully.
Although the sheers were closed, the heavy light-blocking curtains in the motel room had not been pulled completely shut. The lights that flooded the room and dimmed were from vehicles being driven into the parking lot. Many vehicles. Lots and lots of vehicles. And from the sound of them, they were all motorcycles!
Nathan tiptoed to the window and peered outside. Motorcycles by the dozens were parking just across from their room. People were talking and walking to the motel office. Clearly the group was traveling together and therefore couldn’t include the thieves—could it? Several of the drivers wore bandannas. Maybe bandannas were too common to be a good clue.
A black Suburban glided into the parking lot. Compared to the motorcycles it seemed quiet as a cat. It towed a flat trailer with four motorcycles on it. Nathan strained to see where it was parking, but it disappeared behind a bend to the left.
Nathan looked around in the darkness. He was glad he was still in his clothes. Now, where was the room key? He spotted the pale rectangular shaped card on the TV. Slowly, silently, carefully, Nathan tiptoed around Peter and grabbed the magnetic key card. Then he quietly, smoothly, ever-so-gently eased the dead bolt off and opened the door.
The sound of another motorcycle engine grinding to a stop blasted into the room louder than Nathan expected. He closed the door as quickly and quietly as he could. Then he looked around to get his bearings.
He could see the office in the front of the building just across the parking lot. The motorcyclists were walking to and from the office in groups and finding their rooms. Nathan figured he wasn’t in any danger. Not only were lots of people awake and about, but the office was open, and sleeping people in every room would probably come to his aid in an instant if he yelled or pounded on a door. If anyone asked, he was just out to get ice or more towels.
He sauntered past several rooms, trying to look inconspicuous. He caught snatches of conversations, but nothing sounded sinister.
“Hey, buddy! See ya tomorrow!” Someone yelled just before bringing his motorcycle to life and driving to his room at the next building.
“Who’re the new guys? I never…” another conversation faded as the participants entered their room and closed the door.
“Did you get a look at…not since ’99…a great…” another garbled conversation moved completely out of Nathan’s earshot.
Nathan continued walking slowly past the rooms to the left. He came to the end of the building, walked around to the other side, and froze. The black Suburban was parked just ahead. Two men with bandannas were unloading a couple suitcases.
“It’s pretty late. I thought we’d never get here, “one of them said.
“Let’s get inside and catch some Z’s. We’ll need to be up early tomorrow and be on the lookout for you-know-who.”
“Do you think they’re here?”
“Here or close by. Man, I haven’t been this tired for a hundred years!”
The door clicked shut behind them. Nathan was breathing heavy and his heart was pounding. Were these guys the stagecoach thieves already on their trail? Who were they “on the lookout” for? Were they serious about not being this tired in “a hundred years”? Were they really the guys from the past?
As soon as Nathan could breathe again he decided to take a closer look at the car. On tiptoe, he neared the car and examined the running boards and the bumpers. They were remarkably clean for someone who just drove in the dark. There were a few bug splatters, but for the most part, the car appeared freshly washed. A small piece of paper was caught in the passenger door by a corner. Nathan pulled it out easily and slipped it into his pocket. He moved back to examine the trailer and the motorcycles. They looked fancier and more impressive than the other bikes in the parking lot, but in they had a sinister gleam in the glow of the streetlight. Nathan looked for the license plate on the Suburban. It wasn’t there!
“Hey kid! What are you doing?” Nathan’s heart jumped a mile as he turned to face the huge shadow in the light of the motel room doorway.
“Stay away from the motorcycles!” The man’s booming voice echoed in the night.
“Yes sir,” Nathan replied. “I…I was just…getting some ice. I wanted to look at them, that’s all.”
The man growled, “You’re acting mighty guilty to be ‘just looking.’”
“You started me! What do you expect?” Nathan said in a high nervous voice. “I have to get back now.”
He started walking as fast as he could away from the car. Behind him he could hear the man laughing loudly. “The ice machines are the other way!” a second voice called. Nathan paid no attention, but continued to walk away quickly. As he hurried past the row of motel rooms he heard the first man call in a friendlier voice, “Hey kid! If you’re interested, come by tomorrow morning and I’ll show you the bikes myself.”
Nathan didn’t stop. He was going entirely the wrong direction, but he knew if he kept turning left he would go around the building and end up back at his room. He tried to slow his breathing and calm his panic. He sighed with relief when he saw the family car ahead. As he reached the motel room door, he had a sinking feeling when he realized he didn’t know the room number.
Two doors stood side by side in front of their car. Nathan looked down at the key, hoping the room number was on it. “Oh no!” he groaned aloud as he saw the “key” was actually one of Peter’s “inventor” trading cards. A portrait of Alexander Graham Bell looked up at him with a slightly peeved expression as if to say, “What kind of mess have you gotten yourself into?”
Just then the door to the left opened and Frank looked down at his son with a more-than-peeved expression on his face.
End of Chapter 8
The next chapter can be found here: Chapter 9: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)