Note: As an adult rereading books I had enjoyed as a child I was surprised at how many plots depended on coincidences to keep them going. I even realized that I (subconsciously) thought I would experience more coincidences in life, because books and TV had conditioned me to expect them! Anyway, I decided my story was allowed to use coincidences too, as necessary.
The family was up early the next morning ready for a big day of travel. Frank and Nathan had a long talk that night about obeying the family rules and not running off alone after clues. Nathan hoped that would be the end of it, although he was intrigued by the clue he picked up from the black Suburban.
The paper was about the size of a credit card. It looked very old and had a strange purple arc at the top. The bottom edge was torn off, but the words, “left behind in the western s” were visible. Nathan shoved it into his pocket for further review in the car.
“Nathan, will you please go with your dad to the motel office?” Nanette said as she helped Charlie pull on his T-shirt.
“Why?” Charlie asked in typical 3-year-old fashion.
“Good question—but for now I’m giving you an unsatisfactory answer: Because.” Nanette rambled distractedly as she finished helping Charlie get his shoes and socks on and called to Ashley to bring her a comb.
Nathan also wanted to ask “Why?” but swallowed the question and went along.
“They have complimentary doughnuts, muffins, and coffee in the office. I need you to help carry some to the car,” Frank explained without being asked as they entered the motel office.
“Good morning,” Frank said to the desk clerk. “Lots of motorcycles here today.”
“They’re here for a charity event of some sort this weekend. I don’t know too much about it. Hope the rain holds off for them.”
“Have you heard what the weather’s supposed to be like going north?” Frank asked. “That’s the direction we’re going today…”
As the men chatted, Nathan went over to the breakfast table and picked out six of the best muffins and doughnuts and put them in a bag. Then he started to pour a cup of coffee for his mom. He was deep in thought about the stagecoach thieves and didn’t hear the jingle of the bell above the door as someone else entered the office. Nor did he hear the heavy footsteps of a large man crossing the room.
When a dark shadow fell over him, he suddenly felt a premonition of danger. He jerked his head around and his eyes widened in fear as he saw a huge man with a bandanna directly behind him. Nathan was certain one of the crooks had found him. To make matters worse, the man spoke in the same booming voice he remembered from last night.
“Well, well, if it isn’t that snooping kid! Ready to get a good look at those bikes in the daylight?” The man put his hand on Nathan’s shoulder and Nathan reacted by reflex. He and Peter had practiced this time and again at home in case of emergency. He jerked away from the man’s hand, pulled out a confetti gun—a water gun that Peter had modified to shoot streamers and confetti—and fired. A shower of confetti and streamers rained over the man and Nathan turned and fled.
Nathan could hear the man’s expressions of surprise, and then laughter behind him. He was sure he was getting away, but just as he opened the door, strong hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back in.
“Dad! Help! It’s him! He’s got me!”
In a calm voice Frank said, “Nathan, I’m the one that’s got you. Stop fighting.”
Nathan turned to look at his dad and whispered forcefully, “It’s him, Dad! You know!” Nathan raised his eyebrows, stared at the man and then back at Frank as he tried to make his dad read his mind.
Frank straightened up but kept one hand on Nathan. “I’m sorry,” he said to the stranger. “My son seems to have mistaken you for someone else.”
Nathan stared at his dad and worked his eyebrows up and down as if to say, how do you know it’s a mistake?
“That’s OK!” the big man boomed as he dusted confetti off his shoulders. I’ve had worse from people who did know me! I’m just glad the kid wasn’t mad enough to throw the coffee!”
Nathan was furious with himself. If the man really were dangerous, the coffee would have been a much better weapon. Or even a muffin in the face. On the other hand, if the man was an innocent bystander, maybe confetti had been the best way to go. He didn’t need any more trouble. When Frank made him sweep up the mess, he resigned himself to the fact that at least confetti was the easiest to clean up.
While Nathan was sweeping, Frank talked with the man, who turned out to be a motorcycle aficionado named Evan Albert. He had some classic motorcycles he showed at car shows and other events. One of his motorcycles had once been owned by Jay Leno.
After some small talk about Evan’s motorcycles and the event this weekend, Frank decided to ask a question relevant to the mystery. “In your associations with motorcycle enthusiasts, have you ever met a couple of guys who maybe look a little like you, maybe a little shorter, fond of bandannas, but who seemed a little—I don’t know—odd and unfamiliar with modern life? Kind of old fashioned maybe or unfamiliar with technology?”
Evan cocked his head to one side. “You know, now that you mention it, I heard about some weird guys a few months ago. I have a friend who owns a motorcycle shop in Chicago. He was telling me about these guys who came in wanting to buy a motorcycle, but they were unbelievably clueless. They didn’t have a driver’s license or a car, or a bank account, and their clothes were kind of odd. They were asking really basic questions about cars and stuff and he thought they might be—I don’t know—not all there, if you know what I mean.” Evan twirled his finger next to his head.
“They left and he thought he’d seen the last of them. But then they came back a few weeks later with a friend and driving a brand new PT Cruiser. This time they seemed to have everything in order. They bought a motorcycle and—this was the really suspicious part—they paid for it in cash! Hundred dollar bills, I mean! The bills all checked out as genuine—except one weird looking bill that was foreign or something. The men snatched it back before he got a good look at it and they said it was in there by mistake. Jimmy said the whole thing seemed suspicious, but decided it was legal tender and he didn’t have any reason to question where it came from. He’s been telling that story for months now.”
“We’re on our way to Chicago. Do you think you could give us your friend’s name and number or the name of his shop so we can ask him some more questions bout these guys? They sound like some people we’re trying to find. “
“They’re not wanted by the police are they? Oh, I get it. Snooper here thought I was one of them, I bet.” Evan inclined his head toward Nathan.
“Yes to both, I’m afraid.”
After scribbling down the information, Evan offered to show them his motorcycles. Frank and Nathan got the rest of the family to come around and see them too. Peter was especially excited to get an up-close view of the gleaming, powerful machines.
“Did you know the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle used a tomato can as a carburator?” Peter said.
“I think that’s mostly myth,” Evan said apologetically. Peter looked skeptical. “Well, here’s a trivia fact to replace that for you. The largest parade of Harley Davidson motorcycles ever took place in December last year—and I was there! It was a charity event in Denver, Colorado.”
Finally the family was on the road again, a little later than they had planned.
“We already have two more good clues!” Nathan exulted. “Let’s figure out what we need to do next!”
“First tell me more about how the confetti gun worked!” Peter said.
“Is that what those colored things on my doughnut were?” Ashley asked. “I thought they were sprinkles.”
“Ha ha,” Nathan answered. “The confetti gun worked great. Mr. Albert was startled enough that I would have made my getaway if it hadn’t been for Dad.”
“What was the biker’s last name again?” Nanette asked.
“I was just thinking of my clue. Remember “ember the Al”? Al could be short for “Albert.” Nanette answered.
“And didn’t Mr. Trave say that one of the aliases the thieves used was Albert?” Frank added.
They all pondered this for a moment and wondered if Evan Albert had more to do with the mystery after all. They also hadn’t met or seen his companion, whom Nathan had seen the the night before.
Nathan told them all about his adventure and Frank stopped him at one point to ask, “Are you sure he used the phrase ‘catch some Z’s’? That exact phrase?”
“Yes, I’m positive,” Nathan answered.
“Well, that phrase didn’t come into use until the early 1900s; maybe the 1890s at the latest. So it’s unlikely it would be said by a time traveler from the mid-1800s.”
“How could you possibly know that? I mean, just off the top of your head?” Nanette asked.
Frank chuckled. “Well, it was just a piece of trivia I remember from a case my brother and I solved before I met you. We used to refer to it as “The Case of the Missing Comic Collection.” Apparently, using “z’s” for sleep originated in comic strips. Or at least that’s what we learned on the case.”
“I don’t think that matters,” Ashley chimed in. “If the time traveling crooks have been here for more than a year, they could easily have picked up some modern speech. They might even use it more than regular people, because they’re trying to sound up to date.”
Nathan brought out the card he found and passed it around to everyone (except Nanette who was driving at the time) to have a look. It certainly did look old, Peter thought. After Ashley had looked at it for a while, she tried to pass it forward to Charlie. A soft snore came from his seat, as he had been lulled into an early nap by the rhythm of the car.
“I think I’ve just solved ‘The Case of the Missing Z’s’,” Ashley commented drily.
The journey continued.
End of Chapter 9
The next chapter can be found here: Chapter 10: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)