Chapter 11: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle-Graders)

Notes:  Phone books are almost obsolete now in 2017, but not in 2003. The Internet makes an appearance in this chapter, but it wasn’t the first place you looked for information back then.  Dial-up technology, the fact that you usually needed a desktop computer to access it, and the newness of it made the Internet much less accessible.

     I don’t know much about police procedures, but Nancy Drew novels never spent much time explaining how the police work—they usually just show up when needed and do their thing in the background. This chapter and other points in the book might be improved by a little more research on that.  Another nod to Nancy Drew in this chapter is that I use the word “instincts.” As a rule, I dislike the use of “instinct” as a motivator, but I kept it in this chapter because I think it fits and because it reminds me of ND.

Chapter 11

The sun set as the family drove north toward Merrillville, Indiana. A distant thunderstorm provided some fascinating “natural fireworks” to the west. Night came earlier than usual as ominous dark clouds hid the sunset and slid closer and closer.

“It’s not really a thunderstorm,” Nathan said eerily. “It’s really a giant UFO preparing to land on Chicago and attack the city. The “lightning” is really laser beams vaporizing the National Guard units which have been mobilized to attack. Inside the ship are millions of squishy green…”

“Stop!!” Ashley yelled, covering her ears and letting out a piercing scream. She knew Nathan was pretending but she didn’t like it. The weird darkness and lightning made his story seem too believable.

“Then…” Nathan continued in hushed tones.

“Nathan,” Frank said in a warning tone.

“I was going to say…” Nathan spoke quickly and normally abandoning his eerie hushed tone. “That then Ashley let out a piercing scream that shattered the UFO’s sensitive crystal equipment.  Any minute now it will come plunging down out of the sky in a giant fireball…”

Ashley let out three more screams. Rain began to fall in torrents.

“I mean,” Nathan said again, “That the screams triggered the self-liquefying mechanism turning the ship into millions of harmless raindrops.”

Ashley made a huffy breath at Nathan, but before she could scream again Nanette quickly pointed out that it was important to be quiet so Dad could drive safely in the storm. “Nathan, why don’t you do something constructive and read the ‘Just the Facts’ sheet we made for Merrillville,” she added.

Nathan pulled a notebook out of his backpack on the floor and turned on the car dome light to read.  “There wasn’t anything in the encyclopedia about Merrillville, so I just wrote down a few things I knew already and a few things Mom could tell me.  ‘Place name’: Merrillville, Indiana, (not “Merryville,” by the way, like I used to think).  ‘History of Founding (if a city or town)’:  I don’t have anything about that.

“ ‘Major Industries (if any)’:  Well, it is close to Chicago, and we’re staying there because we have relatives there.  Uncle Carl is an accountant for a tax preparation company, but every town has those, so I didn’t think that qualifies as a ‘major industry.’ So I don’t really have anything about that either.

“Under ‘Interesting Landmarks’ I just put Uncle Carl’s house, because that’s all we’re planning to see. An interesting fact I added was that we gain an hour because Merrillville is in the Central Time Zone.”

“No wonder this drive seems so long!” Peter commented.

Nathan continued, “For ‘Condition in mid-1800s’ Mom said that the Potawatomi Indians used to live there, but the area was taken over by white people.  Then they made it a stop for wagon trains going west to Illinois.”

“Well, that’s what I’ve always heard from my family, but I didn’t take time to research it more, since we’re not staying long.  I have to wonder, though, what happened to the Potawatomis and where the wagon trains were going?”

“One more thing,” Nathan added.  “The all important ‘Connection to Mystery (if any)’. The scrap of cardboard we found among the debris from the bomb appeared to have the address of a place in Merrillville.”

Eventually, the storm passed and the stars were peeking out by the time the family drove into Uncle Carl’s sleepy Midwestern neighborhood. The plants looked a little different, but the kids thought it looked a lot like their own sleepy North Carolina neighborhood.

Uncle Carl’s house was easy to spot. His yard was the only one on the block with 17 bird feeders, three birdbaths, and five birdhouses out front. Uncle Carl Wheeler was Nanette’s uncle, a widower with a college age son, Robin.

Nanette had told the family about Uncle Carl’s almost obsessive interest in song birds, but they weren’t prepared to find his home actually so interesting. Peter was originally disappointed that the Wheelers’ interest in birds didn’t include raptors, but before long he was fascinated with several birdfeeder gadgets designed to foil squirrels. The other kids eagerly ran around the living room looking at all the bird photos, statues, novelty birdhouses and unusual bird feeders displayed on every available surface.

The kids finally settled down for some ice cream in the kitchen and Uncle Carl had a chance to speak with Nanette and Frank privately in the living room.

“As you know,” Carl started, “Robin and I just returned from a month in Canada and I only just started following up on your message. Let me say first how happy I am that you two have a new case to solve. It’s been too long. I wish we could sit here all evening and hear about it, but that would waste valuable time.”

Carl paused in thought, “I remember how you helped me with the ‘Case of the Heron Feather’—but no time for nostalgia now.  The most I’ve been able to do is find a place called ‘Josie’s Jewelry and Fine Gifts’ here in the White Pages.” He reached for the phone book and opened it to the spot marked with a bookmark in the shape of a cardinal.  “It’s located here in a nearby strip mall. It’s close enough that you could check it out tonight.”

As tired as they were from the road, Frank and Nanette eagerly agreed to go immediately.  Robin drove them since he was familiar with the area and Carl stayed with the kids, who needed to get ready for bed.   Nathan had hoped to go with them, even if he had to stow away in the car, but he got so interested in the design of various blinds that photographers use to hide and photograph birds that his parents were gone before he noticed.

As the Hales feared, the shop was already closed. Worse, a sign on the door indicated that it wouldn’t be open again for two weeks. The windows had bars on them to prevent break-ins, but Nanette put her face against the window and shone her flashlight inside. The little shop was full of fancy antiques, china, figurines and bric-a-brac. A large counter by the register displayed vintage jewelry and behind the counter Nanette could see machines and tools used in repairing and resetting jewelry.

The shop was on the end of the strip mall, so Frank walked around to the back to check the dumpster. He brought back several boxes with the store’s address printed on them and put them in the trunk to look at more closely later.

“Ready to go, Nanette?” he called.

“Just a moment,” she replied. “I can almost read the business card on this little table inside. It has the owner’s name on it.” Nanette adjusted the flashlight and squinted her eyes.

Suddenly, a bright light shone on her from behind, lighting up the whole store and casting stark shadows. Nanette wheeled around but saw nothing in the blinding glare. She heard the sound of a door opening and slamming three doors to her right—the approximate location of the Bagel Shoppe—and the sound of pounding feet coming toward her.

She jerked her head in the direction of the sound and saw two shadowy figures running in her direction. Nanette had no time to think, but her instincts told her these people were up to no good. She stuck out her foot just in time to trip the closest person. She could hear a scuffle nearby and see the flashing of dark and light. Later she found out that Frank had tackled the second person and succeeded in pinning him down.

The person at her feet groaned, but quickly rolled over and grabbed Nanette’s ankle before she could react. He jerked her to the ground, but as she lost her balance, she managed to land squarely on top of her attacker, knocking the wind out of him and breaking her fall. He released his hold and she scrambled to get up. She vaguely observed his dark clothes, ski mask, and the glint of something metallic in his hand. She kicked at his wrist the moment he swung his hand toward her, and a knife flew out of his hand and clattered in the parking lot.

“Halt! Don’t move!” a commanding voice thundered from the parking lot. In moments, police officers handcuffed the two men in ski masks and were escorting them to waiting patrol cars.

Robin, who had watched the swift play of events bug-eyed in the driver’s seat of the car, jumped out and ran over to Frank an Nanette just in time to hear another officer start to arrest them.

“Wait a moment, officer,” Frank said. “We’re not the crooks. We’re just bystanders.”

The officer looked stern. “Then you won’t mind if I check out the boxes you just put in your car?”

“Of course not,” Frank said. “It’s not a crime to take empty boxes out of a dumpster.”

While one officer guarded Frank and Nanette, Robin opened the trunk and showed the boxes to the other officer.

Although a brief investigation confirmed that the boxes were flat and empty, the police officer was still not convinced about the Hales’ innocence.  “A silent alarm in the Bagel Shoppe alerted us to a robbery in progress,” he said. “When our patrol car reached the parking lot, we saw you two carrying boxes into your car and looking into the store with a flashlight. We radioed for backup, and then drove into the parking lot with our lights off to keep from scaring you away.  Just as we switched on our spotlight, those two men in ski masks came running out of the Bagel Shoppe. We believe they were making for the getaway car.” He pointed at Robin’s vehicle.

“If we were in league with them, why did we help catch them?” Nanette asked testily.

“There’s another car around the corner by the dumpster,” Frank added. “Maybe that’s where they were headed.”

The other officer went to check and confirmed that another car was there.  After checking the license plate on the computer in the police car, he found that it was a stolen car.

All the same, Frank, Nanette, and Robin had to go to the station and make a full report to the police. Much of their time was spent waiting in a bare, cheerless room with a couple vending machines and a set of the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ posters. The 60 seconds of excitement in front of Josie’s Jewelry and Fine Gifts grew into two hours of paperwork, questions, and waiting.

Halfway through their time there, Nanette asked to see a phone book and then made a call.

“Dad won’t be worried about us yet,” Robin said. “He expects us to be late.”

“I know,” Nanette replied. “But I saw the name of the proprietor of Josie’s Jewelry and Fine Gifts in the store and I was hoping to visit her tonight. It’s almost too late now, but we could still call her if her number is listed in the book.”

The name Nanette saw was Mary Josephine Leslie or Leslee (she wasn’t quite sure of the last letters). The phone book had no Leslees, but two J. Leslies and one M.J. Leslie, which turned out to be the right one. The phone was answered by Josie’s sister, Kitty, who was house-sitting. Nanette discovered that the proprietor was on vacation for two weeks.

“Josie just had to get away for some rest after all the difficulties of the last few months!”  Kitty told her. Kitty seemed eager to talk. “She just hasn’t been the same lately.  I told her, ‘Josie, you need two weeks away to get your mind off your difficulties.’ And for once she actually took my advice! Good advice, too, if I do say so myself.”

“What kind of difficulties?” Nanette asked.

“Oh, it was in all the papers. The robberies. The disappearance of a shipment of antique turquoise jewelry. And poor Josie walking in on one of the robberies and being knocked out cold! We were so worried!

“Then she positively identified the men, but they had an airtight alibi.  Can you believe it?! She was certain who the thieves were. Absolutely certain! But they had reliable witnesses—even a videotape!—that showed they were in Bass Lake, California the morning before the robbery. Everyone agreed there was no way they could have arrived here in time to be the robbers.  But Josie was so sure!  Surely you read about it. It was in all the papers.”

“Well, I’m not from around here.” Nanette explained. “Two crooks were caught breaking into the Bagel Shoppe tonight. Do you think they could be the same ones that robbed Josie’s place?”

Kitty’s voice brightened. “Maybe. What did they look like?”

“Well, they were wearing ski masks at first, but when they took them off, they looked skinny and young—maybe early twenties, with longish blonde hair.” Nanette at least knew that the Bagel Shoppe burglars weren’t the same men she was looking for.

“No, Josie’s robbers were large men with dark hair. Their pictures were in all the papers. Josie said she bought some antique money and gold from them from time to time, so she recognized them when she saw them robbing the store. Just check the papers. It was in all the papers.”

When Nanette, Frank, and Robin finally returned to Uncle Carl’s house, it was very late. Ashley and Charlie were asleep in their sleeping bags on the floor of the den, but Nathan and Peter were still up and eager to hear all the details.

While they talked, Nanette and Frank set everyone to work. Robin brought in the empty boxes and Nathan and Peter compared the printed addresses with the scrap of cardboard Nanette had found on the lawn.  Robin and Uncle Carl made a quick search of the Internet for newspaper articles regarding the break-in at Josie’s Jewelry and Fine Gifts.

The results were minimal. The printing on the boxes was different from that of the scrap, but the address fonts on different boxes were also different from each other. Frank pointed out that the boxes in the dumpster were packages sent from other businesses and each business might use different fonts. The cardboard scrap could have been part of a return label or addressed by a different business.

The Internet search produced one article. Only a few months worth of articles were archived online at the local newspaper’s website, and the robbery had occurred before then.  Robin printed the one article that referenced the robbery in a story about unsolved cases.  It included a fuzzy photo of the two crooks, who were described as having been suspects who were later cleared of the crime.

“These photos match the description of our time traveling thieves, but, unfortunately, so do many other people,” Nanette noted. “However, the odd story that Kitty told of the suspect’s alibi make me wonder if our stagecoach thieves found a way to use the time machine to manufacture alibis.  Bass Lake, California is where we are headed, and Tim told us that he and Curt and the thieves lived near there in the past.”

“Well, I think we’ve done all we can do tonight,” Frank said. “It is way past bedtime and I think we all need some rest for a big day of sightseeing tomorrow.”

Peter was already asleep in a chair. In no time, the rest of the family prepared for bed and slept soundly.

End of Chapter 11






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