Chapter 12: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Note: Cell phones were common but were nothing like today’s smart phones and were not as universally used. It was less likely for everyone to have one, and those who did have one did not have them on all the time.

Chapter 12

Nanette awoke to the sound of the phone ringing at 6:00 am. For a moment she couldn’t remember where she was or what the sound was. Was it the alarm clock? The smoke detector? And where did this chickadee wallpaper come from? As her brain cleared she remembered where she was and started asking more irritable questions. What kind of friends did Uncle Carl have that called at such an early hour? Especially on Sunday? Why doesn’t someone answer? Don’t they have an answering machine?

After a few moments the ringing stopped, and then Nanette heard a tap on the door.  Robin opened it and whispered sleepily, “It’s for you.”

Frank was still asleep, so Nanette dragged herself out of bed and answered the phone in the kitchen. The caller was Liz Martin. Liz and her husband Jorge were friends of Frank and Nanette from college and they had worked on many mysteries together. Now the Martins lived in Wheaton, Illinois, and the Hales planned to sight-see with them in Chicago today and stay at their home tonight.

Liz greeted Nanette with her trademark terseness. “Hey! News! That motorcycle shop? We visited and talked with the owner.  You won’t believe it!  The guys you were asking about have their motorcycle in there for repairs—RIGHT NOW.  And they’re picking it up today!  We need to change plans.”

“Good work!  But first how about an apology for rousting me out of bed this early?”

Liz laughed. “You know I don’t apologize for doing the right thing. We need to plan NOW.”

As the two friends talked, Liz revealed that she and Jorge had no trouble finding the motorcycle shop. Jimmy Vann was there and was open and talkative.  He vividly remembered the men he told Evan about and he found them so suspicious that he had written down the license plate of the PT Cruiser in case it turned out to be stolen (it wasn’t). Last week the guys brought the motorcycle in for repairs and were planning to pick it up on Sunday.

“Today,” Nanette repeated. “We planned to visit the aquarium and the Navy Pier today.  Maybe we should split up, and one of us could wait at the shop in case the guys show up.”

“No way,” Liz said. “Vacation trumps mystery! I have another plan. The Museum of Science and Industry is close to the motorcycle shop. You’ll like this—their special exhibit right now is ‘Gold Miners of the 1800’s. Fits with the historical aspect of your mystery. Let’s substitute the museum and meet there.”

Nanette reluctantly agreed. “I’m afraid the family will be disappointed. They…”

“No way,” Liz said again. “The museum never disappoints! You can visit an aquarium in New Orleans or Florida or one of those other places you’re planning to visit on this odyssey of yours.”

Nanette finally agreed and hung up the phone deep in thought.

“What are we going to be disappointed about?” Nathan asked, appearing out of nowhere.

Nanette jumped. “Nathan, you were eavesdropping!”

“I couldn’t help it. I’m sleeping right here in the den next to the kitchen and you weren’t being very quiet. What’s disappointing?”

“Just that our plans are changing for the day. We’re going to see the Museum of Science and Industry instead of the aquarium. Other than that, the news is far from disappointing. In fact, it’s very promising, mystery-wise.”

Nanette and Nathan talked for a few minutes, but went back to bed for some more rest before beginning the day. They were the last ones to the breakfast table later that morning, and then Nathan eagerly broke the news of the change in plans to the rest of the family.  Peter was furious. He had a special interest in fish and he nearly lost his temper when he heard the aquarium trip was pre-empted. Frank had already heard about the change from Nanette and thought it sounded great. Ashley and Charlie didn’t seem to mind one way or the other.

After breakfast, the family had devotions since it was Sunday and they were missing church. They sang a hymn while Robin accompanied them on the keyboard. Then Uncle Carl read a devotion based on Proverbs 18:10-13: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe. The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it an unscalable wall. Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud, but humility comes before honor.” Frank prayed, and Nanette had a mini “Sunday school” where the kids all learned Proverbs 18:10 by heart, using hand motions. They ended by singing “Jesus Loves Me,” which was Charlie’s favorite, and the only part he really paid attention to.

The family packed up and prepared to go. Uncle Carl and Robin decided to go to the museum with them, so Peter and Nathan rode in their car to continue their discussions about birds from the night before. Robin had been well named, for he was great at imitating bird calls, and he entertained the boys for some time.

Uncle Carl also tried to convince Peter the museum was a great place to visit, especially since he was so interested in inventions, but Peter refused to accept his arguments. He pointed out that he was interest in science AND fish, and that he had been looking forward to seeing the fish today and it wasn’t fair.

“He can be so hard headed at time,” Nathan said with such a patronizing air that Peter turned red and refused to talk. Robin quickly changed the subject, and told some amusing anecdotes about woodpeckers.

The weather was clear and beautiful and the Sunday traffic was light so they made it to the museum in good time. They arrived just at opening, 11:00 am, and had barely finished buying their tickets when Liz and Jorge came through the door. Uncle Carl and Robin had met the Martins once before when Nanette was in college, but that was a long time ago. The kids hadn’t seen the Martins for three years, which was a lifetime to Charlie, and seemed like forever to the others. Hugs and introductions were made all around and the grown ups caught up briefly on the news in their lives.

Eventually, the conversation turned to the mystery. Liz told everyone the location of the Vann Motorcycle shop, only a few blocks from the museum. She said that Jimmy Vann agreed to call her on her cell phone as soon as the men showed up at the shop. Together they made plans on how they would leave the museum if they needed to go in a rush.

Meanwhile, Ashley and Nathan took Charlie by the hands and walked to the gift shop window. Peter stood sullenly staring at the ceiling, determined not to have fun anywhere but the aquarium.

After a minute or two, Charlie got bored with the gift shop and started running back and forth between the large signs advertising the special exhibits and the velvet rope marking off the lines for buying tickets. Since it was still early, not many other people were around to be bothered, but Nathan was determined to catch and stop him. Whenever Nathan succeeded in grabbing him, Charlie let out a squeal and eventually wiggled out of Nathan’s clutches.

“This is no fun. I want to go home,” Peter whined to Nanette as the adults’ conversation went on past the four-minute mark.

“Enough talk,” Liz said. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

They split up into three groups to explore the museum. Each group had a cell phone so they could communicate any changes in plans.

Robin, Uncle Carl, and Frank went exploring with the with the reluctant Peter and active Charlie. They headed for the Idea Factory, and once Peter saw it, his grouchy mood evaporated. For an hour and a half, Peter and Charlie explored, tested and enjoyed every inch of the hands-on exhibit.  They only left when the grown-ups dragged them away to meet the others for lunch.

After enjoying several exhibits, Ashley and Nanette similarly got stuck at Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle.  They were enchanted by each tiny item and enjoyed reading the history behind them.

Liz and Jorge took Nathan to tour the German U-boat. The Martins felt claustrophobic at the idea of living and working in such small confines, but Nathan thought it was great. After the tour he sent an e-postcard from a museum kiosk to his friend Jason telling him that maybe he would buy his own submarine some day.

Everyone met at the museum restaurant for a late lunch.  Liz phoned the motorcycle shop but there was still no sign of the men, so the whole group went together to see the special “Gold Miners of the 1860s” exhibit. On the way, they passed through a room with a huge model train and got an entire group shot in front of the miniature model of Chicago.

The posters for the Gold Miners exhibit promised “something for everybody,” which was almost true. Ashley liked seeing all the things she had read about in the Historical Miss book California Christy.  Peter, who had totally forgotten about the aquarium, was intrigued by the array of prospecting tools and gadgets.  Even Charlie was interested in the dioramas showing the native animals of California.

Nathan thought the exhibit was a big bore.  He thought he should try and pay attention to the exhibits since he might find clues for the mystery, but he was tired after two nights of interrupted sleep. After a while, he found a pillar to lean on and decided to just watch the people instead.

He observed how many people stopped and studied the exhibits and how many walked by with just a glance.  He felt a sort of kinship with the glancers. He counted the number of chubby people.  About one in 10. He counted children. About one for every four adults. He counted people with beards. About one in 20.

Nathan noticed one bearded man intently studying a glass case of artifacts. He was definitely not one of the “glancers.” The man was even stroking some of the animal pelts in one exhibit. Nathan was annoyed. Where was the museum guard? It seemed like there was always a museum docent or guard breathing down his neck whenever he got too close to an exhibit. This guy was all but climbing into the glass case.

Nathan looked around and saw a museum guard talking with a large man, who was gesturing urgently toward the replica of Sutter’s Mill. Nathan sighed and looked back. The bearded man was now moving away from the exhibit, hands in his pockets. Finally keeping his hands to himself, Nathan thought as he sauntered over to the case to see what was so interesting. A “do not touch” sign was prominently on the display.

“Any questions?” a voice said from behind. Nathan turned to see the museum guard, now free of the large man, standing behind him.

“No thanks,” Nathan said, turning back to the case.   Then he noticed something. “Wait a minute.”

“Yes?” The museum guard was still there.

“Where is the watch that’s supposed to be here?” Nathan pointed to a sign that described an antique gold pocket watch.

The guard frowned. “It should be here. Hey! Why isn’t the cover on this case? Was it open when you came over here?”

“I haven’t touched anything!” Nathan said. “But I bet I know who stole the watch!  There was a bearded guy reaching into this case while you were talking to someone else a moment ago. I didn’t see him take it, but he was touching everything.”

“What’s going on?” Frank showed up at Nathan’s side. The guard pulled out his walkie-talkie and radioed someone while Nathan repeated the story for Frank and then for the rest of their friends.  He also described the men in detail for the guard. They spent fifteen minutes going over the incident and talking with the museum workers when suddenly the strains of Beethoven’s fifth started to come from Liz’s purse.

“My cell phone,” she explained. She stepped away to take the phone call then came back with an urgent look on her face. “The motorcycle shop.” She said.  “Guys just drove in—we should get over there!”

“Why does everything always happen at once?” Jorge asked.

“I’m not sure it’s a coincidence,” Nanette said. “Let’s go. Plan A everyone!” They all headed for the exits except Uncle Carl, who stayed to give their phone number to the guards, and then hurried to catch up with his group.

End of Chapter 12

The next chapter can be found here: Chapter 13: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)


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