Chapter 13: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Note:  When we visited Chicago in 2003 the part of the lakefront we visited looked like these photos. I doubt this area looks the same now, but at the time, I thought it would be a great place for a chase scene, so I wrote one.  I think the scene would work better in a visual medium—the area was hard to describe– and I’m not sure it works in this written form.  But I’m leaving it for now….Another note is that some areas of exposition in this chapter should probably be turned into dialogue, but that’s for another revision.




 Chapter 13

Frank always said that travel time was exponentially proportional to the number of people traveling together.  Plan A was his way of reducing that effect in the event they needed to leave in a hurry.  When they first arrived at the museum, the grown-ups decided which people would leave together in which cars, so the groups could leave independently rather than waiting for everybody to be ready at the same time.

The group traveling in Jorge’s car—Frank, Jorge and Nathan—got out of the museum first. As they neared the motorcycle shop, they saw a PT Cruiser leaving the shop’s driveway in front of them.

“That’s the license plate number Jimmy Vann gave us,” Nathan shouted. “Follow that car!”

“I bet you’ve always wanted to say that,” Jorge said with a smile, but he passed the motorcycle shop and stayed on the tail of the PT Cruiser. Frank telephoned the other groups to tell them of their car’s change in plans.

Uncle Carl’s car—with Peter, Uncle Carl and Robin—arrived at the motorcycle shop shortly afterwards. Jimmy Vann told them he tried to keep the men at the shop, but they were in a big hurry and were not happy about the delay. Two of the men left immediately in the PT Cruiser.  The other paid and left on the motorcycle shortly afterwards.  He said they were the same three men that had been there before.

“Why are there three men if there are only two stagecoach robbers?” Peter wondered aloud, and Jimmy Vann gave him a strange look.

Uncle Carl wondered if the third man were the “Curt” character, but Jimmy said none of the three were redheads or freckled. Robin noted that red hair can be colored, but freckles were harder to disguise.

The Hale’s Suburban—with  Nanette, Liz, Ashley and Charlie—was the last to arrive at the motorcycle shop—after Uncle Carl’s car had left.  Liz and Charlie had needed to stop in the museum restroom before leaving.  Then Charlie was tired and cranky and fought to keep from being strapped into his car seat. Nanette was annoyed by the delay, but tried to be calm and not show it. Nevertheless, her frustration caused her to make a wrong turn out of the parking lot and then she had to circle around several blocks to get back on the road to the motorcycle shop.

When they arrived, Nanette showed the newspaper photo of the jewelry thieves to Jimmy Vann. Although the photo was grainy, Jimmy said that they might be the same men, but it was hard to be sure because all three of his customers had beards.  Two of them had full beards, he said, but the motorcycle rider had a mustache and goatee. They paid in cash, so he didn’t have a record of their full names, but they had left the motorcycle under the name of Thomas Smythe.

The shop was not busy, so Jimmy offered them some snacks from the waiting area and showed them motorcycles of the same make and model that the men had bought. The main difference, Jimmy said, was that the men had a purple motorcycle, while the ones at his shop were gold and black. Nanette, Liz and Ashley looked them over carefully so they would remember the details  if they saw one like it again, while Charlie made “vroom vroom” sounds between bites of cheese crackers.

Meanwhile, Jorge followed the PT Cruiser through the streets and then through a maze of parking lots to the lake front. Once he nearly lost them at a traffic light, but they caught back up to the distinctive looking car before it turned into the parking lots. The PT Cruiser stopped and two men got out. Jorge parked a distance away and then the three of them got out of the car pretending to be visitors out for an afternoon stroll.

In this particular area, the shore of Lake Michigan was covered with giant concrete blocks, apparently scrap from the destruction of an old highway or something, cut up into 4 to 8 foot chunks. The blocks were irregular in shape and here and there a “no diving” symbol was stenciled on with spray paint. Some blocks were cubic, some flat but all large and piled randomly as if a giant toddler had been building towers and knocking them down all along the shore. It reminded Nathan of the floor of Charlie’s room, only 15 times bigger.

Jorge and Frank found a high spot to stand and used the binoculars to look left toward the Chicago skyline, and then to the right to spy on the men. The suspects acted completely nonchalant, as if they, too, were only out for a stroll. A few other families were also out, enjoying the day. A mother was sitting with her toddler on some blocks, looking at the lake and enjoying the breeze. A couple boys about Peter’s age were tossing rocks into the water.

Minutes passed and nothing interesting happened. Nathan wasn’t given a turn with the binoculars, so he decided to explore the waterfront instead. Stepping from one block to another he walked down to the waterfront and back. Then he looked more closely at the crevices between the blocks, some as deep as 5 or 6 feet. Nathan thought they made fantastic hiding places, and decided to investigate them, unconcerned about spider webs and trash.

He found a place near the mother and her toddler where a purple arrow was painted next to a “no diving” sign. Although it was just graffiti, the arrow seemed to be pointing to a good spot for climbing down between the blocks into the dirty space below. He shimmied down and then ducked, walking on the ground among the cigarette butts, fast food wrappers, and other garbage looking for anything of value.  He found a quarter, but most shiny things turned out to be pop tops or soda cans.

Nathan picked his way carefully beneath the larger blocks watching for signs of danger as well as anything of interest. As his eyes became adjusted to the dimness, he noticed a very regular hole in the side of one of the blocks.  Unlike the other holes, which were just irregular pockets created by the random arrangement of the blocks, this looked like a man-made hiding place.

Nathan squinted into the hole and thought he saw something inside. He reached his hand in the hole, and pulled it out quickly when he felt the tickle of spider webs. He remembered this would be a perfect place for a black widows.  He reached down and picked up a piece of trash paper, rolling it into a stick-like shape. Using this, he cleared out the web and  a couple harmless gray spiders scuttled out of the hole.

Nathan reached his makeshift stick in again and felt it hitting something hard. He couldn’t tell if it was the back of the hole or something too heavy to be pushed by paper.  Taking a deep breath, he reached in with his hand and felt something smooth like wood—definitely different from the texture of the surrounding blocks. The object slid backwards a bit, and he felt for the edges.  It seemed to be a box only a tiny bit smaller than the hole. He tried to slide it forward, but the gap between the box and the wall was so narrow that he couldn’t grasp it.

Looking around on the ground, he found a stick thinner than his fingers, and tried again. No luck. He only managed to push it backwards. The more he worked at it the more he became frustrated.  There must be a way to get this out! He stopped for a moment and tried to think.

Slowly he slid his hand in again and ran it along the entire front of the box. Right in the middle was a lock that he hadn’t felt before. Grasping the lock, he pulled the box straight out.  It slid roughly and every now and then it nearly got stuck, but he almost laughed at how much easier it was now that he knew what to do.

The box was wooden, about the size of a football, with a small padlock on front. As he pulled it out and held it, Nathan trembled with excitement. Treasure! Then a cold chill went through him as he remembered the bad guys. If this belonged to them, he was in danger!

Nathan straightened up and peeked out of the crevice toward the parking lot. He saw his father and Jorge to the right, still using the binoculars. They weren’t looking in his direction and they were farther away than he expected.  He saw that Peter, Uncle Carl, and Robin had joined them. They also had a pair of binoculars and were looking something in the sky.

Nathan looked to the left and felt a thrill of fear run over him.  The bearded man from the museum and another bearded man were sitting just a few yards away looking out over the lake and talking quietly. Nathan tried to hear what they were saying, but couldn’t make out any words.

One of the men stood up and turned, and Nathan ducked back down. He heard the men walking closer, and he moved away from the opening, flattening himself against a block. If they find me here, I’ll be trapped, he thought.  With one hand, he clutched the box close to his chest, and with the other he reached into his pocket to remind himself what tools he had.

Peter had given him a small arsenal of inventions, with the emphasis on small. Nathan felt the confetti gun (freshly loaded), some of Peter’s stink pellets, and the communicator.  Peter had made a new communicator to replace the one Charlie broke, and Nathan and Peter had worked out a few codes.  Right now all Nathan wanted was an old code: SOS! Nathan tapped out SOS with his communicator, but he had little hope that he was close enough to send the message, or that Peter would even be looking at his communicator to receive it.

Nathan stopped and stood very still, looking around for a direction to escape as he heard the men speaking now directly above his hiding place.

“I thought that family would never leave! Are you ready to get it?” a gruff voice said.

“Here, hold the hook while I climb down,” another voice answered.

One of the bearded men climbed down the same crevice Nathan had used earlier. He was larger than Nathan and grunted as he squished himself between the blocks to the sandy ground below. Fortunately he was facing away from Nathan and looking toward the hiding place. Nathan held his breath.

“Pass me the hook,” the man said and reached up to grab what looked like a coat hanger flattened into a straight wire with a hook on the end.

Something about the gesture reminded Nathan of the Bible verse they had learned that morning with motions: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower (arms stretched out above the head); the righteous run to it (arms do jogging motion) and are safe (arms crossed over chest).” Nathan suddenly felt like that last gesture looked too much like folded hands on a mummy rather than safety.  “Lord, keep me safe,” he thought as he watched the man reach into the hiding place with the metal hook.

“Hey, it’s gone!” the man yelled, and before he could turn around and see Nathan, Nathan ducked and scooted through a tunnel-like opening between the blocks. He came out into another larger space, and then dived forward into another smaller tunnel space. Nathan was small and limber, but he had no time to be careful, so his arms and legs were repeatedly scratched by the jagged edges of the blocks. The man let out a yell and followed, but couldn’t fit through the second narrow space. Nathan felt a pain in his side. The man had caught him with the hook for a moment, but his shirt ripped and the hook came loose. Nathan escaped farther down the tunnel into another open space, but he felt like a rat lost in a maze.

As Nathan approached a dead end, he scuttled under a flat block to hide in a dark space that couldn’t be seen from above. Both men were back on top, and he could hear them pounding on the blocks above him, looking down the crevices and trying to find him.  He stayed still for what felt like hours but was really just a moment.

As the sounds from above grew quieter, he started to feel trapped and closed in. What if he got stuck? What if the rock fell on him? He needed air, and decided it must be safe to leave his hiding place. He came out from beneath the rock and climbed out of the crevice, but immediately realized it was a mistake. The two men were right in front of him, only a few cement blocks away. They saw him too, and with another yell, they were after him.

Nathan turned, and jumped down into another little crevice. It was a dead end on every side except for a small space between two flat blocks just big enough to squeeze through. Nathan dove into the spot, wiggling on his stomach. He heard one of the men jump down behind him, and felt the man grab his foot. Energized by panic, Nathan jerked away, leaving his shoe behind.

Nathan pulled himself through to the next opening, and looked up to see the other man reaching down towards him with the hook. Before the man could react, Nathan grabbed the hook and pulled, nearly causing the man to lose his balance. The man didn’t fall, but staggered a bit as the hook slid out of his sweaty hands and clattered against the blocks. Nathan grabbed the stink pellets out  of his pocket, and threw one at each man—the one above and the one behind him.

“Poison gas!” he yelled, then covered his nose as he quickly climbed out of the shallow crevice.

The stink pellets were Peter’s invention and were actually harmless. They were made of a combination of vinegar, cheap perfume, baking soda, food coloring and other ingredients put together in such a way that they would release colored smoke and a bad smell when smashed. The smoke and smell surprised the men just enough to give Nathan a chance to get a good lead.

As Nathan dashed across the tops of the blocks, something hard hit him in the side of his face. It was his shoe. The man had thrown it with surprising accuracy, and Nathan fell, skinning his knees.

The man was on him in a flash, grabbing for the box. He opened his mouth to yell, “I got it!” but never got past, “I…” Nathan whipped out the confetti gun and shot it into his open mouth.

The big man coughed and spluttered and loosened his grip. That was all Nathan needed to scramble up and run. He ran as swiftly as he could while still watching his feet to avoid falling. He glanced over his right shoulder and saw one man closing in on him while the other was still spitting confetti.  He looked to his left and saw his family coming toward him—but they seemed so far away!  Then he looked up in front and saw the lake!  He had been so intent on watching his footing that he didn’t realize he was headed toward the water with no place else to go.  Near the lakefront, a little to the left he saw two young men he hadn’t noticed before.

“Stop that boy! He’s a thief!” the bearded man called to them. The young men looked startled, but took up the chase. For a moment, Nathan considered jumping into Lake Michigan and swimming away. That was too foolish to give a second thought. Instead, he spun around and tried to run back toward his family, hoping to dodge the thieves on one side and the young men on the other.

“Nathan! Over here!” Peter had outrun the grown-ups and was yelling and waving about fifty yards in front of Nathan.  Nathan took a deep breath. Like a game of keep-away, he thought, and threw the box as hard as he could toward Peter. The box landed on the blocks in front of Peter and smashed open on the concrete. Coins, paper money, jewelry, and splintered wood flew everywhere. At the same time, the sound of a police siren echoed across the parking lot.

By now one of the young men had caught up with Nathan and roughly grabbed his arm.

“I’m not a thief!” Nathan gasped. “They are!” he pointed toward the two men, now running in the opposite direction toward the parking lot. Frank and Robin were chasing them, but the men were too far ahead. They jumped into the PT Cruiser and sped away.

“We’ll let the police decide,” the young man said, still holding tightly to Nathan’s arm. “But those guys sure made a break for it when they heard that siren!”

End of Chapter 13

The next  chapter can be found here: Chapter 14: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)




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