The day in the car started out quietly. The family played the alphabet game, the license plate game (Ashley kept the record of all the different state license plates they had seen), and kept a lookout for PT Cruisers, motorcycles and black Suburbans.
Nevertheless, the kids were soon bored by the miles and miles of flat farmland and dull interstate scenery. Nanette and Frank weren’t helping their mood by playing a tape of old 70’s and 80’s songs, and the kids were soon begging for a movie.
“Just a few more miles before we start a movie,” Frank said. “ Look at the colors of these fields! Look at all the different kinds of green! And the clouds look like sheep crossing the blue sky!” Frank was an amateur painter, although he had little time to pursue his hobby. Still, he tended to gush a bit over even the dullest of landscapes.
Ashley opened her mouth to complain, but before she could say anything, Peter started singing, “A hundred bottles of beer on the wall, a hundred bottles of beer! If one of those bottle should happen to fall they’ll be 99 bottles of beer on the wall.” The other three kids chimed in with the next verse and Nanette rolled her eyes. “Come on, Frank, I think a movie wouldn’t be so bad after all!”
Three hours into the trip, they stopped at a rest stop near Portage, Wisconsin and took a family photo. They ate some sandwiches and cookies and watched the cars and trucks coming in and out of the rest area.
“No sign of the BG’s,” Peter said.
“The Who?” Nathan asked.
“Not ‘The Who’! The ‘BG’s!’” Peter repeated. “Short for ‘the Bad Guys’. That’s what I’m going to call those crooks anyhow. I called them ‘the stagecoach robbers’ at the motorcycle shop and the owner looked at me like I was nuts.”
“Sure. No one will think you’re nuts talking about the Bee Gees!” Nathan said sarcastically.
“Well, they certainly are ‘Stayin’ Alive’ long past their own time.” Ashley said. “And they’re almost as annoying as that band.”
Nanette and Frank pretended to look hurt on behalf of their generation.
“Why is the band called ‘Bee Gees’?” Ashley asked. “Is it short for ‘bad guys’ too?”
“Brother’s Gibb,” Frank said. “And there were three of them too. Maurice, Robin and Barry.”
“Hey, since we don’t know our BG’s names we could borrow those names too! Except we can’t use Robin because that makes me think of cousin Robin,” Peter said.
“How about ‘Mo,’ ‘Bear,’ and ‘Rob’?” Nathan suggested. “Mo can be the guy I saw steal the watch. Bear can be his friend who helped chase me. Rob can be the guy on the motorcycle that we didn’t get a good look at.”
“The guy who stole the watch should be ‘Rob,’” Peter said. “Because you saw him robbing the museum.”
“Too late. I’m already thinking of him as Mo,” Nathan said.
Nanette and Frank looked skeptical, but only time would tell if the nicknames stuck.
Not long after returning to the car, Ashley and Charlie both fell asleep and Nathan and Peter talked about secret codes. Since they had just watched the 1952 movie Ivanhoe –a favorite of theirs because of the jousting scenes—they decided to make up a number code based on medieval weapons. 0 was a shield, 1 a spear, 2 a short saber, etc.
“And how is this any better than just using numbers?” Nanette asked later when they showed off their completed list.
“It will confuse anyone who intercepts the message,” Nathan maintained, although Nanette was skeptical.
“Why are there two “4’s”?” Frank asked.
“To make it more confusing,” Nathan said.
“You can’t just solve it like a cryptogram,” Peter said.
Frank and Nanette decided to let it go.
They crossed the Mississippi around 1:00 pm near LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Frank made sure everyone took note, but only Ashley seemed impressed.
The family took a detour to Lester, Iowa, just to get a photo standing in an Iowa corn field. By the time they reached their one big touristy destination for the day–the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota—it was 7:30 pm central time. The summer sun was still bright, but the shadows were long as they parked and walked to the building. They saw a black Suburban in the parking lot and Nathan and Peter memorized the license plate using their new code. (South Dakota- B-C-V- spear-club-cutlass-pitchfork). They saw two PT Cruisers parked several blocks away but didn’t bother to check them out.
Everyone was glad to stretch their legs after spending so much time in the car. They walked around admiring the corn murals that decorated the outside of the building. The theme of this years’ murals was “Scenic South Dakota” and was impressive even though it was only partially completed. Inside the building, photos of murals from past years were displayed in the hallways.
In the middle of the palace, where concerts or sports games could be played, a gift shop was set up. The kids took their daily allowance and Nathan bought a disposable camera, Peter bought a fake rubber knife, and Ashley bought a sticker book.
One of the three people running the store was a man with red-hair and freckles, a fact that Nathan quickly noticed and told his parents. Nanette and Frank talked to the man, whose nametag said “Dave,” but he said he didn’t know anyone named Tim Trave or Curt Hopewell. He said he would ask around, but their conversation was cut short by a high pitched scream echoing through the large room. The Hales recognized it immediately as Ashley.
Ashley was near the door of the auditorium sobbing. “He got my fanny pack! Get it back!”
Several people rushed out the door of the auditorium and followed a man running out of the building. Ashley made it outside with them just in time to see a PT Cruiser driving off. The rest of the family and Dave made it outside a moment later and Frank and Nanette hugged Ashley.
Ashley was crying and it took a moment to find out what had happened. Apparently someone had grabbed her fanny pack and run off with it.
Bystanders gave conflicting evidence. One man described the attacker as wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Another said he was wearing khakis. Still another person was confident he was in a polo shirt. They all agreed he got into a waiting car—a PT Cruiser, and drove off before anyone could stop him.
“I heard him say, ‘I’ve got the key’!” one bystander reported. “Then he jumped in the car and it sped off!”
“Did you have anything valuable in the pack?” Dave asked Ashley.
“No,” Ashley admitted through sobs. “It’s a new fanny pack from my uncle and cousin. I want it back!”
“What was in it?” Dave asked again.
“Just the change from buying this book.” Everyone could see now that Ashley was gripping a small sticker book tightly with her left hand. “Maybe fifty cents. But I want the pack!” she started crying harder.
After talking with Security at the Corn Palace and having a complementary candy bar from the gift shop (via Dave), Ashley finally calmed down.
“Hey, you still have your memories of Uncle Carl and Robin. You don’t need the fanny pack.” Nathan said as they walked back to the car. “And it’s not like you don’t have tons of ‘Historical Miss’ stuff anyway. ‘Historical Miss’ shoes, ‘Historical Miss’ toothbrush, ‘Historical Miss’ combs, ‘Historical Miss’ soap…” Nathan got sillier and sillier and Ashley couldn’t help but smile a little. “And besides,” Nathan concluded. “It’s ‘Historical Miss’, not ‘Hysterical Miss.’” Ashley couldn’t help laughing a little at that.
“Maybe I could invent an anti-fanny-pack-stealing device,” Peter mused. “Maybe a rubber band-type thing that would hit anyone who tried to pull the fanny pack off. Or one of those things they put on clothes at the store that sprays permanent ink on anyone trying to undo them.”
Ashley giggled again. “The only problem is, a device like that would go off on Charlie several times a day! He’s always grabbing onto my fanny pack strap to get my attention.”
“So how did the thief get your fanny pack off? Did he cut it? Or did it tear? Surely he didn’t have time to undo the latch!” Nathan said as he opened the car door and pulled the seat down to let Peter and Ashley get in the back.
“I don’t know,” Ashley said as she settled herself among her things. From her backpack she pulled out a small stuffed toy dog that looked like Watson from home and hugged it. “He came up behind me, and everything happened so fast I don’t remember.”
“I was really disappointed in the so-called ‘eye-witnesses,’” Nathan said as he settled in his seat and Nanette and Frank got in the front. “They would make terrible detectives! They couldn’t agree on the thief’s shirt color or anything!”
“That’s the way eyewitness testimony often is, sadly,” Frank said as he started the car. “You have to train to pay attention to details or else your mind just focuses on the big event and forgets the rest.”
“What was it that one guy said?” Nanette asked. “He said the thief yelled ‘I’ve got the key’ just before getting into the car. What do you think that meant?”
“Maybe he just said, ‘I’ve got it, Steve,’ and the guy heard wrong,” Peter suggested.
“So ‘Bear’ is really ‘Steve’?” Nathan asked.
“No! He did mean ‘key’!” Ashley interjected. “I know what it is! I know what he meant!”
Ashley pulled her old fanny pack off the floor of the car. “I hadn’t put anything in my new fanny pack yet except the souvenir money you gave me. But in my old pack, I had this!” Ashley held up the old key she had found at the lakefront yesterday. “I meant to tell you all about it, but after the Sears Tower we were so busy I just decided to wait till later. I think this fell out of the box of treasure that Nathan found yesterday.”
Ashley had a triumphant and vaguely revengeful look in her eyes. “They think they got this! But we still have it! Hah!”
End of Chapter 16
The next chapter can be found here: Chapter 17: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)