Chapter 17: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Note: Remember disposable cameras? Today everyone has a camera on their phone. I barely remember that only 14  years ago we had to buy film and wait for our photos to be developed.  Even though digital cameras were available in 2003, good ones were still relatively uncommon in the average family. My parents had one that took grainy pictures, but we were still using our film cameras.

Chapter 17

The family stopped about an hour later in Chamberlain, South Dakota for dinner. They saw a magnificent sunset over the Missouri River and drove on to Kadoka, finally arriving at their motel well after 10:00 pm Mountain time.

First thing in the morning, Nanette turned on her cell phone and found a voice mail from Liz asking her to call. Liz was already wide awake and getting ready to leave for work when Nanette got ahold of her at 7:30 am Mountain time (6:30 am at Liz’s house).

“News!” Liz said, getting right to the point, as usual. “Yesterday morning, while we were at work, somebody broke into our house.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Nanette gasped. “Did they take anything?  Do you have any clues?”

“A neighbor noticed and called the police right away. They made a lot of noise breaking the window next to the front door, and then left the front door wide open.  The kids across the street were just leaving for the pool and thought it looked suspicious.”

“Good thinking!  Did they catch the crook?”

“Sadly, no, but whoever came in didn’t take much. They grabbed some cash that I had left –stupid of me!—next to the telephone.  And they took the outline of your trip that you wrote for us when we were talking about your plans Sunday night. That’s all!”

“That’s all? The police must have arrived quickly!”

“That’s the odd part.  They left long before the police arrived. They only went to the kitchen, took the money and the itinerary—and this is another odd thing—took all our keys off the hooks.  You know we keep extra car keys and stuff on hooks by the kitchen door.  They didn’t take any keys, though, they were all just lying on the floor.”

“Wait, you keep saying ‘they.’ Was it one thief or more? Man or woman?”

“I use ‘they’ when I don’t know the answer to those questions—you know I like to keep things simple. But I should probably say ‘he’ because I’m convinced it was the motorcycle guy from the lakefront. The neighbors said someone in a motorcycle helmet ran out of the house and left on a motorcycle before they even heard the police siren.  Sounds like it was one of your ‘friends’. Why else would he take your itinerary?”

“We should have stayed one more day, like I said!” Nanette. “Maybe we could have caught him!”

“Remember Tim’s note? ‘Don’t worry about the consequences’ or something like that? I think you’re fine. But watch out! They know where you are going!”

“That might explain why they found us at the Corn Palace yesterday,” Nanette mused.

“That was fast!”

“Well, we took our time at rest stops and we detoured off the interstate into Iowa for a bit. They could easily have passed us.”

“Did you actually see the motorcycle guy?” Liz asked.

“Only two guys in a PT Cruiser.”

Nanette then told Liz all about the theft of Ashley’s fanny pack. The two friends talked and brainstormed about the mystery for as long as they could until Liz needed to leave for work and Nanette needed to help pack up and get ready for the day.

“Sounds like the BGs split up,” Peter observed at breakfast after Nanette had repeated Liz’s story to the family.

“What was on this ‘outline’/’itinerary’ thing that they stole?” Nathan asked. “Does it have our motel reservations and everything?”

“No, thankfully,” Frank said. “Your mom just wrote down some dates and towns where we were going to be. I don’t think it listed every single place we planned to go. But it did have the Corn Palace because that came first.”

“You know,” Ashley mused.  “It could be that the paper just flew under the refrigerator or something when the robber came in.” Ashley was remembering a similar incident when one of her drawings mysteriously ‘disappeared’ at home. “And the robber might have been just an ordinary robber.”

“That’s good thinking,” Frank said. “It’s good not to jump to conclusions.”

“I think it was our thieves, though,” Peter said. “I think ‘Rob’—the motorcycle guy—stayed behind and phoned ‘Mo’ and ‘Bear’ to tell them where to find us.  Then Mo tried to steal the key from Ashley and Bear drove the getaway car. That’s what I think.”

“That still leaves some questions,” Nathan said. “Why did he mess with the Martins’ keys?”

“Maybe he thought we left the key behind.” Peter suggested.

“Or they just knocked the keys on the ground and didn’t bother to pick them up.” Ashley said.

“Did you see the key hooks?” Peter asked impatiently. “They’re screwed into the wall!  You can’t knock them over ‘by accident.’”

“Ok, I didn’t see the hooks, so what?” Ashley was getting defensive.  “I guess the robber’s interest in the keys is weird if he’s not one of our BGs.”

“I wonder what the key goes to anyway?” Nathan asked prompting a round of speculation. They all had suggestions about what the key was for, some fanciful and some not. Frank had taken the key to keep it safe and had hidden it under the carpet on the floor of the car. The floor mat then went on top of that to hide any telltale bulge.

*  *  *

The family planned to tour The Badlands National Park in the morning taking one of the loop roads through the park and stopping from time to time to hike and take pictures. As they entered the park, Frank asked the ranger if he had ever met a ranger named Tim Trave or Curt Hopewell, but he hadn’t.

The kids originally thought the Badlands would be boring, but when they actually got out and hiked among the rainbow striped hills and buttes, they didn’t want to leave. The smell of the sage was new and pleasant and they heard a western meadowlark for the first time. “So that’s the sound they always talk about in books!” Ashley said.

They all kept their eyes and ears open for the BGs but only saw other tourists drive past as well as some mule deer.  Among the pyramid-like hills were various twisty rock formations, shallow caves, and oddly shaped outcroppings. Nathan checked out every crevice and hollow that looked like places the BGs might hide, and never got as far as Peter, who was more interested in seeing how high he could climb.

Peter climbed the farthest and the highest, but Ashley and Charlie also explored a great deal. As they explored, Ashley told Charlie everything she could remember from South Dakota Sue about the Native Americans that once hunted here and the bison that were nearly driven to extinction by the white settlers.

Despite the little outcroppings and shallow caves, most of the terrain was clearly visible to Frank and Nanette as they hiked and kept close watch on their family.

As the sun rose to the top of the sky, the family finally found themselves at the end of the loop. They stepped out of the car for one last look.  “The landscape is so amazing,” Nanette said.

“True, but imagine you were crossing the plains in covered wagons with oxen and horses and then caught sight of this land ahead. It must have looked hopeless to cross,” Frank suggested.

“Yeah, but if they had any sense, wagon trains wouldn’t have come this way,” Ashley said. “Usually people came west on well traveled routes—that’s what it says in my books.”

“There had to be a first one, though,” Peter said, always ready to contradict Ashley. “And maybe some travelers got lost.”

“I think this area reminds me a little of Mordor,” Nathan said. “Barren and twisted. When I was hiking, I was imagining I was watching out for orcs as I headed for Mount Doom.”

“But there are pretty things too.” Ashley said. “Think of the flowers and the deer.”

“And these awful biting flies,” Nathan said, swatting one as he spoke.

“It reminds me of the bottom of the ocean,” Peter said. “Sandy, with coral reefs and  grasses like seaweed.  The flies are like schools of fish swimming in the air.”

“It reminds me of lunch!” Charlie said loudly, not to be left out.

“Sounds good,” Frank said with a chuckle.  “Let’s go.” He and Nanette shepherded everyone back into the car and they drove to the famous Wall Drug Store for buffalo hot dogs with all the fixings.

The store was packed with tourists. Wall Drug was more like a mini-mall than a drugstore, and the family had a good time looking at the different displays and souvenir shops. After a while Frank took Ashley and Charlie to the outdoor play area while Nanette, Peter and Nathan looked at more souvenirs inside.  When they finally finished choosing their purchases and went to pay, Nanette remembered to ask the cashier if she had ever met someone named Tim Trave or Curt Hopewell.

To her surprise, the clerk said yes, she did know Tim Trave. “In fact,” the clerk added. “He’s working here today, I think in the shoe store.”  Excited by the information, Nanette, Nathan and Peter hustled over to the shoe area.  The cash register was unmanned, but they looked around the aisles for anyone red-haired or freckle-faced. When someone finally showed up at the cash register, he was a short, older man with a gray mustache, and his nametag said “Stu.”

“Tim was here just a few minutes ago,” Stu said. “But he left in a terrible hurry. He went to the manager’s office and then they called me to come take this register. Don’t know what that’s all about. Maybe he got sick.”

The three were disappointed, but decided to go to the manager’s office themselves. Of course, there was a “No Admittance” sign on the door leading to the offices, but a harried looking woman walked out just as they arrived.

“Excuse me,” Nanette said. “I see you’re in a hurry.  We were just wondering if you know where Tim Trave went.”

The woman shook her head. “Can you believe it? He just quit, and I don’t know where he went! According to Jean, who was working with him at the time, a couple guys came in and Tim actually hid behind the counter until they were gone!  Then he ran in here to quit!  I can’t believe that kind of behavior! Do you know anything about him or why he would act that way?” The woman seemed anxious to tell the story to someone and kept talking. “He was such a responsible and conscientious worker. I can’t imagine why he would behave that way. Can you?”

“What did the men look like that spooked him so much?” Nanette asked.

“I wasn’t there, but Jean told me they had dark beards and were wearing bandannas. Jean said they didn’t look at the merchandise, but just looked like they were searching for someone. Tim wouldn’t say why he didn’t want to see them, he just left! Do you think he’s in trouble with the law?”

“How long ago was this?” Nathan asked, his curiosity overcoming his shyness around a strange adult.

“Maybe 15-20 minutes ago.” The sound of a pager went off.  “Oops, sorry, gotta go. If you see him, tell him to call me!”

“Nathan turned to Nanette and Peter with wide eyes.” The BGs are here! We need to be more careful.” As they returned to get the others, the three of them constantly scanned the crowd looking for bearded men, but reunited with Frank, Ashley and Charlie and then left the store with no sightings.

On the way to their car in the parking lot, Nathan suddenly grabbed Peter’s arm. He had spotted the PT Cruiser that belonged to the BGs, and he and Peter went over to have a closer look. They had been walking in the back of the family group and their detour was unnoticed by Nanette and Frank, who were in the lead holding hands with Ashley and Charlie.

Nathan wanted to call out to his parents but was afraid the BGs would hear him if they were close by.  Nathan took out the disposable camera he bought at the Corn Palace and took a photo of the car and the license plate. It was the same number they had followed in Chicago.

The two of them went to the windows and peered inside. The interior of the car was a mess with fast food bags, empty soda bottles, maps and papers scattered around.

“Look!” Peter pointed and Nathan could see the corner of Ashley’s fanny pack showing from underneath several wadded up burger wrappers. Nathan took a couple photos of the fanny pack through the window.  He also took some pictures of the papers on back and front seats. He was too nervous to look at them closely, but one of them was a marked up map.

“Do you think you can unlock the door?” Nathan asked Peter. “Maybe we can steal back the fanny pack.”

“Maybe,” Peter said, although he wasn’t really sure. He pulled on the door handle and suddenly the car alarm went off with loud honking and flashing lights.

“Aaaa!” Nathan couldn’t help screaming, although his voice was drowned out by the car’s horn.  The two of them scuttled, heads down, among the rows of cars to their own Suburban.  They plopped down in their seats, still hiding their faces and didn’t breathe easy until they pulled out of the parking lot onto the main road.

End of Chapter 17

Chapter 18 can be found here: Chapter 18: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)



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