Chapter 18: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Note:  Oddly, this chapter has the boys “texting” at dinner long before “texting” was a thing. References to one-hour film developers and the “current” president also remind us that things were different in 2003. 

Chapter 18

Frank and Nanette thought a car alarm had been tripped on some random car, which was so common an occurrence they didn’t think twice about it.  They were a couple miles down the road before Nathan and Peter finished relaying the full story of their part in tripping the alarm after finding the BG’s car, complete with Ashley’s fanny pack.  Frank turned the car around and he and Nanette conferred about what to do when they confronted the thieves. The two of them had always been the type to run toward the action, not away from it, and they were hoping this would be the big break that would end the mystery.

But by the time they got back to the parking lot, the car was gone. They drove around the rows of parked cars several times in case they mis-remembered the location, but Nathan and Peter insisted that the PT Cruiser had been parked in the now-empty parking space right between a fire-engine red Camero and an ancient woody station wagon.

For Plan B, the family notified the local authorities with information about the car and the license plate, telling them that the Chicago police wanted to question the owners about some stolen property. With no more local clues to follow, Nanette and Frank decided to stick with their tourist plans, and they continued on schedule to see Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse sculptures in the Black Hills.

The mood in the car was tense.  Ashley was mad at the boys for not telling them about the PT Cruiser immediately and kept hassling them about it.  Nathan’s and Peter’s replies were defensive and angry.  Nanette and Frank were frustrated too, but not at Nathan and Peter. Since they knew the BGs were probably still at Wall Drugs when they left, they should have thought about driving around the parking lot to look for their car themselves.

As was often the case, Charlie was the one to lighten the mood, this time with his imitation of the car alarm in the parking lot. During one tense silence, Charlie decided it must be his turn to talk.

“And then the car went BOOP, BOOP, BOOP, BOOP, BOOP… And then Peter and Nathan jump in the car and go ‘whewww.’ And the car is still going BOOP, BOOP, BOOP, BOOP, BOOP, BOOP, BOOOP…”

“Okay, that’s enough!” Nathan said with a bit of a smile. “I guess we were just too startled to think straight. I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” Nanette said. “I was so anxious to get you all into the car and safe from the BGs that we left too quickly.”

Ashley made a huffy breath, but conceded, “Well, there was one good thing. At least we found three new state license plates in that parking lot. Including Alaska!”

Peter was less concerned about the whole situation. “I’m trying to remember what was on that map in the backseat. There were stars by various locations. I don’t remember what they all were, but it looked similar to our trip route. ‘Buffalo, Wyoming’ was circled I think. I remembered that because I remembered thinking it should be Bison, Wyoming.”

“I think that’s where our motel is for tonight.” Nanette said.

“Maybe they marked the map after Rob phoned them with the itinerary he stole.” Nathan suggested. “We did take a photo. Do you think we’ll be able to get the film developed somewhere, Mom?”

“Maybe we can find a one-hour photo place near Yellowstone,” Nanette suggested. “But I don’t think I put Buffalo on our itinerary. I just mentioned Black Hills for today and Yellowstone for tomorrow, I’m sure.”

“Look at that billboard!” Peter suddenly said.  The billboard was an ad for a wax museum of presidents which said: all the presidents from George W. to George W.

“Ha, ha. I never thought about the similarity between the names of our first president and our current president,” Frank said. “Like history is repeating itself.”

“Maybe history will repeat itself in the next parking lot,” Nathan suggested.

Although they drove slowly through the parking lots at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, they saw no sign of the PT Cruiser, and no sign of the BGs or Curt among the crowds of tourists. They did find a couple license plates from Canadian provinces for Ashley’s list, though.

In order to reach Devil’s Tower in Wyoming before sunset, they only stopped to see the Crazy Horse sculpture—still under construction—from the road at a distance.  Still no sign of the PT Cruiser.

On the drive to Wyoming, they watched a video about Yellowstone that Frank bought at Wall Drug, to give the kids a taste of what they would see.  Ashley asked, “Did you tell us that the BGs would NOT be at Yellowstone?”

Nanette answered, “Well, Tim told me before we left that Yellowstone was one place the BGs would probably avoid. Apparently they heard some tall tales about the area from trappers that scared them, so it is likely that our day in Yellowstone will be a day of rest from the mystery.”

“Maybe Tim will ‘pop in’ for a visit,” Frank suggested. “I wonder why he isn’t spending more time with us helping with the mystery? He was around so much more when we solved the mystery of the pirate’s medallion.”

“Look!” Peter exclaimed as he pointed out the window. Devil’s Tower was coming into view in the distance. Frank decided to tell his own tall tale about Devil’s Tower—which was really a rehash of the old movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Ashley would normally have objected to the scary elements of aliens coming to earth, but was too anxious to share some Native American tall tales about the tower—about a giant bear chasing some children—that she read in Wyoming Willa.

Once again they scoured the parking lot at the visitor’s center for signs of the BGs and their car, with no success. They stopped for a long time to watch the prairie dogs in the prairie dog town, which was by far Charlie’s favorite sight of the day. He cried when they finally had to leave for dinner.

They stopped for hamburgers at a nearby family restaurant that had a splendid view of the tower. The restaurant also sold ice cream cones from a window out front and had benches and tables for eating outside.  Nathan finished his burger first, and asked to go outside to the benches and look at the tower until everyone was finished.

Nathan winked at Peter when he left—a signal that he would keep in touch with Peter’s communicator. Peter pulled out his receiver from his pocket and put it by his plate so he could see what Nathan sent.

After about a minute, Nathan sent a slow string of single flashes, meaning all was well. At the table, Frank was telling them all a story of visiting Yellowstone when he was a kid and was taking a long time finishing his burger. Peter sent back an ‘all is well’ signal too.

This repeated several times in the next 5 minutes—which felt more like half and hour to the boys. Just as everyone was finally about to get up from the table, Peter noticed a new pattern flashing on his receiver. Instead of single flashes, they were repeated in groups of two—meaning caution, caution, caution!  Then Nathan signaled a two-one combination, which they had designated as “wait, wait, wait.”

Nanette and Frank stood up and started getting Charlie out of the wooden booster seat. Thinking fast, Peter knocked over a full glass of water on the table. “Oh no!” he said in a voice that sounded fake to his own ears, but did the job of slowing them down. Nanette and Frank hurried to help Peter wipe up the spill and Ashley started to yell about her placemat getting wet. She had one of those paper placemats with activities on it and wasn’t sure if she was going to take it with her or not until it got wet.  Then it suddenly became the most precious item in the restaurant.

They were almost finished wiping up the mess when Nathan ran in and grabbed his dad’s arm. “The PT Cruiser is here!  It’s gold, just like the BGs’ cruiser, and it has the same license plate.  I hid behind the trash cans to see what the BGs would do, but it’s not the BGs!  The people who got out are somebody else!”

“You must have made a mistake!” Ashley said, distracted for a moment from her soggy placemat.

“Stay here,” Nanette and Frank said to the four kids and they headed out the door together.

A young couple who appeared to be in their early 20s were walking up to the ice cream window. Nanette and Frank verified the car and license plate was exactly the same as the one belonging to the BGs.

“Excuse me,” Nanette said to the woman while the man was ordering ice cream. “I can’t help noticing your car. PT Cruisers are so distinctive! How long have you had it?”

“Isn’t it nice?” the woman smiled at Nanette. “It’s so weird! Jacob and I were on a holiday in the Black Hills and stopped for gas.  At the gas station these guys came over and asked if we wanted to buy their car! Seemed like a con to me; they had this gorgeous PT Cruiser. They wanted to just trade out right! But after talking it over for a minute, Jake and I couldn’t think of any way it could be bad for us. We hated our car.”

“What kind of car did you have?” Nanette asked. She was a little surprised by the apparent naiveté of the couple.

“We had a beat up old Suburban that Jake’s dad gave him when we got married last month.  It wasn’t much of a gift, though. Ugly and old. Drinks a fortune in gas. And I was in love with this car the moment I saw it! In fact, I was staring at it and pointing it out to Jacob before they even came over and offered to trade. It was like a dream come true!”

“When was this?” Nanette asked.

“Just today. A few hours ago! We traded right there on the spot!”

“What about changing the title or the license plate?”

By this time Jacob finished getting their order and gave his wife her ice cream cone. She took a bite while Jacob answered for her. “We’re not idiots,” he said. “My uncle is a notary and we called him up before agreeing to the deal. He promised to take care of everything for us.”

“The guys who owned this car were criminals,” Frank said. “They must have decided to get rid of this car because they knew we were looking for it.”

“I don’t really care,” Jacob said. “If they were crooks, we got the better end of the deal anyway!”

“Do you get their names and addresses?”

Jacob waved away the question. “I put them on the phone with my uncle and they took care of all that. I don’t remember their names.”

“They seemed really nice,” the woman said, but she looked troubled. “They said they needed a bigger car to help move a friend into a new house.  They said ours would be perfect.”

Frank opened his mouth about to voice more reservations, but Jacob scowled at him and interrupted saying emphatically, “Everything is ok! My uncle and I took care of it all. Tiffany and I love the new car, so don’t worry about us!”

“Tell us about your old car, then,” Nanette said. “What color was it? What was the license plate number?”

“It was a black Suburban, like Tiff told you.  I don’t remember the license plate number. Started with BH-something, something something 44. Sorry we can’t help you anymore, but our ice cream is melting.” Jacob and Tiffany took their ice cream and went to a bench at the other end of the porch, making it clear the conversation was over.

Nanette and Frank went inside to get the kids.   In the meantime, Ashley had found a new, dry activity placemat that she hugged to herself and Charlie was ripping up another placemat into tiny pieces.  They helped clean up Charlie’s mess and then went outside.  They all ordered ice cream and ate it while enjoying the view of the Wyoming landscape and Devil’s Tower in the distance.

Nathan went to get something from the car as an excuse to peek through the windows of the PT Cruiser. The car was mostly clean of stuff, though it could use a good vacuuming, but he thought he saw a familiar burger wrapper on the backseat floor peeking out from under the driver’s seat.

Before Jacob and Tiffany left, Nanette gave them her name and cell phone number and asked them to call and leave a message for them if they had any more information about the men who sold them their car. Jacob nodded politely and put the paper in his pocket, but made no promises. He refused to give Nanette their address or phone number.

Later that night, the Hales arrived at their motel in Buffalo, Wyoming, and checked carefully for black Suburbans in the parking lot.  Frank parked their car backwards into the parking space in front of their room to make it more difficult to see their license plate in case the BGs were on the lookout for them.

It was 9:40 pm, but the kids wanted to take a quick swim in the motel pool before it closed at 10 pm. Frank went with them while Nanette went to the office to get more towels.  While she waited for the desk clerk, she idly looked over the business cards tacked up on a bulletin board by the desk. Among the ads for realtors, babysitters, and specialty shops, one card caught her eye. The slogan “Remember the Alpaca!” was written above the title of a business: “The Alpaca:  Jewelry, Fine Gifts, and Fair Trade Crafts.”

Nanette wondered, Could this be related to “ember the Al” ? No, it couldn’t be. Could it? Then she saw a name on the card became excited.

Back at the motel room, the family looked blank when Nanette showed them the card for The Alpaca with proprietor Allison Leslie’s name on it.

“Don’t you remember?” Nanette asked.

“Remember the alpaca? No, no I don’t,” Nathan said rolling his eyes.

“Not the alpaca! Josie!  Josie’s last name was Leslie. Josie of Josie’s Jewelry and Fine Gifts in Merrillville.  Maybe Allison is a relative!”

End of Chapter 18

Chapter 19 can be found here: Chapter 19: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)



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