Chapter 19: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)


Notes: I’m not sure if fireworks were illegal in Wyoming in 2003 or not, but it suited my story to have the fireworks tent here. When we stayed in Buffalo, we saw huge plumes of black smoke in the sky from a place that was burning tires. It looked suspicious, but it wasn’t.

As stated before, cell phones were less common, but our family–and this fictional family– had a clunky 2003 cell phone. In the story it works perfectly–no connection or charge issues–which seems a little unbelievable to me for back then. 

Nathan interrupting also seem a little out of character, but my experience with introverted (but not overly shy) kids is that after a few successful interactions with grown-ups they become less shy and start to push boundaries. If you come down too hard on them then, they may retreat back into permanent shyness, depending on how much of a “rule-follower” they are. I don’t think that’s going to happen to Nathan. 

 Chapter 19

As they left the motel the next morning, Peter was the first to notice an odd thing in the sky.  “Look!” He said and pointed to a shape that looked like a giant arrow floating high above the town. “It’s a UFO! Can we follow it and see what it is?” Peter asked.

“Maybe after we visit the Alpaca shop,” Nanette said. It soon became evident as they followed the directions to The Alpaca, that they were also getting closer and closer to the “UFO.”  It turned out to be a huge balloon in the shape of a rocket tethered with a sturdy line in the parking lot of a strip mall.  Next to it was a large tent surrounded by floppy air dancers and flags and selling fireworks for the upcoming 4th of July. The Alpaca was located in the strip mall just behind the tent.

The kids were still craning their necks to check out the balloon as the family entered the shop. “What a circus it looks like around here this time of year!” the pleasant faced woman behind the  counter said, watching them as they entered. She had a nametag identifying her as the owner, Allison Leslie.  “I’ll be glad when the week is over, but I must admit, the fireworks tent is good for drawing in business. Feel free to look around.”

The little shop was similar to Josie’s Jewelry and Gifts but had an extra section with colorful fair trade crafts from various countries around the world.

“Why do you call your store ‘The Alpaca’?” Nanette couldn’t help asking before anything else.

Allison chuckled a little. “Before I bought it, this store was called ‘The Alamo’ and it sold southwestern style jewelry and leather goods. When I took it over, I was going to keep the name, but my sister thought I should change it. She thought the phrase “Remember the Alamo” didn’t fit with the fact that I was going to sell crafts from Mexico and South America—as well as other places, of course. I didn’t think people would think about the name that hard, but she was loaning me money and teaching me about the business, so I changed the name to make her happy. I liked the phrase, though, so I chose something similar. See, it fits because some of these crafts are made of alpaca wool, too.”

“By any chance would your sister be Josie, of “Josie’s Jewelry and Fine Gifts” in Merrillville, Indiana?” Nanette asked.

Allison smiled. “Why yes!  How did you know?”

Nanette went on to talk about their visit to Merrillville and about the robbery that occurred there. In turn, Allison told Nanette about her sister and how they came about opening their twin shops so far from each other.

As they talked, Frank and the kids browsed around the shop. Another person was working behind the jewelry counter cleaning some antique jewelry. Frank decided to engage her in conversation while holding Charlie to keep his 3-year-old exuberance away from the breakable items displayed throughout the store.  Charlie was happy to use his high vantage point to study the turquoise and silver animal necklaces in the display case.

Nathan, Peter and Ashley enjoyed looking around at all the colorful and clever fair trade items, including bracelets, bowls, blankets, vases, cards, wall hangings, and toys.  Peter and Ashley started sifting through some crocheted finger puppets looking for their favorites, but Nathan’s attention was focused on Nanette’s conversation with Allison.  When Allison mentioned having met the same men they assumed were the BGs  he forgot browsing and went over to listen directly.

“Oh, yes, in fact they were here the day before the Merrillville robbery,” Allison was saying.  “The next day they were seen on security cameras in Bass Lake, California, which is a good 19 hour drive from here. There’s no way they could have been the robbers, no matter what Josie says. I think…”

“What were they like? Did you know them well? Did you see them often?” Nathan asked. He was thinking about his own encounters with the BGs and was hoping they could find out more to help get them caught.  Nanette gave him a quick frown to remind him not to interrupt.

“They were only here once, but I talked to them a while because they knew Josie. See, they said they used to live in California, but had been living out of the country for a long time. They said when they returned to the US, they got in touch with a cousin in Merrillville, because that was the town where their grandparents were from.  He—the cousin—I never met him–helped them get re-acclimated to life in the United States. They didn’t say ‘re-acclimated’ they said ‘up-to-date,’ I guess. They had a bunch of old money and some antiques in excellent condition that they sold to Josie, and she told them about my shop when they said they were planning to move west.

“Did they seem like nice people?” Nanette asked.

Allison made a bit of a face. “I don’t like to say bad things about others. They were reasonably nice, I guess, but they kinda reminded me of slick salesmen. Like they were just being nice because their mom made them.”  Allison wasn’t thinking of Nathan, but he felt his face grow hot anyway.  “They tried to sell me some herbal concoction to sell in my store, but I don’t deal in those kinds of things. Of course, I also thought it was a bunch of hooey. I could tell they were kind of upset I wouldn’t buy it, but they didn’t yell or argue or anything. ”

Frank, carrying Charlie, came over to join the group. “Linn says that you have a new security system, but it’s not set up yet. May I recommend you do that right away?”

Allison sighed. “What makes you say that? We haven’t needed one before, and I hate to think of my customers as potential thieves. It’s not like Josie’s shop so close to the big city.”

“I can’t explain it all now,” Nanette said. “But we kind of agree with Josie about the identity of her robbers, in spite of the conflicting evidence. These guys are wily.” Nanette didn’t want to bring up the time machine if possible. “Is there any chance this key goes to your shop or anything in it?” Nanette held up the key that Ashley had found at the lakefront.

“That’s a beautiful key!” Allison exclaimed. “But no, I’ve never seen it before. It doesn’t go to anything here.

“Even if they didn’t rob Josie,” Frank said, “They did steal my daughter’s fanny pack in an effort to get this key.  We also found a box belonging to them that had stolen items in it. We know they are in the area driving a black Suburban, and it’s possible they may target your shop. You should get that system in place as soon as possible.”

“I guess I should.”  Allison sighed.  “I’ll call Jim and get that finished.  See, I’ve just been busy lately and it didn’t seem like a priority.”

Peter and Ashley walked over with four finger puppets. “Can we buy these?” Ashley asked.
“One of them is an alpaca! Or a llama, but we’ll say alpaca since we’re buying it here! The alpaca is for me, the killer whale is for Peter, and we thought the policeman could be for Nathan and the prairie dog for Charlie,” Ashley said.

“That’s not a prairie dog, that’s a cat,” said Nanette.

“Shhh. We don’t have to tell him that!” Ashley said.

“Prairie dog!” said Charlie, reaching for the toy.

“I want to pick my own,” Nathan said, and chose an elephant instead.

They made their purchases and left, but not before leaving their name and cell phone number with Allison. “Please call us if you see any sign of those men we talked about,” Nanette asked. “Even if they just come in to shop.”

Allison agreed a bit reluctantly. “I’ll do that, but I really think you’re wrong about these men being thieves.” She then brightened. “Hope you have a good trip!  I know you’ll enjoy Yellowstone!”

The highway across Wyoming to Yellowstone took them through the 9666 ft. high Powder River Pass. The family stopped near the top to climb around and enjoy the sight of snow in the middle of July.  The fields were colorful, with shades of purple, yellow, green, mauve, and white from all the different weeds and wildflowers.  Frank and took lots of photos, including close-ups of the delicate blue forget-me-nots.

The only color Nathan, Peter and Ashley were thinking about was black. The higher they climbed, the more they  kept an eye on the highway looking for black cars in the distance. Once a black Suburban passed by towing a camper, but they couldn’t see the occupants and it didn’t stop.

The temperature was chilly for summertime—cutlass-crossbow degrees (65) Nathan said after looking at the car’s thermometer—and the wind was brisk. They climbed around and on the rocks and hills for a while, glad to be out of the car and enjoying the scenery—so different from their home in North Carolina.

As they got back in the car, Peter drank the last sip of root beer that he’d been saving from Buffalo, and screwed the bottle cap back on tight.  “This is a crude altimeter,” Peter said, and put the empty plastic bottle in the cup holder rather than in the trash bag. “See what happens when we get down in the valley.”

The kids opted to watch a movie for the next leg of the trip, but every now and then Frank would tell them to look at a particularly colorful field or some dolomite mountains that “look like castles.” By the time they stopped at Cody, Wyoming for lunch, Peter pointed at his bottle. “Look! It’s all crumpled. The air pressure is bigger down here than up at the pass! It tells us we’re at a lower elevation.”

“Yeah, I don’t need your thingy to know that. My ears have been telling me for a while!” Ashley grumped as she closed her mouth and nose to pop her ears again.

They finally arrived at the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park at about 3:30 pm. All afternoon, they acted like typical tourists. They waded in Lake Yellowstone, stared at the bison, hiked around some mud volcanoes and  took photos of “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.” They also found a place to take Nathan’s disposable camera for overnight development.

They reached their motel in West Yellowstone at about 9:00 pm. Charlie was already asleep, but the other three swam in the motel pool until it closed at 9:30. Their room had three large queen beds—perfect for their family, and the other kids and Frank went to sleep quickly.

Nanette was restless. She was going over the facts of the mystery in her head again and again, trying to straighten it out. She wondered where the BGs were and where their Merrillville accomplice was. She wondered if they were close by.

When the cell phone rang at 11:00, she was still wide awake and sprang out of bed to quiet it before anyone else woke. Then she took it into the bathroom to answer it.

Allison Leslie was on the line. “I can’t believe you were right!” Allison said. “I’m so glad I listened to you and got the security installation finished today.  See, we were nearly robbed tonight by two men driving a black Suburban!”

“I’m so sorry!” Nanette said, keeping her voice low. “I was really hoping we would be wrong, but I’m glad they didn’t succeed! When did this happen?”

“It was only a couple hours ago—not  completely dark yet, but almost—and the store was closed.  They had a key. A key!  But where did they get a key?  When they opened the door, the security system started warning them to enter a code, and they ran away instead.”

“Were they the same men we were talking about?  The ones Josie claimed robbed her store?”

“The thieves were wearing bandannas covering their faces. They looked silly really—like cartoon bandits—but it did the job. But they were driving a black Suburban just like you expected. And the security camera caught something else!

“See, the outdoor security camera had a wide angle on the parking lot. The tape shows the black Suburban drive up, and two men in bandannas getting out. They went to the fireworks tent first, and passed out of view.  Then it shows them coming back carrying a box of fireworks and stashing it in the car. That was before they entered my shop. After opening our door, they ran back to the car and drove away!”

“Did you get the license plate number?” Nanette asked.

“They didn’t have a license plate! At least that’s how it looks on the security footage.”

“I can’t believe you have all this information so quickly! Thanks for letting me know!”

Allison sighed. “This is so disturbing to me! As soon as I found out the security alarm was tripped, I had to find out all I could. Of course, the police are handling this now. But, I knew I couldn’t sleep until I’d called you and thanked you and let you know what happened.”

Nanette and Allison talked for a few minutes more, and then Nanette returned to bed, suddenly very tired.  “What was that all about?” Frank said sleepily. “I’ll tell you in the morning,” Nanette replied.

Frank was happy to turn over and drop back asleep. Nathan, who also woke when Nanette answered the phone, was disappointed.

End of Chapter 19

Chapter 20 can be found here: Chapter 20: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle-Graders)



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