Chapter 26: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Chapter 26

“Snow in July!?” Ashley pressed her face to the car window as the Suburban wound through the mountains west of Reno, Nevada.

“Can we get out and touch it?” Peter asked.

“Just for a little bit,” Nanette said. They stopped near a trail where the kids could expend some energy and throw a snowball or two. At an altitude of more than 8500 feet, the temperature was in the 60s–considerably colder than they were dressed for. Soon they were ready to return to the warm car and get on the road again.

About an hour after leaving Reno, the family reached the parking lot at King’s Beach State Recreation area on Lake Tahoe.

“What are we going to use for towels?” Nathan asked as he took off the pants and shirt he was wearing over his bathing suit. “Ours haven’t been washed since Salt Lake and they smell like swamp monsters.”

“There’s a drug store and a beach shop across the street,” Frank pointed out. “I’ll go over and find a couple new ones.”

“I want to come too,” Nathan said, pulling his T-shirt back on. “There’s something I want to buy.”

“Me too,” Peter added.

“Not me!” Ashley said. “I’m ready for the beach!”

Nanette, Ashley and Charlie headed for the beach as the others went in search of towels. Ashley soon struck up a friendship with another girl named Paige who was visiting from Sacramento, and they started building a sandcastle. The water was cold, but Charlie had fun wading and splashing.

“Check it out!” Peter said when he came back. He had bought a toy robot claw for picking up things at a distance. He squeezed the handle and pinched the top of the girls’ sandcastle.

“Attack! Attack!” said Ashley, and she and Paige proceeded to repair the tower while Peter went on to pick up a rock, tug at the waistband of Charlie’s swim shorts and pick up a torn paper cup from the shore.

“You should probably put that in the car,” Nanette suggested. “After tossing out the trash. You don’t want to get it wet.”

“Good point,” Peter replied. “Can I have the keys?”

“May I,” Nanette said automatically and pointed to the keys next to her.

Peter grinned and picked them up with the claw. After shifting the keys to his other hand, he picked up the torn paper cup again and walked toward the parking lot, stopping at the trash cans before proceeding to the car.

“There’s a craft fair all over town today!” Nathan said to Nanette as he arrived and plopped a stack of towels next to her. “I bet we can find Josie’s cousin at a booth here. Can we go look?”

“Sounds good!” Nanette said. “Wait until your dad gets settled here and the two of us will go.”

“Okay,” Nathan replied, and went to wade in the chilly waters for a bit.

Peter came back from the car and walked over to Ashley and Paige.

“Don’t attack!  We’re almost done,” Ashley said as the two of them finished making a circle of rocks around the castle.

Peter looked serious, though, and said, “Ashley, I need to show you something.”

“I’m busy, can’t you see?” she responded.

“I really, really, need you to come over and look at this with me.” Peter turned to Paige and said, “Sorry, she can come back in a few minutes.”

“That’s OK!” Paige said brightly. “I’ll just help your little brother over here with his castle.” Paige moved over to where Charlie was trying to copy the girls’ sand castle and failing completely.

“What is it?” Ashley asked.

“Over here.” Peter led Ashley to the row of trash cans and pointed at the sand around them. Lots of footprints surrounded the cans, but Peter pointed to a set of prints that led toward the street.

Ashley looked carefully at the prints.  “It’s a star pattern! Like the one from the BGs. Is it the same, do you think?”

“I drew it, so I remember it,” Peter said. “It could be somebody who just happens to have the same brand of shoes. But it’s the exact same pattern and I think it’s the same size.”

“Should we follow them?” Ashley said somewhat reluctantly.

“I have a better idea,” Peter said. “We’ll follow them backwards, and see where they came from rather than where they went. Besides, the tracks are going towards the street and then they’ll disappear.”

Ashley let out a sigh of relief. She didn’t want to meet the BGs alone, that was for sure. The two of them slowly followed the tracks backwards as best they could. The shoe prints merged with other prints and sometimes disappeared where the ground was hard.  They could usually find a faint star print to tell them they were going in the right direction. The footprints led back towards the parking lot but diagonally away from the trash cans and away from their spot on the beach. They passed a small building of some type before coming to a sidewalk, where footprints could not be seen.

“Is this the end?” Ashley asked.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Peter said slowly, looking around. Then his eyes fixed on something in the distance. “I think not.” Peter turned back toward the water and waved at Frank on the beach. Frank waved back and than turned around to watch Charlie and Paige. Nathan and Nanette could not be seen.

“OK, Dad probably won’t look back at us for a couple more minutes, so follow me.” Peter crossed the sidewalk, passed between some small bushes and entered another parking lot just out of view from the beach.  He slipped between two parked cars in the first row of cars and jogged toward a second line of vehicles, one of which was large and black. Ashley gasped, “The black Suburban!”

“Hopefully, the BGs aren’t coming back soon,” Peter said.

“But what about the alarm?” Ashley asked, running up behind him.

“That was the fancy PT Cruiser. This is the beat up Suburban.” Peter reached out and tried the front passenger door handle but nothing happened. He could see the strap of Ashley’s stolen fanny pack peeking out from under a pile of cellophane candy wrappers.

“It’s locked,” Ashley said.

“Thank you, Miss Obvious,” Peter said, but he was looking carefully in the window at the back door handle.  “Aha! If this car was in good condition, I couldn’t break into it. I’m not a lock picker. But this backdoor lock is broken, see?” He pointed to something, then took out his multipurpose knife and did something to the door to make it open. “Voila!”

Ashley had no idea what Peter did, but pretended it was obvious and said nothing. The car was as messy as the PT Cruiser had been with fast food wrappers, dried French fries and soda bottles littering the back seats and floor. Nothing else.

Peter reached around and unlocked the front passenger door. He quietly closed the back door and opened the front. “Keep an eye out,” Peter said to Ashley as he reached down to pull out her fanny pack. The fanny pack was stuck, and he looked closer. The strap was actually coming out of a brown satchel that was wedged under the seat. Peter took hold of the satchel’s strap and  tugged at it.  Ashley stood on tiptoe and looked around. At the other end of the parking lot she saw a man turn a corner running in their direction. Someone else came around the corner, and then someone else. They were still a little ways away, but moving fast.

“I think someone’s coming! Let’s go!” she whispered urgently.

Peter succeeded in pulling the satchel out from under the seat and handed it to Ashley. Quickly but carefully he closed the door to avoid a telltale slam and the two of them ducked down and scuttled back to hide behind the cars in the first row.  They waited, holding their breath, to find out what the other people were going to do.

They couldn’t see anything from where they were hidden, but they heard the running footsteps grow louder and then a shout from someone farther away. Car doors banged open and shut and an engine roared to life. Peeking between the cars, Peter saw a black blur drive past and heard it drive around the lot, turn onto the street, and fade away.

“C’mon!” Peter took Ashley’s hand and the two of them ran past the bushes and past the sidewalk to the other side of the building. On the beach, Frank was standing up and looking in their direction. Peter waved. Frank waved back and sat down.

“Whew, that was close. Let’s go hide this in our car in case they come back.” The two of them ran to the other parking lot, and Peter hid the satchel under his backpack in the back seat before locking the door.

They hurried back to the beach and Peter jumped right in the water, not caring that it was cold. He did remember to drop his multipurpose knife and Nanette’s car keys on the towel next to Frank to keep them dry. Peter never wore anything without pockets, not even swimsuits, but usually he had enough sense to empty them before getting wet.

Ashley went back to playing with Paige, who had finished a castle for Charlie and was now making little castles for Charlie to stomp on while pretending to be a giant. Both Ashley and Peter wanted to act inconspicuous in case the BGs came back.  They decided not to tell everyone else about their find until they were away from the public beach.

Nanette and Nathan came back after awhile and Nathan seemed particularly dejected. Peter splashed water on him, and soon he was playing in the lake, putting his disappointment on hold for a bit. Nanette whispered a few words to Frank, but the whole story of their trip to the craft fair didn’t come out until they had dried off, changed clothes and were in the car on their way to lunch in Truckee.

Ashley was bursting with the news of her adventure with Peter, but Nathan started talking as soon as the car doors closed.  Ashley began to interrupt, but Peter, sitting next to her in the back seat, shushed her and put his finger to his lips. Then he winked and pointed to the satchel. He wanted to get a look at the contents before he let everyone in on their find. Ashley nodded and smiled conspiratorially.

“Mom thought that finding Josie’s cousin’s shop was a longshot in spite of the map,” Nathan was saying. “So she spent waaaay too long looking at the craft booths that had nothing to do with jewelry.”

“I did not—at least not at first,” Nanette said good naturedly. “Except there was one shop that was selling some antique glass and I paused for a moment to look. When the proprietor saw me, she came over and launched into a history of glass making. She was very talkative.”

“And Mom was too polite to cut her off,” Nathan said with a sigh.

“It was actually pretty interesting. Did you know they use different metal oxides to color glass? For example, cobalt is used to make blue, gold to make red, copper to make several colors and sometimes even uranium?”

“And while Mom was talking about rainbows and unicorns, I found the shop! The craft fair booths were mostly movable tents, but this was a jewelry store in a permanent building. But they had tables and stuff outside to be part of the fair, too.”

“You found it that quickly?” Ashley said looking up from the things that Peter was pulling out of the satchel. “Did you talk to the owner?”

“Yes, but Mom and I just missed Josie! She had been there ten minutes earlier—just ten minutes!—but she’d already left to drive to Reno and fly back to Chicago.  “We almost saw her!”

“But surely you talked to her cousin?”

“Yes she was helpful. She verified some of what we already knew about the BGs but was surprised to hear that we thought they were “bad guys.”  She said she had a display of items that the BGs had given her recently to sell and that they were planning to come by today to drop off some more items.  Mom suggested that she check to see if the items were stolen or legit, and you’ll never guess what happened next!”

“What!?” Charlie gave the desired response and Nathan continued.

“She pointed behind us and said, ‘There they are now, maybe I should ask them!’”

“Whoa! You saw the BGs?” Peter’s head snapped up.

“They were coming toward the shop, but as soon as they saw us, they turned around and took off running! Mom and I ran after them, but they were too fast. They ran down the street a ways, turned into a parking lot, and then drove off! We missed them too!!”

Peter and Ashley looked at each other wide eyed.

“Nathan was pretty disappointed,” Nanette said. “We went back to the shop and Crystal—that was the proprietor’s name—thought their actions were too suspicious not to check things out. She’s taking their items off the display until she has a chance to check whether they are stolen or not. I gave her our phone number to let us know what she finds out, as well as Jorge and Liz’s number in case we’re out of range.”

“So that’s all!”  Nathan said dramatically. “I really thought we were going to get somewhere, and they slipped through our hands again!”

“Not completely,” Peter said. He smiled slowly, wanting to draw this moment out. Everyone but Frank (who was driving) looked back at him questioningly, even Charlie.

“Tell them Peter!” Ashley said, bouncing up and down.

“What is it?” Nanette asked.

“Well,” Peter said. “Ashley and I had our own adventure. And we found the time machine!”

End of Chapter 26

Chapter 27 can be found here: Chapter 27: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders





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