Frank drove even more slowly back to the house on Bellwood Creek Circle. He worried about Ashley under the sink. He expected that she would be able to break out ever since he saw Phin using a flimsy plastic grocery bag to tie the cabinet handles shut. But would she panic instead? At any rate, she was safer under the sink than in a car with an unstable man holding a gun.
Two bags had been on the counter, but Frank had snatched the second one to prevent Phin from using them both. Then he opened the fridge, gesturing to the soft drinks to see if the Shrikes wanted some. Peter had wanted some more “altitude measuring devices” for the next half of the trip, so the family had bought a soft drink for everyone in 20-ounce plastic bottles. When Frank raised his eyebrows in question, Al nodded vigorously and his eyes lit up. Frank put all six soft drinks into the bag and brought it along with them in the car.
Silence reigned on the drive back while Al and Phin guzzled their soft drinks. Frank had plenty of time to think about Ashley back at the chalet, as well as Peter and Curt in the shed. Had they all found ways to escape? He sincerely hoped so. He also wondered what he should do if Curt hadn’t escaped. How could he safely get Curt away from the Shrikes and prevent the time machine from being fixed? Or worse?
Then there was Nanette and Nathan on the other side of the lake waiting for Tim. Had Tim showed up by now? It was past the expected meeting time. Were Tim, Nanette and Nathan on their way to look for them?
Frank tried to relax and be alert to what was going on around him. He tried to recreate the feeling he used to have when he solved mysteries as a young man. The feeling of curiosity and adventure and alertness that made him so good at sleuthing before he had a spouse and children to care about. He tried to refocus his mind on the goals they had going into this mystery.
First, they were to find the time machine. Check. Plus they had disabled it. Second, they were to find Curt. Check. But could they keep him safe? Third, they were to find the gold that was stolen from the 1800s. Frank expected that gold had all gone into the fancy house the Shrikes had bought. If they did succeed in getting the Shrike brothers put in prison, the house would probably be taken over by their disreputable great-great-etc.-grand-nephew from Merrillville. Unless he too was indicted for his help in the crimes the Shrikes perpetrated in this century.
Frank was still mulling over these thoughts as he pulled into the driveway of the yellow house and the three got out of the car. Al was careful to keep Frank in range of his firearm while Phin led the way to the shed.
Al and Frank stood back while Phin undid the combination lock. Frank realized for a moment that he was holding his breath and he tried to breathe normally.
Phin opened the lock and swung the door outward. As he did, a mass of potting soil unexpectedly rained down all over his head! At first he didn’t know what was happening. He spluttered and yelled and started pawing at his head and shoulders trying to get whatever-it-was off.
Al shouted, “Stay where you are or I’ll shoot!” and then shot into the side of the shed anyway for good measure. He was sure the dirt spray was going to be cover for an escape. Frank could see that the source of the avalanche had been a bag of potting soil that had been fixed to the top of the door like a booby trap with brads and wire. Looks like Peter kept busy, Frank thought.
No one came out of the shed. They heard no sounds except for the occasional plop of a few more sprinkles of dirt from hanging bag. The three approached the open doors looking for some sign of the captives in the apparently empty shed. Frank caught of glimpse of Peter’s shoe peeking out from under an upturned wheelbarrow, but he didn’t say anything. The space under the wheelbarrow didn’t look big enough for two people, and Frank looked around for signs of Curt.
As the three entered the silent shed, Phin suddenly broke the silence with a loud burp, caused, no doubt, by the two soft drinks he’d had in the car. Frank thought he heard a muffled giggle, but before he was sure, Al started yelling at Phin. “You’re not taking this seriously enough! We need to find Curt and get this time machine working! I have a bad feeling about this and you’re goofing around!”
Phin shot Al a dirty look and opened his mouth to reply, but Frank jumped in hoping to keep them from searching the shed. “Looks like the birds flew the coop,” he said, pointing upwards at the broken skylight. “Maybe you can follow them.”
At that, Al and Phin both lost their tempers. They started to blame each other for the escape and would have come to blows had Al not been holding a weapon.
Phin, knowing he was at the disadvantage, eventually said, “Enough arguing! We should track them. They can’t have gone far. Maybe we should leave Frank behind so we can move more quickly?” Phin was hoping that by leaving Frank behind, Al would pocket the gun for a while. Al was too trigger happy lately.
Al had some nasty words for that idea. “And have another escape!? Are you a fool or something? I’m not letting this bird out of my sight! Tie his hands, though. We don’t want him trying anything rash.”
Phin took the remaining two soft drink bottles out of the plastic bag and used it to tie Frank’s hands in front of him. Al was not satisfied. “Don’t you have anything stronger?”
Phin looked around. He didn’t think they should waste any more time looking for rope. “How about shoelaces? His own shoelaces, ‘cause I want mine.” Phin removed the shoelace from one of Frank’s sneakers and tied it next to the bag. From his past adventures, Frank knew how to hold his hands so that he could easily break out of the ties when he was ready, but he didn’t want them to know that. He pretended that the shoelace was much too tight, but Phin just smirked.
The three of them walked around the shed, and Phin picked up Curt’s trail after seeing the broken branches on the bush where Curt had landed. He followed the faint trail of leaves and scuff marks in the ground leading to the forested area behind the house.
Phin entered the woods looking for more signs of Curt. Al and Frank followed more slowly. Frank’s laceless shoe was flapping a bit and slowing him down, an effect that Frank played up. Al growled at Frank to hurry up, and always kept him in range of his gun.
Curt knew a thing or two about hiding a trail, and once they were out of sight of the Shrike’s backyard, Phin lost it entirely. Frank caught a faint sign of fallen green leaves bearing off to the right of the way that Phin was taking, and he hoped it was a sign that they were no longer following Curt.
Phin kept going doggedly on, hoping that he might luck out and find Curt after all. In the distance, they could here sirens. Phin hoped the sirens were unrelated to them, but was worried that one of the two brats might have called the police to their house. It was probably better that they stay away for a while.
Meanwhile, Frank tried to make their trail as obvious as possible and hoped Al wouldn’t catch on to what he was doing. He made scuff marks and dragged his shoe as much as possible through the pine needles and the rare bare spots on the ground beneath the pines. He unobtrusively tore bits of the plastic bag that was tied around his wrists and dropped them like a trail of breadcrumbs. Unfortunately, they were very light breadcrumbs and went flying about whenever there was a breeze. Frank resisted the urge to draw attention to them by looking back to see where they fell.
They hiked for a long time. Even beneath the trees it was hot. At one point they passed a trickle of a creek and Phin eagerly pointed at some footprints in the mud. “They went this way,” he exulted, and followed them across the stream until they disappeared in the harder ground. Frank was pretty sure the footprints belonged to a beaver. The presence of some tree stumps nearby supported his theory, but the tracks were sufficiently smeared that he could see why Phin thought he saw human prints.
They walked for another eternity uphill until they came to a little clearing in front of a rocky bluff. Phin stopped to sit on a boulder and said, “Let’s rest and finish these drinks. I’m parched and tired of carrying these bottles.”
Al took one of the bottles from Phin and they both drank, but didn’t offer anything to Frank. “Maybe there’s a cave in this rocky wall here,” Phin suggested. “They could be hiding close by.”
Al scowled. He was tiring of this wild goose chase. “Perhaps we just go back and let Frank here fix the machine. He’s from this century and is probably a whiz at mechanical things, just like everyone else here.” He took the last swig of his drink and tossed the empty bottle into some bushes. He pulled up his bandanna a mopped his forehead and turned around to look back the way they came.
A movement in the bushes caught his eye, and Al suddenly stiffened. All three men turned to see a striped skunk wander into the clearing, nose to the ground, hunting bugs. Skunks are nearsighted and this one didn’t seem to notice the humans sitting on the rocks nearby. Skunks have very few enemies to worry about.
Frank noticed that the animal walked confidently, not wobbling or stumbling, and looked healthy and awake. He doubted the animal was rabid and he knew that sometimes mother skunks were active even in daylight. As long as they stayed quiet and still, he was certain the animal would soon wander off.
Al, on the other hand, was clearly petrified. In his time, no cure existed for rabies and he had seen firsthand what the disease could do to a healthy person. He stood up, yelled and pointed.
“Hush!” Frank said. “Leave it alone!”
Phin sided with Frank. “Don’t alarm it, you fool!” He added.
The skunk heard the noise and stopped, raising its tail and stamping its foot. Frank held his breath. If everyone just stayed quiet and still…
Al’s self-control was gone from his first glimpse of the skunk. He raised his gun and fired at it three times. His shaking hand sent the bullets astray, but alarmed the skunk enough to let loose a full spray of scent before exiting the scene with its dignity intact. Frank and Phin had dodged as soon as Al started shooting, so they were hit with a little less force than Al, but all three were gagging with the scent.
Six bullets, Frank thought, trying to get his mind off the horrible odor surrounding him. One for Nannette’s tire, one at the chalet, one at the shed, and three at the skunk. I bet he only stopped shooting because his gun is a six shooter.
Al was coughing and spitting and clearly not reloading the gun. Frank saw his chance. He readjusted his wrists and slid out of his bonds. In a flash he tackled Al and wrenched the gun from his hand. Phin and Al were both so overcome by the skunk spray that they mounted a very weak resistance to Frank’s unexpected attack.
Frank started to run back the way they came when an unfamiliar voice called out, “Everyone freeze! This is the police!”
Then Frank heard another voice. This one was familiar. “Dad, we found you!” Peter called out. He sounded funny because he was holding his nose. “I’d hug you but it seems you were hit by the ultimate stink bomb! I wish mine worked that well!”
Frank smiled for the first time that afternoon.
End of Chapter 33
The next chapter can be found here: Chapter 34: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)