The Barter Building
Steven and Margaret Larson
Published by Margaret Larson at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 by Steven and Margaret Larson
Cover Art copyright 2017 by Betty Rieffer
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book remains the copyrighted property of the authors, and may not be altered from its original form. This book may not be resold. Thank you for respecting the work of the authors.
The antique store stared indifferently at the world. Its window glass had grown dim and distorted with age while it dreamed of things past, and of a time long ago.
It was one of several shops that filled the front of the huge historic Barter Building. All the shops were recent additions to the warehouse, but the others were modern and made the antique store look out of place.
For almost 150 years the Barter Building had watched the West River roll past. At first the river carried barges with trade goods. Then railroads replaced the river merchants. Finally, trucking overtook the rails. Time covered the memories inside the building’s hollow interior with layers of dust until the day it was bought by Norman Russell.
Norman moved in and began collecting, filling the warehouse with common articles from history, and preserving them while they slowly aged into treasures of the future.
But it was Walter who added the shops. Antiques was the one store in the block that had not been renovated when the front was converted into a tourist attraction. Its rusting metal sign simply spelled out “Antiques” in faded block letters. The other shops displayed brightly painted signs meant to lure shoppers inside, but the antique store didn’t seem to want visitors.
Those who did enter the sleepy shop seldom found their way into the Barter Building’s vast warehouse, and only a few had ever ventured into its depths.
The padlock dial turned smoothly beneath my fingers. I could sense the subtle catches as it moved over the internal mechanism.
When I was six, I thought my Uncle Max was a genius. He was always helping me solve a new puzzle. His favorite things were combination padlocks, and he showed me how they worked. When I caught on he gave me a pat on the back, a big grin, and said, “Attaboy!” I was hooked.
For my 8th birthday he gave me this padlock with a customized feature that let me reset its combination randomly. My task was to figure out the new sequences. I got pretty good at it and carried it with me most of the time. It helped me think.
Noah leaned back on the park bench, eyes closed, earbuds attached, and music filling his brain. We’d been friends since first grade. We were fourteen now and high school was right around the corner, but I hadn’t given much thought to it yet.
Noah already had plans in place. He was going to be a geologist, and had even picked out his college.
My future was foggy. Dad expected me to follow in his footsteps and be a mechanic. If I didn’t come up with something practical, I’d end up working with Dad at his garage, just two miles from home. He owned it, ran it, and was the best mechanic in Wheatfield County.
He’d say things like, “Son, you can’t go wrong learning how to repair a car. I wish my Dad would have had his own garage when I was your age.”
Cars were okay, but I was more interested in locks. I just wasn’t sure how to make a career of them.
My school counselor was fond of telling me, “Young man, you have a bright future. Expand your horizons. Try something new.”
The first number fell into place on the lock and I reversed the dial direction, searching for the second.
A shout broke the stillness.
“Wait ‘till I get my hands on you, Danny!”
Noah never looked up. A girl wearing a ball cap pounded around the corner and slid to a stop in front of the antique store. She was about our age. Her hand clenched a rod. It was smaller than a baseball bat and when she swept it around, a light flashed off the end. She didn’t seem to notice me. No surprise there. I was used to being invisible.
She flung open the door. Another bright flash winked from the end of the rod as she darted inside, and the door slowly closed behind her.
Twin Rivers was a small town, but we had our own legend. Not world famous folklore like the Loch Ness monster, but every bit as enticing for the local residents. Our town had a mysterious girl who carried a baton with a jewel on the tip and a treasure map hidden inside. She appeared every ten years or so and was known as the River Maiden.
Another shout startled me.
“Where are you, you little troll?”
Around the corner appeared another girl our age. I nudged Noah. He looked up and immediately unplugged his phone. He was fully aware now.
“Katelin,” he said.
Her searching gaze caught and locked onto Noah. She crossed the street to confront him. Even agitated she was stunning. Her skin was like a Greek goddess, golden brown without any blemish. Her long dark hair had been pulled back in a ponytail and several strands had escaped and now draped in loose spirals on her neck.
Her dark eyes narrowed. “I don’t suppose you were awake enough to notice which route that obnoxious little juvenile took?”
Noah shrugged, his expression one of bewilderment mixed with admiration.
She let out an exasperated sigh. “Danny?”
Danny was a well-known nuisance. At ten years old, he already had a career goal and was busy pursuing the art of being a private investigator. I wasn’t sure what mischief he had been up to, but he had obviously given Katelin the slip. Somehow the girl with the baton had taken Danny’s place in the chase.
“What secrets has Danny uncovered this time?” I asked.
She turned, finally noticing me. “Never mind. I just need to talk to him.”
What juicy bit of information could Katelin be protecting? She was new to town, but without much effort she was rapidly moving up the popularity scale.
Noah rallied and stood to his feet. “I didn’t happen to see Danny, but my guess is he’s at Frozenbog.” He gave her his winning smile.
Over the years I had watched him use that smile with unfailing success. But to my amazement, the Greek goddess didn’t fall under his spell.
“And why would he be there?” she asked, her tone tinged with doubt.
Noah shrugged. “They sell food, especially ice cream. Where else on this street would a ten year old boy go?” He took her arm, leading her across the street. “Even if I’ve guessed wrong, ice cream sounds like a good idea.”
Katelin let herself be led up the street. I trailed along behind. The storefront signs for the Barter Building shops had clearly been designed for tourists: Katz Fiddle, Counterclockwise, Antiques, Forgotten Treasures, Alexandria’s Trove.
Noah steered Katelin toward Frozenbog. The ice cream shop was the inspiration of Eric Baardsson, a native of Twin Rivers. Above the door swung a sign picturing a long boat plowing through mounds of ice cream. In the ship’s prow stood a Viking, who looked a lot like Eric, waving a steaming cup of hot chocolate instead of a sword. I could almost feel the cold air.
Eric had graduated from business school and somehow managed to convince the bank that Frozenbog was a profitable idea. From what I could see he was doing pretty well. Noah was probably his best customer. The food was good enough, but Eric created the best homemade ice cream this side of Asgard. Noah opened the door to Frozenbog and followed Katelin inside, but ice cream wasn’t on my mind.
I paused in front of Antiques. Sunlight reflected off the tinted window. My own distorted and ghostly reflection looked back at me from among the artifacts inside the showcase.
Of course the girl hadn’t been carrying a mythical baton. That was just folklore, but I was curious to see what it was that had caused all the commotion.
My counselor’s words came back to me. “Try something new.”
Well, I’d never visited the past.
My fingers closed around the cold doorknob. It turned easily. I stepped inside, the clang of a cowbell announcing my entry.
Overhead a fan slowly stirred the heavy air with a click, click, click of the blades. The air felt stale. It smelled of used books, worn leather, and ancient wooden furnishings. Even the light felt worn and dim. An ornate brass cash register sat at one end of a rough wooden counter.
The floor creaked under my feet, and a door in the back opened. The girl stepped out and I recognized her. Anna Midsummer.
I could see how Katelin might have thought she was chasing Danny. Anna’s hair was blonde, almost white like Danny’s, but she was a bit taller and a whole lot prettier.
There was no sign of the baton. She must have stashed it somewhere.
She frowned at me as if working out a math problem. “Your name is TJ isn’t it?”
“JT,” I said.
She nodded. “Sorry. I’m Anna.”
It was my turn to nod. “So, you’re interested in antiques?” I said.
“Music,” she said.
“Isn’t the music store a couple doors down?” I asked.
She smiled good-naturedly at my lame humor. “I’m taking music lessons from Walter Jensen, the owner of this building.” She shrugged. “Actually the owner of the whole block.”
It was my turn to smile at her attempt at humor. The building was the whole block. Originally it was just a warehouse before the front section had been converted into stores.
When we were little, Noah and I had spent hours talking about the wondrous things that could be in the warehouse. We imagined it as a huge vault that was the entrance to a gold mine, or a science lab where spies developed new technology, or a storage place where the government was hiding a UFO. The possibilities were endless.
The floor behind her creaked and a figure appeared in the shadows near the back. White hair floated around his head like a halo. The figure shuffled into the light taking the form of an old man. He wore a plaid shirt and a rumpled brown sweater that hung down over baggy pants the color of weathered tree bark.
Walter was as ancient as some of the oak trees in the park. He probably planted some of them. I’d seen him around, but our conversation never went beyond good morning. I couldn’t believe that in this heat he was wearing a sweater.
He grunted. “When the bell rang I thought it was that art woman coming back to complain again. I never should have rented to her.”
“Marta Vanchev,” Anna said, but he didn’t reply.
Wrinkles deepened on his lined and weathered face as he studied me with intense blue eyes. I felt pinned to the floor like a laboratory specimen.
“Well Anna,” he said, “is this a new member of our ensemble or is he campaigning for president of your fan club?”
Anna blushed and looked flustered.
He turned back to me. “What brings you into the past?”
I stammered. “I…I was looking for…someone…”
“Seems you have found more than one,” he said. “However, Anna’s time is spoken for at the moment.” He turned and shuffled back the way he came. “I’ll run through the first movement of Tchaikovsky, Anna. Try to be in your place by the time the flute comes in.” The door closed softly behind him.
“Who were you looking for?” she asked.
Who and what. I toyed with the idea of bluntly asking about the baton, but I heard voices outside.
I pointed to the door. “That’s Katelin with my friend Noah Bonner,” I said. “She’s looking for a kid wearing a ball cap similar to yours.”
Anna snatched the hat from her head releasing her short blonde curls. A bass cello started playing mournful notes from the back room. She stuffed the cap behind the counter. The cowbell clanged.
“There you are,” Noah said. “We checked every store on the block looking for you. We didn’t expect you to be in here.”
Katelin wrinkled her nose. “Things don’t change much in here over time.”
Anna stepped from behind the counter. She looked Katelin in the eye. “This store sells pieces of history.”
“That’s one way to look at it,” Katelin said under her breath. She turned to Noah. “We’ve located JT, but there’s no sign of Danny. I’m leaving. I’m going to plan something uncomfortable for that meddling little interference. She headed for the door.
Noah sprang into action. “Let me get that for you.” He reached around and opened the door. The cowbell rang again, clashing with the cello.
Noah flashed me a grin as he followed her out.
“I need to get back to my lesson,” Anna said. She started to leave, hesitated, and then turned back. “Is that a padlock you’re holding?”
Too late I realized I was still holding the padlock and thumbing the combination without thinking about it. She must think I was a real dope.
I held it up trying to look normal and forced a smile. “It’s a combination lock,” I said. Instead of shoving it in my pocket, I kept talking. “I reset the combination at random and see how long it takes me to open it.” I turned the dial with my thumb, the last number clicked into place, and the lock popped open.
Her eyes widened and she stood there staring at me. She probably thought I was crazy. I slid the padlock through a side belt loop and snapped it into place.
“Do you pick locks too?”
My face felt hotter than it had outside in the sun. “I’m studying to be a locksmith,” I said.
“Of course,” she said with a smile. She turned and took several steps, hesitated again, then looked back. “There’s a concert in the park tonight.”
“You’re playing?” I asked.
“You sound surprised.”
“No, not at all,” I stammered.
She turned and called over her shoulder. “It starts at 7:00.”
Had she just invited me to her concert? By the time I got my thoughts together she had disappeared into the back room. I opened the door and the bell clanged accusingly. The cello played on while I stood outside thinking about all the stupid things I had just said. At least I hadn’t brought up anything as lame as the River Maiden legend.
Still, the baton had to be the reason Katelin was chasing Danny. But how did Anna get her hands on it? Where did she stash it? She couldn’t have taken it to the back room. Walter would have questioned her. It had to be somewhere in the front of the shop. My bet was behind the counter.
The flute joined the cello. The one thing I remembered from music class was that classical pieces were long. There was plenty of time for a quick look.
I opened the door and stepped back inside. The bell clanged and I cringed, but the cello and flute didn’t miss a note. Something glinted on the floor. One of Katelin’s earrings. I picked it up for Noah. Even Mr. Amazing Smile could use a little help.
I made my way across the room, flinching at every creak of the floor. The music got louder and more intense.
I stepped behind the counter and smiled. Success. The baton lay on the lower shelf like a scepter of power waiting for someone strong enough to wield it. I set the earring down and grabbed the baton. The crystal winked at me as I lifted it out of the shadows.
It was just as the legend described. The tube was copper, now covered in a green patina with thin streaks of reddish brown. Cryptic writing in gold circled the tube, written on a slant like the stripes on a barber pole. A row of small crystals circled the base, but at the top was the jewel I had seen flashing in the sunlight. Multifaceted with dark blue strands running through it.
I needed more light and headed for the door. This time I avoided most of the creaks in the worn wooden floor. The crystal shimmered in the light from the window.
The baton was light. It had to be hollow. Perfect for storing a treasure map.
My fingers explored the surface. The overhead fan clicked like a timer, counting down the seconds until I was discovered.
The flute stopped. With a muttered expletive, I froze. My fingers tightened around the cold metal and I clutched it close to my chest. The musty air made it hard to breathe. The cello slowed, drawing out one last mournful tone. A drop of sweat crawled down my forehead. There was no time to get back to the counter. They would appear at any second.
I stuffed the baton beneath my shirt, tucking it under my arm. The cold metal felt like icy fingers against my skin. With a gasp I fumbled for the door, shoved it open and staggered outside, the bell’s clang echoing in my swirling head. In a zombielike gait I shuffled down the street, sweat trickling down my back, each step sending another cold shock from the metal.
I hobbled past Counterclockwise, past Katz Fiddle, and rounded the corner. Out of sight from the accusing windows I broke into an awkward run with stomach churning.
The garage at home offered a welcome sanctuary from the bright sunlight. In the shadows the crystal lost its brilliance and became cloudy and lifeless.
I had to stash it somewhere. I made my way around Dad’s Ford Mustang watching each step. Tools littered the floor around the back of the garage where the engine lay spread out in pieces. It was Dad’s prize project. One he’d been working on since I was old enough to walk.
I stopped in the back corner where an open laundry shoot hung from the ceiling over a workbench. The garage used to be a utility room before Dad took it over and converted it into a workshop. My bedroom was directly overhead.
I climbed onto the bench and poked my head into the shoot. It was much smaller than I remembered. It had been years since I used it as an escape hatch to sneak out of my room. The pieces of scrap wood I used for handholds were still nailed to the inside.
My fingers searched until I found what I was seeking. The perfect hiding place. Twisting and squirming I threaded the baton up to my hand and balanced it on the secret ledge.
The layer of dust that had covered the inside of the shoot, now rested on me. I used one of Dad’s rags and the edge of my T-shirt to clean up before going in the house. My cell phone rang as soon as I stepped inside.
It was Noah. “I need something to impress Katelin,” he said. “Something that puts me in a good light.”
The earring. With satisfaction I reached into my pocket, but it was empty. My smile faded. I had left the earring on the counter in the antique shop.
“JT? Are you listening?” Noah said. “I could use some help here.”
He wasn’t the only one. Then it occurred to me that having him at the concert might be good for both of us. “There’s a concert in the park tonight,” I said.
“Concerts are good,” Noah said. “Who’s the band? I could ask Katelin.”
“It’s not exactly a band,” I said.
“What does that mean? Not exactly. How can you have a concert without a band?”
“Well…it’s not your typical band.”
There was a long pause before he asked, “And why do we want to go?”
“I think I got invited.”
“You think? By who?”
I hesitated, then blurted it out. “Anna.”
“Anna Midsummer asked you out?” The pause was longer this time while he digested this tantalizing bit of information. “So why do you need me if you have a date?”
“It’s not really a date. She just mentioned that she’s playing in the concert tonight.”
“She’s playing? What does she play? Guitar? Drums?”
“Wait a minute. Flute? What kind of band has a flute?”
“I think they call it an ensemble.”
Suspicion crept into Noah’s voice. “Classical? You want me to go to a classical concert? I’ll fall asleep.”
“You’d fall asleep at anything cultural. Broaden your horizons. Experience something new.” I was losing him. “Katelin might be there, you never know.”
His cynicism was tangible. “And why would Katelin want to be there?”
“This is Twin Rivers. We’re a hundred miles from anywhere. What else is happening on a Tuesday night in July?”
He reluctantly agreed, but now I owed him.
I ended the call and jumped when I looked up. Mom and Dad stood together staring at me.
“Who’s Anna?” Mom asked, her eyes taking on a dreamy look.
“Anna Midsummer.” I tried to sound uninterested.
Mom’s mouth formed an O. “Millie Midsummer’s granddaughter.”
Dad snapped his fingers and a big grin spread across his face. “‘78 Gremlin GT.” He was back in work mode. Almost everyone brought their car to Garrison’s Garage and Dad knew them all. He could tell you what car everyone drove and its repair history.
We sat down for dinner. “Millie really shouldn’t be driving,” Mom said as she passed the meat loaf. “How old do you think she is?”
Dad shrugged and spooned gravy onto his plate. “Over 80. She’s been driving that car for almost forty years. Her husband bought it for her as an anniversary gift. It’s a classic now and it’s in top condition.”
“Thanks to your care.” Mom leaned over and patted his arm.
He grinned at the compliment. “I’d buy it myself if she put it up for sale.” He shook his head. “She’ll never let it go. Maybe she’ll include me in her will as her faithful mechanic.”
Mom laughed. “It wouldn’t be much good to her son.” She glanced at me. “That would be Anna’s father.” She spooned potatoes onto her plate. “I’m not sure Kyle or his wife Christina ever leave that old house. They moved in there about five years ago to help Millie, and now they both work from home. Anna is home schooled, but she gets out more than they do.” Mom looked at me. “She’s your age and likes books.”
Dad chuckled at Mom’s attempt to promote reading, and changed the subject. “Millie tells me how Kyle keeps hiding the keys to the Gremlin. But she’s a crafty old lady. She finds his hiding places, and sneaks out to drive around town.”
I was soaking up the information and feeling pretty smug. They were in parentland. It was like I was a toddler and they had forgotten I was listening. They drifted from topic to topic and too late I realized the focus had cleverly been directed my way.
Mom stirred the potatoes on her plate and tried to sound causal. “So…tell me about Anna and this concert.”
I grasped for an answer. “It’s a public concert, Mom. She probably invited everyone she knows.”
“I’m sure there’s more to it than that,” Dad said. This comment met with silence. He glanced from Mom to me. I couldn’t think of anything that would steer Mom away from her dreamy ideas, but Dad came through. “I mean…how many people could she invite to a classical concert?”
Mom took the bait. “What’s wrong with classical music?” she asked.
“It’s stuffy. It’s sleepy.” He shrugged. “It’s not country. Music should tell a story.”
“Classical music does tell a story,” Mom said.
“Well, it’s not in English.” Dad winked at me and went back to his dinner.
I was glad when I could escape to my room. I changed clothes and headed for the park on my bike. It was 7:15 when I rounded the corner of the Barter Building. I rolled my bike into the rack. Music and people filled the place. Whatever Dad might think of it, classical music was obviously a big draw.
Noah joined me and we worked our way through the crowd toward the gazebo where the three-member ensemble was playing. They all wore formal black. Walter’s white hair floated around his head and his fingers crawled over the strings. He looked like Einstein with a cello.
A man older than Dad played violin. Gray streaks sprinkled his red goatee and dark brown ponytail. He had thick hair for an old guy.
Anna stood between them, the clear flute notes rising above the string music. As she moved, her dress swayed gently with the beat and light from the evening sun glinted off her necklace.
“It’s better than I thought,” Noah said. “Maybe Katelin would like it.”
I smiled at his attempt at being polite. “What do you see in Katelin anyway?” I asked.
Noah laughed. “She’s beautiful.”
“And that’s enough?”
His expression turned serious. “She’s the only girl that knows more about geology than I do.”
I tried to imagine Katelin cataloging minerals, but couldn’t quite see it.
He turned away, obviously scanning the crowd. I spotted her first and nudged him. He followed my gaze and his face lit up. Katelin sat on a bench under a tree, an artist pad in hand. Her pencil flew over the page as she drew.
“There’s room on that bench for someone,” I said.
“That would be me,” Noah said.
He navigated past several makeshift craft booths to her bench. She looked up and scowled, but Noah never faltered. He smiled, sat on the bench, and leaned close to look at her drawing. He said something and Katelin’s scowl softened to an irritated frown.
She might be gorgeous, but Noah deserved better. I found my own bench and turned my attention to the music and watching Anna. During one long section where she waited for her turn to come in, her gaze swept over the faces in the crowd. I tensed as our eyes met. She smiled and looked back to the music.
My confidence soared. She didn’t suspect me of taking the baton. I relaxed. The bench railings pressed against my back. The flute notes chased the strings in a complicated dance until the piece ended with only the flute. The last notes hung on the air, and the audience burst into applause. A thought crept into my mind. Maybe she wasn’t even aware that the baton was missing.
She looked my way and smiled. Taking a deep breath I joined her at the gazebo railing. The two men were talking to a group on the other side.
“I see you made it,” she said.
“You’re very good,” I said.
She grinned. “Thanks.” She glanced behind her. “I have to help take down the equipment.”
I heard myself asking, “How about ice cream after you finish?” She didn’t answer and I started babbling. “You wouldn’t want to pass up Frozenbog ice cream would you? It is a warm night.” Shut up, I told myself.
She laughed. “I wouldn’t want to miss that.”
I remembered my manners. “Do you need help with the equipment?”
“No, I’ll meet you there.”
I walked away lightheaded. Noah was still helping, or hindering, Katelin with comments on her drawing so I wandered across the street.
The lookout tower on the Barter Building rose above the domed roof like a sentinel. Worn lettering carved into the stone could still be read: Barter Building 1870.
The massive wooden doors of the main entrance were no longer used. They hung on heavy iron hinges, the wood rough and scarred, the brass handles tarnished to a dull mottled brown. They looked like the entrance to a dark dungeon, but the stained glass window above could have been part of a cathedral.
To the right, Antiques and Katz Fiddle were both dark. A small stream of people flowed in and out of Counterclockwise, but most of the tourists and town folks drifted the other direction.
Through the window of Alexandria’s Trove I caught glimpses of a woman with wild gray hair. She wore a perpetual smile as she floated about the room scanning the shelves and presenting books to her customers like fine jewels.
The bookstore’s bright interior was a bigger draw than the art’s store’s subdued lighting. Forgotten Treasures was not what I pictured as a sophisticated artist gallery. It’s dim interior seemed to beckon to those seeking the more mysterious.
A stack of boxes blocked the sidewalk and the crowd eased around them, peering in the window and moving quickly past on their way to Frozenbog. If I didn’t hurry, I wouldn’t get a table.
“Oh, your timing is perfect.”
I turned to see a lady in the art store doorway. Her pale skin shimmered like moonlight and her long hair was as dark as her black dress. She was staring at me.
“I’m sorry to say these boxes are mine, and I need them taken inside. Would you be so kind as to help?” Her voice was smooth like the narrator of a documentary.
I looked past her to the dim interior. “In there?”
She laughed softly. “Yes, my art store. I’m Marta Vanchev.”
It only took a minute to set the boxes inside the door.
“Grab the large one and come with me,” she said. “Watch those pots.”
We passed two clay pots half as tall as me. I could have climbed inside, sat down, and no one would have known I was there.
“What are those for?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. They look like grain pots, but the symbols on them don’t match any known Native American culture. Back here past the abstract art please. Careful around the sculptures.”
I picked my steps carefully through a maze of tall thin podiums that held strangely shaped statuary made from wood, stone, and metal. Breaking something in here would mean working in Dad’s garage for years to pay it off.
I started to set the box down on a glass display case filled with jewelry and rustic flutes.
“Not on the case!” she said. Her voice softened. “On the floor would be great. Thanks so much.”
I lowered the box to the floor where she directed, but my focus was on a pencil sketch in a rustic frame. Two men dressed in dirty overalls stood next to a crate on a narrow gauge flat car. The rails ran off the edge of the drawing into the unknown. One man held a ledger book and the other bent over looking into the crate. They seemed to be underground.
The drawing next to it was a primitive map done with the same pencil. It showed rivers, trails, and small lakes. One trail led to a square labeled Barter Building.
“Those are unusual aren’t they?” she said. “They’re old. Maybe around 1890.”
“That’s our town,” I said. “I’ve walked all over that area, but there aren’t any lakes. Were there lakes in 1890?”
“I don’t think those are meant to represent lakes or trails,” she said.
“What are they?”
The dim lighting softened the color of her skin making her face look like a charcoal drawing. “Underground tunnels and caverns,” she said.
“Seriously? I never heard about caves around here.”
“I bought the drawings at an estate sale over in Clover County.” My face must have shown my surprise. She laughed. “All these pieces are from estate sales. This area is full of odd artifacts and historical enigmas. I never know what I’ll find when I go to a sale.”
“Do you know who drew the sketches?”
“I don’t know much about the history behind the drawings. Just that there’s a whole network of tunnels that run all over the area between the Barter Building and the East River. There are rumors about an underground storeroom and strange crystals.”
I imagined crawling through poorly lit tunnels winding through the underground. Vast, dark caverns littered with hidden jewels and crates overflowing with treasure. The image vanished as a group of noisy people passed by outside heading for Frozenbog and my table.
“Oh no, I gotta run. Anna’s going to be waiting.”
She laughed. “Never keep a lady waiting. Thanks for your help.”
I ran out the door, dodging people and receiving disgusted looks and muttered comments. Anna was disappearing into Frozenbog.
The place was packed. Every table full. Two teenagers worked frantically whipping up milkshakes and ice cream floats.
Eric’s girlfriend, Penny, danced around the crowded room with a tray balanced on her shoulder and served up Viking ship bowls loaded with mounds of ice cream draped with chocolate rigging. With perfect aim she thumped down flagons and horn shaped mugs with whip cream froth dripping down their sides.
Anna stood by the door.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said.
“Get caught in the crowd?”
“Got sidetracked helping the lady at the art store.”
“Ms. Vanchev. Odd lady.”
“She was nice enough, but now we don’t have a table.”
Eric flew by. “Tables are opening up soon!” he called. He dodged from table to counter greeting customers and calling out directions to the teens.
Anna said, “I have an idea.” She led me outside and around the corner to a window with a short line of people. “Take out,” she said. “We’ll eat across the street.”
Five minutes later we were sitting on a park bench eating Gravel Road and Bach’s Boysenberry ice cream.
“What did Ms. Vanchev need help with?” she asked.
“You went inside?”
“I’ve never been in there. It looks like…”
“A movie set.” I finished for her. “She looks like she stepped out of a spy movie.”
Anna giggled. “She moved here a few months ago from New York and has a short lease on the store from Walter. That’s all I know about her.”
“She buys art at estate sales,” I said, rather smug that I knew that.
“That’s creepy. How did you find that out?”
“She has drawings that she bought at a sale in Clover County. Said they were very old. One shows two guys in an underground tunnel with a rail cart. The other is a map of the area.” Anna didn’t respond so I added the cool part. “I thought the squiggly lines on the map were trails, but she said they were underground tunnels and caverns.”
“There are a lot of caves and tunnels all through the area between this side of town and the East River,” she said.
How could I have grown up in Twin Rivers and never known that? “Did you know about an underground storeroom and strange crystals?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Don’t know about a storeroom, but the crystals aren’t all that strange.”
“How do you know they’re not? They might have unusual powers.”
She unfastened her necklace and handed it to me. “These are crystals from a cave on my grandmother’s property. They’re pretty, but they don’t give me magical powers.”
Even in the fading twilight it shimmered. Seven light blue stones with cobalt blue threads running through them. Just like the crystal on the baton. I tilted my hand and flashes of light glinted off the cut surfaces. I handed it back. “What kind of stone are they?”
She shrugged. “Something local.”
My head spun with visions of treasure, caverns, and crystals, but thoughts of the baton pushed them aside. What was it? How could I return it without getting caught?
She fumbled with the clasp.
“Here let me help,” I said. “It’s easier when you can see what you’re doing.” My hand closed around hers. She leaned forward and bent her head. Her hair was soft as it brushed my face. I managed to get the clasp fastened. “There,” I said.
She raised her head. The necklace lay against her skin. Her eyes were like the stones, clear blue with a hint of darker flecks. She stood up. “It’s getting late.”
The lazy hot summer day was gone, replaced by deepening twilight and a cool night breeze carrying the scent of flowers.
“I have a lesson tomorrow morning at 9:00 with Walter,” she said.
That was my cue, but I was still distracted by the necklace. She said it was from her grandmother. That must make it an antique. “Do you think Walter would know anything about the crystals?” I asked.
“Uh…maybe. Why don’t you come by and ask him? I have to warn you though. He’s very good at avoiding direct answers.” A horn sounded and she waved at the car. “That’s my mom. I have to run back to the store for something.”
“See you tomorrow?” I called after her. “10:00?”
She waved without looking back. Was that a yes? The door to the antique shop closed behind her with a faint clang of the bell and my stomach tightened into a knot.
She was going for the baton. I moved into the shelter of an elm tree, pressing against the trunk, its heavy branches screening the streetlight, my body fading into the shadows, my eyes fixed on the door in grim fascination. I didn’t have to wait long.
Seconds later she came out with a clenched fist. Her eyes swept the park, her face taunt. She opened her hand and picked up something from her palm. It dangled for a moment before she let it fall back and closed her fingers around it.
Katelin’s earring. She had found it on the counter. I turned to Katelin’s park bench. Empty. The sound of a car door closing jerked my attention to the street in time to see Anna and her mother drive away.
Anna must think Katelin had sneaked in and taken the baton.
The Barter Building blocked the morning sun, draping the street in shadow. I stood outside Antiques listening to faint music drifting through the door in little waves. A cool breeze suggested a day of possibilities. Was Anna expecting me?
I shifted my weight and absentmindedly reached for the padlock at my side, but my fingers came up empty. I had purposely left it home.
Instead I wrapped my fingers around the doorknob and with a smooth steady motion pulled open the door, smiling with satisfaction when the bell gave only a soft rattle.
The overhead fan stirred banners hanging from the wall, its rhythmic clicks slightly off beat from the music. The clock showed 9:54.
I eased my way around freestanding shelves where vases, books, and china dolls sat in orderly rows. A gargoyle statue stood guard at the end of the aisle, and a suit of armor behind a treadle sewing machine rested one arm on the top as if prepared to demonstrate its qualities. An old Victrola brand record player with a large trumpet speaker on the side filled one corner. Where did Walter get all this stuff?
I peered into a glass case of old-fashioned jewelry with stones of all colors and shapes, but none of them were the same as Anna’s necklace.
The floor creaked, but I wasn’t moving. Someone else was in the shop. I ducked under some wooden birdcages and looked down the aisle.
The art lady stood by a display of old radios. Her white skin looked pale and ghostly in contrast to her black outfit. Her finger traced one radio’s intricately carved wooden case. She turned and gave me a professional smile. “Hello, we meet again.”
“Hello, Ms. Vanchev.”
“Call me Marta. I don’t think I caught your name.”
“JT,” I said.
She turned back to the display. “Aren’t they fascinating?”
The radios were arranged like a village of miniature wooden cathedrals with cloth-covered speakers that looked like faded stained glass windows.
“These little beauties entertained your great grandmother’s generation. The broadcasts often crackled with static, but that just added to the charm. That scratchy noise was discovered to be the music of the universe, a residue from creation.” She took out her cell phone. “We’ve managed to filter out the noise of nature with these modern devices. It’s odd that these marvels don’t work inside this store. They work in my shop.”
I nodded slowly.
“It’s like the present has been filtered out in this room and we are left in the past,” she said. She stared at me.
The silence grew uncomfortable, even a little creepy. The music in the back stopped. She stuffed her phone back in her purse, and swept past me.
“I’ll have to check for messages outside.” The cowbell clanged leaving me staring blankly at the door. The floor creaked and I spun around.
“I see you were right,” Walter said. “It is your friend. What did you say his name was?”
“JT,” Anna said.
“Ah yes, initials. JT. What does that stand for?”
I smiled. I was used to this. “Jeremy Thaddeus. My grandfathers. My parents didn’t want to use only one name.”
Walter nodded. “An equitable solution. But I thought the bell rang more than once. Is my hearing failing or did I miss a customer?”
“Marta was here looking at the radios,” I said.
Walter frowned. “That woman again. She’s becoming more than a nuisance. I’m beginning to wonder…”
The cowbell clanged loudly drowning out the rest of his comment. A boy of about ten marched in and scanned the shop with interest.
Walter glanced from me to Anna with raised eyebrows. “Any relation? A younger brother perhaps?”
Our immediate response was a chorus. All three of us said, “No!”
The boy crossed his arms and announced. “I’m Danny.”
Walter said, “Well, Danny, were you looking for something in particular?”
The boy tugged on the brim of his hat, a brown fedora. “No….nothing specific.” His gaze took in the crowded shelves, the hanging objects and stuffed corners. “I heard this was a creepy place.” He shrugged. “So I had to see it.”
I stifled a laugh and cleared my throat.
“This is the past,” Anna said. “It’s not creepy. There are lots of neat things in here. Things you never knew existed.”
A look of surprise crossed Walter’s face. The ends of his mustache curled up and I think there was a smile underneath. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There’s a whole world of things in the back. Would you like to see?”
“You bet!” Danny said.
Anna looked a little annoyed at him.
“I’d be interested.” I said, trying not to sound too eager. I was finally going inside the mysterious Barter Building.
Walter led us past the music room and opened a door. We crowded through onto a raised wooden platform. I only caught a vague glimpse of massive piles and stacks of junk before the door behind us closed, plunging us into a world of deep twilight. I couldn’t see much, but I could sense the open vastness of the building.
“Wait here,” Walter said. “This place is a little tricky if you don’t know where things are.”
His footsteps fell in hollow echoes as he disappeared into the darkness, leaving us alone. I felt like a child at night when everyday things look sinister. Misshapen shadows stood before us like an army of silent, menacing giants.
A muffled boom sounded followed by three more. With each one, the light spread, dim at first, then growing and expanding the room into one enormous open space.
The army transformed into stacks of crates and tall shelving. Bare brick walls rose up to where two open lofts, one on each side, overflowed with mounds and mounds and mounds of more stuff. The walls continued up, curving inward to form the domed roof.
Even the floor was made of the sparkling bricks, though the years had left a heavy layer of dirt and grime that blocked all but a faded twinkle here and there. Bicycles perched on top of furniture, and car grills leaned against pianos to form an open walkway. Piles of metal signs and cardboard posters threatened to spill into the aisle.
A cart like the one in the pencil drawing sat on narrow gauge rails. The tracks ran down the center aisle around a huge pillar that disappeared into the ceiling and became the lookout tower.
Everything was tarnished, rusted, and weather stained. The scent of engine oil mixed with the smell of musty cloth, old paper, and worn leather creating a soup of aged odors. I rubbed my nose.
Like a ghost from another time, Walter appeared around the column, climbed several steps, and joined us on the platform. With a heavy sigh he sank into a plush leather executive chair.
Danny pointed to an odd oak cabinet filled with tiny drawers. “Is that where you keep shark’s teeth and fossilized bones?”
Walter laughed. “Nothing that exotic I’m afraid. Have a look.”
Danny opened one of the drawers and his face fell in disappointment. “Index cards.”
“Yep. It’s called a card catalog. I got if from a library when they modernized to computers.”
Danny read one of the cards. “The Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein.”
“Try the other side,” Walter said. “I recycled the cards to inventory items in the warehouse.”
He flipped it over and read, “1928 Model T headlight. Aisle 23, Shelf 11, Box 9.”
“This platform used to be the foreman’s station when the railroad owned the building,” Walter said. “I use it now for my bookkeeping office.”
Anna patted the top of a cheap folding table. “You need a real desk.”
Two brass pipes with flared openings arched up and pointed at the table like tall metal lilies growing out of the wooden floor. Danny wrapped his fist around one like he was holding a microphone. “What are these for?” he asked.
“It’s a speaking tube,” Walter said. “The other end is inside the shop. You can speak into it and a person working the cash register can hear you and talk back. The other one runs all the way up the tower.” Walter’s arm swept toward the column. “Stairs inside lead up to the Vista Room at the top.”
At one time the column had been covered in painted plaster. Now there were small sections where the paint was chipped and plaster had fallen off revealing sparkles in the bricks underneath.
Walter patted Danny on the shoulder. “They used to send boys about your age up there to watch for barge traffic on the East River, but only in half hour shifts.”
“That would be a great job,” Danny said.
Walter shook his head. “Not always so nice. In the summer it’s like a furnace up there. There are windows, but they don’t open. On a sunny day it can reach 110 degrees by early afternoon.”
“How cold does it get in the winter?” I asked.
“They didn’t use it much in the winter since the river was frozen over and they didn’t need a lookout. But the records say that a cup of hot coffee in that room could freeze solid in less than an hour.”
“When was the last time someone was up there?” Anna asked.
With an effort, he pulled himself out of the chair. “I haven’t unlocked that door or climbed those stairs in years. Let’s see if the key got put back.”
He took down an old calendar. Behind it a small box with a keypad was bolted to the wall. He leaned forward blocking everyone’s view but mine, his large fingers clumsily punching in the numbers. 1-9-7-8. The year of Millie’s Gremlin.
The box beeped and opened. Inside an array of keys hung from hooks with small brass identification tags.
Walter’s gnarled finger brushed over the keys and picked one. He closed the box, turned around, and met my gaze. Once again those intense blue eyes were examining me.
“Might be good to have someone check it out and see if everything is intact up there. This key might work if the lock hasn’t seized up.”
Danny reached for the key, but Anna put her hand on his shoulder. “JT is pretty good with locks,” she said.
I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not, but Walter held out the key and my hand closed around the cold metal.
Walter continued. “If you get it open, be careful on the stairs. Speak into the tube when you get to the top. I’ll be here.” He settled back into the chair and closed his eyes.
Danny charged toward the column. Anna followed at a more dignified walk. As usual I trailed along behind. The aisle led past a bookcase that leaned at a slight angle, the wood bowed with the weight on its overstuffed and cracked shelves. I paused at the rail cart to look inside. It was empty. Danny and Anna were waiting at the column in front of a solid oak door with black iron hinges.
I opened my hand. The brass tag was stamped Vista Room. There wasn’t much to the key. It had two fat teeth, a long barrel, and a T shaped handle. A simple skeleton key. I had a collection of them at home. It fit into the lock, but refused to turn.
I could feel Anna watching. I had done this a hundred times, but never with an audience. Wiggling the key I tried to connect with the mechanism. Finally the teeth fell into place and I gave it a hard twist, hoping it wouldn’t break off inside.
It gave way with a loud clack. I pulled and the door reluctantly opened sending down a shower of dust. We could see only the first few stone steps before they curved upward and out of sight within the column.
“Nice job,” Anna said.
Danny took off at a run up the stairs.
“Wait up,” Anna called, and tore off after him.
That was a fleeting moment of glory. The door swung closed behind me shutting out the warehouse, but it wasn’t completely dark. The walls gave off a soft glow, reflecting light from somewhere high above.
I climbed the steps two at a time, but they seemed to go on forever. My legs were burning and I was panting when I finally reached the top and emerged into a small round room.
Anna was leaning forward with her hands on her thighs catching her breath.
Tall windows filled the walls. Sunlight beat in. The air was heavy and stifling. Skylights in the ceiling let in even more heat. It was like sitting in a closed car in the middle of July.
Danny stood on an overturned crate next to a brass telescope. It swiveled on a pole looking out toward the East River. His hands gripped the tube as he peered through the eyepiece.
“This is soooo cool,” he said. “I can see my house. And the river. And the old brick factory. The whole town.”
“Let me take a look,” I said.
He jumped off the crate. I took my turn at the eyepiece and the brick factory came into view. It looked pretty much the same as when Noah and I had explored it, but from here it was easier to see the damage that time had brought to the structure. Weeds and small bushes had taken over. Several shingles lay on the ground and it looked like more windows were broken than I remembered.
A bush near the entrance moved and the door opened part way. A girl poked her head out. I tried to focus in on her, but just caught a glimpse of dark hair before she stepped back inside.
Behind me Danny shouted. “We’re up here!” I turned. He had found the speaking tube.
Walter’s voice came back with a metallic ring. “Everything intact? No broken glass or leaks?”
Danny looked at me for an answer.
I stepped closer to the windows. They had been tinted a blue gray, but it didn’t seem to keep out any heat. Thin lines, almost too faint to see, swirled across the glass in random patterns. They appeared to be cracks, but I couldn’t feel them. I decided they must be part of the design. Everything was hot and dry like a desert.
“No damage,” I said.
“All secure in the tower!” Danny called through the tube.
“Well, come on down when you’re ready,” Walter called.
I looked back through the telescope, but there was no sign of anyone. The girl had either moved on or was inside exploring.
From the windows I could look down on the Barter Building roof. Several dirty skylights let light trickle into the warehouse below. One was centered over the main doors. It must have made for an impressive entrance when new.
Anna drew her finger over the top of an intricately carved cabinet leaving a streak in the deep layer of dust. She rubbed her thumb and finger together to brush it off. “Needs to be cleaned up, but this could be a pretty desk,” she said.
“That’s a desk?” I asked.
“It’s called a secretary’s desk,” she said.
She folded down the front panel and it locked into place becoming a desktop. Inside were slots, cubbyholes, and small drawers.
She picked up a bottle, held it to the light and shook it. “Ink pot,” she said, “and there’s still ink inside.”
Danny squeezed in front of her. His hand shot out to a small thin stick with a metal point.
“That’s the pen,” Anna said. “You have to dip the end into the ink and then write.”
“Like in pirate movies,” Danny said.
Several sheets of paper filled one slot. Fancy script across the top read Barter Building, Twin Rivers. “Stationery,” I said.
We searched through the desk like we were on a scavenger hunt and found two Indian head pennies, a couple pencils, a magnifying glass, and envelopes that matched the stationery.
In the last drawer were two stamps and a small metal tube about the size of lipstick. “What’s this?” Anna asked.
It was finally my turn to be brilliant. “It’s a match holder.”
She looked skeptical. “Matches?” She unscrewed the lid and tipped it over. Six matches slid out. “How did you know that?”
“My great grandfather had one of those. They used to take them hunting. Kept the matches dry so they could always have a campfire.”
Danny reached for the stamps.
“Be careful with those,” Anna said. “They’re probably worth a lot of money.”
“It says they cost 2 cents,” Danny said.
“Yeah, but I don’t think those are modern stamps,” I said. “That’s probably what a letter cost the last time this desk was used.”
He gently laid the stamps back in the drawer. Anna put the tube of matches back and closed up the desk.
“What’s this?” Danny stood next to the window. A metal box sat on a ledge. It was about 2 feet tall and made out of unfinished gray metal like an old bucket. Before I could stop him he pulled on a door in the side. It creaked in protest, but opened.
“That’s a lantern,” I said. “See the wick? It’s charred and the inside is black from the smoke.”
I rotated it. On the other side was a round glass window with shutters.
“A signal lamp,” Anna said.
I nodded and flipped a lever. The shutters squeaked open and closed like window blinds. “You could send messages.”
Danny jumped up and pumped his arm. “In secret code!”
“They must have used it to signal the boats or men on the East River,” Anna said.
“Let’s light it,” Danny said. “I bet I could see the light from my house.”
“Not in the daytime,” I said. “And if you touch the metal when it’s lit you’ll burn your hand.” My T-shirt had spots of moisture and clung to me. “Come on. There’s lots more stuff downstairs to see, and it’s cooler down there.”
Danny brightened and bounded down the stone steps. By the time I reached the bottom he was already on the platform in deep conversation with Walter.
Actually, Danny was doing all the talking. The old man was comfortably tucked into his chair, his long legs stretched out, one elbow pressed into the armrest, and his hand supporting his head. A relaxed smile made his wrinkled face look content. At first glance I thought he was half-asleep, but as we climbed the stairs onto the platform I could see his eyes were alert and sparkling.
“I wanted to light the lantern,” Danny said, “but JT wouldn’t do it.”
Walter’s gaze met mine and he winked. He looked back at Danny. “I think it’s been close to 100 years since anyone’s lit that lantern. What did you think of the tower?”
“It was really hot,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to be up there for very long.” I handed him the key. “All locked up.”
“There’s a beautiful desk up there,” Anna said. “You should bring it down and use it instead of that ugly table.”
Walter chuckled. “Down all those stairs?” He shook his head. “But there is a desk already down here that I have my eye on. It’s way off in the back corner.”
I expected to follow the rail tracks, but he led us off the main path. I thought the store was a jumble of mismatched items, but this was like a catalog had exploded and all the items on its pages were spread out before us.
A twisting aisle led past boxes overflowing with toys and old household items. Musty smells came from a water stained trunk. Walter set aside a broken chair and pushed further into the heap. The path through the junk twisted and turned so many times I wasn’t sure which direction we were headed.
“Careful on the corners,” Walter said. “Some of these piles are not too steady.”
Bolts of cloth and rolled carpets stuck out of a tottering pile. I stepped around them and found myself in a library.
Anna whispered, “Doesn’t this look like a room right out of an English castle?”
A good description. Dark mahogany bookcases stood side by side forming the walls. A faint smell of leather came from books large and small that stood in orderly rows upon the shelves.
Walter squeezed through an opening between two bookcases like stepping through a secret passage. Danny darted after him.
I started through and looked back. Anna was reading the book titles. She gently blew dust away and ran her hand lightly over the bindings. “First editions,” she said softly.
“Anna? JT?” Walter’s voice sounded far away. “Coming?”
I stepped back to let Anna go through the opening, but she smiled and said, “After you.”
I stepped through and recoiled in surprise, almost backing into Anna. She giggled.
We were in what my English teacher would call a formal parlor. A gentleman in a tweed jacket with long tails eyed me over the top of a newspaper. His pant legs were tucked into shiny black boots and his bowler hat tipped at a slight angle, giving him a roguish look.
Next to him stood a lady wearing a long green dress. Puffy sleeves tapered down to her wrists, a white sash circled her small waist, and just the toes of her shoes showed beneath a row of ruffles. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head in a swirling mass and her gaze seemed to question our interruption.
Danny laughed. “Thought they were real, didn’t you? They’re just dummies.”
“Mannequins,” Anna said.
“Let me introduce you,” Walter said. He bowed to each of them. “This is Jerome and Miss Natalie.”
What was I supposed to do? Shake hands? There was something too real about them. Their eyes looked through me as if gazing at something that only they could see.
Anna grinned and curtseyed. “Pleasure to see you again.”
“Um, yeah,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
Walter turned and shuffled out of the room. “Desk is back this way.”
I whispered to Anna. “You knew that was coming.”
She grinned and followed the old man leaving me alone with the mannequins.
It was their faces. Jerome seemed to be smirking and Natalie’s tiny smile reminded me of Katelin’s assumed superiority. Now they had me thinking of them as people. I shivered and hurried out of the room, glad to leave them behind.
Freestanding shelves and stacks of crates created walls for more makeshift rooms. I was careful to let Anna go first as we passed through a long narrow art gallery lined with painted portraits and a workroom where primitive tools hung neatly on pegboard. They reminded me of class field trips to museums, nothing very interesting.
But my steps slowed when we entered a room littered with documents the size of tablecloths. A honeycomb of shelves made from rough wood covered one wall, its slots stuffed with the long rolled up sheets.
Maps and drawings covered the other walls, some framed, and some pinned in place with thumbtacks. Still more had slithered off tables and lay in piles on the floor.
One map lay draped over a desk, its paper yellow and brittle, the edges cracked and curling. Sailing ships and fanciful sketched figures filled the corners, and unfamiliar place names scrawled across the land in spidery letters.
I hurried to catch up to the others, emerging into an open space at the back of the building where a timid ray of light squeezed through a dirty cracked window.
Danny wiped a swath across the grimy glass with his sleeve and tried to look out, but he just succeeded in smearing the dirt. He ran his hand over the window latch. “The lock is rusted.”
“That hasn’t been opened in a long time,” Walter said. “The wind always blows the other direction.”
The rail tracks had reappeared. They traveled over the brick floor to a square wooden section with thick metal rings bolted to the corners. Braided cables threaded through the rings, traveled up through a large opening in the loft, and wrapped around gigantic gears in the ceiling.
Walter followed my gaze. “That’s a lift,” he said. “Used to be steam driven.” He shoved aside a clothes rack to reveal a tall iron lever and a speaking tube in the floor. “The operator used the lever to raise and lower the lift so they could store things in the loft.”
“That would be some ride,” Danny said.
Walter chuckled and looked around. “I was sure I left that desk back here.”
“Were you thinking of that roll top desk?” Anna said. “It used to be under the other loft.”
Walter’s eyes lit up. “I remember now. I rolled the desk part way.”
“It’s on wheels?” I asked.
“No, it’s sitting on rollers.”
To my relief our route back didn’t go through the rooms or past the mannequins. We followed the rails instead. We were almost back to the platform when the store’s cowbell rang, a distant, faint clang.
A voice called, “Danny! Are you in here?”
Walter stopped and raised his eyebrows at Danny. “Friend of yours?”
Danny shook his head. “Client.”
Walter looked puzzled as Penny stepped out onto the platform.
“Gotta go,” Danny said. He swaggered up the steps.
“Got any stories for me?” Penny asked.
“Ice cream first,” Danny said, and they left together.
Walter cleared his throat. “Well, it seems we’ve been entertaining a private investigator working for the local newspaper.”
We stood in silence as this sunk in. Along with waiting tables at Frozenbog, Penny wrote for several local papers. Small town stuff like pumpkin festivals, art shows, concerts in the park, even a promotional piece for Frozenbog.
Was Danny trying to get a scoop for Penny or did he have his own agenda? What did the kid know about the baton? Was he here today looking for it?
I couldn’t tell what Anna was thinking. She frowned as she fingered something in her pocket. Katelin’s earring?
Walter chuckled to himself and led the way through a new part of the maze. We moved down a narrow side trail where car parts littered the area. Dad would love sorting through this stuff.
“Right back here,” Walter said.
A stained and worn chest blocked the path. It looked exactly like the kind of pirate chest that Noah and I imagined. The leather carrying handles, once thick and solid, now sagged with age. The only thing holding the chest together were the black iron bands riveted with studs to the scarred wood.
“We need to move this ugly chest out of the way,” Walter said. He pushed on it. The chest scraped the floor, moving a begrudging inch before grinding to a stop in a cloud of crumbling dirt and rust.
I jumped forward. “Wait! Hold on.”
My hand closed around the discolored handle, my fingers sliding into indentations worn into the weathered leather. How old was this thing?
“Ready?” Walter asked.
I nodded. Together we half lifted, half dragged it out of the way. I knelt down on the dirty floor and ran my thumb over the grimy seam where the lid connected. A chunk of debris fell off uncovering a keyhole in the middle of an imbedded combination lock. I tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t budge.
“JT?” Walter said.
Walter and Anna were staring at me. I jumped to my feet and wiped my hands on my shirt. “Well…that’s out of the way.” I said. “Now, where’s that desk?”
Walter nodded behind him to a massive roll top desk with full drawers down both sides of the legs. It sat on dollies.
We got it moving, dodging scattered things and weaving our way up the aisle. I looked back at the chest. Light gleamed briefly on the lock, almost as if it winked at me.
“Watch those boxes,” Anna said.
I jerked my gaze to the desk, narrowly missing a box of hubcaps. We made it back to the platform sliding to a stop at the steps.
Walter put his fists on his hips and looked from the desk to the steps several times. “This was always the juggernaut in the plan. How to get it up the steps.”
“We could take out the drawers,” Anna said. “Make it lighter.”
Walter grunted. “That would help some.”
I started pulling out drawers and setting them aside. They were mostly empty. A few dried out rubber bands stuck to the insides and a stray pen or paper clip rattled in the bottom. One had a plastic pencil box filled with broken jewelry.
“Let me see that,” Walter said. He stirred the contents. “Not much here, but Mr. Pham might be able to do something creative with it.”
“Mr. Pham?” I asked.
“He manages Counterclockwise next door,” Anna said.
“Repairs clocks, watches, just about any intricate mechanical device,” Walter said. “When he’s feeling creative he designs jewelry. Has the hands of a surgeon.”
The last drawer had an envelope.
“It’s addressed to Montgomery Ward,” I said. “Even has a 2 cent stamp, but it’s not sealed.” I raised the flap and slid out a paper. “It’s an order form for vacuum tubes. Dated 1932. Guess they never got their shipment since it didn’t get mailed.”
“I’ll take that,” Walter said. “It’s too late for it now.” He tucked it into his pocket. “It will be good for later, but I’ll have to figure out something in the meantime.”
Walter’s comments were getting more cryptic. I wasn’t even trying to figure them out anymore. I raised a corner of the desk a couple inches and eased it back down. Taking out the drawers hadn’t solved the weight problem.
“Maybe there’s something heavy inside,” Anna said. She slid up the roll top. A polished piece of wood, crammed into the desk area, filled the whole space.
“Oh,” Walter said, “that’s where that got to.”
With great care Anna dislodged the piece of wood. She turned it over. Wires covered the surface, strung from one edge to the other in a repeating pattern.
“What is it?” I asked.
She looked up, her eyes sparkling. “It’s a dulcimer.”
“How do you play it?”
“We’ll need the hammers,” Walter said. He reached into the desk and brought out two wooden sticks with knobs on the ends.
Anna set the dulcimer down. Walter struck the wires with the hammers, playing a short tune. It had a light, pretty tone. Anna looked up at Walter. “Will you teach me how to play?”
He made a couple adjustments to the tension on the strings and struck a few more notes. “I could use some help around here,” he said. “How about you two agree to a few hours a week for the summer. I could pay you the minimum.” He scratched his chin and said, “I’ll also throw in the dulcimer and a few lessons.”
“Count me in,” Anna said.
“What about you JT? Care to make a deal? Let’s see…” He crossed his arms and squinted at the ceiling. “What we need is a venture with a challenge, a bit of mystery, and the possibility of a payoff.”
“What did you have in mind?” I asked.
The corners of his eyes crinkled a bit. I thought he was smiling inside, but it didn’t seem like a con. Once again I felt like I was being sized up.
“There’s that old chest,” Walter said. “Doesn’t look like much…”
“Do you have the key?” I asked.
“No…at one time it was kept in the lock. Fancy looking thing. Skeleton key with a crystal in the head.”
“Then you know what’s inside,” I said.
He shook his head. “Never had it open. The key unlocks the disk so it can rotate, but I don’t know the combination.”
Finding the combination would be no problem. The chest was too heavy to be empty and no one would use that kind of lock to protect something worthless. Working in the warehouse would give me the opportunity to look for the key.
“Okay,” I said.
Walter grinned. “Excellent.”
“We need more help with the desk though,” I said. “I think I can get my friend, Noah to help.” I pulled out my phone.
“That won’t work in here,” Anna said.
“But isn’t the building wired for WIFI?”
Walter shrugged. “It’s like the Bermuda Triangle. Your signal gets lost in here, absorbed by all the stuff.”
That didn’t sound right. The old guy must not be too tech savvy. I slid my phone into my pocket. “I’ll call him later.”
“Great. Then we have a deal,” Walter said. He patted his pockets and pulled out a pencil stub and the Montgomery Ward letter. He slid the envelope into one of the cubbyholes in the desk. For a moment he paused, thinking, then shuffled up the steps to get an index card. He scribbled a note and placed it in the box of jewelry pieces.
“Let’s leave this for Mr. Pham.”
Inside the shop, he went behind the counter where a row of cabinets lined the wall. He opened one and we could see straight through into the shop next door. A music box with a repair ticket sat inside. Walter took it out and placed the plastic box in its place.
“Pham checks the cabinet regularly. Makes it easy for both of us.”
“When do we start work?” I asked.
He crinkled his face and rubbed his temple. “Well, let’s see. I have deliveries to make tomorrow evening. I’ll need a power nap during the day. How about day after tomorrow?” As we were leaving he called after us. “Wear old clothes. The past can be a dirty and uncertain place.”
The door closed, leaving us blinking in the bright sunlight.
“What was that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“I think he’s talking more to himself than to us. My grandmother does the same thing.”
“Seems like we were in there for days,” I said.
Anna laughed. “It always feels that way when I come out. Like time passes more slowly inside.”
There were plenty of booths at Frozenbog this time. Eric came to wait on us.
“How’s it going? Keeping busy this summer?”
“We are going to be working at Antiques,” Anna said. “Cleaning up and helping Walter organize things.”
“Well, if you find anything with a Viking feel to it,” Eric said, “let me know. Always looking for things that will give the place the right flavor. Authentic stuff would be awesome, but anything that looks Norse would be good. Penny would be interested in any historical stories about the area if you hear any.”
I glanced around expecting to see Penny and Danny at one of the booths with their heads together talking about a breaking story at Antiques. But there was no sign of either of them.
Eric whipped out a pad and pencil. “Now what can I get for you?”
It didn’t take long for the food to arrive. Maybe I was just hungry, but the chili dogs and fries were better than usual.
“I missed some text messages,” Anna said.
“I missed a call from Noah. Odd that phones don’t work in the back of this building. They work fine in the stores.”
“Except in Antiques,” she said.
I set my glass down with a thump, startling us both. “Did you notice there was a speaking tube next to the lift and it ran down into the floor?”
“There must be a room underneath.”
She pressed her lips together. “He’s never mentioned any rooms underneath the building.”
“But you said he’s good at not giving out information. What if the lift goes down as well as up?”
“Okay. Then they could store stuff in the basement.”
“Remember the sketches in the art store? They showed a tunnel leading underneath the building.”
She finished her chili dog before answering. “So you think if we rode the lift down, we’d find tunnels.”
I hesitated. “I’m not sure. Maybe a tunnel leading to a storeroom.”
“Running the lift would make a lot of noise,” she said. “It might not even be safe.”
I pondered that for a moment. “There are stairs leading up. There must be stairs leading down.”
She nodded. “We need more information on these tunnels before we proceed.”
“What do you suggest? A tour guide?”
“That would be perfect, but I think we’ll need to settle for a history book.”
Was she serious? A history book?
She laughed at the look on my face. “Alexandria’s Trove is right next door and they sell books. It’s run by a retired history teacher. Old, but nice.”
I followed her outside, but I was pretty sure this was a dumb idea.
When we opened the door, the sweet smell of vanilla and baked apples from a potpourri pot welcomed us. Light glinted off modern fixtures giving the illusion of open space. One row of books on a clear shelf faced outward showing off their covers. Others rested primly on gleaming metal easels. A large cabinet with glass doors displayed books inside like a bakery showcase.
My instincts were right. We were the only customers. The lady with the wild gray hair and permanent smile came rushing out.
“Anna,” she exclaimed. “How nice to see you. And you brought a friend.”
Her voice sounded young and pleasant, more like she should have taught public speaking than history.
“Hi, Ms. Fairfield,” Anna said. “This is JT.”
She shook my hand. “You remind me of someone. What’s your last name?”
“Garrison,” I said.
“Oh, of course. I went to school with your father, Vince. Great mechanic. Wouldn’t have anyone else work on my car.” She sized me up and probably assumed I was into cars as well. Not the type to be looking for Shakespeare. Little did she know. I had a whole collection of books. Okay, they were about ciphers, locks and keys, but they were books.
Anna got right to the point. “We heard about the network of tunnels and caves throughout this area and we wanted to find out about their history.”
Her eyes lit up. Anna obviously spoke her language. “Ah, yes. The tunnels. There hasn’t been a lot written about them.” She looked up with one finger pressed against her lips. “Hmmm.”
I breathed in the sweet aroma. Apple cobbler and ice cream sounded good about now.
She snapped her fingers and thoughts of dessert vanished. “Fortunately you’ve come to the right place,” she said. “I have a book by a local self-published author. He isn’t backed by a university or the mainstream educational associations, but he has lived here all his life. His writing is a bit sentimental and borders on the sensational at times, but it might give you a flavor for what you’re seeking.”
He sounded strange. “Does he think the tunnels were dug by space aliens?” I asked.
She laughed. “Oh no. He’s not that far out.” She scurried around the maze of tables coming to an abrupt halt at a bookshelf in the corner. She ran her finger over the spines and plucked a small paperback off the lower shelf. “Here we are.”
The title was right to the point. Wheatfield County Caves and Tunnels. I bought the book and we stepped outside, leaving the comforting aromas behind.
I turned the book over and read the description next to the author’s picture. “Jasper McBride is a long time resident of Wheatfield County. As a boy he spent countless hours exploring the many caves and tunnels around Twin Rivers. In this book he takes you on a trip through the underground passages and brings this fascinating world to light. Anyone interested in Wheatfield County will find this a fun and detailed read.”
“He doesn’t look crazy,” Anna said.
His picture seemed a bit smug and self-assured, but not too eccentric. “He’s really old,” I said.
“About the same age as my grandmother.”
“Maybe she knows him. If he’s still around.”
Anna shrugged. “Could be. She seems to know all the old people in town.”
“Maybe you should ask her about the history,” I said.
Anna started laughing. “You’re right. Why don’t you come over tomorrow and meet her. We can ask her about the tunnels together.”
On my way home I decided to stop at Noah’s. I sent him a text and he answered that he was on his way. Both his parents worked so no one was there when I arrived. His home was a gingerbread house. Turrets anchored the corners and lacy woodwork outlined the windows and the big mahogany doors. The porch stretched the length of the house.
It wasn’t that Noah’s family was rich. The house was dated and needed a lot of repairs. His dad worked as a handyman. He could do everything from carpentry to plumbing to electricity, even a little heating and air conditioning. The house had become a family restoration project, but they weren’t making quick progress.
I settled into a creaky wicker chair and propped my feet on the railing. A dusty cloud came up the driveway and when it settled, Noah emerged. I could just make out the red paint on his bike beneath a layer of dirt. He dropped his backpack on the porch and pulled up a second chair.
“Rock hunting?” I asked.
He nodded and retrieved a couple of plain and rather dirty rocks from his pocket to show me. “Petrified wood and fossilized bone.”
“If you say so,” I said. Maybe they would be more interesting after he cleaned them up.
“Where’d you spend your day?” he asked.
“In the past,” I said.
“How far back?”
I did some quick calculations. “Maybe 120 years.”
He thought for a moment. “Antiques?”
I nodded again. We sat in silence for a moment.
“How’s it going with Katelin?” I asked.
“She’s mostly polite,” Noah said.
“Mostly? You could hang out with almost any girl in town.”
“There’s something different about Katelin,” Noah said. “She’s…”
Noah grinned. “Not yet.”
I chuckled. “I could use some help moving a desk,” I said.
“Where is this desk?”
“Antiques. In the back.”
“You’ve been in the warehouse? What’s back there?”
“No spaceships. No Aladin’s treasure. Lots of junk. And…”
“And?” He raised his eyebrows.
“This really old chest with a super fancy lock. It’s heavy. There has to be something inside.”
Noah sat up. I had his full focus now. “Is it for sale?”
“Better than that,” I said with a big grin. “Walter is giving it to me.” I watched his surprised face with satisfaction. “Well, not for free. Anna and I are doing some clean up for him this summer and the chest is part of the payment.”
“Does it come with a key?”
“No…but that’s the challenge,” I said. “Better than rock hunting.”
Noah considered this. “You think it’s a treasure chest?”
“Could be. I’ll need help carrying it out of the shop and cracking the lock. Split 50/50. What do you say?”
“I’m in,” Noah said.
We sat for a while dreaming about the treasure in the box.
“So what’s the old guy giving to Anna?” Noah asked.
“Some kind of musical instrument. It’s strings on a board and you hit the strings with these wooden hammer like things.”
He gave me a pitying look for my ignorance. “That’s a dulcimer.”
“Maybe she’ll add it to the Tuesday concerts,” I said.
“I’ll work that into my Katelin plan.”
My arrival home fit perfectly in time for dinner. Dad was already seated and Mom was setting the casserole on the table when I slid into my chair.
I glanced at their faces, but they weren’t looking my way. Silent communication was flashing between them like signal lights.
I hadn’t done anything too despicable recently. Nothing they knew about. I was sure they hadn’t found the baton. It could only mean one thing. They were getting ready to present their yearly summer improvement plan for my life.
“So how did you spend your day?” Dad asked.
Uh oh. That sounded like a summer job offer at Garrison’s Garage. I had to tread lightly.
“I did some…volunteer work today.”
Surprise flitted across Mom’s face. “Doing what?” she asked.
“Cleaning up at Antiques. Walter offered me a part-time job.”
“Really,” Dad said. “And how much is he offering to pay?”
“The minimum. But he’s also throwing in an old chest.”
“Is there anything in it?”
“There has to be. It’s heavy.”
Dad snorted. “So is a tire, but it’s full of air. Could be the box itself is heavy and it’s empty. Or it could be full of bricks. Did you look inside?”
Dad leaned back in his chair and folded his arms as he considered this information. “No key?”
I shook my head. “Walter thinks it’s somewhere in the warehouse.”
Dad laughed. “So is a lot of stuff. A key is a pretty small thing to find in that junkyard. Given any thought to how you’re going to find it?”
Mom said, “He’ll figure it out, Vince. Do you start tomorrow, dear?”
“No, the next day. Anna invited me over to meet her grandmother tomorrow.”
“You’re going to meet Millie?” Mom sounded impressed.
Dad’s eyes lit up. “Check out the Gremlin while you’re there. Maybe she’ll take you for a ride.”
Mom clunked her fork down. “Don’t you dare get into that car with Millie. She’s too old to be driving. And she’s peculiar.”
“Now, Gina,” Dad said. “Millie’s not strange.”
Mom’s eyes widened.
“Okay, she’s a bit eccentric,” Dad said. He turned back to me. “Don’t ride in the car, but check it out. You’ll like it.”
Mom started clearing the table. “I guess you’ll need to take something with you.” She was talking to herself as she carried the plates into the kitchen. “I could make a pie, or cake. Maybe cookies would be better. Yes, cookies would be best.”
I looked at Dad for help, but he shrugged. “There’s no getting around it. You’ll have to take the cookies.”
I escaped to my room and flipped through the stack of video games. I tried getting into Safecracker, but my mind kept wandering. I finally turned it off and shook everything off the bed. Jasper McBride’s book thudded to the floor, along with Uncle Max’s padlock.
Minutes later I was comfortably in bed with a stack of pillows against my back. I thumbed the dial on the lock with one hand and opened the book to the table of contents. It was a short list.
Geology and Prehistory of Tunnels
Native American Use of Tunnels
Tunnels and the Barter Building
Tunnels throughout Wheatfield County
My fingers absently spun the padlock dial, instinctively feeling for the first number.
I skipped ahead to the chapter on the Barter Building. It was nicely illustrated by a series of old brown toned photographs with captions that told the story. Men loading boxes and bags from a river barge into mine cars. Men pushing the mine cars down the tunnel on rails.
I paused at the last picture. Men unloading the goods into a large underground storeroom. There it was. Not a drawing, but a photograph. The storeroom existed.
The padlock dial caught ever so slightly. The first number fell into place, 18.
My eyes closed and I fell asleep, my thoughts drifting into a dream about the storeroom. As I wandered through the treasure filled cavern it blurred and changed into our garage. I stood among Dad’s car parts, clutching the baton, unable to move as the door slowly inched open.
I jerked awake with my heart pounding and my fingers tightly wrapped around the padlock, not the baton. I took a deep breath and shook off the dream. The baton was still hidden in the garage.
A sliver of light peeked through the blinds. The clock was flashing. The power had been out. I fumbled for my phone and read 6:15 a.m. I groaned.
Anna said that her grandmother got up before the sun and took naps during the day. She would be most talkative in the early morning. The suggested time was 6:45 a.m. I rolled out of bed.
Five minutes later I was dressed and down the stairs. I picked up the plate of cookies on the way out and stuffed several in my mouth. Millie would never notice there were now only nine left.
I climbed on my bike and set off at a wobble, balancing the plate with one hand like a fancy waiter. My ride smoothed out as I picked up speed, soaring past sleeping houses and weaving around potholes.
Anna’s house sat alone at the top of a hill, hidden by trees. The last quarter mile was a long driveway lined by huge ancient willows, all up hill. The peddling got harder. My progress slowed. A cool breeze carried the scent of cut grass and damp earth.
I arrived at the front door at 6:47 and hesitated. No car noises. No dogs barking. No people talking. The only noise was a flock of Canadian geese flying overhead. They all landed in the side yard and continued honking in a noisy clatter as if laughing at my dilemma.
Should I ring the bell? Was anyone up? The house looked as sleepy as all the other houses I had passed. It was now 6:50 and I had to make a decision. I tapped lightly on the door. Nothing happened. 6:51. I took a deep breath and reached for the bell. The door burst open.
“There you are,” Anna said. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.” She looked at the plate in my still upturned hand.
I whipped it around and held it out. I could feel my face getting warm. “Snickerdoodles. From Mom for your grandmother. She insisted.”
“Oh.” She took the plate and gave it an appraising look. I couldn’t tell if she was checking their quality or counting them.
She led me down a long hall with a highly polished hardwood floor. Our feet made a soft swishing sound on the faded, but plush carpet runner down the center.
All the rooms were still in shadow except one. As we passed I caught a glimpse of a man staring into a computer screen with light from the monitor reflecting off his glasses.
At the end of the hall we stopped outside a half-closed door. Someone inside was talking. Anna pushed the door open and we were met by warm air from a cheery gas fireplace. Sunlight flowed through large windows framed in lace curtains. On the wall hung a wooden clock with chains and weights stretching from the bottom. In a slow steady rhythm it ticked away the minutes. The only one in the room was an old woman bent over a rack of plants in front of the window.
“There you go, my pretty,” she said to a blooming violet. “Don’t drink too fast. Your leaves are looking a little pale, my dear. Let’s move you closer to the light.”
She scooted the container over a few inches.
“Hello Gran,” Anna said.
The old woman turned around. Her wrinkled face smoothed into laugh lines when she smiled and her eyes sparkled. “Good morning, Anna. I see you’ve brought a friend. You must be TJ.”
I grinned back. It would be impossible not to smile at her.
“It’s JT, Gran,” Anna said.
She laughed. “I’ll try to get it right. You can call me Millie.”
“It’s nice to meet you…Millie.”
“I see you’ve brought something else,” Millie said. She nodded at the plate.
Anna held it out. “Cookies from JT’s mom.”
Millie leaned forward with interest. “Looks like snickerdoodles. Yum.” She took the plate. “It would probably be good manners to offer you one.” Her eyes traveled over the cookies. “But these will go lovely with my afternoon tea.” There was a twinkle in her eye as she looked at me and said. “Of course if you’re still here then…”
She set the plate on a table, settled into a flowered chair and waved at a matching sofa. “Have a seat.”
The sofa was small and it squished under my weight. Anna sat down beside me. There wasn’t much room between us. Her arm brushed against mine and I tried to look as though all this was normal.
I focused on a digital picture frame on the table. It scrolled through photos in an endless cycle. Mostly black and white, but there were a few in color. The strangest were some old brown toned photos of people that all had to be dead by now.
I couldn’t see their faces. I leaned forward, the sofa groaned, the lights went off, and the frame went dark. Anna stiffened beside me holding her breath. The house became eerily silent.
Millie looked frozen. I felt panic rising as I tried to figure out what I had done. I started counting seconds as if waiting for the roll of thunder after a lightning flash.
A roar erupted down the hallway. “Not again!”
Millie stirred and looked a little embarrassed. “Kyle,” she said. “Anna’s father. You must excuse him, poor man. He’s very passionate about his work and puts in long hours. This little problem with the power happens from time to time. I’m sure the lights will be on soon.”
I was starting to relax when a second roar exploded. “An hour of work — gone!”
Even the plush hallway carpet couldn’t muffle the heavy footfalls that pounded our way.
Through the half opened door I caught a glimpse of the man I had seen hunched over the computer. His hair now stood up in spikes. Wild eyes looked out through glasses tilted at a crazy angle.
“I can’t work this way!” He flung his arms in a wild gesture hitting the door. It swung wide with a bang.
The door on Millie’s clock burst open. An impertinent little bird emerged and counted out the hour with raucous cuckoos.
Anna’s father stuck his head in the room and shouted over the noise. “The only thing in the whole house that’s working is that absurd clock!”
“Now Kyle…” Millie began.
“Not this time,” he called as he stomped back down the hall. “I’m going to get someone to fix this once and for all.”
His office door slammed. The cuckoo went back into its house and its little door slammed in reply.
We sat in stunned silence while the clock ticked away another minute. Then the lights came back on, and the pictures began scrolling again.
Millie cleared her throat. “Well, that’s passed. Now to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?” she asked.
I jerked my attention away from the pictures.
“He hoped you would tell us about the tunnels,” Anna said.
She took a deep breath and thought for a moment. “Well, let’s see. This area was once covered in water. When the water receded it formed two rivers and left sediment behind that turned to limestone. Over millions of years a harder cap stone was layered on top, rain water dripped through cracks in the rock, and that carved out the tunnels.” She looked rather pleased with this explanation. “Now we have just the two rivers and a whole underground maze.” She picked up her teacup and took a sip. “Of course that all happened long before my time.”
“Have you ever explored the tunnels?” I asked.
She stared at me for a long moment. Her gaze shifted to Anna and she raised her eyebrows slightly. Anna nodded.
Her face took on a conspiratorial look. “Your mother would not approve of you going into the tunnels,” she said to Anna. “I don’t want to hear any lectures on how I’ve been a bad influence.”
“No, Gran,” Anna said.
Millie turned back to me. “When Henry and I were kids, we used to explore all through the tunnels. That was before he had any romantic ideas about me.” She paused and set her cup down.
I could feel my face getting warm. Anna shifted but the sofa seemed determined to push us together.
Millie gave us a grandmotherly smile. “The railroad owned the Barter Building at the time, but they had stopped using the underground passages years before. Henry and I used to take a lantern and go in through the old entrance down by the East River. That opening is closed up now.” She leaned back in her chair. “What makes you curious about them?”
“I saw an old sketch in the art store,” I said.
“Forgotten Treasures,” Anna said. “Ms. Vanchev’s shop.”
“It showed men underground with a railroad mine car,” I said.
Millie nodded. “Most likely bringing goods from the East River. They used the mine cars like you would a wheelbarrow. Load ‘em up and push ‘em down the track. Much faster and easier than the winding road topside, and they didn’t have to worry about the weather.”
That all agreed with the book, but I wanted to know about the underground chamber. “Ms. Vanchev mentioned a storeroom. Could there be a cavern full of treasure?”
“Henry and I explored all through those tunnels. There’s a large chamber, but there wasn’t much of value in it. They used to store things down there back in the day, but anything of worth was taken out before the railroad bought the building.”
“And there’s no crystals in those tunnels?”
“Not in those.” She looked smug. “The mine is on the Midsummer property.”
Maybe I should take a look at the last chapter in McBride’s book.
“What do you know about the crystals?” Millie asked.
“I’ve seen Anna’s necklace. She told me they are local to the area and so I was reading the book to see if it mentions them.”
“What book would that be?” Millie asked.
Anna spoke up. “We bought it at Alexandria’s Trove.”
“It’s by a local author, Jasper McBride,” I said showing I wasn’t totally ignorant.
Millie snorted. “Jake. Went to school with him. Wrote a book, did he? He loved exploring the tunnels. Wiry little fellow. Henry and I tried following him, but there are lots of side passages in those tunnels. Jake always squirmed through some narrow opening we didn’t want to go through. Henry’s father was always chasing Jake off the farm.”
“He never got into the crystal mine?” I asked.
“Nope, don’t think so. He was more interested in ancient history than in jewels. Grew up to be a nice fellow. Does odd jobs in winter and a little farming in the summer.”
“Are the crystals valuable?” I asked.
She laughed. “Only to the Midsummers. They make nice bricks though. Henry’s great grandfather mixed crystal dust into clay from the East River, made bricks from it in the old Brick Factory, and used them to build the Barter Building. If you look closely, you’ll see sparkles in the walls. Anna tells me the two of you will be working there this summer.”
“Yep,” I said.
“Well, I like old flower pots if you see any. Nothing common, mind you. Something with personality and character. You know what I mean?”
I wasn’t sure, but I agreed anyway.
“Walter sets them aside for me when he thinks about it. That man’s mind is like his warehouse. I don’t know how he finds anything in either one. It slips his mind to order things, but he remembers to lock things up.”
“There are a lot of locked doors in the warehouse,” Anna said.
“Yes, and he’s rather secretive about them. Most are probably filled with more of his useless junk. But there’s one room…” Her eyes glistened with excitement.
“The crystal room?” Anna asked.
Millie leaned forward. “Constructed with crystal bricks. Not just little chips, mind you. These bricks have large crystals in them. I don’t think Walter ever uses the room, but it’s a sight to behold.”
“You’ve seen it?” I asked.
“No, but Henry was fond of telling me about the time he saw it. The railroad was done with the building and had hired him to keep an eye on it until they got it sold. He was a young man and happy to get the job. He used to carry a big old ring of seven keys. One of them opened the door to that room. A really heavy door, balanced perfectly on its hinges so you could open and close it with the touch of a finger. The whole room glowed with a pale blue light. Said it was like stepping inside one of the crystals.”
The room got silent as we pondered this thought. Then the cuckoo clock chimed and Anna jumped up. “I have to get to practice. Walter gets really grumpy when I’m late.”
Millie pushed herself out of the chair. “No problem, dear. I’ll drive you.” She crossed the room and started going through the drawers of a corner chest. “Now where are those car keys?”
Anna mouthed the words, “Mother hid them.”
“Well, it looks like some goodie two shoes in the family has taken my keys again,” Millie said. “But I’ll find them.”
“It’s okay,” Anna said. “I’ll ride my bike.”
Millie seemed not to have heard her. She rustled through the drawer and pulled out a large key.
“That’s not the key to the car, Gran,” Anna said.
Millie looked at her over the top of her glasses. “Very astute of you, dear.” She held it up. “This is a skeleton key.” She handed it to Anna.
“What does it open?” Anna asked.
“You never know, dear. It’s an adventure.”
The house was quiet when I got home. Mom and Dad were at work giving me a perfect opportunity to check out the baton without interruption.
The day’s heat had not yet penetrated the garage. I retrieved the baton from the laundry shoot and sat on the workbench.
The baton appeared seamless. No hairline cracks to indicate it could be opened. I found nothing that could be slid, turned, pushed, or pulled to activate a mechanism. I shook it, but nothing rattled inside.
The writing was a fancy script. At first I thought it was just hard to read, but finally decided it wasn’t even English.
I put the baton back into its hiding place and retreated to my room to consult my books. The chapters on secret compartments and hidden mechanisms gave me no new ideas.
That night I returned to McBride’s book. Midway through the chapter on Tunnels and the Barter Building, McBride told the story of Norman Russell.
After the river traffic dried up in the 1920’s, the Midsummers sold the Barter Building to the railroad. Everything was moving by train, and a rail line ran directly behind the building. The tracks are still there today.
The railroad saved a bundle of money using the building as a storage depot until 1948. Then, as happened in many other cities across the country, shipping routes changed in Twin Rivers and trucks took over much of the business.
I reached over and picked up the padlock from the nightstand. It still registered the first number, 18. I reversed the direction of the dial, thumbing it as I read.
The next few years the Barter Building sat idle and empty, gathering dust until it was bought in 1950 by Norman Russell, an eccentric businessman. He moved in, living in one corner of the warehouse.
Over the next few months passersby could hear the sound of heavy objects being moved and lights were often seen in the windows late at night. No deliveries by train or truck were observed, but when Norman opened the building for business it was filled with items from the past. It was clear he had used the tunnels.
Most of the things he sold had a moderate value and the business provided him a fair living. But visitors who were willing to sort through the massive hoard were sometimes rewarded by the discovery of some strange curiosity, odd trinket, or rare and valuable antique, and Norman was willing to part with his treasures at reasonable prices.
I’d been around the dial on the padlock and missed the second number. I cleared it and started over.
A frequent visitor in those days was Walter Jensen, a young teenager who worked for Norman until the older man disappeared suddenly in 1960. With no one to look after it, the cluttered building once again settled into dust and shadows. The East River entrance to the tunnels collapsed in the spring of 1965 after a week of heavy rains. No one bothered to excavate the opening. The Barter Building was showing signs of disrepair when Walter, now a young businessman himself, bought the property in 1968 for an agreement to pay back taxes and make repairs to bring the property up to county standards.
He continued Norman’s eccentric interest in antiques and old items, but Walter was a more savvy businessman. To augment his income he renovated the front of the building and divided it into small shops that he rented out, increasing the value of the riverfront and making the street a popular tourist attraction.
I set the book aside. Several times I cleared the lock and started over. What had happened to Norman Russell? It was strange that he didn’t try to sell the building. He would have needed an income unless something bad happened to him. Hopefully he didn’t get lost in the maze of tunnels. I shook off that morbid thought. Maybe he had found some other treasure.
Before falling asleep I found the second number, 9, but not the answer to Norman’s disappearance.
I woke to rain pounding on the window. I pulled on a pair of shorts and grabbed the top T-shirt off the pile.
Mom had left hot pancakes for me. By the time I stepped outside, a cool breeze had chased the rain clouds away leaving blue sky and a slow drip from the eaves. A perfect day for hiking with Noah in the hills. Instead I peddled down the driveway, regretting my decision to work inside a stuffy old building.
I hoped Dad’s skeptic comment about the chest being full of bricks didn’t prove to be correct. Rocks would be better. At least Noah would find them interesting. He was always discovering stuff along the trails that he described as striking. They all looked pretty much the same to me. I couldn’t tell an igneous from a metamorphic rock.
Whether bricks, rocks, or treasure, the only way to know what the chest contained was to find the key.
Anna was waiting outside Antiques when I rode up.
“Door’s not open yet?” I asked.
“Marta is inside with Walter,” Anna said. The bell clanged as we entered, but it didn’t interrupt their conversation. They didn’t even glance our direction. Marta looked like a lawyer firing questions at a bewildered witness.
“The power outages appear to be confined to Twin Rivers,” she was saying. “The same power plant supplies all of Wheatfield County. Don’t you find it odd that the power company has not been able to pinpoint the problem?”
Walter shrugged, took off his glasses and held them up to the light. His hand trembled as he polished the lens with the edge of his shirt.
“And why does it disrupt the phones?” she said. “Including cell phones. Power outages should not affect phone service.”
“I’m not much on modern gadgets,” Walter said. “I couldn’t tell you why the phones don’t work.”
“Well, I called the phone company,” she said, “and they can’t tell me either. Quite the mystery. They claim something is interfering with the signal. I wonder what that could be?”
Walter put his glasses back on and blinked. “If I discover any clues I’ll let you know.”
“I’m keeping a log of the outages, how long they last, and how widespread.” She turned on her heel, saw us, and stopped short. Her scowl faded into a smile and she said, “Any power outages at your house yesterday?”
Anna said, “Yes, it’s not just here. My dad lost an hour’s work on his computer. He’s going to hire an IT professional to look into a solution.”
Walter tensed and his gaze wandered around the room.
“I wouldn’t mind meeting this professional,” Marta said. “Maybe I’ll hire him myself.” She swept past me as if I didn’t exist. Pushing open the door she looked back at Walter. “People outside Wheatfield County are taking notice. It would be better to solve this mystery at the local level.”
The door closed behind her with a clang and silence fell over the room. Walter rolled his shoulders. With a sigh he waved his hand dismissively and headed into the antique jungle.
Anna raised her eyebrows.
“After you,” I said.
We followed him through aisles heaped with treasure and debris of the past. The chest key could be anywhere. Inside a drawer, in the pocket of an old shirt, or in the bottom of a box covered with car parts and tools. I would have more luck predicting the next power outage than finding a key in here.
Anna looked back. “Coming?”
I picked up my pace.
Walter led us through all the rooms. We stepped between the bookcases into the parlor. I was ready this time, but a new surprise awaited me. The mannequins had moved. The newspaper was gone. Natalie’s smile looked mischievous and her eyes seemed to follow me like one of those life size cutouts at the mall.
“Morning Miss Natalie, Jerome,” Walter said as he passed. He didn’t seem bothered by the change.
I hurried by and even Anna seemed a little nervous.
We stopped in the back corner of the building near the lift. I helped Walter tug more clothes racks out of a mound of other junk. He straightened the hangers and waved toward several large trunks.
“Those are full of clothes. You can hang them on the racks according to time periods.” His mustache rose a bit with the hint of a smile. “Makes it easier for people to find what they’re looking for.”
“How am I going to know what time period they are from?” I asked.
He handed a folder to Anna. “Pictures of fashions and dates. You can match them up. They don’t have to be exact.”
Exact? My idea of fashion was whether to wear jeans or shorts.
“Now, these…” Walter stood in front of a stack of round boxes. Like circular building blocks they formed a pillar that started at the floor and towered over his head. “These are called hatboxes. You might actually find hats in some of them. Others will be filled with gloves and scarves. You can go through them and set aside any that look like they go with the clothes on the racks.”
Sounded like an impossible judgment call to me. I glanced at Anna to see what she thought, but she was still paging through the folder. Maybe fashion was an elective in home schooling.
Walter shuffled back up the aisle calling back over his shoulder, “Try to get them in the right decade.”
“I don’t know…” I said.
Anna set the folder down and began opening one of the trunks. “Let’s see what’s inside.” She pulled out a pale blue dress. The cloth rustled as she held it up.
“Grab the skirt,” she said.
I caught it just before it hit the dusty floor. We managed to get it on a hanger and onto one of the racks.
“It has mutton sleeves,” Anna said. She flipped through the folder. “That would be 1890’s.”
The next one had a brown bustle and a cream underskirt. Anna flipped through the folder and announced. “1880’s.”
Sounded good to me.
When the trunks were empty, we had six dresses and five suits on the racks.
“Ready for the boxes.” Anna said.
I could just reach the top box with my fingertips. I coaxed it to the edge.
“I hope there’s nothing heavy inside.” Anna said. “Careful…”
The box tilted and slid toward me, the lid popped off and Anna squealed. A shower of scarves flew into the air and floated down in a swirl of color, covering me in a silky pile.
Anna laughed as she plucked the scarves off me and dropped them in the box. “That’s one way to do it.”
“One more,” I said holding it out to her.
“That looks like an ascot,” she said.
She slipped it around my neck. With several deft twists of the cloth, she tied a loose knot. Her hands were warm as they brushed against my neck.
“There,” she said. “Of course it would look better if you were wearing a shirt with a collar instead of a T-shirt. Men used to wear them sort of like a tie.” She smoothed the cloth and looked up at me. Her voice was soft. “You would make a splendid gentleman.”
I closed my fingers around hers. Her eyes widened and she pushed me aside. Surprised I staggered back and turned in time to see the whole stack of boxes swaying as if in a wind, then tumbling toward us in slow motion. We scrambled back as they fell. Hats, gloves, and more scarves spilled over us and piled at our feet.
We sorted through them, shaking off the dust and packing them back in the boxes. Anna chose several hats and a pair of gloves that matched outfits on the racks. I added the ascot to one of the suits.
“Last one,” Anna said. She pulled a stray box out from under the table and raised the lid. “Ooo.” Nestled inside tissue paper rested a large floppy hat and a small silk drawstring purse. “I think these are the same material as the dress Natalie is wearing. We can give them to her on the way out.”
“You’re starting to sound like Walter,” I said. “But wait, there’s more.”
“Looks like a wallet. Shall I open it?”
She wrinkled her face in pretend thought. “Okay.”
I opened the wallet. “There’s large bills in here,” I said.
Her voice rose in excitement. “50’s or 100’s?”
“Neither. Like too big to fit in a modern wallet.” I pulled them out gently. “I’m not sure these are even real.”
I took a five-dollar bill out of my pocket and laid it on top of the old money. “They’re about half an inch wider and over an inch longer. This one has a picture of George Washington and some lady.”
“Martha Washington,” Anna said.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Who else would George be posing with on a dollar bill? How many are there?”
“Two one dollar bills and a two dollar bill.” I slid them carefully back into the wallet. “What’s in the purse?”
She opened the drawstrings and poured out the contents. “Indian head pennies, a nickel with a large V on the back, and two odd looking quarters with dates in the 1890’s.” She dropped them back into the purse. “These must belong to Natalie. The purse matches her dress.”
I could play this game. “Then the wallet must belong to Jerome.”
She laughed. A good sign. I decided to go for it. “Something from Frozenbog would be good about now,” I said and held up my real five-dollar bill. “We could split a Viking sundae.”
She pulled something out of her pocket, held out her hand and opened it one finger at a time. Millie’s key lay on her palm. “There’s a lot of locked doors in this place.”
Thoughts of ice cream vanished, replaced by the sweet challenge of a series of locked doors. Millie’s key was plain with three teeth. I had a whole set of skeleton keys at home that were more sophisticated, but none as big or as heavy. This one was large enough to open a dungeon.
“It would have to be a big lock,” I said.
“Like that one?” She pointed to a door behind the rack of clothes.
Below the handle was a keyhole, big enough for a dungeon key.
“Let’s see if it works,” I said resisting the urge to snatch it out of her hand.
The key scraped against the mechanism when she tried to turn it in the lock.
“It’s hitting wrong,” I said.
She glanced back at me. “Maybe someone who knows something about locks would like to try?”
“I guess that would be me.” I jiggled the key, but it wasn’t catching.
“It probably wasn’t made for that lock,” she said.
“These locks aren’t that sophisticated. Some of the old skeleton keys will open more than one.” I closed my eyes and pictured the mechanism. There was a soft clack of metal snapping into place. I looked back with a triumphant grin.
“Not bad,” she said.
“Shall we see what’s inside?”
I pulled the door open and a rush of cool air hit my face. Narrow wooden stairs curved down into the darkness.
She backed up a step. “You’re going down there?”
“Are you kidding? Of course I am. Coming?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. Not in the dark. Anything could be lurking down there.”
“Well, there has to be a light.” I ran my hand over the wall feeling for a switch. “There’s something round here with a knob in the middle.”
“Maybe we should…”
But I was already turning it. It clicked, and a soft light filled the top of the staircase.
She stepped forward and leaned inside. “Look at that light bulb,” she said.
It was clear and the glass was an odd shape. I shrugged.
“That’s a hand blown Edison bulb,” she said. “It belongs in a museum.”
“That’s probably why it’s here with all the other old stuff.” I tested the banister. It seemed firm enough. Leaning over the rail I looked down. “It’s a spiral staircase like the one leading up to the tower but narrower. There’s another of those light bulbs down below. Plenty of light.”
“You go ahead. I’ll hang out here.”
I smiled. “Okay, but you’re missing the adventure.”
“You need someone to keep watch. She held her hand up to her face with thumb and little finger extended. “Call me if you find the speaking tube.”
I kept a firm grip on the banister. The stairs creaked with each step down, ending on a smooth stone floor. The bottom of the lift hung over my head. I hoped the cable wasn’t as old as the building.
A faint voice called. I quickly scanned the room and with relief found the speaking tube.
“What’s down there?” Anna’s voice sounded metallic and ghostly.
“I was right about the lift. It did come down here at one time. There’s a bin, like an old mine cart. It’s sitting on tracks that lead down a dark tunnel. Hang on, I see another of those round light switches. I’m going to check it out.”
“No, wait. Someone’s coming. Get up here.”
“JT. Did you hear me?”
I forced myself to turn away from the tunnel. “On my way,” I called through the tube.
I took the steps two at a time, burst through the door, and pushed it shut. The breeze blew the pages from the fashion folder, spilling them across the floor. Anna and I dove for the papers, and we both reached for the last one where it had fallen next to the wall. A faint light shone from the crack under the door. Our eyes met. I had forgotten to turn out the light.
Noah and Katelin came around the tower of hatboxes and stopped short. Anna scooted around and sat on the floor leaning against the door. I settled in beside her to block the light.
I couldn’t tell from Katelin’s expression if she found us or the building more disgusting. “Isn’t it dirty enough in here without sitting on the floor?”
“Just taking a break. We’ve been sorting through old clothes,” I said.
“You mean like a thrift store?” Noah said.
Anna shook her head. “Like a museum.” She pointed to the racks of clothes.
Katelin flipped through the dresses. She stopped at one with a white top, ruffled collar and plain dark blue skirt. She ran her hand down the sleeve fingering the delicate lace. In a soft voice she said, “I remember this.”
I wasn’t sure I had heard her right. “Remember?” I asked.
She dropped the sleeve. For a moment she didn’t reply. Then she said, “I’ve done some study on fashions.”
I looked at her blankly.
She blinked and the sarcasm returned to her voice. “You know — like for school?”
“Probably for history class,” Noah said. “So where’s the desk that we need to move?”
“Up at the front of the building,” I said. I pulled the clothes rack toward me as I stood up, letting it block the door.
Anna scrambled to her feet and picked up the hatbox. “But we have a quick stop on the way,” she said.
“Lead on,” Noah said.
We followed the tracks back. Noah was still trying to take it all in. We circled back through the library. Anna and I passed through the bookcases into the parlor and I turned to watch their reaction.
Katelin came through first. Her eyes widened and she took a step toward the mannequins. “There you are…” She caught herself and clamped her mouth shut.
Noah chuckled. “Someone you know? They’re quite lifelike.”
Katelin forced a laugh. “They just startled me.”
Anna took the hat out of the box and set it on Natalie’s head. She was right, it was the same material as the dress. She started to place the purse strings around the mannequin’s hand.
Katelin shook her head. “No, it goes on the sash.” She took the purse and attached it to a clasp on the dress waistband and then tilted the hat at a slight angle.
“That really brightens up her face,” Noah said. “Nice touch.”
Katelin turned to me. “Anything else?”
I handed her the wallet.
She opened Jerome’s jacket, tucked it into the inside pocket, smoothed the lapel, and gave it a little pat. She breezed back through the library with Noah following. “Let’s get that desk moved,” she said.
“Natalie looks pleased with the hat,” Anna said. “It’s very becoming on her.” She paused in the doorway. “I think Jerome is warming a bit. He doesn’t seem as skeptical.” She called over her shoulder, “I think it just took him time to get used to us.”
They’re mannequins I wanted to say, but they did look pleased with our efforts. I patted Jerome on the arm and a shiver went through me. It wasn’t hard plastic like I expected. More like a real arm under that jacket.
I hurried through the doorway and jogged to the front of the warehouse where they were all waiting. The drawers were still out of the desk and the cubbys were empty. Walter must have come back and taken the Montgomery Ward letter.
Noah and I huffed and struggled and hauled the desk onto the platform. Fortunately there weren’t many steps. We pushed it into place, and behind me I heard the sharp rustle of pages turning.
Katelin was holding a thick paperback book, flipping through the pages with short swipes of her fingers.
“Find something interesting?” Noah asked.
“Hardly,” she said. “It’s an ancient Montgomery Ward catalog. What could be interesting in that?” She dropped it onto the top of a nearby box and started pacing.
Anna picked up the catalog. “Someone’s been circling items.”
Katelin glanced over her shoulder. “It’s just weird light bulbs.”
“Vacuum tubes,” Anna said. “They used them in old radios.”
“That’s ancient history,” Katelin said. “This place is one big junk box without ventilation.” Her face was flushed and her hands trembled as she drew her hair up into a ponytail. “I’m going outside.” She charged up the stairs and into the store.
“Good idea,” Noah said. He glanced over his shoulder and gave me a thumbs up as he followed her out.
“Something has her worked up,” I said. “Maybe it’s the heat.”
She’s a snob,” Anna said. She put the catalog on the desk. “We better turn the light out and lock that door.”
We took the direct route, following the rails. When I opened the door, the cool air tugged at me. “We could finish exploring,” I said.
“Let’s not push our luck.”
With a turn of the light switch, darkness covered the steps. I pushed the door shut closing off the adventure, turned the lock, and gave Anna the key. We were on our way back when I heard Noah call.
Anna sang in a soft smug voice. “Good thing we didn’t go explor-ing.”
Noah was waiting alone on the platform. Something must have gone wrong.
“Where’s Katelin?” Anna asked.
“She remembered she needed to be somewhere else,” Noah said.
Anna looked disgusted. “You mean she just…”
I interrupted. “As long as you’re here, you can help me get that chest home.”
He brightened a bit. “Great idea.”
Anna caught on. “You can borrow the hand truck. I’ll let Walter know you’re taking it.”
I gave her a grateful smile. She waved and disappeared into the shop.
The hand truck made it easy to wheel the chest home and into the garage. Noah seemed to forget about Katelin as we talked about all the possibilities that might be inside the chest.
With a heave we lifted it onto the workbench.
“First let’s get the dirt off,” I said.
It scrubbed up better than I expected. Under all that grime we found polished wood. The blackened metal straps and tarnished brass studs added a nice antique flavor.
“Careful with the lock,” Noah said. “We don’t want to get water in it.”
It was tedious work, but it paid off and traces of gold color peeked through the black tarnish.
“Brass,” I said. “I’ll bet it shone like gold when it was new.”
“That would polish up beautifully,” Noah said. “But you should check with Walter first. It might be more valuable as a tarnished antique.”
My concern was for what was hidden inside. I ran a clean cloth around the lock and gave a shout. “There’s something carved in the wood.”
Noah pushed my hand aside. “It’s a design or maybe symbols. Need more light.”
I grabbed a flashlight. In the glow of the beam they became clearer. “They’re square like digital numbers.”
“Yeah, but these look like letters. There’s a U, an upside down U, an L, a square, and a C.”
I chuckled. “If you read the upside down U as an N and the square as an O, what do you get?”
“U N L O C.” He shrugged.
“Unlock?” I said.
Noah frowned. “Shouldn’t it have a K on the end?”
“I think they left the K off on purpose. There’s more to it.”
“Could be right.” He tried turning the dial. “Jammed. Maybe it’s brass plated. Could be rusted inside.”
I shook my head. “Walter said we’d need a key to release the dial. Then we find the right combination and the chest opens.”
Noah snapped his fingers. “Just like that. All we need is a key and the right numbers. So…how are we doing on finding the key?”
I shook my head. “Nothing yet.”
“Do we even know what kind of key it is?”
“Walter described it as a fancy skeleton key with a crystal in the head.”
“Well,” Noah said, “at least you’ll know it when you see it.”
I got up early the next morning, determined to discover the baton’s secret. Mom was headed for the front door when I came downstairs.
“Good morning, dear,” she said. “I’m running late for work. You’ll have to do cereal today. Take out the trash, the grass needs to be mowed, and the garage is a mess again.”
My shoulders sagged. This was like working at Walter’s.
She kissed my cheek. “Just straighten up around the Mustang so I can get through the mechanical jungle.”
I watched her car pulling out of the driveway, my day disappearing with her. It was afternoon before I finished everything and surveyed my work with satisfaction. The garage now looked like the magazine cover for a tool supply company.
I set a box of Dad’s treasures on the workbench, car parts from the junkyard. On the top I balanced the crowning piece, the fourth custom hubcap. After months of searching online and monitoring classifieds, he had finally located the set he could afford. Then he lost one, buried in all the other garage stuff. He would be thrilled to see it again.
Now for my treasure. I closed the garage door. It didn’t take long for the air to go from warm and humid to hot and miserable. The Barter Building had felt cool in comparison.
The baton rested on my knees, the crystal top glimmering faintly even in the poor light. I rotated it. The ring of small crystals circling the brass cap felt rough under my fingers. One stone seemed a little higher than the others. I nudged it. Then pressed a little harder, almost dropping the baton when the stone fell into my hand.
I tried to force it back into place, but it wouldn’t stay. A magnifying glass showed tiny prongs. It would take jeweler’s tools to reset the stone. Mr. Pham could do it, but that would involve too many explanations. I put the crystal in my pocket. The others seemed to be holding tight.
A fly buzzed past my head and bumped against the side window looking for a way out. I was still no closer to finding the secret. What was I thinking? There probably wasn’t anything to discover. This wasn’t a mythical baton. I wasn’t sure what it was, but keeping it was not an option.
Throwing it away didn’t seem right. I wasn’t even sure who it belonged to. Anna? Katelin? How did Danny fit in?
Normally I would have called Noah to work out a plan. Schemes ran through my head. Most were silly or too complicated, and they all had a low probability of success. Finally I settled on a simple approach.
That night I found an old mailing tube, stuck the baton inside, shoved it under the bed, and tried to forget it. But it nagged at me, haunting my dreams. My thoughts drifted into nightmares where I endlessly had to explain how and why I had the baton. I woke up ready to get rid of the thing, but it would have to wait one more day.
Today was Sunday. Our family was Baptist, and we never missed. The sermon that morning was Thou Shalt Not Steal. Monday couldn’t come soon enough.
The week started with cloudy skies, muggy air and a 30% possibility of rain. About the same as my chances of pulling this off.
With the tube tucked under my arm I peddled toward the Barter Building. The closer I got, the more problems I saw with my plan. The little flaws that had nagged at me were now screaming. Too many uncertainties. Too many unknowns. Too much depended on luck.
Anna wasn’t outside when I arrived. So far so good. I put my bike in the rack next to hers. The tube shifted and the baton rattled inside. There was no way to hide it.
The store looked dark and there was no sign of movement through the window. My confidence inched upward. Maybe this was going to work. Opening the door as gently as possible, I slipped inside. The bell rattled softly against the door, but the noise shot through me like a fire alarm. I trotted up the aisle.
The music room door opened. I darted behind the counter, shoved the tube onto the shelf, and stepped into the aisle. Anna emerged from the back.
“I thought I heard the bell,” she said, “but you were awfully quiet. Walter’s waiting.”
My success made me a little dizzy. “Ready to start,” I said.
Walter followed the rails to the back of the warehouse. When we reached the loading dock he turned right and entered a brightly lit room. I stood in the doorway staring in amazement at a modern staging area stocked with everything needed for packing and shipping. Bubble wrap, boxes, tape, shipping labels, postage scale, worktable, and a machine for wrapping large items on pallets.
“I’m getting behind on my orders,” he said waving his arm at a shelf filled with tagged items. “Everything on that shelf goes. Make sure you get the right item to the right address and include the paperwork.”
He shuffled to the door. “If you finish that, there are tables set up and boxes by the lift that need to be sorted. I have errands to run and some local deliveries. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
Without further instruction he left us. It didn’t take long to pack the items and soon we had a row of neat boxes ready for mail pickup.
We left the modern shipping room behind and went back to the grungy work of sorting through junk, but it felt great to be rid of the baton. I started calling out items to Anna, but she wasn’t connecting.
“Here’s more of those old radios and vacuum tubes,” I said.
“Look at this clown.”
I wound it up and sent it walking across the table. She caught it before it stepped off the edge and put it with the other toys.
I placed a box of buttons in front of her. “These are interesting.”
“Nice,” she said, and wandered over to another box.
Something had her attention and it wasn’t me. I opened the last box. Inside was a flowerpot.
“Here we go,” I called.
She turned and her eyes focused.
Encouraged, I held it up and proclaimed its features. “Now this is not common. Here we have a flowerpot with character. Actually lots of characters. Notice the raised figures circling the outside. A knight, a castle, a dragon, and…” I rotated it so she could see the other side. “A maiden in distress.”
She giggled. “No, not common. It needs cleaning and some paint. Gran is good at that.” She turned away.
“What’s on your mind?”
She hesitated. “I was wondering…where do you think the tunnels lead?”
Thoughts of sorting boxes vanished and I set down the flowerpot. “There’s one way to find out.”
She pulled out the key. A moment later we stood in front of the open door, the cool air hinting of mystery, the darkness warning of the unknown, and a hidden room whispering to me of treasure.
“It feels like a room that hasn’t been open for a long time,” she said.
“There are cobwebs down there.”
She shivered. “Spiders?”
“I didn’t see any spiders. Only cobwebs.”
She took a deep breath. “It’s an earthy smell, like damp clay. We could go a little way into the tunnel. Maybe it doesn’t go far.”
I reached past her and twisted the light switch. The old Edison light bulb began to glow, illuminating the stairs.
“There’s plenty of light if it stays lit,” she said.
“If we need it, I have a flashlight app on my phone.”
“Okay. You can go first.”
Was she setting me up?
“I’m right behind you,” she said.
I was pretty sure this was new territory for her and this was my chance to find that storeroom. “Hold the rail,” I said and started down. Her footsteps on the creaking stairs followed behind me.
The modified mine car still sat at the tunnel entrance on narrow gauge tracks. It was empty. I stepped around it and twisted the second light switch. A line of bulbs spaced every few feet down the tunnel glowed faintly.
Anna inched around me and peeked down the tunnel like a child looking in a toy store window.
“Those are all Edison bulbs,” she said softly.
“Edison Avenue,” I said.
“They must be worth a fortune.”
“Or perhaps they lead to a fortune.” I took her hand. It was cold and I closed my fingers around hers.
I was careful to brush aside the cobwebs as we made our way down the tunnel. It twisted and turned. A few of the bulbs were burned out and none were too bright. More like a bedroom night light. At first it was dim and hard to see, but once my eyes adjusted the lights seemed to get brighter.
The track ran close to one side of the tunnel. I walked between the rails and Anna took the smooth stone walkway that ran along beside. At first the walls were covered and braced with wooden beams, but after a while the supports were no longer needed because the walls were natural stone.
“It’s another world down here,” Anna said.
“Easy to imagine it’s another time.” I said.
“It’s 1900. The warehouse is full of workers. People like Natalie and Jerome are riding in carriages with horses clip clopping over the streets.”
“And mine car wheels clanking on the rails down here.” I said.
A tinny clink behind us sent a chill through me and ended our game. Anna’s fingers tightened on mine and our eyes met. “What was that?” She whispered.
My mind raced trying to come up with something other than naming small rodents. The word rat would put a quick end to our exploration. “Probably something in the warehouse fell over. There’s plenty of stuff teetering on the edge.”
She looked unconvinced but we continued on. We passed several side tunnels, the dim light only stretching a couple feet into their openings.
“I wouldn’t want to be down here if the lights go out,” she said.
“We don’t have to worry about getting lost. We can follow the track.”
I tried to calculate in my head how long we’d been walking and how far we’d come. The idea of following the track using only a flashlight app didn’t sound too appealing.
I was considering turning back when the decision was made for us. The line of Edison bulbs stopped, leaving the tunnel and tracks beyond in darkness. The last bulb shone its light on a wrought iron gate.
“End of the line,” Anna said. She leaned against the metal and tried to look inside. “There’s more bulbs beyond the gate.”
“Could be something valuable inside,” I said.
“Valuable? Down here?”
“We are looking for treasure,” I said.
“You’re looking for treasure,” she said. “I’m here out of curiosity and to make sure you don’t do anything stupid.”
“This could be the storeroom,” I said. “The one McBride talks about in his book.”
“Gran didn’t think anything was left in that room.”
“There’s a light switch,” I said. “Shall we see?”
I held my breath, reached through the bars, and twisted the switch. Light flooded the area revealing a room littered with shelves, crates and tables. Mostly empty.
I pulled on the gate, but it was locked. “I don’t see a keyhole.”
“We don’t need a key,” she said. “We have experience.”
I grinned. I must have really impressed her with my talent for locks. “I’ll give it a try, but I’ve never seen one like this.”
She laughed. “But I have.”
I watched with fascination as she started moving parts of the mechanism.
“There’s a gate like this in Gran’s garage,” she said. “It’s not really a lock, it’s a fancy latch.”
One piece came up. Another slid over. The next one pulled out, releasing the mechanism. The sequence was easier to remember than a combination. She gave the gate a tug and it opened with a drawn out groan of protest.
“After you,” she said.
“Watch your step,” I said. “There’s lots of debris on the floor.”
Heavy dust lay on the shelves and covered the few items left on the tables. All worthless, none were jewels or coins.
I stepped around a tall rack of shelves and stopped in amazement. The room opened up and spread out in a large natural cavern. More shelves, crates and boxes. A row of broken stalactite stumps still clung to the ceiling and a box sat on the remains of a broken column.
“They stored tons of stuff in here,” Anna said, “but they didn’t show much respect for the cave.”
I strolled through the room looking for something of value. An ax with a chipped blade lay inside a wheelbarrow with a bent metal wheel. A glove caked with mud had dried with the fingers stretched out as if reaching for a nearby rusted lantern. I stirred a bucket of buttons and wooden thread spools. “No treasure, “ I said.
“Most of this stuff isn’t even treasure for an antique store,” Anna said. “Here’s several more boxes of old light bulbs in their original packing. They’re worth a few bucks.”
“Found a shelf of vacuum tubes,” I said. “All different sizes.”
Anna laughed. “That must be why they never mailed the order form to Montgomery Ward. They already had a supply down here.”
A metallic rattling jarred us back to the present. Anna whispered, “That didn’t come from the warehouse.”
I agreed. “Let’s head back.”
Anna grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the doorway. I almost stumbled over her when she stopped with a sharp intake of breath.
“Spiders?” I asked.
“Footprints,” she said pointing to the floor.
“That’s the way we came in,” I said.
“But we didn’t walk backwards,” she said. “Some of those are leading out.”
The heavy dust held a mixture of impressions. I’d been so preoccupied with finding the storeroom that I hadn’t noticed the footprints. I checked the bottom of my shoe.
“Mine leave a series of long lines. Let’s see yours.”
She balanced on one foot. “Lines and swirls.”
“This tunnel seems to be more traveled than we thought,” I said. “Our prints are clear and easy to pick out, but I don’t think the others are that old.”
“There’s more farther down the tunnel, but there’s not enough light to see very far. Whoever left those could be coming back or hiding in the darkness. I don’t want to meet anyone down here.”
I twisted the light switch off on the way out, plunging the storeroom back into deep shadows. Anna closed the gate. The clicking and ringing as she reset the puzzle lock set my senses on edge. Who else would be down here? How many other entrances were there to these tunnels?
I took Anna’s hand, and we jogged back to the lift. Footprints crisscrossed the floor in a blurred jumble. It was impossible to tell how many people had walked through the room or when. We climbed the stairs, turned out the light, and shut the door.
“A cold soda would be nice about now,” Anna said.
“Or ice cream. Maybe it’s lunch time.” I checked my phone for the time.
“Do you hear that?” Anna said.
“What?” I lowered the phone.
“It’s a faint voice,” she said.
She shook her head. “Sounds like it’s coming from the lift.”
We walked over and the voice got louder. It sounded frantic. Anna reached over to the speaking tube and pulled off the cap.
A tinny voice came through. “Get me out of here!”
“Danny?” I asked.
“Is that you Danny?” Anna hollered through the tube.
“Yes! You turned out the lights and my phone battery is dead. I can’t find the way out.”
I opened the door and switched on the light. A blur of dark clothes and blond hair rushed past me. I turned to see Danny panting and squinting in the light.
“How did you get in there?” Anna said. “And what were you doing?”
Danny ran a hand through his hair and straightened his T-shirt. He cleared his throat. “What were you doing down there?” he countered.
“We’re working here,” I said.
“Well, if you’re working, I don’t want to interrupt.” He started to saunter out of the area.
From his back pocket dangled a skeleton key attached to a ring.
“Whoa, there buddy.” I caught hold of him and pulled out the key. It was attached to a whole ring of keys. “What do we have here?”
“Hey, those are mine,” Danny said. His hand shot out, but I jerked the ring out of reach.
“These look like antiques, wouldn’t you say, Anna?”
I tossed her the ring.
She caught it and made a big show of examining the keys. “They look pretty old to me. Something you might find in an antique store.”
“Or maybe in a tunnel underneath an antique warehouse,” I said.
Danny’s face fell. “I found them. They should be mine.”
“Actually they belong with the warehouse,” Anna said. “So…we’ll take charge of them and we won’t tell Walter that you’ve been sneaking around here. How’s that for a deal?”
Danny’s face was red, but he knew we had him. “I don’t need them anyway,” he said.
Anna picked up the flowerpot and we walked Danny up to the store. He swaggered out the door, fully recovered from his adventure.
I smiled to myself. It was a good day. We had explored the tunnel and found the storeroom. It didn’t contain much, but the gate was a real find. The baton was safely behind the counter. Anna would find it later and never know how it got there. With a light heart, I headed for the door.
Anna set the pot down and jingled the keys. “Shall we store these under the counter?”
My stomach lurched. “Sure…okay…I think we’re done for the day.” Just a few more steps and I’d be outside.
“Oh wait. You forgot…” she stepped behind the counter.
I turned back. Time slowed. It was like being in little league again and I was about to fumble a catch.
Anna retrieved the tube from under the counter and swung it around like a bat. My hands reached out. I watched in horror as the end cap popped off and rolled past my foot. The baton slid from the tube and her fingers closed around the crystal just before it hit the floor. She raised it, pointing it at me.
“You had the baton?”
She rotated the empty tube. “There’s no label. Who were you mailing it to?”
“No one,” I said.
“It’s in a mailing tube, but you’re not mailing it. Really?”
“I couldn’t walk down the street with it in plain sight.”
“No? Where did you find it?”
My voice cracked. “Under the counter.”
Surprise swept across her face. “I thought it was Katelin that came back and took it.”
I cleared my throat. “Why would you think Katelin took it?”
“I found her earring behind the counter.”
“Well…that’s where I left it. I found it on the floor. I thought I would give it to Noah so he could return it to her. I hadn’t planned on taking the baton.” She frowned in disbelief. “I was going to examine it while you were having your lesson, but you finished too soon. The music stopped and I couldn’t get it back in time.”
“So you stole it?”
“Borrowed. I was going to return it. I did return it.”
“I think you have to have permission to borrow something. Otherwise it’s stealing.”
“So…you borrowed it from Katelin?”
She rotated it around in her hands watching the light reflect off the crystals. “I salvaged it. Technically it had been abandoned by Danny. I rescued it from the bushes where he tossed it.” She paused and looked closer at the ring of crystals. “Hey, there’s one missing.”
How could I have forgotten? “It — it fell out when I was examining it.”
“Do you still have it?”
I was pretty sure I did. “Sure, I put it in my pocket…”
“And…it’s now in the hamper with the dirty clothes,” I finished lamely.
“That’s a very secure place for it.”
I ignored her wit. “So what do you think about the baton?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Could be a theater prop, or a parade baton.”
“Hardly worth stealing. Or salvaging,” I said. She blushed and I took a chance. “You think it’s the mythical baton, don’t you?”
“No…I guess not. That would make Katelin the mysterious River Maiden.”
“Katelin is not mysterious. She’s a snob.”
“So why salvage the baton? Why not give it back to Katelin?”
She ran her finger over the baton and her voice was almost a whisper. “I had to be sure.”
I laughed. “Me too.”
I shrugged. “I’m still not sure. What do you think we should do with it now?”
A shadow passed by the window. Anna shoved the baton and the tube at me. “Hide it in the tunnel. Go! It’s Katelin and Noah.”
I scooped up the cap and ran for the warehouse. The front bell clanged as I jumped off the platform and charged down the main aisle, running along the track. That put me in plain sight from the shop, but I wasn’t taking any chances on meeting Natalie and Jerome alone in the library.
The tunnel air had a cold sinister touch that left me feeling clammy and chilled. Light from the weak Edison bulbs neglected the corners and dark side tunnels. I fumbled with the puzzle lock before getting it right. The gate opened, creaking in protest. It was more like entering a crypt than a treasure room. I shoved the baton under a dirty burlap bag on a top shelf.
By the time I got back, Walter was in the shop talking to Anna. Noah and Katelin were gone.
“Everything put away?” Anna asked.
“Just the way you wanted,” I said.
Walter looked back and forth between us. “Well if you’re done for the day, then I’ll see you next time.”
Anna grabbed the flowerpot, took my arm, and steered me outside.
“Frozenbog,” she said. “You’re buying.”
We settled into a booth and ordered two sundaes.
“Now,” Anna said, “what do you know about the stories of the baton holding a treasure map?”
I jumped as Penny plopped down two flagons filled with ice cream. “Treasure map?” she said. “Would that be the River Maiden story?”
Anna gave me a warning nudge with her foot.
“Twin Rivers would love to hear about it if you have found new evidence of the legend,” Penny said.
I laughed. “Now that would be a big headline. Sorry, we haven’t met the maiden.”
“Be sure and let me know if you do. It’s been about ten years since the last sighting. We’re about due.” She spun away to wait on other tables.
“So what convinced you that you were wrong about the baton?” Anna asked.
“I couldn’t find any way to get it open,” I said. “If it doesn’t open, there’s no treasure map.”
She smiled and her eyes twinkled with mischief. “You mean if you can’t open it then it can’t be done.”
I suppressed my annoyance. “I think I would have the best chance at discovering the secret.”
“Okay. What about the writing on it?”
“I couldn’t read it,” I said.
“Uh huh. So, you can’t get it open and you can’t read the writing.”
“It’s not in English,” I protested. “It’s a strange language.”
“Maybe the mechanism is strange also. Might be the same kind of strange.”
I clenched my teeth and sighed. “Okay. I guess we need to work on it together,” I said.
She pushed her empty flagon aside. “If we’re going to work together, we need trust.”
“Agreed,” I said.
“We share what we know. And we don’t borrow from each other.”
I smiled. “Not without asking.”
She laughed. “Okay. We examine it together. Make sure you get the missing stone out of the laundry. It might be important. And, while we’re solving mysteries…there’s this ring of seven keys.” She laid Danny’s discovery on the table.
“Henry’s,” I said. “Just like in Millie’s story.”
“What do we do with them?”
They were all skeleton keys, some fancy, some plain. “If they belonged to your grandfather, you should keep them. At least for now. One might open the crystal room.”
“If it really exists. And what about the others?”
“There are plenty of locked doors in the warehouse and maybe some in the tunnels.”
“I don’t remember seeing any doors down there,” she said.
“Nope, just a gate with a fancy latch.”
I had never seen a mechanism like the latch on the cavern room gate. If the one in Millie’s garage matched, there had to be a connection.
Using all the persuasive skills I had learned over the years from watching Noah, I convinced Anna that she should show me Millie’s gate. He would have been proud of me.
Anna took me around to the back of the house where we leaned our bikes against the wall. She picked up the flowerpot and led the way into the garage.
An earthy smell hung in the air from bags of mulch and empty pots with clumps of dirt still clinging to the inside. Rakes and shovels hung on the wall instead of wrenches and shop tools, and the familiar odor of oil and tires was missing. So was the Gremlin. The parking pad was empty.
“Doesn’t she keep the Gremlin in here?” I asked.
“Always. She must have found the car keys. The gate’s over here.”
I turned. Along the other side of the garage, a wall had been built from used lumber creating a long narrow room. Anna stood next to a wrought iron gate in the middle.
“That does look exactly like the latch on the cave gate,” I said.
Anna shook her head. “It’s not identical. This one is simpler.”
She handed me the flowerpot and got to work on the mechanism. In a few seconds the gate swung open noiselessly.
“Can we go inside?” I asked.
She hesitated. “Okay, but Gran is really fussy about this room. It was Grampa’s work area.” She flipped on a switch and light from a bare bulb in the ceiling lit the room.
At one end stood a wooden bookcase with rocks of all sizes and shapes spread across its dirty shelves. On the room’s long side a workbench had been attached to the outside wall.
Glittering dust covered the wooden surface. It clung to a hammer and chisel that lay next to a pair of work gloves, as if someone had just taken them off and set down the tools.
“The dust sparkles,” I said running my finger through it.
She smoothed out the trail my finger had left. “Crystal chips. They used to cut crystal blocks in here.”
She pulled down a leather bound book from a shelf over the bench and blew dust off the top. “Ledger books. They give all the statistics about mining the crystals. Who was working, how many crystal bricks and clay bricks they made, how many they sold to construct the Barter Building. Pretty boring stuff.” She slid it back on the shelf and adjusted the framed pictures hanging next to it.
“Who’s in the photographs?” I asked.
“That’s my great grandmother. She’s wearing my necklace. The other picture shows more of my ancestors working in the area.”
The garage door motor kicked in with a loud clank, and the door started to clatter as it rolled up. Anna swiped off the light switch and yanked the gate shut.
Daylight flooded the garage and Anna pushed me toward the back of the workroom into the shadows. A car pulled in and the engine shut off. I tried not to breathe hard. The car door opened and plastic shopping bags rustled. It shut with a thud and footsteps dwindled away. The garage door clanked its way down and settled in place against the cement floor.
“It’s not that it would be a real problem if Gran found us here,” Anna began. “It’s that she…well it would be…”
“It would be awkward to explain,” I finished for her.
She gave me a relieved smile.
I held up the flowerpot. “Should we give it to her now?”
The hallway to Millie’s rooms didn’t seem quite so long this time. I counted the doors as we passed them. One on the left, two on the right, one more on the left and then we stopped at Millie’s half opened door.
Anna knocked. “Gran?”
“Come in dear,” Millie called.
Anna pushed open the door and we stepped into Millie’s small living room. She stood in front of a table with a screwdriver in hand. A radio’s back panel lay on the table surrounded by screws and small boxes of tubes. Its inside looked like a science project from last century.
“Radio not working again?” Anna asked.
“Vacuum tubes don’t hold up the way they used to,” Millie said. She wiggled one of the tubes until it came out.
“How do you even find vacuum tubes?” I asked. “Do they sell them online?”
Millie gazed over her glasses at me. “I get them from Walter of course. I never thought to ask where he gets them.”
“He has an old Montgomery Ward catalog,” I said. “The page with radio parts had the vacuum tubes circled.”
Millie laughed. “I don’t think he’s ordering them from Montgomery Ward, dear. Their catalog company went out of business some time ago. He probably uses it as a reference to find part numbers.”
Seemed like an odd coincidence to me. “How do you know which tube to replace?” I asked.
“Sometimes the whole tube turns black. Other times you have to look closer.” She showed me a spot inside the tube. “See how that’s gray? It should be silver. This tube is no good. Now what do you have there?”
I had forgotten I was still holding the flowerpot. I held it out. “We found this while cleaning up at the Barter Building.”
A big smile spread across her face. She set the tube down and took the pot. “This is wonderful. It’s handmade. There’s no seams from a mold. See the intricate brickwork on the castle? Each brick is a little different.”
“No sparkles in the bricks though,” I said with a smile.
She laughed. “No, it wasn’t made with crystals from the Midsummer cave. Henry was very particular about those crystals. He never sold them.”
“What about the bricks in the Barter Building?” Anna asked.
“That was long before Henry. His family owned the Brick Factory. The company only existed for a few years. Just long enough to make those bricks. Interesting don’t you think?”
“So what happened to the brick company?” Anna asked.
“One day they packed up and moved on. Left everything just as it was when they stopped making bricks.”
“Are you talking about the old building outside of town down by the river?” I asked.
Millie nodded. “It was showing a lot of wear the last time I saw it. That was years ago.”
“I know that building,” I said. “It has holes in the walls and a few broken windows. Some of the shingles are missing.”
“No one has any reason to take care of it. It belongs to Wheatfield County now. It’ll fall in eventually. It’s almost 150 years old. A bit older than me.”
“Didn’t Grandpa work on cutting the crystals?” Anna asked.
“Oh he puttered around with it in his garage workshop. There’s crystal dust everywhere out there. I guess I should clean it up, but the dust can be very abrasive if you’re not wearing gloves. Used to be some ledger books from the mine out there. I might have some pictures if I can find them.”
She made her way to the bedroom and moments later we heard hangers sliding across the closet rod.
“My hand itches,” I said.
“I should have warned you. I forgot how that crystal dust irritates. It washes off.”
Millie’s muffled voice came from the other room. “I think I put that box back here. Now where…”
“You sound like you know a lot about the Brick Factory,” Anna said.
I shrugged. “Noah and I explored that area a couple times.”
“I wonder how many other kids have been out there?”
“I caught a glimpse of someone through the telescope last week when Walter let us go into the tower.”
She looked surprised. “You never mentioned that…”
Millie came back in carrying a scuffed up shoebox. She placed it on the coffee table and sat down.
“Let’s see what we have.” She began taking out photographs. “Here’s one of Henry and me outside this house. We’d been married only a month.”
The house hadn’t changed much, but Millie had. They were a stylish young couple. She wore a tailored dress and a hat with a short net veil. She looked like a model from the news clips they showed us in history class. “You looked like a movie star,” I said.
She peered at me over her glasses and smiled. “Amazing what fifty years will do to you.”
“I didn’t…I mean…”
She waved her hand and handed me another picture. “This is me and the Gremlin in front of the warehouse. That would be…1978. Fifteen years later. I hadn’t lost my looks yet.”
My face was hot and I knew I was blushing. Anna leaned close to see better. “Who’s that guy leaning against the side of the building? That’s not Gramps.”
“That’s Walter. He was the owner of the warehouse at that time. Bought it about ten years earlier. I was buying vacuum tubes from him even then.”
“Didn’t they have transistor radios?” I asked.
“Of course they did. Old radios have been a hobby with me for as long as I can remember. It’s like collecting old vinyl records. You do know about vinyl records, don’t you?”
“Sure. I think my grandparents might have some stashed away.”
She took the last photo out of the box. It was brown tone on heavy cardboard. “Here’s the warehouse right after it was finished.”
“What year was that?” I asked.
She crinkled up her face thinking. “About 1870.”
A group of men stood in a line in front of the building entrance. Millie pointed to one near the center. “There’s Zachariah Midsummer, your great, great, great, grandfather.”
“Who are the others?” Anna asked.
“Couldn’t tell you their names,” Millie said. “Prominent citizens of the town.”
“Who’s the guy standing away from the others?” I asked.
“Not sure. It doesn’t look like he was part of the group. Maybe someone just wandering by.”
“He looks like Walter in the other photo,” I said.
Millie laughed. “That would have been long before Walter was born.”
“Can I take a picture of it with my phone?”
I snapped a picture of the 1870 and the 1978 photographs.
Millie finally shooed us out. Said it was time for her nap. We made our way down the hall. I was thinking about the pictures and almost ran into a man coming out of the study. Anna’s father was right behind him.
“Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with the cable?” her father said.
“It’s fine,” the other man said. “I’ve already talked to the phone company about getting some statistics about the outages.” He keyed notes rapidly into his phone. “The backup power supply should cover you until we figure this out.”
Her dad noticed us. “Elliott, this is my daughter, Anna. Elliott is here to help with the power problems.” He looked at me blankly. “I don’t recall seeing you before.”
Anna smiled. “This is my friend JT.”
Elliott gave me an appraising look. “Have you had any phone problems at your house?”
“Only when the power goes out. But my cell phone doesn’t work at all in the warehouse,” I said.
“Warehouse? What warehouse?”
“The Barter Building down in the historic district,” Anna said. “We’ve been working in the antique store there.”
He pulled up a map on his phone and I could tell he was calculating in his head.
“The stores have Internet and cell service,” I said. “But the phones don’t work in the antique store or in the warehouse in the back.”
“Is it wired for WIFI?”
“Yes,” I said. Why did techies always assume the rest of us were stupid? Next he’d be asking if I had my phone turned on.
He typed in a few more notes. “Probably not related. I’ll keep it in mind when I get data from the phone company.” He dug around in his pocket and handed each of us a business card. “If you think of anything else that might be related you can text me.”
Without another glance in my direction he walked out with Anna’s father.
The card read Elliott Douglas, Computer Issues Resolved.
On my way home I tried to resolve the problem of phones not working in the Barter Building. Walter had just shrugged it off. Elliott didn’t think it was related to the power outages. But something was interfering. What could be special about the building that blocked the signals?
When I arrived home the aroma of garlic bread pushed the problem out of my mind.
Mom set the basket of steaming toast on the table and I grabbed a couple slices. “How was work today?” She asked.
“Fine,” I said, stuffing the warm bread into my mouth. The spaghetti swirled around my plate like the tunnels under the Barter Building.
“Find any keys?” Dad asked
I looked up in surprise. How could he know about the ring of keys?
He snatched a slice of bread. “You know, to the chest?”
“Oh…no, not yet.” I filled my mouth with spaghetti to avoid talking.
“I’m sure he found plenty of other interesting things,” Mom said.
The conversation moved to Garrison’s Garage and Mom’s work. My thoughts drifted. There had to be a connection between the two fancy gate latches. Maybe I could find something about them on the Internet, if they weren’t the only ones of their kind.
Anna and Millie both said there were lots of locked doors in the warehouse. How many could be opened with the skeleton keys from Henry’s ring, and where had Danny found them?
What about the man in the photograph that looked like Walter? I reached for my phone.
“Dessert?” Mom set a bowl of apple cobbler and ice cream in front of me. It smelled like the bookstore, but this time I got to taste it. The picture could wait.
Dad was sliding back his chair. “Grab your bowl and let’s catch the end of Restoring Wheels. They’re rebuilding a Volkswagen minibus tonight.” He gave me a big grin. I chuckled and followed him to the living room. The show was okay, but watching Dad enjoy it was the fun.
It was late when I trudged up the stairs to my room, but not too late for a quick game of Safe Cracker. No worries about the baton tonight. It was safely hidden in the underground storeroom.
I entered my room and stopped. A neat pile of freshly washed and folded clothes stared at me from the bed. I hadn’t checked the dirty laundry for the chip.
All thoughts of Safe Cracker disappeared as I rummaged through the pile and slipped my hand into the pocket. With a sigh of relief I felt the chip, trapped in the threads. I scooped up the rumpled clothes and dumped them in a drawer.
Maybe a chapter of McBride’s book would be more relaxing. I climbed into bed with the book and opened my hand. The chip lay shimmering in the soft yellow lamplight. Even after washing off the dust, my fingers still inched faintly like an old mosquito bite.
I closed my fingers around the chip, leaned back into the pillow, and propped the book against my bent knees. McBride’s self-assured look seemed to say, “I’ve been there and seen it all.”
Jake must have spent a lot of time in the tunnels. Was it just the journey, the search, that kept him going? What did he find down there that continually drew him back?
I flipped to the chapter on Tunnels and the Barter Building and started at the beginning.
The tunnel entrance on the East River was discovered one dark and stormy night. Captain McConnelly steered his barge down the East River. He had gotten a late start after paying the fine for one of his crewmembers to get out of jail, and now he had to make up the time and money. If he missed the outgoing barge at Twin Rivers it would cut deeply into his profits.
Where had McBride gotten his information? This sounded like the setup for a disaster movie.
McConnelly had been making this run on the East River for decades and knew it well. It had been a wet spring and the river was cresting above its banks, but a full moon and a thousand stars filled the sky. He decided to press on through the night.
The plot thickens. The crystal felt warm in the palm of my hand.
Toward morning threatening clouds moved in, hiding the sunrise. The wind picked up and steering the heavy load became more difficult. Despite his best efforts, the wind caught the barge, ramming it against the rocks and grounding it in the shallows. Water gushed through a jagged hole. McConnelly sent one man to look for shelter while he and the others managed to drag most of the goods onto shore. Rain began in huge hard drops and turned quickly into a driving sheet. The crewman came back shouting he had found shelter and led them to the tunnel.
I picked up the padlock, cleared the dial, and turned to the first two numbers, 18 and 9. Then I began the search for the third while I read.
When they explored the tunnel they found a vast chamber and an idea began to form in McConnelly’s mind. Transporting goods underground could significantly reduce travel time. It would eliminate the obstacle of inclement weather, and the chamber would be an ideal place to store goods. He wasted no time in implementing his plan.
Rails were laid and mine cars carried goods to the chamber for storage. The callused merchants showed no regard for the cavern’s natural beauty, altering structures and damaging cave formations to accommodate their goods.
Although the chamber worked well for storage, the tunnel came to an abrupt end before reaching the West River. Goods still had to be transported above ground. But the idea of an underground route had taken root, and McConnelly was not one to give up easily.
He formed an alliance with other merchants. Plans were made, funds were raised, and an excavation to extend the tunnel began in earnest. It looked like they would reach the West River by July, but progress again came to a sudden halt when their tools struck a wall of solid stone. Some said it was granite. Whatever it was, their pickaxes and shovels were ineffective against the impenetrable barrier.
I thought I had found the third number, but the lock stayed stubbornly closed. I started again.
McConnelly had run out of luck. His reckoning was off. Blasting was not an option. He had tunneled under private property, and the Midsummers were busy constructing a new trade building right above the granite wall.
After much bargaining, the Midsummers and the merchants came to an understanding. The details of the deal were wrapped in secrecy, but the agreement was to open the tunnel into the basement of the new Barter Building and install a lift so that goods could be raised into the warehouse.
The padlock finally popped open.
The Midsummers finally completed construction on the Barter Building in 1870, and inventory was moved to the new warehouse for storage. The underground chamber was abandoned, but not the tunnels.
The men who had worked underground in the past had made a path to the future. The tunnels still tell the story.
My mind felt foggy. I read the last paragraph several times but it was hard to concentrate. My eyes closed. I sank back into the pillow, my thoughts drifting into the tunnels where workers pushed loaded mine cars down the tracks toward the lift and the metal wheels rumbled musically over the rails. Men’s voices blended with the rhythmic click, click, click as the car passed over the joints.
I retraced my steps through the tunnel in the dim glow of the Edison bulbs.
The rails led in and out of soft shadows, like walking under streetlights. I kept to the stone walkway. Only one bulb in four was lit making the shadows deeper and longer. The lift room seemed far away in distance and time.
The bulbs in the tunnel behind me were fading, and the darkness crept after me. Cold perspiration beaded on my forehead. I tried to pick up my pace, but my bare feet were numb with cold. A mist hid the walkway.
The light in front dimmed and everything faded into dark gray fog. I bumped into something.
A voice said, “Watch out.”
I stepped back in surprise. “Anna?”
“JT?” she said. “Where are we?”
“In the tunnel under the Barter Building.”
“I can’t see you. How did all this fog get into the tunnel?”
A hand touched my shoulder and I cried out in surprise.
“What is it?” Anna said.
I grabbed the hand off my shoulder.
“That’s me. Don’t squeeze so hard.”
“It’s not just the fog,” I said. “Somehow we’re invisible.” That idea should have been strange, but it seemed natural.
The fog started to clear, replaced by blurry lights.
“We’re not in the tunnel,” Anna said. “This room is empty and round.”
The light grew stronger, bringing the walls into view. The whole room was made of crystal bricks. I ran my hand over them. I could feel the crystals, but my finger passed through the mortar as if it weren’t there at all. Even the floor was crystal. My toes curled through the mortar around a brick.
“Look at the domed ceiling,” Anna said. “If the mortar isn’t real those bricks should be falling on us.”
A shadow passed over me followed by a chirping trill. I turned toward the sound. A brown bird stood near the wall in front of a closed door.
The light faded. I blinked several times trying to focus, but it was getting foggy again. The bird pecked at the door and opened its mouth in a low whistle.
I was no longer holding Anna’s hand. “Anna?”
Her voice sounded far away. “JT?”
I rubbed my eyes. When I focused again the ceiling fan in my bedroom turned slowly in the moonlight. I was in my bed with the moon visible through half opened blinds. The clock read 5:00 a.m.
I groaned and rolled out of bed trying to shake the dream out of my head. Before leaving I was careful to put the crystal chip in my pocket.
The ride to work was sunny with the promise of a hot day, but shadows still draped the sidewalk in front of the Barter Building and wrapped the park in chilly air.
I settled in on the park bench and waited. A squirrel scolded me before scampering off through the grass. Birds above me chattered and sang as if their noise could hurry the sun, but it would be a while before it climbed over the building and warmed the trees.
An old man shuffled up the street, the first sign of activity. He stopped at Counterclockwise. I took his picture as he struggled with the lock. After several tries he got it open and made his way inside. Must be Mr. Pham. The door closed behind him with a faint clatter.
I checked out the picture. Blurred. I deleted it and pulled up Millie’s two photographs.
A far away voice said, “Good morning.”
I zoomed in on the picture of Walter when he was young and the one of the man from 1870. The pictures were taken 100 years apart, yet it looked like the same man in both pictures.
“Good morning.” Louder this time.
They looked the same age and size, and even had the same tilt to their heads.
I jumped and looked up to see Anna standing there. Where had she come from?
She sat down beside me and leaned forward to see my phone. “I called you three times. What are you looking at that’s so absorbing?”
I shifted the screen a bit. She pressed against me to see better, her presence warm. I turned my head and caught the hint of fragrance in her hair.
“He does look a lot like Walter,” Anna said.
“Who does?” I asked.
Anna sat back bumping my chin. She pointed to the phone. “The guy in the old picture. Isn’t that what you were thinking about?”
“Sure,” I said and turned my focus back to the pictures.
“They both have the same smile,” Anna said. “Like they know a secret.”
“One they’re not likely to tell,” I said.
“Let’s see what we can find out from the current Walter,” Anna said.
The antique shop was warmer than the park. We found Walter in the back. After a gruff greeting, he didn’t have much to say. He led us through the warehouse where a breeze from open windows carried out the heavy musty odors.
Mom was always telling me that old people like to talk about the past. I decided to start there.
“How long did it take you to collect all this stuff?” I asked.
Walter grunted. “I didn’t,” he said. “A lot of it came with the building.” He turned his back and dragged out a box.
“It must have been a fun place to grow up,” I said. Anna gave me an approving look.
He turned in a circle and ran his hand through his hair as he surveyed the piles. “Mr. Henry let me tag around with him once on his rounds. It was pretty fascinating to a ten year old, though not too safe. Parents nowadays wouldn’t hear of it. Mine weren’t too concerned about safety. Guess they thought I had a certain stock of common sense.”
“Did you come back often?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I didn’t spend much time here till I was almost your age. Norman had bought the place and he let me hang out. He wasn’t much on business, but he could sure tell a fanciful story and made you feel like it was real.”
“Is that who you bought the building from?” I asked.
Walter stared off as if seeing a different time. He seemed to have forgotten we were there. “One day Norman just disappeared. Never showed up again. I bought the building at auction.”
“Millie showed us a picture from 1870 when the building was opened,” I said. “There’s a man in the corner of the picture that looks like you. Did you have relatives here then?”
He turned and stared at me with that piercing gaze. His voice was gruff and his answer short. “No relatives. We moved here when I was nine.”
He pointed to the box. “These are some moderately valuable items for the store. They need to be cleaned and brought up front. Try not to break anything. The idea is to get the dirt off without removing any of the patina. Takes a lot of time and patience to get an item nicely aged. People want to see that. Here’s a couple rags and a bucket of water. Be sure to wring your rag out. Don’t put any pieces in the water.”
He turned and ambled back to the shop carrying a box of vacuum tubes.
“That was quite a bit of information,” Anna said. “You’re pretty good at this.”
“I guess I broke the mood with that last question,” I said. “But now we know the man in the picture is not a relative.”
After cleaning a couple items, the water was cloudy and our rags were gray.
“I’m just smearing the dirt around on this vase,” I said. “We need clean rags and fresh water.”
“There must be a janitor’s closet around somewhere,” Anna said. “Probably up front by the stores. Bring the bucket.”
The wall at the front had a line of heavy unmarked doors. All were closed except for the one leading from the platform into Antiques.
“That’s a lot of choices,” I said.
“All back doors to the shops,” Anna said, and started naming them from the right. “Frozenbog, Alexandria’s Trove, Forgotten Treasures.” She paused and started from the left. “Katz Fiddle, Counterclockwise, Antiques. That leaves these three doors in the middle that look different from the others.”
“Not as modern,” I said. “More like closet doors.” I set the bucket down. “Shall I try them?”
She looked up at me, and for a moment it was like Millie looking at me over her glasses. I took that as a yes.
“Okay, let’s start on the right.” I tried the handle and it turned easy. “Nothing to it.” Inside was everything needed for cleaning including a water spigot and laundry tub. “Jackpot.”
I handed her clean rags and refilled the bucket. She studied the other two doors. “What do you think is behind them?”
A quick glance at the platform showed no sign of Walter. “One way to find out.” I rattled both handles but they didn’t open. “Did you happen to bring that ring of keys that Danny found?”
She fished in her pocket and held them up. “These?”
Door one or door two?” I said. “Which one holds the prize?”
“Try the left,” Anna said. “We’ll save the center for last. It’s probably the best.”
The room on the left was the same odd shape as the janitor closet but in reverse. Triangular with one side curved in making the room smaller. A cart on wheels sat in the middle with an antique radio on it.
“That’s weird,” I said. “Why would this radio be locked up?”
“It’s been modified,” she said, running her finger along the front. “There’s too many dials. It has seven.”
“It’s like a combination lock,” I said excitedly. “See? Each dial has a set of numbers with different possibilities.”
“The first has just two choices, 18 or 19. The next two dials can be set to 0-9. Then 1-12, 1-31, 0-23…” I looked up. Her eyes were glazing over. Too much detail. “And…0 to 59,” I finished lamely.
“That isn’t normal,” she said.
I hoped she was talking about the radio settings and not about me. I couldn’t resist pulling out my phone and taking a picture. “It must do something spectacular when you set the dials right.”
“I don’t know…” She spun the cart around. “Someone took the back off. It doesn’t look too unusual inside, just wires and vacuum tubes like Gran’s radio. Let’s check out the center door.”
I took a picture of the back just in case before locking up.
It took four tries before we found a key that clicked in the lock on the center door. I kept glancing at the platform, but Walter must have been busy inside the shop. I turned the knob and started to pull the door open. Anna laid her hand over mine.
From inside the room came a soft irregular tapping noise.
I pulled my hand back meaning to let go, but the door was unlatched and the movement made it swing toward us. Together we took a step backward.
From the room came a burst of chirps and a brown flash swooped over our heads. Anna threw up her hands. I ducked and stumbled over the bucket sending water spraying and spilling across the floor.
A bird circled overhead then landed on the leaning bookcase. The structure swayed slightly and I held my breath as it creaked and shifted before settling into a new position. The bird let out a stream of whistles and more chirps before flying off into the warehouse.
We wiped off our wet clothes with the rags.
“No prize. Just an startled bird,” Anna said.
“How do you think it got in there?” I asked. “We should probably check it out in case there’s a broken window or something.”
“Good excuse as any,” Anna said, and led the way.
Entering the room was like stepping inside one of the stones on her necklace. The walls, ceiling and floor were all constructed of crystal bricks held in place by a bluish mortar, like the filaments in the stones.
The only opening was the door where we entered. Every surface glowed giving the room an eerie radiance. Even the inside of the door was studded with crystals.
“There must be a skylight above, hidden by the domed ceiling,” I said. “This has to be Henry’s crystal room. Wonder what it was used for?”
Anna ran her hand over the wall tracing around the bricks. “Last time I could put my finger right through the mortar.”
I remembered my cold toes curling through the mortar in the floor. “Was that real?” I said.
She stared at me for a long moment. “We were here last night. In this room. It was foggy and I couldn’t see you.”
“But I felt your hand,” I said.
She rubbed her thumb and finger together. “My fingers itched from the crystal dust.”
I nodded. “And the bird was here.”
Silence settled over the room and an uneasy feeling crept over me. With unspoken agreement we backed out of the room and locked the door.
After mopping up the floor we went back to work. We didn’t talk much. The bird circled overhead several times as if checking on our progress. It was noon when we finished.
We climbed the steps to the platform, and I heard chirps from inside Antiques. We set the box of cleaned pieces on the counter. The bird stood next to the old cash register holding an orange slice in its claws and picking out the seeds while examining me with one eye. Walter leaned on the counter watching it.
“What kind of bird is that?” Anna asked.
“It’s bigger than I thought,” I said. “It’s as big as a crow.”
Walter shook his head. “More like a super sized finch.”
“Seems to like fruit,” I said.
“Mostly the seeds,” Walter said.
The bird discarded the punctured orange and walked over to Walter’s plate where half of his peanut butter sandwich lay unattended. It glanced at Walter and then began eating the bread and picking out the peanut fragments.
“How did it get in the building?” Anna asked.
The old man shrugged.
The bird looked at him, whistled a series of notes while bobbing up and down, then walked to the end of the counter and flew off into the warehouse.
“What did that mean?” I asked.
“Maybe thank you,” Walter said. He brushed crumbs off his shirt. “I’m closing early today. Got some errands to take care of and shipments to deliver. My customers are getting impatient for some orders. I told Eric that he could put your lunch on my tab.” He shuffled off to the warehouse. “Concert tonight, Anna. Don’t be late.” He closed the door behind him.
“That was weird,” I said.
“He’s never done that before,” Anna said.
We stepped outside and pushed the door closed. The lock clicked into place and Anna read a sign in the window.
“Closed for the day. Opening tomorrow morning.”
“Guess we go to lunch,” I said.
Up the street the door to Frozenbog’s opened. Noise from the lunch crowd spilled into the street and Noah emerged with Katelin. He seemed to be explaining something. Judging from his enthusiasm, it must have been geology related. At least she looked moderately interested. They didn’t even glance our way, but headed around the corner.
Frozenbog was packed. Ms. Fairfield and Mr. Katz sat together at a corner table. Marta and Elliott sat in our regular booth, talking more than eating. Two seats freed up at the counter nearby and Eric waved us in.
We perched on the stools and I whispered to Anna. “That’s Elliott the computer guy with Marta. Behind us.”
I was impressed with the casual way she turned without being obvious.
“You’re right,” she said.
“What’s he doing with Marta?”
“Shh,” she said. “I’m trying to hear.”
“Were you able to get information about the outages from the phone company?” Marta asked.
“Yes,” Elliot said. “And the numbers are pretty interesting.”
“How so?” she asked.
“Within a few seconds, the outages always last the same amount of time. About five minutes.”
An old couple shuffled past blocking the conversation. Anna gave me a frustrated look.
“…map with the range and number of outages,” Elliott was saying. “The highest concentration is located…”
A group of laughing teenagers squeezed through the aisle behind us.
“I’d love to see that map,” I said.
“Wasn’t Danny in that group of kids?” Anna said.
I shrugged. “Everyone seems to be here today.” I leaned back to see down the aisle. “Don’t see him,” I said, “but there’s a flashing light over the emergency door in the back. Is it supposed to be doing that?”
“I don’t think so. That door leads into the warehouse.”
Eric appeared at the counter. “What can I get you two?”
“Did you notice that the light is flashing over the emergency door?” I asked.
Eric leaned into the aisle to see the door. “Not now,” he said with a groan. “What else?”
Like an answer to his question, the lights went out. The blender stopped whirring and the air conditioner fan stopped.
Eric closed his eyes and muttered, “At least the alarm didn’t go off.”
Marta stepped up to the counter. “You take care of your customers. I’ll check out the door. What are neighbors for?”
Eric gave her a grateful smile and raced away shouting orders to his workers.
Marta was back at the booth. “This is perfect,” she said to Elliott. “This is our chance to check out the warehouse.”
Elliott started to gather up his papers.
“Leave that,” she said. “There’s no time. We’ll be right back.”
They hurried down the aisle and through the back door.
“We can’t let them go into Walter’s warehouse alone,” Anna said. She jumped off the stool and headed after them.
I hesitated at the booth and tilted my head to read the spreadsheet, but the type was too small. Anna was almost to the exit. I scooped up the map and spreadsheet and raced after her, stuffing the papers into my pocket as I went through the door.
The dirty skylights and scattered emergency lighting gave the place an uncanny feel. Anna placed her finger over her lips. I nodded.
Marta and Elliott were ahead of us, heading toward the center of the warehouse. We kept to the shadows. Our sneakers made little noise on the brick floor, and the voices of Marta and Elliott were clear.
“Is that the emergency lights making that humming?” Marta asked.
“Could be. Sounds more like an old radio that isn’t set properly. According to the map from the power company, this building is in the center of the outages.”
“What direction is the noise coming from?” She turned in a circle and we ducked into the shadows.
“Hard to tell,” Elliott said. “The sound really bounces around in here.”
“All I see are piles of junk,” Marta said. “What are we looking for?”
“Something that might cause a power interruption or would set off the alarm light.”
“The alarm light is activated by someone going through the door.”
Anna and I looked at each other and whispered together, “Danny!”
A scraping noise came from the back of the warehouse.
Marta took off toward it, her steps echoing in a fast staccato. “Come on,” she said.
“I think we should check up front first,” Elliott said.
Marta didn’t slow down or look back. Elliott gave in and dashed after her.
Anna started to follow, but I caught her hand. She turned and mouthed the word, “What?”
“He’s right. Let’s check out the radio in the closet.”
We headed toward the antique store. The humming got louder when we reached the three center doors. Anna opened the left closet. “Unlocked and the radio’s gone.”
I pointed to the crystal room. “The humming is coming from in there.”
She tugged on the door, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Locked?” I asked.
She shook her head. “The handle turns, but it’s stuck.”
“Pull hard,” I said.
She stepped back and waved her hand at the door. “All yours.”
I grasped the handle and pulled. Nothing happened. I braced and gave it a hard tug. The power came back on with a loud thump, the door flew open and I landed in an undignified heap on the floor.
Anna was shaking with laughter, her face turning red from her efforts to keep quiet.
From the back of the warehouse came the echo of shoes on the brick floor. I jumped to my feet and shoved the door closed. Anna pulled me behind the leaning bookcase.
The Frozenbog door opened and Eric shouted, “Marta! Power’s back on!”
Our hiding place was secure. The bookcase overflowed with statues, vases, and even books. We couldn’t be seen, but I couldn’t see anything either. I pushed aside a statue of Atlas holding up the world. That dislodged a glass pendulum clock, and it inched toward me. I caught it before it toppled, but as my hands closed around the case it gave off a faint chime. Anna gave me a disgusted look, but now a narrow gap gave us a view of the aisle.
“Just a kid exploring,” Elliott called. “He went out the back window. It’s closed now.”
“Thanks,” Eric said. “The door’s propped open.” His voice trailed off as he went back inside. “Only two minutes before the alarm resets.”
“That’s not enough time,” Marta said.
Elliott looked at his watch. “Power was out for about five minutes,” he said. “Right on schedule.”
“The humming has stopped,” she said.
He hesitated and looked down the aisle in our direction. I was pretty sure he couldn’t see us through the gap, but it made me nervous.
“Let’s get moving,” Marta said. “The alarm won’t wait.”
They went back into Frozenbog and the door latched behind them.
“That eliminates that exit,” Anna said.
We can’t go out through any of the shops without setting off the alarm,” I said.
“There’s a side door,” Anna said.
“Okay, but before we leave let’s take a look in the crystal room.”
She giggled. “If you think you can get the door open.”
“Very funny,” I said. It was going to be hard living that one down.
I pulled on the door. To my surprise, it opened easily. I bowed and waved her inside. “After you.”
We stepped inside the soft blue glow. The room was quiet, but not empty.
“There’s the radio,” Anna said.
“It’s not humming.”
“All the tubes look good. Maybe it wasn’t the radio that was humming.”
“It looks different,” I said. “I think the dials are set in new positions.” I took a picture of the dials and of the tubes.
“You know,” Anna said, “this would be a good time to retrieve the baton.”
“Now?” I said.
“Sure. Walter’s not around.”
“But we don’t know when he’s coming back.”
“All the more reason to get on with it.” She pulled Millie’s key out of her pocket. “Shut the door and come on,” she called.
I gave the door a shove, thought for a second, then dashed to the janitor closet to grab a can of WD-40, and ran to catch up.
She figured out how to use the key and had the door open when I got there. Together we trotted down Edison Avenue to the gate.
She worked through the puzzle lock. Without thinking, I reviewed the moves in my head, always one step ahead of her. She started to pull it open.
“One moment.” I whipped out the can and sprayed all the hinges. “Okay,” I said.
When she swung it open, its complaints were much fainter.
“Where did you put it?” she asked.
“Over here.” The burlap hiding the baton had sagged. A corner hung down from the high shelf, brushing a container below.
“This box wasn’t here before,” I said.
“It had to be, it’s covered with as much dust as everything else in here.”
Inside the box lay a bundle covered in newspaper. I unwrapped it and handed a gaudy flowerpot to Anna.
“This must be for Gran,” she said.
I started to stuff the newspaper back, but a headline caught my eye. “Interruption in Power at the Barter Building.” The paper crackled as I smoothed it out. “The new electric lights at the Barter Building are not as dependable as the Midsummer family would have us believe. The lights sometimes wink out and stay unlit for up to five minutes at a time. No one knows why, though some have suggested that the very bricks in the building are the cause. Next they will be telling us that mischievous leprechauns living in the tunnels are to blame. But until the Midsummers figure it out, they will have to deal with the interruptions.”
“What’s the date on that newspaper?” Anna asked.
I slid the baton out of the mailing tube. It was cold against my fingers. I handed it to Anna. “And…” I took the chip from my pocket. “I remembered this.”
She moved to where the light was brighter and ran her fingers over the ring of crystals. “The rest all seem to be tight…” She gasped and almost dropped the baton. “The whole ring came off.” She held the baton in one hand and the ring of crystals in the other. “It seems to be falling apart one piece at a time.”
A line of bright copper now circled the end where the ring had kept the metal from tarnishing.
“We’ve been down here for a while,” Anna said. “We should examine this later.”
I agreed and we closed up the room. The air was stuffy when we emerged from the tunnel. I set down Millie’s pot and the WD-40 and took the key from Anna to lock the door. The warehouse was quiet and the key rasped in the lock. A shadow passed over with a series of trills. Anna squeaked and my hand jerked, dropping the key.
“Just that strange bird,” Anna said with a nervous laugh.
I nodded and managed to get the door locked.
“We could give the ring and chip to Mr. Pham to repair,” Anna said. “Put it in the slot with a note.”
“We’ll have to check often or Walter will get to it first.”
“I think it’s worth the risk.”
“Okay,” I said. “First we see if he’s on the platform. Then we check Antiques.”
We left the main path and worked our way around to the front of the building until we could see the platform.
“Empty,” Anna said.
I took a deep breath, stepped out into the open, and glanced up and down the row of doors. All clear.
We ran onto the platform, cringing at the creaking steps. Walter’s sweater lay draped over the arm of his overstuffed chair. Anna pressed her ear against the door, looked at me and shrugged. I nodded and she opened it.
The shop was dark and quiet, but I was sure Walter wasn’t there because the fan was not clicking its rhythmic beat. Anna quickly filled out a ticket and we left the ring and chip in Mr. Pham’s repair window.
“Let’s go find that side door,” I said.
Finding it was no problem, but opening it was another matter.
“It has a dead bolt,” Anna said. She pushed on it, and brownish orange dirt flaked off onto her hand. “Rusted in place. I don’t think this door has been opened in ages.”
“Careful,” I said. “Walter will be really mad if you hurt your fingers and can’t play tonight.”
I leaned into it. The bolt reluctantly moved. With a loud clank it shot back pinching my hand.
“Ouch,” I said.
“If anyone’s in here that would announce our presence,” Anna said. Then she saw the trickle of blood across my palm. “Oops.” She whipped a tissue out of her pocket and pressed it against the cut. “Hope you’re up to date on your tetanus shots.”
“Thanks. Open the door.”
She turned the handle and pushed. “It’s locked.”
“You sure it’s not just rusted in place?”
She pointed to the keyhole under the handle and started trying keys. We were rewarded with a satisfying click.
I gave the door a hard push. With a scraping noise and a shower of dirt and debris it broke free. I stuck my head out and blinked in the bright sunlight at an empty street.
Anna pushed the door shut behind us. “We can’t set the dead bolt from the outside.”
“Just use your key on the old lock,” I said. “We’ll reset the bolt when we come back to work tomorrow.”
The lock clicked into place. She rested the tube with the baton against her shoulder and climbed onto her bike. “If we run into anyone, you delay them and I’ll keep going.”
I peddled after her, my mind swirling as I tried to concoct a convincing story. Fortunately, we didn’t run into anyone. When we reached her tree-lined driveway our pace slowed under the shade and peaceful quiet.
We pulled up behind the house. Anna looked through the back window into the garage.
“The Gremlin’s not here,” she said. “You wait. I’m going to stash this.” Before I could ask questions, she had slipped inside. Through the window I saw her open the gate and go into her grandfather’s workshop.
I shrugged. It didn’t matter where she hid it, as long as it was out of my possession. I leaned against the garage and closed my eyes. It had been a busy day and the warm sun felt relaxing on my face. In the distance was the faint sound of a car.
My eyes shot open. Not just any car. That was the rattle of Millie’s Gremlin coming up the drive. I needed a convincing story as to why I was hanging around by myself.
I could give her the gaudy pot! No good. It was sitting in the warehouse by the door to the tunnels. I needed a place to hide. Without thinking I stepped inside. The garage door began its clanking climb. Sunlight spread across the floor. The tires of the Gremlin peeked beneath the edge. I darted into the workshop, pulled the gate shut behind me, and backed into the shadows until I bumped up against the bookcase, the toes of my shoes still in the light.
There should have been more room, but the bookcase had been pulled away from the wall. I shifted my feet to an awkward angle, my back pressed uncomfortably into a corner of a shelf.
It seemed to take hours for Millie to get out of the car and gather her shopping bags, but finally the house door closed and I was alone.
I took a deep breath and stretched. I could get back outside without Anna knowing, but where was she? Behind the bookcase? I turned and there she was facing me. I yelled and she clapped a hand over my mouth.
“Shh!” she hissed. “You were supposed to wait outside.”
I pointed to the car. “Millie came back. I didn’t want to get caught hanging around…”
“Outside?” she interrupted. “You thought getting caught inside would be better?”
“I um..I…” She had a point.
She pushed the bookcase back with one hand. It rotated noiselessly back into position making a soft snap when it stopped. I wanted to see the floor but the light was too dim and she stood in the way while she latched the gate. What was behind the bookcase? A room? How big?
The silence was getting awkward. “I guess I’ll be going.” I opened the back door. “See you at the concert?”
“I’ll be there,” she said.
I laughed nervously. Of course she would be there. “Right.” I stepped outside and closed the door. For a moment I stared at the garage. I was sure the bookcase was right up against the back wall. There wasn’t enough space behind it for a room.
I turned the puzzle over in my mind on the way home. Anna had come from behind the bookcase. There had to be stairs leading down to something below. A room? More tunnels? Obviously a family secret that Anna didn’t want to share.
It was cooler and easier to think in my backyard. I sat at our dilapidated picnic table and opened Elliott’s paperwork. Neat columns of outage dates, times and duration lined up on the spreadsheet. I unfolded the map.
He had drawn a series of circles around Twin Rivers. Each one had a reference back to an outage on the spreadsheet and outlined the area affected. The Barter Building was directly in the center of each circle.
Sometimes it helped if I let my brain work on puzzles subconsciously. I turned to the pictures of the radio dials on my phone and compared them. My instinct was right. The dials had been moved.
I jotted down the numbers on the back of the map. Seven dials. Seven numbers. Two different settings:
19 3 2 9 13 10 30
18 9 6 8 25 9 30
The table shook. “Hey, JT. New puzzle?”
I looked up. Noah dropped a flyer on the table, tossed his hat over it and swung his legs over the bench to sit down. Without turning the paper around he began reading the numbers out loud.
“1932 9/13 10:30. 1896 8/25 9:30. Something special about those dates and times?”
It always amazed me that he could read upside down like that. “Not sure if they are dates,” I said.
“Well, you’re the code expert.” He stretched his legs out and laced his fingers behind his head. “Going to work on boring numbers, or going to see Anna?” He nodded at the park events flyer.
“I was planning on going to the concert, why?”
“Well, you might want to put your puzzle away and start thinking music. It begins in thirty minutes.”
I jumped up banging my knee on the table.
“Easy there cipher man. You have time.” He handed me the map. I stuffed it into my pocket, but he didn’t move.
“Aren’t you coming?”
I frowned at him. “What’s the deal? You and Katelin going somewhere else?”
“I don’t have her phone number.”
“Why don’t you just stop by her house?”
“Well…” he looked embarrassed. “I don’t know where she lives. When I ask, she avoids the question. She seems reluctant to have anyone meet her family.”
“Maybe she’s not so perfect after all. Maybe she’s homeless and living in the old Brick Factory.”
“Get real. Does she look or smell like a homeless person?”
“Good point.” I thought for a moment. “Maybe her parents work for the CIA.”
“Doesn’t ask enough questions to be a spy.”
He wadded up the flyer and threw it at me. I threw his hat at him. “Doesn’t mean you can’t go. There’s lots of girls in the park. All of them swooning over you. You’ll need to wear that hat though, your hair looks terrible.”
Twenty minutes later Noah and I arrived. People filled the park and overflowed into the street, milling back and forth, carrying purchases of books and artwork and eating ice cream.
“There’s Anna,” Noah said. He nodded toward the music store where she stood with Mr. Katz and Ms. Fairfield.
“I don’t see Walter,” I said.
“He needs to hurry. Concert starts in ten minutes. Antiques looks dark, but let’s check it out.”
We crossed the street dodging around strolling people and people with strollers. Walter’s sign still clung to the window.
“Closed for the day. Opening tomorrow morning,” Noah read. “Looks like he’s gone till tomorrow.”
“Yes, but he planned on being here for the concert.”
“Let’s check with Anna,” he said and gave me a shove toward the music store.
“He’s been gone since noon,” Anna was saying. “He made a point of telling me to be here on time tonight.”
She glanced our way. Her face was flushed and her fingers drummed on her flute. I tried to smile reassuringly.
“Well, something held him up,” Mr. Katz said. Crease lines tightened across his forehead. Was he frowning at us, or Walter’s absence? Or both? “Show starts in five minutes.”
“How about that haunting little melody you were practicing on the dulcimer, Anna?” Ms. Fairfield said, still wearing her perpetual smile. “It could make a nice flute solo.”
Mr. Katz’s face brightened a bit. “That would work as a nice wrap up,” he said.
“We’ll meet you there,” Ms. Fairfield said. She took Mr. Katz’s arm and drew him away.
He called back over his shoulder. “Two minutes, Anna. I don’t fancy myself as a one man band.”
Noah’s face registered surprise as they walked away. “Huh. I wouldn’t have thought of those two together.”
“Could we focus here?” Anna said. “Walter is missing and I have a concert in…one minute.”
“Come on,” I said, “we’ll walk you over.”
When we reached the gazebo Anna was swallowed into the crowd and appeared on the stage. Mr. Katz raised the violin and struck up a brisk tune. Clear notes from the flute joined in, weaving around the melody into a lively dance.
When the song ended, Mr. Katz waited through the applause with the violin bow poised to begin the next number. Someone called out the name of an old ballad. Anna caught Mr. Katz’s eye and he nodded. That set off a series of requests from folk songs to jigs.
“I’m going to look around,” Noah said.
“Let me know if you find Walter.”
I lost sight of him in the mass of happy faces, tapping toes, and bodies swaying with the beat. I spotted people I knew, but there was no sign of Walter.
Penny danced and smiled her way through the crowd handing out Frozenbog advertisements. The ice cream shop would be packed tonight.
Danny sauntered from one group to another, clearly in private eye mode looking for whatever he could discover. He passed a gnarled tree, but didn’t notice the darker shadow standing beneath a massive limb. The figure moved and I caught a glimpse of Elliott’s face as he observed the people unnoticed.
The music swelled, the violin stopped, the flute held one last long note and the crowd burst into applause. I checked my phone for the time. The concert was almost over.
I headed back to the gazebo for Anna’s solo. She stood alone on the stage. Her gaze swept the crowd and I pushed my way to the front. She gave me a brief smile, then raised the flute to her lips.
I pressed the video button on my phone, capturing the next three minutes. The world around me once again faded to only Anna and her music until the flute stopped and the world came back into focus with applause.
People started to migrate toward Frozenbog where Penny stood outside ready to welcome guests. Danny skidded to a stop in front of her. Far from being annoyed at the interruption, Penny seemed intrigued. She forgot about customers and began taking notes. Danny showed her his phone and she scrolled through several screens.
People arrived en masse. Penny gave Danny back his phone and joined the migration into Frozenbog. The little private eye swaggered up the street.
“What do you think he was showing her?” Anna asked. She had slipped up beside me.
I shook my head. “I don’t know, but he looked awfully pleased with himself.”
The line for Frozenbog stretched around the corner and even the walk up window wasn’t an option.
“Doesn’t look like we’ll get ice cream tonight,” Anna said.
Darkness and cooler air settled in. The streetlights winked on brightening the street and casting small pools of light in the park.
Anna nodded toward a bench where Noah sat by himself. “Let’s join him.”
I followed her to the bench. “Slide over bud,” I said.
Anna sat down beside him. “Katelin isn’t really all that bright, you know.”
He looked surprised. “What do you mean?”
“She missed a lovely evening in the park with you.”
The streetlights faded, almost going out, then slowly brightened. A car pulled up to the curb.
“That’s my ride,” Anna said.
“Meet you tomorrow at Antiques,” I said. “I’m sure Walter will be back by then.”
“Hope so.” With a wave she was gone.
Noah sighed. “I think I’ll call it a night.”
As we headed home on our bikes, the streetlights dimmed and brightened once again. At least it wasn’t another power outage to add to Elliott’s spreadsheet.
I wasn’t in a hurry to get to the Barter Building the next morning. Instead, I turned my bike down a side street and took the long way. Would Walter be waiting? Old people like him didn’t miss appointments. Anna and I were scheduled to work today so I told myself that he would be there.
But a thought nagged at me. He had missed the concert and that seemed to be more important to him than what time the store opened or closed.
We could report his disappearance to the police, but he hadn’t been gone that long. If he wasn’t there this morning, it was time to check out the warehouse.
The empty street and dark stores felt lifeless without the crowd. Anna waited in front of Antiques. The white sign in the window still loudly proclaimed Walter’s absence. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.
“So what do we do now?” Anna said.
“Did you bring the keys?” I asked.
She held up the ring.
“Let’s use the side door.”
“Isn’t that breaking and entering?”
I smiled. “We’re not going to break anything. Just enter.”
The key scraped in the lock but it opened. I should have used the WD-40 on it. We stepped into a shadow world, closing out the sunlight as I pulled the door shut. The lock reluctantly clicked and I slid the deadbolt into place releasing more rust.
The after-hours lighting gave only hints of what hid in the jumbled stacks and piles. The dingy skylights provided small comfort. Ghostly shadows washed over the corners and crept into murky corridors, making the warehouse once again a sinister place.
We picked our way through the crowded aisle toward the platform. A loud chirping trill made me duck, and air brushed my face as something flew past.
“It’s that bird,” Anna said. She pointed to where it perched on the teetering bookcase. It watched us closely as we climbed the stairs onto the platform.
“Walter’s sweater hasn’t been moved,” I said. It still lay draped over the chair.
Anna reached for one of the small desk drawers that wasn’t quite closed. The bird let out a whistle, and she jerked her hand back with a nervous laugh.
“Go ahead,” I said.
She pulled the drawer open. Inside lay a wallet, some pocket change, and an index card. Uneasiness spread over me. Walter wouldn’t go away and leave his wallet behind, and if he was here I couldn’t think of a good reason why he had missed the concert or hadn’t opened the shop.
She read the index card. “1896, August 25, 9:30.”
“That date sounds familiar,” I said.
She handed it to me and closed the drawer. “Let’s check the shop.”
The door was still unlocked. “Do you want me to go first?” I asked.
She swept past me and strode inside. “Walter?” she called. “Walter!”
It only took a minute to check out the store and know he wasn’t there.
“Let’s look for clues,” I said. “Check the drop box.”
Anna opened the cabinet door. The box with the baton ring was there with a repair ticket attached. She pocketed the ticket and slid the ring over her thumb, turning it around. “Nice job,” she said, and closed the cabinet.
“There’s no evidence that anything is wrong. Everything looks the same as always.” I was getting ready to suggest we wait another day when Anna handed me a flashlight.
“Then we check the warehouse.”
Not a nice thought, but I followed her out to the platform and down the stairs.
“Let’s check the library and the mannequins,” Anna said.
That wouldn’t have been my first choice. As we passed the crystal room I stopped. “Uh…the door to the crystal room is not latched,” I said.
Anna swung her light around to spotlight the door. “Did we leave that open?”
I thought back to when we left. I had given the door a shove, but couldn’t remember if it had clicked into place. “Maybe,” I said.
Her mouth tightened in determination. She marched over and flung open the door.
The crystal walls glowed softly with blue light. The room was empty except for the old radio with the back missing. None of the tubes were lit, but one was smoky black.
Anna pointed to the tube. “That one is burnt out.”
“Shall we replace it?”
“I don’t know why, but I think it’s important,” I said.
She looked up at me with that familiar Millie expression. I thought she was going to argue but she didn’t. “There’s some in the shop,” she said. “Remember Walter brought them up? I’ll get the box.”
I moved around the cart to see the radio from the front and reached out to touch a dial, but hesitated. I pulled back, unsure about changing anything.
I scrolled through the pictures on my phone, stopping at the one I had taken yesterday of the dials. The settings had not moved.
Slowly I pulled the index card from my pocket, realizing why the date was familiar. The numbers on the dials matched the card. I looked up. Anna stood in the doorway holding the box of vacuum tubes.
“It’s a date,” I said.
“The dials are set to the date…” From the back of the warehouse came a scraping noise.
“The back window,” Anna said.
I shoved the card in my pocket. “Danny?”
She set the box down and whipped out her flashlight. “Let’s go see.”
The back door from one of the shops opened. I could make out a woman’s voice. We froze.
“Get the flashlight, Elliott. There’s only night lights.”
“Pull the door closed,” I said softly.
Anna eased the door into position and locked it with a soft click.
Footsteps echoed outside, coming closer. The janitor’s door rattled. The voices were muffled, but understandable.
“Janitor supplies. Try the next one,” Elliott said.
The door to our room rattled and I caught my breath.
“Locked,” Marta said.
“I was sure I heard something down this way,” Elliott said. “Are you sure the old man is not here?”
“The sign from yesterday is still in the window, and he didn’t show for the concert last night.”
The closet door opened and Elliott said, “This room’s empty. Let’s check out the store.”
Their footsteps clattered toward the platform, then stopped suddenly. We leaned against the door and I could make out the words.
“Wait,” Marta said. “Did you hear that? It’s coming from the back of the warehouse. Did you lock that window last time?”
“No, the lock was rusted through.”
“We need to find the lights,” Marta said.
Their footsteps faded as they headed into the warehouse.
I turned back to the radio. “Let’s get this tube changed.” I wiggled the blackened tube, working the prongs out of the base.
“What’s the number on the tube?”
I handed it to her. “The part number is printed on it. See if you can find a match.”
She ran her finger over the boxes of tubes reading the labels. “Found it,” she said.
I inserted the new tube and stepped back.
Anna waited a moment before saying, “Nothing’s happening.”
I was partly relieved, but not quite ready to give up.
“How about an on/off switch?” Anna said.
“I should have thought of that.” I looked over the entire radio. “I don’t see anything that could be a switch. Just a triangular hole next to the dials.”
“Maybe something fell out.”
I pushed the cart aside and it rattled and bumped over the joints in the bricks. Anna grabbed the cart and silence settled over the room. Moving together we leaned over to see underneath, Anna’s face close to mine, her breath warm against my cheek. If I turned my head an inch…
“What’s this?” Anna said. She unhooked a thin stick about the size of a short pencil and held it up.
“It’s made from the same crystal as the walls and your necklace,” I said.
“Three sided, like the opening.”
Outside someone called out. “The noise came from up front. He went this way.”
“That sounds like Noah,” I whispered.
The door rattled. “Open up Danny.”
I started toward the door, but Anna pulled me back. “Wait,” she said softly.
“I can’t believe he broke in and stole it,” said another voice.
Anna whispered, “That’s Katelin.”
“Let me talk to him,” Noah said. “Come on, Danny. Give Katelin the baton, and we’ll all leave and no more will be said.”
Anna started for the door and I jumped in front of her with my hands up. “Wait,” I whispered. “Let’s listen.”
She set her jaw and the pink flush of anger was creeping up her neck. I couldn’t blame her.
“How did Danny get in my garage to get the baton?” Anna hissed.
“Hey!” It was Elliott.
“What are you kids doing in here?” Marta said. Her voice had lost its charm.
Elliott and Marta must have given up their search for the lights and returned.
There was a pause and I could picture Noah putting on his disarming smile. “Just doing our civic duty. We saw a kid climbing through the back window and didn’t want him to come to any harm in here. There’s not much light.”
“And how did you get in here?” Katelin said.
“From the art store of course,” Marta said.
“Wouldn’t that set off an alarm?” Katelin said.
As if on cue, a loud horn began blasting in short intervals.
“I think we’re going to have more company,” Noah said.
“I thought you disabled the alarm,” Marta yelled.
“I did!” Elliott said.
“It doesn’t sound like it,” Marta said.
A voice I didn’t recognize called over the noise. “I told you the alarm would go off. But you wanted to investigate. You wanted a story.”
“Now Mr. Pham.” Penny’s voice. “We had to find out what all the racket was about.”
“Let’s let them figure it out,” I said and steered Anna back to the radio. I pointed to her hand that still gripped the crystal stick and nodded at the radio.
With more force than necessary, Anna shoved it into the triangular opening. It fit perfectly.
The alarm stopped in mid blast, but sirens could now be heard wailing in the distance.
“That’s just great,” Marta said. “Another power outage.”
Their voices joined together in a chorus of shouts and complaints. My skin tingled with a pins and needles sensation. The kind you get when feeling comes back into your foot after you get up and find it has fallen asleep. The blue light in the walls glowed brighter. The voices and sirens swelled to a rush of noise then faded quickly, dropping in pitch as if rushing away from us.
Silence engulfed the room. A silence so deep it made my ears hurt. Everything glowed. Anna’s face and hands were outlined in blue light. I looked down at my hands and they had the same shimmer. I wondered if this was what the filament in a vacuum tube felt like.
The glow faded to just a small halo around the radio. Sound returned. A low murmur of voices outside the door was like the purring of a contented cat, the words indistinguishable.
Anna pressed her ear against the door. “That sounds like Walter. I’m going out.”
That didn’t sound like a good idea, but she didn’t wait for my approval. She released the lock, but the door wouldn’t budge.
Light flickered around the radio, almost white on the wood, aquamarine around the dials, and a deep royal blue shimmering on the crystal stick. I reached out my hand and the blue light stretched toward me, creeping over my hand without sensation. I pulled out the stick and the light evaporated leaving a faint glow.
I joined Anna at the door. “Try it again,” I said.
This time it moved.
Anna eased the door open and we stepped out. A patchwork of subdued light and shadows gave the warehouse a twilight feel. An earthy smell, like fresh mown grass mixed with apples, had replaced the odor of worn leather, aging paper, and oily metal. The piles and stacks that Walter had collected were gone and wooden barrels, crates, and burlap sacks filled the space.
“The doors to the shops are missing,” I said softly.
Anna’s voice was a little shaky. “Not only the doors. The shops are gone. It’s just one big space.”
Men in bib overalls laughed and argued, calling to one another as they pushed squeaky wheelbarrows or loaded carts on the railroad tracks, their voices blending with the clanging and rattles. Others traded insults while tossing heavy sacks over their shoulders or rolling barrels across the floor.
One burly fellow leading a mule loaded with bundles stopped to eye us. He ran his fingers through his wild hair and gave us a puzzled look while a puff of smoke rose from his pipe. He shifted it between his teeth and moved back to his work, the mule clip clopping behind him.
Anna gripped my hand. “Who are all these men? Where are the people we know?”
Electric lights in the shape of Victorian street lamps extended from pillars like a scene on an old holiday card, but there was no trace of Christmas. The warm sluggish air held the promise of another hot day. I searched for Walter’s familiar face.
Anna nudged me. “Over there by the tower column.”
We started across the floor. The mannequins had been moved out of their parlor and Walter was talking to them. I couldn’t see their faces, but I recognized Natalie’s dress. The light made the green seem more vibrant, almost emerald.
Walter no longer wore his usual plaid shirt and baggy pants, but was dressed in a suit like Jerome, looking like an older version of the mannequin. He held a top hat, and Jerome’s hand reached out to take it.
I gasped. Anna squeaked in surprise. They weren’t mannequins at all, they were moving. Natalie began pulling on her gloves and Jerome tapped the hat onto his head.
Walter stepped in between them. They all faced a man who fussed with a box attached to a tripod. The column behind him looked freshly painted.
“Look at the column,” I whispered. “There’s no missing plaster.”
The man stuck his head under a cloth attached to the box and held up a stick. A second later a bright light flashed with a soft explosion and a puff of white smoke.
Walter turned around and surprise flickered over his face when he saw us. He draped his arms around the man and woman and directed them past the janitor closet toward the front door.
“1896,” I said.
“What?” Anna said.
“The dials. They’re set for 18, 9, 6. Noah was right. It’s a date.”
Walter came rushing back around the corner. I had no idea he could move that fast. “Back inside. Back inside,” he said, shooing us into the crystal room. He closed and locked the door.
“What’s going on?” Anna asked. “Who are those people?”
Walter waved one hand dismissively, fumbling in his pocket with his other hand. He pulled out a crystal stick like the one Anna had found and slipped it into the radio.
My skin tingled with the pins and needles sensation. The walls glowed with blue light. Noise from the warehouse swelled in a rush and faded quickly.
Silence engulfed the room and the blue glow was everywhere again. Walter removed the stick, the glow faded, and he sighed with relief.
“Well, good to be back…” Walter began. He was interrupted by an alarm going off in the warehouse.
Someone outside shouted, “Look out!”
There was a large crash followed by more shouting and heavy running footsteps.
Walter unlocked the door, peeked through a crack, then opened it wide. “What on earth…”
The leaning bookcase had finally toppled, spilling its fragile contents across the floor. Walter picked his way through the jumble of broken pottery and crumpled books. The statute of Atlas lay face down in the debris. The world had snapped off his shoulders and rolled away into the wreckage. The pendulum clock’s glass cover was shattered, and a drawer in the base had sprung open.
The bird flew past Walter and landed on the clock. It poked its bill into the bent drawer, drew out something shiny, and flew off.
A fireman in full gear shouted. “Kill the alarm!” The noise stopped. “Emergency is over. Spread the word to the crew and let’s wrap this up.”
“Walter!” Penny called. “We’ve all been looking for you. Why are you dressed like that?”
Several people started talking at once and soon hardly anyone was paying attention to Walter. A policeman was listening to Noah and taking notes. Katelin was no where to be seen. Marta had spotted us and was heading our direction with Elliot close behind.
“Looks like Marta and Elliott are taking an interest in us,” I said to Anna.
“They’re not the only ones.” She nodded in the other direction.
Danny stood on a piece of the broken bookcase with his cell phone pointed our way.
“It’s not us,” I said. “It’s the crystal room.” I nudged Anna out, and pushed the door shut.
Danny jumped down and began scrolling through screens on his phone. More pictures for Penny.
“Take care of Walter,” I said. “I’ll lock up.”
She slipped off to join the crowd. I checked that the door was locked this time.
“JT!” Marta called.
I turned the other way. Danny was heading back into the warehouse with Noah following. Movement to the side and a wink of light in the shadows caught my eye. Katelin was slipping behind a stack of boxes and she carried the baton. It looked smaller in her hands. Noah was off chasing Danny, but she already had the prize. Where was she headed?
There was no time to contemplate it. I headed after her with the staccato of Marta’s heels chasing me. Her footsteps scraped to a stop followed by a stream of words that sounded like angry Russian. I glanced back to see Elliott helping her up off the floor.
That gave me a clear path, but Katelin was gone. I darted into the depths of the warehouse, following Walter’s usual path and entering the library. The noises behind became a muted din, and in the quiet I heard Katelin’s voice in the parlor beyond.
“Hurry. Follow me and make as little noise as possible.”
A soft rustle of silk and the click of boot heels receded. When I stepped into the parlor it was empty. The mannequins were gone. The gaudy pot from the cavern sat on the end table with the 1896 newspaper smoothed out beside it.
Katelin must be heading for the back of the warehouse. I started to follow but a shadow passed over my head, a chirping trill sounded in my ear, and something shiny fell with a clatter on the floor.
The bird fluttered to the top of a coat tree, cocked its head and eyed me intently. Something glittered at my feet.
I picked it up. A white metal skeleton key with scrollwork down the barrel and a blue crystal set in lacy filigree. Fancy looking thing, Walter had called it. A skeleton key with a crystal in the head. This had to be the key to the chest.
I closed my fingers around it and headed back through the library, trotting down the aisle, swerving around boxes and dodging things that stuck out into the path. I skidded to a stop and peeked out.
Penny, Mr. Pham, Marta, Elliott, and a policeman formed a half circle around Walter. The old man’s eyes darted around from one person to another. Anna stood in front of him staring them all down.
“We’ve been worried,” Mr. Pham said. “You missed the concert.”
“I’ve been…I’ve been…making…deliveries.”
Penny mumbled under her breath. “During the concert?”
I pushed my way past Mr. Pham and joined Anna. “Walter’s business is mostly mail order and deliveries,” I said. “We’ve been getting behind lately.”
“There’s been two more power outages today,” Elliott said.
“Yes,” Penny said. “What’s causing all these outages?”
“They really are quite disruptive,” Mr. Pham said.
The policeman shrugged. “It’s under investigation.”
“There was one yesterday.” Penny said.
Marta stared pointedly at Walter. “Would that have been about the time you disappeared?”
“The outages always come in pairs,” Elliott said. “According to my notes we missed the second one yesterday. That was unusual.”
The policeman turned to Elliott and his eyes narrowed. “You seem to know quite a bit about the outages. Maybe you can give us all some insight on the causes.”
Marta’s voice was smooth, but the knuckles on her hand turned white as her fingers tightened on Elliott’s arm. She smiled at the policeman. “I think everyone is a little shaken by all the excitement. I’m sure your team will get to the bottom of this little mystery soon.”
Danny burst into the area with Noah in pursuit. He reached for him, but the little guy swerved sideways and ducked out of reach. Noah clenched his fist in frustration.
The policeman didn’t seem to notice. “I think we’ll leave this for the department to unravel,” he said. “For now, everyone should go back to their shops and we’ll reset the alarms.”
Marta led Elliott back to the art shop. Danny fell into step with Penny, showing her something on his phone and talking softly. Mr. Pham shuffled along behind them and they disappeared into Counterclockwise.
It took over an hour to clean up. After a few attempts at small talk, Anna gave up. Walter didn’t seem in the mood for conversation. Noah was brooding over Katelin’s disappearance and his failure to capture Danny. I wanted time to think through what had happened.
“We can finish cleaning up,” I told Walter. “Why don’t you go sit down and rest.”
Walter trudged up the platform steps, sank down into the overstuffed chair, and closed his eyes. He looked old.
Anna found a crate, and we placed all the things in it that were still in one piece. The broken items went in the rail cart.
Noah picked up the broken statue of Atlas. “Do you want to try to repair this statue?”
Walter just waved his hand. “Throw it away. But save the pieces of the pendulum clock for Mr. Pham.”
Noah threw his bucket of trash in the cart, but kept Atlas. “I’m going to head home,” he said.
“Here’s the world,” Anna said. She plucked the globe out of the trash and handed it to him. “Maybe you can glue it back together.”
Noah bounded up the steps with Atlas under one arm and the globe in his hand. He patted Walter on the shoulder, and disappeared through the door into the shop. A minute later I heard the bell clang as he left.
Anna led me over to the pillar. She ran her hand over the exposed bricks. “It wasn’t crumbling an hour ago,” she whispered. “All the plaster was in place when we first found Walter.”
An uncomfortable idea was taking shape in my head. It wasn’t possible, but everything kept feeding the thought.
As I dumped the dustpan I saw a tattered square of cardboard poking out from the pieces of broken crockery and china. I tugged it out, and turned it over. My hand shook a bit when I saw what was on it.
“What is it?” Anna whispered.
I shook my head and picked up the crate. We climbed the stairs to the platform. The bell rang inside the shop and a voice called, “Walter?”
The old man opened his eyes with an annoyed frown and sighed.
Penny came through the door carrying a steaming hot chocolate and a bag that emitted the delightful odor of fried chicken and fresh bread. Walter smiled and struggled out of the chair.
“Thought you might be hungry,” Penny said. “I brought you today’s Frozenbog special.”
“Ah, modern food. Thank you!” He took the bag and breathed in the aroma. Our faces must have shown our surprise. “Just because I live around antiques, doesn’t mean I don’t like to eat in the present. Now if you all will excuse me, I’d like to have some dinner.”
“I’ll take this crate into the shop and you can go through it later,” I said.
He waved his hand, and stuffed a hot roll into his mouth. We followed Penny out through the shop. I left the crate on the counter, slipping the piece of cardboard out and taking it with me.
“Got to get back to work,” Penny said. “I left Eric alone with the lunch crowd starting.” She dashed off.
We crossed the street and sat on the park bench. “What is that?” Anna asked.
I handed her the piece of cardboard. “It’s the picture of Natalie, Jerome, and Walter from the warehouse.”
“It can’t be the same picture. That was just a couple hours ago. This picture is old. Look at the stains, and the corners are worn and ragged.”
“Think about it, Anna. That wasn’t a modern photographer. That was how they took pictures in 1896.”
“He probably worked for one of those companies that takes old time photos. Like at a festival where you dress up in the period costumes.”
“And where did the photographer go when we went back in the crystal room?”
“He packed up and went home,” she said, but she didn’t sound convinced.
“And the workers? And the old lamps? And the missing store fronts? And the plaster on the column? But there’s more. Look at the background in the picture.” I pointed to two figures in the back. Not quite as clear, but recognizable.
Her fingers tightened on the cardboard. “That’s us,” she said. “But who is that behind us?”
I leaned closer and saw a figure in the shadows that I hadn’t noticed earlier. “That looks like Katelin.”
Anna nodded. “She’s wearing the old dress with the lace sleeves. The one she said she remembered.”
“And she’s holding the baton,” I said softly.
“It looks different. Thinner.”
“That’s because…because there’s two batons,” I said slowly.
“Are you sure?”
“When I followed her through the warehouse she had the baton. I thought it looked smaller.”
“I’ll check when I get home,” Anna said. “If it’s still where I hid it, we’ll know there are two.”
We sat in silence for several minutes, working through the details.
“You know what this means,” she said.
“Katelin’s the River Maiden,” I said.
“It also means time travel. Everything points to it. The crystal room. The warehouse being different.”
“The dials on the radio matching the date on the index card.”
“The Montgomery Ward letter.”
“Time travel must be causing the power outages.”
“You think Walter is going into the past to get items to sell?” she asked. “But they wouldn’t be antiques. They would look like new.”
“I don’t think he brings things back. I think he stores them somewhere to let them age and then collects them once he’s back in the present.”
“But where? Wouldn’t someone find them in all those years?”
“Not if they were out of sight.”
Realization spread across her face. “The storeroom in the tunnels.”
I nodded. “But why are there two batons? And which one is real?”
“Where’s Katelin now?” she asked. “Is she still in the warehouse?”
“I never caught up with her. I chased after her to the library and heard her telling someone to follow quietly, but when I stepped into the parlor she wasn’t there. Neither were Natalie and Jerome.”
Anna giggled nervously. “So now Katelin and the mannequins are roaming around the warehouse.”
“I was going to follow, but that’s when I found this.” I handed her the key and her eyes widened.
“The key to the chest? Just lying there in the parlor?”
“Not exactly. It was in the drawer in the pendulum clock. The bird dropped it at my feet.”
My mind raced as I peddled home. Could it really be time travel? It was impossible, but no other explanation fit.
I skidded into my driveway. Noah was sitting on the porch.
“About time you came home,” he said.
“I didn’t know you were waiting.”
“I sent you a text.”
“Must have missed it when I was in the warehouse.”
“Never mind that. I’ve had an epiphany.”
He laughed. “That too. I’m moving on.”
“That’s great news.”
“Thanks. But this isn’t about Katelin.”
“Okay. Say on.”
“When we were seven years old you gave me a padlock, but I could never remember the combination. So you showed me how to use a tic-tac-toe diagram to remember the numbers.”
“That’s an old memory.” One I hadn’t thought about in years.
He drew the tic-tac-toe lines on a paper and wrote numbers in the squares. 1, 2, 3 in the top row, 4, 5, 6 in the center, and 7, 8, 9 across the bottom.
“Now, think block letters like on a digital readout.”
“If you draw just the center space on the top row, it looks like a U. The center on the bottom row is an n. Top right is an L. The middle of the diagram is an O, and the center right is a C. Then we match letters to the numbers. U=2, N=8, L=3, O=5, C=6.” He rocked back in the chair, folding his hands behind his head. “Elementary, Mr. Garrison.”
“Impressive deduction, Mr. Bonner.”
“That gives us the numbers for the combination, but we still need the key,” he said.
With a smug grin I held up the key. “Would this be what you’re looking for?”
His chair came down with a thump. “Let’s check it out.”
We raced to the garage. The chest sat waiting on the bench. I held my breath. The key fit. It turned. Noah spun the dial and we cheered.
I rubbed my hands together, eager to start on the combination.
“We have five numbers, 2, 8, 3, 5, 6,” Noah said.
“Ah, but three turns is the most common for locks. So, we need three numbers.”
“Okay,” Noah said. “The dial only goes up to 40, so 83 and 56 are too big.”
“That leaves us one choice.” I started turning the dial. “28…35…6.”
The lock clicked and I pushed up the cover. It was like opening a pop-up book. A tripod unfolded inside the lid and the legs locked into place. From the bottom of the chest a faceted crystal rose to a standing position surrounded by smaller crystals imbedded in a reddish wooden base.
Noah ran his finger over the wood.
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I’m thinking…”
“Well, it’s not plywood,” Noah said. “Maybe cherry?”
“Not what kind of wood. What is this chest for? Just a storage for the crystals?”
“A display case?”
The crystals had to be from Millie’s mine. Light blue with dark blue threads.
The one standing upright was huge, the size of a dinner plate. “Maybe this sets on the tripod.” I grasped it and tried to lift it out.
Noah laughed. “Too heavy for you?”
“It’s attached,” I said.
“It wouldn’t fit anyway,” Noah said. There’s nothing to hold it. But there is a slot on the top. Something else could fit in there.”
“Like…a light? A camera? Telescope?”
“I don’t know.” Noah touched one of the embedded stones and a soft light flickered across the large crystal.
“Did you see that?” I asked. “Try again.”
Each stone sent a faint streak of light across the dinner plate in a different pattern.
“It’s like one of those toys where you have to remember the sequence of lights and sounds,” Noah said. He pressed on one of the stones. It sank into the wood and light flashed across the crystal like a streak of lightning. Blue light crept up Noah’s hand. “Hey!” he yelled, jerking his arm back.
The glow faded from the embedded stone as it rose back to its original position.
“Did you get a shock?” I asked.
Noah shook his head. “Just surprised.”
“What kind of rocks do that?” I asked.
“None that I know of.”
He had me take pictures of the blue light on his hands and on the big crystal. For the next hour he took detailed notes about the texture, color, patterns, and facets of each stone.
For my part I simply sat and thought about time travel, about the mannequins, about the batons.
Noah sat up and stretched. “I think that gives me enough to start.” He had several pages filled with notes in his precise handwriting, complete with diagrams. “I think I’ll go home and do some research on crystals.”
After Noah left I sat thinking, my fingers absently running over the embedded stones, the streaks of light on the crystal plate shimmering in a complex mesmerizing dance.
“I see you got the chest open.”
I jumped and turned to see Anna. She balanced the baton against her shoulder, the crystal shimmering.
“You have the baton. That means there are two of them.”
She nodded at the open chest. “That’s the largest crystal I’ve seen.”
“Watch this.” I touched the embedded stones and light flickered over the large crystal’s surface. I pressed one down; the blue light crawled up my arm. She gasped and jerked my arm away. The stone slowly rose back to its position.
“It’s like the radio in the crystal room,” she said.
“Except it doesn’t take you anywhere.”
She ran her hand over the tripod. “Looks like something should fit in this slot.”
“One more piece of the puzzle to find. One we could stumble over and never recognize.”
“Yep. Could take years or might be right under our noses.” She slid the baton back into the mailing tube.
“It’s not the only mystery. There’s Natalie and Jerome. What are they?”
“And where are they?”
“They’re with Katelin. She led them out of the parlor and told them not to make any noise.”
“So they’re all very quietly wandering around the warehouse?”
I closed the lid to the chest. “Unless she took them somewhere.”
“It’s not like they could walk down the street without everyone noticing.”
“Maybe she used the tunnels.”
“But where would she take them?”
“I have a theory. Remember I said I saw someone through the telescope? It was a girl looking out of the Brick Factory door. Could have been Katelin.”
Anna thought about this for a minute. “If she is the River Maiden, she must be time traveling. That’s the only way she could appear every ten years and always be fourteen.”
“I don’t think we’ll get much information on time travel from Walter,” I said.
“We could visit the Brick Factory.”
“And we haven’t tried all of Henry’s keys yet.”
“Or explored any of the side tunnels.”
“Or figured out the chest and the baton.”
“Sounds like a busy summer,” she said.
Try something new. That simple advice had led to an array of doors. Some showed the ordinary and familiar. Others led to unknown places and times. I was beginning to believe that Anna not only held a ring of keys that would open doors, but that she was key to putting the puzzle together.
I stood up and stretched. “I think we make a good team,” I said. “How about a visit to Frozenbog for ice cream?”
She looked up at me with that Millie expression. I took that as a yes.
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For over half a century the past had been collected and stored in the Barter Building warehouse. The towering heaps and jumbled piles threatened to confuse and lose anyone brave enough to enter its depths. When Walter hired JT and Anna to help organize the mess, they began to uncover hints that the building held more than just antiques and junk. And when Walter disappeared, they had to search the Barter Building to find him.