06 - Conundrum - Stephanie
Taylor Hanson stared tiredly out the car window at the passing landmarks. It had once been exciting to see famous and historical buildings, but it was fast becoming old hat to the young teen. He smiled sadly at his reflection in the glass of the window. Maybe if he wasn't so tired, he would be more excited. The plane that had brought Taylor and his two brothers to London had been forced to circle Heathrow Airport for what seemed an eternity due to heavy fog. Then, when they had finally managed to disembark, they had been mobbed by excited fans, eager for a glimpse of the famous brothers. Taylor had signed autographs until his hand hurt. He didn't really mind, after all, it was fans like those that had helped skyrocket his new-found career. It was just that the teen was beyond exhausted. His body insisted to his brain that it was the middle of the night, though his eyes sent a conflicting message that it was mid-morning. He leaned back in the car seat with a deep sigh. He would never get used to the time differences when traveling.
"Hey, Tay! Wake up!"
Taylor opened his eyes and shot his younger brother a glare. Where did Zac find his energy? The kid was practically bouncing in his enthusiasm. They had the same genes, the same lifestyles, the same DNA...so why hadn't Tay inherited some extra energy?
"You're missing all the cool stuff," Zac declared, pointing out the window.
"Seen it before," Tay said, closing his eyes again. "I don't think these buildings have changed much since we were here last."
Zac laughed and grabbed another handful of pretzels from the bag on the seat between the brothers. Taylor opened one eye and watched Zac inhale the salty snacks. Pretzels for breakfast! Taylor's stomach churned at the thought. His glance strayed beyond the bouncing kid to his older brother. Isaac was leaning against the opposite side of the car, apparently fast asleep. At least one of them was getting some rest. Taylor settled back as best he could on the hard cushions of the seat and let his mind turn to thoughts of the big, soft bed that he knew awaited him at the hotel.
He had just dozed off to the happy thoughts when Zac's squeal of delight woke him. "All right!! Would you check that out!"
Taylor sat up until he could see out the front windshield. What he saw brought a groan from his mouth. The car was pulling up to the front entrance of the hotel. Blocking the huge doors to the building, however, were what looked like hundreds of fans, mostly young girls. Any other time, Taylor would have been impressed by the reception. Today, he was too exhausted to work up the enthusiasm.
As the car pulled closer and the fans could see into the windows, they began to get louder. Taylor had to force himself not to sink down into the seat.
"Come on, Tay," Isaac said, suppressing a yawn and rubbing his eyes. "These are our fans." He emphasized the last word with a huge grin. "They made us what we are, man. We owe them. So, put on a smile and be polite. We'll sign a few autographs and still be in bed by lunch time."
Isaac was right; Taylor knew that. They did owe their fans, and an autograph or picture was a small price to pay for the fame these guys had bestowed upon them. As the bell-man opened the door, Taylor found he didn't have to force the smile after all.
At first the noise was deafening. The crowd was chanting the name Hanson and pushing forward to get a glimpse of the boys. Hotel employees had formed a human chain to hold back the screaming fans and allow the brothers to get safely to the hotel lobby. But, rather than seek that safety, the boys moved closer to the crowd and began greeting their fans. They shook hands with some and took the offered paper and pens to scribble their names for others.
Taylor found himself forgetting his exhaustion. There was something exhilaration about meeting the fans like this. It set his adrenaline flowing. It was almost as big a rush as being on stage performing. He signed his name to everything that was shoved his way - autograph books, CD covers, posters, tee-shirts, even torn scraps of paper. Soon the crowd settled down and began to thin out somewhat. The items to sign were shoved forward less frequently, and Taylor found he actually had time to make eye contact with each fan as he reached for the item.
Taylor smile at one particularly attractive girl, around his own age, as she pushed forward with a scrap of paper. She returned the smile and handed him the paper. Taylor accepted it and the pen she offered and bent to scribble his name. When he looked back up to return the autograph, the girl was no where to be seen. He scanned the thinning crowd, but saw no sign of her. Confused, he shoved the paper into his jacket pocket and pushed aside the thoughts of the mysterious girl as another CD was shoved forward for him to sign.
* * * * *
Even Zac was dragging when the Hanson brothers finally stepped from the elevator onto their floor. It was only mid-day, but the three boys had identical thoughts of a dark room, a soft bed, and several hours of uninterrupted sleep. They followed Mr. Hodges, their London coordinator, and the bell men carrying their luggage down the hall to their suite of rooms.
Inside the rooms, Mr. Hodges took charge of the distribution of the luggage and tipping of the employees. Once everything was handled to his satisfaction, he said, "Okay, boys, ready for lunch?" He was greeted by silence. A short search revealed that the brothers had each staked out a bed and fallen across it and were now fast asleep. With a smile, Mr. Hodges left a note for the brothers on the memo pad beside the phone and stole quietly from the room, locking the doors behind himself.
* * * * *
"Tay, come on, I'm starving!"
If Zac knew how close he was to losing the hand that was shaking his shoulder, Taylor thought, he would back off. The young man rolled over, trying to ignore the persistence of his brother.
"Isaac," Zac yelled, almost in Taylor's ear, "see what you can do with him. If I don't eat soon, I'll be too weak to even make it down to the dining room. You guys are going to have to carry me."
Taylor smiled into his pillow at Zac's overly-dramatic plea.
"Come on, sleepy-head," Isaac's deeper voice called from the outer room. "I'm getting a little hungry myself."
Taylor was comfortable and had no intentions of moving, but an embarrassing growl from his own stomach convinced him otherwise. He heard Zac giggling as he rolled over and threw his feet to the floor. "All right! I'm moving! Give me a few minutes to change."
It took less time than that for Taylor to splash some cold water on his face and change into something less rumpled. Grabbing his jacket from the back of a chair by the door, he raced into the hall behind his brothers. It wasn't until they were in the elevator that Taylor stuck his hand into the pocket of his jacket and found the paper he had signed for the mystery girl earlier. He pulled it out, intending to drop it into the closest trash can, but was stopped when he caught sight of the writing on the back. He carefully smoothed out the crumpled paper and began reading.
Follow the directions carefully. So much depends on it.
Below the words was a hastily drawn pencil sketch that looked for all the world like a map. Several places on the map had been marked out and one had been circled. Taylor's eyes widened as he took in the cryptic words and sketch. He turned the paper around, studying the handmade map from different angles, but still didn't recognize any of the landmarks. Not surprising, really, considering he hadn't spent that much time in London. He was so intent on his study of the map, he didn't notice that the elevator had stopped and his brothers had exited.
"Would you like us to have your meal served in here?" Isaac asked with a grin.
Taylor looked up, then stepped from the elevator into the crowded lobby. He moved a few steps away from the open elevator door to avoid the older couple that was getting on. "Guys, check this out!" He excitedly waved the paper in Isaac's direction.
"Hold it still," Isaac said, trying to see what Taylor found so interesting.
Taylor handed the paper to his older brother and waited patiently while Isaac looked it over. Zac stood on tip-toe in an attempt to read the note. Finally, Isaac looked up. "What is it?"
"I dunno," Taylor admitted. "It was on the back of something someone gave me to sign out front earlier. She handed it to me, but when I signed it and went to hand it back, she was gone. Poof, just vanished."
"Like magic?" Zac asked skeptically.
"More like she disappeared into the crowd," Isaac reasoned. "Right, Tay?"
Taylor liked his description much better. It sounded more exciting. But he was forced to agree with Isaac. "Yeah, well, probably, but you have to admit, it is mysterious."
Isaac looked back down at the paper. Taylor could see he was thinking about it. That was one thing he admired about his older brother: Isaac always considered things very carefully before he offered an opinion. Like Taylor had in the elevator, Isaac turned the paper around in his hands.
"I guess it is mysterious, but that doesn't mean it's any of our business," the older Hanson concluded.
"She wanted us to find that map," Taylor argued. "That's why she disappeared like that."
"That doesn't make sense." Isaac wasn't convinced. "What would be the point?"
"Maybe she wants us to follow the map," Zac suggested.
Isaac laughed. "You've read too many Hardy Boys mysteries. I suppose you think there's a treasure at the end of the map?"
"Hey, it could happen," Zac protested.
"Right," Isaac said, "and cows can fly."
"Come on, you guys," Taylor interrupted. "I'm trying to be serious here. If she didn't want me to get that map, then why did she split?" He paused, then changed tactics. "Aren't you the least bit curious to know what it's all about?"
Isaac frowned and looked down at the map again. "Maybe a little bit," he admitted at last. "But it could just be a game or something."
"You mean, like a scavenger hunt?" Even Zac was curious now.
"Well, then, what could be the harm in tracking it down?" Taylor suggested with a smile.
"We don't even know if this map is of London," Isaac protested. He paused and thought a minute. "But I suppose it would be easy enough to find out."
"Mr. Hodges won't be back until late this afternoon," Taylor pointed out. "That gives us plenty of time to check this out."
"Well, could we at least eat something first," Zac asked. "I'm wasting away here."
It took over an hour of questioning to finally find someone that recognized one of the landmarks on the map. Even then the description and directions were vague. Isaac took charge of the expedition by unspoken consent. Before setting out on the adventure, he insisted that they all tuck their hair under baseball caps and don sunglasses to avoid having to deal with fans while they searched. Leaving a message for Mr. Hodges at the front desk, they left the hotel by a back exit, turning in the general direction of the first landmark on the map.
The landmark in question was definitely a bridge. Taylor was certain of that. According to their dubious source, it was, in fact, Brighton's Bridge, a small footbridge across the Serpentine in nearby Hyde Park. Though the bridge was close enough to have walked, the boys decided to take a taxi to save time. Once there, they paid the driver and set about looking for clues.
"You know," Isaac pointed out, "this would be a whole easier if we knew what we were looking for."
Taylor grunted agreement and headed for the grassy slope that lead to the underside of the bridge. As he approached the structure, flash of movement caught his eye. He let out a gasp as his eyes focused on the figure moving into the shadows. Beside him, Isaac and Zac turned concerned gazes to him.
"What's wrong, Tay?" Zac asked.
"It's her!" Taylor explained as he began jogging toward the area where the girl had been heading. The grassy slope met the cobblestone path where the foot bridge began, running under the bridge for a couple of dozen feet, then fell away sharply toward the river below. By crossing closely to the railing of the bridge, the boys were able to duck into the shadows under the concrete structure.
Taylor stopped short as he rounded the turn and gazed through to the other side. His brothers bumped into him before coming to a stop themselves. There was no one in sight!
"That's impossible!" Taylor stammered. "She was right here, I saw her." He turned confused eyes to the other two boys. "You saw her, didn't you?"
Isaac slowly shook his head. "Sorry, Tay, I didn't see anything."
Zac shook his head, also. He was briefly tempted to make a joke, but one look at Taylor's face convinced him it would be a bad idea.
"Are you sure you saw someone?" Isaac asked. "Maybe it was a trick of the light."
"No, I saw a girl duck under here," Taylor insisted. "It was the same girl that gave me the map, I'm sure of it."
"Well, where did she go?" Zac asked.
"There's no where to hide under here," the oldest Hanson pointed out. "And I don't think she could have made it to the other side that fast."
"I know what I saw!" Taylor insisted once more.
Isaac frowned as he considered the area. If Taylor said he saw the girl, Isaac was inclined to believe him. Taylor wouldn't joke about something like that. There had to be a logical explanation. Giving up on finding one for now, Isaac started forward into the shadows. "Okay, we'll figure it out, but for now, let's see what we can find."
They moved silently closer to where the bridge met the ground, searching with their eyes for...what? Taylor had no idea, but he had a feeling they would know it when they found it. The fact that he had seen the girl only convinced him that they were in the right place.
The first pass through, they found nothing, but Taylor was not discouraged. He turned around and headed back, determined to spot something out of the ordinary. They were almost back to the place where they had started when Zac let out a cry and pointed up. Taylor sweep his eyes up and saw a dingy yellow scrap of plastic sticking out of a deep crack between two concrete blocks that made up this part of the bridge. It could be almost anything, but Taylor knew instinctively that this was what they were searching for.
Isaac must have felt the same. His tone was tinged with excitement as he said, "That's too high for even me to reach." He gestured for Zac. "Come here, I'll hold you up, and you can get it."
He squatted down and waited for Zac to climb on his shoulders, then stood carefully and moved under the plastic. "Hurry up, squirt! You weigh a ton!"
Zac reached over his head for the plastic, that he could now see was a bag someone had shoved into the crack. His fingers were almost on the bag when Isaac swayed, pulling him further away. "Hold still, Ike! I've almost got it."
"Hurry, elephant butt!"
Zac's fingers brushed the plastic. He exhaled loudly and stretched up with all of his might, finally snaring the elusive bag and tugging it free. As the bag fell down, accumulated dirt came with it, showering the youngest brother. He sputtered and spit the debris from his mouth, dropping the bag in the process. Taylor bent to retrieve the parcel as Isaac bent down to allow Zac to jump from his shoulders.
"You have GOT to go on a diet, shorty," Isaac said, rubbing his sore shoulder muscles.
Zac made a face at his brother, then turned to watch Taylor. The middle brother squatted down and tore open the plastic bag. He poured the contents onto the ground before him. It was a small velvet pouch, stamped on the side with an unfamiliar name...Whitherby's.
"What is it?" Zac asked in an almost whisper.
"Oh, suddenly I have x-ray vision?" Taylor replied sarcastically. "Give me a minute to open it." He grabbed up the pouch and untied the strings at the top. Then he turned the pouch up and shook the contents into his open hand.
All three brothers gasped in surprise as a bracelet fell into Taylor's hand. The piece of jewelry sparkled brightly as the dim light caught on the multitude of diamond-like stones set the gold band.
"Wow!" Zac muttered. "Is it real?"
"Of course not, kidneys-for-brains!" Isaac quickly refuted. "Something with that many diamonds would be worth a least a million dollars. Why would someone hide a million dollar bracelet under a bridge?"
"Maybe it's stolen," Taylor suggested. "Maybe it was part of a heist and the robbers stashed the stolen jewelry here until they could come back for it."
Zac straightened suddenly and looked cautiously around, suspicion in his eyes.
Isaac laughed. "You've watched too many movies-of-the-week, Tay." He took the bracelet from his brother's hand and examined it closely. "It can't be real. It's probably just a really good imitation, and may be worth something anyhow. We should give it to the police."
"Maybe," Taylor agreed, "but don't you think we should check out a few more places on the map first? There may be other pieces of jewelry at those places."
"Problem, Einstein," Isaac said. "We don't know what the other landmarks on the map are."
Taylor picked up the torn plastic bag and stood as he thought about what Isaac said. "We could buy a map, a real map, and see if any of the landmarks match," he suggested.
Isaac put the bracelet back into the pouch and shoved it into his pocket before answering. "This is not exactly how I planned to go sightseeing around London."
"Come on, Ike," Zac took up the argument. "We have hours still until Mr. Hodges needs us. Isn't this better than sitting around the hotel staring at the walls?"
Isaac gave in with a grin. "Okay, we'll buy a map and check it out. But I'm not making any promises. If the other landmarks are too far away, we're heading back for the hotel. I mean it. Okay?"
"Okay," the younger two boys said in unison.
With the bracelet safely stowed in Isaac's pocket, the boys went in search of a map. It didn't take long to find a small shop near the park that sold them. Isaac paid for the map, and they took it back to the park, found a bench to sit on, and studied it.
"This isn't going to work," Taylor announced after a few minutes. "London is too big, and I don't see anything even close to the sketch on our map."
Isaac folded the London map into quarters and studied the fourth on top for a long moment. Finally, he said, "We need to look at this logically." He pointed to a green area on the map. "This is where we are now." His finder traced a thin blue line and stopped. "This is the bridge where we found the bracelet. It seems to me it would make sense for all of the landmarks on our map to be within a certain distance of one another. I mean, why spread them out all the way across the city?"
"Yeah," Taylor said with growing excitement. "That makes sense. So we just have to concentrate on the area around here."
"So, what are we looking for?" Zac asked.
Isaac looked at the sketched map Taylor was holding next to the city map. "If whoever made this was starting at the top, then the bridge would have been the second point. We should backtrack to the first point before we go any further. Then we can jump to the third landmark."
"All right," Taylor agreed. "So...what is this?" He pointed to the landmark in question. In the sketch, it looked like a house or a building. It was square, with large, arched windows. Inside the square, someone had drawn a crown and a cross.
"I don't know," Isaac admitted. "It's definitely a building. It could be a church. That would explain the windows."
"Could be," Taylor murmured. "These symbols must mean something. A name maybe?"
"The crown could be for a king or a queen," Zac added. He was beginning to get caught up in the game, too.
"That helps a lot," Taylor said. "Half of everything in London is named Queen-something."
"Queen Cross," Isaac said experimentally. He shook his head. "That doesn't sound right."
"Maybe it's a plus sign," Zac giggled. "Or an X that got turned on its side."
Isaac ignored the remark and looked back at the city map. "Queen Cross...Cross Queen...Queen's Crossing..." he murmured under his breath as he searched through the area surrounding the park. "Ha!" he yelled suddenly, startling his brothers. "King's Cross...it's a church only four blocks over."
"That has to be it!" Taylor said excitedly. "Let's go!" He was already on his feet.
Isaac folded the map carefully and stuck it in his back pocket as he stood. "This is crazy," he said under his breath. But the truth was, he was beginning to enjoy this game. It was better than sitting in a stuffy hotel room all afternoon, and it certainly seemed harmless enough. Almost like a scavenger hunt. Of course, they would have to turn in the jewelry when they finished, assuming that was what they were looking for at the other landmarks. The bracelet might not be real, but it was still a well made piece of jewelry and might be worth something. Someone would probably miss it. He just couldn't figure out how it had gotten under the bridge in the first place.
It didn't take the brothers long to walk the four blocks to the church. There were a lot of people out and about in the city, but no one gave them a second look. To the casual observer, the boys appeared to be typical tourists, as they marveled over the beautiful old buildings lining both sides of the street. The church itself was not as large as some of the famous churches of the city, but it was very impressive in its age. It had the air of ancient nobility, as though it had stood on the corner since the beginning of time. A large plaque beside the door declared the church as a nation landmark, giving its age as almost half a century.
Isaac was awed by the structure. He couldn't help but wonder how much history the old building had witnessed and what stories it could tell. He was pulled from its spell by Taylor's voice beside him.
"Where do we start?"
The three boys moved closer to the stone structure. Isaac began working his way to the corner of the building, his eyes taking in every detail of the church face. He reached the corner, still unsure what he was looking for and wondering how he would know it if he found it. As he rounded the corner, he was surprised to see a girl, about his own age watching him from a few yards away. She smiled at him and pointed to a low ledge about halfway down the side of the church. Isaac stared at her for a minute, then shot a quick glance at his brothers. Taylor and Zac were moving away from him, studying the front of the church. When Isaac looked back to the girl, she was gone. He looked around the area in confusion. How could she have disappeared so quickly? She couldn't possibly have made it past him to the street without him noticing, and there was no where beside the church where she could hide.
Feeling a bit nervous now, he turned back to his brothers. "Hey, Tay!" He waited until Taylor and Zac joined him before asking, "That girl you saw, the one that gave you the map, what did she look like?"
Taylor looked at Isaac in confusion. "She was about my height, long brown hair, really pretty. My age, I guess, or maybe a little older. I only saw her for a few minutes. Why?"
Isaac looked back down the side of the church to be sure she wasn't standing there. A chill worked its icy fingers up his spine. "Because I think I just saw her," he answered.
Zac looked around the corner of the building. "Where did she go?"
Isaac swallowed hard. "I'm not sure. One minute she was right here, then I turned my head for a minute, and she was gone."
"She disappeared?" Taylor was skeptical even though the girl had appeared to vanish before his own eyes twice. He was convinced there were perfectly logical explanations for both instances. People couldn't just disappear. But if Isaac said she vanished...
"No," Isaac insisted firmly. "I'm sure she's just hiding or something. Come on, she showed me where to look." He moved down the side of the building to the ledge the girl had pointed to.
The ledge was only about five feet high, so Isaac had no trouble seeing over the top of it. Nothing appeared out of place at first glance. He ran his hand down the rough face of the hand-hewn stones, still not sure what he was looking for. Three stones down, and he found it. The stone moved under his probing fingers. He wiggled it, and it came free in his hand. Quickly moving it out of the way, he found a hollow indention where it had been sitting.
Taylor stuck his hand into the indention, gasping in delight as his fingers closed on a plastic bag. He pulled it out carefully. It was similar to the one they had found at the bridge. Isaac replaced the stone and turned to watch Taylor open the bag. Inside was another pouch, identical to the first one they had found. Same black velvet, tied at the top. Same name -- Whitherby's -- stamped in gold on the side. Taylor untied the top of the pouch and shook the contents into his hand.
A gold pendant fell from the pouch. Isaac picked it up to examine it more closely. Numerous diamond-like stones sparkled in the bright sunlight as he turned the pendant.
"Wow!" Zac exclaimed. "I know, I know," he quickly added, "it's not real. But it sure is pretty. Can you imagine how expensive that would be if those were real diamonds? We could buy an island...with our own Mcdonald's!"
"Do you ever think about anything other than food?" Taylor asked in mock disgust.
Zac grinned up at him. "Not when I'm hungry."
"Even if it was real," Isaac said, "we couldn't keep it. I don't know who stashed these things all over the place, but when we finish collecting them, we're going to have to turn them in to someone. These things are well made and probably still valuable, even it they aren't real. I can't think of any honest reason for someone to hide these like this."
"You think maybe they're stolen?" Zac asked, his eyes wide.
"I can't figure why someone would bother stealing fake jewelry," the older brother answered.
"You said yourself that it was probably still valuable," Taylor pointed out.
"Maybe that girl stole it," Zac suggested.
Taylor shook his head. "No way! Why would she steal it, hide it all over the city, then give us a map to find it? Doesn't make sense."
"And she showed me where to find this one," Isaac added. "No, I don't think she stole it, but she obviously knows where it's hidden. She wants us to collect these things for some reason."
"Why doesn't she just get them herself?" Zac asked.
Isaac had no answer for that. It didn't make a whole lot of sense. Right now, they had more questions than answers. "I don't know," he admitted finally. "But maybe we can find some answers at the next landmark." He dropped the pendant back into the pouch and tied the top.
"Wait," Zac interrupted. "Can't we get something to eat first? I'm starving."
"There was a produce market a couple of blocks back," Isaac said. "Think some fruit will hold you for a while?"
"Just as long as it's something I can recognize," the youngest Hanson replied, as the three brothers headed back the way they had come. They didn't notice the girl that stepped from behind the church building and watched them walk away.
"Do you think we should give these to the police?"
Taylor's softly spoken question was met with silence. The three brothers were sitting in their hotel room, on Zac's bed, staring at the results of their afternoon's adventure. They had managed to decipher six of the eight landmarks on the crude map. At each of the six locations they had found identical velvet pouches, and each of the pouches had contained an expensive-looking piece of jewelry. Taylor had to constantly remind himself that the pieces were not real.
They had seen the girl again twice. Each time she had appeared, they had been about to give up on finding anything at the site they were searching. The boys had come to the conclusion that, for whatever reason, the girl wanted them to collect the pieces of jewelry for her.
Isaac cleared his throat, drawing the attention of the younger boys. "I don't think we have any reason to involve the police...yet. We have no evidence that a crime was committed. For all we know, this could just be a game some crazy girl is playing. The police would probably laugh us out of the station."
"Then what are we going to do?" Zac asked.
Isaac chewed his lip for a minute as he thought it over. "We finish the game."
Taylor looked at his older brother in surprise. "Finish?"
"Sure," Isaac nodded. "It's obvious that this girl wants us to gather all of this jewelry for some reason, even if it is a game. I'm thinking that maybe when we get the last two pieces, we'll get an explanation."
"So, what you're saying," Zac said, "is that if we what to know what's going on, we have to finish the puzzle."
"You catch on quick, Einstein." Isaac ruffled the boy's hair as he answered. "Of course, it may not be that easy, but right now, I don't know what else we can do."
Taylor glanced down at his watch. "I think our adventures are over for today. Mr. Hodges will be here in a bit."
"And tomorrow morning we have those two television interviews," Isaac reminded his brothers.
"But our afternoon is free," Taylor pointed out.
"That gives us until then to figure our these last two landmarks." Isaac gathered the treasures on the bed and stood. "Now, what are we going to do with these?"
All three boys surveyed the room, looking for a safe hiding place. Zac's face lit up suddenly, and he snapped his fingers. "Wait! I know!" He dashed over to his duffel bag of snacks and began rummaging through it. After a short minute, he pulled out a half-empty bag of pretzels.
"Pretzels?" Taylor asked in confusion. "What do pretzels have to do with anything?"
Zac frowned at his brothers. He turned the bag upside down over the dresser and dumped the remaining pretzels out. "We can hide the jewelry in here," he explained patiently. "Then we can put the pretzels back on top. That way, if anybody does look, they'll only see pretzels." He smiled triumphantly, obviously pleased with himself for thinking of the idea.
"Why would anybody be looking for them in the first place?" Isaac asked. "No one even knows we have them."
"You never know," Zac pointed out. "There could be spies all around us."
Even Taylor had to laugh at the serious look on his brother's face. "Get real, kid. This is real life, not some Harrison Ford movie."
"You never know," Zac repeated. He held out the now-empty bag, waiting.
Isaac and Taylor exchanged a look. Finally, Isaac shrugged and dropped the treasures into the bag. "Let's humor the kid."
Zac took the bag back to the dresser and started dropping pretzels in on top of the jewelry. He popped every third one in his mouth.
"If you don't stop eating them," Taylor said with a smile, "you won't have enough to cover the jewelry."
Once the pretzels were all back where they had come from, Zac peered down into the bag and, satisfied with the results, rolled the top down. "Now, no one would suspect a thing."
"Unless they pick it up," Isaac said. Amusement colored his tone. "It's a little heavy for pretzels, don't you think?"
Zac hefted the bag in his hand and frowned. "Well, maybe no one will pick it up. I mean, it's just a bag of pretzels. Why would they?"
Taylor and Isaac shared another laugh over their brother's conspiratorial nature, then Isaac glanced at his watch. "Mr. Hodges will be here any minute. We'd better get dressed."
* * * * *
Mr. Hodges followed the boys as far as the elevator. "Are you sure you don't need anything else tonight?"
Isaac answered for all three of them. "We're fine, Mr. Hodges. We're just going to go to bed. It's been a long day."
The older man nodded his understanding. "All right, boys, but if you need anything, anything at all, don't hesitate to call. I'll be here at nine in the morning to pick you up. Good-night."
The Hanson brothers climbed wearily into the waiting elevator car and headed for their room. The elevator stopped on their floor and Taylor glance down the hall as the doors slid slowly open. For the briefest instant, he thought he saw the girl again. He opened his mouth to say something to his brothers, but before he could speak, he realized the hallway was empty. There was no way she could have been there. It must have been his imagination. He was exhausted, and his mind had been going over the mystery of the girl and the jewelry all evening. The combination of the two must have sparked his imagination. Besides, neither Isaac nor Zac had noticed anything. He stepped out of the elevator and followed his brothers to their suite of rooms.
He almost bumped into Isaac's back as the older brother stopped suddenly at the door. "What's wrong, Ike?"
"I could have sworn I locked this door when we left."
The door was standing slightly ajar. Isaac pushed it open and peered into the darkness beyond. After a minute, he stepped inside and reached for the light switch. All three brothers looked around the room as light flooded it. Everything seemed okay.
"Check your rooms," Isaac ordered calmly. "See if anything looks out of place."
The younger brothers did as told, while Isaac checked his own room. They met back in the main room in minutes.
"Everything seems okay," Zac said.
"Yeah," Taylor agreed slowly. "But it feels wrong. I can't put my finger on it. Nothing was missing, that I can tell, but...I could be wrong..."
"Things seemed moved," Isaac finished for him.
"Yeah," Taylor said in surprise. "How did you know?"
"It felt that way in my room, too. Are you sure nothing's missing?"
Taylor shook his head. "No, just moved."
"What about you?" Isaac asked, turning to Zac.
"I didn't notice," the youngest brother replied. Suddenly, Zac's eyes widened. "The jewelry!" He turned and ran for his room. The other brothers followed closely.
Zac grabbed the pretzel bag from the dresser where he had left it and dumped it out. All three brothers breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the velvet pouches tumbling onto the dresser.
"Do you think someone was in here?" Taylor asked.
Isaac looked at both brothers for a minute before answering. "It was probably just a maid."
Taylor nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Why would someone break in here and not take anything?"
"Unless they were looking for these," Zac said, holding up the pouches.
This time, no one laughed at Zac's wild speculations.
"No one knows we have them," Isaac said, though he didn't sound as sure as he had earlier. "How could they?"
"Maybe we should call the police," Taylor suggested.
"And tell them what? That we think just maybe some things in our room were moved? I don't think they would find that amusing. Besides, I'm sure it was just the maid." He turned toward the door. "I'll make sure the door is locked securely. Let's just get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a long day." He drew the chain lock into place and double checked the other locks. "Maybe if we're lucky, this mystery will be solved tomorrow, and we can forget it."
The television interviews went fine, in fact, they were great. Taylor loved interviews. They gave the boys a chance to open up and be themselves. He liked to pretend that the cameras weren't there and that he was talking directly to the fans. It made him feel like he was giving something back in exchange for all the fans had done for them.
Mr. Hodges had dropped the Hanson brothers back at their hotel with instructions for the boys to enjoy the rest of the day. They had wasted no time retrieving the map and setting out to find the last two landmarks. Back at Hyde Park, the brothers claimed a bench and studied the cryptic markings on the map. After ten minutes of heavy discussion, they boys had narrowed one of the landmarks down to three possibilities. One of them seemed unlikely, because of its distance from the park - all of the other landmarks had been within walking distance of the park - so they chose one of the remaining two at random and set out.
Thirty minutes later, they had discovered nothing and were ready to give up and move on.
"What if we missed it?" Taylor worried.
Isaac shook his head. "I don't think so. This can't be the right landmark." He sounded so sure of himself that the other two boys looked at him expectantly. "Think about it," he explained. "When we were ready to give up before, the girl showed up and helped us. If this were the right place, she wouldn't let us give up."
"Makes sense to me," Zac agreed. "So let's check out the other place."
They arrived at the second choice on their list, an old apothecary stop, and began their search along the back of the building. By now they knew what to look for. All of the other jewelry pouches had been found behind boards or bricks on the landmarks themselves. Less than ten minutes later, Taylor gave a cry of triumph and held the pouch up for his brothers to see.
"All right!" Zac shouted. "Are we getting good or what?!"
"Let's see," Isaac said.
Taylor opened the pouch and poured the contents into his hand while his brothers crowded close to see the treasure. Several small stones of varying size and color sparkled in the bright sunlight.
"Holy cow!" Taylor exclaimed with a whistle. "They sure look real to me."
"That's because they are real, kid."
All three of the brothers spun toward the strange voice...and froze. Less than six feet away stood a tall man, not more than a few years older than Isaac, but twice as big. The man's size seemed insignificant considering the fact he held a gun pointed at the boys. Behind him stood another, slightly older man. He had no gun, but for some reason, the boys didn't think that mattered much.
"I'll take that, kid," the man with the gun said calmly. He reached out his hand, waiting.
Taylor swallowed nervously, not able to pull his eyes from the gun.
"NOW!" the man shouted.
Taylor jumped, and the stones fell to the ground, scattering on the hard packed dirt.
"Hey, be careful with those things!" the unarmed man yelled. He hurried forward and began gathering the loose stones. When he finished, he stood and snatched the velvet pouch from Taylor's hand, dropping the stones inside and tying the top tightly.
"Now," the man with the gun said, "Let's clear the air around here. How exactly did you boys know where to find this?"
Isaac spoke, his voice betrayed none of his nervousness. "We were just messing around back here and found that by accident."
"Don't give me that crap," the man with the gun said. "We've been watching you kids long enough to know what's going on. You knew exactly what you were doing back here. Now, what I want to know is, how did you find out about it?" He raised the gun a little higher as he spoke.
Isaac hesitated only a second. "We have a map."
The man raised his eyebrows, surprised at the answer. "Let me see."
The oldest brother pulled the map from his back pocket and handed it to the man. The man unfolded it and studied it. "This looks like a first grader drew it," he sneered. "There's no way to follow these crazy markings." He glanced back up at Isaac. "Where did you get it?"
It was Taylor who answered. "A girl gave it to me, yesterday morning, at the hotel."
Gun Man's face went pale. "A girl? What did she look like?"
"My age, or maybe a year or two older," Taylor replied. "She was kind of tall and had long, dark hair."
The two men exchanged nervous looks. The unarmed man shook his head. "It can't be her," he protested to his companion.
"No! No, it's not her. Just someone that looks like her," Gun Man said nervously. He took a deep breath, visibly calming himself. "Where is the rest of the stuff?"
Isaac considered denying they had the jewelry, but decided it wouldn't be smart. "It's in our hotel room."
"Nice try," Gun Man said. "But we already searched your rooms."
"Well, you didn't search very well," Zac sneered. "Or maybe we're just too smart for you."
Taylor glanced nervously at his younger brother. Was the kid crazy? Didn't he realize that was a real gun pointed at them?
"Okay, genius," Gun Man said, "then where are they?"
"Let us go, and we'll bring them to you," Isaac answered.
Both men laughed. "You really do think we're stupid, don't you?" Gun Man chuckled. "It don't work that way. Tell you what..." He gestured with his gun at Zac. "We'll keep this one as insurance." His companion took Zac's arm and pulled him to him.
Gun Man continued, "We'll take real good care of the smart mouth here, while you two run us a few errands. You can start by finding the last one on this map. I assume you have the ones that are checked off?" He waited until they nodded before handing the map back to Isaac and continuing. "Find it, then get the other pieces and meet us back at Hyde Park, the same bench you were at this morning. You have three hours. Oh, and forget any ideas you might have about calling the police. I wouldn't want the little one here to have to pay for your mistakes."
"No way, man," Isaac protested. "We're not going off and leaving Zac with you clowns."
"You don't have a choice," Gun Man spit out. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm holding all the cards here. Now get your butts in gear. Your time is running out."
Isaac glanced at Zac, who was calmly watching the whole thing. There was no trace of fear in the boy's face. "It's all right, Ike. These guys are too stupid to be dangerous. Do what you have to."
With one last look over his shoulder, Isaac and Taylor turned and ran around the building.
Zac watched them go, then turned to the man still holding him. "Can we get something to eat while we wait? I'm starved!"
* * * * *
Ben paced the small room almost frantically. As he approached the wall each time, he turned and looked at the kid sitting on the bed, munching happily at the large pile of snacks beside him. How could the kid - what was his name? Zac? -- eat at a time like this? Even Ben was nervous and he hadn't had a gun shoved in his face just an hour ago.
Ben turned and paced back down the length of the room. How had things gotten so out of hand? It was suppose to be a simple robbery. Just break in, take a few things, and get out. Everything had been planned for months. There was no way for anything to go wrong. And it hadn't...at least, not with the robbery itself. Everything was fine until Nicole had stuck her snotty little nose it where it didn't belong. Ben suppressed a shiver as he thought of his step-sister. The other kid, the middle one, had described Nicole to a T. But that was impossible. The thought more than scared Ben, it terrified him.
"Can I get another soda?" Zac asked, drawing Ben from his thoughts.
"You've already had two," Ben said, halting his pacing to glare at the boy. The kid wasn't intimidated, Ben had to hand him that. What did it take to rattle this kid?
"Well, I'm still thirsty," Zac complained. "Maybe there's something about being kidnapped that dries out the throat or something."
"You have a smart mouth, you know that?" Ben shot back.
Zac grinned cheekily. "Of course, I know it. It's my best feature. Now, can I have another soda?"
Ben sighed in exasperation. "You'll have to wait until my friend gets back." He resumed his pacing. He wished Neil would hurry up. Neil had the gun. What was Ben supposed to do if the kid decided to make trouble? Scare him with a bag of chips?
"And just when will Hercules be returning?"
"I don't know," Ben snapped. "Why don't you wait and see? And I wouldn't call him that to his face. He has a short temper."
"Well, you won't tell me your names. What am I supposed to call you? Hey You 1 and Hey You 2? Besides, he's built like Hercules."
Ben almost smiled at the comparison. Neil would probably be flattered by the nickname. He prided himself on his physique. But it irritated Ben, who couldn't build up muscle no matter how much he worked out.
"I guess that makes you Xena," the kid said, laughing.
Ben spun around, fixing the kid with his most threatening glare. It was a wasted effort. The boy just laughed harder and went back to eating.
"I'm beginning to think we might have to pay someone to take you back," Ben commented, trying to irritate the boy.
"Ransom of Red Chief, by O. Henry," Zac exclaimed. "I've read that. Cool story!"
Ben had no idea what the kid was talking about. He didn't read any more than he had to. He felt his face redden and he threw himself into his pacing, praying that Neil would return soon.
"It's been over an hour already," Taylor complained, "and we haven't found a thing."
"I know that," Isaac muttered unhappily.
The two brothers stood on a busy street corner, trying to decide on a course of action. They had been searching frantically for the past hour with absolutely no luck, and they were growing desperate. The image of that idiot waving a gun in Zac's direction was permanently etched into their minds. It gave them lent an air of urgency to the situation that made it difficult to think clearly.
"Okay, let's go over this again," Isaac said. "What do we know?"
"We know that we can't find it!" Taylor cried. "We know three places it's not. What we don't know, is where to look next."
"Calm down, Tay. We just have to think about it." Taylor opened his mouth to snap at Isaac, but quickly shut it again. Isaac was right. They were running out of time, and they couldn't afford to stand here arguing. He took a deep breath and looked at the map again. If only they knew more about the city! The last spot was a rough drawing of what looked like stones in a row. Behind the stones were several trees. That was the part that was throwing them. There just weren't a lot of trees in the middle of the city. They had checked out three different parks, with no luck. They hadn't been able to find a row of stones in any of them. So what did that leave?
"What about a cemetery?" Taylor asked suddenly. "The stones could be headstones. They would be in a row like that."
"And there would be trees," Isaac added excitedly. He turned the London street map over in his hands and began scanning it. "Got it! There's a cemetery not far from here. It's the only one in the area. That has to be it!"
They hurriedly refolded the maps even as they took off toward the cemetery. It took less than twenty minutes to get there. Both boys stopped, frozen by the enormity of the place. There was row after row of uniform headstones, interspersed with trees at regular intervals. It would be impossible to find the right area. Despair and frustration flooded them.
"We can't give up," Isaac said. "We'll just have to hurry." With that, he began moving through the rows, looking for anything unusual. Taylor hurried after him.
They had gone no more than a hundred feet, when both of them were stopped short by a low sound to their right. They turned as one, to see the girl standing a few yards away, watching them. It was the closest she had been to them, except for when she had given Taylor the map at the hotel, and he hadn't had time then to study her that much. Now, she was simply standing there as though waiting for something.
Her age was hard to pinpoint, though she had to be close to their own. She was tall for a girl, probably at least 5'8", with long brown hair and large, expressive eyes. A soft breeze caught at her hair, billowing it around her face and shoulders. She was very pretty, but there was an air about her that set the boys immediately on the alert. Maybe it had something to do with the circumstances of her appearance, or the desperation of the situation.
Suddenly, for the first time, the girl spoke.
"You've almost completed the task." Her voice was low in both tone and volume, her accent soft.
"We can't find the last piece," Isaac said. He had the feeling she was here to help them, and he wasn't about to pass up the opportunity. "Do you know where it is?"
The girl nodded. "There is a large oak tree at the rear of the cemetery. It is the largest here, you can't miss it. The roots branch away from the tree like tentacles. The object you seek is nestled amongst the roots."
The boys turned to look in the direction the girl pointed, spotting the tree. Isaac turned back to ask the girl for more information and was surprised to see he and Taylor were alone. The girl was nowhere in sight.
"Hello?" he called, knowing there would be no answer.
"Where did she go?" Taylor asked in surprise.
Isaac shook his head. "I don't know, but we don't have time to worry about it right now. Let's go." He took off at a run for the tree, Taylor at his heels.
Just as the girl had predicted, they found the last item hidden among the huge roots of the massive oak. Taylor opened the bag and poured out the contents, no longer surprised at the treasure that spilled into his hand.
"Now that I know it's real," he said, "it looks a little different. Kind of dangerous, you know?"
"Yeah," Isaac agreed. "I know what you mean. There's a lot more to this than a simple robbery."
They hadn't had the chance to discuss the situation much. They had been too anxious to find the last piece of jewelry. Now, their minds were running with possibilities.
"If those two goons stole this stuff, then why are they trying to find it?" Taylor asked, putting the jewelry back into the pouch and securing the top.
"I don't know," Isaac admitted. "I've been asking myself the same question. How did it get scattered around the city like this? And what does that girl have to do with it?"
"Somebody owes us some answers," Taylor said emphatically. He sighed deeply. "Now what?"
"You have to take it to the police." The voice spoke from behind them, and the boys spun around to see the girl standing beside a headstone.
"Who are you?" Isaac asked, hoping to at last find some answers.
"My name is Nicole. You have to take the jewelry to the police."
"We can't," Taylor protested. "There are two guys holding our brother. They want the stuff in exchange for him."
"I know," the girl said. "Their names are Ben and Neil. Ben is my step-brother. He's not a bad guy; he just got caught up in a bad crowd." Her expression changed to one of distaste. "Neil is evil. He has intimidated Ben into going along on wild schemes. They went too far this time."
"They stole this stuff didn't they?" Taylor asked.
Nicole nodded. "A year ago last week."
"Why was it hidden around the city like that?"
Nicole hesitated, and they thought she wasn't going to answer. Finally, she said, "I did that. I found out what Ben and Neil had done. I saw where they hid the jewelry. When they left, I took it. Not one of the smartest things I've ever done. I was going to take it to the police, but I got scared and hid it instead. I thought I could go back and gather it later, or at least tell the police about it."
"What happened?" Isaac asked. "Why did you give us the map? Why didn't you just collect the jewelry yourself?"
The girl looked decidedly uncomfortable. "We don't have time to answer all of your questions right now. You have to take the jewelry to the police."
"We can't," Taylor repeated. "We have to give it to those guys."
"Tay's right," Isaac added. "This is Zac's safety we're talking about here. We can't take chances."
Nicole shook her head adamantly. "If it was just Ben, maybe...But you can't take on Neil by yourself. I told you, he's evil."
The brothers exchanged helpless looks. No matter what they did, they would be taking a chance. What should they do?
"Maybe I could help you," the girl said hesitantly.
Isaac raised his eyebrows in question. How could she help them? He was definitely open for suggestions.
"Neil has reason to be frightened of me. Perhaps we could use that to our advantage."
Isaac thought back to the cryptic conversation between Neil and Ben upon learning how they had acquired the map. Neil had been decidedly nervous at the girl's description. Maybe there was something to her claims. Besides, what choice did they have?
"Okay," he decided. "What do you have in mind?"
* * * * *
"How long has it been?" Ben asked anxiously.
Neil watched the man he called partner pace nervously across the width of the small room. It was times like this that Neil had a hard time remembering Ben was older, even if it was only a few years. Ben just had no stomach for this kind of work. It was a weakness that would be his downfall. Neil was determined that it wouldn't be his, as well. Once they retrieved the jewelry and delivered it to the buyer, it would be time for the two men to part company. Neil would be sorry to lose his longtime partner on the one hand. After all, Ben had been with him for four years now, and he was easily manipulated. But Neil had bigger aspirations than dealing with small time robberies. Neil wanted the bigtime and was willing to take the risk involved to get there. Ben just didn't have it in him.
Neil suddenly remembered Ben had asked him a question. Before he could answer, the kid sitting on the bed turned from the television and spoke.
"It's been exactly six minutes since you last asked that question, Xena," Zac said with a smile. "Are you always this hyper, or just when you kidnap innocent children?"
Neil laughed, which earned him a dirty look from Ben. The kid had been calling the older man Xena every since Neil had returned forty-five minutes ago. Neil had no idea what the kid meant, but it seemed to irritate Ben incredibly. And Neil found this extremely funny.
"I told you not to call me that!" Ben snapped angrily at Zac. "Why don't you just shut up for a while and give us a break?"
"Leave him alone," Neil commanded. "I'd rather listen to him than to your whining. If you don't have the guts for this, maybe you should leave now."
This stopped Ben's pacing. "Come on, Neil. We're in this together. You know that."
Neil smiled, but there was no mirth in the expression. "And you have no intentions of giving up your share, right?"
Ben ran his hand nervously through his short cropped blond hair. "I risked as much for that stuff as you did."
Neil almost laughed at the false bravado in Ben's voice. "But you forget, Ben, if it hadn't been for your brat of a sister, we would have sold that jewelry a year ago. We could have been out of the country by now. Don't you think you should take some of the responsibility for what your sister did?"
"Step-sister," Ben corrected automatically. "It's not my fault Nicole found the stuff. I'm not to blame for what she did."
"Or for what happened, I suppose?" Neil watched his partner closely for a reaction.
Ben swallowed compulsively a couple of times, then turned away, but not before Neil saw the flash of fear in the man's eyes.
"You don't think the girl those kids saw..." Ben left the question unfinished, but Neil knew what he meant.
"...was Nicole?" Neil finished for him. "Are you crazy?" He threw a quick glance toward the bed, suddenly remembering the kid. The boy was watching the exchange between them with interest. He was absorbing every word.
"What are you staring at?" Neil barked angrily.
"You," the kid stated calmly.
Did anything ruffle this kid's feathers? Neil found himself admiring Zac's ability to remain cool-headed despite the circumstances. He just wished Ben had half that much nerve.
"Well, don't!" Neil said a little softer.
Zac slowly turned back to the television and adjusted the volume a bit louder.
Neil turned his attention back to Ben. "We'll discuss this later."
Ben nodded, and resumed his pacing.
Neil watched him for a moment. Yes, it was definitely time to find a new partner.
"This isn't going to work," Taylor said for what felt like the hundredth time.
Isaac eyed his younger brother carefully. "If you have any other suggestions, I'm listening." Just as he predicted, Taylor was silent. "Look, Tay, I don't like this any more than you do, but I don't know what else to do. We can't go to the police as long as those two clowns have Zac. And you know as well as I do that if we just hand over the jewelry to them..." He hesitated, not willing to voice what he was thinking. They both knew their chances of getting out of this without a significant amount of trouble were almost nil.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Taylor interrupted, just as unwilling to hear the words. "But don't you think this is just as risky?"
"Probably," Isaac admitted. "But I don't see any other options."
The two brothers walked on in silence, each absorbed in their own thoughts. The had gone to the hotel, retrieving the remaining jewels, and were now headed back to where they were to meet Neil and Ben. They approached Hyde Park with thirty minutes to spare on the imposed deadline. They found a place where they could watch from a distance the bench they were supposed to meet the two men and sat down in the cool grass.
"Now what?" Taylor asked. His eyes scanned the surrounding area carefully. "I thought Nicole was going to meet us here."
Isaac was conducting his own scan. "We're a little early. I'm sure she'll be here."
Taylor threw his brother a nervous glance. Isaac didn't sound very convinced. How did they know this girl would keep her end of the bargain? They knew almost nothing about her. In fact, the only thing that Taylor was sure of, was that Nicole was strange. She seemed to appear at the most opportune moments, and until their last meeting, had had nothing to say. That she had wanted them to gather the jewelry was obvious, but why? What if she was in league with Neil and Ben? What if they were being set up?
The more Taylor thought about it, the more uneasy he became. A quick glance at Isaac's face showed he was thinking similar dark thoughts. Taylor was about to voice his suspicions when a deep voice spoke from behind them.
"Early bird gets the worm, hmm?"
The boys jumped to their feet and spun around to face the younger of the two men that had taken Zac. The gun was nowhere in sight, but he kept his right hand buried deep in his jacket pocket. The threat was obvious. The boys exchanged a nervous look.
"I'm glad to see you boys are so time-conscious. You have the stuff?"
"We've got it," Isaac answered, no trace of his nervousness in his voice. "Where's Zac?"
"Close by," the man replied. "Give me the stuff." He held out his left hand expectantly.
Isaac took a step backward. "Uh-uh. Doesn't work that way. We want to see Zac first." Where was Nicole? Isaac wasn't sure how long he could stall this creep. What would they do if she didn't show up?
The man actually laughed. "Guts must run in the family. You kids are either extremely brave or incredibly stupid." He gestured with his head behind him.
Taylor and Isaac followed his gaze and saw the other man on a foot bridge about three hundred yards away. The man had a tight hold on Zac's arm. The kid looked fine from where they stood, and both boys let out a relieved breath.
"Okay, now where are the jewels?" Impatience tinged the man's voice.
This wasn't going according to plan. They had to do something to throw the men off long enough to get Zac away from that goon. Taylor's mind raced, looking for a diversion. Suddenly, in a burst of inspiration, he said, "So, I guess you must be Neil." He hoped he had the right name. This one certainly seemed to be the most evil of the two, and Nicole had described Neil as evil.
The man's face paled. "How did you know my name?"
Feeling a renewed confidence, Taylor merely shrugged, trying to look casual. "Let's just say a friend told me."
The hand in the pocket jerked, and Taylor thought for a moment, Neil was going to pull the gun. Instead, he glanced back at his partner, who was unaware of the conversation.
Isaac seized the opportunity to press the advantage. "That must be Ben up there with Zac."
Neil's eyes narrowed dangerously, and he took a step forward. "I don't know how you found out our names, but it doesn't matter. I want those jewels, NOW!"
Taylor jumped a little bit at the man's tone, but pressed on, sensing the man was getting nervous. Maybe Nicole had been right about these guys being afraid of her. "I told you, a friend told us. The same friend that gave us the map and helped us find the jewels."
"What are you talking about?" Neil's voice was beginning to betray his tension. "What friend?"
"A mutual friend," Isaac supplied with a slight smile. "In fact, she told us quite a bit about you. She said that you intimidated Ben into helping you rob that jewelry store. It was your idea."
"That's not possible," Neil stammered. "No one knows about that except..." His voice faded away as he glanced back at Ben. The man and kid had moved closer, leaving the footbridge in an effort to determine what was taking Neil so long.
Neil turned back to face the boys, his eyes dark with anger. "I don't know what game you two think you're playing, but I'm ending it now. Give me the jewels, or you're brother is going for an unexpected swim."
"I don't think so, Neil," a soft, feminine voice said. All three of the them turned to see Nicole standing a few feet away. Neil's already pale face grew even whiter.
"I let you frighten and intimidate me once, Neil," Nicole continued. "I won't make that mistake a second time."
"Nicole?" The voice that emanated from Neil sounded like that of a frightened child. "That can't be!"
There was a sudden cry from the direction of the foot bridge. Taylor and Isaac turned to see Ben backing up, a look of horror on his face as he stared toward Nicole. Zac took advantage of the man's inattention and stomped down hard with his foot. Ben cried out again, this time in pain and dropped his hold on Zac to clutch his foot. Zac took off running toward his brothers.
As Zac dashed by, Neil broke from his trance to reach out in an effort to grab the boy.
"Hold it!" an authoritative voice boomed. Even Zac was stopped by the voice. Suddenly, the area was filled with police. Someone was pulling Neil's hands behind his back and cuffing him, while another man removed the gun from the jacket pocket. Taylor noticed that more police were apprehending Ben, before turning his attention to the man in front of him.
"Are you boys all right?" Mr. Hodges was asking.
Isaac nodded, not quite trusting his voice. Everything had happened so fast! And now the adrenaline was starting to wear off, leaving him a bit shaky.
"We're fine," Zac said excitedly. "Better than fine. This has been the most awesome day! You wouldn't believe all the things that have happened."
"How did you know to come here?" Isaac asked suddenly. "How did you know what was going on?"
"We didn't, actually," Mr. Hodges admitted. "When I got back to the hotel this afternoon, there was a message for me, telling me that you boys were in trouble, to bring the police and meet you here. I thought it was a prank, but then when I couldn't find you, I begin to grow concerned."
Taylor and Isaac exchanged looks, understanding in their expressions. "Nicole," they said as one. They turned to survey the area, but saw no trace of the girl.
Isaac turned back to Mr. Hodges. "Did you see where that girl went?"
"The one that was standing here when you arrived."
A policeman spoke, moving closer to the boys. "There was no one here but you three and those two. If there was a girl, she left before we got here. I'm going to need for you boys to come down to the station to give a statement." Mr. Hodges nodded. "Of course. I'll see to it, officer."
The policeman nodded and moved away, following the two handcuffed men that were being led to nearby police cars.
"Well, boys," Mr. Hodges said, ushering them after the officers, "let's get this over with, shall we?"
* * * * *
Taylor leaned back against the headboard of his bed, lost in thought. It had been a long, eventful day, but he found he wasn't the least bit sleepy. Maybe it was the adrenaline rush. But even as he thought it, he dismissed the thought. He knew exactly what was keeping him awake. It was the information they had picked up at the police station. It was just to strange, too unbelievable for his brain to process.
"Hey, bro, you still awake?" Isaac's voice floated through the darkness.
"Yeah, come on in." He waited until Isaac was seated on the edge of the bed, then said, "You can't sleep either?"
"Uh-uh. At least Zac is having no trouble. He was sawing logs when I came through his room."
Taylor chuckled. Zac could sleep anytime, anywhere. Nothing seemed to affect their younger brother for long, not even being kidnapped and held at gun point. Although, judging from the statement the kid had given the police, it hadn't been much more than an opportunity to eat and watch television all day.
"Listen," Isaac began, then stopped. He seemed to be having trouble finding the right words.
"I know," Taylor said. "I know what's keeping us both awake. You don't think it's possible, do you?"
Isaac shook his head slowly. "I don't know. If you had asked me that a few days ago, I would have laughed in your face. But now...I don't know what to believe."
"Neil and Ben seemed to believe it readily enough," Taylor pointed out.
"Yeah, there was no mistaking the look on their faces when they saw Nicole. But couldn't there be another explanation? Something a little more logical?"
"Sure, Mr. Spock," Taylor teased, trying to lighten the mood. "Logic dictates there can be no such things as ghosts, right?"
Isaac smiled back. "Right. Then how do you explain seeing and talking to a girl that was pushed from a bridge by Neil and Ben almost a year ago?"
"Mass hallucination?" Taylor offered.
Isaac chuckled, almost willing to buy that explanation. It made as much sense as anything else. Not only had they seen and talked to a girl that was supposed to be dead, but that same girl had helped them solve a crime, put two criminals behind bars, summoned the police to help just in time, and had conveniently disappeared before anyone else could see her to back up their story. It was just too spooky to think about for long, especially in the dead of night.
Suddenly, a voice spoke from the darkened doorway. "Hey, you guys are up, great. I was just thinking about a midnight snack. Reckon we can get room service this late?"
The sound of laughter chased away all dark thoughts from the room, lightening the boys' moods and bringing a smile to the face of the lone figure in the dark beyond the window as she faded away.