Maxie Peters, my best friend, glared at me from the other side of the small holding cell. Strands of blonde hair had fallen loose, her hands were balled into fists, and she looked like she wanted to punch someone. Olivia Gunderson, our housemate and sister of my almost-boyfriend, sat next to her, slumped forward, looking dejected. On her right was FBI agent Nate Dempsey. His expression was impossible to read.
I was alone, sitting across from them on a cold stone bench. A woman was lying at my feet. Her hair was matted with what I hoped was just dirt and she’d licked the hem of my pants when I’d arrived. Every time I tried to move she latched onto my leg and an aroma of putrid street alley wafted through the cell.
“This is all your fault, Sam,” Maxie said, angrily wiping at her bangs.
“Give it a break.” I leaned back, hit my head against the wall, and stifled a groan. Maxie was right. This was my fault. Possibly. Sort of. But not if you considered—
“It is,” Maxie insisted.
“I didn’t think there would be anyone there,” I repeated for the twentieth time. “The building was supposed to be empty. Abandoned. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“We must have tripped an alarm,” Nate said, rubbing his wrists. There were red marks where the cuffs had been clamped too tight.
“An alarm on an empty building?” Maxie asked.
“The cops sure got there fast,” Olivia said.
Nate stood and walked to the back of the cell, avoiding the small wall-mounted toilet. He casually looked at the walls and up at the ceiling.
“Coming up with a plan to break us out of here, Dempsey?” Maxie asked.
Olivia eyes went wide.
Nate leaned against the white brick wall and crossed his arms. “That’s your department, Max. If I remember clearly, you were the operations specialist on this little adventure.”
“Which means I brought a camera and measuring tape, not bolt cutters and a switch blade.”
Nate and Maxie stared at each other. In the dim light of the sparse cell, their hair color appeared almost identical, but I knew once we were outside Maxie’s brilliant blonde would outshine Nate’s librarian brown. Olivia looked just as she had when she'd arrived home from the bakery: pink cheeks, white apron, blue jeans, and thick brown hair held back by a wide band.
“I don’t think you guys should be discussing this,” Olivia said. “Not out loud.”
“Maybe you could improvise, Maxie,” Nate suggested. “Fake a seizure.”
“We are not breaking out of here!” Olivia insisted then covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh, my God!” she squeaked. “What if they heard me?”
We looked out at the dimly lit hallway on the other side of our barred entrance. It remained empty.
“Gunderson,” Maxie said. “Remind me not to take you on a clandestine adventure ever again.”
“I didn’t ask to go on this one!”
“Why are you here?” Nate asked.
“I had the unfortunate luck of needing to talk to Sam and Maxie just as you were all headed out. Why are you here? And why don’t you look upset?”
Nate smiled. “Ben wanted to talk to Sam. We stopped by your house on our way back from a job.”
Olivia turned to me, a question in her eyes.
I shrugged pretending like I didn’t know why Ben wanted to talk to me. Olivia didn’t look like she believed me, and Maxie definitely didn’t. Truthfully I suspected Ben was going to ask whether I’d called his old girlfriend.
I hadn’t, and was fairly sure I wasn’t going to.
“And as to why I’m not upset,” Nate continued. “I’m locked up with three beautiful women. It’s like being in a Charlie’s Angels episode.”
“That’s revolting,” Maxie said. “So, Olivia, what were you going to tell us? We’ve got oodles of time and no distractions. No distractions whatsoever, unless you count the drug addict on the floor.” Maxie looked at her hands and sighed. “I never thought I’d miss the old man’s journal.”
The ‘old man’ she was referring to was the person who used to own the house we were renting. And the journal was something we’d found in an underground laboratory in our backyard.
“I know you’re mad at me, Maxie,” I said. “But if you’re going to blame anyone, I’d blame the journal. We’re only here, because of what was in it.”
“Explain that to me again,” Nate said. “Something in the journal led you to the warehouse?”
“GPS coordinates,” I replied. “I only recognized them, because of Violet and what she shared last month about geocaching.”
Nate nodded. “So the warehouse coordinates were in the journal. And you thought you should go there? Out of the blue?”
Maxie shook her head. “The old man’s journal contained mostly notes about the weather, a few observations about the birds he was doing experiments on, how much his arthritis was acting up, but every once in a while—”
“It was more than every once in a while.” I interrupted. “It was a couple times a month.”
“Whatever. Twice a month the old man wrote down what seemed like a lot number – several digits and a couple letters. I searched the internet to see if we could match it to anything and found a shipping company. Turns out the numbers were cargo manifests.”
“Did the company’s webpage tell you what the shipments were?” Nate asked.
Maxie shook her head. “No record of it, only dates. Then about this time last year the numbers in the journal stopped.”
“And the following month he wrote down the GPS coordinates,” I said.
“With the words ‘Safe Deposit Box’ next to it," Maxie added. "We thought it would be a bank.”
“Why wouldn’t he just write the address?” Olivia asked. “Why the GPS stuff?”
“The man was doing experiments on birds in an airtight, underground submarine,” Maxie said. “The GPS coordinates were just the tip of his ice burg of crazy.”
Olivia nodded. “Right.”
“Anyway we figured out the warehouse was at the coordinates. Sam found a reference to the address in a news article that was stuffed in with some of the old man’s paperwork.”
“It was a short piece,” I said. “But it was interesting, because the story was about how a local developer had purchased the land, built the warehouse, but promptly went broke. The city of Oak Valley owns it now, but hasn’t determined what to do with it. More interesting than that was that the article was five years old.
“Which means,” Maxie added. “That our crazy old man knew the warehouse was abandoned and was probably storing the cargo there because of it. We couldn’t not go."
“And Parker knew about all of this?” Nate asked.
We all nodded. The fact that Ben wasn’t with us was something we hadn’t discussed in any detail. His absence settled on our shoulders like a weight.
“I wish we knew where he was,” I said.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Nate offered, but he was frowning.
Olivia raised her hand. We all stared at her.
“Yes, Olivia,” Maxie said.
Olivia put her hand back in her lap. “Ben met me at the entrance of the warehouse. Said he’d received a phone call and had to go. Something about a case.”
Nate straightened. “A case?”
Olivia nodded. “He said he’d call us later.”
“And you kept this a secret?” I asked.
“It wasn’t a secret. You just didn’t ask me until now, and besides the alarm sounded soon after he left, and then everything went haywire.”
Nate reached into his pocket. “Shit. I need my phone.”There was a reverberating clang and we all jumped up.
Olivia and I joined Maxie at the cell entrance, our hands curling around the bars. I was prepared to plead for our release, confess that we were well-meaning, excellent Oak Valley citizens, contributing annually to the policeman’s ball, and have been known to volunteer at the local youth center on free chili weekends. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sight of my father, Frank Butcher, former police chief of Oak Valley, and the expression on his face that read “I left my golf game early for this?” He stopped outside our cell and stared at us.
“We’re innocent, Mr. B,” Maxie said.
A uniformed policeman, rattling keys, strolled in. “That’s what they all say, isn’t it, Chief.”
“I’m not your chief,” Dad said.
The officer swallowed loudly and lowered his head.
“I hate to ask,” Dad said. “But who is the woman on the floor?”
Hem-licker lifted her arm and held out her hand. Her eyes were still closed. “Nice to meet you,” she slurred. “Name’s Nancy.” Her arm flopped back down, landing on my foot. She grunted, gigged, and then went silent.
“She’s not with us,” I said.
Dad was wearing a polo shirt with the initials “O.V.C.C.” embroidered over one pocket – Oak Valley Country Club. The mayor granted him honorary membership when he retired from the police force. Dad called it his golden putter. On a day like today – sunny, faint shimmer of clouds overhead – he was known to leave before dawn and not return until sunset.
“I dropped your mom off at the pharmacy,” he said, scratching his chin. His reading glasses were pressed into his bald head as if he’d pounded them there. “She was having cheese soup with that old biddy book club when she heard you were arrested. She’s had uncontrollable diarrhea ever since.”
“She shouldn’t be eating cheese,” I said. “Her doctor told her it wasn’t good for her.”
“Technically she was drinking it,” Olivia said, smoothing her apron. “It was soup. And it’s really more of a binding agent. It shouldn’t have given her the runs.”
“Thank you, Olivia,” Dad said. He blinked a few times. “I’m sorry to see my daughter sucked you into another one of her messes.”
“I appreciate that,” Olivia said.
“I don’t.” I moved my feet out from underneath Nancy’s arm. “This isn’t my mess. It’s Maxie’s.”
Maxie glared at me. “No way. It’s the hatch man’s fault. And technically we weren’t arrested. This is temporary lock up. Right, Officer?”
“I’m staying out of this,” the officer said.
Dad grunted. “Where’s Parker?”
We looked around the cell as if we’d misplaced him. Nate shrugged.
Dad stepped closer to the bars. “I know he was with you.”
His glare, and the way his right eyebrow blended into his forehead, made me uncomfortable. I backed up into Nancy. She dug her fingers into my socks, sniffed loudly, and then began snoring.
Olivia pushed her bangs out of her face. “Ben was there at first, but left before anything happened. He got a call.”
“He got a call,” Dad repeated. He stared at us for a few moments more. “Fine.”
The officer stepped forward, holding out his keys. “Step back, ladies.”
Nancy sprang to life, pushing up from the ground. “Let me out!” She launched herself at the bars, hit hard, and staggered back into the middle of the cell. Nate moved to the side to get out of her way. “Ahhhhhh!” She spun in a full circle and hit her knees on the toilet. They buckled. She plopped down onto the silver lid, looking dazed.
The officer unlocked the cell door, opening it just wide enough for Maxie, Olivia, Nate, and me to slip through.
Nancy ran toward us, but the officer closed the cell before she reached it. “I hate you guys!” she howled. “And your socks stink! My fingers smell like chicken!”
Dad gestured for us to lead the way. “Let’s get your things.”
“How did you get them to let us out?” I asked.
“The owner of the warehouse is a golf buddy. He graciously decided to not press charges.”
“You mean he found out what we uncovered and he’s afraid we’ll tell the media,” Maxie said.
Dad shook his head. “What did you find, anyway?”
“Nothing,” I said. “They arrested us before we could look in any of the boxes.”
“How can you guys leave me here to die?!” Nancy’s wail trailed us into the hallway. “We’re friends! Cell mates! That’s a bond that can’t be broken!”
“She’s right, you know,” Maxie said, following Nate down the hall.
“She’s not going to die,” I replied.
“But we were cell mates,” Maxie said. “That’s a pretty strong bond. Hopefully she doesn’t come looking for us, asking for a favor.”
We passed by a window and gave a collective sigh, pausing to marvel at the splendor. Even though it was just a view of the parking lot, it was open air and we would soon be in it.
We were directed to a small waiting room and told to sit and wait for our things. A television mounted near the ceiling was on, but the sound was muted. A very blonde woman in extremely tight clothing was pointing at a looming storm swirling in the Pacific. “Gusty Winds” were headed in the direction of Oak Valley.
I glanced at Nate to see if he was checking out the weather woman, but he was looking at Maxie. She was at the dispatch desk, leaning forward, signing the release paperwork. Her shirt had ridden up and part of her lower back was visible.
The two of them had been flirting all afternoon. It shouldn’t bother me. Nate was an okay guy, but always seemed distant, as if there was something he didn’t want us to know. It made me suspicious.
I gave myself a mental shake. Stop it, Sam. He’s Ben’s partner. He’s fine.
“What did you say?” Nate asked.
“Say? What? Me? Did I say something?” I sat up straight. “It must have been Olivia.”
Olivia looked up from the magazine she was reading. “I didn’t say anything. You must have been thinking out loud again.”
Nate looked confused.
“You’re up, Gunderson,” Maxie said, walking quickly to the exit door.
“I would sit with you, but I’ve been cooped up in a tiny cell and my pores are clogged. I need air.” She waved and left.
One by one we signed the release paperwork and left the station. I was the last to join the group in the parking lot. Olivia, Maxie, and my dad were standing next to his car.
Maxie was running her hands through her short, blonde, hair. “Sweet freedom,” she said.
“Where’s Nate?” I asked when I reached them.
Maxie looked around. “I thought he was in there with you.”
“He signed his papers before I did.”
“He didn’t come out this way.”
“You think he would have said something before he left,” Olivia said, echoing what I was thinking.
“He’s a fed,” Maxie said. She didn’t seem bothered, and instead closed her eyes, raised her face to the sun, and smiled. She was practically purring.
Dad pointed to his car. “Get in. I’m taking you guys somewhere.”
“I’m not going anywhere except home,” Maxie said. “We just got out of the slammer. I need a shower.”
“You were in there for two hours,” Dad said.
“Two hours too long. I’m considering bathing in hand sanitizer.”
My phone rang. It was Ben. “What the hell happened to you?” I asked instead of saying hello.
“I should be asking you that,” Ben said. “I can’t believe they arrested you.”
“We weren’t arrested. Just detained…behind bars.” I cleared my throat. “It was a misunderstanding. My dad cleared it up.”
“I know. He called me.”
I stared at Dad. “You called Ben.”
Dad nodded. “I did.”
“Then why did you give us the third degree about where he was?”
“I was testing you.”
“What kind of test? About what? And why?”
“Is there something going on?” Olivia asked. “Does Ben know where Nate is?”
“Meet me back at the warehouse,” Ben said. “Try to get here fast, before they move this stuff out.”
“The warehouse? Where we were arrested? I’m not going back to the scene of the crime. I’d rather go to a bar, where they serve drinks. With alcohol.”
“It’s the middle of the day.”
“A drug addict licked my leg.”
“You have very nice legs.”
“Get down here. I promise you won’t be disappointed. And maybe afterward I’ll take you to get a drink.”
Ben was waiting outside of the warehouse, leaning against a low-slung, black car, arms crossed, wearing jeans, work boots, and dark sweatshirt with white four-leaf clover on the front of it. There were other cars, too, and other people, most of them with FBI issued ball caps. Dad parked next to Ben. Nate strolled out of the warehouse and waved.
“How did Nate get here so fast?” Olivia wondered out loud as we got out of the car.
“Maybe he borrowed Ben’s batmobile,” I suggested.
Ben shook hands with my father and then motioned for us to follow him inside the warehouse.
“Are we allowed to be here?” I whispered.
“What you guys stumbled across is going to become the stuff of legend if it’s real,” Ben said. “So I figured you should be among the first to see it.”
“What do you mean, if it’s real?’” Maxie asked.
We turned a corner and stopped.
There were at least a dozen large crates. Dry straw lay in piles around each one. Leaning up against the sides were several gold statues, platters, and parts of what looked like an impossibly bedazzled puzzle. Men and women were taking pictures and writing on notepads. One of them was sitting on the ground with a laptop computer.
Ben stood next to me, his shoulder touching mine. “Your hatch man was dealing in black market Egyptian artifacts.”
“What was he going to do with all of it?”
“Sell it,” Nate said. “Hoard it. Decorate his tomb. Who knows.”
“But why store it all here?” Maxie asked.
“And why stop buying them?” I added.
A man, pushing a pallet jack, walked past us. He gave a single wave to Nate, but ignored the rest of us.
Ben took my elbow and we stepped back. “Didn’t hatch man die?” he asked.
“He did, but he stopped recording lot numbers in his journal before then.” I looked at Maxie. “Right?”
“You’re right,” she said. “After he wrote down the GPS coordinates there were no more cargo numbers, but the lab experiments continued. Maybe he was afraid of getting caught.”
“Maybe he had an illness, an addiction, and he got help,” Olivia suggested.
“Maybe he ran out of money,” Dad added.
I was struck with an idea. “Or maybe he was buying up pieces, looking for something specific.”
“And when he found it he didn’t have to buy any more,” Maxie finished, looking excited. “That has to be it.”
“So what did he find?” Olivia asked.
We looked around the warehouse as if expecting to see a bright arrow pointing to the object.
“If he was looking for something….” I spoke slowly as the thought formed in my head. “And if he found it, then it wouldn’t be here, would it?”
“No,” Maxie said. “It wouldn’t.”
“Then where would it be?” Olivia asked.
The three of us looked at each other, all thinking the same thing. “In the lab.”
I was lying on my back, staring at the starry sky. It would have been romantic, except for the gravel digging into my back and the foul stench of a Rottweiler standing way too close.
Evening at the Junkyard
I was lying on my back, staring at the starry sky. It would have been romantic, except for the gravel digging into my back and the foul stench of a Rottweiler standing way too close.
“Why are we here?” I asked.
No one answered, because no one was there. The hulking dog sniffed my ear, sending hair into my eyes. Now that I was flat on my back I was no longer a threat.
“Brutus? May I call you Brutus? Please don’t bite me. Not that you would. You seem more passive than aggressive.” I moved my arm, slightly.
Brutus let out a low “Grrrrr.”
“Okay. Noted. Any good escape plan involves testing boundaries. I’m not sure if that’s an actual rule of Skipper’s, but if it isn’t maybe it should be.”
The dog growled again.
“Not that I’m trying to escape. That thought never crossed my mind. I love lying here. The hard rocks jabbing my shoulder blades are refreshing in a self-punishment kind of way.”
Brutus swayed side to side and huffed.
“There is a possibility, however, that someone will come rescue me. I don’t want you to be alarmed if that happens.”
“Sam,” Maxie whispered. She sounded close. “Are you alive?”
Brutus growled then barked, but didn’t move.
I was so relieved tears sprang into my eyes, temporarily blinding me. I blinked them away, resisting the urge to lift my hand. “Where the hell were you?”
“Don’t yell at me.”
“I’m not yelling!”
Brutus lowered his head, huffed, and sent a wave of saliva over my face.
“You’re pissing off the dog,” Maxie added. “Stay still.”
“You’re telling me to stay still? The only reason I’m still alive is because I figured that out. And Brutus doesn’t seem to be wired like other junkyard dogs. I think he’s blind. And old.”
“You were pinned down by a geriatric dog?”
“Just because he’s slow to react doesn’t mean he doesn’t react at all.”
“Both of you zip it,” Olivia ordered. “Sam, we’re going to get you out of this.”
“How did I even get in this?” I asked. “Explain that.”
“You let yourself get distracted by the shiny. Now be quiet.” Maxie whistled. “Here Poochie, Poochie. Nice big juicy steak over here.”
“His name isn’t Poochie.”
“What is it then?”
“I’ve been calling him Brutus.”
“That fits,” Olivia said. “He’s as big as a truck. Bigger, actually.”
“That’s comforting.” The dog’s head temporarily blocked the night sky and more saliva rained down. “I really appreciate you saying that.”
“Are you being sarcastic?” Olivia asked. “It’s hard to tell. I can’t see your face. Why are you way over there? I thought you were closer to the exit.”
“We ran faster than she did,” Maxie said.
“You were ahead of me to begin with,” I said. “And Olivia told me to play dead.”
“I thought you would run a little further before you fell to the ground.”
“It’s too bad she didn’t, because this would have been easier closer to the exit.”
“This is awesome,” I said. “Hearing you talk about how doomed I am is the opposite of reassuring.”
“Here, Brutus,” Maxie called. “Steak. Runny. Juicy. Coating my arm in disgusting rivulets of blood and grease.”
I could hear Olivia gag.
Brutus whined and shuffled his feet, moving a few inches.
“I think it’s working,” I whispered.
“You should wave the steak around so the dog smells it,” Olivia suggested.
“If you want to choreograph the steak waving you take it,” Maxie said.
“Next time I say ‘stay close to me,’ let’s all try and do that,” Maxie said.
“I did,” Olivia noted.
“Are you implying that I didn’t stay close to you?” I asked. “Because I so did. I was the closest to you of anyone.”
“She was really close,” Olivia said.
“Then how is she the one lying on the ground?” Maxie asked.
“I thought I saw a Jeep like mine. I only stopped for a second.”
“Distracted by the shiny,” Maxie said.
Brutus moved a few more inches.
“So what exactly is the plan?” I asked. “Do I get up and run when he gets far enough away?”
“God, no,” Maxie said. “Old Brutus would have you in a heartbeat. The plan is to drug him. I coated this thing in sleeping powder.”
I sighed and stretched my fingers. So far I hadn’t felt any crawling things, but it was only a matter of time.
“Here he comes,” Olivia said. “Eat, Boy, good. Ack! He took the whole thing.”
I twisted so I could see them. Maxie and Olivia were on the other side of an eight-foot high fence. Olivia waved then shrieked as Maxie wiped her hands on her sweater. Brutus stopped eating to stare at me.
“How long will it take for the dog to pass out?” I asked.
“Maybe twenty minutes,” Maxie said.
I flopped back. “We were supposed to be investigating the hatch tonight. Finding out what black market artifact was hidden there.”
“Ben’s people already checked it out,” Olivia said. “They didn’t find anything.”
“Are you serious? They went there without us?”
“Maxie told them it was okay.”
I was silent. It was the last straw in a day filled with them.
“In my defense—” Maxie started.
I cut her off. “I love you, Max. I really do. But the next time you suggest a shortcut to Nord’s Burgers, I’m going to ignore you. I may also flip you off…and possibly punch you in the face.”
“I spent the afternoon in jail,” she said. “I needed a hamburger. And how was I supposed to know the junkyard was guarded by a ten ton canine?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Any movie ever!”
“Will you two stop arguing?!” Olivia shouted.
I heard a thud.
“That was fast,” Olivia said.
I looked back. Brutus was lying on his side. “Is he dead?”
“Nope,” Olivia said. “Still breathing and – ugh – his breath is terrible.”
I stood up and faced them. My arms were scratched from falling to the ground. Every muscle ached. “So we aren’t investigating the hatch?”
Olivia and Maxie shook their heads.
“And Parker’s people sealed the opening when they left,” Maxie added.
“Sealed it how?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Twisted it really tight? Are you going to come out of there?”
“They really found nothing?”
“That’s what they claim,” Olivia said.
“And we believe them?”
Olivia looked at Maxie, as if for confirmation.
I turned and walked toward the exit. My muscles ached from being still for so long. It felt like a terrible end to an unsatisfying mystery.
“There is something in that hatch,” I said to Maxie and Olivia when we met at the exit.
They stared at me, their faces lit by the streetlight above us.
“We are going to look for it. I don’t care what the feds said.”
Maxie held up a bag. “I asked Nord’s to make the fries extra crispy.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking it from her. “The bag is cold.”
“I bought it a while ago.”
“HEY!” a man shouted from the junkyard.
“RUN!” Maxie hissed.