The Mystery of the missing books
The local library was a wooden structure on the edge of town, which had served as the town’s drinking hall during the boom days of the colonial times. That was when the town had been a thriving center of trade between the islands around the mainland. It boasted of a schoolhouse, a Church, a government building, a City Hall, and a flourishing marketplace, with the attached bar and saloon. Nestled along the shores of the river, mountains and forests surrounded the town. The foothills of the mountain range, where the vast river originated, were coveted for coal and stone mining. Extraction and exploitation of resources were not an environmental issue in those colonial days. No one ever gave any thought to the destruction of the ecosystem that provided water to surrounding areas.
Since the end of colonialism, the town had fallen into disrepute. Most of the residents left in search of better opportunities elsewhere, leaving the current population numbering under one thousand. The government building, once standing proud in its colonial glory, now hung limply in the center square, its unpainted walls crumbling and untended. The Church boasted a single pastor who tried his utmost but had somehow lost most of his flock. The schoolhouse remained, but only because a few of the town’s parents insisted their children needed somewhere to go during the day. It was only because of a few families banding together to insist with the local council that the school’s teachers be properly trained, that a schoolhouse even existed. They also lobbied for and got a functioning library, although most parents weren’t particularly endowed with an urge for the written word. Were it not for the push from the school principal, there would have been no library.
No one could ever describe the town’s population as being enlightened into the twenty-first century, but they were relatively content to go their unsophisticated way. Most of the townsfolk were families of fishermen and mineworkers. Some ran the small clothing and novelty stores on Main Street. Few residents opted to work at the town council. The sheriff’s office had an attending officer summoned in from the mainland when needed. Crime was not a common happenstance in the town. Since independence, many of the houses had become rundown, most of them mere shuttered structures, their wood devoured by termites. Overall, most would describe the town as forgotten by the rest of the world. The one commodity that wasn’t lacking, however, was internet broadband.
On one Wednesday evening, message alerts lit up four cell phones. Maya was in the kitchen helping with dinner when she heard the ping. She picked up her phone.
“Maya-Arlina Josef, those potatoes will not scrub themselves,” said her mother sternly. “If you don’t put that phone down and get them done, you will have all the time you want to play with that thing when I send you to your room hungry. You hear me?”
When her mother used her full given name, Maya knew that any ensuing threats would not be idle ones. She scraped and scrubbed more vigorously, glancing surreptitiously at the screen on her phone as she did so.
“Meeting twenty-thirty loc lib.”
Maya frowned. Johnny, the leader of their group of four, was calling a meeting. This was unusual. Not the use of the twenty-four-hour clock, thought Maya with a smirk, knowing that Johnny liked to show off his use of technical terminology to impress them. Summoning them to a meeting at night was unusual. 8:30 that night. Maya glanced at the wall clock. It was already 6:30. Thankfully, Maya’s mother was going to be out at a Church meeting that evening so she could slip out after making sure her younger siblings were asleep before she left.
A few minutes after the scheduled time, Maya ran up the stairs of the local library and headed to the back, where Johnny had found the unused utility room where they could meet in secret. Paul, Lisa and Johnny, the other members of the foursome, were already there. Maya hesitated upon seeing Miss Haston, the local librarian, standing in the center of the room.
“Sorry I’m late. Maisie wouldn’t go down until read to her,” Maya panted, referring to her younger sister. She kept darting questioning glances at Miss Haston.
“Okay, now that you’re here, we can start.” Johnny looked around the four eager faces of his classmates and nodded. Maya often thought that Johnny was over the top and so dramatic. But, just as often, he proved himself right. Besides, she was proud to belong to this group, started by Johnny, where they acted as teenage sleuths, often forestalling minor disasters that befell their small town. “Well, you’ve all heard about the book consignments that have been mysteriously disappearing,” continued Johnny in his most fiery tone.
They all nodded, looking at Miss Haston. She nodded at Johnny. “Children, I have only agreed to come here because Johnny assures me you might help to shed some light on the matter. However, I’m not sure I’m comfortable exposing you kids to any danger.”
They said nothing. Miss Haston continued. “I need to know if your parents have noticed anything in the town that is suspicious. Any information you can bring me is all that I require from you.”
The four teens shrugged. Miss Haston continued. “Merchant Briggs has purchased the land adjoining the library, and the rumor is that he is looking for more acreage, which would include the library.”
The teens looked at each other. What had that got to do with anything? Miss Haston continued. “All I need from you is any information your fathers might have mentioned about strange happenings on the docks. You must not involve yourselves in anything other than information. This is a dangerous situation and I do not wish to be responsible for your safety.”
She looked at the group. All nodded, except Johnny. Miss Haston seemed not to have noticed. She continued. “Your fathers all ply the barges to the mainland. If they mention anything out of the ordinary, please come to me. I will handle the rest. Is that clear?”
They all nodded, except Johnny.
Miss Haston took her leave, and Johnny continued the meeting, using his most big-boy voice.
“So, my mom was at a town council meeting, and she learned that Miss Haston was going to be fired. They are blaming her for the undelivered consignments.”
“Why would they blame her?” asked Paul.
“Surely, they don’t think she’s behind the missing consignments?” queried Lisa.
Again, Johnny shrugged, looking at Maya, who really had nothing to add. She shrugged.
“Whatever the reason, they’re blaming her,” said Johnny. “We’ve got to find out where the consignments are so we can save Miss Haston.”
“How do we do that?” asked Maya skeptically. “Where do we even start looking?”
“I know that the book consignments come on the hopper barges from the mainland on Thursdays. We can keep a lookout and find out what happens after they’re unloaded. We watch the docks when the barges come in.”
Maya shook her head. “No, Johnny,” she said worriedly. “Miss Haston was clear that all she needed was information. She insisted that we were not to get involved.”
Johnny glared at her. “Maya, the reason we founded the “Fearless Four” was to save our town. This is what we do.”
“But Johnny…” Maya started.
Johnny cut her off. “If you’re not in, say so!”
Maya bit her lip. She didn’t like it, but she wasn’t about to wimp out on them. “Yes, I’m in.”
“Ok, then. Tomorrow is Thursday. We meet at the docks, behind the ridge of hills. O-Five-Hundred.”
“Why doesn’t he just talk like everybody else?” Maya muttered impatiently, earning herself a nudge in the ribs from Lisa.
They continued to discuss the situation, with Johnny leading the discussion. “If this concerns the Briggs’ it has probably to do with the mining. We must stop them. My Dad is on the Eco Council and there is a big problem in our town with land excavation. The mining has gone out of hand.”
“What can we do about mining?” asked Paul reasonably. “We are only kids, after all.”
“Yes, we are,” agreed Lisa, who was the most clearheaded of the group. She turned to Johnny. “There’s really not a whole lot we can do, Johnny.”
“We’ve got to try,” responded their fearless leader. “Fearless Four, remember? We must be responsible for our environment, mustn’t we? Besides, if we don’t find out what’s going on, Miss Haston loses her job, and we lose our library.”
They dispersed soon after, their misgivings assuaged somewhat by Johnny’s common-sense bravado.
At four-forty-five the next morning, before the sun began its ascent into the sky, four windows along Forest Crescent creaked upward as the four teens climbed over the sills and dropped to the ground. They met behind a clump of trees in the woods that lined the waterfront, almost a hundred and fifty yards from the docks and the water’s edge. From their hiding place, they would have a clear view of the arriving barges and fishing trawlers when dawn finally broke.
“Dock 3A, Pier 4,” whispered Johnny, a pair of binoculars trained towards the incoming traffic along the waterway.
“What about it?” asked Paul, who couldn’t see for the surrounding darkness.
“It’s carrying four large cartons that I recognize as the book consignments,” responded Johnny.
“How do you know what they are?” asked Maya.
“I’ve seen the empty boxes in the blue bins on garbage pickup,” said Johnny with certainty.
Dawn was finally breaking through the mountains, and they could now discern the barges coming in with their cargoes. The barge captain pulled alongside dock 3A. A group of men began to unload the cargo. As they watched, a lone figure, a cap pulled down over his head and covered in a black plastic cape, approached the docks and the unloading crew. The four teens watched as the leader of the unloading crew stopped to address the lone figure.
“He’s handing an envelope to the crew boss,” muttered Johnny, the binoculars stilled trained on the docks.
“What’s in the envelope?” asked Paul.
“I don’t know,” responded Johnny. “But he’s pointing to the book cartons. This is very suspicious.”
“Perhaps we should get Miss Haston,” stated Maya.
“We don’t have time,” responded Johnny. “It looks like they’re unloading now.”
Half an hour later, the four cartons were unloaded and carried to a black SUV parked behind a line of trees, hidden from the dock house.
The four teens scrambled down and got on their bikes, following the receding SUV, pumping the pedals as fast as their legs would allow.
“Follow me, I know a shortcut,” shouted Johnny suddenly.
“How do you know where they’re going?” asked Lisa, breathless from the exertion.
“I’ll take a guess,” responded Johnny. “The Briggs’ farm is on the outskirts of town.”
They continued to pedal. Passing the deserted residential streets, they skirted the promenade around the center of town, and headed out towards the opposite edge of the island. In the distance, they could see the SUV and they realized Johnny was right. The SUV was heading to the farm.
When they reached the metal fence around the property, they left their cycles in the surrounding woods and crept towards the barn where the SUV was parked.
A lone figure, whom they recognized at Lonnie Briggs, the eldest son of Farmer Briggs, was hefting the cartons, one at a time, into the barn. The teens waited until he left and then crept towards the door. They peeped through a dirt encrusted window.
“Those are the missing book consignments,” cried Johnny excitedly. “We’ve got to get them out!”
“Are you crazy?” responded Maya and Lisa together. “How do you propose we do that? On our bikes? There are about twelve large boxes in there!”
“What do you suppose they’re going to do with them?” asked Paul.
“Burn them!” exclaimed Johnny with conviction. “They know if they get caught with those books, they’ll be in a shit-load of trouble.”
“Still doesn’t mean we can get them out of there on our own.”
“You’re right,” conceded Johnny reluctantly. “Lisa and Maya, you two go back and find Miss Haston. Tell her what we’ve found out.”
“What will you do?” asked Maya.
“Paul and I will keep watch here and make sure nothing happens to the books.”
“How will you stop them?” asked Lisa reasonably.
“I don’t know,” responded Johnny. “We’ll figure something out. Now go!”
Maya and Lisa cycled back into town and headed straight for the library, where they found Miss Haston. They quickly explained what they had found.
Miss Haston called in the out-of-town sheriff before gathering up a couple of teachers from the schoolhouse. Together, they headed to the Briggs farm.
Luckily, they were in time to stop the destruction of the books. Miss Haston was right. Farmer Briggs wanted the property to enhance his stone mining business, from which he stood to profit considerably. In foiling his plans, the Fearless Four saved the town from a possible environmental disaster that would have been a certainty with the stone mining that Merchant Briggs was intending.
Miss Haston was effusive in her gratitude to the Fearless Four, nominating them for medals of bravery for their part in saving the library.