Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Batchelder Letters


Table of Contents

1. A brief introduction to our characters
In which Madie sets her trap, territory is defended and sparks fly.
2. Callie’s discovery
In which the attic is explored, nests are formed and Rosie organizes the stack.
3. Sam’s discovery
In which Ben and Sam dig and Uncle Richard comes bearing small appliances.
4. Bredon’s workshop
In which his girl Friday and her boy Tuesday make office play sing.
5. The Tuna Fleet’s lower quarters
In which Eric enters the fray and an evidentiary workshop is established.
6. Ben and Sam lookouts
In which cemetery scouts compile cryptic clues.
7. Traveling magic show
In which routes are mapped and the clock and radio man sounds the alarm.
8. Business adventures
In which a bike contest is won, sort of.
9. The popcorn lady
In which Nutmeg has her shining hour.
10. The mystery unfolds
In which the truth is revealed.

Dearest family,
To prevent any amendments (though if urgent they will be considered) please know that all the facts and chronology herein are jumbled. Only with characters did I adhere to anything close to the truth. This little mystery is an excuse for an extended reminiscence of my particular golden age, when you guys were growing up. I know that may be putting too bright a spin on it but even Greece in 500 BCE was not all sweetness and light, remember those trifles with Xerxes?

The Batchelder Letters

Royal Order of Jesters,
Rockford, Illinois
Dear Jester John,
Enclosed you will find your 1932 card, in return please send the ten spot pronto.
Yours in the faith.
Bill E. Chapman

Chapter One: A brief introduction to our characters

Madie twisted the paper covered wire one more time, three; that was just right, the length of it seemed suited to that number and the strength of it was sufficient for her purposes. She stepped back and eyed her creation. The set of connected rubber bands that Madie had fashioned into an intricate Chinese jump rope were fastened to the door knob on one end and were connected to four paperclips on the other. The paper clip wires were firm and taut. Madeleine fingered them one more time to be sure that their connections were at the right angle. They were attached to a series of cereal boxes lying on the floor, with holes that were reinforced by her rapidly diminishing supply of scotch tape. The boxes were left over from a project she had inherited from her younger brother, for him they had been the caboose of a train. Their size variance had bothered him so he left them abandoned for another time. The fact that they had been connected for the purposes of being a train car made them perfect for Madie’s project. They had a cotton string running through their centers which made them easily attachable and even better, reticulated. Madie stepped forward and pulled the string tight and grinned at the box train’s satisfying spin. She took the string’s free end and connected it to her new twist tie loop. That finished, Madeleine briefly considered wiring it up. Her dad had helped her experiment with a potato battery last week and she could perhaps rig up a buzzer or alarm of some sort if she could remove the door bell, no one rang it anyway. She shook her head at the new complication, dismissing it for the more immediate pleasure of catching someone before lunch. She folded her legs in front of her and clasped them with her arms and placed her chin upon her knees. She rested her eyes on her configuration and waited.
It had been a long morning; Mom was reading the boring parts of the Count of Monte Cristo, the ones that had to do with Napoleon. It was all too dry except of course for the secret letters. And in history they were in the early middle ages, Rome had petered out and Charlemagne hadn’t come in yet. Why even learn that? Five hundred to eight hundred was just a blip on history’s radar. This was her second time around with this stuff anyway. Her math lesson went pretty fast, she knew that Rosie had done only every other problem, Madeleine wondered if she would get caught this time. Probably not, Mom really only looked closely at the tests and Rosie never did too badly on those. The stack had seemed high and wide that morning and Madie had plowed through it diligently, waiting to come in here and try her experiment out. All she needed now was someone who wanted to come in the door. Madeleine contemplated her outrageous number of siblings and bent her ears for any sound of them. There they were; the pounding of feet, it sounded like four people coming up the stairs. It could be Ben, Sam, Bredon and Callie all at once or Gwen or Rosie. Nope, just Gwen. Madeleine shut her eyes and prayed that she wouldn’t want to come in this room. Go around to your own room Gwen, Madeleine whispered these wishes to herself and closed her eyes tight. Oh good, the pounding footsteps went by at a dead run and a door slammed. Gwen went into her own room across the hall. Safe for now, let someone else come! Madeleine curled herself up into a tight ball in anticipation. She hoped that it would be Callie or Rosie or maybe Bredon. Callie and Bredon would react somewhat calmly and Rosie, well it would just be fun to see what happened there. Madie shook her head and wondered why. Rosie would probably leap over the whole thing anyway and just make a great arc in the air and land on her bed. It was never the same how she entered the room, it was impossible to predict if her trap would work with her. Madie glanced around the room. Three beds, all unmade, the quilts were heavy, it was a cool late spring and the heat was turned low at night. She frowned and thought the unthinkable. What if it were mom? That was pretty unlikely; she didn’t usually come up at this time of day. Those unmade beds would bother her, that’s for sure. And if Mom fell into the trap. Madie shook her head, if that happened the worst would probably be that her vocabulary might be enriched. Falling down was one thing, the unmade beds were another, the consequences there could be more serious than a few new colorful words. Madie got up and got busy.
After the beds were properly arranged Madie laid down on the floor in the center of the room, propped her chin in her upraised hands and again stared at the door. Ah, there they were, irregular footsteps, they almost seemed to be dancing up the stairs with an offbeat rhythm, and then they ceased altogether in the middle of the landing followed by a thud. They had to belong to Ben, too heavy for Sam and too light for anyone else. Madeleine looked at her door one more time and nodded, nothing would actually hurt him, at least not too much. She held her breath, of course he would come in here, he always did if he thought no one was in here.
Ben walked up the steps, he tried to make it every third one but it was just a little too much of a gap and his success rate was spotty. He stopped on the first landing and looked up. If he held his hands straight out and pushed with his fingertips on the wall and grasped the rail with his other he might be able to launch up five steps, a new record. Way better than Sam. Ben flicked his shoes off and left them where they fell and got positioned. He flung himself pendulum style up the staircase and lost his feeble grip on the wall and fell. Ben sat on the step and lifted his foot close to his face for inspection, he flexed it once or twice, it seemed fine. He bounced back up and continued up the stairs one at a time. The door opposite the steps was Madie, Rosie and Callie’s, it was shut tight. Ben eyed it and made his decision instantly; he pushed at the knob quietly and looked up and down the hall to make sure that he was unobserved. With a twist of his wrist he was in; because of his ankle he stepped gingerly and the rubber band jump rope snapped. catching both of his legs and landing him in a heap.
“Owww!” The bellow that he had suppressed on the stairs came out in wounded rage; all attempts at stealth were flung aside to vent the pain that coursed through him. Well, Ben stopped and assessed a moment, maybe not pain but it could have been. His dignity was injured and he felt it keenly. Was that his train he saw on the floor in front of him? He resumed his shout but at a significantly lower pitch. Madeleine kept her chin firmly grasped in her hands and watched Ben calmly. She knew each variation of Ben’s bellows intimately and was certain that his spirit suffered but that his body remained intact. Her trap had sprung perfectly. When the door had opened the tension was built up just enough in the wires to be prepared to catch the invader’s shins. Ben was wound up securely in her string of paper clips, rubber bands, cereal boxes and twist ties and now he was at her mercy, snared and ready to be examined. Madeleine got up calmly and circled her entangled brother. His hands were free, only his legs were snarled; the Chinese jump rope was doing all of the work twisted as it was over his lower legs. Madie made a few mental notations for improvement, the clips should have had a link or two less and the ties needed four twists not three, Ben was light if it had been anyone larger it might not have held.
“Ben, you didn’t knock.” Madeleine looked at him sorrowfully and Ben instantly felt as if this was the logical consequence the world sprang upon non-knockers.
Ben hoisted himself awkwardly into a sitting position, sniffed back his remaining tears and began to work on his enmeshed shins.
“Its okay Ben, I got it. Sorry if this hurt you.” Madie pulled at the one paper clip attached to the connected rubber bands and released Ben with a flick of her wrist.
The clanking of a bell sounded from below the stairs.
“Lunch time.” Ben sniffed and looked up at Madie while she took his hand and pulled him up beside her, she reached out and placed her thumbs under his eyes and swiped them gently across his damp cheeks. “You’ll be okay Ben.” With that vague reassurance she again took his hand and led him down the stairs, a rhythmic three at a time.
Gwenny hated it when she had to dry and put away the dishes. It wasn’t that she minded the work, she didn’t like it but that didn’t mean she resented it. What really got her was the fact that Bredon was washing and rinsing. Each plate and glass, spoon, fork and knife were individually wiped and carefully inspected for traces of remaining dinner. He had filled the rinsing sink with extremely hot water and dropped each soapy implement in and watched as it sank or swam. For Bredon dishes were not a practical matter to be run through to the next much more exciting item on the evening’s docket, for him the job was a fascinating experiment in displacement, soap bubble patterns, surface tension and floatation. Now Gwen could understand that fascination certainly but they were his dishes not hers and somehow that fact diminished their allure. Gwen had tried to get him to switch with her tonight but he liked washing and it was his night. Gwen gritted her teeth and looked out the window. The apple tree was full, not of fruit it was late May, it was full of Rosie, Callie and Madeleine. Gwen looked down and nodded her head. There were Ben and Sam dragging boxes, a little flimsy for her taste, she made a note to herself to go to the dumpster next door and rustle up some new ones for them. They were moving them to the base of the occupied tree. They hadn’t quite generated the height to get to the first cross branch and needed help. The boxes were pushed away and replaced by the hour, a cardboard Maginot line. They never disappeared completely, they remained as a continual reminder of Ben and Sam’s possible encroachment upon the upper reaches of the apple tree. Gwen glanced up into the branches, was that Rosie in her spot? Gwen squinted through the water splashed glass, it had to be her. Gwen saw a rustle and then leaves with tiny green fruit attached raining artfully around Sam’s little blonde head. Gwen noted the immature fruit’s velocity and heft and the obvious avoidance of its target. It was okay, just a little reminder, nothing serious. Sam put his hands on his hips and looked up at the branches and saw no particular perpetrator just the usual three sisters lolling in their chosen boughs. He glanced at the ground and picked up the tiny fruit before him and took an experimental bite. After contemplating the taste he popped the marble sized object in his mouth and swallowed it down. Gwen felt a sudden urgency to get out there and regain her branch. She had a lot of material for bribery in her closet under lock and key and Rosie was perpetually hungry. Gwen thought about whether it would be possible to saw off some judiciously chosen branches below hers to make her eyrie more insurmountable, she shook her head. Perhaps she could just get higher but she knew it wouldn’t work. Rosie would just figure out a way to get around that. Gwen’s reading hidey holes were disappearing, the attic would be too hot in the summer, Dad was building something near the tubs in the basement and the top of the washer was out for the season, Mom did a lot more laundry in the summer. That branch was vital. She would need chocolate, it was the only thing. Gwen squeezed her eyes shut and grabbed the final batch of silver from the boiling hot rinse water. Bredon only had to drop it not retrieve. She grasped the implements, swiped them once as a fisted group with her rag and quickly shuffled them into their respective places in the drawer and slammed it shut allowing the bang to serve as punctuation for a job finished and cast aside.
Rosie sat upright in her bed; she had two new Nestle’s Crunch bars artfully arranged before her. She would have to abandon her newly conquered limb, but there was another, better one in the plum tree nearby and it reached even closer to Knodle’s roof. It would be dangerous, the tree was old and brittle and might not stand up to her weight. If she wound all the stashed, ripped scarves around her elbows, knees and backside and wore the old hockey helmet she might be able to withstand a fall. She needed to remember to protect her face though; perhaps she could cut a couple of holes in a torn pair of tights for her eyes and shove it on. It was one thing that was absolutely sure to get her in trouble, if she came up with a cut or scrape anywhere from forehead to chin. She glanced to her right; Madie had constructed a tent with her quilt and was burrowed deep inside with a flashlight, Chocolate Ears, Snowball and a book. She could hear a quiet murmuring, Madie was reading to herself out loud again. Rosie saw Madie’s hand creep out of the makeshift tent to her bedside table and the seemingly disembodied thing fished around for its object. There it was, her fingers found their aim, a pencil. Madie was going to put it between her teeth to help her to remember not to mouth the words as she read. Yes, after the retrieval there was silence from under the covers. Rosie looked to her left, Callie was splayed out under her covers sound asleep. No, there was a single line being drawn under Callie’s covers, a long straight knee to neck peak, the blanket’s temporary continental divide. Rosie turned and Callie nudged her in the side.
“Rosie, this is cool.” Callie whispered. “If you do it just right, not too hard, you can make sparks, small ones under the blanket. Yeah, yours is like mine, the same stuff.” Callie reached out and fingered Rosie’s blanket. “It’s like little lightning bolts.” Callie kept her head under the covers and murmured her instructions. “Barely touch the blanket with your finger tips, you have to almost not do it.”
Rosie tried the gentle pressure that her sister demonstrated. She couldn’t do it, it was a magical thing that Callie alone could conduct. Her hands felt damp and a little cold so she popped her head under Callie’s blanket, perched her chin on her sister’s shoulder, watched her tiny storm and drifted off to sleep.