Chapter One: Buried in the pit
Oscar Santiago gazed up at the swirling storm clouds.
Thunder rumbled over the town of Metroville. Oscar felt the aftershocks as they shivered through the tires of his scooter and shook its handlebars. Lightning flashed like a gigantic lightbulb flickering in a gigantic socket. No rain had fallen on the deserted construction site, but Oscar felt the air around him dense with moisture from the nearby Gulf.
"Let's go before the storm hits," he yelled to his friends.
"One more time!" Lily Blue shouted. She balanced on her black-and-gold Stingray scooter at the top of a mountain of loose dirt. Max Martin, his blond hair flashing white in the lightning, stood behind her.
"Go! Go! Go!" urged Max.
Lily's Stingray perched at the end of a wooden plank that the three of them had found in another comer of the construction site and placed on the dirt as a jumping-off ramp. Lily looked back at Max and smiled. Then she gripped the handlebars of her scooter, lowered her head, and kicked off with all her might. She leaped off the end of the plank and into space.
Lily felt the blood race to her head. Wind ripped past her. Lighting flashed and showed the floor of the construction pit rushing up to meet her. With a scream and a grunt she landed at the foot of the mountain in a soft slope of dirt.
"Touchdown!" Lily yelled.
"This place might be a parking ramp next year," said Max. "But for now it's an airstrip!"
The three friends had visited the construction site for the past three nights, after the construction workers had gone home. They took turns flying off the top of the dirt mountain, practicing flips and 360-degree spins. The touchdown site was a smaller mound of dirt at the foot of the mountain. It was the softest spot in the site. With each landing, their scooter tires and sneakers dug deeper and deeper into the soft soil.
Lily hurled herself backward off her black-and-gold Stingray, spread her arms wide, and plopped in the dirt.
"What's wrong?" asked Oscar.
Lily looked behind her. "I think I landed on something."
Oscar quickly waved to Max at the top of the mountain. "Don't jump," he yelled. "There's something in the dirt."
Max waved in response and swiftly reversed his scooter, zigzagging down the back side of the mountain. At the bottom he whizzed past stacks of lumber and barrels of paint to reach the landing site on the other side. He pulled his silver scooter alongside Oscar's new electric-blue Vortex Racer.
Oscar had bought the new set of wheels with reward money that the three friends won for uncovering stolen University property. Lily had bought a new terrarium for Speck, her pet chameleon. Speck was awarded a three-month supply of gourmet chameleon food, a tray full of hopping crickets. Max's Hurricane scooter was outfitted with chromium rearview mirrors and a mileage meter. Their united spywork had nabbed a clever thief and solved an impossible disappearance.
"What's in there?" asked Max.
Lily was burrowing in the dirt. "Looks like a box or something," she said.
"A treasure chest!" said Max.
"In the middle of Metroville? There aren't any pirates around here." Oscar looked up at the storm clouds. "Uh-oh, a raindrop."
Max joined Lily, scooping handfuls of dirt away from the buried object.
"They used to be here," said Max. "Pirates, I mean. In the Gulf and Caribbean. My dad told me all about them. Maybe a hundred years ago a pirate ship sailed up the Mixaloopi to bury this stuff."
"Gold coins?" asked Lily.
"Diamonds?" asked Oscar.
"Yeah, which means tickets to the Gulfstream National Scooter Speed-a-thon," said Max.
The three spies scooped with renewed energy. An edge of the trunk angled out of the dirt, its metal corners gleaming like silver in the lightning.
"It is a chest!" exclaimed Max.
"It's a cooler," said Oscar.
"No," said Lily, wiping grime from the surface of the trunk. "Look at the fancy painting." The profile of a golden dog with fierce red eyes and pointed ears gleamed on the lid. She traced her finger along golden letters printed below the dog. Property of Memnon the Magnificent. "This is an old steamer trunk," she said.
"Pirates sailed on steamships?" asked Oscar.
Lily shook her head. "Not pirates, passengers. People who traveled on big ships like the Titanic used these instead of suitcases."
"So this is somebody's underwear?" asked Max.
Oscar laughed. "Yeah, Mr. Memnon's magnificent boxers."
"I think it's locked," said Lily. "Help me pull it all the way out."
The two boys grabbed the thick leather strap on the side of the trunk and tugged. Lily bent her weight and shoved against the side. "Just a...little...more," she grunted.
Oscar felt a drip again. A raindrop bounced off Lily's head.
Max blinked a bead of water off his lashes. "Here it comes!" he yelled.
Rain struck the construction site like an all-out missile attack. Within seconds, the large mountain of dirt became a melting mound of mud. Muck slid like cool lava into the touchdown site.
"Pull it out!" shouted Lily.
The three spies yanked and pushed the steamer trunk away from the muddy avalanche. Their clothes were dripping wet. Their sneakers sank into the oozy ground. Raindrops beat against the top of the trunk and drummed in their ears.
They dragged the trunk away from the touchdown site and onto a low pile of gravel. "It should be safe here," said Oscar.
Lily's face suddenly went white. "I forgot my scooter!"
She spun around and saw the handlebars of her black-and-gold Stingray slowly sink into a mud-hole at the foot of the melting mountain. Lily ran back and waded into the muck. Mud oozed up her thighs. Max and Oscar waded in behind her. She reached out and gripped the handlebars.
"They're stuck," she said.
Oscar and Max each grabbed a handlebar and pulled.
"This is harder than the trunk," grunted Max.
"Better hurry," warned Oscar, pointing up the side of the muddy slope. A thick slice of the mountain, a vast chocolate avalanche, was sliding toward them.
"We'll be buried alive!" shouted Max.
"Not before I find out what's in that trunk," said Lily.
With one terrific pull, they freed the sinking scooter. Lily held it over her head, the mud level with her waist. The three spies held on to each other, slipping and sinking in the muck, as they half-crawled, half-ran back toward the steamer trunk.
When they reached the gravel, Oscar looked behind him. The descending wall of mud had picked up speed, slamming into the touchdown site.
"We could have ended up like the dinosaurs," said Oscar.
"Dang! I lost my shoe!" wailed Max.
"One good thing about this rain," said Lily. "It'll clean the mud off our clothes."
"What about the trunk?" asked Oscar. "We can't leave it here."
Max untied his remaining shoe and peeled off his dripping socks. He squirmed his toes into the wet gravel. "Let's take it to my house," he said.
"What will your dad say?" Lily asked.
"Nothing," replied Max. "We'll hide it in the shed. It's not like we're stealing it. We're investigating, finding out who this Memnon guy is."
"Tomorrow morning, we can try to open it," said Oscar. "Maybe the owner's address is written inside.
"No fair opening it before then," ordered Lily.
Max saluted. "Aye-aye, Captain."
He and Oscar planted the Hurricane and Vortex scooters side by side. The steamer trunk was set lengthwise across the two scooter footboards. Lily laid her Stingray on the steamer's lid and pushed and guided from behind. The boys walked in front of their scooters, dragging the handlebars behind them.
"Mooo!" joked Max.
The three spies stood still.
"Who's there?" shouted Lily.
The only sound was the rain hitting the ground and drumming against the lid of the trunk.
"Sounded like a dog," whispered Oscar.
"More like a wolf," added Max.
They scanned the construction site through the wall of pouring rain.
"No dogs," said Oscar.
"Let's get this trunk to your place," said Lily to Max.
As they slipped under the chain hanging across the exit gates, they heard the unearthly howl again.
The boys stopped pulling the handlebars. Lily glanced around quickly. "It sounded like it's right next to us," she said.
"I still don't see any dog around," said Max, squinting into the dark.
"I do," said Oscar.
Lily shivered. "Where?"
Oscar pointed to the lid of the mysterious Memnon's trunk and to the golden profile of the pointy-eared dog.
Lily said to Max, "You still want to hide this in your shed?"
Max snorted. "Don't tell me you guys are afraid of a painting," he said.
"Come on," said Max. "Let's keep moving. I think my dad bought a new padlock for the shed door."
Copyright © 2000 by Michael Dahl