Chapter One: Thor's Mountain
Uncle Stoppard tightened his seat belt. He turned to me and said, "That's the five-thousand-foot signal."
Through the plane window I saw a vast field of greenish-blue water. We were descending over the Atlantic Ocean. I squashed my face against the clear plastic and stretched my eyeballs to get a glimpse of our destination. A brown shore of jagged jigsaw pieces was rushing toward us. Farther away the sun was rising over dark, sharp-edged mountains. Volcano country.
"You should put that away," said Uncle Stoppard. "If we have a bumpy landing, those papers will fly all over the cabin."
He was referring to my journal. Ever since we took off from the Minneapolis airport, six hours ago, I had held the journal on my lap. It was my dad's idea. Like father, like Finn, says Uncle Stop.
Last year I had discovered my dad's journal in Uncle Stoppard's storage room in the basement. It had been sitting down there for the past eight years, ever since Mom and Dad had dropped me off with Uncle Stop before they flew to Iceland, hunting for the Haunted City of Tquuli. You say it too-cool-ee. Maybe you read about my parents' expedition; it was written up in Peephole magazine. Legends say that Tquuli is the site of a lost Viking colony hidden somewhere in the mountains of Iceland. On the slope of one of those mountains, the Thorsfell, my parents' footprints ended abruptly in a field of new snow. Just ended! When I first started living with Uncle Stoppard, I would think about those footprints and my parents all the time. Now I only think about them every day.
My parents went searching for Tquuli because they were archeologists. I mean, are archeologists. I mean, both. Both are both. They're considered legally dead since they've been missing so long, but they're still alive. Don't ask me how I know, I just know.
Dad kept a detailed record in his journal of the archeological digs he and my mom worked on around the world. I thought it would be a good idea to keep my own record of everything that happens to me and Uncle Stoppard in Iceland. So far my journal has maps of Iceland, articles from newspapers about mountain climbing, copied sections of library books on footprints, fingerprints, and physical evidence. The Peephole magazine article about the Zwake-Tquuli expedition is taped to the front three pages. I practically have it memorized. The most important (and weirdest) paragraphs come near the end of the article:
Two weeks after radio contact had failed for the fifth time, a second expedition was launched. Its mission was to discover not Tquuli, but the missing Zwake party, and time was of the essence. Winter had arrived in the north Atlantic, dropping the temperatures well below zero. Expert trackers from Reykjavik and Myvatn retraced Anna and Leon Zwake's route up the sloping side of Thor's Mountain. Luckily, no rain or snow had fallen since the Americans had last radioed their friends from the famous volcano cone....
A black-and-white photo shows the extinct volcano Thorsfell, Thor's Mountain: a massive black triangle with snow covering the upper half. Thor was the ancient god of thunder and lightning. In the comics he has long blond hair and looks like a member of the World Wrestling Federation. The ancient Icelanders thought Thor lived inside the mountain since the volcano flashed and rumbled like a thunderstorm. A caption below the photo says: Thorsfell, the Fujiyama of the Vikings. Fujiyama is a famous mountain in Japan. I guess the two mountains look alike.
The next paragraphs still spook me when I read them:
...On the third day of the expedition, the Icelandic trackers found the Zwake camp. Tents were empty, but there was no sign of panic or trouble. Sleeping bags were neatly laid out. Food sat abandoned on cold, tin dinner plates. A man's pipe was found tipped on its side, resting on a small camping table, as if it shortly expected its owner to return. No sign of the American archeologists anywhere.
Except for a pair of footprints in the snow.
The footprints, the only ones found at the site, are believed to have belonged to the Zwakes since they begin at their tent. The prints then leave the site, heading up the steep slope in a straight line. As the prints approach the base of a flat, smooth cliff wall, known locally as Thor's Navel, they vanish. There are no other prints nearby, nor any disturbances in the smooth, month-old snow. The trackers said it looked as if the Zwakes had been lifted up into the air.
No explanation exists for the bizarre disappearance of Anna and Leon Zwake. Or for the disappearance of the other four members of their party. The Zwake Tquuli Expedition will be listed in future history books along with the unknown fates of Amelia Earhart, D. B. Cooper, and the crew of the Marie Celeste.
Lifted up into the air. Helicopters? UFOs? In a few days I'd be standing and staring at Thor's Navel with my own eyes. Not a photo, but the real deal. I could check out for myself what had happened on that snowy slope, solve the riddle of my parents' bizarre disappearance.
Minneapolis is one of the few places in the world that has nonstop flights to Iceland. Our flight was on time and smooth, and every seat was full. I've decided that my favorite spot on the plane is the rest room. It's like sitting in your own private space capsule with a sink and toilet paper. When you flush, your ears pop. I had to check out all three of them.
The attendants were great, too. They brought me and Uncle Stoppard all the free pop we wanted. Before they served dinner, they handed us tiny hot towels rolled up tight like eggrolls. I used mine to wipe the smudges off the little plastic window next to my seat.
"The towels are for your face," Uncle Stoppard whispered.
"I already washed my face three times," I whispered back.
After writing in my journal about the rest rooms, the windows, and the boring magazines, I nodded off for a few hours, half thinking, half dreaming. Peephole had featured photos of the four scientists who worked (and disappeared) with my parents. Their black-and-white faces bobbed in my brain like the ice cubes in my soda-pop glass. I could hear their clinking Icelandic names: Gunnar Gunnarson, Helga Johansdottir, Hallur Bjorklund, Hrolf Magnusson. Johansdottir sounded like "John's daughter." Minnesota was crammed full of Johnsons and Andersons and Carlsons. No Carlsdaughters.
Uncle Stoppard spent an hour up in the cockpit. American airlines don't allow passengers into the cockpit, but Icelandic planes do, so Uncle Stoppard finally got to ask a real live pilot some questions he had about flying. He's working on a new mystery -- that's what Uncle Stoppard does, writes mysteries -- called Dead Air. The whole story takes place inside an airplane during its flight. His villain stuffs a dead body into a carry-on bag and shoves it into an overhead compartment. Throughout our flight, I noticed Uncle Stoppard's cucumber-green eyes darting up at the compartments above our seats. Whenever he did, I would say, "How tall are you again, Uncle Stoppard? Six one, six two?"
"Don't worry, Finn. I'm not going to climb inside them."
He'd better make his dead body a short one.
An elderly woman wearing a fuzzy pink sweater and a cowboy hat left her seat, tapped Uncle Stoppard's shoulder, and asked for his autograph. She happened to be carrying a paperback edition of his best-selling thriller, Into My Grave.
"Is this your charming son?" she asked.
"Uh, no, this is my nephew," said Uncle Stoppard.
Why don't people who buy books read them? My name is right there on the inside back cover of her book. You can't miss it. Uncle Stoppard's photo (which I took in our apartment) accompanies my name in the blurb. It reads:
Stoppard Sterling is the author of five previous mysteries, including Cold Feet, Cold on the Carpet, Cold Shoulders, Cold Cuts, and Sneezing and Coffin. Mr. Sterling is a two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Mystery, and received the Ruby Raven award for Into My Grave for World's Greatest Mystery Novel. He lives in Minneapolis where he is a part-time runner and full-time uncle to his nephew, Finnegan Zwake.
See? Finnegan Zwake. The last words. Uncle Stoppard says the last words in a sentence are always the most important.
I'm surprised people who meet us think I'm Uncle Stop's charming son. To look at us, you wouldn't think we were related. He's tall and muscular, I'm short and slender. He has green eyes, red hair, and a long nose (Uncle Stoppard calls it aquiline). I have light brown hair, pale skin, and freckles. Uncle Stoppard tells me I have a mochachino mop, java eyes, and a triple latte complexion with nutmeg sprinkles. Uncle Stoppard likes using big words. He also drinks a lot of coffee.
Our plane made its final approach to the runway. I looked out the window, trying to guess which one of those distant mountains was Thorsfell. Were the footprints still there? Had snow or wind over the last eight years eroded them from sight? I'll be able to find them even if no one else can see them. I know I will.
Good thing I listened to Uncle Stoppard and tucked my journal under the seat in front of me. The landing gear struck the runway with a bump, just as he had predicted. At that same moment, though, Uncle Stoppard decided to take a breath mint. The mints burst out of their box, and out of Uncle Stop's hands, like a wintergreen supernova. A few of them disappeared straight up his aquiline region. For the next few minutes I was busy picking mints off angry and startled passengers while Uncle Stoppard made weird snorting sounds into his handkerchief.
Inside the Reykjavik airport Uncle Stoppard continued to breathe out breath mints as we gathered our luggage off a conveyor belt and headed for the main doors. Luckily, our expedition supplies had been shipped ahead last month, right before school ended for the summer, and were stored at our hotel. We only had a few bags to carry through the lobby.
Before we reached the doors, however, a tall man in a blue suit approached us. "Mr. Stoppard Sterling?" he asked.
Great, I thought. Another fan wanting an autograph, slowing us down.
Uncle Stoppard adjusted his shoulder bag. "Yes," he said. "May I help you?"
The tall man noticed my purple sweatshirt. "Ah, Minnesota Vikings," he said, chuckling. "If you like real Vikings, you've come to the right place."
The man looked like a big-time actor in Hollywood. You know, one who plays either the good guy or the president. His thick, caramel-brown hair was the same color as his suntan. He had crinkles around his eyes, a nose like Uncle Stoppard's (but not nearly as minty fresh), and lots of perfect white teeth.
He had a strong handshake, too.
"I'm Ruben Roobick," said the man.
"Of Roobick's Cubes?" I said.
The man's eyebrows shot up. "You've heard of me." Who hasn't heard of the famous Ruben Roobick? The Ice Cube King. His blue Roobick's Cubes, sold in grocery stores all over America, are the best ice cubes in the world. Even pop that loses its fizz tastes better when a couple of the famous blue cubes are dropped in a glass. Our refrigerator back home has a blue Roobick's package sitting in the freezer.
"Pleased to meet you," said Uncle Stoppard.
Roobick's Cubes sponsors mountain-climbing expeditions all over the world, looking for new brands of ice for their customers. A few articles on Mr. R. and his climbing adventures were stuffed somewhere in my journal. That's probably why he was in Iceland.
"I've read all your books, Stoppard. May I call you Stoppard? But I must confess," said Mr. Roobick with a wink, "that I always figure out who the killer is before your detective does. My wife says I should write my own mystery. Maybe you can give me some tips during the next few weeks."
Uncle Stoppard looked puzzled. "Uh, next few weeks?" he said.
The Ice Cube King grinned. "We'll be seeing a lot of each other during the next two weeks. I understand you're joining my little expedition to Thor's Mountain."
Copyright © 2001 by Michael Dahl