Chapter 1: An Unlucky Beginning 1 AN UNLUCKY BEGINNING
Exactly One Week Ago
It all began the Friday before, which should have been a lucky time of year. It was only two weeks until summer break. Plus, that was the day of the seventh grade’s annual trip to Principal Stuckey’s farm. The teachers called it “Outdoor Education” and enthused about all of the biodiversity and local history their students would be able to study. However, in reality, everyone knew it was just an excuse to get out of the classroom. Whether students or teachers, everyone was exhausted from all the spring testing required to prove they’d learned something that year. Outdoor Education was the reward for not dropping dead during it.
Speaking of dropping dead, that was exactly what Amelia Miller-Poe pretended to do after she accidentally tripped getting off the bus. Well, maybe accidentally. With Amelia, you never knew. It could have been on purpose.
Anyone else would have had the sense to creep away in humiliation. Or else play it up for laughs, if they were brave enough.
“I’ve fallen!” she gasped, clutching at her throat as she collapsed onto the ground. “I think I’ve broken my neck!”
Eyes closed, curly red hair spread out across the grass, she lay there as though dead. The other kids piled up on the school bus steps, unable to get out without stepping on her. They giggled nervously, trying to figure out what they should do.
Having already gotten off the bus, Sloane stood awkwardly off to the side. Her first instinct was to go help the girl. But if she did that, Amelia would probably attach herself to Sloane for the rest of the field trip. Then Sloane might as well join the girl on the ground and let all of the seventh grade laugh at them. Hanging out with Amelia was guaranteed social death.
“What’s wrong with you people?” bellowed a girl with a big bow in her high ponytail as she elbowed her way to the bus door. Mackenzie “Mac Attack” Snyder, Sloane’s volleyball teammate and friend. Spotting Amelia on the ground, her outrage turned to a sneer. “Oh. Em. Gee. Someone killed the yeti.”
On the ground, Amelia quivered at the mention of the nickname. All of the other kids snickered as Mackenzie sprung from the bus step to jump over Amelia. She landed neatly on the other side and flounced off, snapping, “C’mon, Sloane!” The rest of the kids followed her lead, narrowly missing Amelia’s legs with their sneakers. The bus driver yelled at them to stop and be careful, but no one listened.
Sloane didn’t follow Mackenzie. Instead, she tugged at her own ponytail, hearing her mom whisper in her ear, “C’mon, Slayer Sloane. That could have been me when I was in seventh grade. If you can spike a ball to win the state volleyball tournament, you can give her a hand up.” Of course, her mom wasn’t really there. Wouldn’t be anywhere ever again. Yet Sloane knew her mom so well, she knew exactly what her mom would have said.
So, she dove forward and yanked Amelia up off the ground. “Would you just stop? Don’t act weird today, and maybe people will actually quit calling you a yeti!”
Her words came out way more harshly than Sloane had intended. In her mind, she could feel her imaginary mom wince. Sloane really had wanted to be kind. But when she got stressed, she also became pretty intense.
Amelia pulled herself free. Unlike all of the other kids in their jeans and hoodies, she wore a jean jacket and white satin dress that had to be somebody’s old communion dress or flower girl costume. “It doesn’t matter what I do. No one here is ever going to call me a slayer.”
With that, Amelia marched off. Sloane watched her go, feeling a combination of relief, frustration, and guilt.
Lots and lots of guilt, actually.
Sloane tugged again at her ponytail. Unlike Mackenzie, she didn’t keep a bow in hers. Also, unlike Mackenzie, Sloane spent a lot of time worrying that people might be able to read her mind.
Everyone thought she was scary-focused. And Sloane was.
But only because she was constantly on alert, afraid the other kids would finally figure out what a nerd she really was. Not the good kind of nerd, either. An Amelia kind of nerd.
Not today, however. No, today was all about relaxing. Every year, Principal Stuckey let the classes explore the woods, streams, and meadows of her farm. The students would collect samples of leaves and bugs. Then they’d learn about the first European settlers arriving in the area and the Native Americans who had been minding their own business and having a perfectly lovely time up until then.
That was what their teachers had planned, at least. None of the students cared too much about what they learned as they roamed over the new spring grass and under the freshly budding trees. Everyone just savored the fact that the spring weather had finally arrived, over a month late. That the rules and structure of school were tossed aside like the last of the winter’s snow. While they collected flora and fauna samples and—
“AUGH! A bee! I’ve been stung by a bee!” Once more, Amelia collapsed to the ground. “I might be allergic! I could be dying! I feel my throat swelling—”
Before Amelia could continue, one of Sloane’s other teammates/friends named Mylie held up a stick. “It was just this poking your ankle.”
Crossing her arms, Amelia scowled and harrumphed. She clearly liked her explanation better. Because a little while later…
“Look! It’s deadly nightshade! And I’ve touched it! I’m dying!”
This time it was their science teacher, Mrs. Lemons, who explained that no, that was a purple violet; deadly nightshade didn’t grow around here—you couldn’t die just from touching it, and violets looked nothing like nightshade anyhow.
“No one has any imagination,” Amelia complained.
“No one has a yeti’s imagination.” Mylie’s best friend, Kylee, laughed, looking to Mackenzie for approval.
When Mac laughed too, everyone except for Sloane joined in as well. Sloane’s imaginary mom crossed her arms in disapproval at the other kids.
Amelia went as bright red as her hair and stomped off.
Sloane again tugged anxiously at her ponytail. Realizing it, she yanked her hand away and stuck her nose up in the air. Maybe if she acted bored, everyone would follow her lead and pretend to be bored too.
Maybe if she acted bored enough, everyone would stop calling Amelia a yeti.
Maybe it would be like Sloane had never come up with the name for her in the first place. In her mind, Sloane’s mom gave her a hug. Sloane touched her own arm, wishing she could feel it for real.
The whole class hiked their way over fallen logs and through tangled vines to reach the middle of Principal Stuckey’s woods. A swampy stream flowed sluggishly between the trees. Wearing a pair of leather waders, Mrs. Lemons stood in the chilly water, waiting to show them some crayfish she’d caught. However, as she opened her mouth to begin the lesson, Amelia spoke up.
“This would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery,” she observed breathlessly. Clasping her hands together, she looked out over the glassy sheet of water with shining eyes. “Imagine a body drifting up against Mrs. Lemons’s leg like some kind of shark. Well, like a dead shark, anyhow.”
Mrs. Lemons’s eyes bugged out quite a bit. In spite of herself, she glanced nervously over her shoulder. Whether looking for a shark, a body, or some horrifying combination of the two, Sloane didn’t know.
Everyone else gaped at Amelia. And mumbled about crazy yetis. Sloane kept tugging at her ponytail until Mrs. Lemons collected herself and began the lesson on water purification. Mylie helped Kylee, and Mackenzie helped Sloane, but Amelia worked all by herself to study the murky water in the mason jars.
By the time they finished, everyone had wet shoes and cold hands. For the next activity, Sloane and Amelia’s group moved to the edge of the woods to join their English teacher, Mr. Roth, for whatever easy-as-cake assignment he was going to give them about the farm.
Little did they know it, but this assignment was about to become more trouble than a whole nest of bees, an entire forest of hemlock, and a dead shark combined.
(It would, admittedly, be slightly less trouble than being in the water with a living shark.)
Mr. Roth met them in a small, forgotten cemetery surrounded by a rusting iron fence. It must have once been out in the open fields, but these days it was half swallowed up by old trees.
They walked under an iron archway that said SAUGLING CEMETERY. Sloane wondered who the Sauglings were and how long ago they had lived here. There were little cemeteries like this tucked away all over northwest Ohio, her great-granny Nanna Tia had told Sloane and her mom. Nanna Tia said that a hundred and fifty years ago, a lot of the farm families had their own cemeteries rather than using the ones in the towns.
Which was both kinda creepy and exactly the sort of nerdy comment Sloane had enough sense to keep to herself.
“There are places like this all over,” Amelia announced to no one in particular as they all tried to find places to stand among the weeds and crooked stones. “People used to do that, you know. Have family cemeteries. Kind of like how some people still bury their pets in the backyard.”
Mackenzie, Kylee, and Mylie all gaped at Amelia in unflattering disbelief. Sloane resisted the urge to cover her face with her hands and did her best to look bored.
“Er, she’s right, actually.” Mr. Roth cleared his throat sheepishly, surprising everyone else. Next to him, Amelia smiled smugly.
Their teacher beckoned everyone toward a particularly large stone plinth. It had the name HOÄL chiseled into it, though the letters were half worn away by the years of wind, sun, and ice. One side also said JACOB, 1850–1887 while the other side read LUCRETIA, 1855–1887. Nearby, there was a stone with a fat baby on it. Sloane was pretty sure it was supposed to be a cherub, but time and the weather had worn away the wings. The faded letters on it read LUCKY, which seemed like a very bad joke to Sloane.
“We’re here in this graveyard so I can tell you a particularly tragic tale. It’s a story full of woe, mystery, death—and even explosions and missing treasure.” Mr. Roth assumed his storyteller tone.
Between the branches overhead and the clouds gathered around the sun, the temperature seemed to drop twenty degrees. Sloane shivered, hunching her shoulders and pulling the sleeves of her hoodie down over her hands.
A breeze stirred last autumn’s leaves, dead at their feet. Sloane crunched an acorn with her toe, not at all sure she was going to like this story.
“It concerns the old Hoäl house out at the end of Burr Road.” That was a big, ancient rambling mansion that someone had bought a few years ago and turned into a day spa and luxury bed-and-breakfast. It still looked creepily haunted to Sloane, but it was the sort of place adults drooled over.
Sloane’s dad had taken her mom there as a treat right after she was diagnosed with cancer. Back when everyone thought she’d get well again.
Mr. Roth continued, “It was built in 1887 by Jacob Hoäl, a self-made millionaire. Jacob was an orphan who was adopted by a farm family. He was the son of German immigrants, the Hoäls—that’s H, A, O, L, pronounced like ‘hall.’ They died soon after they arrived in Wauseon, and he was taken in by the Zimmerman family. But in those days, people didn’t adopt kids to love them and take care of them. The Zimmermans adopted Jacob so they could have someone to work for free on their farm. Jacob worked hard and was never paid for any of it. So, one day when they were just a little older than you guys, Jacob and the farmer’s son, Thomas, ran away to join the circus.”
Ugh. Circuses. Sloane wasn’t a fan. Though she supposed hanging out with creepy clowns was better than working for free for people who were mean to you. Either way, definitely not lucky.
“He became a millionaire by joining the circus?” Mackenzie interrupted skeptically. Of all of the seventh graders, Sloane suspected that Mac Attack Snyder was the most likely to someday become an actual millionaire. She was probably looking for tips.
“He worked his way up through the ranks and ended up owning it—only to sell the circus to his friend Thomas and then invest the money in the stock market.” Mr. Roth cocked an eyebrow mysteriously. “That made him a millionaire. A multimillionaire, actually. Then he returned to Wauseon with his wife and baby son to build a mansion at the edge of town. But his good fortune didn’t last long. The house hadn’t even been finished when Jacob and Lucretia died tragically in a train crash.”
Jacob and Lucretia Hoäl. The names on the tall marble plinth in front of them.
Sloane scrunched up her shoulders. She didn’t want to hear about people dying tragically. There was nothing lucky about it, no matter what the stone next to her said.
“If anyone has been inside the old Hoäl mansion, you’ll know that it’s full of complicated wooden carvings and marble floors. In his study, Jacob even had the workmen add a secret safe behind a wood panel. Right before the family left on their last trip, Lucretia stored all of her valuable jewelry in there, including a diamond necklace, emerald earrings, and a ruby tiara that once belonged to a czarina of Russia. Altogether, everything was valued at almost five hundred thousand dollars at that time. It would be worth even more than that now. In fact, thirteen million dollars more today.”
That got the attention of even the kids who’d been secretly flicking acorn caps at each other. Including Sloane’s friends Kylee and Mylie. They were even more impressed by Mr. Roth’s next words.
“Yes, they were worth quite a bit of money. Enough to tempt Jacob’s old friend Thomas into using dynamite to blow open the safe.”
“Cool!” Mylie and Kylee breathed together. Several other students nodded in agreement.
“The theft was discovered early the next morning when workmen arrived to put the finishing touches on the mansion. A message was sent to Jacob and Lucretia in Chicago. They immediately hopped on the first train back to Wauseon, desperate to recover their lost jewels.”
“Did they find them?” Amelia asked, grabbing Mr. Roth’s arm and tugging like she could pump the answer out of him. “Did they find them? Tell me they found them!”
“They did not.” Mr. Roth pried his arm free. “Lucretia’s jewelry was worth so much that the robbery was big news all over the Midwest. Newspapers and police departments sent telegrams back and forth between each other through the railroad’s telegraph system. So many telegrams, in fact, that someone at the railroad became distracted. Two trains were allowed onto the same track in Indiana. As a result, the Hoäl’s eastbound train smashed into a westbound train, killing many people on both trains. Jacob and Lucretia Hoäl were among the dead—and so was Thomas himself. For, by a twist of fate, he was on that westbound train.”
Sloane looked again at the names on the marble plinth. Those people had been smashed to smithereens. Because of the actions of a guy who probably used to be a clown. And all because they had the bad luck to get on the wrong train at the wrong time.
“And the baby?” Sloane couldn’t help but ask, thinking about her own mother.
“Ah, the baby.” Mr. Roth scratched at his chin to build up suspense. When the pause had lasted long enough to hook the attention of even those kids who were trying to act like they didn’t care about some dumb baby, he added, “The baby did not, in fact… die.” A relieved sigh swept through the cemetery before their teacher added, “But he was left an orphan. Just like his father had been.”
Sloane knew she hated this story.
“Meanwhile, Lucretia’s jewels were never seen again. The police searched the wreckage but found nothing. It was assumed Thomas must have given the jewels to someone, if he hadn’t taken them onto the train. But if so, who? Whoever it was never tried to sell them. Every jeweler in the country was looking for them. Eventually, people decided the jewels must be hidden in town somewhere. For a long time, they dredged wells and dug up gardens, but not so much as a single gemstone has been seen since. Which doesn’t make for a very good story, does it? Stories need a conclusion—and so all of you are going to provide one. Working with a partner, you will have until one week from Monday to research this cold case and decide what you think happened to the jewels.”
“That’s easy.” Mackenzie waved her hand dismissively, bow bobbing as she tossed her head. “We’ll just look it up online.”
“Ah! Ha-ha!” Mr. Roth did a happy dance and then seemed to realize that he was literally dancing on someone’s grave. Immediately, he stopped and said more somberly, “You are welcome to look it up online, Mackenzie. But you’ll soon discover that there’s very little information about it. This all happened long before the invention of the computer, let alone the internet or Google. This assignment will require you and your partner to work together to find old newspaper articles at the library, research the archives at the Fulton County Historical Society, and even speak with an old-timer or two.”
Ugh. It was May and here Mr. Roth was giving them work! There had to be some sort of law against that. What was even the point of learning stuff they weren’t going to be tested on?
Everyone except for Amelia tried to catch someone else’s eye. It was like a silent game of musical chairs, with no one wanting to be left unpartnered at the end of it. Thus being forced by Mr. Roth to work with Amelia. Who wasn’t even bothering to try to find a partner. Instead, she had her hands clasped together, a dreamy look on her face. No doubt she was hoping to work by herself and present some sort of bizarre video or—Sloane didn’t know.
Maybe an interpretive dance.
Then Mr. Roth cheerfully announced, “Oh, and before you start choosing partners, you’re going to draw Scrabble tiles out of a bag. Whoever has the same letter as you will be your partner.”
“But that’s not fair!”
“Mr. Roth, you can’t do that to us!”
The groans over having to do actual work so late in the year turned mutinous as everyone realized they might be stuck working with someone they hated. Sloane had to hand it to Mr. Roth for his bravery, making an announcement like that in a graveyard.
Where there were plenty of places to hide his body.
“It’s important that you learn to cooperate with everyone, not just your friends,” Mr. Roth informed them calmly, not at all threatened by the scowling and grumbling. “You’re almost eighth graders, guys!”
So what? All of the eighth graders Sloane knew liked to work with their friends too.
Mr. Roth brought around a cloth bag filled with the Scrabble tiles. He also recorded who drew what letter as they took them out of the bag to make sure no one could secretly swap. Which, of course, was exactly what everyone had planned on doing until then.
When it was her turn, Sloane drew the letter W, which no one else had gotten so far. Mackenzie drew the letter T, which matched her up with Drake Weber, who she couldn’t stand. Mylie and Kylee both managed to draw the letter B, so at least they got to work together.
One by one, the other kids were matched up too, while Amelia skulked about among the gravestones, trying to avoid being seen. She seemed to be operating on the theory that Mr. Roth might forget about her, thus allowing her to avoid partner work. She was short enough that it might actually work, if not for that bush of fiery hair.
As the number of kids left dwindled and still no one had pulled out a W, Sloane’s heart first started to race and then slowed down in horror until it was practically dead. Instinctively, her fingers found her ponytail to twist it round and round.
Aside from Amelia, there were six kids left.
Come on, someone draw a W, Sloane thought.
Four kids left.
No, no, no, no, no…
No kids left.
“Let’s see…” Mr. Roth checked his list and then looked up to pin Amelia against a tombstone with his gaze. She actually had her arms spread out, fingers splayed as her eyes darted about, looking for an escape route. Like their teacher was the warden and she an escaped prisoner he’d just turned the search light on.
He held up the remaining letter. A W to match the one in Sloane’s sweating palm. “Amelia! It looks like you and Sloane are partners!”
Of all the luck.