The constant clackedy-clackedy sound of the train’s wheels on the rails along with the swaying of the cars threatened to lure them to sleep. They would doze occasionally, only to be jolted wide awake when the train hit a section of track that had been hurriedly and poorly repaired after being damaged by the war. The route from Paris to Metz had been hit hard by shelling during the Allied offensive, and the ride was rough and jarring, nowhere near as smooth as the trip from the west coast of the United States to the east coast.
“This is just awful,” said one Bill to the other. “Without a doubt the worst train trip I’ve ever taken.”
“That it may be, but it is clearly better than sitting in one of those new tanks,” came the reply. “There would be nothing worse than waiting for a shell to blow the blasted thing up. And me along with it.”
“I agree. But I do believe that when this madness is over, the generals will come to their senses and take another look at the nasty things. War brings about all kinds of awful ideas that get good soldiers killed. They will certainly relegate the horrible things to the scrap heap as they did with the ironclads from the Civil War.”
“Without a doubt we will have seen the last of them.”
Their conversation halted as they each pondered in silence the horridness of what would become known as the Great War.
Private Second Class William Barnaby and Private Second Class William Mason were fortunate to have missed combat, arriving in France as the cease fires were being declared. They were lifelong friends. Each had recently turned eighteen, first Barnaby and then Mason, and they had made their way to the recruiting station together. They were at the tail end of the relentless waves of frightened soldiers who had been thrust into battle before them. They were not cowardly, but each was secretly relieved to have been able to avoid the hazardous duty on the slaughter field known as the Western Front.
Their unit had been assembled out of scared young men, boys, really, who put on the brave face required of them, boarding the train out of San Francisco, picking up others on the way to New York. There, they received mobilization training at Fort Dix, then boarded a ship for the harrowing journey across the Atlantic. Their time at sea was nerve-racking, always fearing that one of the dreaded new German U-Boats would spot the convoy and attack it with their torpedoes.
The young men had been dispatched to assist with the liberation of a prisoner of war camp in eastern France, one in which the Germans kept Allied prisoners. Their time in Paris had been eye-opening to a pair of country boys from the agricultural area of Northern California. Their world had changed at a dizzyingly pace as they experienced in quick order great cities of the United States: San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. But there were not prepared for what was a truly a world class city. The two Bills, as they called themselves, were only in Paris for a week while waiting to debark, but they quickly came to appreciate the energy and the spirit of a city that was emerging from the oppression of war.
And they both knew that life back on the farm would never be the same.
Barnaby and Mason were engaged in conversation, straining to be heard over the track noise and the conversation in the train car when they were surprised to see a familiar face emerge from the coach’s door that connected to the next car. He stopped to get his bearings, then proceeded to make his way down the aisle toward them.
“The Vil’yams!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms wide.
The well-dressed figure continued toward them with a wide smile, using the aisle seats to maintain his balance. He was a Russian not too much older than them that they had met at a café in Paris. About the same age as the two Bills, he had enthralled them with stories of a life lived traveling between the cities of St. Petersburg, Berlin, London and Paris. He was royalty of some sort, they guessed. He had talked of palaces and summer homes, and balls and gala celebrations. They were in awe.
“Vlad!” replied Barnaby, smiling broadly. “We didn’t expect to see you on this train.”
“To be honest,” said Mason, “we didn’t really expect to ever see you again.”
“I had to make some last-minute changes to my plans. You know that I was on my way to London, but I received word that my family needs me back in Russia. This was the first train that I could make.”
“I hope all is well,” said Mason. “Is it trouble with the war?”
“No, it is trouble with the Bolsheviks, but it is nothing that my family cannot survive. We’ve certain been through worse than this.”
“Are you sure about that? I’ve been hearing about the situation in Russia, and it sounds serious,” said Barnaby.
“Indeed. In all reality, it is, Vil’yam.” Vladymir leaned over to speak quietly to them. “Some of my family have been imprisoned. I hope it’s temporary, but taken to where, I do not know.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mason. “Is there anything we can do?”
“Thank you, but I think not. I believe this to be a temporary situation.” Vladymir looked back into the car from which he had just come and stared for a moment. Mason noticed the concern on his face and knew that his words did not match his real feelings. He followed Vladymir’s gaze down the aisle and through the door windows into the next car. He could see two roughly dressed men making their way through the coach, checking each row of seats. Vlad turned back to the two Bills and spoke earnestly.
“On second thought, gentlemen, I cannot remain here, I must move on, but there is something that I wish to give you.” Vlad pulled a leather case out of a coat pocket. “I do not wish to impose upon you, but this is a family heirloom that has great significance. I cannot impress upon you the important of what I am asking, but please safeguard it for me.” He alternately looked at each of them and thrust the case into Mason’s hand.
A startled William Mason took the case. “But, why? What am I to do with it?”
“Trust me,” said Vlad, “I would not give this to just anyone, and will tell you in good time. Where are you leaving the train?”
“I will see you there.” And with that, he headed down the aisle, away from the direction that he had just come. He disappeared into the next car as the roughly dressed men entered their car. The two Bills watched them as they visually searched each row while walking toward the door through which Vlad left.
“What was that all about?” asked Barnaby, as the train began to slow.
“I have no idea,” said Mason, as he looked at the case in his hand. After a moment, he asked, “Do you think whatever this is has anything to do with those two?” He gestured down the aisle as the men exited into the next car.
“Why?” asked Barnaby.
“I don’t know, but once Vladymir spotted them, he seemed to get nervous.”
“Perhaps we should go find out.”
“Let’s.” As Barnaby led the way out of their seat, the train came to a stop. The two Bills passed their fellow soldiers and made their way into the next car. The doors had opened and those in the car were looking toward the door in the rear. Mason began to move quickly with Barnaby right behind. Mason reached the door in time to hear a shout quickly followed by a gunshot. He saw two figures crouched over a body on the ground, searching through pockets.
“Hey!” shouted Barnaby, startling the men as the two Bills rushed toward them. Surprise showed on the faces of the assailants, as they both looked up to see armed soldiers coming their way. They scrambled to their feet and ran quickly away.
The two Bills hurried to find Vladymir bleeding from a gunshot wound in his chest. He was wheezing and blood was frothing at his mouth. The bullet had evidently pierced his lungs. He had only moments to live.
Vladymir opened his eyes to find the two Bills staring down at him, the dread of certain death showing on their faces. He managed to smile painfully, and with his last breath, said three words that would eventually become a family legend.
“Guard the key.”
Silence reigns as my brother and I try to think of something to say. The words that we had been forced to use throughout the day had drained us and left us even less conversational than normal. I consider myself an extrovert but there is a limit, and today I reached it.
The brief, impersonal funeral had been awkward. The minister had done his best to assure the attendees that the deceased was in a better place, but he was facing an uphill battle. His message gained credibility when he stressed that it wasn’t yet too late for the living to turn from their wicked ways.
And when he said wicked, we all knew who he was talking about.
Finally, I feel moved to speak. “I can’t believe he’s really gone.”
“Me, neither,” replies my brother, Daniel. “If anyone seemed able to cheat death, it was him.”
The reception after the funeral at the Presbyterian church had been uncomfortable, with those in attendance pretty much there only out of obligation to the church or to the deceased’s brother, our Uncle Barnett. Both Daniel and I had lived elsewhere for most of our adult lives and had lost touch with people from our childhood so none of our old friends were there. Our family’s once well-regarded reputation in this small Northern California town had taken a beating in recent years, mostly by the man who was now resting comfortably six feet under.
That man was our father.
I take a sip of hard liquor and look around the room. “I’m kinda glad that you’re keeping the house.”
“Me, too, Adam,” says my older brother, Daniel. “I can’t imagine anyone else living here.”
We sit in the small parlor of our boyhood home. Our father had used it for his study, where he and our Uncle Barnett would drink late into the night arguing about nothing as only brothers can do. Most brothers, anyway. For most of our adult lives, Danny and I had not seen eye to eye. As a matter of fact, this is the first time I can remember that we had sat together and had a drink on our own.
Our father, Sam Mason, had eventually wasted away with disease after turning a crumbling family business that had survived four generations over to Daniel. The ruined financial firm would not see a fifth.
“It’s gonna take a lot of work,” I say. Not much upkeep had occurred during the past couple of years. “Honestly, I’m not sure it’s worth it.”
“Honestly, yeah, I’m not sure it is either.”
That changed quickly, I think. But I nod as I nevertheless think about the great times that I and my brothers had in the house, which, like the firm, had also been in the family for decades, passed from father to son. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I had experienced a perfect childhood. School came easy, especially since just getting a passing grade was good enough for me. I was adequate, but not great at sports, and I always had my music, which was my primary focus. My rock band in high school had rattled the rafters of the old house more than once as we practiced in the unfinished basement.
“I think we had a lot of good times in this place,” I say absently, as I swirl my ice.
Our father may have been a scoundrel, but our mother had been the steady rock of our childhood. She was always ready with an afterschool snack, a Band-Aid, or a swat on the behind, whichever was needed. Our big house with its big yard had been the center of activity and when the moms of the neighborhood had dinner ready, they knew a call to the Mason house would locate their kid.
We were a rowdy bunch. In high school, I had tested my mom’s patience. Not as much as my oldest brother, Ethan, but more than Daniel. My mother had endured it all, and no matter what, she was always there.
Until she wasn’t.
“This house has always seemed so empty without Mom here.”
“I miss her.”
Our idyllic childhood had turned into tumultuous adulthood. Our father was revealed to be a philanderer. Our angelic mother was acquitted of murdering her husband’s mistress before committing what was ruled a suicide. Looking back, I know that’s when my innocence faded, and I couldn’t wait to be done with this town. Things went quickly south as the years passed. Our brother, Ethan, was a thief and was now behind bars. Daniel had survived a double homicide accusation. My musical career had come to a screeching halt in the midst of it all. The family business was insolvent.
I drain my glass. “On second thought, maybe you should just sell it.” Or burn it.
Daniel laughs quietly. “They say you shouldn’t make any big decisions for six months following the death of a loved one.”
“We’re talking about Dad, not a loved one.”
Daniel raises his eyebrows. “Good point,” he says thoughtfully.
“You know what, Daniel, I don’t care what you do with it. Get married and raise a dozen kids in it, for all I care.” Suddenly I’m very tired, and very done with this whole day. The pleasant reminiscing had gone bad. “I’m think I’m going to bed,” I say.
“That’s not a bad idea,” says Daniel, making a show of draining his glass. “Talking with you is depressing.” He leans over and punches me lightly on the shoulder.
We both get up and out of habit, leave our glasses in the sink, neither of us thinking that there would be no one following up after us to load the freestanding dishwasher. As we head toward the stairs, I hesitate.
“Do you think it’s weird that two grown men are going to go sleep in their childhood bedrooms?”
Danny shrugs. “You can go sleep in Mom and Dad’s bed if you want.”
Danny laughs. “Actually, I think it would be much weirder if either one of us wanted to sleep in our parent’s bed.” Our parent’s bedroom was downstairs while us boys’ beds were upstairs.
That made me laugh. “Ok, yes, that would be twisted. Sad, and twisted. Let’s burn the bed in the morning, then you and Janie can go buy a new one in the afternoon.” Janie is Danny’s girlfriend.
Daniel smiles ruefully. “I don’t know if Janie would go for it. We’re kind of taking it day by day right now.”
Things did seem a bit off at the funeral between the two of them. She didn’t appear quite as smitten with him, but it was a funeral, after all. “I didn’t want to say anything, but I thought maybe something wasn’t quite right.”
Daniel shrugs. “We’ll figure it out.” He goes on ahead up the stairway. “Talk to you in the morning.”
“Do you want to go through Dad’s things with me after breakfast?” I ask as I trudge up behind him.
“Not really,” says Daniel over his shoulder.
“Don’t you think we should?”
Danny stops at the top and frowns at me. “Are you looking for something in particular?”
I shake my head. “No, but given his track record of hiding things, who knows what we might find.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”
I shrug. “I’m just curious. The study was off-limits my entire life.”
Danny shrugs back at me. “Well, sure, I’ll take a look with you. Not that there’s anything I want. You’re welcome to start without me.”
“Like I’ve ever got up before you have.”
“I know, the life of a rock star.”
“You laugh, but it can be pretty sweet.”
Daniel stops at the door to his room and looks back at me. “At this point, the idea of sleeping until noon does sound pretty good. Maybe it would take the stink of today go away. See you in the afternoon.” He turns and closes the door.
I watch him go, then turn and look down the stairs. I think about my father’s affair, as well as the boxes of cash that we had found six months ago that our father had been hoarding.
“What else are you hiding, old man?” I ask, then descend to the first floor and head for the den.
I wake up to a smell that hadn’t been in the house for several years. Someone is cooking breakfast. For a moment I am transported back in time as I look at the familiar ceiling of my boyhood bedroom, the only permanent home I had ever known. I trace a crack in the plaster from the wall to the light in the center of the ceiling, the result of a football that was overthrown.
I picture the scene downstairs in the kitchen, my mom at the stove, laying out slices of bacon in the frying pan. A dozen eggs on the counter, ready to be scrambled and devoured by three hungry boys. Biscuits in the oven and Maxwell House brewing in the Mr. Coffee. My father reading the morning paper.
I close my eyes and linger in that scene for a moment, until my throat begins to tighten.
Mom was gone.
Dad was gone.
Soon it would be time for me to leave, as well. There was nothing for me here in this small town, aside from Danny. Most of my friends escaped years ago, gone to the Bay Area or LA, or, in my case, to New York.
I’m a musician, and it’s what I do for a living. I’m a guitar player in a band called Doink. We’ve released two albums that have done poorly, although I don’t know why. There are as good as anything else you hear on the radio.
We make our money touring the U.S. and Europe, although it’s mostly a break-even effort. I have enough money to keep me afloat for a while, thanks to Dad’s hidden stash, with more on the horizon once his estate gets resolved, or closed, or whatever you call it. Settled? Whatever it is, for the first time since I left home at eighteen, money is not an issue.
Ordinarily I would have slogged downstairs in my boxers, but the delicious odors indicate a foreign presence is in the house. I know this because Danny couldn’t cook if his life depended on it. I crawl out of bed, pull on a t-shirt and jeans and stop by the hall bathroom to wash my face and run a comb through my hair. Feeling presentable, I head toward the kitchen.
Our house is a hundred years old and has been in the Mason family for seventy or eighty of those years. It was built in the days in which you cooked in the kitchen and ate in the dining room. In our case you walked through the dining room to get to the kitchen, and I could see that the table is set out for a serious meal. I hear children’s voices and know who is here but am not prepared for the scene in the kitchen.
A woman is the stove with her back to me with two children, a boy and a girl, on either side of her, helping with the cooking. My brother is sitting at the small two seat table that we had wedged in by the back door, drinking coffee and reading the paper. He looks up at me apologetically.
“I hope they didn’t wake you.”
All I can do is grin at him.
The woman turns around, spatula in hand. “Oh, hi, Adam.” The two kids turn and look, too, then forget about whatever they were helping with. They are obsessed with me.
Because I’m a rock star.
“Can you show me your guitar again?” asks Ella.
“Can I play it?” pleads Jacob.
I made that mistake a couple of days ago and won’t do that again.
“We will eat breakfast first,” says their mom. “Keep stirring,” she says to the boy. He reluctantly but obediently returns the spatula to the kettle, still looking at me.
“What’cha making?” I ask.
“Grits,” says Jacob.
“Grits?” I ask, looking at Danny.
“Yes, grits,” says Jacob. “Mom loves them, and we do, too,” he deadpans, looking sideways at the woman at the stove.
Jacob is a funny kid.
Janie Cox is Danny’s girlfriend. She is a single mom of two elementary age children, Jacob and Ella. Janie is a paralegal and she met Danny when he was on trial. She was part of his defense team, and apparently was thoroughly convinced of his innocence. They have been dating for a few months now, although apparently things are not going great at the moment.
I take it all in, and it occurs to me that I can remember as a kid that my dad, whom I found out later was a philandering jerk, even he seemed at home in these familial moments. Danny seems like a prisoner.
“Good morning,” I say, making my way to the fridge for a Coke, fighting the kid traffic along the way as Ella swirls around my knees. Popping the top, I plop down across from Danny.
“Sleep well?” he asks, with a ‘can you believe this scene?’ smile.
“Like a baby,” I reply, with the same ‘you are so out of your element’ grin.
“Coke for breakfast?” Then he mouths, ‘troublemaker’.
“At least it’s this type of Coke,” I deadpan. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Janie look over.
“Forgive my degenerate rock star brother,” Danny says to her.
“You haven’t had Coke for breakfast?” I ask Janie.
Danny shoots me a look. “The kids.”
Jacob looks up at his mom. “Can I have a Coke for breakfast?”
“No,” she says shortly, while looking at me. “You see what you started?”
“Sorry,” I laugh, but I clearly am not sorry.
Janie smiles, then asks, “Adam, how are you doing?” She turns serious. “I mean, after yesterday.”
I want to say something smartass but decide to be nice. “I’m doing okay.”
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my dad.”
I can feel Danny shoot me a warning look, and I know exactly what he’s thinking I’m going to say: Imagine what it would be like wanting to lose your dad! I refrain from ripping the old man, and am surprisingly gracious, “As bad as he could be, he had his good moments, so I’ll just try to hang onto those.” I feel Danny relax as Janie replies.
“Well, I’m sure he wasn’t as bad as all that, but I’ve been thinking about the both of you.”
She turns back to the stove as I look at Danny. “Anything good in the paper, Bro?” I ask with an exaggerated cheeriness.
“Giants are in first place.”
“Really? Fascinating!” I appear amazed.
Danny just shakes his head at me while continuing to read. I take a long sip of my Coke. “I started looking through Dad’s things last night.” No reaction. “Want to know what I found?”
“I’m afraid to ask,” he says without looking up.
“Just this.” I reach into my pocket and toss it on the table. The jingle brings the girl’s attention.
“What’s that?” asks Ella.
“A family mystery,” I say.
That gets Danny’s attention as he looks up. “It’s Adam’s latest fashion statement,” says Danny. He’s not far off. He has seen me sporting a variety of chains, charms, and piercings over the years. His remark goes over Ella’s head.
“What kind of mystery?” asks Ella.
“Want to see it?” I ask, holding it out to her. She takes it gingerly.
“Ooh,” Ella says. She turns the object over and inspects it intensely, then holding it up to the light.
“Ella, be careful,” her mother warns, watching her closely.
“What is it?” asks Jacob, trying to see around Ella as she moves to keep him away from it.
I smile mysteriously. “It’s an ancient gold chain. The key to an enormous treasure.” Ella looks up at me with wide eyes.
“Really,” I tease, assuming that it’s okay to lie to a child.
Daniel attempts to intervene. “Adam, don’t go fibbing to her.” Okay, maybe it’s not.
Ella looks disappointed. “Is he fibbing, Mommy?”
“Why don’t you ask Adam?” replies Janie, as she looks at me with an expression that says, ‘let’s see how you handle this!’
“Are you fibbing?” asks Ella.
I look at Daniel for some backup. “Danny, am I fibbing?”
Daniel furrows his brow, realizing he is becoming the bad guy in this scenario, coming up against fun Uncle Adam. “Kids, after breakfast, I’m going to tell you a story. Ella, let Adam have the chain and let’s get some bacon on the table.”
“Delicious turkey bacon, coming up,” says Janie.
I begin to object but get a warning look from Daniel. I feign enthusiasm. “Sounds great. Let’s eat!”
Among me and my brothers, Danny was always the straight arrow.
So, when he got embroiled in the whole murder mess, I figured that he was innocent.
Or that he had a very innocent sounding reason.
While Ethan was the one who could con our mom, Danny was the one who didn’t have too. Ethan was a lie-telling machine, while Danny would calmly and with great gravitas explain to his mother why he did what he did.
In many ways, I had the benefit of living in their shadows. It allowed me to slide through my teenage years, avoiding the pressures of Ethan’s athleticism and Danny’s intelligence. They dated homecoming queens and valedictorians, while I was drawn to the quieter, moodier types.
Any one in particular, you ask? Maybe.
I’ve never told Danny that. And likely never will. Not that I think there would be anything wrong with telling him, but mostly because he would make fun of me. He would definitely gloat, boasting that she chose him over the rock star.
I was a year ahead of Janie in school, which made me the model of maturity. And really, the whole thing stems from one afternoon. When I was in the eighth grade, our band played in a talent show, and we were rockin’ it. I couldn’t tell you what song we played, but I can tell you that there was a girl in the front row who was dancing and singing, and was looking me in the eyes the whole time. Every time I looked up from my guitar, there she was, and all I can remember thinking was that I hoped she would be at the school dance on Friday night.
But it was eighth grade, after all, that time in life where the boys were hanging out on one side of the gym and the girls on the other, and the only boys who danced were those in serious relationships who knew they had to dance to have any hope of getting some tongue at the end of the night.
The rest of us were too cool, and I said nothing to Janie the whole night. And while I went on to concentrate on girls my own age, I would occasionally flash back to the scene of Janie’s adoring face in the crowd.
At least that’s how I would remember it.
After breakfast, we convene in the study.
“Can you see these markings on the links of the chain?” says Danny.
Jacob and Ella look closely, jockeying for position. It’s about to get physical.
“What are they?” asks Ella. “They don’t look like letters.”
“That’s because these are words in the Russian language.”
“What a Russian?” asks Ella.
Before Danny can answer, Jacob interrupts. “What do they mean?” asks Jacob. The kids are sitting at a small table with Danny. Janie watches from a side chair.
“I don’t know,” says Danny.
“Shouldn’t you find out what they say?” asks Ella.
It occurs to me that she has a little bit of an attitude, and I see a lot of her mom in her.
“Where did it come from?” asks Jacob. “How did you get it?”
“Is it real gold?” asks Ella. “It looks fake.”
“Kids,” says Janie, “give Daniel a chance to answer you. One question at a time.”
Danny is clearly overmatched but gives Janie a grateful look at the chance to regroup. He starts again.
“Ah, that’s an old family legend,” he says. “My grandfather told me the story when I was about your age. His father was a soldier in the First World War and got to know a Russian prince named Vladymir.”
Ella interrupts. “Was he a real prince?”
“Yes,” says Danny, “he was.”
“Are you lying?” Ella looks at Janie. “Is he lying?”
Danny shakes his head. “I’m not lying.”
I chime in. “I can vouch for him, he’s not lying. I heard the story, too.”
“Anyway, the prince gave my great-grandfather the chain while they were traveling on a train.”
“Why?” asks Jacob. “Was it a gift?”
“The prince was being chased by two men who attacked him when he tried to get off the train. They hurt him very badly.”
“Did he die?” asks Ella.
“Yes, but before he did, my great-grandfather chased off the two bad guys. He got to the prince, who was dying, but before he died, the prince said three words.”
“What were they?” asks Jacob.
“The Russian prince looked at my great-grandfather, and with his dying breath, said, ‘Guard the key’.”
“Guard the key,” repeats Jacob.
“What key?” asks Ella.
“The chain, dummy,” says Jacob.
Janie intervenes. “Jacob! You apologize!”
Jacob fakes contrite. “I’m sorry you’re a dummy.”
“Jacob!” scolds Janie.
Danny holds up a hand. “I got this.” Janie raises her eyebrows. “Jacob,” said Danny, “A prince would not treat a princess like that. Royalty has good manners.” He gestures at Ella.
Jacob hesitates, then relents. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, m’lady,” prompts Danny.
Jacob rolls his eyes but complies. “I’m sorry, m’lady.”
“Can we get back to the treasure?” said Ella plaintively, knowing Jacob’s apology is hollow. “I want to know what the words mean.”
“Me, too,” says Janie.
Jacob jumps out of his chair. “Me, too!”
From the hallway outside of the study, I join in. “Me, too!”
Daniel smiles. “Well then, me, too! Okay, who speaks Russian?”
Danny’s arrest had been a shock. My goody-too-shoes brother hadn’t shot a gun ever, at least to my knowledge. So, when it was claimed that he had shot and killed two men, and made men, at that, I believed it was a mistake. The real killer was found, and Danny was freed, but I could tell it had left a mark on him.
I don’t know what was worse: the fact that someone tried to frame him and get him sent to prison, or the fact that someone else was trying to have him killed.
The latter person was Ethan.
The quick and dirty story? Ethan had been using the family’s financial firm, Barnaby & Mason, as his personal bank, and had broken numerous laws along the way. When Sam decided it was time to step back, he appointed Danny to take over. After that, not only was Ethan furious at being passed over in favor of a younger brother, but he lived in fear that his misdeeds would be found out. He concocted a devious plan to have Danny killed, but his equally devious accomplice altered it and framed Danny for the deaths of his assailants.
Ethan finally had a come to Jesus moment, the choir sang, and Ethan gave up his accomplice, freeing Danny. Who was the accomplice, you ask?
It was our previously unknown half-sister, Ruby.
We are a twisted bunch.
I am inspecting the links of the chain later that morning. Danny and the kids had embarked upon their treasure hunt, while I had gone back to searching Dad’s study. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but to tell the truth, the freedom to go through his drawers without fear of being discovered was exhilarating. Except that after an hour or so, I realize that he had the same crap in his drawers that I had been collecting, myself.
After a shot of Dad’s Scotch, I put my feet up on the desk and close my eyes. I don’t think I fell asleep but am startled nonetheless when Danny comes in and slaps my feet.
“Asshole,” I say.
“Lazy bum,” he replies.
“What did you find out?”
“Nothing,” says Daniel. They had used an English-Russian website to translate the words on the links. “What we came up with doesn’t make any sense. Here.” Daniel hands me a notepad.
On it is written: “On the front: Vladyka’s last words in Yekaterinburg 53 2 11 59 36 56 39 38 34 66 46 22 25 30 40. On the back: in Tayga.”
“Vladyka’s last words? Who’s Vladyka? The Russian prince?”
“Grandpa said the prince’s name was Vladymir. His last words were ‘Guard the key’,” says Daniel.
“This is the key,” I protest.
“Maybe this Vlad is not the prince.”
“That would be a weird coincidence.”
“Vladymir is a pretty common name in Russia. Like John or Mike.”
“Good point. We really need to identify this prince.”
Daniel laughs. “Well, good luck with that. It’s been what, almost ninety years?”
“I know, right? Only ninety years.”
“Well, you go right ahead and try. I’m sure Ella would be happy to help you.”
“Fine. Ella and Uncle Adam will solve the mystery.”
Daniel purses his lips.
“What, don’t like the ‘uncle’ thing?” I ask. “You all looked like one big happy family this morning.”
“Shut up,” he growls.
I laugh. “Trouble in paradise?”
Daniel just looks at me before shrugging. “Let’s just say it’s moving a little fast.”
“In what way?”
Daniel shrugs again.
I tilt my head and look at him. “Let me guess. You are okay with dating but not okay with fatherhood.”
He rolls his eyes, but I can tell I’m right. “Can we get back to the chain?”
“A minute ago, you were dismissing the idea of solving the mystery of the chain.”
“Look,” says Daniel, “I just think that it’s a useless trinket that I tried to make into a fun thing for the kids. There’s no way it has any significance.”
“Really?” I ask. “Just like there was no truth to the rumors of Grandpa’s hoard?”
Daniel shakes his head. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice.” He picks up the chain and shows me two tiny protrusions from one of the end links.
I look closely. “What do you think those are for?”
“No idea. But look, if you want it, it’s yours. Maybe you can solve the mystery of the Russian treasure,” he says with a sarcastic grin.
I smile. What else do I have to do? “Challenge accepted.”
 The Demand