Happy Father’s Day weekend, everyone! I probably should’ve saved the previous post for this week, but ah well. You’re probably busy anyway, so why not read a semi-short story? This is the climactic adventure under the College-Time Mysteries banner, meaning there won’t be any new stories like this one for a while. But never fear! My plan now is to spruce up the 12 stories of this series and compile them into a book that I will sell on Amazon.
In this sweeping story, Bryan gathers Laura and John to solve a series of clues on an odd scavenger hunt. But when Laura goes missing, the stakes rise higher than they could have ever imagined!
Can You Pass the Final Exam?
Story by J.R. Underdown
The spring that year felt the most inviting it had been in a long time. For John, who spent his winter at home doing classes online, the sight of sun, the warmer breeze, and the fresh air revived his spirit. Nowhere did this feeling manifest itself so strongly as on the campus of Boyce College. John arrived early in the morning expressly to spend an hour or two alone before meeting up with Bryan and Laura. Bryan had sent John an email asking him to come down for the weekend, promising a new mystery and furthermore adding that John owed them since they traveled up to help him with his own little problem a month previous. He didn’t really need that extra prodding and Bryan knew it, but added it as a tongue-in-cheek postscript. Some humor is better left unwritten. At the appointed time, they met in front of the library as Bryan requested, exchanging hugs and spending a few brief moments catching up.
“So Bryan, what trouble are we in for this time?” John asked, sitting down on the wide stone steps.
Bryan and Laura joined him and the former replied, “As I promised, a mystery!”
John looked over at Laura, “You know anything about this or is he pulling a me and keeping details under wrap for now?”
“I’m as in the dark as you,” Laura admitted. “He asked me to join this little reunion and told me no more.”
When they looked back at Bryan, he held a piece of paper in his hand. “I received this note in the mail a couple days ago. No return address.”
John eyed it warily. “It’s not another death threat is it? It didn’t come with poisonous candy?”
“Did you guys receive death threats and poisonous candy in the mail?” Laura wondered.
“We have weird fans,” John joked. Laura looked puzzled.
“I don’t know, honestly, where this will lead us,” said Bryan. “Read it for yourself and see what you think.”
He passed it off to John who held it out for Laura to see, too. It read thus:
In the tower of learning,
Behold thy symbol!
“You guys do have weird fans,” said Laura.
“Bible college girls are an odd lot,” John muttered. Laura elbowed his ribs.
“I suppose you already worked out a theory about this?” Laura pursued.
Bryan nodded and stood up, pacing on the sidewalk before them. “I think it’s something like a scavenger hunt and this is the initial clue.”
“What’s the point of it?” Laura wondered.
“Maybe to test our detectiving skills,” said John, “and reward us with a million dollars!”
“We can hope it’s that innocuous,” Bryan mused.
“Is having a million dollars innocuous?” Laura countered.
Bryan cocked his head slightly and stared up at the second floor windows. “You mean the potential for evil in so much money? I would think being given a million dollars would be safer than pursuing a million dollars. If I’m given something I haven’t desired or sought after, is it as likely to become an idol or would I be magnanimous in my uses for it?”
Laura pursed her lips and knitted her eyebrows in a tangle. “Perhaps, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t become an idol. You could grow to love the security it brings and slack off in your liberality with it. Then you would strive to always be that rich and turn into a miser who never leaves his scintillating mansion on a hill surrounded by tall trees and poisonous plants.”
“With every gift comes the danger of being misused, but should we therefore reject every gift for the sake of purity? Maybe the point you are overlooking is…”
John leaned back on the steps, stretched out his legs, and soaked in the spring air. His friends were arguing over a pointless topic, some mystery was brewing, and he wasn’t doing homework. The world was an ordered place in that moment and he relished in it for the next 30 minutes, occasionally listening in on the conversation. Laura was warning how lots of money leads either to jingoism or terrorism while Bryan countered with arguments that though a human heart is a finicky thing you can’t stop giving gifts simply for the dangerous extremes it could lead to. The thread they followed wound up at wondering what looking a gift horse in the mouth actually meant.
“Now, where were we?” Bryan said at the conclusion.
“You were in class,” John answered. “Now you are at the library.” Laura kicked his feet.
“The library, that’s right. The clue leads us to the library.”
Laura sat up straighter, and John raised his head.
“Why would the library be the tower of learning?” asked Laura.
Bryan pointed at each building that encompassed the J Bowl. “Every major structure on this campus has a tower at its peak. There are four towers overlooking this quad. On a college campus, any one of those towers could be a place of learning. But, traditionally, libraries are most strongly connected to the advancement of knowledge.”
“I could see why Mullins and Honeycutt are out of the question since they’re a dormitory and common area respectively. But couldn’t Norton be a possibility? It’s the main building for the seminary and the President’s office is there.”
Bryan nodded. “That’s a good guess, but I would argue that Norton is more of a symbol for the seminary as an institution. The library is a safer bet.”
“What if you’re wrong?” John broke in.
Bryan shrugged. “Then we can check out Norton next.”
“So what’s the plan?” Laura wondered, standing up. “Are we going to scour the library in hopes of finding a clue somewhere?”
“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” Bryan answered. “I think the logical place to start is looking in the tower since that is referenced in the clue.”
“Can we even access the tower?” John asked.
“Not sure. If we can’t, then we’re reduced to scouring the library. So hope that it is accessible.”
John stood up as well. “And what will we find there?”
“A symbol, of course!”
Upon entering the library, Bryan and Laura ascended the great steps to the top floor. John took the elevator. The floor revolved around a center square column that contained a storage room on one side and a door leading up to the tower on the other. John assumed it was locked, but Bryan proceeded to try the knob anyway. To John’s surprise, the door was not locked.
“It’s actually been forced open,” Bryan noted, examining the jamb.
“I believe the proper term would be ‘jimmied with’,” John corrected.
“Who came up with that term?” Laura wondered.
“Probably Jimmy,” said Bryan and he entered the stairwell.
“I wonder how his name got attached to the act,” Laura pressed as she followed.
“I bet it was some hapless single guy who kept forgetting the keys to his apartment,” John ventured, bringing up the rear. “One day, in frustration, he ran his SUV into the door.”
“Why is he using his vehicle as a ramrod?” Laura countered.
“The joke implies a GMC Jimmy,” John explained. “Get it?”
“Who’s G.M.C. Jimmy?”
“Probably the inventor of the SUV,” Bryan entered.
John stopped on a step. “How do you people even survive outside your house?”
“I think he’s making fun of us for being homeschooled again,” Laura whispered.
“He’s just jealous our minds aren’t filled with the same pointless information as his,” said Bryan.
“Fine!” John exclaimed. “But if we ever wind up in a group playing Trivial Pursuit, you all are on your own.”
By now they reached the top where a narrow landing and a small ladder greeted them. Bryan climbed part way up the latter and poked his head into the space above. Laura and John watched curiously as he twisted himself around. They heard him yell out an “Aha!” and soon finished the ascent.
“It might be a bit tight,” he said a moment later, “but I think we’ll all fit.”
“Don’t worry,” said John, noting hesitation on Laura’s part, “my deodorant shouldn’t stop working for another hour at least.”
“John, I’m going to push you down the steps.”
“Oh good! Then we can investigate a murder!”
“You can’t investigate a murder if you’re dead.”
“Bryan, take note,” said John as he took his turn on the ladder, “Laura wants to kill me.”
“I’m sure she has her reasons,” Bryan muttered. To be fair, his mind wasn’t completely focused on their conversation for he was studying the scene that lay before them.
The floor opened against the side of the tower facing away from the J Bowl. Beneath the window looking out at the common area and toward Honeycutt something was etched in the wall. John and Laura squinted through the brilliant late morning sunlight at a symbol of a trapezoid with four diagonal lines crisscrossing through it.
“That looks familiar,” John began. “Maybe I’ve seen that in a Pokemon game.”
“What?” went Laura.
“Unfortunately,” Bryan cut in, “that symbol holds more danger than you remember, John. That is the insignia of the assassin organization our food-poisoning friend was a part of.”
John took in a sharp breath and stood rigid.
Laura eyed him with concern and tried to help by cracking a joke. “What friends did you all make last semester?”
Her two companions gave her such somber looks she regretted her attempt at humor. “Sorry, I’m apparently not caught up on everything.”
“We’ll explain more when we’re out of the library,” said Bryan. “There’s one more clue here.”
He stepped up to the window and picked up a slip of paper lying on the ledge. He read it, passed it to Laura, and fell into deep thought.
At your leisure,
Move to your rest.
“What does that mean?” Laura asked. “Is this a death threat?” She sensed that John repressed a shudder.
But Bryan shook his head. “I doubt someone would threaten us by asking us to die or ‘rest’ at our leisure. This confirms my scavenger hunt theory, I believe. The first clue led us to this clue and now we must deduce this clue in order to find the next one.”
“And the next one is…where?”
Bryan, still in prime thinking pose, gazed out the window facing the building directly across the lawn.
“Honeycutt?” said Laura. “Why there?”
Bryan turned to them. “I think the first clue, being in this building’s tower, is setting the standard for the other clues. So, one of the other buildings’ towers contains the next clue. Honeycutt is the logical next step.”
“Why not Mullins? That is where we would rest, technically.”
“True,” Bryan nodded. “But I believe it’s Honeycutt for a couple reasons. One, the rec center—where we could find leisure and rest—is housed in that building. Two, the symbol and next clue are on the side facing Honeycutt, not Mullins.”
Laura considered arguing the point, but she noticed John was unusually quiet, rigid, pale, and sweaty. The last condition was understandable as the tower was quite warm in the sunlight.
“Well then, let’s go get it,” she said at last. “It’s getting hot up here and I don’t want John’s deodorant to wear off too soon.”
This snapped John out of his rigidity. “I’d make a retort but you’d probably push me down the ladder.” He began descending. “Can’t have that and be robbing the assassins of some fun.”
Laura glanced at Bryan, who merely shrugged, and followed. Bryan gave one last sweeping glance of the small space, spending more time on the cursed symbol, and also exited.
John was curiously quiet through their retreat from the library, but as soon as they came into open air he threw out his arms, leaned his head back, and breathed deep. His ordered world was starting to fracture slightly.
As they crossed the J Bowl, Bryan related the history of “Dr. Jones”, food poison expert and desperate killer. Laura looked with some sympathy on John after hearing about their second encounter with the man. They pulled up outside Honeycutt among the patio tables, whose umbrellas were spread wide to keep the sun off anyone enjoying a meal or studying.
“So are we in danger?” Laura asked. “Is this Dr. Jones fella coming after us again?”
John gave Bryan a keen look.
Slowly their leader shook his head. “I don’t think we’re in danger…yet. Whoever is sending us on this chase is simply leading us along for now. To what end I can’t say. But for now, it’s a game.”
“A weird, twisted, sadistic game,” John commented. “It’s just like a reality TV show.”
“I’ve never watched one, but I’ll take your word for it. As to your second question, Laura, Dr. Jones should be safely in prison.”
“I say we clear up that point now!” John declared, whipping out his cell phone.
“Who are you calling?” Laura wondered.
“Our old friend Detective Havenstraw…Yes, hello? Detective Havenstraw?…It’s John, not Tom. Look, I have a weird question for you. Could you tell us if that assassin going by the name of Dr. Jones is still locked up? Asking for a friend…No, no big trouble yet. Someone etched his symbol in the library tower and we want to make sure he’s not running loose…Okay, thanks a lot…He said he has to contact some people higher up than him but he’ll let us know.”
Bryan nodded. “Good. Until then, I say we find our next clue.”
Finding the tower in Honeycutt was an easy matter, accessing it was harder. They climbed to the second floor, passed by the various paintings depicting the end times, and found the tower was hollow and had no ladders or steps leading up into it.
“Well we’re not getting up there,” Laura observed.
“We could form a human ladder,” John suggested.
“Still wouldn’t be tall enough,” said Bryan. “If we can’t access it, neither could our mysterious person behind the clues.”
“So where is the next clue?” Laura pressed. “Do we check Mullins now?”
Bryan walked over to the railing and leaned over, observing the people passing in the hall and lobby below. Then he looked up through the large arched windows across the lawn to the library. Turning around he produced the first piece of paper and read it over again. Finally he slapped it with one hand and held it out to the others.
“I’ve got it! I may be wrong about all the clues being in the towers, but I know I’m right about Honeycutt. We need to look in the chapel and I dare say we need to look through that door.” He swung and pointed at the large concrete column behind which resided a small chapel with a great round stained glass window. The main entrance was in the lobby beneath them, but on their level was a second door that accessed an organ loft. Bryan strode confidently up to it and yanked it open.
“But,” Laura protested, “how…?”
“The first clue says, ‘Behold thy symbol.’ I mistook that for the scrawling underneath the window. However, the stained glass is itself a symbol of our faith. That’s what we beheld from the tower of learning! The second clue led us here, but the first clue still plays a part too.”
Laura looked to John for guidance but found his wheels laboriously turning under the weight of Bryan’s logic. Finally she surrendered and figured the only way to prove the thing one way or another would be to follow along. As they joined Bryan at the door, he was examining the jamb.
“Further proof, this lock has been, shall we say, jimmied with.”
“Darn Jimmy,” muttered Laura, and they entered the loft.
A small but ornate-looking organ took up most of the floor space. Before them, lit up by the spring sun, was the stained glass window. The great work of art conveyed the four Gospel authors and animals that were symbolically associated with their writings. Bryan searched over the instrument but could find nothing out of the ordinary. Laura gazed intently at a sheet of music propped up above the keys.
“‘Satan’s Arrow’?” she read aloud. “I’ve never heard of that piece.” And she sat down at the organ to play.
“You can play the organ?” John asked.
“Well just don’t play a young man’s heart organ the wrong way someday,” John said with a chuckle. If Laura had been in a better position to hit him, she would have.
Her fingers silently went over the keys to familiarize herself with the arrangement before playing. “What a weird song this is!”
“Is it all tritones?” Bryan asked, his curiosity piqued momentarily by something other than the mystery.
“No…it just seems like it was written by someone who has never studied music theory before.”
“That sounds like Satan,” John joked.
“This one section of chords is horrid,” Laura continued, ignoring her friend. Then she cocked her head slightly. “Hello! These chords look like they’re spelling out words.”
Bryan leaned in closer, forcing Laura to scoot over on the bench. “You’re right. This is the next clue!”
For the following few minutes, the three little detectives parsed out the following couplet:
In your dreams,
Follow the leader.
“Well that must mean Mullins,” Laura declared after deciphering the music.
“I agree,” said Bryan, nodding but clearly thinking.
“Well that’s a tower we’re going to have a hard time getting at,” said John. “At least for Bryan and me.”
“He’s right,” Bryan remarked. “This next one might be all you.”
Laura stood straight and paled at the thought. It was fun dealing with these mysterious clues with the guys tagging along, but to branch out on her own felt like a risk not worth taking. Still, she knew there was nothing for it and went along with them to Mullins.
Bryan and John waited in the small lobby (the one safe place for guys to stand in that building) while Laura ascended to the top floor. It took some asking around, but she finally found a trap door in the ceiling that apparently led into Mullins’ tower. It seemed the only way to open the trap was to produce the right key and lower the ladder down. Her fingertips could just touch it by jumping and hitting it a couple times did not open it. If it had been jimmied with, surely it would not stay latched!
Wanting to cover her bases, she peered into an open door on the hall and asked the room’s occupant if she had seen any maintenance people working at the door leading into the tower. She gave a negative response. Laura stood in the hallway thinking, could see no alternative method of accessing the space, and finally descended to the lobby to strategize with the boys. She was sad to report her failure at gaining the next clue, but they at least had new information.
“Detective Havenstraw called John back and there is no doubt Dr. Jones is locked securely away.”
“Well that’s a relief,” said Laura. “Unfortunately I have nothing to show for my efforts. We may need to grab security to give us access to this tower.”
“Maybe it’s not in the tower,” John suggested.
Bryan snapped his fingers. “John is, surprisingly, correct. Our mysterious patron may be a man whose reach in Mullins is limited.”
“So we have to scour the whole place to find the next clue?” Laura asked wearily.
“We can search the lobby,” John said. “You get to search the rest of Mullins.”
Laura pouted some while Bryan paced around the lobby. Once again he pulled out the clues and considered them. Finally he nodded and looked up. “Laura, the next clue is in your room.”
Laura’s jaw dropped and John gave a sympathetic frown.
“Once again the third clue pointed us here with the ‘In your dreams’ line. But the second line from the second clue specifies where to go: ‘Move to your rest.’ I believe that would be your bedroom.”
“It’s a little unnerving to think that someone is accessing my room when I was gone and leaving clues.”
“That’s understandable,” Bryan said with a shrug.
With no other comfort offered her, Laura trudged up to her room. She found her roommate was there studying with the window open.
“Oh!” she said when Laura entered. “I have a letter for you.”
Laura straightened and eyed her friend with suspicion. “What letter?”
“A seminary woman came by and told me to give it to you. She said it wound up in her box by accident.”
The roommate handed the small envelope to Laura. Written on it was her full name and campus address.
“What did this woman look like?” Laura asked.
“I didn’t really pay attention, to be honest. She had long brownish hair maybe.”
Her roommate frowned slightly, wondering if she did something wrong, but didn’t have a chance to clarify as Laura drifted into the hallway and out of view. By the time she reached the stairwell, she was running and nearly bowled John over in the lobby.
“Bryan, you were right!” she declared. “My roommate said some seminary girl dropped this off. Didn’t get a good look at her,” she added to Bryan’s inquisitive glance.
“Well, if your brakes have cooled off,” said John, “let’s take a look at this clue.”
The envelope contained a slip of paper similar to the others and had the following couplet written on it:
The ivory tower will fall,
But you won’t see it.
“I think process of elimination leaves Norton as the ‘ivory tower’,” said Bryan after they all digested the note.
“This one sounds more ominous than the others,” Laura added.
“But why won’t we see it fall?” John asked. “Isn’t the point of these clues to draw us in to something?”
Bryan resumed his thinking pose, which by now must have been in his muscle memory. “Perhaps we are being warned of something yet coming only we aren’t being told exactly when. The person behind these clues is toying with us.”
“Is there another clue in Norton?” wondered Laura.
“One way to find out,” said Bryan and off they ran, much to the bemusement of anyone watching.
Entering Norton, they darted up the main staircase, ignoring the startled shout from the receptionist in the lobby. At the top was Mohler’s sanctum: his personal studio for recording radio broadcasts and his personal office, which was currently closed off from view.
“We’re looking for entrance to the tower, right?” asked John, panting slightly.
“Yes,” said Bryan.
“Oh good. I thought it was kinda strange that we all just darted up here simultaneously without explanation.”
As they caught their breath and considered their next move, the receptionist came bustling along the balustrade. “What do you all think you’re doing?” she scolded. “You can’t just rush up here like a squall of banshees! Dr. Mohler is currently in a meeting with…” here she lowered her voice to stress the importance of the person, “…John Piper.”
“Whoa, cool!” said John. “Can we get an autograph? I’ll turn it into my first tattoo.”
“We’re not looking for autographs,” Bryan stepped in quickly. “We need to find a way to access the tower.”
The poor woman gazed at the three students with bewildered incredulity. “The tower? The one overhead?”
“That’s usually where towers are,” said John unhelpfully.
“You can’t be allowed up there!”
“Has anyone been up there recently?” Laura asked. “It could potentially be very important.”
The receptionist shook her head. “I don’t know. I can’t say. Certainly not while I’ve been at my post, but I can’t account for when I’m away. I can’t see why anyone would need to go up there. It’s probably full of bats and rats.”
“Bats are just rats with wings,” said John dreamily. Bryan and Laura shot him looks that told him to behave better.
“The last two clues weren’t in the actual towers,” said Laura. “Maybe the one here is somewhere else.”
“We probably need to think this out,” said Bryan, nodding.
“Well think it out downstairs!” the receptionist cut in. “It wouldn’t surprise me if you disturbed the meeting with…John Piper.”
The students acquiesced and roamed the bottom hallway while discussing their situation.
“Let’s consider the clue previous to the last one,” Bryan said. “If the second line of the clues carries on to an extra step, then let’s look at the third clue again.”
Bryan stopped beside a small table supporting a decorative plant and laid out the four scraps of paper full of enigmas.
“It says, ‘Follow the leader’. That would be Mohler, right?” Laura deduced. “So he has the clue?”
“Good luck getting it off of him,” said John. “He’s in a meeting with…” he lowered his voice to mimic the receptionist, “…John Piper.”
Bryan and Laura both spared John a courtesy smile.
“Maybe he doesn’t have it,” said Bryan after a moment. “Maybe it’s somewhere in his office.”
“How are we going to get in there?” Laura countered.
“I have an idea,” said John. Laura and Bryan both tensed up at the phrase. “I say we dress up like waiters and come in serving milk and cookies. I’ll accidentally drop my tray and cause a distraction so you and Laura can peruse the papers on his desk.”
Bryan patted his friend on the shoulder. “An admirable plan but it has one major hole…”
“The fact that the receptionist probably won’t let us up the steps again?” said Laura.
“That too. The bigger problem is where are we going to get milk and cookies?”
Laura and John were both stumped by this problem. Before they could postulate answers, a security guard approached them.
“You three the kids who want to get in the tower?” he asked.
“Yes!” said Laura. “Are you going to let us in?”
“No. What’s this all about? Some crazy scavenger hunt or something?”
“Kind of,” said John. “Only difference is we don’t know what we’re scavenging. Actually, I don’t think I know what scavenging is outside of a scavenger hunt.”
The perplexed guard opened his mouth to respond but Bryan snapped his fingers first. He had been studying the third clue again.
“I’ve got it! The clue tells us what this person’s objective is.” He paused and looked up at them. “Mohler is the target.”
This was too much for the guard, so he asked the students to accompany him back to the security office. They had a hard time convincing the man that they weren’t terrorists or assassins, but rather innocent detectives embroiled in a bigger conspiracy. When the poor guy couldn’t figure out what to believe, he called in the chief of security. This man was a tall, wiry fellow with round glasses and red hair. He looked better suited for a lectern than a security officer, but such was the fare on a seminary campus. The chief recognized them (Bryan at least) as being the students who had worked with the police previously on a couple high profile (for the school) cases. He took in their story somberly and remained silent for a minute after they finished.
“I believe you,” he said at last. “If those clues are pointing to a real plot and not just a prank, this is a matter for us to handle. When Dr. Mohler is done with his meeting, I’ll personally go up and search his office. I’ll let you know if I find anything. Maybe you all could solve another clue faster than me since you’ve been focusing on it longer. For now, it’s in our hands and we’ll make sure the president remains safe. Thank you for your diligence.”
“How are you going to keep Mohler safe?” John asked. “With the snipers on the roof?”
The chief of security gave an awkward laugh. “We don’t employ snipers. You kids stay out of trouble.”
Bryan recognized this dismissal with a nod and turned to leave. Laura followed suit, but John hesitated.
“Wait a second,” he said as they exited the security office. “That’s it? We follow the clues to a dead end and quit?”
“I understand your sentiment,” said Bryan. “But he’s right; this is a security staff problem.”
“You know how good we are at security,” said Laura.
“Sure, we’re not the best by any stretch,” John countered. “But it seems kind of lame to stop there.”
“It is a loose thread that makes me uncomfortable,” Bryan admitted. “However, I think we have come to the point of thinking the matter through some more before continuing on. I’ll let you both know if I come across anything and Laura, I’m sure, will do likewise.”
“Of course!” she affirmed.
“Until then, let’s do something fun with our time together.”
Laura’s question stopped them in their tracks and they spent a few awkward seconds shuffling uneasily.
“Want to walk to a nearby bookstore?” said John.
Thus the Grungers advanced upon a helpless bookstore and bereaved it of one book by the time they were done. John left before sundown and the other two parted ways.
For two weeks, there was silence among the three. Bryan’s thinking brought him nowhere; Laura was consumed with work and school; and John was generally forgetful of things not immediately threatening his life. The matter was almost completely expunged from his mind when he received a call one afternoon around lunchtime from an unknown number. He answered and was surprised to hear Bryan’s voice.
“John! Would it be possible for you to come down to Louisville today?”
“I have work this evening, but if it’s an emergency I’d be more than happy to call in.”
“Good; do it. I’m in a tough spot.”
John gasped. “You found the woman of your dreams?”
“I wish. This is a little more serious than that—Laura has disappeared!”
“Are you sure?” John asked, hopping off his bed to begin gathering his effects for the journey.
“I wasn’t at first. I hadn’t seen her for a few days but didn’t think anything of it. Then Jess came up to me and wondered if I knew where she was at. I spent all of yesterday making inquiries and getting nowhere. Then, this morning, I checked my mailbox and found a note from someone saying to meet them in the grove in front of Norton to gain information concerning her whereabouts. If you can make it, I’d like you to be there.”
“No worries, my friend! Let me make a few calls and I’ll be down in a jiffy.”
“What does peanut butter have to do with haste? I would think that would slow you down.”
John stopped mid-movement and let silence fill the line for a moment. “Bryan, you keep your head together, okay? I’m on my way.”
Almost two hours later, John was once more on the campus of Southern Seminary. Bryan met him in the parking lot and the two had a nervous lunch together.
“Who do you think could stand to benefit from Laura’s kidnapping?” John wondered.
“I have a feeling it’s connected to that little case we had a couple weeks ago,” said Bryan.
John looked blankly for a moment and then roused himself. “Oh yeah! Really? I thought we determined Mohler was the target. What would Laura have to do with it?”
“She helped investigate it.”
“So did you and I.”
“I think it’s a matter of convenience for our mysterious culprit. You live out of town currently and I usually have a posse of people around me who need Greek tutoring. That leaves Laura as the easy prey.”
John nodded in an enlightened way. “So in spite of the security team’s best efforts, we’re still getting pulled into this, eh?”
“Seems so,” said Bryan, leaning back dejectedly in his chair.
“This makes it look personal now.”
Bryan cocked his head slightly. “Not necessarily. If anyone is interested in the seminary or school, our exploits tend to come into the conversation.”
“Really? Have you been talking with recruiters or something?”
“Yes. And I will be featured in the next Seminary magazine issue.”
John dropped his fork as well as his jaw. “Why didn’t I get invited to this?”
“You currently live out of town…”
“They wanted to talk to me because I’m generally the brain behind our operations.”
“Not ‘generally’, you are the brain…of our operations, not a mouse.”
“Getting back to Laura. Have you told the security staff yet?”
“And that you think it’s related?”
“Yes. But they weren’t convinced. They think this may be coincidental. Our old friend Detective Havenstraw is looking abroad to see if this is so.”
The rest of the day drifted uneasily by. Cloud cover moved in over the school and threatened a spring storm. The two detectives retraced their steps from two weeks previous to see if maybe there was something they missed that would give them an edge in finding Laura before being put at the mercy of an unknown informant.
Alas, their searching and theorizing led to dead ends and supper crept up on them. When night fell, the air smelled like rain, and thunder could be heard in the distance. Bryan and John treaded carefully into the grove of oak trees in front of Norton Hall. They wandered around for a moment, trying to espy their contact but to no avail. Finally they paused behind a wooden pillar and rested their backs on its bark.
“Did the message note a particular tree we were to wait by?” John asked, glancing nervously around.
Bryan merely shook his head and looked toward the nearby road. All of a sudden a whisper was carried on the wind that caused them both to stand up straight and turn pale.
“Where you kneel and bless is your damsel in distress,” said the voice.
Bryan and John shot their eyes this way and that, hoping to discern a figure anywhere in that dark grove.
“Where are you?” Bryan shouted.
In answer, the voice only repeated itself, “Where you kneel and bless is your damsel in distress.”
“I see. You’re not going to show yourself. Very well then, let’s solve the clue.”
“Wait,” said John, “I didn’t catch it. Can you repeat that, mysterious voice?”
The voice obliged. “Where you kneel and bless is your damsel in distress.”
“Where you neon Bess is your damsel in a dress?”
“Where you kneel and bless is your damsel in distress!” the voice whispered louder.
“Look buddy, you’re gonna hafta speak up. I’m a little hard of hearing from listening to rock music.”
This time, the voice hissed and faded.
“I don’t think we need to tease the informant,” Bryan cautioned. “Now to this clue.”
“Well, how was he doing that? Are there speakers somewhere?”
“Ventriloquism. Learning to throw your voice, as they say. I tried it once in high school, built a dummy and everything.”
John stared at Bryan for a few moments. “Homeschoolers…”
“Make fun of my upbringing later, we need to solve this clue!”
“Right, sorry. Carry on.”
“‘Where you kneel and bless…’” Bryan repeated. “A reference to prayer.”
“Good guess, but I believe this is a place on campus. If this is connected to the previous excursion, it should follow that the location is on campus.”
“Oh! Alumni Chapel! It even has a tower!”
“That’s a steeple, but still a good guess.”
“You’re not convinced?”
Bryan cocked his head and gazed up into the trees. “Sure, you pray in chapel, but you also sing, preach, and do other things.”
“Like take naps?”
“Well, there’s all the prayer rooms scattered around the seminary.”
“I need a moment,” said Bryan and he began pacing around a tree. “There’s too many options!” he exclaimed at last. A few more turns around the trunk found him smacking his head with his palms. At last he stopped and let out a satisfied, “Ahhh!”
“Please don’t tell me you wet yourself,” said John, who had sunk down beside a neighboring tree.
“No, something better,” said Bryan. “I know where Laura is at.”
Bryan dashed away and John charged to keep up. “In the King James Version, when Jesus talks about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount the translation reads something like, ‘Go into thy closet to pray.’ It’s secret and secure and the last place we would normally think to look.”
“Yeah…I guess…but why not the other options?”
“I fear you were right earlier…this is personal!”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s a hunch.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
“We’ll try the other locations. Process of elimination is not that hard of a logical exercise to follow.”
Down through the Valley of Decision they sprinted and up the hill toward Carver. A group of passing girls giggled at their haste. A gathering of guys lounging in the courtyard laughed at their running posture. But they heeded them not. Onward and upward they flew to Bryan’s room, practically busting down the door. Without hesitation Bryan swept open the closet and there, indeed, was Laura, tied up and gagged.
John stood aghast. Bryan looked like a somber, marble statue worthy of the Greeks. John turned to Bryan and recovered his tongue.
“Well, this is awkward.”
Before they could even untie their helpless friend, the two boys were pushed back by a man suddenly forcing his way into the room. Bryan was about to protest and John about to fight, but both paused when they saw it was a security guard.
“What’s going on in here?” he asked gruffly.
“I told you all my friend had been kidnapped,” said Bryan. “Well, we found her.”
“In there.” He pointed at the closet.
The guard poked his head in and then turned a stern face to Bryan. “Whose closet is this?”
Now Bryan became aware of the implications behind his situation and muffled a groan. “It’s mine.”
“Why is there a young woman hog-tied in your closet?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t put her there.”
“You know what the hall rules are. No girls are allowed in the guys’ dorms. What do you think we are, some heathen school?”
“I didn’t put her there!” Bryan protested.
The guard, a burly, square-chested, square jawed man, looked between Laura (still gagged and bound in the closet) and Bryan.
“Maybe you didn’t,” he said at last. “But I’m taking you and the girl in anyway until we get this sorted out!”
“Taking us where?” asked Bryan.
“The seminary jail, of course.” He reached into the closet, yanked Laura out, and grabbed Bryan’s arm. He led them into the hallway where John stopped him.
“Are you arresting me too?”
“Who are you?” the guard inquired.
“I’m their friend.”
“You live in this room?”
“No, I’m an online student.”
The guard seemed slightly shaken and unsure of himself. “I don’t think I need to arrest you.”
“Can I come along then? Slip them forks and spoons that they can fashion into knives? Give them tattoos?”
The adult again seemed uncertain of what to do next. “Fine, whatever! No knives. But you can come along.”
The seminary jail was tucked away inside one of the major construction zones on campus. It was near the security offices and seemed to be under construction itself. Clearly it was a new space. The smell of fresh paint, clean floors, and a shiny guard desk all spoke to the newness of the area. The jail was a tiny front lobby (with the aforementioned desk), a short hallway, and two cells on either side. Bryan was thrown into one and Laura was finally unbound and tossed into the other. The gruff guard took his station at the desk and John stood between the cells in the little hall.
“My dad’s going to kill me when he hears I got thrown into seminary jail,” said Laura, sinking onto a camping cot that was set up in a corner.
“I’m honestly impressed the seminary has a jail at all,” said John.
Bryan kicked his cot. “I can’t believe we walked into that! That was a total trap!”
“What? Laura being in your closet?”
“Yes! Of course, the informant probably put her there, and then went to give us the clue. As we run off to the rescue, he anonymously tips off campus security and we get caught in a dubious situation. Now we’re stuck and he’s free to move.”
“Laura, where have you been at anyways?” John asked.
Laura shrugged. “I was in a dark, cold place.”
“I know the feeling,” said John, nodding sympathetically.
“Not metaphorically, John! Literally! I couldn’t make out anything and when my captor came to leave me food, he wore a robe and mask.”
“And clever,” said Bryan. “You can’t see his face or his body type.”
“Anyways,” Laura continued, “tonight he must have slipped something into my supper, because I was out shortly after eating. I awoke unsure of where I was at until you guys opened the door to the closet.”
“Someone’s going through a lot of work to mess with you two,” said John. “So who is it and why?”
Bryan paced restlessly around his cell. “None of it makes sense! First, we’re pulled on a wild goose chase around campus, then Laura is kidnapped, and finally both of us are arrested and framed.”
“I think, technically, you were framed first and then arrested,” said John demurely.
Bryan shot him a look, paused, shuddered, and collapsed on his cell’s cot with head in hands.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he groaned.
Laura frowned at Bryan’s response to the situation and rallied herself. “Well then, let’s make it make sense! We assumed the clues from a couple weeks ago were simply someone toying with us. But what if they were symbolic as well?”
Bryan looked up with some interest, John looked confused, Laura continued.
“The four clues were in the four buildings on the main campus that have towers. Towers are often symbols of power and defense. Maybe the person was suggesting he or she would knock down those towers and leave our ‘fortress’ in ruins?”
“Behold thy symbol…” Bryan muttered.
“Exactly! But why tell us?”
“Because we’re famous!” said John. “Well, Bryan is at least.”
“That could be one reason,” Laura agreed with a nod. “But even so, we could have been completely oblivious and never seen anything coming. Why go through all this trouble? To lead us running around the campus without achieving anything tangible, to kidnap me, and then to frame us and land us in the seminary slammer, it’s humiliating! Whoever is doing this has personal reasons to do so.”
“Enter thy rest,” Bryan muttered again. “We thought it may have been a death threat, but what if it was to simply sideline us while the campus was torn apart.”
“But why…?” John asked.
“Because this is our alma mater. We take some pride in coming to school here. What if we were aware of a threat against it and were powerless to do anything? We would bear that shame and guilt for the rest of our lives.”
“So this is like psychological warfare?”
Bryan nodded slowly. “I think this person has already tried once before. Early last semester when Dr. Jones first reared his ugly head, he said he was doing his dirty work as a job. Someone hired him to discredit the school.”
“Who cares who it is at the moment,” Laura exclaimed, “remember how this person will tear down the towers? By attacking Mohler!”
“Tonight’s the night,” Bryan said with great urgency, standing back up and coming to the bars. “John, you need to go warn him.”
“Whoa, wait, what?” said John, looking wildly between Bryan and Laura. “Like, go to him personally and warn him?”
“I bet he’s on campus,” Bryan continued, resuming his pacing. “The ivory tower will fall. He must be at his office. Go check there first and see if you can warn him.”
“But why not tell the security guards?”
Bryan pressed his forehead into the bars and spoke lowly. “Because we may not be able to trust all of them.”
John looked down the hall to the lobby in surprise and then back at Bryan. “You think…?”
Bryan nodded. “He seemed unsure about what to do with you, like it wasn’t part of the plan.”
Laura gasped. “John, you’re the wild card! You can undo this person’s plot!”
“Uhhhh…maybe I’ll just track down—”
But John couldn’t finish his excuse as Bryan suddenly reached through the bars, grabbing John by his shirt, and yanking him closer. “We don’t have time for this! Mohler’s life is possibly on the line. You need to go warn him now. You. Only you. You can do this, John. I know your self-confidence is about as deep as a bird bath, but you can do this. You must.”
“Bird baths can be deep, I suppose,” John muttered, stepping back from the bars. He nervously ran his hands through his hair and slowly stepped down the hall. In the lobby, the gruff guard was perusing a car magazine. “Think I’ll go out and get some air,” John said, trying to be nonchalant but just coming off as awkward.
The guard gave him a look that said, “Why are you telling me that?” and returned to his reading material. John continued his slow exit and stopped a few feet outside the door. He exhaled deeply and looked to the stars for comfort. But the stars weren’t shining that night. Clouds reigned in the sky. The world was not prim and ordered; it was spiraling out of control faster than a falling helicopter. Finally he closed his eyes, mustered his courage, and darted into the dark toward Norton Hall.
As he turned a corner, entering the J-Bowl area, he crashed into someone.
“Oh terribly sorry,” John exclaimed, brushing by, “but I gotta go save the president!”
“John? What’s going on?”
The boy stopped and turned around. He could almost hug the figure he saw. It was Jess.
“Jess!” he exclaimed. Then his brain kicked into gear. “Jess, quick! Come with me! Where have you been this whole time anyway?”
“I was studying with some friends in Carver and was rushing back to the dorm before curfew.”
“No, I meant through this whole adventure…nevermind! Come with me, quick! Two are better than one and I desperately need another person now.”
John resumed running. Jess tossed her backpack into a shadowy corner nearby and followed.
“Is this about Laura?” she asked as they neared Norton.
“Hm? No, we found Laura. She and Bryan are in seminary jail right now.”
“Seminary jail? Why do we have an on campus prison?”
They entered Norton and ascended the steps.
“I don’t know,” said John. “Maybe for all the students who break the no-alcohol rule.”
“So what are we doing?” she wondered at the top of the steps.
“We gotta save him,” said John, pointing toward Dr. Mohler’s office. “Hope John Piper still isn’t in there.” He dashed forward suddenly, Jess barely able to keep up, and burst through the door without ceremony. It was empty. “Well that’s anticlimactic.”
Jess flipped on the light and gasped. John followed her stare to a bookshelf against the back wall, though currently not entirely on the back wall. John gasped too.
“It’s a staircase!” he declared upon examination.
“Dr. Mohler has a secret staircase in his office,” Jess said. “He’s officially the coolest seminary president ever. But if I had a secret staircase, I wouldn’t leave the door open.”
“Maybe he didn’t…”
“The assassin! He must’ve come up here, found it empty, but searched around and discovered the secret behind the bookshelf!”
“Wait, assassin? So by ‘saving the president’, you mean someone’s trying to kill him?”
“Oh. You could’ve led with that.”
“What else would I be saving the president from? Jehovah’s Witness? A Tupperware party?”
“Okay, I get your point! What do we do now?”
John hunched up a little and thought. “I guess we follow.”
The two students exchanged glances.
“I guess I’ll lead the way,” John said at last.
“You’re the man.”
“You don’t want to be egalitarian for once?”
They crept down the spiral iron staircase for what felt like several floors. At the bottom a light flicked on. John jumped.
“Don’t worry; it’s motion sensor,” Jess said, pointing to a detector on the wall.
When John satisfied himself on this point, he looked up to see a close tunnel stretching on before them. Farther ahead a light went out.
“Someone definitely came this way in the last few minutes,” John concluded.
He steeled himself for another burst of energy and took off, Jess trailing behind. Lights flicked on as they passed until they came to a crossroad. One path turned right, the other left.
“Great, we’re gonna hafta split up,” John muttered.
“No need. Look! The lights were on down there a second ago.” She pointed left, so they turned their feet that way. At the end of this corridor was a more normal set of steps that didn’t climb so far but seemingly ended at a wall. Upon mounting the stairs and examining the partition, they determined it was the back of another bookshelf and pushed it open with their combined bodyweight.
Aside from the light cast behind them from the tunnel, the area they entered was dark. What light did illuminate their immediate view told them plenty: they were in the basement of the President’s Mansion. Specifically, they were in Dr. Mohler’s private library, a maze of books and artifacts that ran the entire length of the house.
John hastily motioned Jess to shut the door and she acquiesced. Now they were in darkness. Next came the dread part. Was the killer lurking in the labyrinth with them? Or was he already upstairs? Would the darkness soon be pierced by cries? It was too much for their nerves, but they pressed forward; there was no turning back now.
Their nervousness grew to frustration when they couldn’t find the stairs leading up into the house. John nearly karate chopped a bust of Winston Churchill after it scared him around a corner and Jess nearly cried out to see if anyone was awake upstairs. But then a noise stopped them. A creak. A slow creak, like someone creeping along the floor. It started to their left and moved overhead.
“That’s him,” John hissed.
“We need to get out of here,” Jess said aloud. With urgency as her motivator, she glanced around for a white light switch or lamp of some sort. Finally her eyes landed on a desk lamp and she flipped it on.
“Ah, that’s better. I know where we are.”
“Yep. I’ve been down here a couple times on tours and stuff and remember this section being close to the stairs. Let’s go!”
“Why didn’t we do that before?”
Jess shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess we didn’t know the killer was upstairs before now.”
At the top of the stairs a door admitted them into a hallway; before them was another door and in this doorway stood a figure. Without double checking to make sure it wasn’t Dr. Mohler, John tackled the figure and the chaos began.
The habits of Dr. Mohler are largely a mystery to the common student at Boyce College and Southern Seminary. To that simple-minded student, Mohler is a mythical figure who never sleeps but is always awake, always reading, always doing something really important. The sad truth is that he is still a man and requires some sleep (however minimal compared to the average person). His habit, and the habit of his wife, was to go to bed relatively early (by college student standards), holding to the old axiom, “Early to bed, early to rise.” Thus he was well asleep in the waning hours of the day, when night ushers one rotation of earth into a new spin, and this was where the assassin found him and where John and Jess found the assassin.
John did not just tackle the would-be killer, he let out a great yell, too, in order to muster his courage to the highest peak. His cry alone was enough to wake the prestigious couple, let alone the flailing and grunting that followed. Mrs. Mohler was the first to turn on a light and she gave a cry for she understood the struggle on their bedroom floor was one of life and death. The assassin, clothed head-to-toe in black, finally pulled away from John and rose to take aim at the seminary president. His wife threw herself over his groggy form, but no human shield was necessary, for at that moment Jess sprang into action. She grabbed the arm holding the gun and forced it to fly up at the last moment. It fired and produced a hole in the ceiling and a shriek from Mrs. Mohler.
By now John recovered and launched himself once more at the intruder. The small mass fell backwards into the dark hallway and convulsed in its anguish there, Jess trying to keep the gun arm raised, John landing punches anywhere he could. The surprised and battered assassin realized his window of opportunity was closed, locked, and barred and mustered his strength to break free. The gun arm bent backwards and the silenced pistol fired.
Jess gave a shocked cry and fell away. John ceased his pummeling and was knocked off his punching bag. The man fled and John caught Jess and leaned her against the wall. A spot of blood appeared on her right arm.
“I’ll be fine,” Jess shouted. “Get him!”
The emotion that swelled in John’s heart was akin to that of revolutionary fervor or zealous patriotism. This was war. Someone had framed his friends, launched an attack upon his school, and now injured another friend. A long dormant urgency and tenacity erupted forth like a volcanic explosion. This man, whoever he was, would not escape.
John dashed after the assassin who disappeared into a room that turned out to be a dining area. John bumped into a large wood table and ducked, for he saw from the meager light coming through the window the gunman taking aim. As he took cover, he heard the report of the gun and then the shuffling of feet and finally the man playing at the lock on a door. John jumped up, noticed something in the center of the table, and grabbed it as he passed.
By the time John reached the back door, which opened onto a raised stone porch, the assassin had busted the lock and fled. As John flew onto the porch, he dropped to a feet-first slide, for he saw the assassin taking aim again. Again the report of the gun, and again it missed. The man turned and fled down stone stairs behind him. John noticed a parallel set on the other side and darted for them.
Now it was a race to the bottom, both participants jumping multiple steps at a time. The assassin reached the lawn, which sloped away down a sharp hill. John slipped and tumbled down the last few feet but rolled a little ways on the lawn only to pop up quickly and resume his chase. This misstep perhaps saved John’s life as the gunman let another bullet fly.
It was time for John to return the favor of long range assault. He realized at this point—and confirmed it in the outside light—that the object seized from Dr. Mohler’s dinner table was a stone knife. Thanks to a previous roommate who occupied some of his free time with knife throwing, John had some experience in hurling such a projectile. He took as careful aim as he could while running downhill and let his missile fly. At the same instant, the assassin threw back his deadly hand to take another shot. The stone knife collided with the pistol and knocked it out of hand.
The impact and its result stunned the assassin and he tripped. He forced himself to a stop and looked up to see John tackle him one more time. The two tumbled a few more feet and now came the bitter struggle. As they wrestled there upon the hill with the president’s mansion overlooking their violence, a happy coincidence befell John: he found a rock. He had seen enough movies to know what to do with a rock in a close fight. So he struck the assassin in the head.
The man dropped with a suddenness so startling, John jumped up scared. He hoped he hadn’t killed the man, but before he could check for a pulse or even tear away the mask, a sharp pain exploded between his shoulder blades. John collapsed on top of the man he just knocked out and turned over. The figure standing over him drew a gasp from his lips.
“You’re that guy from the Bird Man adventure!” he exclaimed. “Bike Sickle!”
“Bryce! Bryce Sickle!” bellowed the man.
“Oh yeah. What did you hit me with?” But a quick glance at Sickle’s hand told him it was the stone knife. Thankfully, it was blunt.
“I’m about to hit you with death,” said the figure, advancing and forcing John to scoot backwards on the ground.
“So you were behind all this?” John asked, trying to buy time.
“Of course I was! Ever since your little gang ruined my enterprising business, I’ve plotted my revenge. First, I tried discrediting your school. I hired a poisons expert (who coincidentally was the Bird Man you just mentioned) to play with the food.”
“You hired him?”
“Yes! I just said that!”
“I wanted to make sure I heard you right…”
“Anyways,” Sickle continued, “he wasn’t fit to the task. He almost ruined everything for me when he returned for revenge. That wasn’t how I wanted you all destroyed, but thankfully he was as inept at vengeance as he was in completing a simple task.”
“Yeah…he had bad aim.”
“After his first failure, I knew I needed to play the game smarter. So I studied your school, snuck in at various conferences and learned every building. I heard a rumor about secret tunnels under the campus and found them. I plotted everything out and carefully hired the workers for my plan.”
He paused in his advance and John was grateful, he needed time for the pain in his back to subside.
“To my consternation,” he continued, “you had gone home for a semester and the others had scattered. But I aimed at Bryan, who was clearly the brains of the bunch…”
“I will agree with that.”
“…and sent him a clue. Things partially worked in my favor. The red head and you joined him in my wild goose chase that was meant to tantalize and do no more. It worked and showed me that you were the wild card, but Bryan and the red head…”
“Her name’s Laura.”
“…were the constants. I kidnapped the red head…”
“Fine! I kidnapped Laura and hid her for several days. To my surprise, it took Bryan a while to realize she was missing.”
“Some guys and girls don’t interact much on our campus.”
“Clearly. Once he noticed, I knew it was time to spring my greatest triumph. I would trap those two with my fake security guard and throw them into a fake seminary jail…”
“Wait, you mean the jail isn’t real?”
“No, of course not! Why would a seminary have its own jail?”
John thought this over. “You’re right. But it’s kinda disappointing.”
Sickle gave him a blank stare, rallied himself, and continued. “Where was I?”
“Yes, thank you. So, they would be in jail and the president of the seminary would be shot. Their greatest failure, my greatest triumph! I would have crippled the seminary and their consciences in one fell swoop. My vengeance would be satiated.”
“Yeah, but your new assassin failed, too!” John said in a taunting, 8th grade school girl type of voice.
“Yes, confound him! You, the wild card, and that other girl…”
“…ruined that part of my plan. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll kill you here and then go take care of the other two in jail.”
He raised his arm that bore the knife and John sought wildly in his mind for another time killer.
“Wait!” he shouted at last. “Weren’t you in prison?”
“I got out on bail. Thankfully none of you read newspapers or you would have been suspicious before now.”
“Who reads newspapers anymore?” John said, more to himself than to Sickle.
“Enough talk! It’s time to die.”
Again he raised his arm. John hoped that he could struggle through the pain, for his still grasped the knockout rock in his hand. With a gasping groan, he hurled the rock in Sickle’s face. He somehow missed. The attacker had a moment of stunned perplexity and then prepared to dive upon the student.
John prepared to lift his legs and catch Sickle in the chest and propel him downhill. But he never got the chance, for something seemed to slash through the air and Sickle. A thud sounded in the ground a few feet away and the former criminal staggered and fell. John shot his glance uphill and saw the glint of a laser light on the roof.
“They do have snipers up there!” he yelled, pointing at the house like a boy at Disney World. Then a moment of shock. “Hey, where were you guys before then?”
Not receiving an answer, John slowly raised himself and moved to Sickle’s side. Even in the night light, he could tell blood was pouring from the wound.
“Why am I foiled?” Sickle said with a cough and gasp. “How could I not…succeed?”
John shrugged. “Maybe you should have stayed in school longer.”
The villain gave him a reproachful look and John realized he should probably be somewhat respectful in the man’s dying moments. Before any more impertinence could be uttered, however, he heard a familiar voice call his name from uphill. He turned and his haggard face brightened.
“Bryan! You’re free!” The two embraced in a hug in spite of John’s aching shoulders. “How’d you get out? Did you dig a tunnel?”
“Nope. I examined the bars a little closer and found they were hastily installed. A few good kicks knocked the whole barrier from the wall. That scared off the fake security guard.”
“You know the jail’s a fake?”
“Yeah, I figured. After that, I got Laura free and we raced to Mohler’s office. We found the secret staircase and I went down that while Laura ran to the mansion above ground.”
“Were you hoping to see which way the assassin would have gone and cut him off?”
“No. Laura felt awkward about going down in the tunnel with just the two of us.”
“We found Jess and the Mohlers. Jess is doing alright,” he added in answer to a querying look from John. “Security just arrived and police are on their way.”
A gurgling cough interrupted them. Bryan stepped over and looked down into the face of Bryce Sickle, who returned the look with a glare of hatred.
“So. It is you,” said Bryan softly. “I realized in the fake jail you were the only one with a sufficient level of motive to attack us so.”
“You should be the one lying here…bleeding out…” he said. “Not me…not…me…”
The head wagged and the man faded. The chief of security approached just then and took over the situation.
“You boys need to get back up to the mansion and wait for the emergency response personnel. I’ll handle things here.”
“I knew you had snipers on the roof,” John murmured as they ascended. The officer merely glanced back for a brief second.
An hour later, the police were wrapping up their reports and cleaning up the yard. The bullet passed cleanly through Jess’ arm and caused no major damage, so the medics put on some butterfly stitches and told her to get to the hospital at some point that night to get an x-ray and official stitches. Jess said she could do the patch work herself and the medics laughed awkwardly and moved on. Now the heroes sat at the great wood table with the Mohlers. Aside from Bryan, they were rather awestruck to share the space with such a famous (for their circle) couple. Mrs. Mohler, wrapped in a trauma blanket, passed out hot cups of tea to the students. A bleary eyed Dr. Mohler stood at the head of the table and heard from the different members of the party how that particular mystery unfolded and the different roles they had to play in its action. At the end of it all he smiled and shook his head.
“Well, that just about beats any mystery I’ve ever read,” he said.
“Have you read a lot of mysteries?” John muttered quietly. Laura, sitting across from him, tried kicking his shins but was met with a support beam running down the center. John smiled at her failure.
“I have read a few mysteries, young man,” said the president with a winking nod. “Never thought I’d be involved in one. I surely have you all to thank for this having a happy ending.”
“I’m happy that it came out right,” said Bryan.
“It didn’t look good there for a while,” Laura added.
Mohler nodded. “Well, I hate to seem rude, but if the authorities are done with us for the evening, I need to resume my sleep. I have a meeting with John Piper tomorrow.”
The students exchanged glances. Bryan and Laura bent eyes upon John warning him of cracking a joke.
“Before you go, Dr. Mohler,” said Jess timidly, “do you think, as a reward, we would be able to use the secret tunnels from now on?”
The nameless assassin shall remain nameless, for he was not overly important in the grand scheme of things. He went off to prison. Bryce Sickle was taken to the hospital and given treatment, but there wasn’t much the doctors could do. The reason the sniper on the roof took so long to fire was partially he had been snoozing when the action began, then he couldn’t get a clear shot, then he wasn’t sure who to shoot, then he wanted to see if John could get out of the jam he was in. Once it was apparent the bad guy had the upper hand, the sniper squeezed the trigger.
Dr. Mohler resumed his sleep and woke early as if nothing extraordinary had happened the night previous. Mrs. Mohler was allowed to keep her trauma blanket and turned it into a quilt. The fake seminary jail was closed up from common access, but may or may not have been repurposed for actual use by the security staff. Jess’ arm was just fine and she gladly showed it off to anyone who was curious. This drew squeals of horror from the ladies and looks of envy from the men. Laura took it upon herself to actually compose a song called ‘Satan’s Arrow’. It was a laughable tune, which, she said, was the point. John’s back was slightly sore, but he slept through the entire next day and was fine. Bryan’s special feature in the seminary magazine was updated to include his latest escapade. He helped save the seminary and he could play cello? Some people couldn’t handle the greatness.
John returned to Boyce College on the last day of class and the four Grungers had a special supper together. They toasted each other with water and gorged themselves on salad and peanut butter sandwiches. In the end, they exchanged hugs and parted with heavy hearts, for Laura was not returning the next semester and their futures never felt more uncertain. Did more mysteries wait for them in the coming year, or was this great one their last? No matter how they viewed it, one thing was certain: if the final stab of Mr. Sickle’s vengeful knife was their final exam, they passed with flying colors.
And so, the moral of our story is: always look for secret staircases in the offices of famous men.
*college-time mysteries. 2019. All rights reserved.