For John, Norah, Richard, Shane, Sigmund and Ted—
it’s been such a joy sharing this ride with all of you!
TABLE OF CONTENT
There were flashing lights ahead. I pumped the brakes and was relieved when the car responded, slowing down instead of fishtailing on the snow-covered road. I eased over into the empty oncoming lane to go wide around the police car on the side of the road. A police officer was out of his car, helping some people whose vehicle was in the ditch. That was the eighteenth car we’d seen that had gone off the road, along with two transport trucks and a snow-plow. I’d never seen a snowplow skid out, which said a lot about the driving conditions.
I couldn’t help but look over at the accident as we went by. The car’s occupants, an older couple, seemed to be fine, although there was no way they were getting their car out of the ditch without a tow truck. At least it had been cushioned by the snow-bank, which had stopped them from going too far off the road.
“They’re okay,” I said.
My cousin Spencer looked up from his handheld device. “Who?”
“I said they’re okay. They weren’t injured.”
I almost laughed, but stopped myself. Between the glasses and his response—“who, who”—he did look more than a little like an owl. “There was another car in the ditch,” I explained.
He craned his neck to look behind us. “I didn’t notice…sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Keep working.”
“Okay, thanks.” He turned back to his tablet.
Spencer was sitting in the passenger seat beside me, but he had been somewhere else most of the trip. He was in first-year film school and was doing some editing on a project for one of his classes. He’d occasionally mutter something, but for the most part he was totally absorbed in what he was doing. He had said he wanted us all to see it when it was done. I got the feeling that if we did go off the road and were upside down in the ditch, hanging from our seat belts, he would hardly notice. And when he did notice, he would want to make a movie about it. Grandpa had always said, Follow your passions. He would have been proud of Spencer.
Grandpa had been on my mind a lot the last few days. Not that he was ever that far away from my thoughts, but going to his cottage brought back so many memories. He had been gone for over six months, but somehow I expected that when we got there, he’d be waiting on the porch, the cottage warm, a big fire going, the snow shoveled, hot chocolate waiting and stories to share.
“Are we almost there?”
I startled a bit at the voice coming from right behind me. Spencer’s younger brother, Bunny, had been asleep so long I’d forgotten he was there.
“Yup, it’s the next turnoff.”
“It’s been a long drive,” I said.
“It is beautiful, for sure.”
“And open. I like open. There is no open in jail.”
Bunny—Bernard was his real name—had just been temporarily released from juvie. He was one of the last people I would have expected to end up in jail to begin with, and definitely the last person I expected to survive it. I guess I’d seen too many movies about prison. But the way he described it made it sound more like extended summer camp than jail. That didn’t mean it was that way—that was just how he saw it.
My cousins Spencer and Bunny were a little… different. The three of us and my brother Steve had all gone to the same high school, and more than once I’d had to step in when somebody was picking on Bunny or ragging on Spencer. Spencer saw the world from a unique perspective, but Bunny was simply odd. Nice but odd. Very odd. There was no other way to describe him. He hardly ever seemed to have much more than a vague understanding of what was happening around him. I guess that might be an advantage in juvie. And now, even if he had been awake for the entire drive, the conditions wouldn’t have worried him. Worrying was more my job.
The turnoff appeared just ahead, and I slowed us down to practically nothing and made the turn. The tires grabbed the gravel underneath the crust of beaten-down snow. The road had been plowed, but there was still a dusting of freshly fallen snow on top. We’d have clear sailing through the last section.
“I’m glad we came up here,” Bunny said.
“So am I. Grandpa would have liked it.”
We were coming up to spend a week at the place Grandpa had loved the most. Five of the six of us… no, five of the seven grandsons were coming up. I felt bad about not including Rennie in the original count, but it had only been since Grandpa’s death that we had even known we had another cousin. Rennie wasn’t going to be with us at the cottage, since he was on vacation in South America with his father, and my brother Steve wasn’t here either. His choice. I glanced at my watch. From Steve’s text I knew he was already on the train, headed for Seville. He had touched down in Spain two days ago and had been given an enthusiastic greeting from Laia, the girl he’d met in the summer. So there he was, with no snow, lots of sun and a beautiful girl. He’d bugged out on our get-together, but I did understand it. Honoring Grandpa was one thing. Hot girl trumped that every time. Still, I was a bit annoyed and maybe a little jealous.
Our other two cousins, Adam and Webb, were driving up from the States together and might even be at the cottage when we arrived. Part of me wanted them to get there before us—get a fire started to warm the place up—but a bigger part wanted to arrive first. It was hard to put aside my competitiveness, even for things that didn’t matter in the least. Steve always joked that I could turn washing dishes into a sporting event. He was right. I could make anything into a competitive sport and win.
Adam and Webb had really connected over the past months. Spencer had Bunny, and of course Steve and I had each other the way only twins could, and now Adam and Webb had each other. Webb had even stayed with Adam and his parents over the summer. That left only Rennie out of the mix, although Adam seemed to be trying to draw him in; the two of them were Facebook and texting buddies. That was great. It would be hard to be the one on the outside. Rennie had invited all of us to come visit him, and Steve and I were going to take him up on that. Next summer Steve and I were going to go to England for two weeks to visit my friend Doris and then spend two weeks with Laia in Spain. Laia was going to spend some time in Canada before that so I’d get to know her. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was as wonderful as Steve thought she was. The most significant difference between Doris and Laia was that Doris was in her late sixties. She had promised to introduce us to a couple of her grand-daughters and have them show us around London.
While we were at the cottage, our mothers were also spending time together. The “girls” were going away on a cruise, something they had often done with Grandpa when they really were girls. It was one of the bequests in his will—just like the requests made of his seven grandsons. It would have been simpler if he’d paid for the seven of us to go on a cruise instead of on far-flung adventures around the world, but simpler wasn’t necessarily better.
Hardly a day went by that I didn’t think about my experience climbing Kilimanjaro, and never a day went by when I didn’t think of Grandpa. His beret—the one he always wore, the one he’d given me, the one I’d taken to the top of the mountain—sat atop my head. I still felt like it didn’t look right on me, but my mother thought one day it would really “fit.”
We came over the last rise in the road and there was the driveway. David McLean was written in large ornate letters on the side of a mailbox that marked the way. It was a wonderful old handmade mailbox. Grandpa had made it to look like a beehive. He had been as mad as a hornet himself when the snowplow smashed into the pole and knocked it over a few years ago. Thinking about snowplows made me realize that the driveway was plowed the way it always was. I hadn’t been expecting that. It was great, since it meant we didn’t have to park on the road and walk down the lane, but it was still a little eerie. It was sort of like Grandpa had done it in expectation of our arrival. It must have been our mothers though. They inherited the cottage, and I was sure they’d contracted somebody local to blow out the driveway.
I eased the car up the lane. I didn’t want to end up in the ditch this close to the end of our trip. I noticed that there were no other tire tracks in the inch or so of new snow. We were the first to arrive. Yeah, we won…and now our prize was to make the fire before the others got here. Maybe second place sometimes was better.
The tires spun as we hit the incline. I geared down and then gave the car more gas, which caused more spinning, but we had enough traction to get to the top of the hill, and there it was—the cottage. The sight made me smile. What had started as a simple building—a couple of bedrooms and a small living area wrapped around a stone fireplace—had grown and grown and grown. Grandpa called it his continual construction project as he added new rooms to provide places for each of us to call our own. He loved building and tools and puttering, and the cottage allowed him to do all those things.
All of this was so familiar, but today there were two things that made it different. There was no smoke rising from the chimney, and no Grandpa waiting at the door. I felt happy and sad at the same time. Happy to be here, sad that he wasn’t. I pulled up and stopped, turning off the engine.
Spencer looked up from his tablet. “Oh, we’re here…I’m not quite finished.”
“No, it’s okay. I can finish it…oh, you’re joking.” He smiled.
“I am. Come on.”
We all grabbed our bags and climbed out. While the driveway had been plowed, the path to the porch and the porch itself were still covered in snow over a meter deep. Bunny started bouncing through the snow, not so much breaking a path as imitating, well, a bunny. He giggled and flashed us a silly grin that made me smile back.
“It’s locked!” he called out.
“Keys,” I said, holding them up. “Catch!” I tossed them and Bunny snatched them out of the air, making a perfect grab. That didn’t surprise me in the least. Bunny was a strange combination of coordinated and klutzy. He could catch a football like his hands were made of flypaper but could trip over his feet running a route. And then there was a fifty-fifty chance he’d run in the wrong direction after he caught the ball.
“It’s stuck!” Bunny yelled out.
“Give it a shove.”
“I got in,” he said.
“Now all we need is light and heat.”
It was still light enough outside to see, but inside it was dim bordering on dark. I pulled out my cell phone and used it to light a path across the living room and into the kitchen. My Grandpa’s golf bag leaned against the wall as if waiting for him to come back. I remembered a joke he always told about God and him playing golf together some day. Strange, I’d heard him tell the joke a hundred times, but I’d completely forgotten the punch line.
I flipped open the breaker box cover and hit the breaker switch, and the ceiling light came on as well as the light in the living room. One out of two things was done; now we needed heat.
“There’s hardly any firewood,” Spencer said.
Where there was usually wood piled high on both sides of the fireplace, there were only a few pieces. Of course, that made sense. Without Grandpa, there was nobody to cut the wood. That wouldn’t be a big problem. An ax was in its usual place, leaning against the wall behind the front door, and there’d be wood piled under the deck.
He was the most likely candidate to chop off his own foot, but who was I to point that out? “Go for it. We’ll use the few pieces that are left to get the fire started.”
“I can help with the fire,” Spencer offered.
I began scrunching up pieces of old newspaper and tossing them into the fireplace; then Spencer started to pile in some kindling and the few remaining pieces of wood. Bunny opened the door, and I heard the sound of a car.
“Adam and Webb are here!” Bunny called out.
Bunny had left the front door open, and cold air and snow flowed in. As I went over to close it, there was a loud thump behind me. I turned around and saw that part of the wall—a panel, really—beside the fireplace had fallen open. Spencer stood up. In one of his hands was a piece of firewood. In the other was a pistol!
Spread out in front of us on the table was everything that had spilled out when the wall panel had fallen open. Normally, it would have been hidden and held in place by the stack of firewood.
“I pulled the last piece of wood and it didn’t want to come, so I really pulled it and the panel fell open,” Spencer explained.
“You really must have given it a yank,” I said. “That last piece was nailed down and you pulled out the nails.”
“I guess I’m stronger than I look.”
“That’s a lot of money,” Webb said, looking at the table.
“It’s pretty. It looks like Monopoly money,” Bunny added.
“The American money is real,” Adam said.
“What are the final counts?” I asked.
“Ten thousand dollars American and ten thousand Canadian,” Adam said.
“And exactly five thousand British pounds and another five thousand Euros,” Webb added.
“I counted two hundred thousand Argentinian pesos. I’m not sure how much that’s worth, whether it’s a little or a lot,” I said. “Spencer?”
“Oh, yeah, there are one hundred and twenty thousand Russian rubles.”
“This makes no sense,” I said.
“Maybe Grandpa didn’t trust banks,” Adam said. “I’ve heard about old people who stuff money into their mattresses and under their beds.”
“Should we check the mattresses?” Bunny asked.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” I said, although now that he’d mentioned it, I wondered if we should.
“The money I understand, sort of, but why is there a mesh bag full of golf balls?” Adam asked.
Everybody knew he was a golfer. A few times a year, he’d gone on golf trips down south. “That still doesn’t explain why the golf balls were behind the panel. Why hide them?” I said.
“They must have been his favorites,” Spencer said. He picked one up. “Funny markings.”
“Those are letters—Russian letters,” Adam said.
“The golf balls are weird, but the pistol doesn’t make sense at all,” I said. “He hated guns and thought only police and the military should have them.”
“Remember how he used to say that the only weapon a man should have in his hands is a golf club?” Adam said.
“Because then the potential wounds are self-inflicted,” three of us said in unison, and we all laughed. That was another one of Grandpa’s regular jokes.
“If I had that much money in my cottage I’d want to have a gun around too,” Adam said.
“It’s not just a gun,” Spencer said. “This is a Walther PPK.”
“Since when do you know about guns?” I asked.
“James Bond?” Adam said.
Webb laughed. “The reason we were late is we just saw the latest James Bond movie.”
“It’s the third time I’ve seen it,” Adam added.
“And you recognize the gun?” I asked.
“Well, not really,” Adam said.
“But I do,” Spencer said. “The documentary I’m working on for my school assignment is about agents, spies, moles and double agents.”
“Does that mean Grandpa was a secret agent?” Bunny asked.
“Of course he wasn’t,” I said. “He was in the import/export business.”
“Which would be a good cover for being a spy,” Adam added.
“It would explain the things in the bag. Maybe it’s an emergency escape bag.”
Along with the money, gun and golf balls was a small black leather bag, and inside it, now strewn across the table, was a change of clothing, dark sunglasses, a big floppy hat and a fake beard and mustache.
I picked up the bag from the table, turned it over and then looked inside to make sure it was empty. I ran my hands along the bottom, inside and out. It was smooth and clean…and too thick.
“Can somebody get me a knife?” I asked.
“You could have a gun if you want,” Bunny said. He went to pick it up, but, thankfully, Spencer stopped him.
“I’ve got a knife,” Webb said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a jackknife, opening the blade. He gave it to me handle-end first.
I wanted to ask him why he had a knife, but I didn’t. I turned the bag over, hesitating for just a second, and then plunged the tip into the bottom. The soft leather sliced easily, opening up the body to reveal some stuffing, a few pieces of stiff cardboard… and a passport. I pulled it out, then found a second, third and fourth. I dumped the bag upside down once more and at least another half-dozen passports spilled onto the table. We scrambled to pick them up and look at them.
“And this one is from Spain,” Webb said.
“This one’s American,” Adam added. “Just like mine.”
“I’ve forgotten how to read!” Bunny said. “This one is just a bunch of squiggles to me!”
Webb took it from him and looked at it. “It’s Russian. They use a different alphabet.”
Bunny looked relieved.
“But why would Grandpa have a bunch of pass-ports?” I asked.
“A better question is, why would Grandpa have passports from different countries in different names but with his picture?” Spencer said.
He opened the British passport he was holding. Inside was a picture of Grandpa—taken when he was young—with the name Nigel Finch underneath.
“He’s in this one too,” Webb said. “But this time his name is Pedro Martinez.”
“German,” Spencer said. “In this one, he’s a German citizen named Helmut Schmid.”
“Grandpa spoke German,” I said. “And some French and Spanish. He said he needed those languages to import from those countries.”
“He wasn’t a spy,” I said.
“Then what other explanation do you have?” Spencer asked.
“Well…I don’t know.”
“Maybe the answer is in here,” Adam said. He was standing by the fireplace, holding up a small black notebook. “It was tucked into the back corner, almost invisible.”
“Can I have it…please?” I asked.
Adam hesitated but then handed it to me.
My head was spinning. I had to slow things down to make sense of it. I opened it to the first page. There was a note in my grandfather’s handwriting.
“I hoped I’d never have to use this book,” I read out loud, “but I needed to keep my own record, my own account, in case things ever came tumbling down around me. Maybe I know better than anybody that you can never trust anything or anyone, and I needed proof of who I was and what I did. I just know that I always did what needed to be done. Nothing more and nothing less.’”
“What does that mean?” Bunny asked.
“I’m not sure. Just let me think.” I started flipping through the pages. “It looks like it’s divided into sections, and each one starts with a date in the far right corner.” I did some rough calculations in my head as I flipped back through the pages, looking at the numbers.