They start chasing a mystery—then it chases them.

Twelve-year-old cousins Sophie and Jessica don’t have much in common. Sophie loves hiking and her small town. Jessica would rather be shopping in a city. The only mystery is how they’ll be able to spend the summer together.

Then they find a briefcase in the forest with a surprise inside. When they hear footsteps behind them and bad guys run after them, they have no choice but to work together to solve the mystery of The Feather Chase.

Maybe a Mystery

Chapter One

“We’ve been going uphill for ages. This was a dumb idea.” Jessica stumbled on the uneven dirt path. Her cousin Sophie had brought her to the middle of nowhere to torment her.

“It wouldn’t be dumb if you’d worn sneakers instead of those fancy sandals.” Sophie glared at Jessica’s feet. Looking up, she pointed to the right. “Check out Pine Lake. The water’s sparkling in the sun.”

Jessica glanced in that direction, then sat down on a boulder. What good was a lake in the distance? She tucked her hair behind her ears, pulled a bottle of fingernail polish out of her purse, and started painting her thumbnail her favorite shade of pink.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Sophie lower her arm. “I’m not going to let you make me miserable. Follow me—or stay here with the wild animals.”

Wild animals? Jessica’s gaze darted around the thick pine trees surrounding her. Then she leaped to her feet, knocking the open bottle onto a rock.

Sophie stood with her hands on her hips and looked at her with disgust. “Pick it up, or the woodsy police will give you a ticket.”

Jessica grabbed it, then tried to wipe off the dirt that had stuck to the oozing fingernail polish, but there was no saving the bottle. She held it up in the air. “It’s all your fault.”

“My fault? I didn’t ask for you to spend the summer at my house. You staying with us while your mom and dad are gone was our mothers’ idea. We haven’t seen each other since we were little kids, but they thought you should stay at my house for the summer?”

“I know.” Jessica stared at the bottle in her hand and felt tears welling up in her eyes. She wouldn’t cry in front of Sophie.

“Here.” Sophie pulled a plastic bag out of her pocket and handed it to her. “This is left over from a snack the other day. Put the bottle in it. There’s a trash can at the end of the trail.”

Jessica carefully dropped the sticky bottle and brush into the bag and put it in her shorts pocket.

“Flip that rock over too. Pink nail polish doesn’t belong in a forest.” Sophie glared at her partially painted fingernails.

When Sophie continued up the hill, Jessica walked beside her but kept her eyes open for those wild animals. When a bush rubbed against her legs and a small leaf stuck to her shorts, she quickly brushed it off. “Can you tell me what the purpose of this walk is?”

“Didn’t you think the lake was beautiful? Isn’t it great just being in this forest?”

Jessica looked around and yawned, covering her mouth with her hand. “I don’t like forests. I like shopping. I prefer city things.” For probably the tenth time today, she wondered why her parents had sent her to a town in a forest. She liked living in London, England. Her house there overlooked a nicely groomed park. She didn’t have to walk around in all this nature.

“Maybe the outdoors will grow on you. Pretend we’re on a great adventure.”

“I think twelve’s a little too old for that.”

“I’m twelve too, and I don’t think so. My dad says you’re never too old to use your imagination.”

“Okay. We’re on a great adventure.” Jessica lowered her voice to a whisper. “We’re going to find a bunch of spies around that bend in the path.”

Sophie seemed startled, then grinned. She must not have known Jessica had a sense of humor.

As they rounded the next bend, Jessica pointed to the ground. “Look. There’s a briefcase.”

Sophie giggled. “You’re really getting into this.”

“No, I mean there really is a briefcase.”

Sophie looked in the direction Jessica pointed. “There is!”

A black leather briefcase, something like her dad used to carry papers to meetings, lay on its side, next to a big pine tree. Jessica knelt beside it.

“No!” Sophie shouted when her cousin reached for it. “Don’t you watch all those spy movies? The briefcase is booby-trapped.”

“You must be kidding.” Jessica poked at it with her finger. Then she picked it up off the ground. “Gee. Nothing happened.” Setting it on a boulder, she pushed on the latches. “It’s locked up tight.”

“We’d better take it to the sheriff’s office.”

“Good idea. Maybe they’ll give us a reward for bringing it to them.”

“Don’t count on it. It’s more likely that my mom will let us have something sweet for dessert.”

Jessica laughed. “What is it with your mom and sweets? Last night’s dessert was a bowl of apples, so I had to cut mine up to eat it with these.” She tapped a finger on her braces.

“She’s sure sugar will kill us all. I hadn’t thought about your braces. Let Mom know, and she’ll get other kinds of fruit.” Sophie bent over their discovery. “Now, let’s see this thing. Seems like an ordinary briefcase to me.”

“How many briefcases have you seen?”

Sophie stood. “Lots.”

Jessica stared at her in disbelief.

“Well, lots on TV.”

Jessica rolled her eyes.

Sophie walked around the area, checking under bushes and pushing aside pine branches.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m making sure nothing else is hiding here.”

“It’s just bushes and bugs.” An insect flew around her a couple of times.

Sophie stopped and pursed her lips in an annoyed way. “There might be a tent or sleeping bag. This could be from a camper.”

“You think someone went camping and took along something people carry to a business meeting?”

Sophie circled a tree. “People do strange things.”

Yes, like this.

Sophie stood and brushed her hands off on her jeans. “Let’s get this to the sheriff so we can see what’s inside.” She grabbed the briefcase and started walking down the trail. “I’m glad we’re getting out of here long before it’s dark. I don’t want to have to wonder about whatever bad guy dropped this thing when owls are hooting and bats are flying.”

Jessica glanced around the forest nervously. “Owls and bats? If they’re out at night, where are they during the day?”

“They must be asleep.”

Jessica stared up at the treetops. “What if someone wakes them up—by accident?”

“I don’t think that can happen.” Sophie checked her watch. “This is taking longer than I want it to. Follow me.” She took off running down the path they’d come on, veering to the right, then down a steep, narrower path.

Jessica ran as fast as she could in her sandals. Her feet started to hurt, and the pain inched its way up her legs until they turned to Jell-O. Gasping for breath, she made a mental note to use her mom’s exercise equipment when she got home and kept her focus on Sophie. Her sandal strap caught on a root in the path, but she jerked it free and stayed on her feet. A tiny image of long, brown hair in a ponytail, faded blue jeans, and a white T-shirt leaped over a small stream. Sophie hit the ground on the other side with both feet and kept running.

“Wait,” Jessica yelled as loud as she could.

Sophie ground in her heels and came to a full stop as Jessica hurtled down the hill toward her, her arms flailing at her sides. As she got closer, Jessica decided not to jump the stream—she knew she couldn’t make it—so she held her arms straight out and stepped from one rock to another.

About halfway across, Jessica asked, “Why didn’t we come back over the bridge like when we left?”

“This way is faster. I usually run all the way home and jump over this stream in my backyard. I forgot about your sandals.”

“They’re fine where I’m from. We have sidewalks. There is no stream in my backyard. And you must admit the shoes look pretty good.” She paused, thinking about which of two rocks to step on next. Only one more rock to go and she was over.

“I’m more of a sneaker kind of girl.” Out of the corner of her eye, Jessica saw Sophie lift up her right foot. “See?”

“Can’t look now.” Jessica carefully stepped on the last rock she needed to cross the stream. When it shifted from side to side, she flapped her arms to keep her balance, then jumped to land. “Made it.”

Sophie was standing in front of her with her eyes closed. She’d probably been waiting for a splash. She opened one eye slowly before opening the other. Yep, she had. “Let’s get this to the sheriff.” Sophie held up the briefcase.

“Slowly this time.”

Sophie shrugged and said, “If we’re going to walk slowly, let’s at least take the shortcut through the woods into town.”

“No problem.”

They walked past Sophie’s big white house, then through the woods. Jessica asked, “Do you know your sheriff?”

“Yeah, I’ve spent some time in the sheriff’s office.”

Jessica stopped. “Were you arrested?”

Sophie stopped beside her. “No. When I think I’ve found a mystery, I drop in and talk to her about it. Besides, her office is the most exciting place in town.” She took a step and waved her on.

Jessica stepped beside her. “The sheriff’s a woman?”

“Yep.”

She thought about the hard-as-nails sheriffs and police officers she’d seen on TV and in the movies. “Is she tough—like a human bulldog?”

“Of course not,” Sophie replied. “She’s normal.” She seemed to be thinking about her for a moment. “Sheriff Valeska is tall and has brown hair, but you usually can’t see it because she has a sheriff’s hat on top of it.” Sophie turned to Jessica and looked her over. “I don’t think she wears makeup or fingernail polish.”

Jessica grimaced. She wouldn’t leave the house without perfect makeup and hair.

“Sheriff Valeska is really nice, but she says my love of mysteries tries her patience sometimes.” Sophie grinned.

Jessica laughed. Then she pictured her cousin’s description of the sheriff and grimaced again.

When they got to town, they walked several blocks, past businesses and houses. Then Sophie led her through the door of the sheriff’s office. It surprised her when they walked inside that a pretty woman in a uniform sat at a desk, and Sophie said, “Hi, Sheriff.”

“Hi, Sophie.” The sheriff smiled.

“Sheriff Valeska, this is my cousin Jessica Ballow.”

“Pleased to meet you, Jessica. Sophie’s mom told me you were arriving yesterday.” Glancing from one to the other, she said, “Other than being about the same height, you’re strikingly different.”

Standing still while someone scrutinized her wasn’t easy, but Jessica did her best to be polite. “Our moms are almost identical, but Sophie has her dad’s brown hair and brown eyes, and I have my mom’s blonde hair and green eyes.”

“I think you’ll enjoy your summer in Pine Hill, Jessica.” The sheriff pushed back from her desk and smiled broadly. “Now, Sophie, I know from experience that you came here with a mystery. What’s up?”

Sophie set the briefcase on the sheriff’s desk and sat down on one of the avocado green plastic chairs in front of it. Jessica stayed out of the way and stood off to the side. After describing where they’d found the briefcase, Sophie asked, “So, do you think it belongs to a spy?”

Sheriff Valeska laughed. “I doubt that.” She picked up the briefcase and examined it. “The bus stops at McGuire’s Motel just outside of town. Nellie McGuire rarely remembers to turn on her No Vacancy sign when the motel’s full. My guess is that someone got off the bus thinking they could get a room there but couldn’t. The sign for Cutoff Trail is across the street from the motel, so they took it, hoping it was a shortcut to Pine Hill and another hotel. But it’s a steep hill—”

“No kidding.” Jessica sighed. “When we ran home, I was so out of breath I didn’t think I’d ever catch up with Sophie.”

“You aren’t the first person who’s gotten tired on one of Sophie’s treks through the woods.”

Jessica relaxed. Maybe she didn’t need to work out.

“Go on, Sheriff,” Sophie begged.

“Oh yes. The briefcase owner probably got tired when he or she neared the top of the hill and set down their luggage.” Leaning back in her chair, she added, “My guess is that there’s a suitcase near the place you found this briefcase.”

Sophie’s brown eyes sparkled. “Ooh, we’ll have to search again.”

The sheriff shook her head and grinned.

Sophie scooted to the front of the seat. “Come on, Sheriff, Let’s see what’s inside.”

“Please open it!” Jessica urged the sheriff.

Jessica watched her push on the latches, then push again. When they didn’t budge, the sheriff reached for the phone. “Homer, this is Mandy Valeska. I’ve got a locked briefcase here that needs to be opened. Okay. Sure.” She hung up the phone.

“Is he coming now?” Sophie leaned forward in her chair, nearly tipping it over.

“No.”

“What?” both girls said at the same time.

“He’s got a woman up at the resort that accidentally locked her baby in the car. He’ll be here in about a half hour. I need you two to be very quiet while you wait. I have a lot of work to do.” She faced her computer and started typing.

Jessica sat in the chair next to Sophie, tapping her fingers on the arm of the chair until the sheriff stopped typing and frowned. She tucked her hand into her pocket and glanced around the room, her gaze coming back to the big clock on the wall every few minutes. A half hour with nothing to do was a very long time.

Finally, when she didn’t think she could sit still a minute longer, a small man wearing worn jeans, a red flannel shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses that sat on the end of his nose entered the sheriff’s office.

“Mr. Winston!” Sophie called out and turned toward Jessica. “He’s our locksmith, so now we get to see what’s in the briefcase. This is it.”

Sheriff Valeska moved the briefcase to a table in the middle of the room. “Here you go, Homer.”

He set a small leather satchel on the table, then picked up the briefcase and turned it from side to side, carefully examining the two locks. Then he reached into the satchel and took out a tool. “This will only,” Mr. Winston said as he put it into one of the locks, “take a minute.”

Jessica heard a small click.

He repeated the process on the other lock.

“There you go.”

He put his tool back in his open bag, closed it, then picked up the bag and practically ran to the door.

“Thanks for coming, Homer,” the sheriff called after him, “but don’t you want to see what’s in the briefcase?”

“No time.” He gave a quick smile and waved as he went out the door. “Got to get over to Simpson’s Shoes . . .” His voice faded away as the door closed behind him.

Sheriff Valeska turned toward Jessica and Sophie. “Are you girls ready for the big reveal?”

They crowded next to the sheriff as she popped the briefcase open.

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