They must unlock the mystery—before time runs out.
Unwrapping a puzzling package and finding a clue launches twelve-year-old cousins Sophie and Jessica into the dangerous mystery of The Treasure Key. They’re soon racing against time—and bad guys—to be the first to find the long-lost treasure.
Key to a Mystery
Jessica Ballow yawned and slouched into her chair. “We need something to do.” Pine Hill had become every bit as boring as she’d imagined when her parents first told her she was going to spend the summer in this small town in the mountains. On top of that, she had to stay with her cousin Sophie, whom she hadn’t seen since they were little. They got along well . . . now.
Sophie Sandoval fell backward onto the sofa. “Agreed. Maybe we should go into town.”
“Why not? At least we won’t just be sitting in your living room. We found our first mystery, The Feather Chase, right after I got here, so I barely had time to be bored.” Jessica yawned. “Now I am.”
“I doubt we’ll find another mystery, even though I love mysteries—”
Jessica groaned. “I know. The next couple of months might be b-o-r-i-n-g.” An endless summer of small-town life stretched in front of her.
“Pine Hill isn’t boring.”
A picture of lying on a sandy beach on Pine Lake with the sun overhead popped into Jessica’s mind. “You’re right. Let’s get our swimsuits on.”
This time Sophie slouched, her ponytail of brown hair smashing against the back of the sofa. “Again? We went to the beach yesterday. Wouldn’t you like to go hiking on Cutoff Trail?”
The image in Jessica’s mind switched to one of a trail climbing through a pine tree–lined path. With bugs. And wild animals. “Like isn’t the word I’d use.” When she paused, boredom began to sink in again. “I might not survive to my thirteenth birthday if I’m this bored. Let’s do it.”
Sophie instantly stood. “Really?”
“Pine Hill was way more exciting than home for a while. It’s Tuesday, so most of a long week of nothing is in front of me. I’m ready to do something.” Sometimes Jessica wished she could be with her parents, but they were on the other side of the world because of her father’s job, and both she and her brother were spending the summer with relatives.
As Sophie ran into the room they were sharing, she said, “I think we’ll both make it from twelve to thirteen, even if we are bored.” She ran right back out with her backpack. “Let’s go.”
Jessica giggled as she followed Sophie to the door. “You aren’t taking any chances that I’ll change my mind, are you?”
“When the girl who loves shopping and is used to living in big-city London, England, says she’ll go on a hike, we’re on our way out the door.” She glanced at Jessica’s feet and stopped. “Sneakers.”
“I forgot.” Jessica raced into their bedroom. After slipping off her pretty pink sandals, she put on her boring-but-useful white sneakers and hurried back. Standing at a mirror beside the front door, she checked her makeup and tucked her blonde hair behind her ears, saying, “Sophie, maybe we’ll find another mystery on Cutoff Trail.”
Sophie got a faraway look in her brown eyes and sighed. “Oh, that would be amazing.” She opened the front door and stepped out.
With one foot in midair, she froze.
Jessica peered over her shoulder. “Is something wrong?”
Sophie stepped to the side and pointed down. Right in front of her sat a perfectly gift-wrapped package. The wrapping paper had tiny pine trees on a white background and was encircled with a forest green ribbon and bow.
“Is today a holiday I don’t know about?”
“I don’t think it’s even Mom and Dad’s anniversary or anything like that.” Sophie picked up the box and shook it. “I can’t feel anything moving around inside it.” Stepping back into the house, she held the box close to her ear and shook it again. “I wonder if we should open it.”
“What if it’s supposed to be a surprise for your mom or dad?”
“I don’t think someone would leave a package for one of them and not put their name on it.”
Jessica said, “That made sense for a second. Then I thought, why would someone ever leave a package with no name on it? What if it’s for you? Or even for me?”
“All good points.” Sophie shifted from one foot to the other. “I’d like to see inside. But I really don’t want to get in trouble.”
Jessica reached for it. “I’ll open it so it won’t be your fault. I’m going home at the end of the summer, but you have to live here all the time.”
Sophie grinned and handed her the box. “I like the way you think, Cousin.”
Jessica carefully removed the wrapping paper and set it on the nearby dining room table. When she opened the lid, an old-looking, yellowed envelope with the word Desk handwritten on it lay inside. “Whoa.”
“What is it?”
Jessica stared at the envelope. Had someone set a mystery on Sophie’s doorstep? The odds were totally against finding another mystery so soon. Maybe even impossible. Laughing, Jessica stepped back from the box. “Hey, you set me up. You knew I was bored and you did this to cheer me up! Making the envelope appear old was a master touch.”
Sophie leaned over and tried to see into the box. “Uh-uh. It wasn’t me. Did you say there’s an old envelope in there?”
“Yes.” Jessica picked up the envelope. “And there’s something inside.” She rubbed the envelope between her fingers. “I think it’s a key.” A sense of excitement ran through her. “Could we have found another mystery?”
“On the doorstep? I agree with your first thought: someone’s playing a joke on us.” Sophie reached for the envelope. “Let’s open it up.” She pulled on the end to tear it.
“Wait! We may already be in trouble for opening the present—”
Sophie dropped the envelope as if it were on fire. “And get in much bigger trouble if we open this too.” She stared at it. “I’ll open it carefully, just in case it is a clue for a real mystery. Or mom or dad think it’s important.” She went into her mom’s office, which was just off the living room. “Being careful doesn’t mean I won’t get in trouble, but maybe it will help.”
When she returned with something that looked like a knife with fancy decorations, Jessica said, “You’re kind of off the hook for opening the package, so maybe I should—”
“Good idea.” Sophie handed the letter opener to Jessica. She carefully inserted it in the end of the envelope and made a clean cut before tilting it and dumping out a key that hit the table with a clunk.
They both stared at it.
Sophie said, “I want to get excited about all of this. But I keep feeling like I should look over my shoulder for someone who’s making a video of us opening their package. I don’t know if it’s a pretend mystery, or if another real mystery has landed at our feet.”
“Cousin, you’re the mystery expert. If you don’t know, we’re in trouble.”
Sophie stood straighter. “You’re right. I’ve read so many mystery books and watched so many mystery movies that I am an expert.” She picked up the box. “Let’s start with crime-solving basics and examine the clues.”
Jessica smoothed out the wrapping paper. “Basic Christmas paper. Except that I’d put a red bow on it to make it more Christmassy. Anything interesting with the box?”
Sophie turned it from side to side, then set it back down. “No.” She snapped her fingers. “I wonder . . .” Quickly grabbing the paper, she flipped it over. Frowning, she said, “Blank.”
Jessica grinned. “Did you think there’d be a message written on the back?”
Sophie sheepishly nodded. “It could happen.”
“Maybe it’s in invisible ink.”
“Maybe,” Sophie slowly said.
Jessica could tell Sophie was intrigued by the idea for a second. Then she set it down.
“Nah. I think it’s just wrapping paper. We could take it by the sheriff’s office. We haven’t visited Sheriff Valeska in a couple of weeks.”
“Yes. She told you to come back”—Jessica changed her voice to sound like the sheriff—“if and when you found another mystery.”
“It was fun working with her last time. I hope we get to do it again.”
“Speaking of solving mysteries”—Jessica leaned over the table—“this paper seems familiar.”
“I don’t remember seeing it before, but it looks like a thousand other Christmas wrapping papers.”
“That’s it!” Jessica picked up the gift wrap. “Remember all that time I spent cleaning out the back room of your mother’s antique shop, Great Finds?”
“Sure. While you cleaned out the back room, I dusted and did other stuff.”
“I think this was old wrapping paper your mom had there. I remember her saying that she thought the pine trees would be right for a store in Pine Hill, but everyone said it looked like Christmas paper so she stopped using it.”
“You mean Mom might have set us up?” Sophie glared at the box. “I wonder if she thought this would be funny.”
Jessica shook her head. “I’ve been here long enough to know that doesn’t sound like my Aunt April. She doesn’t seem like the sneaky type.”
“I’ve been so sad since we solved the last mystery that she might be trying to help.” Sophie walked through the living room and peered down the hall. “The door to Dad’s office is closed, so we’d better not bother him. I think Mom said something about him being extra busy right now with his accounting business.”
She dropped the key back in the envelope and handed it to Jessica. “Here. I don’t need my backpack just to go to town, and this will get less rumpled in your purse than it will in my back pocket.” She headed for the door. “Let’s go talk to Mom.” Sophie stopped halfway down the steps. “Are you okay with taking the shortcut through the woods, or should we walk along the road?”
“Shortcut. The sheriff arrested the bad guys that chased us when we were trying to solve our last mystery, so we’re safe walking through the woods again.”
As they walked down the path, Jessica stepped on a branch, and it made a loud cracking sound. She wiped her brow with her hand. “Whew. I’m so glad I don’t need to worry about hearing someone else making that sound when we’re supposed to be alone in the woods.”
“I know. Part of me is happy that life is quiet again.”
At the edge of Pine Hill, Sophie yelled, “Race you!” and took off.
Jessica ran after her. When she could see Main Street, Sophie was leaning against the brick front of Simpson’s Shoes.
“You’re getting slow, Jessica. A twelve-year-old should have more energy.”
Jessica leaned over, panting. “It’s only been a couple of weeks since I had to be fast on my feet. We need to do something so I don’t get out of shape.”
“Since we aren’t going hiking today, Cutoff Trail tomorrow?” Sophie looked so excited that Jessica didn’t have the heart to tell her no.
“Sure. We’ll find out what’s going on with the box and envelope today. Tomorrow we go hiking.”
They walked the short distance to Great Finds. When they pushed the glass door to the shop open, a bell rang and a voice called from the back room, “Welcome to Great Finds. I’ll be right with you.”
Jessica pulled the envelope out of her purse and tipped the key into Sophie’s hand.
Sophie peered around the shop, probably checking to be sure they were alone. When Mrs. Sandoval stepped into the shop itself, Sophie held up the key. “Mom, was this a joke?”
Mrs. Sandoval walked toward them, smiling. “I’m glad you figured out the wrapping-paper clue. I hoped you would.”
“You played a joke on us? Mom!”
“There is a real mystery.” She pointed to the front of the shop.
Sophie raised one eyebrow. “It’s a big piece of furniture. There aren’t any drawers on the front, and something curved is over the top of it, but I kind of think it’s a desk. Right?”
“A special desk, a cylinder desk. A curved piece of wood rolls over the top. The owner could leave their work on the desktop, roll the top down to hide it and lock up when they finished for the day.”
“It’s still just a desk.”
The three walked together to where the desk sat. Jessica smoothed her hand over the curved cover. “The whole desk is beautiful.” She leaned to see the side. “I love the flower design on it.” Old furniture, dishes, lamps, even jewelry, filled Great Finds. But this desk seemed as though it had been around longer than most of the things her aunt had for sale. “Is it old?” she asked.
“Oh, yes. It was made in the 1700s.” Mrs. Sandoval stared at the desk in a way Jessica could only describe as lovingly. She sighed and said, “It’s exquisite.”
“Let’s see if the key fits.” Sophie tried to insert it in the lock on the front of the cylinder. “The key is too big.”
“I know.” Mrs. Sandoval reached over to the cashier stand and picked up another key. “When it arrived, this key was in that keyhole. The envelope with your key was tucked into a cubbyhole, a storage space inside the desk.” She smiled widely. “I did seal the envelope, though, to add an air of mystery.”
Sophie flipped the key in her hand, and Jessica grabbed it in midair, saying, “Maybe it’s to another desk.”
“I don’t know what desk that would be. This is the only desk the man was known to have owned, at least in his later years.” Mrs. Sandoval walked over and flipped the sign on the door to Closed. “I have to go to a meeting, so I’m going to close for a while.”
Sophie stood proudly. “We could watch the shop for you, Mom.”
Jessica pictured the problems that could come up. Sometimes Sophie had a way of finding trouble.
Mrs. Sandoval raised one eyebrow.
“Okay, so maybe I wasn’t good at doing that once. But I can!”
Mrs. Sandoval shook her head. “I’m not ready to try that again. I rarely close during the day, but this meeting is important.” She stepped out the door, and the girls followed her outside.
As she was locking the door, she said, “The desk belonged to Harold Laurence.”
Sophie shrugged. “Never heard of him.”
“Yes, you have. You just don’t remember the name. He owned that big old house on the hill overlooking Pine Lake. He died a few years ago at 102 years old.”
Jessica furrowed her brow. “If he died years ago, how did you get his desk now?”
“That’s an interesting story, Jessica. Mr. Laurence said in his will that it had to stay in Pine Hill. I knew it was sitting in that big empty house all these years, so I asked about it.”
Sophie said, “But you have customers from lots of places. One might buy it and take it away from here.”
“No. I worked with the estate’s lawyers, and whoever buys it has to agree to keep it in Pine Hill. It’s a beauty with a story attached to it, so I thought it would be good to have it in my shop, even if it didn’t sell right away because of its high price.”
As the three walked away from the shop front, she added, “The rumor of a lost treasure makes anything from Mr. Laurence more interesting.”
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