Molly Pepper and the Night Train by Courtney King Walker
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Hidden somewhere in the fog of the San Francisco bay lies Blue Rock Island, home to the bay areaâs two best-kept secrets: Bellâs Bluff, the old, abandoned prison on one side of the island, and the Night Train, a mysterious train ride on the other. When twelve-year-old Molly Pepper receives a secret invitation promising a night of magic and adventure aboard the Night Train, she is skeptical. In her experience, most promises prove too good to be true. The fact that she lost her mom is proof enough.
Still, Molly gives hope another chance. Together with her loyal friend, Noah Wonderly, they sneak out of the house and follow a string of clues leading to the Night Train. But when the train stops at Bell’s Bluff, Molly discovers the real reason she was invited. There, she starts to wonder if hope and magic not only fix broken promises; but make you believe in them again.
The Real Face of Adventure
When she opened the mailbox on the first day of summer break, Molly Pepper found three pieces of mail. The first two items did not seem all that interesting: one, a Womanâs Day magazine; two, her final report card on which she already knew mostly Câs would be hogging all the white space; and three, a small, crÃ¨me-colored envelope with her name on it.
That was the most interesting discovery. Molly could not recall the last time she had ever received anything in the mail. Not only was the crisp, smooth envelope addressed to her, but it also lacked both a return address and a stamp. No stamp meant somebody had sidestepped the
entire mail system altogether and placed this exact letter into her mailbox, probably this very day.
Molly popped a cinnamon bear into her mouth and peered over her shoulder for any chance that the owner of the envelope might still be watching her. All she discovered behind her, however, was the sound of the distant ferry whistling through the salty air, and the passing by of an old, white convertible spewing a fume of exhaust in its wake. She coughed in protest, and then ducked behind a lone, thick palm tree, in case she was mistaken. She wasnât going to take any chances. Who knew what might be out there, hiding in the shadows, watching her every move?
For twenty-point-five seconds, Molly chewed on the remainder of cinnamon goo in her mouth and held her position while surveying the neighborhood for any sign of bedlam.
But, she hated to admit; everything appeared just as it should.
Same as always.
With a sigh, Molly tucked her report card into her back pocket for safekeeping and reemerged from behind the palm tree, doing her best to appear carefree. But it was more difficult than sheâd hoped, especially after her detour to the side of the house where she deposited the Womanâs Day magazine into the recycle bin.
Secretly stashing unwanted mail had been her routine for the last few months. Sheâd taken it upon herself to bury any rogue reminders of her mother under a pile of crumpled newspapers before her dad ever had a chance to see them. Molly figured it was better she deal with the mess of their new life than him. Especially today, the first day of summer break that was supposed to be filled with the promise of adventureâ¦not reminders of broken promises.
The house was quiet when Molly stepped inside, except for the sound of her dadâs daytime snores flooding the hallways like an occasional blast of an off-tune trombone.
That sound this time of morning always put Molly in a despondent mood because it meant changeâan unwanted, unrequested change she hadnât yet grown used to. Secretly, she wished her dad would learn how to sleep in silence. Then, she could live under the ruse that her life remained the same as last summer when the world was still the kind of place in which most people liked to stay put.
At the kitchen table, Molly pushed aside yesterdayâs mail to make room for the letter. Her letter.
Now, the moment of truth. She hesitated before opening it, trying to guess just what it could beâ¦a note from a secret admirer? A party invitation? Russian correspondence?
She sucked in a deep, audible breath. Then, on the count of three she exhaled and popped open the pointed flap.
A thick, crÃ¨me-colored note slipped out onto the table, revealing a simple sentence printed in black ink, each line spaced evenly from top to bottom.
IS YOUR DESIRE
174 CANDLESTICK HILL
AT NINE OâCLOCK TONIGHT
Well. There wasnât a question in Mollyâs mind about her desire for adventure. In fact, if anybody desired adventure more than her, she would like to meet them face-to-face just to see what the real face of adventure looked like. Because she was pretty sure the freckled face she met in the mirror each morning silently begged for something more than thisâmore than entertaining herself all summer long while her father worked two shifts at the police department and slept it off the next morning.
Adventure was the easy part.
The difficulty about this whole message, if Molly chose to follow the cardâs directions after all (and she was definitely still debating the whole idea), was the getting-to-the-top-of-Candlestick-Hill-without-passing-out part.
See, Candlestick Hill was the steepest hill in all of California. In fact, if Blue Rock Island were situated a little closer to Canada instead of in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, Candlestick Hill would make the worldâs best ski run. But, a thick blanket of fog was as close to white the island ever got, making Candlestick Hill a nightmare instead of the attraction it could be.
Therefore, a little skepticism about the mysterious message was in order. The more Molly thought about it, the more she wondered if perhaps somebody was playing a joke on her just to get her to climb the murderous hill for nothing.
Who would do something like that?
Molly chewed on that thought along with
another cinnamon bear, and drummed her fingers along the tabletop, trying to come up with a few criteria. First off, somebody with easy access to her mailbox; secondly, somebody creative enough to make up the whole idea in the first place; and lastly but most importantly, somebody who knew Molly well enough to play on her longing for adventure.
Somebody probably likeâ¦
âWhatâs that?â asked a voice coming from a space right behind her.
Molly coughed on her cinnamon bear and whirled around as the beginning of a scream eked its way out of her throat. She stopped just before it grew loud enough to wake her dad. âNoah!â Molly hit her next-door neighbor on the arm. âWhy are you sneaking up on me?â
âIâm not. You didnât answer when I knocked, and I know your dadâs rule about ringing the doorbell, soâ¦â
âYou could have warned me! I thought you were a burglar.â
Noah Wonderly rubbed his arm and pulled out a chair beside Molly. âIâm sorry. But, I did knock, you know.â
Molly slid the mysterious note across the table. âDo you have any idea what this is?â she asked, getting right down to business.
She wanted to gauge Noahâs reaction, certain if he were behind it, the truth would reveal itself immediately. He could never withhold information without the whole truth bleeding out through his shifty brown eyes and seesawing smile. Because of that, Noah was a terrible secret-keeper and an even worse actor.
When they were kids, Noah was the lousiest performer in the history of neighborhood plays, resulting in Molly having to play both Darth Vader and Princess Leia (which didnât turn out so well). Even now, Molly could tell by the way Noah shifted his eyes to the right whenever they made eye contact that he had a crush on her.
But, she was careful not to let on because she wasnât quite sure how she felt about him. Not yet.
Noah picked up the crÃ¨me-colored note and studied both sides of it very thoughtfully, as if taking a test. His eyes narrowed as he mouthed the words of the message quietly to himself.
Molly couldnât stand how long he took just to consider a few words on a piece of paper, and immediately concluded that he was much too serious to be part of any practical joke. She snatched the note back from him, a little
âIs it some kind of joke?â he asked, helping himself to the bag of cinnamon bears lying open on the table. She allowed it.
âI thought the same thing,â she said, glad she wasnât the only one to jump to conclusions.
âWhoâs it from?â
âI donât know. I found it in the mailbox.â
Noah glanced at the note. âWell, are you going to go up there tonight?â
Molly thought for a minute, but still didnât know what her answer should be. She wanted to go. The promise of adventure had definitely piqued her interest. But, at the same time, she felt this deep, lurking fear building up inside her. What if she went all the way up there, only to be met withâ¦nothing?
âNot sure,â Molly said. âI have to think about it for a little while. Iâm trying to decide if it will even be worth the climb.â
âI donât think you should go.â
She looked up, surprised. âWhy not?â
âI just donât trust it,â he said, revealing a bit of the blood-red remains of his demolished cinnamon bear. âWhat if it really is a joke?â
Molly sunk back into her chair, not sure what she should do. She had hoped for a little more support from him than this.
Noah remained quiet, his mind searching for a solution, a way to help Molly without her having to risk falling victim to some kind of mischief. Noah Wonderly was that kind of friendâthe kind to back you up when you didnât know where to go next, and the kind to offer up solutions to problems that werenât even his. Molly almost always felt happier when he was around; he had his own way of making everything look brighter, even on a foggy day. San Francisco had a lot of foggy days.
And he also usually smelled like a clean laundry room.
Though, that didnât mean Molly liked Noah, or anything.
âWhat about your dad? Would he drive you up and check it out for you?â Noah asked, dropping his chin on his hands.
âNope. Heâll be at work. Plus, policemen donât approve of this kind of correspondence.â
âYou mean, like secret messages?â
âYes. Secret messages. Not exactly a police-approved activity. Weâll have to keep this one under wraps. Which means if my dad starts asking questions, youâd better leave. Heâll be able to tell youâre hiding something just by looking at
âWhat? No he wonât!â Noah jerked upright and ran his hands through his dark hair, as if proving he was smooth and had skills.
Molly pointed a finger. âThat look on your face right nowâ¦guilty.â
âWhat are you talking about?â A hesitant smile spread across Noahâs face, despite his every effort to tame it.
âWhatâs so funny?â asked Noah, laughing now, too, though he wasnât sure what he was even laughing about. But, that was the thing about Molly, and the whole reason he liked her. Everything about Molly Pepper was contagious, making it that much harder to be around her when she was sad.
Molly looked up at him. âIf I decide to go, will you come with me?â
Noah wasnât sure about that. Did he want to go? Not reallyâwho wanted to climb Candlestick Hill ever? Plus, he wasnât very excited about chasing after an anonymous prankster. It just seemedâ¦stupid, and maybe even a little bit dangerous.
On the flipside, he never turned down an opportunity to hang out with Molly, especially when it meant the chance to prove he was brave and strong and all that other macho stuff girls liked. What guy wouldnât want that?
But, first, he thought he might as well ring in a favor in exchange, and hoped Molly wouldnât run away screaming at his request. Especially when she found out there might be spiders involved. âYes,â he said with his shifty eyes. âBut I need you to help me with something, first.â
The car backfired when it pulled into the neighborhood, which was the last thing Ruby Dodd wanted to happen seeing as how she was supposed to be undercover.
Why the bureau didnât give her something a little more inconspicuous, maybe something made in this decade instead of the one in which she was born, was beyond her. But, she had a job to do, and complaining about vehicle options was not it.
The ferry ride over had been uneventful, just like every other day for the past month. Although, this morning Ruby couldnât figure out how the ferry captain could see through the fog enough to land safely on Blue Rock Island instead of crashing into the rocks at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge.
She was relieved when they docked right on time at ten am. The drive to Penny Lane was a mere five minutes, and she parked in her usual spot around the corner from the stucco rambler, close enough to see the front of the houseâ¦but not so close that she would be spotted.
Ruby eyed her watch and started counting down. She had a feeling something would happen today. It was June 13th, Moodyâs five-year anniversary. Just thinking about it made her exhaustedâfive years of following clues all leading to dead-ends.
She was this close. This close!
At the thought of victory, Ruby smiled, until a UPS deliveryman wearing brown shorts and a brown shirt emerged from the fog. She sat up straight in her seat when he stopped in front of the small, stucco house and placed something the size of a letter inside the mailbox.
Ruby looked around for any sign of his truck. Certainly he had other packages to deliver? But, just as she suspected, the UPS man walked to the end of the street, turned the corner, and disappeared. The fog seemed to blot out his existence.
Ruby panicked. She didnât know whether to chase after the man or try to intercept the correspondence inside the mailbox before it was discovered.
She jumped out of her car, ready to spring to action, but stopped at the sight of Molly Pepper already standing in front of the mailbox, peering inside.
Now it was too late. The UPS man had vanished, and Molly Pepper had already found his message.
That left Ruby with no other choice. Today she would follow that girlâs every move.
About the Author
Courtney King Walker grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area building rocket ships and rafts out of cardboard, hoping to make it the moon or at least Niagara Falls. But a trip across the border to Tijuana was as exciting as it ever got, so she decided writing about adventure was the next best thing. She now lives in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and four children, and still dreams of flying to the moon. Her YA debut, ON THE FRINGE, was published in 2011 by Lands Atlantic Publishing.