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223 pages
Oct 2005
Barbour Publishing

Landon Snow and the Auctor's Riddle

by R.K. Mortenson

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The leaves were already turning color and beginning to fall when the Snow family made their annual trek from Minneapolis north to Button Up, Minnesota. Landon, who was about to turn eleven years old, especially looked forward to this trip for two reasons. Well, two and a half, really. One: he got to see his grandfather, Grandpa Karl, who told wonderful stories and loved books. Two: Grandpa Karl would take him and anyone else who was interested to visit the oldest and largest privately funded library in the state.

This was the Button Up Library, known to locals as the BUL.

And the half reason Landon liked to visit his grandparents? Grandma Alice and her cooking. Especially her lemon bars.

Mm, they were good.

Landon had forgotten that his mother’s SUV was in the shop getting fixed, so when his two younger sisters called for window seats as they raced past him to the car, he stood momentarily stunned. This meant he would be stuck between them in the backseat of their dad’s small sedan. It also meant there would be no DVD movie to watch. Landon would have been happy looking at a book for the three-and-a-half-hour drive. Except for one reason: reading in the car gave him a terrible headache.

Landon sighed. This was going to be a long trip.

Holly sat on his left and looked out the window, providing occasional commentary regarding the passing outside scene. “That’s the fourth Dairy Queen since we left the Cities,” she said. “And there’s a big silver water tower with. . .eight legs. Like an alien spaceship spider.”

Holly’s straight blond hair shifted back and forth as she switched her gaze. She was ten years old, too, not even a full year younger than Landon. For an agonizing three weeks and three days, she and Landon were the same age. Even though his hair was much redder than hers, some people asked if they were twins because they were about the same height. Holly liked to say, “Yes, except we were born 341 days apart.” And then Landon would feel his face warm up to match his hair color. Thank goodness his birthday was tomorrow! He would be older than Holly again for the rest of the year.

Bridget was seven years old, and she was snoozing. Her head of dark ringlets lolled against Landon’s right shoulder.

“Snizzzz,” she said, and then she made sounds like an oscillating bicycle pump. She fell asleep during any trip over ten minutes in the car. When they arrived at their destination, she would wake with a start and ask the same three questions.

“What? What happened? Where am I?” And someone or everyone would respond, “Get out of the car, Bridget. We’re here.” Landon thought the reason Bridget slept so much was because she asked so many questions. Questions were tiring, he reasoned. Answers were energizing.

Landon liked to have reasons for everything. But he tried not to ask too many questions. Instead, he came up with reasons on his own. It felt good to explain things, at least to himself. If he knew the reason for something, he was happy.

If not, he was uncomfortable. For instance, even though he would have preferred to sit by a window and even more than that would have liked to ride in his mom’s SUV, he understood the reasons for his current situation. These were that his mom’s car was in need of repair and he had been too slow in remembering to call for a window seat. The first reason wasn’t due to anyone’s fault, really. And he could only blame himself for the second.

The sky was just beginning to dim as the car slowed to turn off from the highway.

“Seventeen water towers and five Dairy Queens,” reported Holly. She craned her neck to see past Landon and Bridget to the right. “Button Up. Population 897. But now with the five of us. . .902.”

She grinned at Landon, and he decided the reason she was grinning was because she liked numbers and was good at math.

He sighed contentedly as they eased down Main Street toward the town’s one hanging stoplight, which was always blinking yellow. It never turned red or green, he thought, because cars didn’t have to stop and then go. They merely slowed down a little and looked for pedestrians. It was fitting that they slowed down here anyway, because just beyond the pulsing light rose the wide stone steps that led to the Button Up Library.

Holly’s elbow absently nudged Landon. Her hair was practically brushing his left cheek as she leaned close to look out the windshield. “Landon,” she whispered, “there it is.”

Though he’d visited the library many times, the sight of it still caused his heart to leap and his breathing to quicken. “I know,” he said in a reverent hush. “The BUL.” His body was reacting like this because he was excited. And he knew why he was excited. The library was a magical place. And he was going to visit it tomorrow with Grandpa Karl. Inside were more books than even Holly could count.

“It looks like the Parthenon in Rome,” said Holly. “Or the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.”

Of course his sister had never been to those places or actually seen those buildings. But Landon nodded anyway, his mouth hanging open. The library indeed looked as if it had fallen here by accident, landing in almost-the-middle-ofnowhere between Brainerd, Minnesota, and Canada, rather than in some majestic metropolis. “Ten white pillars,” Landon said, beating his sister to the punch.

“And forty-two steps up from the sidewalk,” she added quickly.

Landon tilted his head, bumping hers. How could she have counted them so fast? The steps were becoming hard to distinguish in the graying light.

“I counted last year when you guys were inside,” she said, as if reading his mind. “Twenty-two steps and then the landing, and then twenty more. And at the top—”

“The portico,” said Landon. He caught his dad’s eyes in the rearview mirror. His dad was smiling.

“Very good. And what does ‘portico’ mean?”

“It’s like a porch,” said Landon. “From the Latin word porticus.”

His dad shook his head, but Landon could tell he was still smiling. Then his mom spoke. “We’ve got smart kids, honey. Words, numbers, and—”

“Slumbers,” said Landon, gently nudging Bridget. His parents laughed, and Bridget snorted in her sleep. They reached the end of the street, and as the car turned right, Landon and Holly turned their heads left to keep looking at the library grounds.

Lights were shining up at the building as well as at an American flag atop a high pole. A proud stone lion stood on either side of the steps. The lions were like grand bookends, although the angular lighting caused them to appear shadowy and almost gargoylelike. Between the middle pillars and below the high center peak of the roof, the glass double doors briefly reflected a glint of outside light. Then they were dark.

Holly turned from the window and settled into her seat with a sigh. “One thousand crystals,” she said as if speaking to herself. “I’d sure like to know how many are in each row.”

Landon frowned at her. Then his face relaxed, and he knew the answer. She was thinking of the crystal chandelier that hung in the library’s foyer. It was too high up to possibly count the crystals from the marble floor. And it was so glittery you’d become dizzy simply trying. But he and Holly knew there were a thousand teardrop crystals, because that’s how many Grandpa Karl said there were.

Holly’s elbow suddenly jabbed him in the ribs, shattering his thoughts of the chandelier. “Hey,” she said, “I could try counting the rows tomorrow. I wonder if they have a tall ladder.”

The mere thought of climbing a ladder to that height made Landon light-headed. He closed his eyes and shook his head. Then he noticed not Holly’s elbow, but her hand softly patting his jacket. “What’s this?” She was leaning close to his chest as if listening for something.

He remembered his drawing and immediately thrust his hand inside his jacket to protect it. His fingers found the crisp, folded edge of the construction paper. He was no artist, and he meant for no one to see his sketch other than Grandpa Karl, though Grandma Alice was sure to see it, too. Landon had made it just last night, as a kind of thank-you card for whatever birthday gift Grandpa and Grandma would give him. It wasn’t actually a card but a drawing done in black marker on rough white paper.

With his free hand, Landon warded Holly’s away. Not wanting to tell her what the paper actually was, he decided to have a little fun. “It’s a map,” he said furtively, “for buried treasure.”

She paused, not sure whether to take him seriously or not.

“Unh-uh,” she said.

He nodded. “Uh-huh.”

She cocked her head and squinted. “Where?”

“The library,” he said. Immediately, he regretted it. But the words had slipped out before he could stop them. He felt his face growing warm.

Holly grimaced and pulled away. “That’s gross,” she said, “and not very respectful, Landon.” She faced her window, and Landon felt his heart sink.

The reason Landon wished he had not said he had a map to buried treasure in the library was because there really was something buried beneath the floor. It was no secret at all but fairly obvious to anyone who visited. Right there in the entryway, directly below the hanging chandelier of a thousand crystals, stood a rather unusual sculpture of shiny black stone. It was the size and shape of an actual rowboat.

But that’s not all. In the boat’s pointed prow was propped a large, open book, also cut from black stone. On the lefthand page of the book, chiseled and inlaid with gold, were the words Bartholomew G. Benneford, followed by a space, and then Founder: House of Knowledge and Adventure. Engraved in the right-hand page were the dates of Bartholomew’s birth and death and an epitaph:

With Worms the Fish He Fed.

With Love the Books He Read.

Long Live the Memory

Of a True Bookworm.

They turned left onto a tree-lined road that began to wind uphill. It was darker among the trees. As the road curved back and forth, the car’s headlamps illuminated tree trunks first on one side and then on the other side.

“Almost there,” his dad announced. Landon’s spirits lifted as they climbed the hill. He had another reason to be excited now. He was about to see his grandparents.

At the top of the climb, the trees gave way to open grass. The first long driveway on the right led to Grandma and Grandpa Snow’s house. Gravel began to plink beneath the car as soon as they turned into the drive. Ahead of them stood the house—a two-and-a-half-story frame that reminded Landon of the letter H with an A-shaped top.

The tires stopped crunching, and the gravel quit plinking.

As soon as the engine was cut off, Bridget stirred. “What? What happened? Where am I?”

“Get out of the car, Bridget,” they all said. “We’re here.”

Holly jumped out quick as a rabbit, leaving her door partway open. Cool air poured in. Landon looked at Bridget and smiled. She was moving slower than a sloth. Stretching and yawning and blinking around as if the world were brand new. Though she was sure to figure it out soon enough, Landon felt better just telling her. “We’re at Grandma and Grandpa’s. In Button Up.”

Bridget’s mouth opened wide, and she made a moaning sound that seemed to indicate she understood.

“Good,” said Landon. He climbed happily out Holly’s side and closed the door.

His grandparents had come out onto the porch to greet them. Everyone was hugging, and Landon sank into Grandma Alice and felt her arms encircle him. She felt and smelled doughy and powdery like a bakery, and Landon wondered if there were fresh lemon bars waiting. “So good to see you, Landon,” she said.

Landon felt the air being squeezed from his lungs. “You too,” he said in a tight voice. When he could breathe again, he checked his drawing to make sure it hadn’t been overly crinkled. But then he was turned and pulled and embraced by his grandfather.

“Landon, my boy.”

Landon couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t worth worrying about a drawing that was all folded already anyway. Hugging Grandpa Karl was rather like being clutched by a firm but friendly tree that happened to be wearing jeans and a thick flannel shirt. “Hi, Grandpa,” Landon managed.

The car trunk had been popped open, and Landon ran to grab his duffel bag. His “duds” as his dad called them. “Do I get the sofa in your study again, Grandpa?” Landon asked outside the door.

Grandpa Karl’s gray hair caught the glow from the porch light and carried it through his beard and back around like a magical mane. He bent his head, and Landon saw his eyes slightly narrow and the corners of his beard twitch up in a smile. “Well, I reckon that’s the way it’s got to be. Unless you want to stay upstairs with your sisters or your mom and dad, or downstairs with your grandma and me.”

“No way,” Landon said. He smiled sheepishly. “I mean, I like your study. And the books.”

His grandpa leaned closer. “Me, too,” he said. “Your sofa’s ready.”

The first thing Landon did in Grandpa Karl’s study was take out his drawing and smooth it open on the desk. It certainly didn’t look like a photograph, but Landon was sure Grandpa and Grandma would be able to recognize it. It was a picture of Grandpa Karl, glasses, beard, and all, and he was holding a book. Well, it was supposed to be a book, though it looked more like a rectangle. When Landon had been about to sign the picture, the idea came to him to put his name as the book’s title. To make it fit, he’d had to break his name in half. LAN on top and beneath it DON.

Also in the picture was a desk with a typewriter on it.

This had been particularly tricky to draw because the only typewriter Landon had ever seen was sitting right here in the study. So when he’d drawn it at home, he’d had to go by memory. It was pretty close. At least as accurate as his sketch of Grandpa Karl. No, he decided, he would never be an artist.

Best he stuck with reading and writing.

“Supper time!” Grandma Alice called from the kitchen.

Landon’s stomach growled as the scent of meatloaf and mashed potatoes met his nose. He spun around and looked at the large bookcase that dominated the main wall of the room.

His eyes climbed the shelves: one, two, three, four, five, six. Holly’s habit was rubbing off on him. He smiled. Maybe he’d even count the books later.

Everyone was standing behind a chair around the table. Landon held the top of his chair and bowed his head, and his grandfather prayed. “Amen,” everyone said. They pulled out their chairs and sat down. At home, Landon’s family prayed while seated with their hands folded. But he kind of liked his grandparents tradition of standing. Of course, he knew the reason they prayed, or said “grace,” as his grandparents called it. They were thanking God for the food and asking Him to bless it. When it was blessed, Landon figured it was safer to eat. Or perhaps it tasted better, like adding salt to meatloaf or sugar to cereal.

After supper they sang “Happy Birthday” to Landon, even though his birthday wasn’t until the next day. He always felt a little silly having to sit there while they all sang and looked at him. His face grew warm. But it was a good warm, and despite the silliness, he felt happy.

“Now I wonder what could be for dessert?” Grandpa scowled and thrummed his fingers together, looking around.

But there was a twinkle in his eye, and he shot a quick wink at Landon. “Might it be? Could it be?” He lifted his nose and sniffed at the air like a rabbit. “My goodness, I think it is—”

“Lemon bars,” said Holly flatly.

Grandpa Karl’s face lit up, and Grandma Alice smiled.

“Lemon bars!” He threw out his hands and gently pounded the table. Grandma Alice disappeared into the kitchen, and Bridget giggled.

Landon ate four of them, washing down the delicious crust and chewy lemon topping with milk. He was stuffed.

“Are you going to tell us a story tonight, Grandpa?” asked Bridget, her eyes wide and some flaky crumbs and powdered sugar cornering her lips.

Grandpa Karl touched his fingers together around an invisible ball. “First, since we’re celebrating Landon’s birthday a little early tonight, your grandma and I have something we’d like to give him.”

Grandma Alice emerged from the kitchen not with something but with two things, two presents wrapped in the colorful comics section of the Sunday paper.