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Ruby stood by the ship's boiler and removed Uncle Owen's letter from the tattered envelope. The tips of her fingers tingled.
She already knew what it said. But now she was seeing the words with her own eyes.
Beware the Chancellor
Ruby knew who the Chancellor was. Everybody who lived anywhere near Washington, D.C., in 1899 knew who the Chancellor was. He was a businessman who craved only money and power. But no one wanted to do business with him. Everyone tried to steer clear of the Chancellor; everyone avoided crossing his path. He was someone the grown-ups spoke of with hushed voices, which was the reason all the kids at school talked about him the way they did. They had made him something of a legend. Some even said he had evil powers, but Ruby and Griffith had never believed those claims.
"There had to have been more," Ruby said to her older brother, who stood by the engine room door. "Maybe another page."
Griffith peeked down the corridor to make sure no one was coming and then nodded. "That's what I think too."
When the letter had arrived, Griffith's heart had skipped a beat. What had happened to it? Tattered. Crinkled. Smudged. Even partially opened. How did it get that way? It looked as though it had been through a war.
Just like their baseball.
After examining the smudges more closely, Griffith's fears had deepened. The rust-colored stains looked like blood. Had something happened to Uncle Owen?
Ruby turned the letter over. "What's this?"
Ruby stepped around the storage containers to Griffith. "I think there's something else written here."
Griffith checked the hall again, then took the paper from his sister. He held it to the light dangling from the beam above his head and read the tiny inscription scribbled along the edge.
He mustn't learn of the baseball
Griffith's breaths quickened. The beads of sweat, which had already formed at his temples because of the heat, now ran down his cheeks and chin, and along his neck. He quivered, just like he had when he first read the letter only a few hours before back in Cincinnati.
His mind flitted to last autumn, when his mother had taken Ruby and him to the market. As word had spread that the Chancellor and his men were present, Griffith had felt the chill in the air. He could still see the fathers nervously searching the crowd and the mothers holding their little ones closer.
Then Griffith had spotted him. It was only a fleeting glimpse, and for the most part, he was shielded from view by his men. Wearing those perfectly ironed navy suits with the pink pocket squares, they always surrounded him. The Chancellor was protected, untouchable.
Beneath the man's wide-brimmed hat, Griffith had seen a colorless, almost inhuman face. Like that of a cobra. Then, the Chancellor had turned and plowed through the crowd, an unstoppable force....
Griffith shut his eyes and focused on his breathing, drawing longer breaths through his nose and exhaling them slowly through his mouth, like his mother had taught him. Feelings of panic were not new to Griffith. They used to happen regularly. Especially when he was younger.
"Are you okay?" Ruby rested her hand on her brother's shoulder.
Griffith nodded and opened his eyes. He tilted the paper so that Ruby could read it too.
He had been so stunned by Uncle Owen's warning that he hadn't even thought to turn the letter over and look for more. It was almost as if the words were hiding, trying not to be discovered. Or at least not by everyone. There was something about the handwriting, too. There was no doubt it was Uncle's Owen's, but at the same time, it seemed different.
"How would the Chancellor find out about the baseball?" Ruby asked, running her fingertips over her pocket to reassure herself that the ball was safe.
Griffith wiped the perspiration from his face with his sleeve but didn't reply.
"Does Uncle Owen think he's watching us?" she pressed.
"I'm not sure." The thrum of the ship's engines beat louder in Griffith's head. Were they being followed? Was there a link between the Chancellor and their baseball?
Ruby gestured at the letter, then glanced back toward the door. "What do we tell Graham?"
"But he knows a letter arrived."
"This is Grammy we're talking about. All he thinks about is playing baseball. If we don't mention it, he'll just forget about it."
Ruby nodded. "Listen, I'm heading up on deck. It's too hot in here, and I need to get this into my journal. There's a lot I want to write down."
"I'll head up with you." Griffith picked up his glove. "I promised Grammy we'd have a catch."
Text copyright © 2007 by Phil Bildner and Loren Long