Family Secrets – Chapter Twelve

Chapter 12

The ride back in the car is short but also completely silent.  When they arrive home, Annie is the first to speak.

“Let’s sit down in the living room and talk,” she says.  They sit down quickly and look at Arnold.

“I don’t know where to start…” says Arnold.

“Start at the beginning,” Annie says.  “How did you meet Luján?”

“And why did you think she was dead,” interrupts Jeremy.

Jane stands up and faces her father.  “I only want to know one thing,” she says fiercely.  “Is Miguel Ángel my brother, or not?”

That question takes them all by surprise and there is a long silence in the room.  Finally Arnold tries to clear his throat.  “Let me start at the beginning and I will answer all of your questions. Please sit down, Jane, and be patient.”

“I met Luján at the American School when I was here in Paraguay almost twenty years ago,” Arnold begins.  He tells his family about falling in love with Luján and about her “boyfriend,” Wenceslao Benegas, whom she does not like at all.  But he is a big brute and everyone leaves Luján alone until Arnold shows up.  He does not realize that Luján is “taken” and asks her to go to the mall with him on his first day at school.

“You certainly weren’t a shy kid,” Jeremy says.  “I would never invite a girl on a date on the first day I met her.”

“Well, I was eighteen, not twelve.  But the truth is, I couldn’t help myself,” Arnold says smiling.  “I was smitten by her and I just blurted it out.  I was horrified that she might say no.”

“But she didn’t,” says Jane.  “Was she just trying to get away from that brute or did she like you?”

“It was probably a bit of both,” says Arnold truthfully.  “I didn’t realize that I was in deep trouble with this guy.”

“Is he the guy that came after me today, Dad?” Jeremy says.

Annie and Jane are immediately concerned.  “What happened?  Who came after you?”  Annie says.

“You tell this part, son,” says Arnold.  “He saw somebody following you two when he looked out the window of Jane’s room.”

“What were you doing in my room?” Jane demands.

“Not now, dear,” Annie says.  “Let him tell his story.”

So Jeremy tells them about the strange lady that follows them to the mall that turns out to be Miguel Ángel’s mother and the two men that he follows into the church.  The lady also doesn’t want to be seen by them either and disappears in the church.  Then he shows them the pictures and they all listen to the conversation that he records.

“Is Alicia Benegas, from my school, the daughter of this big brute guy?”  Jane asks.

“Wenceslao Benegas,” Arnold says.  “They have the same last name.  It could be.”

“Well, that would make sense,” Jane says.  “I could tell you a story about her.”

“What do you mean?” Annie says.

“I didn’t tell you the whole story of what really happened down at the lake,” Jane says.  “Alicia pushed me off the boardwalk into the lake on purpose.  Then she took her time to go get help.  It was obvious that she was jealous because I was talking to Miguel Ángel alone.  She told him that his Dad wanted to talk to him and then she pretended to be nice to me and knocked me into the freezing cold water.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before,” Annie says.  “I would like to give that girl a piece of my mind.”

“No, Mom,” says Jane.  “It’s alright.  Really.  Besides, that was when I realized that Miguel Ángel and Alicia weren’t really together.  Why else would she be so jealous?”

“Good point,” Arnold says.  “Maybe it was a bit like Wenceslao and Luján…but in reverse.”  He chuckles.  “Things never change.”

“Go back to your story, Dad,” Jeremy says.  “I want to hear the rest of it.”

But the phone rings and Arnold stands up to answer it.  “Hello,” he says and then is silent for a long moment.  His face is white.

“What’s wrong, Arni?” Annie says.

“Get the kids upstairs and into Jeremy’s room,” Arnold says quickly.

“But….”  Annie says.

“No questions.  Just do it, now.”  Arnold turns toward the front of the house.  He can hear a car pulling up into the driveway.  “No lights,” he whispers.  “It’s just starting to get dark.  Maybe they will think no one’s home.”

“Who are they?” Annie whispers back as she grabs Jeremy’s arm and pushes Jane up the stairs.

“Benegas.” Arnold looks at Annie bleakly.  “Go.  I will be right behind you.”

They all go upstairs as quietly as possible, without lights or noise.  Jeremy’s room has no windows because it backs on to the hill behind the house so there is no escape.

They can hear someone in the house now.  Actually more than one.  Voices can be heard and then someone is climbing the stairs.

“Look everywhere,” says a rough voice.  “I’m sure the first thing he did when he got here was take it out of its hiding place.  That’s what I would have done.  It has to be here somewhere.”

“How did you know they wouldn’t be home?” a girl’s voice says from the top of the stairs.  Alicia Benegas.

“They were supposed to go to the Montoya’s tonight for dinner,” says Wenceslao from below.  “They must have left already although I was hoping he was still here.  I would love to get my hands on him and make him tell me where it is.”

Arnold closes the door to Jeremy’s room without making a sound and then crosses to the corner near the back of the house.  He taps the wood panels very softly a few times and then smiles.  He pushes a corner of the panel and it slides into the wall, leaving open a passageway behind the wall.

“I knew it,” Jeremy hisses fiercely.  “I knew there was a secret hideout in this room.”

“Quiet,” Arnold whispers, his finger in front of his mouth.  “Follow me,” he mouths silently.  Then he goes into the passageway, waits for his family to follow him and closes the panel behind him.  Just in time.  The door to Jeremy’s room opens and Alicia walks in.  Arnold signals to everyone to be quiet and still.  They wait for a long time until Alicia finally leaves the room.  Then Arnold takes the lead in the darkness walking carefully and slowly into the darkness and cobwebs.

“Where are we going?” Jane whispers.

“Sshhh,” Arnold says.  “Grab my sweater from behind and follow me.  It’s dark but safe.  Not too far to go.”

Jane grabs his sweater and Jeremy follows her and finally Annie.  They walk in complete silence.

After ten minutes of walking and groping and feeling along the walls, they stop.  There is a stone wall in front of them.  Arnold almost hit it head on in the darkness, but not quite, because he is expecting to find it there.

“Come here and touch the wall,” Arnold whispers.  He waits for everyone to gather round and put their hands on the wall.  “Ok, now follow the wall to your right.  There is an opening that we can squeeze through.”  He starts to move to the right, his hands still touching the wall until he finds the opening.  Unless you know it is there, you will never find it in the darkness.  It is like two pieces of rock overlapping on each other.  From the front it looks like one solid wall.  It is the same on the other side.

Once they slide through the crack in the wall, it feels like they enter into a bigger room, cooler and fresher.

“We are in the old cellar behind the house,” Arnold finally says.  “We’re safe here.  They’ll never find this place.”

“I can’t see anything,” Annie says.  “Is there anything to sit on?”

“Well, there was twenty years ago,” Arnold says.  “Give me a sec.”  He moves around and accidentally kicks an old bucket.  “Here sit on this.”  Then he grunts with satisfaction.  “The candles are still here.  Good.  And the matches.  They’re still dry.  Let me try to light them.”  In a few minutes, they have a bit of light and can see each other’s faces at least.

“Well, you wanted an adventure,” Arnold says to Jeremy with a grin.  “You got one.”

“Why is Mr. Benegas and his daughter in our house,” Annie asks sternly.  “What are they looking for?”

“Probably the treasure,” Arnold says.

“What treasure?” Jane and Jeremy say at the same time.

Arnold laughs.  “You thought your old man was boring, did you?”  He just stands there with a big, boyish grin on his face.  “Everyone knows about the Simon Bertoni treasure hidden somewhere on this property.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Annie says.

“Not at all.  But they will never find it,” Arnold says, “because Luján and I already found it.  It was hidden right behind that wall we squeezed through, up on a ledge in the passageway under a slab of stone.  We found it quite by accident.”

“So this was your secret place,” Annie says, looking small and insignificant.

Arnold crouches down in front of Annie and takes her face in his hands.  “You are the love of my life,” he says quietly to Annie.  “No one else.”  He kisses her gently on the lips.

“Eeeuuwww!” Jeremy says.  “Gross!”

“Shut up, you twerp,” says Jane, hitting him on his arm.

“Look, guys,” Arnold says.  “I was in love with Luján.  I admit it.  But I had to leave the country with my mother.  I never came back because I thought Luján was dead.  Someone reported that her whole family had been killed in the fighting before they could leave the country.  Obviously it wasn’t entirely true.”

Then he looks at Annie in the candlelight.  “Then I met your mother and fell in love again.  She was the best thing that ever happened to me and she gave me you two kids.”  He looks at Jane and Jeremy.  “I have been happy for these past twenty years and I am not about to change that for the world.”  He looks down at Annie.  “But yes, it was an adventure.  It was dangerous and exciting and I was young and in love.  I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed.  But I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t.  I would never have met you.”

Annie looks at Arnold for a long moment.  Then she says, “What happened to the treasure?  We could use the money.”  She smiles mischievously.

Arnold breathes a sigh of relief.  Annie is back to her old self.  “We used the money to set up the Simon Bertoni Foundation which promotes democracy and education in Paraguay.”

“Then why are they still looking for it?” Jane says.  “Don’t they know you already found it?”

“I guess not,” Arnold says.  “It was all very sudden.  We found it on the last day before we left and China gave it to a lawyer to take care of and set up the Foundation with but we had to leave so maybe no one found out where the money came from.”

“But, Dad,” Jeremy says.  “They were driving a car that belongs to the Foundation.  Do they work for the Foundation?”

“Good question, son.  I don’t know.”  Arnold frowns, thinking. “It appears like the Benegas family is running the Foundation but I don’t know why. Maybe Luján knows what’s going on.”

“We need to get out of here,” Annie says.  “They must be gone by now.”

“Do we have to go back the way we came,” Jane complains.  “I just want to get out of here.”

“I have your key, Dad,” Jeremy says.  “Does it open this door?”  Jeremy bangs on the big, wooden door of the cellar that leads outside.

“How did you get my key?” Arnold says.  “I gave it to Luján before I left.”

“It wasn’t that hard to find,” Jeremy says, smiling.  “We found it in your room in a secret compartment in the floor under the carpet where your bed was supposed to be.”

“You accomplished all of that on your first day in the house,” Arnold says.  “Amazing…..I wonder how the key got there in the first place.”

“And don’t forget the diary,” Jeremy says.

“Yeah, the diary is interesting reading,” Jane adds.  “It belongs to Luján.”

“You shouldn’t be reading someone else’s diary, Jane,” says Annie.  “It may have some private stuff in there.”

“It was mostly all about a treasure, not boys,” Jane says.

“We’ll give it back to Luján tonight,” Arnold says.  “That is, if we ever get out of here.”  He looks at Jeremy.  “Where’s that key, son?”

A few minutes later, they are breathing fresh, night air in the little stand of trees behind the house.  The moon is full so they can see the path that leads back to the house.

“Let’s be careful and make sure that they’re gone,” Arnold says.  “Wait here for a minute and I’ll take a look around.”

Ten minutes later they are back in their house and wondering what to do.  “Should we call the police, Arni?”

“I don’t know,” Arnold says.  “I don’t think anything was taken and we don’t really have any proof that they were in our house.  All we heard were voices so we can’t positively identify them.”

“That’s crazy,” Jane says.  “We know who they were.”

“Knowing and proving are two different things,” Arnold says, “especially in a country like this where the Benegas family still has power.”

“Well, I, for one, would still like to go to dinner with Miguel Ángel’s family,” Annie says.  “They might be able to help us.”

“Dad,” Jeremy says.  “Who was that on the phone before all this happened?”

“It was Luján warning me that Wenceslao was on his way,” Arnold says.  “She didn’t get a chance to tell me how she knew.”

“He’s dangerous,” Annie says.  “He kept saying that he wanted to get his hands on you.  What are we going to do about him?”

“I don’t know,” Arnold says.  “Let’s clean up and get ready to go.  Maybe we’ll get some answers over there.”