Chapter 13

Van and Mabel hurried toward the Logjam Public Library, where Tim Tutter had scheduled his press conference.
“I don’t know what that goof and his bee think they’re going to pull off up north,” said Mabel, “but I’d like to hear what he has to say.”

“So,” said Van, “do you think Patience and the DIS guy will get together?”

Mabel shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe if he sees what a nice person she is he’ll drop this whole stupid investigation. Otherwise, I think there’d be whatever that’s called–conflict of interest.”

“You’re right,” agreed Van, “Patience would stop liking him real fast if he’s trying to bust her friends for something they didn’t do.”

“Oh man, I can hear him,” said Mabel, as they turned the corner onto River Street. “It’s that voice!”

“So, LADIES and GENTLEMEN! In conclusion, I must COMMEND you for the THOROUGH archives kept by YOUR public library. It has SIMPLIFIED my research greatly, and I have SET UP a meeting with the VERY CITIZEN of your FAIR TOWN who can help ME turn OUR dreams into a REALITY!” Tutter concluded his speech to modest applause and slid, along with his perky blonde assistant, into the waiting limousine.

“I guess we missed it,” said Mabel.

“What I’m wondering,” said Van, “is who is this person, I mean this CITIZEN, who he’s talking about?”

“Don’t know,” replied Mabel. “Tell you what, it’s almost dinner time. I’ll walk you home.”

They crossed the street and headed for the peach stucco co-op, passing by the outdoor terrace, where several tables were occupied by early diners.

“Whoa,” hissed Van, “the trenchcoat brigade! They’re on the terrace. What are they doing?”

“I think they’re having lemonade,” said Mabel, squinting toward the outdoor dining area. “With someone. With Arbogast! Come on, we’ve gotta figure out what they’re talking about!” Mabel grabbed Van by the shirt and quickly, but quietly, hustled past the side of the building and into the main entrance of Mona Lisa’s.

“The kitchen door,” suggested Van. He and Mabel scurried through the kitchen toward the door leading to the terrace.

“Excuse me,” said Mrs. Peale, barely glancing up from several saucepans into which she was dicing onions at blazing speed, “but we wouldn’t be spying on customers, would we?”

“Mom,” whispered Van, “you’ve got to trust me. This is important.”

“Ah, well,” contributed Franz, from his position at the stir-fry griddle, “We were once children too.” He paused and raised one eyebrow. “At least I guess we were. I really don’t recall.”

Mabel put her finger to her lips and pressed her ear to the doorframe. She could make out the skinny form of Verdon Arbogast through the door screen, and his clipped voice was unmistakable.

“I saw you officers taking a break and thought I might add my review, in case you’re going to be in town a few days. If you haven’t had dinner here at Mona Lisa’s, I recommend it highly.”

“What is he up to?” whispered Mabel. “He wouldn’t be friendly for no reason.”

“Unfortunately,” replied the bald DIS agent, “attending to business doesn’t often leave time for socializing.”

“What a shame,” continued Arbogast. “Well, if you find the time, I hear they cook up a spectacular soup. It’s made with an unusual green, grown especially for the chefs here by those creative folk over at the local botanical center. They call it claracrockett something-or-other.”

The DIS agents suddenly looked very alert. The cat-eye agent began scribbling notes on a pad. Agent Manderley looked like his stomach hurt.

“A very interesting vegetable,” continued Arbogast, leaning back in his wrought-iron chair. “I understand plants of its genus are illegal in most of Europe. Thought to have rather dangerous hallucinogenic properties. But I’m sure you people would know what is and isn’t legal.”

The cat-eye and bald agents began to whisper to each other. Manderley looked even sicker.

“Oh, I know!” said Arbogast, suddenly very chipper. “I bet you’d like to know where the Halfslips got this plant in the first place.”

The three agents became very quiet and stared at Arbogast, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.

“Oh, it’s flown over on a regular basis,” said Arbogast. “There’s a local magazine publisher. I believe his name’s Crockett, just like the plant. Flies a private plane. He and his wife apparently bring a variety of botanical samples back from their trips.”

Mabel stared at Van to see if he got what she got out of the conversation.

“That dirty creep,” whispered Van.

Mabel nodded, “Whatever’s going on with these trenchcoat guys,” she said, “Arbogast wants to make sure all our parents get in trouble.”

A chair scraped the floor loudly. Mabel peaked to see that the bald agent had stood up.

“We’ve got to talk to headquarters,” the standing agent said.

“Right,” said Manderley, also getting out of his chair. “If you and Boots would call HQ,” he continued, “there’s a bit of investigating I’d like to do around here.”

Cat-eyed Agent Boots, and the bald agent nodded and strode away from the terrace. Arbogast nodded at Manderley. “Well,” Arbogast said, “have a nice evening.”

Mabel and Van returned to the restaurant lobby in silence. Van sat down on the edge of Hippocrates’ fountain. Mabel sat beside him.

“My dad says there’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “The Halfslips haven’t done anything wrong.”

“And if they haven’t,” Van said, “then neither have your folks, or mine.”

The restaurant’s large front door creaked open. Reynolds Manderley walked hesitantly into the restaurant, casting furtive glances around the room as if he expected to get into trouble. This seemed a far different Manderley than the confidant professional Mabel had first met in Bumper’s. Though his mustache quivered slightly, he made an attempt to regain his purposeful demeanor as Noah Peale walked over to the host’s stand. Even tall, handsome Agent Manderley was dwarfed by the mountainous Mr. Peale.

“Good evening, sir,” said the ever-friendly Mr. Peale. “Are you here for dinner?”

“Actually,” began Manderley. He cleared his throat to project a more confident voice. “Actually, I was hoping you could tell me if Miss Patience is in?”

Mabel elbowed Van in the ribs to make sure he was listening.

“Oh, I see,” said Mr. Peale. His tone suddenly became rather fatherly. “Why don’t you have a seat, and maybe these two,” he said, turning to the children by the fountain, “would run to see if Patience is upstairs in the studio?”

“Sure,” said Mabel. She hurried down the hall toward the steps with Van right behind her. “So,” said Mabel with a giggle, “now we know what he wants to investigate around here.”

Manderley jumped hurriedly to his feet as Patience reached the lobby.

“Agent Manderley,” she said in greeting.

“Miss Patience,” he began, taking a step toward her, “I was just wondering if…well, if you haven’t eaten yet…If you’d have dinner…with me?”

Mr. Peale cast a knowing expression at Van and Mabel.

Patience blushed slightly, then looked at Mr. Peale as if for reassurance. “I think…” she began.

“…it’s a splendid idea,” broke in Mr. Peale, “everyone needs to eat. And, it makes the dining room look better if more tables are filled.”

Patience blushed more, but looked delighted. Manderley’s face broke into a besotted grin.

“Wow, I’ve gotta go,” said Mabel, glancing at her watch, “but I’m dying to know how this little dinner date goes. Be sure you pay attention.”

Van rolled his eyes. “I really do not need to watch this guy go all gaga over Patience,” he said, “why don’t you run down after dinner and see for yourself?”

Mabel chortled at him. “Van Rijn, you’re jealous.”

Van merely huffed.

On top of the Fairweather’s chimney sat a geranium-shaped chimney pot. Through a hole Boris Fairweather had knocked in the dining room wall, Mabel could see all the Fairweathers seated at dinner, on chairs Mrs. Fairweather had fashioned out of the remaining chimney pots.

“Boris says they have a few left over,” said Mr. Crockett, holding the press office door open for Mabel. “I’m sure we could use some chimney pot furniture around here, too. Anyway, glad you could make it for dinner.”

“Sorry, Dad,” said Mabel, “there’s some really weird stuff going on around town.”

“Tell me about it,” replied her father, “a couple of those DIS people just left. They were grilling your mother and me about where we get the plant samples we bring back from trips. I think those guys must have too much time on their hands. Anyway,” he said, slapping a stack of papers onto the table, “I’ve got potatoes in the oven, which will incinerate if I don’t get back to the house. Your mom’s on the internet doing some Norway research. If you can pry her away from the computer we’ll be eating in ten minutes.”

“Okay, Dad,” said Mabel.

Paulo shuffled down the stairs with a cumbersome box in one arm, and his ever-present coffee cup balanced precariously in the other hand. When he puts it down, she thought, feeling for the vial hanging under her shirt, I’ll do it.

“Eh, Mabelina!” called Paulo, staggering over to a desk and dumping his load. “How’s yer homework coming?”

“It’s not bad, Paulo,” she replied, as he trotted, always in perpetual motion, into the next room. The coffee cup was unattended on the desk. Mabel took a swift scan of the room, and certain she would be unnoticed, went to the cup. It was empty.

“That stinkin’ coffee percolator,” Paulo said, hustling back into the room. “The stinkin’ thing is broken again. And I just spilled my last cup on the file cabinet. And I won’t have time to be fixin’ it ‘til tomorrow.” He let out a defeated sigh. “Well, I tell you what, Mabelina,” he continued in a brighter tone, “If I hurry up an git home for dinner, maybe Mrs. Remini will have brewed some up, and maybe if I’m not TOO late, she won’t dump it on my head.”

“Okay, Paulo, you’d better hurry up then,” said Mabel. Well, she thought, maybe tomorrow.

Mabel excused herself after dinner, on the grounds that she had a little project to finish up at the co-op.

Van was sitting on the curb out front, drumming his fingers on the concrete.

“So how’s it going?” asked Mabel.

“Do me a favor,” replied Van, “if I ever stare at a girl that way, spray me with a fire hose.”

Mabel hid a smile. “Sure thing, Van…Hey,” she continued, giving the back of his shirt a tug, “let’s go have a peek.”

When they entered the gallery Van gave Mabel a “wait-a-minute” gesture and disappeared through the dining room into the kitchen. Within seconds he emerged carrying two brownies on plates. He and Mabel seated themselves at an tiny table partially obscured by foliage and a statue of a dancing fox. Mabel could see Agent Manderley and Patience engaged in a gently animated conversation, and wondered if they would notice they were being observed. It took only seconds for her to conclude that Manderley’s gaze barely strayed from Patience and vice-versa.

Van faked a yawn then dug into his brownie. Mabel put her finger to her lips.

“I’ve never thought about colors that way,” said Manderley with embarrassing sincerity. Patience gave him a glowing smile, then glanced at the dashiki-robed flute instructor who was currently serving as a waiter.

“I thought you might enjoy some after-dinner coffee,” said Ramon, the waiter, setting down two cups, and a small pitcher of cream.

Manderley nodded his thanks, and began to drink his black. Patience emptied half the cream into her cup, and added a generous spoonful of sugar.

“I can’t tell you how much safer the world feels to me,” Patience said, stirring her coffee, “knowing there are people like you in law enforcement.”

Manderley beamed. Van rolled his eyes. Mabel squelched a giggle.

Patience set her spoon down, leaving her hand to linger on the table near Manderley’s. First tentatively, then with confidence, he embraced her hand with his own. Two pairs of eyes locked and softened into liquid pools of infatuation.

“I’m done,” said Van, standing up abruptly. “I gotta go now.”

“Okay, okay,” agreed Mabel turning to follow him.
They stopped. Four trenchcoated DIS agents, including the bald man and Boots, strode purposefully into the dining room.

“Excuse me sir!” said Boots in a jarring voice.

Manderley jumped, as if suddenly awakened, and turned around in his chair.

“Sir,” Boots continued, “we’ve spoken to HQ and it’s urgent that we meet with you right away. Can you come to the hotel?”

Manderley managed a drugged nod, then turned back to Patience.

She smiled. “It’s alright. I’m sure it’s very important. Maybe you can come around again. I’m usually upstairs painting.”

Boots shot Manderley a severe look, then turned and marched out of the restaurant with the other agents close at her clicking heels.

Manderley gazed at Patience with a strange sort of aching look, then straightened himself up, turned, and walked swiftly out of the building.

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