Chapter 14

“I’m worried about Ivy,” said Mabel. She sank into the unoccupied schoolbus seat next to Van as the bus lurched away from the curb.

“She’ll be okay,” Van reassured her. “Everybody gets sick and misses school once in a while.”

“Yeah,” said Mabel, not feeling very reassured at all. “Anyway,” she continued, “I’ve got a homework packet for her so she won’t get too far behind.”

The bus made its west side rounds, then jiggled its way across the Willibunk River bridge. Van climbed off at his usual stop, but when the bus stopped in front of O’Boyle’s, Mabel did not get off with the Bumpers and Ricky Fairweather. Holly Bumper, who liked to make sure everything was just so, gave her a questioning look, then shrugged and disembarked when Mabel indicated that she had some papers for Ivy Halfslip. The bus then squeaked and leaned, turning onto Rocky Creek Road. Mabel stood as the driver approached the sign at the base of the botanical center driveway, and he stopped to let her off.

She wondered if Ivy was even feeling well enough to contend with a math worksheet, but reminded herself that, for Ivy anyway, math worksheets didn’t require a great deal of effort.

There was the sound of gravel being ground and spit from beneath the tires of a rapidly moving vehicle. Mabel quickly jumped off the drive and into the bushes in time to see a blocky pink car roar up the hill beside her. The car screeched to a halt, throwing more stones behind it, then backed up in a series of rapid jerks. The driver’s window lowered.

“Little girl!” scolded a woman whose face was barely visible beneath her makeup. Her hair was frosted into stripes of blonde and dark brown, and teased into a beehive hairdo which brushed the ceiling of her car. “This is not a place for children! There are government operatives at work as we speak! Go home!”

Mabel nodded, and took a step backward. The woman, seemingly satisfied that her instructions were being heeded, spun her tires and roared up the remainder of the driveway.

Mabel stood and blinked for a moment. Who was that and what was happening at the botanical center? She decided the best thing to do would be to find out for herself, as long as she could avoid being spotted by the lady in the pink car. She climbed the second half of the hill through the trees at the side of the driveway. When she reached the top, she crouched behind a boxwood hedge and looked across the parking area, with a growing, gut-wrenching sense of dread.

Porter Halfslip was walking out of Greenhouse 1, flanked by two trenchcoated agents. Porter looked across the parking lot toward a DIS car, where Mary and Parker stood together, with two more agents. Porter’s hands were behind his back, and it wasn’t until he and the agents had crossed the parking lot that Mabel could see the reason. He was handcuffed. Mabel felt sick.

The door to Greenhouse 3 creaked loudly. Reynolds Manderley strode across the parking lot speaking quietly into a handheld dictaphone.

I hate him, Mabel thought to herself. Patience has to hate him too. She has too.

“Where’s the child?” barked the lady with the beehive, who had gotten out of her pink car. Then, in a sweeter voice she added, “a little girl, I think?”

“It’s alright,” said Manderley. “She’s going to stay here with her great-grandfather.”

“Norton Halfslip?” said Boots. “Isn’t he involved in this operation?”

“He’s too old, and he can’t even talk,” said the short, bald agent. “Even if he’s had anything to do with growing the contraband plants, he’s too out of it to know what he’s doing.”

Mabel bristled. The stupid agent knew nothing about Norton Halfslip.

“Too old?” said the beehive lady. “Out of it, you say? Yet you’d leave a child in his care?”

“They’ll be fine,” interjected Mary Halfslip. “Norton is quite capable of caring for a child.”

“I see,” said Ms. Beehive, eyeing her suspiciously. “Well, we’ll just have to see about that, won’t we?”

The three Halfslips were hastily ushered into a DIS vehicle, which began to pull out of the parking lot, followed by the other two sedans, and the pink car.

Mabel felt sick and hot and flushed and confused. She remembered her father’s words assuring her that it was all a mistake and everything would be fine. Dad, she thought. I need Dad. She tore down the hill through the woods, not minding the brambles and branches in her way. The woods opened onto the airfield. There was the Shooting Star, just cleaned and buffed by her father, and ready for its next flight. Mabel did not stop. Her lungs ached, but she raced across the airfield and dashed through the path to her backyard.

“Mom!” she yelled. “Dad!” They were not in the house. She ran through the garden and into the back door of the press office.

“Mabelina,” called Paulo, “Mabelina, wait, you must wait here!” Paulo looked upset, shaky, and caffeine-addled. He was carrying papers which piece by piece were spilling from his arms onto the press room floor.

“Where are my parents, Paulo?” Mabel demanded.

“Mabelina, they’re not here…wait Mabelina, you need to wait!” He dropped the rest of the papers. “Okay, don’t wait, I wouldn’t either.”

Mabel barely heard Paulo’s last few words. She had bolted through the front door of the press office and, as hastily as possible, crossed the street. She hurdled several piles of bricks in front of the Fairweathers’ and dodged around the fruit kiosk in front of the grocery store.

Mabel was only vaguely aware of people scuttling out of her way as she tore single-mindedly toward the co-op, until one did not step aside and she ran smack into him. The collision nearly sent her spinning into the railing at the foot of the Willibunk River bridge and she had no idea whether she was about to hit the ground or the sky when a pair of firm and grasping hands placed her in an upright position.

“Are things going poorly, then, Miss Crockett?” sneered Verdon Arbogast, loosening his grip slightly.

Mabel wrenched herself free of his grasp and glared at him loathingly.

“Never…come near me…again!” she rasped.

“Oh!” Arbogast exclaimed. He took a step backwards and assumed an injured expression. “I’m so sorry you feel that way. But I understand. Things are getting a little out of hand around here.”

Mabel’s head began to clear and she took a step back toward the sidewalk.

“My offer still stands, you know,” Arbogast said. His expression darkened. “I can help you. We can help each other.”

“What do you want?” said Mabel, stepping farther away.

“Your father, silly,” he replied. It came out as a snarl. “You know how to find him. I know they told you.”

“Who told me?” asked Mabel.

Arbogast looked darker, angry and desperate. He closed in and clamped a hand around Mabel’s arm. “The dryads,” he said unsteadily. “The bloody…Stinking…DRYADS!”

Arbogast’s grip was tight, and he looked almost rabid. Mabel twisted and yanked herself free, then ran across the foot of the bridge without checking for traffic or looking back. River water splashed at her heals as she ran. The door to Mona Lisa’s was within her reach, and she pulled it open and hurried inside.

It was a different world in the gallery. Plants were thriving, chamber music was gently playing, diners were relaxing over a meal. Van waved from the base of the stairway down the hall.

“Mabel,” he said, “you don’t look so good. What’s wrong?”

“Where’s your dad, Van?” she answered. “We need your parents. Mine are gone.”

Van looked confused, but motioned toward the dining room. “He’s in there,” he said, “and look who he’s with.”

At a corner table, Noah Peale was handing menus to two seated customers.

“I am deeply honored,” said Tim Tutter, “that you would join me this evening, Miss Penny.” He smiled a charming but, in Mabel’s estimate, insincere smile.

Miss Penny chuckled and waved her hand at him. “Anything for a good meal, hon,” she said. “And they cook pretty good here.”

“Karla will be serving you this evening,” said Mr. Peale, before he turned toward Van and Mabel in the gallery. His large brow furrowed with concern when he saw Mabel, scratched, shaken and disheveled, and he gently ushered the children away from the gallery and into the more private hallway.

“What happened, Mabel? Are you alright?” Mr. Peale put an arm around her shoulders, and she took several deep breaths so as not to cry.

“They…took the Halfslips…in their cars,” said Mabel chokily.

“Took?” asked Mr. Peale.

“Arrested,” continued Mabel. “With handcuffs…and I don’t know where my parents are…something happened.”

“Okay…alright…,” said Mr. Peale, thinking out loud. “We’ll need to find a good lawyer…maybe Henders Upshaw…”

Ramon walked through the front door, visibly concerned. “Noah…” he began.

Mr. Peale cut him off. “Ramon, can you host for a while?”

“Yes…but I was going to say that…” Ramon stopped suddenly and looked back at the door. It opened abruptly, almost as if kicked, and in marched four DIS agents, wearing utterly no-nonsense expressions. Reynolds Manderley brought up the rear, then pushed to the front of the group.

“Are you Noah Peale, proprietor of this restaurant?” asked Manderley.

“Yes I am,” responded Mr. Peale gently, “but I think you already knew that.”

“Please stay where you are sir,” instructed Manderley, “and have someone send for your wife Sonja Peale.”

“Ramon?” said Mr. Peale, nodding toward the kitchen.

Ramon nodded uncertainly and left the room. A few moments later, he reappeared with Mrs. Peale, just as Patience came down the stairs. Pleasure at the sight of Manderley lit her face fleetingly before being replaced by fear and confusion.

Mabel looked at Manderley, perceiving that he was aware of Patience in his peripheral visual field. Something agonizingly painful registered on his face until he snuffed it, with a great swallow and straightening of his shoulders. He turned to the Peales.

“Noah and Sonja Peale, you are under arrest on suspicion of the purveyance of illegal botanical substances…”

Manderley continued to prattle for several more minutes about rights and legalities. Mabel’s head began to pound. Van looked stricken. Patience clung to Ramon who had stepped toward her protectively.

“This is Mrs. Pilderjack,” said Boots, as the lady from the pink car stepped into the restaurant lobby. “She is a social worker who will be seeing to the safety of the children.”

“Hello, children,” said Mrs. Pilderjack to Mabel and Van. Her voice was grotesquely syrupy. “And you must be little Mabel. Well, with your parents in federal custody you will need someone to look after you. That’s my job.”

“They can stay here,” said Ramon. “There are plenty of adults here they know.”

Mrs. Pilderjack smiled at him condescendingly. “I’m afraid that’s impossible,” she said, “until their parents have filled out the proper release forms.”

“Give me the paperwork,” said Mr. Peale. “I’ll sign it now.”

Mrs. Pilderjack looked up at him and shook her head as if she couldn’t imagine such a peculiar human being. “It can’t be done here,” she snapped. “Children, please follow me.”

Boots and the bald agent snapped handcuffs onto the wrists of Mr. and Mrs. Peale and gestured toward the front door.

Mrs. Peale nodded at Van and Mabel reassuringly. “It’ll be okay,” she said, “just do as they ask for now.” Then she and Mr. Peale exited the restaurant in the center of the cluster of trenchcoated agents.

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