Chapter 16

“You think you can drive this thing?” Mabel asked Van, patting the hood of the golf cart in the botanical center parking lot.

“Sure,” replied Van, “anybody could. It’s like a toy. But I think you may be nuts about the Shooting Star. You really planning to fly an airplane?”

Mabel tried to feel confident. “I don’t know, but there’s you and me…and Bailey. Besides, there’s no other way.”

Sparkle trotted out of the shed, followed closely by Sig, who was still having to work amusingly hard to keep up with his mother.

“Funny little guy,” said Van, scratching Sig on the head.

“You’ll be leaving soon,” said Sparkle. “You’ll need us.”

“Why?” asked Mabel.

Van gave Sig’s tummy a rub. “Well, he’s funny because he’s little and…”

“That’s not what I meant,” interrupted Mabel, looking intently at Sparkle.

“You need us,” repeated Sparkle.

“We’re taking the dogs with us,” said Mabel to Van.

Van looked from Mabel to Sparkle and back, then rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say. I guess there’s always room for one…I mean two more.”

The crunch of car tires sounded loudly from the bottom of the driveway.

“Pilderjack!” said Van.

“It’s a coat-man,” corrected Sparkle leading Sig back to the safety of the potting shed.

“No,” said Mabel to Van, “It’s not Pilderjack, but we better get out of sight.”

Mabel and Van followed the dogs into the potting shed, and pulled the door all but closed. Van crouched, and Mabel looked over his head as a black sedan pulled into the parking lot and Reynolds Manderley stepped out.

“Crud,” whispered Van, “what’s HE doing here?”

Manderley scribbled something onto a notepad, and returned it to his coat pocket. He glanced around, then entered Greenhouse 3.

“Collecting evidence,” Mabel seethed. “How can he be such a creep? How can he do this to Patience?”

“He has a job,” said Van flatly. “He has rules to follow. More to the point, we’ve gotta get out of here. Without him seeing us.”

“Okay,” said Mabel, “I’ll go get Norton and Ivy. When I wave from the front door, pull the golf cart up to the porch. Fast.”

Through the greenhouse glass Mabel could see Agent Manderley’s mustached face, bending over and squinting at plants as he worked his way toward the rear of the building. Slowly, to keep the door from squeaking, Mabel slid through the opening and made her way across the parking lot to the house. She hoped fervently that the gravel crunching under her feet was not as loud as it seemed to her ears.

“Pop-pop doesn’t want to leave things a mess,” explained Ivy, as Mabel entered the kitchen. Norton had just finished rinsing the last bits of green nutrition concoction out of a pair of drinking glasses.

“Mr. Halfslip,” said Mabel, “let’s go down the hall. We’re going to give you and Ivy a ride. Come on Ivy.”

Mabel took Ivy by the hand and helped her off the sofa. It was clearly taking all of Ivy’s strength to walk to the front door. Norton shuffled along at the rear, one hand on Ivy’s shoulder and one on his cane.

Mabel paused at the door at peered through the screen. Van, crouching beside the golf cart, gave her a discreet wave.

Now or never, Mabel thought to herself, giving Van the go-ahead signal.

Van gave a furtive glance toward the greenhouse, then climbed behind the wheel of the golf cart. He shot Mabel a quick thumbs-up and turned the key.

The engine reverberated with what seemed a painfully loud put-putting. Mabel held her breath as Van put the cart into reverse and circled around to approach the porch where she and the Halfslips were waiting.

Keeping hold of Ivy’s hand, Mabel held the door for Norton to shuffle out, then she and Ivy followed him onto the porch. At that moment she realized Manderley had seen them.

“Van! Hurry, he’s coming!” she yelled, leading Ivy to the edge of the decking.

Van looked at the greenhouse in a panic. Manderley first waved his arm, then began to sprint toward the door.

“Bring the cart!” yelled Mabel, but Van had thrown the cart back into reverse, and was suddenly streaking in the opposite direction. At the precise moment Manderley reached the greenhouse door to open it, Van rammed the rear of the golf cart, with an enormous bang, into the outside of the door.

Mabel stared in momentary shock as Manderley rattled the door in an effort to push it open, but the golf cart didn’t budge.

“Okay,” said Mabel, thinking aloud, “what do we do now?”

“Well,” replied Ivy in a calm voice, “Agent Manderley left his car right there, and I’ve noticed something about these guys…they rarely take the keys out of the ignition.”

Mabel turned and looked at Ivy incredulously, but only for an instant. Ivy was right. They would take the car. “Ivy,” Mabel began, “what about Buster? He’s stuck in there with Manderley.”

Ivy managed a small, but slightly wicked smile. “Buster’s okay. I’m not sure about Agent Manderley.”

Van was still sitting in the golf cart, staring at Manderley as if frozen. Manderley was gesturing wildly, and seemed to be trying to reason with Van through the glass.

“You only need to know forward and reverse,” said Ivy quietly, her big hazel eyes focused on Mabel’s.

Mabel ran to the black sedan and opened the door. The keys were in place. She turned them as she’d seen her parents do many times, and the engine roared to life. Manderley began to yell like a crazy person.

“’R’ for reverse,” Mabel said to herself, moving the shift handle into position. The car lurched backward, then rolled slowly. When it reached the golf cart she pressed the brake pedal and the car lurched again, this time to a halt.

“Come on!” she said to Van, who hastily left his golf cart perch, and ran around to the passenger side door. Manderley looked like a mess. His hair had completely abandoned its moussed into place style, and he mouthed the words “What are you doing” at Mabel through the glass.

Mabel looked at him and shook her head. “You are not a true friend,” she said back.

“Come on,” urged Van. “Let’s get those guys and go!”

Manderley appeared to be considering whether he could put a brick through the glass. Then he grabbed the door handle and again rattled it violently.

“Patience will never trust you again,” Mabel said to Manderley, hoping that he could read her lips. Manderley dropped the brick, and slumped against the glass wall, a dazed expression on his face.

“Accelerate GENTLY,” said Van, as Mabel switched the gear lever to “D” for drive and moved, with a bit less jerking, back to the porch to collect Norton and Ivy.

“Van,” said Mabel, “you want to drive?”

“Uh, no,” he replied, “you’re doing great. I’ll help Ivy and Norton.”

Van hopped out onto the porch and held the door for the Halfslips. Ivy climbed in first and slid to the far side of the back seat where she leaned back and exhaled as if the exertion had been taxing. After Norton had creaked into his spot Van slammed the door, jumped back into the front and said “Let’s roll.”

Mabel accelerated, with more force than she had intended, then slammed to a halt at the top of the driveway. Sparkle was sitting patiently to the left of the driveway, with an expectant expression. Beside her Sig rolled on his back, nipping at his mother’s feet.

“Get in,” said Mabel, opening her door.

Sparkle grasped Sig by his scruff and scrambled across Mabel’s lap, then settled herself on the front seat between Mabel and Van.

Mabel started more gently down the hill, beginning to have a feel for the sensitivity of the brake and accelerator pedals.

“You were supposed to stop there,” said Van, as Mabel rolled off the botanical center driveway onto Rocky Creek Road.

“Oops,” she replied.

Luckily, thought Mabel, there’s no other traffic. And driving this thing is actually pretty easy, except for… “Duck! Duck Van!” Mabel suddenly exclaimed.

A pink car roared toward them from the opposite direction.

Mabel proceeded toward the airfield, fully expecting the pink car to screech to a halt as they passed, but Mrs. Pilderjack did not turn her angry painted face toward them. She passed without looking and squealed up the botanical center drive without slowing down.

“Don’t worry, she’ll be back,” said Van as he returned to an upright position.

“Okay, then let’s go,” responded Mabel, pulling the car off the road, onto the airfield.

The Shooting Star sat ahead of them looking, as always, ready and eager for its next adventure. Mabel applied the brake and stopped. She was suddenly overwhelmed with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was a mixture of confusion and fear which, until this moment, she had deliberately ignored.

“What do we think we’re doing, Van?” she said in a half-whisper.

Van fiddled with the lock on the glove compartment, then turned to look at Ivy and Norton in the back seat. Ivy was silent, and Norton gave Van an encouraging nod.

“You know what we’re doing, Mabel,” Van said resolutely.“ We’re finding some people who can get our parents out of trouble.”

Mabel took her foot off the brake, and the car began to drift.

“Park,” said Van, “you’ve gotta put it in park.”

Mabel nodded and hastily moved the shift lever to P. The engine gave a sputter and stalled out. “Okay, good,” she said, “it’s off.”

A radio in the dashboard crackled and a garbled voice said something unintelligible.

“What?” said Van.

The voice broke through more clearly. “Walrus, come in Walrus, this is Hightops…”

“That’s Agent Boots!” said Mabel.

“Don’t let her hear you,” whispered Van.

“She can’t,” Mabel assured him. She picked up the handset and pointed out a red button on it. “I’d have to push this button to speak.”

“Walrus…” crackled the voice again, “come in Walrus…”

“Say something,” said Mabel, shoving the handset at Van.

“Why?” he asked.

“So she’ll think he’s here and won’t come looking for him.”

Van cleared his throat and pushed the red button. “Walrus here,” he said in an unnaturally guttural voice.

There was an awkward silence, then the radio crackled again.

“Sir…” said the voice, “Elsa has lost her charges…they’ve gone missing sir…”

“That’s us,” said Mabel.

Boots appeared to be waiting for a reply, as the line transmitted only static.

“Oh?” grunted Van into the handset.

“Suggest sir, that Cueball and I look for them in town…” the voice said between crackles.

Van cleared his throat and pressed the red button again. “Roger Hightops, over and out.” He released the button. “And don’t,” he said, turning to Mabel, “expect me to say anything else.”

“Fine,” Mabel agreed. “Wait a minute…” There was something cardboard with crinkly cellophane under her seat. “Wow, look what he left!” She held up a full box of powdered sugar donuts.

“Maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all,” said Van, opening the box and offering it to the backseat passengers. Ivy declined, but Norton grinned and grabbed a donut. “We’ll just take these with us,” said Van, handing a donut to Mabel, who gave half to Sparkle.

Mabel got out of the car and looked at the Shooting Star. She knew how to get in, she knew how to boot up Bailey…but flying. That sinking feeling again began to well up. We’ll figure it out, she told herself firmly. Because we have to.

Mabel scrambled onto the wing and opened the hatch, then watched as Van helped Norton and Ivy out of the car.

Ivy, looking paler and more tired than she had thirty minutes ago, exited on one side, and out the other, hunched and shuffling, came Norton. At first he seemed confused about where he was, and he squinted at the sunlight reflected off the top of the Shooting Star. But as he adjusted his glasses, and refocused on the airplane, recognition seemed to light his face. He hobbled over to the plane, and chuckled as he ran his fingers over the vines and animals painted on the Star’s body. Then he glanced up at Mabel, gave a satisfied nod, and made an effort to pull himself onto the wing.

“Van, help Norton,” said Mabel, realizing that he’d never make it without a boost. So, with Van boosting, and Mabel pulling, Norton managed to clamber onto the wing of the star where he sat looking rather delighted. Van and Mabel brought Ivy aboard in a similar manner, then Van handed Mabel the dogs and the donuts. Lastly, he pulled himself onto the wing.

“Okay, Mabel,” said Van, casting a dubious eye at the open hatch. “Who’s sitting in the pilot’s seat, you or me?”

Mabel looked at him hopefully. “You drove the golf cart,” she said.

“You drove the car,” he countered. “And, you’ve watched your dad.”

“Yeah, I guess, but…what?” Mabel turned toward Norton who had gently taken hold of her elbow. He was looking at her and shaking his head, his crinkly face creased into a patient smile. With painstaking care, Norton grabbed his cane and pulled himself to his feet on the wing of the plane. Then he shuffled the few steps to the open hatch, and looked expectantly at Van.

“He’s waiting for you to help him get in,” explained Ivy.

Mabel looked at Van, then at Norton. “Mr. Halfslip?” she said. “You want to…”

“Fly the plane,” said Ivy quietly. “Golly Mabel, just because someone can’t speak…you didn’t think you were going to do it did you?”

Mabel looked at Van to discern what he was thinking. Van shrugged. Mabel wondered if Norton could possibly, after all these years, and a stroke…fly an airplane. At the same time, she felt greatly relieved that it wasn’t up to her.

“Okay,” she finally said getting in position to boost Norton. “Van, help me out.”

As Van boosted from the left, and Mabel from the right, Norton scrambled over the edge of the cockpit and disappeared head first. Mabel felt slightly horrified, wondering how to help him right himself, when he managed to pull his feet in and push himself into a seated position. Looking no more rumpled than usual, Norton straightened his glasses, gave an enthusiastic thumbs up, and grinned a big yellow grin.

“Okay, Ivy,” said Mabel, “let’s get you in there.” With a slight boost, Ivy pulled herself into the hold behind the pilot seat and disappeared from view. Sparkle grasped Sig by the scruff and patiently allowed Mabel to lift her in next.

“Let’s go start up…whoa…Bailey…and hope a storm’s not coming,” said Mabel as a forceful gust of wind threw her off balance. She quickly sat flat on her bottom so as not to be blown off the wing. River water spritzed Van in the glasses, and several sticks pelted the plane’s fuselage.

“I don’t think it’s a storm,” said Van removing his glasses, “it’s the river.”

“What’s its problem?” wondered Mabel aloud. “Oh no…how fast can we get out of here?” She looked toward Rocky Creek Road. Rapidly approaching the plane was a dark green van, with river mud splattered across its duct-taped windshield.

“Not fast enough,” said Van.

The van lurched to an abrupt halt next to Agent Manderley’s black sedan.

Wind and drizzle seemed to be swirling around Verdon Arbogast as he got out and approached the Shooting Star. He was smiling in a twisted sort of smirk, and even had she not been looking, Mabel would have felt his eyes boring into her.

“We get in quick and shut the hatch,” Mabel whispered to Van, as the two of them edged toward the cockpit.

“Oh, not yet,” said Arbogast silkily, as he pulled something shiny and black out of his coat pocket.

Mabel spoke to Van as quietly as she could. “He has a gun.”

Van looked incredulously at Arbogast. “The plane is full,” he said in the most neutral voice he could muster. He and Mabel stood on the wing, their backs to the cockpit.

Arbogast stood at the edge of the wing, then with remarkably little effort, sprang onto the end of it. He clucked and feigned a look of surprise. “Full, you say?” he repeated. “But I say it’s not!”

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