Chapter 17

Arbogast held the gun loosely in his right hand and motioned toward the hatch with his left. “You two just go on ahead,” he said in what struck Mabel as a remarkably casual tone. “I’ll bring up the rear.”

Mabel followed Van into the plane’s hold. Behind them, Arbogast paused and eyed Norton critically.

“I think I remember you,” he said with a slight grimace. “The years have not been kind.” He returned his gaze to Mabel and almost smiled. “You kids know nothing about the perils of aging.”

Norton seemed barely to have noticed Arbogast at all. He had fitted Peter Crockett’s pilot cap onto his head, and was exploring the Star’s controls with reverence and obvious delight.

Sparkle, nesting with Sig at Ivy’s feet in the passenger hold, thumped her tail in acknowledgement as the kids entered the hold. But as Arbogast climbed down behind Mabel, the fur on Sparkle’s back bristled and she emitted a low growl.

Arbogast glanced at her distastefully. “Throw them out,” he said, waving his weapon toward the dogs.

“We can’t” said Mabel. “You’re just going to have to believe me. If you want to go where we’re going, we need the dogs.”

Arbogast sneered, but dropped the subject to Mabel’s surprise and relief, since she knew she could offer no better explanation.

Van sat down next to Ivy and patted a spot between them where Mabel could just squeeze in. “I told you there’s no room for you,” Van said, glaring at Arbogast.

Mabel wished he would hush. She couldn’t see any point in antagonizing an armed lunatic, but Arbogast merely raised his eyebrows and smiled.

“Don’t worry, I won’t be sitting,” said Arbogast. “I don’t care for that strapped in feeling. But you, Miss Crockett…” he said motioning toward the empty seat.

“I need to turn on the computer,” said Mabel. “It will help us navigate.”

“Charming,” exclaimed Arbogast. “I should have known. You Crockett’s are always thinking up new ways to solve problems. Go right ahead.”

After a minute of humming and whirring, Bailey’s eager voice piped up. “Good morning, Peter, where to today?”

“Bailey, it’s not Peter, it’s Mabel,” said Mabel, hoping the computer’s voice recognition software was programmed to know her.

“One moment please,” said Bailey. Mabel could hear the computer’s hard drive spinning, first fast, then settling to a low hum.

“Mabel Crockett,” said Bailey, “yes, you’ve been voice-printed as a safety precaution. I’ll rephrase my question. Good morning Mabel, where to today?”

Arbogast crouched against the plane’s wall, fixing Mabel with a questioning gaze. “Indeed, Miss Crockett,” he asked, “where to?”

“North,” replied Mabel.

“That’s a rather non-specific directive,” said Bailey. “I hope you’ll narrow that selection down once we’re airborne.”

“Bailey,” said Mabel, trying to sound more confident than she felt, “we’re going to be relying on the way things look from up there.”

“Well,” responded Bailey, “it’s not my place to protest, but I trust you’ll give me more information when it becomes available.”

“Okay then,” said Van impatiently, “let’s go.”

“Mr. Halfslip?” said Mabel to Norton. “North.”

Norton turned and looked down at the kids. He grinned again, gave another enthusiastic thumbs up, and turned back to the controls.

“I hope,” whispered Van, “he knows what he’s doing.”

“It sounds okay,” said Mabel as the Star began to vibrate with the rattle of its engine. “And he looks okay.”

Indeed, from the rear, Norton appeared to be handling the controls with the same ease that he repotted ferns. He began to taxi, then turn, and it still felt quite normal to Mabel. The Star now faced the length of the field which served as a runway.

“Here we go,” said Mabel quietly, in anticipation of rapid acceleration.

Rapid was a completely inadequate word to describe what happened next. No sooner had the Star gained an inch of ground when the kids were pinned to their seat backs with the force of speed.

“Cripes,” said Van growing slightly pale, “does…it always…feel…like this?”

By the time Mabel could even formulate a response, the nose lifted, and she could feel the Star gaining altitude at a rate she’d never experienced flying with her father. She looked at Norton. His wrinkled head was bobbing with obvious glee. The engine’s roar kicked up a notch as the Star gained yet more speed.

“He thinks,” said Van, looking a bit ill, “he’s in Billy Limpit’s Flying Circus!”

Mabel winced. “Let’s just hope he doesn’t try a loop-de-loop.”

“Miss Crockett,” broke in the voice of Verdon Arbogast.

Oh gosh, yeah, he’s here, thought Mabel. She looked behind her and saw Arbogast, struggling not to tumble into a stack of life-vests and parachutes.

“May I suggest you attend to the business of navigating,” he said with clipped impatience.

“If you don’t know where we’re going,” said Van, turning around, “then why are you so hot to get there?”

Arbogast gave Van a condescending smirk. “Yes,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that I’m not privy to the information I’d need to find Jonah Crockett myself. There’s only one person whom Crockett is that anxious to see. Only one whom the forces that he must have befriended have seen fit to supply with two and two.”

“Two and two?” asked Mabel.

“Yes, Miss Crockett,” said Arbogast. “And if you’re a bright enough girl to put two and two together, you’ll find that they make four…and that’s,” he continued, “why we’ve become such good friends.”

“Right,” said Mabel.

“You have seemed pretty sure about getting us this far,” said Van to Mabel. “Now what?”

Mabel leaned over Ivy’s lap and looked out the window. The landscape below was solid green, with subtle frostings of red and gold. Forests, north of Logjam, stretched as far as one could see, the treetops broken only by the snaking crack of the Willibunk River. But Mabel’s head felt vacant. There was something she was supposed to know, and it just wasn’t there.

“What do you need Jonah Crockett for?” Mabel asked Arbogast, to change the subject.

“We’re old friends, your father and I,” replied Arbogast. He chuckled darkly. “Emphasis on old.”

It sounded too strange. Mabel could not envision a father apart from the one she knew.

“School chums,” continued Arbogast, in a vaguely distant voice, “class mates, study partners…and he was smart, too. Knew his sciences cold.” Arbogast settled onto a pile of life vests as Norton eased the Star to a slower cruising speed.

“Yes, and Jonah was discreet. I wouldn’t have had anyone else to my house…didn’t want anyone else to know.”

Mabel had to ask. “What didn’t you want them to know?”

Arbogast let out a bitter laugh. “That my father was a doddering, drooling, helplessly infantile pile of ancient bones. But mother would not institutionalize him, oh no. She dressed, bathed, and spoon-fed him, for anyone who walked in the house to see. It mortified me.”

There was silence, then Bailey’s voice. “Mabel Crockett, I await further instructions when you are ready.”

Mabel leaned over Ivy, who had fallen asleep, and again peered out the window. The curving line of the Willibunk had begun to sprout occasional branches as tributaries from the east and west fed into it. Her mind was still blank. “I’ll let you know, Bailey,” she said, hoping fervently that something about this trip would start to make sense.

“You got something against old people?” asked Van.

“The helpless indignity of it all,“ replied Arbogast with a shudder. “I could not envision ever finding myself in that condition. I studied for years, quite hopeful that somewhere in my studies I would uncover a secret to maintaining indefinite health. And Jonah…forgot…”

Sig maneuvered himself into a cozy position under Mabel’s hand, and she scratched his back absentmindedly.

“Hey, Mr. Arbogast,” began Van in a tactless tone which Mabel knew well. “Help us out here. Are you a lot older than you look, or are you just totally wigged out?”

“My chronological age,” answered Arbogast, “is 105.”

Mabel gasped slightly. She’d seen the yearbook photo, but how could this be?

“So,” continued Van, “as you’ve so obviously found the scientific key to youthfulness, why haven’t you shared it with the world?”

“Yes…” replied Arbogast thoughtfully, “the scientific key. We were just teenagers, but we agreed,” he said glaring accusingly at Mabel. “We agreed that we would share our findings with each other!”

“You mean you and Jonah?” asked Mabel, cringing slightly.

Arbogast raised his eyebrows and nodded.

Mabel continued. “What happened to Jonah?”

“Many unfortunate things,” replied Arbogast, rearranging his bench of life vests. “First,” he continued, raising an index finger dramatically, “he became obsessed with pretty little Laura, and no longer needed his old friends. Then the two of them became equally obsessed with that teacher…that Wickers woman, and Jonah lost his grasp of scientific rationality. All he would talk about was plants and healing, and other airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo. Nonsense.”

“And then the fire,” said Mabel. “What about the fire?”

Arbogast rolled his eyes and snorted slightly. “Ah yes, the fire. Picture this if you will. My friend, who undeniably made a pact with me, dumps me, fakes his own death…and then, when he finally discovers a key to longevity, conveniently forgets that he ever knew a Verdon Arbogast…’Verdon…who’s he…can’t say I know anyone by that name…’”

“Mr. Arbogast,” said Van impatiently, “Pardon me if I’m overstepping my bounds here, but your story has some major loose ends.”

Arbogast folded his arms across his chest and turned his head toward Van. “I’ll pardon you. Ask away.”

“If you haven’t discovered the secret to youth and beauty,” asked Van, “how is it that you’re even still alive?”

“And,” continued Mabel, “what makes you so sure that Jonah Crockett is still alive?”

“Fair enough,” replied Arbogast. “I’ll take Mr. Peale’s query first.” He resettled himself on the life vests and leaned forward. “I scarcely learned a useful thing. People are born, people get old, people die. It was quite depressing. The future, to my way of thinking, looked bleak…I used to sit by the river. Found it pacifying, you know, the noise the water makes. Well, one day, as I sat there, I met a…a woman.”

“Ooh,” said Van, “a woman…let me guess…your fairy godmother?”

“You’re too cute for your own good,” replied Arbogast. “And a lot closer to the truth than you meant to be. Jenny does have special ways about her…”

Arbogast leaned back against the wall of the plane and, momentarily, a dreamy look relaxed his face so his expression was almost pleasant. But it was a fleeting change. Just as suddenly the tension and sarcasm returned.

“Typical female,” Arbogast continued. “Disturbingly possessive…wants everything her way. So, yes…I’ve borrowed a few tricks from her. But my abilities fade if I’m apart from her for long, which is why…” Arbogast said with a sudden directness Mabel felt was aimed her way, “I was so interested to learn that Jonah Crockett had not burnt to a crisp so many years before, but in fact had fathered a daughter…a mere thirteen and a half years ago.”

Mabel was again almost painfully aware of Arbogast’s gaze, boring into her, but now she was tired of avoiding it. “Okay, fine,” she said with mild exasperation. “How do you know Jonah has a daughter, and what makes you so sure it’s me?”

“It seems,” replied Arbogast, “that your father and my lady friend have some mutual acquaintances. Now, I’d be the first to admit that it sounds like utter nonsense, but it has something to do with trees…”

“Dryads,” said Mabel.

“Yes,” responded Arbogast. “And I happened to overhear a conversation between Jenny and a particularly annoying little creature called Lida referring to how Jonah and Laura were so anxious to see their daughter, who lived in Logjam, and how they were making efforts to summon her.”

“So what are you bugging Mabel for?” asked Van. “Why didn’t you just ask Lida how to find Jonah?”

“Those things won’t talk to me,” Arbogast said curtly.

“Then you should have asked your girlfriend,” replied Mabel.

“I did discreetly inquire,” said Arbogast looking pained. “Perhaps I’ve neglected to mention…Jenny has a bit of a temper problem.”

“She got mad?” asked Mabel.

Arbogast grimaced. “To put it mildly.”

“Why?” asked Mabel.

Arbogast sighed and stretched his legs out. “Jenny is, unfortunately, extraordinarily perceptive about certain things. She correctly surmised that if I got what I wanted from Jonah Crockett, then I might no longer feel committed to our…relationship.”

“So she wouldn’t tell you,” concluded Van.

“No,” replied Arbogast. “Which left me with one means to find Jonah. Locate the daughter and follow her. And believe me Miss Crockett, in a town the size of Logjam it was not a difficult task to pick you out.”

Mabel repositioned Sig on her lap and gently ran her fingers along the white streaks on his back. “What do you think Jonah is going to do for you?” she asked.

“Let’s do some math,” replied Arbogast. “If my old friend Crockett is now 105 years old, and his daughter is 13, then how old was Crockett when his daughter was born?”

“He was 92,” answered Mabel.

“With a wife of 91,” continued Arbogast, “And how many nonagenarians do you think become parents on a routine basis?”

“It can happen,” said Van, “at least with the dad.”

“To be technical, yes,” acknowledged Arbogast, “but to be fathering children at such an advanced age would seem to suggest that a man had retained more than the usual amount of sprightliness, wouldn’t you say?”

“Okay,” said Mabel.

“And given Crockett’s interest in such subjects as health and longevity, I would conclude that he’s learned some tricks that he has neglected to share with his old school mate.” Arbogast smiled, and continued. “Tricks that might prove very useful to someone like myself who hopes to free himself from the confines of a rather suffocating relationship.”

Van peered over the seat back. “So once Jonah ‘fesses up about how you too can maintain your youthful good looks, you can dump Jenny.”

“So to speak,” replied Arbogast.

“That sounds really dumb,” said Mabel.

Arbogast sniffed. “Easy to say when you’ve barely broken the decade mark.” His gaze hardened a bit. “But let’s not neglect the task at hand, Miss Crockett. Have you yet any clue where we’re going?”

Again Mabel felt a sinking sensation that she was responsible for directing this plane-load of people, currently flying aimlessly north over the Willibunk forest. Still feeling nothing but blankness and confusion, she looked at the ground below. The only change in the landscape was an increase in the number of tributaries feeding into to Willibunk. As the river zig-zagged north to south, many more cracks broke the treetops creating the appearance of a lightning bolt turned upside-down. Rather, she noticed, like the pattern she was stroking on Sig’s fluffy back.

Sparkle edged her soft muzzle under Mabel’s other hand. “Handsome, isn’t he?” came her silent words.

“Yes…” said Mabel, tracing her finger along Sig’s central white stripe. The streak veered from straight along his backbone, to a sharp left, then a gentle right leading back to a straight bit. She abruptly shifted her gaze to the river below. The line of the Willibunk headed due north, shifting acutely to the left, then gently back to the right, where it continued for a piece in a north-south line. “No…” said Mabel quietly.

“No what?” asked Van.

“Wait,” she replied. On the puppy’s back, diagonal streaks shot out from the central stripe, a crooked one on the right just below a straight one on the left.

“No way…” she said as she returned her gaze to the river. On the east bank of the Willibunk a crooked creek fed into the river, while just to the north, on the west bank, a ramrod straight creek joined the river’s flow. “And next,” Mabel said, still tracing her finger along Sig’s back, “an even wider creek will flow in at a right angle, from the west.”

“Well, yeah,” said Van, pointing out the window, it’s right down there for anybody to see.”

“I’m going to tell you the next one without looking, Van,” said Mabel. “On the east bank you’ll see a skinny little stream wiggling east, then making a right angle and heading north before it disappears.”

“Did you memorize this stuff?” asked Van.

“No, Van, it’s right here,” Mabel replied stroking Sig’s back.

“On the dog?” he asked incredulously.

“See this star?” said Mabel pointing to the marking on Sig’s left shoulder. “That’s where we’re going.”

Van looked at the puppy’s back. “Yeah,” he said before rolling his eyes, and putting his head in his hands. “You better tell Norton.”

Mabel put Sig gently down on her seat and leaned over Norton’s shoulder. “Mr. Halfslip,” she said. “We need to begin going down. See the creek coming in up there from the northwest?”

Norton nodded excitedly.

“Just where it veers to the west and becomes too small to see…that’s where we’re landing.”

“In the trees, Miss Crockett?” interrupted the sharp voice of Verdon Arbogast.

“Yeah,” replied Mabel, her confidence growing.

“Mabel, there’s no landing strip,” protested Van.

“We have to,” insisted Mabel, and already Norton had edged the Star into a descent.

Arbogast hoisted himself off his life-vest pile and pushed Van out of the way to get a better look out the window. “What kind of fool would attempt to land an airplane there?” he asked agitatedly.

“A stunt pilot from Billy Limpit’s Flying Circus,” replied Van, as if the answer were obvious, “and if you don’t mind, I’m a little squashed here.”

“Let’s hope that’s the most squashing you’ll get today,” said Arbogast. He paled slightly and edged himself wobbily back onto the life-vest stack.

The Star jostled its passengers as it descended through turbulent air toward the point Mabel had indicated.

Bailey whirred for a few seconds. “I’m sorry my programming was not of use in navigating this flight,” the computer voice said. “But I can, at this point in our descent, strongly recommend the use of seat belts.”

“Thanks Bailey, in a minute,” said Mabel, still looking over Norton’s shoulder at the forest into which they were now rapidly descending. Just where the creek bent in a westerly direction, she noticed a difference in the appearance of the tree canopies. In contrast to being packed in randomly, as the trees grew in the rest of the forest, the treetops on the south bank of the creek resembled a swirl. Concentric swirls, in fact, creating the appearance of a large green fingerprint.

“That’s where we’re going, Mr. Halfslip,” she said. Norton nodded enthusiastically, and vigorously made some equipment adjustments.

Mabel returned to her seat and strapped on the belt. “The dogs, Van,” said Mabel, scooping up Sparkle and placing her in Van’s arms. Then she did her best to secure Sig.

“Okay, everybody, hang on,” she said before experiencing an unexpected pang of guilt. “Mr. Arbogast,” said Mabel, “grab onto something and hold tight.”

Mabel took a brief glance out the window, noting that the treetops were frighteningly close. She cradled Sig with her arms and lap and shut her eyes tight.

The Star hummed as Norton activated the landing gear. Mabel’s stomach did a somersault when the plane dropped several sudden feet. Then she heard nothing but the rush of a thousand branches whipping the sides of the Star, and earth and plane collided, sending the Star into a lurching, spinning cartwheel which ended in an abrupt, but surprisingly soft dismount as if the plane had come to rest against an embankment of springs.

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