Chapter 3

It was a crisp Fall morning, and a smattering of leaves blew into the foyer as Kitty, Michael-Dan, and Gordy hauled their backpacks out the door for eight o’clock classes.

“Perfect weather!” exclaimed Gordy. “Two degrees cooler than the mean temperature for October 5! Thanks Mervin Frostly!”

Bea was sitting on the front steps, inscribing a fresh set of index cards with her French vocabulary words, and trying to remember that chouette meant nifty and also little cabbage. “Why do you always say that?” she demanded. “Why is he so obsessed with Mervin Frostly?” she demanded of Nola who’d come out to join her on the steps.

“You must be joking my dear!” said Odin to Bea, as he positioned himself two steps below her with a laptop computer and a book entitled Composing for Digital Piano. “If it weren’t for Mervin Frostly not one of us would be here!”

“That’s right,” agreed Nola. “My scholarship comes from the Mervin Frostly Endowment.”

“Yeah,” added Kitty, pointing to the hulking white stone Science Building across the street,” and it was money from Mervin Frostly that built that building right there, where I’ve got an 8:00 organic chemistry lab.”

“That building,” repeated Bea. “You mean the humongous one that almost blocks our view of the clock-tower?”

“The very same,” said Odin, as he triumphantly hit a key on his laptop, launching a bouncy tune of his own creation from the machine, “And never forget that it’s the Mervin Frostly Foundation from which your sister received the grant that pays for her research, and which subsidizes half of New Stirling University, thus providing salaries for both of the parental Professors Flannery.”

“I know,” said Bea. “I am aware of all that. Mervin Frostly is like the nerd version of Santa Claus. He’s almost a mythological creature whom nobody ever sees. He’s NOT…” she added, addressing this last bit at Gordy who had just hoisted his backpack onto his shoulder, “…like a real person, in the room, who you need to thank every time you sneeze.”

“I’m a grateful type of person,” called Gordy over his shoulder as he started down the block. “What can I say?”

“And now…” said Odin, whose first musical composition had come to an end. He tapped a few keys on his keyboard. “…relax and enjoy a little tune I call the Beatrix Flannery Reel while we talk about…algebra!”

“You are not such a nice kid Odin,” said Bea even though, despite her determination to resist, her toes felt compelled to tap along. And there was no denying that she had plenty of math to catch up on. So she had all but talked herself into going inside to retrieve her algebra book from the front hall when a sparkling cobalt blue convertible zipped smoothly around the corner, coming to a sudden stop in front of the steps at 107 Crotchett Street.

The woman who was driving stepped out of the car and strode purposefully to the sidewalk.

“Hello,” she said, with a crisp nod at Bea, Odin, and Nola.

She was tall, with cropped spiky hair and she wore glasses which poked out at the corners. Something about her attitude said you’d better pay attention or else.

“My name is Dierdre Fidelius,” the woman said. “I’m here to see Hortensia Flannery. I represent her research sponsor, Mervin Frostly.”

“Told you he was a real person,” whispered Odin, nudging Bea.

“I’ll be darned,” said Bea, who was trying to decide whether the woman was someone who should be treated very importantly or not. “Hort is across the street,” she said. “In the lab. I can take you there if you want.”

“Please.” said the woman. She waited at the curb as if immediate service was expected, then primly pulled a Koo-Bar out of her bag and began nibbling.

Bea handed her vocabulary flashcards to Nola and joined the woman on the sidewalk. Traffic was light on Crotchett Street. The woman followed Bea into the crosswalk once an office supply delivery truck had rumbled away.

“So,” said Bea, sneaking another discreet glance at the woman’s slightly scary glasses. “You work for the real Mervin Frostly, eh?”

The woman gazed down at her with a slightly scandalized flare of the nostrils. “I don’t discuss my work,” she replied. “Mr. Frostly’s business is strictly confidential.”

“Oh,” said Bea, “alright then.” It was clear enough that conversation was not open for discussion.

The lobby of the Mervin Frostly Science Building was cluttered with flyers and posters pinned or taped to every available surface, all surrounding an indoor garden in which a waterfall trickled gently into a fish pond. Bea, with Ms Fidelius stepping quickly to keep up, zig-zagged between throngs of college students who were clustering with take-out coffee cups, or hustling down the corridor toward lecture halls.

“This way,” said Bea to the woman, as she headed for a stairwell at the end of the hall. “The botany lab’s on the third floor.”

Bea sensed that Ms Fidelius was a bit perturbed not to be taken by elevator but Bea opted for stairs as a rule and, two flights up, she led the way into a corridor filled with more plants but by far fewer people than the classroom levels below.

An open door to the left was labeled “Botany Lab: Exotics.” Bea stood aside as the woman she had escorted breezed through the doorway leaving a vague odor of cloves lingering in the air behind her.

A countertop running along the two windowed walls was almost overrun with green leafy vegetation of every shape and kind. All along the length of the room grow-lights, suspended from the ceiling, cast a warm glow on long tables full of potted plants and flowers.

Hortensia, her hair messily clumped in a knot on top of her head, was seated on a stool holding a tape measure to one of her five koohoo plants—each of which now had its own black pot—then tapping her findings into a scuffed laptop computer on the work desk.

“They’re enormous Hort!” said Bea. The twelve-inch plants with their shiny jade heart-shaped leaves barely resembled the tiny sprouts Bea had stashed in her backpack at the Koohoo ceremony merely last week.

“They are flourishing,” replied Hortensia. She smiled without looking up, and moved her tape measure to the next plant. “I’m quite astonished.”

“Hortensia Flannery?” interjected the spiky-haired woman.

Now Hortensia looked up.

“Oh, Hort?” said Bea. “This is…”

“Dierdre Fidelius,” interrupted the visitor. “Personal Assistant to Mervin Frostly.” She extended her hand, which Hortensia stared at for a second before taking it in an uncertain handshake.

“So sorry to interrupt your work,” continued Ms. Fidelius, “but Mr. Frostly insisted on my checking to see that the plant samples you needed for the study did in fact make it back safely.”

“Quite safely,” replied Hortensia. “Thank you.”

“And you had no trouble at the airport?” continued Ms. Fidelius. “No suspicious activity? Nothing out of the ordinary?”

“No,” said Hortensia. “Should there have been?”

Bea immediately thought of her missing backpack, but said nothing.

Ms. Fidelius ignored Hortensia’s question and began scrutinizing the room, and especially the door, with great interest. “Is this laboratory secured when no one is present?”

“We lock it at night,” replied Hortensia.

Ms. Fidelius’ eyebrows arched dramatically.

“I’ve never heard of graduate work being tampered with here,” said Hortensia. “I know the other students and faculty quite well.”

“Yes, of course…” murmured Ms. Fidelius, giving one of the third floor laboratory windows a firm rattle. “But one can never be complacent. There have been traitors in Mr. Frostly’s ranks before.”

Bea supposed that anyone with enough money to build a gigantic building might be the target of crooks and scammers…but she could not imagine why Hortensia’s research would interest a traitor.

Out of the corner of her eye Bea caught a glimpse of something tiny, yellow, and drifting.

“Look at that Hort!” she said. “A fuzzy flying thing!” She scrambled around Hortensia’s worktable and caught the airborne feathery yellow wisp as it wafted toward the doorway. A tiny, bean-like seed was suspended from its parachute of yellow fluff.

“Now that’s odd,” said Hortensia, scrutinizing the object in Bea’s grip. “It’s sending seeds through the air!” She took the flying seed, and scrutinized the koohoo plant at the end of the row on the table. A miniscule, barely detectable fluffy yellow blossom had developed at the end of a stem. “I’ve never heard of koohoo dispersing its seeds by any method other than pods,” she said. “I’m afraid if I don’t isolate these right away they’ll be germinating in every planter in the room.”

Mola Peggi’s words popped uninvited into Bea’s head. Nurture the koohoo Miss Flannery. But make no hasty assumptions about its nature.

“Hort,” said Bea, “Maybe you were making hasty assumptions.”

“Hello?” called a man’s voice from the hallway, drawing everyone’s attention to the door. “Hello?” repeated the voice. “I’m looking for Hortensia Flannery.”

Hortensia looked surprised. Diedre Fidelius looked perturbed. Bea wondered what now?

The man to whom the voice belonged walked into the lab, awkwardly knocking a venus flytrap off the table edge on his way in. He was youthful and gangly, but by the look of his proper suit and name badge, he was here on some sort of official business.

“Whoops, I’ll get that,” said Bea, hurrying over to rescue the fallen plant.

“Miss Flannery?” said the bespectacled man.

“That’s me,” said Bea.

The man looked at her in slight puzzlement until she smiled wryly and said “I’m her sister.”

“Oh,” he chuckled slightly. “Of course!” He stood up straight and turned toward Dierdre Fidelius. “Miss Flannery?” he said.

Ms. Fidelius shook her head with a slightly annoyed smile and nodded toward Hortensia.

“Miss Flannery,” said the man, this time with more certainty.

“Yes?” answered Hortensia. For several seconds she continued to inspect her plants for more unexpected developments. Then she looked up.

“I’m…” said the man, pausing for several awkward seconds while he seemed to collect his thoughts. “I’m Miles Oakenshaw…Miss…um…Miss Flannery.”

Bea stifled a snort. The man clearly liked the looks of Hortensia, and had completely forgotten what he was going to say.

Instead, he said nothing for a few seconds and fumbled through his coat pocket, finally pulling out a business card, which he handed to Hortensia. “I’m an inspector with the State Department of Biological Research,” he said.

“I see,” said Hortensia simply.

“It’s my job to ensure that any pertinent data you collect is reported…um…promptly,” Miles Oakenshaw said. “…Even though I’m…um…sure it would be…”

“Oh my, such a bother,” interjected Ms. Fidelius. “These government interferences can be such a hindrance to meaningful research! And wouldn’t it be intolerable,” she continued, directing an accusatory glare at Miles Oakenshaw, “if imprudent use of the koohoo plant had negative consequences that weren’t discovered in a timely manner because the researcher was so bogged down by government rules and procedures?”

Miles Oakenshaw recoiled at Ms. Fidelius’ outburst, then he backed up a few steps with a nod first at her, then at Hortensia. “My office will be in touch Miss Flannery,” he said. “I’ll…be in…er…touch.” And with that he hastily exited.

“Gracious, the time,” said Dierdre Fidelius, scowling at her cell phone. “I must be going as well.” She straightened up and nodded at Hortensia with a professionally polished smile. “I will report to Mr. Frostly that everything seems to be running smoothly. So nice to meet you both.” And out the door she went.

“How very odd,” said Hortensia, staring at the now empty doorway. “Bea? Didn’t you find that odd?”

Bea did find it odd. Odd that someone rich and important like Mervin Frostly would take a particular interest in Hortensia’s research. Odd that the plants could be at any risk. It gave her plenty to think about as she headed down the stairs of the Science building and into the lobby.

Students were still clustering and chatting. A handful stood near the first floor vending machines. But there was one machine which Bea had not noticed until just now. It was vivid green, with a very familiar bean smiling enticingly on the front panel.

Trackback URL

No Comments on "Chapter 3"

You must be logged in to post a comment.