Chapter 7

Hortensia scowled suspiciously at the now-open circular glass compartment.

“This can’t be the only way in,” she said.

“It’s the only way they’re offering us,” replied Bea. She took Hortensia by the hand and pulled her into the module. “Feels sort of like being in a French press coffeepot, doesn’t it?”

“I like tea,” said Hortensia nervously, as the door to the compartment slid shut and the module descended with a whoosh, like the pneumatic money tube at a bank drive-through.

“Please hold the handrail,” instructed the invisible person. Bea and Hortensia scrambled to stay on their feet.

Soon the module stopped descending and glided smoothly sideways through a dark and indistinguishable tunnel, until it entered what appeared to be an outer cylindrical plexiglass tube. Then it went up.

“Blast off,” said Bea, as they rose what must have been four stories higher. Through the double layer of window they could see numerous people scuttling through a factory of enormous and complex machinery. The employees all wore koo-bar-green lab coats, and many seemed to have surprisingly sumptuous amounts of hair wadded into hairnets, or tucked behind green baseball caps.

At some impossible to guess level above, the module stopped, and with a noise like a deflating tire, opened its sliding door in front of Bea and Hortensia.

“Visitors please exit the module,” insisted the voice.

Bea and Hortensia exited. They’d barely taken a second glance at the lobby where they were now standing when a short, stout man with a clipboard appeared and eye-balled Hortensia.

“Hortensia Flannery, I presume?” he barked.

“Yes…” Hortensia managed before the man hustled her away from the area where they now stood, and down a corridor to the left. Bea caught a glimpse of another human-sized Bean-man statue in front of a small lounge area as she scrambled along behind, doing her best to be unobtrusive.

Bea had expected a company that manufactured any sort of food—even koo-bars—to be awash in fresh oven-baked aromas. But here in the heart of Bean-Tek Industries, the only scent was something odd and unidentifiable which reminded her of an old cardboard box.

The man with the clipboard led them brusquely to the end of the corridor, which opened into a space where a primly elegant receptionist’s desk sat. A large bowl of bite-sized koo-bars was positioned invitingly at the front of the desk.

The elegant receptionist smiled, and said “Ah yes. I will notify Mr. Scalmo.”

She pushed a button on her handset. “Mr. Scalmo? Miss Flannery. Of course.”

A door to the right of the receptionist’s desk opened abruptly, and a bald man stepped jauntily into the reception area.

“Come in! Come in please!” he urged, holding out a hand to shake. Hortensia grasped his hand briefly and, at his gesture, followed him into his office. Bea scurried in behind, catching what she took to be a slight, but fleeting, scowl on Scalmo’s face.

But as he seated himself behind his enormous desk, he looked nothing but friendly. Something about his face rang a bell with Bea, but she couldn’t think why. The pointy nose and pointy chin seemed very familiar, but the pointy bald head was new.

“So,” began Hiram Scalmo. “Miss Flannery. Let’s talk about this fascinating species of plant you’re working with.”

“Yes let’s,” replied Hortensia without hesitation. “I have reason to believe that it’s unsafe for food use, and that’s what I’ve come to discuss.”

“Unsafe?” rebutted Scalmo with a huge grin. “Why it’s a natural tropical plant! Full of vitamins and anti-oxidants! And people love it!”

“Tropical montane,” Hortensia corrected. “And people are addicted to it,”

“But you probably knew that,” added Bea.

This time Scalmo ignored Bea entirely, and leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his neck and his elbows out.

“Well, well…” he said, as brightly as ever. “There are, as we both know, many ways to conduct research and many hypotheses to be formed. Would you care for a cold drink? I can buzz Miss Bevins.”

Hortensia shook her head. Bea continued to be ignored.

Scalmo continued. “Bean-Tek Industries is very interested in supporting your work with the koohoo plant. Grant money, you know…to the tune of twenty or thirty-thousand dollars…yours for the asking!”

Bea couldn’t disguise her surprise at the sum of money being dangled, and looked at Hortensia for a reaction. But Hortensia just shook her head.

“I’m afraid there’d be a conflict of interest,” she replied. “My lab mice are showing some unexpected reactions to the plant, and I’ll have to report my findings.”

“Wings,” added Bea. “Mice with wings.”

“Oh, I see,” said Scalmo. “But what if you…let’s say…approach your research from another angle? Let’s say, for example…you only test koohoo on bald people? Or…maybe, only on bats! You know, something that already has wings, or someone who needs hair? What a public service!”

“Children are eating koohoo, Mr. Scalmo,” said Hortensia calmly. “As a scientist, I have an obligation to protect those children.”

“Children?” objected Scalmo. “What about money? What about your obligation to yourself? You’re a clever young lady…you know research can prove anything you want it to!”

“Sounds tempting Hort,” interjected Bea. “Lie in your reports, get rich! What’s not to like?”

“Mr. Scalmo,” said Hortensia. “I won’t falsify my results.”

“Fine then,” said Scalmo, with an injured sniff that merely intensified Bea’s feeling that she knew him.

“Do without a grant. Your call. By the way,” Scalmo continued, as Hortensia and Bea stood to leave. “The scholarship grants at your school are coming up for review soon. It would be a shame if all those smart kids lost their funding, wouldn’t it? And your house? Supplied by grant money too, as I understand it?”

“That money comes from the Frostly endowment,” said Hortensia. “Bean-Tek has nothing to do with the University’s funds from Mervin Frostly.”

“Thanks Mervin Frostly,” said Bea.

Scalmo harumphed, then sniffed again. “Well then,” he said, “perhaps not. But do keep me in mind, just in case your usual funding falls through. You know where to find me.”

Bea and Hortensia hurried to the tubular module and, this time, stepped in without hesitation when the compartment door whooshed open. The last thing Bea heard before the door hissed closed was the clicking of high heels, and the last thing she smelled was a wafting hint of cloves.

As Bea entered the third floor corridor of the Mervin Frostly Science Building, with Hortensia right behind her, the elevator dinged, and two graduate students hustled out and around the corner.

But it was the ding that settled the question which had been rummaging around in her brain.

“Hort!” she said. “I know where we’ve seen Hiram Scalmo before!”

But before Bea could elaborate, or Hortensia could reply, a grating squeal of metal on tile drew their attention to the open botany lab doorway. On his back and duct-taped to an overturned chair, Miles Oakenshaw was slowly scooching into the hallway.

“oo-a-mmmph!” said Miles to Hortensia and Bea, as he heaved his chair another inch.

“Oh dear,” said Hortensia.

“What did you say?” asked Bea. She pulled off the strip of duct tape that was covering Miles’ mouth. “Try again.”

“Ow,” said Miles. “I said, they took the plants!”

“Who took the plants?” demanded Bea.

“And the paperwork,” added Miles. “That stack of research you gave me? They also took that.”

“Okay, don’t worry,” said Hortensia reassuringly as she began to unwind the duct tape binding Miles’ hands. “I’ve backed-up the documents, so no problem there, and I repotted offshoots from the seedlings this morning. Over here.” She abandoned Miles and inspected a tray of smaller plants in the window. “Apparently they didn’t notice these.”

“Who’s this they, anyway?” said Bea. She rummaged through a drawer for a pair of scissors, then began to cut Miles out of the chair.

“Big people,” said Miles. He shook each limb as Bea untaped it, as if reassuring himself they all worked. “Big guys dressed like air-conditioner technicians.”

“Air-conditioner technicians would have no use for botanical research,” mused Hortensia. “Though with all the compulsive eating of koo-bars these days, I can see why someone might snatch the plants.”

“Well, they weren’t air-conditioner guys,” said Bea. “They were Hiram Scalmo guys.”

“Scalmo?” said Hortensia. “I mean, he’s creepy, and he’s certainly not an honest person, but…”

“It’s Scalmo,” insisted Bea. “Think about it. He wants you to botch your research on purpose, he’s trying to bribe you with money, and…he already tried to kill the plants.”

“He did?” said Hortensia and Miles in unison.

“Charlie Friendly,” said Bea. “Elixir of Capricorn! Don’t you remember his voice? And that pointy nose and pointy chin? It took me a few minutes but Hort—Charlie Friendly was Hiram Scalmo.”

“Then he was trying to poison the plants,” said Hortensia.

“This has to go in my report,” said Miles, who had finally pulled himself off the floor. “Do you have any proof?”

“No,” replied Bea, “but it makes sense. He knows Hort’s research isn’t going to be good news for his company.”

“In the meantime,” said Miles, “you’d better make sure your research and the rest of the plants are kept somewhere safe.”

“I will,” said Hortensia. She jiggled the knob on the laboratory door to reassure herself that it was secure. “This door can be locked.”

“Hi!” called a peppy member of the New Stirling University events committee, who was wearing a New Stirling University bright blue polo shirt. “We’re putting up alumni weekend posters! Can we put one on your door?”

“Sure,” answered Hortensia. “Turns out we’ll be keeping it shut anyway.”

“Super!” said the peppy young man. He unrolled a colorful poster, and sticky-tacked it to the lab door.

It was a typical display of happy people and attractive buildings, designed to convince any undecided potential students that New Stirling University was the place to be.

But it was a line emblazoned in white, at the bottom, that riveted Bea’s eyes with a startling jolt.

“Bean-Tek Industries,” it said, “Official Sponsor of Alumni Weekend.” Followed by a very familiar, and by now a little scary, cartoon bean.

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