Chapter 13

“You’re going to Bean-Tek?” asked Nola. “What in the world can you do, once you get there?”

“I don’t know yet,” replied Bea. “Make sure the kids are safe…jam the koo-bar machines! I’ll think of something!”

Bea scanned the streetscape. Students were now emptying out of the Mervin Frostly Science building behind them, and with more vehicles attempting to maneuver on or off Crotchett Street, the road was completely gridlocked. Only Bill, carefully leading Bob the pony around stuck cars by using the sidewalk instead of the street, seemed able to move a wheeled vehicle—his fruit-cart—anywhere.

Bob gave a small whinny, and shook the snow off his mane.

“Hot cider?” asked Bill, pointing to a stainless steel vat on his cart.

“Any other time Bill,” replied Bea. “We’ve got problems.”

Several college students, meanwhile, were lining up for cider, as more students spilled out onto the sidewalks to marvel at the snow and traffic. A snowball or two flew through the crowd.

Bea detected a familiar voice from the direction of the science building entryway:

“I’m glad we’re on the same page about this Miss Flannery,” said Miles Oakenshaw. “There’s no question we have to get koohoo out of the general food supply.”

“The sooner the better,” added Hortensia. Then she spotted Bea.

“Bea!” called Hortensia. “It’s crazy! The mice! They’re all flying…all of them!”

“Well,” added Miles, “except for the ones that dove into the fish tank and are swimming with the koi.”

“I’m afraid it’s worse than that Hort,” said Bea. “Now Bean-tek is taking kids! I don’t know why…and they’ve got Kitty and Gordy!”

“I trust you’ve notified the police,” said Miles.

“I notified them,” said Michael-Dan, who squeezed suddenly between several taller elbows and joined their circle. “C’est étrange, but I suspected further intrigue when Kitty performed a chemical analysis of her own hair, then buried the results in the compost bin.”

“The compost bin?” asked Nola.

“I found it,” replied Michael-Dan, “while I was collecting ingredients for a new organic scalp pomade. But I don’t think la policía believed me…”

“Which is why we have to get there now!” insisted Bea.

“You’re right,” said Miles, with a conviction that surprised Bea and made Hortensia do a double-take. “The wheels of bureaucracy can be slow…I should know. I’ll drive you there.”

Hortensia pointed to his boxy, government-issued car, now completely hemmed in by tangled traffic and a throng of pedestrians.

“Miles, you’ll never get out,” she said. “What about buses…or the subway?”

“Jammed because of the weather,” said Odin, pointing to the news screen on his smartphone.

“What CAN move?” asked Nola.

“Bob can move,” said Bill. “And besides…I just ran out of cider. Take the cart!”

Bea looked at the pony-cart, then at Bill. “We can take Bob?” she said. “Really?”

“Just get him home in time for dinner,” said Bill. “He has to eat something besides koo-bars once in a while.”

“Nola, Odin, Michael-Dan!” ordered Bea, who was now operating with a plan and a fresh boost of courage. “Get in the cart. Come with me! Hort…maybe you and Miles can convince the cops!”

Bea hopped into the front and took the reins, while Odin, Nola and Michael-Dan piled in the back around the leftover pumpkins and gourds.

“Bea, this is crazy!” protested Hortensia.

“Come on,” urged Miles to Hortensia. “It is crazy, but you’re not going to stop them. Let’s get the police to do something before those kids get there!”

That’s right Miles, thought Bea as she clicked her tongue at Bob and got him trotting. No one’s stopping me.

The pony-cart jostled and lurched, causing pumpkins to roll and the three in the back to hold on tighter as Bea urged Bob to pull the cart around the street corner, two wheels on the sidewalk.

Once free of Crotchett Street, the going got easier. Traffic was at a standstill for blocks, but away from the pedestrian congestion of the main University district, they had less trouble making their way by sidewalks and alleys.

Bob seemed eager and enthusiastic to break free from his usual beat and, shaking snow from his forelock now and then, he pulled the cart at an energetic clip around Lake Stirling and into the commercial blocks of north New Stirling.

By the time they reached the gray industrial cliffs near Bean-Tek, the traffic had dwindled to a rare passing car, and as they turned onto Glummer Place, the streets were as deserted as they’d been the day Bea had visited with Hortensia.

But even Bob, the most placid of city-raised ponies, spooked a bit when the animated poster sprang into action at the far end of the Bean-Tek block.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” demanded Michael-Dan as the peppy voice urged them to shop now for Christmas. “What is THAT?”

“Hiram Scalmo won’t stop advertising for a microsecond,” said Bea grimly, “no matter what kind of foul play he’s up to.”

“Whoa,” said Bea to Bob as she gently urged him to a halt in front of the stark façade of Bean-Tek headquarters.

“Bea,” said Odin, “this building appears to be disturbingly deficient in doorways.”

“I know,” replied Bea. “We’ll get in a different way.”

“Like that limo?” asked Nola, pointing to a black car rolling toward them from the other end of the block.

The car paused, not twenty feet from where they’d stopped the fruit-cart, and they could just barely make out, through the tinted glass of the limousine, the faces of two children pressed against the glass—one with horns etching scribbles in the frosty condensation on the rear window.

But no garage door opened. Instead, where the limo stopped, the road itself sank—in a car-sized segment—into the ground, then seamlessly reappeared, now empty of a car, looking as much like an ordinary chunk of street as it had moments earlier, with tracks in the snow which simply stopped and went no further.

“We’re going in that way?” asked Odin, staring at the street as if it were booby-trapped.

“No,” said Bea. “There’s also a people way.”

She jumped out of the cart and led Bob to the railing next to the moving conveyor belt, then she loosely tied his reins to it.

“Over here,” she said, leading the rest of the kids to the stone-paved plaza where the brass Bean-Tek letters were affixed to the gray wall.

Once again, a fanfare burst forth from an unseen speaker, the voice belted out “Welcome to Bean-Tek!” and the mechanical bean-man rose slowly from below the pavement, lowered his mechanical arm, and said “Please enjoy this complimentary sample, in our snappy new ‘yum’ size!”

“¡Caracoles!” exclaimed Michael-Dan. “‘Yum’ indeed! I think not!”

Bea snatched the proffered koo-bar samples and pulverized them into the snowy pavement under her sneaker. Now, which button to push? She was certain that Bean-Tek headquarters wouldn’t be welcoming visitors on the same day they were kidnapping children, so she pushed yellow for “deliveries.”

“I’m sorry,” said a voice through the speaker in the bean, “but Bean-Tek cannot accept deliveries today. Please call for a more convenient time.”

“Well then,” said Odin, “let’s be ’employees.'” He pressed the blue button.

“I’m sorry,” said the bean-voice, “but Bean-Tek is operating on company holiday status today. All non-essential personnel are relieved of duty today, with full benefits.”

“Then I’m sure this isn’t going to work,” said Bea, giving the last button—green for “visitors”—a firm press. She fully expected another robotic brush-off starting with the words “I’m sorry…” Instead, the bean-man inclined its head slightly so that it was looking straight down at her, and something behind the eyes whirred and zizzed.

“It’s focusing on you,” said Odin. “There are cameras in the head.”

Bea instinctively jumped out of the robot’s gaze, knowing it was too late anyway. If they weren’t opening up for deliveries or employees, they certainly weren’t going to open up for Beatrix Flannery, now that she’d been identified.

The bean-man’s head returned to its usual position.

“I’m sorry,” said the voice. “No tours are available today. Please visit us again soon.”

“I suppose,” concluded Michael-Dan, “that it listens as well as looks.”

Bea looked at the statue, which by now had begun to disappear into the ground. The pavement closed. They seemed to be alone. But Bea assumed they were still being watched.

“In that case,” she said, “we shouldn’t stand right here to do our thinking.” She unhitched Bob from the railing, and led him across the street, to an empty sidewalk in front of what appeared to be an empty brick warehouse.

“So what other ways do people use to get into buildings?” Bea asked, trying to kick off a brainstorming session.

“Fire escapes,” said Nola. “But there’s not one.”

“In Paris,” offered Michael-Dan, “you might use the sewer.”

“In New Stirling,” said Bea, “that’s not likely.”

“The roof,” said Odin. “Classic setting for movie climaxes.”

“The roof,” pointed out Nola, “is six stories up. We can’t fly.”

“No, we can’t,” mused Bea. “We should’ve brought a mouse…”

“Mice with wings,” said Odin, shaking his head. “Kids with horns…”

“Ponies with wings…” said Bea. She sprang into action mode. “Guys…come on…help me get Bob out of his harness!”

Odin, Nola, and Michael-Dan circled around Bob, undoing harness buckles as hastily as they could before peeling back the resulting pile of straps and heaving it into the cart on top of the pumpkins.

With the horns gone, it was quite obvious that Bob’s body—once covered merely in an ordinary coat of pony hair—was now blanketed in a thick layer of sleek gray feathers from withers to belly and neck to tail.

Bob, reveling in fresh freedom from the constraints of his harness, gave a light shake, spraying everyone in the face with a puff of small feathers. Then he stretched.

Like sails catching a gust of wind, two feathered canopies spread east and west from Bob’s withers, then flapped. All four children were knocked backwards as his muscular wings, each the size of a small car, thumped the air with enough force to make the pavement rattle.

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