Chapter 16

Bea surmised that Bean-Tek assigned its more absent-minded scientific types to the greenhouse and plant cultivation level of the building, because she and Odin found they were able to stroll down the corridor outside the greenhouse with nothing more than a slightly purposeful air about them, and no one paid them any attention.

But this area was clearly not where they were going to find the stolen children, so they’d have to descend into dicier territory.

“Let’s stick to the stairs,” said Bea, pointing toward the stairwell door at the end of the hallway. “The elevators around here are a little freaky.”

They trotted down a flight, and opened the door, labeled “5,” a crack.

“This is the main office level,” whispered Bea. She’d been here before, with Hortensia. She recognized the stale odor of cardboard and could see, down the hallway, the lobby and the bean statue.

“Another life-sized bean man?” said Odin.

“Not ‘life-sized,’” corrected Bea. “Have you ever seen a bean that big?”

“I suppose not, now that you mention it,” Odin replied.

“Anyway,” continued Bea in a hushed tone. “Here’s where it gets tricky.”

“Only here?” said Odin. “As if it wasn’t tricky before?”

“They might recognize me here,” Bea explained. “Anyone might, but especially Dierdre or Scalmo.”

They slid as surreptitiously as two kids could slide, along the wall of the corridor, passing doors with labels such as “Advertising,” and “Kiosk Management.”

“Stop!” commanded Bea, as quietly as she could while still managing to be commanding.

Across the hall, a door labeled “Formulation” was ajar. And the voice barking from inside was unmistakably Hiram Scalmo’s.

“You’ve got to put a halt to this crazy stuff!” demanded Scalmo to an unseen person behind the door. “Maybe not yet, but tails, and horns, and stripes…it’s sure to mess with sales sooner or later!”

“Stripes?” whispered Odin.

Bea shushed him.

“Take something out!” demanded Scalmo. “Whatever’s causing it!”

“The koohoo is causing it,” replied the unseen female voice, whom Bea presumed was in charge of the secret koo-bar recipe. “If we take the koohoo out, it’s nothing more than a granola bar. Or a lump of cardboard. Nobody would buy it twice.”

“Then put something in!” screamed Scalmo. “A weirdness suppressor or something!”

“Yes,” piped up a second male voice. “That is precisely what I was thinking. We add a growth inhibitor to the recipe. That might just be the thing to control these unexpected changes. And it will take months…years perhaps…for anyone to notice that their children have stopped growing!”

“Right! Get on it!” demanded Scalmo.

“But what,” interjected the female scientist, “about the kids you’ve rounded up? How are we going to fix them?”

“A simple injection, then send them on their merry way,” replied the male scientist. “Same stuff that we’ll put in the koo-bars. I call it Ugh. U-G-H. Ugh. The U is for ‘un,’ as in ‘un-growth hormone.’ Works like a champ on fruit flies. Why not kids?”

“Make this work, and it’s a big fat bonus for you, my friend,” said Scalmo with a congratulatory swagger in his voice. “Do it now. The sooner, the better.”

“He’s coming out!” whispered Bea. She glanced around the hall, spotted a ladies’ room, and pulled Odin through the doorway with her.

“Ladies’ room, Bea!” protested Odin. “For ladies!”

“Sshhh,” said Bea. Someone was speaking behind a toilet stall door.

“Oui! oui! oui! oui! oui!” squealed the agitated but unseen woman, presumably into a phone.

“Zay sink I can clean up zee room after feefty cheeldren? Zis is not my job!”

Bea and Odin exchanged glances, then shut themselves in the toilet stall next to the woman speaking.

“Où? Où?” she squawked. “La première étage!”

The woman flushed the toilet, then hustled out of the bathroom after a too-hasty hand-washing.

Bea and Odin exited their stall.

“She said ‘where? where?’” translated Bea. “Maybe she’s talking about where the kids are!”

Odin’s phone, though now silenced, buzzed in his shirt pocket.

“Michael-Dan,” said Odin, into his phone. “Yes, yes…we know where they are. Even I know that ‘première étage’ means ‘first floor.’”

Michael-Dan yelled back through the phone so loudly Bea could hear him.

“It doesn’t!” he squeaked in a tiny through-the-phone-speaker voice. “In French, the first floor means the second floor!”

“French is so weird,” said Bea, grabbing the phone from Odin. “Ok then, second floor! We’re going now!”

The coast was clear enough, so Bea and Odin returned to the stairwell, and descended three flights. The doorway marked “2” led them into a level of mechanical din. The hall was lined with wider doorways, most open to display the humming machinery and moving boxes inside.

“Kids, kids, where would you hide kids?” wondered Bea aloud as she and Odin again made use of the “look purposeful” strategy to blend in.

“Hey!” yelled a green-coated man who had just lugged a box of koo-bars into the hallway. “What are you two doing? Didn’t they tell you to wait in room twelve?”

“Yes,” stated Odin plainly.

“We can’t find room twelve,” added Bea. “But we’re definitely supposed to be waiting there.”

“Room twelve,” grunted the green-coat. “Turn left halfway down, then end of the hall on the right.”

“Thank you very much sir,” said Odin.

“Hey!” said the man again. “You two don’t look so weird, like the others. What’s wrong with you?”

Bea thought fast. “I used to be…really, really short,” she said. “Really short.”

“And I can only walk like a robot now,” said Odin, lurching into an awkward gait.

“Stuck doin’ the robot?” chuckled the man. “Haven’t heard that one yet.”

“Thanks for your help sir,” said Bea. She pulled Odin down the hall, and he robot-walked as well as he could while being pulled.

“Twelve,” said Bea when she reached the door so marked. She tugged the handle. “Twelve is locked.”

“Twelve is opening,” Odin observed.

The door opened out. Bea and Odin tucked themselves behind it.

“Don’t eat’em all at once!” squawked a short woman carrying out an empty koo-bar carton.

Bea grabbed the door to keep it from closing.

“Hey! Don’t be sneaking out!” exclaimed the woman, who’d been expecting the door to close behind her.

“Oh, we’re not,” replied Bea earnestly. “Sneaking, that is. Just hoping to catch a glimpse of more delicious koo-bars.”

The woman scrutinized her, as if trying to spot some horns or a tail. Odin quickly began to move like a robot.

“I was short,” explained Bea. “I used to be really short.”

The woman looked skeptical, but shooed them into the room.

“Well, that’s it for now,” she said. “You kids are going to eat this factory out of house and home.”

The door closed. Bea looked around. Room twelve was mostly empty of stuff, but there were at least fifty kids, sitting on the floor or on empty koo-bar boxes. She spotted the playground kids—the boy with pearly horns, and the girl with a striped tail—playing a hand-clapping game with a pair whose luxuriant hair and curly horns gave them away as the baker’s children.

Green wrappers were strewn haphazardly about, and several kids were scarfing down last bits of the most recently emptied carton.

“Bea!” cried Kitty from a far corner.

“How’d you guys get in here?” said Gordy, his hair flaming even redder than before. “I thought they were only rounding up Bean-Tek kids!”

“We snuck. Of course,” said Bea. Then she lowered her voice. “I don’t want to panic every kid in the room, but we’ve got to get everyone out of here.”

“Or else Ugh.” said Odin.

“Ugh?” replied Kitty.

“It’s a shot,” said Bea. “A really bad for you shot, to keep the weirdness from happening.”

“I hate shots,” said Gordy.

“They’re going to spot you, you know,” said Kitty. “We have to do something to make you blend in.”

“I am blending,” replied Odin, performing a brief robot routine.

“Beautiful,” said Kitty. “But Bea…”

“Did you bring your makeup, Kitty?” asked Bea. “That might help.”

Kitty rummaged through her rubber backpack and fished out a compact of assorted eye shadow colors.

“Perfect,” said Bea. “They won’t spot me if I’m spotty.”

Kitty chose Mediterranean blue, then, using a sponge-tip applicator, carefully applied polka-dots all over Bea’s face.

She dropped the compact back into her bag just as the door banged open again.

“Okay Bean-Tek kids!” said a tall skinny man whose voice gave him away as the inventor of the “Ugh” solution. “Everybody line up by the door! We’re going to head on up to the fifth floor! You do one more little thing for us, and we’ll send you all home with big enough supply of delicious, nutritious Koo-Bars to last you for life!”

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