Confused by the well tended vegetable garden at Caplin’s rarely used cottage, the tech team places surveillance equipment at the mysterious fields, garden, and cottage. Gari joins the team as they try to figure out who is responsible for the changes.
Suddenly, we have a plot. The pace quickens from a crawl to a walk in the park. Here’s a link if you decide to start reading at the beginning. There’s a helpful chart below to give you a chance to sort out the rodents. Recommended snack: Romaine. Caesar salad is an acceptable substitution. Soundtrack: Truckin’
As The Prince munched through his fourth head of romaine, he gradually realized that Charlie and Hamish, Moneypenny, and Bond were all staring at him. “I’m still hungry!” They continued to stare. “What? I don’t think Caplin will mind.”
“You don’t really think Caplin planted this garden, do you,” said Charlie. “You said yourself that he never comes out here. This garden is well tended, so someone is here all the time, maybe every day. And it’s not Caplin, so who is it? Does he have a caretaker, no, he doesn’t because that’s supposed to be you. Wouldn’t he have said something to you if he had taken enough interest in his cottage to create this garden?”
Prince Dobalob finished chewing a gigantic leaf of lettuce. The lettuce slowly entered his mouth, a bit at a time, wagging back and forth with every bite. He looked thoughtful as he chewed, and then he sat down in the middle of the path. He was staring at the out buildings.
“You raise some interesting questions. You’re right, he’s never here and I haven’t been out here for a long time. This garden is new, but so are those buildings.” He looked beyond the garden to the driveway and cottage. “Everything is much too neat and tidy. Let’s check out the cottage. There’s a key hidden under the front door mat.” He stood up and walked toward the gate.
“You hid the key under the mat,” said Moneypenny. “Please tell me I didn’t hear that correctly. That’s so obvious! Okay, then, time to get serious about surveillance. Under the mat, indeed.”
The team reached the door and Dobby lifted up a corner of the door mat. Then he lifted another corner. Then he picked up the mat and flung it down the path. There was no key. Bond scratched around in the dirt by the door while Moneypenny looked at the door frame for hiding places. Hamish knocked over all the flower pots while Charlie checked the window trim. There was no key.
“I have another key back at the palace but it’s too close to teatime for us to go get it and come back today,” said the Prince. “Let’s look in the windows.”
They circled the cottage but it was dark inside and they couldn’t see anything through the windows. They checked the outbuildings next. They were side by side, right next to the driveway, not far from the small path the team had walked in on. Both buildings had big sliding barn doors, padlocked shut, and no windows. Except for small patches of sprouted birdseed, like at the path, they were as anonymous and as unfriendly as they could be. The total opposite of the charming vegetable garden with its arbor and white picket fences.
“Okay,” said the Prince. “Let’s head back. I’m a little concerned that someone might show up and be unhappy that I ate the romaine. Come back tomorrow to set up surveillance? I’m going to call Gari and see if he’ll come out too. This is all so very strange. I don’t know about you, but I think this has something to do with the cleared forest and new fields. It’s all kind of creepy.”
On that puzzling note, the team wandered back to Dobby’s palace and arrived in time for tea.
The team regrouped at the workshop while they waited for Gari to arrive. Moneypenny carefully packed surveillance cameras into Dobby’s Segway trailer. They didn’t pack a lunch this time because there would be plenty of food at the cottage garden, and there seemed to be birdseed growing wild all over the place. Rodney was examining a second Segway for Gari to use. A rattle and a rumble followed by a spray of gravel outside the workshop announced Gari’s arrival.
“Yo, Dobby,” said a familiar voice. They all turned to face the handsome bachelor capybara. He wore a rumpled trench coat over his tweed vest and he had a new hat. “I’m ready for some serious sleuthing. Did you grab the key? I have my set of lock picks in case our mystery interloper has changed the locks. I haven’t been inside Caplin’s cottage since we were pups! This could be fun! You know, depending upon who has been holding up there. Hope there are no alligators, right?”
The team just stared at him.
“Alligators,” said Hamish? “I don’t think so. I didn’t see any signs of alligators. You’re just joshing with us, right?”
“We never actually saw any alligators,” said Dobby. “And anyway they were supposed to be in the moat at the Schist Castle, miles away from the cottage.”
The team continued to stare as they followed this disturbing conversation. They all knew how close the cottage was to the Schist Castle, and the moat could very well connect to the river that flowed past the cottage. And there had been rumors about alligators in that river, as far away as the hamlet where Sylvia lived.
“They’re just talking trash,” said Rodney. “No one has ever seen alligators around here. They’re associated with fire swamps and we don’t have any of those. So, this Segway is ready to go when you are.” He looked around at the worried faces and winked. “You’ll be fine. You’re taking swords, aren’t you?”
Gari finished loading a cooler of root beer into Dobby’s Segway trailer, and then carefully reloaded and secured Moneypenny’s surveillance equipment on top as the angry flying squirrel muttered and paced.
“I’m ready,” said Gari. Everyone else heaved a sigh of relief and they tootled down the farm road toward Caplin’s cottage. There were the two sheep out in front, then the two Segways following, and a dust cloud behind. Bond the budgie and Moneypenny perched on Dobby’s shoulders. Dobby pulled his Segway closer to Gari’s and caught his attention by waving his cowboy hat. In an attempt to look official, he had on his vest with a big shiny sheriff’s badge, cowboy boots, and a black string tie.
“Let’s swing through the field on the way so you can see it. I want to take another look at the far path, it’s down by the Schist Castle entrance. Hey, Hamish, let’s cut through the field on the way. You go first and look for signs of recent activity.” Dobby waved his hat toward his barren fields. “These fields haven’t produced in a long time. We can’t even get seed to germinate. Wait until you see my wrecked forest and fancy new field somebody planted behind my back,” he said to Gari. He turned to Moneypenny, somewhat awkwardly as the little squirrel had hunkered down in the brim of his hat. “You brought enough Bluetooth cameras that we can leave some in the forest by the fields, right?”
“Yes, sir! I have dozens of the solar minis that will be perfect. They’re ready to go, and they’re lightweight enough that Bond can hang them up for us. We charged them up and tested them last night. They blend right in with the tree leaves. No one will ever notice them.”
The sheep ran ahead and turned left at the paved road. The pair of Segways caught up to them at the small road leading into the field and followed them into the cleared forest area now dominated by gently swaying tall grasses with patches of willowy sunflower stalks here and there.
“Holy mackerel! You weren’t exaggerating,” said Gari. “They cleared all of this forest and planted birdseed, right in your own backyard!” Gari glanced at the farmer, Charlie. “And all the while your own fields were barren. They’re just beyond the forest on our left, aren’t they? Do you think the birdseed sucked all the magic from your soil? Or did the death of the forest do it? I’m no farmer, but I live in an area with dodgy magic, and when there isn’t quite enough to go around, you can’t go making big changes like this without consequences. Man-o’-Manishevitz but this is a disaster. So, who did it?” Gari looked around at the team for answers, but found only blank faces. Moneypenny peeked out of her bandanna.
“Bond is hanging up surveillance cameras so we can find out. Let’s keep moving down this road so he doesn’t have to fly so far. I want to take a good look at the far end. Everybody is quick to blame the Schists, for good reason. They are close by, they are destitute, and they are evil. But they are stupid, too, and I can’t see them out here cutting down trees and planting seed. King Schist is hopelessly lazy, and Queen Schist is so mean nobody pays any attention to her. The three girls are too worried about getting their dresses dirty. I don’t get it.”
Charlie hung back to talk to Gari while Hamish trotted ahead to look at the ground for tracks. Dobby got cameras out for Bond to hang on the tree branches.
“I think you’re right about the magic. I always suspected something was draining away the field energy, but now I feel stupid for not looking beyond the forest. I never dreamed the problem was so close! I think Dobby is counting on your insights, because we are too close to see the big picture. What we do know is that it’s been going on right under our noses, and considering how big our noses are, that’s really saying something.”
“I’m stunned,” said Gari. “It’s quite shocking, especially when you appreciate the age of the forest. It’s a serious blow to the local ecosystem. And yet, I don’t see signs of mechanized farming. No tractors, irrigation systems or any of that kind of artificial farming. These are paths, not roads at the edge, and everything is neat and tidy, clean. It’s sensitively managed, don’t you think?”
“I was struck by that, too. Any kind of heavy handed farming would have killed the natural energy, so somebody is being careful. It’s roughly the way I farm the land. Not everyone does it this way, but it’s the best long term method. So yeah, well done, I would say. Another reason why I don’t think the Schists are involved. You’ve seen their land, of course. So then, who is it?”
Bond had hung up a bunch of cameras and now Moneypenny was flying from branch to branch, adjusting the angle, checking power on each unit.
They were approaching the end of the field where the path curved toward the paved road. Charlie was examining the seed heads as he passed them.
“The seed at this end isn’t as mature as at the other end, or even the middle of the field. The plots are deliberately staggered so it doesn’t mature all at once. That’s exactly what I would have done. It’s just seed, though, no corn or anything else. I would at least have planted some squash or watermelon. Maybe it isn’t as much a food source as a specific crop for export. This is a lot of seed, though. With the current scarcity, this is a small fortune growing here. Okay here we are at the road.”
“And there’s the entrance to the Schist property, right across from us,” said Gari. “Not the main entrance but not exactly a service road, is it? The paved road dead ends right here, so who exactly comes all the way down here to use it?”
“My parents,” said Dobby. Everyone turned to look at him. “Well, they do. I know that because when they visit me, they never come to my front drive which is all paved. That would be the closest entrance from their castle. They always complain about my dusty farm road, because they are coming from this direction. They are coming from the Schist property.”
“Or Caplin’s cottage,” said Gari. That comment produced some thoughtful expressions and a couple of them looked about to say something but fell back into introspection. They walked to the center of the paved road, looked ahead at the Schist entrance and distant castle. They turned clockwise and gazed down the paved main road, rarely used, Caplin’s cottage too far away to be seen. They turned clockwise once again, peered down the path toward the fields, and turned once more to look at the little picnic area by the river at the end of the road.
“I’m hungry,” said Dobby. “Let’s go check out the garden at Caplin’s cottage.”
Hamish and Charlie trotted ahead to check out the little path and then the driveway at the cottage. They were understandably anxious about whether anyone had been there since their visit. Dobby had mowed down an entire row of romaine plus a strawberry patch and a melon or two. They were all relieved that the corn wasn’t ready or it would be gone, too. The damage was not likely to be overlooked if the gardener had been here since the prince’s spontaneous picnic. Charlie was waiting for them when they emerged from the path into the entry courtyard at the cottage. Hamish came back from checking out the driveway and went directly to the outbuildings, head down, looking at the ground for tracks.
“Someone has been here,” said Charlie. “But it’s just birds and they have been all over the place. There’s nothing particularly deliberate about it, maybe some crows wandering around or something. Maybe he’ll see something by the buildings. We haven’t looked at the vegetable garden yet, I was going there now.”
Dobby had already Segwayed to the garden and had abandoned his ride at the gate by the grape arbor, now that he knew about the proper garden entrance. Gari motioned to Charlie to come closer so he could whisper.
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you. I saw a balloon, a blimp, maybe? In Dobby’s big picnic area? Where did that come from, do you know?”
“He ordered it on OhBoy about a month ago, ate the basket, crashed it,” said Charlie. “Rodney was furious. I didn’t witness the actual fiasco. You should ask Annabelle about that. Anyway, we made it into kind of a pavilion. It makes a terrific play area for the kids.”
“Well, the zeppelin looks fabulous. Sylvia’s skeptical that it won’t be ready in time, but I knew Rodney could pull it off as long as someone didn’t keep changing his mind.” Gari nodded in Dobby’s general direction. “Wow, what is he doing? We better get over there.”
To be continued . . .
The usual Cast of Characters:
This story needs a lot more illustrations! Select an event from this story (how about the schist Castle? Make it really ugly.), draw a picture of it, and send me an email. I’ll reply so that you can attach a digital copy of your masterpiece to it. I’ll add it to the story!
Or, if you’d rather help with the glossary, send me the list of words you had to look up (or should have looked up, but didn’t!). Someday, I will start putting together the glossary. Do know what a trenchcoat looks like?