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Praise for CALENDULA PROOF:

 

“Anyone middle school-aged or above will find something to love about this story…a fun yet heart-racing escape” —US Book Views

 

“CALENDULA PROOF deserves praise for its heart…but the power of truth is its most modern and enduring message.” —IndieReader

CHAPTER 1

 

“No good!  That’s what they’re up to!” old Mrs. Beckwith declared.  “The mayor can talk all he wants about civic pride and the community of Calendula, but he may as well hang a sign at the city limits that says, come on in, riffraff, and do what you please!  Take away downtown and the marina and the island, and what have you got?”

Astride their bikes in shirts, tank tops, and shorts, Danny, Lola, Gustavo, Matthew, Jeremy, Michael, and Taylor stared at her.  Mrs. Beckwith was a petite woman, with bulbous blue eyes that were too big for her face.  Her smoky voice was rooted in New York City, but she dyed her hair the color of Pacific sand.  She was overdressed, as always—she wore a tweed jacket and skirt today—and was never seen without heels, pearls, and fresh lipstick, even when she was walking her tightly leashed dogs, tiny mix-breeds that were both wearing doggie diapers and clear plastic head cones.

“This!” Mrs. Beckwith exclaimed.  “This is what’s left!  Our city, where we live!  We’re not tourists in town for the day, or stopping to gas up our cars on our way to someplace else!  We live here!  But there are weeds in our garden, children, and it falls to us to dig them out!”

Jeremy had short dark hair, and his frown was all eyebrows and eyes—his mouth was usually closed tight, as if there was always something bothering him.  “You want us to help you garden?”

“I want you to tell me why every summer brings such a monumental breakdown of law and order!” Mrs. Beckwith said.  “Left is right, up is down, No Trespassing means Make Yourself at Home!  Am I really the only person not surprised this happened?”

When no one spoke up, Gustavo asked, “What happened, Mrs. Beckwith?”

She threw up her hands, yanking the leashes, and both dogs.  “Summer’s barely started, and already your brains have turned to pudding?  I can’t do everything myself!  I thought you had a club?”

“We do, the Mysterious Adventures Society,” said Gustavo.  He normally introduced them with a bow, his spiky, sandy blond hair dipping low with the flourish of his arm, but today, the introduction was as hesitant as if he was stepping onto a skating rink in tennis shoes.

“There you go,” Mrs. Beckwith said, satisfied.

“But to do what?”  Matthew wore his Oakland A’s hat backward over his shaggy brown hair, and his smile had a gap in his upper teeth.  Both of his elbows and one knee were covered in Band-Aids after he wiped out yesterday doing one of his endless tricks on his bike.

“Find out who broke in there last night!” Mrs. Beckwith said.  “They arrived at dusk, in a white cargo van, which they parked illegally in a loading zone!  So what if it’s not a functioning loading zone anymore, it’s still marked as such!  They were gone this morning.  I was out at dawn, as always, and they weren’t there.  I want action!”

The kids turned to look behind them at the building.  It was a brick, two-story forgotten piece of Calendula commerce.  None of the glass remained in what had once been the street-level display window, or those in the residential floor above.  They’d all been covered with sheets of plywood, which were warped and stained after so many years exposed to the weather.

“Nobody did anything with the place after Dominic’s Fine Art closed,” Mrs. Beckwith said.  “It just sits there, slowly decaying.  I hoped that when the café opened, it would spur someone to do something with it, but it’s as if they can’t even see it!  I kept telling them, if you don’t do something with it, the riffraff will!  And finally, they have!  I saw light coming from inside last night.”  Mrs. Beckwith lifted one of her dogs partially off the ground as she pointed at a weathered white cottage up the street, with a turret window curving from the front corner of the house.  “I live right there, I see everythingfrom my window.  I know everything and everyone around here, except them!”

The kids’ attention was up the street at the lively Lemon Café.  At this range, its sweetness was overpowering.  It was hard enough to concentrate on Mrs. Beckwith’s story even without the distraction of smelling the pastries and cookies and cakes being baked fresh, right under their noses.  So close, they could practically taste them.

“Are you listening to me?” Mrs. Beckwith demanded.

Danny cleared his throat, and said, “Yes, ma’am.”  He was the tallest of the group, with reddish-brown hair and a slightly crooked nose.

“Riffraff,” said Matthew.

“I nearly let the air out of their tires last night, literally and figuratively!” said Mrs. Beckwith.  “It’s the easiest thing in the world to do—you just press on the valve with a screwdriver, which is one of the most indispensable tools you can carry!  No Trespassing means exactly that!  So, your club, whatever you’re called…?”

“The Mysterious Adventures Society,” Gustavo offered again.  

“Whatever you are, you’re going to ensure that they get their just rewards!” Mrs. Beckwith said.

“What are just rewards?” Taylor asked Danny.  She was African American and was already almost as tall as her older brother Michael.  She had her hair tied back in braids, as she often did.  Everyone but Michael called her Tay-Tay, for “Tag Along Taylor.”  Since their mom worked two jobs, she made Michael look after Taylor, which meant Taylor was often out with him and his friends, instead of her own, where she wanted to be.

Mrs. Beckwith bared her gray teeth, “Punishment!”

“A punishment that someone really deserves,” Danny said to Taylor.

Gustavo angled his bike to depart.  “Okay, well, we’ll get right on it, Mrs. Beckwith.  Thanks for bringing it to our attention.  You have a nice day.”

“Your word is the same as a contract, young man,” Mrs. Beckwith sniffed.

“We’ll do our best, Mrs. Beckwith.”

“What’s the point of doing anything else?” Mrs. Beckwith said, and, tongue clicking, guided her yapping dogs along the sidewalk.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

With a sigh of relief, the kids pedaled away in the opposite direction.  Ignoring the empty, abandoned building, they rolled slowly past the Lemon Café, gazing longingly at the treats displayed in the window.

“Whose idea was it to ride down her street, anyway?” Jeremy asked.

“Kash’s,” Matthew said as he pulled a wheelie.

“Nice one, Kash,” Jeremy said.

“Yeah!  Now look what you did,” Michael teased.  His mom kept his hair neat and short, probably to make up for his sister’s complicated hairstyles.  

Responsibility had come early to Michael.  He was the only one of them to always wear a watch, and probably the most cautious of them when it came to choosing what risks to take.

“Sorry,” Danny said, “I didn’t see her until it was too late.  We’ll have to add this street to the no-fly zones.”

No-fly zones were parts of town that, for one reason or another, they had to avoid.  It was a shame to add this one because the mostly residential street was wide and smooth and not very busy.  Houses bigger than Lola’s were nestled on the wooded hill above modest homes and shops.

“But the Lemon Café!” Gustavo sighed.

“Do we seriously have to find out who spent the night in the empty store?” Jeremy asked.  “They’re not even there anymore.  She said they left this morning.”

“We gave her our word,” Gustavo said.  “You heard her, it’s the same as a contract.”

“It is not the same,” Michael said.

“It’s like a samurai vow, then,” Gustavo said.

“No, it isn’t either,” Michael replied.

“How did she know about the Mysterious Adventure Society?”  Lola had long, wavy brown hair, which she parted in the middle, and a sparkling smile that was as friendly as she was pretty.  She was from one of Calendula’s wealthier families, the Kendricks, and was going to be on the cheer squad in middle school next year.  She was from an entirely different social level, and yet, after saving their last adventure twice, Lola had officially joined the MAS.  Voluntarily, and totally against Taylor’s advice.

Gustavo answered, “Glue Stick, adventure twenty-six.  Jersey was burgermeister.”

Jeremy, who his friends called Jersey, frowned.  “How come I don’t remember that?”

“Mrs. Beckwith caught us the same way she did today,” Gustavo said.  “We were just riding by, minding our own business, and wham!  Shanghaied into adventure.  It’s where we got the flamingo.”

“Tell me about Glue Stick,” Lola said.

“Uh…how about later?” Danny suggested.

“Promise?  That’s a contract too,” Lola replied.

Danny flushed, “Yeah, yeah.”

Gustavo said, “We should find out the history of the store, after Dominic’s Fine Art closed.  Maybe that’ll help us figure out why someone would want to spend the night in there.  I mean, there’s gotta be rats, right?”

“The size of footballs,” Matthew said as he did another wheelie, his front wheel spinning high in the air.

“Are we really gonna do this for Mrs. Beckwith?” Jeremy asked.

“Looks like it,” Michael said.

“Where do we even start?” Jeremy asked.

“With the one person who knows everything about stuff that isn’t around anymore,” Michael said.

Danny nodded glumly.  “The Professor.”

There was a collective groan from the boys.

“Who’s that?” Lola asked.

“He sits in Sutherland Park and feeds the squirrels,” Michael said.

“And talks to them,” Jeremy said.

“The squirrels?” Lola asked.

“Pretty sure he has legit conversations with them,” Michael said.  “Like, they talk to him, too.”

“But he knows everything about Calendula history,” Danny explained to Lola.  “We’ve consulted him before.  You know, officially.”

“It was for adventure thirty-eight,” Gustavo confirmed.  “We needed to find out where Verde Swamp used to be.  Remember?”

“Verde Swamp?  I’ve never heard of it,” Lola said.

“Nobody has, except the Professor,” Michael said.

“And us,” Matthew said.

“Is it real?” Lola asked.

“Yup,” Michael said.

“So where was Verde Swamp?” she asked.

“Underneath the Hatherly gym,” Gustavo said.

“The middle school gymnasium is built over a swamp?”

“That’s why it’s always humid in there,” Michael said.  “And why there’s always puddles in the field.”

Lola crinkled her nose.  “Our school in the fall is a swamp?”

“Knowledge is a burden,” Gustavo said.

“What was the adventure called?” she asked.

Gustavo hesitated.

“Tell me!”

He said, “Goat Groomer.”

Lola’s laugh was contagious.  Even Taylor couldn’t keep from giggling.

“Anyway,” Danny said, “the Professor does know everything about Calendula.”

“He says it in a way that makes you want to believe him,” Gustavo said.  “He’s just, you know.”

“Crazy,” said Michael.

“As a loon,” Gustavo nodded.

“Or a talking squirrel,” said Jeremy.

“What’s a loon?” Taylor asked.

“A bird,” Danny said.  “I don’t know if they’re naturally crazy or what.”

“Well, I’ve never met the Professor, so I’ll go,” Lola said.  “Talking squirrels don’t scare me.”

“Good thinking!” said Gustavo.  “Let us know what they say.”

“The short version,” said Jeremy.

“What should I ask him?  ‘Hi, Mr.  Professor, why would anyone in their right mind—no offense—want to spend the night in the empty store by the Lemon Café?’” Lola asked.

“Pack a lunch,” Gustavo suggested.  “That’s all I remember thinking the last time: Goose—you should have packed a lunch.”

Matthew said, “Doggie Diapers should be the name of our next adventure.”

The kids laughed, their bikes weaving around the empty street.

“I’ve never seen doggie diapers before,” Lola said.

“Why does she bother to walk them, if they can go wherever they are?” Jeremy wondered.

“What if they fall off and you stepped in it?” Michael said.

“And fell down in it!” said Matthew.

“And got it all over you,” Lola added.

“And got it in your mouth!” Gustavo went on.

“Eww!” Lola laughed.  “So gross!”

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

The picturesque seaside city of Calendula (pronounced Ka-len-doo-la) occupies the southern curl of Camino Bay, in California’s rugged central coast.

Calendula relies almost exclusively on tourism, especially during the summer.  With the ocean at its doorstep and the mountains at its back, the city’s weather is mild—winters are cloudy, rainy, and cool, while summers are warm, breezy, and dry.  Nearby wineries serve visitors with discriminating tastes, while world-class Paloma Beach attracts golfers from around the country.  Calendula’s marina offers gift shops and restaurants.  A short ferry ride away is the island, a popular attraction with its arched and columned hotel towering over small cottages and shops boasting even more opportunities for shopping, lodging, dining and relaxing.  Officially known as Blue Island back to the early 1800s, the place was simply called “the island” by the locals.

The kids threaded their way through the crowds in the historic central core downtown, filled with tourists who were oblivious to all but their own path through the shops and restaurants.  Thousands of people were crammed into a few square blocks, as cars inched along between them, bumper to bumper.  It was summertime in Calendula.

The sun was high, and the air was blustery, and the summer was stretching out in front of the kids like the expanding universe.  With no particular destination in mind, they were just happy to be out in the sun, moving, as so much of the year was spent stuck in the static confines of classrooms.

The crowds forced Matthew to dismount and walk his bike, which was about the only thing that got under his skin.  It was hard to sustain conversation over their shoulders, shouting around people who were all, talking and shouting too.  The noise and bustle made Mrs. Beckwith’s neighborhood seem twice as tranquil as it already was.  No wonder she defended its peace so noisily.

They zigzagged across to a narrow alley beside the Visco Theatre, which was a useful shortcut if the chain-link gate at the other end wasn’t locked.  Tourists didn’t know about it and nobody else used it, as the alley was barely wide enough for trash dumpsters, but if you had good balance, you could squeeze around them without even getting off your bike.  The Visco was built in the 1920s and was Calendula’s premiere live performance venue.  They’d all been dragged here by parents or bussed here on field trips to see plays or musicals—movies showed at Calendula Cinemas downtown, or the Megaplex out at the mall.

The Visco’s thousand velvet seats were soft, and comfortable enough to lull anyone to sleep, to the accompaniment of some play or musical.  But Gustavo loved going.  Given his newfound passion for drama, his parents had even sprung for season tickets.  He was quietly hoping to ask Lola to go with him to a show, since none of his friends were interested.  Danny went to a show last season—a rousing (Gustavo thought) Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  While Danny enjoyed the ornate architecture of the theatre, he’d done his duty as a friend, and politely declined Gustavo’s offer to go again sometime.  Gustavo didn’t take it personally, but he really wanted to go to a show with someone other than his mom.

The gang emerged onto the sidewalk by the front of the theatre.  The marquee jutting out over the entrance read Closed For Special Event, which normally meant maintenance, but today meant preparations.  The Widow O’Keefe, Calendula’s wealthiest, most famous, and most reclusive philanthropist, had passed away, and her many possessions were being auctioned at the Visco in two days.

Anyone interested in bidding—and anyone simply interested in getting a first-hand look at how the Widow O’Keefe lived—could see everything today at a viewing at Hollister House, the mansion where, according to the statement released by her lawyer, she died peacefully in her sleep.  Everyone was going.  It was the event of 1991.  People who had no intention of bidding on anything were going—few would be able to afford any of her things—but were merely taking advantage of the offer to stroll through Hollister House and see all her stuff.

Hollister House occupied the entire crest of the hill above Mrs. Beckwith’s neighborhood and the abandoned store.  Rumors had circulated for years about both the estate and the Widow O’Keefe, who was rarely seen in public, but whose financial support kept many local interests alive, including Gustavo’s beloved Calendula Players.  The theatre troupe’s premieres at the Visco had been one of the few opportunities to see the Widow O’Keefe, who always came and went via backstage doors to avoid the crowds.

But apart from the opulence, there were whispers of esoteric objects on display at Hollister House.  Strange and unusual artifacts purchased with the vast fortune accumulated by her late husband, Patrick O’Keefe.  Where those strange and unusual artifacts went now would be up to the public, in accordance with the Widow O’Keefe’s last will and testament.  Rumors were flying about that too, but all anyone knew for sure was that the Hollister House viewing was open to the public, and all sales were final at the subsequent auction at the Visco.

As soon as the viewing was announced, phones started ringing around the city.  Plans were immediately made to attend, in everyone’s finest clothes.  Because why not?  For an afternoon, they could dress up and stroll through Hollister House as if they belonged there, toasting imaginary flutes of champagne, and critiquing the Widow O’Keefe’s collection, as if they knew anything about it.

But the auction wasn’t strictly a local affair.  The Widow O’Keefe’s collection had attracted an international pool of sharks, as Gustavo’s mom called the out-of-town bidders, while she was going through her dress selection in her closet.  They’d swept up hotel rooms and houseboats, for double and sometimes triple the rate.  To the surprise of no one, the Widow O’Keefe ran in social circles for whom money was no object.

Proof was parked outside the marina.  An ocean-going yacht, low and sleek, with a dark blue hull, and a profile like a swordfish, thanks to a bowsprit extending from the bow.  A motor launch was tied to the back deck, where a crane could lower it into the water.  Curtains were drawn in all the many windows down its sides.  No crew had been seen.  If not for its impeccable condition, it could have been a ghost ship.  Tourists were taking pictures of the unknown vessel from both wharves.  It had appeared overnight and was too big to dock in the marina.  Every boat slip was occupied, and the outer mooring areas—parking lots for boats that didn’t have their own slip at the dock to nestle into—were full, too.  

“Shrunken heads,” Matthew declared, as the gang slowly cruised along the coastal trail by the marina.  “I bet she’s got some of them.  Real ones, I mean.”

“I believe that,” Michael said.  “When people have so much money that they’re bored by it, they’ll buy anything.  Shrunken heads, dinosaur bones, bad paintings.  Anything.”

“Why would anyone want a shrunken head at any price?” Lola asked.  “You can’t do anything with it except show it to people and say, ‘Look, how gross, right?’”

“I heard she used to hold séances to communicate with Mr. O’Keefe,” Matthew said.

“I heard she did—and people witnessed it,” Jeremy said.

Michael shook his head.  “No, that’s not true.”

“How do you know?” asked Jeremy.

“Because you can’t,” Michael replied.

“How do you know?” Jeremy asked again.

“The same way I know the earth isn’t flat!  It just is!” Michael said.  “But I heard the inside of Hollister House is like a haunted house.”

“Ooky spooky,” Matthew said.

“Know why it’s not spooky?  Because our parents are going to be there,” Gustavo said.  “It’ll be as spooky as a field trip to a museum.”

“Last place in the world I want to be,” said Matthew, as he did a few fast bunny hops.  He and his bike were in constant motion, in a nonstop series of hops, jumps, and tricks, like kids who rode skateboards.

“I don’t know, it sounds kind of interesting,” Lola said.

“You don’t really want to go somewhere our parents will be, do you?” Danny asked.

“If it’s that crowded, they won’t even know we’re there,” Lola replied.  “I’d just like to see what it’s like.  I bet she had the most amazing things.”

“I don’t need to waste a day inside, looking at someone’s chair and thinking, wow, I wish I was anywhere but inside, looking at someone’s chair,” Matthew said.

“Can’t waste a day like this,” Jeremy said.  “No offense, but the Mrs. Beckwith thing sounds boring.  And if it’s really locked up, why should we risk getting in trouble for it?”

“Trouble is the last thing we need,” said Michael.  “The rest of the summer is about no trouble, just fun.”

“So what should we do?” Danny asked.

“Want to go to the wharf?” Michael asked.

“I didn’t bring money for Blue Wave Art figurines today,” Lola teased.

“Why are we bored when it’s summer?” said Jeremy.

“Bored?  You actually said the word bored?” asked Gustavo.

“Well, Goose? What do you want to do?” Danny asked.

“Let’s do a pick-up adventure,” Gustavo replied.

“What’s that?” asked Lola.

“Stalking,” said Taylor.

“It’s not stalking.  It’s good exercise for Society members.  It keeps the senses sharp,” Gustavo said.

“Fine, but you’re burgermeister,” Michael said.

“I second that!” said Danny, eager to give up the purple sparkly star chair that adventure leaders sat in at Roswell House, their treehouse headquarters in Gustavo’s back yard.  Danny had been burgermeister for their last adventure, which meant he stayed in the chair until a new adventure started, with a new burgermeister.

“Okay,” said Gustavo.  “I’m burgermeister, and this is adventure number forty-five!  Whatever it is,” he added.

“How does a pick-up adventure work?” Lola asked.

“It’s easy.  We find someone interesting, and follow them,” Gustavo said.

“Follow them?”

“Stalking,” said Taylor.

“It’s totally not stalking,” Gustavo said.  “You’ll see.”

“Yeah, you’ll see,” said Taylor.  “You’ll see you should have done anything other than this today.”

They followed the waterfront to the Marina Club, a fancy restaurant overlooking the marina.  Danny had never been inside, much less eaten there, though his family had gone before he was born, a fact his brother Victor brought up occasionally.  Gustavo’s family went a couple times a year.  He had his preferred tables, if one of them was available, which offered an unobstructed view of the island.  Lola ate there more often than she would ever admit to them.

They stopped at the railing.  The marina parking lot was behind them, and in front was the field of gently bobbing masts, ropes, cables, and flags.

Gustavo looked around frantically.  He hoped he didn’t look frantic, but he felt frantic—he wanted to impress Lola the way Danny had with their last adventure, Nifty Tuna.  It had been Lola’s first adventure with them, and there was never a dull moment.  Gustavo wanted to make sure there weren’t any.

His eyes fell on the red British-style phone booth outside the Marina Club.  It was shaded by the overhanging second floor.  Three men in suits were standing beside the phone booth, looking from it to their surroundings and back, as if judging its position relative to something else.

One man was doing most of the talking—he was of medium height, between the other two.  He wore his hair high on top, a slick black pompadour, and was combing it while he talked.  The other two were simple contrasts—one was thin, with bushy hair atop a high forehead.  His face was stubbly, and he had the close-set eyes of a bird, eyes that stared instead of looked.  The third man was the biggest, with a thick moustache that went down either side of his mouth and stopped above his chin.  He had small eyes for such a big man, little blank dots in a wide, fleshy face.

Gustavo pointed.  “Them!  The three guys in suits by the phone!”

“What about them?” Jeremy asked.

“They’re it!”

“They’re what?” asked Michael.

“What we’re looking for!” Gustavo said confidently.  “Come on, adventurers, follow me!”

CALENDULA PROOF is on sale now wherever you buy books, including:

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© 2020 Steve McManus