All around them, dead leaves danced and spun into the air, then scuttled across the woodland floor. Where had that come from so quickly?
“So what’s the color of your Thief?” asked George and laughed.
“Gray,” snapped Diane. But her eyes flashed in alarm and soon widened in surprise.
George, along with his laughter, suddenly vanished into the air, leaving no trace or hint of him whatsoever.
“So that’s why you were in the woods this morning, pal,” Logan said finally. “You should have told us, buddy. And we would’ve been more than happy to help. That’s what friends are for.” Turning to Diane, he smiled and said rather sweetly. “Just tell us what to do, Diana,” he said. “I bet we can find your Thief in no time.”
Andrew shook his head. “That ain’t gonna work in a place this big,” he said, glancing at his watch nervously. He was rather worried about being late to his show but did not want to say so. He wasn’t about to let the others drag him around either. “The cat could be hidin’ anywhere,” he added. “Or it might be gone from the woods already. Either way, y’all ain’t gonna find it that easily.”
A gust of cold wind blew. Andrew stopped talking at once.
“Mark meant he was helping me to find my cat Thief,” explained Diane, looking at Mark. “Thief had escaped this morning and he promised to help me look.”
Mark nodded vigorously, not knowing what else to say.
“Ha!” Becky forced a laugh. “Thief!” she snorted. “Weird name. But that’s not really surprising coming from an owner like her!”
But Mark knew exactly what Diane meant. He was glad she could cover it up so fast.
When they first came up with the plan of catching the thief who had stolen the antiques, he and Diane had wanted to keep everything to themselves. Initially, Mark suggested speaking in abbreviations. “An acronym really is the best,” he had tried to reassure her. “It’s more practical; it wouldn’t give away that easily. And it wouldn’t give anyone a notion that we’re up to something.” Diane had agreed at first, but after hearing Mark’s choices of abbreviations, she decidedly abandoned the whole acronym business. After much debate on the phone this morning, they had finally settled that Thief would do the trick.
Famous last words. And so much for the time spent on debating.
“Uh,” he said. “It’s nothing really…”
But the others continued staring at him. Anticipating.
Mark guessed he didn’t sound convincing enough.
“I was only looking for Thief…” he blurted out before he could stop himself. “That’s all.”
Logan had a puzzled look on his face. “Huh?” he asked, cupping a hand to his ear. “What thief?”
Mark kicked himself mentally, as he realized what he had done. Sure enough, Diane threw him a dirty look.
Then Logan became serious. “You know, buddy,” he told Mark. “All I know is that one minute George was handing out donuts for the picnic. The next thing we knew, whoosh! A flock of bats came charging out the woods. Imagine that! Bats under the daylight! Weird, huh? Then Andrew here started climbing over the fence and running with his high… quality boots and stuff. And we thought someone was dead or something. It was then we’d realized you were gone. We had a real fright, man.” Logan paused to catch his breath. “So, tell us, buddy,” he said. “How’d you get yourself attacked by the bats? Andrew here told us how they’d knocked you over. Say, why did you cross over the fence in the first place? What did you see?”
Mark wet his lips nervously. He had no idea how long the others had been there, watching and listening to him and Diane.
“Uh, can anyone tell me what’s going on?” the redhead said, looking at Mark.
“Tell us, you mean,” snapped Becky.
“Tell us, whatever,” continued Logan. “I’d only hope, you know, we’re not interrupting anything here.” He winked and elbowed Mark. But when Diane gave him the look, he put up his hands in the air and laughed. “I’m just kidding! Just kidding.”
Mark stared back at Diane hopelessly and apologetically. It was the only thing he could do.
“What’s up, baby girl?” said Logan. He was grinning at Diane like an idiot. “Whatcha doing here?”
George stood silently beside Logan.
Andrew grunted and looked away.
It was not exactly a friendly meeting, Mark decided. But at least Logan was back to his old self again, which Mark believed was for the better.
“And you,” continued the same voice with accusatory tone. “What are you doing here?”
Mark didn’t have to turn around. He knew it was Becky.
Besides, Becky was the only one in school who habitually used “pronouns” to refer to people she disliked. Funny how Diane and Becky have almost never spoken to each other.
Diane, as usual, ignored Becky’s remark. Instead, she was staring at Mark in disbelief, her eyes demanding to know why the others were here.
This was supposed to be their own little secret.
“What’s this,” said a nasty voice behind Mark and Diane, startling them both. “Some sort of social meeting for a shouting match or wrestling match?”
Mark abruptly let go of Diane’s arm. Both of them parted, looking shocked and embarrassed.
His teeth chattered, not from the cold but fear. He pulled Diane away, heading back to the direction whence he came.
But Diane protested. “Stop it, Mark!” She tried to withdraw her arm, but Mark held it fast and firmly.
“No, you don’t understand,” he shouted. He could feel the sweat breaking out throughout his body. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
Diane knitted her brow. “He was here! I saw him with my own eyes!” she yelled back. “We just need to figure out where he went and how he managed to disappear!”
Mark said nothing. He wondered how much it would take him to drag Diane out of here. Why can’t she let go of her stubbornness for once?
Mark quietly circled the tree. It suddenly occurred to him how familiar this was.
And just like what he had expected, the ground ended at his feet, and he saw a seemingly bottomless drop.
A chill ran down Mark’s spine. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea at all. Whoever led them to here wanted them dead. But why?
She raised her arms, which, to Mark’s dismay, were full of scratch marks. But Diane seemed not to notice them at all. She began pressing her palms against different parts of the trunk while she explained.
“Our thief walked through this right here. Somehow.”
“Go on,” Mark encouraged her when he noticed she was hesitating. He was eager to learn everything Diane had found out about the stolen heirloom.
She let out a long sigh and put her hat on. “I don’t know. I cannot quite – Something is not making any sense. Something about this whole business… Then there were the strange bats, of course, and…”
“And?” said Mark again and chewed his lip.
Diane merely frowned. A moment of silence followed as she struggled to find a way to explain the unexplainable. Mark could see the gears turning in her head. And he knew why. Diane was a big and firm believer in logic. “Everything happens for a reason,” she often said.
Mark thought otherwise. He believed all that was beside the point right now. What she really needed to address and set straight were the facts.
“Hey,” he said. “Don’t keep me in suspense here. Just tell me what happened.” Mark glanced sidelong at her.
Diane said nothing. She remained thoughtful, her brain stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the abnormality of the situation at hand.
He groaned loudly, causing the corner of her mouth twitch a little in response.
To Mark’s surprise, Diane waved him over and led him down the dirt path. They stopped in front of a large tree.
Diane accepted the hat without a word. She looked around cautiously. Where did the bats go?
Finally she turned to him and whispered with urgency, “What are you doing here, Mark? You could have been seen!”
“What?” Mark tensed and whispered back.
She raised an eyebrow and waited.
“Oh, you mean that.” He gave a careless shrug, relieved. “I don’t think so,” he said.
Diane raised her eyebrow again, as if to say, “Then why are you here?”
“Uh,” said Mark, blushing slightly. He did not want to admit that he had chickened out and abandoned his own job. But somehow he had a feeling that Diane always knew anyway.
Diane gave him a long look but said no more about it. She got down to the business.
“Look,” she said quietly, and brushed off the dust from the hat. “I have found a few clues about our thief. Or thieves. In fact, I have seen him. Or her. But…”
It worked, of course. Because, the next thing he knew, Diane was off the ground in a flash and rubbing her cheek.
Mark grinned sheepishly.
“Welcome back,” he said, handing Diane her hat. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on? Or are you going to simply stand there and glare for the rest of the day?”
Mark couldn’t help it. He grinned again. He was so glad to see her alive.
Even though the sunlight could not have penetrated this far into the woodland, Mark was perspiring. Maybe he should go back and get others to help. But what if he was too late? He wished he knew exactly what to do. He wished Diane would tell him what to do.
An idea came to him. Nothing brilliant, but it was a sensible thing to do and worth a try.
Taking a deep breath, Mark gave Diane’s waxy cheek a slap.
He winced to himself. He hadn’t intended to make it that hard.
He hesitated, and then knelt down beside her. This time he shook her gently by the shoulder.
Absently, Mark held his breath and waited.
Still no response.
Mark stood towering above her. He swallowed. “Diane?”
She was lying on her side, her blond curls fallen over her face, and she was motionless. For a second, Diane almost had Mark believe that she was dead – considering that she was usually lively, alert, and agile.