Logan whistled beside Mark. “Man,” he said. “This place is huge alright!”
The others, too, looked up and stopped talking at once.
After a while, Diane broke the silence. “Well? So what’s the plan?”
Mark stood transfixed. He was both enraptured and intimidated by the building. “Let’s go get George first,” he said, all the while gazing ahead. “And then go from there.”
Mark let out a sigh, and, at once, his surroundings became clearer now that he had a chance to look around.
They were now standing in the courtyard at the heart of the marble city. Before them, a flight of giant marble steps led up to the entrance of the largest building in this city. Mark remembered what it looked like from the distance: a grand, sturdy building standing erect, its dome-shaped roof slightly obscured by passing clouds.
Logan half-raised his hand. “Hate to tell you this, Diana,” he said with a grimace. “I don’t see how we can ever come up with a good plan.”
Diane raised her eyebrow.
“Think about it, baby girl,” he reasoned. “We’re such a large group. It’s so much easier for Thief to track us down than us to them. Know what I’m talking about?”
A murmur went over the group.
Diane pursed her lips, thinking. For a long time, she didn’t speak.
Diane quickly changed the course of conversation. “Since Thief could be lurking anywhere,” she warned them, “we need to take precautions from now on.”
Andrew’s face twisted in alarm. “What ya mean?”
“She meant,” Becky answered for Diane, “that we should speak with caution and stuff. Just to be on the safe side.”
Diane nodded. “Also,” she went on, “we mustn’t allow more people to know about this.”
“Except George,” objected Logan.
“Yes, of course,” said Diane. “Except George.”
Several heads nodded in agreement.
“So,” said Diane thoughtfully. “Does anyone have anything close to resembling a plan?”
The redhead studied the ground for a moment before he looked up at Mark. “Sorry, dude,” he said sadly. “Sorry to hear about the antiques, I mean.”
“As for Thief,” Logan went on quietly, “don’t worry about it, buddy.” He clapped Mark on the shoulder. “We’ll get them.” But his voice betrayed him. He sounded rather unsure.
Mark had no choice but to tell the entire story, starting with the night of the theft. Quite surprisingly, Diane cut in a few times and took turns with him to fill in the details. When Mark finally got to the part about the plan to catch the thief and the figures they had seen earlier, the others were shocked.
“You mean there’s more than one thief?” asked Logan in disbelief.
“We do not know that for sure,” answered Diane. She abruptly turned to the cowboy and explained, “We had no clue how they vanished into the air. They just went.”
Andrew gave her a resentful look but said nothing.
“Which is why,” Mark added quickly, “we were reluctant to explain all this back in the woods. We didn’t want the other Thief, if there is another one, to hear us.” Yet Mark knew deep down that the truth was just the opposite. “The fewer who know about this, the better,” he had told Diane on the phone this morning.
Andrew had a point and Mark gave him credit for that. Yet he wished Andrew wasn’t staring at him that way. Like he was losing his mind, befriending someone as terrible as Diane.
Logan shot a warning glance at the cowboy.
“Tell us about it,” said the redhead anxiously, looking at both Mark and Diane.
Mark cleared his throat. “Actually,” he began but then stopped. He waited for a reassuring nod from Diane.
She did not.
It took him a moment to realize Diane was deep in thought.
He was on his own.
Becky stared at Diane. Then Mark. And then Diane again.
“Right,” she said with a snort. “Who ever heard of a cat walking through a tree trunk with eyes closed? We may not be the smartest people on earth, but we sure aren’t stupid!”
“Becky,” warned Logan. “Come on, man.”
Becky tossed her head and looked away.
Slowly, all this was also beginning to drive the cowboy mad. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What?!” he fumed. “Y’all mean she knew it all along about the tree but ain’t even bothered to warn George about it? When was she ever goin’ to tell us?!”
“I don’t mean to pry into you and Mark’s business. But I need to know if you know something related to George’s disappearance.” He hesitated. “I mean, if – God forbid – something happens to Mark, I’m sure you would do exactly the same thing I’m doing right now. Know what I mean, Diana? I need to know if George’s alright.”
Diane bit her lips and remained silent. Mark too tried to think of something to say but failed. He had never seen Diane looked so tensed up before. And they both knew it wouldn’t be so easy to cover it up this time.
Logan was quiet for a moment.
“Speaking of Thief,” he said suspiciously. “Let’s face it, Diana. You don’t really have a cat, do you?”
Mark and Diane looked at each other.
“Look, baby girl,” he went on quietly, but Andrew and Becky were already looking this way, full of curiosity.
Mark wouldn’t blame either of them. He would have fallen asleep if Diane kept at it for another five minutes.
“Besides,” Diane told Logan, “my cat Thief loves shiny wrappers of any sort and she’d love to get her hands on these things for sure.”
Diane stooped down to reach for another one before Logan did. She stole a quick sidelong glance at Mark, hoping he’d caught her hint about Thief, who was probably wandering about the marble city.
“I see what you’re getting at, Diana,” said Logan, with a note of respect. “But these plastic wrappers already exist. You can’t get rid of them easily, like what you’ve said. And this place is, like, insanely weird. So why bother, man?”
“Perhaps I have always appreciated the aesthetic part of nature as well as ancient architecture,” she answered. “Strange or not, I hate to see this beautiful place ruined.”
Becky yawned rudely and loudly. Andrew snorted, seeming to agree with Becky for once.
Diane seemed nonchalant about it. “According to experts and environmentalists,” she said, “at the rate we are producing waste, our landfills will soon fill up if we do not do something about it. Therefore, recycling and going green are an absolute necessity. Which brings us to another important point. Plastic products are particularly harmful to our environment, and they take a long time to decompose in the landfills.” She stopped, looking rather pleased with herself.
Mark groaned inwardly. Not again. He hated it whenever she does that. Acting so bookwormish.
“It’s not his fault, man,” he explained. “The more nervous he gets, the more he tends to eat. It’s human nature.”
Becky rolled her eyes heavenward.
Yet what surprised them more was Diane.
Diane was picking up each candy wrapper along the way. She collected them and put them into her pocket.
“Whatcha doing that for, baby girl?” asked Logan at one point, as he stooped down and picked up one for her.
Mark’s ears reddened. Good point. Why was she doing that? The last thing he wanted to hear was all the kids in school teasing Diane about her scavenging habit.
For the first time, things were actually going their way.
The search for George turned out to be quite an easy task. All they had to do was follow the wrappers of chocolate bars that littered the marble floor.
A perfect and easy trail to pick up.
Everyone seemed less nervous, including Logan.
Meanwhile, the redhead, a loyal friend of George, was doing his best to polish his best friend’s image.