, ,

Miss Shackleford lived in a big, fancy house that looked very similar in style and extravagance to Uncle Horace and Aunt Hildegard’s home. It wouldn’t have surprised Bea in the least to find out that she had been one of the guests at their party. The mansion had many peaks and eaves, turrets and towers, stained glass panes and bay windows. It was surrounded by a tall stone wall covered in ivy and the entrance to the grounds was a through a large gate decorated with a fancy ‘S’ upon a bronze shield. The gate was, of course, closed, locked and guarded by a man in a red and gold uniform. He looked completely without humor with his mouth set in a line and his feet anchored solidly to the ground, not one who would listen to the pleas of children.

Bea, Bart, Jack and Carolina crouched in the bushes across the street, studying the entrance and looking for a way in. They could hear dogs barking beyond the gate and the sounds of other animals too: the mooing of cows, honking of geese, whickering of horses and the trumpeting of an elephant. An elephant?! Carolina shrugged up her shoulders when the other three gave her an amazed look. “Like I said, Miss Shackleford has a great passion for animals,” was her simple explanation.

“Alright, I say Carolina gets on my shoulders and then you two climb us and go up over the wall,” enthused Jack, striking his fist against his palm with conviction. Bart looked at him and then back at the wall, his eyes squinting and expression uncertain. “I don’t know,” he replied slowly. “That wall looks awfully high.” Bea also pointed out: “Don’t forget, I am very dainty. I would not suffer a fall very well.” Carolina shook her head and gave Jack a little pat on the shoulder. “I think the simplest plan is the best. The children and I should approach the gate and say that we have shelter business to discuss with Miss Shackleford.” Jack, looking a bit crestfallen that not even one other person was onboard with his plan, folded his arms across his chest. “And what about me? Am I to just sit here twiddling my thumbs and waiting for you to return?” Carolina, Bea and Bart all glanced at each other uncomfortably but it was Beatrix would broke the news gently, placing a hand on Jack’s forearm. “It’s just that you don’t look like a, well, normal person. They’ll know something is up.” The man bristled, his yellow hair quivering and chest puffing up with indignation. “Normal? Normal! What’s normal anyway? HRMPH!” After much comforting and reassurances that they liked him just as he was, they decided that they would go ahead with Carolina’s plan. “But I will spring into action at the first sign of danger!” Jack promised emphatically.

Summoning up their courage and as much confidence as they could muster, the three of them – Carolina, Beatrix and Batholomew – approached the guard at the gate. When he saw them coming, he stepped out from his little guard station and stood in their path, looking imposing. “This is private property,” he told them in a voice that sounded like a growl and would tolerate no argument. “Unless you have scheduled business here, I must ask you to leave.” Carolina stepped forward, a smile plastered on her face to hide the fear she felt inside. “My name is Carolina Cotton. I’m from the shelter?” she said, looking for a spark of recognition in the guard’s eyes. There was none. “You know, the Happy Tails Animal Shelter? Miss Shackleford is a patron and I am here to discuss some, uh, business. Regarding animals. It’s, um, very important.” The guard looked unconvinced and he whipped out a clipboard, scanning the names listed upon it. “I don’t see an appointment for you. If you have business to discuss with Miss Shackleford, I suggest you contact her assistant to set up a time.” Things were not looking promising. Bea and Bart started to turn away but Carolina pressed on, trying one last, desperate ploy. “Under normal circumstances, I would not ask you to let me in without an appointment but I am sure you know how she feels about animals. Someone just surrendered a black and white spotted Beagle and I know she has been looking for one.” She paused a moment to let this sink in and then moved in closer to speak in quieter tones. “I would hate for you to get in trouble because the dog was adopted before she could come down to see her.” This had the desired effect: his stony facade cracked a bit and the guard shuddered.

“I see your point,” he said and then pointed a finger at the two children. “Who are they, though? Obviously they are too young to work at the shelter.” Carolina turned and stared at the pair of them, the expression on her face making it clear that she had no explanation ready. Her mouth opened and closed a few times, but nothing more than a few ‘ums’ came out. Luckily, Bea was a clever girl and she found the words that the volunteer could not. “It is career day at our school and everyone signed up to spend the day with someone whose career we’d be interested in pursuing when we grow up. We both love animals so we got assigned to Carolina at the shelter.” For added effect, she concluded with: “So far, it has been very educational.” Despite her quick thinking, the guard wasn’t having any of it. “You can go in,” he said, pointing at Carolina. “But they have to wait out here with me. Miss Shackleford’s love of animals is only matched by her dislike of children.” He then went into his guard station and pressed a button that opened the gates. “Follow the drive and you’ll see the house soon enough. Ring the bell and someone will show you to the mistress’s study.” He placed a hand on each of the children’s shoulders to keep them from following Carolina who had no choice but to go in alone.

There they stood, their hearts sinking as the gate closed with a clang behind their friend. So close! They were so close. Beatrix tried to engage the guard in conversation but he only gave her a hard look. Bart put on his best pleading expression but the man was unmoved. Would Carolina be able to recognize Muffin? Would she be able to get him out by herself? The prospect seemed unlikely. Suddenly, there was a great commotion nearby, the sound of breaking twigs and feet scrambling against stone. The guard, Bea and Bart all peered down the lane and what they saw surprised all three. It was Jack! He had dragged a trash can over to the wall and was trying to scale it, to go up and over.

“You two wait here!” the guard commanded as he rushed off to deal with their troublesome, yellow-haired friend. Bea saw clearly that he had no hope of conquering the wall – even with the trash can, he still had at least 10 feet to contend with. Poor Jack! Certainly the guard would detain him and call the police. Miss Shackleford seemed the sort to press charges over anything so he would probably wind up in jail! That’s when realization began to dawn: he wasn’t trying to get over, he was creating a distraction! Grabbing her brother’s hand, she quickly pulled him over to the guard’s station, pressed the gate button and the pair ran inside. Hiding a tall hedge as the gate closed behind them, they stayed there for a long stretch of time. The pounding of their hearts filled their ears as they anxiously listened for someone coming after them. After several minutes had passed with no angry pursuit from the guard or alarm raised, the children cautiously emerged from their hiding spot. Hopefully Jack would escape capture because he was on his own now. It was time to find Muffin.

Miss Shackleford’s grounds were extensive. Her home could only be glimpsed at a distance, a dark, pointy monstrosity that jabbed at the sky. There was a gravel drive leading to the mansion and several paths branched out from it. Each path seemed to lead to a different garden: a rose garden, a sculpture garden, a topiary garden, a hedge maze. It was the latter that the children found themselves drawn to, not because they sincerely thought they would find Muffin in there but how many opportunities does one have to play in a hedge maze? It was something that they could not pass up but they should have, seeing how quickly they became lost inside it. This was not one of their best decisions.

Left, right, right, right, left, no matter which way they turned, everything looked the same. “Do you have anything in your pockets?” Beatrix asked her brother. “Or in your knapsack? We could be like Hansel and Gretel and leave a trail. That way, we will know where we have been and can go another way.” It was a good plan but unfortunately, they did not have anything they could use as trail markers. So they continued to wander aimlessly, turning here and turning there and not getting much of anywhere. “We shouldn’t have come in here,” remarked Bea sharply, angry that she allowed herself to become so easily distracted from their quest to find Muffin. “What if we never get out? What if we die in here?!” worried Bart, becoming increasingly fearful of the situation they were in. Just then, they heard a roar, a lion’s roar, which made them stop still.

“That sounded close,” whispered Bart as he clutched Bea’s arm and pressed in closer, afraid if he spoke too loud the animal would hear them. He wasn’t sure what lions ate but he was pretty sure that he and his sister would be a tasty treat at the very least. Bea, while also frightened, was intrigued and she started to wander off in the direction the sound was coming from. “Are you crazy?!” squeaked Bart but, not wanting to be separated from his sister, he followed anyway. They made a couple turns, wound up in a dead end a few times, but eventually they made it to the center of the maze and beheld the largest, most ornate cage they had ever seen. It looked like it was made of gold and each bar was shaped like a jungle vine. Golden monkeys with rubies for eyes sat perched atop each of the four corners, forever gazing out over the distance. Inside the cage was a lion, a big male with a plush, tawny coat and a magnificent mane. He observed the children with a steady gaze, not moving a muscle other than to flick the tip of his tail back and forth.

“Do you think it is safe to go closer?” asked the boy, his eyes as wide as saucers. He’d been to a zoo – before Nanny Loretta was fired, she would take him and Bea every Saturday – but this was different. At the zoo, the lions were in a large enclosure with a moat around it and you could only see them from far away. Beatrix took his hand and gave it a squeeze, holding onto him as she edged the pair of them in closer. The lion did something unexpected just then: he sighed.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, his voice so deep and rumbly that they could feel it in the pit of their tummies. “I hardly ever get visitors so it would be foolish to eat the few that come along.” Bea and Bart didn’t know how to respond. Had they gone crazy? Is this what crazy felt like? One moment, you are going about your normal everyday life and the next, lions are speaking to you. The children simply stood there, mouths agape and the power of speech eluding them. The lion sighed again, wearier than before. “Really. I promise. I will not hurt you. Even if I wanted to eat you, children are much too high in fat and cholesterol for me these days. Come closer so I can see you better. A chimpanzee ran off with my glasses over a week ago so you are just fuzzy blurs at the moment.” He muttered something then about chimps being silly good-for-nothings. Not wishing to disobey the lion, the children moved closer, ever so slowly. Once near the cage, the lion stretched his head forward and squinted at them. “You two seem to be of an agreeable sort. Much kinder looking than that witch, Shackleford, at any rate.”

“She’s a witch?” Bart gasped softly, curiosity finally recovering his voice. “Well, not literally,” said the lion, casually folding one paw over the other. “She is just a very unpleasant person to say the very least. And believe me, I am. Are you familiar with the woman?” Bart’s sister finally stopped gaping long enough to answer with a small shake of her head. “Only in passing.”