Springtime smells filled the air as Coraline Jones stood outside the Pink Palace, her eyes scanning the garden in front of her home. The garden was even more robust than usual, what with the annual Oregon Botanical Competition coming to town. The flowers outside Coraline's home were bright and colorful, but all the blue-haired eleven-year-old could think about as she stood outside was just how boring her week had been.

Because of the competition, Coraline's parents had gone into overdrive with preparation. She hadn't seen them so busy since the week after they'd moved in, when Coraline's mother Mel was putting together her catalog. They'd gone into that familiar mode again, when Mel would do or say just about anything to get Coraline out of her hair. The girl knew her parents loved her, without a doubt, but when there was a job to do, all things seemed to go out the window.

"Winning this competition will put us on the map," her mother had told her. "That means more customers and more money… which means cable TV, and a new bicycle, and more trips back to Michigan to see those two friends of yours."

Coraline missed her friends, whom she hadn't seen since they'd visited during Winter Break. She'd introduced them to Wybie, she'd shown them around the house… she'd even told them about that unfortunate incident with the false parents and the Beldam and… well, it was something Coraline didn't enjoy talking about, or even thinking about. She only spoke of it with Wybie and his grandmother… though telling her two friends from Michigan about it was strangely comforting, and she was glad they believed her, even if they wouldn't stop telling her how 'cool' it was. Coraline knew the truth… there was nothing remotely cool about it. She'd nearly lost her parents… and her own soul as well.

Though there were also times that a small part of Coraline at least allowed her to admit that her experience with the Beldam was at least a little bit cool.

The only entertainment she had now was Wybie. Hanging out with him, playing with him… as annoying as he sometimes was, Coraline was glad to have him to talk to, to share some of her thoughts and dreams and adventures with. The more she'd gotten to know him, the more she'd begun to appreciate his quirks, even if some of them still drove her up the wall. At least Wybie wasn't nearly as weird as Ms. Spink and Ms. Forcible, or Mr. Bobinski and his trained mice. He was, for the most part, normal… and whatever part of him wasn't was all right with Coraline, as she didn't really think of herself as 'normal' anyway.

Her friendship with Wybie over the past six months was a big part of the reason why she was happy to see him as he walked across the field from his grandmother's house to the front of the Pink Palace on that lazy Saturday, the day before the garden competition. He'd been her only respite from the relentless work her mother had her put in in preparation, and hanging out with Wybie gave Coraline a chance to vent her various frustrations. She rolled her eyes as he walked toward her, but the hint of a smile on her face indicated how she really felt about him coming.

"Hunh… it looks like that garden of yours is getting pretty big," said Wybie, glancing out over the flowers before returning his gaze to Coraline. "So is your mom gonna let you rest now?"

"Well, we still have to take the flowers into town," Coraline replied, "which means I've gotta carry boxes and boxes of them into the car, and then into the big building where they're having the stupid thing. So no, no rest yet."

Wybie looked back out toward the garden, which featured many rows of colorful flowers lightly waving in the gentle breeze. The sky was a bright blue, an unnatural sight for an Oregon spring, and the light streaming down from the sun brought out the colors of the garden even more.

"So, Wybourne…" Coraline said slyly, lightly elbowing him in the ribs. "You gonna be a big man and help us with these flowers?"

"Uh… heavy lifting's not my thing," Wybie replied, a nervous smile on his face. "My grandma said she's worried I'll throw out my back and-"

"Throw out your back from lifting flowers?" Coraline said, walking toward the garden with her hands in the pockets of her dark green skirt. "You're an even bigger wimp than I thought!"

"Hey, it's flowers AND dirt, right?"

"Yeah, but it's still mostly just flowers," Coraline continued. Wybie followed her and the two began pacing down one of the rows bordered by two lines of daisies.

"And dirt. Dirt is pretty heavy," said Wybie. "Dirt is what they bury coffins under."

"Oh, I get it," Coraline remarked, turning to face her friend. "You're scared of dirt, is that it?"

"What?" Wybie protested, his eyes widening. "Scared of dirt? No way! I'm dirty all the time!"

Coraline began laughing and clutching her stomach.

"…what's so funny?"

"I just got you to admit that you're dirty all the time," said Coraline, still giggling between words. "You walked right into that one!"

As Wybie opened his mouth to say something, the two heard Coraline's mother calling from across the lawn.

"Coraline, come help me carry these things into the car."

"And here we go," muttered Coraline, rolling her eyes. "Wybie, you gonna help me or not?"

"I… guess so," Wybie replied, following Coraline back to the driveway, where her mother and father were waiting by an open car door. Mel had two small green pots in her hands in which several flowers each were planted. Coraline's father Charlie was standing nearby, holding another pot with some four more flowers in it. They were far more beautiful than any of the others, their light purple petals striking in the afternoon sun. Their fragrant smell drifted over Coraline and Wybie immediately, and both of their expressions softened at the lovely aroma.

"Dad, what are those…" Coraline asked, pointing at the flowers her father was holding.

"These-" he began.

"These are very rare Cattleya orchids from South America," said Mel, an obvious pride in her voice. They're some of the loveliest flowers in the world, and this particular species of orchid is very difficult to grow just right. Your father and I have been working on these flowers for weeks, and after we win the competition with them, we're planning to sell them at a nice profit."

"You sure you're going to win with those flowers?" asked Wybie.

"Of course mom and dad are going to win with them, they're beautiful!" Coraline said, looking at her father's orchids with awe.

"Thank you, Coraline," said Mel, handing the pots to Coraline. She looked over at Wybie, almost glaring at him but stopping herself just in time. "I'm sorry, Wybie, but Coraline can't play with you right now."

"Actually, Mrs. Jones, I wanted to help you guys get the flowers into town," said Wybie. "If that's all right with you."

"Well of course it's all right, but be careful," Mel replied, handing Wybie two pots to carry. "These violets aren't quite as rare or as beautiful as the orchids, but they're still very important and I'd hate for something to happen to them."

"It'll be fine, mom. Wybie's not clumsy or anything, he just talks too much."

Wybie glared at Coraline for her remark, starting to get annoyed with her overly aggressive ribbing. Though she was the only good friend he'd ever had, there were times when some of her comments could be a bit hurtful. He knew he could be a bit talkative at times, and definitely strange, but he didn't think he really deserved much of the insults Coraline gave him. At least she didn't call him 'Why-Were-You-Born' anymore… most of the time.

"Okay, okay, let's get moving, people!" Mel said, ushering Wybie and her daughter into the back seat of the car. "We've still got a lot more trips to make and not much time to make them!"

Wybie raised an eyebrow, realizing something was amiss.

"Uh, Mrs. Jones?" Wybie asked, trying to be as polite as he could. "Wouldn't it be a lot quicker just to take all the flowers in one trip?"

Coraline's eyes widened. She'd already asked Mel the same question, and she knew Wybie would get the same answer as she did. There was no sense in telling people like her mother to actually be logical about these sorts of things.

"And risk messing up some of the flowers during the trip?" said Mel, shaking her head. "No, we're only taking what we can carry in our hands. The cost of gas to make multiple trips is more than negated by the contest prize. Besides, the back of the car's too cluttered with junk as it is. Now come on, people, let's go!"

"You know someone else who talks too much?" Wybie whispered to Coraline as she sat down.

"Tell me about it," Coraline whispered back, rolling her eyes and knowing exactly who Wybie was talking about. At least when Wybie had a bunch of homework to do or some repairs to make on his motor scooter, he didn't drive Coraline away by telling her to go outside, or to not bother him for the rest of the day. Despite some of the admittedly mean things Coraline said to him, Wybie always seemed to be in the mood to have fun. "I know it's probably because I'm the only one he ever gets to have fun with, but still… if I didn't have Wybie I'd go totally crazy."

The car drove off into town with Coraline and Wybie making whispered jokes to one another in the back seat, most of them about Coraline's parents. Mel was too focused on the competition to hear anything, but Charlie seemed to pick up some of the remarks… though he didn't mind a bit of good-natured ribbing. Once, he looked into the back seat and asked Coraline and Wybie if they wanted to sing a song. At first, Coraline didn't, but when it was revealed that the song was about her mother, she laughed and joined it. It was a lighthearted song to the tune of something much more well-known, poking fun at Mel and her bossiness without being the least bit mean.

"I can hear you all back there, you know," said Mel, keeping her eyes on the road. "You too, dear…"

"Aw, it was the kids' idea to sing it," Charlie replied, slumping his shoulders.

"No way, dad, you were the one who led the song!" Coraline protested, a look of desperation on her face.

"Oh no," Charlie said, "I clearly heard you come up with the line about your mother being in charge of everyone."

"To be fair, most of the song is true," Wybie said, his voice shaking nervously but a smile still on his face.

"Okay, you guys, if you're going to keep singing about me, I'm not taking you all to Grab-a-Burger after we're done," Mel stated, hoping this threat would keep her clan in line. She didn't hear a word in reply, and knew she was once again in control of the situation. "That's better."

Coraline and Wybie were reduced to singing the song in whispers until they reached their destination.

O-O-O

The competition was being held in the gymnasium of the local high school, and as Wybie and the Joneses arrived, they could see a multitude of tables lined up for the occasion. They were among the first to get there, which was to be expected, as Mel was perhaps the most determined of all to win, and she and Charlie had one of the largest entries there. The group was greeted by a kindly old man, the coordinator of the competition. He had a big smile as Mel approached.

"Ah, Mel Jones… I wait by the mailbox for your catalog every month," said the old man, who then looked up at Charlie and smiled. "You've got some very lovely looking flowers there, my boy… are those Cattleyas?"

"Why yes they are," said Mel proudly. "We've been working on them for more than a month!"

Of course, being the real gardener, Charlie had done much of the work, but he didn't want to take away from his wife's big moment. She was the one who really cared about winning, all he cared about was the journey. Working on these orchids had given him some of the most fantastically fun weeks of his life, and seeing them in competition was just the icing on the cake… though the money gotten from winning the competition and selling the orchids certainly didn't hurt matters. If he possessed his wife's Type A personality, he probably would be showing his care a lot more.

"Well I can't wait to see the rest of your entry!" said the old man, adjusting his glasses and taking a close look at the violets Wybie was holding. "Put your flowers on that table right over there, table number 3. You have more to bring, correct?"

"Yeah, we're making at least two more trips," said Coraline, sounding happy as she said it, though behind her voice was a mentality that hoped two more trips would be all they were making. "Wybie was right before, these dumb pots are kind of heavy…"

The family set their pots down at the assigned table and hurriedly headed for the exit, Mel not wanting to waste any more time in getting the rest of her entry in place and ready to go for Sunday. Coraline and Wybie took one more look back at the Cattleya orchids before heading out the door.

"Those are the prettiest flowers I've ever seen," said Wybie.

"You just admitted you like pretty flowers," Coraline whispered, a mischievous smile on her face.

"Shut up!" Wybie whispered back.

O-O-O

The rest of the day passed uneventfully, with Wybie and the Joneses making a total of three more trips before the very last one. They pulled into the parking lot of the high school just before sundown with the last bunch of flowerpots in their arms. As the group walked toward the entrance to the school, Coraline saw something out of the corner of her eye, and tugged on Wybie's sleeve to get his attention.

"Wybie, look," whispered Coraline, pointing toward a black van at the edge of the parking lot. Standing near the van were three men, two of them loading up some flowerpots into the back. "Isn't it weird that those guys are taking flowers away from the gym instead of bringing them in?"

"Well, they could just be withdrawing from the competition," Wybie replied with a shrug. "Maybe one of their flowers got damaged? …but they were carrying like six pots."

"Yeah," said Coraline suspiciously. The two kids didn't have any more time to talk about it before entering the gym with the last bunch of flowers. They went over to table three and began placing them. "That's so weird… but maybe they just saw mom and dad's flowers and decided they had no chance."

The group began setting their flowers down on the table, but almost immediately, Mel noticed something strange.

"That's funny, the orchids are supposed to be…" Mel's voice trailed off, her words lined with worry. She immediately looked over at the contest coordinator and approached him. "Sir? Sir? My orchids are gone…!"

Charlie, Coraline, and Wybie noticed the absence of the orchids as well. Charlie was completely baffled, but Coraline and Wybie looked at one another, both of them thinking back to what they'd seen in the parking lot. The men they'd seen all seemed to be wearing thick beards, larger than any normal beards they'd ever seen before. The men were acting quickly, one of them looking back and forth, as if to make sure his group wasn't being followed.

"Well they were there just ten minutes ago," said the coordinator, looking bewildered. "Eh… are you sure they didn't slide over onto another table?"

"No, I'm absolutely certain, I made sure to put them at the very center of my display and now there's a big hole in the center with no orchids! They're completely gone!"

Charlie's eyes were wide, his mouth curved into a disappointed frown. He'd started to ask random passersby if they'd seen anything, but no one had reported witnessing anything suspicious. One young woman had noted seeing a group of men with beards tending to their own display entry, but a quick glance over at that display revealed no sign of the missing orchids, and the woman added that she had no reason to believe the men were suspicious in any way. Coraline and Wybie, however, thought otherwise.

"Dad, Wybie and I saw some guys putting some flowerpots in a black van!" Coraline said, tugging on Charlie's shoulder and pointing toward the exit.

"They might still be there if we head out right now!" Wybie shouted.

Charlie nodded, and quickly ran toward the exit, followed by the two children, and then Mel when she realized what was going on.

"What are we looking for?" asked Mel frantically. "Do you know where the orchids are?"

"We might!" Coraline replied. The group pushed open the doors and ran out to the parking lot, where Coraline hoped and prayed to herself that they would see a black van still parked there… but there was nothing of the sort. "No…!"

"What's going on?" asked Mel.

"Coraline and Wybie said that they thought they might've seen a suspicious van out in the parking lot with some people loading flowerpots onto it," said Charlie. "Coraline, are you sure-"

"I'm sure I'm sure, Wybie saw it too! We just told you that!"

Mel immediately turned from the parking lot and stormed toward the contest coordinator, who was now being confronted by two other worried and angry-looking people. One of them was the young woman Charlie had spoken to earlier, and the other was a tall, middle-aged man with his hands to the sides of his head, swaying nervously back and forth.

"After Mr. Jones told us that his orchids were missing, I took another look at my display and saw two of my most valuable flowers gone too!" the woman said in exasperation.

"And all three of my flowerpots are gone!" shouted the middle-aged man. "I had the most incredible azaleas and now I can't find them anywhere…!"

"How could you let some guys just waltz in from off the street and steal our flowers?" Mel shouted, her face red with rage. She practically looked as if she was about to deck the contest coordinator, but she held her anger back to a reasonable level, sensing that the man looked just as flustered as she did.

"Whoever it was, they must've had a contest entry… nothing seemed out of the ordinary and people were carrying flowerpots in and out of here all day, so I… I just…"

"You just let people walk out with my orchids!" Mel shrieked, clenching her fists.

"I… I'll call the police right away, they'll get to the bottom of this, I can assure you!" the contest coordinator fumbled for his cell phone while Mel stormed back over to her family, trying to contain her anger.

"Coraline, Wybie, what exactly did you see?"

Coraline and Wybie's description of the men, three men with beards, was enough to get an identification from the contest coordinator of who the men were… but without any concrete proof that they had taken anything, the police could do nothing once they arrived. They said that the soonest they'd be able to bring in the men for questioning was tomorrow morning, and even then, without a warrant and without sufficient proof, the men wouldn't even be compelled to come in. It was becoming clear that nothing could be done in time for the contest, and despite the pleas of the young woman, the middle-aged man, and Mel and Charlie Jones, the contest wouldn't be postponed or cancelled despite the thefts. Coraline's parents returned home with Coraline and Wybie around ten in the evening. A somber mood permeated the car throughout the ride home. Mel stopped at Grab-a-Burger as she had promised, but the food tasted bitter and bland, the events of the day corrupting its taste.

"I know there's not much of a bright side to this situation, but at least you still have the rest of your flowers in the competition," said Wybie, trying to cheer Mel up as he got out of the car. "I mean… they all look pretty enough to win."

"Those orchids cost more than all the other flowers put together," Mel replied, "and they were pretty much our only hope of winning. They were the only flowers that really stood out… this is a state competition, and the only way to win something so big is to go big. Without those orchids, our entry is just like all the rest."

Charlie said nothing to Wybie, or even to Coraline as he too stepped out of the car. He walked into the Pink Palace with his head hung low and his shoulders slumped. Coraline wanted to follow him, but first, she turned to Wybie, placing her hand on his shoulder.

"Sorry today got so awful," said Coraline, her voice lined with sadness. "And… thanks for helping out today."

"It was more fun than I thought it'd be," Wybie replied, trying to be helpful.

"There was nothing fun about today," said Mel sharply. "Go back home to your grandmother, Wybie."

"Mom, don't be like that!" Coraline snapped back. "It wasn't Wybie's fault the orchids got-"

"It's cool," Wybie said, already walking back toward his house. "Seeya tomorrow, Jonesy."

"And you should be going to bed, Coraline," said Mel, escorting her daughter back into the house. "Come on, let's go…"

Coraline entered the house with her mother, who left her side as soon as the two were in the door, expecting Coraline to do what she said. Coraline started to get ready, but as she made her way up the stairs, she took a detour into the kitchen. There, she saw her father seated at the table, his head in his hands. She couldn't hear it at first, but as she drew closer, she detected the faintest hint of her father sobbing… and as she got even closer still, it was unmistakable.

"Oh, dad…" Coraline whispered, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder.

"…your mother and I put in so much work on those orchids… I was the one who told her to buy them."

"But mom… mom's the one who wanted to win that competition so badly-"

Charlie sniffed and looked up at his daughter, trying to give her the best smile he could.

"I wanted to win it… for her. And I've always wanted orchids… that reason was kind of selfish, but I did want to win it for your mom as well. Winning this competition would do so much for her garden catalog, and she's worked so hard on it… for all of us, really. Your mom is the hardest working person I've ever known."

"That's the truth," replied Coraline, a tiny, proud smile appearing on her face. It was one of the reasons why her mother pushed her so hard… "Dad, we're going to get those orchids back."

"Honey, I don't think we will," said Charlie, shaking his head. "You know what the police said… they can't do much, and I don't think they will do much. If the thieves had taken money, jewelry, sure, but no one really cares about stolen flowers."

"You care. And mom cares. And I care."

"Thanks, Coraline… I'm sure your mother told you you should probably be getting to bed."

"Yeah… won't be easy to sleep tonight, though."

"Well, at least try, dear."

Charlie leaned in and kissed his daughter on the forehead. He then put his head down on his arms to rest, breathing a heavy sigh. Coraline looked back at him, then left the room, thinking the whole time about what her father had told her… how he felt so strongly about those flowers and this competition that he'd actually cried, something she almost never saw him do. She thought of her mother, busting her butt on the catalog all the time and actually helping her husband with gardening and arranging the displays, something she normally left almost entirely up to Charlie.

"I have to do something," Coraline thought to herself. She briefly remembered back to the day her parents were taken by the Beldam… she drove the painful memory from her head, but it still fueled her thoughts even now. She loved her parents more than anything in the world, and she'd be willing to do anything for them, even risk her own life. She ran upstairs, but instead of getting ready for bed, she grabbed a copy of the phone book and hastily went to her room, closing and locking the door behind her. "I hope I can figure this thing out."

Coraline's creative mind raced and retraced over everything she'd seen. The three bearded men had not only taken her mother's orchids, they'd been entered into the competition under the names Harvey Flynn, Paul Garter, and Jimmy Rose. Coraline scanned the phone book for any sign of those names, but nothing appeared.

"Figures, if they entered the competition as a cover to steal flowers, they'd have given fake names…"

Coraline threw down the phone book and rested her chin on her hands, her lips curved into an annoyed frown. She sat there for nearly a minute, her mind going back and forth over everything she'd seen. She sat and thought and finally, her eyebrow raised as a wayward memory returned to the forefront of her mind.

"Fake names… but I've heard those three first names somewhere before…."

Though her family didn't have cable, Coraline did watch the local channels, and she remembered an ad that came on them all the time. Three men who always announced themselves as Harvey, Paul, and Jimmy at the very start of the commercials before hawking their wares…

"Of course! Three Men and a Flower Shop!"

Coraline grabbed the phone book off the floor and flipped through the yellow pages until she saw exactly the ad she was looking for.

"They're right in town! But I'm gonna need some help…"

O-O-O

The door of the cottage opened, and an elderly woman appeared in the doorway.

"Hello, Mrs. Lovat. Is Wybie there?"

"It's awfully late to be calling on your friends, isn't it, Coraline dear?"

"Well yes, but I just came up with an idea for a great game and I really want to talk to Wybie about it… please?"

Mrs. Lovat paused for a moment, then turned her head toward the inside of the house.

"Wybourne!"

The sound of hastily moving feet could be heard as Wybie rushed over to his grandmother. When he saw who was at the door, his shoulders slumped.

"Coraline? What's going on?"

"Wybie, there's something I gotta talk about with you outside," said Coraline, hoping Wybie's grandmother would let him come outside with her… she really didn't want to talk about what she wanted to do with anyone but Wybie. Wybie's expression grew both skeptical and nervous, though he had a pretty good idea about what Coraline's visit was about.

"Whatever you're thinking, Jonesy, I'm not sure I want ANY part of it."

"Sure, Wybie can come out and play," said Mrs. Lovat, looking back at her grandson. "It is Saturday night, after all."

Wybie chuckled nervously, sliding past his grandma and out the door. He glared ever-so-briefly at Coraline, but didn't let his grandma know that he was uneasy about coming out to see her.

"Just be careful, don't fall into the well and don't go too far from the house!"

"Come on, Wybie," said Coraline, taking his hand and leading him away from the cottage. "I think I know where my mom and dad's orchids are."

"That's what I figured," thought Wybie. He looked back and saw that his grandma had closed the door, and as soon as he noticed that, he ripped his hand away and looked at Coraline with an annoyed glare. "So? Where are they?"

"In town, I think," Coraline told him. "You know where Three Guys and a Flower Shop is?"

"Uh, not really," Wybie replied. "You know I'm not into flowers like you guys are."

"Oh, right, you're into creepy crawly slugs," said Coraline, rolling her eyes.

"How are we supposed to get into town…" Wybie's voice trailed off, and he immediately saw the smile forming on Coraline's face. He knew exactly how they were supposed to get into town, and he started to think that maybe he should've tried telling his grandma that Coraline really was a bad influence. "…no."

"Come on, Wybie, it'll be fun," she said, taking his hand again and leading him toward the small shed where he kept his motorized bike.

"When I added that extra seat on the side, I thought it was because you wanted to go out into the woods with me and you didn't wanna walk," said Wybie.

"Well yeah, but now we can use it for something else."

Coraline waited until Wybie lifted the small rock nearby under which lay the key to the shed where Wybie kept his bike locked up. Inside was the bike with the extra seat built onto the side, right around Thanksgiving. It hadn't been Coraline's idea to add the extra seat. It had been Wybie's own, partially because he'd heard Coraline saying that she sometimes wished she could ride along with him, and partially because he wanted to impress Coraline. He didn't know why he wanted to impress her… at least, he didn't openly acknowledge why. It was only for that tiny, hidden, miniscule reason that Wybie was opening up the shed now and taking Coraline to his bike.

"Are you even sure those are the guys who took the orchids?"

"Positive," said Coraline, climbing into the extra seat and watching Wybie as he mounted the bike. Wybie began to sit down, but stopped himself and shook his head.

"This is so… stupid! You're totally crazy, and if I go along with this, I'll be crazy too!"

"Wybie, I have to do this… this competition meant so much to my parents, and I can't let them lose because some bad guys took their best flowers! …you know, this is just like those mystery stories you're always telling me you like."

"You're the one that likes mystery stories, Coraline! I like sci-fi!"

Wybie let out a sigh as he sat down and began revving up the bike. Though he was still vocalizing his disagreements, his actions demonstrated that he clearly knew who was going to win this argument.

"Besides, you remember what always happens to the kids in those mystery stories?" asked Wybie as he slowly pulled the bike out of the shed. "They always get caught by the bad guys for snooping around!"

"They always escape, though," Coraline replied with a smile. "Anyway, that's not going to happen to us! We're just going to go and get mom and dad's flowers, and maybe everybody else's stolen flowers, and come back home!"

"…I think we'd better just call the cops once we make sure those guys took the flowers," said Wybie. "If we've got proof that the flowers were taken, I'm sure the police will-"

"If they couldn't help us earlier today, they can't help us now," said Coraline. The bike was now heading up the road leading away from the woods, and Wybie accelerated in order to navigate the unpaved dirt, heading straight up toward the main road into town.

"What we're doing is really dangerous," Wybie replied, his voice shaking a bit as he spoke. "This isn't one of those mystery stories, Coraline."

"We've dealt with danger before," Coraline said, determination in her voice. "These flower thieves aren't nearly as bad as the Beldam."

It took nearly half an hour for Wybie's motorized bike to get into town. The bike cruised down Main Street, both children looking for the sign that would denote the location of the flower shop where Coraline believed the stolen flowers to have been taken.

"What if the flowers aren't there?" Wybie asked. "You really think these guys, if they're even the ones who took the flowers, would just keep them in their flower shop?"

"Maybe they're hidden," Coraline replied in an exasperated tone. Wybie had been protesting the whole trip, and Coraline was really becoming sick of responding to his various queries. "Geez, Wybie, if you're still whining so much about doing this, why the heck are you even helping me?"

"Hidden where? In a safe? In a freezer? Behind some other flowers?"

"Wybie, you talk way too much," Coraline said. This was enough to get her companion to finally shut up, and just as he did, the two of them spotted the black and white sign that indicated the entrance to the flower shop they were looking for. "That's it!"

'Three Guys and a Flower Shop' was a fairly non-descript orange one-story building, sandwiched between a tire shop and a small diner. There was a gap on both sides of the building for parking cars, and that's where Wybie parked his bike, just below a small window on the side of the building. He got off the bike, with Coraline getting off a second later. The two of them walked around to the front of the building and approached the door.

"Okay, Jonesy, new question," said Wybie. "How are we supposed to actually get in the building?"

Just to be sure the building was locked, Coraline tried the knob. It didn't budge.

"You know we can't just bust in a window," Wybie said nervously, looking back and forth to make sure no one was watching the two of them. The street was deserted, this small town was dead even on Saturday nights.

"No, but I know a way we can still get in," said Coraline, holding up one of her mother's credit cards. "I know this doesn't actually work on most doors, but maybe this is one of the doors it still works on. I mean, this town is old-timey enough…"

Coraline took the credit card and slid it through the gap between the door and the door frame. She turned the knob again, and waited for results as Wybie looked on nervously, still looking back and forth.

"Come on, come on…" Coraline heard a click, and turned the knob. "Yes! It actually worked!"

"Okay, now this is officially breaking and entering," said Wybie, following Coraline inside the flower shop. "Do you know how much trouble-"

"Shhh!" Coraline whispered, clamping her hand over Wybie's mouth. "If you don't want us to get in trouble, be quiet…"

Wybie pushed Coraline's hand away from his face, grateful she'd stayed away from poison oak in the last few months.

"I never knew she had such soft hands…" thought Wybie, immediately wondering to himself just why he was thinking that. "Look how nervous she's got me, now I'm thinking of weird stuff!"

Wybie made sure to close the door behind Coraline and himself as the two of them went deeper into the flower shop, looking everywhere for any sign of the stolen flowers. The darkness almost made the young man wish he'd brought his skull mask with him, but the moonlight coming in gave the two of them just enough light to be able to at least avoid tripping into anything. He'd thought about bringing his cat along, but he knew how the cat liked to jump at the slightest noise, and its sudden movement would probably cause the two of them to get caught. The two children searched the entire room, looking for orchids but seeing nothing of the sort.

"They're not here…" Wybie whispered.

"Of course they're not here," Coraline replied, leading Wybie over toward the counter. "They'd probably be in the back room."

Behind the counter was a wooden door that led to the back room of the shop. The two walked toward it, Wybie's timidity growing at they approached the door. He thought he'd heard a hint of fear in Coraline's voice as well, but maybe that was just wishful thinking.

"If she's as scared as I am, maybe she'll let us leave."

But despite Coraline's fear, she was determined to continue on and reclaim her parents' stolen flowers. She grabbed the knob of the back door and turned it… it came open right away, having not been locked like the front door was.

"Well that's good…" Coraline said quietly. The two entered the back room and began their search. After closing the door, Coraline flipped on a light and saw that the room she and Wybie were in was much smaller than the showroom, containing just a couple dusty tables on which sat some tools and a computer. However, this small room also contained two more doors, one leading further back into the building and one leading to the side. "Hmm…."

Coraline reached out and turned the knob leading to the room further back. Wybie quickly followed her, starting to shake slightly as the two of them continued on.

"Guess there's no turning back now… who am I kidding, there's always turning back! Come on, Coraline, let's go!"

The door opened, revealing a slightly larger room with several long tables laid out in a row. On the tables were dozens of pots of flowers, though they were mostly similar to the ones in the showroom, nothing matching the stolen flowers from before. But then, Coraline and Wybie both saw it. A glass case, embedded in the wall at the back of the room… the case was lit by a small, white light, and inside the case, secured by a keypad lock, was numerous flowerpots... and at the very front of them was a pot containing rare purple Cattelya orchids.

"Oh my god…" Coraline whispered, slowly approaching the case. "That's it…! Those are the flowers!"

"You were right," Wybie stammered softly, walking up to the case with Coraline and looking to make sure the orchids were in fact inside. "Okay, but even if she was right, this was still really risky! …what do we do now?"

That was a good question. The glass case was certainly locked, and neither Coraline nor Wybie knew the combination that would open it. The two looked at the case for a few moments, thinking to themselves about possible solutions.

"If it's really glass, we could smash the case," said Coraline. "I know we might get in trouble, but these guys stole from my parents and I know I'll be able to prove that!"

"Or we could try to guess the combination," Wybie suggested. "It's… a lot safer than just smashing the case and we might get in less trouble."

"Or you could both put your hands up right now."

The voice that came from behind the two stunned children was deep and male, and though it contained behind it an air of authority, the level of menace present immediately indicated to both of them that it wasn't a police officer giving the order. The two slowly turned around, though neither complied with the order to raise their hands… until they saw what the man who accosted them was holding.

"Did I stutter? Hands up!"

The two were facing down a man in a black tracksuit, wearing a ski mask over his face. He was holding a pistol in his hand, the caliber didn't matter as Coraline and Wybie both knew whatever gun the man was holding would kill them at this range. They immediately raised their hands, their eyes going wide. Coraline's legs were shaking… Wybie's whole body was doing the same.

"You took my mom and dad's flowers!"

The man didn't say a word. He gestured with his gun for Coraline and Wybie to follow him out of the room. The two nervous children could see two more men in tracksuits and ski masks approaching behind the first one. The man began backing off, still holding his gun to the two and expecting them to follow. They did, and as they came forward, the other two men came in and got behind them, making sure they didn't get any ideas… as if those would help.

"This is REALLY bad…" thought Wybie, sneaking a quick glance over at Coraline, whom he could tell was as scared as he was. "I don't think even the Beldam had a gun."

Coraline didn't want to let on how scared she was, but her face clearly betrayed her. She knew she was in deep trouble, and though she felt guilty for pulling Wybie into it, she couldn't actually let him know that, a bunch of good it would do the both of them anyway…

The men in masks led Coraline and Wybie back to the room they were just in, then opened up the side door and ushered them in. The side room was a small storeroom with more tools, more tables, and a small metal support pillar in the center. Coraline quickly realized that the three men were probably in this side room the whole time, had heard the two of them walk past and just waited for their chance to strike.

"Sit down against the pole," ordered the man with the gun, pointing it at Coraline and Wybie until they did as they were told. Coraline sat on the near side of the pole, while Wybie sat on the far side. "Hands behind your backs."

Both quickly realized that the men wanted to tie them up. They both briefly pondered resisting this, but with a gun to them there was really nothing they could do. They gave each other nervous looks as they both complied with the man's order, placing their hands behind them and waiting to be bound by their captors.

"You little snoops really stuck your nose into the wrong flower shop," said the man holding the gun as his two partners went over to the captive children, both of them holding two coils of white rope each.

"There's that word! Snoop! Just like I told Coraline!" thought Wybie, briefly glaring back at her. He whispered loudly in her ear. "Remember? The mystery books?"

Coraline ignored him, her anger with the thieves boiling to the surface, even as she continued to quiver with fear.

"You took my mom and dad's flowers!" Coraline repeated, determined to get some kind of response.

"Yeah, and we're gonna sell 'em on the black market to the highest bidder," said the man with the gun. "This botanical competition was a big opportunity for us, but we never thought someone would actually bring orchids to this thing. Those things go for ten thousand dollars a pop in some circles."

Coraline could feel her wrists being grabbed and roughly forced to cross one another before rope was wrapped tightly around them. She winced as she felt her captor's cold, rough hands on her wrists, and could hear Wybie grunt in pain as his own wrists were crossed and bound in similar fashion.

"You kids didn't see our faces, so we figured it'd be safe to let you live," said the man in the mask.

"But we still know exactly who you are…!" thought Coraline. The three men holding them had to know she knew… didn't they?

"Lemme guess, you snoops followed our van back from the flower show, eh?" asked the man binding Wybie, now working on tying his ankles together with another length of rope. "Did you get your mommy to drive you?"

"We rode our bikes, but yeah, we followed you here," said Coraline, trying to put on as much of a confident front as possible. She had to keep them from figuring out that she and Wybie knew who they were, their lives probably depended on it. "Our parents don't know we're here."

"Good," said the man with the gun. By now, both Coraline and Wybie had had their wrists and ankles bound, and the two other men were coming over with more rope. "The real owners'll find you snoops when they come back on Monday morning. Try not to starve until then."

"But you guys ARE the real owners…!" thought Wybie. He had almost blurted it out, but he bit his tongue. He knew the same thing Coraline did, that their safety depended on the fact that their captors didn't think the two kids knew their real identities. On one of the tables in the room, he could see the fake beards the men used to disguise themselves at the high school. "They must've put the masks on when they saw us coming…"

The men were now binding Coraline and Wybie's wrists to the pole. They did that by looping rope around both of their individual wrist bonds, then taking some of the lengths of rope and tying it around the pole, while talking the other lengths and securing them to the bonds around the other's wrists, securing them both to the pole and to each other. The end result was that the two could barely move even a few inches from the pole, though Coraline saw that the ropes secured to Wybie's bonds allowed her to pull him if she tugged hard enough. The rest of the rope was wrapped around Coraline and Wybie's chests, making sure their backs were held firm against the pole. The two struggled briefly in the tight ropes, but their captors had done an excellent job in securing them, and neither could budge any significant amount.

"You won't get away with taking those flowers!" shouted Coraline angrily. "You guys are thieves and thieves always go to jail!"

"Don't kid yourself, kid," said the man with the gun, kneeling down and placing his gloved hand on Coraline's cheek. "By the time we get those flowers out of here, we'll be long gone, and you two can't get loose from that pole."

The three men turned and began to exit the room, leaving Coraline and Wybie bound up tightly.

"Not if we call for help!" shouted Wybie, causing one of the men to turn around. "…that might have been a mistake."

"…you're right," said the man, his fingers still tightly gripped around his gun. He started to raise it, and Coraline and Wybie's eyes went wide with fear. He then placed the gun in a holster strapped to his waist and walked over to one of the tables, on which sat a freshly-opened roll of duct tape. He picked up the tape and walked over to Coraline and Wybie. Coraline gasped as she saw the tape, then glared back at her friend.

"Nice going, jerk wad!" Coraline snapped. "Why'd you tell him we were going to scream for help?"

"I was just trying to…" Wybie stammered nervously. "Well I saw how you stood up to him and I wanted to-"

"Real smart, Wybie, now he's gonna gag us!"

"Yeah, I am," said the man, suddenly pressing a strip of duct tape over Coraline's mouth. She let out a squeal and tried to move her head away, but the man held a tight grip onto her face so that he could press the tape tightly down over her lips. As Coraline let out another squeal of protest, the man ripped off another strip of tape and came around over to Wybie.

"I won't let him gag me…" thought Wybie, who began rapidly licking the area around his lips. "If it's wet, the tape won't stick and I can get it off after he leaves!"

The man walked over and started to put the tape on Wybie's mouth, but seeing a small area of spit on his upper lip, he instead walked to a nearby table and picked up a very dirty white rag. Wybie's eyes widened when he saw the rag, and he began to shake again, watching as the man crumpled the rag up into a ball and began leaning in toward him.

"P…please don't put that thing in my mouth," stuttered Wybie. The man continued moving forward with the rag, but instead of putting it in Wybie's mouth, he simply used it to wipe away all the spit.

"Only because you said please," the man replied, tossing the rag away and pressing the tape over Wybie's lips before he could lick them again. Wybie growled as the tape was applied, but couldn't do anything to stop the man from smoothing it over securely. "Try to scream for help now."

Both Wybie and Coraline yelled out through their gags, but only a series of muffled grunts and shouts got through. The man smiled under his ski mask, walking over to his two partners and heading toward the exit of the room.

"Music to my ears," the man remarked. He turned the light off and closed the door, leaving Coraline and Wybie trapped together in darkness. Almost immediately after the three men left, the two of them began struggling with all their might, their wrists pulling and tugging, their legs kicking… but the ropes continued to hold, and after a few minutes, both of them had to give up… at least to catch their breaths.

Coraline let out a squeal of frustration and bowed her head. She'd failed to get back her parents' flowers… she was lucky she hadn't gotten herself killed. …and Wybie… she looked back, her eyes slowly adjusting to the pitch blackness of the room. She could see Wybie's outline in the shadows, his own head bowed as well. She felt him trembling against the pole, not even trying to speak.

"God, Wybie, I'm sorry…" Coraline could feel her guilt swelling up, not only for her parents, but also for Wybie… in fact, mostly for Wybie. Even though he'd disagreed with what she was doing, he still helped her, just like when he'd helped rescue her from the Beldam… and had nearly gotten killed doing that too. "This is completely my fault."

Coraline shook against the ropes, her fear not having totally subsided, as there was always the possibility the men could come back and decide to shoot her and Wybie while they were helpless. Coraline moaned through her gag, almost a sob actually, her eyes closed as she tried to fight off tears. The men had told her and Wybie that the 'real owners' would come back for them on Monday morning, 36 hours away… but the truth was that they might not be found until much later, if at all. The police might show up the next morning, but without a warrant or a subpoena, they couldn't actually go into the flower shop, and the next day at the competition, the three thieves would probably just sweet talk themselves out of being interrogated anyway. The police might not actually bother to break in until a week later… and it usually took less time than that to die from dehydration.

"Even if they don't shoot us… we still might die…"

Coraline knew her parents would worry, and Wybie's grandmother as well. That might be their only chance… Mrs. Lovat knew they were going out, and if the three of them put two and two together, they might realize that Coraline and Wybie went to the flower shop to check things out… they might.

The uncertainty sent a chill through Coraline, and with that chill came more guilt.

"Don't let me get Wybie killed…"

Coraline let out a single sob, and immediately, she could feel a set of hands touch her own. They were trembling as much as her own hands were, maybe more. She looked back and through the darkness could see Wybie looking right back at her, reaching back as much as he could with his bound hands around the pole and touching his fingers to Coraline's. The two couldn't actually grasp hands, but Wybie could still reach back enough to wrap his pinky finger around Coraline's.

"It'll be okay, Coraline…" Wybie was thinking, but of course he didn't know for sure. His thoughts were quite nearly the opposite, but he wouldn't let Coraline see he believed that, even if his trembling gave him away. He couldn't blame Coraline for getting the two of them into this… after all, he'd wanted to help her from the very start, or he wouldn't have helped her at all. She was the best friend he'd ever had, the only good friend he'd ever had, and being with her made him happy, even if she did drag him into some fairly crazy things. Counting the Beldam, this wasn't even the craziest thing the two of them had ever been through.

But still, Wybie was afraid, both for Coraline and for himself. He was having the same thoughts she was, that they weren't going to escape, that they were going to die of thirst or starvation… but he could tell that Coraline was scared, and he had to do his best to comfort her, which was why he was brushing his fingers to hers. It was a gesture that brought comfort to both of them, however brief and small that it was. He tried muffling 'it's going to be okay' through his tape-sealed lips, but it didn't come out even remotely close to that, and he let out a sigh.

"I know, Wybie…" Coraline thought, and emoted it through the tape. She hadn't actually picked out what he said through his garbled muffling, but the sentiment was clear and she was making the best guess she possibly could. She tightened the grip her pinky finger had around his, and leaned back against the pole, looking up at the ceiling.

Wybie heard Coraline's response and was able to pick out his name.

"She's trying to talk to me too… she knows how scared I am…" thought Wybie, starting to blush. "I hate when she knows I'm scared, I'm the guy and I'm not supposed to be scared like that! I'm supposed to protect her…!"

Wybie lifted his legs and brought them back down, kicking the floor in a show of frustration. As he did so, he heard a faint metallic noise emanating from his pocket. His eyes widened and his mind immediately recalled what that nose was.

"My keys! They're in my pocket!" A seed of hope had been planted, and it was growing in Wybie's mind. "Coraline can get my keys and cut herself loose!"

Coraline didn't notice any of this. She continued to look up to the ceiling, trying to think of a way she and Wybie could escape.

"Maybe if I struggled until I started bleeding, the blood from my wrists might make them slippery and I could slide out! …that's pretty gross but that's the best solution I've-"

"Mmmphhh! Cmmrrralllnnne! Mm kmmms! Mmm kmms! Mmmphh! MMM! Mmphh mmmmm! Gmm mm kmmss!"

Wybie's loud, muffled shouting immediately drew Coraline's attention back to him. She knew he was trying to say something, but she couldn't tell what, and as he continued to yell, Coraline let out a sigh of frustration.

"I used to think it'd be better if he couldn't speak, but now I just wish I knew what the heck he was saying!" thought Coraline, listening hard and trying to tell what Wybie wanted. "He wants me to give him a kiss?"

Wybie began kicking his legs, hoping the jangling keys in his pocket would get Coraline to realize what he was trying to say.

"…oh! His keys that are in his pocket!"

Coraline strained with her wrist bonds, but she immediately realized that Wybie's suggestion was futile.

"That's not gonna happen," Coraline thought to herself. She could barely move her wrists a couple inches from the pole, reaching into Wybie's pocket was completely out of the question. "Wmmyybmm, mm cmmt! Wybie, I can't!"

Coraline kept trying, but it was a useless endeavor, and Wybie's continued efforts to kick his legs and shout at her were starting to annoy. She was about to tell him to stop, but her brain recalled something from a short time before, and then formulated an idea. Coraline tested her bonds, pulling back a bit against the pole.

"I don't know if this'll work but it's the only way we're getting out of here…"

With all her might, Coraline pulled herself backwards with her body and wrists at the same time. The motion tugged on Wybie's bonds and forced him back as well, slamming the back of his head into the pole and also forcing back his legs. The keys in his pocket shifted back, though they stayed inside, held in by a couple folds of fabric. Wybie felt a sharp pain at the back of his head and glared back at Coraline, growling in protest.

"Mmm!" Coraline grunted, bending up her legs as much as she could and gesturing to her them with her head, hoping Wybie would follow her lead. "MMM!"

Wybie looked at the way Coraline was bending her legs, but didn't know why exactly she was doing so.

"MMM!" Coraline pulled back again, causing Wybie's head to slam into the pole once more.

"Whmm mm hmmk? What the heck?" Wybie snapped, slowly bending up his legs like Coraline was showing him. "You happy now? What the heck are you doing?"

"Qmmt whnnmn, Wymmbrnne," Coraline grunted, slamming herself forward again and causing the keys to finally come out of his pocket and skid along the floor, powered by inertia. "Yes!"

The keys continued skidding until they were a few inches from Coraline's hands. She began reaching for them, her body and fingers lurching as she strained desperately to take them. As soon as the keys fell out of his pocket, Wybie realized what Coraline had been doing, and mentally berated himself for not knowing sooner… even as a lingering pain continued to throb in the back of his head.

"You know, you could've told me what you were doing. …oh wait, no you couldn't have."

"Mmm…mmnnf…mmm…MMM!" Coraline's fingers moved tantalizingly close to the keys, but she couldn't quite reach them, even as her body strained as much as it could. "Come on… I have to get those keys… I have to get us out of here..!"

Wybie saw how hard Coraline was struggling, and he closed his eyes, desperately wanting to help her. He tried pushing his body in the direction of the keys, hoping the extra leverage would give Coraline a chance at reaching them. Her fingers moved just a bit closer… and finally, she managed to get a grip on one of the keys. She slowly moved them close until she could grasp them, then moved them in and took them in her hands.

"I hope these ropes are soft enough to cut through…"

Her palms starting to sweat, Coraline gripped the keys in her hands for dear life, positioning them and bending her wrist so that she was able to just barely reach up and saw at the ropes binding her with the serrated edge of the key. It was slow going, as Coraline had to reach up at an awkward position due to her wrists being crossed… but the ropes holding her hands started to sever under the friction of the key being rubbed against it. As more and more rope pieces fell away, Coraline could feel the bonds loosening around her wrists. She continued to make slow progress, cutting at her bonds over the next five… next ten… next fifteen minutes. Coraline was shaking nervously the whole time, hoping their captors wouldn't come back to see that the two of them were getting free. To pass the time and calm themselves, Coraline and Wybie hummed the song they were singing earlier that day in the car to one another… they even shared a laugh as they got to a particularly funny part.

Finally, Coraline's wrists were completely free. She started to struggle against the ropes holding her midsection to the pole, managing to get her hands in front of her and reach up with the keys to cut the ropes away. Once three strands of those ropes were cut, she was able to wriggle out the rest of the way and get all the ropes off her arms.

"Finally… that feels so good…"

After taking a few seconds to rub some circulation back into her wrists, Coraline freed her ankles and pulled the tape off of her mouth.

"Wybie, I'm free…!" Coraline whispered, crawling around to him. Wybie felt a surge of relief go through his mind, and he let out a sigh, smiling under the tape. Coraline quickly worked to undo the ropes holding Wybie to the pole, and once she loosened them, he slipped out on his own, the only bonds remaining now the ones tied around his wrists and ankles. Once Wybie was free from the pole, Coraline started to untie his wrists… but before doing that, she wrapped her arms around him in a tight, grateful hug. "…thank you, Wybie…"

Coraline then pulled the tape from Wybie's mouth and resumed untying the ropes around his wrists.

"Thank you for what…?" Wybie asked, his voice still shaking a bit from nervousness.

"For everything," Coraline replied as the ropes fell away from Wybie's wrists. "For helping with the flowers today, for bringing me here, for telling me about the keys in your pocket…"

Wybie untied the ropes from his own ankles and he and Coraline stood up together, supporting one another as they climbed up from the floor.

"And for being my friend," said Coraline, placing a hand on Wybie's cheek. Wybie was blushing intensely now, though Coraline wouldn't have been able to see it in the darkness. Wybie stuttered for a moment, trying to figure out what to say in reply.

"You're welcome…? Anything for a friend?" Wybie could feel his heart racing as Coraline's words echoed in his mind. "We should… we should call the police now, I think."

Coraline didn't know what to do, but she did know that she and Wybie had to try and check on the flowers in the other room. If the criminals had left and hadn't yet taken the stolen flowers with them, she and Wybie would still be able to get them.

"I know… but we have to check on those flowers first," said Coraline, leading Wybie out of the room. She opened the door nervously, hoping the criminals weren't right outside. The door opened and she and Wybie walked back out into the office, leaving the lights off and surveying the darkness. They could hear voices coming from another room… the room where the stolen flowers were. "They're still here!"

Wybie heard the voices too, and he quickly pulled Coraline back into the side room. Coraline started to say something, but Wybie softly placed his hand over her mouth, removing it only when he could no longer hear her trying to speak.

"We have to call the police," Wybie whispered.

"They're still here…!" Coraline replied. "We can still get the flowers back…"

Wybie started to refuse, but his mind told him differently, and he couldn't believe he was actually thinking of letting Coraline lead him into another crazy idea. He thought for a few moments, trying to figure out some way to stop the criminals that didn't involve he and Coraline getting tied up again… or even shot.

"Okay, but you know we have to surprise those guys like they surprised us," said Wybie. He didn't know exactly how he and Coraline were going to accomplish that, but he was thinking of a way.

"I was thinking the same thing," said Coraline, thinking back to one of the flowers she'd seen in the main showroom. "I hope that thing I saw on that show one time is right…"

Meanwhile, Wybie had grabbed a rope from the side room and had brought it back into the office. He held up the roll of duct tape and was using the tape to secure the piece of rope to the door frame in such a way that it would form a trip wire when the criminals came out.

"Good idea," said Coraline, taking the roll of tape from Wybie and starting to tear off a piece.

"Are we gonna tape them up after they trip…?" asked Wybie. "I'm not sure we'd be able to take them all…"

Coraline took the small piece she'd just torn off and placed it over her nose, covering it and sealing up her nostrils. She handed the roll of tape to Wybie.

"Uh, why'd you put duct tape on your nose?" Wybie asked.

"Because it's about to get really stinky in here," Coraline replied with a smile, heading out to the showroom. Wybie raised his eyebrow, having no idea what his friend was talking about.

"…I hope you're not talking about your plan," thought Wybie, putting a piece of tape over his nose as well. Coraline re-entered the room, carrying several flowerpots with her, each one containing a strange-looking red and yellow flower. "Wait a minute, is that the-"

"The Pacific Northwest Corpse Flower? It sure is," said Coraline, smiling as she finished Wybie's sentence. "Now c'mon, help me mash some of these up!"

O-O-O

A few minutes later, the door to the back room opened, and the three masked criminals came out, each one holding a flowerpot. None of them saw the rope that had been placed across the door to trip them up, but they all felt it and immediately fell to the ground in a heap, the flowerpots flying out of their hands. The three pots were carrying the three azaleas belonging to the middle-aged man, and as they went flying, Coraline and Wybie were ready nearby, catching the flowerpots as the three men all hit the ground. They quickly set down the pots, while Coraline ran over and took the gun out of the leader's holster, grabbing it and throwing it across the floor. The men tried to get up, but were overwhelmed by a horrific smell that permeated the entire room, even penetrating the material of their ski masks as they lay on the ground. The men began coughing, while Wybie and Coraline were protected by the tape over their noses.

"Wybie, tape 'em up!"

Wybie nodded and quickly ran over to the three men with the roll of tape already stretched out. The men tried to fight him off, but their eyes were burning as the ground-up corpse flowers continued to fill the room with an acrid odor. The men reached up to plug their noses with their fingers, but with Coraline helping to hold their arms in place, Wybie was able to grab them each by the arms and swiftly tape them behind their backs. Soon, all three men had their wrists bound behind them, and the two children set about working to do the same to their legs. The men, their eyes watering and their lungs burning, were unable to resist, and Coraline and Wybie were even able to get them hogtied with the tape before the smell finally began to fade from the room. The two children backed off as the men began to struggle, but none of them could escape.

"You little punk brats!" shouted the leader, trying to lunge at Wybie. The tape held fast, and the man fell on his face, grimacing in pain.

"The police are on their way," said Coraline, who had called the cops as soon as she and Wybie had finished mashing up the flowers. "And by the way, we know who all three of you are."

"What do you mean…?" said one of the other men, the one who'd tied up Coraline.

"You're Paul," said Coraline, recognizing his voice from the commercial, then looking down at the leader. "And you're Harvey."

"And you're Jimmy," said Wybie, pointing at the man who'd tied him up. "Why'd you guys do it…? You didn't need to steal flowers, don't you guys have a successful flower shop of your own?"

"We used up all our budget to show those ads all over local TV… and nobody was buying our flowers," said Jimmy through gritted teeth.

"Well duh," Coraline replied mockingly. "They all stink."

Harvey let out a growl. He'd stopped struggling in his bonds, but he'd had an epiphany that made him smile under his ski mask.

"What makes you think the cops'll believe we're the bad guys here…?" Harry snarled. "You broke in, and now you've taped us up! And… and you took that gun away from me, so your prints are on it!"

Wybie's expression got nervous, and Coraline looked over at him, wondering the exact same thing… this might not look like what it actually was. Harvey began laughing under his mask, and Paul and Jimmy did the same.

But then Wybie stopped shaking… and his lips curved into a smile.

"Come on," said Wybie matter-of-factly. "If we were using a gun, why would we mash up a bunch of stinky flowers? You think the cops will believe that two kids showed up in the middle of a night with a gun to rob a flower store and decided instead to mash up a bunch of corpse flowers to subdue the owners? How dumb do you think we are?"

Coraline smiled as well, patting Wybie on the back.

"That's some pretty smart thinkin' there, Wybourne."

"…okay, don't call me that."

"No, really, way to use your noodle… Why-were-you-born."

"Want me to tape your mouth shut?" asked Wybie, holding up the roll of tape. Coraline responded by ripping off the piece of tape that was stuck to Wybie's nose and plastering it haphazardly over his mouth. Wybie blinked his eyes for a moment, let out a muffled growl, and did the same thing to Coraline. The two looked at each other, then began laughing, the tape coming halfway off Wybie's mouth as the two of them continued to chuckle heartily.

And while this was going on, the three subdued flower thieves watched, all thinking the same thing.

"…how in the world did we ever let these meddling kids get the best of us?"

O-O-O

The cops arrived a few minutes later… with Coraline's parents and Wybie's grandmother following. The flower thieves tried to posit the story that Coraline and Wybie were really trying to rob them, but as soon as Charlie and Mel identified their prized orchids, all hope of that succeeding was out the window. The cops did admonish Coraline and Wybie against breaking and entering, though they realized it was for a good cause and told the two to let the police handle these types of situations in the future.

"Coraline, your wrists are bruised…!" Mel's tone was half worried, half-scolding as she stood near a police car and examined the marks that the ropes had made on her daughter's wrists. "You can't do things like this, it's not… you could've been killed!"

"I know, mom…" said Coraline, bowing her head and sighing. She looked to her father for some help, but his stern expression indicated he was just as mad as Mel, and Coraline realized that even though she'd gotten the flowers back, she was still in serious trouble. "I'm… grounded, aren't I?"

"We'll talk about that later, dear…" said Mel, her voice softening. Coraline looked up and could see tears forming in her mother's eyes. "…thank God you're all right…"

Before Coraline could say anything more, her mother had wrapped her up in a tight embrace. She felt another warm body nearby and could sense that it was her father, joining in the hug.

"No flower or anything else is ever worth more than the life of my precious daughter…" said Charlie, repeatedly kissing the top of Coraline's head. "Don't ever do something like that again…"

"I know sometimes… that I might take my work too seriously… that I might yell… that I… that I neglect you, but Coraline, I-"

"I know, mom…" Coraline whispered again, burying her head in her mother's chest.

"I love you… I love you so much…" Mel whispered back, tears streaming down her face.

"Wybourne Lovat, the next time you run off like that you're gettin' the belt!" shouted Mrs. Lovat, who knew that if she wasn't yelling, she'd be sobbing. "I mean it now, I told you not to go away from the house and you went away from the house! And you nearly got that nice girl killed!"

"Sorry, grandma…" Wybie said meekly, bowing his head. "Well, it was still worth it."

He looked over at Coraline, who brought her head up from her mother's chest and gave him a smile. He smiled back, only to have his grandma take him by the cheeks and force him to look at her.

"If I lost you like I lost your momma and like I lost your great-aunt, I don't know what I'd ever do…" Mrs. Lovat was trying to keep up the angry façade, but it was clear that she too was beginning to fade into tears. "Come here…"

Mrs. Lovat held her grandson tightly to her chest, wrapping him up in a tight hug and pressing her face into his hair so no one would see her cry.

"Come on, Coraline…" said Mel, leading her daughter and husband back to the car. "This time I'm making sure you go to bed…"

O-O-O

The orchids, and all of the other stolen flowers, were seized as evidence and were thus unable to be used in the competition… but Mel and Charlie hardly cared, simply happy that their daughter was safe. They decided to attend the competition with the flowers they already had. Coraline spent the day at the competition with her parents, still reeling somewhat from her experience the previous night, but proud of herself for being able to bring those criminals to justice. She felt a sense of accomplishment at what she'd done, just like when she'd rescued the souls of those children from the Beldam… and though she'd probably have a nightmare or two about gun-toting criminals over the next few nights, she still felt a strange tingle whenever she thought back on what she'd gone through. Solving the mystery of the stolen flowers was… to be honest, a bit of an adrenaline rush.

The day was drawing to a close, and now Coraline was sitting in the bleachers with her parents, waiting for the results to be announced. She felt her mother lean over and kiss her on the cheek, and she smiled warmly.

"You'll still be able to sell those flowers, right?" Coraline asked her mother, looking up at her with a smile.

"The flowers aren't important, dear…" Mel drummed her fingers against the bleachers a couple times. "…yes, I did tell the police to take good care of them so they can be sold later. I'm putting all the profit toward your college fund."

"Don't you think by giving me the money that you're rewarding me for doing dangerous things?" Coraline asked precociously.

"…well maybe you'll learn in college not to do dangerous things," Mel replied. Coraline stifled a laugh.

She then felt a hand brush up against her own. She looked beside her and saw Wybie sitting down next to her with a smile on his face.

"I heard the cops wouldn't let your parents use the flowers in the competition… it's too bad, huh?" Wybie asked. "Kinda makes everything we did yesterday totally moot."

Coraline started to respond when the contest coordinator could be heard making an announcement from the floor.

"The winner of this year's Oregon Botanical Competition is…" the man started to announce. Mel placed her chin on her hands, a glum look overtaking her face.

"I know it's not important compared to Coraline, but I still really wanted to win this thing…"

"…Charlie and Mel Jones!" announced the man, immediately before a round of applause consumed the audience. Mel gasped in shock, while Charlie looked at her with a smile.

"Well, congratulations," said Charlie, taking Mel's hand in his own. Mel smiled back at him and quickly kissed him on the lips.

"Congratulations to you too," she said softly. The two of them then walked down from the bleachers to accept their prize of a trophy and a $5,000 check.

"Yeah!" shouted Coraline from the audience, clapping her hands rapidly and letting out a loud whistle. "Go dad! Go mom!"

As the two of them smiled up at her and waved, Coraline turned to Wybie and whispered in his ear.

"By the way… last night was kind of fun…"

"What…?" Wybie replied, looking at Coraline with a bit of bewilderment.

"I mean, getting captured and all wasn't fun, but… the thrill of the chase, solving a mystery, stopping those guys…"

"I don't know what you're on, Jonesy, but last night was anything but fun…" Wybie replied… though part of him felt it as well. That weird tingle, that sense of accomplishment, the rush of excitement… as timid as he was, he had an adventurous spirit… after all, a person doesn't build a crazy skull mask and go patrolling the woods on a motorized bicycle without one. "…at least the parts where I thought they might hurt us."

"And the other parts?" asked Coraline, suddenly holding Wybie's hand. "…the part where you saved me?"

Wybie began to blush again, and Coraline could clearly see it. He didn't want to say anything with his grandmother so close… she'd already told him she was locking up his motorbike for two weeks.

"…I thought, uh… you were the one who saved me."

Coraline didn't say anything, she just continued to hold Wybie's hand as the applause died down and her parents began making their way back to their seats. That tingle, that rush, it was coming back. Coraline didn't know what it was this time, but she could feel her hand starting to sweat as Wybie tightened his grip on it. She looked away, a hint of a blush forming on her face as well. Slowly, she felt her hand parting from his, and finally, the two were no longer touching. She looked up at Wybie again to see that same nervous smile that had somehow endeared her to him the very first day they'd met.

"I think that's an adventure for another day."

THE END