"Honestly, Mother," Artemis growled as a crystal plate piled high with fudge was loaded into his waiting arms. "You're actually going through with this madness? I have school . . ."
"Ptff," Angeline scoffed lightheartedly, stacking a few plastic cartons of crème horns on top of the chocolate bricks. "I thought you said you were three weeks ahead in your homework."
"I still have school," her son argued, feeling his muscles straining with the weight of the confections. He craned his neck to peer over the boxes of pastry. "Father, help me convince mother that this is ridiculous!"
Artemis Senior leaned against the library doorframe, folded his arms, and laughed good-naturedly. "Come now, Arty, your mother's been planning this bake sale for three months now and she needs help."
"Can't Juliet help?" Artemis growled, trying to balance the tower that was slowly growing higher. "This is undignified and inappropriate. I am a genius, and I should not be subjected to standing behind a makeshift counter selling pies . . ."
A large hand descended on the youth's shoulder, and Artemis attempted to look behind him without dropping the baked goods. "It'll be fun," Butler rumbled. "It'll do you good to get out of your office and socialize a bit."
"Couldn't Mother have signed me up for some kind of debate club instead of a bake sale? Must I socialize over lemonade and donuts? Why can't I socialize from a podium?" Artemis realized he was being nitpicky, but the prospect of having to spend the whole hot day outside surrounded by melting frosting and sticky sugar and tittering old ladies made him sick to his stomach. He would rather be at the Eleven Wonders. He sighed. "Are you coming, Butler?"
"Me? No. There's not much that could happen to you while at a bake sale, is there? Besides, I might scare the customers."
Angeline opened the front door and ushered her son out, a cake balanced on her arm and a crocheted lace tablecloth slung over her shoulders like a shawl. "Goodbye, dears. Wish us luck and lots of money!"
"Butler," Artemis looked over his shoulder pleadingly as he was herded down the front walkway and to the waiting limo.
Butler shook his head laughingly and closed the door, leaving Artemis to his sweet, sticky fate.
Of course the Fowl table sat innocently outside the shade of the park's few willow trees. Artemis growled Gnomish oaths as he set the platters out on the lace tablecloth and felt the sweat begin to soak through his Armani suit. Raising his hand to his face, he wiped the perspiration away from his forehead with a wrist. The sun was directly overhead, wreaking havoc on Artemis's sensitive eyes, which were not accustomed to any glare brighter than that of a computer screen.
"Utterly preposterous," he declared. "I don't know why you are doing this, Mother. If you want money for charity you can always dig a tidy amount out of the family coffers. Why put yourself – and your eldest son – through this torture?"
Angeline patted him on the shoulder. "Arty, Arty," she sighed. "It's the participation that counts. Anyone could write a check. It takes committed people to participate in a community project like this."
"Committed people or people who should be committed," Artemis noted wryly, but on his mother's disappointed face, he amended his statement. "I'm sorry, Mother. It's just – I'm not the community project type."
"You are going to be fine," Angeline mussed his hair, much to Artemis's dismay. He quickly pulled away and straightened his greased tresses into their previous positions.
"Why don't you take off your coat, Arty?"
Artemis stared at her as though she had suggested he perform a strip tease. "Mother. Really."
Angeline held up her hands as she walked off to greet several of her friends. "Very well, do what you want. But don't blame me if you faint and fall face first in the cake."
Artemis disregarded the playful warning with a flick of his fingers, but then once his mother's back was turned, he surreptitiously slid the cake out of fainting range.
"Excuse me, is your table open yet?" a cracked old voice made Artemis look up. An old woman in a pastel-colored flowered sundress was grinning at him from under a big floppy sunhat. Her face looked like an uncooked ball of dough an imaginative child had gotten its hands on.
Artemis glanced at his mother, who looked over and smiled, pointing exaggeratedly toward the customer and nodding her head, signaling that it was indeed acceptable to start selling. Artemis entertained the hope that if he sold a few items he would appease his mother and be able to go home. Or at least sit in the limo for the duration of the event. He turned back to the old woman and pasted a fake smile on his face.
"Oh dear," said the woman. "Are you ill?"
The fabricated grin disintegrated. "No, ma'am, I am not ill. It is basic entrepreneurial strategy: act jovial and thus attract the attention and trust of the consumer. Now, are you planning on buying something?"
The imaginative child scrunched the dough in both fists as the woman frowned in thought. "It all looks so delicious, I can't choose."
"Take your time," Artemis said as happily as he could. It came out as a mix between a kraken's moan and a goblin's hiss. The imaginative child pulled the ball of dough in both directions, making it long and stretched. The old woman, obviously miffed, turned and waddled over toward another table.
Angeline came hurrying over to her, concern riddling her pretty face. Artemis sat on the metal folding chair and dropped his head into his hands. Angeline came over. "Arty, what's this I hear about you being rude to Mrs. McGuffey?"
"I wasn't rude," Artemis muttered.
"I said I wasn't rude, D'Arvit!"
Angeline blinked. "What did you just say?"
Clearing his throat, Artemis stood up and straightened the tie he had insisted upon wearing. "I'm sorry. It's the heat – I'm not used to battling the elements."
"You're not . . . This isn't . . . " Angeline sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "If you keep this up, Arty, I'll have to . . ."
"Send me home?" Artemis finished for her, barely daring to hope.
"No, make you stay the whole time and help clean up afterwards," Angeline said with one of those rare vampire smiles that Artemis had inherited from her. "Now, be nice to the customers and help me with this. Consider it fill-in for your college applications."
"I will die before putting this on my college applications – which, coincidentally, I have already sent out." Artemis watched with distaste as someone walked by the table and ran her fingers over a tray of sugar cookies, wrecking up the symmetry. He reached out with his thin fingers and quickly rearranged them. "Very well, Mother. I'm sorry. I shall endeavor to be more polite in the future."
"That's better," Angeline said, but their conversation was interrupted by a screech of surprise and joy that set Artemis's teeth on edge. He turned to see a very tall old woman coming at him with her arms open in expectation of a hug. Before he could do much more than open his mouth in panic, she had him wrapped in a tight embrace.
"You must be Angeline's little boy!"
Artemis wrenched himself away from the scent of decaying lace and boiling perfume, gasping for fresher air. He gave the woman a withering glance, abandoning the promise to his mother made only seconds before. "Please, ma'am. Try to refrain from such overt displays of emotion."
The woman giggled. "He's adorable, Angeline! He's a doll. Is this Myles or Beckett?"
"This is Arty," Angeline answered, stepping between her son and her friend. "He's not exactly happy to be here, you have to excuse his attitude."
The woman waved a hand dismissively. "Don't fret, my darling. Teenagers are all the same."
Artemis fumed silently behind his mother.
From the shelter of the willow tree's top, a heat wave laughed to itself and recorded the image of the glowering teen.
An hour later, nearly half the merchandise was gone. The angel food cake was listing half-heartedly, deflating from its long sit in the sun. Artemis didn't look much better, standing rigid like a soldier at his post, sweating through his suit and knowing it was being ruined, dark patches growing under his arms and down the small of his back. He ran his fingers through his hair and felt the perspiration clustered in beads at the roots, the dry heat baking the grease into the ends. He needed some relief.
Glancing over at his mother, who was standing several tables away at the money box – a frightfully insecure container for the thousand or so dollars that were being reaped from the sale, Artemis thought – he began unbuttoning his jacket.
He stripped it off and draped it over the back of the metal folding chair and undid his tie, slinging that over as well. Then, feeling the relatively cool breeze seeping through his relatively thin white shirt, he threw caution and dignity to the wind and rolled up both sleeves to his elbows, and unbuttoned the top three buttons of his collar. He wiped a trickle of sweat from the side of his face, smearing a smudge of pink frosting across his prominent cheek bone.
"Hey!" shouted a young masculine voice that Artemis recognized from St. Bartleby's. He groaned to himself and tried to ignore the taunts that he knew were imminent. "Hey," laughed the voice. "Left Foot Fowl!"
Rory Crawford. The rugby captain, head jock, and one of Artemis's main antagonists. Had the boy been anyone important or had any type of inheritance, Artemis would have bought out his fortune ages ago. But Rory had gotten into St. Bartleby's on scholarships for his athletic ability alone. He had no assets to freeze, no stocks to crash, no lucrative business to dissolve . . . Nothing but a face to punch, and Artemis wasn't good with physical contact, to Butler's eternal frustration.
The jock sauntered up to the table. "Hey, Fowl. This is a good look for you. Surrounded by old ninnies chewing calories. You never told me you liked to bake in your free time!" Crawford's face was a mask of acne and scowls. "You bake lots of stuff, do you?"
Artemis bristled, but he refused to allow his emotions to hold sway. He banished the thought of lopping the banana cream pie into the bully's face, although it was quite tempting. "I would venture to ask what you are doing here yourself, Rory," Artemis said blandly, looking pointedly at the young man.
Crawford flushed, the violent red color running all the way down into his collar. "You're one to talk, Fowl. At least I'm not behind that counter, looking like a damn faggot." He picked up a crème horn and bit into it. "These are shitty. You make these yourself, Fowl?"
"You're going to pay for that pastry," Artemis intoned solemnly.
"Maybe I'll pay for it," Crawford threw the crème horn back into the plate with a shrug and began pouring himself a cup of lemonade from the cooler, spilling it all over the lace table cloth. Artemis tried not to wince at the thought of his mother's face at the stain.
Crawford threw his head back and downed the drink, then threw the Styrofoam cup at Artemis. "See you around, Fowl." Artemis watched him depart, vowing to hack into the school database as soon as possible and indict the oaf for possession of drugs, or cheating, or physical assault. Maybe all three. At the same time. And it wouldn't necessarily be a lie, either. Because all three were probably true.
Sighing, the boy genius removed the bitten crème horn, wondering why the fact that his classmate hadn't paid for it bothered him so much. He, of all people, shouldn't be worried about people stealing, especially such petty things as a bite of pastry. But he had never been on the receiving end of theft, and it left a feeling that rankled in his stomach. Yes, definitely all three.
Several more customers came and went. Angeline worked beside her son for half an hour before wandering over to assist a few older women who were having trouble at their table. The whole thing was exhausting. Artemis wanted his laptop, a book, Butler's conversation – anything to rid him of this oppressive and hot boredom.
Finally, unable to stand it any more, he left the table and began walking toward the makeshift parking area that had been set up for the bake sale, set on retrieving his laptop so he could lose himself in the plot of one of his reports. He was currently doing one on the improbability of the Mayan calendar.
The chauffeur was asleep, so Artemis pulled out his copy of the family car key and unlocked the back door himself. Bending in, he slid his laptop case from the leather seats, wrapping his sticky, pastry-stained fingers around the strap with a sigh of relief. He felt as though he had been floating around an alien planet for the past two and a half hours, and this laptop was his one anchor to reality and all that was familiar.
Once he went back to the table, he settled with a sigh onto the folding chair and flipped open the screen, jabbing the Power button with his little finger and closing his eyes, basking in the feeling of the small machine vibrating in his lap like a contented kitten. That was when he noticed that it was too quiet. The only voices he could hear were far off.
He opened his eyes quickly and twisted in his seat, looking for his mother and the rest of the jabbering, gabbling crowd of women. They were all moving farther off at the farthest table, congregating into a laughing, tittering mass. Artemis shook his head and bent to open his document, but shifty movement from the corner of his eye brought his attention back to the world outside cyberspace.
Crawford was at one of the tables. At first Artemis believed that he was sneaking tastes of the products, but then he saw the boy slip the money box under his roomy T-shirt. Slamming his laptop cover down and setting it on the grass, Artemis stood up and began walking quickly across the lawn toward Crawford.
He didn't do that at all right, the criminal side of Artemis noted, watching the lithe teen trying to secure the clunky box under his shirt and make it look natural. At least bring a backpack or a bag of some kind. Or leave the box altogether, pick the lock, and just take the money, sliding it into a cookie tin or –better yet – between the layers of a cake.
But these professional observations were blotted out by indignance and anger. That was his mother's money, and Crawford could just take his meaty paws off it. When Crawford saw Artemis jogging toward him, the boy looked guilty for a second before covering up his nervousness with a leer. No doubt he hoped it would stop Artemis in his tracks, send the nerd running back to hide under the pastry table.
Don't count on it, Artemis thought heatedly, increasing his speed as Crawford turned, certain he wasn't going to be stopped, and began to jog off.
Realizing that if the thief managed to get a running start, he would never catch him, Artemis allowed a burst of speed to take control of his scrawny legs, and he darted forward, tackling Crawford from behind and toppling both teenagers onto the grass. The money box went tumbling.
Artemis realized his mistake too late. He was in no shape to contend physically with Crawford. The boy was the rugby star of the whole school, for heaven's sake. This wasn't going to end well. The genius attempted to get a stranglehold on the other boy's thick neck but was flipped off his perch. Crawford ground his face into the grass as he attempted to get up and away, but Artemis, spitting dirt from his mouth, reached out and managed to grab Crawford's ankle, felling the giant once again.
The startled shouts and objections of the women began to filter through the noise of the scuffle, but no one was about to interject. The boys sprang to their feet and faced off. This was no longer about the money box. This was about survival of the fittest. Artemis didn't allow Crawford to see the uncertainty pounding in his chest. He was, he was most certain, not the fittest.
Artemis managed to deflect the first blow by raising his forearms, but the second blow caught him in the stomach while his arms were up, and when he doubled over, Crawford's knee came up into his nose with a sickening crunch.
Blood spurted all over Artemis's white shirt and dark, grass-stained pants. Pushing the pain to the back of his head, Artemis straightened sooner than Crawford had anticipated and pulled back, landing a knotted fist right between his enemy's eyes. The blow was weak, Artemis mourned, as he had known it would be. But for some inexplicable reason, Rory Crawford was lifted off his feet by the impact and flung backwards for several yards.
Artemis stared in surprise at the sprawled out jock who had ceased to move again. Had he really knocked him out? There was no conceivable way he had done that by himself. Crawford's mother broke from the ranks of women and began coddling her unconscious son and shooting Artemis evil looks.
Artemis felt a small hand clap him on the shoulder, but when he turned to see who was congratulating him, he could see no one. Only a heat haze. He wiped the blood from his face. "Thanks," he muttered while his hand was covering his mouth.
"Stupid Mud Boy," the disembodied words grumbled fondly, and tiny fingers squeezed his shoulder. Another set of fingers brushed the side of his nose, easing the pain instantly.
Angeline came running up to him, eyes wide with disbelief, and the hand dropped away and the heat haze floated off toward the willow trees. Artemis let his gaze linger on it for a moment, then turned back to his mother. "I'm fine, Mother."
"You don't look fine. What on earth happened?"
Artemis bent and picked up the money box, handing it to her. "Crawford tried to make off with this."
Angeline pressed a hand against his face and took the box. "That was . . . extremely heroic of you, Arty. I'm surprised."
Artemis, shrugging off the compliment, uncomfortable under the praise, said, deadpan: "I spent three tortuous hours out here helping to earn that money. There was no way someone was going to walk off with it without paying the consequences."