Chapter One: A Little Bit Nuts
The Bessledorf Hotel was at 600 Bessledorf Street between the bus depot and the funeral parlor. Officer Feeney said that some folks came into town on one side of the hotel and exited on the other.The Bessledorf had thirty rooms, not counting the apartment where Bernie Magruder's family lived, and Officer Feeney said that the hotel was a haven for nut cakes, as far as he was concerned.
"What do you mean? We're all crazy?" Bernie asked as he and the policeman sat across from each other in the drugstore, each enjoying a chocolate sundae.
"You and half the town of Middleburg," Feeney said. "Half the town was a little bit nuts to begin with, and the other half's headin' in that direction. And I'll tell you what's doin' the job: those blankety bells in the belfry."
As if on cue, a deep-toned bell suddenly tolled four o'clock, and immediately afterward, all the bells together played "Abide with Me," as they had been doing for the past month. A quarter past each hour, the first four notes of the hymn were played; at half past, the next six notes; at threequarters past each hour, the next ten notes rang out over Middleburg, and on the hour, every hour, day and night, the bells played all forty notes of the hymn.
Bernie put his hands over his ears. "Why do they do that?" he asked.
"Because," said Officer Feeney, scooping out the last bit of chocolate syrup in his dish, "they ring in memory of Eleanor Scuttlefoot, who died in September. 'Abide with Me' was her favorite hymn."
"How long is this going to go on?" Bernie asked.
"Forever, I suppose, because Eleanor Scuttlefoot donated those bells, and this was part of her will."
They left the drugstore and started down the sidewalk, Feeney swinging his nightstick, when suddenly Bernie noticed a bright yellow sheet of paper with black letters tacked to a telephone pole up ahead. "What's that?" he asked, and they walked over to see.
"Wow!" said Bernie.
Feeney stood shaking his head. "If there's anyone left in Middleburg who isn't nuts because of those bells, Bernie, these bats'll finish 'em off."
"All except you?" asked Bernie.
"Why, Bernie, I can keep my cool no matter what -- bats, bells, you name it," bragged the policeman. "I never met a problem yet I couldn't handle."
"Well, good luck!" said Bernie, and headed home.
When Bernie stepped inside the lobby of the Bessledorf Hotel, his mother was sitting at the registration desk working on her latest novel, Lusty Eyelids. His sister, Delores, was polishing her fingernails on the overstuffed couch, while the cats, Lewis and Clark, sat on each arm of the sofa, surveying the proceedings through halfclosed eyes.
"The bats are coming! The bats are coming!" Bernie cried.
Lester, Bernie's younger brother, dropped the doughnut he was holding, his other hand in Salt Water's cage, removing the old newspaper. He was so startled that he left the cage door wide open, and the parrot flew about the room squawking, "Hit the deck! Hit the deck!"
"What's this?" asked Joseph, the older brother. "What are you talking about?"
"On the telephone pole outside," Bernie said. "A notice about the Indiana Aztec."
"The what?" his mother said. Everyone went out to see.
"Well, nobody said a word about this at the veterinary college," said Joseph, studying the warning. "And you'd think we would have been the first to know!"
"Do you suppose they're vampire bats?" said Lester. "Do they eat live people or just dead ones?"
"Oh, I wish your father was home," Mrs. Magruder said. "This can't be good for business."
Bernie could hear the phone ringing inside, so he ran back into the lobby and answered. It was his friend, Weasel.
"Bernie, have you seen the notices posted around Middleburg?" he asked. "About the Indiana Aztec?"
"Yeah," Bernie said. "We're waiting to see what Dad has to say when he gets home."
"Man, I sure hope I don't get bitten," said Weasel. "I'll bet if one bit you on the finger, they'd have to cut off your arm to save you!"
"And if they bite you on the cheek, I suppose they'd have to cut off your head," said Bernie.
"If I see a bat, I'm not going to bother it at all," Weasel told him. "I'll keep my eyes straight ahead. Won't even say hello. If it crawls in my bed, I'll sleep on the floor. You sure won't find me disturbing its habitat."
It was, however, the chief subject of conversation at the dinner table that evening. Even the cats and
Mixed Blessing, the Great Dane, who regularly hung around when the family was eating dinner, should some dainty morsel fall on the floor, seemed to be paying attention.
"I'm going to carry a baseball bat wherever I go and fight them off if I have to," said Lester, his mouth full of mashed potato.
"I'm going to wear a football helmet when I go to work, so they won't get tangled in my hair," said Delores.
"Oh, what a wonderful idea the bats would be for a novel," said Mrs. Magruder. "My beautiful heroine will go to the window to wait for her beloved, just as a bat flies in and bites her shoulder. When her love comes by that night to serenade her, he finds her lifeless body draped over the window ledge, and...."
"My dear, dear family," said Mr. Magruder, looking around the table. "Let us not look for trouble before trouble comes looking for us. Let us not fear the birds and beasts of the field till we have more information, and we certainly should not go around putting bees in people's bonnets."
"What's he talking about?" Lester asked Bernie.
"Bats, I think," Bernie answered.
"If there is anything to fear from the Indiana Aztec, we have our very own veterinarian-to-be to protect us. Joseph will ask around at the veterinary college tomorrow, and tell us what to do," said Bernie's father. "So let's not go off half-cocked with our heads in our hands, but keep our wits about us and our muzzles loaded. I just came from a town council meeting, and I assure you that Middleburg has enough to worry about already."
"Oh, Theodore," said his wife. "Do you mean there are even worse things happening?"
"Just the usual trials and tribulations, my dear," said Mr. Magruder. "Elections are coming up in November and each candidate is talking against the other. Halloween's a few weeks away, and that's worth a worry or two. If it's not the preacher's parking space people are fussing about or the hot-dog vender down by the library, they're arguing over the church bells going off every fifteen minutes. Half the people in Middleburg open their windows to hear the music, and half close them tight. Whatever comes, my dear, we must bite the bullet, for it never rains but it pours."
And once again, the bells began to play on the half hour. Delores got up from her chair and banged the window shut. Hard. And then, for good measure, she opened the window and banged it shut again.
Suddenly there was a frantic knocking on the door of the apartment, and Mother got up immediately to answer. There stood one of the hotel regulars, Felicity Jones, a thin young woman with large frightened eyes, who cried, "Oh, Mrs. Magruder, there's a bat in my room, and I want it removed immediately!"
Copyright © 2003 by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor