Barkley raced beside me. We dashed over bridges and along winding paths. We ignored all the garden signs and the early morning visitors. A woman in a red hoodie yelled at us to stop running. I didn't answer. Explaining would have slowed me down.
The mulched footpath for visitors curved right beside a tangle of scrub oaks. I turned left instead, onto a blade-thin unmarked gap in the dense growth. The path led to South Garden, a five-acre field at the edge of the Botanical Gardens.
Tomorrow I was supposed to collect samples from South Garden and start a list of the plants I found. Compiling a database was the goal of the month-long survey Ms. Winger and I had designed for my summer project.
I had a secret goal too. I was going to find a Coralroot, one of the rarest plants in this part of Florida. The Coralroot was kind of like a ghost. It was so rare hardly anyone had ever seen one. Botanists bickered with each other over whether another specimen would ever be found.
I didn't know who was right. But according to my research South Garden was exactly the kind of place the Coralroot liked to grow.
The shiny barbed leaves of a holly bush clutched at my jeans as I plunged through the woods. The ground was squashy, layered with rotting leaves and fallen branches. I tripped and almost lost a sneaker in the soft matted loam. I grabbed a tree so I wouldn't fall, pushed my glasses back into place, and kept running.
Beneath the thick stand of trees, the air smelled of dirt and mold. The overhanging canopy blocked the helicopter from view, but the thump and roar of the straining engine marked its path.
Would the pilot be able to keep the helicopter in the air until they reached South Garden?
And what would they do when they got there? South Garden was not a safe landing spot. The ground was marshy and overgrown and too soft to support the heavy helicopter. The chopper might disappear into the mud before the pilot and Uncle Everett were able to get out.
I had walked through the meadow yesterday. I'd sunk to my knees in muck in some spots, and I weighed a lot less than a helicopter.
I darted out of the woods as the helicopter wobbled in a slow circle over South Garden. I waved my arms and pointed to the east. A wide grassy clearing lay beyond the trees that framed South Garden on three sides. The land there was higher and drier.
The chopper moved in the direction I pointed.
I dashed around the edge of South Garden, avoiding the sharp thorns of the wild blackberry bushes that stabbed out of the ground in untidy clumps. Barkley stayed close to my heels, spooked by the noise of the helicopter's engine.
When I reached the open space on the far side of the field, I stopped. I waved both arms at the pilot to let her know the clearing was safe to use as a landing site.
The pilot waved back, but instead of dropping down to the field, the helicopter continued to hover. Uncle Everett smiled like he had no idea of the danger he was in.
Then the helicopter swept up, shot forward, and sped away.
What the heck was going on?
The engine noise dwindled from muted roar to dull thump and faded into silence as the chopper vanished into the distance.
I rubbed my fingers across the smooth glass of the daisy pendant that dangled from a silver chain around my neck. What was Uncle Everett doing in the helicopter? He was supposed to be in Tampa, working on his latest book. Was he concocting another one of his publicity stunts?
I hoped not. He'd only avoided being hauled off in handcuffs after his last crazy adventure because Mom was a good lawyer.
My life was getting more complicated by the minute.
What else could go wrong?
Barkley bumped my leg and woofed.
"You're trespassing, you know," Dalton Dyer said.
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