You would have thought some kind of parade was being held.
That’s what it looked like as Welmont walked me back to my camper, with Tess and Ernie following closely behind.
Sol was nowhere to be seen, no doubt staying behind on the cursed land to hide from the Cullers.
Beside me, Welmont hitched his pants up after every fifth step. I was tempted to suggest he adjust his belt, but I didn’t think he’d take it well.
I didn’t know where they came from, but suddenly I heard the bickering voices of Joe and Norma arguing about toast as they brought up the rear.
Richie came running, waving a stick, like a baton.
His mom, Karen, followed slowly.
“Where we going, Smoosher?” the kid asked, falling into step beside me.
I was relieved to see the boy showed no ill-effects of his run-in with magic. “My place.”
“Home base!” Richie called excitedly.
The cop eyed him suspiciously. “What’s that mean?”
“It’s where you’re safe,” Richie explained.
“We were playing hide-and-seek earlier and used my camper as base,” I added.
“You were playing hide-and-seek?” Welmont asked as though it was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.
“He asked,” I replied.
“Smoosher lady is really good,” Richie confided. “She’s fast.”
“What do you mean you were playing with my son?” Karen asked, hurrying so that she could get ahead of me. She blocked my path and pointed a finger at me. “I didn’t give you permission.”
Rather than walk around her, I stopped in my tracks. This brought the ragtag parade to a halt.
“I didn’t say you could spend time with him!” she shrieked indignantly.
“Mom,” Richie said softly. “Quit it.”
She ignored the boy and focused her rage on me. “What did you do to him?”
“He was bored,” I said carefully. “He came by and asked if I’d play hide-and-seek with him.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true, Mom.”
“He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know any better.” Karen snatched the branch Richie’s branch and threw it away.
I focused on keeping my posture and voice relaxed, not wanting to add to the volatility of the situation. “He’s a good kid.”
“You think I don’t know he’s a good kid?” Her voice rose, startling a nearby bird that flapped away. She grabbed Richie and pulled him against her side. “You think I don’t know that?”
Richie made a pained expression and tried to pull away. “Mom,” he whined, making it three-syllable word.
“He’s a kid, Karen,” Tess piped up from behind me. “He’s got no playmates. He gets bored. You have no idea how many games of tic-tac-toe I’ve played with him.”
Welmont glanced back at her. For a moment I thought he was going to respond to Tess, but he remained silent.
Karen did not. “Nobody said you had to do that,” she sniped at the older woman.
Tess shrugged. “No…but somebody should.”
Karen lifted her chin defensively. “You saying I’m not a good mother?”
“It’s hard to be a single mom,” Tess soothed. “I’m sure RV was just trying to help out. We all do.”
“Yeah,” Ernie chimed in, following the campground owner’s example. “He’s always coming by my place, asking what different things he’s found in the woods are.”
“And my Norma is always giving him lemonade,” Joe added from the rear.
“Pink lemonade,” Richie specified.
Realizing she’d lost her argument; Karen released her hold on the boy and stepped out of my path. She looked down at the ground and said in a wobbly voice, “Sorry. I just worry about him.”
“Understandable,” I murmured. Then I winked at Richie. “Lead the way.”
He retrieved the stick his mother had discarded and pointed it with a flourish. “Let’s go.”
While he ran ahead with the exuberance of youth, the rest of the parade began to slowly shuffle forward.
I glanced over at Welmont, who was pulling on his pants, wondering why he hadn’t tried to tack on a child endangerment charge to everything else he’d accused me of. He remained silent as Joe and Norma rekindled their argument about burnt toast.
We’d almost reached my camper when we encountered Marco. Coming from the direction of my parking spot, a giant pair of binoculars dangling from his neck, he called out breathlessly, “I just spotted a Toxostoma rufum! A magnificent creature.”
“Is it a dragon?” Richie asked hopefully.
“No, young man,” Marco replied, wiping sweat from his brow. “It’s a bird.”
Richie scowled his disappointment. “I seen lots of birds.”
“I keep telling you, Richie,” Karen interjected. “There are no such things as dragons. They don’t exist.”
“I saw one, Mom. I saw its tail,” Richie insisted.
Karen let out a tired sigh and I felt a stab of sympathy for her. It couldn’t be easy raising a bored boy with an active imagination.
Welmont kept the parade moving and Marco joined us. “Where are we going?” he asked Ernie.
“To find out whether RV is a thief,” the older man replied dryly.
“What did she steal?” Marco asked.
“I’m accused of stealing a pot,” I told him bitterly.
He wisely fell silent.
As we reached the bend in the road just before my campsite, Conroy piped up. “Just stay calm,” the owl necklace instructed. “No matter what happens, just stay calm.”
Rounding the corner, I expected to focus on the pink monstrosity, but my attention was drawn to the royal blue shimmer.
My stomach flipflopped nervously as I took in the male Culler. He was no longer draped in a robe. Instead he wore a grey, three-piece-suit, that matched the shade of his long beard. Needless to say, he looked out of place at the campground.
I glanced around to see if his chainmail bikini assistants were in the vicinity. I didn’t see them.
“Mr. Fancy Pants must be a lawyer,” Tess muttered. “I hate lawyers.”
Welmont glanced back at her. “He’s Keith’s uncle. Show some respect.”
The Culler’s shimmer grew brighter as he focused on me. When our eyes met, his a glassy blue, my skin prickled with revulsion.
“Easy,” Conroy coached. “Just stay calm.”
“Thank you for waiting, Mr. Nightway,” Welmont boomed. “We’ll get this all cleared up for you.”
Nightway swung his attention to the police officer and I felt like I’d stepped from the hot sun into the shade.
“Thank you, Corporal,” the Culler said.
“It shouldn’t take long to search,” Welmont said, striding over to the door of the camper.
“Don’t let him in,” Mildred meowed from inside.
Nightway’s head swiveled toward the sound, his shimmer pulsing. His hands clenched and his eyes narrowed.
“It’s just a cat, mister,” Richie said, observing his reaction. “It’s not like it’s a dragon or anything.”
“Please,” Mildred begged in terror. “Don’t let him in.”
I wasn’t sure if she was talking about the cop or the Culler, but I believed her fear to be real. While I normally wasn’t inclined to protect her, I felt like I had to do something. “Do you have a search warrant?” I blurted out.
Welmont frowned. Nightway glared at me. I swallowed nervously.
“I mean you can’t search my property without a search warrant, can you?”
“I can with your permission,” Welmont replied carefully. “And if you’ve got nothing to hide…”
“You don’t have my permission,” I declared. I glanced back at the small crowd behind me. “All of these people are hearing that I’m saying you can’t search my camper.”
“You do know that makes you look guilty,” Welmont said.
“I’m just protecting my privacy,” I shot back. “I gave you access to the camper when I arrived. I don’t want you pawing through my things again.”
“I didn’t paw,” Welmont countered.
Crossing arms over my chest, I gave him a hard stare, signaling my decision was not open for negotiation.
Welmont turned to Nightway. “There’s nothing I can do.”
“But it’s a family heirloom,” the Culler said through gritted teeth.
The cop shrugged. “I can try to get one.”
“Do that!” Nightway ordered. “I want my property.” Shooting me a look that made me feel like I’d broken out in hives, he stalked past the parade participants and disappeared around the bend in the road.
“Happy?” Welmont asked me.
“Satisfied,” I told him.
“Don’t go anywhere,” he warned. “It’s not like this…thing,” he waved his arm to encompass the pink Princess, “will be hard to find.” He moved in the direction Nightway had gone.
The rest of the crowd slowly followed, except for Tess who lagged behind.
When everyone was out of earshot, she said, “I don’t like you out here all alone. Bring your rig to the office. You can park in the lot right in front of it.”
I nodded, a swell of relief flooding my body. The location wouldn’t help me to avoid Welmont, but the Cullers couldn’t come onto the cursed land. “Thank you.”
She hurried after the crowd.
I unlocked the door to the trailer and stepped inside, eager to find out what had spooked Mildred so.
And I almost had a heart attack.