I’m not the type of gal who swoons, faints, or passes out, but the moment the words “magic royalty” passed Sol’s lips, everything started to go dark and fuzzy. I’m pretty certain I swayed unsteadily. “No,” I muttered, shaking my head. “No, no, no!”
I wasn’t sure if I was denying the magic accusation or the impending faceplant, but I wasn’t about to succumb to either.
It was frantic knocking that saved me.
“Smoosher lady! Smoosher lady!” Richie called from outside the camper. “Help!”
The panic in his voice washed over me like a bucket of ice water, jolting me out of my own problems. Instinctively I threw open the door. “What’s wrong?”
“Mommy won’t wake up!” Tears streamed down the boy’s face.
“He’s right,” Garrett said breathlessly, racing up to us. “I just saw her. She’s out cold. Might be deader than a mackerel.”
I winced; glad the child couldn’t understand the squirrel.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Follow me.” Garrett bounded away.
Richie wordlessly grabbed my hand, leading me in the same direction.
As we ran together, I wondered what had happened to Karen. It hadn’t been long since I’d seen her. Was that enough time to overdose on something? Had she tripped and hit her head? Had she been attacked?
A streak of warm lavender shimmer shot past us. Richie didn’t seem to notice.
I thought it would be a good thing for Sol to examine Karen first, at least to determine whether she was dead before the kid stood over her again. Holding the boy’s hand firmly, I slowed to a walk and then stopped, bending over and holding my side.
“Hurry,” he urged.
“Stitch,” I told him, making a show of breathing hard. Trying to buy Sol some precious seconds. Not letting go of Richie, I began to walk again. “Do you know what happened to your mom?”
“No. I was trying to track the dragon and when I came back, she was just lying there.” He let out a hiccupping sob that almost broke my heart. “She won’t wake up.”
Garret raced toward us, stopping a few yards away. He stood up on his hind legs, his lighter belly exposed. “Sol says she’s not dead.”
I nodded my understanding. I’m well aware of how much my friend Maggie Lee struggles with not letting people know she talks to animals, so I made sure not to answer the squirrel aloud. I did however substantially increase my walking pace.
Richie led me to a camper that was even more beat-up than Princess. This one wasn’t a much better color since it reminded me of 1970’s seafoam green bathroom tile.
Sol leaned over Karen, who was lying on her back beside the well-worn recreational vehicle. He held her hand and muttered under his breath.
I remembered how he’d healed the scratches on my hand and wondered if he was doing the same for her. I didn’t think it would be a good thing for a kid who imagined he’d seen a dragon to watch Sol work his magic.
“I want you to wait inside,” I told Richie.
“No way!” He pulled free of my grip and backed up a few steps. “What if there’s a monster in there?”
“What if I check first to make sure there isn’t?” I offered with a forced smile.
“Okay,” he agreed easily, grabbing my hand again.
Keeping my body between them, I led Richie past his mother and into the camper. A quick look around, including in the bathroom, assured us both that no monster was lurking.
“Turn on the tv,” I told him.
“Really?” He practically bounced with excitement.
“Really,” I said, grateful for the technological babysitter.
Once he was settled, I went outside. I’d hoped to find Karen sitting up and chatting, but she was still deathly still. Selfishly, I couldn’t help thinking that if she died, Welmont would have a field day with my case. Sol was continuing to mutter over her. I couldn’t make out the words or even the language, but there was a steadiness to his chanting.
I walked up slowly, not wanting to break his focus.
Worried that the assessment he’d given the squirrel was incorrect, I crouched down to pick up Karen’s wrist to search for a pulse. I mean for all I knew; Sol could be providing her with some sort of death rite or something.
“Oh my god!” Tess’s rang out as she hurried toward us.
I was so startled that I dropped Karen’s wrist before I could feel a pulse.
“Is she dead?” Tess panted.
Sol’s concentration was blown. He fell silent.
“I figured she could help,” Garret said, zipping nervously back-and-forth.
I frowned at the squirrel. By summoning the campground owner, he’d complicated things.
“She’s not dead,” Sol assured Tess.
“What happened?” The older woman peered down at Karen’s slack face.
“Don’t know,” Sol said, catching my eye, making sure I was paying attention. “I was walking past and found her like this.”
“Richie came and got me,” I added slowly, not thrilled that Sol, who could have served as my alibi, was pretending we hadn’t been together. Then again, come to think of it, he’d been out in the woods alone before he’d returned Link. That made him a suspect too…assuming Karen had been attacked.
“Did you call for an ambulance?” Tess asked.
“I don’t have a signal,” Sol said smoothly. “Do you?”
She pulled out her cellphone and frowned at it. “No service. We’ll have to use the one in the office.”
“You go,” Sol urged. “RV doesn’t want to leave the kid.”
“Where is he?” Tess demanded.
I jutted my chin toward the camper. “Watching TV.”
Tess clucked her tongue. “Karen won’t be happy about that. She swears TV rots the brain. Why I remember—”
“Ambulance,” Sol reminded her gently.
“Oh, of course, of course.” She hurried off, Garrett following closely behind.
“She is alive, isn’t she?” I whispered when Tess was out of earshot.
“Yes, but she’s weak.”
I let out a shaky sigh of relief, glad that Richie wasn’t an orphan. I knew too well what it was like to have no family. It wasn’t like I considered Mildred family, despite having been married to her son.
“Could Mildred have done this?” I asked. “She was out here, running loose.”
“A maddener wouldn’t have that kind of power,” Conroy piped up suddenly. “She’s just a spirit, trapped in the body of that cat.”
“Thanks,” I muttered to the owl. I turned my attention to Sol who was staring at Karen like she was a puzzle that he needed to solve. “Can you tell if this,” I waved my hand over her. “is the result of magic?”
I didn’t know if that meant he could tell, or if he was confirming magic had been used.
Before I could ask, Marco stumbled by, binoculars pressed to his eyes. He stopped and stared.
“Is she dead too?” Marco gasped, lowering the field glasses.
“She’s alive,” Sol told him. “Tess has gone to call for an ambulance.”
Marco squinted at me suspiciously. “I saw her talking to you earlier. Did you have words?”
I shook my head.
We all heard a siren approaching.
“That was quick,” Marco said.
“Too quick,” Sol murmured. “That’s not an ambulance siren.”
“Then what is it?” Marco asked, training his binoculars in the direction of the approaching vehicle.
I knew it was a cop car coming.
And I was pretty sure Welmont was driving.