Garrett’s plan worked like a charm. As soon as Tess neared the office, he took off, making a show of limping toward the bonfire area.
“What happened to him?” Tess cried worriedly, rushing after him.
I fell into step beside her. “I don’t know.”
“You didn’t hit him with that broom of yours, did you?” she asked suspiciously.
I glanced down at the spear I carried. “Of course not.”
“Hello there, ladies!” Marco called, crashing through the woods toward us. He carried a small spiral notebook and had a pen tucked behind his ear.
Tess continued on after the limping squirrel. I stopped to talk to him, thinking it better to lose him here than to have him follow us and end up witnessing whatever ritual was going to be performed. If the experience I shared with Maggie Lee was any indication, it could get messy.
“What are you up to, Marco?” I asked, trying to sound curious instead of impatient.
“Counting frogs. I’m a member of the Froggy Friends Society you know.”
“I didn’t know that,” I told him. I didn’t know what the Froggy Friends Society was and really didn’t care.
He glanced down at what I held and said, “Ahhh, sorghum vulgare,” he murmured with appreciation. “That’s quite the specimen.”
“What’s that?” I asked, hoping that it meant something better than vulgar sore gums, which is what I’d guessed.
“Broomcorn,” he explained. “That’s what your lovely broom is made from. Fascinating species, corn without a cob. I once spent a month handmaking brooms that’s where my appreciation comes from.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that, since it sounded extraordinarily boring, even more boring that counting frogs, so I just murmured a disingenuous, “Wow.”
A glint came into Marco’s eye and he edged closer. “Have you heard the news?”
“That Karen’s home? Yes, Tess told me.”
“Not that.” He tweaked the ends of his mustache, signaling he had some juicy gossip to share.
I pasted on a fake smile and waited for him to spill, while hoping Mildred wasn’t getting upset that I hadn’t yet arrived for the ritual.
Marco leaned forward and stage whispered. “They’re gone.”
“Who?” I whispered back.
“Joe and Norma. Just up and left. No good-byes, no notice, like thieves in the night.”
I blinked, absorbing the information, wondering what it meant.
“Do you think they arethieves?” Marco asked, sounding horrified.
I shrugged, not wanting to add to the stories that would no doubt be told.
“Maybe they were the ones who stole the heirloom from Keith,” Marco suggested.
“I doubt it,” I said, knowing full well she was hidden behind a pillow on my bed. “Maybe they had a family emergency or something.” I hadn’t liked them, but I knew what it was like to be judged and was willing to give the couple the benefit of the doubt.
Marco wasn’t so generous. He gasped and covered his mouth with both hands and smothered his words, making them unintelligible.
“Sorry?” I didn’t like the way his eyes had widened.
He dropped his hands away. “Do you think they killed him for it?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned and began to hurry away. “I have to tell Corporal Welmont.”
I let him go. I had other things to deal with.
Tess, Garrett, Mildred and Sol were all waiting by the time I rushed up, breathing heavily from having run. Tess was sitting on a tree stump, jaw slack, staring into space. Garrett perched on her knee.
I walked over to her and she didn’t acknowledge me in any way.
“What did you do to her?” I asked, pointing the spear at the Siamese.
“Told you she wouldn’t like it,” the cat meowed. “And I wasn’t the one to use the Sparing Stun.”
I looked to Sol. “You did this?”
“It’s for the best. She’d freak out. The spell is designed to spare someone trauma. This way she won’t remember a thing.”
For a moment I wondered if it had been used on me and that’s why I had amnesia. Had I endured some horrific trauma I couldn’t remember?
“There’s a problem though,” Sol warned. “We don’t have a vessel.”
I pointed to the top hat he wore. “I thought that’s what you said Erich was for.”
“I don’t have enough power to pull this off,” Sol said slowly.
“The caponem was never part of the plan,” Mildred sniffed with disdainful pride.
“Oh my,” Conroy murmured.
I didn’t like the owl’s tone, a mixture of disbelief and horror. A cold shiver ran down my spine and seeped into my bones.
“You need to do it, foolish girl,” Mildred announced, flicking her tail.
I gulped, shook my head and began to back away. “Not me. I hate magic.”
“You must,” Mildred commanded. “Otherwise we are joined together for eternity.”
“I can’t,” I insisted, still moving away from them.
“You can.” Valentina’s warm, reassuring voice could only be heard by me.
I stopped backing up.
“Please,” Garrett begged. “Please try.”
I hesitated and looked to Sol for guidance. He looked as uncertain as I felt.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
Instead of answering me, he turned on the cat. “What’s her name?”
The cat narrowed her blue eyes. “How should I know?”
“Tell her what her name is, you shrewish crone,” Sol ordered.
“Try to make me, caponem!” Mildred spat back.
Sol’s expression darkened and he began to mutter under his breath. I don’t know what spell he was uttering, but he frightened Mildred.
She ran to hide behind me. “If he harms me, you’ll be the one to pay,” she warned.
“She can’t tap into her magic without knowing her name,” Conroy pointed out.
The owl’s logic seemed to get through to Sol because he paused his muttering.
“It’s a simple spell,” Mildred complained. “A child could do it.”
Something in her tone, triggered something in me and I said, “A child did do it. You taught the spell to Orville.”
I knew it to be true even before she confirmed it.
Mildred turned away. “My Buddy had the right to defend himself.”
Sol began muttering again.
“Your kid was a brat,” Garrett piped up. “Nobody liked him.”
The cat hissed at the tailless squirrel.
“How could you teach a child a spell like that?” Conroy lectured. “It’s against all the rules. It makes no sense. And why didn’t you just reverse it?”
“Because I was proud of him,” she purred. “I was proud of my boy.”
“She doted on him,” I told the squirrel. “Treated him like he was a king.” My whole body tightened at the memory of how she’d treated Orville, even when he’d obviously been in the wrong.
“Ravena Renata Valentina!” Mildred suddenly yowled. “Ravena Renata Valentina!”
A surge of warmth blazed through me, so hot I expected to spontaneously combust. It seared my lungs, scalded my tongue and scorched my skin. I should have been reduced to ash, but I stood unscathed.
I swayed, knocked off balance by the wave of heat. “What the…?”
I heard a sizzle and pop. Looking over I saw the white rabbit crouched in a cloud of lavender smoke beside the top hat. He wobbled and then fell weakly onto his side.
“You beast!” Mildred screamed, charging at the fallen bunny, with murder in her blue eyes.
I threw it without thinking, an instinctive attempt to save Sol from the attacking cat.
“No! Conroy gasped as the spear arced through the air.