Seeing the lavender shimmer ahead, I stopped dead in my tracks, my breath catching in my throat.
“What the hell is that?” I asked Conroy.
“Mulberry,” the owl replied. “Or perhaps a dusty lavender. The nuance of color perception went out the window when Pantone took it upon themselves to name Classic Blue the color of 2020. Could there be a more mundane shade? Barring of course, the 2006 choice.”
I knew enough not to inquire what the 2006 shade had been. (But I looked it up afterward…it was “Sand Dollar” in case you’re dying to know.)
“So lavender means what?” I asked as the shimmer began to slowly move toward me. Blue means magic. Orange means non-magic. I had no idea what lavender, or mulberry, or pinkish-violet meant.
“A step away,” Conroy said.
He does that a lot, imparts knowledge in bits and pieces, phrases and fragments, instead of just telling me what I need to know. Trying to make sense of his imparted wisdom is like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle when you have no idea what the finished project is supposed to look like.
“It’s going to be a step away in a few seconds,” I muttered under my breath. I tightened my grip on my flashlight, prepared to use it as a weapon. “He,” I amended as the man approaching tilted his flashlight upward, illuminating his face like he was about to tell a ghost story while sitting around a campfire. “He is going to be a step away.”
“Hello,” the man called. A closed-mouth smile lifted the corners of his mouth, but it didn’t crinkle the lines beside his eyes. “Tess, the campground’s owner, thought you might want some company on your walk back to the office.”
“I’m fine on my own.” My fingers ached from squeezing the flashlight.
He stopped walking toward me. “Tess was afraid you might get lost in the dark.”
“It’s two turns. I think he can handle it.”
“You are the woman who ran over Keith, aren’t you?”
I frowned, not liking the casual way the accusation was uttered. “It’s dark.”
He nodded solemnly. “It is indeed.”
We stood for a long moment in a silent standoff.
“Let’s start over,” he said finally, raising both hands in a gesture. “I come in peace. My name is Sol.”
Conroy, lying against my chest, chuckled.
“What’s your name?” Sol prompted in a tone that sounded like he was teaching a five-year-old the basic manners of introducing herself.
I hesitated. “They call me RV.”
He took a step closer, a curious gleam in his eyes. “And what do you call yourself?”
That was the million-dollar question. One I didn’t even know the answer to myself. But I didn’t tell him that. Instead I countered “Why did Tess send you?”
“I do odd jobs around camp for her. Gotta admit that escorting the witch who literally dropped her home on the wicked warlock is one of the oddest.”
Larynx tightening with anxiety, I barely managed to whisper, “Warlock?”
“He ran Warlock World, it’s an online game of some kind. A magical quest. Keith was always bragging to anyone who would listen, and especially to those who didn’t want to listen, that he was the Supreme Evil Warlock or some such nonsense.”
I stared at him while he spoke, concentrating on his shimmer. It didn’t change.
Everyone’s shimmer changes, becomes lighter or darker, dimmer or brighter, depending on their energy level, mood, and whether or not they’re telling the truth.
But Sol’s didn’t change at all.
A branch snapped and leaves rustled in the underbrush just off the path, startling me and ruining my concentration. I swept the area with my flashlight beam but saw nothing out of place.
“It’s probably a fox hunting for its dinner,” Sol soothed. “Nothing to be scared of.”
An owl, a real one, not the necklace kind, hooted from a nearby tree.
“Come on,” he said, beckoning me forward. “I’ll walk in front, so you don’t have to worry about me jumping you from behind.” Without waiting for a response, he turned around and began strolling back in the direction he’d come from.
I reached into my pocket, wanting Link’s input on if I should go, but he wasn’t there. My lucky penny was still lying in the dirt outside of Princess.
Sol glanced backward over his shoulder.
“I’m coming,” I muttered, following quickly in his footsteps.
For a few minutes we walked in silence except for the sound of asphalt crunching underfoot and the song of nighttime insects.
Finally, Sol cleared his throat. “Look,” he began. “I know this is none of my business, but I feel like I should warn you…” He trailed off and came to a stop.
I halted a pace behind him, my chest tightening as I braced myself for whatever he was going to reveal.
He turned slowly, wanting to look me in the eye. His nose twitched. “Welmont’s an ass,” he blurted out.
I blinked and then I burst out laughing.
Not a polite chuckle, but a hearty guffaw that shook my whole body.
“That’s funny?” he asked.
“It’s obvious to anyone who’s met the guy.”
He shrugged. “Some people don’t see it. They’re either cowed by the authority of his uniform or they swoon at the sight of him.”
“Badge bunnies,” I said with a knowing nod.
He flinched, and took a step back, nose twitching in a nervous tic. “What?”
“Women who are attracted to police officers. They’re called badge bunnies.”
Sol cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, I just call them fools. The point is, Welmont loves to make trouble for Tess. His family is big money around here and they’ve been trying to buy this land for ages, but she refuses to sell out. Welmont shows up on a regular basis just to hassle her.”
Even though his shimmer didn’t change, I was pretty sure that Welmont had given Sol a hard time too. Probably more than once, if the bitterness in his tone was to be believed.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said quietly.
“Ernie will say what he saw and no doubt the scientist types will corroborate his story, so it’s not like you’re going to be accused of murder or anything.”
I offered him the same kind of tight smile he’d given me when he’d introduced himself, hoping my expression didn’t reveal anything.
I’ve been accused of murder and I know from experience it isn’t fun.
“Anyway,” Sol said, turning back to his path and beginning to walk. “I thought you should be prepared.”
I hurried to catch up with him so that we could walk side-by-side. “Forewarned is forearmed.”
He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye but didn’t remark on our new traveling positions. “Tess feels badly.”
“She was fond of Keith?”
Sol chuckled. “No. She despised him. But I get the impression she feels badly she sent you to that site.”
I shrugged. “She couldn’t have known.”
“She never rents that slot.” He said the words carefully, like he himself was trying to discern their meaning as they passed his lips.
I didn’t get to ask him about that because something scurried across our path.
“What was that?” I asked, slowing my steps. I searched for the creature in the shadows until my beam reflected off its beady eye.
It was nothing to be afraid of.
It was just a squirrel.
A tailless squirrel.