The room was cloaked in shadows when we opened the door.
Our journey back across Ohio, north into Michigan, all the way up to a Chippewa Reservation on the Canadian border, had taken the entire day, even at the speeds that a prize-winning Italian race car can offer.
The last hundred miles of road we had passed under gibbous moonlight, including the passage by ferry across the Mackinac straits to the Upper Peninsula, granted despite the late hour by a pilot who was a fan of auto racing and considered it a highlight of his seamanship to conduct us alone as passengers across the shimmering water.
The room where Ringo lay was spartan—a frayed army cot pressed against the wall, a side table, a three-legged stool. A blanched white buffalo skull was mounted to the wall, and the starry sky was visible through a high open window bordered by a ragged white valance that stirred in the breeze. One candle burned in a ring-handled brass dish on the side table.
Tom Nightingale stood over Ringo’s body holding a bowl of smoldering sage and chanting an ancient hymn of his people. When he heard us enter, he started. But immediately he recognized me from the fateful night in our basement, his countenance turned to a kind of happy astonishment, which in his oaken face was indistinguishable from disgust. His black braids hung down his chest. Slowly he held up two closed fingers to the side of his head, the symbol for “friend,” and directed me to the stool.
Ringo lay naked under a cotton sheet. He appeared to be lying in state, his eyes closed, his hands folded on his chest mummified with gauze. His face was a death mask of serenity. In a corner of the room lay his clothes in a pile, his Chelsea boots spattered, his chinos black with dried blood.
We were too late. Judging from his clothes he seemed to have lost more blood than any normal human body could contain. If he was alive, his breathing was so shallow that no rise and fall of his chest betrayed it. I looked at Tom Nightingale.
“Is he alive?”
“His spirit is longing to depart.”
I sat down. Dimity sat on the floor next to his cot and hugged and caressed his feet.
I was afraid to touch him. Perhaps he was already dead. I didn’t want to be handling a dead body, even if he was my uncle. But we had come all this way, and I wasn’t going to fail to administer the phial.
His face was cold when I pried open his mouth. I assumed rigor mortis was already setting in. I parted his lips and poured the contents of the phial over his teeth thinking the fluid would seep between the enamel and down into his throat.
I succeeded. I heard a sound of breath coming from his nostrils, I saw his chest expand. Then, as the contents of the phial could have reached no further than his tonsils, he erupted in a fit of coughing, spewing the contents onto the ceiling and wall. He sat up in the bed and coughed a deep, scrofulous hacking for several seconds. His face was wrenched with revulsion and he continued to spit out every remaining trace of the elixir.
“Good God, what are you doing? Are you trying to kill me?”
“Ringo! Are you okay?”
“The deuce if I’m not! I’m fine except for your failed attempt to drown me. What in heaven’s name was that disgusting concoction? Ach! That was as rank as an incubus’ teat.”
“I thought you were dead. Or at least…dying.”
“Sakes. I was merely napping. Can’t a fellow take a nap without the world going into conniptions? I happen to be a very sound sleeper, you know. Always have been. It’s a gift. And this time, my little nap has me feeling fit as a fiddle. I feel positively renewed. Nooooww, don’t you say anything, Tom. I know your suspicions. Inspired by your tribe’s legendary congresses with the supernatural. Which is pure genius by the way, every word of it. Think nothing of my injury, dear boy. How’ve you been? It’s so good to see you. While the Chippewa have true communion with the divine, Tom has been forecasting my demise for as long as we have been partners, which began around when I was still in single digits, wouldn’t you say Tom? During Prohibition. We were first acquainted in a tremendous row in which I think I saved his life, isn’t that right Tom? From that rumrunner and his gang out of Cleveland? Remember? And he has since saved mine a hundred times over.”
Dimity and I exchanged a glance. Ringo was sprung from nearly a corpse to a positive magpie of conversation.
“Ringo,” I interrupted, breathless, “so much has happened since Akron.”
“Ah! Yes, blast my wandering mind. I’m so sorry about your father, Bo.”
“And your brother.”
“Yes. And my brother. We were never close, me and Harold. We never saw eye to eye. But it’s a sad loss for you and your siblings. And we should all say a paternoster for Janet. She’s a tough old girl. I’m sure she’ll pull through under doctor’s care.”
“Yeah, I hope so. But what about—you know, the mission? The beaux voyous are still out there. Are you still going to make your brew? Do you still have the spoon?”
Ringo sighed and his prattling suddenly became quiet.
“Alas. It’s over there.”
He pointed to his filthy clothes and boots. I hadn’t noticed before, but poking up from one of the boots were the shards of the exploded spoon. I felt a ton of bricks fall on us.
“The spoon was in my coat pocket when both it and I were shot right here.” He pointed to his chest. “It was shattered and there it remains.”
“That spoon was the reason I went back to my house,” I muttered in incredulity. “It was likely what led the French there. Fetching the spoon was the whole reason for everything that has happened so far! And now it’s destroyed! It’s the reason my father is dead and my mother is in a hospital, and my siblings are in foster care. It was everything!”
“That is all true. For what it’s worth, its talismanic powers may also be the reason I am still alive.”
“No, you’re alive because of the elixir I brought here from…uh…your friend.”
“My friend? Mm? Whom do you mean?”
So many revelations in one night, my head was in a state of vertigo.
“Well, we sorta did what you said not to do and went to the house of ill repute you warned us about.” Ringo’s eyes opened wide.
“We met your lady friend, uh, you called her Linda Lou.”
“And it’s a good thing we did or else we would have been eaten alive by a Forest Lurker.”
“Wait, what! You encountered a Lurker? In the forest?”
“Yeah, and she rescued us from it.”
“From being eaten? Ho! Yes, I see. Eaten. Yes that is comical.”
“It was…coming at us. We almost died!”
“No,” he huffed as if considering a private joke. “At most, he would have licked you, maybe gummed you until you were soaked with ectoplasm. It’s happened to me countless times unfortunately. As I was trying to get indoors. What a mess. It was perfectly harmless, I assure you. I hope you didn’t scare it.”
“Scare it? I don’t believe this. We were the scared ones! I can’t…okay, whatever. But about Linda, we knocked at the door of her gorgeous house, the house of ill repute. She let us in. We had tea. She was quite nice. She seems to favor you though I don’t know why. But I think that’s why we got such good treatment. And, get this! she told us her real name.”
“Great Jehovah! She what?”
“Yeah, she said it was—”
“Whoa! No-no-tut-tut-tut! Don’t say it aloud. Not here.”
“What? Why not?”
He wagged his head absently, taking it all in. “It’s difficult to explain.” A long interval passed. We all felt that we had tramped wantonly on holy ground. Waters long quiet were being stirred into an ebbing froth. Finally I said,
“Ringo, what is she?”
His eyes were heavy and for the first time he looked at us both intently, hesitantly. Tom Nightingale stood quietly in the shadows by the door.
“It seems you have been brought into the world of my secrets, which I was not yet ready to divulge. But you are young, Bo. Tom, are we alone? Check the door please, would you? Bo, you are young and so perhaps not yet hardened of heart, not yet cast into the mold of adults. And Dimity, oh you, dear girl, oh my, my! I’m not so sure about you. In your heart, you are already nearly an adult, and you may have some trouble with what I am about to tell you.”
Ringo asked for a cigarette from the pocket of his coat. Gingerly I pulled the crusted fabric apart and found a pack of Lucky Strikes and a book of matches in the breast pocket. Pensive, he slid a cigarette out of the pack, lit it, and held it between thumb and forefinger over his cupped palm. An oily line of smoke drifted up to the window and outside.
“Our friend—let’s continue to call her Linda Lou for now—she is what you might call a sylphid. Do you know the word?”
“Yes…no, why would you? You see, though she appears to be simply a woman of extraordinary beauty and virtue, she is not an ordinary human, but something of a…well I don’t know, uh, one of the hidden peoples that seldom ever mingle with humanity.” Silence fell like a heavy curtain for some moments as fantasy steadily elbowed its way into reality.
“Ringo,” I said, “you dear man. I mean, you are wounded and all. But, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like you to explain every single word of that last sentence.”
Dimity jumped in. “If that’s true then how did she come to be your friend?”
“Well now, that is a long story.”
“And as for…virtue,” I said. “I dunno. She answered the door practically naked…”
“Topless, Bo,” said Dimity, as if I’d overstated the situation.
That’s when I felt that a much-needed explanation was ready to unfold. Finally, we were going to hear the truth.
“Alright,” said Ringo. “I’ll tell you the story. My old friend, the secret mistress, the one you shouldn’t have met…she saved my…well no, she did more than save my life.”