I didn’t see why I was the one making the sacrifice. But the talisman spoon that was the ostensible source of the original potion’s power was, by Ringo’s lights, enchanted by being the instrument of my torment when my mother used to paddle me with it because of my potty mouth.
Dimity and I had only just walked in the door. The left side of my head was still bandaged and aching. The two aspirins I took had little effect. The night was getting on, and I was tired from the journey from Cleveland. But Ringo was eager to get started.
I got myself a drink of water, used the bathroom, and tried to compose my state of mind. Dimity hugged me and gave me tender little kisses on the forehead and whispered some encouraging words in my remaining ear. I looked at Ringo and gave a nod. It’s impossible to convey the awkwardness of the scene that followed.
“Okay, now. I know this seems odd, but I have to paddle you with this spoon. Hard.”
“You have to paddle me.”
“Yes, it’s straightforward.”
“You have to give me a whippin’?”
“Simple as that.”
I shrugged. “I haven’t done anything bad lately.”
“Then do something bad. Be naughty if you have to.”
I glanced at Dimity with a smirk. “Ha! Not with you standing here.”
“Come on. Call me a smeghead.”
“I don’t know, Ringo. You know I don’t even believe in talismans and magic like you do.”
“We need to recreate the scene exactly as if your mother were doing it. Did she make you bend over and grab your knees?”
“No, she would always take me in her left arm, and swing with her right.”
Ringo held out his left arm and, grudgingly, I laid on it, and then… SWAT!
“Gah! Ouch! Ow, ow, ow! Okay, hold on a second, just give me…”
At this point Dimity said she couldn’t watch and would wait outside. My one source of solace.
“What? Aw, Mitts! Hey, don’t go too far, okay?” She gave a furtive nod and disappeared out the front door.
“We must continue.”
“Ringo, how are we going to know when it has worked?”
“We’ll test it out. But it can’t have worked yet. Come on, let’s keep going.”
SWAT! That one hurt bad, and I wanted to get free and walk it off, but Ringo gripped me tighter.
SWAT! SWAT! SWAT!
“Come on! Call me Wankpuffin!”
“Wankpuffin!” I roared.
“You gotta mean it! Come on!”
SWAT! SWAT! SWAT!
“Bloody smeghead wankpuffin!”
“Damn the torpedoes! Jesus take me home!”
“It’s okay to cry, Bo! Real tears are important!”
“THESE ARE REAL TEARS, YOU IDIOT!”
“Keep saying the words!”
“YOU BLOODY SMEGHEAD BASTARD, SON OF A BLOODY WANKPUFFIN SON OF A BITCH!”
“Just one more!”
I was in a frenzy. For a moment, I did not know myself. I suddenly had massive physical strength that people sometimes experience in a crisis or emergency, super-human strength, and I exploded out of Ringo’s grasp. Utterly beside myself, I took a wild roundhouse swing at him that would certainly have removed his jaw from his face if my breaking free had not thrown him onto the floor. And I continued leaping around the room holding my bottom in pain.
“Patience, Bo. We’ll have to see if it makes the elixir work before you give up.”
“No! That’s it. I’m done. It had better work, because I’m not doing that again.”
I paced gingerly around holding myself, muttering curses and wiping tears of rage away from my face while Ringo closely examined the spoon. As he watched me with his gauzy eyes, he spoke in an overly calm, patronizing voice. Clearly, he was not finished yet.
“Bo, it’s an inexact science—”
I roared again savagely. “ABSOLUTELY NO MORE! Got it? That was worse than any paddling my mother ever gave me.”
“Very well then. It’ll have to do. Let’s get to the laboratory.”
He went to the fireplace mantle and grasped a miniature statue of Michaelangelo’s David, and it appeared to activate a lever. An adjacent bookcase swung out, and a concealed staircase led to a narrow subterranean passage. He turned on a light switch which activated a string of lights along the ceiling, gave me a fleeting smile, and descended the stairs. Feeling relief from my agony, I skittered after him down the stairs into the dim passage.
The complete descent amounted to three stories underground. The walls were made of foot-square limestone blocks and gargoyled sconces were mounted every fifteen feet. Almost immediately on entering the passage, we smelled a rank odor of death that worsened as we descended.
One story down, there was a passage to the right that led away into a sizeable wine cellar, various large casks of wine, and equipment for operating a wine bottling business. The passage continued turning always in a tight counterclockwise arc.
At two stories down, there were pensive rats in the corners of the stairs, waiting patiently for us to pass. Cobwebs overhead thickened with each step downward.
“Sorry about the mess down here! There’s a reason such passages always look the same in the movies! It’s because they really do look like this! Nobody comes down here to clean or set mouse traps or what have you. I should consider a maid.”
Another dark passage led away from the main staircase. It was not obvious what lay that direction, but there was a fresh breeze that wafted from the chamber and a more friendly mustiness that suggested a vented shaft and possibly a secret study or small library.
By the third story down, we emerged into a wide and surprisingly serviceable laboratory, well-lit but certainly not hospital-grade cleanliness. Blooms of algae held two upper corners. Also the source of the death stench was immediately apparent.
A raccoon carcass lay beside a sturdy wooden table. Hunger and innate raccoon curiosity seemed to have led to its demise when it had pilfered and drank from a poisonous bottle, one of the dozens of containers shelved in little racks lining the walls—bottles of dried foliage, powders, chemicals, philters, emetics. These seemed carelessly comingled with tonics, cordials, liqueurs, and aperitifs. On a side table was a series of specimen jars with creatures in formaldehyde: scaly reptilian beasts, amphibians, and hairless embryos of mammals like cats and monkeys.
I suddenly remembered Dimity. I assumed she would come back inside and flop on the couch, or, clever girl that she was, see the opened doorway and follow us down.
Already Ringo was setting up a heat source and cooking pot, and gathering bottles for mixing. The talisman spoon lay on the table as well, ready to add its magic, or else prove this whole business to be nonsense. I watched on a stool at the end of the table as he cut the figure of a mad scientist.
When an hour had passed and Dimity had not returned, I grew concerned and decided to go see that she was asleep on the couch as I suspected. But at the top of the stairs I looked and she was still not returned. I took a lantern to the front door.
I walked out onto the front landing, out into the now impenetrable darkness where even the crickets and frogs seemed to sing in muted and reluctant voices. I huffed and rasped her name several times, fearful of disturbing the night. But there was no sign of her anywhere.