The forest was black; clouds had moved in and blocked out any light from the moon and stars that might penetrate to the forest floor. The smell of rain was in the air and the canopy leaves chuckled in the sporadic breeze like a city of elves overhead.
In the soft ground at my feet I could see Dimity’s shoeprints leading away only to be lost in the weeds and bracken of the forest. Only a faint sound of wind chimes far away could be heard, and I was surprised to think that another residence could be within proximity of Ringo’s hidden estate.
I heard a quick thrashing sound above, something bursting through the leaves. I held my lantern up but all I could see were a tiny pair of glowing orange eyes far away and in the heights of the branches. They were rapidly coming closer and I immediately thought of the Lurker we had seen before, but this was different. There was no lumbering shape, and it was coming much faster than the monster I’d seen when we were last at Ringo’s house. Before I had time to panic or turn to run inside, it became clear that it was an enormous bird flying directly at me, its eyes shining in the lantern flame.
It was the great horned owl we’d seen in Tanaquil’s guest parlor. It swooped down in front of me and came to roost on the edge of the dry birdbath that stood in the center of the flagstone pavers arrayed in a circle driveway in front of the house. In one of its talons, it grasped a decorative copper cylinder which it proceeded to drop into the birdbath.
The owl shook its wings regally and folded them away like a golf umbrella, and seemed not to notice me standing there with the lantern. Then, from a blithe disinterest that suggested my presence was of absolutely no consequence to the bird, it turned ever so slightly to gaze at me, again with heavy-lidded, owlish reproach. At last, when my unworthiness was fully established, it flung out its great wings and flew away, leaving me alone with the copper cylinder.
I was taught never to open someone else’s mail. Since this wasn’t my house, the tube probably wasn’t for me. I was going to take it inside and deliver it to Ringo, but I was still feeling a little insulted and unresolved about how he had gone so overboard with the paddling.
To be honest, I was starting to become embittered about his whole bottling enterprise. It was indistinguishable from magic, and the older I got the more I wanted to fight against belief in magic. It contradicted reason. His methods were not compatible with modern science. Mixing random ingredients together to achieve some unknown effect? Insisting that my physical torture and bodily harm were essential to the process? And why was it always underground?
I was in no hurry to return so I stuck the tube in my pocket and decided to walk about in the cool night air. I continued to hear distant wind chimes in the humid night breeze and decided to see if I could spy any lights from a nearby house.
But whether because of the disorienting wind or sheer exhaustion affecting my head, the sound seemed to come from one direction and then shift to another, from my left side and then from the right. Holding my lantern up I walked along the pitifully narrow driveway between the black hulking trunks of trees dimly outlined by the luminous algae.
Fireflies danced on the air as deep into the trees as I could see. The fairy circles of mushrooms we had seen before were still on the ground, and far ahead were the old Greek columns and archway we’d passed through the first time we’d come.
I remembered the explanation of the Lurker, that thing, whatever it was. Was it even a monster? Wasn’t it just a shadow of one of the trees? Hadn’t we just been spooked by the unfamiliar forest? I wanted to believe it was nonsense, but the chill of the night, the mysterious distant wind chimes, and the sinister power that any dark forest at night has upon any sane person cut my progress short, and I turned around to return to the estate.
Back at the better lighting of the entryway, I took one last deep breath of the thick night air. A storm was coming. The wind picked up silencing the bugs and frogs. Far to the west the thunder murmured.
I took the copper cylinder out of my pocket. Why shouldn’t I take a look? Maybe it was for me after all.
Inside I found a scrap of paper torn from a personal diary and a small vial with a revolting thick green liquid inside. On the paper, I immediately recognized Dimity’s handwriting.
I hope I have not alarmed you and Bo by my absence. Please tell Bo I love him and not to worry about me. I am safe with our mutual friend “T”.
She has asked me to write you. She knows of the plan to distill more of the elixir for Lorenzo, who will deliver it to The Puppetmaster Poignard, and she insists that you must not proceed. She says she calls you to remember Saragossa and urges that you not make any more of the substance,
Some disturbance has occurred here. Lorenzo is banished from her house following some tragedy. I do not know any specifics yet. But she will come to you soon. In the meantime, and in addition to ceasing production, she advises you to avoid Lorenzo at all costs.
Dimity St. John
She loved me? This was a new milestone. We hadn’t actually said those words to each other yet, but reading them suddenly made me…both extremely happy and terrified at the same time. Certainly I had been wowed by her feminine wiles since we met. Her connection with underground crime rings however was still heavy on my mind. The sassy, confident blonde cheerleader and the cold-blooded assassin mobster’s daughter. In love with me.
If nothing else, it gave me strength to deliver the bad news to Ringo.
I knew he would be disappointed to hear it—halt production of the elixir. It’s all he had been fixated on, even to the point of thrashing his nephew silly in sacrifice to the endeavor. But there was nothing for it. I went inside, walked to the open bookcase, to the stairs, and proceeded down the passageway again to the laboratory far below ground.
“Hey, ah, Ringo. Sorry man, we got a letter from—”
“It worked!” He spun around and looked at me with eyes aflame. “It actually worked!”