Lord of the Wings

Chapter 1

"Someone's broken into the Haunted House!"

My cell phone almost vibrated from the excitement in my brother's voice.

"Calm down, Rob," I said. I wanted to add, "And what are you doing awake before eight a.m.?" but I suspected he would take it as a slur on his character. I punched the speaker button, set my phone on the kitchen table, and went back to painting a goatee on my son Josh's chin.

"But, Meg, the Haunted House-"

"Was anything taken?" I asked. "Or broken?"

"Not that we can tell," Rob said. "But Dr. Smoot is upset."

"That's his normal state of mind these days," I said. Then I winced, hoping the proprietor of the Haunted House wasn't close enough to Rob's phone to hear me.

"If you can call anything about Smoot normal." Okay, even Rob wouldn't have said that in front of the man. "But definitely more upset than usual. The closer we get to Halloween, the more hyper he gets."

Josh lifted up his piratical eye patch, twisted to look at his reflection in the shiny chrome side of the toaster, and frowned.

"I want to be more hairier," he said.

"Just hairier," I corrected. "I'm working on it. Did you report it to the police?" I added to Rob.

"Not yet," Rob said. "Dr. Smoot says Chief Burke never takes him seriously."

Dr. Smoot was probably right. Of course, it didn't help that while he was still serving as Caerphilly County's medical examiner, Dr. Smoot had taken to dressing as a vampire, complete with a long black cape and fake fangs, and collecting vampire-related paraphernalia. Chief Burke had been vastly relieved when Dr. Smoot had resigned his post to pursue this strange new hobby full time, complete with travels to such vampire meccas as Transylvania and New Orleans. The chief probably wasn't thrilled to have Dr. Smoot not only back in town but also running the Haunted House that played a central role in the town's ongoing Halloween Festival.

"Never mind their past history," I said. "If there's any real evidence of a burglary, Chief Burke will want to investigate. In fact, he'll be pretty ticked off if he finds out you didn't call him right away."

"Dr. Smoot says since nothing was actually taken, he thought it was okay to call the Goblin Patrol instead."

"Rob," I began.

"Sorry," Rob said. "The Visitor Relations and Police Liaison Patrol. I still think Goblin Patrol's catchier. I'll call the chief. But Dr. Smoot's upset-he really wants to talk to you."

"I'm putting the boys into their costumes for school," I said. "And then Michael and I are going along as chaperones for today's school field trip to the zoo. And-"

"Great," Rob said. "The Haunted House is right on your way. You could just drop in for a few minutes-"

"After the field trip," I said. "Or if more than enough parents come to wrangle the kids, I might be able to break away once we've delivered our carload to the zoo. Call the police, and tell Dr. Smoot I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Roger," Rob said.

"Uncle Rob," Josh said. "I'm a pirate today."

"A pirate?" Rob echoed. "I thought you were a cowboy."

"A cowboy? Yuck. That was yesterday."

"Today he's a pirate," I said. "I've been trying to explain to the boys that when their teacher said they could wear costumes every day this week, it didn't mean a different costume every day."

"But it's more fun this way," Josh protested.

"Absolutely!" Rob said. "Goblin Patrol, over and out."

"Rob," I began, but he'd already hung up. "Josh, can you punch the button to turn off my phone? My hands are full."

He obliged, then turned back to me and lifted his chin as if silently demanding that I add another layer of painted beard.

"Mommy-look!" I turned to see Jamie, Josh's twin. "See my new costume! Isn't it cool?"

"Very cool!" I stopped myself before asking, "But what is it?" and studied his outfit for clues. Like most first graders, he had only rudimentary costume-making skills, so at first glance, his new outfit looked exactly like Monday's dog costume, Tuesday's raccoon, and Wednesday's penguin. They all used as a base the same set of faded beige footed pajamas. Today he'd stuck tufts of fur rather than feathers to the flannel, so I deduced that he was a mammal rather than a bird. The catlike whiskers stuck on his cheeks with Scotch tape didn't help much, but then I noticed that the rope he'd tied around his waist, leaving one end trailing six or seven feet behind him, now bore a tuft of fur at the tip.

"So you're going as a lion today?" I guessed.

Jamie beamed.

"Look, Josh," he said. "Rowrrrr!"

Josh was studying himself again in the toaster.

"I guess it's okay," he said. "But I want a really cool costume for the real Halloween on Saturday."

"Josh," I said. "That's only two days away. I'm not sure we have time to make another costume. Can't you just go as a pirate or a cowboy or a space alien or a wizard? We can make some improvements to whichever one you choose."

"I want to be a robot," Josh said.

It could be worse, I decided. I could easily make him a robot suit with some cardboard boxes and tin foil.

"But not one of those lame robot costumes like Victor's mother made him out of cardboard boxes and tin foil," Josh said. "A real robot costume. It should be metal. And the eyes should light up when I get mad. And you should be able to open up my chest to see my motor."

"I'll think about it," I said. "No promises," I added. "You know I'm pretty busy with the Halloween Festival."

"But I really want to be a robot!"

"No whining!" I exclaimed.

Josh recognized the wisdom of shutting up, and shifted tactics. He sighed and donned a look of patient, wistful longing-rather like Oliver Twist holding up the empty gruel bowl.

Maybe Michael could enlist some help in making a robot costume. An extra-credit project for a couple of his drama department students with prop and costume shop experience. I could ask him.

And come to think of it, maybe Michael could drive the boys to school, pick up the other two kids we were supposed to transport, and take them to the zoo. Then I could drop by to soothe Dr. Smoot and still meet them there in time for the tour.

"Where's your daddy?" I asked the boys.

"In the backyard, chasing the llamas," Jamie said.

"Why is he chasing the llamas?" I asked. "Are they loose?"

Jamie shook his head.

"Then why-"

"Who's ready for waffles?" my cousin Rose Noire called out, as she sailed in, already dressed in her costume for the day, as Glinda, the Good Witch.

"Yay!" Jamie exclaimed.

"Blueberry waffles?" Josh asked.

"Organic blueberry waffles," Rose Noire said. "With artisanal maple syrup."

The boys sat down and looked expectant. On mornings like this, I was profoundly grateful that Rose Noire still showed no signs of moving out of the third floor spare bedroom she'd occupied since before the boys were born.

I strolled outside to see why Michael was chasing the llamas.

Actually, he wasn't so much chasing them as being followed by them. He was jogging briskly around the perimeter of their pasture and the llamas, ever curious about human eccentricities, were loping along behind him.

I leaned over the fence and watched until he drew near, then climbed over the top rail and fell into step beside him.

"What's up?" I asked.

"An actor's body is his instrument," he puffed.

"That's nice," I said. "What does that have to do with your taking up jogging?" Then enlightenment struck. "You tried on your wizard costume last night, didn't you?" I asked.

Michael frowned and nodded.

"Too tight?"

"Not too tight," he said. "But a little tighter than it used to be. Tighter than it should be."

Not surprising, since it had been a few years since Michael had donned the costume he'd once worn to play the evil wizard Mephisto on Porfiria, Queen of the Jungle, a long-canceled cult TV fantasy show. In fact, although die-hard fans kept inviting him to Porfiria fan conventions, he hadn't gone since before the twins were born, and they were six now.

"I could let your costume out a little," I suggested.

"No," he said, and picked up his pace a little. "I need to get down to my proper weight. An actor's body is his instrument."

"Okay," I said. "Carry on tuning your instrument. I'll figure out something healthy and low calorie for dinner."

"Thanks," he said. "And keep all that damned Halloween candy away from me."

"Roger," I said. "By the way, can you take the boys to school and pick up the other two kids we're taking to the field trip? I can meet you at the zoo-I have an errand I should run on my way."

"Goblin Patrol business?"

"Something like that." As I explained about Dr. Smoot, I considered whether I should stop fighting this Goblin Patrol thing. It was certainly catchier than Visitor Relations and Police Liaison Patrol. "If I hurry," I concluded, "I can deal with Smoot and still make the zoo tour."

"I don't envy you," he said. "And yes, I can take the boys."

We'd done nearly a complete circuit of the pasture now, so I decided I'd jogged enough.

"I'm going to peel off now and get ready for my busy day," I said.

"Not as busy as it would have been if Randall Shiffley hadn't hired Lydia," Michael called over his shoulder.

I made a noncommittal noise and headed back to the kitchen.

Yes, if Randall hadn't hired Lydia Van Meter to the newly created post of Special Assistant to the Mayor, I would probably have been running the whole of Caerphilly's ten-day Halloween Festival instead of merely heading up the Goblin Patrol. I definitely preferred my more limited role.

But that didn't mean I had to like Lydia.

Just thinking about her soured my mood. And it wasn't because she was doing a terrible job at organizing the Halloween Festival. Considering that it was her first major project, she was doing okay. Not perfectly-certainly not the way I'd have done it-but things were lurching along, and she was learning. She'd probably have an easier time with the much bigger Christmas in Caerphilly event that would start right after Thanksgiving, because we'd been doing that for several years now, and Randall and I had done a pretty good job of setting up procedures and training the townspeople in them. By summer, when it was time for the Un-Fair, the statewide agricultural exposition Caerphilly hosted every year, she should be in fine shape-again, thanks to all the ground work Randall and I had done on past Un-Fairs.

Since, in the long run, she was going to make my life easier, it was probably ungracious of me to dislike her. Maybe I was the only one who minded her constant griping about how hard she was working and how impossible the job was. I couldn't count the times I'd had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, "You think you've got it bad-I used to do all that and more, as a volunteer." And was it just my imagination, or was she developing an annoying tendency to ask me how I would handle something and then do exactly the opposite?

"Chill," I muttered. After all, Lydia was making it possible for me to spend more time with Michael and the boys, doing things like today's field trip to the Caerphilly Zoo.

And accompanying the boys to the zoo was definitely important, and not just because I wanted to see their reaction to the brand new Creatures of the Night exhibit. As the zoo's proud owner, my grandfather was planning on conducting the tour himself, and I knew better than to expect common sense from him. What if he gave in to some first grader's pleas to be allowed to pet the arctic wolves? Or began explaining the curious mating habits of the greater short-nosed fruit bat, as he had a few weeks ago when giving a preview tour to the Baptist Ladies' Altar Guild?

I ran upstairs to throw on the last few bits of my costume-a modified version of the red satin and black leather swordswoman's outfit I wore whenever I exhibited my blacksmithing work at a Renaissance festival. I added the festive black-and-orange armband that marked me as a member of the Goblin Patrol and headed for town.

The first few miles of my journey lay through farmlands-pastures dotted with grazing cows or sheep, fields filled with late crops or post-harvest stubble, and orchards picked clean of all but the latest fruits. Closer to town, I began to see Halloween and harvest decorations on the gates and fences. I particularly admired the farmer who'd used a collection of scarecrows to simulate a zombie attack on his cow pasture. The contrast between the bloodstained shambling figures clawing at the outside of the fence and the Guernsey cows calmly chewing their cuds inside never failed to amuse me.

I was nearing town when my phone rang. Lydia. I considered letting it go to voice mail. Then I sighed, and pulled over to answer it. She was probably calling about something she considered important. Her definition of important rarely coincided with mine, but I'd already figured out that the best way to keep her calm and off my back was to talk to her. She seemed to resent having to leave a voice mail.

"Thank goodness I caught you!" she exclaimed as soon as I answered. "Can you drop by to see me as soon as possible? Something important's come up. Festival business! Thanks!"

"I'm already on my way to take care of festival business," I began. But before I could make the case for discussing whatever had come up over the phone instead of face to face, I realized she'd hung up.

"Damn the woman," I muttered as I punched the button to call her back. But her phone line was already busy.

So I muttered a few words I didn't usually let myself say (for fear the boys would pick them up) and pulled out onto the road again. Dr. Smoot's burglar would have to wait while I tackled whatever crisis Lydia had to offer.