THE MORNING SUN BEAT down on the two of us as we approached the two-story ranch on the fourteen hundred block of Fir Street. We made quite the pair. Diana in her uniform, and me in my hat and coat.
The house looked new, but that was only due to the special attention its owners gave it. A new coat of paint went up each spring, the lawn was green and well fed, the windows cleaned daily, and the concrete drive was always free of oil stains. Not an easy task for your average homeowners, but then, the occupants of this home were anything but average.
“How’s this guy going to help us find Maggie?” Diana asked as we climbed the steps to the front porch.
“He has his ways,” I said. “Trust me.”
I knocked on the red front door and after a moment a woman in a blue, flour-caked apron answered. Her hair was gray and all done up in a bun. Though it too had flour on it as well as more than a few dozen fly away hairs. She was short, just shy under five feet, but looked about as frail as a steam engine. She scowled when she saw me.
“Norman Oklahoma,” she said. “You still kicking dirt? I thought for sure some troll or something would have snuffed out your candle years ago.”
“Now, Grace,” I said, one of my swoon inducing smiles on my face. “You know that trolls are among some of the friendliest creatures around.”
“Well, that’s as maybe,” she said. “Wishful thinking, I suppose.” Then she smiled broad and wide. “You going to just stand out there all day drawing flies, or are you going to give an old lady a hug?”
That was an invitation I was not about to pass up. Grace’s hugs could cure most any ailment.
“Come in, come in,” Grace said, breaking the hug and my heart at the same time.
“I have some cookies baking, but a batch just came out of the oven. I know how you like those chocolate chips, Norman.”
We followed her into the kitchen, Diana giving me a confused look. I only shrugged in return.
“How about a glass of milk?” She asked, handing me a plate of cookies.
“Grace,” I said. “That would be delightful.”
“And your friend?” She said. “This lovely young lady you have yet to introduce me to?”
“Yes, forgive my manners,” I said. “Grace, this here is Officer Diana King, newly hired constable of the Eudora Police Department. We’re working a case together.”
“Diana,” I continued. “This is Grace Oswald, baking genius, gorgeous homemaker, and all around wonderful person.”
“You know,” Grace said to Diana. “I don’t know who he thinks he’s fooling with all that so called charm of his, but he’s yet to get far with me using it.”
“I have his number, don’t you worry,” Diana said, smiling.
I ignored them and ate a cookie.
“You have a lovely home here, Ms. Oswald,” Diana, said.
“It’s Mrs., but you call me Grace.”
“Grace,” Diana said.
I had two more cookies and downed the glass of milk.
“Grace, is Oz around?” I asked. I wiped the milk from my upper lip with a sleeve.
“He’s down in the basement just where you’d expect him to be.”
“I’m afraid that our visit wasn’t just for you delectable cookies,” I said.
“I didn’t think so,” she said, smiling. “Go on down, he knows you’re here.”
“Thanks, Grace,” I said. Then, before leaving her, I planted a kiss on her forehead.
The basement, like the rest of the house, was warm and inviting. As we descended the stairs I could make out a giant wide screen television that took up most of the back wall. It was currently playing one of those Bob Ross painting shows from the 70’s.
Standing before the screen with his own easel and paints, and painting along with old Bob, was a skinny man with long white hair pulled back into a pony tail. He wore knee length cargo shorts, a very loud Hawaiian shirt, and sandals, complete with white socks.
“Norman,” the man said without turning around. “How’s my painting compare to Bob’s?”
“Well, gee, Oz. I believe yours might be a bit better.”
“You’re such a liar,” he said. Then, after finishing up one of those happy little clouds he said, “You need some help on a case?”
“I do, Oz. I won’t ask how you knew that.”
“Always best not to question the ways of magic.” Then he put his paints and bushes down and turned. His eyed widened when they caught Diana.
“Well, well, well,” he said. “Who is this rare beauty you have brought into my house, Norman. I’m a married man, you know.”
I introduced Diana before saying, “Diana, this is the great and powerful Frank Oswald, Wizard of the First Circle.”
“Retired wizard,” Oz said. Then he took Diana’s hand and kissed it. “A pleasure to meet you, my dear.”
“Okay, grandpa,” I said. “You said it yourself, you’re a married man.”
“Grandpa?” Oz said. “You’re older than me.”
That brought a questioning look from Diana.
“I’ll explain later,” I told her.
“Okay,” Oz said. “So what can an old man do for someone as young and spry as you?”
“I’m catching the sarcasm,” I said.
“I sure hope so; I’m throwing it pretty hard.”
“Can you fellas stop with the back and forth already,” Diana said. “It’s anything but cute and we’re running out of time.”
“Yes, of course,” I said. “You’re right. Oz, we need you to locate someone.” I pulled a small plastic bag from my coat pocket. In the bag was the lock of hair. “Her name is Maggie Keaton.”
“And why are we trying to find Maggie Keaton?” He took the bag from me, holding it up to the light to inspect the hair. “She steal something?”
“She was abducted last night,” Diana said. “Norman thinks she was taken by a group called the Brotherhood of Minos.”
“The Brotherhood of Minos? Sounds familiar, but can’t quite place it,” Oz said. “Anyway, follow me. I can help.”
He approached a door in the wall to the right of the television. The door had no knob or handle.
A tall staff of polished black wood leaned against the wall next to the door. Oz took up the staff and pointed it at the door.
“Open,” he said in a commanding voice, and the door swung inward.
The room beyond could only be described as a wizard’s laboratory, and if you’ve seen one wizard’s laboratory, then you’ve seen them all. Myself, I’ve seen just the one. This one, actually.
The laboratory was immense, like the size of a basketball court. It extended beyond the outer walls of the house itself. The wall to the left of the door was lined by shelves that held books, test tubes, beakers, jars full of various substances, and more books. On the wall opposite of the door there was a fire place so large you could stand in it without bumping your head. Hanging in the fire place was a massive black cauldron, so big that it could hold enough stew to feed an army.
In the middle of the room sat a wide table made of stone.
Oz leaned his staff against the table and then took the lock of hair, placing it in the center of the table. He then placed five white candles in a circle around the hair, lighting each with a plain, green, plastic disposable lighter he’d retrieved from a pocket in his shorts.
Oz stood over the lock of hair and closed his eyes, placing his hands, palms down, over the glowing candles.
Two minutes later and nothing happened. Oz hadn’t moved.
“How long should this take?” Diana whispered to me.
“Wait for it,” I replied.
Four more minutes ticked by before the candle flames went out. It was as if five hands had reached out and snuffed each of the small flames at the same time. Oz’s eyes popped open, a look of surprise on his face. The smoke curled up from the wicks like ethereal snakes seeking sanctuary in the ceiling.
“What happened?” Diana said, her voice soft and low.
“Wait,” Oz said.
He studied the undulating lines of smoke. They bent and twisted, reaching out to touch each other, growing until the five trails of smoke became one solid column.
“There is something seriously wrong here,” Oz said, taking up his staff.
“What is it?” I drew a pistol.
“Oh, put that thing away,” Oz said, scowling. “This isn’t the sort of thing you can shoot.”
I didn’t like the sort of thing I couldn’t shoot. They made me uneasy. But I holstered the pistol.
The column bent so that it flowed down toward the ground. There it glided across the floor away from us and climbed the back wall.
“There is something else in this room with us,” Oz said, stepping forward. “A presence.”
The smoke continued to climb the back wall. Soon it covered the entire back of the room from floor to ceiling like a thick gray curtain. The wall of smoke thickened and expanded outward.
“I know you are there,” Oz called out. “You have entered my sanctum unbidden. Name yourself lest I banish thee.”
“Thee?” I said.
“Shut up,” Oz replied with an embarrassed smile. “There are formalities to observe.”
The wall of smoke shifted and a face formed in the middle, six feet tall. It was the face of a bald man with sunken eyes. Beyond that it was hard to tell who the man was behind the face.
The smoke eyes took in each one of us in turn. When they settled on me, the face smiled.
“Norman Oklahoma,” the face said. “Aren’t you persistent. I would have thought that my ogres would have scared you off of this foolish quest.”
“Where’s Maggie?” I shouted, knowing that it was useless.
“You will never find the girl, gunslinger,” the face in the smoke said. “She is with the Brotherhood now. Her blood will be sacrificed to the Bull God in good time. Nothing can stop that.”
“I’m not gonna let that happen,” I said.
“I find your confidence amusing,” the face said.
“Name thyself, villain!” Oz commanded.
“I am all that you once were, old man,” the face said. “Do not attempt to cross magic with me. You will find that nothing but regret lies down that path.”
“I am old,” Oz said. “That is true. But to dismiss my power based on age is foolish on your part.”
“Okay, let’s all stop flexing our muscles,” Diana said, stepping forward, gun raised. “I am an officer with the Eudora Police Department. If you have knowledge regarding the current whereabouts of Maggie Keaton, it is your responsibility to share it. To do otherwise would be considered obstruction, which could lead to your arrest.”
The smoke face starred at her for a moment before it burst out laughing.
“Oh my,” the face said. “You are just simply adorable.”
“Where’s the girl, Smokey,” I said. “If I have to come looking for her then I’m gonna be mighty cross with you.”
“You won’t come looking for her,” the face said. “You will die here in this sad little basement. I will see to that myself.”
The face distorted, flattened, morphing back into the wall of smoke. The wall parted down the middle like a set of curtains and an orange light glowed from within. The orange light increased and a small green figure stepped out of it.
The creature stood about three feet tall and had long pointed ears that stuck out over its hairless head. It smiled to show razor sharp teeth.
It was a goblin, and I could see more behind it.
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