"THE STAFF OF FIRE"
Saturday morning dawned and the occupants at Castle Dunleith discovered drizzling rain coming down from the gray clouds above. Paige felt certain that Colin McNeill would either cancel the picnic or move the family gathering inside the castle.
"Considering that it's too late to cancel the fete, it would have to be moved indoors," the laird announced to those who had gathered inside the dining hall for breakfast. He seemed mournful over the idea of an indoor picnic.
Paige, who stood with Cole before the dining hall's Sheraton sideboard, murmured, "He looks like a kid who had lost his favorite toy. The laird must really love picnics."
"You mean that you haven't noticed by now?" Cole whispered back. "From what Olivia has told me, he's one of those hale and hearty types who love the outdoors. I think he's one of what they call in this country, the 'huntin, shootin and fishin'" types."
A smile curved Paige's lips, as she reached for a grilled tomato. The Sheraton sideboard groaned under the weight of dishes prepared for breakfast - scrambled eggs, smoked kippers, sausages, bacon, toast, grilled tomatoes, beans, fruit and other assortments. It was customary in many upper-class British homes to serve breakfast, buffet-style. As she spooned a ladle full of scrambled eggs upon her plate, she noticed Olivia sitting at the table and speaking with the laird' aunt.
Cole asked, "When are Bruce and the others arriving?"
Paige replied, "Later this afternoon. Around three. Bruce and Barbara will be arriving. Along with Leo. I don't think Piper or Phoebe are interested in showing up."
"Too bad." Cole shrugged his shoulders. "They'll be missing something special. I've heard that the Aingeal ceremony is quite interesting. Rarely seen in the supernatural world."
The pair carried their plates to the table and sat down near Olivia and Mrs. Ferguson. Paige asked, "How long have you known about . . .?" She broke off the question, as a servant appeared with a dolly carrying juice, coffee and tea. The latter - the same woman whom Paige had noticed at the McNeills' dinner party a week ago - asked the pair if they would like something to drink. Paige asked for a glass of orange juice and Cole, coffee. After the servant handed Cole his coffee, a familiar sensation tingled at the back of Paige's neck. She stared at the servant as she moved toward the next diner.
"Something wrong?" Cole asked. He added cream and sugar to his coffee.
Paige tore her eyes away from the servant. "Huh?"
Cole gave her a hard stare. "Why are you staring at that waitress? Does she look familiar to you?"
"No, it's . . . Well, . . . I don't know. There's something odd about that woman. Something I can't put my finger on. I don't know. Maybe I'm imagining things."
The half-demon grunted. "Hmmph, considering your talent for spotting trouble, I doubt it." He took a swig of coffee. "With the ceremony coming up today, and all the hullabaloo over that car you and Olivia had spotted, maybe you should keep an eye on her."
"Maybe I will." Then Paige returned to their previous topic. "By the way, about that staff . . . how long have you known about it?"
According to Cole, he had first learned about the Aingeal staff during his childhood. As he continued on the subject, Paige's mind became fixated on several incidents and feelings that have left her slightly uneasy during this trip. The two strangers in the car outside the Bloomsbury townhouse, Olivia's notice of a similar car in Inverness, and her reaction toward one of the McNeills' servants here at Castle Dunleith all led Paige to wonder if her feelings of foreboding had anything to do with tonight's staff ceremony. Her ruminations soon began to wear down Paige, mentally. She decided to shrug it off for another time and enjoy her breakfast.
Between nine-thirty and ten in the morning, the light rain finally ceased. The sun broke through the gray clouds and Colin McNeill announced - rather happily - that the picnic would be held outdoors, after all. By noon, most of the guests had arrived at the castle, including those Paige had not met at last week's dinner party. Despite her disappointment over her sisters' decision not to accompany Leo here to Scotland, Paige managed to enjoy herself. Harry introduced her to more McNeills, and she was happy to discover that most of them did not share Fiona Craig's arrogant disposition.
Speaking of Fiona . . . she finally arrived around twelve-thirty in the afternoon. Bitchy as ever. She greeted Paige with a smile that screamed insincerity. "Well, if it isn't Olivia's little friend. Penny, right?"
Paige's lips stretched into a tight smile. "Paige. Penny was my grandmother's name."
"Och, terribly sorry. I've always had trouble matching names with faces," Fiona continued. "Especially unmemorable ones."
Paige opened her mouth to retort, when a third voice added, "With a memory like that, Fiona, it's a wonder you can remember a simple spell." Two figures joined Paige and Fiona - Olivia and Cecile. The former smiled coolly at her cousin. "Fiona, I see that you finally made it," Olivia said in a voice that made the other cousin's insincerity seem mild. "Unfortunately."
Fiona replied through clenched teeth, "Olivia." Her gazed shifted toward Cecile. "And . . . um, Lucille. Am I right?"
Cecile ignored the insult and said, "So Phyllis, Olivia tells me that you've also manifested pyrokinesis. Is that true?"
The dark-haired woman glared at the Vodoun priestess. "It's Fiona, and yes, I have pyrokinesis. It had manifested last April. And now it seems that I have become a contender for the staff. Who knows? I may end up being the new bearer." She preened slightly.
"Really?" Cecile eyed the witch doubtfully. "What makes you so certain? Or is this simply hope on your part?" Fiona's face turned red.
Paige spoke up. "Fiona told me, last week, that she had vanquished a demon, using her fire power."
Olivia's green eyes widened in mock appreciation. "Wow! One daemon! I'm impressed, cousin! I guess that you might as well claim that staff as yours, huh?"
"That's funny," Cecile piped in. "Haven't you killed more than one daemon with your new power, Livy?"
Looking thoughtful, while amusement shined in her eyes, Olivia replied, "Why yes! I do believe that you're right, Cecile. Now, how many of them have I killed?"
Paige replied in a droll voice, "At least seven or eight."
"Am I supposed to assume this means that you'll become the next Bearer of the Aingeal Staff?" Fiona asked in a tart voice.
Shrugging her shoulders, Olivia replied, "Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who knows?"
Fiona smirked. "Olivia dear, don't you think you're stretching your impersonation of Gary Cooper, just a tad too much? You want possession of the staff, just as much as I do."
"I doubt that any of us want to be the staff's bearer as much as you do, Fiona."
Acid tinged Fiona's voice. "And what exactly do you mean by that?"
Olivia gave her cousin a look that mixed pity with contempt. "Poor Fiona! I see that you haven't changed much, over the years. Still recovering from the loss of your glory days as Debutante of the Year?"
"You bloody bitch! How dare you?"
"My dear Fee," Olivia shot back, "I'm not the one going around and declaring to everyone that I'm going to be the staff's next bearer. Besides, what do you think having the staff is going to do for you? Magically return you back to the glory days of your youth?" She paused slightly as a malicious smile curved her lips. "Bring Allan back to you?"
A sound resembling a kitten being strangled escaped from Fiona's mouth. "Why you . . ." She bit off her words, flashed a dark look at Olivia and stomped away.
"Good job, McNeill," Cecile retorted with amusement. "You really did a good job of pissing her off."
Olivia rolled her eyes in contempt. "So what else is new? Fiona and I have been pissing each other off for years."
"Okay, but if Fiona does become the staff's new bearer," Cecile continued, "don't be surprised if she decides to use that thing on you, one day."
"Why? You had a premonition or something?"
Paige piped in, "Who's Allan?"
Olivia replied, "Ex-husband. He had left Fiona for another woman some two years ago. She hasn't recovered since."
At that moment, Cole appeared by the three women's sides. Paige noticed that he looked slightly haggard. "Dude!" she exclaimed. "Are you okay?"
Olivia peered at Cole. "Paige is right. You do look a little bedraggled."
"I feel like shit," Cole shot back. "And tired. Which is unusual for me. I, uh . . . I guess I need a little more sleep."
A concerned-looking Olivia gently caressed Cole's cheek. "I don't know why. You had slept pretty good, last night." She sighed. "Then again, perhaps you're right. Besides, the ceremony won't start until at least around eight o'clock, tonight. That should give you plenty of time for some rest. C'mon." She linked her arm with his and led him away.
Paige and Cecile watched the couple head toward the castle's terrace, which overlooked the garden and wide lawn. "Did you notice something odd about Cole?" the latter asked.
"Well, he seemed unusually tired," Paige replied. "For a powerful half-demon."
Cecile frowned at the couple's receding figures. "Yeah, and that's the problem. Cole reminds me of the time when he had been drugged. When we were dealing with the Crozats and Dako, last December. Remember?"
Paige grimaced, recalling the Vodoun spirit in Darryl Morris' body, attacking her. "Barely. I was in the hospital, at the time. What are you getting at?"
"If I didn't know better, I'd swear that he has been drugged. Today."
Shaking her head, Paige found Cecile's words hard to believe. "But Cole has a self-healing power. If he had been drugged, wouldn't his power be clearing his bloodstream, or something?"
"Depends upon how strong the drug is," Cecile replied. "Suzanne Crozat had fed Cole a very strong drug or herb. It nearly took him an entire day to recover. Looking at him now, reminded me of that day."
All of Paige's forebodings flooded her memory. "But . . . why? Why would someone drug Cole? To get him out of the way?"
Cecile gave Paige a long look. "What do you think?"
Keira Andrews stood behind one of the refreshment tables, as she served drinks to the McNeills' guests on the castle's grounds. Although patience has long been one of her virtues, this weeklong stint as a temporary servant for the Laird of Dunleith had stretched it to the limits. If she had to serve any more food or drinks, or toady to another bloody toff beyond today, she would simply go barking mad.
An overdressed woman wearing a ridiculously large hat approached the table and ordered a glass of champagne. Keira bit back a sigh, as she filled a crystal glass with Bollinger '84. After handing the glass of champagne to the woman, Keira spotted two figures passing the buffet tables - Olivia McNeill and Belthazor. The latter, Keira noticed, looked very haggard.
The potion she had mixed into Belthazor's coffee, this morning, finally seemed to be working. And as far as Keira was concerned, it was about bloody time. Russell had informed her that the potion would make the half-daemon unconscious within an hour. Instead, the potion had taken over six hours to affect Belthazor. Even worse, the daemon looked far from unconscious. However, not all seemed lost. The McNeill woman seemed to be escorting Belthazor back inside the castle. Probably to his bedroom. Which meant that Keira saw a perfect opportunity to snatch the witch.
The warlock excused herself and rushed toward Dave, who was busy serving food to one of the McNeill cousins. Once he was alone, Keira approached him. "Dave," she murmured. "Look behind you."
Dave glanced over his shoulder. "Belthazor and the witch," he murmured. "He looks a bit knackered, doesn't he? Looks like the potion is finally working."
Keira added, "I think they're heading back inside the castle. And considering the way Belthazor looks, I have a feeling that the witch will soon be alone."
The other warlock gave Keira a knowing look. "Meaning, we should give Russell a call. Let's get out of here." Dave slipped away from the table, with Keira close at his heels. Once they found themselves alone near the castle's courtyard, she waited silently, while Dave called Russell on his cell phone.
"Russ, it's time," Dave reported. "The potion is finally working, and the witch is taking Belthazor back inside the castle. Probably to bed. She'll soon be alone. What do we do?" A long pause followed, while Dave listened. Then, "Okay Russ, we'll be there. Ta." He disconnected the phone.
Keira asked, "Well?"
"We lure the McNeill woman to that gazebo near the lake and grab her," Dave explained. "By the way, Russ suggested that you use that blowpipe of yours. Just in case."
A knowing smile curved Keira's lips. She could not wait.
"How are you feeling?" Olivia asked. Inside the bedroom that she and Cole shared, the red-haired witch examined an increasingly haggard-looking half-daemon with concerned eyes.
Cole sat upon the bed and sighed. "I still feel like shit. Only it's worse. On one hand, I'm really exhausted, yet I don't seem to have this urge to go to sleep. It's weird."
Olivia gently urged him to sit back against the bed's headboard. "Why don't you lay back and close your eyes. You don't have to sleep. Just rest."
"If I didn't know any better," Cole continued, "I'd swear that someone had drugged me. Just like Suzanne Crozat. Only, I feel sluggish and barely conscious."
Frowning, Olivia pressed her hand against Cole's forehead. "Hmmm, you do feel a bit warm. You're not sick, are you?"
"I doubt it," Cole replied gruffly.
Olivia continued, "I tell you what. I'll go down to the kitchen and fix you a cup of tea. Something that will drain any drug from your system." She planted a light kiss on Cole's forehead. "I'll be back." She started toward the door.
Cole's voice called out her name. "Olivia!" She paused. "If I had been drugged . . . that means that someone wants me away from you. Be careful."
"I will." Olivia gave him a reassuring smile and left the bedroom.
As Olivia reached the ground floor, at the foot of the wide staircase, one of the servants approached her. "Excuse me, miss," the woman began. "Mr. Mc . . . uh, I mean the laird is looking for you." Olivia noticed that the woman spoke with a slight Scottish Lowland accent. "He's by that gazebo, near the lake."
So far? For a moment, Olivia hesitated. Recalling Cole's warning, she wondered if Cole had truly been drugged. And if this so-called summons by Colin was a trap. Olivia stared at the woman, recalling that the latter was among the servants hired for the week. "He wants me by the lake?"
The servant nodded. "Yes, miss." Then she turned away, obviously no longer concerned about Olivia or the message. Which convinced the witch that Colin genuinely wanted to see her. Perhaps the police had finally located that missing car.
Heaving a sigh, Olivia decided that Cole's tea would have to wait. She marched through a narrow corridor that led outside the castle. Skirting the crowds gathered on the terrace and on the lawn below, Olivia marched across the ground and toward the wide lake, located just south of the castle's grounds. There, on the north shore, stood a small white gazebo. Olivia recognized Colin's tall and stocky form, facing the lake.
As she approached the gazebo, Olivia called out her cousin's name. "Colin? Did you wanted to see me?" A gasp left her mouth, as the figure whirled around. It was not the laird who faced her, but a stranger. Holding a gun. "Who in the hell . . .?"
"If you don't mind, Miss McNeill," the man said with a menacing smile, "it would be easier for all of us, if you would just . . ."
Using her telekinesis, Olivia forced the gun from the man's hand. He cursed out loud. "Bloody hell! Len! Sean! Grab her!"
Two men emerged from the nearby underbrush and attacked Olivia. A blond-haired hulk tried to grab her arm. She effortlessly blocked his attack, before she sent him flying with a roundhouse kick. Before she could divert her attack to the other man, Olivia felt a sharp pain in the side of her neck. She glanced to her right. Standing near a clump of trees was the same woman who had directed her to the gazebo. Holding what looked like a blowpipe. Then everything went hazy - before it all faded to black.
END OF PART IV