THE SECRET OF CATARINA VANDERBURG
Max thought about running to the warden hut to wake up Bruce, but he didn’t want to lose any of the precious time Peter had left. Wherever the boy was at the moment, he needed his help now. He took the phone out of his pocket to call the Rangers, but he had no signal. “Dammit! Stupid mountains,” Max grumbled and walked towards the pond. He picked up the rope of the red rowboat tied to the wooden pier by the boathouse, put it over his shoulder and pulled the boat out of the water. Then he pushed it towards the lake with Patrick’s help and switched on the light.
“Promise me you’ll find him,” Patrick said to Max when he handed the oars over to him.
“I can’t promise that to you, but I promise I’ll do what I can to find him,” Max smiled at Patrick and jumped in the boat. “Go take a hot shower and change into dry clothes,” he added while placing the oars into their oarlocks.
“Good luck,” Patrick waved at him and walked away. Max sat down on the wooden plank, took the oars in his hands and dipped them in the cold water. As he looked ahead, he saw dark silhouettes of the mountains surrounding the lake and the moonlight reflection on the surface of the deep black water. Max sighed heavily and started rowing away from the shore, far into the darkness of the night.
“Peter! Peter!” Max continued on calling Peter’s name, still to no avail. Where could he be? Max thought to himself. He couldn’t have just disappeared… After rowing aimlessly back and forth in the middle of the lake, Max decided to change the strategy.
He was sure that if Peter got carried away by a current or if he got pulled under the water and drowned, he would eventually wash up onto the shore in either case. The more time passed, the less probability to find Peter alive was left. Max deeply hoped to find Peter before the sunrise when everybody would wake up in panic and freak out his parents.
Max kept following the shore but couldn’t see much due to the poor light conditions. “Peter! Peter! PETER!” Max kept shouting out Peter’s name, more desperately each time. Little did he know that the boy was lying on the rocky beach, less than twenty meters away from him, unable to call for help.
Max paddled some more and when he couldn’t see Peter anywhere, he decided to turn the boat around and return to the camp. His mind was way ahead of him. He imagined the look on Malika’s face when she finds out about Peter… Bruce calling the police… the Missing Child report… notice of dismissal… trial in court… jail… when suddenly, Max noticed a body on the beach. “Peter? Peter! Hold on, Peter! Everything’s gonna be alright! I’m coming for you!” Max shouted from the boat and jumped in the water.
As his body submerged in the black water, Max got pleasantly surprised. The water in this part of the lake wasn’t as cold as he thought it would be. He quickly swam to the shore and ran to Peter, inertly lying on the shore.
Peter’s skin lost its natural color and turned into a pale shade of blue. Max bent over the boy’s body to check his pulse and when he understood Peter was still alive, he felt a sudden wave of relief.
“Everything’s fine, Peter. I’m here now,” Max whispered to Peter and gently caressed his hair.
“C..o..l..d,” Peter slurred softly.
“I know, Peter. I’ll warm you up,” Max told him and walked back to the rowboat to bring it to the shore. He picked Peter up from the ground and carried him to the boat.
“The sun is rising, Peter. It will warm you up,” Max whispered to Peter as he wrapped his hands around the boy’s body and pulled him atop of his chest, gently stroking his uncovered arms. “You really had me worried, kiddo. Never do this again.”
After a few moments of warm human contact, Max carefully sat Peter down in a corner of the rowboat, sat on the wooden plank on the opposite side and with a strong push of the oar, he moved the boat away from the shore.
“Hold on, Peter. The camp isn’t too far. We’ll get there soon.”
Max has never paddled faster before. The sight of Peter’s blue skin made him pull hard against the wind. He made a promise to Patrick, a promise he made come true. Now, all that was left to do was get back as quickly as possible and take Peter to the hospital.
“Cold,” Peter let out a soft sigh and slowly slid down to the bottom of the boat.
“We’re almost there, Peter, just hold on a little longer. I can see the camp from here. As soon as we get there we’ll warm you up. We’ll give you a bowl of hot chicken soup and wrap you up in warm blankets like a burrito,” Max tried to bring him to different thoughts.
Malika and the children were already awake and acquainted with the situation when the red rowboat appeared from behind the rocky island. Bruce has already alarmed the police and the Rangers were searching for Peter both on land and water.
“He didn’t find him!” Patrick called out when he couldn’t see Peter in the boat and dropped his shoulders in despair. Petey’s dad is gonna skin me alive, he thought to himself.
“Come on, you guys! He could be lying in the boat,” Celeste tried to cheer everybody up with her positive thoughts.
“Right! That’s right!” Patrick suddenly beamed with excitement and ran to Celeste. “Maybe he really found him! Maybe he really did!” he exclaimed, shaking his classmate by the shoulders.
A slight smile of hope played over Dylan’s lips and also Lindsay looked more cheerful. Only Nathalie didn’t seem too convinced. What was worse, she was blaming herself for what happened to Peter. She blamed herself for not telling her aunt about Patrick’s plan. If she told her, Peter could have been here with them, safe and sound. But she didn’t. She didn’t want to be that girl. Peter was going to die because she didn’t do anything to prevent this from happening. Peter was going to die because of her. He was going to die because she didn’t want to be that girl. What if Max really didn’t find him? What if he’s already dead? Oh my gosh, what if I killed Peter Gallahan?!
“Can you see him, Sky?” Lindsay asked Celeste when Max approached closer to the shore.
“I can’t see anything.”
“I hope he’s in there…”
“And what if he isn’t? What if he really drowned in the lake?” Nathalie asked the girls.
“Don’t be always such a pessimist, Nat,” Celeste said to her friend. “It’s not good for your psyche.”
“Psyche?” Lindsay asked, puzzled.
“Your soul,” Celeste explained.
“Ah… Anyway, he couldn’t drown, Nathalie. Patrick said Peter had the life vest… You can’t drown if you’re wearing the life vest, can you, Sky? Celeste!?”
“I think I see Peter.”
When the rowboat hit the shore, Nathalie and Celeste ran closer to look at their missing classmate. Peter was inertly lying on the bottom of the boat, unable to get up.
“Is he… is he dead?” Nathalie asked her aunt when she saw Peter’s skin. Malika looked down at the boy and shook her head from side to side.
“He’s alive,” she smiled at the girls.
“But why is his skin so blue?” Celeste asked the P.E. teacher.
“It’s one of the symptoms of hypothermia. We need to take him to the hospital,” Max explained to her and looked at Malika. “Call Bruce. We need his car. Quickly!”
“Is he going to be okay?” Nathalie asked Max.
“I think he’ll be fine,” he smiled at her, took Peter in his arms and carried him towards the warden hut. All the kids followed him.
When he reached the hut, Bruce was already sitting in the car, waiting. Malika swiftly opened the door and Max sat Peter down next to Bruce.
“Don’t drive too fast,” Max told him and shut the door.
“Whoa, whoa! Wait, man! You’re coming with me! There’ll be questions,” Bruce called at him from the window.
“There’s no space. I’ll borrow your bike and get there as soon as I can,” Max assured him.
“Screw the bike! Hop on the truck!”
“Yeah, jump in the cargo bed and let’s go!”
“Alright, but just because this is an emergency,” he said and climbed up on the truck. Malika didn’t look too thrilled about Bruce’s idea, but couldn’t do much about it. Peter’s health was more important than anything else at the moment.
“The doctor said that Peter was very lucky to end up in that part of the lake. There is an underground spring of 60 degrees that pours into the lake nearby the rocky beach where I found him. He only survived the night thanks to the warm temperature of the water. If the current took him anywhere else, he would die of hypothermia in less than two hours.”
“Oh my goodness, Max! What would we do now if that happened?!”
“I don’t even want to think about that, Malika. In fact, what really matters now is to find out more information about the stranger the boys met last night. Patrick said that after Peter jumped in the lake he told her that Peter couldn’t swim and that woman did nothing! Can you believe that?”
“Well, maybe it’s better if we let it be… Peter is going to be fine. There’s no need to-”
“Of course there is!” Max interrupted her. “The woman is very lucky that Peter survived. Plus what if something happened also to Patrick? Try to imagine what would it mean for the both of us if the boys died last night!”
“I know, I know. All I am saying is that, luckily, they’re both okay and that we don’t need to drag the stranger into this.”
“Oh yes, we do! She didn’t help a drowning child and let another risk his life!” Max was getting furious. “I’m going to ask Bruce what he knows about her.”
“But Max, what about the hiking trip?”
“Are you serious? Just tell the kids it’s been postponed for tomorrow.”
“I’m sure we can reschedule the swimming pool,” he said and left, leaving the Scout leader at a loss for words.
“So, why don’t we go to the pool this afternoon?” Lindsay asked the Scout leader.
“Because Max isn’t going with us and I cannot risk going alone with six hyperactive children.”
“Five,” Nathalie corrected her.
“Well, Patrick counts as two,” Malika said to Nathalie who nodded in agreement.
“We could go to buy some candy and gifts with our pocket money and bring them to Peter!” Celeste proposed an idea.
“I think it’s too early, sweetheart,” Malika smiled at Celeste. “They won’t let us see him until he’s stabilized.”
“Stabilized?” Celeste asked worriedly. “I thought he was okay.”
“Well, the doctors have to make sure his body temperature comes back to normal. They could be rewarming his blood with warm intravenous fluids such as a solution of salt water right now. They put it in his vein to help warm the blood,” Malika explained to the girls.
“Okay, I don’t think I want to go to see him until he’s stabilized,” said Lindsay and looked at Nathalie with fear in her eyes. “I don’t really like hospitals anyway,” she whispered to her.
“Me neither,” Nathalie whispered back.
“What can I do for you, Max?” Bruce asked him from behind the table as soon as Max walked in the warden hut.
“What do you know about the woman that lives in the cabin on the lake?”
“How do you know that somebody lives there?” Bruce answered his question with another question.
“Patrick told me.”
“Oh, I see. Well, to be honest, not much.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I’m telling the truth! I’ve met Mrs. Westmacott around five years ago at the town hall. She was looking for an empty lot in the wooded area of Hidden Springs, but according to the new legal reform you need a special permit to build a house in the protected nature reserve and believe me, it’s easier to climb the Himalayas than to get this sacred piece of paper! Well, to make a long story short, I made an offer to Mrs. Westmacott. That cabin on the lake once belonged to the old man who sold this house to me. Because I had no use of the cabin and needed money to finish the camp that was still under construction at that time, I sold the cabin to her. It might sound crazy, but I really haven’t seen her in all these years. Until today, I wasn’t even sure if she was still living there…”
“What did you say her name was again?”
“Mrs. Westmacott, why?”
“Now tell me her first name is Mary,” Max said with a huge grin.
“It is, actually. How did you know?” Bruce asked, puzzled.
“Do you have any idea who was Mary Westmacott, Bruce?”
“What do you mean was? Didn’t one of the boys say that he saw her yesterday?” Bruce asked Max, now completely confused.
“Well, I don’t know who it was that Patrick saw last night, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t the most well-known crime novelist of all time! By the way, did I mention that she died in the last century?”
“What are you talking about?! Plus she isn’t a writer! Well, actually, is, in a way. Mary works as a journalist for the local paper.”
“Does she really? Well, I can’t wait to meet her then. I hope you don’t mind if I borrow the rowboat again. Alright, nice talking to you, Bruce! Have a wonderful day,” Max said, smiling from ear to ear and headed back to camp.
“I don’t understand why did you insist on coming with me. You were the one who didn’t want to speak to her in the first place,” Max said to Malika on the way to the cabin.
“I know I did, but you know, you only get the chance to meet Lady Mallowan once in a lifetime,” she joked.
“I’m really curious to find out why this woman uses the pseudonym of Agatha Christie as her real name. Why would someone need to do that?”
“Who knows, maybe Peter was right from the very start. Maybe this woman truly is a serial killer and now she’s gonna murder us both.”
“Wait, you promised to stay in the boat! I want to talk to her alone.”
“Alright, alright. I’m just gonna wait in the boat… but if you don’t come back, let’s say, in thirty minutes, I’m gonna go there and bargain your corpse from her. How much do you think you’re worth? I forgot my credit card in the tent,” Malika smiled at Max, thinking she sounded funny. Max just looked at her without saying a word and jumped on the pier. He walked to the door and knocked. In a short while, an eye was looking at him through a little crack in the door.
“Maximilian? Is that you?” a deep smoky voice asked from behind the door.
“How come you know my name? Who are you?”
“I…,” the voice trailed off. There was a moment of silence before the door finally opened. “I am Francisca. Your aunt,” the woman revealed her real identity.
“You look so much like him…,” she said to Max who was completely dumbfounded by meeting his long-lost relative face to face. The two kept on staring at each other for a little while before Francisca invited her nephew inside.
“Oh, excuse my manners. Come inside, Max. Please,” she smiled at him. “It’s alright, Rufus, he’s a friend,” Francisca said to her dog and stepped aside.
“Nice dog,” Max looked down at Rufus as he entered the cabin. “How old is he?”
“Oh, he’s just a little puppy.”
“Puppy? How big is he going to be when he grows up?” Max asked his aunt and let the dog sniff his hand.
“Adult male Newfies weight around a hundred fifty pounds. This little boy weighs only eighty.”
“So he’s gonna become a bear!” Max smiled at the dog when he suddenly licked his hand. “Ew! This guy is the ultimate slime machine!” he said and the smile on his face turned into a disgusted frown.
“Yeah, I know. He drools a lot,” Francisca laughed while Max cleaned his hand on his shorts. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you.”
“Well, don’t just stand there like a stunned mullet. Sit down.”
Max sat down on the checked sofa and looked around the cabin. It was furnished in a modest way, mostly with old wooden furniture and grandma-style carpets and fabrics. There was an L-shaped oakwood staircase leading upstairs, probably to Francisca’s bedroom. The guitar sitting next to the old cable television was probably the most valuable object in Francisca’s possession.
“Before you said I looked like him. Who did you mean?” Max asked his aunt.
“I don’t look like Renauld!” he said with a slightly offended tone.
“Of course you don’t look like… that man,” Francisca made a long pause before saying the last two words. “He isn’t your real grandfather,” she clarified.
“Wasn’t my grandfather,” Max corrected her. “He passed away two years ago.”
“Oh, did he?” Francisca asked, sounding pleasantly surprised. “I hope he burns in hell.”
“Beg your pardon?” Max asked her, confounded by her reaction. Francisca ignored him. “He might not have been my real grandfather, but that doesn’t mean he was a bad guy…”
“Oh, he wasn’t a bad guy. He was a bastard with the capital ‘B’,” she said coldly.
“I’m sorry?” Max turned at Francisca standing by the stove. “Why do you speak of him this way?”
“Because it’s the truth.”
“Well, I don’t really know what reasons you might have, but still, he’s dead. You shouldn’t speak like this about the dead,” he said to his aunt as he watched her place two cups of tea on a wooden tray. “I said I didn’t want any.”
“Who said the second cup was for you?” Francisca looked at him from behind her glasses. “They’re both for me,” she added, set the tray on the coffee table by the sofa, took one of the cups and wrapped her hands around it. She was about to sit down on the chair when Max blocked her way.
“You can sit next to me, I don’t bite,” he looked at his aunt with bittersweet sadness in his eyes. “I think there must be some big reason for you to detest Renauld so much even when he’s no longer with us… I’d like to know.”
“Then you should ask your dear grandmother,” she said those last two words like if they had the most disgusting, foul taste imaginable.
“Dear grandmother?” Max repeated the words after his aunt with the same contempt. “No wonder nobody cared to reach out to you in all these years if you hate everybody so much.”
“That’s a lie! I don’t hate you or your sisters, Max. I don’t hate my brother, I don’t hate Faith. I just… I don’t think I’m ready to talk about this. I’m sorry.”
“Then I’ll be on my way, I guess,” he said and when he was about to stand up, Francisca took him by the arm and pulled him back down.
“Don’t go just yet. Please, Max,” she looked at him with desperate eyes.
“I don’t have time for a chit-chat, but I can tell dad about you if you want. I guess he’d be surprised to know that I have found his sister by an accident. Which reminds me… Why didn’t you help the boy last night? He was obviously drowning and you did nothing. You even let the other kid get in the rowboat all by himself,” Max looked her in the eyes, waiting for an answer.
“Max, there’s something I’d like to show to you,” Francisca said instead, stood up from the sofa and walked towards the stairs leading to the attic.
“Fine, but only after you answer my question,” he insisted.
“I’m sorry for letting the boy in the boat alone, Max. I thought that if he was able to get here, he could also get back… I didn’t realize what could have happened. I am very sorry.”
“It’s great to know that you’re sorry about that, but I am more concerned about the other kid, Peter. If he died last night we would all go to jail. Me, you and my colleague. All of us.”
“But we won’t because my boy saved him,” she smiled peacefully and looked at Rufus lying in his bed under the staircase.
“Wait. The dog brought Peter to the shore? How?” Max asked in amazement and looked at Rufus licking his front paw.
“Newfoundlands are great swimmers. They can take on powerful tides and long distances. These dogs have webbed feet and a thick, oily, and waterproof double coat that protects them from the chill of icy waters. They have a strong propensity to rescue people from the water. I knew that Rufus would instinctively dive into the lake and bring the boy to safety.”
“But how could he know that the water at that rocky beach was the warmest of all the lake?”
“Rufus isn’t stupid. I dare to say he knows these waters better than anyone. He spends most of the time swimming and running around the lake.”
“Wow. You’ve got a genius living under your roof! I should buy the hero a big steak or two,” Max smiled proudly at Rufus.
“I’m sure he’d love that,” Francisca said to Max and looked at her dog.
“So uh, what was it you wanted to show me?”
“Follow me,” she moved her sight from Rufus to Max and walked up the stairs.
“What is this?” Max asked Francisca when she took an old, heavy book out of the wicker chest and placed it with a loud thud on the dresser standing right next to it.
“This is your grandmother’s spellbook,” she said and switched on the lamp sitting on the dresser. The light revealed a huge worn-out book with dark violet velvet cover embossed with golden ornaments.
“I’m not sure if I heard well but did you just say spellbook?” Max asked her, mystified.
“That’s correct,” she confirmed and looked Maximilian in his blue-green eyes. “Are you sure you really want to learn the secret of Catarina Vanderburg?”
“At this point, I don’t even know who my grandmother is,” Max frowned and looked at the spellbook. “This book… is it real? Like real real? With magic spells and such?”
“This can’t be…,” he trailed off and silently watched his aunt put her finger between two pages marked by a raven feather.
“I don’t think I could ever be ready for this,” Max said casually, still trying to understand if this was just a dream or if he was really standing in the attic of his long-lost relative, looking at a real spellbook that belonged to his grandmother who was… a witch?
“I’ll take it as a yes,” Francisca said and opened the book, setting the raven feather aside.
“Wow. Is this… is this a potion recipe?” Max asked aloud when he deciphered the words written in an overly decorative font.
“Correct,” Francisca nodded her head. “And not just any recipe. This is the recipe for the elixir of immortality.”
“No way… So does this mean that she will live forever?”
“No. She has never gathered all the ingredients. See over here? This line isn’t crossed out,” she said and pointed her finger at the missing ingredient.
“Royal baby blood?!” Maxed asked her anxiously. “Whose baby?”
“Good question, Max. Whose baby?” she said with watery eyes. “As you can see the recipe says ‘royal baby blood min. 50% quality’. That means that at least one of the baby’s parents must be of a royal descent,” she added with a shaky voice.
“Aunt Francisca, are you okay?” Max asked her, concerned about her sudden change of state.
“Do you know how much blood there is in a newborn’s body?”
“Not too much I guess.”
“One cup, Max. One single cup of blood,” she said, nearly whispering, closed the book and ran downstairs with tears in her eyes.
“Aunt Francisca?” Max sat down on the sofa next to her and put his hand on hers. “Did my grandmother want to kill me when I was born?” he swallowed hard, feeling the stab of heartache slide over the lump in his throat.
“Oh no… No, no, no. She would never do that to Sebastian. She loved him too much for that. She would never harm you or your sisters,” Francisca smiled at her nephew, gently squeezing his hand.
“Then whose baby did she-” Max didn’t finish his question because when his aunt finally looked at him with her wet and weary eyes, he suddenly knew. “Oh, I’m so sorry, aunt Francisca… now I understand why you hate her so much.”
“Max,” she looked at him, her eyes drowned in the vast emptiness of a deep sorrow. “You have no idea what she did to me.”
— Dear reader, PLEASE read no further! READ Francisca’s story FIRST —
This special includes language, adult situations, violence, and disturbing or sensitive subjects therefore I rated it PG18. You can access the extra episode by clicking on the link above (opens in a new window). Read at your own discretion.
There was a long moment of silence after Francisca told her heartbreaking story to her nephew. Max was in a total shock. What was he supposed to say to her now? A simple phrase such as ‘I am so very sorry’ could never heal the profound scar on her heart. There were no words that could express the ongoing emotional war within him. He couldn’t believe all of this has really happened.
“You had the evidence in your hands! Why didn’t you go to the police?” Max asked her, unable to understand his aunt’s decision.
“I knew she would never harm Sebastian. My little brother lost both his father and sister in one day. I didn’t want to take away the last family he had left,” she sighed and her eyes flooded with tears again. “I didn’t want my brother to grow up in the orphanage, Max. Catarina ruined one childhood already, I couldn’t let her do the same to my little brother.”
“Do you still have the photographs?” Max asked her after a moment of silence.
“I’ve never had the film developed… but yes, I still have it. Why?”
“It’s time she finally pays for what she did to you and your father, Francisca. If you help me we can bring her to justice together.”
“ You don’t have to do this, Max…”
“But I want to. I want to see the witch burn at stake,” he said coldly.
“We don’t live in the 16th century, Max.”
“Max! MAX!” a voice called from outside the cabin.
“Did you hear that?” Francisca asked her nephew when she heard someone calling his name.
“Yeah, it’s my colleague Malika. She probably thinks I’m dead by now,” he let out a low laugh.
“Why would she think that?” Francisca asked, puzzled.
“She still doesn’t know who Mrs. Westmacott really is,” Max explained.
“Oh,” Francisca cunningly smiled at her nephew.
“Well, I guess it’s time to leave,” he said and stood up from the sofa.
“Do you already have some plans for tonight?” she asked him urgently.
“Max? Are you in there? MAX!?” Malika knocked on the door.
“Meet me by the graveyard after sunset,” Francisca said to him when he was about to open the door. “Later, Max!”
“So, Mrs. Westmacott is a long-lost relative of yours, who would have thought!” Malika said when she sat in the rowboat.
“Yeah, I was pretty shocked myself. My father has never spoken about his runaway sister to us… I don’t even know if he ever tried searching for her,” Max shrugged and sat in front of Malika.
“Probably he did. How else could she know you? I’m sure there must have been a contact between them at some point.”
“I don’t know. She used to work as a journalist for Bridgeport Times. You can only imagine the level of nosiness of those people,” he said and dipped the oars in the water. “She might have gotten the information about our family from elsewhere.”
“I guess you can ask your father about that, Max. He knows how things really are,” she said and turned her head around to look at the camp in the distance. “We should go back, I don’t want Patrick to drive Bruce completely crazy.”
By the time the first star appeared in the sky, Max was already standing by the cemetery gate and waiting for Francisca. He had no idea what his aunt had on mind. She was probably just excited about meeting her nephew and wanted to get to know him a little better. It didn’t take long and a car pulled over.
“Hey, Max! Get in the car,” Francisca smiled at her nephew and pushed the door open.
“So, where are we going? A bar?” Max asked her when he sat down on the ripped leather seat and closed the door.
“Do you want to kill me, Max?” she laughed. “We’re going home.”
“Home?” Max raised his eyebrows.
“Your old home,” Francisca smiled at Max and pushed the gas.
“What are we going to do there? I know that my grandmother sold it after we moved to Monte Vista. Doesn’t somebody live there now?” he asked her, confused.
“That house never went on the market, Max.”
“Yep. It’s abandoned.”
“Wait. How are we going to get in?” Max asked his aunt who just looked at him and mischievously smiled. “You’re not serious. Do you really want to break in? What if we get caught?”
“We won’t. Plus who cares! This house still belongs to our family!” she laughed and stopped the car.
“Isn’t it kinda weird to break into your own property?”
“Well, technically speaking, the house belongs to my dear mother, not to me, and since we’re here to gather evidence against her I’d say it’s not weird at all.”
“Makes sense,” he nodded and walked towards the stairs leading to the front porch.
“So, how do you want to go about it?” Max asked his aunt when they stopped by the locked door.
“Watch me and learn,” she winked at him.
“I wonder, why has my dad never told me I had such a kick-ass aunt?”
“Probably because he had no idea he had a kick-ass sister?” she grinned while Max laughed out loud.
“Now seriously, where did you learn to pick locks?” he asked when she turned the knob and the door opened in front of them.
“You learn a lot as a runaway teenager. An old friend of mine taught me many things… I’ll tell you some other time, it’s really a long story and we don’t have time for that right now.”
“Aunt Francisca, you’re awesome!”
“Thank you, Max. By the way, you can call me Fran,” she smiled at her nephew and pushed him inside.
“Impressive. This place still looks the same after all these years,” Max said as he looked around. “I remember grandpa George teaching me to slide down the railing as a boy,” he recalled and placed his hand on the wooden stair railing. “It’s incredible how time flies.”
“Don’t tell me. It’s been fifty years since I ran away from home, but it seems like only yesterday…”
“This house is full of memories everywhere I look. Why did we have to leave?” Max asked the empty hall of his childhood home.
“Do you remember this bookshelf, Max?” Francisca interrupted his stream of thoughts.
“Of course! How could I not remember the only thing in the house I couldn’t touch!”
“And have you ever wondered why was that?”
“No, not really. My mom said they were grandma’s books and that if we touched them we’d burn our hands.”
“Well, actually, Faith wasn’t so far from the truth.”
“What do you mean?”
“This bookshelf hides a secret passage to Catarina’s shrine of black magic. If you pull the wrong book your hand will catch on fire.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Wanna try?” Francisca asked him playfully. “I burned my hands the first time I searched for the hidden switch disguised as a book. That’s why I make sure to wear gloves now. I think it’s this one,” she said and pulled on one of the books. The next moment, the entire bookshelf slid under the staircase, revealing a dark corridor leading beneath the surface of the ground.
“Wicked!” Max exclaimed in amazement and followed his aunt underground. When they reached the end of the tunnel, they found themselves in a room filled with old books neatly organized in bookshelves covering three of the four walls. “Are you freakin’ kidding me?! This secret room was here all the time I lived in this house and I learn about it only now?”
“What would have changed if you knew about it then?”
“Seriously, Fran? Show a place like this to any rebellious teenager and you’ll not see him for months!” Max smiled broadly at her. “Gosh, I wish I had known of this ten years ago… So, what is it we’re looking for exactly?”
“Like a Barbie?”
“Yes, a Barbie doll with pins in her body,” Francisca said sarcastically.
“We’re looking for a voodoo doll, dummy!”
“Hmm. Why would she keep it here if she really does have one?” Max asked his aunt who remained silent and furrowed her brow. “Ha! Who’s the dummy now?!”
“Alright, alright. You might have a point there,” Francisca admitted her defeat.
“Isn’t her wand a better evidence anyway?” he asked when he spotted Catarina’s wand lying on a little cushion exposed on the pedestal by the bookshelf.
“No! Don’t touch it!” Francisca called at Max when he was about to take the wand in his hand. “I’m sure the wand is bewitched. If you touch it, Catarina will get to know that we’re here!”
Max stepped back from the pedestal and tripped over a pile of books on the floor. “Geez! How many books does she need?!” he whined while Francisca silently giggled.
“You can find anything ranging from the history of witchcraft to some trashy vampire romance. I’d appreciate a little bit of quiet now. I need to read something and it’s really hard to concentrate with you around.”
Max made the ‘zip-the-lips’ gesture at her and walked to the other side of the room. After he spent around ten minutes reading the titles of the trashy books for ladies, he walked back to Francisca.
“All this quiet is starting to creep me out,” Max said when he approached his aunt who was intently reading a book lying on a carved wooden pedestal.
“Sounds just fine to me,” Francisca said casually and continued reading without paying much attention to her nephew.
“What do you think is missing from that red cushion over there?” Max asked her and pointed at the space between two bookshelves on the other side of the room.
“It’s hard to guess, but probably something valuable.”
“Do you think it could be where she is?”
“It could. If she really carries it with herself, then it might be some magical object, undoubtedly very important to her,” she said and walked towards the bookshelf.
“A piece of jewelry?”
“She wears this one necklace all the time. I bet she even showers with it still on,” Max pondered.
“This is just a speculation, Max. If you will excuse me I will get back to reading. Just please don’t touch anything except the books, okay?”
Max walked around the room observing the strange-looking objects sitting on the shelves by the cauldron and even stranger things stocked in ethanol jars dispersed on the floor nearby the alchemy table. Then one book in particular caught his attention.
“Oh my goodness, Max! What are you doing?!” Francisca ran to Max lying on the ground and helped him sit up.
“You said not to touch anything except the books! How could I know I wasn’t supposed to touch this one?!”
“Oh, Max! Don’t you see this is her alchemy book?”
“But I… I just opened it… the candles lit up… and… and then all of a sudden I got catapulted away,” Max explained to Francisca who laughed in a silly way.
“Why are you laughing?” Maxed asked, still in shock.
“The same thing happened to me when I first came here. I had to hide away from my mother in this cauldron. I don’t think we’ll both fit in this time around, though,” she said casually and pulled her nephew up from the ground. “We have to leave. She’ll be here soon. To the car! Quickly!”
“If we get spotted by her then we can say goodbye to our plan, Max. Hide in this bush over here and don’t move,” Francisca commanded while she was getting her camera ready. “I’ll snap a couple of pictures of her and then we’re outta here.”
“Get down, Max! Here she comes!”
“Alright. We’ve got what we came for,” Francisca smiled to herself when she looked at the photos on the little screen of her camera.
“Wait. You’ve planned this from the very start?” Max asked her, astounded.
“Yep. If your curious fingers didn’t touch the alchemy book, I would have to do it myself,” she admitted. “Luckily, I had stopped you from touching the wand as soon as we got there because otherwise, I wouldn’t have had enough time to find the information on the construction of the voodoo doll I was telling you about. Now I’m sure there’s one in your home in Monte Vista.”
“Why would she need a voodoo doll?”
“To manipulate people?”
“That’s really evil.”
“Haven’t you ever asked yourself what made your mother remarry my brother after he cheated on her so many times?”
“To be honest, I’ve never really cared. Don’t take me wrong, my dad’s pretty cool now, but he used to be a big jerk. He left my mom soon after I was born,” Max sighed. “Wait, how do you know that my parents got divorced?”
“I just know, Max.”
“You cannot just know. You couldn’t have just known who I was. You’ve never seen me.”
“There’s still a lot you don’t know about me, Max. I hope we’ll get the chance to get to know each other better soon.”
“Are you some sort of a retired secret agent?”
“What makes you think I’m retired?”
“So you are a secret agent!”
“I didn’t say that,” Francisca told him, opened the back door of the car and threw her camera on the car seat. “Look, Max,” she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Even though I’ve been gone for so long, it doesn’t mean I didn’t stay in touch with my brother. I asked Sebastian not to speak about me with anyone. Neither with Faith,” she said with a heavy heart. “I hope you can forgive me, nephew.”
THREE DAYS LATER
“I’m home!” Max called from the hall and kicked the door shut.
“Hello, Max!” Faith came running from the living room and hugged her son.
“Hey, mom! Is grandma home?” he asked, pulling away from his mother.
“Yes, she is. Why?” Faith asked him, puzzled. “You look nervous,” she added when she noticed the drops of sweat on his forehead.
“Nah, everything’s fine,” Max assured her. “So, uh, where’s grandma? I’ve got something for her,” he asked his mother and took off the backpack.
“Max, is everything alright?” Faith suspiciously looked at him.
“Yes! Just… Could you please just tell her to come here?”
“Alright, alright. I guess it must be something big if it cannot wait,” she smiled at her son and walked towards the bathroom. Max took his cellphone out of the pocket and typed a text message with shaky hands to notify his father about Catarina’s presence in the house.
“Your mother tells me you’ve got a surprise for me?” Catarina walked in the hall, dressed in her bathrobe and smiling broadly at her grandson.
“I do and I think you’re not gonna like it, grandma,” Max said to Catarina and flashed a hurtful look at his mother.
“Beg your pardon?” Catarina asked her grandson, confused. The very moment the door of the Vanderburg mansion slammed open and two policemen led by Sebastian Vanderburg barged into the house.
“Mrs. Vanderburg, you are under arrest for the murder of your first husband Maximilian Vanderburg II, for the complicity in the sexual violation of your daughter Francisca, for conspiring the murder of a newborn, for human abuse and manipulation and for practicing black magic. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney-”
“Seriously, Sebastian? Does it look like I cannot afford one?” Catarina interrupted her son.
“If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights?”
“Gentlemen, this is a terrible misunderstanding,” she said with a smile and reached for her magical amulet. The moment she realized it was lying on the towel in the bathroom her eyes widened with sheer horror.
“I suggest you say no more, mother,” Sebastian said coldly. “How could you do this to our family?” he whispered to her and put the handcuffs on her hands. Sebastian looked at his mother one last time and motioned the officers to take her to the police car.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment every day for the past fifty years,” Francisca said to herself when the policemen pushed Catarina out of the door.
“Francisca? Is that you?” Catarina asked with a weak voice.
“Hello, mother,” Francisca replied coldly.
“Is this… is this all your doing?” Catarina looked at her daughter with utter contempt.
“You bet! It took me fifty years but you know what they say – better late than never! Farewell, old witch. Enjoy your stay in prison,” she told her and stepped away from the car. Sebastian walked to his sister standing on the pathway in front of the mansion and they both looked at their mother sitting in the police car, creepily smiling at her daughter. This is not the last time we see, Catarina thought to herself as the car slowly pulled away.
“Could someone please explain to me what is grandma doing in the police car?” Reese looked at her mother and brother, having no clue about what was going on.
“Don’t look at me, Reese. I’m shocked as much as you are.”
“It’s a pretty long story and I’ve got a date tonight,” Max said to his sister.
“A date?” she laughed. “You should put more effort into finding a better excuse, little brother.”
“Reese, I’ve got a date.”
“Oh, you really do? I haven’t seen you with anyone since high school!”
“If you haven’t noticed, big sister, your little brother has become a man and has no interest in sharing such sensitive information with you anymore.”
“Touche. Well, could you at least tell me what she did? I don’t need to hear all the details. Plus I’m sure also mom would like to know. Right, mom?” Reese asked Max and looked at her mother for support.
“Why don’t you ask your aunt, sis?” Max teased her. “She’ll fill you in on the details.”
“Because I have none? Duh!”
“Yes, you do. She’s standing over there,” he said casually.
“What?! Who is she?”
“Aunt Francisca. Our father’s sister?” he pointed out sarcastically.
“That’s obvious, Max, you don’t have to say that out loud!” I had no idea we had an aunt, Reese thought to herself as she observed the stranger.
“I know it’s not the best moment to say this, Fran, but I’m really glad you’re back,” Sebastian smiled at his sister and gently squeezed her hand.
“You should thank your son, Sebastian. If it wasn’t for him, we’d probably never meet again.”
“Sebastian!” Faith called at her husband. “Could you explain to me what was this theater all about?!”
“What do you mean, honey?” Sebastian asked her and winked at his sister.
“What do you mean what do I mean?! Haven’t you seen what you did to the door? It’s completely trashed!” Faith hysterically yelled at him.
“Is it?” he asked excitedly and hurried to give a look at the door. After he observed it for a little while, he finally closed it and the door fell down on the porch. “YES!” he called out victoriously and stepped on the door lying on the ground with pride. “I always wanted to do this! Muhahaha!” Sebastian laughed out loud.
“Are you okay?” Faith looked at him uncomprehendingly.
“It’s a guy thing, hon. You wouldn’t understand,” he said, smiling from ear to ear. Little did he know that the big smile would soon disappear from his happy face.
But that’s a story for another chapter. Open this image in a new window to see the clue.