At four o'clock on the afternoon of the first of October, police cars drew up at each of the three main gates to the StregaSchloss estate and effectively cordoned off the area.
As a further precaution, a launch sped up Lochnagargoyle, cut its engines, and dropped anchor just out of sight of the StregaSchloss jetty. Radios crackled, then fell silent as moments ticked by, marked by the rain drumming on the roofs of the police cars and turning their windshields opaque.
Inside the cars the policemen waited for the rain to stop, enviously imagining what it would be like to have so much money that you could afford to live in a huge house like StregaSchloss.
"How many did you say, Detective Sergeant?"
"Fifty-six chimneys, sir."
There StregaSchloss lay, its turrets and chimneys thrust aggressively into the sky; a vast, unattainable, immeasurably expensive chunk of real estate bigger than all the policemen's houses put together.
"Surely that rust bucket can't be their only car, Detective Sergeant?"
"'Fraid so, sir--apart from the butler's wee Japanese jobbie."
Outside StregaSchloss, parked on the rose-quartz drive, was the Strega-Borgia family car, badly in need of a wash and bearing a scrawl to this effect on its rear window. With a pair of high-powered binoculars the DCI could just about decipher the message:
Pure Dead mingin'--please wash me
In Titus's opinion a wash was not enough. He'd written this considered criticism on the car's rear window months ago, but it had failed to bring results: the car still hadn't been washed, and a season spent hauling Titus and his sister Pandora back and forth along a rutted muddy track hadn't improved the car's general state of decrepitude. Nor had his little sister Damp's habit of littering all the car's internal horizontal surfaces with a combination of peanut butter, glitter, and a selection of the dried-up furry bits from the insides of several disemboweled felt pens. No, Titus thought, a grin appearing on his face, a wash was not what their car required. It needed some kind soul to disengage the hand brake, put the gears in neutral, and push the car straight into the moat, where, with luck, it would vanish from sight into the deep mud at the bottom--the same forgiving mud that had swallowed so many unwanted things over the years.
Then they could buy a decent car. Something fast. Something sleek and powerful. Something--Titus's smile faded--something highly unsuitable for a family of two adults, and three children, plus another one due to appear round about Christmas. By which time the parents would either tie Titus and Pandora to the roof rack to make room for the new baby or go and buy something truly hideous with buslike rows of industrial seating, the motor equivalent of an elastic band under the bonnet, and a name that would make Titus cringe every time the parents referred to it. Like, er: "Go and get my bag out of the Nipply, would you, darling"; or, "I think I'd better get gas for the Sopha while I'm in town"; or even, shudder, shudder, "Yeah, but it's not as big as our Urse TDi."
Still, Titus decided, anything, even an Urse TDi, had to be better than having to walk to Auchenlochtermuchty. He hardly noticed when several wet figures ran across the rose quartz and applied themselves to the front doorbell with great urgency. Had he not been quite so preoccupied, Titus might have spotted that two of the scurrying figures were dressed in identical damp black serge with checkerboard detail round the epaulettes: the uniform of the Argyll and Bute Police.
Meanwhile, in his bedroom in the attic, the StregaSchloss butler, Latch, was not enjoying an afternoon nap. He'd spent the hours since lunchtime trying to evict a bat. In vain had he opened skylights and made shooing noises; unsurprisingly, given the rain outside, the bat was having none of it. Latch had no desire to harm the little creature, but he most emphatically didn't want to share the same room. After several abortive attempts to flap it out of the window using a pillowcase as propellant, Latch had given up and was now sitting on his bed, trying to reason with the intruder. The bat hung upside down from the lampshade and ignored him.
"Look," Latch said, "it's dead simple. This is my cave, not yours. The only person I want to share it with lies fathoms deep at the bottom of Lochnagargoyle, and frankly you, pal, are no substitute. Though undoubtedly heaven-sent, the love of my life had no visible wings and definitely wasn't covered in black fur."
The bat blinked and extended one leathery wing.
"Please," Latch said, blowing his nose and wiping his eyes, "leave me alone. Go and do your bat-thing somewhere else. You remind me of death--as if I needed reminding." He closed his eyes, shutting out the sight of the spartan bedroom; a room that bore no evidence of anything other than solitary bachelorhood and utter loneliness. There were no photographs, no letters, nothing to show for the love he'd found and lost. Even his memory of her was dimming as the days without her ticked by; days he spent scanning the loch shore, willing the water to return her to him, his mermaid, his selkie, his loved and lost Flora.
The bat extended both wings and cleared his throat with a discreet cough. "I hate to intrude on your grieving, sir," he whispered. "Forgive me for interrupting. I'm not looking for you, actually. Any chance you could point me toward the witch?"
He waited, refolding his wings like organic origami, his pale eyes blinking in the fading light.
"The witch?" Latch's voice emerged as a strangled squeak.
"The real witch," the bat insisted. "Not the big one, nor the medium one, but the little one--oh, whatsername: Wet? Clammy? Moist?"
"Damp," Latch said. "Down eight flights of stairs, hang a left, and third door on the right along the corridor."
"Damp," the bat said in an awed voice. "D-aaaaammmmmmp."
"Indeed," said Latch, his tone indicating that his patience was running out alongside the bat's welcome. To further this impression he opened the door leading onto the attic corridor, and stepped back to allow the uninvited guest to make his exit unimpeded.
"I'm much obliged," the bat squeaked, unfolding one wing after the other and giving both a good shake. "Really sorry about your sad loss."
"Quite," muttered Latch. He turned aside and crossed the room to stand gazing sightlessly out the window; as clear a signal as one could wish for that the conversation, such as it was, had come to an end. When his swimming eyes were able to focus once more, he realized that the distant white blob parked across the north gate to StregaSchloss was a police car, but by then it was too late.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Pure Dead Batty by Debi Gliori. Copyright © 2006 by Debi Gliori. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.