Two minutes later, the entire human population of the second and third floors, plus Alicia “Beep” Finger and Natalie Lopez, was crowded into Tom Hexane’s room with the door shut. Eva the Ghost Kitty was outside watching the stairs, a job Tom didn’t have to tell her to do.
“So let me state some facts, if I may,” Ahir said. “We can NOT all go, not if we wish to sneak. And I definitely get to go, because I haven’t up to now and I am sorry but I deserve to. And Angelica and/or Rachel need to go because they were the ones who brought the situation to our attention.”
“So what do you propose?” asked Arnulf.
“Four people go,” said Ahir. One is me. One is either Angelica or Rachel. One is Tom, because of the map and the cat, whom we need. We draw lots for the other one.”
“Bull,” said Arnulf. “If you go, I go.”
“Reeeeally,” said Ahir, smiling at him while skewering him with those sharp brown eyes. “As happened when you went to the Field Museum and I didn’t?”
Arnulf rolled his eyes but shrugged. Cloudius said, “I should get to go.”
“Why?” asked Ahir, turning those eyes on him. He wilted.
“No reason,” he said. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
“You can go,” said Rachel. “You want to. I want to study.”
“We’re not going tonight, are we?” asked Angelica.
“I have already finished my studying,” said Ahir Shaheen. “Honestly, I was merely going over notes again and again. Even Arnulf has essentially done as much as he can. And with each night we wait, there is one more chance that they will move who or whatever it is that they are hiding, if that’s what they are doing over there in,” and she said, “Shag House,” with pity for its inmates, who would never be Ash House residents.
“Okay,” said Arnulf, “let’s do the job, shall we?” He pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket and counted off eight black cards and the King of Hearts. He shuffled them up and gave a card to everyone but Ahir, Angelica and Tom. They all turned their cards up: Rats Laguna had the King of Hearts.
“No way,” he said flatly. “Not without Cloud. If he don’t go, I don’t go.” He grinned at Cloudius, who gave him a thumb’s up.
“Okey dokey,” said Arnulf, taking the cards back and dropping off one black one. He distributed the newly shuffled cards to everyone but Ahir, Angelica, Tom and Rats.
“Hey, not fair,” said Rats and Cloudius.
“Sure it is,” said Arnulf, and Daphne said, “Seems fair to me.” They turned up their cards. Cloudius had the King.
“Great,” said Daphne. “You won’t go without Rats, right?”
“Nah,” said Cloudius. He handed the King of Hearts to Arnulf. “It’s more your kind of thing, Nulf. You go.”
They were getting almost too good at this. The Ash students spent the evening studying and playing quiet board games and reading, and when eleven o’clock came around and absolutely everyone was supposed to be asleep, absolutely everyone seemed to be asleep. The ghost and the cat Kenneth made their rounds, and then went down to Ash’s tiny study and pondered ancient books side by side.
Angelica got up quietly and slipped on her dark jacket, the one with the hood. She pulled out her wand and then slipped out the door. She tapped on Arnulf’s door.
Ahir Shaheen opened it. She had her black wand in her hand. Arnulf was behind her, sitting on his messy bed, looking at the JS wand. They were fully dressed, of course. “You ready?”
“Yeah,” said Arnulf, standing up.
Ahir smiled at him, then looked out in the hall. “Oooh, kitty, big kitty,” she cooed softly at Eva.
“I’m ready,” said Tom. “No need for my spear head, right? Just wand work tonight?”
“Just wand work,” said Angelica.
“Just wand work,” said Ahir.
Arnulf coughed. “Of course she has her saber or whatever that is,” said Arnulf.
“It’s hidden,” said Ahir, a little defensive.
“I didn’t say I minded.” He looked at Angelica.
“I got my long knife,” said Ange. “Objections?” He just raised his eyebrows.
Down the stairs they went, Eva in the lead, then Tom and Angelica, then Ahir and Arnulf. The ghost cat led them to the back of the house and out onto the back porch; Arnulf held the inner screen door carefully so it didn’t creak a bit. Tom and Eva went to a short, unobtrusive wooden door in the inner wall of the porch, which was cluttered and disused and, right now, bloody cold. In a second he had the door open, and they were descending steep steps that let out into a far lobe of the Ash House cellar. Odd objects lurked in the dark, barely touched by the light of their four wands. But Tom could read his map, and with just a little quiet rummaging (“SHESH!” hissed Ahir Shaheen), they found a narrow hall, black as the abyss, hidden behind a wooden panel.
It was a far shorter distance than the subterranean trek to Giordano’s, or even the hidden way to the school basement, but they got a little careless hurrying, all of them (except possibly Eva) disconcerted by the near-sound and near-sight of shady figures in the blackness. Even Eva stopped once and hissed, and then, after a few seconds, looked back at them, mraowed and resumed the journey.
Then they were pushing their way past a sheet of plywood and out into another cellar.