Patton finally returned home to find all the construction equipment gone and an envelope stuffed in his door. The Shirk Brothers had left their bill, along with a copy of the contract with the payment section highlighted. Great. He called Rich to give him the happy news.
“The bill’s here. What do you want me to do next?”
“I’ll be over in about an hour to pick it up. In the meantime I want you to take pictures of everything they might have touched. Make note of how smooth the ground is, how much junk was left in the driveway, any shrubbery or tree damage, and so on. Document the hell out of it!”
While he was taking pictures the Gruff sisters arrived and invited him out to dinner. “You need to celebrate!” said Yvonne.
“You need to sleep in your own bed,” corrected Margaret.
“That I do,” agreed Patton. “Your support and hospitality has been truly wonderful, but I need to get back to my own life.”
“I hope you realize that your old life is gone,” said Elaine.
“Oh don’t be such a downer!” Yvonne swatted her sister. “We’ll take Scotty out to dinner, and then he can come home to sleep in his own bed and in the morning take a shower in his own bathroom and not have his routine cramped by our feminine influences. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if he belches himself to sleep!” She smiled fetchingly, pleased to have come up with something that no proper woman would ever do.
Rich stopped by just long enough to pick up the paperwork and copies of Patton’s pictures. Just for the heck of it Patton had taken a few of the kitchen damage now that debris wasn’t covering everything. He was still brooding on the cost of repairs compared to having to eat out all the time when they arrived at the restaurant.
The girls worked hard to snap him out of it, asking him unusual questions to get his mind off his troubles.
“If you were an animal in the wild — not a human — what kind would you like to be?” Elaine occasionally came up with strange questions, but this one was more bizarre than usual.
“A Republican,” replied Patton.
“What?” All the witches were giving him strange looks.
“I mean a bull elephant. I’m not a herd animal, and not a predator, but I am big and powerful enough that most predators would rather tangle with something else. Or at least I was before the accident. I’m sure you noticed that I’ve lost a lot of weight since.”
“That’s actually a well-reasoned answer. Occasionally you surprise me.” She paused for a moment. “Why not a rhinoceros?”
“I actually considered a rhino, but I don’t know that much about them. Besides, rhinos are supposed to have bad eyes and worse temper. I prefer having good eyes.”
“Well, my purpose for asking the question was to get you thinking about the characteristics of different types of animals. I think you should consider finding yourself a familiar.”
“You mean like a black cat or something? I thought that was only for witches.”
“Any Mage can have a familiar, and it doesn’t have to be a cat, either.” Elaine dropped into lecture mode, again. “A familiar acts as an intermediary, performs simple tasks and protects the witch or wizard from danger. It’s not something you need to do right away, and the more thought you put into it the better your choice will be. I’d like you to think about it.”
“So tell me, why do so many witches have cat familiars?”
“What makes you think that?”
“Popular superstition, I guess. Do most witches have cat familiars?”
“Of course we do, silly! Cats are the guardians of the home, in addition to being low maintenance. Unlike dogs.”
“So witches don’t have dog familiars?”
“Nearly as many as cats, although more lone witches than those in covens. Dogs are quite loyal even without having a familiar bond, and their protection is offered to the individual more so than the dwelling.”
“It’s not unusual for witches to switch from one type of familiar to another as their needs change.”
“How about other species? Or are familiars restricted to only cats and dogs?”
“No, any species that can be a pet can also be a familiar, including some unusual species. There are several Native American witches who have raccoons, for instance, and there was once a famous witch in India who had an elephant. But around here it’s mostly cats, dogs, ferrets, and parrots.”
“Anything to keep in mind when choosing a familiar?”
“Well, you have to remember it’s a two-way street. They’ll be placing demands on you just like you’ll be placing demands on them. The more intelligent the animal the more valuable it will be to you, but also the more of a partnership arrangement as to a master-slave relationship.”
“And remember, this is a lifetime commitment — the animal’s lifetime, which you will probably double because of the bond.”
“You mean familiars actually live longer than ordinary cats and dogs?”
“Oh, yes! They have access to your Magic, and the major benefit they get from that is living longer. Keep that in mind, too.”
While he was sitting on his patio, enjoying evening air that was warm for once and contemplating the expanse of bare dirt that used to be his back yard, a large crow came and landed on the patio next to him. At least Patton thought it was a crow, in fact it was a raven but Patton hadn’t yet learned to tell the difference.
“So what’s your story?” he asked the raven. “You want something from me? I’ve got to give you credit for asking instead of just stealing whatever it is.”
The raven cocked his head as if he were trying to figure out this strange person who actually talks to birds instead of just saying “Shoo!” Then with a “Caw!” he flew up into the branches overhead. A moment later something came crashing down onto Patton’s head. He deflected it easily, then bent over to see what it was.
“My motorcycle key! You bastard! Get down here so I can kick your feathered butt! Stealing my bike key!”
From up above came a series of caws — the bird was laughing at him!
Patton caused one of the beer caps lying on the patio to fly up into the branches. The feathered culprit came from nowhere to snatch the bottlecap out of midair and flew off with it. A moment later a crow challenge could be heard coming out of the maple tree in the middle of the yard.
“Damn bird! Stealing my keys! If I ever get my hands on him I’m going to teach him a lesson.” Still muttering Patton headed inside, patting his pockets to make sure everything was where it should be.
That night Patton dreamed he was a pirate sailing the Spanish Main looking for heavily laden galleys to seize. He saw himself standing on the poop deck looking forward toward the ship he was trying to overtake. There was a capstan in the middle of the main deck with witches dancing around it, causing more sails to be raised, the masts lengthening to accommodate them. The ship was getting away! More sail!
The raven sitting on his shoulder took off and soared through the maze of ropes and canvas, up, up to the crow’s nest high atop the mainmast. He looked off into the distance and caught the glint of sunlight reflecting in the crystal ball on board the distant ship. But there, to windward was another ship, a whole fleet of ships headed in his direction, cannon blazing. Some of the shots headed his way, and at first he deflected them easily, but faster and faster they came and he couldn’t dodge all the peanuts all the time. The damn squirrels were winning!
Margaret was standing to the side of the patio, Elaine and Yvonne holding hands and dancing around her. “You owe me!” she said, and laughed, her laugh growing more and more maniacal until it sounded like a crow laughing and cawing, a whole flock of crows taking flight, scattering to the winds carrying bottlecaps in their beaks.
“Be careful of what you seek,” came an unknown voice from behind him. “You just might find it.”
The raven was back on his shoulder, cawing his defiance.