Just after tea a car drew up outside the cottage in Peasmarsh. Maria looked out of the window and was surprised to see it was the green Figaro. By the time Maria threw the door open to her, Sarah Jane was struggling up the path with a cat box and an extra cat without a box that was nestled in her arms.
“I thought I should come here,” she said. “There’s something important….”
“Couldn’t you find homes for those two?” Maria asked. “Were some of the ladies not home?”
“I’ll explain inside,” Sarah Jane answered. “I need to talk to your grandmother about it. This concerns her.”
Maria brought Sarah Jane to the living room. Mrs Jackson invited her to sit down. She did so gratefully and opened up the cat box. Molly came off the windowsill and greeted the other two with meows. One was Penny who was supposed to go to Lou Thomas of Putney. The other had a collar with the name ‘Lulu’ on her name tag.
Mrs Jackson noted the tag and nodded sadly. She stroked the cat as she spoke to Sarah Jane.
“She was dead when you got there?”
“Who was dead?” Alan asked. “What’s going on?”
“Mrs Lou Thomas,” Sarah Jane replied. “When I arrived, the ambulance was just leaving and the police were moving everyone along. I was just wondering what to do when a cat came out of the house, just walked past the police and everyone and got into my car, next to the cat box. And I don’t know why it was, but the idea of driving here just stuck in my head. So I rang Luke and told him he could get take away pizza for him and Clyde and then I drove down here to you.”
“You did the right thing,” Mrs Jackson said. “Margaret chose her friends well.”
“Yes… but… look… two women who know each other, dead within days? It makes me wonder… is there something going on? I mean… after all, they were old women. And I expect nobody else would even think it strange. But I’ve been a journalist for a lot of years and I have an instinct for when something isn’t right. I’m not just being paranoid about this….”
“No,” Mrs Jackson confirmed. “You’re not being paranoid. We’re in danger. All of us.” She got up and looked out of the window. “It’s a half hour to sundown. Just enough time.”
“Time for what?”
“Time to make preparations. Alan… Maria… go in the cupboard over there. A set of beeswax candles. Special ones with grains of incense imbedded in them. Use them…”
“Use them how?” Alan asked in a tone of exasperation. “Mum… what’s going on?”
“We need to protect this house and everyone within it. You must take the candles and use them to draw a protective sigil on every entrance to this house – the front and back door, windows, the chimney breast – every opening where a spirit could get through. We must seal the house before darkness falls.”
“Mum!” Alan protested. “That’s…. that’s exactly the sort of superstitious mumbo-jumbo I was talking about. Evil spirits, sigils… it’s what I didn’t want Maria exposed to.”
“Alan,” Mrs Jackson replied. “If you want to keep Maria safe, do exactly as I say. This is no time to be in denial. There is much that is evil in this world. And this superstitious mumbo-jumbo is the only sure protection against it.”
“Dad,” Maria added. “If gran thinks we need to do this, then let’s do it. before it gets dark.” She turned to her grandmother. “Sarah Jane doesn’t know abut the Pact… the cats and everything. You’d better explain it to her.”
“In a minute,” her gran said. “First, we protect. I have to warn the others. Sarah Jane… do you have family at home?”
“My son, Luke, and Clyde. They’re going to sleep over tonight and play computer games.”
“Call them. Tell them to seal the house in the manner I have indicated. The sigil on every entrance – a circle with a triangle within. Tell your son to do that. And… oh dear, they’re both young. That makes them vulnerable. Tell them, before midnight, they should draw a circle of chalk on the floor and sit within it. That will protect them fully.”
It sounded potty. Anyone but Sarah Jane would have laughed. But she knew that anything was possible. She telephoned Luke and told him what to do. Luke promised he would do it. He asked if they could have pop and crisps and the game consoles in the chalk circle. Sarah Jane laughed and said yet. Why not.
Maria and her dad did as Mrs Jackson said. They drew the nearly invisible wax symbols on the doors, windows, the skylight in the loft, the chimney breast.
“I have to contact my sisters,” Mrs Jackson said.
“You don’t have any sisters, mum,” Alan replied. But his mother wasn’t listening. She was sitting upright in her chair with her hands on the arms. Her eyes closed tight. She was murmuring something very quietly. It looked as if she was casting a spell. Then she gave a deep sigh and opened her eyes.
“There. The others all know of the danger, now.”
“You… contacted them by…telepathy?” Maria managed to say. “Gran… that’s…”
“Please don’t do it again. It’s just not… you,” Alan said.
“I don’t do it often. It’s quite wearisome. But they all had to know so they could take the same precautions we have. Now… what else… oh yes.” She turned to Sarah Jane and explained to her about the Nine Lives Pact and the reason why such effort had been made to rehome all Mrs Hanley’s cats.
“You mean… that one IS Mrs Hanley. And the one who ran into my car is… Oh. Oh, no wonder. But… who did it then? Who would kill two old women?”
“Another witch,” Mrs Jackson replied. “Maria, dear, put the kettle on. Let’s have more tea while I explain. Alan, bring what’s left of the candles and put them on the mantelpiece in the candle holders. We’ll light them when it’s darker. They give off a cheerful glow.”
Alan did as she said. So did Maria. Finally, as the night drew in outside, they were all cosy with tea and home made vegetable soup and fresh baked bread and Mrs Jackson began to tell the part of the story she had not shared with them all, yet.
“There were twelve of us, with Miss Kerr as the coven leader,” she said. “Me, Margaret Banes, Minnie Lipton, Anne Frost who became Anne Gret, Lou Thomas, Bridget West – who married an Armitage, Tess Marsh, Elizabeth Garr, Penelope Woking, Susan Casey, Brenda McDonald – she lives up in Scotland. We’ve not seen her for years. And… Lily Barlow, who none of us have anything to do with since the end of the war.”
“She went bad. Understand, there is no difference between a white witch and a black one in the way the silly films and books would have it. The difference is in the heart of the witch and her intentions. The same spell that makes bread rise can be used to give a person a sick stomach and send them crawling to their bed in agony. A spell used to keep slugs off the lettuce could kill a Human being.”
“Mum… you’ve never…”
“Of course, I haven’t. But Lily Barlow might have done - and much that’s worse. She was an ambitious girl. She wanted to use the craft to better herself. She did, too. Four husbands, all with property and money, and they all died and left her it all. There’s no proof, of course. But those of us who knew her…”
“But it doesn’t explain why she wants to harm two of her former friends,” Sarah Jane pointed out.
“The oldest reason of all. She’s an old woman now. And she wants to extend her life. she can do that by killing the rest of us and absorbing our lifeforce.”
“She should share a jail cell with Hilda Winters,” Sarah Jane remarked. “Why is it… I mean... the cat thing… that’s not so bad. It is just like a rest at the end of life. It’s sort of… ok. But so many people want to take life that isn’t theirs at the expense of others.”
“How did she murder them?” Alan asked.
“By sending her spirit to sit on their hearts,” Mrs Jackson said. “The coroner will see heart failure in an elderly lady. Nothing amiss. He won’t know that Lily’s spirit, in the form of a snake found its way into their homes and worked its evil.”
“It can’t get in anywhere else, now? We’re protected?” Maria said.
“Yes. All of us.”
“I wish Luke was here,” Sarah Jane said. “I’d feel better. Maybe I should phone him.”
“Best not,” Mrs Jackson told her. “Not now it’s dark. We don’t want her to get in through the phone signal.”
“She can do that?”
“Modern technology,” Mrs Jackson continued. “Phones, computers and the like. They’re just even more conduits letting all sorts of evil into the home.”
“Oh….!” Sarah Jane exclaimed. “Oh, Mr Smith… he’s not… I mean… I didn’t tell them to put the sign on the computer.”
She grabbed her mobile phone and dialled the number. It rang and rang and then went to voicemail.
“Luke,” Sarah Jane said to the message recorder. “Luke, you’ve got to put the protective sign on Mr Smith. The witch can get in through him. Do it quickly.” She closed the call and looked around anxiously. “I hope he checks his messages soon. Oh, dear. I should have brought him here with me. Then he’d have been all right.”
“He’s fifteen years old, Sarah Jane,” Alan told her. “And he’s a very bright boy for his age. He’ll be all right. You’re worrying about him far too much.”
“He’s…. He’ not just a fifteen year old. He’s vulnerable.”
“Clyde’s with him. He’s smart,” Maria reminded her.
“Yes, He is.” She still looked worried. But what could she do?
“Maybe I should drive home,” she suggested.
“No,” Mrs Jackson insisted. “No. You mustn’t leave the protection, now. She would kill you. You’re a part of it all now. She will have marked you. She might even know that you have the notebook. She could have been watching the house…”
“Then Luke and Clyde are in real danger. I have to go to them.”
“No, Sarah Jane,” Maria begged her. “No. Please stay with us. At least we know you’re safe. If you go we’ll be worrying about you and Luke and Clyde.”
“I think…” Alan added. “I think mum’s right. If there is something out there, then you should stay put.”
“I thought you didn’t believe it, Alan.”
“I don’t know what to believe. But something mad is going on here.”
“Maria,” Mrs Jackson said. “Why don’t you light some more of the candles. And some of those incense sticks in the box on the dresser. They have such a nice, calming smell.”
Maria did as she asked. The smell was very pleasant. And she did feel calmed by it. She went and sat down by her grandmother on one of the sofas. She put her arm around her shoulder. Maria felt safe and protected. As if nothing could possibly harm her and there was nothing she had to worry about.
Sarah Jane relaxed, too. She took off her shoes and lay down on the other sofa. She sighed and closed her eyes. Mrs Jackson told Alan to put a cushion under her head.
“She went out like a light,” Alan said. “She must be worn out. Even so, she was so worried about Luke I thought she’d be fretting all night.”
Mrs Jackson smiled.
“Mum, what’s in those incense sticks?” Alan asked suspiciously.
“A little recipe of my own. Amyris elemifera and Valerian.”
“It helps people go to sleep,” Maria said in a quiet voice.
“It helps them let go of their anxieties and relax so that they can sleep,” Mrs Jackson added.
“It’s a spell?”
“It’s a natural remedy. Witches are also skilled in ordinary herbalism. Don’t you remember, Alan? You used to have that same mixture in those little sachets under your pillow at night when you were a boy.”
“I…” Alan was aghast. “You mean… you used to use that stuff to make me go to sleep? You…”
“Dad, relax,” Maria said. “It doesn’t matter. Just… have a little rest. It’ll be all right in the morning.”
Alan sat down in the armchair. He sighed and closed his eyes. A few minutes later, he was asleep, too.
It’ll do them both good,” Mrs Jackson said. “They’ve too many worries. It’s not good for them. you should sleep, too, Maria. Things will be better in the morning.”
“Yes, gran,” Maria answered.
She fell asleep, too. Mrs Jackson looked at the three cats. They were one ball of mixed patterns of fur on the hearthrug. They were calm, too. They knew they were all safely protected until morning.
Sarah Jane woke in daylight and looked around. She had slept very well considering she was on a sofa. Alan was just waking up, too. Maria was still sleeping on the other sofa. There was a smell of coffee percolating and eggs and toast cooking. Very soon Mrs Jackson came through from the kitchen with a huge tray. Alan jumped up to help her with it.
“I thought you’d like some breakfast before you go on back to London.”
“I’d better try to ring Luke,” Sarah Jane said. She reached for her phone and dialled the number. She was relieved when Luke answered it.
“Luke! Where were you last night? Why didn’t you answer the phone?”
“Sorry, mum,” he replied. “It was in my coat pocket in my room. Anyway, me and Clyde were too busy chasing a witch’s familiar around the kitchen.”
“A what… Luke…”
“It got in through Mr Smith. One minute we were playing Star Ship Racers, the next… this thing like a snake started to come out of the screen. It tried to get us, but we were in the chalk circle. Then it went out of the room and we heard things smashing downstairs, so we had to go and look.”
“Luke… you shouldn’t have left the circle. You were meant to stay safe.”
“Yes, but mum, it was smashing up the kitchen. Mum, tomorrow, you need to buy a new set of plates, and glasses.”
“I can replace plates and glasses,” she said. “I can’t replace you.”
“And a microwave, too.”
“What? What happened to the microwave?”
“We used it to kill the snake. Clyde and me forced it back with the mop and broom. K9, helped, though his laser needs adjusting, I think. He’s made some really bad scorch marks on your cupboards. But anyway, we forced it into the microwave and switched it on and… it was really horrible, actually. It kept screeching and writhing and it sort of turned into a green cat, and then a woman’s face pressed up against the door – a horrible hag face, all green – and then…. then…”
Luke didn’t say anything else, but behind him Clyde was heard making a ‘splat’ noise.
“Luke… that was… it was really dangerous. Are you sure she’s dead?”
“Well… we haven’t opened the microwave. It’s pretty horrible in there. But I think so.”
“All right,” Sarah Jane sighed. “I’m glad you’re ok. Just… don’t go into the kitchen until I get back. If you’re hungry… Oh… look… go over to Mr Jackson’s house and make breakfast. There’s a spare key in the attic. He won’t mind. And… I’ll deal with the microwave when I get home.”
She finished the call and turned to look at Mrs Jackson.
“If they killed the familiar, then she’s dead, too. She was the only one who ever managed shape changing. Terrible way to go. But I’m not sorry. I’m really not. She tried to attack two children. That’s the worst thing a witch can do. It’s right back to gingerbread houses and ovens, that. But it’s all over now. We can all live in peace now.”
The cats meowed as if they echoed the sentiment.
“I’ll take care of Penny and Lulu as well as Molly. They’ll be fine here. We’ll all look out for each other.”
“Well, I’m glad of that,” Sarah Jane remarked. “I thought I’d have to take them home. And I don’t know what K9 would say.”