Wendy led the group to a shady spot on the edge of the Whirlwood. The River Wander flowed, curving out of the forest and through the manor fields. It was a quiet place that did nothing to betray the violence that occurred there.
“…I came the other day to start the morning washing,” Wendy said. She tensed while talking about it. “Anthony was floating in the water. I was so scared! The men had to pull his body from the water.”
“Did you see anyone?” Theodore said.
“No. I think it was just me,” she said. “I didn’t stay long, though. I didn’t want to be by myself when I saw he was dead.”
Anthony was likely dead for a while. There was no chance of an eye-witness account. Theodore and Oboe set about searching the scene for clues. He discovered a mess of boot prints in the mud upstream showing signs of a struggle. No claw or paw prints, though. It was possible they were dealing with a flying creature or something with no feet to leave a trail.
“I found something!” Oboe shouted from the middle of the river. She wrestled a wriggling fish from the water and tried to keep it from flopping free.
Theodore adjusted his spectacles from the shore. “That is a trout. It has nothing to do with our investigation.”
She looked deflated. “…It’s still neat, though.”
“Deputy,” Giselle said in a pointed tone. “Are you absolutely sure that ghoul wasn’t the killer?” She was still angry Theodore had allowed Ashby to walk free. “It’s not too late to recapture him!”
“I am quite certain!” Theodore was growing sick of assuring her of the creature’s innocence. “His business references were immaculate. Please, let me investigate.”
She scowled. “Okay.” It was a relief to hear her at least humor the possibility she was mistaken. She squeezed her fingers over her wedding band. “Forgive me. I just… is there anything I can do to help? Tell me.”
Theodore stared. Was there anything she could do? He was having enough trouble figuring out what he needed to do himself to solve this case.
Oboe surfaced, gasped for breath, and dived to continue searching the riverbed. Giselle waited.
“Just answer some questions,” he said. “When did you last see him before he turned up dead?”
Giselle burst into tears. Theodore felt like an ass for being so blunt. He moved to comfort her but she waved him away. She composed herself with a shudder and uncovered her face.
“…We were having an argument,” she said, rubbing her tears away with a sleeve. “He kept going out at night to gather moon herbs from the Whirlwood. I bought him a talisman to keep him safe but he refused to wear it! The sweet idiot said he made friends with a ghast. It’s probably the same one that killed him.”
“I’m sorry,” Theodore said. “I know this is difficult. Can you tell me anything about the ghast he was meeting? Who it was, where, when they met?”
“I don’t know!” She said. “All I wanted was for him to promise not to go, but he wouldn’t! He kept saying he was fine without protection!” She clenched her hands. “Well! He was wrong! He’s gone and died and left me all alone! Now what am I supposed to do?!”
Theodore felt helpless. This woman’s life was turned upside down by an act of violence. She was counting on him to make things right and he wasn’t even qualified to be Ranger Deputy.
Oboe burst out of the river, gasping and splashing and spitting up water. “I found it! A thing! Not a fish this time!” She waded and tripped onto dry land. “Look! The biggest clue!”
Theodore peered into her cupped hands. It was a bright orange topaz gem seated on a plain copper band.
“Oh!” Giselle said. “That’s Anthony’s ring!”
Theodore turned. “You recognize it?” It did not look like a wedding band.
“Yes!” Her tears began to well again. “Give it to me! Something to remember him! Please!”
“Hold on,” Oboe said, sniffing at the jewelry. “…There’s a lot of magic on it. It’s not a fairy spell, though.” She gave it a long, analytical lick. “Doesn’t taste like human magic either.”
That meant it had to be a ghast hex. “Giselle, where did your husband get this ring?” Theodore said.
The widow wasn’t prepared to answer. “I… don’t know. He’s always wore it. He never took it off and I never thought to ask about it.”
“He had it since before he came to work at the manor,” Wendy said.
“We need to have this enchantment analyzed.” Theodore took the ring and turned it over in his hand. Knowing it was enchanted made him nervous, so he wrapped it in a handkerchief. “I’m sorry Giselle, but I have to hang onto this. It might help us find your husband’s killer.”
Giselle touched the silver talisman around her neck. “You should see the witch, Flip. He can figure out what sort of dark magic was placed on my husband’s ring! You can find him in the valley ruins. He’ll help you hunt the monster!”
Theodore made a mental note of where to find that criminal. “That won’t be necessary. There are experts at the university who will offer better assistance.”
“That’s a bunch of manure.” Giselle sneered. “Flip is an expert at fighting the forces of evil! Those city wizards won’t give you half the help!”
“Naw!” Oboe said. “He’s a crook. Theo and I will go talk to the good guys and figure it out!”
“If I see Flip again I’ll have to arrest him,” Theodore said. “He’s breaking the law.”
Giselle scowled. “Fine. Do what you want.” She pulled the talisman off from around her neck. She took hold of Theodore’s hand and pressed the medallion into his palm: the same sort Flip was selling. “But take this. Anthony was too stubborn to use it. Now he’s dead. Don’t let what happened to my husband happen to you or anyone else! Promise me you’ll get the monster who did this!”
Theodore should have refused it but he did not have the heart. Tears were welling up in Giselle’s eyes again. He nodded and pocketed the talisman.
“I’ll make this right,” he said. He turned toward the university. “I promise.”