Professor Anatolia Mandragora. That’s what it said on the door of the laboratory. As we walked in, a man in a hooded sweatshirt was coming out. He wasn’t looking where he was going, and he walked into me before he realized I was there.
He muttered something under his breath and gave me a look – as though I were the one who had walked into him.
“Excuse you,” I said.
He stopped, as though startled, and stared at me. Green eyes, high cheekbones. That’s all I really saw beneath the hood. He had on jeans and converse sneakers.
“Yes, excuse me,” he said, but not as though he meant it. More as though he were throwing the words back at me.
“Come on, Thea,” said Emma, and she pulled me into the laboratory behind her.
The laboratory! It was filled with gears and gadgets, placed on tables, on chairs, in piles on the floor. There were what looked like the insides of clocks scattered around, and enormous springs, and pendulums, and pieces of metal and glass. Tools in all sorts of strange shapes. I could not imagine what they were for. Hanging from the ceiling was an alligator. As we went in, it looked down at us, and I could see that it was part alligator and part clockwork. When it moved, it made a whirring sound.
In the middle of the laboratory, in a white coat and wearing goggles, was a woman. She was shorter than any of us, and had bright red hair that stuck up in spikes, as though she had recently been electrocuted.
“Make an appointment with the TA,” she said, without looking up from what she was doing. Which was working on some sort of machine. There were wires coming out of it, and a burning smell.
“We’re not students,” said Emma. “Professor Mandragora, I’m Emma Gaunt.” Emma was always useful that way. As soon as she said Gaunt, people stopped and listened.
Anatolia Mandragora did not stop – her hands kept working among the wires – but she did look up. “Emmaline’s daughter. I think I’m you’re godmother. Unless I’m not. So many goddaughters I’ve lost track of them. What is it, girl? Did your mother send you?” Through her goggles, her eyes looked twice the usual size.
“No, Mom didn’t send me,” said Emma. “These are my friends, Matilda Tillinghast, Thea Graves, and Sophia – um.” I wondered why she had stopped, then remembered that her next word would have been Sitgreaves.
“Nice to meet you, I’m sure. What is it, girls? I’m busy.” Professor Mandragora crossed two wires. There was a sputter and a spark, and she jumped back. There was a black streak running up her arm, and the front of her hair looked singed. “Damn machine. Blew up earlier today. What am I supposed to do without it?”
“I’m sure you are. But it’s very important that we talk to you. We need to know what happened – back when you were in school. With Mom and Mrs. Tillinghast and Leonora Grimsby.”
“Leonora Grimsby! I haven’t heard that name in years.” She leaned forward and examined Emma through her goggles, as though she were some sort of laboratory specimen.
“Tollie, I forgot the –” It was the rude man again. Maybe he was the TA. If so, poor students!
“Oh, yes, I saw that. You left it on the chair.”
The man took a bag that was sitting on one of the chairs – on top of what looked like most of a disassembled bicycle. “Later, then.”
“Who was that?” Matilda asked. “And does he usually run over people?”
“Him? Oh, that’s Merlin,” said Professor Mandragora.
“Oh, Merlin!” said Emma. But it came out sounding more like a sigh, the way some of the girls at Miss Lavender’s talked about him.
“Well, I think he’s rude,” I said.
“But so romantic!” she replied. Still with the sighing.
“I can hear you, Tollie,” came his voice from the hall. “And I’m supposed to be in disguise.”
“I hope he didn’t hear me . . .” whispered Emma.
“Pretty sad disguise,” I said. But I muttered it under my breath.
“As though half the witches in the Shadowlands didn’t have him as their screensaver!” said Professor Mandragora. “You were asking about Leonora Grimsby?”
“We brought you something,” said Mouse. She held out what we had found on our way over.
“Oh, lovely!” said Professor Mandragora. She took the dead bird and, holding it carefully, carried it over to one of the benches. “You know that reanimation is one of my hobbies. Hand me that toolbox over there, and I’ll tell you what happened at Miss Lavender’s, all those years ago.”
This is the story she told us, as she worked on the bird with her tools:
“It was our first year at Miss Lavender’s. We weren’t the best students, but we thought we were the smartest. That’s what got us into trouble, thinking we were so smart. You know freshmen aren’t allowed into the Other Country unsupervised. Well, we decided to create something – a key. It would be able to open any door, anywhere. Including all the doors to the Other Country. We were invited to a ball with the Paracelsus boys, at Mother Night’s house. While we were there, while we were supposed to be dancing and socializing (which I never saw the need for myself, I must say), one of us sneaked into Mother Night’s study and stole something. You don’t need to know what it is – we wanted it for the key. It’s what gave the key its power. When we got back, we created the key – that was mostly me, I was always good at the mechanical stuff. It looks like an ordinary key, like the key to Tillinghast House. That what we patterned it after. But it can open anything.”
She scooped the dead bird up in her hands and tossed it into the air. It flew with a mechanical whir. As it flew past the alligator hanging from the ceiling, it snapped at the bird with its jaws, but the bird was too fast.
“Stop that, Herbert!” said Professor Mandragora. “I should never have reanimated him. What do you do with a mechanical alligator? Anyway, Mrs. Moth found out and we were all suspended for the rest of the semester. The rest of us went back after that, but Leonora’s family wouldn’t let her. The Grimsbys were never one of the important witch families. They had wanted her to do something more respectable in the first place. She became a librarian. That’s the last I heard of her. Does that answer your question, girls?”
“It does,” said Matilda. “A key like that – if you had been banished from the Other Country, you’d want something like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Banished? Only witches and warlocks can go to the Other Country, and only one has been banished in the last hundred years,” said Professor Mandragora.
“I’m – Sophia Sitgreaves,” said Mouse.
For the first time, Professor Mandragora took off her goggles. “I’m so sorry, child.”
“What happened to the key?” I asked.
“It was hidden,” said Professor Mandragora. “Where no one would ever find it.”
She leaned forward. We all leaned forward too, waiting for her to tell us.
I’ve decided that every Friday, I’m going to write part of the Shadowlands serial. If you want to read parts that I’ve already written, go to Serial. There, you can read all about Thea Graves, Matilda Tillinghast, Emma Gaunt, and Mouse, from the beginning.