Simon stopped dead. “No! Not the . . .” He, too, looked around and lowered his voice. “. . . ring. She can’t have.”
“She was panicking; I saw it in her face. She couldn’t get rid of us fast enough. Septimus wanted to tell us but couldn’t. And the Wizard Tower was in turmoil. Did you not notice?”
“Well, yes. It did seem a bit . . . frantic.”
“Frantic? It was like someone had poked an ant’s nest.”
“Yes. I suppose it was.”
“It’s an utter disaster,” said Marcellus angrily. “Marcia has lost the Two-Faced Ring—and she doesn’t even have the decency to tell us.”
Alther saw a look of horror spread over Simon’s face as he realized that what Marcellus said had to be true. “Oh, Foryx!” muttered Simon.
“Quite,” said Marcellus.
Alther had heard enough to convince him that Marcellus had nothing to do with the theft of the ring. He did a quick backflip and, breaking Rules numbers Two and Five in the EOW Post-Living Handbook—that ghosts of ExtraOrdinary Wizards do not use the door password or frequent the public areas of the Wizard Tower—he did first one, then the other. Alther then proceeded to break a few more rules for luck. He interrupted Marcia (Rule Twelve: Disrespecting the Current Incumbent). He told her she should not have sent Marcellus and Simon away (Rule Eight: Seeking to Influence and/or Criticize the Current Incumbent) and then he insisted she send Septimus out after them to bring them back (Rule Six: Interfering with the Policy of the Current Incumbent). He very nearly broke Rule One, which was about foul language, but Marcia backed down just in time.
From the Front Office of the Manuscriptorium, Beetle, who was showing his new clerk how to operate the Day Book, saw Marcellus and Simon stride angrily by. A few minutes later he saw Septimus chase down Wizard Way. Some minutes after that he saw Marcellus and Simon walking swiftly back, with Septimus beside them. A few seconds later the Manuscriptorium door crashed open, and Septimus came into the Front Office, breathless.
“Beetle!” said Septimus, and then, seeing that Beetle was with a scribe, Septimus thought he should be more formal. “Chief Scribe. The ExtraOrdinary Wizard requests your presence. At once.”
Beetle looked surprised. “Yes. Of course. I’ll come right now.” He turned to his new clerk, Moira Mole. “Moira, when’s my next appointment?”
Moira looked at the Day Book. “Not until two thirty, Chief. It’s Mr. Larry.”
Beetle’s ex-employer had taken to booking appointments to discuss the finer points of translation. Beetle was not at all sorry to miss him. “Moira, I’m going to the Wizard Tower. If I’m not back by then please give Larry my apologies.”
“Okay, Chief.” Moira smiled.
“Any problems, ask Foxy.”
Moira Mole—a plump girl with short, dark curly hair, and tiny bottle-glass spectacles perched on her nose—watched Beetle and Septimus leave. She peered around the Front Office nervously. She hoped no one else came in.
But at two o’clock Marissa turned up. Marissa scared Moira. She reminded her of the big girls at school who used to pinch her when no one was looking. Moira told herself that she was not at school anymore and, more comfortingly, there was a big desk between her and Marissa. Moira asked Marissa what she wanted but all Marissa would say was: “I want to ask Beetle something.” Moira told her she didn’t know when he would be back but, to her dismay, Marissa declared that she would wait.
At two fifteen, two rats knocked on the Manuscriptorium window. Moira recognized one of them as Stanley, head of the Rat Office. The other rat, a little smaller and a lot leaner, she did not recognize. She let them in and they jumped onto the Day Book on the Front Office desk. Moira hoped they had wiped their feet on the way in.
Moira was gaining confidence. Marissa was sitting on a wobbly stool pretending to be interested in an old pamphlet. Moira had the comfortable chair and important things to do. And now she had a Message Rat.
“Speeke, Rattus Rattus.” Moira said the words with such aplomb that no one would have guessed she had never said them before.
Stanley prodded the smaller rat. “Go on, Florence. Do what the Office Clerk says.”
The small rat looked nervous and squeaked.
“Go on,” urged Stanley. “No need to be shy. You can’t be a Message Rat and be shy, Florence.” Stanley looked at Moira apologetically. “Sorry,” he said. “Staff training.”
“Of course,” said Moira with the air of one who knew all about the problems of staff training. “Shall I say it again?”
“Oh, yes, please.”
Moira looked at Florence, who was staring at her feet in embarrassment. “Speeke, Rattus Rattus.”
“Come on now, Florence,” Stanley said sternly. “Or I won’t bring you out again. You will have to stay in the office and do the filing.”
Florence gulped and took a deep breath. “First . . . I have to ask . . . er . . . is William Fox here?”
“Who? Oh, Foxy. Wait a mo, I’ll go and get him.” Moira disappeared into the Manuscriptorium and returned with Foxy.
“Is that him?” Florence whispered to Stanley.
“Now, Florence, I won’t always be here to ask, will I? You must ask him yourself.”
“So it is him?”
“Possibly. But you have to ask.”
“First . . .” squeaked Florence, “I have to ask . . . er . . . is William Fox here?”
“Yep, that’s me,” said Foxy.
There was a silence broken by Stanley. “Go on, Florence.”
Florence gulped. She stood up tall and took a deep breath. “Message begins: ‘Foxy. Please close the Manuscriptorium immediately and initiate LockDown. Keep enough scribes with you to guard all entrances and send the rest home, right now. Let no one in, even if you recognize them. If it is me, I will give the password. If I don’t, don’t let me in. Keep LockDown active until I return. This message is sent from O. Beetle Beetle. Chief Hermetic Scribe. PS: don’t worry.’ Message ends.”
“Don’t worry . . .” said Foxy. “Yikes.” And then remembering the Message Rats, he said, “Thank you. Message received and understood.”
Stanley nudged Florence again.
“Oh!” said Florence. “Um . . . I regret that we are not at liberty to take a reply. The sender’s whereabouts are confidential.”
“Okay,” said Foxy. “Thanks anyway.”
“Well done, Florence,” said Stanley. He looked at Foxy and Moira. “Thank you for your patience,” he said. The rats jumped down from the desk and Moira held the door open for them to leave.
Foxy sat down in the Front Office chair with a thump. “Jeez,” he said. “That was the most scary message I have ever heard.”
Marissa, however, was rather excited by the message. “Can I stay too?” she asked.
Foxy was not sure. “Well, I don’t know. Beetle said scribes.”
“Oh, please let me. You never know, I might be useful. I am a witch, you know.”
“I thought you’d given all that up,” said Foxy disapprovingly.
“Yeah, I have. But you know what they say, once a witch, always a witch.”
Foxy reckoned that a witch might actually come in handy. “Okay,” he said.
“Bother,” said Moira, who was looking out of the door, watching the rats run off. “Larry’s on his way.”
Marissa jumped to her feet. “I’ll get rid of Larry for you, shall I?”
“Oh, yes, please,” said Foxy and Moira in unison.
Marissa shot out of the door. Foxy and Moira didn’t know what Marissa did, but Larry never appeared. Half an hour later most of the scribes had gone home and a very nervous Foxy was starting the LockDown—a procedure that, as deputy, Foxy had had to learn. Foxy’s hands shook as he peered at the new LockDown protocol that Beetle had worked out from some faded old documents, but with the help of Romilly Badger, Partridge, Moira Mole and Marissa, Foxy managed to get through to the end.
“I think it’s called battening down the hatches,” said Moira, who came from a fishing family. “It’s what you do when a storm is coming.”