With her pink glove on and her lips apart, Liz passed her finger on the bookshelf. Making the most of the opportunity of Finnley’s excursion outside, Liz had pretexted she wanted to show Roberto how to check for dust. In truth, but she would never confess to it, except to Godfrey after a few drink and some cashew nuts later that day, in truth she had bought a new pink uniform for the gardener/handyman and wanted to see how it fitted him. Of course, she had ordered a few sizes under, so Roberto’s muscles bulged quite nicely under the fabric of the short sleeves, stretching the seam in a dangerously exciting way.
“What’s this book?” asked Roberto.
“What?” asked Liz who had been lost in one of the worst case scenario. Why would Roberto talk about something as undersexying as a book? Nonetheless, without wanting to, her eyes followed the gardener’s sexy arm down to his sexy finger pointing at the book spine and her brain froze on the title: “An Aesthetic of the Night Mare“, by Vanina Vain.
“What’s this book doing among my personal work?” she asked, all sexying forgotten.
“Don’t you remember?” asked Godfrey who happened to pass behind her. “Years ago when you still read your fanmail you answered one from a young girl wanting to follow in your footsteps. You sent her a handwritten copy of Rilke’s letter to a young poet. I wrote it myself and Finnley signed it for you. She’s so good at imitating your signature. Well anyway a few years later that girl finally published her first book and sent you a copy to thank you.”
“Have I read it?” Liz asked.
“You might have. But I’m not sure. It’s quite Gothic. The girl takes advantage of her sleep paralysis at night to do some crazy experiences.”
Liz had no recollection whatsoever of it, but that was not the point.
“Tsk. What’s it doing among my personal work bookshelves? Don’t we have somewhere else to put that kind of…”
“The trash you mean?” asked Finnley.
“Oh! You’re back”, said Liz.
“Tsk, tsk. Such disappointment in your voice. But I’m never far away, and luckily for some”, she added with a look at Roberto who was trying to stretch the sleeve without breaking the seam.
Finnley had a feeling that May down in the kitchen knew something about the baby girl imposter. On impulse, she pushed her cleaning cart over to the service lift. Luckily the baby was still sleeping soundly.
May was in the lavatory, a young woman informed Finnley as she entered the kitchen.
The familiar voice roused the baby, whose cry was at once recognized by her mother. Fanella knocked her chair over a she dived into the pile of dusters and seized the child. “My baby!” she cried.
“Thank god for that,” said Finnley under her breath.
I grabbed the baby when nobody was watching. That’s most of the time. I nestled him comfortably on the dusting cloths in my cleaning cart and told him not to cry .
I popped my head into the lounge on the way past. The Aunties were both snoozing with their feet up and their mouths open. “Good afternoon, Miss June, Miss April!” I added a smile that would melt butter, maybe even stone. I don’t know. I’m new to this smiling carry-on. They ignored me, as usual, but maybe they were just asleep.
I didn’t really have a plan. I just had a feeling about this baby.
And, I was right. Barron turns out to be a girl. I don’t know who else know … that maid has to know. She’s the one changes his .. her … nappies.
I am going to get to the bottom of this. Haha. Excuse the joke.
In the meantime, the baby is safe with me.
“It was my idea and you’ve just taken over. The way you always do.”
“Your idea? What are you? Three years old?”
With dignity, Tara rose. She closed her laptop, straightened it on the desk so it ran parallel to the sides, and, using a cloth made for that very purpose, dusted it. “I’m going out for some fresh air. ”
“Well you won’t find it round here. It’s worse than China they said on the news today. Oh, OKAY, Tara. DON’T GO. The business was your idea and I promise I won’t treat you like a secretary. Happy?”
“Ooooh, do tell, Was Mr Sexy voice in it?”
“No, but Uncle Basil was. And he said, cold snap and falling reptiles.”
Star furrowed her brow. “Okay, well … we shouldn’t discount anything at this stage.”
“It’s bound to be a clue. Speaking of secretaries … I have a niece, Rosamund. She a bit rough around the edges but I’m sure she could answer phones and make our coffee.”
“Great idea, Tara! As usual. Get her to come in and do a trial.”
Barron was not really a baby, more a toddler already. He was playing alone in his play fence, like he was usually left doing when his odd caretakers had gone for an escapade. After a while, he got bored cooing like a baby looking at shiny stuff and suckling at noisy things. After all, as not many had realized, he was blessed with a genius IQ — there was no point at hiding his smarts when no one was around.
The house bulldog was sleeping nearby, snoozing like a roaring motorbike. Apart from that, this part of the House was quiet. Occasionally he could hear gurgling sounds coming from the badly soundproofed pipes of the old building. Somebody was having an industrious bowel movement. Hardly news material, his father would have say.
He checked the e-zapwatch that his nannies had put on his wrist. Bad news. His kidnappers were late. He wondered if something had changed in the near perfect plan. Yet, he’d managed to have the money wired to the offshore account, while his contacts, codenames Jesús & Araceli (he wasn’t sure they were codenames at all) said it was in order for the baby abduction.
He could hear suspicious sounds outside; the bulldog barely registered. What if some acolytes in the plan had bailed out? The sounds at his bedroom’s window could be his abductors, waiting for a way in.
As usual, he would have to take matters in his own tiny hands, and let others get the credit for it.
He peeled off one side of the net and tumbled outside of the playpen. Damn, these bodies were so difficult to manœuvre at times. Reaching the window would be difficult but not impossible. After dragging a chair, and a pile of cushions, he hoisted himself finally at reach of the latch, and flung it open. The brisk cold air from outside made his nose itch, and it was the last thing he remembered while he smelled the chloroform.
Oddly enough, I was optimistic about the new year. First of all, it was novel to even realize it was a new year. And what a tonic it was to have Finly back! And not just because of the dusting, although it was a pleasure to see a bit of sparkle about the place where she’d spruced things up. Even Mater had a new spring in her step. She said it was the chocolates, one a day she said was better than any vitamins. I’d eaten all mine the day Sanso and Finly and the others had arrived (and regretted it) but Mater had hidden her box to savour them slowly and secretly. I remarked to her more than once that she should have the decency to wipe the chocolate off her lips before coming downstairs, gloating because all mine were gone. But it was nice to see her happy.
It was a funny thing with chocolate, I’d forgotten all about it. It wasn’t like I’d spent years craving it, and yet when I unwrapped (gift wrapped! oh, the memories!) the box Sanso gave me, it all came flooding back. I popped one in my mouth and closed my eyes, savouring the slow melt, ecstatic at the way it enveloped me in it’s particular sweet charm.
I felt so sick afterwards though that I was left with the thought that there was something to be said for a simple life with few opportunities for indulgence. I hadn’t felt that sick since the plague.
I was glad I’d worn that old red dress when Sanso arrived, and just a little disappointed when he left before my seduction plans reached fruition. I did try, but he had a knack of dematerializing whenever I got close enough to make a move. Disconcerting it was, but it kept me on my toes. Literally, in those high heeled red shoes. I twisted my ankle on the damn things and been limping ever since. Oh but it was worth it.
Finly! What water larks, where? Did you see…? I was almost afraid to ask. Had she seen the twins?
Yes, she said, with a smug and enigmatic smile. But that’s a story for later, she said. Maddening creature that she is, she still hasn’t told me about it. She will when she’s finished cleaning, she said.
“Lord Gustard Willoughby Fergusson helped his wife Floribunda onto the camel,” Tibu spoke softly, gently turning the well worn page. “And clamboured onto his own. Cranky and Illi were mounted on donkeys, as were Tibn Zig and Tanlil Ubt, their local guides. Three hot dusty days, and two bitterly cold nights away lay their destination: Tsnit n’Agger and the home of the legendary giant of the Alal’ Azntignit.”
A movement caught Tibu’s eye and he glanced up. She was still there, listening.
He turned back to the book and continued reading. “Cranky was feeling like a fish out of water in the desert, but Illi had taken to it like a duck to water. Not that there was alot of water about in the desert, Cranky grumbled to herself. What she wouldn’t have given for a nice hot cup of tea and a crumpet.”
“Hey, would you like a cup of tea?” she interrupted. “It’s such rotten weather to stand out here and I ~ well, I like just listening to you.”
Glynis giggled “Doldrums, you mean doldrums…”
“Yeah, something like that.” Fox became somber, he always felt rebuked when he had interesting news to share.
“Anyway, I’m off to my teleportation course. Olliver’s been trading me courses for shapeshifting mentorship.”
“Oh, good. With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to be at multiple places at once. Like doing the chores at the cottage, while chopping wood at the same time.”
“Way to kill the mood lady!” Fox, said leaving a dust trail in his wake.
The door flew open, sending the dust motes spinning crazily in the sudden shaft of sunlight. Eleri stood on the threshold, leaning theatrically against the door frame.
“You simply won’t believe what’s been happening.”
“Perhaps said promise is the reason for her failure to materialise,” said Fox with an almost imperceptible twitch of his nose. “Not that I am one to be catty, but let’s call it … an astute observation.”
“I am inclined to agree, though, like you, I am loth to come to such a harsh conclusion. It is possible, I suppose …” Glynnis paused doubtfully, “some misadventure may have befallen her?”
“She does complain frequently of being locked out,” agreed Fox. “Although I confess, I fail to see the barriers to which she so often refers.”
Fox was looking with appreciation at the brand new loo that completed the picture of the construction work. It had taken so much time to arrive that he felt a bit daunted to use it.
“It’s amazing how much wonder a sprinkle of gold sheen obsidian dust can do to clear obstacles.” Glynis said, as she finished dusting the window ledge in a swift and zen practicality mixed with paradox.
“Can you keep the manic cackling down, you guys,” said Finnley strolling nonchalently through the living room. “I’m on the phone.”
She waved her phone at them to prove it. “A bit of a dust trap,” she mouthed at Liz and pointed to her prized rope reptile on the dresser.
“Sorry about that, old chap. Yes, so what were you saying about the book deal? Oh really? What a hoot!”
“What a hoot?” Godfrey whispered.
Finnley rolled her eyes. “Got to go, old chap. There’s crazy shit going on around here. I’ll see you at the awards!”
“Snap out of it!”
“You were delirious for a moment, I guess the shock of it all. Myself, I haven’t quite processed the news.”
“What do you mean? Tsk, about all that sag-shaming, and childish trifles?”
“Stop it! STOP IT! That little ingrate! All that time spent shadowing, learning from my brilliance. AAaar! AAAAAARRRR! I knew she was up to something pretending to spend so much time dusting, and so little got done around this house!”
“The silver lining…”
“Is that she’s back?” Godfrey ventured timidly.
Liz suddenly cooled down. “It’s true I’ve had enough of the French pastries. Those maids were mostly good for entertaining value, but spent way too much time fooling around Roberto. At least Finnley isn’t turning any eyes. If you see what I mean,” she ended in a manic cackle.
Liz couldn’t believe her ears; at first she’d ignored the harbingers, the unattended dust trails, and of course, all the crumbs on the table piling up day after day.
He paused to leave room for Liz’ to answer, not that she ever needed any to start with. But she was profoundly shocked at the betrayal.
“I don’t believe you gave her paid leaves, have you; one of your silly ideas?”
Godfrey thought for a moment, “Now you mention it, I don’t believe she had any, even after all this time, had she?”
“Don’t be daft, Godfrey, she wouldn’t want any; of course, there’s a reason I chose her over the other very qualified staff lining up to work here.”
“Not even a trace, her personal belonging are gone; not even a message left behind. A mystery fit for one of your novels, eh.”
Barbara’s office was dead silent apart from the regular bips of the machines. The whiteness of the painted walls made it feel like a psych ward. She shivered away the memories that were trying to catch her attention.
It’s been two hours since the Doctor had locked himself up in his rage-release room, a spacious soundproofed room with padded walls. Not even a small window to look inside and check if his anger had subsided. Barbara clearly preferred the trauma of the shouts and cries and the broken plates that were hidden here and there for him to use when he needed most. But when he started his therapy with the AI psych module, the damn bot suggested he built that room in order to release his rage in a more intimate framework.
Now the plates collected dust and the sessions in the room tended to last longer and longer.
Today’s burst of rage had been triggered by the unexpected gathering of the guests at the Inn. The Doctor was drinking his columbian cocoa, a blend of melted dark chocolate with cheddar cheese, when the old hag in that bloody gabardine started her speech. The camera hidden in the eye of the fish by their agent, gave them a fisheye view of the room. It was very practical and they could see everything. The AI engineer module could recreate a 3D view of the room and anticipate the moves of all the attendees.
When that girl with the fishnet handed out the keys for all to see and the other girl got the doll out, the Doctor had his attention hyper-focused. He wanted to see it all.
Except there had been a glitch and images of granola cookies superimposed on the items.
“Send the magpies to retrieve the items,” he said, nervousness making his voice louder.
“Ahem,” had answered Barbara.
“What?” The Doctor turned towards her. His eye twitched when he expected the worst, and it had been twitching fast.
She had been trying to hide the fact that the magpies had been distracted lately, as she had clearly been herself since she had found that goldminer game on facebush.
No need to delay the inevitable, she had thought. “The magpies are not in the immediate vicinity of the Inn.” In fact, just as their imprinting mother was busy digging digital gold during her work time, the magpies had found a new vein of gold while going to the Inn and Barbara had thought it could be a nice addition to her meager salary… to make ends meet at the end of the month.
It obviously wasn’t the right time to do so. And she was worried about the Doctor now.
To trump her anxiety, she was surfing the internet. Too guilty to play the gold miner, she was looking around for solutions to her boss’s stress. The variety and abundance of advertisement was deafening her eyes, and somewhere in a gold mine she was sure the magpies were going berserk too. She had to find a solution quickly.
Barbara hesitated to ask the AI. But there were obviously too many solutions to choose from. Her phone buzzed. It was her mother.
“I finally found the white jade masks. Bought one for you 2. It helps chase the mental stress away. You clearly need it.” Her mother had joined a picture of her wearing the mask on top of a beauty mask which gave her the look of a mummy. Her mother was too much into the woowoo stuffs and Barbara was about to send her a polite but firm no she didn’t want the mask. But the door of the rage-room opened and the Doctor went out. He had such a blissful look on his face. It was unnatural. Barbara had been suspecting the AI to brainwash the Doctor with subliminal messages during those therapy sessions. Maybe it also happened in the rage-room. The AI was using tech to control the Doctor. Barbara would use some other means to win him back.
OK. SEND IT TO ME QUICK. she sent to her mother.
The old ruse was still working, so I continued to use it. Only way to get a bit of time to myself, especially lately. A bit of quiet time, to think. And there was so much to think about, what with all these people around. I wasn’t put on this earth to make beds and pander to tourists, and the clues were coming in thick and fast. Oh yes, some of these new guests were thick, and some were fast. Anyway, I pretended to be inebriated again and did a pretty good imitation of a lurching drunk to throw them off the scent. They always fall for it.
After turning the key in the lock of my bedroom door, I leaned my back against it for a minute and closed my eyes. It was the bird flying in the window at the crack of dawn that got me worried. Now I’m not a superstitious person by any means, but there have been times when a bird in the house has been followed by a death, and things like that stick in your mind. The sight of Mater in that red pantsuit had etched itself on my mind as well, which was almost as worrying as the bird.
I went over to the window and pulled down the blinds. The bright sun was making my head hurt. I was thirsty, and wished I’d brought a cup of tea with me, but lurching drunks can’t be seen to be making plans for a quiet afternoon of sober contemplation. I tried valiantly to ignore my parched mouth, but it was no good. I put my ear to the door, and the coast seemed clear so I inched it open, looking up and down the hallway. I sprinted to the bathroom, unfortunately tripping over the vacuum cleaner that Finley had no doubt left there deliberately to trip me up. She was a dark horse, that one. Good at dusting, and reliable, so I suppose that was something. Hard to get hired help out here so we had no choice, really.
I smashed my nose on Mater’s doorknob and skinned my shin on the hoover. My nose hurt like hell, and quickly spurted an astonishing quantity of bright blood, similar in colour to that ghastly pantsuit. My fall made a hell of a din so I staggered quickly to the bathroom wash basin for the much needed drink of water before anyone came to investigate the crash, hoping to get back to my room before anyone appeared on the scene.
Had the water in the cold tap been cold, it might have been different, but the new water pipes were still above ground, and the cold water was scalding hot from the heat of the sun on the black pipes. I didn’t have a moment to waste, so drank some quickly, horrid though it was. The unfortunate side effect of the cold water being hot was that it encouraged and diluted the blood, making the overall effect look considerably more alarming. I was tempted to blame Mater for the whole sorry affair, for starting the red theme with that damn pantsuit. I actually said “bloody pantsuit”, which struck me as inordinately funny, and made it hard to get back to the bedroom quickly. I was still laughing hysterically, leaving red hand prints and strange red markings along the corridor wall, when Sanso appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
“I saw cave paintings like that in Zimbabwe,” he said conversationally, taking a closer look at the bloody hand prints. “I’ve often wondered what the purpose was, the meaning.” He raised an eyebrow and smiled at me. “Have you interpreted these?”
I was momentarily speechless, as you might imagine. Then I had an impulse, and grabbed his elbow and propelled him into my room, slamming and locking the door behind him. He was almost unnaturally calm and unperturbed, albeit looking as if he was trying not to smile too broadly, which was just the kind of energy I needed. My kind of man! I gave him one of my famous coquettish looks, which made him laugh out loud, and then I caught sight of myself in the wardrobe mirror and hastily grabbed an old nightgown off the floor and spit on it to rub the blood off my face.
“My kind of girl!” he laughed. Oh, how he laughed.
It took a while for Franola to get back to the sudden surge of activity. She had to use Finley as an anchor for awhile, since Tiku seemed to have moved out of the picture.
Franola shook the typo mergence out of her dusty cloud, and resumed being Garnola — — well, Granola.
She’d picked up interesting stuff on her way to the now overcrowded inn.
Bits and pieces of a ragtag team of mag’spies on their way to fetch the engraved key, but they seemed to have been distracted by promises of gold on their way from their last known location. She hadn’t stayed too long to check on them, as she’d felt a sudden telepathic attack from the Doctor, and had simply popped out to avoid attracting him into her safe mental spaces.
Well, without Tiku around the Inn to lend her body for spirit possession, it would be more difficult to verbally warn her friends Maeve and Shawn-Paul, especially caught up as they were in all that dramatic tension.
She quite liked her new vantage point though. Fisheye view, literally. She could see the whole company, hidden in the eye of the strange fish hanged on the wall.
A mean looking cat was starting to hiss and snarl at her though. Or maybe that was her mind playing tricks. After all that backstage exploration, she might have been confounded as to whom was doing the snarling.
The loud throbbing of a Harley Davidson interrupted the unexpected revelation moment.
A few seconds later, the door banged open and a man with a long moustache, thick eyebrows and a rather bushy hair entered the Inn.
Devan didn’t know the name of the man, but he did manage to infuse his wide open mouth with an interrogation.
The fact that Mater was the first person to pronounce the name of the man didn’t escape Prune’s shrewd mind.
“How do you know him?” she asked Mater who blushed and used another puff of dust to cough and avoid the question.
But one surprised all the others, even Fergus.
“My long lost brother!” said Sanso. He moved forward and hugged the newly arrived man. Truth be told, there was some ressemblance between the two of them.
Mandrake was looking at Ugo who seemed rather focused on the scene. Something was off, he could feel it. He should warn Arona, but the darn lizard never left her side, or her hair. It was pretty annoying since she would not brush his fur very often now, and he certainly needed some refreshing with all the knots caused by the dryness of the climate.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have skipped that welcome lunch” Continuity said to her friend.
“Nonsense, Connie. We go and report where the heat of the action is, and something tells me, it’s nowhere near this crumbling dusty Inn anyway.”
“Oh, right, it’s just as I thought Hilda, but our guest might have found it rude and all.”
“Technically, and you know how particular I am about details, it wasn’t Dido though, it was that old fossile of Bert that dropped all the clues, clearly out of earshot from Did’. Kind of suspiciously too… Maybe he wanted us to have the real stuff, throw everyone else off the scent. But yeah, you just might be right…”
“Of course I’m bloody right. When have I ever been anything else than right, Connie. Now, follow me, the old mines entrance shouldn’t be far now.”
“Welcome, Everyone!” said Mater. She had entered unnoticed and was standing in the doorway regarding the assembled group and looking rather more lewd than welcoming. She had worn a pantsuit for the occasion, a relic from the 70’s made of red garbardine. Fortunately, the forgiving nature of garbardine added a little stretch, but even so the cloth clung rather too tightly to Mater’s curves.
“Oh, lord love ya! “ said Finly. “Look at you! You’ve not dusted that pantsuit off since you got it out of the chest, have you!” She hit Mater with her duster and a cloud of dust enveloped her.
“Way to go, Mater!” said Devan.
“What are you doing, crazy old woman?” shrieked Dodo. Unfortunately her mouth was full of bread roll and it sounded more like, “Woowawuooingwazyolewoom?”
“She’s aboriginal?” asked Sanso looking at Dodo with interest.
Prune snorted. “We aren’t quite sure where she is from but she is an interesting specimen.”
“I expect she is rip snorting drunk again,” said Mater after the dust had subsided. “Anyway, I just want to say it is a pleasure to have you all here. I hope you are finding enough to eat. If you need anything, Bert here is your man.”
“Thanks ever so much,” said Arona, smiling charmingly and gently wiping the lizard with her paper table napkin before popping it back under her turban.
Bert grunted and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “We aren’t used to this many folk staying at one time,” he said. “But yeah, welcome all. So, what are you all here for?”
“It’s to do with a doll, actually,” said Maeve. Shawn Paul looked at her, impressed with her boldness.
“A key,” said Arona, waving the key in the air.
Mater stumbled and reached out to the door frame for support.
“Bloody hell,” said Bert.
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