“What about me?” asked Vince French. “Are you going to interrogate me or not?” He sounded peevish, even to his own ears. But he put his heart and soul into singing and to have the whole audience, bar that rude detective girl, run out during a performance was unconscionable.
“We don’t really need to now,” said Tara. She softened slightly seeing his dejected face. “Great tune by the way. If you like, you can come and help us find Uncle Basil.” She edged towards the exit. “After you’ve paid the bill!” she shouted as she took off through the door.
The door crashed open and an imposing looking gentleman strode into the room. He looked rather dashing in his pinstripe suit; unfortunately the effect was spoilt by the fact that he was wearing a bright purple beanie complete with yellow pom poms on his head.
“Meandering! Unfocused!” shouted the newcomer. “Call yourselves private detectives? I’ve had enough of this rubbish. I demand you interrogate me.”
“Alright, keep your voice down,” said Tara. “For starters, who are you? And why are you wearing that ludicrous thing on your head?”
“I am Vince French. Yes, that got your attention!” He looked brazenly around the cafe with an unpleasant sneer.
“Oh, the headgear. My elderly Aunt knitted it for me and insisted I wear it. What could I do?”
“Well,” said Star mildly. “That’s extremely sweet of you. And, you are in luck because we’ve been looking for a Vince French. But first can you prove you are Vince French because we are getting rather a lot of false negatives lately. Or do I mean false positives. I really get so confused.”
“Yes, and tattoos as identification won’t do,” said Tara.
“Will Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi prove it to you?” he asked and broke into song.
“Wow,” whispered Star. “What a voice! It must be him.”
“Arrogant bastard,” said Tara.
“Will you look at these prices!” exclaimed one of the middle aged ladies.
Privately, Tara called them the miserable old bag and the crazy old witch, or Mob and Cow for ease of reference. Anyway, it was Mob who was banging on about the prices.
“Feel free to take yourself somewhere cheaper to eat,” she snarled.
“Oh, no, that’s okay, as long as you’re happy paying these outrageous prices.”
Cow cackled. “I’ve not eaten for a month so bugger the prices! Not that I need to eat, airs good enough for me seeing as I have special powers. Still, a raspberry bun wouldn’t go amiss. Thank you, Ladies!”
“Sorry, I were trying to help,” she said with a shrug.
Tara scanned the room. The only other people in the cafe were an elderly gentleman reading the newspaper and a bedraggled mother with two noisy snot-bags in tow. Tara shuddered and turned her attention to the elderly man. “Those deep wrinkles and wasted muscles look genuine,” she whispered to Star. “There’s nobody here who could possibly be Vince French. I’m going to go and keep watch by the door.”
“Good thinking,” said Star, after covertly checking her Lemoon quote of the day app on her phone; she realised uneasily she was increasingly relying on it for guidance. “There’s a sunny seat over there; I’ll grab a coffee and look inconspicuous by doing nothing. I don’t want to blow our cover.”
Tara glared at her. “I saw you checking your app! What did the oracle say?”
“Oh, just some crazy stuff.” She laughed nervously. “There is some kind of peace in not feelign like there’s anythign to do.”
“Well that’s not going to get us far, is it now?”
“Clearly,what we do next, my friend, is free the middle-aged lady,” Tara smiled smugly.”First rule, notwithstanding that I hate rules, if you don’t know what to do, do what you do know what to do, even if you don’t want to do it because at least you’ve done something.”
“No, I made it up myself.”
“Oh, well … I’m too tired to do anything.You do it, Tara.”
“No, you do it! Lazy tart.”
“I’ll do it!” says Rosamund, appearing from nowhere and bounding over to the wardrobe. “I want to borrow her lippy again.” She tugged at the door. “It seems to be stuck.”
“It does seem to be rather stuck,” said Star said after a few minutes of fruitless tugging. She knocked on the door of the wardrobe. “Excuse me, are you there? Excuse me … dreadfully sorry about all this.” There was no reply.
“Dead,” said Tara. “Darn it.”
Undaunted, Star tried again. After a particularly spirited tug, the door flew open and Star fell backwards. “She’s gone! But she left a note. Thank you, Ladies for your hospitality. This is a clue. At 4pm Thursday, go to the cafe on Main street. Vince French will be there..”
Tara gasped. “Who was she? That seemingly innocuous middle-aged lady.”
“Perhaps we will never know,” said Star.
“Wait!” said Star. “Have we unwittingly stumbled upon a secret meeting of the bellbird cult?”
The bouncer laughed. “Not exactly a secret meeting. It’s more of our monthly get-together. We have drinks and what-not and a bit of a sing-song”
“Sound great! Where do I sign up?” asked Tara, mesmerised by the burly bouncer’s biceps.
Tara sneered at the obvious lie. “Then why did you run? Huh?”
“If you must know, and it appears you must, I believe I saw him.” She pointed to the entrance. “He was wearing a disguise of course. When he saw me, he ran, clearly fearing I would see through his disguise and reveal to the world that he is not in a coma.”
Star scratched her head. “I see,” she said.
“So much for New Zealand and your remote viewing skills,” sneered Tara.
April shook her head. “Those are questions only Vincent French can answer.”
“Going around in circles a bit, aren’t you?” said BB with a kindly smile. “Cheer up! Look around you! Beauty is everywhere and drinks are on the house!”
Star rolled her eyes. “Already done,” she said. “Based on what I saw, I believe Vincent French to be in New Zealand.”
“New Zealand!” exclaimed Tara. “That’s madness.”
Star took a slurp of her gin and tonic. “Also, the bellbird motif … that’s from over there, isn’t it?”
“What a load of rubbish,” said Star later. “I don’t believe a word of it. Well, except for the part about Vince French not being in a coma, that bit rang true. But the rest of it’s downright nonsense, if you ask me.”
Tara waved to the waiter and ordered another two gin and tonics. The Bell Bird Inn was conveniently located mid way between the office and their apartment, and needless to say, they were regulars.
“There’s definitely something fishy going on with April’s story,” Tara agreed. “The wardrobe, for instance. Those notes with the same handwriting. I don’t believe she’s filthy rich, either. Nobody who is filthy rich ever says “I’m filthy rich”.”
“How would you know? How many filthy rich people do you hobnob with, then?”
“Let’s not get off the point!” Star cried, exasperated. “What are we going to do?”
“Oh, right,” said Star when she found her voice. “Right. Because it’s just so easy to peruse bottom tattoos on the general public.”
Tara giggled. “Don’t be silly. This is where we use our special unofficial skills. Remote viewing.”
“But where do we start?”
“Set the intention, and trust your intuition. Oh come on,” Star’s lack of enthusiasm was becoming tedious. “It will be fun!”
Aunt April blew her nose loudly into a tissue.
“The real Vince has a tattoo of a bell-bird on his right buttock.”
“I had my suspicions … so I had to see for myself. On pretext of being a nurse, I managed to inveigle myself into the institution where he is supposedly being kept to look at his derriere. There are other small differences too, but that clinched it for me.”
Star nodded. “I see, well done! So you and Vincent French were having an …?”
“A liaison of rather a passionate nature. Yes.”
“And the wardrobe? The notes?”
“I had the wardrobe sent up.”
Tara looked puzzled. “But … what on earth for?”
“Oh, the wardrobe is a red herring. I really just wanted to get rid of it and rather than send it to charity thought you girls might make use of it.”
April screwed up her face and giggled nervously. “Well, you are a struggling start-up business and there were no social media reviews to go by … so it was a test really. To see if you were good enough to take on the case.”
Tara glowered at her. “And?”
“You passed! Congratulations! As Rosamund may have told you, I am filthy rich and money is no object. We must get to the bottom of this mystery.”
“Bottom,” said Rosamund and sniggered.
“Stop it!” shouted April, flinging the broom wildly above her head. “Just stop it, will you! First, you man-handle me into the wardrobe filled with dirty old coats and refuse to let me have pineapple on my pizza and now you are interrogating me as though I am some sort of criminal.” She threw the broom to the floor with such force that the handle snapped off, and then she collapsed in a sobbing heap.
“I suppose we have been rather unwelcoming,” said Star.
“There, there, Auntie,” said Rosamund, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder. “If you need to make up a husband, I totally get it. I’m always making up stuff.”
“I think it is about time you tell us the truth,” said Tara sternly. “Why have you invented a philandering husband and what does Vince French have to do with it and, last but certainly not least, why is that wardrobe filled with stinky coats in our office?”
“How about I make a nice cup of tea and you can tell us everything,” said Star.
While April was noisily distracted, Star cleared her throat meaningfully and nudged Tara. “Something has occurred to me,” she whispered in Tara’s ear. “April doesn’t have a husband, never married. She was a professional nanny or something…oh now I remember! She worked at the ..,” but she was loudly interrupted by Rosamund asking what they were whispering about and hadn’t they been rude enough already for one day.
“VINCE FRENCH?” the others shouted in unison.
“I knew it!” Tara had gone to investigate early, disguised as an elderly jogger in a velvet teal jogging. “Seemed clear enough that that retirement home was a front…”
Later when she came back to the office, she was quizzed by Star, who was still yawning despite the bright sunlight.
“So tell me, a front for what?”
“Can’t you guess?” Tara said, removing her false teeth.
“Nooo?” her hand flew at Star’s mouth and incredulous face.
“Yes, hmm-hmm; you guessed right: a time travel agency.”
“Oh dangit, they stole my idea! After all the virus pandemic thing, they sure know how to surf the crisis to make a buck. The buying carrots alibi traffic, and now that!”
“Yep, guess that people unable to go anywhere for holidays make up for a good clientele. You can imagine the slogans: Celerity: Why go anywhere? When we can send you anywhen! “
“And a convenient way of disposing of nosy people too. I hope they didn’t send Uncle Basil to the Dinosaurs, can’t imagine the stench of those Time sewers.”
“Oh no, don’t think he was affluent enough, you see. Apparently you pay by the time meter. The further in time, the pricier. And I guess the surest way to dispose of someone would be in the past rather than in the future…”
“So Uncle Basil is in the past!”
“Well, I could have told you that from the start. No wonder Mr French paid us in advance then, he already knew we’d crack that case. Our first case’s closed, dear! If Mr French ever wakes up and calls, we’ll just redirect him to our Time Dragglers friends in Marseille for their ‘relative lost in time’ retrieval package. Now, anyone for mojitos?”
“A dil-do factory?” She was aghast. “A fucking carrot dildo factory?”
“Oh don’t push it.” Star lit a large cigar, a nasty habit that cropped up when she was nervous. She blew a smoke ring and sighed. “At least the rogering was a nice change. Good clean sex, almost a spiritual experience.”
“Oh come now, with all the don’t-need-to-know details…”
“Well, don’t be such a prude, you were there after all. With all that luscious moaning. Haven’t seen you so flushed in ages…” Star tittered in that high-pitched laughter that could shatter crystal flutes.
“Wait… a minute.” Tara was having a brainwave. “We may have overlooked something.”
“What? In the sex department?”
“Shush, you lascivious banshee… In the flushed department.”
“What? Don’t speak riddles tart, I can’t handle riddles when my body’s aching from all that gymnastic.”
“Can’t you see? They got to get rid of the dissident stuff unfit for cultish dildoing, if you catch my drift.”
“Oh I catch it alright, but I’ve checked the loo… Oh, what? you mean the compost pile?”
“I’ve seen trucks parked out the back, they where labelled… Organic Lou’s Disposal Services… OLDS… That’s probably how they remove their archives, if you see what I mean.”
“I have a theory. Although it usually would be more in your area of theories.”
“What? Alien abduction?”
“No, don’t be ridiculous. I’m talking time travel… Haven’t you noticed the scent of celery when we were at the mansion and the appartment?”
“A dead give-away for time-travelling shenanigans!”
“Exactly. And if I’m correct, might well be that it’s Mr French from the future who phoned us, before he returned to his timeline. Probably because he already knows we’re going to crack the case. Before we know.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Would have been nicer if he’d told us how to solve it instead, if he knew, from the future and all? Are you not sure he’s not from his past instead, like before he got in that dreadful car accident?”
“Oh well, doesn’t matter does it? And probably won’t any longer once we locate the Uncle Basil in the Drooling Home of Retired Vegetables.”
Barron wasn’t one to let a call for help unanswered.
Yes, Barron, not the wee prodigee from the Beige House that he enjoyed possessing, but the demon summoned from Hell.
It had all been a big misunderstanding, as they all say in the end. He, for one, would have thought the ride more fun. He usually wasn’t summoned for anything short of an apocalypse. That’s what the big elite cabale had promised him.
Oh well, maybe he shouldn’t have eaten them in their sleep. He couldn’t say no to the fresh taste of unrepentant sharks and sinners. Since then, he’d been a bit stuck with the big Lump. He would have thought he’d be more competent at the whole Armageddon thing.
Back in the past, now that was something, the Crusades, the plague and all. So much fun. Gilles de Rais, well, he took it too far, blaming monsters for his own horrendous sins. Nowadays, people didn’t really need direction, did they? They were all too happy to ride barrelling out of control towards chaos and certain death. His job was done, he would be a legend down there, and still he felt like a fraud.
So what could he do? His plan for eternal holidays in Mexico while starting a cartel war had been sadly derailed. His mercurial and weirdo nannies had disappeared leaving him alone. Plus, the voodoo witch he met during their escape had been on his ass the whole time, he’d seen the eye she’d given him. Wouldn’t mess around with that one; can’t possess people against their will and risk a merciless lawyer from Heavens, can we. Heavens’ lawyers were the nastiest of pains.
He was about to abandon all hope when he’d heard the pleas from the French maid and her child. Well, she sounded too whimsical and high maintenance. But it gave him an idea. With all the death around, there were plenty of near dead people to possess who wouldn’t mind a last ride,… and funny bargains to be made.
Shaking, Liz wiped the egg yolk out of the corner of her eye. The beer that was gluing her hair into sticky clumps would have to wait. She flicked a half sausage off the corner of her desk with a tremulous sigh and sat down. Her noble features creased into a momentary visage of despair when she saw the bacon, but her natural stoicism corrected her expression as she picked the rasher up between her thumb and finger, removed if from her keyboard and blithely flicked it over her shoulder.
Roberto, standing silently behind her, ducked nimbly as the greasy slab flew past. It stuck to the French window briefly and then slithered down, leaving a snail trail of lard.
Liz cleared her throat and looked sternly at each of them in turn.
“What,” she said, her voice cracking, “What next? Whatever next?”
“A whale, maybe?” asked Godfrey with a lop sided smirk.
“Ouch! that hurt!”
“Look!” Tara nodded towards the mansion. “Over there, far window. It’s open.”
Star, still smarting from being unceremoniously dragged into the bushes, shrugged her shoulders. “So?”
“We’ve come all this way. We can’t go without a fight! Let’s break in!” Tara’s face was animated. “I mean, who is going to stop us? That butler could barely walk and Mr French is supposedly in a coma … and … well, don’t you think it seems strange about the accident and everything?”
Keeping low under cover of the ornamental pears, they crept back towards the house. “Did that curtain move?” whispered Star. “It fluttered, the room next to the open window!”
The front door of Mr French had a certain Gothic quality to it which caught the eye of Star. She was a sucker for the glitz and the extravagant –the more garish, the better. Had she got her way, their office would be full of the cumbersome stuff. Catching the glint in Star’s green eyes, Tara rolled hers. She clanged the metal lion to signal their presence.
A decrepit butler called off their ruckus after what seemed like a pause in eternity. They could hear the rambling from a distance behind the door. “I’m coming! No need for such noise! Ah, these youngs nowadays, not a shred of patience!…”
“Shttt, let me handle it,” replied Star shaping her face into a genial one, oozing honey and butterflies.
When the butler finally opened the door, he snapped her shut “We’re not interested in whatever… hem, services you’re offering Mesdames.”
The butler’s face turned sour. “Yes of course, I understand. Then you should know Mr French has been in a coma since his dreadful accident last month. Since you have a direct line to him, I suggest you… call him?” And with that, he slammed the door shut on their faces.
“Rude!” Tara mouthed.
“At least, that tells us something my dear.”
“Don’t bait me like this. I’ll ask, what exactly?”
“That our Mr French is not who he says he is…”
“I wonder if it has something to do with the immense fortune he made with his voice…”
“That would be a very interesting question to answer indeed.”
“That’s right,” Rosamund nodded enthusiastically. “Anti-vegan vaxxer and she don’t eat nothing with no eyes either. She drives Mum bloody mental going on about how the animals have got souls while Mum’s trying to enjoy a nice baccy fry up. Mum calls her Aunt Moanie.”
Star smirked. “Other than his obvious attributes?”
“You mean the fella with the voice like a bloody angel?” asked Rosamund, spitting an olive onto Tara’s sleeve. Tara swore under her breath as the olive bounced to the floor. Fortunately there was no mark; it was a new blouse and had cost Tara an arm and a leg. Worth the investment, she had reasoned at the time. One must look the part. And clearly, her Moulin Rouge ensemble wasn’t a good look for a Professional Investigator, even with fishnets and a feather boa.
“He cancelled his appointment but he paid the, quite frankly exorbitant, deposit we asked for,” said Star. “He’s going to email us the rest of the details. Do we need to know more that that?”
“Well, I’ve been doing a search and there is nothing anywhere online about him, or his world famous melodious voice. I suggest we pay this Mr French a visit.”
“Oh bloody awesome!” Rosamund leapt to her feet and pizza boxes went flying. “Oops, sorry about that. I’ll clean it soon as we get back.”
“Curiouser and curiouser” said Blithe after Hilda and Ric’s call led the improvised investigation to the doors of the Beige House. “It’s like those huge bills, I tend to find myself at the places I hate the most.”
The clue trails were solid. Track marks led to the Carpet cleaning business, and by following the plates of the van, and interrogating the suspicious yet gossipy neighbours (once she produced her P.I. badge), it was just a matter of time before they tracked the van’s whereabouts into Washingtown.
“I wonder what business they could have had there…”
Ricardo was doing his part too, tracking the social media feeds for anything hashtagged. Difficult to sort through, yet something came up.
“I’m not sure, usually I would have jumped at the occasion…” Hilda was showing unusual restraint. Maybe the perspective of US prisons…
Thankfully Blithe Gambol raised to the challenge. “Of course, we must check that out. Can’t be a coincidence. Just… Remind me what the case was already?”
“Aren’t you worried it’s been 2 days now the boy is missing?”
“Nonsense” replied June curtly. “Don’t you start ruining our poker night.” She slurped delicately her overflowing mojito glass. “Besides, I told you Jacqui and her friends are on the case. I sent her the coordinate. Baby is obviously fine.”
“I still preferred my pith helmet idea and leaving it to professionals though” April pouted her lips in a sulky way. “Now, what are we going to say when Mellie Noma is coming back? That we lost her baby but worry not, the local nutcase friend is on the job.” she finished her sentence almost out of breath “and I heard from August she was coming back at the end of the week.”
“So, are you playing or what? Fold or call?” June was growing impatient about the topic. The French maid and her baby, like the strange Finnley, were making themselves dangerously at home now, like three little annoying cuckoos in her own nest, and June felt stifled as though the FBI were closing in, breathing down on her neck.
That Finnley looked surely suspicious enough, there was no telling she wasn’t a Russian spy in disguise, or worse, some undercover cop…
“You’re right!” she slammed the cards violently on the table, making April almost faint. “We have to take matters in our own hands. I’ll get Mellie Noma to fire her. Blame the Finnley and her French friends for Barron’s disappearance. Mellie No’ owes me that much, especially after I saved her neck from her husband after that horrible giraffe incident.”
April’s face turned to shock at the mention.
“Mmm, it might be a hit. Sophie’s remote viewing has been right on spot even if odder and odder. I guess it fits with the intent of our… I mean your newspaper, doesn’t it?”
Ricardo looked surprised. Was it the recognition he was waiting for all these past months working hard behind the scenes. Not a promotion yet but… Or maybe, just because the usual writers Connie & Hilda weren’t around, off to somewhere only they had the secret.
“Still, you must admit, investigating an alcohol made of rillettes does sound rather ludicrous, even for this newspaper, or even for Sweet Sophie.”
“There might be more to cover, a tree hiding a forest. Besides, she was right about the reptiles falling in Miami during the cold snap! We missed that story… If only we’d jumped on it right away!”
“What else you need? I told you to get on with it, chop chop!”
“Maybe a promotion?…” he added tentatively.
“You’re already staff writer by default dear…”
“A raise then?”
“Don’t push you luck. And you’ll book those tickets to Chickasaw, Alabama in charter. We’re not rolling in the dough, like the Yanks say.”
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