“Adaptability and improvisation are the names of the game now,” said Liz, beaming with satisfaction. Her impulse had been a success. A quick call to the local dog shelter and the delivery of two dogs within the hour had solved the problem nicely. As anyone who’d ever had dogs knew, cleaning up spilled food was simply never a problem. “You won’t have to wash the dishes anymore now!”
“What do you mean?” Finnley asked suspiciously. “Surely you can’t mean…”
“Why, yes! Just put them all on the kitchen floor and the dogs will do it for you. They’re ever so good, they won’t miss a single morsel. Which is more than can be said for your washing up. Now don’t pout! Be glad you have one less job to do.”
Godfrey patted the black poodle’s head, which had a funny sort of spring loaded feel. “We’re keeping the dogs, then?” he asked, failing to keep the hopeful note out of his voice. He was rather taken with the funny little dog. Without waiting for an answer from Liz he said to the expectant little face peering up at him, “What shall we call you, then?”
The shadow of a frown creased Liz’s brow momentarily as she wondered if she’d done the right thing. Would she be able to stomach seeing Godfrey fawning over a poodle? Why on earth had the dogs home sent her a poodle? Did she sound like a poodle person? But then, they’d sent her a lurcher as well. Liz contemplated taking umbrage at that, did she honestly sound like a lurcher person? A lurcher poodle person? Or a poodle lurcher person?
“Are we keeping both of them, then?” asked Roberto. “What shall we call you, big boy?” he asked, addressing the dog.
“On the way back call in at the dogs home and pick two more dogs up, Finnley. We may as well have one each. I’ll ring them now.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea? Replacing all our culture with carrots seems a bit extreme.”
“We entered unheard of territory. And yes, carrots are the future of our community. We need more carrots.”
“Do you mind illuminating my inferior mind?”
“What do you think? People are allowed to go out only in a few cases. Walking your dog, buying food. It is easier to grow carrots than to breed puppies. It also take less time. We need to be able to go out at will. Take a bunch of carrots and no policeman can tell that you weren’t out for illicit purpose.”
“Oh! You’re so clever. No wonder you’re the head of our new cult.”
Young Jimmy says to me this morning, “I dreamed we were travelling far away from here, Mama. It was only you and me and Bella.” I nearly choked on my grits. I am thankful Cook did not hear. She is as superstitious as the day is long and takes great store in dreams and the like. “Funny things, dreams,” I says to Jimmy. “Hard to know what they mean.” I longed to question him more on the dream, same time, don’t want him talking about it in front of Cook. Best he forgets it.
I’ve heard no more of the sickness. Methinks perhaps it has come to naught. And I’m fit as a fiddle and the children too. I’ve decided Thursday next. On Thursdays, Master goes to the meeting in the Village and Cook has her night off when she goes to see her brother in Thombeen.
I think how pleased they will be to see me. How astonished they will be. When I think about it like that, stops me from fearing. Ten years it has been. I would send a letter ahead but cannot risk it falling in the wrong hands.
“Wait!” hissed Tara. She grabbed Star’s arm and pulled her behind one of the ornamental pear trees which graced either side of the front path.
“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?”
“A bit odd. I suppose we could give it a go,” said Star grudgingly, (though privately impressed by Tara’s bold suggestion), “At least pop our heads in the window … see what’s what.”
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!”
“Well one of you isn’t going either!” Rosamund shouted through the door, as Tara and Star headed out. “One of you better get back in here to hold the fort. Mum’s been on the phone, says she’s packing her bags for sure this time. It’s not just Auntie Joanie coming, Auntie April’s on her way too! I gotta go and calm her down.”
“This is not the most salubrious start for a new employee,” muttered Star.
“We can’t afford anyone else yet!” Tara whispered back.
“You stay and hold the fort then. I’ll go and see to Vince,” Star replied. “Might get more out of him if only one of us goes, know what I mean?” she said with a lewd wink. “Here’s my password to the cult forum. See what you can find out. And don’t start making daft comments on there! Neutral observations only!”
“Rosamund,” Tara said sternly, “You have two days leave of absence only, I expect you back here on Friday.”
“How in tarnation did ya do that?” Arthur looked at his wife suspiciously.
“Do what, honey?” Ella Marie replied, feigning innocence.
“This here lottery win! How did you do that? You aint been doing them there voodoo tricks again, have you? You promised…”
“Oh heck Art, it’s pure chance, a million to one, you know that! We just got lucky, is all.” But she couldn’t meet his eye. “Well I had to do somethin’! It aint for us, it’s for those friends of Jacqui’s. When I heard they’d been locked up in jail on cooked up charges, after being so excited about visiting the family, well I couldn’t bear it.”
“You promised you wasn’t gonna do that hokey pokey stuff no more,” Arthur said.
“Yes but it aint for us. This is different, just a one time thing, helping out friends. We can pay the bail money for ’em now and get ’em outta that stinking hellpit. Aint no place for decent ladies, Art.”
“They’ll need some darned expensive lawyers to fight the Beige House, and fat chance of winning.” Art looked doubtful.
“Oh they won’t stick around to fight the case. I had this idea,” Ella Marie had that old twinkle in her eye that used to get Art all fired up, back in the day. “We’re gonna buy them a boat. I been talking to Jacqui ’bout it. An old flame of hers turned up who can sail the boat for them.”
“How big’s the boat?” asked Art, an idea brewing in his head. He’d always wanted to sail around the world.
“Well we aint bought the boat yet, Art, the lottery check only just arrived. How ’bout we go down to Orange Beach Marina and see what’s for sale? We could have a seafood lunch, make a day of it.”
A big smile spread across the old mans face. ” Well, hell, Ella Marie, I guess we can do whatever we darn well please now! Let’s do it! And,” he added, planting a loud smackeroo of a kiss on her forehead, “Let’s get a boat big enough for all of us. I’ve got an adventure in me, afore I pop my clogs, I sure do.”
“I thought you said we were going to Australia, April? This doesn’t look like Australia to me,” she said casting a despondent eye around the dismal cell. “Why do they always paint them grey?”
“To make you suffer. You’re not supposed to enjoy it.”
“Barbaric,” sniffed June. “And inefficient. I refuse to be rehabilitated unless they improve the accommodation.”
“Fat chance of that” April snorted. “We’ll be sewing mailbags or being a guinea pig for the latest bolonavirus vaccine.”
“What? No art classes and gym and choice of menu?” June was aghast. “You had better get us out of here! That latest scam was all your idea, anyway.”
“Actually, no, it wasn’t. It was that guy, what was his name? Godfrey? The one that comes to see Mr August sometimes. I was in the elevator with him one day and right out of the blue, I mean, I don’t know him personally, but he planted all these crazy ideas in my head telling me about how fool proof this credit card trick was…”
“He can pay the bail money then.”
“Now there’s an idea.”
Norma was taking the sheets for a clean when she ran into the tall black figure of Mr August in the neatly carpeted corridors that Finnley had got freshly cleaned. Those odd people from Alabama that had brought Barron back had been all too pleased to help with the carpet cleaning, gaining a contract with the Beige House rather than a one-time reward.
Norma immediately started to blush like a teenybopper feeling silly hidden under the mass of untidy sheets. She dropped the heap at Mr August’s feet and fumbled around in utter confusion.
August was a gentleman, and offered to help, while exchanging some innocent small talk. He was a married man after all. “Those carpets sure do look cleaner than they ever were.”
“Yeah, that Finnley knows her bossing around business, that’s a fact.” reluctantly replied Norma, jealous that the conversation had to mention the other maid.
“You look distressed Norma.” he paused looking genuinely concerned. “It’s nothing to do with the sacking of June & April, is it? Or is that the stress of all that sudden responsibility falling on your shoulder? Taking care of Mr. Barron and all?”
“Oh yes, but no!” she immediately answered. “It was such an honor that Mistress Mellie Noma entrusted me with her child. The Lord will forgive me for speaking ill of them, but these two were not fit and proper to raise a child, with all that partying and …” she stopped thinking she sounded like a bitter spinster.
“Amen.” smiled August. “Not to mention all the gossiping around.” he giggled.
He rose from the floor and gave her back the folded sheet in a neat package.
“Good luck with the kid. Now he’s back, there’s no telling what goes in this head of his. I still wonder how he managed to get on this little trip. I have to go, work to do before Pres. Lump is coming back from his impricotement hearings. Seems he won once again and will be here in no time.”
Shivering, the two women stood at the bus stop, suitcases standing beside them.
“What are we going to do now, April?” June was finding the abrupt dismissal unsettling, annoying. It wasn’t their fault the kid disappeared. “Why on earth are you grinning like that? Where are we going to go?”
“We’re going to stay with my sister in Australia,” replied April with a happy sigh.
“What, now? Are you mad? The place is a disaster zone!”
“Can’t be any more of a disaster than the place we just got fired from.”
June couldn’t argue with that. “Does she know we’re coming?”
April shook her head. “Oh no, it’s going to be a surprise. Oh my, she’ll be surprised.”
“Whereabouts in Australia?”
“Melbourne. Melbourne, here we come!”
“Crocuses in meadow, Flower, Flower”, was singing Eleri. Humming was more accurate, she didn’t recall much of the lyrics, but the tune was easy to follow. She was quite fond of that popular song and liked to sing it whenever she was going to town in her flower dress floating in the wind. She had thought it nice if Gorrash woke up with a festive atmosphere. It would certainly be a shock already that so much time had passed since he was last awake. She wondered if he would remember anything from his broken time. She hadn’t talked much with him before, especially about his day-slumber time.
“Chestnut in the woods”, she continued. Crack, crack made the dry twigs she walked on on purpose. It made her laugh and snort. She liked playing with her environment and made it participate in her own expression, it was like she had many voices and she could hear herself everywhere. She picked up a few chestnuts because she knew Fox was crazy about them. It was a blessing that the enchanted forest would still produce them out of season.
When she arrived in town, Eleri didn’t waste time. She wanted costumes and props for the party, so she went directly to the Jiborium’s Emporium where she was sure to find everything she needed, and more. There was a crowd blocking the entrance, but it didn’t deter her from her idea. She elbowed her way up to the door where a man in a wheelchair was complaining about having not enough room to go in. Still in a jolly mood, Eleri found it funny that the man who took so much space with his cumbersome vehicle was asking for more room.
“Move already”, she joined her voice to the man’s complaint and managed, Flove knows how to make the crowd part away enough so they could both enter the shop.
“Thanks, young lady”, said the grumpy man. “It’s a hassle sometimes you know to move in this town. People with good health they do not realise.”
“Oh! I know”, said Eleri. “My ankle just got better, but it was such a pain to move. I would have loved to have a chair like yours to move around, but alas I live in the forest most of the time and I’m not sure the chair would last long in there.”
“Oh! but it would! They have the cross-country model here, on the fourth floor. Powered by lightning battery.”
“Really?” said Eleri more to herself than for the man. Her mind was already elsewhere. “Thanks!” She kissed the grumpy man on the forehead and left, thinking of costumes and confetti. A cross-country wheelchair would be nice to bring back all of those. They might even need it for Gorrash if he needed recovery time.
“The Spanish Moss Motel? Well, I’ll be darned, so this it where it is,” said Arthur, “But hell, it’s no place for a baby!”
“What do you mean, Art?” asked his wife. “Is it one of them there broth kitchens full of painted tarts?”
Art shook his head. “Not exactly. Nobody really knows, ‘cept everybody knows that things go on here.” Art shook his head again. “Aint no place for a baby.”
“Y’were in a cult?” breaking the odd silence, Rosamund left her mouth gaping between messaging-styled sentences and chewing of gum. “What kind of cult?” she said, resuming the noisy chewing.
Tara rolled her eyes, thinking how she just needed another baby-sitting now. There was a case to crack, and it was their first client. She went for her favorite subtly make-a-ton approach. “Oh yeah, right. Abso-lu-tely. A damn strange cult at that.” Then, when she got her hooked well, she went for the elusive-slightly-patronizing approach. She was good like that. “But I think you’re too young for the crazy details, might have you wet your bed at night.”
She immediately regretted her last sentence.
Changing the topic, Tara asked. “What kind of cult indeed. That’s the damn bloody question we forgot to ask!”
Rosamund put a cocky smirk on her lips and mouthed “amateurs”. Could have been the chewing, Tara couldn’t tell. She was myopic but refused to wear corrective eyewear, so she had to strain at times, which gave her a funny wrinkled look.
Star, who’d just been back from her shopping at Jiborium’s emporium was drenched head to toe and interrupted the exciting conversation.
“I’ve got us all we need for our invertigastion.”
“she means investigation” Tara knew better than to correct the verbal typos Star couldn’t help but utter by the minute, but it was more a knee-jerk response than anything else.
“Did you find clues too in the clue department?”
“As a matter of fact, I did. Got us that well-worn out book at a bargain price. Have a look.”
Arthur was driving the minivan. It was an old Chewy Express van with the big bold “DRAPES CLEANING” sign on it that he’d repainted by himself over the years. The business wasn’t doing great, truth be told, so he’d cut down the marketing costs, which according to Ella Marie wasn’t a bright idea. “You never know where you next patrons could hide.” She’d said, and then had him hooked up on some social website to post random things and get some likes and thumbs up. He’d come a little late for the new century’s game and couldn’t see any of the appeal, but he’d learned over the years never to make the missus irate.
He’d been so glad when she’d come back from the floods, unscathed and full of completely batshit crazy stories. Mummies and stuff. Sounded like being rolled in shredded drapes fanfiction to him. Complete garbage, but you can’t tell people they’re crazy, they’d hate you for it, and in truth you may be wrong. You might be the one crazy and all the others the sane ones. How’s that for a thought.
Anyway, he loved his Ella Marie dearly, and had learned not to sweat the small stuff. Like this night drive to a funny place she’d just received coordinates from an acquaintance on the Net. Those were mad times, mad times indeed. At least, she could have told him she wanted to catch a new rare pokemeon go! in the dead of night, and it might have sounded… well, just as mad probably.
They were driving steadily, being careful about the road signs; the van wasn’t much for crazy stunts anyway.
“How far is that?” he asked the wife, who was busy on her phone tracking the route and chatting on the thing with her friends imaginary or else.
“Not far, luv’. Next turn right, then left, then right and we should be there.”
The last turn took them off the road, and Arthur started to wonder if that wasn’t another “turn left at your peril” GPS experiment, where they’d have to haul the van out of a tar pit, but it seemed fine so far. The place looked ominous, and full of croaking noises 🐸🐸🐸🐸.
He killed the headlights, and moved in the parking lot at a crawl. There was no point in alerting whoever was there of their nocturnal visit. A barn owl flew straight in front of the van, scaring them.
“STOP!” jumped Jacqui, who’d been sleeping the whole time, and woke up to a frightful sight.
Arthur pushed on the brakes that gave off a screeching sound that would wake up a mummy.
“You’ve lost weight” Rukshan said, not knowing where to start. The shaman thinner look was besuiting.
“So have you, my friend.” They both laughed.
“So what have been up to, in these parts of the woods?”
“It just happens that I was a bit ahead of you, and have just come back from the Great Austral Dry Lands.”
They all became somber. The Fires had devastated the place, and the news which came were not good. There was little chance they could put an expedition in place to gather the pink clay, with all this devastation… unless… He smiled.
“You’ve brought some back, haven’t you?”
Kumihimo smiled back. “Indeed. Not easy to come by, pink clay, isn’t it?”
Fox who had been turning his head right and left, and right and left following the conversation marked a moment, and the realization came.
“Does it mean we can revive Gorrash?”
“It may well be my dear Fox, with this last ingredient now gathered, it may well be.”
Looking at the exasperated voices of his captors, Barron needn’t know how to speak Spanish to be entirely certain he was in over his head.
He wondered why the negotiators hadn’t been brought in already; the plan was simple —well, initially. He was to get a cut of the ransom, and disappear with it in some nice sunny resort in the South. Like the extreme South, not Alabama South.
Someone must have interfered… He could have sworn there was a woman’s voice with a funny accent speaking to them before she hung up on them.
¡La chica dice que ya tienen al bebé! That much he could understand; an impostor 👶🏻baby now? And who had replaced August in his duties?
Well, at the moment, he had a group of angry Frenchmen and Mexicans in a smelly rillettes distillery with a useless baby on their hands. He knew too well that if he wanted to keep all his limbs, he’d have to improvise quickly. Good thing they hadn’t removed his eye-watch. By now, as inept as they’d be, the two nannies should have got his GPS coordinates.
Well… They had trouble spelling their names without typos at times so he’d better not leave that to chance.
He started to text:
SOS - baby in danger at Rillettes Distillery, Alabama
He added the GPS coordinates, just in case; now, with help possibly on the way, he’d have to prepare that distraction in order to extract himself of his predicament.
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.
“Cartwright and Wrexham Private Investigators, can I help you?”
“Do you do missing persons?” Vince asked, getting straight to the point. “Good, well then can I speak to a detective; it’s a very confidential matter.”
“Speaking!” replied Star, elated to receive a business inquiry, but simultaneously feeling a spasm of irritation at the mans attitude. “Star Wrexham, what can I do for you, Mr…?”
“French, Vince French.” Smoothing his hair and glancing in the wall mirror, Vince added, “You will have heard of me and my world famous melodious voice.”
Star had not, but replied encouraging, “Oh, I see. You can be sure of the utmost confidentiality and discretion, Mr French. Our credentials are unimpeachable. The missing person is..?”
“My uncle Basil, he’s gone. He got in with that cult, and now he’s gone. They’ve seduced him with all that mumbo jumbo and hype and parlour tricks, I could see it coming, I tell you, I knew they’d take him.” Vince was becoming emotional. “And now he’s left me.”
“Well if it’s your uncle, he must be, how old? So what if he wants to join a cult?” said Star, wondering why he was being so melodramatic. “What?” she whispered to Tara who was pulling faces and shaking her head. “Oh, right!” she replied, getting the message.
“Now then Mr French, I’m confident that we can find your uncle. We have some experience with cults and know how they operate. If you’d like to make an appointment with our secretary to pop in to the office as soon as possible..”
Star handed the phone to Tara. “Ms Cartwright, if you wouldn’t mind? The gentleman caller would like to make an appointment.”
“I’m a senior partner, not a secretary!” Tara hissed, taking the phone. Her anger subsided when she heard his voice. Where had she heard that voice before?
I wish now that I’d had the sense to open the letter in private. I can’t imagine why I didn’t think of that, but I didn’t. I tried not to make a drama out of it, I didn’t make an announcement or anything. One morning after breakfast I untied the string and opened the letter. It wasn’t any of the things I had expected. Clearly printed in large capital letters at the top was written DON’T TELL MATER.
Quickly I folded it over, dropping it discreetly into my lap under the table. “Any more nettle tea in the pot, Bert?” I asked and feigned a casual yawn.
“Well?” asked Mater.
“Well what?” I asked.
“I can read you like a book,” she said, to which I replied hotly, “Well then I won’t need to write one, will I.”
“What did the letter say?” she pressed on.
“What letter?” I said
“For crying out loud!” she said.
“Pass your cup then,” said Bert, giving me a piercing look. Over the top of Mater’s head he mouthed a word, with a questioning look. I’ve never been any good at lip reading, but it looked like he was trying to say Jasper.
“Who?” I mouthed back, but Mater saw me, so I pretended I had a bit of nettle stuck between my teeth.
It’s taking blimmin forever for the Oober to get here, and, wouldn’t you just know it, rain!
“Hop in,” says the driver. He’s leaning over holding open the front door. An older chappie with a shiny forehead and rosacea. He definitely drinks. Maybe he’s come straight from the pub. Still, it’s raining and I’m late, so I hop in. In the back seat, mind. I’m not much of a one for talking.
“I’m Finnley.” I crack a smile to make up for sitting in the back. It feels strange smiling. In my mind, there’s not much point to smiling. It just encourages people to be overly familiar.
“Bert,” he says. He’s Australian I think from the accent and his expression is more of a sneer than a smile. I reckon I pissed him off not getting in the front seat. “F i n n l e y.” He sounds it out like he’s learning a new language. “Always thought that was a boy’s name?”
“Can be either.”
Do I look like a boy, Bert?
Anyhow, that’s enough chitchat for me. I get my phone out and make like I am checking for messages. Haha. As if.
“Here on holiday, Finnley? Pity about the weather.”
Oh here we go.
“Oh yeah, corker! Where’s that, Finnley?”
“Washingtown Beige House, Bert.”
I have to be honest, saying it out loud still gives me goosebumps. And Bert’s surprise doesn’t disappoint.
Noor Mary Chowdhury had just been promoted to the role of housekeeper since the arrival of the new Iranian maid, May. It was a nice change of position but sadly the salary was not really following, she’ll have to talk to the chief of stuff, Mr August. She suspected him to have a crush on her and he might get a word in her favor to Mr Lump.
“Tskk,” she said to May. “You’re not doing it right, rub gently with the newspaper to make the silver shine.”
“Like that?” asked May. Norma bobbed her head the Indian way, and as May seemed a bit confused she added “close enough.”
The shout startled them both.
“Keep doing like that only. I’m the housekeeper, I’ll go check.”
Norma went to the nursery room and her lips tightened when she saw the two au pair aunties slumped on the couch. June’s eyes were misty, she turned her bottle upside down to show it was empty. April was busy on her phone as usual, ignoring the maid as if she was insignificant.
Norma snorted, she didn’t say anything but showed her disapproval silently. June’s breath could make an elephant drunk while sitting on its back and April was so ugly she would make it run away.
“I’m not your maid,” the housekeeper said.
“Oh that’s right!” said June to April “Coz she’s got a PhD!” and they laughed.
It hurt but Norma kept her lips tight and left the room. She bumped into Mr August Finest and her mind went blank. He was tall and wore a handsome moustache. She had forgotten she wanted to talk to him about her salary.
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