“I’ll be right back!” Nora told Will, who was stirring a big bubbling pot on the stove. “Need to wash my hands.”
She had a quick look around the bedroom she’d slept in for her missing phone. Nowhere to be found! Maybe she could find Will’s phone when he went out to feed the donkey, and call her phone to try and locate it. Damn, that wouldn’t work either. Will had said there was no network here. That would explain why her phone stopped working when she was alone in the dark woods.
“Smells delicious!” she said brightly, scraping a chair back across the brick floor and seating herself at the kitchen table.
The home made soup was chock full of vegetables and looked and smelled wonderful, but it had a peculiar acrid aftertaste. Nora tried to ignore it, taking gulps of wine in between each mouthful to eliminate the bitterness. She wished it wasn’t soup in a way, so that she’d be able to surreptitiously palm some of it off onto the dogs that were waiting hopefully under the table. If only Will would leave the room for a minute, but he seemed to be watching her every move.
“Very tasty, but I can’t manage another mouthful, it’s so filling,” she said, but Will looked so offended that she sighed and carried on eating. He topped up her wine glass.
By the time Nora had finished the soup, she felt quite nauseous and stood up quickly to head for the bathroom. The room started to spin and she held on to the edge of the table, but it was no good. The spinning didn’t stop and she crashed to the floor, unconscious.
Smiling with satisfaction, Will stood up and walked around the table to where she lay. Shame he’d had to put her to sleep, really she was quite a nice woman and cute, too, in a funny elfin way. He’d started to like her. Plenty of time to get to know her now, anyway. She wouldn’t be going anywhere for awhile.
He picked her up and carried her to the secret room behind his workshop on the other side of the patio. The walls and floor were thick stone, and there were no windows. He laid her on the bench, locked the door, and went back in the house to fetch blankets and bedding and a pile of books for her to read when she came round. Probably not for a good 24 hours he reckoned, somehow she’d managed to eat all the soup. He would put much less in the next batch, just enough to keep her docile and sleepy.
It would only be for a few days, just long enough for him to find that box and move it to a safer location. He’d been entrusted to make sure the contents of the box were preserved for the people in the future, and he was a man of his word.
If they had listened to him in the first place this would never have happened. Burying a box was a risk: all kinds of possibilities existed for a buried box to be accidentally unearthed. He had suggested encasing the contents inside a concrete statue, but they’d ignored him. Well, now was his chance. He was looking forward to making a new statue.
Godfrey was getting itchy. The hazmat suit with built-in peanut dispenser was getting stickier by the minute, but he needed it to stay in the room, and provide the moral support Liz’ needed during her bout of glowid.
She’d caught a mean streak, some said a Tartessian variant, which like all version caused the subject to gradually lose sense of inhibition (which in the case of Liz’ made the changes in her normal behaviour so subtle, it could have explain why it wasn’t detected until much later). After that, the usual symptoms of glowing started to display themselves. At first, Liz’ had dismissed them as hot flashes, but when she started to faintly glow in the dark, there was no longer room for hesitation. She had to be put in solitary confinement and monitored to keep her from sparkling, which was the severe form of the malady.
“Trend surfing keywords now?” Liz’ was inflamed and started to blink like a police siren. “I AM setting the future trends, so he’d rather let me do my job, or I’ll publish elsewhere.”
“And…” Godfrey ventured softly “… care to share what new trends you’ve been blazing lately?”
Finnley chuckled at the inappropriate choice of words.
Nora was relieved when the man with the donkey knew her name and was expecting her. She assumed that Clara had made contact with him, but when she mentioned her friend, he shook his head with a puzzled frown. I don’t know anyone called Clara, he said. Here, get yourself up on Manolete, it’ll be easier if you ride. We’ll be home in half an hour.
The gentle rhythmic rocking astride the donkey soothed her as she relaxed and observed her surroundings. The woods had opened out into a wide path beside an orchard. Nora felt the innocuous hospitability of the orchard in comparison to the unpredictability of the woods, although she felt that idea would require further consideration at a later date. One never knew how much influence films and stories and the like had on one’s ideas, likely substantial, Nora thought ~ another consideration not lost on Nora was the feeling of safety she had now that she wasn’t alone, and that she was with someone who clearly knew where he was going.
Notwithstanding simultaneous time, Nora wondered which came first ~ the orchard, the man with the donkey, or the feeling of safety and hospitability itself?
It was me, said the man leading the donkey, turning round with a smile. I came first. Remember?
“Knock, knock! Dinner’s ready!” Clara popped her head around the door to Bob’s room. “What are you doing?” she asked as Bob started and hurriedly put his hand over a small piece of paper.
“Er, nothing, just …” His words trailed off. He smiled brightly at her. “Dinner eh. Smells good. I’ll be right with you.”
Clara’s gaze travelled from Bob’s face to the cardboard box on the bed. “Are you okay? You look strange. What’s in that box?”
“Odds and ends. Just doing a bit of sorting.” He put the piece of paper in the box and placed the lid back on. “Nothing that won’t keep till after dinner.”
“If there are any old photos in the box I’d love to see them.”
“Tell her,” said Jane. There she was, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed near the box. “Go on, tell her about the number.”
Bob shook his head vigorously and Clara regarded him strangely. “Not to worry about photos then,” she said
“You were wishing I was here and now here I am and you aren’t even going to listen to me?” Now Jane was whispering into his ear and he imagined he could almost feel her breath like a feather tickling his cheek—it was all he could do not to laugh. “Tell her or I will.”
VanGogh was sniffing frantically on the patio outside the house, a usual indication that he’d found the perfect spot for a healthy stool, but this time, as soon as Clara had looked the other way to take care of the sautéed mushrooms on the stove, he darted for the shed where the odd big toy had been unearthed and stored out of sight.
His tail wagged frantically as he pushed the door open, and slid underneath the tarpaulin behind the sleeping lawn-eater.
He started to scratch the box, the way he usually tried to open the puzzle ball Clara would fill with some kibble. It didn’t roll like the ball-that-dispensed-kibble. In frustration, VanGogh started to push his paws on the sleek smooth surface, near the curious indentations.
Something clicked open.
“VanGogh! Where are you boy?! Come!”
Suddenly distracted from this puzzling quest, he rushed to the kitchen for dinner.
Dispersee sat on a fallen tree trunk, lost in thought. A long walk in the woods had seemed just the ticket……
Nora wasn’t surprised to encounter a fallen tree trunk no more than 22 seconds after the random thought wafted through her mind ~ if thought was was the word for it ~ about Dispersee sitting on a fallen tree trunk. Nora sat on the tree trunk ~ of course she had to sit on it; how could she not ~ simultaneously stretching her aching back and wondering who Dispersee might be. Was it a Roman name? Something to do with the garum on the shopping receipt?
Nora knew she wasn’t going to get to the little village before night fall. Her attempts to consult the map failed. It was like a black hole. No signal, no connection, just a blank screen. She looked up at the sky. The lowering dark clouds were turning orange and red as the sun went down behind the mountains, etching the tree skeletons in charcoal black in the middle distance.
In a sudden flash of wordless alarm, Nora realized she was going to be out alone in the woods at night and wild boars are nocturnal and a long challenging walk in broad daylight was one thing but alone at night in the woods with the wild boars was quite another, and in a very short time indeed had worked herself up into a state approaching panic, and then had another flash of alarm when she realized she felt she would swoon in any moment and fall off the fallen trunk. The pounding of her, by then racing, heartbeats was yet further cause for alarm, and as is often the case, the combination of factors was sufficiently noteworthy to initiate a thankfully innate ability to re establish a calm lucidity, and pragmatic attention to soothe the beating physical heart as a matter of priority.
It was at the blessed moment of restored equilibrium and curiosity (and the dissipation of the alarm and associated malfunctions) that the man appeared with the white donkey.
Nora moves silently along the path, placing her feet with care. It is more overgrown in the wood than she remembers, but then it is such a long time since she came this way. She can see in the distance something small and pale. A gentle gust of wind and It seems to stir, as if shivering, as if caught.
Nora feels strange, there is a strong sense of deja vu now that she has entered the forest.
She comes to a halt. The trees are still now, not a leaf stirs. She can hear nothing other than the sound of her own breathing. She can’t see the clearing yet either, but she remembers it’s further on, beyond the next winding of the path. She can see it in her mind’s eye though, a rough circle of random stones, with a greenish liquid light filtering through. The air smells of leaf mould and it is spongy underfoot. There’s a wooden bench, a grassy bank, and a circular area of emerald green moss. Finn thinks of it as place of enchantment, a fairy ring.
She reaches the tiny shivering thing and sees that it is a scrap of paper, impaled on a broken branch. She reaches out gently and touches it, then eases if off the branch, taking care not to rip it further. There is a message scribbled on the paper, incomplete. meet me, is all it says now
The crumpled up paper among the dead leaves beside the path catches her eye. No, not impaled on a branch but still, a bit of paper catches her eye as the mysterious ~ ephemeral, invisible ~ story teller continues softly telling her tale
Finn feels dreamy and floaty. She smiles to herself, thinking of the purpose of her mission, feeling as though it is a message to her from the past. She is overwhelmed for a moment with a sense of love and acceptance towards her younger self. Yes, she whispers softly to the younger Finn, I will meet you at the fairy ring. We will talk a bit. Maybe I can help
But wait, there is no meaningful message on the crumpled paper that Nora picks up and opens out. It’s nothing but a shopping receipt. Disappointed, she screws it back up and aims to toss it into the undergrowth, but she hesitates. Surely it can’t have no meaning at all, she thinks, not after the strange whispered story and the synchronicity of finding it just at that moment. She opens it back up again, and reads the list of items.
Olive oil, wine, wheat, garum…. wait, what? Garum? She looks at the date on the receipt ~ a common enough looking till roll receipt, the kind you find in any supermarket ~ but what is this date? 57BC? How can that be? Even if she had mistranslated BC ~ perhaps it means British Cooperative, or Better Compare or some such supermarket name ~ the year of 57 makes little sense anyway. And garum, how to explain that! Nora only knows of garum in relation to Romans, there is no garum on the shelves between the mayonaisse and the ketchup these days, after all.
Nora smooths the receipt and folds it neatly in half and puts it in her pocket. The shadows are long now and she still has some distance to walk before the halfway village. As she resumes her journey, she hears whispered in her ear: You unlocked the blue diamond mode. You’re on a quest now!
Smiling now, she accelerates her pace. The lowering sun is casting a golden light, and she feels fortified.
Bob sighed loudly as he rummaged through the odds and ends drawer: old menus from the takeaways in town, pens, rubber bands, a button, reading glasses, newspaper clippings. He’d never expected to need the phone number; now he did and what do you know? He can’t find the damn thing.
“What a shameful mess that drawer is in,” said Jane. She was seated at the kitchen table, arms folded, shaking her head at him. She looked about twenty today with her dark hair cascading prettily over a lacy pink mini dress.
Bob frowned at her though his heart did a leap. The way it always did when he saw her. “You were the one who kept it clean and you jumped ship. And I’ve said, can’t you look your age?”
“Don’t I look pretty?” She pouted and fluttered long eyelashes at him.
“Makes me feel old. And I don’t recognise you like that.”
“You are old,” she said as her hair turned white. “And bad-tempered as ever. What are you hunting for?”
“The phone number. You know the one he said to call if the box was ever unearthed. Can’t find it anywhere.”
“You’d lose your head …” said Jane as her head lifted off her body.
Bob jumped. “Darn it, Jane. I’ve said don’t do that! Why do you always do that and go giving me the heebie jeebies?”
“Cos I can, love.” She grinned mischievously before settling her head back on her shoulders. “Just a bit of fun. Now think hard, where else might you have put it? The shoe-box under our bed? The safe in the pantry?”
Bob flung a hand to his head. “The shoe-box! That’s where it will be!”
Jane grinned. “Well, get a move-along, old man. Before our Clara gets in more deep than what’s good for her. She won’t let it go now she’s found it. Stubborn as a mule my grandchild,” she added proudly.
Bob reached a hand to her. “Come with me while I look? I miss you, Jane. You never stay long enough.”
“Oh stop with all the sweet talk!” She poked her tongue out at him. “Anyway I’ve told you before, it takes too much energy.” She was fading and Bob felt his chest tighten. “Don’t worry, I’m keeping an eye on you, old man.” She was vibrating air now, sparkly and pink.
“And who might you be?” Finnley looked at the oddly clothed bag lady who’d appeared in the staff wing.
“I’m November, you punny insolent thing.”
“What sort of name is that? Is that a woman’s name anyway?”
“Jeeze Louise, consider it non-binary. It feels like there is too much woman energy in that den anyway.”
“And what makes you feel like you are in charge now?”
“Let’s call it power vacuum, sweetie. And if you’re itching at the thought, just wait until you see my boss.”
“Let me guess. She’s December, right?”
“Yep. And they are a mean piece of work, and going to make a swift clean up of all the dregs left over by that orange nightmare.”
“Can’t we sit down over there for a minute? My feet are bloody killing me.” April nodded towards a park bench; she didn’t have much patience today for June and her philosophising, after all, wasn’t it June’s fault they were in this mess? “It’s too bad we can’t even afford the bus fare,” she grumbled as she settled herself on the wooden seat.
“Not too much further,” said June plonking down next to her.
April bent down to take off her socks and sneakers and massaged her grateful feet in the damp grass. “Think I’ve got a blister. And I’d kill for a cuppa tea. I do hope Finnley has kept on top of things.”
June snorted. “Not bloody likely. Anyway, while we’ve been walking I’ve been thinking … what if we sue?”
“No, you idiot, not, who Sue. I mean what if we sue for money? Sue the president for wrongdoings which have been done to us.”
“Oh!” April perked up. “There’s certainly been plenty of wrongdoings!”
June smiled smugly. “Exactly.”
The Beige House was eerily calm. Most of the staff had left after the super spread of the epidemic.
“Ready for a change of crowd in the building, Fanny?” said Finnley in her unmistakable Kiwi accent, as a matter of breaking the silence in the grand hall. She was dusting the chandeliers, while Fanella was shampooing the carpets.
“I don’t know Miss Fin’, it iz such a mess now. And I have to take care of ze baby, no time to be political.”
“Oh, by the way, I received a message from the gang…”
“Aprrril’ and Joone?”
“Yep. Those two. The money has dried up, and they learnt the hard way that American are not loved much these days, big spreaders and all. So they decided to sail back to the good ol’ States. Looking for a job now, and hoping that autumn doesn’t mean everything will turn to orange disaster!”
“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!”
“I think you’ve forgotten something, Star.” Tara didn’t want to put a dampener on Star’s high spirits, but felt obliged to point out that New Zealand was still out of bounds with the quarantine restrictions.
“Not only that,” Tara continued, “Where exactly in New Zealand?”
This was unanswerable at this stage and was quickly forgotten.
“We can send Rosamund on a recce to find out more. That way if she gets arrested for breaking the lockdown rules it won’t matter much and we can carry on solving the case.”
“It will take two of us to keep an eye on Aunty April, anyway. And it would behoove us to have a thorough look at that wardrobe, and decipher those notes. And check the lining of the fur coats. I read a book once and spies used morse code in the hem stitches for sending messages.”
“Do you know morse code?”
“Of course not, why would I?”
“Well then how will you know..?”
The conversation went on in a similar vein for some time.
“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!”
“Do what?” asked Rosamund, returning from lunch.
Rosamund scrunched her brow. “Am I in bloody groundwort day or something? Didn’t you close that case?” She grinned apologetically. “Just before I went to lunch?”
Tara rubbed her head. “Damn it, she’s right! How could we have forgotten!”
“Oh!” Star gasped. “The person who turned up in the mask! Yesterday evening. That must have been our second case! The one with the cheating husband!”
They both looked towards the wardrobe — the large oak one, next to the drinks cupboard. The wardrobe which had rather mysteriously turned up a few days ago, stuffed full of old fur coats and rather intriguing boxes—the delivery person insisted he had the right address. “And after all, who are we to argue? We’ll just wait for someone to claim it, shall we?” Star had said, thinking it might be rather fun to explore further.
Tara grimaced. “Of course. It wasn’t an armed intruder; it was our client practising good virus protocol.”
“And that banging noise isn’t the pipes,” said Star with a nervous laugh. “I’d better call off the caretaker.”
“We really must give up comfort drinking!” said Tara, paling as she remembered the intruder’s screaming as they’d bundled her into the wardrobe.
Rosamund shook her head. “Jeepers! What have you two tarts gone and done.”
Star and Tara looked at each other. “Rosamund …” Star’s voice was strangely high. “How about you let her out. Tara and I will go and have our lunch now. Seeing as you’ve had such a long break already.”
“Me! What will I say?”
Tara scratched her head. “Um …offer her a nice cup of tea and tell her she’ll laugh about this one day.”
“If she’s still bloody alive,” muttered Rosamund.
Liz usually rolled her eyes when anyone said “Do the math!” partly because the correct word was maths, not math, but mainly because, well, she just wasn’t a maths sort of person. But when the whale said this, she felt fortified and vindicated:
“On the 46,741 words which were written here, you have provided 19,821.
In other words, you have contributed towards 42.4 % of all words spoken on this thread.”
It remained to be seen what the results of her experimental shift in duties with Finnley would result in. While surreptitiously dusting Finnley’s desk, Liz had noted the catalogues of holiday cottages prominently placed, and evidence of actual writing nowhere to be found.
Time would tell.
“Liz!” shouted Finnley, without pausing from her writing. “Liz, be a love and make me a cup of tea. The organic green tea in the second drawer down.” There was a crash and some unintelligible screaming from the next room. Fortunately, Finnley was used to unintelligible noises coming from Liz’s mouth. “Oh for the … what do you mean you don’t know where the kitchen is?”
Finnley took a deep breath. She recalled the words of Lemon Tzu:
Tension is who you think you are, relaxation is who you are.
“Okay, okay. Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I will interrupt my important writing for a few minutes to elucidate you on the mysteries of the kitchen.”
A duster came flying into the room, closely followed by a red-faced Liz. “There is really no need for sarcasm, Finnley. I trust you remember it is all down to MY goodness that you have this opportunity.”
Liz wondered how the women in the pictures managed to keep a kerchief neatly tied around their hair while vigourously scrubbing floors, and how they were able to keep an apron neatly tied in a pristine bow behind their tiny waist while cleaning full length windows. Fake news, that’s what it was, the bloody lot of it. From start to finish, everything she’d been led to believe about everything, from the get go to the present moment, was all a con, a downright conspiracy, that’s what it was.
Maybe this is why Finnley is always so rude, Liz wondered in a brief moment of enlightenment. She didn’t pursue the idea, because she was eager to get back to the disgruntled feeling that comes with cleaning, the feeling of being downtrodden, somehow less that, the pointlessness of it all. Nothing to show for it.
In another lucid moment, Liz realized that it wasn’t the action of cleaning that caused the feeling. At times it had been cathartic, restful even.
There was no pressure to think, to write, to be witty and authoritative. The decision to play the role of the cleaner had been a good one, an excellent idea. Feeling downtrodden was a part of the role; maybe she’d understand Finnley better. She hoped Finnely didn’t get to like the role of bossy writer too much, Imagine if she couldn’t get her out of her chair, when this game was over! Liz was slightly uncomfortable at the idea of Finnley learning to understand her. Would that be a good thing?
Realizing that she’d been staring into space for half an hour with a duster in her hand, Liz resumed cleaning.
Finnley hadn’t noticed; she’s been typing up a storm and had written several new chapters.
This made Liz slightly uncomfortable too.
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