Will didn’t like unexpected visitors. What kind of people turned up unannounced nowadays? He was tempted to ignore the knocking but then it is the not knowing that’s the killer. And what if someone gets it in their head to nose around the property?
“Yep?” he said opening the door. The pair of them were starting off down the front steps as though they meant to go exploring. He’d been right to answer.
“Oh, you are here!” said the girl, turning towards him with a bright smile. “Sorry to just turn up like this …”
Will gave her a curt nod and she faltered a little.
“Uh, my name is Clara and this is my grandfather, Bob, and we are hoping you can help us … “
The old fellow with her, Bob, was staring hard at Will. He looked familiar but Will couldn’t quite place him … he wasn’t local. And he certainly didn’t recognise the girl—very pretty; he would definitely have remembered her.
“Have we met somewhere, Bob?” Will asked.
“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.
Nora remembered something. Now that she had remembered, it seemed rather odd that she had forgotten in the first place. “Will, I don’t suppose you’ve seen my phone?”
Will continued to gaze into the distance. “Your phone? No, I haven’t seen it.”
“I don’t know where it is … ”
Now he looked at her, a slight frown creasing his brow. “Nora, you don’t need a phone up here. Look at all this beauty!” A violent sweep of his arm made Nora take a step back.
“It’s beautiful,” she stuttered.
Will’s expression softened. “I’m glad you can see it, Nora.”
Nora looked around. She glanced back at Will, who smiled encouragement, and then looked around again. What was she supposed to see? Was it just the view, she wondered? What should I say, what should I see? What was she expecting? It was on the tip of her tongue to say, Oh is it just the view? I was expecting some good ruins or at least some broken pottery… no she couldn’t say that. What if she was supposed to notice some kind of energy, and she hadn’t noticed? How embarrassing! What was she to do?
“Grandpa, I can’t get hold of Nora. I keep getting her answer phone.” Clara flicked back through her texts. “Last time she messaged me was to ask if I knew anyone in the Village she could stay with. And I never got back with the details like I was supposed to … I got distracted by Van Gogh going missing and everything … ” She screwed up her face. “Also I couldn’t recall the man’s name.”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” said Bob soothingly, reaching out to pat Clara’s hand. “She always were a bit unreliable that one, weren’t she?”
Clara looked like she was about to burst into tears. “Grandpa, I’m such an idiot! What if something bad has happened to her?
Clara breathed a sigh of relief when she saw VanGogh running towards her; in the moonlight he looked like a pale ghost.
“Where’ve you been eh?” she asked as he nuzzled her excitedly. She crouched down to pat him. “And what’s this?” A piece of paper folded into quarters had been tucked into VanGogh’s collar. Clara stood upright and looked uneasily around the garden; a small wind made the leaves rustle and the deep shadows stirred. Clara shivered.
“Clara?” called Bob from the door.
“It’s okay Grandpa, I found him. We’re coming in now.”
In the warm light of the kitchen, Clara showed Bob the piece of paper. “It’s a map, but I don’t know those place names.”
“And it was stuffed into his collar you say?” Bob frowned. “That’s very strange indeed. Who’d of done that?”
Clara shook her head. “It wasn’t Mr Willets because I saw him drive off. But why didn’t VanGogh bark? He always barks when someone comes on the property.”
“You really should tell her about the note,” said Jane. She was perched on the kitchen bench. VanGogh pricked his ears up and wagged his tail as he looked towards her. Bob couldn’t figure out if the dog could see Jane or just somehow sensed her there. He nodded.
“What?” asked Clara.
“There’s something I should tell you, Clara. It’s about that box you found.”EricKeymaster
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.
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.
Damn these municipal restrictions! Frustrated, Nora looked again at the photo of the inscriptions on the mysterious pear shaped box that Clara had found. She picked up a pen and copied the symbols onto a piece of paper. Glancing back over the message her friend had sent, her face softened at Clara’s pet name for her, Alienor. Clara had started called her that years ago, when she found out about the ouija board incident and the aliens Nora had been talking to. Was it really an alien, or….? Clara had asked, and Nora had laughed and said Of course it was an alien or! and the name had stuck.
Nora’s mood had changed with the reminiscence, and she had an idea. She was working from home, but all that really meant was that she had to have internet access. Nobody would have to know which home she was working from, if she could just make it past the town barriers. But she didn’t have to go by road: the barriers were only on the roads. There was nothing stopping her walking cross country.
Putting aside the paper with the symbols on, she perused a map. She had to cross three town boundaries, and by road it was quite a distance. But as the crow flies, not that far. And if she took the old smugglers track, it was surprisingly direct. Nora calculated the distance: forty nine kilometers. Frowning, she wondered if she could walk that distance in a single day and thought it unlikely. Three days more like, but maybe she could do it in two, at a push. That would mean one overnight stay somewhere. What a pity it was so cold! It would mean carrying a warm sleeping bag, and she hated carrying things.
Nora looked at the map again, and found the halfway point: it was a tiny hamlet. A perfect place to spend the night. If only she knew someone who lived there, somebody who wouldn’t object to her breaking the restrictions.
Nora yawned. It was late. She would finalize the plan tomorrow, but first she sent a message to Clara, asking her if she knew anyone in the little village.EricKeymaster
“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.”
“If you don’t pay the bill, I’ll call the police,” said the waitress, closing the door and turning the open sign to closed. She turned the key and put it in her apron pocket. “Either you pay the bill or you wash the dishes.”
Vince was just about the stamp his foot again and a look of anguish came over his face. Finton, the waitress, looked quizzically at him and reached out to touch his arm. “Are you alright?”
Then the floodgates opened and Vince collapsed in a chair, tears rolling down his face. Finton sat down next to him and put her arm across his shoulders, patting him gently until the sobbing had subsided.
“Now then, sir, why don’t you tell me all about it while you’re doing the dishes,” she said kindly, “I’d be happy to listen, and I can interrogate you too, if that’s what you’d like.”
Vince wiped his eyes and blew his nose with a crumpled napkin, smearing strawberry jam across his cheeks. Finton didn’t have the heart to tell him, and tried hard not to snigger.
“Call me Vince,” he smiled weakly, and followed Finton into the kitchen.
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.
apparently wonder animals working
although writer looked towards driver
give except became difficult road
sent mention face locked quiet
“Did someone say drinks are on the house?” asked Rosamund, pushing past the burly bouncer as she entered the pub. “What’s your name, handsome?”
“Percival,” the bouncer replied with a wry grin. “Yeah I know, doesn’t fit the image.”
Rosamund looked him up and down while simultaneously flicking a bit of food from between her teeth with a credit card. “I keep forgetting to buy dental floss,” she said.
“Is that really necessary?” hissed Tara. “Is that moving the plot forward?”
“I’ll be away for a while on an important mission,” Rosamund said to Percival, “But give me your number and I’ll call you when I get back.”
“The trip is cancelled, you’re not going anywhere,” Star told her, “Except to the shop to buy dental floss.”
“I’m glad you mentioned it!” piped up a middle aged lady sitting at the corner table. “I have run out of dental floss too.”
“See?” said Rosamund. “You never can tell how helpful you are when you just act yourself and let it flow. Now tell me why I’m not going to New Zealand? I already packed my suitcase!”
“Because it seems that New Zealand has come to us,” replied Star, “Or should I say, the signs of the cult are everywhere. It’s not so much a case of finding the cult as a case of, well finding somewhere the cult hasn’t already infected. And as for April,” she continued, “She changes her story every five minutes, I think we should ignore everything she says from now on. Nothing but a distraction.”
“That’s it!” exclaimed Tara. “Exactly! Distraction tactics! A well known ruse, tried and tested. She has been sent to us to distract us from the case. She isn’t a new client. She’s a red herring for the old clients enemies.”
“Oh, good one, Tara,” Star was impressed. Tara could be an abusive drunk, but some of the things she blurted out were pure gold. Or had a grain of gold in them, it would be more accurate to say. A certain perspicacity shone through at times when she was well lubricated. “Perhaps we should lock her back in the wardrobe for the time being until we’ve worked out what to do with her.”
“You’re right, Star, we must restrain her….oy! oy! Percival, catch that fleeing aunt at once!” April had made a dash for it out of the pub door. The burly bouncer missed his chance. April legged it up the road and disappeared round the corner.
“Oh I say, that’s going a bit far,” interjected the middle aged lady sitting at the corner table.
“What’s it got to do with you?” Tara turned on her.
“This,” the woman replied with a smugly Trumpish smile. She pulled her trouser leg up to reveal a bell bird tattoo.
“Oh my fucking god,” Tara was close to tears again.
“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.
“It’s surprisingly roomy that wardrobe, isn’t it?” said Aunt April, somewhat placated by pizza.
Rosamund nearly choked on an olive. Poor old auntie has lost it! “Roomy…what are you on about, Auntie eh?” she asked gently. After all got to be kind to the old dear—she is filthy rich.
They both looked at the wardrobe.
“Hmmm …I admit it doesn’t look that big from the outside but there’s that door at the back …”
“Right, a door is there, Aunt April … how about a nice cuppa?”
“Now, Rosamund, don’t you talk down to me, Young Lady. Once you get past all those coats … “ she paused to stroke the fur lovingly … “there is a door and behind the door is a room with a nice comfy sofa. I slept there last night.“
“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.
There’s nobody at all coming to see to my supper anymore, the girl that brought my lunch (a stale cheese sandwich again) said it was because of the curfew. I said, Oh the quarantine and she said, Oh no, not that anymore so I said Oh, is the virus over then, and she said Oh no, far from it, but that’s not what the curfew is for now, and I looked at her and wondered if they’d all lost their marbles.
She said it’s Marshall law out there now and I smiled at that, I used to know a nice girl by the name of Marshall, can’t recall where from mind you, but anyway then I realized she meant martial law when she showed me her arm. Great big bruise there was, she said it was from a rubber bullet. Seems to me they’re getting senile young these days and I wonder where it will all end.
Then she starts telling me about piles of bricks everywhere, and I’m wondering where this is going because it makes no sense to me. She says some people say there are piles of bricks appearing everywhere, but she can’t be sure, she said, because lots of other people are saying there aren’t any piles of bricks at all, and I’m thinking, who the hell cares so much about piles of bricks anyway? Then she looks at me as if I’m the daft one.
It’s a pity we don’t see piles of decent food appearing, I said, instead of bricks, looking pointedly at the cheese sandwich. She said, Think yourself lucky, with what can only be described as a dark look.
I thought I’d change the subject, as we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, and asked her if she’d be kind enough to pick me up some embroidery thread on her way past the emporium, and she made a peculiar noise and said Aint no shops open, they’re all boarded up. I was about to ask why, and she must have read my mind because she said, Riots, that’s why.
It’s a good job my hip’s so much better now that the weather’s dry, because I’m going to have to make my escape soon and see what the hell’s going on out there.
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