Egbert Gofindlevsky rapped on the door of room number 22. The letter flapped against his pin striped trouser leg as his hand shook uncontrollably, his habitual tremor exacerbated with the shock. Remembering that Obadiah Sproutwinklov was deaf, he banged loudly on the door with the flat of his hand. Eventually the door creaked open.
Egbert flapped the letter in from of Obadiah’s face. “Have you had one of these?” he asked.
“If you’d stop flapping it about I might be able to see what it is,” Obadiah replied. “Oh that! As a matter of fact I’ve had one just like it. The devils work, I tell you! A practical joke, and in very poor taste!”
Egbert was starting to wish he’d gone to see Olga Herringbonevsky first. “Can I come in?” he hissed, “So we can discuss it in private?”
Reluctantly Obadiah pulled the door open and ushered him inside the room. Egbert looked around for a place to sit, but upon noticing a distinct odour of urine decided to remain standing.
“Ursula is booting us out, where are we to go?”
“Eh?” replied Obadiah, cupping his ear. “Speak up, man!”
Egbert repeated his question.
“No need to shout!”
The two old men endeavoured to conduct a conversation on this unexepected turn of events, the upshot being that Obadiah had no intention of leaving his room at all henceforth, come what may, and would happily starve to death in his room rather than take to the streets.
Egbert considered this form of action unhelpful, as he himself had no wish to starve to death in his room, so he removed himself from room 22 with a disgruntled sigh and made his way to Olga’s room on the third floor.
“Box?” said Bob placing a hand on his chest. “Not the … ”
“Not box, Grandpa. Crops.” Clara spoke loudly. Poor old Grandpa must be going a bit deaf as well—he’d gone downhill since Grandma died. “His dogs got into your garden and dug up the crops. He says he’ll come by in the morning and fix up the damage. ”
“No, need to shout, Clara. I swear you said box. I thought you meant the box in the garage.”
“Oh, no that would be awful!” Clara shuddered at the thought of anything happening to her precious treasure. “Maybe we should bring the box inside, Grandpa? Make sure it’s safe.”
Bob sighed. Last thing he wanted was the damn box inside the house. But Clara had that look on her face, the one that means she’s made up her mind. He glanced around, wondering where they could put it so it was out of the way.
“Hey!” exclaimed Clara. “Where’s VanGogh gone? Did he sneak outside when Mr Willets came.” She went to the door and peered out into the darkness. “VanGogh! Here, Boy!” she shouted. “VanGogh!”
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.
“But I can’t stand bloody opera singing,” Tara whispered back, “It’ll drive me mad. When they said he had a melodious voice I was expecting something more modern than this ancient caterwauling.”
“Do you want to solve this case or not?”
“Oh alright then,” Tara said grudgingly. “But your thinking better be good!” She clapped loudly and whistled. “More! More!” she shouted, stamping her feet. The assorted middle aged ladies joined in the applause.
“Yeah, you had to listen to opera with him, poor thing, but he did tip well.”
“Well, he told me a lot about opera. I thought it was a waste of time knowing all that useless old stuff, but listen: this song what he’s singing now, he’s singing this on purpose. It’s a clue, you see, to Uncle Basil and why Vince wants to find him.”
“Go on,” whispered Tara.
“Wasn’t that obvious from the start?”
“Well yes, but we got very cleverly sidetracked with all these middle aged ladies and that wardrobe! This is where the mule comes in.”
“Shh! Keep your voice down! It’s not the same kind of mule as in the opera, these middle aged ladies are trafficking mules!”
“Oh well that would make sense, they’d be perfect. Nobody suspects middle aged ladies. But what are they trafficking, and why are they all here?”
“They’re here to keep us from finding out the truth with all these silly sidetracks and distractions. And we’ve stupidly let ourselves be led astray from the real case.”
“What’s the real case, then?”
“How do you know that for sure?” asked Tara.
“I don’t know for sure, but this is the theory. Once we have a theory, we can prove it. Now, about that wardrobe. We mustn’t let them take it away. No matter what story they come up with, that wardrobe stays where it is, in our office.”
“But why? It’s taking up space and it doesn’t go with the clean modern style. And people keep getting locked inside it, it’s a death trap.”
“That’s what they want you to think! That it’s just another ghastly old wardrobe! But it’s how they smuggle the stuff!”
“What stuff are they smuggling? Drugs? That doesn’t explain what it’s doing in our office, though.”
“Well, I had an interesting intuition about that. You know that modified carrot story they tried to palm us off with? Well I reckon it’s vaccines. They had to come up with a way to vaccinate the anti vaxxers, so they made this batch of vaccines hidden in hallucinogenic carrots. They’re touting the carrots as a new age spiritual vibration enhancing wake up drug, and the anti vaxxers will flock to it in droves.”
“Surely if they’re so worried about the ingredients in vaccines, they won’t just take any old illegal drug off the street?”
Tara smiled ruefully. “Yeah, I guess that was a silly thing to say. But now I’m confused. Whose side are we on? Surely the carrot vaccine is a good idea? Are we trying to stop them or what? And what is Vince up to? Falsifying a will?” Tara frowned, puzzled. “Whose side are we on?” she repeated.
“But what if the client is morally bankrupt? What if it goes against our guidelines?”
“Guidelines don’t come into it when you’re financially bankrupt!” Star snapped. “Hey, where has everyone gone?”
“They said they had to pick up a wardrobe,” said the waitress. “Shall I bring you the bill? They all left without paying, they said you were treating them.”
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.
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.
Rosamund pressed her ear to the wardrobe door and listened. Nothing. She tapped gently. No response. “Is there anyone in there?” she whispered. She rapped on the door, harder this time. “Are you hungry?” she said loudly. “Got a pizza ordered, you want one?”
“Yes please,” came the muffled reply. “Ham and pineapple.”
Rosamund reeled backwards.
“Pineapple!” Romamund was aghast. “Not on pizza!”
“OK cheese and tomato then, just let me out! I’m desperate for a pee!” the voice was wheedling, and oddly familiar.
“Promise no pineapple?”
“For god’s sake woman, let me out! I promise!”
Rosamund turned the key and quickly stepped back a few paces, grabbing the broom as a weapon. People trapped in wardrobes could be aggressive, she knew that much.
The wardrobe rocked dangerously as a bulky shape emerged, swathed in mink.
April shook the moth eaten fur off her shoulders and smoothed the tangled hair back from her brow. “I might ask you the same question, young lady! Wait til your mother hears about this! But first, point me in the direction of the rest rooms!”
“Over there, ” Rosamund said weakly. “I’ll order your pizza.”
No sooner had they reached for the drinks in the office cupboard, than the phone rang loudly.
“I thought you gave her the afternoon?” Tara mouthed while picking the annoying phone. “Cartwright and Wrexham Private Investigators, can I help you?”
Her face frowned. “Herself speaking.”
“Yes, we do private investigations. Very successfully I may say. Alright Ma’am, let me check my agenda.” She looked in the air, flipping an imaginary agenda. “Oh, you’re in luck, our 5pm just cancelled. Alright then, see you at our office. Au revoir.”
Tara hung up with a smile.
Star was busy slurping the mojito while struggling with the mint bits in her teeth. “What? Tell me this instant!”
“Our second case! Isn’t it exciting!”
“Sure thing, what it is this time? Evil possession?”
“Actually, it’s not that far off. Apparently, our ladyship needs a falgrante delicto of adultery. Her husband seems to be a cheating one, and with a twinge of double personality… Or at least that’s what she said.”
“Fantastic. Can’t wait for all the juicy details. I’ll go prepare my sequin red dress to set the honey trap darling.”
“Good lord, get a hold of yourself Star, it’s only been a day, and you’re ready to jump on the next passing horse as it were.”
“Who said you shouldn’t mix pleasure with business.”
“Right. Thought that was the reverse…”
“Tsk. Just to get the last word.”
“Let’s begin,” said the teacher. She was short and seemed around sixty seven. She walked around the room like a tamer surrounded by wild beasts in a circus. Her dark hair was tied into a long braid falling on her straight back like an I. She wore a sari wrapped around her neatly. “I’m Ms Anika Koskinen, your cryogurt teacher today. You’ve got the recipe in front of you on the benches right with the glass and a bottle of water. The ingredients will be in the cabinets on your left and everything is referenced and written big enough for everyone to see.”
“Those benches look like the ones in chemistry class when I was in college,” said Glo. “I have bad memories of thoses.”
“You have bad memories, that’s all,” said Sha making them both laugh.
“How do you want me to know? I was with you since we left the bungalow,” said Sharon who was trying to decipher the blurry letters on the recipe. “Their printer must be malfunctioning, it’s unreadable.”
“You should try putting on your glasses.”
“I didn’t bring’em, didn’t think we’d need to see anything.”
“I saw you! no need to shout,” whispered Mavis loudly. She muttered some excuse to the teacher who had been giving them a stern look.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to go with your friends,” said Ms Koskinen, “We don’t have enough material for everyone.”
The teacher resumed her explanations of the procedure of making frozen yogurt, checking regularly if everyone had understood. She took everyone bobbing their head as a yes.
“You shouldn’t ask us,” said Glo, “our eyes are like wrinkles remover apps.”
“I think he looks better without glasses,” said Mavis.
After Ms Koskinen had finished giving them instructions, she told everyone to go take the ingredients and bring them back to their benches.
“I’m going,” said Sha who wanted to have a better look at the man.
“Don’t forget the recipe with the list of ingredients,” said Mavis waving the paper at her.
She came back with the man helping her carry the tray of ingredients.
“Thank you Andrew,” said Sha when he put the tray on their bench.
“Oh you’re welcome. And those are your friend you told me about?”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Andrew. “I’m Andrew Anderson. I suggested Sharon we could have lunch together after the workshop. I’d like you to meet my friends.”
“Of course!” said Sha. She winked at her friends who were too flabbergasted to speak.
“That’s settled then. We’ll meet at 1pm at my bungalow.”
“See you later,” said Sharon with a dulcet voice.
“What the butt was that all about?” asked Glo.
“Oh! You’ll thank me. I pretexted not to be able to find everything on the list and Andrew was very helpful. The man is charming, and his yacht makes you forget about his Australian accent. We’re going to have lunch on a yacht girls! That means we’re not stuck on the beach and can have some fun exploring around.”
Sha looked quite pleased with herself. She put a bottle of orange powder among the ingredients and said :”Now! Let’s make some wrinkle flattener ice cream, ladies. I took some extra tightener.”
Coming from the computer world that makes it a pun of sort. I’m overloaded with whales nowadays. They’re everywhere. Are you involved? Or were they around all along? I must say I never paid too much attention to whales before. Now it’s a sticker on the asphalt when I get out of the metro to my daily rendez-vous with myself at the café. Or an advertisement of a winking whale on a bus side for a whale cruise near Canada. Or a friend this morning who called me to tell his dream: A Ballistic Whale shut through huge distance in space, it was angry and ever arriving.
Let me think that something big is coming.
I ordered a macchiato and the waiter had made a funny whale design with the foamed cream. When I asked he said he didn’t know why because he had never made it before. I could see it. And it looked angrier as the foam melted. I decided not to pay too much attention to the whale, focusing my attention instead on finding a friend in the passing crowd. Lots of students that day. A group of girl came and stopped right in front of me, chatting loudly. I started to feel irritated and looked at them angrily. One of them saw my face and turned to tell something to her friends. I saw the blue whale keyring hanging from her backpack zipper. They all looked at me and laughed.
I think I’m whale cursed.
When Barron woke up, he quickly realized he’d been double-crossed, or maybe triple-crossed.
His captors were discussing loudly at the front how they could get a larger cut from an unknown bidder.
He was incensed and almost threw a tantrum but realized it would be best to keep quiet for now.
Suspicions were racing in his mind, who could it be? The Russians… or the Chinese maybe? His father had made so many ennemies, it could well be the nannies for all he knew. The thought almost made him giggle. These two inept nannies had been carefully chosen by him, there were little chances they would be able to concoct any sensible plan with more than an hour execution span. His parents were infuriated and almost despaired when he’d shouted, spat and cried like a devil at all the nannies they carefully selected for him. But they all looked too smart, too serious, too careful to please, there was no way his plan of escape would work with them. But Joo and Ape, well, that was something else. With them, the world was his oyster. Or Bob his uncle like the loud one liked to say when she faked a British accent. Evil sounded so much more delightful when spoken in British English.
The van stopped. They’d arrived. Strong smells of alcohol,… and something… French? Was it rillettes? A clandestine distillery. Maybe it was the French mafia after all.
“You do that, Sha. Nurse Trassie wasn’t it?”
Sharon nodded and pursed her lips tightly. “Bloody uppity tart. We bloody pay enough to be ‘ere, I reckon. They should get the tea bloody right.” Her eyes narrowed menacingly. “ Anyway, she’ll keep. So,‘ow we going to find ‘im then, Glor?”
Gloria scratched her head vigorously, perhaps checking it was still there, before taking a moment to examine her fingernails.
“Wot’d Mavis say then?” she asked at last. “When you did that texting thing to ‘er?”
“‘Ere let me find my phone and I’ll read it out loud to you. Oh, blimey, ‘ave you seen my glasses, Glor?”
Gloria’s generous curves wobbled and gyrated as she convulsed into fits of laughter.
“They’re on yer bloody ‘ead!” she said pointing and gasping for breath. “Oh, I nearly peeed myself, ya blimmen muppet!”
“Thanks, Glor. Wot I’d do without you, I don’t bloody know. Don’t mean to make you pee yerself though. It’s ‘ard enough getting them nurses to give out them extra thick pantyliners. Blimmin uppity tarts. Expecially that Nurse Trassie. Anyway, she’ll keep.”
“Oh, it’s text talk. The younguns talk like that now and our Mavis always did like to keep up with trends. Lots of lust it means. That saucy cow!”
“She always was a saucy one that, Mavis! Look at us stuck in ‘ere and ‘er with a new fella. Lucky sod. Maybe after our beauty treatment, we might get us a new fella too.”
“I don’t know ‘ow we’re going to track down the Doctor though, Shar. I don’t know ‘ow we’re going to track him down when we’re stuck in this bleedin’ ‘ole.” Gloria shoulders shook and she began to sob loudly.
“Wot’s that then,” asked Gloria, sniffing loudly into her hanky.
“I’ve ‘ad one of my bloody brainwaves!”
“I knew you would, Shar! You’ve always ‘ad brains. I’m all agog!”
“We’ll get Mavis to go to the papers! Put in an advert to find ‘im!”
“You’re a blimmin genius, you are, Shar!”
A small gecko head showed up from Arona’s hood. It seemed to shout loudly, but to Mandrake it sounded just like the compelling sound of a mouse. His instinct were stronger and he stretched his paw to catch it, but Arona was quicker.
“Don’t think of it. Ugo the gecko helped me get out of that labyrinthine doline the other day. I don’t quite understand what he says, but I think he’s a bit jealous when I cuddle people… or cats.”
Did madness run in Maeve’s family, was that it? She’d admitted that her Uncle Fergus was a paranoid old loony, and it was becoming obvious that Maeve herself was becoming a little unhinged. What was she doing, galloping out of Shawn Paul’s door, and what was all that gleeful cackling for? It was going to make Lucinda’s plan to get the twelve addresses harder, with Maeve being so unpredictable. She would simply have to be prepared to take advantage of it and seize any opportunity that arose.
The fact was, there was no plan to get the addresses, but she knew she had to have them. She had to find the connecting link between them.
Oh bugger it! Lucinda muttered. Just go for a nice long walk, my girl, and stop thinking about it. She glanced up sharply at the doll, but no, the voice had been her own. This time. I’m going as mad as Maeve, she mumbled as she rammed her feet into a pair of walking shoes.
“Mad as Almad.” With a pained expression Lucinda spun round to glare at the doll before slamming the door on her and stomping off down the corridor, loudly complaining that that idle cleaning woman had left bits of paper on the floor in between Shawn Paul and Maeve’s doormats. She bent down to pick it up to put it in the bin outside, noticing that it was an old newspaper clipping with a paperclip attached to it.
“Oh my god!” Could it really be that easy? It was an advert for a trip to Australia. There was a photo of an old woman standing in front of an interesting looking old hotel. The old woman in the photograph had been smiling, the welcoming hostess, when Lucinda first looked at the picture, but she seemed to be frowning now, a searching intent look. Lucinda shook her head and blinked, and looked again. The smiling face in the photograph looked quite normal.
A strong and loud guttural roar echoed through the mountains, ferocious and hungry. Fox’s hairs stood on his arms and neck as a wave of panic rolled through his body. He looked at the others his eyes wide open.
Olliver teleported closer to Rukshan whose face seemed pale despite the warmth of the fire, and Lhamom’s jaw dropped open. Their eyes met and they swallowed in unison. “Is that…” asked Fox. His voice had been so low that he wasn’t sure someone had heard him. Rukshan nodded.
“It seems you are leaving the mountains sooner than you expected,” said Kumihimo with a jolly smile as she dismounted Ronaldo. She plucked her icy lyre from which loud and rich harmonics bounced. The wind carried them along and they echoed back in defiance to the Shadow.
You must remember, seemed to whisper an echo from the cave they had used for shelter for weeks. Fox dismissed it as induced by the imminent danger.
The Shadow hissed and shrieked, clearly pissed off. The dogs howled and Kumihimo engaged in a wild and powerful rhythm on her instrument.
You must remember, said the echo again.
Everobody stood and ran in chaos, except for Fox. He was getting confused, as if under a bad spell.
Someone tried to cover the fire with a blanket of wool. “Don’t bother, we’re leaving,” said Rukshan before rushing toward the multicolour sand mandala he had made earlier that day. Accompanied by the witche’s mad arpeggios, he began chanting. The sand glowed faintly.
Lhamom told them to jump on the hellishcopter whose carpet was slowly turning in a clockwise direction. “But I want to help,” said Olliver. “You’ll help best by being ready to leave as soon as the portal opens,” said Lhamom. She didn’t wait to see if the boy followed her order and went to help Rukshan with her old magic spoon.
“Something’s wrong. I’ve already lived that part,” said Fox when the screen protecting the mandala flapped away, missing the fae’s head by a hair.
“What?” asked Olliver.
“It already happened once,” said Fox, “although I have a feeling it was a bit different. But I can’t figure out how or why.”
At that moment a crow popped out of the cave’s mouth in a loud bang. The cave seemed to rebound in and out of itself for a moment, and the dark bird cawed, very pleased. It reminded Fox at once of what had happened the previous time, the pain of discovering all his friends dead and the forest burnt to the ground by the shadow. The blindness, and the despair.
The crow cawed and Fox felt the intense powers at work and the delicate balance they were all in.
The Shadow had grown bigger and threatened to engulf the night. Fox had no idea what to do, but instead he let his instinct guide him.
“Come!” he shouted, pulling Olliver by the arm. He jumped on the hellishcopter and helped the boy climb after him.
“COME NOW!” he shouted louder. Rukshan and Lhamom looked at the hellishcopter and at the devouring shadow that had engulfed the night into chaos and madness.
They ran. Jumped on the carpet. Kumihimo threw an ice flute to them and Fox caught it, but this time he didn’t nod. He knew now what he had to do.
“You’ll have one note!” the shaman shouted. “One note to destroy the Shadow when you arrive!” Kumihimo hit the hellishcopter as if it were a horse, and it bounced forward.
But Fox, aware of what would have come next, kept a tight rein on the hellishcarpet and turned to Olliver.
“Go get her! We need her on the other side.”
Despite the horror of the moment, the boy seemed pleased to be part of the action and he quickly disappeared. The shaman looked surprised when the boy popped in on her left and seized her arm only to bring her back on the carpet in the blink of an eye.
“By the God Frey,” she said looking at a red mark on her limb, “the boy almost carved his hand on my skin.”
“Sorry if we’re being rude,” said Fox, “but we need you on the other side. It didn’t work the first time. If you don’t believe me, ask the crow.”
The bird landed on the shaman’s shoulder and cawed. “Oh,” said Kumihimo who liked some change in the scenario. “In that case you’d better hold tight.”
They all clung to each other and she whistled loudly.
The hellishcopter bounced ahead through the portal like a wild horse, promptly followed by Ronaldo and the Shadow.
The wind stopped.
The dogs closed in on the portal and jumped to go through, but they only hit the wall of the powerful sound wave of Kumihimo’s ice lyra.
They howled in pain as the portal closed, denying them their hunt.
Liz, who had been out in the garden, waxing lyrical about the glorious sun for this time of year, the colours of the flowers and at the same time regaling Roberto with tales of the places she had been, paled when she noticed Paul Anna writing notes into his phone.
She stopped dead in her tracks.
“It’s that powerful journalist, Paul Anna! I can’t possibly do an interview now!” she hissed at Roberto, “I’ve not even unpacked my case … I don’t have any clean clothes! Where is that maid .. what’s her name … Glynis? Oh no, that’s not right. Ah, Finnley!”
Liz looked frantically around.
“Here I am. All ears, as per usual,” said Finnley.
“Oh okay, If i must,” said Finnley. She had been looking forward to the interview. She well remembered the last interview when Inspector Olliver had come to question Liz over the missing maid in the suitcase misadventure. Most entertaining.
Godfrey laughed good naturedly…
“Of course, your story kept changing like a rainbow after a tornado. We really got to focus to grasp it entirely, us poor humans.”
As he stood by the window, looking at the piglets he seemed to be the only one capable of discerning, entered with a spring Paul Anna, the fashion journalist who had booked an appointment for a groundbreaking Liz’ interview.
Finnley shrugged loudly toward the door she closed, her throat dry from the black soot of her latest cleaning adventure.
The late arrived journalist of stylish and powerful people looked greedily at the room, not impressed in the slightest, wondering what sort of question she would ask that could be easily twisted into a scandalous piece of rumour mill fodder.
The air was crisp and dry in the mountains. They had been walking for days under the guidance of their local guide Strumpjioku, whose name was simply pronounced Sok despite or because a very complicated writing system. It seemed to interest Rukshan a lot but Fox had had some brain freeze trying to understand their guide’s nebulous and proud explanations about it.
Of course, it might have been caused also by the lack of air. They were so high in the mountains, and at times Fox had even seen and heard things that should not have been there. Especially during the long nights when packs of wild dogs barked endlessly. Fox understood their language. They were hunting things. It wasn’t clear what, but Fox could sometimes sense a lingering smell carried by the otherwise empty air that he couldn’t identify.
They had established camp for the night and Sok was busy cooking for them. Fox growled miserably. He didn’t fancy too much the spicy food that seem the only thing they could get in those mountains. He missed the running hens of Margoritt’s cottage in the forest and her secret mushroom sauce that was to die for. He would even have eaten her ratatouille with only vegetables.
Rukshan was trying to cast a fae spell in order to contact their friend Lhamom who had left them for a special ceremony in a temple. She said it was for her friend Donny whose mother had passed away recently. Being in a hurry as they were, they didn’t insist to wait. Lhamom said she could catch up on them later. The spell failed again and Rukshan cursed.
Dogs started to bark loudly. Not too soon after the strange smell became stronger, and it made Fox nervous, especially hearing to the hunting dogs.
Fox approached Rukshan.
“The dogs are hunting something, he said.
“As long as they don’t hunt us, retorted Rukshan with a shrug. He seemed upset by his failed attempt and not too eager to talk.
Fox caught Sok looking at them, but the guide turned back to his cooking when he saw Fox looking at him.
“That won’t help me sleep”, mumbled Fox more grumpy than usual.
Maeve sighed loudly—something she had been doing an awful lot of lately—and checked the time on her phone. If she left now and really hurried it would only take 5 minutes to get to the cafe. On the other hand if she took her time … well, with any luck the others would have already moved on.
Not that she didn’t like Lucinda, on the contrary she enjoyed her neighbour’s gregarious nature and propensity to talk amusing rubbish — usually in public and at the top of her voice which would cause Maeve to look around nervously and lower her own voice in order to compensate.
Maeve had made peace with her own introversion years ago. In order to survive with a semblance of normality, she had cultivated an outward calm which belied the activity going on in her head. The downside of this was she suspected she came across to others as muted and dull as the beige walls of her apartment. The upside was it allowed her to hide in plain sight; and she considered this to be a very handy trait. In truth, Maeve was one who liked many and few; she would happily talk to people, if she knew what on earth to say to them.
‘Anyway,’ Maeve reasoned, ‘I have to finish the doll.’
She looked with satisfaction at her latest creation; a young boy wearing a vintage style buzzy bee costume. She had painstakingly sewn, stuffed and painted the cloth doll and then sanded the layers of paint till he looked old and well worn. ‘He looks like he has been well loved by some child,’ she mused. There was just one more step remaining before applying a protective coat of varnish and seating him on the shelf next to the others.
She went to the kitchen drawer. In the 3rd drawer down there was a cardboard box of old keys. Most of the keys didn’t fit anything in her apartment; in fact she had no idea where they came from. Except one. She picked out a small gold key and went to the writing desk in the lounge, a heavy dour piece of furniture with a drop-front desk and various small drawers and cubby holes inside. Maeve unlocked one of these drawers with the key and pulled out a small parcel.
‘Only 3 parcels to go,’ she thought with relief.
A small section of the stitching was unfinished on the back of Bee Boy, just enough to squeeze the package inside and then rearrange the stuffing around it. With neat stitches Maeve sewed up the seam.
She checked the time. It had taken twenty six minutes.
“Want to go for a walk to see Aunty Lulu and her nice new friends? See what she is going on about decorating?” she asked Fabio, her pekingese.
It was still raining clumps of wet sand when Rukshan, Olliver, Fox and Twee arrived at the oasis.
The light had dimmed and there was a feeling of hope mixed with dread in the vicinity. Only a mud brick wall no higher than a man’s waist was surrounding the village; and despite the infelicitous weather, standing here were a pair of sentinels so covered in sand clumps that they almost looked like a pair of stone wyverns guarding the entrance.
“Sسلام Salum’ friends. We are simple merchants, passing through, please allow us some shelter for the night” explained Rukshan using what he could remember of his rusty Nomads’ old tongue.
After a long silent glance at his strange companions, they shrugged and nodded him that he could go through.
Rukshan signaled to the others to follow him. The central paved road was leading the the market place, which would constitute, with the masjid, the centre of the city, and the most likely place to find answers on their quest.
Everyone seemed to have retreated to their places, in caves or the homes built on top of the caves from excavated materials. It was rather quiet except from the occasional thump noise made by the rain.
They were about to enter an alley when they heard someone loudly call them.
“Stop right here, Plastic Ban Police! – show us your bags and IDs.”
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