“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!”
“This is the life, eh!” June said, stretching out on the sun lounger sipping a fruity cocktail. “Turquoise sea and a salty breeze, this is the life for me!” she said, kicking off her new deck shoes in nautical blue and white, and hitching her dress hem up to expose her thighs to the sun.
The skipper raised an eyebrow and smiled sardonically, while simultaneously averting his eyes from the unappetizing sight of the doughy flesh. He could imagine this one rolling around below decks looking green as soon as the weather changed.
“Sure beats that jail. That had me worried, I’ll admit it. I wasn’t sure we were ever gonna make it outta there,” replied April, smiling fondly at Ella Marie and giving her hand an affectionate squeeze. “You saved our bacon, honey.”
“If it weren’t for that there Lord Wrick turning up, even the money might not have got you out.” Arthur chimed in. “Promising ole president Lump that land for the golf course if’n he pardoned you. Jacqui, you done wonders there.”
“Ah well, the young Lord Wrick owed me a favour, you might say. But that’s another story,” Jacqui replied. “The main thing was we had to get out of the country fast before Lump finds out about that land in Scotland.”
June sniggered. “Can’t imagine him in a kilt, can you? I wonder if he’s orange down there as well.”
“Oh, please! You really know how to lower the tone, dontcha? Gawd, what a thought!” April started to feel queasy. Changing the subject, she said, “Hey, did I tell you our Joanie’s going to meet us in Australia too?”
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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!”
“You’re back just in time for the fancy dress party, Finnley. Roberto,” she gave him a piercing look as if to say don’t contradict me, “Roberto is going to come as Falla Partland, the well known writer of romances..”
Finnley snorted. “And what are you coming as? One of your long forgotten characters, a neglected thread jumper? A fraught character left dangling on a cliff hanger for months on end? A confused character, wondering what happened to linear time? A frantic character with the still undelivered urgent message?”
“I’ll come as a downtrodden but surprisingly resilient and mouthy subordinate character, who secretly rules the roost,” replied the recurring character with a characteristic smirk.
Roberto turned away to hide his smile, pretending to dust the giraffe bookends. He had been lucky so far in his role as one of her characters. He loved gardening, and had always had a weakness for pink. It could be worse. Much worse.
“Aren’t you worried it’s been 2 days now the boy is missing?”
“Nonsense” replied June curtly. “Don’t you start ruining our poker night.” She slurped delicately her overflowing mojito glass. “Besides, I told you Jacqui and her friends are on the case. I sent her the coordinate. Baby is obviously fine.”
“I still preferred my pith helmet idea and leaving it to professionals though” April pouted her lips in a sulky way. “Now, what are we going to say when Mellie Noma is coming back? That we lost her baby but worry not, the local nutcase friend is on the job.” she finished her sentence almost out of breath “and I heard from August she was coming back at the end of the week.”
“So, are you playing or what? Fold or call?” June was growing impatient about the topic. The French maid and her baby, like the strange Finnley, were making themselves dangerously at home now, like three little annoying cuckoos in her own nest, and June felt stifled as though the FBI were closing in, breathing down on her neck.
That Finnley looked surely suspicious enough, there was no telling she wasn’t a Russian spy in disguise, or worse, some undercover cop…
“You’re right!” she slammed the cards violently on the table, making April almost faint. “We have to take matters in our own hands. I’ll get Mellie Noma to fire her. Blame the Finnley and her French friends for Barron’s disappearance. Mellie No’ owes me that much, especially after I saved her neck from her husband after that horrible giraffe incident.”
April’s face turned to shock at the mention.
“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.”
“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..”
“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?
“We’ll start as soon as we get our first client, Tara,” replied Star, “And don’t keep calling me a tart. You had better get out of the habit or you might do it accidentally when we’re working on a case.”
“What if we don’t get any clients? We’ve advertised everywhere we can think of. Once we get started, we’ll get recommendations, we’ll probably have to take on staff, we’ll be so busy.” A wistful look crept into Tara’s eye. She’d never been a boss, never been in the position of telling a subordinate what to do. It had a certain appeal. “Anyway, you are a tart.”
“Was, Tara, was. We are not tarts now, and nobody needs to know what we did for a living before. Nothing shameful in it of course, but people have such antiquated ideas; it might put them off. They don’t need to know that we might be able to use our skills to our advantage to solve cases.”
“I’d rather solve cases with our new skills,” said Tara. “Remote viewing, out of body travel, lucid dreaming, that sort of thing.”
“Never a bad thing to have an assorted tool box,” replied Star. “We have unique skills compared to most private investigators. Just thank your lucky stars that we escaped the eagle eye of Madame Limonella. She’ll never think to look for us in here in Melbourne, she’s probably thinking we’ll fetch up in some back street dive in Perth, desperate for our jobs back.”
“Well it might come to that if we don’t get any cases to solve,” Tara said glumly, “And on less money too, we’re not spring chickens any more.”
“Don’t be silly,” Star snapped. “We’re not even 40 yet. If we were too young we wouldn’t be taken seriously.”
Star was just about to call her a rude tart when the phone rang.
Realizing that she had to come up with a plan quickly to distract April from taking her pith helmet, June took a few deep breaths and calmed herself. It was true she was often flaky and disorganized, but in an emergency she was capable of acting swiftly and efficiently.
“Remember Jacqui who we met in Scotland at the Nanny and Au Pair convention? Called herself Nanny Gibbon and tried to pass herself off as Scottish?” April frowned, trying to remember. Europeans all looked the same to her. “Ended up with that eccentric family with all the strange goings on?” June prompted.
“Oh yes, now I remember. Wasn’t there an odd story about a mummy that had washed up from, where was it?”
“Alabama!” shouted June triumphantly. “Exactly!”
“Well excuse me for being dense, but how does that help?”
June leaned back into the sofa with a happy smile. April had forgotten all about the pith helmet and was now focused on the new plan. “Well,” she said, rearranging some scatter cushions behind her back into a more comfortable position, “Do you remember the woman who arrived with the mummy, Ella Marie? She stayed with Jacqui for a while and they became good friends. Apparently she loved that crazy Wrick family; Jacqui said Ella Marie felt right at home there. She would have stayed, but she missed her husband in the end and felt guilty about leaving him, so she went back to Alabama.”
Aprils eyes widened slightly as she started to understand. “Did they stay in contact?”
“Maybe they can find that baby for us,” April said, looking relieved. “Or at least swap it for that girl baby. Where did that come from anyway?”
“Who can that be now!” exclaimed May as she made her way to the back door. A flustered looking woman in odd looking mismatched clothes was standing on the door step.
“I ’ave come to ’elp Finnley wiz ze bedding!” she said by way of introduction, “But I ‘ave lost my baby, ’ave you seen ’er? My name is Fanella. I ’ave come to ’elp Finnley wiz ze bedding, but I must find my daughter first!”
“You’d better come in,” replied May, wondering what to do. Until the right baby turned up, she could hardly give this woman her daughter back. But the poor woman was distraught, and May wanted to ease her distress. She would have to try to delay her somehow.
“There is no need to worry, er, Fanella, as it happens there is an unexpected baby girl visiting with the bosses son, but they are both fast asleep. They are quite safe, but I am not in a position to disturb them yet. Do sit down, you look exhausted. Let me get you a drink.”
May handed her a glass of wine. “How on earth did you manage to lose your daughter?”
“I was just about to ring ze bell but I was so nervous I ’ad to pee so I ran quickly be’ind ze bushes. And when I ’ad finished, my baby was gone!” Fanella started to weep.
“And you brought your baby with you?” aghast, May wondered what to do next. Maybe this woman shouldn’t be given the child back after all. It had been a long night, with far too many babies.
Well, it wasn’t what I expected. but once I got over being slightly miffed that it was all about Mater, stealing the limelight again, I realized that I would get my wish after all, if Corrie and Clove and the others were going to come back for a visit. When they arrived, they could tell me all about what had been happening. The twins and Pan were to set off soon, on a sea worthy raft they’d been working on. It would be a long trip and hard to judge how long it would take. The waters were uncharted in places, Corrie mentioned in the letter, given that the waters had risen in so many places, but it also meant there was a chance of safe passage by water in places that had previously been dry land. Narrow canals had become wide shallow lakes, so they’d heard. Pan would be able to dive to his hearts content along the way, and they were all excited about the coming adventure.
“We will continue to communicate telepathically during the trip, Auntie”, Corrie had written, which gave me a glow of pride and satisfaction. I hadn’t been making it up, we truly had been exchanging messages all along.
I wasn’t sure how easy it was going to be dealing with Mater in the meantime, though. She was demanding plastic surgery now.
“Plastic surgery?” I said, “You can’t even get a decent tupperware these days, lid or no lid. Where on earth are we supposed to get plastic surgery from?”
Almost a hundred years old, and still vain. I ask you. “Do you see me fussing over my looks?”
“Quite” she replied, and pursed her shriveled lips.
“I have nothing against outrageous clothes,” Liz said, feeling the unspoken murmurs of “we noticed” from the others. She smoothed down the voluminous pink satin of her floor length gown, batting her false eyelashes. “Life is one long fancy dress party, and one should dress accordingly. Today I am Barbara Tartland,” Liz flashed her long pink nails. “Otherwise known as the Pink Thing.”
Godfrey replied with some alarm, “You’re not planning on writing soppy romances are you, all with identical plots and predictable characters?”
“That’s because the characters are trying to commit suicide,” said Finnley.
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.
“That trip of yours was surprisingly, or must I say, suspiciously long…” Lucinda gave them both a long glance full of innuendos, and added in case those were missed “where you on a honeymoon or something?”
“Oh, you, will you just wipe the snark from your face, it’s making you look ten years older Luce. It wasn’t really a holiday if you must know everything.” She elbowed Shawn-Paul, who was looking vacantly at the tip of his shoes. “Why don’t you tell her?”
“Why don’t you tell her?” he replied automatically.
“It’s just been 6 months! Why do you make such a fuss about it?”
“I’m not making a fuss, look who’s cranky! I can see you are venting your spleen on me after a sleepless night in the plane…”
“Haha, yes”, Maeve admitted with a nervous chuckle. “The only thing that matters is we managed to collect the dolls and the keys, just don’t ask me how.”
“You know I’ll ask.”
“Yes, I know. Just… don’t.”
“Fair enough. But it might be tough for me not to ask. I may forget… Besides, I must ask, do you have a secret benefactor that’s funding you all this time? Fabio’s kibble didn’t come free you know, you left me with barely enough for a week!”
“Oh really? Dog’s kibble now? Let me make you a check right now.”
“I think you need a good night of sleep.” Lucinda winked at Shawn-Paul, “him too. And we’ll talk later. I have tons of things to update you about my theater writing group. You might help me with the continuity bits… Waaa, calm down, no pressure!”
“I’m keeping you up,” said Norma, yawning. “Thanks for listening. And for the wine.”
“Oh you weren’t whining really, well not much. Oh! I see what you mean,” replied May. “Say, where’s that kid got to? Norma, help me find the kid!”
But it was too late. Norma had gone. And so had the child she was supposed to be babysitting.
May’s intention to search for it as a matter of urgency was abruptly sidelined by the supreme urgency of a visit to the nearest lavatory. It was a peculiar child anyway, May thought, and if it had been hers, she no doubt wouldn’t have minded being rid of it, no questions asked. But it would be embarrassing to admit that she’d failed: not just the failure to look after the child, but failed to kidnap it either, and that she had simply lost it instead.
May quickly realized that she hadn’t planned this out properly at all. While Norma was fishing in her handbag for paper tissues, May switched the glasses of wine, so that she had the one with the laxatives herself. It wasn’t fair to inflict that on Norma, who was already verging on distraught. And May was feeling bloated anyway. A good clear out wouldn’t do her any harm.
May listened with genuine sympathy to Norma’s distress at being mistreated, but a glance at the kitchen clock prompted her to interrupt.
“Gotta go to the john,” she said, wondering if she had the vernacular right. She had almost said “must pop to the loo”, but that was the kind of lingo she used on the previous mission. She had to send her finance a message. The rendezvous with the spinach pot was off. Closing the bathroom door behind her, she reached for her phone and tapped the coded message.
iggi nefa san forlik snoodetta
Almost immediately there was a reply. No coded message this time, it was just a rolling eyes icon. May sighed with relief. What had she been thinking to plan such a thing, on such short notice?
Norma watched May leave the room, a little frown furrowing her brow. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she felt uneasy. May was acting guilty. Why? Without even knowing why she did it, she swapped her wine glass for the other one. Immediately feeling appalled at such a silly impulse, she reached to swap them back, but it was too late. May burst into the room, beaming.
Norma was taken aback at the difference in May’s demeanour, which threw her into a mental quandary. Had she mistaken a discomfort due to the need to use the lavatory for a guilty conscience? And that impulse to switch the glasses!
“Well, cheers!” she said shakily, holding up the wine glass and then draining it.
“Bottoms up!” replied May, following suit.
May took the brat down to the kitchen and gave him the pot of cold spinach to play with while she slipped outside to send a coded message to her fiance, Marduk. Barron happily commenced smearing globs of green mush all over his face, mimicking his fathers applications of orange skin colouring paste.
“We have a window of opportunity tonight,” May wrote. Actually she said “hu mana sid neffa longo tonga bafti foo chong“, which meant the same thing. “Slopi sala ding wat forg ooli ama“, which she knew Marduk would read as: “The kid will be in a big pot of spinach by the gate at midnight.”
“Forg ooli ama? keni suba?” he replied. With an impatient sigh May texted back “Sagi poo! And bring a spare set of clothes and a wash cloth!”
Now all she had to do was pack her suitcase, and keep the kid occupied for the next couple of hours. What she wasn’t expecting was a visit from Norma, who plonked herself down at the kitchen table, and started a long story about how underpaid and underappreciated she was.
May tried to hurry her along with the story, but there was no rushing Norma. She was firmly planted at the table for the duration of the evening. May did some quick thinking, and slipped a couple of fast acting laxative pills into the glass of wine that she handed to the maid, frustrated that no sleeping pills were easily found. They usually worked within a couple of hours, and with a bit of luck May could coincide her exit with Norma’s inevitable rush to the lavatory.
“امیدوارم که مؤثر باشد” May said to herself, and seated herself at the table to endure Norma’s long winded complaints. One hour and 43 minutes to go.
Agent X’s admiring look stopped Agent V in her tracks.
“Oh, Agent X,” she simpered, uncharacteristically, with a sly glance at the groin she had moments ago headbutted. There was no denying her head had met with something substantial and hard. Without thinking, she rubbed her head, and then blushed.
“The wooden top hides the propeller ,
I only said it was a local tradition because those suspicious looking tourists were within earshot.”
“Hides the propeller?” asked Agent V.
“Shhh! Help me carry this mangled bike back to my digs and I’ll explain,” he replied. And then he winked. “We might even have time for a quickie, if you’re up for it.”
“It was a long and boring flight.” Shawn Paul yawned, happy to finally stretch his legs on the tarmac.
Maeve rolled her eyes “I don’t know what you are complaining about, at least you managed to sleep throughout the whole thing, even the last bit on that horrid 6-seater plane. I honestly wonder how you managed…”
Shawn-Paul grinned apologetically, “I think the baby bottles of nhum did the trick.”
“I saw you glamouring the air attendant, didn’t know she’d bring you the whole inventory. Poor lass’ might have been a bit desperate for attention.”
A man was at the main door with their names on a sign.
“Hello Sir, happy to meet you, my name is Shaw…”
“Don’t bother, SP, don’t you see he’s the driver, he probably can’t understand a word you just said.”
“Yeah nah, t’is true M’am,” the driver replied. “Your mate’s Canadian accent is atrocious. Haere Mai to Tikfijikoo, right this way please.”
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