“No, listen,” Sophie whispered, “I’ve heard some things about this place. We have to escape.”
“What ‘ave you ‘eard?” asked Glor.
“SSSHH!! not so loud,” Sophie looked around nervously. “I can’t tell you now, you’ll have to trust me. We have to escape, and the sooner the better. Tonight.”
“I can’t come tonight, I’m ‘aving me nails done in the morning,” Glor said.
“If you don’t leave tonight, they’ll probably pull all your nails out with pliers in the morning, don’t you see?”
“Oh I say,” Glor shuddered, “Don’t say things like that, it makes me toes curl up just thinking about it.”
“Trust me,” insisted Sophie. “Tell your friends ~ quietly mind! ~ to pack a small bundle of things ~ small, mind! ~ just a change of clothes and a bit of food, and meet me in the lavatory by the back door at 3 am sharp.”
Sophie sighed with relief. It had been easier than she expected.
“SSHHHH” hissed Sophie, horrified. “Be discreet for god’s sake!”
“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!”
Grandpa Bob loved the sound of the kettle whistling. Cheery, he thought as he turned the flame off. Companionable.
He shuffled to the kitchen door. “Clara, cuppa?” he shouted down the hallway but there was no reply. Maybe she wasn’t up yet—it had been a long trip for her yesterday. Perhaps he could make her up a tray, although she’d probably say he was fussing.
Just then he heard VanGogh barking from the garden. He drew back the curtain and peered out the kitchen window. There she was! Way down the back digging in the vegetable garden. Bless her soul. Must have got started early on that weeding. She was saying she would last night. Grandpa, you really need to get some help around the place! she’d scolded.
“Clara, love!” he shouted. Damn dog was making such a racket she didn’t hear him. Nothing for it but to go out there. He chuckled, thinking how she’d probably scold him again for wandering around outside in his pyjamas. Bossy little thing she could be. But a good girl coming all this way to visit him.
He slipped on his outdoor shoes and slowly made his way down the path to the vegetable garden. VanGogh bounded over to him and Grandpa Bob gave him a pat. “What are you two up to out here, eh VanGogh?” But Clara was so engrossed on her phone she didn’t even glance up. He was about to call out to her again when he saw what she’d dug up and the words stuck in his throat. He let out a small cry.EricKeymaster
The moving lorry had been parked outside the Beige House for hours.
The driver was furious, as nobody has been able to answer their calls or guide them. At least the manager had let them park in front of the entrance, but it might have been based on a misunderstanding. “That’s for the removal of the Lady’s stuff, is it?” He’d nodded, it was only half a lie, his client was a lady, except she wasn’t moving out. She was moving in.
He shouted to his partner who was smoking outside.
“Come on, Fred! Don’t get mad, you’ve seen how particular she was when we loaded the boat’s content, so full of her sentimental knick-knacks!”
“What do you expect? Us keeping all these stone statues that weigh a ton! I don’t care. I tell you, she better show up in the next minutes, or else…”
“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.
“What about me?” asked Vince French. “Are you going to interrogate me or not?” He sounded peevish, even to his own ears. But he put his heart and soul into singing and to have the whole audience, bar that rude detective girl, run out during a performance was unconscionable.
“We don’t really need to now,” said Tara. She softened slightly seeing his dejected face. “Great tune by the way. If you like, you can come and help us find Uncle Basil.” She edged towards the exit. “After you’ve paid the bill!” she shouted as she took off through the door.
“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.”
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.
“It’s Thursday today,” remarked Star.
“Special subject the bloody obvious?” Tara replied rudely. “You should be on Mastermind.”
“Well, we were wondering what we were going to do to pass the time until Thursday, and here we are. It’s Thursday!”
“Are you losing your marbles?”
“Actually it’s you losing your memory,” Star sighed. “Remember the case?”
“The case we were working on!”
“Oh, that case! Well you can hardly expect me to remember that when it’s been such a strange week!” Tara was starting to get tearful and agitated.
“Look, Tara, the tests came back negative. You can stop worrying about it now. We can go back to normal now and carry on. And just in time for the rendezvous at the cafe on Main Street.” Star patted Tara’s arm encouragingly. “And what timing! If the results hadn’t come back yet, or we’d tested positive, we wouldn’t have been able to go to the cafe.”
“Well we could have gone and just not said anything about the tests,” sniffed Tara. “Everyone else seems to be doing what they want regardless.”
“Yes, but we’re not as morally bankrupt as them,” retorted Star.
Tara giggled. “But we used to work for Madame Limonella.”
“Is it a fancy dress party? I could wear my plague doctor outfit.”
Star rolled her eyes. “No! We have to dress appropriately, something subtle and serious. A dark suit perhaps.”
“Oh like my Ace of Spades T shirt?”
This is going nowhere fast, Star thought, but then had a revelation. A moment later, she had forgotten what the revelation was when the door burst open.
“Ta Da!” shouted Rosamund, entering the office with two middle aged ladies in tow. “I nabbed them both, they were lurking in the queue for the food bank! And I single handedly brought then back. Can we talk about my bonus now?”
One of the ladies piped up, “She said you’d be taking us out for afternoon tea at a nice cafe!”
The other one added, “We haven’t eaten for days, we’re starving!”
The first middle aged lady said, “Oh no dear, it’s September. I’m quite sure of that.”
“I’ve been wondering …” Star tightened her lips. “No … perhaps not.”
“What? Spit it out,” said Rosamund.
“It’s nothing … just that … I interpreted my remote view as New Zealand but perhaps it wasn’t New Zealand per se, and by that I mean perhaps it was a symbolic representation, a clue if you will, and i was too quick to rush in and give it meaning.”
Rosamund screwed up her face. “You lost me at Purse Eh.”
“Me too, dear!” said the middle aged lady. “Does she always go on like this?”
“Worse usually. Yabba yabba yabba them two. How about I swop you dental floss for some lippy?”
“Don’t yo mine those rudy poohs,” said Tara, who was starting to sound a little slurred. “What’d ya see, Star, eh?” Star’s remote viewing skills never failed to amaze her, and, to be honest, she’d been surprised when Star made such a horrendous hash of this latest attempt. Once she had sobered up she might feel compelled to apologise for her rude outburst. She snorted into her drink. Not bloody likely!
Before Star could answer, there was an excited scream from the waitress.
“Look, who’s here!” she shouted. “Look everybody! It’s only Vincentius come to join us!!”
“Why, thank you. What a welcome!” said Vincentius in a deep melodious voice. He sauntered casually over to the bar, seemingly oblivious to the effect he was having.
“Oh. My. God,” said Star.
Rosamund who was using the lipstick to write her number on the burly bouncer’s bicep gave him a shove. “Get lost, Loser!” she hissed.
“Over here, Vincentush! Whover yo are!” shouted Tara before falling off her bar stool.
“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!”
“Now then ladies, what’s all this about?” The burly bouncer appeared, blocking the doorway.
“Nice tattoo!” he said appreciatively. “Why, I even have one myself just like it!”
“On your buttock?” asked Star incredulously.
“Why you cheeky thing,” replied the bouncer with a smile. “No, as it happens it’s on my ankle. I left the cult before I reached buttock bell bird status.”
“Wait, what? What cult?”
“The same cult as you were in,” he said, turning to April. “Am I right?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” stammered April, reddening.
“What the hell is going on!” shouted Tara. “Are we the only ones NOT in the damn cult?”
“Looks like it” smirked the waitress, pulling her blouse up to reveal a bell bird tattoo on her belly.
“That’s it, I’ve had enough of this! I’m going back to the wardrobe!” exclaimed Star.
The bouncer and the waitress exchanged glances. “Unwoke sheeple losing their minds,” the waitress said knowingly.
“Oh my fucking god,” Tara said, close to tears.
“Bugger off, then,” said Tara. “I’m going to have a few more gin and tonics before my hair appointment. Wish me luck!”
“Oh, my!” said April with an embarrassed titter. “Fancy meeting you two here!”
“How dare YOU!” said April, scrambling over the fallen pot-plant in her haste to get away.
“Look!” cried Star. “On her shoulder! A bell-bird.”
“Stop it!” shouted April, flinging the broom wildly above her head. “Just stop it, will you! First, you man-handle me into the wardrobe filled with dirty old coats and refuse to let me have pineapple on my pizza and now you are interrogating me as though I am some sort of criminal.” She threw the broom to the floor with such force that the handle snapped off, and then she collapsed in a sobbing heap.
“I suppose we have been rather unwelcoming,” said Star.
“There, there, Auntie,” said Rosamund, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder. “If you need to make up a husband, I totally get it. I’m always making up stuff.”
“I think it is about time you tell us the truth,” said Tara sternly. “Why have you invented a philandering husband and what does Vince French have to do with it and, last but certainly not least, why is that wardrobe filled with stinky coats in our office?”
“How about I make a nice cup of tea and you can tell us everything,” said Star.
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.
Star paused in the lobby. “I need some more persuading,” she said. “What if she dies in that wardrobe? What will we do with the body? Or, worse, what if she doesn’t die and sues us?”
“I’m going back. I can’t leave Rosamund to face the consequences of our drunken stupidity.” Star headed defiantly towards the stairs; the lift was out of order, again. “We would have to be on the eight bloody floor,” she muttered. “You do what you like,” she flung over her shoulder to Tara.
Tara sighed. “Wait up,” she shouted.
Star was relieved that Tara decided to follow. The building was scary at night – the few tenants who did lease office space, were, much like themselves, dodgy start-ups that couldn’t afford anything better. Missing bulbs meant the lighting in the stairwell was dim, and, on some floors, non-existent.
As they approached the door to their office, they paused to listen. “Can you hear something … ?” whispered Star.
“Is it … singing?”
“That’s never Rosamund singing. She’s got a voice like … well let’s just say you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.”
“I’m going in,” hissed Tara and flung open the door.
“Don’t come any closer!” cried a woman in a mink coat; she did make a peculiar sight, surrounded by empty pizza boxes and brandishing a broom. “And you, shut up!” she said reaching out to bang the wardrobe with her broom. There were muffled cries from within, and then silence.
“Was that you singing?” asked Star in her most polite voice.
“Yes, what’s it to you?”
“It was rather… lovely.”
The woman smirked. “I was rehearsing.”
“We are awfully sorry about locking you in the wardrobe. We thought you were a masked intruder.”
Loud banging emanated from the wardrobe followed by mostly unintelligible shouting but it went something like: “Bloody-let-me-out-or-I-will-friggin-kill-you-stupid-bloody-tarts!”
April nodded. “Go on then, little fool’s learnt her lesson. The cheek of her not letting me have pineapple on my pizza.”
“About bloody time,” sniffed Rosamund when the door was opened. She made a sorry sight, mascara streaked under her eyes and her red fingernails broken from where she had tried to force the door.
April crinkled her brow.”Well, as I may of mentioned on the phone, my husband, Albert — that’s your Uncle Albie,” she said to Rosamund, “is cheating on me. He denies it vehemently of course, but I found this note in his pocket.” She reached into her Louis Vuitton hand-bag and pulled out a sheet of paper. “That’s his handwriting and the paper is from the Royal Albert Hotel. He was there on a business trip last month.” Her face crumpled.
April sniffed. “It says, meet you at the usual place. Bring the money and the suitcase and I will make it worth your while.”
“Let me see that,” said Rosamund, snatching the note from April. She reached into the front of her tee-shirt and pulled out another crumpled note which had been stuffed into her bra. She smirked. “I found this in the wardrobe. I was keeping it secret to pay you back but … ” She brandished both notes triumphantly. “The handwriting is the same!”
“It says, If you find this note, please help me. All is not what it seems..”
“Wow, cool!” said Tara, her face lit up. This was more like it!
“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.”EricKeymaster
Berenice, still under training, was overseeing the process, daunted by the alarming number of blinking buttons from the apparatus. She tried to look composed, knowing full well her aunt Barbara wouldn’t make preferential treatment if she were to make a blunder.
“BWAAAAHA!” blurted out Gloria coming out of what appeared to have been a very lucid dream.
“I just got meself the most horrid dream Shar’, you know wot?”
“Good Lord no! WORSE even!”
“WOT now?” Sharon couldn’t help but ask, shushing with a mean eye the poor Berenice.
“NURSE TRASSIE! She was comin’ fur us!”
“Oh bloody hell. Haven’t they confined her already?” Sharon dismissed with a shrug that made the whole concrete floor vibrate like a panzer washing machine in dry mode. “Look lassies, that’s more interesting.” She nodded towards the haggard Sophie lying on one of the tables. “Brought us some competition on the looks area it seems.”
“What?” Mavis strained to hear.
“Look dammit! The poor fashion-impeded soul that landed on a waiting list for one of our spots. Gosh, that latex thingy she sports makes me all blushy! But don’t you worry. She can’t be competition to us, ladies. That cryo-treatment is already working I can tell.”
She felt the need to add and punctuate towards Berenice “And no thanks to you, young lady. You should learn from me. Never been afraid to push a button in my life!”
Cousin Lisa came calling yesterday morning and she tells us there’s some in the Village have come down with sickness. Of course it would be Lisa being the bearer of such news, her face lit up when I tell her I have heard nothing. Cook, over hearing our conversation, which was private but Cook is always sticking her great nose in where it is not required, she’s hung braids of garlic at the front door. I caught her telling the children it was to keep away the evil spirits that brought death. Poor little Jimmy couldn’t sleep last night he was that afraid of the spirits bringing death in the night. He asked endless questions, how will the garlic stop them? Can the spirits get in through a window instead? He got his sister afraid also and the pair of them wouldn’t sleep then for crying in fear. I told Cook off roundly this morning for speaking to them thus.
The master came home filled with drink, crashing around like the damned drunken fool he is nowadays. He shouted at the children for their crying and shouted at me for not keeping them quiet. At least he did not raise his fists for he wanted to lie with me and I nearly retched with his stinking breath coming close and thank God for His mercies that the fool passed out before he could do the deed. I may have done harm if he’d tried for the brass bell was sitting there on the table (and it is a heavy thing) and I was seeing at it as he came close and there was a moment I could have picked it up and crashed it to his skull. May God forgive me.
He makes my skin crawl for I know what he has done that he thinks I don’t know. But all will come to light if not in this world then the next. I am more sure than ever I must get away and the children with me.
“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!”
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