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“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.”
“Why are you looking guilty?” It was impossible for Godfrey to hide anything from Liz. She noticed at once the nervous tic in his left eye, and the way he was shuffling his feet around. He was clearly rattled about something.
“I’ve g g g ot a confession to m m make,” he stuttered. Liz had never heard Godfrey stutter before, and it was unheard of for him to make confessions. Something was troubling her old friend greatly, and she was concerned.
“I put two of your characters in jail.”
Liz gasped and her hand flew to her mouth.
“And now,” Godfrey’s voice caught on a little sob, “And now, I have to pay the bail money to get them out.”
“Why not just get Mr August to talk Mellie Noma into paying it? She got the kid back ~ mysteriously, I must say, quite a gap in the tale there..”
“Well it’s your book, so it’s your gap,” Godfrey retorted, reverting back to his old self.
“Then what were you doing in it, putting my characters in jail?” Liz snapped back. “Go and get that bail paid so they can go to Australia. Otherwise you’re going to muck up another book.”
“I thought you said we were going to Australia, April? This doesn’t look like Australia to me,” she said casting a despondent eye around the dismal cell. “Why do they always paint them grey?”
“To make you suffer. You’re not supposed to enjoy it.”
“Barbaric,” sniffed June. “And inefficient. I refuse to be rehabilitated unless they improve the accommodation.”
“Fat chance of that” April snorted. “We’ll be sewing mailbags or being a guinea pig for the latest bolonavirus vaccine.”
“What? No art classes and gym and choice of menu?” June was aghast. “You had better get us out of here! That latest scam was all your idea, anyway.”
“Actually, no, it wasn’t. It was that guy, what was his name? Godfrey? The one that comes to see Mr August sometimes. I was in the elevator with him one day and right out of the blue, I mean, I don’t know him personally, but he planted all these crazy ideas in my head telling me about how fool proof this credit card trick was…”
“He can pay the bail money then.”
“Now there’s an idea.”
Star was perusing the messages in the cults online forum, having joined the private group under the name of Writhe Mamble. It was time consuming, and a task that Star hoped to delegate to Rosamund. But first she needed to familiarize herself with the angle of the dogma and the leanings of the various members, as well as the physical data: photos, location, age and other affiliations.
Star had to keep reminding herself that it was of no importance whether or not she agreed with some of the messages, or strongly disagreed. Never the less she found herself liking some of the members as she read more, as well as wanting to slap others.
She made a note: remain neutral and remember why you are there. Star couldn’t help wondering uneasily how Rosamund would be at remaining neutral.
Maybe easier than you can manage it, said Granola, the voice appearing as if from nowhere.
“Easier than I can manage what?” asked Rosamund, crashing into the room with an armful of pizza boxes. Without pausing for an answer, she continued, “Mum’s having a fit, I might have to have tomorrow off work to go and calm her down. She’s talking about locking the house up and moving in with me. I can’t have that, I got a bit of business going on at the flat, you know what I mean?” Rosumund wiped the tomato sauce off her mouth with her sleeve.
“But why is she threatening to do that?” asked Star, who wasn’t the least bit interested.
“Her sister’s on her way over.” Misinterpreting Star’s raised eyebrow, Rosamund added. “Oh yes. THAT sister.”
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!”
It was a rhetorical question, and Lucinda chose not to answer it, at least not out loud. Although it was possible for a character to remove their attention from a story as long as the writer wasn’t writing about them, as soon as the character was mentioned again, they would inevitably be required to participate. Or would they? wondered Lucinda. Who really knew?
What that kid didn’t realize was that the dog showed me where every single camera was. That dog’s always been scared of cameras, you can always tell when someone’s got their camera out by Dusty’s reaction. I can’t for the life of me work out why they were there, though.
“What an interesting Brexit day to unexpectedly be in a sort of Done Quixote time warp,” said Liz, lapsing into one of her episodes. She had moments of compulsion to feed the randometer, an urge too seemingly pointless to ignore, which made her appear vague and inconsistent.
“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.
Ella Marie looked at the peculiar child sitting on the car seat next to her. This was no normal kid, she knew that much. Looked like one, except that expression on his face, well! That was no baby looking out of those eyes. And the thoughts she was hearing coming from him! Ella Marie shivered and gave him another sidelong glance. He caught her eye and winked. Winked!
“Well if this all aint the darnedest thing,” she said aloud.
Echoing her thoughts, Jacqui agreed. “In all my years as a nanny I’ve never seen a wee bairn like this. He’s giving me the creeps.”
“Rude old bag,” thought the child, his face reddening. “Take that,” as he filled his disposable diaper.
Ella Marie gasped, reading his mind.
“Which reminds me,” Liz continued, “Of something I heard yesterday: You can keep that enormous piece of furniture if you want to, if you like it: but move it away from the door!”
“The Spanish Moss Motel? Well, I’ll be darned, so this it where it is,” said Arthur, “But hell, it’s no place for a baby!”
“What do you mean, Art?” asked his wife. “Is it one of them there broth kitchens full of painted tarts?”
Art shook his head. “Not exactly. Nobody really knows, ‘cept everybody knows that things go on here.” Art shook his head again. “Aint no place for a baby.”
The house was dark when Vince got home, not like it used to be when Uncle Basil was there. He’d have had something simmering on the stove and the curtains closed, the lamps lit. “Gin and tonic?” he’d call out from the kitchen table, more often than not, sitting with a pile of books and a glass of sherry.
If only I hadn’t kept making fun of his books, Vince thought, not for the first time. If only I’d made him feel comfortable here in his own home with all that stuff instead of ridiculing him, he wouldn’t have gone.
What if he sells the house? Vince sighed and flipped on the lights. As soon as those people found out he had property, and money, well it didn’t bear thinking about. Vince would be out on his ear.
Finnley had a feeling that May down in the kitchen knew something about the baby girl imposter. On impulse, she pushed her cleaning cart over to the service lift. Luckily the baby was still sleeping soundly.
May was in the lavatory, a young woman informed Finnley as she entered the kitchen.
The familiar voice roused the baby, whose cry was at once recognized by her mother. Fanella knocked her chair over a she dived into the pile of dusters and seized the child. “My baby!” she cried.
“Thank god for that,” said Finnley under her breath.
“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.”
“Speaking!” replied Star, elated to receive a business inquiry, but simultaneously feeling a spasm of irritation at the mans attitude. “Star Wrexham, what can I do for you, Mr…?”
“French, Vince French.” Smoothing his hair and glancing in the wall mirror, Vince added, “You will have heard of me and my world famous melodious voice.”
Star had not, but replied encouraging, “Oh, I see. You can be sure of the utmost confidentiality and discretion, Mr French. Our credentials are unimpeachable. The missing person is..?”
“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..”
Star handed the phone to Tara. “Ms Cartwright, if you wouldn’t mind? The gentleman caller would like to make an appointment.”
“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?
“Och aye, now that’s intriguing,” remarked Jacqui, looking up from her phone. “Well I’ll be darned.”
“What’s that, honey?” asked her friend Ella Marie, looking up from her needlepoint. She was working on a cushion cover with an Egyptian theme.
“How far away is Chickasaw?”
“Why, that’s not far away at all,” Arthur said, and then went into some detail involving road numbers that neither of the ladies paid attention to.
“What all is a happening over there in Chickasaw anyway?” asked Ella Marie.
“Can you drive me over there? I have to kidnap a baby,” said Jacqui.
Noticing the astonished looks on her friends faces she hastened to add, “Oh it had already been kidnapped. I just have to kidnap it back, the mother misses it.”
Arthur and his wife said “Ah” in unison, recalling the time when the divorced father had snatched the neighbours children, causing poor Mary Lou no end of grief.
“Of course we’ll help you, that child needs his mother,” Arthur said. “Where in Chickasaw are they holding him?”
“That’s the tricky part, Art. The exact location isn’t known. In fact, ” Jacqui said, “In all honestly I don’t quite know where to go from here.”
“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.”
“Not even close to 40,” replied Tara, who was 33. “You are, though,” she said to Star, who was sensitive about being 39.
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.
“I’ve got it!” she exclaimed. April paused on her way over to the hat stand and looked over her shoulder at June. “Come and sit down, I have a plan,” June said, patting the sofa cushion beside her.
“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?”
“Oh yes!” replied June, leaning forward. “And not only that, Jacqui is there right now, on holiday! I’ve been seeing her holiday photos on FleeceCrack.”
“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?”