Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Absent Harpist (part 4)

I parked the cab at the bottom of the hill, north of it so that the lumbering shadows of that verdant monstrosity obscured my ride from view. A brick perimeter had been laid, with an iron fence protruding from it and blocking any trespassers. Fortunately for me, care for the outward bounds of the mansion and grounds had long since been forgotten, and so a panel had collapsed in, providing me with an entrance.
I hurried through and then began my hike up the hill side. The grass was crunchy under foot, so much so that I was almost worried my approach might be heard. Somehow, I managed to reach the crest without detection. The grass gave way here for sandy pebbles in a round sweep of the central residence. As I padded across them, they crinkled as if trying to draw the attention of the world around me. I heard the sound of a motor car thrumming to a stop at the front of the house and then the forced pleasantries of people who were only greeting one another for politeness' sake. Beyond the mansion, the runny egg of light that we call the sun was decaying from its childish yellow to a mournful amber, slipping away behind the clouds but not before it could infect the sky with its orange tint. The Yuletide Ball must have begun. I feared how long I'd been unconscious.
There was a set of steps leading down into the kitchens of the grand house just in front of me, and the doors at the bottom appeared open. I jogged down them and quickly darted through the door to the left; a comfortable hubbub of life was preparing canapés and other party treats and I knew that if I wandered amongst them I'd be caught. The door to the left led through a grey corridor for about one hundred metres, the walls on either side seemingly frozen to the touch. Normally, it would have been a relief in comparison to the warmth outside but now it just seemed to make me shiver.
At the end there was a staircase, one side leading up towards the party- the sound of a gramophone cycling through Glen Miller was almost cacophonous in its echoes- and the other down towards what I could only presume was the basement. This was where I would find the Butler's family and so I wandered down to investigate.
As any self respecting peoples will tell you, there are only two items one absolutely needs to carry upon their person at all times. One is a towel, for there is a surprisingly great deal of things one can do with a towel, and the other is a torch. I pulled my torch out of my trench coat and gently screwed the silver head down, until a thin beam of yellow tinged light shone out. The staircase had me dancing in square circles until I reached the very bottom: a pair of huge wooden doors sat in front of me, obscuring the view of the basement on the other side.
I gave them a gentle shove and they came apart easily enough, revealing a dusty catacomb on the other side. The floor was large and open, interrupted only by huge beams holding up the cantilever arches that supported the house. Clustered around these arches were various artefacts; the paintings missing from the main house, old pickaxes and head torches, even a table holding a miniature model of Montpelier and its surrounding environs, although the entire townscape was covered in a heavy sprinkling of grey dust.
I first inspected the paintings, pulling back the heavy tarps covering them and observing the paint work beneath. They depicted a family, consisting of a man I didn't recognise, the Baroness' mother and a young woman holding a small white dog. The young woman looked vaguely familiar, as if I was accustomed to an unfaithful waxwork of her. It took a quick look at some of the other paintings and a few moments of silent contemplation before the penny eventually dropped. The woman in the paintings was the true Baroness which meant the woman I'd met, the Big Man's sister, was an imposter. The question was, why?
The mining equipment looked mostly archaic, and quite redundant after the discovery of tools such as dynamite. I  imagined that it was being kept down here out of some misguided sense of nostalgia. The same probably applied to the model of the town, which seemed a show piece from some old mining contract, depicting the location of several different shafts and points of interest. However, upon further inspection, I couldn't help notice that the dust had been blown away, as if they'd all been recently used.
I turned my torch away to see if there was anything else of interest the room when I caught glimpse of a sudden flaring on the opposite wall. Frowning, I wandered over to investigate, concentrating the beam of my torch on the spot where the shine had suddenly been. As my eyes adjusted, I realised that what I'd witnessed was the Cat's Eyes principle, in the respect of the eye being able to reflect light in a powerful glare. In this case, however, the eyes didn't belong to a Cat. They belonged to the Butler's daughter.
As I approached, I saw there were four women chained to the wall. One was the same age as the Butler with the first flecks of grey in her hair and bags under her eyes. She was wearing a maid's formal dress but, although it may have looked quite posh amongst other servant's clothes, it was nothing in comparison to the second old woman, the one I recognised from the paintings. She was most definitely the true Baroness, be it from the posher clothing to the way she held herself. The two other women were the Butler's daughters, one of whom was on the cusp of womanhood and the other was perhaps eight. I smiled at them as I approached. "Don't worry." I hissed. "I've come to get you out of here."
"Who are you?" The Baroness hissed in return. "And what the Hell is that racket upstairs?"
"They're holding some sort of Yuletide Ball," I replied, kneeling down to fiddle with their locks, "but it's nothing to worry about; I believe it'll give us the cover we need to escape."
"You're never going to get them open like that." The Baroness said. "Use those pickaxes."
I passed her the torch and ran over to the nearest pickaxe, lifting it and bringing it down in one fell swoop. The first padlock shattered beneath the blow and I repeated it for each of the others. The Butler's wife stood up and did a small jig of celebration, before turning to me gravely. "Is my husband okay? The giant, the big man, he threatened to cut his neck when he called the Detective."
That would explain the shaving nick I thought I'd spotted. "He's alive, don't worry. He was the one who tipped me off to you."
"My clever Arnold." She beamed, rubbing her daughter's heads. "Daddy managed to convince the baddies he was working for them, just like he said he would. Easier to pick off one detective than an entire police force, hey. Clever of him."
"And my mother?" The Baroness asked, cutting her off. "Is she okay?"
"She seemed well enough." I replied. "If not a bit dotty."
"Sounds like her. What about my dog? They threatened to do horrible things to it because it knew there was a difference between me and my replacement."
I remembered the white fluff on the well and decided to lie. "I'm sure it's just fine. Now, there's a car, a taxi cab, at the bottom of the hill. You four need to go hide there whilst I find your mother and the Butler. We'll come and join you."
"Are you sure?" The Baroness asked. "The big man is not forgiving. He'll kill you if he knows you've freed us."
"Don't you  worry about the big man." I grinned. "I've already dealt with him."

As soon as I was sure they were en route to the taxi cab, I hurried away from the top of the steps where I was hiding and wandered around to the front of the mansion. The Butler was stood on the front step, assisting someone from their coat and gesturing for a village boy to drive his car around the side of the house. I would have made a mental note to inquire to where they were getting all the staff but I had bigger things to worry about.
I waited until he'd finished dealing with the coat and then hurried over, passing him my trench coat and hat. He looked shocked to see me but he managed to react relatively calmly. I was pleased by that. "I've freed your wife and children."
"Thank you, sir." He said, accepting my hat. "May I be of any further assistance to you?"
"Yes. I was hoping to see the Baroness." I pronounced her name with inverted commas. "And her mother, too."
"The Baroness' mother is ill, I am afraid, however I would be more than happy to convey any messages you wish to be carried."
"Best thing for illness is a spot of fresh air, if you ask me." I replied. "There's a spot just at the bottom of the northern hill. Might be ideal."
"Of course, sir." He smiled. "I will take the Mistress for a walk there myself. Is that all, sir?"
"Yes, it will be for now." I smiled. "Have a nice evening."
"You too, sir."
I hurried into the house. Mirrors had been placed over the spots where paintings were missing, giving the entire mansion a somewhat spacious effect. The Glen Miller had been replaced by a lavish string section, accompanied by the very lightest of wind instruments. It was almost idyllic.
The ballroom where I'd originally met with the fake Baroness was teeming with life. I could see the imposter milling about amongst other villagers, always tailed by the hotelier of the Milliner's to her side. I decided I didn't want to come face to face with either of them, at least not for now, so I snook off down the extravagant corridor to my left. It led, beneath a collage of mosaics and detailed paintings, towards yet another stairwell. A servant carrying a tray of the aforementioned canapés emerged from it and passed me on her way to the ballroom. I hurried over to the stairs and wandered down a few steps, to find a door on my right which led to behind the Ballroom's stage. I hurried through the doorway and, although passing momentarily through the dark, found myself into a large clearing where a group of violinists were preparing their instruments. "Who are you?" One of them shouted. "Partygoers aren't permitted backstage."
"I'm... I'm... hang on. Are you guys missing a harpist?"
"A harpist? Of course not." The man said. "Our harpist is over there."
"The bloody liar." I muttered. "Right, well, that's all well and good then. You lot stay here and I'll go warm the crowd up."
Before any of them could argue, I'd danced up the wooden steps before me and onto the stage. It was empty except for an abandoned piano and a microphone on stand. The Ballroom, on the other hand, was practically alive as the people of the village, who up until then I'd assumed didn't exist, danced and chatted like the best of them. I felt almost guilty for interrupting their party.
I tapped the microphone twice and then spoke, "Good evening everybody! How are we all doing? Having a good time?"
Someone removed the pin from the vinyl, literally and metaphorically. Complete silence met me. I smiled. I had their attention.
"Sorry to interrupt with such terrible news but there is a conspiracy afoot of the gravest proportions. Robert Stollery, the Music Teacher, has been murdered for having dangerous knowledge."
There was an audible gasp.
"The knowledge seemed pure and innocent enough, but unfortunately, it got him killed." I continued. "Montpelier is a quiet town, long forgotten by the world around it. Its mining heritage has long since dried up, but the forefathers of this fine town weren't willing to leave an empty future. In folk songs and folk legends, there was speak of a hidden mine. Robert Stollery, being an avid folk legend enthusiast, had discovered the secrets of the lost mine at the same time as a pair of others, a pair of siblings in fact. The siblings raced here to profit on their discovery, only to find that the local Baroness had knowledge of the discovery too, going so far as to prepare the old mining equipment in the basement and investigate an old map of the town. The siblings, one brother, one sister, instantly dealt with the Baroness and her Harp Teacher, imprisoning the Baroness and her only staff in the basement and murdering the Harp Teacher!"
Another gasp.
"The brother then headed to the Harp Teacher's house, killing his pet cats so that nobody would immediately realise the loss. Or at least they wouldn't have, if the Butler of this fine house hadn't called a private detective to investigate. He hoped that the detective may stop the siblings and save him but there was no such luck. The brother threatened to cut the Butler's throat but quick thinking from the Butler- promising that the detective would find nothing and that a single private detective would be better to deal with than an entire police force- saved his life. To teach the Butler a lesson, his family was kidnapped alongside the Baroness. Then there was the matter of what to do next. The detective was to be intercepted and murdered by the brother, but just on the off chance that he wasn't, the local hotelier, who I shall refer to as the Milliner, was employed to spy on him."
Another gasp. A few eyes turned towards the Milliner, who shrunk away into his jacket.
"He was already quite the snoop, with corridors between the walls where he'd hide whilst listening to his customer's secrets. Those corridors must have been quite dusty from the amount of grey powder that fell upon his shoulders. As it was once said, the only in rat in that hotel was him.
"As for the sister, she decided to impersonate the Baroness should the detective reach her before the brother or Milliner could go to work. The mother was no problem; it's a well kept secret but she's clinically blind. Her imagination and memory allows her to see what she believes she's going to, hence why she hasn't twigged to her daughter's replacement and why she saw the detective when looking at me. The Baroness' dog, not so nicely treated, and so it was drowned in the well outside the front door. Why was there all this tragedy and crime? So that the siblings could comply to their terrible greed once and for all! And the woman who has been impersonating the Baroness all along?"
I reached out and pointed my index finger at the Baroness. "You!"
There was no audible gasp. I frowned. Had I done it wrong?
"As much as we appreciate your deductions, Detective," the Baroness' Imposter said, "there is one you missed out on: None of our fellow partygoers seem averse to my imposition."
I frowned. She was right; I hadn't considered that.
"The reason is that I and my brother plan to return the wealth the Baroness and her family so long ago stole from this area and these people once and for all. My brother's actions were questionable, yes, but they were performed to free these poor people from their oppressors. Perhaps you would care to check the banner above you."
I stepped away from the microphone to look up. The banner read, "WEALTH FOR ALL."
"You see, Detective, the true villains are not me and my brother. They are the hierarchy who punished these people in the first place. Now, you're either with us or against us. What do you say?"
The doors at the rear of the room smashed open and the brother, the Big Man, came limping through, his gun raised. "I don't give a damn what he says." His clothes were bloody and he didn't look happy. "He tried to leave me for dead and it's about time I returned the favour."
I gulped as he raised a gun and fired.


Friday, 23 December 2016

The Absent Harpist (part 3)

In my lifetime, I've been in two situations where a gun has been pointed at my face. In the first of these situations, the water pistol was being wielded by a clown and didn't devastate my physiognomy anymore than nature had. The second of these situations is the one with which I am regaling you. Of course, there are two possibilities that can occur when a real gun is aimed at you. One is that the gods are merciful and your head explodes. The other is somewhat worse.
The big man pulled the trigger and sighed. The gun clicked. The other possibility, in this case, is that the barrel is empty. My face was not splattered across the field and so was once returned to the terror of waiting for the gun to click again.
"Russian roulette is my favourite game." He grumbled.
"Really? I would have said you were more the Dungeons and Dragons type."
"I'm glad your quips are as bad as your prospects. I don't like quips."
"Then let us get to business." I replied. "Who are in the graves?"
"I ask the questions. Not you."
"You ever play Truth or Dare? No, you're more the Russian roulette type. The point remains, however. When my few friends and I played Truth or Dare, we used to trade truths for truths. So I tell you what, let's call it a wonderful Exposition Device, why don't we take it in turns to answer questions? I'll answer one, you'll answer one. Any information you tell me will go me to the grave because you've got a loaded gun to my head and there's no chance of me escaping. That way, I get to die with my curiosity satisfied and you get to satisfy your curiosity too."
"Who are you?"
"I'm the Detective. The one the Baroness hired."
"No you're not."
"I am."
"No you're not, and don't you dare lie to me." He pulled back the hammer of his gun. "I know for a fact you aren't, so my question is, who are you?"
I sighed. "I'm nobody, okay? I'm just a tourist. I happened to get off the train at Montpelier station and then some bloody taxi driver assumed I was a detective, like everybody else in the town. I thought it seemed fun so I went up to the mansion to see what was going on. When I got told there was a missing music teacher, I, oh god, I don't know. Some arrogant streak in me told me I was the best person for the job. I know it was a silly decision but it was one I made and I do regret it. I have no clue what's going on or where any of the missing people are. I'm sorry."
"I don't believe you."
"You bloody well should. Just let me go, please. I didn't mean to get embroiled in this and I don't understand anything going on. Let me go and you'll never hear of me or from me again."
"Sorry, my friend, but I don't quite believe you." He pulled the trigger.
My heart pounded so hard I was worried for its structural integrity. I closed my eyes and said my prayers and waited for the Gods to claim me. Then the gun clicked, the barrel empty, and the Big Man sighed. "It's getting more tense, isn't it?"
"I promise I'm telling the truth. I'm utterly clueless."
"A clueless detective, hm?"
I frowned. Not because of his statement, but because of a distant sound. It too me a second of straining my ears to recognise it but, eventually, I realised that it was the sound of Country and Western. "That's the taxi driver coming."
"Oh for God's sake." The big man sighed.
"He gave me the Trunk, you can ask him. It wasn't mine."
"It was the Detective's." The big man replied. "We left it in the boot after we dropped him off."
Pulling back the hammer of his gun once more, the big man headed off in the direction of the farmhouse on the other side of the graves. The taxi suddenly appeared, the yellow bodywork gleaming in the sunlight above. Stones chipped against the chassis or flung away from the car amongst the clouds of dust whipped up by the acceleration. As it grew closer, the music intensified. I sighed, as that was the only reasonable reaction.
The car screeched to a halt, the music turned off and the doors swung open. The driver climbed out, shrugged as if trying to dislodge a cardigan, and then swayed over towards the big man. The dogs began to snap their jaws and claw at the grit in front of them, pulling desperately on the chains about their necks as the driver walked past.
"What the hell are you doing here?" The big man demanded.
"I dropped off the Detective in town like you asked. I've just checked up on the Milliner. Have you seen the sign? Rats. Rats, I tell you! He's the only rat in that house, bloody snoop."
As they spoke, I shifted my arms a little and felt the rough hempen rope scratch against my flesh. My shoulders ached terribly, just as the back of my head throbbed every time I frowned, but I managed to shrug in such a way that I was able to stretch. The rope grew tighter so I quickly brought my arms together again. I didn't have a knife hidden up my sleeve and I suspected that the big man would have removed it even if I had. Luckily, however, a quick movement revealed I didn't need one. The metal on the back of the chair had been battered and scratched over the years until eventually part of it had snapped. Now, a jagged shard of metal sat out about four inches above where the rope was sagging. I had to contort myself beyond all reasonable standards to bring my bonds there but when I had, it was a simple case of moving the rope back and forth that began to fray the material.
Meanwhile, the big man was shouting at the driver over the bark of the dogs. "Dropped him off? Don't you remember meeting him together, you imbecile? You dropped off that boy over there and he isn't the bloody detective."
"Then why did he have the Detective's case? The Milliner said he had the Detective's case and he said that it had a book in it like the one the Harpist had. I reckon the Detective and the Harpist are working together. If we were to follow the Detective, I bet we'd find the Harpist."
"The Harpist isn't bloody missing, you fool!"
"Then why did we hire the Detective?"
"Because the Detective thinks the Harpist is missing. No, forget that. The Detective doesn't think anything because he's buried in one of those graves, next to the Harpist in the next. We killed them, for crying aloud! Together." The big man let out a frustrated sigh and took a few steps backwards, pacing towards the dogs and then muttering, "You need to stay off that bloody booze. You'll forget your own head."
"Ah, well that's where you're wrong." The driver said. "I can't forget my head. It's screwed on."
"We can arrange for that to change." The big man spoke.
The driver let out an audible gulp but regained his swagger quick enough, drunkenly swaying over towards the graves. "I accept your point of view on this whole scenario and everything but I just don't understand how it's possible for the Detective to be buried down there. I'm pretty certain I delivered him to the town centre earlier. The Milliner told me so; he'd looked in the Detective's case. Did I tell you about that? About the library book? Same one as the Harpist had, or near enough."
I suddenly recalled the book in the trunk; it was on Folk Legends, a similar focus matter to the magazine that Stollery the Harpist had applied to- 'Folk Tale' it was called. What was hidden in myth that the big man and the driver were trying to cover up?
"You bloody imbecile! You gave the boy the case! Urgh! This is all because of that bloody butler! Next time, I'll finish the job and cut his neck."
"I don't know if he's totally to blame, squire." The driver said. "I mean, the Baroness agreed, didn't she? She's as blind as her mother, if you ask me."
The big man raised his gun and pressed it to the driver's head. "If you insult my sister one more time, I will remove your brains from your skull with a teaspoon. Do you understand me?"
The driver didn't say anything for a few seconds and then nodded, abashed. "Yes sir. Sorry."
"Good. Now, did the Milliner find anything else in the trunk?"
"No. Just the book."
"Right then." The big man said. "Have you alerted my sister?"
"Not yet. She's preparing for the Festive Ball so I didn't want to interrupt her."
"Hm. Maybe I should break the news myself."
"No. I'm happy to do it."
"It's fine." The big man said. "I would like to do it. I can also tell her what's going to happen to that young rapscallion. You go back to the train station. Wait for further instructions."
"Aww, sir! Why can't I go looking for the mine?"
At that second, the big man's face greyed like an approaching thunder cloud. His eyes bulged, his cheeks reddened and his voice sung with absolute fury as he towered over the driver and sprayed him with spittle. "We do not talk about that! Not in front of suspects! You tiny fool! You tiny, imbecilic halfwit! You bloody idiot! How dare you talk of that? You want to go digging for the mine? You can start here."
And with one mammoth hand, the big man grabbed the driver by the neck, lifted him up and threw him into the open grave, before pointing the gun into the hole and firing it like a  gunslinger, pulling back the hammer with one hand over and over until the gun actually fired and the driver was hit. He let out a scream that seemed to pain the dogs and then began whimpering, but by that point the cacophony of the gunshot's ricochet had spread out and deafened me so I couldn't quite hear it.
The big man slid the cartridge out of the revolver and entered another one, carrying it towards me as he strolled, too casually. When eventually he met me, he sat back down one more and pointed the gun at my head.
"This gun is completely full. How much of that did you hear?"
I stared him defiantly in the eyes and then grinned. "Too much."
Before he could take it in, I'd pounced on him, breaking the threadbare final strings holding my hands together and swinging them around to grab the gun. Although he was such a physically big man, I managed to overcome him easily, and by the time he was on the floor and I was stood over him with the gun expertly aimed, the tables had swapped.
"Why did you kill the Harpist?"
"You're not going to use that, boy. You're not brave enough."
He was right, of course, that I wasn't brave enough. I was, however, quite annoyed and that counted for much the same thing. I shot two of his left fingers off. "Answer my question!"
"The Harpist had found folk legends and ballads about a lost mine beneath Montpelier." He managed between screams. "We had to stop him from finding it before we did."
"'We' being?"
He screamed a little more so I shot him through the kneecap.
"Tell me!"
"Me and my sister- the Baroness, but she isn't really the Baroness, she's just pretending!"
"And the driver? And who else is in on it?"
"No one but the hotel man. Please don't shoot me anymore!"
I shot him through the shoulder. "What's the hotel man doing?"
"Snooping! He's the rat! In the walls! Please! Please stop!"
"One last question." I said. "Where are the Butler's family?"
I shot the ground directly next to his head. Some of the sand leapt up and tore into his face. "Answer my question! Where are the Butler's family?"
"In the mansion's basement!" He screamed. "Please! I'm sorry."
"Sorry isn't good enough." I said, and shot him once in the other shoulder and once in the foot. Then I slipped the gun into my pocket and wandered up to the ranch. A wooden table sat outside, just to the side of the dogs, with a bowie knife protruding from it. I pulled the knife from the wood and cut the rope tying the dogs to the ranch. "Dinner's down there, lads." I said, and pointed with the gleaming metal of the knife towards the big man. Howling, the two dogs raced towards the big man, ready to eat. I grinned. I was good with dogs.
I then headed towards the open cab sat in the driveway of the farm. In the far distance, on the other side of the ranch, I could see Montpelier. The Butler's family were back there and it was my duty to free them. And so I climbed behind the wheel of the car, turned the key and accelerated off, ready to do just that.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Absent Harpist (part 2)

My suitcase contained nothing more than a folded shirt, a small jar of shoe polish and a paper back that had once held the name 'Elmore Leonard' but now missed the majority of the letters where the paper had flecked away. There was also a penknife tucked into a secret pocket near the bottom of the case and it was this that I removed, slipped into my pocket and appreciated before moving to the next matter of business.
The room that I'd been allotted at the Milliners was small and over priced, with nothing inside it but a sofa bed and a broken kettle. The window was on a latch to prevent people from throwing themselves out, except on closer inspection the latch was broken and the glass veranda extending beneath was abandoned by all traces of glass, except for a few fragments around the exterior frame. The walls were covered by a boring grey paper, much akin to the type you'd expect to find in prison, and the sofa bed itself was missing two springs, one of which I found covered in white dust at the bottom of the bagless bin. There was a constant scurrying inside the walls that sounded a little too heavy and deliberate to just be rats but seemed unlikely to be anything bigger. I left my suitcase lying open on my bed, beneath the picture of a neoplasticist seaside on the wall, and turned towards the trunk.
It wasn't mine and although this did induce some guilt as to the investigation of its context, this unsettling feeling quickly passed as I regained composure and embraced my investigative role. There were no locks on the trunk so I simply undid the latches with my thumb and lifted the lid.
No Maltese Falconesque light shone out. No secrets of the universe were imparted. I wasn't suffocated by the spirit of Rock and Roll or the soul of a local mob boss. Instead, I was greeted by nothing more than a couple of mouldy sandwiches, a rolled up issue of the aptly named 'Detective Weekly' and a selection of clothing, including a rather nice pocket handkerchief that I would ask the trunk's owner if I could keep as payment. There was also a well kept hardback book nestled amongst the clothing. I picked it up and opened the front cover; it was one of those that had nothing printed on the actual cover unless it was accompanied by the dust cover. The title was given by the front page, beneath a library card dated, most recently, December 12th 1963. I looked up towards the calendar on the wall by my bed. Months of destitute abandonment had left it still turned to February. Sighing, I reached out and flipped it to December. The Twelfth of December 1963 was two days ago. Whoever had left the trunk in the taxi had done it recently.
The book itself was on folk legends. I had no time for such ridiculous fantasises so, after a quick flick through to search for annotations, slung the book back into the trunk, dropped the lid and double checked my penknife was in the deep pockets of my trench coat. I headed to the doorway and set off for the reception.
Between me and it were five storeys of stairwell, purposely darkened so that the user was blind to the hideous mural adorning each wall and also to increase their risk of immediate death. The gentleman who had snatched my bags off me after I observed his grammar had seemed the sort that, if halfway through a transaction his customer had a heart attack, he would complete the transaction before calling an ambulance. A already dead cusotmer was easier pickings. (At this moment, the walls began to gurgle, almost as if a dragon was within them rather than a rat.) I hoped that I could avoid him on my way out; he would no doubt darken my day more than a rain cloud carrying an umbrella.
Not that my day needed darkening. A quick run through of everything to have already happened that day was rather grim by itself. I did what any methodical person would do and compartmentalised by problems into four sections: Montpelier, the Music Teacher, the Baroness and the Butler.
Firstly, there was Montpelier. It seemed unusually abandoned. Don't get me wrong, I'd been to Cornwall, I knew a desolate pit of abandonment when I saw one but this particular destitute settlement had one defining difference to those greying tin mining towns with more tavern patrons than yearly tourists; this one felt purposely emptied. I didn't know if it was the fact that there were way more houses than there could possibly be people or that it was the middle of December and the fully planted fields still hadn't been harvested, but there was something wrong in the air and it made me feel uneasy. The fact that the few occupants I had met seemed to be extras from a psychotic satire of country life didn't had any comfort to that feeling in my stomach.
The second matter was the Music Teacher. The Baroness had told me that he was a very sheltered man with no immediate family or friends other than his cats and her. Yet, in a town as small as this, surely it was impossible to leave a sheltered life? The unusual vacancy of the houses, shops and streets surely added to this: regardless of one's level of social ineptitude, it would become impossible to not be on first name basis with almost everyone in a two mile radius. Further more, a music teacher would have to be a very extroverted person due to his profession as a teacher; there's no point in being shy when you are paid to present. Due to this, the probability of an introverted music teacher living in a town such as this one and managing to avoid all interaction with everyone- including the local grocer when constantly going in search of buying food for his multiple 'cats'- was highly unlikely. The question, then, was why was the Baroness lying about his social status or, alternatively, why was the Music Teacher lying to her?
That brought me onto the Baroness. Who was she speaking to on the phone? Why did she hire a private detective to investigate her teacher's disappearance instead of simply calling the police? Why did she banish her mother as she had and why were all of those paintings missing? Most interestingly, however, was: Why was she surprised to see her detective arriving when she invited him? I removed my hat, itched my head, and then returned it. All very mysterious.
Then, of course, there was the question of the Butler. Firstly, why had a man of his age and experience working in such a formal situation cut himself shaving? Surely he'd have the experience to avoid such a mistake. Secondly, what the heck did he mean by "Stay away from high ceilings. That’s how they got my family." I suppose it might have been a customary farewell around these parts but I doubted it. No, something had terrible had happened to the poor chap's family and, for whatever reason, he felt as if he needed me to find them for him. I knew for sure I wasn't going to let him down.
I danced down the last few steps as the ancient gurgling died away. My eyes cast over towards the Check In Desk, where I saw the owner of the fine establishment fast asleep. I frowned at the greyish dust that adorned both of his shoulders and then sighed, hurrying out of the building.
There was a policeman investigating the base of the War Memorial, dressed in a black tunic and a rounded hat. The sun glinted off the polished numbers on both of his shoulders. I decided that, as a newly identified private detective, it probably wasn't in my best interests to go and talk to the local bobby. My experience via books was that such confrontations never worked out particularly well.
As I hurried away from the War Memorial, I heard the sharp shrill of a whistle and turned to see the gentleman marching towards me. Sighing, I closed the distance between him and smiled. "Good day, officer. How are you?"
"Well, that's besides point, isn't it!" His eyes narrowed as he looked me up and down. "Well then. Who are you when you're at home?"
I went to open my mouth but he raised a finger.
"Ah! But you're not at home, are you? I'm the local sheriff round these parts," his thumbs sunk into the claustrophobic space between his waist and belt, "and I know every face for twenty miles. Who'd you be, then?"
"I'm Stollery's new student. Roberto Stollery's new harpist."
"Mr Stollery has been missing these last two days, I'm afraid."
"Oh, that is quite terrible. Could you direct me towards his studio? I would care to pay my respects."
"Loot him more like! Oh no, you young rapscallion, I'm not directing you any place other than the cells. I bet you're one of those lanky haired hippies with the nose studs and the attitude."
I stared straight into his eyes, face to ruddy face. "I have no nose studs, attitude or long hair. I am, however, relatively lanky. My apologies in regard to that."
"Hm. Typical hippy response." He fixed with a hard stare. "What'd you want with Stollery anyway? Crafty fella, he was. Always spent too much time in the library if you ask me."
"Is it possible to spend too much time in the library?" I grinned.
"Weren't you listening, lad? Or are you one of those rhetorical lot? Think you're clever because you can ask questions with no answers, do you? Well, I'll have you know, we don't have no need of any fancy smancy rheotric around these parts, do we?"
"You do realise you just asked me four rhetorical questions, right?"
"There you go again!" He paused midway through his exclamation and fixed me with a further more suspicious glare. "That hat. Tell me, have you been paying a small child to repair and embellish your head piece, boy?"
"I don't quite believe you."
"Yet my testament is that I didn't and, seeing that you have no contradictory evidence, you can't act against it." I sighed. "I did, however, see a small child at the War Memorial with a comic book and a box of hat repairing equipment. When I approached him, he set off towards the market."
"Ah! Fantastic!" He pulled a torch from his side and began to flick it on and off rapidly, causing it to flash. He then raced across the square in the direction of the market.
Realising that was probably the best opportunity for me to run to the hills, I pulled the Music Teacher's address in note form from my pocket and set off in the direction of 42 Astley Terrace.

The house was two storeys tall and accessible by a cadre of steps leading up from the pavement. Stollery had no definable character traits from the exterior besides the obvious quality of horticultural love. The huge bay window to the right of the front door was half hidden behind a flower box, and this same conditioning applied to the window above that one and the one above the front door itself. The flowers were a range of different colours but they appeared, to me at least, to all be well grown. Evidently the Music Teacher had other hobbies.
I respected that I wasn't going to be able to get in through the front door, so instead I wandered to the end of the street and walked down the alleyway that ran along behind the houses. The wall was about the same height as me and although it did look scalable, the open gate built into it look less time consuming. I stepped through and latched it behind me. Then I walked up to the backdoor and pulled out my penknife.
It took me a minute and a half to pick the lock and most of that minute and a half was spent realising that the door was already unlocked. It swung open and I stepped through the door into a kitchen. There was a bowl of milk, white ripples passing through it as a walked by. I sniffed deep and frowned. It hadn't gone off yet.
Continuing, I found myself entering a hallway and then the front room. I assumed this was his studio and work place; a piano and a harp sat on opposite sides with the relevant seating arrangements clustered around them, and a selection of other acoustic instruments were hanging from the walls. I took another deep sniff. Something had gone off but it wasn't the milk. It smelt like flesh.
I stepped over to the desk in the centre of the room and pulled out the chair from behind. I sunk into it but I ignored the comfort to instead inspect the desk. There was a pad of sticky notes so I quickly shaded that in. A print of a robotic dog and a note reading, "Bills? - Up prices?' appeared. There was a sheet of music in front of me, notation for a folk ballad accompanied by several lyrics. I ignored it and instead pulled open the drawers. In the top one, there was a money box and key and in the second there were three elastic bands, a ball of Blu-Tac, a dogeared issue of Harp Column and a letter of rejection for an article written for 'Folk Tale,' a magazine about folktales.
Deciding there was nothing of interest in the desk, I stood up and left it, walking straight into the hallway. The smell intensified and I became aware of its source. In the middle of the floor were three dead cats. It was warm inside the house so I wasn't surprised they were already decomposing. From the look of things, they'd been poisoned rather than bludgeoned or stabbed. I supposed that firstly it was a nicer way to go and that secondly it explained the fact that the milk was fresh; someone had recently put it out and poisoned it.
I instinctively looked to the balcony above me but there was no one looming over me that I could see. That did, however, inform of the hallway's high ceilings. High ceilings. That was how they got my family. I stumbled backwards, slightly, only to feel a mammoth hand clamp around my mouth and another grab hold of my struggling arms, holding them both still in one huge grip. I tried to bite it but the hand was as hard as nails and just gripped tighter. I felt my lungs beginning to burn and then my eyes slipping shut, the black taking over...

....I allowed myself to fall asleep for one second and then I awoke....

...with the bright sunlight screaming at me. I frowned. I was tied to a chair, a harsh solid one unlike Stollery's armchair, and all I could see was the gleaming sun and a ranch building cast almost entirely in a silhouette. Between me and it was an open plain of gravel. I spotted two large mounds of gravel that, after a few seconds of staring, I realised were filled in graves. To their side, a monstrous man was digging another. I looked around desperately, trying to work out a way to escape. In the process, I realised I had some tape over my lips, preventing me from calling for a help. Not that I'd be able to; we were in the middle of one of those huge crop fields I'd seen on the way in. There was no one to listen to my screams for miles and miles. I mentally cursed.
The monstrous man seemed to have noticed my struggles and so marched over, bringing with him a chair similar to mine. As he approached, he only seemed to grow, bigger and bigger until he blotted out the sun. I had to squint but his eyes came into focus and I realised that he looked hauntingly familiar. He placed the chair in front of me and sat down opposite me, smiling.
"We can do this the easy way or the hard way. Which one?" He reached out with a meat slab of a hand and tore away the tape.
"What's the different?" I asked after taking two huge gulps.
He smiled again, his horselips peeling up above his stubby teeth. "The hard way involves my little friend."
"Is your little friend a dog that'll tear me apart?" I asked, almost hopefully. I was good with dogs.
"No." He said and drew a revolver that he held up against my forehead. "It's the single bullet inside this gun."
Pulling back the hammer, he spoke five more words. "First chance down, my friend."
Then he pulled the trigger.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Absent Harpist

There’s a little village about fourteen miles out from the nearest train station and its name was Montpelier. You won’t have heard of it; it’s not there anymore, replaced by an industrial blob of rippling metal powered by a faceless organisation who care as much about the little man as they did about original naming. The village made its fortune mining but countless recessions and a fever I’ll refrain from describing on the off chance it sickens you to its very core- much like it did to the poor few who were inflicted with it- had robbed the town of work and a workforce. When I visited it those many years ago, it managed to scrape by on the footfall of lost and frightened tourists and the internal ecosystem of monetary exchange that occurs when there are only two grocers and a half decent bookshop.
I won’t talk about the chain of events that led me to the train station that fateful evening, except to say that when the conductor’s whistle shrilled loudly I was instantly reminded of the jingle of bullet casings dancing against the floor. I snapped from my slumber and, after a brief period of gaining consciousness in that strange eyelash fluttering way human’s excel in, I readjusted the fedora slipping down my face. A sign came up past the open window of my carriage, announcing the train was entering Montpelier-en-Clancy, the mentioned river being the dusty trench that had been empty of all water since the dam was put up five years prior to my visit. It looked dismal, it looked devoid. I decided it was the type of place I would regret not visiting.
The train started again, steam hissing from its side like a dragon was caged within the cylindrical iron tank of its nose. Once the locomotive had moved out of the way, I could see a row of iron fencing, and beyond it a yellow taxi with a sleeping man inside.
There seemed to be no safe way of crossing the tracks; a huge green bridge had fallen halfheartedly into the bushes on the other side and no one had seemed to care enough to move it. I jumped down from the platform and ran over to the invulnerable fence, using a gate in the centre of it to walk through to the Taxi on the other side. I knocked on the hood a couple of times but the driver’s snores only seemed to intensify. Sighing, I pulled the door open and climbed in, giving his seat a jolt. He snapped awake and turned, his eyes groggy, to face me. “That’ll be five quid, please, mate.”
“Deliver me first, good sir, and then perhaps our relationship will have developed to the level of ‘Mateship.’”
“Montpelier-en-Clancy. And quick with it.”
He twisted the key and pressed down on the gas pedal. The wheels of the taxi screeched, but I couldn't hear them over the thumping of the country and western music as the wireless came on. The way my ears stung, I almost wished I had a decibel meter. It was the fourth time in my life I’d been in such a situation with such requirements. The other three times, I had been, or was about to be, ankle deep in blood. I shivered at the thought of those poor pigs.
The taxi was dark, the windows tinted by grime, and my arms were restricted by the insurance modified seat belt. The only sense that worked to maximum efficiency was my nose, but I wish it didn't, because all I could smell was discarded cigarettes, burnt out brothers of the one hanging from the driver’s moustachioed lip. 
I squinted as much as I could and managed to watch the roadside. As we approached the village, a sepia tint seemed to influence the world around us. The fields were full of beige crops, occasionally the dipping iron head of an oil well diver sticking out. In the far distance, I could see mountains but they were as monochromatic as the clouds hanging in the sky above them. 
We kept driving, the moustachioed driver occasionally mumbling half remembered phrases along to the screeching donkey rock coming from the grilled speakers in the taxi’s dash. I would have complained but I could see Montpelier looming up and I knew I wouldn’t have to put up with it for much longer.
Like that, the stone buildings dawned around us, clambering out of the ground in their uninspired way. There were about four rows of terraced houses between the exterior fields and the village centre. The driver shot through them and skidded to a halt in the town centre. “Beatty’s House is your best bet.” He said, clambering out of the car. “I’ll get your trunk out the trunk.”
I didn’t point out to him that my leather suitcase was next to the already dusty Oxfords adorning my feet and instead climbed out, watching him fight with the boot to get it open. Eventually, the latch gave and the lid lifted, revealing the claustrophobic interior. Nestled within a cluster of empty Scotch bottles, punctuated merely by a misplaced woman’s high heel stained by a small splodge of something red, was the trunk. He reached to it and hauled it out, before sitting it on the floor next to me. “There you go, mate. Just as you wanted. Give the baroness my love, will you?”
I watched as he began to trudge back to the driver’s seat without closing the boot. “How much was it?” I called to him.
He turned, his eyes wide and frenzied. “How dare you! Do I look like a bleeding charity?”
With that, he leapt behind the wheel of his car and, with a cloud of black smoke and a scream of Country and Western, drove with incredible speed back towards the train station. I watched him leave and then turned towards the trunk. He’d propped it against the War Memorial. There were wheels on the bottom, so I walked over and grab the leather handle on top, hauling it after me. My arm began to ache already.
Beatty’s House was directly in front of me. The sign made it easily recognisable, but unfortunately this sign was sat above two boarded up windows. Realising that it probably wasn’t my best bet after all, I instead entered the building to its immediate right. Some stone carvings above marked it out as a Market Hall. 
There were two huge oak doors in the arch that led in and I pushed them effortlessly, gliding through to the huge hall. The room was cavernous in its abandonment, its almost entirely clear floor merely extenuating the giantism of the stone walls. Rather pathetically, an old lady sat in the direct centre of the room, knitting behind a table filled with woollen figures. She was wearing hearing aids switched firmly off.
“Oi! You the detective, squire?” Called a voice from my side.
I turned and saw, in the far off left wall, a large rectangular hatch opened up onto a kitchen. A man with a heavily greased quiff and equally exciting side burns was leaning against the counter and staring at me. “Are you?”
“What if I am?” I replied. I could understand why he was making the misconception; the town evidently got few visitors, so the appearance of a randomer in trench coat and fedora around the same time as a stereotypical detective was expected was probably too much to consider a coincidence. 
“Well if you are, you want to be getting yourself gone.”
“Are detectives not welcome here, sir?” I replied.
“Not a case of that.” He replied. “Case of the Baroness wanting to see you.”
“Perhaps you could direct me towards this Baroness.” Evidently the taxi driver had made the same misassumption. 
“You’ll be wanting to drop those bags off first methinks, squire.” The man said. As he leant forwards, I saw he was wearing a blue shirt beneath his white apron. “There’s a good tavern just ‘cross the square. Called the Milliners, can’t miss it. Should suit you perfectly.”
“Thank you, sir.” I smiled.
“All thanks I need are to be remembered to our dear baroness, thank you.”
I smiled at the gentleman and turned on my heel, marching back to the door and heaving the suitcase behind me. The woman continued knitting.
Across the square, a bald man with a pristine handkerchief in his top pocket and a waistcoat perfectly tailored to his rotund figure finished putting up a sign. He stepped back and stared over half-moon spectacles at his handiwork. I approached him and saw it read, “The Milliner’s- We have RATS.”
“Hello.” I spoke.
The small gentleman leapt from his skin and flailed his arms madly in the air. His face reset from a petrified scream to a soft yet bemused frown. “ZOUNDS!” He cried. “Good sir! You scared me half to death you did! Oh good golly! Whatever do you want?”
“Room and board for a few days.” I replied. “And preferably no visits from rats.”
“They provide an authentic experience they do.” He said, his voice wandering the octaves as he spoke. “Authentic, it is. Proper authentic. And we don’t cost you extra for the privilege, no we don’t.”
“You said ‘We.’”
“I did. Me and the others Milliners.”
“There’s only one Milliner mentioned in the sign.”
He laughed for two minutes solid, a raucous, ricocheting, rib tickling frenzy that looked just about as painful as it sounded. Then he completely regained his composure and said, “Do they not teach you to read?”
“They taught me to read much better than they taught you to write. The apostrophe should be after the S.”
He stared at me over his half-moon spectacles, his face sinking back, becoming less inviting, more pained, more curious, more rat like. “You, good sir, must be the detective. Why aren’t you visiting the Baroness?”
“I was told to deliver my bags here first.”
“Yes, well, that will be a good idea.” He snatched them off me. “A room will be waiting upon your return. Off with you.”
I watched him scuttle up the steps to the hotel, throwing my bags through the door, and then spinning. “ZOUNDS! Why are you still here?”
The doors slammed shut behind him and the Vacant sign twisted to Full. On the far side of the hotel, the venetian blinds opened up wide enough for a pair of beady eyes to fix on me. I stared back and there was an instant flicker of activity before the blinds closed and the town as a whole once more seemed dead.
I turned and spotted a boy sat on the steps by the War Memorial. He was wearing a monochromic jumper and reading a Space Age comic about someone with an alliterative name, a fire engine red space suit and a golden quiff, no doubt. To his side was a wooden toolbox. “Young sir, do you know where the baroness is?”
He looked up from his comic book, fixed me with the steely eyed glare of someone irritated by your very existence, and then spoke one word before looking back down. “Yes.”
“Would you be able to share that information with me?” I asked.
He sighed and looked up from his comic book. “I’m trying to run a business here, fella, and your questions, they ain’t making me any money. You either move along now or bring some commerce to my door, you know what I mean?”
“What business are you running?”
“I’m the goddamn Milliner in this town. Forget what that sign might say, I’m the proper hat fixer.”
“Then how come no one in this town wears a hat?”
“Cause no one in this town has style, do they? Now, if you haven’t wasted enough of my time already, move along. I’ve got places to be and people to see, capiche?”
“Message taken.” I replied. “My apologies for disturbing you.”
I straightened the hat on my head and wandered off in the direction of the sign post sitting on the black lamppost in the corner of the square. A large wooden arrow announced a Mansion was half a mile out and so I headed there, my collar turned up against the non-existent breeze.

The Mansion looked as if it had started out as a stone block and then been attacked by a hoard of ravenous sculptors, who had carved out its innards and left a footprint of artistic finesse. I arrived at its gates, huge iron castings bound together in the centre by equally iron chains. There was a dry ditch, no doubt an estuary of the Clancy, that struck underneath the land bridge the gate sat on, so I simply jumped across the ditch and walked around. From there, a large gravel path led me up to the mansion.
I walked it relatively quickly. There was a rife humidity in the air, so much so that I eventually removed my trench coat and carried it over my sleeve, allowing the sepia sun to beat against the grey material of my waistcoat. The hems of my trousers and the dress shoes beneath them were even dustier by the time I reached the Mansion.
A well sat in a small patch of brown grass in front of the main doors. The paint of the red roof was flecking and dried from the ever casting sun. I would normally have ignored something like that but I can’t help but notice that there was a smudge of white fluff stuck in the stippled black paint. I frowned but didn’t investigate. The dark shadow of a butler was watching from the window above the stairs and his eyes would no doubt be feeding directly into the Baroness’ ears. 
I stepped towards the door and knocked on it three times. There was the quick patter of footsteps and then the door swung open, revealing the butler himself, addressed in a black and yellow waistcoat. “Sir.” His voice was as elongated and deep as his face. “Were we expecting your arrival?”
“I rather think that only the Baroness can answer that.”
The Butler led me through the door and across the checkered floor. The walls were covered with wooden panels, intricately carved and perfectly polished. Delicate splashes of oil on stretched canvas occasionally interrupted these panels in the form of paintings. They all depicted a middle aged woman, a man who screamed wealth and a child who could only be their daughter, usually accompanied by a small dog. I could only help but notice, as the Butler led me up a staircase, that a few of the paintings were missing. “Not stolen, I hope.” 
“No, sir.” He said, his voice monotonous and bored. I noticed a shaving cut on the underside of his chin, all red and blotchy. “We merely elect to keep some in storage due to their… antiquated stylings.”
“You seem much more of an art expert than I.”
He humphed and continued walking, leading me up the stairs and across a carpeted balcony towards a large ballroom. The roof was levered and arched, long and decorated in hand painted mural. The far walls were covered in bookcases and the wall opposite the entrance was, although occasionally interrupted by stone pillars, entirely stained glass with cushion abound window seats built in. The furniture looked like the contents of an Auction Room’s storage vault, all plush sofas and ceramic globes encasing Drinks Units. A gramophone was playing in the far corner, masking the talking of the Baroness over a candlestick phone.
She held the receiver to her ear and spoke quickly into it. As I approached, she said, “Ah, thank you for the notification, anyway. I’ll get back to you.”
Hanging up, she turned to me and fixed me with a large smile. She looked like the poster girl for stick insects, almost engulfed by the flowing white robe she wore. Her hair was blonde and perfectly styled, almost scarily perfect. I smiled at her as I approached. “Baroness, it is an honour to finally meet you.”
“Detective,” she said, almost surprised at my arrival, “I was told you were delivered.”
“Only to Montpelier. I didn’t mind walking up here.” I smiled. I pulled my trench coat back on. “Sorry about my informality.”
“Oh… don’t worry about it.” She frowned at me for a second longer and then spoke, “Would you like to talk business?”
“Yes! That sounds like a good idea. Do you mind if I sit?”
She gestured to the chair to my side. “Be my guest.”
I took a seat and smiled. “Perhaps you could remind me of the details of my employment?”
“We did discuss this over the phone. I would expect a detective of your calibre to remember such details.”
“Sometimes, repeating a story in person exposes the true matters.”
Again, she frowned at me. “This is most irregular.”
“Irregularity implies regularity.”
“Excuse me?”
“How often you consult detectives, Baroness?” 
There was a pattering of feet from the door and an old woman struggled into the room. She hobbled her way across the wooden floor, almost tripping where it became carpet, but continued regardless until she reached the two of us. She looked once at her daughter- this was undeniably the aged version of the middle aged woman in the paintings- and then to me. “This is the Detective, mother.” The Baroness said, a little too loudly.
“Oh! Fantastical news! Your face has come flooding back now! You look hardly a day older than you were last time I saw you.”
I frowned. I’d never seen the doddery old woman in my life before, but I wasn’t going to let this slip. “Nice to see you too, my dear.” I said, and patted at the liver spotted hand she was stroking my face with.
“Parker, why don’t you take Mother to have a rest?” The Baroness suggested. “We don’t want to strain her.”
“Yes, milady.” The Butler grumbled and let the old woman away. I watched as she left and then turned back towards the Baroness, smiling.
“So, where were we?” She asked.
“You were about to re-explain the details of your case.”
“Ah yes, of course.” She sighed. “My harp tutor, Mr Roberto Stollery, has been missing since my lesson with him last Tuesday. I arrived at his classroom and received no response from knocking on the door. Despite waiting a ten minutes, it appeared there was no one home, so I returned home and phoned him. Again, no response. Nobody has heard anything from him since.”
“Have you attempted to communicate with his family?”
“He has a very sheltered and private life; besides me his only other regular company are his cats.”
I nodded. “And do you have any idea where he may have disappeared to? A new suitor, perhaps, or an old friend?”
“No. His life is here in Montpelier-en-Clancy. I can’t imagine him straying much further than his office.”
“Could you give me the address of that fine establishment?”
She did just that and I scribbled it down on the first piece of paper I could find. 
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“No, thank you, Detective… Hm, I forgot to ask your name.”
I smiled. “That’s really quite unnecessary. I must away now, I think. Investigations must be carried out.”
“Yes, time is of the essence.” She smiled. “There is to be a ball to celebrate the upcoming Yuletide festivities in two days time. I would appreciate it dearly if you would be able to return him by then.”
“I will try my hardest.” I shook her hand. “Rest assured, ma’am. I am on the case. I will find your music teacher.”
“Please do, Detective.” She blinked a few times and a tear trickled down her face. “I would hate to think any ill had… had come to him… I’m sorry, Detective, please give me a moment.”
She burst from the room, exiting through the same doors that the Butler had led her mother. I frowned and looked around for a few seconds to ensure no one was watching me, and then leant forwards to the Baroness’ side table. There was nothing particularly interesting a top the turtle shelled table besides a rusty key that would have looked out of place elsewhere but not in a house of that size. I went to pick it up but heard creaking footsteps and retracted back to my seat.
The Butler entered. Parker, his name was. “I’m afraid our Ladyship is momentarily discomposed. If you would like to get off, we both understand.”
“Of course.” I smiled and stood. The Butler didn’t walk straight towards me, instead making a beeline for the Vinyl Record Player and twisting the volume knob to the top. The gramophone began to play deafeningly loud. He strolled over towards me and began to escort me towards the doorway I’d entered through. 
“Did you know Mr Stollery, Parker?” I asked.
“Yes, sir.” He sighed. “He was a good man, but I suppose that was his downfall.”
“Oh, really? What makes you say that?”
“Montpelier isn’t made for good men, not any more.” He sighed and leant towards me. I paused and looked at him. His eyebrows screwed up as he listened to the music and, just in time with one of the trumpet solos, he whispered, “Stay away from high ceilings. That’s how they got my family.”
My eyebrows raised but he simply smiled and continued walking me down the staircase, towards the door. “As I was saying, good luck with your investigation. Stollery was a good man. It’d be a shame if anything had ill fallen him. Best of luck. Goodbye!”
He pushed me out of the door and locked it behind me. I frowned and then settled the fedora on my hat. I had a missing detective’s boots to fill and a missing music teacher to find. No doubt the answers to those questions would explain what had happened to the Butler’s family, before whatever it was could happen also to me.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Winter Highlighter (part 4)

When last we left our gratuitous geeks, they were trapped in a treasury tag suspended death trap by the evil Antithetic, revealed to be their beloved English teacher!
With Adverbial Phrases blasted straight into their Internal Narration, if they don’t escape within the next five minutes, their GCSE tuned minds will be reduced to granola, and we’re not talking the posh stuff from Sainsbury’s but instead the Home Value brand from Tesco!
Stayed glued to your electronic device! The worst is yet to come…

Children of the atom, students of Computer Science, geeks misunderstood and stereotyped by the teachers and students they have sworn to protect, these are the strangest heroes of all! The Radioactive Anomaly Gang! (Still not catchy enough)

“What are we going to do?” Chris frightfully exhaled.
“We need Jaffa Cakes!” Steven decidedly advocated.
“I knew it was a good idea to have my exam before we eat! I have some in my bag!” Sophie triumphantly exclaimed before grimacing, tortured by the revolting spectrum of adverbial anomalies. “Make it stop!”
“Sophie,” Freya broke through her fellow student group associate’s distraction like an explorer wrestling through the serried density of vines hanging from the verdant canopy of the jungle roof, “increase the probability of Chris’ bag being open!”
“Shouldn’t be hard. Just need to increase it from being likely to bloody certain,” Sophie cheekily suggested, weighed down by the mass of her expletive, “there! Done it!”
“Steven, can you summon something towards you? Like using the force?” Freya asked. She’d taken charge like a mobile phone plugged in as its user slumbered.
“I don’t know. I’ll give it a go!” He furrowed his brow with the intensity and concentration of a hedgehog estimating how to cross a busy road. A bead of sweat ran down his face like lava through a pyroclastic flow. His eyes narrowed like a street in China Town, his pupils fixing on the now open bag. The Jaffa Cake box began to shake, the amber foil rattling, and then suddenly like a greyhound from its pen it burst out of the bag and blasted through the air towards Steven. Analeptically transported through the annals of history to the last time he’d played Dodge Ball, Steven instantly remembered how firstly useless and secondly terrified he was of catching anything. He coiled out of the way just in time for the box to completely miss him, flinging on towards Ali like a nuclear missile plummeting through the atmosphere. She saw it coming and allowed her powers to surge through her, leaping up at the speed of sound and grabbing the box of Jaffa Cakes out of midair with nothing more than her feet.
The others looked at her with a plethora of impressed faces.
She shrugged as best as she could, nonchalantly but cooly. “What can I say? I’m a woman of many talents. Are you ready, Chris?”
He nodded eagerly and opened his mouth wide.
She gave the box a shove at the speed of sound and a Jaffa Cake shot out, flipping through the air with infinite grace before it found Chris’ mouth. He bit down and there was a blinding flash of almost divine light. The treasury tags snapped, flinging green fabric in all directions. There was a loud clunk as something hit the floor, like an aeroplane smashing into a concrete floor but with less death and crushing metal. A cloud of trailing wisps cleared, revealing Captain Jaffa Cake stood, wearing a school uniform that was too small and carrying his Jaffa Cake shield. He swung it up and it smashed into the projector, destroying the AQME.
“Oh thank the bloody Lord for that!” Steven cried. “I might not be religious but I will go to church now if I must. Thank you God! Thank you!”
“Really, you should be thanking Freya.” Ali said.
“I was.” Steven shrugged. “Cap, think you can get us down?”
The Captain grew another Jaffa Cake and slung it through the air. It spun around and sliced through the treasury tags. His companions freed, he wandered over to the window and began to stare at the sky. Steven gave his wrists a rub and then picked up the fallen pamphlet on the housing estate. “This is her target. We need to go and stop her! Thousands of lives could be at risk!”
“Not really.” Ali said. “Everyone’s out at work or school.”
“This is the Dawson Estate we’re talking about.”
“Oh god. The adults are on benefits and the kids all skive. We need to go now!”
“We should get Mr Phillips first.” Freya said. “He’ll know what to do.”
“He’s on a course. Didn’t I tell you?” The Captain spoke. “No, we’ll have to go alone. Summoner, summon us an airship. Lucky Cat, increase the probability that our costumes are on board.”
“Any preference on the zeppelin’s name?”
“We’re taking down an English teacher in an airship? How about the Airy Word?” Captain Jaffa Cake grinned a heroic grin. “As for now, Radioactive Anomalies Assemble!”

Desmond Gilliam, grandson of the school’s founder, was better known as the Big D. This was what he encouraged the Year Seven he was meant to be mentoring to call him. He was a relatively lanky, slightly ginger haired Year Eleven with shockingly good art skills, Clarinet proficiencies and the weird ability to attract Year Sevens.
He didn’t mind leading the kid he was meant to be mentoring, who went by the name of Maximilian, around with him but the other twenty nine currently following him to where the fence surrounding the school field met the road side were a little annoying. Especially if he was going to have to share the pizza he was illegally ordering with them.
The guy on the other side of the fence passed him the pizza box over the grey rail and accepted a rolled up tenner through one of the narrow gaps between bits of wire. “Have a good day.” The delivery guy said and then drove off.
Desmond turned and began to carry the pizza back across the field, thirty Year Sevens in tow. Max, who proudly walked in line with Desmond, was the epitome of all cuteness and Desmond used this to get himself into conversations with Year Eleven girls who, on the most part, couldn’t help but fall for Max’s wonderfully cute charm.
They were halfway across the field when Max raised one arm, the oversized sleeve falling back and revealing a hand that hadn’t seen the light of day in a very long time. He brushed back the curtain of hair in front of his face and his little nose furrowed up as he paid attention to the top of E-Block. “Is that an airship?” He asked, as a blimp suddenly exploded into life directly in front of them.
“No.” Desmond said, staring at the huge green balloon connected to a small red boat underneath. “It’s a funnily shaped cloud.”
All the Year Sevens shrugged and nodded. It was an easy mistake to make.

The Dawson Estate. A spot of brutalist architecture on an otherwise pleasant town’s face. The occupants hated each other, the outsiders hated the occupants and the Council sat in their seats on high, rubbing their hands together and waiting for it all to kick off so that they could go to the government and say, “Look! We do need a competent police force! We told you so!”
There was a swirling roar of propeller blades as the Antithetic began to float down towards the Estate. She didn’t quite mind the architecture; as a teacher she liked to think she practised brutalism in its purest form. It was the decoration of that architecture that sickened her. To see all those mispunctuated sentences, all those spellings mistake and, worst of all, the lines of text that weren’t quite straight, the ascenders and descenders of the letters disproportionate and scruffy… she shivered beneath the weight of her protective armour. It made her sick.
Propelled by the roaring fans sticking out in four directions from her back, she zoomed through the air towards the ground. She lifted the hoses from either side and flicked off the safety. Before her was a prime example of the monstrosities she hoped to eradicate. “Aimee wos hear,” the red spray red, the ascender on the ‘h’ wildly curving and the dot above the ‘i’ in ‘Aimee’ madly askew. She would blast this disgusting display of WWW, SP, P and ? from the face of the Earth.
Like a gunslinger, she pressed softly on the triggers of her hoses, got a feel for the power and raised them. Just as she was about to fire when a small kitten jumped in front of her. Being a human being, and thus vulnerable to the charms of anything small and adorable, she knelt down and reached out to it. Its name tag was almost bigger than it. She read the name and grimaced. Miss Cat, was the kitten’s proper name, but whichever imbecile had written the tag had spelt it incorrectly as ‘Mizz Kat.’ Ridiculous!
Standing, she aimed her hoses once more, but now at the cat. “Good King of Cats, I want nothing but one of your nine lives!” She prattled. “Look upon thy death.”
A huge shadow fell over the wall, the kitten and the Antithetic. Sighing, she turned slowly to see whatever the hell it was now. She completed her turn and frowned. She hadn’t been expecting that.
A blimp hung in the mid air, composed of a huge green envelope holding up a small red gondola. Speakers hung from the bottom and out of them boomed a voice. “Rebellious subject! Enemy to peace! Throw your mistempered weapon to the ground and hear the sentence of your moved Student Leadership Team elective.”
Inside the Airy Word, that is to say inside the Blimp, Captain Jaffa Cake looked over at the Summoner and raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
“It was either that or a Blood Brothers quote and I don’t think I’m allowed to use those because they’re rude.” The Summoner shrugged.
“But you got the quote wrong!” Tempus cried from the back. “There’s the whole bit about purple fountains before anything to do with mistempered weapons!”
“You do it if you know what you’re on about so much! God, you know what I don’t get? Why is everyone a flipping critic nowadays? Bloody annoying, isn’t it? Anyway,” he picked the microphone up, the curly wire hanging down, and announced, “Antithetic, this is your chance to surrender. You know not what you do. Calm yourselves and hand yourself in. We will protect you if you do.”
Being a teacher, Mrs Carpenter had the ability to shout rather loudly and it was for this reason that the Gang could hear her reply from the Blimp. I swear. It’s not just lazy writing. “Protected by you? Are there no prisons?”
“There is a institute for the mentally insane.” Sophie responded, momentarily taking the microphone. “Although, considering that you and Mr Jordan would both be there, we should probably start calling it the Staffroom.”
“We already do, don’t we?” Steven grinned, to a disapproving frown from Sophie. “Anyway, Antithetic. Surrender! Please.”
“Then we will have to stop you.” Captain Jaffa Cake announced.
“Good.” The Antithetic spoke, raising her hoses. “I am for you.”
“Ali, now!”
Before the Antithetic could even consider what was going on, a purple flash had struck towards her, first rescuing the kitten and depositing it in an otherwise safe area and then racing back towards the English Teacher. The sudden explosion of energy as the Flish raced past caused her to accidentally pull the trigger on her hose. The highlighter fluid soared through the air in a bold arc and hit the Airy Word. There was a sudden roaring explosion as the Francium found the Oxygen in the air. The blimp was thrown through the air, a gigantic hole tearing in the hull. The Summoner was thrown straight out, his cape swooping behind him but not helping him in any way. Captain Jaffa Cake found himself smashing through the windscreen. He just managed to grab hold of the window frame before he flew straight out. Lucky Cat and Tempus were thrown towards the rear of the ship, Lucky Cat tripping and smashing into the emergency exit which opened immediately. Tempus watched in horror, realising she was the only one would could save her friends.
The Flish exploded past the Antithetic on the ground, tearing the canister of highlighter fluid straight off her back. At the speed of sound, she disappeared in the direction of Manchester, which was apparently too far for any teenagers to be trusted to go to on their own. Despite having to travel one hundred and thirty kilometres, at the speed she was travelling she made it there and back again in thirty eight seconds. And a bit.
Meanwhile, at the Dawson Estate, Tempus threw her hands out and froze time. She knew she couldn’t hold it for long so she had to make the most of the time she had. She ran towards the emergency cupboard on the side and pulled out two parachutes. Having pulled one on for herself, she ran over to Captain Jaffa Cake and strapped one on to him too. She pushed him out and jumped after him, then unpaused time.
The Blimp rolled and thundered and then crashed into the conveniently placed local pond, joining a suitcase full of drugs, the remains of little girl’s trainer and an abandoned trolley. A group of ducks looked at it, unimpressed.
Tempus splayed her palms and froze the Summoner and Lucky Cat in the air, a new branch of her abilities she’d been experimenting with since it had become relevant to the plot. Her two classmates froze and she was able to safely land alongside Captain Jaffa Cake who, being the hero he was, knew exactly how to operate a parachute. They both landed at the end of the alley way, the Flish materialising next to them. She bent over, breathing in and out heavily, then managed to stand. “Where’re the others?”
“In the air.” Tempus pointed. “Remember when we went to see X-Men: Apocalypse?”
“God! How many films have you guys been to see without me?” The Flish cried.
“Oh. Sorry. Well, anyway, have you seen it?”
“You know the Flash rescues everyone from the exploding building?”
“No. That was Quicksilver.”
“Quicksilver? I thought he was in the Avengers.”
“He is, but he’s too Russian in that so he’s in X-Men instead because God forbid any superhero not be white or British.” She looked around at the others. “Forget that. Anyway, what about it?”
“He grabs a load of people out of midair. Think you could do that?”
“No. It defies the laws of physics. I can run really quick, not fly!”
“He did it in the movie and he’s basically got your powers!”
“That’s the X-Men for you.” Captain Jaffa Cake heroically announced. “Full of plot holes.”
The other two stared at him for a second and then turned back to their conversation. “Come on Ali, I can’t hold them forever.”
“I’ll try my best.” The Flish said and exploded into a purple haze. Knowing they were no longer in her hands, Tempus released them and, with Captain Jaffa Cake, turned towards the Antithetic.
She had reached up and removed her large iron mask, revealing a simple eye mask like the ones they were mostly wearing. She raised her hand to her mouth and bit her thumb.
“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” Captain Jaffa Cake asked, realising the joke would have worked much better if she was a male teacher.
“So what if I do, sir?” She replied.
“It is a public offence, under Section 5 of the Public Order act, to display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby. If ever you disturb our streets again, a small fine or a written warning may pay the forfeit of the peace. All legal information is accurate to the time of speaking.” He grinned.
Whilst she stared back, perplexed, Tempus stepped forwards and announced, “You have put up your weapons. Surrender before it is too late.”
“I have more weapons.” From her sides, she drew a pair of treasury tags in one hand, which she began to swirl like nunchucks. “I remember my washing blow. Draw if you be men!”
Up above, the Flish was running at the speed of sound through space, the air parting around her on either side. She wasn’t entirely sure how she was managing to run through thin air but she was sure there was an exceptionally complicated scientific explanation that would no doubt confuse the hell out of her and leave her with more questions than she ever could have had in the first place.
She raced on, grabbing the Summoner and then curving through the air to catch Lucky Cat. Moving at the speed she was, they weren’t as heavy as she expected. Again, she imagined there was no doubt some fantastical explanation for it that she didn’t know. (This isn’t lazy writing, it’s a genuine reflection of the character’s knowledge - Lazy Ed). She suddenly realised how high she’d managed to run and began to wonder how she was going to get back down again.
On street level, Captain Jaffa Cake and Tempus ran towards the Antithetic. She swung out the treasury tags, the bars of shape metal slicing through the air as they approached. Captain Jaffa Cake swung out a namesake but the treasury tag sliced straight through it, drooping Jaffery goodness all over the floor. He ducked another swing from the other side and Tempus spayed her hand, freezing it in midair and rendering it useless. Cursing, the Antithetic let go of it and pulled a glue gun from her side. She raised it and pulled the trigger. Instead of firing a steady stream of hot glue, it instead fired solid glue sticks. The Captain managed to raise another Jaffa Cake, catching a bombardment of the small cylindrical containers. Tempus froze them, picking them away and sliding them into her pockets. “Finally a solution to the Carpenter Adhesive Principle.”
From seemingly nowhere, the Antithetic produced a huge pile of workbooks which she slung in the Captain’s direction. They hit him and knocked him to the floor. Beneath the weight of four Romeo and Juliet books, three Blood Brothers books, a Poetry Anthology work book and the Poetry Anthology itself, never mind the four books for the Language paper and the Christmas Carol books plus copies of all the texts, there was no way on this Earth he could ever stand never mind walk.
“The fact that you’re wearing black implies you’re depressed and I don’t want to be homophobic but your short hair suggests you’re a boy. You could do with changing your image.”
“That was generally quite mean.” Tempus replied. “Are you resorting to just being mean now?”
“I was attempting to prey on your teenage angst. Why isn’t it working?” She frowned.
“Not all teenagers are angsty, you know? You really need to stop stereotyping.”
“Oh.” The Antithetic sighed. “That’s thirteen years of higher level English education out of the window, then.”
“Sorry.” Tempus said.
“Oh, it’s fine love. I suppose it was bound to happen at some point.” The Antithetic turned away for a second, making a sound like she was crying. Tempus frowned and stepped forwards.
“Miss, are you okay?” She asked, putting her arm around the teacher’s shoulders.
The Antithetic used this to her advantage, whipping around and hitting Tempus in the stomach with the full force of misused Social Historical Context. “Haha! My minor degree in Psychology has once more empowered me beyond you! You’ll never stop me now!”
“I think you’ll find we can.” Lucky Cat spoke from the other end of the alleyway, where she, the Summoner and the Flish were standing in truly heroic poses. Ali exploded into a purple haze, running down the alleyway and using her new found super strength to lift the books from Captain Jaffa Cake’s chest and transport him to where Tempus had fallen, slowing down to help her up too.
“You’re annoying, you purple streak.” The Antithetic cried and threw an oversized pair of scissors towards the Flish. They latched around her purple clad wrists and tightened, like cuffs.
“Damn!” The Flish cried. “I can’t run whilst carrying scissors! I’m powerless!”
“I am not.” Lucky Cat grinned. She turned to Steven. “Give me my long sword, ho!”
“Thou shalt not stir one foot to seek a foe.” The Summoner replied.
“For God’s sake with the misquotes, Steven!” Tempus cried.
“Give me my long sword, ho!” Lucky Cat repeated.
“A crutch, a crutch!” The Summoner replied and accidentally summoned a crutch. “Damn, I can’t seem to get this right anyhow.”
“If you summon me a broadsword right now, I promise I will forgive you for earlier.” Lucky Cat replied.
There was a flash and then a broadsword was passed from his hands to hers. She took it and raised it towards the Antithetic. “Come sir, your passado!”
“You can’t kill me! I haven’t done your speaking exam with you yet!”
“What, you commit these crimes and in their place talk of exams? I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Year Sevens and thee. Have at thee coward!”
She ran forwards, broadsword raised. The Antithetic danced out of the path of the swirling sword with almost infinite grace, somewhat like a paintbrush flicking away from a canvas. She continued this procession of endless twisting and turning, leaping away from the path of the blade.
“Damn. Miss’ Dodgy Dancing is making her impossible to hit.” The Flish observed, stepping over, the scissors hanging from her hands. 
Lucky Cat was distracted by the sudden speech, and that was the opportunity the Antithetic needed. She whipped out a plethora of colour co-ordinated cue cards and slung them through the air. They were sharpened with such precision on the guillotine and enhanced so greatly by their alliterative title- the consonance implied that the speaker was angry due to the harsh sounds it made when spoke- that they were able to slice straight through the broadsword, destroying it.
As Lucky Cat fell backwards, her sword broken, the Antithetic spun and fired three sets of staples out, pinning Captain Jaffa Cake, Tempus and the Summoner to the wall. The only hero free of shackles was Lucky Cat. The Antithetic turned towards her and began to trace forwards, pulling out the remote clicker from her classroom’s smart board. “I have rigged this to detonate five canisters of the highlighter fluid plotted strategically around the estate. Did you think I’d really leave all my hard work down to chance? I’m going to fly away and leave you here so you can be consumed by the end of these horrific mistakes. I suppose we shall never have the chance for your speaking exam.”
“Oh really? Let’s do it now.” Lucky Cat said and instantly wished she hadn’t. Why did she open herself up for this? She had to talk in front of her peers, to express her opinions, but she fumbled her words at the best of times and now she was under pressure. She grimaced in pain, wishing the ground would swallow her. Maybe Miss hadn’t heard her? Maybe she’d be able to get away with not doing it now.
“I believe in you.” The Summoner shouted, grinning.
It made absolutely no difference to her day except that she knew she had to do it now. Sighing, she pulled herself up and stood. Her leg was bouncing, her heart thudding. “Let me change your mind.”
“Go ahead. You know how tricky it is to get a distinction.”
Lucky Cat cleared her throat and wished a meteorite would fall and destroy her. She considered changing probability but then she realised that was suicidal. No, instead she would change the probability of her being confident. A sudden wave of confidence blasting over her, she grinned. She could Goddamn do this! “I hate incorrect Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar. Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you I’m a bit of a grammar freak. (I have a tally chart going of the amount of mistakes that Steven makes when direct messaging me on Twitter.)”
He sighed. “You had to go tell the bloody English teacher that, didn’t you?”
“And I embrace that reputation.” Lucky Cat continued. “I am happy to be called a grammarist, a grammar snob, a grammar punk, a teacher’s pet and a thousand other things and I will accept all of them but one. I will not be called a grammar nazi. To me, that term is wrong. Yes, it does annoy me when people make grammatical mistakes and yes, I will correct them with the ruthlessness of an untamed panther.” She frowned a second, wondering if the AQME had been turned back on. “But, I will never deserve the name of Nazi because that suggests something else altogether. By correcting grammar, I’m not denying people’s right to speech. I’m a listener, always have been, always will be. The very fact I’m having to speak now makes me want to crawl right out of my skin. Hearing my mates have a conversation without my interjections makes me happy. The truth of the matter is, I like to correct grammar because it makes me feel uncomfortable to see the language written or spoken incorrectly, not because I don’t like seeing it at all. Regardless of how wrong it might be, all language is beautiful but it is my duty and obligation to enhance it as far as it can go. You must understand that, surely? You’re an English teacher! When you and your niece are going through the alphabet together at the weekends, do you want to hurt her if she makes a mistake? Do you want to blow her sky high just because she doesn’t know the rules that govern our great language? Whoever Aimee is, she’s innocent of any crimes except for self expression. Yes, we can say that she needs to learn how to write and speak English a bit better but it’s our job to teach her how to, not mock her or punish her for it. That’s the basics of education. Not to punish the weak and award the strong but to allow the weak to reach the point of the strong and to push the strong even further so that everyone enjoys learning and reaches their full potential. And you can’t enjoy learning if you’re being punished constantly for not thinking in the same way as someone else. So, join with me, join with the next generation of educators and remember one simple thing: The point of teaching is to share your passion for a subject done well, not your hatred for it done wrong. No. Done incorrectly.” She smiled. “Please Miss. Don’t make a mistake that can’t be fixed with green pens.”
Mrs Carpenter stared at Lucky Cat for a few seconds and then dropped her remote clicker. “Martha.” She whispered, and then fell onto the floor unconscious.
“Did she just say Martha?” Ali frowned. “Hang on, isn’t that her first name?”
“I don’t like teacher’s having first names.” Lucky Cat shivered, strolling over and crushing the clicker underfoot.
“Maybe she thought by saying ‘Martha’ she’d somehow end the fighting?” Captain Jaffa Cake sighed. “Nah, that wouldn’t even work in the movies.”
“I can’t believe she was going to blow up this entire estate.” Tempus said, shaking her head.
“I know. She’s a ‘flipping’ head case, our Ma’.” The Summoner laughed.
“That was an acceptable misquote.” Tempus replied. If there had been a camera, she would have turned to it and winked, “Don’t swear, kids. Not even in quote marks.”
In the far distance, there was the sound of approaching sirens. Ali frowned, pulling down her mask. “Nothing happened. Why are police cars coming?”
“We crashed a blimp into a pond.” Steven said, pulling down his mask.
“Oh yeah!” Ali cried. “I’m so silly. Imagine that, superheroes forgetting ridiculous levels of collateral damage following a major battle! That’d never happen.”
“We should probably get out of here.” Freya asked. “Unless you want to talk us out of this, Cap?”
There was a flash, a bang and then Captain Jaffa Cake was gone, replaced by Chris in an oversized suit. “No, I don’t quite think I’ve got the right charisma modifier for that.”
“Right, well, let’s be off then. Sophie, do you reckon you could increase the probability of us being let down?” Freya asked.
Sophie nodded and the probability of the staples disappearing from around their wrists and reappearing around Mrs Carpenter’s became certain. She was pinned to the floor and so probably only moderately difficult for the local police to catch. The others free, they set off in the direction of Gilliam High, where a secret passage just outside the grounds would be able to deliver them to the Cairns Cave.
As they walked, Steven trailed back to talk to Sophie. “That speech was incredible. I’m really proud of you.”
“Thanks.” She smiled. “Thanks for believing in me.”
“I like believing in you,” he replied, “because, unlike God, I can actually see the effects.”
“You really don’t do yourself any favours.” She laughed.
“I’m sorry.” He replied. “For being a prat and never thinking before I speak. It’s a habit of mine, if you haven’t noticed.”
“It’s fine.” She smiled. “I like it most of the time.”
“Does that mean we’re friends again?”
“We didn’t stop being friends.”
“Friendly hug?” He grinned.
“Double high five finger guns?”
He nodded and they double high fived then shot finger guns at each other. “Ah, well, all’s well that ends well.”
“Trying telling that to the ducks.” Ali said, pointing to the small army of birds angrily plodding away from the remains of the pond.
After Credits Scene:

Gilliam High School. Chemistry teacher Miss Francis was walking through the secret technician’s room in the heart of S-Block when she spotted Mr Coin, the Astrophysicist and general Supply Teacher standing in the corner, erratically playing his electric violin. “Ah, Jon, I was looking for you! I saw some students in the Lunch Hall who wanted to join your Dungeons and Dragons club.”
“Oh they did, did they?” He asked, chuckling. “How fantastic. Which students?”
“Chris Rogers and his little gang. Oh, and Ali Grant too. Those lot.”
He stopped playing his violin and rubbed his hands together. The lighting of the room flickered, as if they sensed his mood. “Fantastic. Quite fantastic. My plans are all coming into fruition at last…”
He began chuckling madly. “Muhahahaha!” He laughed.
Miss Francis left him to go and mark some books. She didn’t think anything of his laughter; he’d probably just got to a funny bit in the constant QI repeats that sidled along his brain. Funny chap, that Jon Coin. You could never quite tell what he was going to do next.
When he heard the door closed, signalling she was gone, he stopped laughing and opened a small portal in the quantum foam. “They are coming, my lord.” He whispered. “Your prey are coming to you.”
And in another reality, the Camel God began to laugh too.