Masquerades: Part Eight
Lord Winworth gave a short, muffled squeak and dived behind Trix. The Nimmo’s eyes narrowed.
Lady Winworth spat on the ground with disgust. “Why did you have to meddle? It’s inconvenient.”
James stared at her with wide eyes and dumbly pointed from her to Lord Winworth. “You... and he... but you... and now...”
Lucille’s frosty gaze told James to shut his mouth, and fast. Despite being coated in grime, having lost both of her hairclips and looking extremely ticked off, the Lenny still had something of a refined air about her, albeit a slightly more menacingly refined air.
“Drop it, Lucille,” Trix whispered slowly. “It’s not worth it.”
“Oh, I believe it is!” A maniacal light glinted off the Lenny’s eyes as she reached behind herself and picked a knife off the bench. “I’ve been dreaming and planning and preparing for so long now,” she whispered quietly. “Have you ever known what it’s like to be faced with poverty, Mr Trix? No? Let me enlighten you.”
Lucile took a step towards them, and James automatically stepped back, pushing Deirdre and Bobby behind himself.
“I’m a lady, Mr Trix. An aristocrat. For my entire life I’ve been surrounded by money. I know its power. Money can buy you friends, it can buy you status, it can buy you exemption from the rules. Money is power, Mr Trix. Though, I don’t suppose a simple private detective like yourself would understand that, now would you?”
James’s eyes darted to the Nimmo, and a broad grin lit up his face. “You’re a private detective? Really?”
“Yeah,” Trix said softly, his eyes never leaving the insane Lenny in front of him.
James could feel the warmth of the fire as it blazed into a roaring furnace behind the door at their backs. With the way behind them no longer a viable option, and their front blocked by a knife-wielding aristocrat, and only minutes to get out of the building before it collapsed, James knew he was walking a thin line. However, Lucille was speaking again, and his curiosity easily overpowered his cautionary side.
“My entire life I’ve had money. I never thought about- never contemplated- an existence without it.” Lucille’s eyes were wide now, as she gazed in fear at a place above their heads, a place that only she could see, and an unsettling light danced across them. “And then, I heard that our stocks had crashed unexpectedly. Yes, we had money, but not much, and not for long.”
Trix shook his head as he tried to talk reasonably. “Money isn’t everything, Lucille. Sure, it can buy you privileges, but it can’t buy you happiness.”
The Lenny’s eyes snapped down to stare at Trix with dangerous accuracy. “I didn’t expect you to understand.”
James had pulled out his notebook, and was eagerly rustling through pages as he saw the pieces fall into place. “I get it now!”
Deirdre nudged him. “Sir, I don’t think this is the best time-”
James waved her away blithely. The puzzle was coming together, and he couldn’t stop the euphoric feeling of triumph seeping through his body. “Let me get this right, okay? So, you needed money. The Snoggonkins mentioned that Lord Winworth had taken out a massive life insurance. What if he hadn’t been the one to take it out? What if, let’s say, his wife had taken it out on his behalf? If he were to drop dead,” Lord Winworth made a pathetic whimpering sound behind them, but James ignored him, “you could claim a massive amount of compensation. Enough to live comfortably for the rest of your life!” James looked up. “Am I right?”
“Annoyingly so.” Lucille’s face had turned sour, as though she were disappointed at how easily her marvellous plan had been worked out.
“But,” James ignored Deirdre’s pointed nudges and grimaces, and turned instead to Lord Winworth, “you must have had some clue about what was going on. Why’d you just sit there and let her try to poison you?”
“I can answer that,” Trix said when Lord Winworth refused to do anything except whimper. “Firstly, he only had suspicions; no solid proof. Secondly, he was afraid of her, and thirdly, who would have believed him if he’d said his wife was going to try to poison him? She doesn’t have a sinister aura, or anything.”
“Point taken. How’d he manage to hire you, though? Good private detectives aren’t exactly a dime a dozen around here.”
“You’re right.” Trix sighed. “The Snoggonkins are my cousins. Lord Winworth knew them, they knew me... you know how it goes. Before I could blink I’d been roped into this whole dratted affair.”
“It was a favour, then, not a paid position.” The Hissi was scribbling furiously, frowning. “And so you sold his story to our newspaper?”
“Your manager pays well.” Trix shrugged, looking amused. “I have to make some money somehow.”
Lucille was starting to look bored. Apparently she wasn’t enjoying the conversation so much, now that it had moved away from herself.
“Everything was going marvellously simply, until he turned up.” She waved her wing at Trix dismissively, as though he no longer merited the privilege of owning a name. “We didn’t know who he was at first. He disguised himself as a guest very well. You, on the other hand, Mr Nexis, were far easier to spot.”
“Glad to know,” the Hissi muttered sourly.
“It became apparent that you wouldn’t be content to just watch and write up your stupid little report.”
James made a choking sort of protest at the phrase ‘stupid little report’, but he was ignored.
“And then, when you followed me into my room...”
“Wait, your room? You mean that creepy place with all of the money and knives and poison?”
James flipped to the relevant entry in his notebook and scanned it. “I’m guessing that the money was in case you needed to make a hasty getaway?”
“Yes. I have a carriage in the stables, just in case.”
A roar and crash behind the door warned James that his time was nearly up, but with a titanic amount of stubbornness he persevered with his interrogation. “You said that I followed you into that room- but I thought I was following Trix?”
“You were,” the Nimmo said. “I was following her; you were following me.”
“Really? So when she went to raid her supply of poisons, you followed her- to stop her, perhaps?” At Trix’s nod, James continued. “And I saw you leave to room, and followed you. In the room, though, I saw you jump out of the window. Unless you suddenly decided to try sky-diving without a parachute, you must have still been following Lucille again.”
“You’re right. I saw you enter the room just as I was about to jump; I needed to follow Lucille and stop her if I could, otherwise I would have stayed and explained myself.”
James turned to Lucille. “So, that was your great escape plan? Jumping out the window?”
“If it works, don’t fix it.”
James grinned at Deirdre. “And you think I have issues?”
Lucille had started to pace. Her eyes were unnaturally bright, and as smoke billowed out from under the kitchen door she seemed to grow excited. “He didn’t catch me, though. I got away, and I got the poison to the kitchen staff.”
“I was just about to talk to you about that, actually. What’s the deal with all of the hired people?”
“Servants,” Lucille said. “Servants from before I married Edward. They are loyal to me and me only.”
James considered asking how much of that loyalty was thanks to Lucille’s pay check, but, uncomfortably aware of the time constraint, asked instead; “And the obnoxious pink bows?”
“A system of recognition.” Lucille grimaced as though she’d swallowed something unpleasant. “As little as I like to admit it, not all of my servants are terribly bright.”
“Pfft. That’s an understatement.”
Lucille’s eyes became large as she glared at James dangerously. Sensing that the knife in her wing might soon be put to good use, James hurried her along. “The bows?”
“Yes, the bows. It defined who was in the plan and who wasn’t. Not all of the hired help were my servants; for instance, your little friend most definitely wasn’t.”
Bobby grinned and waved, just in case anyone hadn’t worked out who the ‘little friend’ was.
“But he wasn’t as innocent as you thought, was he?”
“Bobby is a training as a police officer,” Trix supplied. “We pulled a few strings, talked to a few contacts, and managed to get him inside to help me.”
“Whereas, Lucille thought he was-”
“A plant. A suspect,” Lucille said. “It was his job to carry Lord Winworth’s poisoned drinks. If the plan was exposed, if murder was suspected, he would be the one to take the blame.”
James whistled. “Not exactly a joyful hive of morals, are you?”
“Silence, Hissi! I will not be spoken to like that!”
Lucille was fuming now; her placid, dangerously cold air dropped in favour of self-righteous anger. She mumbled to herself as she strode up and down. “The bows and decoration also deepened the image I’d created of a shallow, stupid, inane blonde. Because, of course, how could I, the silly little pink-obsessed brat, ever concoct such a marvellous plan?”
“It really wasn’t all that marvellous,” James muttered, but Lucille pretended not to hear.
“As soon as I’d escaped from the Nimmo, I sent some of my friends to scour the hallway and secret room. We found the Xweetok, chloroformed her, and tied her up in a room. But you,” she rounded on James, “you found her, drat you! Even when we locked the door while you were in the room, you found a way to escape. I thought, foolishly, that it might be enough to scare you away. Imagine my horror when I found out that you’d returned, with no intention of leaving. I knew something had to be done, and so when you ordered coffee, I had it poisoned.”
James suddenly felt nauseous as he remembered the drink that had gone mysteriously missing. He swung around to Bobby, who was grinning cheekily. “You took it, didn’t you?”
The Xweetok’s grin widened. “’Course.”
“Why, you impertinent, miserable, little-”
Bobby dodged away from the irked Hissi. “Whoa, mister! It was either take it or let you die!”
“But it was coffee!” the Hissi moaned miserably. “Why can’t I just drink my coffee in peace? Why do people have to keep poisoning and stealing it?”
“Not my fault, mister!”
Bobby was spared from severe bodily harm by Lady Winworth, who succinctly brought the conversation back in her direction. She obviously didn’t like talking about other people.
“When I saw that you didn’t drink it, I told my servants to watch you, and take you out of the action if they ever caught you alone.”
James rubbed the back of his head. “Hence the crazy Gelert butler. But, of course, when he tried to turn my head to mush, Deirdre and Trix intervened. When that Tonu became too stressed and raised his voice, you were forced to let us go in order to keep suspicion from yourself.”
“And,” James continued triumphantly, ignoring the flames that were creeping in from under the door, “you knew, when Lord Winworth didn’t drink the third poisoned drink you sent, that you had to do something drastic, am I right? You set fire to your own house.”
“Well, yes, I did.” The Lenny smiled. “I always have a backup plan. I had the pink decorations prepared so that they would be highly flammable.”
“Isn’t that a bit harsh on the guests?”
“I never intended them get hurt,” Lucille said. “I always knew they’d eventually get out. I just needed sufficient distraction to have my servants find and tie up Edward and that annoying Xweetok.”
The afore-mentioned annoying Xweetok grinned and nodded enthusiastically.
Lucille smirked. “And now, I believe, it is time to finish what I started.”
James, Trix, Deirdre, Bobby and Lord Winworth all looked at each other, and it was James who voiced their thoughts. “Because, of course, one well-bred aristocratic lady can overpower the lot of us.”
Lucille didn’t seem to take the joke very well. Her eyes narrowed as she tightened her fingers around the knife. “I may not be able to take you all down, but I can certainly delay you.” A smile slowly curled across her face. “Goodbye.”
A loud crash directly above their heads made the group jump, and a deep crack appeared along the centre of the roof, as it buckled under the weight of the collapsing upper stories. Lord Winworth whimpered and slunk into the shadows along the wall.
James’s eyes darted around. The dining room behind them was consumed with fire; a crazy, knife-wielding Lenny blocked their path in front. He could say, with reasonable sureness, that it wasn’t looking that great.
Trix stared at the roof for an instant before darting into action. He dodged across the floor, dropping into a fighting stance as he went, intending to barrel into the Lenny before she could raise the knife.
With the precision and grace of a ballet dancer, Lucille sidestepped, letting Trix crash past harmlessly. The Nimmo hit the bench and rolled to one side, narrowly missing the knife Lucille threw after him.
Grimacing, James grabbed another knife, cursing the chefs for not having better security when it came to sharp, shiny objects.
Lucille launched herself in his direction, and the Hissi waved the blade in front of himself, not actually intending to hurt her, but characteristically hopeful.
The Lenny shocked him by, at the last moment, dropping down and landing a sturdy kick in his stomach. James doubled over with a whimper of pain, and Lucille snatched the knife out of his hands. An insane glint of triumph crossed her eyes as she raised the weapon, and-
The Lenny wobbled unsteadily from the impact of a heavy saucepan on the back of her head, and her eyes drifted between focused and unfocused for a second before she crumpled on the ground.
Lord Winworth gave a short, hysterical whimper-come-laugh, and dropped the saucepan as though it’d burnt him.
James straightened up, grinning, as Bobby helped Mr Trix up from the floor. “Not bad.”
Lord Winworth was spared from further compliments on his impromptu fighting prowess as the roof creaked and showered them liberally with cement. Trix frowned. “We need to go. Bobby, give me a hand with this pile of feathers, would you?”
At the side of the kitchen was a window facing the back gardens. They headed for it, James and Deirdre pushing Lord Winworth, who seemed to be in a state of shock, and Bobby and Trix dragging the unconscious Lenny. Once at the window they used a frying pan to break the glass, and James and Trix hustled the others out.
Stumbling to a respectful distance, they turned around and watched the mansion collapse into itself, consumed in a rage of fire and smoke, as sparks shot into the sky and floated on the wind over their heads. Already they could hear the wail of fire engines in the distance.
Time seemed to stand still as they watched the house burn, a violent splash of colour in the frosty, star-lit property. Huddled together in a protective group, the guests stood a reasonable distance away, while masks of shadow and light played over their stunned faces.
James smiled at the burning house nostalgically. “It was kind of strange, really.”
“What was, sir?”
The Hissi glanced at his soot-covered secretary and smiled. “It just struck me that we were all trying to hide our true identities. You and I were pretending to be innocent guests, the good Mr Trix was hiding the fact that he was a private detective, and Bobby acting as an innocent butler, when in fact he was a double agent. Lucille was pretending to be a silly, pink-obsessed ditz, and Lord Winworth was trying to act as though nothing was wrong. It was really just one huge game of masquerades.”
--- --- ---
“That was a disappointment.”
It was the following morning, and James, Trix, and Deirdre stood in front of Mr Marcus’s desk, nodding sympathetically. The large Grarrl regarded them for a minute before continuing with a resigned sigh.
“No murder, no assassination, not even a bad cough resulting from smoke inhalation. Disappointing.”
“Well, there was a burnt mansion,” James suggested hopefully.
Mr Marcus frowned at him. “I suppose that is something. Though it would have been better if Lord Winworth had been a bit more upset about it.”
Trix smiled faintly. “He’s moving to Altador. I believe he wants to open a bed and breakfast hotel.”
James blinked a couple of times. “What? The insurance company paid him enough for a comfortable existence for the rest of his life, and he wants to work?”
Trix shrugged. “Wealth never really suited him. After living with Lucille for the last few years, I think he’ll enjoy a simple life.”
“Talking about Lucille, what’s happening with her?” Deirdre asked.
“I’m taking her to court with claims of intended murder and arson. Though, her lawyers will probably try to get her off on claims of insanity. Either way she’ll be locked up for a while, at least.”
Mr Marcus rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “We might actually be able to put a good spin on that. If she really is proclaimed insane, it could make a fantastic story about madness and greed.”
“Especially with that room full of weapons and poisons,” Deirdre added. “And all of the kitchen staff’s confessions. Now that there isn’t a pay check to motivate them, they’re not quite as loyal as they used to be.”
“I’ve already started writing, sir,” James said, tapping his pocket where he kept his notebook. “The article should be ready for publication by this Wednesday.”
“Get it done by Monday.”
James flinched but nodded. He was used to ridiculous expectations.
Trix glanced at his pocket-watch. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m running late for an interview with my next client. And, yes, Mr Nexis, this one is going to pay me.”
“Good for you.”
The Nimmo winked faintly. “If I get any further interesting stories, I’ll pass them your way.”
“I appreciate that, Mr Trix,” Marcus said. “Though, let's hope next time we end up with something more interesting than a burnt house.”
“I’ll try.” With a nod and smile, Trix replaced his hat and strode out of the office, his footfalls muffled by the carpet. James turned back to Mr Marcus and sighed.
“I’ll go and start on the report, then.”
“You do that, Nexis.” The Grarrl stood up and extended a clawed hand.
Surprised by the sudden act of condescension, James shook it dumbly.
“I’m pleased, Nexis, with how you and your secretary behaved during the incident. Not many of my reporters would have stayed throughout everything that happened. Well done.”
“I... well... thanks, sir. Thank you.”
“Now, shoo.” Mr Marcus extracted his hand and waved James and Deirdre off. “Who knows, perhaps if you do a good job on writing up this article, I might consider giving you a raise sometime.”
“Thank you, sir!”
“That sounded very vague,” Deirdre noted as she and James left the office.
James shrugged. “Don’t I owe you a raise, too?”
The Xweetok’s smile widened. “You did promise.”
“I suppose so. Well, I’ll deal with that later. At the moment I’ve got this report to do.” James rolled his eyes. “So much for a quiet week. Be a gem and get me a mug of coffee, would you, Deirdre?”
The Xweetok nodded. “Will do.”
James watched his secretary stride away to the kitchen and smiled. As much as he complained about his workload, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Reporting was his life.
The Hissi tuned out the sounds of frantic pets running and yelling about overdue stories and false sources, and, stepping over the coats and scarves strewn over the floor, made his way to his office, to write and think and drink coffee.