Alice Reynolds landed neatly and efficiently on the floor, using her fingertips to keep herself upright. The window, through which she had just climbed, was tiny, square-shaped and made from frosted glass, and the room in which she found herself was also miniature. To her left, a shining hand basin stood against the wall, with some strange-looking herbal soap which caused the room to reek of rotting raspberry leaves. Several gleaming silver bars attached to the wall made up a radiator, on which hung a couple of fluffy white towels. To Alice’s right was a toilet with a closed lid, covered by a cloth with embroidered unicorns. On the wall opposite hung a framed painting of a bull in a field. The walls were made up of spotless white tiles.
Lucy Waters’s downstairs cloakroom was no bigger than a cubicle in a public lavatory, and the tiny space created a sense of intense claustrophobia. The pure whiteness of the room also had a daunting effect, and for a moment Alice couldn’t see the door. She shivered violently and held out both arms to touch the tiles on either side of the room, as if to assure herself that they were not closing in on her. She could not believe that this was the second time in a week that she was breaking into Lucy Waters’s house, even though this time she’d actually volunteered. She wasn’t sure on which occasion she’d been most nervous.
Alice suddenly heard a scuffling noise outside the window, and involuntarily shuddered with horror at the idea that two more people had to fit into the room.
“Hetty, stop pushing me!” Edith wheezed as her head appeared through the tiny window.
“I can’t get you through the window if I don’t push!” Hetty’s voice called from outside. “It’s not my fault that you can’t stop eating. Really, Edith, for someone who needs to go to the toilet so much you’ve really put on some weight over the last couple of months.”
“How dare you!” cried Edith, who was indeed plumper than the other two women. There was a sudden thump from outside the window, and Hetty cried out in pain.
“That was my chin!” she yelped.
“Serves you right,” Edith sniffed.
“Ladies!” Alice hissed. “Are you sure this is the right time? We are in the middle of a very important mission!”
“I don’t see why,” Hetty called. “Lucy isn’t even in. And even if she was, I’m her sister. I’ll just say that I’ve invited a few friends round to look at her collection of newts’ eyes.”
“Yes, because that’s certainly believable,” Alice whispered sarcastically to herself. Then she raised her voice very slightly. “Edith, please hurry up.”
“I’m…trying!” Edith gasped.
A couple of minutes later, Edith had been pushed through the window of the toilet after much shrieking and arguing with Hetty. She fell in a much less graceful way than Alice had. Edith sort of slithered to the floor, squashing her face against the marble slabs and then banging her head very hard on the bottom of the basin as she tried to stand up.
“Come on then, Hetty!” Alice said hastily, helping Edith to her feet with difficulty.
There was a loud smashing noise from outside as Hetty propelled herself through the window at seemingly the speed of sound. She crashed to the floor similarly to how Edith had, and instantly sprang to her feet and stood there triumphantly as though waiting for applause, though the manner in which she clutched her arm whilst putting on the fake smile suggested that she was in terrible pain.
“Hetty, what was that noise?” Alice asked, standing on tiptoe and peering through the window, even though she knew she’d only see sky from where she stood.
“That was me jumping through the window,” Hetty said proudly.
“Yes, I know that!” Alice said exasperatedly. “That was pretty hard to miss, wasn’t it? I meant that smashing noise as you came in.”
“Oh, that!” Hetty said. “I think I knocked over a flowerpot or two as I came in. It’s no big deal!”
“Hetty! Lucy will notice that!” Alice cried. “Were they those big orange ones? I’ll have to get Augustus and Adolphus to buy some more. Lucy saw that I was in her house the last time we were here, and we can’t let her know again.”
Alice suddenly pulled out one half of a pair of walkie talkies from her pocket, and, pressing a button, she spoke into it: “Thing 2, Thing 2, come in Thing 2!”
For a moment there was silence, but then there came a crackling sound from the walkie talkie, and the three women heard a small voice saying, “Here.”
“Thing 2, this is…the Gnome,” Alice said grimly, still not understanding why Olive had picked out that silly codename for her. “Is Thing 3 ready at hand?”
“Thing 3 is at hand,” said the quiet voice again.
“We have a job for Thing 3,” Alice said importantly. “Unfortunately, upon entry into Sneaky Entrance One of the House of Opposition, certain pieces of property belonging to Lulu were damaged at the hands of the Blue Toad. We need Thing 3 to get down to the garden centre and buy some flowerpots.”
“Roger,” said the voice. “Is that all?”
“Tell Snooty, Prissy and Fairy Boy to remain on stand-by for stage two of Operation Break-In. That’s all.”
“Will do,” said the voice. There was another crackly noise, and then the device went dead.
“Right,” whispered Alice, putting the walkie-talkie back into her pocket and standing in a half-crouch as though to demonstrate how ready for action she was. “Is everybody ready?”
“Yep!” said Hetty cheerfully, as though she’d been asked whether she was ready to go to the sweet shop.
“Errr, yes,” Edith said, less certainly. Then she bit her lip. “Oh…actually, Alice, do you mind if I let you two go ahead for a moment? I just wanted to, errr, examine this painting here. It could be, you know….evidence or whatever…”
“You need the toilet, don’t you?” Alice asked tiredly, and Edith bent her head in shame.
“Ha! Told you!” Hetty burst out, jabbing the air with her two forefingers in triumph.
“Yeah. Thanks, Alice,” Edith said sourly. Suddenly, without warning, she flung open the white door into the hallway, pushed both Hetty and Alice out of the toilet and slammed the door shut behind her.
It was like being shoved through a door from a white beach in Australia into a dark, dark, cave. In fact, the change of scene was so abrupt and startling that for a moment Hetty and Alice wondered whether they’d been shoved through the door only to fall through a giant hole in the ground. But then her eyes began to slowly adjust to her new surroundings, and after a second, Alice realised that she had been pushed into the wall of the hallway, and although it was still almost pitch dark, she could see a tiny beam of light coming from the gap inbetween the floor and the front door a few meters away. The general colour scheme in the room appeared to follow a theme of dark, menacing green. Alice, breathing heavily, looked down at her feet through the gloom and saw that she was standing on what looked like a very old and dusty olive-coloured carpet. If she squinted, she could just about make out a few more wooden doors in the wall other than the one she and Hetty had just been violently pushed through. Each one was dark and tall with the kind of intricate features which would be expected in a gothic mansion straight out of ‘Dracula’. A long, Tudor-style sideboard stood against the wall below a massive, cracked mirror. It looked rather like a very gloomy altar; it was draped with grey, dusty lace, on top of which there stood some pewter goblets and a couple of candelabra, with candles so frequently used that they were little more than stubs with long, thin icicles of wax dribbling down from them. When Alice cast a worried eye towards the ceiling, she saw hundreds of cobwebs and stone gargoyles perched in the corners. The whole place had such a musty smell that it was almost difficult to breathe, and everything seemed to be slightly damp. There were even small puddles of dank water which hadn’t quite managed to be soaked into the carpet.
“This can’t be good for my rheumatism,” Hetty gasped into the dusty air, squelching around in her socks and sandals. “Why’s it so wet? And where are we?”
“We’re in the hall,” Alice whispered. “I don’t know why it’s so wet. Something strange is happening. I don’t know how she can live like this…”
At that moment the door behind them swung abruptly open, and in the heat of the moment Hetty and Alice screamed piercingly, forgetting who they had just left in the room.
“What?” Edith asked, puzzled, standing in the doorway of the cloakroom. The light from the small, frosted window flooded the hallway with momentary light.
As Alice looked around, the hallway now seemed a lot less intimidating. It went from having the air of a gothic mansion out of ‘Dracula’ to being a hallway in a house belonging to an extremely neglectful elderly woman. The carpet looked more like faded minty-green than deep olive; the sideboard looked like a dining table with a hand-knitted lace cloth and a slightly odd choice of cups and candles; the mirror looked like an antique that someone had thrown something at in anger one day; the illuminated cobwebs now included the dead spiders tangled up in them and the gargoyles seemed eccentric but a bit pathetic.
“Why did you scream; you knew I was in there…oh, wow,” Edith breathed, catching sight of the hallway she had stepped into. “Woah. What is this place?”
“Edith, it’s a hallway,” Alice sighed, wondering why she was always the one who had to state the obvious. “We’re in the hall.”
“Oh, right,” Edith said, as though this was a complete revelation. “So…hmm. It’s pretty damp, isn’t it?”
“Yep,” Alice said tiredly. “Look, do you two both remember the plan? We need to get on with it. I don’t know when Lucy is going to be back.”
“I remember,” said Hetty proudly, pulling out the large black mask that she had shown to Olive the day before. Grinning, she stretched it over her head so that only her eyes were showing through the two holes. Her speech was so muffled that Alice could barely discern what she was saying: “I goef up der stairf and wait fof Priffy and Fnooty.”
“That’s right, and make sure you keep the mask on whilst you’re waiting for Snooty and Prissy,” said Alice, allowing her rucksack to slip from her back. She unzipped it and drew out her long, metal crowbar. “Edith and I’ll be breaking into the cupboard where Lucy keeps her crystal balls.”
“I still don’t understand why we’re breaking into the crystal ball cupboard,” Edith said, frowning. “I mean, why is that the target?”
Alice sighed and lowered her crowbar for a moment. “Because, Edith, Lucy’s fortune-telling business is her way of making money. It’s also her way of making equally-deranged friends, and how she maintains her self-confidence; she thinks that being able to see into the future and have conversations with her dead relatives and things gives her a head-start over Olive. If we take that away from her, she’ll be much weaker. And who knows…it could be true…”
“What could be true?” Edith demanded childishly.
“Well…it’s stupid, but…Edith, when I broke into this house the other day, Lucy was sticking pins into this voodoo doll, and I think it was meant to be me. I don’t know who else it was meant to be, anyway. But seriously, the moment she jabbed it with that pin, I felt an actual pain…a horrible pain…oh, it can’t be. It can’t be…but just in case it’s true, we need to destroy all of this creepy stuff first so that Lucy isn’t so….so…”
“Weird,” Hetty finished, lifting up her mask again.
“Right,” Alice muttered, annoyed that she hadn’t been able to come up with a better word herself. “So she isn’t so weird. Intimidating. Scary. She’ll be a lot easier to take down if she doesn’t have the help of Mrs. Baxter. Olive told me that Mrs. Baxter was a complete psycho.”
“But Alice, I thought you didn’t believe in that kind of thing,” said Hetty. “I mean, that voodoo thing was weird, sure, but you’re normally the one who’d be saying that it was a coincidence. You’re not usually the one who believes that Lucy has had actual help from someone who’s been dead for years.”
“Hetty, if you’d seen what I saw in that living room the other day, you’d understand,” Alice snapped. “I don’t know what to believe anymore. All I know is that I want this creepy hobby of Lucy’s destroyed, and I want it done now. Then we can bring her down completely when we’ve got rid of her main strength.”
“Roger,” Hetty said, shrugging.
“Sounds good to me,” Edith said unnecessarily. She suddenly felt her pockets and frowned. “Alice, you’ve got the crowbar and Hetty’s got her special mask. What do I get?”
“You get to hold the walkie-talkie,” Alice said, handing Edith the device. “Only don’t speak into it.”
“Why, if it’s my thing?”
“Just don’t. Now be quiet, I need to concentrate. Good luck, Hetty.”
“Good luck, Alice,” Hetty said cheerfully, before slowly beginning to creep up the stairs. But then she stopped and turned back around. “Goodness…Alice, the water’s coming from upstairs.”
Alice turned around to look. It appeared to be true. Rivulets of water were trickling down the stairs at a relatively fast speed, like a stream running down a pile of rocks in a forest. She breathed out slowly.
“I’m not sure about this,” she whispered. “Why would water be coming down the stairs? For all we know, Lucy could have set a trap…she could have known we were coming…you know what she’s like, Hetty…”
“Oh, yes,” said Hetty. “When we were children she was always setting booby traps and then blaming them on our dog. One time she turned on all the taps in the house because Mummy tried to force her to take a bath.”
Alice shrugged. Somehow, the thought of little-girl Lucy playing tricks on her family and pinning the blame on their dog was comforting; it was almost as though they were still dealing with nothing more than a silly, immature little child. “Hmm…Hetty, just be a bit careful, okay? It’ll probably be fine, but you never know in a place like this. Turn off the taps and everything, yes?”
“Of course!” said Hetty. And in a second, the mask had been pulled back over her face, she had saluted proudly to Alice and begun to creep up the stairs once more, delicately avoiding the areas where the trickles of water were most abundant.
“Now it’s just a matter of finding out where the crystal balls and stuff are,” Alice muttered, turning away from the staircase as Hetty’s footsteps squelched away.
She was talking more to herself than to Edith, but Edith was very keen to be of assistance in some way. “Maybe they’re in that cupboard,” Edith suggested, gesturing to the Tudor sideboard which in the darkness had looked like a ghostly sort of altar.
“I doubt it,” said Alice quietly. “It’d be a bit obvious, wouldn’t it? Right in the hallway?”
“Well, I suppose she uses them a lot,” Edith pointed out thoughtfully. “Maybe she wouldn’t bother to put them away in some secret hiding place every time.”
Alice sighed, but tiptoed over to the sideboard anyway. Half expecting the intricate metal handle of the left-hand door to explode or give her an electric shock as she touched it, she very swiftly poked it with her glove before finally tugging it open. It wasn’t particularly easy.
“Edith, this cupboard hasn’t been opened in ages. There won’t be anything important in here,” Alice said as the door opened with a shudder which caused the candelabra and goblets on top of the table to rattle dangerously.
It took a couple of seconds for the cloud of dust to clear, but then, as the contents of the cupboard could finally be seen, Alice found herself looking at rows and rows of yellow, worn scrolls of old-fashioned parchment tied up with pieces of emerald-coloured ribbon. “Oh, my!” Alice breathed shakily, her gloved hand still clutching the door handle.
“Damn,” Edith muttered, wrinkling up her face in disappointment. “No crystal balls. Just some stupid pieces of paper…damn, I was so sure…”
“Edith!” Alice interrupted excitedly. As she turned to look at Edith, Edith could see a familiar look in her eyes. It was the kind of look that Alice had on her face whenever she had bought a new book from Mr. Nappy’s bookshop, or when she was listening to some boring historical documentary on the television about Shakespeare or whatever.
“What?” Edith replied suspiciously.
“Parchment!” Alice squealed in ecstasy, pointing a quivering finger at the miraculous objects. “Rolls and rolls and rolls of lovely old parchment! Do you know what this means?”
“Erm, well, I think parchment’s a kind of paper that olden-day people used to write on…”
“Edith, no! When I asked whether you knew what this means I wasn’t talking about the word ‘parchment’. All I’m saying is that this is a brilliant find! You did it! We should have looked in this cupboard!”
“Oh…oh yes. Of course. Oh, I see!” said Edith, her face growing increasingly proud as she gradually understood what Alice had said. “Yeah, I had a feeling that there’d be something interesting in there. So, Alice, what’s interesting about these things?”
“Edith, do you know what parchment is for?” Alice asked breathlessly, forgetting her initial nervousness as she proceeded to seize one piece of parchment, struggling viciously with the thick, tight knot in the ribbon. Edith opened her mouth to answer, but Alice promptly answered for her: “Of course you do; parchment’s for writing things on! Shakespeare and all the other old writers used to write on this stuff. All the important historical figures did. Who else….Harry Potter; all that lot…in a house like this, who knows what we’ll find written on parchment?”
“Writing?” whispered Edith nervously, inching slowly away from Alice.
“Writing, indeed!” gabbled Alice, still struggling with the knot. “But not any kind of writing! Gosh, I wonder what’s here; we might find out how Lucy has séances! We might find out the secrets of some spell to smite our enemies! We might find….we might find a signed first edition of ‘Hamlet’!”
“Mmm,” replied Edith, inching further away still. “Alice, are you all right?”
“Absolutely fine!” cried Alice. She had a look of desperation in her eyes as her claw-like finger wrenched at the knot with increasing impatience.
“Peculiar knot,” Edith commented slowly. “I’ve never seen such a thick knot with a piece of ribbon. It’s just like that thing…um…that thing…that knot that…what’s his name…Alexander the Great had to solve…”
Abruptly, Alice stopped clawing at the ribbon and stared at Edith with mad eyes. “Edith, you genius!” she squeaked. She suddenly reached into her pocket and grabbed a small penknife. She clicked out a tiny, sharp blade with a flourish. “And I remember something else Alexander the Great did!”
Just as the sweat began trickling down Edith’s forehead at the sight of the twinkling blade in Alice’s trembling hand, Alice started to madly saw at the knot with the knife. In a few seconds, little pieces of ribbon littered the floor around Alice and she hurled the remains to the ground. Edith watched anxiously as she spread the parchment out, almost ripping it in her haste. Then the two women could see what was written on the parchment clearly, and when they had read it, they both slowly raised their eyes and stared at one another with open mouths.
“‘Every cloud has a silver lining’?” Alice read out in confusion, staring at Edith. It was true: right in the middle of the piece of paper, these words were written in tiny, swirly letters as though having been artistically crafted with a calligraphy pen, and now Alice was holding the piece of parchment up towards the most prominent source of light (the window of the cloakroom) to check that there was nothing else on it. But there was not. “What on earth is that?”
“Mmmm,” Edith said in reply, deciding that now wasn’t the right time to say, ‘A line from a poem’.
Alice was silent for several moments. She stared disbelievingly down at the piece of parchment in front of her and kept turning it over and over, as though she thought she’d see something different on it. A few minutes later, she had to accept facts.
“There’s nothing else on it,” she whispered. She thought for another few moments before speaking again. “I think…I think it must be in code.”
“In code?” said Edith.
“Yes; in code,” Alice confirmed. “Some form of code, anyway. And I bet it’s a really hard one to work out. Hmmm.”
Alice stared at the line of writing for a few more moments. She took a pen out of her pocket and hurriedly scribbled on her arm. By the time these few moments were up, she had written the poem backwards, in Morse code, in Double Dutch and double-translated it into the three different languages she knew. Still nothing.
“Chaque nuage a une lueur d’espoir..,” Alice muttered shakily, scanning her arm, which looked grey from all the ink. “Jede Wolke hat einen Silberstreifen am Horizont… Habet argentum omni nube oblinit…”
“Alice! This is boring!” Edith whined. “Don’t you think that maybe that scroll’s there for some other reason? Maybe it’s just a decoy or something…”
“Don’t be stupid, Edith,” snapped Alice, but even she was beginning to get exasperated. In a second, she had tossed the ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ scroll aside and had sliced through the ribbon of a new one (‘The night has a thousand eyes’). Alice continued to translate and attempt to decode whilst Edith sat there miserably, occasionally looking nervously around to check for danger. And both of them had completely forgotten both the time and what they were meant to be doing.
At exactly the same time as Alice and Edith had prised open the Tudor cabinet, Hetty Waters had reached the top of the staircase. Hetty was almost as unfamiliar with her sister’s house as Alice and Edith were, and she couldn’t recall precisely where to go from here. She was standing on a small, square landing that had four plain doors leading off from it, each equipped with the usual Gothic accessories. Hetty noticed very quickly that the thick streams of water were trickling out from the gap underneath the door immediately to her right. Being as anxious as she currently was, she resolved to leave it alone at present.
Directly to Hetty’s left was something a lot more interesting. It was a painting. Hetty couldn’t get close enough to get a really good look at it because it was hanging directly above the stairs opposite the landing, but she could just about pick out its key features.
It was a portrait of Olive. The picture itself was certainly meant to be very unflattering, but it was startlingly brilliant in its accuracy. The mean look in Olive’s grey eyes was just right, her lips were parted slightly in Olive’s usual sarcastic sneer and the yellow pimple on her nose actually looked as grotesque as it did in real life. Hetty couldn’t help wondering what her sister would be able to do with a portrait of her…
But, as Hetty knew well, now wasn’t the time; she currently had much more important work to do. She understood that she was supposed to be heading for the large window at the front, where Albert and Priscilla would meet her and hopefully bring the equipment needed for Alice’ master plan, as well as the replacement flowerpot.
Hetty, understanding that she was currently standing to the back end of the house, walked gingerly to the other side of the landing. She instantly was faced with the sight of two identical white doors. Well, they weren’t exactly identical. One door was entirely blank and rather boring-looking, whilst the other had an excessively decorated hand-made sign on it upon which the words ‘Do not enter on pain of death’ were scrawled in intricate swirly handwriting. Around the words were graphic images of skulls and crossbones. Confused, Hetty spent a few seconds weighing up the possible advantages and disadvantages of entering either one of the rooms, and upon coming to an eventual conclusion opened the door which did not have a death threat taped to it.
Hetty instantly knew that she was in the spare room. It was a good-sized room with a large window overlooking the back garden on one wall, and about half of the remaining space was taken up with a double bed with an iron frame and a dull, brown, ancient-looking quilt thrown over it. Other than that, the only noticeable feature of the room was the long wardrobe.
Hetty walked over to the window, but all she saw when she got there was the back-facing view, and, partly, a section of Raspberry Avenue over the wall. She knew that this wasn’t where Albert and Priscilla had arranged to meet her.
Upon heading back into the hall, Hetty realised that she had no other option than to open the door with the sign on it.
She spent a few seconds trying to build up the courage to simply press down on the door handle, but couldn’t seem to bring herself to do it. So, after another few seconds, Hetty took another deep breath in, and, in almost less than a moment, seized the door handle and practically threw herself into the room.
Nothing happened. As soon as Hetty predicted that it was probably safe to open one of her eyes, she saw that she was in a relatively simply bedroom. It had a double bed with a wooden headboard and bright green cover, a wooden desk and a wooden wardrobe. That was all. Hetty was almost disappointed.
Then she heard the scuffling at the window, and a familiar voice which seemed to be saying, “Damn peasants!” In another second, the head of Albert Rowlings had appeared outside the window. When he saw that Hetty had entered the room, he knocked angrily on the window, glaring at her. Hetty rushed over to open it.
“Priscilla was meant to be helping, according to Alice, but she won’t even touch the ladder,” Albert huffed. He meanwhile tossed a packet of marker pens through the window onto the floor beside Hetty.
Out of the window, Hetty could see Priscilla standing on the ground around the side of the house. Frederick was standing at the bottom of the ladder that Albert was currently at the top of, peering curiously up at Hetty, but Priscilla was fanning herself and keeping as far away as possible. Hetty wondered how Alice could ever have thought that she would ever be able to get Priscilla up a ladder.
Albert was now trying to get something else through the window; something much larger than a set of marker pens. At first glance, it looked like a pile of old sacks. At second glance, it looked like a poorly-constructed dummy meant to represent a human being. Hetty decided that it was worthy of being a human being. Or at least, it was worthy of being a human being that had a number of terrible deformities.
“Alice warned me to remind you, being as uneducated as you country folk are, that ‘Lucy’ is spelt L-U-C-Y,” Albert muttered, already beginning to climb down the ladder as soon as he had finished pushing the dummy through the window. “I was going to remind you how to spell ‘Waters’ as well, but I figured that you might know how to spell your own surname. You do, don’t you?”
“Of course I do!” Hetty cried, offended. She thought she did, anyway. “Stop smirking at me like that, Albert! I’m just as good at spelling as you! And I already knew how to spell my sister’s name!”
“Oh, of course, of course,” Albert said mockingly, his disbelieving face disappearing as he descended further down the ladder. “Oh, but don’t forget to hang the dummy up with the rope! You do know how to tie a knot, don’t you?”
“Yes!” Hetty growled angrily. Then she suddenly slammed down the window onto the sill as Albert cackled. As a matter of fact, she did know how to tie a knot. She thought.
But now Hetty decided to forget Albert’s insulting meanness and actually get down to business. There were only a couple of things she had to do: write ‘Lucy Waters’ on the dummy’s face and hang it from the light fixtures using the coil of rope they had brought with them.
Unbelievably, this was Alice’ master plan. Hetty could understand now just how affected Alice had been by the sight of Lucy Waters poking pins into a voodoo doll. Personally, Hetty thought that she was just being wimpish. When she and her sister were children, Hetty had witnessed Lucy cursing her in all sorts of ways, whether they were to do with voodoo dolls or not, and Hetty had never given any of it a second thought.
Somehow, Hetty figured that Lucy would not be as frightened by a hanging dummy as Alice had been by a voodoo doll being stabbed in the hip. Also, Hetty knew full well that Lucy’s voodoo dolls were partly frightening because they were so lifelike and actually resembled the people they were supposed to represent. The dummy that was supposed to look like Lucy looked like an old, stuffed sack with ‘Lucy’ written across the face, and Hetty didn’t understand how or why Lucy would look at this and would instantly be petrified, thinking that something awful would surely happen to her.
But, on second thoughts, perhaps it was only meant to warn her. After all, Lucy was extremely defensive about her house and who (i.e. no one) was allowed into it aside from herself. Maybe it would simply serve as a reminder that Lucy was not the only one who could mysteriously appear in someone else’s house.
So Hetty, shrugging to herself, laid the dummy across the floor and took out the red marker pen from the packet Priscilla had been carrying in the bag where she kept her emergency smelling salts, and wrote ‘Lucy’ across the face of the dummy. Then she added a few slashes and bullet holes, deciding that the word on its own wasn’t scary enough (assuming that the whole thing could ever be considered scary at all), and stood back to assess her work. Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly terrifying, but Hetty thought to herself that it would do under the circumstances.
But that was when Hetty spotted the puddle of water. She hadn’t noticed it before; it was just sitting there, getting ever larger as more of it trickled into the room from underneath the door to the bedroom. Hetty frowned. She forgot about the noose and mindlessly left the dummy lying on the floor as she crept over to the other side of the room to have a closer look.
The water wasn’t just soaking away anymore. The carpet was completely saturated, which explained the unnerving squelching sounds Hetty had been making as she walked anywhere and had caused her to worry about her rheumatism. When Hetty eased the door open, she could even hear a trickling noise as water spilled, faster than before, down the staircase. Slowly, she squelched out of the door, ignoring a few excited squeals (something about parchment) she heard from downstairs, and gazed at where the water was coming from.
The door in question was firmly shut, but it gave the impression of almost seeming to be straining on its hinges as it struggled to withhold the force of what was inevitably behind it. Water was uncontrollably bursting from every crack between the door itself and the doorframe, so that Hetty had to stand right in front of the door to prevent herself from getting wet. Some very obvious splashing sounds could be heard.
It didn’t take a genius to realise that it was the door to the bathroom. It also didn’t take a genius to understand that to mindlessly throw the door open wasn’t exactly what should be done in this particular situation, no matter how curious the bystander was. Hetty was not a genius at all, and she was not even widely considered by many people to be intelligent, but more than that, curiosity was often able to get the better of her. So it was now.
Hetty felt an overwhelming urge to open the door that soon became too much for her. Taking a deep breath and reaching out a trembling hand, she placed her fingers around the door handle and pressed it firmly down, ignoring the peculiar groaning sounds and the strength of the push as the door seemed to strain towards her. But perhaps the most important thing was that when Hetty finally threw open the door and had to face what was inside, the dummy and the remains of her plan were still lying on the floor of Lucy Waters’s bedroom.
Hetty had forgotten both the time and what she was meant to be doing.
At almost this exact moment, Alice, still crouching tensely in front of the Tudor cabinet and ignoring the water flowing in little streams on the floor, was conscientiously examining a piece of parchment with the words ‘Deus ex Machina’ written on it. She had her tongue stuck out of one side of her mouth in concentration and was counting hurriedly on her fingers. Edith, sitting beside her and slightly more aware of the general atmosphere, was complaining.
“Alice, I’m getting wet!” she whined. “This is a very expensive skirt, you know! It’s going to be ruined!”
“It’s your own fault,” Alice muttered crossly, although most of her attention was still fixed on whatever it was she was counting on her fingers. She took a moment to sourly acknowledge Edith’s expensive pea-green skirt that she had bought many years ago. “You shouldn’t have worn your best skirt on the day we were scheduled to be breaking into Lucy Waters’s house, should you? Anyway, be quiet; I’m trying to work something out. Maybe if I add together the numbers of the letters of the words in the alphabet, it’ll come out with something that makes more sense…right, ‘Deus’ would be forty-nine…that’s no help…what about ‘ex’…hmmm….twenty-nine. Right…”
“Alice, there’s a lot of water coming down the stairs,” Edith announced suddenly.
“Quiet, Edith,” snapped Alice. Her mood had deteriorated rapidly since she had begun searching through the scrolls of parchment, and she barely bothered with trying to explain to Edith why she should be quiet. “Can’t you see I’m still trying to figure this out?”
But, as Alice spoke, both of the women heard a sharp shrieking noise from upstairs, and a sound like waves breaking on a beach.
“Hetty?” both Edith and Alice called worriedly, but scarcely before they were able to finish stating Hetty’s name they both had to scream.
What looked an awful lot like a tsunami was crashing down the stairs straight towards them, and in the few seconds they spotted that the wave was carrying various detritus (namely, a couple of rubber ducks, some bottles of raspberry shampoo in various states of emptiness, and Hetty) with it. In the time it took Edith and Alice to stiffen themselves up out of shock, they were suddenly completely submerged in water which hit them like a falling brick wall.
It seemed to last for minutes. Hetty, Edith and Alice seemed to be blinded out of a combination of sudden darkness and shock, and when their eyes were open all they could see was a dark, silent grey swirling mass all around them, and the occasional dark object floating past which had been shaken up by the movement of the water. Every few milliseconds the bottom halves of their faces would abruptly encounter a short pocket of air, as though they were being tossed around in an enormous, grey washing machine, and they gasped for breath, but in the next moment the air had vanished and they found themselves choking horribly.
So no one noticed that everything, including them, was being slowly sucked into the front room of Lucy Waters’s house, where a large window looking out onto the porch and the front garden had been opened wide. With an enormous whooshing sound, the tsunami threw itself through the window, the sides of which almost burst due to the pressure, and water spilled all over the potted plants, green-painted garden gnomes and lawn. Alice was the last to be sucked outside, and all she was aware of was a sudden, fast-flowing current which grabbed hold of her and flung her up against an opening which was only just wide enough for her to squeeze through, and she was thrown violently onto the grass along with the wave.
None of the women were able to recover straight away, of course. They all just lay there, not completely sure where they were, as they spluttered desperately and tried to work out which parts of their bodies were not potentially fatally injured. Alice was flat on her back, almost choking and so shocked that she barely found the words to describe her thoughts when a splash of water and small sponge finally found their way out of her throat.
Hetty was so dazed with shock, having had not even the second-long warning of being able to watch someone being swept down the stairs by an enormous tidal wave, that she scarcely knew who she was, let alone where she was. Barely thinking about what she was doing, she struggled to her feet as soon as she had finished coughing, and immediately fell down again out of dizziness and the fact that one of her ankles was hurting badly. She slumped full-length onto the lawn and groaned, clutching at her ankle before quickly realising that there was clearly something not quite right with her wrists as well. In fact, she didn’t think she could feel an absence of pain anywhere.
Edith just lay there, staring in shock up at the sky above them. It was still relatively early in the afternoon, and the bright sun was in her eyes, preventing her from seeing anything else. She simply remained still, breathing heavily, until she heard a pain-wracked moan and the sound of knee joints creaking somewhere to her left.
Squinting as hard as she could, Edith turned her head, wincing as her neck clicked and she felt a whoosh of pain in her shoulders. Just beside her, Alice Reynolds, grey hair dripping water into her eyes, had just about managed to drag herself to her feet and was limping along the grass with no distinguishable destination in sight. Out of the corner of her eye, Edith could see the window they had been hurled out of and realised that there was still a thick trickle of water pouring out. The grass that Alice was walking on was so completely sodden that it was a bit like wading through the surf of the sea. There was the continual, hollow gurgling sound of gallons of water flowing into the sewers.
With immense difficulty, Edith managed to get herself to sit up. She almost shrieked at one point as she felt a tremendous twinge along her spine, but in about thirty seconds she had managed to get herself into a sitting position. By this point, Alice’ hair had been swept out of her eyes. With a pair of limp, shaking hands she had attempted to try to do it herself, but they were trembling so much and had so little strength in them that all she succeeded in doing was to waft her fringe around a bit. At some point, though, a light breeze had blown across the front gardens of Raspberry Avenue and had brushed her hair out of her eyes for her, leaving her to inspect the scene.
As Alice had already noticed, the lawn was so water-logged that the blades of grass seemed to be submerged. Bits of everything from inside the house littered the ground: the rubber ducks and shampoo bottles and things from the bathroom, a large number of the scrolls which sat in small puddles forlornly leaking into the water little ribbons of black-blue ink, gargoyles which had managed to be knocked off their perches by the force of the water and which now appeared to look more like cheap plastic than Gothic stone. A few of the smaller items had even managed to find their way into the narrow, quiet streets. The house itself, however, looked very normal save the water pouring out of the front window.
Suddenly, as Alice looked away from the ruins of what had once been their incredible master plan that even Olive had eventually approved of, she caught Edith’s eye.
Edith blinked once before whispering a few words in a hoarse, unsteady voice: “Was that what the poems were trying to tell us?” she croaked.
Alice stared at her. “What?” she whispered in an even hoarser voice that made her sound as though she had recently been screeching very loudly.
Edith did not speak for a few moments; her previous words had dislodged a miniature bar of soap which had been stuck in her throat, and she had to cough it up violently.
“Were the scrolls trying to tell us that there was a massive wave coming down the stairs?” she gasped eventually, clutching at her neck.
“Don’t be stupid,” Alice whispered, still limping around the garden restlessly, feeling so wet that she wondered why she didn’t just melt into the lawn. “It would have been too quick. No one could have known that…”
But then she stopped. She had once again reached out her trembling hand to attempt to brush a stray piece of dripping hair out of her face, but at that moment something caught her eye.
The loud gurgling noise of the water rushing into the drain was still very prominent in the air. The drain itself was very small and was located at the side of the road, right next to the strip of grass marking the beginning of Lucy’s front garden. The lid to the drain had slits in it, and Alice suddenly felt that they were widening and widening until they were all set to swallow her up like some sort of terrible sea monster. She began to shake even more as she remembered where drains led to.
“Sewers!” she managed to choke out. “Sewers!”
“What?” said Edith stupidly. “Sewers?”
“It’s…it’s just like what happened last time!” Alice gasped, not taking her horrified eyes away from the drain. “Just like…last time! Oh, God…Edith…I think…I think…I think Lucy knew we were here.”
“She can’t have!” said another voice, whose crackly tone suggested that the speaker had tin foil in her mouth.
Edith jumped and turned around. Hetty, who was a few meters away from her on the other side of the lawn, was staring over at the two of them. She was still lying full-length on the grass and was still clutching her ankle tightly, as though in great pain. But her expression suggested that she was confused.
“She must have,” Alice croaked back almost immediately. “She knew we were here…she knew we were here…”
“Alice…,” Hetty said carefully. “How would she know we were here?”
“Those taps didn’t turn themselves on,” Alice insisted, looking no less terrified than she had a few seconds ago. “Don’t you see? Lucy knew we’d find those scrolls and stay hunched up by the cupboard for ages…”
“Right, so you’re finally admitting that that was a waste of time?” Edith asked icily.
“…And she knew that Hetty would be stupid enough to open the bathroom door when she could see that there was water coming out of it…” Alice continued, ignoring Edith.
“Hey!” said Hetty, offended. “I’m not stupid! I just wanted to see what was going on; that’s all!”
“…She knew,” continued Alice resolutely. “She knew that that massive tidal wave would sweep us out of the house through the window which she must have opened specially. Oh, my Lord…she knew we were here…she knew we’d end up getting nothing useful done…she knew we were here…”
Finally, Hetty and Edith had nothing to say back, either to defend their own intelligence or to try and prove her wrong. They both shivered. Hetty finally sat up without wincing in pain and Edith wrapped her arms around her knees.
“Where are the others?” Alice demanded suddenly, glancing madly around the garden as though she expected the other members of the Team to be there straight away. “Where are Albert and Priscilla, and Augustus and Adolphus, and Fred and James?”
“I don’t know,” Edith said. “Anyway, you’re meant to use the codenames…”
“Albert! Priscilla! Augustus! Adolphus! Fred! James!” Alice yelled into the silent road.
“Alice! Shhh!” Edith hissed frantically. She peered around the street, and she could see that a number of the residents of Raspberry Avenue were standing on their front steps, staring in a stupefied sort of way at the three soaking women and the lawn full of miscellaneous objects.
Alice’ yell did not work. She stood there, waiting expectantly, for the next few seconds before realising her mistake. Then she shook her head almost in anger and took something small out of her pocket. It was a bird warbler, and she blew into it a few times, producing a high, continual stream of bird noises. That did the trick.
Almost directly after Alice stopped signalling and put the bird warbler back into her pocket, Augustus and Adolphus, each of whom was carrying a large, orange flowerpot, appeared from around the side of the house, their eyes widening quizzically as they surveyed the scene at the front of the house. Behind them shuffled James, who stared at the three women without even a degree of surprise on his face; it was more a look of resignation and acceptance of the situation he found himself in. Frederick came jogging up behind his son, still dragging the ladder along with some difficulty. And lastly, several moments after everyone else, the Rowlings siblings slumped into view; Albert winding his expensive Rolex watch and Priscilla airily patting her hair into place and wafting away specks of dust. She shrieked when she saw the state of the front lawn, and of the three women.
“Urgh!” she yelled, disgusted. “What….what happened to you?”
“Ask Hetty,” Edith muttered sullenly.
“It was an accident!” Hetty cried indignantly. “I was curious! If you spotted a closed door with water spurting out of the edges, wouldn’t you want to know what was inside?”
“I wouldn’t open it,” sulked Edith, although inside she wasn’t even completely sure that she was telling the truth. “I’m not a complete idiot like you. And you’re supposed to know what this sister of yours gets up to!”
“How was I meant to know she’d flood the bathroom?” Hetty wailed.
“You said she did the exact same thing when she was a child, when your mother tried to force her to take a bath!”
“That was a very long time ago!”
“So? Just because it was when she was a child last time doesn’t mean she’d have grown out of it!”
“Well, I’m sorry! I’m not an expert on how people retain their childhood habits like you seem to be!”
“Oh, shut up, Hetty! You ruined everything about this mission! You flooded the house! You interrupted us when we were busy trying to crack that code with the scrolls…”
“I thought you said that was a complete waste of time?” asked Augustus, frowning.
“…You let all the water out of the bathroom so that Lucy is sure to know we were here!” Edith continued.
“Lucy already knew we were here,” Alice said monotonously, barely listening as she stared fearfully at the drain.
“…Next you’ll be telling me you didn’t even hang the dummy up!” Edith cried.
There was a silence. Hetty, realising that she indeed hadn’t hung the dummy up, didn’t know quite what to say anyway. Everyone else remained silent, surprised that their usually rather dim-witted friend had managed to come out with an outburst like this. They imagined that she was just very upset.
“…Well, on the brighter side, we managed to get those flowerpots you asked for,” said Adolphus awkwardly, holding out one of them as though it held the key to their salvation.
Alice buried her head in her hands. “Not enough,” she groaned. “She knew we were here…she knew we were here…”
“I know,” said Adolphus meekly, stepping backwards and trying to hide behind Augustus. This didn’t really work, mostly because Augustus was presently trying to hide behind Adolphus.
“Well, I think this was all a bloody waste of time,” Albert muttered miserably, drawing himself up to his full height, which in his case was five feet ten inches.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Priscilla in a dreary, lazy voice. “I could have been doing something useful, like….like…”
“Drinking tea and lying on your sofa?” Frederick suggested nervously, not meaning to insult Priscilla.
“Yes,” said Priscilla.
“Alice, are you all right?” Edith interrupted.
Alice was not participating in the conversation. She was still staring at the drain. When Edith reached out and touched her arm, she was even more icy-cold than the other two equally-drenched women, but she moved away from the drain easily when Edith guided her away.
“She knew we were here,” Alice whispered again. “And we still haven’t stopped her.”
“I know,” said Edith, not sure what else to say. She began to walk away from the house; she stepped off the sodden lawn and onto the street, where the inhabitants of Raspberry Avenue were still staring at them as though they were a pack of ravenous wolves. Hetty trailed after her at a distance, deciding that Edith wasn’t her friend anymore after all those hurtful things she’d said. Augustus and Adolphus looked at one another and shrugged. With James in tow, they too stepped off the lawn and followed the three women. Frederick, squealing when he realised that his expensive Italian shoes were being ruined by the moisture in the grass, leapt after them. Finally, rolling their eyes at one another and staying as far from everyone else as they could, the Rowlings siblings followed.
“She knew we were here….she knew we were here…she knew we were here…” Alice croaked, still being guided down the road by Edith.
“I know,” said Edith again. She turned to Hetty. “Hetty, do you know what time the bus home is coming? I really need to be getting back.”
“I don’t know,” sulked Hetty, holding her nose high in the air. “I’m never talking to you ever again, Edith!”
“Where’s the Plan board?” Hetty asked Edith later that day.
It was nine o’clock in the evening, and the nine members of the Team who had been out on the expedition to Lucy Waters’s house had arrived back home just a few minutes before, Hetty having realised after about two hours of waiting at the bus stop that no buses were running that day. Albert and Priscilla Rowlings had headed straight home for Rowlings Manor, claiming that they wanted nothing more to do with this mad group of people. They could hardly be blamed.
“Mary’s just finishing it,” replied Edith. She glanced over at Mary Maveryck, who was busy constructing a very detailed plan of the house of Lucy, complete with some of the main features. There were even little inked gargoyles sitting on top of the doors.
For once, Olive actually managed to make an intelligent guess about what had probably happened.
“Did this by any chance have something to do with Hetty?” Olive snapped, the moment the three women appeared in the doorway. They had dried off a bit on the long, long walk home, but looked so bedraggled that it was impossible to imagine that she had been through any kind of normal experience.
Edith nodded sourly as Hetty bent her head in shame. “Yep,” she confirmed. “Don’t ask, Olive. Just assume that the mission didn’t work.”
“As I expected all along!” Olive cried. She turned in anger to Alice, who had collapsed into an armchair. “That’s what happens when you insist on making your own stupid plan, Alice! Honestly, if it had been up to me, clearly it would have all gone perfectly…what is up with her, Edith?”
“I think she’s in shock,” Edith explained.
“Why? She’s not that wimpy, is she? It can’t have been that bad.”
“I think she was reminded of what happened last time she was at Lucy’s house,” Hetty piped up.
“Weak minded!” Olive spat crossly. “Typical Alice. Anyway, when she’s pulled herself together a bit, make sure she comes up with a new plan. And it had better be a good one this time. How on earth are we meant to take down Lucy when…”
“But I thought you said your plans were better?” said Edith, blinking innocently.
“They are,” said Olive quickly. “But I don’t have time to make up an ingenious plan at the minute. Mary and I have been actually having a bit of a crisis of our own, and…”
“Finished!” Mary cried suddenly, standing up from where she was kneeling by the coffee table.
Everyone looked over at it. The plan of Lucy’s house was as detailed as the plans of Olive’s and Raymond’s houses.
“Good work, I suppose, Mary,” Olive mumbled. Mary glowed with pride as Olive turned to address the other members of the Team. “Clearly the production of another map has become necessary; we didn’t originally bet on having to spend so much time at the house of an outrageous madwoman like Lucy, but here’s the map, anyway. I suppose that should help Alice with making a proper plan…”
Olive glared over at Alice, who still didn’t seem completely conscious of what was going on around her.
“…But anyway, Mary and I have actually managed to have a fairly successful day of convincing Raymond to stay, haven’t we, Mary?”
“No,” Mary said abruptly. Everyone stared at her. “We haven’t actually convinced him to stay yet. What are you on about, Olive?”
“Shut up, Mary,” said Olive.
“What happened?” asked Edith.
“Oh, a number of things,” Olive said, carelessly wafting the air with her hand. Then she glided towards her throne and climbed up onto it over the next several minutes. When she was seated, Edith frowned, noticing a faint dullness in Olive’s eyes that she’d never noticed before. And her smile seemed oddly strained. “Golly…just wait until I tell you, Edith…”
Hetty and Edith glanced at one another, and then round at the other members of the Team. Sighing internally, they all sat down on various chairs in preparation for the long, long story which would inevitably ensue.