Albert Tarquin Rowlings was sitting in a rather lonely fashion in his local club, the Catatonic Albatross, and sipping at a wide, round glass of brandy. The guilt chair with red silk padding he was lounging on looked out through a tall, sumptuously-curtained window onto a vast, green lawn speckled with stone statues and fountains from which cherubs spat out constant streams of water into enormous pools. In the distance could be seen the little flags and patches of sand marking out a golf course, and Albert could hear the occasional bang of people shooting at the game in the nearby woods.
Normally an afternoon at the Catatonic Albatross cheered Albert up considerably when he’d been having a hard day dealing with Snooty’s Aristocratic Laundry Service or Priscilla when suffering from a migraine (she kept insisting to her brother that the crickets on the lawn had been too loud last night). But today something was different. Something seemed to be missing.
Although usually subconsciously, Albert had been feeling a little empty ever since he and Priscilla had somewhat explosively abandoned the Team several days ago after the failed expedition to Lucy Waters’s house. They had heard about the court case, of course; there had been a scandal all over the newspapers about a Nightmare Mother-in-Law who forever spied upon and harassed her Poor, Innocent Family in the hopes of seducing her Blameless Son-in-Law, but Albert had reason to
believe, given that the article had been written by a figure from the past (whose name Albert could just about recognise) called Leopold Kane, that the article might possibly be just a little bit biased. Additionally, one day when he had been carelessly flicking through the channels on one of his televisions, he happened to stop for a moment on a programme called the Random Chat TV show, and spotted Raymond and Ethel talking to the host of the programme about the difficulty of their lives thanks to the awful behaviour of Ethel’s horrendous mother. Funnily enough, the host (an elderly man) looked peculiarly similar to this same figure from their past…
Albert hadn’t realised just how lonely things could be when the only non-servant he had for company was his sister, and all of his old employees at Snooty’s had been sacked ages ago. Albert didn’t like to admit it, even to himself, but he had grown to become rather fond of the members of the Team. It was true that they were just silly old commoners…but maybe all the things his father had told him about silly old commoners had only been from a lord’s perspective, and therefore perhaps not entirely accurate…
After one of the waiters had been over to take Albert’s order and then had been angrily shooed away, Albert was surprised and a little annoyed to find that someone else had apparently decided to disturb his quiet musings: the head waiter of the Catatonic Albatross, Rupert la Graisse, was walking up to him looking a little puzzled.
“Lord Rowlings, sir,” Rupert said uncertainly. “There’s someone by the front door asking to see you.”
“Tell them to go away,” Albert muttered.
“Right, sir,” said Rupert. He looked relieved.
About thirty seconds passed before Rupert had approached Albert again. “Sir, they’re still asking to see you,” he said nervously. “They said it’s rather important. It’s an elderly woman, sir; not quite the sort of person we usually get as a visitor to the Catatonic Albatross…”
“Didn’t you tell them to do away?” Albert snarled, turning to face him.
Rupert started quivering with fright. “Yes, sir,” he stuttered. “I told them that Lord Rowlings was unable to see them, but they were insistent, you see…”
Albert glared at Rupert and sighed heavily. “Send her in, then,” he ordered. “She’d better not be long. If a man can’t even come to this ridiculous club to just sit for a bit of peace, I’ve got a good mind to spend my money elsewhere…”
“Very good, sir,” whispered Rupert, and he dashed away.
Thirty seconds later, Edith James, wearing a very old blue velvet jacket and a pea-green skirt under her grey raincoat, was standing behind the chair. Albert was still facing out of the window and so hadn’t seen her. She heard him let out another deep sigh. “Who are you and what do you want?” he demanded rudely. “And be quick; I’m a very busy man.”
“Of course,” Edith whispered in her best eerie voice. “Snooty, there’s only one thing the Team needs from you now.”
Albert visibly started, and he stood up abruptly and turned to face Edith. “Edith!” he cried. Then he remembered himself and removed the smile from his lips. Doing his best to sneer, he turned around his chair so that it faced Edith and sat back down, looking as dignified as possible.
But Edith, the strangely perceptive Edith, had spotted the change in Albert’s behaviour, and she beamed at him. “Hello, Bertie!” she said cheerfully. “You do look pleased to see me!”
Edith’s thin, grey hair was windswept and sticking up in various directions, and her grey raincoat had mud stains all over it. Her fingernails were barely existent, seeing as she’d developed a severe nail-biting habit over the past few weeks. Over by the bar, Rupert la Graisse was staring at the pair of them, probably able to hear every word, and his eyebrows were raised mockingly. Albert spotted the look and panicked a little.
“No, not really,” he said quickly. Then, seeing Edith’s face and feeling exceptionally ashamed for once, he corrected himself: “Edith, you don’t look particularly sensible, you know. If you’re going to make yourself seen at the Catatonic Albatross, do make yourself a little more presentable.”
Edith stared at him. “You told Olive and the others not to come anywhere near the Catatonic Albatross. I only came because this is an emergency,” she said, looking blank. Then she smiled excitedly. “Hey – are you sponsoring me for membership? Wow! Bertie, that’s so sweet! I’ve always wanted to be a member of a fancy club like this! I mean, you know how much I like fine dining and golf and stuff, and if Mary became a member she’d have a great time going out shooting…”
“Edith, please!” Albert interrupted. He wasn’t sure why, but for some reason he didn’t particularly feel like being as rude and dismissive towards Edith as he usually was with the other members of the Team. “What I really mean is to ask why you’re here. I haven’t seen you or any of the other Team members for days.”
“That’s right,” Edith confirmed. Then she thought for a moment.
Albert waited. “Won’t you sit down?” he said eventually. The words sounded strange and unfamiliar in his mouth.
“Oh…thanks!” Edith said. She sat down on the mahogany coffee table by Albert’s chair.
Almost the very second she sat herself down, Rupert la Graisse was calling to her from the bar: “Excuse me, Madam!” he announced, wrinkling his nose. He seemed to have difficulty pronouncing the word ‘Madam’, and the effort of it brought on a slight shudder. “We do ask here at the Catatonic Albatross that you do not sit on the tables, please! You might damage the wood.”
Edith blinked and stood up, blushing bright red. “I’m terribly sorry; I thought it was a stool!” she called back to Rupert. Rupert did not answer her but merely shook his head with something resembling disgust.
“Edith, take one of the armchairs!” Albert whispered hurriedly, pointing to a large chair padded with green hand-tooled leather. He looked over at Rupert. The head waiter opened his mouth as Edith pulled the armchair over towards Albert and sat down, but couldn’t seem to find any excuse to stop her. Instead, he retreated behind the bar and peered menacingly at them over the beer taps.
Meanwhile, Edith was getting straight to the point of her visit. “I’ve had an idea for a marvellous plan, Bertie!” she said delightedly.
Albert blinked, surprised that he didn’t even have to restrain any kind of sardonic dismissal in his throat. “You’re not usually one of the ones who make the plans,” he commented softly. “Usually it’s Olive or Mary or Alice. What’s happening?”
“Haven’t you seen the newspapers?” Edith asked. “A chap called Leopold Kane wrote an article about it.”
“You mean this wretched restraining order?” Albert said quickly.
“Yes!” cried Edith. “Basically we really need your help. When we went to the hearing everything went really wrong because Mary ended up swearing on a gun magazine instead of a Bible which meant that she couldn’t lie about anything, so she revealed loads of stuff about Olive’s bad side, and Hetty was meant to make out that her sister Lucy was the cause of Olive’s obsessive passion for Raymond except she didn’t because she’s quite thick really, and everything started going pear-shaped from there. Then Judge Friggit turned out to be an old school friend of Ethel’s, and Olive’s not allowed to go within five miles of Raymond and I don’t know what to do because everyone’s really depressed and won’t make any more plans and I’m worried it’s all going to go to pieces right in front of me and I don’t want that because this is the most exciting thing I’ve done in years!”
Albert was silent. He seemed to have learnt more about his fellow members of the Team from this one speech of Edith’s than he had through all his time as a member himself. “So what’s your proposal?” he asked eventually.
Edith smiled. “We need to use Rowlings Manor,” she said.
“Rowlings Manor? What for?” Albert asked. “The last time Olive tried to use us in any way she completely destroyed my fifth-favourite motor car.”
“Did she?” Edith said wonderingly. She’d never heard that particular story. “Oh. Well, that won’t happen this time, Bertie! Olive doesn’t want to wreck any of your cars. We just did a little bit of research, and I found out something.”
“What did you find out?”
“I found out that Raymond’s a little bit like you.”
“Like me? How?”
“He loves money.”
Albert had a pretty good idea of what was on Edith’s mind, but Edith decided to tell him anyway: “I’m going to pretend that you and Priscilla have sent the Calzones a letter inviting them round for afternoon tea, because you are well aware of the fact that Raymond would be perfect for a post in Snooty’s Aristocratic Laundry Service.”
Albert frowned. “But won’t that seem a bit suspicious?” he asked. “I’m supposed to have never heard of Raymond Calzone. How should I know about his potential as an employee at Snooty’s?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Edith muttered. “We’ll tell him that his boss regularly submits his employee reports to you or something. But Raymond won’t care about all that; he’ll care about the fact that you and Priscilla are inviting him round for tea! He’ll just be picturing the extra money he’ll get in this job rather than moving to stupid old Timbuktu!”
“Oh, right. So it’s a plan to try and deter Raymond from moving to Timbuktu?” Albert asked. He wasn’t sure that this would work; from what he had seen and heard, this sort of thing had never gone too well for the Team. How many more plans would there be before Olive gave up on Raymond?
“Not just that!” Edith squealed, getting really excited now. She wriggled around in her armchair. “Don’t you see? I’m going to make out that you’ve invited Olive and the others round too! Ethel knows hardly anything about her mother anymore; she never even knew that you were evacuated together! We’ll put everyone in evening frocks and stuff, and when the Calzones get there, you and Priscilla can talk to Olive and the others like they’re members of really high society, and Raymond will realise what a good match Olive is!”
Albert thought about this, taking everything in. For once, he was not concentrating merely on the pride he felt at being seen as someone in high society. He had felt this when he had heard about Olive and Mary and Alice’ earlier plans, because all of those had seemed doomed to fail. This plan, too, was crazy. Crazy and risky. But if Albert had good cause to believe all the things he had heard over the past few weeks about Raymond Calzone’s money-loving and shallow personality…he was probably going slightly mad, but he had an idea that it might just work.
Edith was looking anxiously at Albert, waiting for the customary refusal to have anything to do with anything that required effort on his part, let alone his beloved ancestral home. But he actually seemed to be in deep thought.
“I’ll do it,” he said after just a few seconds, turning to look her in the face with a very serious expression which almost seemed to have a hint of a smile in it.
Edith’s jaw dropped. “You’ll do it? For me?” she whispered.
“I’ll do it for you,” Albert said.
“You wouldn’t have done it before!” she cried ecstatically. “Why now?”
“Oh…I don’t know,” Albert said. “I just suppose that…Rowlings Manor’s never really been used for anything useful before. Priscilla lies around on sofas all day long, and I’m mainly up here at the Catatonic Albatross or down at Snooty’s. It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose it does. Listen, just before I came over here I told Frederick to tell all the others to meet me at Rowlings Manor in about half an hour, so I reckon we should get going.”
“Half an hour? If Priscilla sees that lot over there she’ll have a fit! Oh, Lord…and my chauffeur Marco’s not meant to pick me up for a couple of hours yet…”
“We could run,” Edith suggested.
“Run?” Albert repeated. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d ran anywhere. “What, all the way back to Rowlings Manor?”
“Yes, why not?” Edith said, blinking innocently. “When Alice first broke into Lucy Waters’s house, we walked a couple of dozen miles, in the rain. That wasn’t so bad.”
Albert thought about it. He thought about all the possible disadvantages of being seen in public with a bedraggled woman like Edith James, walking down the street like any old commoner. No chauffeur. No servants. And he wasn’t even wearing the clothes he generally wore to go out walking in the woods with his dogs. He was wearing the clothes he usually wore to sit, feeling sorry for himself, at the Catatonic Albatross. Anyone could see him. Everyone at the club would see him leave. Indeed, Rupert la Graisse was still staring at him, and even waiters could gossip. But as Albert looked at Edith’s face, everything else seemed irrelevant.
“Let’s go,” he agreed.
Edith’s face broke into a bright smile, and she leapt up from her armchair. Albert also stood up from his, and together they parted the curtains in front of the hallway and strode out the grand main door of the club, ignoring the patronising gazes of all who spotted them.
They arrived at Rowlings Manor thirty-five minutes later. The fact that Edith had had to stop to use public lavatories twice and the fact that they had been a little over-ambitious in supposing that a seventy-six-year-old and an eighty-one-year-old could run all the way to Rowlings Manor had slowed them down. But they had kept going. The only problem was that when, late in the afternoon, they finally staggered onto the sloping green lawns of the mansion, which looked the same as it had ever done, the other members of the Team were standing awkwardly in front of the door whilst Priscilla was shrieking and stamping her foot at this atrocity. Then she saw her brother.
“Bertie!” she screeched, reaching out a hand, which was shaking with frustration, towards him before pointing angrily at the people in front of her. “What are all these people doing here? I thought we told Olive and her ridiculous friends not to come anywhere near us anymore! And I was trying to have a lie-down! You know it upsets my nerves to be disturbed in such a way…”
To everyone’s utter amazement, Albert turned to Edith and said, “I’ll tell Priscilla everything that’s happening. You go into the house and get the plan started.”
Edith walked forwards and smiled at Olive’s astounded face as Albert walked towards Priscilla and gently led her into the house. She could see everyone: Olive, Mary, Hetty, Alice, Frederick, Augustus, Adolphus and James.
“Hello, everyone!” she said cheerfully. “Did Fred explain the plan to everybody?”
Olive, Mary and a few people nodded, still unable to speak.
“Edith, did you really come up with this plan all by yourself?” Alice asked, eyes wide.
“Yep!” Edith said proudly. “All by myself! I even managed to convince Bertie. He was awfully nice about it; said he’d do it just for me. And Priscilla will probably be fine with it in a second, too.”
This last part, unfortunately, turned out to be wishful thinking. Edith said a few more words in explanation to her fellow members of the Team, and afterwards they all trooped into the house to begin the plan. They were shown into a room by a rather contemptuous butler after Albert had called to his servants that the Team should be allowed in. The room was the biggest sitting room that any of the other members had ever seen; it was about four times the size of Mary’s sitting room back in Greenwood Drive, and had a lot more furniture. One wall was taken up with an enormous pair of French windows looking out onto a vast, spotless Olivenda, and beyond this there was another green sloping lawn dotted with stone statues and fountains. From the ceiling hung two ornate chandeliers, and there were mahogany tables and cabinets furnished with elaborate lamps, and one table held a silver tray with a number of valuable-looking drinks decanters, which Hetty looked at with envy. They could spot six pale-coloured sofas or chaises, and one of the chaises, which was cream, was covered in Priscilla, who predictably had her hand delicately resting on her forehead. She appeared to be moaning out of stress.
“Commoners…nothing but commoners…in our father’s house…Rowlings Manor…oh, oh!” she groaned.
“Priscilla, please,” Albert was begging her, looking up at Edith as the Team came into the room. “All I need is your co-operation for just a couple of hours. I need you to trust me here. Believe me; I know what I’m talking about! I haven’t lost my mind! When we joined this Team, we didn’t understand, but we made a commitment, and I see now…”
“Albert,” Olive interrupted loudly.
Albert, whose face had gained a few more wrinkles over the past couple of minutes, looked at Olive. “What is it?” he asked tiredly.
“Are we getting on with this plan or not?” she said.
“What Olive means is that we’ll start setting up the reception room,” Edith said. “Then we can start changing into the clothes.”
Albert looked terrified at this last remark, as though he had just remembered something he had been dreading. He slowly turned back to Priscilla. “Priscilla,” he whispered, putting his head in his hands and closing his eyes. “I need you to lend Olive and Edith and the others five of your finest evening gowns.”
Priscilla’s eyes snapped open and she stared at her brother in horror. “Absolutely not!” she exclaimed. “My evening gowns? Priscilla Rowlings’s evening gowns? To…to…to them? Have you gone stark raving mad, Bertie?”
“Please. Just do this one thing,” Albert implored desperately. “You can wear one too; the very best! Just lend them five. Just for a couple of hours. Please.”
Priscilla had realised from the determined looks on Olive and Edith’s faces that she wouldn’t really have much choice in the matter, but she was still disgusted. “They’re mine!” she cried. “I’ve had them all hand-made! By the finest designers! Through the most fashionable companies! I’ve barely worn any of them twice! And you want me to lend them to these?”
“Yes,” said Albert simply. “Look, Priscilla. You know I don’t often go against your wishes, but this is something we simply need to do. Our duty. It’s your choice: you can go up and choose them yourself, or we will have to all stride into your private dressing room and take what we need. I’m sorry that it has to come to this.”
Priscilla didn’t know what to say. In a movement very uncharacteristic of her, she haughtily stood up from the sofa and heavily stomped out of the sitting room and into the hallway. Albert silently gestured to Edith that she and the other women should follow her, and they did so.
“I’m having a peach dress,” Olive announced immediately, not recognising that now might not be the time to say this. Mary saw that Priscilla clenched her fists as she began to ascend the wide, grand staircase of Rowlings Manor. “It has to be very graceful, so it can show off all my good points.”
“I want a blue dress,” Hetty piped up. “A big flouncy one, perhaps? Priscilla, do you have one like that?”
“Of course,” Priscilla growled crossly. “And if you mess it up you’re paying for two replacements.”
“Two replacements?” Hetty said. “Why would you need two of the same dress?”
“Shush, Hetty!” Mary hissed. “Olive, can I have a green dress? Oh, and can I wear emeralds to go with it?”
“Oh, jewels!” Olive squealed, forgetting to refuse Mary’s request. “I’d forgotten about jewels! I need diamonds, of course. Hetty can have sapphires. Edith, you can wear red, and then you can have rubies. And Alice…you can wear purple, and have amethysts!”
“I’m wearing purple!” Priscilla snarled. “Lilac’s my colour. Alice can wear orange, and I’ve got some old amber jewellery somewhere. And remember; I’ll know if you’ve stolen any!”
“We’re not going to steal any!” said Alice, looking hurt. “I’m in charge of the lower ranks in the Team now, and we’re not thieves!”
Priscilla mumbled something in disagreement as she threw open a door at the start of a short, clean corridor. The others made a move as though to follow her, but she slammed the door in their faces.
“Charming,” mumbled Hetty.
“Oh, she’s just upset,” insisted Mary.
“She’s probably had a bad day,” Edith agreed.
The door opened again, and Priscilla tossed several pieces of material into the corridor. They fluttered to the floor before the women could hand each other the appropriate dress.
“She told me to be so careful not to do anything to her dress, and then she tosses it onto the floor!” Hetty said, outraged.
“Shut up and get changed, Hetty,” Olive snapped angrily. She glanced at the door of the dressing room. “Priscilla! Where am I meant to get changed?”
“Don’t ask me!” Priscilla called. “This is the room where I get dressed.”
This was followed by a few cross mutterings, which Olive imagined was Priscilla snapping at her maids.
“I should be in there,” Olive growled at Mary. “It should be my dressing room for now. I’m the Leader of the Team.”
“I know,” said Mary.
“She shows me no respect whatsoever!” Olive said.
“Yes, I know,” said Mary.
“She just threw that dress at me!”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’m the Leader!”
“Yes, I know.”
“And she shows me no respect whatsoever!”
“Yes, I know, you already said that…”
“Well, anyway, you lot will have to get changed here. I’ll find a bathroom or a bedroom or something,” Olive continued, grabbing the pile of peach silk and string of large diamonds lying on the floor.
“I don’t want to get changed in the corridor!” whined Hetty. “Someone might see me!”
“Yeah, and we might see one another!” Edith added.
“We’ll definitely see one another!” Mary pointed out.
“Live with it,” Olive muttered. She was happy to see that Alice wasn’t saying anything. “Alice, do you have any objection?”
“No, Madam High Leader,” Alice said, but she looked pained as she peered at Hetty, Edith and Mary. “No objections at all.”
“Good,” Olive huffed. She turned to the other three whilst pointing at Alice. “You three could learn something from her; you really could!”
With that, Olive threw open a door on the opposite side of the corridor to Priscilla’s dressing room, stepped inside and closed it behind her. Mary, Hetty, Edith and Alice stood still, staring after her. Then they turned back to one another, and selected their relevant outfits, accessories and shoes from the pile outside the dressing room door.
“Everyone turn away!” Alice said sternly. “I’ll face this end of the corridor. Mary and Hetty, you face the walls. Edith, face the other end of the corridor.”
The women all sighed and did so. They considered it a blessing that no one did come down the corridor whilst they were getting changed.
“This dress is too small!” said Hetty, making a sound as though she was trying to suck in her stomach.
“It’s your own fault,” snapped Edith. “The number of jam tarts you ate just after we got back from the hearing! If you eat like that all the time, which you do, I’m hardly surprised.”
“Well, well!” Hetty cried. “Hark who’s talking! You ate almost a whole packet of chocolate biscuits!”
“I didn’t!” said Edith. “That was Mary!”
“No, it wasn’t!” squeaked Mary. “It was Augustus! I only had six! Anyway, this dress is too long on me.”
“Mine is massively too long on me,” Alice muttered, wondering whether anyone would notice if she turned the hem over and pinned several inches of fabric onto the inside of the dress.
“They’re too long on everyone!” complained Hetty. “Why does Priscilla have to be so tall?”
“It’s probably because she lies stretched out on sofas all day,” Edith suggested helpfully. “Maybe that makes it easier for your bones to grow or something.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Edith,” Alice said, rolling her eyes to herself and pulling up the waistband of her pale orange dress as far as it would go. “Priscilla is just tall.”
“But we’re going to look silly,” Hetty whined. “And why do I only get one necklace when Edith gets a short one and a long one?”
“Hey! You’re looking!” Edith shrieked, and Alice heard a slapping noise.
“Stop it! Stop it right now!” Alice cried. She stuck one of her arms behind her and waved it about until she encountered two arms that were slapping at one another. “Don’t be so immature! We’re here on a serious mission! There’s no time for you two to squabble.”
“I’m never talking to you again, Hetty,” Edith whimpered.
“I’m never talking to you again Edith,” Hetty retorted sulkily.
“I think I deserve a little respect, seeing as I’m the one who came up with the plan,” said Edith.
“Edith, I think you’ve been a member of the Team long enough to know that no one who comes up with a decent plan ever gets the respect they deserve,” Alice said sadly. “Anyway, are you lot done yet?”
“I’m done,” said Mary.
“So am I,” said Hetty.
“Wait! Just give me a second!” Edith yelped. “I’m still trying to do up this funny little zip.”
“Oh, I’ll do it!” Alice snapped, turning back around. She took hold of a zip going up Edith’s side and yanked it up roughly.
Edith screamed. “You zipped up the skin!” she shrieked.
“Sorry,” Alice muttered. She zipped it up again. “There.”
“That hurt,” Edith sulked.
“Oh, be quiet,” Alice said. She suddenly hammered on the door to her left. “Olive! Are you done in there yet?”
“Of course not!” Olive’s voice shouted. “I’m trying to get all my jewellery just right! I have to look perfect, you know that! Raymond’s coming!”
“For Heaven’s sake,” Alice said under her breath. “And I’ll bet that Priscilla won’t be ready until sometime next year.”
Edith suddenly looked very confused and opened her mouth as if to speak.
“I was exaggerating, Edith,” Alice said loudly, before she could say anything. “Is it likely that it would take Priscilla a year to get ready?”
“I did think that,” said Edith. “That’s why I was going to say something.”
Alice shook her head and dismissed the conversation. “Right, how do we look?” she said.
They didn’t look particularly dazzling. It was true that, seeing as Priscilla was significantly taller than any of them, the dresses went way past their ankles and trailed on the floor, even though the women were all wearing shoes with heels. The dresses were mainly sleeveless, so several inches of wrinkly, white arm was visible in every case, which only seemed to be emphasised by the long, coloured gloves that everyone was wearing. The jewels didn’t even help their appearances. But they looked vaguely presentable.
“We look all right, I suppose,” grumbled Alice. “I suppose it’s better that the dresses are too long than too short. Maybe we even look more dignified; it’s like we each have a train.”
Edith looked confused again.
“I mean a train on the end of a dress, Edith, not an actual train like you get on railways,” Alice growled.
“Oh, I see,” said Edith.
That was when the door to Alice’s left swung swiftly open, almost knocking Mary over, and Olive emerged. She didn’t really look any more beautiful than the other women, but the glittering diamonds around her neck and wrists made her outfit seem much more ostentatious. Her hair was still a mess and the dress was also far too long on her.
“I’d better not trip up in this,” Olive muttered. “Anyway, I need some perfume. Where’s the perfume? And I want nice perfume, not silly cheap perfume.”
“We’ll get you some later,” Alice lied. She didn’t have time to worry about perfume. “We have to go downstairs. Priscilla will probably be getting ready for ages yet. We need to get the reception room ready. Follow me, everybody!”
With that, the women followed Alice. They took a number of wrong turnings in such a massive house where so many things looked the same, but eventually they managed to find the same huge staircase they had walked up several minutes before, and they did their best to descend looking pretty and dignified. Olive went first, holding her head up high, with Mary in tow, who didn’t trip over as much as Olive. Hetty, Edith and Alice (though Hetty and Edith were standing several feet away from one another) brought up the rear.
When they entered the reception room, Albert, Frederick, Augustus, Adolphus and James were standing around in dinner jackets. Edith was pleased to see that they had actually begun setting up the room already; two of the best sofas and three of the best armchairs from around the house were standing in a circle around a neat little coffee table, on which there stood a silver teapot and cake stand. As Frederick grinned and unthinkly commented to Olive about how wrinkled her neck looked when all the diamonds attracted everyone’s attention to it, the butler and footman were carrying in vase after vase of bright, spreading green plants, like lilies just about to bloom. The sun was golden and dazzling and threw its cheerful light into the room through a pair of enormous windows curtained with red velvet which reached to the floor.
Once again, the stage was set for what would turn into either a triumph or a travesty.
“Priscilla, where did you get all these masses of green plants from?” Olive demanded some time later, feeling as though she was in the midst of the Amazonian rainforest. It was true; the butler and footman had continued bringing in the vases of strange green flowers until Olive felt as though no more would be able to fit in the room. “There are too many! They’re choking me; I’ll look like a member of some jungle tribe at this rate; not a rich, attractive, favourable woman! Take some out!”
“Oh, I can’t do that,” Priscilla said airily, fanning her forehead. It was almost forty-five minutes after Olive and the other four women had descended the stairs, but she had only just come downstairs and was the only one of them who looked normal in her lilac dress. “A friend of mine gave them to me specially. Lady Arabella. She’s coming to our little tea party, actually.”
“Priscilla! I told you not to invite any other guests!” Albert cried.
“Don’t raise your voice to me, please, Bertie,” Priscilla whimpered dramatically, closing her eyes out of stress. “Anyway, Lady Arabella is a very good friend of mine. I think I have a right to invite my own friends to our home. Anyway, the plants mustn’t be moved. That would disrupt the whole arrangement.”
“Yes, don’t get rid of any of the plants, Olive!” yelped Mary, glancing at Priscilla for approval. “Prissy told me that they have special powers. They let off this smell that you don’t even know is in the air, and it makes everything look more attractive.”
“How can a plant do that?” Olive demanded.
“I just said: you don’t even know it’s in the air,” Mary explained patiently. “It’s a subconscious reaction.”
“Right,” said Olive, trying to look as though she understood, even though she didn’t. “Fine, fine. Just don’t bring anymore in, okay? No one will be able to see me.”
“That’s precisely how the plants make you more attractive,” Priscilla muttered, but she was interrupted by Frederick, who came bounding forwards with Augustus and Adolphus in tow.
“I don’t see why the Calzones have to come at all,” Frederick said, sticking out his bottom lip like a young child. “Why can’t we all just have a party? It would be ever so fun, Olive! I could take a look and see if there are any interesting stamps about, and we could have champagne and those little cucumber sandwiches and…and caviar like these marvellous rich folk have…”
“Fred, can’t you think about anything except your stomach for five consecutive minutes?” Olive hissed meanly.
“I was just coming to that!” Frederick whined. “Augustus and Adolphus and I could do our juggling act! It was good at our wedding, right? I bet Albert and Priscilla would love to see it!”
“No, they wouldn’t!” Olive snapped. “For once, Frederick, can you and your silly brothers please try not to show everybody up, especially me? How is this wretched plan going to work if the Calzones aren’t here?”
Frederick bit his lip and looked down at the richly-patterned carpet, shuffling his feet. “I just thought that maybe if I acted more interesting and less embarrassing you might stop being interested in Raymond and be more interested in me,” he whispered.
Olive couldn’t help rolling her eyes at his stupidity. “Honestly, Fred,” she groaned impatiently. “You seriously think that after all the effort I’ve put into coming up with this plan I’m going to give up on Raymond just like that? You’ve had seventy-two years to try and be more interesting! But no, it’s always stamps this and indigestion tablets that! Stop being selfish and try not to ruin this for me!”
Frederick’s lip continued to wobble, but he nodded shortly and slowly crept away, looking remarkably like his son. Augustus and Adolphus followed him, patting him on the back sympathetically.
“Anyway,” said Olive, turning to Alice. “Alice, what’s the next step of this plan?”
“Actually it was my plan,” Edith said loudly.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Edith,” Olive muttered. “You probably heard Alice speaking about it or something, and got it into your head that you’d made it up…”
“It is Edith’s plan,” Albert said, coming over and standing next to Edith defensively. “She came up with it all by herself.”
“Whatever,” Olive said, sighing. “Anyway, what’s the next stage of the plan?”
“When the Calzones come along, you have to look really surprised to see them,” Edith explained. “They can’t know you knew they’d be coming. You have to act a bit worried, obviously, because of the restraining order.”
“Why would I be worried because of the stupid restraining order?”
“Because you know that you’re not supposed to come within five miles of the Calzones.”
“Oh, I see. Carry on.”
“Umm…well, that’s it, really,” said Edith uncomfortably. “You know how Raymond really likes money and his reputation and everything, so he’ll be really impressed when he sees that you’re in favour with the Rowlings.”
“Right,” said Olive. “Fair enough, I guess. On or two design flaws, obviously, but everyone makes mistakes.”
“Except you,” Mary said maliciously.
Olive’s eyes widened with surprise. “Thank you, Mary,” she said, looking uncertain.
There was a sudden knock at the door. Olive jumped up and nearly ripped her peach-coloured dress as she stood on the end of the long skirt. “Raymond’s here!” she shrieked in a panic. “Oh my Lord, everyone get into your places quickly!”
“Olive!” Albert said.
“…Mary, give me a fan or something to cover my face with!” Olive yelled. “I’ve gone bright red! He’ll think I look like a great big tomato!”
“Olive!” Albert repeated.
“…I don’t have a fan!” Mary cried, rummaging in her bag. “I’ve got a couple of marker pens, if that helps…”
“Marker pens? I’m not going to colour my face in!” Olive shouted.
“OLIVE!” Albert cried again.
Olive turned to look at him, clutching her heart and breathing very heavily.
“Raymond’s not here!” Albert said gently. “I arranged for Marco to go and pick them up in one of the limousines, so I would have heard it pulling up, wouldn’t I? Besides that, it’s too early. Just calm down!”
Olive nodded and tried to slow her breathing, sitting back down and still clutching her chest.
“Well, who would turn up at Rowlings Manor without a car or anything?” Priscilla asked, wrinkling her nose. “Tell Hancock that if it’s someone wanting money, he should shut the door on them. I’m sick of it, I really am…”
“No one comes to us to ask for money, Priscilla,” Albert reminded her exhaustedly. “I’ll go and see who it is.”
He walked off into the entrance hall whilst everyone turned back to Olive. “Stop panicking, Olive,” Mary said soothingly. “Everything will be perfect.”
“Yes,” said Hetty. “You should see how wonderful and rich you look.”
“You’re a true Leader,” Alice added. “You’ll be magnificent. You fit right into this environment, doesn’t she, everyone?”
“Oh, yes,” everyone agreed obediently.
Then the curtains in front of the door opened and Albert stepped through. “Some lady at the door wants to come in,” he said.
“Tell her to go away,” Priscilla moaned.
“She was insistent,” said Albert.
“What’s her name?” asked Mary.
“She didn’t say,” said Albert.
“You let someone into the scene of our secret mission without even finding out what her name was?” Alice demanded. “Rowlings, that is irresponsible and wrong! What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I’m terribly sorry,” Albert muttered. “She was extremely eerie. I didn’t feel I had much choice. Oh…Priscilla, do we really need all these damn plants in here? I can barely see anyone.”
“I think they give the place something of a charming atmosphere,” said a voice.
Everyone in the room jumped, even those who hadn’t come into contact with this voice before. Edith and Priscilla both started at the mysterious, menacing tone. Albert jumped in the realisation that his guest had been following him silently into the room. But everyone else jumped in awful recognition. Because it was a voice that, since the hearing, they had actually managed to forget about.
Lucy Waters was standing in the doorway of the reception room of Rowlings Manor in a long brown raincoat, her hair seemingly protruding higher into the air and looking more like a broken heart than it ever had. If anyone breathed as they stared at her, open-mouthed, they didn’t even notice. In fact, their eyes were so unwillingly fixed on Lucy’s green, glittering eyes that they didn’t even notice as she took a few more soft, smooth steps into the room. But Lucy’s terrifying eyes were fixed on one person only.
“Olive Whinging,” she breathed. The utterance wasn’t a question, nor did it even sound as though Lucy was trying to acknowledge who she saw in front of her. She said it more to herself than to anyone else, like she simply felt she had to say the name. But everyone heard her and their mouths dropped further even more, and if their eyes had not been so glued to Lucy’s, they might have looked at Olive to see whether she was going to suddenly disappear because of some curse that this frightening little woman was going to inflict on her.
“Hello, Lucy,” Olive murmured back in the exact same tone. She barely realised that she was speaking, or understood the words. It was like an automatic reflex.
“I suppose you didn’t quite understand our little conversation some weeks back,” Lucy whispered. “Our conversation about that certain young man of the neighbourhood. You’ve continued, haven’t you?”
No one had to ask for clarification as to whom Lucy was referring to. “How did you know?” Olive choked.
Lucy raised her eyebrows. “It doesn’t take much effort,” she purred. “I have my ways, you know, of finding out things. It’s instinctive.”
She must have seen the newspaper, thought Olive.
“…And I didn’t need help from any exterior source,” Lucy continued, as though she had read Olive’s mind. Olive could feel the panic rising in her throat. “You should have known better than to stop me getting what I want, Olive Whinging. I’d have thought you’d have learnt that several decades ago.”
“I tried to warn you,” said Alice. “You can’t say I didn’t try. But you didn’t take any notice.”
Lucy’s head suddenly turned, swiftly, so that she was looking at Alice Reynolds. Alice was standing, utterly dumbfounded, with her mouth hanging open. Her face was the colour was snow.
“Ah, little Alice Reynolds,” Lucy whispered, a hint of a sinister smile playing on her lips. “You enjoyed your time at my house, didn’t you?”
Alice couldn’t answer with even one word. The one thing she wanted to utter was an apology. At that moment, she had forgotten all her loyalty to Olive and the Team. She just wanted Lucy to stop staring at her like that. She would have done anything.
“Well, it’s a little bit hypocritical to call Alice ‘little’!” Hetty pointed out suddenly.
Everyone turned to stare at Hetty, amazed that she seemed to have recovered from the Lucy effect so quickly.
“Good afternoon, Hetty,” Lucy said pleasantly. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Olive stuttered bravely.
Lucy’s head snapped back to stare at Olive. “Ridiculous? I?” she asked her.
“Yes, ridiculous,” Olive repeated. “How could you do this, Lucy? You know how much this means to me. All my life I’ve been looking for the right person…and then….you go along and spoil everything. Just like you always did.”
Silence for a moment. “So we won’t ever agree then, will we?” Lucy said, a little sadly.
“No,” Olive whispered, wishing that she had the power to be as intimidating as Lucy just this once, or that she at least had the power to raise her voice to her. “We’ll never agree. I’m not going to give up.”
“You’re sure?” Lucy asked, raising one eyebrow. “You’re sure that we can never resolve this?”
“Only by you agreeing to leave us alone,” Olive stammered.
“Sadly I don’t see that happening any time soon,” Lucy declared sinisterly. “And you don’t seem like a reasonable enough person for me to offer a compromise to. My, what a terrible shame…”
Here, Lucy was silent for over a minute, in which she tilted her head to one side and continued to stare Olive in the face. Olive couldn’t bring herself to say anything more. It turned out to be Lucy’s sister who managed to break the terrible silence.
“What are you going to do?” Hetty whispered.
Lucy sighed. “As I see it,” she began. “There’s only one option.”
“What’s that? Oh, you’re not going to kill Olive, are you?”
“Oh, Heavens, no. Not directly, anyway. If she dies as a result of what I’m going to propose, I can hardly be blamed, can I?”
“What are you going to propose? Is it dangerous?”
“Of course it’s dangerous,” Lucy hissed at her sister. “I’ve tried this with a number of people. All of them have failed. Olive, this is my own, very special, form of compromise.”
“What is it?” Olive asked, trying and failing not to sound fearful.
“It’s a challenge. A very hard challenge, very hard to win. Pretty simple, really. If I win, I get what I want. In the unlikely event of you winning, you get what you want. Are you in agreement?”
Olive stared around the room at everyone else in their posh clothes. Suddenly, Edith’s plan seemed a million miles away.
Olive had an overwhelming urge to simply give up on everything and let Lucy have Raymond. But she couldn’t. She just couldn’t. It wouldn’t be right. To give up on this would be to give up on something she’d been waiting for her entire life. How could she let it go? Only a weak-minded person would refuse this challenge. Besides, how hard could it be? Well, that wasn’t something Olive was particularly keen to think about.
Olive closed her eyes dramatically, feeling more powerful when the two emeralds that were Lucy’s green eyes could not be seen. “I’ll do it,” she whispered.
Instantly, a change came over Olive. Even when staring at Lucy, she felt braver and more capable. She had nine people ready to back her up, even if most of them were still staring in horror and awe at Lucy Waters. She was ready – or, at least, as ready as she would ever be – for anything that Lucy Waters could throw at her. She was doing it for Raymond, after all.
The terrible, frightening smile appeared again on Lucy’s lips, and the next sentence she spoke was no more than a sinister whisper:
“Let’s play Truth or Dare.”