Masquerades: Part Three
James leaned towards Deirdre while keeping an eye on the Nimmo in the shady alcove. “It’s definitely him. He’s even wearing the same hat.”
“What’s he doing here?”
“Good question.” James rummaged through his jacket pockets for a second and came up with the notebook he kept there, and flipped it open to the most recent entries. “At the office he said that Lord Winworth had told him about the planned attempt against him, but not the police. It’s possible that they are good friends, then, and that he was invited to the ball legitimately. But, if they were close enough to share secrets like that, why would Trix then sell him out to us? And, more importantly, why’s he so intent on seeing everything that happens around here, but not being seen himself?”
The Nimmo’s eyes were darting over the crowd, continuously returning to Lord and Lady Winworth, before roaming over the other guests again. Other than the ceaseless activity of his eyes, he could have been a statue.
“It doesn’t add up,” James said in a low voice. “I have a suspicion there’s more than meets the eye around here. What say we do a bit of snooping, Deirdre?”
The Xweetok secretary nodded. “I’m with you all the way, sir.”
“Are these seats taken?”
James looked up to find himself facing two large, decadent Elephantes- one wearing a moustache and war medals on his coat, the other decked out in more jewellery than James had ever assumed could exist. “What? Oh, no. Go right ahead.”
The lady sat down with a loud tingling of gold and smiled at him. “I’m Jillian Snoggonkins, and this is my husband, George.”
James shook their hands. “I’m Goldwhite, and this here is Lady Wigglebottom. It’s nice to meet you, Mrs Snoggonkins.”
“Oh, don’t mind my last name, dear, it sounds ridiculous. Call me Jilly.”
Deirdre glared at James pointedly, but he chose to ignore her. “Sure thing, Jilly. What do you think about the ball so far?”
George Snoggonkins sat down with a loud moan. “Boring as- well, anything boring, really. And too pink.”
As much as James agreed with the large Elephante, he was itching to get up and nose around, and was trying to work out the easiest way to excuse himself when Jilly said, “Poor Lord Winworth. He never did like extravagance much- always said that if he had his way, he’d open a bed and breakfast hotel.”
James’s head snapped in her direction, sensing a lead. “Do you know the Winworths very well?”
“Comparatively well, I suppose,” George said, moustache wiggling comically. “We were colonels together back in the war. Good days, those were, good days.”
“And then five years back his family convinced him to marry Lucille,” Jilly continued happily, unaware that James had opened his notebook under the table and was writing enthusiastically. “Nice girl, of course, but the stairs don’t go all the way to the top floor, if you know what I mean.”
“A bit short on her ration of grey matter,” George clarified, tapping his skull.
“And she’s always been so fond of parties, and poor Eddie- Lord Winworth, that is- can’t abide them.”
“He’s starting to go a bit paranoid, if you ask me,” George said, encouraged by Deirdre and James’s nods and smiles. “Starting to worry about dying young, I believe. He took out a massive life insurance just last week- I honestly don’t know how they can afford it, what with his wife’s obsessions and parties.”
“But it’s a lovely property,” Jilly continued reverently, motioning to the dining hall. “Magnificent gardens, and the rest of the house is no meagre affair, or so I’m told. Oh, look, Georgie! Isn’t that the Vanderbooms? Mr Goldwhite, Lady Wigglebottom, I hope you’ll excuse us for just a second. Dotty, I say, Dotty!”
The Snoggonkins got up and shuffled over to the other side of the room, where a circle of pets were talking. James watched them until they’d joined in the group, then his eyes automatically moved to the alcove where Mr Trix had been hiding.
“Yes! I should have kept a better eye on him, instead of listening to those Elephantes. Drat! Now where’s he gone?”
“Maybe he couldn’t stand the pink? I mean, he’s not a very feminine person, is he?”
James sighed and scanned the Trix-free room. “Somehow I doubt it. Maybe he... wait a second!”
Grabbing Deirdre’s arm, James slid through the crowd until he reached a large door at one end. “Look innocent.”
“Just look innocent. We don’t want to attract attention.”
Smiling and sauntering apparently aimlessly, James and Deirdre moved closer to the door, and when most of the room was distracted by a joke a very loud Tuskaninny was telling, James flipped the doorknob and they slipped through.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to be back here, sir.”
“And that’s exactly why I want to know what Trix is doing here.”
“You saw him?”
“Him, or someone who looked an awful lot like him. Keep your voice down.”
It was past sundown, but lamps had been lit along what appeared to be a giant gallery-come-hallway. The right-hand side was lined with expensive looking portraits of cold and disdainful aristocrats, while the left was devoted to huge windows framed by velvet curtains. It went on for about twenty meters until it ended in a large oak door.
Casting wary glances around himself, James slithered along it, feeling the plush carpet underneath him. When he reached the door at the end, he put his ear against the wood, and was rewarded with a frustrating silence. He knelt down and, with his face to the ground, looked underneath.
No light, no movement, nothing.
Straightening up, he ran one finger across the doorknob and shook his head.
“No good,” he whispered to Deirdre. “I don’t think he came through here. There’s still dust on the doorknob.” The Hissi showed her his wing, which was now coated with grime. “Brilliant. The maids must be lazy.”
“You’re sure you saw him?”
“I think so. Are there any other doors along here? Maybe...”
James’s eyes roved over the wall and the paintings until they fixed on one particularly large one depicting a spoilt-looking Ixi girl. Slithering up to it he gave one side a tug, and grinned broadly as it moved out from the wall smoothly, exactly like a door, exposing a passageway behind it.
“That was clever, sir.”
“That, my dear, was the result of many hours wasted reading novels. Stay here and keep an eye on both of those doors. I’ll go in and explore a bit, and I’ll give a yell if I find anything.”
James slid through the painting’s doorway and into the wooden passageway beyond.
“Sir? About that raise...”
“It had better be really, really big.”
James’s face scrunched up into a grin. “We’ll see. I’ll be back in five.”
With that, the brown Hissi turned and made his way through the darkness until he found a wooden staircase. He noticed that the dust on the ground had been disturbed recently, confirming his suspicions that he wasn’t the only person to use this route. At the top of the stairs was a door which stood open a fraction, letting a sliver of light through.
Pushing the door open he found himself in a basic, thankfully pink-free room lined with shelves and with a table in the centre. Movement over at the other side caught his attention, and he was just in time to see the curtains framing the window opposite move.
Running around the table, James threw the window open and reeled back. The window opened onto the roof, which slanted down for several feet before ending in nothingness. For a split second he was sure he saw the unmistakable figure of Mr Trix, just as the Nimmo disappeared over the edge of the roof.
James stood there in shock for a second, staring at the place where Trix had been, before gasping and squirming his way onto the roof. Moving as quickly as he could without tumbling to certain doom, he stumbled to the edge and peered over.
Three stories down he could see the side of the house, bushes, and a manicured lawn, but no Trix. “Strange...”
There didn’t seem to be anything else he could do, so he carefully crawled back to the door and re-entered the room to have a look around. It was only now that he noticed an array of knives and hatchets arranged on the wall, and several sinister bottles sitting on the shelves.
Being careful not to touch anything, James walked around and read the labels on the bottles, but they were in a foreign language, and he was forced to turn away with a frustrated sigh.
The weapons gave him more clues, however, as they were all meticulously clean and sharp. Just looking at them made him shudder.
Apparently the attempt against Lord Winworth’s life was coming from within his own home, unless one of the servants had a bizarre and morbid fascination with death. James eagerly pulled out his notebook and scribbled furiously for a minute or two. Glancing at the table, he noticed a travelling bag and several large wads of money- presumably for a hasty escape.
James knew better than to stay in the room for too long, and so after another quick look around, he slipped out through the staircase door, grinning to himself and pocketing his notebook.
The stairs were quickly navigated and it only took James a few seconds to push the portrait frame open and slip into the hallway. “I say, Deirdre, you won’t believe what I found up there! There’s... Deirdre? Deirdre!”
James rotated in a complete circle, eyes wide as he stared at the deserted hallway. “Oh, no...”
To be continued...