Masquerades: Part Four
James stared disbelievingly at the empty hallway where his secretary was supposed to be waiting. He’d known her for almost four years now, and in all that time she’d been as predictable as a clock and twice as useful. So what were the chances that she’d suddenly and randomly decided to leave her post in the middle of a crisis?
Clutching at straws, James moved to the door separating the hallway from the ballroom. Opening it gingerly, he quickly scanned the Deirdre-free room, where dinner was apparently being served. At the opposite side he noticed the shadowy figure of a Nimmo standing in an alcove, and sighed in frustration. He didn’t have time for that at the moment; if he couldn’t find Deirdre, he might as well call the whole thing off.
Slithering up the hallway again, James took a look at the other door at the end and frowned in puzzlement. The doorknob was now completely free of dust, indicating that someone had opened it. Deirdre? Not likely, not if she had any choice in the matter.
Pushing open the door, James looked into the deserted room beyond. It was a decadently furnished music room fitted with harps and pianos and violins that had probably been bought for their looks and then never played. At the other end was another doorway, which James was quick to open, exposing a large dining room with a staircase on one side. The servants must have been lazy, because none of the candles here were lit, except for one at the top of the staircase, which...
James jumped slightly as he realized the light on the floor above was moving away from him steadily. Feeling his heart beating loudly against his ribs, the Hissi moved to the base of the staircase and began to ascend with every ounce of stealth he had in his body.
The hallway at the top of the staircase was pitch black except for the reflected light of the candle, and James was very much aware that the chances of any of the servants passing through here this evening were decidedly slim.
He rounded the corner in time to see two pets exiting a room, the smaller of the two locking the door after them. James instantly shrank back into the shadows and watched them as they first looked around, then walked down the hallway and rounded the corner. Even with the candle the shorter one held, they were doused in shadow, making them unrecognisable. However, James was pretty sure that neither of them were his Xweetok friend- that meant that, if Deirdre had been with them, she wasn’t anymore.
James waited for several seconds as the sound of footsteps faded, and then moved to face the door they’d just left. When he sniffed, he was surprised to note that there was a faintly sweet smell in the air that got stronger as he moved closer to the door. Not surprisingly, it was locked.
Feeling incredibly vulnerable standing in the middle of the hallway, James rummaged in his pockets and pulled out a lock-picking kit. Working as a reporter for four years had equipped James with a rather broad range of skills, many of which related to getting into places he wasn’t supposed to be. Naturally, this included jimmying locks.
It only took him a minute to hear the lock click, but in that time his head had started to become foggy. Shaking it, he pushed open the door and was instantly assaulted with the sweet smell. His head swam and he suddenly felt weak, but he’d found what he was looking for: slumped in the middle of the room, legs and arms tied with rope, was Deirdre.
He ran to his assistant and shook her. “Deirdre!”
The Xweetok murmured something before slumping into unconsciousness. It was only then that James noticed an open jar lying next to her. “Anaesthesia...”
It all made sense now: those two pets must have found Deirdre in the hallway and, not knowing that James had gone up the staircase, drugged her and carried her up here to keep her out of the way. As more of the chloroform in the bottle evaporated, the deeper Deirdre would sink into her sleep, until her muscles relaxed to the point where she would stop breathing.
Grimacing at the thought and holding his breath to stop the over-powering effects of the anaesthesia, James began to struggle with the ropes, regretting having read so many morbidly fascinating facts in his large collection of novels.
The knots had been tied tightly, and it took James longer than he had to spare to saw through them with his pocketknife. His body was starting to demand air, but he knew if he let himself breathe, he’d slip into a sleep he’d probably never come out of, so instead he picked Deirdre up and turned towards the door.
He was just in time to see a tall shape standing in the entrance when, with a deep chuckle and a haughty flick of the creature’s wrist, the door was slammed shut.
James dropped Deirdre in his shock, and ran to the door. There was no knob on the inside, and even though he knew it was futile, the Hissi beat against it frantically. His lungs were burning and on impulse he took a breath, and instantly his head swam.
Fighting against the urge to take another breath to clear his head, he turned and scanned the room desperately. Deirdre, chair, table, locked door, carpet, wall, window... of course! Window!
Feeling insanely proud of his observation abilities, James stumbled back to Deirdre and dragged her towards the window. His limbs felt like lead and he had to adjust his direction more than once, but he stubbornly persevered until he and his unconscious Xweetok secretary were beside the glass rectangle. Once again, he was forced to take another breath as he fumbled for the catch. The sweet smell enveloped him, and he was only vaguely aware of swinging the window open and hoisting Deirdre up onto the sill. Feeling sick, James cast a wary glance at the ground two stories beneath them. Directly below the window was something green- he assumed it was some sort of bush- and so, as his consciousness slipped away, he let both of them fall over the edge.
James sat up unsteadily and rubbed the back of his head. “Eugh, what the heck...?”
Memories slowly filtered back into his hazy mind as he glanced around. The ball, Mr Trix, Deirdre...
Jumping up at the memory of his secretary, James looked around in a panic. Lying a few feet away was the figure of a Xweetok. James ran to her and, kneeling, shook her. “I say, Deirdre, are you alright?”
Deirdre mumbled something as her eyes opened and she squinted at him.
James grinned. “Oh, good. Can you stand up?”
After three unsuccessful tries, Deirdre managed to get back on her feet and lean against the wall. “There, there,” James said compassionately. “It probably won’t be permanent.”
The Xweetok shook her head to clear it. “What in Neopia happened?”
“You know, I’m still not entirely sure.” James left her and began to pace, rubbing his chin as he thought as furiously as his foggy mind would allow. “What was Trix doing in that room, and why did he jump off the roof? If he was trying to escape something, going back to the dining room definitely wouldn’t have helped.”
“It could be a double, perhaps, but that doesn’t make sense at all.”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about...”
“And who were those pets in the hallway? One looked like she was wearing a dress... or, at least I think it’s a she. It could be a he for all I know- maybe Lady Winworth took her dress-code a step too far? But it’s unlikely.”
“Sir, with all due respect, what the heck are you talking about?”
James paused in his thoughts to glance at Deirdre, who was looking put out, miffed and annoyed, all at the same time. “I need coffee.”
“What? Sir, I don’t have any-”
“Then we’ll get some. C’mon, Deirdre.” James grabbed his secretary’s arm and began to drag her towards the front door.
“I need coffee to think. Besides, we have to keep an eye on Trix, in case he pulls any more tricks. Hey, that rhymed!”
Deirdre glowered at the Hissi. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Question?” James paused in his stride to offer her a bemused look. “You had a question?”
“Yes,” Deirdre replied deliberately and slowly. “I did. What in Neopia happened?”
“What happened what?”
James stared at her for a second. “What? No... I mean... what do you mean what happened?”
“I mean, why do I have a headache, and why are there grass stains all over my dress?”
“There are? Oh, drat. Resources is going to kill me; it must have cost a fortune. And the headache? Eh, I think I dropped you once or twice while I was rescuing you. Yeah. Sorry.” He offered Deirdre an apologetic smile. “Can we go on now?”
Deirdre pulled her arm out of his as she glared at him. “What if I don’t want to?”
“I’m tired, I’m headachy, and I don’t want to be called Lady Wigglebottom anymore!” Tears formed in the corners of the Xweetok’s eyes, warning James to tread carefully.
“You don’t like the name Wigglebottom?”
“No, I don’t.”
“But I thought it was cute.”
“I. Don’t. Like. It,” Deirdre spat out between gritted teeth.
“Would it make you happier if I called you something else?”
“Okay, what about Miss Goldwhite then?”
Deirdre considered this option for a minute before she sighed and relaxed, wiping away the unshed tears. “Better.”
“Okay. Can we go now?”
“Fine. We’ll find you some coffee. But my raise better be jolly large.”
James grinned at her amused look. “Thanks, Deirdre!”
The pair quickly made their way through the shrubbery, James pausing to pop any pink balloons he saw, until they reached the front door. The same Gelert Butler that had welcomed them was still there. His eyebrows shot up as he saw them. “Monsieur Goldwhite, Lady Wigglebottom!”
“Not anymore.” James pointed to Deirdre. “We’re calling her Miss Goldwhite from now on. She can be my sister, or something.”
“Just trust us. Can we go through?”
“But... how... I didn’t see you leave, Monsieur...!”
“Uh, yeah,” James rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. “Let’s just say we took an unorthodox exit.”
“Look, Miss Goldwhite here is really tired, and I’m in urgent need of a cup of strong coffee. Be a chum and let us through before Mr Winworth dies, please?”
“You know, for a butler, you’re amazingly thick. Would it help if I spelt it out to you? L-E-T U-S T-H-R-O-G-H.”
Deirdre nudged him discreetly. “You misspelt ‘through’.”
With a face that would have looked less confused if he’d just been teleported to Faerieland, the butler stepped aside. “There you go, sir.”
“Finally! Psh. You guys certainly weren’t hired for your brains.”
James led Deirdre through the door, and it was only when they were approaching the dining room that he stopped. “Wait a minute...”
“The thick-as-brick butler just called me ‘sir’. What happened to the accent and ‘monsieur’?”
Deirdre’s eyebrows went up. “That’s strange.”
“Yeah.” James began to scan the room for Mr Trix. “We’d better get my coffee real quick, because I have a feeling I’m going to need it.”
To be continued...