Masquerades: Part Five
Dinner had finished and drinks were being served as James and Deirdre wove their way through the crowd. Pink-bowed waiters were marching stoically through the guests, brandishing trays laden with punch and expensive looking drinks. To James’s extreme disappointment and disgust, there wasn’t a drop of coffee to be seen.
“Hang this,” the Hissi muttered, causing a group of diamond-strung Usuls nearby to stare at him. “What’s the point of having a party without coffee? It’s like having a sandwich without bread.”
“You do realize, sir, that not everyone else is addicted to coffee, don’t you?”
“There must be something wrong with them. Do you think they’d make some for me if I bribed one of the waiters?”
A stately Wocky was walking by at that time, and James took the opportunity to tug on his bow. “Excuse me, but is there any chance whatsoever of getting a proper drink?”
Very slowly, the Butler turned to him and began to look him up and down, taking in the grass stains over his coat, and bruise that was starting to form above his left eye. “Drink, sir?”
“Yes. Now, my friend, I have it on good authority that you lot aren’t too bright, so I’m going to say this slowly and clearly. You might want to write it down.”
When the waiter didn’t make a move to find a pen or paper, James rolled his eyes. “Point in case. Okay, see if you can remember it. I... want... a... cup... of... coffee.”
“Yes, that’s what I just said.”
“In a cup, sir?”
“No, I think I’d like it in a paper plate this time. Seriously, what do you think I want it in? Yes, a cup.”
The Wocky’s eyebrows were slowly converging between his eyes to form a magnificent frown. “Very well. What sort of coffee, sir?”
James stared at him. “Coffee. I just want coffee. Why is that so hard to understand?”
“Regular coffee then, sir?”
“Yes please, and quickly, before this headache gets any worse.”
The butler’s frown deepened, but he obediently moved towards the kitchens. As soon as he was gone, James turned back to Deirdre, who was biting her glove to muffle her laughter.
“Thank goodness that’s over. Now, what’s been happening around here in our absence?”
The last of the ‘fashionably late’ guests had arrived during dinner, and the room was packed. It took James two minutes of frantic scanning to find Trix, who was still lounging in the shadows of an alcove. He was so well disguised that James wouldn’t have seen him at all, except that the Nimmo had leaned forward into the light, apparently in order to get a better look at them.
James’s eyes made contact with Trix’s, and to his surprise the Nimmo didn’t look away immediately. Instead, he met James’s gaze steadily before nodding slightly and leaning back again.
“What was that?” Deirdre asked from around the glove.
“I don’t get it. He’s not disturbed that we’ve seen him; he just looked intrigued, almost amused. I caught him in very suspicious circumstances, but he doesn’t seem to care.”
James turned back to look for the Winworths and found them not far away. Edward was offering a plastic smile to one of the guests, who was apparently droning his way through a never-ending story. Lucille leaned on her husband’s arm, giggling and nodding enthusiastically.
Satisfied that both of them were alive and in one piece, James turned his attention to the doorway of the kitchen and proceeded to wait with ever decreasing patience.
Just as he’d made up his mind to go and give the chefs a piece of his mind, the door swung open to admit a tray holding a promising-looking mug. Incidentally, the tray was on an arm, which was in turn attached to the body of a red Xweetok.
“You asked for coffee?”
James took the mug with a relieved sigh, and did a double-take as he glanced at the Xweetok. Unlike the other waiters there, he had a friendly, eager face, and seemed considerably younger, maybe twenty or so. The most distinct feature about him, however, was the obvious lack of an obnoxious pink bow.
If there was one thing James knew, it was that things like this didn’t happen by chance. Forcing himself to put his coffee on hold for a second, he made an attempt at small-chat.
“Thanks, kid. What’s your name?”
“Bobby, sir.” Bobby’s grin was quite possibly the largest thing James had ever seen. He seemed like an honest, cheerful worker- yet more things that set him apart from the other frostily hostile waiters. As inviting as the mug of coffee in his wing was, James’s curiosity had taken over, and before Deirdre could stop him he asked,
“Why don’t you have a bow?”
“Delicate,” Deirdre whispered mournfully, “that was really delicate.”
Bobby didn’t seem to mind, however, because his smile widened- if such a thing was physically possible. “You know, sir, I’m not quite sure. When we were all hired they gave the others bows as part of the outfit, but not me.” He shrugged. “Not that I’m complaining.”
James’s mind was whirring into action as he put his coffee down untasted. “You were hired? You mean you don’t work here permanently?”
“Oh, no, sir. Most everyone here was brought in ‘specially for the ball. As far as I know, the Winworths don’t have too many personal staff- I believe it’s financial constraints.”
James spared a brief glance at the extravagantly decorated room. “Financial constraints, eh? What about that Gelert butler with the posh accent- was he hired specifically for tonight as well?”
“Gerald? Yeah, though I didn’t know he was going to be on butler duty. When I was introduced to him, his job was making sure the night went smoothly. The official title was Quandary Control, or something.” Bobby shrugged and then did a double take. “Yikes, sorry, mister, but I’ve gotta go. I’m supposed to be serving drinks and the chef gets really mad if I’m late. Have a good evening, and all of that!”
As quickly as he’d come, the Xweetok was off again, darting through the straggles of talking guests. James watched him as he rubbed his chin. “Quandary Control, eh?”
“Quandary means ‘difficulty’ or ‘predicament’. Is it just me or does that have a slightly sinister ring to it?”
“Don’t you think we’ve gotten into enough trouble for one evening?”
James winked at his secretary. “I’m a reporter, Deirdre; trouble and I are virtually brothers. Besides, this is way more fun than filling out reports at the office.”
Deirdre smirked. “And I’m not the one who has to make your coffee for once.”
James turned to where he’d put his mug down and suddenly let out a whimper. “My coffee! Someone took my coffee!”
Indeed, the countertop where James had left his mug was now completely vacant. James just sighed and slumped against the wall. “Brilliant.”
To James’s extreme disgust, Deirdre was looking amused. “Who’d take it? I mean, it’s not like any of these pets are addicted to coffee. They strike me as more the fancy type.”
“Well, someone’s obviously taken it,” James paused to shoot a dangerous glance at a fat Gnorbu. “And whoever it is is going to be in an awful lot of trouble when I find them out.”
A sudden tapping from behind them made them turn around. Lord Winworth was standing on a chair, trying to get the room’s attention by means of a glass and a spoon. The short Bruce obviously didn’t like being the centre of attention because a light perspiration covered his face as his eyes darted across the throng of chatting pets, but he bravely continued to tap at the glass until the room was quiet.
“Your attention, please! Uh, yes. Thank you. My, uh, my wife and I would, well, we’d like to thank you for coming to join us, uh, here tonight, and uh, yes, well... I suppose it’d be time for some dancing, eh?”
An excited murmur sprang up amongst the guests as the servants moved the tables out of the room, and the band took their places on a stage in the corner.
“Dancing. Yay,” James and Deirdre chorused miserably. The Hissi glanced at his secretary and grinned. “As fun as the idea of wandering aimlessly around a room in time with some insipid music sounds, I think I might take this opportunity to question our good friend the butler. Stay here, alright, Deirdre?”
The Xweetok sighed and blew a wisp of hair out of her face. “Just as long as I don’t get mugged again.”
“I promise,” James grinned broadly. “Keep an eye on everyone important and come and get me if anything happens, kay?”
“Sure thing, sir.”
With a final nod and smile James edged his way through the crowd, past the obnoxious decorations and out of the room. His motive for leaving Deirdre was two-sided: he needed someone to stay and watch Trix and Lord Winworth, but primarily he knew she’d be safer with the guests. If the butler was indeed in charge of Quandary Control, he’d know all about both of them by now.
As he reached the front entrance hall, James stopped. When he’d come through it earlier it had been a busy hive of butlers and maids, but now it was absolutely and completely deserted.
The Hissi rotated slowly on the spot as he tried to probe the shadows that lingered around the statues and artefacts that lined the room. “Where...?”
He never got to finish his sentence. A sharp, fiery pain shot across the back of his head, causing him to reel forward and grasp at the wall. Someone grabbed him from behind and swung him around, and James’s eyes narrowed. “Ow.”
Grinning at him and holding a wooden bat was the Gelert butler. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t Mr Goldwhite. Or, would that be Mr Nexis?”
The pain in the back of his head was slowing to a slow throb as James blinked up at the Gelert. “Oh, you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I expected to be confronted by someone intelligent, that’s all.”
The Gelert snorted. “I wouldn’t be so cocky at the moment if I were you, little Hissi. You’re forgetting who’s got a weapon.”
“Ah,” James motioned to the bat, “so this is what you call Quandary Control?”
“I never make things more complicated than they need to be.” With surprising swiftness, the butler shoved James against the wall.
The Gelert grinned as he raised the bat. “Say goodnight, little Hissi.”
To be continued...