“What are you doing for that. . . for your little friend’s birthday?” asked Carabosse lazily, reaching round Cobweb to get at the stuffed olives.
“Me? Nothing,” she answered, equally lazily, shifting the dish out of his reach. He had already eaten all the ones stuffed with almonds.
“Why not? Isn’t it some time around now?”
“Yes, but he doesn’t hold with birthdays, he says.”
Carabosse frowned, trying to remember. “But we had a party for him one year, didn’t we? And I thought you and Huw arranged something for him last year. Didn’t you get him a birthday spanking?”
“I got him quite a few birthday spankings from rugby players and a Foawr and from Huw as well, and all the thanks I got was to be thrown in the river and walloped by you. I’m not bothering this year.”
“Oh,” said the Wicked Fairy, as if somehow this were the wrong answer. “It’s just that. . . you know how sometimes you see something and you think: that would be just the most perfect gift for so-and-so?”
Cobweb shook her head. “He says he doesn’t do birthdays any more. If he doesn’t want to be given a birthday present, why would I give him one?”
“Because it would be a fun thing to give him, of course. No, not fun for him, although actually I think he would enjoy it, not that he’d ever admit as much. But fun for us and so not-fun for the people with Brats.” He stopped there, knowing perfectly well how to set a hook.
“He doesn’t want a birthday present,” repeated Cobweb stubbornly, and turned the conversation with some firmness to other subjects. Carabosse was intelligent enough both to let her, and not to smile smugly when, some forty minutes later, she asked, à propos of absolutely nothing, “What people with Brats? Where?”
“Well, I think he’d be Browned off by the original location – it’s fairly Grimm – but you know how these tales are, most of them move around a bit. There’s Brunswick and Brandenburg, Neustadt-Eberswalde, Ummanz, Korneuburg, and they aren’t even all European. He could have Aleppo, Hangchow. . . I rather liked Aleppo, myself. Still, the one I thought would be perfect for him is Newtown. Franchville, as was. I thought it had. . . potential.”
She was frowning. “Newtown? Franchville? I’ve never heard of them. Where are they?”
“It’s the same place. On the Solent. The Isle of Wight.”
“There are Brats on the Isle of Wight? I thought the Isle of Wight was full of retired Commodores and boaty type people? Why would there be Brats on the Isle of Wight?”
He sighed. “Oh, darling, listen to yourself.”
Her lips moved and her eyes widened. “You mean we have one too? I never knew that! I thought they were all in some sort of weird mid-Pacific land-slip time warp? Or like that place he found when his Fold went. . . but that was a corrupted one. They aren’t meant to be like that, are they?”
“They aren’t meant to be at all,” said Carabosse severely. “For pity’s sake, think about it. If a man isn’t competent to pick his own friends and choose his own lifestyle, how can he possibly be competent to choose another man to do it for him? Somewhere like that is an Abomination and it ought to be meddled with by your little friend. Give him a birthday present of permission to meddle, only don’t tell him, because if you tell him that he may meddle he’ll refuse out of sheer awkwardness.”
“An Abomination,” said Cobweb, disbelievingly, ignoring the rest. Bossy was right about the awkwardness, of course, but no need to tell him so. An Abomination? She’d thought it was merely Stupid, and everybody knew she held no truck with Wilful Stupidity and punished it where she could. And where she thought it would do most good. She hadn’t realised it was an actual Abomination. “Um, for which God? Goddess? Whose Abomination is it?”
“Well, to tell the truth, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely an Abomination. I’ve had a lot of experience: I know an Abomination when I see one. Not your Boss’s because there are no children, and not mine, because it’s generally just tedious repetitive boorish behaviour, not actual Wickedness. Wilfulness. Tiresomeness. A lack of refinement. Insensitivity. Loutish vulgarity and selfishness.”
“And that’s just the Tops,” agreed a beautiful voice behind her; Cobweb jumped so convulsively that she spilled most of the contents of her wineglass into her lap. Carabosse, with the advantage of facing the right way, managed to rise to his feet more or less gracefully and made the appropriate obeisance to another elemental’s God.
“Yours, then, Lord?”
“Mine, Carabosse. And you are perfectly correct: it is an Abomination. I am quite of the opinion that the Isle of Wight could do with some vulgarity but not in that form. I want you to Do something about it.”
Carabosse hesitated delicately; the God smiled. “This language is clumsy in its pronouns, is it not? I meant you, Nemesis.”
“Me?” squeaked Cobweb nervously, brushing Grenache out of her skirts and neatly causing it to vanish before it hit the floor. She was still a part time votary of the God, but it had been some time since he had asked anything of her. Still, she was smart enough not to argue. “Do what, exactly, Lord?”
“This wilfulness ought to be worship of Me, but it has become corrupted, and I want my Woodgnome to do something about it. I have manifested to him already: he will come to you tomorrow. I am not entirely pleased with him: he has been falling behind on his duties to Me.”
Carabosse and Cobweb exchanged rather horrified glances: it was rarely a good thing to be involved with somebody who was not on good terms with a God. The God noticed.
“Oh, you needn’t concern yourselves. He just needs to be brought into line occasionally. I believe that in the past, you have both said as much.”
“Well, yes, Lord,” agreed Cobweb, feebly, “but Huw generally has that in hand.” She considered the rather unfortunate wording of her last sentence and blushed; both the God and the Wicked Fairy pretended not to notice.
“Yes, well, it’s good for him once in a while to do some work, just so that he remembers to be grateful that I don’t require it of him very often. Make him work, please, Nemesis.”
“Yes, Lord,” she said dolefully. She knew what would happen. So, apparently, did the God.
“And don’t be fooled or cajoled or wheedled or bullied or any of the other things he does, into doing the work for him.”
She perked up. “No, Lord. Um. . . and this work is what, exactly? Bossy didn’t say.”
“Hey, Cobs? Fancy an outing? We haven’t been anywhere in ages and I thought perhaps we could just go and see what’s going on in the world.”
“He says I’m not to be conned into doing it for you.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said the Gnome, unconvincingly.
“Your God. He’s says I’m not to do your work for you.”
He opened his mouth to deny all knowledge again, but she gave him a serious Glare, and he thought better of it. “Well, are you coming to help or not?”
She let him suffer for a moment – he had done it to her often enough – before she grinned at him. “Wouldn’t miss it for anything. How are you going to do it?”
“Well now, that’swhyIwantedyoutocome.”
It was a muttered gabble.
He sighed in an exaggerated manner. “Oh, come on, Cobs. It’s going to be admin or something like it.”
She raised her eyebrows and waited. It was sufficiently rare for her to have him wanting something from her that she felt inclined to make the most of it. He sighed again. “Look, do you want me to beg, or what?”
He snarled at her. “Oh please, Lady Nemesis, deign to honour your humble companion with your assistance and with the great benefit of your specific skills and knowledge.”
She stared blankly at him; he glared back at her. Her mouth twitched first. He snorted and conjured a bottle; she reached into the air and produced wine glasses.
“Here, these are a bit flash! Gold rims and blown stems? Not your usual style.”
“It’s the God,” she admitted, holding the glasses out for him to fill. “My wine may not be as good as yours, but specially when he’s been by, I can do a decanter and six expensive glasses, no trouble. Come on, then, what are we going to do?”
“I told you. Admin of some sort. Oh, Gods, you want me to say it out loud, don’t you?”
“Damn right I do.”
“All right. Your admin is better than mine. I don’t know why you make such a big deal of it.”
“Because it’s about the only thing I do better than you, darling and we both know it, and if I’m not careful you make me feel deeply inadequate. I don’t think you have any idea how infuriating it is to come up against somebody who can apparently do everything and do it well.”
“Well, all right. You do better admin than me. But I do better meddling than you and I think this is going to need both. These people have a plague and it needs dealing with.”
“Of course they have a plague, that goes without saying. A plague of what, by the way?”
He rolled the bottle expertly to prevent drips.
“Children,” repeated the woman in the sharp suit and the spike heels. The man behind the desk looked disapprovingly, firstly at her and then at the man with her. He didn’t have a sharp suit: he had a suit but it really couldn’t be called anything other than blunt. It was a nasty sort of iridescent fabric which hinted at rainbow colours, although less like an honest weather condition and slightly more like petrol on a dirty puddle. Not at all like the smart beige shirts and trousers which William’s boys wore. . . Neither of them, thought William, looked at all like what he needed. What he needed was Kink Aware Pest Control and these people didn’t seem to be it, despite having been recommended by. . . by somebody, he was sure they had, and presently he would remember who had said they were good. Nonetheless, he didn’t think he would have called them if he had realised that one of them was a Woman. It wasn’t Right. It certainly wasn’t Desirable. There was no place in his world for a Woman. The man was supposed to be in charge, he was fairly sure of that, so he must be Top because that was the way it worked, but he didn’t seem like a Top. He had made a couple of remarks which could only be called Bratty, and then. . . William shook his head. It was Too Difficult.
“Well, not children, exactly, but young people. I don’t know what they’re doing here but they climb the wall and congregate in the orchard, they steal the fruit, they’ve been camping on the lower meadow. . . They’re some sort of cult type organisation, I think.”
The peculiar people exchanged glances. “Yes?” encouraged the man.
“Well, some of them have a leopard-skin print uniform and carry sticks with sort of twisty stuff all round and pine cones on top.” The exchange of glances was more obvious this time. “And the girls are worse than the boys. They make a lot of noise and barbecue all the time.” Both the odd people shuddered at that. “Anyway, we want them gone and we’re willing to pay for it.”
“And have you any particular method you want used?” asked the woman smoothly; he stared at her.
“Whatever you want. However you can do it. Get them gone by Monday. Anything. Anything!”
The man smirked unpleasantly. “That’ll be an official no-holds-barred ‘anything’, will it? No arguments later? No limits? No conditions? Nothing that will make you come back later and say ‘no, we didn’t agree to that!’?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Just do something about our security! Get rid of the bloody kids! Get them to go off somewhere else and put in your sodding bill!”
“Heard and agreed and witnessed!” That was sonorous and the woman had a particularly smug expression; he decided to ignore her. He didn’t know how to deal with women, he never met any. They were. . . odd. And icky. He could never tell whether they were Tops or Brats and some of them didn’t seem to be either, which couldn’t be right. After all, everybody was either a Top or a Brat. He was Master Top himself and he knew these things. The odd people excused themselves to go and reconnoitre, and he went back to his own paperwork. So much to do, so little time. . . After all, the odd people weren’t really important; dealing with them was only admin.
The odd people were standing in a pleasant orchard, leaning on a neat stone wall, and considering the multi-coloured village of tents, benders (no, the canvas sort – well, all right, there were probably some of the other ones as well, it’s that sort of story), tepees, yurts and other uncomfortable forms of accommodation. There wasn’t enough space to turn round, and everywhere you looked there were young people. Most of them were eating: there were empty chip packets, cheese wrappers, sugar packets, dead tea bags and beer cans, milk cartons and sandwich packs. Had they stopped here it might have been borne. But the squeaking and shrieking, the hurrying and scurrying, so that you could neither hear yourself speak nor get a wink of good honest sleep the live-long night!
“Pardon?” said the man, startled.
“Sorry,” apologised his companion. “I should have warned you that it might do that. I’ve noticed before that when I’m in a Variation, traditional bits insist on getting in every now and then. That one was the rats, but I suppose it fitted for the tourists too.”
The air smelled of barbecues (primarily of burnt burgers and kerosene) and slightly of. . . “The thing I don’t care for in the outdoor life,” said the woman suspiciously, “is the plumbing. Or lack of it. In general I’m for plumbing.” She turned, leaning back against the wall and enjoying the spring sunshine. A rather sullen-faced young man was looking at her between the trees.
“Hello,” she said agreeably, elbowing her companion sharply in the ribs to get his attention. “Do you belong on this side of the wall with Wills, or on that side of the wall with the visitors?”
“We’re not allowed over the wall,” muttered the young man sullenly. “And his name isn’t Wills, it’s William. He doesn’t let anybody shorten it.”
“Is that a fact?” asked the man brightly. “Very wise of him. You should never allow anybody to call you by a name you’re not comfortable with. My name’s Piper. My companion, Miss Webb. And you would be. . .?”
“They call me Davey. I’m supposed to be looking for Jonnie. Nicholas sent him out to get some fresh air while Tommy writes his lines: he wasn’t feeling well. Have you seen him?”
The woman nodded. “A rather handsome blond man? Try down by the pool. I think we passed him on the way here.”
The large eyes widened. “The pool? Oh no! He’s not allowed down there on his own! None of us are!”
“Then we had better go and retrieve him,” said the man pleasantly, although there was a slight tinge of menace to the observer who could see such a thing. “We’ll come with you.”
They walked back between the trees; behind the house was a large and rather ugly swimming pool. The spring breeze rippled the water attractively – actually, it didn’t. It made the whole place slightly too cold for comfort and turned the water a dull grey, and the intermittent sunshine was insufficient to liven the institutional layout of sun-loungers and deck chairs. In one of the deck chairs was the pretty blond; he had his hand thrown over his eyes, but he was very pale and swallowing convulsively.
“Jonnie?” asked his companion tentatively. “Are you feeling better?”
“No!” It was a piteous whine.
Piper stepped forward sharply, but his companion caught his wrist and shook her head, although her glance was sympathetic.
“Nicholas said that if you weren’t ready to come back inside and help with the laundry, I was to take you for a walk.”
“I don’t want to go for a walk!” This was past whine and into miserable wail.
“Nicholas said,” repeated the other boy; this was clearly a clincher in any argument.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Miss Webb in an undertone. Davey cast a worried look her way.
“He gets these headaches. They can go on all day.”
“And what does he do about them?”
“Nicholas gives him some Phenergan and sends him out for fresh air. He’ll be better by tea time; Nicholas says they’re stress. Come on, Jonnie, we’ll walk round the meadow. But Nicholas says we’re not to talk to the people in the tents.”
“I don’t want to!” Not even the hardest hearted Nemessary would have punished that as brattery – it was plainly nothing more than deep wretchedness.
“Nicholas said. And you know what happened last time he said you needed fresh air and you didn’t go.”
The blond boy plainly did; he heaved himself out of the deck chair, and stood for a moment with one hand protectively over his bottom, and the other clenched at his mouth. The young men walked slowly away arm in arm; the older man made a sound of suppressed rage.
The woman’s expression had darkened. “He was right, wasn’t he? This is an Abomination.”
“Anathema,” he agreed. “It’s got to be stopped. Promethazine? For a migraine?” He looked at her, seriously. “It’s not a game any more, is it? I know you felt that.”
“The transfer went both ways, didn’t it? You’re partially answerable to the Lady, and sometimes Her demands kick harder than His. No, it’s not a game.”
“I’m going to Fix some of this, you know.”
“I’ll hold your coat. Look, there’s a sort of cottage here, let’s see what’s what.”
Through an excessively polished window, a snivelling young man could be seen with a large notebook, in which he was writing repeatedly ‘I must not hide and sulk when I have been spanked’. Out in the garden yet another man, this one not so young but equally tearstained, was curled in a bedraggled heap in a hammock. When Miss Webb stepped forward, Piper didn’t attempt to stop her. He was really beginning to dislike William and his organisation.
“What’s the matter, honey? Tell your auntie Webb. What’s happened?”
It was some time before the misery abated enough to permit coherent speech, but the listening parties eventually established that this was Stevie, that he didn’t like it here, and that Patrick, who was horrible and heartless, had spanked him.
“And left you?” asked Miss Webb, horrified.
“No,” admitted a rather snuffly Stevie. “He made me sit on his lap until I stopped crying. The first time. That was why I did stop crying. I hate sitting on his lap, I feel so stupid, and he makes me get my head under his chin and I’m too tall, I don’t fit and it gives me backache. I don’t want to be cuddled, I want to be left alone.”
“But if you had stopped crying, why were you crying again now?” asked a bewildered Piper.
“Because I don’t like it here and I want to go.”
“So go,” prompted Miss Webb.
“I ca-an’t! I’ve nowhere to go any more!”
Piper watched with a distinct frisson which he would never willingly have admitted to be fear, as Miss Webb’s expression changed.
“Explain that to me, honey.”
Stevie sighed wearily, and rested his head against her shoulder. She made absolutely no attempt to gather him into her lap.
“Patrick’s a high-powered executive and I used to be his PA. I’m really good – I have to be. A male PA is like a female engineer, you know, has to do everything twice as well to be thought half as good. And then Patrick and I got together, and we were so happy, and he got a promotion, and. . . well, suddenly there was just so much work, more and more for both of us, just way too much and I began to struggle to get it all done, and it took longer and longer and the meetings were more and more important, and if anything got missed it was my fault but I couldn’t watch everything at once! And Patrick didn’t like it if I went into the office earlier than him or stayed later, because after all, he was the one really doing the work, I could see that, my bit was only admin. But it was hard! I had to set up meetings for twelve people, make all the arrangements in four languages, and fix everybody’s flights and hotels and so on, and it used to take days because of finding slots in everybody’s diaries, that sort of thing, and all his translation work because it was confidential and he didn’t want it going to an external translation agency. And eventually Patrick said that we couldn’t go on like that, that I wasn’t coping and it wasn’t good for my health and it wasn’t good for our relationship that we didn’t get to spend time together out of the office and he said he would take a year’s sabbatical – his contract allows him to do that – and he fixed it that I got a year’s leave too, and he said we would come here until I got my head together again and stopped stressing over the small stuff. Because after all, it was only admin and I didn’t need to get in such a state about it.”
Piper winced; he had spent enough time with Miss Webb to know that if the admin fails, the project fails, and he had some sympathy for her view that a new chief executive could be had by walking into the street and shouting, but that a decent PA should be worshipped as a god.
“He says we’re staying here until he thinks I’m fit to go back to work, only I’ve been here three months and he won’t say we can go. I’m so bored! I want my job back! I haven’t anyone to talk to, not anyone who can talk about any of the things that interest me, like European history, and I’m not interested in the things they are, like football, but apparently I have to learn to be interested in their things and they don’t have to learn to be interested in mine, and I don’t ever want to weed another garden, and he’s taken my mobile phone and my laptop and my credit card and the only way I can get any of them back is to leave and if I leave. . . if I leave Patrick won’t come with me and he’ll get a new PA as well and. . .”
“Yes,” said Miss Webb sharply, “I got that bit. Abomination. Anathema. Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’m going to make it better. Or rather, I’m going to show you – I’m going to arrange for someone to show you how to make it better. Take heart: it won’t be straight away, but very soon. Very, very soon.” She climbed out of the hammock (perhaps later, a lot later, thought Piper, he would tell her how undignified she had looked, but not quite now) and stalked along the garden path, closing the gate quietly behind her. Piper would have been less terrified if she had slammed it.
“That one,” she said to him icily, “is mine. You know how I feel about issues of valid consent.”
“I do,” he agreed meekly. “Um, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’m supposed to be doing the work?” He was trying not to notice that her jacket was tearing and she seemed to be developing wings. Big black ones, rather like Bossy’s. He wondered what his life expectancy would be if he asked whether she were suffering from Pre-Monsteral Tension.
“I’m doing that one. Bloody bossyboots, trying to control his home life and his work and lay down the law about what he can and can’t do, and just telling him not to do things without any attempt to find out what he’s really doing and who needs to do it. . . That’s why they recommend that you don’t have a relationship with somebody at work, it always goes wrong and you end up with nothing satisfactory in your home life or your job, and his boss! It’s his boss! So who can he complain to if his boss isn’t treating him right? To his partner who’s his boss and who’s going to give him really good advice, oh yes, don’t you just believe he is? Brings him here for a one-size-fails-to-fit-anybody cheap psychoanalytical fix with no reference to the fact that the boy is plainly sensitive and intellectually gifted. Well, I’m going to sort that and when I do it will stay sorted for a long time, just you wait and see!”
“The God said. . .” he was trying hard not to let his voice rise to a squeak.
“The God said that it was corruption of His worship. I am a part-time follower of the God; I will deal with it. He doesn’t need a bloody Top, he needs a decent union rep!”
The female worshippers of the God had always been a bit unreliable, he thought. “Please, pet, please will you calm down? A nice glass of wine and I’ll brush your hair? You don’t think that maybe you’re over-reacting just a tiny bit? I mean, these people are fictional, they aren’t coming to any real harm.”
“That boy with the headache was fictional too. That didn’t stop you being pissed off about him.”
He sighed and poured them both another glass. “No, I suppose it didn’t. Do I have to bring my own soap box or can I share yours?”
They had finished the bottle before her wings subsided and she seemed to have reconciled herself to the necessity of letting him make the plans. “I have to admit, I was a little taken aback. I didn’t know you were musical.”
She looked bewildered. “Then how are we going to do this? I don’t see how we can do this if you can’t play. . .”
He smirked at her and she put a hand up to stop him just as he opened his mouth. “One remark about being a very competent player of the pink oboe, and I leave you here to do all your own admin.”
“You’re no fun,” he complained. “O.K., I won’t say it. Sorry, I can’t play anything.”
“So what were we thinking of doing? I assumed you were planning a concert of some sort.”
“Of some sort,” he agreed. “I need you to go and see somebody at the council. Do you have contacts at the council?”
“I expect so,” she confirmed. “Every council has somebody behaving other than the way they should, so I dare say somebody will be on my books. What do you need done?”
“An entertainment licence.”
“I believe it’s for a performance of live or recorded music, dance, film, indoor sports, boxing or wrestling in the presence of an audience.”
“Right, and you’re going to do which of these?”
“All of them.”
“All at once?”
“I thought we could have a rave.”
Her eyes widened. “You expect me to do the admin for a rave?”
“Well actually,” he said apologetically, “I need you to do the paperwork, get the licence and so on. The rest of it, as you would know perfectly well if you gave it any thought, is basically a big party and parties are covered by the God, so I dare say I could do it myself. And let’s face it, I’ll have help. You know who’s out there, don’t you?”
She did. “Maenads. They’re running the barbecue tent. Don’t eat anything they offer you.”
He smirked again. “You know I would never let my lips touch –”
“Remarks about not letting your lips touch what women have to offer count with comments on the playing of the pink oboe and mean that you have to get your own Temporary Event Notice.”
“I don’t care for barbecued food, I was about to say. Not unless I’ve cooked it myself. Listen pet, you do understand, don’t you, that if he pays the bill in full and on time, there’s not going to be a damn thing we can do to help those Brats? The admin has to be absolutely perfect, nowhere that there can be any faultline between Story and Reality. Go and get me a licence while I speak to the girls, there’s a pet.”
“No,” said Mr Piper firmly. “The deal was that I should make them go away and I made them go away. They had come to the Isle of Wight on the understanding that there would be a rave; there was a rave; they are now in the process of going away again. My associate, Miss Webb, told them to go away and they are going.” It was a Motherhood thing; she had spent the entire evening handing out bottles of water and telling everyone who took a bottle from her that the best thing to do after the rave would be to sleep, eat and then bugger off back to wherever they had come from. Something about the way she said it raised memories of childhood and the point at which some responsible adult had said ‘and what we’re going to do now’, following which some specific thing had been done. Not all, but most of the people who had spoken to her were in the process of packing up, agreeing that they’d had a good time, and buggering off as suggested.
“I didn’t mean that you should organise a. . . a riot for ten thousand people! We’ll be clearing up the mess for weeks, the neighbours all hate me – us! – I’ve spent half the morning persuading the local press not to write up the events of the weekend, and the other half calming down the –”
“Inmates?” prompted Miss Webb in an undertone. William gave her a look of some dislike.
“Residents. The residents. You cannot seriously believe that we will pay your exorbitant bill in the light of the methods you used to achieve your ends.”
“Pompous pillock, isn’t he?” enquired Miss Webb, sotto voce. “Absolute classic of his type.”
“Well, for heaven’s sake! You didn’t exactly go to a lot of trouble, did you? Simply running the rave that they had come for? I could have done that if I had thought of it.”
“I believe the point is that you didn’t think of it,” remarked Mr Piper. “I thought of it, and we did it – and we did it absolutely legally and with all the relevant paperwork.”
“Yes, well, and you did it on my – on our land! And the council has it down as having been a private function so they’re not sympathetic to my demands for – to my requests for help in funding the clean-up operation, and people are suggesting that it may become an annual event! You absolutely can not expect to have that monstrosity of a bill paid for this!”
“I negotiated the terms in this very office,” pointed out Mr Piper, calmly. “Miss Webb was witness to the deal. ‘Anything’, you said.”
But he hummed and he hawed and at last, “Come, my good man,” said he. “You see what poor folk we are. How can we manage to pay you what you ask? Will you not take half? When all is said and done, 'twill be good pay for the trouble you've taken.”
Mr Piper looked across at his colleague. She shrugged with an expression of some embarrassment. “It’s not my fault. It’s just Variation.”
“The amount on that invoice, which Miss Webb has so carefully drawn up in coloured triplicate, was what I bargained for,” said Mr Piper shortly, “and if I were you I'd pay it quickly, for I can play many kinds of tunes, as folk sometimes find to their cost.”
“Would you threaten us, you – you Loose Brat?” shrieked William, and at the same time he winked to his secretary. “The children are all gone,” muttered he; and so, “You may do your worst, my good man,” and with that he turned short upon his heel.
Had he bothered to look out at the couple on the gravel drive, rather than nursing the knee which he had twisted by trying to turn on his heel while wearing nasty tacky open-toed sandals, he might have wondered why Mr Piper and Miss Webb were high-fiving each other and laughing like idiots.
“Do you want to be Top or Brat? Do we need to be one of each, or can we both be the same?”
“I want the medical one, so I think I need to be Top, but I don’t see why you shouldn’t be Top as well if you want.”
She considered. “No, I think it will be easier if I’m Brat. Only if Bossy finds out, I am sooooooo dead; I’m not allowed to bottom for anybody except him, although he doesn’t mind where I top.”
“I can’t see Huw liking me topping either,” he agreed. “Ah well, sometimes we must suffer for our art. Now, how are we going to get in?”
“Put in an application? How do people generally get in?”
“Brats just arrive, usually having been referred by somebody else. Tops, I think, have been there all along.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I can do that if you want, slide you in through Time, but it’ll be a bit obvious. Can’t we think of anything else?”
“I can, but I don’t think you’ll like it. We could go as a couple.” He backed hastily away, just in case, but she was frowning, more in thought than disapproval.
“Nothing. . . um. . .. Messy. No. . .”
“Oh no, certainly not,” he agreed fervently. “No, none of that.”
“And no taking the opportunity to make me do things just because they’re funny. I’m going to have trouble enough not spontaneously combusting if that plonker speaks to me, without you winding me up as well.”
“Would I do that?”
“Yes. Oh, and I’m not being called by any silly baby name, either.”
“Robin Leshy and Giles Hick, William.”
He came out from behind his desk to shake hands. “Pleased to meet you both. I hope you enjoy your time here; we pride ourselves on being able to provide a place for individuals and couples both, in which they may explore the advantages of our particular lifestyle. We’ve just got a small amount of paperwork and then we’ll show you round. We think it best that new couples should go into an established group until they’re familiar with our. . . procedures. My own family – we call them families – has two other Tops and four Brats, and we think you would fit with us.”
“I’m sure that would be very acceptable,” said Leshy, smoothly. “Giles needs to spend some time with other Brats. I think it would be valuable for him to discuss how other Brats have come to recognise their needs for this type of relationship and to see how other Tops interact with Brats, both their own and unattached. And of course there’s never any harm in Tops getting together, is there? Sorry, Giles, did you speak?”
William looked up sharply and seemed about to say something, before thinking better of it; then he opened the door. “Jonnie? Will you take – Giles, here, over to Réage? Go with Jonnie, Giles. I’ll bring Robin over later.”
As the door closed he turned back to Leshy. “Tell, me, Robin, what do you call Giles?”
Robin’s eyebrows lifted. “I call him Giles. It’s his name.”
“No abbreviation? Nickname?”
“How do you abbreviate ‘Giles’?”
“And you let him away with calling you ‘Robbie’. I can’t think that. . .”
“I know, he does it all the time. Robbie, or Bobsie” (that one cost him, but he went bravely on), “or Bobble. Sweet, isn’t it?” Almost certainly Cobs would only call him Robbie. The other two made her laugh so much that she couldn’t speak at all. William gave him a hard look. He smiled blandly again. “Shall we get this paperwork out of the way before Giles has a chance to get into trouble?”
They went together, some half hour later, to Réage Cottage, where a group of Brats was sitting on the path, absently weeding a vegetable patch. Two Tops were watching them from the patio.
“Patrick, Nicholas, this is Robin. I believe you’ve already met Giles. I’ll leave you all to get better acquainted.”
Nicholas moved obligingly to make room for Robin. “Our Brats,” he said, waving a hand generally towards them. “Tommy, Stevie, Davey, Jonnie. Stevie belongs to Patrick but the rest are unallocated. I understand you’re interested in how things work here?”
“Wills has made it most plain,” murmured Robin calmly, as Jonnie disengaged himself from the group and came towards the Tops.
“Please, Nicholas, I don’t feel well.”
“Awful, and I feel sick and my skin hurts and the light’s too bright and everything. Same as yesterday and the day before.” He was almost weeping, and the way he kept swallowing made Robin, whose shoes were expensive, draw his feet back sharply.
“All right, come inside. Robin, do you want to come too? See the layout here?”
Robin did. The bedroom was small and antiseptically neat: there was nothing which resembled a personal possession. No photographs, two paperbacks which he recognised as being recent bestsellers, both stultifyingly dull, no TV, no radio; nothing, in fact, to occupy the intellect at all. “Come on, Jonnie, here you are.” Nicholas was holding out a glass of orange juice and a tablet.
“Can’t I have something else?” whined the boy miserably. “I don’t want that!”
“Jonnie, take your tablet and drink the juice. Now!”
The snapped command had its effect: the miserable Brat took the tablet and obediently washed it down with orange juice. “I feel sick,” he whined again, and proved it a moment later. Robin was quicker than Nicholas, and guided the distressed boy promptly to the washstand, running the tap and filling a glass with water.
“When did this start?” he asked softly. Nicholas shrugged.
“He came in with regular headaches and he still gets them. Stress. Once he settles, and stops fighting us, they’ll stop.”
“Why do you treat them with Phenergan?”
“He was self-administering all sorts of rubbish. We don’t allow that. If Brats come in with prescription drugs, that’s one thing, but we can’t allow them to keep the over-the-counter things they all seem to carry. We provide whatever they need.”
Robin was closing the curtains softly, and encouraging the miserable Brat into bed. He drew Nicholas out of the room. “Well, it must be such a comfort for him to be in your hands, you being a doctor and all,” he said silkily; Nicholas looked surprised.
“Oh, I’m not a doctor, although we have a medical advisor. But all the Tops are experienced; we know when a Brat’s putting it on, or when he’s sick.”
“Oh,” said Robin, in wide-eyed innocence. “Oh, right, I see. Yes, of course. Well, yes, I’m sure that even if you haven’t got a medical qualification, it must be preferable for you to administer his drugs, rather than letting him do it himself. After all, you must be in a much better position than him to know if he’s really in pain or not. And, um, you’ve considered all the things this might be? And whether Phenergan is suitable and what else might be appropriate?”
Nicholas stared. “It’s stress headaches. We’ve always used Phenergan so that the Brats sleep off their attacks.”
“Why? It’s not a painkiller. It’s good for travel sickness and wasp stings, lousy for migraine. If migraine is what he has.”
“Well, what else could it be?”
Robin smiled, sharklike. “Oh, nothing, I’m sure. Except possibly meningitis. Or sinusitis. Are there cattle around here? Might be brucellosis, then. He’s been working in the garden, I see: is his anti-tetanus up to date? Have you tested him for tapeworm? Lyme disease? Have you had your heating here checked to make sure he hasn’t got carbon monoxide poisoning? Neuralgia? Shingles? Not likely to be Paget’s disease and I think if it were ebola you would know by now. Lupus? Botulism? Or. . . does he drink coffee?”
The Top shook his head. “We don’t allow it. Too many of the Brats arrive here jittery from too much coffee so we don’t keep it. They can have tea or juice or water or milk.”
“Ah. Allergic reaction to milk, maybe? If his stomach is upset already, juice will make it worse, and milk may upset him. But frankly, you know, I would put my money on the coffee.”
“I told you, he doesn’t get. . .”
“No, you said. Caffeine addiction, and you’ve made him go cold turkey. By the way, I take it you’ve considered status migrainosus?”
Robin sighed pointedly. “If he’s had this for three days,” he said with exaggerated patience, “you should have taken him to the hospital by now. He’s at risk of a stroke if you don’t. By the way, he’s just been sick again.”
It was surprisingly quiet later, with Nicholas and Jonnie absent at Accident and Emergency. Patrick, by now rather suspicious of Robin, bustled the Brats into a group and set them to choosing a board game, while Robin retired briefly to his room to unpack, opening the wardrobe and leaping back in some astonishment as a young(ish) man in a (fake) fur coat spotted with snow fell out.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Plot Device; I’m one of the Usual Suspects,” said the man, brightly. “Story couldn’t think of what I might be doing here so She just shoved me in via a different narrative theme and gave me a closet to come out of. Um, there are rather a lot of People watching, and axes are being ground in all directions. You got a round of applause for the status migrainosus thing, by the way, but you need to go further. That boy Davey’s a hardened case. If you mean to spring him, it may be necessary to go as far as” and his voice dropped, “therapy.”
“Not in my bloody Story!”
“Well, at the very least you’ll need to show him what he’s got. I mean, it’s a fairly classic case, no problems with the diagnosis. Traditional arrival here, enforced consent to coming, and then being rendered powerless by separation from all outside contact and having his means of communication and fiscal power removed. Follow that up with physical punishment for disobeying the more powerful individuals who are running the situation. Then there was classic reaction to that: irrational and aggressive behaviour on his part, feelings of abandonment, loss and betrayal, and then attachment. It’s probably a toss-up as to whether he becomes compliant or suicidal. We’ve, um, arranged some hints. Clues. Get them watching films and see if he’s bright enough to work it out himself. I’ve brought you some DVDs.”
He had: a neat pile of cases. Robin laid them out in a row on the bed. The World Is Not Enough; Tie me Up, Tie Me Down; Die Hard; The Phantom of the Opera; The Night Porter.
“We generally try for more subtlety, you know.”
“You haven’t time. One of the things about Stockholm Syndrome is that you basically have to hit the victim over the head with it before he’ll see that it’s what he’s got. Major DVD session tonight, get him out as soon as you’ve sorted the rest of them. We’ve got a safe house for him in New York with someone who likes Damaged Brats.”
Robin shuddered. “Is that really the best option? Unless. . .” He stared. “Do you mean the Author? Might be O.K., she allows personal growth in her Brats, and for Tops to have days off and to admit that it’s hard work.” He grinned a grin. “Actually, I have an idea about that too.”
“Excellent. I’ll be off then, must get moving or I’ll miss my connection. If I catch this wardrobe I can get a tallboy back home before supper. Nice shoes, by the way. . . Stick in.”
Out in the main room, the game of Monotony had become complicated by Giles forming a limited partnership with Stevie under some EU regulation which only they seemed to understand and the pair of them buying Whitehall, declaring themselves to be the Uncivil Service and changing all the rules. Tommy, grasping the concept, bought Fleet Street and announced that he was a newspaper proprietor; he then insisted on moving the centre of his operation to Wapping, hampered only by the fact that it didn’t appear on the board.
Patrick was in jail.
The next day dawned bright and early as mornings tend to do. Robin was up early, admiring the sunshine and listening to birdsong; Giles was not. They had seemed peculiarly coy on discovering that they had been allocated a shared room; an observant passer by might have noticed that the centre of the bed was piled with pillows to a height reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. Patrick, who was not observant, but was an early riser, sat down in the kitchen beside Robin.
“Aren’t you going to get him up this morning?”
Robin spilled his tea. “We don’t have that sort of relationsh. . . oh, sorry, I see. Giles? Wake him early? No. I’ll take him a cup of tea at about half seven and he’ll be compos mentis, or as much as he ever is, by eight.”
“You’re too soft with him.” (Robin shuddered.) “I’d make him keep my hours. Up early and early bed, far better for Brats than letting them run wild.”
Robin gazed over the top of his cup at him, wishing for coffee. “If you want to go and wake him now, I’ll see you decently buried,” he offered hopefully.
“Oh, no, no, I never interfere with another man’s Brat. Still, if he belonged to me, we’d deal very differently, I’m telling you.”
“I can well believe it,” Robin assured him; the mental pictures were perhaps a little strong for before breakfast. “What are we doing today?”
“I thought we could all take the Brats down into the town. Have a walk. Take them to the nature reserve. And there’s a collection of fine art at the Old Town Hall; it’s a museum.”
“It sounds lovely,” Robin agreed; actually it did, and he was prepared to bet that Giles would like it too. Nonetheless, if that were the height of excitement, he could see that Brats would be difficult.
They were difficult. Even with only four Brats, Jonnie having been kept in hospital overnight, and three ostensible Tops, it bore a close resemblance to herding cats. Davey clung closely to William; Stevie, Tommy and Giles tended to slide around corners together to look at things, although Giles seemed to be looking for something in particular. Or someone.
She was standing on a street corner, handing out leaflets offering employment advice; she smiled rather nervously at Robin and proffered a glossy sheet. He looked hastily over his shoulder: Patrick and William were examining cricket bats in a shop window.
“You’re a flower fairy: what the. . . what are you doing here?”
“I’m on secondment?” she offered nervously.
He screwed his eyes shut. “Who are you on secondment from?” He sounded irritable; she flinched nervously.
“The Mother,” she whispered.
“What are you doing?”
Figured. Bloody admin, the lot of them. “What are you supposed to be doing for me?”
“I’ve given that boy a leaflet; when he reads it, he’s supposed to come and see me and I’ll fix the next bit. He just needs some professional advice.” She was sounding more confident and less squeaky. “I know about human resource management.”
“Ah. Are you actually human?”
“Well. . . I’m one of the Usual Suspects.”
“What, Cob’s Coven? Why does that not surprise me?”
She bridled nervously. “I need him to read the leaflet. And then to come and see me. Nice shoes, by the way.”
He sighed. “I’ll fix it.”
It required surprisingly little fixing. The young man glanced at the leaflet in his hand absently, and then did a ludicrously large double-take and looked nervously over his shoulder. Giles, crossing glances with Robin, took the opportunity to throw a massive tantrum because of being refused permission to take out life membership of the National Trust, with reciprocal visiting rights to properties in Canada, Malta, New Zealand and Italy, and access to a wine club and a share dealing service. By the time Robin had calmed him with a large ice cream composed almost entirely of E numbers, and William had said ominously that they would discuss his behaviour later, Stevie, looking flushed and guilty, had rejoined the party.
Robin, as an observer, was allowed to sit in on the meeting later between William, Patrick and Stevie. The flower fairy, clutching a clipboard and pen, was also present. William gazed at her in some dislike.
“I’m sorry, Stevie asked for you but I’m not altogether sure who you are?”
“I’m his legal adviser,” she said brightly. “I’m going to guide him through his action against his employer.”
“And this will be for what?”
“Constructive dismissal and possibly restraint of trade. As I understand it, his supervisor renegotiated his employment terms with their joint employer without his consent and then required him to leave his job and come here: that’s changing his job content and terms without consultation, and making a significant change in his job location at short notice. Oh yes, and I think it might well count as excessive disciplining of the employee, too. He was told that if he didn’t accompany his supervisor here, he would lose a well paid, high status job: that’s blackmail and it’s illegal irrespective of the employment considerations.”
William shook his head. “Stevie came here because his health was breaking down: he wasn’t managing the stresses of his job. His immediate superior brought him here to recover his health and to learn to manage the stress.”
“Even better!” chirped the flower fairy, cheerfully. “In that case he’ll have a possible action against his employer for damaging his health. If his health was failing due to the conditions of his work, his employer had a duty to protect him by changing those conditions. There’s a liability to provide a safe working environment, and no evidence that it was done. If he was working too hard, his employer should have taken on another member of staff and divided the work, not penalised him for not being able to do it. Furthermore, by removing him against his will from the work environment, Steven was being prevented from maintaining the networking and social interaction which is necessary for him to uphold his position in the internal workforce and the external professional world. In many lines of business nowadays, frequent and regular contact with clients and suppliers is a given: by preventing Steven from sustaining those contacts, his employer ensured that should Steven decide to leave here, thereby forfeiting his job, he would be signally disadvantaged when it came to getting another one. That’s restraint of trade. He may, by the way, also have grounds for a suit against this organisation; we’re investigating that.”
Patrick was furious. “Stevie signed a contract when he came here, agreeing to our terms.”
“An unfair contract based on unequal bargaining terms. We will be going to the Unfair Contract Terms Unit of the Office of Fairy Trading to take advice on that. The clause which restricted his rights and remedies, and the clause which bound him to the contract while allowing you if you saw fit to offer no service at all, or allowing changes to your terms without reference to him, and the use of unreasonable time constraints.”
“Excuse me?” interposed Robin. The flower fairy turned nervously to him.
“That last bit was just a selection of clauses with no verb.”
Her eyes widened apprehensively. “Is that bad?”
“It’s not good style. I suggest that you run it past your editor later. I would put it on a par with the comma splice.”
William ignored this by-play. “Stevie was ill and overstretched, stressed out. He was in no position to judge what was best for him.”
“Then he was in no position to sign a contract with you regarding his health, and you must have known that, and when his boss contracted with you to treat him, he must have known that too. You can’t have it both ways. If he wasn’t fit to make a reasoned judgement about his work, he wasn’t fit to make a reasoned judgement about coming here either. Contractual incapacity is hard to prove, but we’re willing to try if his employer takes that line. We’re more likely to run with a contract not uberrimae fidei: that neither you nor Patrick disclosed all likely eventualities or conditions, including the fact that his boss had a personal and financial interest in the set-up here.”
There was a moment’s silence; she added cheerfully, “Of course if Steven decides to follow up a case against you, then the question of your business capacity and structure will come into it. If you’re a limited company then I would assume that you’re insured. If you’re a partnership or simply individuals engaged in a joint venture, then we can advise Steven on suing the Tops jointly and severally. But to be frank, I would recommend that you advise his employer to settle out of court.” She looked round. “Was there anything else?”
It was a subdued group which collected to eat ham salad that evening. Jonnie was still in hospital; a pleasant middle aged female doctor had threatened Nicholas with legal action and/or a smack in the chops if he made one more attempt to tell Jonnie that all he had was a stress headache; Jonnie meanwhile was on first name terms with the handsome phlebotomist who seemed to be spending so much time at his bedside, and who was currently testing him for Death Watch Beetle. It was wordlessly assumed that he wouldn’t be coming back. Stevie, announcing firmly that his name was Steven, had packed his bag and gone. Giles spent a lot of time gazing at Tommy with a look of puzzled distraction, and when addressed, said vaguely, ‘No, I’m all out of ideas,” before coming to himself with a start. Davey had been spanked by Patrick for not preventing Stevie – no way was Patrick going to call him Steven, ridiculous idea – from talking to a strange woman in the street and was subdued and tearful, and inclined to mutter under his breath that he didn’t see what right Patrick had to punish him, he wasn’t Patrick’s Brat and he could quite understand why Patrick’s Brat had run away sooner than stay with such an anal-retentive control freak, at which point Patrick had burst into tears and stamped off in a sulk of his own.
William was enraged and controlling it badly. He pushed his chair back from the table, and announced firmly, “Robin, a word, please, in my office. The rest of you, finish the dishes and find a DVD to watch.” The other Tops looked surprised, and Giles muttered “Ooooh, elephant.”
“Sorry, Giles, did you speak?”
“Giles, I don’t think I like your attitude.”
“Well, when you’re certain, Wills, let me know.”
Robin bustled William out with some haste, coming back twenty minutes later and putting his head round the door of the large cold room in which the ‘family’ was watching John Q.
“Giles? Can you come here, please?”
In their room, he gave his co-conspirator a worried look. “We’ve got a problem. Willie-boy is insisting that I punish you for the tantrum. He gave me this.” It was a dark, heavy and springy cane. “He’s going to ask, you know. Can you just. . .”
“No problem,” agreed Giles, reaching across the bed for a pillow, and lining it up carefully with the edge of the bed. “Should I lock the door?”
“Probably wise,” agreed Robin. “Ready?”
The cane bit: Giles let out a squall plainly audible from the living room. On the second and third whistling blows, he sobbed and begged, and the subsequent three brought about yells of penitent misery, sufficient to satisfy the most bullying of Tops. The air in the room thickened and darkened; they saw it at the same time.
“I’m not laying
a finger on her!”
“He’s not laying a finger on me!”
Carabosse formed fully in the space in front of the wardrobe, one hand protectively towards Giles, and the other reaching clawlike for Robin.
“Calm down, darling, it’s all right.”
The dark gaze fell on the pillow, from a split in which feathers were spilling; with a wave of his hand he banished them and restored the ripped fabric. His fangs shortened and vanished as he looked round in faint embarrassment. “Ah. I see. ‘Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.’ Sorry. Sorry. I just heard her. . .”
“They probably heard her on the far side of the rainbow,” put in Robin, smirking. “Does she usually make that sort of noise?” He quailed under the joint Looks and retreated to a safe place behind the bed.
“I think it’s time you came home,” said Carabosse abruptly to Giles, ignoring Robin.
“We’re not finished,” Giles pointed out mildly. “There are still two Brats here. One of them can go to New York but what about the other?”
“Brainstorm, then,” said Carabosse shortly.
“What do you think we’ve been bloody doing? I’ve got no ideas left, none at all, and if we don’t get a move on, Willie-baby’s going to suss us out.”
“He’s got his suspicions already,” said Robin gloomily. “He was just dying to force that cane on me; he knew” (with a pointed look at Carabosse) “that I didn’t want to use it. By the way, can you produce some marks in the morning to impress Davey and Tommy? I bet anything you like that Patrick and Billy-Bob will want proof, and they’ll ask.”
“You can leave that to me,” said Carabosse with a leer. “A little nip in Time, darling, and you’ll be able to flaunt lovely marks.”
“Thanks,” said Giles, without enthusiasm.
“Don’t forget your book,” added Robin.
“Bully Billy gave me your punishment book. All the Brats have them: if you have lines or an essay you write it in here, and every time you’re punished for anything, even if it’s only being slapped or sent to the corner, you have to write down who punished you, how, what for, how you feel about it, and generally angst about it. If you leave me and go to another Top, you take your book with you so that he can see what he’s taking on.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then Carabosse said cautiously, “So the book belongs to the Brat? Not to the Top or to the. . . what do you call this place? An Institution? It’s his own property?”
Robin nodded. “Have you got an idea?”
“I – yes. Yes, I think so. I’ll need one of my people look into it. There’s a humanoid who used to belong on my payroll, I can’t remember his name. He would be perfect for this, but he gave up Wicked Fairying and went to work in Reality. He says Reality is much weirder than Faery, and you know, I wouldn’t necessarily say he was wrong. Let me get my researcher to find out where he’s gone and we’ll just let him have that last Brat and his Punishment Book.”
“To do what?” asked Giles cautiously. “I mean, the Brats are supposed to be rescued.”
“Made rich and famous?”
“Excellent. What do we have to do?”
Robin let her in, hissing and waving at her to prevent her ringing the doorbell, and bustling her inside through a fire exit. Once inside, he dragged her to Jonnie’s unused bedroom and stepped back to take a look.
“Have I got this right?” he asked doubtfully. “You’re a Wicked Fairy?”
She blushed nervously. “I’m on probation. At the moment I’m only a Rather Naughty Fairy. I’m doing three months in every department until they find out where I fit.”
“What did you do before?”
“Research for Cobweb, mostly.”
“What have you got for us?”
She perked up. “Carabosse said I had to track down the Elemental who worked through a medium.”
“Necromancy?” asked Robin, startled; it seemed rather extreme, even for Carabosse.
“Well, he’s death on anyone who’s been doing something they shouldn’t,” she agreed. “He hasn’t gone far. Not a medium – the media. He’s a publicist. His name’s Max Claptrap, and I’ve got a contact number for him. I’ve approached him about the project and he wants to see what you’ve got.”
“You didn’t mention my name?” he asked hastily.
“Oh no. Nothing personal.”
“Right. Well, at the moment I don’t think we’ve actually got anything. I don’t know exactly how we’re going to go about it.” He watched her sideways. She was a very junior Rather Naughty Fairy, and might not be experienced in. . .
“She said the God said you were to do the work.” Oh. She was more experienced than that, then. “And then she sighed and said that if we waited for you to do the work she would never get home again and that Carabosse had a new toy,” oh, was that where the cane had gone? He’d been forced to tell William that he had broken it, something of which William had seemed to approve, “and that she at least felt that you’d been here long enough. So if you’ll send the Brat to me, and one of you will do something clever with Time, I’ll help him get a couple of chapters drafted out for Max Claptrap. Oh, and I like your shoes.”
It wasn’t a newspaper he generally read, but the headline alone was sufficient to catch his attention:
RED, WIGHT AND BLUE!
Only in the News of All the Worlds!
Kinky Training Camp For Boys In Newtown!
‘No Comment’ says Camp Supervisor William
‘Extracts From My Punishment Book!’
Tommy Tells All!
(continued on P2, 3, 4, 6-16, and 22. Pictures pages 23-26. Editorial comment page 18. Financial report and list of bankruptcies page 36.)
“Can we go now?” he whimpered at his partner in crime, who had reverted to her more usual shape, thereby reducing William to total hysteria and requiring him to be heavily sedated before his removal by the police, through a swarming mass of journalists and irritated locals.
“We’ve got to go to New York, remember?”
“Can’t you go?”
“Don’t be so bloody idle. Anyway, you’ve never met her, have you? And this is your project, the God said so, so I think you should ask her. Pull yourself together. Where’s the Brat?”
“No,” he said, mustering his strength and recovering himself a little. “We’re not taking just the Brat. I mean, I know she’s keen on Damaged Brat, but we could find someone nearer home if that was all there was to it. We’re taking the Tops too. Not William: he’s a lost cause, but those other two might take retraining. She believes in retraining, I believe. That bad habits can be broken.”
“She doesn’t believe in abusive Tops,” pointed out Cobweb dryly. “She won’t take them.”
He grinned at her. “Bet?”
She was working in her garden when they arrived: she looked up from a haze of green and said crossly, “I don’t know why I plant fuchsia, it doesn’t do in this climate. Why Cobweb, it’s you! How lovely, at last! Come in, come in, and I’ll make tea, and how do you feel about a ridiculously large meal composed of local and cultural delicacies you don’t recognise?”
“I’m for it,” laughed Cobweb, kissing her; “I don’t think you’ve ever actually met the Gnome.”
He swept her a bow and kissed her hand; she looked down at it, still covered in potting compost and grass clippings and asked Cobweb suspiciously, “What does he want?”
“Dear lady,” purred the Gnome, in his most mellifluous tones, “we have a Damaged Brat. And well, everybody knows that when it comes to Damaged Brat, no one has more experience than you; we neither of us have the training, the expertise, to handle. . .”
“You want to palm him off on me,” she said sharply. The Gnome blinked. She glared at him for a moment, and then sighed. “Oh, I suppose so. It’s not exactly your field, is it, Damaged Brat? Leave him over there with the work in progress and I’ll see what I can do. Mind you, I have I don’t know how many of my own sculling around unaccounted for, I’ll not be able to do anything with him quickly.”
“I’m sure he can wait,” agreed Cobweb. “Only, well, we’ve got. . . we’ve got a couple of Tops too.” She said it very fast. The woman frowned.
“So why not give the Brat to one of the Tops?”
“Because,” said the Gnome softly, “they got him this way in the first place.”
Her expression chilled. “Cruel Tops? Abusers? I’m not having them. You can just take them away with you: I’m not keeping them.”
“Dear lady, they need some help in. . .”
“No! I’m not taking them. Anyway, you know that neither of you deals with your characters the way I do so you wouldn’t like what I would do even to Cruel Tops. You know that I deal with. . . soap. Among other things.”
“Not a problem,” said the Gnome, cheerfully. She stared at him with deep suspicion.
“I do medical fiction and thermometers.”
“For this pair, all the thermometers you like. We won’t say a word against it. Thermometers, soap, mouth washing, corners, the lot.”
“I really haven’t time to take on any strange Tops.”
“These ones,” hinted the Gnome softly, “treat migraine with antihistamine and orange juice.”
The resulting explosion left Cobweb shaking her head to clear the ringing in her ears and the Gnome smirking; both Tops and Brat had disappeared with the Author, and there were bubbles in the air and a strong smell of castile soap.
“Do you think dinner’s off, then?” asked Cobweb wistfully. “I wanted to try her soup. She said something about matzoh balls and I’ve never had them.”
“I’m surprised you want to try, that’s cruelty to matzohs,” said the Gnome, who was still peeved at not having been allowed the pink oboe remark. She gave him a hard stare, and he grinned at her cheerfully. “Come on, I’ll take you for dinner. Let’s go to. . . Hamelin.”
And he whistled, all the way.
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© , 2007