Whatever it was the lady put in my tea the previous night, in addition to being some kind of truth serum that made me babble like a spring magpie, it also induced a deeply fulfilling sleep. I was utterly refreshed and alert, but I was late. The warm sun had risen well into the sky. I found Dimity was already up, dressed, breakfasted, and had already been down to Cougar Bob’s Outdoor and More. She had a new canvas satchel over her shoulder and was in the act of feeding a squealing white mouse to the Great Horned Owl in the main parlor where we had been entertained by Madam Mammorama last night.
The sight of the mouse’s hindquarters, its little pink feet and wormy tail, was enough to curdle my morning splendor.
“Ugh! Mitts! That’s disgusting!”
“Aw, look! She loves these buggers! I picked them up when I was out. You like that, Sheila? Yesh-you-do. What. She’s got to eat. Speaking of, there’s a bit of breakfast I found in the kitchen. I haven’t seen our hostess.”
“You’re feeding live mice to…well, come on. We should go. What’s with the satchel?”
Done handling vermin, she was now pulling her shaggy blonde mane into a ponytail. “I went and bought a few things. Things a girl might need.”
“I thought you didn’t have any money.”
“Then how’d you get the things?”
“Cougar Bob’s got a phone. I asked if I could use it to call my dad. He said yes so I called him, told him the situation, and, bippity-bop, he and Cougar Bob worked out a deal for me.”
“Yeah well, for one thing, a deal to protect Cougar Bob. The French Mafia,” here she spoke with a silly French growl, “Les Beaux Voyous, and probably other organized crime syndicates will be coming through here real soon looking for the Lancia. And anyone connected with it.”
“Wait, how is he—,” the number of questions in my head went from two to twenty. But we didn’t have time to get into it. “Never mind. We need to get out of here.”
At that moment our buxom lady friend appeared seemingly from nowhere dressed in a long gown of white linen. Her hair, dark brown and flowing last night, was concealed in a kind of turban, like Carmen Miranda and Elizabeth Taylor wore. She seemed approving of the mouse hanging from her owl’s beak and contemptuous of my tousled head.
“Oh, hello, missus, uh, ma’am. We never did get your real name.”
“Why don’t you just follow Reginald’s lead and call me Linda.”
“Okay. And why don’t you just call him Ringo?”
“That’s his name among his American friends.”
“You’re not American?”
“I haven’t been able to place your accent, but I’ll get it in a minute. I learn accents by watching movies. I can already tell German, French, Italian, and Russian. And definitely Australian! Ha, ha, right Mitts?”
“A useful skill.”
“I know, I flatter myself. Forgive me. But how did you and Ringo meet, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I don’t mind. It was a long time ago, fifteen, maybe eighteen years. He found me; I was sitting in a café in the casbah. I was inconsolable, mourning the loss of my father to the guns of colonialism. Algiers was under a pall that day, in more ways than one. But Reginald was a young man, very handsome, very charming, and he brought me some cheer with his clever conversation. He offered to share dessert with me, a cinnamon baklawa as I recall.”
“Let me guess. You fell in love. Traveled the world.”
“No, nothing like that. I did love him, and I do still, but not in the sense that you mean. We had certain interests in common, but we were ultimately incompatible, too different in age and temperament. He lifted me out of my grief in the months we shared in northern Africa, in those days before the Vichy. I in turn saved his life—several times, in fact—during the war. Not as repayment, no, it is difficult to explain. Ah, such days.”
“Wow! Ringo fought in the war? I didn’t know. With the American Army?”
“He was a merchant. He fought for whichever side he felt was in the right, which was often, but not always, the Allied forces. But after averting several dates with death, he left warfare and went on to racing cars and, eh, botanical chemistry, as you’ve recently learned, experimenting with properties found in plants and nature. And somewhere after all of that— stories we do not have time for now—he and I decided to go our separate ways.”
Her eyes glassed up and she took a moment to gather herself. I remembered the decanters on the bar in the parlor, each holding a murky substance with heavy sediment in the bottom. Did she have the same penchant for botanical chemistry?
“You will want to make your way to Reginald’s little chalet rustique during the daylight today. It is well you came here last night. It will probably be your last good night of sleep for a while, as his beds do not compare to mine. But you want to avoid the Lurkers in these woods. They know of the villa you seek and they like the smells that sometimes waft from it. You see, it is no coincidence that my house is so close to his. It’s so that I can keep watch over him, perhaps. And he over me, so I fancy. Come, you must be on your way.”
“Whadya say you come show us where it is? We tried and failed to find the entrance yesterday.”
“I’ll not go with you. It’s not my place. But you’ll find it easier in the daylight. Look for a place where the macadam road is momentarily darker as if the road had been recently repaired.”
Like a fool, I reached out my hand for a handshake, which she took awkwardly. “I have a feeling that we’ll see you again, Linda,” I said, and she gave me the first truly friendly smile I had seen yet. She viewed us beyond the lenses of her reverie.
“And as for you my dear,” she looked at Dimity, “I’m sure you will have a significant role in whatever comes of this. And to you both, I recommend that you do not mention that we had this encounter. I’m not sure how he would take it.”
Dimity and I got in the car and I started the engine, and the first thing she did was look at me with her eyes bulging, her teeth in a grimace. She shouted amid the motor noise, “Lurkers??”