‘I reckon she were witched. There ain’t no other explanation, I tell yah. One minute we’s all lovey-dovey, then she ups and fires me. Don’t make no sense, not no how. All started when she come back from that holiday she took.’
Gran put the tea tray on the table and then addressed both men. ‘Would you like anything to eat?’
The grumbling man shook his head. ‘Nah!’ Then he continued relating his story to his companion. ‘I tell yah, it was this close.’ He described the distance with finger and thumb. ‘I felt like doing her in an’ for ten cents I would o’. All that pretence then the boot.’
‘Broads – just typical of broads,’ smirked the second man.
Now there are at least two things that Gran does not like. One is people who cry in their beer, so to speak, and the other is descriptive terminology relating the fairer sex to the oxen genus. She placed her hands on her hips ready for verbal combat and glared at the offending individual.
‘Sir, this is a respectable establishment. The management requires customers to adhere to the general rules of common decency. Poor language, though widespread, is not welcome here.’
‘You nuts, lady?’ The offending gentleman looked around as though searching for something on the walls forbidding his vein of conversation. ‘Where’s the bloody sign, lady?’
Grumbler leaned over and placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. ‘Ease up, George. We don’t wanna get chucked out o’ here, too. Sorry, missus,’ he said, turning to Gran. ‘I guess it’s all my fault. I complain a lot.’
Gran smiled. ‘You look like a nice gentleman. I’m most sorry you have been fired from your position, but please don’t frighten my customers away with unacceptable language.’
He smiled. ‘Certainly, missus. You don’t need any help around here, do you?’
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a … well, I was a butler-cum-housekeeper at Donjon Towers. I can cook, serve, wash dishes, even sweep.’
Gran softened. ‘Well, what sort of salary would you be looking at?’
Grumbly shrugged his shoulders. ‘Don’t know. I was only fired today. I needs somewhere to stay. I was maybe gonna stay at George’s place, ’till I gets sorted out.’
‘Well, Mr er –?’
‘Beamish. Dagwood Beamish.’
Gran grinned all over her face. I think she took a fancy to him. ‘As a matter of fact, I do need help here. When could you start?’
She slipped into the chair at the side of the table. ‘Why were you fired?’
He coloured and fidgeted with his fingers. ‘We was getting married, see, but then she ups and fires me.’
He shrugged. ‘Dunno. She goes on holiday, comes back all sick-like and fires me. No reason, no excuse. Tosses me out on the street.’
Gran eyed him up and down. He was a lot younger than her, around forty, with solid dark hair, which was more than she had. A wise, all-knowing, sad face – he sort of reminds me of an undertaker.
‘And no papers, no reference given?’ she asked.
‘No. I was tellin’ George, here. I reckon she were witched.’
Gran smiled sweetly. ‘Was,’ she corrected. ‘Very well. Let’s say start tomorrow, anytime in the morning. We can have a nice little talk and discuss your recompense.’
Gran’s a funny old girl; you see, she started this sort of plush tearoom with Mr Spadafora – that’s ex-Detective Inspector Spadafora. It was all her money, of course. See, last year our house got burned to the ground – a really nice present for the new millennium. We did make a profit on it, though. There was almost a million dollars in reward money for the killers of those girls, but that is all still in the hands of our lawyer.
North – well, his full name is North East. I kid him on it was a mistake in the registry office, like they accidentally put his address where his name should have gone. North’s a good lad who prefers to be called Newf. Gran and I sort of adopted him last year – poor kid’s an orphan. He is slightly taller than me, and slightly older, twice as stupid and nowhere near as heavy. I’ve got some muscles larger than his whole body. We all live in the new house, in the same place as the old one. Mr Spadafora is moving down permanently this summer. I guess he’s got a lot of stuff to settle up in Parry Sound. No more detective work for us. The last case was really dangerous. As usual, I got shot and Newf, that’s North, well, he almost died. No way – detective work is permanently off my list of things to do.
This summer we intended to spend a leisurely time just fun-loving, soaking up the rays.
In case you didn’t know, Gran’s a wonderful cook. That’s why she opened the tearoom. She doesn’t need the money, it’s just a hobby, something to keep her mind active. It was all Spadafora’s idea. Anyhow, I’d just got in with a van load of supplies and was unloading them when this guy turns up.
‘Excuse me, son,’ he said. ‘I’m looking for the lady proprietor.’
He shrugged. ‘The lady who runs this place.’
‘Just take a seat; she’s in the back putting supplies away.’ I walked round to the back and told her this chap had arrived.
‘Oh, good; he can help you with the deliveries, William. Then we’ll all have a nice chat.’
Mornings were always a slack time, evenings was when things hotted up a bit. After we’d put away all the stuff, the three of us sat at one of the tables for a biscuit and a cup of tea.
‘This is Dagwood Beamish, William. He’s our new handyman,’ Gran announced proudly.
‘Hi,’ I said with disinterest.
‘Now, Mr Beamish, before I hand you this job and arrange your salary, I would like to know why you were fired from your last position. Then William can investigate it for us.’
He sipped his tea and then stared into the cup. ‘Well,’ he began slowly. ‘Cloe MacAlister’s her name. She inherited Donjon Towers from her dad. An only child, you see. I started work there five years ago, sort of general handyman and butler. There ain’t no other servants. She was easy to care for and didn’t ask for much.’ He stopped and stared around the room, his eyes searching for inspiration. ‘Well, yah see, I got to know her quite well. She said it were unfair that I looks after her and livin’ in her house an’ all. So we sets the date to get married. Even had the vicar to supper an’ everything.’
‘But, you quarrelled,’ Gran hinted.
‘Nah! ’t weren’t nothing like that. See, she gets this letter in the mail. Sort of an advert for this place in Scotland. Some kind of holiday resort or something.’
‘And did you both go?’ Gran asked.
‘Nah! She decided it would be a good idea if I looked after the Towers for her and she would take a short vacation in this Scotch place. So I stays at the Towers and she goes off on this last jaunt afore we marries, see,’ he paused. I think I could see a tear in his eye.
‘Then what?’ I encouraged.
He pouted his lips and then chewed the bottom one. After a moment he began again. ‘Well, she comes home, wearing a veil all like a widow and everything. Ignores me as if I ain’t there. Goes to her room and stays there. I gets written orders, o’couse she says she lost her voice, cuz of a cold up in the Highlands. She smelled different, too. Then she gives me written notice, see.’ He pulled out a fancy piece of letterhead paper and handed it to Gran.
She took out her glasses and balanced them on her nose. I could tell by the expression on her face something was amiss. She folded it carefully and handed it back.
‘I am rather shocked,’ she said softly. ‘Is there any truth to the allegation?’
Dagwood shook his head. ‘I’m forty-seven, Mrs Hubert. I don’t have any aspirations in that direction – none at all.’
‘I believe you, Mr Beamish. Do you intend to prosecute the woman?’
‘No. It’s a closed book. I would rather not have anything to do with her. I thought I should show you the letter, so’s we’re fully open and honest.’
Gran nodded her approval. ‘No more shall be mentioned. It is history. Welcome to your new position. My partner, Mr Spadafora, will be returning in a few days. You will be my right-hand man.’
‘I thought I was, Gran?’
‘William, you never work in the tea garden.’
She was almost right. I had given up detective work, too. Dishes and guns just go against the grain. As soon as school ends I intended to go to England and find Priscilla. Since I’d got out of hospital I’d bought me a new car; well, one for the business, actually. Priscilla said a gentleman drives a sedate vehicle, not a racing car. ‘A man’s personality shows in his choice of women, horses and motor vehicles,’ that’s what she said, so goodbye Jaguar and hello SUV. Besides, making deliveries in a sports job just isn’t kosher.
Gran’s a wonderful cook; I guess that’s why she opened the tea garden on the old 99 highway a couple of kilometres out of Dundas and it gives the old girl a chance to meet new people. My calendar was kind of full: school ended Friday so, in order, I had to teach Newf how to drive, clean up my room and visit England. Newf didn’t finish school for another week. Gran’s having him educated – doesn’t like the way he speaks, though personally I think it’s a waste of good money.
It was at supper on Friday night when Gran threw a screw into the works. We were all seated for the meal in the new Dundas house and then,
in her usual way, she looked at me and smiled. ‘William, I have a little job for you.’
I sighed, to show my contempt for what I thought might be coming next. ‘Yes, Gran?’
‘That new man, Dagwood Beamish.’ She poured the tea. ‘Did you hear his peculiar story?’
I shook my head and rolled my eyes at Newf.
‘Well, he claims his employer, who was of a mood to marry him, suddenly took a holiday in Scotland.’
‘I know that, Gran.’
‘Did you hear the bit how she changed?’
‘What do you think then, William?’
‘I don’t like him or trust him. I figure the tale was for your benefit. He probably had aspirations beyond his station and she fired the twit.’
‘Well!’ she gasped. ‘I’m shocked at your attitude, young man.’
‘Sorry, Gran. I’m only thinking of you. When does Mr Spadafora get back?’
‘Good. Until then, I’ll stay close; just to make sure you’re safe.’
She smiled sweetly. ‘Anyhow, to cut to the chase, I would like you to investigate Mrs MacAlister.’
‘That’s a Scottish name isn’t it, Gran?’
‘Quite possibly so. I would like you to meet the lady.’
‘And what exactly should I ask her?’
‘We could freten ’er,’ Newf added gleefully.
‘I don’t think that would serve any purpose,’ Gran growled. ‘And I thought you were learning English. That’s threaten, with a “TH” not an “F”, and her is with an “H”.’
‘Yes, Missus H.’
‘Then will you do as I ask, William?’
‘Sure, Gran. I’ll do it when Mr Spadafora gets back and North has finished school for the summer. I would like to know exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve quit on the detective stuff. I don’t want any more dangerous cases. In fact, I don’t want any cases at all.’
‘I completely agree, William. This is just a simple little inquiry. No guns, no one dies, not even any fighting.’
‘Is that a promise, Gran?’
‘Certainly. I think all I really want to know is why she fired Dagwood – it is a little strange. You could pretend to be a prospective employer and ask her for references. That should be simple enough.’
The following day, Newf went to school and I took a trip out to the tearoom or, as Gran calls it, the tea garden, though why one has a garden indoors I can’t imagine. I wanted to interview this Mr Dagwood Beamish myself and preferably without Gran’s interference. It wasn’t difficult. I think Gran knew what I was doing. I found Dagwood cleaning in the kitchen and Gran left us alone. I guess she went to tidy up in the seating area.
‘Mr Beamish,’ I said authoritatively. ‘I would like to ask you a few questions.’
‘Of course,’ he said softly. ‘Anything you like.’
‘Okay. Stop with the cleaning and tell me why you were fired from your last job.’
He smiled. ‘You don’t believe my story.’
I nodded in the affirmative.
‘Well, Mr Reyner, I’m not in the habit of lying. I started work for Cloe MacAlister almost ten years ago. You see, I answered an advertisement in the local newspaper. Miss Cloe was a young and energetic woman at that time. She has a tendency to … to be very private and so had only one servant, namely myself.’
‘So who did the laundry?’
‘Farmed out to a professional company. They called twice weekly. Groceries, bread and milk, too, were delivered. Mr Edwards the grocer would spend time with Cloe and arrange to deliver the week’s supplies.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘I, sir, made Miss Cloe comfortable, anything she required. It was because of this she suggested we marry. I think her reasoning was that she could gain tax deductions for a dependent.’
‘So there was no sex or anything?’
‘Good heavens, sir. No, absolutely not. Madam is not that kind of person.’
‘Alright, I’ll buy all this, but how come you got fired, then?’
His expression changed; you could see the distance in his eyes. ‘One day, she read this advertisement in a magazine or something. She told me the idea had come to her to take a vacation. I wasn’t invited.’ A tear trickled down his face as he recalled the incident. ‘I was against it right from the start but, well, what could I do. My post was to care for the house, while Miss Cloe visited the old country. I rue the day. I knew something was terribly wrong when I met her on the homecoming. Faithfully, I awaited Cloe in the airport. She wore black.’
‘Madam never wore black. Black is the colour of death. Miss Cloe always wore sombre colours, never black. Besides, she wore a veil and madam never wore any form of head covering. When I spoke to her, she didn’t react as though she knew me and replied only in writing.’
‘Yes, she used a notepad, explaining that due to a severe cold she had lost her voice.’
‘If what you say is true, it sounds obvious that the lady who came back to Canada is an impostor. Someone impersonating Cloe MacAlister.’
‘I had considered that possibility.’
‘I think not.’
‘Madam had knowledge that only madam would know.’
I sighed. ‘Like what?’
‘She knew her social insurance number; she knew the correct number to open the safe combination. In fact, there was nothing she didn’t know. It was when I complained about the lack of ability to speak she fired me. I’m certain witchcraft come into it. Somehow, they have stolen her soul.’
I shrugged and walked away – poor guy was a simpleton. I told Gran I thought Dagwood too stupid to be harmful. At that moment a crowd of old ladies came in for their morning tea, so I had to let Gran and company do their thing. Convinced that Dagwood was more or less harmless, I drove back to the house in Dundas. I had a couple of important things to do. Somehow, I missed Newf’s company; since Gran had sent him to school, we just didn’t seem to have any time together.
The house was also a disappointment. Loving craftsmen had built Gran’s old house, which stood on the same spot as the new one. The new house had been thrown together in a few months. Lath-and-plaster walls replaced with wallboard and 2-inch-thick solid wood floors replaced with plywood. The new windows are okay, but it’s a definite step down. Lying on my bed staring at the ceiling just wasn’t the same any more.
I picked Newf up from Mohawk College at noon on Friday for the end of term. Why I like that goof I can’t imagine. Watching him approach the car made thoughts scuttle through my head. He looked a tall, skinny, silly looking beanpole with bright gingery blond hair. Poor Newf was a few centimetres taller than me and about half my weight.
‘Hi! Bill. Fanks for picking me up.’ His eyes sparkled with delight.
‘I bin lookin’ forward to this summer, Bill. Do you fink I should get a job?’
‘No. We’re going to England. I’m going to find Priscilla.’
‘Cor, neat! You reckon she’s worf it?’
I drove downtown, parked the car in the parkade and then we walked. There were a couple of toys I thought we might need. First, we went to the Bell Centre, where I bought both of us a new mobile phone. The girl promised me they would work internationally, all over Britain, the US and Canada. Next, we went to a chandlers – I figured they’d have what I wanted – and I bought a hand-held GPS.
The weekend passed lazily and slowly and, I may add, it was the last worry-free weekend for quite a while. Gran said I had to teach Newf how to drive before I left for England. She wanted him independent for the next school term. As we had nothing better to do, I figured we could put six or seven hours a day into it. Monday, we began the hair-raising experience of teaching an idiot to drive in Gran’s car.
McMaster University has a giant parking area in the backwoods of Westdale. There being no school, I figured this would be a place where Newf was least likely to run over anybody or anything. I put him in the control seat and explained the workings of a modern automobile. With his eyes wild and excited, he put the thing into gear and we shot off like a rocket.
‘Stop!’ I yelled.
Jesus! He slammed on the brakes and almost sent me through the windshield.
‘’ow’s ’at, Bill?’
‘Yeah, great. Now, can we try it again very slowly and don’t forget to turn left before we reach the end. Okay?’
The second experience was little better than the first. After half an hour my nerves were shot. I could see this was leading to a nervous breakdown – mine. Even if the car could take the punishment, I couldn’t. Facing Fiend’s ghost or even the mass murderers at the TOD were a mere breeze compared to teaching Newf to drive. I had to stop him before I became incapacitated, incensed or just delirious. I sure as hell hoped he never wanted to learn to fly an airplane.
A brilliant idea flashed through my mind – rather like the proverbial straw passing a drowning man. With an ironic smile, I told Newf to stop and turn the engine off. Poor kid, the sweat was pouring off his face in little rivers.
‘’ow’m I doin’, Bill?’
‘Not to worry, Newf. Here, let me drive; we’ll have a little fun.’
We swapped positions. I figured Gran’s little car was just too much for him. He needed something easier to drive, something heavier. As we drove off, I explained how things were done and why one would do certain things to make the vehicle perform to its peak.
‘Where’ we goin’, Bill?’
‘You need something easier to drive and I’ve got the very thing.’
In a few minutes we were downtown. I drove down Barton Street in an easterly direction and then crossed to Cannon Street and headed back towards the town centre. After a few seconds I found what I had been looking for. Pulling into the British Car Importers, I parked in the front lot.
‘Come on, Newf. Let’s go get a car you can drive.’
His eyes lit up like a navigation beacon. ‘Get a car? You gonna buy a car, Bill?’
‘Sure. We need something new around the house.’
I walked boldly into the posh showroom and stood staring around. I figured it wouldn’t take too long before someone either threw us out or tried to sell us a car.
‘Can I help you, sir?’ said this overweight, pompous git in a light blue suit.
‘Sure, I’m looking for a car.’
He eyed me up a down with suspicion. ‘Where did sir leave it?’
‘Very funny. How about that one over there?’
The tub-o-lard coughed as though something had stuck in his throat. ‘That, sir, is a Rolls-Royce.’
‘Well, if you’ve nothing better, I’ll take a look at it.’
‘I’m sorry, sir, I think you’ll find something more to your standing at Rent-a-wreck, across town.’
I pulled out my wallet. ‘Looks like a well-used demo. What yah want for it?’
He raised one hand above his head and snapped his fingers and one of his minions came running over.
‘I think this gentleman and his companion are leaving, Mr Osgood. Would you kindly show them where the exit is?’
‘If you throw me out, I’ll buy this place and fire you. Now show me that car.’
He turned a neat shade of scarlet. I thought something was about to explode. I tore off a cheque and walked over to his desk on the sales floor. Both Tub-o-lard and Osgood followed me.
‘If you do not leave peaceably, sir, I shall have to call the police and have you removed.’
I made the cheque out for $250,000 and signed it and then handed it to Tub-o-lard. He stopped quacking and read it. Before he could say anything I snatched it back and wrote VOID across it. Then I handed it back to him again.
‘The name of my bank is on the cheque. I think it would be in your interest to give them a call.’
Indignantly, he snatched the cheque from me and walked to his office. Osgood stood and glared at me.
‘Please don’t start any trouble, sir,’ he said softly. ‘I’m in bad books with the boss as it is.’
‘Don’t worry, Mr Osgood, you’re in good hands. Come on, Newf; let’s take a look at our new motor.’
After a while, Tub-o-lard came waddling back. With his size and speed, he reminded me of Stephenson’s Puffing Billy. Talk about grovel; it’s enough to make a skunk sick. He fair bubbled over with obsequiousness.
‘I do apologize for our earlier misunderstanding, Mr Reyner, sir,’ he said, bowing and scraping. ‘Which car would sir like to see?’
‘The blue one.’ I’d taken a fancy to the steel blue Rolls. It spoke to me and just looked like it needed a new owner.
Tub-o-lard hovered around and bubbled on about the merits of a real car. I sat there in the height of luxury. This car had more widgets than a tinker’s bench. Suddenly, some really pointed words drifted into my earhole. ‘Would sir like to have a nice little test drive?’
‘Yes, sir would.’
‘Excellent. Mr Osgood will give you all the help you need.’
Moments later, Osgood purred into the courtyard and stepped out, leaving the engine running. ‘It’s all yours, sir.’
Eagerly, I eased into the captain’s seat and slid everything into a comfortable position. Newf’s eyes remained like saucers as he climbed in beside me. The only sound I could hear as I drove away was Newf’s breathing and my heart beating.
‘You just pinched the most expensive car in Canada,’ Newf hissed softly.
‘Not quite. Just sit back and relax. When we get out into the country I’ll let you drive. This one’s easy; all you gotta do is steer it.’
After Gran’s old rattletrap, man! this one felt like a dream. I just had to show Gran, I knew she’d love it. She was busy with customers when we entered the tearoom. The one moment I needed to show off and she was too busy. Newf remained in the car admiring the luxury and smelling the upholstery. After a few minutes I saw my opportunity.
‘Gran, Gran, come and see what I’ve got.’
She glared at me. ‘William, this is a place of business. You can show me your new car after hours.’
‘Gees, Gran. Come and take a quick look at it.’
‘Where’s my car?’
‘It’s safe. Come on, Gran, humour me.’
With a shrug, she walked to the front door. ‘It’s very pretty, how much?’
‘Don’t know; I just got it on a test drive. Come on, Gran, you’ll love it. There’s an automatic everything; even remembers your size and favourite driving position.’
‘I really would rather see it after work.’
Talk about disappointing. I leaned against the mechanical marvel as she walked back to the tearoom. Suddenly, she turned to face me. ‘William, there is one thing you could do for me.’
I could see the glint in her eyes even from that distance. ‘What is it, Gran?’
‘Why don’t you let North drive our new vehicle and you can kill two birds with one stone.’
‘A simple little bit of detective work.’
‘We agreed, Gran. I’ve given up PI’ing, it’s too dangerous.’
‘This is not dangerous or even difficult. Drive over to Donjon Towers and interview Miss MacAlister.’