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Games, Literature

Foundering Valley, Chapter 20 — Evening, June 7 — The Party

Chapter 20 – Saturday Evening, June 7 – The Party

Sherlock led D-Stract and Flummox to the uptown gate just as the sky became a dusky orange. There they encountered the usual zombie guard in the adjacent guardhouse shack.

The zombie guard stepped out. “Invitation?”

Flummox cleared his throat. “We’re here for Princess Pumpkin’s party at the Montecristo mansion.”

The zombie crossed in front of the gate. “The party is much later. Come back then.”

Sherlock stepped forward. “Actually, we are visiting the Longbottom family first, to get ready for the party. You know me, Sherlock. I vouch for these two, Flummox and D-Stract. Let us pass.”

The zombie stared myopically at each of them in turn. “Sherlock. Flummox. D-Stract. You may pass.” The zombie opened the tall barred gate and let them through, locking it afterward.

Sherlock led them up a few dozen paces on the rising roadway, still yellow brick, and stopped. “I really should give you some orientation. This road winds up between the estates of the seven principle families in the Uptown district. Here is a sketch I made for you, showing the placement of the estates. The main gates are marked in red.”

Sherlock pointed to the first. “The estates are numbered here. Each will have at least one zombie guarding the gate. The fences are high and the hedges are thick, so you’ll only be able to see into the estates via the gates, unless you are willing to do some climbing, and I’m afraid that would ruin D-Stract’s new gown.”

Flummox leered. “Might not be the first time she stripped down for a job.”

D-Stract frowned. “Stay focused. I’m going to the party.”

Sherlock nodded. “Right, you are. Meanwhile, we two will be slipping outside and watching movements of potential thieves, possibly slipping through hidden holes in the hedges and the like. I’ve not marked those since it is hard to be precise, but I’ve come to suspect that every boundary fence has at least one secret breach.”

Sherlock cleared his throat. “Now then, the first estate, ahead on the right there is the Oolongs. The second, which is on the left, just inside the first bend, is the Cardigans. Our host before the party, Mr. Tobias Longbottom, lives in the third estate, which is on the right halfway along the next leg. The Tomes mansion, which I’m sure you’ll want to visit some time soon, on account of the massive library, is on the left, just where the road bends right again, leading past the Montecristo estate, also on the left, which is where the party is being held. The Exchequers on the right after the last turn, and the D’or estate is at the end.”

Flummox studied the map. “I think I’ve got the basic layout. What is the plan?”

Sherlock pointed at the map. “Assuming our thief stays away from the busiest mansion tonight, and uses borders to sneak between estates, the thief will either have to go between the Tomes and Cardigan mansions on the left, or across any of the four estates on the right, including the D’or estate.”

D-Stract frowned. “But who, I mean whom, do you suspect?”

Sherlock smiled. “Let me keep my suspicions to myself, until we have proof. Let me just say that everyone has an alibi for at least one of the robberies. Ergo, there is likely more than one robber.”

Flummox nodded. “No wonder this is so tricky, and no wonder you wanted some help.”

Sherlock rolled up the map and handed it to Flummox. “Yes. My plan is to have Fern Longbottom go to the party and talk up her fears of being attacked by a thief, and that therefore she left her best jewelry at home. That will be the bait, and why we are visiting the Longbottom estate before the party. You and I will patrol the north and south boundaries, the Exchequers and Oolongs, to see what develops.”

“So we two will be the only ones at the Longbottom estate? What about the zombies?”

“Oh yes, the Longbottoms will instruct their servants to ignore us. In any event, all the zombies have strict instructions never to harm a human being, only detain them. They say that is the case with their undead canine guardians as well, but I am less trusting of their judgment. I’ll ask the Longbottoms to confine their dogs somewhere. Any questions?”

“So we’re to slip out of the party – at what time?”

“I will arrive at the party with you, but will slip away and observe from an outside vantage point. You wait until Fern has a chance to plant the seeds for us, and see if you see anyone leave. Note whether they turn left or right – that may give us a warning of which way they will come from, if that person is indeed the thief. I will see you cross the road. We will meet at the front gate, and decide on a plan from there. D-Stract, you take careful note of everyone who is there, and note any suspicious gaps or absences through the evening, especially after Flummox leaves. Can you do that?”

D-Stract smiled. “Of course. I’m good at meeting people.”

Sherlock straightened up and began walking up the hill again. “So we have a plan. Don’t be afraid to improvise, though. Wave and smile at the zombies.” They waved and smiled as they passed the Oolong’s gate, then again as they passed the Cardigan’s.

 At the third gate, the zombie there was accompanied by the first undead dog that the adventurers had encountered. It behaved just as any dog would, growling at first until told off, then sniffing them over thoroughly. They were passed through, and sent up the long driveway towards the mansion. An orchard of mixed fruit trees was on their left, a row of various trees ran to their right, bending inwards towards the mountain ridge that backed the entire eastern edge of the estate.

Sherlock pointed. “You will note the trees on our right conceal the border to the Oolong estate. The graveyard just inside the trees should give ample hiding places to observe anyone emerging from the trees. The spur of the southern ridge, that incidentally houses a crypt at its tip, will funnel any traffic from that direction into a more narrow area for easy observation. On our left, past the orchard, the stable and kennel border the road, which should be of little interest except that is where I hope to have the canines confined. Circling behind the mansion from left to right are a lily pond, herb garden, vegetable garden, greenhouse, and flower garden. From this collection, even the slowest among us would deduce Mr. Longbottom is obsessed with plants. Beyond the lily pond is an old abandoned playground that abuts the border with the Exchequers, our second likely point of entry. Fortunately a rock spur separates the herb garden from the old playground, so any approach from that direction will be funneled past the lily pond. That would be the best location for concealment from anyon approaching from that direction.”

Flummox surveyed the rocky ridge behind the glassy dome of the greenhouse. “What about climbing along the rocky ridges behind the estate? Can’t that be done?”

“I’ve given that considerable thought. Of course it could be done, but there is a fair amount of loose debris up there. Anyone climbing would most certainly dislodge a few small stones, or at least some gravel, and thereby alarm anyone within hearing, who would then react quickly. In short, that route would be neither rapid nor stealthy, nor particularly safe. No, I’m sure our thief will approach on more level ground, if they put in an appearance at all tonight.”

“Okay. It’s your show.”

Sherlock smiled. “So would you prefer being surrounded by water… or graves, tonight?”

“Dry, I think, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Very well. Let us greet our hosts.”

Stone steps ran up to an impressive front door. Above it was an impressive round window, with a leaf motif worked into the panes. On each side were two square windows, at first and second story level. Flummox noted that the various bushes surrounding the house may or may not provide assistance (depending on type) to someone trying to get into a first floor window, which were somewhat elevated, consistent with the rise of the front steps.

Another zombie opened the front door for them, and another undead dog sniffed at them as they entered the front room. It was high, with balconies on the three sides not taken up by the high round window. Two doors were on either side of the entry, with a hall back to the right and staircase, going up, back to the left. A few chairs and tables were scattered about, obscured in part by a passel of potted plants.

 “They’re here!” A sweet high voice rang out from the nearest door on the right, and a young woman in a purple dress with red trim appeared. She had a diamond tiara in her dark hair, diamond earrings, and a string of pearls around her neck. “Welcome, welcome, I am Fern Longbottom. My father will be with us shortly.”

Flummox gallantly took her hand and bowed over it. “I had no idea we would be meeting such a ravishing beauty, even before we reached the ball tonight.”

Fern chuckled and cooed, then took D-Stract by the arm. “My dear, you must come with me and we’ll discuss your attire for tonight. Don’t you have any jewelry of your own? I’m sure I can spare a few pieces. Let’s go see what matches your dress.” Before D-Stract could get in a word, she was dragged up the stairs and around the balcony to the right.

 The back left door opened and a man in green, smoking a pipe, entered the room. “Ah, Sherlock, you are here, with your helper I see. Wonderful!”

Sherlock gave a quick bow. “Mr. Tobias Longbottom, allow me to present Mr. Flummox. I’m afraid your daughter has already dragged his companion, D-Stract upstairs to try on jewelry.”

“Pleased to meet you sir.”

“Oh please, call be Toby.” He held out his pipe. “Do you smoke?”

Flummox shook his head. “Can’t say I ever developed the habit, though I’m sure you’ve got better stuff than the weed I’ve encountered at roadside inns.”

“Indeed! I’ve a passion for the stuff. Please, come into my conservatory.” He led them back through the door he had emerged from. The room was full of plants. The back wall was almost entirely glass, with wire mesh throughout – it bowed out as a bay window. “Here I cultivate some of the most exotic and prized specimens, that I dare not leave outdoors.” He gestured to the right, where a door stood open. “Back there is my lab, where I experiment with splicing, hybridization, and preparation of various medical uses of plants, as well as making the best smoking blends I can.”

“Very impressive.”

“I don’t get out much any more, though. I bet you encounter all sorts of exotic plants and fungi on your outdoor adventures, yes? I would be so grateful for any unusual specimens you might come across – living plants of course are best, but even seeds.”

“I will certainly keep my eyes open.”

“Let me show you what I have already…”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

As Toby gave them the full tour, Fern grilled D-Stract upstairs, while they tried on different jewelry. “So, you’re just visiting Founder’s Valley? Where are you from originally?”

“We came from The City with Tinker’s wagon train.”

“Surely you’re not camped out on the beach with all those hoodlums?”

“No, we have a room at the inn.”

“Hmm, that’s not much better though, is it?”

“Why would you say that? It’s a nice, clean inn. Beryl does a good job.”

“Well, I suppose, but it’s right next to the stable and all.”

“You have something against horses? I noticed you have a stable on the grounds here, though perhaps the dragon ate all your horses long ago…?”

Fern shook her head. “Oh no, I’ve nothing against horses. It’s just that… well, you’ve probably met the stable boy — how could you not?”

D-Stract wrinkled her brow. “You mean little Duncan?”

“Yes! I’m sure he’s a fine boy and all, but, well, don’t talk about him, or the inn, or horses, or stables anywhere near Master Oolong… or Lem, or that blabbermouth Pablo.”

“Why ever not?”

“Well, if you must know, Duncan and his parents came to town years ago, when he was just an infant. They stayed at the inn, then came down with the plague. Madam Oolong tried to care for them, brought them medicinal teas and all before they both died. But not before she caught it from them, though. Her eventual loss was so tragic, and avoidable. Now Master Oolong blames Duncan for the whole thing, and absolutely despises the lad. If anybody says one word about him, or horses, or stables, he goes absolutely berserk. He can make quite a spectacle of himself. He really doted on his wife.”

“I will keep that in mind.” D-Stract concentrated hard. Did you catch that Flummox, we have a built-in diversion, if we need one. Flummox gave her back a mental smile.

“So, I think the emeralds work best with your reddish-brown hair, don’t you think?”

D-Stract smiled, and accepted a tiara, necklace, earrings, and bracelet.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Downstairs, Toby finished the tour of conservatory and lab. “But come now, let’s go into my office and find a seat. This is so exciting, a chance to catch the actual jewel thieves.” He raised his voice. “Tea and cakes in the office, for our guests, please!” He then led them to the left, through a door into a fairly normal-looking office.

Sherlock seemed to seize the opportunity even as they were being seated. “Does Miss Fern know what is expected of her?”

Toby puffed on his pipe and nodded. “Yes, she’s going to go on about how scared she is of the robbers, and how she left her best jewelry locked away in her bedroom. You lot will watch to see who takes the bait.”

“Very good. And you’ve instructed all the undead on your estate to give us free passage?”

“Yes of course. None of them will interfere with you. They want to put an end to this as much as we do; they sort of feel guilty that they’ve not been able to stop these robberies themselves.”

Flummox leaned forward. “And the dogs? You’ll get them all into the kennel the moment we leave?”

Toby chuckled. “I’m coming with you to the party, wouldn’t miss it! But of course it will be done. I’ve instructed my servants carefully, just as Sherlock and I have discussed, in detail.” He sat back and smiled, nodding at Sherlock.

Just then, the two women burst in from the hall, laughing together. “Okay, Pop, we’re ready. I’ve decided to switch out grandma’s pearls for these opals, since pearls are so much harder to get here than mere gems. I’ll tell everyone how the pearls are my favorite, and that I’m sooo worried they’ll be stolen that I left them home. Does that sound all right?”

Toby gave a thumbs-up. “Perfect, my dear. I think all is in readiness.”

They went out into the entry hall. Sherlock drew Flummox and D-Stract to as near the center of the room as was allowed by the plant-filled tables. “Note the layout of the mansion. All of the mansions hereabouts were built to the same basic design. Along the right side, a ballroom, dining room, and kitchen in the back, with the only other public doors to the outside via the kitchen, through the corner tower, which has a spiral stair up to the roof. Four other rooms, one in the center back, and three along the left side, that reflect the interests of the families. Here, the back room is a full bath with pools, fountains…”

“… and lots, and lots of plants.” D-Stract looked a little embarrassed. “I had to go.”

“The same room at the Montecristo estate is a china room, I believe, filled with crockery, silver, and statuettes. Mr. Roland Montecristo, you will find, is a great aficionado of carved jade figures, and plates with dragon motifs. Above, eight rooms circle the balcony, each with personal bathing facilities supplied by a cistern up on the roof. Miss Fern’s room is in the front right, so that is our focus for tonight, when we return.”

“Right. Is the staircase the only way up?”

Sherlock gave a laugh. “No indeed. Each corner tower houses a spiral staircase running from first floor to the roof, although the servant’s quarters above the kitchen have the only stairs with obvious doors for easy access. The rest are all concealed doors, panels, and the like, including access to the outside from each corner, though those are generally locked from the inside. Oh, and you can be sure that any two adjacent rooms in this layout has some sort of connection, either by door or secret passage. You just have to look carefully.”

Flummox nodded as he took it all in. “Quite a maze.” Like a veritable rat’s warren, he thought to himself. Now it’s time to meet the rats.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

From the moment that a zombie answered the door and Princess Pumpkin Montecristo swept them up in a whirlwind of introductions, it was clear that Pumpkin was working hard to make this the ultimate dinner party.

D-Stract was smothered with attention and drawn into meaningless small talk, so it was left to Flummox to observe and work hard to organize what he saw.

 The service was entirely by a staff of zombies, but only one canine was apparently allowed indoors. It mostly sat on a cushion in one corner of the ballroom, beneath a table with curious black drapes concealing who knows what. The dog watched quietly unless someone came too close to the drapes, then he growled.

 Mr. Roland Montecristo seemed to grind his teeth when anyone called him Rollie, and he mostly stood silent and endured the influx of visitors. He chewed on an elaborate cigarette holder and backed away from company. The only exception was when someone asked for a tour of the china room. Flummox cased the place thoroughly, and there was much of moderate to high value there. The most interest thing was the prevalence of dragon motifs, which was also the motif in the big round window above the front door.

 There seemed to be a running battle between Madam Plover Cardigan, in white, and Madam Warmina Tomes, in purple. The gist of it was that Plover was proud of her two grown children, who were now off to The City and attending finishing and military schools, respectively. Warmina had apparently never wanted children, and valued her spare time. She constantly tried to get Plover to admit she was happier with an empty nest, which she in turn denied. Their argument turned into a bickering exchange, belittling each other’s jewelry, comparing items to ones they had each had previously. They almost, but not quite, accused each other of receiving stolen goods.

 Master Buttons Cardigan seemed embarrassed by his wife’s behavior, and tried to divert everyone’s attention away from her by making loud declarations about novel fabrics that he had heard of, and was considering manufacturing here in the valley. He tried to divert discussions away from jewelry and towards the fabrics in the various gorgeous gowns in evidence, but everyone seemed fixated on jewelry, and discussions drifted back to the baubles time and again. There was muttering about how Cardigan was on the bottom of the social ladder, and would stay there despite his clumsy efforts to rise above his mercantile beginnings.

 Later, Mr. S was sought out by Cardigan as a possible investor in a fabric mill here in town, but he slipped away and engaged Flummox in a heated conversation about nothing in particular, all the while pointedly ignoring Cardigan until he went away.

 Archie Tomes, on the other hand, seemed to be relieved that his wife drew away the attention from him. In fact, he seemed a bit fearful, and kept glancing in the direction of the entry hall.

Flummox approached him. “Is there a problem?”

Archie looked Flummox over appraisingly. “You’ve been downtown recently. How mad do you think the Earl is?”

Flummox drew back his head. “About what?”
Archie looked around the room, and continued in a whisper. “Well, he knows by now that I’ve been pranking him. I mean, it’s his own fault. At first he just wanted names of historic warriors of top quality, and I felt I owed him that. Then he wanted famous doctors, to help with the plague, and I was glad to do my bit to help out. But then he wanted more, and more. I had to resort to fiction and at first he didn’t notice. Finally, I had had enough.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, you saw. He didn’t notice the humorous collection of supposed law enforcement types, but surely he noticed the collection of characters from Oz? Or those actors who used to play Vikings for people’s entertainment?”

Flummox looked puzzled. “How does that work, exactly? I mean, how much information do you pass the Earl about these figures?”

Archie shook his head. “Just clues and names, really. What he does is tap into the collective cultural memory of these characters out of legend. What he gets he can’t predict, but I still shouldn’t have set him up like that.”

“So you too have arcane access to this ‘collective cultural memory’?”

“Oh no, my work is totally mundane. I collect records from antiquity. Books are marvelous, and I have many, but the ancients had other, very different ways of recording what they had to say. Did you know that one civilization made tapestries that come alive to the touch? Another held images on plates of rainbows, which today’s scholars think are merely decorative disks. Another culture stored memories in magnetic ores, while others etched full figure images inside cubes of amber. Others read the information locked in the stuff of life itself.”

Flummox looked duly impressed. “I would love to come see your collection sometime.”

Archie gave a nod. “You would be very welcome.” He then glanced at the front hall and looked stricken. “There’s the Earl. I’d better make myself scarce.

 Master Exchequer approached him as Cardigan slipped away. “What a silly fool Archie is — thinks that pranking the Earl was his idea.”

Flummox looked at him with interest. “Wasn’t it?”

Exchequer looked at him with disgust. “You’re not one of those supporters of that usurper, are you? He may be descended from the Withers, generations back, but they lost their right to rule when the remaining, living, members of the family fled the valley in disgrace. Besides, he has shown himself to be dangerously rash – totally unfit to govern. Take for instance all these jewel thefts that the Earl has been unable to stop. Scandalous. That alone should show everyone how impotent he is.”

“So who do you think should sit on the seat of governance?”

Exchequer smoothed his vest. “Well, for the last 200 years, that honor and responsibility has resided in the House of Exchequer, of course.”

“So why did he come back? Or rather, did some group want him back? I had heard that he was asked….”

“Excuse me, I must speak with…” and Master Exchequer hurried off.

Flummox shook his head and smiled.

 Penny D’Or, a rather young women to be the very old man’s wife, approached Flummox. She expressed interest in Flummox’s apparent familiarity with Exchequer and Mr. S by curling up on his arm, but apparently lost interest and left when he suggested he didn’t really have any money of his own for investment, but rather served as a go-between for others.

 Shortly, Master Mint D’Or approached Flummox, asking how well he knew the brew-master in town. Flummox allowed as how he knew Grog, and D’Or tried to pump him for information about the dwarf’s water purification project, with an eye to whether it was a good investment. Flummox assured him it was an excellent, but fleeting, opportunity and offered to carry any gold he had downtown, to bargain for terms with Grog and lock him in before any other investors, like Mr. S, got to him. D’Or got a little stuffy then, and excused himself, saying he’d have to think further on the matter.

 For awhile, Lem Oolong seemed to be a natural focus of suspicion. He was an angry young man who obviously chaffed at his father’s attempts to get him to dress and act with decorum. He enjoyed acting the rebel, and could well need money, since his father was holding out on him as leverage to control him. Flummox asked around a bit after his habits, who he hung out with, and where he might have been seen.

 It was not long before word of that got back to Master Oolong, and he confronted Flummox. “I know Lemon is a problem, and has been ever since his mother died. But if you think he is the jewel thief, you are dead wrong.”

“Why are you so sure?”

“Well, I once had a sting of pearls, a beloved heirloom that had been my wife’s, very much like the one Fern Longbottom was describing earlier. It was very precious to me, and it was stolen. I know for a fact that Lem could not have stolen that item.”

“Oh really?”

“If you must know, Chief Grief had him in lockup for drunk and disorderly, at my request. He could not possibly have been responsible.”

“Well, thank you. That is very helpful. I’ll bear that in mind.”

 Everyone asked for an opinion on the robberies always pointed to Pablo DaliTrec, a poor starving artist who spent the evening trying to elicit an art commission from a wealthy patron. His specialty seemed to be impressions, and he was able to screw up his face in ways that totally changed his appearance to that of the person he was imitating. He was quite a riot for the party goers.

Flummox gathered, from the flirtations that he observed, that Pablo got more riches from the older lady patrons for deeds behind closed bedroom doors than he would ever get from the older men for his art. To Flummox, his guile seemed transparent and amateurish – a young engaging man, but a fool nonetheless. He came to believe Pablo was just a convenient scapegoat for the actual guilty party or parties.

The climax of the evening took place in the ballroom. Flummox observed Montecristo himself hunch suspiciously over a glass of wine, which he then offered to his daughter, who drained it in one long gulp, and seemed to brace herself for some upcoming challenge. As they conferred by the corner table, a number of zombie servants came and removed the black drapes. Revealed was a large cake surrounded by several small pyramids of shot glasses, the whole thing flanked by huge candelabras. The zombie servants proceeded to light the dozens of candles therein, then Montecristo called for everyone’s attention.

Princess Pumpkin went around behind the table, almost tripping over the undead dog, which slunk away. She set her wine glass down heavily on the table, where it fell over, fortunately empty. “Thag you all for coming with me here tonigh. If you lip…” She looked puzzled and swayed a little. Her rump hit the wall behind her and she leaned forward again. “I ast awog you hear the night… because… because…” She swayed again, bounced off the wall behind, and fell face forward into the cake. Shot glasses flew everywhere and several candles fell into the resulting pools of hard liquor, igniting them.

Flummox acted immediately, as he had been watching closely as events unfolded. He seized Pumpkin and pulled her to safety, using her own gown to bat out the few flames that had caught on her skirts. Many of the ladies clustered around her, wiping off cake, while the men put out the fires.

But not all the men, Flummox observed. While Montecristo stood by and watched, expressionless, two other gentlemen slipped out in the confusion – Oolong and Exchequer.

Flummox sidled up to D-Stract. “I think that’s my cue. You’re on your own now.”

“Good luck.”

Out the door, down the drive, through the gate, to the right past the Tomes mansion, and through the first gate on the left, into the Longbottom estate.

Sherlock appeared. “What did you see?”

Flummox gestured over his shoulder. “Oolong and Exchequer both slipped out when Montecristo tried to incinerate his daughter. I don’t know what that was about, but either or both of them could be heading this way. Those two are Longbottom’s nearest neighbors.”

Sherlock smiled and nodded, rubbing his hands together. “The game is afoot.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

NEXT CHAPTER

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