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Just testing ;)
Chapter 4: A Vision In Pink
Midnight. The great mansion was silent, save for the creak of settling floorboards and the occasional groan from the plumbing.
Emma Robinson slowly inched her door open, wincing as it creaked on its hinges. Looking up and down the passage, she ascertained that the coast was clear. The au pair slipped out of her room and gingerly tiptoed down the corridor. Clad in a white dressing gown, she cut a ghostly figure as she sneaked past the childrenÂ´s rooms.
Emma carefully avoided the very squeaky floorboard right outside TychoÂ´s room. She was rather suspicious of that floorboard. She suspected that the good Dr Montero had deliberately installed it so heÂ´d hear if his youngest was up and about at night. It positively howled if one trod on it.
Having negotiated the creakiest part of the passage, Emma scuttled for the stairs. One step at a time, she crept down them. Pausing every time a stair creaked, it seemed to take forever to reach the first floor.
The first floor hallway was much quieter, and it was a whole floor away from the sleeping Monteros. Groping blindly down it, she arrived at an oak-panelled door about a quarter of the way down. She sighed in relief. Then she yelped in surprise as something brushed her ankle. Her heart thumped loudly as she looked around for the culprit. A pair of gleaming yellow eyes regarded her from near floor-level and blinked lazily.
"Mog!" she hissed, nudging the cat away with her foot. "What are you doing here? Get outta it, go on. Scat."
But Mog refused to scat. Instead, he rubbed himself against her, purring loudly. Half-exasperated, half-amused, Emma reached down to scratch the PersianÂ´s ears. "You nearly gave me a heart attack. And please donÂ´t purr so loudly." It was stupid, she knew, to entertain the thought that Dr Montero could hear MogÂ´s soft rumble from upstairs. But you could never tell. The man was uncanny.
Emma slowly turned the doorknob and pushed the heavy door open. Mog, tail held high, sauntered into the darkness beyond. She followed the white cat into the room.
In darkness, things are never what they seem. Shadows form and grow in corners, previously benign objects become lurking beasts. So it was in here. What at first appeared to be the shadow of a small tyrannosaurus was revealed on closer inspection to be the Play Kitchen, with its decorative motif of daisies. A snake coiled in the corner was merely the battered Scalectrix. And the still shape by the window was -
"Emma?" A smooth, cultured voice slipped from the shadows.
"Ohmygod!" Emma leapt into the air with a small scream. Clamping her hand over her mouth, she glanced wildly around for the speaker.
Dr Montero stepped away from the window. Wearing his dark blue dressing gown, he was difficult to spot in the darkness. He clicked on a torch and shined it at the au pair. The beam caught the glint of metal in her hand. Emma said nothing as he raised an eyebrow at the screwdriver she held. She looked straight back, and dropped her gaze to the tool bag he carried. Then, surprisingly, he grinned.
"You hold the torch, and IÂ´ll do the deed."
She smirked at him. "Operation Britney Spears?"
"Precisely." And with that, the doctor laid down his tools. Handing Emma the torch, he opened his bag and began to remove the tools. He discarded a power drill, a crowbar and a small saw. A hammer held his attention for a moment. "Tempting, but no" he sighed regretfully and laid it aside.
A few moments later, armed with a screwdriver, Dr Montero attacked the large playroom stereo. With astonishing speed he had the plug off and replaced with a dud. Plugging the thing back in, he pressed the `onÂ´ button. Emma steeled herself for a blast of S Club 7`s latest, but none came. Satisfied, Dr Montero winked at Emma. "DonÂ´t mention this to my wife. She will kill me. And if she doesnÂ´t, Jade most certainly will."
Emma nodded. "Nosir. Not a word. You can count on it." She had no wish to encounter a furious Jade first thing in the morning.
"Thank you. Good night Emma." With that, the doctor picked up his tools and ambled out of the room, whistling softly.
She stared after him, and shook her head. "That," she said to the empty room, "was surreal. Well, fairly surreal anyway. Like normal, I suppose."
Morning came. Emma would have liked to savour the golden sunlight pouring through her windows, and the glorious morning birdsong. Unfortunately her hopes of a peaceful morning lie-in were dashed when her door burst open and something landed on her middle. Hard. Winded, Emma struggled into a sitting position, dislodging a grinning Gabriel.
"I AM awake, thanks to you."
He peered at her face. "Didja get up on the wrong side of the bed? Or didja get bitten by bedbugs?"
Emma snorted. "No. I just had a small boy land on my stomach." She yawned. "WhatÂ´s the occasion?"
Gabe stared. "ItÂ´s JadeÂ´s birthday. You have to get up and come downstairs. Now!" And with that, he scrambled off her bed and dashed away.
It was a puffy-eyed and grouchy Emma that staggered down the stairs that morning. Mrs Montero saw her coming and pushed a mug of coffee into her hands. The clock in the lounge read '5:31 AMÂ´. Incredulously, she looked at the clock and then at Jade. The only one fully dressed and awake, Jade was sitting behind a large pile of presents. As Emma watched, Dr Montero hid a yawn.
Gabriel popped up from under the table. Mog was clutched in his arms. "Mog says Happy Birthday," he told his sister, proffering the cat to her. "Open you presents!"
Jade took Mog and kissed him. He slunk quickly away when she set him down, coming to hide behind Mrs MonteroÂ´s legs.
"Open `em" Tycho cried. "Open `em!"
"Okay, okay." Everyone could see that Jade was eager to start. She had conducted herself with remarkable restraint so far. This restraint went out of the window as she fell on her presents with a vengeance. Paper began to fly. The largest parcel was shredded, to reveal a large wooden box. Jade flipped the lid open and gasped in delight. Everyone craned forward to see. Almost reverently, the little girl lifted her present out of its presentation box.
Metal gleamed in the early morning sunlight. Polished wood shone with a warm glow. Emma paled. Cradling the crossbow in her arms, Jade beamed at her proud parents.
"ItÂ´s /wonderful/. Oh thankyou, thankyou, THANK YOU!" She twirled in delight. Reflexively, Emma ducked. "ItÂ´s JUST what I wanted. Thank you Mom, thank you Dad!"
Dr Montero smiled. "No using it in the house, understood?"
"Oh yeah. Of course. Not in the house." She grinned, sighting along the polished walnut stock.
"Oh YES" her father corrected automatically.
"Whatever." Jade laid the weapon down and turned back to the serious business of present-opening.
The rest of that time-honoured ceremony was anti-climatic. From Gabriel, Jade received a huge cuddly tiger. Emma gave her a book. She squealed with delight as she tore the bright paper off.
"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire! Excellent! I always wanted one of those three-headed dogs, you know," she told her family.
Emma shook her head. "I like the Blast-Ended Skrewts myself."
"The what?" Mrs Montero inquired, puzzled.
"You kinda had to be there." Emma told her employer with a smile, and resumed petting Hannibal, who was licking her knee with great enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, Jade had opened another present. Tycho had spent some thought on his gift. It was a Backstreet Boys single, messily wrapped but presented with a big wet kiss. As soon as Tycho looked away, Jade pulled a horrible face and wiped her mouth on her sleeve.
The birthday ritual complete, everyone was on their way out of the room, Jade lovingly stroking her new crossbow, when Tycho stopped dead in the hallway. His father nearly tripped over him as the boy dug frantically in his pockets for something. He found it and pulled it triumphantly out. It was a frog. A dead frog, to be precise. To be even more precise, it was a frog that had evidently been dead for some time. It had that certain `sat-uponÂ´ air about it.
"Jade!" he cried. "Jade!"
Jade turned back with a smile. "Yes Tyke?"
He ran up to her and thrust the frog into her hands. "Present," he said proudly. "From Tyke."
Jade looked down at the sorry thing in her hands. The mortal remains of the frog looked back. "Oh. Thank you. Its... lovely."
Tycho grinned. "Like it?"
He gave her another wet, sloppy kiss and ran off.
Emma was sorely tempted to go back to bed. But no. As fate would have it, Jade discovered the `brokenÂ´ stereo in the playroom. An anguished wail echoed down the hallway. Emma trotted down the stairs and met Jade standing outside the playroom.
"The stereo wonÂ´t work" she said, almost tearfully. "And I wanted to play my new CD."
Sternly repressing a guilty twinge, Emma pretended to look at the thing. It sat, sullen and mute, beside a towering pile of teen-pop anthems. After half an hour of pushing buttons and pulling wires, it was, not surprisingly, still silent. Dr Montero looked at it and proclaimed it dead, while Mrs Montero looked at him with a certain scepticism on her face. Eventually, Jade got bored and wandered off, crossbow in tow. Seeing the look with which Mrs Montero favoured her husband, Emma decided to withdraw to the shower.
Alone with the doctor, Clarice folded her arms. "So" she said.
Dr Lecter smiled disarmingly. "Yes?"
"That was very clever" Starling said. "That plugÂ´s a dud."
"It is. SheÂ´ll kill you if she ever finds out."
He put on an angelic expression of noble suffering. "I find I can bear her suffering with great fortitude."
A hint of a smile tugged at StarlingÂ´s lips. "You know, youÂ´re as bad as they are," she told him, exasperated.
Dr Lecter smiled. "Of course I am," he agreed, pulling her into his arms. She rested her head contentedly against his warm chest. They enjoyed this feeling of closeness for a few moments, before Clarice pulled away.
"WeÂ´d better see what the kids are up to" she murmured, smiling.
He kissed her forehead. "That is what we employ Emma for, my dear."
Emma herself was in the Montero's lounge. She had taken cover behind the table as Gabriel had JadeÂ´s frog on a piece of string. He had previously been using it to entertain the cat. Now, tired of that, he was whirling it around his head with great enthusiasm. Nobody wanted to approach him and risk getting a face-full of deceased amphibian. EmmaÂ´s sternest voice had no effect whatsoever. Neither did the threat of calling his parents.
Mrs MonteroÂ´s entry into the lounge caused Emma and Jade to sigh in relief, and Gabriel to yelp and let go of the string. The frog flew at impressive speed, straight across the room. It hit GabrielÂ´s surprised mother on the forehead with a wet `smack!Â´
GabrielÂ´s eyes went round with horror. "Oops" he said.
Mrs Montero bent down and delicately picked the frog up by its hindleg. She looked enquiringly at her son, who looked as if he wished he could disappear. "Why donÂ´t you children go and play outside?" It was a mild suggestion, with overtones of steel.
"Good idea!" Jade grabbed her crossbow, younger brother and frog and headed for the garden. Her scolding voice faded into the distance. The next thing they heard was a wooden `thunkÂ´ and the boys cheering.
Cautiously, Emma poked her head out of the window. The ever-inventive Montero kids had tied Froggy to a tree in the back garden, and were using him for target practice. So far, there were four crossbow quarrels in the tree, and none in the frog. Evidently, Jade needed some more lessons from her father.
The morning passed by unusually peacefully. With the children entertaining themselves in the garden and Dr Montero closeted in his study, Mrs Montero and Emma sat in the lounge and talked. They talked of various things, the most important being the subjects of children, holidays and horses.
"We will be holidaying in Italy this year" Mrs Montero announced, after a few moments silence.
"Italy? Nice. I went once, on a college trip to Florence." Emma smiled at the memory. Sitting in a drunken huddle with three college friends in the shadow of the Palazzo Vecchio, beneath the very window Hannibal Lecter threw the policeman Pazzi out of. Swapping horror stories and giggling over how fine the murderous doctor looked on his 'Most Wanted' poster. Yes, she though dreamily, that had been one hell of a trip.
"Oh? You know Florence? Han - Henry loves the city. We own a small place in the country, a little villa not far from Florence. The children love it."
"They do?" Emma repressed a shudder at the thought of those three little darlings loose in the Uffizi gallery.
Mrs Montero grinned. "And we keep a close eye on them, never fear. No, IÂ´m really looking forward to seeing my horses again. I miss my poor babies." She gave a delicate sniff and sipped her coffee. "Do you ride at all?"
Emma nodded vigorously. "Yes, often.. What sort of horses?"
"Oh, two Barbs, a Lippizana mare and an English Thoroughbred."
Oh. Is that all? Emma wondered "IÂ´ve got a mare. SheÂ´s not a purebred - part thoroughbred, part Irish Draft -
A scream from the garden cut short any further horsey talk. Both Emma and Mrs Montero leapt to their feet and ran to the garden.
Emma was expecting to find Jade with a bolt through her foot, or to discover that sheÂ´d been using her brothers for target practice. The reality was less life-threatening, but still (in EmmaÂ´s opinion) merited punishment. But, unfortunately, the Montero children were not the sort of kids youÂ´d want to send to bed without any dinner. For, in playing Robin Hood, they had managed to set fire to the garden shed. The three stood sheepishly before it, clutching what looked suspiciously like fire-arrows. There was a faint smell of petrol.
Mrs Montero stared at the flames. The shed was doomed. As everyone watched, the shrubbery began to smoulder.
Mrs Montero seemed to grow with anger.
"Right," she said. The children gulped. "Get the hose."
The hose was duly rolled out, turned on and aimed at the flames. Wisps of smoke spiralled away as the spray hissed across burning wood.
"I told you we shouldÂ´ve done this ourselves" Jade whispered to Gabriel. The boy had hidden the fire arrows, but nothing could be done about the coke bottle full of petrol. It was out in plain sight, beside the tree. He hoped nobody would discover the siphon heÂ´d left beside the Jaguar. At least, not yet.
It was three terrified-looking children that faced their mother after the shed had been given a decent burial.
"Mom -" Jade began.
Mrs Montero raised her hand. "I donÂ´t want to know" she said shortly. "Give me the crossbow. And the fire-arrows. Yes - I saw them."
"But nothing. Crossbow. Now." Her voice had reached sub-arctic temperature.
Sighing theatrically, Jade handed over the crossbow and arrows. "It was only the shed Mom. ItÂ´s not like we blew up DaddyÂ´s car or something."
Jade was bored. Crossbow confiscated, just because sheÂ´d burnt the shed down. What was in there except some rusty garden equipment and a lot of rats anyway? It just wasnÂ´t /fair/. And now the boys didnÂ´t want to play because they didnÂ´t want to get into trouble again, and Emma had disappeared. Kicking out moodily at a houseplant, Jade wandered down the passage. Her fatherÂ´s study door was ajar. She peeked in, to see him lounging in a leather recliner. He was reading a book, and laughing out loud at the funny parts. Jade considered her father for a long moment, and an evil gleam entered her maroon eyes. She made a small sound, and Hannibal Lecter looked up.
"Jade, whatÂ´s wrong?"
"Oh, nothing." She stuffed her hands in her pockets and scowled at the floor. "Mum took my crossbow away 'cos I set fire to the shed."
"Is that all?"
"Yeah, Mom got really angry. Now nobody wants to play anymore." Jade looked up hopefully. "Will you come and play with me? Please, Dad?"
"Jade, sweetie, Daddy's busy."
"Busy reading a boring old book. Huh."
"Please, Daddy? Please please pleeeeease? Go on..." She screwed her face up as if she was about to cry, and somewhere near the top of the list of things Dr Lecter had experienced before and never wished to again was Jade crying. She could wail and scream for hours if she deemed it necessary. And then there was the slamming doors, Barbies used as projectile weapons and Britney Spears on the CD player as a kind of revenge. Aware that he was entirely twisted around his daughter's little finger, Dr Lecter gave up all hopes of a quiet evening alone with his books.
"Okay, /okay/. No need to cry. What do you want to play?"
Jade smiled. "Come upstairs and I'll show you" she said.
The kitchen. In any home, a place full of warmth, homey smells and interesting things in jars. These are usually cookies and such, but not always...
Emma held up a container of an unidentifiable greyish meat. "This?"
Mrs Montero looked up from the salad she was preparing for Jade's birthday lunch. The main meal would be held in the evening, and the servants being absent, Mrs Montero had elected to make a simple, light lunch. Her husband would deal with the main meal later. "No. It's in the other one. It's pink."
Emma replaced the grey stuff and rummaged around in the refrigerator again, emerging from the caviar and Brie with a plate of turkey and a triumphant expression. "This one?"
"That's the bunny."
Upon closer inspection, Emma decided the turkey could not be turkey, and was in fact chicken. But surely chicken meat wasn't quite so dark?
"It's duck" Mrs Montero said in answer to her unspoken question. "A breed of French duck known for its full flavour and penetrating sqawk. Goes well with a nice bottle of Montrachet."
"IÂ´ll take your word for it. I donÂ´t know much about wine."
Mrs Montero smiled. "Same here, until I married Henry. My idea of a good meal was half a pint of JD and coke, and a Happy Meal. Right - salad /done/, " she kicked the fridge open and shoved the dishes inside with enough force to dislodge half its contents. The good Doctor would have had a coronary if heÂ´d seen the terribly expensive quail slip out on to the floor. Mrs Montero picked it up carefully, dusted it and set it back on its plate. "DonÂ´t tell my husband."
Sworn to silence, Emma was sent back to the lounge for the camera, it being traditional at birthdays to take pictures of the birthdayee. The camera sat on a small, oak coffee table amid magazines. The Italian edition of Vogue lay open in splendour, showing a girl with legs several miles high, wearing a short black number that probably went into the minuses and a pair of extremely expensive shoes. Emma flicked over a page or so. Glossy Goddesses pouted and smirked at her from every shiny page. She came to a stop at one young woman wearing a lacy negligee. Someone had drawn a moustache and added tassels to her breasts. Crossword clues in an engaging copperplate hand covered the rest of the picture.
Mrs Montero was waiting in the hallway when Emma returned with the camera. "I think sheÂ´s upstairs, playing with her dad" she said. "IÂ´d like to get a photo of him being sweet sometime."
Emma and her employer ventured upstairs, clutching camera and a stack of birthday cards that had come with the post. But Dr Montero and his daughter were nowhere to be seen. The playroom was deserted. The boys were in the cellar playing with their train set. JadeÂ´s bedroom was also empty, save for Mog who lay curled inside a straw sun hat.
Mrs Montero closed JadeÂ´s door softly. "One place left" she said. "The attic."
The stairs up to the attic were not as creaky as the stairs in the rest of the house, which is what enabled them to sneak up on the doctor virtually unheard. Emma swallowed a sneeze at the dust, and in bending to pick up a card she dropped, came eyeball to eyeballs with the largest spider she had ever seen. She looked at it, and it looked at her. It waved its first pair of legs at her, in the manner of a Maori warrior. Entertaining the thought of a house spider doing the haka, Emma smiled and trod down hard.
There was light at the end of the cobwebs. Mrs Montero pushed the gossamer things aside with a grumbled "must get Ilenza to clean up here" and opened the attic door.
There was silence.
Two pairs of eyes were instantly drawn to the pink. That and the tiara. It was silver wire and plastic gems, spiky and sparkly. The eyes traveled downwards, past the rapidly crimsoning face of Dr Montero, to the frock. It was pink, voluminous and winked with sequins. Lace stuck out awkwardly from the daring neckline, exposing the doctorÂ´s hairy chest and a red mark just below his collarbone. The effect was completed with a pair of old fishnets and some gossamer angels wings taken from one of JadeÂ´s old costumes. But it was, above all, /very pink/.
There was more silence. You could have heard a surgical needle drop.
Mrs Montero grabbed the camera from Emma, raised it and snapped off a couple of shots. The doctorÂ´s face went white. He flung his star-tipped wand aside and made a mad lunge for the camera.
"CLARICE! DonÂ´t you DARE!"
She danced out of his way, grinning. "Oh if ever there was a Kodak moment. This is just /perfect/.
Dr Montero abandoned dignity and tried to pin her against the wall and wrest the thing from her. However, his wife wriggled out of his grasp and headed for the door.
"I recommend running," she told Emma in passing.
The au pair, seeing Jade huddled in a corner, crying with laughter, wisely decided not to hang around. That little madam had probably orchestrated the entire thing. She followed Mrs Montero out of the door. They were halfway down the stairs when they heard a thud. Dr Montero has attempted a pursuit and tripped over his heels.
In a masterly display of almost inhuman self control, they calmly walked the rest of the way to the lounge. Neither spoke. However, Mrs Montero closed the lounge door, turned and flopped onto the sofa, and gave over to the hysterical laughter that such an occasion demands. Emma buried her face in a cushion, shaking with laughter. She might only have been here a few weeks, but she knew one thing at least. It was going to be extremely difficult looking Dr Montero in the face in the future.
Furthermore, Emma realised that about the only thing she could think about right now were the lyrics to /Sweet Transvestite/. It was just too much. A sudden vision of Dr Montero in his fishnets reduced Emma to incoherent giggles. Mentally cursing Richard O'Brien and most of the cast of the Rocky Horror Show, she buried her face in a cushion until the tears went away.
A pounding on the door roused them both. Mrs Montero moved the coffee table away and the door flew open to reveal Dr Montero, minus his tiara and frock. He glared at them both.
"Dearest, what have you done with the damn camera?" he growled, ignoring EmmaÂ´s smirk.
Mrs Montero's smile was angelic. "Nothing. Why, do you think I should?"
This was what had become known as `The Britney Spears IncidentÂ´ all over again. His worst nightmare multiplied by ten. The doctor paled. Things were not looking good. "I have a reputation to maintain, you know," he informed his wife.
"I know." She grinned. "The tiara was a nice touch. It was very knobbly though."
"You can take the tiara with knobs on and - "
"And the dress" Mrs Montero continued mercilessly. "It suited you." She fluttered her eyelashes girlishly. "Darlingheart, you are an absolute vision in pink."
The argument continued for several hours, but Mrs Montero never divulged the whereabouts of the camera. In the end, Dr Montero drowned his sorrows in three bottles of Chateau dÂ´Yquem and a Terry Pratchett novel.
As Emma was drifting off to sleep that night, still chuckling over the thought of the doctor camping it up as FrankÂ´NÂ´Furter, something that had been niggling away in the back of her mind sidled into the front and presented itself for consideration. He had called her Clarice.
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