Disclaimers - See Part 1.
BREAK OUT '99 - PART 2
DAY TWO: "SOMETHING WITH POISON IN IT, I THINK!"
Someone was shaking Charlie by the shoulder.
"Hey!" yelled a woman's voice in her ear. "Get up."
"Wha-?" Reluctantly, she cracked open an eyelid.
A woman wearing a navy-blue hat with a navy-and-white check hatband was glaring down at her. "I said: get up."
That isn't Jen! Startled and now wide-awake, Charlie sat up.
The dormitory light was on, and the room was full of sound and bustle, of distorted voices crackling over radios, and stern looking men and women in navy-blue uniform … Oh, no, it's the Police!
As she scrambled out of bed - with difficulty, because one of the tapes keeping the sleeping bag in place had come undone during the night - she became aware of a group of people standing by the doorway. Among their number was a very naked and embarrassed Darren (cupping his hands over his genitals) and a furious Jen, whose T-shirt, Charlie couldn't help noticing once again, displayed her long legs to perfection.
"What's going on?" Charlie's question was addressed to all and sundry.
"Charlotte Heywood. I am arresting you on Suspicion of Burglary," said the fierce woman who had woken her. "You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence."
"I've already told you," protested Jen from the doorway. "We're going to recompense the owners for any damages and goods used."
"Yeah, yeah. What with?" asked the policeman next to her, looking up from the pocketbook he was writing in. "Chocolate money?"
A firm hand in the small of her back propelled Charlie towards her friends. "I don’t understand," she said.
"The hostel's burglar alarm was linked to the Police Station," explained Darren. He glanced at his cupped hands again and blushed a bright red.
"For God's sake," said Jen, "will someone give him his clothes?" She pointed to the bunk where Darren had carelessly flung his costume the night before. Darren's escort had the good grace to flush, and hurriedly retrieved the silver garments which looked as though they were still damp.
"Heavens!" said the policewoman, as the Post Room clerk began awkwardly to dress, gradually transforming himself into The Tin Man, albeit one with a flesh-coloured face. She turned to Charlie. "And I suppose you're a Munchkin?"
"No, I'm Dorothy," said Charlie, nettled.
"And she's the Wicked Witch?"
Charlie glanced to where Jen, now with a borrowed coat draped over her shoulders, was being urged into the corridor. The tall woman's fists were balled, and she was clearly fighting the instinct to resist arrest. She sighed. "No. She's The Cowardly Lion."
"Don’t worry, I'll take care of this," shouted Jen, before disappearing round a corner.
"Cowardly?" The policewoman rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Let's go." She took Charlie's arm and propelled her towards the doorway where someone threw a coat over the blonde's shoulders and she pulled it gratefully around her.
"Llangollen," said her escort.
"What about our things … our costumes are hired, you know."
The policewoman sighed and beckoned to a gormless looking constable. "This one," she indicated Charlie, "says they have some clothes."
"They're in the drying room. And there are bags too," added Charlie. "Over there." She pointed. "A duffel bag and a haversack."
"Yeah yeah - and bags. Grab the bags. Find the clothes. Bring em all to the station. OK?"
The young constable nodded.
"Can we go now?" asked the policewoman sarcastically.
Charlie nodded. "Lead on." …
The next few hours were not ones Charlie would remember fondly, though they would probably make a great anecdote one day. Jen was bundled into the back of one police car while Darren and Charlie got to ride in another. If she never heard another siren or saw another blue light flashing, it would be too soon.
It was a hair-raising ride through the forested mountains, along narrow lanes, past swollen streams and rivers. They flashed past signposts to woollen mills, quarries, and slate museums and through empty hamlets whose law abiding citizens were fast asleep in their beds. Charlie envied them their pleasant dreams.
Then the convoy was approaching the outskirts of an unprepossessing grey town whose puddled roads and rain slicked pavements distortedly reflected sodium streetlamps and garish traffic lights.
Is this Llangollen?
Moments later they were pulling up in front of a police station. There was a small delay while Jen was hustled out of the first car and into the building, then it was the turn of Darren and Charlie.
While the Post Room clerk was led away to something called a holding cell, the Assistant Customer Services Manager was taken to meet the custody sergeant. The craggy looking man with bags under his eyes took down her personal details and explained her rights to her. Remembering Jen's promise to 'take care of this', Charlie deferred notifying a solicitor until later.
The borrowed coat was taken from her then, and she had to suffer the indignity of being searched for anything she might use to 'harm herself'. The pink nightie, apparently, didn’t qualify.
While she was being patted down by the policewoman, the gormless constable appeared with their bags and costumes. Charlie's relief was short lived, however, when her Dorothy outfit was claimed by the custody sergeant and she was given a blanket instead. Must be my night for blankets.
Dolefully, she draped it round her shoulders and, when another officer joined them, saying, "This one's for interview, Sarge." limply followed him.
Which is how Charlie found herself, clad only in her pink nightie and blanket, sitting on a hard chair in a boxy room with two stern-faced policewomen and being questioned slowly and thoroughly about the Youth Hostel break-in.
All she wanted to do was to resume her interrupted sleep, and when she woke up to discover this had been only a nightmare - that wasn't too much to ask was it? But it looked like it wasn't going to happen anytime soon. In fact, things looked bad. No money. No ID either. The costumes would be harder for the police to ignore though.
"Yes, for charity," she repeated, aware that her every word was being recorded on tape. "You can ring the organisers of Break Out 99 and check."
She was relieved when the interview was abruptly terminated and she was taken back to the custody sergeant.
"I'm afraid you'll have to share with your friend," he said, as he escorted her along a narrow corridor to the cells. "Wedding reception at a local Hotel got out of hand - 6 of our 8 cells are in use. I'll get a spare mattress to you in a few minutes, OK?"
She shrugged. "OK."
He unlocked one of the substantial doors, opened it, and gestured her inside.
She entered the dimly lit cell tentatively, expecting to find Darren. But it was Jen who was sitting on the narrow bed, her expression a mixture of anger, guilt, and exhaustion.
Charlie had never been so glad to see a familiar and friendly face in her life. She flew into the startled Accounts Manager's arms and barely registered the sound of the cell door being quietly closed and bolted behind her.
"Did they hurt you"? Jen's voice in her ear was concerned. "If they did I'll -"
"No," said Charlie, hanging onto the other woman for dear life. "I'm fine." For some reason, she found herself weeping uncontrollably.
"Sh." A large hand patted her back rather awkwardly. "It'll be all right, Charlie. They contacted Sam. He's getting Falcon's lawyers onto it. There, there. It'll be all right, I promise."
Charlie knew she should be strong, but just then she felt content to let the other woman hold her and tell her it would be OK. Gradually, her sobs lessened to the occasional sniff.
"I'm so sorry, Charlie," said Jen after a while." It's my fault we're in this mess."
Charlie wiped her nose on her hand. "Darren and I didn't have to go along with you, Jen."
She was sorry when the strong hands released her.
"That's all very well, but I was in charge and I should have known better -"
"I don’t remember putting you in charge!"
Jen gave her an uncertain glance and chewed her lower lip.
"And anyway, if we're apportioning blame," continued Charlie, "I think it was my suggestion that landed us in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain."
Jen gave her a faint smile, and leaned back against the cell wall. "Yeah, well. Hindsight is 20:20 vision."
Charlie now felt calm enough to take in her surroundings: four walls in a delightful shade of beige, a window, a door, the hard bed she and Jen were sitting on, and a loo. "It's not exactly the Ritz, is it?"
The sound of the lock turning made them both turn. The door creaked open and the Custody Sergeant, his cheeks red with effort, heaved a small mattress into the cell. "This'll do you," he panted.
"Thanks," said Charlie. "I think."
He smiled and left them to it.
Jen eyed the mattress, which was now taking up most of the available floor space, dubiously. "Definitely not the Ritz." She glanced at her wrist then swore softly. "Any idea what time it is?
Charlie shook her head. "They kept my watch too."
A slightly awkward silence followed.
"Have you seen Darren?" asked Jen at last.
"Not since they separated us for questioning."
"Shit!" Jen rubbed her eyes wearily.
"Hey, look at it this way," said Charlie. "It got us a lift to Llangollen, didn’t it?"
The answering snort of laughter surprised her and a warm glance passed between the two women that made Charlie's insides tingle pleasantly. What's up with me? First I can't stop staring at her legs, now this. She wondered if the other woman felt it too.
"I don’t know about Dorothy," continued Jen, apparently unaware of Charlie's consternation. "You should have been Pollyanna."
Charlie smiled. "Nah. She's much too goody-goody."
"And you're not?" A dark eyebrow rose provocatively.
"Not me. I'm a hardened criminal." Charlie leaned back against the wall. "Why else would I be locked in this cell with another hardened criminal?"
The silence between them this time was more comfortable.
A huge yawn took Charlie by surprise and she quickly raised her hand to her mouth. "So," she said, trying to fight another yawn and failing - the adrenaline rush had evidently worn off. "Are we going to try and get some sleep then?"
Jen yawned too - it must be catching. "Might as well," she said. "Doesn't look as though we're going anywhere for a while, does it?"
* * *
It was three in the afternoon when the members of the Wizard of Oz Team, whose identities had been confirmed via faxed personnel records from Sam, were finally released.
Tracking down the owner of the Youth Hostel, currently holidaying in Portugal, had taken the police much longer than expected. Fortunately, he proved sympathetic to their plight and was willing to drop all charges if the 'dangerous criminals' sent him a photo of themselves - in costume, of course - for the hostel's notice board.
So, the company's lawyers hadn't been necessary after all.
As Jen pulled on her lion's paw gloves, she thought about the long night and morning she had just spent in the cells.
Things had been a bit awkward at first. Neither woman was used to going to the toilet in front of someone else, but they had worked out a routine whereby if one was 'engaged' the other turned her back and stuck her fingers in her ears. They hadn't got much sleep either … the cell's observation hatch squeaked, which meant the hourly check that they hadn't 'topped' themselves kept waking one or both of them.
In the end, they had given up trying to do more than nap, and simply talked … about their childhoods mostly, which, as Jen suspected, couldn't have been more different.
If anyone had told her she'd survive 12 hours confined in a tiny cell with Charlotte Heywood and not come out a raving lunatic, she would have laughed in their face. But she had. Not only that, she had decided that she really liked being with the younger woman. So much so that, when at 10 am the custody sergeant interrupted their engrossed conversation with the news that another cell was now free and asked 'did they want to be split up for a while', Jen had glanced at Charlie, raised an eyebrow in query, and, on receiving a shrug, declined.
Maybe I have turned into a raving lunatic after all.
Jen donned the last item of clothing: the lion hat - really little more than an itchy woollen hood with ears attached - and noticed that the policewoman who must accompany her at all times was trying not to snigger. She sighed. "I know. But it's for charity. OK?"
"Whatever." The other woman gestured towards the door. "Ready?"
Jen sighed and let herself be guided along the corridor to the foyer where she'd been told the others were waiting for her. Her little chat with the day shift Custody Sergeant meant she was running late … it had been worth it, however.
Two costumed figures came into view. Charlie beamed up at her.
"Hi," said Darren. "You OK?"
Jen shrugged. "All the better for a night in the cells and a disgusting breakfast and lunch." She eyed her escort. "Egon Ronay won’t be recommending this place anytime soon."
The policewoman ignored the gibe and ushered the three ex prisoners towards the exit, like a farmer herding geese. They paused on the oil stained forecourt and regarded one another uncertainly. Jen had never been so pleased to see the outside of a Police Station. It had stopped raining too. Perhaps our luck has changed at last.
The Polaroid camera, she noticed suddenly, was once more hanging round Darren's neck. "One minute," she told the policewoman who was about to go back inside.
"Would you take a photo of the three of us?" Darren and Charlie glanced at one another and murmured approvingly.
"Evidence." Jen gestured and Darren obligingly handed her the camera, which she passed to the puzzled cop.
"But the charges were dropped."
"Not evidence for you, for us." Jen assessed their surroundings dubiously. The dingy brick façade and crumbling forecourt were hardly photogenic.
"What about in front of this?" Charlie was pointing to the sign that said, 'Llangollen Police Station'.
Jen nodded. "That'll do."
She positioned herself under the sign and Darren and Charlie joined her, their arms curling around her waist. The policewoman raised the camera and pointed.
Jen bared her teeth. Then there was a faint click and she was blinking away the afterimages from the flashbulb.
"Here." The policewoman returned the camera and for the first time smiled. "Hope you make it back in time."
"Thanks. Me too," said Jen. But we've lost so much time, it's going to be close. She glanced at her watch.
Charlie caught the gesture. "So. Guess we'd better find ourselves another lift. Where to next?"
Jen suppressed a smirk. For all the blonde's protests that Jen was not teamleader, she seemed to request a lot of guidance. "Shrewsbury. But I've got it covered. The Custody Sergeant's brother - his name's Bryn - happens to be going there this afternoon and he's agreed to give us a lift.
"Great!" said Darren.
Charlie nodded her agreement.
Movement at the Police Station entrance attracted their attention. The Custody Sergeant's head popped round the door and he hollered, "Miss Carlton. Bryn's just phoned. He's running late - the missus decided she's coming too. Be here in five minutes though, he says."
Jen waved her acknowledgement then wandered over to the low wall that bounded the car park and sat on it. Charlie and Darren followed her example. A moment later, a distant chattering, growing steadily louder, had her searching for its source.
A crocodile of young school children was coming along the road towards them. Going to the library, or the swimming pool? Their murmurs and giggles grew louder and more excited as the children spotted the three characters from the Wizard of Oz.
Jen sighed. "Ever get the feeling we've fallen into some alternate universe?" she said out of the side of her mouth. "One which is determined to inflict as much humiliation on us as possible?"
Eyes wide, fingers pointing, the children dawdled past, kept in order by their equally goggle-eyed woman teacher. Charlie gave Jen a rueful grin and returned a young boy's eager wave. The last child passed them, walking backwards in order to get the most from this unexpected diversion, and Jen sighed with relief.
"It could have been much worse, I suppose," she said.
Charlie and Darren gave her a puzzled look. "Huh?"
"I could have been dressed as Toto."
Charlie smiled and shook her head, and the three of them sat in companionable silence as they watched the crocodile disappear into the distance.
"Nice guys, the Llangollen Police," said Darren apropos of nothing. "When they learned I'd left my underwear in that sheep lorry, they gave me some of theirs."
Jen coughed to hide her startled laugh. Charlie seemed to be having similar trouble. "Did they, Darren?" she managed. "That's good."
At that moment, a small orange Fiat pulled up next to them and the plump woman in the passenger seat lowered the window. "Hi," she called. "You the three waiting for a lift to Shrewsbury?"
Jen crossed the pavement and crouched by the open window. "Must be us," she joked. "Unless you've come across another trio in fancy dress?"
The woman laughed. "Hop in then. I'm Kath, and this," - she indicated the bearded driver peering curiously at his prospective passengers - "is Bryn."
Jen opened the back door and waited for Charlie to get in while Darren went round to the far side.
"A rose between two thorns," said Charlie, as Jen and Darren squeezed in on either side of her on the Fiat's cramped back seat.
"More like the ham in the sandwich," retorted Jen.
"All set in the back, there?" called Bryn.
"Yes," they chorused.
"Off we go then."
* * *
They had soon left Llangollen far behind. But Charlie barely registered the scenery whizzing by - she was much too conscious of Jen's thigh pressing against her own. Darren's thigh was also pressing against hers, but it didn't seem to be causing the same reaction.
Get a grip, girl! With some difficulty, she refocused her attention on things outside the car, on the steep Welsh hillside to their right with its scattering of cottages, on the weird structures to their left that Bryn cheerfully informed his passengers were lime kilns.
Then the road was curving south over a canal, and they were in Chirk, once a picturesque village but now mostly housing estates and factories. A National Trust signpost indicated a castle, which Bryn said was worth a visit. Charlie sighed.
"You ok?" came Jen's soft query from beside her
"Just wishing we had time to stop and see the sights."
"Talking of sights," interrupted Bryn from the driver's seat. "You'll like this."
Charlie was about to ask what 'this' was, when the two viaducts spanning the valley below came into view.
"Wow!" said Darren.
"Yeah!" breathed Charlie. We should have had a holiday in Wales, even if it was only once, she thought ruefully. We really missed out.
Then the viaducts had receded into the distance, and they were crossing the River Dee into England.
'Welcome to Shropshire' announced a roadsign. They drove on a little way in silence, which Darren was the first to break.
"They certainly seem to like cows round here. Better than sheep at least."
Charlie laughed and followed his gaze to the black and white animals grazing placidly in the fields alongside the road.
"Friesians," pronounced Jen.
"How do you know that?" asked Charlie.
Jen shrugged. "I'm a mine of useless information."
In the front passenger seat, Kath twisted round. "Actually, some say the locals chose the cows to match their houses."
"Huh?" Darren gaped at her.
"Black and white colour scheme," she prompted.
Charlie had a brainwave. "Oh, you mean Tudor architecture?"
Kath smiled. "Shrewsbury's full of the stuff."
"Not far now," said Bryn. As though his words had tempted Fate, a back tyre blew and the car lurched sideways.
"I knew it was too good to last," muttered Jen as Bryn wrestled with the steering wheel and brought the Fiat to a stop. With loud sighs and grumbles, everyone got out.
While Kath hovered unhelpfully, Bryn fetched an unwieldy jack from the car boot, and Jen pulled off her gloves and bent to help him unscrew the damaged tyre's stiff wheelnuts.
For an Accounts Manager who handled figures all day (Now wasn't that an image to play with!), Jen was very adept with mechanical things, Charlie noted wryly.
"How are we doing for time?" Darren asked her.
Charlie glanced at her watch. "4 o'clock. Not too bad."
Abruptly, the wheelnuts came loose, and Bryn and Jen levered off the damaged tyre, which Jen then rolled round to the open boot and heaved into the wheel well. While she caught her breath, she scratched her nose, unwittingly coating it with grime.
Charlie suppressed a grin as she regarded the black blob on the tip of Jen's nose. It matches the lion outfit rather well.
"Something wrong?" Jen had noticed her scrutiny.
"Erm … nothing," said Charlie hastily. I'll tell her later. Maybe.
Bryn soon had the replacement tyre fitted and they resumed their journey. The last stretch of the A5 was straightforward; even so, the Autumn darkness was already closing in by the time they crossed the River Severn and reached the outskirts of Shrewsbury.
"Where shall we drop you?" asked Kath, twisting round to regard her three passengers. "Hey! Did you know you've got dirt on the tip of your nose?" She reached in her pocket and dug out a paper tissue.
Jen accepted it with a startled look. "I have?" She frowned at Charlie.
Damn! It looked so cute too.
"As I was saying," said Kath, while Jen spat on the tissue and wiped the grime off, "Where shall we drop you?".
"The centre of town somewhere?" said Jen indistinctly. "We need to find a place to stay."
"A place to stay for free," added Darren.
"What about the Youth Hostel?" said Kath brightly. "It’s not free but it's cheap."
"No thanks!" came the instant and very vehement chorus.
Kath regarded her passengers curiously. "Um, OK. The youth hostel is out. Where, then?"
Jen raised an eyebrow at Charlie. "Any ideas?"
"A street with plenty of hotels, B & Bs, or pubs would be our best bet. We'll offer to do the chores in return for room and board. You know - dry the dishes and stuff?"
"Good thinking," said Jen.
Charlie glowed at the words of praise.
Kath murmured to her husband for a few moments, then he nodded and eased the Fiat into the queue of traffic.
Five minutes later, after negotiating a maze of twists, turns, short cuts, and what Charlie could have sworn was a pedestrian precinct, they arrived in a narrow street of predominantly black-and-white half-timbered houses. Most seemed to be Inns and Hotels, and many had 'Vacancy' notices in their windows. The car stopped outside a mock Tudor hotel called The Coach and Horses.
"Perfect," said Charlie.
She waited for Jen to ease her indecently long legs out of the tiny car, then followed her onto the narrow pavement. Darren joined them, surveying his surroundings with eager curiosity.
Charlie slammed the back door closed, then turned to look at Kath. "Thanks for the lift. We really appreciate it."
"Yes," added Jen. "Thanks."
"Me too," said Darren.
Kath smiled. "No problem. We had to come anyway. Got a relative in the hospital." She gave a little wave. "Safe journey. Try not to end up in the cells again." Then the little orange Fiat was pulling away, leaving the Wizard of Oz team standing forlornly under a streetlamp ….
It was Jen who regained her impetus first. She eyed the exterior of The Coach and Horses, then pulled back her shoulders and jutted her jaw.
"Ok. Let me try this," she said, and before anyone could object she was striding up the path to the front door.
Charlie exchanged a dubious look with Darren. She couldn’t fault Jen for guts, but thought the determined glint in the ice blue eyes would probably hinder rather than help their cause. When asking for assistance or charity, it was better to try what her father termed 'soft soap'.
Moments later, the night breeze wafted to her the sound of raised voices (Jen's annoyed growl was unmistakable). She sighed, wishing she had been wrong. Then the hotel door opened and a flushed Cowardly Lion stalked towards them.
"No go," said Jen, her demeanour a mix of hurt pride, anger, and dejection.
Darren opened his mouth to say something then to Charlie's relief thought better of it.
"Never mind," she said carefully. "There are plenty of other possibilities." She gestured at the pubs and hotels further along the street. "I'll try next, shall I?"
"OK," said a grumpy Jen.
They walked a few yards along to the next likely candidate. Charlie gazed up at the Pub sign and the others followed her gaze.
"The Deadly Nightshade?" said Darren doubtfully. "Couldn’t we get food poisoning from a place like that?"
Charlie shrugged. "It's just a name. These days Pubs can be called anything. There's one near where I live called The Rat and Carrot."
Jen raised an eyebrow.
Charlie laughed. "I've no idea why," she said. "Do rats eat carrots?"
She smoothed the wrinkles from her pinafore frock - an impossible task she soon realized - straightened her wig, and took a deep breath. "Come on." Confidently, she led the way to the Pub's front door, pulled it open, and went inside.
As they entered the dim interior, a pungent waft of roast beef, draught beer, and floor polish met them. And Charlie realized at once, that unlike The Coach and Horses, The Deadly Nightshade was the genuine article - a Tudor pub with most of its original beams.
There was a dull thud.
Charlie turned to see Jen rubbing her forehead.
"Should have a warning sign on these things," complained the tall woman pointing at the massive black ceiling beam. "Costume saved me from the worst, luckily."
For once, Charlie didn’t regret her small stature.
She scanned their surroundings. Whoever had furnished this place clearly liked 'dark' - the chairs and table looked like they were made of ancient mahogany. And sturdiness seemed to rate higher than comfort. An attempt to brighten the place up had been made. Urk! Bet there are a few shire horses out there who are wondering where their brasses got to.
Charlie searched for the unmanned reception desk - more mahogany - and pinged the bell for attention. Moments later, a harassed looking bald man, a blue-and-white butcher's apron stretched tautly over his belly, appeared.
"Yes?" He gaped at the trio, and Charlie tried not to laugh. It wasn't every day characters from The Wizard of Oz appeared on your doorstep.
"It's like this," she began, using the look her friends called 'cute puppy dog'. "We're doing a sponsored event for charity." She indicated their costumes and smiled conspiratorially. "But you’d already guessed that, right?" The man blinked at her. "And we need a place to stay for the night."
He opened his mouth to speak but she forestalled him -
"One night only," she batted her eyelashes at him. Beside her Jen a made a strange sound in her throat; Charlie quelled the tall woman with a glance then turned her 'cute' gaze full beam on the landlord again. He blinked and swallowed. "But the trouble is," - blink, blink - "we're not allowed to use any money or we'll be disqualified."
He tried to speak again, but again she was too quick for him.
"So, we were wondering, if we might be able to work for our bed and board instead."
What did that strange glint in his eye mean? He'd better not be a pimp! "Clear the tables, dry the dishes, that kind of thing," she clarified quickly.
Her heart was hammering as she waited for him to turn them down flat. Instead, a grin split his face from ear to ear.
"OK," he said.
"You're on. Bed and board for all three of you … if you help me out around the place tonight. Come this way."
Feeling like the locked door she been trying to kick down had suddenly been opened from inside, Charlie followed him. Darren and Jen weren't far behind.
"You're a gift from the gods," said the landlord, whose name turned out to be David Moffatt. "My 'help' is off with the flu, and my dishwasher's broken and they can't get the replacement part for a week."
He pushed open a sturdy swinging door and they found themselves in a large kitchen, which smelled wonderfully of roasting beef. Less wonderfully, noted Charlie, dirty dishes filled two huge stainless steel sinks to the brim.
"And," he continued, "I've got two coach parties of Japanese tourists due for a traditional English evening meal in -" he checked his watch, "- an hour." He rolled his eyes expressively.
Charlie gave Jen and Darren a rueful look. Jen shrugged.
"So. Dishes first, please." Moffatt handed out yellow rubber gloves, aprons, and tea towels. "I'll be over here if you need me." He trotted over to the far side of the kitchen, where, from the look of it, he was preparing individual Yorkshire Puddings for the whole of Wembley Stadium.
Charlie sighed, shucked her duffel bag, and put on an apron ….
They had got into the swing of it - Jen washing the dishes, Charlie drying them, and Darren putting them away - and were making a real impression on the stack of dirty dishes, when the landlord came bustling over again, looking at his watch.
"The Japanese party is due any minute. Can you," - he pointed at Jen, who immediately donned a 'why me?' expression that made Charlie want to laugh - "stand in the entrance directing them inside and taking their coats?"
Charlie waited for an explosion, something along the lines of - "I'm an Accounts Manager, not a tour guide." - but to her relief the dark woman merely muttered something uncomplimentary about the landlord's parentage under her breath.
He meanwhile, was oblivious to anyone else's feelings but his own, which seemed, at the moment to consist mainly of delight. "The Japanese will love those costumes. I couldn't have planned this better."
Jen took off her apron and handed her rubber gloves to Darren. She had removed the lion headdress, as the heat from roasting meat, Yorkshire puddings, and boiling vegetables raised the temperature, and now she pulled it back on with visible reluctance.
"Wait," said Charlie, going to stand in front of Jen, who gave her an enquiring glance. "Let me." She tucked some straggling strands of long black hair inside the brown hood then stood back and assessed the result. "That's better."
"Thanks." Jen's smile made Charlie blush. Or maybe it was the warm kitchen? Yeah, that must be it.
Then the tall woman was pulling on her lion paw gloves and turning to follow the landlord …
Charlie was taking a well-earned break from serving up thirty desserts when Jen entered the kitchen and came to lean companionably beside her against the counter.
"Do you think they even know what bread-and-butter pudding is?" asked Charlie.
"Doubt it. If the Yorkshire Puddings were any example, they'll take one mouthful and leave the rest."
"What a waste."
Jen shrugged. "It's no skin off Moffatt's nose. They've paid heftily for the privilege."
Charlie sighed and changed the subject. "So, have you found out why it's called The Deadly Nightshade, yet?"
"I asked him but he wouldn't say."
At that moment Darren burst through the door carrying a tray of dirty beer and wine glasses. "They keep taking photos of me," he complained.
"Us too," sympathised Charlie. "It’s the costumes."
Jen grimaced. "You'd think they'd never seen anyone my height before."
"Well, you are rather tall."
"No kidding, titch."
Charlie wrinkled her nose at the playful insult.
"Seriously," continued Jen, "I'm beginning to feel more like the Wicked Witch of the West than the Cowardly Lion."
There was a time I shared that view. When did that change, I wonder? "I know what you mean," said Charlie. "If one more person asks me to sing 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' … I am not Judy Garland, for God's sake!"
"Well, all I can say is: the room and board had better be worth it." Jen yawned suddenly.
"Anything will be better than the cells," said Darren.
Jen's blue eyes filled with guilt.
"If the bedrooms are like the rest of this place," said Charlie, trying to change the subject to something less painful for the other woman, "they'll contain four poster beds with plaques over them saying: 'Henry the Eighth Slept Here.'"
"Yeah, well," said Jen. "I just hope Moffatt's changed the sheets since then."
As if speaking his name had conjured him up, the kitchen door swung open and a portly, apron-clad figure entered. "There you are," said the pub landlord. "They've finished the dessert course. Collect up the dirty dishes, serve the coffee and liqueurs, and then do the washing up, will you?"
With a groan, Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man went to do as they were told.
* * *
The huge bedroom looked as if it hadn't been occupied for quite a while, and though the bed wasn't a four-poster it was big. Jen sighed, dumped the towel, bedlinen, and hot water bottle Moffatt had given her on the faded carpet, and began to strip off the heavy bedspread.
She had just finished making up the bed when she realized Charlie was standing in the doorway watching her.
"Hi," said Jen. "Is yours the same?" Charlie nodded and advanced a few steps into the room.
Jen followed the small woman's gaze as it skimmed over the faded red curtains, striped green wallpaper, a mahogany desk and chair, and settled on the room's single picture.
"My picture's nicer though." Charlie gestured at the gloomy oil painting of a stag at bay.
Jen shrugged and yawned. "It could be a 'Paint by Numbers', for all I care. I intend sleeping not looking at it." She began unpacking her haversack, pulling out the crumpled T-shirt and looking forward to getting into something that didn't itch. "Is Darren settled in OK?"
The blonde nodded. "Shame we couldn't find rooms all together."
Jen shrugged. "Yeah, that old wing is pretty small. Probably why they added this wing later on." She eyed the other woman, who seemed … unsettled. "You OK?"
"Just overtiredness, probably, but ever since we came upstairs I've been feeling …" Charlie hunted for the word, "spooked." The admission seemed to embarrass her.
"Old places like this creak a lot," said Jen reassuringly. "It doesn't mean anything except that the furniture is riddled with woodworm and the ceiling beams have death-watch beetle."
Charlie snorted. "Gee, thanks! I feel so much better."
But she did looked a bit more at ease, Jen noticed. "Get some sleep," she advised. "You'll feel better in the morning."
Charlie nodded and retraced her steps towards the door. "'Night, Jen. Sleep well."
"You too. 'Night."
The door clicked closed and the clipclop of ruby slippers on floorboards receded down the corridor towards the other wing.
Jen had already used the toilet at the end of the corridor, and now she crossed to the little handbasin whose taps juddered and groaned but eventually dispensed lukewarm water. She gave herself a cursory flannel wash and brushed her teeth, then pulled on her T-shirt and slipped between the sheets.
Brrrr. Moffatt was right about needing a hot water bottle. She reached for it and hugged it to her….
Wha-? It seemed as if she had only just dropped off to sleep when she was wide awake again. Someone was knocking on her door. Damn it. An uninterrupted night's sleep would make a nice change. She sat up groggily and wondered what the hell the time was.
"Jen, Jen … Are you awake? Jen!" There was an edge of panic to Charlie's voice.
"I'm awake. Come in," she called. Maybe the roof has sprung a leak and soaked her bed or something?
The handle turned and the door burst open. Light spilled in from the corridor and she saw the blonde was wearing that sensible pink nightie of hers, then the door was closed again, and the dim silhouette that was Charlie was leaning against it as though it were some kind of barricade.
Jen reached over, and switched on the lamp beside her bed. The whites of Charlie's eyes, she saw at once, were unnaturally prominent.
"I saw something. In my room, Jen," gasped the blonde woman, sounding as though she'd just run a marathon. "Oh God. I can't go back there. I just can't!"
Jen recognised real fear when she saw it. Calmly, she threw back a corner of the bedclothes in invitation. "Then don’t." Charlie hesitated for only a moment, then she scuttled across the room and dived in.
Jen pulled the sheets up around them both and studied Charlie. "It was probably just a nightmare," she soothed. "These old places …"
"I know, I know. Woodworm … death-watch beetle. But it wasn't that. It was … " Charlie paused.
"It was …?"
"A woman … no, a ghost."
"Uh huh." Jen busied herself fluffing up the pillows and encouraged Charlie to lie back. The hot water bottle was still warm so she gave her that too. The other woman clutched it eagerly - the barefoot dash along the corridor from the other wing had chilled her.
"You don’t believe me, do you?" accused the blonde. "Well, I know what I saw. It was a woman. She glided through my bedroom wall. One minute she wasn't there, the next she was."
"A woman." Jen turned out the light and lay back.
"Not a modern woman." Already Charlie sounded calmer. "She was wearing Tudor style clothes - you know, a ruff round her neck? In fact, now I come to think of it, she looked just like the woman in the picture in my room."
"Will you stop doing that?"
Hidden by the darkness, Jen smiled. "Doing what?"
"Repeating everything I say."
"Everything you say?"
A pause. "Smartarse."
"You think I dreamed it, don’t you, Jen?" said Charlie eventually. "You think I saw the picture on the wall, and dreamed about the woman in it."
"Maybe you’re right."
More silence, while Jen simply listened to the other woman's breathing, acutely aware of her warm presence. Comfort, not hanky panky, she instructed her argumentative libido. "Think you can sleep now?" she enquired.
"I seem to be wide awake," grumbled Charlie.
"Still scared the ghost might get you?"
"Erm … it's not that exactly."
Jen sensed the blonde head turning towards her, the green eyes straining to see her in the darkness, and was suddenly struck by a thought. One of the things she'd discovered, during the long hours in the cells, was that they were both gay. Could that be it?
"If it makes you feel more comfortable, Charlie," she said stiffly, "I can put a pillow between us."
"It might be a good idea."
"You’re afraid I'm going to try something?" Jen couldn't hide the hurt she felt. I thought we were friends.
"Of course not! You wouldn't … It's not … I'm not …." The blonde exhaled. "God, this is embarrassing!"
Jen was genuinely puzzled now. "What is it then?"
"If you must know, I'm afraid I might end up trying something." Charlie's voice was suddenly muffled, as though she'd clapped a hand to her mouth. "I can't believe what I'm saying!"
Neither can I, but I love it. "Well, I can't say that the idea doesn't appeal - because it does, " said Jen dryly, "but usually I prefer things to progress a bit more sedately. You know: dinner and a movie, a first kiss."
"You fancy me too, then?" Charlie managed to sound both astonished and pleased.
Jen snorted. "Phew! Glad that's out in the open. For a moment there, I thought things were going to get rather awkward."
The blonde began to giggle uncontrollably.
Hysteria. Well, at least it took her mind off the ghost. Jen pursed her lips. "We spent last night together, Charlie," she said seriously, "and nothing happened. Why should tonight be any different?"
"Well, for one thing. Last night we weren't sleeping in the same big comfy bed, and a policeman was checking on us every hour on the hour."
"That's true." Jen considered for a moment. "OK, then. Here's the deal. I promise not to try anything, if you promise not to try anything. OK?"
"Oh, OK." Charlie sounded disappointed.
"So we can skip the pillow. OK?"
As the awkwardness of the last few minutes thankfully disappeared, a wave of tiredness rolled over Jen and she yawned. "Think you can go to sleep now?"
It was Charlie's turn to give a jawcracking yawn. "Mmmhmmm," came the drowsy reply.
Thank God for that! I'm bushed. "Night, Charlie. Sleep well."
Charlie's deep, regular breathing lulled Jen back into welcome sleep ….
Wha-? It seemed as if she had only just dropped off when she was wide awake again. Someone was banging on her door. Damn it. An uninterrupted night's sleep would make a nice change.
"Whassup?" came a sleepy voice from beside her and she suddenly remembered Charlie.
"Dunno," she growled. "But it had better be good."
"Jen. Are you awake? Can I come in?" came Darren's voice through the stout wooden door.
"That's all I need!" Jen switched on the light and sat up. "Come in."
The door opened and Darren stumbled in. He was wearing only a pair of white underpants stencilled 'Llangollen Police'. When she saw the state of him, the facetious remark died on her lips. His eyes were bulging and he was shivering like a beech leaf.
"I j-j-just saw a g-g-g-…" He tried again. "A g-g-g- …"
"Ghost?" supplied Jen helpfully.
"That's right. And it must have got Charlie cos I can't find her anywhere."
There was a rustle of bedsheets as the blonde sat up beside her. Darren's eyes bulged even more.
"Charlie!" He took a step forward then stopped agitatedly. "I'm afraid if I go back to my room it's going to get me."
"It?" asked Charlie.
"A woman in a weird costume …. She's got this ruff thing round her neck … like clowns have, you know?"
"See. I told you." Charlie gave Jen a significant look.
Jen tried not to roll her eyes. Gee. Thanks, Darren. I’d just got her calmed down too. She racked her brains rapidly for a way to help Darren and distract Charlie at the same time. Oh yeah. That ought to do it. "Good job it's a big bed," she said.
"What?" The blonde's expression turned to alarm. "You wouldn’t!"
"It would be cruel not to. Just look at him."
Darren's teeth were chattering, and he was almost hopping up and down, whether from cold or agitation or both, Jen wasn't sure.
Charlie sighed. "I suppose you're right." She shifted closer to Jen, then threw back the bedclothes in wordless invitation.
Without hesitation, Darren jumped in. "Thanks, guys. I owe you." He pulled the sheet and blankets up to his neck. "The ghost won’t be able to get all three of us at once."
"Urk! Your feet are cold." Charlie shifted over even more onto Jen's side of the bed.
Any closer, and I'll be on the floor, thought Jen.
"Sorry, Charlie," said Darren. But he didn't sound sorry, and already his shivering had lessened significantly.
"Here." Jen pulled one of the pillows out from behind her and handed it to Charlie, whose brows knit in consternation. "Put it between you and Darren."
The blonde's frown cleared. "Oh! Thanks." She did as Jen suggested, much to Darren's evident disappointment.
When the Post Room clerk's grumbles had died away, Jen switched off the light, and made herself as comfortable as she could with Charlie's warm body pressed up against hers … which was very comfortable indeed, she found.
"Still want to keep to our deal?" Charlie's breath was warm against Jen's cheek.
"It's too public now anyway."
"What did you say?" came Darren's voice.
"Nothing," chorused the two women.
"Three in a bed!" continued Charlie. "They're never going to believe this at work."
Darren chuckled. "Yeah, I can't wait to tell -"
"One word of this and you're dead. Both of you," said Jen. "Got me?"
The blonde's body shook with amusement. "You wouldn't," she whispered.
"I would," whispered back Jen. But she knew she wouldn't really; and she knew also that the blonde knew it too. Damn it! I think I'm getting in over my head.
With a heartfelt sigh, Jen closed her eyes, forced her raging libido back into its cage once more, and went back to sleep.
* * *
CONTINUED (AND CONCLUDED) IN PART 3