Disclaimers - See Part 1.
BREAK OUT '99 - PART 3 (CONCLUSION)
DAY THREE: "TELL ME WHEN IT'S OVER … I WANNA GO HOME."
Charlie surfaced and for a moment simply enjoyed the warm cocoon enveloping her. Daylight was filtering through the curtains, illuminating the unfamiliar room, and she let her gaze wander idly, pausing at the picture of the stag at bay.
Shit! She sat bolt upright, letting the cold air in.
"Hey!" protested two sleepy voices, both familiar.
Oh, God, it wasn't a dream after all! "Sorry." She peeked at the dark head lying on the pillow next to her and found a pair of blue eyes twinkling back at her. "I can't believe I did this!" she groaned.
Jen yawned and stretched languorously. "Yeah. Snug as bugs in a rug."
Charlie turned to look at Darren, who gave her a dopey grin. She sighed and turned back to Jen again. "I'm really sorry. It was such an imposition."
"Hey, no biggie," said the dark-haired woman. "You thought you saw a ghost. Must have been something you ate."
"I suppose so." In daylight, and in the reassuring presence of the other woman, the fears of last night seemed preposterous. Then she remembered. "But Darren saw something too."
"Maybe he ate the same thing you did." Jen sat up and threw back the sheets. Then she got out of bed, and padded over to the window. As she drew the curtains, morning sunlight silhouetted the splendid body beneath the white T-shirt.
Charlie stared, fascinated by the sight, then became aware that Darren was doing the same. She turned and frowned at him, and he blushed and looked away.
"So," said Jen, coming back towards them, and giving Charlie a knowing look that made her face grow hot. "We'd better get a move on if we're going to get back. Deadline's 4 pm today or we're disqualified." She regarded the lion costume draped over a chair like a puppet with its strings cut and sighed.
Charlie laughed. "Hey, just be glad your costume doesn't make your feet hurt."
"I meant to ask: how are your sore heels doing?"
It was Charlie's turn to sigh. "I'll live."
"Because if it helps we can break the high heels off those shoes, you know."
"And forfeit the deposit? Can Falcon afford it?"
Jen shrugged. "It's only a few quid."
Charlie considered that comment interestedly. She was coming to the rapid conclusion that Jen wasn't the vindictive pennypincher people thought she was. Which meant there must be more to the Accounts Manager's budget cuts than met the eye.
Darren yawned and smacked his lips. "I'm hungry. Wonder what's for breakfast."
"Get up and dressed and maybe you'll find out," said Jen pointedly.
He sat up, the sheets falling away and revealing his almost painfully hairless chest. Charlie tried not to wince.
He looked suddenly apprehensive. "Ghosts don’t appear during daylight, do they?"
"I hope not." Charlie remembered the apparition more vividly than was comfortable, the woman's odd gliding gait, her pale face and mournful eyes …
"Not if they know what's good for them." Jen's growl brought Charlie back to the present.
She sighed. "I'll go and get dressed." She turned to Darren. "You coming?"
He scrambled out of bed, giving her another view of those dreadful underpants. I bet the police were glad to get rid of those.
"What?" he asked, scratching his ribs unselfconsciously.
"Nothing." From Jen's smirk, she had an idea the Accounts Manager shared her opinion.
Reluctantly, Charlie turned and headed for the door.
Jen gave her an encouraging smile. "Yell if you see the ghost."
Charlie decided to take the comment seriously. "I will." Then she was out in the corridor, Darren close behind her.
There are no such things as ghosts. She repeated the mantra to herself as she and Darren traipsed along the winding corridor to their wing. Not in daylight, anyway.
Their bedrooms came into sight and Darren vanished into his.
To Charlie's relief, her room was just as she had left it - the pillow dented, sheets rumpled and flung back, the Dorothy costume still in its neatly folded pile, with the pigtail wig resting on top. It all looked perfectly harmless, perfectly normal. She eyed the picture hanging innocently on the wall then looked away quickly.
Don’t push your luck.
Grabbing her costume and her sponge bag, she headed for the bathroom at the end of the corridor. She had washed and dressed and was just putting the finishing touches to her Dorothy makeup, when someone tried the handle then banged feverishly on the door.
"Can you hurry it up in there?" called Darren. "My bladder's about to dial 999."
"Sorry." Charlie collected her belongings and opened the door, squeezing past the agitated Post Room clerk who dashed into the vacated bathroom and bolted the door behind him. Moments later came a sound like a waterfall and a loud sigh of relief.
She packed her few possessions into her duffel bag and headed downstairs to the kitchen, where David Moffatt was bustling - when did he ever not? - and a wonderful smell of frying bacon greeted her.
"Good morning," he said. "Sleep well?"
"Um." Charlie wondered how much to tell him. On a need to know basis? He did not need to know that she'd slept with two other people. But … "Is this place haunted?"
"Of course. Our ghost is one of our best selling points ... especially with American tourists." Casually he broke eggs into a bowl, added salt and black pepper, and began to whisk them. "I meant to tell you about her … Did you see her, then?"
She gaped at him. "A Tudor woman?" She was unsure whether to be pleased at the confirmation of something supernatural or upset.
"That’s her. Lady Mary of Shrewsbury. Killed herself: poison. Unrequited love, poor dear."
"Poison. Was it Deadly Nightshade?"
Now she was thoroughly confused. "But the pub name."
Moffatt gestured dismissively with his spatula. "Oh that. Well, 'shade' equals 'ghost', and she comes out at night. So that part's right. But the 'deadly' bit … artistic license, I'm, afraid. Lady Mary has never harmed anyone except herself." He poured the eggs into a nonstick saucepan and began to scramble them. "But it's been called the Deadly Nightshade for centuries so," - he shrugged - "too late to change it."
'Never harmed anyone'. Charlie felt as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders ."I wish you'd told me that last night." But then, if you had, I wouldn’t have spent the night curled up next to Jen.
A distant clatter announced the arrival of the others, and then Jen and Darren were pushing open the kitchen's swing doors and exclaiming at the delicious aroma.
"Is that for us?" asked Darren hopefully, as Moffatt dished up three English Breakfasts.
The landlord smiled. "You saved my bacon last night, so I'm cooking yours this morning. Besides, you need something substantial if you're travelling home today."
"Thanks," they chorused.
They ate their breakfasts in companionable silence, then, while Charlie drank her second cup of ground coffee, Jen interrogated Moffatt about the route home.
"Well, the A5 via Wellington is as good a route as any," he said, looking up from his scrutiny of a roadmap. The rules barred them from using maps, Jen had explained, but there was nothing to stop him consulting one.
"Wellington, then Weston-Under-Lizard. It's about 50 miles."
"Oh, I remember Weston," said Darren enthusiastically. "There's a huge funfair there, isn’t there?"
"Used to be," agreed Jen. "I went there several time when I was a kid."
We always went on 'educational' outings, thought Charlie enviously. "I don’t think we'll have time to stop there today," she warned.
Darren's face fell.
"But maybe we can arrange a company outing some time?" she continued.
His face brightened again. "Yeah."
Jen opened her mouth as if to object.
"We could each pay our own way," said Charlie hastily. "It would be fun and good for morale. You'd like to go, wouldn’t you, Jen? I know I would."
The dark haired woman closed her mouth with a snap, sighed melodramatically, and went back to discussing the route with Moffatt.
Charlie suppressed a grin. She had Jen's number all right. Oh yeah.
They helped Moffatt wash up the dirty breakfast dishes, then gathered outside the pub's front entrance and posed for a Polaroid while the landlord gladly obliged. Then with a last wave, they set off, following his directions to the ringroad that was also the A5.
* * *
Jen began to write: 'SUT …'
"Why can't I do the sign?" Darren eyed the piece of cardboard resentfully. "I did the last one."
Precisely. She didn’t look up, but continued writing. Aloud she said, "Because."
The magic marker jerked, as Charlie, who was standing next to Jen, let out what sounded suspiciously like a snort.
Jen took a steadying breath before continuing: 'SUTTON CO …' "Because, Darren, … er, because my writing's better than yours."
"Ha! Your handwriting is worse than a doctor's," said Charlie. "I know. I've seen some of your memos."
She gave the blonde a look. Thanks a bunch! I'm trying to be tactful here. Then inspiration struck. "Because I have the magic marker and you don’t," she said.
"Well why didn't you just say so in the first place." Darren, his good humour restored, began to whistle 'Chiquitita' off key and flip through the Polaroids he was steadily accumulating.
Charlie snorted again, but Jen ignored the little troublemaker and completed the makeshift sign. She surveyed it critically.
"A work of art," said Charlie, her face the picture of innocence.
"Glad you agree." Jen straightened.
"Hey, guys." Darren's voice was startled. "Look at this."
Jen flexed her knees - kneeling on the cold ground had made them stiff - and turned to find both Darren and Charlie examining a Polaroid. "What is it?"
"The picture Moffatt took of us outside The Deadly Nightshade," said Charlie.
Jen scowled. "I’d rather not see it again, thank you. I was having a bad costume day."
"Look, just take a look at it, OK?"
Charlie's insistence surprised Jen, but she shrugged and accepted the photo.
Yep, there was the warped, black-and-white frontage of the Tudor pub, and there she was, looking like something the cat had dragged in … or sicked up. Either side of the mangy Cowardly Lion stood Darren and Charlie, looking better but not by much. And standing in the doorway behind the little group, watching them, was … She sucked in her breath.
"See," said Charlie meaningfully.
Jen gaped at the rather blurry image of a sad-eyed woman in a ruff-necked dress. "Where the hell did she come from?!"
"Now do you believe I saw a ghost?" asked Charlie. "That's Lady Mary of Shrewsbury."
Jen chewed her lip. "Maybe," she said grudgingly.
The blonde eyebrows rose skywards. "Maybe?" A finger stabbed the photograph. "What else could explain that?"
Jen puzzled over why the figure hadn’t been there last time she looked. Could Polaroids take a while to develop to their full extent? "Light getting into the camera?" she suggested. "A flaw in the developing process?"
The blonde rolled her eyes and handed the photo back to Darren. "A sceptic," she told him in disgust. "I might have guessed. She's an accountant, after all."
That stung. "Hey, don’t knock it. You two were glad enough to take refuge in this sceptic's bed last night."
Charlie's cheeks flushed a fascinating shade of pink. "Whatever." She cleared her throat. "Shouldn't we get on with finding a lift now the sign's ready?"
Jen decided to let the rather obvious topic change go. "Yes, we should. Let's hitch." She set off along the verge, and after a moment the others fell in line behind her.
Every few yards, she swivelled to face the cars travelling in their direction, held the cardboard sign against her chest, and stuck out a thumb. Traffic was brisk this morning, so she was hopeful they would get a lift soon and be back in Sutton Coldfield by lunchtime. But lorry after lorry, car after car, went by without slowing.
Jen sighed. Maybe it's the lion suit.
"Let me try," suggested Charlie, who had recovered her composure.
Reluctantly, Jen handed over the sign. "Don’t be disappointed if they don't …" She trailed off as 'Dorothy' hoicked up her frock to shapely mid thigh and stuck out a thumb.
Almost at once, a large green Rover screeched to a halt a few yards up the road then began to reverse. Charlie threw Jen a smug glance.
"Hey, looks like we've got one!" Darren ran to greet the potential lift.
"Yeah. But it's probably a pervert," growled Jen, hastening to catch up. Charlie was close behind her.
When they reached the Rover, Darren was talking to its occupants, who far from being the testosterone-soaked perverts she had expected were a good-natured couple of pensioners named Don and Ellie Ercall.
"We're on a shopping trip to Telford," explained Ellie. "So we can drop you off at Wellington."
Darren looked enquiringly at Jen, who nodded. "Yes, please," he said.
Finding herself on the receiving end of another smug glance from Charlie, Jen threw in the towel. "Ok," she told the blonde. "I admit it. You've got it and I haven't. Satisfied?"
"Did I say anything?" asked Charlie innocently.
"Got what?" asked Darren.
Jen rolled her eyes. "Just get in the car." Once more Charlie took the middle seat, and the others piled in beside her.
While her travelling companions filled in the friendly OAPs about why they were wearing fancy dress, Jen was glad simply to stare out at the countryside and enjoy the Rover's roomy, and more importantly cushioned, back seat. The Deadly Nightshade's chairs had been about as comfortable as a church pew. In fact, she mused, she had probably experienced more discomfort and aggravation in the last couple of days than she had in her entire life.
She had also, she conceded grudgingly, felt more 'alive' than she had for ages. Perhaps, I should get out more. Figures will do what I want them to, even jump through hoops, but they don’t make me laugh or keep me warm at night. Sam was right about making new friends too. She glanced surreptitiously at the blonde sitting on her right, and found warm green eyes gazing back at her.
Jen cleared her throat. "We'll be home in no time," she said, "if you take charge of getting the lifts, Charlie."
Charlie smiled and shook her head. "Thanks for the compliment. But I think the credit belongs to 'Dorothy' not me."
Jen raised an eyebrow at that but held her tongue.
A few more miles passed, then Don reached forward, opened the driver's glove compartment, and pulled out a pipe and box of matches. There was the sound of a match striking, then the ghastly smell of old socks curled round the car.
Jen exchanged a grimace with Charlie. Would it be ungrateful to complain? It was Don's car after all.
"Can I open a window?" asked Darren. "I'm feeling a little car sick."
"You go right ahead, young man," said Ellie. "It's a wonder we're not all sick." She glanced pointedly at her impervious husband. "Disgusting habit."
The added ventilation from the open window made the pipe smoke bearable, just. But the disadvantages became clear when, a few miles further on, a wasp buzzed in. The yellow-and-brown striped insect annoyed Darren first, before investigating Charlie's wig, then hovered in front of Jen's nose, making her go cross-eyed.
"Bloody thing!" She was torn between swatting it and not swatting it, but a curious wasp was preferable to an angry one. She opened the window on her side of the car, hoping a through draught would whisk the pest away. No such luck
"Bit late in the year for wasps, isn’t it?" asked Charlie, flinching as the insect turned its attentions to her pigtails again. "Urk! I hate these things."
"I got stung by one when I was a kid," said Darren brightly. "Had to go to hospital."
The wasp headed towards Darren's open window. Maybe it'll go out the way it came in, thought Jen hopefully. Then it stopped, seemingly fascinated by its tiny reflection in Darren's shiny metal hat. She sighed.
Darren raised his hand. "Maybe if I swat it-"
"Don’t!" yelled Jen and Charlie in unison.
"- it'll get rid of… Yeow!" The Post Room clerk sucked the side of his hand.
Ellie twisted round and peered at them over the back of her seat. "What on earth is going on?"
"A wasp stung Darren," explained Jen, watching as Darren let Charlie examine his hand.
"Oh dear. Well you know what's good for wasp stings? Vinegar and brown paper." Ellie ignored her husband's snort. "Works like a charm -"
"I don’t like the look of this, Darren."
Charlie's tone alerted Jen that something was wrong. But the blonde was blocking her view so she leaned forward to get a better look. Darren seemed very pale, even for him.
"Oh no!" said Charlie. "Jen, I think he's -"
Darren's eyes rolled up in his head and he crumpled against the blonde woman.
Shit! "Stop the car," shouted Jen.
"Why?" asked Don, but to her relief, the car was already slowing.
"Looks like he's allergic."
Even before the car had come to a halt, Jen was yanking open the door and bolting round to Darren's side. She pulled open his door and crouched, reaching for one limp wrist, aware that Charlie was regarding her anxiously.
His skin was cold and clammy, and his pulse was weak, getting weaker. Not good. She pressed an ear to his chest. His breathing sounded more rapid and shallow than it should.
"Is he all right?"
"No," said Jen tersely. "I think he's going into anaphylactic shock."
The Ercalls were regarding the events unfolding on their back seat with concern. "What can we do?" asked Don.
"We have to get him to a hospital," Charlie told them. She glanced at Jen. "Don’t we?"
Jen nodded. "He needs an adrenaline injection." She considered her options.
A drumming sound caught her attention. Don was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, his brow creased in thought. "Shrewsbury's the nearest," he said a moment later. "We'll have to turn back."
Ellie sucked in her breath sharply. "But our shopping trip-"
"-will have to wait for another day, dear," he finished for her.
Jen reached a decision. "Help me stretch him out on the back seat," she told Charlie. "It'll be a tight fit, but we can manage it if we keep his knees bent."
Charlie struggled to do as Jen instructed, shifting Darren around and onto his back. Since he now took up the Rover's entire back seat, the only option for Charlie and Jen was to occupy the leg space. Charlie managed to kneel sideways in the narrow gap. Jen tried and failed to do the same.
Abruptly the driver's seat inched forwards and she found herself able to squeeze in. This must be how canned sardines feel. "Thanks," she told Don.
"My pleasure. Do you know what you're doing?"
"In theory," she told him. She pulled the back door closed. "Now drive."
While the Rover did a U turn and set off back the way they had come, Jen took Darren's pulse again. Nothing. Oh hell!
She turned urgently to the small woman squeezed in the cramped space next to her. "We need to keep his heart and lungs going," she said. "Do you know how to give mouth to mouth?"
Charlie nodded. "I think so."
"Good. I’ll try some cardiac compression."
"Have you done this before?"
"Only on a dummy. I went on a first aid course a few years ago. It's 5 compressions to every breath, isn't it?"
Charlie gave her a panicked look. "I don’t know."
"Yeah, it is," said Jen with a confidence she didn’t feel.
She eased herself up over the edge of the seat, then twisted, positioning herself above Darren's ribcage. I should have been a pretzel. She placed the heel of her left hand over his breastbone, making sure to keep clear of his ribs - Don’t want to break anything! - then placed her right hand over her left, and began to press hard.
After five compressions, she stopped and looked at Charlie who was watching her expectantly. "Now." The blonde inhaled, pinched Darren's nose shut, then placed her lips on his (Shame he's unconscious, thought Jen wryly) and blew strongly into his mouth.
"That's good, Charlie, " she encouraged. "Stop now. It's my turn." One … two …three…four… five. "Now."
Again the blonde blew air into Darren's mouth.
Time passed as they took turn and turn about, only vaguely aware of the road unravelling in a blur through the back window. At one point Jen was sure Darren was dead. She couldn't find a pulse, and the vibration and engine noise were masking his breathing.
"Hang on, Darren!" she shouted at him. "You can do that, can't you? Just hang on and I promise I'll -" she searched for something that would tempt him. "I'll buy you tickets to Abba: The Musical," she finished desperately, her eyes misting.
A hand clasped her shoulder and squeezed, and she looked up blearily into Charlie's fierce gaze.
"You hang on too, Jen. You can do it, I know you can," said the other woman with conviction.
Jen stared into warm green eyes and felt new purpose flood into her. She blinked, smiled, then took a quick breath and applied herself to her task once more.
One … two …three…four… five.
While Charlie blew air into Darren's lungs, Jen turned to Don. "How much longer to the hospital?"
"Nearly there," called Don. "How's he doing?"
"I haven't the faintest idea." One … two …three…four… five. She became aware that the car was slowing, then it lurched, throwing her against the door. What the …?
"We're here," called Don.
The door Jen was leaning against opened abruptly, and she found herself tumbling out of the car onto grey asphalt. "Oof!" When she had gathered her scattered wits, she realized that a man in green hospital scrubs was peering down at her, his lips shaping an O of surprise.
He recovered his composure quickly. "Are you hurt?"
"Not me. Him." Jen pointed to the motionless figure on the Rover's back seat then scrambled to her feet as quickly as her cramped muscles would allow. "Name's Darren Liggett. Anaphylactic shock, we think. Wasp stung him."
The medic leaned inside the car and reached for Darren's wrist. "Hmm. Good strong pulse," he said approvingly. "How long ago was he stung?"
Jen had no idea. Don was looking out of the driver's window at her. "How long?" she asked him.
He considered. "Twenty minutes?"
Is that all? It seemed like forever.
The medic turned and signalled. "I need a stretcher over here," he shouted.
From out of nowhere - or so it seemed to Jen - a horde of medics appeared. They descended purposefully on the Rover, pulled out the silver suited man, laid him gently on a stretcher and covered him in a blanket, then wheeled him away.
They disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, and Jen was left staring at the still swinging rubber-edged doors labelled 'Emergency Only'. Don and Ellie looked as bemused as she felt. Charlie, however, was otherwise occupied stretching the kinks from her legs and arms.
"'Good strong pulse'," crowed the blonde. "You did it, Jen!"
"We did it," corrected Jen automatically.
Charlie grinned at her then sobered. "We ought to go with Darren, you know. They'll probably be needing personal information."
Jen nodded. Not that I know that much about him other than he delivers the Accounts Dept. mail every morning.
She turned to the Ercalls and gave them a heartfelt smile. "Thanks for getting us here so fast. And sorry about the shopping trip."
Don shrugged. "There'll be other trips."
"I just hope your friend will be all right," said Ellie sincerely.
Me too. "Well, we did the best we can. It's up to the doctors now." She caught Charlie's 'hurry up' gesture. "We'd better get on. Thanks again."
"You’re welcome, dear."
Jen let Charlie drag her into Casualty, the doors swinging closed behind them and hiding the carpark, Rover, and Don and Ellie from view. She found herself in a brightly lit, hangar-like room, divided by partitions and curtains into smaller rooms and cubicles. Medics in pastel scrubs of varying hues were striding around self-importantly, shouting incomprehensible jargon to attentive nurses and to one another , performing unfathomable medical procedures on their shell-shocked patients.
She scanned her surroundings until she saw the medic from the carpark in the distance. He was bending over someone in silver.
"Over there," she told Charlie, and set off purposefully, only to stop as an formidable looking woman in nurse's uniform blocked her way.
"You'll have to wait for your friend over there," said the dragon forbiddingly. She indicated three rows of plastic red chairs, nearly all of which were occupied by gloomy looking friends and relatives.
Jen tried her intimidating look, but for once it didn't work.
"No exceptions," said the dragonlady, whose tag read Nurse Painswick. "The doctors need to work without distraction."
"But -" Jen paused as someone touched her arm, and turned to find Charlie gazing up at her.
"Perhaps we'd better do as she says," said the young woman. "He's in good hands, now." She turned to the Nurse. "You'll call us as soon as we can see him, right? You know which one he is?"
Nurse Painswick smiled, an act that magically transformed her from a dragonlady into a pleasant middle-aged woman. "Of course. Your friend is Darren Liggett … the one who was stung by a wasp."
Is she psychic? Jen let herself be led by Charlie - It's becoming a habit, she thought wryly - to the waiting area and ignored the startled looks coming their way. The smaller woman guided her to a couple of empty chairs side by side and they sat down.
Jen inhaled through her mouth then let her breath out slowly through her nose. Now her part in the emergency was over, she was feeling the reaction. "If they're short of adrenaline for Darren," she said rather shakily, "they can have some of mine."
Charlie chuckled and rested a hand comfortingly on Jen's leg. "I know what you mean."
A few moments passed in companionable silence, and Jen took the opportunity to brood. "Must be losing my touch," she muttered at last.
"Usually I can barge my way though 'jobsworths'."
Charlie smirked. "Well, I wouldn’t say Nurse Painswick is a 'jobsworth', exactly. But there may be a much more obvious reason why your patented glare didn't work on this occasion."
"My 'patented glare'?!"
The blonde nodded unrepentantly.
Hmmm! "The reason?" prompted Jen.
"Usually, you're not wearing a tatty old lion suit." Charlie straightened her pigtails and grinned.
Of course. A bubble of hilarity formed in Jen's chest. She had been so concerned about Darren, she had forgotten all about their costumes. It explained a lot. The medic's look of surprise when I landed at his feet. The bubble expanded, forcing its way out, turning into a huge whoop of laughter on the way. The raised eyebrows when the medics discovered their patient was the Tin Man . She whooped again, eliciting a chuckle from Charlie. How the dragonlady connected Darren to us.
It was some time before she could say anything coherent, and the people sitting near them had long ago stopped giving her disapproving looks.
Jen took a sobering breath. "Sorry. I don’t know what came over me." She looked ruefully at Charlie. "It isn't funny at all! Darren nearly died."
"Don’t apologise," said Charlie. "It's just the tension. Sometime it affects people that way. A friend of mine once had a fit of the giggles during her father's funeral." She shrugged. "The important thing is: do you feel better?"
Jen considered. "Yes," she said wonderingly. "Much."
Then a shadow fell across her lap, and she looked up to find Nurse Painswick standing directly in front of her.
"Your friend, the Tin Man," said the woman impassively. "Doctor says you can see him now."
* * *
The Post Room clerk had been allocated a curtained cubicle all to himself. He was lying on a hospital bed, propped up comfortably against three pillows. He looked a lot better than the last time Charlie had seen him - the colour had returned to his cheeks.
"You gave us such a fright, Darren," she said.
"Yeah!" echoed Jen beside her.
"Sorry, guys." He gave them a sheepish grin. "I'm OK now. Good as new. In fact, I may even play the violin again." Then he frowned and indicated the silver shirt, which gaped open revealing his hairless chest. "They were in such a hurry, they pulled off all the buttons. Poppy will kill me. There's a deposit on this costume, you know."
Charlie tried not to roll her eyes. He's worried about that at a time like this?
"I'll take care of Poppy, Darren," said Jen.
With a clink of curtain rings, the drab hospital curtains were drawn aside. The medic in green scrubs entered the cubicle and smiled at Darren.
"I see your friends have found you, Tin Man." He turned to Jen and Charlie. "We meet again. My name's Dr Bonham." He shook hands with each of them in turn.
"Hey, Doc," interrupted Darren. "Have you seen my gloves and my hat? They seem to have disappeared."
"Oh … yes … They're round here somewhere. I'll tell the nurse."
"Darren says he's fine," said Jen. "How is he, really?"
"He actually is fine," said Dr Bonham, sounding quite surprised, "though I'd like him to take things easy for a day or two. We've pumped him full of adrenaline, antihistamine, corticosteroids … his system has taken quite a beating. Not to mention the bruises he's going to have over his breastbone." He eyed the two women keenly. "Did one of you give him cardiac compression?"
Jen flushed. " I did. Did I do it wrong?"
"No, " said Dr Bonham quietly. "Far from it. In fact, if you hadn't done such a good job, he'd probably be dead. The allergic reaction was very severe."
Charlie sucked in her breath. If Jen hadn't known what to do …
The doctor turned back to Darren who had been listening to the conversation goggle-eyed. "In fact from now on, Darren, I want you to start carrying adrenaline with you, in case of emergencies. Either that, or undergo a course of desensitising injections. I'll give you a note for your own GP. OK?
Darren pulled a face. "Ooh. Either way it means injections, right?"
Dr Bonham laughed. "Right."
Darren sighed. "Well, OK. If I must."
"You must. You were lucky this time." The doctor smiled at Jen. "Now, if you'll excuse me. I have other patients to see to." He turned to Darren. "Rest for another half an hour, Darren, then if you feel well enough, you can go home." He nodded, then disappeared through the curtain.
"Wow!" said Darren. "I owe you my life, Jen."
The tall woman snorted. "Don't forget Charlie. She gave you mouth to mouth."
"Really? You kissed me, Charlie?" He brightened considerably. "Wait until I tell them at work!"
Thanks very much, Jen! Charlie flashed Jen a look that made the dark-haired woman laugh. "Just you wait," she murmured. "I'll tell him about the Abba tickets."
Jen's eyes widened. "You wouldn't!"
The curtains drew back again and this time a little nurse wearing hornrimmed spectacles peered round. "Dr Bonham said someone was looking for these?" She held up a metallic hat and a silver pair of gloves.
"Great!" Darren accepted his property and immediately put on the little hat at a jaunty angle. Then he glanced down at his shirt and sighed piteously.
Charlie turned to the nurse. "Have you got some safety pins?"
"Sure." The woman frowned. "But wh …?"
"Instead of buttons." Charlie indicated Darren's gaping shirt.
"Ah" The frown cleared and the nurse nodded. "Be right back."
"So," said Jen, once the nurse had vanished again. "Guess we'd better get you home then, Darren. It's not that far now so I'll call a taxi -"
He sat bolt upright. "You can't do that! We'll be disqualified."
"Hey!" She put a hand on his shoulder and pressed him gently but firmly back into the pillow. "None of that, now," she said with some asperity. "Your health is more important than a charity event. Besides," - she glanced at her watch - "we've lost so much time, there's not much chance we'll make it back in time anyway."
The nurse reappeared with a palmful of safety pins and Charlie busied herself with pinning closed Darren's shirt.
"But what about the money, Jen?" he objected, squirming a little under Charlie's ministrations. "If we don’t complete the event, the sponsors won’t pay up."
"Sit still or I'll stick you by mistake," hissed Charlie.
He froze and gave her a fearful look.
"Worst comes to worst, I'll make up the shortfall out of my own pocket," said Jen.
Both Charlie and Darren gaped at the Accounts Manager.
"What?" said the dark woman defensively.
"Er, nothing," said Charlie, hastily resuming her pinning. Nah uh, not a thing.
"That's very good of you, Jen," said Darren, when he'd recovered his composure. "But not necessary, You heard the doc. I'm fit." He folded his arms across his chest (the effect was somewhat spoiled since he had to unfold them again almost immediately to allow Charlie to finish pinning). "We'll finish what we started. End of discussion."
It was Jen's turn to gape. "But -"
Charlie turned to the taller woman. "Would it really hurt to complete the journey under our own steam, Jen?" she asked quietly. "It seems like Darren really wants to do it. And if we make sure he keeps warm and takes it easy …?"
Jen sighed. "Oh very well," she grumbled. "I can see I'm outnumbered once again. Have it your own way."
* * *
Jen tried not glare at the young nurse who was currently engaged in taking a Polaroid of the team in front of the Shrewsbury General Hospital.
"Move a little to the right," directed the budding David Bailey.
The three members of the Wizard of Oz Team shifted obligingly to the right.
"No, my right."
They shifted to the left and Jen growled.
"Behave," muttered Charlie whose arm was round Jen's waist. "She's doing her best."
"Well her best is pathetic. She could have filmed 'Gone With The Wind' by now!"
"Sorry," called the nurse apologetically. "You’re obscuring part of the sign now. As you were."
They shifted back to their original position. Jen wondered if the photographer could tell her winning smile had become a baring of teeth.
"Hold still." Click. "That's it. All done."
"Thank God for that!" said Jen, as the three broke formation.
Darren retrieved the camera from the obliging nurse and gave the blonde woman the undeveloped Polaroid to hold.
"I hope there's no Lady Mary of Shrewsbury on this one," confided Charlie.
Jen snorted. "I imagine she's confined to The Deadly Nightshade."
Charlie eyed her. "So you do believe in ghosts, Scully!"
Jen gave that comment the attention it deserved i.e. ignored it, and checked her watch instead. 2 pm already.
"Come on, Darren," she yelled to the young man who was still chatting to the giggling nurse. "We've got to get a move on or we'll never make it."
She still wasn't completely happy with Darren's decision to continue with the Break Out, but, while he and Charlie were occupied, she had sneaked off, found Dr Bonham, and asked him flat out for his honest opinion. His "Providing you're sensible there should be no problem," had set her mind at rest, and she had to admit - she glanced at the Post Room Clerk - Darren seemed fit and steady enough on his feet.
The trouble was, it had taken longer than expected to complete the formalities necessary to discharge him. And then he had insisted on this Polaroid of the hospital sign for 'evidence' .…
"Sorry." Darren said a reluctant good-bye to his admirer and hurried over to join them.
Charlie shook the Polaroid to dry it one last time then glanced at it and sighed.
"No ghost, Mulder?" asked Jen.
"You know very well there isn't."
Jen suppressed her grin and pointed to the busy main road in front of the hospital. "That's the A5. So let's get going." Pulling the now worse-for-wear cardboard sign from her haversack, Jen led the way. She halted at the roadside and turned expectantly to Charlie.
"Here." Jen handed her the sign. "Do your stuff, blondie."
Charlie wrinkled her nose. "'Blondie?'"
Jen watched appreciatively as Charlie hoisted her hemline, posed coquettishly, and stuck out her thumb.
While they waited, the drone of traffic lulled her into a daydream. The last few days, she mused, have been like some real life game of 'Snakes and Ladders'. The Llangollen Police started out as a snake but turned into a ladder. The wasp was definitely a snake ….
A loud hiss of air brakes, followed by a triumphant yell from both Darren and Charlie, broke Jen's reverie. She found she was staring at the side of a large coach, and, as she watched, its door hissed open right in front of her.
"Need a lift to Oz, Cowardly Lion?" called the grinning driver, a curly haired young woman whose rolled up sleeves revealed muscular arms.
Aware she was being scrutinised by a group of grey-haired women gazing avidly down at her from the row of coach windows, Jen leaned forward. "Erm. Sutton Coldfield will do."
"Then you’re in luck." The driver jerked her head at the interior, from which came an excited clamour of chatter and laughter. "Boldmere Methodist Ladies Fellowship Outing," she said, as though that explained everything.
"Boldmere?" Charlie had come up beside Jen. "That's just round the corner from where we want to go!"
"Then hop on, Dorothy," said the driver. "What, no Toto?"
"Tornado got him." Charlie squeezed past Jen onto the coach. "We've got the Tin Man with us, though. Will he do?" She turned to help Darren up the steps, in spite of loud protests that he was "perfectly capable, thank you."
Jen followed, pausing as a blast of hot air scented with perfume and talcum powder hit her. Couldn't possibly tell this coach is full of middle-aged women!
Charlie manhandled the still complaining Post Room clerk along the narrow aisle past the agog women to an empty seat, then plopped down next to him. Jen suppressed a smile. He hadn't stood much of a chance, really. The blonde might be small, but, from what Jen had seen of her during that communal shower (and she had made a point of seeing as much as she could), she was well-muscled and strong, whereas Darren … Well, let's just say the word 'weedy' must have been designed for his physique.
A loud hiss was followed by the clatter of the coach doors closing.
"Everyone set?" called the driver.
Jen found herself an empty seat and gave a sigh of relief. "Yep."
"Hold on to your hats, then. Next stop, the Emerald City."
* * *
"To add insult to injury, they insisted I sing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'," finished Charlie, "and I'm practically tone deaf. But that's Japanese tourists for you."
Her listeners erupted into peals of laughter and she took the opportunity to check her watch surreptitiously. 3.45pm. Quarter of an hour left, then they'd be disqualified.
She sighed, and glanced up the aisle to where Jen was crouching next to the coach driver, gesturing and talking animatedly. She swivelled her head in the other direction, finally locating Darren on the backseat where he was squashed between two large women and by the look of it on the receiving end of a serious dose of mothering. She suppressed a grin.
The members of the Boldmere Methodist Ladies Fellowship seemed to have adopted the three renegades from Oz as their own, and had happily plied them with sandwiches, coffee, and questions for the past hour, give or take a toilet stop. Fortunately the past few days had supplied Charlie with enough after dinner anecdotes to keep them entertained.
She excused herself and made her unsteady way - the coach was negotiating a roundabout - to the front.
"Hi," she said to Jen, and crouched next to her..
The dark haired woman looked round and smiled. "Not far now," she told Charlie. "Janet," - she indicated the coach driver who grinned at the mention of her name - "said she knows a short cut that should get us there in time."
"I'm just following the Yellow Brick Road," yelled Janet, exchanging a grin with Jen.
"So. Have you lost your voice yet?" Jen glanced pointedly at the still chattering women Charlie had deserted. "They could talk for England."
"No, I'm fine. What about you?"
"I'll live." Jen ran a finger round the inside of her collar. "If this bloody lion costume doesn't throttle me first. I think that downpour in Wales shrank it."
"There goes another costume deposit," said Charlie.
"It's only money."
Charlie's mouth dropped open, then she closed it again as she realized she was being gently ribbed. "I s'pose I deserved that," she admitted ruefully. "I should have known better than to believe the rumours about you."
"About eating babies, you mean?"
Charlie backhanded Jen on the arm. "No, silly." She drew in a breath and prepared to broach the subject that had been bothering her. "There's a reason for the budget cuts at Falcon, isn’t there?" Her low voice was meant for Jen's ears only. "It's not just you being mean. Something's happened that's not general knowledge." As she spoke, she studied Jen's face carefully. "Something involving … 'good old' Bill Munson? … I'm guessing he made a mess and you’re the one who has to clean it up. Am I right?"
A flicker in the watchful blue eyes revealed Charlie had struck home. "You know I can't confirm that," said Jen carefully.
"Yeah, well, I also know you’re not as black as you're painted," continued Charlie. "And I'm going to make sure other people know it too."
The dark-haired woman smiled crookedly. "Are you? That's sweet, but it's a lost cause you know."
"Just because I'm not a devil, it doesn't mean I'm an angel," warned Jen. "Falcon pay me to keep their costs down, and part of the job is taking the flack too." She glanced at Charlie. "You side with me, you’re liable to find people taking potshots at you too."
Charlie shrugged. "Water off a duck's back," she said, earning herself a warm smile that set her insides tingling and her toes curling. Whooo!
"Nearly there," called Janet, disturbing the intimate mood.
Charlie sighed and peered our of the window. They were passing the Girl's Secondary School, which meant 'The Horse and Jockey' - one of two local pubs where Falcon Insurance's thirsty employees spent their lunch break - couldn't be far away.
Jen looked at her watch. "It's gonna be close," she said. "But I reckon we'll make it." She turned to Charlie. "Can you get Darren ready? We're going to have to run for it."
Charlie nodded, and made her way back down the coach. The two women looked disappointed when she told them she had come to rob them of their new protégé.
"Now wrap up warm and take care, dear," they told Darren, as he popped out from between their bulky forms like a pea from a pod.
The coach was perceptibly slowing, and Charlie glanced up the aisle to see Jen beckoning her urgently.
"Get a move on," she told Darren. "Looks like we're here."
Then she was staggering towards the exit, followed closely by Darren and urged on by the cheers from the Ladies Fellowship. With a lurch, the coach came to a halt, and the doors hissed open. Then the three of them were spilling out onto the pavement like refuse from a split binbag.
Charlie almost went head over heels before a strong hand, belonging to Jen, grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and set her on her feet again. She had time only to catch her breath and take in their surroundings - they were at the junction of the Jockey Road and Britwell Road - then she was being urged on again.
"You've got three minutes," yelled Janet from the coach. "Move it!"
Jen grinned up at the driver. "Thanks for the help." She looped her tail over one arm out of the way, and turned to Charlie. "You take Darren's left arm, I'll take his right."
"Hey, I can manage quite well on my - Urk!"
The two women grabbed hold of Darren and started urging him along the Britwell Road. As they approached their destination, Falcon Insurance's carpark, Charlie was dismayed to see it was dark and deserted. After all that effort. She slowed.
"They've all gone home, Jen," she said disappointedly.
"No they haven't," came the reply. "Look over there."
Jen pointed and Charlie almost collapsed with relief when she saw the trestle table in the far corner and the battered Break Out 99 sign.
"Keep going," urged Jen.
Their appearance sparked a bout of activity in the carpark. The floodlights came on, and as if by magic several figures appeared.
"Are we in time?" yelled Charlie, as the three of them hurtled towards the table and came to a staggering halt in front of it.
A ragged cheer went up from the watchers, and the flash of a camera took away all vision. "Urk!" She hung onto Darren's arm for support while she blinked the afterimages away. "Did we make it?" she wondered aloud.
"Yeah." The deep voice in her ear was unmistakably Jen's. "Ten seconds to spare, in fact."
"Yes!" Charlie pumped the air with her fist, and Jen laughed.
Then she could see again, and it seemed natural to grab the startled Jen and Darren in a hug and twirl them round and round, chanting: "We did it!" Darren was game, but Charlie could feel a momentary hesitation on the dark-haired woman's part. Then, to her relief and pleasure, Jen was joining in enthusiastically.
"Excuse me," came the embarrassed voice of one of the organisers. The impromptu celebration came to a halt. "It's just a formality, but I need to know your route back from Conwy and to see the Polaroids you took as proof."
"Ah, the route." Jen released her hold on Charlie's waist.
Damn! thought the blonde.
"We came back via Betws-y-Coed," said Jen. The organiser made a note on her clipboard.
"Then we went through Llangollen," added Charlie.
"Then Shrewsbury … twice," muttered Darren sheepishly, receiving a puzzled look.
"Then home," finished Jen.
"Sounds straightforward enough," said the woman.
Charlie thought Jen's eyebrows were going to launch themselves into outer space, but the dark haired woman managed to contain herself.
With a flourish, Darren pulled them out of his suit's single pocket. "Here you go."
"Good." She flipped through the glossy colour photos, nodding occasionally.
Charlie and Jen exchanged a glance when the organiser came to the one taken outside The Deadly Nightshade, but apparently women in Tudor garb were no more remarkable than characters from the Wizard of Oz. And why should they be?
"These seem to be in order. So, finally, can I have your signatures, please?"
Charlie rolled her eyes but followed the organiser to the trestle table where she pulled out the documents that needed signing: confirmation that they had adhered to the rules.
"I'm glad someone was still here," commented Charlie as she waited her turn. "At first we thought you'd all gone home."
"Well, we were tempted," admitted the woman, placing a sheet of paper in front of Jen. "We'd given up on you, if you must know. But we had to stay until the official deadline, just in case. We're really glad you made it, though."
"So are we," said Jen dryly. She signed the paper then slid it across to Charlie.
"So," said Charlie, adding her signature below Jen's. "Who won Break Out 99, then? Was it the Pirates?"
"Um, no. They were disqualified. They used maps and compasses."
Charlie slid the paper to Darren, who also signed. "The Nuns then?"
"Nope. They were disqualified too. Let's just say they used their Polaroids to take photos which, while they might look good in Playboy, don’t quite constitute proof."
Charlie caught Jen's eye and had to turn away or burst out laughing.
"The Bravehearts were the winners." The organiser sighed. "And the St Trinians were the runners up."
That means Ben got a rosette. Good for you, Ben!
"To be honest," continued the organiser, "they were the only two teams who managed to qualify … " Her voice brightened as realisation dawned. "Which means that your team came third."
"We won a prize?" asked Charlie, stunned.
"That's right. And so you each get a rosette." The organiser rummaged in a box and produced 3 limp rosettes with an air of triumph. "Here you go."
"Great!" said Darren, accepting a yellow ribbon masquerading as a rosette. "I've never won anything before, you know." He beamed from ear to ear.
Charlie wasn't so impressed. All that hardship for three days and I get a blooming rosette like an animal at a show?
"You should see your face," chortled Jen in her ear.
Charlie sighed. "Yeah, well." She let Jen pin the rosette to one shoulderstrap of her dove-grey pinafore frock, then reciprocated, though after she had stuck the pin in Jen twice -"It’s not my fault, it’s that stupid lion costume," she said defensively - Jen took back the rosette and pinned it on herself.
Then they were posing for photos. "Of course," continued the organiser, as she snapped away, "as Third Prize winners, this means the sponsorship you raised will be matched pound for pound by Falcon Insurance."
"Great!" said Darren.
Charlie nodded her agreement. "That's more like it."
"A good three days' work for charity," said Jen.
"Thanks to you."
Jen shook her head. "I was prepared to jack it in, if you remember. It was you and Darren who kept right on to the bitter end.
Charlie grinned. "It was, wasn't it?"
The formalities completed, the organisers began to pack up their things, and Charlie felt suddenly at a loss.
"Guess we should go home and get out of these costumes," said Jen. "God knows, I've been wanting to ever since Conwy" She raised an eyebrow in interrogation. "How are you two getting home?".
"My bike's there." Darren pointed at a sleek black-and-silver machine chained to the carpark's bicycle rack. His equivalent of a Harley? wondered Charlie.
Jen shook her head. "No way, Darren. You nearly died today and you’re supposed to be taking things easy." She frowned. "I would give you a lift in my car, but what about the bike?" Her brow cleared. "I'll call you a taxi. We'll bill it to Falcon."
He broke into a pleased grin. "Ooh!"
While he unchained his bike, Jen turned to the blonde. "What about you, Charlie?"
"Oh, I'll get a taxi too."
"No, you won’t."
Charlie frowned, not sure she understood Jen's objection. "Oh, I wasn't intending to give Falcon the bill. I've got no money on me, but when I get home I -"
"No, I meant I'll give you a lift." Jen's voice brooked no argument, and Charlie blinked at her in startlement.
"Oh, OK. Thanks," she said.
"No trouble. I'm parked over there." The tall woman pointed to the gleaming black BMW. "My phone's in the car. Let's order Darren his taxi."
The three of them, Darren pushing his bike, traipsed across the carpark towards the BMW. Half way there the floodlights went out as the last of the event organisers went home; they continued walking in the twilight. Then Darren propped the bike on its stand and climbed into the back seat of Jen's car to wait. Charlie joined him, and they regarded one another rather bemusedly while Jen called a taxi firm on her cell phone.
Charlie tuned out the one-sided conversation about taxis with room for bicycles and stared unseeing out of the window. She felt slightly … well … odd, really. We survived an obnoxious sheepfarmer, atrocious weather, sudden arrest and a night in the cells, a sad ghost, an emergency dash to hospital… and we still made it back in time. Not only that, we won third prize. Heather will be pleased with me. Sam Walker will be pleased with Jen. And Poppy Jones, once she gets over the state of the Tin Man costume, will be pleased with Darren. So why do I feel so …. - she searched for the word - low?
Jen finished her phone call and twisted round to look at them. "That's sorted. Your taxi will be here in five minutes, " she told Darren. Then she regarded Charlie and her brows drew together. "You feeling okay, Charlie?"
"I guess." Charlie sighed. "It all feels … I don’t know … kind of flat."
Jen rubbed her nose. "I know what you mean. It's because we're exhausted. You'll feel different after a shower and a good night's sleep."
As if on cue, Darren yawned widely. "You were right about the taxi," he conceded. "I'm too tired to cycle home. My ribs are aching a bit too."
"Sorry," murmured Jen.
Movement drew all eyes, and they turned to watch a black cab with a roof rack drawing up to the carpark entrance.
"Great timing," said Jen. "Your ride, Mr Liggett."
He grinned at her. "Hee hee. I bet you won’t be calling me that when I'm back delivering your mail."
She looked thoughtful. "I will if you want me to. Do you?"
"Oh, no. Darren's fine with me, Jen." A beat. "I mean Miss Carlton. I suppose we'll be back to that, won't we?"
Charlie listened avidly for Jen's answer. The older woman shrugged. "If others are present, Darren, then yes … it might be best. But if we're alone, you can call me 'Jen'."
He beamed at her. "Wow! Really?"
She nodded. "Wow. Really."
"Me too," Charlie told him.
The taxi driver had now got out of his cab and was looking around confusedly, scratching his head. Darren exited the BMW and waved frantically. "Yoo-hoo," he called. "I'll be right with you." A relieved look spread over the man's face and he nodded and ducked back into his cab.
"I’d better go," said Darren, stooping to put his head inside the open door. "The meter's ticking."
Jen nodded. "And it's on Falcon's bill," she reminded him. Charlie caught the humorous gleam in her eye but Darren didn't.
"Oh, yes, point taken," he said hastily. "Right then, ladies. It's been fun. See ya." And with that the Tin Man wheeled his bike across the carpark towards the waiting taxi.
"''Ladies, it's been fun'?" said Jen in a mock-scandalised voice.
"'See ya'?" added Charlie.
They laughed and shook their heads, and watched fondly as the cab driver secured the bike to his roof rack while Darren climbed into the taxi.
When the cab containing the Post Room clerk had disappeared from sight, they sat in awkward silence. Charlie had no idea what to do next.
"Well, I suppose I’d better get you home too," said Jen eventually, and with obvious reluctance.
"What's the alternative?" Charlie was as surprised as Jen by her words. Her pounding pulse sounded loudly in her ears. Oh God, what am I doing? She did say she fancied me, didn’t she? Or was she just teasing me? Maybe this was just a holiday romance to her, nothing serious. She won’t want to-
"Well." Jen interrupted Charlie's increasingly panicked thoughts. "That rather depends on what you have in mind."
Charlie took a deep breath. All on one throw then. "I thought," she ventured, "since we’ve already slept together -"
Jen gave a loud laugh at that which she found encouraging.
"- well, I was wondering, what do we do next?"
"Hmmm. Nothing involving fancy dress, that’s for sure." Jen eyed Charlie speculatively. "First things first - we get out of these damned costumes and into a hot shower." A pause, then she raised an eyebrow provocatively. "You’re welcome to join me."
I win! "Sounds good to me," said Charlie. "What next?"
"Didn't I mention that earlier? Dinner and a movie, or a video if you'd prefer … and a first kiss?" Jen sounded suddenly unsure.
Charlie thought for a moment. It was just the two of them, alone in a deserted carpark, darkness all about them. Why the hell not?
"Can I have the first kiss now?" she asked shyly.
Jen smiled and leaned towards her. "I thought you'd never ask!"
A big thank you to my ever encouraging beta reader Advocate.
Special thanks also to Cath for information re Policing in Wales. All accuracies are hers; any inaccuracy/artistic licence is mine.