Next morning, after the dreamless oblivion of exhausted sleep, Pete Laddie was hailed by a particularly springe Algie who had already been to the Newsagent, the Greengrocer, Fishmonger, Butcher and Co-Op and returned with the daily comestibles required by Aggie, which this morning, particularly included those necessary for her special Thanksgiving Turducken which would apparently bring a slew of friends, family, acquaintances and less-able former Toc H volunteers – not to mention a number of hitherto welcomed guests who had preceded Pete and still endeavoured to make this annual pilgrimage which, itself, was a precursor to the more important pilgrimage, that which would follow St Cuthbert's Way; as far as his hasty scanning of the various morning papers could show, no smoking gun – let alone Bazooka – had been found on the southern slopes of the Eildon Hills Range, which only exacerbated Pete's paranoia: no weapon found on the hills, ergo, the marksman still has it and to what purpose? answer – the elimination of Peter Boo!
Without his mobile, Peter Boo – or Pete Laddie, as he was getting used to being called – was thrown back on his memory, a device which had not stored telephone numbers for well over two decades; first he woke a battle-axe in Craigmillar, though he was convinced that the area code he had dialled was that of Eton Terrace, in the New Town, where he, Noushka, his wife, and their children, Athena (8) and Paris (6) live in a state of remarkable equanimity; he took potluck with the second attempt, hitting keys at random and was surprised when the ring-tone sounded familiar, but the voice was not – it was a velveteen fawn, seventy-year-old Cedric, in Roehampton – wherever that is – who, on hearing Pete's educated tone, took rather a definite fancy to him: "come over, do, sweetie, you'll not regret it, I can assure you of that, and wear your kilt, I've always kept a place for Kilties," and he disconnected quickly; the third one was much closer to home, for he recognised the voice of Dinah Dickin, his secretary and realised that his index finger must have accessed it's own muscle memory, but he was reluctant to discuss his family with Dinah, who had always made it clear that she had no interest in his wife, children, in-laws, out-laws or Noushka's second cousins thrice removed who were in the throes of a rather nasty divorce and won't to land, unannounced, on the Boo's threshold, either individually or in tandem and dominate the family home for weeks on end, disappearing just as abruptly and leaving behind too much food just bought, and a hefty bill from the nearby wine merchant: "It's me, Peter," he said, quietly, in case prying ears were pressed against the outside of the wall, "can you cancel all my appointments for the rest of the week? something came up unexpectedly," and he flushed when Dinah giggled, then continued: "someone tried to kill me, fired a bazooka but just missed, so I've gone undercover, lying low with elderly friends in Melrose," and he read out the number of his hiding-place, which was helpfully written on a label stuck to the handset: "don't give it to any of the Partners," he insisted, knowing them all to be as leaky as sieves, "just yourself, Monty," his Pupil, "and Jumbo," the Chief Clerk, who had served Percival Boo, Pete's father, and had a very soft spot for Noushka Boo and would almost certainly call her to pass on whatever form of the message Pete had just given her she had come to believe by the morning; he thanked Dinah too much and too effusively, but accepted that he had to keep her on-side, for she knew too much for him to risk antagonising her and, promising to call her in the morning with rather more information, he ended the call; a moment later the phone rang and Peter almost dropped it in surprise – he didn't recognise the caller's number, but did know the voice: "hellllll-lo Kiltie, I'm wearing a new sarong, but if it clashes with your tartan, I'll drop it like a shot. . . . ." at which point Pete killed the call and with admirable skill, fuelled by fear that Cedric might call again and reach Algie or, even worse, Aggie, managed to bar that number and, after listening carefully, he opened the front door a crack and took a few deep breaths of cool night-air, before closing and locking it and climbing back up to the twins.
"As for that pair of mountebanks, and their double, even treble, lives," said Algie, after the three Amens had been uttered, "Beelzebub and all his minions shall be unable to protect them from the hatchet job Zyzzyva, the Blessed, the very last word in Avenging Angels, and his retinue shall wreak upon them!" and he turned to face Pete: "Aggie's going to make some supper for you, Laddie, and I'll set a fire in the guest-room; you will sleep well in there tonight and tomorrow we will make plans for the Pilgrimage in the footsteps of Saint Cuthbert, but while we're getting things ready, you really ought to telephone your wife and children, Pete – after your last escapade down here when you were transported to Berlin and then Mediaeval Milan, she's bound to be frantic," and not bothering to ask how Algie knew so much about him, Pete agreed and took the proffered telephone down to the Chapel to make his call.
"Maybe I'm shell-shocked," said Pete, hesitantly, and told them of the bird being shot by a bazooka and tumbling down towards him, wondering if he was showing himself to be foolish and pathetic, "for why on Earth would anyone want to shoot me?" but then, catching sight of a vinous-red candle, it's flame no brighter than the dim lamp downstairs, flickering in the air from the window where it stood, he realised that the welcome of Toc H was sempiternal and universal, that it represented the human spirit in it's finest expression, and asked: "you mentioned Talbot House in France, but I always thought it was in Belgium," and Aggie laughed: "that's Algie for you, Pete, that's why he's a philosopher and not a geographer – he's never quite understood the difference between France and Belgium, and Holland, too, for that matter," and Algie grinned at what he clearly regarded as a compliment, then said: "nor have I ever understood the reason why women wear calliblephary cosmetics to simulate the shadows and bruises of lack of sleep, but I suppose I'm not the only man to fail that test," as Aggie gave him a mock slap on the arm, then faced Pete: "do you really think the shot was aimed at you?" but he shook his head, "no, but on the other hand, to fire something like that so close to the houses was incredibly dangerous – if the bird had been much lower, I could have been hit by accident or if the shot missed the bird it could have blown up the cottage!" so Algie asked him: "do you want to tell the police?" but Pete was adamant, "definitely not," he said, firmly, "the last thing I want is to give anything away about my whereabouts," and he told them of seeing MacFarlane and Doubleday at the other end of he alley: "they were obviously looking for me, and I cannot let them find me – you have no idea how safe I felt as soon as I entered this house and met you, my prayers answered," and the twins smiled back at him, and round the little table, the three joined hands and Algie spontaneously offered a modest little prayer for safety and acceptance.
In the Upper Room, Aggie welcomed Peter as her brother, Algie, had – they were twins, and were as like two peas in a pod as Peter had ever met: small, round, full of interest and treated him with compassion; while Aggie finished the broth to her satisfaction, Algie found the hamper she had told him he would find the right things to suit their visitor, and returned with an armful of clothes: an old-style, blue Sailor Suit, Guernsey jersey, underwear, socks and boots – everything fitted perfectly and the boots, while old and scuffed, had been well-cared for, with steel tackets and leather that was supple and comfortable: "we're going to follow Cuthbert in a couple of days, to Lindisfarne, ye ken, Holy Island, and ye're welcome to come along, Pete laddie," and Peter – or Pete laddie – asked if Cuthbert wouldn't mind a stranger tagging along, at which the twins had a good laugh and then Aggie explained that St Cuthbert's Way was a fairly recent Long-Distance Route from Melrose to Lindisfarne Abbey, named in honour of the saint, who in the 7th Century had been Prior at Melrose Abbey and later, Lindisfarne; the Edinburgh lawyer apologised for his lack of historical knowledge and, forgetting all about his family at home, agreed at once, feeing that was, for him, some kind of re-birth; he asked them about the house they were in and Algie explained that Toc H in Melrose had bought the whole building in the 1930s and named it Talbot House after the original in France: "oh, there were guest rooms for anyone needing a bed for the night, meeting rooms, games rooms, quiet rooms, a small Hall which could hold about 100 for lectures or concerts, a library, just about everything that was needed, including the Chapel; we joined, me and Aggie, in the 1980's, and even then there was a rota for the Overnight Welcome, and you only did it about once every four or five weeks, but mind, we all get older and folk move away, for work or family reasons, lose their health, even die! so now there's just us here – the House has been subdivided and rented out, so it still has an income and though we can't do all the things that used to be done, we support other charities that do," and Peter asked: "and you sit up every night, waiting in case someone needs you?" at which Algie said: "well, we give it from dusk till midnight, but there's a bell-pull and if someone's desperate, we never turn them away, no matter what time they rouse us," which impressed Pete no end: "what brought you here?" he asked, sensing that their accents weren't local, and Aggie took up the tale: "well. I was a GP in Broughty Ferry and Algie had the Tupperwear Chair in Theological Philosophy at St Andrews and when we retired we wanted a change of scene and had distant relatives living down here so moved to Melrose in '85 and it was soon after that we became involved with Toc H; but just a couple of years ago, when we were the last active members, we sold our bungalow and moved in here," she lowered her voice, "the alley is the only downside," she said, in a near whisper, as though afraid of being heard by passers by, "some vulgarians use it as a shortcut from The Ship to Melrose Abby, a few slimeballs regard it as a handy pissoir, we get snatches of Billingsgate from the Fishmongers, naturally, but as neighbours they give us a discount, so we can't complain, and with the Undertakers' Chapel of Rest just round the corner, there are always a few apocalypticians knocking about, but it's the ones who think they can use it for a bit of the other," and she gave him a look which clearly conveyed what other she was referring to, then laughed, "but once they've had the contents of a chamber-pot emptied over them from upstairs, they soon beat a retreat and you never get them back," and after a brief pause, Pete asked: "and do you get many people coming in, like me?" and this time Algie answered: "on average, a couple or so most weeks, more in the dead of winter when it's cold enough outside to give a brass monkey the croup, but you'd be surprised at the summers, too, that's when we get most of the foreigners, either holidaymakers who've had a major falling-out with their companions and roughed-it for a few nights, maybe even a week or so, and are too embarrassed to go back and try to make up, or workers who've come over to earn better money than back home, and find themselves lonely and exploited and soon learn there is no easy way to make good money anywhere, or what are now called modern slaves, who've been people-trafficked from Eastern Europe or further afield, either to work on the land, crop-picking or the like, or tending marijuana farms for nothing but bare subsistence diet, or as prostitutes or sex-slaves; it's funny how our visitors have changed so much in 100 years – from mainly ex-services lads who had suffered physical or mental injuries and were left suffering from what is now recognised as PTSD but then was called shell-shock, to economic victims of exploitation – though hardly a month goes by without someone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan coming through the door, with exactly the same issues as the lads who went to the original Talbot House in France after the First War; but then, used, abused and cast aside can describe ex-squaddies or escaped agricultural or sex slaves equally; and we welcome anyone, regardless of rank, race, religion, social status, or any of the other means society has to divide one group from another," which was when Pete said: "we're all Jock Tamson's Bairns," and Algie gave his sister a knowing look, so she asked their guest: "and is there anything you want to talk about, Pete?"
The only person within the walls of Mother Kelly's who saw Peter Boo, in his incongruously mud spattered business suit, crawling under the hedge, was Ulla Ulp, but thinking that his behaviour was his own business and not knowing whether it was intraordinary for him, she merely shrugged and continued her conversation with Rani, who was the very definition of a vulgarian – and as she had recognised the lawyer from his previous appearance in Melrose, and may have considered that to draw the hostess's attention to his strange behaviour would be tantamount to jilting a lover, for who knows what the possible consequences might have been, though of course, as anyone who knew them could have told you they never had been lovers, the very idea is too awful to contemplate, but at that moment her eye fell on a blue box and she was tempted to ask Rani why she should have such a contraption in her house, and all thoughts of Boo vanished like breath on a winter's morn; so, unseen by anyone else and unchallenged, but fearful for his very life – for if someone could shoot a bird with a bazooka, what might they use on him? an Exocet? Trident? was Peter's driving thought, indeed, he may have been the actual target! - so on he crawled, keeping low, torn by gorse and broom, slathered in the rich red-brown mud, stared at by sheep, rabbits and frogs, feared and shunned by adders, and spiders, he traversed the undulating foothills and eventually, after many hours, crept down the last slope towards the town; when he reached the houses near the foot of Dingleton Hill, darkness had descended, street-lights were glowing amber and he moved like a shadow until he turned right after the Book Room into Scott's Place, where light spilled from Melrose Abby (sic) Takeaway and to his left a narrow close led towards East Port, just a few yards from The Ship Inn, and he remembered carousing nights there – he would be safe; so silently he squeezed into the tight close, inching towards his destination, when, of a sudden, two men stopped at the further end, standing in the half-shadow cast by a street-light on the opposite side of the road; they were speaking in hushed tones and Peter could not distinguish the words; then, one produced a package, took out a cigarette and offered the pack to the other and that one took a lighter from his pocket and struck it, and as both heads leaned towards the flame, Peter recognised Sir Parlane MacFarlane and Dominic Doubleday! in blind panic, he turned to run and then stopped, for in a window just beside him, he saw what could have been a prop for a production of Aladdin – a very old oil-lamp, with the Cross of Lorraine for a handle and a tiny flame, giving little light – Peter looked around and beside the window was a door, he tried the handle, it turned, the door opened inwards, silently and, just as silently, he entered and closed it behind him, then he saw that he was in a room furnished like a chapel and on a chair beside the lamp, sat a very old man, seeming to be fast asleep; he woke with a start and stared at Peter through large round spectacles: "the lamp," said Peter, "I saw the lamp, in the window," and the old man smiled, "it is a bit dim, Lad, and I've been waiting for a long time, but you found it and now you are here," and Peter asked: "Toc H?" and the man stood up, he was very small and moved slowly, "that's us, well, just me at the moment, but now you're here too, just as you should be, though you look like you've been in the Trenches, come on upstairs, Aggie'll find some dry clothes for you and she's got a pot of broth on, so we can have our supper and you can tell us all about it."
"Perfect," said Sam Smiles to Tavish Dalwhinnie, as they both lowered their glasses and grinned at each other; they had watched the hawk as it stooped and dived and hit the drone fast and furious – the explosion had been instantaneous and the tangle of bird, plastic and metal had dropped like a stone was the grace note; in Bonchester Bridge the image of the house had suddenly vanished from Flora's screen and the four watchers sat back, cursing – Crystal was immediately on the phone to the Guys but the ringing tone went unanswered, so she killed the call: "must be a fault, they're probably trying to find out themselves," but they weren't; when Sam and Tavish reached the van, about a mile from the house, they found the Boys, as they called their Lamplighters, sprawled on the floor, both were unconscious, headphones still clamped on and both suffering – though at first the two Officers didn't know it – from burst eardrums, from the intensified BOOM they had been hit by simultaneously; this, Sam and Tavish had begun to surmise, once the Paramedics the summoned made their initial assessment, and it was confirmed in A & E at the BGH by a young Registrar – although he had no idea what kind of noise had caused the trauma: "heavy metal," he guessed, "with the volume set dangerously high, some people never learn till it's too late," and the prognosis wasn’t good, so Sam and Tavish left the hospital, they still had to break the news to the Hawker that his top hunter had died in action but he would be recompensed by the Scottish Government, as if money would ease his grief; "div ye tak moi fer a vulgarian?" asked Tam Snoad when the subject was raised, "thon wis Rose-Marie, nemmet efter ma late wife, in fond remembrance, an anticipation o wur reunification," - for Tam was no heterodox, his Faith was Bible black-and-white, every word interpreted literally, and he paid no heed to the pickleball of Theological debate; he and his wife would truly be reunified on his own demise, somewhere on sunny uplands, where the air was pure and the skies vast enough for his hawks to soar, seek, spot and kill, and Tavish presumed that Rose-Marie (the hawk) would be there by now, perched on the gloved hand and wrist of Rose-Marie (the Dear Departed) and Sam had to batten down the urge to ask Tam which Rose-Marie he was looking forward to being reunified with the most.
What is this life if full of care,
We have no time to stand, and stare?
and while, in many respects, Peter Boo might seem unlikely casting as a gangrel or gangaboot, not to mention a Supertramp, yet there was something about the Edinburgh solicitor, as he sat at the top of Ranulph Ochan'toshan's garden, which might have matched W H Davies' description of what is so lacking in many modern lives, although, in truth, he seemed not to notice much of what he stared at: he might have been sitting on a well-boat out in the Atlantic, or in the shade of the Sphinx, for all he was aware of his surroundings, yet there could have been fortitude in his seeming obliviousness to the encroaching cold, as the afternoon ticked second by second towards the earlier evening which comes with putting the clocks back; he did catch brief sight of Ochan'toshan standing at one of the windows with a woman, perhaps a visitor? whom Boo did not recognise; but why should he? his own involvement with this strange house was itself recent and he didn't really know if he wanted it to become more intimate – Ochan'toshan himself, in the garish dresses and housecoats, wigs, high heels, make-up and nail varnish seemed to Boo to be a bit of a moko jumby, a parody of a woman, which rather gave Boo the shivers; and that was when he heard the boom, above him, and looked up, to see a burst of flame and something falling towards him; hastily, he rolled off the seat and scrabbled away, just in time to see a tangle of metal, bones, feathers and beak hit the very spot where he had sat: "fuck me!" the expletive was a rare one for the fastidious Boo, but quite genuine in it's spontaneity: "who tries to shoot a bird with a fucking bazooka?"
It's unlikely that even a connoisseur would have noticed anything amiss about the two starlings that darted into the garden of Mother Kelly's - they were the bog-standard size, shape, colour and what if their movements had the more laboured look of a boda boda compared with a Harley Davidson? "well," says the mind, "it takes all sorts," and so infinitesimal variations in behaviour, song and feeding patterns are accepted as quite normal, in the Grand Scheme of Things; but while no-one inside the house took the slightest notice of two more of our feathered friends shooting, hopping and perching around the outside of the house, only Peter Boo – sitting alone on a bench at the top of the garden, where it rose towards the foothills of the Eildons until it encountered the dense thickness and protectiveness of the stout hedge, chain-smoking as he contemplated the latest change of direction in his life and wondering if some form of the Nuremberg Defence would protect him from the consequences of becoming the unwitting pawn, if unwitting can indeed even begin to describe the relationship between an Advocate and his Client, of Sir Parlane MacFarlane – who had still not identified the possible cause of the sunstrike which had flashed him in the eyes earlier, perhaps did not waste a moment's reflection, did register the way the pair of birds expedited their joint moves, almost with the precision of the Red Arrows, even when they peeled apart and one found it's perch on a security light below the eaves, while the other clung onto the harling of the wall a few dozen feet away; but then, Boo was not a Twitcher, so why should he notice anything, when he had no knowledge base within which to make comparisons: he saw two birds, therefore believed them to be birds – if it looks, moves, sounds and smells like a bird, then it probably, in all likelihood, is a bird; but he didn't know that their claws were titanium, that when they made contact with the house, or it's attachments, such as a security light, they created a Loop System, similar to the installations in many public buildings to facilitate those with a hearing deficit, disability, or dysfunction, and transmitted the sounds gathered by that invisible Loop upwards to the drone which, like a Mother Hen guarding her young, kept it's watchful eye on them, and passed their signals back to the Guys!
But in Bonchester Bridge, Flora Dora has been keeping an eye on the screen of her tablet and now calls Crystal over, and Crystal asks Teri and Jazz to have a keek; they watch the replay several times – see a Volvo that itself has seen better days drive along the Main Street of Bowden and park just shy of Mother Kelly's doorstep and an older woman emerge, pulling a fur coat around her ample figure, hesitate briefly, glancing in both directions and even, fractionally, upwards in the direction of the drone she cannot possibly see, before walking smartly up to the front door of Ranulph Ochan'toshan's pretty cottage and knocking firmly, with the vulgar brass knocker which is in the form of two, presumably, male bodies, the outer having a large phallus which penetrates the cleft between the buttocks of the inner when the two are conjoined with a loud report; having realised what she has just done, the lady takes a step back and unconsciously wipes her right hand on a tissue, as if it has come into contact with ordure, then chucks the tissue behind a small holly bush and once again glances around, presumably hoping that no-one has seen her do what she has just done; the door is opened by a hulking brute of a man, and Crystal says: "that hail-fellow-well-met is Ochan'toshan's butler, he's got form, I think you Brits would say," who sticks his head out and looks both ways, just as the woman did, then gives her the minimum of attention as she speaks to him, leaves her on the step for a few moments and then opens the door again to admit her, and once again scans the street, where not even a dog is to be seen: "so who the Hell is she?" asks Crystal, but the locals are mystified: "she looks about the same age as our Aunts, Daphne and Maude," says Teri, and Jazz confirms: "more like Daphne than Maude, but she's blonde, Daphne's hair is a kind of browny-grey, and Maude's is gingery-grey; she's more the build of Daphne, stocky and with shoulders, Maude is taller, I'd say, and slimmer, and Maude's face is longer, Daphne's is sort of round, like that woman's," as they stare at the frozen image, in good colour, of the woman looking almost directly into the eye of the drone: "d'you know," said Teri, Aunt or no Aunt, that's a hierophanic offering of a prayer to the Heavenly Woman up above who watches over us all, which makes me doubt it can be Daphne, the only prayer she says is when she's got a fiver on a horse somewhere, now Cristo, yes, she might, but the nose looks too big for her," and "it's not easy to judge her height at that angle," says Flora Dora, "and she could be wearing a wig," but Teri is shaking her head: "I've never seen Daphne or Maude, even Cristo or May, wearing a fur coat like that, it's the real McCoy, isn't it, very thick and hiding her actual shape," and Jazz says: "she's well made-up, see," as Flora enlarges the image and Jazz points out the red lipstick, arched eye-brows, dark lashes, even blusher: "if it wasn't for the make-up, I'd say it's Daphne, but to be honest, it's more just on the shape of the face, rather than the features and I've never, ever, seen Daphne wear so much make-up, fuck, she rarely wears any at all, almost never, but then," and Teri finishes the sentence: "if you decide to beard the Lion in his Den, you have to go prepared and maybe that's why she's put on the slap," but Crystal interjects: "she can hardly be trying to seduce MacFarlane, or Doubleday, they prefer younger women, girls really, there's nothing in our knowledge of them to indicate that they'd be interested in a pensioner!" and she glanced at Teri and Jazz: "no offence, but she's obviously in her 60s or 70s, even with the make-up, it doesn't hide the reality – maybe softens it, but come on, am I right or am I right?" and after studying the face again, so nearly familiar, but with foreshortening and the camouflage of enough hair to cover her forehead and cosmetics to smooth the skin and enhance the lips, it really isn't possible for either to be decisive: "possibly Daphne," says Jazz at last and Teri hesitantly agrees: "although it could be someone from the Unionist Association canvassing for their candidate in the General Election, the fur coat is probably a given for that scenario, axiomatic even," and Flora rewinds to the image of the car: "ever seen it before?" but the girls shake their heads, Teri being unable to identify much beyond a VW Beetle and Jasmine saying that there are quite a number of Volvos in the Melrose area, but the number-plate seems to have been muddied so that even when enlarged it is impossible to identify the number: "would your aunts do anything quite as recondite as that?" asked Crystal, but the cousins shake their heads - "they're not exactly au fait with the ways of spies and undercover operatives," says Jasmine, so Crystal goes on: "she can't know that we've got a drone up, I agree that glance was more offering a little prayer to her Goddess than hoping to be caught on camera," at which Jazz suggested that whoever it was may have wanted to be sure that no-one at the house would be able to trace her identity from the car number: "they do still have links in Police Scotland, don't they?" asked Crystal, which Jasmine confirmed, without giving too much away; they were, after all, civilians, and foreign ones at that: "can you hear anything from inside the House?" asked Teri and Crystal used her phone to call the Guys: "anything we can put on the house, or even inside?" she asked and waited, then: "okay, go for it!"
"Well, Miss Ulp," said Ochan'toshan, giving a girlish laugh, "it's rather an honour to meet the representative of such an august journal," and Ulla Ulp gazed at him curiously: "you have some familiarity with the paper?" she asked, "with my work?" and Ochan'toshan waved his hand dismissively: "not as intimately as I would wish," he said, with just a hint of regret in his voice, "the local newsagent carries only the local papers and a few of the nationals, UK nationals, for those of us who are interested in the wider world, but sadly, no international publications, he's rather parochial in his outlook, I'm afraid, but of course, I'm not just a gongoozler, I have heard of it, and yourself, from friends in Edinburgh, au naturale," which Ulla repeated, adding: "your mot juste is tres apposite," with just a hint of a French accent, which did not go unmissed by the transvestite in the chinoiserie housecoat: "and your interest in coming here, to my humble abode?" enquired the hostess, wishing that the empty bottles and clothes had not been left so artlessly displayed, but Miss Ulp graciously affected not to be aware of them, turning instead to the French windows and gazing out at the immaculate garden and the stirring view of the Eildon Hills beyond: "a truly beautiful location for a home, Mr, err," hesitating, possibly wondering if a more feminine appellation might be preferred, and receiving a moue in return: "I do prefer Miss, when I am dressed in my preferred style," said Ochan'toshan, "and if we are to be friends, which I earnestly desire, then please, call me Rani." and was rewarded with a warm smile from his glamorous, despite her substance, Norwegian visitor, noting himself that she had something of the look of an Eskimo Nell about her, and thinking that this was probably a result of her Viking DNA; then Ulla explained: "we are, as you are doubtless aware," she said, taking a seat on a sofa, thankfully unadorned by underwear, and inviting Rani to join her, implicitly reversing their roles, but with such charm and self-confidence that he didn't mind in the least, having quite a liking for dominant women: "well, as you know," Ulla continued, "we are a Conservative Christian bulwark against the intrusion of the so-called Democratic State into the individual rights of it's citizens, in fact, we are Libertarian on political, economic and social issues, and that is exactly why I am here," and she paused, giving him a moment to consider her words, then continued: "your friend Sir Parlane MacFarlane has been demonized in the same way as the Marquis de Sade and your society, The Ring of Gold, has been portrayed as an Internal Terrorist Alliance, but we, and our readers, see you as defending the Liberty of Thought, Word and Deed against unwarranted interference by the cartel of petit-bourgeois/social-communist crushers of Individuality – Minecrafters in the real world, intent on destruction and the imposition of Misery!" and Rani spontaneously clapped her hands in delight: "ooh-la-la! Ulla, you are truly a woman after my own heart – have you ever met Sir Parlane? he's here you know, came straight from the Court after the darling Judge did his duty and threw the case out, what a sweetie, I must send him a little gift in appreciation, but that can wait until after our clatfart," and on seeing the puzzlement on her visitor's face, she explained: "it's a colloquialism, just means gossiping, doing what we women do so well, eh, when the boys are out of earshot, ha ha – would like some tea, or coffee?" and she rang a bell which summoned the hulking butler, gave him the order for two coffees and some shortbread and asked him to track down MacFarlane and tell him there was an important guest, who would be overjoyed to meet him," and glanced from beneath her abundant lashes, and said: "but not half as much as I am, Ulla, overjoyed, that is, by your quite unexpected arrival here today – I hope that we can make the time to get to know each other better, would you like that too?" and hardly believing her luck, Ulla seized her hostess's hand and gave it what she hoped would be received as an affectionate squeeze; she had no illusions about how the Baronet would see her – as a middle-aged, elderly even, overweight and not especially good-looking, career journalist, just one to be used and forgotten, but Ochan'toshan, on the other hand, would be putty in her hands, and he was believed to be the Keeper of the Keys as far as The Ring of Gold was concerned, knowing all it's secrets and where all the bodies were buried, oh yes, he was the one to squeeze till his pips squeak!
Which was how it came to pass that, later that self-same afternoon, a valorous and elegant – if somewhat stout – lady rang the doorbell of Mother Kelly's and was confronted by a rather hulking butler, who seemed not to understand a word she said, in her best Morningside pan-loaf, but admitted her nonetheless; there was a menacing whang about the way he moved and gestured, but nevertheless, he showed her into a room which seemed to have been the scene of a recent carouse – empty wine and spirit bottles were crowded on a large coffee-table, and various items of clothing hung discarded on the backs of chairs or lay, lifeless, on the floor; and then Ranulph Ochan'toshan – it could only be he, with a purple bouffant wig and wrapped in a vividly clashing chinoiserie housecoat – entered and introduced himself; his visitor stood, extended a hand which held a business card, and gave her name as Ulla Ulp, Scottish Correspondent for Norge Idag, of Bergen.
Hyman Kaplan ended the call, he looked glum: "what did she say?" asked Norman Noggs: "you heard me assert your valorous willingness to do anything you could to bring that pair their comeuppance?" and Noggs nodded, but Kaplan was gazing out of the window, at last he said: "there must be something in her circuitry, her brain doesn't work like other people's, I'd love to see a connectome of it, the synapses, I've only really got to know her well since the Mountains came to Mohammed, our previous dealings were more formal, more courteous, I haven't heard her so officious, I didn't know she knows so many swear words. . . . ." his friend was growing impatient: "but what did she actually say, Hymie, are we on?" and Kaplan turned his gaze towards Noggs: "there's no easy way to say this, Norman, but the Lady, she say 'No!' and she ain't for turnin', an' what's more, she loves the plan so much, she's gonna do it herself!"
Before he reached for the door handle, Hyman Kaplan turned to face Norman Noggs: "you used to do a Sophie Tucker impression, is that right?" and his friend hesitated for a beat, then nodded: "when I was young, much younger – with a quality wig and carefully applied make-up, I could pass for a hipster, yes, I could even wiggle my bum, jive-dance, do the hands, still can," and demonstrated, "but why do you ask?" and Hyman, unwearied, grinned: "let's grab our pies and then you can tell me about it," so, once they had returned to the cubicle with their pies, Norman explained about his – albeit now distant history - student life: "there was a bunch of us, good Jewish boys and some students from St Andrews, the Catholic Seminary at Leaderfoot - it's long since closed down, became something of a white elephant due to the lack of young men wanting to commit to the Priesthood with it's vows of celibacy and chastity, so now it's a nursing home, but back then they were a lively bunch; we put on a show three or four times a year in the Corn Exchange - and as the Fathers at the seminary would never have permitted us to have any real girls in the company, six or seven of us did the honours - nothing like Ru Paul's Drag Race, more an End of the Pier show, with comedy, novelty acts, some magic, singing and dancing, and a vent, ha ha, a kid from Connemara who went under the name of Valentine Vox the Ventriloquist and now he's a Cardinal, but my Sophie Tucker was a straightforward homage, and I carried it off; honestly, I doubt if any of the general public realised I was actually a boy underneath, I had a good voice, good looks, with that same round face of hers, and visually, vamping it all up, could have been a real turn from the Roaring Twenties; one of the others, Gerald, now Father FitzMaurice, and still the Parish Priest down in Hawick, though he must be due to retire soon, did Old Mother Riley, with Monty Gold as her daughter, Kitty, and they were the ones who really brought the house down, but why are you asking, Hymie?" – and Kaplan, taking a moment to refill their glasses, then explained: "there's a house in Bowden I'd like to infiltrate, but I can't do it myself; MacFarlane and Doubleday are there now, that's where they went as soon as the Sheriff dropped the case against them, but they both know me, they saw me, Sadie and Rose, together with Isa and Milly and the two American women they'd trafficked to Prince Edward Island, you know, Crystal Shann-Delyeer and Flora Dora, after the Mountains landed up Dingleton Hill, and we were all taken together to the Hawick Cop Shop to give our statements," and Norman nodded: "it'll be Ranulph Ochan'toshan's place, Mother Kelly's, yes?" and Kaplan agreed: "have you ever been there?" but Norman shook his head: "not a chance – I know who Ochan'toshan is, of course, he's pretty well known, but quite unsavoury, we've never actually met, different circles – so you want me to try to get inside? as a woman? but look at me Hymie, I'm an old man now, not the boy who did a turn as Sophie Tucker fifty years ago, more than that in fact!" but Kaplan wasn't going to let go of his idea so easily: "that's the whole point, Norrie, if an elderly woman journalist knocks at the door and asks for an exclusive interview with the great Sir Parlane MacFarlane, who's going to suspect her of being anything other than she seems?" and this time Noggs gave it serious thought; it would carry risks, may require him to be valorous, well, he'd been in a few scrapes over the years, so what's new? and knowing that hesitation is the most paralysing, made up his mind: "ok, I'll do it, but we'll likely have to borrow the clothes from Daphne, she's probably about the same size as me, but it's your plan, so you can do the asking!"
Even before Norman had climbed the stairs, Kaplan sent the Office Boy – Hannah Manyanah, yes, it's incongruous to still use such gender stereotyping but who's counting? - down to the Pound Bakers for a dozen hot Kosher Scotch Pies, roused the chess players from their deliberations and set them into the kitchen and making a pan of borscht to their babushka’s famous recipe – yes, they are siblings and Mrs Cohen's mother Gretl's recipe for borscht has won more gold medals than you have had hot cheesecake – and having got them out of the way, dug out his hidden screecham, a bottle of Laphraoigh 50-year-old, and ushered his visitor into the Editor's corner cubicle, shut the door to keep out the clacking of the matronly knitters' duelling needles, and invited Norman to take a seat; glancing around the cubicle, Norman noticed at once Leo Rosten's comprehensive Yiddish Pandect and couldn't resist humming a few bars of My Yiddishe Momme, before the need to unburden himself became too great, but even then, he prevaricated: "just come from Rabbi Burns," said Noggs, "did you know that the Neanderthals are all converting to Judaism? – – seems that they were so impressed with Shmuel's beard that they felt an instant kinship – we're going to need a bigger synagogue, the Rabbi thinks he can get that place Crawford's have up where the road divides, used to be the Water Board but was originally a church, so it would be an appropriate restoration of use, to Place of Worship," and Kaplan chuckled: "and just a short walk from the Episcopal Church and the Catholics in High Cross Avenue? and not five minutes from the Parish Church, too, almost making a Holy Corner up there; all the town would be lacking then is a Mosque and a Mormon whatever they call theirs," and Noggs smiled: "but he also told me about the Sheriff dropping the case against Sir Parlane MacFarlane and Dominic Doubleday – of course, the evidence Isa Urquhart and Milly Millican have comes from 2037, when they found the bodies, or at least the DNA. . . . ." and Kaplan interjected: "so it can't be eligible, as it hasn't happened yet," and Noggs seemed reflective: "the fact that a brown envelope changed hands in the car park and was caught on camera by a particularly sleekit reporter may be, though – I think the Sheriff has had one of his Funny Turns and been ordered by his doctor to get some sea air, but I don't think the doc actually specified Uzbekistan, well, not for sea air anyway, but I do believe that Tashkent, or anywhere along The Golden Road to Samarkand, will have it's attractions – but talking of the bodies, did you know I was with them the night they disappeared? the old boys – Owd Bob, that's Robert Ruggles, Wee Eck, Alexander Armitage, and Fat Frank, Francis Abernethy, they called me Young Noggin, though it was only two and a half years ago, but I was young compared to them, they were all in their nineties; it was just a few days after Dod Broon, he didn't manage home to Gattonside and all the Polis found was some scuffed paintwork on the Swing Bridge and a button, the thinking was that he may have fallen over the railing into the river, which was in spate at the time, but no body was ever discovered downstream; the last I saw of the others was when they left The Ship to head to their homes – it was blowin a hoolie, snaw gustin in whenever the door opened, you couldn't see more than a foot or two ahead of you; there was no evidence of foul play, no evidence of anything, and they'd all been listed as mispers, until Isa and Milly, the older versions, appeared from the mountains and we learned that their bodies had been found, well, will be found, in 2037 and they found, will find, DNA linking MacFarlane and Doubleday to their murders – which was the start of the chain of events which brought you here, too, with Isa and Milly, MacFarlane and Doubleday; I had a call from you last night," and when Kaplan looked puzzled, Noggs continued: "the present day you, the one whose nearly twenty years younger, I don't suppose you remember what we talked about?" and Kaplan shrugged: "twenty years ago? in the middle of Trumpet-Trousers Impeachment? who knows? surprise me, why don'tcha," and Norman winked, said: "there's apparently very good odds being offered for anyone willing to hazard a bet on which way the Impeachment's going to go," and all Hyman said was: "oh, really?" when suddenly there was a crashing and banging in the main office and Hannah's cry of: "come get your Nosh before it gets cold!" raised both men to their feet instantly.
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