02-39 A Skeleton in the Closet

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At the Darer’s, Missy has just put Junior to bed. The afternoon has been a little hectic, what with unpacking and Junior claiming attention, but the suitcases are finally empty and Missy can get some rest. She tiptoes down the stairs, grateful of Juan being at Lucky’s. Or was it Merlott’s? Whatever, she’s got a little time to herself as he, hopefully, won’t be home until really late.

Maybe a bubble bath with the nice products Juan “stole” from the hotel. Her stomach growls. A snack first, then a bath. Geez, I have a hankerin’ for poptarts… or Granny’s cookies…

She’s rummaging through the cupboards for something to eat, grumbling about the maid hiding the cookie jar, when the phone on the wall starts ringing. For a fleeting moment she considers not answering, then she remembers her sleeping son upstairs and practically hurls herself on the shrilly ringing device.

‘I really hope it’s not some stupid, time-consuming telephone survey,’ she mutters, fumbling with the handset.

But after listening to Taïga who breathlessly tells her about the visitors, she regrets it not being a salesperson…

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‘Are you sure?… The Council? And they’re coming here, for dinner? They can’t expect me to conjure up a dinner in two shakes of a sheeps tail, can they? … They can…’ Missy grabs for something to hold her up. ‘Uh-huh… Oh, that takes the cake! Wait, Taïga! This is an emergency, right? … Uh-huh. Thought so!’

She hangs up without saying goodbye, looking desperately around her. Her gaze stops on the maid, skeleton arms hanging, empty eye sockets staring straight in front of her. She can swear the grinning skull is mocking her!

‘I guess you won’t be of any help, you only seem to wait on Junior, not caring at all what happens to your masters! Oh, right. We are not your masters…’

She gives the maid a vicious push as she dashes past on her way upstairs, scattering its bones all over the floor.The irritating rustling of the skeleton reassembling itself follows her until she reaches the loft. She has tried everything, even burn it, but it seems indestructible. She hates to admit it, but she will need Taïga’s help once again to finally put it to rest.

Being careful not to make too much noise, she tiptoes over to where she has hidden her wand under a loose plank. Unfortunately it’s underneath Junior’s bed… She prays the goddess that the little boy won’t wake up as she carefully pushes his bed slightly aside. But Junior continues sleeping peacefully, letting her retrieve her magical tool without starting a scene.

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Back in the kitchen, she pushes the table against the couch to make room.

‘I know I’m not supposed to use magic and everything, but this is an emergency!’ she justifies, ‘Let’s see… Ahem…’

‘Alacazam! Alacazoom!

Tablecloth, porcelain, forks and spoons,

This Halloween setting for… Err… six? Yeah… it should be enough.

Ahem… This Halloween setting for six is not inopportune

But surely the guests will gape and swoon!

Her wand splutters orange glitter all over the kitchen, hiding the maid and the furniture in a glowing ginger haze.

Missy squints, If only that dang useless skeleton could be transformed into a chair or something…

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But no such luck. When the haze dissipates, the skeleton is still standing immobile next to the vacuum cleaner.

‘At least it worked.’ Missy scrutinizes the table critically, ‘It’s orange and there are pumpkins, so I guess we can safely say that it’s themed.’

She gives the vacuum cleaner an irritated kick, sending it spinning around the maid’s legs.

‘Move over, you useless heap of bones! If you’re not gonna help, you can at least stay out of the way!’

But of course she gets no answer.

‘‘Effing maid is dumb as a sack of rocks, bless her heart. Hyper active when Junior is up – cooking, cuddling, cleaning and generally getting in the way…’

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Muttering she opens the fridge, scanning the content.

‘Now, food… Better cook something, or they will fall over themselves to punish me for using magic.’ She snorts, ‘That uptight Count and his evil sidekick. He thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow, and that snotty French witch is so stuck up, she’d drown in a rainstorm. Geez…’ She pushes the sparse items on the shelves around, grousing, ‘I ain’t got time to fix a casserole –even if I knew how to do it… So what have we got in here? Baby food, baby food and milk! There must be something left in the freezer that I could heat up…’

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While Missy is desperately working against the clock, trying to set up a suitable Halloween dinner, Taïga reaches Arthur’s little cottage at the border of the Bayou…

Valkyria is impatient, as soon as they come into view of Arthur’s humble home, she speeds up and rushes up the stairs, sniffing around on the porch. Taïga is relieved to see that the lights are on in the little cottage so at least he’s home. Leaning her bike against the railing, she hurries after her whining dog, seeking shelter from the rain.

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She can see Arthur deeply concentrated in the kitchen. Good. He’s alone… She rolls her eyes, Of course he’s alone! Did I really think someone would drive into the bayou in such a rainstorm? And Mr. Moon isn’t much for socializing anyway…

She hesitates before knocking. There’s a towel in a basket next to the door and it would maybe be best to dry Valkyria a bit first. She starts vigorously rubbing her dog who obediently lifts her paws, one at a time to help her mistress get done faster…

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The minibreak was great, but Arthur is happy to be back home again. He is a fervent stamp collector and has bought some interesting stamps in Lucky Palms that he’s impatient to class. Even if he’s got numerous stockbooks with samples from all over the world, he prefers French stamps. His special stockbook is overflowing with ancient, colorful, quite valuable specimens.

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His old dog is snoring on the sofa, pleased to have his master back. Suddenly Ruff pricks up his ears. He looks around him a little dazed, but Arthur is too concentrated to notice. Unfortunately, one of the stamps he acquired in Lucky Palms seems to be damaged. There are faint traces of a stamp hinge on the backside which he only discovered just now with his magnifying glass.

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When Valkyria is suitably dry, Taïga knocks sharply on the door, triggering a commotion inside.

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With a shrill bark, Ruff jumps off the sofa, making the heavy furniture slide across the floor. Throwing himself on the door, howling and barking, he’s finally doing his job as a watchdog.

The sudden commotion startles a deeply concentrated Arthur, making some stamps fall to the floor. He grabs his stamp tongs before quickly pushing his chair back and falling on his knees in search of the precious images.

He can hear Valkyria barking outside too, it must be Granny who has forgotten something.

‘Come right in! The door’s not locked,’ he yells from his position under the table.

Taïga pushes the door open, trying to avoid Ruff who’s throwing himself on Valkyria, happily yapping. The excited dogs sniff around each other, Ruff’s tail thumping against the wall – and Taïga’s legs.

‘Ouch… That hurts! C’mon, Ruff. You saw Valkyria a couple of hours ago! That’s a good boy.’

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Pushing past the dogs, she takes her soaked jacket off and looks around her in search of Arthur.

‘Yoo-hoo. Mr. Moon?’

‘Here, under the table.’ Huffing and puffing, Arthur gets up from his awkward position on the floor, waving a tiny blue scrap carefully held with the stamp tongs.

‘It’s a 50 centimes turquoise Mercure. One of the French stamps edited in 1942, my birth year, and it’s quite valuable. Thought I’d lost it…’

Taïga takes a step towards him, but he holds his hand up to stop her. ‘Don’t come any closer! It would ruin my collection if you drip water on it…’

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ She hesitates, ‘But maybe you could show it to me another day? I’ve never seen a stamp collection before.’

‘It would be a pleasure.’ Arthur’s round face lights up. ‘So what brings you out and about in this dreadful weather? Tara is all right, I hope.’

‘She’s all right, Mr. Moon. Granny and her friends left for dinner at Missy’s, so I seized the opportunity to come and see you.’ Seeing his puzzled expression, she continues, ‘I just need some adult advice on something, and I can’t really talk to Granny about it…’

‘Oh, my. You’re not… I mean, you haven’t… Sheesh, I could have a word with the boy if you want, but-’

Taïga stares at him in disbelief. ‘You don’t seriously think I’m pregnant or something-’

‘Err…’

‘-because I’m not.’

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Arthur exhales deeply with relief, ‘Hot chocolate?’

‘Yes, please.’

He fills a saucepan with milk and lights the stove. ‘Why do I feel like this isn’t just a casual social call?’

‘Maybe because it isn’t…’ Taïga fiddles with her wet braids. ‘You see, I overheard you and Granny the other day, it was when you came to help with the plumbing in the downstairs bathroom. I didn’t mean to snoop, but you said something about being married before and your wife being deceased-’

‘You’re afraid my intentions with your grandmother aren’t honest?’ He raises an eyebrow and looks questioningly at her, stirring cocoa into the hot milk and adding some sugar.

‘No. I mean yes, of course I’m concerned. But…’

He looks at her, waiting for her to continue.

‘It’s just, I don’t want her to get hurt, and I think she really appreciates your company – a lot.’

‘I like her too. A lot.’ He adds, smiling a little, ‘She’s the most amazing woman I’ve ever met, and I don’t intend to hurt her in any way.’

He pours the hot chocolate into two huge mugs and brings them over to the couch where Taïga is sitting. He takes a seat in the armchair opposite her before carefully sipping the hot brewage. ‘So, now my intentions are cleared… What is the real reason of your visit?’

Taïga stirs the hot chocolate, studying the liquid swirl dangerously close to the edge of the mug. She seems lost in thoughts but Arthur lets her take her time. Suddenly she looks up, straight into his eyes,  ‘I’ve also lost someone I love, and I want to know how long it takes to forget,’ she blurts out.

Arthur leans back in the armchair, ‘You never really forget, Taïga. You just learn to live with the memories.’

‘But that’s not possible! How can you love my grandmother and your dead wife at the same time? Don’t you feel you’re betraying her memory?’

Arthur looks like she just slapped his face and she regrets her blunt words. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-’

Arthur nods, fiddling absentmindedly with his empty ring finger, ‘How can I put this? It’s not the same love. It’s…’ he hesitates, ‘The love I shared with my wife is now a memory. A cherished memory that sometimes resurfaces, making me smile but also cry. But it’s only a memory… The feelings I have for your grandmother are in the present. That love is something real and too precious to waste.’

Taïga doesn’t say anything. It was not the answer she had expected. She had hoped for something more concrete, something she could start practicing immediately to take away the ever present pain. Her eyes cloud over and she blinks furiously to avoid the despised tears welling up.

Arthur hands her a tissue. ‘Don’t hold back. Crying is part of mourning a loved one.’ He grimaces, a little embarrassed. ‘You can’t cry away the sense of loss, but you do feel better afterwards…’

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Giant bat, broom or car? The choice is not difficult when the rain is pouring down and the wind is tearing away the last resistant leaves from the trees. It had taken longer than expected to drive the few miles over to the Darer’s, due to the bad shape of the roads, but now they’ve safely arrived.

Granny lets her passengers off as close to the porch as possible, then parks her old vintage car behind the house. She can see her sister unsuspiciously moving about in the kitchen and regrets not being able to call and warn her. Dang them all for insisting on surprising Missy and Juan. Now she can only hope for the best.

She hurries to the relative dryness of the porch where they’re all huddling together around someone. Granny is surprised to recognize her old friend Haeju.

‘Ah, there you are, Tara! I was starting to think I got the address wrong.’

‘But you did, ma chérie.’ Lugubre gloats. ‘Zhis is a Grey résidence, but not zhe “right” one.’

Haeju shudders, ‘It doesn’t really matter as you’re all here now. It’s such a pleasure to see you again, Tara. I’ve missed our conversations…’

Granny feels bad about not keeping contact with the profoundly kind and spirited witch after she returned to Africa once she had obtained her law degree. ‘Me too, I’ve missed you-’

‘You vill have time to rreminisce and catch up laterr. Bychit! Is cold. Nov, vhere is yourr silly sisterr, Та́рюша (Taryusha)? Ve knock ant knock…’

‘I say, why doesn’t the half-witch answer the door?’ Count Olaf raises his hand to knock again, missing a red cheeked Missy with a quarter of an inch.

‘Who calls me half-wit?’

Lugubre raises an eyebrow, ‘Bonsoir à toi aussi, Missy. Good afternoon to you too.’

Granny rolls her eyes. This doesn’t start well. ‘Please, you must excuse my sister’s lack of manners. Why don’t we go inside, y’all?’

Lugubre pouts and air kisses the hostess’ cheeks on her way inside. ‘Such an interessante décoration… More shabby zhan chic, but what can you expect from zhe Americains.’

‘Mademoiselle…’ Count Olaf lifts ceremoniously Missy’s hand to his lips.

‘It’s Mrs. Darer now,’ Missy giggles. ‘You must remember that I got married this summer.’

‘Hum. I neverr think you vould jump dhe brroom stick beforre yourr sisterr,’ Baba Yaga adds, with a sly glance at Granny. ‘Congrratulations to beading yourr verry much olderr sisterr.’ She sweeps past, imitating Lugubre’s French style air kissing in an exaggerated manner.

Granny clenches her teeth, but it would seem rather immature to start boasting about Arthur. And he hasn’t proposed to her anyway. Hardly kissed her even…

Haeju smiles, her dark face lighting up from within. It’s hard not to like Haeju, only Lugubre Chantelamort resists her disarming smile. But then again she resists just about anyhing that is not French.

‘You look good, Haeju. You even seem younger than last time – not a day over forty!’

‘You’re too kind, Missy. I’ll be fifty-three in February.’

‘Don’t be modest. Is it due to the plants I told you about?’

‘More to some secret ingredients… Botox and silicone! But hush, don’t tell anyone. I kind of like the thought of Baba Yaga smearing snail goo on her face…’ She winks conspiratorially, before linking arms with Missy and instantly freezing. With a stunned expression, she lets go of the older witch.

‘What is it? Did you have a vision?’ Granny and Missy ask worriedly in unison.

‘Yes! I mean – No.’ She stares with disbelief at Missy. ‘It can’t be…’

‘What can’t?’

‘Err… Nothing. I’m tired after the long journey on a thin broom. I’m getting too old for this kind of travelling, I’d rather do as normal people do – buy a plane ticket. First class, of course. Oh, what a lovely statue!’ She changes the subject, joining her colleagues in front of Juan’s masterpiece destined to the City Hall.

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Missy grabs her older sister’s arm and slams the door shut behind them. ‘You could have warned me!’ she hisses angrily.

‘No, I couldn’t. They wanted to surprise you. I think they want to meet Juan, make sure that you don’t use magic now that you’ve married a commoner…’

‘Don’t worry. I got it all covered,’ Missy hisses back. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, just keep them busy while I finish setting the table…’

Interessant… Zhe artist ‘as succeeded in conveying an interesting message…’

‘Quite so. It’s jolly good. Well proportioned, what?’

‘Uh-huh…’ Lugubre squints, glancing at her Mentor. ‘Très jolie… Zhe feeling of zhe artist’s purpose is very strong. Zhe shape… zhe color… Très intense…’

‘I agree. The texture, what? Strong, vibrant, garishly masculine.’

‘Oui! Zhe horizontal composition is-’

‘Rather vertical, if I may say so.’

‘Oui! Vertical-horizontal. So… so innovating!’

‘Vhat? Is outrright ugly!’ Baba Yaga stares at the Count and his sycophant. ‘Vho vould like squid in City Hall? Crrazy mayorr?’ She rolls her eyes. ‘Vhen are ve going to eat? My stomach is rrumbling like earrthquake!’

‘Your lack of decorum is pitying, Baba Yaga.’ The count says.

‘Oh, zatk`nis -shut up. You not look down yourr long nose at me, Count Olav. My name is Baaba Yagaa!’ She snorts contempously, ‘Ant dhat… dhat is giant squid. Verry ugly giant squid.’

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Missy claps her hands, drawing their attention to the food she’s succeeded to bring forth on such short notice. Some barbecued, deep-frozen pulled pork, deep-frozen French fries and Stop & Shop’s coleslaw. Simple but tasty, and even Missy succeeded in heating everything up without burning anything. The dessert, a (deep-frozen) pumpkin pie Granny made last week, is bearing Missy’s touch; melted marshmallows.

Haeju politely declines the pork, due to her religion, letting Baba Yaga have her portion. Even Lugubre Chantelamort finishes her plate, contradicting her observations about the total lack of artistry in American cooking…

The conversation is flowing, but as by mutual agreement they avoid the dreaded subject of Taïga, knowing full well that it will trigger hostilities. During the meal, Granny has caught Haeju frequently glancing at Missy, and she wonders what the clairvoyant witch could have seen when she touched her sister.

Maybe she will tell us later. Except if it was Missy’s death she saw… She shudders and pushes away the thought, turning her attention to Baba Yaga who’s mimicking something Lugubre Chantelamort just said.

‘… “vhat if she falls into enemy hands?” Humpff…’ the Russian witch mimics. ‘She vill not. I vill have she underr my prrotection all dhe time!’

‘I say, that is the problem. The child isn’t your property, what?’

‘It vill be. As soon as is borrn…’

Count Olaf and Lugubre stare at Baba Yaga who calmly picks up the last part of pie and delicately pops it into her mouth. ‘Vhat?’

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‘You do realize, chère Baba Yaga, zhat zhis is an epic conflict of interest.’

Count Olaf weighs in, ‘Right. Not a state of affairs we can settle around a table, what?’

Missy has followed the conversation, getting more and more upset about the prospect of the Council taking her babysitter-niece.

‘You best mind me! You’re talking about Taïga’s child –which by the way isn’t even born yet, bless her heart– not some… some dang cow!’ Missy says indignantly, making her sister frown.

Granny is dumbfounded, Is that Missy talking? My egotistical sister, who’s always wanted to “get rid” of her niece? Who dislikes children in general?

‘Not any child, chérie. A Grey successor.’ Lugubre adds haughtily.

‘THE Grey successor, dear. Possibly.’ Count Olaf backs the French witch’s saying with satisfaction.

Lugubre reaches out and pats Count Olaf’s hand, making him tense and blush a little.

Baba Yaga snorts. ‘Ha! I knev id! You is couple and dhat is vhy yourr vote does not count!’ Suddenly she slaps the table, cackling hysterically.

Haeju stares at Baba Yaga. ‘Would you mind sharing?’

Baba Yaga dries tears of mirth from her eyes. ‘Just dhinking about Count ant Lugubrre doing-’

‘-is there no limit to your vile imagination, what?’

‘Pshaw. Do I have to spell it out for you?’ Missy has followed the conversation, and now she’s had enough. Someone has to understand that Taïga can’t leave, she’s needed here, and that someone is apparently not her sister who’s unusually reserved. ‘Nobody’s taking my niece anywhere. I’m serious as a heart attack, I’m just starting to teach her all I know-’

‘All you knov? Vill not take too much time…’ Baba Yaga doesn’t miss a beat, taking another sip of wine all the while trying not to lose all of her lipstick on the rim.

‘… and she helps me with Jun… with the household chores.’

‘So it is all right for you to use ‘er as ‘ousehold slave, but not for us to use ‘er to breed? Talk about double standards…’ Lugubre snorts, doing her French style eye-rolling and pouting.

‘It’s not the same thing at all! I know that marriage has always been a big deal to our family and witches in general, but we’re living in the 21st century. Don’t you think this waiting for a “Messiah” is a little outdated?’ Missy tries again.

Granny has wisely adopted a wait-and-see attitude, but she nods in approval of Missy’s arguments.

‘You can say what you want about your sister,’ Haeju whispers, ‘but she’s not afraid to speak her mind!’

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‘You should not worry your litteul ‘ead, Missy. Leave zhe important matters to zhe peopeul who are chosen.’

‘And you consider yourself “qualified” to decide over my niece’s destiny?’

‘Absolument. I, and my colleagues, are zhe only ones who can bring up zhe child.

‘Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered!’ Missy says ominously to the French witch.

‘Did you just call me a fat pig?’ Lugubre gasps with indignation.

‘No, she didn’t!’ Granny hastily says.

‘Da!’ Baba Yaga jumps on the occasion, ‘She most cerrtainly did – and nod only pig, but hog and she vill kill you!’

Drawing her breath violently, Lugubre rises from her seat, triggering Baba Yaga and Missy to do the same. The three witches stare belligerently at each other.

Haeju breaks in, ‘Of course she didn’t. It’s an idiom about being too ambitious. Now sit down again. Please.’

Missy starts noisily cleaning away the dirty dishes, while Baba Yaga pulls out Lugubre’s chair next to Haeju, ‘I vould like to knov vhich side you arre on.’

‘Which side?’

‘You hearr me. Yourr vote.’

‘Err… I won’t tell you, Baba Yaga.’

‘Vhy?’

‘Because primo – it’s confidential. And secondo – I’d like to keep our relations as civilized as possible. And you said yourself, the Count’s and Lugubre’s votes don’t count if they’re romantically involved…’

‘Diplomatic bullshit! Is no couple. You knov Lugubrre is nod interrested in men.’

‘I say, I have a mistress in London, what?’ Count Olaf straightens his bowtie, keeping a stiff upper lip.

‘You should Get Esmé Squalor over the Ocean, have mistrress in Boston orr Falls Harrborr orr somevherre close to vherre you live, Count Olav. Let ovv steam. Be less uptight.’ Baba Yaga snickers, making Count Olav’s ears redden.

‘Pfft… Zhat woman ‘as no sense of fasion…  I need to wash my ‘ands.’ Lugubre straightens selfconsciously her hair. ‘Et peut-être –maybe- powder my noze a litteul.’

Granny nods towards the door next to the stairs, ‘The bathroom is right over there.’

Merci.

‘No!’ With a yelp, Missy lets go of her pile of plates, quickly sidestepping the mess to block the access to the tiny bathroom. ‘You can’t use it – it’s clogged! Awfully clogged and dirty and… and clogged!’

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Lugubre doesn’t take no for an answer, her curiosity is awakened and she’s more than irritated with Baba Yaga’s gloating and their hostess’ lame excuses. This half-witch is not one to stop her, and if the bathroom is dirty, well, she’ll have a good excuse to chew the stupid woman out. She quickly reaches under Missy’s outstretched arms, turning the doorknob. The door sways open and the French witch peeks over Missy’s shoulder inside. Covering her mouth in shock, she takes a step backwards.

Oh, mon Dieu! Qui c’est? Who is it?’

‘Err… It’s err… Bonehilda, my maid,’ Missy stammers, trying to close the door behind her back.

‘You’ve got a maid?’ Granny asks.

‘Locked in the toilet?’ Haeju says, ‘I think that’s against the law, she should have correct living quarters!’

‘Well, she’s not exactly alive-’ Missy starts.

‘Dat is my spirid – darrk magic, immorrtalidy spells… Necrromancy! Vho is id? Led me see!’ Baba Yaga pushes forward.

‘It was probably a Miss Wickerbread or a Mrs. Denver… I’m not very sure as I was in a bit of a hurry when I gathered the bones-’ the words stumble out of Missy’s mouth,

Count Olaf has joined Lugubre and Baba Yaga, haughtily trying to hide his own interest. ‘Now, I say, let me see, what?’

‘If y’all just stop pushing and stand aside, I’ll take her out so y’all can have a better look…’

Missy tries to negotiate, all the while blocking the access to the little bathroom. But the curious witches are flocking around her, impatient to get a glimpse of the terrible secret she’s so desperately trying to hide.

Granny and Haeju look at each other, then they also hurry over to see what the commotion is all about.

Count Olaf leans over a lamely protesting Missy, pushing the door open completely.

‘I say, as your superior I have the right to have a look inside the-’ his voice trails off.

Granny gets on her toes to try to see what could possibly have stunned the voluble witch. Peeking over Count Olaf’s shoulder, she can glimpse the skeleton and hides a smile when she sees how it’s dressed to the task. Then she catches sight of something entirely else and gasps.

‘What is it? Can you see anything?’ Haeju asks next to her.

Count Olaf recovers his composure, ‘I say, what is a bloody high chair doing in your WC, Mrs. Darer? With a plate of baby food, no less? How come?’

‘A high chair? Baby food?’ Haeju echoes incredulously. ‘I thought she didn’t know…’

Granny can’t utter a word, she stares at her sister who’s blushing beetroot.

‘Err… I didn’t have the time to wash up after Junior’s meal and-‘

‘This is not so about the dirty dishes, what?’

Baba Yaga reaches out to try to touch the skeleton maid. ‘I knov you trry to crreate zombie. Is dhis a zombie failurre? Orr a necrromancy success?’

‘Necromancy!?!’ Lugubre says with reproach and envy dripping from her voice, ‘… ‘ow is zhat possible? A ‘alf-witch cannot perform necromancy!’

‘Stop calling me half-wit! And I didn’t do it alone – Taïga helped me! Oups!’ She slaps her hand over her mouth, but it’s too late.

‘I say, it’s too powerful a spell, what?’ Count Olaf looks dubious.

‘Da… Dhat is prrobably vhy dherre is just skeleton-’ Baba Yaga nods knowingly. ‘Just bones. No flesh. No skin. Half vitch do half spell…’

‘Stop squabbling about zhat ‘eap of bones!’ Lugubre stomps her foot, gesticulating. ‘Are you all deaf? She said Taïga ‘elped ‘er. The Council’s Taïga! Our Taïga!’

My Taïga!’ Baba Yaga rectifies.

‘You say so, what? But we shall vote-’

‘I have contrract!’

Taïga!?! I need a diversion, quick! Granny’s eyes stray towards the ceiling. Resolutely she turns her back on the excitedly blabbering witches and starts up the stairs.

‘No! Please, don’t!’ Missy cries after her.

But her pleas only result in the others abandoning their shouting match, pushing and shoving to follow Granny upstairs.

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‘What!?!’ Taïga does a double-take when she sees the antique painting over Arthur’s chest of drawers. Her hand is on the bathroom door, but suddenly all about her bursting bladder is forgotten. She holds on to the dresser to steady herself, scrutinizing the people on the canvas.

It can’t be… ‘Arthur!’

‘Coming!’

‘Who are they? Is it your family?’

Arthur nods. ‘They are all gone, though. My brothers in a hunting accident, the very same year as the picture was taken… and my mother and kid brother… Well. They are long gone too.’

‘A hunting accident?’

‘Err… Yes. They were shot down by some overzealous villagers.’

Taïga stares at him wide-eyed.

‘I mean- It was a stray shot. Hunting err… caribou. Very dangerous. My mother was devastated… as were I…’

‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to rip open bad memories…’

‘How could you have known? It was such a long time ago…’ Arthur smiles sadly.

‘Err… Is that you?’ Taïga gestures towards the chubby boy next to the stern woman in the middle.

Arthur nods. ‘As I said, it was a long time ago. I had all my hair back then… and unfortunately, already my generous waist!’ He chuckles and pats his stomach.

‘This is my mother, Tamra…’ Taïga looks at the stern, but somehow beautiful, woman sitting on a chair surrounded by her sons. ‘Or rather step mother. I was born during the war, in France, and she brought me back with her when she left the old continent for good… probably saved my life, she did…’

He stares sadly at the picture. ‘She couldn’t save my mother, though… She was a “shorn woman”…’

Taïga looks inquiringly at him.

‘There was a lot of suppressed hatred after the war. My biological mother was just a teen when I was born. Was it out of boredom or bravado she got involved with a “boche”? Maybe hunger… A german soldier,’ he rectifies as he sees the puzzled expression on Taïga’s face. ‘Anyway, she was accused of horizontal collaboration with the enemy, brutally shaved and beaten to death at the market place of our village. I was only two years old, but the sight is graved in my memory. Tamra got me away in time, as the furious crowd rounded up “the German bastards” as they called us, to run the gauntlet, just like our mothers before us…’

‘I’m so sorry…’ Taïga mumbles, shocked by the revelation.

With a sigh he shakes off the bad memories and continues, ‘The handsome one, there to the right, is my oldest brother, Aiken. He had majored at economics at the university, only 20 years old, that same year, and was starting at Ford automobiles in Detroit in September. They had recruited him even before his finals, mind you.’

‘He must have been brilliant!’

Arthur nods. ‘He was very good with numbers, but the idea that got Ford come chasing after him wasn’t really his…’

‘He stole an idea?’

‘I don’t know if you can really talk about theft… And I don’t think Acton minded really – he didn’t give a damn about anything. Except cars, of course.’ He points towards the teenager to the left. ‘He was always going on about cars… and motorcycles, you see. Mostly cars. And he kind of sowed the idea in Aiken’s mind…’ his voice trails off.

Impatiently, Taïga waits for him to continue talking about the young man on the picture, but Arthur moves on to the next person.

‘The little one is Arden. I loved him to bits…’

She tries to concentrate on what Arthur is telling her, but her eyes are drawn back to Acton. This must have something to do with Derek… She scrutinizes the picture. Everything about him recalls Derek – his mouth, the slight frown, the general expression of…. of amusement? Disdain? She can’t make out the color of his eyes, but they’re definitely not blue. Hmm… The woman’s eyes are, though…

‘… Well. Enough about my family. Would you like another cup of chocolate before you leave?’

I can’t leave before I know more about Acton! ‘Err… Yes, please. And I’d love to hear more about your family! If you don’t mind, of course.’

Arthur scratches his head. ‘I’ve got more pictures in a box somewhere. Let me get them for you.’

He presses past the two large dogs blocking the passage out of the bedroom. Valkyria whines and yelps at Ruff, who’s insistently trying to sniff her butt. He’s been following her around the house since they got here and Valkyria has had enough. She shows her teeth and growls menacingly.

‘Right! I’ll better let the dogs out before they break something…’ She grabs Ruff by his collar and whistles for Valkyria.

As soon as she opens the door, the two dogs run barking and snapping at each other straight out into the garden, where they soon are playing and goofing around in the puddles…

Arthur shakes his head, ‘Please remind me to get a towel for Ruff before I let him in again…’

Taïga smiles, ‘Sure! But I think we’ll have to hose them down first…’

Arthur closes the door behind him. ‘Can you warm up some milk while I get the pictures?’

Taïga busies herself in the kitchen, getting the hot chocolate ready… Arthur is soon back, he stops and looks out of the window, ‘It has finally stopped raining, but I wonder where the dogs are? Hum… probably off chasing some raccoon or other…’

He drops a shoebox on the table and reverently opens the lid. ‘Just stop me if it gets too boring.’ He looks at her over his glasses.

‘Don’t worry, Mr. Moon.’

‘Arthur.’

Taïga nods. ‘Arthur.’

There are loads of pictures in the box, but Arthur takes his time. Looking at each lovingly he tells stories about long gone Christmases, birthdays, graduation parties and summers hiking in the mountains… Taïga listens and nods, but she can’t shake the feeling there’s something Arthur is holding back.

‘… a visionary concerning mechanics. He was of the opinion that “everybody will need at least one car, Aiken! Just look at our family – Mom’s got one, you’ve got one and I’m buying me some nice wheels as soon as I can to take Debra to the movies!” Aiken and he were always talking about the pro and cons – Acton usually winning. He had the right arguments – Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway, drive-in movies, motels and shopping centers being built on the outskirts of the already existing towns. And all the families who moved out to the suburbs would need a car to get to work… Aiken wrote a thesis, supported by numbers, and Ford got wind of it…’

‘… so I guess you could say that he was a rebel, Acton was. “Stop acting out, Acton!” Same old tune every day since he started to walk –mind you, I wasn’t there but I guess it was true!- until it became his trademark. He used to hang around much older guys, GI’s from WWII, running their errands and copying them like the puppy he was…’

*******************************

Elbowing her peers, Missy catches up with Granny next to the crib, ‘Hush… You’ll wake him…’

‘Ohmygod! He’s… he’s-’ Granny stares in chock at her nephew. ‘-awake!’

‘So much for tranquility,’ Missy mutters, her face softening as she coos to her son, ‘Say hello to your auntie!’

The baby stares up at the two old ladies with huge brown eyes.

Count Olaf has caught up with them, looking into the crib over the sisters’ shoulders.

‘Golly Gosh! I say… Ahem. He seems like a jolly little fellow… Ahem. Cheerio!’ He wiggles his fingers at the child who whining shrinks away. ‘Oh. Well, then. Ahem. Madame Chantelamort and Baba Yaga, why don’t you come over here and have a look at this little… bugger.’

‘Mais? ‘ee is not yours!?! You cannot keep ‘im!’ Lugubre stares in shock at the baby.

‘So he’s adopted. So what? They can’t just give him back to the adoption center.’ Granny protests.

‘She’s right. It doesn’t work that way,’ Haeju comes to Granny’s help.

‘Dhere is Rrussian solution. Pud he in dhe voods. Dhe volves vill take carre ov id,’ Baba Yaga muses.

‘Do go on. There ain’t no wolves in this part of the country.’ Missy says.

‘Crrocodiles, dhen. Orr alligatorrs. See dhem in dhe Bayou. Nasty beasts…’ She motions with her arms towards the crib, feigning a crocodile’s huge jaws.

It doesn’t have the expected effect on the little boy who giggling stands up and holding on to the guard rail, starts shaking it.

‘You vill not laugh vhen id eat you like chicken nugget!’ Baba Yaga adds a bit miffed.

‘I say, he’s full of beans, but I’m afraid I have to agree with Madame Chantelamort, what?’ Count Olaf strokes his beard thoughtfully. ‘He seems like a jolly little fellow, but decidedly you cannot keep the infant.’

Junior reaches for his mother who picks him up, hugging him close.

Granny thinks Count Olaf is right, her sister is decidedly too old and too irresponsible to take care of a child. But seeing the despair written all over her sister’s face, she sides with her. ‘It’s a good action really. The Darer’s have given a poor abandoned child a loving home-’

‘Oh, Juan doesn’t care much for Junior,’ Missy mumbles.

‘-and they will make sure that he gets a good start in life! You can’t just decide to return him to an uncertain future,’ Granny finishes, throwing a murderous glance at her sister.

‘The Council has no say in the matter anyway, as Missy’s not a full-blooded witch.’ Haeju adds. ‘Can I hold him?’

Missy tries to hand over her son, but the little boy snuggles close to her chest and refuses to let go of his mother.

Haeju scrunches up her nose, ‘I think he needs a change anyway…’

Missy puts Junior down on the changing table, awkwardly starting to unbutton his pajamas. Granny stands by, watching her sister tenderly take care of the little boy.

What a mess… But he’s incredibly cute… ‘What’s his name?’

‘Athan. Like father.’

Granny nods, unexpectedly feeling quite emotional. Suddenly Missy lets go of Junior, her attention drawn by Lugubre Chantelamort who’s calling from the far end of the loft.

‘Doesn’t zhis painting deserve a better emplacement?’

‘Of course it does!’ Missy scurries away, leaving Athan on the changing table.

Granny leans towards the little boy who’s playing with his feet. ‘Hey there little one. Would you like a nice clean diaper? Exactly what I thought.’ She turns around to ask Haeju to help her change the baby, but the African Council member is deep in discussion with Baba Yaga and Count Olaf.

Holding her breath, she finishes changing the smelly diaper herself.

Uncomfortably Missy watches Lugubre Chantelamort who’s admiring the painting of the poker playing dogs on the wall. After a little while she breaks the uneasy silence, ‘Do you like it?’

Lugubre Chantelamort looks inquiringly at Missy. ‘Err… Oui.’

‘If you want it, it’s yours!’ Missy says magnanimously, only too happy to get rid of the horrific painting.

The French witch stares at her, an astonished expression on her face.

‘I’ll just put it in a sac, and you can take it with you immediately-’

‘I gave it to you. It was your wedding present,’ Lugubre answers a little puzzled.

‘Oh… I mean, everything that’s mine is yours, of course. You gave it to us, that means it’s still yours… Somehow…’ Missy scratches her head, rambling on, ‘It’s not that I don’t like it. Nonono. I love it, Madame Chantelamort! It’s absolutely fantastic… The colors, the subject… Everything is very classy…’

The door slams downstairs, and a gruff voice is heard calling, ‘Anybody home!?!’

‘Oh, it’s Juan! I didn’t expect him already!’

Nervously Missy starts down the stairs to greet her husband, who gaping watches his wife and four strange looking elders come downstairs. Three elders, the black woman is a looker. He straightens a little, smoothing down his cardigan, wondering if she will smell whisky on his breath…

‘Just wait a minute…’

Granny picks up Athan and carries him over to the crib, but putting the reluctant baby to bed is not easy. He wriggles and kicks until Granny just resigns to keeping him in her arms.

She walks over to the railing, rocking Athan and humming softly. His little fingers play with her collar, and she breathes in that special baby smell. She can feel him getting heavy in her arms, knowing he’ll soon fall asleep again. She listens to the others talking to Juan downstairs, and she hopes Missy doesn’t do or say anything jeopardizing her fragile truce with Baba Yaga…

Missy shouldn’t have worried about Juan meeting the Council members. He’s usually rather gruff, but with a fair share of Lucky’s Moonshine, he’s losing up, and is actually quite charming. Missy is proud of him, laughing along at his jokes.

‘Could you sculpt me?’ Lugubre bats her eyelashes.

‘Does a one-legged duck swim in circles?’

‘When? Tomorrow?’

‘Err… I was thinking Haeju could-’

‘Of course, Lugubre. You can pop in right after breakfast… But no posing nude!’ Missy winks. There’s no way she’ll let her husband near the feisty black witch.

Granny sighs. It seems like the Council has forgotten about Taïga’s necromancy – at least for the time being. So Missy has been teaching Taïga magic… And not any magic but the dark kind. There hasn’t been a witch around for centuries that has succeeded in raising the dead…

Thoughts swirling in her head, she decides to try to put Junior back into his crib…

*******************************

Arthur’s stories are very entertaining and time goes by too quickly. After finishing off her chocolate, Taïga rubs her hands on her jeans, clearing her throat.

‘I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Moon-’

‘Arthur.’

‘Arthur. It’s getting late…’

Arthur looks up from studying a picture, ‘Yes, you’re right. I’m boring you with all this talking…’

Taïga raises to her feet, ‘Oh, no. It was great to hear about your family, but I should really be on my way.’

‘Do you want a lift? We could put your bike on the pick-up.’ Arthur puts the lid back onto the shoebox and stands up too. ‘Should get an album and class those pictures,’ he mutters.

‘Thanks, but I’ll be all right biking back home.’

Suddenly there’s aggressive barking outside.

‘Stay here! It might be something dangerous.’ Arthur almost throws the box into her hands, making the lid fall off and pictures scatter onto the floor.

Taïga hurries after Arthur to the door. Relieved, they see that the dogs are only playing. Growling and yapping a lot, but still just playing.

Arthur walks out onto the porch, whistling for Ruff, while Taïga quickly gather the pictures on the floor and carefully puts them back into the old shoebox. She’s about to put the lid back on when she catches sight of something under the armchair.

She finds herself staring at a yellowed, stained photo of Acton and before she has the time to change her mind, she slips it into her pocket. I’ll ask Linn to scan it and I’ll bring it back as soon as possible… Maybe Jesper can help me getting it back to normal, cleaning it from stains and stuff…

It has started to rain again, but she declines Arthur’s offer to drive her home. The picture burning in her pocket, she withdraws her bike from where it had fallen into the bushes.

‘Goodbye, Mr. Mo- Arthur. And thank you for everything.’ Feeling guilty, she pedals after her dog out onto the dirt track leading home…

Arthur can’t concentrate on his stamps anymore. Taïga’s visit has torn open old wounds and his mind is wandering back in time. He has survived two wars – WWII and Vietnam… More by luck than by skill, he has to admit that. His mother died, but luckily for him, Tamra was there to save him… And how had he thanked her? By treason, leading his brothers and her to their death as surely as if he had shot them himself. He had joined the army, eager to put his own life at stake as payment for his sins.

He grits his teeth, chasing the bad memories.

He had been happily married to a wonderful woman for the best part of his life, but to their regret they never had any children. They met in Saigon during the war, and he brought her back to the US when he was discharged. He smiles at the memory of their simple wedding at the embassy. Just them and an Embassy official as witness. Qui seemed so happy, but he was annoyed about not being able to offer her a big wedding…

His expression becomes grim almost immediately. If it wasn’t for Qui, he wouldn’t sit here today. He had been on leave with his buddies, when a passing scooter threw a grenade into the café where they were having a beer. The waitress threw herself over him to take shelter under their table, making him fall to the safety on the floor…

The young waitress lost a leg, but not her spirit. He visited her at the military hospital first out of guilt, then because he couldn’t imagine ever passing a day without seeing her beautiful face, listening to her talk about her family and her country before the war…

He walks over to the fireplace and takes down the silver framed photograph of their wedding. His eyes mist over as he traces the outlines of Qui’s smiling face.

Qui brought him back to life, not only because of her action that day. She gave him back the lust to live that had vanished after the brutal loss of his family. He stopped drinking and living in a drug induced haze, grasping after the unusual feeling of bliss he only felt next to Qui. She became his savior, his reason to live and he couldn’t wait for the damn war to end…

He closes his eyes briefly. He has lived as a recluse since she passed away, avoiding other people. Until two months ago. Has it only been two months? It feels like he has known Tara since forever.

With a sigh he watches the leaves fall outside. Autumn… He’s at the autumn of his life and certainly closer to the grave than to… To what? Will he spend the coming years all alone? Should he challenge fate or should he let go? Leave Tara before he makes her unhappy? Because she deserves someone special by her side, someone honest who can take care of her and give her happiness… At that precise moment he takes the hardest decision of his life…

*******************************

‘Aww, c’mon guys… It’s my bed!’

Taïga tries to stare down Minuit and Valkyria who are lying on her bedspread, looking very innocent. But nobody’s making a gesture to move over so Taïga sits carefully on the edge of her bed, pushing Minuit a little to make some room. By the frightful sounds escaping Sprinkler, she has no doubt the little gnome isn’t faking but is really asleep.

She lies awake, watching the picture of Acton Moon and hoping for Sprinkler to wake up and help her out, but the little gnome is sound asleep. Should she wake him up? No, he’s awfully grumpy in the mornings, so she decides against it. Minuit snuggles closer, purring soothingly and Valkyria heaves a sigh, looking enviously at the cat in Taïga’s arms.

The more Taïga looks at the picture, the more convinced she becomes about Arthur’s family also being Derek’s… This uncanny resemblance can’t be a coincidence.

Could Acton be his father? No… The timeline isn’t right. Grandfather? Could be…But Acton died at 16, in a hunting accident, together with his brother Aiken. Neither was married or had a girlfriend… Well, after what Mr. Moon told her, Acton had a new girlfriend every other week. But still…

And what about the hunting accident? She had raised the question, but Mr. Moon had tried to avoid the subject. He’s obviously hiding something… Could it have something to do with werewolves? Derek said he had been “infected” in Egypt when he was a kid, but it would make so much more sense if the gene were hereditary…

Turning off the light, she decides to ask Mr. Moon when she brings the picture back…

 

Part II – End of Chapter 39

Next Chapter

 


Thanks a million to the wonderful creators of the characters in this chapter:

Zabeth0, who let me download and use her old crone Baba Yaga in this story.

Count Olaf who is a creation by Devea on Mod The Sims

Haeju Witch by Modern Lover

and

Lugubre Chantelamort aka Baroufella, by Sandy on Around The Sims 3

 

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