The Rumble Rally
Episode 16 - "Masquerade Madness - Part One"

The remaining competitors, having successfully completed the last stage, are now arriving in Venice. As they check in with the race officials each is given an invitation to a masquerade ball to be given in their honour by the infamous Luisa, Marchesa Casati at her resplendent and stylishly decaying palazzo on The Grand Canal. Promising a night of pure extravagance, all are expected to attend as further stage clues will be hidden within the 18th century partially ruined villa and without in the immense gardens littered with statuary, peacocks and cheetahs.

Having been personally invited to stay at the villa, Lavinia and Gabriel have finished dressing and are now sweeping down the grand staircase towards the ballroom. Lavinia divinely dressed in a peacock themed gown of green and blue feathers with matching golden mask and Gabriel in his best white tie and black domino mask. Just as they were about to be announced, Lavinia remembered she had forgotten her fan and wish to return to the room for it as it formed an integral part of her ensemble. Gabriel waited for her to the side of the staircase.


Gabriel turned around with a who me? expression on his face. Miss Kitten was behind a half opened door under the stairs. She motioned to Gabriel urgently bidding 'I need your assistance, will you come in here and help me for a moment?'
Unable to refuse a lady in distress, Gabriel entered the door which led into some sort of private gaming room with card tables and billiards. Miss Kitten was dressed in a bright red sequinned dress with matching mask like a true scarlet woman. In a matter of seconds she pounced on her prey.

Kitten had moments earlier liberally applied a special lipstick, one that can incapacitate a 'victim' in but a short period of time. Kitten's plan was to record Lavinia's escort in a compromising position and ruin their little racing 'team'. Just a bit of friendly rivalry fun.

Laughing with delight, Kitten dispensed with pleasantries and got straight to the point. She grappled with Gabriel and pushed him onto the billiards table and planted a smoochy kiss square on her 'victim'...

Pitstop, in a dress stolen from the Marchesa's extensive wardrobe, stood on the balcony terrace overlooking the Grand Canal, staring outwards with eyes unable to produce tears for the rage and hopelessness she held inside. Her knuckles glinted white in the moonlight as she tightly gripped the stone balustrade, and the beading on her dress shook gently with the suppressions of sobs that shook her slender frame. She was angry with herself for coming here. The Marchesa's Ball should have proved a powerful distraction - an evening of pleasant forgetfulness. Instead her inability to experience the delightful sensations of life and merrymaking had pushed her near the edge of madness.

Earlier, as she was escorted onto the floor for a dance she had caught sight of her partner, a total stranger, in the mirrored wall - and he was dancing faultlessly: on his own. The curse was now complete, she cast no reflection at all - none. Everything she had tried failed, it was over.

She had dashed from the stranger's bewildered hold, grabbing champagne from the waiters, but even that had turned to tasteless nothing in her mouth. The laughter of the revellers had seemed to turn shrill and mocking in her ears, and she pushed through oblivious guests until she found herself here, alone, gasping ragged breaths and shaking. The fear of realisation on her face was hidden beneath the sable and silver gilded bat-wing mask as she now looked down into the moonlit water far below. She watched the rippling blackness, the welcoming hypnotically lapping water. Was that the answer? Was that really the solution to her half-life, an end to all the pain and hopelessness? At least, she thought, if I choose to jump it's my decision, not like being dropped off the roof of a train by a caddish thief. She considered the ridiculous weight of the glass beaded Erte creation she wore should be enough to drag her beneath the rippling blackness forever. All she had to do was sit on the stone railing and lean forward…

Gabriel felt soiled. He had managed to prise himself from Kitten's maniacal laughing, pawing grasp and sought sanctuary in the small ante room. Anywhere he could away from her. He used his handkerchief to wipe any traces of her sticky lipstick off his face. He then noticed a few of her stray hairs on his evening dress and with an exclamation of disgust took off his jacket and brushed it down. He needed a smoke. He opened the large window and sat on the sill overlooking the balcony terrace. He swung himself round and off the sill on to the terrace straightening his clothes. Looking over he noticed the curtains billowing from the open balcony terrace doors, and, following the music from the ball, he walked into the moonlight. It was then he noticed he was not alone. A woman was sitting on the stone balustrade facing the canal and leaning a little too far over for safety's sake. Genuinely concerned for his fellow party guest's well being he coughed gently.

'I beg your pardon,' he said softly, 'I didn't mean to intrude…'

Pitstop's fascination with the water below broke and she straightened. She adjusted her mask before turning towards the stranger, maybe, just now, she thought, company might not be so bad.

'I find the night air more pleasant, don't you?' she responded airily.

'Yes.' said Gabriel, moving carefully to her side ready to grab the lady's wrist should she slip off the railing. 'May I offer you a cigarette?' He produced an open case. She declined so he removed just one of the curious scented cigarettes for himself and replaced the case in his jacket. Gabriel deftly struck his lighter and slowly drew in the potent smoke. Gosh, Gabriel thought, these are a bit strong tonight as his head began to swim a bit. He couldn't help noticing just how luminous the lady's skin was in the moonlight.

The lady began to turn back to the canal and Gabriel inhaled again, he had to come up with a way to get her down onto the terrace. The music from the ballroom changed as the orchestra altered tempo and mood. A slow soulful tango, melancholy but with a poignant sweetness.

'Oh listen to that,' encouraged Gabriel 'lovely isn't it?'

Pitstop recognised the tune ,'It's Oblivion,' she said, and whispered 'how appropriate.' Then more audibly ,'I've always liked this piece.'

Gabriel put out the cigarette, stepped back and bowed slightly offering a gloved hand, 'would you honour me..?'

Pitstop turned towards the stranger and took his hand as he helped guide her legs over the rail and onto the terrace. She looked up at him, face hidden by his mask, as was hers, and then she was in hold, laying her head on his shoulder as they began to move to the music, slowly, softly, two shadows, for a moment forgetting everything but the music and each other.

As they danced, Gabriel couldn't help notice just how remarkably cold her body was in his hold yet it was a perfectly balmy night. Pitstop felt her tension lessen perceptibly, at least she was able to push her problem from her mind and for this one moment lose herself in the dance. Perhaps it was the music, the moonlight, or her partner.

Gabriel was feeling relaxed, very relaxed and let his thoughts drift. He had forgotten Kitten, the Race, the curious avalanche, the even curiouser behaviour and arrival of Count Backwards. He just listened to the tango, felt his partner move with him in the dance and inhaled her perfume…mmm...nice: lilies… lilies, cloves and vanilla…? He knew this scent. Gabriel's memories drifted about in his head and suddenly looked up as he placed the lady's possible identity. His line of sight was directly into their reflection in the terrace windows. The music finished and they moved slightly apart, but still in hold. His reflection was dancing alone in the glass! What tricks was his mind playing, he had only taken a few puffs? Somewhat disturbed Gabriel let go of his corpse-like partner, if he even actually had one! Pitstop looked up at him not realising his agitation.

'You tango very well,' she said in simple compliment.

Ever polite, Gabriel replied a brief thank you and nervously smiled back, and at that moment the moonlight fell across his face and Pitstop recognised his smile. It was unforgettable.

Simultaneously both recited out loud 'You!'

Gabriel was now certain his dance partner was the long dead woman he'd let fall from the train now here to revengefully haunt him 'My…God…' he said. Pitstop moved menacingly toward him and grabbed at him wishing to remove his mask to be sure of the stranger's identity but instinctively he stepped back. Quickly glancing again at his reflection in the long windows, yes he was most definitely alone with a supernatural apparition, the result of a decision he'd often regretted making some years ago.

He backed away muttering 'no, no I didn't mean it to happen that way...' turning Gabriel dashed for the terrace doors and stumbled into the ball room and through the dancers heading for the main doors and escape. He sought his freedom from this ghostly madness through the Marchesa's Villa's maze of corridors but was lost and disorientated. He punched the wall in frustration.

'My Lord?' A sweet voice said behind him. He spun, fear rising again, she's found me! It was not the ghost, this lady was smaller, more delicate and cast a vision of warmth in a regal gown, with her golden hair piled and pinned with diamonds. She approached.

'I looked for you in the Ballroom,' she chided smiling, 'You have been most remiss, making me wait - and when we have so much to discuss…'

Gabriel was thoroughly confused and feeling woozy Kitten's drug was slowly taking effect. His muddled thoughts were still on the vengeful ghost pursuing him and his enfeebled mind could make nothing of this at all. He was sure he wasn't obliged to any ladies living or dead. 'Forgive me, er, madam,' he stammered in apology trying not to look quite so scared, 'I - er - don't believe I yet have the honour of your acquaintance. You uh... have me at a disadvantage.'

The lady smiled seductively and removed her mask,' That will come later,' she chuckled, and extended her gloved hand,' I am the Baroness Lizbet Lucrenza Schrapnell Barbarossa von Bathory. My friends call me 'Buffy'. And you are the Baronet Gabriel Valentine Fox-Leatherette. You don't need that domino mask - I know everything about you.'

'Er, really...?' Gabriel replied doubtfully 'I hope not' under his breath. 'Buffy' found him to be most pliant and slipped her arm through his and began to lead him away.

'There are of course certain things I don't know,' she conceded ,'so you must spend the rest of this evening satisfying my curiosity. But, my, you're shaking. Surely I'm not that frightening? Let's get you some brandy.' Buffy oozed charisma as she spoke.

Perhaps Fate was pointing him in a different course? Half reluctantly, but weakly, he let the Baroness lead him on…

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