Episode 22: Have You Anything To Stop My Coffin?
Pitstop held Fan Song’s hand in her grip for a long time and stared hard
into her face, as if trying to divine her thoughts. Will this work, she wondered?
How long do I have to be in ‘agreement’ with someone for the curse
to be lifted? She sure fits the bill as an enemy, anyhow . . .
“So, Ms. Pitstop,” said Fan Song with a business-like
attitude. “How do you intend to placate my superiors?
Let us take tea, and you can outline your plans.” Fan
Song turned and left the room. Rather guardedly, Pitstop
followed her, keeping her close.
Through careful negotiations, the Race Committee and organizers
of the Rumble Rally had decamped to the tiny Duchy of Grand
Fenwick, ruled over by the von Bathory dynasty since records
began. Every market square possessed a statue of one scion
of this family or another, and the burgomeisters’ houses
bore the family’s coat of arms under the eaves.
There was a festive air in the Duchy: the grand rally was to run through their
little state, with civic receptions and presentations accompanying it. In
addition, rumours abounded of a royal wedding, that of their beautiful widowed
Duchess to a noble English lord – one of the actual racers! Those who
might have grumbled at the expenses imposed on an already over-burdened public
purse were slightly mollified by news that the lucky bridegroom was rumoured
to be fabulously wealthy, with estates and fortunes that would alleviate
their poverty and lift the peasantry out of their down-trodden condition.
It was true that no-one had actually seen the bridegroom;
he was said to be ensconced in the ducal palace and ‘busy
with wedding preparations’ (much ribaldry at this),
but promises were being made and passed mouth-to-ear in the
bierkellers and cafes.
If Buffy had heard these rumours – if she had deigned
to listen to the filthy peasantry – she would have
laughed out loud: the Leatherette fortune was destined to
be hers – the estates, the bonds, the houses, and,
oh yes, most certainly, all the money. The peasantry could
go to hell; she intended to move her court to England. Havitall
Hall looked an eminently suitable residence. She pored over
the estate book, so thoughtfully provided by her confidential
agents, the DeVeres – most capable and efficient ‘gentlemen.’ Decidedly
she must retain their services. They had proved themselves
most useful in delivering a suitable consort who would be
the answer to all her problems. He wasn’t actually
bad looking either – charming, intelligent, cultured.
He’d do. For now . . .
In Kitten Kaboodle’s locked room in the Golden Cockerel,
Count Backwards gazed doubtfully at the paraphernalia that
the Sheban had laid out on the bed. She had commanded him
to join her a deux in her boudoir, and although it hadn’t
sounded like a come-on exactly, he had gone partly out of
curiosity but mostly out of suspicion.
On the bed lay two sets of chefs’ whites with puffed
hats: a small one clearly intended for her, and a much larger – fatter,
blast her impudence – one for him. Kitten entered from
“ What’s all this then?” Backwards demanded, eyeing her dubiously.
“ All part of my plan, y’all” Kitten replied. “We need
to be incognito for the fireworks.”
Fan Song did not lead Pitstop to a lounge or other comfortable room – the
farmhouse had few of those – but out to the adjoining barn. Garaged within
was the Cadillac hearse. As if to give an air of verisimilitude, the rear of
the hearse was open; next to it on a table was a coffin. The coffin was open,
with its lid propped against the side of the hearse.
“Why have you brought me here?” Pitstop asked
suspiciously. She tilted her chin at the sight of the casket
that lay on the low table.
Fan Song walked slowly around to the other side of the coffin, running one
long nail along its length.
“This figures very strongly in my plans, Pandora Pitstop,” she
replied. She turned to face the other woman. “And it
is ultimately important to you, American . . .” Something
about those specific words, or perhaps the way Fan Song uttered
them, triggered Pitstop’s sixth sense, and she threw
herself to one side. The Chinese thug who would have pinioned
her arms went blundering past and fetched up against the
table. Three more – two armed with clubs and the other
carrying a coil of rope – pattered into the dim room
and deployed themselves. Pitstop faced them, looking for
a way out, but they blocked the door. She snatched up a pitchfork
and smiled grimly.
“ Who’s first?” she challenged. The four shuffled forward and
she braced to meet them, but suddenly she felt something slim and viciously sharp
pierce the back of her neck. The room span. The pitchfork dropped from her nerveless
fingers, and her limbs turned to lead. She felt herself pitching forward, but
she was caught by the Chinese henchmen. Two held her in their remorseless grip,
whilst the others busied themselves binding her. Her hands were tied in front
of her, her arms to her sides, whilst Fan Song gave directions, sliding an envenomed
needle back into its case before replacing it in her sleeve. Pitstop felt herself
hoisted into the air; the last thing she saw was the coffin looming toward her
like the mouth of Hell, and then – nothing . . .
The Baroness received Lucius DeVere in one of her many staterooms.
The confidential agent carried a healthily bulging briefcase
under one arm, which she eyed approvingly. She invited him
to sit and sweetly offered him tea. Buffy could be winningly
pleasant and charming if it got her what she wanted . . .
and it seemed DeVere had brought her what she wanted.
“ My dear Mr. DeVere,” she said, handing him Earl Grey tea in a Sevres
china cup. “I trust you have been eminently successful in securing for
me detailed accounts of my fiancé’s holdings?”
Lucius professionally placed the briefcase on the floor and withdrew a fat
dossier: the sum of the investigations he and his brother had undertaken in
“ Your Grace, I have here,” and he tapped the leather cover proprietarily, “lists
of investments held by the Leatherette family, current market estimates of the
Havitall estate, etc. Also I have some influence,” and he smirked, “in
casinos and couturiers . . .”
“ What?” Buffy’s head snapped up, regarding DeVere sternly. “Are
you suggesting my fiancé is a frivolous gambler?!”
“ No, no,” Lucius hurriedly assured his client. “I mean his
sister, Lavinia. The amount of money she spends is clearly an indication of their
solvency. In any case, it’s merely a point of interest: Gabriel is the
only son, the only male child. He will be the heir to the entire Leatherette
and Fox estates. It will all devolve on him – and, of course, the lady
he marries . . .”
“ Good . . . good,” murmured Buffy, her attention already more on
the documents than the man in front of her. Her fiancé’s prospects – and
hers – were looking more and more attractive with each passing moment .
The hapless Lavinia had troubles of her own. She had spent
the morning tuning and re-tuning Chugger’s engine.
She wanted to make sure the old boy was in tip-top running
condition in case of the ‘fast getaway’ that
she rather feared was inevitable. To that end, she didn’t
want to fully strip the engine, and she made sure none of
the Baroness’ staff went anywhere near the car. This
wasn’t difficult, as the Baroness rarely welcomed her
company for meals – and that bothered her, because
she wanted to keep an eye on her brother, for both their
What also bothered her was the almost constant presence
of Jasper DeVere, who had taken to ‘hanging about’ her
when she was bent over the engine bay. He would turn up,
sometimes smelling of ‘Roue,’ a particularly
expensive pomade and aftershave, his moustache tips freshly
waxed, and in his most finely cut clothes; he would lean
nonchalantly against anything handy and make charming small
talk – or, in Lavinia’s opinion, talk complete
bosh about any subject under the sun. She was glad she often
had a large spanner in her hand, but even if she hadn’t,
she had been famous at her finishing school for the move
that had become known as the ‘Barchester Two-Step.’
“Ah, my dear Lavinia! Still tickling up the points,
Lavinia grunted non-committaly and moved around to the other
side of Chugger’s long bonnet. Jasper DeVere, obviously
hoping for more of a response, cleared his throat and tried
“Um, I was thinking, once you’ve got the engine
running, perhaps we could head out for a picnic or a turn
around the town? I’m sure the Baroness wouldn’t
mind . . .”
Lavinia stood up slowly, an artfully applied smudge of grease
on one cheek still looking as if it had been applied by a
Hollywood make-up artist. She opened her mouth to issue her
most cutting put-down, but suddenly an idea began to take
shape in her mind . . .
Pitstop came slowly, painfully awake. The back of her head
throbbed excruciatingly. Something was bound tight across
her mouth: she tried to raise her hands to pull it free but
found she could not. Ropes were biting into her arms – they
were bound to her sides! Her eyes snapped open, but all she
could see was darkness; although she struggled, she felt
enclosed on all sides by hard, unyielding wood. She kicked
her feet, but her ankles were similarly and expertly bound.
She screamed in rage into her gag, thrashing futilely in
At that moment, light flooded in on her, and she blinked
against the sudden glare. Pitstop realized with a horrible,
sudden clarity that she had been imprisoned in the coffin!
She tried to sit up with a jerk, but a cord from one side
of the wood to the other across her chest held her flat.
Two dark figures entered her vision, and Pitstop looked up
into the implacable porcelain face of Fan Song. The Chinese
woman gazed down coldly.
“ No doubt you think me a treacherous bitch, Pandora Pitstop,” the
woman said without a trace of emotion. “Did you really believe a truce
with a barbarian foreigner was in any way binding to one of the divine race?
You are a fool, American.” Fan Song turned and beckoned the other figure
forward: one of her hatchet men advanced, holding a sack at arm’s length
with great nervousness. Pitstop stared with horror – something was moving
within the sack!
Fan Song turned back to her, this time allowing herself
to smirk. “Your new and final bedfellows, Pandora Pitstop.
Can you guess what they are?” With that, she sank a
long, sharp needle into the hessian. An explosive and angry
hissing ensued, and something thrashed within. Pitstop thrashed
no less frantically – she must escape!
“ Black mambas, Pandora Pitstop.” She looked down pityingly. “No,
Fan-qui: there is no escape for you. Embrace death and, in your final moments,
regret that you ever encountered me. For I am deadlier than you!”
She stepped abruptly back, and her servant emptied the sack
over Pitstop’s body. A rain of death fell over her
in a coiling, writhing, hissing mass. Pitstop thrashed and
screamed into her gag as the lid of the coffin was slammed
shut and bolted with the finality of the tomb . . .
In the late afternoon, a Cadillac hearse rolled
sedately into a deserted necropolis on the outskirts of Grand
Fenwick’s capital. It slowly came to a stop in an untended
avenue of monumental sphinxes and mausoleums.
A coterie of black-clad figures descended: six of them moved to the rear of
the hearse and drew out an ornate casket. Under the direction of the seventh,
they carried this under the low stone lintel of an open tomb. This done,
they exited, closed and locked the metal gate, whereupon the six bowed (the
seventh did not) and, ascending once more into the hearse, departed . . .