Episode 23: Bakery Fakery
In Stygian darkness, lethal shapes moved. Cold, sinuous, reptilian, slithering
over the body of the woman who shared their prison. Coiling around her limbs,
slithering over her chest, their tongues flickering, exploring this strange
creature, so unlike them, and yet, strangely . . .
Pandora Pitstop held herself very still. With all the calmness
learned in the Guild of Assassins, she practiced patience,
controlling her breath, her pulse. Time ceased to have any
meaning. She did not know why the mambas had not struck her.
They seemed calm with her, almost — and her head span
at this — friendly! At the very least, they seemed
to have no interest in striking her — and she knew
how bad-mannered mambas could be. And yet, they seemed placid.
Pitstop was nonplussed: Why? she wondered. What was it? The
curse? Could it be the curse? No soul, no body heat . . .
It was the only thing she could imagine. Well, well, Gypsy
Lady — looks like you saved my life this time, she
A snake curled around her wrist, settling there; she remembered
the serpent ring she had once worn on that hand — lost
when Gabriel pushed . . . when she had slipped from his grasp
on the train. She flexed her fingers: the snake on her wrist
made no movement of anger. Slowly, very slowly, she raised
her knees. Could she reach the top of her right boot? Annoyingly,
a coil of snakes fell beneath her bottom. Well, she would
just have to jam her knees against the lid, then! She stretched
her bound wrists down, brought her knees up, and . . . and — yes!
She could touch her boot! She slid her fingers into the top
and prayed. It was there: the slim stiletto in its hidden
sheaf within the leather; the Chinese bitch had not thought
to frisk her clothes, no doubt believing the snakes would
make such a precaution redundant.
Pitstop withdrew the blade, twisted it in her fingers, and
pressed its edge against the rope and began to saw . . .
At least she hoped it was a rope. No doubt she would find
out soon enough . . .
. . . With a sound of splintering wood, the coffin lid exploded
from within, propelled by Pitstop’s mighty kick. She
punched and elbowed her way through the remains and rolled
over the side followed by a mass of liberated snakes, which
flowed over her as she lay on the cold stone flags, gulping
foetid but nonetheless welcome air into her lungs. She rolled
over into a fighting crouch, but she was quite alone. She
then stood slowly, scanning her environs: the niches in the
walls containing webbed and dusty coffins told their own
story. She sought the door and tried it. It was locked from
the outside and immoveable, but above it, a fanlight in stained
glass admitted light in funereal greens and purples — it
Pitstop set to dragging and piling the coffins against the
wall; maddeningly, they were just short, but . . . She paced
to the far wall, measured her distance, then ran at the makeshift
steps, springing off the last and crossing her arms in front
of her face. Her agility was faultless, and she hurtled through
the glass into the gathering twilight, tucking and somersaulting
before landing like a gymnast on the gravel. She was free!
A swift glance about in the gloom told her she was quite
alone, and she allowed herself to rest briefly against the
carvings — a darker angel of revenge next to those
of pale mourning. She pushed herself away slowly, composing
herself. “Deadlier than me, Dragon Lady?” she
muttered. “Don’t count on it.” Then she
sprinted for the road . . .
Lavinia frowned. Was she imagining it or was the fat baker
giving her the glad eye. He was certainly winking and twitching
his head towards the end of the counter. Did he have a tic
or was he trying to communicate something? Lavinia looked
about her: Jaspar was eyeing up the blonde female bakery
girl with the Brunhilde buns. Lavinia sauntered over to the
corner and, sure enough, was promptly joined by the baker.
Suddenly, she realized it was Count Backwards, poorly disguised
and with his moustache combed out and drooping.
“ What on earth . . . ?” she began.
“ Lavinia, listen, you’re in danger,” Backwards hissed, nervously
darting glances at the baker’s girl for some reason. Lavinia followed his
gaze surreptitiously. Was there something familiar about that ‘hand on
hip stance’? It couldn’t be!
“ It’s Kitten,” confirmed Backwards, “and she’s
got some plan in her head to rub you and Gabriel out . . . er ah, meine Fraulein,
ja iff I might interest you in zis sachertorte?” Backwards suddenly slipped
back into his cover, and Lavinia looked up to see Kitten wandering over with
a suspicious look on her face. Lavinia selected some pretzels, requesting Kitten
fetch them, treating her like the shop girl the Sheban pretended to be.
The turnip truck pulled up at the farm, allowing Pitstop to jump down from
the rear. She thanked the driver, reaching inside her jacket for a coin.
Instead, her fingers closed around something cold that moved, and she yanked
it out to find herself staring eye to eye with a small mamba — one
of Fan Song’s ‘pets.’ The snake’s tongue flickered
in and out of its mouth but it seemed quite content — unlike the truck
driver, who thanked Pitstop all the same and put his camion into gear and
lost no time in quitting the scene. Without really knowing why, Pitstop slipped
the placid snake back into an inside pocket and trotted for the tree line:
she would approach the farmhouse in a roundabout fashion, as before. This
time, however, she wouldn’t waste any time in conversation.
She stood under the trees in the darkness, studying the
house: no lights were showing, in any of the windows, no
signs or sounds of movement or life — nothing at all.
After an hour’s watching, Pitstop cautiously approached
the house. Dressed in black, she was hidden by the darkness;
had there been any light, she would have cast no shadow in
Pitstop knew she could gain access to the house via the
barn wherein her imprisonment had occurred: it was the least
obvious point of entry and the least secure, so it was this
that she tried. The barn door was unlocked, and she opened
it just enough to slip through, listening carefully. Still
no sound. She passed like a wraith across the interior of
the barn to the door of the farmhouse. She drew her stiletto,
ready for combat, then kicked the door open. The kitchen
was empty, unlit. She scanned it from the doorway, but no
trap lay in wait. She entered. With a growing sense of frustration,
Pitstop moved from room to room, hoping to find her quarry,
but the farmhouse was deserted: the Chinese had decamped.
She felt thwarted. She found an old oil lantern and, deciding
there was no longer any need for secrecy, struck a match
and lit it. Signs of recent occupation were evident — fantan
tiles, half-eaten food, dirty dishes left in the sink, a
discarded newspaper . . .
Pitstop placed the lantern on the table and flicked over
the pages — idly at first, but then an article attracted
her attention. Although her grasp of the local language was
limited, the gist of it was clear: a royal wedding. Pitstop
sneered — she was aware of the Baroness and her reputation,
but she was a minor factor as far as she was concerned. Then
her eyes fell upon the photo of the groom, and his name seemed
to jump off the page: Lord Gabriel Valentine Fox-Leatherette.
He was the groom? Pitstop stared. Him? Really???
The more she stared at the article, the less it made sense.
Surely Gabriel’s main concern was helping his sister
win the Rumble Rally. How on earth had it come to pass that
he had the time, and more importantly the inclination, to
splice himself in wedlock? From her admittedly brief encounters
with him — images of dinner on the Orient, the fight
on the roof, their tango in Venice flickered rapidly through
her mind — he hadn’t seemed the type for such
nonsense. And the Baroness’ reputation was well known
in the demi-monde that Pitstop half inhabited. What could
she want him for? This could surely be no love match . .
Her mood was very black, and her eyes glowed like coals.
Something began to stir in Pitstop: perhaps it was only a
silly notion, perhaps it was the black mamba nestling more
comfortably in her jacket, but perhaps, just perhaps, here
was a chance for revenge. She rolled the newspaper tightly,
absent-mindedly wringing it as though it were Fan-Song’s
neck, while she scanned the room for any further information;
she then returned to the barn. She had seen, on her first
pass through, a familiar shape under a tarpaulin. Hauling
the cover aside, she was pleased to reveal her trusty Enfield.
She stroked the fuel tank and, speaking half to herself,
half to the bike as though it were a pet, she gave the machine
a thorough examination. It was, thankfully, sound. Clearly,
the Chinese believed that their treatment of her was sufficient
expended energy — they had not bothered to nobble the
Pitstop opened the barn doors slowly and carefully, checking
outside for signs of life. Silence. She strode purposefully
to the bike, mounted it, and kicked it into life, exploding
out of the barn like a bolt from Hell. She took the corner
to the main road in a slither of pebbles and leaves and roared
off into the night.
. . . What Pitstop had failed to notice was someone in the
shadows who was perhaps as clever and certainly just as driven
as her. The Hooded Claw removed the night-glasses from his
eyes and smiled nastily. She had picked up the newspaper.
She had taken the bait. Now that should put her very nicely
where he needed her . . .