chapter 12 - love and fear in Castle Drog

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What Lionel saw was this. The room, like the corridor downstairs, had the appearance of a space that had seen much better times. Large rectangles edged with dust stains showed where ancestral portraits and paintings of mythological scenes had once hung. Above wooden panelling that could have done with a thorough waxing was what had once been fine silk wall-coverings, now decaying into ribbons. But in the centre of the room was the thing that had caused Alf to pause and the Captain to change his world view. It was a huge fish-tank of thick plate glass, and inside was almost certainly Lionel's mermaid, sitting motionless on what looked like a plastic rock with her back to them. Her tail was partly covered with water clouded with an algal bloom, and her shoulders were hunched.

Lionel pushed open the door. At first the mermaid did not notice. Then as Lionel walked round the tank she caught sight of the movement and started in fear. At last she saw who it was, and her face lit up in a combination of joy and alarm.

Lionel stared, not knowing what to do. 

She pressed the palm of her hand to her lips for several seconds, as though her hand were some lover in whose kiss she was passionately engaged. Then she lifted her eyes to Lionel, held his gaze, and very slowly, very deliberately blew him the kiss. This was not the kiss of a coquette, a thing of a moment, disposable. This was palpable. He could sense the velocity of it, its slow trajectory through the air, slowed  further as it refracted through the thick glass of the aquarium and on through the air again. He felt the moment it impacted his cheek. At that moment a warmth began to infuse his whole body, radiating from the kiss, like the burning of the first sip of a fine whisky but more penetrating, more complete. Finally it concentrated in the place where his heart lived.

Once again, this was not Lionel as he knew it. Lionel for those endless seconds was not there. As the Higgs Bosun had told him: the real self is unexpected.

Then the thought intruded, "Why me? Who am I to deserve this?"  

Alf and the Captain were now beside Lionel, looking at the mermaid. Captain Kipper looked simply astonished. Alf's expression was harder to guess, but there was awe in it and recognition, as if some ancient memory had been reignited.

The mermaid now gesticulated wildly, and pointed towards a door on the far side of the room. Then she pointed back towards the door the men had just emerged from. There were noises, approaching footsteps, voices.

Captain Kipper was the first to snap into action. "Quick, back into the wall!"

The three of them stepped rapidly back behind the false door and closed it. Lionel pressed his eye to the crack.

The mermaid had resumed her former pose, as if nothing had happened. Three men entered the room together with a large dog.

"What makes you think they'll come? They were warned, weren't they?" A large man was speaking and he had his back to them.

"They'll come all right. A few rustics mouthing rubbish won't put them off." The accent was a crisp Home Counties one, but the speaker was unmistakably the landlord of the Piskie and Pasty.

"Well, whatever happens they mustn't see the mermaid," said the big man. "This thing needs to be kept quiet until we have the whole development in the bag, everything. We don't want any animal liberation busybodies claiming rights for fish at the last minute. How many people know?"

The dog started sniffing around. It was an alsatian.

"Only Fortescue-Fishface." It was Figgis. "I can deal with him. No-one's going to believe him. If he causes trouble I'll put it about that he's mental and then get him on a section 136."

The dog started sniffing round the fish-tank and growling, and the mermaid recoiled as far back in the tank as she could, but the dog was not interested in her.

The big man addressed both of them. "What does Kipper know? You said Kipper was with him, and a third man.  Who is the third man?" He turned to Figgis.

"I don't think Kipper saw anything," Figgis said.

"Think? That's not good enough. Find out. If he knows, arrest him."

"On what charge?" Figgis asked.

"Do your job, Figgis. Do I have to do everything? You think this is going to fall into your lap without you doing any work?" Here he started to shout. "WHO IS THE THIRD MAN?"

"I don't know anything about any third man," said Figgis.

The landlord spoke. "Old chap in a tatty naval uniform. H.M.S Higgs on his cap."

"THE HIGGS BOSUN!" The big man was incandescent. "Where'd he come from?"

The other two men looked at each other and shrugged anxiously. The big man spat.

"Do whatever you have to. Get rid of him. I want him gone. At all costs. By any means. Do you understand?"

The dog ran from the fish-tank towards the hidden door, barking furiously, and started pounding the wall with his front paws.

"Down boy!" Figgis shouted, "Fenrir, heel!"

The dog would not be pacified. Figgis grabbed Fenrir's collar and pulled him, growling, from the wall.

"Are you stupid?" the big man shouted, "the dog's onto something. Let him go." The big man walked towards the wall and pushed.

***

A note from the author

Dear Corruscating Catfishes,

In which our heroes are chased by a dog and there isn't a car chase. Oh no. Too cliché.

If any of you gentle readers have any clue how this should work out please let me know. I've got some vague ideas but a few pointers would help, especially if they are completely improbable.

Next after that: in which Mavis shows an unexpected interest in Lionel and we hear more about Lola "Hot Stuff" Tabasco.

As you can see, I am working furiously without so far having received the sandwich I asked Myfanwy to prepare for me. That woman is exasperating at times. 

Your friend,

Minty Marmalade

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