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Deceitful Hags
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Deceitful Hags

Skullduggery on Gale Island

 

Celia A. Leaman

 

 

 

Life in General

New Year's Eve, 1998

Throughout the land, at parties or at home in front of the television, everyone began to talk about the year two kay and what might happen this time next year when the clock struck midnight. Never mind they had to live another three hundred and sixty-five days to get there.

Scaremongers--that is, generally speaking, those with full larders, battery packs and generators--talked knowingly about power outages, hypothermia and starvation. The least of people's worries, they said, would be non-functioning bank machines, cars that wouldn't go, pacemakers that stopped, and civil unrest. Add to this the nuclear weapons going off like popcorn and toilets backing up, and you've got yourselves a scary New Year's!

Their anxiety was reminiscent of Cinderella, whose fairy godmother had told her that at midnight her coach would turn into a pumpkin and her beautiful gown into rags. What might happen to them, people asked, when according to computers, on New Year's Eve 1999 they would slip back one hundred years?

And so it was across the land, with people worrying before they got there.

***

Chapter One

To set the stage:

Capturing the island flavor

On Gale Island things were a little different, as things always tended to be. Those who were aware that Dennis the Little's Cyclus Paschalis (a history of the Christian era requested in 525 by Pope St. John I that evolved into the modern-day calendar) bore no apparent relation to cycles upon Earth or in the heavens weren't at all worried. Although much of the planet might have celebrated and gone to bed, or were shivering in their shoes, waiting for Whatever It Was to happen, those who lived where the sun still shone (that is, off the mainland coast of British Columbia, Canada, next stop Hawaii!), were still preparing to see the old year out in style.

Dharma, the thrift store of many-splendored things, run by the Buddhist wives, had a year-end sale that day, and bustled with activity right up until an extended closing time whilst islanders searched for something to wear at their various parties and celebrations, including Talent Night at the Pub. They weren't quite as fortunate as Cinderella in that their clothes would be sparkling and new--few had fairy godmothers, although some did benefit from the cast-offs from the wealthy.

Gwyneth Jones, expatriate Welsh and Landed Immigrant before the term became desirable, had even ventured into the store that morning, though not to deck herself out in someone else's garb. It was for her companions, her pets, she went in search of a New Year's gift. Toad III and Zoe the cockroach really appreciated the hidey-holes their kindly old benefactor provided in the way of discarded crockery.

Shunned for much of her life for one reason or another, Gwyneth had an affinity with such creatures and would take a cockroach over a human any day. Sometimes, however, circumstances dictated that she must be sociable, and later that afternoon she could be found scurrying up the road like a spider in pursuit of dinner, clutching an ancient book to her shriveled bosom. She was on her way to what was known locally (and generally avoided) as the Bittle House, which had belonged to her old and dearest friend, Miranda Bittle, who was dead now.

Griselda Grodge and Hazel Kollywops, former employees of the West Coast Ferry Corporation had bought that house, after they'd chosen to drop out of the rat race and move to a quieter, calmer clime. To them, Gale was preferable to the other Southern Gulf Islands because, having so far eluded the bureaucratic eye, it was one of the only places in BC where people could afford the luxury of a roof over their heads without having to prostitute themselves, or their skills, to make their mortgage payments. Even then, the price of property was beginning to rise, and if Miranda's house hadn't been expected to be a millstone around the realtor's neck, they wouldn't have afforded such a huge house on what was a prime piece of property.

They'd had no idea why the realtor was so nervous when showing them around (almost with one foot out the door), no inkling of the hatchings and dispatchings of the myriads of concoctions that had, over the years, been grown in Miranda's herbaceous borders, most carefully dried and brewed in her secret room, then dished out willy-nilly to anyone who displeased her, or otherwise. Ah yes, Miranda in her day was the mistress of skullduggery; the recipes and effects recorded in her Book of Shadows to prove it.

It wasn't until after they'd moved in that the girls even stumbled upon her room, or Hazel stumbled, I should say, because it was her curiosity that led her there. Until then, she and Griselda had thought the small, narrow door beneath the stairs was a cupboard. However, one morning when Hazel was alone, she happened to be in the herb garden around the back of the house, when a black cat flashed past her and disappeared! After investigating, she found it lurking beneath a fall of ivy, behind which was a locked door sitting between two narrow windows. She quite forgot about the cat--which turned out to be Gwyneth's Black Booty (so named because the old lady was always booting it out of the way)--when she realized this was a room in the rambling old house they hadn't been even aware of.

Filled with curiosity, back inside she went and figured out the entrance must be from beneath the stairs. Sure enough, past the coat rail, she found there was no back to the cupboard, and she crept through, to find a long, narrow room.

Hazel had once been told that she had been a Borgia in a previous life, and her memory strings began to twang. She gazed around her, enthralled: she could have just stepped back one hundred years into an ancient apothecary's. As she moved from one foot to the other, the floor creaked. Rows of cupboards all had beautifully crafted brass handles. The shelves were stocked with bottles and jars of all sizes and colors, and although she puzzled at first over the unfamiliar labels, she chuckled when she realized that to keep them safe from prying eyes, Miranda had written the names backwards.

The girls had been pondering how to survive on the island. Oh, Griselda did a bit of typing and secretarial work where she could find it, and Hazel worked for Herbie Oddham at the Dangling Slattern, but they needed something more than that; something that could grow… or rather, Hazel was suddenly inspired to think, something they could grow and sell!

Griselda had taken some persuading, but eventually Hazel got her way about starting their own business, promising (with her fingers crossed behind her back) that she would keep to the straight and narrow. In the latter part of 1998 they began growing and blending herbs and marketing them under the banner of Weeds That Work and Pots of Goodness.

As with most businesses to begin with, however, things were a little slow. All New Year's Eve day, Griselda had been ensconced in her office, poring over the year-end books and concocting ideas of where to market their products to provide a better return.

Hazel, on the other hand, was fed up with work and was in her bedroom, dolling herself up for that evening's entertainment at the pub. She even considered that, if the opportunity arose, she might do a little number herself.

Griselda suddenly appeared in the doorway.

"What's that on your eye?" she said, frowning, as she saw Hazel staring, transfixed, into the mirror. "You look as if you have a large spider glommed to your eyelid."

        "I'm trying to apply false eyelashes," Hazel said, who wasn't having much luck so far.

        "So you're still determined to go then?"

        "I told you. Yes. Just because you don't want to. Stay here on your own and be miserable, if you like."

        Griselda sighed. "It's not a case of being miserable--it's just that I've heard of those talent nights and--"

        "You can't believe all you hear. Besides, I might be meeting Don, so I really want to go." Hazel saw the look on Griselda's face, tore off the eyelash and threw it into the waste bin. "What's up now?"

        "Well, I don't like to say anything, but I've heard about him, too." Griselda winced under Hazel's glare. "No need for you to look at me like that."

        "Well, there's no need to say things about Don! After all, it isn't as if you're any judge of a man's character."

        "You said we'd never talk about Freddy Fox. You promised." (Mr. Fox was a wastrel with whom Griselda had once had an affair. She simply hated to be reminded of her foolishness.)

"All right, I won't then. But don't prejudge people. I know of Don's supposed reputation, but that was from years ago. I expect he's grown up a lot since then."

        Rather than agree, Griselda changed the subject. "I really came in here to tell you my idea," she said. "And to make a suggestion"

        Hazel looked at her suspiciously; Griselda's suggestions were often not fun. "And what might that be?"

        "It's about tonight. I've thought of somewhere else we could go."

        "Oh yeah? Where?"

        "Our Internet sales are going pretty good, but it's hopeless trying to sell our merchandise in that bakery. We need more outlets, and I figure if we could sell them on the ferries from those little booths, we'd do really well. If it's okay with Mr. Snood, I could even rotate between the ferries, doing demos, giving away samples, that sort of thing."

        "If it's okay with Mr. Snood?"

        "I know he's retired," Griselda continued, regardless of Hazel's expression. "But I thought we could go to his house this evening and persuade him to give us permission. I've bought a bottle of champagne, and I thought perhaps you could bake a few cookies."

"Honestly, Gris, the things you come up with sometimes. There's no way I'm baking this afternoon, or going next door tonight. Anyway, I don't know why you just don't go straight to President Barratt--he's the president now, not that pompous old toad." Hazel walked past her through the door and along the landing.

"Pompous old toad?" Griselda set off after her, her color rising. "I'll have you know he's a very fine man! Why, he once used to run a whole fleet of ferries."

"Oh, very fine, I'm sure," Hazel sneered. "Finest of all, I suppose, was the way he treated his staff, including me. And what about his poor wife, Millicent?"

"He was always all right to me," Griselda said defensively.

"Well, I think he's horrid and mean. What makes you think he'll let us in anyway? He never even speaks to us."

"I can't understand why you dislike him so much," Griselda said, exasperated. "He isn't that bad."

"He is so," Hazel insisted. "He once called me a useless secretary."

"If you were honest about it, you'd admit you weren't that great," Griselda said. "Taking dictation and typing aren't your thing, you know that. You're much better off mixing herbs and making lotions and things. That's why we should take advantage of this evening so you can get them out into the world. Dammit, Hazel, is what I'm asking you to do so difficult?"

"I want to go to the pub and have fun," Hazel said stubbornly.

"No one has fun at The Theory," a voice said from beneath them. "Only regrets."

Both girls squealed with surprise and looked downstairs into the gloom of the hallway.

Dressed all in black, the old lady standing there looked like an omen.

"Why, Gwyneth," Hazel said, her heartbeat settling back down again once she recognized her. "What're you doing all the way up here?"

"Going against my natural instincts," Gwyneth muttered. "There I was having my afternoon nap by the fire when Miranda came to see me."

Griselda crept nearer to the banister. "Did you say, Miranda, Mrs. Jones?"

"Yes, what of it?" snapped Gwyneth, like a nasty-tempered terrier. "Made me come all the way up yer with this yer book." She squinted up at Hazel. "Well, don't just stand there then--it's for you."

"Me?" Hazel gulped, and then hurried downstairs to take the book. "Lord, how did you manage to carry it so far?" she asked, staggering under the weight.

"With great difficulty," Gwyneth grumbled, who was now heading for the kitchen. "You can make me a cup of tea before I go home," she added, as she disappeared from view.

Griselda sped downstairs and grabbed Hazel by the arm. "Get rid of her!" she hissed. "I don't want her in the house--I've heard her chanting in the garden."

"Oh, honestly, she's probably only talking to her toad," Hazel whispered. "I can't ask her to go for no reason."

"She is a reason," Griselda insisted. "What is that book anyway?"

Gwyneth popped her head around the corner. "What're you two whispering about? And when's my tea going to be ready?"

Hazel wrenched her arm out of Griselda's grasp, and hurried into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

Griselda followed her. "I was just asking Hazel what that book was," she said to Gwyneth, more sweetly. "Is it your family Bible?"

If Gwyneth had been a sheep she would have been known as a gummer. She opened her mouth and cackled with laughter, revealing her broken, blackened stumps of teeth. "No, though I suppose you could call it a family something. It's Miranda's."

"But why have you brought it here?"

"Are you deaf, or what?" the old lady said. "I told you, Miranda wants Hazel to have it."

"But I thought Mrs. Bittle had passed on?" Griselda persisted.

"What's that to do with anything?" Gwyneth snapped.

"Kettle's boiled," Hazel said, eyeing them both uneasily. "Why don't you sit down, Gwyneth? Take the weight off your feet."

Griselda slanted her eyes towards the book, now sitting on the counter. It was covered in worn black leather and written upon in spidery gold lettering. "I'm really not sure we should have that kind of book in the house," she tried again. "I might be assuming what it is, but if it's what I think, I don't feel Hazel should indulge in that particular line of concoctions." She glanced at Hazel. "You'll be having meetings in the woods next, dancing naked in a circle and paying homage to the trees."

Hazel blushed. "Don't be so silly, Gris. This is Mrs. Bittle's house, and perhaps she feels the book belongs here."

"Was Mrs. Bittle's house, Hazel, was. It's ours now, and," she looked sidelong at Gwyneth, "we have every right to say what's brought into it. I just don't think that type of herbal therapy--"

Hazel's eyes flashed. "You didn't mind using that type of herbal therapy when it suited you. Why, if it hadn't been for my ingenious mixture, you'd never have managed to foil Quigley Pike and his band of merry men." Hazel referred to an event that had happened the previous summer, when the girls had collaborated to rid the Queen of Scots of a serious threat of piracy and obliteration.

"I know that," Griselda said patiently. "But those days are over now. There's no need for--"

"Who're you to say if there's a need or not?" Gwyneth muttered from her chair. "You don't know what Miranda can see that we can't." She shook her head woefully, her withered jowls quivering. "She isn't happy, I know that much."

Hazel poured three cups of tea and Griselda took hers to the door. "I'm going to take mine upstairs," she said, giving the book one last suspicious look. "Some of us have work to do."

When she'd gone, Gwyneth held out her gnarled old hands to the fire. "You keep that book away from that hoity-toity miss," she warned quietly. "I didn't like the way she looked at it."

"Nor me," Hazel said. "But she is so hypersensitive to you know what."

Gwyneth cackled softly. "Silly girl. There's nothing wrong with giving things a helping hand, now, is there? How's that poppet of yours doing, by the way? Is it working yet?"

Hazel drew out from her pocket a tiny replica of a male figure. "I think it could be," she said, to humor her. She went to the door and pushed it close. "He's so shy, that's the problem. But he did say he'd see me at the pub tonight."

"Is that why you two were quarrelling? Didn't she want you to go?"

"I don't think she'd mind that too much if she didn't want to go next door instead. She thinks she can persuade Snood to give us permission to sell our things on his ferries."

Gwyneth slurped her tea. "Is that a fact?" she said, thoughtfully. "And when did she get this idea of hers, did she say?"

Hazel shrugged. "Not really. Earlier on, I suppose."

Gwyneth took her time in choosing a cookie Hazel offered her and dunked it in her tea. "You know what I think? I think you should go with her."

"What? Oh, Gwyneth, you can't be serious."

"Miranda didn't come to see me for nothing!" Gwyneth snapped. "And she did say she'd been waiting for a chance like this. I didn't understand her at the time, but now I think she was talking about this opportunity."

"What opportunity? For what?" Hazel said grumpily. "It doesn't make any sense."

"How do you know it doesn't make sense? It might. Miranda always vowed she'd get back at Snood one day, only then she died."

"I know you said she didn't like him, but what can she do now she's gone? And why use me to do her dirty work?" Hazel added, scowling. "I know your schemes--they can get people into a lot of trouble."

Gwyneth chose to ignore the latter part of that statement. "Not like him? She despised the man. She thought what he did to Millicent was awful. Then there's what happened to Billie."

"What do you mean, what happened to Billie? I thought you said he'd gone traveling?"

"It's the way he went that was so funny. He came to spend his holidays here with his gran, like he usually did in the summer, and the next thing she knew, after he'd been in next door, he said he was going off again. No explanation, no nothing. Just left his gran with the most awful feeling of suspicion."

"Suspicion about what?"

"Well, she wasn't sure exactly, only that it was something to do with him next door."

"Like what though?" Hazel asked, irritated by Gwyneth's vagueness.

"We were never sure," Gwyneth said, furrowing her brows. "And then Miranda fell ill. When it was certain she wouldn't recover, well, that's when she decided to sell this house. She had intended that Billie should have it, but she wasn't sure when he'd be back again."

"The realtor told us the money has been put in trust for him," Hazel said.

"Yes, that's right. He'll get it one day."

"Even so," Hazel said, "I still don't understand why Miranda wants me to have her book, or why you think I should go next door."

"It's not what I think!" Gwyneth said. "I've told you, it's Miranda's idea."

She ignored Hazel's dubious look and took her time, dunking her cookies and sucking the soggy mess between her gums. Then, after she'd swigged down the last few drops of tea, she smacked her lips and pushed her old bones out of the chair. "Come on. And bring that book with you."

"But what are you going to do?" Hazel hissed, as she followed her across the hallway.

"I'm going to have a tête-à-tête with Miranda, that's what."

"But… you can't do that here!"

"I have to. I have to be sure I'm on the right track, and what better place to do it then in her house?"

"Oh, honestly," Hazel hissed, once they were in her room. "You know what I think? I think I should stick to my original plan of going to meet Don at the pub, and you should do as Griselda wants and take that book home! I'll drive you home to save you the walk if you like."

"You'll do no such thing. Miranda's given you this book, and now it's yours. You don't refuse, or return, a gift like that! My word, girlie, haven't I managed to teach you anything? You can't upset the dead like that, you don't know what they might do."

Hazel tried another tact. "Look, don't you think that you both could have imagined that Pug Snood had something to do with Billie going away? The same way you think you might have seen Miranda earlier on today?"

Gwyneth's eyes flashed angrily. "We didn't imagine anything! I'll show you!"

Hazel looked behind her. "But what if Griselda comes in and--?"

"You should have slipped something into her tea to keep her quiet for a while, and be done with it," Gwyneth grumbled.

"Gwyneth, shame on you. I couldn't do that."

"There are lots you can do that no one need ever know about. You just have to be careful you don't get caught, that's all." Gwyneth grinned her toothless grin. "Ah, the memories, the memories. The fun we used to have. I bet you didn't know that Miranda and I once owned the bakery, did you? Well, one summer she put something into the bread." Her eyes gleamed wickedly. "An aphrodisiac as it happens--"

"Oh, Gwyneth, hush. You wicked old thing, you. And there's no point trying to distract me because--"

Gwyneth wiped a tear from her eye. "Oh dear, I do miss her, you know. I get so cross with her for going without me."

"You didn't have any control over that," Hazel reminded her, as she was always reminding her. "And in any case, you're only remembering the good times. You told me that you didn't get along sometimes. Now, why don't you--"

"We did for most of the time though. I'm very fond of her, and I don't like to think of her being upset, wherever she is." She opened the book's heavy cover. "Now, draw those drapes and light a candle, will you? Then stand back out of the way and close your eyes."

"But…"

"Will you be quiet, and do as I say?"

With the curtain of ivy outside, very little light filtered into the room, and usually Hazel worked with the overhead lights on. Pulling the heavy curtains would have plunged them into almost total darkness, so, albeit reluctantly, she lit the candle first.

All was still and quiet. No sound from Griselda upstairs.

"Mirandahhh," called Gwyneth, in a wavering, singsong voice. "Mirandahhh… are you there?"

"Ssh," Hazel warned again. "Griselda will hear you. And if she--"

She never finished. The room suddenly felt cooler, and Hazel gasped, thinking Griselda had slipped downstairs and opened the door. She opened one eye to peek, while trying to think of some excuse or the other for doing the unmentionable and unthinkable as far as her friend would be concerned.

"Close your eyes, she's yer," Gwyneth hissed. She raised her arms in the air and drew a deep breath. "Mirandahhh… what is it you want us to do? Showww us."

Hazel's eyes were now squeezed shut so tightly it hurt her face. She suddenly heard a rustling, and realized the pages of the book were turning. Prickles rose along her spine; she knew Gwyneth wasn't responsible, she was standing right beside her, too far away to even reach.

Then there was silence, and it became warm again.

After a moment, Gwyneth let out a long breath. "It's all right, dearie. You can open your eyes now, and draw back the curtains, will you? She's gone."

With some relief, Hazel hastily let some light into the room. "I hope you're satisfied!" she grumbled. "And I hope you won't--"

Gwyneth had her hands on the open pages and her eyes closed. "Oh, do stop talking for a minute," she said irritably. "I'm trying to remember when we used this, and what for. How can I do that if you keep chattering on?"

Hazel hid a sigh and sat down on a stool. She knew how long it could take Gwyneth to think.

"What did you say Miss Hoity-toity wanted you to do tonight?" Gwyneth asked, turning suddenly and fixing Hazel with her blackbird's eyes.

"She wants me to go with her instead of going to the pub. I've told you," Hazel said sullenly.

"No, what I mean is, what did she plan to do when she got there? How'd she plan to get round him?"

"She reckons champagne is going to do it. And she asked me to make a few cookies, but there's no way--"

Gwyneth's eyes glittered as she slapped the Book of Shadows. "Oh, yes there is. And here's just the recipe you can use, too. Miranda's Special Shortbread Cookie recipe."

"But Gwyneth, I don't want--"

Gwyneth jabbed a finger at her. "No buts, missy. If you don't do what I want, you know what'll happen to your poppet." Under furrowed brows, her eyes gleamed wickedly. "Now, we don't want that to happen, do we?"

Chapter Two

Talent Night at the pub

The event that Hazel was so keen to go to was getting under way. All those who frequented the pub had turned up early to get a good seat, even though they placed themselves in jeopardy with Charlie Darwin's tongue. Charlie, thoroughly and utterly convinced that Darwin was his forebear--though evidence to support it was non-existent--had made the man his idol. He had named his life's work, which was the only pub on the island, The Theory, and his two children were called William and Ann after two of Darwin's several offspring. (At the point of discovering that Darwin's wife had given birth to no fewer than ten children, Charlie's wife, Estelle, had run off with a rather mindless man who never theorized about anything, who didn't particularly want to inflict his genetic makeup on the world, but kept her happy where it mattered, which was in the nuptial bed without having a prior discussion on procreation.)

Charlie had more on his mind than Darwin that evening, however. He was always a bag of nerves on Talent Night, worrying that the acts--or tricks as he called them, because it was so tricky to convince people to stand up and make fools of themselves--might not transpire. In his experience, although he might make twenty or so bookings, only three might actually turn up. So far that evening, however, things looked fairly promising.

On the stage were a couple, Monica and Bill's Conjuring Tricks. Monica wore a black wig and a blue dress to look authentic, and Bill's cigar was big enough to impress. Unfortunately, as many of the clientele never bothered with newspapers or had cable, but could only get a measly two-point-five channels with their bunny ears, they just couldn't see the funny side of two comedians who seemed far more focused on a cigar than their act--because they couldn't conjure to save their lives--and who were taking the rise out of the President of the United States.

There were one or two Americans present, wealthy magnates who had bought up vast tracts of land when the Canadian dollar first took a tumble. They were rather put out to think their fellow Canadians were still making fun of their president, and they slunk off to the bar to wait until the embarrassing moment had passed.

A few islanders who did read the newspapers thought the act passé and rather distasteful, and quickly became bored. The only thing that held their attention was the white mouse that Bill had just released from a cage. Others, who couldn't care less, wound their way to the bar, or found their neighbors to catch up on a bit of gossip.

The act only got any real attention after Bill lit his cigar and accidentally set Monica's dress on fire, which was then ruined by an ardent volunteer fireman who grabbed the nearest hose--which happened to be Charlie's tonic water--and drenched her. Monica shrieked and frightened the little mouse, which wriggled furiously, bit Bill's hand and escaped.

Boris Beadlewitz, who was said by his peers to be as tight as a duck's behind, was still sober because he was too cheap to pay what he considered to be an exorbitant price for a pint of beer. Madman, some said--and editor of the island newspaper, Wok's Brewing--he quickly took advantage of the ensuing mayhem, and leapt upon the stage to advertise his Special New Year Edition. "It's von quarter extra," he said. "But vorth every cent."

He was quickly jostled off by the next act, a comedian who explained that Bill and Monica would not be returning: Bill was getting hell from Monica for lighting up before time. "Premature ignition," he sniggered, trying to get a laugh out of the distracted audience, who were more concerned about the rodent on the loose. After receiving a few catcalls he gave up.

The next act, the waitress Clive, who liked to dress in ladies' clothes and preferred to be called Silvia, pranced onto the stage and threw handfuls of glitter over those nearest to him. Those tiny sparkles landed in hair, in drinks or on eyelashes, and, if people had their mouths open at the time, on their tongues.

While they stopped talking to evict the glitter, which was Silvia's intention, he lit a sparkler and recited a poem called The Duality of His Nature. Nobody really understood it, although there was a patter of applause from a few off-islanders, who thought it might be intellectual or about God.

Not to be discouraged, Silvia flicked the switch of a cassette recorder, and to the raunchy voice of Chris de Burgh singing Patricia the Stripper, he unabashedly disrobed. Scattering more glitter, he twirled his dress around his head before letting it fly across the room.

Bill momentarily forgot the mouse-bite. He caught the dress and gestured lewdly.

"Keep your cigar away from my dress!" Silvia yelled, as he leapt from the stage.

Those who were interested in hearing more of Silvia's poetry hastily scribbled their telephone numbers on the chunks of beer mat they had, with great difficulty, gnawed off with their teeth, and wedged them inside his thong as he passed.

One man dislodged his front teeth from gnawing too earnestly. They flew across the table and clattered into the Nook dining area. The man went after them, crawling on all fours. He couldn't find his teeth but he did come across the mouse, petrified and hiding in a fold of a skirt. Feeling sorry for it, he put it into a lady's purse and zipped it up for safety.

It was just at that moment the lady in question decided to buy another drink. She shrieked when she opened her purse and the mouse leapt out. She leapt up too, and trod on the toothless man's fingers. He bellowed with pain and hit his head on the table.

The lady's companions squealed. Having been deeply immersed in conversation, they'd thought the tickles against their legs were either from one another, pub fleas or spiders; they'd never considered it might be a mustache. Made angry, and rather embarrassed, by their discovery, they beat on the intruder with whatever they could lay their hands on, calling him a creepy pervert (to which he groaned and quivered in ecstasy).

Florrie Jugs, the island postmistress, watched this fracas in amazement. She'd heard of these talent nights, but had never been to one. She wouldn't have been there that evening either, if it hadn't been for her sister Madge's state of mind, and the absence of Herbie Oddham, her occasional lover. Occasional that is, ever since he'd gone into business with Doriath Bliss at the Dangling Slattern, their faux nineteenth-century inn. Florrie thought the name more aptly described his business partner, who, it was said, had once kept a husband, an ex-husband and a lover on the go at the same time. Whenever Herbie made the excuse of not being able to get away, Florrie imagined him gasping for breath while being clasped tightly between the woman's thighs.

Florrie noticed Madge hadn't even blinked when the flash of white that was the mouse streaked past them from the Nook. And now, as three tattooed women calling themselves the Sleazy Snakes writhed between the tables towards the stage, Florrie heard her heave another sigh.

Florrie sighed too and ordered another beer. The last few months had been really rough. To blame was Madge's obsession to change genres. For years she'd been a romance writer. She'd been quite successful too until last spring, when, owing to a lack of inspiration, she had decided to write a non-fiction book to catch people's attention.

"It'll do that all right," Florrie assured her stubborn sister. "You'll be deluged with lawsuits."

Madge had said that was nonsense; when she'd interviewed people, they were only too pleased to share their little secrets.

"That's because you said you'd make them famous," Florrie said.

"The word is infamous," Madge informed her. "It's not my problem if people are too stupid to know the difference. People are becoming illiterate through lack of reading, and this will teach them to know better." And she had continued interviewing and compiling, and driving Florrie mad with her snickers and snorts of manic laughter in the back room of the post office. She reckoned everyone would want to read the book. The CBC might even interview her.

Unfortunately, everyone didn't get a chance to even see What People Call Their Privates, because no one would publish it. As well, each time it was rejected, it was accompanied by bitter comments. No publisher likes to think they've had the chance of making money swiped from beneath their noses. At first, thinking it might be another scandal related to the Canadian military, they'd leapt upon the chance to read Madge's submission. One editor had even saved it for a special weekend at a millionaire's paradise on the West Coast. Imagine his disappointment when, after settling down beside a roaring fire (with a glass of claret in one hand and Madge's manuscript in the other), he turned to the first chapter, only to read a list of names that women gave to their partners' willies.

Smutty, filthy, and definitely beneath us, might have been borne (albeit indignantly), but when Madge read, If you take my advice, Ms Jugs, you'll burn it quickly and yourself along with it, she told Florrie she'd reached the end of her tether.

"It's almost as if they're in cahoots," she wailed as she beat upon her breast. "And that is what upsets me so. Is there no individuality in publishing any more? Oh, woe is me."

Dripping with misery, she'd dragged the whole bag of mail in which the rejection letter arrived, to outside the post office, stripped off her clothes and then set fire to the lot. Onlookers were aghast, the volunteer fire department especially so; most of them hadn't seen a naked woman for years.

Florrie leapt up and down yelling, "You can't burn the mail!" However, Madge did, every piece of it. "I'm cleansed," she cried afterwards, as she smeared herself with the ashes. "And I never want to reflect on it again."

She left Florrie to explain to the dismayed and distressed islanders that she would make good their welfare checks if any were lost. The event could have bankrupted her, as it was a Wednesday, when the welfare checks arrived. But often mail destined for Gale went astray, and fortunately that was one of those occasions. She'd still taken a loss of twenty percent off a book of stamps for a whole month, and had great difficulty in persuading the postal authorities that Madge would never appear naked in public again. She promised to take full responsibility for her sister in the future, begging them not to revoke her license.

Ever since then, Madge had been referred to by the islanders who knew about the unfortunate incident as Mad Madge, and Florrie knew they would snicker behind her back until there was some event or other to take its place. That's why she felt she must accompany her to the pub that evening because she was terrified Madge would do something else to embarrass them.

Don Bradley, who worked at the post office, was sitting at the same table as the Terrible Two's as he called the sisters to anyone who would commiserate, and was fairly enjoying himself despite their grumpy exchanges. When one of the Sleazy Snakes beckoned him to help hold a billiard cue so that she could wriggle beneath it, he grinned lasciviously and swaggered John Wayne style up onto the stage. "Be my pleasure, little lady," he said.

Those nearest to him scoffed; they suspected that particular Snake, Susie Snipple, who was Dangerous Dan's ex-wife, was no lady. They were quite correct in their assumptions. Susie was a frightful opportunist who used her physical disability to her advantage. That irregular winking of the right eye had won her a terrific settlement out of her recent divorce. (The judge presiding, who had read her wrongly and tried to take advantage of the fact, had paid generously for her silence!)

The near-naked, writhing females provided little interest to the people at the back of the room, or in the Nook, who couldn't see what all the grunting and shuffling on the stage floor was all about. Out of boredom, they began to chatter and jeer. Don lost interest too when the Little Lady gave his nose a sharp tweak after he thought she'd winked at him and he poked a knob on one of her tattoos. Holding his nose with one hand he handed the cue to Boris Beadlewitz with the other, and slunk back to his seat.

Boris had been lurking in the wings, waiting for another opportunity to advertise his paper, and quickly bored the Sleazy Snakes off the stage by quoting unsavory facts about tattooing, saying how they should get tested for nasty diseases. Shaking his fist like a fervent evangelist, he started to rant on again about his special edition. "You have to prepare," he shouted. "And this special edition vill lead you month-by-month--"

"I've got a special edition too, and it doesn't only come out at year end," chortled someone in the crowd, which comment was followed by raucous laughter.

"Ah yes," said Boris, who was rumored to have no sense of humor, "but I bet it von't help you get through a power outage."

"Never had a failure yet."

More laughter, and Boris raised his voice even higher. "Not to mention hypothermia and starvation…"

"You mean everyday life on Gale?" someone else called out, amid more shrieks of laughter.

When it died down Boris gave them a disdainful look. "You may make fun now," he said solemnly. "But vot are you going to do ven your car von't start? Ven pacemakers stop und vere's civil unvest?"

"My car never goes," the same voice said. But no one laughed this time. A few more eyes were on Boris.

"Shut up," someone said. "Give him a chance."

"Er... he may have a point," the Reverend Randolph Ruttings said, rising from his chair. He'd ventured out that evening for the sake of community spirit and vowed he'd never do such a foolish thing again. "Some scholars actually believe the year two thousand could host a second coming." He coughed politely. "So we must be prepared."

"I'm always prepared," chuckled the same person who reckoned he had the special edition. "Be like a Boy Scout, I always say."

The Reverend wasn't used to alcohol because his wife, Rita, believed it was the Devil's urine and forbade it. The two pints of beer he'd had so far had befuddled his mind. Search as he might, he couldn't recall the passage from the Bible he wished to quote, something to do with virgins and oil lamps.

"Well… just keep alert," he said rather desperately. "Just in case He comes."

"When who comes?" a voice said.

"Jesus Christ!" the Reverend shouted.

People looked dismayed at one another. Was this man of God blaspheming? Or had the mouse gone up his pants?

"I mean, the second coming of Christ," he said, exasperated by their blank and puzzled stares.

Someone staggered from the bar into the thick of the crowd.

"I don't know nothin' about God, eh?" he said in a low, ominous voice. "But I saw a movie a while back about a huge meteor. Landed somewhere in the States, eh? An' the world just about came to a standstill. Couldn't sleep for weeks."

"Don't s'pose there were many left to sleep," someone muttered rather disconsolately.

"I meant me. I couldn't sleep."

"I heard there might be lizard-like aliens waiting to take us over," said another disembodied voice. "The mother ship might be up there... even as we speak."

All eyes rotated to the ceiling.

Charlie Darwin didn't like the sudden hush; it didn't bode well for sales. "The only thing up there," his voice boomed, "is Silvia's bedroom."

"And though I may be considered by some to be a bit strange," Silvia chirped, "I'm certainly no alien."

There were one or two chuckles and, to Charlie's relief, the mood lightened.

Boris cleared his throat. "All Cinderella had to remind her of the ball vas a glass slipper. Vot vill you do in the year two kay ven your computer screen goes blank und your keyboard is useless? This publication will tell you how to…"

Sitting on bar stools were a few replicas of the wild west, relics whose clothes were so encrusted with dirt they could have supported themselves without a body. "What the hell's he on about?" one said. "This kay thing a new breakfast cereal?"

"It's about keyboards," Silvia said, who was pulling a pint. He was now dressed as a hula-hula girl with silk hibiscus flowers in his hair.

"Aw, he must be talking about that," the relic said, nodding towards the shell of the piano that had been rescued from Wok Beach. It didn't work because it had no innards and stood for effect only, a resting-place for beers.

Another rustic, an import from Lancashire, who'd propped up bars all over the world, laughed and said, "Give ussa song then, Silvia lad."

"Perhaps I will once he gets off the stage," Silvia said, winking coyly.

Boris was still prattling on to an increasingly disgruntled crowd, the majority of which didn't even own a computer and had no intention of buying one either. As for his publication, they considered it frippery, a luxury only fit for tourists, because they eventually got the news free--like candles in a power outage--from their neighbors.

"Where's the band?" a voice shouted. "I heard there was to be a band."

Others joined in, banging their glasses and fists on the table and urging the band, whoever they might be, to hurry up and get onto the stage and oust the morbid and boring Boris.

The band as such was a group of seniors who jammed every third Wednesday and every second Tuesday of the month. They were made up of an accordion player from Bulgaria, a piper from Ireland, and a guitarist--a nomad of the northern hemisphere was how he described himself--who could now only strum because of his arthritis. He was always going on about how, if he retired to Hawaii, he could pick out any tune at all. Then go to Hawaii, people said, but he never did. He just continued to complain.

The superintendent at the seniors' center, the slightly mad Ramona Bradley, set up their confusing schedule. She was the mother of Don (and, people asked one another, was it any wonder he had turned out like he had?). Although they weren't sure if she'd always been like it or had been driven that way by her job.

The accordionist, piper and guitarist, however, might have disagreed and said she wasn't mad at all. After all, wasn't it propitious for everyone that evening that, on Ramona's instructions, the comb, triangle and recorder players were now outside the community hall, waiting for the New Year's celebrations to begin?

Ramona ushered the grumpy guitarist to the stage, removed the pint jug from the piper's hand--giving his bottom a quick squeeze in compensation--and dragged the accordion player away from the bar. She announced to the flagging and increasingly bleary-eyed audience that the band's first attempt would be a medley from South Pacific.

When he heard this, Silvia threw up his hands in delight and cast away his tray. It flew Frisbee-like through the air and nearly decapitated one of the recorder players, who, fed up with waiting at the hall, was looking inquisitively around the pub door.

Ignoring his agonized cry, Silvia danced onto the stage and began to sing the words to There's Nothing Like a Dame.

"Oh," Florrie said, clasping her hands together. "Can she ever sing."

"He," Don said nasally, still holding his sore nose.

"Well," she said, "you know what I mean. Anyway, man, woman, whatever, what does it matter? We've heard you squawking in the post office, and you can't sing at all."

Don couldn't understand why a man dressed as a woman should get so much attention when there were real men, such as himself, for the taking. "I could do somethig else buch better thad himb though," he said, leering at her.

In agreement for the first time that evening, Florrie and Madge rolled their eyes. They were used to his boastful but harmless banter. They knew he was still a virgin and were always speculating (and making bets) about how and when his first time might happen.

"What we need on this island are some real men," Madge said, curling her lip at what she considered to be the pathetic collection of males around her. She sighed longingly and thought of Douggie Barton.

Douggie had been Florrie's fourth significant other, until Douggie turned to Madge. Madge, who was in the heyday of her writing career at the time, welcomed him with open arms and a blank sheet of paper. Being such a talented lover, Douggie had given her oodles to write about. What with tidbits from here, a piece of gossip from there, plus a bit of slap-and-tickle, Madge was able to turn out a best seller faster than snakebite. Her fortune changed, however, when Florrie found out what was going on, and wanted Douggie back. By then Douggie didn't want to return, and after Florrie chased him with an axe, he left the island. Although Florrie apologized afterwards, Madge had never really forgiven her, even though it was ten years ago.

Florrie's thoughts were on Herbie. She'd been drinking steadily all evening, and the drunker she got the more she thought of him.

"I bet heez 'crewing her silly," she muttered enviously in her sister's ear. "I've never known Herbie hic! see in a New Year in where he wazn't 'crewing."

That made Madge yearn keener for Douggie. "I wish Douggie were here," she said wistfully.

Florrie giggled. "I'll tell you what Madch, hic! If he ever comes back we'll share him, eh?" She leaned closer, tickling her sister's ear with hot breath and superfluous hair. "He was always too much for me anyway."

Tears flooded Madge's eyes. "I don't want to share him. I want him all to myself. But Douggie'll never come home again, Florrie. You frightened him away, and now we don't even know where he is."

"Thad Douggie Barton ju're dalkig aboud?" Don said.

"What's it to you, Waggle Ears?" Madge said, waspishly.

"Doe deed to brig by ears into it," Don said, offended. "I doh where he is, dat's all."

"How do you know that?" Madge said. "And for goodness sake, leave your nose alone, I can hardly understand what you're saying, and you'll only make it redder."

Don let go; twitched it a few times. "Well, his dad libs in our owd people's home," he said. "Ow, it still hurts."

"Humph, I never knew hic! that then," Florrie said.

"Contrary to what you think, you don't know everything." Madge changed her expression to one of sweetness. She batted her eyelashes as she touched Don's nose with the tip of her finger. "Aw, poor nosie. So where is Douggie then?"

"He's a cop in dOz."

"What? with that wizard guy?" Florrie snickered, and began to (try to) sing the Yellow Brick Road.

"Shut up, you're drunk." Madge poked her in the ribs.

"I'm hic! not! I can ash-hore you…"

Madge took no notice of her. "Well, do you think you could get his address for me, Donny?"

Don recognized an opportunity when he saw one. The Sleazy Snake who'd packed such a pinch had been eyeing him up all night. She kept winking at him, though Don knew she was only teasing, for no one ever fancied him. He smirked at Madge. "I might, if you'll do something for me."

"Like what?" Madge said suspiciously.

He pointed at Sleazy. "I'd like you to pour a pint over her head. That should cool her down a bit. Flaunting her body at me, like that. I know she doesn't mean it, and it's cruel."

"What a whole pint?" Florrie gasped. "What a hic! waste."

"Well, a glass then." Don winked at Madge. "I'll have another pint though."

Madge was about to protest, but then imagined Douggie in uniform; those bared, masculine arms; the way his eyes would crinkle at the corners when he pulled someone in to give them a ticket. "Ohh," she said, squirming in her seat at the thought, "he could put me in cuffs any day. All right, Donny." She avoided Florrie's futile graspings and pushed her way through the crowd to the bar.

The crowd was so noisy they were drowning out the band, who, once they'd finished their medley and had more drinks bought for them, were making a noise that didn't sound like any tune at all. The comb player had snuck up onto the stage, and, though he'd been kicked off once or twice, now had his arm around the recorder player, who had a kerchief tied around his head to stop the flow of blood. They were making a ghastly din.

Sleazy was laughing. She had her head tipped back and her mouth open when Madge arrived with the glass of beer.

"Laugh about this," Madge said, as she poured the contents over Susie's fillings.

As Susie gurgled her surprise, silence crept through the pub like a bad smell. Someone giggled. The band came to a squeaking, squawking halt.

Then someone shouted, "Holy moly, she's gone mad again," as Madge suddenly squealed, flung her arms into the air and began leaping around. She tried to unzip her dress, but the zip got stuck and she ripped the fabric apart at the neckline. "Get out, get out, you little beast," she shrieked.

The Reverend Ruttings stood up. "Exorcism, exorcism!" he cried, waving his crucifix in the air. "Let me pass, everyone, quickly. Let me pass."

"Oh gawd," Silvia said, from behind the bar. "Quickly, Charlie, do something."

Charlie already had. He'd moved the hands of the clock forward five minutes or so, and as Silvia spoke, pressed a button on the CD player and turned the volume to Max.

As the strains of Auld Lang Syne made the speakers tremble, Florrie, seeing her sister stripped down to her underwear, lost consciousness, and fell off her stool. The band struck up a wail in competition with the speakers. Someone hit the recorder player over the head, and he fell from the stage, taking the microphone with him.

Boris, not realizing he couldn't be heard, leapt onto the stage again, waving his Year End Edition and mouthing and gesticulating like a silent movie star.

The man who'd been kept firmly in his place beneath the table by the irate ladies breathed a sigh of relief as he heard them prepare to leave. Another Talent Night was almost over. Could the end of things as they knew them be any worse?


 

 

Deceitful Hags Copyright 2003. Celia A. Leaman. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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Author Bio

Celia Leaman was raised in Devon, England. After moving to Canada in 1980, she had short stories published in magazines in the UK, Canada, the United States and South Africa. One of these was translated into Braille. She also wrote and co-directed a play, performed on Galiano Island, BC.

Celia writes in several genres. Her more serious novels, her first being Mary's Child, reflect her love of the South Devon moors in England. When Mary's Child was first released, it was a Frankfurt eBook Award and a Reviewers Choice Award nominee. There are two sequels to Mary's Child; PastPresent I: Awareness and PastPresent II: Resolution.

Unraveled is a lighthearted mainstream novel with a touch of fantasy and humor, as is her short story ebook, "Island Stories." Celia has created a whole new island community on Gale Island, a fictional Gulf Island situated between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island.

"Who is Margaret? What is She?" is a book of quirky/alien/fantasy short stories.

TTB titles:
Island Stories
Mary's Child
PastPresent I
PastPresent II
Unraveled
Who is Margaret? What is She?

Visit Celia's web site

 

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List Price: $4.50 USD

 

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  Reviews

"Nothing is ever quite what it seems on Gale Island, especially with the uncertainties of the approaching millennium. Characters like Hazel Kollywops and Mr. Snood take us for a memorable, laughter-filled ride through a magical place in British Columbia.

This book has it all including tasty recipes and the wit and wisdom of author Celia Leaman who shows us ourselves in these sometimes strange, always believable people and places. Once you open DECEITFUL HAGS, you'll know that you're never more than a ferry ride away from Gale!"

Reviewed by Joyce Lavene, author of the award winning Sharyn Howard mystery series.
 



"After her belly-shaking Unraveled, Celia Leaman has created another extravaganza that leaves nothing to wish for. The charismatic inhabitants of Gale Island are up to no good and the reader is in for a ride with breath-taking loopings and mind-blowing free falls. A must read for thrill-seekers."

Reviewed by Christine Spindler, author of Faces of Fear.

 

 

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