The post-rescue party was, felt Charlie, the thing that made the whole thing worthwhile. To have everyone together – adults, children and Hilda – was more of a relief than she could have expressed. It was nearly midnight when the last of their party rolled up in the Emersons’ hired car, driven with enormous speed and enthusiasm by David. Hilda was immediately dragged inside, ensconced in the largest and most comfortable armchair, handed a drink, and entreated to tell her story, which she did with such verve and drama that it was not until the end of the third retelling that their thirst was sated and she was allowed to fall silent.
“Well,” said Charlie, who had heard the story of the rescue with a mixture of disbelief and horror and was beginning to wonder why she had ever thought it a good idea to let any of her offspring out of her sight. “I’m glad you’re back, Hilda, though I’m not sure I approve of the methods used.”
“They’re lucky none of them were arrested,” said Charles, frowning at Millie and John who had, he considered, let him down badly. “It was completely stupid and irresponsible.”
“Oh, well, it was our fault,” said Constance Rose. “They had to come in to rescue me and Will. Actually, I persuaded him to go and rescue Hilda, so really it was all my fault.”
She gave Charles her sweetest smile, and his severe expression began to melt.
“All the same,” he said, “you should have called the police and let them deal with it.”
“Well, I suppose we could have done,” admitted Constance Rose. “But I’m an acolyte of the goddess Bat, you see, and I knew she’d protect us. She doesn’t let any harm come to her followers.”
“I –” Charles stopped abruptly.
“So, how did you stop them arresting you, Augusta?” said Charlie, seeing the expression on her husband’s face and changing the subject hastily.
“Arresting me?” said Augusta, looking at her blankly for a moment. “Oh, yes, they did, but not for very long. Once I explained that we’d been rescuing Margaret – sorry, Hilda – and that those men had been trying to kill our children, they were very understanding.”
“Even though you were carrying a gun?” said Charles doubtfully.
“Well, I’ve got a permit,” said Augusta in a tone of voice that suggested he was mentally lacking, and when he blinked in bewilderment, she went on, “I’ve got a licence or a permit in nineteen different countries, and luckily Switzerland happens to be one of them.”
Millie, concealing her laughter at this, and sensing that her father had sustained too many shocks to be able to articulate many more objections, got up and put an ABBA record on, while Augusta began explaining to a fascinated audience of small children some of the situations in which she had required a gun. Under cover of the general noise, Sphinx leaned forward and spoke into Charles’ ear.
“I’m sorry about this afternoon, sir,” he said. “But I didn’t want to leave my sister in the hands of those monsters, and I know John and Millie felt the same about Will.”
“I understand that,” said Charles grimly, “but did you have to drag the girls into it?”
“It would have taken at least half an hour to persuade Amy and Phoebe that they shouldn’t come in, and even then they’d probably have followed thirty seconds later. And as I don’t have any authority over Millie I couldn’t exactly stop her doing whatever she wanted.”
Charles rubbed his face.
“I suppose I should be thankful that no-one was badly hurt.” He glanced over at Millie, whose hair was carefully clipped back so that a long cut down one side of her face was plainly visible. “I just wish all of this could have been avoided.”
“So do I,” said Sphinx, sacrificing truth for the sake of peace. “But Hilda’s back and nothing too awful happened. We didn’t even kill anyone.”
“I might have had to disapprove if you had,” said Hilda herself, giving him a stern look which faded as Sphinx’s face relaxed into a rare smile.
“So how come they didn’t kill you, Hilda?” demanded Amy.
“I am the Prime Minister,” said Hilda, looking majestic. “To be fair, they didn’t realise that when they took me. It was that dreadful Mary-Lou woman who recognised me, and they were horrified when they understood. A few of them wanted to kill me and dump the body and the rest wanted to dump me without killing me.”
“Would have seemed like a sensible plan,” said Amy.
“I dare say,” said Hilda drily. “Mary-Lou, however, seems to have felt that she was above suspicion, and she didn’t want me closing down her little drug dealing operation. It seems that they took me because they thought I’d seen their hideout – that day we went up to the Auberge, do you remember?”
Charlie’s eyes widened.
“When you got knocked on the head?” she said. “But we thought that was an accident.”
“Someone panicked when they saw me there. The original plan, I believe, was to take me to somewhere remote and dispose of me quietly, but once Miss Trelawney realised my identity they decided it would be too much of a risk.”
“Lucky,” said Sphinx, draining his drink and getting up. It was hot, with all of them crushed into the room, big as it was. He glanced across the rabble of children, who were acting out the afternoon’s events with enthusiasm in the middle of the room – Poppy, as Augusta, was just punching Ricky in the stomach with her small fists – and caught Millie’s eye. He gave her a small smile and nodded his head towards the French windows, which stood ajar. She smiled back, her hand going unconsciously to her throat, where bruises from her attempted strangling were already darkening. Sphinx turned and stepped into the dark, cool garden.