Fish Swim But Don't Laugh by Abi, Chubby Monkey
Summary:

Charles Maynard and Augusta Peabody Emerson, with their respective families, come together on the Platz along with a mysterious guest and quickly find themselves plunged into adventure and mayhem.


Categories: St Scholastika's House Characters: Charles Maynard, Mary-Lou Trelawney, Matron Lloyd, Minor character(s), OC
School Period: Future
School Name: Chalet School
Genre: Adventure, Crossover, Family, Humour, Mystery, Romance
Challenges:
Series: Augusta: The Chronicles
Chapters: 50 Completed: Yes Word count: 46274 Read: 87976 Published: 18 Jun 2011 Updated: 23 Jun 2011
Story Notes:

Family Maynard:

 

Charles and Charlie, the parents.

Millie: 17

John: 15

Will: 14

Ashley: 10

Stacia: 9

Poppy: 7

 

 

Family Emerson:

 

Augusta and David John, the parents.

Sphinx & Amelia (Amy): 22

Phoebe: 21

Lottie & John: 19

Constance Rose: 16

Richard (Ricky): 13

Miranda (Randa): 10

 

1. The Maynard Household by Abi

2. Climbing the Great Pyramid by Abi

3. Holiday Preparations by Abi

4. Descending the Great Pyramid by Abi

5. Picking up the Guest by Abi

6. The Emersons Set Out by Abi

7. The Journey Continues by Abi

8. Freudesheim by Abi

9. The Emersons Arrive by Abi

10. Matron by Abi

11. The Meeting of the Clans by Abi

12. The Maynards Discuss by Abi

13. Awkward Talk by Abi

14. The Cup that Refreshes but does not Intoxicate by Abi

15. A Slight Accident by Abi

16. A Second Accident by Abi

17. Hero by Abi

18. Making Plans by Abi

19. To the Auberge by Abi

20. The Secret of the Auberge by Abi

21. The Body! by Abi

22. Hilda Lost by Abi

23. And Found by Abi

24. Hilda's Identity Revealed by Abi

25. How to Mummify a Dead Body by Abi

26. After the Bombshell by Abi

27. Olive Branches by Abi

28. Trapped by Abi

29. On the Roof by Abi

30. The Dramatic Disappearance of Margaret Thatcher by Abi

31. Poppy's Fears by Abi

32. Hunting for Hilda by Abi

33. Encounter with the Police by Abi

34. Red Herring by Abi

35. Clues by Abi

36. Nerves by Abi

37. Making Progress by Abi

38. What if...? by Abi

39. "We've Caught the Kidnapper!" by Abi

40. Explanations by Abi

41. The Children Wash Up by Abi

42. A Quarrel by Abi

43. Drugs! by Abi

44. A Decision by Abi

45. Will and Constance Rose are Lost by Abi

46. On the Trail by Abi

47. The Capture of Mary-Lou by Abi

48. Picking up the Pieces by Abi

49. Recovery by Abi

50. Peace at Last - Perhaps. by Abi

The Maynard Household by Abi
Author's Notes:

By Ariel (ChubbyMonkey).

The house, Millie observed rather wryly from where she perched, was in absolute chaos. That this should be of such little concern to her was mainly because she was currently balanced precariously in the boughs of a large oak tree that overshadowed most of their garden, and could just see into the house through the open window, to the living room, from which shrieks floated at regular intervals. Also, she was bemused by her mother, who had sat them all down just that morning and told them to behave, because she was busy preparing for the holiday and didn't need them to interfere or cause more trouble. This was, as ever, the signal to get into as much mischief as possible.

Soon enough she would have to go in and sort it out – Ashley and Stacia were arguing again, and the only reason that Poppy wasn't joining in was because Charlie must have called her away to pack. With her mother occupied in trying to make sure that they would have everything they needed, the burden would fall on her to keep the younger fry out of at least the worst trouble; it was an unspoken duty, but one that she'd put up with ever since she was a small girl and liked to walk her baby brother up and down the room in his pram, playing at house.

Her thoughts were interrupted at that point by the arrival of said baby brother, not so much a baby now as he dropped nimbly from a limb further up and landed neatly at her side, wobbling for a moment before settling himself and dangling his legs over the edge so that he could swing them in time with her own. The two were so similar that they could have been twins, if Millie hadn't been considerably taller; both had inherited their mother's fair, tumbling hair that it was almost impossible to control (though Millie, at least, tried her best, unlike Charlie) and round, hazel eyes with a laugh always contained in them.

“It's carnage,” said John bluntly, once he'd settled himself comfortably and brushed nonchalantly at the streak of green ruining his last clean pair of trousers. More often than not he was told that at his age he should know better, but he was never happy unless he was active and usually getting into whichever scrapes were happening. 

“I'd better go,” sighed Millie; loathe was she to leave the cool, pleasant shade created by the leafy canopy above to go and argue with her two sisters, who would only unite once they were convinced that they had a common enemy in her. “You don't want to try and get Poppy out of it, do you? Dad's still furious about her squashing his hat the other day. If she gets into any more trouble he might carry out his threat to send her to Auntie Con while the rest of us go on holiday.”

“Send her out if you find her,” he offered, tipping his head back so that it was bathed in the warm sunlight that did filter through. Uncaring as he might seem about it all, everyone in the family knew that there was a soft place in his heart always reserved for the youngest of the Maynard clan, and he would go to the ends of the earth to protect her.

Rolling her eyes, Millie jumped down and sauntered into the house, kicking Will as she passed. He was lying on the grass, bare arms pale compared to the rest, always fighting a losing battle to keep his glasses on; today, he was reading a large tome that Millie recognised as their father's history on politics, and the kick was mainly to remind him that Charles would be furious if he knew it had been taken outside. Little notice that he took of that!

Setting her mind to calming Ashley and Stacia down before Charlie should find them, Millie entered the living room and was at once met by a scene worthy only of the description John had given it. The argument had quickly turned into a fight, using the cushions from the settee which had looked battered and worn before the two girls deployed them. At the present they were silent in horror, possibly because of the glass from Charlie's favourite vase now strewn across the simple cream carpet in all directions.

“Stacia caught it with her pillow,” explained Ashley, when she looked up and saw who had entered. Hope caught in her eyes; with Millie, she was likely to scold them, but she would still back them up when it came to confessing their sins to their parents. “We didn't mean to.”

“It was only 'cause you hit me round the head and I couldn't see where I was going,” complained Stacia quickly, eyes leaving Millie's face to glare at her older sister. She was a chubby child of nine, with the same brown eyes as most of the family, but with the dark hair that only Will and their father shared. Unlike Ashley, who always gave herself away, she had the ability to look more angelic the more trouble she was in, and now she was positively radiating light.

Before Millie had the time to give her caustic thoughts on the situation, the door opened again. Conversation on the possibility of making a tray of iced lemonade to cool everyone down in such fantastically hot weather was stopped promptly as Poppy and Charlie surveyed the mess. It was so bad that Poppy even managed to restrain the cheeky comment that was readily available, and it was left to Charlie to demand icily,

“What on earth has happened?”

Climbing the Great Pyramid by Abi
Author's Notes:

By Abi.

 

She gritted her teeth and hauled herself up painfully. None of the others had dreamed of stopping for a rest, and she wasn’t going to admit that the climb was anything but easy. All the same, she wished she hadn’t become quite so engrossed in her latest project, because she was definitely out of condition now. Her clothes, few as they were, stuck to her, her hands were sore and her thighs were beginning to ache. Not to mention all the mosquito bites. Still, there couldn’t be far to go now and it would definitely be worth it once she’d reached the top.

“Come on, Mum, you’re nearly there.”

She squinted upwards, just able to make out the silhouette of Sphinx’s head against the blue glare of the sky.

“All right, stop fussing,” she said, and straightened herself to scramble up to the next step. A strong hand gripped each wrist and she found herself lifted from the crumbling rock to be dumped, a moment later, onto the small platform. Annoyed, she shook herself free of her husband and son.

“I could have managed perfectly well,” she said. “I sometimes wish you two would stop hauling me about as though I were a sack of potatoes.”

Her son chuckled unapologetically.

“Look around,” said her husband, taking her hand and turning her about. She drew in a little breath of awe. Cairo, oddly beautiful in the glow of the setting sun, sprawled before her. To the east, the Nile shone, and in the south stretched seemingly endless miles of sand, a sight that brought a leap of joy to all their hearts. There lay the treasures of ancient Egypt, most of them still undiscovered, sleeping in the evening warmth.

She turned to David, her mouth open to speak, but never had a chance to utter the words as he silenced her most effectively with his own mouth.

“Honestly, you two,” said thirteen year old Ricky in disgust. “Do you have to do that when there are other people around?”

“If you don’t like it, go somewhere else,” his father advised him and kissed Augusta again, very thoroughly. Ricky made a gagging noise and retreated to the other side of the small platform, where his siblings were gathered, not noticeably awed by the experience of climbing the Great Pyramid.

“So do you think we’re going anywhere else this year?” Miranda was saying as he came up. Lottie shrugged.

“I don’t know that I’ll come even if we do,” she said. “Jenny’s invited me to go on holiday with her and a couple of others, and I think I will. Anyway, I’m getting bored of all the Egyptology talk. I’m not sure I can cope with a whole summer of it.”

“And I can’t,” said her twin, John. “As I’m starting in the Hanford Rep next week.”

“I’d like to be an actor,” said Ricky enviously. “Only I want to be an archaeologist, too. D’you think I could be both?”

“Not professionally,” said John. “Not enough time. You’ll have to choose one day, my lad.”

“I don’t see why. Granddad did both.”

“Granddad was never an actor; he was just really good at disguising himself,” said Lottie. “Well, he still is, of course.”

“It’s in our blood,” said John sepulchrally.

“I just don’t understand you two,” said Constance Rose, raising deep blue eyes to the twins from her seat on the edge of the platform. “You don’t seem to feel the wonderful atmosphere of Egypt. The power and mystery she holds. Being here, atop the Great Pyramid, I can feel her calling me from all around. Like – a veil, waiting to be lifted.” She gave a long, trembling sigh and closed her eyes for a moment.

“Snap out of it, Connie,” said Lottie. The long, dark lashes flew apart and the azure eyes stared at her indignantly.

“It’s Constance Rose, not Connie,” she said. “How many times do I have to tell you? You just don’t understand the connection I have with the goddess.”

“Oh yes, the old bat,” said Lottie.

“The great wild cow,” said John soulfully.

“Talking about the love of Constance Rose’s life?” came Phoebe’s voice from behind them. “When are you going to get over this phase, darling?”

Constance Rose flushed.

“It isn’t a phase,” she snapped. “I’ve discovered truth and inner peace and maybe you’d do well to start looking for them too.” She got up and stalked away, not very far because the platform was only small, but far enough for the gesture to be quite clear.

“I can’t understand,” said Phoebe, taking Constance Rose’s place on the edge of the platform, “how with parents as intelligent as Mum and Dad, she still manages to be so remarkably stupid. It’s rather sweet, really.”

“It’s a damn silly nuisance,” said John. “She’s worse than the rest of you put together. Where’s Randa? Mum’ll throw a fit if we lose her again.”

“Talking to those tourists with Sphinx and Amy,” said Phoebe, sweeping her dark hair off her face. “The girl’s flirting with Sphinx, and Amy and Randa are mocking her. It’s all right,” she added as Lottie frowned and looked over towards the little group. “She hasn’t noticed. She thinks that Sphinx is a god and Randa’s a wee little cherub.”

A moment later she had leapt to her feet and was speeding across the platform as a wild yell rang out. The entire family arrived at the edge just in time to see David leaping from it and bounding down the tall steps at a speed which used by anyone else would probably have resulted in a broken neck.

 

Holiday Preparations by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

By the time Charlie had received an explanation that satisfied her, and roundly scolded all concerned – including Millie for not looking after them when she knew what a hectic time it was – John had arrived to demand to know what was going on and could he not take the younger fry off to the park and out of the way? At this they looked rather indignant, and would normally have hastened to reassure him that they were not little, but were still somewhat subdued on this occasion.

If Charles had been there he would have refused, on the grounds that people who carelessly broke vases didn't deserve treats, but Charlie was wise enough to see that it would get them out of trouble for all of half an hour, and sent them off forthwith, Poppy hanging off of John's hand and watching him adoringly. Left alone, Millie insisted on sitting her mother down, unruffled by the caustic comments directed at her.

“Deep breaths,” she urged, demonstrating by holding hers for a full thirty seconds before she let it out again. “Honestly, Mum, just relax. There'll be almost everything we need at Freudesheim, so if something's overlooked it won't be the end of the world, and you don't need to be so stressed. Look, Will isn't doing anything urgent, I'll get him in and we'll tidy all this up then come and help you pack. My things are just about done, and the only problem with Will's will be to stop him taking too many books. It will all be fine, you'll see.”

“But it's such a big thing for your father,” insisted Charlie, impatiently sweeping her hair from her eyes – it was a good day if she didn't threaten to have it cut off at least three times, before giving in at the howls of horror which greeted this. “After all, he's got to sort out everything for the rest of the family, and you know how upset they'll be if he gets it wrong. Everyone's still so raw over Nana, and I tried to tell him that it could wait but he won't have it. Then there's this colleague of his who wants to come along – who she is, I have no idea, he won't tell me yet.”

“Well, then, think of it this way,” retorted Millie brightly. “No matter how much we try, there's yet to be a holiday where something doesn't go wrong – we have Ashley to make sure of that! - so there's no point in getting worked up over it, you might as well just relax and enjoy it. Remember the time Will fell in the lake and tried to haul himself out only to bring John in with him?”

At the memory of John's face as he tumbled over the edge of the boat, Charlie giggled, then suddenly pulled her daughter into a fierce hug. She wasn't demonstrative as a rule, though she and Charles had left their children in no doubt as to how much they loved them, but it sufficed as an apology for her unfair comments of earlier, and the two stood up much brightened by the conversation. They hadn't always been close, but Millie's new found maturity of the past year had helped to build bridges that promised friendship as well as love.

With the air cleared, Charlie decided to start packing the food that they would need for the next day's journey, leaving Millie to fetch her brother from the garden and enlist his help. The house seemed bizarrely quiet without Ashley and Stacia constantly fighting, or John shouting for something because he'd managed to lose it, and in the hour that they had the three managed to get a fair amount done, even Will waking up long enough to help load all the luggage into the camper-van that they'd been forced to invest in when both Stacia and Poppy became too old to sit on people's laps any longer.

The calm was broken by the return of the four, preceded by an awful smell that made Millie grimly predict exactly what had happened. In the event she was proved right. Poppy, so the story they were told afterwards went, had been helping Stacia to try and find twigs in the rushes at the edge of the river to race under the bridge when she'd stumbled. Luckily for all concerned, the water wasn't fast-flowing, or even particularly deep, and at worst her clothes were a sorry sight that would never be quite the same again, but John had been absorbed in a conversation with Ashley about growing up and had only realised when Poppy screamed. They'd returned post haste to get her out of her wet clothes.

A bath was the first thing that was ordered, once she'd been stripped down to knickers on the doorstep so as not to drag through the house any of the foul smelling mud that her bottom half was caked in. In a fit of mercy, and considering the weather, Charlie let her take it lukewarm, while she went to interrogate her oldest son about what had gone wrong, before towelling her down and telling her that she would just have to spend the rest of the day in her pyjamas, as all her other clothes had been packed. 

“Something,” she said pointedly to her husband, once he returned from work and they were hiding in the kitchen for the vociferous game of cheat taking place between the rest of the children, “tells me that this holiday is not going to go smoothly.”

Wherein she spoke more truthfully than she realised.

Descending the Great Pyramid by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

 

“Dad! What on earth are you doing?” shouted Amy, but received no answer since by that time David was halfway down the Pyramid. She sighed. “I suppose we’d better go after him. Maybe you boys should give Mum a hand – oh, where is Mum?”

There was a pause while they all looked round the platform, as though Augusta might have concealed herself behind a stone while they weren’t looking.

“Well, I guess we know where Dad’s gone,” said Phoebe. She peered over, then looked back at them, a slight smile on her lips. “Although he seems to have got carried away and dashed straight past Mum.”

For, indeed, Augusta was clinging to a crumbling rock a few feet below them, looking down at her husband, who was rapidly vanishing into the distance, his shouts still echoing around the Pyramid. After a minute or two she shook her head and looked up instead.

“Are you all right, Mum?” Amy slithered down beside her.

“Oh yes, I just fell down,” said Augusta. “But what on earth is your father doing? He just went vaulting down the Pyramid as though he’d spotted a signpost to the lost tomb of Imhotep.”

“I should imagine he was going after you,” said Phoebe, who had now descended the few feet and was perched beside them, looking as cool as though she was taking a stroll down Oxford Street. Augusta, on the other hand, might have spent the whole day on a particularly strenuous dig. Her hair stood on end, her face was smeared with dirt, sweat and some undefined yellow substance, which also adorned in places her dusty, crumpled old shorts and shirt. She stared at her daughter blankly.

“After me? But why ever? I’m up here and he’s nearly at the bottom.”

“I haven’t a clue. What actually happened, Mum? You can’t have just fallen down.”

“But I did! I was talking to David and I forgot I was standing near the edge, and I just sort of toppled over.”

Phoebe and Amy exchanged resigned glances. It might sound improbable, but it was the sort of thing Mum did. Once she had got overexcited about some wall pictures that she thought depicted some previously unknown Egyptian weapon, forgotten that she was standing on a narrow wooden platform and plunged head first into a chasm of as yet untested depth. Happily it had been filled with water at the bottom, which had broken her fall, and since they had extracted her before she drowned the episode had ended well.

“Well, we’d better go down and tell Dad you haven’t fallen right down and broken your neck. I expect he rushed past without even spotting you. Either that or he was going so fast he couldn’t stop himself.”

As Augusta prepared to lower herself to the next block, Amy gave a shriek of horror.

“Mum! Your hands – your arms! You can’t possibly climb down like that.”

“It’s only blood,” said Augusta reassuringly. “I didn’t so much fall as slide, and I scraped my arms and legs a bit. Don’t worry, I’ll clean up when we get back.”

“She’ll have to climb down as she is,” said Phoebe. “Unless you’ve got a whole proper first-aid kit dangling from that infernal contraption of yours, Amy.”

“Well, I’ve got some bandages and a pair of scissors and some antiseptic cream.” Amy tugged at the first-aid kit which she always kept dangling from the belt she had made herself and which was fitted with myriad hooks, pouches and loops so that she could carry everything that she felt might conceivably come in useful.

“Don’t be silly,” said Augusta. “Do you really think you can perform first aid on me when we’re perched four hundred and fifty feet above the ground on a bit of crumbling stone? Come on, David’s completely vanished now. Heaven knows what he’s doing.”

She let herself go and dropped to the next step, wobbled precariously for a moment or two, then steadied herself and went on down, the others trailing after her, Sphinx and John coming last and helping Randa and Ricky, who were rather small to manage three-foot steps by themselves. Despite the fact that they were all going as fast as they could, it still took them some time to reach the base of the Pyramid. Augusta looked round, but there was no sign of her husband.

“Where do you think he’s gone?” she said to Phoebe, who had completed her descent at the same time.

“Heaven knows. We’d better stay here and wait. I expect he’ll make his way back at some point.”

“Don’t you think we should go and look for him?”

“No,” said Phoebe firmly, visions of David and Augusta chasing each other round the Great Pyramid for the rest of the evening flitting through her mind. “We’ll wait here for him.”

 

Picking up the Guest by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

The next day saw them setting out early, as they had to drive across London to pick up Charles' colleague before setting out for the ferry to Europe, and then on to Switzerland. It was hoped that the next night would see them all tucked safely into their beds once again – they had been promised that all the rooms would be made up for them on their arrival – but given the ability of certain members of the family to cause trouble (here Charlie sent a pointed glare at two of her children, who wriggled and tried to smile sweetly) they weren't going to say for certain that that would be the case.

Nobly, Charles had volunteered to do the first stretch of driving, and had been inclined to mention repeatedly how generous he considered himself until Charlie pointed out crushingly that he was the only one who knew the way and he was always up this early for his job in any case. Now she was curled up on the front seat, a pillow under her head, eyes shut and resolutely ignoring the increasingly loud whispering and giggling behind her. The three youngest had been told that they, at least, must try and sleep for at least the first hour, or they would be exhausted by the time they arrived at the Platz. This, of course, only made them more determined not to, and although Poppy was still tired enough to be largely out of it, she was still heard to contribute something sleepily every few minutes.

“Guys,” said Charles softly, looking back during stoppage at one traffic jam. “Others are trying to sleep you know. If you really aren't tired, please try and keep it down.”

His glance took in both his wife and John, who was spread over two seats, having made sure that he was the first in to claim them. The three girls, who were squashed together, took one look at their father and decided to obey – he was gentle enough, as a rule, but he ruled with an iron rod of discipline when he chose - so that John could continue his sleep in peace, and Millie, who had been looking listlessly out of the window, started to drift off.

With the quietening down also came weariness, and half an hour later when Charles pulled up outside a non-descript town house, only Will was still awake, scribbling furiously in the notebook that he kept with him at all times. What he wrote he wouldn't divulge, and both Charles and Charlie had warned the rest off trying to tease it out of him, but it certainly kept him engaged for most of the time.

Before Charles could even think to ask, he was out of his seat, leaving his notebook carefully closed on the seat, and winching open the side door, which he was next to. Checking that he'd got the right house he disappeared, knocked on the front door, and was speedily joined by a middle aged woman in a trig green suit, hair carefully styled and with just a little make-up on. She strode over to the car, beaming and looking as fresh as it was possible to be despite the fact that the sun was still barely rising over the tall buildings, Will following behind and trying to drag her suitcase along. By the time he'd put it in the boot and climbed in, she'd taken his seat and was looking round with a delighted air.

“How very neat,” she exclaimed, ignoring John's grunt as Will slid his feet off the chair so that he could sit down. “You really must find this a boon and a blessing, Chas. Now,” with a glance around at the still sleeping occupants of the van, “suppose that you introduce me during our first stop.”

“Good idea,” he grinned, as he eased the van out of the parking space he'd miraculously managed to find – and which he rather suspected had been saved specially for him – and into the steady flow of traffic at the end of the road. “We agreed to push on for the ferry, but I rather suspect that most of them will want to be woken up to go on deck once we get there, and I can do the rounds then. Sorry about that, they aren't as used to early hours as we poor folk.”

Such amiable chatter was kept up until Charlie awoke, half an hour later, when she sat up and turned around with a lazy grin to greet their guest. The two had met once before, at an important meal Charles had forced her to attend and at which she had certainly been a shining and noted star, despite her repeated insistence to the contrary, and were soon deep into a political discussion. As this left Charles free to concentrate on his driving, he contributed little, though he would glance behind himself from time to time to smile at his slumbering family, and perhaps catch Will's eye through his scribbling.

Poppy was the first to wake as they drew to a halt ten minutes from the ferry. Rubbing her eyes sleepily, she sat up carefully around Ashley, then, seeing as she was nearest to the window and couldn't get out that way, she crawled underneath the seats to emerge triumphant and run to Charlie for her customary morning hug. Smiling, even as she was scolded fondly for not staying still as she was told to do explicitly before they set off, she started to suck her thumb, then looked around and saw the newcomer.

“This is Hilda,” explained Charlie, at her inquisitive gaze, and added to the older woman, “my youngest, and sometimes most troublesome, daughter, Poppy. You'll have to excuse her running around, I rather fear she's going to take after her brother and be one of the sporty ones when she's a bit older. You've met Will of course – the lump next to him is John, slightly older but far less mature.”

Thankfully, John was still asleep and oblivious to this slur on his name, but she was rewarded with a grin from Will for her troubles and sat back well satisfied. Derogatory as she might be about her own children, woe betide anyone who crossed them, for they unleashed a lioness – as Hilda could guess straight away. After murmuring a greeting to Poppy, she asked Charles something about a piece of work he'd been doing for her, while Charlie tried to convince Poppy that they couldn't possibly fetch breakfast from the boot yet.

The Emersons Set Out by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

 

As the rest of the family were in complete agreement with this dictum, Augusta gave in. They didn’t have to wait long, for David, spurred on by fear for his wife, made excellent time round the Pyramid and by the time Sphinx was lowering Randa to the ground he rounded the final corner and came to a halt beside them. Indeed, he would have arrived sooner had he not been using a considerable quantity of his breath for bellowing Augusta’s name at regular intervals. As soon as he arrived at her side he grabbed her shoulders and began to shake her violently.

“You damned lunatic!” he shouted. “What the hell do you think you were doing?” He stopped shaking her, instead crushing her in his arms and kissing her. “What were you doing?” he demanded again when he had finished.

“I don’t know how you think I can answer you when you’re shaking me and kissing me,” said Augusta, rather breathlessly. “I just fell over and slid a few feet. What did you go dashing off like that for?”

“I thought you’d fallen down and killed yourself. Or been kidnapped, like you were two years ago.” David seized her and kissed her again. “I wish I’d never introduced you to Egyptology.”

“It’s not half so dangerous as my other job. Though that time when your Grandmother was kidnapped just after we’d first met did come close.”

“I wish you’d give that bloody job up.”

“Don’t swear in front of the children, David. And you know I don’t look like being asked to do anything else for a while to come as things have calmed down a bit, apparently. Still, if they do ask me I’ll probably agree. I like it.”

“Bah,” said David, and began to stride across the sand, Augusta trotting to keep up with him and their offspring trailing behind like a row of ducklings, not noticeably perturbed by the argument, which was part of everyday life in the Emerson household.

“We were just discussing whether we’re going on holiday this year,” said Amy as they approached the Shepheard Hotel, where they always stayed when they passed through Cairo. “Have you thought about it, even?”

“We’re not going anywhere,” said David, who professed to loathe the idea of any holiday that did not involve items at least two thousand years old, though he invariably enjoyed them when they came.

“I thought we might go to Switzerland,” said Augusta.

“That’d be new for us,” said Amy. “Any particular reason, or did it just take your fancy?”

“Isn’t that where the girl lived who I’m named after?” said Constance Rose.

“Yes, although she doesn’t live there any more. As a matter of fact, I thought we might potter up to the Gornetz Platz and drop in on the Maynards. When I heard last from Con Jack and Jo were still living at Freudesheim. It’d be fun to see them again, and I don’t suppose they travel much now; they must be getting on.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Phoebe. “Isn’t there supposed to be some rather good skiing up there?”

“So I’ve heard,” said John. “Damn. Why did I sign up for next week? If I’d known there’d be skiing I’d never have done it.”

“Is there really?” said Augusta. “I’ve always wanted to try skiing. I was up at the Platz in the summer, so I never got the chance.”

There was a brief pause, as more than one member of the family quailed at the prospect of teaching Augusta to ski. Then John shrugged his shoulders.

“Oh well, I daresay I’ll survive missing the skiing. Anyway, it’s the summer now, so I don’t suppose you’ll have any more chance than you did before. So, when are you off?”

“I got tickets this morning for the day after tomorrow.”

“What?” David swung round on the threshold of their room. “We’ve still got too much to do – we can’t possibly pack up and leave in two days’ time.”

“Yes we can. I’ve already done a good bit of our packing and it won’t take long to do the children’s. We’ll even have time left over for – other things.” She pushed him into the room and closed the door firmly on her children. They hastily retreated, knowing from the look on their mother’s face that she was about to demonstrate to her husband one of the activities for which they would have plenty of time.

Two days later they arrived, late, at the chalet Augusta had taken on the Görnetz Platz. John and Lottie had made their own way back to England, where John was to join his company and Lottie her friends from university, where she was reading medicine. Augusta extracted herself from the car and performed a hasty head-count, just in case anyone had been misplaced on the journey. Sphinx, tall, dark and taciturn, closely resembling his handsome grandfather. His twin, Amy, plain and ordinary looking like her mother. Elegant Phoebe, who looked as though she had just stepped from the bathroom after an hour long toilette. Constance Rose, small, blonde and tired after the long journey, and finally Ricky and Randa, who had leapt from the car and were already prancing away across the springy turf in celebration of their release from the tedious confinement they had suffered for the last few hours.

“Hey! Come back, you two,” called Amy as they vanished into the darkness. “We’ve got to get all the stuff in and sort out beds.”

“Here, Randa, you take your case. Ricky, here’s the hamper for you.” Augusta seized a selection of knapsacks, slung them over her shoulders and grabbed an enormous suitcase which she began to drag up the short path to the front door. “We’ll do as little as possible tonight, and tomorrow morning we’ll go and give Joey a surprise.”

 

The Journey Continues by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

They managed to gain the ferry safely, and the family were soon raised and tempted to join them on deck for a picnic breakfast. As the crossing was a short one, they had to be relatively fast, but they all ate the sandwiches that Charlie had provided with a gusto that spoke of good cooking and excellent appetites, and at the same time they were introduced to Hilda, who had been sitting to one side watching them with a smile on her face.

It had been something of an anxiety to Charles to see how they would react to each other, but overall it went as well as could have been expected. Ashley and Stacia took it with all the excitement of two young children eager to be excused from their meal so that they could dangle precariously over the edge and watch the waves beneath them, where they were joined by Poppy as soon as she could grab John's hand and persuade him to join them.

Because of Charles' job, the children had always been kept away from politics until they were old enough to understand it properly, and John had still shown no interest in the subject and made no comment on their visit. But both Millie and Will had been looking askance at the collected lady since they had met her, and Charles could see that he was going to have to get them on their own as soon as possible and explain – he knew that he could trust them until then, and a crowded deck was not the place for explanations. He was starting to think that he should have told them in advance, however; Millie had been encouraged by both her parents to get involved now that she was older, and once she was eighteen Charles had promised to take her on a trip to the Houses of Parliament one day, and Will, too, was keen, though his was far more a theoretical interest based on the books he'd read to have long debates with his father one evening a week.

Already, Charlie was wondering where trouble would first come from, and she didn't have to wait long to find out. Just as she glanced across, Poppy leaned out just a little too far and one of her hands slipped. With her tiny feet she was hardly secure, and even as she teetered precariously on the edge it seemed as if she must fall; John, as ever, was there to wrap his arms around her, though, and lift her clear of the danger. Even though she tried to laugh it off as the sort of thing that happened every day – Poppy had already broken her arm twice climbing trees, and was well on the way to beating the record in the family, currently held by John himself with five broken bones – it was plain that Charlie's heart had leapt at that moment, and soon after she called them back to the main group – much to the disgust of Ashley and Stacia, though their pointed looks were lost on Poppy, who was enjoying a hug with her favourite sibling.

“She takes after her uncle Mike,” explained Charlie, once they were all settled back down and just waiting for land to hove into sight. “Mischief runs in Chas' family, I'm sure.”

“I remember when he went climbing down a cliff to look for some bird's eggs,” started Charles, but at exactly the same moment he and Charlie realised that the story would lead to mentioning Joey, still something of a taboo subject in casual conversation for them, and haste was made to decide that they should be getting back down to the vehicle.

Disembarking took a little longer than expected, thanks to a driver further up breaking down unexpectedly, but soon enough they were bowling along the French roads, Charlie now at the wheel to give Charles a chance to curl up and catch up on the sleep that he'd missed. With this in mind, Millie had dug out the cards before they set off and they were all thoroughly engaged in a game of 'Cheat', even Hilda joining in and comprehensively thrashing them all. Stacia was the usual winner, but on this occasion even she had to own herself beat, and it was a relief when Charles woke up again so that they could start to sing to pass the time instead.

Lunch was taken at the roadside, in a quiet backwater where they could remain undisturbed, but time was getting on and soon they were off again, Stacia still finishing her meal on the back seat. Hilda took her turn at driving, which left Charlie free to catch them all up on the latest family gossip and dole out letter duties for the month; they tried to keep some sort of rota so that their many aunts and uncles all heard from them on a regular basis, without keeping just one correspondent.

The final meal of the day was less formal, as they hadn't got on as quickly as they hoped and so the adults took turns to drive while the others ate. By now the long journey had worn down the children, and the three young girls were asleep by halfway through the fantastic story that Will told of fairy queens and goblins, though he kept going to the end at the insistence of his other listeners. It was, he protested, only something he'd thought up a couple of days ago and decided to save to occupy the triumvirate – as they were sometimes known to the family – through the journey; he'd inherited Joey's writing talents, though, and managed to keep even the adults enthralled. While they listened to him talk, they sped on through the night, towards their final destination.

Freudesheim by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

Their arrival at the Platz was certainly something to be remembered for a long time to come. Even though the residents had been expecting them – and Nancy had promised to make sure that someone from the school sauntered over towards evening and made sure they had everything they needed and weren't wanting for company – what they were not expecting was the hurricane vaulted among them unexpectedly at around lunchtime.

It would have been thought that after such a long journey the children, at least, would have been worn out and fractious, but in fact it was the adults who looked more worn down. While they got out and stretched various aching limbs, yawning and asking Hilda what she thought of the house, Ashley and Poppy treated a bemused Hilary Graves, who was walking back from the shops and saw the entire thing, to a victory dance around the camper-van, while Stacia stood to one corner shrieking their arrival to the sky and the distant mountains.

Unperturbed, Charles wandered over to the gate and greeted her politely enough, asking after her family and the rest of the residents. She murmured the quickest response that she could, added something about how his children had clearly inherited Joey's mantle and she couldn't wait to meet them at a more convenient time, and scuttled off, thoroughly alarmed. Grinning to himself at having successfully ensured they didn't have various old friends and acquaintances of Joey's knocking day and night to catch up and thoroughly ruining the holiday, he turned around and clapped his hands loudly enough to be heard over the cacophony his family always created. Instant silence fell, though Ashley and Poppy continued to jig, grinning.

“Right, now,” he started, with a glance at Freudesheim, into which Charlie and Hilda had already vanished. “You can all just calm down and start helping. John, Will, you carry smaller luggage to the hallway, just dump it out of the way for now until everyone knows which room they're taking. Millie, you helped mum pack, find all the food bags for the kitchen and take them down, would you – you remember the way? Girls, first of all stop prancing around like that, you're making me quite dizzy. You can be the first to choose your bedrooms. Yes, you do get one each, just remember that we aren't allowed into the side quarters because if Uncle Rix is here I'm sure that he won't want to be disturbed! After that, find mum, tell her which ones you've chosen and do as she tells you!

The last was shouted, as the three excited girls charged into the house to have a huge argument over who could lay claim to the first bedroom they found, before deciding that none of them wanted it and there would be a much better one down the corridor. Grinning at Millie, who had already retrieved the first bag to be taken in and was following them at a more sedate pace, he turned to help Will with the biggest suitcase.

After that, organised chaos reigned for quite a while. Nothing more was heard of the three youngest girls, though John ran upstairs to let Poppy know which would be his room so that she could claim the one next to it that she would want most, and returned to report that all seemed to be well, and all three had pitched in on unpacking Ashley's things before they started on their own. Satisfied that mischief could be averted for the time being, the older among them set to on getting things in order with time still for a walk before dinner.

Hilda disappeared with her luggage to her own room, an air of thankfulness about her for having escaped to a relatively quiet haven for the time being, and Charles and Charlie betook themselves to Joey and Jack's old bedroom, which they were reluctantly inhabiting as the only double room in the house – though Charlie made enough promises to cheer Charles up that her eldest daughter was forced to tell her off in a thoroughly disgusted manner.

Her parents' morals attended to, Millie dragged her own luggage upstairs and into the first room she found – she cared little for her surroundings – then went to unpack the food and start to work out what they could possibly make for dinner on the meagre supplies that they'd been able to bring, when even pasta would be taken plain. A rummage through the cupboards produced nothing of much use, though Jack had done his best to stock it up, and she was just concluding that they would have to walk to whichever shop was closest when John appeared with another query and she forgot all about it.

Time flew, and before long there was a feeling in the air that it was time for a walk. The younger ones, at least, had been having fun exploring Freudesheim, which had changed since their last visit two years previously, while the adults had finally finished unpacking and were debating where they could go. A quick walk that would still shake the cobwebs away was eventually decided on, and they were just going to hunt down the rest of the party when it happened.

Poppy, in a fit of daring that she would later regret, had snuck past the bit they had been told was within their boundaries and into a part of Freudesheim technically forbidden to them. No reason had been given for this, as it was a rather rushed last minute order, though Charlie would have been happy to explain had they asked; as she hadn't, what Poppy saw when she swung open the first door made her scream in shock, and the rest of the party come pouring in on her, convinced that there'd been a catastrophe.

The Emersons Arrive by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

 

They were all tired when they arrived, having travelled solidly for almost a day. Augusta had bought train tickets as far as Berne, where they hired a car and drove the rest of the way. David had flatly refused to allow his wife to take on any of the driving, saying that it wasn’t worth it for the nervous strain on the rest of the family.

“There’s nothing wrong with my driving,” said Augusta with dignity. “Have I ever had a car accident?"

“Not quite,” said David, deep meaning in his tones. “It’s when you take short cuts across fields, or forget how to stop.”

“That was when I’d only just started driving – I never forget that now. And the field thing was because I was chasing those people. Don’t you remember? The burglars who stole your book because it was locked up and they thought it was some priceless antiquity. I couldn’t face your reaction when you found you had to rewrite eighty thousand words, so I went after them and got it back.”

“How could I forget? There I was, innocently taking Sphinx and Amy for a walk, when suddenly you come belting out of a cow pasture in my new sports car, yelling blue murder, and vanish off into the distance.”

“Caught them though, didn’t I?” said Augusta, smiling complacently.

“Yes, and came home looking as though you’d been in a prize fight.”

“Well, I had. Apart from the prize part, of course.”

“Mum always wins,” said Phoebe from the back. “It’s no wonder she’s got the job she has, really. It’s perfect for her.”

“Bah,” said David and drove a little faster. Amy and Phoebe began to discuss Phoebe’s latest admirer, Sphinx throwing in the odd comment here and there and Constance Rose ostentatiously ignoring them, instead reading a book about ancient Egyptian religion.

“He’s sweet,” Amy was saying.

“I know, but he’s so dull. Imagine having to spend much time alone with him, when all he can talk about is me and how wonderful I am. I don’t say that’s not interesting for five or ten minutes, but an hour of it is a bit much. I’d start crawling under the tables and biting people’s legs just for something more interesting to do.”

“And I don’t suppose that would go down too well,” said Amy with a snort of laughter.

“Hence me not going out with him,” said Phoebe.

“He’s not intelligent enough for you,” said Sphinx with the slight twitch of his mouth that, for those who knew him, indicated a smile.

“I wasn’t going to put it that bluntly, but I suppose you’re right. This holiday looks like being fairly boyfriend – sorry, Sphinx – admirer-free. I don’t expect there’ll be many people around at a ski resort in the middle of summer.”

Sphinx raised his brows.

“I daresay we’ll survive the deprivation.”

“I didn’t say it’d be a bad thing. At least we won’t have to worry about you breaking every female heart in sight.”

“I’m going to be working on the revised edition of Granddad’s Egyptian Grammar. I shan’t have time for anything else.”

“I thought you’d decided to give it a miss until you could go through his notes properly,” said Amy.

“Gran sent me practically all of them a month or so ago so I could carry on. I’m sure I told you.”

Amy considered.

“He did,” said Constance Rose, looking up from her book for a moment. “It was just before we found the mummy so I expect you forgot all about it.”

“I’m impressed you didn’t,” said Amy. “What with the old bat taking up most of your attention at the moment.”

Constance Rose flushed.

“I wish you’d stop calling her that. People worshipped her for thousands of years, and now she’s calling to me to follow her. And she isn’t a bat – she’s called Bat. She’s the incarnation of the Milky Way, and sometimes she takes on the likeness of a cow.” She scowled as Amy and Phoebe dissolved into helpless giggles and even Sphinx allowed his face to relax into a rare grin. Giving up the struggle, she returned to her book and ignored them pointedly.

By the time they had been driving for an hour conversation had dwindled and by the time they reached the Gornetz Platz Constance Rose was asleep with her head on Phoebe’s shoulder and Ricky and Randa had reached the stage of whining and arguing. Augusta, tired herself, oversaw the making up of the beds, chivvied everyone into them, then fell into her own beside David.

“Do you really mean to inflict yourself on these people?” he said with a frown as she found a comfortable spot on the unfamiliar mattress.

“No, I mean to visit them,” said Augusta with a sleepy smile.

“Well, I’m not coming.”

“Of course you are. You’ll like them; they’re quite sensible, though a bit eccentric.”

She smiled again as her husband grunted and shut his eyes.

 

Matron by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

“Well, it's nice to meet you too,” grumbled Matey, from where she was sat in her rocking chair under the window, watching the distant peaks that seemed to crowd around in a protective fashion, as if over them there was nothing but a blankness, they were the end of the world. It was certainly a breathtaking sight at this time of day. “I heard you arrive – thought it probably wasn't worth disturbing you until dinner.”

Her still beady eyes stopped, and she looked them all over again, cowing even Ashley, who had been on the verge of demanding to know who this strange old lady in her grandparents' house was. Even Hilda had rushed to the scene at Poppy's cry, and she was the first to regain herself enough to step forwards.

“Good afternoon,” she said, in the sort of cultured voice that could imply anything she wanted about the person to whom she was speaking. “Who, may I ask, are you?”

“This is Matey,” beamed Charles, having sufficiently recovered himself. The look she sent him was one that made him regress right back to age ten, when she'd caught him illicitly destroying one of Len's old dolls, and he made haste to correct himself. “Gwynneth Lloyd, former Matron of the Chalet School next door, and still Matey to anyone who knew her then. Sorry for the intrusion, dad did warn me that you'd be here but I'd completely forgotten!”

“We were just going for a walk,” exclaimed Charlie brightly, before Matey could make known her views on people who forgot about her. “Not very far, only ten minutes to clear the cobwebs. Care to join us?”

Most of her children looked at her as if she was completely mad to think that Matey could walk downstairs, let alone go on an, albeit short, ramble. Old as she was, she resembled nothing more than a stern robin as she sat in her chair, grey hair pulled neatly back into a bun and eyes glinting dangerously. Only Millie remembered her enough to realise that her mother was not merely being polite, and she waited with bated breath to see what Matey's response would be.

Silently, she stood up, with the help of the walking stick at her side, and then presumed to take Hilda's arm, so that she was thoroughly supported and could amble along quite nicely. What her human walking stick thought of being treated in so breezy a manner was unclear, but before she could raise any objection Charles, with a stifled laugh, ordered the children out of the way and downstairs to get their coats post haste. 

Even as the rest got ready to go, they could hear Matey grilling Hilda on what exactly she did for a living, and then emphasising her certainty that she'd seen her in some newspaper or magazine before. But then, she recalled, she could remember the excitement Joey generated on the Platz the first time she'd spotted Charles on the front cover of one of the newspapers, in the background of the picture admittedly but there all the same. 

“Ready to go?” called Charlie, after what seemed an age, and Hilda escaped thankfully with the excuse that she needed to find a cardigan to put on; as warm as the day had been, up here there was a light breeze that, with the sun setting for the evening, left it decidedly on the chilly side.

While they waited, Charles sent Poppy in to apologise to Matey for disturbing her earlier. He had completely forgotten that she would be at Freudesheim, though he'd remembered Jack warning him to stay out of the side suite of rooms if he knew what was good for him, and his shock had been as great as anyone else's, not least because she looked exactly the same as she had last time he saw her, albeit older now. Her presence could be a blessing in disguise, however, because if there was one person who could keep his family in check, he would have entrusted Matey to do it.

By the time they set off, it was almost time to turn around again, if they wanted dinner at a reasonable hour before Poppy went to bed, but the light jaunt did them all good. As they walked, Charles told them a story conjured up from his childhood about the time that Mike had climbed the large tree they passed and not been missed for five hours, during which he'd managed to drop tiny pine cones on the head of more than one passing person unnoticed. It was, he found, easier to talk about bygone days now that they were back.

Soon enough they were back at the house, and plaguing Millie and Charlie to know what they would be fed, all looking much better. Even Matey had gained some colour in her cheeks, and she demanded to be left alone in the dining room until the meal was ready - “Though Ashley can join me by laying the table,” she decided with a great finality that even that young lady obeyed. With this sorted, Will offered to take care of Stacia and Poppy by finishing the story that they'd missed the end of while they were driving, and the family dispersed for a quiet evening in.

The Meeting of the Clans by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

 

Having not reached the chalet until nearly midnight, the only one who was up at a reasonable hour was Sphinx, who seemed able to survive on less sleep than the rest of the human race. They finished breakfast at around eleven and Augusta announced her intention of paying a surprise visit to her old friend.

“Are you people coming or have you got other plans?” she asked.

“I’m coming,” said Constance Rose. “I always feel I have a – a special connection with the Maynard family.”

“Really?” said Phoebe, looking interested. “Mum, you never told any of the rest of us that they worshipped the Egyptian gods. Do they follow the great wild cow too, or do they prefer some of the others?”

“I mean because of my name,” said Constance Rose, pouting.

“Oh, I see.” Phoebe gave her sister a grin, which that young lady ignored with the dignity she felt was due to her sixteen years. “I’ll come, Mum. We ought to try to get to know the locals or we’ll be bored out of our skulls. Except for Sphinx, of course, who has his Important Work to do.”

“I don’t mind coming to see your friends, Mum,” said Sphinx loftily. “Anyway, Granddad’s notes are all at the bottom of my suitcase and I haven’t unpacked yet. And I expect Amy’ll come, too.”

“Good,” said Augusta, rising and beginning to clear the breakfast table. “That’s all of us then.”

“I’m not coming,” said David.

“Yes you are,” said Augusta. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you wear anything respectable. They won’t care, anyway.”

It took her a few minutes, but by the time the table had been cleared David had reluctantly agreed to pay a call, slightly placated by the fact that he would not be prised out of his elderly, scruffy slacks and shirt, which were his favoured attire at all times.

Augusta had an excellent sense of direction, some of the time, and despite the fact that it was more than twenty years since she had last been on the Platz she had no difficulty in finding her way to Freudesheim.

“The Chalet School is just down that avenue,” she said, pointing. “Shame it’s the summer – it would have been fun to see how it’s changed. And this is Freudesheim.” She looked around with interest. The garden wasn’t quite so well-kept as it had been when she had last been here, and she rather thought the house was larger.

“Whose is the camper-van?” said Sphinx as they came up to the front door.

“No idea,” said Augusta. “They certainly didn’t have one last time I was here. Mind you,” she added, “I wouldn’t put it past Joey to take it into her head to travel the world in a camper-van, even at her age.”

“Are you sure you aren’t thinking of yourself?” said Amy, eying her sceptically. Augusta ignored this and beat a tattoo on the door knocker. They waited for a few minutes. Augusta performed another percussion solo on the knocker. This time, there was a pause, then a faint yelling from inside the house. A moment later the door opened and they saw a good-looking, middle-aged woman wearing a stylish pale blue suit, who looked out at them enquiringly.

“Oh, hallo,” said Augusta, recovering her equilibrium, which had been slightly shaken by this apparition who resembled no-one she could imagine being either a resident or an employee at Freudesheim. “I’m so sorry, but I’ve no idea who you are. We’re old friends of the Maynards and just dropped in to see how they were doing.”

“I see,” said the woman, allowing herself to smile. “Evidently the news of their arrival has spread fast! Do come in, I’m afraid the house isn’t quite –” She paused, apparently unable to find a word that would describe the present state of the house.

“That’s all right,” said Augusta, following her in and looking round with interest. “Ours never is. I think it’s having so many children that does it.”

“Everyone’s upstairs,” the woman explained, leading them there. “There seems to be a lot to do and we’re all working hard. Chas – you’ve got visitors.”

Augusta stopped on the threshold, suddenly bewildered and wondering whether she had stepped into a parallel universe. For these, though presumably Maynards, were not the Maynards she had been expecting to see.

A tall, dark man rose from where he had been kneeling on the floor and came towards them, his hand extended.

“Good morning,” he said with a polite smile. “I’m afraid you find us in a bit of confusion. We’ve only just arrived, you see. How can I help you?”

Augusta shook his hand firmly and studied his face.

“You’re a Maynard, aren’t you?” she said. “Charles, at a guess?”

“Yes – but how did you know?”

“We have met before, though I don’t suppose you remember. It was well over twenty years ago. My name’s Augusta Emerson.”

Charles frowned.

“The name rings a bell,” he said slowly. “Sorry, I don’t really remember. Still, come in and sit down – if you can find anywhere safe. This is my family, or some of it, at any rate. My wife, Charlie.” He indicated a slender woman with a mass of curls loosely tied back from her face, who gave them a friendly smile. “This is Millie, our eldest, and John, who comes next, and this young person is our youngest, Poppy. We’ve got three others, but you’ll meet them later.”

“How nice to meet you all,” said Augusta. “These are my youngest, Ricky and Miranda. They aren’t twins, though they look it at the moment. The oldest two are, though – Sphinx and Amy.”

“Sphinx?” echoed Poppy, staring at him, though Sphinx, who was looking at Millie, didn’t seem to notice. Augusta grinned down at her.

“I’m afraid our family has rather a lot of nicknames. Sphinx’s grandfather was called Ramses. We call Sphinx that because he’s not a chatterbox like the rest of us – he’s really Oswald Radcliffe, after my father and David’s grandfather. And Amy’s real name is Amelia. Anyhow, the other two are Phoebe and Connie. Sorry, Constance Rose. Oh, and my husband David, of course. Our other twins, Lottie and John, aren’t here.”

“Why don’t you all come downstairs and I’ll make us a coffee and see if I can find something to eat,” said Charlie. She led them back down, leaving Charles and his offspring to go on with their tasks. As they reached the bottom of the stairs, Charlie turned to Augusta, a suddenly serious look on her face.

“Were you calling to see Jack and Joey?” she asked.

“Well, yes,” Augusta admitted. “I take it they aren’t here at the moment.”

“I’m afraid not,” said Charlie. “You see, Joey died a couple of months ago.”

 

The Maynards Discuss by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

Upstairs was agog with the news of the new arrivals. Although they were a man down, Will having already decided that the mountains were too good to miss and he would be back by lunch once he'd written a few things down, they were getting through the jobs fast, and it shouldn't be long, Charles promised, before they were free to go out exploring properly. He doubted that he would be joining them, before lunch at any rate, as he wanted to start going through the study and ring Jack to make sure of what he was wanted to do.

After Joey's death, the family had been plunged into something of a depression, but Jack most of all. Although he didn't know it, Jem had been getting David to send him weekly reports of how his uncle was doing; as Jack felt more and more keenly the grief and loss of Joey in his life, he spiralled into a depression so bad that in the end Madge and Jem had insisted that he come and stay with them until he felt better. Charles had volunteered to come to Freudesheim to sort out all the loose ends of the business and work on dividing up all the small gifts that Joey had left in her will to various people.

Knowing how sensitive the subject was for her father – she still remembered the night that she'd wandered down in her dressing gown to get a glass of water and ended up falling asleep on the sofa next to him, because he'd been crying so hard that she just had to hug him – Millie moved conversation swiftly on before Poppy the curious could ask what exactly he would do in the study.

“What do you think of the new arrivals?” she demanded. “Who are they?”

“If I remember rightly,” said Charles, “though I'm not entirely sure that I do, Mrs Emerson was an old girl of the school, she used to feature in one of those tales that mum always told about the old days. I couldn't tell you anymore than that, though – but she seems to have arrived en masse, so no doubt we'll find out soon enough!”

“Sphinx seemed nice,” said Poppy at that point, her head tipped to one side consideringly. “He has an odd name, but he looked like Will's hero. Perhaps we should show them the holiday diary,” she added, in a sudden fit of inspiration. “Then they'd know who we all were and things.”

The diary in question was a small book, kept by Millie for each holiday. This year it was black, with a red stripe down one side, and in time honoured tradition they had all come to write their name and age on the front cover. So far she had only got as far as giving it a title – 'Fish Swim But Don't Laugh', after the conclusive line of one of Will's stories which was popular with the younger fry at the present – and writing up the start of their journey as they drove through Germany. She had a sneaking suspicion, however, that Will would have misappropriated it when he went out walking, to write the next update; with the time for her to leave home starting to dawn over the horizon, it was being passed more and more onto him to keep tradition alive.

“I'm sure that they won't want to be bothered with such nonsense,” she said quickly, blushing despite herself. She, too, had noticed Sphinx's not unattractive looks, and she decided there and then that if this odd family were to be involved in even the smallest way in their holiday, he would not think of her as childish enough to keep a diary. After all, she was the mother hen of the brood and she intended to stay that way!

Luckily, before she could work herself up any further about how he would clearly come and try and take over, when it was her job to look after the little ones, John inserted the question that they were all dying to know the answer to – just why they'd had such an oddball family landed on them anyway.

“I don't know,” protested Charles, when they turned to him for an answer. “Probably your Nana acting from beyond the grave to send them all to us and provide some adventure – she never could resist a bit of excitement. Or meddling in other folk's business for that matter. Now, I have to go to the study; why don't you go and try and find Ashley and Stacia and offer to take our guests out for a quick walk around the grounds?”

Millie declined, saying that she had to sort out her own unpacking, but John slipped his hand through Poppy's and induced her to join him in luring Ashley away from tormenting Hilda with a plague of questions about her job, and then gathering Stacia from where she had hidden herself away in a corner with a book in the hopes that she'd be overlooked for any work.

They, when approached, were as mystified as the rest by the arrival of the new family, but were decided that they must get to know them better before they could decide. Blithely ignoring John's uneasiness - he, like Millie, wasn't exactly comfortable with what he had seen of them all, though he shook himself mentally with an admonition not to be so judgemental – they ran down to the kitchen and burst in on the party, to invite them on a walk around the grounds.

Awkward Talk by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

“What a pleasant garden,” said Amy conventionally. The elders had swiftly disposed of their juniors, John suggesting that Ashley, Stacia and Poppy show Ricky and Randa their tree-house and other haunts. Judging by the looks they gave him this was not a suggestion they were in favour of, but they speedily vanished, leaving Millie, who had been called down by her mother to join them, and John to entertain the older Emersons.

“Yes, it’s always been a good place for children to play in,” said Millie, equally politely. There were a few minutes’ silence during which Amy and Millie desperately racked their brains for more things to say, John and Constance Rose glanced and smiled at one another, Phoebe looked around the well-kept flowerbeds and mentally rearranged them, and Sphinx stared at the back of Millie’s head with a look of such fixed intensity that an observer could have been forgiven for thinking he was planning on decapitating her. Finally Millie, unable to find any more polite nothings, burst out with the question that most of her siblings were longing to have answered.

“So what are you doing up here?”

“It was Mum’s idea, actually,” said Amy. “She came up here once before, ages ago, and she thought it’d be nice to see the place again. She used to know Mrs Maynard – the Mrs Maynard who used to live here – when she was at school.”

“You mean our Nana,” said Millie stiffly. Amy glanced at her.

“I’m sorry – were you awfully fond of her?” she said, awkwardly.

“Fairly, I suppose,” said Millie. 

“Our Granddad died two years ago, six months after Gran,” said Amy. When Millie didn’t reply she gave up for the time being. After all, people could get pretty funny about death, and she’d never seen the point of trying to talk to people who didn’t want to. Far too much effort. She dropped behind and talked to Sphinx instead.

“Bit odd, aren’t they?” she said quietly.

“Mm-hm,” said Sphinx, who was staring straight ahead of him.

“Do you think it’s just that they don’t like strangers?”

“Mm-hm,” said Sphinx.

“Or that they didn’t like us walking in on them – but we didn’t know, so I can’t see why they’d mind.”

“Mm-hm.”

“Or it could be because Mrs Maynard’s just died,” Amy went on.

“Mm-hm.”

“Are you even listening to me?” Amy paused suddenly, glanced at Millie’s back as she strode along in front of them, then looked back at Sphinx’s face, which was living up to his name. “Don’t tell me the heart of stone has finally melted?”

Sphinx’s face looked, if possible, even more as though it was made of granite. Amy debated briefly whether to cross-examine him about his feelings for Millie, but decided that it was quite as likely that he had taken a violent dislike to her as that he had fallen instantly in love, and that if that was the case it was probably safer not to pursue the subject. Beginning to wish that Mum had thought of some other idea, like visiting the fiery pits of hell, she trotted forward to try talking to Millie again.

“Who was the other lady who was with you?” she asked. “I think your father must have forgotten to introduce her.”

“Probably. He was a bit surprised when you all walked in,” said Millie pointedly. “She’s Hilda Straw – a friend of Dad’s from work.”

“He’s into politics, isn’t he?” said Amy somewhat vaguely, since she was only aware of the fact because Charlie had mentioned it in passing before chivvying them all out into the garden.

“He’s a politician,” said Millie. Amy, recognising this as a rather neat snub, subsided and spent the next few minutes looking at the flowerbeds and silently chortling to herself. She became aware that John and Constance Rose had finally broken through the bounds of agonising adolescent shyness and were conversing jerkily. Then she looked around as a series of screeches rang across the garden. A moment later there was a crash and someone came flying through the – unfortunately closed – window.

The Cup that Refreshes but does not Intoxicate by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

“What a pleasant garden,” said Amy conventionally. The elders had swiftly disposed of their juniors, John suggesting that Ashley, Stacia and Poppy show Ricky and Randa their tree-house and other haunts. Judging by the looks they gave him this was not a suggestion they were in favour of, but they speedily vanished, leaving Millie, who had been called down by her mother to join them, and John to entertain the older Emersons.

“Yes, it’s always been a good place for children to play in,” said Millie, equally politely. There were a few minutes’ silence during which Amy and Millie desperately racked their brains for more things to say, John and Constance Rose glanced and smiled at one another, Phoebe looked around the well-kept flowerbeds and mentally rearranged them, and Sphinx stared at the back of Millie’s head with a look of such fixed intensity that an observer could have been forgiven for thinking he was planning on decapitating her. Finally Millie, unable to find any more polite nothings, burst out with the question that most of her siblings were longing to have answered.

“So what are you doing up here?”

“It was Mum’s idea, actually,” said Amy. “She came up here once before, ages ago, and she thought it’d be nice to see the place again. She used to know Mrs Maynard – the Mrs Maynard who used to live here – when she was at school.”

“You mean our Nana,” said Millie stiffly. Amy glanced at her.

“I’m sorry – were you awfully fond of her?” she said, awkwardly.

“Fairly, I suppose,” said Millie. 

“Our Granddad died two years ago, six months after Gran,” said Amy. When Millie didn’t reply she gave up for the time being. After all, people could get pretty funny about death, and she’d never seen the point of trying to talk to people who didn’t want to. Far too much effort. She dropped behind and talked to Sphinx instead.

“Bit odd, aren’t they?” she said quietly.

“Mm-hm,” said Sphinx, who was staring straight ahead of him.

“Do you think it’s just that they don’t like strangers?”

“Mm-hm,” said Sphinx.

“Or that they didn’t like us walking in on them – but we didn’t know, so I can’t see why they’d mind.”

“Mm-hm.”

“Or it could be because Mrs Maynard’s just died,” Amy went on.

“Mm-hm.”

“Are you even listening to me?” Amy paused suddenly, glanced at Millie’s back as she strode along in front of them, then looked back at Sphinx’s face, which was living up to his name. “Don’t tell me the heart of stone has finally melted?”

Sphinx’s face looked, if possible, even more as though it was made of granite. Amy debated briefly whether to cross-examine him about his feelings for Millie, but decided that it was quite as likely that he had taken a violent dislike to her as that he had fallen instantly in love, and that if that was the case it was probably safer not to pursue the subject. Beginning to wish that Mum had thought of some other idea, like visiting the fiery pits of hell, she trotted forward to try talking to Millie again.

“Who was the other lady who was with you?” she asked. “I think your father must have forgotten to introduce her.”

“Probably. He was a bit surprised when you all walked in,” said Millie pointedly. “She’s Hilda Straw – a friend of Dad’s from work.”

“He’s into politics, isn’t he?” said Amy somewhat vaguely, since she was only aware of the fact because Charlie had mentioned it in passing before chivvying them all out into the garden.

“He’s a politician,” said Millie. Amy, recognising this as a rather neat snub, subsided and spent the next few minutes looking at the flowerbeds and silently chortling to herself. She became aware that John and Constance Rose had finally broken through the bounds of agonising adolescent shyness and were conversing jerkily. Then she looked around as a series of screeches rang across the garden. A moment later there was a crash and someone came flying through the – unfortunately closed – window.

A Slight Accident by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

Charlie and Augusta arrived in the sitting room and stopped short, their jaws dropping as they saw the window – or rather the window frame, from which the window itself was largely absent. Unfortunately they came to so abrupt a halt that Charles and David, who had been close at their heels, cannoned into them, felling Augusta instantly. Charlie, with a shriek, grabbed at both of them in an attempt to save herself, but only succeeded in bringing their heads together with a violently audible crack. With yells of pain, they collapsed on top of Augusta, who had just begun to haul herself to her feet.

Someone Augusta didn’t know grabbed Charles and hauled him off the floor. Augusta extracted herself from beneath her husband and poked him with her foot.

“David, you’ve got your elbow in Charlie’s mouth.”

“What the hell did you think you were doing?” he demanded as he rose to his feet, having carefully removed his elbow from Charlie’s face with a gentlemanly scowl. “Stopping like that.”

“Don’t swear in front of the children,” said Augusta.

“The children aren’t here!” shouted David. “Damnation!” he added, catching sight of them through the window.

Charlie was already staring through the hole where the window had been, the stranger beside her.

“What on earth is going on?” she demanded, eyeing her eldest daughter severely.

Before Millie could get her indignant reply out, David had loomed up behind her mother.

“What the devil do you think has happened?” he said.

“Are you hurt?” asked the stranger, who seemed to be more concerned about Hilda Straw, who was still lying on the grass among the splinters and shards of glass. He did not appear in the least disturbed by the withering look she gave him, but leaned forward, apparently with the intent of helping her to her feet. Instead, he felt a sharp jab in his stomach, tried to reverse, found that he had gone too far and tumbled gently out of the window, Charlie grabbing ineffectually at his foot as it vanished.

“Rix – are you hurt? Ow!” Charlie sucked her hand, which she had inadvertently put on a shard which was left in the frame. “Look, be careful, you two. We’ll come and pick you up.”

“Good idea,” said David, suiting the action to the word by stepping out of the window onto the grass and glass below. Augusta hastily grabbed Charlie as she showed signs of following.

“I think the rest of us should go round,” she said.

Five minutes later Hilda and the stranger had been removed from their uncomfortable resting place – they found out later that David had performed this office by simply lifting Hilda up and dumping her on the ground a few feet away – and found to have only minimal injuries. Rix Bettany had been introduced to the Emersons and Hilda, the last of whom had merely looked majestically down her nose at him – a feat she managed with surprising ease considering that she was a good six inches shorter than he was.

“Millie, what happened?” said Charles sternly.

“Nothing!” said Millie, a little ridiculously considering the circumstances. “I mean – I don’t know. We just heard the crash and came to see.”

Sphinx folded his arms.

“I’m afraid it’s true,” he said.

With one accord they all turned to Hilda and Rix.

A Second Accident by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

“Ladies first,” said Rix with a grin that somehow thawed a small part of a heart as hard even as Hilda's. Nevertheless, her glare never abated and she frostily turned her head from him to look at Augusta and David, intending to give her thanks in the most begrudging of tones. What actually came out as she opened her mouth, however, was something completely different. From upstairs, a window had opened unnoticed and, with her usual sense of timing, the person looking down interposed. Just as Hilda sucked her breath in, she suddenly seemed to announce,

“What on earth is going on down there? You're all worse than a bunch of Middles trying to organise a midnight feast. Honestly.”

Only Charles spared Matey a grinning look, having seen the humour in the whole situation now that he was reassured that neither his cousin nor his colleague were injured more seriously than a few bruises. The rest focused solely on Hilda, waiting to hear how an accident of such bizarre circumstances could have happened with both Charlie and Augusta in the house, with neither of them being involved.

“It was him,” she snapped. When it became apparent that this was all she would venture, Augusta muttered something about that really clearing things up, forgetting completely that she was a guest in the house. Even Sphinx had managed to look vaguely interested, in between glancing across at Millie just to see if she was looking at him.

“It was me, I'm afraid,” said Rix rather gallantly, brushing some grass from the kneecaps of his cream trousers and grimacing when this only made the stain worse. “I'm just back from night shift and not exactly awake, sorry. When I saw Hilda and didn't recognise her – Uncle Jack just said that you would be coming, not anyone else – I demanded to know exactly who she was.”

“Thought I was a burglar, no doubt,” snorted Hilda at this juncture, pointedly ignoring the choking cough that Charles almost managed to cover up his laughter with.

“Anyway,” Rix hastily continued, “I fear that I made her jump and, er, hadn't realised quite how close to the window she was. Apologies and all that, won't happen again now that I know you, promise.”

That seemed to be an end to the matter. Satisfied that the only treatment needed now was for Rix to go to bed and recover from the twelve hour shift including a major operation he'd just pulled – and certainly won him a lot of ground in Hilda's eyes when she heard of it – the adults prepared to move back into the house and plan the day's events. Keenly, Millie tagged on to them, pleased to be free of the unwanted house guests, though Sphinx was worryingly quick to follow.

Before they had even reached the front door, however, they were pulled up by a distant scream from the tree house, which had John sprinting away from them in a second. It was easily recognisable as Poppy, and whatever could have happened it sounded bad. With one accord, the adults followed his lead, Millie and Sphinx bringing up the rear.

Upon reaching the tree house, they were met by the sight of Poppy and Randa apparently wrestling mid way up the few flimsy wooden boards nailed to the trunk which served as a staircase to the den. They stopped short, and assessed the situation, Ashley and Stacia watching eagerly from above while Ricky hopped around impatiently below.

“I've got my foot caught in her hair,” explained Randa, when she caught sight of her mother below. Glancing down had made her dizzy, and she was pleased to look back up again.

“Well disentangle it, then,” shouted Augusta helpfully, even as John began to scale up to see if he could help solve the situation at all. Poppy was sporting an already rising bruise on one cheek from where she had been kicked as they both realised what had happened and started to wriggle, and Randa thought she might have twisted her ankle in her contortions, though she was plucky enough to hold her tongue on the matter for the present, somewhat scared of how Charles and Charlie were going to react to her carelessness.

The only people not present were Millie and Sphinx, though their absence had gone largely unnoticed. In running across the grass, Millie had tripped and would have gone headlong but for a steadying arm around her waist. She looked up only to freeze as she realised who it was holding her, and just as John started to scale the tree, she began to tell her would-be knight exactly what she thought of him.

Hero by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

“Well, if you’d rather I’d just let you fall flat on your face,” said Sphinx, his arms crossed across his chest, looking down his large nose at Millie.

“Yes, I would,” she said furiously. “I suppose you think you were being all gentlemanly. Well, you weren’t. You were just being interfering.”

Sphinx’s mouth tightened almost imperceptibly, his feelings only visible in the glitter of his black eyes.

“I apologise for trying to help you,” he said stiffly. “I’m afraid it’s the effect of my mother, who tried to instil good manners in me when I was a child. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

He turned and walked away, leaving Millie staring after him uncertainly.

When he arrived at the tree, John was trying to disentangle Randa’s foot from Poppy’s hair.

“I can’t do a thing,” he called down, frowning with worry and effort. “I don’t know how they’ve done it, but Poppy’s hair is all entwined in Randa’s shoe and round her ankle.”

“I should think you’ll have to cut it,” said Phoebe, staring upwards with interest. At this, Poppy set up a high-pitched wail.

“You’re not to cut my hair off – you mustn’t!”

“I’m sorry, Poppy,” said John, a little desperately. “I don’t see what else we can do.”

Poppy, who was already uncomfortable from spending far too long perched precariously on a sloping plank of wood and the aching bruise on her cheek, promptly burst into noisy sobs and began pummelling John with her small fists, apparently under the impression that he was about to produce a pair of scissors and begin barbering her there and then.

“Hi! Stop that!” John, taken by surprise, tried to fend her off, slipped and lost his footing. With a scream, Poppy grabbed his arm and was swept off her narrow seat as he swung outward. John scrabbled and caught hold of the plank just in time to see Poppy, with a shriek that should have raised the dead, plunge earthwards. Randa, owing to their close entanglement, was obliged to follow, but the dead weight of Poppy on the hitherto uncooperative strands of hair proved too much and they snapped. With renewed howls of pain and terror, Poppy crashed into the waiting arms of Sphinx, while Randa landed in an unceremonious heap on the grass.

Sphinx gathered the sobbing child more securely into his arms and patted her, rather clumsily, on the head.

“Well held,” said his father, with a grin. The corner of Sphinx’s mouth twitched in the beginning of a smile.

“You couldn’t have caught me, too, I suppose” said a slightly wobbly voice from the floor.

“Only one pair of arms,” said Sphinx, and grinned at her. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” said Randa, struggling to her feet while all of them pretended not to see the tears that glistened in her eyes. If there was one thing Randa hated it was not to seem as brave as her elders.

“Thanks for catching her,” said Charlie, mopping Poppy’s cheeks with a rather grubby handkerchief which had been in her pocket for the last week. “How’s your head, Poppy? Here, I’ll take her.”

Poppy, however, resisted firmly, clasping her arms round Sphinx’s neck. “My head hurts,” she said in a muffled voice.

Sphinx caught his mother’s eye.

“You’ve hurt yourself, haven’t you?” she said quietly as Charlie bent over Randa, who was still refusing to admit that she had any injury. Sphinx stared blankly at Augusta, then shrugged slightly.

“Just turned my wrist a bit. It’s nothing to worry about.” Augusta rolled her eyes but was distracted by a plaintive voice from above.

“I wouldn’t actually object if anyone fancied giving me a hand.”

They looked up. John was halfway up the tree, dangling by the tips of his fingers, looking down at them with a long-suffering expression on his face.

Making Plans by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey

By the time that they'd got both him and everyone else down safely, Millie had joined them and was doing her best to get a story out of Poppy, who was cuddled more firmly than ever into Sphinx and looked like staying that way for a long time. She didn't, however, have much choice in the matter; as soon as she was assured that the rest of her brood was on terra firma and likely to stay there for the immediate future, Charlie turned her attention to her youngest, wrestling her firmly from Sphinx's arms.

“Come on,” she said cheerfully, setting her down and holding her hand to help keep her steady while she walked. “We'll get you all back and tidy you up. What you two -” she turned to Ashley and Stacia “-were doing, I don't suppose you'll ever tell us, but you certainly need a change of clothes, if nothing else. As for you, Poppy, we'll bathe your cheek and I suppose we'll have to cut your hair to even it out a bit as well. You can't go around looking like that!”

Seeing that Poppy was about to set up another wail, Sphinx decided that his role was to say something reassuring. He got the distinct impression that he'd made a fan that morning, and if he could help it might look good if he did. The family as a whole didn't seem to have received them all that well so far, but they clearly all adored Poppy. Before John could even open his mouth to say what he had planned to, Sphinx therefore declared,

“I think that you'll look much better with shorter hair, and think how much cooler you'll be in this heat.”

In truth, young children were not his strong point, and he wasn't sure that he'd said the right thing at all, but it seemed to calm Poppy down, as she stared up at him, just a hint of shyness about her. John glared at his rival, then turned pointedly to Millie, who had joined them at this point. She was usually able to be politer than her brother, at least, but on this occasion she was still smarting about having to be caught by Sphinx, and she gladly took the opportunity to talk loudly to him about a school project that she'd been helping him with. 

Phoebe rolled her eyes at her older brother, careful that nobody else saw. Already she could tell that her mother had decided this was going to be a jolly good holiday with another family, it wouldn't do to cause trouble; and, as well as the adults, the younger children seemed to be getting on well. Ashley and Stacia had run on ahead with Ricky to show him around the house, and the old nursery where their father had grown up and which was a veritable trove of old toys, including a rocking horse.

“What are we planning to do today?” asked Charlie, as the rest trooped in. Only Hilda was not in some way dishevelled, her appearance somehow maintaining its usual meticulousness, despite her recent fall. She was also the first to answer.

“I need to stay in and make a few important phone calls, but I'm sure that I shall see you all this evening.”

“How about the Auberge?” suggested Charles at this point. He and David had tried to stay back when the children had been in trouble, a muttered conversation about politics having sufficiently entertained them to this point. “Millie might remember the secret, but the rest of our brood won't – have you ever seen it?”

“Not us,” said Augusta, to whom he had turned, cheerfully. “Well, I might have done, but I don't remember if so, and the rest certainly won't have done. Is it far? We're used to scrambling and all that, but it strikes me that we've had enough excitement so far, without risking any more.”

“Oh, no, quite easy,” promised Charles, as Charlie excused herself to take Poppy and Randa upstairs to one of the numerous bathrooms and tidy them both up. “We could take lunch and have a picnic there, then meander back for afternoon tea in the garden, if you will. This is the first day we haven't been travelling, so we were just going to take it easy.”

After some more discussion, Augusta decided that they would need to go back and make their own lunch, and that they could meet again outside the gate to Freudesheim in an hour, ready for the trip. Ricky and Randa were to stay behind, as they seemed quite content to play with the younger fry, but the rest quickly decided that they would need to change before they went anywhere, and had best accompany their parents home.

Seeing that the rest of his family had disappeared – Will with his book, and Millie and John into the sitting room, still talking amongst themselves – Charles was left to the honours of saying farewell, and shut the door behind them with a sigh of thankfulness. They seemed like nice enough folk, but he rather got the impression that his holiday would be far from peaceful while they were around.

Setting the problem to one side for the present, he ran up the stairs to tell Charlie what was happening, and then went to sort out the picnic, calling Millie to help him. At the same time, he tried to have a quiet talk with her about not excluding the visitors but letting them know that they were welcome in the house.

To the Auberge by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi

An hour later the entire party was strolling up the uneven path towards the Auberge. David had at first refused to accompany them.

“They are tedious and uninteresting,” he said irritably. “They spend all their time falling out of windows and trees. In any case, I have no time. I need to finish that article for JEA.”

“Your articles are always late,” Augusta pointed out. “Anyhow, I finished it for you this morning.”

“What? You finished –!” shouted David, jumping up and making for the door. Bellows reverberated round the house as he snatched up his defaced property, his lunch lying forgotten between Augusta and Sphinx.

He was still growling now as they swung along the path, some of the younger ones lifting their voices in one of the latest pop songs. Augusta, apparently unaware of his wrath, was at the head of the group, chatting with Charlie.

“So, what’s the big secret?” she said eagerly. “I love discovering new things.”

“Well, if I tell you, you won’t be able to discover it, will you?” Charlie grinned at her. Phoebe, on her other side, smiled. 

“You should be careful about what you tell Mum about secrets. Last time Dad told her he had one, she ended up locked in a filthy tomb for about six hours. With mummy.”

“With – but whose?” Charlie looked at Augusta, slightly confused.

“She meant the other sort of mummy,” said Augusta. “The dead sort.”

Charlie blenched.

“Egyptian mummies,” said Phoebe quickly.

“Oh, I see!” Charlie laughed, the colour returning to her pale cheeks. “For a moment I couldn’t imagine what you meant.”

“I’m not surprised.” Phoebe eyed her mother severely. “I sometimes wonder whether you’ve got any common sense, Mum. I don’t suppose she thought of mentioning that we’re Egyptologists, Mrs Maynard. You see, Dad told her he’d found a mummy, but kept the location a surprise. Which Mum, obviously, regarded as a challenge, so she went off and found it. And got shut in with it. For six hours.”

Charlie was laughing helplessly.

“No, she didn’t tell us,” she said. “Are you really – all of you?”

“Our family have been Egyptologists for generations,” said Phoebe, with a wry smile. “I don’t know whether you’ve heard of Professor Radcliffe Emerson, but he was my great-grandfather. The younger twins, John and Lottie, aren’t really into archaeology, but the rest of us – well, I can’t imagine life without it.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Egyptian history,” Charlie said. “My husband’s a politician, and I’ve found I rather enjoy that world myself, though I must admit that I was afraid I’d never fit into it.”

With her small, pointed face, masses of blonde curls and casual dress, Phoebe could well imagine her having some difficulty. But then, charm could cover a multitude of deficiencies, and if there was one quality Charlie possessed in abundance it was charm.

“I’m afraid our involvement in politics was limited to Egyptian nationalism – all a bit before my time, though. We keep well out of all that now, though Mum – oh, is this it?” she said, quickly changing the subject as Augusta frowned.

“Here we are,” said Millie, who had been just behind them with Amy, both of them making dogged conversation, and John, who had ignored most of their attempts to draw him in. Sphinx had succumbed easily to the blandishments of Poppy and piggybacked her most of the way up to the Auberge.

Ricky and Randa were frankly enchanted by the echoes and would have spent the entire afternoon standing at the stout fence screaming at the mountain wall. Even Constance Rose forgot her dignity as an acolyte of Bat and flushed pink with pleasure as the Egyptian invocation she chanted chimed back at her, sounding strange and unearthly.

“Not bad,” said Phoebe kindly. “There are some pretty good echoes in some of the wadis in Egypt, too.” She caught Millie and John glancing at one another, and raised her eyebrows in surprise. Still, she didn’t think it would be long before they came under Mum’s spell – there weren’t many people who failed to be fascinated by Augusta, and then, she hoped, they would become reconciled to the whole family. And if not, well, there would probably be a few other people up here. That Hilda woman, for example, had looked rather interesting.

Charles came out of the inn carrying a large number of glasses of lemonade on an enormous tray.

“Come on, people,” he said. “Help yourselves and find a pew.”

Phoebe, Amy and Sphinx took their glasses with polite thanks. David drank his in one enormous gulp, then slammed the glass down on the table.

“Muck!” he said. “If this is the secret of this bloo –” He caught his wife’s eye and changed tack mid-word. “Blooming – bah.” He bared his teeth at Charles in what he evidently believed to be a polite smile. “Delightful beverage. However, I feel the need of something a little stronger this afternoon.” He strode off into the inn.

“So,” said Phoebe, who, unlike the rest of her family, was aware that the Maynards found this behaviour a trifle unusual. “The echoes are the – um – Secret of the Auberge, are they?”

“Yes,” piped up Poppy, who was sitting so close to Sphinx that she was almost in his lap. She looked up at him. “Do you like them? I think they’re lovely.”

“They are excellent echoes,” said Sphinx. “And a very good secret.”

He looked round, trying to identify the source of a peculiar creaking sound in the vicinity. They all stared at the pair of toothless, sunburnt old men who were sitting at the next table, smoking vigorously and emitting gusts of wheezing laughter.

The Secret of the Auberge by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

“Piper,” the first introduced, holding out his hand politely. Everybody else looked at it with the same enthusiasm as if it had been a jellyfish waiting to sting them. Then suddenly realisation dawned on Charles' face, and he leaned forwards with a joyful,

“And Smoky – I didn't recognise you at first! Well, and how long's it been?”

While the three men began to talk excitedly amongst themselves, Charles reminding them of who he was, Charlie glanced across at Augusta with such a mystified air that the latter nearly started laughing. The children had mostly gone back to their own pursuits, though Phoebe was evidently interested, and Charlie could tell by the look on her eldest son's face that he was longing to ask a torrent of questions. At long last, Charles turned back to them and his eyes swept the group. All he said, however, was,

“Ashley, why don't you three younger ones take Ricky and Randa along to the shelf, just down the path. You'll love the view, I'm sure.”

“But I want to stay,” insisted Poppy stubbornly, until she caught her father's eye, at which she pouted. Before it could escalate into an argument, however, Sphinx had stood up and slipped his hand into hers, helping her stand up from the bench and silently starting to lead her away. Seeing this, John promptly decided that he wanted to go as well, and trailed after the group of chattering children, leaving the adults behind.

David had yet to reappear, but the rest watched with interest to see what would happen next. Whoever these strange men were, Charles was evidently delighted to see them, and Charlie and Millie especially longed to shake some answers out of him. As if guessing how they felt, he sat back, took a long sip from his drink, and deliberated. When he did start, it was with a rather cryptic comment to his wife.

“Darling, do you remember our second university holiday up here, when we had to bring back all those presents for various people?”

“Vaguely,” she replied, then sudden understanding dawned across her face and she turned to the two men with an excited, “That's never you.”

“Thought I recognised a pretty young thing like you,” grinned the one called Piper, drawing out the pipe which had presumably given him his name and lighting it, so that he could start to drag on it between speeches. “You haven't changed much in all these years. So you thought you could fob them off with that nonsense about the secret of the Auberge being the echoes, did you?”

“Only mama ever believed that,” laughed Charles, and for once his face didn't darken at the memory. Instead he stared out across the fantastic panorama for a second, drinking in the fabulous scenery that the mountains created. Then, shaking himself slightly, he resumed, “Everyone else on the Platz knew why you really came here, even some of the middles. We boys certainly did – we used to be the most popular of all our sets back at boarding school, after a long summer holiday.”

“So what is the secret?” burst in Augusta impatiently, unable to contain herself any longer. With a laugh, Charlie told the assembled company. For a long moment, there was a shocked silence, but then Millie asked a question and soon everybody was voicing an opinion or wanting to know more.

In fact, they made such a racket that David stormed out of the inn to demand to know what was going on. Shouting above the din of several people talking at once – only Smoky didn't seem to have anything to say, but then he seemed to be rather quiet all the time – he eventually managed to gain their attention. His first thought was to turn to his wife, but guessing that he may not get much sense out of her, he eventually turned to Charles, who he seemed to regard as the only sane member of the party at that moment.

“What the b – the blazes is going on? Has she tried to kill herself again?”

Most of those present took him to mean Augusta, and his family guessed that the incident at the pyramids was still playing on his mind. Startled by such an abrupt address, but deciding to overlook it on this one occasion, Charles said smoothly,

“I was just introducing these two men, who I used to know.”

“They're called Pipy and Smoker,” added Augusta, with the look she always gave him when she knew that as improbable as whatever she was about to say sounded, it was the complete and utter truth. “They used to be herdsmen, but when they retired they decided that they needed another way to make money, and so they started their own business. Apparently it's very popular, especially with mistresses at the school, only it has to be known as the secret of the Auberge because it isn't strictly speaking all that legal.”

“What on earth have you landed us in this time?” demanded David wearily. With one accord the rest informed him of the long kept secret;

“They make their own alcohol, and occasionally smuggle in drugs.”

The Body! by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

Sphinx and John, unaware of these developments as they wandered on down the path, looked around for the children.

“They can’t have got far,” said Sphinx.

“Yes,” said John, “They were definitely here when you were talking about how your Dad was looking for the lost tomb of Imhotep. We might have lost them during the entire potted history of Egypt from the tenth millennium BC to the present day, I suppose.”

The children, meanwhile, had quickly grown bored. It had been all right at first. Poppy was happy with Sphinx, Stacia and Ashley took charge of John, and Ricky and Randa followed them closely, discussing mummification in low tones. But John wasn’t paying attention to his hangers-on. He was listening to Sphinx telling Poppy a thrilling story of his great-grandmother Amelia’s first visit to Egypt when, apparently, she had been attacked by a peripatetic mummy – and defeated it. Annoyed, he carefully directed his attention elsewhere.

“Course they take the brain out,” Ricky was saying. “Don’t you know anything? They pull it out through the nose.”

“What on earth are they talking about?” said John, startled. Sphinx glanced at him, then back at his youngest siblings.

“Just mummification,” he said. John looked startled.

“Aren’t they a bit – well, young, for that?”

“Oh, they’re both quite intelligent,” said Sphinx, misunderstanding. “Actually, mummification’s fairly simple if you understand the processes involved.”

Five minutes later Sphinx was describing their last dig to John and then, since John seemed a little vague on the details, giving him a quick explanation of Egyptian history and exactly how the Emersons’ activities fitted into it. The children, to whom this was quite incomprehensible, scuffed their feet and lagged behind.

“Are you bored?” said Ricky to the Maynards, looking up from his conversation with his sister. “So are we, a bit. Why don’t we go and find something else to do?”

“Do you think they’ll let us?” Ashley glanced uncertainly at their elders.

“Course,” said Ricky, grinning. “Especially if they don’t notice we’ve gone.”

A minute later, all five were rounding a high outcrop of rock and John’s and Sphinx’s voices, which had now reached the nineteenth dynasty and were entering a brief discussion of Ramesses II, faded away.

“What are we going to do?” asked Randa who was aware – although the Maynards were not – that Ricky could generally be relied on to invent some excitement if he couldn’t find it lying around naturally.

“Don’t know.” Ricky looked around. “But this looks like a place where interesting things could happen. I think we should split up and investigate. Look for clues.”

“Clues? To what?” said Stacia, staring at him in confusion.

“Well, anything that might have happened,” said Ricky. “Here, you come with me. I’ll show you.”

But it was Poppy who discovered, a few minutes later, the body that lay on the grass. It was half hidden under an overhanging rock, just the legs visible, protruding from a well-cut dark green skirt. The others came racing up as she screamed.

“She’s dead!”

“Dead?” Ricky said scornfully. “Can’t be.” He crawled in after Poppy and stopped with a gasp as he saw the messy contusion on the back of the woman’s head. “At least, I don’t think so.”

They pulled her out as carefully as they could, and as soon as they turned her over and saw her face, a little silence fell. It was broken by Poppy.

“It’s Hilda!” she said in a voice that trembled. “Daddy’s friend, Miss Straw. Is she – dead?”

They all sat and stared at her.

“She’s not breathing,” said Ashley, peering closely at Hilda’s chest.

“Well, she must be dead, then,” said Randa. She and Ricky looked at one another and each of them knew that the other was thinking the same thing. “Well,” she said brightly, “as she’s dead, we might as well make use of her.”

“What are you talking about?” said Stacia, sounding rather shrill.

“I’ve only ever tried mummifying quite small things,” said Ricky. “But we could show you three how it works, if you like.”

“It doesn’t seem – right,” said Ashley, eyeing the body as though it might suddenly jump up and attack her.

“She’s dead,” said Randa. She touched Hilda’s arm. “Still warm. She can’t have been dead for long.”

“I don’t think that matters,” said Ricky. He dug in his pocket for a moment, then looked at Randa. “I’ve lost my knife.”

“Knife?” said Ashley.

“Here’s mine,” said Randa, handing over a slender-bladed knife. “It’s all right, Ash. We just take out her organs – stomach, lungs, intestines, liver, that sort of thing. And then we extract her brain through her nose. Only we’ll have to get some things from home before we do the brain part, ‘cos we have to put resin in her skull instead.”

The three Maynards were gazing at him in open-mouthed awe.

“But – but why?” said Stacia.

“So the body’s preserved, of course,” said Randa, watching as Ricky carefully opened the lowest buttons of Hilda’s blouse so that he could make a cut just below her rib cage. “It’ll last for thousands of years if we do it right.”

She fell silent as Ricky took a deep breath and lowered the knife.

“What do you kids think you’re doing?” They all swung round to see Sphinx and John running towards them.

Hilda Lost by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

“You're all mad as badgers,” declared David, sitting down rather heavily on the bench. “I get dragged away from Egypt, where we could make some fascinating finds, to come to a deserted ski resort in the middle of summer, so that you can see someone you remember from years ago who turns out to be dead. Now you tell me that alcohol has to be kept a secret up here! Is there anything to bloody do?”

“Language,” said Augusta mildly. She turned to the two herdsmen with rather more enthusiasm and asked, “Have you got any drugs at the moment?”

“Sadly not,” wheezed Piper, cackling again. “Not long back one of the bigger gangs came to hear about us – some girl called Mary-Lou, or something ridiculous, got reminiscing about her school days to the wrong people – and moved in. They're too far up the chain, so all we've got now is the alcohol.”

While they were talking, Charlie had wandered over to the edge of the Auberge, her eyes dimmed slightly. The sudden reminder of her younger days had brought back to her a lot of memories, of the fun that they used to have, and the struggle when Millie was born. Her mother had been furious, and Charles wasn't best pleased either, though he'd been overjoyed once the baby was born. There had been days when she felt like the only one holding it all together, and a lot of her youth had been lost in such a short time.

She was startled out of her reverie by a hand on her arm, and she turned to see Millie stood next to her. It was hard to believe how fast time had gone, when it seemed like only yesterday that she would be cuddling her baby to her breast and murmuring all her problems to the sleeping form that only puckered its lips and clenched its fist a little more tightly.

“Did nana never really guess the secret of the Auberge?” asked her daughter, watching the panorama as well, neither of the two looking at each other.

“Oh, I'm sure that she did really,” laughed Charlie. “She always played that role for the rest of the family, though – granddad would have had a fit if he thought that she'd found out. Certainly everybody else did. And more than once I was sure that there was a twinkle in her eye when she started saying about how Charles always wanted to visit the Auberge before we left and it must be his favourite place in the world.”

“You miss her, don't you?” whispered Millie, slipping an arm around her mother's waist. Charlie smiled at her eldest daughter. They had always tried not to put too much pressure on her to be completely responsible for the younger ones, but she was such a help, especially now that she was older.

“I think I do, despite myself. We never really got on completely, and we didn't have the best start at all, but she was always good to us. I just wish that we could have been closer, for your father's sake.”

“Nah, he wouldn't give up his politics,” said Millie easily. “And can you imagine what he'd say if nana had insisted on coming to some grand state opening of parliament or the like and then had been her usual self and embarrassed him?”

Before Charlie could answer this, rather fair, accusation, Charles himself joined them. The two herdsmen had gone back to their pipes, reminiscing over, and Augusta and David were involved in a lengthy argument about something which had happened ten years ago, after a perfectly innocuous remark on his part. Sensing trouble, he had escaped to join his own, suddenly much saner seeming, family.

“Have you seen Hilda?” he asked, turning directly to Charlie. She shook her head, but it was Millie who spoke.

“Dad, you don't have to call her that around me. I know who she really is!”

“All the more reason to find her, then,” he replied grimly. “Adult she may be, and I'm sure she's fine, but I don't want to try explaining how I lost her half way up a mountain.”

As it was more than time for them to be leaving anyway, Charlie suggested that they should start to meander back to the chalet, finding the children en route and hoping to bump into Hilda also. Night would be drawing in, soon, and she didn't know the area at all well.

And Found by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

“Cursed woman,” said David when he heard the news. “What did she want to wander off for if she didn’t know the area?”

“Beside the point,” said Charles brusquely. “Just now the important thing is that we find her. Believe me, she’s not the sort of person you want to admit you’ve lost track of – especially not to a bunch of news reporters.”

David’s bushy eyebrows rose at this.

“Better find her, then, hadn’t we?” He drained his drink, slammed it down on the bench, stood up and strode across the grass.

“Wait a minute,” Charles called. “We should organise –”

He fell silent as David stopped, inflated his chest and let loose a bellow that echoed and reverberated around the mountains for several minutes and caused Millie and Charlie, still standing by the fence, to clap their hands to their ears. There was a pause, then what sounded like an echo but a little louder. 

David turned around and came striding back, looking smug. He vanished for a moment into the inn, and they all stood round watching the door in fascination as though expecting a magnificent conjuring trick. When he returned he was carrying a tray with another round of drinks on it. Charles stared.

“We need to go and look for Hilda,” he said, a little feebly.

David gave him an amiable smile and glanced over towards the path down which the younger children had vanished. A speck was just visible in the far distance, which soon materialised into a slightly larger speck surrounded by a number of smaller specks. After a few minutes it became apparent that it was in fact a person, who shortly became distinguishable as Sphinx.

“He’s carrying someone,” said Millie.

“It’s – oh my –”

 

The adults were running then, towards Sphinx striding across the grass, his face grim and Hilda clasped securely in his arms, limp, grey and to all appearance unconscious with a horrifying bloodstain on her head. John was at his side, the younger ones trotting along behind them, all of them subdued and some tearful.

“Give her to me,” said David, who, by virtue of his enormous height, had reached them first.

“I’ve got her, Dad,” said Sphinx. David looked at him for a moment, then grinned.

“All right, my boy. Bring her into the inn there.” He turned to Charles, who was peering round him, trying to determine the state of Hilda’s head. “Is there a telephone in there?”

“Yes. Do you think she’s –?” 

“Then get in there and telephone a doctor,” said David. Charles, in deference to the emergency, did not object but turned and ran.

A few moments later the rest of the party burst into the inn, David clearing the way with his powerful frame, Sphinx striding along in his wake and the rest flooding after them. David was already barking orders, sending the innkeeper, the barmaid and various patrons scurrying to obey. Within minutes Hilda was comfortably – though only because she had still not recovered consciousness – settled on a long table, a mattress and pillow beneath and blankets covering her. The innkeeper, a tall, thin man called Heinrich Ging, was looking over Charlie’s shoulder, a jug of water clutched in one hand and a bottle of brandy in the other.

Charles came out of a room behind the bar.

“They’ll be here in a few minutes,” he said. “How is she?”

“Unconscious,” said Charlie. “Do you think we should do something about that wound?”

“Better not,” said Sphinx. “It’s not actually bleeding any more, and head wounds are best left to the doctors.”

“We could try waking her up,” said Ricky, brightening a little. “Throwing water over people usually works.”

“Go and sit down with the kids,” said Phoebe, throwing him a cold look. “And don’t play the injured innocent – I know you lot had something to do with this.”

But it was Sphinx, who, once Hilda had been taken off to the Sanatorium with Charles, dealt with the children. Hilda had woken up and seemed perfectly coherent, but rather weak and confused. The headlines already flitting through his mind, Charles was beginning to panic a little. Sphinx, in the meantime, slammed his hands down on the table at which the children were sitting, making the empty glasses rattle.

“Now! What the hell were you doing?”

Hilda's Identity Revealed by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

 

“Excuse me,” said Millie quickly, striding over and positioning herself next to him. Charlie was in the corner organising with Augusta and David which of them should go to the Sanatorium, and John was sat at another table, pale faced, watching Sphinx but not making any attempt to stop him. “What on earth do you think you're doing? You can't just stride around and bellow like a savage with children involved!”

As if to prove her point, she indicated Poppy, who had promptly dissolved into tears at the idea that not only John but also her beloved Sphinx were cross with her. Really, she hadn't understood the mummification idea, had simply watched in a kind of fascinated fear as the older children plotted. She would have been happier to stay and listen to Sphinx talk, even if she didn't really understand what he was saying either, but Ashley had grabbed her hand and so she's had no choice but to join them.

“Then I shall answer my own question,” said Sphinx grandly, drawing himself up to his full height and meeting Millie's eyes, the fire in his own dimming slightly. “As far as I can tell, this lot – though mainly Ricky and Randa, I'm sure – were trying to mummify Hilda. If not then I'll be damned.”

The only response to this was rather limp compared to the dramatic way in which he managed to deliver it, evidently hoping to cause a shock. A quiet had descended over the rest of the room, and the rest of the party heard exactly what he had to say. Before anybody could muster up a decent response, however, Augusta said sternly,

“Language! It's all your father's fault really, I do keep reminding him not to swear around you. Is it true that you lot were going to try mummification?”

The bizarre pride in her voice caused Phoebe to snort and turn away to indulge in a very odd sounding coughing fit. Poppy was still crying quietly to herself, though Stacia had grudgingly thrown an arm around her, and Ashley stared around at them all in a scared defiance. When faced with their brother, Ricky and Randa had been doing their best not to show their fear, but now they turned hopefully to their mother.

“We thought that we'd practice the technique,” explained Randa. “We were telling the rest about it, and then we found the dead body and it seemed like too good a chance.”

“Wouldn't you have done the same?” added Ricky knowingly. To save Augusta replying to that, wary of the truth, Sphinx hastily intervened.

“The sensible thing would have been to have found an adult at once. Evidently you aren't to be trusted alone for a second, and I'll be watching you all very closely for the rest of the holiday, do you understand?”

“We can go back to Freudesheim now,” Millie suggested to him, a warmth creeping into her voice that hadn't been there before. Despite herself she was impressed by the way that Sphinx had handled everything, and also determined to get her siblings alone as soon as possible and let them know exactly what she thought of them. Not that day, though, there had been far too much drama already for that. “The adults will want to go to the San., I know, and the younger ones should be going to bed. Do you want to come? We can put you up for the night, I'm sure.”

Charlie, seeing that her eldest daughter had effectively taken over as host, turned back to David and Augusta and suggested that they leave for the San. Hilda would have arrived there long enough ago now that there should be a clearer indication of what was wrong with her, and they were all keen to make sure that she was all right.

Having seen the children on the path to Freudesheim, escorted carefully by Sphinx, Millie, John and Phoebe, the three adults turned and started to walk. There was silence between them, until Augusta started to ask Charlie something of the history of the region. Her responses were rather limp, but it at least kept her mind off of Hilda, and all the possible trouble arising from the current situation.

At the San., Charlie quickly located Hilda's room by a few choice words reminding them of her connection to Doctor Maynard and the founding family of the venture. It was supposed to be a guarded secret, but on the Platz, as Augusta was soon to find out, having the surname Maynard could get you just about anything you wanted.

What they hadn't banked on, however, was the presence of two burly security guards outside the hospital room, arms folded and clearly with no intention of letting the group in any time soon. At first Charlie tried to explain, but she was at a disadvantage having not been aware that their family holiday was being guarded by MI5. In the end, David got bored of diplomacy and simply snapped,

“Oh, hell's teeth, just let us in. We do know that she's really Margaret Thatcher!”

 

How to Mummify a Dead Body by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

Millie, rather concerned about the effect the incident had had on the children, swept Phoebe into the house.

“We’ll bring out some fruit punch for everyone. I think the poor kids are a bit shocked about the whole thing. I suppose you and Sphinx and Amy won’t mind having a fruit drink?” For the world she couldn’t keep a slight tartness out of her voice. Phoebe gave her a comprehensive grin.

“Not even slightly. Don’t worry about Dad, it’s just his way. Grandad Ramses was quite civilised a lot of the time, but Great-Grandad was – well, he and Great-Grandmother have become family legends. Apparently she once marched into a pub and demanded a beer. This was sometime in the middle of the Victorian era and the man she was with – a journalist – practically died of embarrassment, especially when she offered the barmaid a shawl because she looked cold with her shoulders exposed.”

Millie’s hand paused, arrested, in the action of reaching for a huge jug. She stared at Phoebe for a moment and then began to laugh.

“Honestly? She must have made a sensation!”

“I’ve always regretted that I never met her,” said Phoebe. “I’ve read all her diaries – her accounts of her first couple of excavations have been published, actually. As fiction, since none of us really want that particular notoriety. But yes, I think she did cause rather a few sensations.”

It was a relief, Phoebe felt, that Millie wasn’t quite as stand-offish as she’d appeared at first. Perhaps she had been shy. She was aware, even if the rest of the family weren’t, that the Emersons could be somewhat overwhelming.

A few minutes later Phoebe, carrying the enormous jug, followed Millie, bearing a tray of glasses, out onto the lawn. Sphinx was seated in the shade of a huge, spreading tree, surrounded by all the children, from seven-year-old Poppy to Will, at fourteen. Even Constance Rose sat beside Will, leaning against the broad trunk of the tree, gazing out across the garden as though not really listening. Amy and John were lying back in deckchairs nearby.

“Drinks!” called Millie, and Amy and John sat up. Sphinx looked round with a smile, then neatly caught a glass as the tray tipped. Millie scowled as she set the tray down, and Sphinx turned back.

“Ok,” he said, looking round the circle of intent faces. “The first thing you do if you’re mummifying someone is remove their brain. You’d use a special hooked instrument, and you pull bits of the tissue out through the nose. You’ve got to be really careful, as it can easily disfigure the face, and you want to preserve that as much as you can.”

“I know,” said Ricky. “And you put resin inside the skull to stop it collapsing. We were going to do that afterwards, ‘cos we didn’t have any resin.”

“Fair enough.” Sphinx nodded at his younger brother. “Now, where were you going to make the cut? Hang on a second – it’s easier if we’ve got a body to demonstrate on. Poppy, fancy becoming a mummy?”

“No, Sphinx, that’s taking things too far!” Millie almost spilt the fruit punch in her agitation. “You can’t start cutting Poppy open!”

“I don’t mean to cut her open,” said Sphinx, blinking. He looked at Millie for a moment with his head on one side. “Come and sit down. Poppy won’t be scared if you’re here.” Millie caught the tail end of his smile at Poppy and sat down quickly, while Poppy lay down on the grass. Phoebe rolled her eyes and handed out the rest of the drinks.

“Now, to remove the rest of the organs, you’d make an incision here.” Sphinx indicated the place on Poppy’s left side. “You leave the heart, as the ancient Egyptians believed that was the centre of a person’s being.”

Poppy seemed perfectly happy, so Millie got up and went to join Phoebe, who had joined Amy and John in the deckchairs.

“Did you get bored?” she said with a smile. “Sphinx will probably spend an hour telling them exactly how to mummify Poppy. Honestly, they are a lot of lunatics.”

“Ricky and Randa ought to know how to mummify someone by this time,” said Amy, shaking her head disapprovingly.

“They ought to know when someone’s dead, too,” said Millie, not entirely sure whether Amy and Phoebe were joking or not. They looked at her. “Well, if they’d started pulling her organs out she’d probably have died.”

“But they didn’t,” said Phoebe, in a reasonable tone.

“Only because Sphinx turned up and stopped them.”

Amy half sat up, leaning on her elbow, and looked at Millie, startled.

“I s’pose you’re right, really. I mean, it could have turned out much worse than it did.”

“Yes, it could,” said Millie firmly. Finally, they seemed to be seeing some sense.

“Oh well,” said Phoebe. “When Sphinx has finished you’d better teach them how to check whether someone’s alive or dead.”

“What? But I – right. Ok.”

After the Bombshell by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

At the Sanatorium, chaos reigned. After such a declaration, made so loudly, the security guards had felt it necessary to drag part of the unfortunate party off, though they continued to be respectful and helpful to Charles and Charlie. In the end, David had been half carried as far as Rix's office, where he waved them in looking weary. It was his intention to inform them of Hilda's condition – he couldn't help thinking of her as Hilda despite it all – and then escape to somewhere slightly less problematic, like the room of a patient in a coma.

But, as with even the best laid of plans, it didn't ever happen. He opened his mouth to deliver his professional verdict, only for it to be filled by words that he certainly hadn't thought he meant to say. He blinked, then sighed at his cousin, who for once had forgotten his placid nature and looked furious.

“What on earth did you think you were doing, announcing it in the corridor like that?” Charles demanded, rounding squarely on David. Augusta, who had for once managed to remain in the background, perched on the arm of Rix's chair while Charlie hovered next to the doctor's elbow uncertainly. “Don't you have any idea of what you might have done?”

“You wanted to know how she was, and they weren't going to let you in,” was the response, as David glowered at the two security guards, who, seeing that the problem seemed to be contained and that they could go back to their post, felt it best to slip away back down the corridor. “It's fairly obvious with goons like that just hanging around, anyway.”

“Actually,” said Charles through gritted teeth. “As far as anyone here but Rix knows, Hilda is just a very old heiress who feels the need to protect her fortune from her scheming nephew and has hired a couple of men to that effect. The last I heard they were laughing at her for being eccentric. The last thing we need is for them to find out that minus her wig, glasses and certain other effects she's actually the most recognisable woman in Britain right now!”

“I'm sorry for trying to make amends, then,” stormed David, but Augusta did notice him shift in a slightly uncomfortable manner as he fell silent. This was nothing to Charles, though, who, once he lost his temper, did it in a thorough manner – as his children could have said with some certainty.

“A lot of good sorry will do us when half the British press are camped outside Freudesheim taking pictures all bloody day and night and frightening the children, while the other half make the San almost completely impossible to run. It only takes one person to have heard you and decided to tip them off as to her whereabouts, you know! And my family are trying to grieve, the last thing they need is a media furore around the house most of them are desperate to forget, and what my father would say I shudder to think. Don't think you'd all get off either!”

“Yes, well, it was a stupid thing to do,” said Augusta quickly, deciding that the argument had gone too far. Glancing at Charlie for support, she added, “David is very sorry for causing trouble, and I'll make sure he keeps quiet in the future, but what's done is done, I don't suppose anybody heard what he was saying anyway.”

Charlie, sensing that her husband might be starting to calm down, laid a hand on his arm and looked up at him through silently pleading eyes. The last time he'd lost his temper this badly was when John brought home a report from school about having been in a fight with another pupil, and it had been a horrible time for all concerned. Little did she want the younger children to pick up on his fury again.

“We've taken enough precautions,” she said quietly. “Nobody would think to connect the two until now, and if all else fails I'm sure that it can be released that this was all just a fake trail to keep them off the scent of where she really is, and Hilda Straw has nothing to do with Margaret Thatcher really. Honestly, we won't let this ruin our holiday.”

Deciding that diplomacy was the better part of tact, and that he might be as well to try and contain the incident now, rather than himself shouting about it and increasing further the chances of somebody overhearing and passing it on to the wrong people, Charles took a deep breath and smoothed a hand through his hair. Then, turning to Rix, who had stayed patiently for the inevitable question, he asked what was on all their minds.

“How is she?”

Olive Branches by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

Hilda was borne back to Freudesheim in triumph the next morning. Her injury had turned out to be less severe than her lengthy fainting fit suggested and Rix frankly admitted that he would probably have discharged her that evening if she hadn’t been Margaret Thatcher.

She was received at the house with great acclaim, for she now bore the distinction among the children of having nearly become the world’s first live mummy.

“And when we’d pulled all your organs out,” said Poppy, scrambling onto the sofa where Hilda was safely ensconced. “We’d have put a thing – it’s called natron – all over you that dries you out, ‘cos if you don’t then the body goes rotten.”

“Maybe you could explain the process of mummification to Hilda some other time,” said Charlie hastily, though Hilda did not appear noticeably distressed by the graphic description of what the children had been planning to do to her.

“But Sphinx told us all about how you do it,” said Poppy. “And,” she added impressively, “he did it all on me and made me into a mummy.”

“Oh! How nice,” said Charlie faintly, and wondered whether she ought to reconsider allowing Poppy to spend quite so much with Sphinx. However, since it was evident that he had stopped short of removing her daughter’s major organs, she supposed the friendship was probably harmless. This was fortunate, since at that moment a large contingent of Emersons came wandering round the side of the house.

“There you are, Charlie,” said Charles, emerging from their midst. “Have you got any plans for this afternoon?”

“Well, I’d thought of starting to sort out the attics, but –” she spread her hands helplessly, indicating the recumbent Hilda, the still chattering Poppy, the mess in the room, and the gaggle of older and younger children who were now filling the room.

“I’ll help,” said Augusta, her face lighting up. “I like looking at old junk. Chas and David are off to visit an archaeological site up in the mountains somewhere, so that gets rid of them for a bit.”

“I thought it was Egyptology you people were into.”

“Yes, but David would rather excavate rubbish that’s come out from under a glacier than nothing at all,” said Augusta. “And he seems to have persuaded Chas that he wants to come too.”

“It sounds very interesting,” said Charles. “Some of the kids want to come – we’re taking John, Will and Ashley, and Ricky and Randa.”

“And me,” said Constance Rose.

“I thought you weren’t interested in anything that wasn’t connected to the great spirits in the sky,” said Phoebe, looking surprised. Constance Rose turned pink.

“I changed my mind, as it happens,” she said, tilting her chin. “I think it’ll be very interesting.”

“What she means,” said Phoebe in Charlie’s ear, “is that John said he wanted to go.” Her eyes were crinkled with amusement in a way that Charlie, despite the slight shock this gave her, found impossible to resist.

“John?” she echoed.

“I’m afraid so. She even seems to have lost interest in Egyptian goddesses – well, a little bit, anyway. Don’t worry,” she added, seeing the perturbation on Charlie’s face. “She’s not madly clever, but she’s probably the nicest of all of us, really.”

Charlie opened her mouth to reply to this, but was distracted as, through a lull in the general conversation, Poppy’s voice rang out clearly for a moment.

“And then you stuff linen into the places where the organs were, and you put false eyes in, only you have to be careful in case –”

She caught Phoebe’s eye and laughed suddenly.

“Why is it that children are always enchanted by the most hideous things? And,” she went on, after the two men had been waved off with assorted children, “I thought Chas and David were at daggers drawn.”

“Oh, Dad decided Chas wasn’t such a tedious, wet – I mean, he decided he was quite congenial really. In Dad’s view visiting an archaeological site is the highest pleasure anyone could wish for. This is the closest he’s ever likely to get to extending the proverbial olive branch. Luckily I think Chas understood.”

Charlie tactfully ignored Phoebe’s slip – indeed, she found it more amusing than offensive – and heaved a sigh.

“Well, I’d better try to persuade Millie that she wants to help me with making a start on the attics,” she said. 

“Do you want a hand? Of course, if you’d rather not have random strangers poking around in your family stuff that’s fine, though you’ll have to tell Mum, because there’s nothing she likes better. Still, she won’t mind if you think not.”

Charlie hesitated. It still didn’t seem long since Joey had died, and although they hadn’t got off to the best start, she missed her rather badly and she knew that Millie in particular felt the same way. It would feel odd and perhaps painful to have comparative strangers – people who had never known Joey – included in the business of sorting through the things that were left behind. On the other hand, she couldn’t help liking the Emersons. They might have a tendency to behave in rather startling ways, but they seemed to have quite a bit of sense which, although perhaps not common, was still sense. And, looking at Phoebe’s half-smile, she suddenly knew that she and Millie, and the others, would be entirely safe with these people.

“There’s an awful lot of rubbish in those attics,” she said. “Maybe you should see them before you commit yourselves.”

Trapped by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

The truth of her statement was proved ten minutes into what proved to be almost as arduous an expedition as anything that the Emersons could have dreamed up for experiencing in Egypt. Once they’d managed to light the space that they’d be working in – it having never been gifted with an electric light, so that torches had to be used constantly – they looked around, then Millie giggled and pounced on the first item, a large picture. Closer inspection revealed to Augusta someone that she recognised from her own schooldays, and she went into raptures over it.

“I wonder how long granddad had to wait before he could shove it up here without nana noticing it was gone,” laughed Millie, who had suddenly realised that it would be the shot Joey insisted on having done after the grand reunion that she’d once planned, complete with guests and a bemused looking Len, several years younger and barely discernible as the responsible auntie she knew now. “What’s going to happen to it now?”

“I expect that the school will have it,” said Charlie, with no honest idea if that was the case. The only one of the surviving Maynards that she could imagine wanting it would be Len, who had a deeper affinity and surviving bond (in that she still wrote to some of the staff occasionally) than any of the rest, and even she might be tempted to reframe it from the hideous thing it was currently sat in.

“What on earth is this?” demanded a voice suddenly from the dust, recognisable, just, as Phoebe. Unable to see her, Charlie was suddenly quite glad that she’d insisted on the children remaining downstairs, ostensibly under the watching eye of Hilda who, even though ill, was still perfectly able to keep control of them. Even with only the four of them there it took her a minute and a near fall to get close enough to see what Phoebe had found.

“Oh, that’s Joey’s old radio that she used to get world service on!”

And with this explanation, Charlie reached across for her list, a handwritten document with the name of each Maynard child or other person with an interest in turn and a list next to it of everything that they’d asked for from Freudesheim. It had, in fact, been compiled by Charles, with help from Millie, and Charlie was only reading it for the first time.

“Stephen wants it,” she said vaguely at last, “probably only to take apart and look at the old mechanics. I always remember him saying that he was never quite sure how the old thing managed to keep going for so long.”

“Oh,” came from the corner where Millie had last been seen to disappear to, even as Charlie started to look at the rest of the list, with some idea of finding things in order and lowering them down from the attic, as opposed to the just random searching that they seemed to be employing at the moment. “Here’s that sliding mat that John thought could be slid anywhere and took out in the mud!”

At the memory of Joey’s face when she saw her precious rose garden after this incident, a toddler sized John sat in the middle of it, covered in mud and grinning wildly, Charlie nearly doubled up, while Millie, who had only the vaguest recollection and knew more about it from family legend, did her best to choke back giggles. It was Augusta who snorted that she must be sure to pass that on to Constance Rose.

Several other items were found and piled up near the opening to the attic during the course of their searching, and many more were left behind with the question of why, exactly, Joey had seen fit to keep them in the first place. Some of the old school things they surmised wouldn’t have been allowed in the house by the long suffering Jack but equally wouldn’t have been allowed to throw out, but other things were just bizarre.

It was as Charlie was laughing over a model, inscribed with Chas’ name, which was evidently from his own school days and long cherished mother, even though she was the only one who might have thought it more than absolutely awful – he’d never been blessed with artistic talent – that disaster befell them. Just as Phoebe, who had triumphantly displayed something appearing on The List, reached over to put it down, she knocked the trapdoor with her elbow, and could only watch helplessly on as it fell to with a thud.

“Well, that’s us locked in for the foreseeable future,” said Charlie, as the first to recover from the shock of the reverberating bang.

On the Roof by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

“Can’t we pull it up again?” said Augusta, who had been rather gingerly investigating an enormous pile of fabrics in various states of decomposition and had not even noticed the bang.

“It only opens from below,” said Charlie tersely. “It hasn’t been the same ever since one Christmas when Phil and Geoff had a bit of an accident. That must have been – oh, years ago now. But it was one of those jobs that never quite got done, with the result that we’ll have to stay up here until someone realises what’s happened.”

“Which could be hours,” said Millie.

Augusta was not accustomed to giving in to fate so easily. She preferred to sweep fate aside with one magnificent hand and rise, like a phoenix, from the ruins of her shattered fortunes. It was true that this could sometimes more closely resemble a bruised, blinded stagger from a disaster area, but it was the principle that counted.

“Well, we could pull up a few floorboards and make a hole in the ceiling below,” she suggested.

“Yes, good idea,” said Phoebe dryly. “I suppose you’re prepared to foot the bill for the repair of the ceiling.”

“Oh.” Augusta’s face fell slightly. After a moment it lit up again. “When it happened to me and my two friends at school we climbed out of a skylight.”

She turned her face towards the eaves.

“I don’t know that there is a skylight,” said Millie, peering upwards doubtfully.

“I haven’t a clue,” said Charlie. “There isn’t any light coming in, at any rate.”

“I’m sure I’ve seen skylights, though,” said Augusta. “In the roof.”

“Do you mean this roof, or just roofs generally?” said Phoebe cautiously.

“This one.”

“Well, maybe we should have a look. Shine the torches around a bit,” said Charlie. “The rooms on the top floor are hardly used any more and no-one’s going to hear us from the second floor. We could be here hours if we don’t get out somehow.”

It was some time before Millie gave a cry of triumph.

“There is a skylight! It’s so dirty it’s not surprising we couldn’t see any light through it. I shouldn’t think it’s been cleaned for years.”

Getting onto the roof was not a difficult task. Getting back off it again proved to be somewhat more of a challenge. The slope was a relatively shallow one, which Charlie was glad of, since she strongly doubted her ability to stop Augusta and Phoebe cavorting about on it. Augusta was already at the edge, kneeling almost in the gutter and peering down.

“It’s funny how different the garden looks from up here,” she observed.

“This is quite a good roof, really,” said Phoebe, joining her a little more cautiously. “You should do something with it, Charlie.”

“Is there anyone around who can get us down?” asked Charlie. Her own idea had been for one of them to lean out of the skylight and shout for help, but the Emersons were dashing about in a way that made her feel slightly sick. Even Millie was picking her way towards the edge. Charlie tried not to look at her.

“You could put on quite a magnificent show up here,” said Phoebe. “You know, line dancing on the ridge.”

“No!” almost screamed Charlie. She wasn’t scared of heights, but if they hadn’t been on a roof three storeys above the ground she would have been very tempted to bang Augusta’s and Phoebe’s heads together. She took a deep, calming breath and opened her mouth to speak.

“There’s someone coming!” yelled Augusta, leaping to her feet and coming within an ace of falling off the roof.

“Be careful,” said Millie, who had ventured down to the edge and was finding that as long as you didn’t actually look downwards it was all right.

“I’m always careful,” said Augusta with absent-minded dignity. She screwed her eyes up, trying to identify the far-off figures. “I bet it’s the others coming back.”

“Hallo!” called Phoebe, waving her arms. The figures showed no sign that they had seen anything.

“They’re way off. They won’t hear that,” said Augusta. She inhaled deeply, opened her mouth and let out a screeching yell that made Phoebe and Millie clap their hands to their ears. The figures, which were already a little closer, came to a halt. Then one of them gave a roar and began to run. A few minutes later David John came to a halt beneath their perch.

“You bloody damned woman!” he bellowed, making the windows rattle. “What in hell’s name are you doing?”

“Don’t swear in front of the children!” shouted Augusta. “We’re stuck, of course. Did you think we were up here for the good of our health?”

“Yes,” said David. Then, as Augusta moved forwards slightly, he blenched. “Get back, you bloo – blooming fool! If you fall off that roof and kill yourself, I will divorce you.”

“The attic door’s shut and we can’t get out,” said Augusta, ignoring this. “Come and let us out, will you?”

There was, naturally, a certain amount of laughter at their expense, but a few minutes later there was a shout from below.

“Hey! Do any of you actually want to come out, or are you staying up there?”

Evidently David had been misplaced somewhere between the side door and the attics, for it was Sphinx whose face they saw peering up through the skylight. He politely assisted Charlie and his mother down to the attic floor, but as Millie was about to lower herself, there came another roar from below. She overbalanced, taking Sphinx by surprise and landing on top of him in an untidy heap. 

“Oh, bloody hell,” she said under her breath, feeling her wrist gingerly. A moment later she realised that Sphinx had heard. “Sorry.”

“That’s fine,” said Sphinx in a slightly strangled voice. “Though I admit I wouldn’t object if you took your knee out of my stomach.”

“Oh, I am sorry.” Millie scrambled to her feet, glad that it was dingy and he couldn’t see that her face was aflame with embarrassment. Before either of them could say any more, Charlie appeared again.

“Hurry up, you two. There’s an emergency. Hilda has disappeared.”

The Dramatic Disappearance of Margaret Thatcher by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

The immediate reaction of most concerned seemed to run along the lines of 'what, again?' That she seemed to be making rather a habit of this would have meant that they left it for a few hours before reporting it, but for the fact that Poppy had insisted it was an emergency. Because of this, she was now to be found curled in Charlie's arms sucking her thumb and staring through wide eyes at the two burly police officers who were trying to elicit from her just what had happened. Charles sat on another sofa – the rest had been taken back to Augusta's chalet at her kind insistence that she would look after them all and feed them dinner until the police had satisfied themselves that Hilda was nowhere in the chalet, at least.

“So you were playing with her when it happened?” asked Detective Laurent Stockli kindly, leaning forwards slightly while his partner – Detective Heinrich Christen – took notes behind him. The security guards who had been at the hospital had telephoned the British Embassy to sort out all paperwork and set off on her trail before the police could arrive.

“She was pretending to be a mummy for me again,” ventured Poppy shyly. “I was drawing on her in marker pen, to show where you'd make the cuts. Everyone else was upstairs, but Auntie Hilda asked me to stay and keep her company.”

“Then what happened?” asked the detective. Seeing her daughter's fear, Charlie added softly,

“You aren't in any trouble, don't worry. Mummy and daddy just need to know so that we can find Auntie Hilda again.”

“She said she wasn't feeling well and wanted to get a glass of water,” explained Poppy through her thumb. “She stood up and went over to the window and looked out. Then suddenly two men came in through the window door and took her. She tried to fight them, but one of them picked up her legs and carried her round the house. When she'd gone I ran to tell Ashley what happened.”

“What did the men look like?”

“They were wearing funny hats,” was Poppy's answer. “All black, and it covered their faces.”

After that there appeared to be nothing else to be gleaned from the children. Poppy was adamant that she hadn't run to the window to look after them, and the rest of the children, when questioned before they left, vowed that by the time they crowded around the nursery window any men, carrying Hilda or otherwise, had vanished completely. The rest couldn't shed any light on it, despite the detectives pressing them, and in the end they came to be a thorough nuisance.

By the fifth time they asked Poppy if she really hadn't seen anything else, in their heavy accents that she hardly understood anyway, so that she had to keep looking to Charlie to help her hear what they were saying, she burst into tears, worn out and fractious thanks to the day. This proved to be what completed Charles' bad mood and, though he was usually quiet and reserved, he towered over them and positively thundered,

“My daughter has told you all that she can, now why don't you stop harassing her and go out there and find the damn woman. Do you have any idea of the diplomatic incident that this could cause? It's going to be all that we can do to stop the press getting hold of this, and then it will be your jobs on the line. Leave a tired little girl alone and do your job!”

With his eyes spitting thunderbolts, they felt it best to turn to his far more reasonable wife, thank her for her hospitality and her help, and escape the building as fast as possible. Even though dusk was now creeping across the peaks, they had had a number of bodies called up to the Platz, and started to organise the search while trying to ignore the residents crowding around fences and gossiping.

Inside the house, Charlie laid a hand on Charles arm that cooled him at once, and persuaded him to sit down next to her and shift Poppy into his arms for a cuddle. Heaving a heavy sigh, he looked up at his wife, but she didn't need him to speak to guess what was on his mind.

“This isn't your fault,” she promised. “Whatever's happened, Hilda is a grown woman and she wouldn't thank you for interfering. She knew before we left that we were treating this as a separate holiday to her own, and that she was looking after herself. Something, by the way, that I think she can do rather well.”

“But if I'd been here -”

“If nothing,” said Charlie obstinately. She was showing all the old, spirited passion that had scared even the most certain of opponents on the political rallies that the pair had attended in their youth. “If I hadn't been trapped in the roof, I could have done something. They would have been watching us, waiting for a time that nobody was around. She was the last person who was going to let herself be under watch constantly, that's why she sent the security men away. All we can do now is wait, not worry, and help as best we can.”

“And get Poppy over to the Emersons' for that dinner we were promised,” Charles managed, with a smile to his daughter that didn't reach his eyes.

Poppy's Fears by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

“Hallo, little mummy,” said Sphinx, swinging Poppy up and whirling her round. She giggled for the first time since Hilda had disappeared.

“I’m not a mummy!”

“Well, no, not yet,” agreed Sphinx. “I’ve got the bandages all ready, though.”

Ricky and Randa dragged Poppy and the other little ones into the chalet, and Sphinx turned to where his parents were talking in low tones to Charles, Charlie and their older offspring.

“Any luck?” he asked. They shook their heads.

“Poppy saw some men dragging her off, but they were wearing balaclavas and she couldn’t give much of a description.” Charles ran his hand through his hair. “There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of clues. We’re hoping some witnesses will turn up soon.”

David John snorted.

“I doubt it.”

“What do you mean?” said Charles sharply.

“I mean that these people are not fools,” said David. Since he seemed to be under the impression that this was all the explanation that was required, Augusta expanded on the subject.

“They knew she was Margaret Thatcher, so they must have known a full-scale search would soon be mounted for her. They’d have been prepared, and they’d have been careful to make sure they didn’t leave any clues. They’ll have had a vehicle waiting and a hideout prepared, and they won’t be easy to find.”

“Yes. You’re right, of course,” said Charlie. She was pale, even her usually buoyant curls looking a little limp. “We haven’t had time to think since it happened. Been talking to the police for most of the time.”

“You told the police?” David’s head jerked up in surprise. “What on earth d’you go and do that for?”

The Maynards stared at him, exhausted, worried and bewildered.

“That’s what normal people do when people get kidnapped,” said Phoebe gently. “Sometimes, believe it or not, the police can even help.”

“I’m sure they’ll do very well,” said Augusta kindly. “You all look exhausted. Come in and have something to eat. It’s all right,” she added, “I didn’t do the cooking.”

The food, having been prepared by Amy, who was as confident and efficient in cookery as she was in everything else, was excellent. Even the Emersons seemed less overwhelming than usual, and Charlie was grateful to Sphinx, who talked endlessly to the fascinated children, giving them the sorts of details about mummies and tombs that normally she would have been horrified at their hearing.

Even so, not all of them had been able to forget the incident so easily. Poppy sat between John and Sphinx, listening in silence to the chatter, picking at her food.

“Are you all right, Poppy?” murmured John, towards the end of the meal. Poppy turned a small, unhappy face towards him.

“I think they were hurting her,” she said in a whisper. Her lower lip trembled. Sphinx, spotting this, swept in to the rescue before John could speak.

“Hey, little mummy. What are you crying for?”

“I want Aunty Hilda to come back,” said Poppy. “I don’t want them to hurt her.”

“Well,” said Sphinx in a matter of fact voice. “That’s a good thing, because they definitely aren’t hurting her.”

“They’re not?”

“Nah. She’s one of the most important people in the country. They’ll want money, I should think. Once they’ve got that, they’ll give her back.”

“Really?”

“Definitely,” said Sphinx with a firmness that concealed well his inner doubts on the matter.

“But what if they hurt her before then?”

Sphinx leaned forward to speak low in Poppy’s ear.

“Don’t worry. We’ll find her before that happens.”

Hunting for Hilda by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

It took a long time – and a lot of glaring from John, who certainly resented his place as Poppy's knight in shining armour being taken – to reassure her that Auntie Hilda would be fine, they would just need to find her, and with everyone looking so hard it wouldn't take that long. In the end, she was convinced that everything would be just fine with a promise that, come the morning, if they still hadn't found her, Poppy could join the search party and help them look. In the meantime, Charles declared, having finished his meal, the rest of them had better sort out what was happening.

“You'd better go back to Freudesheim with the younger children and get them to bed,” he said, turning directly to his wife. When she looked like protesting, he added fondly, “I don't want you out climbing mountains in the dark in your condition, you'll be busy enough soon, and someone has to stay at Freudesheim all the time in case she turns up; and what else do you propose to do with the kids.”

“I thought that we weren't going to mention that,” replied Charlie mildly, over the sound of Millie in great disgust declaring,

“Dad! You're getting as bad as Nana used to be.”

“What's wrong?” asked Ashley quickly, trying to hide her uncertainty.

“Mum's pregnant again,” said Millie, with all the composure of someone not dropping a very personal bombshell in the middle of someone else's house and at a very inappropriate moment. Whatever else she'd inherited from her father, she'd certainly got the ability to handle intrigue and scandal in a fitting manner. “Grief only knows why or when it's due, but none of that helps us find Hilda at this moment. I'm sure she'll tell you all about it at the house.” And, having successfully rendered her mother silent, for once in her life, she turned to Charles with a simple, “I'll pair up with you, and we can go upwards and see what we find.”

“We'll go together,” said David, taking in Augusta with a glance. There was a sigh of relief unspoken around the table; any adventures that the pair might bring on themselves, they could at least keep out of the main search if they were alone together.

“I'll go out along the Platz with John,” added Sphinx, thinking vaguely that it might be good for the pair to have some time alone together, so he could reassure John that he never intended to be a rival in Poppy's affections and try and at least limit the damage between them. That left Phoebe and Amy, who looked at each other and shrugged.

Once that was sorted, those of the adults going out to search went to change into outdoor clothes, each of them detailing the exact route that they would take so that should they need help they could be found easily enough. It was agreed that the rest would spend the night at Freudesheim – there were, after all, ample bedrooms for them – and though Constance Rose and Will moaned long and loud about not being included, they were told quite firmly that they weren't old enough, and that they would all be going out in the morning anyway. It was agreed that the adults would be back by midnight, as this gave them a clear three hours still to search and still meant that they could be up early enough the next morning to start again.

Charlie was as annoyed as her son at being left out of all the excitement, especially as not long ago Charles wouldn't have dared to go without her, but she could see how worried he was, and so she merely kissed him softly, promised revenge for letting out her news in so sudden a whirlwind, and then stepped back and watched them walk away, Charles leading them with his eldest daughter on his arm. Her heart swelled with pride, but all that showed was a small twinkle in her eyes as she marshalled the rest of the children into some sort of order and started to walk them back to Freudesheim.

Meanwhile, David and Augusta were going the opposite way to the rest, and so they were the first to peel away from the main group. Phoebe and Amy left them next, and then Charles and Millie saw the path upwards that they were to take, and bid farewell to the two boys. These were the unlikeliest of companions, and at first they wandered along in silence, not wholly sure what they were supposed to be searching for anyway in the dark but going along with the general move for the sake of peace.

“Poppy's a good kid,” said Sphinx at last, breaking the silence. The echoes seemed to reverberate through the valley, shattering the calm of the surrounding peaks, the whole world open before them and the heavens sparkling above. “And it's clear she thinks the world of you.”

“Sometimes,” grunted John, begrudging his 'enemy' the chance to wax so lyrical. There was plenty that he wanted to say, but he could hardly launch into a tirade without looking annoyingly jealous and possessive. Instead he contented himself with a sudden cry, bounding forwards and grasping something from the branch of a tree they were passing. “Look, it's Hilda's jacket!”

Sphinx was saved from answering by the sudden heavy weight that crashed into him from behind at that moment, knocking him to the ground and pinning his arms behind him, so that he was effectively trapped.

Encounter with the Police by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

Sphinx, rather annoyed by this, jerked, twisted and got to his feet. He looked, brows drawn into a thick line, at the large man sprawled at his feet.

“Over-zealous policeman,” he drawled. He reached a hand down and hauled the man to his feet. “You know, you should probably check who people are before you start knocking them down.”

As the man looked at him blankly he recast his remarks in German.

“My name is Sphinx Emerson, and this is John Maynard. Do you mind if we continue our walk now?”

“No – no. Please go on.” The man looked embarrassed and uncomfortable under Sphinx’s sardonic gaze. “Um – I am Peter Koch. I wonder, have you seen anything suspicious at all? I am searching for clues to the abducted woman.”

John, who had been standing to one side, felt that this was an opportune moment to raise his find aloft.

“This is her coat,” he said. “It was caught on the branch of that tree. Heaven knows how it got there.”

“You two know this place better than I do,” said Sphinx. “Is there anywhere around where she could be hidden? Caves? Disused buildings?”

“Not that I know of – not close to here,” said John. The policeman shrugged his shoulders.

“I was only transferred here a month ago, and it’s such a tedious place that I spend as little time here as possible.”

“In that case I suggest we search this area as thoroughly as we can. I’d imagine they came by car. They wouldn’t have wanted to be seen carrying a kicking and screaming woman – or even an inert bundle – around in broad daylight, especially in a place like this where everyone knows everyone else. We need to see if we can find car tracks first of all.”

Unfortunately, owing to the fact that there had been no rain for the past six weeks – except for a light drizzle last Tuesday which had fizzled off the ground almost as soon as it touched it – there were no signs of a car. A little way off the road, the policeman found broken twigs and a faint track, as though it was a route that had been used regularly, but it only led to a little clearing in the undergrowth.

“This is hopeless,” said John.

“I begin to agree with you,” said Sphinx.

“I knew all along it would lead to nothing,” said Peter. Sphinx looked at him sourly.

“The fact remains that Hilda’s coat was on that tree. John, do you know when she last wore it?”

John thought back.

“It’s been pretty warm,” he said. “I don’t really remember her wearing a coat at all. She was wearing a jacket the other evening, but it was just a light summer jacket, not a proper coat like this. I think the last time she wore it was at church on Sunday – it was a bit chilly early in the morning.”

“It was warm today, though,” said Sphinx.

“Yes. Seems odd, really, that she was wearing it – oh! You mean she wasn’t?”

“I don’t know for certain. We’ll have to check with Poppy, since she was the one who saw Hilda last. But it does seem fairly unlikely that she’d be wearing a coat in mid-afternoon on a warm summer day.”

Peter, who had been listening, a frown on his face, finally spoke.

“What are you saying?” he demanded.

“Oh, sorry,” said Sphinx in German. “We forgot you didn’t speak English.” He glanced at John, knew that they both agreed, then went on smoothly. “We were just saying that it was odd that she lost her coat in that particular spot.”

Peter shook his head.

“I must go and report this. There may be clues in the coat and there’s obviously nothing of interest around here, or nothing that can be found by night. We’ll come back in the daylight – you boys should go back home.”

They watched in silence as he waved his torch at them by way of farewell and vanished off through the undergrowth. Sphinx, in the torchlight, raised his eyebrows at John.

“I’d like to know what he means by calling us boys,” said the latter indignantly. “He only looked about eighteen himself.”

“Hm,” said Sphinx. He turned and began to follow the policeman. “Over-zealous, as I said when he knocked me down. He’s right about one thing, though. We won’t find anything in the middle of the night.”

“Do you think we should have told him about Hilda not wearing her coat?”

“Someone’ll think of it soon enough. It’s pretty obvious.”

“And it means that the coat’s just about useless as a clue,” said John gloomily. “Although I suppose it’s still odd that it’s there.”

“Yes. Definitely.” Sphinx glanced at his companion. “There are three things I can think of that it could mean. First, the coat’s been there since the last time she wore it, and she lost it then.”

“But if that was Sunday, she wouldn’t have come this way.”

“True. Second, when they kidnapped her, they took some spare clothes for her.”

“Doesn’t seem all that likely. I mean, it’d be an unnecessary risk for them to take.”

“True again. Which leaves number three. That they left the coat there as a decoy – to lead us off the trail.”

“So actually we’re no further forward.”

Sphinx didn’t even bother saying ‘true’. They walked on in silence for a few minutes.

“Damn,” said John.

Red Herring by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

It transpired, when they talked to Poppy over breakfast the next morning, that in actual fact Hilda had been wearing her coat when she was taken. In an attempt at entertaining the young girl, who had latched very firmly on to this new source of amusement while Sphinx was gone, Hilda had sent her to fetch various articles and then started a game where Poppy got to play at being the prime minister.

Wearing Hilda's hat, her high-heeled, business like shoes and her coat, Poppy had paraded up and down the room, inventing people or making Hilda name them for her to talk to, shouting at those she didn't like and praising those she did, so that on occasion the Labour leader would be congratulated on his new child while Hilda's deputy was thoroughly scolded for bringing the wrong cup of tea that morning.

When it looked as if Poppy would be quite content to go off on a tangent and tell them all about everyone who had visited her at Freudesheim during her afternoon of power, Charlie gently prodded her back into telling them what had happened to the coat. She tipped her head to one side for a moment, remarkably like a robin eyeing up a sultana, before she explained with the perfect logic of a small child,

“Auntie Hilda went to sleep while I was shouting at Arthur, and you always say we can't sleep without our blanket case we get a cold. Only I didn't think I could carry one all the way down the stairs, so I draped the coat over her, she looked all peaceful and nice. It was a bit silly anyway cause even when you're Prime Minister you don't get to wear your coat indoors. Then daddy came to my office and I had to shout at him.”

“Am I forgiven now?” pouted Charles, and swung his youngest daughter up into his lap when she nodded happily. In an attempt at keeping her occupied, so that she wouldn't think too much about what had happened, he started to ask her about her ministerial ambitions, while the rest, having finished breakfast, decamped to the other room.

General consensus seemed to be that although they couldn't rule out the coat having absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the kidnapping, that seemed more unlikely given Poppy's story. This lent a whole new angle to things, and in the end Sphinx and John offered to go and search the area again, with Millie and Phoebe to help them this time.

“This isn't the Famous Five,” frowned Charlie, at her son's enthusiasm. “We're talking about the prime minister being kidnapped, a bunch of children aren't going to solve it. We should tell the police and let them look for clues properly.”

“We did,” replied John, carefully omitting to mention that they might not have passed on all their ideas. “They didn't seem to think that it meant anything, so I'm sure that they won't mind us searching the area now.”

It took a little more persuasion, from Augusta in particular, but in the end Charlie conceded gracious defeat. She knew that they would all be out searching within the hour anyway, she would have been herself if she was allowed, and that once they left the house she could hardly control where they went. All the same, she wasn't happy about it, and she made them all promise to be careful and not get into any more trouble.

While the two women were making lunches for the search parties to take with them, so that they wouldn't need to return again until evening, Augusta offered to have the younger children with her. She could guess that Charles and David would want to go off together, if just to be able to argue in peace for a while, and if Ashley and Stacia were there it might keep Ricky and Randa occupied so that she could search more easily.

“Someone has to look after them,” she explained, buttering bread enthusiastically. “And you've got all the things here to sort out and box up so that they can be sent to various people. You mustn't forget why you really came on holiday! I'll tell them that we're climbing up the mountain for a picnic, it'll take Poppy's mind off things, and I can search at the same time.”

“It would be wonderful if you could,” replied Charlie with enthusiasm. She was aware, even if Charles had allowed himself to forget so that he could get caught up in Hilda's drama instead, of just how much work there was to be done, and nobody else seemed all that keen to do it. Anyway, the police were going to be the ones who found Hilda, or the media knowing them, and this was just an easy way to keep all other parties occupied.

With this in mind, she finished organising food, made sure that they all had a first aid kit and similarly necessary items, kissed the children firmly, grabbed Charles and kissed him more firmly, and bade them all a fond farewell, waving from the doorway until they had all split up their separate ways. Then, sinking into one of the comfortable chairs in the Saal., she began to plan her day.

The first thing to do would probably be to ring Con, so that word could be passed around the family that packing up had begun and items should begin to be doled out in the near future, as well as making sure that nothing terrible had happened while they were away. Then she might start in on the bedrooms; if she could find any personal effects from various people's childhoods that had been left behind when they moved out, these would be easy enough to sort, and it would give her a starting pile for people to add to it all the things that they'd asked for.

Pleased with the plan, she hauled herself up and went to find the telephone, humming to herself, launching into things in her own inimitable way.

Clues by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

When they arrived at the place where Hilda’s coat had been found, the area had been blocked off and surrounded with large warning notices.

“Oh, bother,” said Millie, who been entertaining delightful visions of herself discovering all manner of clues and putting her brother and Sphinx to shame. Sphinx gave her a grin that made the words she had been about to say vanish from her mind.

“Good thing rope isn’t an impenetrable barrier,” he said, lifting it up politely so that she could cross under it. Millie hesitated.

“Won’t we get into trouble?”

“There’s no-one around to catch us,” Phoebe pointed out. Since even John appeared to have no qualms about crossing the barrier, Millie said no more but ducked under the rope. Sphinx followed.

“That’s fine,” said Phoebe. “I’ll just climb over all by myself, shall I?” She stepped gracefully over the rope, not looking noticeably upset. “What shall we do?” she went on. “Split the area into four sections? It’s probably the quickest way of getting the job done.”

“Good idea,” said Millie, getting in before Sphinx could speak. She and Phoebe between them divided the area into four sections and sent the boys off to one each. They looked at each other for a moment.

“Good luck,” said Phoebe. She turned and went off to her own section, her stylishly cut trousers and elegant shirt suggesting that she was out for a gentle stroll rather than hunting for clues to the whereabouts of a kidnapped prime minister. 

Millie began a painstaking search, beginning to wish that she was a little better at woodcraft. It was fine talking about hunting about and finding clues, but she really only had a hazy idea of what she was actually looking for. All very well for the Emersons, who, from their stories, appeared to be experienced and expert criminologists and quite accustomed to this sort of thing. But she was just the daughter of a politician. She’d never tried to solve a crime before in her life.

She stopped this train of thought firmly. It was one of Dad’s mantras, that if you thought a thing for long enough it would probably come to pass. I’m going to find an amazing clue and set us on the trail to finding Hilda, she told herself. It wasn’t as though she was stupid. She’d always been top of her form at school and, which she was far more proud of, been able to hold her own with Dad’s friends and colleagues. So what should she be looking for? Well, that was obvious, surely. Signs of recent disturbances. Anywhere where someone might have been carried, struggling. Except, of course, Hilda might not have been able to struggle. Millie repressed a sick feeling when she thought this.

Her section had the clearing in it that Sphinx and John had explored by torchlight the previous night. She wished she had Sphinx to help her now; she was afraid that she might miss something because of her inexperience. Or Phoebe, or anyone who knew what they were doing, really, she thought, annoyed with herself. There was no point in thinking of Sphinx in that way, since he was an arrogant idiot and not someone she’d want to spend more time with. At all.

She was moving slowly, scouring the ground for some sign that something violent and dramatic had happened there recently, and it was some time until she arrived at the clearing. She stood in the middle of it, looking around. This was hopeless, she hadn’t spotted anything and she probably wouldn’t. Well, maybe it wasn’t any good looking for the subtle clues. Sphinx had said that they should look for somewhere Hilda could be hidden – they wouldn’t have brought her here for nothing. Well, that she could do.

It was obvious that there wasn’t anything in the clearing, but the faint, narrow path – and, she supposed, the fact that none of the others had yelled that they’d found anything yet – suggested that they would have brought her this way. So, as she wasn’t here, they must have taken her away again. But where? She began to pace around the clearing’s edge.

It turned out that there were three different paths out of the clearing. She quickly ruled out the first, because it led her with difficulty through tangled brambles for some minutes until it came to a sudden end and there was nowhere to go except through six foot high solid thorns. Millie went back. The second path curved round until it joined the main road again a few minutes later. The undergrowth it went through wasn’t as thick here, but although Millie was careful to study it thoroughly she couldn’t see any signs that anyone had left the path. She sighed and retraced her steps.

She’d left the third path till last partly because it looked the most hopeful. It was narrow and led through thick undergrowth, but it wasn’t almost impassable as the first had been. Quite close to the start of it there was a bush from which a branch had been almost completely torn and although that was the only clue she could find, she hoped it meant something. Of course, it could just mean that some animal had bumped into the bush or something. Still, her heart beat a little faster with anticipation as she set off.

Nerves by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

It was overcrowded, and very little light came through the overhanging umbrella of canopy. Steadily pushing her way through, she managed to hold back brambles just long enough to duck under them, and to see just enough through the gloom to know that it continued for some way to come. Her heart pounded inside her, the only noise that she could hear, and it was with more than some trepidation that she took each step further away from the group.

Still, she was here to save Hilda, to return her safely back to the bosom first of all of the Maynard family and then that of her own. They hadn't been told yet, she knew, Charles always holding out to wait just a little bit longer before he rang them. He was close to them all, didn't approve much of her husband in private – whom he saw as something of a liability to her career, though he would never have dared say so – but was fond of them as good friends of his.

Of course, there were always those ready to make snide comments about how handy it was that he should be in such close cahoots with someone effectively his boss, and not a little teasing from his other siblings, liberal Con in particular (who secretly horrified in his career and tried to hide any connection from him as best she could), came his way because of the relationship. The Thatchers had been good to them, though, especially when Poppy had been young and had contracted a serious illness. The vigils spent by her bedside had always been brightened with a card, visit or small token from not just Hilda but everyone else in the office in awe enough of her to obey her word and send them something.

With a shiver, Millie stopped, glancing around to try and get her bearings. Even though she, at least, still remembered the horrific days, nobody in the family would ever speak of the time when they weren't sure if they would be blessed with their youngest for much longer. Besides which, the thought of imminent death did nothing to lighten the definitely spooky surroundings she was a part of. It had, however, reminded her of just how much Hilda – the children had always been taught to call her Hilda – had done for them all, and steeled her nerves against anything untoward she might be feeling.

Chiding herself for such cowardice, and wondering just what her mother would have to say on the subject, she took another step forwards and even managed not to jump at the branch she broke. There were no signs of recent passage, obvious ones anyway, but this didn't mean much. The kidnappers had been able to conceal their path remarkably well thus far, there was no reason to think that they might have become careless so far in.

Wondering how the others were getting on, she wended her solitary way forwards, almost certainly out of shouting distance by now but almost heedless of this. To just walk, on one's own, with one's thoughts for company, was calming, and she was far from thrilled by imagining suddenly stumbling across Hilda, kidnappers and all, but at least, she reasoned, it would give Hilda hope, and people knew where she was.

Suddenly, her roving eyes picked up a tiny detail, and she bent down to ground level to examine it more closely. It was only a casually discarded cigarette end, but it was find that sent shivers down her spine. Nobody else, she was sure, would have fought their way through such an unfriendly path, and it was something insignificant enough that the kidnappers could easily have overlooked it even when trying to cover their tracks. Disappointingly, it wasn't fresh, but it did give her fresh heart that they weren't nearby, at least.

An owl hooted blearily above her, and she screamed, her nerves so on edge and so startled out of her reverie was she. The new find had completely captivated her, and she had almost forgotten where she was; the reminder brought floating in back with it a whole host of disconcerting realisations. First, it was almost pitch black around her, much thicker than when she had started out. Second, the path petered out not too far from where she was, into a nothingness that gave no hope of finding anything useful from it. Third, part of the darkness could probably be easily explained away by the fact that evening was setting in.

And, fourth, that was a hand that she had just felt grip her shoulder.

Making Progress by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

“Steady on, it’s only me,” said Sphinx, retreating hastily as Millie let loose a second yell.

“For heaven’s sake!” she said, turning on him, her heart thundering painfully. “What on earth do you mean by grabbing me like that in the middle of a lonely wood when it’s getting dark? I thought for a moment you were one of the kidnappers.”

Sphinx opened his mouth to point out that she had been screaming before he came anywhere near her, but shut it again, feeling that this would be distinctly tactless.

“Nope,” he said meekly. “It’s just me. Any luck?”

Milly, her sudden panic subsiding, shrugged and spread her hands.

“Honestly, I’ve no idea,” she said. “This does seem the most likely place, but the only clues I’ve found are an old fag-end and a broken branch. Fresh, I think.”

“Well, that’s better than the rest of us,” said Sphinx. “These must be the most deserted woods on the Platz. Phoebe’s found a kid’s sock and John turned up a pair of trousers that have been there at least a year, I should think.” Turning away from Millie, he put his hands to his mouth and loosed a shout that, while not quite so reverberantly impressive as his father’s, still caused Millie to clap her hands to her ears.

“Do all you Emersons have lungs like bellows?” she demanded as the dust settled.

“You should have heard my great-grandfather when he wanted to make himself heard,” said Sphinx. “Even when he was ninety or so he could still make the echoes ring.”

A moment later John and Phoebe came crashing down the path.

“Did you find something?” called John, who was obviously far too excited for his own good.

“Only a fag-end,” said Millie.

“And,” said Sphinx, stepping sideways off the path towards a place where the trees thinned. They followed him, like a flock of ducklings, towards the gap. “Car tracks.”

“Oh, good work, Millie,” said Phoebe, bending forward to examine the tracks. Millie opened her mouth to explain that she hadn’t noticed any such thing, but closed it again when she found that Sphinx was winking at her.

“You’ve heard of the politician’s first rule, then,” she said. “Always take the credit for anything that makes you look good.”

“While, of course, strenuously denying everything else. Certainly. I live by no other motto.”

They laughed together.

“All the same,” said Phoebe, standing up and eyeing them sternly. “This doesn’t really get us any further on. We can be pretty sure they’ve taken her off in a car, but we’ve no idea what they’d have done with her after that.”

“Maybe they’ve killed her,” suggested John, his face brightening at the thought.

“Don’t be so disgusting,” said Millie, turning on him, furious. “She’s the Prime Minister, remember? Can you imagine what that’d do to Dad?”

“Take it easy. I was only joking,” said John. Millie turned on her heel and strode away towards the road. Phoebe gave her brother a poke as John stared after his sister in disbelief. “Honestly, women,” he observed.

“Aren’t you going to go after her?” said Phoebe as Sphinx looked at her.

“What? Why me?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?” Phoebe’s elegantly plucked brows rose slightly. Sphinx scowled, thrust his hands into his pockets and went off in pursuit of Millie.

“I don’t think he meant it,” he offered as he came level with her. Millie ignored this. “We all know how serious it is, Millie, and we’re doing our best.”

Millie glanced at him, pushing her hand through her hair, which was beginning to escape its moorings.

“I know.” She shook her head. “It’s just – Dad’s so worried about her. And it’s not just that she’s the Prime Minister; she’s our friend as well. And I can’t help thinking – what if we never get her back?”

“Oh, we’ll get her back all right. The only real question is whether we can do it without precipitating an international incident.” He looked at her small, expressive face, and realised that she needed more than this. “Look, has anyone ever told you about our family? We have quite a history of solving mysteries and bringing criminals to book. Believe me, if we have to scour the entire mountainside that’s what we’ll do.”

“That’s all very well, but what if she isn’t on the mountainside?”

“The further they take her the more likely it is that someone’ll recognise her and the more planning and resources they’ll need. ‘Course, if it’s a political kidnapping they won’t have any trouble in that area.”

“But? There obviously is a but.” Sphinx shrugged.

“I’m just not sure that it is political.”

“I was wondering that myself,” said Millie. “There hasn’t been a ransom asked, or any kind of demands, and as far as we can tell they haven’t contacted anyone about it. You’d think they would, really.”

“They still could,” said Sphinx. “It hasn’t been that long. But I agree that it’s getting more unlikely. Not only that, but it’s only a few days since –”

“She was knocked on the head. Thank goodness it isn’t only me that thought of that!”

“It would be quite a coincidence, and I expect the police are working on those lines too. But that makes me think it isn’t political, because the first attack was so inept. I mean, all they did was knock her out for a while. It looks to me as though someone panicked.”

“And the second one was so well-planned. They came after her deliberately that time.”

“Exactly.” Sphinx gave her an approving nod, failing to notice Millie’s slightly exasperated expression. “For some reason they needed to take her, and this time they planned it properly. Covered their tracks very effectively. Why, even now we can’t be certain that those tyre tracks are anything to do with Hilda – though I think they are.”

“Well, assuming they are,” said Millie, striving to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “What do we do now – Sherlock?”

Sphinx, caught by surprise, stared at her for a moment, then broke into one of his rare peals of laughter.

“Sorry, was I pontificating?”

“A little bit.” Millie laughed too, and tucked her hand companionably through his arm. “If only we knew why they’d taken her,” she went on thoughtfully, “we might be able to guess better where they’d taken her.”

What if...? by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

It was only a little later on that they all reconvened in the salon of Freudesheim, home to many parties over the years but never one quite as important as this. As Millie, Phoebe, Sphinx and John slipped in, the last of the group, Charlie was just entertaining them all with an impression of Joey, had she been there to witness the excitement.

“And thank goodness Jack's dose has worn off,” she was declaring to a laughing Augusta, and even Charles was managing a weak smile. “I don't know why he thinks I need so much rest, I managed eleven children. But we really must be off again, it'll be just like the time I saved Elisaveta from her mad cousin – have I told you about that before? It was the term before Grizel ran away and then Rob was captured by a madman. But another time! We must try and find Hilda before the beatniks get her.”

Here she paused, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Once, she had been foolish enough to do her Joey impression to Stephen, while John was in the room. Naturally, the next time they saw grandma, he'd demanded that she do so again – much to Charlie's discomfort. Luckily for all concerned, Joey merely let forth a peal of the golden laughter that had won so many girls to her in her time, and declared that imitation was indeed the most sincere form of flattery.

“We made a find,” inserted Millie at this point, for maximum effect, and was gratified by every head in the room turning to her. “Some tyre tracks, in the woods, and broken branches.”

“Not a struggle?” gasped Charles quickly, turning to his eldest daughter, pale. Quickly, she shook her head. “Well, that's one thing – if she was in any state to struggle and didn't. If she couldn't – well – it's too late to do anything now. I was just going to say that perhaps we should call it a night and start again early tomorrow morning.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Augusta with a large, convincing yawn. She could see that Charlie was nearly done in, and Charles was little better. Herding her brood together, she made polite conversation while they all fetched various outer garments which had been cast to the four winds, and finished with, “I'll be knocking at sunrise, don't let the side down! We can let ourselves out.”

Once the Emersons had disappeared, the rest bid each other good night in subdued tones. While Millie's find might be significant, it might mean nothing at all, and even if it did mean something they would have to figure out what that was. Thus it was that, not for the first time in the house, several people were to be found praying ardently that night, for Hilda's safe return and their own safety, too.

“What if they come for me next?” asked Charles dully, once he and Charlie were in bed, the light turned off. He was curled around her, his arms crossing over her stomach, hands linked. All he could smell was her hair, familiar, comforting, and the delicate perfume she wore which still lingered around her. “If they wanted her for political reasons, they might want me. Anything for a bargaining chip, and we're vulnerable up here. What if they take -”

“They won't,” said Charlie too quickly. She couldn't bear to hear that her children might be in danger. “They won't come for any of us, we're nothing in the public eye, not like Hilda. I mean, if you kidnap the Prime Minister of Great Britain, that's only one step away from the Queen, the whole world almost is in your hands. One minor politician with a name a few people might vaguely recognise, that could get you a couple of thousand at most.”

“Well, it's nice to know I mean so much,” he joked, at an attempt at lightening the heavy atmosphere, but nothing could take the worry from his mind. Suddenly, he leant right over, and kissed Charlie heavily on the cheek. “I do love you,” he whispered. “I'm so glad that we made it through everything. I wouldn't be without you now.”

“I wouldn't be without you either,” she murmured back, shifting slightly so that she was more comfortable. Squeezing his fingers, she shut her eyes, but sleep wasn't easy to find, and she could feel his heartbeat as she lay in the darkness. At long last, the silence compelled her to ask, “The children, they – they will be all right, won't they?”

“I'll look after them,” he promised. “I'll look after you all. Always.”

With which, time and tide caught up with the two exhausted adults, and ten minutes more saw them both firmly asleep, completely unaware of the tiny flame outside. The shadowy figure standing next to the hedge, obscured by the outline of the house, dragged on the cigarette and watched, silent.

"We've Caught the Kidnapper!" by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

It was Poppy who woke some time later with the smell of cigarette smoke tickling her nostrils. She lay in bed for a while, deliciously warm but wrinkling her nose up from time to time. No, it was no good. She pushed the blankets back and scrambled onto a chair so that she’d be able to reach the sash window.

The moon was so bright, it was like a huge lamp in the sky. She could see bits of the garden, looking pale and strangely shaped. There was a rustle and a tiny grunt. Poppy leaned out of the window, thinking it might be a hedgehog, or even a badger. She’d once seen one, when Dad had taken her and Ashley and Stacia out for a walk in the middle of the night. They’d sat as still and quiet as mice, almost holding their breaths, until the badger came stumping through the clearing, nosing into the undergrowth and making an awful lot of noise. This wasn’t a badger, though. There was someone standing by the hedge, not so very far from her bedroom, and the tiniest little light showed that they were smoking a cigarette.

Poppy drew her head back in, climbed down from the stool and stood for a minute, thinking. They must be waiting to kidnap somebody else, maybe Dad. Poppy clenched her jaw. They definitely weren’t going to get away with that, not if she had anything to do with it. She grabbed her dressing gown and pulled her slippers on, then crept out of her room and into Stacia’s, next door.

Stacia always woke noisily, but Poppy managed to make her be quiet by covering her face up with her dressing gown, which made the yells a bit quieter. Refusing to explain what was going on, she pulled her sister into Ashley’s room and poked her awake with some difficulty.

“Whuzgoinon?” mumbled Ashley, peering at them blearily. “It’s night.”

“I know,” Poppy whispered, so close to Ashley’s ear that she squealed and clapped a hand to that organ. “Ssshhhh,” hissed Poppy reproachfully. “There’s someone smoking a cigarette outside my window and I think it’s one of the kidnappers.”

Ashley, instantly awake, sat up sharply.

“What?” she gasped.

“There’s a kidnapper smoking a cigarette outside,” said Poppy again, successfully fitting the story into a nutshell.

“Do you think we should wake Dad?” said Stacia, her brown eyes wide.

“But he might be scared,” said Poppy anxiously. Poor Dad had been so worried about Aunty Hilda being kidnapped, and if he had to hear about this too... she didn’t like seeing him worried. It made her feel scared. “Can’t we do something ourselves?”

The other two looked at her consideringly. It was true, thought Ashley, that Dad had been looking especially tired and anxious since Hilda got kidnapped. Maybe it would be kinder if they were to help out a bit first. Mind you, she wasn’t really sure that they could actually catch the kidnapper all by themselves. Perhaps they could go and get Ricky and Randa to help. No, that would take too long. But as she thought of Ricky and Randa she realised that they simply must catch this person. The Emersons would be disgusted if they realised the three of them had had this chance and hadn’t taken it.

 

*

Some ten minutes later, Charles and Charlie came dashing down the stairs, their older offspring at their heels, all of them horrified and alarmed at the sudden cacophony of sound that had arisen from the front of the house.

“Let me go first!” bellowed Charles, attempting to be gentlemanly as he elbowed his wife out of the way, almost knocking her to the ground. He snatched the front door key from its hook and fumbled with the latch. A moment later the door flew open and he was racing across the grass.

The yelling was coming from behind the hedge, close to the corner of the house, and Charles sped towards it, only to be brought up short by the hedge. Not wanting to waste time by running all the way round by the front gate, he picked the bit of the hedge that looked thinnest and, spurred on by renewed shrieks, scrabbled his way through, arriving just as Charlie, Millie, John and Will arrived, having taken the longer but easier route.

Charles, not waiting to find out what was going on, dived into the fray and emerged clutching a violently wriggling Poppy, from whom most of the screeches were emanating.

“What on earth is going on?” he demanded as his youngest daughter gave a wriggle so forceful that she kicked him in the elbow and he dropped her with an exclamation.

“It’s the kidnapper!” she shouted. “Quick, Dad, we’ve caught him, but I think he’s going to get away!” Before he could stop her, she had dived again into the melee, crying “hit him on the head, Ash, quick!”

John, standing a little closer, also made a grab, managed to clutch Poppy by the shoulder and was dragged along as she launched herself forward. A moment later he tripped over a flailing leg, and landed, with a thump that provoked a yell of anguish, on top of someone. Instantly, he found someone taking a firm grip on his hair and someone else attempting to roll him over and suffocate him. Instinctively he lashed out with a fist and made contact with something that felt satisfyingly like a nose.

A bright light dazzled him – obviously someone had had enough foresight to snatch up a torch on the way out – and he flung off the person who was hanging onto his hair, rolled over and landed a hearty punch on the nose he’d already injured. His victim emitted a roar of fury, reached a hand up, and grabbed him by the throat. He could hear his mother shrieking and felt a jolt of fear. What if there were more of them? Hurting her? He slammed his fist into the elbow of the arm that was trying to choke him, managed to jab his opponent in a strategic and, by the subsequent bellow, painful place, landed a few more well-placed punches, then rose to his feet and launched himself at his mother, who was just behind the light.

“John!” she shrieked as he flung his arms round her shoulders protectively and peered into the darkness, searching for attackers. “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” he shouted. “I thought someone was attacking you from the way you were screaming.”

“I was screaming at you to tell you you were attacking Mary-Lou,” she said tartly, pushing him off.

“What?”

He swung round, and his jaw dropped. Poppy, Stacia and Ashley were enthusiastically finishing off the job he’d started. They must have obtained some rope from somewhere – later they found that they had simply cut the washing line down using a knife from the kitchen – and were currently engaged in cocooning their victim in an enormous length of it. And his mother was right, John realised. He’d only met Mary-Lou once, when he’d been quite young, but he’d seen pictures and anyway, she wasn’t the sort of person you could forget. Even now, with her face all bloody, most of her covered with swarming children and her features contorted with pain and fury.

Charles, meanwhile, seemed to have given up on the idea of trying to stop the chain of events and was simply standing there, his mouth slightly open, as his younger offspring finished off their capture with a series of huge and vicious looking knots. At last they stood up and turned to face their elders, their faces wearing almost identical expressions of exhilaration and triumph. Charles pulled himself together.

“What is going on here?” he demanded, with a passable imitation of sternness.

Some of the pride trickled away. Stacia’s face took on an expression of extreme innocence which made her father’s stomach sink with horror. It was Ashley, predictably, who summoned up the courage to face his wrath and answer his question.

“The – the kidnapper,” she faltered. “We’ve caught him.”

Explanations by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

It was only some half an hour later that full and complete sanity was restored as fully as it could ever be to Freudesheim. Will, whose main role in the affair had been to stand quietly to one side and observe it all through stifled laughs – having been the first on the scene, almost, and seen what was happening – had gone almost straight back to bed, chortling to himself. Millie, the wielder of the torch, joined him soon afterwards, having done her best to soothe her father's injured arm and John's bruises, while Charlie did what she could for Mary-Lou.

Thankfully, it transpired that despite the amount of blood, the injuries didn't appear to be nearly as bad as they'd looked; her nose, Mary-Lou declared hopefully, didn't even seem to be broken. As for the rest of her, well, what, she asked, were a few scrapes and bruises to a seasoned Chalet girl? At this, with her accompanying Look at the younger fry, who were half scared and half excited by their night time adventure, they shifted uncomfortably, and Poppy tried an overenthusiastic yawn in the hope that she might be excused to bed. This led to a real one, and her eyes started to droop.

“No you don't,” said Charles firmly, seeing what was happening. He'd just brought in a tray of tea, furnishing Mary-Lou with a cup while his wife tidied away the first aid things, and then settling down with one himself. “You can go to bed in a minute, but first I want to know what on earth is going on.”

“We caught the kidnapper,” insisted Poppy, with a hearty sigh for adults who kept you awake with stupid questions that you'd already answered. “We didn't want to wake you up cause you've been so worried recently, so we thought we'd catch them and then you could call the police or Auntie Gus.”

“I might have known that she'd have something to do with this,” grunted Charles darkly. What with everything happening with regards to Hilda – and the fact that he'd had to alert not just Hilda's family, who were flying out the next morning to a hotel in the capital, but also several senior cabinet ministers who took quite a dim view of the way he was 'looking after her' and 'helping her relax' like he'd promised, just that evening – and also the way that none of the Emersons could seem to resist bellowing whenever they were around, he'd started to find he had something of a stubborn dislike towards his wife's latest friend. “You girls really do need to realise that if anything, anything like this happens you must come and fetch us! What about if it hadn't been Mary-Lou but somebody who'd really want to hurt you?”

“We're sorry,” tried Ashley, nudging the sister on either side of her to make them nod in agreement, in what would have been, in other circumstances, quite an amusing manner. “Really, we are.”

“Well,” pondered Charles, taking advantage of his wife being out of the room to veto what he was about to say. “For now you can apologise to Mary-Lou and take yourselves back to bed. This is almost certainly something to do with Ricky and Randa, though, and I don't want you spending so much time with them. From now on you're grounded, which means that you aren't to leave the house without either myself, your mother or Millie, and that lasts until I know you can be trusted not to do stupid things.”

The punishment was a hard one, when it was clear that it would mean not spending time with their new friends either, but they all took it rather stoically. At least dad hadn't threatened to send them home – little did they know that he was only waiting until he could find a safe escort to Britain to beg Con to take them back until the whole mess was sorted and he could be sure they were safe again – and apologising to Mary-Lou wasn't so bad, when she took it so graciously and they did honestly mean it.

They stopped just long enough to kiss Charlie goodnight, as she came back into the room and fixed straight away on the teapot, and say sorry to her as well, before they trooped up the stairs, even Poppy noticeably dampened. Deciding that it might be better not to mention the exact form of the punishment to his wife – who might not appreciate the slur on the name of her friend – he turned to his eldest son.

“As for you, I had thought that at your age you might have learnt something of that little thing called common sense, but evidently not. Honestly, wading in like that, did you not think that in any case it would be far more sensible for you to keep out and let us sort it, whatever was happening?”

“I thought that they were attacking mum,” murmured John in a subdued voice. “I'm awfully sorry, Mary-Lou, I didn't mean to hurt you.”

“No real harm done,” she murmured.

“Bed,” sighed Charles. “And in future, do try to think before you act, and don't go out of your way to embarrass yourself again.”

With which cutting remark, John flushed and escaped gladly. Left alone, the three adults looked at each other. Mary-Lou had certainly seen better days, and the worry and stress which had been telling on Charles for some time had finally taken its toll, with the culmination of the night's events, and he seemed to have aged ten years in as many minutes. Still, he turned to his guest, and asked the question that everybody wanted to know.

“What on earth brings you here?”

The Children Wash Up by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

Ricky and Randa, unaware of the new embargo on their presence in the Maynard household, turned up early in the afternoon and strolled in through the kitchen door, where they encountered a tired and harassed-looking Millie, who was about to start on the large pile of washing up from lunch, Will helping.

“Hullo Millie!” said Ricky. “Where are the others? We’ve got something we want to show them.”

“Actually,” began Millie. She stopped. How did you tell two eager, apparently innocent children that their being in your house was a very bad idea just at the moment? Especially when you couldn’t help feeling that the attitude was a little unfair, since Ashley, Stacia and Poppy would probably have attacked Mary-Lou anyway. But before she could even begin to explain, Randa spotted the mountain of washing-up, and her eyes lit up.

“Gosh, what a lot of washing-up,” she said. “Shall we help?”

“Oh – no!” said Millie quickly.

“Don’t worry,” said Randa. “We’re very good at washing-up. We hardly ever break things. Will, bring me a chair so I can reach. And give Ricky the towel – he can dry up. Go on, Millie, you look awfully tired.”

Millie looked at Will, who shrugged and tossed the towel to Ricky.

“Mum’ll be furious if she finds out,” she whispered.

“Well, what are you going to do about it? Stop them washing up?” He glanced towards Ricky and Randa, who were already plunging with enthusiasm into the task. “Actually, I’m not sure you even could, now they’ve made a start. Here, I’ll put the things away. I know where they go.”

Millie decided that, on the whole, it would be more tactful not to apprise her mother of the latest development, and wandered off with an idea of finding Charlie and steering her away from the kitchen. In the living room she found John entertaining Sphinx and Amy with a dramatic account of the previous night’s activities.

“Do you know where Mum is?” she said.

“No idea,” said John. He turned back to his enthralled audience. “So then Dad shone his torch on her – it was the first time there hadn’t been people crawling all over her face – and it turned out to have been Mary-Lou all along!”

His audience collapsed, laughing.

“John!” said Millie more loudly. “Ricky and Randa are washing up in the kitchen.”

“Good Gad!” said Sphinx, jumping up. “Don’t worry, I’ll stop them. Have they smashed a lot?”

“No – it’s not that.”

Sphinx paled.

“They’ve made a flood?”

“No! No, it’s just that Mum – well, after the kids beat up Mary-Lou last night she – Mum, that is – seemed to think it was sort of their fault.”

“Ricky and Randa’s?”

“Yes.” Millie felt her face grow hot with embarrassment. “And – well, the kids are grounded, and although she didn’t actually say she didn’t want them to play with Ricky and Randa any more, I think it might be better if she didn’t know they were here. I’m sorry,” she finished miserably.

There was a rather awkward silence.

“Better go and fish them out then, Sphinx,” said Amy quietly.

“I know it’s not their fault,” said Millie. “But – well, Mum and Dad have been under a lot of strain, what with Hilda going missing, and I think Mum couldn’t help imagining what might have happened to them if it had really been one of the kidnappers.”

“It’s all right,” said Sphinx, at the door. “Those two aren’t likely to help anyone’s stress levels at any time.”

He strode through to the kitchen, ready to bundle his siblings out unceremoniously. When he arrived, however, Charlie had already discovered them. She was standing with her hands on her hips, demanding to know exactly what they were doing in her kitchen.

“Washing up,” said Randa, looking innocently at her through clumps of dripping hair.

“And drying,” said Ricky, brandishing the towel, with which he had been rubbing the floor vigorously. Charlie frowned.

“Why?” she said with, Sphinx felt, perfect justification. He rather wondered that himself.

“Millie looked like she didn’t really want to be doing it,” said Randa.

“And we like washing up,” said Ricky.

“We didn’t break anything, don’t worry.”

“Will put it all away for us, but he went when we started cleaning the floor.”

“The floor?” echoed Charlie.

“I slipped on the chair,” admitted Randa. “And some water went on the floor. That’s why my hair’s all wet.”

“Well, I’m glad you had the decency to mop it up, then,” said Sphinx, deciding it was time to reveal his presence.

“Oh, hallo!” said Ricky brightly. Sphinx eyed him with disfavour.

“Nice of you to help out,” he said. “But you’d better cut off home and find some dry clothes before you drip so much you have to clean the floor again. And find something else to do today – the Maynards have got a lot to do and they don’t want you people on their hands.”

Ricky and Randa, recognising in their brother’s face a perfect willingness to take them by the scruffs of their necks and bodily throw them out of the house, accepted defeat. As they departed, not noticeably crushed, Sphinx turned to his hostess.

“Sorry about those two. Believe it or not, they think they’re being helpful.”

“I know, but –”

“Millie explained,” said Sphinx, cutting her short grimly. “I’ll make sure Mum knows you don’t want them around. Would you like the rest of us to stay away too?”

Charlie flushed, but years of experience with obnoxious politicians had prepared her for dealing with hostile opponents.

“I just want to know that my children aren’t being encouraged to perform pointless acts that put them in serious danger,” she said. “Ricky and Randa seem to have a very strange idea of what’s safe and what isn’t, and it’s rubbing off on the children.”

A Quarrel by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

Sphinx looked at her stonily for a moment, then, calling up all his powers of tact (and having become very aware of Millie, who was hovering anxiously in the background, apparently waiting to tell Charlie something but evidently eavesdropping for all that she was worth) managed to keep his voice neutral as he replied,

“They are good children, it is just that they can sometimes become a little overenthusiastic. However, I shall be sure to see that they control themselves whilst around your family – if, of course, you can bear to continue our acquaintance.”

“There's no need for that!” exclaimed Millie quickly, coming forward. With an exasperated glance at her mother, she added, “Actually, it was dad who said that he didn't want the little kids getting involved anymore – but he meant with the searching for Hilda and everything. He's worried about them, just like he's worried about all of us, just like he's worried about Hilda, just like he's worried about whether or not he'll have a job to go back to, just like he's worried by the fact that Hilda's family aren't being allowed to fly out and join us for security reasons but they still keep ringing every couple of hours.”

Neither of them noticed Charlie, who, although she hadn't physically moved, had suddenly become silent, with a strange smile playing at the sides of her mouth. She tried to remain stern and disapproving, tried her best to remember her children and remain indignant on their behalf, but she'd never entirely agreed with Charles anyway, and as she watched her eldest daughter she had the undeniable sense of being something of a third and most unwanted party.

“We would be best to leave you alone, then,” managed Sphinx, turning on his heel. Millie flushed and bit her lip, evidently not wanting him to disappear on such an ending but neither wanting to admit a weakness and call him back. The dilemma was solved by the appearance, at the back door, of Augusta, looking her usual robust and cheerful self.

“Where do you think you're going?” she demanded of her son.

“We are not exactly welcome here.”

“Nonsense!” beamed Augusta, looking to Charlie for help. “I met the kids and they told me what had happened. No need to get all worked up, though, your father was looking for them anyway. The police came over last night to talk to us, and I think that they might have had a word about not interfering too much in the investigation, he was muttering something about it anyway. So he was going to take them up hunting for mountain deer today, to keep them occupied. I'm sorry, Charlie, but he said it might be better without Ashley and Stacia, because they don't know how long they'll be and it might wear them out.”

“Oh, they're grounded anyway,” replied Charlie, unable to keep a note of relief out of her voice. “Look, I'm sorry about all of this, it's just Chas being a grump, as I've told him. Why don't I make us a coffee? You were only halfway through telling me about how you once got the better of Matey when all this kicked off.”

Considering this to be diplomacy, Sphinx decided that his best course of action was to retrieve Amy on some fictitious reason and leave, while his icy disapproval could still be felt. He got three steps into this plan when a hand on his arm made him stop and turn around, meeting Millie's eyes fearlessly. But there was something in them that appealed to his better nature, and despite himself he felt his cheeks grow warmer at the ungentlemanly thoughts he had been entertaining a moment previously.

“Please don't let this make it awkward between us,” she murmured, awkwardly. Lowering her eyes, she searched for words, and eventually stammered “You – I mean, your family – you – you've all made the holiday so fun. Don't ruin that. Dad'll get over it in a couple of days when they find Auntie Hilda, and he's being like this with everyone at the moment, honest.”

“We were thinking of going to the nearest city tomorrow,” said Sphinx after what felt like a long silence. “Just Phoebe and Amy and I, perhaps Constance Rose as well if Bat doesn't need her. You and John and Will would be welcome to join us.”

“That would be nice,” replied Millie with a smile. Deciding that it would be more tactful to leave the conversation on this olive branch, she finished with, “I promised dad I'd take him in his elevenses, he's in the study talking to various diplomats about when we can go home and things. I'll tell him that we're likely to be out tomorrow.”

Sphinx nodded, once, and went back to the salon, from which issued an excited conversation on the merits or otherwise of various means of execution. Millie went into the kitchen to put together the tray that she always delighted in taking to Charles' study. For as long as she could remember, now, this had been her chance to talk to him, to have half an hour to themselves where she could unburden her problems or share her joys. He tried to find time like this for all of the children, but for Millie, especially, closer to him than the rest, it was precious.

She'd just finished pouring out the pot of tea when there was a shriek from upstairs, followed by the sound of excited footsteps culminating in somebody positively falling down the last few stairs. Charlie and Augusta, who'd been talking happily at the table, got as far as turning around to see what the fuss was when Stacia burst through the door. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair flew wildly around her – she also had a magnificent bruise appearing on one cheek, presumably from her fall. Her eyes sparkled, and she flung herself onto Charlie's lap.

“Mum,” she shrieked breathlessly. “Mum, we were playing in the nursery and Mary-Lou came in and she dropped something and it looked like sweets so Poppy was going to try it and that's when we found out she'd dropped it 'cause only Poppy knew 'till then, then Will came and he said I was to come and tell you but quietly and without a fuss 'cause he thinks that it's – it's – drugs!”

And, with a flourish, she produced the small bag of powder.

Drugs! by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

Charlie passed over the ‘quietly and without a fuss,’ which conditions she felt had scarcely been fulfilled, and attempted to ascertain what had actually happened.

Poppy had been playing with the ancient dolls’ house, the one that had once been called La Maison des Poupees, but had more recently been christened The Mansion of Dust by a disgusted Will, who, as a quiet but obstinate five-year-old, had refused the position Millie had offered him as assistant dolls’ house cleaner. The name had stuck, but Poppy had always loved the house, and would sit with Auntie Con for hours, making stories about the dolls and rearranging the house into every conceivable pattern.

But today, as she lay on her stomach on front of the house, making up a story in which one of the dolls was a princess and was kidnapped right in front of the little girl’s nose, Mary-Lou had come to join her, ignoring the other children, who were engaged in some relatively quiet pursuit on the other side of the room.

“Hello, dear,” she cooed in her bell-like tones. Poppy, who had been so engrossed in her game that she hadn’t heard the door brush open, jumped, cracking the little-girl doll’s head against the ceiling. She looked round accusingly.

“You made me smash Thomasina’s head on the ceiling!”

Mary-Lou made a little pout.

“Oh dear,” she said, in tones that dripped like honey through holey bread. She reached out and prised the pink-clad toy from Poppy’s hand. “Let’s see if we can mend the poor wee cherub, shall we?”

“She’s a doll, not a cherub,” said Poppy, trying to grab Thomasina back. “Daddy can mend her. I don’t want you to.”

Mary-Lou sat back on her heels, managing to look hurt, sad and slightly annoyed all at the same time. In dignified silence she handed the doll back. Then she seemed to regain her caramely equilibrium.

“Of course, sweetie,” she said, leaning forward to smile dazzlingly into Poppy’s face. Poppy frowned and retreated slightly. “I completely understand. Daddy always knows best.” She gave a tinkling laugh and stretched forward to tickle Poppy under the chin. This backfired, however, since at the same moment Poppy scrambled to her feet and backed away.

“I’m going to find him,” she announced.

“But darling!” cried Mary-Lou, starting to her feet, a look of unutterable sadness on her face. “We haven’t finished our lovely little chat yet – we were getting on so well. Why don’t you show me this perfectly sweet dollies’ house, pet?”

Poppy scowled and Mary-Lou went on, unaware that she was sinking, ever deeper, into the annoyance and disapproval of Poppy.

“Why don’t you have a sweet, honey-bunny?” She pulled one out and waved it in a would-be tempting manner under Poppy’s nose. Poppy’s eyes crossed slightly as she stared down at it, the expression on her face suggesting that it was made of some substance that emitted a particularly unpleasant aroma. With a sigh, Mary-Lou replaced it in her pocket and glanced at her watch.

“Well,” she said, bending over and smiling gently into Poppy’s unmoving countenance, “I have enjoyed our talk. I have to go now, but I’ll come back. You’ll like that, won’t you?”

Stacia looked up as Mary-Lou sashayed adorably out of the room.

“Why are you looking so upset, Poppy?” she demanded.

“I don’t like her; she’s stupid.” Poppy frowned again. Then her face brightened as she caught sight of what Mary-Lou had dropped on the floor – a little white packet. Poppy bent and picked it up. “She’s left some sherbet, look!”

She was about to plunge a finger into the sherbet when Will swooped down and whisked it out of her hands.

“Will!” she wailed, under the impression that he was simply feeling a bit peckish. “Give it back!”

“Not on your life,” he said severely. “Who knows what this could be?”

“It’s sherbet,” said Poppy, confused.

“Maybe.” Will looked mysterious. “But, after all, Mary-Lou was lurking around outside the house in the middle of the night.” He opened the bag and peered inside, watched in awe by his younger siblings. “I think it might be drugs.”

Stacia, already excited by his sinister manner, gave a screech that signified mixed horror and elation.

“Drugs?” she squealed. “What, really?”

“Shhh!” Will hissed. “She mustn’t suspect anything. Look, Stacia, you take this down to Mum and tell her – quietly and without any fuss – that we think it might be something dodgy. The rest of us will wait here. Go on.” He gave her a little push, and tried to think what to do next.

A Decision by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

After reassuring the children repeatedly that there really wasn't anything to worry about, and that the powder was simply something that Mary-Lou used for her job – dusting down bones, Charlie had improvised, trying to think quickly – and making them promise not to mention that matter again, Charlie had left them to their play and go down to find Charles, who was just finishing his tea with Millie.

“I told dad,” said that young lady, as Charlie came in to join them – Augusta had joined the rest in the salon. 

“Will's suspicious, still,” confirmed Charlie, “but the younger children seem quite happy to forget. It's all this kidnapping business, it isn't good for them at all. Do you know, I'm more tempted than ever to fly back with everyone and leave you to deal with the house.”

“I could stay and help,” added Millie quickly. “If you took Poppy and Ashley and Stacia, that would leave Will and John and I to help dad do everything, and I know as much as you do. It might be better, and there's really nothing that we can do for Hilda that the police aren't already doing.”

“But I have to stay until the investigation is complete,” said Charles stubbornly, though his voice was gentle. Both women noted how carefully he avoided contemplating Hilda not being found again. “That could be a while yet, and there could be all sorts of paperwork before I have to return. Certainly it could go on long past you lot going back to school.”

“Surely they'll call you back for Parliament starting again, anyway?” interjected Charlie. “And in any case, that doesn't mean you couldn't keep the elder children with you until we'd planned to go back. As long as you stick them on a flight at this end, I'll arrange for someone to meet them at the other, and I think we can trust them by now to manage a flight on their own. I hope so, anyway, or I'll start to wonder if they're my children!”

Quietly, Millie sat quite still and watched her parents look each other over. It would be a rare victory indeed if her father would agree to such a plan, for he spent so much time in work that he tended to surprise himself when he realised how close to adulthood some of his children were coming. In his eyes, she knew, even if she looked like a young woman now, she was still thought of as the six year old girl who used to hold his hand as they walked down the hallowed halls of the House of Commons, chattering excitedly while his colleagues smiled on her.

“It really would be much safer for the younger children,” added Charlie after a moment of silence. Much to Millie's amusement, Charles carefully looked down at her stomach, in what he evidently hoped was a casual way, before opening his mouth to say something that never came. Instead, Charlie filled the gap with, “Yes, dear, your little pregnant wife can't possibly be caught up in any sort of excitement either. I mean, having a baby, that's nature warning us that women are weak and helpless females who must be wrapped in cotton wool at all times. Not that I was hoping to save our other children from unnecessary danger or anything.”

“Well, when you put it so movingly,” he grinned, unmoved by the cutting sarcasm in her voice, “what can I say? We're going to have to clear with a few bodies to get you back in the country – you may not have realised it, but there are three guards watching this place at all times, in case Hilda turns back up or anything else happens – so I don't know how long it will take, but I agree. Most of the stuff from the house is done, isn't it?”

“Few more rooms left to go, but it should all be reasonably simple. Once I'm back in the country I'll arrange for everything to be shipped over, as well, so that you can see it loaded at this end.”

“And the drugs?” asked Millie, recalling them to the topic which had originally been at hand, and which she rather feared had been forgotten.

“I'll talk to Mary-Lou,” promised Charles. “There's not really a lot we can say, she's a grown woman and what she does is her choice, but I'll tell her that I want it all out of the house by tomorrow, and never around the children again. If only mum were still alive – would she have something to say!”

“Well, then,” said Charlie, “you'd better get on to organising our trip home, while I go and inform the girls and get them to start thinking about packing again. I can already see how popular I'll be! And they're sure to want to take that bloody dolls' house back in the van, as well. That'll take up valuable room that could be used for the mound of stuff here various people want. Why you had to have magpies for siblings, I don't know!”

“One last thing,” Charles called after her. “You're only going back on condition you stay with Con until I get home.”

Seeing Charlie's face as she raced back to the study to make her views on this dictum known, Millie decided that the wisest course of action would be to break the news to the children herself and then just cross her fingers that she'd still be allowed out with the Emersons on the morrow.

Will and Constance Rose are Lost by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

“They’re late,” said John, glancing at his watch again. “I said all along that splitting up was a bad idea.”

“We couldn’t have known there’d be any danger,” said Amy.

“Except for the Prime Minister having been kidnapped out of our very house,” said John.

“Yes, well, apart from that, I mean.”

“It’s been ages since it happened,” said Phoebe. “They haven’t shown any sign of wanting to hurt any of the rest of you, unless you count that Mary-Lou woman hanging around in the middle of the night.”

“She’s an old family friend,” said John.

“There you are, then. I expect they’re just late.”

“But Millie’s hardly ever late.”

Phoebe smiled.

“Yes, but she’s with Sphinx.”

“And here they are,” said Amy, waving violently with her bag of purchases, and nearly knocking Phoebe out. “Hallo, you two! Have you seen Connie and Will?”

“About half an hour ago,” said Millie, who, Phoebe was pleased to note, had a distinct cat-who-got-the-cream expression. “We told them we were meeting here. Haven’t they got back yet?”

“Yes, can’t you see them standing just beside you?” said Amy sarcastically. “John’s getting jittery. He thinks they’ve been kidnapped.”

Sphinx and Millie looked at John, who reddened slightly.

“Well, they’re more than ten minutes late, now. And half an hour isn’t very long for them to forget in.”

“They said there was somewhere else they wanted to go.” Sphinx glanced at Millie. “They were pretty secretive about it, but I thought that was Connie being – well, Connie.”

Millie looked startled.

“You think they were up to something?”

“I don’t know.” Sphinx grinned suddenly. “Probably, but that doesn’t mean it’s something to do with the kidnappers. I expect they’ve just forgotten the time.”

“But what if something has happened?” John’s face was unusually grim.

“Constance Rose is a lot more capable than she looks,” said Phoebe, glancing for a moment at Sphinx before turning away.

“I saw that,” said John.

“What?”

“You two. Looking at each other. You do think there’s something wrong, don’t you?”

“No,” said Sphinx. “Definitely not.”

There was a pause.

“Maybe we should just walk down the road to meet them,” said Phoebe.

*

Half an hour later, they stood in a tight group, discussing what to do next.

“It might be nothing,” argued Amy. “We should try to find them before we start scare stories about them vanishing.”

“Yes,” said John urgently. “We should split up – no, we shouldn’t.”

“I think you’re right,” said Sphinx. “No more splitting up. Millie and I met them down near the river. I suggest we start there.”

Since the Maynards and at least some of the Emersons were excellent linguists, asking for information was no difficulty to them. Obtaining any information, however, was more of a problem. Most of the people strolling along by the river, enjoying the sun and the warm breeze, took little note of anyone else engaged in the same activity. 

“About this tall. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Very pretty. And the boy’s about six inches taller, dark hair, grey eyes. He wears glasses.”

Again and again they repeated the descriptions, only to meet with blank expressions, shakes of the head and shrugs. It was Millie who, eventually, found a clue.

“Although it might not even have been them,” she said. “But there’s a man a couple of minutes down the river who’s been drawing there for most of the afternoon. He said he saw a pair who could have been Will and Constance Rose, strolling down the path eating ices. Then he saw them coming back again a bit later, but this time they looked sort of serious. That was about an hour and a half ago, so it must have been just before they met us. And then they went past him again. He said they were holding hands and hurrying, as if there was something they wanted to do urgently. That must have been just after they met us, Sphinx. They were going that way.” She pointed, and they all turned their heads as though expecting to see the truants sauntering down the path towards them.

Phoebe turned back, briskly.

“Well, at least we’ve got something,” she said. “Well done, Millie. Let’s go and see what we can dig up.”

On the Trail by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

Meanwhile, up at the Platz, things were hardly going smoothly either. Having seen the young adults off on their jaunt, the old adults, as Charlie had come to fondly call that select group, had gathered at Freudesheim, one amongst them missing. To tell the story completely, it is necessary to go back a few hours, long before the council of war had been formed, to when Charlie had just finished scrubbing the mark off the end of John's nose and had waved off her brood with a heavy heart.

They were getting old now, she reflected sadly, and Millie would soon have left the nest, followed closely by her brothers. This was hardly out of the ordinary, in fact she was rather looking forwards to it if she was being honest, it just made her feel so terribly old. She had the new baby on the way had she been inclined to mope about the lack of children in the house, it was just that the knowledge of Millie's growing up was making her feel, well, old. It didn't feel that long ago that they'd come to the Platz and she'd been a young woman, just starting out on the path of motherhood and scared rigid by it all. Now she knew how her own mother must have felt when Millie was born; thinking of Alice, however, simply made her shiver to trace the ravages of time through the generations of the family.

Not that she was given much time to mope, for at that moment Poppy came running up to inform her in gleeful tones that daddy and Mary-Lou were having a furious argument and wouldn't she come, it was so funny. Reprimanding Poppy half-heartedly for saying such a thing – when in truth, she'd probably have said the same herself – she followed them inside, intending to pour oil on troubled waters.

“I will not be treated like this!” shrieked Mary-Lou, as Charlie came upon the scene. “I spent more time here than you ever did, and Joey would not be pleased at me being thrown out unceremoniously like this!”

“Children, upstairs,” ordered Charlie hastily, in a tone that brooked no argument – though the three younger girls quickly decided that 'upstairs' could technically justify sitting on the stairs themselves and eavesdropping this way. Then, turning to Mary-Lou, and guessing at the problem, she said quite calmly, “I think that Joey would have been more horrified at the idea of you bringing certain substances into the house and around the children.”

“Well, I wouldn't want to stay, anyway!” she declared. “I have business to deal with in this country and then I shall be gone, today. But you'll regret doing this, you and everyone else, mark my words.”

She left in a tempest of fury, even slamming the door behind herself, leaving Charles and Charlie staring at each other. At first they looked horrified, but then Charlie happened to catch Charles' eye, and she burst into a peal of laughter quickly followed by a bellow from her husband. The mirth, once it came, was hard to shake, the memory of Mary-Lou drawing herself up to her full height and trying to look imposing just too much, and it was debatable how long they would have gone on had another person not arrived on the scene.

“Pull yourself together,” demanded David sharply, and the shock of his voice promptly brought the two adults to their senses. “You're needed. I've just seen Gus and she's off on another mad adventure of hers. Honestly, that woman, she'll be in jail or dead or both by the time she's fifty.”

“I'm sorry,” gasped Charles, simply trying to catch his breath. “It was just – well, we've dealt with Mary-Lou, that's all.”

“That woman!” barked David, so sharply that the two adults – and the three children still listening gleefully just above – jumped. “Honestly. We heard you and that – that woman. Gus and I had come over to see if we could help, and we were in the garden when you were arguing. And that's why Gus has gone after her.”

“Who?” asked Charlie blankly. “Why?”

“Mary-Lou,” explained David, as if talking to a small child. “Because she's kidnapped Hilda.”

“But – but,” tried Charlie weakly, but words were beyond her. Instead, she turned to her husband, who turned to David, who explained in a long-suffering tone of voice,

“We heard what Mary-Lou said, about everyone being sorry. Well, knowing she was smuggling drugs, Gus has got it into her head that Mary-Lou must have kidnapped Hilda for some purpose as well, and she's tracking her as we speak. I wouldn't have bothered following her, frankly, she will get herself into these messes, but as her husband I suppose I must and -”

“It's always better to have two people,” said Charles tactfully, recognising that David was trying to ask for help. “Especially where Augusta seems to be concerned.”

This provoked an explosion of language so strong that David was still blustering at the offence to his other half as they left the house to try and follow where she was going. Ludicrous as it all was, Charles had to admit that he wouldn't have wanted to cross Mary-Lou in that mood – and he only hoped that Augusta wouldn't, either.

The Capture of Mary-Lou by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

 

17:57

Augusta strolled along in the dappled shade, a huge, dribbling ice cream clutched in one hand and a flapping map in the other. She was enjoying the warmth of the sun and the sound of the river as it rushed along at her side. It was quite extraordinary, she thought. Never before had she followed someone who seemed so entirely unaware that they were being tailed. The ice cream dripped onto the map, and she bent her head to remove it at, apparently coincidentally, the same moment as Mary-Lou looked behind her for the first and last time.

When she had finished licking away spots of ice cream from Sphinx’s painstakingly drawn map of the ancient monuments of the Upper Nile region, she raised her head. Mary-Lou had changed course and was striding towards one of the tall houses that lined the river path; one that was charmingly secluded with tall trees and thick bushes.

Augusta smiled and made for a nearby bench, where she sat down, swung her legs up and made herself comfortable while she finished the ice cream.

*

Thirty-seven minutes earlier.

“Maybe we should call the police,” whispered Will.

“What?” said Constance Rose, sounding outraged. “Do you really think they’ll believe us?”

“We’ve got proof.” Will pulled Constance Rose a little further behind the bush. “Poppy’s hanky. We found it outside this house. How else could it have got here unless Hilda had it with her?”

“Yes, but we can’t prove it is hers, even though we’re sure. And there wouldn’t be any evidence against Mary-Lou; they don’t know about the drugs or about her hanging about outside your house. And now that that old lady told us Mary-Lou lives here, well, it simply must be her, and she must be keeping Hilda here.”

“Yes. I know. But maybe we should get Sphinx and the others; they’d know what to do.”

Constance Rose eyed him sternly.

I know what to do,” she said. “We know Mary-Lou isn’t there at the moment, because she’s on the Platz. So we can just nip in, get Hilda, and nip back out again. Easy. And wouldn’t it be a sell for the others if we rescued Hilda before they even knew anything about it?”

“Well....” Will was clearly weakening at this prospect. After all, from all the stories, it was obvious that any member of the Emerson family was perfectly equal to this situation, even if it was the one that worshipped some Egyptian goddess and went around looking all soulful. Constance Rose sensed his hesitation, grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the door.

“Come on.”

*

Fourteen minutes after Will and Constance Rose enter the house, and twenty-three minutes before Augusta arrives.

“It was that one,” said Phoebe, pointing towards the tall, secluded house. “They asked Frau Liebmann questions about whoever lives there about twenty minutes ago, and then they were hanging around outside. They must have gone in.”

They looked at one another.

“No point standing round,” said Sphinx after a moment. “Let’s get going.”

“Wait – what?” said John. “We can’t just march in there!”

The Emersons stared at him.

“But why not?” said Amy, sounding bewildered.

“It could be dangerous,” said John. He looked at them. “Oh, come on, even you three can’t actually think that you’re invincible.”

“Of course we don’t,” said Phoebe, looking amused. “But we can easily take a few guards, and Will and Connie – sorry, Constance Rose – are already in there.”

“They could be hurt,” said Millie. “We can’t just leave them, John.”

Phoebe opened her mouth to explain that this wasn’t exactly what she’d meant, but Sphinx trod gently on her foot and she desisted. It was evident that the image of his brother as a bleeding victim of the kidnappers was acting on John strongly. He gave a brief nod, his face grim.

“All right. Let’s go,” he said.

The back door opened onto the kitchen. It was dark from the overhanging trees, grimy and filled with unwashed dishes. Millie turned her head away from the damp cigarette butts in the sink, trying not to think about Hilda being fed with food that had been prepared in here.

“What’s the plan?” John whispered, looking across at Sphinx, who was nearest the door into the hall. Sphinx shrugged.

“Find the kids and Hilda, grab them and get out.”

He opened the door, but before any of them could move there was a crash and a high-pitched screech from upstairs.

There was a brief struggle as they all tried to get through the door at the same time, which gave place to a race up the stairs, Sphinx in the lead, Millie close behind and the rest at their heels. The door opposite the stairs was open.

“Take that!” they heard Constance Rose scream. As Sphinx entered the room the man by the door ducked. A large vase sailed past his head and smashed a little too close to Sphinx for comfort. Since the easiest way of deflecting any more poorly aimed missiles seemed to be to get rid of their target, he picked up the largest of the bits of vase – the base, as it happened – and knocked the man firmly on the head with it.

Two more men had converged on Constance Rose and had borne her to the ground. There was a lot of yelling, but Phoebe and Amy were already dashing to the rescue, Amy brandishing her small hammer in a warlike manner. Millie and John, meanwhile, had spotted Will, who was slumped against the wall, apparently about to be hit over the head by a fourth man. Sphinx was reasonably sure that sibling revenge would account for him in a very satisfactory manner.

That left the little oasis of calm in the middle of the battling groups, where a man was lying beneath a bookcase, swearing and waving his arms feebly. The bookcase must have been what made the crash they had heard just before coming upstairs. It was evident that some of the books had been used as missiles, though most had still been on the case when it had been turned over. Sphinx knelt down and carefully removed an elderly copy of Volume 1 (A – Biermolke) of the Deutsches Wörterbuch Grimm from the man’s face.

“What’s going on?” he said in German. He might as well have saved his breath, because all the man would do was swear at him and demand to be released. Growing bored and seeing that the other fights were all starting to peter out, Sphinx picked up a leather bound copy of Heidi and banged him on the head.

The Maynards were hugging one another in tearful excitement. It was their first experience of the sort, Sphinx supposed resignedly. Phoebe and Amy had disposed of Constance Rose’s attackers with brutal efficiency and were hauling her to her feet, Amy dabbing at the blood around Constance Rose’s mouth.

“It’s all right,” said Constance Rose, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Isn’t mine. I bit one of them on the arm while he was trying to strangle me. He didn’t like it much. Where’s Will?”

A moment later Will found a pair of arms wrapped tightly round his neck and Constance Rose kissing him enthusiastically – on the cheek, but still...

“He was wonderful,” she said, turning to the others, her face lighting up. “Honestly, he just rushed in and tried to fight them all at once.”

“Of course, they knocked me about and chucked me on the floor in about ten seconds,” said Will, turning red. “Constance Rose was the one who did the real fighting.”

“When you two have finished with the mutual admiration society,” said Phoebe, who looked amused. “I don’t suppose you managed to find out what they’ve done with Hilda?”

“Don’t know,” mumbled Will.

“We think she’s in the other room,” said Constance Rose. “Don’t you remember, Will? We went upstairs first, but there were a whole lot of people in a room up there, so we locked them in and came back down. The other door was locked, so we tried this one first in case the key was here or something.”

Almost before she had finished speaking, Amy was on her knees, pulling a small metal pick out of a pocket on her belt. A few moments’ fiddling, and the door was swinging open. Hilda was there, sitting on a chair at a small desk. She looked up as they entered and her tired face lightened.

“Oh, good,” she said, getting up. “I was hoping all the noise meant that you’d arrived.”

“Hilda!” Millie’s arms were round the older woman’s neck. “Oh, we were so afraid that they – they’d hurt you, or – or something.”

Hilda sniffed.

“As though I’d allow that. Now, come along. It’s time for us to leave, I think.”

“Is that so?” said a voice that Millie could only describe as thoroughly nasty, from behind her. She let go of Hilda and turned round, her heart sinking. Not just one man, but, presumably, all the ones Will and Constance Rose had locked into the upstairs room, and a couple of women, too. How big was this gang?

“Oh, hallo!” Phoebe was saying brightly. “Nice to meet you, but I’m afraid we have to go now.”

For one insane moment it looked as though they were going to let her walk through from sheer surprise, but they didn’t, of course. A few seconds later another fight had broken out. Millie found herself out on the landing grappling with one of the women. She’d never really done a lot of fighting, but she found that she was taking to it quite well. On the other hand, the woman had obviously been doing this a lot longer and with far more expertise than Millie had, and it was hard to do much fighting back when someone was lying on top of you with their hands tightly locked around your throat, and you couldn’t breathe, and black spots were dancing in front of your eyes.

Then, miraculously, the pressure ceased. Millie gasped for air, saw that the woman was bearing down on her again and rolled away. She stumbled to her feet and with a viciousness that rather horrified her when she had time to think about it later on, kicked the woman in the head. As she backed away, she tripped over an inert body on the floor and fell over. Before she could get up, a bell-like voice rang out over the sounds of battle.

“What on earth is going on?” Millie stared up at Mary-Lou, relief welling up in some odd, childlike corner of her mind that insisted that now that a real grown-up was there, everything would be all right. A moment later, the relief drained away. The woman she had been fighting got to her feet.

“Would you do something about these stupid children?” she screamed.

And Mary-Lou took a great swing at Sphinx. Millie was barely aware that she was getting up again, grabbing something off the floor, running across the hallway, throwing herself at Mary-Lou. Other people were shouting and screaming, and Mary-Lou had hit her so hard that she crashed on the floor and banged her head, and Sphinx was on the floor, too. She looked up and saw that Phoebe and Constance Rose were converging on Mary-Lou, and then Sphinx was dragging her out of the way, casually knocking out two men as he passed them. They ended up in a corner by the window, close to where Hilda, having successfully beaten one of the men into unconsciousness, was calmly tying his hands with a piece of string.

Millie didn’t know much about fighting, but even she could see that Phoebe and Constance Rose were getting the worst of it. Sphinx was fighting again, this time with the woman who had tried to strangle Millie, and since he seemed occupied, she started forward to help with Mary-Lou.

“Everybody stop!”

For a moment they all froze and looked round for the source of the command before Augusta stepped out from behind Mary-Lou.

“What on earth are you all doing?” she demanded. Mary-Lou laughed in a sneering fashion and hit Phoebe round the head. Augusta, wasting no more words, entered the battle enthusiastically in defence of her daughter. Sphinx finished off the woman just as John and Will between them managed to toss a tall, bearded man into the room Hilda had been in and shut the door on him. Millie, standing near the stairs, realised that the Emersons somehow, against all the odds, seemed to be winning.

And then she felt something cold at her neck, and she was held so tightly that she couldn’t move, and the man who was holding her was so strong that she wouldn’t be able to struggle even if she tried. The knife pressed harder against her throat, and she stood as still as a statue.

“All of you,” said the man – the only one left standing, she realised in a cold, terrified sort of way, “Will leave, now. Or I will cut her throat.”

They froze, all of them. Mary-Lou was smiling; Phoebe and Constance Rose stared at Millie, horrified; John and Will, terrified and Hilda white as a sheet, her lips compressed. Only Augusta, apparently carried away by enthusiasm and bloodlust, appeared unfazed.

“Hah!” she cried, and whipped out a small pistol, which she pointed at Mary-Lou. “Do you think I was a spy in Russia for nine years for nothing? Let her go, or your boss dies!”

“You wouldn’t,” growled Millie’s captor. Augusta fired a shot, and the bullet buried itself in the wall two inches from Mary-Lou’s left ear. Mary-Lou, her eyes widening, nodded at Millie’s captor. He loosened his hold and shoved her forward and Millie realised, with a flood of relief, that this time it really was all over.

 

Picking up the Pieces by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

 

42 minutes later

With the number of police swarming around the house, and the number of locals watching proceedings unfurl from the edge of the property, and the few journalists who had already turned up, it resembled nothing so much as a very active beehive. Sat on the front lawn in various states of emotions were those involved in the rescue attempt; there had been ambulances, but these had been needed for the rather less fortunate kidnappers, and with the Emersons leading the way they had unanimously declared that they weren't in need of medical attention.

Thankfully for all concerned, Charles had kept his head, and had rung the police, who turned up just in time to watch Augusta leading Mary-Lou out of the house at the wrong end of her gun, the only other man still conscious following as meekly as a disobedient child. This had caused some problems, and Augusta was, at that moment, at the police station trying to explain them away. Otherwise, the party was complete. In one corner was Millie, a towel thrown round her shoulders and Charles' handkerchief pressed to the minor wound on the side of her head, which looked horrific enough to satisfy her dramatic side without actually hurting.

“I really don't remember much of the fighting,” she was saying to the policeman trying to take notes – he was young and, Charles rather fancied, quite taken with Millie's beauty. He didn't know whether to be proud or protective. “When we first came in Will was being attacked so we rushed to save him, and then we let Hilda out. There were all these men appeared, and a couple of women, and I was fighting one of them but I don't really know which one.”

“No, nobody seems to know anybody they may have attacked or been attacked by,” said the second policeman, stood behind the first, in a long suffering tone of voice. It was quite evident that the next few days of his life would be spent on the paperwork clearing all of this mess up.

“It was dark!” protested Millie, but feebly. It had been brought home very forcefully to her by her father already the number of criminal charges she could be facing as a result of the furore. “They had all the curtains shut and we couldn't really see much anyway. And there were so many people we just sort of did what we had to. At least we got Hilda out safely!”

“I was working on it!” exclaimed Hilda, who was told she would have to go down to the police station to answer the questions on her own time in the house, but who had insisted on staying and seeing Charles and his family safely off – an excuse which became waiting for the English diplomat to arrive and accompany her when spoken aloud. “Didn't need rescuing, thanks, though you got me out sooner than otherwise, I suppose. In any case, it was a foolish and unthinking thing to do and you should be ashamed.”

“You aren't,” replied Charles quietly. “You were right there in the middle of it by all accounts. We've been going out of our minds with worry with you away.”

“All right, no need to start crawling,” sniffed Hilda, secretly pleased. “You'll get a knighthood when you retire from politics for this, never fear, and I suppose there should be something or another for the Emersons as well.”

“I heard they attempted to use you as a hostage to escape,” prompted the note-taking policeman to Millie at this juncture, trying to get the interview back to where it should be.

“Yes he held a knife against my throat,” said Millie, with a quick glance at her father. “But Augusta had her gun and she took care of it. We all came downstairs and outside to meet you and then dad and David turned up and -”

She tailed off, the scene etched on her memory. She didn't trust herself to retail it without laughing. Just as the police rushed forwards to try and wrestle Augusta to the ground and take the gun from her, David and Charles had arrived on the scene. Both were running, but while Charles headed straight for his children and grabbed them protectively to him, demanding to know what was happening, David didn't stop to take in the situation. Seeing only his beloved lying prostrate on the floor with two attackers on top of her, he rushed into the fray, only to be dragged back by Sphinx. Unfortunately he didn't realise it was his son holding him until he'd swung around and punched him firmly in the mouth, something Sphinx didn't exactly appreciate. It wasn't humorous at all to the group watching on in horror until Sphinx slapped his father with great interest – though not enough to hurt, only to bring David to his senses – and said as calmly as if he'd been reciting what was for dinner,

“It's only the police, dad. They seem to think mum's behind it all, but don't worry, they'll stop being idiots soon enough.”

“Humph, well,” concluded the policeman, jotting one last thing down and turning to his colleague. “Thankyou for your co-operation. It looks like the two boys are finished as well, so for now you may go home – all except you, Frau Thatcher. You must now come with us. We'll be in touch with you again in a few days time, Herr Maynard.”

Stopping only to thank the Emersons for their help and promise she would see them properly when all were returned to the Platz, Hilda allowed herself to be led away, holding her handbag – which had been retrieved from the room in which she was kept – as if it were a weapon to guard against any more madness.

“We're going back to the Platz,” said Charles firmly, as soon as his two sons had trailed over reluctantly as well. There was something inflexible in his voice which warned that there may yet be trouble to come for them all. “I left your mother with the girls, and in her condition goodness knows what the worry will be doing to her.”

“Dad,” replied Millie fondly. “Remind me if I ever get pregnant to avoid you until I've given birth. 'Kay?” 

 

Recovery by Abi
Author's Notes:

Abi.

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?”

Sphinx grinned.

“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.

Peace at Last - Perhaps. by Abi
Author's Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.

For a little while the party continued as if his absence hadn't been noted, but one person was watching carefully for her opportunity to escape. What she didn't realise was that she was, herself, being watched. Scanning the party carefully, she waited until Hilda had engaged Augusta in a discussion on the political situation in Russia, Charles was lecturing John, Will, Amy and Ricky on the correct behaviour of a gentleman and Charlie seemed deep in discussion with David, and then walked in what she hoped to be a nonchalant manner to the hallway.

She was just pulling on her coat when a discreet cough behind her made her spin around, blush already spreading across her cheeks and giving her away. Staring levelly at her was Charlie, hair tousled from mingling among all the people in the Salon, top rumpled fashionably, face unreadable.

“Um,” stumbled Millie, in the silence that followed. “It – The – I was getting quite hot, I decided just to take a small walk.”

“Odd,” commented Charlie, still neutral, still unreadable. “Especially as the hottest thing present has now left the room.”

It took Millie a moment to grasp her meaning, but when she did the deep red that had filled her cheeks disappeared, and she gave a disbelieving, shocked laugh. All at once she looked ten years older, wiser, a real adult instead of the small girl Charlie expected to see.

Mother!” exclaimed Millie. “What on earth would dad say if he could hear you?”

“Not as much as he'd have to say to you,” retorted Charlie. “You know he's turning into a liberal version of Joey; you've greatly upset him once already today by reminding him you're a young woman who makes decisions on her own, now. What would he say if he knew who you were sneaking out to see, on top of all that?”

“Well,” rationalised Millie, desperately trying not to talk of what she was planning when she left the house. “We could hardly not get involved, with the Prime Minister kidnapped, could we? She might not be a princess, but we're still Maynards!”

“And the running off to Sphinx?”

Charlie watched in some bemusement as Millie flushed again. Her daughter might be growing up, but she was still young enough to naively believe that she could keep secrets from her mother. She was almost old enough to be able to do it, too, and Charlie knew that this might be one of the last times she could win her daughter into confiding in her – unless, of course, she'd done her job well, and Millie would always need her mother's guiding hand sometimes.

“It's just a walk!” protested Millie. “I might not see anyone else.”

“And I might be queen one day!” retorted Charlie. It was a well known family fact, from when Len had done some research into their family using papers saved from Pretty Maids, that Charles was nine-hundred-and-forty-second in line to the throne, just behind Stephen. “Just – be careful. Promise.”

Millie nodded and was pulled into a fierce hug. When she stepped back again, there was something tiny pressed into her hand, and she slipped it into her coat pocket, then turned and opened the front door. But just before she left, she turned and smiled at Charlie, who winked and smiled in what she hoped was an encouraging manner, determined not to show her sadness. Instead, she put her mind to keeping Charles so engrossed in the party that he wouldn't notice the absence of a certain two people.

Meanwhile, Millie, pulling her coat more tightly around herself, set off down the path towards the Freudesheim gate, where a dark shadow was waiting to greet her. Slipping an arm through hers, Sphinx fell into step behind her, with a conversational,

“You really shouldn't be out on your own. There are kidnappers and murders and drug barons out there.”

“I heard they were all stopped by a wonderful hero, who dashed in and saved everyone and still looked very handsome at the end of it all,” replied Millie easily, staring up at him with a smile. Moonlight poured around them, giant now that they were so high up, the stars twinkling invitingly for as far as they could see, meeting the jagged mountain peaks in the distance. Sphinx barked a laugh.

“Are you calling my mother handsome?”

“Silly!” retorted Millie playfully. Stopping, she disengaged her arm so that she could turn to face him, looking up into his eyes, suddenly feeling awkward and nervous. Seeing nothing else for it, she reached up her hands around his neck and leant up, kissing him softly. Almost automatically his hands circled her waist, protective, desirous, sensual, and as she shut her eyes and leant her head against his chest the whole world felt unchangeably perfect.

“I've wanted to do that for so long,” groaned Sphinx. “You're so beautiful.”

“Come.”

With a memory of exploring the Platz as a small child, Millie took his hand and led him a short way down the path, to a naturally hollowed glade in the mountainside, protected on three sides, where they would be hidden from the gaze of anyone who happened to pass at such an hour. Together, they sat down on the slightly damp grass, Sphinx slipping an arm around her waist again so that Millie could lean into him.

“Isn't it so lovely?” she whispered, fingers gently stroking the inside of his leg.

“I don't care about the view,” he replied, turning her face up to him again. Softly they moved in the age-old dance of love, touching and exploring, melting into each other and finally sinking into the grass, as soft as any bed. The night air was balmy, warm, and the moon provided all the light that was needed. The gentle hum of fireflies was the only noise, apart from the soft breathing of the two people, seemingly alone on the mountainside. 

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