Disclaimers - This is an Uber story. As such, it doesn't actually feature the characters who appear in the syndicated series *Xena: Warrior Princess* (and who are the sole copyright property of *Studios USA Television Distribution LLC*) but it was clearly inspired by them.
This story depicts a love relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
BREAK OUT '99
(alternate title: Uber The Rainbow)
(Email: Barbara Davies )
DAY ONE: "WE'RE NOT IN KANSAS ANY MORE."
Charlie goggled at the people surrounding her. A dashing pirate, her arms akimbo, was telling off a kilted man in blue-and-white face paint. A bald-headed convict - the arrows on his grey tracksuit gave the game away - was arguing with a medic in orange surgical scrubs. And a nun in a voluminous black-and-white habit was giggling with a satchel-wearing girl from St Trinians ... who had a moustache.
With a start, she realized she knew the 'schoolgirl' whose navy miniskirt was half tucked into her 'sensible' knickers.
"Hi, Ben," she called.
The systems analyst she'd frequently eaten her lunch with in the days before the Office Canteen was shut down 'as an economy measure' turned and did a double take. "Hi, Dorothy."
Charlie rolled her eyes. *Guess I'm going have to get used to that.*
He ambled towards her. "Fed up with being a blonde, eh?" He fingered her wig.
She pulled away. "Hey! Hands off."
"Pigtails take years off you." He made a show of looking around. "Where's Toto?"
"The Wicked Witch ate him."
"Raw or cooked?"
"Still alive. That's why they call her wicked."
"Why the Wizard of Oz?" He gazed appraisingly at the puff-sleeved blouse and dove-grey pinafore frock which, because of the cold, she was wearing over a long-sleeved white T-shirt.
"Why not? Actually," she grimaced, "Heather chose the theme, then conveniently went and got flu."
"Poor you!" Ben struck a saucy pose and batted his false eyelashes. "*I* chose our theme. What do you think?"
She shifted her duffel bag (it didn't match the Dorothy outfit but what could she do?) into a more comfortable position. "It's very you," she said dryly.
He glanced around. "So where's the rest of your team?"
She had been wondering the same thing herself.
"More to the point, *who's* the rest of your team?"
She pulled a slip of paper from the pinafore's pocket and squinted at Heather's scrawl. "Urm ... Sam Walker and Poppy Jones."
Ben nodded approvingly. "You'll be in safe hands with Sam. And Poppy's a good laugh."
"So I hear." She looked around anxiously. "Have you seen them? I'm supposed to meet them here, according to Heather."
Ben shook his head. "They'd better get a move on, though. Only ten minutes to kick-off. Your team will be disqualified if you don't register in time."
Charlie sighed. "Don't tempt me."
There had been a rumour the new Accounts Manager was going to cancel the annual charity event this year. It had turned out to be untrue ... unfortunately. The thought of spending 3 days on the road in a British October really didn't appeal, but Charlie had known she couldn't escape taking part in the event forever ... six years had to be some kind of record as it was.
Two more St Trinians girls appeared - one of them was even female - and Ben waved at them then turned to Charlie. "Gotta go," he said. "May the best team win ... as long as it's ours."
"Same to you."
He strode away, almost knocking someone over in the process. Charlie gaped at the new arrival, who was dressed all in silver, and whose hat looked like an inverted funnel. *The Tin Man!* She peered closer at the good-natured face caked in silver face paint. *Darren Liggett?*
The Post Room clerk smiled shyly at her. "Morning, Miss Heywood. Fancy seeing you here. I was expecting Miss Taylor."
"Please call me Charlie," she said automatically. "Heather couldn't make it. Flu." She frowned at him. "Darren, what are you doing here? I thought the Post Room was sending Poppy Jones."
"She's got the flu too. It was too late to get anyone else, so I'm her substitute." He took his place beside her and waited expectantly.
*Oh great!* thought Charlie. Two substitutes (she hoped they wouldn't be disqualified) neither of whom had been on a Break Out before. Still, Sam Walker would know what he was doing. The amiable Personnel Manager always did.
She checked her watch anxiously, then scanned the carpark again. The teams of three were beginning to drift towards the tethered bunch of balloons that marked the registration table. She glanced at Darren. "Have you seen Sam Walker?"
He shook his head. "Poppy said he told her he was coming as The Cowardly Lion, if that helps."
At that moment, a sleek black BMW turned in through the carpark entrance and screeched to a halt by the far wall. A tall figure wearing a tawny coloured lion costume got out of the driver's side, grabbed a haversack, slammed the door shut, and sprinted towards them.
Charlie exhaled in relief. "Sam's here. Come on, Darren." She grabbed his arm and started after the other competitors. "Let's register before it's too late."
As the Cowardly Lion drew nearer, she paused. Something about the furry clad figure looked 'wrong', for want of a better word. It seemed to lack the bulk of the Personnel Manager, and looked a few inches shorter than Sam's 6ft 4ins. In fact, that graceful easy stride reminded her more of -
Charlie put a hand to her mouth. *It can't be!*
The tawny lion halted in front of her, and she found herself gazing up into ice blue eyes. Sam's were brown.
"Miss Heywood." Falcon Insurance's new Accounts Manager pulled off one paw-shaped glove and held out a hand.
*What the hell is she doing here? She doesn't have a charitable bone in her body.* "Urm ... Miss Carlton." Charlie shook the outstretched hand, trying not to wince at the firm grip. *And shouldn't she be dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West?*
Jennifer Carlton had been brought in two months ago when 'good old Bill' Munson unexpectedly resigned - due to ill health, so it was said. She had immediately doubled the paperwork surrounding monetary transactions and introduced draconian budget cuts. Charlie's last encounter with her had not been a pleasant one.
The emergency meeting had been in progress for an hour when Heather called in her second in command to bolster her arguments against proposed cuts to the Customer Services budget. Charlie had got into a heated argument with the Accounts Manager, and when Jennifer Carlton had suddenly backed down, she had felt almost light headed.
Heather's gratitude and praise had been satisfyingly effusive - their department was one of the few to survive the subsequent cuts unscathed - it hadn't, however, stopped her boss from lumbering her with this charity do. *Damn!*
The striking blue eyes Charlie had been unwittingly staring into blinked, and she came to with a start.
"Please call me Charlie," she managed. Well, she was damned if she was going to address this bloody woman formally for the next three days.
"Charlie?" The blue eyes blinked again. "Oh, OK. Then you'd better call me Jen."
While Charlie mentally picked herself up off the floor, the tall woman turned to regard Darren and smiled warmly.
"Hello, Darren. Nice to see you. But I was expecting Poppy." The smile faded as Jen turned back to regard Charlie curiously. "And Heather. This is supposed to be a Managers team, after all."
"And we were expecting Sam Walker," said Charlie. *Don't like mixing with the lower ranks, eh?*
"He's gone to a funeral," said Jen absently. "So ... we're *all* substitutes, then? Hmmm." She pulled one glove down and checked her watch. "Hey! Shouldn't we register?" Without waiting for a reply, she set off towards the jostling balloons that marked registration.
Grumbling under her breath, Charlie followed.
"This is going to be fun," said Darren, catching up with her.
Charlie gave him a disbelieving glance. His experiences of the other woman must be very different from her own.
Darren and Charlie found Jen standing next to the bunting covered trestle table, signing registration documents. They had just finished appending their own signatures when one of the organizers, a plump woman Charlie recognized as Brenda from Stock Control, pulled out a chair, climbed awkwardly onto it then onto the registration table itself, and raised a megaphone to her lips.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Brenda's voice boomed. "May I have your attention, please?"
The loud chatter died to a murmur.
"Thank you. I'd like to welcome everyone to Break Out '99." Cheers and catcalls greeted her and she raised a hand for silence. "This year we'll be donating all funds raised to The Sutton Coldfield Community Project." She paused. "On that point, I should inform you that there's been a slight change to the procedure since last year. Falcon Insurance *will* match, pound for pound, the sponsorship monies raised," - more cheers- "but only for the three winning teams."
"Good old Bill wouldn't have stood for that," called someone in the crowd.
"Shame," called someone else.
Jennifer ran a finger round the neck of her costume.
*I bet this is your doing,* thought Charlie, giving the tall woman a disgusted glance. *Just can't bear to give Company money away, can you?*
Brenda shrugged and held up a piece of paper. "That's what it says here, people. First three teams only ... so you'll just have to make sure your team is one of them, won't you?"
"Piece of cake," yelled one of the nuns, causing a ripple of laughter that eased the mood somewhat.
"Just to recap," continued Brenda. "Each team will be assigned a driver -" She indicated the group of smirking Falcon employees standing nearby. "- who will take them to a secret destination which the organizing committee has assigned to the teams completely at random."
"Hey, how about Paris?" yelled a man in orange surgical scrubs.
"Or Rome," shouted a pirate.
Brenda rolled her eyes and ignored the hecklers. "All destination are in the UK, 150 miles from here by road. Each team has 3 days to get back to this spot." She stamped on the trestle table, which rocked alarmingly. Helpers rushed to steady it.
"Three days? Easy peasy," yelled a convict.
"Not as easy as you might thing," warned Brenda. "Remember, you are *not* allowed to use either money or maps."
*What? Heather conveniently forgot to mention that,* thought Charlie. She glanced at Jen, but the tall woman seemed unperturbed by the restriction. Darren's face, however, even beneath its coating of silver face paint, had paled visibly.
"Hey, Charlie," whispered someone nearby. She turned to see Ben glancing meaningfully at the Accounts Manager. "I thought you said Sam Walker was coming with you?"
"Change of plan," she whispered back.
He mimed terror and she rolled her eyes at him.
Brenda was continuing with her instructions. "What you *are* allowed to take with you - and I hope each of you remembered cos it's too late if you didn't! - is one small bag each, containing food and drink for 3 days, pajamas, underwear, socks, and something to keep the rain off if the weather turns bad - and I should warn everyone that the forecast for the next few days isn't very promising."
A murmur of dismay greeted this news.
"In order to make sure all rules are adhered to, we will check your bags and pockets," continued Brenda through the megaphone, "before you go."
"Is that really necessary?" protested a man in a kilt.
"Sure," chimed in someone else. "Who knows what you've got in that sporran."
Catcalls and laughter greeted that remark, and the plump organizer gestured for quiet once more.
"One other thing. We will require proof of your journey back. Lack of proof will mean ... what will it mean?" She paused significantly.
"Disqualification," chorused the onlookers.
"Spot on," agreed Brenda, smiling. "So we will be issuing each team with a Polaroid camera and three rolls of film. Every time you pass a significant landmark or roadsign, take a photo of it that includes all three members of the team."
"But if one of us is taking the photo ..." objected Ben.
"Get a passerby to take it," said Brenda briskly. "Right, I think that's all. Any questions?"
"Yeah," muttered Charlie. "Someone tell me why we're doing this again?"
"Suppose we don't make it back in time?" shouted a pirate with absurdly large hooped earrings.
"Then you'll be disqualified," said Brenda. She smiled sweetly through the boos and hisses. "Hey, folks. I don't make the rules." She paused and scanned her audience. "Any more questions?"
Silence greeted her and she looked visibly relived. "Right then. Let's get you all properly registered and your bags and pockets checked. Then we'll get you blindfolded."
"Blindfolded?" asked Charlie in alarm.
"Ooh!" said Darren.
Jen didn't say a word.
Crammed in the back of a van, wearing a silly lion suit that fitted too tightly round the neck and itched like crazy - not to mention the bloody blindfold! - was not Jennifer's idea of fun. For the umpteenth time in the past ... what was it now, nearly half an hour? ... she cursed Sam Walker.
Break Out was something of an institution, so Sam had told her, while filling her in on the things he thought she should know about Falcon Insurance. Apparently, the event had been introduced a decade ago with the aim of promoting interdepartmental harmony and at the same time raising money for a good cause. And since paid time-off for those employees who took part was one of the perks, there was usually no shortage of volunteers.
In fact Falcon, one of the last of the patriarchal insurance companies, had been big on employee perks. Unfortunately, Jen had already been forced to cut two of them: the subsidized canteen and the Christmas Party for the employee's kids. Getting the company out of the hole 'good old Bill' had dug was taking every trick in her accounting book and then some. It didn't help that she wasn't allowed to tell the workers *why* she was doing it - the Board was afraid even a whisper of the affair could damage their share price
Sam had convinced her to leave the annual Break Out intact, though, arguing that the expenditure involved was small change beside the 1 million pounds Munson had embezzled. Besides, he relished the challenge of 3 days on the road - he was the kind of guy who liked camping trips.
"Fair enough," she'd told the Personnel Manager grudgingly. "It's your funeral." And she had merely tweaked the Break Out's pound-for-pound matching mechanism.
When Sam had stridden into her office two mornings ago and told her he did indeed have to go to a funeral (his favourite aunt had died) and so for the first year ever would not be able to take part in the charity event, she had laughed hollowly.
"But I *can't* go in your place! Can't you duck out of it?"
His look of genuine shock had made her flush.
"Look," he'd continued, draping one beefy arm round her shoulder, and making her glance round anxiously to see if anyone was watching - she really didn't want other people to know that beneath her hard-as-nails exterior beat a heart of pure marshmallow. "You'll have fun, I guarantee it. And you never know, you might even make some new friends."
"I'm not here to make friends."
He'd laughed loudly at that. "Since when did saving the company's bacon mean you had to be Public Enemy Number 1?"
She shrugged ruefully. "I'm the one who took the party away from the kids."
"It wasn't you," he growled. "It was Munson. 'Good old Bill', my arse!"
"Yeah, well." She had turned the subject back to the matter at hand, and somehow found herself agreeing to substitute for him.
Of course, then she'd thought she'd be spending the next 3 days in the company of Heather Taylor and Poppy Jones, both managers with whom, while she wasn't exactly friends, she shared a mutual grudging respect. Instead, here she was cramped thigh to thigh with the amiable but bumbling Darren Liggett, who delivered her mail every day, and Charlotte - oops, better make that 'Charlie' - Heywood, who seemed to hate Jen even though she had bent over backwards to save Customer Services from the budget cuts.
Jen sighed. *That's the last time I allow passion and eloquence, and, let's face it, a cute bod, to sway me.*
The van lurched round a corner, and she found herself in a tangle of arms and legs with one of her team members. From the feel of soft skin and the pleasant perfume, which came as a nice respite from the stink of petrol fumes, it wasn't Darren.
"Sorry," came Charlie's voice.
"S'OK," said Jen sincerely. "Not your fault anyway. Whoever's driving us is a *lousy* driver."
"It's Nigel from the Print Shop," said Darren. "I recognized his voice."
A few minute later, the vehicle swerved the other way, and Darren, who had just begun whistling 'Fernando' under his breath (*It could have been worse, but not by much,* thought Jen), stopped abruptly as Jen's elbow drove into his ribs.
"Sorry," she said. *But not very.*
"No problem," he gasped.
For a while after that there was only the engine noise, the creaks and groans of the van, and the sound of tyres on wet tarmac - it must be raining. Jen wondered whether to twiddle her thumbs.
"Why don't we could play a game," suggested Darren brightly.
Jen snorted. "What? I Spy?"
"Don't be silly. There are plenty of games beside that one," chided Charlie.
In the safety of her blindfold, Jen rolled her eyes.
"Let's think of animals," continued Charlie. "You know - beginning with each letter of the alphabet in turn? I'll start us off. Anteater."
Silence fell. "Urm ... Antelope," said Darren.
"Your turn, Miss Carlton ... I mean Jen," prompted Darren.
Jen sighed. *I'm in travel hell.* "Aardvark."
"Oh, good one," said Darren.
"On to the letter B," came Charlie's voice. " Bear."
"Boar," said Darren.
*How appropriate,* thought Jen. Aloud, she said, "Baboon." ...
Jen woke with a start to the muffled cries of seagulls. For a moment she wondered where she was, then memory came back with a rush.
Her companions in adversity had refused to believe yaffle was a real bird - in spite of her protestations that it *was* a green woodpecker - and she had (rather sulkily, she admitted) declined to play any more. After that, she had simply listened as they continued the childish game without her. Somewhere along the line, she must have fallen asleep.
From the lack of engine noise, the van had stopped somewhere. Just as well - her bladder felt full and she had a crick in her neck. She put out her hands and blindly crawled towards the doors, disturbing her companions in the process.
"Are we here?" asked Darren drowsily.
"Hope so." Charlie yawned. "I'm getting cramp."
Jen was just fumbling for the handle, when she heard the driver's door opening and closing and footsteps coming round the side of the van. Then came a tortured screech of unoiled hinges, and a cool breeze on her hot forehead confirmed that the van's doors were now open.
Someone took hold of her outstretched hands. "Everybody out."
Awkwardly, Jen accepted the assistance of the man Darren had identified as Nigel from the Print Shop, and climbed out.
The screams of the seagulls were deafening as she inhaled, gratefully purging her lungs of petrol fumes and scenting the salty, fishy tang of ... the seaside?
Her blindfold was removed, and she squinted against the sudden glare. Moments later, the Tin Man was also blinking rapidly beside her, his eyes tearing. Then 'Dorothy' was knuckling her eyes too.
As her pupils adjusted, Jen gaped at her surroundings. She was standing on a bustling quayside, overlooking a jumble of fishing boats and yachts. There was even a tall ship, like something off a movie set, moored alongside. She gaped at the blue stretch of water that was too wide to be a river. *I know this place.*
A quick glance to her right revealed three bridges, one a picturesque suspension bridge, crossing the river ... no, the *estuary*.
*Of course!* She turned and gazed at the grey stone medieval castle she had known would be there and which dominated the little walled town of ... *What was it's name? Ah yes.* ... "Conwy."
"What?" Darren was still rubbing his eyes.
"Conwy. We're in North Wales." Jen pulled a glove half off and looked at her watch. Almost noon. Their driver had made good time.
He seemed more than eager to be off again too. Having checked they'd got all their belongings, he was climbing back into the driver's seat. The door slammed shut. "Good Luck," he called. And with a little wave, he drove off.
With mixed feelings, Jen watched the green van disappear along the busy quay and turn the corner out of sight. *We're on our own, now.*
A couple of tourists, Americans by their clothes, were strolling towards them and now they came to a halt in front of the three newcomers and quite simply stared.
"Hey, Melanie," said the bald headed man to his wide hipped companion. "Lookit that! Guess we're not in Kansas anymore."
"Oooh!" she squealed excitedly. "Wonder if they'd mind us taking a few photos."
Jen suppressed a sigh. They'd be getting a lot of this from now on, she supposed. *Thanks very much, Sam!*
Charlie smiled warmly at the couple and went over to talk to them. Seconds later, she was beckoning Jen and Darren over. Somehow - Jen wasn't sure quite how - the tall woman ended up smiling and posing with the tourists for photos. Then it was all change and she found herself with Darren and Charlie's arms round her waist having her photo taken against the backdrop of the castle. Wryly, she acknowledged the smooth way the young blonde had cajoled the Americans into taking the Polaroid the team would need as proof.
Photos taken, Jen left Charlie patiently explaining Break Out 99 to the interested couple and wandered across the road. She would need to find a loo pretty soon, but first she wanted to see if the tourist attraction she remembered from childhood holidays was still there. It was.
"What are you looking at?" asked Darren, who had followed her like a puppy.
She pointed to the tiny terraced house whose facade had been painted a garish crimson. "S'posed to be the smallest house in Great Britain." It looked even smaller than she remembered ... but then, she had been a lot smaller herself.
He stuck his head inside the door of the 72 inches wide by 122 inches high house. "Hey!" his voice was muffled. "It's cute. Not much furniture though."
"No loo either, if I remember rightly."
"Eww! Where did they go, then? In the harbour?"
"I didn't ask. Place wouldn't have suited me anyway," she said wryly. "I'd have had a permanent crick in my neck."
"I might have managed all right, though."
Charlie's soft voice startled Jen and she turned, at rather a loss. "Finished with your new friends?" she asked inanely.
"If you mean that sweet American couple who were kind enough to take our photo," said Charlie rather acidly, "then yes."
Jen felt chastened. "Oh."
Darren's head reappeared from the doorway. "Hi, Charlie. Isn't this place great?"
"Mm," said the blonde woman noncommittally. "So this is North Wales. We always went to Spain for our holidays."
*Figures.* "I'm going to look for a loo," said Jen shortly.
"Good idea," said Darren.
"Right behind you," said Charlie.
They hurried along the quay towards the castle, then turned right through the gate in the town's encircling wall. It brought them out opposite an old building called the Guildhall. To Jen's relief, a sign indicated public conveniences nearby. Other customers turned to gape as The Cowardly Lion and Dorothy made their way into the Ladies and The Tin Man headed for the Gents ....
Jen coaxed some gooey pink liquid out of a soap dispenser then washed her hands. *I look ridiculous,* she thought, ruefully regarding her reflection in the mirror. At least she'd had the good sense to decline the fake whiskers. She dried her hands at the hot air dispenser then stepped back, almost tripping over her tail in the process. *Damned thing's too long.*
One of the toilets flushed and a door creaked open. Charlie Heywood joined her at the row of basins.
Jen smirked at the blonde's grimace when she saw her own reflection, and was caught red-handed. *Oops! Now I'm for it.*
But Charlie merely sighed. "Heather chose this." She indicated the Dorothy outfit.
*Civilized conversation. I can do this.* "What would you have chosen?"
"Something comfortable, warm, unobtrusive," said the blonde. "The nuns had the right idea."
Jen considered that. "Their moustaches will still attract attention, though."
Charlie smiled. "Mm." She moved to dry her hands, then turned and gazed assessingly at Jen, who raised an eyebrow.
"What fancy dress outfit would *you* have chosen?"
"One I can take off easily when I need to go to the toilet."
"What makes you think I wouldn't have chosen this one?"
Charlie wrinkled her nose. "Oh, just a feeling."
"Hmph." Jen thought for a moment. "A cowboy, maybe."
Charlie's green eyes brightened. "I can just picture us as cowboys and Indians. You'd make a good outlaw."
*I was thinking more of sheriff.*
"I'd be Pocahontas, of course," continued Charlie, indicating her wig. "Plaits instead of pigtails." Then she frowned. "But what would Darren be?"
"A totem pole?"
A snort of laughter greeted that remark, and Jen wondered if the other woman was warming to her at last. She hoped so.
"Anyway," she reached for the haversack she had propped against a wall, and shouldered it, "we'd better get a move on. The totem pole will be wondering where we've got to."
Charlie followed the tall woman out to where Darren was waiting, surrounded by a gaggle of onlookers. She took no notice of them - ignoring the looks her costume attracted from passersby was becoming almost second nature to her now.
"About time," said Darren.
Charlie opened her mouth to retort, but her stomach beat her to it. It grumbled long and loud. Her cheeks burned and she avoided the others' gazes.
"I was about to suggest we eat something before we set off anyway," said Jen mildly. She pointed to a sign indicating the Vicarage Gardens. "It's not far and there are bound to be some benches in there. Come on."
She scooped her tail over one arm and set off. Charlie sighed and followed her.
It was only a short walk up Rose Hill Street to the gardens in question, which, since it was early October, weren't looking their best. Still, at least that meant there were plenty of empty wooden benches
Charlie joined her companions on the nearest bench and delved in her duffel bag. *Did The Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and Dorothy eat sandwiches in the film?* she pondered. *They certainly didn't go to the loo.*
"I've got corned beef and tomato," said Darren, jolting her from her thoughts. "What have you guys brought?"
"Tomato soup, bacon baps, and an apple," said Jen. She poured thick orange glop from her flask into its cap and took a gulp.
Charlie pulled out her own flask of carrot and coriander soup and began to pour.
"I didn't bring any soup," grumbled Darren.
Silently, Jen handed him her cup. He beamed and took a mouthful then handed the cup back to its owner, unaware he now wore a bright orange moustache. The contrast with the silver face paint was startling.
Charlie exchanged an amused glance with Jen but said nothing. She drank her own soup, then unwrapped her tuna salad roll and took a bite.
"So," said Darren, round a mouthful of corned beef and tomato. "Without maps, how do we know where to go next?"
"Simple," said Jen. "We head east along the coast road, cut inland to Chester and after that head for the M6. We'll be home in no time." She grinned.
Charlie stopped chewing. "I don't think that's a good idea."
Jen's grin vanished. "Why ever not?"
"Because taking the motorway is totally against the spirit of Break Out, that's why. The aim isn't to get home as fast as possible, you know."
"Isn't it?" The grim-faced Accounts Manager was back.
Charlie's dislike of the tall woman resurfaced. "Remember Brenda talking about 'significant landmarks'? Well the hard shoulder of the M6 doesn't come into that category as far as I'm aware."
"I see. And what do *you* propose?"
The question stumped Charlie for a moment, then she had it. "Well, I've never seen Snowdonia, and since we're so near it would be a shame not to, besides being a bit of an adventure -"
"Snowdonia?" Jen's tone was incredulous.
"Yes," snapped Charlie defensively. "Beautiful Welsh scenery, that kind of thing ... or have you been shut up with your dry-as-dust accounts books so long, the wonders of nature no longer means anything to you?"
"Guys, guys," said Darren peaceably. "Shouldn't we take a vote on which route home to take?"
Charlie and Jen both gaped at him. "Vote?" they said simultaneously.
"Yeah, you know ... one person, one vote kind of thing."
Charlie couldn't be certain, but she thought Jen was grinding her teeth. She took a deep breath. When the older woman didn't say anything, she took up the baton.
"Uh, OK, Darren. ... So, the choices before us are: we take the coast road, then -" she shot Jen a displeased glance, "- head inland and take the motorway and get home in 3 hours instead of 3 days ... or -"
Darren frowned in thought.
"- we go inland through the mountains." Sudden doubt overtook her and she turned unwillingly to Jen. "There *is* a way through the mountains, isn't there?"
The other woman gave a reluctant nod. "Via Betws-y-Coed."
"And it *is* about the same distance back to Sutton Coldfield, either way?"
Another grudging nod.
Charlie beamed. "Great." She resumed her train of thought. "So. Coast or Mountains. Which is it to be?"
She turned to Jen and wrinkled her nose in query.
"Coast," said Jen shortly.
Charlie nodded. "And I vote Mountains."
They both turned to regard the patiently waiting Darren. "Oh, is it my turn?" His smile slipped as he realized he held the casting vote. "Oh!"
"Well?" Jen's voice had deepened to an intimidating growl that went well with her costume.
"Weeeellllll ... Motorways are boring, and I always like mountain scenery," gabbled Darren. "So I vote Mountains."
He gave Jen a sheepish grin, but she turned her face away in ... what? Fury? Disgust?
"Right," said Charlie, trying to avoid a gloating tone and failing miserably. "Then Mountains it is."
Jen eyed the corrugated cardboard sign Darren was carrying and tried not to wince. It was full of crossings out and corrections - it had taken him three attempts to spell 'Betws-y-Coed' correctly.
"Well, it's a stupid name!" he'd protested, when she pointed out yet another mistake. "What does it mean anyway?"
"Betty's Cod," she snapped, her patience all but gone.
"Really?" he asked seriously, and she turned away, afraid of what else she might say.
Charlie had chuckled, but far from appreciating the response to her sarcastic riposte, it had irritated Jen even more. If it hadn't been for the stubborn blonde they'd be half way home by now instead of standing stranded at the side of a deserted B5106 where their first lift, a milk van, had dropped them.
As though the Welsh Mountain Gods had heard her plea, a lorry appeared in the distance.
"Hey, guys," called Darren excitedly. "We're in luck!"
His statement became debatable as the lorry drew closer and it became painfully clear to Jen that it was not exactly in tiptop condition. Its engine sounded as though something vital had broken loose, and every few minutes there was a loud bang, followed by a cloud of blue exhaust fumes. To top it all, the prevailing wind was blowing towards them the unmistakable bleating of sheep ... and the smell of them too.
She squinted at the faded stencilmarks on the lorry's cab door. What did it say? Llew something or other ... Llewellyn's Sheep Farm? *Uh oh.* "Um ... maybe this isn't such a good -"
But Darren had already stepped purposefully into the lorry's path and was holding up the pathetic cardboard sign.
The lorry's brakes wheezed asthmatically, and its tyres left rubber on the road as it screeched to an abrupt halt. Then a window was wound down and the furious driver, who looked like a medieval gargoyle in need of restoration, scowled down at Darren.
"Duw! Have you got a death wish?" Darren's odd appearance must have registered then, because the man's bushy eyebrows suddenly crawled skyward. "What in God's name are *you* meant to be, boy?" His Welsh accent was pronounced..
Darren flushed. "The Tin Man." He gestured to Jen and Charlie who ran to join him. "And these are The Cowardly Lion and Dorothy."
Jen didn't much like the way the driver's eyes glinted when they saw Charlie.
"Um, could you give us a lift to ..." Darren trailed off and pointed at the sign. "This place?"
"No problem," said the driver, presumably Llewellyn himself. "I'm going to Capel Curig so I go right through Betws anyway." He smiled at Charlie, revealing nicotine stained front teeth. "Come up here next to me, cariad." The others might as well have not existed for all the notice he took of them.
"Let me go first," growled Jen. A surprised Charlie hesitated then acquiesced.
As Jen climbed into the grimy cab and took the battered seat next to the driver he scowled and she suppressed a grim smile. *I've got your number, boyo.*
Charlie was next up, but when Darren tried to climb in as well, they belatedly realized there wasn't room for all three.
"Oh him? He'll be all right in the back," said the driver dismissively..
"With the sheep?" asked Jen, taken aback.
"Of course with the sheep." He glared fiercely at her. "You saying there's something wrong with them?"
"S'OK," interrupted Darren good-naturedly. "I don't mind."
While the Post Room clerk walked round to the back of the lorry and climbed over the tailgate, Llewellyn leaned across the cab, ostensibly to close the door, but more likely to take a closer look at Charlie's legs.
Jen grimaced. Thank heavens Charlie's considerable assets were well protected by tights and socks. *Hang on a minute? Does she really need both?*
With a screech of protest from the clutch, the driver put the lorry in gear, and next minute they were in motion. Jen could only hope that Darren had got on board safely and wasn't as uncomfortable in the back as they were in the front.
"So why are you dressed up like Hollywood filmstars?" asked Llewellyn, as the lorry (*Its MoT certificate must be forged.*) banged and clattered up the road snaking through the valley.
"It's for charity," said Charlie, obviously feeling the least she could do in return for the lift was be sociable - Jen had no such qualms. "We're being sponsored to get back to Sutton Coldfield in 3 days."
"Sutton whatchermacallit? Never heard of it."
"Coldfield. It's near Birmingham," expanded Charlie.
"Ah." He glanced at the two of them then back to the road again. A slight smile curled his lip, and a few minutes after that, he began what turned out to be a series of increasingly offensive anti English jokes.
Knowing that a reaction was likely to make him worse, Jen contented herself with silently grinding her teeth. Charlie sighed and stared out the window. Jen followed her colleague's gaze to the River Conwy and the sheepdotted slopes beyond ....
The valley was becoming progressively narrower, the slopes to the east steeper and more thickly wooded with oaks, when they passed a signpost which indicated they were only 3 miles from Betws-y-Coed.
*Thank God,* thought Jen. The driver had by now run out of offensive jokes but was smoking a battered old pipe instead and she could feel a headache brewing.
Llewellyn changed down a gear, and she became suddenly aware that his meaty hand, rather than returning to its rightful place on the steering wheel, had clamped itself onto her right thigh. For a moment, she simply gaped at it in disbelief - it wasn't as if she even looked sexy in the lion outfit. - then she reached down and grabbed the offending hand, bending the fingers back until with a whimper the driver released her.
The lorry lurched sideways, then overcorrected, then came to an abrupt halt that almost sent Charlie through the windscreen.
"Out!" bellowed the driver, cradling his injured hand. "That's as far as you go, you English ... "
The next bit was in Welsh. Jen tried to remember the tiny vocabulary she had gleaned from a Linguaphone course she had never completed. Gast meant bitch, didn't it? And Diafol was the devil? ...
"But this isn't Betws-y-Coed!" protested a confused Charlie, when the driver's invective petered out.
"Your friend should have thought of that sooner. Now, get out."
"Come on," said Jen. "I need some fresh air, anyway." She threw the driver a disgusted look. "It's pretty rank in here."
Still protesting, Charlie let Jen hand her down out of the cab and onto the verge, and soon Darren, who had popped his head out of the back to see why they had stopped, had joined them.
"Change of plan?" he queried.
"Yes," said Jen shortly.
A loud bang startled them and then they were choking in a noxious blue cloud as the lorry rattled away from them up the road.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," muttered Jen, as it disappeared into the distance and a fresh breeze dispersed the exhaust fumes.
"What on earth was *that* all about?" asked Charlie, her gaze keen.
"Yeah. Did I miss something?" asked Darren.
"Couldn't keep his hands to himself," said Jen shortly.
"Oh!" said both of them simultaneously.
Jen frowned at the amused look the two other members of the team exchanged, uncertain whether to be offended or not, then pushed it to the back of her mind. Then Charlie' s stomach rumbled, and she was glad to be able to change the subject.
"We'll walk for a bit," she said, "then have something to eat. With a little luck, there'll be another lift along soon."
Charlie nodded her agreement, but at the mention of eating, Darren's face fell and he started looking agitatedly around him. "Oh no!"
"What is it?" asked Charlie.
"I left my rucksack in the back of the lorry."
*Great,* thought Jen. *Just great!* Aloud she said, "Never mind. Charlie and I probably have enough food for the three of us." She turned to Charlie. "Right?"
The blonde looked doubtful, but nodded. "Right."
Darren grinned with relief. "Thanks, guys." Then his face fell again.
"What now?" asked Jen, suppressing a sigh.
"What about the other things in the rucksack? My silver face paint was in it. Not to mention my plastic mac, underwear, socks."
"Can't help you with the face paint. We can take turns with my mac. But I'm sorry, Darren, " - Jen strove to lighten the mood - "no one wears my underwear and socks except me."
"I'm really sorry, you guys." Darren sounded depressed.
"Hey, it's all right, " said Jen. "These things happen."
"At least you kept hold of the camera," pointed out Charlie. "Without that for proof we'd have been disqualified immediately."
He brightened at that and patted the camera round his neck almost affectionately. "That's right. I did, didn't I?"
"Anyway." Jen hefted her haversack into a more comfortable position over her shoulder. "We can't just stand here." She looped her tail over one arm and set off purposefully in the direction the lorry had gone.
Darren came up alongside and she wrinkled her nose. The Post Room clerk smelled strongly of sheep. "So, did the sheep behave themselves?"
He eyed her uncertainly then decided the question was serious. "Eventually." He rubbed his buttocks ruefully. "Some of them must have been rams."
"What kind of sheep were they?" asked Charlie, who was now walking on Jen's other side.
He pulled a face. "Small, brown, and bad tempered."
"Sound more like their owner," said Jen.
Charlie laughed and the three of them walked on in silence for a hundred yards then came to a green sloping bank.
*Just the place for a sit down,* decided Jen. "We'll rest here and have a snack."
"Thank heavens," said Charlie. "These shoes are really uncomfortable." With a groan of relief, she flopped onto the grassy bank and eased off the ruby slippers. Then she reached for her duffel bag, opened it, and took out a Mars Bar.
With a regretful glance, Charlie broke a third of it off and handed it to Darren. He beamed at her and swallowed it in a single gulp. He then turned his attention to Jen, reminding her of a dog at a banquet waiting to be flung a gnawed joint of meat.
*Do we have enough food for three? Well, we'll soon find out.* She gave him one of her Twix bars.
As they munched, Jen scrutinized the shoes that were causing Charlie grief: a pair of red high heels to which scarlet sequins had been glued. Hardly suitable footwear for hitching, or mountain walking, come to that. At least her own costume's paws were flat, thank God.
She eyed the blonde woman's feet, noticed again the socks and tights. Hmmm. Quite a thickness of material there ...
"Take your socks off."
Darren's eyes bulged, and Charlie almost choked on her Mars Bar. "I beg your pardon?"
"The shoes are already tight, because Poppy's feet are smaller than yours and the costume was ordered using her measurements, right?"
"Right." Charlie still looked puzzled.
"And you're wearing socks *and* tights ... so that makes them even tighter."
Understanding dawned in the green eyes. "Duh! I am such an idiot." Charlie removed the ugly socks and stuffed them in her duffel bag. "I'm sure that'll be *much* better," she said, giving Jen a warm smile.
Jen shrugged. "They're still going to cause problems if you walk too far in them."
"Then we'll just have to get plenty of lifts," said Darren.
Jen raised an eyebrow at him. "Riiiiight," she drawled.
"There'll be a car along in a minute," he said optimistically. "Just you wait and see."
Having gulped his chocolate bars down, Darren was now restless, and he got up and strolled a little way up the road where he stopped, crouched, and began to pick something.
*It's too late for bilberries, surely?* Jen exchanged a surprised glance with Charlie then shrugged, unscrewed the top of her blue flask (red for soup, blue for coffee) and poured herself a drink. Beside her, Charlie did the same.
Moments later, clutching something in one hand, Darren hurried back towards them. "Look what I've got for dessert," he said excitedly, opening his hand for them to admire its contents.
"What kind of berries are those?" asked Charlie, peering at the brown-black pellets.
Jen sighed. "The rabbit dropping kind," she said flatly.
A sudden fit of coughing overtook Charlie, sending a fine spray of coffee everywhere.
"Ha ha." Darren grinned good-naturedly. "You're kidding me, right?"
Jen raised an eyebrow at him. "Nope." She took a sip of her own coffee. "Try eating one if you don't believe me."
His expression changed to one of disgust. "Urk!" Dropping the pellets as if they were the proverbial hot potato, he stooped and wiped his hands vigorously on the grass. "Urk, yuk, urk ..."
Charlie had recovered from her coughing fit but seemed unable to meet Darren's eyes.
"You had the right idea," Jen consoled the stricken Post Room clerk. "But even if they were in season, bilberries would be too sour to eat raw ... besides staining our teeth and tongues purple."
He gaped at her. "Purple?"
"A Tin Man with purple lips might have given people nightmares." From Charlie's odd expression, Jen knew she was babbling, but what the hell ... it had served its purpose. Darren looked much more at ease.
The level in her cup had dropped to the halfway mark, she noticed. Reluctantly she stopped drinking and turned towards Darren. "Want some coffee?"
Eagerly, he accepted the cup and drained it at a gulp. Charlie offered him the remainder of her coffee too, and Jen nodded approvingly, then busied herself repacking her haversack.
When she'd finished, she checked her watch: 2.15pm. "Right then, break over." She got briskly to her feet and turned to regard the others. "I think it's time we got this show on the road, don't you?"
It had started getting dark half an hour ago, so for safety reasons the trio were walking single-file along the narrow mountain road against the flow of traffic.
*Ha, that's a good one,* thought Charlie bitterly. *What traffic?*
"You're limping," came Jen's voice.
She turned to peer at the tall silhouette. "I'm sure I've got blisters. It's these bloody shoes." A few spots of rain spattered her face and she sighed. *That's all I need!*
They had finally reached the little Welsh mountain resort of Betws-y-Coed, where the motherly owner of the Coaching Inn took pity on the three exhausted travellers and served them tea and biscuits free of charge. She also, to their immense gratitude, sweet talked one of the locals into giving them a lift in his Landrover. Only to Cerrigydrudion, as it turned out, but it was better than nothing, and 12 miles closer to Llangollen where Jen hoped they could find somewhere to stay for the night.
Unfortunately, the only traffic since Cerrigydrudion had been a man on a bicycle, taking his dog for a run, and an ancient tractor that wouldn't have taken all three of them even at a pinch.
Charlie's heels twinged. 'Pinch' was right. She wished she could go back in time and alter her decision to go through the mountains. But there was nothing she could do about it now.
"Your ruby slippers *look* nice, though," came Darren's voice from behind her. "From what I remember, anyway."
"Who cares about looks? I knew I should have worn my Reeboks." The rain was intensifying and she wondered whether she had the energy to get her showerproof jacket out of her duffel bag.
Darren sniffed loudly. "Can you two smell something?"
"What?" asked Charlie.
"It smells like ..." - they trudged on a few more yards - "...wet wool. Are there sheep nearby, do you think?"
"It's me," said Jen grumpily. "I'm a *wet* Cowardly Lion now ... Sod this!" She stopped abruptly and began to rummage in her haversack.
Charlie limped back to join the Accounts Manager.
"I've got a plastic mac in here," explained Jen. "You'd better put your raincoat on too, Charlie, if you don't want to get soaked."
"It's a jacket," said Charlie - *As if it mattered.* - but she reached obligingly for the duffel bag's drawstring ties, which were slippery with rain.
Jen pulled out a plastic raincoat, its colour indeterminate in the gathering darkness, and slipped it on over her costume.
*A lion in a plastic mac. Odd, to say the least.* thought Charlie absently as she succeeded in loosening the ties and then began the struggle to get the crumpled jacket out. *Shit!*
"Here. Let me give you a hand." Jen reached over, grabbed a jutting corner of the garment, and tugged. The jacket came free with a rush.
"Thanks," said a relieved Charlie.
"It's all right for you two," grumbled Darren, as Charlie put her jacket on and pulled up the hood, glad of the extra warmth and protection against the rain. "The sheep have got my raincoat."
The mental image of sheep wearing macs made Charlie laugh. She felt guilty instantly, and put a hand on Darren's arm. "I wasn't laughing at you."
He sighed. "I know. It's my own fault, anyway."
They continued on for another hundred yards, this time Jen leading the way. A minor road joined the main one from the right and she halted at the T junction so suddenly Charlie barely avoided cannoning into her.
"What is it?"
Jen had retrieved a tiny torch from somewhere and was shining its pencil light onto a signpost. She pointed. "I don't think we're going to make it to Llangollen tonight. It's too far."
'Llangollen 10 miles' read Charlie in dismay.
As if on cue, the rain turned into a downpour.
Darren tried to tuck his head into his shoulders, but since he wasn't a tortoise, failed miserably. "Ten miles," he said gamely. "We can do that, no problem."
"If we were rested, and all wearing comfortable shoes, and all had waterproof clothes, I'd agree with you," said Jen. "But we're not. We're cold, hungry, wet, and worn out."
Charlie could only agree. "So," she said. "What do you suggest?"
Jen gestured at the signpost again. Darren looked none the wiser, and Charlie was in the same boat though she didn't like to admit it.
"See that little red triangle?" asked Jen, shining her torch on the symbol in question.
Charlie peered at the sign again. "Hey, that means Youth Hostel, doesn't it?"
"Yes," said Jen. "And according to this, there's one half a mile or so thataway." She pointed to where the minor road disappeared up the mountainside. "Do we need to take a vote?" She raised an eyebrow at her companions.
"If you mean Llangollen or the Hostel?" said Darren, as the rain pitter-pattered noisily on his metallic hat. "Well, I'll take the Hostel."
"Hostel," agreed Charlie. *Right now, even The Smallest House In Great Britain looks good.*
"Then youth hostel it is," said Jen.
'Off Season: CLOSED'.
Jen blinked the raindrops away and stared balefully at the sign bluetacked inside one of the hostel's downstairs windows. *I've brought them half a mile out of their way for nothing.*
"Well, that's that, then." Charlie sounded resigned.
Jen contemplated the trudge to Llangollen. They might as well call the whole thing off now, because after that they'd be in no fit state to continue tomorrow. "I can't believe this has beaten us!"
"Win some, lose some," said Darren.
*Is that supposed to make me feel better?* She suppressed an urge to hit him. He looked tired and bedraggled, and Charlie didn't look in much better condition - for the last few yards she had been limping badly.
Jen growled under her breath. *Damn it! People in need, here.*
She studied the window. The Youth Hostel was old, its woodwork warped and peeling. It might be possible ... She began searching through her haversack.
"Um, Jen," said Charlie. "What are you doing?"
"Looking for the right tool," she said absently. "Aaah! Here it is." She pulled out her Swiss army penknife, selected the strongest blade, then advanced purposefully on the sash window.
"Hang on a minute!" squawked the blonde. "What are you -" A screech of wood drowned out her words as the window abruptly jerked a few inches upwards.
*Yes!* Jen eased her shoulder under the rim and heaved. The window slid up a little more ... then a little more still. When she judged the gap was wide enough, she pulled herself up onto the ledge and wriggled through, in the process banging her ankle against a piece of furniture and sending whatever it was flying.
For a moment she remained where she'd landed, rubbing her stinging ankle and catching her breath. Then she stood up, felt her way gingerly to a wall and then along it until she found was she was looking for.
Jen clicked the light switch on, waited for her pupils to adjust to the sudden brightness, and thanked God that whoever owned the place hadn't thought to turn off the power at the mains when they left.
From the wellworn stoves and enamel sinks, three long pine tables and matching benches, that met her gaze, this was the Hostel kitchen. *Jackpot!* She smiled widely, trotted back to the open window, and poked her head through. "Are you two gonna stay outside getting wet or are you coming in?"
"Um, Jen," said Charlie hesitantly. "Isn't this breaking and entering?"
"We'll pay for the damages and anything we use while we're here."
"What with?" asked Darren, and Jen remembered that her credit cards and money were at home in her favourite handbag.
"We'll leave the owners a note and pay them later," she said impatiently. "Come on ... or would you rather keep walking to Llangollen?"
Darren shrugged and looked at Charlie, who sighed. "OK," she said, and the next minute Darren and Jen were helping the younger woman squeeze through the gap.
When they were all inside, Jen tugged the sash window closed. She took off her mac, shook the rain from it, and draped it over a chair back, then turned, rubbing her hands together for warmth.
Charlie, didn't look her best, she noted with some concern. The smaller woman had pushed back her hood, and knocked her Dorothy wig askew in the process. Its pigtails were sodden, and mascara had smudged her flushed cheeks.
*Hmmm. Got to get us warm quick.*
There was a boiler in the corner of the kitchen and she crossed to it and examined it carefully. *No pilot light.*
She turned to the bedraggled man in the silver suit. "Darren, see if you can find the gas tap, will you."
He hesitated. "Umm ... where ...?"
"It's probably by the gas meter. Turn it on and then give me a yell. OK?"
"OK." Obediently, he trotted out of the kitchen.
"What shall *I* do?" asked Charlie between chattering teeth.
"We need to get something hot to eat and drink inside us." Jen began to open and shut the kitchen cupboards, searching for tins of food, but finding only saucepans and plates and cutlery. Well, they'd need those eventually.
Silently, Charlie joined in the search.
*Ah, a tin opener. Good.* Jen set the implement on a counter top.
"Gas is on," came Darren's faint cry.
She returned to the boiler, pulled the ignition lever and waited, mentally keeping her fingers crossed. *Whoomph* A little blue flame - the pilot light - popped into existence; the boiler itself remained quiescent, though.
Conscious of Charlie's doleful gaze, she pursed her lip and thought for a moment. *Of course.* She crossed to the open doorway and yelled into the interior, "Darren."
"Find the heating controls. They're probably in an airing cupboard somewhere. Turn them to 'Hot Water And Heating' and put the timer on 'Constant'." Silence greeted her instructions. "You got that?"
"Got it," came the faint reply.
She shrugged and turned back into the kitchen, pleased to see that Charlie was now eagerly examining the labels on some tins stacked on a counter top.
"Baked beans," she told Jen. "Tomato soup."
"Good girl." The blonde seemed uncertain whether to grin or grimace at the remark. Jen suppressed a smile.
Abruptly, the boiler flared into life and a low hum of electric motors and gurgle of water through pipes told Jen the central heating system had come on. *Good old Darren.*
"Shouldn't be long now 'til things warm up." She grabbed the tin opener, opened the tins Charlie passed her, and poured their contents into saucepans. "Tomato soup, frankfurters, and baked beans. Not too shabby."
"I'll heat these up, shall I?" said Charlie, carrying the saucepans to one of the three stoves.
The question was clearly rhetorical, so while the blonde busied herself at the stove, Jen set about exploring the cupboards again. It was in the last one she found buried treasure.
Triumphantly, she displayed the catering tin of freeze-dried brown granules. "Coffee. But we'll have to drink it black."
The stove's gas jets and the rapidly warming radiators were steadily raising the temperature in the kitchen, and Jen thought that Charlie looked better already. The blonde's next words confirmed her guess.
"Can you keep an eye on these while I take my jacket off?"
Jen nodded and took Charlie's place by the stove. The aroma rising from the soup and simmering frankfurters made her stomach growl with hunger. *Pity we don't have any bread. I could murder a slice of toast ...*
Darren poked his head around the kitchen door. "Something smells nice."
Jen indicated the saucepans. He grinned and came eagerly towards her, but his path was blocked by Charlie, who having taken off her jacket *and* her wig (*Her short blonde hair is a great improvement,* thought Jen) now wanted her cook's job back. Jen was more than happy to oblige.
While Jen perched on a hard pine bench, waiting for their meal to finish heating, her thoughts ranged ahead. "When you were upstairs, Darren," she said, "did you notice if there was any bedlinen in the airing cupboard?"
He turned to her and nodded. "Sheets and blankets ... that kind of stuff."
*Good.* She drummed her fingers on the table thoughtfully.
When no more questions were forthcoming, he turned back to the busily stirring Charlie. "Anything you want me to do?"
She pointed to the electric kettle Jen had earlier dug out of a cupboard. "How about some hot water for the coffee?"
"Sure." Darren filled the kettle from the cold tap and switched it on. By the time the water had boiled, Charlie was dishing out bowls of steaming soup.
The others took their places at the table with audible sighs of relief.
"I'm *so* glad to sit down," admitted Charlie. "My feet are killing me."
"Take your shoes off," said Jen through a mouthful of hot tomato soup.
Jen rolled her eyes. "We don't mind, do we, Darren?"
He grinned and shook his head.
The sound Charlie made as she eased off first one ruby slipper then the other was unabashedly sensual, almost erotic, though she didn't seem to realize it. Darren blushed a beetroot red and Jen felt a bit warm herself.
*If she makes noises like that when she takes her shoes off, I wonder ...* Resolutely, she pushed that thought away and concentrated on her food.
Charlie finished her soup before the others did, then fetched the plates of food she had left warming in the oven. When she had sat down again, she didn't wait for the others but dived straight in to the frankfurters and beans.
Jen had never seen food disappear so quickly. Well, maybe she had. *There were those piranhas in that movie ...*
Charlie caught her look. "Hey, I'm hungry," she said indignantly.
*She must be!* thought Jen. *Those frankfurters look disgusting, the beans are semi-congealed, and there's no trace of any trendy herbs or spices.*
"Me too," said Darren, smacking his lips appreciatively and reaching for his share.
By the time they had finished their makeshift meal, and Darren had poured them each a black coffee, Jen was feeling a lot warmer. The food had stoked her internal furnace, and her woollen costume, which had been cold and clammy, was now warm and clammy.
Though the others hadn't commented on it, she was sure they must be sick of the smell of wet wool. What she wouldn't give for a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. She ran a finger round the tight collar and sighed.
"What?" Charlie was gazing at her.
"Just wishing I had a change of clothes," she said. "This bloody lion suit itches."
"So does my wig," said Charlie.
"My hat's leaving a dent in my head," complained Darren, not to be outdone.
"I'm going to have serious words with Sam when I get back," said Jen. "Almost anything would have been a better choice of theme than this."
Charlie snorted. "Wallace and Gromit, perhaps?"
Jen raised an eyebrow at her. "At least that would have given me the perfect excuse to pig out on Wensleydale."
Darren frowned. "But that's only two characters. Who would *I* have been?"
"Sean the sheep," chorused Jen and Charlie. They burst into surprised laughter and grinned at one another.
*She wrinkles her nose when she smiles,* thought Jen. *Cute.*
Darren grimaced. "Don't talk to me about sheep ... at least you two still have a change of underwear and your nighties." His eyes gleamed with sudden interest. " you *do* both wear nighties, don't you?"
Charlie seemed uncertain how to answer this unexpectedly personal question, so Jen took up the challenge.
"That's for us to know and you to find out," she bared her teeth in a mock snarl, and tried not to laugh when Darren actually flinched. "And you won't be finding out tonight because you're sleeping in the male dorm."
"Oh." He looked genuinely stricken.
A thought struck her. "I take it you *did* find some dorms upstairs?"
He nodded. "Oh yes. Several. They hold 6 people each. Bunk beds, unfortunately."
She shrugged. "I'm so tired I could sleep on a rock. ... Come across any bathrooms?"
There was silence for a moment, then he said timidly. "You're not *really* going to make me sleep all on my own, are you?"
Jen drummed her fingers on the table and glanced at Charlie, who merely shrugged unhelpfully. She sighed. "Do you promise to behave?"
"Ooh, of course!" Darren beamed her. "I'll be the perfect gentlemen. Scout's honour."
He saluted, but to Jen's gaze the gesture looked more like something Mr Spock might use than a Scout Master. She rolled her eyes and Charlie stifled a laugh then failed to stifle a yawn.
"What a day!" said the blonde woman.
"Yeah. The bedlinen should be warm by now and the water hot," said Jen, "so I suggest we each have a shower, then go to bed."
"Please," said Charlie feelingly.
Darren nodded his agreement.
"Good." Feeling a sudden craving to be free of the day's accumulation of grime and sweat, Jen got up; her calf muscles were already stiffening from all the unaccustomed walking, she noticed. *Urk*.
She carried the dirty dishes over to the sink and began to wash them. When Charlie couldn't find a tea-towel, Jen shrugged and said, "Just leave them to drain."
They tidied the kitchen as best they could, switched off the lights, and trooped upstairs. Darren pointed out a drying room where the airing cupboard was, and while the others helped themselves to sheet sleeping bags, pillowcases, and blankets - there were no towels, so they took some extra blankets to dry themselves with - Jen switched the heating controls to automatic.
There were four dormitories, so they picked the one that looked the most welcoming. Once the beds were made up - it was a while since Jen had stayed in a Youth Hostel but she hadn't forgotten how to tie sleeping bag tapes to bedcorners - they went looking for the showers. They were two sets of communal showers, and Jen briskly directed Darren to the men's, just in case he had any ideas about sharing theirs.
She found some precious dried scraps of soap in one hand basin and divided them equally between herself and Charlie.
"What about Darren?" asked the blonde.
Jen raised an eyebrow. "Do *you* want to take it into the men's showers?"
Charlie grimaced. "Good point!"
Jen turned on the nearest shower tap, then peeled off her costume and threw it to one side while she waited for the water to run hot. When the temperature was to her liking, she grabbed the fragments of soap and stepped into the hot spray.
After a momentary hesitation, Charlie followed her example.
*Such a relief to be free of that itchy wool at last,* thought Jen, as she soaped herself thoroughly and let the steaming water wash away the grime and ease the ache in her tired muscles. *Bliss!*
She became aware that Charlie was rushing her shower, and also that the other woman was carefully averting her gaze from Jen's nakedness. *Is she shy? Or is it something more?* She studied the other woman out of the corner of her eye.
Charlie's compact body was muscular and well-toned and Jen wondered briefly what sports she played or whether she simply worked out. Whatever she did, it was working ... This was certainly *not* a young schoolgirl following the Yellow Brick Road!
Thinking of the Dorothy costume brought Jen's thoughts back to the ruby slippers and she dropped her gaze to Charlie's feet .*Boy, those heels look sore.*
She rinsed off the last of the lather, wrapped her dripping form in a blanket, and waited for Charlie to do the same. While Charlie was wringing the excess water from her hair, Jen stooped to examine the other woman's heels.
Charlie froze then regarded Jen curiously. "What are you doing?"
"Checking your feet," said Jen. She touched the tender red flesh gently but even so Charlie made a small sound and pulled away. "Sorry." Jen straightened. "You were right. You've got blisters." She thought for a moment. "I'll be right back."
It took her only moments to leave the shower room, jog along the corridor past a goggling, blanket clad Darren - the goggling was probably due to the fact her blanket had slipped; she hitched it up and winked at him - then pad downstairs to the kitchen.
*Which cupboard was it in?* She found what she was looking for on the second attempt. She opened the small green-and white box, checked it was fully stocked - it was - grabbed it, and hurried back upstairs.
The blonde was now wearing a pink 'repel all boarders' nightie - not very flattering, though Jen, but she'd be warm at least.
"Sit." She pointed to a chair.
A puzzled Charlie obeyed. Her puzzlement vanished when, with a flourish that threatened to set the blanket free again, Jen revealed the First Aid box.
"Aah." Relief showed in Charlie's green eyes.
It didn't take Jen long to spread Savlon over the other woman's blistered heels and then to put a sticking plaster carefully on top.
"That should help." She took the opportunity to admire the blonde's shapely calves and ankles.
"Thanks." Charlie reclaimed her feet, and stood up. "They feel better already."
"Wish I could do more." Jen straightened up too quickly and had to grab the errant towel again. "But you can't burst blisters ... they might get infected."
She rummaged in her haversack for the T-shirt that doubled as her nightshirt, found it, then shucked her towel and put it on. An odd sound from Charlie made her look up. "Yes?"
"Um, nothing," said the blonde, who had turned her face away.
Jen shrugged. "Let's hang the costumes and wet blankets in the drying room," she said.
They traipsed barefoot along the corridor, draped the various components of their costumes over some hangers in the drying room and deposited their blankets over some heated rails, then headed for the bedroom.
As they drew nearer to the dorm, a tuneless whistling - *Hmm. Is it meant to be 'Dancing Queen'?* - grew louder and Jen exchanged a wry glance with Charlie. "Maybe we should have gone for single sex dorms after all, but it seemed so mean putting him on his own."
They went in tentatively, fearing the worst, but Darren, who was lying in a lower bunk bed, had fortunately pulled his blanket right up to his chin. He stopped whistling and sat up on one elbow. "There you are, ladies." He grinned amiably. "I won't get up if you don't mind ... I haven't got any underpants on."
"Ew!" said Charlie. "Don't remind us."
"And I'm no 'lady'," muttered Jen under her breath, earning herself a look from Charlie. She headed for the bunkbed she had chosen, and climbed easily up onto the top tier. Charlie, meanwhile, eased herself into a lower berth.
As Jen slid her feet into the opening of the flimsy sheet sleeping bag, she realized the dorm lights were still on. *Great.* She pulled her feet free, dropped lightly to the floor, and headed for the light switch. Then she turned and eyed her companions, *both* of whom seemed to be fascinated by her bare legs.
*Hmmm.* She tapped her fingernail pointedly against the lightswitch. "If you've seen everything you want, can I turn out the lights now?"
An unrepentant Darren yawned hugely. "You bet."
Charlie flushed and hurriedly rolled over onto her other side.
"I'll take that as a yes."
Jen switched off the light and felt her way gingerly towards her own bed, then clambered up to the top tier and eased herself into the sheet and blankets. Once settled comfortably, she sighed with pleasure. For the first time in a long time, she was fed, clean, and warm.
The faintest of snores was her only reply.
Someone was shaking Charlie by the shoulder.
"Hey!" yelled a woman's voice in her ear. "Get up."
"Wha-?" Reluctantly, she cracked open an eyelid.
A woman wearing a navy-blue hat with a navy-and-white check hatband was glaring down at her. "I said: get up."
*That isn't Jen!* Startled and now wide-awake, Charlie sat up.
The dormitory light was on, and the room was full of sound and bustle, of distorted voices crackling over radios, and stern looking men and women in navy-blue uniform ... *Oh, no, it's the Police!*
As she scrambled out of bed - with difficulty, because one of the tapes keeping the sleeping bag in place had come undone during the night - she became aware of a group of people standing by the doorway. Among their number was a very naked and embarrassed Darren (cupping his hands over his genitals) and a furious Jen, whose T-shirt, Charlie couldn't help noticing once again, displayed her long legs to perfection.
"What's going on?" Charlie's question was addressed to all and sundry.
"Charlotte Heywood. I am arresting you on Suspicion of Burglary," said the fierce woman who had woken her. "You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence."
"I've already told you," protested Jen from the doorway. "We're going to recompense the owners for any damages and goods used."
"Yeah, yeah. What with?" asked the policeman next to her, looking up from the pocketbook he was writing in. "Chocolate money?"
A firm hand in the small of her back propelled Charlie towards her friends. "I don't understand," she said.
"The hostel's burglar alarm was linked to the Police Station," explained Darren. He glanced at his cupped hands again and blushed a bright red.
"For God's sake," said Jen, "will someone give him his clothes?" She pointed to the bunk where Darren had carelessly flung his costume the night before. Darren's escort had the good grace to flush, and hurriedly retrieved the silver garments which looked as though they were still damp.
"Heavens!" said the policewoman, as the Post Room clerk began awkwardly to dress, gradually transforming himself into The Tin Man, albeit one with a flesh-coloured face. She turned to Charlie. "And I suppose you're a Munchkin?"
"No, I'm Dorothy," said Charlie, nettled.
"And she's the Wicked Witch?"
Charlie glanced to where Jen, now with a borrowed coat draped over her shoulders, was being urged into the corridor. The tall woman's fists were balled, and she was clearly fighting the instinct to resist arrest. She sighed. "No. She's The Cowardly Lion."
"Don't worry, I'll take care of this," shouted Jen, before disappearing round a corner.
"Cowardly?" The policewoman rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Let's go." She took Charlie's arm and propelled her towards the doorway where someone threw a coat over the blonde's shoulders and she pulled it gratefully around her.
"Llangollen," said her escort.
"What about our things ... our costumes are hired, you know."
The policewoman sighed and beckoned to a gormless looking constable. "This one," she indicated Charlie, "says they have some clothes."
"They're in the drying room. And there are bags too," added Charlie. "Over there." She pointed. "A duffel bag and a haversack."
"Yeah yeah - and bags. Grab the bags. Find the clothes. Bring em all to the station. OK?"
The young constable nodded.
"Can we go now?" asked the policewoman sarcastically.
Charlie nodded. "Lead on." ...
The next few hours were *not* ones Charlie would remember fondly, though they would probably make a great anecdote one day. Jen was bundled into the back of one police car while Darren and Charlie got to ride in another. If she never heard another siren or saw another blue light flashing, it would be too soon.
It was a hair-raising ride through the forested mountains, along narrow lanes, past swollen streams and rivers. They flashed past signposts to woollen mills, quarries, and slate museums and through empty hamlets whose law abiding citizens were fast asleep in their beds. Charlie envied them their pleasant dreams.
Then the convoy was approaching the outskirts of an unprepossessing grey town whose puddled roads and rain slicked pavements distortedly reflected sodium streetlamps and garish traffic lights.
*Is this Llangollen?*
Moments later they were pulling up in front of a police station. There was a small delay while Jen was hustled out of the first car and into the building, then it was the turn of Darren and Charlie.
While the Post Room clerk was led away to something called a holding cell, the Assistant Customer Services Manager was taken to meet the custody sergeant. The craggy looking man with bags under his eyes took down her personal details and explained her rights to her. Remembering Jen's promise to 'take care of this', Charlie deferred notifying a solicitor until later.
The borrowed coat was taken from her then, and she had to suffer the indignity of being searched for anything she might use to 'harm herself'. The pink nightie, apparently, didn't qualify.
While she was being patted down by the policewoman, the gormless constable appeared with their bags and costumes. Charlie's relief was short lived, however, when her Dorothy outfit was claimed by the custody sergeant and she was given a blanket instead. *Must be my night for blankets.*
Dolefully, she draped it round her shoulders and, when another officer joined them, saying, "This one's for interview, Sarge." limply followed him.
Which is how Charlie found herself, clad only in her pink nightie and blanket, sitting on a hard chair in a boxy room with two stern-faced policewomen and being questioned slowly and thoroughly about the Youth Hostel break-in.
All she wanted to do was to resume her interrupted sleep, and when she woke up to discover this had been only a nightmare - that wasn't too much to ask was it? But it looked like it wasn't going to happen anytime soon. In fact, things looked bad. No money. No ID either. The costumes would be harder for the police to ignore though.
"Yes, for charity," she repeated, aware that her every word was being recorded on tape. "You can ring the organizers of Break Out 99 and check."
She was relieved when the interview was abruptly terminated and she was taken back to the custody sergeant.
"I'm afraid you'll have to share with your friend," he said, as he escorted her along a narrow corridor to the cells. "Wedding reception at a local Hotel got out of hand - 6 of our 8 cells are in use. I'll get a spare mattress to you in a few minutes, OK?"
She shrugged. "OK."
He unlocked one of the substantial doors, opened it, and gestured her inside.
She entered the dimly lit cell tentatively, expecting to find Darren. But it was Jen who was sitting on the narrow bed, her expression a mixture of anger, guilt, and exhaustion.
Charlie had never been so glad to see a familiar and friendly face in her life. She flew into the startled Accounts Manager's arms and barely registered the sound of the cell door being quietly closed and bolted behind her.
"Did they hurt you"? Jen's voice in her ear was concerned. "If they did I'll -"
"No," said Charlie, hanging onto the other woman for dear life. "I'm fine." For some reason, she found herself weeping uncontrollably.
"Sh." A large hand patted her back rather awkwardly. "It'll be all right, Charlie. They contacted Sam. He's getting Falcon's lawyers onto it. There, there. It'll be all right, I promise."
Charlie knew she should be strong, but just then she felt content to let the other woman hold her and tell her it would be OK. Gradually, her sobs lessened to the occasional sniff.
"I'm *so* sorry, Charlie," said Jen after a while." It's my fault we're in this mess."
Charlie wiped her nose on her hand. "Darren and I didn't *have* to go along with you, Jen."
She was sorry when the strong hands released her.
"That's all very well, but I was in charge and I should have known better -"
"I don't remember putting you in charge!"
Jen gave her an uncertain glance and chewed her lower lip.
"And anyway, if we're apportioning blame," continued Charlie, "I think it was *my* suggestion that landed us in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain."
Jen gave her a faint smile, and leaned back against the cell wall. "Yeah, well. Hindsight is 20:20 vision."
Charlie now felt calm enough to take in her surroundings: four walls in a delightful shade of beige, a window, a door, the hard bed she and Jen were sitting on, and a loo. "It's not exactly the Ritz, is it?"
The sound of the lock turning made them both turn. The door creaked open and the Custody Sergeant, his cheeks red with effort, heaved a small mattress into the cell. "This'll do you," he panted.
"Thanks," said Charlie. "I think."
He smiled and left them to it.
Jen eyed the mattress, which was now taking up most of the available floor space, dubiously. "Definitely *not* the Ritz." She glanced at her wrist then swore softly. "Any idea what time it is?
Charlie shook her head. "They kept my watch too."
A slightly awkward silence followed.
"Have you seen Darren?" asked Jen at last.
"Not since they separated us for questioning."
"Shit!" Jen rubbed her eyes wearily.
"Hey, look at it this way," said Charlie. "It got us a lift to Llangollen, didn't it?"
The answering snort of laughter surprised her and a warm glance passed between the two women that made Charlie's insides tingle pleasantly. *What's up with me? First I can't stop staring at her legs, now this.* She wondered if the other woman felt it too.
"I don't know about Dorothy," continued Jen, apparently unaware of Charlie's consternation. "You should have been Pollyanna."
Charlie smiled. "Nah. She's much too goody-goody."
"And you're not?" A dark eyebrow rose provocatively.
"Not me. I'm a hardened criminal." Charlie leaned back against the wall. "Why else would I be locked in this cell with another hardened criminal?"
The silence between them this time was more comfortable.
A huge yawn took Charlie by surprise and she quickly raised her hand to her mouth. "So," she said, trying to fight another yawn and failing - the adrenaline rush had evidently worn off. "Are we going to try and get some sleep then?"
Jen yawned too - it must be catching. "Might as well," she said. "Doesn't look as though we're going anywhere for a while, does it?"
It was three in the afternoon when the members of the Wizard of Oz Team, whose identities had been confirmed via faxed personnel records from Sam, were finally released.
Tracking down the owner of the Youth Hostel, currently holidaying in Portugal, had taken the police much longer than expected. Fortunately, he proved sympathetic to their plight and was willing to drop all charges if the 'dangerous criminals' sent him a photo of themselves - in costume, of course - for the hostel's notice board.
So, the company's lawyers hadn't been necessary after all.
As Jen pulled on her lion's paw gloves, she thought about the long night and morning she had just spent in the cells.
Things had been a bit awkward at first. Neither woman was used to going to the toilet in front of someone else, but they had worked out a routine whereby if one was 'engaged' the other turned her back and stuck her fingers in her ears. They hadn't got much sleep either ... the cell's observation hatch squeaked, which meant the hourly check that they hadn't 'topped' themselves kept waking one or both of them.
In the end, they had given up trying to do more than nap, and simply talked ... about their childhoods mostly, which, as Jen suspected, couldn't have been more different.
If anyone had told her she'd survive 12 hours confined in a tiny cell with Charlotte Heywood and not come out a raving lunatic, she would have laughed in their face. But she had. Not only that, she had decided that she really liked being with the younger woman. So much so that, when at 10 am the custody sergeant interrupted their engrossed conversation with the news that another cell was now free and asked 'did they want to be split up for a while', Jen had glanced at Charlie, raised an eyebrow in query, and, on receiving a shrug, declined.
*Maybe I have turned into a raving lunatic after all.*
Jen donned the last item of clothing: the lion hat - really little more than an itchy woollen hood with ears attached - and noticed that the policewoman who must accompany her at all times was trying not to snigger. She sighed. "I know. But it's for charity. OK?"
"Whatever." The other woman gestured towards the door. "Ready?"
Jen sighed and let herself be guided along the corridor to the foyer where she'd been told the others were waiting for her. Her little chat with the day shift Custody Sergeant meant she was running late ... it had been worth it, however.
Two costumed figures came into view. Charlie beamed up at her.
"Hi," said Darren. "You OK?"
Jen shrugged. "All the better for a night in the cells and a disgusting breakfast and lunch." She eyed her escort. "Egon Ronay won't be recommending this place anytime soon."
The policewoman ignored the gibe and ushered the three ex prisoners towards the exit, like a farmer herding geese. They paused on the oil stained forecourt and regarded one another uncertainly. Jen had never been so pleased to see the outside of a Police Station. It had stopped raining too. *Perhaps our luck has changed at last.*
The Polaroid camera, she noticed suddenly, was once more hanging round Darren's neck. "One minute," she told the policewoman who was about to go back inside.
"Would you take a photo of the three of us?" Darren and Charlie glanced at one another and murmured approvingly.
"Evidence." Jen gestured and Darren obligingly handed her the camera, which she passed to the puzzled cop.
"But the charges were dropped."
"Not evidence for you, for us." Jen assessed their surroundings dubiously. The dingy brick façade and crumbling forecourt were hardly photogenic.
"What about in front of this?" Charlie was pointing to the sign that said, 'Llangollen Police Station'.
Jen nodded. "That'll do."
She positioned herself under the sign and Darren and Charlie joined her, their arms curling around her waist. The policewoman raised the camera and pointed.
Jen bared her teeth. Then there was a faint click and she was blinking away the afterimages from the flashbulb.
"Here." The policewoman returned the camera and for the first time smiled. "Hope you make it back in time."
"Thanks. Me too," said Jen. *But we've lost so much time, it's going to be close.* She glanced at her watch.
Charlie caught the gesture. "So. Guess we'd better find ourselves another lift. Where to next?"
Jen suppressed a smirk. For all the blonde's protests that Jen was not teamleader, she seemed to request a lot of guidance. "Shrewsbury. But I've got it covered. The Custody Sergeant's brother - his name's Bryn - happens to be going there this afternoon and he's agreed to give us a lift.
"Great!" said Darren.
Charlie nodded her agreement.
Movement at the Police Station entrance attracted their attention. The Custody Sergeant's head popped round the door and he hollered, "Miss Carlton. Bryn's just phoned. He's running late - the missus decided she's coming too. Be here in five minutes though, he says."
Jen waved her acknowledgement then wandered over to the low wall that bounded the car park and sat on it. Charlie and Darren followed her example. A moment later, a distant chattering, growing steadily louder, had her searching for its source.
A crocodile of young school children was coming along the road towards them. *Going to the library, or the swimming pool?* Their murmurs and giggles grew louder and more excited as the children spotted the three characters from the Wizard of Oz.
Jen sighed. "Ever get the feeling we've fallen into some alternate universe?" she said out of the side of her mouth. "One which is determined to inflict as much humiliation on us as possible?"
Eyes wide, fingers pointing, the children dawdled past, kept in order by their equally goggle-eyed woman teacher. Charlie gave Jen a rueful grin and returned a young boy's eager wave. The last child passed them, walking backwards in order to get the most from this unexpected diversion, and Jen sighed with relief.
"It could have been much worse, I suppose," she said.
Charlie and Darren gave her a puzzled look. "Huh?"
"I could have been dressed as Toto."
Charlie smiled and shook her head, and the three of them sat in companionable silence as they watched the crocodile disappear into the distance.
"Nice guys, the Llangollen Police," said Darren apropos of nothing. "When they learned I'd left my underwear in that sheep lorry, they gave me some of theirs."
Jen coughed to hide her startled laugh. Charlie seemed to be having similar trouble. "Did they, Darren?" she managed. "That's good."
At that moment, a small orange Fiat pulled up next to them and the plump woman in the passenger seat lowered the window. "Hi," she called. "You the three waiting for a lift to Shrewsbury?"
Jen crossed the pavement and crouched by the open window. "Must be us," she joked. "Unless you've come across another trio in fancy dress?"
The woman laughed. "Hop in then. I'm Kath, and this," - she indicated the bearded driver peering curiously at his prospective passengers - "is Bryn."
Jen opened the back door and waited for Charlie to get in while Darren went round to the far side.
"A rose between two thorns," said Charlie, as Jen and Darren squeezed in on either side of her on the Fiat's cramped back seat.
"More like the ham in the sandwich," retorted Jen.
"All set in the back, there?" called Bryn.
"Yes," they chorused.
"Off we go then."
They had soon left Llangollen far behind. But Charlie barely registered the scenery whizzing by - she was much too conscious of Jen's thigh pressing against her own. Darren's thigh was also pressing against hers, but it didn't seem to be causing the same reaction.
*Get a grip, girl!* With some difficulty, she refocused her attention on things *outside* the car, on the steep Welsh hillside to their right with its scattering of cottages, on the weird structures to their left that Bryn cheerfully informed his passengers were lime kilns.
Then the road was curving south over a canal, and they were in Chirk, once a picturesque village but now mostly housing estates and factories. A National Trust signpost indicated a castle, which Bryn said was worth a visit. Charlie sighed.
"You ok?" came Jen's soft query from beside her
"Just wishing we had time to stop and see the sights."
"Talking of sights," interrupted Bryn from the driver's seat. "You'll like this."
Charlie was about to ask what 'this' was, when the two viaducts spanning the valley below came into view.
"Wow!" said Darren.
"Yeah!" breathed Charlie. *We should have had a holiday in Wales, even if it was only once,* she thought ruefully. *We really missed out.*
Then the viaducts had receded into the distance, and they were crossing the River Dee into England.
'Welcome to Shropshire' announced a roadsign. They drove on a little way in silence, which Darren was the first to break.
"They certainly seem to like cows round here. Better than sheep at least."
Charlie laughed and followed his gaze to the black and white animals grazing placidly in the fields alongside the road.
"Friesians," pronounced Jen.
"How do you know that?" asked Charlie.
Jen shrugged. "I'm a mine of useless information."
In the front passenger seat, Kath twisted round. "Actually, some say the locals chose the cows to match their houses."
"Huh?" Darren gaped at her.
"Black and white colour scheme," she prompted.
Charlie had a brainwave. "Oh, you mean Tudor architecture?"
Kath smiled. "Shrewsbury's full of the stuff."
"Not far now," said Bryn. As though his words had tempted Fate, a back tyre blew and the car lurched sideways.
"I knew it was too good to last," muttered Jen as Bryn wrestled with the steering wheel and brought the Fiat to a stop. With loud sighs and grumbles, everyone got out.
While Kath hovered unhelpfully, Bryn fetched an unwieldy jack from the car boot, and Jen pulled off her gloves and bent to help him unscrew the damaged tyre's stiff wheelnuts.
For an Accounts Manager who handled figures all day (Now wasn't *that* an image to play with!), Jen was very adept with mechanical things, Charlie noted wryly.
"How are we doing for time?" Darren asked her.
Charlie glanced at her watch. "4 o'clock. Not too bad."
Abruptly, the wheelnuts came loose, and Bryn and Jen levered off the damaged tyre which Jen then rolled round to the open boot and heaved into the wheel well. While she caught her breath, she scratched her nose, unwittingly coating it with grime.
Charlie suppressed a grin as she regarded the black blob on the tip of Jen's nose. *It matches the lion outfit rather well.*
"Something wrong?" Jen had noticed her scrutiny.
"Erm ... nothing," said Charlie hastily. *I'll tell her later. Maybe.*
Bryn soon had the replacement tyre fitted and they resumed their journey. The last stretch of the A5 was straightforward; even so, the Autumn darkness was already closing in by the time they crossed the River Severn and reached the outskirts of Shrewsbury.
"Where shall we drop you?" asked Kath, twisting round to regard her three passengers. "Hey! Did you know you've got dirt on the tip of your nose?" She reached in her pocket and dug out a paper tissue.
Jen accepted it with a startled look. "I have?" She frowned at Charlie.
*Damn! It looked so cute too.*
"As I was saying," said Kath, while Jen spat on the tissue and wiped the grime off, "Where shall we drop you?".
"The centre of town somewhere?" said Jen indistinctly. "We need to find a place to stay."
"A place to stay for *free*," added Darren.
"What about the Youth Hostel?" said Kath brightly. "It's not free but it's cheap."
"No thanks!" came the instant and very vehement chorus.
Kath regarded her passengers curiously. "Um, OK. The youth hostel is out. Where, then?"
Jen raised an eyebrow at Charlie. "Any ideas?"
"A street with plenty of hotels, B & Bs, or pubs would be our best bet. We'll offer to do the chores in return for room and board. You know - dry the dishes and stuff?"
"Good thinking," said Jen.
Charlie glowed at the words of praise.
Kath murmured to her husband for a few moments, then he nodded and eased the Fiat into the queue of traffic.
Five minutes later, after negotiating a maze of twists, turns, short cuts, and what Charlie could have sworn was a pedestrian precinct, they arrived in a narrow street of predominantly black-and-white half-timbered houses. Most seemed to be Inns and Hotels, and many had 'Vacancy' notices in their windows. The car stopped outside a mock Tudor hotel called The Coach and Horses.
"Perfect," said Charlie.
She waited for Jen to ease her indecently long legs out of the tiny car, then followed her onto the narrow pavement. Darren joined them, surveying his surroundings with eager curiosity.
Charlie slammed the back door closed, then turned to look at Kath. "Thanks for the lift. We really appreciate it."
"Yes," added Jen. "Thanks."
"Me too," said Darren.
Kath smiled. "No problem. We had to come anyway. Got a relative in the hospital." She gave a little wave. "Safe journey. Try not to end up in the cells again." Then the little orange Fiat was pulling away, leaving the Wizard of Oz team standing forlornly under a streetlamp ....
It was Jen who regained her impetus first. She eyed the exterior of The Coach and Horses, then pulled back her shoulders and jutted her jaw.
"Ok. Let me try this," she said, and before anyone could object she was striding up the path to the front door.
Charlie exchanged a dubious look with Darren. She couldn't fault Jen for guts, but thought the determined glint in the ice blue eyes would probably hinder rather than help their cause. When asking for assistance or charity, it was better to try what her father termed 'soft soap'.
Moments later, the night breeze wafted to her the sound of raised voices (Jen's annoyed growl was unmistakable). She sighed, wishing she had been wrong. Then the hotel door opened and a flushed Cowardly Lion stalked towards them.
"No go," said Jen, her demeanour a mix of hurt pride, anger, and dejection.
Darren opened his mouth to say something then to Charlie's relief thought better of it.
"Never mind," she said carefully. "There are plenty of other possibilities." She gestured at the pubs and hotels further along the street. "I'll try next, shall I?"
"OK," said a grumpy Jen.
They walked a few yards along to the next likely candidate. Charlie gazed up at the Pub sign and the others followed her gaze.
"The Deadly Nightshade?" said Darren doubtfully. "Couldn't we get food poisoning from a place like that?"
Charlie shrugged. "It's just a name. These days Pubs can be called anything. There's one near where I live called The Rat and Carrot."
Jen raised an eyebrow.
Charlie laughed. "I've no idea why," she said. "*Do* rats eat carrots?"
She smoothed the wrinkles from her pinafore frock - an impossible task she soon realized - straightened her wig, and took a deep breath. "Come on." Confidently, she led the way to the Pub's front door, pulled it open, and went inside.
As they entered the dim interior, a pungent waft of roast beef, draught beer, and floor polish met them. And Charlie realized at once, that unlike The Coach and Horses, The Deadly Nightshade was the genuine article - a Tudor pub with most of its original beams.
There was a dull thud.
Charlie turned to see Jen rubbing her forehead.
"Should have a warning sign on these things," complained the tall woman pointing at the massive black ceiling beam. "Costume saved me from the worst, luckily."
For once, Charlie didn't regret her small stature.
She scanned their surroundings. Whoever had furnished this place clearly liked 'dark' - the chairs and table looked like they were made of ancient mahogany. And sturdiness seemed to rate higher than comfort. An attempt to brighten the place up had been made. *Urk! Bet there are a few shire horses out there who are wondering where their brasses got to.*
Charlie searched for the unmanned reception desk - more mahogany - and pinged the bell for attention. Moments later, a harassed looking bald man, a blue-and-white butcher's apron stretched tautly over his belly, appeared.
"Yes?" He gaped at the trio, and Charlie tried not to laugh. It wasn't every day characters from The Wizard of Oz appeared on your doorstep.
"It's like this," she began, using the look her friends called 'cute puppy dog'. "We're doing a sponsored event for charity." She indicated their costumes and smiled conspiratorially. "But you'd already guessed that, right?" The man blinked at her. "And we need a place to stay for the night."
He opened his mouth to speak but she forestalled him -
"One night only," she batted her eyelashes at him. Beside her Jen a made a strange sound in her throat; Charlie quelled the tall woman with a glance then turned her 'cute' gaze full beam on the landlord again. He blinked and swallowed. "But the trouble is," - blink, blink - "we're not allowed to use any money or we'll be disqualified."
He tried to speak again, but again she was too quick for him.
"So, we were wondering, if we might be able to work for our bed and board instead."
What did that strange glint in his eye mean? *He'd better not be a pimp!* "Clear the tables, dry the dishes, that kind of thing," she clarified quickly.
Her heart was hammering as she waited for him to turn them down flat. Instead, a grin split his face from ear to ear.
"OK," he said.
"You're on. Bed and board for all three of you ... if you help me out around the place tonight. Come this way."
Feeling like the locked door she been trying to kick down had suddenly been opened from inside, Charlie followed him. Darren and Jen weren't far behind.
"You're a gift from the gods," said the landlord, whose name turned out to be David Moffatt. "My 'help' is off with the flu, and my dishwasher's broken and they can't get the replacement part for a week."
He pushed open a sturdy swinging door and they found themselves in a large kitchen which smelled wonderfully of roasting beef. Less wonderfully, noted Charlie, dirty dishes filled two huge stainless steel sinks to the brim.
"And," he continued, "I've got two coach parties of Japanese tourists due for a traditional English evening meal in -" he checked his watch, "- an hour." He rolled his eyes expressively.
Charlie gave Jen and Darren a rueful look. Jen shrugged.
"So. Dishes first, please." Moffatt handed out yellow rubber gloves, aprons, and tea towels. "I'll be over here if you need me." He trotted over to the far side of the kitchen, where, from the look of it, he was preparing individual Yorkshire Puddings for the whole of Wembley Stadium.
Charlie sighed, shucked her duffel bag, and put on an apron ....
They had got into the swing of it - Jen washing the dishes, Charlie drying them, and Darren putting them away - and were making a real impression on the stack of dirty dishes, when the landlord came bustling over again, looking at his watch.
"The Japanese party is due any minute. Can you," - he pointed at Jen, who immediately donned a 'why me?' expression that made Charlie want to laugh - "stand in the entrance directing them inside and taking their coats?"
Charlie waited for an explosion, something along the lines of - "I'm an Accounts Manager, not a tour guide." - but to her relief the dark woman merely muttered something uncomplimentary about the landlord's parentage under her breath.
He meanwhile, was oblivious to anyone else's feelings but his own, which seemed, at the moment to consist mainly of delight. "The Japanese will *love* those costumes. I couldn't have planned this better."
Jen took off her apron and handed her rubber gloves to Darren. She had removed the lion headdress, as the heat from roasting meat, Yorkshire puddings, and boiling vegetables raised the temperature, and now she pulled it back on with visible reluctance.
"Wait," said Charlie, going to stand in front of Jen, who gave her an enquiring glance. "Let me." She tucked some straggling strands of long black hair inside the brown hood then stood back and assessed the result. "That's better."
"Thanks." Jen's smile made Charlie blush. Or maybe it was the warm kitchen? *Yeah, that must be it.*
Then the tall woman was pulling on her lion paw gloves and turning to follow the landlord ...
Charlie was taking a well-earned break from serving up thirty desserts when Jen entered the kitchen and came to lean companionably beside her against the counter.
"Do you think they even know what bread-and-butter pudding is?" asked Charlie.
"Doubt it. If the Yorkshire Puddings were any example, they'll take one mouthful and leave the rest."
"What a waste."
Jen shrugged. "It's no skin off Moffatt's nose. They've paid heftily for the privilege."
Charlie sighed and changed the subject. "So, have you found out why it's called The Deadly Nightshade, yet?"
"I asked him but he wouldn't say."
At that moment Darren burst through the door carrying a tray of dirty beer and wine glasses. "They keep taking photos of me," he complained.
"Us too," sympathized Charlie. "It's the costumes."
Jen grimaced. "You'd think they'd never seen anyone my height before."
"Well, you *are* rather tall."
"No kidding, titch."
Charlie wrinkled her nose at the playful insult.
"Seriously," continued Jen, "I'm beginning to feel more like the Wicked Witch of the West than the Cowardly Lion."
*There was a time I shared that view. When did that change, I wonder?* "I know what you mean," said Charlie. "If one more person asks me to sing 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' ... I am *not* Judy Garland, for God's sake!"
"Well, all I can say is: the room and board had better be worth it." Jen yawned suddenly.
"Anything will be better than the cells," said Darren.
Jen's blue eyes filled with guilt.
"If the bedrooms are like the rest of this place," said Charlie, trying to change the subject to something less painful for the other woman, "they'll contain four poster beds with plaques over them saying: 'Henry the Eighth Slept Here.'"
"Yeah, well," said Jen. "I just hope Moffatt's changed the sheets since then."
As if speaking his name had conjured him up, the kitchen door swung open and a portly, apron-clad figure entered. "*There* you are," said the pub landlord. "They've finished the dessert course. Collect up the dirty dishes, serve the coffee and liqueurs, and then do the washing up, will you?"
With a groan, Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man went to do as they were told.
The huge bedroom looked as if it hadn't been occupied for quite a while, and though the bed wasn't a four-poster it was big. Jen sighed, dumped the towel, bedlinen, and hot water bottle Moffatt had given her on the faded carpet, and began to strip off the heavy bedspread.
She had just finished making up the bed when she realized Charlie was standing in the doorway watching her.
"Hi," said Jen. "Is yours the same?" Charlie nodded and advanced a few steps into the room.
Jen followed the small woman's gaze as it skimmed over the faded red curtains, striped green wallpaper, a mahogany desk and chair, and settled on the room's single picture.
"My picture's nicer though." Charlie gestured at the gloomy oil painting of a stag at bay.
Jen shrugged and yawned. "It could be a 'Paint by Numbers', for all I care. I intend sleeping not looking at it." She began unpacking her haversack, pulling out the crumpled T-shirt and looking forward to getting into something that didn't itch. "Is Darren settled in OK?"
The blonde nodded. "Shame we couldn't find rooms all together."
Jen shrugged. "Yeah, that old wing is pretty small. Probably why they added this wing later on." She eyed the other woman, who seemed ... unsettled. "You OK?"
"Just overtiredness, probably, but ever since we came upstairs I've been feeling ..." Charlie hunted for the word, "spooked." The admission seemed to embarrass her.
"Old places like this creak a lot," said Jen reassuringly. "It doesn't mean anything except that the furniture is riddled with woodworm and the ceiling beams have death-watch beetle."
Charlie snorted. "Gee, thanks! I feel so much better."
But she did looked a bit more at ease, Jen noticed. "Get some sleep," she advised. "You'll feel better in the morning."
Charlie nodded and retraced her steps towards the door. "'Night, Jen. Sleep well."
"You too. 'Night."
The door clicked closed and the clipclop of ruby slippers on floorboards receded down the corridor towards the other wing.
Jen had already used the toilet at the end of the corridor, and now she crossed to the little handbasin whose taps juddered and groaned but eventually dispensed lukewarm water. She gave herself a cursory flannel wash and brushed her teeth, then pulled on her T-shirt and slipped between the sheets.
*Brrrr. Moffatt was right about needing a hot water bottle.* She reached for it and hugged it to her....
*Wha-?* It seemed as if she had only just dropped off to sleep when she was wide awake again. Someone was knocking on her door. *Damn it. An uninterrupted night's sleep would make a nice change.* She sat up groggily and wondered what the hell the time was.
"Jen, Jen ... Are you awake? Jen!" There was an edge of panic to Charlie's voice.
"I'm awake. Come in," she called. *Maybe the roof has sprung a leak and soaked her bed or something?*
The handle turned and the door burst open. Light spilled in from the corridor and she saw the blonde was wearing that sensible pink nightie of hers, then the door was closed again, and the dim silhouette that was Charlie was leaning against it as though it were some kind of barricade.
Jen reached over, and switched on the lamp beside her bed. The whites of Charlie's eyes, she saw at once, were unnaturally prominent.
"I saw something. In my room, Jen," gasped the blonde woman, sounding as though she'd just run a marathon. "Oh God. I can't go back there. I just can't!"
Jen recognized real fear when she saw it. Calmly, she threw back a corner of the bedclothes in invitation. "Then don't." Charlie hesitated for only a moment, then she scuttled across the room and dived in.
Jen pulled the sheets up around them both and studied Charlie. "It was probably just a nightmare," she soothed. "These old places ..."
"I know, I know. Woodworm ... death-watch beetle. But it wasn't that. It was ... " Charlie paused.
"It was ...?"
"A woman ... no, a ghost."
"Uh huh." Jen busied herself fluffing up the pillows and encouraged Charlie to lie back. The hot water bottle was still warm so she gave her that too. The other woman clutched it eagerly - the barefoot dash along the corridor from the other wing had chilled her.
"You don't believe me, do you?" accused the blonde. "Well, I know what I saw. It was a woman. She glided through my bedroom wall. One minute she wasn't there, the next she was."
"A woman." Jen turned out the light and lay back.
"Not a modern woman." Already Charlie sounded calmer. "She was wearing Tudor style clothes - you know, a ruff round her neck? In fact, now I come to think of it, she looked just like the woman in the picture in my room."
"Will you stop doing that?"
Hidden by the darkness, Jen smiled. "Doing what?"
"Repeating everything I say."
"Everything you say?"
A pause. "Smartarse."
"You think I dreamed it, don't you, Jen?" said Charlie eventually. "You think I saw the picture on the wall, and dreamed about the woman in it."
"Maybe you're right."
More silence, while Jen simply listened to the other woman's breathing, acutely aware of her warm presence. *Comfort, not hanky panky,* she instructed her argumentative libido. "Think you can sleep now?" she enquired.
"I seem to be wide awake," grumbled Charlie.
"Still scared the ghost might get you?"
"Erm ... it's not that exactly."
Jen sensed the blonde head turning towards her, the green eyes straining to see her in the darkness, and was suddenly struck by a thought. One of the things she'd discovered, during the long hours in the cells, was that they were both gay. *Could that be it?*
"If it makes you feel more comfortable, Charlie," she said stiffly, "I can put a pillow between us."
"It might be a good idea."
"You're afraid I'm going to try something?" Jen couldn't hide the hurt she felt. *I thought we were friends.*
"Of course not! You wouldn't ... It's not ... I'm not ...." The blonde exhaled. "God, this is embarrassing!"
Jen was genuinely puzzled now. "What is it then?"
"If you must know, I'm afraid *I* might end up trying something." Charlie's voice was suddenly muffled, as though she'd clapped a hand to her mouth. "I can't believe what I'm saying!"
*Neither can I, but I love it.* "Well, I can't say that the idea doesn't appeal - because it does, " said Jen dryly, "but usually I prefer things to progress a bit more sedately. You know: dinner and a movie, a first kiss."
"You fancy me too, then?" Charlie managed to sound both astonished and pleased.
Jen snorted. "Phew! Glad that's out in the open. For a moment there, I thought things were going to get rather awkward."
The blonde began to giggle uncontrollably.
*Hysteria. Well, at least it took her mind off the ghost.* Jen pursed her lips. "We spent last night together, Charlie," she said seriously, "and nothing happened. Why should tonight be any different?"
"Well, for one thing. Last night we weren't sleeping in the same big comfy bed, and a policeman was checking on us every hour on the hour."
"That's true." Jen considered for a moment. "OK, then. Here's the deal. I promise not to try anything, if you promise not to try anything. OK?"
"Oh, OK." Charlie sounded disappointed.
"So we can skip the pillow. OK?"
As the awkwardness of the last few minutes thankfully disappeared, a wave of tiredness rolled over Jen and she yawned. "Think you can go to sleep now?"
It was Charlie's turn to give a jawcracking yawn. "Mmmhmmm," came the drowsy reply.
*Thank God for that! I'm bushed.* "Night, Charlie. Sleep well."
Charlie's deep, regular breathing lulled Jen back into welcome sleep ....
*Wha-?* It seemed as if she had only just dropped off when she was wide awake again. Someone was banging on her door. *Damn it. An uninterrupted night's sleep would make a nice change.*
"Whassup?" came a sleepy voice from beside her and she suddenly remembered Charlie.
"Dunno," she growled. "But it had *better* be good."
"Jen. Are you awake? Can I come in?" came Darren's voice through the stout wooden door.
"That's all I need!" Jen switched on the light and sat up. "Come in."
The door opened and Darren stumbled in. He was wearing only a pair of white underpants stencilled 'Llangollen Police'. When she saw the state of him, the facetious remark died on her lips. His eyes were bulging and he was shivering like a beech leaf.
"I j-j-just saw a g-g-g-..." He tried again. "A g-g-g- ..."
"Ghost?" supplied Jen helpfully.
"That's right. And it must have got Charlie cos I can't find her anywhere."
There was a rustle of bedsheets as the blonde sat up beside her. Darren's eyes bulged even more.
"Charlie!" He took a step forward then stopped agitatedly. "I'm afraid if I go back to my room it's going to get me."
"It?" asked Charlie.
"A woman in a weird costume .... She's got this ruff thing round her neck ... like clowns have, you know?"
"See. I told you." Charlie gave Jen a significant look.
Jen tried not to roll her eyes. *Gee. Thanks, Darren. I'd just got her calmed down too.* She racked her brains rapidly for a way to help Darren and distract Charlie at the same time. *Oh yeah. That ought to do it.* "Good job it's a big bed," she said.
"What?" The blonde's expression turned to alarm. "You wouldn't!"
"It would be cruel not to. Just look at him."
Darren's teeth were chattering, and he was almost hopping up and down, whether from cold or agitation or both, Jen wasn't sure.
Charlie sighed. "I suppose you're right." She shifted closer to Jen, then threw back the bedclothes in wordless invitation.
Without hesitation, Darren jumped in. "Thanks, guys. I owe you." He pulled the sheet and blankets up to his neck. "The ghost won't be able to get all three of us at once."
"Urk! Your feet are cold." Charlie shifted over even more onto Jen's side of the bed.
*Any closer, and I'll be on the floor,* thought Jen.
"Sorry, Charlie," said Darren. But he didn't sound sorry, and already his shivering had lessened significantly.
"Here." Jen pulled one of the pillows out from behind her and handed it to Charlie, whose brows knit in consternation. "Put it between you and Darren."
The blonde's frown cleared. "Oh! Thanks." She did as Jen suggested, much to Darren's evident disappointment.
When the Post Room clerk's grumbles had died away, Jen switched off the light, and made herself as comfortable as she could with Charlie's warm body pressed up against hers ... which was very comfortable indeed, she found.
"Still want to keep to our deal?" Charlie's breath was warm against Jen's cheek.
"It's too public now anyway."
"What did you say?" came Darren's voice.
"Nothing," chorused the two women.
"Three in a bed!" continued Charlie. "They're never going to believe this at work."
Darren chuckled. "Yeah, I can't wait to tell -"
"One word of this and you're dead. Both of you," said Jen. "Got me?"
The blonde's body shook with amusement. "You wouldn't," she whispered.
"I would," whispered back Jen. But she knew she wouldn't really; and she knew also that the blonde knew it too. *Damn it! I think I'm getting in over my head.*
With a heartfelt sigh, Jen closed her eyes, forced her raging libido back into its cage once more, and went back to sleep.
DAY THREE: "TELL ME WHEN IT'S OVER ... I WANNA GO HOME."
Charlie surfaced and for a moment simply enjoyed the warm cocoon enveloping her. Daylight was filtering through the curtains, illuminating the unfamiliar room, and she let her gaze wander idly, pausing at the picture of the stag at bay.
*Shit!* She sat bolt upright, letting the cold air in.
"Hey!" protested two sleepy voices, both familiar.
*Oh, God, it wasn't a dream after all!* "Sorry." She peeked at the dark head lying on the pillow next to her and found a pair of blue eyes twinkling back at her. "I can't believe I did this!" she groaned.
Jen yawned and stretched languorously. "Yeah. Snug as bugs in a rug."
Charlie turned to look at Darren, who gave her a dopey grin. She sighed and turned back to Jen again. "I'm really sorry. It was such an imposition."
"Hey, no biggie," said the dark-haired woman. "You thought you saw a ghost. Must have been something you ate."
"I suppose so." In daylight, and in the reassuring presence of the other woman, the fears of last night seemed preposterous. Then she remembered. "But Darren saw something too."
"Maybe he ate the same thing you did." Jen sat up and threw back the sheets. Then she got out of bed, and padded over to the window. As she drew the curtains, morning sunlight silhouetted the splendid body beneath the white T-shirt.
Charlie stared, fascinated by the sight, then became aware that Darren was doing the same. She turned and frowned at him, and he blushed and looked away.
"So," said Jen, coming back towards them, and giving Charlie a knowing look that made her face grow hot. "We'd better get a move on if we're going to get back. Deadline's 4 pm today or we're disqualified." She regarded the lion costume draped over a chair like a puppet with its strings cut and sighed.
Charlie laughed. "Hey, just be glad your costume doesn't make your feet hurt."
"I meant to ask: how are your sore heels doing?"
It was Charlie's turn to sigh. "I'll live."
"Because if it helps we can break the high heels off those shoes, you know."
"And forfeit the deposit? Can Falcon afford it?"
Jen shrugged. "It's only a few quid."
Charlie considered that comment interestedly. She was coming to the rapid conclusion that Jen wasn't the vindictive pennypincher people thought she was. Which meant there must be more to the Accounts Manager's budget cuts than met the eye.
Darren yawned and smacked his lips. "I'm hungry. Wonder what's for breakfast."
"Get up and dressed and maybe you'll find out," said Jen pointedly.
He sat up, the sheets falling away and revealing his almost painfully hairless chest. Charlie tried not to wince.
He looked suddenly apprehensive. "Ghosts don't appear during daylight, do they?"
"I hope not." Charlie remembered the apparition more vividly than was comfortable, the woman's odd gliding gait, her pale face and mournful eyes ...
"Not if they know what's good for them." Jen's growl brought Charlie back to the present.
She sighed. "I'll go and get dressed." She turned to Darren. "You coming?"
He scrambled out of bed, giving her another view of those dreadful underpants. *I bet the police were glad to get rid of those.*
"What?" he asked, scratching his ribs unselfconsciously.
"Nothing." From Jen's smirk, she had an idea the Accounts Manager shared her opinion.
Reluctantly, Charlie turned and headed for the door.
Jen gave her an encouraging smile. "Yell if you see the ghost."
Charlie decided to take the comment seriously. "I will." Then she was out in the corridor, Darren close behind her.
*There are no such things as ghosts.* She repeated the mantra to herself as she and Darren traipsed along the winding corridor to their wing. *Not in daylight, anyway.*
Their bedrooms came into sight and Darren vanished into his.
To Charlie's relief, her room was just as she had left it - the pillow dented, sheets rumpled and flung back, the Dorothy costume still in its neatly folded pile, with the pigtail wig resting on top. It all looked perfectly harmless, perfectly normal. She eyed the picture hanging innocently on the wall then looked away quickly.
*Don't push your luck.*
Grabbing her costume and her sponge bag, she headed for the bathroom at the end of the corridor. She had washed and dressed and was just putting the finishing touches to her Dorothy makeup, when someone tried the handle then banged feverishly on the door.
"Can you hurry it up in there?" called Darren. "My bladder's about to dial 999."
"Sorry." Charlie collected her belongings and opened the door, squeezing past the agitated Post Room clerk who dashed into the vacated bathroom and bolted the door behind him. Moments later came a sound like a waterfall and a loud sigh of relief.
She packed her few possessions into her duffel bag and headed downstairs to the kitchen, where David Moffatt was bustling - when did he ever not? - and a wonderful smell of frying bacon greeted her.
"Good morning," he said. "Sleep well?"
"Um." Charlie wondered how much to tell him. On a need to know basis? He did *not* need to know that she'd slept with two other people. But ... "Is this place haunted?"
"Of course. Our ghost is one of our best selling points ... especially with American tourists." Casually he broke eggs into a bowl, added salt and black pepper, and began to whisk them. "I meant to tell you about her ... Did you see her, then?"
She gaped at him. "A Tudor woman?" She was unsure whether to be pleased at the confirmation of something supernatural or upset.
"That's her. Lady Mary of Shrewsbury. Killed herself: poison. Unrequited love, poor dear."
"Poison. Was it Deadly Nightshade?"
Now she was thoroughly confused. "But the pub name."
Moffatt gestured dismissively with his spatula. "Oh that. Well, 'shade' equals 'ghost', and she comes out at night. So that part's right. But the 'deadly' bit ... artistic license, I'm, afraid. Lady Mary has never harmed anyone except herself." He poured the eggs into a nonstick saucepan and began to scramble them. "But it's been called the Deadly Nightshade for centuries so," - he shrugged - "too late to change it."
*'Never harmed anyone'.* Charlie felt as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders ."I wish you'd told me that last night." *But then, if you had, I wouldn't have spent the night curled up next to Jen.*
A distant clatter announced the arrival of the others, and then Jen and Darren were pushing open the kitchen's swing doors and exclaiming at the delicious aroma.
"Is that for us?" asked Darren hopefully, as Moffatt dished up three English Breakfasts.
The landlord smiled. "You saved my bacon last night, so I'm cooking yours this morning. Besides, you need something substantial if you're travelling home today."
"Thanks," they chorused.
They ate their breakfasts in companionable silence, then, while Charlie drank her second cup of ground coffee, Jen interrogated Moffatt about the route home.
"Well, the A5 via Wellington is as good a route as any," he said, looking up from his scrutiny of a roadmap. The rules barred them from using maps, Jen had explained, but there was nothing to stop *him* consulting one.
"Wellington, then Weston-Under-Lizard. It's about 50 miles."
"Oh, I remember Weston," said Darren enthusiastically. "There's a huge funfair there, isn't there?"
"Used to be," agreed Jen. "I went there several time when I was a kid."
*We always went on 'educational' outings,* thought Charlie enviously. "I don't think we'll have time to stop there today," she warned.
Darren's face fell.
"But maybe we can arrange a company outing some time?" she continued.
His face brightened again. "Yeah."
Jen opened her mouth as if to object.
"We could each pay our own way," said Charlie hastily. "It would be fun and good for morale. You'd like to go, wouldn't you, Jen? I know I would."
The dark haired woman closed her mouth with a snap, sighed melodramatically, and went back to discussing the route with Moffatt.
Charlie suppressed a grin. She had Jen's number all right. *Oh yeah.*
They helped Moffatt wash up the dirty breakfast dishes, then gathered outside the pub's front entrance and posed for a Polaroid while the landlord gladly obliged. Then with a last wave, they set off, following his directions to the ringroad that was also the A5.
Jen began to write: 'SUT ...'
"*Why* can't I do the sign?" Darren eyed the piece of cardboard resentfully. "I did the last one."
*Precisely.* She didn't look up, but continued writing. Aloud she said, "Because."
The magic marker jerked, as Charlie, who was standing next to Jen, let out what sounded suspiciously like a snort.
Jen took a steadying breath before continuing: 'SUTTON CO ...' "Because, Darren, ... er, because my writing's better than yours."
"Ha! Your handwriting is worse than a doctor's," said Charlie. "I know. I've seen some of your memos."
She gave the blonde a look. *Thanks a bunch! I'm trying to be tactful here.* Then inspiration struck. "Because I have the magic marker and you don't," she said.
"Well why didn't you just say so in the first place." Darren, his good humour restored, began to whistle 'Chiquitita' off key and flip through the Polaroids he was steadily accumulating.
Charlie snorted again, but Jen ignored the little troublemaker and completed the makeshift sign. She surveyed it critically.
"A work of art," said Charlie, her face the picture of innocence.
"Glad you agree." Jen straightened.
"Hey, guys." Darren's voice was startled. "Look at this."
Jen flexed her knees - kneeling on the cold ground had made them stiff - and turned to find both Darren and Charlie examining a Polaroid. "What is it?"
"The picture Moffatt took of us outside The Deadly Nightshade," said Charlie.
Jen scowled. "I'd rather not see it again, thank you. I was having a bad costume day."
"Look, just take a look at it, OK?"
Charlie's insistence surprised Jen, but she shrugged and accepted the photo.
Yep, there was the warped, black-and-white frontage of the Tudor pub, and there she was, looking like something the cat had dragged in ... or sicked up. Either side of the mangy Cowardly Lion stood Darren and Charlie, looking better but not by much. And standing in the doorway behind the little group, watching them, was ... She sucked in her breath.
"See," said Charlie meaningfully.
Jen gaped at the rather blurry image of a sad-eyed woman in a ruff-necked dress. "Where the hell did *she* come from?!"
"*Now* do you believe I saw a ghost?" asked Charlie. "That's Lady Mary of Shrewsbury."
Jen chewed her lip. "Maybe," she said grudgingly.
The blonde eyebrows rose skywards. "Maybe?" A finger stabbed the photograph. "What else could explain that?"
Jen puzzled over why the figure hadn't been there last time she looked. *Could Polaroids take a while to develop to their full extent?* "Light getting into the camera?" she suggested. "A flaw in the developing process?"
The blonde rolled her eyes and handed the photo back to Darren. "A sceptic," she told him in disgust. "I might have guessed. She's an accountant, after all."
That stung. "Hey, don't knock it. You two were glad enough to take refuge in this sceptic's bed last night."
Charlie's cheeks flushed a fascinating shade of pink. "Whatever." She cleared her throat. "Shouldn't we get on with finding a lift now the sign's ready?"
Jen decided to let the rather obvious topic change go. "Yes, we should. Let's hitch." She set off along the verge, and after a moment the others fell in line behind her.
Every few yards, she swivelled to face the cars travelling in their direction, held the cardboard sign against her chest, and stuck out a thumb. Traffic was brisk this morning, so she was hopeful they would get a lift soon and be back in Sutton Coldfield by lunchtime. But lorry after lorry, car after car, went by without slowing.
Jen sighed. *Maybe it's the lion suit.*
"Let *me* try," suggested Charlie, who had recovered her composure.
Reluctantly, Jen handed over the sign. "Don't be disappointed if they don't ..." She trailed off as 'Dorothy' hoicked up her frock to shapely mid thigh and stuck out a thumb.
Almost at once, a large green Rover screeched to a halt a few yards up the road then began to reverse. Charlie threw Jen a smug glance.
"Hey, looks like we've got one!" Darren ran to greet the potential lift.
"Yeah. But it's probably a pervert," growled Jen, hastening to catch up. Charlie was close behind her.
When they reached the Rover, Darren was talking to its occupants, who far from being the testosterone-soaked perverts she had expected were a good-natured couple of pensioners named Don and Ellie Ercall.
"We're on a shopping trip to Telford," explained Ellie. "So we can drop you off at Wellington."
Darren looked enquiringly at Jen, who nodded. "Yes, please," he said.
Finding herself on the receiving end of another smug glance from Charlie, Jen threw in the towel. "Ok," she told the blonde. "I admit it. You've got it and I haven't. Satisfied?"
"Did I say anything?" asked Charlie innocently.
"Got what?" asked Darren.
Jen rolled her eyes. "Just get in the car." Once more Charlie took the middle seat, and the others piled in beside her.
While her travelling companions filled in the friendly OAPs about why they were wearing fancy dress, Jen was glad simply to stare out at the countryside and enjoy the Rover's roomy, and more importantly cushioned, back seat. The Deadly Nightshade's chairs had been about as comfortable as a church pew. In fact, she mused, she had probably experienced more discomfort and aggravation in the last couple of days than she had in her entire life.
She had also, she conceded grudgingly, felt more 'alive' than she had for ages. *Perhaps, I should get out more. Figures will do what I want them to, even jump through hoops, but they don't make me laugh or keep me warm at night.* Sam was right about making new friends too. She glanced surreptitiously at the blonde sitting on her right, and found warm green eyes gazing back at her.
Jen cleared her throat. "We'll be home in no time," she said, "if you take charge of getting the lifts, Charlie."
Charlie smiled and shook her head. "Thanks for the compliment. But I think the credit belongs to 'Dorothy' not me."
Jen raised an eyebrow at that but held her tongue.
A few more miles passed, then Don reached forward, opened the driver's glove compartment, and pulled out a pipe and box of matches. There was the sound of a match striking, then the ghastly smell of old socks curled round the car.
Jen exchanged a grimace with Charlie. Would it be ungrateful to complain? It was Don's car after all.
"Can I open a window?" asked Darren. "I'm feeling a little car sick."
"You go right ahead, young man," said Ellie. "It's a wonder we're not all sick." She glanced pointedly at her impervious husband. "Disgusting habit."
The added ventilation from the open window made the pipe smoke bearable, just. But the disadvantages became clear when, a few miles further on, a wasp buzzed in. The yellow-and-brown striped insect annoyed Darren first, before investigating Charlie's wig, then hovered in front of Jen's nose, making her go cross-eyed.
"Bloody thing!" She was torn between swatting it and not swatting it, but a curious wasp was preferable to an angry one. She opened the window on her side of the car, hoping a through draught would whisk the pest away. No such luck
"Bit late in the year for wasps, isn't it?" asked Charlie, flinching as the insect turned its attentions to her pigtails again. "Urk! I hate these things."
"I got stung by one when I was a kid," said Darren brightly. "Had to go to hospital."
The wasp headed towards Darren's open window. *Maybe it'll go out the way it came in,* thought Jen hopefully. Then it stopped, seemingly fascinated by its tiny reflection in Darren's shiny metal hat. She sighed.
Darren raised his hand. "Maybe if I swat it-"
"Don't!" yelled Jen and Charlie in unison.
"- it'll get rid of... Yeow!" The Post Room clerk sucked the side of his hand.
Ellie twisted round and peered at them over the back of her seat. "What on earth is going on?"
"A wasp stung Darren," explained Jen, watching as Darren let Charlie examine his hand.
"Oh dear. Well you know what's good for wasp stings? Vinegar and brown paper." Ellie ignored her husband's snort. "Works like a charm -"
"I don't like the look of this, Darren."
Charlie's tone alerted Jen that something was wrong. But the blonde was blocking her view so she leaned forward to get a better look. Darren seemed very pale, even for him.
"Oh no!" said Charlie. "Jen, I think he's -"
Darren's eyes rolled up in his head and he crumpled against the blonde woman.
*Shit!* "Stop the car," shouted Jen.
"Why?" asked Don, but to her relief, the car was already slowing.
"Looks like he's allergic."
Even before the car had come to a halt, Jen was yanking open the door and bolting round to Darren's side. She pulled open his door and crouched, reaching for one limp wrist, aware that Charlie was regarding her anxiously.
His skin was cold and clammy, and his pulse was weak, getting weaker. *Not good.* She pressed an ear to his chest. His breathing sounded more rapid and shallow than it should.
"Is he all right?"
"No," said Jen tersely. "I think he's going into anaphylactic shock."
The Ercalls were regarding the events unfolding on their back seat with concern. "What can we do?" asked Don.
"We have to get him to a hospital," Charlie told them. She glanced at Jen. "Don't we?"
Jen nodded. "He needs an adrenaline injection." She considered her options.
A drumming sound caught her attention. Don was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, his brow creased in thought. "Shrewsbury's the nearest," he said a moment later. "We'll have to turn back."
Ellie sucked in her breath sharply. "But our shopping trip-"
"-will have to wait for another day, dear," he finished for her.
Jen reached a decision. "Help me stretch him out on the back seat," she told Charlie. "It'll be a tight fit, but we can manage it if we keep his knees bent."
Charlie struggled to do as Jen instructed, shifting Darren around and onto his back. Since he now took up the Rover's entire back seat, the only option for Charlie and Jen was to occupy the leg space. Charlie managed to kneel sideways in the narrow gap. Jen tried and failed to do the same.
Abruptly the driver's seat inched forwards and she found herself able to squeeze in. *This must be how canned sardines feel.* "Thanks," she told Don.
"My pleasure. Do you know what you're doing?"
"In theory," she told him. She pulled the back door closed. "Now drive."
While the Rover did a U turn and set off back the way they had come, Jen took Darren's pulse again. *Nothing. Oh hell!*
She turned urgently to the small woman squeezed in the cramped space next to her. "We need to keep his heart and lungs going," she said. "Do you know how to give mouth to mouth?"
Charlie nodded. "I think so."
"Good. I'll try some cardiac compression."
"Have you done this before?"
"Only on a dummy. I went on a first aid course a few years ago. It's 5 compressions to every breath, isn't it?"
Charlie gave her a panicked look. "I don't know."
"Yeah, it is," said Jen with a confidence she didn't feel.
She eased herself up over the edge of the seat, then twisted, positioning herself above Darren's ribcage. *I should have been a pretzel.* She placed the heel of her left hand over his breastbone, making sure to keep clear of his ribs - *Don't want to break anything!* - then placed her right hand over her left, and began to press hard.
After five compressions, she stopped and looked at Charlie who was watching her expectantly. "Now." The blonde inhaled, pinched Darren's nose shut, then placed her lips on his (*Shame he's unconscious,* thought Jen wryly) and blew strongly into his mouth.
"That's good, Charlie, " she encouraged. "Stop now. It's my turn." *One ... two ...three...four... five.* "Now."
Again the blonde blew air into Darren's mouth.
Time passed as they took turn and turn about, only vaguely aware of the road unravelling in a blur through the back window. At one point Jen was sure Darren was dead. She couldn't find a pulse, and the vibration and engine noise were masking his breathing.
"Hang on, Darren!" she shouted at him. "You can do that, can't you? Just hang on and I promise I'll -" she searched for something that would tempt him. "I'll buy you tickets to Abba: The Musical," she finished desperately, her eyes misting.
A hand clasped her shoulder and squeezed, and she looked up blearily into Charlie's fierce gaze.
"You hang on too, Jen. You can do it, I know you can," said the other woman with conviction.
Jen stared into warm green eyes and felt new purpose flood into her. She blinked, smiled, then took a quick breath and applied herself to her task once more.
*One ... two ...three...four... five.*
While Charlie blew air into Darren's lungs, Jen turned to Don. "How much longer to the hospital?"
"Nearly there," called Don. "How's he doing?"
"I haven't the faintest idea." *One ... two ...three...four... five.* She became aware that the car was slowing, then it lurched, throwing her against the door. *What the ...?*
"We're here," called Don.
The door Jen was leaning against opened abruptly, and she found herself tumbling out of the car onto grey asphalt. "Oof!" When she had gathered her scattered wits, she realized that a man in green hospital scrubs was peering down at her, his lips shaping an O of surprise.
He recovered his composure quickly. "Are you hurt?"
"Not me. Him." Jen pointed to the motionless figure on the Rover's back seat then scrambled to her feet as quickly as her cramped muscles would allow. "Name's Darren Liggett. Anaphylactic shock, we think. Wasp stung him."
The medic leaned inside the car and reached for Darren's wrist. "Hmm. Good strong pulse," he said approvingly. "How long ago was he stung?"
Jen had no idea. Don was looking out of the driver's window at her. "How long?" she asked him.
He considered. "Twenty minutes?"
*Is that all? It seemed like forever *
The medic turned and signalled. "I need a stretcher over here," he shouted.
From out of nowhere - or so it seemed to Jen - a horde of medics appeared. They descended purposefully on the Rover, pulled out the silver suited man, laid him gently on a stretcher and covered him in a blanket, then wheeled him away.
They disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, and Jen was left staring at the still swinging rubber-edged doors labelled 'Emergency Only'. Don and Ellie looked as bemused as she felt. Charlie, however, was otherwise occupied stretching the kinks from her legs and arms.
"'Good strong pulse'," crowed the blonde. "You did it, Jen!"
"*We* did it," corrected Jen automatically.
Charlie grinned at her then sobered. "We ought to go with Darren, you know. They'll probably be needing personal information."
Jen nodded. *Not that I know that much about him other than he delivers the Accounts Dept. mail every morning.*
She turned to the Ercalls and gave them a heartfelt smile. "Thanks for getting us here so fast. And sorry about the shopping trip."
Don shrugged. "There'll be other trips."
"I just hope your friend will be all right," said Ellie sincerely.
*Me too.* "Well, we did the best we can. It's up to the doctors now." She caught Charlie's 'hurry up' gesture. "We'd better get on. Thanks again."
"You're welcome, dear."
Jen let Charlie drag her into Casualty, the doors swinging closed behind them and hiding the carpark, Rover, and Don and Ellie from view. She found herself in a brightly lit, hangar-like room, divided by partitions and curtains into smaller rooms and cubicles. Medics in pastel scrubs of varying hues were striding around self-importantly, shouting incomprehensible jargon to attentive nurses and to one another , performing unfathomable medical procedures on their shell-shocked patients.
She scanned her surroundings until she saw the medic from the carpark in the distance. He was bending over someone in silver.
"Over there," she told Charlie, and set off purposefully, only to stop as an formidable looking woman in nurse's uniform blocked her way.
"You'll have to wait for your friend over there," said the dragon forbiddingly. She indicated three rows of plastic red chairs, nearly all of which were occupied by gloomy looking friends and relatives.
Jen tried her intimidating look, but for once it didn't work.
"No exceptions," said the dragonlady, whose tag read Nurse Painswick. "The doctors need to work without distraction."
"But -" Jen paused as someone touched her arm, and turned to find Charlie gazing up at her.
"Perhaps we'd better do as she says," said the young woman. "He's in good hands, now." She turned to the Nurse. "You'll call us as soon as we can see him, right? You know which one he is?"
Nurse Painswick smiled, an act that magically transformed her from a dragonlady into a pleasant middle-aged woman. "Of course. Your friend is Darren Liggett ... the one who was stung by a wasp."
*Is she psychic?* Jen let herself be led by Charlie - *It's becoming a habit,* she thought wryly - to the waiting area and ignored the startled looks coming their way. The smaller woman guided her to a couple of empty chairs side by side and they sat down.
Jen inhaled through her mouth then let her breath out slowly through her nose. Now her part in the emergency was over, she was feeling the reaction. "If they're short of adrenaline for Darren," she said rather shakily, "they can have some of mine."
Charlie chuckled and rested a hand comfortingly on Jen's leg. "I know what you mean."
A few moments passed in companionable silence, and Jen took the opportunity to brood. "Must be losing my touch," she muttered at last.
"Usually I can barge my way though 'jobsworths'."
Charlie smirked. "Well, I wouldn't say Nurse Painswick is a 'jobsworth', exactly. But there may be a much more obvious reason why your patented glare didn't work on this occasion."
"My 'patented glare'?!"
The blonde nodded unrepentantly.
*Hmmm!* "The reason?" prompted Jen.
"Usually, you're not wearing a tatty old lion suit." Charlie straightened her pigtails and grinned.
*Of course.* A bubble of hilarity formed in Jen's chest. She had been so concerned about Darren, she had forgotten all about their costumes. It explained a lot. *The medic's look of surprise when I landed at his feet.* The bubble expanded, forcing its way out, turning into a huge whoop of laughter on the way. *The raised eyebrows when the medics discovered their patient was the Tin Man .* She whooped again, eliciting a chuckle from Charlie. *How the dragonlady connected Darren to us.*
It was some time before she could say anything coherent, and the people sitting near them had long ago stopped giving her disapproving looks.
Jen took a sobering breath. "Sorry. I don't know what came over me." She looked ruefully at Charlie. "It isn't funny at all! Darren nearly died."
"Don't apologize," said Charlie. "It's just the tension. Sometime it affects people that way. A friend of mine once had a fit of the giggles during her father's funeral." She shrugged. "The important thing is: do you feel better?"
Jen considered. "Yes," she said wonderingly. "Much."
Then a shadow fell across her lap, and she looked up to find Nurse Painswick standing directly in front of her.
"Your friend, the Tin Man," said the woman impassively. "Doctor says you can see him now."
The Post Room clerk had been allocated a curtained cubicle all to himself. He was lying on a hospital bed, propped up comfortably against three pillows. He looked a *lot* better than the last time Charlie had seen him - the colour had returned to his cheeks.
"You gave us such a fright, Darren," she said.
"Yeah!" echoed Jen beside her.
"Sorry, guys." He gave them a sheepish grin. "I'm OK now. Good as new. In fact, I may even play the violin again." Then he frowned and indicated the silver shirt which gaped open revealing his hairless chest. "They were in such a hurry, they pulled off all the buttons. Poppy will kill me. There's a deposit on this costume, you know."
Charlie tried not to roll her eyes. *He's worried about that at a time like this?*
"I'll take care of Poppy, Darren," said Jen.
With a clink of curtain rings, the drab hospital curtains were drawn aside. The medic in green scrubs entered the cubicle and smiled at Darren.
"I see your friends have found you, Tin Man." He turned to Jen and Charlie. "We meet again. My name's Dr Bonham." He shook hands with each of them in turn.
"Hey, Doc," interrupted Darren. "Have you seen my gloves and my hat? They seem to have disappeared."
"Oh ... yes ... They're round here somewhere. I'll tell the nurse."
"Darren says he's fine," said Jen. "How is he, really?"
"He actually *is* fine," said Dr Bonham, sounding quite surprised, "though I'd like him to take things easy for a day or two. We've pumped him full of adrenaline, antihistamine, corticosteroids ... his system has taken quite a beating. Not to mention the bruises he's going to have over his breastbone." He eyed the two women keenly. "Did one of you give him cardiac compression?"
Jen flushed. " I did. Did I do it wrong?"
"No, " said Dr Bonham quietly. "Far from it. In fact, if you hadn't done such a good job, he'd probably be dead. The allergic reaction was very severe."
Charlie sucked in her breath. *If Jen hadn't known what to do ...*
The doctor turned back to Darren who had been listening to the conversation goggle-eyed. "In fact from now on, Darren, I want you to start carrying adrenaline with you, in case of emergencies. Either that, or undergo a course of desensitizing injections. I'll give you a note for your own GP. OK?
Darren pulled a face. "Ooh. Either way it means injections, right?"
Dr Bonham laughed. "Right."
Darren sighed. "Well, OK. If I must."
"You must. You were lucky this time." The doctor smiled at Jen. "Now, if you'll excuse me. I have other patients to see to." He turned to Darren. "Rest for another half an hour, Darren, then if you feel well enough, you can go home." He nodded, then disappeared through the curtain.
"Wow!" said Darren. "I owe you my life, Jen."
The tall woman snorted. "Don't forget Charlie. She gave you mouth to mouth."
"Really? You kissed me, Charlie?" He brightened considerably. "Wait until I tell them at work!"
*Thanks very much, Jen!* Charlie flashed Jen a look that made the dark-haired woman laugh. "Just you wait," she murmured. "I'll tell him about the Abba tickets."
Jen's eyes widened. "You wouldn't!"
The curtains drew back again and this time a little nurse wearing hornrimmed spectacles peered round. "Dr Bonham said someone was looking for these?" She held up a metallic hat and a silver pair of gloves.
"Great!" Darren accepted his property and immediately put on the little hat at a jaunty angle. Then he glanced down at his shirt and sighed piteously.
Charlie turned to the nurse. "Have you got some safety pins?"
"Sure." The woman frowned. "But wh ...?"
"Instead of buttons." Charlie indicated Darren's gaping shirt.
"Ah" The frown cleared and the nurse nodded. "Be right back."
"So," said Jen, once the nurse had vanished again. "Guess we'd better get you home then, Darren. It's not that far now so I'll call a taxi -"
He sat bolt upright. "You can't do that! We'll be disqualified."
"Hey!" She put a hand on his shoulder and pressed him gently but firmly back into the pillow. "None of that, now," she said with some asperity. "Your health is more important than a charity event. Besides," - she glanced at her watch - "we've lost so much time, there's not much chance we'll make it back in time anyway."
The nurse reappeared with a palmful of safety pins and Charlie busied herself with pinning closed Darren's shirt.
"But what about the money, Jen?" he objected, squirming a little under Charlie's ministrations. "If we don't complete the event, the sponsors won't pay up."
"Sit still or I'll stick you by mistake," hissed Charlie.
He froze and gave her a fearful look.
"Worst comes to worst, I'll make up the shortfall out of my own pocket," said Jen.
Both Charlie and Darren gaped at the Accounts Manager.
"What?" said the dark woman defensively.
"Er, nothing," said Charlie, hastily resuming her pinning. *Nah uh, not a thing.*
"That's very good of you, Jen," said Darren, when he'd recovered his composure. "But not necessary, You heard the doc. I'm fit." He folded his arms across his chest (the effect was somewhat spoiled since he had to unfold them again almost immediately to allow Charlie to finish pinning). "We'll finish what we started. End of discussion."
It was Jen's turn to gape. "But -"
Charlie turned to the taller woman. "Would it really hurt to complete the journey under our own steam, Jen?" she asked quietly. "It seems like Darren really wants to do it. And if we make sure he keeps warm and takes it easy ...?"
Jen sighed. "Oh very well," she grumbled. "I can see I'm outnumbered once again. Have it your own way."
Jen tried not glare at the young nurse who was currently engaged in taking a Polaroid of the team in front of the Shrewsbury General Hospital.
"Move a little to the right," directed the budding David Bailey.
The three members of the Wizard of Oz Team shifted obligingly to the right.
"No, *my* right."
They shifted to the left and Jen growled.
"Behave," muttered Charlie whose arm was round Jen's waist. "She's doing her best."
"Well her best is pathetic. She could have filmed 'Gone With The Wind' by now!"
"Sorry," called the nurse apologetically. "You're obscuring part of the sign now. As you were."
They shifted back to their original position. Jen wondered if the photographer could tell her winning smile had become a baring of teeth.
"Hold still." *Click.* "That's it. All done."
"Thank God for that!" said Jen, as the three broke formation.
Darren retrieved the camera from the obliging nurse and gave the blonde woman the undeveloped Polaroid to hold.
"I hope there's no Lady Mary of Shrewsbury on this one," confided Charlie.
Jen snorted. "I imagine she's confined to The Deadly Nightshade."
Charlie eyed her. "So you *do* believe in ghosts, Scully!"
Jen gave that comment the attention it deserved i.e. ignored it, and checked her watch instead. *2 pm already.*
"Come on, Darren," she yelled to the young man who was still chatting to the giggling nurse. "We've got to get a move on or we'll never make it."
She still wasn't completely happy with Darren's decision to continue with the Break Out, but, while he and Charlie were occupied, she had sneaked off, found Dr Bonham, and asked him flat out for his honest opinion. His "Providing you're sensible there should be no problem," had set her mind at rest, and she had to admit - she glanced at the Post Room Clerk - Darren *seemed* fit and steady enough on his feet.
The trouble was, it had taken longer than expected to complete the formalities necessary to discharge him. And then he had insisted on this Polaroid of the hospital sign for 'evidence' ....
"Sorry." Darren said a reluctant good-bye to his admirer and hurried over to join them.
Charlie shook the Polaroid to dry it one last time then glanced at it and sighed.
"No ghost, Mulder?" asked Jen.
"You know very well there isn't."
Jen suppressed her grin and pointed to the busy main road in front of the hospital. "That's the A5. So let's get going." Pulling the now worse-for-wear cardboard sign from her haversack, Jen led the way. She halted at the roadside and turned expectantly to Charlie.
"Here." Jen handed her the sign. "Do your stuff, blondie."
Charlie wrinkled her nose. "'Blondie?'"
Jen watched appreciatively as Charlie hoisted her hemline, posed coquettishly, and stuck out her thumb.
While they waited, the drone of traffic lulled her into a daydream. *The last few days,* she mused, *have been like some real life game of 'Snakes and Ladders'. The Llangollen Police started out as a snake but turned into a ladder. The wasp was definitely a snake ....*
A loud hiss of air brakes, followed by a triumphant yell from both Darren and Charlie, broke Jen's reverie. She found she was staring at the side of a large coach, and, as she watched, its door hissed open right in front of her.
"Need a lift to Oz, Cowardly Lion?" called the grinning driver, a curly haired young woman whose rolled up sleeves revealed muscular arms.
Aware she was being scrutinized by a group of grey-haired women gazing avidly down at her from the row of coach windows, Jen leaned forward. "Erm. Sutton Coldfield will do."
"Then you're in luck." The driver jerked her head at the interior, from which came an excited clamour of chatter and laughter. "Boldmere Methodist Ladies Fellowship Outing," she said, as though that explained everything.
"Boldmere?" Charlie had come up beside Jen. "That's just round the corner from where we want to go!"
"Then hop on, Dorothy," said the driver. "What, no Toto?"
"Tornado got him." Charlie squeezed past Jen onto the coach. "We've got the Tin Man with us, though. Will he do?" She turned to help Darren up the steps, in spite of loud protests that he was "perfectly capable, thank you."
Jen followed, pausing as a blast of hot air scented with perfume and talcum powder hit her. *Couldn't possibly tell this coach is full of middle-aged women!*
Charlie manhandled the still complaining Post Room clerk along the narrow aisle past the agog women to an empty seat, then plopped down next to him. Jen suppressed a smile. He hadn't stood much of a chance, really. The blonde might be small, but, from what Jen had seen of her during that communal shower (and she had made a point of seeing as much as she could), she was well-muscled and strong, whereas Darren ... *Well, let's just say the word 'weedy' must have been designed for his physique.*
A loud hiss was followed by the clatter of the coach doors closing.
"Everyone set?" called the driver.
Jen found herself an empty seat and gave a sigh of relief. "Yep."
"Hold on to your hats, then. Next stop, the Emerald City."
"To add insult to injury, they insisted I sing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'," finished Charlie, "and I'm practically tone deaf. But that's Japanese tourists for you."
Her listeners erupted into peals of laughter and she took the opportunity to check her watch surreptitiously. 3.45pm. Quarter of an hour left, then they'd be disqualified.
She sighed, and glanced up the aisle to where Jen was crouching next to the coach driver, gesturing and talking animatedly. She swivelled her head in the other direction, finally locating Darren on the backseat where he was squashed between two large women and by the look of it on the receiving end of a serious dose of mothering. She suppressed a grin.
The members of the Boldmere Methodist Ladies Fellowship seemed to have adopted the three renegades from Oz as their own, and had happily plied them with sandwiches, coffee, and questions for the past hour, give or take a toilet stop. Fortunately the past few days had supplied Charlie with enough after dinner anecdotes to keep them entertained.
She excused herself and made her unsteady way - the coach was negotiating a roundabout - to the front.
"Hi," she said to Jen, and crouched next to her..
The dark haired woman looked round and smiled. "Not far now," she told Charlie. "Janet," - she indicated the coach driver who grinned at the mention of her name - "said she knows a short cut that should get us there in time."
"I'm just following the Yellow Brick Road," yelled Janet, exchanging a grin with Jen.
"So. Have you lost your voice yet?" Jen glanced pointedly at the still chattering women Charlie had deserted. "They could talk for England."
"No, I'm fine. What about you?"
"I'll live." Jen ran a finger round the inside of her collar. "If this bloody lion costume doesn't throttle me first. I think that downpour in Wales shrank it."
"There goes another costume deposit," said Charlie.
"It's only money."
Charlie's mouth dropped open, then she closed it again as she realized she was being gently ribbed. "I s'pose I deserved that," she admitted ruefully. "I should have known better than to believe the rumours about you."
"About eating babies, you mean?"
Charlie backhanded Jen on the arm. "No, silly." She drew in a breath and prepared to broach the subject that had been bothering her. "There's a reason for the budget cuts at Falcon, isn't there?" Her low voice was meant for Jen's ears only. "It's not just you being mean. Something's happened that's not general knowledge." As she spoke, she studied Jen's face carefully. "Something involving ... 'good old' Bill Munson? ... I'm guessing he made a mess and you're the one who has to clean it up. Am I right?"
A flicker in the watchful blue eyes revealed Charlie had struck home. "You know I can't confirm that," said Jen carefully.
"Yeah, well, I also know you're not as black as you're painted," continued Charlie. "And I'm going to make sure other people know it too."
The dark-haired woman smiled crookedly. "Are you? That's sweet, but it's a lost cause you know."
"Just because I'm not a devil, it doesn't mean I'm an angel," warned Jen. "Falcon pay me to keep their costs down, and part of the job is taking the flack too." She glanced at Charlie. "You side with me, you're liable to find people taking potshots at you too."
Charlie shrugged. "Water off a duck's back," she said, earning herself a warm smile that set her insides tingling and her toes curling. *Whooo!*
"Nearly there," called Janet, disturbing the intimate mood.
Charlie sighed and peered our of the window. They were passing the Girl's Secondary School, which meant 'The Horse and Jockey' - one of two local pubs where Falcon Insurance's thirsty employees spent their lunch break - couldn't be far away.
Jen looked at her watch. "It's gonna be close," she said. "But I reckon we'll make it." She turned to Charlie. "Can you get Darren ready? We're going to have to run for it."
Charlie nodded, and made her way back down the coach. The two women looked disappointed when she told them she had come to rob them of their new protégé.
"Now wrap up warm and take care, dear," they told Darren, as he popped out from between their bulky forms like a pea from a pod.
The coach was perceptibly slowing, and Charlie glanced up the aisle to see Jen beckoning her urgently.
"Get a move on," she told Darren. "Looks like we're here."
Then she was staggering towards the exit, followed closely by Darren and urged on by the cheers from the Ladies Fellowship. With a lurch, the coach came to a halt, and the doors hissed open. Then the three of them were spilling out onto the pavement like refuse from a split binbag.
Charlie almost went head over heels before a strong hand, belonging to Jen, grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and set her on her feet again. She had time only to catch her breath and take in their surroundings - they were at the junction of the Jockey Road and Britwell Road - then she was being urged on again.
"You've got three minutes," yelled Janet from the coach. "Move it!"
Jen grinned up at the driver. "Thanks for the help." She looped her tail over one arm out of the way, and turned to Charlie. "You take Darren's left arm, I'll take his right."
"Hey, I can manage quite well on my - Urk!"
The two women grabbed hold of Darren and started urging him along the Britwell Road. As they approached their destination, Falcon Insurance's carpark, Charlie was dismayed to see it was dark and deserted. *After all that effort.* She slowed.
"They've all gone home, Jen," she said disappointedly.
"No they haven't," came the reply. "Look over there."
Jen pointed and Charlie almost collapsed with relief when she saw the trestle table in the far corner and the battered Break Out 99 sign.
"Keep going," urged Jen.
Their appearance sparked a bout of activity in the carpark. The floodlights came on, and as if by magic several figures appeared.
"Are we in time?" yelled Charlie, as the three of them hurtled towards the table and came to a staggering halt in front of it.
A ragged cheer went up from the watchers, and the flash of a camera took away all vision. "Urk!" She hung onto Darren's arm for support while she blinked the afterimages away. "Did we make it?" she wondered aloud.
"Yeah." The deep voice in her ear was unmistakably Jen's. "Ten seconds to spare, in fact."
"Yes!" Charlie pumped the air with her fist, and Jen laughed.
Then she could see again, and it seemed natural to grab the startled Jen and Darren in a hug and twirl them round and round, chanting: "We did it!" Darren was game, but Charlie could feel a momentary hesitation on the dark-haired woman's part. Then, to her relief and pleasure, Jen was joining in enthusiastically.
"Excuse me," came the embarrassed voice of one of the organizers. The impromptu celebration came to a halt. "It's just a formality, but I need to know your route back from Conwy and to see the Polaroids you took as proof."
"Ah, the route." Jen released her hold on Charlie's waist.
*Damn!* thought the blonde.
"We came back via Betws-y-Coed," said Jen. The organizer made a note on her clipboard.
"Then we went through Llangollen," added Charlie.
"Then Shrewsbury ... twice," muttered Darren sheepishly, receiving a puzzled look.
"Then home," finished Jen.
"Sounds straightforward enough," said the woman.
Charlie thought Jen's eyebrows were going to launch themselves into outer space, but the dark haired woman managed to contain herself.
With a flourish, Darren pulled them out of his suit's single pocket. "Here you go."
"Good." She flipped through the glossy colour photos, nodding occasionally.
Charlie and Jen exchanged a glance when the organizer came to the one taken outside The Deadly Nightshade, but apparently women in Tudor garb were no more remarkable than characters from the Wizard of Oz. *And why should they be?*
"These seem to be in order. So, finally, can I have your signatures, please?"
Charlie rolled her eyes but followed the organizer to the trestle table where she pulled out the documents that needed signing: confirmation that they had adhered to the rules.
"I'm glad someone was still here," commented Charlie as she waited her turn. "At first we thought you'd all gone home."
"Well, we were tempted," admitted the woman, placing a sheet of paper in front of Jen. "We'd given up on you, if you must know. But we had to stay until the official deadline, just in case. We're really glad you made it, though."
"So are we," said Jen dryly. She signed the paper then slid it across to Charlie.
"So," said Charlie, adding her signature below Jen's. "Who won Break Out 99, then? Was it the Pirates?"
"Um, no. They were disqualified. They used maps and compasses."
Charlie slid the paper to Darren, who also signed. "The Nuns then?"
"Nope. They were disqualified too. Let's just say they used their Polaroids to take photos which, while they might look good in Playboy, don't quite constitute proof."
Charlie caught Jen's eye and had to turn away or burst out laughing.
"The Bravehearts were the winners." The organizer sighed. "And the St Trinians were the runners up."
*That means Ben got a rosette. Good for you, Ben!*
"To be honest," continued the organizer, "they were the only two teams who managed to qualify ... " Her voice brightened as realization dawned. "Which means that your team came third."
"We won a prize?" asked Charlie, stunned.
"That's right. And so you each get a rosette." The organizer rummaged in a box and produced 3 limp rosettes with an air of triumph. "Here you go."
"Great!" said Darren, accepting a yellow ribbon masquerading as a rosette. "I've never won anything before, you know." He beamed from ear to ear.
Charlie wasn't so impressed. *All that hardship for three days and I get a blooming rosette like an animal at a show?*
"You should see your face," chortled Jen in her ear.
Charlie sighed. "Yeah, well." She let Jen pin the rosette to one shoulderstrap of her dove-grey pinafore frock, then reciprocated, though after she had stuck the pin in Jen twice -"It's not my fault, it's that stupid lion costume," she said defensively - Jen took back the rosette and pinned it on herself.
Then they were posing for photos. "Of course," continued the organizer, as she snapped away, "as Third Prize winners, this means the sponsorship you raised will be matched pound for pound by Falcon Insurance."
"Great!" said Darren.
Charlie nodded her agreement. "That's more like it."
"A good three days' work for charity," said Jen.
"Thanks to you."
Jen shook her head. "I was prepared to jack it in, if you remember. It was you and Darren who kept right on to the bitter end.
Charlie grinned. "It was, wasn't it?"
The formalities completed, the organizers began to pack up their things, and Charlie felt suddenly at a loss.
"Guess we should go home and get out of these costumes," said Jen. "God knows, I've been wanting to ever since Conwy" She raised an eyebrow in interrogation. "How are you two getting home?".
"My bike's there." Darren pointed at a sleek black-and-silver machine chained to the carpark's bicycle rack. *His equivalent of a Harley?* wondered Charlie.
Jen shook her head. "No way, Darren. You nearly died today and you're supposed to be taking things easy." She frowned. "I would give you a lift in my car, but what about the bike?" Her brow cleared. "I'll call you a taxi. We'll bill it to Falcon."
He broke into a pleased grin. "Ooh!"
While he unchained his bike, Jen turned to the blonde. "What about you, Charlie?"
"Oh, I'll get a taxi too."
"No, you won't."
Charlie frowned, not sure she understood Jen's objection. "Oh, I wasn't intending to give Falcon the bill. I've got no money on me, but when I get home I -"
"No, I meant I'll give you a lift." Jen's voice brooked no argument, and Charlie blinked at her in startlement.
"Oh, OK. Thanks," she said.
"No trouble. I'm parked over there." The tall woman pointed to the gleaming black BMW. "My phone's in the car. Let's order Darren his taxi."
The three of them, Darren pushing his bike, traipsed across the carpark towards the BMW. Half way there the floodlights went out as the last of the event organizers went home; they continued walking in the twilight. Then Darren propped the bike on its stand and climbed into the back seat of Jen's car to wait. Charlie joined him, and they regarded one another rather bemusedly while Jen called a taxi firm on her cell phone.
Charlie tuned out the one-sided conversation about taxis with room for bicycles and stared unseeing out of the window. She felt slightly ... well ... odd, really. *We survived an obnoxious sheepfarmer, atrocious weather, sudden arrest and a night in the cells, a sad ghost, an emergency dash to hospital... and we still made it back in time. Not only that, we won third prize. Heather will be pleased with me. Sam Walker will be pleased with Jen. And Poppy Jones, once she gets over the state of the Tin Man costume, will be pleased with Darren. So why do I feel so ....* - she searched for the word - *low?*
Jen finished her phone call and twisted round to look at them. "That's sorted. Your taxi will be here in five minutes, " she told Darren. Then she regarded Charlie and her brows drew together. "You feeling okay, Charlie?"
"I guess." Charlie sighed. "It all feels ... I don't know ... kind of flat."
Jen rubbed her nose. "I know what you mean. It's because we're exhausted. You'll feel different after a shower and a good night's sleep."
As if on cue, Darren yawned widely. "You were right about the taxi," he conceded. "I'm too tired to cycle home. My ribs are aching a bit too."
"Sorry," murmured Jen.
Movement drew all eyes, and they turned to watch a black cab with a roof rack drawing up to the carpark entrance.
"Great timing," said Jen. "Your ride, Mr Liggett."
He grinned at her. "Hee hee. I bet you won't be calling me that when I'm back delivering your mail."
She looked thoughtful. "I will if you want me to. Do you?"
"Oh, no. Darren's fine with me, Jen." A beat. "I mean Miss Carlton. I suppose we'll be back to that, won't we?"
Charlie listened avidly for Jen's answer. The older woman shrugged. "If others are present, Darren, then yes ... it might be best. But if we're alone, you can call me 'Jen'."
He beamed at her. "Wow! Really?"
She nodded. "Wow. Really."
"Me too," Charlie told him.
The taxi driver had now got out of his cab and was looking around confusedly, scratching his head. Darren exited the BMW and waved frantically. "Yoo-hoo," he called. "I'll be right with you." A relieved look spread over the man's face and he nodded and ducked back into his cab.
"I'd better go," said Darren, stooping to put his head inside the open door. "The meter's ticking."
Jen nodded. "And it's on Falcon's bill," she reminded him. Charlie caught the humorous gleam in her eye but Darren didn't.
"Oh, yes, point taken," he said hastily. "Right then, ladies. It's been fun. See ya." And with that the Tin Man wheeled his bike across the carpark towards the waiting taxi.
"''Ladies, it's been fun'?" said Jen in a mock-scandalized voice.
"'See ya'?" added Charlie.
They laughed and shook their heads, and watched fondly as the cab driver secured the bike to his roof rack while Darren climbed into the taxi.
When the cab containing the Post Room clerk had disappeared from sight, they sat in awkward silence. Charlie had no idea what to do next.
"Well, I suppose I'd better get you home too," said Jen eventually, and with obvious reluctance.
"What's the alternative?" Charlie was as surprised as Jen by her words. Her pounding pulse sounded loudly in her ears. *Oh God, what am I doing? She did say she fancied me, didn't she? Or was she just teasing me? Maybe this was just a holiday romance to her, nothing serious. She won't want to-*
"Well." Jen interrupted Charlie's increasingly panicked thoughts. "That rather depends on what you have in mind."
Charlie took a deep breath. *All on one throw then.* "I thought," she ventured, "since we've *already* slept together -"
Jen gave a loud laugh at that which she found encouraging.
"- well, I was wondering, what do we do next?"
"Hmmm. Nothing involving fancy dress, that's for sure." Jen eyed Charlie speculatively. "First things first - we get out of these damned costumes and into a hot shower." A pause, then she raised an eyebrow provocatively. "You're welcome to join me."
*I win!* "Sounds good to me," said Charlie. "What next?"
"Didn't I mention that earlier? Dinner and a movie, or a video if you'd prefer ... and a first kiss?" Jen sounded suddenly unsure.
Charlie thought for a moment. It was just the two of them, alone in a deserted carpark, darkness all about them. *Why the hell not?*
"Can I have the first kiss now?" she asked shyly.
Jen smiled and leaned towards her. "I thought you'd never ask!"
A big thank you to my ever encouraging beta reader Advocate.
Special thanks also to Cath for information re Policing in Wales. All accuracies are hers; any inaccuracy/artistic licence is mine.