My Phoney Valentine

“Miss Bucket… a moment, if I may, please.”

Philomena turned slowly. She recognised the voice, well enough, but the tone was unusually conciliatory.

“Yes, Mr O’Stoat?”

Durosimi  O’Stoat stood before her, his hands clasped before him, a wan smile upon his face.

“Miss Bucket… may I call you Phyllis?”

“Philomena,” she corrected him.

“Philomena… what a pretty name… I feel I owe you an apology.”

Philomena could think of several things that Durosimi might have to apologise for, but, in her experience, remorse had never been high on his agenda. She was fairly certain that the wily old rogue was up to something.

“An apology? Whatever for?”

“I feel that I have been less than well-disposed towards you, recently. I have had much on my mind, of late, and fear that I may have come across as being maybe a little tetchy, occasionally.”

Philomena said nothing. Durosimi had been a good deal more than a little tetchy, from the very first day that she set foot on the island.

“The truth is, Philomena, I cannot rest until I have made it up to you, in some way.”

“Oh, you needn’t…” she began, but Durosimi held up a hand to silence her.

“Please, humour me. It is Saint Valentine’s Day on the fourteenth, a most appropriate occasion to heal our wounds. Do me the honour of coming to dinner with me.” 

“At The Squid?” she asked, more than a little taken aback.

“I think not,” said Durosimi. “After all, you work there; it would be less than conducive to our needs. Besides, I have far better fare in my own humble abode.”

“You are asking me to have dinner with you in your home?”

“Indeed, and I very much hope that this will be the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship.”

Valentine’s Day was just two days away. Philomena knew that going to Durosimi’s home alone could be dangerous but she was curious to find out exactly what he was scheming. She decided that, whatever it might be, she would play along for a while. 

“Thank you,” she said. “I would be delighted.”

“I would love to know what he is up to,” said Philomena to Miss Calder that evening.

She had just left a basket containing a generous slice of starry-grabby pie and two bottles of Old Colonel on Rhys Cranham’s doorstep. On her return to The Squid and Teapot she had met Miss Calder, the ghostly administrator of The Pallid Rock Orphanage. Miss Calder was given to regularly haunting the path to Poo Cottage, the Night-Soil Man’s home, just as darkness was falling. She was forever in the hope of running into Rhys as he started his rounds.

“Be careful of him, Philomena,” warned Miss Calder. “By what you have told me, this behaviour is very out of character. Is there anything I can do?”

“Not really,” said Philomena, then added, thoughtfully. “Can you get into his house?”

“No problem,” said Miss Calder, “as long as it’s not protected by a ring of salt, or anything like that. You know, the usual ghost deterrents.”

“Then would you, please?” asked Philomena. “There might be a clue there.”

The church clock struck three. That meant very little, as the mechanism had long had a mind of its own and was particularly taken with the sound of three chimes. The only certainty was that the time was not three o’clock. It did not matter. The island was in darkness, and even Durosimi O’Stoat needed to sleep occasionally.

Miss Calder drifted noiselessly up to ‘Dun Necromancin’ (or whatever it was that Durosimi chose to name his house) and slipped through its walls as if they did not exist. She checked each room with care, even the master-bedroom, where the great man lay in bed, snoring gently.

She was about to leave when something stopped her. It was not a noise or movement that made her halt, but a sense. It was the sense that one ghost will get when another is trying to communicate with them.  And this one was definitely unhappy. Miss Calder allowed herself to be drawn towards the source of the sense, the feeling of anxiety and distress growing with every step she took.

The oak door presented no problems. She had not noticed it earlier, which was unsurprising, as, to all intents and purposes, it was part of the bookcase.  She glided down the narrow stairs and into a basement.

You will remember that Durosimi had gate-crashed Granny Bucket’s deathday party the previous week, and captured the ghost of Melusine O’Stoat, trapping her in a bottle. Melusine had been a sixteenth century witch, a common ancestor, not only to Durosimi, but also to none other than Philomena, to whom she bore a most remarkable resemblance

“Philomena? How did you…?

“I’m not Philomena, but I know all about her,” said the ghostly figure, imprisoned firmly in a circle of salt. “Ye gods, her grandmother wouldn’t stop going on about her. It was Philomena this and Philomena that…”

“Then who are you?”

“I’m Melusine. Can you please get me out of here?”

“Sorry,” said Miss Calder, “But I can’t move things, least of all salt.”

“Well, we need to do something,” said Melusine, frantically, “because that maniac out there has got plans to bottle me up inside Philomena. She is the ideal vessel, he said, as to all appearances we could be the same person. He would have us totally in his power, slaves to do his bidding.”

Miss Calder was a little shocked, but maintained, as ever, a calm exterior.

“He won’t be doing anything until Valentine’s Day,” she said, reassuringly. “I’ll find a way to get you free by then.”

It was early in the evening of February the thirteenth, and darkness had once more fallen upon the island of Hopeless, Maine. The church clock struck three.

A casual observer might have noticed an unearthly flickering amid the trees. But hey, this is Hopeless; what do you expect?

That same casual observer may also have spotted Durosimi O’Stoat dragging on his overcoat as he slipped through his front door. He did not bother locking it, safe in the knowledge that no one would be foolish enough to attempt to break into his home.

Miss Calder, followed by Rhys Cranham and Drury, the skeletal hound, left the shelter of the trees and hurried towards the house.

Rhys turned the door knob and said,

“Right! That’s as much as I dare do until you’re out again. He’ll smell it if I go inside. You’re on your own in there, but I’ll stay around”

Miss Calder led Drury to the bookcase, quietly praying that the dog would be able to get them through the hidden door. She need not have worried, for it took little more than a push with his bony old legs for the door to swing open. A candle had been lit in the basement, and Miss Calder entered with her usual grace and dignity, unlike Drury, who bounded noisily down the stairs, missed his footing and ended up as a pile of bones at the bottom. He staggered to his feet, shook himself and made sure that everything was where it was supposed to be.

“What the devil is that?”

“That” said Miss Calder, with some emphasis, “is Drury, and you can thank him for being the key to your freedom.”

Drury gave the ghostly witch a puzzled stare, then realised, with relief, that she was not his good friend Philomena, who was, thankfully, still in the land of the living.

Gingerly he pawed at the salt circle, disturbing a few grains. Miss Calder had told him to move a bare minimum of the salt.

He scratched away some more until there was a slim but definite means of egress from the trap.

“Now go, quickly, before he returns,” said Miss Calder.

Melusine required no second bidding. In an instant she was no more than a violet mist, gently evaporating through the wall.

With exquisite care and precision, which surprised even himself, Drury pushed the disturbed grains of salt back into place.

“It’s time that we were gone,” declared Miss Calder, and with no more ado they raced up the stairs and back to the front door, where Rhys was waiting to secure it.

“My dear Philomena,” said Durosimi “I am so glad that you asked me to meet you here this evening.”

The other patrons of The Squid and Teapot had given them a few sidelong glances, not quite believing that Philomena would be the sort to get pally with Durosimi O’Stoat.

They had been sitting and talking quietly for over two hours. Philomena stretched and yawned.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, Durosimi,” she said, “but I need to get some sleep. I’ve got a lot to do tomorrow, and if I’m having dinner with you, it will doubtless be a late night.”

Durosimi smiled, and looked at his pocket watch.

“I had quite lost track of the time, my dear. Is it really nine o’clock already?”

As if in confirmation, somewhere, in the distance, the church clock struck three.


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