"Sal, do you remember that neighbour of mine you promised that I'd be delighted to water her plants?" Detective Inspector Sergio Montini asked.
"Huh." Detective Sergeant Sally Fredericks had been too focused on her task to know instantly what this strange sentence meant. "Your neighbour?"
"Across the hall. She gave you her key." He hadn't been too happy with that, because he didn't even know what his neighbour looked like. To be given the responsibility for her key and her plants was something he didn't like, not unless he had been personally involved in coming to this arrangement. But Sally had simply told his neighbour he would be delighted.
"Oh." Sally now grinned, remembering he'd been less than pleased. But how was she to know? She had thought she was doing him a favour, busy as he'd been catering to his birthday guests. All she had done was take the key and pass on the message. "You forgot to water the plants?"
"That too," he said with a roll of his eyes. He had put the key on the shelf in the hall and promptly forgotten all about it until the evening before. "But her flat got burgled."
"Yes. That's why I was late. The locksmith came this morning."
Yesterday evening he had come home to find the neighbour's door had been forced open. Peeking in, he had seen a mess. The police had been, but the locksmith hadn't been able to come until first thing in the morning. He could, it not being his own house and not having any way of reaching the occupant, have left the door like it was, but he hadn't. He had felt some responsibility, having her key and all.
"Does she know?" Sally wondered.
"Didn't you ask her for an emergency number when you accepted the key?"
"No, sorry, didn't think of it. Don't you have it?" she asked with a shrewd look.
"No," he said curtly. He had told her he did not know his neighbour, yet for some reason she seemed to think he was lying.
"When did it happen?"
"No idea. I got home late last night. We're the only ones on the top floor, so it was any time between my leaving for work and my getting home. No other flat had been tried, even though they all have the same kind of door and lock." Sergio shook his head. "There wasn't so much as a scratch on my door. Also, I had a look in her flat and the larger valuable things still seemed to be there, as well as boxes with foreign currency."
"Strange," Sally commented, but she hadn't really been drawn in yet. "What did they do in there? And why didn't they come over to your flat? Oh hey, we were there, we know why," she laughed, winking at a third colleague.
"They searched the place. Watts made a report at my insistence, but only about the door, of course. They will not actively start an inquiry. It's just a burglary and nothing seemed to be taken."
"You couldn't even get them to look for prints?" Sally tutted.
"Suckers." Sally returned to her work.
Sergio sighed and tried to find out as much as he could about Julia Smith. She was at a conference, Sally had told him when she had given him the key, and googling a bit yielded several conferences in combination with her name. One had the right dates, this week. The subjects meant very little to him and he could hardly imagine it was a cut-throat field in which break-ins occurred to steal competitors' research findings.
He scanned the conference's website for a phone number or email address. Someone there would pass on the information. He sent an email, explaining there had been a burglary, that her lock had been fixed and that he could not see what had been taken. It was not worth flying back for, but maybe she had a family member or close friend who'd like to take a look.
That done, he picked up the files on his desk.
His neighbour phoned him during his lunch break. She asked him a surprising question. "How did you find me?"
"Google," Sergio replied.
"But then so could anyone."
The fear in her voice puzzled him. "Er, yes?"
"Were they looking for something specific or for valuable things?"
"They went through all your possessions, but they left your money, your camera, your television..." When she didn't immediately react or ask him about anything valuable she might have had, he went on. "Is there any reason why people might be after something specific? They don't usually break into houses without taking anything."
"You never know. They might be back."
He sensed she didn't want to tell him about it. "Okay, but I doubt it. They waited till you were gone, didn't they?"
"But they must have kept an eye on me."
"I suppose. But you know a simple burglar hasn't got the need to follow you abroad, so there's no need to worry."
"We're not talking simple burglars," she retorted. Then her voice changed. "But thanks anyway. I really appreciate it. I'm probably paranoid. You didn't find my itinerary online, did you?"
Her itinerary? He didn't understand. "I didn't look."
"I'll try not to worry. I'll phone you about the key when I get back and obviously I'll refund your expenses. You're usually out, aren't you? Because I never see anyone on our floor."
"I'm home sometimes, but yes, phone. I'll come over. I work nearby."
Sergio thought about it once or twice in the next two days, but he was still surprised when she called.
"This is Julia Smith. I'm at the airport. I could be home in an hour. Is that convenient?"
Google hadn't been as helpful when it came to a photo. Sergio had realised before that he had no idea what Julia Smith looked like, except for Sally's vague description that might not even be right -- something snide about her not being a bikini model. He was a little embarrassed to admit he had never seen who lived next door and he had been living there for two years or so. They had apparently always come and gone at different hours. He might have seen her downstairs in the entrance hall -- there were nine flats and he knew about ten people by sight, but any of the women could be her.
An hour later he was leaning against the railing of the stairs on the ground floor of his building. She was late and didn't show up until fifteen minutes later. Well, someone did, but considering that it was a woman with a suitcase it could hardly be anyone else. She appeared to be youngish, but the last time he had guessed someone's age she had hit him.
"Miss Smith?" he inquired nevertheless, betting on the fact that she was Miss. She didn't live with anyone and she hadn't asked him to contact a boyfriend either.
"Yes?" She looked nervous.
"I have your key." He pointed behind himself. "I'm Sergio. I live up there."
"Oh. Sorry. I thought I recognised you as someone living here, but I couldn't be sure." She hurried up the stairs, but she kept glancing back apologetically at him and fearfully at the door.
"Can I give you a hand?" he offered gallantly and he took her suitcase. For some reason she had been afraid before coming in, but she was relaxing more the higher she climbed. Upstairs he gave her her key. "I'll leave you to it."
"No!" She almost cried.
"Nobody's been in there since the lock was changed," he reassured her, but because she seemed genuinely terrified he relented. She let him go first. The flat was as he had left it when he had -- belatedly -- watered the plants. It was a mess.
"You tell me. You seemed to have an idea."
"No. I couldn't." Her eyes took in the chaos. There were papers everywhere, hand-written and printed. "All my research notes!"
Sergio took out his warrant card and waved it under her nose. "You sure you can't tell me?" To his surprise she nearly cried.
He glanced into the kitchen. Oddly enough there was nothing on the floor there. Drawers were open, but nothing had been taken out. "Strange. As if you can't hide anything in a kitchen. Could you make us some tea, or I could, and we'll sit down and you could tell me all about it."
She shook her head. "I can't."
"I can't help you if you don't." He moved towards the tea when she didn't.
"I have no proof."
But she had suspicions, he suspected. "Yet they ransack your flat -- and you think it's connected to this something you refuse to talk about."
"Well, okay." She slumped down in a chair. "I have a letter. It was written by Jane Austen."
"Who -- oh, wait. You were at a conference about it." He remembered thinking that the burglary couldn't possibly have any link to her research.
"About things to do with Austen, not my letter."
"All right. What about the letter?"
"I found it in my aunt's attic after she died. She had a whole pile of old papers. This one caught my attention because I thought I saw the name Darcy in it. You know how you really can't read those old handwritings? But I thought I could make out Darcy. You know Darcy."
Sergio had no clue who Darcy was, but he didn't want her to get started on irrelevant details.
"Anyway, then I tried to read the rest of it and thought it was signed by Jane Austen, so I let someone transcribe it for me. When I read the transcription I knew she had really written it, but that it was unusual enough to cause a fuss."
"Because..." Sergio said with little interest in all the details.
"Because it dealt with what happened after Pride and Prejudice, except that it really wasn't what had been hinted at before. Something very different."
"Something scandalous," he guessed. He hoped she would not take his answer to mean he knew anything at all about Austen, because he didn't. But logically thinking, things that caused a fuss were usually scandalous.
She looked relieved he understood. "You could say so. Most people I told wouldn't believe me. They either thought I was making it up or that the letter was a fake."
"All right. But the important thing is, would someone steal it? You seem to think so." If it was old -- when had Jane Austen lived? -- it might be worth some money.
"I haven't got anything else worth stealing. And some people have given me odd reactions about it lately."
"And who might have done this? Have you got any idea?"
"Not really. I know these people online."
"Online." Then they were freaks, all of them.
"I don't know them in the sense of knowing them. There are websites for Jane Austen fans."
"I suppose so." There were websites for everything.
Her eyes briefly travelled to the window. "Is that red car still in the street? A red car followed me home from the airport."
Sergio looked out, mentally chiding himself for doing so unobtrusively. There was no need to be cautious when there was nothing going on. "There's a red car." Through the open window of the car he saw someone, man or woman, playing with a cell phone. If it had been there when she arrived, it had been there a bit long, but it didn't have to be long enough yet to be suspicious.
However, its simply being there was not yet a problem. It would not be for him, but she wasn't a pro. "This is not some performance test, is it?" Sergio asked, his scepticism clear.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Am I being tested on this non-problem to see how I handle it? I'd think I proved myself long ago."
"Well, that's your answer then. But you think I might be a policewoman?" She was just as unbelieving now.
"You do a good job of not looking like one, so you might be."
"So if it looks like a dog and barks like a dog, why do you think it might be a cat?"
"Because it is too ridiculous for words."
"I quite agree. However, I'm not lying. There really must be a rabid Jane Austen fan after my letter."
Real fans did some crazy things now and then, Sergio conceded, but he had never heard of rabid Jane Austen fans. He went back to the facts. "But you say they operate online and they broke into your home. How would they know your name and address?"
"Someone must have told them."
"There you go," he said instantly. "Never, never give anyone on the internet your name and address. We are always warning people, but nobody ever listens to us."
"Poor you. You don't seem to allow for the possibility that you might befriend someone and that you might exchange Christmas cards."
"What the hell are Christmas cards? It's 2012."
Julia Smith shot him an annoyed look.
"But there's your answer. It was someone on your Christmas card list."
"No, I can vouch for them. I only befriend intelligent people."
He looked baffled. "What does that have to do with their not wanting to steal anything? Do you let them take IQ tests first, by the way?"
"You can tell by the way they write," Julia explained, her tone as dignified as possible. He was a barbarian, truly, but it was clear she was doing her best not to be provoked. "But the car -- it has been following me."
Sergio bit his lip. He wanted to know for sure how serious this was and so far he only had her word. He didn't know if that car was going to follow her at all unless he watched. It might simply be an innocent person waiting for someone. In fact, he was certain nobody would follow her at all if she went out, but she would never believe it unless he proved it to her. "All right. Go for a walk. I'll follow to see if anyone else follows. Let's see. Need food?"
"That's across the street. That's hardly --"
"Take the supermarket." It was around the corner and a longer walk.
"All right," she said, nervous again. "Would they know you had my key?"
"How? They probably didn't even wonder."
"What about your job? Do you have to go back today?"
"Yep. But I can miss half an hour." He glanced at his watch. "I've missed fifteen minutes so far. I'll go out first. Wait five minutes and walk to the supermarket."
He went out and crossed the street to the small grocery shop. It was never busy, but he would only buy something if it did not take too long. There was only one other customer and he did not have to wait long to pay for his batteries. He made some small talk until he saw Julia come out of their building. Then he greeted the cashier and strolled out.
A woman got out of the red car. She wasn't any good, Sergio decided. It was rather obvious that she got out to follow Julia. One person remained in the car, another woman, so Sergio took care not to be too obvious himself. He tapped the number plate into his phone and sent it to Sally.
The woman followed Julia at a short distance and then lit a cigarette outside the supermarket. Clearly she trusted there was only one exit.
Julia had not looked back once, which was good, and she hadn't seemed nervous. The thought had crossed Sergio's mind that she must be a good actress who had maybe overdone it a little trying to convince him. Well, that was the best-case scenario. He didn't know if he'd like it.
Still, she was undeniably being watched and followed. Normally people weren't. That must mean there were at least parts of her story that were true. He couldn't really imagine a whole team of people trying to trip him up by engaging him in some phony case.
"You have a tail," he said to her over the bananas. He could speak to her here. The woman hadn't come in.
"Glad you believe me now," she murmured, looking relieved and worried at the same time.
"Can you disappear for a while?"
Her eyes flashed. "I have a job. In real life you can't just take random time off."
"True." It would be hard for him too. "How about the weekend? It's Friday. They might give up if you're gone."
"Yes." But she clearly didn't believe they would give up.
He bought some fruit and went out first, but he lingered by the door to read this week's offers. The woman was still there. Sergio was tempted to ask her what this was all about, but he didn't know if that was wise. It might be better if they didn't know he was involved, his intuition told him.
He phoned Sally to ask if she had any info on the car. She did. It had been reported stolen two days ago. That was nice, if odd. Women rarely stole cars. Literary women not at all. But perhaps car thieves were simply never asked if they enjoyed literature. "It's going to be parked in my street for another while with two women in it, I think. Send a team over."
Hopefully that would remove the surveillance. It would be interesting. Some internal inquiry didn't have to steal a car first, so it was quite possible the women didn't have any credentials to wave at the team making the arrest.
He sped up and passed the woman, Julia and the car. Not much would happen now and he didn't want to be noticed entering the building. No attention would be on him if he went first. She came in alone and he got up from the stairs where he had been sitting. "They're driving a stolen car, so maybe we'll be rid of them soon."
She didn't look on the bright side of life yet. "They could be replaced."
He wanted to remain positive. "Pack a bag, look out of the window and once the thugs are carried off, you leave."
"Where do I go?"
"The police station."
She looked as if he was mad. "That's where they'll be going. I follow them into the police station?"
"Yes. A few minutes later. They won't be in the hall. You ask for me at the desk."
He walked back to work, pondering the case. How many of those rabid fans could there be? They could be replaced. But by whom?
Some fifteen minutes later, just when he was trying to explain some of it to Sally, he was informed there was a woman for him at the desk. He picked her up and put her in their department's meeting room with the crossword puzzle.
"What the heck," said Sally suspiciously. "Should George and I place bets or something?"
George gave him a meaningful shrug and wink.
"Let me guess," Sally continued. "She's afraid to sleep alone tonight?"
Sergio could now see where she was going. "Oh. I never knew I was desirable enough to inspire that kind of stuff. How kind of you to warn me."
"The chief constable's secretary persists in calling you Sexio."
"People mangle my name in all sorts of ways." He didn't know if she had a point. The chief constable's secretary flirted with everyone. Behind the chief constable's back, of course. And she didn't speak any Italian, so she might well turn his name into something she considered funny. "When do you ever speak to her?"
"We're both members of the Girls' Club, you know."
"Which is what?"
"A support group, because we have to work with so many male chauvinist pigs."
He stared at her. He had never heard of it and doubted it existed. "The chief constable's secretary loves working with men."
"In any position," Sally said under her breath.
"Oh, nothing. Why is your neighbour being watched by women in a stolen car? Is she the sweetheart of some drugs dealer, trying to get protection by giving you puppy eyes?"
"Good grief, Sally. Jealous?" This hadn't occurred to him before, but it might make sense.
She said nothing and he went to ask Julia for names he could look up. She could only give him a few names, which might even be pseudonyms. He might be able to find something, though.
Sergio then went to find out who had picked up the women from the red car. They were no longer in custody. Innocent tourists. "What?" he bellowed. They had been driving a stolen car and they were released?
"Of course. Those ladies couldn't have stolen a car. They were victims of some scam. Middle-aged American ladies, they were. Friendly, but not too knowledgeable about much in the first place. They rented a car from nice English gentlemen at the airport who gave them a good price."
"The Prime Minister wouldn't want transatlantic relations to be jeopardised by our arresting innocent tourists after we duped them first."
"The Prime Minister was here, was he?" Sergio inquired. There was no answer and he let out some expletives. He did not know whether to feel foolish or angry.
Julia, however, perked up when he mentioned American women. "That proves me right. They came over for the letter. Many of them are Americans."
"Well," he sighed. "They're out there again. Doubt they'd kill you, though. Innocent middle-aged tourists, they were."
"They want my letter," Julia maintained stubbornly.
"Give them a photocopy."
She shook her head. "They want to get rid of the original. It defiles Jane's memory."
"You say she wrote it."
"She did, but it does not fit their image of her, so they deny it. There's a professor who's published regularly about Austen's early work. He agreed with me that she really did write it."
"So he wants it."
Julia looked shocked. "No, he has it. I gave it to him before I left."
"Well, whatever. Go home. Tell the ladies the professor has it. Nobody is following you, only some lost tourists consulting a map." They had looked suspicious to him, but he did not say so. His neighbour had simply tried so hard to get him in a suspicious frame of mind that she had succeeded. He had allowed himself to be influenced. That was all.
"Right. Thanks for your help anyway."
Sergio watched her leave. Somehow she was not convinced there was nothing sinister going on. If people could be that paranoid, there might even be Jane Austen fans breaking into people's houses. He finished up his work and went home.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," said Julia after she had rung his doorbell. "But the car is there again and I phoned Leo Cooper, the professor."
"Are you sure it's the same car?" Women could not always tell one car from another. In fact, he would be surprised if he encountered one who could. "Except that it's blue and not red, and it's a Volvo and not a Renault." It would probably have stayed behind at the police station anyway, so it could never be the same car.
"You really are --" She swallowed the insult politely.
"Thanks." He was not sure whether to let her in, so he left that up to her and walked to the window. He chided himself for his guarded steps.
"Well," said her voice behind him. "It's the same women, isn't it?"
He groaned. "You said the same car." One of the women got out of the car. Yes, it was the same woman. He did not know what that meant and he tried to come up with an innocent reason for them to be here again. They were still lost and consulting maps on their phones.
"I phoned Leo Cooper, but I couldn't get him on the line."
"They've already got to him," Sergio suggested darkly.
She took him seriously. "That's what I fear."
"For heaven's sake, woman! Just how many of those deranged fans are running around?"
Julia raised her chin. "If you want to know, come with me."
"No, no, no."
"Well, if they kill me, you are to blame."
He could spend his weekend running from middle-aged women or he could spend it alone. He was sure they were no match for him, though it would probably not come to any real fun. And neither Julia nor the professor would get killed, but if he was there he would at least have the satisfaction of pointing this out to her.
"Where does this Leo Cooper live?" he heard himself ask. He could always leave Julia there and go home. In fact, that sounded like a really good plan. The sooner he had extricated himself from this vague case the better. Of course he could just send her home, but he couldn't bring himself to do that. The strange women would have stolen another car and be in place again. Or maybe some of their friends. And if Julia was just across the hall she would continue to bother him about it.
So he would have to pack a bag. Wait, no. He wouldn't need a bag, because he was coming home to sleep in his own bed and then it would all be over. The only one making trouble about it Monday would be Sally. Sally. He had no idea what she was on about and he had never detected any sort of particular liking for him. But then, he had never looked for it either.
Julia answered. "He's camped out at a holiday park to work on a paper, says his wife. I was the second person to inquire."
"Let me guess, the first was American?"
"How clever of you."
"Where's the holiday park and did Cooper's wife tell the first caller where it was?"
"A real fan would know, she said. That's what she told them."
"I'm not a real fan. I'm not even an unreal fan. I'm not a fan at all."
"Lyme Hill. Bad things happened at Lyme," Julia said ominously. "Though the CWAP people won't have read Persuasion."
"Translate?" He couldn't make sense of that sentence.
"Read the book. They won't have read that book. It doesn't have Mr Darcy in it."
"Which book? And who's Mr Darcy? And what does this have to do with that holiday park?"
"Never mind. I know where it is."
"Because you're a real fan." He nodded. She was crazy too.
"I'm not a fan, I'm a scholar. And it's the only holiday park I know of, actually, so it's a coincidence."
"And you call fans crap people."
"CWAP people," Julia corrected. "I can't help that they belong to the Circle of Worldwide Austen Purists. Mrs Cooper didn't give them the location. She didn't want her husband to be disturbed."
"By disturbed people."
He took Julia to his car through the back door. It was out of a sense of duty, he supposed, that he was helping. Or maybe trying to evade spies was slightly more exciting than spending the evening at home. He had set a timer on her lights. By the time the watchers caught on to the fact that there was no one in her flat, they would have finished talking to Cooper. It hadn't been necessary, but it had made him feel clever.
"What is it you do exactly?" he asked to make conversation as they drove away. He kept an eye on his mirrors, but nobody seemed to be following them. This made him proud of his manoeuvres.
"I work at the university."
"I figured as much from the hobbyist nature of your conference speech."
"I'm sorry?" she asked.
"I couldn't make much sense of what exactly your field was -- or your subject."
"So it's hobbyist."
"Yeah. It's not?" He grinned. It had seemed to him that it didn't require much knowledge to follow her speech.
"Okay." The point still stood.
"I take it you don't read."
"The newspaper? Work stuff?" He read enough and he shrugged.
"Literature is work stuff for me."
"At the conference I discussed whether Mr Darcy was shy or proud."
"Who is Mr Darcy?" Sergio wondered. Somewhere at the back of his mind the name sounded familiar. He was sure the man had been on television, because he had read about it once. What could men appear in if their name alone defined the book or series? "He's not a detective, is he? They're usually not Mr Somebody."
"Are you pulling my leg?" Julia asked after a few moments of stunned silence. "You think Mr Darcy might be a detective?"
"Why not? Is there anything wrong with detectives?" Sergio was willing to defend them, seriously or not.
"They're rarely literary."
"Because they actually do something, as opposed to literary figures who only talk. Yes." He was being more of a literary figure right now than a detective, he reflected as he remembered that he was supposed to keep an eye out for cars following them and he focused on that. There were still none. "Are you insulted?"
"No, I'm just really surprised. Have you really never heard of Pride and Prejudice?" Julia sounded incredulous.
"Oh, I might have, but I know for sure that I've never read it." He didn't want to search his memory, really.
"Doesn't your mother own a copy?"
"My parents own a pizzeria. They don't have time to read old books." And he had never had time or inclination to study what kind of books his parents had on their shelves anyway. "And why should my mother have read that book just because you have?" He disliked those types of people immensely. Everyone should appreciate what they did, and only what they appreciated was of any quality.
"A pizzeria? Why aren't you working in the pizzeria?"
"I don't like pizzas."
"You're the youngest son."
He was surprised. "How do you know?"
"Because you're not working in a pizzeria."
"That's a brilliant deduction. I can see why you became a scholar. Maybe you should have tried becoming a detective."
"Next you will tell me that your childhood reading consisted of pizza menus."
"It did, actually," he lied cheerfully.
"I don't believe you."
"Suit yourself. So how do you know all about those people online if you don't belong to them?"
"How do you know all about people you don't belong to?" she countered.
He didn't reply.
"Well, I was doing some research once when I discovered there were people writing stories with Austen's characters on the internet. Some stories were fairly good, so I stayed around and joined a community to read. It was a public forum, so most people were normal."
Sergio gave her a sideways glance. "A public forum were most people are normal?"
"Yes. After a while I came to know more about everyone. Most people really were normal, apart from the odd troll. And I found out that there were invitation-only websites where either more adult stories were posted or stories written by special people."
"Yes, there were a lot of -- how do you put it? -- schoolgirl power games going on. You know, you can play me with, you cannot. Being in control of handing out passwords brings out the worst in some women." Julia sighed. "That's all pretty innocent, though. I don't think they would do any real harm. Not to me, anyway. But I gather there was a small group of women who didn't like all the strange turns the stories were taking, because none of it was in the book. The literalists. They call themselves purists, feeling it their responsibility to keep Austen pure, or whatever they think. They also know, or think they know, exactly what's in the book -- mainly Pride and Prejudice -- and whenever someone has a question, they instantly refer to quotes from the book. Half of the time they misinterpret the quotes, by the way. Usually fail to see sarcasm and double meanings, because they take everything so very literally."
He still thought she knew far too much about strange people. "Hmm. And those are the ones..."
"I think so. They have a restricted website as well. Oh, by the way, you can belong to more than one community; that's obviously how tales get around. They're not completely separate communities and websites. You can want to be a purist and still like to read about Mr Darcy going at it six times a day, because clearly the book implied that he was passionate -- according to them."
"Six times a day? He must not have a job."
"I think that is his job. Or so one group thinks."
"I'm not sure I could distinguish one group of lunatics from the other anyway."
"I'll do that for you."
"And you like that, do you, reading about him doing that?"
"No," she said patiently. "It doesn't float my boat. I also haven't got the time to join all these communities. So, the purists, whose community is called CWAP, have an informal leader of sorts: Elizabeth D'Arcy. D apostrophe A. If you take that for a nickname you're pretty far gone, even though she comes up with her faked genealogical research unprompted all the time to prove that it's her real name. Elizabeth is all about research, you see. Talking about research, I mean, and knowing it all."
Sergio liked facts. This name might be a lead. "So she's behind all this?"
"She must be. I can't think of anyone else crazy enough."
"But she's not alone." There were at least two women -- and Julia believed there were even more.
"Yes, that makes the least sense to me, but if you've ever dealt with such people you'd know they always have followers, who for some mysterious reason are completely and uncritically on their side. Elizabeth is also a published author. Some people think that means she's very good, so they want to read her and then they're gratified she responds, and then they're in her pocket. But she's actually self-published, which everyone can do. That is -- how do I explain that in uncultured terms?"
"Yes, how do you? Preferably including references to pizzas -- or perhaps football."
Julia wisely refrained. She coloured a little.
"But back to the letter. This Elizabeth thinks she should have the letter?"
"I don't know what she wants, really. At first, she told me very confidently that it was a fake, because no one by the name of its recipient was ever mentioned in Jane Austen's correspondence that survived. As if, you know," she said with a helpless shrug. "Most people were interested and curious, not more, but Elizabeth remained insistent to everyone who tried to activate her common sense. She became obsessed. I hadn't actually revealed what was in the letter, so she insisted on being told what was in it. Because...?"
"Because you should have informed her instantly anyway."
"I suppose. I back off in such cases and I didn't reply. I heard from a part-time purist how Elizabeth had gone berserk on her own website, but my acquaintance was later banned for being slightly critical, so I had no more inside information."
"But did she threaten you?"
"Not directly and not personally, but I heard some worrisome things from my friend the part-time purist before she was banned."
It dazzled Sergio. "So a part-time purist wouldn't pursue you? Not even part-time?"
"No, she'd think that ridiculous. Besides, the part-time purist is in Australia and a ticket is too expensive."
"Maybe she was spying for the full-time purists. Assuming you were not a member of that site, you have no way of knowing if she was really banned. She might have lied to you to invoke your sympathy."
"Don't get carried away now." But Julia looked doubtful now, evidently reviewing her acquaintance with the part-time purist.
Approaching the reception of the holiday park, they saw two women waiting to make inquiries at the desk. "Women are suspect," said Sergio. "Women with white trainers most of all, because they are tourists. Let's find your prof before they kill him."
Julia took him seriously. "Would they?"
He no longer knew, but he preferred to mock. "Check inhabited cottages. We can no longer ask at reception now and beat them to it."
There were not many inhabited cottages out of season. At the end of a lane Julia spotted an erudite bumper sticker. "Check here." It was no use explaining why to Sergio. She glanced over her shoulder. The two women were not yet in sight. Perhaps they would not be given the cottage number anyway. She walked around the cottage and knocked on the window.
It was opened by a man in his fifties. His annoyance changed to surprise. "Julia?"
"Professor Cooper, we've got a problem."
"We need to hide before the Jane Austen Death Squad gets to you," Sergio cut in, waving his warrant card. "That letter, can you get it very quickly?" He trusted that professors were quick on the uptake.
The man hesitated, but answered after he had looked at Julia. "Okay." He grabbed something off the table and stepped outside. "You appear to be serious. Let's go and visit my neighbour."
Sergio followed him to the next cottage, but Julia was slow. When he turned to see what she was doing, he saw she closed the terrace door behind her. Cooper had the key to the adjacent cottage and let them in.
"They're not home?" Sergio wondered as Julia closed this door behind her as well.
Sergio slumped on the couch as if he belonged there. Julia lingered nervously by the window that had a view of the cottage next door.
"So what's the matter?" asked Cooper as he got them a drink.
"People are after my letter," she explained. She finally sat down.
"This Jane Austen Death Squad you mentioned?" Cooper had a good memory even for things he didn't understand.
"That was a joke," Sergio explained. "I hope. I'm not sure why anyone would be after a letter."
Professor Cooper set some drinks on the table. "I know my neighbours well," he said by way of explanation. "They won't mind, if they notice at all. Do you mean Jane Austen fanatics want your letter?"
"I never knew there was such a phenomenon as Jane Austen fanatics," Sergio commented.
"And you are?"
"Not a Jane Austen fanatic."
"In real life, I meant."
"I'm a policeman. But I am here as her neighbour. Appealing to my sense of justice is very manipulative. So what about this letter?"
"There are fanatics in any field," said Cooper. "I've read Austen's work and I'd say the letter is genuine, but I don't think it was ever meant to be made public. She parodied herself."
"Why do people want it? Why can't they accept the parody?"
"I'd expected people to contest its authenticity, but not this. Are you sure?" Cooper asked Julia. "How far are they prepared to go? Is it money?"
"How did they find me?"
While she launched into an explanation, Sergio took up the letter. It was framed behind a glass plate and he could not read the old-fashioned handwriting at all, On the back, however, someone had stuck a transcription. He read it attentively. It contained a name he had recently heard, Mr Darcy, but he could not see why this was important. It was just like a contemporary soap in which Mr Darcy and others got up to all kinds of stuff. "Sounds like Eastenders," he commented.
Julia gave him a dirtyish look. He supposed he was being uncultured again and he grinned.
She got up to look out of the kitchen window. After a while she stiffened. "Two women are checking the cottage next door."
"Duck," said Sergio, putting his feet on the coffee table. "Or be natural. We'll be next."
"So what now?" Julia inquired. She had established five minutes before that the two women had left. They could be prowling the park and return soon, having seen that Cooper was clearly at work by glancing through the windows. She did not know what to do. "Your girlfriend must be waiting for you."
"She doesn't mind? I thought she didn't really like my asking her to water my plants, as if she didn't want you to have anything to do with other women."
"That was my colleague." He frowned. He wouldn't like it if Sally had acted like his girlfriend.
"Oh. But do you have another girlfriend? Or wife?"
"I usually refuse to divulge my status. Whether I have a girlfriend or not, I'd like to go home. The two of you can sort this out, right?" He glanced from Julia to Leo Cooper.
Julia was intrigued. "Why do you usually refuse? You have a boyfriend? Why is that a problem?"
He did not have a boyfriend, but any emphatic denial would be suspected. "Believe what you want. I'm going."
"Whoa, whoa," said Professor Cooper. "I still need to finish my paper. I'm always willing to help a friend, but I don't see how I could. If you took the letter home, I could always tell everyone I don't have it -- with or without the help of my cricket bat."
"I think you'll be safe without the letter," said Sergio. "Just tell them they're absolutely right and that you really can't believe Mr Darcy would get up to all that."
"Actually it was the Colonel."
He did not recall the exact contents of the letter. Most of the names hadn't rung any bells anyway. "Aren't they one and the same?" It could be one and the same -- it was a question of style to vary the man's appellation.
"No, no. They both get up to things."
"With the same women?"
This made Professor Cooper laugh, but Julia glared.
"Be careful," said Sergio. "Don't place it on a pedestal, or you'll be as crazy as those women."
"I know, I know, I know. I'm not. I'm not offended by your likening it to Eastenders, but you're mocking me, I know, because you think I think you don't read any books."
Professor Cooper leant back, as if a good show was about to begin.
"I told you I don't read any books, so I'm not surprised you think it, because I told you."
"I'm sure you read books. You're just mocking me. You're mocking the superiority that some readers sometimes exude."
"I'd love to mock that, but I don't think I'm educated enough."
"You don't write parking tickets."
"It might be my day off."
"Oh, shut up."
"Young man," Professor Cooper said in a mild tone. "I'm sorry I didn't catch your name earlier, but I think it's quite safe to take Julia home. Don't worry about me. I have a cricket bat. And my neighbours on the other side are some very strong young men from Poland. One shout from me and they'll come running, because there's no other entertainment on this park, as you see."
"I'm glad I can go."
Julia had made up her mind. "Drop me off at a shopping centre, please. I'll get some things and find a hotel."
"Alone?" He was surprised. Was he no longer needed?
"You're free to join me, but I doubt you will. I'll manage."
"I'll go home."
Sergio thought it a perfect plan. His involvement would end here.
"But could you take the letter with you? I'd feel better without it."
"Oh no." He didn't want to be involved.
"What am I to do if they ask me if I have it?"
"Why should they?"
Sergio had no idea, but stranger things had happened. If they found Julia gone, someone might think of approaching a neighbour, if only to ask where she might be. "Yes, why should they ask me? They'll likely kill instantly." He believed he could handle it, but she should not be letting him do her work. It wasn't fair.
"If you want to avoid that, you should come with me," said Julia. "I need to work on a plan in a safe place, though."
"A plan? I thought you were terrified." And if she had a plan it would probably mean he had to take action, not she.
"I'm not exactly relaxed, but this will never end unless I do something."
"They will have to fly home some day. They don't have endless resources." Their leader might go through great lengths, but not her followers. Time and money would run out. They would only go so far to support Elizabeth D'Arcy -- or Jane Austen, or whatever they believed they were doing.
"Maybe if you spoke to them in breeches," Julia said appraisingly. "In period costume."
"Because they're silly, of course. You could pretend to be Darcy."
"I think that would be brilliantly convincing."
"Don't worry. Darcy rarely speaks. You will not have to come up with old-fashioned witticisms. He glares. You can do that."
He supposed he could, theoretically. In reality, of course, he would never get into breeches, whatever they were. "But what would he say to scare them off? I assume he must tell them something."
"Don't know yet."
"Right." There again she was trying to make him do her work. "I'm glad you don't have breeches in your closet."
"You can rent them. I rented a gown for a regency wedding last year. Obviously they also have outfits for men."
"Oh no." He pitied those men, because he couldn't imagine any man would want to have a regency wedding, or even attend one. They would be dragged along to such a shop and be forced to wear something stupid.
"Here's a shopping centre," she noticed suddenly. "I need to buy a toothbrush. Please drop me off."
"Are you coming?" She was surprised.
He hadn't really decided yet, but he supposed he was. "I might as well. You're bound to pick the same hotel as your enemies and then you'd ring me anyway."
"If that happened, I might," she agreed. "But all right, what do you need?"
"Overnight things and clean underwear would be nice."
He let Julia sort out the overnight things and the hotel. He didn't complain when she chose a modestly-priced chain, although he was tempted to say it increased their chances of running into Jane Austen fans indeed. There were dowdy middle-aged couples in the car park, like the type he imagined would read her works.
"Sorry, I've booked us a double," Julia said when she came back from the desk. "I'm not rich, you know. Two singles would be more expensive and I feel I must pay because I'm making you come along."
"No problem," he lied. Again, if she was in another room she would call and come over. It was late and he was hungry. He would not care about the room for the moment. "How about something to eat?"
First they dropped off their meagre possessions off in the room -- which unfortunately for Sergio did not have twin beds -- and then they walked out to find a place to dine. There was a pizzeria, but Julia didn't dare to suggest it. They ate somewhere else instead.
Just when Julia had ordered a dish, her mobile phone rang. It was Leo Cooper. "Say," he said, "what would your boyfriend like me to do with these two women I caught with the help of Pawel and Jerzy?" Someone spoke in the background. "Oh, and Przemyslaw and Wlodimierz. But you hadn't introduced yourself yet, so I'm sorry I didn't mention you. We're quite a crowd here, Julia, but we caught those two women. They're not attractive enough to be soliciting -- in fact, they look like Jerzy's mother-in-law, he says -- but they refuse to say what they're doing there instead. We've tied them up."
Julia's eyes bulged. She had wanted to say that Sergio wasn't her boyfriend, but what Professor Cooper had said after that had made her forget. "You've tied them up," she repeated disbelievingly.
"Yes, the boys are all for a little torture, but I'm not sure."
"No, no!" She clasped her hand to her mouth and looked across the table. "They've caught the women. They've tied them up."
"Professor Cooper and some men."
"They've tied them up?" Sergio asked.
"Oh, he now says not literally, but they're surrounded by Polish construction workers. They've nowhere to go."
"It's not wise," Sergio muttered. "They might be accused of...things."
"I thought you had a paper to finish," Julia said to Professor Cooper.
"It shouldn't take long to question these two. They look afraid. I don't think they came to kill me. I'm sure they wouldn't know how."
"Should we come back?"
"Not necessary, I think. I'll let you know what they say."
Julia put away her phone after she had warned them not to do anything stupid. "We wait, I suppose. They probably wouldn't say more if two extra people showed up."
"I might be more tactful than construction workers," said Sergio, "but I don't think I want to be involved to such an extent." He would be happy to leave the interrogating to Professor Cooper and his Polish neighbours.
"Clearly they're daft. Why should tact work?" Julia asked with a shrug. "But if after dinner they still haven't talked, we might have to go over. I'd like to know how many of them flew over. And where Elizabeth D'Arcy is, of course."
"Maybe she's one of them. If she believed Cooper had the letter she might have wanted to steal it herself. I don't know if she trusts her minions well enough to leave such a task to them -- they might keep the letter to themselves, after all, and then she'd still have nothing."
Julia nodded. "Hopefully."
They had intended to make plans over dinner, but that had to be put on hold while they waited for developments. Sergio didn't know what to do about the hotel. Would it still be necessary if they caught two suspects? Quite possibly the threat was removed. Julia could easily stay alone in that case. But he had the car, he pondered. Then again, there would be buses even on a Sunday.
Professor Cooper called half an hour later. "The ladies were Canadian and --"
"Canadian?" Julia cut in. "Are you sure? Canadians are always harmless."
"Well, they certainly promised to be harmless from now on. They really didn't know very much, I think. They were here to find a letter. If they had it, they were to contact someone by email and set up a meeting to hand over the letter. They know of at least six other women on the same mission."
"Six!" Julia gasped. Although she had always thought there were more, it was still a shock.
"I asked them who had set it all up and they were embarrassed to admit they knew very little about that woman and what she intended to do with the letter. When they were forced actually to think about it, they realised the woman's motives were incomprehensible. Well, one of them, the brighter of the two, quickly grew embarrassed and that persuaded the other."
"Okay." She let it all sink in. "So they were to email someone if they had the letter?"
Sergio could only hear her side. "Email who? Address?"
"Do you have an address?"
"Yes," Professor Cooper replied. "I thought you might like to set up a meeting yourself. I've got all these data for you. But, you know, it might not be a woman. It might be a man."
"A man?" Sergio echoed.
"Shut up," Julia told him. "I'll summarise it later, all right?"
"People meeting over the internet aren't always who they say they are, so if you agreed to meet a woman, it might actually be a man," Cooper explained.
"I think she's lying about her name, not her sex. But I won't go alone."
"Oh," said Sergio. "You taking those Poles then?"
"Sh-" But then Julia decided against responding to him. She fished in her bag for a pen. "Right. Give me the email address."
She wrote down more than simply an address and Sergio tried to read it, but she would not let him. He felt miffed. He was here to help; he was not her servant. The conversation took another while and finally Julia thanked Professor Cooper and hung up.
"Right," she said, staring at the piece of paper. "We've got the address to email to."
"But won't she know it's not coming from those two women if it's you sending it?"
"Professor Cooper is a professor; he isn't stupid. He also asked them which email address they'd be sending from and it was a nice little hotmail made especially for the mission, so he got the password. We can use it."
"And use Canadian spelling."
She rolled her eyes. "Yes, whatever. We'll have to see if the hotel has a computer."
He knew. "It does. It's in the lobby. I looked around while you were at the reception desk. I think from the general look of the hotel guests, they will all be in bed by the time we get back to the hotel, so we'll have the computer to ourselves. Er, you will have it to yourself."
Sergio had been right. The computer in the lobby was free. Julia sat down and checked if she could use it without entering a code. Apparently she could, because she started clicking and then she gasped. "They are here!"
"Who are?" Sergio hadn't been sure why he was hanging around, but now he turned.
"The women! They checked that site from this computer! Look, it's here in the history."
He looked. "I knew that this was that sort of hotel."
Julia looked around furtively as if she expected them to turn up any moment. "What now?"
"They'll be in bed. There's no one around except the receptionist."
"But what do we do?"
"We spot them in the breakfast room tomorrow. Send that email first. I'll keep an eye out." But he did not think they would appear. They were in bed, as he had already said. It was past the bedtime of dowdy women.
"Right." Her hands trembled as she went to hotmail. "Yes. We got in. The Canadians spoke the truth. Look, there's an email from Elizabeth D'Arcy in their inbox."
"What does it say?"
"Patient." She clicked and read. "Elizabeth is asking them if they have any news."
"Great, now you can email back that you do."
"How do I phrase it?"
"Isn't writing papers your job?" he replied, but he pushed her aside so he could have half the chair. "Easy. We have the letter! Meet us...and then some place. Could be here."
"But if she's here, aren't we supposed to know she's here?"
He thought about it. "Wouldn't she take something classier, something more befitting her aristocratic name? No, she wouldn't be here." The hotel was not grand or stately enough. He typed on and finished the message. "Tomorrow at eleven. That should give us enough time to prepare something."
She looked alarmed. "Not a whole lot."
"Not if you plan to get up at ten, but you won't."
"Please, not at six."
"Yeah, well, we do need to stake out the breakfast room." Did they, he asked himself as he spoke, but he supposed she would want to know who the other women in the hotel were.
"No, but before you've showered and dressed and all that it will be later. Let's get some sleep."
"But what..." asked Julia as she followed. "What are we going to do tomorrow?"
"We get up, we drink some coffee, we make plans."
"But what are those plans?"
"We tell her she's an idiot."
"And that will help?"
He did not reply until after he had opened the door with his key card. There had been other people around. "If we are convincing enough."
"I'm not sure that type will let herself be convinced. Idiots never know they are idiots, do they?"
Sergio kicked off his shoes and began to unbutton his shirt. "We won't know until we try. Don't worry about it now. Which side of the bed do you want?"
Julia watched as he removed his shirt. "Um..."
"You don't mind. Okay." He moved into the bathroom. In truth, he was not sure it would work to tell a crazy woman she was crazy, but he didn't have a better idea yet. They could also tie her to a chair until she promised to fly back to her home country, but he didn't think he should get involved in something like that as a policeman.
First he would have to resolve the sleeping situation. He needed to get some sleep, or else he wouldn't be able to think of anything brilliant tomorrow, but it would be difficult with someone else in the room. In the bed, even.
"So why aren't you open about your status?" Julia inquired as she barged into the bathroom.
Sergio was just brushing his teeth. "You know, I might be peeing."
"I listened; you weren't."
There was nothing he could say to that. And he hadn't locked the door, when he should have.
"So? Because women always try to...well, do something about it." As soon as he told them they became all sympathetic and wanted to be of help. He didn't need any help.
Julia took her toothbrush, but could not start using it yet. She still had questions to ask. "Why would they?"
"I don't know, but that's why I'd rather not say anything."
"This is 2012."
"And in 2012 it's still unacceptable for a man to be single."
"A single man must be in want of a wife," Julia quoted. "That's from Pride and Prejudice, in case you didn't know."
"Really? Well, most women still live in that age then. Nothing's changed."
"Ah. Is it the single bit or the wife bit that grates?"
"What's your take on it? Are you looking for a husband or would you prefer to stay single? Or, should I, because you're single, conclude that you're gay?"
"I simply don't meet any men," she said with a shrug. "Not at work and I do what's probably the last single-sex sport in the world."
"Synchronised swimming." This earned her a stare and it annoyed her. So many people thought it silly, but they had no idea how much work it was. "What?"
Julia began to brush her teeth. When she finished in the bathroom, she found Sergio watching TV from the bed. It was rather strange to share a bed, but she would get as little sleep at home, what with Elizabeth D'Arcy or her minions still on the prowl. She would constantly imagine them breaking into her flat.
"I thought I'd get the side closest to the door," Sergio remarked. "Since you undoubtedly fear they will murder us in our sleep."
"Actually I don't, since they don't know we're here."
"Ah, don't they? They seemed to know a lot of things that we didn't knew they knew."
"But you're prepared to get killed first. That's so kind."
Sergio indeed wondered why he was so kind. There must be more to this than mere gallantry. His neighbour was quite attractive, he supposed, which must explain a bit.
"What do women always try to do?" Julia still hadn't really got an answer.
"What do you think?"
"Try to get you into bed? I have to say that was quite easy."
He snorted. "You call that easy? Inventing murderous internet freaks just to get me into bed?"
"It's original, you have to admit. But seriously, is that what they try to do? Get you into bed?"
She looked all scandalously shocked and Sergio wondered if she was younger than she looked. "No, they jump to conclusions and based on those conclusions, they assume that certain actions are in order."
"I like vague."
"No, you like facts. You told me."
"Yes, which is why I don't like people jumping to conclusions about me."
"What sort of conclusions do they draw? You still haven't said."
"Is it really necessary to know?" And was it really necessary to keep it from her? He didn't know, but it was a nice game.
"Well, we're in bed together. It might be nice to know what -- or what not -- I could expect."
"Oh, snoring and the like? I don't think I snore. Do you?"
"You're -- bah."
The alarm went off at six o'clock. It wouldn't have been Julia's choice to set it so early, but she'd had little influence. After having lain awake a little uncomfortably for an hour, she had fallen asleep and slept undisturbed until now.
"You can have the shower first," said Sergio. "Wake me when you're done."
"What?" she exploded. "No way are you going back to sleep. You set the alarm for six -- you get up." It was not fair. She would never fall asleep again if he went first.
"Fine, we'll shower together."
"What?" But that sounded uncertain.
"Remember those women. If I was asleep they could sneak into the bathroom and murder you. And into the room if I was in the bathroom." She was silly enough to believe that and he grinned.
It was 6.37 when they made it into the breakfast room, seven minutes after the room had officially opened. Not many people would have managed to come and go in that time. In fact, not many people had managed to come in the first place. Only one man was there already. He had just carried coffee to his table and was now standing by the buffet.
But men were safe.
"This is a good spot," Sergio decided, picking a table from where they could see the door and the buffet. "Go slowly. We don't need to be finished at seven when they might be coming in at 9.15."
"I'd never have thought of that," Julia said sarcastically. She strolled over to the coffee and slowly poured herself a cup. Since Sergio remained seated she wondered if he expected her to bring a cup for him as well, or if he'd think that went too fast. "I didn't know if you wanted one," she said when she returned.
"No, I hadn't said," he agreed. "I'll get one myself and get the newspaper too." He'd seen a pile on a reading table near the entrance.
"Two separate trips," she advised.
"What would that man think?"
"Probably that you're keen to get away from me as often as you can," she shrugged. "Would anyone be thinking very clearly this early?"
"I always get up this early," he revealed. "I don't think I have problems thinking."
"What time do you usually leave home? I never see you."
"Around eight." He got up and fetched a newspaper and a cup of coffee on the same trip. It just wasn't possible to move so inefficiently.
Julia tried to read his paper upside down before it occurred to her that she could get something to read herself. She froze when she heard middle-aged female chatter in the lobby and someone mentioned something that sounded a suspicious lot like Bingley.
"See, I do read," Sergio remembered to tell her when she returned to the table. "I'm not illiterate. Not that you cared when you showered with me. Your principles are paper-thin."
Julia did at that moment not care about anyone's principles. "Someone spoke of Bingley in the lobby!" she whispered, her eyes wide. "It's possible that I misheard, of course, but I don't think so."
He frowned. "Bingley? What, who or where is Bingley?"
"He's in Pride and Prejudice!"
All they had on their table was coffee and the newspaper. "And we don't have a knife yet to defend ourselves. Bugger."
"It must be them!" She bit her knuckles. "I can't remember if they sounded American or not."
"Their accent is irrelevant anyhow. Stay here." He walked to the buffet and nearly ran into two unattractive middle-aged women just coming into the room. "Good morning," he said politely, even if Julia would probably kill him for drawing the enemy's attention to himself.
They were all smiles and politeness for such a handsome young man. It made him wonder if there was really some sense to Julia's ridiculous notion of dressing him in period costume. They might faint on the spot or do silly dances if he asked.
"They're in my pocket," he smirked to Julia when he sat down again. Undoubtedly she had noticed, but he wanted to say it all the same.
"It's 6.45. Are you going to try this with every middle-aged woman who comes in between now and 9.30?" she asked warily. "Does your ego really need stroking so much?"
"You told me they mentioned Binky."
"Someone in the lobby, which might not translate precisely to these two."
"Jealous," he decided. "You don't like my being polite to other women."
"Well, frankly, you keep talking about keeping women at arm's length and then in the space of an hour you make a move on one and flirt with two others," she complained. "Excuse me for not being able to make sense of it."
"Well, if that was a move..." His eyes widened. "Oh well, I'll need to think about it, but I've been assuming you made the move, if it was one."
"Yes, you said I had to get up and thus you practically ordered me into the shower because there is nothing else to do in a hotel room at six in the morning."
Julia looked a little perturbed by this reasoning, but she shook her head. "We can't go into that now. Is it them?"
"I could go over to ask if they could recommend any books I could buy for your birthday," he suggested. "They'd surely recommend the one."
Julia considered the idea of Sergio going over to ask the women what they'd recommend for her birthday. If they said Pride and Prejudice, it was them. Well, two of them. There might be more. "Right," she said. "But then what?"
"I could engage them in a discussion about it."
"Right. You know next to nothing about it."
That was an advantage, he believed, because then they'd be inclined to say more. "Precisely. The only problem would be you sitting here alone."
"Surely...er...those women would realise that I wouldn't actually think them any competition?" She was not likely to be offended.
"Yes, but it's just not done to abandon you, is it? Unless you were reading the newspaper or something."
"All right." She pulled the newspaper to her side of the table and started reading. It was difficult to concentrate -- she was sneaking glances at Sergio and also thinking she hadn't even picked up any breakfast yet, only coffee.
Sergio walked over to the two women. "Excuse me," he said. "I wonder if you could help me."
"We'll do our best," one promised with a bright smile.
"You see, I need some ideas on what to buy for my...er...girlfriend. She'd like a book, but I'm not sure where to start. A romantic sort of book, but she likes historic stuff too. I need some titles, because later when she's going shoe shopping," he improvised, "I'll have about fifteen minutes to find a book."
"Fifteen minutes? During shoe shopping?" the other woman asked incredulously. "Oh honey, this is your first girlfriend, huh?"
"More?" he ventured. "And no, it's not my first girlfriend," he stressed, before they'd give him advice about women and girlfriends in particular. He didn't need any. "I've just never been along on any shoe shopping expeditions."
"Sure, you'll have lots of time. She's not going to be ready in fifteen minutes. There's one book I absolutely love, but it's so great that I'm sure she's read it."
"P and P," said the other woman. "Really. Theb would say the same. Oops! I mean Beth. It's hard to switch to IRL."
"Yeah," Beth nodded. "Definitely. Would she really like a book or a DVD? Suppose she's already read the book, you might be better off giving a DVD. You'd know if she has the DVD already, because she will have made you watch it."
"Well, in that case, she doesn't have it. But what is P and P?" Sergio didn't really have to feign confusion; they really did speak funnily.
"Pride and Prejudice," Beth said, full of reverence. "But pay attention, because there are several different versions of it."
"P and P 0, P and P 1, P and P 2, P and P 3," the other woman rattled off. "It's 2 you want."
"Okay, two." Sergio wished he had a pen, so he could appear to be taking this very seriously. No man would be able to remember this. "Is that its official title?"
"No, it's Pride and Prejudice. They're all called that."
And he was in a farce. Someone would come up to him shortly and tell him he'd been made the butt of a joke.
"You have to check who's playing Mr Darcy; that's what's important."
"Why?" It honestly mystified him.
"Because!" Beth and her companion couldn't explain something so obvious.
"Okay, and who's playing Mr Darcy?"
He patted his pockets as if in search for a pen. He wasn't pretending; there really was no way he would still remember that name when he got back to Julia's table.
One of the women immediately got a pen from her shoulder bag. She even had a notebook that was half full and she tore out a page to write down the details he absolutely should remember. P&P2, Colin Firth.
"Thanks," he replied. "He's hot, is he?"
This made him a little sick. It was best not to probe any further. "Are there any hot women in it? You said she'd make me watch."
They had no idea, because they looked at a loss. "You'd be doing that for your girlfriend, not for hot women."
"Oh. What's it about anyway?"
Ten minutes later he knew a lot more about Pride and Prejudice, but parts of it sounded so unappealing that he wondered if they had been a faithful rendition of the plot. They might not coincide with a summary of Julia's. He hoped so for her sake, anyway. "And you're on holiday here to see if you can find Mr Darcy?" he asked in an attempt to come to the reason for their trip.
Surprisingly they were not at all secretive about their purpose. "We've come to find a letter that someone claims Jane Austen wrote."
"Who's Jane Austen?"
"Did we forget to say? Of course, we would have told you if you were going to look for a book. She's the author. We've also been to see where she lived. It was great. She was brilliant, you know."
"And you came to find a letter?"
"Yes! Someone claims Jane wrote that letter and it would ruin her reputation."
"Oh, really?" Sergio wondered if he was taking too long. Surely he should be eager to go back to his table to eat, rather than display interest in this letter? But they wouldn't notice he wasn't being a normal man. "But it's a fake?"
"We're sure of it. We have an expert in our midst and she needs to see that letter."
"And she will destroy it," Beth said in a whisper.
"What if it's not a fake?" Sergio felt he had to ask. Any innocent person might. It didn't mark him as someone who knew more than he let on.
"Huh?" The two women looked nonplussed. "Not?"
"In this time and age, would someone really get away with it? The authenticity is so easily checked nowadays."
"Yes, that's what we're going to do. Because it really can't be true."
"But Jane's dead, I assume? So no one would really care."
They were shocked.
When Sergio returned to Julia at last, he noticed that she had begun eating, albeit slowly. "Well, what did your new best friends say?" she inquired, clearly unable to decide between curiosity and annoyance.
"Did I take too long?"
"Just a little bit," she admitted. "I was beginning to look silly."
"No way. Only that man in the corner knew we'd come in together and he's long gone. But I've got a splendid idea for your birthday. When is it?"
"It was three weeks ago."
"I was right," Sergio said with a smug grin. "They're with the Death Squad. Only they don't really seem to have murder on their minds. They wouldn't go beyond virtual character assassination. They have a literary expert, you know, who doesn't need to resort to dating paper or handwriting analysis to know whether an old letter is authentic. She just looks at the topic."
"Because Jane was a broken record," Julia nodded. They spoke softly, of course, so no one could overhear like she had overheard someone in the lobby mentioning Bingley. "Two things, by the way. Is the letter old? And was it written by Austen? Neither question can be answered by only looking at the topic."
Even to him that was obvious. "Didn't you hear my contemptuous tone?"
"Do you ever speak without one?" Julia snorted. "Where literature is concerned, that is. And then what?"
"They're part of a team. Their task was to find out more about the recipient of the letter. Actually, to prove that she didn't exist. They weren't making a lot of progress, because they're beginning to realise you can't prove such a thing."
"What did you say?"
"I said it was better to do tourist things anyway, so when they got home they'd have something to talk about. They hadn't thought about that yet."
"How brilliant of you. So one word from you and they're abandoning their mission?" She could hardly believe it.
He shrugged. "Well, one word from their leader and they were on this mission, so they seem to be easily persuadable. I told them to be touristy or we'd think they were spies."
"They bought it." He realised he didn't have any food yet and got up to fetch some, leaving Julia to her incredulous snorting.
He didn't know if they'd really bought it or if they'd just been humouring him. Maybe they were simply being polite to someone who had no idea of the greatness of Jane. He hoped they were not intent on killing all doubters, because he'd surely be on the list.
It was a pity he hadn't been able to question them about Elizabeth D'Arcy, but an innocent man simply making inquiries about birthday presents wouldn't care about her, or even about the two women he was making inquiries from.
It occurred to him that Beth was probably also called Elizabeth. For a moment he wondered if she could be Elizabeth D'Arcy, but then he decided she could not. No abbreviations for Elizabeth. But they would know for certain at eleven, unless Elizabeth had emailed back that she wouldn't come. They hadn't thought to check yet that morning. Maybe he could send Julia out to do so. He wondered if she'd dare. Surely if the two women were having breakfast it would be safe? Maybe he should definitely switch to a smartphone; then they wouldn't have these issues.
Sergio wondered how with so little practice he was able to recognise a Jane Austen fan straight away. Of course it helped that there was only one person coming into the lobby at that time, but even if there had been a few others he was sure he would have picked on the right person. The woman who came in was not old, but she was several decades behind on the current fashion. She glanced past him, expecting to be meeting two women.
He stepped towards her. "Ms D'Arcy?"
"I'm Michele." It was absolutely brilliant that one of the two women had been called Michele. The logical consequence had come to him right away that morning.
It was pronounced differently in Italian of course, and Ms -- though Miss was more likely than Mrs -- D'Arcy looked confused.
"M-i-c-h-e-l-e," Sergio spelled. "Michele. It's an Italian name. You may me know me as Pinky504."
"Michele?" she said with a half-screech.
"Yes, Michele. Pinky." How easy it was to slip right into madness with them. Who in her right mind would call herself Pinky? But nobody would be able to guess from his tone how he really thought about it.
"But you're a man."
"Italian Micheles are, yes." Thank goodness his mother wasn't Italian and wouldn't have approved of her sons being called Michele, Simone or Andrea.
"But you deceived us! You posed as a woman!"
"I posed as Pinky," he corrected. "Which is neither male nor female." Technically it wasn't, but in practice no man would use it as a nickname. No straight man, anyway.
"Why? Men don't understand Jane Austen." She sounded absolutely convinced of that.
Sergio hadn't read Austen, but he had to contradict her, just because. "But it's a simple story."
"Simple?" Elizabeth spluttered.
"Boy meets girl and all that."
He had to listen to an undoubtedly well-practised explanation as to why Pride and Prejudice was the epitome of romantic fiction. Politely he let her go on; he could hardly say he didn't agree if he was supposed to have frequented a message board for fans.
"But men always see things more simplistically," Ms D'Arcy concluded after five minutes. "You just don't get the same out of the book that we do."
"Right," he nodded. He would bet that even Julia wouldn't get the same out of that book as she did. Julia hadn't given him a lecture on its romantic greatness yet.
"You will remember that in The Pristine Constellation I gave some of Darcy's back story, his childhood and education and so forth."
"Maybe. I don't remember everything I read." And what on earth was a pristine constellation?
Ms D'Arcy looked shocked that someone wasn't remembering her masterpiece. "Well, it explains why it isn't simply another boy meets girl. Mind you, Darcy was twenty-eight during Pride and Prejudice, though I've pinpointed his birthday and he was twenty-seven at the very beginning."
"Then his back story was pretty long."
"Oh, indeed," she agreed, thinking she was being understood at last. "It's a pretty thick book; it's published, as you know."
Vaguely he recalled Julia saying so. "Yes, I know."
"It being a thick book means I have a really good grip on his back story and therefore on the Regency period. I did a lot of research. That brings me to...the letter." She lowered her voice ominously. "You see, Pinky --"
Sergio held up his hand. "Please don't call me Pinky in public. It's my nom de clavier."
She couldn't follow. "Your what?"
"My keyboard name," he explained. "The name I use online. Just like you use Elizabeth D'Arcy."
"That's my real name," she said stiffly.
"You carry a passport in that name, of course," he nodded.
She did not reply.
"You descend from fictional characters. That's brilliant. The rest of us merely descend from contemporaries of Jane Austen."
"I descend from an aristocratic Norman family. Jane Austen used our family name for her male protagonist to convey his aristocratic breeding. The Darcys were among the richest and most-respected families in the country and for such a man to change for the sake of a mere girl from the gentry..."
Sergio hoped he would not get another summary of the convoluted plot. It might bring Julia out of hiding if it took too long. "And this letter..."
"Yes, have you read it?" she asked jealously.
"Yes, it was quite amusing." He hadn't understood half of it, but Julia had said it was.
"Jane Austen cannot have written it. There is simply no record of her knowing this person."
"I know lots of people I've never written to. I know lots of people I've only written to once. I know lots of people of whom I've never kept any correspondence." He wondered how she would react to these points. Surely she must have taken them into consideration at some point? Anyone would.
"You don't understand the point, Pinky," she said. "So many people don't. I don't blame you. Not many have done such exclusive research as I have. I've become kind of an expert on Jane. I have access to information that the general public doesn't have access to."
"Except a brain," Sergio muttered under his breath.
"Jane was very clear on what would happen after Pride and Prejudice. The letter doesn't tally with that. Besides, it would be completely impossible for the Darcys to get marital problems. Absolutely impossible. That alone is such an offence."
He saw she was truly offended, as if she was married to this Darcy herself. Insanity continued.
"You will not understand because you're not a woman."
"And I don't want to marry this Mr Darcy myself, I agree. I'm not gay, in case anyone thought so. I have no designs on Mr Darcy."
Ms D'Arcy hadn't thought about his preferences one way or the other. Presumably only about her own.
Sergio and Julia -- to be honest, it had been Julia -- had conceived of a brilliant plan earlier, but it cost time to execute. If Elizabeth D'Arcy persisted in being obtuse, they would fob her off with a false letter. It was coming close to that now. The only problem was that someone had to make the fake letter. Julia was working on that now, if she wasn't eavesdropping -- which Sergio assumed she was doing.
"Where's the letter, Pinky? That's what I came for. You said you had it."
He wondered if she was stupid or deliberately out to annoy him by using that name. "I had it, yes. My partner has it. Before we hand it over, we want to make sure it will fall into the right hands. Anyone could say they were Elizabeth D'Arcy, the Austen expert, after all. And, after all, it concerns a letter truly written by Jane."
"Okay." If you want a fake, we'll give you a fake, he thought and smiled. "We'll get it to you, don't worry. My partner had other obligations this morning."
"So you're in fact wasting my time?" She looked irritated. "I came here for nothing? You were partnered with Theb weren't you?"
Sergio was glad he had gathered all this information from the emails they had read, or else he would have been confused. "Yes, but she's out. She has the letter on her, in case you turned out to be a criminal."
"When can you get the letter to me? I have to pull back the other teams and set a date for the burning ceremony."
"What are the other teams doing?"
"One team was unfortunately bothered by a gang of foreigners. How did you get the letter anyway? I thought the other team was close. Or so they said. Were they lying?" Ms D'Arcy was suddenly suspicious. "Maybe they were simply on a Jane Austen pilgrimage, visiting Bath, and telling me they were in fact investigating."
It was amazing that it hadn't occurred to her before to ask how he had actually come by the letter. Sergio shrugged. "You'd better not ask. We might have broken the law and the less knowledge you have of that, the better."
"I'm an American citizen."
He didn't want to know what that implied and countering her undoubtedly crazy suppositions would undoubtedly reveal that he knew more about the subject than Pinky504 ought to know. "All right, so I'll email you when --"
"A little breaking of the law is allowed in order to achieve our goal. Where did Theb go?"
This hadn't been rehearsed and he was surprised at the answer that came to him. "She slept with some English bloke last night. I expect she's still in his room." Or behind the potted plants in the lobby; he hadn't looked.
Elizabeth D'Arcy's eyes bulged. This was something she would clearly never do. "Just like that?"
"No, evidently they did get a little acquainted first. Look, do I have to explain how that goes? You've never done anything like that? Are you an alien?"
She coloured as if she couldn't even begin to think about the subject. "And you?"
"I'm not into blokes. All right, I'll email you?"
Ms D'Arcy was still not over the idea. "But Theb! She'd never! She likes her stories wholesome and clean."
Sergio had no idea what that meant. "Without typing errors, you mean?"
"No! Without...graphic scenes. Adult scenes. Rated?" She whispered. "Some people call it sex?"
"Oh, but those are the worst, didn't you know? If you get plenty during the day, you don't need to read about it at night." He snorted when he thought of the two women at breakfast. Poor Theb. It would never happen to her in a million years. He was sorry he was misrepresenting her, but it was all for the cause.
"So that's why you joined the site. So you could read all the rated stories."
"Yeah," he sighed. "It's been pretty quiet on that front since my wife died. Joining an all-female site really boosts my chances. Did you know who else are really men? No, I shouldn't be telling you. It's not fair. Okay, I'll email you when I've got the letter. Deal?"
Sergio made sure no one was following him to his room. Julia was at the desk, scribbling. "I thought you'd be watching," he said.
"I was, but I couldn't get close enough," she answered. "Well? Is she insane?"
"Definitely. I have to email when I have the letter, so she can set a date for the burning ceremony."
"The witches will burn themselves?"
He laughed. "Sadly, she meant the evil letter. But she really seems to think she doesn't need any experts to date it, so I say we get some old paper and someone who know how to write they way they did in...er...whenever it all was. Are you already working on the contents?"
"Yes, I've got the beginning and the end, copied from the original, so that's very authentic at least. But I can't do the handwriting, that's for sure."
"By the way, she asked where you were and I said you had slept with some bloke and were still in his room. She nearly died from shock."
Julia did not die from shock at all. "Because I was abusing the mission for my own pleasures?"
"Was it a pleasure?"
"Shut up. You didn't sleep with me."
He grinned. "I know, but it was the obvious response."
"Only if you're a man, I suppose," Julia said doubtfully.
"She was shocked because she's never slept with anyone herself, I bet." His cell phone rang and he checked it. "#$#$."
It continued ringing and he stared at it. Then he sighed and rejected the call.
Julia was watching him. "Was that her?" She didn't think so. He would have answered Elizabeth D'Arcy, but he hadn't given her his number.
"No, someone who comes second in the insanity stakes."
"Oh, someone rang earlier and I answered it. Was it that person?"
"If you got the impression she wasn't all there, probably yes." Sergio looked wary. "What did she say?"
"You forgot to call on her birthday. And who was I?"
"What did you say?"
"It was none of her business, was it?" she said briskly. "I told her I was answering your phone because you weren't able to do it yourself and could I pass a message? Was it your mother?"
"No. My mother-in-law."
Julia narrowed her eyes. "You're married?"
"No. Not anymore."
"See why I don't usually tell?"
"All right. Well, there's one group of women who immediately think I'm in need of female consolation. Then there's another group of women who ask questions and then call me a bastard."
Julia considered it. "You're a bastard for thinking her mother is insane?"
He leant over and kissed her.
Julia found she could think very clearly. This was really good for one's brain, because she saw at once what the letter must contain. "You know," she said. "You should do that more often."
"It gives me brilliant thoughts. Not of that, in case you thought so."
"No. I'm completely baffled." Though not displeased, he would like to add. And he would probably not have any objections if she did think of that, although they might have more pressing matters to work on.
"I have a German friend who could supply appropriately corny Jane Austen quotes, because I'm quite sure the letter should contain quotes from the novels. Or novel. Austen wasn't inventive enough to come up with new lines all the time, was she? She would reuse her best lines -- or rather what the Squad thinks of as her best lines -- ad nauseam."
"And your friend is with the Squad?"
"Oh, no. She'd be with the anti-squad, if there was one, but for some reason she's a genius at bad fiction. But I need an internet connection to contact her."
Sergio found that his situation had changed. "I can't go home. My mother-in-law will be stalking me."
"Really," Julia said disbelievingly. "She has your mobile number, too. She can stalk you anywhere."
"It's much easier to turn that off."
"Listen. I've never seen you with a woman in our building, so I'm assuming it's been a while and you still let that woman stalk you?"
"No, usually I'm anything from icily polite to downright rude. I thought it had worked. I've never been to her birthday, by the way, just so you don't think I obediently come over every year. They've never liked that in the first place, because they believe -- I could write a book about it. But enough of that. You need your German friend or are you brilliant enough on your own?"
"I might be, but I've never tried to write corny fiction," Julia answered with a frown. "I do have a brain and all that, but it's more suited to writing brilliant essays and papers."
"Write it by hand and then go to the lobby to confer with your German friend?"
"Who might have a life on Saturdays," Julia replied. "You never can tell with internet acquaintances."
"They have lives? It gets stranger by the minute."
"Yes, we clearly don't have lives, but other people might."
Sergio laughed. He stretched himself out on the bed. "All right. I'll wait until you're done."
Julia turned in her chair to watch him. "Hello! You'll wait?" It wasn't fair. "Besides, I need a book or, again, an internet connection for the quotes. I don't know the book by heart."
Sergio had been ordered to look for someone who could provide old paper, as well as for someone who could write sufficiently like Jane Austen. After a fruitless internet search in the lobby, he had thought of his GP. She wrote illegibly and she would probably also have age-old notebooks lying around.
He thought the plan was extremely clever and efficient. Julia, however, frowned when he told her. "Why?" he wondered.
"What's wrong with my GP?"
"Well, it's your GP!"
"She doesn't work weekends. We wouldn't be wasting her valuable time."
Julia was not so sure. She wouldn't dream of bothering her GP with something like this, illegibly as he might write. "How do you know she can do nineteenth-century handwriting?"
"She was born in the nineteenth century."
She didn't want to be around when he gave the woman that rationale for using her. "I'll stay in the car."
"How did you get on with the letter?"
"I've got something. Not as long as the original, but I've tried to include all vague references that I've revealed to people before. It's a truth universally acknowledged that a married man must be in want of a mistress. And so forth."
"Sounds crazy enough to please the Death Squad, but it must be finished before we approach my GP."
"Could we have lunch somewhere? I'm hungry. I'll bring my notes and we can work on while we eat and then find your GP if you don't get a better idea in the meantime." She wasn't convinced it was really the best person to use.
"Do you still need to consult your German friend?"
"I can send her a brief note before we go to lunch and see if she's replied when we get back."
Sergio agreed to that and they left the room to go downstairs. He understood why Julia had wanted to take the stairs when they reached the ground floor and she stopped. "Shouldn't we make sure that woman isn't waiting?"
"I didn't see her earlier."
"But did you look?"
"No," he admitted. He had only checked if the computer was free, but he was sure no one had followed him to his room. He had had the lift to himself.
"I'll get the car -- she doesn't know me -- and then you can jump in."
He sighed and peered around the corner as Julia strode across the lobby towards the computer. There, reading a magazine, was Elizabeth D'Arcy. She gave Julia a glance, but didn't immediately react. Then, for some reason, she got up and followed her.
"What!" Sergio muttered. He could follow and reveal that Julia was indeed the one she was looking for, or he could let Julia sort this out herself. He opted for the latter for the time being. Slowly he walked after them and he saw Elizabeth D'Arcy catch up with Julia and speak to her.
He was curious what was being said -- the woman could not possibly know who Julia was -- but he couldn't get near enough to overhear. He was hidden behind a vending machine where he hoped he couldn't be seen. He also hoped Julia wouldn't be so stupid as to start typing any emails with Ms D'Arcy looking over her shoulder.
Would she know the woman was Elizabeth D'Arcy at all?
He groaned when Julia sat down and tapped on the keyboard and Elizabeth D'arcy looked on. Should he interfere?
Sergio could hardly contain his curiosity, but he could not possibly come closer. It took an age before Ms D'Arcy left. Fortunately she had only been talking. Julia waited until she was outside and then returned to typing, as if he wasn't immensely curious and waiting to know what had gone on. He joined her with one eye on the door. Ms D'Arcy was not to be trusted and might return. He did not yet know what he would do in that case. "What did that woman want?"
"Was it Elizabeth D'Arcy?" Julia inquired eagerly. "I thought she must be."
"What did she want?"
"She didn't know who I was, don't worry. She did try to find out who or what I was, because thanks to you she thinks your partner must be young. Which I suppose is a compliment to me, because I'm not that young. I think it was that story you told her about my spending the night with some man. Clearly you don't do that if you're old. So anyone appearing young might be me."
"And how did you persuade her that you were not you?"
"My accent and my never having heard of Jane Austen. I pretended to be you. I repeated a lot of your comments, I mean," Julia smirked. "She bought it."
"You hope." He still hadn't given up looking at the door. If the woman returned, he could just be inquiring how long Julia was planning to occupy the computer.
"Listen. She's not as intelligent as she thinks. You know that group of people who want to be intelligent, who think they are, but who reveal time after time that they are not?"
Julia started to type an email.
To the German friend, he assumed. Sergio watched to see if there was any mention of him, but there wasn't. Maybe they were not that kind of friends. And maybe he was completely irrelevant to everything. "Listen, she may still be outside. We should go out separately and not get into the car until we know for certain that she's gone. I don't think she could do more than be a nuisance, but that's bad enough."
"She'll be more suspicious of you than of me, so you go first. I won't follow until I don't see her." She returned the car key to him.
"Policemen on television are always either widowers or alcoholics," said Julia pensively when she was in the car. "And sometimes both."
"Some are divorced."
"Because they are alcoholics."
"Could be," he agreed. "They have to appear interesting. Or at least as if they might not solve the case due to their imperfections. Perfect men are really boring, aren't they?"
"I really wouldn't fancy an ugly old man. Some of them are."
"Wouldn't you? I have an ugly old colleague who'd be really sorry. So, where are we going to have lunch?" He didn't want to drive around forever. The first suitable place would be fine.
"Somewhere quiet?" Julia still had to finish the letter. It would go a lot faster if she wasn't distracted by modern life.
"Somewhere quiet means somewhere expensive. I'll pick something up from the supermarket and we'll sit in the car."
She sighed. "I suppose it's a good quality not to waste any money."
"Academics aren't paid that much either, I thought."
She wasn't going to argue with that or with his plan. "No, that's true. I'll wait while you buy something, or should I come with you?"
"Just tell me what you wouldn't like. That will be quicker." Shopping with women was reputed to be time-consuming. "Or...wait. We could have a free sandwich at my parents' restaurant."
"I'm all for free sandwiches," Julia said with a look of doubt. "But I'm not sure I'm all for meeting your parents. What would they say? And it's not likely to be quiet if we have to be social. I wouldn't be able to finish the letter. And what would they think?"
"Well, probably that we've come for free sandwiches. Saturday lunchtime is not the best time for social calls."
She was a little reassured, but she remained a little wary of what his family would think of him appearing with a woman. Would they ask questions? Would they jump to conclusions? She certainly would if she were in their position. If a family member came in with an unknown woman when he was known to be single, she'd certainly be curious. At the very least. She didn't want to be scrutinised by everyone. And if she was working on the letter she wouldn't have any time to make a good impression either.
"We'll finish the letter there and then visit my GP. It'd be very efficient to do that in one go."
"Very. But what if my friend has emailed back?"
"We can check the computer at the restaurant. If everyone is busy they won't be using the computer much."
Julia took his word for it. She had no idea how things worked in a restaurant. "All right."
Sergio gave her an amused glance. She was probably thinking that his apron-clad family would be all exclamations and gestures and asking him in front of all the customers who the girl was. He was not going to enlighten her; she might not believe him.
He drove to a quiet street and parked there. Julia got out, clutching the sheets to her chest as if Elizabeth D'Arcy might jump out of a doorway and snatch them away from her. But as far as Sergio knew, no one had followed them from the hotel -- he had checked.
He wasn't seriously afraid of Ms D'Arcy, but it was a sort of game to look out and evade her, wasn't it? She would be no match for them if it really came down to it, but her lunacy made her difficult to predict.
The restaurant was half full. The weather was fine, so some people sat outside. Sergio stepped inside. His father greeted him. A brother was there. Two nieces. Only the latter looked curious.
Julia, for her part, saw two waitresses smiling at him. Weren't they a bit young to fancy him? The older man must be his father, but he didn't look very Italian. Sergio led her to a table at the back, in a part that was still sectioned off. She didn't know why; there were plenty of free tables in the front area.
One of the girls came up to them. "Hi Sergio," she smiled.
Julia shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
"Have you come to have lunch?"
"Yes, actually. And to do some work. This is Julia."
Julia shook hands with the girl, who was called Isabella. She wondered if Sergio was going to tell Isabella who she was and what they were really going to do here. There was no doubt that Isabella was wondering.
"We'll have sandwiches," said Sergio.
"The usual?" Isabella asked.
Isabella went away and Sergio pushed aside the vase that stood in the middle of the table to make room for the letter. Julia put the original letter to the left and her notes to the right. He couldn't read them upside down, but he would be of little help in any case. He barely understood the antiquated turns of phrase.
"What have you got so far?" he asked.
"I've got the standard lines, copied from the original. Now we need to say something about Mr Darcy."
"Something that leaves him on his pedestal."
"You're beginning to get it," Julia said appreciatively. "But don't forget that they've received hints about the contents that weren't as complimentary about the man as they would have liked. We can't have Jane gushing about the happily ever after. So, maybe he could look in danger of toppling off that pedestal."
"In danger only. All right. Something that could be undone by burning the letter."
"We'll have to make him a little less stiff and boring. Misunderstood."
"Well, his wife, of course. She was the bad girl in the letter. If we make him a little more attractive, she won't have any reason to stray. In thought or in actuality."
"Some people don't really need a reason."
"But that's not our problem here. We need to write the Scandal Light version. Something that would elicit a shocked little gasp, not total incomprehension." She tapped the table with her fingers as she read a few lines of the original. "Look, there's some more that I can copy."
"Good." He didn't try to read upside down. But then he saw his mother. That might be a bad thing, or it might not. He had no idea.
"Hello, what have you come to do?" she asked.
Julia stopped writing and looked up.
"We need to see the GP and thought we'd have something to eat first. This is my mum," he said to Julia, but she might have guessed.
Julia had not. The woman looked very little like an Italian mama. In fact, she didn't look Italian at all, but tall and blonde.
His mother studied him and Julia alternately. "Oh. Are you pregnant?"
"Pregnant?" Only Sergio was able to voice the question. "Why?"
"Why else see the GP? You are never sick."
"This is my neighbour," he said, indicating Julia.
"It's very easy to get those pregnant. They live right next door."
"Yes, you're quite right, Mum." He turned to Julia across the table. "Can you use that in your letter?"
She was too unsettled to use anything at the moment. Luckily Sergio's mother was called by someone behind the bar and she walked away. "Huh," said Julia. "So what is she thinking now? That you got your neighbour pregnant?"
"No, she merely pointed out that it would be easy to get one pregnant. Don't make too much of it. She doesn't either, or she would have told you."
"If you say so." She couldn't be as indifferent about it as he was.
"But can you use it? You could hint that a neighbour of Mr Darcy's got pregnant and write how easy it really is to get a neighbour pregnant. You won't have to say he really did it."
"Pff." She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. "I just have to readjust, all right? Back to work."
"It was only my mum."
"If you say so." She frowned at the paper, trying to work Darcy's neighbour into things. It should be easy, as Sergio's mother had said. "But how do you get your neighbour to allow you to get her pregnant?"
"I suppose you could ask her." He leant forward. "Or maybe it was the other way around. Mr Darcy's neighbour asked him and he obliged. Maybe it was a lesbian couple and --"
"They did not have lesbian couples in those days."
"Or so they thought. Maybe a couple with an infertile man. The wife became desperate because she would be blamed and she approached Mr Darcy."
"Well, I suppose we're lucky in that we don't have to write a detailed novel, but only a summary, so we can skip over the how and why. And there need only be rumours. Rumours are bad enough."
"And then Mrs Darcy takes up with this other fellow who was mentioned in the letter. If you can be wordy, the page will be full and you won't need any more."
Julia thought of it only now. "What will your GP think when she's copying this?" She looked horrified. He had said it was an older woman. She would be shocked.
"I'll tell her it's the state of modern academia."
Eventually Julia finished the letter. She had no idea if her phrasing was authentic, but at least Sergio thought it was. "Are you sure your GP won't give you a referral to a psychiatrist?" she wondered as she read it over. An outsider might think they were crazy. The situation definitely was.
He smiled sweetly. "I'm only accompanying you."
"I'm not her patient. This is a delicious sandwich, by the way."
"I'll let my mum know," he said when his mother approached again. "Julia likes the sandwich."
"Oh good. You can bring her again when you next visit the doctor."
"But I won't, unless I'm ill. I'm sort of working."
"Are you working too?" she asked Julia.
"Yes, sort of, in a different field."
"Intriguing, how you could sort of work, together," said Sergio's mother. "But it must be secret, so I won't ask you about it."
Contrary to Julia's expectations, she really did not and she wandered away again. That was rather refreshing. Julia wasn't sure her own mother wouldn't have sat down with them to get all the particulars while pretending to be social.
Before leaving the restaurant, they checked the computer, but there was no email from Julia's German friend. She probably had a life.
Sergio's GP -- or former GP, Julia wasn't sure -- lived a short drive away. It was intriguing how for all their driving around they had never got very far from home, she noticed. He could easily still be a patient here. The doctor was an older woman close to her pension, maybe already past it. She greeted Sergio as if she knew him well, which was at odds with his saying he was never ill. Luckily he was the one who did the explaining.
Mrs Hardy listened intelligently. She appeared to understand the situation immediately. "Of course. I can do that. I don't use calligraphy on my prescriptions, but I can adapt my hand to any situation."
Julia had been looking embarrassed throughout, but it turned out there was no need. She handed over the letters.
"It is not that difficult," Mrs Hardy decided after having read through them. "You've kept the remake short, but if I write a little wide, I could fill a page. They didn't really write very short letters in those days, so it might be odd if I had a lot of white space left."
"Yes, I'm not a writer," Julia apologised. "Of fiction, that is. I write about it, but don't make it up. And I didn't have access to my books, only this letter, and the people we are dealing with believe very much in reusing phrases." She would have been more confident had someone knowledgeable checked her letter first, but she had only had Sergio and he didn't have an inventory of useful Austen quotes at his disposal.
Mrs Hardy went to a drawer and selected a few sheets. She laid them side by side on the table and made a further selection. Then she took a wooden box with what looked like calligraphy pens. She nodded towards the other half of the room. "Make yourselves comfortable there, if you like, if it bores you to watch. I'll be done in an hour."
"She's a brilliant forger," Julia remarked when she slid the new letter into a picture frame. It looked very authentic. She hoped the wording sounded as authentic as it looked. "That's now how you know her, is it?" Maybe the old lady had been arrested once.
"No, I told you she's a GP."
"Oh. Where do we go now?"
"Well, we're still checked into the hotel. Our stuff is there and it's too late to check out, so we might as well go there and set up a meeting with the Dark Lady."
"Who's probably lying in wait in the car park. I'd like to store the original letter somewhere safe, please. I don't want to be ambushed."
Sergio snorted at that. "Ambushed!"
"Please? She knows where we are staying."
"But there's no point in trying to rob us. We'll be giving her the letter. We told her so."
"Except that we really aren't."
"She's not clever enough to come up with that option."
"Someone found out my address and broke into my flat. I wouldn't know how to do either thing. Plus they found Professor Cooper. Don't you underestimate them just a little?" It had been going so well that she was beginning to have doubts.
"I don't know how they managed that," he admitted, although he was the one who had named them the Death Squad. "But that Elizabeth D'Arcy is a fruitcake. She can't have any sort of intelligence."
"Enough to manipulate others into doing her dirty work." Although she conceded that the people doing the intelligent research work might well be on the other side of the globe and unaware of how it was being put to use. You could find out anything over the internet.
"Don't you trust me to be able to defend you physically?"
"I do, I do. But I'd still be more comfortable if we left the original somewhere safe."
"Well..." Sergio took a moment to pinpoint their location on his mental map. "The hotel is east and we live west, so we can't drop it off at home or at the police station, which I'd think the safest places. I don't think there's that much of a necessity to take such a detour. I'd humour you if it was on our way, but it isn't."
"Well, all right," Julia gave in. "We'll hang onto it."
Sergio had been wondering about Elizabeth D'Arcy as they drove back to the hotel. He didn't think she'd notice she'd be given a fake letter, if she really stuck to what she'd said she'd do with it, namely burn it. If she intended to sell it and make some money, she'd soon find out it was a fake. And then what? But he didn't think it would come that far. She would burn the forgery and return home, thinking she had done Jane a service.
Of course if Julia decided to sell the letter its contents would become well-known in certain circles. Elizabeth might hear about it and go after who had it then. But at least it wouldn't be Julia.
He wondered what Julia would do if this was over. Would they go back to being neighbours who never saw each other?
"I wouldn't mind going on a date or something," he ventured.
Julia was not on the same page. "With Elizabeth D'Arcy?" she asked with a horrified look. She recalled the woman's looks and her being several decades behind in appearance and morals.
"No, with you."
"Oh. I thought we'd skipped right over that stage."
"Where are we now then?"
"I don't know. But you did kiss me already. That is sort of beyond the date stage, isn't it?"
Sergio carefully parked the car. "Right. And you said I should do it more often." He leant to the left and followed up on his words.
As she got out of the car, Julia felt she would be able to knock Elizabeth D'Arcy and her minions to the ground. She nearly made some karate moves, but that would look suspicious. There was no one in sight until she turned the corner. Three women were chatting outside the entrance. They had the right age to be suspect, but she did not stare at them. Sergio was supposed to be right behind her, but not so close as to appear to be with her. She hoped he too would hear the women spoke with transatlantic accents.
Elizabeth D'Arcy was seated behind the computer in the lobby. Of course she was also looking at everyone who came in. Julia had several options. She could go directly up to her room, followed rather obviously by Sergio. Or she could go to the loo, but then Sergio would lose her. Or she could come up with something to ask at reception, as a tourist might.
She waited in line behind an elderly couple who were checking in. This gave her some time to invent a question, as well as to study the door. Sergio came in half a minute later and she hoped he would see Ms D'Arcy.
He did and she saw him too, because she left her chair. "Michele," she called.
He turned. "Oh?"
"Something very interesting. Some of my friends know Pinky and they say she's not a man."
"Oh. Got them fooled then," he said carelessly.
Then the elderly couple in front of her finished and it was Julia's turn. She stuttered as she asked her question about museums and how to get there. She couldn't pay much attention to Sergio and when she next looked, he was gone. So were Ms D'Arcy and the three women who'd been chatting right outside the door.
Julia had Austen's letter and she was glad, but she became very anxious to hide it before she began to investigate where Sergio was. She put it in a huge luggage locker in a room off the lobby and then ran upstairs to their room. Still afraid of an ambush, she opened the door cautiously, but the room wasn't large enough for two people to hide, let alone five. Nobody was there.
From her window she couldn't see into the car park, but she might be able to from the end of the corridor. His car was still there and there was no movement, except a white van turning right into the road. Julia doubted. The timing might fit.
But it couldn't be. Four middle-aged women couldn't possibly abduct a fit younger man. If he had gone with them, he had gone willingly and quietly, for some very good reason. He wouldn't have been abducted in a white van, not with witnesses in the lobby looking on. She hadn't heard a thing.
Was he walking outside with Ms D'Arcy? He could be, a stroll around the hotel to discuss the letter. And he hadn't called out to her because he hadn't wanted to give her identity away. That must be it. Julia was almost reassured as she went back to her room. She looked out of the window, but saw no one.
Waiting wouldn't do her any good. She wished she had Sergio's mobile number. But she had to settle for going back downstairs to explore the grounds of the hotel. If she didn't find anything there, she decided, she would take the letter out of the locker and take the bus to the restaurant of Sergio's father. They would have his mobile number and then she could phone him. He might be back by then, but at least she wouldn't have been idle and worrying. She left a brief note on the desk.
Outside she chose to go left first. Other than the usual guests coming and going, there was nothing of interest. She circled the hotel, sticking to the footpaths, but there was no sign of Sergio or the four women.
They must have gone outside while she was at the reception desk. They couldn't have passed behind her. Although she'd had her back to them, they would have come into sight just before the lift. She checked that again, as well as the bar and restaurant. No one. She decided against taking the letter with her. It was safe here. Then she went to the bus stop.
There were no customers inside, it being too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but the restaurant was open and a few people were having drinks outside. Fortunately Sergio's father remembered her. He asked where Sergio was.
She'd been hoping he had gone here, although there was no reason why he should have. "I don't know. I've lost him. That's why I came to ask if you had his mobile phone number."
"But of course. His mama will, I mean. Just a moment."
Julia sat down and nervously tapped her fingers on the table as she watched him phone. What if Sergio had come back to the hotel in the meantime? He'd think she was overreacting. But what else was she supposed to do?
© 2012 Copyright held by the author.