“It’s a dark and stormy night!” observed Hannibal Heyes.
Kid Curry rolled his eyes, “Sheesh, Heyes! Can’t you come up with somethin’ better’n that to say?”
His partner shrugged, “What’s wrong with it?”
“Well for a start,” growled the rain soaked, cold and disgruntled Kid, “– ain’t it always dark at night?” He pulled up the collar of his sheepskin coat, drawing up his shoulders so it met the dripping, drooping, brown hat, with the buckled band. “An’ for another thing, might be rainin’ fit to raise Cain, but that don’t make it a storm…”
As he finished the word, thunder rolled ominously in the lowering skies, sounding like – like a thin two foot square piece of mild steel being shaken vigorously by a fit, enthusiastic, young sound effects assistant. A sheet of lightening flashed dazzling illumination on the scene. With sudden intensity it lit up the smug ‘told you so’ expression of Heyes, and the gathering chagrin on the face of Kid Curry. A second flash of lightening vividly silhouetted the two ex-outlaws, hunched in their saddles under the pelting rain, sitting atop a lonely hill, in a bleak, barren landscape.
To be strictly accurate, both sheets of lightening lit up the silhouettes of the partners. Both the first sheet and second sheet. In addition, both times it lightened; an observer could have seen the expressions on Heyes’ and Curry’s respective faces. If the observer happened to be looking in the correct direction. At the right moment. Exactly the right moment. It would have to be EXACTLY the right moment as lightening – by its very nature – and as indicated by the noun attached to this phenomenon – is on the quick side. To prevent any possibility of misunderstanding here, let it be made completely clear, BOTH sheets of lightening – the first and the second – lit up the same scene. However, in the first instance, the text focussed on a close-up description of the two protagonists. This allowed the reader to visualise their facial arrangements, which indicated differing reactions, to a comically timely force of nature, contradicting Kid’s assertion that there was no storm. In the second instance, the point of view was shifted back several hundred yards, in order to allow the reader – assuming she had not, perhaps wisely, abandoned the story in the interim – to conjure up an image of the two central characters, upon their horses, on the brow of a hill, in the rain. In quite a lot of rain.
A third flash of lightening tore across the dark, threatening sky. However, this one lit up nothing. Zilch. Zero. Zip. Heyes and Curry had ridden off.
The ex-outlaws reined their tired mounts to a halt. Patting the neck of his grey, Heyes squinted at the building, outlined against the night sky.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Kid sniffed, “It’s got a roof – all I care about right now, Heyes.”
His partner shook his head, “Dunno, Kid. Somethin’ about it looks kinda – sinister.”
He gazed at the square built building with the turreted sections jutting upwards. Impossible to imagine anyone ever sitting sociably on that empty veranda; hard enough to imagine those ink black windows lit by oil lamps and sending out a warm glow into the darkness. A shiver ran down his spine. He shuddered, “Don’t it remind you of somethin’ outta – Edgar Allen Poe? Sort of – gothic an’ foreboding.”
“You read too much Heyes!” said Kid. Nevertheless he cast a nervous glance at the place. “Hafta say,” he admitted, “I do kinda feel as if I’m being watched.” He glanced up at the sign squeaking back and forth in the wind. “Bates’ Hotel,” he read.
The horizontal bar on the ‘H’ had been sloppily done, dipping down almost to a ‘v’ in the centre, “Proprietor, Mrs. Norma Bates.” Kid shrugged, “Don’t SOUND too sinister.”
The steady rain, again lashed itself into an intensity against which Heyes had to raise his voice to be heard.
“Like you said, Kid! It does have a roof. An’ after all – what’s the worst that can happen?” He nudged his horse forward toward the hotel.
His partner stared at his retreating back, outraged.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” he exploded, “Heyes – what kinda thing usually happens? Even when it’s NOT the worst – it’s bad enough!”
Heyes tinged the brass bell on the reception desk. It sounded surprisingly loud in the silent lobby.
He tinged again.
There was a sound from behind the desk. From both behind, and below the desk. A sound of footsteps ascending wooden stairs. Female footsteps. Slow, deliberate footsteps. Evenly paced. All in all, it was an effect spelt out in enough detail to make retrieving it from the sound archive a cinch.
A topknot appeared at the far end of the wide desk, then a solemn face, then a linen collar, shoulders, and dark woollen bodice. The woman walked into position behind the hotel’s open guest book. She stared, fixedly, at the partners.
“Mrs. Bates?” said Heyes, with a charming, dimpled smile. She did not smile back.
“Miss Bates,” she corrected. “Miss Breda Bates. Mrs. Bates – mother – can’t manage the stairs.”
“Mother tends to stay mostly in the basement, these days.”
There was another sound from behind and below the desk. Let me clarify that. There was exactly the same sound. Ascending, female, slow, deliberate, even footsteps. A second woman rose into view, and moved to stand beside Breda Bates.
Heyes and Curry looked from one to the other.
“You must be sisters, huh?” asked Kid.
“Yes,” said Breda.
“We are,” chimed in her sister.
“Twins,” explained Breda.
“Identical twins,” elaborated her identical twin.
“This is Miss Rimona Bates,” introduced Breda.
“How do you do?” responded Rimona, “What appalling weather we are having. One can hardly believe it is May.”
Kid was frowning.
“Miss – Miss Rimona,” he began, “- your accent. Aren’t you from -?”
“I was born and educated in England,” she confirmed.
He turned to her sister, “But you -?” He tailed off.
“Born and raised in Washington. State, not DC,” said Breda.
Heyes pushed back his hat, “Isn’t that a little – unusual – for identical twins?”
“Mother,” explained Breda, “- mother is a remarkable woman.”
Her sister nodded, “Indubitably.”
“Uh huh,” grunted Heyes.
He and Kid exchanged a glance.
“We were lookin’ for a room, ma-am,” said Kid, “An, breakfast, come morning.”
Breda simply nodded and pushed the guest book first toward him, then Heyes, to sign in. She turned it around, read the names, and pushed the book over in front of her sister. They studied the partners, thoughtfully.
“Would you like a bath before turning in?” Breda asked Kid, “There’s plenty of hot water.”
“How much is a bath?” he checked.
Kid sucked in his breath. That was pretty steep. But – he did like a tub; and he did have a spare ten dollars.
“Sure,” he agreed.
Taking a small key from her pocket, Breda opened a cash box on the desk. She rifled through the contents, selected a ten-dollar bill and handed it to Kid. He stared at it nonplussed, opened his mouth to ask, then shut it firmly. Undoing a button on his jacket, he tucked the note away into his vest and touched his hat to her.
Rimona looked at Heyes, “What about you, Mr. Smith? Can we tempt you into a bath?” She laid a fresh ten-dollar bill in front of him.
Heyes had watched the previous transaction wide eyed. Swallowing down his questions, he put his hands on his hips, and slowly shook his head, adopting a musing expression.
“Don’t rightly know,” he said. “I took a bath before we set out, Tuesday and I tend not to pick up the dirt so much as Thaddeus here.”
A twenty was slapped on top of the ten.
“And,” went on Heyes, “- some folk say immersing yourself, too often, in hot water can strip the skin of its natural protection. Kinda puckers up the fingers too.”
A second twenty was added.
“That’s it!” warned Rimona, “Take it or leave it.”
“But,” decided Heyes, “-Tuesday was a few days back and I can always add a little cold, to get the temperature just right.” He reached out and with a wide grin, pocketed the money.
“How come he gets fifty?” protested Kid, “That don’t seem fair.”
Both sisters stared at him, then gave a short laugh. One each. So that would make it two short laughs.
“Don’t push it!” frowned Breda, “Everyone knows you’re seen taking a lot more baths than him.”
“Too true,” agreed Rimona, “It sometimes seems you have difficulty keeping your shirt ON.” She turned to lead the partners upstairs, “Did no one ever teach you Mr. Jones – scarcity drives up the price?”
Kid leaned back, luxuriating in the depth and warmth of the cedar tub. Two sets of curtained screens protected him from any draughts from the door or window. Kid scooped up a handful of the foaming suds and, with a playful puff, sent them aloft, bobbing first upwards, then down, to make a small wet patch on the floor. Then, beginning to hum a few bars of ”Tis a gift to be simple’, he reached one leg out of the tub. Stretching a shapely calf toward the chair, set beside the bath, he dexterously retrieved the draped washcloth, from its seat, with his puckering toes. Tossing it into the air, he caught it, and began to vigorously wash his bronzed shoulders and chest.
Suddenly, he froze. Not from a stray draft, I hasten to add. No, in terms of temperature the water, surrounding air and Kid himself remained pleasantly warm. Not to say – hot. No, by recording that Kid froze, it is intended to indicate that his well muscled arms ceased to rub the snowy white piece of flannel across his smooth upper torso. He stopped moving below the neck at all. Above the neck, his head swivelled sharply toward an approaching sound.
“EEEeee. EEEeee. EEEeee.”
It sounded like – like the violin section of a small orchestra repeatedly making a short, high-pitched, rising, restricted scale, in order to effectively generate a feeling of suspense and impending menace.
The silhouette of a female figure showed darkly against the pale curtains screening the tub. The arm stretched up, sharply outlined against the calico, hand brandishing a large blade. Kid’s eyes widened in shock, as the curtain swept aside.
“Chocolate cake?” offered Rimona, brusquely, knife hovering over the rich, black forest gateau, set on top of her squeaky wheeled hostess trolley.
“Ma-am?” queried Kid, clutching the small flannel across his chest.
“Would you like some chocolate cake, Mr. Jones?” she repeated.
“No, I’m good, thanks,” he declined.
He looked at the gateau. His eyes lingered on the dark, moist layers; the plump cherries, well soaked in the finest liqueur, oozing their heady juice into their bed of sponge; the thick layers of freshly whipped cream; the rough flakes of 72% cocoa solids chocolate generously shaved onto the top of the cake.
“Actually,” he decided, “Maybe I could manage a slice. Or two. Thank you, ma-am.”
As Rimona passed him a wedge of gateau, he demurred, “Don’t I get a plate?”
“Won’t I – get crumbs all over me?”
“Indeed you will, Mr. Jones. When you do, moisten your fingers, collect the melting sweet crumbs from your bronzed body, then lick them clean.” She glanced quickly behind her, then returned her gaze to him, “Do you think you can manage that?”
Kid blinked. No, first he took a hungry bite of the chocolate cake, then he blinked. He stretched up, to peer over Rimona’s shoulder, curious as to the object of that stealthy glance.
Mouth full, he spluttered, “What’s that, ma-am?”
His, already chocolaty, finger pointed at a small black box suspended from the ceiling, in the far corner of the room. It had what appeared to be a glass circle in its centre – and beside this a green light winked on and off. As Kid levered himself up, the winking increased in rapidity. The light turned amber. Kid lowered himself back down. The winking diminished. He took another bite of cake. Wink, wink, wink.
“What IS that?” he asked again.
“If I told you, you wouldn’t understand,” Rimona sighed.
“It’s an anachronistic web cam.”
“It’s nothing for you to worry about, Mr. Jones.”
Kid eyed the blinking spot of light. “It sounds stupid,” he said, “-but I almost feel as if its – its watchin’ me.”
Rimona again glanced swiftly over her shoulder. Looking back at Kid, she forced a laugh.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she scoffed, “How can a box watch you?” She cut and passed him a second slice of gateau, making sure it was crowned with an extra portion of cream. As Kid sucked the whipped topping from his fingers and thumb, Rimona went on, “Even if someone invented a box, which could relay moving pictures around the globe and someone else had already invented other boxes, on which those pictures could be viewed, in the privacy of one’s own home – ”
Kid frowned, as he tried to both follow what she was saying and concurrently recover a cherry, which had escaped and rolled down his chest, coming to rest in his navel.
“- Even then,” continued Rimona, “Do you really believe, there would emerge a worldwide community of five hundred or so odd women – and I use the word ‘odd’ purely to signify the approximate nature of the number – who wanted to spend their evenings – or coffee breaks, or lunchtimes, depending on their time zone – watching you take a bath and eat chocolate?”
Kid considered this. It did sound – unlikely.
“Suppose not,” he acknowledged.
“Exactly!” nodded Rimona, “Most of them would be looking in on your partner, next door.”
As that sank in, a disgruntled expression creased Kid’s brow.
“Don’t see that!” he growled, bending over to wash the cherry juice off his belly.
The winking of the light in the corner accelerated.
“Well,” temporised Rimona, with the hint of an appreciative smile at the appealingly boyish, blonde ex-outlaw, “- there’d probably be a more than respectable number watching you. And some of them – the ones that can follow a software manual – will have brought up a split screen.”
Kid gave a mollified sniff and reaching round, began to work up lather on his back.
Picking up a stiff bristled brush, Rimona moved to give him a hand. To be strictly accurate, she moved to give him a brush. As she shifted her position, Kid saw they were not alone in the room. Seated below the winking box, was a second woman, clipboard in lap, pen in hand. Kid looked at her closely.
She was undeniably beautiful. Her figure – perfection; her expression – lovely, appealing, full of character and glowing with individuality. As she pushed back a strand of her abundant, glossy hair, she met Kid’s gaze and gave him a dazzling smile, which lit up her already radiant face. In the fine, clear eyes, fringed by curling lashes, Kid read startling intelligence coupled with warm, outgoing humour.
“Who’s she?” he breathed, enraptured.
Rimona paused in her task, looked up and squinted at the figure in the chair.
“Oh her,” she said, “that’s just a moderator.”
“What’s her name?” asked Kid.
Rimona checked through the description, carefully, then shrugged.
“It could be any one of them, really.”
Kid slid a little lower beneath the froth.
“I feel kinda – bashful – with the both of you here,” he blushed.
Rimona sniffed, dismissively.
“I don’t see why? It’s not as if we haven’t provided abundant and carefully placed foam, to preserve your – modesty! Try to pretend she’s not there,” she instructed, “she’s only watching out for inappropriate innuendo.”
“It’s nothing for you to worry about, Mr. Jones,” said Rimona, for the second time that night. “You just concentrate on keeping it clean.”
Kid blinked, “Keeping what clean?”
She scowled sternly at him, “Keeping EVERYTHING clean, Mr. Jones. And don’t push it!”
Chastened, Kid subsided. He stretched out a hand to scoop up another mouthful of whipped cream. It fell from his finger and landed on his broad, tanned chest. Slowly it slipped down the damp flesh, leaving a glistening, snaking trail over the flawless skin, before oozing into the hot water. The oiliness of the cream dispersed a little of the froth surrounding Kid, in a gradually widening ellipse. The ex-outlaw glanced up at the frantically flickering light.
“Erm, ma-am,” he gulped to Rimona.
“Yes, Mr. Jones?”
“Running a little low on strategically placed bubbles here,” pointed out Kid.
“Would you like me to work up a little more lather?” she offered.
With a sigh indicating ‘a woman’s work is never done’, Rimona rolled up her sleeves, purposefully. Bending over the tub, she paused and looked over, to the closely attentive moderator.
She called, “I am going in purely for the soap, here.”
There was a sceptical lift of one exquisitely arched eyebrow, but after a moment’s consideration, the moderator nodded her consent.
Meanwhile, in the adjoining room, Heyes also basked in an unaccustomedly deep and lavishly bubbled bath. Pushing back his dark hair, which had flopped down over his brow, he sniffed the foam appreciatively.
“Sandalwood,” he breathed, “and just a hint of ambergris. That shows real – finesse.”
Screened by his own set of draught excluding unbleached calico curtains, Heyes too began to vigorously lather his sinewy arms, working the soap dexterously in those finely tapered fingers. Ever alert, his deep, melting eyes swivelled, as he heard an approaching;
“ÉÉÉééé. ÉÉÉééé. ÉÉÉééé.”
It sounded like – well it sounded remarkably similar to the sound which was concurrently capturing Kid’s attention and which has already been described.
“Ah,” cries the discerning reader, “remarkably similar perhaps, but not identical. Rimona’s trolley went;
‘EEEeee. EEEeee. EEEeee.’
‘ÉÉÉééé. ÉÉÉééé. ÉÉÉééé.’
Do you think I am not paying close attention? Do you think I am merely waiting for further details of a steamy and glistening Heyes, perhaps hearing how with a dimpled smile, he placed both hands behind his head – ruffling the silky hair and simply lay back, thoroughly relaxed, amongst the lush foam? Perish the thought! No – I am fully alert to every nuance within the text. The sound heard by Heyes, quite clearly displays an acute accent, indicating a subtly different vowel intonation. Or at any rate – even if the posting process has perchance removed the carefully placed accent, I feel instinctively – it did when it was originally typed. Pray explain.”
As it would be fruitless to try and build suspense, as to the source of the noise, which had startled Heyes, let me confirm at once, that it was – as the both discerning and attentive reader has guessed – a second hostess trolley, pushed this time by Breda Bates. It too, by a strange co-incidence, had a squeaky wheel. However, while her identical twin’s trolley had a defective front left wheel, the annoying shrill from Breda’s equipment originated in the back right hand extremity. For some reason – almost certainly to do with weight distribution and the differing dissipation of pressure, from the pushing hands, at the fore and aft of the modest vehicle – this resulted in a squeak a hemi-tone lower.
With a swift, decisive gesture, Breda whipped aside the curtain concealing Heyes.
The ex-outlaw blinked at her in astonishment. Almost at once, his eyes flicked warily to the small, black box, suspended from the ceiling, in the far corner. Grasping the sides of the tub, he stretched up a few inches, to get a better view. The tiny flickering light accelerated frantically. Hastily sinking back, to his original depth, Heyes returned his gaze to Breda.
“That device, ma-am,” he said, “- it looks suspiciously like a –”
“Like a what?” prompted Breda.
“Like an anachronism,” finished Heyes.
She looked at him with reluctant admiration.
“I have to admit,” she acknowledged, “you ARE the smart one.”
Heyes gave Breda an enquiring smile. An endearing, winning, warm smile – accompanied by an appealing, questioning lift to the eyebrows. It had no effect. He resumed communication via the spoken word.
“Why are you here, ma-am?”
Breda paused, in the act of uncovering the delicacies on her trolley.
“We flipped a coin – I lost.” she explained briefly.
Heyes digested this. A chagrined expression replaced the smile.
“Please don’t take it to heart, Mr. Smith,” she went on, “by pure chance, my twin and I share a taste for – blondes. However, I believe we are in a minority.”
He thought about this for a moment, brows drawn together, lips engagingly pursed. A satisfied, not to say smug, expression settled on his face. He switched his attention, from Breda, to the box in the corner, giving it his most charming grin, with extra dimples on the side. The agitation of the light was like a hundred, over excited, delighted, amber female fireflies getting drunk on the fumes from strong rum punch, at a barbecue.
Breda rolled her eyes.
“Talk about playing to the gallery,” she breathed, in an undertone.
Reaching towards the chair on which Heyes had draped his clothes, she plucked his black hat, with the silver trimmings, from the top of the pile.
“Mr. Smith,” she said, “- as a special favour to Vi…” she stopped herself, glancing guiltily at the still flickering light, “- as a special favour to ME, would you wear this?”
Heyes grin grew, if possible, even wider.
“As a special favour to Vi… – I mean, to YOU, ma-am; nothing is too much trouble.” Donning the hat, he tilted it back to a rakish angle, spread his arms wide along the either side of the tub’s curving edge and gave the light a downright wicked wink.
“Hi there,” he breathed, huskily.
Shaking her head at this wanton flirtatiousness, Breda offered the ex-outlaw a dish from her trolley.
“Sizzling piece of beefcake?” she said.
“Too kind,” replied Heyes, declining with a shake of the head.
“Nice buns – real sweet?”
“Thank you, ma-am,” blushed Heyes, “but no!”
“Steamin’ ‘ot piece o’ croompet?” she continued, her vowels noticeably flattened.
“My sister suggested that. Apparently it’s one for ladies living well north of Watford Gap,” clarified Breda, with a shrug.
Heyes gazed at the fluffy, butter oozing, crumpet.
“They do look kinda tempting,” he wavered, “but no, I’m good.”
Sighing, Breda pushed aside the trolley, holding her rejected comestibles. She picked up a stiff bristled brush.
“Would you like your back scrubbed, Mr. Smith?”
“Also tempting, but no,” smiled Heyes, “- in fact ma-am,” he displayed his palms to her, “I’m kinda puckering here. Think it’s time I stepped out.” As he received no response, he prompted, “Any chance you’d pass me a towel, ma-am?”
She handed him a towel. It was warm, thick, snow-white, fluffy and soft. In every way, everything a man could want from a towel, after a hard day in the saddle. Every way except one. It was approximately, 36 by 18 inches square. Or, as the attentive and geometrically alert reader, will already have protested, rectangular.
“This is kinda – a hand towel, ma-am,” pointed out Heyes, politely. “I was hopin’ for something a little more – substantial.”
“Sorry,” said Breda, sounding anything but. “Problems with the laundry – we just can’t get the staff.”
She stood in the path of the winking light and held up the towel. Closing her eyes, she turned her head modestly away. Heyes stepped out, and wrapped the towel around his slim hips, clutching it in place, with one tanned hand.
Breda stepped aside. The flickering accelerated to deepest amber, as the damp and glistening Heyes stretched up his one free arm. A droplet or two of water traced its way over his smooth flank, down the well-sculpted thigh. Tiny beads of moisture bedewed his chest, captured by the fine dusting of hair.
“Ma-am,” began Heyes.
“Yes, Mr. Smith?”
“I can’t really dry myself, out in the open like this. Could I have the screen back?”
She glowered, “We didn’t pay you fifty dollars to hide behind a screen, Mr. Smith.” Seeing him assume a stubborn expression, she sighed and went on, “Stay there. I’ll fetch something to stand in front of you.”
Heyes watched, as Breda strode over to a door, set beneath the winking light. It concealed a deep cupboard, apparently full of a miscellany of household goods. After a certain amount of banging, she dragged forth a luxuriantly needled, clearly artificial, four foot six Norway Spruce.
“A Christmas tree?” exclaimed Heyes, “- you want me to stand behind a Christmas tree?”
“Do you have something against Christmas trees?” queried Breda.
“Not until now!” With a sigh, he indicated for her to bring it over. The tree was placed – strategically – between the web cam and Heyes. He whipped off his towel and catching it behind his shoulders, began to vigorously dry off his back. The winking light, which had eased to green, sped again to ogling firefly orange.
Heyes glanced at the tree. It was bare of ornament, save for a silver star, set on top. This, from the angle of the light, covered a spot just above Heyes’ heart.
“You seem to have given me a Sheriff’s badge, ma-am,” he smiled. “Kinda gives me a shiver – real low in the spine here.”
Turning his back, he took a small step towards Breda and pointed towards his lower lumbar area.
She sighed, “Would you like me to rub in some liniment, Mr. Smith?”
Suddenly the door burst open.
“That’s it,” called the moderator. “Hold it right there. This story is at an …”