Brigandeers: Chapter 6: Who wants to be a millionaire?

Two hours later, we’re checking out the top floor rooms of The Bastard Arms. The rooms are pretty grim, but hey, Janice is a bit of a hippie and doesn’t seem to mind a bit of dirt so they’ll probably suit her just fine.

I can be so mean sometimes.

The walls are bulging in places. There have been dozens of layers of wallpaper plastered down, one over the top of the next, then the next, until the walls themselves seem to buckle and sway so much and everything is so uneven that you’d swear you’re drunk when you’re not.

Maybe that’s part of the charm, but I don’t think it’s an intentional look. It’s just cheap and lazy – you see it all over this old town of ours in a lot of cheap, old houses – and these rooms reek of cheapness and laziness and lack of care.

Wherever I turn I can smell that unmistakeable, once-smelled-never-forgotten musty scent of mice. The stink is in the discoloured carpets, in the cupboards, permeating the walls themselves. It’s everywhere. I’m certain that whoever has been living up here, they’ve whiskers and tails, and they like cheese.

Ani would be able to confirm for me: she’s good with rodents. But I don’t really need to her to check. You can tell the place is mouse-infested by the dried piles of droppings in the corners.

If you know the smell of mice – and I know it really, really well – you know it when you smell it, even if you haven’t smelled it in years. It’s the kind of stink that sticks with you, hiding away in the back of your brain, ready to remind you when you come across it again.

“It’ll do,” says Janice thankfully, looking around the first of the rooms. It’s not impressive. Her son stands on tiptoe and peers through a dirty window down at the alleyway down below. Great view. We’ve chosen two rooms for her that are at the rear of the building, away from the main road, where the windows can’t be seen as they face outwards on to the alleyway and a blank brick wall.

Both rooms are furnished with ancient, leftover sticks of furniture that look like they may have once been found at a deceased auction. Knowing Bill, that’s probably where they were purchased. Knowing Bill, he might have killed the person they belonged to.

I muse once again over the possibility that the place is haunted, then brush off the idea as foolish. However, if Jacob proves to be a pain in the rear, I might make use of the idea, and drum up a few stories about random ghosts and zombies to keep him in control.

Janice should be able to have lights on and even windows open form time to time while still avoiding notice from passers-by, because of the position of the rooms. Both rooms are quite private, and there are even tatty old curtains to close at night – or in the day if she wants.

There’s also a bathroom down a short, dusty corridor that leads to the main staircase, and everything appears functional, although I suspect that the hot water won’t be brilliant, if ours is anything to compare by. I turn on a tap in the tiny bathroom, and the pipes begin hammering away, despite the pressure being good. A mucky sludge of water oozes out. I turn it off again hastily.

It is decided among us, now we’re discovered that the upstairs of The Bastard is more livable than we thought, that it won’t be only Janice and Jacob are moving up in the world.

Now that Marika owns the place and we can do what we want, as long as Carol has no objections, Ani and Cam are taking a room on the first floor, directly below Janice.

Nigel has also decided to move upstairs, taking the room that is below Jacob’s. We don’t see why Carol would have any objections, as she can’t even make it up the stairs, and hasn’t set foot above the bar in a long, long time. Anything that isn’t at ground level is ours for the taking. So we’re taking it.

From now on, it will be just Marika, John and me down in our original cellar flat. I’m trying not to show how ridiculously happy I am about the change in arrangements.

For starters, for the first time in my life I won’t be sharing a room with my sister and her various boyfriends, Cam being just the latest in a long, long line of them. Don’t get me wrong – I love my sister. I even get along with her sometimes. I just don’t want to live with her in the same room for the rest of my life. I need my space.

My second reason is one I like to keep to myself. John and I have…a thing. I’m not sure what it is yet or where it’s going, but a little more privacy and a few less people around us all the time might help make things happen…if they’re going to happen at all.

I’m surprised that Marika has decided to stay down in the cellar with John and me, but she has. She says that she’ll probably eventually find something separate to live in, away from The Bastard, once things settle, as she too has reservations about us all being in the one place. But for now, until all the paperwork is sorted, she’s staying put in her old room.

John has decided to stay downstairs for his own reasons. He likes the quick exit out of the old cellar doors up to the street, because for him it’s then a quick dash across the road and he’s at work.

He likes the fact that all his stuff is already down here and, now Nigel is gone, he can spread out and get really comfortable.

I also like to think he’s staying down in the cellar because I’m here. He doesn’t say that, but I hope it’s one of his reasons, maybe even the main one, for staying put.

For three people, the cellar flat is plenty of room, and is kind of an awesome place to live.

We’re all of us hoping that John and Nigel won’t be quite so much at each other’s throats, now they won’t be sharing a room any more and are separated by two flights of stairs, a busy pub, and a lot of dust.

They never should have shared in the first place, but the cost of living being what it is, it made sense for them to do so.

Now, finally, they can have a space of their own, they can keep away from each other a bit more, and they can damn well behave tolerably for the rest of us.

We spend the first half of the week cleaning the upstairs floors so they’re suitable for human habitation, and the second half of the week moving everyone in to their new digs, and making sure that the top floor – Janice and Jacob’s rooms – are hidden away extra carefully for safety.

John and I get our carpenter thing on. I’ve always been good with my hands, and together we rip the main stairwell out that leads up to the top floor, plastering over the ceiling. We tail the first Nigel’s floor off with a banister from the second storey demolished stairwell.

Once we’re done, it looks as though the Bastard is only two stories inside, when in reality it has three. It’s a clever trick, and one that will only be noticed if you’re paying close attention to it.

To replace the stairs up, we’ve installed a drop-down ladder in the rear of Nigel’s room, which can easily be hidden behind some junk.

It’s not going to be easy for Janice to get up and down, especially as she gets heavier in her third trimester, but it’s an easy decision to make – she needs a safe place where she can’t be found, and a little discomfort getting up and down is worth it, if it means her rooms are well hidden.

So now the whole top storey is hidden away with a secret entrance up, and if you didn’t know it was there by counting the floors from the outside, you’d never find it. I’m impressed with my own handiwork.

The whole carpentry process takes the best part of another week, so by the time we’re done making the changes to the layout and moving everyone upstairs, a week and a half has passed.

We’re all glad to have everything finalised, as it’s been a bit crowded with bedding all over the kitchen floor in the cellar flat.

I’m absolutely exhausted, as is John, because we’ve both been doing all the changes to The Bastard as well as holding down our regular jobs.

I’m better off than he is, because at least with working behind the bar Marika has been able to go it solo in the quieter times, whereas he’s just had to go to the garage, exhausted or not.

I’m glad it’s not my car he’s fixing this week.

You’d think it would be quick to move people in, but Nigel’s half of the room he shared with John looks more like a junkyard than a dorm, and moving all the wires and hardware and computers and dumb terminals and even 14 baud modems out from the dawn of time takes a fair while.

He insists it’s all vitally important and that nothing can go. We’re happy to agree with him, but nothing that wasn’t built this century is carried up by anyone other than him. If moving all this crap doesn’t put muscles on his weedy frame, I don’t know what will.

After all his junk is shoved in his room, we don’t see Nigel for days pretty much, as he spends hours and hours wiring all the machines back together, and trailing cables through the hotel from floor to floor and down to the cellar. We’re aware of him the moment he wakes each morning, pretty much, because minutes later the drill is going, as he bores holes into the old plaster walls, dropping cables through and re-wiring everything to suit the specifications that only he understands.

All I care about is that my games machines down in the basement continue to work, that we continue to get the best illegal cable TV in the city, and that our wifi continues to be brilliant. There are a few interruptions to our reception here and there, but to be fair to Nigel he does a damn good job and the breaks to our reception are few.

Janice and Jacob need belongings. They have absolutely nothing apart from a few clothes they hastily packed into one small bag, and a handful of toys.

So Ani, Marika and I make the rounds of the local charity shops, sourcing up more furniture, some linen and quilts for their beds, and some playthings for Jacob.

We’re just guessing on the toys, because of course Janice and Jacob have to stay at home while we hunt. We’re still not suspected for anything, but since the incident at Janice’s house, their names and faces have been plastered all over the media, with warnings that Janice may be armed and extremely dangerous.

Which just shows that whoever put the notices up doesn’t know Janice at all. The idea of her – or her son – being armed and extremely dangerous is laughable. It doesn’t cost us much to buy what we think they might need, and Marika pays for most of what we grab.

When we get back to The Bastard, Janice is thankful for all of it, even though everything we’ve bought is basic and not at all fancy. I feel embarrassed and ashamed by her politeness – it was, after all, my actions that trashed her home and that prevent her from ever returning.

We’re all sorted out by the end of the week, with everyone settled in to where they’re supposed to be. Janice and Jacob are hidden away in their secret apartment at the top of The Bastard, and Nigel is in his room, while Ani and Cam have a room of their own on the first floor next to Nigel. I’m guessing that Nigel is so engrossed in his geekery that the noise Ani and Cam make nonstop doesn’t bother him any. It would sure bother me.

The cellar is so quiet with just Marika, John and me down here much of the time. Nigel has become a recluse upstairs, up in his room most of the time, geeking away happily, surrounded by cables and electronic gadgets of his own devising. I don’t think John misses him much. Actually, I don’t think John misses him at all.

Ani and Cam are similarly reclusive, but for different reasons. There’s no forgetting their presence in The Bastard, however. No matter where we are inside the building, they make us very aware of how thin the walls in the pub are for hours at a time, and how much the floorboards rattle.

Every time I hear that metal headboard creak, and every time I hear groans and moans and the muffled ping of mattress springs under pressure, I’m reminded how much I just don’t miss sharing a room with my sister. Not one bit.

But the cellar is far enough away that, with the sound of the television going, or one of our monitors, or the ongoing endless banter on the police bands, or even the noise of us all talking when we have a break and turn on a games console, we don’t tend to hear much from upstairs.

The police bands are giving us much more interest at the moment than anything going on upstairs. They’re keep us all busy, so we’re taking shifts listening to what is going on and where the investigation is up to.

Their leads on the four agents I…um…disposed of have run dry. They’re also completely at a loss as to who might have killed the two bodies they found, and where the other two agents they can’t find might be.

Some of the higher ups in the police force and in the government at large suspect foul play. They suspect that there may have been double agents involved in the incident, with the dead men killed by their now-missing partners, who have since flown out to China.

Or Taiwan. Or the Phillipines. Or France. Or anywhere.

Yep, they literally have no idea. And two missing bodies are making foul play from within the agent ranks the most likely option. That doesn’t stop them calling out for Janice and Jacob on every media platform possible. But the truth is, that’s just a mask to cover their own uselessness at figuring things out.

We’d like to keep it that way, but we’d also like to keep Janice and Jacob safe.

So the big guns are being called in. Not content with how the investigation has been run – or not run – in Dunedin, Wellington is sending down the top brass to deal with the situation. And all their minions too – over a hundred of them.

The whole damn town is about to be crawling with agents, all intent on solving the unsolvable, and making a name for themselves in the process.

We can hardly wait.

Dunedin’s local guys are all being stood down off the case as of Monday. That’s when the Wellington crew fly down here and take over.

To be honest, it sounds like the whole thing has been a complete embarrassement to our local authorities. It’s not every day they have two agents murdered (and they can’t figure out how exactly), two disappear (and they can’t figure out how exactly), and nobody is called in and charged for it. They’ve found no suspect yet – no one, that is, more likely than a pregnant woman who has never been in trouble for anything more than a bit of weed possession, and her five year old son.

Even to my ears it sounds pathetic. To the critical masses hearing it all blow by blow on the media, it’s bring out the popcorn time.

We’ve been watching the endless news reports of the incident. The whole thing, once the shock of the event was over, has pretty much made Dunedin’s police force look like the laughing stock of New Zealand. They’ve been portrayed as incompetent in every way. They keystone cops of Aotearoa.

No suspects, no motive, no clue on how the two men were murdered (tree roots don’t leave fingerprints), and two missing men who were meant to be specialist agents in their field, although the media isn’t clear what exactly they were specialists in.

Of course, the news reporters also don’t know why the agents were at Janice’s house in the first place – they’re guessing a drugs bust, as Janice was known around the area as a bit of a hippie with a few “tomato houses” out the back of her property.

The authorities aren’t helping – they have not given the media any further details about what actually went on or why two agents were there, so the media has taken the events into their own hands and made it all up as they’ve gone along, with the goal not so much to tell the truth but to sell as many papers as possible along the way.

The more sensational the story the better, and if a few facts get lost it doesn’t matter.

The guy coming down from Wellington to be charge of the new investigation is not known to us at all, which is odd. He’s called Torrance Rift, and he has absolutely no history at all that Marika and Nigel can find from hacking into agency databases, that goes back any further than two years. Nothing. Not even an old, forgotten Facebook account.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a meteoric rise to the top. To me, that either means he’s top notch cream or absolute shit – because both cream and shit float to the surface, both can stink, and it’s just a matter of your luck which one you get when you open the can.

He’s arriving in Dunedin on Monday – it’s Friday now, and the new, Rift-led investigation will begin with his arrival. We’re hoping he’s just as incompetent as our local forces, and will be gone as fast as his arrival, his investigation over quickly, leaving us in peace to get on our work without further interruption.

Since we went out to Taieri we haven’t been able to do pretty much anything and have been effectively grounded, and the drug barons have been having a field day, no one harrassing them, their deals happening openly on the street now with nothing to prevent them. It’s gravy town in Dunedin for the Ice Cream Lords.

“I’m not happy about this new investigation,” says Marika, coming down the stairs into the cellar at the end of her bar shift, a half full bottle of cider in her hand, closing the door behind her.

It’s very early Saturday morning, in the wee sma’s after closing time at The Bastard, and we’re both exhausted from a crowd in the pub that just would not leave. But hey, they kept on buying drinks, and as long as they’re fronting up with money, Carol has a policy that as long as they’re buying, the bar stays open.

She flops down on the sofa beside me, where I’m flaked out, turning a blind eye to the half-empty beer in my hand that I’ve filched from upstairs. “The Rift guy? He sounds like a newb to me.”

I take a swig of my beer. “Probably someone’s darling son, fresh out of private school, shuffled to the top job before he’s even got his shoes dirty. Dunedin will make short work of him. He’ll be gone before we know it.”

I feel comfortable in my statement about the new guy and his legion of happy little fresh-faced minions he’ll undoubtedly bring with him. Investigators from the big cities up north are notoriously dainty, and I have great faith in my town’s ability to destroy fancy city folk. Dunedin has done so countless times before, and it will do so again and again. We’re tough as guts down here in the south.

“I don’t doubt for a minute that someone’s bought the position for him. Probably his mah-my.” I snicker derisively. “Nobody gets to the top that quickly, that unknown, without any long work experience behind them, without buying their way in.”

“Are we talking about this Rift guy?” says John, peering from round his bedroom door. He’s wearing an old t-shirt with the Highlanders emblazoned on the front – his favourite sleep shirt – and his hair is tousled.

I breathe deeply, trying not to stare. I thought he’d gone to sleep hours ago, but feel pleased by the possibility that maybe he’s stayed awake until we came back down from work.

John wanders into the kitchen, grabs a pop pack of iced coffee from the fridge, and collapses on one end of the sofa next to me, bumping my beer, so I’m wedged in the middle, between him and Marika.

“It doesn’t look good, to my way of thinking,” he says quietly, poking a straw through the circular foil opening of his drink, then wiggling it down and taking a long sip.

“You’re kidding, right?” I say. “The guy is probably still wet behind the ears. Straight out of copper school. If I was going to guess, he’ll be 20 years old and some rich mumma’s darling. I’m amazed they’re letting him stray so far from home without a minder.”

“Did you even see the details on this guy that Nigel and I raked up?” asks Marika, annoyed. “We couldn’t find any background beyond a couple of years, but we did find his profile. He’s not exactly a kid. He’s probably nearer for forty, by the look of him, and he’s got more degrees than a Russian protractor to his name. I’d bet the guy’s no idiot, and I doubt he’s bought his way in.”

She takes a sip of her cider. “My guess is that this whole incident has really pissed the police off. And the agency. And the authorities. And the whole fricking government. All the way up the chain, to the very top. It’s got to them. They want blood, and they’re sending this guy down to make sure they get it.”

She looks worried. “I only hope that they’re not attaching the missing guys to anything more sinister…like the fact that they were checking out Janice, and it wasn’t for her weed plants in the greenhouse.”

I’m embarrassed that I haven’t looked at the info that Nigel and Marika have been busy digging up on this guy. But I’ve been busy. I have excuses. While they’ve been mucking around on the net, finding all this shit out, I’ve been busy getting Janice settled in, and fixing half-broken toys that I found at charity shops for a five year old boy who is only going to break them again anyway. I’ve been making their rooms inhabitable. It hasn’t been a small job. Yeah, she’s a hippie and all but I found out that even hippies have standards. Low ones, but standards.

“I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to read what you’ve found.” I say earnestly. “I’ve been flat out helping Janice and Jacob settle in. This week has been insane.”

I take another swig of my beer, and lick the foam off my lips, thoughtfully. “Do you think we’re actually at risk from this guy?”

“I don’t know,” says Marika. “I really hope not. But he’s coming down to find answers. And it’s a long way to come, and to send all those people with him. There are over a hundred specialists and regular forces people coming down. It’s a mass of them. We can’t just joke about and assume they won’t find anything. He’s not going to muck around. We’re going to have to be real careful.”

“They don’t have anything to go on, though,” I say, taking another sip of my beer, and pulling at the label, ripping the edges off. It’s a habit I can’t seem to stop – I’ve been doing it for years, ever since I had my first beer at the age of fourteen and fell in love with the stuff.

“Sure, everything happened at Janice’s house, but she and Jacob have disappeared from the face of the earth, as far as everyone is concerned. Even if they suspect her, they’ve nothing to go on. Nothing. They don’t know where she is. She could be in China, for all they know. Or France. Last I heard on the radio tonight, they were suspecting Belgium. So as long as they’re not spotted or associated with us, there’s no way any of this can be tracked back to us. To here. We should be safe.”

“We should be,” says John, slurping around the carton at the remnants of his milky drink. I’m amazed at how fast he can polish off an iced coffee. Horrible stuff, but he seems to like it. Different strokes and all, I suppose. “But we can’t guarantee anything. And until someone else is blamed for what went on, until someone else is blamed for the deaths – because you can be sure, if they can’t find us, they’re going to want to blame someone – we’re not safe. Janice and Jacob are stuck here with us, whether they like it or not. They’re prisoners at The Bastard, until this all blows over. Which could be a while. The police don’t like to be embarrassed, even though everyone else has enjoyed the show, thanks to the mass media.”

I laugh. “I can think of worse places to be holed up than a pub! And it has been really kind of amusing, watching the huge stuff up. But as long as they keep blaming the dead guys, and assuming that there were double agents over from China, or Belgium, or anywhere else, it’s all good with me.”

“So,” says John, dumping his empty ice coffee carton on the low table in front of him, and putting his feet up next to it, wriggling his hairy toes and making Marika roll her eyes. “What’s our plan? Ignore this guy, but tread carefully in the meanwhile, until it all dies down?”

I nod. “Pretty much. I was talking with Nigel today – and bloody hell, he’s only been in that upstairs room for two days, and already it’s a fire hazard. Stuff everywhere! And it stinks. But yeah, I was talking with him and as he pointed out, we’re still not really sure what Janice’s Powers actually are. We need to do some testing. Ideally field testing. We’ve got the weekend until this guy comes down from up north. Until then, things should be pretty quiet, because there’s no way the local guys are going to get off their asses and do serious hunting for us all now they’re off the case and it’s been shifted upwards. So he’s taking them field testing tomorrow, before the northerners are here. It’s risky, but far less risky than in a few days’ time, and it needs to be done. It can’t be done here.”

I finish off my beer, and place the bottle upright on the coffee table, next to John’s empty carton.

“So what Nigel was saying is, if we’re going to do some field testing, the next couple of days are the time to do it. Because after that, once Monday comes, the whole town is going to be crawling with Northern pigs and brass. They’ll be everywhere, all trying to impress their big boss. I don’t know if they’re planning any door-knocking, but we may as well plan for it. We could have them on our doorstep, asking questions, which won’t be fun. Janice and Jacob are well hidden away, up on the top floor, and it’s really unlikely they’d ever be found unless a search was tipped off, as The Bastard is well known to be empty on the top floors. But we can expect they might come down here, and ask us some questions. We probably need to have some answers, and they’d better be good ones. Just in case.”

I stand up. “I’m off to bed,” I say, yawning. “Nigel might be taking Janice out field testing in the morning, but tht doesn’t mean we all have to go. I’m buggered if I will. I have a very important date with a sleep in planned. I’m not sure I’d be awake enough to deal with it anyway. So I’m staying here and you lot can go. It’s not like I’m needed as well. And fewer people will attract less attention.”

“I might take a raincheck on it too,” says John, casually. “If it’s a choice between one of Nigel’s field tests and sleeping in, I think sleeping in might just come first. You’re not the only one who has had a busy week.”

“Oh great,” says Marika. “It’ll be me, Nigel, and the hippie. Because you can bet that Ani and Cam won’t come. Ever since they’ve got a room of their own, they’ve hardly left it. The bed springs would miss them if they actually got up. They’re not going to want to spend a day in the truck taking down readings for ‘Professor’ Nigel.”

“You’re not going to want them in the truck either, that’s for sure,” says John, stretching. “If we’ve got them here and you only have to put up with Nigel and Janice, we’re going to suffer a whole lot more than you. I think I need to invest in some ear plugs.”

Before I go to my room that evening, I leave a note on the kitchen table. It says: “Staying home Saturday. So is John. We’ll be listening on the radio for you by eleven in the morning. Don’t disturb us until then. Rose.”

I sleep pretty much like the dead that Friday night.

Early on the Saturday morning, somewhere around sunrise, I’m dimly aware of a clattering around in the kitchen, and the sound of many people moving around and getting ready to go out. Every so often I hear a “Shhhhh! You’ll wake them up!” followed by a spate of giggling.

I throw my quilt over my head, and dive down further under its soft pillowy warmth, trying to block out the sound. Eventually I hear a door shut, followed by silence.

I hate my friends sometimes.

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