As we descended the stairs I gently guided Derp to the left-hand side. He went willingly enough but I still felt compelled to explain.
“It is safer on that side. You will see, soon enough,” I commented.
“Mrs Wassieson!” I called as we made our way down the corridor towards the front portico. “I am heading out now. I probably won’t be back until we have all died. But just in case, if you could keep my supper warm in the oven I would be most grateful!”
There was a clatter of pans from the kitchen. Whether this was in acknowledgement of my request, or because Mrs Wassieson was at that moment under attack from a band of outcast thugs, I had no idea. In either circumstance it was likely immaterial. Other than that in the latter case some outcasts were about to be brutally battered to death with kitchen utensils.
As Derp and I walked through the doorway I felt the firm clang against my helmet that I had been expecting. A knife clattered to the cobblestones. If Derp had been to the right of me he would now have a kitchen knife embedded in his skull. I glanced at the bright yellow wassie, and wondered if he would have noticed?
“Good day to you Mono,” I called, and a young wassie emerged from the shadows around my doorway. He was an ugly looking chap, a single brow running above large vacuous eyes. His beaver tail dragged behind him as he stepped forward.
“Nearly ‘ad you ser!” he cackled, and for a terrifying second I thought he was about to give one of his ear-splitting barks.
“Indeed you did Mono, well done,” I congratulated him. It was something of a tradition that Mono would try to assassinate me every time I left the house. For the first few days it had been a game of cat and mouse, but we had now settled into a comfortable routine, where I always left wearing my helmet of thinking and he always threw a knife at my head from the shadows to the left of the doorway.
“Listen Mono,” I said. “Derp and I are off on a mission, possibly something grotesque is afoot. And I may need you later. If I send word, will you be contactable at the usual place?”
Mono made a truly hideous noise in the back of his throat and spat at my feet.
“I despise you professor and, yes indeed, one day I will dance upon your still warm corpse.”
I nodded happily. Good, he would await my call, should I need his help. Oh, almost all of what he said was murderous bravado, but hidden amongst his demented outburst was ‘yes indeed’. This was as good as things would get in terms of communicating with Mono. I liked him immensely.
A Hansom cab pulled by an enormous guinea pig stood on the opposite side of the cobbled street.
“What excellent luck! Come Derp, we have no time to waste!” Which was entirely true. The sun was setting, and we both had little more than five hours to solve this mystery.
After much prompting Derp relayed the address to the driver of the cab and with a crack of his whip the guinea pig shambled into motion. It was an awkward gait, and the cab swung continually from side to side, but the creature was surprisingly swift.
As we rattled down the streets of wassieversei I tried to tease some additional details about the mystery from Derp.
“So, what do you know about this zombie that has returned to life Derp?”
Derp blinked, and for a second I feared he would be unable to answer.
“Called Keith,” he said. Good, good. That was something.
“And how long have you known Keith?” I asked.
“What day is today?” said Derp.
“Wednesday,” I replied.
“Met him today,” said Derp.
I winced a little and rubbed my temples. It was like I could feel my IQ dropping during this conversation.
“Dunno where he came from. Dunno where he ‘sposed to be. Just know it not right. Not natrul.”
Derp seemed exhausted by this monologue, and I resolved to question him no more. In any event, it wasn’t long before we were pulling up a long gravel pathway before a fine Georgian villa.
“Ear you are, ser,” said the cabbie. I paid, and Derp and I dismounted. The guinea pig immediately shuffled into motion, the Hansom cab pulling off the driveway and disappearing into the night.
It was fully dark now. The upper levels of the villa were bathed in the cheese-coloured light of a full moon, hanging square and ridiculous in the sky. But the lower levels were cloaked in thick shadow. A black wrought iron fence surrounded the property, thick columns of carved stone to either side of the gateway.
Suddenly a red point of light flared in the deep shadows to the side of one of the columns. For a terrifying moment I thought it must be one of the laser bros, Zip and Zap. But the point of red light moved slowly forward and coalesced into the lit end of a cigar. The other end of the cigar was clamped in the beak of a wassie. His natural glitch colouring was the perfect camouflage in all conditions, his fuzzy body seeming to merge seamlessly with his surroundings. His eyes were hooded and intense, and you could just tell that nothing escaped their notice. All this, combined with the cowboy hat perched on the back of the head, let me know exactly who this was.
That he also knew me was something of a surprise.
“Professor,” he said respectfully, inclining his head very slightly. I returned the gesture.
“Mr Vantooso,” I replied. “I hadn’t expected to see you here.” And indeed this was true. Billy “The Quack” Vantooso was the universe’s premier wassie detective. It was rumoured he had never had a case he couldn’t crack. It was also rumoured that he had never, in fact, had a case. But those rumours were said very very quietly, because Billy “The Quack” Vantooso was as hard as nails.
“Got your message, Derp buddy,” said Billy, nodding to Derp. Derp flapped his tongue in what seemed a happy gesture. “Sorry I wasn’t there when you called round,” Billy continued. “You see, I was out on the streets, the hard mean streets, chasing leads. And solving crimes.”
Billy paused, a little longer than was comfortable. So, I had not been the first wassie that Derp had come to for aid. My pride felt stung.
“So professor, you know the dame that lives here?” asked Billy. I shook my head. I spent much more time in the lab than on the streets, the hard mean streets.
“None other than Wassielen of Wassieroy,” said Billy.
My heart skipped a beat. I had no idea! Wassielen of Wassieroy was the most beautiful wassie to have ever lived, as far as all of us who had been alive for 13.75 days knew.
“That’s right,” continued Billy. “And this zombie is in there too. I been waitin’ on you Derp, but now I think we need to go in. Time is not on our side.”
With that he strode away, through the gate and up the steps towards the grand entrance to the villa. Derp seemed to be waiting on me to move, rather than just following Billy, which made me feel a little better.
As I approached the doorway, a few steps behind Billy, I became increasingly nervous. It was said that to meet Wassielen was to lose your mind, so complete was her beauty. Wassie, both male and female alike, were reduced to gibbering wrecks of wanton desire. My intellect was all I had, I could not, must not lose that.
Quickly I began reciting my mental cantrip. The walking meditation I could perform to make my mind an impenetrable fortress of mental resolve. It was but three simple words:
Wen rug ser, wen rug ser, wen rug ser, wen rug ser.
I repeated it over and over and over again, in a way that was both infuriating and hypnotic. I felt myself calming and my mind settle into a state of awesome mental flow. Wen rug ser.
Derp was by my side when we reached the door, Billy had already hammered his flipper into the great brass knocker. The door wrenched open, almost as if we had been expected. Given the size of the house I had expected to be greeted by a doorman. But there, framed in the glow of lamplight from beyond, like a celestial being descending to earth on a mote of sunlight, stood Wassielen of Wassieroy.
It was like a mental blow. If I had not already started my meditation and prepared my defences, I fear I would have been lobotomised on the spot. No single creature should possess such beauty! Wassielen was a soft gold, perfect proportions, long-lashed eyes, with the perfect amount of drool hanging from her beak.
For a split second I felt my mental barrier crack. It threatened to shatter before this onslaught of other-wordly beauty. By instinct I invoked my most powerful mental recitation. Wen moooooooooooooon?!?!?! I howled, inside. It worked, and I remained sane.
If Wassielen had any effect at all on Billy he gave no sign of it. I was infuriated. I glanced across at Derp to see how he was faring. His tongue hung from his mouth in a limp fashion, his gaze glazed, his head cocked to one side in an expression of vacant idiocy. No change then. Good.
“Good evnin’ maam,” said Billy, briefly raising his hat, revealing the glint of metal underneath as he did so.
“Oh thank goodness you are here!” said Wassielen of Wassieroy. “I have sent to the staff to bed, after all they will be dead shortly, as will we all. But I just couldn’t sleep, not with that poor tortured soul under my roof. What have they done to him. . . Who would. . .” She gave a loud sniff and trailed off. “You, um, are the police, aren’t you?” she asked, looking at Derp.
“Yes indeed maam, yes indeed,” said Billy, who most definitely was not. “May we come in?”
“Yes, my apologies, please do,” said Wassielen, stepping aside with such grace I was once again grateful for my cantrip.
The atrium beyond was stunning, high-ceilinged with an enormous chandelier in the centre. Dark oak panelling covered the walls and about 16 feet up there was a walkway around the entire circumference of the light and airy space. Not for the first time I wondered how all of this had come into being, given we were all less than two week’s old, but my mind at once skittered away from the question.
“He is in the blue drawing room,” said Wassielen, leading us quickly from the atrium. “He came in about midday. Now, I have nothing against zombies. Or werewolves, or unicorns, or even,” and here she swallowed, “even that kangaroo. But there is a natural order to things, isn’t there? Zombies should be dead. I mean, they can move, fine. And they can interact. They can be good company, and we all know how loyal they are. Good conversation too, up to a point. I mean, some of my best friends are zombies! And of course when I say friends I mean staff. But, anyway, Carutthers hears a knock at the door and there he is, bold as brass. ‘Can I come in I am rather thirsty’ he says. Carruthers nearly gets to the end of today early, if you know what I mean. Needed to sit down for a while. And, well, I thought it best to keep him comfortable.” She paused as she turned the ornate doorknob and swung open the door. “Here he is.”
We entered the room slowly, while Wassielen remained in the hallway. There, seated in a large red leather armchair was a zombie wassie. It wasn’t all that easy to tell he was a zombie at first. His arms were crossed neatly in his lap, not held out in front of him, and he had a rather quizzical expression on his face.
“Oh hello,” he said cheerily. “Any chance of that water now?”