The Mouse That Roared – Part 2
Friday 25th November
9 pm CET
“We need to get back – dry your eyes Shirley. Show time…”
"You make Paris back then sound like a sink hole of depravity," Rachel said as she looked round the table. "at least for young models."
"Oh as bad as Paris was, it was many times better then Milan," Grace visibly shuddered, "that place was out of control. Young models were being raped and abused there blatantly in the open."
"At least in Paris they made a little effort to keep it hidden," Karen let a couple of tears drop.
“Oh yes. In the early eighties until Terry Broome killed that bastard Francesco D'Alessio darlings," Mandy's drawl faltered, "then at least they did try and clean things up.”
"Yes but it was still infinitely worse than Paris when we arrived on the scene after that," Grace tried to pull herself together, "they just took it all out of sight."
"But surely the media, the politicians..." Claire started to ask a question.
often up to their necks in the muck, often as participants," Alice
"If you want details I suggest you ask our hostess," Grace took a sip of wine, "I'm sure Francesca can tell you a lot of what she was told was going on in Milan especially."
"So didn't I once read that Jack Linklater played a huge role in the early success of Norstar Missy?" Liz Lodge asked as the pudding was served.
"He'd deny it," Mary Thomas laughed. “He’s the master at self-denial.”
"It's true though," Missy smiled. "I'd often been Jack's point of contact when he was seeking to book models for shoots when I was still at Ford. When I joined the fledgling Norstar he stayed in contact, and I’m not sure if it was our friendship, or if he genuinely liked using our girls for his pictures, but he gradually booked more and more Norstar girls for the things he was photographing."
"I was booking Jack to do work for CS, and he'd insist on using such and such a girl, and that is how several girls who were with Norstar back in their days had their careers built," Mary smiled broadly.
"And of course once an agency gets a reputation for the fact its booking star models, it becomes easier to attract more fresh new talent, so in answer to your question Liz I guess you can say that Jack bless his heart did help..."
"A lot," Mary finished what was Missy was saying.
"So tell us a bit about John please Shirley?" Zoe asked as they all finished their puddings.
"Well he's John..." Shirley paused to think, "he's gentle, he's kind, he's cultured..."
pretty much perfect," Agnes smiled, "and I'm not saying that just
because I'm his cousin. He and Shirley really are a perfect match."
"I went to
his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery," Claire Teal smiled,
"I thought at the time he was a man I'd like to meet."
you'll meet him at the wedding Claire, and yes as he shows in his pictures I
think what I love about John most is that he rarely judges people, but he
does both care for them and understand that we aren't all perfect."
also a strong enough person, and confident enough in himself, that he doesn't
let Shirley overwhelm him," Cat looked serious for a second. "They
don't argue often..."
"But when we do he gives me as much back as I dish out," Shirley laughed gently.
have the first couple of days of actual filming gone Dom?" Penny whispered
in her friends ear.
Mads seem very pleased," the tall blonde stopped for a second, "but
I'm still not sure why."
must be doing something right?" Lily held her brandy glass as they all
headed to the hotel lounge to relax.
"I know, but when I look at how Mads uses his face and body I guess I feel wooden and stiff in comparison."
“You’re playing a Norse Goddess,” Helen laughed, “I think that sounds natural…”
"So what are your opinions on your father Maisha?" Hannah asked as the women relaxed in the lounge.
"My opinions?" Maisha looked at Shirley’s friends with a puzzled expression. "What should I say about him?"
starters,” Hannah said with a smile, “what do you think his best qualities are?
What have you learned most from him?"
"That's not easy to put into words," the young black girl paused to think. "I guess the main thing he's taught me is to always try my best at whatever I do."
"I've known John for a number of years Hannah," Juliette said as she sipped her drink, "and whenever he takes on a task he spends a lot of time in research and planning."
Maisha smiled, "both he and Mum have shown me that success comes from not
just natural talent, but as much from hard work and self-discipline. It is something I have taken to heart since
Mum took me under her wing."
one of Maisha's tutors can I say that it is a lesson she has learned very
well," Agnes sipped from her drink. "She works very hard on all the
work I set her."
preparation permits perfect performance," Mandy drawled, "and I
wouldn't like to say that several times in a row darlings," she laughed.
also taught me though that relaxation and enjoyment are often just as important
as work," Maisha smiled, "I know I'll never be a great tennis player,
but I do love the sport, and he's told me that it’s important to have things in
life that are simply for fun"
he said about your boyfriends Maisha?" Tonia asked.
boyfriends?" Maisha blushed, "I've not really had a serious boyfriend
isn't because the boys at the tennis club aren't interested," Cat laughed.
"Dad has told me though that he trusts me to not do anything stupid." again Maisha blushed, "and I appreciate his confidence in me."
“Sounds like you have your head screwed on…”
As Alexis sat down with Janine, she said “you know, you were right Janine – I just needed to relax a bit. I haven’t felt so…”
She suddenly looked round as Janine said “Alexis?”
“Sorry – I thought I heard someone calling to me. But, as I said, I haven’t felt so relaxed in months…”
She looked at Alexis – the call had been clear as soon as she had walked in, and she had responded to her subtle call. Or rather, the being inside her had – Natalya had not been speaking out of turn, and the poor young lady had no idea of what was hiding in her.
It was a rare occasion, but she knew what she had to do now – there were preparations to be made…
indicated where you might be going on honeymoon Shirl?" Bobbi Gresham-Fox
asked as they sat round a table.
December, basically the choice is between somewhere with a lot of snow, and the
tropics and a lot of sun," Sandy sat on a sofa. "George took me to
Switzerland for our honeymoon. Ten days in Gstaad of wintertime fun."
admit the idea of curling up together in front of a roaring fire does have a
certain appeal," Shirley smiled.
I went to Barbados for our honeymoon," Catriona remembered, "and with
all due respect to ski chalets, making love on a sandy beach while the waves
come ashore has open fires beat any day."
"She has a point," Diana laughed.
“She does indeed,” Juliette said with a smile.
“So what do you plan to do while we ride tomorrow morning,” Cat said as she looked at Agnes.
“Well – I did promise the girls I’d bring them a present back, so I may head into town with Tamsin for a while, then have a coffee somewhere. The walls scream of stories in this place – and I don’t have to show how bad I am on a horse.”
“That does seem a sensible plan – I may join you,” Bobbi said with a smile. “Sue – a visit to the town tomorrow.”
“Sounds good,” Sue said with a smile as she sat down, her hand on the small bump.
“How is Charlotte’s little place?”
“Little? A tad understated Bobbi…”
Saturday 26th November
8 am CET
Castel San Pietro
"So who was that showing such an alarming command of the English language as they screamed earlier?" Charlotte asked as her guests at the castle started to join her for breakfast.
"Maisha," Sue laughed as she sat down and accepted a glass of freshly squeezed Orange Juice, “she dropped something on her foot and I think it hurt just a little bit."
"You know for a girl who didn't speak English till a couple of years ago,” Annie said with a smile, “she has almost as good a knowledge of the language’s darkest corners as Tonia."
"Well Cari was helping her put an ice pack on her foot to help with the bruising. Have you heard from home?"
“Judith and the twins are fine with Grappy Pops,” Annie said with a smile, “having the time of their lives, by all accounts.”
Villa dei Mille Fiori
"So who was that Shirley?" Francesca asked as more guests wandered onto the terrace to have breakfast.
"My daughter,” Shirley said as she shook her head, “she's not happy."
"Oh why?" Francesca asked.
dropped a small marble statuette she was looking at on her foot."
"So Carina is helping her try reduce any swelling." Shirley poured herself some orange juice, "I think it’s just bruised but I'll get Lucia to look when she arrives.”
“What do I need to have a look at?”
Shirley smiled as she turned ot see the dark haired woman who was standing in thr doorway, handing her coat to the housekeeper.
“Francesca, allow me to introduce Dr Lucia Bianchini. Lucia, our hostess, Francesca, Marchesa di Cambrello.”
“It is an honour to meet you,” Lucia said as Francesca kissed her on both cheeks. “My apologies for the late arrival – but I will make it up to you, Shirley, by coming back to New York with you.”
“Oh come on, I’m just so glad you could make it – Maddie, Sandra, she made it.”
Lucia turned and smiled as she said “is that truly Sandra Kirk I see there?”
“I hope so, or I’m in real trouble,” Sandra said as she came over and hugged the latest arrival. “Come and have some breakfast and let’s talk over old times…”
"Did Helen hold that exercise class?" Juliette asked Catherine as they both inspected what was on offer for breakfast.
"She did,” Catherine said as she took some pastries, “and surprisingly she had about half a dozen people there."
last night?" Juliette shook her head, "they must be masochists."
rather what I thought," Catherine laughed, "I think everyone really
enjoyed themselves last night, especially Shirley."
main part,” Juliette said as she looked over.
“I think some of the conversation about old times veered into areas she
didn't want to revisit."
"That I understand." the Chinese woman poured herself a coffee, "I overheard some of what was being said about Paris when we were at the Sorbonne."
“I know – to think that was all going on under our noses…”
does know a thing or two about bruises," Caroline smiled as she, Penny,
and Lily walked down the hill to the main villa from the gatehouse, all three
wearing jumpers and jeans. "She'll
make sure that Maisha is okay."
Ama say when you told her?" Lily asked.
"That I should
ring her later, but we mainly were talking about the practice game today."
excited?" Penny asked.
"Just a little," Caroline laughed. "They will be naming the team to play against Norway in the friendly after New Years afterwards."
“And she stands a chance?”
Penny and Caroline both turned to look at Lily.
“Yeah, stupid question. Come on, let’s join the others…”
"So what did I miss last night?" Lucia asked her old friends as they sat on the terrace.
"Some exceptional food," Sandra smiled, “a lot of wine being drunk..."
"And a lot of memories of old times," Maddie finished.
Lucia raised an eyebrow before she said "both good and bad, true?"
"Yes," Shirley whispered. "I think we maybe need sit and talk a bit sometime today or tomorrow.'
probably long since overdue that we did," Lucia nodded.
"Before that though, we all need have some fun," Maddie laughed, "Francesca has so much we can do here."
“So I can imagine – what plans do you have?”
“Well, Emma has asked if we can go out onto the lake today,” Maddie said, “want to join us?”
“Who’s manning the boat?”
“One of Francesca’s staff – I know you have heard of her?”
“I knew of her – but she is not what I had expected,” Lucia said quietly.
“Are any of us truly?”
Sandra laughed as Lucia shook her head. “No, that is obviously true…”
"Oh and before anything my Maisha will be here shortly," Shirley looked concerned for a second, "she dropped an ornament on her foot this morning, and while I hope nothing is broken can you please look Lucia?"
"Certainly Shirley, I've been looking forward to meeting her."
“Going for a walk?”
“Always a good idea before breakfast,” Helga said as she and Karen looked at Marianne and Liz.”
“Well, we’ll head up in a few minutes,” Liz said as she and Marianne went back to their rooms, Karen and Helga making their way out of the villa and along a path through the woods on the shoreline.
“You are aware she saw someone she thought she recognised,” Karen said as they walked along.
“I know – she may want to kill us at some point in the next weekend,” Karen said quietly as they walked into a clearing, and saw two more women standing there.
“Greetings Teacher,” the taller of the two women said, “in the name of The Heart and The Strength.”
"Greetings to you as well. Anything to report?" Teacher asked as she and Karen stood in the clearing talking to the tall black woman.
"As of this moment then no."
your guard though," Karen Kumalo suddenly looked worried, "I'm
sensing something being whispered on the winds.”
nodded before she said "Do we need alert the Italians?"
no," Helga paused to think, "I suspect if Karen has heard, they know
as well. But keep eyes firmly on our
“We will talk later,” Helga said quietly as they bowed, and went their separate ways.
"Francesca darling do you have a minute?" Maria Riva asked as Francesca walked into the drawing room.
"For you Aunt Maria always."
you need to be aware,” Maria said as Francesca sat next to her, “that Peter
Hope is about to land in Rome with his other wife, his son, and a couple of
friends of his from the old days."
Francesca cursed. "Could this just all be coincidental?"
Zola texted me just in case it wasn't."
Francesca said quietly "is La Citadella going to have eyes on him once
he's going to spot he is carrying a tail."
know," Francesca paused for thought, "I thought John Vosloo had
ensured that he had been asked to retire from South African Intelligence?"
"Mister Hope has been put on 'sick leave' pending an investigation, your old friend Hennie is also being looked at I heard."
"Well that I know wasn't John's work,” Francesca shook her head. “He would never turn on Hennie."
"No,” Maria nodded in agreement, “I think this is more to do with a collective institutional purge to determine why they never uncovered Mouse."
"So is Peter acting for himself?" Francesca looked concerned.
"Our former masters think that might be possible."
“Well, I am taking her for a sail this morning, so she will be safe with me…”
"What we were talking about last night darlings?" Mandy drawled as she and her friends sat eating with Caroline, "and, more importantly, do we need talk more?"
"You mean about me running away to join her in London?" Caroline asked.
so," Karen sipped her juice, "we didn't talk about that summer that
your father tried to make you a family."
Dad," Caroline shook her head, "he never did stop loving her, and
then when he saw some photos of her, and how she was looking, he felt he had to
come and try to oull her out. But, by
the time he came down with me and tried to get Mum to finally marry
McCabe and the drugs meant he never had a chance," Mandy shook her head.
that isn't quite true," Karen spoke softly.
Sweets?" Alice asked in surprise.
"Stella told me a couple of times, when we more compos mentis, that she wanted to go, to get married, give you a real home with a mother and father Caroline. She really did feel guilty that you were being deprived of that – but then, I guess you got that from the letters.”
Caroline slowly nodded as she said “I never knew that though…”
“The problem was, she’d make the decision, and then the cravings would take over - and I think she realised that for his sake your father might be better off without her, that he should marry someone else."
"Why did you never tell me that before Aunt Charity," Caroline asked in a barely audible whisper.
"Because she asked me not to. That was why she told him to leave and take you with him, but of course you ran away and came straight back."
“I had seen the lifestyle, and compared to my father and me, and how we were living… I was bored, and then I ran away. Then I met McCabe, I saw what he was – but it was too late, he had been killed in that car crash, and I was there with Mum. She really didn’t have much… Much…”
The tears came unbidden as Karen and Mandy held Caroline…
“There you are,” Shirley said as she saw Maisha come in Charlotte and the others, walking gingerly as she tried not to put pressure on one foot. “Come – sit down, let Lucia have a look at you.”
“Thank you,” Maisha said as she sat in a chair, Lucia kneeling and removing her loosely tied trainer and sock before she checked her foot. She glanced up as Maisha winced, and said “yes, that is going to hurt – but I don’t think you have broken anything. I would not, however, suggest a trip into town or any vigorous exercise this morning – rest around the house.”
“April and I are going to be touring the gardens this morning,” Helga said as she came over, “she should be safe to join us, yes?”
“I think so,” Lucia said as she stood up, “just take it easy…”
9.30 am CET
“Does anyone fancy a few hands of poker?”
“With you Pru?” Marina suppressed a laugh as she shook her head, “I work hard for my meager pittance, I’m not losing it to you.”
“But would you lose it to me?” a cultured voice asked as a petite blonde walked in.
“Nor you Bev,” Marina laughed as she stood and kissed her old friend, “You went straight to Charlotte’s place then?”
“I arrived just as they were all preparing to come over. And how could I refuse a late invitation to some decent food?”
“Did it go well in Zurich?” Marina whispered.
“Mission accomplished,” the younger woman whispered back. “I understand our Sensei is here?”
“She is – exercise tomorrow?”
“So does no one fancy playing cards then?” Pru asked again.
“Not poker, not with two professionals like you and Bev,” Marianne looked up from what she was reading on her phone, “but a few rubbers of bridge this afternoon might interest me.”
“You play bridge?” Eleanor’s ears all but shot up, “Veronica and I will be in that.”
“I’ll make up a foursome if no one else will,” Sherry joined the conversation.
“Bridge?” Pru groaned, “where is the fun in that?”
“It is a game of strategy,” Eleanor said as she laughed, “but not the same kidn as you know. Beverley, you look well.”
“I am keeping well,” Bev said with a smile, “how is my ‘cousin’?”
“Still acting much older than she is…”
“So what should I be shopping for in Sentua?” Janice asked as the party assembled to go into town.
“Oh there are a good variety of stores,” Francesca smiled, “but the prices are designed to gouge tourists, so don’t pay the marked price, tell them you are my guest for the weekend and if they don’t come down in price, don’t buy.”
“Will they actually reduce prices if they know we are friends, or guests, of yours?” Zoe asked in shock.
“Oh you’d be surprised what the di Cambrello name can get done around here, even today,” Charlotte giggled lightly.
“It’s like me offering friends discounts in my shops,” Alice checked herself in the mirror.
“For which many of us are eternally grateful,” Carina pulled her jacket tight.
“But when will APCO be opening in Munich or Geneva so I can share in these discounts?” Natalya asked.
“Not in the immediate future,” Alice smiled, “but I am opening in Paris next spring.”
“At least that is closer than my having to go shop in New York,” Natalya smiled.
“Does that mean you are going to show at Fashion Week in Paris as well Bats?” Juliette asked with professional interest.
“And if yes, are you expecting us to all haul our tush’s over to France to walk said show?” Grace asked.
“I could threaten to withdraw your discounts if you don’t” Alice laughed.
“You do realize that my daughter is still at school?” Barbara looked up from checking her makeup.
“I do, and no I won’t expect everyone to make it, but it will be nice to have at least a few girls who walk the New York show will agree to do the Paris one.”
“Mind if we come with you Aunt Natalya,” Carina asked as she and Gale came over, “We’d like to get something for the kids.”
“Of course my dear,” Natalya said with a smile, “of course…”
“Not joining the shopping party Shirley?” Maria Riva asked as she walked into the drawing room.
“No,” Shirley said with a smile, “the thought of a sauna and a massage before lunch had rather more appeal then crowded stores.”
“Well I can understand that,” the older lady smiled and winced at the same time as she sat down.
“Is your hip giving you trouble today?”
“Oh no worse than usual,” Maria tried to sit comfortably, “just hope and pray that one day you don’t develop arthritis, it really is a pain.”
“So I understand,” Shirley laughed gently, “but at least you can joke about it a little.”
“Let me put it this way,” Maria said as she looked over, “I’m not going to let it ruin what remaining years the Lord has seen fit to allow me.”
“I admire that attitude.’
“I can see you do,” Maria said quietly, Shirley noticing the way the older woman was looking at her. “Tell me - has Francesca told you who I am Shirley?”
“You mean other than the proud mother of a great doctor?”
“Yes other then that,” the old lady smiled again.
“Oh,” Shirley said as she leaned forward, clasping her hands together, “she might have mentioned that you were once a very senior civil servant who worked in…what did she call them? The more hidden departments of the Italian government?”
Smiling, Maria nodded. “You could put it that way.”
“And I take it Francesca has told you of certain groups that I may, or may not, be connected to?”
“She didn’t have to dear,” Maria smiled, “let me just say that Lady C is an old and trusted contact of mine, and that at various times she has talked to me about you Madame.”
Shirley stared at Maria, before she said “I need to ask her about that at some point. Given your – past position, what are you going to do?”
“My dear Shirley, you are an educated woman – you must be aware of the close links between our secret societies and government. Besides, there are other things I need to consider.”
“When I was a much younger girl,” Maria said quietly, “I walked into a meeting my father was having by accident. There were three women there – and my father introduced them to me as Dr Huntingdown, Mrs Rockland and Mrs Xavier.”
“Ah – so you met some of XYY?”
Maria nodded as she said “they were in late middle age then, of course, but all three smiled and said hello to me. It was only in later years I learnt of the work they did. And then – well, when Francesca was allowed to retire, there was a sizable faction who felt she should just be – gone.”
Maria shook her head as she said “no – but in the end, the voice from the City was loud, as was that of a certain former head of government. He was most forthright – and to my eye, very afraid. I naturally asked myself who would have scared him so – and you came to mind.
“And then, as you say, there are the other groups you work with. Particularly those who helped to rescue a dear friend from a dire situation. For that, I am grateful.”
“It wasn’t me per se, but thank you – and on that note, where is she?”
“Close – very close,” Maria said quietly, “perhaps you may see her later.”
10.30 am CET
“Is your foot alright Maisha?” April asked as they slowly walked down a flower-lined path in the compound gardens.
“Yes the doctor said it is only bruised.”
“How did you drop a statuette on your foot anyway?” Helga asked.
“By being clumsy, and stupid,” the black girl shook her head, “I wanted to feel how heavy it was…and now I know…precisely.”
“Oh dear,” April laughed, “well when you want to rest just say and we can sit on one of these benches.”
“Changing the subject,” Helga said as they entered another section, “Francesca planted an interesting selection of plants when she created this African part of the gardens.”
“I agree Helga,” April paused to take a couple of photographs, “I was trying to work out how many varieties of protea she has here.”
“Well I gave up counting when I passed 25,” the Swedish woman laughed.
“We had a beautiful Acacia tree like this growing near where my family lived,” Maisha paused and looked at the plant, “when it finally finishes growing it will provide wonderful shade.”
“That it will,” Helga stood and looked as well. “These trees always remind me of Africa.”
“My father…my real father…used to take me to go sit under the tree on really hot days and he would talk to me of so many wonderful things,” Maisha said as she sat on a bench, and let a tear slip.
“You must miss him and your Mother so much,” April said as she sat down, retrieved a Kleenex from her bag and gave it to the young girl.
“I do,” Maisha smiled, “but then I remember Mum and Dad here and how lucky I have been compared to so many girls.”
“You and Ama have both been lucky,” Helga smiled. “I admire you both for your big hearts, and your inner strength.”
“Thank you,” Maisha said as she smiled at the Swede.
“You are both wonderful girls,” April smiled as well. “It’s just a pity Ama had to go to that camp this weekend?”
“True – but if my sister plays well, she will be honoured, and I support her for that.”
“Changing subjects again” Helga said, “have you thought of anything to recommend to Francesca that she plants April?”
“In this African section? Not really, you know a lot more about that area of the world then I do Helga.”
“I’ve come up with one or two ideas for her.”
“Well, let’s move on and see what else comes to mind…”
Francesca stood and looked out over the lake, seeing Marianne and a group as they left the stables on some horses, and others as they started to walk to the town. So far, it had been a good weekend.
“Penny for them?”
“Just thinking a lot of silly thoughts,” Francesca said as she recognised the voice, and turned to see the redhead come out.
“So is everybody busy doing something already?” Alex asked as she joined Francesca on the main lawn in front of the villa. “I spotted a couple of little groups exploring the gardens as I walked over.”
“I think most of them are still making up their minds what they want to do.”
“There are an awful lot of choices,” Alex laughed gently, “the Club didn’t offer nearly as much as this in Pretoria.”
“It was a still a good place though,” Francesca smiled as well, “and you could learn an awful lot of useful things just by spending Saturday there and listening to the gossip.”
“Ah yes gossip,” Alex laughed, “I really do wonder if most people really ever understand just what they can tell trained ears like ours with their chit-chat?”
“They have no idea.”
“Anyway enough of memories,” the redhead looked round to make sure they couldn’t be overheard, “why did you call me over?”
“I called because Peter, his ‘family’, and a couple of his former goons, are due to be landing in Rome any minute.”
“Oh crap,” Alex blanched, “could it be he is just visiting his in-laws, and that after Los Angeles he’s got paranoid and is bringing along his own protection?”
“From what I understand ‘her’ family have long since disowned her after they worked out she was in a bigamous relationship.”
“So you think he might be suspicious that I am still alive?”
“I don’t know,” Francesca paused, “but La Citadella will be watching him from the moment he lands, and I thought I ought give you a heads up.”
Alex nodded as Francesca said “so – coffee?”
“Why not,” she said as they went back in and into the drawing room – only for Alex to stop as she saw Maria and the brunette sitting there.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she looked at Francesca, “I…”
“Alex – it is good to see you looking so well.”
Maria smiled as Shirley stood up and walked over, kissing Alex on both cheeks before she said “I have to say, I like this new you.”
“So have you found anything Annie?” Barbara asked as they both sat outside a little café on the little city’s main square, watching people go by.
“Oh a couple of things for the children,” the teacher said as she glanced down in her bag, “and a replica shirt from the local soccer team for Ama to add to her collection. What about you?”
“I bought a couple of silk blouses in that high end clothing shop for Jeannie and me, and I couldn’t resist that toy taxi from Rome for Dad.”
Laughing, Annie said “I saw you looking at that in the souvenir shop. Does John collect taxis?”
“He didn’t used to," Barbara said as she put it back, "but Jeannie brought him one home from Beijing, and she’s been trying to get one from each place she visits for him.”
“I can see that, they make a nice souvenir.”
“Is that coffee any good?” they heard a voice ask in accented English.
“It’s not bad, let us put it that way,” Annie smiled as she quickly assessed the blonde stranger.
“It’s drinkable,” Barbara also smiled.
“Well perhaps I’ll have one,” the woman signaled a waiter, “mind if I join you?”
“Not at all, be our guest.”
“I’m Tina,” the blonde extended a hand.
“And let me guess, you are from South Africa?” Annie tried to work out why this woman had triggered a feeling inside her.
“Ja, how did you guess?”
“We have a couple of South African friends,” Barb laughed lightly, “we know your accent.”
"Betrayed by my voice,” Tina laughed. So, what brings an American and a British woman here together?"
"Believe it or not, a hen weekend..."
“Oh – staying somewhere nice?”
“The castle,” Annie said.
“Ah as guests of the Marchesa,” Tina said. “You must be quite a party…”
“Can you feel it cousin?” Carina asked as they walked along the top of the city walls. “This place has seen more than its share of pain and suffering. It must have been glorious.”
“It has seeped into the very stones themselves,” Gale stopped and put her hand on the top of the wall, and then smiled, “such a beautiful place to have experienced all this agony.”
“Up to and including modern times,” Carina stopped and took a couple of photographs, “Mom was telling me what her researches had uncovered about how my Great, Great, Aunt, working with the Italian resistance in World War Two took measures to prevent the German’s using this place to make a stand. The allies would have had to destroy this place if the Germans had been able to fight here.”
“That would have been a pity,” a very glamorous older woman with chestnut hair said as she seemed to appear from nowhere.
“It would,” Carina turned to face the newcomer and wondered why suddenly it felt that every nerve end in her body was shooting off.
“Violence can sometimes be a creative force in that it leads to change,” the woman said as she smiled, “but some things are better left just as they always have been.”
“Pardon me, but have we met before?” Gale asked.
“Only in the deepest corners of your dreams ‘cousin’,” the woman smiled, “and also in your dreams Carina.”
“How…how, do you know my name?”
“You already know the answer to that question very well little one,” the woman smiled again.
Gale and Carina looked at each other, before Gale said in a deeper voice "I know you, yet I do not know you. I also know you are a great lady. How..."
"Ah, I see you have met."
The woman turned as Natalya said "Carina, Gale, I want you to meet Sophia, the oldest of us."
"We have much to discuss, and little time," Sophia said. "Come, another cousin awaits us..."
Villa dei Mille Fiori
As she sat in the steam room, Shirley tried to process her talk with Maria Riva. That such a senior figure in the world of intelligence seemed to know precisely who she was, and what she did, worried her immensely. However from what Signora Riva had said her secret was one that the Italian woman had known for a long period of time and had never acted upon. What did that silence mean?
“Why would Catriona have shared the secret of her identity like that?” Shirley knew her oldest friend well enough to know that she would never have betrayed her, no if Cat had told this woman the secret of who Madame X was then she must have believed she could trust her implicitly.
Had Lady C ever told anyone else? That question bounced into Shirley’s brain. “Who else out there knows who I am?” she asked herself. She was pretty sure from Kay’s reactions in the past that MI6 didn’t know, and the Americans had no clue either she was pretty sure. So why had Catriona told this woman? In her mind Shirley tried to remember any incident that might have somehow seen her attract the attention of La Citadella.
And then it hit her. Was Lucia known to Maria?
“I have pictures of the men traveling with Peter,” Francesca passed her phone to Alex in the drawing room.
“Okay, now let me see,” the Mouse adjusted her glasses, ignoring the photos of her ex-husband and his family. “Dirk van der Westhuizen, Barry Geldenhuys, and Danie Miller…”
“Those aren’t the names they are traveling under. Are you sure Alex?”
“Of course I damn well are,” Alex said quietly, “I’ve known these guys for over 25 years.”
“So are they still agents?”
“Not officially, they are all in private security, but that has never stopped my husband using them to do the dirty and nasty things.”
“There is a face missing though…”
“And who is that?” Francesca broke in.
“Tina Morkel, and if they are doing this as they normally do then she’s been here already watching and scouting us out.”
“She’s the advance party?”
“Yes,” Alex nodded.
“Do you have a picture of her?”
Alex nodded as she looked at her phone, and showed Francesca the blonde. “so, where is she…”
"Please, lie down," the dark haired man said as Penny came into the room. "I am Leon."
"Thank you," Penny said as she disrobed, and lay face down. She then heard the gasp.
“Signorina I have to ask, who did these terrible things to your back?” the masseur asked as he started to massage Penny.
“It happened when I was a child, and I don’t really like to talk about it,” the dark haired woman replied quietly.
“You were abused and beaten?”
“As I said," Penny whispered," I don’t like to talk about it.”
“Alright, but can I say whoever did this to such a beautiful lady deserves to be rotting in hell.”
“The man who did it doesn’t even really remember me now,” Penny sighed and relaxed as the man’s nimble fingers started to do their magic.
Penny nodded, her father was not the monster now she remembered, but Helen was right about one thing. She had to settle accounts with him...
“This is amazing,” Clare said as she, Zoe and Hannah sat in the prow of the boat, Catriona looking at them as she leant back on the side of the boat. “So peaceful and quiet.”
“Indeed,” Cat said as she looked round, “so beautiful…”
“So did you know the Marchesa before,” Zoe said with her eyes closed.
“Me? I met her for the first time a few months ago,” Cat said as she let her hand trawl through the water. “She impressed me immediately. So did her daughter.”
“Charlotte? That’s her place over there, right,” Hannah said as she looked across the lake.
“That is indeed the palace of the Marchesa’s daughter,” the man at the wheel said. “She has brought much joy into the Marchesa’s life, especially with her granddaughter.”
“So what do you think of Shirley,” Cat said with a smile.
“She’s different,” Zoe said as she opened her eyes, “but we all are. I’ve been married and divorced, Hannah has a grandson, and Claire – well, how does it feel to be head of research?”
“A lot of responsibility,” Claire said with a smile, “but then look at Cat and Shirley. And anyway, you two are no slouches.”
“I always wondered,” Hannah said with a smile, “just where did Shirley disappear to for all those years?”
“She sunk her heart and soul into the business,” Cat said as she leaned forward, “after her father died, something seemed to change in her – and it’s only the last few years that has reversed. Thanks in no small part to John and Maisha.”
“She’s a very different young woman,” Claire said with a smile. “Was she truly one of those poor girls sold into slavery?”
“She is – and a fairly mean tennis player as well,” Catriona laughed. “She’s thinking of going to LSE next year, provided she gets the qualifications she needs.”
“She’s been home tutored?”
“By Agnes and others, yes.”
“And that’s another shock,” Zoe said, “I remember the scandal, and she’s not what I expected.”
“I guess we all have our hidden sides,” Catriona said with a smile…
In another boat, Lucia stood looking out over the water as Maddie, Emma and Sandra sat around the sides.
“So you were from Milan originally,” Emma said with a smile.
“Indeed – I grew up there before I… Before I moved to Paris.”
“And that was where we met her,” Sandra said with a smile. “Maddie and I were working in the city in the team that Lucia joined.”
“They were very good friends – them, and Shirley,” Lucia said with a smile.
“Well, I’m going to get another drink – want one Mad?”
“Yeah – see if there’s a bottle and glasses,” Maddie said as Emma stood up and walked into the cabin, before she said “nicely handled.”
“She does not know, does she?”
“No – I have not told her, and I won’t. None of us will. But we all grew from those experiences, in our own way,” Sandra said as she looked at the others. “When we brought him down, you returned to Milan.”
“I did,” Lucia said quietly, “but I could not tell them everything that happened. I did tell someone – I was asked to tell my story to certain bodies.”
Lucia nodded as she looked at Maddie. “I gave no names, but I did tell them all Master forced me and the other women to do. She was much moved by it.”
“The person who took my story,” Lucia said with a smile, “Maria.”
“Francesca’s friend? Did she recognise you?”
“Almost certainly – but she will say nothing…”
As the quartet entered the cafe, Carina stifled a gasp as she recognised the brunette at the table.
"Hello again cousin," she said with a smile as they sat down. "It must be a serious affair for me to be summoned."
"It is," Sophia said quietly, "tonight we must free one of us who has been, unfortunately, malformed, and an innocent relieved of a great burden..."
"You mean Alexis?" Gale looked at Sophia as she nodded.
"I do not know this woman?"
"No," Carina said," but she is descended from our ancestor."
"And she has not known what we know," Natalya said.
"No, and that saddens me. Because my torment," Sophia said, "is to ultimately see all my daughters eventually die. As you both know very well we are creatures who not only have within us great evil, but great love as well. I have seen so many of you be born, find the spark within you, live free, and then one day perish and die,” Sophia brushed away a tear.
“Are you alright Mistress?”
“I am Natalya,” the chestnut haired woman took a deep breath. “The great power that controls us all does not allow me to do more than minimally interfere in your lives, but in the case of Alexis I am… permitted to help her make a choice.”
“A choice?” Gale asked as the waitress served the coffee.
“Yes,” Sophia whispered, “I must perform a ceremony in which all will be revealed to her, and during which she will be given the choice whether to embrace her dark side, or to have all memory of her family erased totally.”
“The choice is not an easy one,” the French beauty said quietly, "Sophia and I have faced this before."
"Will she suffer what I did when I tried to erase the darkness?” Gale asked.
“No,” Sophia smiled, “you did that to yourself Gale. Whatever Alexis decides will be permanent and she will suffer no harm.”
“The ceremony itself though will be both painful and hard, and having seen it done before I hoped I might never have to see it performed again,” the Frenchwoman visibly shuddered.
“And yet, we must…
"May I ask a question," Carina said quietly.
"Of course my child."
"My aunt calls you Mistress. Why?"
Sophia sighed as she said "because I am the oldest. I am a true Daughter of Hilda. My greatest hope is that one day I will be permitted to die and this endless life will cease.”
“How many names have you had, how many lives have you lived?” Carina looked at her elder.
“As many as you suspect in your heart child, more than your head will logically say is possible.”
“How?” Gale looked bemused.
“It is beyond the realms of human science, and if I’m being honest I can’t really explain it myself. It just is as it is.” Sophia took a breath, “my evil was so great that it was somehow ordained that as my punishment I would be made to watch the daughters I loved live and die for all eternity.”
Gale stared at the others as Carina saw something from the corner of her eye. "Excuse me a moment," she said quietly as she walked to the powder room.
"I knew you saw me, Carina dear."
“I should have guessed that I would get a visit from you Grandma Lexa,” Carina smiled. “Why did you never tell me about ‘Mistress’?”
“It wasn’t my place to do so Carina.” The ghostly old lady smiled. “I knew her when I was a child, and I remember her from when I was an old lady. She is steeped in age, wisdom, and pain.”
“I’d guessed that,” Carina paused a second, “are you here to talk to me about her?”
“Not totally, I’m here also to warn you that there is danger lurking in this beautiful setting.”
“My kind of danger?”
“Not totally. While you need to be there to aid Alexis as she undergoes her ordeal, you need also be aware that other events are unfolding and that death potentially awaits some people.”
“That is awfully vague, can’t you be more specific Grandma?”
“Darling by now you know the rules,” the apparition smiled, “just remember rats and mice don’t play well together.”
"I don't understand."
“You will..." As Alexa faded away, Carina looked round and then went to rejoin the others.
“Did you have your conversation?”
Carina looked at Sophia, and said “how did you…”
“As I say, I have seen and known many generations…” She stood up and said “we will meet at midnight. Until then…”
As Sophia left the cafe, she saw two young African woman walking down the street, looking in the windows of the shops.
As she passed, she heard one say in clipped English tones "she is safe then?"
"For now, but I am concerned... Karen? Is something the matter?"
The young woman turned and looked at Sophia, her eyes glazing over as the older woman said "is it truly you, my old friend?"
“Hello ancient one,” the voice of the Umlimo came from the mouth of Karen Kumalo.
“Hello to you old friend,” Sophia smiled, “it has been many years.”
“Indeed it has. Which brings a question to mind." Leader looked at them both as Karen continued. "Can I ask if we meet here as friends…or as enemies?”
“I was unaware of your presence,” Sophia said with a smile, “and I am not aware that my business in anyway connects to you. So I hope we meet on good terms.”
“May I ask then what brings you here?”
“I am here to aid one of my daughters who is caught in the void between her own two sides.”
“Ah,” the Umlimo spoke, “you come to give her the choice?”
“Yes, and you are here why?”
“To protect a friend of one who I know.”
“Will you need my help," Sophia said with a smile." I believe I owe you a debt still?”
“As of now I do not know, even with my powers the immediate future looks cloudy.”
“I understand, just ask though and I will put my family at your service.”
"An offer I accept. Are the required number of your daughters here?"
"They are. If you need me, call, I will answer."
As Sophia walked off, Leader said quietly "may I ask..."
"We are very old acquaintances, if often on opposite sides"
"What do you mean?"
“That both the spirit that dwells in my body, and she, share the curse of life without end.”
“Immortality is a curse?” Leader asked slowly.
“To be condemned to watch those who you love die while you survive to continuously morn and grieve?” Karen asked softly as she came out of the trance.
“I don’t understand…”
"The Umlimo passes from host to host and at least experiences rebirth and the joy of new life. ‘She’ was condemned for ever to suffer the pain and loss she had inflicted on others by being forced to watch the monsters inside her ‘daughters’ replicate her evil, and then being forced to watch them die.”
Karen tried to take deep breaths.
“For centuries she has been forced to be both observer, and participant, in unspeakable horror, unable to stop it, forever to know that she is responsible for what has been forced on her descendants, and to see repeated over and over the horror and carnage that she did herself.”
“She cannot change the future?”
“No she is forced to know it will repeat itself over and over again and that she must bear witness.”
Leader nodded as she said “a terrible burden she carries.”
“Indeed – come, we must get back. I fear there is real danger ahead.”
Villa dei Mille Fiori
"Well now," Agnes said as she saw the group of riders walking back from the stable, "have you had fun."
"Oh yes," Paula said as she looked at Catriona and the others. "Marianne in particular surprised me with her skill."
"Yeah, have you competed," Tamsin asked with more than a hint of admiration.
"I may have," Marianne said with a smile as Annie and Barbara came in. "How was the shopping trip?"
"Productive," Annie said with a smile. "We met another South African as well... What was her name Barbara?"
"Tina... Tina Morkel.". The others were shocked as Marianne went pale, and whispered "are you sure?"
"Yes, do you know her?"
"Excuse me a minute," Marianne said as she walked quickly indoors. Looking round the lobby, she saw Maria slowly walk out of the drawing room.
“Forgive me,” Marianne said quietly, “have you seen Francesca anywhere?”
“I believe she is in the conservatory, Marianne,” Maria said with a smile. “Has something happened?”
“No – I just need a quick word with her,” Marianne said as she crossed the hall, Maria looking closely at her. “Francesca are you in here?” Marianne called out as she pushed open the conservatory door, “your Aunt Maria says she saw you come in here. I have something I need tell you.”
“And what might that be,” Francesca said as she stood up, trying to maintain her calm.
“That I’ve heard a name I know from back home, and this person might be…” Marianne’s voice trailed off as she realised she and Francesca were not the only ones in the room.
“Trouble?” Francesca smiled as she saw her best friend’s reaction to the woman who was sitting on the recliner.
“Oh my god,” Marianne whispered, “Alex?”
“Tina Morkel is here,” Alex smiled as well, “and yes Marianne I am here, and very much alive.”
“But…But…How?” You were killed in Los Angeles, there was a body…”
“I can’t explain it all,” Alex smiled again, “just say it was all staged to get me out and away from Peter and Hennie and all the others.”
“John wondered…” Marianne shook her head.
“I wondered if he’d guessed,” Francesca looked serious, “but to get to more urgent matters, you say you heard Tina Morkel mentioned?”
“Yes,” Marianne said as she shook herself, “Barbara and Annie mentioned meeting her in town.”
“Did they tell her anything?” Alex asked urgently.
“I don’t think so,” Marianne thought a second, “but then, did they know anything?”
“Good point,” Francesca said as she looked at both of them. “Knowing she is here though, and what role she has played in past operations run by Peter Hope, then I think we need call a meeting and up our security protocol.”
“I concur. But… How do you think he worked it out?" Alex asked quietly.
"We don't know for sure he has?" Francesca paused a second, "this might just be a fishing expedition because he has suspicions."
"He has a very big crew for someone who is just fishing."
“Hang on – Peter is in town? Alex, who does he have with him?”
“His crew,” Francesca said quietly.
"Do I need ring John?" Marianne asked.
Francesca paused again, "but can you round up Carlotta, Leader, and Aunt
Maria and bring them here please?"
Marianne said as she headed for the door.
also Agnes, Kay and Karen Kumalo please."
about Shirley?" Marianne paused at the conservatory door.
"No better we just let her enjoy herself."
“Everybody was talking about modelling at dinner last night Sandy,” Kay said as they sat round the table, nibbling on the food provided in the buffet, “why didn’t you really make a career out of it?”
“Oh I guess I really didn’t have the drive and ambition to do it Kay,” Sandy smiled at the British woman, “I was trying to combine it with college, and I guess I was also trying to work out my sexuality, so being a model wasn’t really that big a part of my life.”
“Magda always said you were the most frustrating girl she ever tried to book,” Missy laughed gently.
“Magda?” Kay asked.
“Magda Bright,” Missy laughed a little more. “Magda back in those days booked our ‘Beginners’ board at Norstar, and she used to tear her hair out because Sandy was getting offers from photographers that most models would have killed to get…”
“And I was turning them down.”
“Yes you were Sandy,” Missy shook her head, “poor Magda went to see the bosses at least once a week asking S&S to release you, but Simone would pull out the pictures from your most recent shoot and ask did we really want to lose a girl who photographed that well?”
“I understand,” Kay smiled, “what do you do when talent isn’t matched by motivation?” Quietly she looked across the room at Sherry, wondering what might have been.
“Kay, Francesca is asking if you have ten minutes for a chat?” Marianne’s voice disturbed the Englishwoman’s concentration, as she said “of course, on what subject?”
“Tonight, I think. Agnes – can you come as well?”
“Me? I don’t know…” Agnes looked at Marianne, and then nodded as the three of them left the room.
“You know in many ways this place is like a modern version of Tivoli,” Shirley said as she sat on the balcony, looking out over the lawns.
“You mean Hadrian’s Villa Shirley?” Lucia asked.
“Hadrian’s what?” Maddie asked.
“It was a complex of villa’s and pleasure gardens in the town of Tivoli that the Emperor Hadrian built.”
“The guy who built Hadrian’s Wall?”
“Yes the same emperor,” Maddie smiled as she remembered a childhood school visit to the wall.
“I’ve walked round the ruins at Tivoli a couple of times,” Shirley smiled, “and like what Francesca has here it offered a range of activities for visitors.”
“My parents took me there a few days before…” suddenly Lucia’s voice trailed off and she looked ashen.
“Don’t think about that,” Sandra said as she put her arm round the Italian.
“We know when you mean,” Shirley added quietly.
“Does ‘he’ still haunt your dreams?”
“Yes” Sandra said quietly, “and I don’t think any of us will ever be totally able to forget.”
“It was probably worst for you Sandra, what he did to you, all the…” again Lucia’s voice trailed off.
“You had it pretty rough yourself.”
“I don’t think any of us got off easy,” Shirley shook her head.
“He was pure evil.” Lucia started to cry.
“But somehow we survived,” Maddie said as she looked at Emma talking to Caroline, “and just somehow we became the women we are today.”
“We do owe him that, but in a lot of ways it’s not something I’m totally proud of,” Sandra started to shed a tear or two.
“Look we need to talk about this somewhere less public,” Shirley tried to pull herself together and then noticed an interesting group of women heading towards the conservatory.
“Come on – let’s go for a walk…”
“We meet again, Commander,” Maria said as she and Kay met in the hallway.
“Indeed – Charlotte, you have been called as well.”
“As have we,” Karen said as she and Leader came alongside, “shall we?”
The group walked into the room to see Agnes staring at the redhead sitting on the couch.
“Ah – I see now why we have been called,” Leader said quietly as Francesca closed the doors.
“Alright you all know who Valentina is,” Francesca said as she looked at faces, “our ‘protection’ plan for her may be about to be tested by Peter Hope, her ex-husband, and some of the thugs he has always used to do dirty work.”
“Meaning what precisely,” Aggie asked.
“That he and his people landed in Rome earlier, and that at least one agent of his is already in this area and asking questions.”
“Does he know that we got the Mouse out for sure?”
“We don’t know Kay, but we do know that he has been suspended, and is under investigation by his own people, and what better way to ingratiate himself back with his political masters then to prove Los Angeles was a huge hoax?”
“Alex being alive would also present him with a chance to get the kind of sadistic revenge that I’m afraid he has a reputation for,” Marianne added.
“As of now though we have no idea just what he actually does know though?” Leader asked.
“Do your powers tell you nothing Karen?” Agnes asked.
“Her powers?” Maria Riva asked quizzically.
“Let me say that I have certain ‘talents’ that cannot be described by current science shall we Signora Riva,” Karen smiled at the older woman.
“Just accept that is true Aunt Maria, I have seen enough that even I believe Karen has something within that I can’t explain.”
“Alright,” Maria looked doubtful.
“But as to your original question,”” Karen said as she nodded, “I cannot see anything other then what pure normal logic is telling me, and that is that this cannot be explained as purely coincidental.”
“There is no such thing as coincidence,” Kay said as she looked round.
“So do we set people to watch him?” Charlotte asked.
“No,” Francesca said, “I will go. Our attention is here. Leader, I need you and Marianne to go into Sentua, find the missing agent, and report back. Kay, you and Agnes stay here. Karen…”
“I need to talk to someone,” Karen said quietly, “and then my meagre powers are at your disposal.”
Sophia sat at the table, sipping her drink and looking round, before she said “twice in one day, old friend – this is indeed a day of import.”
“Indeed – may I sit,” Karen said as she stood beside the older woman. Sophia indicated the chair opposite and sat down, looking at her intently.
“I sense you are troubled – how may I help?”
“Do you need a sacrifice for the ceremony ancient one?” Karen asked quietly as she leaned forward.
Sophia shook her head, as she said “I can do a virtual sacrifice to make the ritual work…”
“But you’d feel better if it was real?” Karen looked in the other woman’s eyes.
“You know my ‘problems’ with sacrificing an innocent Umlimo, It is one more sin…”
“Indeed, and it is to your credit now. But… What if I can find you one who is not innocent?”
“Is there such a thing?”
“From what I understand, there is a woman who has performed more then her share of torture and killings that may be suitable.”
Sophia shook her head. “You know I cannot take the life of one of my own daughters.”
“This woman is not a relative, she’s a natural sadist who has found outlets for her tastes in the world of national security and espionage.” Karen took a deep breath, “she presents a danger to the life of one I am sworn to protect, and her ‘end’ would not trouble my conscience.”
“Would I have to take her?”
“No – I have other friends who are tracking her down, and when they have her, I’ll deliver her to you.” Karen smiled, “and in the scale of things I believe that even the great powers might grant you that swapping this life to save that of your daughter can perhaps be justified.”
Sophia nodded as she said “I see. Then I need her delivered to the castle of the Marchesa, quietly, discretely.”
“So it shall be done, and I thank you,” Karen said as she stood up and left the bat, Sophia watching her.
Tina Morkel sipped her coffee as she looked out of the hotel room onto the plaza before.
“I haven’t found evidence of her yet, boss,” she said into her mobile phone, “but there is a big gathering of woman at the Marchesa’s home this weekend. A pre-wedding party, from what two of them told me.”
“A good cover to hide her in,” Peter Hope said on the other end of the line.
“Indeed – I intend to sneak up there later and have a look round. The grounds are huge, with villas all over the place.”
“We should be there tomorrow – the kid and his mother are sightseeing here, a good distraction. If you find her, make sure she is ready for me to talk to.”
“Have your fun, but I want her alive. Understood?”
Tina smiled as she said “I have my orders.”
“Good – I’ll be there for nine tomorrow.” The call ended as Tina looked out, and then put her glass down before she reached under her bed and pulled out a small case. Opening it, she took out a cloth bag and opened it up, holding up the thin scalpel as it glistened in the light.
“If she is there, I will have my fun,” she said quietly as she closed the bag up, and checked the pistol that she drew out next. The knock on the door made her look over, as she put the equipment away ad hid the bag again.
“Room service, Signora – may we turn down your covers?”
“Of course,” Tina said as she opened the door, then stood for a moment, her eyes wide open before they closed and she slumped to the floor. Leader and Liz stepped in as Karen followed them, closing the door behind themselves.
“Hello, Tina,” Liz said quietly, “let me say I never, ever really liked you, and it’s a real pleasure to stop you.”
“What are we to do with her,” Leader said as she looked at Karen.
“Get her in the trolley, then in the van – I will make sure she is taken care of.”
“No – Leader will come with me. As to what I will do… Best you do not ask that question,” Karen said quietly, “just trust me…”