“They left the doors open,” Rugbottom lamented after Lottie and Petra had followed Malus out into the street. The small, round hotel owner sighed as he walked across the lobby and pulled the foyer doors securely shut. “The flies have been atrocious this spring.”
Rugbottom then turned back to the boy, Walden, “Put that bale down and get a mop. I want you to clean up this mud.”
“Right away, Mr. Rugbottom,” the teen-ager replied. He then strained under the weight of the over-sized package as he pulled it from the dolly before wandering off to retrieve cleaning supplies.
Emerson had not missed Rugbottom’s slip. He appraised once more the large package that had been wrapped in a bedsheet.
“Mr. Rugbottom, I happen to be a connoisseur of fine leaf,” said Emerson after Walden had left the room, “My nose is well-trained and I couldn’t help but notice that lad of yours is carting a bale of hookah leaf.”
“Your nose is most excellent, Mr. Mornington,” replied Rugbottom, his voice taking on the cadence of a salesman. “You have detected correctly. This fine leaf has been imported directly from Queen Princess Exports Inc. based in the fabled United Isles of the Southern Kingdom. A premium grade leaf, as a connoisseur such as yourself would know, but extremely dear.”
“Indeed it would be, coming all the way from The United Isles of the Southern Kingdom,” replied Emerson, who knew without a doubt this bale had been grown by his friend Cleetus O’Reatus on his farm in the North Fells. Emerson took an exaggerated breath then winked at Rugbottom. “It must have been in storage for awhile, it has taken on a slight North Fellian bouquet.”
“Er, yes. Well, perhaps it has dried somewhat,” said Rugbottom, obviously sensing the ruse was up. “It is still top quality I assure you.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Emerson, casually eyeing Walden who had just brought in a mop and bucket to deal with the mud Malus and Emerson had tracked in with them from the hot spring. “I’ll take it.”
Rugbottom paused before adding more slowly, “I should tell you, this bale has a small complication. It has already been claimed by Father Vorpal.”
“How much is Father Vorpal paying for this bale?”
Rugbottom smiled as he went to the desk and wrote a figure on a piece of paper. He then folded the slip once and handed it to Emerson.
“Could you loan me your pen, Mr. Rugbottom?” Emerson asked after examining the figure.
The hotelier smiled as he passed over the quill. “I shan’t need it long, I just wish to add a zero right here.” Emerson wrote on the paper with a flourish then handed it back to Rugbottom.
“Walden, deliver that bale to… er…” Rugbottom looked up at Emerson and Junie. “To which suite should your new bale be delivered – the Honeymoon Suite or the Executive Suite perhaps?”
“How about that one with the swirly wallpaper,” replied Emerson, “and that fancy pipe organ in the corner?”
“You heard the man, Walden,” said Rugbottom, turning to the boy. “Put that bale back on the cart and take it to the Toot Suite, right away.”
“Yessir, Mr. Rugbottom,” replied Walden. “Do you think I might get some help pulling the cart up the stairs?”
“What’s wrong with you?” Rugbottom snarled. “Put a little muscle into it.”
“Right, sorry, sir,” replied the boy.
“Walden, wait a moment!” said Emerson. He then reached down as if he were going to pick up the end of the dolly. He then pulled a handful of leaf loose from from the bale and walked away. “A little something for the dinner table hookah,” he smiled, bringing the leaf up to his nose and inhaling deeply. “You have hookahs in the lounge I presume.”
“Of course, Mr. Mornington,” said Rugbottom. “I’ll deliver a fine hookah to your table personally. Will you be dining alone?”
“No, my personal assistant, Miss Manuka Honey, will be joining me.” Emerson winked at Junie, who blushed as she suppressed a grin.
“Very good sir,” replied Rugbottom. The Falunian hotel owner then turned and addressed Walden. “Once you’ve delivered that to Mr. Mornington’s room, head over to the Silverfish. Send word to Father Vorpal that the bale is no longer available. I’m willing to bet that gets him over here.”
“Look!” Petra pointed. “Someone’s been in Mrs. Vorpal’s Snicker Snack Shack.”
“The door is ajar.” Lottie observed as they approached the roadside diner. “It was closed on our arrival yesterday, and the owner did close and relock the door on our exit, once you had finished eating the last of your donairs.”
“Right,” said Petra. “Mrs. Vorpal always keeps her door locked until she sees the customer through the peep-hole. Then she closes it up right tight again. Sometimes the sheriff and his men come by looking for a little contribution to ensure continued protection from thieves and such. Mrs. Vorpal just lets them knock, pretending not to be home, even though everyone knows she never leaves.”
Malus drew his sword, then he and Lottie quickly took position on either side of the door.
“Mrs. Vorpal!” Petra called out. “Any chance you got enough bandersnatch left to roll a small one?”
They looked nervously at one another when it became apparent there would be no response. “You have no weapon.” Malus said, glancing over at Lottie.
“I am a weapon.” Lottie replied. Despite protests from Malus that he should go first, she pulled open the door and quickly slipped inside.
The sound of their footsteps on the old hardwood floor only accentuated the silence. The donair shop appeared deserted but for the body of Mrs. Vorpal, lying on her side in the middle of the kitchen.
“She is without vital signs,” said Lottie, without needing to touch the body. “Based on the angle of her head and how she is lying it is apparent her neck has been snapped. It would have required a degree of strength and surprise to do this.”
“Look at this,” called Malus from the pantry near the back of the kitchen.
“Cripes!” exclaimed Petra as she stared at an open doorway in the floor. Peering in, one could see a set of rungs upon which one might descend. “Old Mrs. Vorpal had a passageway down to the underground!” She looked up at Malus and Lottie who clearly missed the significance of this revelation.
“Most of Falun is underground,” Petra went on to explain, “but only the rich folks live down below. I only been a few times myself. It’s hard to find passageways down – especially ones that ain’t guarded.”
“I am detecting a heat discrepancy on different parts of the rungs,” said Lottie. “Somebody has used the passageway within the past few minutes.”
Malus resheathed his sword. “I’m going down,” he said. “You two go back and tell the others. I’ll meet up with you back at the hotel as soon as I can.”
“You will need assistance.” Lottie walked over to the door in the floor. “I will go with you.”
“Hey, pinhead!” Petra protested. “I wanna go too.”
“Forget it!” snarled Malus. “I don’t want to have to look after you when you get lost or something.”
“You bugger, I know Falun better than you!” yelled Petra.
“You said you’ve only been down there a few times.” Malus shot back.
“A few times is more than no times, turd breath!” said Petra looking at the open door in the floor. “Besides, what do you need to go down there for anyway?”
“That’s my business, squirt.” said Malus. “Lottie, make sure she goes back to the hotel.”
“I was told to keep an eye on you.” Lottie pointed out.
“Beat it.” With that, Malus slipped over the doorframe and began his descent. Petra started to follow until Lottie placed a hand on her shoulder.
“You go let the others know what is happening.” Lottie said to Petra. “I wish to make sure this shop is secure from whoever perpetrated this crime.”
“Fine.” Petra huffed.
Lottie watched from the door as Petra ran across the road and entered The Rugbottom Hotel. She then returned to the door in the floor and began to climb down.