The two of them passed through to a dining room that could seat thirty in a pinch. Currently there were two places set at table. A woman of a certain age and a certain size (respectively, late-middle and very broad through the shoulders) waited for them there. She wore an apron and the look of a bull facing a matador.
“Scullery maid is quit,” she said, in lieu of greeting.
“Another one, Mrs. P.?” Neville asked. “I swear we can’t keep them for more than a few days.” The news meant that Mrs. Patavatsky was the last person living in the Hall who wasn’t some kind of supernatural being. It also meant Hughes would have to wash all the dishes. “It’s so hard finding good help, don’t you think, Mr. Van Heusen?”
The journalist looked around the room as if he expected an assassin to be hiding under the sideboard. “Can’t say as I blame her,” he said. “Probably realized who she was working for.”
“Is terrible job,” Mrs. Patavatsky said, nodding in agreement. “Being exploited for labor by capitalist. One day, scullery maids wake up, they organize. Then we see. Oh, yes, then we see.” She lifted the covers off some dishes on the sideboard. “Mister Neville,” she asked, rolling the V, “you think Reggie want meat cooked or raw today? Either way, I make nice for him.”
“Hmm, raw. Tonight’s the last of the full moon,” Neville told her. He seated himself, then gestured for his guest to do the same.
Van Heusen stared at him. “Your cook is a Bolshevik?” he asked.
“Ah, but you should see what she can do with a piece of fish,” Neville told him. “Mr. Van Heusen, I intend to answer all of your questions, but I also plan on dining, and decorum insists I can’t begin until you’re seated.”
The reporter grudgingly took a chair, scraping it across the floor until he was facing Neville directly. “I’m surprised you even need to eat.”
“To be perfectly accurate, I don’t,” Neville told him. “Yet if hunger were the only reason to dine, man would never have invented la sauce hollandaise. This smells divine, don’t you think?”
The first course—a delicate sole meuniere—was served before the reporter said another word. When he did, it was an accusation. “In the village, they think you’re just some eccentric foreign millionaire. We both know the truth, don’t we?”
“Oh?” Neville asked, lifting a morsel to his lips. He had re-arranged the bandages around his mouth to avoid staining them. Beneath them his flesh was… well. Perhaps our more sensitive readers do not need a detailed description of what mummified lips and teeth look like.
“You’re an ancient monster whose un-life is sustained by black magic,” Van Heusen said. His eyes gleamed.
“I prefer the term ‘mummy’.”
Van Heusen leered. He was very good at it. “I know all about you. Born in Ancient Egypt, during the First Intermediate Period. Just after the collapse of the Old Kingdom. You were, what, the brother of the Queen? Buried alive, they say.”
“Mummified alive. By the time they actually buried me I was past protesting,” Neville corrected.
“Stuck down in the ground where you belonged, but that wasn’t good enough, was it? Oh, no. I talked to one of the Egyptologists at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He’d heard the whole story. He told me about how they found your grave site in the Valley of the Kings, buried under twenty feet of sand. Thought they’d made the discovery of the century. Expected to find golden sarcophagi and crumbling papyrus scrolls, that was all—dusty relics. Instead, when they cracked open the seal on your tomb, you came rushing out, scattering bearers and archaeologists like ninepins.”
“After four thousand years down there with nothing but beetles and animal-headed gods for company, I just wanted to get out and take a walk. It was a surprising turn of events for all of us. The chaps in the pith helmets took a couple of shots at me and I responded in a less than charitable fashion, admittedly. But really, once we calmed down and considered the situation more rationally, we all had a good laugh about it at the bar.”
Van Heusen nodded and grinned as if Neville had just admitted that he was the one who sank the Lusitania. “Next you show up in New York City, a regular attendant at the more scandalous kind of party. I’ve seen pictures of you with flappers and… jazz musicians.”
“I had a good head of steam to blow off, as the saying goes,” Neville replied. “And it felt like everyone in town wanted to know me. There was a bit of a vogue for Egyptiana, especially after Carter and Lord Carnarvon dug up poor little Tutankhamun.”
“Friend of yours?” Van Heusen asked.
“Your research is slipping a bit there,” Neville told him. “The boy king wasn’t born for nearly seven hundred years after they put me down in that hole. So no, I never met him. I did feel bad when I read they’re going to parade his body around from museum to museum for tourists to gawk at. How would you like it if your great-great-great-et cetera-grand-nephew was pickled in a jar and shown off at county fairs?” Neville didn’t wait for an answer. “Anyroad, New York was a smashing time. Big cars, movie premiers. Champagne cocktails.” He took a deep breath, clearly adrift in a reverie for a long-lost place and time. “Speaking of which, this Riesling is rather good. I notice you haven’t touched your glass.”
“I don’t drink… wine,” Van Heusen replied.
Neville believed that the highest point of courtesy was to ignore it when your guest tried to tell a joke and it fell flat. He concentrated on his fish.
“New York’s where you met your chauffeur, right?” Van Heusen demanded. “About whom I have plenty to say, in fact.”
“I literally stumbled on Reggie in Central Park after a wild night so long it had turned into a wild morning. The poor fellow was curled up under a bush, naked as a jaybird, gnawing on a cow bone. At least, we always tell him it was a cow bone. Nobody bothered to check for sure. He couldn’t speak more than monosyllables. He’d been living rough for some time, you see. My heart went out to someone who looked like he had a worse hangover than I did. I lent him my full-length fur coat and straw hat. I think it was the day after the Harvard-Yale game, now that I think of it. I took Reggie back to my penthouse, where eventually he regained the ability to hold up his end of a conversation. I promptly offered him a job. He’s been with me ever since.”
Van Heusen nodded happily and jabbed at the table with his index finger. Unfortunately, the second course—a mulligatawny soup—had just been served and he had to pull the finger back in haste and put it in his mouth. When he had sufficiently soothed the burn, he said, “The details of how you left New York are hazy. Sounds like you just packed up one night and did a runner.”
Neville sighed. “There was a… woman. Who would not take no for an answer.”
Van Heusen looked scandalized. “Some kinda degenerate flapper with a thing for much, much older men?”
“A monster hunter, actually,” Neville said.
His dinner companion’s face went decidedly white. “Oh.”
One sees that the game had grown a bit pro forma by this time, but neither of them was ready to declare checkmate, so Neville waved away the implications like an irritating gnat.
“She tried to kill me. Repeatedly. Ruined one of my best shirtfronts with a rapier. Made me crash my favorite roadster. The less said about her, the better.” And in fact, dear reader, that story will have to wait for a future episode.
“Silver linings, of course,” Neville said, with a return to his usual élan vital. “If I hadn’t been forced out of the city, I never would have found Grimbly Hall. And once I saw this place was on the market, I absolutely had to have it.”
There was a final course, a loganberry sorbet, but the conversation had lapsed and little need be recounted here of the remainder of dinner. Once they were finished, Neville dabbed at his lips with a napkin, then rearranged his bandages to cover his mouth. “Now,” he said. “Would you care for a tour of the house before you leave? I promise it’ll be diverting.”
“Oh, I’m not going anywhere just yet,” Van Heusen told him.