Neville took him back downstairs and into the conservatory, where everyone else had already gathered. “Mrs. Patavatsky,” Neville said, “would you be so kind as to set up for luncheon? We’ll need places set for Mr. Jones and Babs, as well.”
He turned to look at the flapper, who was leaning up against the oak tree, running her hands rather sensuously over its bark. She cast Neville a long and rather involved look that involved darting, bashful glances, far too many eyelashes, and a tiny smile. Though not necessarily in that order. A look that left Neville, for once, wishing he wasn’t wrapped up so tightly in all those hot bandages.
Perhaps it was just the warmth of the greenhouse-like room, though that seemed unlikely since the sun couldn’t be seen at all through the rain-slicked glass.
Reggie saw the look that passed between Babs and Neville. He made no comment, though he did brood rather furiously. Not that anyone could probably tell the difference from his usual level of brooding. As a servant he wasn’t part of the lunch crowd, and planned on slipping away unobtrusively as soon as possible, but he stayed long enough to see if Neville wanted anything.
“He—eat soup,” Mrs. P said, pointing at Mr. Jones. “Good proletarian food. What she want, is unclear.”
Everyone looked at Babs, who was leaning against the tree still, her hands behind her. “How about whiskey sours?” she asked.
Mrs. Patavatsky squinted at Babs with the intensity of a biologist staring through a microscope at some species of highly virulent germ. “I know you. I know what is you. Babs, he say. Is not Barbara. Is short for Varvara, yes?”
“Ooh, mind your potatoes,” Babs replied.
The housekeeper shrugged and headed for the kitchen.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” Neville asked, as immune to the various tensions and meaningful looks and rude Socialist cooks as he usually was. The mummy possessed so much aplomb it would require a new unit of measurement to be created by whoever oversaw the Metric system. Probably someone in France, we daresay. “All of us together. It’s a shame this is Mr. Jones’ last meal with us, but let’s make it a happy one. Reggie—why don’t you join us, for once? You were a big part of figuring out Mr. Jones’ story, after all.”
“Sure, boss,” the werewolf said, though he’d barely heard Neville. There was something here, something very, very wrong. He couldn’t quite place it, but it did, in fact, have to do with Qornok Jones’ story. Something about the female parasite who was coming to devour him, to—
“Why, hello Blue Eyes,” Babs said, as if she’d noticed Jones for the first time. “That’s a swanky topper you’ve got.”
Reggie felt a growl rising from the back of his throat. A flash of jealousy scorched its way up his back, lifting his hackles. But then, like a flash bulb going off, he realized what had been eluding him.
It came to him all at once, unbidden, but it will take a moment to unpack. The salient points were these:
Qornok Jones was being pursued by a female brain parasite;
Who would show up unexpectedly, wearing a human body;
And who equally wouldn’t know what body her mate might inhabit;
And therefore would have to flirt with everyone she met.
“Boss,” he said, in a strangled whisper. “Don’t look now, but what color are Babs’ eyes?”
“Oh, they’re a quite lovely shade of blue, aren’t they?” Neville asked, dreamily.
Reggie spun around, intending to grab Jones and carry him physically out of the room if necessary. He saw to his horror that he would be too late, and that the Earth was all but doomed. Having been summoned, and of a rather biddable nature, Jones had approached Babs where she stood by the tree. She was reaching down to touch his face, his plaster mannequin face.
“Get away from her!” Reggie shouted.
The startled Jones nearly toppled over, but he managed to safely take a step back. Babs took a step forward.
She took a step that would consign all human life to endless servitude and misery.
Or at least, she tried to. She seemed to be stuck on something.
“Hey,” she said. “What gives?”
The three knots on the oak tree, which combined gave the impression of a face, looked as if they’d always been there. As if the tree had grown that way. They looked different now, though, than they had that morning. The eyes that had been perfectly round were flattened as if they were narrowed in anger. The long horizontal mouth had closed almost completely shut. In the process, it had trapped Babs’ hand inside.
“Lay off, you big wrinkly masher!” Babs said.
“Boss, get Jones out of here—she’s the female parasite!”
“Well, that’s a way to talk about a sheba,” Babs complained. Reggie ignored her. As Neville seemed not to grasp the situation, he ran over and grabbed Jones’ arm himself. He pointed Jones at the door to the main hall.
“Go,” he growled. “Before she can eat you.”
The alien parasite nodded in agreement and hurried away.
“Of course!” Neville said, finally getting it. “Oh, this is rich. You,” he said, pointing at Babs, “really had me fooled. You wormed your way into my house knowing I was sheltering your intended. You distracted me from seeing the obvious.”
“Intended?” Babs asked. “Me? I ain’t looking for a steady crush, pal.”
“I suppose it wouldn’t be a long courtship,” Neville went on. “You came here to devour him and thereby fertilize your millions of eggs. So that you could conquer this planet in the name of your alien race.”
“Courtship? Fertilize?” Babs asked, struggling against the iron—well, oaken—grip of the hamadryad. “I don’t know what kind of quiff joint you’re running here, but count me out!”
“You won’t get away with it,” Neville said. He turned to look at Reggie. “Not everyone in this house, it seems, is as easily distracted by a pretty face as I am.”
There might have been a lot more of that kind of speechifying, if Mrs. P hadn’t walked in then, carrying four plates and a bundle of silverware.
“Is no alien,” she said, putting her burden down on the table with a clank.
Neville’s posture of upright hauteur changed, but only by a fraction of a degree downward.
“She isn’t?” he asked.
“No. Is rusalka. Kind of Slavic mermaid. No fish tail, but red hair. Is giveaway.”
“Now you’re on the trolley,” Babs confirmed.
“But,” Reggie tried, only spluttering a little, “you said—you said you were a monster. A wicked kind of monster.”
Mrs. P sighed. “Water spirit. Lives in deep pond. Men see her, cannot control selves. Like men always, only more. Go running after rusalka and fall in water. Drown.”
“Like I said, wicked,” Babs said. The hamadryad released her and she rubbed at her chafed wrist.
“Is good metaphor,” Mr. P said, “for ideological strategies of late-stage capitalism.”
Reggie stared at Babs with a growing sense of dread that he’d messed things up rather well. “And you just happened to show up here, the same day as Qornok and the hamadryad.”
“Things do come in threes,” Neville pointed out.
Except, of course, when they come in fours. Because there was a very loud knock on the front door, just then. Grimbly Hall had received another visitor.
“We’re doing land office business,” Reggie said. Which is another of those antique references that modern readers probably won’t get. So if you did, give yourself another check on the scorecard. In the meantime, though, Reggie looked up suddenly and said, “Wait a minute. You don’t think…?”
“I’m afraid I do,” Neville said, already running for the main hall. “Mr. Jones, don’t answer it!”