Authors: V. J. Banis
Tags: #gay, #camp, #parody, #man from U.N.C.L.E., #humor
If Craig Mathews was unenthusiastic about Jackie's presence, he was totally
unprepared for the creature who greeted them at the door of the house to which they had gone. Gladiola had the large bones, the sculptured features and the ebony skin that make many Negro women ravishing.
Gladiola was not ravishing, however. For one thing, she was past the “ravishing” age. For another, there was just too much of her. She was immense of figure, and unlike some large women, who carry themselves with such grace of movement that one is hardly aware of their size, Gladiola seemed determined to make herself look even bigger with her brightly printed dressâa mass of oversize flowers of every imaginable hue, against a white background.
“Mr. Jackie,” she cried loudly, grinning broadly. “How wonderful to see you.” The word came out sounding like wunnraful, and it was Jackie's guess that Gladiola was more than a little intoxicated, not an unusual condition for her.
He knew her well enough, however, to know that her drinking was essentially harmless, and a vice ordinarily overlooked by the family, in favor of her virtues. She had been with the family more years than she would allow anyone to mention, and when at one time the finances of the family had slipped so that Aunt Lily had been unable to pay her wages, Gladiola had not only stayed on, but pitched in with her savings to help out until things had gotten better. She was as kind and generous as she was fat, which was saying a great deal.
“Hello, Gladiola,” Jackie greeted her warmly, allowing her to hug him with all the tenderness of an angry grizzly. One whiff of her breath was enough to confirm his suspicions about her condition. “This is Mr. Mathews, of the government. He's come with me to see Aunt Lily.”
“Oh, she's practically birthing babies over your visit,” Gladiola informed him. She shook hands with Craig Mathews, leaving him shaking his pained fingers afterward and glancing at them in search of bone damage as Gladiola led them down the hall to the parlor.
“She's in the kitchen,” Gladiola said, ushering them into the parlor. “I'll go tell her you're here.”
“I'll come along,” Jackie said, starting after her. “Make yourself at home, Mr. Mathews, we'll be right back.”
Left alone, Craig Mathews could only stand and puzzle over the odd situation. From the moment he had entered the house, it was as though he had stepped back in time, to the turn of the century. The house was a study in antiquity, the rooms musty with
faded velvet and tarnished gilt.
He scowled and cocked his head to one side, listening. Had he only imagined it, or had he heard a whispered “psst?”
There it was again, and decidedly not imagined. Puzzled, he turned, his eyes widening as he did so. He had not heard the elderly woman enter the room from the other door, although he was sure she had not been there when he came in. Nor was he any more prepared for her than he had been for Gladiola. In appearance, this one was more conventional. In a photograph, she would have appeared as the model for someone's grandmotherâgray haired and blatantly aging, a short, plumpish little creature who was to be imagined knitting and rocking, with a contented smile on her face.
She was not, however, knitting and rocking now. She was leaning against the door frame in what, so far as he could judge, was intended as a seductive pose, although it fell far short of that goal. Her over-long skirt had been hiked up to reveal one bony, misshapen knee. One rheumatic hip was thrust out, a hand upon it. The top three buttons of her high-collared dress had been undone, and the dress pulled over one shoulder, a la a movie siren. All in all, the sight was both ludicrous and appalling.
As he stared at her in amazement, she winked lecherously and clicked her tongue. “Hello, handsome,” she greeted him with a cracked voice. “How's about you and me having a little romp before the others get here.”
“I beg your pardon?” Mathews could scarcely believe he had heard her correctly. This sweet-looking
old lady could not really be propositioning him.
“You know,” she told him with a leer, wriggling the knee. “Tear off a little joy.”
Mathews swallowed and shook his head numbly. “I don't think that's a good idea.”
“What's a matter?” she asked, eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You got no guts?”
“Aunt Nasturtia,” A voice behind him said sharply. “Don't scare him off.”
Mathews jumped and whirled about again, slightly relieved to see someone who looked at least normal. In fact, the buxom blonde before him was not bad, although a little vulgar and earthy for his taste. Her ample breasts were all but spilling out of her barely fastened blouse, and her skirt was sufficiently skin tight to conceal little of her figure.
“Don't mind Aunt Nasturtia,” the blonde was saying in an unpleasant, nasal voice. “To tell the truth, she's a nympho.”
Aunt Nasturtia gave a disgruntled snort and hobbled past Mathews and out of the room, fixing a cold stare briefly on the blonde's head before she disappeared out of sight.
“I'm Mari,” the blonde informed Craig with a wink of her own. “That's short for Marigold.”
Craig frowned thoughtfully, ignoring the blunt hint in her smileâAunt Nasturtia was not the only nympho in the house, if he was any judge. “Lily, Nasturtia, Marigoldâis everybody in the house named like a flower?”
“Um-hum, ain't it a gas?” Her smile faded as the strains of “The Minute Waltz” sounded from nearby. For the first few measures, the notes were perfect. The beauty of the music was marred, however, by a clinker of a note. The pianist stopped, and then started over at the beginning. Craig smiled as the same note was again struck wrong, and the music paused once more. This time the pianist began the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata” instead.
At that moment, Jackie returned, with yet another elderly figure. This one seemed at least more sane than the other, a tall, willowy creature with quick, intelligent eyes and animated gestures.
“Mr. Mathews, this is my Aunt Lily,” Jackie said. Mathews took the offered hand, surprised by the hearty squeeze he received.
“Jackie says I'm to tell you all about our experience,” Aunt Lily said with a nervous smile.
“I think that might be a good idea,” Mathews agreed. He was beginning to feel that the sooner he got out of this place, the better he would be. They were obviously looney; for all he knew, they might be dangerous. That one old girl had looked positively capable of devouring himâfor that matter, Holmes appeared capable of that, in a manner of speaking.
* * * *
“Now then,” Craig said when they had seated themselves. “Suppose you explain about Butterfly. As I understand it, you've stumbled upon some sort of message, is that right?”
“Well, I think so,” Aunt Lily agreed. “But it's in a code apparently, so I don't really know what kind of message, or if it even is a message. I'd better start at the beginning.”
Craig nodded his approval.
“Well,” she began. “It started this morning. You see, we have a poodleâFritzie. Do you know Jackie's poodle, Sophie?”
Mathews had to admit that he had not, ignoring Jackie's quick smile of amusement. “They're twins,” Aunt Lily went on. “Except for the sex, of course. But the thing is, they're both white, and rather spoiled, I'm afraid.”
Mathews was having a difficult time seeing how all this tied in with Butterfly, nor was he particularly interested in their choice of pets.
“And it was raining, this morning,” Aunt Lily said emphatically, as though that explained everything, which of course it did not.
“I see,” Craig said helplessly.
“Oh, dear, I don't think I'm explaining this very well,” Aunt Lily said, putting a hand to her face.
Mathews was about to agree with her, but Jackie spoke before he had the opportunity. “Take your time,” he said, “And don't worry, Mr. Mathews is very patient.”
“Of course,” Mathews agreed without enthusiasm.
“Well, it was the rain. Nasturtia didn't know it was raining, you seeâhave you met Nasturtia, Mr. Mathews? I can call her....”
“I've had the pleasure,” Mathews informed her hurriedly. He had no immediate desire to further confuse the conversation by including the other aunt in it.
“Anyway, it was raining, and Nasturtia didn't notice, and she let Fritzie out into the yard to play. Well, you can imagine what Fritzie looked like when he came back in, just covered with mud and all. So I told Nasturtia she'd have to take him to the beauty parlor, only our regular shop was booked up, and couldn't take him, so Nasturtia went to another one just down the street, one we had never been to before.”
Mathews nodded, although he still was not able to discern the point of the story, and wondered if she might have forgotten why he was here.
“They did a lovely job on him, I must admit,” Lily went on. “Except that when Nasturtia went back to pick him up, they had put clips on his earsâlittle sequined butterflies.”
Mathews attempted to conceal his disappointmentâwas this all she had been talking about?âa pair of costume pins for a dog?
Jackie too had a twinge of disappointment, but he knew Aunt Lily well enough to recognize at once that she had more to say. At that moment, however, Nasturtia, who must have been listening in the hall, appeared in the doorway.
“It isn't my fault,” she snapped defensively, although she had not in fact been accused of anything. “I told them not to put anything like that on Fritzâhe's a boy, after all.”
“But they did put the pins on, and you didn't even notice,” Aunt Lily said in a tone that indicated this subject had already been discussed at length between the two of them.
“Well, I had things on my mind,” Nasturtia grumbled in a weaker voice.
Mari, who had been quiet up to this point, snorted disdainfully. “You may as well admit it,” she said. To Aunt Lily, she explained, “She told me that the clipper there was a doll, and she was all excited over him. That's why she couldn't think of anything else.”
“Mari,” Aunt Lily said reproachfully.
“Well you needn't sound so smug,” Aunt Nasturtia said petulantly to Mari. “Just suppose you tell how you went to the store with five dollars in your purse, bought all those things for Lily, and came back with five.”
Aunt Lily raised one eyebrow quizzically and turned to Mari, silently indicating she would like an explanation.
Mari glowered at Nasturtia for a moment before dropping her eyes to the floor. “Well,” she mumbled. “I met this sailor on the bus....”
“On the bus!” Lily was shocked.
“It was practically empty,” Mari said quickly, with a brief smile. “And we were all the way in the back. Anyway, he put his jacket over us, so nobody could see anything if they looked.”
Nasturtia giggled triumphantly, and Lily only frowned her disapproval silently. Jackie coughed to hide his amusement, which was heightened by the crimson blush that flashed over Mathews face. The agent was finding the family a little hard to believe.
“I think you'd better go on and finish your story,” Jackie said, heading off any possible quarrel. He was eager to hear the further details anyway.
“Of course,” Lily agreed, giving both the other two ladies withering glances before she smiled in Mr. Mathews direction. “When Nasturtia brought Fritz in, with those awful little pins on his ears, I'm afraid I was a little perturbed. I scolded her, and then I took the pins off, but I was annoyed and I wasn't too careful. One of them broke, and to my surprise, there was this note hidden inside it.”
“I wouldn't have read it,” Nasturtia said cheerfully,
“But I thought it was a love note from the clipper.”
Lily glowered coldly at her again, before producing a crumpled scrap of paper from her pocket. “To tell the truth, I wasn't immediately suspicious,” she explained. “But then I saw it was in a code of some sort. That, and the fact that it was hidden, made me wonder. And then, there was the fact that it was a mistakeâI mean, our getting the note.”
“A mistake?” Mathews asked. He was watching the note eagerly, plainly impatient to see it. Aunt Lily, however, was intent on finishing her explanation before she handed over the note.
“Well, it seems there was another woman there when Nasturtia went to pick up Fritz. And she was picking up a white poodle also. I think they put the clips on the wrong dog, since Nasturtia had instructed them to put nothing on Fritz, and the other dog was bare.”
“Sounds logical,” Mathews agreed. He managed a slight grin as Lily at last relinquished the note, handing it over to him.
Even from where he sat, Jackie saw the rough sketch at the bottom, the drawing of a butterfly that served, as Aunt Lily had guessed, as a signature. There was no mistake about that, it was a symbol that was known to agents and spies about the world, the sign of the most notorious and dangerous underground organization in existenceâButterfly.
Mathews recognized it too, and his expression went from surprise to grim appraisal, to suppressed excitement.