tagMind ControlSusan Takes Charge Pt. 05

Susan Takes Charge Pt. 05


By Special Guest Author Susan Bailey and T. MaskedWriter


"Dear Mr. Occupant, to whom it may concern.
I thought I'd leave this note for you to read on your return.
Your daughter came to see us play, me and all the band.
And since you're not around today, I knew you'd understand
if we...
-Sloppy Seconds, "Steal Your Beer"

Because La Familia didn't get invited over to the Palace Wing often, red velvet ropes and signs advising the way to the Banquet Hall had been put up. The stated purpose of these cordons and signs was that it had been so long since La Contessa had seen them, she didn't want them getting lost on what little time they'd have together tonight. The true reason, as you might have guessed, is to keep any of them from wandering off to where they might find something to steal. (A command that I know Helen HAS given to all of La Familia, after those first couple visits, was a mysterious and irresistible compulsion to make sure all silverware they "found" has been returned; and anything that "fell into their pockets or bags" be put back where it "fell from" before they can leave, remembering only once they were halfway down La Collina that they'd meant to steal something, but it must've slipped their minds.)

A few Ultimados were, as usual, poorly; disguised as servants in the areas they were most likely to stray towards to "help them back," forcibly if needed, to an approved area. Before they became La Familia Royale's elite guard, La Squadra de Ultimados was San Finzione's special forces unit. Because it's only been in the past two years that they've taken on their new role, their training in undercover work has been lacking. Helen's been working on that; especially with the two Ultimados who live across the street from our house in Federal Way full-time now, watching over "some highly valuable foreign assets of San Finzione's." (Us. Troy, Julie, and I are the "highly valuable foreign assets." It applies only to Troy & Julie now; however, Helen says that's because as a Citizen of San Finzione, I'm now a "highly valuable domestic asset.") Dr. Paul and Marisol Green, our new Greens Across the Street, are a much more convincing couple than the last pair.

For most of the castle, the work day was ending, and buses were coming to take them down La Collina and to the car park at the bottom of the hill. There weren't as many ending their shift today as usual. That was because around 3 o'clock, some of them were advised by Lady Maria and Jeanne carrying "La Contessa's orders" (We just didn't specify which Contessa.) that they would be needed to stay late tonight, but that it would be worth their while. I saw the workers for the castle's print shop hurry on board, having just carried out a last-minute job for La Contessa before the end of the day.

"We have to do several things here." I told my crew before we parted. "The first is 'not really hurt anyone, because they WILL all be Maria's family in there.'" Waiting for the shift change to go into action would minimize potential bystanders. I turned on my iPad and did the part of this that might be considered "light treason" if I didn't have La Contessa-in-Reggenza's approval; I signed in to that app that Jeanne has that lets her monitor stuff around the castle. Since Jeanne was the only person meant to use it, there wasn't an option to locate her, so I pressed the button for La Contessa.

The app informed me that La Contessa was not in the castle, ("Thank you, Susan, but our Contessa is in another castle.") but that Rita was currently posing as her at the castle's gift shop. Patching into the gift shop's cameras showed "Helen" rounding up a stop-in and shaking hands with a couple of tourists before getting into her own dress for the reception. Jeanne was in the background, standing next to her cart, which was plugged in to a nearby outlet and charging.

I smiled. She was doing something that I knew the real Helen enjoyed doing; meeting tourists and giving them a story to take back home. Over a year ago, Helen was doing the same thing when someone ran out of the tour group and stabbed her. As soon as she was able to again, she went right back to doing it. A little more careful, and maybe with some more Ultimados lurking just out of earshot, but she wasn't going to let that fuck stop her from doing something she loved. I looked around the shop for a moment. As I suspected, members of La Familia were trying not to be noticed buying out the last of the items in the Baby section.

"Jeanne," I told her before we all broke off to do our things. "I'm going to need to borrow your cart. I'm also going to need you to show me how this button works."

I made my way to my room to start getting dressed for the reception, being careful to watch where I was going as I looked for Maria on the app. She was in the kitchen. I patched into those cameras and saw her giving instructions to the kitchen staff. They were reacting like she'd just told them that she had a lot more work for them. Maria told them something else, and the grumbles turned to cheers as they started working harder. I saw her get a text, look at it, and smile. A few seconds later, I got one from Colleen. Maria had presumably gotten the same message, or a similar one from Stavro about their part of the plan.

There was still almost an hour before the reception, but as I'd predicted, some of La Familia had started trickling into the Banquet Hall. A bar had been set up, and one of the four bartenders was already busily engaged in taking orders. The other three were hanging back, knowing that the rush was coming any second and that they'd all be busy soon. I strolled past the Nursery door with the big sign on it that read "Absolutely No Smoking, Helen. In fact, why don't you just leave them in the little basket before you go in. Nobody will touch them." The sign on the other door read "Everyone Else, No Smoking and Leave La Contessa's Cigarettes Alone." The nannies were getting the twins ready for their appearance as well. I decided to not peek in and let myself be surprised at how they might possibly make them even cuter.

I shuddered at my vision of the future that Lucinda had in store for them: Some ultra-religious boarding school where kids get flogged for whistling on a Tuesday. And since they're the new fish in the pond, the only ones they'll have are each other. So, of course, the school will separate them. The fact that they're twins aside, they're also the sons of Troy Equals. If you want to put them in Hell, cut them off from their best friend.

Both would learn that the only person that they can turn to when God doesn't seem to be listening is Cousin Lucinda. I spent enough of my own childhood in group homes to know what that kind of completely alone is like. Having someone to listen to my problems and "have a talk with" people and get them taken care of like Lucinda would do for them? The kind of things I'd do for that person if they came to me later in life, wanting "a little favor?"

There was no "if" about it; no "someday, if you work hard, you might be rich and famous." These boys were already rich and famous. What they do with their lives will be talked about on the internet and put in history books. With an upbringing like that and a role model like her, I shuddered again at the thought of what those books might say. I swore to myself that it wouldn't happen, and all three of the women in my head agreed as we went to get dressed.

* * *

Suzy-Ho's sex-filtered view of human nature seemed to be correct. It tends to be.

About two-thirds of the members of La Familia who worked on the Business Side were going home for the day and didn't look like they had any plans to come back. Some might've been going home to change or get their gift, but most of them had that "end of the day, get the fuck out of here" look on their faces. That still meant about a hundred would be coming. A large enough crowd to bear witness to Lucinda's Grand Gesture.

My assessment from this morning about most of them showing up early to load up on free booze was also turning out to be correct. Lucinda hadn't given them enough warning for there to be any fashionable latecomers. Lucinda wouldn't be late, either. She'll be looking to make an entrance. Be seen, like a Contessa. And she's expecting to be praised and celebrated after. She won't want to miss a moment.

Between both mine and Suzy-Ho's assessments of human nature, the ones that were coming to the party were the ones who weren't smart enough to figure out that Lucinda was up to something that they didn't want to be caught in the middle of and thought a couple of hours of free booze and food was worth rushing out to scrounge up a gift of some kind. Jeanne's app told me that the ATMs in the Business Wing needed emergency restocking. It also said that she'd put in the service call while I'd been showering and getting dressed up. I anticipated a lot of envelopes of cash, mostly Società Finzione office envelopes.

I mentioned back at the beginning of all this how much things have changed for me lately. One of those changes that overwhelms me sometimes is how I've gone from "owning clothes" to "having a wardrobe." The realization that I "had something" for an occasion like this was one of those. I put something together and brought up the iPad again.

I checked the Business Wing on the app. Lucinda was leaving her office. If there were cameras in there, we didn't have access to them, but that must have been where Lucinda changed for the evening. I couldn't really track Lucinda through the castle, but I was pretty sure of the route she'd be taking. (Helen wouldn't be foolish enough to make some sort of universal "run the whole castle" app; that's just asking for someone to hack in or for it to gain sentience and try to kill everyone!)

It was time to get moving. I messaged Jeanne about the cart and she said it was outside my door. Sure enough, there it was, fully charged. The other things I needed were on it, too. I began pushing it toward the Great Hall.

* * *

As I'd sort of hoped, I ran into Lucinda de San Finzione in the Great Hall, while standing with the cart in front of one of the signs marking the way to the reception. Her snooty rich person instinct to overlook servants almost caused her to look past me and the cart, until she noticed who was with it and walked over. She was wearing a white dress, probably a designer label of some kind. I think the look she was going for was "angelic," but it really didn't work. That could have been because I knew who she was.

"Susan," She said with a smile. "Er... I did not expect to see you with La Contessa's maid's cart." (Of course, she wouldn't have bothered learning Jeanne's name.) "Will you be serving at the reception this evening?"

"Lucinda!" I said back with a smile that I hoped looked as fake as hers. "Oh, no... er, no. Jeanne's going to be pushing the twins in their stroller this evening, so I'm taking her cart back to her quarters for her. It's the kind of thing I do to be nice." I gave a brief pause before switching from English to Italian. "'Nice' is a word in the dictionary, Lucinda."

I could tell by the look on her face that it was a revelation that I spoke Italian. That little "Si... er, yes" thing she'd been doing before had been deliberate. Because most of the People of San Finzione ("San Finzionean" refers to the culture and the country. Someone who's from here is either a Citizen. Person, or one of the People of San Finzione.) speak at least two of the four official languages. Because the economy depends on visitors having a pleasant experience in San Finzione, it's considered only good manners, if you're able to speak to someone in their native language, to accommodate them. Yes, I had been a bad citizen by pretending not to know Italian, so I could foist La Familia off on an Ultimado. That little "Si... er, yes" of hers let you know she was doing you a favor.

"A very Christ-like thing of you to do." Lucinda responded in Italian. "'Christ' is a word in the Bible, Susan."

"I'm aware." I told her. "I've read parts of it. Check out Exodus some time. Moses was seriously the world's first total badass."

"Exodus 22:18 is a particular favorite of mine." Lucinda replied. "'Suffer not a witch to live.'"

"I like Ezekiel 25:17." I told her. "The Samuel L. Jackson version, anyway."

"And I presume that, like La Contessa, you do not take Leviticus 18:22 to heart."

Here's something that most people who weren't Wards of the State as kids might not know about. That whole "separation of church and state" thing that, like most things, Americans only care about when it affects them, meets some gray areas when it comes to orphans. Most of the people who donate or volunteer to work with us have some kind of religious motivation. Once in a great while, you'll get someone like Troy, giving their money or time because they're that sort of person; but it's usually either some local politician who's just dropping off a couple coloring books for a political ad or someone looking to score points with their God or their church; almost never in that order.

Or, if you go into the foster system, you're introduced to a new God every month who's the REAL one, unlike all those others you were promised the same thing about. You're going to get religion pushed on you one way or another. Either none of it sticks, or too much of it sticks, and you get some fucked-up adults as a result. I'm not as bad as Helen about it; I think the only way the universe makes sense is if all of this shit is for SOMEONE'S amusement. My point is that this was not my first Bible Fight.

"Let me tell you something about that particular passage, Lucinda. The Bible contains four sentences on the subject of homosexuality. In that same book, there are twelve sentences on the subject of proper hat etiquette in church. It has three times as much to say on that subject; so it must be three times as important to merit that much Holy Word Count. Do you sincerely expect me to believe that a God who cares THAT much about accessorizing is COMPLETELY straight?"

She gave a little chuckle, then crossed herself for it.

"You must come to my office some time for a proper discussion on this subject." She replied. I wasn't sure if that was a come-on or not. I presumed not. "For now, I have a reception to attend."

"What are you after, Lucinda?" I finally decided to just ask her. "You've gone to a lot of effort to make this happen. What are you hoping to gain? Status?"

"Ha!" Lucinda Ha-ed. "Status? I have status to spare. If you, yourself, should ever need some status, help yourself to the box outside my door that will say 'Free Surplus Status!' MY concern is the MORAL direction that San Finzione has taken since Count Vincenzo passed; forever does HE reign in our hearts!"

(Ok, remember what I said about how you're supposed to say that when talking about him? Well, there are two ways to say it. The first is how you'd think it's meant, out of love and respect for the Count's memory. Then there's the second way to say it that means contempt for Helen for "fucking our beloved Count to death and stealing his throne." Tone of voice and which word you emphasize make the difference. Lucinda was clearly using the second one.)

"Thank you, Lucinda." I replied. "But that book you're so fond of is pretty clear on what happens when you accept gifts from snakes."

The smile that got from her was one I've seen on Sue's, and therefore, my, face before. The smile of respect gained for standing up to someone. She was conceding for the moment.

"I have somewhere else to be. I shall see you there, Sue." She said the name experimentally. I'd gotten a rise out of her, so she wanted to see if calling me something other than Susan would get a rise out of me. Fortunately, she picked the right one.

"You know, something, Lucinda? I've always preferred Susan. I don't 'do' nicknames. But I think I like the idea of you calling me Sue. Just you, Lucinda. Nobody else. See you there."

Lucinda walked off quickly, trying not to look like she was storming, however, was still in a hurry. I whistled "Sunny Afternoon" by The Kinks as she departed. It's just always struck me as a good "pulling a caper" song. Once she was out of sight, I switched the sign for the Reception for La Familia with another and pressed a button on the cart.

* * *

The other feature of Jeanne's cart was coming in handy for this part of the plan. Helen is a runner. Most of her childhood was spent running from her biological father or the police, so she's good at it. With all the smoking she does, I don't think she could represent San Finzione in the Olympics, but she's had as much experience as any professional athlete. Jeanne often has to keep up with her around the castle while pushing a cart full of beverages and appliances. Again, Castle Finzione is a big place, and Helen's not a cruel boss; she doesn't expect Jeanne to be able to keep up her pace or have to push this thing around by herself while she does it. That's why, when the button I pushed gets pushed, a little stand pops out of the cart, Jeanne gets on, and the electric motor activates. It handles like one of those mobility scooters and can get up to about 25 miles an hour if the halls are clear, like just after a shift change. Although I'm not sure if Helen can run that fast or not, Jeanne's able to keep pace with her, and the motor is also quiet enough to not interfere with conversation.

This is how I was able to replace all the signs for the reception with the new ones we got from the Print Shop right before they closed for the day behind Lucinda as she went along and get to the Banquet Hall in time for her entrance.

Just outside the Banquet Hall, Maria intercepted Lucinda for a couple of minutes as well to buy me that time.

"This is Lucinda's show." I'd explained earlier. "She's not going to be late or early to it, she's going to shoot for being precisely on time to make her entrance, because that's what a Contessa would do. They all know she's responsible for the free meal; or if they don't, she'll make certain they learn first thing, so she won't make a beeline for Helen to give her gift, but we still need to delay her entrance a couple of minutes. I'll have a 'run-in' with her on her way here. Maria, if you can arrange another, a minute more can't hurt."

I found Jeanne by the head of one of the tables by the buffet sideboards that had been set up. Servants stood by, ready for the clock to strike seven to uncover the chafing dishes. I knew that making them wait until you were damn good and ready to serve them was a tactic that Helen used to keep them in line. Something Helen had said about them before was "These people care about two things: Filling their stomachs and filling their pockets; both preferably on your dime." She had the twins in a double-stroller. They were napping. The nannies had put little hats and baby sunglasses on them for the bright lights of the hall. They looked like this wasn't their first party tonight, and they probably had another one to go to after this, so better rest up for it. I was about to ask Jeanne where Rita was when I caught the smell of Helen's cigarettes and looked for the smoke, instead. (The Banquet Hall is big enough that we weren't overly concerned about smoke and the babies. A little fan on top of the stroller was gently blowing in case any trailed their direction.)

Contessa Helena de San Finzione, or at least, a reasonable facsimile thereof, stood talking to two men. I didn't know their names, and I was reasonably sure that Rita didn't either, but we'd thought of that earlier, too.

"Helen probably doesn't really know all of their names." I'd said. "Or, since it's Helen, she probably DOES know all of their names, but she'll selectively forget to remind them how little she thinks of them. We can use that to our advantage. If someone tries to corner you about 'that thing we talked about last month,' Helen would pretend not to remember and make them re-tell the whole thing, so knowing who's who is easily bluffed."

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