The Custard Tart’s Revenge (part one…)

The Custard Tart had been incinerated. Now it’s time for its revenge…

Caz bowled round the corner, the corroded metal studs on the soles of her boots leaving smoking gulleys in the kitchen floor.

‘I just had a thought!’ she screeched at Barton. He looked at me and idly raised an eyebrow. A thought wasn’t what we expected of Caz, but we both loved surprises.

‘What kind of exciting thought would that be?’ I asked, stroking my chin.

She sniffed. ‘The kind of thought to get us out of this fix,’ she said, defiant as ever.

It was just over a week since the Custard Tart Disaster, and our time was nearly up before the Improved Portable Steam Oven Company™ would knock on our door wondering what we were doing with their prize winning dessert, or, in its absence, the money they had advanced.

Barty confirmed we had four days left to come up with something.

‘Have you spoken to them?’ I asked him.

He nodded. ‘Yeah. I told them there had been a slight technical problem, but that we’d be on time and wouldn’t disrupt their schedules.’ He tilted his concertina’d hat over one ear and massaged the opposing lobe. Neither the hat nor his ear had come through the explosion with any semblance of health, but at least his ear would heal.

‘Remind me,’ I said. ‘What are our contractual guidelines?’

He lifted his prosthetic hand to tick off the items. His unmoving fingers let out a dark, rasping cough, and he poked around in the knuckle hinges, searching out the sweet spot to quieten them down. I passed him the three-in-one oil, and he nodded his thanks.

The index finger clicked and sprang upright. ‘Number one. It has to use the newest addition to their catalogue, the Strap-on SpeedySteam StoveTM (Patent Pending).’

Caz raised her arms and dropped into an abrupt crouch, brandishing the aforesaid steam-guns like a Wild West gunman from out of town raiding the saloon. She loved her culinary Colt 45s and hated them at the same time. They had caused the custard pie debacle, when all was said and done.

‘Two. It must be spectacular enough to impress the assembled guests at the launch party.’

Caz snorted. ‘They’re not guests – we’ve paid them to be there. So they can be paid a bit more to be impressed. Next.’

Barty frowned. ‘As you say. Remember though, we don’t have “a bit more”.’

Caz shrugged. She’d sell something and find the “bit more” if need be. Her granddaddy swore he’d been the inspiration for Dickens’ Wemmick and his Portable Property, and Caz had inherited his forward-thinking gene.

‘Stop competing, children,’ I chided. ‘How many more guidelines, Barty?’

‘Just one. We have to teach the recipe to the first-born child of the VIP in charge of the project.’

He looked sheepish, as well he might.

That had never been in any contract I’d looked at.

‘What’s that?’ they asked. ‘And that? What’s that?’

We had drawn straws to decide who would look after the kid. I’d lost, and both Barty and Caz had scuttled away like disturbed crabs in a rock pool, off to hide under a nearby tangle of seaweed before I had the chance to pull rank on them. So I’d made my way to the IPSO headquarters, and found myself faced, not with the lively, hyper-excited child I had expected, but with a morose teen who’d eyed me suspiciously through the smoked glass lenses in their visor. I nodded a hello.

‘Now, moppet,’ the pastel-suited VIP of a mother cooed, ‘don’t be difficult with the nice man. Come back and tell me all about how they’re getting on.’ She mussed their hair, ignoring the curled lip and deep sigh. A final fluorescent smile and she swivelled round on her neon-blue anti-grav pumps to zoom back into the stygian depths of the office building.

‘So you’re a spy then,’ I said. The sprog recoiled in horror.

‘No,’ they said, scowling. ‘I’m certainly not going to spy for her,’

‘Do you have a name?’ I asked as we waited for Barty to bring the coach round from the side alley. He brought the rusting heap to a halt, and the doors slid open. I motioned the teen to move inside and followed, holding on to the overhead rail as the coach lurched back into life.

They ignored me. ‘I shall call you Teen, then.’ I said.

Teen shrugged. ‘Whatever.’

We stood in silence for the rest of the trip, both doubtless contemplating the unfairness of being stuck with someone like the person standing opposite. And now we’re in the kitchen, and they’ve still said no more words than Caz and I manage in the throes of passion – not including ‘left a bit’ and ‘ouch’ – and most of those include the word ‘what’.

‘That,’ I said, pointing at the sink, with its overflowing crockery, ‘ is an item of supreme interest to you, the sink. And that,’ I said, pointing at the oven, ‘ is broken. Are you any good at fixing broken ovens?’

‘Dunno,’ Teen muttered. ‘Never tried.’

Well, that sounded hopeful.

Barty loped into the room and dumped a leather bag on the floor next to Teen. ‘Tools,’ he growled and slouched back out again.

I pointed to the bag. ‘Off you go then, give it a go…’ and stomped away to join the other two.

‘What have you come up with?’ I asked Caz, who was scribbling conscientiously on her notepad.

‘Red,’ I said over my shoulder to Barty. He shook his head. ‘All out and the pistols don’t work. Not since she…’ he glared at Caz, who looked up, hefted her bodice and glared back.

‘It was mechanical malfunction. We all agreed on that,’ she hissed darkly. ‘It worked before, and there was no reason you wouldn’t have enjoyed it. But then you said…’

I shook my head at them both. ‘Ladies,’ I said. ‘no more, okay?’ I sat down, pushing the table away from me. ‘Just find a bottle, would you, Barty? Caz, come and sit here.’ I patted my knee. She swished over and settled down. ‘Just whisper in my ear: what have you come up with?’

She shook her head. But then she took a deep breath and I was inspired. ‘What about something like those? Something we could inflate?’ I asked. Her Dollies, delectable as ever, pearly-pale and slightly moist around the edges, sat high on the shelf of her stays. She followed my gaze as I sat on my hands.

‘Meringues? Souffles? Creme Puffs?’ she asked.

Barty sniffed and filled our glasses with room temperature Chablis. ‘Fridge still not working.’ He sniffed again. ‘Caz, stop showing us your over-boiled dumplings. Nothing’s going to inflate those back into life.’

A polite cough sounded from the door and we turned to see Teen standing there, an extra-large spanner drooping from their hand.

‘Errm…’ they said and turned back into the kitchen. I stood, turfing a furious Caz onto the floor in a frothy tumble of petticoats, and followed them through.

‘What you got?’ I asked. ‘Can I help?’

‘I was listening,’ Teen said. ‘Sorry. I mean, I don’t know about inflatables.’ They looked down at their own chest, hidden under three ratty shirts. Each scrap of cotton was shorter than the one underneath, creating a wave that lapped like dirty whipped cream on the shore of their skinny leather trousers. An array of rusty chains dangled around their throat and they ran the links across their close-bitten fingers. ‘But I make a mean souffle. So it’s not how can you help me, it’s more how can I help you?’

Caz ran into the kitchen and threw her arms round Teen, and Barty and I took their elbows, lifted them bodily and hefted them high into the air.

‘Welcome to the team.’

(to be continued…)

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