March 29, 1964
Holly Short emerged from the shuttle port and closed the camouflaged door behind her. She stepped behind a large oak tree and pushed the communications button on her helmet.
“I’ve arrived at my destination, Foaly,” she spoke into her mic. “I see the castle right in front of me. Any further instructions before I make my approach?”
Foaly sounded worried as he responded through the small speaker inside Holly’s helmet. “Yes, there’s been an unforeseen complication. A potentially disastrous complication. Our surveillance camera captured a clear image of Mulch Diggums speaking to a pair of mudpeople before he entered Dromoland Castle. Our Recon Intelligence Officer identified the humans as George Harrison and John Lennon, two renowned entertainers who are members of the most popular musical group on the surface just now. They call themselves ‘The Beatles.’ Several human photographers have been spotted on the perimeter of the castle grounds, trying to snap pictures of Messers Harrison and Lennon. You’re going to have to be extra careful in your efforts to apprehend Diggums. We don’t want you to be seen by any of these mudpeople.”
“D’Arvit,” Holly cursed under her breath. She cleared her throat, then spoke into her mic once more. “I’ll keep that in mind, Foaly. Short out.” She turned on her shield and vibrated out of view. Then she stepped away from the tree, scanned the grounds surrounding the castle, and smiled as she noted a low hillock running over the lawn, ending in a small hole with a mound of dirt piled up beside it.
She approached the hole cautiously, then covered her nose with her hand to block the stench of dwarf excrement. The hole was clearly the end of a tunnel Mulch Diggums had burrowed through the dirt. She surveyed the grass leading from the hole to the castle, and noticed several small, muddy footprints. Then she focused her eyes on the castle itself.
How am I going to get inside? she worried. Think, Holly, think! Use the environment!
Her glance fell upon a wheeled laundry cart resting beside the castle’s back entrance. A small child was dancing in a circle in the grass just beside the cart.
Holly smiled to herself, then zigzagged her way over the lawn to the cart and surreptitiously pulled out a maid’s uniform. She deactivated her vibrating shield, then tugged the black dress over her head. Its human-sized short sleeves and skirt covered her arms and legs completely. She looped a pair of apron strings twice around her waist and tied them in a knot, then slipped off her helmet and tucked it inside the apron’s large pocket. She stepped away from the cart and cautiously approached the child.
“Hello?” she called out.
The child stopped dancing and furrowed her brow at Holly. “Who are you?”
Holly smiled as brightly as she could and raised her voice into a higher, more childish pitch. “My name is Holly. My mum’s one of the maids here. She brought me with her to work today because my gran couldn’t mind me, but she told me to stay out of trouble.”
“Is that your mum’s uniform?” asked the girl.
Holly sighed theatrically. “I’m not sure. I just pulled this out of the laundry. I was playing by a brook in the woods behind the castle and got my dress all wet. So I took off my damp clothes and put this on instead.”
The girl giggled. “You look ridiculous.”
“I know,” Holly admitted. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Siobhan,” the child replied. “My granddad used to own this castle, but he sold it last year to an American, who turned it into a hotel. Granddad lives in that building over there now.” She pointed to a grand-looking house on a hillside overlooking the castle. “But the new owner asked him to stop by today to meet the Beatles. He brought me along.”
Siobhan pointed to a circular outcrop of mushrooms in the lawn. “I found a fairy ring. Do you want to dance inside it with me? Maybe we could call down a fairy, and make her give us a pot of gold!”
Holly bit back a laugh. “That sounds like fun. But wouldn’t you rather go inside and meet the Beatles yourself?”
Siobhan shrugged. “Granddad told me to stay outside so I wouldn’t bother anybody. Just like your mum told you to stay out of the way.”
“Right,” Holly muttered. Well there goes Plan Number One! she thought irritably.
“But maybe we could sneak inside and get a snack from the kitchen,” Siobhan suggested. “Cook makes the best ginger biscuits in the whole world!”
Holly’s face flushed in relief. “That sounds like even more fun!” she replied.
“C’mon!” exclaimed Siobhan. She ran to the back door of the castle and put her hand on the knob.
Holly squared her shoulders. “Is that an invitation to step inside?”
“Of course it is, silly!” Siobhan laughed. She held the door open for Holly. “We’re friends now!”
Holly smiled back at the child and entered the castle.
* * *
Holly nibbled on her cookie and smiled. “You’re right,” she said. “Cook does make the best ginger biscuits in the world!”
Siobhan giggled, then peeked through the gap between the not-quite-closed pantry doors. “I feel like we’re spies, hiding in here!”
“Well, we don’t want my mum or your granddad to see us, do we?” Holly replied.
Siobhan leaned back against the pantry wall and knocked her head on a large tower of tinned beans, sending the topmost can crashing to the floor. “Ouch!” she cried. “That hurt!”
Holly put her finger to her lips. “Ssshhh! We’re playing ‘Spies,’ remember? You don’t want to give away our hiding place.”
Siobhan rubbed her hand against her sore head and nodded. She finished her cookie, then flashed Holly an impish grin. “Let’s explore the castle! I’ll show you the bedroom that used to be mine.”
Holly swallowed her last bite of ginger biscuit and squared her shoulders. “Okay,” she whispered. “But let’s be very quiet. We don’t want anyone to know we’re spying on them.”
Siobhan grabbed Holly’s hand and led her out of the kitchen and down a long hallway. She stopped by the door of the large parlor and gasped. “Golly! It’s them!” she said in a loud stage whisper.
Holly peeked into the room and saw two shaggy-haired men sitting on sofas opposite each other. Beside each man sat a beautiful blonde woman. She frowned. “Who do you mean, them?”
“The Beatles, silly!” Siobhan giggled. “Don’t you recognize them?”
“Siobhan, is that you?” growled a man’s deep voice from inside the room.
Siobhan blanched and squeezed Holly’s hand tighter.
“Maybe we should make a run for it?” Holly suggested as she heard heavy footsteps approach the door.
A plump, grey-haired man appeared in the doorframe. He glowered down at Siobhan and Holly. “I thought I told you to make yourself scarce, missy.”
Siobhan released Holly’s hand and hugged the man’s knees. “But Granddad, I wanted to meet the Beatles too!”
A chorus of laughter erupted from the inside of the room. Then a man with a broad North English accent called out from the couch. “Let the children come inside! They look harmless enough!”
Siobhan’s grandfather put his hands to his hips and pretended to look stern, but his eyes started crinkling up at the corners. “I dare say, Mr. McDonough is hiring a much younger staff of servants since he took over this property. I can’t believe you’re old enough to work as a maid yet, young lady.”
Siobhan giggled. “This is my friend Holly, Granddad.” Siobhan clasped her grandfather’s hand and smiled up at him. “Holly, this is my grandfather, Donough Edward Foster O’Brien, Sixteenth Baron Inchiquin, Peer of Ireland, Chief of the Name of O’Brien, and Prince of Thomand in the Gaelic Irish nobility.”
Holly looked up at the old man. “That’s quite a lot of titles you have, sir.”
“Just call him Donny Boy,” said John Lennon. He stood up from his couch and approached the crowd at the door. “That’s what George and I have been calling him since we got here, and he hasn’t thrown us out of his castle yet.”
“Sadly, it’s not my castle anymore,” the Baron replied. “Couldn’t afford the upkeep. Taxes, you know.”
“Tell me about it,” moaned George Harrison. He stood up from his couch and stood beside John. Then he inspected Holly’s oversized maid uniform and smiled. “Looks like you’ve been having fun playing dress-up, little girl.”
Holly bristled at George’s remark. “I’m older than you think,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Holly got her clothes wet playing in the brook behind the house, so she borrowed a maid’s dress from the laundry cart,” Siobhan explained. “I was going to show her my old room upstairs.”
“Very well then,” said the Baron. “Run along, but don’t get into any more trouble.”
“We won’t!” Siobhan promised. She grabbed Holly’s hand and pulled her back into the hallway, towards a wide marble staircase. “My room’s up this way, in the West Wing. C’mon!”
Holly steeled her nerves. I’m never going to catch Mulch if I have to keep playing with this silly child! she thought irritably. There must be some way I can break away from her…
Siobhan led Holly down an upstairs hallway, then stopped in front of a large portrait hanging by the last door. “This is Donough MacMurrough O’Brien. He owned this castle back in the days of King Henry the Eighth, but was hanged for being a Rebel. I always thought he looked too nice to be a bad guy.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” Holly replied.
Siobhan furrowed her brow. “Funny, there used to be a golden candle sconce hanging next to this painting. It had a Claddagh pattern carved into it.”
“Perhaps your grandfather took it when he sold this castle to that American chap,” Holly suggested.
“No,” Siobhan insisted. “It was here yesterday. I stopped by the castle with my granddad after the Good Friday services. He was making arrangements with Mr. McDonough for today’s visit with the Beatles, and I came upstairs to check out my old bedroom.”
Holly lifted her nose in the air. The lingering stench of Mulch Diggums was faint, but unmistakable. He’s snooping around upstairs while everyone downstairs is preoccupied with those celebrities, she realized. She turned towards Siobhan. “I have an idea. Show me your old room, then let’s play ‘Hide and Seek’.”
Siobhan squealed in delight. “Okay!” she grabbed Holly’s hand and pulled her into her former bedroom. She pointed out the magnificent view from the large, arched window, then flopped down in an overstuffed chair beside a chest of drawers. Then she threw a glance at the dresser top and frowned once more. “The picture is gone!”
Holly examined the wall over the empty dresser top. A bare nail protruded from the wallpaper. “Tell me about this picture.”
Siobhan pouted. “It’s a small painting of a girl with curly hair. I wanted to take it with me when we moved to the house over the hill, but Granddad said he sold it along with the castle. He said it was painted by some famous artist, so even though it was little, it was worth a lot of money.”
“I see,” Holly said. So Mulch is branching out into the art market now too! she marveled. I wonder how many other treasures he has room for in his trouser pockets!
“Let’s play ‘Hide and Seek’ now, Siobhan,” Holly proposed. “I’ll hide first.”
“Okay,” Siobhan agreed. She covered her eyes with her hands and started to count out loud.
Holly ran out of the bedroom and followed her nose through the twisting corridors of the castle until she found the malodorous dwarf she had been sent to apprehend. She reached her hand under the long skirt of her maid’s uniform and pulled out her buzz baton. Then she stole a glance into the bedroom where Mulch was hiding, to plot out her next move.
To her surprise, she discovered that Mulch Diggums was not alone. A woman in a maid’s uniform was sitting beside him on the floor. Spread across the carpet in front of them was a large assortment of small objects – a cigarette lighter, a comb, a black sock, three guitar picks, a silver letter opener, and the golden sconce and small painting Siobhan had reported missing.
“You’re bloody daft,” Mulch mumbled in his distinctive course growl. “Do you seriously think that cheap plastic comb is worth more than this Gainsborough miniature?”
“You’d better believe it,” the maid replied. “This comb belongs to John Lennon! There’s even a few strands of his hair stuck between the teeth! Beatle fans from all over the would literally kill each other to possess this!”
“This needs darning,” Mulch continued. He lifted the black sock off the floor and slipped his finger through a small hole in its heel. “It’s bloody worthless. You even found it in a rubbish bin!”
“So George Harrison won’t report it missing,” the maid replied. “That’s the beauty of it. It’s mine for the taking – and for the selling!”
Mulch shook his head in disbelief. “Well, get what you can for them. I’ll stick to pinching items that actually have inherent value. Like gold and silver, and priceless artwork, and…”
“And dragonfly wing prototypes with state-of-the-art counter-beat motion stabilizers,” Holly interrupted. She stepped into the bedroom and pointed her baton at Mulch.
Mulch frowned at her. “Better watch it, Miss Short. You wouldn’t want this mudperson to see you wield that weapon. She might have to report you to the surface police.”
The maid scrunched up her face at Mulch. “Mudperson? Did you just call me a mudperson?”
Holly ignored the woman and stepped closer to Mulch. “You’re under arrest. Put your hands up and surrender, or I’ll blast you.”
Mulch stood up, then grabbed the painting off the floor and stuffed it into the largest pocket of his filthy trousers. “I think not, Holly. If you dare use that weapon, Fiona here will scream, and the folks downstairs will come up and find you. They’ll have you hauled off to a mudperson prison, and your face will be all over the mudpeople newspapers. And not even Julius Root will risk exposing himself to save you.”
Fiona the maid glowered at Mulch. “What the devil are you talking about? Do you seriously expect me to believe that this midget has the power to arrest you? What are you two anyway? Runaways from a circus freak show?”
Holly threw an admonishing look at the maid, then squared her eyes back on Mulch. “Hands up, Diggums. I mean it. I’m taking you into custody.”
Fiona started to laugh. Mulch threw her an anxious look, then started laughing as well. Holly took another step closer to Mulch and aimed her baton at his heart.
“Found you!” shouted Siobhan. She ran into the room giggling. “Now it’s my turn to hide!” She smiled at Holly, but then noticed her new friend was pointing a strange looking stick at the dirty dwarf she had seen earlier that morning. “What’s going on?”
Holly breathed a sigh of relief. “This man stole your painting and golden sconce. And a silver letter opener too. He just put the painting in his pocket.”
Siobhan examined the sconce and letter opener on the floor, then looked up and frowned at Mulch. “You’re a thief! I’m gonna tell my granddad on you!”
Fiona looked back and forth between Holly and Siobhan, then turned towards Mulch. “Are you just going to stand there?”
Holly threw a fake smile at Fiona. “Of course he’s not, Mummy. He’s going to give back those items he stole from this castle, and the trinkets he was trying to steal from the Beatles, isn’t he?”
Fiona furrowed her brow at Holly. “Did you just call me ‘Mummy’?”
Holly laughed. “It’s okay, Mummy. Siobhan’s grandfather the Baron said I could come inside and play. So we don’t need to pretend anymore that you didn’t bring me with you to work this morning. You won’t get into any trouble now. Not if we both play by the rules.”
Fiona stared gape-mouthed at Holly and struggled to make out her meaning.
Holly took another step towards Mulch and lifted her baton towards his head. “I have an idea. If you give back all the things you just stole from this house and the Beatles, Siobhan and I won’t tell any of the grown-ups downstairs what you did.” She turned a knob on her baton to change its setting to a stronger charge. Mulch started to sweat. He gulped, then lifted his hands above his head.
“Now we’re playing ‘Cops and Robbers’!” Siobhan squealed. “This is even more fun than ‘Hide and Seek’!” She threw a quick glance at the items on the floor, then picked up the letter opener and pointed it at Mulch. “Give me back my painting, you crook!”
“Keep your hands up!” Holly commanded Mulch. She slipped her free hand into Mulch’s pocket, pulled out the framed picture, and handed it to Siobhan.
“You’re a mean old man! A dirty old man!” Siobhan said to Mulch. She stamped her foot and stuck out her tongue at him.
“I tell you what, Siobhan,” Holly said in a playful voice. “Why don’t we leave your painting with these other items on the floor for now, and march this bad guy outside so we can punish him?”
“Yes!” giggled Siobhan. She set down the painting and clapped her hands excitedly, then turned towards Fiona. “What should we do to him, Mrs. Holly’s Mum?”
“I think we should throw him in the laundry cart!” Holly replied before Fiona could answer. “Come on, Mummy, you lead the way to the back door. This thief can follow you, and Siobhan and I will bring up the rear.”
“We’ll make it a parade!” Siobhan exclaimed.
“Well, I never,” Fiona muttered under her breath.
“Do what the midget says,” Mulch commanded her. “Otherwise I might tell the men downstairs that you…”
“Who are you calling a midget?” Holly shouted, cutting off Mulch mid-sentence and aiming a swift kick at his rear-end. “Come on, Mummy, let’s go downstairs. Now!” She threw a menacing look at Fiona that broached no argument.
“Oh, alright,” Fiona huffed. She stepped out of the room.
“To the laundry cart with you!” shouted Siobhan. She fell into place behind Mulch and took turns poking him with the letter opener and kicking his bottom.
“Let’s go this way,” Holly said when they reached the base of the stairs. “We don’t want the Beatles and Siobhan’s granddad to know that anyone was trying to steal their things now, do we, Mummy?”
“Right you are,” Fiona replied in a resigned voice. She led the small parade down a side path to the castle’s back entrance.
“Open the door, Mummy,” Holly directed her.
Holly reached under her costume and pulled a LEPRecon-issued dwarf-muzzle and pair of handcuffs out of the pocket of her uniform. She used them to restrain Mulch.
Siobhan watched her in wonder and gasped. “Wow! You really know how to play ‘Cops and Robbers’!”
Fiona eyed her nervously. “Indeed you do,” she agreed.
“Now help me put this naughty man inside the cart, Mummy,” Holly commanded Fiona.
Siobhan stepped back and watched the pair lift Mulch and drop him unceremoniously into the cart full of dirty clothes. “What should we do with him now?” she asked innocently.
Holly pretended to freeze up for a second, then put her hand to her ear. “Siobhan, I think I hear your grandfather calling you. Mummy, why don’t you take her back inside, then meet me by our car.”
“By our car?” Fiona repeated in a surprised voice.
“Yes,” said Holly. “All this excitement has made me very tired. I think we should both go home now.”
“But I can’t leave work until…” Fiona began.
“I’m sure the American man who owns this castle will give you the rest of the day off,” Holly interrupted. “If you’d like, I can go inside for you and tell him everything I witnessed upstairs, and ask him to let you go instead.”
“No, no,” Fiona muttered. “I get your meaning. Come on, Miss O’Brien. I’ll take you back inside.”
Siobhan looked beseechingly at Holly. “But I want to keep playing!”
Holly looked back at her and sighed. “Tell you what,” she said softly. “Come back to the fairy ring tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll meet you there.”
Siobhan pouted for a moment, then clasped Fiona’s hand. “Okay. I’ll see you then.”
Holly tugged at Fiona’s apron. “I’ll stay here with the thief, and wait for you to come out to your car, Mummy. But don’t take too long. If you do, I’ll come inside and tell the Beatles that you…”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary,” Fiona interrupted, stiffening her back. “I’ll make my own excuses.”
Siobhan glanced over her shoulder and waved at Holly. “Till tomorrow!” she exclaimed.
“Go nuaí Dia duit,” Holly replied in a lilting Irish brogue. She waited for the door to close, then grabbed the handles on the laundry cart and pushed it over the bumpy ground to the edge of the castle’s car park.
Mulch grunted in complaint at the rough ride.
Holly pulled back a dirty towel that was covering Mulch’s face and glowered at him. “Be quiet, or I’ll stun you into silence.”
Mulch grumbled through his muzzle, then turned his head away from Holly.
Holly stood in place on the lawn and waited for Fiona to make her appearance. A few minutes later, the maid exited the castle through the servants’ door and walked to her car. Holly caught Fiona’s eye and said, “You will forget everything about this afternoon, except that you were caught stealing.”
Fiona reeled back on her heels for a moment, then climbed into her car and drove away.
Holly watched Fiona’s car disappear into the distance. Then she pushed the laundry cart towards the shuttle port. When she reached her destination, she pulled her helmet out of her apron pocket and placed it on her head. She touched her finger to her communications button and opened a line to Foaly.
“Short here,” she spoke into her mic. “I’ve apprehended Mulch. Please send a retrieval team to pick him up at the shuttle port.”
“Copy that,” Foaly replied. “Good work, Holly. Did any mudpeople see you?”
Holly drew in a deep breath. “Yes, but it shouldn’t be a problem. My disguise fooled all but one of them. I apprehended a thieving mudperson who suspected something was amiss about me, but I wiped her memories.”
“Well done,” said Foaly. “Trouble and Corporal Kelp should be there shortly to take Mulch off your hands.”
“Thanks,” Holly said. She turned her face back to the spot where she had first seen Siobhan dancing in the fairy circle and sighed. “I’ll need to talk to someone in the Holographic Deception Department when I return. I want to stage a small display for one of the residents of this castle tomorrow.”
“A holographic display?” laughed Foaly. “Holly, what are you going on about?”
“Fairies,” Holly replied in a wistful voice. “I need to project a brief image of dancing, magical fairies for a sweet little Irish child tomorrow afternoon.”
* * *
Inspired by the “Artemis Fowl” series of YA books, written by Eoin Colfer (published in 2001 through 2012), and by accounts of an ill-fated vacation that John Lennon and George Harrison took to Dromoland Castle in Ireland on Easter weekend, 1964. To shield the identity of George’s new girlfriend, Pattie Boyd, from the press, John’s wife Cynthia and Pattie dressed as maids and escaped from the castle grounds in a laundry cart.