"is that real?" i couldn't help asking as cecilie tapped the cigarette on her knee. the silver case was back in her pocket.
"of course it's real. would i smoke it if it weren't?"
"i guess i meant to ask, what's in it? pomegranate seeds? pumpkin seeds?"
cecilie looked at the tip of the cigarette. "wouldn't pomegranate seeds fall out? and pumpkin seeds you probably couldn't fit in in the first place."
"aren't pomegranate seeds bigger than pumpkin seeds anyway?" briand asked.
'what do you think, annibal?" cecilie asked. "which are bigger, pumpkin seeds or pomegranate seeds?"
annibal must have been the duc. "i don't know," he finally answered. "i'll have to give it some thought."
"how about it?" cecilie asked me. "which are bigger?"
"it doesn't matter," i said. "you'd grind them up to put in a cigarette anyway."
"but don't you know? you're the seed man. you brought the whole subject up."
"i think pumpkin seeds are bigger."
"you think? is this guy useless or what?" she turned to briand, "what did you say again you him here for? and have you got a light?
"i'm not sure i did say," briand told her. " as for a light, i don't have one."
"nor i." said the duc.
"i don't suppose you do?" cecilie asked me.
i produced a little box of matches.
miraculously, they had remained dry and clean.
"oh ho, he begins to justify his existence." she didn't move, she waited for me to bring the box over to her. she took a match out but broke it against the box on her first try.
"you have to be more gentle than that," i told her. "they're fragile,"
"useless, quite useless," she muttered.
" josephine can get you some matches," briand told her. he yawned and leaned back in his chair. "she must have had some to light the fireplace."
but cecilie had already moved up to the fireplace. she stuck her face into it and pulled it back with the cigarette lit in her mouth.
"that's rough treatment," said briand, "for one of the world's last cigarettes."
cecliie blew some smoke at him.
she caught me staring at her. "haven't you ever seen a cigarette lit before?"
"not like that. and not a real cigarette.:
she tossed the matches back to me. "what's in whatever you use these on?"
"i'm not sure. a little bit of this , a little bit of that."
"what did you say your name was?'
"i don't think i did say." she rolled her eyes and i added, "but it's mike.'
"mike, i'm sorry but you strike me as a complete idiot." she leaned back in her chair and looked at the fire.
"what do you do for excitement around here?" i asked. "besides insult your guests?"
"are you a guest, mike? i thought you were a hired hand. for what, i don't know." she looked at briand. "what did you bring him here for?'
"i didnt say.'
"i know you didn't say. i'm asking you now."
'i hired him." said the duc. "if you'd been paying attention, i already said i hired him to look into this fairweather person."
"who's fairweather?" cecilie asked.
"that's what i want to know."
"you know who fairweather is," briand told cecilie. "he's the person who bought the old dudley place, on the other side of the frog pond."
"who's fairweather?" i asked.
"he's the person who bought the old dudley place," said briand.
'i do believe," said cecilie, "that was an attempt at dry wit. our new acquaintance here is poking cruel fun at our distracted aristocratic ways."
"not me," i told her. "can i sit down?'
"no. not until josephine brings you that blanket."
"where is josephine?" asked the duc.
"right here, monsieur," josephine emerged from the shadows. with a neatly folded blue blanket in her hands. "i took this from monsieur claude's old room."
"i had forgotten all about claude," said the duc.
"this fellow is about the same size as claude," said cecilie, "why don't you give him one of claude's old suits? then we wont have to look at him wrapped in a blanket. and he can't very well go chasing after this fairweather person wearing a blanket"
"i went to a lot of bother to find him this blanket," said josephine.
"the suits are hanging up right there in claude's closet." said briand. 'i tried to sell some of them but didn't have much luck."
"i could sell the suits," i said.
briand brightened. "do you think you could?"
"you can always sell suits," i told him. "as soon as the word gets out all over town that mike's got suits, everyone will come running."
"excellent. josephine, show him the suits."
"oh very well," she grumbled. she scowled at me. "come along."
briand rubbed his hands together as i moved away from the fireplace. "how much do you think we can get for them?"
"i don't know how much he can get for them, but i know how much you'll get for them," cecilie told him. "whatever he chooses to give you, isn't that right, mike?"
i just smiled at both of them and followed josephine out of the room and down a hallway.
we passed an open door and i heard a hissing sound.
a cobra was reared up on a bed in the room and stared at me as i passed.
'that's cassie," josephine told me.
"she looked like a cobra."
"she is a cobra."
"i suppose if you leave her alone she will leave you alone."
"i wouldn't count on it."
"but she can't get under doors?"
"she can if she sets her mind to it. here we are, this is claude's old room."
claude's old room was bleak but clean. no dust.
"who was claude?" i asked.
"he used to lie on the bed and watch the flies and spiders on the ceiling. then they went away and he went with them. nobody knows where."
"maybe cassie got them.'
she opened the closet.
about twenty suits were hanging there and some dress shirts. they were just my size and i knew i could sell them all. i started to inspect their fabric.
"i haven't got all night," josephine told me. "change into one - there's a dressing room behind that door there - and we can come back for the rest later."
i didn't care much for the tone of josephine's voice. it sounded like jill was as good as her mistress in this household. but i took the suit i had my hand on and a shirt and did as she said.
when i came out with my old dirty suit i asked her what i should do with it.
"leave it here and i'll burn it."
"but it's my favorite."
she sighed. "just leave it. we'll figure something out. now, let's go. it's getting late."
"late for what?"
i followed her back down the hall. i could hear briand and cecilie arguing.
"the suits are like the pictures," cecilie was saying. "they are worth whatever he can get for them. it's that simple."
"it is not that simple," briand insisted.
josephine took a little watch out of her apron and checked it.
suddenly the voices stopped.
i entered the room behind josephine. cecilie, briand and the duc were no longer in the chairs in front of the fireplace.
cecllie had been changed - or changed herself - into a fluffy orange cat. briand was a little yellow dog. and the duc, somewhat suprisingly, was a hamster.
all three creatures looked up at us, silently at first, but the cat began to growl.
'help me get them outside," josephine commanded. now that their chattering had stopped i could hear the rain and wind still howling outside.
"it's raining," i said.
"stand by that window. open it quickly when i get there, then close it quickly as i throw each one outside. got it?"
she got the dog by the neck and the cat and the hamster under her arms.
we got them outside without too much rain getting in - the cat was last and started yowling but josephine gave it a mighty heave.
i expected a compliment on my good work but didn't get one.
"i was a little surprised the duc was a hamster," i said.
"it was a guinea pig, not a hamster. you're supposed to be a detective, and you can't tell a guinea pig from a hamster?"
''everything under control, josephine?" came a voice behind us.
a tall young woman was standing and stretching at the hallway entrance.