Esmeralda led Nicky and Bracken through a warren of marble corridors, each more ornate than the last.
One had life-sized marble peacocks stalking around the skirting boards, their tails containing what looked very much like a collection of precious stones – emeralds, rubies, sapphires and suchlike. Another was decorated with an intricately carved frieze of scenes from medieval times. The next was home to a safari, which involved a lot of taxidermy and made Bracken feel like she shouldn’t have stopped her monthly donation to the RSPCA, even though she couldn’t really afford it at the moment.
“Well,” Nicky said to Bracken under his breath, “at least it’s not ostentatious or anything.”
Esmeralda looked back at them sharply over her shoulder.
They met her gaze with the patented steady McCracken glare.
“Here we are,” she said tightly, stopping at an enormous mahogany door. There was a gold plaque on it with her name carved in.
She gestured for them to sit down in two plush red velvet bucket chairs, and busied herself at a nearby counter making a pot of tea.
Bracken engaged herself in listing adjectives that would describe the room. She found that sometimes listing things helped to calm her down in times of stress.
‘Elegant,’ she started. ‘Fancy, glamorous – ostentatious – ’ she nodded her thanks to Nicky but he wasn’t paying attention – ‘expensive, powerful, intimidating, excessive, ambitious, stylish, coordinated, cultured…’
“Is rooibos tea OK?” Esmeralda was asking.
“No idea,” said Bracken, “I only drink water.”
“That’s fine with me,” Nicky interjected, his eyes fixed on the window. There were thick drapes drawn, but he got the distinct impression that it was dark outside. The clock in the room was notable only for its absence, so he couldn’t say what time it was.
‘Flashy,’ Bracken continued inwardly, ‘decadent, grandiose, materialistic, luxuriant, ludicrous, sophisticated…’
“Here you go,” Esmeralda interrupted, putting a glass of water in front of Bracken and a cup of tea before Nicky.
“Now,” she said, “I expect you’re wondering what the shit is going on.”
“Not really,” Nicky replied, “it all seems pretty straightforward to me. The whole thing’s a dream, JR isn’t really dead, we’ll wake up and hear him taking a shower.”
As someone who feared and hated popular culture references, however outdated, Esmeralda decided to pointedly ignore this outburst.
“I suppose I ought to begin at the beginning,” she said, removing her white lab coat to reveal the jumpsuit underneath.
“Hold on,” Nicky exclaimed in slow motion, “you’re wearing the same uniform as Bert.”
“So that means you’re not the one in charge of this place.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, the big cheese wears that ridiculous cape and the carnival mask.”
Esmeralda snorted unattractively.
“If you say so, Nicholas.”
“What, so you’re in charge really, but you let Cloaky McMysterious take all the credit? They get to bask in the fear of the inmates whilst you –”
He paused, unsure of the best way to continue, then finished lamely, “do whatever it is that you do.”
“And why would I want to bask in people’s fear when I’ve got science to be getting on with,” she asked patronizingly. The question was barely even rhetorical.
“Why would you kidnap people and lock them up if you didn’t want to bask in people’s fear?” Bracken countered, satisfied with her mental list of adjectives and thusly much more calm.
“I told you already,” Esmeralda replied smoothly, “when I tell people what I need them for, they refuse to come.”
“Alright,” Bracken sighed in feigned boredom (for in actuality she was quite interested in the answer to the question she was about to pose), “what is it you do here that you can’t tell people about because they run away screaming?”
Esmeralda paused for dramatic effect, like Chris Tarrant on Millionaire or Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link or Noel Edmonds on Deal or No Deal or any other TV presenter you care to name whose job consists of pausing to create a feeling of tension. Dermot O’Leary does it on X Factor, Davina McCall used to do it on Big Brother – you know the sort of thing I’m talking about, right? Good. That’s what Esmeralda did, but because this is a book not a film I had to fill in the space somehow. She’s ready to spill the beans right about now though, I think.
“Brain experiments,” she announced.
“I experiment on people’s brains. Memory is mostly what I’m interested in. I did a course in hypnotherapy and it sort of snowballed from there really. Fascinating stuff.”
“Riiiight,” Bracken said slowly, as denoted by my use of italics and more than one ‘i’. “OK hen. Can we go now?”
“No,” Esmeralda replied sanguinely, “you can’t. I’ve barely begun expounding my complex theories on the science of the brain. And you are to be one of my most interesting case studies, once I reinstate your real memories. I wonder if you’ll both be able to remember the lives you have currently? I wonder if you’ll miss them? How exciting!”
“Bloody hell,” Bracken commented. “Alright then, start at the beginning. What’s hypnotherapy?”
Esmeralda clapped her tiny hands together in childish glee.
“OK,” she said, “hypnotherapy is when you are hypnotized and then whilst you’re in a dream like state, you can find the answers to your problems. Like one time, I treated this lady who had a terrible rash, but it wasn’t an allergic reaction or anything like that, it was a manifestation of some deep inner turmoil she had been suffering subconsciously about the death of her grandson.”
“So what did you actually do?”
“I put her into a trance and we were able to talk things through, and access parts of her mind that were normally buried deep down as she went about her daily routine. Once she knew what the problem was she was able to deal with it head on, I put her in touch with a counselor, and she was fine.”
“And where do the brain experiments come in?”
“Ah,” Esmeralda grinned with relish, “that is indeed the question.”
“Pretty much,” Bracken agreed, “so how about you answer it while we’re young.”
“Keep your hair on,” she retorted, amused. “You said you weren’t even interested two minutes ago.”
“Oh get on with it,” Nicky reiterated.
“Fine,” she blustered, taking a sip of rooibos and making a face that implied she felt somehow refreshed, “I will.”
“I had returned from the first leg of my travels in the wilds of South America, which is where I learned the art of hypnotherapy in the first place. I was taught by a wise old witch doctor with very pointy fingers. Always pointing at things he was.”
She paused a moment for them to laugh. They disappointed her.
“Anyway, I wanted to practice a bit. So when I met up with my dear boyfriend, Al, I decided to see what I could do with it. At first he was quite skeptical about the whole thing, which wasn’t great, as your mind needs to be open to the technique for it to work. Then on Shrove Tuesday I accidentally hit him over the head with a frying pan whilst tossing blueberry pancakes, and it must have shoogled the cortexes of his brain a little bit because from then on he was very superstitious and, most importantly, totally open to the concept of hypnosis.”
“This sounds like a case of domestic abuse,” Nicky whispered to Bracken out of the side of his mouth.
“Nothing was ever proven,” Esmeralda snapped.
The McCrackens raised their eyebrows in unison.
“So I discovered I could make him do things,” she said, “using little triggers. For example, if I clap my hands in a certain way, he will ask me to dance. There doesn’t need to be any music, and it doesn’t matter where in the world we are, he’ll go into a trance and he’ll dance and he’ll dance, until I signal him to stop.”
“Wouldn’t you prefer that he actually wanted to dance with you?” Bracken asked sourly. “Rather than having to force him? Maybe if you didn’t spend all your time gallivanting off to South America and then learning unnatural ways to control his mind, he’d ask you to dance all by himself.”
“Maybe he would,” Esmeralda said lightly, “but it was an interesting experiment. And very successful, which got me to thinking.”
“Oh God,” Nicky said, “there’s more.”
“Tons,” she told him sweetly.
“See, there were times that Al remembered the dancing, and there were times he did not. It depended on the depth of the trance. So I thought, if I could engineer a particularly deep state of hypnosis – perhaps with a little bit of chemical help – imagine what I could get him to do. Because if he was delving that far down, when he woke up he would never remember. Of course I wouldn’t dream of using it for evil… but it’d be interesting just to find out how far I could take it.”
“I have to admit though, I was getting a little bored of Al by that point. We had a few arguments about this and that, and then when he announced that his family was destitute… well, that was a bit of a deal breaker for me at the time. I had some pretty old-fashioned values instilled by my father and I was hoping that when we got married I would be able to use his money to fund my research. But he was essentially saying I would have to pay my way! It sounds silly now that I know how easy it is to fund one’s own secret research but at the time I was frightened that I’d never have my own lab, or access to illegal chemicals, or very clever minions to help me out.”
“Is Al from a wealthy background, then?” Bracken asked.
“Oh yes,” Esmeralda said, “they’re practically blue blooded.”
“I thought everyone’s blood was blue,” Nicky said.
“Well yes, in the completely literal sense,” Esmeralda concurred, rolling her eyes. “But I meant that he was from aristocratic stock so high up that he was nearly royal. Unfortunately his dear papa ballsed that up.”
“I don’t entirely know,” she admitted, “I was so angry that I didn’t really listen to the full explanation.”
“Anyway, off I went to Peru to continue my work, leaving a broken hearted Aloysius behind. He still hasn’t forgiven me, poor thing.”
“You should have stuck by him,” Bracken pointed out.
“Well yes, I probably should. But I was young and impetuous, and the brains of Peru were waiting.
So, I went to Peru and set up a small hypnotherapy clinic in the back of a farmer’s cottage. I professed to help people give up smoking and the like, which was true, but I was also experimenting with getting people into deeper and deeper trances.
It was three or four months before I was confident enough to conduct my first replacement. I didn’t want to rush it.”
“Replacement? Of what?”
“Memory, of course.
I chose a young woman to be my first subject. A few years previously she had given birth to a stillborn baby, but she had not been allowed the time to grieve and so she was suffering some psychosomatic after effects. I was able to convince her that the baby was alive and well, and placed into her arms an orphan of the right age. She believed then, and still does now, that he is her son.”
“That,” said Nicky, “is an ethical minefield.”
“Did the lassie remember you after?” Bracken asked, her mind cogs turning inexorably towards a horrible conclusion.
“No,” Esmeralda said, “she didn’t. I felt it best that she be able to start afresh.”
“Esmeralda,” Bracken said, “did you do the same thing to me?”
“I used the same technique, yes.”
“Did I have a baby who died?”
“So why did you do it then?”
The phone rang.
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” Esmeralda promised.