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Almirena
Brain-Tingler



The Case of the Left-Handed Corpse

A Dread Hill House Mystery


White moon like a frightened well in the darkness. Web-like grey clouds spreading tendrils over the pale roundness. It was a poet’s night, a romantic and gothic night, where one could imagine the howls of demons in the low growl of dogs, and the stifled groans of the tormented in the quiet sigh of the wind through the tall poplars that lined the drive.

I shrugged into my high-coloured coat as I stepped out of my discreet grey Volvo, mentally dispensing with all these weird fancies. It was the coffee that had done it, I was sure. My new housekeeper had the rottenest way of brewing coffee I’d ever come across. I’d nearly spit out the first mouthful earlier this night, and I nearly asked the woman how the blue blazes she’d come across eye of newt and toe of frog in such a sensible little town. The stuff certainly tasted as undrinkable as a witch’s brew.

But I was still working on my rudeness quota, and hadn’t had the nerve.

To be honest, this whole business – setting up as a private detective – was a challenge for one of my intrinsic shyness. I’d been a brilliant scholar, carrying Firsts at Oxford for everything I’d studied. I’d written books of such stultifying obscurity that very clever people everywhere admired them loudly (although I doubt they read them). Even not very clever people bought a copy of at least one of my books – I was used to seeing them lying ostentatiously on tables in various homes from the north to the south of England. But… dealing with people… not my gift.

But things had changed for me recently. I’d been dating the second son of Lord Havergast for only two months, and we two, perhaps the shyest people in all England, had managed to get a little beyond saying “How do you do?” and “Charming weather, isn’t it?” Roderick had even asked me, just a little while before the whole thing went mad, whether I would mind if he held my hand. I had replied with quaint formality, “Oh, not at all.”

Roderick’s hand had been a little damp (I think he was nervous), and he’d held mine as if it were a dead fish, but I think, had things turned out differently, that we’d have progressed further. Roderick’s father had even welcomed me in his jovial way – he’d said, “So… young Roderick’s got himself a gal, then? Jolly good, jolly good.”

But whether this budding romance would have progressed any further is unfortunately as moot as it could be.

One week later, Roderick was dead. Shot dead, in a cul de sac in London’s East End. One bullet to the head, shot at close range. You see, I’ve got the terminology down pat now, and I find it easier to talk about the technicalities than the awful scene that met my eyes when I went looking for him after we’d gone to see that ghastly play together.

The whole thing had been a mystery. A shock, too, but that goes without saying. The mystery part of it was what haunted me. I remember how, as I sank down beside Roderick, cradling his head upon the pale yellow taffeta of my rather prim gown, I’d made a melodramatic vow to find his killer, and see that he paid.

Even now, it strikes me as odd that there had been so little blood. Really, it’s so jarring – one’s life is shot away, one’s brain is irreparably holed, and there’s so little blood to show for it. I hadn’t heard a thing, either, although the car had been parked at least a block away, I admit.

The police of London are no doubt overwhelmed with cases. I bear them no malice for their lackadaisical handling of Roderick’s shooting. They had possibly put more effort into the investigation once Lord Havergast had blasted them for their incompetence, but the old man had only lasted a few days longer than his son before succumbing to a heart attack.

In my own heart, I blame the killer for that, too.

You’ll have to forgive my rambling – I do believe I am still in considerable mourning for poor Roderick, and the events that followed did nothing to soothe my spirits. When I say that, exasperated at the police’s uninterested and half-hearted investigation, I single-handedly deciphered clues and tracked down Roderick’s killer myself, you may think I exaggerate in order to paint myself in a good light. But believe me – every word I say is the truth. I did find the man who killed Roderick, and I found out why (which was the more difficult of the two tasks). And I was there the day they hanged him, and the dichotomy of my grief and shock still resonates. I can see his feet kicking; I can hear his terrible rasp for breath before they tightened the noose. I couldn’t see his eyes – they covered his head – but I could imagine them staring, staring. Staring into death, staring hatred at me, staring with fear at eternity and staring with horror at the unexpected monster inside him - his own soul, an evil thing, for he'd killed his own best friend for something so trivial, so terrible, that even now I cannot bear to think of it. Staring… But perhaps I only imagine that he was afraid. He never said so. He died with feet kicking, hands bound, body uncontrollable in those terrible final seconds. I don’t know whether I am sorry or not.

But of such things are we humans made – we are pitiless when hurt; we are strong when we ought to be tender; we are malleable when we ought to be oak. Of what stuff am I? They used to say a girl was sugar and spice and all things nice, but I am not so sweet a thing. Have I nourished within me “nurslings of immortality”, or am I flattering myself (as I am sadly prone to do) into thinking my mean substance a more grand and tragic thing than it is?

But I really ought not to lapse into these poeticisms. I am not writing one of my esoteric works now. I am merely recounting the truth of something so strange that I think I must set it down on paper… or go mad.

I became a private investigator through serendipity rather than vocation. I was offered a case to investigate only a few days after the hanging. (Word had got around, it seems.) And I did find that the whole thing appealed to me enormously – to find out the truth of events, to uncover the perpetrator of something wicked. Roderick’s death can truly be said to have awoken the Sherlock Holmes in me, although I do not play the violin and have never taken opium in my life.

I will also do my best to avoid saying, “The game is afoot!” I have never believed that murder is a game, neither is the hunt for a murderer.

It’s far too grim a thing for that.

So here I am in the Cotswolds, feeling weak with the lack of caffeine and annoyed with myself for not having told Mrs Pudderglim, my housekeeper, that I prefer my coffee made from coffee beans, thank you. And I am once again on a case – asked to investigate a rather bizarre death that has occurred just last night.

But really, the house in question – and I can see it in the moonlight now, a decidedly ominous piece of architecture – was asking for trouble.

Imagine calling one’s house “Dread Hill House”. It’s like making a rude gesture at fate.

I turned off my torch as I reached the front door, thankful I’d remembered to change the batteries earlier that evening (as Dread Hill House had apparently no lights along its gravel-lined sweep). I raised my hand, hesitated with an odd feeling of discomfort, then firmed my lips. I had a case to investigate, and no sudden foolish feeling of vulnerability could not be permitted to stop me before I’d even begun.

I rang the doorbell.


(Edited by Almirena at 7:55 pm on Oct. 20, 2006)

(Edited by Almirena at 8:01 pm on Oct. 20, 2006)

-----
Half-light, purblind streams where moonlight washes over trees / Lustred with a glow, as if from pearls upon the throat
Where the night's kiss lights upon her; rose's rhapsodies, / Warm as oils, imbue this bliss-fed hour with trembling note
"Where-? And who-?" Her breath's unspoken soul is light's perdue
That, hidden, seeks the unseen with a sigh… "Ah, L'inconnu!"

Total Posts: 1033 | Joined Sep. 2006 | Posted on: 9:54 am on Oct. 20, 2006 | Link to this post
Almirena
Brain-Tingler



Perhaps the doorbell activated a wire light-years long that rang a bell somewhere, deep below the surface of the house, where no one could hear it.

Perhaps the wire was broken, and I stood here, shivering a little even though I had turned up my collar, waiting for a reply that would never come.

Perhaps the trees behind me that cast their cloak-like shadows like ink spilt from the tears of the pale moon would consume me – their branches were long thin arms, reaching for sustenance; the invisible eyes in their smooth trunks seeing blindly… Staring.

My musings were interrupted by the door’s opening. It took me by surprise, as it did not groan or creak. Nor was the one who opened it in any sense appropriate for this night’s imaginings. He was a sensible middle-aged man in the precise black suit of a butler, his neatly-combed hair as dark as his quiet attentive eyes.

I felt him assessing me, and he spoke interrogatively, with the faintest of Dorset accents in his quiet voice. “Yes?”

As always, I found it difficult to reply to a stranger. My parents had taught me in vain that servants were not strangers, but merely servants. One should simply use a servant as one used the commands on a computer – one sent email, browsed through sites, clicked onto links, and so on without thanking the computer for graciously complying with one’s requests. So it was with servants… Yet I had failed to learn this. I always had the sense of a separate individual teeming with opinions when I met a new servant, as much as if I had been introduced to someone in our social circle.

Nowadays I am aware that my own views are scarcely startlingly egalitarian, that it is my parents who are out of step, and who saw in their gangly and shockingly shy daughter a creature of such disappointment that I am surprised they did not return me to the doctor who delivered me, together with a note stating “Unsatisfactory”.

I prevented myself from nervously clearing my throat, and looked slightly to the left of the butler. “I believe you are expecting me. I am the Hon. Almirena Fulbright.”

The butler’s brows did rise slightly. He seemed astonished – his mild reaction could have been an avalanche signalling this – by my appearance. He merely said, “Very good, miss. The master is expecting you.”

Curious. I was expected – the butler knew it – so why had he been so surprised when I told him who I was?

“I will announce you,” he continued, and I nodded without saying anything further, following him in to the electric-lit vestibule. I had half expected gaslight, but no – the whole was quite well lit by little sconces on the walls, many of which had been switched on so that it was almost as bright as day. But I never do find electric light has the clarity of daylight. There is a sense of strain, of purposefully forcing the night away, with electric light, whereas the day is effulgent with its bright glories, mocking the terrors and trembling of midnight.

We had arrived at a salon of which the instant – and overpowering – impression was the colour red. “Your lordship, the Honourable Miss Almirena Fulbright has arrived,” announced the butler.

The man inside looked up from his desk, removing his reading glasses and pushing away the sheets of paper which he was scrutinising. His eyes were tired, and he wore a worn pullover and atrocious trousers. Typical clothing for the country gentleman at home, except that it was so late that I’d really expected him to be in pyjamas and robe.

He stood, knocking his shins as he moved past the old mahogany desk. He was framed by the heavy dark red curtains, which certainly contributed to the room’s crimson palette. “Good, good – they told me you thought it would be good to arrive here tonight, but I did tell them there was no hurry,” he said in a well-bred but exhausted voice. “My sister is no less dead. They’ve already taken her body away, you know. I don’t really know why I got in touch with you, really.” He said the last sentence in a sort of private astonishment at himself. “I don’t know what more you can do when the police have yet to begin investigating. Oh, Walker – you can go, and good night.”

The butler nodded and left us silently.

“Good evening, Lord Styles,” I replied, feeling a mantle of nervousness make my tongue rigid as I attempted to seem at ease. “I expect it was the unusual aspects of the case which made you ask for me. The police – well, I have already spoken to Chief Detective Inspector Winstone who’s in charge of the case, and as you probably know, he’s inclined to rule it an accidental death.”

I was interrupted. “An accidental death? Preposterous. You did not see my sister’s body. I can assure you – an accidental death? No, ridiculous.”

I nodded once and resumed, “The police do not want this to be a complicated murder case, my lord. They want it to be an explicable although strange event that can be explained by an accident. They have many cases on their plate at present, including, I believe, a local serial killer who is murdering servant girls and maidservants from local pubs. They truly, truly do not want a mysterious death requiring lots of resources and intensive investigation.”

Styles’ brow furrowed. “But I’m the most important landowner in this area. I can’t see this attitude getting them anywhere. I’ll put a bee in their bonnet – I want my sister’s murder solved.”

He was deeply upset in a quiet, understated way. My own shyness was forgotten as I tried to reassure him. “You did the right thing in contacting me. I won’t let this be swept under the carpet. Now – may I see where it happened, my lord?”

“Styles,” he said absent-mindedly. “Or call me Horace. My younger brother David tells me repeatedly that I ought to get onto first-name terms with as many people as possible, so as to mitigate the offence of my dreadful Christian name. He tells me that repetition will inure me to its ugliness.”

“But Horace is a fine name,” I objected, hoping that Styles would not expect me to match his well-bred casualness. The best I could do was a gracious sort of stiffness that avoided over-formality. “A good reputation among the Latin poets…”

“When I tell you that I was mercilessly dubbed Horrid Horry at Eton, you will gauge my distaste for the name,” replied Styles, passing a weary hand over his forehead and opening the door before gesturing to me to precede him. “But you must think me monstrously unfeeling… My poor sister was found just through here… Almirena is an unusual name, I must say.”

I nodded. “My parents named me after an aunt who was very well-to-do, in the hopes that she would leave her fortune to me.”

“And did she?”

“Yes and no. She got into the Carlton House set, gambled away her fortune and ran away with a stableman. But she did leave her garnets to me.”

Styles was surprised into a bark of laughter, which he was polite enough to attempt to smother before the solemn and exhausted look returned to his face.

“This,” he said simply, “was where we found her.”

We were in a large room – perhaps a small ballroom or a formal salon – whose most prominent feature was an enormous old chandelier suspended from the ceiling. A small raised dais at one end heightened the impression of a ballroom.

“She was lying on the ground, a Bernini in her arms, a red ribbon around her forehead. Her eyes…” He made a wordless gesture of horror. “I believe they must have been… removed, popped out. I’m sorry. Excuse me.” He fled the room in considerable disorder, and I bit my lip as I was left alone. I was not surprised by his reaction. I had read the police report, and it had not made pretty reading.

The body of Sarah Styles had been a grotesque sight indeed. Apart from the business with the eyes (which were completely missing, and which for some reason the Chief Detective Inspector seemed to think were part of a practical joke of macabre dimensions), there was the fact that her skirt had been disarranged in a bunch around her hips, although no sexual assault had taken place. She was not only clutching a priceless Bernini bust, but a small watering can had been placed suggestively between her sprawled legs.

Cause of death had been a blow to the head, which the police report suggested had been caused by falling from a chair. This was not quite as inane as it sounds, for Sarah Styles had been engaged that morning in rearranging the portraits in the room, and for the purpose of reaching them had utilised a French Empire chair rather than a stepladder. The chair had been found turned over, next to her body.

But too many things did not make sense. If the bust, the watering can, the red ribbon and the eyes were simply part of a macabre joke, they were beyond anything I’d experienced. And worse – I’d had a quick word with the police surgeon who was conducting the autopsy – and I knew something the police did not wish to know.

The eyes had been removed before death.




-----
Half-light, purblind streams where moonlight washes over trees / Lustred with a glow, as if from pearls upon the throat
Where the night's kiss lights upon her; rose's rhapsodies, / Warm as oils, imbue this bliss-fed hour with trembling note
"Where-? And who-?" Her breath's unspoken soul is light's perdue
That, hidden, seeks the unseen with a sigh… "Ah, L'inconnu!"

Total Posts: 1033 | Joined Sep. 2006 | Posted on: 4:30 pm on Oct. 20, 2006 | Link to this post
Almirena
Brain-Tingler



While I waited for Lord Styles to return, I took a look around. I didn’t for a moment think I’d find anything that the crime scene team had missed – put it down to my love of thoroughness. My parents called me stubborn as a goat, and considered it very bourgeois of me. My schoolteachers, I believe, made mention of my obsession with detail, and half of them gave a bewildered approval while the other half deplored it. I know I do have a tendency to examine and muse and examine and muse and examine.

I found the spot easily enough – there were still traces of blood visible. I knelt down and scrutinised the immediate area with care, noting that there were no visible scraps of fibre to be seen. I reached into my left pocket and took out my magnifying glass. Still nothing – a few granules of dirt, a very small scrap of what might be paper, and – yes, then finally a few threads of something stiff, perhaps nylon. As I examined the threads more closely still, I determined they were green in colour. I removed a transparent envelope from my pocket, and using tweezers, carefully placed what I’d found into the envelope.

It might be nothing, but theories have to be built on examination of everything, not just on what is determined to be important.

I knew the watering can, the Bernini and so on had been taken by the police. I stood there, tapping just above my lip thoughtfully. I heard someone approach, and turned to face him, half-thinking it was Horace Styles, but no – an instant before I turned, my ears told me the gait was not the same.

The newcomer was a young man with an insolent lock of dark hair falling over his face, although he held his head meekly and his hands were folded together.

“Miss Fulbright? I am Gabriel Nickells – I’m the footman. His lordship asked me to ascertain that you had all you needed, and whether you required your bags brought in if you had decided to stay overnight, since it’s so late.”

He stood there, flaunting his young comfortable masculinity, clothed in an ironic servility that was apparent in his eyes. I felt he was mocking himself as much as the world, and as usual, when sensing mockery I become very stiff and formal.

“No, that will be quite all right. I had my housekeeper book a room at the local inn, the Goose & Bells.” I could feel my jaw stiffening with shyness.

“Very good, ma’am,” murmured the wretched young footman, becoming even more formal himself, to the point of ma’aming me.

“Oh, before you go – perhaps you could tell me from where the watering can that was found” – how to phrase it? – “near the body of your mistress was brought in.” My desire for information overruled my shyness.

Nickells stood at polite attention. “I’m sure I couldn’t say, ma’am.”

“I’m sure you could, Nickells,” I said, determined not to be intimidated into polite nothings between the classes.

“Really, ma’am, I—”

I surprised myself by interrupting his disclaimer. “Please do not call me ma’am. I’m not the queen.”

A sly spark of laughter lit the footman’s eyes. He was probably two or three years young than I, but in mockery worlds older. “I am sure you are right, Miss Fulbright.”

I sighed mentally. I was too tired for this. “Nickells, I am sure that you know whether or not this room contained a watering can yesterday before the murder. Did you see a gardening can in this room?”

“No, I saw no gardening can in this room.”

“Can you hazard a guess as to where it came from?”

“I would imagine it came from the garden.”

“Do you know whether it did?”

“Ma’am?”

“I have asked you,” I said patiently, “not to call me ma’am, Nickells.”

“Very good, Miss Fulbright.”

“And please answer the question.”

“I believe I’ve already replied—”

“Nickells, your mistress Sarah Styles was murdered in this room, her eyes plucked out and her body made a mock of. It’s your duty to give those investigating any details, any information that might be of help in understanding what happened here. Simply answer the question: do you know whether the watering can in question came from the garden? Don’t you see that it makes a considerable difference in the investigation?”

The footman remained insolent in his stance, but he had received a shock, hide it though he might.

“Murder? I thought the police said it was an accident.”

I neither confirmed nor denied this; I merely stared at him, still waiting for his reply. He lowered his eyes, and shifted his glance to the left, and then to the right before answering.

“I am sorry, Miss Fulbright. I intend no impertinence. It’s the shock, you see. The shock was dreadful.” He paused, and rubbed his right hand nervously over his trousers. “I couldn’t say for certain, but there was a gardening can in the adjoining antechamber that morning. Miss Styles mentioned that the house plants looked quite wilted, and she lit right into old Melkins, the gardener, saying he hadn’t been watering them. She told him to see to it right away.”

“And he brought a gardening can into the antechamber.”

“That’s right, miss.”

“Did he leave it there?”

“I think so, miss.”

“Thank you, Nickells. That is a help to know.”

He turned to go, but paused on the threshold. “Miss, if you would be so kind…”

“Yes?”

His bright eyes met mine. “Please don’t call me Nickells. The master called me Gabnic when I first came here as a pageboy, and the name has stuck.”

I felt my cheeks warm. How foolish to be embarrassed, but I could not help it. “Very well, Gabnic. Thank you for your help. I will leave in a moment, but I would like to see Lord Styles before I go.”

“Very good, miss. I will inform him,” murmured the impertinent young footman, and exited quietly.

I walked quickly over to the antechamber accessible on the far side, and peered in. I could see little, as the light appeared to have blown. Nothing happened when I pressed the switch. I frowned to myself, and left just as I heard the voice of Lord Styles as he approached the ballroom.

We met at the doorway of the ballroom. I said, “I’ve taken a preliminary look around, Lord Styles—”

“Horace,” he reminded me, almost absent-mindedly.

I nodded. “Horace, then. I’m so sorry – my upbringing, I’m afraid. I had better come back here in the morning, and I’ll examine the antechamber.”

“The antechamber?”

“Yes – your footman, Gabnic, informed me that the gardening can found near your sister’s body probably came from there.”

“But how odd! Why should a gardening can have been in the antechamber?” He looked confused.

“Apparently it was left by Melkins, the gardener, after he watered some indoor plants.”

“But this is terribly important!” he exclaimed. “I’m sure young Gabnic didn’t tell the police this. But then they probably got his back up. Gabnic isn’t one for volunteering information when he’s on his dignity. I’m surprised you managed to get him to say as much.”

I shrugged lightly. “At what time will it be convenient for me to call tomorrow morning?”

“I will be breakfasting at eight, so please do feel free to call any time from… eight-thirty, perhaps?”

“Excellent,” I replied, preparing to say good evening.

“I hope they give you a good bed at the Goose & Bells,” added Lord Styles, walking with me through the vestibule. “They’ve had a bit of a problem with maids there – two of them went missing, and they’ve got some London chambermaid there at the moment – got a bit of a reputation, the girl has. If she gives you any trouble, tell her I’ll be speaking to Ned Grig, the innkeeper.”

“Thank you very much,” I said, holding out my hand. “Good night, Horace.” I remembered to address him as Horace this time.

“Good night, Almirena,” returned Lord Styles.

The butler opened the door for me, bowing at just the correct depth. I exited into the cold night air, feeling the wind tug at my skirt and chill my face. The rectangle of light from the open door disappeared with quiet abruptness, and I walked over to my car, my heels making crunching sounds along the gravel. For an instant, I fancied someone else was walking along it, but when I paused, there was no tell-tale continuation of sound. I cursed my vivid imagination, and opened my car door.

Then I froze, even as my hands dropped my shoulder bag onto the passenger seat of the car. On the driver’s seat lay an elaborately inscribed piece of paper, which I certainly knew had not been there before I’d arrived here.

It said:

By the Hippocrene they find their rest
Tongue shall speak no word, no thing confess’d
Dainty ear shall hear no word of truth
Bloody tide will feed the fountain’s youth.


At the bottom, the same hand had written, “Do not interfere.”


-----
Half-light, purblind streams where moonlight washes over trees / Lustred with a glow, as if from pearls upon the throat
Where the night's kiss lights upon her; rose's rhapsodies, / Warm as oils, imbue this bliss-fed hour with trembling note
"Where-? And who-?" Her breath's unspoken soul is light's perdue
That, hidden, seeks the unseen with a sigh… "Ah, L'inconnu!"

Total Posts: 1033 | Joined Sep. 2006 | Posted on: 2:14 am on Oct. 21, 2006 | Link to this post
Almirena
Brain-Tingler



Fear is like a ghostly hand that squeezes the heart. It is an invisible trap of gossamer ice. It freezes me and makes me ill, so that I feel both numbed and desirous of purging my stomach as though one could empty oneself of the thing… empty oneself and flee from it.

As though fear did not flee with the pursued being, I would run through the darkened ways made open but darker by the trees. My feet would feel the earth beneath them as I ran, and I would gasp until the cold air dried my mouth of all moisture and all screams.

But this is merely the first instinctual response. I did feel my heart lurch in a physical fashion, and my left hand involuntarily clenched into a white-knuckled fist; then I became sensible once more and donned the plastic gloves I had taken with me before leaving my house earlier that evening. Carefully I lifted the note and looked at it more closely, turning it over to see whether there was anything on the reverse side.

Nothing further. Nothing but its few dark curves in menacing ink.

I opened the glove box and placed the letter inside, hearing the faint click as its door closed. Another thought struck me – how had the letter been put here? My eyes narrowed – I took out my torch again, and turned it on. Its thin white-yellow beam, full of the dancing motes of darkness trapped within its cylindrical incandescence, illuminated nothing of interest on the inside of the passenger door.

With great reluctance, I stepped out of the car again, checking the inside of the driver’s side door. It looked untouched. The windows – unscratched, all closed. I knew I hadn’t opened them, anyway.

Then the outside doors. Here I almost at once struck paydirt. The lock on the outside of the driver’s door revealed the faintest of scratches, as if someone had jimmied open the lock. A coat hanger was, I believe, the implement most often used for the purpose.

It seemed a strange sort of thing to do, though – to plant a short, strange poem, complete with obscure warning, in my car. Why not send it to me? Why go to the trouble of opening my car door nefariously?

Of course, there hadn’t been any risk, really. I’d been safely inside. If it had been a servant who’d planted the letter, they would have known I would be some time. If it had been a stranger who had, possibly, followed me here…? I shivered at the thought, but once again, the stranger would have been reasonably sure of my being inside for some little time.

The poem itself… I would consider it in the morning. I was too tired to think about obscure references, and frankly too nervous to hang around in the open for much longer. If I could call myself a good private detective, it was for my brains, not my brawn. I was somewhat slightly built – I had once had the pleasure of hearing myself referred to as a “fairy-like creature”, but too often the term had been “small and skinny”. I really didn’t feel I was skinny anymore, but certainly during my years at Oxford, I’d been underweight and unremarkable in appearance.

And unlike many of the detectives of fiction, I was not a crack shot, had no skill in martial arts and doubted that my punch would knock out so much as a scarecrow. I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and climbed back into my car. Then I had a horrid thought and got out again. I nervously shone the torch into the back of the car… but there was no one there. My eyes glanced towards the car boot, and I bit my lip. I simply couldn’t drive not knowing whether or not someone was hiding there, waiting for me, waiting, listening, staring…

I trod as quietly as I could towards the boot. My keys were in my hand; I clenched them so as to stop their jingling. I slid the key into the lock, clenching the other hand (weak punch or not) and lifted the boot door hastily.

There was nothing there but my spare tyre, a tyre iron, the car jack… and my overnight case.

Letting out a long breath, I took the tyre iron in my hand – in case I met any murderous scarecrows on the way, you see. I closed the boot, got back into the car, and drove off, still unnerved by the experience. It was at such times that I wondered whether I had taken on the wrong sort of work – I was no caped crusader; I made no pretence at being a female Bruce Lee. But the challenge of it, the knowledge too that I was stopping the work of those who planned evil in the depths of their dark hearts, always lured me on. I suppose, really, it always will.

It began to drizzle as I drove. I turned on the wipers, feeling strangely alone in the English countryside. These back roads so rarely had adequate signs, and I muttered under my breath as I came to a three-way split in the road. Directly into an oak tree, I was led to believe by one of the wooden signs swinging in the wind, I would find the town of Abingdon. By following the sign below it right into a darkly gleaming but undoubtedly murky pond, apparently I would reach High Wycombe. The sign below that pointed helpfully towards an expanse of grass, and informed the interested motorist that there lay the town of Clapping Cross, which was my destination.

The three roads themselves disappeared into the distance without granting a clue as to where they might lead.

I searched my memory – I had certainly taken a right earlier this evening when I drove here from my own house in Hornbury. If the roads went straight in the direction they indicated, all well and good – but English country roads rarely do that. One might proceed north in merry fashion, only to find the twisting and winding road that looked so promising delivered one to Plymouth or Brighton.

I took a stab at it, and chose the left-most road.

Good fortune must have been smiling on me. Within ten minutes, I passed a board saying, “Welcome to Clapping Cross”, and two minutes later, I had pulled up in a parking spot outside the Goose & Bells.

I was bone weary; I noted only that the inn was charming and had clearly been standing here for hundreds of years. I took my case out of the boot, carefully put the mysterious poet’s offering within it, gathered my bits and pieces and locked the car door. (Why did I bother? Clearly locked doors were no deterrent to thieves or people delivering obscure warnings. Habit, one must suppose.)

It was past eleven; had I not let the innkeeper know I’d be late, I’d not have gained entry, for the inn was locked up for the night. However, Ned Grig, the proprietor, hadn’t yet retired, and he shook my hand in welcome, tossed his bushy head from side to side as he uttered, “Ah, ‘tis a bad business. Bad indeed. The sister of his lordship, dead like that – sacrilegious, is what it is. Aye, a sacrilege, a scorning. I mistrust yon footmen up at the big house, aye, that I do. Come along in, miss, we’ll have you nice and comfortable. I’ve got one of the girls making you a nice cup of tea and a bite to eat. A nice bit of pie do you, miss? The missus makes it, and a right treat her veal pie is. Aye, a terrible business. Right glad I am that his lordship’s got a private investigator looking into it. That Winstone’s a useless doorknob – do him good to get a burr stuck up his backside.”

“Ned! Don’t talk so broad in front of the young lady!” came a scandalised voice from within a doorway. A buxom lady with her hair dressed in rollers peered out. “You mind your tongue! Sorry, miss, he don’t mean any harm, but he’s got a tongue on him! Dear me, a little slip of a thing you are! And you’re a private investigator, then, are you?”

I nodded and gave a smile in return to the welcoming couple, too tired to show my shyness. I think Mrs Grig (for so I took her to be) realised my weariness, for she gave a last beaming smile and said, “But we’ll have a nice chat in the morning. I can see you’re dead on your feet. Ned, show the young lady up, and I’ll see if Krissy’s got the food ready.”

“Right you are, me luv, right you are,” replied the innkeeper. “This way, miss. We’ve put you in the best room. Anything to help his lordship, aye, and I wish we could more.”

I got settled quickly enough, and was trying to get the energy to remove what little makeup I wore when I heard a knock on the door. I called out, “Come in!” and a slender, very pretty girl entered, her face so expertly (although overmuch) made up that she seemed almost like an actress playing the part of a chambermaid.

Her glossy ringlets were tossed to one side as she put down a tray bearing a pot of tea, a cup, some scones, jam and clotted cream, a generous slice of veal pie (steam arose from it – presumably it had been heated up), fresh salad and baked slices of potato. My stomach gurgled with hunger – I hadn’t realised I was hungry until I saw that appetising meal.

“A bite to eat, miss,” said the girl, pouring a cup of steaming hot tea. Her dress was extraordinarily short; this was certainly no innocent country maidservant. I remembered Horace Styles mentioning some London maid – this girl was probably the one he’d been talking about. “Anything else I can get you?”

Her words were polite enough. I said, “No, thank you – it looks lovely.”

“It’s all Mrs Grig’s cooking,” the girl replied. “But it’s awfully late, and I’m so tired – but of course it’s no trouble, miss. Anything you want, you just ask. I’m Krissy, by the way. Krss for short.”

In spite of her words, I felt as though I’d put her to a great deal of trouble. I simply said again, awkwardly, “Thank you.”

“Shall I run your bath for you or unpack for you?” she offered. She cast a swift glance at my bag. Was she hinting for a tip? But, while it was customary to offer a tip upon leaving, no one gave a pourboire upon arrival. I decided I had imagined the meaningful glance.

“No, that will be quite alright.”

“You sure, miss? I’m a dab hand at unpacking,” she said persistently. But as I shook my head, she continued, “So you’ll be investigating the Styles woman’s fall, then? What it is to be related to a lord – it makes everyone hop to attention.”

“It wasn’t necessarily a fall,” I said briefly.

“Ooh, really? I heard it was a fall. The gentlemen here were all saying the lady fell off her chair – hit her head and died, and someone played a bit of a joke on the body.” The girl’s eyes were avid.

I had the feeling Krissy knew an awful lot of gentlemen. She had that accessible sort of look about her. It wasn’t just the French stockings or the outrageously short skirt, nor the gleaming curls or the starlet-style figure… but more the knowing look in her eyes and the pout of her heavily rouged lips. A creature like this was more likely to pop up in London than in a small village in the Cotswolds. I wondered what on earth she was doing here.

“Well, time will tell,” I said. “I’m sure the police will be investigating further, too. Thank you, Krissy. Good night.”

She bobbed a little curtsey – again, it seemed a little theatrical. She did pause for a moment, expectantly, but I did nothing but stand there, making no move towards my bag. Her preposterous lashes fell, and she said in a slightly offended way, “Good night, miss.”

The door shut a little more loudly behind her than I thought necessary.

I yawned uncontrollably, and sat down next to the tray of food. The cup of tea was very welcome – it almost made up for the horror of a coffee I’d had earlier. I ate more heartily than usual, enjoying the excellent cooking of the innkeeper’s wife. Then, reluctantly, I cleaned my face, brushed my teeth, and undressed. My clothes I placed neatly upon the window seat. My nightgown was at least warm, and I snuggled into bed without bothering to unpack anything else.

I dreamed that night of rivers… rivers of blood and a pair of eyes floating upon the surface…


-----
Half-light, purblind streams where moonlight washes over trees / Lustred with a glow, as if from pearls upon the throat
Where the night's kiss lights upon her; rose's rhapsodies, / Warm as oils, imbue this bliss-fed hour with trembling note
"Where-? And who-?" Her breath's unspoken soul is light's perdue
That, hidden, seeks the unseen with a sigh… "Ah, L'inconnu!"

Total Posts: 1033 | Joined Sep. 2006 | Posted on: 11:36 am on Oct. 22, 2006 | Link to this post
Almirena
Brain-Tingler



When I awoke, it was a grey thistle morning with the promise of clarity in the skies later. I was never an alert waker; I deeply envied those who sprang out of their bed in the morning, eager to be up and doing. But I had much to do so, although I wanted nothing more than to luxuriate under the featherbed of the best bedroom in the Goose & Bells, I knew this was a luxury I could not afford.

I longed for coffee, and fancied I could smell it. One’s sense of smell could be easily deceived – I had remarked this before. How disconcerting to think of one’s senses, the very bedrock of our knowledge of what lay outside our own mind and skin, being flawed and reporting back, like sly scouts, with lies and deceit.

At that instant my alarm clock pealed froth with as much agitation as if it were hatching an egg. I swung out of bed and walked almost in a daze towards the adjoining bathroom. After a shower, I did feel a little more ready to face the world – and more importantly, to face that poem.

I gloved my hands, then opened my case and carefully withdrew the paper on which the poem had been written. Although I detested the use of talcum powder and assorted on-the-spot bits and pieces as a substitute for more approved methods for lifting handprints, one used what one had, and sadly I had no fingerprint kit with me.

Ten minutes later, I scowled at the letter. It had revealed no prints, which meant someone had been very careful in their doings. The writer must have worn gloves. So my only clue was the poem itself.

The first thing I noted was the quality of the poem itself. While no contender for the position of Poet Laureate, the writer was clearly aware of poetic function and vocabulary. The imagery, too, was not run-of-the-mill – the references to the Hippocrene and to “fountain’s youth” suggested Greek mythology. Regeneration? See no evil, speak no evil? The poet had mentioned a tongue that spoke no word and an ear that heard no word…

No, that wasn’t it. No word of truth, not simply no word. Was that significant? I supposed it must depend upon the intelligence and exactness of the poet.

That the poet was reasonably well educated, I could guess. The handwriting was of an anonymous elegance. Could the insolent footman Gabnic have penned the warning? I must make it my business to test his handwriting, and that of the others at Dread Hill House.

My musings were interrupted by the sudden strains of a male voice – a tenor serenading his soap, perhaps, as I could also hear the shower running. The sound came from the room adjoining mine. I winced as the singer hit a wrong note in “Santa Lucia”, but the voice continued on in ecstatic falsetto.

The loudness of the tenor’s voice made it almost impossible to think. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d been in tune, but he seemed to have a lackadaisical approach to pitch. I considered banging on the wall, but it seemed like such an American thing to do. (My parents had brought me up in deadly fear of Americanisms; I had once said “Yeah” instead of “Yes” when I was eight, and my punishment – being locked into the broom cupboard for several hours – ensured that I’d never transgressed again.)

I tried to recall whether the poem was a direct quotation of anything. (A particularly flat note assaulted my ears. I clapped my hands over them.) I couldn’t claim to have a complete repository of all poems in my memory, but it did not strike a direct chord. I would have to check, of course – my library at home would no doubt provide the information as to yae or nay.

At that moment, the early morning sun broke through, and I felt a surge of courage. As the tenor in the next room launched into some abomination made popular by the blind Italian tenor, Andrea Bocelli, I set my lips into a determined line and banged loudly on the wall.

The singing continued; I banged again. I had nothing to lose. The Americanisms had got me now.

My second lot of thumping resulted in a sudden dwindling of sound, and the tenor tailed away into silence. Then an accented voice called out, “Yes?”

I cleared my throat. “You’re very loud!” I called back through the wall.

“What?”

“You’re very loud!” I spaced the words with wells of silence between each one.

A few moments later, it seemed, I heard a knocking on my door, and I called out in my prissiest voice (embarrassed by my through-the-wall behaviour), “Yes.”

But contrary to my expectations, it was no maid or employee of the inn who opened my door – not unless the inn had taken to employing half-naked young men in skimpy towels.

“I am sorry because my singing annoyed,” said the apparition, his clown-like face under sopping wet pale hair looking as lugubrious as a hound. “It is a thing for me, that I sing in the mornings. But now I will be very quiet and you will forgive me, ja?”

I felt a rich blush climb up out of my shirt into my face. I looked anywhere but at the bare expanse of the young man’s chest or legs. I fixed my gaze on the flower arrangement to the left of the door as I mumbled back, “Oh, think nothing of it. It’s just that you really were quite loud, you know.”

“I am very not considerate”, exclaimed the young man. “How terrible of me, and I have not even introduced myself. That is good English behaviour, ja? I am Gijs van Gijsten.”

I feared he would try to extend his "English" behaviour even further and bow - in which case one could only pray for the secureness of his towel.

There was another knock on the door, and the maid, Krissy, entered without waiting for permission. She carried another tray – bearing breakfast, this time – and her skirt was, if anything, shorter still. She gave a knowing glance out of her elaborately made-up eyes at the half-naked young man and me. My blush worsened – I knew exactly what she was thinking.

“Should I have brought breakfast for two, miss?” she said with sly meaning in her voice. She placed the tray on the table, and picked up last night’s empty one. As she moved past me, her gaze fell onto the letter I’d left there on the table, and she made an involuntary movement. “Why’s he been writi—?” Then she bit off her words.

My curiosity banished my embarrassment. I said sharply, “Why has who been writing, Krissy?”




(Edited by Almirena at 2:40 pm on Oct. 24, 2006)

-----
Half-light, purblind streams where moonlight washes over trees / Lustred with a glow, as if from pearls upon the throat
Where the night's kiss lights upon her; rose's rhapsodies, / Warm as oils, imbue this bliss-fed hour with trembling note
"Where-? And who-?" Her breath's unspoken soul is light's perdue
That, hidden, seeks the unseen with a sigh… "Ah, L'inconnu!"

Total Posts: 1033 | Joined Sep. 2006 | Posted on: 4:34 am on Oct. 24, 2006 | Link to this post
Almirena
Brain-Tingler



The maidservant blinked her long lashes in a quick and unconvincing assumption of innocence. “Oh, nothing, just that I thought I saw my young man’s letter.”

“Your young man?”

She gave a small, almost smug smile. “Yes, miss, in the paper you see. He wrote in last week and we was hoping the letter would be in this week’s paper.” Her eyes fell pointedly upon the morning newspaper folded up on the breakfast tray.

I felt taken aback. I knew she hadn’t meant that at all; she had distinctly said “Why has he been writing—”, which would indicate a communication that was a surprise to her, not a letter published in the paper (a letter which she claimed to know about, moreover). And she had definitely been looking at the paper on which the poem was written. But I could hardly accuse her of being untruthful when she had recovered so quickly and was clearly prepared to go on lying.

I did the only thing I could. I nodded as though I accepted this implausible explanation, and said, “Very well. Good morning,” in dismissal, looking pointedly at both the maid and the off-key tenor.

Krissy bobbed in acknowledgement, replied with a “Good morning, miss”, and departed ahead of the precariously attired young man who said, “Excuse me for being barging in like this.”

I turned slightly and caught sight of the doorway in the full-length wardrobe mirror. It gave a side view of the pair as they departed, and had I not been glancing there, I doubt I would have realised that the maid’s hand fondled the young Dutchman’s thigh as they exited. He made no exclamation, no gasp of astonishment, but on the contrary – on his face was a knowing, sly look.

The door was closed behind them. I stood staring at the mirror, somewhat astonished although I don’t know why. It was clear that Krissy, to use an old-fashioned term, was a hussy. But was Gijs van Gijsten her “young man”, or was he just one of her beaus on a string? I sincerely doubted that he was the only one so privileged as to receive her intimate touches.

I settled down to my breakfast, and spent the next few minutes trying to clear my mind of the murder and the strange doings of the people I’d met. Finally, I arose from the table and prepared to depart the room.

I paused. I’d left the poem locked in my case. I felt uneasy about leaving it here. I looked at the lock of the case, and knew it would take a competent thief only a few seconds to open. There really was only one thing to be done.

Some minutes later, the poem was in an envelope addressed to my home address, inserted into the mailbox conveniently located right outside the inn.

I thanked the Grigs for a splendid breakfast. My thanks sounded stilted to me – my cursed shyness – but the Grigs seemed to notice nothing amiss.

“It’s no bother,” exclaimed Mrs Grig, a wide smile on her face. “We’re all hoping that you can get the sick creature who did that dreadful thing to Miss Styles. A grand lady she was – she didn’t deserve this. Mind how much trouble the Styles family has seen?” She jabbed her husband in the side with her elbow.

“Aye, that’s true,” he agreed. “Another sister died two years ago – drowned, poor thing, and her corpse not found for weeks. They say it was almost unrecognisable when they fished her out.”

“Horrors, that’s what they’ve had to put up with, the Styles,” nodded his wife. “And Professor Massini so much in love with her that he nearly went mad. Swore he had seen her walking, he did, after the drowning. Wouldn’t believe that it was her what drowned. Oh, he was in a terrible taking. Poor man,” she said tolerantly. “He lives at the House now” – it was clear she meant Dread Hill House – “tutoring his lordship’s brother David when he comes down from Oxford, and carrying on research in the House. He’s writing a history of the Styles family – he’s dedicating it to Martina, the sister what drowned.”

“I do feel sorry for the poor chap,” said Ned Grig. “Mind, his lordship wasn’t too happy at the time about giving his consent for the marriage. Didn’t want his sister marrying an Italian and being carried off to his palazzo. But after the terrible boating tragedy, he and Massini were like brothers. S’pose their sorrowfulness brought them together like close friends.”

“Ah, you always did have suspicions of anyone who isn’t pure one hundred and fifty percent Anglo Saxon!” berated his wife with a humorous grimace. I didn’t correct her mathematics. “Santorio Massini was such a good-looker that I can’t blame Miss Martina for having lost her head over him. Oh, she was madly in love with him, and he with her – the pair was like turtledoves. They say he’ll never love anyone else.”

She actually had tears in her eyes at the thought.

I was bemused. So much tragedy in the life of one family – it hardly seemed possible. “Do you mean that Professor Massini actually lives in the house?” I asked.

“That he does,” nodded Ned Grig.

“I didn’t meet him last night.”

“Aye, he’s often shut up in the library, researching the family history of the Styles. The legitimate family history, that is.”

“Now, don’t be talking scandal!” scolded Mrs Grig. “The family’s borne enough.”

I got up, eager to return to Dread Hill House. “Well, thank you so much for your kind hospitality,” I said. “I shall probably stay here tonight as well, although it’s possible I’ll return home. If so, would it be possible for you to hold my room? I will certainly be back here – tomorrow night if not tonight.” I wanted to investigate that poem with my own resources to hand.

The Grigs assured me there would be no problem at all, and I took my leave, wondering why no one had previously mentioned the apparently fascinating Professor Massini.


-----
Half-light, purblind streams where moonlight washes over trees / Lustred with a glow, as if from pearls upon the throat
Where the night's kiss lights upon her; rose's rhapsodies, / Warm as oils, imbue this bliss-fed hour with trembling note
"Where-? And who-?" Her breath's unspoken soul is light's perdue
That, hidden, seeks the unseen with a sigh… "Ah, L'inconnu!"

Total Posts: 1033 | Joined Sep. 2006 | Posted on: 5:51 pm on Oct. 27, 2006 | Link to this post
Almirena
Brain-Tingler



As I drove through the charming and surprisingly busy village of Clapping Cross, I found I had to take a considerable degree of care as I wound through the cobble-stoned streets. This was not merely because the streets were narrow, but because the villagers had an insouciant way of darting out from the footpaths, from the post office and from shops and houses as though deaf and blind to my car’s approach. Once as I pulled up at what seemed to be the village’s only traffic light, a helmeted biker pulled up alongside me and lifted his visor to grin at me. “Hey, babe!” he shouted. “Drag off?”

Drag off? Could he possibly mean he wanted to… race me? In my Volvo? Against his intimidating (and loud) motorcycle? I must have looked confused, because the wild-haired young man jerked his head in the direction of the road ahead of us. “C’mon, race?” he roared invitingly.

I was saved having to reply to this irresistible inducement by the abrupt arrival on the scene of a police constable. “Now then, now then, none of this, Chapman,” said the stalwart young constable, placing a hand on the gleaming beast of a machine. “We’ve got speed limits here. None of your London ways down here, me lad.”

The biker shrugged. “Nothing against a bit of a spin on the road, is there?” he retorted. “Was just going to give chickie here a bit of a go, but no skin off me backside, guv.”

With that, he thrust down on the throttle and snarled away through the newly green light.

I had a quick word with the constable, trying to control my flush at being discovered in such an invidious situation and at being referred to as “chickie”. I hadn’t had any intention of racing, but even the thought of being mentally accused of having considered it was enough to make me hot and cold all over. I had to stop myself from trying to explain, and just said, “I’m Almirena Fulbright, the investigator. I hope to see the police surgeon later today about the Styles case. Will he be in?”

“From twelve, miss,” said the constable, giving me a stolid, not unfriendly look. “I’ll let him know you’ll be looking in on him.”

“Thank you,” I replied, and drove away carefully, keeping a continuous watch for the careless citizens of Clapping Cross and not over-eager to be accosted again by the biker.

My drive to Dread Hill House was largely without incident, and I lowered the driver’s window to enjoy the fresh air. I noticed that two workmen were standing around the road sign that had so bewildered me last night. As I slowed to take the turn, I heard one of them say, “Aye, it’ll be the Barrow boys what did it. Cheeky as a barge full of eels, that lot.”

I was filled with an irresistible desire to hear more of the doings of the Barrow boys, but I couldn’t really loiter at the turn. It would look odd. I drove on, smiling to myself. The intimacy and closeness of English village life was such a quaint thing. In London it would be unheard of for even one’s neighbour to be so nosy and gossipy and knowing about one’s doings, but here… it all seemed quite natural.

I drove up in front of the House, parking a little closer to the windows. I had an idea that I wouldn’t have any more unwelcome visitors leaving me things if I left the car within view of the windows. I double-checked as I locked the car, and hoped that the boot would be safe. It hadn’t been opened last night, at any rate.

I sighed. In a novel, I suppose an enterprising investigator would have a secret and unbreakable lock for his car, or perhaps some marvellous chains that would defeat any unauthorised attempt on the boot. I had nothing of the sort. I grimaced, and approached the front door.

Before I could even knock, the door was opened by the butler. “Good morning, miss,” he said in tones as polite as though they’d been polished by sandstone. “I heard your car on the sweep, and took the liberty of looking out of the window in order to ascertain the moment of your arrival at the door. I trust it is not an intrusion?”

I replied in some confusion at his efficiency, “No – no, not at all. Thank you, Walker.”

“I will let the master know you’ve arrived.”

“I wonder–” I began impulsively, then paused.

The butler waited for me to continue, a polite look of inquiry upon his neat face.

I took a moment to consider, and then went on, “I wondered whether Professor Massini might be free to speak with me. Perhaps in ten minutes or so?”

Walker gave a courteous nod of the head. “Of course, miss. I shall inquire. I do not anticipate any difficulty in the matter. Professor Massini is in the library this morning.”

I followed Walker through the hallways, passing by several closed doors until we reached the breakfast room. Lord Styles – Horace – had clearly finished his repast, and was just setting down a coffee cup. I could smell the fragrant brew, and my nostrils quivered. My cup of tea that morning had been excellent, but there was (as all true coffee lovers know) no substitute for a perfectly brewed cup of coffee.

Perhaps Styles saw my reaction. He seemed to take pity on me as he said, “Ah, Almirena – how delightful to see you this morning. Do sit down. There’s plenty of coffee. Would you like a cup?”

I didn’t bother with a polite demurral, but sat down with alacrity. “Thank you, um, Horace,” I said, glancing at Walker as he filled my cup and handed it to me with a low, “Your coffee, miss.”

“I have asked,” said Styles, “the gardener to present himself to you, to explain this extraordinary business of the, er, gardening can. Do you think he had anything to do with my sister’s death?”

Styles still looked exhausted. There were dark shadows under his eyes like wings, as though something had imprinted itself there with the touch of a raven’s black soot. The man’s misery was palpable. I knew the feeling all too well.

“I really couldn’t begin to say,” I replied, enjoying that first swallow of the coffee – oh bliss! Truly excellent coffee, this. It lived up to the rich aroma it had exuded within the steam that wound in transparent ringlets from its dark surface. I inhaled deeply, and took another sip. My eyes closed momentarily, then I concentrated on the matter at hand. “At this stage, I need to gather data rather than form conclusions, you understand.”

Styles sighed. “Yes – I should have known that. But – oh God. The horror of this, the sheer unbelievable ghastliness of it… I just cannot fathom why anyone would do this to Sarah.”

I could not really reply. What could I tell him? That there were monsters in the world, who walked around like humans, who bled like humans but who had something missing where the rest of us had normal human emotions? And that the worst of it was perhaps that these fiends in human form always had such good reasons for their deeds – reasons that they found utterly convincing, never mind the rest of us for whom the surreal incongruity merely worsened the horror.

I have never understood the “criminal mind”, unlike several other detectives I’ve known. One of them, a trained psychologist as well as a private investigator, took pride in “knowing how they think” and – God help us – “understanding” them. His understanding took mostly the form of deep sympathy and a veritable onslaught of pre-fabricated excuses for criminal behaviour. But I am not certain that a deprived childhood is sufficient cause for a monster to spawn forth. Ah, well – I do freely admit I am still somewhat new at this investigating business, and perhaps I am insufficiently compassionate.

I seem to feel too deeply for the victims to spare a great deal of sympathy for the criminals. Mea culpa.

I looked up from my coffee cup. “Horace, I do understand.” I cleared my throat; my voice had been nearly inaudible. “There is nothing we can do to bring Sarah back to life, but at least if we find her killer, she may rest more easily.”

Styles nodded almost imperceptibly. “That such a thing is the measure of my comfort… is almost intolerable.”

I have never found it easy to be in the presence of grief. I am too easily overset – I tried to smile sympathetically and made haste to change the subject. “I will be speaking with Professor Massini shortly,” I mentioned.

“Massini? He could have nothing to do with this.”

“Yes, but I must speak to everyone in this house, everyone who might have seen anything, heard something, perhaps even without realising the importance of what they saw or heard,” I explained.

Styles relaxed. “Ah.” He nodded lightly. “Santi has suffered enough – I do not know if you are aware of it.” He looked questioningly at me.

“I know that another sister of yours drowned, and that she was engaged to Professor Massini,” I said quietly.

“Another sister…” Styles murmured to himself, and looked up at me, his eyes bright with tears. “Do you know, I had not thought – but it hits me now. Two of my sisters. Two of them. One killed by accident, one by what I am convinced is a foul and malicious act of murder. How many families are so cursed? And poor Santi… to be connected with us…”

He seemed to choke off his next utterance. I had the sense that Styles had nearly said something more, and I bulldozed past my usual reticence.

“You were saying?” I prompted.

Styles looked uncomfortable. “Nothing but nonsense, really.”

“It might be important.” I was persistent.

“I doubt that village rumours of a curse could be important,” he said dryly. He shrugged. “The whole business is just a foolish play on the name of our house – interestingly enough, the name used to be Druid Hill House, named after an ancient barrow that was excavated in the grounds just twenty years ago. Quite a nice collection of Saxon relics were found – they’re on display at the British Museum. But the name of the House was corrupted in the 1700s to Dread Hill House, and of course the villagers thought it incredibly ominous, and invented some tale of a curse on the house.”

“Fascinating,” I said truthfully. “So the villagers think these deaths are due to a curse?”

“So it’s said, I believe.” Styles breathed in deeply as though gathering patience against the village rumours. “But then, it was also said that Santi—” He stopped again.

“That Santi…?”

“As if the man hadn’t suffered enough,” said Styles quietly and bitterly. “They said—”

“They said that I had murdered the woman I loved, and even arrested me for it,” said a quiet, faintly accented voice at the doorway.

I turned hastily in my chair. Standing just inside the breakfast room was a tall slender individual who struck me, in that first moment, as both the best-looking and the most melancholy man I had ever beheld. It was in the vivid combination of superb bone structure and the dark unhappiness in the eyes, the set of the mouth, the entire posture of the man.

I knew without being introduced that this must be the Italian professor with whom Martina Styles had fallen in love. Small wonder that she’d been determined to wed him, I thought. Even I, who knew myself no match for his looks, felt a feminine flutter of admiration.

I rose to my feet. “Professor Massini?”

“Yes, I am he.” The curve of his lips was wry, as if acknowledging that he could scarcely be anyone else.

“I am Almirena Fulbright. I’m so sorry, but – what was that you just said?”

The professor advanced into the room, and gave a grave little bow. I half-expected him to kiss my hand. “I said that the villagers and the police suspected that I had a hand in my beloved Martina’s death. Oh yes, the police arrested me, but were apologetic later when they had to release me for lack of evidence,” he said with admirable composure. He grimaced faintly. “It is not pleasant, being accused of such a thing. But I admit I hardly noticed. My Martina was dead, and I could hardly think of anything else, for everything – life, my situation, everything – seemed quite… trivial to me.”

In the face of such a disaster, upon the death of a loved one, what a final indignity to be accused of their murder. I could see the black tide of sorrow that still held this man in its grip, and I knew there was no question of his involvement in the death of the woman he had loved.

His grief was still evident in his eyes.

I said, “I wonder whether perhaps we could go to the library and speak for a moment.”

Santorio Massini nodded. “But of course,” he replied. “It is a charming room – you will like it, I think.”

I murmured a farewell to Lord Styles, who told me he would be out walking that morning, but that I should tell Walker when I wanted to speak to the gardener or to any servant in his employment. Then I gathered my belongings and followed the Professor to the library which – as he’d promised – was a delightful room, full of cherry-wood panelling and well-stocked bookcases that made me long to leaf through the old books that seemed to exude their centuries-old scent of old paper and old words into the air.

“You want to know,” said Santorio Massini, “whether I can shed any light upon this terrible tragedy of Sarah’s death.”

I nodded. “Were you here that morning, Professor?”

“I was here, yes. I was working in this library, and if only I had heard something, I might have been able to save her.” Massini’s voice fell. I could barely hear his next words. “The outrage of her lying there, disarranged in that fashion, her empty sockets covered, the appalling vulgarity of the gardening can – I do not understand it, and I have thought until I seemed to be going mad about why such a thing could have been done to her.”

“Did you see anyone at all that morning?”

“Only the postman delivering the letters early for once,” replied the professor, trying to shake off his grimness. “And the maid who served me breakfast very early that morning, and of course the footman as I took my morning – constitutional, that is the word? – my morning walk. Yes, Gabnic and one of his woman friends – they go to the gazebo, you see, and – ” He made a delicate gesture with his hands. “They perform the act out there – the maids complain, you understand, about the cushions in the gazebo.”

I nodded, wondering why the footman, Gabnic, would need to meet his girlfriends outside rather than in the privacy of his own room. Then a thought struck me.

“Do you know the identity of this woman friend?”

“I do not—wait. I think perhaps – she was wearing so short a skirt and so low-cut a blouse, it seems to me she was not a village girl at all, but perhaps a professional prostitute? The makeup too, it was very—” Again, the professor gestured, and I was almost sure then.

“Could she have been the new maid at the Goose & Bells?”

“Ah, that is where I have seen the girl before!” exclaimed the professor, slapping a hand to his forehead. “Yes, yes, it was that same girl.”

My thoughts raced. Did that mean that Gabnic had indeed written the poem that had appeared in my car? Was he warning me off from the investigation? If so, was he involved in the murder of Sarah Styles?


(Edited by Almirena at 10:57 pm on Nov. 5, 2006)

-----
Half-light, purblind streams where moonlight washes over trees / Lustred with a glow, as if from pearls upon the throat
Where the night's kiss lights upon her; rose's rhapsodies, / Warm as oils, imbue this bliss-fed hour with trembling note
"Where-? And who-?" Her breath's unspoken soul is light's perdue
That, hidden, seeks the unseen with a sigh… "Ah, L'inconnu!"

Total Posts: 1033 | Joined Sep. 2006 | Posted on: 12:57 pm on Nov. 5, 2006 | Link to this post
Almirena
Brain-Tingler



As I gazed at Professor Massini, I saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned slightly, and the world splintered into a sudden flurry of violent moment and shock. I hit the ground – I think I cried out, and tried to brace my fall with one hand. The other flew up and inadvertently struck against something. I heard a grunt over the roaring in my ears and the clamour of what my senses told me was shattered glass crashing and clinking onto the floor. Something struck my elbow and gave me a sudden strike of almost intolerable pain.

For several seconds, I barely knew what was occurring. Over the agony of my elbow, I was vaguely aware that my right hand was thrust away involuntarily by Santorio Massini. I learned later that I had accidentally given him a solid thump on the ear, which was a poor return for his having saved my life.

Perhaps that was an exaggeration. There was no saying whether the heavy stone that had been flung through the caramelised glass of the library window would have hit me, but the professor had certainly thought it aimed directly at me.

“Are you all right?” he said sharply, lifting himself up from the Aubusson-carpeted floor and running a professional pair of hands over my body. I was still gasping in agony, clutching my elbow to myself and making distressing wheezing noises. “Take deep breaths – good, good, slowly, you will recover yourself quickly.”

It was long moments before I could speak, and then I arose shakily from where I had landed. “What happened?” The brilliant investigator (me) needed clarification, for the brilliant investigator was not feeling so very brilliant.

Santorio Massini swivelled his neck to gaze at the shattered window and the gleaming, dangerous shards of glass that had cascaded onto the floor. “Someone took a – potshot? – at you, Miss Fulbright. They took careful aim and threw something at you. It was intended to land here” – he put a hand against my temple – “and if it had, I think we would be looking at a second murder.”

I felt sick and weak. I had scarcely begun investigating, and surely nothing I’d done could be construed as my having achieved any progress as yet? Why would anyone attempt to kill me so early in the investigation?

I said as much. Massini grimaced.

“You have gained the reputation, you know,” he said. “Last month when Barry Holland, the one who was called Boo by his friends for some reason… when he was exposed as the killer of Charles Makepeace, it was sensationalised on every news channel in the country – from BBC1 to BBC4 and beyond. There are people who think you are very dangerous.”

“Oh.” I was embarrassed. I had declined to be interviewed about that case, although the offer from the network had been insistent. I had avoided watching the “recreation” of the investigation, but I knew that a glamorous young actress had played the part of “The honourable Miss Fulbright, scourge of the criminal mind”, as they’d put it.

I let out a small sound. Now I realised why the butler Walker had been so surprised to see me! He’d expected me to look like Pepper Hamilton, the actress who’d played me.

It would no doubt have come as a disappointment. Pepper Hamilton was renowned for her pouting lips and outrageous way with a bodice. I, alas, had never pouted in my life, and I would die of shame to wear a bodice as low-cut as La Hamilton’s. (Neither did I have the Hamilton bust, which was generally considered spectacular.)

I sank into a chair, avoiding the glinting splinters and larger pieces of glass that made the library a minefield. Just beyond, past me, lay an impressively sized rock, no doubt bearing upon it some of my skin.

Whoever had thrown that rock had certainly meant business.

“I did not see anything – Professor, did you notice who threw the rock?” I asked, trying to get back upon an even keel.

He barely hesitated, and shook his head. “No,” he said slowly. “No. Not to swear to. I just saw a figure with a sweatshirt or dark clothing, and a hood I think… and I saw the figure bend down and pick up something heavy from the ground, and aim it at you.”

“Thank you for getting me out of the way,” I said hurriedly, realising I had been remiss. “I really do appreciate your swift reaction.”

“It is nothing, nothing at all,” he demurred.

I could hardly believe that no one had come rushing in to see what the noise was. I looked about, no doubt signalling my confusion.

The professor guessed what was worrying me – he was a remarkably perceptive man. “You wonder why none of the servants have come to check? The library is soundproofed – they can hear nothing,” he explained.

“Oh! I suppose I had better ring…” The bell-rope was only a few steps away, and I had got back the use of my legs by now, although I still felt shaky. Shock, I suppose. I rang for help, and then resumed my seat, becoming aware of myriad bruises and painful twinges. My left hand was punctuated with small bloody pinpricks where glass shards had struck – it would be a painful session with the tweezers to make sure I was free of glass splinters.

The professor said, with a shake of his head, “I cannot fathom this. They strike so quickly? My dear Miss Fulbright, this is dangerous for you. I urge you to consider getting a male colleague to take over.”

I said, “No, no. I am not to be frightened off by such tricks as this. Besides, this is the age of political correctness—”

Before I could continue, he interrupted me in tones of great agitation. “Oh, this feminist business – I admire women greatly, and would by no means imply anything otherwise. But in danger – Miss Fulbright, no man who calls himself a man will sit by and let a woman take on the sordid dangers of tracking down a murderer who will not hesitate to attack.” He lifted his hands eloquently, and I was touched rather than annoyed by his outlook. It was such a sweet and protective viewpoint.

“You must not worry, Professor Massini,” I told him. “I will take the greatest care.”

Before I could say anything else, a housemaid entered the library, only to begin exclaiming, “Oh my lord, wot’s ‘appened ‘ere?” She began to bustle about, more interested in how to eradicate the mess than in what had caused it. It did not seem long before Walker had also arrived, and listened gravely to Massini’s succinct report of what had occurred.

“I will send for the fellow which the Vicar used for repairing the church windows last month after the Barrow boys vandalised them”, he said quietly, and spoke a few words to a footman (not Gabnic, and not nearly as good-looking as that swaggering young man).

The Barrow boys! I recognised their name – apparently they were the village troublemakers.

A sullen-looking older menial in soil-stained smock stood, shoulders hunched, near the door of the library. Walker indicated him with a slight movement of his head. “Old Melkins, miss,” he said. “I took the liberty of asking him to make himself available for your questioning. I’ll own myself surprised, miss, if you get anything out of him. He’s—” he hesitated, “he’s not a very co-operative type.”

Was anyone? I wondered. So far I’d met with outright lies, pointless evasions and a conspicuous lack of useful information. I hoped to goodness that Melkins would prove more informative than his appearance suggested.

I said with a slight smile, “Thank you, Walker. I will see Melkins in a moment, but I would like to check outside, just to see whether there’s any clue about who did this.”

“Very good, miss,” replied Walker.

I looked on the floor for the rock that had flung at me into a plastic bag so that I could have it checked for fingerprints, and found that the Professor had already picked it up and was looking at it thoughtfully. I winced. It was my own fault for being careless enough not to secure the rock immediately.

I took the rock anyway, however contaminated the evidence was now, and waved away offers of bandages, a soothing draught, sal volatile, or even some burnt feathers (advocated by the anxious housemaid whose aunt was an eager proponent of their use). I exited through a side door, out into the grounds just outside the library. I waved back the professor, who had insisted on accompanying me. (I thought he half-suspected there might still be a killer lurking about, waiting to cosh me on the head.)

“Please,” I said, “do not come any further. I must check for any evidence of activity here – the slightest detail might be important.”

“Ah, yes, I do understand,” agreed Santorio Massini, standing clear of the area directly in front of the shattered window, although he was frowning slightly.

I wondered why he had hesitated before assuring me, earlier, that he not recognised my assailant…


-----
Half-light, purblind streams where moonlight washes over trees / Lustred with a glow, as if from pearls upon the throat
Where the night's kiss lights upon her; rose's rhapsodies, / Warm as oils, imbue this bliss-fed hour with trembling note
"Where-? And who-?" Her breath's unspoken soul is light's perdue
That, hidden, seeks the unseen with a sigh… "Ah, L'inconnu!"

Total Posts: 1033 | Joined Sep. 2006 | Posted on: 2:55 am on Nov. 11, 2006 | Link to this post
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