Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Boxing Day Murders - Epilogue

It's New Year's Day. The snow has finally been cleared enough to make a path for the guests and their cars to make a speedy escape. We all share the feeling that to dwell another night in Bedford Manor would be tempting fate. Danielle is among the most disheartened:
"Typical," I hear her say to Penny. "I finally meet a man of substance, and he turns out to be a maniac."
"Better luck next year," Penny says, "I suggest we stay in London, though."
Alice accompanies me back to the station, driven by Warwick. I notice as we fill the boot of the car that she carries a suitcase of her own.
"So what are your plans now?" I ask.
"Well, my employer recently died," she says, "so I suppose I'm at something of a loose end."
"If it's work you need, I know a firm in London that could make use of your talents."
Alice grins.
"Lead the way."
As we leave Bedford Manor in the car, there is not a single spirit in sight. Alice leans into me, and I put an arm around her, and we spend the journey to the station in thoughtful silence.
I hope that Kit and his mother can be finally reunited. I pray that poor Sylvie finds the peace she never had in life. And I know that Baxter and Bess are hosting the party to end all parties, wherever they are.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Boxing Day Murders - Chapter Four

Danielle leads us without another word to the drawing room, where Greyson, Ben and Penny are all standing around the fireplace, heaving.
A slender, bloodied arm dangles barely visible over the hearth from within the chimney breast.
"Dear God," Alice whispers, crossing herself. I pull her towards me to shield her from the view as the other guests gingerly bring the body down from its sooty grave. At a loss as to what to do with her, we gently carry Sylvie up to the Bedfords' bedroom and lay her on the bed next to them. The aroma in the chamber makes us all gag, and we can't lock the door behind us fast enough.
"She truly was the angel on top of the tree," Penny sobs later. I don't bother to remind her that she was as keen on the idea of Killer Sylvie as the others. More brandy is shared, more morose comments made. The only positive thing about the entire day is the scent of Alice's hair as she leans into me to stop herself shaking.
I sleep fitfully that night with no dreams or spectral visitors. I wake often, haunted not by ghosts but by fear. If Sylvie was not the killer, then who is? As I go through the potential suspects in my mind, each candidate seems more ludicrous than the last. Failed actor who used to run on the fundraiser circuit with Bess. Famous author with a franchise to lose by committing murder. Businessman with shady dealings but whiter than white reputation. And Kit, young charity worker who, it seems, Bess thought the world of.
"Were Kit and Bess close?" I ask Alice the next day, after tossing and turning over the question for half of the night.
"Kit and Bess?" Her brow furrows at the question. "Why would they be?"
"Well she invited him, didn't she?"
"Absolutely not," she corrects me.
"Bess didn't invite Kit. She didn't even know him."
"So he was one of Baxter's guests?" Why would my friend have lied about not knowing Kit?
Again, Alice's answer is no.
"All I know is," she says, "he wasn't on the guest list that Baxter gave me. I wasn't actually here when he arrived, I was meeting you at the station. But later Bess said that Baxter had definitely invited him."
"Baxter told her that?"
"No, he told her that. Kit, I mean. Bess told me that he'd said he met Baxter when he was doing those guest law lectures at Exeter."
"He's a law student?"
"So Bess said."
"Interesting," I muse. "Because according to Baxter, Kit worked for one of Bess's charities."
"So neither of them knew Kit?"
"Which means young Mr Foster wasn't invited to the party."
My gut churns as the enormity of what we've just discovered dawns on us both.
"I think," Alice says, "we've just identified our killer."
"Indeed," I agree. "Now all we need to figure out is why he did it."
"Shouldn't we tell people?"
"Not yet. I'm going to go and find him, suss him out. You get everyone else into the kitchen, if the guests are all together then he can't hurt anybody else."
"He can hurt you," Alice protests.
"I'll be careful, don't worry about me. Just remember, Kit can't know that we know."
"Too late," a male voice says from the corner of the room. I instinctively shove Alice behind me as Kit emerges from behind a huge bookcase. I inwardly curse for not being more prudent.
"Alice, run," I shout. I am about to follow suit, but my world turns to slow motion. I see Kit swing something towards me, and I feel the pain, and then everything goes black.

Fanny welcomes me back with open arms.
"Am I dead?" I ask.
"Not at all, just bloody concussed," she says.
"Send me back," I say instantly in response. "They need my help. He's going to kill them all."
"Not if he's clever, he's not." Fanny shakes her head. "But then, since when has murder been about being clever?"
"Fanny, please. Send me back."
"You never did meet Estelle, did you," she says, and the change of subject disorients me further. Estelle appears behind her, as tragic and white as ever.
"What has that got to do with anything?" I ask.
"Everything, can't you see?"
"Look closer," Fanny whispers in my ear. "Doesn't she have lovely eyes?"
Then it hits me. Kit's pale blue eyes, husky-clear like Estelle's. The rest of his personage so sculptedly handsome, so similar to how I'd always remembered a young Baxter...
"The affair," I gasp. "You were the other woman."
Estelle nods.
"Baxter never knew I was pregnant. I found out after we'd parted ways, and then..."
She shrugs, as if to say, 'here I am'."
"You died in childbirth," I realise. "That was the 'illness'."
"Yes. Christopher was adopted after I died. He grew up never knowing who his father was, he only tracked him down this year."
"The letters..."
"They were his way of getting Baxter's attention." She shakes her head. "He's been so lost. He feels that he's been cheated of what he deserves, a family name, a sense of belonging..."
"Not to mention the Bedford fortune."
"I'm sad to say, yes."
"So he killed his father and Bess, not to mention his cousin, so that he could claim the estate?"
"He's ill. Marcus, you have to help him."
"He murdered three people in cold blood. If his soul needs saving, it's no business of mine."
"You're going to kill him, aren't you." Estelle's eyes glisten. "You're going to send him here, so that Delilah Bedford can have her revenge."
"I don't kill. But he will be brought to justice, Estelle. In that I have no doubt."
"Please, Marcus. He's my child."
"Children don't do what Kit has done." The sight of Sylvie's arm dangling from the chimney comes to me again, and I nearly retch. "He's no man. He's a monster."
Estelle vanishes, too upset by my words to remain here. Fanny tuts.
"Nothing like telling it how it is to upset some people."
"I know, I know. The dream has to end."
"This whole nightmare must end," I say, before the ghostly manor around me begins to melt away, replaced by bolder colours and more solid walls.
"...And he was going to fabricate some blackmail plot, a contested paternity, to cast the blame on somebody else."
I'm tied to a chair, I can tell before I even open my eyes. As I raise my throbbing head, I see Kit standing over me, gesticulating to the other guests. We are in the drawing room and Alice is tied to the chair next to me, dazed. We're props, I realise. He has gathered the other guests to reveal the culprits, in true detective style. In his hand he is holding the letter that I had put in my nightstand, the letter that he himself had written to Baxter, and Baxter had given to me.
"This letter," he tells everyone, "is what he intended to use, I found it in his room."
"The letter you wrote," I rasp. The other guests jump when they realise that I am conscious. "The jig is up, Kit. I know who you are."
"I'm the man who stopped you," he says, pitch-perfect, "you and your accomplice," nodding to Alice, "before you could hurt anybody else."
The drawing room is silent, and it isn't just the rapt audience that contributes to the unearthly quiet; outside, the blizzard has ceased, and Kit's lies are the only sound in the manor.
"Christopher," I say, "tell them who you really are."
"You can stop now, Swift. Your games, your lies, it's all over."
"Fine," I feign defeat. "Then just tell these good people how you came to be at the party."
Kit scoffs.
"I was invited, like everybody else. What are you trying to achieve, Swift?"
"Who invited you?"
"Ba... Bess."
"Yes. We were very close, she helped me when I first started doing fundraising. Such a good woman. And you killed her in her sleep."
"You're sure it wasn't Baxter?"
I see Penny raise an eyebrow.
"I thought that you met him at a law lecture," I say. "Wasn't that the case?"
"Shut up," Kit snarls, his mask slipping for a split second.
"You weren't there when I woke up," Danielle whispers. My mind flashes back to Christmas Night, to Danielle leading Kit to her room. The poor girl. She wanted a companion for the night and he wanted a place to lie in wait, close to the Bedfords' own chambers.
"Don't listen to him," Kit says, losing his composure. "He's lying!"
"No," Alice lifts her head and looks him in the eye. "You're the liar. You're the killer. You're the villain, Kit. And you have truly terrible hair."
The carefully constructed performance crumbles before us, and the young man shrieks in rage. He lunges for the wall and pulls an antique pistol down from Baxter's military display.
"Don't panic," I hear Greyson say, "there's no way that thing is loaded." He screams like a little girl when Kit puts a bullet into a sofa. A contingency plan, I see. Very clever.
I strain against the ropes around my wrists and chest, expecting huge resistance, but a sudden chill comes over me, and the scent of cloves fills my nostrils. A moment later my binds lie tangled on the floor.Thank you, Fanny, I think, and I leap to my feet.
Kit flees the drawing room, and I chase him out into the main hall. He opens the front doors and runs out into the night, where a dense fog has fallen on the grounds. I follow him by his footprints in the snow, as he soon disappears in front of me. After a few minutes of running, I slow down, hearing him struggling for breath under a yew tree.
"It's over, Kit," I call out. "You can't achieve anything by this."
"Stay away from me," he yells, waving the gun in my direction.
"Please, just hand yourself in. Save yourself." He says nothing. "It's what your mother wants."
"Don't talk to me about my mother! You never knew her, I never knew her! Nobody knew her!"
"I know you have her eyes," I say, taking a step closer. Kit takes shape in the fog ahead of me. I take another step and I can see him clearly. "And the rest of you, it's all Baxter."
"Baxter who liked to pretend I was never born."
"He wasn't pretending. He never knew."
"It's the truth." I come even closer. "Please, Kit, put the gun down. Before it's too late."
"It's already too late," he sobs. I see it all, and I nearly cry too. I see his hands around Baxter's throat, I see Bess open her eyes a moment too late. I see Sylvie fighting for her life with all the strength in her body.
"This is where I began," he says. "I was conceived here, at this manor. And this is where it ends." Before I can even move to stop him, he raises the pistol and puts it to his own head.
"No!" My protest echoes with Estelle's voice, one that only I can hear.
The gunshot breaks through the night air like a pin in a balloon. It rings in my ears as I run to Kit, as I fall to my knees, red on white flashing before my eyes.
"No..." I say again, my throat thick with a grief that isn't my own. I failed Estelle, I failed to save him.
In the distance, I hear chimes. The village down the road is seeing in the New Year. I kneel in the snow with a dying man in my arms and feel Alice at my back, wrapping herself around me like a blanket. She weeps into my neck and I cry too. Around us, the ghosts stand silent.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Boxing Day Murders - Chapter Three

The next morning I decide that I need to tell someone about Baxter's affair. When I ask myself the question of who I can trust, one name comes to mind straight away.
"Are you sure?" Alice asks me, when I tell her about Baxter's indiscretion.
"He told me so himself, the night before he was murdered." I've brought her into Baxter's study; everybody else is attempting to make breakfast, Warwick is still absent. "Here," I show her the letters in Baxter's desk. "Somebody knew about the affair. No demands, no extortion, but they wanted to make him aware that they knew."
"So Baxter was unfaithful to Bess, what, twenty odd years ago? And he more or less got away with it..."
"Nobody found out. There was no contact between Baxter and the other woman after the fling, and she died shortly afterwards."
"Foul play?"
"Natural causes, according to Bax."
"So for two decades Baxter gets on with his life, then out of the blue he starts getting letters about this woman. And as soon as he tells somebody about it, he and Bess are both strangled."
She shivers, and I instinctively rub her arms for warmth. The dandy's words echo in my ear.
"Dark times at Bedford Manor," I murmur.
"What?" Alice asks.
"Oh, nothing."
"So is everybody a suspect?"
"Not everybody." I gesture between the two of us, "I mean I'm certainly innocent, and I know how much you thought of Baxter and Bess both."
"Who does that leave, then? Danielle, Sylvie, Kit..."
"Danielle, unlikely. She's got a shady past but murder is a little dark for even her reputation."
"I get a funny feeling about that one. Incredibly frail, but there's something she isn't telling us."
"I think I may know what that something is."
"Do tell, by all means."
Alice leans in conspiratorially, even though we are the only two people in the room.
"I overheard Bess telling Baxter that Sylvie has recently spent some time in a facility for the mentally unstable."
"Any details?"
"I'm afraid not. All I know is, the doctors weren't particularly keen on the idea of her being let out for Christmas. Bess had to assure them that she would be very closely watched."
"So we have an heiress to a sizeable fortune, with a screw loose. That sounds like a fairly simple equation to me."
"Shall we go talk to her?"
"Lead the way."
Alice and I never get the chance to speak to Sylvie about her recent institutionalisation. She is nowhere to be found among the other guests, and a quick search of the manor yields no results. Everybody takes this absence as a form of confession.
"Makes sense," Danielle says. "She was Baxter's niece, the closest thing he had to a child. Wouldn't surprise me if she were to be left everything in the will."
"But killing her aunt and uncle, only to run away – it smacks of guilt, doesn't it?" This is from Kit. "Acting that way, like a criminal, it ruins the whole plan."
"Maybe she panicked." Greyson chimes in. "She could be stranded out there in the storm now, a fugitive from the law..."
"Don't be so dramatic," Penny interrupts. "For all we know, she never left." She adds, sinisterly.
The author's words chill me to the bone. It's entirely possible that Sylvie is still somewhere in the manor; there are enough servants' corridors and obscure doorways to keep a killer hidden for days on end.
Theories about Sylvie's motivations and whereabouts dominate conversation for the rest of the day. Alice prepares a hearty stew for supper, and we retire. This pattern of waking, fretting, pacing and then sleeping is taking its toll on everybody. A couple of times we've had to dissuade Ben from clawing his way out into the snow, desperate to escape.
"Help me," I say under my breath as I crawl into bed. "Give me a sign, please..."
The Victorian dandy is my host this time. He pours me a glass of crème de menthe and takes me on a tour of the grounds.
"Things are getting out of hand at the manor," I say, meaning of course our manor, the manor of the living. "Something needs to be done soon. Sylvie needs to be found."
"She'll turn up soon enough," he says, "don't you worry about that. Our killer has a troubled, haunted mind. I feel sympathetic, almost."
"I'm a murder victim myself, you know. I agree with Delilah, when the criminal resurfaces, we want custody."
"I'm not going to kill Sylvie. If I find her, I'll make sure she's arrested."
"You want justice, Mr Swift. It's admirable. But we want retribution. They are markedly different."
"I don't doubt you. But I refuse to take a life."
"That choice may not be yours to make, Mr Swift. There is a curse on this house, and it can only end in death."
"I think I preferred it when Fanny was my ghost."
The dandy laughs.
"They all say that," he says, knocking back his crème de menthe.
It is morning, and I am taking coffee with Alice and Kit when Danielle shuffles into the kitchen, her face ashen, all kittenish sway absent from her step.
"We..." She chokes back a sob: "...We've found Sylvie."


Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Boxing Day Murders - Chapter Two

I dream of the ghost I saw on the path to the manor. Tawny curls fall over her shoulders, forming a frame for her corseted cleavage.
"Hello lover," she says, leaning on tiptoe to kiss my cheek, leaving the aroma of cloves in the air immediately before me.
"Hi there," I respond, unable to ignore how solid and real her body feels so close to mine, compared to earlier.
"My name is Frances Potter," she grabs my hand and shakes it vigorously, "but everybody calls me Fanny. Do you want to come to my party?"
"Of course," I nod and let her lead me into the same drawing room that I spent most of my evening in. The guests at Fanny's party appear at once to be more diverse in nature than those of the Bedfords, and by that I mean only half them are wearing clothes from this century. A Victorian dandy tips his hat and waggles his dress cane at me in a most suggestive manner, and Fanny laughs.
"Don't mind him. We don't get a lot of living guests, if you catch my drift sir."
"Everyone here is a ghost?"
"All bar you, yes. We're spending the holidays at Bedford Manor, as is the fashion."
A slender lady dressed entirely in white dances alone in the middle of the room, spinning and swaying like a marionette. Her pale blonde hair stands on end and she puts me in mind of Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen. From this distance, I find it hard to tell where her glittering dress ends and her bare alabaster skin begins.
"That's Estelle," Fanny whispers in my ear. "Would you like to meet her?"
I try to speak, but I can't. Fanny takes my silence as a yes, and takes me by the hand once more. As we reach Estelle, a rose-red blotch appears on her white, white chest. It grows and spreads, and the ghost's pale blue eyes open wider than I ever would have thought possible, and she screams.
I'm awake in an instant and I know straight away that the screaming is real. I leap out of bed, still in my clothes from last night, my head pounding, and run into the hallway. Sylvie stands frozen outside the doorway to Baxter and Bess's bedroom, tears streaming from her usually heavy-lidded eyes. I walk past her into the room, where Warwick the butler stands over my friend and his wife, taking the pulse of Bess and then of Baxter, before looking to me and slowly, sadly shaking his head. Their eyes are closed, and if it weren't for the bruises on both their necks, I'd swear they were sleeping.
"No..." The word turns to bile in my throat and I think I'm going to be sick. More guests appear in the hallway, Alice among them, and I stumble back to my room, eyes stinging. Alice follows me, grabbing my arm before I can collapse back onto the bed and try to end this bad dream.
"Who could have done this?"
"I don't know..." I struggle to focus on her, my vision blurry and my head spinning.
"Marcus!" She puts a hand on either side of my face to steady me, and the contact brings me round a little. "Marcus, what do we do?" I see her now. Without the usual make-up, with her hair loose and tangled, with shock and grief and fear in her eyes, she is still beautiful.
"We call the police."
"I tried already, it's no use." She points to the window and I see what she means; the view is pure white. "Some kind of freak blizzard, all the cars are snowed in and I can't get a signal on my mobile or the landline."
"That's not possible..." I reach for the phone on my night stand and Alice rolls her eyes.
"Trust me, Marcus, I've tried. We're unreachable."
The full impact of what she is trying to say takes a while to dawn on me, to dawn on all of us. All of the guests go down, one by one, to the kitchen where Warwick has started a fire to dispel the bitter morning cold. By the time lunchtime comes around, it has been decided among us all that Warwick will brave the storm on foot to go and get help. I offer, but Warwick insists that he go alone, showing the dedication of one born into service.
And so the Bedfords' bedroom door is closed and locked, and Warwick sets off wrapped up from head to toe like a belated present, and the rest of us stay in the manor, uncomfortably avoiding the subject that is on all of our minds... There is a killer in our midst.
Boxing Day fades like the drying salt of tears. Before we know it, we're waking up the next morning on the various sofas and chairs in the vast kitchen, aching for hot showers and clean clothes. Danielle looks particularly worse for wear, this being no doubt the longest time she has gone without applying foundation or changing her underwear.
Sylvie has barely said a word since yesterday morning, has barely even made eye contact with any of us. The steely flower has wilted before my very eyes, and my heart goes out to her. I know what a cruel thing it is, to be completely alone in the world. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, let alone a girl who has faced so much loss already.
Ameera hasn't left Hector's side since the bodies were discovered. I still find it bewildering, but I finally believe that it is real love between them. The trust she shows, the complete devotion in her eyes, it warms my cynical heart.
I guiltily realise what I have been doing; observing the other guests, looking for signs of culpability. Penny, the authoress, has been making cups of coffee for everybody non-stop, turning hers Irish on the sly; the actor, Ben, wouldn't stop talking at first about the inhumanity of it all, but he soon stopped when he realised that, trapped as we are, he still didn't have a captive audience. Sleazy Greyson has wasted no time in sidling up to Danielle, who in turn has ignored him and sought comfort from Kit.
Now Kit, he truly baffles me. He doesn't seem as shaken as the others, there is a stillness to him that I saw in Sylvie on Christmas Night, but... I don't know, I sense that he is quietly grieving, 'behind blue eyes' as it were.
Conversation is stilted all day. Nobody dares speak too loudly, or heaven forbid, smile. The blizzard rages on outside, and the ground floor windows are half obscured by the snow. At any other time, this kind of weather would set the stage for all sorts of festive fun; snowball fights and snow angels... But none of us can tear our thoughts for long from the two cold bodies lying in bed upstairs.
Despite the vast amounts of coffee drunk by us all, we are all exhausted. After one night of sleeping downstairs, the other guests seem keen to get back to their own rooms, even if it means splitting up and going upstairs. Before going up myself, I slip away to Baxter's office and retrieve from his desk one of the many duplicate letters he received. In the privacy of my quarters I pore over it, trying to identify the handwriting as that of anybody I knew Baxter to run with back in the old days. Failing miserably, I put the letter in my dresser drawer and get ready for bed.
Lying on my back, staring at the ceiling, my thoughts return to Boxing Day morning, to Warwick shaking his head, to the bruises on their necks... My chest tightens and I feel tears sliding down my temples from the corners of my eyes. I can't remember the last time I cried, not really. Not a gentlemanly quality, to blub at the drop of a hat. But two of my oldest friends have been murdered and I haven't the foggiest idea who killed them – I cry as much out of frustration as I do from their deaths.
Exhausted, I start to see the ghosts before I even fully close my eyes. They come in through the walls, wispy and transparent, reaching out to me...
And they become more and more solid until they are jostling next to me, dragging me into the centre of a dance.
"Don't be sad, Marcus," Fanny sings, "it's not so bad, you know, being like us."
"Perhaps not," I say, "but a crime has still been committed."
"And there'll be more of that before the year is through," the Victorian dandy adds. "Dark times have befallen Bedford Manor."
"You don't say." My voice is full of acid as I say this, although obviously it isn't this ghost's fault.
"I've seen to it that they're taken care of, if it's any consolation," Fanny tells me, still dancing around me with the others; I make myself dizzy just following her.
"They're here?"
"Can I see them?"
"Afraid not, duck. They're beginners, can't do no haunting just yet."
"I see." Another thought strikes me. "Do they know who killed them?"
"They barely know their own names, love. As clueless as newborns. Don't you worry about them, though – you just leave their wellbeing to me." She slows down, takes a deep mock breath, then pulls me out of the circle dance. "Now. What are we going to do with you? You were much better company last time."
"Sorry. I just have a lot on my mind. Murder doesn't sit well with me."
"Hmm..." Fanny thinks for a moment, then snaps her fingers. "I can see you're not going to be satisfied until we sort that out. Tell you what. Delilah!" This last exclamation is a summons, barked across the room to a formidably built woman dressed from head to toe in tweed.
"Coming, old girl," the woman wheezes, wobbling across the room.
"Marcus Swift, this is Delilah Bedford."
"Baxter's maternal grandmother," the tweed lady says, extending a disproportionately dainty hand. I shake it and give it back, rather numb to what is happening.
"Have you... seen them?" I ask. "Since they... I mean..."
"Oh, yes. Awful business. Needless to say, I want you to catch the fiend who did this to them. And when you do..." She leans forward at this point, "I want you to send them our way."
Before I can respond, an ice-cold hand touches my shoulder and I turn to see Estelle, the snowy lady, tears frozen in rivulets down her face.
"Born in a manger,” she whispers. Then, louder: “It's not too late. You can still save him!”
I am about to ask her who she is talking about when Fanny snaps her fingers and the dream ends.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Boxing Day Murders - Chapter One

"Anybody would think you'd never seen a ghost before," Alice says to me as we walk down the drive to Bedford Manor. "They're harmless, you needn't be afraid."
She is referring, of course, to the transparent woman that we encountered a moment ago upon entering the grounds. Dressed in a Victorian style, with more than a little of the Moll Flanders about her, she had passed like smoke through me and I was left chilled to the bone. I'd then turned around to catch another glimpse; with a bawdy wink and suggestive curtsy she had promptly vanished into thin air.
Now I'm no fool, I know that Bedford Manor is famous for its spirits. And ghosts at Christmas are a fact of life, the same as turkey and drunk uncles. But before today I'd always acknowledged the existence of spectres as a nothing more than a vague fact, formless as an idea in very much the same way as gravity; we know it is there, but it is out of sight and therefore need not be questioned.
"I'm not afraid," I say, more to myself than in response to Alice's statement. The ghostly chill that came over me a moment ago is rapidly fading, only to be replaced by the more earthly cold of a Cheshire winter. It had been at my own suggestion that we'd chosen to take our leave of the car that had picked me up from the station; I'd fancied some fresh air and perhaps a moment or two alone with the delightful Alice. Longtime secretery, valet and practical lifeline to my old friend Baxter Bedford, it was the thought of time spent in her ever genial company that made me accept his rather out-of-the-blue Christmas invitation. For years Baxter and I had exchanged greetings cards from afar – I struggle to actually remember the last time we saw each other face to face. I would imagine that to place it within a decade would be a stretch.
When the front doors of the manor open and Baxter emerges, arms open wide to greet me, it takes me a moment to recognise him; his hair has gone from black to almost entirely grey and his eyes appear sunken in his face. I've always remembered Bax as he was when we were at Cambridge together; it is like a slap in the face to suddenly see him now as a man old before his time, looking like the grandfather of the friend I keep in my mind's eye.
Bess appears at her husband's side, as glamorous and effervescent as ever, every bit the successful QC's wife, not to suggest that her own charitable achievements are to be scoffed at. Bess Bedford is something of a powerhouse in the humanitarian world; an ambassador for UNICEF, advocate for battered women and patron of nearly every children’s charity going. All that, and she throws the best parties. In the case of the Bedfords, it is definitely true what they say; behind every great man is one hell of a woman.
"Marcus," she purrs, "Merry Christmas, I'm so glad you could join us!"
"Bess, a pleasure as always," I reply, wondering how many times I've uttered those words and pleased that on this occasion they are sincere.
"You're the last to arrive," Bess says, ushering Alice and I in from the cold, "Warwick has already brought the car back and taken your bags to your room, come on in and meet everyone."
Warwick, the Baxters' butler, brings me a glass of the same single malt that I'd enthused over on my last visit twelve years or so previously, and I am led into the drawing room.
"You remember Hector, the neurosurgeon?" I find myself shaking hands with a portly, ruddy-faced gentleman that I have never met. "And his fiancée, Ameera." The stunning Indian woman on Hector's arm is old enough to be his daughter, there's no doubt about it. If Bess hadn't introduced Ameera as his fiancée I would have pegged her as an incredibly high class escort. I kiss her hand and move on.
Bess takes me around the room, introducing me in turn to Penny, a famous writer of children's books; Ben, a once-famous actor; and Greyson, a businessman who exudes sleaze, before reaching an individual I remember very well.
"And of course you know my cousin, Danielle," Bess says, slightly less enthusiastic than with her other introductions. This is an understatement; you'd struggle to find a newspaper reader in the UK who hadn't heard of Danielle Harding or read one of her many kiss and tell exclusives. In fact, I'm surprised Bess has deigned to invite her to the manor for Christmas when there are so many respectable figures here. I can only deduce from the very large glass of wine in the statuesque blonde's hand that Danielle is still smarting from her latest amorous disaster, and Bess has taken pity on her. Suffice to say the incident involved a pair of handcuffs and your local MP.
Danielle is wearing appropriately festive attire, which for her means a short dress that sparkles with every slight movement. Panda eyes look me up and down in a way that is half suggestive and half, I hazard, just plain old habit.
"How are you, Danielle?"
"All the better for seeing you, Marcus," she clinks her wine against my scotch. "What brings you this way?"
"Baxter and Bess were good enough to invite me, and I was at something of a loose end."
"Likewise," Danielle says, no doubt assuming I know the most intimate details of her very short career in politics.
"Oh Marcus," Bess touches my elbow and guides me toward a pretty, slight-looking girl in the corner, "I don't believe you've met Baxter's niece."
"No, I don't think I've had the honour," I extend a hand and her grip is surprisingly firm.
"Sylvie Bedford-Jones," she whispers. "And you're Marcus Swift."
"That's right," I say. "I'm sorry, have we met?"
"No," she shakes her head. "But I knew you were coming.  I had a dream about you."
"She's had such a tragic life, the poor girl," Bess tells me later. "Her parents died in a car crash when she was at boarding school and she's been fragile as anything ever since. Baxter's her only family now."
I nod thoughtfully. Call me cynical, but "fragile" isn't the word I would choose to describe Sylvie. Something about her is delicate, yes, but I sense formidability in her too. She strikes me as a steely flower, guarded closely by her remaining family. Which reminds me, I’ve yet to catch up properly with Baxter.
"Excuse me, Bess, do you know where I'd be able to find that husband of yours?"
"Oh, he's here, there and everywhere, you know how Bax gets. Pretends he's above it all but if there's one thing he knows, it's how to work a room. How else do you think he has judges eating out of his hand?"
I laugh and leave her chatting with Ameera. When I eventually manage to track Baxter down, he is not flitting from guest to guest as Bess had assumed, but rather standing at the fireplace, nursing a glass, staring into the flames.
"Bax?" He jumps at the sound of his own name. "Can we talk?"
"Of course, let's use my study.”
Once we are alone, I voice what's been on my mind since I arrived.
"Baxter, please take no offense with what I'm about to say, but... you look awful. What on earth is going on?" My old friend looks almost relieved when I say this.
"Believe it or not, it's not news to me," he grimaces, gesturing at his own haggard appearance. "The last ten years haven't been kind, but more recently..." He sighs, finishes his drink, and continues; "Look, Marcus. I had an ulterior motive for inviting you to the manor this Christmas. Don't get me wrong, you were always a decent friend, to both Bess and myself, but... it's your skills I'm interested in."
"My skills?"
"I understand that you're a lawyer these days and that's all well and good, but I was under the impression that you still do a bit of the old sleuthing from time to time."
"Not for ages now, truth be told.  Less and less money in it.  But if there's anything I can help you with-"
"I'm being blackmailed."
"Oh. Bloody hell, Bax. Why?"
"Various... indiscretions. It's all such a mess, Marcus. Such a mess." He reaches into his desk drawer and pulls out a sheaf of letters.
"Here, read these."
I leaf through a few, and it becomes apparent that they are the same letter, sent over and over. Somebody who has signed the letters simply X claims to have knowledge of an affair of Baxter's some years ago, something that knocks me sick. He must see it in my eyes, and jumps to his own defence.
"It was years ago, back when Bess was doing her work in Peru. Lasted barely any time at all. Long forgotten, or so I'd thought..."
"What demands have been made?"
"Well there's the crux, Marcus. No demands, nothing. For the last six months I've been receiving this letter, the same bloody words, over and over. Someone out there is toying with me, and nobody toys with Baxter Bedford."
"Perhaps if that were true then you wouldn't be in this situation," I say before I can stop myself. "Sorry, Bax, you've just shocked me a little with this. Tell me exactly what it is you want me to do."
"I'm going to give you a list of names, people who were around at the time of the..."
"Yes, yes, the goddamn affair, Marcus. I'm going to give you a list of names and when you get back to London I'd like you to do some digging."
"Shouldn't be a problem. Although I have to say, I think the other woman is a fair bet."
"Impossible. The girl in question is no longer with us.  She was taken ill the year after we parted ways."
"Maybe somebody thinks you wanted her kept quiet?"
"Nonsense!  On that count I can assure you, I am one hundred per cent innocent. I may have been a bit of a philanderer in my day, Marcus, but a killer I am not."
"I believe you."
"I'm glad."
"I suppose we'd best get back to the party."
"Absolutely. If anybody asks, I've been running some investments past you."
"Of course. Brandy?"
"You read my mind."
When we re-enter the drawing room, it is clear that we've not been missed. A handsome young man whose crow's nest hair seems at odds with his dapper suit is holding court, telling a story that has everybody in stitches.
"Who's that?" I ask from the corner of my mouth; I could probably have shouted the question to Baxter and everybody would still be in this newcomer's thrall.
Baxter pauses for a moment, grasping for a name.
"Foster... Yes, Christopher Foster. 'Call me Kit', I heard him say earlier, can you believe it? Bess invited him, he works for some charity or other."
"Seems popular," I comment.
"Trendy little pecker if you ask me. But, Bess seems to think a lot of him," he nods at his wife, who stands rapt, clapping at some particularly hilarious part of his anecdote.
"And everybody else by the look of it." I say, and then an uncomfortable silence settles on the two of us like British snow – not thick, not oppressive, but every time one of us attempts to make a remark, the other begins at the same moment, and then we stutter off in different directions, lurching on the social black ice. I begin to fear that what I have just learned about my friend has changed the way I think of him. I try so hard to find something, anything to say to him, and fail, filling the long silences with Baxter's salubrious cognac.
I eventually take my leave of the party; exhausted, disturbed and more than a little drunk, I make my way up to the room that Bess has so kindly prepared for me. On the landing, I press myself against the wall and avert my eyes as further up the corridor, Danielle Harding leads Kit, the frightwigged charmer, to her own room.
"Merry Christmas," I murmur to nobody in particular, before turning in. As soon as my head hits the pillow, all of the unsettling thoughts about Baxter and blackmail leave my mind, allowing a much-needed, brandy-induced slumber to fall upon me.