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.

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