"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."
"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 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.