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."


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