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.
"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.