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'Murder at the Brightwell' Chapters 25 & 26


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Illustration by Dongkyu Lim

Chapter 25

THE FIRE FLARED brightly, and I stood staring at it, a bit shocked by what I had done. I heard a startled gasp from one of the guests seated in the lobby.

“Oh, dear,” I called to the clerk. “I’m afraid I’ve ...”

“I’ll get something to put it out,” he said, darting from behind the desk and rushing off. I hoped he remembered that oil fires were not easily extinguished with water.

I looked down at the fire I had started. The oil was already burning itself out, and the marble floor was not going to let the fire spread. The group playing cards must have realized it as well, for they returned their attention to their game. With a quick glance around me, I slipped behind the desk and examined the rows of keys. It would only be a matter of seconds before the clerk would be back. Rupert’s room was on the floor above mine. If I remembered correctly from when it had been mentioned at the inquest, it was 211. My eyes scanned the keys. It was entirely possible that the police had confiscated all the keys to Rupert’s room, but no! There it was.

I grabbed the key, slipped it into my pocket, and slid quickly around the desk. A moment later, the clerk returned with a bucket of sand that he poured over the already-sputtering flames.

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“I’m terribly sorry,” I said, and I meant it. Though I had been almost certain the fire would not spread, I couldn’t really have been absolutely sure. Had I taken a moment to think, I wouldn’t have done it. I should dearly have hated to add arson to my list of sins.

“It’s quite all right,” he said, though he was pale. “Are you hurt, Mrs. Ames?”

“No, no. I’m fine. Is there something I can do?”

“No, I’ll have someone clean up the glass. You’re certain you’re all right?”

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said again. “I was just going upstairs and ...”

“I think I have a torch behind the desk,” he said. He moved to pull open a drawer, rummaging around for a moment before removing a torch. Flicking it on, he handed it to me, obviously relieved to give me a source of light that did not involve fire and flammable liquids.

I turned toward the stairs, the guilty weight of the key hanging heavily in my pocket. I was so lost in thought that I nearly ran headlong into Gil and Olive, neither of whom saw me, as they descended the stairs, talking in low tones. They stopped at the foot of the stairs when I approached, both of them looking vaguely embarrassed.

“Hello, Amory,” Gil said. “I’ve just brought Olive down from upstairs.”

Olive’s face was pale and wan in the dim light of Gil’s lamp. She was wearing long sleeves, which I imagined must cover the bandages on her wrists. Aside from an initial glance, she didn’t meet my gaze.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I said.

“Not at all,” Gil said. There was something odd in his demeanor, though I couldn’t quite detect what it was.

“How are you, Olive?” I asked.

“I’m all right,” she answered stiffly.

As anxious as I was to search Rupert’s room, I felt that perhaps now would be a good time to talk to her alone, before we were all cramped together in the sitting room. “Gil, would you mind very much if I spoke to Olive for a moment?”

Gil looked strange, drawn. He hesitated for a long moment and then nodded. He handed the light to Olive and left the two of us alone in stony silence. It seemed the best course of action would be to plunge ahead.

“Olive, I’m sorry if this question seems impertinent. In fact, I’m quite sure it will. But did you buy Rupert a gold lighter?”

She looked at me sharply, a frown creasing her smooth forehead. “I don’t know why everyone thinks ... No, I didn’t give him anything. I never cared for Rupert, though there was a time when we were together quite often. Aside from being a notorious flirt, he was not at all a nice man. Anyone could see that.”

I was confused by her sudden denial. “Then why ...” My voice trailed off. It seemed ill mannered to ask someone exactly why they had slit their wrists with a razor blade.

Sudden understanding flashed across her face, and for a moment some of the coldness left her features. “You don’t know,” she said.

“Know what?”

“You think I loved Rupert ...”

Something flickered in her eyes, and suddenly I knew, with absolute clarity, what she meant. I was blind, utterly stupid, not to have seen it before.

“You’re in love with Gil,” I whispered.

Her gaze hardened again before she looked away. “I suppose you think I’m terribly foolish, behaving the way I have.”

Everything began to slide into place: Olive’s behavior, Gil’s mysterious absences, the visit that had upset Olive in the hospital. It all seemed to make sense. I couldn’t believe that I had never guessed, but perhaps I had been too involved with my own affairs to take proper notice of the affairs of others.

“I’m the one who feels foolish,” I said. “I should have realized how you felt.”

“He’s mad about you, you know,” she said. There was no bitterness in her brittle smile or in the tears that glistened in her eyes. “Whenever someone mentions you, his eyes light up and ... I’ve made a perfect fool of myself trying to make him love me again. Or perhaps he never did, I don’t know ...”

Something about her words hit me forcibly, and I found that I felt on the verge of tears myself. Impulsively, I reached out and grabbed her hand. “I’m sorry, Olive ... You see, I too know what it’s like to love someone whose feelings are ... ambiguous.”

“Your husband,” she said.

It was my turn to smile sadly. “I sometimes believe he married me only to prove that he could.”

“I thought, when he came here, that perhaps you still loved him.” There was something so blatantly hopeful in her gaze that I felt somewhat ashamed of myself.

“I ... things are unsettled at the moment.”

She nodded. “Gil will take you in an instant, if you want him. If you decide you don’t, I’ll still be waiting.”

With that, she walked past me and toward the sitting room. Despite the desperation of her words, there was a quiet dignity about her as she walked away, and I thought that perhaps I had misjudged her.

I was glad she had gone, for I wouldn’t have been able to think of an appropriate reply. It was wrong of me, I knew, to keep Gil dancing in attendance when I hadn’t settled things with Milo. Yet I couldn’t quite bring myself to give him up, not when it was possible he might soon be all I had left.

I made my way up the darkened staircase, shadows flickering on the walls around me. It was rather eerie. The light of the torch only extended so far, and it was not until I was nearly to the first-floor landing that I realized there was someone standing there.

I lifted the torch and stopped, startled to see Milo illuminated by the feeble beam.

***

"Hello, darling," he said as he approached. “Awful weather, isn’t it? I was almost washed away on my way from the station.” He smiled, obviously exhilarated by the wretched weather. His clothes were soaked; it seemed he must have just come in from outside.

“Have you the key to our room? I’ve lost mine in one of my pockets.”

“I ... yes, I have it.”

We walked down the hall to our room in silence.

“I thought you’d gone to London,” I said lamely as we reached my door. I was so surprised by his sudden arrival, I could think of nothing intelligent to say.

“I did. Aren’t you going to kiss me?”

“No,” I said. I moved past him and unlocked the door to my room. He followed me inside. With the torch, I was able to locate an oil lamp sitting on a table in the corner. I lit it and the yellow glow filled the room.

“You’re angry that I left without speaking to you,” he said, pulling off his dripping overcoat and tossing it over the back of a chair. “I had to catch the train, darling.”

I turned to face him. “Inspector Jones told me it was you who reported seeing Gil on the terrace before the murder.”

If I expected him to be abashed at this revelation, I had forgotten his unwavering self-possession. He looked at me with a perfectly unruffled expression. “Ah. He told you, did he? I expected he would.”

“How could you have seen Gil talking to Rupert on the terrace before tea? You weren’t even at the hotel until that evening.”

“I expect he told you that, too,” he said, pulling off his jacket and running his fingers through his damp hair. He had never cared for hats, even in the rain. “I came down directly after you did. I stayed at the pub. I thought it best not to drop in at the Brightwell right away.”

I decided, for the moment, to let drop the subject of why he had followed me to the seaside in the first place. Instead, I asked, “Why did you tell the inspector you had seen Gil?”

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“Because I did.”

“Did you?” I challenged.

He smiled. “Don’t you believe me?”

“Gil didn’t kill Rupert, Milo.”

“Perhaps not, but I thought it worth mentioning that the two of them were arguing shortly before Rupert was coshed on the head and tossed over the ledge.”

Was he telling the truth? It was so difficult to tell.

“Inspector Jones was angry that you left,” I told him, changing the course of the conversation yet again. I said nothing of my own anger, the hurt that had come at his jaunting off to London with barely a word.

“I expect he’ll forgive me when he hears what I’ve learned.”

He wanted me to be intrigued, so I displayed no interest whatsoever. I resisted the urge to tell him I hoped he would be arrested.

If he noticed my lack of enthusiasm, he gave no sign of it. Instead, he went to the wardrobe and pulled out a fresh suit of clothes and then went into the bathroom to dry off before changing, without so much as a word.

With a sigh, I sat down at the desk. There was so much to think about, too much happening at once. The key was still resting in my pocket, and I wanted badly to go to Rupert’s room. I didn’t care to have Milo tagging along when I did, so I needed to think of some way to get rid of him. I contemplated bolting from the room while he was changing, but he would only come downstairs looking for me and alert everyone to the fact that I was not in my room.

I noticed Laurel’s second letter sitting on the desk. For lack of something better to do, I picked it up and slit it open with the letter knife, my eyes grazing over the words.

 

I’ve been asking around in the most casual way, and I found that it is rumored that Rupert Howe had yet to pay off a considerable gambling debt he had accrued in Monte Carlo. It was thought his hasty retreat was in rather bad taste, but I take it he was in desperate straits. I also found another interesting piece of information. You will think I have nothing to do but read gossip columns, though you know how I enjoy following the occasional piece of news. In any event, I found this article or, rather, the photograph attached to it to be very interesting. Perhaps Milo may prove of use to you after all.

 

Something about the note gave me a strange foreboding, and I was almost hesitant to reach into the envelope. I pulled out the slip of newspaper and looked at the photograph. As Laurel had said, it was from one of the gossip magazines. The date indicated it had been taken in Monte Carlo about a month before. Milo, resplendent in evening dress, stood beside a roulette table. Despite the insinuation of the caption, it was not the woman in the low-cut gown clinging to his arm that caught my attention. It was the person who stood on the other side of him: Rupert.

I looked at the picture for a long moment. Milo had claimed never to have met Rupert. Yet there they stood, side by side.

I couldn’t imagine why Milo should have lied about it. Unless ... a sudden sinking feeling coursed through me as the implications of what I had discovered became apparent. One by one, the pieces of the puzzle came crashing down on me like bricks. Milo knew Rupert. Rupert had owed someone a great deal of money. Milo had arrived at the hotel before the murder but had not made his presence known.

I pulled in a deep breath, forced myself to think calmly of what I knew of the murder. Rupert Howe, surmised the police, had had an argument with someone, been struck over the head, and tossed over the cliff. We assumed that it was likely the result of some argument, a sudden conversation that had turned ugly. But perhaps it had been more than that. What if it had been deliberately planned?

Milo had arrived home suddenly from Monte Carlo, much sooner than he had originally intended. Perhaps my visit here to the seaside had just happened to coincide with one he had already planned. Perhaps he had not been following me, but Rupert ...

“This power outage is a blasted nuisance,” Milo said, coming back into the room, and I nearly jumped at the sudden sound of his voice. “Imagine, this is how our parents lived, prowling about by lamplight after dark.”

“Why did you tell me you didn’t know Rupert?” I asked, hoping the question would catch him off guard.

“I didn’t know him,” he answered easily.

I rose from my seat and handed him the photograph, watching him as I did so. Inspector Jones was right; Milo was a terribly good liar. His expression didn’t so much as flicker.

“Many people play roulette,” he said, handing the photograph back to me. “That doesn’t mean I knew him.” “Rather a startling coincidence, isn’t it?” I was watching him closely, trying to see if anything seemed amiss.

Suddenly, he smiled. A sort of dangerous amusement flickered across his features. “Why, Amory darling, do you believe I killed Rupert Howe?”

“Did you?”

He laughed. “Would you expect me to confess if I did?”

“You told me that you might kill someone, if the occasion called for it. Rumor has it that Rupert Howe owed someone quite a lot of money.”

“Come now, darling. You know as well as I do that I have more money than I could ever possibly spend. It’s a rather thin motive.”

“But a motive nonetheless.”

“And I suppose I killed Mr. Hamilton as well.”

With great relief, I realized that my theory did not account for the death of Mr. Hamilton. Even if Mr. Hamilton had discovered something on the beach that might have implicated Milo, we had been in the wardrobe until ... With a sudden sickening clarity, I recalled the splashing I had heard after Milo had left me in the wardrobe. Milo had claimed that he had pulled Mr. Hamilton out of the water to determine if he was still alive, but what if he had done exactly the opposite? I could literally feel the color draining from my face.

“You ... you could have,” I said.

His expression was still completely indecipherable. I wished desperately I knew what he was thinking.

“It’s possible, I suppose,” he said at last.

I wanted to reply, but I could think of absolutely nothing to say.

We stared at one another, something uncomfortable hanging in the air between us. For the first time since I had known him, I felt myself a bit afraid to be alone with him. It was not at all a sensation I relished.

“Did anyone see you return to night?” I asked suddenly, wondering, against my will, if anyone knew that he and I were alone here.

“No, I came upstairs while you were stealing keys from behind the desk.”

So he had seen that, had he? I wondered if he had inferred my motives.

“Then everyone believes you’re still in London.”

“I had a good reason for going to London, but I always intended to return to the scene of the crime,” he said, and I felt myself grimace at his choice of words.

“I think I had better go back downstairs,” I said. “They’re expecting me back.”

I took the slightest step toward the door, and I knew at once that he had read my unease in the movement.

“Good heavens, Amory.” He stepped toward me, and, despite myself, I took a step back.

He stopped, something else entirely crossing his face. It was a look I had never seen before, something very like incredulity, completely devoid of his customary languid amusement. Then it disappeared as quickly as it had come, the familiar veil of cool indifference dropping down over his features. He swore softly. “I didn’t believe you meant it. You think I killed him, both of them.”

“I ... I ... don’t ...” My mind searched desperately, trying to think of something to say. What was there to say?

“If I had killed Howe and Hamilton, I should have done a much better job of it,” he said, the slight sharp edge to his words the only indication that he was deeply angry.

I stood there stupidly, unable to form a cohesive sentence, imploring him with my eyes to try to understand my suspicion.

“And I would never harm you.”

“Milo, please ...,” I whispered. “I don’t want to believe it.”

“I’m going downstairs.” His face was a mask, cold and hard as a marble statue. “I’ll be in the sitting room with the others. Should you — or the police — wish to find me.” With that, he turned and left me alone.

My heart was pounding in my ears as I listened to his footsteps echoing away. I didn’t believe it of him. I couldn’t. And yet everything seemed to make sense.

Should I try to reach the inspector and tell him what I had learned? Something within me revolted at the idea. I couldn’t very well implicate my own husband. I needed a moment to think.

My thoughts whirled madly about in my head. Was it possible that my husband, this man I had loved and lived with for five years, was a murderer?

And more to the point: if he was, what did I intend to do about it?   


Chapter 26

I MUST HAVE SAT in silence a full ten minutes before I attempted to pull myself together.

Things looked bad, but there was certainly some logical explanation. Unable to bear thinking about it any longer, I decided to take action. I grabbed the torch and left my room, heading toward Rupert’s. One way or the other, I had to know.

I reached Rupert’s room and found that it was locked, the official police sign on the door noting that unauthorized entry was prohibited. I wondered what Inspector Jones would think should he see what I was about to do.

Slipping the key into the lock, I hurried inside and shut the door behind me, locking it.

Rupert’s things had obviously already been subject to a thorough search. Drawers were pulled open, their contents not replaced in a particularly orderly fashion. The police, it seemed, had left no stone unturned. But it was just possible that he had hidden his “treasure box,” as Emmeline had termed it, somewhere where it hadn’t been found.

I stepped toward the bureau and began looking at the items that were scattered about. I had underestimated the difficulty of searching through someone’s things with only a small torch for a light. I began to despair of finding anything the police hadn’t.

The things on his desk told me very little, and I assumed anything of interest had already been confiscated. I paused a moment to think. Where might Rupert hide his important papers from prying eyes? There weren’t likely to be any hidden compartments in the hotel furniture. That left somewhere less conspicuous.

I searched the wardrobe, feeling in all the dark corners for something they might be concealing in their depths. My thoroughness was in vain.

Acting on a sudden inspiration, I moved to the sofa and slid my hand between the cushions. I was rewarded with a shilling and a stray seashell. The chairs yielded nothing.

Where else? Crossing the room, I dropped to my knees beside the bed. As in Mr. Hamilton’s room, there was nothing to see but the expanse of rug. But perhaps ... I shined my light along the supports, hoping that he had slipped something there. My diligence was rewarded. There, in the corner of the bed, against the white underside of the mattress, was a brown packet of some sort.

I slid my body partway under the bed and wrestled the packet from its resting place. It was made of some durable material, almost a box, as Emmeline had termed it. I pushed myself back out from under the bed and pulled the box open, examining the contents with my light. Rupert’s gold lighter was not inside, but there were several sheets of paper.

With unabashed curiosity, I began sifting through them. I would notify Inspector Jones, of course, but it couldn’t hurt for me to give them a cursory inspection.

There were more than a few bills. They came from his tailor, his haberdasher, a jeweler, and there was an impressive debt at a London cigar shop. None of them seem to have been paid, and my initial impression that he was interested in Emmeline for more than her sweet disposition seemed to have been confirmed.

I saw two envelopes addressed to Rupert in what I recognized as Gil’s handwriting. No doubt these were the strongly worded letters Gil had mentioned. I passed them over. Whatever Gil had written to Rupert, I believed it had been done with pure motives.

Near the bottom of the stack, I came across something that was not a bill. It was a terse note scribbled in dark ink that read:

Pay what you owe or you will be sorry. — A friend.

I found the note to be something of a relief. The letter wasn’t at all in Milo’s style. He would have issued a much more elegant threat on vastly superior stationery.

At the very bottom of the pile, there was a small yellow envelope. Opening it, I pulled out a letter written in small, neat handwriting.

My darling,

 

I know you warned me not to write, but I couldn’t help myself. I am not sure how much longer I can carry on. He suspects something. I’m sure of it. Even if he didn’t know, pretending that we mean nothing to one another is agony. We must act as we have planned. I have waited long enough. I want to be with you, and nothing must stand in our way. I live in anticipation of when our lives will be linked.

 

All my love,

L.

Before I could begin to make the connection, the voice behind me spoke in the darkness, startling me. “So you’ve found out.” So intent had I been on the contents of the letter, I had not detected the click of the lock as the door behind me opened. Who else had a key to Rupert’s room? Rupert’s lover, no doubt. The same person that had written the letter I now held in my hand. The person whose name began with an L. The realization hit me so suddenly, I felt almost dizzy with it. The note had come from the woman who stood in the doorway watching me: Larissa Hamilton.

NEXT: CHAPTERS 27 & 28

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