A short story I wrote a while ago about a mysterious collection and a trio of uninvited guests to a remote English manor on a stormy night. Enjoy.
Warning of the oncoming storm traveled through the trees, the wind lashing their branches and rattling their leaves like the shrill voices of the newspaper boys in London. Rain did not yet fall, but the air hung heavy with the loamy scent of earth, an unspent electrical energy crackling through the atmosphere as iron-laden clouds brought an early nightfall. Distant growls of thunder rolled across the open fields like warning drums, lightning flashing a staccato rhythm as nature’s army drew closer to the small estate tucked away from the road.
“We’ll lose the great oak in the pasture for sure this time,” said Violet Cross, settling into her favorite wicker chair in the snug kitchen of the estate house. Black taffeta rustled against the sturdy wooden legs as she shifted into her well-worn groove. “We should have kept the boy on to dig the stump in the morning.”
“He digs graves, sister, not stumps,” said Lenora Cross, kneeling before the closed range of the stove. A tongue of heat unfurled in the small kitchen as she opened the door to pull a pan of steaming cakes from the oven. “Besides which I could barely get him to keep his cart in the barn. He wouldn’t come near the house.”
“Well the stump will have to come out anyhow.” Violet lifted a squat black tea kettle from the table, pouring the dark, rich tea into two porcelain cups set out on the table. Each cup bore intricately brushed depictions of the fall of Lucifer, drops of silver blood trailing into the bone white interior from the fallen angel’s severed wings. She gave a sigh. “Father would have loved this storm. He did all his best thinking in the rain.”
“Now he will be out among it,” said Lenora, sliding the pan onto a cooling rack. A wisp of dark hair slipped over her high cheekbones, curling in the heat. “I daresay we’ll have to reset the footstone if it rains too hard.”
Violet sipped at the steaming tea, the bow of her lips pressing against the silver drops of blood. “It is a lovely thing, is it not? The engraving came out so well. And he would be pleased with our selection from the collection, don’t you think?”
Lenora lifted two cakes onto a plate with Lucifer’s horde climbing over the edges and set the plate before her sister. She sat across from her, lifting her own cup of tea. “The tower of Babel was always his favorite,” she conceded. “Though I think he would have been just as pleased with the stone from the Bastille.”
Violet frowned and shook her head, the expression flattening her heart-shaped face. “All covered with soot. It never would have looked so lovely.”
Lenora shrugged one sharp shoulder. “I concede your selection, sister. Babel was perfect.”
Violet smiled, her rounded cheeks lifting. “Indeed. Though I fear the rest of the collection will suffer in his absence.”
“Perhaps it is best if it does,” Lenora mused through the tendrils of steam rising from her tea. “What could we hope to accomplish, we two females? Father was the true collector. We would only tarnish his ambition with our diluted efforts.”
“But we must continue his work,” Violet said. “What will become of the collection if we do not?”
Lenora’s answer, whatever it might have been, was never to materialize, for at that moment the solemn peal of the front door bell drifted into the tiny kitchen. A light pattering of rain tapped at the window of the kitchen door that led into the back fields, and for a moment the sisters listened, not moving, as if they thought it was only the rain attempting to gain entrance however it could. But then the bell sounded again, a little more stridently, insisting it was a more corporeal guest demanding their attention. The sisters rose and followed the retreating tone, through darkened hallways and hushed rooms cluttered with geometrically challenging shapes, until they reached the front door. Lenora had only just undone the latch and started the inward swing of the door when a flood of words pushed it the rest of the way open.
“Ladies, good evening to you both, and a dreary one it’s turning out to be! Why if I didn’t have my head fixed on my shoulders I’d be afraid the wind would snatch it away. Though it’s done its best to steal the coat from my shoulders and the shirt from my back.”
The words, like their owner, were chipper if a bit down in the mouth, belonging as they did to a young man with hair the color of damp autumn leaves and patches for elbows. He smiled brilliantly at the two sisters, hitching a knapsack up on his shoulder with a shifting clank of its contents. His fingers danced through the tangle of his hair, shedding little droplets in their wake.
“Say, I don’t suppose you’ve got room in this fine home for a poor fellow blown about a bit by this weather? I wouldn’t impose on the hospitality of you fine ladies, only I’ve miles to go and the storm’s blown me a bit off course. Just a spot of tea and a crust of bread is all I need for the night, don’t want to be no trouble at all. Name’s Henry Pocquens, friends call me Red or Pock, though you can call me anything you like if you could spare me a room or a bed or even a dry spot of hay in your barns.”
“Mr. Pocquens,” Lenora said before he could go on any longer. “Please do come in.”
Henry was so overcome with relief that he forgot to say anything for several minutes as the sisters ushered him in and pushed the door shut against the insistence of the wind. Even though his mouth was still, his eyes and fingers were not; his gaze danced around the shaded interior of his new surroundings, flicking up and down like check marks on a list while his fingers flicked out and back like a snake’s tongue tasting the air.
“We’ve just made tea, Mr. Pocquens,” Violet said. “And fresh lemon cakes. You look as if you could use a spot of both.”
“Oh yes, miss,” said Henry, the power of words returning to him in a rush. “That’d be heavenly, it would. I’m near famished fighting that wind coming up this way. What a house you fine ladies have here, is it just the two of you then?”
“As of this morning,” Lenora said, leading him to the kitchen.
“Well that’s a spot of luck for you two I’ve come along then, you never know what manner of rubbish a storm like this will wash up,” said Henry. His fingers skimmed the surfaces of tables and tested the weight of gold figurines striking twisted poses in the dark. One such figurine tipped into the void below the table it stood on but never made it to the ground. “Curious decorations, these, never seen their like. What would you call this now?”
Henry stopped before a small tapestry, threads of silk glimmering with each flash of lightning. It was no bigger than a kitchen window, with patches of bumpy leather sewn together with that same exquisite silk. He ran his fingers over the tapestry, testing the strength and quality of the silk and dipping into the whorls and crevices of the oddly gummy leather.
“It is an Ubatu warrior’s cloak,” said Lenora. “From the jungles of Africa.”
“Africa, the last of the savage lands,” Henry said knowingly. “Catches an Englishman’s fancy, I suppose, hunting into the wilds like the old explorers. Strange things come out of those jungles, though people are willing enough to pay a price for them. People will spend money on all manner of things, I’ve found. I’ll bet this fetched a pretty penny, too. What are these bits, then? Monkey hide?”
“Ears from the Ubatuan enemies,” said Violet in her lilting voice.
Henry snatched his fingers back from one particularly deep groove. “Well that’d do it, wouldn’t it?” He ran his hands over the rough pockets of wool on his coat. “You said there were cakes?”
The sisters led the young man through the rest of the house to the cozy kitchen filled with the sharp tang of lemon and the rich steam of good English tea. Henry tapped a nail against the delicate china of the cup before draining it, his eyes sweeping up and down each painted stroke of the cup’s decoration. Lenora sat out three silver forks and a silver spoon for cream, which Henry balanced on his index finger.
“What is it that brings you to this part of Cornwall, Mr. Pocquens?” asked Lenora, swinging the oven grate open for more heat. Sweeps of cold air pushed through the cracks in the back door as the oncoming rain hurled itself against the window in gusts. “You’re a good ways from anything civilized out here.”
“Oh, that, well,” said Henry, little yellow crumbs sticking to each side of his mouth as he lifted the whole cake with his hand. He seemed to have misplaced his fork. “Do you know your neighbors to the south?”
“Not well,” said Lenora. “We tend to keep to ourselves.”
“That’s good then,” said Henry, before adding hastily, “for you, of course. The country is a good place to breathe and be your own person, it is. Not like London, all filled with soot and watching eyes and wagging fingers. I like to get out to the country myself when I can, like tonight, get a spot of fresh air and enough space a man can stretch both arms without knocking something off a shelf.” He looked about the kitchen, stuffed with dishes and serving spoons and suspicious jars, and decided not to demonstrate. “Only I’m acquainted with your neighbors to the south, and they invited me to a ball this evening. Practically held the thing in my honor, I suppose, begging me to come in from London.”
“How odd,” Violet mused, her attention turned toward the crackling lightning outside. “I didn’t think the Burtons knew anyone in London. They abhor the ton.”
“Oh, well, course they do,” said Henry, corralling another cake. “Only I’m not really from the ton set, you might have guessed. I’m a…a poet, you see, got myself a bit of a reputation for sonnets. Got a romantic’s heart, I suppose. The Burtons, your neighbors? They were wanting entertainment for their party. And though I’m not usually the type to charge for my services – art should be for all, miss, even those without the penny to hear it – well, the Burtons insisted. Said it would really bring their party to life. I could do you a poem now, if you like. I’ve got nothing prepared, don’t judge me on it, but seeing as how you’ve been such good hosts, I wouldn’t mind a turn of the bard at all.”
“That’s alright, Mr. Pocquens,” said Lenora, sweeping away the ashes around the oven. “My sister and I are not ones for poetry.”
“Too many words,” Violet agreed.
“Well, that’s alright, then,” said Henry, seeming almost disappointed at the missed opportunity. “I suppose I’ll just have another cake.”
Violet was only just wondering where the tea spoon had wandered off to when the doorbell rang again, the chime fat and heavy as if someone had taken hold of the pull and hung from it. Henry twitched up straight in his chair, his sleeves giving a faint clink.
“Are you expecting someone else this night?” he asked.
“We weren’t expecting you,” Lenora reminded him.
“It really is pouring out there,” said Violet. “I suppose we should let them in.”
“I’ll keep the tea hot,” said Henry, his limbs moving in their own separate rhythm.
He waited until the rustle of their taffeta skirts retreated toward the front door before rising from his seat and shaking out the utensils from his sleeve into his knapsack to join the strings of glittering jewels and wads of pound notes already nestled there. He crept out of the kitchen toward the stairs leading up to the second floor, giving the Ubatu warrior’s cloak a healthy berth as he passed. He swept the remaining gold figurines into his bag before moving on quick feet up the stairs to the next level.
When Lenora swung the door open for a second time that night, it seemed at first that their visitor had been swept away in the driving rain, or else had never been there at all, for the sisters could see no one standing outside. But then a shabby pile of clothes the same color as the night around them shuddered and heaved forward, dragging a swath of water behind it like a slug trail. A head the shape and color of the moon rose out of the layers of dark fabric, carrying the smell of rotting things along with it. The head squinted at the sisters, taking on the characteristics of an old man with a hunchback.
“Where’s this then?” the man asked gruffly, as if he were the one being inconvenienced during his nightly tea and cakes.
“Hello there,” said Violet, giving the man a pat on the head. She was no statuesque beauty, but still she stood a good head taller than him. What he lacked in height he made up in bulk, his shoulders broad and round beneath his hump. “We are the Cross sisters, Lenora and Violet. Well, I am Violet, and this is Lenora. Have you been caught out in the storm?”
“Course I have,” said the man, swatting away her gentle pat. “Can’t you see I’m soaked down to me bones? And leaving a poor fella standing there for ages. Don’t you close that door!”
Lenora stopped with her shoulder against the wood, planting her feet solidly to keep the door from banging open with each gust of wind. A boom of thunder gave the house a good shake down. The hunchback stomped over to the door, muttering as he used his prodigious shoulders to nudge Lenora out of the way before retrieving a shovel and a pickaxe from the doorstep. He shook them at her as he stomped back in. Once more she forced the door closed, the howling of the wind dying down to an acceptable keen outside.
“Will ye make me also stand here shivering till I expire?” the man groused.
Lenora waved in the direction of the kitchen. “Would you like some hot tea and cakes, Mister…”
The hunchback grumbled and eyed her for several moments, as if judging whether she was trustworthy enough to answer. “Granger. Richard Granger. I don’t have more’ve a name than that, if you’re asking.”
“Of course not,” said Violet. “Do come to the kitchen and warm yourself.”
The man grunted in lieu of a thank you and followed the sisters through the house, not bothering to admire the Ubatu warrior’s cloak or any of the other items decorating the rooms in the front of the house. He used the handle of his shovel as a walking stick, the blade biting into the floorboards every few steps. Violet swept her black skirts up in one hand to avoid the steady trail of moisture he left behind. When they reached the kitchen he made straight for the nearest wicker chair and plopped himself down, setting his shovel and axe across the table top. A wet clump of dirt fell to the floor with a soft splat.
“Where has Mr. Pocquens gone off to, I wonder?” mused Violet to Lenora. She touched the tea cup where he had sat. “It’s grown quite cold, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sure he’ll turn up soon enough,” said Lenora, putting on a fresh kettle for tea. “Nowhere for him to go in this storm.”
Mr. Granger said nothing as the sisters prepared the tea and slid more cakes onto a plate. Even though he had complained of cold when he first arrived he made no move toward the open door of the range, crossing his arms and settling down into his hump to wait for the meal. Violet placed the plate of cakes before him, but he made no move to take one, eyeing her from beneath eyebrows grown wooly and tangled with the hair from his head.
“You’re in mourning, then?” he said, nodding to the black ruffle of her skirts.
She smoothed her hands over the fabric. “Our father died. We buried him this morning.”
One of the eyebrows wriggled up his forehead. “Which cemetery’s that, then?”
Violet gestured toward the kitchen door. “The family plot. I do hope the rain won’t wash him away.”
“Don’t be daft,” said Mr. Granger. “If ye buried him good and deep, he’ll stay that way. Less something comes along. Who did your work?”
“A hired boy from the family down the road,” said Lenora, pouring tea into his cup. Mr. Granger scowled at the contents as if they might poison him. “He buries all the dead around here. Are you a grave digger?”
“Groundskeeper,” Mr. Granger grunted, laying a protective hand over his shovel. “Work in her Majesty’s employ trimming hedges along the main road. Storm washed me over.”
“It must be quite difficult cutting hedges with a pickaxe at night,” Violet said sympathetically.
“What do you know of it?” Mr. Granger groused, drawing his pickaxe a little closer. “What is it your pa died of?”
“It was a curious thing,” Violet said. “He was a specimen of prime health. He awoke two mornings ago and said ‘I’m a bit tired, girls. I think I’ll rest a spell.’ And then he was dead.”
“Prime health,” Richard Granger echoed, as if that were the most curious part of the story. “Buried in the family plot?”
“Right out back,” Violet said, nodding.
Mr. Granger made a series of grunting noises to himself in a morse code conversation as he rifled through the various pockets and entrapments of his clothes. He withdrew a ring of rusted skeleton keys, a pencil chewed down to the nub, and a small gold ring with a ruby embedded before finding a wooden pipe and a small metal tin of tobacco. He pulled three pinches from the tin and stuffed them into the bowl of the pipe with the fat pad of his thumb, the rotted smell permeating his person gradually mixing with the musty odor of his pipe smoke. He did not ask if he could smoke there, and he did not sweep away the bits of ash that floated down onto the table and dusted the tops of the cakes set out before him.
“Prime health,” he muttered again, though he didn’t seem to be speaking to either of the sisters particularly.
When the doorbell rang again, Mr. Granger scowled at the Cross sisters as if they had conspired to disturb his brief respite from the storm. This time the chime cut off early but seemed to echo for much longer, spiriting away into little corners of the house to wait and pounce on the next passerby. Violet turned from the kitchen door where she had been considering the darkness briefly pierced with blue-white light, frowning at Lenora where she stood over the sink with her arms buried deep in murky water.
“Well I hope you two don’t expect an old man such as me to do your butlering for you just on account of one poor cup of tea,” said Mr. Granger. “My knees are stiff as a January soil with this rain. Most like from standing at your door while you dithered as you are now.”
“The storm is getting worse,” Violet said.
Lenora sighed. “I suppose we should answer it. Would you excuse us, Mr. Granger?”
“Don’t mind me,” Mr. Granger grumbled. “Cakes are too sweet and there’s no sugar for the tea, but don’t mind me.”
Mr. Granger’s knees gave a brittle crack as he stood up after the sisters had left the kitchen, and for a moment he bent over, massaging them with strong, deft fingers. Then he tapped the glowing ashes from his pipe onto the floor, gathered his shovel and pickaxe over one shoulder, and pulled at the kitchen door. The wind clapped it open, the edge catching him on the shin, but the old man only cursed the door and left it standing open as he lowered his head against the sheets of rain.
“Specimen of prime health,” he muttered to himself as he set out in the direction of the hedge where he’d stowed his wheelbarrow. “Ought to fetch double.”
When Lenora tried opening the front door it dragged across the floor as if it were a mule setting its hooves into the earth. She could barely get it open, swollen as the bottom was in the humidity, and Violet had to help her pull it open enough that they could see their guest on the doorstep. The man was tall, maybe twice the size of Richard Granger and older than Henry Pocquens, with a finer collection of garments. Rain gathered in rushing rivulets at the brim of his top hat, pouring in streams down his coat to splash to the ground. His eyes and cheeks were carved of shadows and bone, his nose long and slightly hooked at the end. He didn’t seem to mind the rain, only stood there on the doorstep surveying the sisters like a curious snake.
“Can we help you?” Lenora asked, standing back well enough that the rain pattering off him didn’t catch the ends of her skirts.
“Your house is dark,” the man said, his voice like the echoing gong of the doorbell.
“I am afraid it is only the two of us,” said Lenora. “We don’t have need of more light than one.”
“My horse has come up lame,” said the man, his hands clasped behind his back. “I have need of shelter from the storm.”
“Do come in,” said Violet. “Will your horse need stabling?”
“No,” said the man, gliding into the house without a glance behind. He closed the door with a single wrench, the knob catching with a rattle. He towered over the sisters for a moment before turning into the front parlor. The sisters followed him as he walked the edges of the room, stooping with apparent interest over the items displayed in the room. He touched nothing, but still the dust stirred with his passing, as if he had run his fingers over every item. Lenora lit a lamp on a table near the door, the warm light barely penetrating the room.
“Surely you cannot be all alone out here,” said the man, studying a painting of a nude woman with a golden wave of real hair curling from the canvas. “A brother or an uncle, perhaps?”
“Our father passed two days ago,” said Violet. “Would you care to remove your hat? It must be soaked.”
“No,” the man said, moving on to a glass disc filled with black liquid. “Interesting décor.”
“Our father was a collector,” said Lenora. “He liked interesting things.”
The man stopped again before what looked like a doll’s head. “What a strange face. Did you girls play with such things?”
“That is a shrunken head from Borneo,” said Lenora. “It belonged to a shaman cursed by another village’s shaman.”
“Those are the tears of a woman burned for practicing black magic in Wales,” said Violet as the man passed a small stoppered vial that sparkled in the lightning. “Would you care for some tea?”
“It is not tea that I drink,” said the man. He paused before a large glass jar with something suspended inside. “What have we here?”
“A liver, preserved in formaldehyde,” said Violet. “From the last victim of the Whitechapel Murderer.”
The man half turned, his form speared by a brilliant flash of lightning. Thunder rolled in after it, rattling the jar. “What do you know of the Whitechapel Murderer?”
“The man who cuts up prostitutes,” said Lenora, as if they were discussed the shifting weather patterns. “They’re calling him Leather Apron.”
“Or Jack the Ripper,” offered Violet.
“Jack the Ripper,” said the man, tasting the words. “How banal. What he does is art, not butchery. How did your father come to be in possession of this organ?”
“Father had many friends in the collection business,” said Lenora. “They knew what interested him.”
The man turned back to the jar, raising a long, thin hand toward the curved exterior. “Did your father take it himself? Did he see her?”
“There wasn’t much left to see, from the story the papers told,” said Lenora. “We were not with him at the time, of course, and he can no longer tell you himself. Perhaps you would like to join us in the kitchen? We have tea, and cakes. Our father enjoyed a snifter of brandy on occasion, we could find the bottle if you prefer something stronger.”
“Are you not lonely out here, all on your own?” asked the man, turning back to the sisters. “On such a remote estate. I’ve only just come from London myself, and I must admit, I miss the…opportunities for company. Finding you two is an unexpected boon.”
“We have each other,” Violet said. “And our father, until recently. We keep busy with the collection.”
“Yes, the collection,” said the man, gazing around the room at the clutter of curiosities. His eyes lit on the preservation jar. “Are there more? Like this specimen?”
Lenora waved her hand toward the stairs. “He keeps most items in the attic, except those he likes best. His favorites he likes to display.”
“I would like to see this attic,” said the man, taking a step closer to Violet. His shadow covered her. “Show me.”
This time when the doorbell rang it sounded brassy and close, near as they were to the front door. The man withdrew sharply, wrapping himself in the folds of the shadows of the room. Lenora and Violet exchanged a bemused look.
“Who will it be this time, do you think?” Violet asked.
“The rest of the county, I expect,” said Lenora. To the man she said, “Do excuse us. There is a storm on. You are welcome to visit the attic, straight up the stairs to the third landing. Father would be pleased with such interest in his collection.”
The man said nothing as they left, creeping after them to extinguish the meager flame of the lamp light in their wake. He crossed the room to the preservation jar again, the thick outline of the organ within softening against the formaldehyde with each flash of lightning. He tapped his fingers against the glass, breathing in deeply.
“Hello, Mary,” he whispered, before crossing toward the door and vanishing.
This time the door swung open freely for Lenora, neither dragging across the floor nor flying away with a strong gust of wind. On the doorstep stood a policeman – they knew he must be a policeman, for he wore a dark blue suit and carried a wooden stick at his belt – with a full moustache that sunk under its own weight at the corners. He gave the sisters a nod, his expression carefully arranged into one of solemn importance.
“Sorry to bother you this evening, misses,” he said in what was surely his official police tone. “Name’s Inspector Billings out of the London bureau.”
“We’re a great deal away from London, Inspector Billings,” said Lenora. “Or have they moved the official limits?”
“Oh, no, miss,” said the inspector. “Nothing like that. This is unofficial, official business. I am brother-in-law to Daniel Burton, do you know the Burtons? Not well? Hmmm, well, they had a gathering this evening, a ball of sorts, and it seems someone invited himself to relieve their guests of several of their valuables. One of the kitchen maids said she saw someone running out the servant’s entrance headed in this direction.”
“How dreadful,” Violet mused.
“Now, no one knows exactly who it was lifting their goods, but the rogue can’t have gotten far. You’re the only house in this direction for a good ways, so I told my sister I would come round and ask if you’ve seen anything suspicious this evening.”
“No more suspicious than usual, Inspector,” said Lenora. “We’ve been entertaining a few guests of our own this evening, blown in by the storm.”
“These guests, are they acquaintances of yours?” Inspector Billings asked, holding his hand up as if he carried an invisible quill.
“I believe we’ve come to know a good deal about them,” said Lenora.
Inspector Billings made a few murmuring noises that he no doubt employed on frightened victims in his London district to soothe their worries. “If you ladies don’t mind, I’d like to speak with these guests of yours. Could be they saw something, or someone. I’ll have a look around, just to be sure there’s no one hanging about.”
“Please, do come in,” said Violet. “There’s plenty of tea. And cakes.”
Inspector Billings swaggered through the door, his trained policeman eyes sweeping the shadowy crevices and darkened hallways of the home. He was only a few steps into the house when his steps faltered, his frown deepening into something more troubled. By the time they entered the parlor, the preservation jar glowing with each lightning strike, he was muttering to himself about what one finds among country folk.
“Queer bit of decoration you have here,” he said, pulling at the ends of his moustache. They twirled up with a slight rise, only to sink back down on his next breath. “Can’t say I’ve seen its like before, even in London. And I’ve seen a good bit in London.”
“Our father was a collector,” said Violet. “He liked unusual things. He traveled a great deal, but some of his greatest finds were right here in Cornwall. We hope to continue his trade.”
“Well, I’m not sure it’s a fitting occupation for ladies such as yourself,” the inspector said. “Delicate sensibilities.”
“We’ve had some practice with it,” Lenora said. “It seems our latest guest has wandered off. Perhaps he went up to the attic to survey the rest of the collection. Violet, would you mind?”
Violet nodded, sweeping out of the room toward the stairs. Lenora led the inspector through the rest of the house, ignoring his exclamation of surprise when they passed a bureau full of statues built from small bones. She paused at the threshold of the kitchen, glancing around at the empty table and the open door.
“We seem to have misplaced all our guests at once,” she said.
Inspector Billings, bolstered by the light and warmth of the kitchen, resumed his official demeanor. “Could be the thief is already here, come through your back door. Do you have a light?”
Lenora pulled an old lamp from one of the high shelves and lit the wick from the fire, handing it to the inspector. He stepped out into the heavy rain, shielding the flickering light with his jacket, and surveyed the area around the door leading into the back fields. The light didn’t penetrate much beyond the back of the house, and neither the inspector nor Lenora could see far enough to the family plot in the backfield where a hunched figure dug into the muddy earth.
Richard Granger could see the light, though, and hastily scrambled down into the shallow hole he’d dug. He didn’t need the sisters coming to investigate his disappearance, or worse, thinking to turn him in. Country folk took an even dimmer view of his profession than Londoners, partial as they were to their privacy and loved ones. The rain made it easy to dig, but the mud kept sliding around like a living thing, piling up on his left and then his right so that he couldn’t remember where he should be digging. The rain gathered in black puddles in the deeper corners of his hiding place.
“Yes, miss, I see bootfalls here,” said Inspector Billings. “Could be the fellow came through and scared off once he heard us coming. Still, would be best if I had a look around the house.” He stepped inside and cleared his throat. “Would the rest of the house be full of this…collection of yours?”
Lenora gave a faint smile. “I will show you the rest of the house, inspector.”
Henry Pocquens hefted the bulging weight of his knapsack, grunting as the rope bit into his shoulder. It had been a prosperous evening for him, the storm an unexpected boon in helping him exit the ball at the Burtons estate without detection and then washing him up at this treasure chest of oddities. He skirted the more ominous shadows in the rooms he passed on the second floor, recalling the spongy tough feel of the cloak of ears below, but he’d come across several more pieces fashioned of precious metals or studded with jewels that would fetch a handsome price back in London. As soon as the rain slowed to a drizzle he would slip out the kitchen door and be on his way.
Voices drifted up the stairs toward Henry as he reached the end of the hall. He’d heard the doorbell chime, three times at least, but no one had come looking for him. He’d considered himself in the clear, but now the voices drew closer, up the stairs and down the hall. He recognized the sister, the older one, but it was not her younger sister who responded. A man with the unmistakable paternalistic drone of a policeman answered her, his footfalls heavy and deliberate on the stairs.
Henry muttered his favorite swear and pressed back into the shadows behind a chest of drawers. His knapsack pushed back with a clinking protest, shoving him into the exposed length of the hall, and he cast about for a better hiding place. The closest room was at least three steps away, and the voices were now cresting the top of the stairs, driving him further into the dead end of the corridor. They would be on him any minute.
When he bumped against the wall at the end of the hall it gave a hollow protest. Instead of smooth wall, he found thin slats of wood forming a door the size of a large cabinet. It took a great heave of his shoulders and one long, stressful squeal of protest to get the door open, but when he did the cool wind of an empty shaft greeted him, a thick rope suspended through the opening. A dumbwaiter.
He hauled on the rope as fast he could even as the voices dipped in and out of the first room near the stairs. The little cubby wasn’t much bigger than a wall safe, but Henry figured he’d gotten out of tighter scrapes. He shoved his knapsack in and folded his limbs in after, the flimsy walls compressing him further. By some miracle of the laws of nature he was able to fit, head cricked against the roof and knees up to his ears. But when he tried to pull the door shut it tilted and stuck halfway down. No matter how hard he pulled on it or shoved against it, the old wood wouldn’t budge. The voices drew nearer.
The man waited in the deep recesses of the attic as the soft, rounded sister passed, her skirts weaving through the clutter of the cramped space like water seeping through the ground. She was cleaner than the others, her skin unpocked and her teeth still whole and white. She reminded him of a bird that once roosted outside his window as a boy. A robin, soft and rounded like the girl, delicate little bones that snapped with the barest application of pressure. A woman’s bones were so much more satisfying. He tracked her into the far reaches, lightning from a far window strobing around her.
Her voice, like the robin’s, like the others, called out a name in question, then another. He hadn’t told them his name, not that it mattered. It would have meant nothing to them, that name, the old skin. He walked with a new purpose now, one bathed in another’s life’s blood. He withdrew the knife from his belt, tucked under his long coat, the handle so rough and exciting, pushing him on. The girl had reached the far side of the attic, head turning this and that, just like the robin. His heart quickened. She was looking for him. She would find him. The knife hummed.
Closer he came, past furniture draped in sheets, through hanging cobwebs draped like hair, around mannequins with faces too human to be ignored. She was so small, so delicate, her face so round and her throat so soft. It was hard to navigate, dark, light, dark, light, only the flashes outside and his outstretched hand to guide him. But there was nowhere for her to go, surely. There she was, a white face in a black dress, trapped against the wall. She didn’t call out, didn’t see him. It was just as well. He wanted to feel the scream under his hands before the knife ended it.
He lurched for her, knife arcing down, but something was wrong with her face, his feet. A brilliant flash of lightning streaked through the windows, so close he could smell the electrical charge, and the face of the girl was nothing more than the rough cloth of a mannequin. He toppled into it, his feet tangled in something, knife slashing into the rough fabric of the display dress. Together they stumbled into the wall, only there was no wall where he expected. His feet, bound together, tipped over an edge and into an open shaft, the rope hanging there doing nothing to slow his fall.
Sweat slicked between Henry’s fingers where they scrabbled against the wooden door of the dumbwaiter. He couldn’t lift it high enough to crawl out and make a run for it, but he couldn’t shut it far enough that the policeman wouldn’t see his shoes sticking out. They’d already gone through three rooms, there was only one more before the end of the hall. He couldn’t hope they wouldn’t bother looking to the end. If only he could get the door closed, just a few more inches.
The weight struck the roof of the dumbwaiter hard enough that the wood splintered, biting into Henry’s neck, before the ancient rope holding it frayed and snapped completely. The full weight of the dumbwaiter, loaded as it was with Henry, his knapsack, and the falling mass, came down on the boy’s wrists as the contraption plummeted to the bottom of the shaft, severing the delicate bones. A roll of thunder swallowed his scream.
“You hear that, miss?’ asked Inspector Billings, tilting his head up as if he could catch the falling sound at a better angle.
“Only the thunder, Inspector,” Lenora replied.
“I could find no trace of our guest in the attic,” Violet said, drawing them back to the stairs as she descended. “Though it was quite dark and crowded. It would be easy to mistake someone.”
“Maybe I should take a look, then, miss,” said the inspector, sounding as if he’d like to do the opposite.
“It is in need of a vigorous cleaning,” Lenora said. “Our father kept the more unusual pieces of his collection up there.”
“Best leave it, then,” Inspector Billings said with relief. “Is that the house?”
“More or less,” said Lenora, leading him back down the stairs to the front door. “I’m afraid we haven’t been very helpful to your investigation, Inspector.”
“Well it’s well enough for you that you haven’t,” said the inspector in his official tone. “Men like this thief, they don’t have a moral core like the rest of us. I wouldn’t want to think what they’d do to a pair of ladies such as yourself.”
“I’d like to think we could manage, Inspector,” said Lenora, holding the door open for him. “Thank you for the unofficial official visit. Do let us know if you find the culprit.”
Inspector Billings doffed his hat with a slight bow. “You ladies have a fine evening.” He glanced up at the sky. “Ah, seems the rain’s finally slacking off a bit. Should be sunshine come the morning.”
Henry Pocquens fell out of the dumbwaiter in a daze, blinded by the glowing warmth of the kitchen around him. He couldn’t look at his hands – or where his hands used to be – and he couldn’t look where the roof of the dumbwaiter caved in, a face just visible through the crack. He fell against the kitchen door, the latch giving way, and stumbled into the blessed dark of night.
Richard Granger had dug himself a fine, deep hole but had found no body. Mud sucked at his feet and tore at his shovel, slithering back into the hole with every gust of wind. Even though the storm was rolling through, the worst of it past, water still collected in deep pools whenever he turned his back. He’d dug under plenty of conditions, but none so frustrating as these.
“Blasted specimen of fine health,” he groused, clawing his way out of the hole by the handle of his pickaxe. “Specimen of rocks and muck, more like. Whole evening wasted and the tea weren’t even good. Those women owe me something for the trouble.”
He didn’t see the young man who ran into him and knocked him into the deep hole, nor did he hear his shovel and pickaxe fly off to the side out of reach. He did not smell the mud squelching up his nose or taste the water spilling into his mouth, but he did feel the sharp crack of the stone against his forehead, before he felt nothing at all. Mud slithered around him, embracing his calloused hands and flat feet and the smooth curve of his hunchback.
Lenora and Violet Cross agreed they were far overdue for their tea and cakes and returned to their kitchen, hopeful that the remainder of their evening would be uninterrupted by unexpected guests. The fire burned low in the grate, tossing off more shadow than light, and Lenora crossed to the neat stack of wood piled by the back door. As she stepped across, the toe of her boot slid through a viscous patch crossing from the dumbwaiter to the back door. She frowned down at the smear along the sole of her shoe.
“I believe one of our guests has met a bad end,” she said to Violet.
Violet peered into the hollow of the dumbwaiter, considering the pale face resting there, a dark stain spreading across the slash in his throat where the knife still protruded. She extracted the blade, a gush of brackish blood pumping after it.
“Perhaps more than one,” she said.
It took several hours and steaming cups of tea for the sisters to clean up the damaged dumbwaiter and withdraw the body from the shaft. Lenora mopped up the blood in the kitchen with sheets already stained a rusty red while Violet visited the second floor, scooping up the severed hands into a spare preservation jar. The body of their final guest required several more sheets to wrap and secure, and it took both sisters at each end to carry him outside. Rain collected in shallow lakes all along the back field, sloshing into a particularly deep hole dug just below their father’s grave. The sisters lowered the body into the hole, the water staining the sheets a black before swallowing them whole, and retrieved a discarded shovel and pickaxe to push the rest of the mud into the hole. By the time they finished and returned to the kitchen for a restorative cup of tea, the edge of the sky had turned a shining pink like new skin.
“I did not think for Father to have company so soon,” said Lenora as they returned to the family plot under the blossoming light. She carried with her the shovel and pickaxe, the long knife still flecked with red tucked at her waist. They stopped beside their father’s grave, the footstone flecked in mud, the hole beneath it already blending into the rest of the murky ground. “I am not sure he would enjoy it.”
“Perhaps he will appreciate a fellow collector,” Violet replied, cradling the preservation jar now filled with a formaldehyde mixture, the hands within circling each other in a slow dance. “I do think he would enjoy the new items we’ve added to his collection, though.”