Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Absent Harpist (part 4)

I parked the cab at the bottom of the hill, north of it so that the lumbering shadows of that verdant monstrosity obscured my ride from view. A brick perimeter had been laid, with an iron fence protruding from it and blocking any trespassers. Fortunately for me, care for the outward bounds of the mansion and grounds had long since been forgotten, and so a panel had collapsed in, providing me with an entrance.
I hurried through and then began my hike up the hill side. The grass was crunchy under foot, so much so that I was almost worried my approach might be heard. Somehow, I managed to reach the crest without detection. The grass gave way here for sandy pebbles in a round sweep of the central residence. As I padded across them, they crinkled as if trying to draw the attention of the world around me. I heard the sound of a motor car thrumming to a stop at the front of the house and then the forced pleasantries of people who were only greeting one another for politeness' sake. Beyond the mansion, the runny egg of light that we call the sun was decaying from its childish yellow to a mournful amber, slipping away behind the clouds but not before it could infect the sky with its orange tint. The Yuletide Ball must have begun. I feared how long I'd been unconscious.
There was a set of steps leading down into the kitchens of the grand house just in front of me, and the doors at the bottom appeared open. I jogged down them and quickly darted through the door to the left; a comfortable hubbub of life was preparing canapés and other party treats and I knew that if I wandered amongst them I'd be caught. The door to the left led through a grey corridor for about one hundred metres, the walls on either side seemingly frozen to the touch. Normally, it would have been a relief in comparison to the warmth outside but now it just seemed to make me shiver.
At the end there was a staircase, one side leading up towards the party- the sound of a gramophone cycling through Glen Miller was almost cacophonous in its echoes- and the other down towards what I could only presume was the basement. This was where I would find the Butler's family and so I wandered down to investigate.
As any self respecting peoples will tell you, there are only two items one absolutely needs to carry upon their person at all times. One is a towel, for there is a surprisingly great deal of things one can do with a towel, and the other is a torch. I pulled my torch out of my trench coat and gently screwed the silver head down, until a thin beam of yellow tinged light shone out. The staircase had me dancing in square circles until I reached the very bottom: a pair of huge wooden doors sat in front of me, obscuring the view of the basement on the other side.
I gave them a gentle shove and they came apart easily enough, revealing a dusty catacomb on the other side. The floor was large and open, interrupted only by huge beams holding up the cantilever arches that supported the house. Clustered around these arches were various artefacts; the paintings missing from the main house, old pickaxes and head torches, even a table holding a miniature model of Montpelier and its surrounding environs, although the entire townscape was covered in a heavy sprinkling of grey dust.
I first inspected the paintings, pulling back the heavy tarps covering them and observing the paint work beneath. They depicted a family, consisting of a man I didn't recognise, the Baroness' mother and a young woman holding a small white dog. The young woman looked vaguely familiar, as if I was accustomed to an unfaithful waxwork of her. It took a quick look at some of the other paintings and a few moments of silent contemplation before the penny eventually dropped. The woman in the paintings was the true Baroness which meant the woman I'd met, the Big Man's sister, was an imposter. The question was, why?
The mining equipment looked mostly archaic, and quite redundant after the discovery of tools such as dynamite. I  imagined that it was being kept down here out of some misguided sense of nostalgia. The same probably applied to the model of the town, which seemed a show piece from some old mining contract, depicting the location of several different shafts and points of interest. However, upon further inspection, I couldn't help notice that the dust had been blown away, as if they'd all been recently used.
I turned my torch away to see if there was anything else of interest the room when I caught glimpse of a sudden flaring on the opposite wall. Frowning, I wandered over to investigate, concentrating the beam of my torch on the spot where the shine had suddenly been. As my eyes adjusted, I realised that what I'd witnessed was the Cat's Eyes principle, in the respect of the eye being able to reflect light in a powerful glare. In this case, however, the eyes didn't belong to a Cat. They belonged to the Butler's daughter.
As I approached, I saw there were four women chained to the wall. One was the same age as the Butler with the first flecks of grey in her hair and bags under her eyes. She was wearing a maid's formal dress but, although it may have looked quite posh amongst other servant's clothes, it was nothing in comparison to the second old woman, the one I recognised from the paintings. She was most definitely the true Baroness, be it from the posher clothing to the way she held herself. The two other women were the Butler's daughters, one of whom was on the cusp of womanhood and the other was perhaps eight. I smiled at them as I approached. "Don't worry." I hissed. "I've come to get you out of here."
"Who are you?" The Baroness hissed in return. "And what the Hell is that racket upstairs?"
"They're holding some sort of Yuletide Ball," I replied, kneeling down to fiddle with their locks, "but it's nothing to worry about; I believe it'll give us the cover we need to escape."
"You're never going to get them open like that." The Baroness said. "Use those pickaxes."
I passed her the torch and ran over to the nearest pickaxe, lifting it and bringing it down in one fell swoop. The first padlock shattered beneath the blow and I repeated it for each of the others. The Butler's wife stood up and did a small jig of celebration, before turning to me gravely. "Is my husband okay? The giant, the big man, he threatened to cut his neck when he called the Detective."
That would explain the shaving nick I thought I'd spotted. "He's alive, don't worry. He was the one who tipped me off to you."
"My clever Arnold." She beamed, rubbing her daughter's heads. "Daddy managed to convince the baddies he was working for them, just like he said he would. Easier to pick off one detective than an entire police force, hey. Clever of him."
"And my mother?" The Baroness asked, cutting her off. "Is she okay?"
"She seemed well enough." I replied. "If not a bit dotty."
"Sounds like her. What about my dog? They threatened to do horrible things to it because it knew there was a difference between me and my replacement."
I remembered the white fluff on the well and decided to lie. "I'm sure it's just fine. Now, there's a car, a taxi cab, at the bottom of the hill. You four need to go hide there whilst I find your mother and the Butler. We'll come and join you."
"Are you sure?" The Baroness asked. "The big man is not forgiving. He'll kill you if he knows you've freed us."
"Don't you  worry about the big man." I grinned. "I've already dealt with him."

As soon as I was sure they were en route to the taxi cab, I hurried away from the top of the steps where I was hiding and wandered around to the front of the mansion. The Butler was stood on the front step, assisting someone from their coat and gesturing for a village boy to drive his car around the side of the house. I would have made a mental note to inquire to where they were getting all the staff but I had bigger things to worry about.
I waited until he'd finished dealing with the coat and then hurried over, passing him my trench coat and hat. He looked shocked to see me but he managed to react relatively calmly. I was pleased by that. "I've freed your wife and children."
"Thank you, sir." He said, accepting my hat. "May I be of any further assistance to you?"
"Yes. I was hoping to see the Baroness." I pronounced her name with inverted commas. "And her mother, too."
"The Baroness' mother is ill, I am afraid, however I would be more than happy to convey any messages you wish to be carried."
"Best thing for illness is a spot of fresh air, if you ask me." I replied. "There's a spot just at the bottom of the northern hill. Might be ideal."
"Of course, sir." He smiled. "I will take the Mistress for a walk there myself. Is that all, sir?"
"Yes, it will be for now." I smiled. "Have a nice evening."
"You too, sir."
I hurried into the house. Mirrors had been placed over the spots where paintings were missing, giving the entire mansion a somewhat spacious effect. The Glen Miller had been replaced by a lavish string section, accompanied by the very lightest of wind instruments. It was almost idyllic.
The ballroom where I'd originally met with the fake Baroness was teeming with life. I could see the imposter milling about amongst other villagers, always tailed by the hotelier of the Milliner's to her side. I decided I didn't want to come face to face with either of them, at least not for now, so I snook off down the extravagant corridor to my left. It led, beneath a collage of mosaics and detailed paintings, towards yet another stairwell. A servant carrying a tray of the aforementioned canapés emerged from it and passed me on her way to the ballroom. I hurried over to the stairs and wandered down a few steps, to find a door on my right which led to behind the Ballroom's stage. I hurried through the doorway and, although passing momentarily through the dark, found myself into a large clearing where a group of violinists were preparing their instruments. "Who are you?" One of them shouted. "Partygoers aren't permitted backstage."
"I'm... I'm... hang on. Are you guys missing a harpist?"
"A harpist? Of course not." The man said. "Our harpist is over there."
"The bloody liar." I muttered. "Right, well, that's all well and good then. You lot stay here and I'll go warm the crowd up."
Before any of them could argue, I'd danced up the wooden steps before me and onto the stage. It was empty except for an abandoned piano and a microphone on stand. The Ballroom, on the other hand, was practically alive as the people of the village, who up until then I'd assumed didn't exist, danced and chatted like the best of them. I felt almost guilty for interrupting their party.
I tapped the microphone twice and then spoke, "Good evening everybody! How are we all doing? Having a good time?"
Someone removed the pin from the vinyl, literally and metaphorically. Complete silence met me. I smiled. I had their attention.
"Sorry to interrupt with such terrible news but there is a conspiracy afoot of the gravest proportions. Robert Stollery, the Music Teacher, has been murdered for having dangerous knowledge."
There was an audible gasp.
"The knowledge seemed pure and innocent enough, but unfortunately, it got him killed." I continued. "Montpelier is a quiet town, long forgotten by the world around it. Its mining heritage has long since dried up, but the forefathers of this fine town weren't willing to leave an empty future. In folk songs and folk legends, there was speak of a hidden mine. Robert Stollery, being an avid folk legend enthusiast, had discovered the secrets of the lost mine at the same time as a pair of others, a pair of siblings in fact. The siblings raced here to profit on their discovery, only to find that the local Baroness had knowledge of the discovery too, going so far as to prepare the old mining equipment in the basement and investigate an old map of the town. The siblings, one brother, one sister, instantly dealt with the Baroness and her Harp Teacher, imprisoning the Baroness and her only staff in the basement and murdering the Harp Teacher!"
Another gasp.
"The brother then headed to the Harp Teacher's house, killing his pet cats so that nobody would immediately realise the loss. Or at least they wouldn't have, if the Butler of this fine house hadn't called a private detective to investigate. He hoped that the detective may stop the siblings and save him but there was no such luck. The brother threatened to cut the Butler's throat but quick thinking from the Butler- promising that the detective would find nothing and that a single private detective would be better to deal with than an entire police force- saved his life. To teach the Butler a lesson, his family was kidnapped alongside the Baroness. Then there was the matter of what to do next. The detective was to be intercepted and murdered by the brother, but just on the off chance that he wasn't, the local hotelier, who I shall refer to as the Milliner, was employed to spy on him."
Another gasp. A few eyes turned towards the Milliner, who shrunk away into his jacket.
"He was already quite the snoop, with corridors between the walls where he'd hide whilst listening to his customer's secrets. Those corridors must have been quite dusty from the amount of grey powder that fell upon his shoulders. As it was once said, the only in rat in that hotel was him.
"As for the sister, she decided to impersonate the Baroness should the detective reach her before the brother or Milliner could go to work. The mother was no problem; it's a well kept secret but she's clinically blind. Her imagination and memory allows her to see what she believes she's going to, hence why she hasn't twigged to her daughter's replacement and why she saw the detective when looking at me. The Baroness' dog, not so nicely treated, and so it was drowned in the well outside the front door. Why was there all this tragedy and crime? So that the siblings could comply to their terrible greed once and for all! And the woman who has been impersonating the Baroness all along?"
I reached out and pointed my index finger at the Baroness. "You!"
There was no audible gasp. I frowned. Had I done it wrong?
"As much as we appreciate your deductions, Detective," the Baroness' Imposter said, "there is one you missed out on: None of our fellow partygoers seem averse to my imposition."
I frowned. She was right; I hadn't considered that.
"The reason is that I and my brother plan to return the wealth the Baroness and her family so long ago stole from this area and these people once and for all. My brother's actions were questionable, yes, but they were performed to free these poor people from their oppressors. Perhaps you would care to check the banner above you."
I stepped away from the microphone to look up. The banner read, "WEALTH FOR ALL."
"You see, Detective, the true villains are not me and my brother. They are the hierarchy who punished these people in the first place. Now, you're either with us or against us. What do you say?"
The doors at the rear of the room smashed open and the brother, the Big Man, came limping through, his gun raised. "I don't give a damn what he says." His clothes were bloody and he didn't look happy. "He tried to leave me for dead and it's about time I returned the favour."
I gulped as he raised a gun and fired.


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