Footsteps In The Sand, by Thea Adams (short story)

The lighthouse foghorn pierced the mist with its strident blast as the gulls wheeled, calling, overhead.  The waters of the little bay rhythmically caressed the sands and the boats rocked gently at anchor.  The little girl sat motionless on the rocky headland listening to the familiar sounds around her.  They were the things that made up a large part of her life and she loved them.  She loved the quietness, the birds and the ocean, the brilliant colours when the sun shone and the magic and fantasy when there was a mist.
Penny lived at the lighthouse with her father.  It was just the two of them now since Penny’s mother had died the previous winter.  Life was not exactly luxurious in the lighthouse and her mother’s delicate constitution had not enabled her to survive a particularly harsh winter.  Penny’s father was inclined to blame himself for bringing his beautiful wife to such a lonely location.  His daughter, although she missed her mother terribly, tried so hard to look after him and became a more than capable homemaker in a very short time.  She was heartbreakingly like her mother, so that every time he looked at her he saw again the face of his beloved wife and cherished her even more.
A little girl in a desolate place should be lonely, but Penny loved the solitude.  She knew the ways of all the seabirds and took great delight in watching as their chicks grew into adults and took their first tentative flights across the bay.  Each year she made one or two of the families her special interest and if the power of thought could do it, she willed the chicks to survive the elements and the predators.  The occasional seal took shelter in the bay and sometimes the odd penguin or two would make their nests amongst the rocks of the shoreline.  She smiled as she watched the adults waddle up the path each day, like little old men out for the evening in their dinner suits.  She watched with almost a parental pride as the fledglings took their first swim, just jumping in and darting like arrows through the water, not needing any lessons at all. It was a paradise.
But in the year of Penny’s thirteenth birthday that paradise was shattered.  It was a misty day, such as she loved, the foghorn was sounding mournfully, when between the cries of the gulls she heard something different, something she had never heard before.  At first it intrigued her, as she couldn’t work out what it could be.  But as the sound was repeated, it chilled her to the bone.  “Mmmrr-oooww,” and again, “Mmmrr-oooww”, deeper and more menacing than a cat’s yowl and yet strangely like it.  She shivered in the suddenly cooler air, looking around to make sure all her friends were safe.  There was nothing different, no movement that she could see, the rocks and grassy hummocks of the headland showed nothing other than vegetation.  But the feeling she had was one of intense apprehension, bordering on terror.   She gave a final anxious glance at her birds and set off up the path to the lighthouse and her father.
“Daddy, Daddy, have you heard it?” she called as she bounded through the door.
“Heard what, my love?”
“That dreadful yowl that sounds a bit like a cat but is too deep and horrible.  It’s really scary, Dad.  I’m worried if it’s a sort of cat thing that the birds will get killed.”
“Well, love, there’s not much you can do about that, but if it’s dangerous I don’t want you wandering off like you do.  I mean it.  Let me scout around before you go off again.  I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.  You’re all I’ve got now, you know.”
“I know, Daddy.  If I can’t go out just yet can I go right up to the top with the light to see if I can see anything from there?”
“I guess so; but remember not to touch any of the mechanisms there or the light won’t work and then we will be in trouble.”
“Okay,” she said as she whisked up the stairs, leaving a ripple of air in her wake.  He smiled to himself.  So like her mother.  She, too, had been just such an impetuous person, inclined to vivid imaginings.  He wondered if this was another of them.  Then he heard it!  “Mmmrr-oooww!”  What on earth could it be?  He could see why his daughter was spooked by it.  The deep growling resonated in his body, curdling his blood.  It raised the hairs on the back of his neck!  The sooner he found out what it was, the better for them both.
“Dad, did you hear that?  That was it.  Isn’t it absolutely ghastly?”  Penny’s fearful voice floated down the stairs to him.
“Stay where you are, I’m going out there,” he yelled back at her.  Penny peered through the gloom from her eyrie and could only just make out her father as he left the lighthouse, torch in hand.  The yellow beam of light only pierced the mist by a few feet, making visibility very poor and the danger very high.
The gloom of the mist turned into the darkness of night and still Penny’s father had not come home.  She was really worried about him.  If it weren’t for the strange growls that still continued at intervals, still raising the hair on her neck and arms and filling her with dread, she would have been tempted to disobey her father and set out in search of him.  She thought, instead, of when he would return, tired, cold and no doubt hungry, and made her way downstairs to the kitchen.  Once she smelled the onions frying she realized just how hungry she was and cooked chops and some vegetables for herself as well.  She tidied up, left her father’s plate ready for him to heat up when he came in and went up to her room to bed.
The morning came with bright sunlight, no trace of the dull weather of the day before.  She hummed to herself as she dressed and thought of how she would berate her father for the fright he had given her when she met him at the breakfast table.  But Penny found the dinner plate just as she had left it the previous night.  Her breath caught in her throat as the realization hit her that her father had not come home and was still out on the headland.  All thoughts of breakfast were forgotten.  She rushed out, banging the door behind her.
“Dad, Dad.  Where are you?” she called.  “Dad, Dad!”  She ran along the path, pausing at intervals to check the rocks and banks for signs of him.
“Dad,” she called again, worry making her voice sharp and high-pitched.  Penny rounded the bend in the path and stopped short.  There before her, spread-eagled, her father lay at an angle, unmoving.  Blood oozed from a wound where his head had struck a rock, his face so pale Penny’s heart almost stopped beating.  She felt his pulse and was relieved to find it still there, but he was so very cold.  Gently she felt his limbs, but could find nothing to worry about.
“Dad,” she said anxiously, “can you hear me?  Please, please answer me.”  She saw his eyelids flutter and then slowly open.  “Oh Dad, thank goodness.  Are you OK?  Can you move?  You gave me such a fright.  Say something Dad.”
“I will if you give me half a chance.  I think I’m OK, but I’m so cold.  Just let me get up and we’ll go home.  Oooh!  My head!  What happened to me?” he asked as he drew his hand away from the side of his head and saw the blood.
“Well, all I know is that you left the lighthouse to look for that thing and didn’t come back.  I very nearly came out to look for you, but the growling was still happening and you did say to stay put, so I stayed.  But Dad, you were out here all night!”
“I’m very glad you didn’t come out or it might have been the two of us lying wounded.  I remember going out, I remember coming along the path and I remember thinking that I wished the torch would penetrate the darkness more.  After that I’m not sure.  I think the growl was quite close, but after that, nothing.  Penny, I am so cold.  Let’s get inside so I can have a hot bath.”
After soaking the cold from his body and patching up the wound on his head, he went downstairs to a belated breakfast.  The mystery of the events of the night needed to be solved, so he shut himself up with the light to sort through it all.  He had to service the machinery anyway so it was a good excuse to shut Penny out and have the solitude in which to think.  He puzzled over it in his mind, but it didn’t matter which way he considered it, he couldn’t begin to imagine what made that noise.  It was so unlike anything he had heard, even the cat’s growl that Penny likened it to wasn’t quite right.  Then to wake up with his daughter crouching over him, with no memory of what happened to him: that was even more worrying.  He went over and over the events, but could come to no satisfactory conclusion.
“Hey Dad, I’ve found something out.  Let me in to show it to you,” Penny called.  With a sigh, he opened the door for her.
“Look at this.  It’s an old book about the area that Mum had in the bookcase.  It says there were hauntings at the lighthouse years ago, and listen to this, ‘the keeper of the lighthouse was plagued by the menacing growls and roars of a phantom beast which no one was unfortunate enough to see.  The sounds made by this phantom were such as to send anybody hearing them, scurrying to their home for safety.  The keeper said, when asked, that, “it was the most terrifying sound I have ever heard in my life.”  In recent times, however, the beast has not been heard at all.’  Dad, do you think the beast has come back?”
“You know, Penny, I’d quite forgotten that book.  Your Mum was the one interested in the old tales, not me.  Does it say anything else that might relate to the beast?”
“Not that I can see, but I’ll leave it out on the table for you to look at later.  Dad, can I go out and watch the birds now?  It’s still sunny and we haven’t heard anything since last night.”
“Ok love, but only for a little while.  If the mist comes in you come straight back, you hear me?”
But Penny was gone before he even finished the sentence.  There was one thing she had to do.  She wanted to look around the area where she had found her father, to see if she could find any clues as to what had happened to him.  She came to the bend in the path and although the sun had been shining all morning, it had not dried up the ground completely, so that Penny could make out where she had stood in horror at the scene before her.  She could see the prints of the toes of her shoes and her knees as she knelt beside her father, and could still see the blood from his head wound on the rock at the side of the path.  But what had made him fall?  There didn’t seem to be any sign of a struggle.  There were only her father’s footprints, along with her own, that came to an abrupt end with his fall.
She slowly went further along the path, looking intently at the damp ground and grassy borders, examining them for any clue whatsoever.  Suddenly she stopped and gave a gasp of terrified shock.  There, in the damp earth of the path, were two prints that didn’t belong to her or her father.  In fact, she doubted that they were human; half paw, half foot, and so large that two of her feet would have fitted within one of the prints, end to end.  As she stood there, mentally measuring her footprints against those before her, she heard her father calling and became aware that the mist was rolling in from the sea again.  There was no way she was going to be caught out there in the mist with the possibility of meeting the owner of those prints!  She took to her heels and covered the distance to the lighthouse in record time.
“Good.  There you are.  The weather report has just come in and we are in for a really dirty night.  By the way, I have two things to tell you about our beast.  Firstly, according to your book, if you had read further on, the keeper of the lighthouse, all those years ago, was scared by a hoax.  Apparently…”
“But Dad, I saw something.”
“No, let me finish Penny.  Apparently there were smugglers in the area and they used a sort of loud hailer to magnify the noise to scare people away when they were running their goods.  So, you see, it’s all rubbish about a beast.  And secondly, on the TV they are saying there has been a huge jewel robbery and that the perpetrators have been seen in this locality.  When you think about it, this coast is just right for stashing ill-gotten gains to be retrieved later, as the smugglers of old well knew.  Maybe that’s why we hear the beast again; to keep us all indoors.  Now, homework for you, you have school tomorrow.”
“But Dad, I really did see something.  You ought to come and look.”
“Now Penny, that’s enough!  Do your homework, because I bet you haven’t touched it all weekend.”
She was sullenly stomping up the stairs, when halfway up, she heard the growl once more.  She went cold just thinking about her father out there with such an animal on the previous night.  Her mind at once pictured those massive footprints and she shivered with dread to think what kind of beast could possibly belong to them.  Homework suddenly became a very attractive option.
Whilst wrestling with a knotty maths problem, half her mind was on the possible happenings outside.  In the distance and coming closer, she could hear the whir of a helicopter’s rotors.  Then the shrill of policemen’s whistles accompanied by shouts and the sound of running feet.  She looked out of the window, but the mist was so thick there really wasn’t much point.  She couldn’t see more than about three feet in front of the lighthouse door.  Then she was aware that the helicopter was taking off again and rushed down the stairs when she heard her father call to her.
“Penny, come down here.  We’re on TV!  The police have arrested two men for the robbery.”
There on the TV were the Chief Inspector and two men handcuffed together.  The helicopter was in the background and off to the side was the lighthouse.  The Chief Inspector was explaining that the men had managed a very sophisticated robbery and hidden the jewels in a cave not very far from the lighthouse.  It had taken the police some time to track them down and it was only because someone had noticed and unfamiliar boat in the bay that they had been able to catch them at all.
“Well, there you are Penny!  I bet we don’t hear anything of your beast now.”
“Who knows, Dad?  But there are a couple of things that still haven’t been solved.”
“What?”
“Well, what made you fall over out there on the path the other night?  And I found some very strange prints near there as well.  You really ought to come out and see Dad.  They were huge.”
“I probably just tripped.  Are you sure you weren’t imagining the prints Pen?”
“Dad, I couldn’t imagine these.  I wouldn’t want to anyway.”
“Well, if it will keep you happy, I’ll get the torch and we’ll go and see.”
Penny’s father thought that her overactive imagination had been at work and that now the police had arrested the criminals, the whole episode would be found to be as ephemeral as the mist itself.
Off they set, the path shown in the torchlight as a pale ribbon beneath their feet.  They rounded the bend and Penny retraced her steps of the morning, only to find the police had obliterated all the prints with their own hefty boots.  Penny was devastated.  How was she going to convince her father now?  Then, for the first time, she was very pleased to hear that low menacing sound: “Mmmrr-oooww,” and again, “Mmmrr-oooww.”

***

The Australian Literature Review
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An Eye For Detail, by Karen Carlisle (short story)

Viola opened the window shutter, allowing the light to enter. It slowly danced across the room, chasing away the dark. While she waited for her eyes to adapt to the change, she drank in the warmth on her skin. Outside, the playful sounds of children drifted up from the street. Happy sounds. Soothing sounds. For Viola, they also brought sorrow. It was doubtful that she would have children now. Her plans had changed abruptly since her husband’s death over a year ago. Viola looked down to the street, hoping to see the source of the children’s excitement, and saw a man in a grey suit and bowler hat, passing out apples which the children took eagerly.
“Gutter-snipes!,” declared a woman’s voice behind her. “I am so sorry you have to deal with them Doctor Stewart,” she continued.
Viola turned back toward the voice’s owner, a well-dressed middle aged woman who sat in the large chair at the other side of the room. She was dressed smartly in the latest magenta silk and velvet with an astonishing array of passmenterie, for an afternoon dress. She sat precariously on the chair as her dress also boasted the now fashionable bustle. This amused Viola, lifting her from her melancholy and necessitating a deft movement of her hand to hide her slight smile.
Though the woman’s skirts were voluminous, both she and her magnificent dress appeared small in comparison to the room, the size of which was accentuated by its sparseness. Aside from the currently occupied chair, the room boasted only a tall wooden stool cushioned in leather, and a reasonable sized desk which boasted assorted instruments and cases, a bookshelf and a small locked cupboard. To the side of the chair was a strange looking contraption, with a large metal board facing the woman, shielding her from its workings on the opposite side. These consisted of a brass cylinder and a small brass lamp with a long, thin glass chimney. Below this was a small table with a selection of glass lenses arrayed in a small, velvet lined box and a small, spherical concave reflector which was pierced with a small hole.
The woman shifted in the chair, adjusting to make her bustle more comfortable. Her brunette hair was carefully plaited in an ornate fashion, in stark contrast to the half-circular metal frames that were perched on her nose. Viola pointed towards the letter chart at the opposite side of the room, as she crossed the room to the woman. The now open window provided additional illumination on the chart’s letters.
“Is that better, Lady Calthorpe?” she inquired. Lady Calthorpe squinted slightly and nodded noncommittally. Viola reached out her hand and span a metal-rimmed lens that lay in the frame.
“Ah yes, Doctor Stewart!” she smiled. “That is a much greater improvement.”
Viola removed the frames, examined the lenses and wrote down some numbers in her notebook.
“I will send a note when they are ready Lady Calthorpe, if that is acceptable to you.”
“Yes, yes. That would be perfectly acceptable,” she replied as she stood and began to straighten the wrinkles from her skirt. “I shall only wear them when absolutely required, of course.”
Viola smiled. Ladies and their vanity, she thought but spoke otherwise. “One day they too will become fashionable, my Lady.”
For a second Lady Calthorpe smiled sweetly then shook her head in disbelief. She retrieved her bonnet and carefully pinned it on her head, obliging herself of the wall mirror thoughtfully placed there. Lady Calthorpe carefully re-arranged her hair so it was acceptable for public view.
“Good day, Doctor Stewart.”
Once she had heard Lady Calthorpe leave the front room, Viola leaned through the doorway.
“Was that the last for the day, Miss Blake?” she asked.
Miss Blake was a short, young woman in a sensible dress of blue linen. Her hair was blonde, set in a practical fashion. She finished writing in a large book and looked up.
“Yes, Doctor Stewart.” Miss Blake closed the book and stood, straightening her skirts. “Tea?”
Viola nodded in agreement.

Usually, Viola was confronted by the street children when she returned from her late afternoon walk. Today, all was quiet outside the townhouse. She missed the comforting sounds that would herald her arrival home. A lone girl with long blonde braids, sat on the step. Viola recognized the girl; many times, she had seen her playing in the street. She looked up with tear filled eyes, at Viola.
“What happened?” Viola asked.
“It’s Elly,” she replied wiping the tears away. “The grey man took her away.”
Though Viola had no children of her own, her maternal instincts were already in full flight. What men? What happened? Before she could ask the questions, Viola saw the crowd gathering at the entrance to the nearby alley. She reached into her pockets, retrieved a small plump orange and handed it to the young girl who took it gratefully.
“Don’t worry Lucy,” she replied. Viola pulled her gloves up, straightened her skirts and joined the crowd.
In the alley lay the body of a small girl, partially obscured by one of the Constables who were in attendance. On her head was a hessian bag. Viola moved closer. The second Constable was asking for possible witnesses or anyone who may have known the girl. He did not seem to be too insistent.
“Gutter-snipe,” he whispered to the first Constable.
“Better remove the body then. Nothing much more to learn here,” came the reply.
Little Elly’s body was quickly covered and, as it was carried past, Viola caught a familiar sweet aroma. She had smelt it regularly in her late husband’s surgery. It was the unmistakable odour of chloroform.
The spectators began to crowd the area where Elly had lain. Viola heard the faint tinkling noise of glass over stones. Turning her head towards the noise, she saw a faint glint of light beyond the main crowd. Once retrieved, Viola returned to Greater Marylebone Street to examine the trinket under the street lighting. In the soft gas lighting, the item was instantly recognizable. She worked with them daily. It was a small convex shaped lens similar to the many in her instrument case and to those used to view the retina of the eye. There was a dusting of a black powder on one edge. Curious, she thought. It obviously did not belong to the child and it was unlikely it was stolen from her equipment; they had all been accounted for earlier that day. Viola surmised that there was a high possibility that it must have belonged to the murderer.
As the Constables had already left to return the child’s body to the station, she wrapped the lens in her lace handkerchief and placed it in her pocket for safekeeping. Time for a visit to my dear friend Doctor Collins in the morning, she thought. He may find this interesting.

The next morning was overcast and brought with it a continuous drizzle of rain, necessitating the ordering of a cab to travel to Marylebone Police Station. Viola was disappointed as she loved long walks. Having had Miss Blake rearrange her morning appointments, Viola had plenty of time to visit Doctor Collins.  He preferred to conduct Police business in the mornings as his skills were usually required in the afternoons for his practice on Harley Street. This suited Viola as she was usually busy with appointments in the afternoons; Upper class women did take such a long time to ready themselves for viewing.
Viola was greeted by a fresh faced, unfamiliar Constable at the Division Station.
“Good morning Constable,” she smiled. “I have some information with respect to last night’s murder off Greater Marylebone Street.”
“No need ma’am. All is in hand. You can return to your family,” The Constable did not even bother to look up from his paperwork.
“Excuse me?” Viola was indignant.
Fortunately for the young Constable, Doctor Collins emerged from the office door and entered the waiting room, obviously delighted to see Viola.  He was tall and dark, with piercing blue eyes and had a habit of neatening his fashionably wax-tipped moustache. Those eyes were currently staring at the Constable waiting to hear his reply but having heard part of the conversation and recognising the tone growing in Viola’s voice, decided to rescue the Constable.
“Constable Jones, may I present Doctor Viola Stewart of Greater Marylebone Street.” The Constable nodded briefly in reply. There was nothing like formalities to bring order back into any situation and Constable Jones appeared to be in great need of formality.
Introductions complete, Viola followed Doctor Collins into the examination room. She noted the small size of the body on the table and frowned.
“Her name was Elly and she was an orphan who frequented the area,” Viola said simply, trying not to betray her sadness. Doctor Collins removed the coverings to reveal the girl’s now pale face. It would have been a pretty face but for the left eye that had been pulled partially out of the socket. Viola had a strange feeling that there was something familiar about it; something she could not quite remember.
“I have another one like it,” he said calmly. Viola caught Doctor Collins’ brilliant blue eyes as if to question him.
“Two days ago. Another orphan,” he continued. “The eyes were intact but the face was covered by a similar hessian bag and there was the smell of…”
“Chloroform!” Viola nodded. “I smelt it too.” The memory triggered, Viola explained her reason for attending, revealed the small lens and handed it to the doctor. “I found this, not far from her body. The Constables did not bother to search the area. There is a black substance on the edge.” The two doctors exchanged knowing glances, sighed and began to examine the lens for any further information that would be helpful.

Two days later Viola was examining Mrs Cogswell following an episode of ‘lights in her vision’.  While she stood at the window she looked down to the street which had been unusually quiet. As she closed the shutter, she saw Lucy playing a game of ‘knuckle-bones’. A red-headed man, wearing a grey suit and bowler was playing cricket with the boys. Viola could feel the loneliness of poor lonely Lucy whose friend had been murdered. Viola wished that sometimes the shutter would close off the world as easily as it shut out the light.
She returned to Mrs Cogswell and moved the stool as close as she could, considering both were wearing corsets, bustles and several layers of frilled skirts. Her patient’s pupils were large and dark. The atropine has done its work well, Viola thought. Mrs Cogswell winced slightly, as Viola turned up the small brass lamp on the opposite side of the metal board, just to the left of her chair. Mrs Cogswell’s pupils remained fixed and dilated.  Perhaps too well, she thought as she apologized for the light source and adjusted it down slightly.
Viola raised one of the lenses in her left hand, and moved it slightly to focus while she peered through the hole of her ophthalmoscope. Before long she could see the blood vessels at the back of the eye. All seemed clear until the lens clouded over. Unexpectedly, Viola thought she had seen the blurry, grey figure of a man in place of the vessels. Viola gasped and dropped the lens to the floor. Mrs Cogswell gasped as the room flooded with light.
“I am sorry Doctor Stewart, Mrs Cogswell. Doctor Collins said it was urgent Police business.” Miss Blake explained as she swooped into the room, retrieved the lens which had rolled under the desk and placed it on the bookshelf for safe-keeping. Viola turned to see Doctor Collins standing in the doorway. His grey plaid suit was perfectly tailored to fit his tall frame and matched his bowler which he was now holding in his hands. Seeing Viola had a patient, he apologized and closed the door.
“I am sorry for the interruption Mrs Cogswell,” Viola began. She returned her stool and turned off the small brass lantern. “The good news is that there appears to be no damage.” Mrs Cogswell smiled, relieved to hear good news.
“Miss Blake will see you out.” Viola led Mrs Cogswell to the door, arranging a veil over her face to reduce the light’s intensity. “If you have any other problems, please contact me.” Mrs Cogswell nodded to Viola and then to Doctor Collins as he entered the examination room, apologizing again to Mrs Cogswell and closed the door behind her as she left.
“Good afternoon Doctor Stewart. I must apologize for the intrusion at such a late hour and without an appointment but I was sure you would want to hear the information now in my possession.”  He awaited a reply, however Viola was distracted following her own train of thought. She picked up the loose lens and replaced it in the case, on the table by the lantern. Doctor Collins continued. “The substance on the lens was indeed silver oxide which is used in making photographic plates. The Constables are checking on photographers in the area.” Not sure he had Viola’s attention, he approached her and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turned suddenly, a look of terror on her face. Doctor Collins dropped his hand immediately, and apologized for such intimacy. Viola shook her head.
“You don’t understand,” she replied. “I know why he is covering the head or removing the eyes!” She explained the incident with the reflection in the lens. This had reminded her of a superstition she had heard as a child; In cases of violent death, the last images were fixed permanently to the retina of the eye. Recent scientific papers had reported German physiologist Kühne had done some experiments on optograms in an effort to prove the theory. “He does not want to be identified.” Viola turned to Doctor Collins and looked him in eye. “There was a man in a grey suit. Lucy said she saw a man in a grey suit take Elly. She saw him!” Her eyes widened. There was a shiver of realization. “Henry!” she whispered. “There was a man in grey suit with the children just now.
Both doctors rushed through the door and into the street. By now it was empty but for one boy and a cricket bat. “The man in the grey suit,” Doctor Collins demanded. “Where is he?”
“And where is Lucy?” insisted Viola, seeing no sign of the girl. Some of Lucy’s knuckle-bones lay scattered on the ground. “Where is she?”
The boy pointed towards High Street, in the opposite direction to which Elly had been found. Before Doctor Collins could respond, Viola had sped towards High Street as fast as her skirts would allow, leaving Doctor Collins to ensure the Constabulary were informed of the unfolding events. A shiny penny sent the boy to the Marylebone Station with the message while Doctor Collins followed in Viola’s wake.
Viola had found herself at High Street with early evening shadows being cast by the rooftops. But which way to turn? Her heart racing, not knowing which way they had gone, she spied one of Lucy’s knuckle-bones on the ground. Clever girl, she smiled and headed south. A few more knuckle-bones led her into Marylebone Lane and into Cross Keys Close, further away from the street lighting and deeper into the growing shadows of evening. Viola found herself alone at the end of the Close with no lamplight to guide her. As she slowed, letting her eyes adapt to the increasing shadows, her foot knocked against something. Crouching down, she could make out the outline of a small girl. Both eyes were missing. She was too late.
As Doctor Collins turned the corner, he could see no sign of Viola. He paced a few steps in either direction, crushing a knuckle-bone underfoot. He remembered seeing some near Doctor Stewart’s rooms. In the fading light, he headed south in search of more breadcrumbs.
Viola fought back the tears. She could still smell the chloroform used. Her imagination was playing tricks on her; the smell was growing stronger. Viola stood and turned to see a red-headed man in a grey suit, just before all went dark…

Slowly the light began to return and the haze that encompassed Viola’s head began to dissolve. Her thoughts and vision began to clarify. She had a horrendous headache, unlike she had ever felt before.  As she breathed, there was still a faint sweet smell. In the darkened room, a figure wiped his hands, placed the cloth into a basket, pulled down his sleeves and walked closer. Viola sat upright, realizing she no longer wore a corset nor bustle. She grasped to her side, her hand searching for a weapon. All the while she kept an eye on the approaching figure. Her fingers found a kidney dish and wrapped themselves around the scalpel she found there. Finally the figure came into focus. Viola found herself staring into the most piercing blue eyes she had ever remembered.
“You won’t be needing that,” Doctor Collins’ soft voice informed her. Viola dropped the scalpel but missed the kidney dish.
“Lucy?” she asked fearfully. Doctor Collins shook his head.
“The Constables have made an arrest but we only just found you in time.”
Viola tried to focus on her friend. She was having problems focusing and judging distances. Her eyes ached. Obviously I am still recovering from the chloroform, she thought. A slight dizzy spell necessitated her holding her head where she felt bandages covering her eye.
“Viola,” Doctor Collins said calmly. “I have something to tell you.”

***

Karen Carlisle’s blog: www.offartboard.blogspot.com.au

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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Adult Activities: A Tale Of Domestic Detection, by Rae Litting (short story)

For the first three years of our marriage I believed every single word Geoff said.  Looking back I suppose this was overdoing it.  But Geoff was a remarkably honest person.  He never cheated on his tax.  If he didn’t want to go to an office party he never said he was busy, he told them that he didn’t want to go.  If you asked him whether he liked a dress he would say, “Not really, but you wear it if you like it.”  Not particularly romantic to be sure.  But honest to the core.

When I met Geoff he was a bookish young man with rather thick glasses.  I always thought he wore the glasses because they fitted his image. It wasn’t until be removed his glasses and attempted to kiss me for the first time that I realised he actually had poor eye-sight.  He managed to miss my lips and gently caressed my ear.  His favourite form of entertainment was to go to talks.  The Writers’ Festival was his idea of heaven.  Frankly, I would rather watch TV.
My utter faith in his honesty was shaken by a seemingly trivial incident.  I had spent a Saturday over at my mother’s helping her to spring-clean.  My mother is given to extreme cleaning, and I have always accepted that her house has to be kept pristine, even if my own is bordering on the grotty.  I returned to find Geoff sitting in front of a crossword puzzle looking forlorn and alone.
“Did you miss me?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, and I heard him add under his breath, “That woman is a selfish bitch.”
I was shocked – I had never heard Geoff say a bad word about any of my relatives.  “You said you liked my mother!” I exclaimed.
“Did I?” he replied.  “Well, I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.  You can’t help the fact that she’s a…. your mother.”
The very next Monday he told me he had tickets to a talk at the library.  “You can watch The Lydia Black Mysteries while I go,” he said. “I don’t really like that show.”
I was upset, because I prefer to watch The Lydia Black Mysteries with Geoff, whether he enjoys it or not.  “What’s the talk about?” I asked.
“To tell the truth I forget,” he said, evasively I thought.  “I bought a ticket when I was returning my library books.  I thought the talk sounded interesting at the time.  Heavens, I hope I still have the ticket.”  And he scrabbled around in his wallet, where he discovered a rather tatty piece of white paper.  He peered at it short-sightedly, and I saw on it the words ADULT ACTIVITIES.  “Yes, that’s it,” he murmured, shoving it back into his wallet in what I took to be a furtive manner.
Adult activities!  He was going to a porn night!  And this was a man who refused to watch R rated movies.
Of course I had no doubt this “talk” was not at the library at all.  Distrust coursed through my veins like a mighty river.  This was not just a lie to save my feelings.  This was blatant dishonesty, and I was going to catch him out.  It would mean missing Lydia Black, but it was what Lydia herself would have done.  It would mean following him in the second-best car.  The only time I had ever tried to follow anyone before I lost them when the lights turned red.  But I was a woman wronged, and I expected the Fates to be on my side this time.
So when Geoff left the house I waved him goodbye from the sofa, then bolted for the door as soon as his car had drawn away from the house.  I had to wait until he was some distance down the road, but we live in a cul-de-sac so there was only one way out.  Geoff is a careful driver, and in my wild Lydia mode I soon caught up with him.  It was dark, and I hoped that in his rear-view mirror my car just looked like two indistinguishable headlights.  Actually he was heading for the library, but I guessed his real destination.  It must be the rugby club across the road.

Soon I was drumming my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel.  Geoff seemed very cool for a man on his way to a night of tawdry sex.  What had caused this bizarre change in his behaviour anyway?  Oh hell, what made me ask that question?  The answer was obvious.  He was bored with me.  I was certainly not the most exciting woman on the planet.  But Geoff was not the most exciting man.  He was a comfortable, conventional sort of person.  He suited me very well.  No he didn’t.  He was a liar and a pervert.  I had misunderstood him all these years.
Geoff pulled into the library car park.  Ho!  He was ashamed to be seen parking in the rugby club.  I had some difficulty finding a park myself, and by the time I got out of the car I noticed a number of people assembling.  My goodness, you would be surprised the sort of people who go to porn nights.  Grey haired couples, chubby middle-aged women, even a young woman in a Muslim headscarf. And unbelievably, they were heading for the library.  There was a sign up advertising the night’s talk, which was called “Dirty Deeds”.  My faith in the right-ordering of the universe was in tatters.  How could libraries offer this sort of entertainment?  Is this where my rates were going?  I would write a letter of complaint.  First I would sit through the disgusting evening myself, and gather evidence. Then I would write and complain.
I waited until Geoff had entered the Entertainment Room before sidling up to the desk to buy a ticket.  A young librarian told me I was in luck, they had only a few tickets left.  I wondered that she was not embarrassed to be selling tickets to such filth.
I reckoned rightly that  Geoff would sit as near to the front as he could, due to his poor vision.  The room was nearly full, so I took my seat up the back.  I looked around nervously to see if I recognised anyone, but thankfully I did not.
The speaker rose – now he did look the part.  He was small, overweight, and dishevelled.  His skin was blotchy, he had dark rings around his eyes from want of honest sleep.  He fiddled with the overhead projector in which I had no doubt all manner of lurid photography was lurking.  He tested a microphone.  He obviously intended to give a commentary – I thought explicit sex would be explicit enough without explanation.  But then I had never been to a porn evening before.
Geoff was talking to a man sitting beside him.  They seemed to know each other.  Had they been to this sort of entertainment together before?  Geoff was laughing.  He wouldn’t be laughing when he knew who was watching him from the back of the hall.
The first slide came up – DIRTY DEEDS written in lurid scarlet letters.  There was a sub-text underneath and I strained my eyes to read it.  It was written in a pale mauve colour, and I expected it to say something like “Lust in the suburbs” or “How to get more sex more often.”  Oddly enough it said, “Socio-economic determiners of the Global Financial Crisis.”
To this day I do not know what the socio-economic determiners of the Global Financial Crisis were.  There were no explicit bedroom scenes to delight or shock the audience.  There were not even any recognizable pictures.  There were graphs.  I could not understand any of them.  I suppose I was relieved.  Perhaps I was also a little disappointed.  Then I was heartily ashamed of myself.  Then I was bored rigid.  I crept out, and on the way to the door saw a large poster advertising CHILDRENS’ ACTIVITIES – School Holidays at Your Library.  I went home in time to catch the second half of The Lydia Black Mysteries.
It’s a good thing I left early, because Geoff arrived home soon after.  “How was the talk?” I asked with as much innocence as I could muster.
“Awful” he replied.  “The speaker was hopeless.  No-one could understand him.”  There you are.  He really is the most honest man alive.  “How was Lydia Blake?” he asked.
“She was a bit silly really,” I replied. You think I confessed to him?  Not likely.  Sometimes silence is wiser than honesty.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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Below The Deck, by Reena Mukherjee (short story)

Nathaniel had never seen so many of them before. They came in their dozens, flooding in, all wanting the best of everything – the most expensive suits, the priciest bowlers…standing behind the counter, the young man wondered what in the world these ragged seamen could hope to find in a store such as Gentry’s Wardrobe. From what he could tell, the great majority of them were completely inebriated – the reek of strong ale on their breaths could be smelt from over twenty feet away.
Turning to consult his ledger, the astounded shop assistant tried to hide his anxiety. As Nathaniel fought to supress the sense of paralytic fear rising within him, his usual wit managed to take over. “We have a shipment of stock to come in by the next boat, my good sirs,” he said after a moment, hoping that the pirates (if that was what they were) had sobered a little as they had grown accustomed to their new surroundings. One of the men closest to Nathaniel leaned over the counter, stopping only when his face was just an inch away from the young man’s. His chin was coated with a week’s worth of stubble, and the smell of his breath – cheap alcohol mixed with the foul stink of rotting teeth – filled the air between them. “By the next boat, you say,” he said, eyes narrowing as his mouth quirked up into an amused smirk, “and what might she look like?”
As Nathaniel McCarthy made his way back home through the deserted London streets, he thought about the mysterious visit from the unshaven, cutlass-wielding army of men who had stormed into Gentry’s Wardrobe that afternoon. If his owner found out that they had even set foot in the shop, he would be livid. But something about their very presence confused him. Pirates, in London, drunk and in a store like Gentry’s Wardrobe? Something just did not add up, and Nathaniel felt, despite his better judgement, that he needed to find out what.

Unlocking the door to his flat, the young shop assistant let himself into his humble abode, hanging up his coat and hat. He trudged up the stairs to his room, lost in thought, nearly stumbling over the worn mat placed at the top of the stairs. “Hello, dear,” his landlady said, walking past him down the stairs, “rough day?”
Nathaniel smiled at the elderly woman hobbling down the staircase. He would not say for certain that she would be capable of this much longer, and the thought pained him. With his mother dead and his father never known to him, she had been his mother and friend for several years now.
“You could say that, ma’am. Busy, in any case, what with Mr Oakfield out of town,” he smiled. The woman looked at him with a peculiar smile, before shaking her head, “My dear boy,” she said a length, sighing fondly, “do you know what you need? A nice young lady friend, that’s what. I’m getting old, you’re of age, and I’d like to see you settle down before the day comes that – ”
“Ma’am, please!” Nathaniel said quickly, not caring that he had quite rudely interrupted her, “Please don’t say that! You’ll live to be a hundred, I’m sure.”
His landlady shook her head sadly but said no more, bidding him goodnight and continuing her own struggle down the stairs.

Nathaniel McCarthy awoke the next morning to sunlight filtering in through the small window of his bedroom. Stretching and blinking as his eyes adjusted to the light, he reluctantly but immediately got out of his bed and went to look in the mirror. As his synapses caught up with him, he remembered exactly what it was that had sparked his speedy arousal this Saturday morning. Today was the day he would make the trip down to London Docks – the trip that would explain the conundrum of the intoxicated pirates and possibly be the only bold and adventurous thing that this lanky, dull shop assistant of average height and income would ever do in his entire life.
Dressing quickly, Nathaniel ran his fingers through his unruly locks in a habitual but pointless attempt to tame them. Today, he had exchanged his waistcoat for a simple tweed coat and swapped his pocket watch for one of those awful cigars he kept about the flat as a precaution for the rare occurrence that a visitor might drop by. It was hardly an impression he was proud of, but one had to look the part. Jogging down the stairs, he muttered a hurried greeting to his landlady who was already up and pottering about the kitchen, slipping on his shoes at the door and leaving the flat with a spring in his step for the first time since he had moved into the complex.
Today was going to be different, Nathaniel could feel it in his bones. If his wit and determination persisted, he would get to the bottom of this riddle, and perhaps lighten the feeling of guilt that came with the knowledge that – somewhere out on the high seas – a ship of innocent traders was in danger of being attacked as a result of his initially harmless white lie.

When Nathaniel arrived at the London Docks, the place was teeming with the usual morning confusion: horses, carts and people of all classes and purposes milled around, while sharp-eyed pickpockets darted in between them. As he battled his way through a melee of unshaven ruffians, Nathaniel’s eyes settled on the one sight he had come in search of. Tucked behind the larger cargo ships, its wooden masts protruding just above the smokestacks of the other boats, hid a great, wooden ship. The flag of the wooden vessel had been lowered to half-mast, but the black and white pattern was just perceivable as the battered sheet fluttered odiously in the salty breeze.
The shop assistant looked hesitantly over his shoulder before boarding the pirate ship. Unarmed and clueless, he would have been the perfect target – and, therefore, had the best chance at learning exactly what was going on in the world of rogues that had resulted in these rum-reeking cutthroats openly parading the British streets.

As he carefully descended onto the deck of the ship, continually glancing about him, Nathaniel became aware of the distinct sound of snoring from below the ship’s deck. That explained why the ship had not already left port. There was also another sound, coming from deep within the boat. Nathaniel could be sure of this because it was barely audible – little more than a muffled thudding. Warily navigating his way around the ship, the salesclerk began the descent to the hold of the pirates’ vessel, slightly apprehensive of what he would find hidden in the shadows.
“Lay down ya weapons and surrender, boy.”
Nathaniel McCarthy, twenty five and living as a citizen of the greatest empire on Earth, never thought he would see this day. Down in the ship’s hold, he was being held at gunpoint by a pirate who seemed to be the very one he had fooled the night before with mentions of a boatload of expensive goods headed for the docks. However, being a man of good conscience, that was the least of Nathaniel’s current problems. The sight was enough to make him sick. All around him in the infested hold of the ship, women lay, bound and gagged. The worst of it was not that they were women…but that they all appeared to be with child.
“Thought we were sleepin’ off the booze, didn’t ya? Thought you could fool the mighty warrior of the seas, didn’t ya?” The pirate grinned, yellow teeth flashing as he tore the cutlass from his belt. Nathaniel’s mind made the connections fast. “I don’t believe it!” he cried, shaking his head in disgust, “I’ve heard of assaults and lootings and the slave trade, but this… this is low, even for you!”
The pirate captain – or at least, that is the position he appeared to hold – laughed without mirth. “We are pirates, my dear lad! The scourge of the seas, a force to be reckoned with!” The edge of his sword stopped just short of Nathaniel’s chin as he leaned forward. “Don’t ya think we’ve sold our hostages, ransomed our enemies? But this, my lad, pays ’andsomely! And we’re doing our bit for those ol’ folks up in the cities. They want the little bundles; we want the big cash.”
Nathaniel was more and more horrified by the minute. “Have you no brains whatsoever? You’re trading women as surrogates! Do you count them as loot now, too? Have you any idea what the price on your heads will be if the British government hears of this?” By now, the man was beginning to realise exactly what he had got himself into… a new and wicked business that these rogues would do anything in their power to protect and advance.
The pirate’s mouth curled up into a malicious smirk, “But they won’t find out, will they, boy? Who’s gonna tell ’em? They ain’t gonna be any the wiser for years! Not till we’ve bought ’em all out – every single one of ’em pollies in the big red chairs!”
The salesclerk swallowed, but squared his shoulders. “You’re right, Captain. There’s no one to tell them. You will become the highest power of the seas – the richest, the most feared. The clever are with you – the fools alone are against you.”
“And which might ya be yourself, lad?” was the interested reply. Nathaniel looked upwards, meeting the pirate’s gaze with unwavering determination and what he hoped was sincerity, “Those who know me like to say I’m sharper than a cutlass.”
This time, the pirate grinned, but the look in his eyes was unreadable. “Take him to a cabin an’ lock him up!”
Another pirate materialised out of the shadows behind the shop assistant, roughly grabbing and binding his wrists. When he had secured him, this pirate – shorter and scruffier than his captain – led him off, shoving him harshly into a small room and causing him to stumble. Only when the thud of the heavy oaken door slamming shut reached his ears did the sales assistant begin to worry.
Nathaniel waited for the footsteps of the departing pirate to die away before he looked around his room. It was entirely devoid of any type of furnishing or ornamentation, and the only feature of the vacant cabin was a small, square window in the side of the room. However, it was little help, as it faced the expanse of ocean rather than the busy docklands. Even if Nathaniel yelled his lungs out, his cries would only be washed out to sea. When the ship started moving again, it would be even more hopeless, as – even if anyone were to hear him – no sailor in their right mind would near a pirate vessel if they could help it. Nathaniel – and the women aboard – were trapped.

Hours passed and night began to settle in. Nathaniel’s shoulder throbbed painfully but the unrelenting door did not sport a single dent. Exhausted, he slumped against the wall, burying his head in his hands. To his temporary relief, the boat had not started moving yet, so there was a chance that they would not set sail until the following morning. But even then, the case appeared to be hopeless.

It was late at night, certainly past midnight, that Nathaniel was once again attempting to break the lock on the cabin door. His elbow ached from thumping against the metal, and he rested against the door for a second, trying to get his breath back. Nathaniel was staring at the wooden-planked floor, when a tiny, jewelled instrument – no more than the size of his finger – slipped into the room via the gap at the bottom of the door. Surprised but wary, the salesclerk kneeled and picked it up, inspecting it carefully. He might not have had much experience in women’s accessories, but from a single glance, Nathaniel McCarthy could tell that the small object in his hands was a hairpin.
Click. The young man could have cried out in pure exaltation as the lock slid back and the door was unbolted. But of course, he did not. Were he to open the door and find a pirate waiting for him on the other side, his efforts would have been in vain. Deemed a liar, he would most likely be executed in whatever form amused the pirates most. Instead, Nathaniel waited patiently on the other side of the door, listening for footsteps and doing his best to pick up any heavy breathing.
When he was fairly certain that no one was on the other side, Nathaniel drew the door back without a sound and furtively peered around it. He was met with an empty passageway, and the sounds of hearty merrymaking from above. He must act now, or never. Quickly, he ran to the ladder that led to the hold, careful that none of the floorboards creaked under his weight.
On his way past the drugged, pained women, Nathaniel stopped to kneel by the side of one. She seemed at a first glance to be only semi-conscious also, but the pattern of her breathing soon told Nathaniel otherwise. Perhaps the drugs they had administered to her had worn off, or perhaps she was resistant to the substance – either way, it did not make a difference. All that mattered was the fact that, though the clothing she wore (most probably the same that she had been captured in) may have been torn and soiled, the silk was most certainly of a costly variety. Her skin was fair and clear, and all else about her spoke of a comfortable life and an upper class upbringing. The pin had to have been hers.
Gently, he placed the hairpin in her hand, and smiled surreptitiously as her fingers moved covertly to grip it. He whispered his plan in her ear, and then, aware that time was of the essence, he was off again. Reaching the ladder, he sighed in relief as the boat began to sink slightly. On his way out of the cabin, Nathaniel had displaced one of the wooden planks which made up the flooring, and water was very slowly filling up the hold. The pirates would feel it in no time. Now, the salesclerk hid behind the empty barrels of rum up on the deck, watching the pirates.
Already tipsy, the band of ruffians were dancing and singing and rejoicing over their latest hostage. It was about a minute, therefore, before one of them shouted, “Aye, she’s got a leak! She’s got a leak! Tom, bring ‘er up on the land!”
Smirking triumphantly, Nathaniel waited patiently until the boat was moored properly, before he quickly lit one of those horrendous – but extremely handy – cigars, and dropped it into a barrel. Not a moment had passed before flames began erupting from within the wooden drum. All chaos broke loose.
“Fire! Did you not hear me?! Fire! Off the ship! Boys, off the ship, if you value your lives!”
“Fire! Put her out!”
“No chance – we can’t save her! She’s already aflame!”
While the pirates dashed for their lives – some even jumping overboard into the water, Nathaniel acted fast. He leapt off the ship and nicked an empty cart, and swiftly loaded the women who had assembled on the deck (as per his instructions) onto the makeshift wagon. Pulling himself up into the saddle, he flicked the reigns, and they were galloping at breakneck speed out of the dicey environment.
Looking in the mirror, Nathaniel adjusted his bowtie and straightened his waistcoat. His landlady stopped to regard him with an approving smile. “You look like the right gentleman you are, Nathaniel. Off to see Miss Clemonte again, are we?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” the other answered, a light rose-coloured hue tinting his cheeks. “She says that she still can’t comprehend how much I’ve done for her, and how I managed to get her out of that wretched prison before any of the pirates touched her.”
“You’ve always been quite the hero in my eyes, Nathaniel,” the woman said with a kind smile, patting his shoulder. “Good luck today.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I’m confident everything will go just fine.”
“As you should be. See you this evening.”
When the landlady had shambled off, Nathaniel McCarthy turned back to the mirror with a light smile, regarding himself for the second time in the space of a week. Something had definitely changed. He still earned a mediocre income, he was not any taller than he had been last time, and his frame was still gangly and lean. But despite this, when Nathaniel took a closer look, he found exactly where the change had taken place. The change had occurred in his eyes. Once a little distant, they had now become focused and alert – reflecting that bright, sharp brain of his and the wit and bravery he managed to demonstrate in times of hardship. Nathaniel McCarthy was finally someone – and he was a hero.
Still ordinary? Maybe. Still dull? Definitely not. Nathaniel may not have stopped the slave trade, but he had managed to save lives, and at the end of the day, that was all that mattered.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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Murder At Beaumont Manor, by Jo Hart (short story)

On arrival at Beaumont manor, I was ushered into the sitting room by a middle-aged maid whose eyes were red from crying. Finding a dead body is bound to have that effect.
“Please take a seat, Detective Thomlinson,” she sniffled. “Mr. Beaumont will be with you shortly.” She bustled off, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.
I took in the grandeur of the sitting room, filled with dark-wooded furniture and artwork from every corner of the globe, before turning my mind back to the situation at hand. I knew little about the victim. The few items recovered from his body told little about his life: his overalls, shirt and boots, a set of keys, a pocket knife, a small box and ring, a handkerchief and some loose change. Hardly different to any other labouring man, if you didn’t count the pruning shears protruding from his chest.
Hank Beaumont, a bulky man with grey-tinged reddish hair and a ruddy complexion, filled the room with his presence. His moustache still bore traces of breakfast.
“Sorry to call so early,” I said, rising to shake his hand.
“No need to apologise, I appreciate you coming so quickly.”
We sat in seats opposite each other, divided by a coffee table where the maid soon deposited a tea tray.
“Bad business, this,” Beaumont said as he spooned sugar into his cup. “Austen Grey has been the gardener here nearly ten years. He was a magician with the roses.”
“It was the maid who discovered the body?” I asked, though I’d already read the report.
Beaumont nodded. “Poor thing. She’s completely beside herself.”
“And Mrs. Beaumont?” I asked. “How is she taking it?”
“Not well. She’s been locked away in her room all day.” He sipped his tea. “I suppose you’d like to see where he was found?”
He downed his cup and I left mine untouched, not really being much of a tea drinker. The green landscaped gardens bloomed with roses. The sweet scent was almost overpowering. Beaumont led me down a paved path to a small orchard of peach and pear trees.
He tucked his hands into his pockets and rocked on his heels. “The police took the body, but we’ve left the scene untouched.”
Austen Grey had been pruning the trees when the fatal event occurred. His ladder lay in the grass and, upon examination, I found the place where the ladder’s feet had gouged the soil. The pruning shears, covered in the gardener’s blood, had already been taken into evidence.
Beaumont coughed. “Looks like a nasty accident if you ask me,” he said. “Lost his balance on the ladder and fell on his own shears.”
“Except the police found him lying on his back with the shears sticking out of his chest.”
Beaumont coughed again and rocked on his heels more vigorously. “You mean to say he was murdered?”
“The coroner said there was no sign of a struggle,” I continued. “I’d say he was murdered by someone known to him?”
Beaumont’s face lost all colour.
“Of course maybe he was just taken by surprise,” I added. I indicated for him to walk with me back to the house. “Your manor is quite secure. Locked gates, high walls. It would be difficult for an intruder to enter your grounds?”
“Yes. A man of my wealth can’t be too careful against thieves.”
“Who was on the property at the time of Mr. Grey’s death?”
Beaumont thought it over. “I was in my study writing a letter to the bank and my wife had taken to her room with a migraine. Then there was Lotty, who found him when she went to take him some lunch.”
“Is that all?”
“My good friend, Professor Newell, dropped by earlier to leave me some papers, but he had left well before Lotty found Austen.
“I’d like to talk to Miss Lotty.”
We returned to the sitting room, where the tea tray had already been removed. Beaumont left me and returned with the frazzle-haired woman. After assuring me I would be able to find him in his study, Beaumont left the maid and I alone.
“Let’s start with how you found the body,” I prompted.
She nodded. “I was takin’ Austen his lunch like I always do when he’s workin’ in the orchard, only when I get there I see him layin’ there on the ground with his shears stuck in his chest.” She sniffled and pulled her handkerchief from her apron pocket.
“What did you do then?”
“I ran back to the house and told Mr. Beaumont and he told me to ring the coppers, so I did.”
“Has anyone ever expressed ill-intent towards Mr. Grey?”
The maid fidgeted in her seat and wrung her hands. “I-I shouldn’t say. I’ll lose me job.”
I leaned forward and gently took her hands in mine. “I know of a family who is hiring right now, if it comes to that,” I assured her.
She gulped. “It was two nights ago. I was just finishin’ up my duties when I heard yellin’ comin’ from Mr. Beaumont’s study. I shouldn’t have eavesdropped, but curiosity got the best of me. Mr. Beaumont was sayin’, ‘How could you do it to me, Scarlett? How could you desecrate our marriage bed with the gardener!’ I was in shock. I’d have never thought Mrs. Beaumont to be an adultress, but he was sayin’ clear as day that he’d seen her sneakin’ off with him. And she never argued back so she must have been guilty.”
“Did you hear anything else?”
“No. I heard footsteps towards the door then, so I got out of there quick as a wink.” She looked up at me with watery eyes. “Do you think Mr. Beaumont killed Austen?”
I left the maid to find the answer for myself. Mr. Beaumont was in his study, as he said he would be, and with him stood a tall, lean man in spectacles. Both smoked pipes as they studied some papers on the desk.
“Ah, Detective Thomlinson, you’ve finished speaking with Lotty, then. I’d like you to meet my good friend, Professor David Newell.”
I shook hands with the professor, whose handshake was limp in comparison to Mr. Beaumont’s.
“I teach architecture at the university,” he told me. “I’ve been helping Hank with some designs for a new building.”
“You were here the day Mr. Grey was murdered,” I said, turning down Beaumont’s offer of a smoke.
“Yes, dropping off some information on building structures. I was gone before it all happened, only heard about it later when Hank called me with the terrible news. Murdered, you say? Hank led me to believe it was an accident.”
“Well, I thought it had to have been,” Beaumont said gruffly. He took a few hard puffs of his pipe.
“You didn’t happen to see anything suspicious as you left the grounds, did you, Professor?” I asked.
“Not at all. You really think it was murder?”
“I’m afraid so. Would you mind giving me a few moments with Mr. Beaumont, I have some more questions to ask of him?”
“I’ll go implore Lotty for some of her delightful finger buns,” he said.
“How would you describe the state of your marriage?” I asked when I was sure the professor was out of earshot.
Beaumont walked over to the unlit fireplace and stared into its depths. Smoke puffed up from his pipe and only the sound of the mantle clock broke the silence. Finally he spoke.
“I suppose I might as well tell you everything, though it makes me look guilty as sin. I assure you, though, Detective, I had nothing to do with Austen’s death.” He took another few puffs on his pipe before snuffing it out and placing it on the mantle beside the clock. He turned to face me, his hands clasped behind his back. “Scarlett and I had an awful row the night before Austen died. I believed her to be having an affair with him.”
“What evidence did you have for such an accusation?”
“There had been… signs. The smell of a man’s aftershave on our bed sheets that wasn’t mine. Long walks that she’d come back from looking slightly dishevelled. Then I saw her one day from my bedroom window, sneaking off with the gardener. She was looking about, as though making sure no one would see them together. I didn’t follow them to catch her in the act—I couldn’t bear the thought of it—but that night I confronted her. She denied she’d been sleeping with him, but she couldn’t give me a reason why they’d been sneaking off together.” He looked at me imploringly. “I know you’re probably thinking I went out there and killed him in a fit of jealous rage, and believe me the thought crossed my mind, but I swear to you I am no killer. I’d planned on firing him that very morning and drawing up divorce papers, but David talked me out of it. With the new business expansion it would all be bad publicity and he convinced me to wait until after the grand opening. You can understand now why Scarlett is so distraught over his death and hasn’t left her room.”
After calling for a policeman to stay with Mr. Beaumont until we knew for sure one way or another if he’d killed his gardener, I announced myself at Mrs. Beaumont’s door.
“Come in,” came her sniffled voice from within.
Her room was in stark contrast to the rest of the house. There was no dark furniture within her light and airy room. Everything was painted in whites and decorated in pastels. The woman in question sat by the window in a peach-coloured nightgown. Strangely, the room smelled of pipe smoke, though the lady herself was not smoking and I could see no trace of a pipe.
“Please excuse me, Detective,” she apologised. “I’ve been terribly upset by this gardener business and I’ve not yet dressed.”
“Is it true he was your lover?”
Her brilliant blue eyes widened. “Oh no! It’s not true at all!”
“Your husband seems to think otherwise.”
Her face crumpled into a frown. “He’s got it all wrong.”
“Then why don’t you tell me how it really is.”
She bit her lower lip and glanced wistfully out of the window. “You’ll think badly of me, but really how could I help it. I was only seventeen when I married Hank, barely even a woman. He was already thirty-three, and a rich and worldly man. He showered me with gifts and took me places I’d never been. It was all very exciting for a young girl. Looking back, I know that I never really loved him, not now that I know what real love is.”
“You fell in love with Austen Grey?”
She turned to face me, her electric blue eyes full of passion. “I’m in love with David Newell.”
“The professor?”
“It was almost an instant attraction. He understands me in ways my husband never has. We find ways to steal moments together. Sometimes when Hank is out of town or when David comes to drop off papers we’ll sneak off together behind the tool shed at the back of the garden. We try to be discreet.”
“But you got sloppy.”
“Yes.” She gazed back out of the window. “We weren’t careful enough and Hank started to suspect my unfaithfulness. Then he saw me stealing away with the gardener and thought he was my lover. I just know my husband killed him, and it’s all my fault. I should have told him the truth when he confronted me. My silence killed Mr. Grey.”
Tears ran down the woman’s pale cheeks and dripped onto her peach nightgown creating dark spots in the material.
“So why were you sneaking off with Mr. Grey?”
“He saw us – David and I – out behind the tool shed. He threatened to tell my husband everything unless I paid him off. That’s what Hank saw that day – I was giving Austen his payment.”
“I have one more question, Mrs. Beaumont. I can’t imagine you are so upset over this man’s death that you would spend all morning holed up in your room crying. In fact, I would think you would have been happy for him to be out of the way so he would no longer be able to threaten and blackmail you.”
Her orb-like eyes stared up at me. “Because I have ruined everything! David and I desperately needed for my husband’s new venture to go ahead so David could get paid for his contribution to the project and we could start our life together. Now with the murder, and all the bad publicity that will come from it…”
Mrs. Beaumont burst into hysterical sobs and I could get nothing further from her that was coherent. It seemed the case against Mr. Beaumont had grown stronger. Then again, Mrs. Beaumont and Professor Newell had equally good reason to have murdered Austen Grey. Perhaps he had asked for more money than they could afford to give him and, with the threat of their affair being revealed, one or both of them had silenced him permanently.
I had all the occupants of the house called together in the sitting room; I wanted none of them out of my sight until I’d determined who was the responsible party.
Scarlett Beaumont sat subdued on a red cushioned chair, chancing a quick glance at her secret lover. The professor avoided looking at her completely, instead studying the Monet on the wall opposite him. Hank Beaumont looked at his wife in a pained way before concentrating on lighting another pipe. The maid, Lotty, stood by the door, at the ready, should her master or mistress require something of her.
I cleared my throat to ensure I had their attention. “I think for us to get to the bottom of Mr. Grey’s death some truths need to come out into the open. The first of those is that Scarlett Beaumont was not having an affair with Austen Grey.”
Beaumont whipped his head around to face his wife. “You weren’t?”
“No, not with Austen,” she replied. “But I have not been faithful to you. I’m so sorry.”
“But then with whom?”
“That question can wait,” I interrupted. “For now.”
Beaumont’s jaw tightened, but he nodded. A dead man was more important than a faithless wife.
“Mr. Beaumont, tell me exactly what you were doing when you found out about Mr. Grey’s death?”
“It’s like I told you before, I’d finished my lunch and retired to my study to write a letter to the bank about getting a loan for the new building. I’d been at it for close to an hour when I heard Lotty come screaming up to the house. She was saying that Austen was dead. I told her to call the police.”
“And Mrs. Beaumont?” I asked, turning my attention to the lady of the house.
“I told my husband I had a migraine, but…” she looked at her husband guiltily, “but really I had company.”
Beaumont scowled and stepped towards her, but I held out a hand to hold him back. “In due time, Mr. Beaumont.”
He held himself off with effort and ground his teeth to prevent himself from speaking his mind.
“So assuming Mrs. Beaumont is telling the truth, both she and her company were occupied at the time. Lotty, you were taking Mr. Grey lunch and you saw no one coming from the orchard on your way there?”
“No, sir.”
“What did you do with the lunch when you found the body?”
“Pardon?”
“Did you drop it in shock, for instance?”
“No, it was still in my hand.”
“And you ran back to the manor?”
“Yes.”
“Without dropping any of the lunch?”
Lotty frowned. “I guess not.”
“You’ve know Mr. Grey a long time?”
“Nearly ten years, ever since he came to work here.”
“You know him well then.”
Lotty glanced around at the others in the room, who were so caught up in their own thoughts of guilt and adultery they were barely paying attention to our exchange.
“You loved him?” I asked.
Lotty’s mouth opened and shut silently giving her the appearance of a goldfish. Her cheeks flushed red.
“You know what I think,” I said. “I think you and Austen Grey were lovers. I think when you overheard Mr. Beaumont accusing his wife of sleeping with Mr. Grey you thought your lover had been unfaithful to you. I think you went down to the orchard in a rage, knocked him off his ladder and stabbed him with his pruning shears.”
“No! It’s not true!” Lotty’s eyes welled up with tears and she wrung her apron between white hands.
The others looked at her agape.
“Lotty?” Mr. Beaumont said.
“This is all her fault!” she screeched, pointing a shaking finger at Scarlett Beaumont. “What was she doin’ sneakin’ off all the time anyway? What was she doin’ sneakin’ off with my Austen. If she wasn’t sleepin’ with him, she was still meetin’ with him for some secret reason. There shouldn’t have been no secrets between me and him.”
“He was blackmailing me, Lotty,” Mrs. Beaumont said. “I was paying him off so he wouldn’t tell Hank about my infidelity.”
Lotty eyed us all, as the new information slotted into place in her brain. “What did he need money for anyway? We were happy enough.”
“Perhaps I can answer,” I said. “The police found a small box in Mr. Grey’s trouser pocket – a box containing a small diamond ring.”
Lotty dropped to her knees and buried her face in her hands. “Sweet Lord, what have I done?”
I escorted the limp and pale maid from the manor.
As the voices rose within the manor, I somewhat doubted Mr. Beaumont’s new business project would be going ahead any time soon, at least not until he found a new architect.

***

Jo Hart’s author website: www.thegracefuldoe.wordpress.com

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The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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Short Story Competition – June 2013 – Theme: Mystery or Detective

The Australian Literature Review has been running monthly short story competitions for AprilMay and June.

The theme for June is: Mystery or Detective

Stories should have a strong mystery element with clear stakes for the characters, and this mystery could be pursued by an everyday character or a professional.

Entry is free. Stories should be submitted to auslit@hotmail.com as an attached document or in the body of the email.

PRIZE:
– a book pack (titles below) courtesy of Simon & Schuster Australia
– feedback of 400-500 words on your story by Phillipa Fioretti

House for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Island HouseBlack RosesClose My EyesRed SparrowThe Accidental ApprenticeSumerford's AutumnThe Burgess Boys

Stories for May are due by midnight on the 20th and the winner will be announced on the 30th. Stories should be previously unpublished.

Shortlisted stories each month will be displayed on The Australian Literature Review, helping writers reach readers and gain recognition.

Writers outside Australia are welcome to enter to have your story shortlisted and displayed on the site but only writers in Australia are eligible for the monthly prizes. International writers should indicate in your email if you live outside Australia.

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The fan fiction competitions for The Life and Times of Chester Lewis and for Possessing Freedom are also open to entries of 2000-4000 word stories until August 31. Each has a first prize of $2000 and entry costs $10 if you pay your entry before the end of June.

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The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

Posted in auslit, short fiction, short fiction competition, short stories, short story comp, short story competition, short story competition 2013, short story competitions | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

May 2013 Short Story Competition Winner

Congratulations to Rachael Mead for her short story Night Skyline, which has won the May short story competition (theme: small town setting).

Night Skyline shows the story of a Country Fire Service worker who attends a road accident.

Thank you to the other shortlisted writers and to everyone who entered a story.

The May short story competition is one in a series of three monthly short story competitions running in April, May and June. So you still have a chance to enter for June.

PRIZE:
– a book pack (titles below) courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia
– feedback of 400-500 words on your story by Alison Booth

AuslanderOnce You Break a Knuckle: StoriesCanadaUnaccustomed EarthWaiting for SunriseUmbrellaTenth of DecemberSan Miguel

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The fan fiction competitions for The Life and Times of Chester Lewis and for Possessing Freedom are also open to entries of 2000-4000 word stories until August 31. Each has a first prize of $2000 and entry costs $10 if you pay your entry before the end of June.

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The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

Posted in auslit, short fiction, short stories, short story, short story comp, short story competition 2013, short story competitions | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments