The corpse sat up and tossed her hair back to perfection and it tumbled lavishly down over her shoulders as if pointing the way to those pert breasts….
The medieval table lay centre stage, it was filled with pewter jugs, serving plates and authentic tallow candles but there was a body too, draped provocatively across the centre for maximum impact. Contorted, it was positioned in the perfect way to show off those lithe limbs, slender toned body and voluptuous cleavage. My eyes were drawn to the ornate dagger that had pierced the woman’s breast, causing a trail of red sticky blood to drip artistically across the throat as her head pointed down away from the table, eyes shut but with ruby red lips still pouting and blood dripping into the cascading dark hair.
“Well, what do you think?”
I turned to look at my host.”Not quite what I expected to see on arrival,” I admitted, staring around the mediaeval hall, “but it’s the perfect location for it.”
Lord Tavener ushered me forward so I could get a better view. His fleshy fingers pressed hard into the small of my back and I didn’t like it. I stopped myself from shuddering, glancing up at my partner for help, but he merely smiled. Defeated, I allowed myself to be manoeuvred into position ready. The stage was set I thought.
The corpse sat up and tossed her hair back to perfection, and it tumbled lavishly down over her shoulders as if pointing the way to those pert breasts, her eyes were the deepest brown I had ever seen and I watched as she began to dab ineffectually at the carefully splattered fake blood.
She looked up as we approached. “Perfect place for the dead body or what?” She swung her legs round and sat almost side-saddle position with her pert breasts thrusting forward. She looked under her dark eyelashes for Lord Taverner’s approval and I could almost feel him standing taller next to me as her admiration was so blatant.
“I am not so sure.” I said quickly, unable to stand too much hero worship, “if the murder mystery is taking place in this room and everyone will be in here milling around, it stands to reason that people will notice the murder taking place and, I don’t think you are going to be able to smuggle in that body unnoticed.” I meant it as a compliment but it sounded harsh.
He considered carefully, “Good point Arianne, something for us to consider, I’d be grateful for any other suggestions you might have.”
“No, I don’t want to get involved,” I laughed, “I want to enjoy this party and the more I know, well, it could give me an unfair advantage.”
He smiled at me and I noticed his off-white, uneven, teeth framed by soft pouting lips; he really was not an attractive man at all. His trousers were worn low over his hips and I guessed that his bulging tummy would not enable him to hoist them up any higher. His hand still remained against the small of my back and I was glad when he beckoned my partner Mark and me to follow him.
He ushered us away from the hustle and bustle of the banqueting hall, “Actors.” He said with a wry smile as we passed by some who were busy rehearsing their lines and showing evidence of their artistic temperament.
“How many actors did you hire?” I ask as we glide by.
“There are quite a few,” he admitted, “Ten I think although my wife dealt with all that. Their polished performances will help the party keep momentum and feel credible.” He showed us into the living room before making excuses to go and find his wife.
I couldn’t stop myself, I sighed with genuine appreciation; this room was exquisitely furnished, understated and comfortable, but so appealing. It may have not looked expensive but I guessed that the luxurious curtains hanging in precision drapes at each window and the hand crafted soft furnishings were worth an arm and a leg. The room had a peaceful feel and I imagined this was where our hosts spent most of their time. Mark and I sat carefully on one of the two seater sofas and I felt reassured by the touch of his hand on my knee. We both became quietly mesmerised by the original ornate fireplace, with the hearth and surround carved to perfection and frankly, it was huge. They had sensibly placed a large cast-iron log burner in centre place and I could imagine how inviting this room would be with the fire ablaze and the soft furnishings of cream and soft yellows, a muted shade as the evenings drew in.
My first instinct had been to decline when Mark had suggested I come along. A murder mystery weekend wasn’t really my idea of fun and I’d been so out of practice socially since my closest friend had died the year before that the idea of having to make the effort to socialise had been daunting. I hadn’t wanted to leave the warm, mellow air of southern France and to come back to chilly old England. I had too many memories here in the south of England and although had never been to this area, it was still England, with the sights, and sounds and the familiar feel of the rolling hills and green patchwork quilt fields.
I shrugged off the heavy sensations that threatened to engulf me every time I thought of September, 12 months on and I was still weighed down by guilt and loss, but as Mark kept reminding me, sometimes good things emerged out of tragedy. I knew he meant our relationship that managed to blossom in spite of the circumstances.
September had been an incredible artist and was just coming into her own success story when she was murdered with such deeply rooted hatred that I shuddered to think of her final moments. Vibrant, sassy and wild, her beauty was only matched by the exquisiteness of her paintings. Mark was her agent in France and he had represented her well, recognising her unique talents. It was only after she died that Mark and I had met while I was on the mission to hunt down her killer putting us both at risk; I guess that our mutual respect and admiration for her drew us together. He felt her loss but I felt as if a part of me had died the day I visited her grave in the sleepy town of Ceret in France. She had been a part of my life since we were small, it didn’t seem possible that it was all over.
Glancing at Mark in these beautiful surroundings, I became aware of how relaxed he was. Like a chameleon, he could relax into any situation confident that he would blend in. I on the other hand felt awkward. I didn’t know Lord Tavener, I wasn’t even sure that I liked him, his podgy little hands came to mind immediately, but Mark had known him for a few years as a client and seemed to enjoy his company. Lord Tavener liked to add to his precious art collection by rewarding those artists who had not yet ‘made it’ knowing that with Mark’s commendation, these paintings were likely to escalate in value.
Lord Tavener had wanted to discuss purchasing more artwork for his collection and invited us to this social function which coincided with the visit.
The door opened and he walked in escorting his wife Amelia. I stood up awkwardly and extended my hand to her feeling immediately like a giant as I towered over her. She was petite in every sense of the word and she reminded me of many of the French women that I’d met, small in height and slender all over. She had a strong sense of style, a classic look and short cropped dark hair with feathery ends that framed her oval face. She wasn’t exactly beautiful, perhaps her eyes were a little too large for her elfin face, but they were no doubt her most attractive feature. She seemed open and honest and perfectly relaxed at meeting new guests. Her smile was genuine and she clasped my hand in hers and without having to say anything I knew that Mark and I were very welcome here. She turned to greet Mark having met him many times before and wrapped her arms around him and as he responded, leaning into the hug, I felt a small twinge of jealousy.
I knew at that moment that somewhere deep inside, there was a part of me still very insecure as to the depth of Mark’s feelings. He was dashingly handsome, tall and slim with greying hair and eyes that appeared to see all. I couldn’t quite believe my luck that he chose me.
I turned to look at Lord Tavener, “So how long have you lived here?”
He contemplated for a moment, “we haven’t lived here that long in the grand scheme of things, a handful of years in comparison to this centuries-old house, but we are doing our best to stamp our own presence here.”
Amelia sat in the chair opposite, nearest to the fireplace and leaned forward, “It’s truly the most incredible place. I have just started researching the history and it is quite significant.” Her enthusiasm was obvious.
She piqued my curiosity; I loved history and old buildings, “in what way?”
“Oh” she breathed enthusiastically, “I am just scratching the surface of it, but there have been some torrid carryings-on.” She laughed – a deep and throaty giggle that appealed. “Apparently one of the many previous owners used to host sex parties here. Can you imagine? What a waste of such a perfect space, how could they taint it?”
I glanced at her husband, his face was blank but I felt a flicker of interest in his eyes and had the feeling that he didn’t think it was a waste at all.
She continued, “Apparently, there have also been some murders here and only just recently while we were extending out in the garden to landscape the area ready for summer house, the gardeners found a skeleton.”
“Really?” As a journalist, anything out of the ordinary was enough to excite my imagination and I started wondering if there was a story here that could get me back into my freelancing. I hadn’t worked since September had died and financially I didn’t need to now as I was with Mark, but, I suddenly felt a surge of yearning for my old life where I used to hunt down stories and deliver breaking news to newspapers across the UK. “Did you find out who had died?”
She shook her head, “Not yet, but it was great fun having the police here and watching them excavate the body. Oh, and we did have a young girl from the village go missing but according to her family, she was a flighty little miss.”
“She worked here?” I asked.
“Yes, a very good worker too and that’s why I’m so surprised that she left without a word.”
Lord Tavener interrupted us with a generous slug of bourbon each; I sipped it appreciating the warmth that spread through my body. “Thank you Lord….”
“Oh, please, let’s not stand on ceremony, call me Reece, all this Lord nonsense is just too formal now that we are all friends.”
Sitting back on the sofa, with the alcohol putting me at ease at last, I realised that Reece was exceptionally good at making small talk. He was confident, charismatic and could be charming. He reeled off avid tales about his past and then touched on some of his plans for the manor. It was obvious he enjoyed being a gracious host and having people around to admire his achievements. I was surprised that this had not been the family home but had been an investment, buying into the history of the place, but I also knew from something Mark had told me that he was in his own right a self-made man. I supposed he had every right to be proud of his achievements and this glorious manor house was testament to his success. I couldn’t help but wonder just how deep his feelings for anything went. Even though he was excitedly chatting, there lacked an inner warmth and although I might be mistaken, there seemed to be a lack of closeness with his wife. She certainly looked at him with fondness but I wasn’t sure whether his returning looks held the same warmth. It was an uncanny feeling as an outsider looking in and yet blanked by an invisible screen.
“Would you like to see around?” Amelia asked me, placing her empty glass on the circular coffee table to her right.
I was up on my feet in a flash, any sense of tiredness evaporating at the thought of having the opportunity to snoop around such a beautiful building. I followed her dutifully out of the room back into the large hall and through a tiny doorway almost concealed in the oak wood panelling surround.
“This is the old servants’ quarters” she said looking at me, walking into the gloomy corridor beyond. I bent my head so I could enter, mindful of the very low ceilings. It was just one more thing that served to make me feel like a giant and ungainly in comparison to her. She pointed to another doorway leading off to her right, telling me that this had been the head servant’s office where the orders of the day would have been distributed.
We turned off the hallway and into a large kitchen, it was fitted out in an old-fashioned style and I didn’t suppose much had been done to it in recent years. It was obviously a functioning kitchen, with plenty of space for the servants to carry out their duties, but I couldn’t imagine Amelia spending much time in this one. I was right, she didn’t seem to want to stay in this part of the house at all and hurried instead down another corridor where at least, to my relief, I could straighten up without walking at an ungainly angle.
She pointed to the bedrooms that led from this corridor, “These were the servants’ bedrooms but no-one stays here now.”
“You don’t have anyone come in now?”
“Yes but no one actually stays here, unless we run out of room I suppose, but these are not as comfortable as the other bedrooms – as you will see later, so when we have guests we wouldn’t dream of putting them in here. We have several people from the village who come in every day for cleaning and for the gardening as it’s just too much for one person. But, when we have our functions such as this weekend, we hire more. It’s good for us to hire people from the village and good for them too as it brings in a fairly steady amount of work.”
The bedrooms were all very basically furnished and I felt as if we were stuck in a time warp. I could imagine servants going back and forth, scuttling around to ensure all their chores were complete. I imagined that their hours would have been long and the duties arduous. I shivered, it felt quite oppressive in this part of the Manor and Amelia noticed and smiled.
“Are you sensitive? Perhaps you’ve picked up on one of our ghosts. Apparently a young girl died in childbirth in this very room and they say that her spirit still haunts this part of the manor as she searches desperately for her young baby.”
“That’s sad. I suppose children were born out of wedlock and often poor servant girls would have been sent away, their reputation tarnished.” I looked around the room, imaging a young girl struggling to give birth, the labour too difficult as she tried to survive the process. “I suppose that you can’t have a house as old as this without having its fair share of ghosts?” I laughed.
“Indeed. We have nine that I am aware of but don’t worry, I haven’t heard any rattling chains or seen anything untoward.” Amelia raised an eyebrow and smiled, I hoped she was right. She led me out of the room and I cast a backward glance with relief, there was an odd, unwelcoming atmosphere here.
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