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Seven Pale Faces

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SEVEN PALE FACES
By Scott Hayden
Based on characters created by Agatha Christie

 

1

     Rich folks is queer.
     The phrase ran through Naracott’s mind as his boat pulled up alongside the jetty. It was an odd thing to recall – one of the last sentences said in his presence by the wife of a good friend before both were murdered. It was a sensible enough statement in its own right, however. Especially given the passengers and destination of this morning’s voyage.
     He’d only really made the trip to the island a handful of times over the past few years. After the whole messy business there, there really hadn’t been the call to. There was a brief flurry of police wanting transport to and from, investigating the scene. Sometime after that, an estate agent came across to see the house, but it didn’t seem that they ever managed to convince anyone else to even consider the hideous building that occupied the island. Its infamy had spread too far and wide for any hope of selling it.
     Fred Naracott glanced in a mirror set up on the edge of the window and caught sight of his passengers. The woman, neatly dressed with shoulder length hair and a light shawl, looked back across the bay, almost as if she were deliberately avoiding looking at Indian Island. In no small measure, such was the truth. The woman held her hands close to her chest, drawing the shawl tight across her shoulders, but it was not the cold sea spray that chilled her, nor the stiff breeze that made her shiver.
     An arm wrapped itself around her slight frame.
     ‘We shouldn’t be here, Phillip,’ the woman said quietly. ‘We shouldn’t have come back.’
     ‘I know it’s difficult for you, my sweet,’ the man replied, crossing his other arm over her body, embracing her from behind, ‘but I truly think this is for the best. The only way you’ll conquer these nightmares of yours is to face them head on. And unfortunately, that means coming back here.’
     He was right, of course, and Vera knew it. For several weeks now she had woken in the night in a cold sweat, the most recent image in her mind that of a ghostly magistrate throttling the life from her with a noose made of seaweed. It had been nearly three years, and Vera had thought she had forgotten about that terrible weekend, just as Phillip had promised. But the dreams... the dreams brought it all back with such terrifying intensity. She had felt her very sanity come dangerously close to slipping from her on more than one occasion over those few days so long ago. She feared the dreams might well succeed where the insane Justice Wargrave’s machinations had only just failed.
     ‘But it’s different this time,’ Phillip said. ‘No insane homicidal lunatics loose on the island, no accusations of murder, and no house full of rogues and scoundrels... just the one by your side.’
     The gold bands each wore on their left hand chinked slightly as Phillip pressed his fingers between Vera’s.
     ‘There’s no danger here, my love. I swear to you.’

2

     The door was stiff. The frame had warped somewhat, making it difficult to move, but it soon gave way to Lombard’s efforts.
     Phillip stepped inside the house cautiously, his hand lingering near his revolver as he did so. Though his conscious mind told him that any threat here had been dealt with years ago, the instinctual, emotional, primal reaction to the house was still strong.
     As was the smell.
     The air was dry, stale. Sheets covered the furniture and dust covered whatever else lay exposed. It was silent within. Lombard rather felt like he was stepping into a tomb from a bygone era.
     Vera paused at the door. Her face was ashen. Phillip turned back to her and held out his hand. She took it and crossed the threshold. As she did so, she gripped his hand tighter.
     ‘There, nothing to worry about, you see?’ Lombard said. His own pulse had quickened, and his senses were on edge, but he displayed naught but a cool mask of calmness to his wife.
     Vera did not reply. She slowly paced the room, her eyes tracing the familiar landmarks – the couch Anthony Marston had choked to death behind, the chair Emily Brent had been sitting in when she was poisoned, the door to the dining room that lead to the scullery where they had found Rogers cut in half. Each and every item in the room held memories of that horrible, horrible time.
     She didn’t even dare look above the fireplace.
     Standing outside on the balcony, Narracot cleared his throat slightly.
     ‘If’n y’don’t mind my asking, sir,’ he said to Lombard, ‘why exactly am I here? You’re not staying here, so you don’t have any bags to carry up. I could have just as easily stayed down with the boat.’
     ‘Given the trouble we had the last time we were here, I think you’ll forgive us if we’re... cautious about the possibility of the boat leaving without us aboard it.’
     Narracott sighed and shrugged slightly. ‘If y’ say so, sir.’ Rich folks is queer.
     Lombard turned his attention back to Vera, who now stood at the study door, staring into it. He joined her there.
     ‘Not quite as full as the last time we were here, is it?’ she said.
     Lombard looked at Vera with a surprised expression.
     ‘What?’ she asked.
     ‘You’ve been hanging around me too long, my sweet,’ he said. ‘You’re beginning to pick up my sense of humour."
     ‘It could be worse. I could pick up your awful snoring habit.’
     ‘I don’t snore,’ Lombard said, ‘I just thoroughly enjoy my sleep.’
     Vera’s face brightened slightly with a weak smile.
     ‘Have we seen enough to shake loose those ghosts that haunt you, my dear?’
     Vera drew her breath in. ‘I... I don’t know. I can’t say I feel any better for having come back here.’
     ‘Perhaps what you need is a more active form of therapy then,’ Lombard suggested. He strode over to fireplace and picked up a few pieces of coal before returning to Vera’s side. He handed a lump to her. ‘Here we are.’
     ‘And what do you expect me to do with this?’
     ‘Follow your instincts I suppose,’ he shrugged. ‘Narracot!’
     ‘Yes sir?’ the boatman asked, poking his head in through the open balcony door but not setting foot inside.
     ‘Be a good man and move away from that window, would you?’
     ‘Uhm… yes sir,’ Narracot replied, stepping aside as he did so.
     The moment Narracot was out of the way, Lombard took one of his pieces of coal, threw it up in the air, caught it again, and then hurled it through the glass pane.
     Vera let out a shriek as the glass shattered. She cuffed Lombard on the arm. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’
     ‘Oh come now,’ he said, pleading his own defense. ‘The only reason that this place has any windows intact at all is because it’s so damned difficult to get to. Otherwise, I guarantee every child within five miles would have come and smashed all the window years ago.’
     ‘And that somehow makes it alright for you to do so?’
     ‘The ten year old in me cries out for it, my sweet. I expect a part of you does too. Try it.’
     Vera looked at Phillip oddly. ‘You expect me to take this piece of coal and smash a window with it?’
     ‘Yes.’
     ‘And you expect that will make me feel better?’
     ‘Maybe. Certainly be entertaining enough to me,’ he said, dusting his hands off and placing them in his pockets. ‘But you’ll never know unless you try.’
     Vera bit her bottom lip slightly as she considered it.
     ‘I shan’t tell anyone it was you my love,’ Phillip whispered with a devilish smile. ‘Neither will you, eh Narracot?’ he called.
     ‘Absolutely not, sir,’ came the reply from outside.
     Lombard placed his head near his wife’s ear. ‘Go on,’ he said, his voice barely more than a breath.
     Vera wrestled with herself for a moment before she made her decision.
     The window shattered with a satisfying smash and tinkle of glass.
     Lombard smiled. ‘Doesn’t that feel better?’
     Vera breathed deeply, a great weight lifted from her chest. ‘Yes. Yes, it does.’
     ‘Then imagine how much better you’ll feel after a few more like that, eh?’ he said, producing several more lumps of coal for her.
     ‘You are positively wicked, Phillip,’ she smiled at him as she took another piece from him.
     ‘And you love me for it.’
     Vera let fly and another window fell. A third and fourth fell in rapid succession as Vera found herself caught up in the moment. A window for Marston, a window for Rogers and his wife, a window for General Mackenzie, a window for Emily Brent, one for Dr. Armstrong, one for Blore...
     Finally, Vera spun to face the fireplace. The final lump of coal would be brought to bear on Wargrave’s whole damn mad scheme. No more Little Indians, no more rhyme, and no more nightmares. She wound all her strength into her arm, ready to hurl the black lump.
     And then she stopped.
     Her eyes went wide and her grip became loose. The piece of coal fell to the ground from her hand.
     ‘My god.’
     Lombard looked at his wife, concern evident on his face. ‘Vera? What’s wrong?’
     Vera Elizabeth Lombard stared straight ahead at the fireplace. Like everything, the molding and mantle were covered thick with dust. But above it...
     Above the fireplace hung a frame, brightly polished and brand new. And in the frame, a poem.
     Vera screamed.

3

     Dark clouds hung low over Indian Island, the rumble of distant thunder held the promise of a wild night to come.
     Lombard’s face was almost as dark and serious as the sky as he leaned against the window frame, looking out at the bay. He had had some misgivings about coming back here, but had put them aside, feeling that it was the only way for Vera to conquer her demons. He had never intended to inflict more pain on her. It had seemed such a sensible notion at the time...
     Damn it! And damn him for doing this to her. Well intentioned or not, he should have known better than to think that old wounds could be healed by reopening them. And of all the people to be hurt, it had to be her - the one person in this world that meant anything to him. The only good thing that had happened to him in this life. Whoever was responsible for this new torment would pay, and pay dearly. Lombard would see to that.
     ‘Phillip?’
     Lombard turned away from the window. Vera was awake and trying to sit up in bed. He moved to her side and sat on the edge of the bed.
     ‘How are you feeling?’
     ‘A little light headed I’m afraid,’ she answered.
     ‘Hardly surprising. You did faint.’
     Vera held a hand to her forehead. ‘I had the most horrible dream… we were back on Indian Island… and there was another terrible, terrible poem…’
     Lombard almost began to say something, but fought back the impulse. ‘You’re safe, Vera.’
     His hesitation, however brief, was noticed. Vera eyed him suspiciously. ‘We’re not back on Indian Island, are we?’
     ‘No, of course not,’ Lombard answered. ‘We’re all the way across the bay from the Island…’
     Vera sat bolt upright in bed. ‘My god. Then it wasn’t a dream, it was all true! There’s another poem and another homicidal lunatic on the loose…’
     ‘Let’s not jump to conclusions, my love,’ Lombard said, trying to ease his wife’s fears. ‘Yes, there is another poem, but what that might mean is anyone’s guess.’
     ‘What other possibility is there? Someone’s decided to pick up Justice Wargrave’s old bag of tricks and finish off what he started!’
     ‘Vera…’
     ‘Unless…’ Vera said, her gaze somewhere off in the distance, ‘unless… dear god… Wargrave’s still alive."
     ‘Now that’s nonsense and you know it,’ Lombard snapped. ‘I shot him myself. Hell, I even attended his funeral to make damn sure. Wargrave is dead.’
     ‘I thought you were dead when I shot you. And the police thought us both dead when they arrived on the island.’
     ‘Slightly different situation in those cases, my sweet. But the fact remains – Wargrave is dead.’
     ‘I wish I could be as sure as you are, Phillip,’ Vera said, pulling the sheets tighter to her body.
     Lombard rose, shaking his head slightly. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
     ‘Where…?’ Vera began to ask.
     ‘Just popping downstairs for a minute to get a brandy.’ A drink to calm her nerves… yes, that was the ticket.
     And just maybe he might get something to sooth his own…

4

     The Seven Stars was unusually quiet as Lombard made his way down the stairs. When he had passed it on his way to Indian Island last time, he had rather thought that the place would surely be the center of activity in the village come nightfall – it was certainly the biggest building in the sleepy little town.
     But tonight it was, at best, subdued. A young woman stood behind the counter, scribbling something in a large leather-bound register, the sole member of staff on duty. An old man with wispy strands of gray hair swept over his crown in some sort of vain attempt to pretend that he had a full head of hair sat by the fireplace reading from a small black book. A fellow in his mid-thirties had taken over one of the tables, with papers from his satchel spread across it as he poured over them – a taxman? Lombard wondered. The final guest, a matronly woman with a small watch attached to her jacket, sat across from him, listening to the wireless.
     Lombard eyed them as he descended, but none met his gaze. The woman behind the counter greeted Lombard and he placed an order for two small brandies with her.
     The news report on the wireless ended, and the woman leaned toward it to turn the volume down significantly.
     ‘Good gracious,’ she said as she leaned back in her chair. ‘Seems this business on the continent will only get worse, eh Reverend?’
     ‘The politics of man hold no interest for me,’ the gray-haired man replied, not looking up from his reading. ‘And I am not an ordained priest, so I would ask you to be more careful with your suppositions.’
     ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she replied. ‘I thought you said you were a preacher.’
     ‘That I am,’ he answered curtly. ‘The Northern Revivalist Church does not believe in titles and regalia. Only in the Message.’
     Lombard had to stifle a slight chuckle. That old prune-face couldn’t revive a very light sleeper, much less anything else...
     ‘I’m sorry, but would you mind keeping it down?’ interrupted the man with his papers at the table. ‘I’m trying to get some depositions finished here. It’s very important.’
     ‘Depositions? My, that sounds important. What line of work are you in, Mr...?’ asked the woman.
     ‘Edwards, Charles Edwards,’ he replied, clearly somewhat irritated at the utter ignoring of his request for quiet. ‘I’m a law clerk and I have an awful lot of work to get through if you don’t mind.’
     ‘Why aren’t you doing that at your office?’
     ‘Because the office is back in London, and I’m trying to catch up a bit while I’m on holiday.’
     Lombard grinned slightly. ‘Bit odd to take a holiday so you can get some work done, isn’t it?’
     Edwards looked up at him. ‘I work at a very busy office Mr…’
     ‘Lombard. Phillip Lombard.’
     ‘... Mr Lombard. And I have rather a lot to make up for. It’s a very different kettle of fish working against the court instead of for it.’
     ‘Oh? Were you a policeman?’ asked the woman.
     ‘Hardly. My previous position was as a Judge’s Clerk.’
     ‘Sounds like that job suited you better than your current one,’ she said. ‘Why did you leave it?’
     ‘I didn’t have a choice in the matter,’ Edwards answered, turning back to his papers. ‘I wasn’t required any longer.’
     The front door burst open as a young man, probably no more than his mid twenties, entered the building. A fierce wind followed him and howled through the open door, which the young man had completely ignored to close behind himself. Edwards scrambled to clutch at his papers, trying to keep them from flying off the table, as Lombard took it upon himself to close the door.
     ‘I say,’ the young man said, strolling up to the counter, ‘how about a room for the night, eh? Been travelling all day and I need somewhere to bunk down.’
     ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ the girl behind the desk said, ‘but we’re full up. We’ve no rooms left.’
     ‘Full up? In a tin pot little town like this? Nonsense! Look over your books again, there must be a space somewhere.’
     ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ the girl said once more, ‘but there isn’t. Never had a week like this before, I’ll grant you, but we’ve only five rooms and we already have five guests.’
     ‘Now listen here,’ the young man said, leaning toward the girl, ‘I’ve said I want a room. You’d do well to give me what I want.’
     ‘I… I’ll see what I can find, sir…’
     ‘Good!’ the young man said, slapping his hand down on the counter. ‘I think I’ll go have a drink, and you can tell me my room number once I’ve got one.’
     The young woman quickly disappeared from sight. As soon as she was gone, the brash young fellow made his way to the bar and leaned cross, helping himself to the bottles that lay behind it.
     ‘Bit rough on that poor girl, weren’t you?’ Lombard asked as he approached.
     ‘You have to remind these people of their place sometimes, old boy,’ the younger man said while he continued to rummage through the liquor available. ‘Otherwise they start to get ideas, think they can talk back to you. Won’t do to have any of that nonsense. Now let’s see what we have here… good god, a Chateau Farbrisse ’32? Looks like I’ll have to stick to whiskey if that’s the best they can manage around here...’
     ‘Excuse me, sir, but I have your room and key for you now,’ the returning girl said timidly. ‘Seems I was wrong after all – I hadn’t realised that Captain and Mrs. Lombard were sharing a room.’
     ‘There, you see?’ the young man said as he took the key. ‘If I hadn’t been firm on the girl, I would have been out on the street.’
     ‘If you would just sign the register...’ He did so and returned the book to the girl. ‘Thank you Mr. Berkley.’
     ‘I’m sorry,’ Lombard interrupted, ‘but did she say your name was Berkley?’
     ‘Yes,’ Berkley replied as he leaned back on the bar. ‘Friends call me Badger.’

5

     ‘I think we have somewhat of a situation on our hands.’
     Vera looked back at Phillip in the reflection of her mirror as she did up the broach at her collar. ‘I tried to tell you that earlier.’
     ‘Yes, but I think it’s more serious than either of us realised,’ he said. ‘Young chap just bowled in, demanding a room.’
     ‘So?’
     ‘His name is Badger Berkley.’
     Vera stopped dead for a moment. ‘But… that was the name of Martson’s friend. The one who got Marston to come to Indian Island.’
     ‘That’s not the half of it,’ Lombard said, moving across the room to his wife’s side. ‘One of the other guests here used to work for a judge until the position became ‘redundant’, and another is an old bible thumper who to my mind bears more than a passing resemblance to the late Emily Brent, at least in temperament.’
     ‘You don’t think…?’
     ‘I’m beginning to.’
     ‘The poem,’ Vera said. ‘Where’s the poem? If it is like last time...’
     ‘...then our first clues will be found there, you’re quite right,’ Phillip said as he reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out the cloth he had torn from the frame on Indian Island. He spread it out on the dresser table, so both of them could look at it clearly.

Seven Pale Faces

Seven pale faces, asked for God to bless,
One said his prayers and then there was one less.

Six pale faces, knowing not what to do,
One’s time ran out and they were down by two.

Five pale faces, trying desperately to flee,
One went too fast, and the dead numbered three.

Four pale faces, knocked to the floor,
One saw too much, and the count reached four.

Three pale faces tried to get out alive,
One was strung up, and the death toll was five.

Two pale faces, in quite a fix,
One came unstuck and struck down the last of six.

One pale face left, never to see Heaven,
Took his own life, to account for all seven.

     Vera pushed herself away from the table slightly and looked up at her husband. He returned her gaze with a dark, serious look of his own.
     Phillip took a deep breath. ‘Well, I would hazard a guess that the first is likely to be the Bible-basher. Time ran out... woman downstairs has got a watch on her blouse, but that’s probably pretty tenuous at best...’
     ‘But if Mr. Berkley is anything like Anthony Marston, I’d have to say he’s more than likely to be the one going too fast,’ Vera suggested.
     Lombard nodded. ‘Quite right. But I can’t see anything in the rest of the verses that might give us a clue as to who’s the intended victim for each one.’
     ‘Except the last one. Surely that’s the murderer himself.’
     Or someone with a fragile mind, unable to cope with it all... Lombard thought, darting a quick glance at Vera.
     ‘Well, regardless of that, if we’re right about the rest of this, then we have the upper hand. Our mystery friend has revealed his hand, and we know this game already. We shan’t fall for the same tricks again. And with any luck,’ Lombard said as he checked his revolver, ‘we just might be able to stop him before he can start.’
     ‘No, it’s too late for that’ Vera said. ‘If we’re right, then the game is already underway.’

6

     ‘Bit of an odd name ‘Badger’, isn’t it? Parents bit lost for ideas when it came to naming you, were they?’ asked the watch-woman with a gentle smile. Dinner conversation had been sporadic at best, with Mr. Edwards and the clergyman doing their level best to get through the meal as quickly as they could to return to their prior activities. The watch-wearing lady, one Victoria Haining, a nurse come to Sticklehaven to see about position with the local GP who had sent her a job offer quite out of the blue, had endeavored to get some sort chat going, but had thus far failed to generate any substantial conversation.
     ‘Nickname, actually, ma’am,’ Barcley replied. ‘Given name’s Percival – pretty much speaks for itself as to why I go by ‘Badger’, eh? But anyway, Tony Marston and I were slumming it one night down the south end, found a charming little pub – real blue-collar stuff. Somehow ended up in the middle of a brawl. Just like in the Westerns. Tony got off with barely a scratch, but I was rewarded with a couple lovely shiners. Looked like a damn badger for nearly two weeks after.’
     ‘Could have been worse,’ Lombard said, casually sipping his drink. ‘You could have been nicknamed ‘Panda’.’ Phillip said as he placed down his glass. For tonight at least, he had forgone a stronger drink in favour of water he had seen poured from the tap itself, as had Vera, and both had waited for the others to take a bite of their meals first before touching their own food. ‘So what exactly did you say it was that draws yourself here, Badger?’
     Berkley finished chewing his current mouthful before answering. ‘Bit of an odd story, actually. Got a wire while I was on the continent, saying I’d been named in a will and that I needed to attend the reading. Rather a hassle to drop everything and get back here, but I was told it’d be worth my while.’
     ‘And the reading of the will is here in Sticklehaven?’ Vera asked.
     ‘Apparently so,’ Berkley said, loading up his fork again. ‘Though I must admit, I’m surprised that there’d be anyone around here with the sort of money I was told about. Still, far be it from me to look a gift horse in the mouth. Funds were getting a bit on the low side. The money old Tony left me hasn’t gone quite as far as I hoped.’
     ‘Where were you on the continent, Mr. Berkley?’ inquired Sister Haining. ‘Nowhere near this terrible mess in Germany, I hope. They say we could be headed into another Great War.’
     ‘Utter stuff and nonsense, sister,’ Berkley replied.
     Lombard raised an eyebrow. ‘Sorry, Berkley, but I wouldn’t have taken you to be the type to be up with the political situation.’
     ‘Well, being closer to the action than anyone else around this table, it’s a bit hard to avoid it. But for the life of me I can’t see what the big fuss is about.’
     ‘The rebuilding of the Austro-German Empire doesn’t concern you, Mr. Berkley?’ asked Mr. Edwards, quite unexpectedly.
     ‘Far from it, sir. They’re merely putting back together what is rightfully theirs. I imagine we would do the same if positions were reversed.’
     ‘And if they do not decide to satisfy themselves with what they formerly had? If they should decide to lay claim to, say, the rest of Europe?’ Vera asked.
     Badger smiled patronizingly at her. ‘My dear lady, I should say we let them have it. Look at how they’ve turned themselves around since the war. Can you imagine the sort of progress we’d make if they could apply those lessons to the rest of Europe? Or here even?’
     ‘I shudder to think,’ Vera said under her breath.
     ‘At the very least, we’d get the trains running on time, eh?’ Berkley laughed.
     Lombard glared at Berkley, who made no acknowledgement that he was aware of Lombard’s disapproval. Others at the table, however, did.
     ‘Perhaps a little music might lighten the mood, eh?’ suggested Sister Haining. Mr. Edwards obliged, turning on the wireless at a low volume.
     ‘I could quite happily do without that racket,’ the old man – one Mr. Joshua Brent, according to the register Lombard had managed to sneak a look at - said, fixing a piercing gaze on Edwards.
     ‘It’s just a little music,’ Vera said. ‘To help us digest.’
     ‘No, madam, it is not. It is noise, nothing more.’
     ‘I suppose any harmonies made outside the confines of a church is just noise in your eyes, eh?’ Lombard asked.
     ‘Or ears, rather,’ Badger added.
     The old preacher drew himself up in his chair. ‘Quite right. Music is to be made to the Lord in His house. Anything else is the Devil’s work.’
     Lombard smiled. ‘Then I must ask, why exactly do you choose to ever step outside of your church if everything else offends your sense so?’
     The old man sneered. ‘Given the choice, Captain Lombard, I would not. However, I was asked to come here by the local pastor, and could not refuse a fellow man of the cloth. That said, I would think twice before accepting such an invitation in future.’
     ‘Problem with your visit, sir?’ Vera asked. To her mind, it was perfectly clear that this invitation must have been the lure, so any further information gleaned regarding it might be a valuable clue.
     ‘To say the least,’ Brent answered, placing his fork down on his plate. ‘First the minister claims to have never heard of me, let alone invited me down here, then they say they have no room to put me up for the weekend, so I shall have to stay here. I should have a right mind to turn around and head home at once.’
     ‘Not on a night like this, pastor,’ Ms. Haining said as the wind howled. ‘I’d not put a dog out in this weather.’
     Mr. Brent huffed. ‘Quite.’
     The plates were cleared away and coffee served to those who wanted it – the Lombards politely refused. Joshua Brent too passed, though was far less courteous about the subject. Badger Berkley took his cup and headed for the wireless, determined to find a better channel than the one it was currently tuned to, while Sister Haining persisted in annoying Mr. Edwards, who was apparently trying to make notes from a judgement he was reading.
     Vera and Phillip stood back from the group slightly, watching them carefully. Vera leaned in to her husband. ‘I’ve just noticed something.’
     ‘Oh? Do tell.’
     ‘The poem said ‘Seven Pale Faces’ and yet there are only six of us here.’
     ‘That’s a point. Number seven still to turn up you think?’
     ‘I don’t know. Perhaps the poor girl on duty here makes the seventh, like the Rogers did.’
     ‘Perhaps,’ Lombard said, a slight scowl on his face. ‘But everyone else here is in some way connected to Wargrave’s little game. I don’t see why our new ‘friend’ would break that pattern by involving someone who isn’t.’
     ‘Whatever happened to "Yes, there is another poem, but what that might mean is anyone’s guess"?’ Vera asked.
     ‘Must you drag up every rash statement I make?’
     ‘Of course,’ Vera said. ‘I’m your wife. It’s my job.’
     Lombard smiled, but that quickly faded as he noticed Mr. Brent heading their way.
     ‘Going somewhere, pastor?’ Lombard asked.
     ‘If you must know,’ grunted the old man, ‘I’m off to bed.’
     ‘What, already? Vera asked. She shot Phillip a quick glance. The first is likely to be the old Bible-basher...
     ‘The night’s still young, sir,’ Phillip added.
     ‘It’s quite late enough by my reckoning. Besides, if the Lord had intended us to stay up so late, he would have made us able to see in the dark.’
     ‘Or he would have invented fire,’ Lombard quipped.
     Joshua Brent glared at him. ‘You, young man, have quite a mouth on you. I should be careful if I were you. And you, madam, should take greater pains to curb your husband’s wicked tongue.’
     ‘I shouldn’t have thought...’ Vera began.
     Brent stopped her with the holding up of his hand. ‘I am going to bed. Now.’ And with that, the old man headed for the stairs.

7

     Badger Berkley switched the wireless off, frustrated at the lack of clear signal in the area. ‘Shan’t get a halfway decent tune out of this thing, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘Shame I didn’t bring my travel gramophone and some records with me.’
     Edwards sighed. ‘As much as I may regret pointing this out to you, but I believe there’s a perfectly functional gramophone over there,’ he said, waving his hand in the direction of the dust covered machine. ‘I expect someone around has something to play on it.’
     ‘Oh, right you are,’ Berkley said. He opened up the lid and adjusted the bell. ‘Matter of fact there’s already something on it.’
     Berkley set it going and placed the needle down.
     Phillip and Vera’s attention was suddenly wrenched away from their attempts to keep Mr. Brent downstairs when an all too familiar voice boomed out.
     ‘Ladies and gentlemen, silence, please. You are charged with these indictments...’
     ‘What’s that you’ve put on, a radio drama or something?’ Sister Haining asked.
     ‘...that you did respectively and at diverse times...’
     ‘Sounds like it,’ Berkley said. ‘Have to see if there isn’t something better to listen to...’
     ‘Victoria Margaret Haining, that you did cause the death of Louisa Mary Clees.’
     At the mention of her name, the nurse stiffened, shock registering in her eyes.
     ‘Joshua Stephen Brent, that you were responsible for the death of Beatrice Taylor.’
     The old man, only a few steps up the stairway turned and descended more rapidly than anyone thought him capable of. ‘What did you just...?’
     Lombard silenced him with an upheld hand.
     ‘Percival Gerald Berkley, that you were responsible for the deaths of John and Lucy Combes. Charles Edwards and Fred Narracot, that you were complicit in the murders of Edward George Armstrong, William Henry Blore, Emily Caroline Brent, John Gordon Mackenzie, Anthony James Marston, and Thomas and Ethel Rogers.’
     The Lombards exchanged glances, awaiting the announcement of their ‘crime’.
     ‘Phillip and Vera Lombard, that you murdered Sir Lawrence John Wargrave. Prisoners at the bar, have you anything to say in your defence?’
     The record ended, leaving a shocked and still silence in the room. A tense moment passed before Lombard looked to his wife and then headed to the gramophone. He peered at the record and gave a slight ironic laugh.
     ‘You find something funny, Captain Lombard?’ Joshua Brent asked.
     ‘ "The Last Post",’ he said. ‘The title on the record. Even worse than the last one.’
     ‘Last one?’ Haining asked
     ‘Needle on the gramophone is brand new. And as for the record itself, label says it’s a Braverson’s,’ Lombard said. ‘Same lot that made Wargrave’s one.’
     Vera noted Edward’s reaction to the very mentioning of the late judge’s name.
     ‘Do you know something about this?’ Berkley asked.
     ‘Yes, but not as much as we’d like I’m afraid,’ Vera said, taking up a central position in the room. ‘Both my husband and I have been through something altogether frighteningly like this before. Three years ago. On Indian Island.’
     ‘You don’t mean... you were involved in that horrible business?’ Sister Haining asked.
     ‘Not as a matter of choice,’ Lombard said, taking up position at Vera’s side, ‘ but yes, we were. And so was Narracot.’
     ‘Our mystery seventh pale face,’ Vera said.
     ‘Exactly,’ Phillip replied.
     ‘What are you talking about?’ Edwards asked, half panicked. ‘Pale faces? Murder accusations? It’s crazy, all of it, sheer madness!’
     ‘Oh, I have no doubt about it that it’s indeed madness,’ Vera said, ‘but the fact remains that we’re all in grave danger.’
     ‘Danger? That loony record said nothing about danger!’ Badger said.
     ‘Did you even bother to find out just how Anthony Marston died, Berkley?’ Lombard asked. ‘Because I saw him die before my eyes. So did Vera. And so did eight other people who joined him not too long after. So yes, there is danger here, make no mistake about that.’
     ‘You!’ Edwards said, shaking his finger at the couple. ‘You knew about this beforehand, didn’t you?’
     ‘We... had our suspicions,’ Phillip answered.
     ‘And yet you kept mum about it all through dinner!’ Edwards continued. ‘Why, we could have been poisoned!’
     ‘The important thing is that we know where this is headed, and we can stop it now. The killer is hiding in our midst...’ Lombard said.
     ‘Killer?!’ Edwards raved. ‘Nobody’s dead and you’re already saying there’s a killer? You’re mad!’
     ‘I know it sounds crazy, but...’
     ‘Wait,’ Vera interrupted her husband. ‘Are we really sure no-one’s dead yet?’
     ‘Can’t speak for anyone else here, but I know I’m not,’ Badger said.
     ‘Narracot’s not here,’ Vera said. ‘He could be dead already.’
     Lombard’s face was cold and hard. ‘You’re right. Somebody has to check. If he’s not, then at the very least we need to tell him he’s in danger.’ He headed toward the door, grabbing his coat.
     ‘You can’t go out there in that!’ Nurse Haining said.
     ‘A man’s life may depend on it, sister,’ Lombard answered.
     ‘You can’t go out there alone, Phillip,’ Vera said. ‘It could be just what the killer is counting on!’
     Lombard drew close to his wife. ‘You think I should take one of these people with me? There are fairly decent odds that one of them is the killer.’
     ‘Please, Phillip,’ Vera said, clutching his arm, ‘don’t go out there alone.’
     Lombard sighed. ‘Alright, alright. Berkley – feel up for late-night stroll?’
     ‘Can’t say it’s top of my ‘To-Do’ list, but under the circumstances...’ he said, grabbing his own coat. ‘Shall we take my car?’
     ‘No point. Naracott can’t be more than a couple of streets over. Little water never hurt anyone.’ Lombard turned back to Vera. ‘You’ll be alright here?’
     Vera did her best to smile at him. ‘I’ll be fine,’ she said as she patted her handbag.
     Lombard nodded and made his way to the door. A fierce blast of wind that greeted him as he opened the door, but it did not deter him or Berkley. The door closed behind them with a slam.
     Nobody noticed Joshua Brent sitting in the corner, staring ahead into the fire, his head shaking slowly from side to side in disbelief.
     How could they have known? How could anyone have known?

TO BE CONTINUED

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