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Ellie's reading was interrupted by the sound of a gong. Someone somewhere was hammering enthusiastically on it and its low note reverberated throughout the building. Tapton stuck his head around the library door.
'Ah, I thought I might find you in here, Miss Walker,' he said. 'Dinner, as they say, is served.'
Using her body to shield the diary from Tapton's view, she slipped the book into her bag and then allowed him to escort her to the dining-room.
'We've got you sitting here,' Tapton explained.
The usual small tables had been arranged end-to-end to form two long tables running the length of the room. Tapton led Ellie to a chair need the end of one of the tables. Her name had been hand-written on a piece of card that stood on her plate. Like a gentleman, Tapton pulled out a chair for her so that she could sit down. Then, once she was comfortable, he made his excuses and went to take his place at the other table.
Ellie looked up. Violet was sitting next to her brandishing a Christmas cracker.
'Okay,' Ellie said, taking hold of the other end of the cracker. They pulled and there was a loud snap as the cracker broke. Violet had ended up with most of it and Ellie was left holding only the very end.
'What did you win?' Ellie asked Violet, who was emptying the cracker's contents onto the table.
Violet held up a yellow plastic ring.
'Impressive,' Ellie said and Violet grinned, slipping it on to her finger.
'What do you think?' she asked.
'Very stylish,' Ellie replied.
'Speaking of stylish,' Violet countered, 'this is for you. I've already got one.'
She thrust a paper hat into Ellie's hands. The hat was half red, half green. Very Christmassy.
'I don't think so,' Ellie said, trying to give the hat back.
'Oh go on,' Violet pressed. 'Everyone else is wearing them.'
It was true. Reluctantly, Ellie put on the hat.
'There's a joke too,' Violet continued.
'Spare us,' Ellie muttered.
Violet unfurled the rolled up piece of paper.
'Who hides in the bakery at Christmas?' she read. 'A mince spy!'
Ellie rolled her eyes.
The first course was melon. Ellie was surprised at how hungry she was, but, on reflection, she supposed that she shouldn't have been. Since getting off of the plane all she had had were a up of black coffee - the kind that could strip paint - and a sandwich on a station platform. After the melon, it was, of course, turkey. The meat was dry, so Ellie smothered her portion with gravy from a plastic jug on the table.
'I suppose I should apologise for Nana,' Violet said as she shovelled sprouts on to her plate.
'There's no need,' Ellie assured her.
'No, I think there is,' Violet insisted. 'She's not normally so rude.'
'Isn't she?' Ellie asked.
'Well, all right, maybe she is,' Violet admitted. 'But she's a really nice person when you get to know her.'
'She hardly seems to encourage people to get close to her,' Ellie pointed out.
'I know,' Violet conceded, 'but well, it's part of who she is.'
'Part of who she is?' Ellie echoed, slicing a roast potato and then coating it in gravy.
'Yes,' Violet confirmed. 'Tell me, have you heard the story of the fox and the scorpion?'
'No,' Ellie admitted, 'I can't say that I have.'
'Really?' Violet's eyes widened. 'Well, it goes something like this. One day, a fox was out for a walk and, having crossed a field, it arrived at the bank of a wide river. Sitting on the bank was a scorpion.
''What are you doing here, little scorpion?' asked the fox.
''I wish to cross the river,' the scorpion replied, 'but I cannot swim.'
'Then a thought suddenly occurred to the scorpion.
''You can swim, can you not, Mr Fox,' she said. 'Would you consider carrying me across the river on your back?'
''It would give me great pleasure to be of assistance to you, little scorpion,' the fox responded, 'but I fear that once you are on my back that you will sting me and then I will surely die.'
''I would not sting you, Mr Fox,' the scorpion insisted, 'for if I did so while you were carrying me across the river then I would drown.'
''That is true,' the fox agreed. 'Very well, little scorpion, climb up on my back and I will bear you to the other side.'
'So the scorpion scuttled up on to the fox's back and held on tightly to his thick orange fur. With one last look back the way he had come, the fox padded down to the water's edge. He tested the water with his paw. It was cold, but not so bad that that he would not be able to cross so he dived in to the river and began to paddle his way across.
'When they were halfway across, the scorpion plunged her sting deep into the fox's flesh.
''Little scorpion, you have killed me,' the fox said with his dying breath, 'but now you will die also for you will drown beneath the water. Why have you done this thing?'
''I could not help it,' the scorpion replied. 'It is my nature.''
Ellie was breathing quickly and she felt flushed. She closed her eyes and playing behind their lids she saw Abigail, her glassy eyes staring reproachfully at her from beneath the water.
Ellie shoved back her chair and stood up. The chair's legs scraped across the floor.
'Where are you going?' Violet asked.
'In search of a happy ending,' Ellie muttered before stalking from the room.
* * *
She made her way to her grandmother's room. The old woman was still asleep, her hands folded above her breasts. The only indication she was still alive was her gentle rise and fall as she breathed.
'Hiya, Gran,' Ellie said softly. 'It's me, Ellie. You granddaughter.'
Ellie pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat down in it. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her thighs and her chin in her hands.
'You probably don't remember me, Gran,' she continued. 'I don't know as we ever met. But I feel like I know you, you know? Mom used to tell me stories about you, when I was small. I think they were supposed to frighten me into growing up into a good little girl. Mom didn't approve of you, Gran, but I thought you were funny. Funny and brave and clever. And you had adventures, Gran, while the most exciting part of my day was the ride to and from school. I wanted to grow up to be just like you. Maybe that's why Mom and I don't get on anymore. Part of it, anyway.'
There was a gentle knock on the open door. Tapton was standing in the doorway.
'My apologies for intruding, Miss Walker,' he said, 'but you left dinner so suddenly and I was concerned.'
'Thanks,' Ellie said. 'That's sweet of you. But I'm fine. Really.'
'If you are sure ' Tapton turned to go, but paused on the threshold. 'I have to ask it wasn't the food, by any chance, was it?'
'No, Mr Tapton, it wasn't the food,' she assured.
'Good,' Tapton said. 'The cook was most distraught, you know.'
'It just brought back some old memories, that's all,' Ellie confessed.
'I understand, Miss Walker,' Tapton comforted her. 'When one gets to my age, one has more memories than one quite knows what to do with. And there are several I wouldn't mind doing away with altogether.'
'I'll drink to that,' Ellie agreed. 'How long have you worked here, Mr Tapton? If you don't mind me asking, that is.'
'I don't mind one bit, Miss Walker,' Tapton replied. 'When one is surrounded by the elderly and infirm day in and day out, it is always a pleasure to get a chance to converse with the younger generation. And, in answer to you question, I can't quite remember exactly how long I've been at Searle's, but it feels like a lifetime. Sometimes it feels like more than one.'
'You must have some stories you could tell,' Ellie remarked.
'One or two,' Tapton confirmed. 'One or two.'
'Maybe we could get together later and you could tell me some,' Ellie suggested.
'I think I would like that, Miss Walker,' Tapton said. 'I think I would like that quite a bit. Now, I shall leave you and you grandmother in peace.'
Tapton closed the door behind him when he left.
'You know, for a ghoul I think Mr Tapton's all right,' Ellie whispered. 'What about you, Gran?'
She ran a hand through her hair and realised that she was still wearing her party hat. She took it off and began to fold it in her hands.
'It's just typical,' she said. 'I come here because I think that maybe I can talk to you, that maybe out of all this crappy family, you, the one relative I've never met, might understand me and all you can do is sleep through my visit. Thanks a lot, Gran. Well, you've got to wake up some time, right? And I plan to be here when you do. So there.'
Readying herself for a long wait, Ellie settled back in her chair, took the diary from her pocket and began to read.
* * *
Sir Charles had choked on the sixpence Mrs Baxter had added to the plum pudding mixture. The one who found the sixpence would be lucky. That was what she had told me. Dr Smith fishes the sixpence out of Sir Charles' throat, but it is too late for him. The silver coin shines in the candlelight. It is difficult for me to believe that something so small could kill a man.
Reverend Patton goes to stand by the body of Sir Charles.
'This is a terrible, terrible accident,' Mr Searle says.
'Yes,' Dr Smith says. 'An accident. Perhaps the women would be better in another room?'
'I think that you will find that I am the equal of any man, Dr Smith,' Mrs Searle says, standing up.
'And the maids?' Dr Smith asks.
'Are just maids,' Mrs Searle replied.
'Isabella,' Mr Searle says, 'perhaps Dr Smith has a point. Molly, Ellie, would you wait outside, please.'
Both Molly and I hurry out of the room. I am glad to get away and Molly looks happier as well. A short time passes and Dr Smith joins us in the corridor. He speaks to Molly and then walks over to me.
'Ellie, isn't it?' he says.
'Yes, sir,' I replied.
'How are you feeling, Ellie?'
'That must have been quite distressing for you,' he says. 'I know it was for me.'
'I did not like it, sir, if that is what you mean,' I reply.
'I doubt Sir Charles liked it much either,' Dr Smith mutters. 'Tell me, Ellie, was this your first time waiting at table?'
'Yes, sir.' His smile makes me bold so I add, 'Did it show?'
'A little,' Dr Smith tells me, 'but only a little.'
'Claire has a fever,' I say, 'so Mr Wilkie said I had to do her work tonight.'
'Perhaps I should take a look at Claire,' Dr Smith says. 'After all, I am a doctor.'
* * *
Dr Smith closes Claire's eyes.
'What is wrong with her?' I ask.
'She's just sleeping,' Dr Smith says. I do not believe him.
He puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes.
'Do you see those marks?' he asks. He points to some red lines on Claire's cheek. On a normal day, Claire is full of life and her cheeks are red as roses. Now her skin is pale and white and the marks are easy for me to see.
'They look like claw marks,' Dr Smith says. I think he is talking to himself and not to me. 'I wonder.'
* * *
I walk with Dr Smith back to the dining-room. Mr Searle is arguing with Mrs Morton in the corridor.
'We have to tell her,' Mr Searle is saying.
'Not now,' Mrs Morton says. 'Not tonight.'
'But he's her father,' Mr Searle says.
'And she's just a little girl,' Mrs Morton replies. 'And it is Christmas Eve. Tell her that he's sleeping for now. It will be difficult enough for her without ruining this as well.'
'I suppose that you are right,' Mr Searle says.
'Am I interrupting?' Dr Smith asks as he walks towards them.
'Not at all,' Mr Searle tells him. 'We are gathering in the drawing-room. It is time to give presents.'
I have to wait outside, but Dr Smith is the last guest to enter the drawing-room and he leaves the door open just enough that I am able to see inside. He winks at me before sitting down in a large armchair. Major Warren is smoking a fat cigar and I can smell the smoke from where I am hiding. I do not like it very much, but I want to see what is going to happen too much for me to leave now.
Mrs Searle is holding baby Alice in her arms.
'As you all know, the reason we are all here tonight is to celebrate Alice's first Christmas,' Mr Searle says.
'Indeed,' Reverend Patton says, 'and part of Christmas is the giving of gifts. I hope that you will accept this small token on Alice's behalf.'
He passes a book to Mr Searle. It is thick and heavy and covered with dust.
'It is but a trifle,' Reverend Patton says, 'but it represents my hope that young Alice will grow up to be both intelligent and wise.'
As Reverend Patton stands up to give Mr Searle the book, he passes in front of the fire. The light from the fire twists his shadow and I shiver as I look at the hunch-backed silhouette spread across the floor.
'Can I go next?' Mary-Anne asks. She is sitting on the floor at Mrs Morton's feet. 'Please say I can go next.'
Mr Searle kneels down so that he is the same height as Mary-Anne.
'And what have you brought for Alice, Mary-Anne?' he asks.
Mary-Anne gives him the ballet shoes that she has been hiding behind her back.
'I brought these for her because I hope that she will be graceful and a dancer,' she explains. 'I'm not a dancer. I've got two left feet. No, really I have. This one is backwards. I'll show you.'
She starts to take off her own shoe, but Mrs Morton stops her.
'We believe you, dear,' she says.
'You do?' Mary-Anne asks. 'Well, that's all right then.'
'I brought her a dress,' Mrs Morton says, 'in the hope that what Alice wears will be as beautiful as she will grow up to be.'
It was a very pretty dress.
'And I brought her this,' Major Warren announces. He is holding a bottle and inside the bottle is a ship. I do not understand how he could have put the ship in there because the neck of the bottle is far too small.
'It is my wish that Alice get to travel far and wide,' Major Warren says, 'and that she sees everything and that she has adventures.'
'I'm not sure that adventures are quite what I would wish on a young lady,' Mrs Morton remarks, 'but they do say that travel broadens the mind.'
'And what will you give Alice, Lucius, old friend?' Mr Searle asks.
'Just this,' Lucius replies.
I realise that I am holding my breath. The gift is beautiful. It is a mobile, of the kind people hang above a baby's crib, but it is made of gold and I can see stars and moons slowly circling each other as he holds it up.
'One day, perhaps, your Alice will look up at stars such as this,' Lucius says, 'and understand the mysteries of the universe.'
'It is a marvellous gift,' Mr Searle says. 'And what of you, John. I doubt even you can best that.'
'Perhaps,' Dr Smith says. 'Perhaps not. In any event, am I the only one here who realises that it is only Christmas Eve and not the day itself. I reserve the right to give Lucy my present tomorrow.'
Mr Searle frowns.
'As you wish, John,' he says, 'but I hope that it will be worth it.'
'So do I,' Dr Smith replies. 'So do I.'
I hear a scream and I jump back. It is a good thing that I do for Mr and Mrs Searle and their guests have heard the scream as well and have come running through the door.
'What was that?' I hear one of them ask. In the confusion I cannot tell the voices apart.
'Where did it come from?' asks another.
They all go in different directions. They are looking for the person that screamed, but they do not find her. They return to the drawing-room. I keep my distance from them since they look very upset. Because of this, I do not see what they see when they enter the room.
'Good Lord,' Major Warren says.
I crawl closer and peer through the gap between the door and the wall. Mrs Morton is lying on the ground. Holly is wrapped around her neck like rope. Dr Smith kneels beside her.
'She is dead,' he says.
'Dead?' Reverend Patton exclaims. 'Dead?'
'Mrs Morton?' Mary-Anne wails. She falls to her knees and holds Mrs Morton's hand in her own. 'Tabitha?'
'She's gone, Mary-Anne,' Dr Smith says softly.
'Gone?' Mary-Anne says. 'She's not gone. She is right here. Can't you see her?'
'She's been murdered,' Major Warren declares. 'Just like Sir Charles.'
'Sir Charles' death was an accident,' Mr Searle tells him.
'That's what they want you to think.'
I gasp as Major Warren produces a gun and points it at the others.
'Nobody make any false moves,' he orders. 'There is a killer in this house and I for one do not intend to be his next victim.'
* * *
Ellie jumped in her seat. She had just got to a good bit.
'Sorry,' Daniel said. 'I didn't mean to startle you.'
'That's okay.' Ellie turned in her seat so that she could look at him. 'What can I do for you?'
Daniel shuffled from foot to foot nervously.
'Well, I wanted to show you something,' he explained.
'What kind of something?' Ellie asked.
'Well its difficult to explain,' he replied. 'It's weird. Just let me show it to you. Please?'
She got up and followed Daniel out of the room. He led her across the landing and into an empty room. In the room were a wardrobe (also empty) and a bed that had been stripped of bedclothes. The wardrobe had been pulled away from the wall and, when she peered behind it, Ellie could see a narrow staircase leading upwards.
'I was bored so I decided to do a bit of exploring,' Daniel told her. 'They're playing a selection of 'Christmas greats' downstairs and there's only so much Cliff Richard one man can take.'
'Who?' Ellie asked.
'Never mind,' Daniel said.
The staircase was made of stone and it spiralled its way through one of the towers Ellie had seen from outside the house. Ellie brushed a cobweb out of her face.
'I'm guessing no one comes up here very often,' she remarked.
'I know,' Daniel replied enthusiastically. 'Makes you want to know what's up here, doesn't it?'
'Not really,' Ellie muttered to herself.
Daniel stopped and turned to face her.
'Look, I want to thank you for coming with me,' he said. 'I made a right fool of myself earlier and you probably want nothing to do with me right now, but I don't really know anyone else here - well, except for Tapton and he doesn't really count - and I really needed someone to talk to.'
'Daniel, you didn't make a fool of yourself,' Ellie assured him.
Ellie shook her head.
'And I do like you,' she continued, 'but as a friend.'
Daniel looked slightly crestfallen.
'I'm sorry,' Ellie said to him. 'I like you, but it wouldn't work. And no, before you ask, it is not a you thing. To be honest, it's more of a 'Y' thing.'
'It's what?' Daniel asked.
'Never mind,' Ellie said, grinning. 'Let's see what's at the top of this tower of yours.'
At the top of the tower there was a door. The door was not locked, but it was difficult to open, having warped with age. Beyond the door was a bedroom and a girl was sleeping soundly in the bed. So soundly that the spiders had been able to weave their webs over her.
'See,' Daniel said, 'I told you it was weird.'
'You weren't kidding, were you,' Ellie agreed. 'What's a teenager doing in an old people's home and, more to the point, what's she doing stuck at the top of a tower nobody uses?'
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