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'Mrs Arbogast said that she heard noises coming from the tower,' Tapton said. 'Somehow I expected it would be you, Miss Walker.'
Ellie spun round. Tapton had crept silently up the staircase and now blocked their exit from the room.
'What's going on here, Tapton?' Daniel demanded, stepping protectively in front of Ellie. 'Who is she?'
'That would be Miss Alice,' Tapton explained, 'and as for what's going on here well, I shall have to be brutally honest, Mr Perrault, and say that I very much doubt that you will believe me.'
'Try us,' Ellie said, stepping out from behind Daniel.
'I believe that you will be open to what I have to say, Miss Walker,' Tapton clarified. 'You are, after all, a part of the events here. You companion, on the other hand, is an uninvited guest with a closed mind.'
'Now wait a minute ' Daniel began.
'What do you mean I'm a part of it?' Ellie interrupted. 'I chose to come here. I wasn't invited.'
'Perhaps I would be better saying that you were drawn here,' Tapton continued. 'The drama has one more act left to run and all the players must resume their appointed parts.'
'And what part is Ellie supposed to play is these bizarre game of yours?' Daniel demanded. 'And what about Alice? Is she one of your players too?'
Daniel tried to step in front of me again, but I put a hand on his arm and restrained him.
'I can take care of myself,' I whispered.
'You might say that Alice is a player, Mr Perrault,' Tapton continued. 'Yes, you might very well say that.'
'Who is she, Mr Tapton?' I asked. 'At least tell us that.'
'Don't you already know?' he asked me. 'Alice is the only child of the late Lord and Lady Searle.'
Daniel's eyes widened.
'But the last Lord Searle died '
'Over one hundred years ago,' Tapton supplied. 'You know your history, Mr Perrault.'
'You're crazy,' Daniel spat. He grabbed me by my wrist. 'Come on, Ellie, we're getting out of here.'
He dragged me out of the room. Tapton smiled enigmatically as he stepped to one side to let us past.
* * *
'What do you think you're doing, Daniel?'
Ellie tore her hand free of Daniel's grip once they reached the bottom of the stairs. They could hear the sounds of the Christmas party in the distance.
'I was just trying to protect you,' Daniel replied.
'Do I look like I need a knight in shining armour?' Ellie demanded. 'I told you, I can look after myself.'
'Tapton's clearly obsessed with you,' Daniel pointed out. 'There's no telling what he could do.'
'Have you looked at Tapton lately?' Ellie asked. 'He'd snap if he was out in a strong wind. I don't think he's going to harm me, do you?'
Several residents of the Searle's had gathered nearby to escape the heat and the noise in the dining-room. The looked up, their attention attracted by Ellie and Daniel's shouting, but the pair ignored them.
'And what about the girl?' Daniel continued.
Ellie folded her arms.
'Would this be the same girl that you left upstairs,' she pointed out, 'alone with Tapton?'
'I didn't think ' Daniel started for the stairs.
'Don't bother,' Ellie told him. 'Someone's been looking after her up until now and I think we can both agree that it was Tapton. He's hardly likely to start hurting her now, is he?'
'Maybe not,' Daniel conceded.
'There's something weird going on,' Ellie mused, 'but I don't think Tapton's behind it. Sure, he's creepy, but it's like he wants to tell me something.'
'I'm calling the police,' Daniel declared. 'They can sort this all out.'
'Daniel, wait!' Ellie called after him, but he was already storming over to the reception desk.
'Do you have a phone I could use?' he asked the woman sitting behind the desk.
'You won't get any joy, I'm afraid,' she said. 'The snow has brought down the lines. We'll be cut off until morning.'
'Brilliant,' Daniel muttered. 'Just brilliant.'
'So what do you suggest we do now, oh brave knight?' Ellie drawled.
'It's hardly my fault the phones are out,' Daniel protested.
Ellie shook her head resignedly.
'I think you're overreacting,' she told him.
'And you know this how exactly?' Daniel sniped.
'I've just got this feeling. Look, why don't we both go upstairs and try talking to Tapton again. Maybe I can convince him to open up and we can get to the bottom of this.'
'I suppose,' Daniel conceded.
'Mr Perrault?' A nurse cleared her throat next to them.
'Yes?' Daniel responded.
'Your father is asking for you,' the nurse informed him.
'My father?' Daniel turned back to me. 'I've got to go. You understand, don't you?'
'Of course I do,' Ellie assured him, but he was already racing away in the nurse's wake.
Nana clucked her tongue. She had been standing at the window throughout our conversation, but Ellie had failed to recognise her because Nana's back was to the rest of the room.
'I wonder where he's going in such a hurry?' Nana asked.
Ellie scowled at her.
'Don't do that, girl,' Nana scolded her, still not turning to face Ellie. 'If the wind changes you'll be stuck that way.'
Ellie hurried back up the stairs and away from the old woman.
* * *
Mr Tapton was sitting at the girl's - Alice's - bedside. He looked up when Ellie returned and gestured to a seat on the opposite side of the bed.
'She looks so peaceful,' Ellie said.
'Peaceful, yes,' Tapton replied. 'Peaceful and innocent.'
'We won't wake her, will we, talking here?' Ellie asked.
Tapton shook his head.
'Alice hasn't woken for a very, very long time,' he said.
'A hundred years?' Ellie suggested.
'Not since her first Christmas. I hope she enjoyed it.'
Ellie looked down at the girl in the bed. Her skin was pale, like porcelain, and her hair was black as night and shone like silk where it caught the light. Ellie reached out a hand and brushed the cobwebs from Alice's face.
'She reminds me of someone I used to know,' Ellie said.
'A friend,' Tapton asked.
'The best friend I ever had,' Ellie replied. 'She's beautiful.'
'She is the very image of her mother, Lady Searle,' Tapton said.
'I don't understand,' Ellie admitted. 'Assuming I believe you that she is the same Alice as the Searles' daughter, she can't be more than sixteen or seventeen at most.'
'She was supposed to be frozen in time,' Tapton said. 'The world would roll by, but she would remain unmoving.'
'So what happened?' Ellie asked.
'The spell was rushed,' Tapton said. 'It had to be. There was not time for anything else. As a result, the spell was far from perfect. He slowed her ageing, but even he could not halt it completely.'
'He was trying to save her life,' Tapton said. 'She would be long dead if not for him.'
Ellie looked at him quizzically.
'You know what happened, don't you?' she said. 'You know what really happened at the Searles' Christmas party?'
'You were there!' Ellie realised suddenly. 'You can tell me about it!'
'You were there too, Miss Walker,' Tapton said patiently. 'Why don't you tell me?'
'But I don't remember,' Ellie said.
'Then it's probably a very good thing that you wrote it all down,' Tapton replied.
Ellie looked down. The diary was already in her hands though she did not remember lifting it from her bag. Tapton nodded his encouragement so Ellie cracked open the spine and began to read.
* * *
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.'
'What is a false move?' Mary-Anne asks, still kneeling by Mrs Morton's body. 'Is it so very different from a real one?'
Major Warren looks down at the girl and, as he does so, he takes his eyes off of the other guests. Mr Morton darts forward and wrestles the gun from Major Warren's hand. Major Warren turns and I feel sure that his eyes are glowing red, but I tell myself that it must be the light from the fire.
'Calm yourself, Major,' Mr Searle says, helping the major to a seat. 'We are all friends here.'
Without his gun, Major Warren allows himself to be led about like a child.
'Be that as it may,' Reverend Patton says, 'there is still a murderer at large. If it is not one of us then there must be someone else at large within this place.'
'Hm, you may have a point,' Mr Searle says. 'Charles, would you mind waiting here with the major and the women while Lucius, John and myself scour the grounds.'
'As you wish,' Reverend Patton says. He reaches for Mary-Anne. 'Come away, child. Come sit by the fire. I fear your friend is beyond our help now.'
I hide in a corner out of sight when Dr Smith, Lucius Morton and Mr Searle leave the room. Mr Searle's house was filled with wonderful objects, things that served no use, as far as I can tell, other than to be there to look at. I sit behind a suit of armour Mrs Baxter had pointed out to me when she had first shown me round the house and I tuck my knees under my chin and I wait for Dr Smith to return.
It is a long wake and a pain builds in my legs though I dare not move, but finally Dr Smith, Mr Searle and Mr Morton come back. They have not found what they were looking for.
'If there was an assassin in the house,' Mr Searle says once Mr Wilkie has poured him a drink, 'then he is long gone. I fear that there is no more that can be done tonight. Let us retire.' Mr Searle drains his glass. 'Who knows, perhaps things will look different in the morning.'
The guests depart, all except for Dr Smith who paces the drawing-room. Mr Wilkie arranges for Mrs Morton's body to be taken away and then he leaves as well.
'You can come out now, Ellie,' Dr Smith says when we are alone.
'Sir?' I say as I tiptoe into the room. 'Would you like me to show you to your room?'
'What would be the point?' Dr Smith asks. He does not slow in his pacing. 'I doubt anyone will get much in the way of sleep tonight.'
'Sir?' I say again.
'Have a seat, Ellie,' he says. 'I need someone to talk to.'
'What about?' I ask.
He holds up a mind to silence me while he searches for a glass.
'Now,' he says to himself. 'Where did Wilkie hide that brandy. Ah!'
He produces the decanter and pours himself a drink.
'Something doesn't feel right, Ellie,' he says, throwing himself into a chair like a sack of potatoes. 'I expected him to have made his move by now.'
'Who, sir?' I ask.
'The killer, Ellie,' Dr Smith says. I am fixed in place by his bright blue eyes. 'The deaths of Sir Charles and Mrs Morton are just a prelude to the main event, assuming I haven't miscalculated.'
I wait patiently for him to continue.
'You don't realise what is going on here, do you?' Dr Smith says. 'You're the lucky one. Tell me, Ellie, have you never noticed anything odd about Lady Searle or her guests? Anything at all.'
I think about this for a moment.
'Major Warren's eyes, sir,' I begin to say, then I stop, fearing that I have said too much already.
'What about his eyes?' the Doctor asks.
'I thought I saw them glow, sir,' I say. 'Like hot coals. And Reverend Patton. His shadow doesn't look quite right.'
'Like it belongs to someone else, you mean?' Dr Smith says. 'Or should I say something else. Your master's guests, Ellie, aren't quite human. I wonder if he realises?'
'I don't understand, sir,' I say.
'Don't worry about it,' Dr Smith tells me. 'The important thing is that there are two factions at work here, one working with Lady Searle and one against her. And I expected someone to make a move against her tonight, but so far nothing.'
Dr Smith springs to his feet and starts to pace again.
'I can't be wrong,' he mutters. 'All of the signs were there. But if Lady Searle isn't the intended victim then who '
He trails off and the blood drains from his face.
'Oh no,' he says. 'Please say it isn't so.'
He grabs hold of my shoulders, shaking me.
'Quickly, Ellie, where is the nursery?' he demands. 'We haven't a moment to lose.'
We run from the room. I hurry ahead, spurred on my Dr Smith who is but a single pace behind.
'We can't be too late,' Dr Smith mutters as we run. 'We can't.'
Somehow the Doctor has got ahead of me and it is he who throws open the door to the nursery. Alice is sitting up in her crib, gurgling happily. She reaches out for her new mobile, her hand clasping around one of the gold stars.
'No!' Dr Smith shouts.
The sharp points of the star drew blood from Alice's pudgy fingers. Her eyes roll back in her head and she collapses, her body limp. Dr Smith also deflates, collapsing against the wall.
'I was so sure,' he wails, 'so very sure.'
There is a crash like thunder and the nursery fills with smoke. When I can see again, I see Mrs Searle standing in the middle of the room. Her arms are outstretched, her eyes burn brightly and there is a strange crown on her head.
'What has happened to my baby?' she demands.
'Get out,' Dr Smith says weakly. 'Get out. Haven't you done enough damage?'
'Have a care, Doctor,' Mrs Searle says. 'Do you not know who I am?'
'Of course I know,' Dr Smith replies. 'That's why I'm here. You are the Queen of Midnight, the Lady of Nightmares, undisputed ruler of the Unseelie Court.'
'Then you know what I can do,' Mrs Searle says.
'Know?' Dr Smith says. 'I've seen it. Would you believe I came here to help you? I know what you are, how you feed, but I thought I could look past that. Then I saw what you did to that maid. You drained the life out of her!'
He was talking about Claire and I knew for certain then that she was not sleeping no matter what Dr Smith had told me.
'What is going on in here?' Mr Searle says.
He staggers into the room, one hand pressed against the wall to support him.
'I don't believe it,' Dr Smith says as he enters. 'You would feed on your own husband.'
'He is only mortal,' Mrs Searle says, 'and he had already given me what I wanted.'
'An heir,' Dr Smith says.
'Which you have taken from me,' Mrs Searle screams. 'I promise you that your death will be as long as it is painful. I have had centuries to perfect my torments.'
'Wait!' I shout. 'He didn't kill Alice. We came here to save her.'
Mrs Searle pauses and she looks at me. I wish that she had not for her gaze makes me feel as if I am full of ice and needles.
'Am I supposed to take the word of the maid?' she asks.
'No, but you could take my word. I wouldn't want the good doctor taking credit for something I take pride in.'
Lucius Morton stands in the doorway, a proud smile on his face.
'You?' Mrs Searle says. 'But you have ever been a friend to us.'
Mr Morton shrugs.
'That was before they offered me entry into the ranks of the Seelie.'
'They will always look down on you, Lucius,' Mrs Searle says. 'Even as one of them you will be beneath contempt.'
'Better to be a peasant in the kingdom of the angels,' Mr Morton replies, 'the a prince in the dirt.'
'You...you killed my my daughter,' Mr Searle says weakly.
'Yes, I suppose I did,' Lucius says. 'Sorry about that, old chap. More importantly, I have killed the only heir to the Unseelie throne. All I need to do now is kill the queen and the whole court will be thrown into chaos, torn apart from within.' He pulls a twisted knife from beneath his jacket. 'Now, hold still, there's a dear, and I promise to make this quick.'
'You will die in agony,' Mrs Searle promises him.
'You first,' Mr Morton retorts.
He runs forward and plunges the knife deep into Mrs Searle's chest. Mrs Searle screams and the sound makes me shiver. With a great effort, she raises her hands and presses her palms to the sides of Mr Morton's head. A smell like Sunday roast fills the air and now Mr Morton's screams join those of Mrs Searle.
Then all is silent. The bodies of Mrs Searle and Mr Morton lie twisted and broken on the floor. The stillness is broken by a gentle sound, the sound of Mr Searle crying.
Reverend Patton, Major Warren and Mary-Anne Appleton run into the nursery.
'What happened here?' Major Warren asks. 'We heard noises and is that Mr Morton.'
'His remains,' Dr Smith says.
He crosses the room to join Mr Searle.
'I don't understand,' Mr Searle sobs. 'My wife?'
'Your wife was one of the faerie-folk,' Dr Smith explains. 'A very important one, but she had appetites. Appetites of which you are a victim.'
'I feel as if I have been robbed of all my strength,' Mr Searle says. 'John, tell me truly, as one friend to another, have I long for this world?'
Dr Smith shook his head.
'And Alice,' Mr Searle asks, 'my beautiful daughter, what has been done to her?'
'She was the heir to a kingdom,' Dr Smith says, 'so Lucius killed her. He killed you wife, Sir Charles and Tabitha Morton as well, all to please his Seelie masters.'
'You are wrong, Doctor,' Reverend Patton says. He is standing by the crib. 'Alice still lives, though barely.'
Dr Smith bounds to his feet and begins to examine Alice.
'Can you save her, John?' Mr Searle asks.
'I I don't know,' Dr Smith says, 'but I promise you this, if it is within my power to help her then I will.'
'Thank you,' Mr Searle says.
'Now, everybody out,' Dr Smith says. 'I need peace and quiet.'
Sir Charles, Mary-Anne, Major Warren, Mr Searle and I all leave the room. Dr Smith closes the door behind us.
* * *
That was the last entry in the diary. Ellie closed the book gently, her head set spinning by what she had just read. Did this mean that Alice was a faerie? That was ridiculous, surely, but something about the words in the diary rang true with Ellie. Was it because she had written them herself? Ellie was not quite prepared to believe Tapton on that score just yet.
She opened her mouth to ask him about it and noticed that he was no longer there. He must have slipped out while she was engrossed in the book.
'Well, I hope you enjoyed the story, Alice,' she said to the sleeping girl, 'even if someone else obviously got bored.'
Ellie sat quietly and watched Alice sleep. What dreams did she have, Ellie wondered. What dreams could last one hundred years? She did look remarkably like Abigail, so much so that just looking at her brought back memories. She could feel Abigail's soft flesh as she held her, smell her scent. The sight of her shy, half-smile was vivid in her mind's eye, as was the picture of her in scarf and hat as she stepped out on to the ice, her skates carving narrow furrows in the ice.
Ellie shook herself, snapping back to reality and preventing her mind from replaying what had happened next.
'Never fall in love, Alice,' she said. 'It's only brings you pain in the end. But I guess you're not going to have that problem.'
Ellie leaned forward and kissed Alice gently on the forehead. Then she put the diary back in her bag, stood up and left the room.
* * *
She reached the bottom of the spiral staircase just in time to hear a hammering on the front door.
'Who's that going to be at this time of night,' Ellie wondered aloud. 'I thought no one could get here because of the snow.'
'You don't really think a little snow is going to stop him, do you?' Nana asked.
Ellie blinked. She was sure she had been alone on the landing a moment before, but now she was surrounded by Nana, Violet and her baby.
'He walks the paths no one else treads,' Violet added.
'But he'll get his comeuppance soon enough, you'll see,' Nana said.
'Yes,' Violet said, 'his luck will only hold out for so much longer.'
The baby burbled her agreement.
Ellie raced down to the foyer, wanting to see the new arrival. He stood in the doorway, brushing the snow from his green velvet jacket.
'Doctor,' Tapton said, striding forward and shaking the man by the hand, 'a pleasure as always.'
'Patton!' Dr Smith said. 'I see you've left the church. Never did think it was you.' He looked up at Ellie. 'And Miss Walker. I've been looking forward to running into you again, Ellie. I do hope I'm not too late this time.'
'No, not on this occasion, dear,' Nana said.
Ellie turned. Nana and Violet were walking slowly towards them. The baby, carried in Violet's arms, opened her mouth and Ellie was shocked to see row upon row of tiny sharp teeth. The baby looked at Dr Smith with eyes like black saucers.
'This once, you've arrived just in time,' she said.
Upstairs, in the room at the top of the tower, Alice's eyes fluttered open.
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