|The Alabaster Hand by Nene
Adams ©2000 - All rights reserved
A Gaslight Series Halloween Special
Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
It was pitch dark in the drawing room. The gaslight had been turned completely off, and despite an October chill in the air, the fire had not been lit that evening. Heavy brocade curtains at the windows ensured no thread of silvery moonlight could enter to shatter the suffocating midnight atmosphere. A reverent, tomb-like silence prevailed, save for the whispery breaths of the twelve guests and their two hostesses.
"As all of you know, I'm an enthusiastic collector of Egyptian antiquities, although some may prefer the term 'rabid.'" Countess Agatha Orosz said, her voice almost shocking in the absolute darkness. She was American, and the wealthy widow of a Hungarian nobleman. This Halloween soiree was being held in her rented West End home.
A few nervous chuckles followed her remark.
She continued, "The ancient Egyptians were skillful practitioners of magic - some good, some reaching back to the most heinous evil known to man. They called upon demons of malice and murder in order to protect the graves of their god-kings. Those who desecrate the sacred burial places of the dead are cursed, for death will follow them on swift wings, and the righteous sword will pierce any mortal who dares lay hands on a pharaoh's treasure."
Agatha paused, and a beam of light shot from the dark lantern in her hand, illuminating a life-sized, alabaster statue of the god Anubis - the Egyptian protector of the underworld. Indrawn gasps of surprise and appreciation ran 'round the room.
On its mottled marble plinth, the stone statue glowed as if lit from within. The alabaster was creamy ivory, dappled with with golden yellow veins, and masterfully carved. It depicted a well muscled man's body with a jackal's head, who wore a pleated kilt; one hand held an ankh - symbol of eternal life - and the other was extended outward, palm up, fingers slightly curled. Eyes of jet, outlined with carnelian and lapis, provided the only splashes of color.
"This statue has an interesting provenance," Agatha said, raising her voice slightly above the murmurs from her guests. "It was first acquired from the tomb of a priestess, Isetnefret, by Lord Gregory Symmonds-Wollcroft in 1887. He smuggled it out of Egypt, despite the strong curse attached to the object, and brought it back to England. Three months later, he was found dead in his garden, throat swollen, the marks of fingers standing out livid against his throat. Despite the mysterious circumstances, a coroner's inquest brought forth a verdict of 'death by misadventure.' The Lord's son, Harry, immediately sold this alabaster Anubis to another collector."
Agatha closed the sliding door on the lantern and the light went out immediately, plunging the room into complete darkness once again. "The new owner, Mister George Hamilton, fell down the stairs, breaking both arms and a leg. He claimed to have felt stony, inflexible fingers fastening themselves around his ankle before pulling him off balance. He gave Anubis to a former mistress, Jane Brownfield, who later disappeared without a trace, leaving all her belongings behind. Her landlord sold the statue for a princely sum to Sir Albert Roberts, who had screaming nightmares for several months. All his terrible dreams centered around being suffocated by an alabaster hand.
"I purchased this beautiful but cursed statue from Sir Albert just one week ago. Since that time, I have suffered from nervous exhaustion, night sweats, and a continual sensation of foreboding. I have had difficulty in catching my breath from time to time, and I swear that it is then that I feel the ghostly retribution of Anubis reaching from beyond the underworld to fasten tightly around my throat and..."
Agatha broke off with a choked cry and screamed, "Here it is! O God! The alabaster hand has come to kill us all!"
There were more screams of sheer terror as a dimly glowing, disembodied hand loomed out of the blackness. Guests trampled one another, men and women reduced to primal terror in their desperation to get away. Hysterical sobbing, shouts and blood-curdling yells were accompanied by the smashing of glass and furniture. The shining hand swooped to and fro, fingers clutching blindly, a blurred trail of moldy green motes trailing behind like a veil.
In the midst of the chaos, someone lit a match.
The golden light revealed a beautiful woman's strong features, her inky hair twisted into a pair of beribboned braids. The match was held up in two gloved fingers, and her lips were pursed into a wry smile. Quirking an eyebrow, she drawled, "Really, Aggie. I would have thought such a childish prank entirely beneath someone of your mature years."
Agatha sheepishly flourished a papier-mâché hand, coated in luminous paint. The other guests stared, panting hard, women fanning themselves, the men straightening their ties and smoothing back disheveled, brillantined locks.
"I thought it was rather a good Halloween joke, Lina" the Countess confessed with a grin.
Lady Evangeline St. Claire shook her head, then used the match to light a nearby candle. The single bobbing, flickering flame dispelled much of the shadows, and turned the chamber of imagined horrors into a prettily appointed drawing room once again.
"I suggest you ring for a servant to dispense medicinal brandy and soda," Lina advised while Agatha turned up the gaslight and dropped the papier-mâché hand onto a table. "Even someone of stoic fortitude might have been frightened into fits by that story of yours."
"My goodness, I feel rather faint!" exclaimed Hyacinth DuRayne, a blowzy actress dressed in a sequined, eau-de-Nil mermaid costume.
Bram Stoker, a heavyset Irishman with a bristling beard, rumbled, "Whiskey for me, if you please." He glared around the room in a belligerent manner, as if daring any man to call his previous behavior into question. The manager of the prestigious Lyceum Theatre, he had come to the Countess' party wearing a pirate's costume, complete right down to eyepatch and a tattered, stuffed parrot fastened onto one shoulder of his satin frockcoat.
Lina shook out the skirts of her gypsy gown; gold coins and silver bells sewn onto the fluttering silk rags jangled pleasingly. "I believe I shall join you in that request, Mister Stoker."
Most of the party guests had been crowded together towards the middle of the room. As servants entered, some bearing trays, others with brooms to clean up the mess of broken champagne glasses and shattered ornaments, they wandered over to Agatha in twos and threes, to congratulate her on a wonderfully frightening experience - whatever their true feelings on the subject.
Lina glanced around, seeking Rhiannon, who had disappeared from her side during the excitement. She saw her partner, also dressed in silken gypsy rags, kneeling beside a prostrate figure near the Anubis statue.
"Ah, has one of the more delicate ladies succumbed to Aggie's hand of horror and fainted?" she asked, hurrying over. It was clear to her that, in all the confusion, no one had yet noticed the unconscious woman's plight. "It is terribly good of you, my dear, to offer aid and comfort. I believe I have a small bottle of cologne in my reticule, if you wish to bathe the poor child's temples. Perhaps a small glass of brandy might help?"
"It's a bit late for that," Rhiannon said bleakly. Looking up at Lina, her turquoise eyes reflected sadness, shock and a trace of anger. "It's a bit late for anything."
Lina exclaimed, "My dear, do you mean to suggest this woman is dead?"
At this cry, the buzz of conversation in the room died immediately to a hush. Agatha dropped her glass and clapped both hands to her mouth, trembling. Rhiannon nodded.
Lina knelt down to get a better look at the victim. She had a head of wild, tawny blonde hair that spread out around her shoulders like a lioness' mane, and eyes the color of molten amber that stared upwards, unblinking. She was lean and lithe, and wore a leopard skin robe that revealed quite a bit of her pale, blue-veined skin. The most notable feature was her fingernails; they were long, manicured into hooked points, and tinted with henna. Her name was Tatiana - and she was Agatha's lover.
Bram Stoker coughed. "A weak heart, no doubt."
Ignoring the Irishman, Rhiannon said to her partner, "That's not the worst." Gently, she turned the woman's head to one side. Clearly visible on the smooth, white column of Tatiana's throat were livid fingermarks. "She's been strangled."
Agatha let out a long, drawn-out wail and collapsed.
On the carpet near the murder victim, crouched like a malevolent albino
spider, lay the broken-off alabaster hand of Anubis.
"Tatiana was Russian, a courtesan from age fourteen. A man's plaything. So beautiful, so untamed, like a panther. My God!" Agatha said in a small, tired voice. Her gray-tinged chestnut hair had come down from its fastenings and hung limply to the waist of her red, white and blue gown, a la mode Rèvolution. "Who would do such a thing?"
"I do not yet know the answer to your questions," Lina said, leaning forward and putting a hand on the Countess' shoulder, "but I assure you, I shall not rest until I do."
Agatha wrung her hands together, tangling her fingers in the exaggerated spill of lace from each cuff. "Someone must have broken in, a violent stranger..."
"Nonsense." Lina patted the distraught woman's arm. She said over her shoulder to Rhiannon, "My dear, would you pour the Countess a measure of whiskey? Thank you. Take this, Aggie, and try to calm your nerves."
She continued, "Now then... the room was plunged into utter darkness. Had anyone opened the connecting door to the parlor - which was the only door to and from the drawing room - we would have noticed the light. And the same applies to the windows, I fear. It is a fine, full moon, and had the curtains been drawn the slightest apart, we would have been alerted immediately. No, there is only one explanation." She frowned. "Someone in that room killed Tatiana."
"Impossible!" Agatha gurgled through a mouthful of whiskey. "Do you mean to accuse Mister Stoker? Or Charlotte Trelawney, who paints portraits of the noble families throughout Europe? Are you going to point your finger at Jefferson Hope, my very good friend who owns a good percentage of the railway lines in North America? Or perhaps his wife, Beatrix? Nonsense yourself, Lady St. Claire. Next you'll be telling me that Oscar Wilde was involved, or that made-up tale about the cursed statue is true. It isn't, you know. A work of pure fiction."
"I know it was a tale, and I am not concerned with the reputations, social importance or wealth of your guests, Aggie." Lina leaned back, folding her arms and sighing. "A woman - who was your lover, might I add - has been obviously murdered. I still think we should call the police."
"No! Absolutely not!" Agatha ran a shaking hand over her face. "I cannot expose my guests to such a scandal. You know that I'm not entirely welcome in England. My lifestyle does not endear me to your peerage. Tatiana and I only came here because of Algernon Brown's auction. I knew he had some fine antiquities and couldn't resist the opportunity to add to my collection. Otherwise, we'd have never left Paris - we preferred our home there and haven't been to England in several years. The party tonight was Tatiana's idea - she was so easily bored and wanted company. We've had to be very much stay-at-homes since we arrived. Frankly, I don't know how you and Rhiannon get along here. People can be quite hostile."
"I have something of a reputation for not tolerating fools gladly," Lina replied with a slight smile. "Now, Rhiannon and I were invited here partially because of our friendship with Dr. Angelica Forbes," Lina said. "You support Prickles' digs, I believe. The other guests, I do not know personally."
In an aside, she murmured to Rhiannon, "I think some note-taking might be in order, if you feel up to the task."
Rhiannon reached into the special pocket of her costume gown for the miniature silver notebook and automatic pencil which had been a gift. She settled down on a nearby ottoman and nodded, pencil poised.
Agatha took a gulp of whiskey. "Well... I issued invitations to those whom I felt might accept, for one reason or another. Ophelia Brandcourt, the suffragette, came because she wants me to donate money to her pet cause of birth control. Maud McIntyre and her husband, William, are also Americans, also collectors of antiquities, and are good friends of my father - who owns a large percentage of their debt papers. Miss Hyacinth DuRayne is an actress; Tatiana saw her play in Paris and thought she might be amusing. Bram Stoker came on behalf of his employer; the owner of the Lyceum Theatre wants to renovate the building in the fashionable Egyptian mode, and hoped I'd be prepared to open my pocketbook and pay for the expenses."
"What about Sir Edward Caroll?" Rhiannon asked, scribbling madly. "You remember, Lina? The gentleman who smokes those foul little cigars?"
"Oh, yes. The hairy-chested adventurer swaggering about in an open-shirted safari kit. I keep expecting to see porters and gun boys hovering at his manly heels," Lina snorted. "I suppose he desires you to bankroll his next expedition, Aggie?"
"Of course." Agatha held out her glass for more whiskey. "He's been pestering me by letter for eighteen months at least, begging to know when and where we might meet, but Tatiana and I were doing a world tour. I thought now was as good a time as any to make the great man's acquaintance. As for Jefferson Hope, he wants me to contribute money to his political aspirations in America. In fact, the only people here tonight who don't want something from me are you, Rhiannon, and dear Oscar."
"Oscar Wilde." Lina tapped her chin with a gloved finger. "I didn't know you were at all friendly with the chap."
"I simply adore his writings. He's a genius, in my opinion. And entirely sympathetic with my... preferences. He himself ascribes to 'the love that dare not speak its name.'"
"Yes, but very, very discreetly."
Rhiannon looked up. "I read his novelisation in Lippencott's Magazine, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. It gave me nightmares."
"My dear, you will insist on reading those Gothic romances after heavy meal," Lina teased. "I would have indigestion as well if I curled up with The Castle of Otrano or some of Sheridan LeFanu's phantasms after consuming an entire pheasant mandarin."
Agatha cried suddenly, "My God! I can't believe Tatiana's dead!"
"Did you love her?" Lina asked gently.
"What sort of a question is that?" The Countess replied indignantly. Her eyes were caught and held by Lina's steady stare, and she deflated with a heavy sigh. "All right. We weren't in love, not as such. Tatiana was beautiful, so exotic, and having her near me was like living with some wild, exotic cat. She was used to being kept by wealthy men - an exchange of services, so to speak. I kept her in comfort and style, indulged her with furs, jewels, holidays... whatever she wanted. Tatiana was not a... well, she was what you might call a man's woman. She was passionate in bed, but it was a calculating passion. At her core, she was cold as ice. I gave her what she wanted, and she gave me what I wanted. It was as simple as that."
"These things are rarely simple, Aggie."
"True." Agatha drank more whiskey, tilting her wrist back with the consummate professionalism of a devout drinker. "She was unfaithful to me and took male lovers from time to time, but she was discreet. I, too, strayed occasionally to other women. I knew the moment Tatiana found someone richer and more indulgent than I was - whether male or female -she would leave me flat. It was an unspoken arrangement. I am, of course, extremely shocked at her death - shocked and saddened by the loss of someone so vibrant and free - but do not expect me to mourn excessively."
"How sad," Rhiannon murmured.
"What you and Lina have together is extremely rare between men and woman," Agatha said cynically, "much less between two tribades. After my husband died, and my father no longer controlled my fortune, I have drifted from relationship to relationship. I wanted love, but I settled for physical satisfaction. Such is the way of the world."
"I would not agree with your assessment, Aggie, but perhaps my viewpoint is somewhat skewed." Lina took the empty glass from the Countess' hand.
"I want her killer caught," Agatha said. "Tatiana was calculating, frustrating, irritating and a bitch at times, but I was fond of her, in my own way. She didn't deserve to die."
"I will do everything in my power; however, you and I much reach an understanding." Lina's emerald eyes glinted. "I must be given a free hand here. I will tolerate no interference in my investigation. Furthermore, should the killer be identified, I insist that the police be informed. At any rate, if I am unable to catch the murderer before the morning, you will have to call the police into it, despite your reluctance. Are we agreed?"
"You drive a hard bargain, but yes. I agree."
"Excellent." Lina stood, and her colorful skirts chimed as she walked to the door of the parlor. "I believe the other guests have been given temporary lodging in the dining room. I shall want to see them when I am through."
Agatha peered up at the tall woman. "Through with what?"
"Examining the body." Lina turned to Rhiannon. "Will you accompany me, my dear?"
Rhiannon snapped her notecase closed and thrust it back into her pocket.
"Naturally." She got up from the ottoman and held out a hand to the seated
Countess. "I'm very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Orosz. I didn't know Tatiana,
but you're right. No one deserves to die."
Tatiana's body had been left in situ in the drawing room, quickly covered by a knitted afghan before guests and servants had fled. Lina and Rhiannon went inside, closing the door after them. Broken slivers of glass crunched underfoot, for the Countess' household staff refused to clean a chamber containing both a dead body and a cursed statue with apparently murderous intentions.
"Superstitious nonsense!" Lina sniffed. The gaslight had been turned up to its highest setting, flooding the place with harsh, actinic light. It picked out the iridescent highlights of the peacock feathers sewn onto the bodice of her costume, and made the jet beads on her gloves glitter like black opals. "As if a statue can actually come to life. Bah!"
"You can't blame them for believing just a little," Rhiannon said, fiddling with the wide gold bracelets she wore on each wrist. Unlike everyone else - and against the law of fashion - she had chosen not to wear gloves. Her bracelets hid the silvery scars of her suicide attempt a year ago. "The Countess' story was quite... effective."
"Horribly overdone is how I should put it. However, that is neither here nor there. Help me remove this covering, my dear, and we shall see what can be discovered."
The two women knelt down on either side of the murder victim. Tatiana's body was already growing stiff, and although there hadn't been enough time for serious decomposition to set in, Rhiannon imagined she could already detect traces of the sweet, sickly scent of death in the air.
Tatiana lay on her back, head towards the statue. The billowing skirt of her leopard skin robe was rucked up around her thighs; one hand was curled against her cheek, the other flung out to her side. The broken piece of statuary lay near her left.
Lina examined the neck injuries first. "Yes, these marks are quite distinct. I can make out a definite finger marks on the front, deep into the tissue. She was caught from behind in a powerful grip and never had a chance to make a sound."
"It must have happened in the dark. Could she have been strangled so quickly?" Rhiannon fought down a feeling of nausea; since meeting the beautiful detective and being exposed to violent death, she no longer fainted in the presence of dead bodies.
"I suppose... here, what is this?" Lina gently rocked Tatiana's head from side to side and probed the back of her neck. "Ah. Strangulation was not the cause of death, my dear. Her neck has been broken rather neatly."
Rhiannon lifted Tatiana's hand. "Looks like some flecks of blood on the back. Has she been cut anywhere?"
Lina glanced up. "I doubt it. You will notice that Anubis' hand was attached to the arm by an internal rod - a common sculptor's device. The iron staple has rotted over time. What you see are flakes of rust."
"What about these bruises on her thighs?" The marks were yellowing and nearly healed.
"Observe Tatiana's skin - the veins are clearly visible beneath the surface. Very delicate and pale; I imagine she bruised easily. Well, let us cover the poor creature again. Hmmm... what is this?"
"It seems one of her earrings is missing." Lina leaned down and pushed a mass of Tatiana's tawny hair to one side. "Yes, ripped cleanly through the lobe."
The woman had been wearing heavy gold doorknocker earrings, encrusted with amber and rubies, that brushed her shoulders. Rhiannon looked carefully around. "I don't see it."
"It could have been pulled off in the struggle. Or perhaps caught on the murderer's clothing. The wound has not bled much, which may indicate it was torn free after the murder."
"And it could have been found on the floor by a servant, who took it," Rhiannon pointed out. "After all, it was quite valuable, and you know what low wages most serving persons earn. Who would miss a dead woman's bauble?"
"We shall have to conduct a search." After putting the afghan back over the body, Lina spent a few moments crawling on the floor, her face close to the carpet. Finally, she sat back on her heels. "With all the mad rush created by Aggie's prank, any faint footmarks have been well-nigh obliterated. I thought as much. We shall get nothing further here, my dear. Let us go to the dining room and speak to our fellow guests."
"Do you have any suspects?" Rhiannon offered a hand and helped the taller woman get up.
"At this stage, I suspect everyone."
"Perhaps." Lina dusted off her skirts. "Although I believe that had she moved from her position near the fireplace, we would have noticed the change of direction. Unless she has added the talent of music hall ventriloquism to her repertoire."
"She doesn't strike me as the type."
"Nor I. Come, my wild Welsh gypsy love. Let us beard these lions in their den. If they prove recalcitrant and refuse to tell the truth, you could always threaten them with a hideous curse," Lina said lightheartedly.
Rhiannon shivered. "I think we've had enough curses for one night." She couldn't help looking at the alabaster hand that still lay, palm up, on the floor.
Lina sobered. "You are correct, as always."
Her gaze traveled to the hand of Anubis as well.
"What the Devil are we still doing here?" Bram Stoker demanded. "Shouldn't the police have arrived by now?"
"The police have not yet been notified," Lina replied coolly. She was perched in the big, throne-like chair at the head of the long mahogany table, with Rhiannon on her right. "For now, I have been authorized by Countess Orosz to question all of you in connection with the death of Tatiana."
"It was that horrible hand," Hyacinth DuRayne whispered. The lamp soot she used to darken her lashes had run in streaks down her rouged cheeks. "It was the curse of Priestess Isis-whatever. We've got to get out of here before it kills us all!" Her voice rose to a squeak.
"Don't be such a silly gel!" Ophelia Brandcourt remonstrated. The stout, somewhat mannish looking woman was dressed in an ill-fitting tuxedo, a pince-nez perched in the middle of her broad nose. "Aggie's already explained that the story was a hoax, a fairy tale. There's no such thing as Egyptian ghosts from beyond the grave who go about murderin' decent folks. A man killed poor Tatiana... count on it!" She gave the male members of the party a hostile glare.
"Would that be before or after you finished stuffing the girl's pockets with pamphlets on birth control and free love?" Charlotte Trelawney asked. "Before or after she laughed in your face and called you a raddled old tart? I heard her, you know, Miss Brandcourt. Maybe you had something to do with it."
"Quite so. Who's to say it was a man at all?" Sir Edward Carrol flicked some ash from the end of his vile smelling cigar and squared his shoulders, safari hat tilted rakishly over one eye. "Beggin' your pardon, ladies, but some of you - like Miss Brandcourt - have got quite an astonishin' grip."
"What are you insinuating?" Ophelia hissed, swelling like a viper ready to strike. "How dare you!"
"Enough!" Lina commanded, holding up a hand. "Mutual recriminations will get us nowhere."
"But flattery will get you everywhere," Oscar Wilde muttered, drooping like a funeral lily behind an aspidistra in the corner.
"And that will be quite enough from you as well, Mister Wilde," Lina said tartly. "Now then... let us at least be civilized. Have any of you met Tatiana before?"
The guests glanced at one another. Finally, Maud McIntyre spoke. She was a very fat woman, tightly laced into an ugly black Puritan gown, a shapeless gauze cap tied beneath her double chin.
"My husband and I only knew of her by reputation." The way she spoke the word made it sound like an obscenity. "We were asked by the Countess' father, Jeremiah, to look in on Agatha, since we were also in London attending the Brown sale. Frankly, we do not approve of this type of soiree - strong drink is the Devil's work - but for the sake of her father, we decided to accept the invitation."
William McIntyre nodded meekly. He, too, was wearing Puritan garb, and the heavily starched collar cut into his jowls. "Yes. Tatiana seemed like a nice girl..."
"William! Do not interrupt!" Maud exclaimed, pinching his arm.
He flinched and said nothing.
Lina frowned. "Have you anything else of importance to add, Mrs. McIntyre? No? Then let us proceed." Ignoring Maud's flush, she continued, "Mister Hope, I believe you accepted Aggie's invitation because her father owns a considerable amount of your debt papers."
"I never discuss business with strangers," Hope said, gray eyes flashing with muted anger. "However, that is far from the entire truth. We knew Agatha's family back in San Francisco. So sure... we were in London visiting an old aunt from my wife's side of the family and heard Agatha was in town. We decided to look her up, that's all. As far as Tatiana is concerned, we met her only today."
He and his wife were dressed in matching cowboy outfits, complete with buckskin jackets, fringed shirts, and tooled leather boots. Beatrix Hope, a slim blonde beauty, nodded in agreement and took a quick sip of brandy.
"Very well." Lina scanned the room. "Does anyone have anything else to say?"
The artist, Charlotte, pulled a shawl closer about her shoulders. She had come to the party dressed as Ariel; the multiple layers of thin, spangled gauze that made up her dress were far from warm. A diamante diadem was precariously perched on her auburn curls and twinkled in the gaslight.
"I did meet Tatiana about three years ago," Charlotte offered. "It was at a ball given in London, at the Russian embassy. I was there because I had recently completed a portrait of Tamislav, the ambassador. Something terrible happened that night and a man died because of it."
"I heard about that!" Bram Stoker cried. He shook his head as a servant offered the whisky decanter. "I believe it was Oscar who told me. The details have escaped my recollection, but wasn't there some sort of scandal involved?"
"Oh, scandal!" Ophelia snorted. "No one loves gossip as much as our precious Mister Wilde."
"Will you be quiet!" Agatha said. "We don't have time to tear each other to pieces. The woman who was my lover - sorry if I offend, Maud - has been murdered. I want to know who diid it and why. Oscar, dear, do you know anything about this? I don't recall Tatiana ever mentioning this embassy ball to me."
Wilde peeled himself away from his corner. He was very tall and thickset, with heavy lidded eyes and a pouting expression, but despite his height and bulk, he somehow managed to appear delicate. He wore a paisley smoking jacket, dark pants and a tasseled fez - the perfect costume for a self-proclaimed dilettante. Carpet slippers on his feet made for a finishing touch.
The author and playwright struck a pose near Lina. "Why, I do believe that my talent for collecting other people's pasts has come back to haunt me."
"Don't try to be overly clever," Stoker rumbled. "Just tell the story."
"After second hand goods again?" A slight smile touched Wilde's lips. "Some things never change."
Stoker came halfway out of his chair, then settled back down again at a steely glance from Lina. He knew Wilde was needling him because his beloved wife, Florence, was the man's former innamorata.
"The scandal, Mister Wilde?" Lina asked.
"Very well. I love you dearly, Agatha, but you do have the most appalling habit of taking up with the most appalling people." Wilde leaned his hip against an empty chair and folded his arms across his chest. "Three years ago, our recently lamented Tatiana - God rest her soul - was the mistress of Duke Vladimir Abakumov. The Duke was a highly placed attaché in attendance upon the Russian ambassador. At this ball which Miss Trelawney has so graciously brought to our attention, certain papers of a most delicate and diplomatic nature were stolen from the Duke's bedroom. He committed suicide shortly thereafter, in expiation for the sin of being responsible. And that, children, is the end of Uncle Oscar's bedtime story."
"Yes, that's what I understood," Charlotte said. "Afterward, Tatiana was sent back to Russia under guard. I believe she was suspected of the theft, but no evidence could be found and she was released. Agatha, she never said anything about it to you?"
"No. Not one word." The Countess signaled the footman to serve tea and coffee. "Her past was a mystery to me."
Ophelia sighed. "Poor, misguided creature. Brought low by the cruel, carnal, animal nature of man."
"Some of us like men," Charlotte said. She and the suffragette did not get along at all. Ophelia had once called her the portraitist whore licking the feet of a domineering regime, while she thought the other woman's outspoken stance on free love was too vulgar for words.
"Yes, and some of us a bit too well," Ophelia retorted, sneering at Wilde, who fluttered his lashes at her and said, "Women have a wonderful instinct about things. They can discover anything except the obvious."
"Mister Stoker," Lina interrupted impatiently, "or Mister Wilde, do either of you know any more about Tatiana?"
Wilde shook his head.
Bram Stoker stroked his beard and reached into the pocket of his pirate's frock coat, pulling out a silver-chased cigarette case. He spent a few moments tapping a Turkish cigarette against the front of the case, then reached across the table towards an elaborate centerpiece of carved jack o' lanterns, dried leaves, pine branches and candles in Etruscan bronze holders. The motley parrot on his shoulder shed feathers with every movement, making Beatrix Hope sneeze.
Stoker pulled one of the candles towards him, lighted his cigarette, exhaled a cloud of smoke, and cleared his throat. "I am a gentleman, and a gentleman should never discomfit a lady. However, the circumstances are unusual enough to warrant extraordinary measures. If you want to know more about Tatiana, Lady St. Claire, I suggest you look to Miss DuRayne. Gossip suggests that she may have had the best reason for wanting the woman dead."
Hyacinth reared up, giving the theater manager a scandalized glare. "Oh! Mister Stoker! And here I thought you were a nice man!"
"Miss DuRayne, it will all come out eventually. At the moment, we are not pointing fingers of blame; we simply wish to get as well-rounded a picture as possible," Lina said.
"All right!" Hyacinth pouted, flinging herself back into her seat. She snatched an onyx cigarette holder out of her reticule and gestured pointedly at Stoker. "Give me a ciggie, will you? Thanks. And pass the candle." She inhaled deeply, spirals of gray smoke swirling around her heavily painted face. "Well, I was at that ball myself three years ago. With Lord George Feniway. Dear Georgie... I do miss him so..."
Her eyes took on a faraway expression. Lina coughed and the actress frowned, flicking ash across the polished surface of the dining table. "Don't get your knickers in a twist," Hyacinth snapped, her lower class roots showing. "I'm getting to the good part. Anyway, this Tatiana was there with a Russian Duke fellow. She was practically falling out of her dress, and everytime the Duke left her alone, there'd be dozens of blokes panting around her, tongues to their knees, wallets on their sleeves."
"Lord George was one of them, I presume?" Lina asked.
"Yes! That slut!" Hyacinth ground out her half-smoked cigarette on the table, making Agatha wince. "She could'a had anybody there, but she hadda pick my Georgie! He dropped me cold, said I could take a cab home. Didn't even offer fare! I lost my nice little apartment cause'a that Russian witch! Oh, she got hers all right. Dukie-boy shot 'isself and she got took back to Moscow. But Georgie, he wouldn't have nuffin' more to do with me after that."
Rhiannon asked, "Was Lord George your protector?"
"Inna way. It ain't easy for a girl to get ahead these days. She needs a strong man to help her out, pay some bills, give 'spensive presents." Hyacinth pursed her lips and tilted her head. Strands of fake seaweed were mixed with her hennaed locks. "I don't need old Georgie anymore. I gotta new fellow who's gonna give me everythin' I need." Her triumphant gaze traveled around the table. "He'd better, if he knows what's good for him."
"My dear gel, you most definitely do not need to believe any of this patriarchal male nonsense!" Ophelia said, adjusting her pince-nez. "You can get along quite well in this world alone."
"Maybe that's true for some of us," Hyacinth replied tartly. "But that ain't here nor there. You wanted to know about the ball and I told you, so I said all I'm gonna say."
"If you detested Tatiana so much, why did you accept the Countess' invitation?" Rhiannon asked.
"I heard Mister Bram Stoker was goin' to be here. He's manager of the Lyceum, ain't he?" Hyacinth blew a cloud of smoke towards the petite red-head. "I thought if I was nice to him, he might find me a part in his next production. I figured the Russian slut owed me one."
Stoker was appalled. "Madame, I should no more cast you in my theater than I would a chattering baboon. From what I've heard, your talents are more fit to vulgar music hall comedies than legitimate productions."
"I don't needs you no more, do I?" the actress sneered. "Anyways, it were just a thought."
"Does this new protector of yours have anything to do with the case in hand?" Lina asked sharply.
Hyacinth replied sharply, "No. He don't. As if I'd let that hussy get her claws into a man of mine again!"
Sir Edward Caroll pushed his safari hat back. His craggy, sun scorched face was ornamented by a thick, black mustache with waxed tips. "Quite right, Miss DuRayne. I'm sure a clever girl like you will always get her due. Reminds me of the time in India when I met a woman who... but that's neither here nor there. Beg pardon for rattlin' on. By Jove, I'd no idea about any of this sordid business. Makes me bloody glad - beg pardon, ladies - that I've been away."
"Where have you been for the past three years, Sir Edward?" Rhiannon busily jotted a few lines in her notebook.
"Madagascar, Australia, the Amazon, Africa, India, bit of the Orient. Hunted white bears in Siberia as well. Brought back some jolly good furs. Was down the Congo the last six months, shootin' elephants and guidin' Lord Kenworth's safari. Was hopin' dear old Agatha'd agree to bankroll an expedition to the Sudan." He scratched idly, short nails rasping the thick tufts of hair that sprang from his shirt.
"Does anyone else have anything to add?" Lina stood up and laid her hands flat on the table. "Right. I would now like to ask the gentleman to please empty their pockets, and ladies, your reticules."
"Now, wait one moment!" Stoker exploded. "By what authority do you dare search our persons and belongings!"
"By my authority," Agatha said, rising also. "This is my home, and it is my friend who has been murdered. For now, I have withheld my permission to summon the police, but if you do not feel like cooperating with Lady St. Claire's very reasonable request, and prefer the attention of the authorities, I assure you that I will send a message immediately."
"Settle down, Bram," Wilde said, patting the indignant man on his shoulder. "We don't know the lady's intentions, but I have heard she is a tolerably able investigator. Runs about with that Sherlock Holmes, who's damnably smart if you ask me. I, for one, have no trouble acceding to her request, for I believe she means to eliminate the suspect from the innocent.." He pulled a few items from the pockets of his paisley jacket - a broken cigarette holder, a small flask, a crumpled handkerchief, some mixed coins, and a few flakes of tobacco.
"Thank you, Oscar," Agatha said in relief. "Mister Stoker?"
"Very well. Wilde's silver-tongued persuasion has convinced me it is for the best." Stoker also laid the contents of his pockets on the table. "Oscar, you're too kind."
Wilde shrugged. "One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing."
"And too bloody clever by half!" Stoker added.
Lina smiled. "You have set a fine example, gentlemen. Now for the rest..."
One by one, the guests emptied their pockets and reticules. Lina observed the array of miscellany that littered the table. She didn't think that the murderer would be so careless as to retain the missing gold earring, but one never knew.
"Thank you all," she finally said. "You have been most cooperative." There was no trace of Tatiana's earring.
Agatha slumped slightly. "This whole ordeal has been quite a strain on everyone's nerves. With your permission, Lina, I would suggest we all repair upstairs to refresh ourselves for an hour. I will instruct the cook to prepare trays of light snacks to be brought to your rooms."
"Yes, I have a feeling this is going to be a long night," Lina replied. "By all means, Aggie. An excellent suggestion."
Maud McIntyre sniffed. "I would prefer to go to our hotel."
"No one is leaving this house until morning," Lina said firmly.
"Surely you aren't insinuating that my husband and I are involved?"
"As I have said before, Mrs. McIntyre, no one is being accused... yet." Lina put a hand on Rhiannon's shoulder. "My dear, I shall want to see your notes as soon as possible. Aggie, will you kindly instruct your butler and have the footmen escort each guest to their room? We shall regroup here in one hour."
Sir Edward threw her a mock salute. "First time I've ever taken orders from one of the fairer sex," he remarked, shifting his foul cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.
"There is a first time for everything," Jefferson Hope said darkly, grasping his wife's hand in a white-knuckled grip.
The tension in the room was thick as London fog, and just as impenetrable.
Rhiannon allowed herself to be led away by Lina, wondering which of the
people around that table was a cold blooded murderer.
Upstairs in a lilac floral bedroom, Lina poured water out of a jug into the washstand bowl and soaked an embroidered towel in the cool liquid. She wrung it out, brought it to Rhiannon, and rubbed the back of her neck with it. "Does that feel better, my dear? You were beginning to droop."
"Oh, that's so good." Rhiannon let her shoulders relax, head falling forward. "Who do you think did it, love?"
"I do not know 'who' yet." Lina sat down behind the smaller woman. "Nor do I know 'why.' I confess that it is my feeling - and nothing more - that leads me to believe that the events of three years ago may have some bearing on the murder of Tatiana tonight."
"I feel the same way." Still enjoying the soothing, cool caress on her neck, Rhiannon consulted her small notebook. "Well, if that's the case, then Hyacinth DuRayne seems like our most likely suspect."
"Not necessarily. By her own admission, Charlotte Trelawney also attended the Russian embassy affair. Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde certainly knew about it, although I doubt they were directly involved." With her free hand, Lina reached under the lace mantilla that covered Rhiannon's hair and stroked it gently. "I agree that Miss DuRayne's behavior is somewhat suspect."
"Hyacinth doesn't strike me as strong enough to snap a woman's neck that quickly. We must be looking for a man, which narrows down the field somewhat. I suppose you're going to let everyone continue to believe that Tatiana was strangled?"
"Of course." Lina glanced over Rhiannon's shoulder at her little notebook. "Let me ask you, my dear, as I have every faith in your intuition: did Hyacinth's last words - some rot about finding a new protector - strike you as inappropriate in some fashion?"
"Not exactly inappropriate." The red-head nibbled at the end of her automatic pencil. "More like... I don't know. As if she was warning someone in the room. I remember she said specifically, 'he'd better if he knows what's good for him.'"
"It certainly sounds as if our Miss DuRayne is concealing something."
"It is a puzzle, but I think she was warning one of the gentlemen that if they didn't pay up, she was going to expose him."
"As a murderer? Perhaps. Although Hyacinth could not have seen anything in that blasted room, anymore than the rest of us. What the Devil is that woman hiding? I believe when we return, we had better direct our full attention to Hyacinth DuRayne and see if we can persuade her to be more forthcoming."
Rhiannon nestled against her partner. "That's going to be difficult."
"True. A bribe might be in order." Lina put both arms around Rhiannon and squeezed, breathing in the scent of spicy perfume. "A rather large one."
"We can afford it."
"We could gift her with these extravagant costumes," Lina replied, tossing the damp towel on the bed. "These coins are gold guineas, you know. I had no idea they were going to be so noisy. Every time I move, these skirts chime as if struck by a mad bellringer."
Rhiannon chuckled. "It was your idea. I wanted to go as a witch."
"You are enough of an enchantress, my dear," Lina said, lips grazing the other woman's ear. "Best not to let too many in on the secret of your magic charms, lest they spirit you away and keep you for themselves."
A sudden scream made them both sit up.
It came from the hallway. Lina sprang off the bed and ran to the door, flinging it open. A thin film of smoke was spreading up from the landing.
Rhiannon came up and peered around the taller woman's shoulder. "We're trapped," she gasped.
Other doors had opened, discharging men and women into the corridor. Bram Stoker had removed his frock coat. "Start tearing the sheets into strips to make ropes," he commanded. "The men can lower the women to the ground and safety."
Beatrix Hope clutched at her throat. "My God! We're going to die!"
Agatha leaned over the bannister. "Wilcox! Wilcox! Where is that man? Wilcox! Someone answer me!" Although she had a clear view of the black and white marble tiles of the ground floor foyer, there were no servants in sight.
Maud McIntyre rolled her eyes to Heaven and intoned, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me..."
Oscar Wilde was more amused than frightened. "I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated His ability," he drawled. "I've not seen so much hysteria in one night since Lord Admiral Smith saw H.M.S. Pinafore for the first time and realized he was being satirized."
"No one is to do anything yet," Lina said sternly. More smoke drifted up, making Beatrix whimper in fright. "Rhiannon, fetch the water jug from our bedroom, if you please. Mister Stoker, if you would be so kind as to take the ladies into a room and keep them there until you hear from me."
"We must get out of this house immediately!" Stoker insisted. "Before the flames reach the second floor and engulf us!"
"I hardly think there is any danger of that. It seems the fire is relatively small at the moment, and quite possibly easily extinguished. However, if it makes you feel better, ask Aggie to show you where she keeps the ordinary sheets. I do not believe she would appreciate the destruction of her convent-woven linens." Lina took the jug from her partner and noticed that the contents of the basin had been poured inside as well.
"Excellently done, my dear. Now let us see to this conflagration."
Rhiannon hefted a second jug, commenting, "I took this from another room, just in case it was needed," and followed Lina down the stairs.
The smoke was fairly light, a pearly gray mingled with thin threads of black. Nevertheless, Rhiannon's eyes watered and she began coughing. "Do you see anything?"
"Yes," Lina answered. "A relatively small fire. Nothing to worry about." They had reached the landing. Here, the smoke was thickest, and the subdued crackle of flames could be detected. The tall woman leaned in and poured water into the faintly glowing center of the sooty clouds. A wheezing crackle, then more hissing as Lina finished one jug, took the second from Rhiannon, and kept pouring. In moments, the fire was extinguished and the smoke began to dissipate rapidly.
Rhiannon waved a hand in front of her face, wrinkling her nose at the acrid smell. "How on earth did a fire get started there, of all places?"
Lina walked around the scorched, soaking wet spot on the carpet. Her eyes were a little bloodshot, and the tip of her nose streaked with ash. "It appears someone set a magazine alight and threw it over the top of the third floor rail," she said, stirring the mess with a toe.
"A magazine?" Rhiannon frowned. She bent down and poked at the mass of charred paper. "That's not a very intelligent way to start a fire. Oh! It's The Strand."
"It was pure chance that the carpet caught and the stairboards began to smolder. Another fifteen minutes, and we might have had a serious situation on our hands; however I do not think that was what the arsonist intended. This was meant as a distraction, nothing more."
"I say!" Sir Edward called from the third floor. From the women's perspective, his florid face hung upside down - a ludicrous sight. "Are you ladies all right? Damned shame - beggin' your pardon - that I wasn't awakened in time to help."
"Were you napping, Sir Edward?" Lina called.
He flushed further. "A few spots of brandy, a heavy dinner - you know how it is. Thought a bit of a kip might be in order to settle the ol' stomach."
"Countess, the fire is out," Rhiannon said, walking back up the stairs. "There's some minor damage, but nothing serious. More of a prank, really."
"Thank God!" Agatha put a hand to her heart. "I feared we'd all be burned to a crisp."
In the third floor hallway, Rhiannon surveyed the guests and realized two were missing. "Where are Ophelia Brandcourt and Hyacinth DuRayne?"
"I... I don't know." Agatha clutched at Jefferson Hope's buckskin sleeve. "Where have all the servants gone?"
"Do you know what rooms were assigned to them?" Rhiannon asked, moving purposely down the hall.
Hope grimaced and disentangled himself from Agatha's grip. His wife was sobbing quietly, comforted by Charlotte Trelawney. "I'll go downstairs and find out what the hell's going on around here."
He left and Rhiannon began opening doors. When she got to the last one on the south side, she stiffened. "Agatha, if Lina is still on the landing, please ask her to come up immediately."
"Why? What is it?"
Bram Stoker went to Rhiannon. A single glance at the interior of the room was enough for him. He backed away, shaking his head.
Agatha was on the verge of tears. "What's happened? Please, for God's sake, tell me!"
Rhiannon's mouth was drawn into a thin, tight line. "Another murder."
Oscar Wilde barely caught the fainting Countess before she hit the ground.
Lina had sent Hope and Stoker to check the servant's quarters. Now, she knelt down beside the body Rhiannon had found. "Her neck is broken, just like Tatiana's."
"That's not the only coincidence." Rhiannon pointed to the floor.
The alabaster hand of Anubis was on the rug below the washstand, stony fingers clutching at the air.
Ophelia Brandcourt sat on the bed and snuffled. "I came in to give her some pamphlets," the suffragette said. Her pomaded hair was disheveled, the pince-nez hung from its pin on the lapel of her tuxedo jacket. "She didn't answer my knock, but the door was unlocked."
Lina looked up from her examination of Hyacinth DuRayne. The actress' body lay in the small space between the bed and the window, head twisted at an odd angle. "Did you see anyone else in the hall?" she asked.
Ophelia shook her head and blew her nose on a wrinkled handkerchief. "No. I didn't see her when I came in. I thought she'd gone out, then I saw that blasted hand on the floor. When I walked to the end of the bed, I saw her... her... head..." she choked. "I couldn't move or scream or breathe. It was too horrible to comprehend."
"I know this has been very shocking, Miss Brandcourt," Rhiannon said, sitting down beside the distraught woman. "Did not not hear the fire alarm?"
"Please, try to remember... do you recall seeing anything out of the ordinary? Anything at all?"
"Other than another victim of the alabaster hand?" Ophelia blew her nose again. "Miss Moore, until tonight I would have said this notion of a cursed Egyptian statue was somethin' out of the fevered imagination of a yellow journalist. Now, however - I am beginning to believe. Poor Hyacinth, strangled! My God, we've got to get out of this house before we all fall victim to Agatha's horrid toy!"
"Please try and stay calm," Lina admonished gently. It was clear the suffragette hadn't heard her reveal the true nature of Hyacinth's demise. "Now, where is the room you were assigned?"
"Next door," Ophelia said. "If only I'd heard her call for help, perhaps..."
"She wouldn't have had time to cry out. It is plain that Hyacinth knew her attacker well enough to let them in without a fuss. This room is far too small for someone to have walked in unnoticed. And the door hinges creak, which would have alerted Hyacinth to the arrival of friend or foe. No, Miss Brandcourt, you need not fear a supernatural murderer. The person who killed this woman is as human as you or I."
"What about that?" Ophelia pointed to the hand on the rug. "Did it crawl upstairs under its own power? You two were the last people in the drawing room!" She scooted away from Rhiannon. "Maybe you took the hand! Maybe you're the ones who want us all dead!"
Lina rolled her eyes. "A smart slap is an excellent cure for hysteria, Miss Brandcourt. Kindly calm yourself before I am forced to take appropriate action."
Rhiannon patted the flinching Ophelia's arm. "It isn't anyone's fault that Hyacinth is dead, except the murderer's. Lina and I are doing everything we can to bring him to justice."
"She was a good gel," Ophelia sniffed. "A bit thick, but a good soul nonetheless. I could feel it; I'm sensitive to such things."
"While you were still in your room, did you hear anything at all through the walls? Voices, a sound, anything?" Rhiannon asked.
"No. I'm not a ruddy eavesdropper," the suffragette answered sullenly. "I heard nothing. You say this is no one's fault, but I lay the blame for Hyacinth's death square on your shoulders, Lady St. Claire. We should have stayed together, kept watch on one another in the light. Sweet Jesus, will this night never end?"
"You are correct," Lina sighed, covering Hyacinth's body with a blanket. "Had I not permitted the party to break up, this might not have happened." To Rhiannon, she said, "I must examine the room completely. Will you please take Ophelia downstairs to the parlor, my dear? I will join you shortly. Oh, and I shall need your notebook."
"Of course." Rhiannon handed her partner the little notebook, coaxed Ophelia off the bed, and escorted her out into the corridor. Over her shoulder, she saw Lina getting down on all fours, her nose inches away from the carpet. Then she moved to the fireplace.
Silently, Rhiannon echoed the suffragette's sentiment. Let dawn come soon, she thought. In the morning, the police will come and it will all be over, one way or another.
Rhiannon took a sip of sweet milky tea, holding the delicate bone china cup carefully. The parlor's overstuffed chairs, divans and sofas were all occupied by the men and women who made up Agatha's party guests. After she'd gotten Ophelia downstairs, Jefferson Hope had returned with the news that the servants had locked themselves into their quarters and refused to come out with a ghostly murderer on the loose. The butler, Wilcox, was particularly adamant, and the rest followed his lead.
With Rhiannon's help, the Countess had made tea and coffee, accompanied by biscuits from a tin found in the pantry. Only Oscar Wilde ate the biscuits, crunching them with a relish that made Bram Stoker growl in irritation.
Beatrix Hope sat next to her husband, shaking so hard her cup rattled in its saucer. Charlotte Trelawney stared ahead dully, crumpling a fold of her gauzy costume in her hands. William McIntyre stood behind his wife, who had taken over an entire divan, spreading out her voluminous black skirts with an air of defiance. No one questioned her right to do so; a stubborn glare from her glittering eyes made any attempt at argument distasteful.
Sir Edward Carrol continued to puff a cigar despite the presence of ladies, blowing smoke rings absently. His cup of coffee laced with brandy lay untouched on a table next to his elbow.
Rhiannon checked the little watch pinned to her bodice. It was nearly four o'clock in the morning; the sun would rise at around seven. Three hours to go, she thought.
Suddenly, the door opened and Lina swept into the room, skirts jangling. Her attitude was tranquil, but two scarlet spots burned high on her cheeks. "Ladies and gentlemen," she said, "I beg your pardon for leaving you alone so long."
"Did you find anything?" Stoker demanded, then in the next breath exploded, "By God, why won't you call the police? They're far better suited for catching murderers than a deviant socialite with pretensions of intelligence!"
"Mister Stoker!" Agatha exclaimed. "Where are your manners, sir?"
"Bram has only one set of manners, and they are very bad indeed," Wilde drawled, pushing his long legs out in front of him. "A touch common of him, I dare say."
"And you stay out of this!" Stoker commanded, beard bristling.
"Mister Stoker, I fully understand your concerns," Lina said in a cold, silky voice that Rhiannon recognized with a chill. It usually meant that someone was about to be blasted, and even the strongest men quailed before her partner's ferocious temper. "But insulting me will not prevent the identification of a murderer - if that is your aim."
"What are you insinuating? That I'm protecting a vicious murderer?" Stoker struck his fist against his knee. "Pure nonsense!"
The theater manager might have been oblivious to the implications of Lina's statement, but others were not. "What's all this, then?" Caroll said through a cloud of cigar smoke. "Figured it all out, have you? Is it the revenge of Anubis?" He chuckled. "'Stead of the police, hadn't we better call those Society for Psychical Research chappies to come down with their exorcism gear?"
"It's the hand, isn't it?" Beatrix muttered. Dark rings and puffy eyelids marred her blonde beauty. "That wretched alabaster hand. We're all cursed. I knew it."
"Shut up, Beatrix." Jefferson Hope scowled. "This isn't one of those rubbishy novels you're always reading. There aren't any such things as ghosts."
"Mister Hope is perfectly correct," Lina said. "The murders of Tatiana and Hyacinth DuRayne were committed by a human agent - a man, a guest in this household. There is no curse, no wandering force of ancient vengeance, no disembodied hand. This is murder, pure and simple."
The guests looked at one another, then back to Lina.
"The truth is rarely pure and never simple," Wilde commented with raised eyebrows.
Surprisingly, the lady smiled. "That is the most intelligent thing you have said all evening, Mister Wilde."
"I don't believe you," Beatrix said. Coffee slopped from the cup in her trembling hand. "We've been cursed. I heard the story."
"I made it up!" Agatha cried impatiently. "The whole history of that wretched statue is fictional. I thought it would be a good joke. I was obviously wrong."
"Mrs. Hope - all of you - I would like you to accompany me to the drawing room," Lina said calmly.
"Absolutely not!" Stoker stood up, a cigarette smoldering between his fingers. "I have had enough of this nonsense! Agatha, I insist you summon the police at once."
"Two woman have been cruelly murdered," Lina began, and was interrupted by William McIntyre.
"One of the bodies is in there!" he squealed. "I'm not going back!"
Maud pinched his thigh. "Do hush, Billy." Her eyes, like plump raisins sunk into the doughy flesh of her face, surveyed the room coldly. "Mister Stoker, even if the alarm is raised now, it will take time for the police to arrive, and they will want to know why they weren't summoned earlier - an awkward business if we have no information to soothe their wrath. I believe we should indulge Lady St. Claire for the moment. While I do not approve of certain aspects of her personal life, she seems like a smart woman and I'm inclined to give her a say."
"Thank you, Mrs. McIntyre." Lina inclined her head graciously. "If there are no more protests, let us go at once into the drawing room."
"For what purpose, might I ask?" Charlotte challenged.
"To unmask a murderer."
Even Bram Stoker subsided at this bald statement from the lady with a triumphant glitter in her emerald green eyes.
"I n every investigation," Lina began, "one must ask certain questions - who, how, when, where and why. Once these questions have been answered, one arrives at the proper conclusion and the darkness of ignorance is illuminated."
She stood before the fireplace, the gypsy silks of her costume glowing like jewel dust in the gaslight. "Let us first examine the case of Tatiana's death. Not everything is clear, but some details of the matter have come to light.
"Tatiana's death was one of convenience. The killer saw his chance and took it. Circumstance afforded him the concealment of darkness and a great deal of confusion in which to work. Did he come to the party prepared to take a life? Perhaps. But whatever his previous thoughts, he was intelligent enough to realize that chance was working in his favor. After Agatha extinguished the dark lantern, he silently and swiftly approached Tatiana from behind, grabbed her throat in a two-handed grip and squeezed. She began to struggle, and he snapped her neck before lowering her to the ground."
"She wasn't strangled?" Beatrix Hope asked, shuddering.
"No. Tatiana's death was not caused by strangulation. Aggie, would you come here please?" Lina moved to a position in front and slightly to the right of the Anubis statue. After searching Hyacinth's room, she had come downstairs and moved the Russian woman's body from the floor to a chesterfield sofa. "I believe a small demonstration is in order. Will the rest of you please form a rough circle, in similar positions as you were earlier this evening?"
With the Countess in front of her, Lina extended her arms and wrapped both hands around the woman's neck. "Tatiana was petite, approximately the same height as Aggie. I, on the other hand, am taller. Notice how easy it is for me to hold her at arms' length and bend her slightly backwards, bringing her toes off the floor. This makes it impossible for a panicking woman to kick backwards and spoil my grip."
Lina squeezed a little harder. Agatha gave a nervous giggle that was immediately cut off. Her eyes were beginning to bulge, and she gasped.
Rhiannon was a little concerned. "Maybe you'd better stop now, love."
The dark-haired woman gave no indication that she heard. Instead, she began to throttle the Countess harder, muscles in her forearms bulging against the soft kidskin of her gloves. The guests did not intervene; they were mesmerized by horror, left gasping for air as if they, not the Countess, were being brutally strangled.
Rhiannon's eyes went wide. "Lina! You're killing her! Stop!"
Agatha's complexion was taking on a definite bluish caste. Tears welled up and trickled down her cheeks, wetting the thick wad of ruched lace tied about her neck like a cravat. Her graying chestnut hair came loose from its curls, pins showering the carpet between her toes.
The Countess clawed at Lina's gloves. Her other hand flailed wildly at the air as she desperately tried to grab the attention of the person standing closest to her. Her outstretched fingers grazed the rust-stained stub of the statue's arm.
Lina let go at once, easing Agatha to her feet and steadying her balance. "I apologize for the roughness of my demonstration, Aggie," she said. "Are you quite all right?"
Agatha coughed and whooped, wiping her eyes. "For a moment, I thought you meant it," she choked.
"Not at all. Your cravat will have protected your neck from bruises, although a certain soreness may be the inevitable result. I suggest you instruct your cook to prepare soothing jellies for the next day or so."
This homely advice, so calmly given, broke the spell, although the guests still continued to view Lina with horror. Bram Stoker flicked his cigarette into the fireplace and said, "Perhaps you would care to explain to us the reason for this ludicrously melodramatic display?"
"You all observed how Aggie attempted to break my grip with one hand, and with the other, instinctively strove to alert her nearest neighbor to her plight?" Lina helped Agatha to a chair and poured her a glass of brandy. "It was necessary to show you how Tatiana - or indeed, anyone else - would have reacted instinctively under such an attack. Of course, in the dark, Tatiana could have had no idea that the hand she clutched at so fiercely for help was that of an alabaster Anubis, nor could she have known that the connecting rod within the statue was rotted and would break off. But there is one particular point which is of significance."
She crossed to the afghan shrouded body on the sofa, pulled the coverlet slightly aside, and lifted Tatiana's left hand. "Note how long and sharp her fingernails are - like veritable claws. I owe you an apology, my dear," Lina said to Rhiannon. "You believed there were flecks of blood here, and I casually dismissed them as rust. However, from the position of the body in relation to the statue, it becomes clear that she would have snatched at Anubis with her right hand, not her left. Therefore, the stains must have another explanation. You were quite right and I was a short-sided fool. They are blood. Not Tatiana's own, but that of her murderer."
Rhiannon nodded. "You reexamined her, didn't you? After you finished in Hyacinth's room?"
"Yes." Lina tucked the dead woman's arm back inside the afghan. "It occurred to me that I may have been overly hasty before. There is both blood and flesh beneath Tatiana's nails. She must have scratched her attacker deeply before expiring."
Jefferson Hope, who had taken a cigar from Sir Edward, lit it from a taper. "So that lets all of us out. I don't see anyone with scratches here, do you? Have all the servants been closely looked at?"
"I will get back to that point, but first, let us next reconstruct the events which took place after Tatiana's murder," Lina replied.
Rhiannon sat down on an ottoman, listening intently. Although she had not discussed this with her partner - there simply hadn't been time - she still had a fairly good idea as to what was about to be revealed.
"We were all in the dining room afterwards, when I questioned each of you regarding any past association with the murdered woman." Lina said. "A scandal in which Tatiana was involved at the Russian embassy three years ago was a common bond between some of you."
"One should never make one's debut in a scandal," Wilde murmured, sprawled in an overstuffed chair. "One should reserve that to give interest to one's old age."
The dark-haired woman ignored him. "In particular, Hyacinth DuRayne seemed the most affected. Her language was most inflammatory, her attitude one of utmost injury. It was clear that she detested Tatiana, but there was an odd note which I did not choose to press her on at the time. This would turn out to be a mistake on my part. Rhiannon, I believe you know what I am referring to."
"Yes, I do." All eyes turned to Rhiannon, who took out her little silver notebook.
"According to her own words, Miss DuRayne only attended this party in the hopes of persuading Mister Stoker to give her a job. Yet at the same time, she spoke of acquiring a protector who would give her everything she needed - and I quote, 'if he knows what's good for him.' She was reluctant to give out more details, but questions remained: if she already had a man who was going to provide her with a living, why entertain the slim hope that Mister Stoker would give her a part? Why endure the company of a woman she hated if it wasn't needful? As Sherlock Holmes once said, 'once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."
She spread her hands apart. "The only logical explanation is this - when Hyacinth DuRayne came to this Halloween party, she was desperate. Her only hope of maintaining an acting career was to impress or seduce Mister Stoker. Something happened here which changed all that. I believe that when she was in the dining room, speaking about a new 'fellow', she was actually warning someone at that very table that she had found out something. A piece of information so compromising, they would be willing to pay a great deal for her silence."
Lina nodded. "Precisely. But what? It is impossible for Miss DuRayne to have actually seen anything incriminating in this room which the other witnesses did not. It is doubtful that the murderer would have been so indiscreet as to reveal his identity to her overtly. Therefore, I must assume that both she and Tatiana were in possession of a secret so dangerous, a man thought it necessary for them to be silenced forever. The only connection between Tatiana and Miss DuRayne was a ball given three years ago at the Russian embassy. A ball where diplomatic documents were stolen and a Duke - Tatiana's lover - committed suicide."
Maud McIntyre sniffed loudly. "Charlotte Trelawney was at that ball as well. Is she the murderer or a potential victim?"
Charlotte gasped, shrinking back against the wall "I didn't do it, I swear!"
"I know," Lina replied. "However, you may be in danger as well."
"Oh my God!" The artist's gauze ruffles trembled. "Why? I haven't done anything wrong?"
"Don't worry your pretty little head," Sir Edward said manfully, patting the butt of his holstered pistol. "I won't let anything happen to you, Miss Trelawney."
"That is neither here nor there," Lina said sharply, "although I'm sure Miss Trelawney appreciates your gentlemanly offer. Now then... to continue. If this ball is the only thread connecting a Russian courtesan and an English actress, then what could both women have possibly known that marked them for death? The only answer which makes sense is that they both recognized a third person - other than Miss Trelawney - who was in the embassy that fateful evening."
"You mean the thief?" Jefferson Hope asked.
"That is very likely. If this is the case, then Tatiana's death may have occurred because she threatened this person in some fashion. Hyacinth DuRayne died because of her blackmail ambitions."
"Was this meeting accidental?" Agatha pressed a hand to her bodice. "Dear God, this is all my fault. I should never have agreed to host a party, but Tatiana was so happy, I didn't have the heart to tell her no."
"I believe the murderer may have been waiting for the opportunity to do away with Tatiana. In fact, he has been waiting three years. You told me that the two of you had been away on a world tour for quite some time."
"Eighteen months or so. Before that, we spent a year in Switzerland at a secluded resort. We didn't want to be disturbed. It was a sort of honeymoon," Agatha said, mouth drawing tight. "I met her in Siberia, actually. The first six months we were together, she insisted we move hotels a great deal, rarely staying more than a few nights at a time. I didn't object - I thought the gypsy lifestyle was rather romantic."
Rhiannon raised her eyebrows. Where had she heard Siberia mentioned before? She consulted her notebook. Oh dear, she thought. This isn't going to be pretty. A wide leather belt cinched around her waist held a toy dagger with paste jewels on the hilt, and a small, mother-of-pearl handled pistol - one of a pair, gifts from Sherlock Holmes. She had worn it because she thought it made a pretty accessory to her gypsy costume; now, she was glad it was loaded. Rhiannon surreptitiously removed the pistol and hid it in her lap, just in case it was needed.
"Now we have answered a few of our questions," Lina said, "although not as completely as we might have wished. How were the women killed? By their necks being broken after they were partially strangled to prevent them crying out. Why? Because they threatened the interests of an amoral man who has committed espionage and theft, was morally responsible for a suicide, and had no difficulty stooping to murder. Who is he? That is something which we will all learn shortly."
She held out her arms. "According to fashion, all the woman here, with the exception of Rhiannon, are wearing shoulder length, kidskin gloves. The gentleman - including our unconventional Mister Wilde - have their hands covered to the wrist in gloves as well. As I have stated before, Tatiana had a quantity of flesh and blood beneath her fingernails. She obviously did some damage to her murderer that is not immediately visible."
Lina faced the guests, shoulders square, chin up. "Gentleman, kindly remove your gloves and jackets, and roll up your shirtsleeves. One of you is a cold-blooded killer, and I fully intend to unmask you within the next few moments."
Bram Stoker complied without a complaint. His hands and arms were unmarked. The same was true of Jefferson Hope, William McIntyre and Oscar Wilde. Only Sir Edward Carrol hesitated.
"This is all a lot of rot and nonsense," he said, puffing a vile cigar. "Don't mind indulgin' a lady when she gets whims and starts thinkin' she's a real detective - a gentleman's got to humor the weaker sex from time to time, bless their fuzzy little heads. But this is goin' a touch too far, by Jove."
Stoker bristled. "Why object now, Sir Edward? Especially since the rest of the man have 'humored' Lady St. Claire."
"T'ain't right for a sahib to undress in the company of women," the explorer complained. "Against the code and all that, eh?"
Pince-nez fastened firmly to the bridge of her nose, Ophelia Brandcourt peered at Sir Edward as if examining a bug beneath a microscope. "You are hardly a gentleman," she said. "I'd be more inclined to call you a great swaggering brute. It's attitudes like yours that have contributed to the oppression of women for centuries..."
"Oh, do shut up, Ophelia! We don't need a lecture!" Charlotte cried. "Sir Edward, I assure you that every woman in this room has seen at least one unclothed man before. You cannot shock us; our sensibilities are obviously not as delicate as your own, and we will only be seeing your hands and arms. It's not as if anyone is asking you to model nude! Please, I beg you. If you continue to refuse, you will be suspected. Clear your name now, before the police arrive."
Sir Edward shifted the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, arms crossed over his chest. He shook his head stubbornly.
"For God's sake! This farce has gone on long enough!" Stoker approached the explorer, his hands balled into fists. He was a full head taller than Sir Edward, and considerably bulkier. "Do as Lady St. Claire has asked, or it will be done for you!"
Sir Edward smiled - it was a nasty, tigerish grin. The fan of sun-kissed wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened. "Very well. If you insist."
He unbuckled his gun belt, holding it in one hand. Using his teeth, he removed first one pigskin glove, then the other. When the safari jacket was halfway off, exposing his right shirtsleeve, he suddenly swept his revolver from the holster of the belt.
"I suppose it was inevitable," he said conversationally, standing upright with the revolver in his fist. The barrel was pointed at Lina, but he jerked it to include everyone else in the room. Rhiannon was seated closest to him, on an ottoman practically under his nose. "I didn't really think that alabaster hand of Anubis business was going to work."
Rhiannon tightened her grip on he small pistol hidden in her skirts. She glanced at Lina, who shook her head imperceptibly.
"Ah, Sir Edward. Your caricature of a British gentleman was a bit overdone, I think," the tall woman said critically. "But your name really isn't Carrol, is it?"
"No, it is not. Sir Edward is a useful invention which has afforded me many opportunities." He let the safari jacket slide off completely. His left shirtsleeve was tattered and soaked in blood. The flesh of his forearm, glimpsed through the rents, was marred by deep, ugly scratches.
"Painful but not life threatening," he commented. "Unlike this." The man flourished his revolver. His jolly, good-natured accent was gone, replaced by a cold precision of speech that was positively chilling.
"Why did you do it?" Agatha asked, staring at him with reddened eyes. "Why kill Tatiana? What possible threat could she have posed?"
"Because she recognized me! If only you knew the trouble I've gone through, trying to get my hands on that Russian bitch. She followed me to the Duke's office, saw me going through his papers. By the time she raised the alarm, it was too late. Of course, she didn't know my name - nor was I disguised as Sir Edward, then - but I found out she'd seen my face. I simply couldn't have that. Tatiana could've spoiled too many of my operations. I traced her to Siberia, but then she vanished. I learned she'd fallen in with the infamous Countess Orosz. I spent three years, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, and this Halloween party was too good a chance to pass up. I used Sir Edward's persona and reputation to gain entrance. The rest was relatively simple."
"You rotter! Are you a spy for a foreign power?" Stoker took a step forward, only to move back when threatened by the man's revolver.
"I am English, and a gentleman, although some might argue that last point."
"I'd swear she didn't know you." Agatha said. "She'd have told me!"
"Ah, but she did. She knew the moment she saw me walk through those doors. I saw it in her eyes. Tatiana wanted revenge for the Duke's suicide, for the ruination of all her hopes. He might've married her, had his superiors not sent him a loaded dueling pistol for the purpose of blowing out his brains. The honorable fool!" The man known as Sir Edward laughed cruelly.
He continued, "She wouldn't have gone to the police. She intended to expose me to the Russian embassy. If those Cossacks had gotten a message from her, they would have taken me away in chains. So in the darkness, I got my hands around her neck and was going to squeeze the life out of her, but she was a wildcat, and I broke her neck instead."
"Whom do you work for, sir?" Lina asked quietly.
"Why, for myself. And a certain Professor Moriarty. Perhaps you know the master, madame? Your Sherlock Holmes knows him very well, indeed."
Rhiannon went white to the lips. It was because of the Professor's illegitimate daughter, Victoire, and the horrible events in Egypt that she'd attempted suicide. Things were better now, but the mention of Moriarty still had the power to rattle her. She swallowed thickly. Lina needs you; pull yourself together, woman, and stay focused!
"So you killed Tatiana to avoid exposure. Is that why you also killed Miss DuRayne? I seem to recall you mentioning that clever girls like her always get what they deserve." Lina rubbed the side of her nose. "Did she get what she deserved?"
"Of course. The stupid slut thought she could bleed me for cash. After Tatiana's death, she suddenly realized where she'd seen me before and guessed that I'd killed the Russian tart. She invited me to her room to talk things over, and I seized my chance to shut her up forever."
"Retrieving that alabaster hand from the drawing room was a nice touch."
"It wasn't that difficult. I hoped to keep everyone off-balance until I could make my escape. I couldn't leave alone without drawing suspicion to myself, and I didn't want the police searching for me yet. A nice panic over a supernatural murderer seemed just the thing to empty the house, but then you came along with a reasonable explanation. I thought I'd try again. When I saw that busybody, Brandcourt, going into Hyacinth's room just after I'd put the hand inside, I started a little fire on the landing as a distraction. During the confusion, I planned to slip out a window, but you put paid to that as well."
"I thought as much." Lina glanced at Rhiannon. Steady, my dear. Steady. "What do you plan to do with us?"
"Why, I'm going to kill you all." The man glowed with confidence. "I'll begin with you, Miss Nosy Parker, because I loathe women who get above themselves. The men will follow. I have just enough bullets in the chamber to take care of those who might pose a real threat. After I reload, I'll finish off the ladies. Since the servants are cowering in their quarters, and no one's sent a message to the police, it may be as long as a day before the bodies are discovered. I'll be away by then, cleanly away, and it will be too late for pursuit."
He took aim, the barrel of his revolver pointed unwaveringly at Lina's forehead.
"Good-bye, Lady St. Claire," he said.
Shockingly, heedless of her own safety, Lina surged forward, reaching for the gun.
A bare second before her partner was in motion, Rhiannon whipped her small pistol free, jammed it into the man's armpit, and pulled the trigger.
He roared in pain, blood fountaining out of the wound, and stumbled over the broken alabaster hand of Anubis, which lay on the carpet near his feet. In the same moment, Lina's outstretched hands made contact with his revolver, pushing it towards the ceiling, just as his finger instinctively tightened on the trigger. A thunderous bang and a puff of acrid smoke, and bits of ceiling plaster rained down onto the carpet.
Despite his injury, the man struggled to turn his gun towards Lina. She held it away by brute force, teeth gritted, muscles cording in her shoulders and forearms. Terrified that her partner might be hurt, Rhiannon jumped off the ottoman and clapped her pistol to the side of the man's head. "Drop your weapon or so help me God, I'll splatter your brains over this room!" Her turquoise blue eyes were narrowed slits, her expression fierce.
Bram Stoker leaped into the fray, putting a beefy arm around the man's neck. "If the little lady doesn't kill you, laddie, I will!"
Ophelia Brandcourt picked up a fireplace poker. "Horrible, simply horrible! I'll see you hanged if it's the last thing I do, you blackhearted scoundrel!"
Charlotte Trelawney cried, "I'm going for the police!" and darted out of the drawing room. Her shouts from the street could be clearly heard. In seconds, the shrill whistle of a bobby's alarm sliced through the air.
Rhiannon loudly cocked her pistol and the man ceased struggling. Once glance at her face convinced him that she meant business. Bram Stoker released him reluctantly.
"Well done, my dear!" Lina said. She thrust the man into a chair, wadded up his safari jacket, and used it as a compress to stop the flow of blood from his wound. "Quite a terrible experience, to be true, but you came through marvelously, as always."
Drooping and ashen, Oscar Wilde said, "Experience is the one thing you can't get for nothing."
Rhiannon gave the author a glance and continued to hold her pistol trained on the bleeding murderer. She said coldly, "In this case, the experience was paid for with two women's lives."
Her retort left the witty Mister Wilde positively speechless.
"His true name is Colonel Sebastian Moran," Sherlock Holmes said, watching as several burly constables loaded the injured man into the back of a police wagon. "Late of Her Majesty's Indian Army - the 1st Bungalore Pioneers - and the best heavy-game shot that our Empire has ever produced. I've always considered him the second most dangerous man in England."
He closed the front door and led the way back into the drawing room. The other guests had gone home, and Countess Orosz was recovering in her bed chamber.
Rhiannon thrust her little pistol back into its holster on her belt before sitting down. "What is his connection to Professor Moriarty?"
"Ah, yes." Holmes' eyes glittered. "When Moran retired, having made India too hot to hold him, he was sought out by James Moriarty and used on one or two important jobs. Do you recall the murder of Mrs. Stewart, in Lauder, in 1887? No? Pity. The case had several points of interest, not the least that I suspected Moran of the crime, but had no evidence to prove his involvement. At any rate, the Colonel has long been living on his ill-gotten gains as a professional gambler, among other things. Spying and assassination for pay are two of his many skills."
"He stole Duke Vladimir Abakumov's diplomatic documents three years ago," Lina said. "No doubt Moriarty sold them for a tidy sum and split the profits with Moran."
"Yes, bought by Her Majesty's government, if my brother Mycroft is to be believed," Holmes replied. "Scotland Yard won't be holding Colonel Moran for very long, I fear. Mycroft is eager to question the man on his recent activities in the Congo - a missing safari party and a dead Earl's son - and I have heard that, as relations between Downing Street and Russia are somewhat strained at the moment, my brother intends to make a gift of Moran to the Czar's secret police."
"And Tatiana's murder? Hyacinth DuRayne? Will Moran be punished for that as well?" Rhiannon asked, a sharp edge to her voice. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I apologize, Holmes. I just don't think it's fair for him to get away with it."
"He will get away with nothing," Holmes said, a fierce expression on his saturnine face. "My dear Rhiannon, I assure you that Mycroft does not cringe from extreme measures when it comes to extracting information, and the Russians are not unskilled in that field, either. Hanging is, frankly, too good for the fellow. Before this affair is finished, Moran will beg for death."
"He nearly shot Lina." Rhiannon scowled, "and he brutally murdered two innocent women. I agree with you - hanging's too good for that scum."
"You stopped him from murdering us all, my dear," Lina said, coming to sit beside her partner. "I had every faith and confidence in you."
The two women snuggled closely together, and a sudden thought struck the strawberry blonde. "Whatever happened to Tatiana's earring? The Colonel didn't have it, did he?"
"No, it was the second parlor maid," Lina answered with a chuckle. "The poor girl was terrified she would get into trouble for pinching it. She found it on the floor when the servants came in to clean up after Aggie's gruesome prank. I believe it was torn from Tatiana's earlobe during her struggle with Moran and went unnoticed in the chaos."
Holmes cleared his throat. "If you will excuse me, ladies, Mycroft has charged me with the supervision of Colonel Moran from Scotland Yard to his private offices. Thank you for allowing me to assist in your case, albeit belatedly."
"It was quite a bizarre Halloween affair," Lina remarked.
"More trick than treat," Rhiannon added with a smile.
"Yes, indeed, my dear." Lina kissed her partner, making Holmes blush. "Yes, indeed."
From outside came a horrific crash, followed by the screaming of horses and men's voices shouting, "He's getting away!"
Spitting a mighty oath, Holmes sprang up and was out the door in seconds.
Rhiannon's gaze followed him with concern. "Should we help him, do you think?"
"No, I do not," Lina said firmly. Getting to her feet, she shook out her skirts with a clashing jangle. "The hour is early and the day is yet ahead of us. We have done quite enough, and I insist we allow poor Holmes to have his fun. Come, my dear. Let us go home."
"I can't wait to get out of this costume."
"And I can hardly contain myself from helping you out of it this very minute," Lina purred. There was a glint in her emerald eyes that Rhiannon recognized with growing elation.
She ran to the front door. It gaped wide open, admitting breeze-blown leaves of brown, russet and gold. "Driver!" Rhiannon shouted, waving for a cab. "Grosvenor Square!" Grabbing Lina's hand, she scrambled into the carriage, not waiting for it to come to a complete stop. "And an extra pound if you get us there in less than ten minutes!"
Lina's wicked chuckle wafted out of the cab as the driver whipped his horse to the utmost, the gelding's hooves ringing on the cobblestones.
On the verandah of Arkham House - where a Countess grieved a little that she could not mourn her loss more deeply - a sad jack o'lantern, his candle long burned out, leered after the carriage, and the dark spirit of Halloween was dispelled for another year.