Four pairs of eyes watched me as I stared blankly at the table top. I pretended not to notice, but I knew exactly what they were all thinking, all but one of them, that is. I was the one with the most to gain from the incident. That made me the guilty one. But they were wrong.
I glanced to the empty chair next to me at the head of the table. The chair where my grandfather should be sitting right now.
For all intents and purposes, I should have been crying then, but I had learned my lesson long before that tears did nothing to wake the dead. It had done nothing to revive my parents then, and it would do nothing revive my grandfather now. That was another reason they thought I was the guilty one.
I turned my head to look at the other four faces seated around the table. They looked away in an attempt to hide the fact that they had all been staring at me. But I knew. I was not, by any means, stupid.
Footsteps in the foyer drew our attention to the archway leading from the room.
A man entered, clearing his throat as he came. He was young and handsome in a rugged sense, but a gumshoe if I ever saw one. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his trench coat as he took a seat in the empty chair beside me. He removed his hat and set it on top of the table before scratching at the stubble on his chin.
"Evening, folks," he began as he dug through his pockets. "I'm Detective Krause. I know you've all been through a hell of an ordeal tonight, but I'd just like to ask you all a few questions, if that's alright."
No one said a word as he produced a pen and a small notebook. "Alright then, why don't we start with you, Miss. Lancaster," he said, glancing in my direction. "Now, you were the one that discovered the body, am I correct?"
I swallowed nervously and nodded.
"Would you mind explaining how you came to find it?"
Before I could answer, the man on the other end of the table spoke up. "Boy, are you sure you know what you're doing? You're not going to get anyone to admit anything with everybody else sittin' here."
I did not know the man terribly well. His name was Admiral Joseph Meaux, an old friend of my grandfather. They had served in the navy together for a few years before my grandfather decided to retire from the military and put his time and effort into another field. I had seen him attend several events at my grandfather's estate, but had hardly spoken a word to the man. What I did know, however, was that he was a heavy drinker and, on more than one occasion, had had to be escorted from the premises due to his tendency to become violent and angry. He and my grandfather would often get into loud arguments that neither would remember upon becoming sober again.
Detective Krause just smiled slightly. "Admiral, in normal circumstances, I would agree with you, but I'd like to try it this way first. You'd be surprised what kind of things slip out in heated discussions."
The admiral just grunted his acknowledgement.
"Right, then," the detective said, turning back to me. "Now, how did you find the body?"
The question brought back the image of my grandfather lying face down on the floor in the study, his wine glass shattered on the wood planks, the wine staining the rug like blood. It had been an overwhelming sight and my screams had brought everyone in the house running.
Taking a deep breath, I began to recall the events leading up to the discovery. "Well, during the evening I developed a bit of a headache, so I excused myself from dinner and retired to my room. A short while later, I heard footsteps going into the study and thought nothing of it. My grandfather has…had a habit of excusing himself to his study for a few minutes several times over the course of one evening. A few minutes later, I heard a loud thump and hurried across the hall to investigate. That was when I found him."
"Still fully dressed, I might add," the woman across the table from me said, gazing at me intently. "Not a single hair out of place. For someone so crippled by a headache that she had to leave the party, I'm surprised you didn't immediately go to bed."
"Not all of us are so quick to undress ourselves, Lorinda," I replied pointedly, meeting her glare without flinching. She knew exactly what I was talking about.
Lorinda Cerise was my grandfather's mistress, a woman I had made my opinion of clear on more than one occasion. She was only a few years older than I was, an opportunist who wanted nothing more than to be given a large share of my grandfather's wealth. Despite my objections, he had insisted that she be written into his will. I was unfortunately required to be present when he made the change, but was not completely disappointed. He had taken some of what I had said into account and only wished to will a small part of his estate to her. The look on her face had remained pleasant, but her eyes revealed the anger she was concealing. I was still to inherit most of his estate while she would receive a measly amount in comparison.
The corner of Lorinda's mouth twitched in distaste, but before she could counter with her own retort, Detective Krause interrupted.
"Ladies, relax. No need to point fingers right now, I'm just trying to clear some things up. Now, Miss. Lancaster, when he excused himself to his study, what did he go there to do?"
"Well, it varied, depending on the occasion," I replied. "Sometimes, it was to look something up in a book in order to start a more stimulating conversation. Other times he was looking for something a little stronger to drink. He was very adamant about keeping the hard liquor in the study and never serving it at parties or dinners. And sometimes, depending on the company, he would have to…" I trailed off, blushing.
"I understand, Miss. Lancaster," he said, chuckling. "And do you have any idea what he may have been going up there for tonight?"
I shook my head. "I have no idea, Detective."
"I can assure you it wasn't any of those reason," the woman sitting beside said. "He was acting a little strange before he went upstairs. Whatever was bugging him was probably why he went up there."
Her name was Lydia Pearl, and she had been like a grandmother to me since I had first come to live at my grandfather's estate after my parents' fatal accident. She may have been just the housekeeper, but my grandfather had not always been a comforting and sympathetic sort of man, so she became my shoulder to cry on. I could talk to her about anything. When Lorinda started appearing in the house more often than usual, Lydia and I had had a long talk about the subject. I was pleased to hear that she felt the same way about the woman as I did.
"Do you have any idea what could have been bugging him, then, Ms. Pearl?"
She shrugged. "I haven't the foggiest. As far as I know, nothing was wrong."
"Our deal with some southern merchants was going nowhere. We'll probably end up losing the contract now," the man sitting between Lorinda and the admiral complained.
After leaving the navy, my grandfather had gone into business with Richard Callow. After a few years, their lucrative trade had grown immensely, and they were now buying and selling artifacts from around the world, though the items they came by were not always by legal means. Callow had always, as far as I was aware, been a man with an eye on the prize, whether it was being the most successful in business or attracting some innocent woman to his bed. It had driven him mad to learn that my grandfather had more skills in sweet-talking customers than he did. They always avoided talking to Callow if they had the choice. This brought my grandfather much more publicity and wealth than him, something a man like Callow could not easily let go.
"What do you mean?" the detective asked.
"Well, the buggers weren't willing to budge on anything, but Nathan was starting to get them somewhere. They were still nervous about the whole thing and it had been driving him up the wall. Usually he's got something up his sleeve to get them to close on a deal closer to what we want, but this negotiation had him stumped."
"So you think this business deal was getting to him?"
"Wouldn't doubt it."
"Do you think he'd commit suicide over it?"
"Hell, no. Nathan was straight as an arrow and tough as nails. He wouldn't take the coward's way out."
Everyone seated at the table nodded in agreement.
"Alright, just covering all bases here," the detective said defensively. "He could have poisoned himself."
"If you think he might have poisoned himself, why are you investigating anything?" Lorinda asked. "It should be an open and shut case."
"I'm just trying to get an idea of what happened tonight. I'm not here to accuse anyone or arrest anyone. I'm just here to find the facts. That's it," he explained, looking around the table. "Alright?" When no one answered, he continued. "Now, was there anything at dinner that was specifically for him? Something someone could have tainted without worrying about poisoning anyone else?"
"Everything was prepared separately and served pre-plated," Lydia said. "I suppose someone could have snuck into the kitchen before dinner was served."
"Did you see anyone go in?"
Lydia shook her head.
"Lorinda, I believe I saw you and Mr. Callow going in that direction earlier," I said, glancing at Callow before looking back at her. "I cannot help but wonder what you two were doing."
Her cheeks flushed slightly as she glanced in his direction. "We were discussing business and he wanted to show me something he and Nathan had acquired recently out in the garden," she answered smoothly.
"Really? I was not aware my grandfather had brought anything to the estate recently. He generally made a habit of showing me such things."
"Nathan didn't know about this," Callow cut in. "It was going to be a gift to him later tonight."
"Oh? Would you care to show us, in that case?" I asked, standing from my chair.
"I hardly see how this matters right now."
"I agree," Lorinda said, glaring at me. "Sit back down and perhaps later you'll get to see it."
"I have a feeling it would be something that only a certain kind of…audience would appreciate to its extent. Would I be correct?" I asked, meeting her glare as I sat down.
"I wouldn't know. I'm not a connoisseur of such things," she replied.
I smirked slightly as I glanced between Lorinda and Callow. Neither of them looked pleased and they both knew I was onto their little game. "I must have been mistaken then," I replied in a falsely apologetic tone.
"I should say you were."
"If you two ladies are finished with your cat fight, I've got something to say," the admiral, who had remained quite silent until this point, interrupted. "I can tell you right now it wasn't the food. We sat at this table for hours before he finally went upstairs. Dinner was cleared long before that. If it had been the food, he would have died right in front of us."
"But he was constantly refilling his glass," Lydia pointed out. "It could have been in the wine."
"We were all drinking from those bottles. None of us are dead. It had to have been something that happened upstairs."
The eyes were all back on me. "If he was poisoned by something in his study, it could have very well been poisoned weeks ago," I pointed out in an attempt to defend myself. "And if that is the case, assuming it was any one of us would be simply ludicrous."
No one said anything, but I knew what they were thinking. That was precisely the sort of thing a guilty person would say to avoid being caught. For all they knew, I was the guilty one, but I knew I was innocent.
I looked at Detective Krause. "Am I wrong to assume such a thing could be possible?"
He shook his head as he scribbled something down in his notebook. "It would be entirely possible, Miss. Lancaster," he replied, looking up at me. "If that turned out to be the case, do you have any idea who would have done it?"
I shook my head. "I have no idea. He was away on business on and off for the last few weeks and had no time for visitors when he was here. To my knowledge, tonight was the first time in some time that anyone has been here."
"So it would probably be more likely that it happened tonight, logically speaking," the detective reasoned.
"I suppose so," I sighed.
The room was silent as he wrote a few more notes in his notebook. "Miss. Lancaster, could I talk to you in private, please?" he asked without looking up.
"Of course," I said, standing from my chair and following him from the room after he finished writing.
"I'd like to ask your opinion on something," he said, closing the door behind us. "First, is it true you're willed to inherit a large piece of his estate."
I reluctantly nodded, afraid that I knew where this was going.
"Okay, well, with that knowledge, I think it's safe to say who they think is responsible for this misfortune. What I want to know is who you think killed your grandfather? You know these people in this room pretty well from what I can gather, so I would honestly like to know."
I was taken aback by the question. It certainly had not been what I had expected, but I was grateful that he was interested in my opinion.
I mulled over the question in my head. My first thought was Lorinda, but I soon realized that she was angrier with me than my grandfather and killing him would do nothing to increase her inheritance. I knew it was not Callow either. With the little knowledge I had of the contract he had spoken of, I knew he desperately needed it to work. Without my grandfather, there would be no way for a deal to be settled upon. That left Lydia and Admiral Meaux. A sudden realization came over me.
"It was Lydia," I said quietly, a knot forming in my stomach. "I don't know why, but I am sure of it."
Detective Krause nodded. "I see. What would you say if I told you you were right?"
I looked at him quizzically. "But I thought there were no leads. How could you possibly know that?"
He grinned sheepishly. "Because I already looked in the envelope."
I stared at him. "You totally missed the point of the game, didn't you?" I asked, lapsing out of character.
"Come on, I'm the detective. I had to be sure I caught the right person."
"I think you really did miss the point of the game. No one is supposed to know what happened except the person who killed the guy. The whole point of these murder-mystery parties is to make it feel real. That means you might just have to arrest the wrong person. Hell, you should've arrested me! I had the best motive and the shaky alibi."
"Alright, next time I'll arrest you."
"That's not the point," I told him, opening the door into the room where the other four were sitting, all still in character. "You guys can quit acting now. Guess who decided to peek?"
"Aw, come on, really?" Angela, who had been playing Lydia, complained. "I was on fire! You guys had no idea, did you? You all thought it was Kendra…I mean, Miss. Lancaster, didn't you?"
"It was pretty obvious that it was her, though you hardly said anything, so I guess that should have given it away," James, who had been playing Callow, said.
"I figured it out," I chimed in as I sat back down at the table.
"That's because you knew you didn't do it," James said.
"Ben, if this sword was real, I ought'a run you through with it," Carter, who had been playing the admiral, said.
"Why do you even have a sword?" Shelby, who had been playing Lorinda, asked. "What are you, a pirate?"
"I was in the navy. I took it from a pirate and wear it as a souvenir now," he said, shrugging.
"Right," Shelby said, unconvinced.
"So, what now, then?" Ben asked.
"Well, I personally think we need to punish you somehow for ruining everything," I said.
"Agreed," everyone else chimed in.
"Come on guys, really? What would you have done if you were in my situation?" Ben asked.
"Any ideas?" I asked, ignoring Ben's question.
"I've got a few," Shelby said, grinning. "Got any spray paint?"
A/N: Well, that's my story! Hope I got your vote for the first round of the RH's writing contest :)