It’s been a while, but life takes you down some unexpected roads sometimes.
In my case it was a wonderful road that brought me to the birth of my son. While he has become the most important thing in my life, I still never stopped writing.
My new novel is called What Lies At Baelwood Manor, and it’s my love letter to classic Gothic thrillers such as Frankenstein, The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, The Turn Of The Screw and Jane Eyre.
To celebrate the release of this book, I’m posting the first chapter right here so you can get a head start on it!
I hope you enjoy it enough to take a chance and read the whole story.
Lord Graham Stratford’s wake was turning out to be a rather bloodless affair, thought Amelia Christie as she watched the guests interact with one another in a most sterile manner throughout the main sitting room.
She was not entirely surprised by this, as Lord Stratford was neither presently married, nor had he sired any children of his own. The lack of such persons would naturally lower the expectancy of such swelling emotion. Even so, one would assume that those closest to the man would show more outward signs of grieving – if not shed a tear or two.
In fairness, Amelia herself would be considered amongst the closest of Lord Stratford’s acquaintances, and her own sense of loss was quite subdued. He had, after all, been her late father’s closest friend. And he’d taken on an even more prominent role in her life as the executor of her family’s estate in the ten years since her father’s passing.
And yet, Lord Stratford had always been something of an enigma to her. He would present himself with all the trappings of caring patron, but there always seemed to be something askew about his manner. Amelia immediately reprimanded herself for indulging in such oblique thoughts, but she couldn’t help herself.
She had always been more analytical than emotional. Solving puzzles and unraveling mysteries were amongst her favorite hobbies. And this man, who had been involved in her life for the entirety of it, was still one of the grander puzzles she had come across.
No, the stone-faced reactions and few polite words exchanged should not have come as a surprise at all. Many of the attendees were pillars of society and therefore expected to maintain a stoic facade. But the lack of true melancholy suggested a lack of love.
Perhaps that was why she wished to see (and feel) more sadness. For imagining the lack of love in Lord Stratford’s life was as sorrowful as any exhibition of loss that could be shown at a wake.
Claridge Abbey was a sprawling manor. Discounting the serving staff’s quarters, there were still more than thirty rooms in all. The wake was originally to be held in the ballroom, which was the largest room of the house. But the most spacious of the four parlors seemed more appropriate and was of comparable size. After all, ballrooms were intended for celebrations rather than bereavements.
The ceilings throughout the entire house were approximately five meters high, at least where the second-floor rooms sat above them. The walls reached even greater heights of ten meters in the entrance hall, culminating in a domed ceiling adorned with a painting of angels flying over a pastoral landscape.
The walls of the main hallway were powder blue and decorated predominantly with family portraits extending back many generations. Purple plush runners lay upon the hardwood floors, which ran the length of the house from the front entrance to the back.
The door to the parlor that currently hosted the wake was the third one back from the front entrance, and it was positioned on the left wall just before the stairway leading up to the second floor. This parlor was sparsely decorated but well-furnished. An intricately designed Oriental rug covered most of the floor’s surface area.
Rose Christie watched her younger sister from one corner of the rug, but she was unable to gauge just what her feelings were. Amelia’s long auburn hair, hazel eyes and tall, slim figure (currently wrapped in a charcoal gray dress with a deep red collar and chest piece) cut quite the image amongst the black suits and dresses of the older guests.
Rose, though three years her sister’s senior, was shorter than her. With her wavy blonde hair tucked under a black hat, and her blue eyes hidden behind a black veil, she blended in more with the rest of the room.
She was also expected to wear the loss more prominently than anyone else, as she and Lord Stratford had been expected to announce their engagement very soon. And grieve she did, only not for the conventional reasons.
It was, in fact, more guilt than grief – though she did her best to bend the former into the shape of the latter for appearances’ sake. Her guilt was more difficult to quell when Sir Jonathan Claridge began making his way to her from across the parlor.
Spacious as the room was, she was able to see the manor’s new lord coming for what felt like an eternity. The advantage of this was that she could collect her thoughts prior to his offering her a quick bow.
“M’lady,” he began. “Please accept my great condolences for your loss.”
“Why, Jonathan,” she replied. “Much as I appreciate the sentiment, he was your uncle. It is I who should be offering you my sympathies.”
Jonathan straightened his back and rose to his full lean height. His impeccably tailored black vest and long-tailed coat made him appear taller than his fairly modest height. He ran his hand through his thick, short black hair, effortlessly pushing back the few strands that had fallen out of place.
His brown eyes always bore some varying degree of aloofness, but in this moment, they also bore the glimmer of something incredulously apologetic.
“It was truly a great loss for us all,” he said, wrapping up the burgeoning awkwardness.
“And how is your dear sister handling this all?” Rose asked.
“Winnifred?” Jonathan asked before casting a glance over his shoulder at his sister.
Winnifred Claridge was four years younger than Amelia, and so the difference between her age and her brother’s was twice that. But for such a young girl, she was playing her part as the hostess of Claridge Abbey quite adroitly. She was a slight girl, with unwieldy brown curls and eyes that seemed a bit too large for her face. This was not an unusual circumstance for a girl of thirteen years.
“There was some shock at first,” Jonathan continued, with a furrowed brow that seemed somewhat manufactured. “The manner of my uncle’s demise caused us all great consternation. But I believe that having a gathering to see to as lady of the house is keeping her mind from wandering into more disconsolate places.”
He’d given the answer he felt that Rose was seeking. But the truth was that he didn’t believe his sister had any better grasp of her feelings toward their uncle’s death than he had. This was troubling, as his own sentiments were quite nebulous.
“I am very glad that she has you to depend on during this difficult time,” Rose told him, doing her best to reply in the expected manner.
“We shall all be quite dependent on one another going forward, I should think,” Jonathan replied, his words and intentions finally finding each other. “You will, of course, call upon me…or, rather, us…should you require anything at any time?”
“Most definitely,” Rose said with a gracious nod. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really ought to look in on my mother.”
“Then I shall bid you adieu.” Jonathan bowed again and strode over to join his sister’s ongoing conversation with several other guests.
Catherine Christie was still a striking woman as she reached her 41st year. She had the same auburn hair and hazel eyes as her younger daughter. But her shorter, curvier frame more closely matched her firstborn’s. Her hair was much shorter than Amelia’s, and (also unlike Amelia) Catherine made little effort to walk amongst the crowd.
In fact, she remained off to the side, hovering near the tables of food and wine that lined the walls.
She’d only forged relationships with a small number of guests. The majority had been the sort of people that Lord Stratford purely had dealings with in London.
Catherine recognized a few of them, as she had visited her husband in the London office that he shared with Lord Stratford fairly often in years past. But she’d long since lost touch with them.
It was the half-empty wine glass in Catherine’s hand as well as the two other empty glasses sitting on the table beside her that Rose’s attention was first drawn to as she approached.
“Are you quite well, Mother?” she asked.
“Yes, my flower,” Catherine replied unsteadily. “You know how I simply abhor large crowds. So I’ve staked my claim to this corner, and here I shall remain until our departure.”
“Are you certain that you’re otherwise all right?” Rose asked.
“Now, now, my sweet Rose,” Catherine said, lightly cupping one of her daughter’s cheeks. “Don’t you worry about me. I will be just fine once we’ve returned home.”
Rose smiled skeptically at her mother and returned to making her rounds of the parlor. Her concern for her mother had not dissipated, but she had to keep up appearances.
Inspector Edmund Benedict of the Scotland Yard stood over the open casket of Lord Stratford. One thing was for certain: The deceased had the typical aristocratic cast about his face with his curly dark hair, hooked nose and jutting chin.
He watched the ebb and flow of the room, making mental notes of any gestures or reactions that might grant any insight into Stratford’s life – and by extension, his death.
Benedict would only get the broad strokes of the picture by observing rather than interacting. But he always believed that one could not perceive the small important details without first seeing the tapestry as a whole.
Eventually, he turned his attention back to the body. The undertaker had done a fine job correcting the deceased’s twisted grimace into a serene blankness. Many times he had seen less skilled hands unable to completely sculpt the terror out of the visage of murdered men – and that was when the victims were even left presentable enough to work with at all.
Lord Stratford wore a red silk pocket square in his left breast pocket. This made Benedict wonder if the intention here had been an attempt at gallows humor. When the man had been found dead in his small legal office in the nearby village of Halfordshire, the entire left side of his shirt had been soaked through with blood.
But then, perhaps it was an inadvertent joke that only he would consider intentional. It mattered not at this time. What mattered was that soon Claridge Abbey would usher out the guests, and he would conduct his interviews with the Claridges and their serving staff.
Then, the following morning, he would travel to the Christie household and proceed down a similar course with the Christies and their staff.
Benedict was a gifted man, and he generally identified the culprit almost immediately following these inquests. From there, it was just a matter of gathering the necessary evidence to prove that he was right.
Which he almost always was.
He had no reason to believe that case of the murder of Lord Graham Stratford would be any different.
He would be very wrong.