STEELE AND OLD LACE
With a last cough and a splutter the sturdy little jeep came to a halt. Frustrated, Murphy Michaels punched the steering wheel hard, and immediately wished that he hadn't.
"Well we're not getting any further tonight." He glared at the fuel gauge, as though hoping that he could convince the vehicle that its tank was still full. "It's probably going to rain again, too, so I don't recommend trying to walk the rest of the way."
"The 'rest of the way' is several hundred miles, Murph." Seated next to him, the chill of the air doing nothing to dampen the natural warmth of her character, Laura Holt peered out of the passenger window. The jeep only had a soft top, which did little to keep out the cold, and there was a distinct draught blowing through the gap between window and roof. She blinked as the icy air struck her eyes, and rubbed at the condensation on the glass. "There was that town a little way back. Has anybody seen a gas station since then?"
"There was one in the town, but it didn't look like it was still being used." Seated in the back of the jeep, cramped between Remington Steele and a pile of luggage, Bernice Fox was as irritable as she sounded. On a good day she might rather have enjoyed being squashed up against her handsome 'employer'; but eight hours of relentless rough travel, in cold mountains that made the worst LA winter seem like summer in the Bahamas, with no food, coffee or comfort breaks, had turned the enforced close quarters into hell rather than heaven. Steele had ignored her for most of the trip anyway, being deeply engrossed in a biography of Cary Grant, which had done even less to improve Bernice's mood than had the weather. In the last two hours his only contribution to the group's intermittent conversation had been to mention that, in future, Remington Steele was going to take a much closer interest in the travel arrangements of his firm. Laura had glared so fiercely into the rear view mirror that Bernice had almost expected to see the glass melt. After strongly hinting that all further trips were to be made by jet, or at the very least by train - first class sleeping compartments, naturally - Steele had once again lapsed into silence. Murphy was enjoying the peace and quiet, which was reason enough to suspect that it wasn't going to last.
"That gas station we passed hadn't been used in years." Murphy stretched as best he could whilst still seated in a closed jeep. "The prices displayed in the window dated from '75 at the latest, and it looked like the pumps were disconnected."
"There were a lot of cobwebs. It must have been abandoned." Laura scowled. "That means a long walk, or a long wait. We'll have to go back to the town and ask somebody to run one of us to wherever the nearest working gas station is. We probably won't be on our way again until dawn at the earliest."
"Weather's changing. Looks like there's snow on the way." Murphy stared up at the darkening sky, with its bruises of still darker cloud. "I don't fancy driving about in a blizzard on these little mountain roads."
"If we were in the firm's private jet, we could fly over the snow." Without looking up from his book, Steele threw in his contribution to the discussion using the faintly superior tone that was always guaranteed to cause explosions from Murphy. It was perhaps a measure of how tired the detective was, that his only reaction now was a withering glare. Laura sighed.
"The agency doesn't have it's own jet, Mr Steele. The way our finances have been just lately we'd be lucky to afford a tail fin, let alone a whole aircraft. Now we have to walk back to that village. What was it called? White Springs? Black Springs? Sulphur Springs?"
"Yellow Springs." Murphy opened the door beside him. "Maybe it was a gold rush town originally."
"Could be." Laura had a pleasant mental image of the picturesque little town filled with pioneers growing rich, naming their settlement after the colour of the tiny nuggets that they found in the springs and the streams. Knowing that the reality was probably far from the images in her mind didn't seem to spoil the dream any.
Murphy noticed the faraway look in her eyes, and smiled in her direction. He knew what dreams filled her head, for he knew her, and the way in which her mind worked. She saw the smile, returning it with one of her own, and his heart warmed and glowed. Who cared about cold winds and the fast approach of mountain snow, when Laura was here smiling at him, to see that he stayed warm? He only wished that her smiles were for him alone.
"Why exactly did we come so far out into the mountains with hardly any petrol in the tank?" Climbing out of the jeep, somehow managing to look as immaculate as he might had he just stepped out of the spacious interior of the firm's limousine, Steele shot Murphy a questioning glance that made the sweetly smiling image of Laura explode into a thousand shards within the detective's happily daydreaming mind. He sighed.
"The meter said full when we last saw a gas station that was working. I didn't realise that the gauge was broken. The next time we went over a fairly decent sized bump in the road, everything started registering zero. I'm not a soothsayer, Mister Steele."
"Well never mind Murphy." Straightening his tie unnecessarily, Steele smiled at the other man in the manner of a teacher reassuring a pupil, or a parent forgiving a child's misdemeanour. "I wouldn't want you to feel badly about this. It's not your fault particularly."
"That's very kind of you Mr Steele." Murphy's voice dripped with sarcasm, as well as a distinct warning that the insufferable con-man should shut up pretty sharpish. Steele waved a hand, dismissing the comment.
"Not at all, Murphy. Not at all. Never let it be said that Remington Steele is an unfair employer. We're all entitled to our mistakes, even when they leave the agency's entire staff stranded up a mountain with snow on the way. No, we'll say no more about it."
"If you don't shut up, you'll be saying no more about anything." Murphy took a step towards him, but Laura, who had been struggling to extricate herself from the jeep since the moment that the conversation had first shown signs of becoming nasty, managed finally to reach the awkward pair. She positioned herself hastily between them.
"Oh give it a rest. The pair of you." She shot them both a warning glance, sighing in exasperation as neither man showed any sign of making up. "Honestly, you're worse than children. I'd rather take a drive with a car full of rowdy five year-olds than have to go through this trip with you two again. You argued all day yesterday, and the icy silence the day before was not exactly an improvement on the stupid games of one-upmanship the day before that. Bernice and I have been caught in the middle of a juvenile war zone. Just grow up."
"I can assure you, Miss Holt, that I am as grown up as needs be." Turning smartly on his heel, her decidedly unconventional 'boss' looked back down the rough and winding road that had brought them to such an out of the way place. "I'm going back to that village. Whatever you people plan to do, I intend to spend tonight in relative comfort. There's bound to be at least some form of boarding house there. Perhaps even a hotel."
"In a place that small? We'll be lucky to find a bed-and-breakfast that doesn't have more cockroaches than tenants." Murphy felt his anger seep away, replaced with the usual air of steady aggravation that Steele's mere existence upon the face of the globe had come to cause him. "But I suppose you've got a point. We can't stay here all night."
"I should think not." Bernice was already dragging the luggage out of the car, searching through it for any bits and pieces that she did not feel capable of surviving a night without. Murphy caught up most of the rest, his strong arms making light work of the awkward load. To his credit - not that Murphy would have admitted as much - Steele also carried a fair amount, leaving Laura and Bernice with only the smallest of the bags to share between them. They looked, Laura decided, like tourists who had become terribly lost whilst on some ill-advised 'wilderness experience' day trip. They certainly didn't look like four - well three, anyway - highly trained members of a very successful detective agency, on their way back from a three day conference in Phoenix. She wished that the conference had been useful and entertaining enough to make all of this worthwhile, but the truth was that she had spent almost every minute of it wishing that she had caved in to Steele's repeated suggestions that she send back their invitations, and spend the time with him instead. His verbal imagery describing the playgrounds of the rich and famous in which he had spent so much of his varied and colourful life were enough to turn all but the most dedicated head; which sadly was exactly what her own head was. She scowled at yet another missed opportunity, and wondered how long she was really going to try keeping Remington Steele at arm's length. That was the one question in her life to which she didn't seem able to come up with an answer. The one piece of her personal jigsaw that refused to be slipped neatly into its place, and remained resolutely awkward. Laura Holt hadn't encountered much unpredictability in her life, and she wasn't at all sure what she should do with it now. It made her feel out of her depth and unprepared; like now, when she was heading towards a village she had never heard of before, filled with people she didn't know, whilst hoping that she would be able to find lodgings where quite possibly there were none to be found. Next time a conference came up, she was definitely throwing the invitations into the bin.
"We haven't got long before the snow starts." Striding ahead like a mountain guide, for all the world as though he knew exactly where they were, Murphy seemed about to be swallowed up by the increasing gloom. Only his breath seemed properly visible; thick white steam against the growing darkness, like smoke signals spelling messages to an audience flung far and wide. Laura hurried after him.
"Maybe we should leave some of these bags with the jeep. It's not likely that anybody will steal them up here, and we could probably move a lot more quickly if we weren't carrying them." She didn't like the idea of leaving so much in such an isolated place, but felt obliged to suggest it. Murphy did, after all, seem quite weighed down. He looked back at her, his sharp gaze taking in the others as well.
"The snow fall could be heavy. We may not be able to get out of here in the morning, or even the morning after that. It's best if we take everything with us, just in case."
"Oh great." Bernice stumbled in her haste to catch up with the others, sending showers of tiny pebbles hurtling down the increasingly steep slope of the mountain road. "I could be sitting in my apartment right now, running a warm bath and drinking wine. I could be enjoying myself. Having fun. Being comfortable."
"Ah, but then you'd be missing an adventure, Miss Wolf." Striding onwards as though he were taking a brisk walk before breakfast, Steele gestured at the world around them as well as he could with his arms hampered by three briefcases and a chunky leather holdall. "Look at the scenery - the history that's all around you. That hand-forded river, the strata in the rocky face of that little incline. This is a beautiful little place. One could almost expect to turn a corner in the road and come upon a town straight out of It's A Wonderful Life."
"It's too dark to appreciate the scenery, and too cold to want to see it anyway." Bernice pulled her coat around her shoulders, glad that she had chosen such a substantial one for this trip. Ordinarily, accustomed as she was to the warm Los Angeles weather, she would probably have been dressed in clothes that were decidedly inappropriate. As it was her shoes were not designed for walking upon any terrain beyond stretches of straight, smooth tarmac, and she could feel her ankles beginning to complain. Honestly. The things that she did for this agency. She was sure that Laura wasn't paying her enough.
"You're not getting into the spirit of the adventure, Miss Wolf." Steele sounded as though he was excited about this opportunity to see a little of backwoods America, and his jaunty tone was positively nauseating. She wondered how hard it would be to push him off the edge of the path, and whether or not it would be possible to claim it had been an accident. Maybe she wouldn't need to. Murphy was sure to back her up, after all. Laura felt the tension building up once again, and glanced back at the pair walking just behind her.
"Cut it out you two. It's a long walk, so we probably shouldn't talk very much."
"Just trying to do my bit for staff morale, Miss Holt." Seeming annoyingly energetic in contrast to the stiff sleepiness of the others, he quickened his pace a little, falling into step beside the agency's real head. "How about a little sing-song, just to keep our spirits up? Does anybody know any hillbilly favourites?"
"Mr Steele, I really would quit while you still can." Shaking her head in faint amusement, Laura had to smile at his apparently unshakeable enthusiasm. She didn't know where he got his energy from, but she wished that he could transfer some of it to her. Three days' indefatigable playing of his new rôle, mixing flawlessly with a conference full of the very people most likely to be able to see through his false identity, might have dulled the cheer of a less durable man; but Remington Steele was apparently able to carry on forever. Now if only she could cure him of his habit of annoying her colleagues to meltdown point, he might actually prove to be a relative asset. Maybe. He began to whistle Ten Green Bottles as he strode off into the lead, and she crushed her charitable thoughts immediately. Maybe he would get eaten by a bear. She could always hope.
Yellow Springs was a small place; an old fashioned, secluded town largely forgotten by the sizeable continent that surrounded it. With a population of barely three thousand, a distinct lack of shopping facilities and nightlife, and a large, whitewashed wooden Church constructed almost exactly at its centre, it was filled with ageing men and women for whom the new decade was a thing of little if any importance. The rest of the United States might be freshly embarking upon the nineteen eighties, but in Yellow Springs there was still much about the nineteen fifties that seemed startlingly futuristic and new. Hardly anybody had a television. Every adult male wore a suit and tie. The women all wore floral print dresses, and knew everything about everybody, and practically everyone went to the whitewashed wooden Church on Sunday mornings. Elected by his fellow townspeople on the first Monday of every July, the mayor was a cheery, rotund man with white hair and a very trim moustache, who spent every Sunday afternoon sitting on his veranda watching his neighbours tending their gardens. Everybody knew everybody else. They always had.
It was to this small town that the Remington Steele Detective Agency came, in the midst of one of the thickest snow falls the region had seen in a long time. They traipsed through the streets in an untidy line, past the veranda where the mayor liked to sit in more clement weather; past the school house built in 1891 by a group of concerned parents; past the little bank with its security system and safe that had hardly been updated since the last time it had been robbed, back in 1906. A row of faces peered out through a row of small windows in the neat and tidy little houses as the four bedraggled strangers wandered down the main street with their assorted collections of luggage. Murphy had regained the lead, cutting a strong figure in the virtual whiteout, his red hair shining in the light from the streetlamps as they bravely glowed on through the storm. Behind him was Laura, her step slowing, her neat business suit still retaining all the hallmarks of its expensive cut despite the trials she had put it through. Next came Bernice, too weary to be irritable any longer, her hair ruined by the wind, and her inappropriate shoes soaked through. Steele brought up the rear, slight and dark, incongruous in his tailored suit and hand-made Italian shoes. The mayor glanced back at his wife as she brought him a night-cap of whisky on ice, and shook his head in faint disapproval.
"Out-of-towners." He pronounced it as though it were an unfortunate disease visited upon his community; an unavoidable virus that passed through every so often with the spinning of the seasons, and had to be endured rather than guarded against. She smiled understandingly at him, and offered to fetch him a cigar.
"I'm afraid they'll have to stay for a few days, dear. The weather doesn't seem likely to let up." She peered out through the window, watching the little group heading on down the street. "Maybe one of us should run out there and direct them to the boarding house."
"If I know Charlotte and Emily, they'll already have heard that there are customers on the way. They'll probably have strung out a fishing net just to make sure that nobody gets past." The mayor leaned back into his chair and sipped his cold whisky. "Keep an eye on them though, dear. If they do miss the boarding house they'll probably wind up freezing to death, and I don't want to have to go hunting for bodies under all that snow."
"You're all heart, Thomas." She settled herself down on the couch beside the window, and picked up the cardigan that she was knitting for the town newest young resident, Alice Neumann. Her husband smiled across at her.
"I think you've just found the theme for my next election campaign. Now how are our guests doing?"
"I think I can see Emily waving to them. Looks like they've been spotted."
"Then they'll soon be reeled in." He smiled in gentle contentment. "Didn't think she'd let them slip by. Emily Mortimer wouldn't take no for an answer if those strangers were on their way to a dinner at the Ritz. She'd still insist that they stay at least one night in her place first."
"They're following her." His wife lowered her knitting in order to lean closer to the glass that separated her from the cold street outside. "I think I can see Charlotte as well."
"Both of them. Those poor people don't stand a chance." Thomas grinned around the rim of his whisky glass. "No tourist has ever escaped the twin hazards of the Mortimer sisters."
"Honestly dear. You make them sound like pirates." Taking up her knitting again, shaking her head all the while at the incorrigible sarcasm of her husband, the mayor's ageing wife cast a last glance out into the snowy night. Thomas laughed.
"They are pirates. Or press-gangers at the very least. Even residents aren't safe if they're out late at night. You try it some day. Before you can say 'boarding house' you'll be signing your name in their register, and paying the first and last night's rent."
"They're not that bad, Thomas." Rolling her eyes, she knitted another row in the blink of an eye. Her husband merely smiled in the general direction of the window, beyond which the four visitors to the little town of Yellow Springs were being led towards their shelter for the night. Wrapped up against the biting cold, Charlotte and Emily Mortimer were scuttling on ahead, gesticulating exuberantly towards the secluded house where they entertained their varied guests. There was a wooden sign clipped to a frame above the front door, reading Vacancies in hand-painted, slightly wobbly black lines. A white picket fence encircled a rather shabby looking garden, with trailing roses that had once been kept neatly in hand, and ragged looking trees bent double by the wind waved their branches in a haphazard, faintly eerie welcome. Flickering lights burned in the downstairs windows of the aged wooden house, and loud trumpet music was floating out from somewhere upstairs, struggling to make itself heard above the angry, violent wind. Laura could have cried with relief, although it had not escaped her attention that Remington Steele himself looked less than content. What was he expecting in a little town like this one for goodness sakes? A quiet rural branch of the Savoy?
"Come along in." The aged and cheery Emily Mortimer stuck a huge, chunky key into the front door lock, and twisted it with a creaking and squeaking that came close to drowning out the wind. "We've got plenty inside that'll warm you up."
"Oh yes." Pushing the door wide, her sister hurried over the threshold, poking wildly at the fire sparking gently in its grate. The flames flew up a little higher. "Daddy's special recipe will soon have you feeling like yourselves again."
"Daddy certainly knew how to mix a drink." Emily pulled off her coat and hung it up on a huge old hat-stand, beset with eccentric carvings and floral embellishments. Charlotte was already unloading the four guests, piling up their bags and briefcases, and helping them off with their coats. Bernice beamed gratefully at both of them, before flopping down onto the nearby sofa and letting out a long breath of exhaustion and relief.
"Ladies I could kiss you." Shrugging out of his coat, Murphy shook hands with both of the sisters, enjoying their girlish giggles of appreciation at his gallantry. Laura nodded in agreement, trying to ignore the fact that Remington Steele was looking distinctly restless.
"We're certainly very grateful. It's freezing out there." She handed her coat to Emily, who hung it up beside Murphy's, taking Steele's even though he did not seem entirely happy to be parted from it. Charlotte had scuttled away to mix drinks in the corner, chattering all the while about home-made wine, and her father's special recipe. Steele swallowed hard.
"Not now Mr Steele." She beamed at Emily. "My name is Laura Holt, ladies, of the Remington Steele Detective Agency, and I'd like to say on behalf of us all that we're very pleased to be here. We ran out of gas up on the mountain."
"Oh dear. You have had a walk." Emily took a turn poking at the fire, making the flames leap right up the chimney. "I'm Emily Mortimer, and this is my sister Charlotte."
"We're very pleased to meet you." Laura was momentarily distracted by Steele, who seemed to be trying to whisper something to her in urgent tones. She ignored him. "These are my colleagues, Bernice Fox, Murphy Michaels, and Remington Steele."
"Charmed, ladies." Steele offered the pair a short bow, calling upon all of his sizeable resources of charm and manners to make both women gaze at him with evident approval. He leaned closer to Laura, however, even as he was acknowledging their prim little hostesses, and hissed in her ear with a sharp little whisper. "Are you sure that we really want to stay here, Miss Holt?"
"Of course we do." She kept her own voice even lower than he had kept hers, then left him behind as she went to accept the drink being offered to her by Charlotte. She collected one for Steele as well, vaguely bemused to see his faint agitation as she handed him the glass. She shook her head, exasperated, and joined the others on the sofa.
"This is Daddy's own special creation. We're very proud of it, although we never drink it ourselves." Emily stood with her back to the fireplace, watching with ill concealed pride as her guests regarded their drinks. Charlotte nodded in agreement.
"Oh yes. It's much too strong for us."
"Much too strong." Emily smiled happily. "But we do so love making it for our guests. We give it to all of them."
"Oh yes. Our guests love Daddy's special recipe." Charlotte beamed around at the little group. "It's very popular."
"But we never tell anybody what's in it." Emily's voice took on a determined edge, like a strict teacher listing a set of important rules. "That's always been a secret."
"Daddy insisted upon it," added Charlotte. Steele glanced down at the drink, and tried not to imagine just what 'Daddy' might have concocted. Ever since he had laid eyes on the house, scenes from a disturbing array of atmospheric old films had been playing through his head, and all this talk of 'special recipes' had made him decidedly nervous. Wasn't this usually the part in the film where the hero wound up in dire straits? Try telling Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon that specially prepared drinks weren't dangerous. He told himself that he was being overly imaginative, and that such a state of mind was not particularly healthy, but he still couldn't bring himself to try the drink. Instead he waited for the right moment, and then surreptitiously poured it into a nearby potted plant. Upstairs the trumpet music was getting louder, and the tuneless sound seemed designed to wear away his nerves to an even greater degree. Surely the Mortimer sisters' other guests must object to such music? Unless, of course, they had all been done away with by these apparently harmless and scatterbrained pensioners, with their lace bedecked clothing and 'specially mixed' drinks. All that they needed now was for Peter Lorre to come wandering in through the door, greeting them all with a manic giggle. He was beginning to feel an unpleasant desire to shiver.
"Well this is nice, isn't it." Breaking the silence which had begun to linger, Charlotte Mortimer sat down in an easy chair opposite the settee, ignoring the creaks and groans that came from the worn and straining springs. It was an old chair, if the colour and faded nature of its cover and cushions were anything to go by, but it seemed eminently suited to a life in this old fashioned little room, with these two old fashioned little ladies. Laura and Murphy smiled at her, both anxious to be polite, and yet not entirely comfortable. Bernice, seated between them, seemed to be nodding off. Steele was edging around behind them, and Laura was convinced that she saw him sneaking his fingers up against their secretary's throat to check her pulse.
"So what brings all you fine young people to Yellow Springs?" Settling herself in a chair near to her sister's, Emily folded her hands upon her knees and positioned herself comfortably. Presumably they didn't get many visitors, and were hoping for a long conversation from this set. Laura tried not to look too tired.
"We're private investigators." She had always liked the way that sounded; dramatic and exciting, without being too conceited about it. Both Emily and Charlotte responded positively, and their eyes seemed almost to glow.
"Oh really? But that's so exciting!" Charlotte sounded as though such moments of wonderment rarely came into her little living room. "Are you on a case now?"
"A big case?" added her sister. Laura felt bad for letting them down.
"Not at the moment, no. Actually we were on our way back from a conference, when we ran out of gas on the mountain road. We thought that we'd come back here, and see if we could get somebody to give us a lift to a garage or something, but the snow was so bad by the time we arrived..."
"The snow is always bad around this time of year, although it's been a long time since it was quite this heavy." Emily made as though to rise to her feet, clearly with the intention of throwing another log on the fire. Steele beat her to it, smiling at her in his most charming manner, soon stoking the blaze back up to an impressive height. She smiled at him benevolently.
"Thankyou dear. Tell me, what do you do in this detective group?" Murphy's sarcastic snigger apparently went unheard.
"I run the agency, Miss Mortimer." He couldn't help wondering if it was entirely safe telling a potentially scary little old lady who he was, when she might easily consider the presence of such a great detective to be a threat. Who knew what she and her sister got up to in this strange and crooked little house? "I am its head, so to speak. The man behind the investigations."
"And definitely the man in front of the cameras." Murphy couldn't resist the comment, and Laura jabbed him in the ribs with a quick hand. He winced. Steele chose to ignore the altercation, and focussed instead on their two hostesses.
"Tell me ladies. Is there a kitchen in this fine establishment? I could perhaps cook us all a little something, to go with your excellent drinks." It was a blatant hint that the group was hungry, but neither of the two women seemed to take it in quite that way. Instead they both leapt to their feet, and shook their heads in unison.
"Oh no, Mr Steele. We couldn't allow you to do that." Emily's determination was clear. "You're a guest."
"And anyway, you wouldn't know where to find all of our bits and pieces." Smiling hugely, Charlotte wagged a finger at him. "If you want something to eat, we'd be happy to provide it."
"Oh absolutely. All meals are included in the rent. Breakfast, a midday meal, and anything else that you may want to eat during the evening." Emily guided him into her recently vacated seat. "Now, where were we?"
"Talking about private investigations." Charlotte perched on the arm of the settee, hovering just beside, and slightly above, Laura Holt. "What was your last case? Was it something terribly exciting?"
"We had to find a missing businessman, so that his wife could sell their business." Murphy rattled the details out at top speed, hoping that, the niceties performed, the women would soon see fit to head off into the kitchen to find their guests something to eat. He was uncomfortably aware that his stomach was likely to soon begin rumbling, and he hated the idea of something like that happening. It was embarrassing, especially in front of strangers.
"Very routine affair," Steele added. Laura frowned.
"Actually I thought it was rather interesting. The way that Mrs Jacobsson's brother-in-law had been fiddling the books all of those years, and how he and she were conspiring to push her husband out of the business."
"Was there a murder?" Charlotte appeared to be full of childlike relish for such gory details. Murphy's face fell. There had indeed been a murder, and he knew Laura too well to think that she might skip over the details in order to get him fed sooner. He tried not to think about the many foods that might be stored in the kitchen, and about how close to them he might currently be. Steele leant against the fireplace, clearly listening to the trumpet music coming from up the stairs. Murphy might have wondered what was running through the man's unpredictable mind, had he not been too preoccupied with thoughts of sustenance. A big, thick sandwich... a bowl of hot stew... a beef burger surmounted by a tower of long yellow fries... Anything really, so long as it didn't prove to be immediately toxic. He'd eat it whatever it was. Beside him Bernice stirred, and drooped against his shoulder. Steele almost jumped, and then looked noticeably relieved when she muttered something indecipherable under her breath, breathing in deeply at the same time. Why on earth would be seem relieved to see her breathe?
"So you see, once we had found poor Henry's body we knew exactly what was going on." Laura finished her tale with a little laugh, and a gesture that was almost dismissive. It hadn't been a particularly easy case, her gesture suggested, but to admit that it had been difficult would have been both an admission that the case had almost beaten her, and an immodesty over the fact that it had not. She contented herself with a satisfied smile. "The stains on her sweatshirt were quite obviously those of high grade motor oil, and since his brother was the only person who was allowed anywhere near the engines of his beloved yacht, we could naturally come to only one conclusion."
"And then the case was over." Steele shrugged, feigning sorrow that the story had come to its end. "Arrest, trial, sentencing... you can imagine the scenario I think ladies? Not our most illustrious case, but still the sense of satisfaction remains. Now I was wondering if we might prevail upon you for a little food? It was a long walk, and--"
"Oh Mr Steele. You must think us the most dreadful hosts!" Leaping to her feet with a little squeal that partially awoke a bleary-eyed Bernice, Emily clapped her hands together and dashed over to the fire place to clasp his hand. "I'm so terribly sorry."
"Yes, most terribly sorry." Almost colliding with her sister in her eagerness to apologise and make amends, Charlotte grasped his other hand, and shook it woefully. "You won't think badly of us, will you?"
"Oh please say that you won't?" Emily looked quite distressed. Steele shook his head.
"Ladies, I assure you that I couldn't--" He broke off as the trumpet music came to a sudden and violent end, with a very loud and off-key note, followed by the crash of a petulantly hurled trumpet. Somebody shouted something that sounded much like a muffled epithet, before footsteps stomped up and down the floorboards somewhere on a floor above. The two old ladies sighed.
"We're terribly sorry about that. It's our brother." Charlotte was once again begging forgiveness with her eyes, and Steele felt like a cad denying treats to a puppy.
"He's a little bit difficult," Emily confided, in something of a loud stage whisper. "He likes to play concert pieces on his trumpet, but he's not really terribly good at it."
"And then he gets cross, and sulks." Charlotte sighed. "I shall have to take him a glass of sherry. That usually cheers him up."
"But for now he'll have to wait." Emily had her determined face on again, which apparently stirred Charlotte up to even greater levels of enthusiasm. "We must find our guests some food, Charlotte."
"Oh yes, Emily." Charlotte looked around at the little group, her eyes sparkling. "What would you like? We have ham, cheese, some cold turkey, simply hundreds of vegetables, all manner of bread and soup and--"
"Some sandwiches would be fine. It's too late to eat much." Beginning to feel rather dazzled and dizzy at this constant barrage of high-speed conversation, Laura successfully slid a few words into the conversation. "Nothing complicated."
"Sandwiches it is then." Charlotte nodded firmly. "And coffee."
"And some tea for Mr Steele," offered Emily, in the tone of a shy school girl who was asking her teacher a question. Steele smiled at her.
"That would be delightful ladies. Thankyou."
"Then we'll be back in a moment." Charlotte headed towards what was evidently the kitchen, almost dragging her sister along behind her. "We'll be back soon."
"Very soon," Emily reiterated, like some off-kilter echo. "You just make yourselves at home." The kitchen door swung shut behind them, and the living room, deprived of their non-stop chatter, descended into a vaguely shell-shocked silence. Murphy let out a long, pent-up breath.
"Someone tell me that I'm not alone in thinking we've landed in Weirdsville. Those two have got to be certifiable."
"Mr Steele certainly seems to think so." Laura was watching her strangely uncomfortable looking 'employer' with suspicious eyes. "Are you going to tell us what all of that was about, Mr Steele? Jumping like you'd stood on a live electric wire, and looking as though you wished we'd stayed out in the snow?"
"And why did you check Bernice's pulse?" That particular little incident had not escaped Murphy's notice, which was something of a relief to Laura. She had almost been sure that she had imagined it. Steele stole a furtive glance in the direction of the kitchen door, before creeping closer to his 'colleagues' on the settee.
"Just a few minor suspicions, Laura. One learns to judge people rather swiftly in this job."
"Do you mean private investigation, or just con artistry?" Murphy's voice was heavy with sarcasm, but Steele had not really expected anything less.
"You're getting rather predictable in your old age, Murphy. Perhaps it's time that you got yourself a few new jokes?" He saw a flare of indignation in the other man's eyes and smiled in satisfaction; but Laura interceded before the little match could move up a step.
"Never mind all of that. Just what is it that you think those two sweet little old ladies are up to?"
"Sweet little old ladies?" He didn't look impressed. "And I thought that you were the astute type, Miss Holt. Believe you me, there's nothing sweet about that pair. They may look like butter wouldn't melt, but--"
"They may be weird, but that doesn't make them dangerous." Still stinging from the comments about his lack of originality, Murphy had turned up the sarcasm yet another notch. "And you claim to be a good judge of character? Ignore him Laura. If he wants to go back up the mountain and spend the night in the jeep, that's his look out."
"Mr Steele?" Laura's tone did not allow for denial, or for an avoidance of the issue. He scowled.
"Really Miss Holt, I don't think that Murphy's preponderance for personal insults should really be encouraged at this juncture. I merely wish to ascertain whether or not those apparently charming old ladies can really be trusted to run a boarding house. For all we know there could be a veritable bevy of former guests buried beneath these very floorboards." He gestured to the shining, highly polished floor, with its intermittent coverings of thick, hand-woven rugs. None of his three companions could resist a swift look downwards, and Murphy scowled at himself for having done so.
"You're crazy." He pronounced it with all the certainty he could muster, and Laura, for all her growing fondness towards their impostor, could not help but agree. Bernice, still half asleep, was frowning.
"Why aren't we in bed yet?" She asked the question to Murphy, oblivious to the noticeable double entendre. "I'm tired, and it's late, and we walked a really long way. Shouldn't we all be asleep?"
"We'll get some rest soon." Murphy managed to use a gentle tone for her benefit, despite the growing irritation that he was feeling towards Steele. What did the incorrigible trickster hope to gain from pretending that their hostesses couldn't be trusted, and why did Laura persist in such displays of patience? Why couldn't she just get angry with him, and stop all of this frustrating fondness that was growing between them? Bernice stifled a yawn, coming fully awake for the first time since they had sat down on the big, sagging settee.
"Good." She rubbed at her eyes with one hand, and then looked around at the curiously old fashioned, cluttered room. "The sooner we get to sleep, the sooner we can wake up and get out of here in the morning. Those women are terribly sweet, but they really remind me of the old sisters in Arsenic And Old Lace. I keep expecting to hear Peter Lorre giggling in the room next door."
"Arsenic And Old Lace?" Murphy was grinning now, certain that the reason for Steele's restlessness had been revealed. "That a favourite movie of yours Steele?"
"Perhaps." Steele was looking decidedly subdued. Laura glared at him.
"Just for once, Mister Steele, I would appreciate it if you could keep your bizarre knowledge of film scenarios to yourself. You can't honestly believe that anything in this house could possibly be a danger to us?" There was a loud creak from the stairs, but in the midst of her tirade she failed to notice it. Neither did Murphy, who was far too busy enjoying the spectacle. Steele had been asking for this ever since making his first appearance all those weeks ago. Wandering into their lives with his disruptive influence, his ridiculous theories, and his blue eyes that Laura found so appealing. Maybe she wouldn't find them quite so appealing anymore.
"Miss Holt, please..." Steele was using his reasonable voice again; the one that he used when he was determined to get Laura to hear him out. This time it did not appear to be working. Murphy folded his arms, and grinned in merry anticipation. This should be good. The Mortimer sisters would probably hear, but that couldn't be helped. They were sweet enough, and not the type to interfere. They would probably pretend that they had heard nothing at all, and let the staff of the Remington Steele Detective Agency reclaim their good name without interruption. It was quite a nice thought.
"I can't believe that you nearly had me believing they could be dangerous. You really have got to get a hold on your imagination. It's one thing when you're accusing the wrong suspects of the wrong crimes during our cases, but when you go about accusing sweet little old ladies of being dangerous, that's really something different. I'm beginning to think that you're a liability. A dangerous liability."
"Beginning?" Murphy caught a fierce glare from Laura, and dropped his eyes with his sarcasm. One thing he had learned a long time ago was not to get in the way of Laura Holt when she was in this kind of a mood; for when she was angry enough she could steamroller friends as effectively as enemies. He noticed that Bernice was keeping well out of the argument, which was probably wise given that it had been her comment which had started it. Steele, meanwhile, was trying on one of his favourite expressions of wounded innocence, and Murphy was rather annoyed to see that it appeared to be having its desired effect.
"Miss Holt, don't you feel that you're condemning the accused without really giving him a chance to defend himself? Far be it for me to intrude in to the realm of the detective, but aren't you supposed to consider both sides of the case before striking?" He smiled at her, using his dapper appearance - still in evidence despite the hard walk in the raging snow - to assist him in playing the rôle of insulted respectability. Murphy felt like punching him. Laura raised an eyebrow.
"Are you telling me that you didn't think of Arsenic And Old Lace the minute you walked in here?"
"I... may have given the film a moment's consideration, yes, but--"
"I knew it!" Suddenly she was fuming again, and Murphy felt vindicated. He almost cheered. Steele took a deep breath.
"Forget it, Steele." Galvanated by the possibility that a further plea might cause Laura to soften, Murphy cut in without giving her the chance to respond. "We need this place. It's the only likely shelter for miles around, and I for one don't fancy hiking back to the jeep. If we stayed the night there we'd be dead by morning anyway." He favoured the stewing con-man with a particularly cheery smile. "But if you'd like to try, I'd be happy to walk you to the door."
"First opportunity you get, you're going to apologise to those charming women for thinking that they might be dangerous." Laura flopped back into the slightly lop-sided cushions of the ageing settee, shaking her head in tense irritation as she realised what an inappropriate thing that would be. "Second thoughts don't do anything of the kind. Goodness only knows what they'd think." She caught sight of his rather subdued look, and felt a burst of unwelcome compassion. "Oh don't look like that. You make me feel like a thief who's just stolen some milk from a kitten."
"I feel wounded, Laura." Straightening his tie, Steele turned around to face the fire, walking with a stiff step that suggested he was struggling to hide some deeper emotional injury. Laura opened her mouth to speak, but once again Murphy broke in without giving her the chance.
"You've got him on the ropes, Laura. Don't stop now. Jump right in there; go for the jugular." He grinned wickedly, acutely aware that Steele was only playing yet another rôle. His air of vague indignation, to say nothing of his apparent hurt, were no more genuine than his name. Surely Laura could see that? Steele turned slightly, eyes widening in an expression of quite exquisitely manufactured distress, as he prepared to embark on another plea for mercy. Instead of speaking, however, he froze; and the indignation turned to surprise.
"Ah." The voice that spoke next made all of them jump; all save Steele, who alone of the four had now seen the man standing on the stairs. It was a surprised voice; a slightly awkward mix of courteous salutation and embarrassed discomfort. Certainly it was not the best way to be noticed, when clearly eavesdropping on an argument between total strangers. Laura, Murphy and Bernice swung around.
The man on the stairs was about sixty, or perhaps a little older; a curious figure of considerable size, and yet lacking a considerable presence to match. He had a comical air about him somehow; an air of clownish good humour that seemed to fit with his portly girth and almost ridiculously immaculate attire. At least six feet in height, with grey hair and a highly polished bald pate, he was dressed in a three piece suit and a shirt so stiffly starched that his head seemed to be held rigid in the grip of his fearsome collar. A watch chain stretched across his neatly ironed waistcoat, glinting in time with the almost impossibly bright buckles fastened onto the gleaming leather of his black and white shoes. His ankles were immobile in the smothering embrace of a pair of gloriously outdated spats, and a buoyant red rose clung to the neatly pressed expanse of his right lapel. He looked like a figure from the nineteen twenties; a last bastion of prosperity in the midst of the Depression, perhaps; a pillar of fortune and merriment, indifferent to the rest of the world. Laura wasn't sure whether to laugh or just to gape.
"Ladies." Striding forward the new arrival took the last few stairs much as a princess might, when stalking down a grand sweep of a stairway in order to make her majestic entrance at a royal ball. "Gentlemen. Please forgive me for my intrusion." He stopped as he reached the settee, bowing from the hips and reaching out for Bernice's hand. She let him take it, clearly benumbed by his smoothly over the top performance.
"Er... hello." She didn't really know what else to say, but clearly nothing else was expected. He touched her hand to his lips, and offered her the most dazzling of smiles.
"Geoffrey Mortimer, at your most obliging service." He released her hand and stepped back, clearly waiting for her own introduction, but she remained in stupefied speechlessness.
"Um... I'm Laura Holt, Mr Mortimer." Offering her hand for a quick shake, before it could be seized and kissed, Laura indicated each of her colleagues in turn. "May I present Bernice Fox, Murphy Michaels and Remington Steele. We all work together."
"Miss Fox." He bowed to Bernice again, then nodded to Murphy and Steele. "Such a fine collection of young people. It's not often that we get visitors here, especially visitors below a certain age. Annual guests return time after time, but it's not the same as an unexpected arrival; four such fine looking youngsters." He seemed almost overcome with emotion. "And to think that I was sitting upstairs, playing my music so loudly, and all the time you were down here having to listen to my noise. What must you think of me?"
"It was alright Mr Mortimer. We hardly noticed it, really." Laura was beginning to warm to him, despite the very evident fact that he had been listening to them for some time. He beamed at her.
"Really? You're not just being kind?"
"I love trumpet music." She looked around at the others, searching for support, but none seemed immediately on offer. Murphy was frowning, a little uncomfortable about the idea that this bizarre man might have heard something incriminating, with particular regard to Steele's unconventional relationship with his 'employees'. Laura was playing it cool though, and he was trusting enough of her judgement not to risk things further by showing his agitation. Bernice seemed too tired to be of any assistance in making small talk, and Steele might well have been sulking. Laura glared at the silent con-man, and he gave his tie an habitual straighten.
"That wasn't just trumpet music, Laura." Stepping forward to meet the challenge, he shook the big man's hand in a brisk and businesslike fashion, slipping his left arm around Laura's shoulders as he did so. It was a proprietorial gesture, such as an employer might make towards a valued assistant; or a husband to a devoted wife. Murphy bristled, but nobody was looking his way. Mortimer raised an eyebrow, and regarded him with sudden interest.
"Are you a connoisseur, Mr Steele?" He hooked his thumbs into his lapels, watching the would-be detective with narrowed eyes. Steele shook his head.
"Not really, not really. But I do know Shostakovich when I hear it. I've never heard it played solely on the trumpet before, but that was the second symphony I believe?"
"It certainly was." Mortimer grinned, and slapped him heartily on the back. "Say, you're pretty smart for an English guy."
"Obliged, I'm sure." Keeping the sarcasm in his voice to a minimum, Steele managed to remain the image of courtesy and respect. In his opinion this fellow Mortimer was the type who tried to appear cultured and sophisticated, whereas in truth he was something considerably less impressive. Who else but a social wannabe would dress in such dated clothes, and swan about looking like a refugee from a Hollywood back lot? Merely attempting to play such a rôle in the middle of a town as tiny and inconsequential as Yellow Springs seemed to Steele to be quite absurd; but then, he reflected, when the times had called for it he had played far more outlandish rôles upon far more unlikely stages. At least, however, he had had a good excuse.
"Oh good. You've all met." Bursting out through the kitchen door with a low, rattling serving trolley in tow, Charlotte Mortimer waved a shaky white-gloved hand at the little gathering. "I'm so glad. Geoffrey dear, could you give Emily a hand with the drinks?"
"Drinks?" His eyes shone, and he headed immediately for the kitchen. "Certainly. Certainly. Back in a moment ladies; Monty; Steele." The door swung closed behind him. Bernice grinned.
"He's quite a character. I've never had anybody try to kiss my hand before."
"Just be thankful that's all he tried to kiss." Annoyed that the big man had got his name wrong, Murphy turned his back on a grinning Steele, and focussed instead on Charlotte. "Can I give you a hand with that, Miss Mortimer?"
"What? Oh, thankyou dear." She pushed the trolley towards him, nearly losing its entire contents when a wheel snagged on the edge of one of the rugs. Laura made a wild grab for one of the silver plated handles, and the rickety conveyance came to an abrupt halt. Steele caught a beautiful little salt cellar, deftly snatching it as it tumbled floorwards, spilling only a few grains of salt in the process. Charlotte gave a little squeal.
"Oh! Daddy's salt cellar! That would have broken if it had hit the floor. Oh thankyou Mr Steele! Thankyou!"
"Er... that's quite alright. Really." He offered her a rather uncomfortable smile, then set the little pot back in its place, and retired to one of the faded old armchairs. This dated little boarding house was getting more peculiar by the minute. Laura offered him a vaguely supportive smile, before switching her attentions to the cart. Murphy was unloading sandwiches from a silver tray that must have been worth a small fortune on its own, whilst Bernice hovered beside him like an eagle poised to swoop down upon a mouse.
"Cheese anyone?" Murphy picked up another neatly packaged sandwich, wrapped in a lace frilled napkin and a scarlet ribbon. "This one looks like chicken, and there's another one here with some ham in it. Egg? Cheese again? Salad and stuff?"
"Just give me something edible, Murphy." Bernice grabbed something that looked as though it was filled with green leaves, and slices of crisp vegetation. Laura grabbed an egg sandwich, and Murphy practically dived upon a chicken one. Charlotte looked on like a proud mother surveying her flock.
"Oh Mr Steele. You're not eating anything." Emerging from the kitchen with Geoffrey at her heels, Emily pushed a second trolley in the path of the first. An array of bottles and glasses clinked and chattered as the mobile table rattled its way across the room. Geoffrey was already drinking, waving a bottle of red wine in one hand, and a glass half filled with dark liquid in the other.
"Have a drink instead, Steele." He grabbed the first bottle that came, dropping his own drink onto the trolley as he snatched up an empty glass. He fumbled with the bottle's lid, spilling drops of strong alcohol onto the polished floorboards as he filled the large brandy glass to the rim. Steele accepted the glass, at a loss as to what else to do with it, although he did not attempt to take a drink.
"That's good stuff, Steele." Geoffrey clapped him on the shoulder once again, spilling more amber liquid in the process. The strong smell of brandy filled the air.
"Geoffrey dear, don't annoy the guests." Speaking as though to a small child, Charlotte busied herself in tidying up the spattered mess. Geoffrey glared at her, his response as immature as the manner in which she had addressed him. "I'm sorry about my brother, Mr Steele. He gets a little... overly enthusiastic at times."
"Oh don't worry about it Miss Mortimer." Steele's smile was not nearly as strained and unfriendly as he felt. He sipped the brandy in a show of magnanimity, and slid neatly aside to avoid yet another gargantuan backslap. Laura materialised by his side to offer a little moral support, and handed him a cheese sandwich cut into triangles so precise that they appeared to have been fashioned with the use of a geometrical device. The frilly, lace-edged napkin was yet another jolting reminder that he was in a very weird place indeed - not that he needed reminding - and it somehow fitted very well with his sense of increasing discomfort with this mad house disguised as a hotel. He smiled his hesitant gratitude over the sandwich, searched unsuccessfully for somewhere to put his still dangerously full glass of superbly strong brandy, and wound up wondering if he shouldn't just give in and knock the whole lot back. At least then he would be certain of a good night's sleep. "Here, Mr Steele." Taking the glass from him, Laura put it back onto the trolley from whence it had come. Either she had seen his look of frustration, or just didn't trust him not to try to drink it all, but at least he was now no longer in imminent danger of having the whole lot poured onto him by the overly chummy Geoffrey. "Thankyou Miss Holt." He relaxed back into the chair, rather liking her close presence as she perched on its large, curved arm. She looked comfortable as well, a fact which only served to increase his gentle satisfaction. Even the sandwich began to look a little less weird and a lot more appetising, and with a small smile he took a bite, settling back to enjoy the warmth. If things carried on this pleasantly, maybe he and Laura would even wind up with adjoining rooms.
Much to Murphy's delight, it was his own bedroom which proved to be adjacent to Laura's; in fact the two rooms shared an internal door. Steele did not look impressed, especially when he discovered that his own room was to be a floor above. He glowered in the light of Murphy's gleeful smirking, and stalked off up the extra flight of stairs with the look of a man who had been foiled yet again by circumstance. Emily watched him go, a crinkle of worry adding extra lines to her face.
"Oh dear. I do hope that that nice Mr Steele isn't put out about being on the next floor. Only I did think that with him being your employer he might like to maintain his distance so to speak."
"Mr Steele doesn't mind at all." Laura had to smirk, despite her growing fondness for the man. She knew only too well why he wanted a room near to hers, and she had no wish to explore that avenue further - or, rather, she had a very big wish to explore that avenue very much further indeed, which was yet another reason for being glad that he had to keep his distance. She didn't really know quite how much longer she could resist.
"Well so long as you're sure." Emily bustled them onwards to the first door, which she opened for Bernice. The young woman thanked her, practically asleep on her feet and therefore barely comprehensible, before stumbling her way towards the bed. The door swung shut, not quite blocking the sound of a body hitting a springy mattress with a loud thump. Murphy grinned.
"Poor old Bernice. She's not really the snow trekking sort."
"Neither am I." Laura suppressed a yawn. "I'm dead on my feet, and I feel terrible. I thought that I was fit, but obviously I'm not. You put me to shame, Murph."
"Maybe I just have more practice at playing the tough guy." Murphy's eyes strayed towards the ceiling, to where he assumed that Remington Steele was currently ensconced. "I must say though, I'm surprised at You Know Who. The guy acts like he never likes to get a hair out of place, and yet he hardly even seems tired."
"A man after your own heart, Murph?" Laura grinned at him to show that she was teasing. "Don't forget that he's had a hard life. Maybe he used to do this kind of thing all the time."
"Here we are." Walking along in front of them at a remarkable speed for someone who appeared so fragile, Emily had come to a door. She opened it wide. "I hope you don't mind being given the adjoining rooms, but I... rather thought that you might appreciate it." She flashed them a knowing smile, and Laura almost blushed. Murphy coughed, looking decidedly embarrassed.
"Laura - that is Miss Holt - a-and I... we're really just good friends." He hoped that his delight at the mistake wasn't too apparent. Emily nodded.
"Whatever you say dear. Now, breakfast begins at seven and finishes at nine, but if you'd like to sleep in later given your little excursion I'll quite understand. I'd be happy to make you something a little later on if you'd like. We have one or two other guests besides yourselves at the moment, but they're quite quiet so they shouldn't disturb you in the morning. I think they're all already in bed." She gestured to the next door along. "That's your room Mr Michaels." Her eyes were sparkling in a decidedly suggestive manner, which might have shocked him had he not been too busy wishing that she would just go away. As it was he merely tried not to blush.
"Thankyou Miss Mortimer. I'd, er... I'd better get along there straightaway." He cast a longing glance into Laura's room, hoped that she hadn't noticed, and then fled. Time enough to think about making a move when she had finally realised that he was the one for her - for now he was merely content that it was not Steele sleeping in the room next to hers. Laura smiled after him, as oblivious as ever to his affections.
"Well, goodnight Miss Mortimer." She looked into the room. "It looks lovely."
"Oh all the rooms are very carefully maintained, Miss Holt. The one that you're to sleep in was the very one in which my sister and I were born, so very many years ago. It still looks just the same then as it does now." She leaned a little closer, speaking in a vaguely conspiratorial tone. "Except for the power outlets of course, but we don't usually tell the guests that. They like to think that everything is authentic."
"I won't tell anyone." They shared a smile, and Emily stepped away from the door.
"I'd better let you get off to bed, my dear. I should go to check on Mr Steele, and make sure that he found his bed alright. There are an awful lot of doors up there."
"Mr Steele is very good at finding things. He is a private detective."
"Oh yes. Yes, I was forgetting." She gave a little giggle that made Laura warm to her a great deal, before turning around and scurrying away. Laura left the old lady climbing the stairs in search of Steele, watching her for a moment as she climbed, and wondering why her aggravating 'employer' had seemed so convinced that the charming woman might in some way prove to be dangerous. Smiling to herself she turned around and headed into her bedroom, letting the door swing shut behind her. Inside she could immerse herself in wood panelling and thick curtains, tasteful rugs and old fashioned plumbing. She liked it. It had an air of luxury without any sense of opulence. The thought made her laugh. Murphy probably hated it, and was longing for a power shower and some modern furnishings. Quite what Steele would make of the place was anybody's guess. To her, his mind and character were still very much an open book.
On the next floor up, Remington Steele had discovered a great number of doors, all apparently painted the exact same shade of blue - a notable point since Emily's instructions had been to head for the blue door. He wandered along the corridor, wondering how a house of no apparently remarkable size could fit so many rooms into it, eventually coming to the end of the corridor and a large, sloping window. Outside he could see a fearsome night, with a howling wind and a tumultuous flurry of snow. It was impressive, and he knew that there would be no leaving the boarding house tomorrow. If they weren't snowed in already, they certainly soon would be - and even if they could get out of the house, there would be no way to travel. They would have to stay in Yellow Springs for at least another day. He listened to the old house creaking in the wind, the windows and the doors rattling with every furious gust, and wished that he could force himself to relax. He couldn't seem to lose the air of concern - the certainty that something was going to happen very soon. He told himself that it was because he watched far too many atmospheric old movies; and yet he couldn't deny that his powerful instincts had rarely been wrong in the past.
With a sigh that might have been from irritation at his own concerns, or frustration that nobody else shared them, Steele turned about and headed back down the corridor. With the dim light from the window behind him he could see that not all of the doors were blue, but that most of them were actually painted a fairly nondescript grey. He stopped at one that genuinely did appear to be blue, and put his hand gently onto the doorknob. It creaked loudly under the slight pressure, and the floorboards near to the bottom of the stairs also creaked. He almost jumped, affected by the howling wind and otherwise almost complete silence. He could hear no conversation coming from the floor below, suggesting either that the others had gone straight to bed, or that the floor dampened sound very effectively. He wondered if he really wanted to spend the night up here all alone, when nobody would be able to hear if something happened; and then laughed at himself for letting the place get to him quite so much. This wasn't a horror film. It wasn't even a comedy horror. Emily and Charlotte Mortimer might look the part, but that was certainly no reason to suspect them, and it wasn't as if they had given any indication of malicious intent. They didn't seem to have murder on their minds at least, or hid it well if they did. The sandwich he had eaten didn't seem to be having any ill effects at any rate.
He chose not to wait any longer before opening the door, his growing anger at his own suspicious mind finally giving way to a general sense of frustration. Nothing was going to happen, and he was determined to convince himself of that. Relaxing in a comfortable, warm bed had to be the best way of persuading himself that all was well. The door swung easily under his hand, moving on well-kept hinges, the tiny creaks of the doorknob no longer seeming nearly as loud nor as menacing as they had when he had first put his hand to it. He smiled, once again chastising himself for his over-active imagination. The room beyond the door was quiet and warm, the howling gale still visible through the windows, yet not quite managing to destroy the air of peace and calm. The old fashioned furnishings lent the place a façade of comfort and reassurance; something gentle and warming and secure. A large china bowl and pitcher stood on a dresser, reminding him oddly of some of the halfway houses he had stayed in, during the harder days when he was much younger; places without indoor plumbing, without electricity or gas. Here there were all three, and yet there had been a conscious effort to pretend that there were no modern conveniences at all. An electric lamp, designed to look like an oil lamp from a bygone age, flickered to itself on a low table opposite a large picture window. A sloping ceiling fell away from him, heading towards the far wall, where it seemed almost to reach to the floor. The whole effect was one of refined splendour and good taste, and would have been almost perfect had it not been for the dead body lying sprawled upon the bed. Steele blinked at it, and wondered if he could possibly pretend that he was hallucinating.
"Er... hello?" When copious blinking refused to remove the slumped form from his vision, he decided that the only other acceptable option was that the person he could see was not really dead at all. He hurried forward, taking care over where he stood in case there was some vital clue that might be displaced, hoping all the while that the figure on the bed was going to sit up, stare at him in fright, and demand an explanation for such a rude awakening. Instead it just lay still.
He slowed his pace when he grew nearer to the bed, when it became very clear that the body was not going to sit up and speak to him. He searched for a pulse anyway, finding the wrist that he reached for still limp, but undeniably cooling. There was none of the warmth that a living person could not help but demonstrate; no feeling at all that there was any blood left pumping through the veins. The eyes were half closed, fixed upon the door, the lips parted as though they had been moving in speech when the moment of death had come upon them. Steele picked up one of the towels left in a neat pile at the end of the bed, and gently draped it over the quiet, still face. For a moment even the wind seemed to have calmed in sympathy. Steele remained where he was for a second, thinking deep thoughts, then dropped a comradely hand upon the dead man's shoulder, giving him the only farewell he felt qualified to give. Rough formalities performed, he headed off in search of Laura.
"Mr Steele?" Coming along the corridor to greet him, Emily Mortimer looked as sweet and as helpful as ever. "Is there something wrong? I expected to find you in your room."
"Minor change of plan, Miss Mortimer." He took her arm, gently guiding her away from the open door, heading back towards the stairs. "I need to speak to Miss Holt, rather urgently. Which room is she in?"
"The second to last just down the corridor." They reached the end of the flight of stairs, and Emily gestured with her free hand. "Is there something wrong, Mr Steele?"
"Perhaps. A little something." He flashed her one of his best smiles, then left her behind as he hurried to Laura's door. He only hoped that it would be Laura who answered his knock. If it was Murphy, it really would be the crowning glory to a truly terrible day.
Laura had just begun to get undressed, hoping that she would be able to stay awake long enough to take a long hot bath before bed, when her dreamy contemplations over whether or not Remington Steele was as bad as she sometimes thought were rudely interrupted. She glared at the door, and wondered who it might be. Emily promising hot water bottles? Murphy wanting to discuss plans for excavating the jeep? She scowled and shrugged back into her shirt, doing up most of the buttons and holding it close about her.
"I'm coming." She pulled the door open with what was very evidently a sulky display of unwillingness, and glared at her unwelcome caller. It was Steele was stood there, grinning at her in the annoyingly self-confident manner he seemed to cultivate just for her benefit, and trying to keep his eyes away from the shortcomings of her hastily fastened shirt. At least, it looked as though he was trying to keep his eyes away. She had her doubts about that one.
"What do you want?" She pulled the shirt even more tightly around her, ignoring the fact that such an action emphasised, rather than hid, the things she most wanted covered. He raised an eyebrow.
"Many things spring to mind, Miss Holt. Primarily, however..." He glanced back, eyeing the waiting Emily. "Um... might we discuss this somewhere else?"
"Like in my room, perhaps?" She made her scowl a little heavier, but he waved a hand in casual dismissal of her words.
"Not at all, Laura. Not at all. Well... I wouldn't object to a... chat within these... very attractive walls... But actually I'm here about a different matter." He leant a little closer towards her, lowering his voice significantly. "Upstairs. In my room."
"A vampire? Zombie? Or something a little more subtle? Come on, Mr Steele, don't you think that this house of horror idea has gone on just a little bit too long?"
"Touché, Miss Holt." He had the grace to look faintly abashed. "Actually I was in the process of convincing myself that you were right, and that I have been... a little irrational in my behaviour since we arrived in this... charming little establishment... when I opened the door to my room and found that there already appeared to be somebody in residence."
"You came down here just to tell me that your bed was taken?" She raised an eyebrow. "You're not sharing mine."
"Believe it or not, Laura, I honestly hadn't considered that possibility. And to be fair, I don't really think that my bed's current incumbent would be doing much in the way of objecting were I to have him... forcibly ejected, bu--"
"Then have him 'forcibly ejected'. I'm going to bed." She glared at him. "Alone."
"Laura, Laura, Laura." He skipped past her in a very neat move that might have impressed her had she been in a better mood. "I can't go around doing things like that. It might disturb the murder scene just a little, don't you think? A good detective should never destroy possibly vital clues just for the sake of a good night's sleep." He folded his arms, trying to look like a decisive employer ordering his troops about their business. "Would you like to take a look? I think that Remington Steele should probably offer his services, and... well he tends to do rather better at these things when you've had a good look around first."
"Murder scene?" She stared at him for several moments, as though waiting for a punch-line that never materialised. "You're not serious?"
"Perfectly." He glanced back over his shoulder, a little disturbed by Emily's constant presence. "Do you think we could hurry? The killer may return to the scene of the crime, and try to destroy vital evidence."
"Killer? Mr Steele..." She shook her head. "Look, even if there is a body in your room, there's no reason to suspect that it was murder. We'd... we'd better go up there and check. Hold on just a second." She turned away from him, adjusting her shirt before pulling on the rumpled blazer she had been wearing before. "Come on."
"Right behind you Laura." He hesitated. "Do you think we should call the police? We might need reinforcements."
"I think we can probably deal with a dead man on our own, Mr Steele." She preceded him to the stairs. "Which way?"
"Oh, right up. Straight on up. Blue door." He gestured back towards Emily. "Do you think we should get Murphy to keep an eye on her in the mean time? She is a suspect. Has to be."
"I very much doubt that she's killed anyone. Besides, this is her boarding house, and she's our best bet to identify this poor man. She might as well come with us."
He frowned. "Are you sure that's wise?"
"What's she going to do, Mr Steele? Beat us to death with her lace gloves?"
"She might have a gun. A pearl handled Derringer, hidden in the sole of one shoe, or a deadly array of poison tipped darts hidden beneath that cardigan." He was clearly warming to his theme, and Laura shook her head in exasperation.
"Mr Steele, if we're really in any danger from that old lady, I'll eat my hat. I'll also eat Murphy's. Now come on."
"If you're sure." He followed her closely, so that she could almost hear his breathing; could almost feel it against the skin on the back of her neck. She ignored him, trying to shake off the sense of tension and fear that seemed to be growing in the air. It was catching, she decided. He was obviously sending out vibes, and she was picking them up, being dragged into weird-land alongside of him. Odd, then, that her usually infallible sixth sense was screaming so loudly. There couldn't really be any danger, could there?
"It's just in here, Laura." Steele touched her arm as they came to the door leading to his bedroom. It stood slightly ajar, rattling faintly in the draught blowing in through a half open air-conditioning duct just opposite. Emily reached up to shut the vent, and the door came to a standstill. Laura paused with her hand on the wooden frame.
"Laura..." Steele reached out, putting his own hand over hers, as though in warning. "I left the door open. Wide open."
"So it blew shut." She freed her hand. "Come on."
"If you say so." He did not look happy, although she knew him well enough - or thought she did - to be sure that it was not fear holding him back. Something had unnerved him, and she was starting to sympathise. Harmless though the Mortimer sisters might well be, their house suddenly seemed a veritable whirl of sinister vibes and creepy draughts. It was enough to scare off the hardiest of guests. There would be no laying the ghosts to rest, however, whilst she was standing around in the corridor too nervous even to enter the room - so without further ado she took a deep breath and flung wide the door. Inside everything was black.
"There was more light before." Steele fumbled for a switch, and eventually found one a little way along one wall. The single bulb in the ceiling lit up, brightening the room with a warm glow tinged with sunflower yellow. It illuminated the dark furniture, the thick curtains, the heavy, wood-framed bed with its apparently hand-stitched quilted coverlet. The bed was spotless and neatly made, and bore no trace of any recent occupant, living or dead. Steele blinked.
"Where did he go?"
"Maybe he realised his mistake and went back to his own bed." Laura folded her arms and sighed. "Was this really just some ruse to get me into your room? Because if it was I encountered better ones when I was still at college."
"This was no ruse, Laura. There was a dead man in my bed." Steele was looking outraged, and more than a little flustered, his carefully constructed façade of the perfect English gentleman falling apart before her very eyes. Fortunately he had apparently remained aware of the presence of Emily, for he snapped back into character almost immediately. "Dead men can't walk away, Miss Holt. Somebody must have moved him."
"You're tired, Mr Steele. It's been a long day."
"I was not imagining things!" The Irish inflection emphasised his indignation at such a charge, and she almost smiled. "He was dead! Very, very dead. I checked, and I think I know the difference by now. I have had a fair bit of experience in these matters."
"He was tall." Determined not to allow her to continue, especially if she had merely been intending to cast further doubt on the truth of his story, Steele racked his brains to come up with the best description he could manage. "About fifty maybe. A little thick around the waist, not much of a suntan... Grey suit, probably cost about fifty dollars at the most, although it was well looked after. Very well pressed as it happens; I'd recommend his laundry service, if not his tailor. Hair mostly grey, little bit of black. Clean shaven. Oh, and he was wearing glasses. Nice frames. Cheap copy of a designer pair. Probably a man who used to be rich, and has been rather down on his luck of late." He frowned. "I rather think he was wearing bedroom slippers as well. Fawn ones. Rather worn."
"Oh dear." Standing in the doorway, looking as though she had just heard some terribly sad news, Emily Mortimer glanced from one to the other of her guests. "That sounds rather like dear Mr Petersfield from room three. I do hope he's alright."
"Alright wouldn't be quite how I'd put it." Steele folded his arms looking grim. "There you have it Laura. It would appear that our corpse has a name."
"A possible name, Mr Steele. We still don't know if there even is a corpse. Mr Petersfield might be sitting in his room at this very minute."
"He wasn't at dinner." Emily was looking very doleful. "I called for him, but he didn't answer. I assumed that he had decided on an early night."
"Ah ha!" Steele looked delighted, although at Emily's obvious distress he abruptly altered his expression to one of concern. "We should visit this Petersfield chap immediately. Find out what's going on here."
"I suppose so." Laura sighed. "But if he's fast asleep, or reading a book or something, you're doing the talking. I get embarrassed enough these days as it is."
"Nonsense Laura." Steele flashed her one of his grins, and headed towards the stairs. "Room three you say, Miss Mortimer?"
"Yes. It's near to Miss Holt's room. The door is beside the cuckoo clock in the corridor."
"There's a cuckoo clock near my room?" Laura sounded decidedly unimpressed, but Emily nodded enthusiastically.
"It's almost a hundred and twenty years-old. My grandfather picked it up on a visit to Switzerland during the last century. He was there on official business, just after the end of the Civil War." She did not seem to notice that her excited words had had no positive effect upon Laura, who was still looking as though she had just heard that a rehearsing Mariachi band would be sharing her bed. Steele shrugged.
"There you are Miss Holt. You wouldn't have been getting much sleep tonight anyway. I haven't kept you from anything at all."
"Don't push it, Mr Steele." She hissed the words under her breath, but still it seemed that Emily had heard them. She offered the pair a perplexed little smile, before following them back down the stairs like a faithful puppy. Charlotte met them at the bottom, dressed in a cream night-gown with a high collar, and a trailing robe in midnight blue that heavily emphasised her very pale complexion. She was holding a small lamp in one hand, although it seemed unnecessary given the many bright wall lights, and in the other hand was a glass of milk. It smelled as though it had been warmed through, although somehow, given her current frame of mind, Laura did not find the image of a little old lady drinking warm milk nearly as innocuous as it might otherwise have been.
"Is there something wrong?" Her voice was a quaver, high pitched and questioning. Emily ran to her, and stood close to her flickering light.
"Mr Steele has found a body," she announced, almost as though she were cross at this development, rather than worried by it. Charlotte's eyes widened, and Laura held up a calming hand.
"Mr Steele may have found a body," she corrected, the voice of caution in the midst of a situation that was fast deteriorating. Emily's face fell as she remembered the other part of her news.
"We think it's that nice Mr Petersfield," she added, just as though Laura had not spoken at all. Charlotte sighed, features composed into an expression of such picture book sorrow that she might almost have been practicing the look.
"Such a poor dear man. All alone in the world, with nobody to turn to, and he comes to his end in our boarding house. We shall have to make sure that he's well looked after."
"Can we please find out if this guy's actually dead before we bury him?!" Exasperated far beyond her normal limits, Laura stormed off along the corridor, coming eventually to room number three. The little brass plate nailed to the door frame, identifying the room, was bright and polished, and she could see her own face within its shine. She hesitated, until Steele's face loomed above her own in the distorted reflection within the little number. He smiled at her, and she found herself smiling back. Steele reached past her and rapped smartly on the neatly painted door.
"If there's no answer, you owe me dinner." He stood beside her, straight-backed, hands clasped behind his back, rocking all the time on the balls of his feet. Whether it was nervousness that made him so fidgety, or whether it was just the unpleasant atmosphere within the building that was getting to him, Laura didn't like to hazard a guess. She merely fixed her attention onto the door, waiting for it to open. It didn't.
"Do you have a pass key?" She didn't look at the two old ladies as she spoke, for her attention was almost entirely caught up in listening for any sound of life coming from inside the room. Emily moved forward to join her.
"None of the doors are ever locked." She spoke as though to do such a thing would be against her principles; as though there could not possibly be any reason why anybody should want their door to be locked. Laura noticed the marked lack of a keyhole, and felt like kicking herself. No need to wait for a pass key then. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
It was a large room, almost exactly like hers in shape and design; a large double bed, antique furnishings, thick carpet. An internal door led to a bathroom, bearing a large white bath standing on bowed and bronzed legs, whilst a porcelain bowl and pitcher, decorated with tiny painted roses, stood upon a lace cloth on a mahogany dresser. There was a radio in the corner of the room, tuned in to a music station, burbling away to itself to the tune of a recent band. Laura thought that she recognised it as the kind of thing often played by the two young men employed to wash windows in the building where she lived. Not at all the sort of music that she would usually have expected to find a man in his fifties listening to. Steele walked over to the radio and clicked it off.
"Are you there Mr Petersfield?" Emily was standing in the doorway, with her sister peering over her shoulder. Both women looked afraid, and not a little upset. Laura felt bad for not sending them away sooner.
"There's nothing here ladies. Perhaps there's another guest that he could be visiting?"
"He's not really the type to make friends." Charlotte was looking about in apparent disquiet, as though convinced that she was going to see Petersfield's rotting corpse lying sprawled in some darkened corner.
"There's nothing in here." Laura didn't need to look around very much to see that the room was empty. There was certainly nothing suspicious in immediate view. Steele checked the wardrobe and the bath, and even tried the bathroom cabinet, but all to no avail. He sighed.
"There was definitely a body, Laura."
"Mr Steele..." Her eyes drifted away towards the sisters, and she struggled to stay suitably calm. It really wouldn't do to get overtly angry with her 'employer' in front of witnesses - something that was possibly the hardest part of suddenly having a 'real' Remington Steele to contend with. "We're all very tired, sir. Isn't it possible that you were mistaken?"
"Oh yes. People see all kinds of things when they're very tired." Emily had come forward to join in the conversation, obviously gaining in confidence now that she no longer felt in danger of having to look at a dead person. "Once, years ago, father thought that he saw our mother sitting in the rocking chair, when she'd been gone for months. He was very tired at the time."
"I remember that!" Charlotte laughed aloud, clearly enjoying the memory. "He'd been drinking some of his special recipe I think."
"Daddy did like his special recipe." Emily beamed at Laura and Steele. "He invented it, you know."
"Indeed." Steele flashed both old ladies a patient but strained smile. "Now if you could, er..."
"Never mind that Mr Steele." Guessing that her companion was trying to be left alone with her, Laura quickly interceded. "I think we can probably leave this for tonight, don't you? We all need some sleep."
"A man has died, Laura." Trying to look wounded by her apparent belief that he had been hallucinating, Steele tried out one of his well-practised pleas. "Don't you think that we should at least try to find the poor fellow? He could be anywhere."
"If he's gone for a stroll then he won't get far in this weather." She headed back towards the door, already thinking of her room, with that terribly inviting bed. Steele sighed in exasperation, searching his mind for the next avenue of persuasion.
"Laura, Laura, Laura. Don't tell me that you, a seasoned and talented professional, are seriously considering walking away from this case? A fascinating conundrum; an exciting twist on the usual tale of murder and intrigue? This gem of a case fallen so propitiously into our very--"
"Mr Steele..." Halfway to the door she stopped, turning neatly on her heel and staring back at him with a look that could not be misinterpreted. "As your deputy I have to remind you that there are times when we have to know when to quit. Now we both need some sleep." Her voice hardened, imperceptibly to most, and yet still enough for him to recognise the signs. "We can discuss this in the morning."
"I really think that you're making a mistake here Laura." He stalked past her, annoyed and a little embarrassed, not at all concerned about the way that the sisters might be interpreting any of this. "But if you get murdered in your bed tonight, don't come moaning to me about it. You can rattle your ghostly chains outside somebody else's door."
"Murdered in your bed?" Emily's voice rose in a frightful shriek, her eyes widening in shock and distress, and inwardly Steele winced. Laura glared at him.
"Might I respectfully suggest that you employ a little tact, sir?" She stepped around him, slipping an arm about Emily's suddenly quaking shoulders, and leading her back out into the corridor. "It's alright Miss Mortimer. There's nothing to worry about. Mr Steele was simply considering a few extreme possibilities. There's really no danger."
"Except possibly for poor old Petersfield." Steele caught the full force of her surreptitious glare, and sighed in reply. "I'm sorry Miss Holt, but I know what I saw. Somewhere in this boarding house there's a dead body, and presumably there's also the person who put the poor fellow in that condition to begin with. We could be sharing this building with a psychopath. Be very careful if you plan on taking a shower before bed, Miss Holt. Showers and boarding houses have a very unfortunate history when it comes to psychopaths. Just ask Janet Leigh."
"There isn't a shower in my room." She was still marvelling at his persistence. "Get some sleep Mr Steele. Please."
"If you insist." He sounded stiff; ultra formal and polite; the way he only did when he was feeling hurt. She almost sighed aloud in exasperation. He didn't really believe his own crazy tales, did he? There was no body to be discovered, of that she was certain. Even Remington Steele's uncanny ability to find mysteries for her to solve couldn't extend to this tiny, out of the way place. Could it? She was still wondering a second later, when a mighty scream dragged the thoughts from her head, and left Emily slithering away into a dead faint at her feet. Steele, frozen in the act of slinking sulkily away, froze and turned back to her.
"Miss Wolf?" he asked, his voice showing more than a mere flash of concern. Laura nodded, her face grim with confirmation as she too identified the voice behind the scream.
"I feel like such a fool." Sipping from a glass filled with the long dead Mr Mortimer's 'special recipe', Bernice smiled in embarrassment at Laura and Murphy. "I'm really not the screaming type. I don't know what came over me."
"You'd just found a dead body in your bed." Hovering over her like some anxious mother hen, Murphy offered her an encouraging smile. "If I got into my bed and found a dead guy sharing it, I'd probably scream too."
"I doubt it." She smiled up at him in gratitude for his words, and then looked over to Laura. "Do we know who he is?"
"I suspect so." Laura looked over at Steele, who was examining the dead body with something approaching familiarity. "Mr Steele?"
"Oh it's him alright Laura." He shrugged. "Apparently he decided that he'd prefer to spend the rest of eternity in Miss Wolf's bed rather than mine."
"Hang on." Straightening up, Murphy turned away from Bernice to look at Laura. "Are you saying that he actually knows something about this?"
"Ssh, Murph." The sisters were not present, but Laura could not shake the feeling that they might suddenly appear. Both women seemed capable of disappearing and reappearing in utter silence. Her partner glared at her.
"He does, doesn't he. What's this about, Laura?"
"Detective business Murphy. You wouldn't understand." His voice clipped and businesslike Steele shot a sharp look across at Laura. "It looks like the usual blunt instrument job. He's only been dead for a couple hours."
"So suddenly you're the expert on autopsies." Pushing past the agency's often unwelcome figurehead, Murphy examined the body himself. He saw a man in his late middle age, wearing a well cared for suit that had seen better days. A quick glance at the bruising to the back of the man's head suggested that the most likely cause of death was a heavy blow. There was no sign of any external bleeding, and the cooling corpse looked almost peaceful. Unable to contradict Steele's diagnosis, Murphy scowled and turned away.
"So how did he get into my bed?" Clearly feeling more able to take part in discussions now, Bernice put down her glass and turned round to join in with the talk. She avoided looking at the body in the bed though, and concentrated on Laura and Murphy instead. Steele shrugged.
"Probably the same way that he got into mine, which almost certainly wasn't through his own motive power. What do you think Miss Holt? Can we assume that the killer was looking for somewhere quiet to leave the body where nobody would be likely to find it?"
"That would be my guess. He thought that your room would be safe, but probably saw or heard you going in there. As soon as he had the chance, he moved the body. Where were you before you went to bed Bernice?"
"In the bathroom." She looked embarrassed. "I was going to go to sleep straight away, but I decided to go into the bathroom first. I wasn't in there for very long. It seems incredible that somebody could have come in and put a dead man on my bed without me hearing him, or him hearing me."
"You were tired," Murphy told her. "And he was probably pretty desperate. You can't carry a dead man around indefinitely, especially in a place like this. There's always a danger of somebody seeing something."
"I suppose that makes me feel a bit better." She was clearly still embarrassed about not having heard anything, but was beginning to see that it was not really her fault. "Do we know who he is? I mean, I nearly slept with him. I think it's about time we were properly introduced."
"We think he's a guest called Petersfield." Laura remembered the distress of the Mortimer sisters, and how fond they had apparently been of the man. "Apparently he was the quiet sort, and something of a gentleman. Not the type to have any enemies as far as we can tell."
"And he began the night in his bed?" As usual Murphy preferred to refer to Steele in that way; a 'his' or a 'him', pronounced with almost audible italics. Laura nodded, managing even in these sorry circumstances to find amusement in her colleague's attitude towards their supposed employer.
"That's right. Mr Steele drew my attention to the situation a little while ago, but by then there was no longer any body. Emily and Charlotte recognised the description though."
"And how many suspects do we have? How many guests besides us?"
"I couldn't pin the sisters down on that one. It's almost as if they didn't know. Then there's the Mortimers themselves of course, not forgetting Geoffrey." Laura shrugged. "We can probably rule out the sisters as suspects. I can't see either of them managing to bludgeon a man to death."
"Don't be so quick to dismiss them, Laura." Steele was clearly still entertaining the possibility of the two little old ladies being lethal adversaries. "Appearances can be deceiving."
"Not that deceiving." Murphy's tone was mocking, and Steele bridled. Laura found herself intervening before their latest confrontation could become something unpleasant.
"Alright, that's enough, both of you. Now it may not worry you that we're probably trapped in a house with a murderer, but it worries me, and I'd like to find out who killed that poor guy before somebody else winds up dead. So are we together in this?"
"Yeah. Sure." Looking considerably abashed, Murphy nodded his head. Steele straightened himself up, unconsciously smartening his appearance.
"Of course, Miss Holt. Absolutely. Needless to say we'll support you to the nines. Now would somebody like to tell me exactly what the great Remington Steele has decided upon as his best course of action?"
"The 'great Remington Steele' is going to begin by keeping his voice down." Laura cast yet another in a litany of nervous glances back towards the bedroom door. "Then after that he's going to get a list of all the guests currently staying here, and he's going to check that they're all where they should be. Murph, give the place a good search, and see how we're fixed for communications. I want to know where every telephone is, and whether there's any chance of using them before much longer. Failing that we might have to think about going outside. There's got to be a sheriff somewhere in this town, or a policeman of some kind at least."
"Right." Murphy, who rarely had to be told to do anything twice when Laura was the one doing the telling, headed immediately for the door. Steele smiled at the departing detective, flicking a quick grin in Laura's direction.
"Eager chap, isn't he."
"Responsible, dedicated, trustworthy..." She gave him one of her irritated looks, that was half-glare, half-superior smile. "Everything that Remington Steele has always valued in a colleague."
"Of course." He pretended to look chastised, and allowed himself a glow of pleasure when Laura failed to respond as disapprovingly as she would probably have liked. Winning her over was proving to be slow work, but it was damned satisfying all the same. Some of his self-satisfaction must have shown on his face, for she glared at him.
"Go and get that list of guests."
"Right." He hesitated, his usual dislike of leg-work making him reluctant to go. "It's, er... it's something of a menial task, don't you think? For a man of Remington Steele's great talents I mean."
"You're not Remington Steele, and you don't have any great talents." She pointed to the door. "Now go."
"I'm hurt, Laura." He didn't look it, although his voice was a passable imitation of a man stung by cruel words. She glared. He went. Bernice started to laugh.
"I must have been shaken up more than I thought when I found that body, because I think your Mr Steele is actually starting to grow on me." Laura rolled her eyes.
"Since when did he become my Mr Steele? I'm stuck with him just the same as the rest of you. It's not my fault that I have to spend more time with him..."
"Oh go on. He's not that bad. Don't tell me he doesn't interest you."
"I suppose. A bit." They had had this conversation more than once now, and on each occasion Laura was left thinking of how much the impostor drove her mad; and how much he fascinated her. It was hard to hate someone whilst at the same time being greatly attracted to them. Maybe that was the source of her extreme irritation just lately, in all matters that were Steele-related.
"You could always resign, you know. Go and open up another agency, with another make-believe boss."
"Another one?" She shook her head. "One is enough, believe me. Besides, by now word has probably got around in the European criminal fraternity. I could start up anywhere and I'd wind up with a con-man on my doorstep, eager to take on the rôle."
Bernice smiled. "Doubtful."
"But not entirely unlikely." Laura sighed. "And anyway it's not always the pretend detectives that cause the problems. It seems that even if Mr Steele is on his best behaviour there are still dead bodies cropping up wherever we go. Like poor Mr Petersfield here."
"I feel like such a fool for not seeing anything."
"It's just as well that you didn't. If you'd seen whoever put the body here, you'd have wound up being laid out alongside it."
"Oh." The secretary shifted uncomfortably on her seat, then glanced towards the door. "Do you think we should go and find the others? I mean... well it's always possible that the killer might decide to move the body again, and I really don't think that I want to be here if he does that." She sent a short, unhappy look back at Petersfield. "Besides, I can't help feeling we're being watched."
"Watched?" Laura cast a glance over at the body, and almost smiled. Petersfield had been arranged so that the pillows behind his head were well plumped, and he did appear to be sitting up ever so slightly. Whilst his eyes were fixed on a far corner of the room, there was a vague suggestion that he might be listening in to the conversation, or watching the pair out of the corner of his eye. "Well I suppose we're not really achieving anything here. We might as well go back down to the front room. Maybe a cup of coffee or strong tea will make you feel a little better."
"Maybe." Bernice was looking apologetic again, as she had done when feeling bad about her screaming episode earlier. "To be honest, what I really want is a quick trip home to LA, and then I'll take the strong tea in my apartment, with some nice music playing, and my favourite pair of slippers keeping my feet warm."
"You wouldn't need them in LA. It's probably seventy degrees over there. At least." They shared a rueful smile at that thought, longing for the easy warmth of California that seemed so far from this snow-swept, isolated place; before Laura rose to her feet with a sharp, sudden movement, and headed towards the door. "Come on. The others must be ready to report by now anyway."
"What do we do if Mr Petersfield disappears again when we're gone?"
Laura cocked an eyebrow. "You want to stay here alone and keep watch?"
"No." Bernice's answer was heartfelt. Laura smirked.
"Then come on. Maybe Emily and Charlotte can find us some sandwiches as well. I'm hungry."
"Me too. Although mostly I'm just tired." Bernice yawned as though to demonstrate her fatigue, then followed Laura to the door. "Maybe they'll come up with some more of that 'special recipe' of theirs. I wouldn't mind that."
"I think you might if ever found out what's in it. With the kick that stuff packs it must contain at least forty percent industrial cleaner."
"Yeah, but it certainly warms you up." Bernice was still grinning. Laura grinned back.
"It certainly does. Maybe I should order some for our next office Christmas party. What do you think?"
"I think that sounds like a good idea."
"What does?" Appearing in the doorway, Murphy was as bright and sunny as ever, despite the fact that he was the bearer of bad news. "Whatever it is it better not involve telephones. There are two of them in the building, but neither of them is working. The Miss Mortimers said that the lines are down. Apparently the telephones always fail in weather like this."
"And the sheriff?"
"There's not much law enforcement needed in a town like this one apparently." Responding to Laura's question with an air of regret that didn't quite succeed in overpowering his ever-present cheer, Murphy offered her a short, apologetic shrug. "There's a sheriff of sorts, but the title's mostly honorary. He lives on the other side of town, and his office would probably take some finding in the weather. All three Mortimers tried explaining the route, but it didn't make an ounce of sense."
"That I can believe." Laura sighed. "I suppose that means we're on our own."
"There can't be all that many people here, Laura. There aren't very many suspects. All that we have to do is stop anyone else from getting killed, and unmask the murderer while we're at it." Murphy beamed at her. "Piece of cake. I mean, we've done this sort of thing before."
"One of these days, Murph, your optimism is going to lead you into trouble." Laura gave him a playful push, which made him laugh.
"Very likely. In the meantime though, it's just going to lead me downstairs. I'm supposed to be fetching you. Our hosts seem to think that that we're going to need plenty of feeding if we're going to stay awake all night looking for murderers. They said something about sandwiches and coffee, and hurrying before it gets cold."
"Food!" Bernice brightened immediately, even though it was not all that long since the last time they had eaten together in the room downstairs. An hour perhaps? Probably even less thought Laura, but that didn't stop her from warming to the thought. There was definitely something to be said for late night snacking when the world was asleep. It conjured up thoughts of sneaking about the house as a child, and eating her mother's home-baked scones when nobody else was awake save her pet cat. Despite the seriousness of the current situation she couldn't help feeling vaguely excited. And besides, everything seemed to be quiet now. There was no sign of further danger, no hint of further murders. Maybe Petersfield was to be the only victim. Taking a break right now wasn't really going to hurt anyone.
The quiet little living room where they had been entertained after their arrival no longer seemed so quiet at all. Cheerfully ignoring the fact that their guests had only just eaten, the Mortimer sisters had gone to town, and had laid on a full scale buffet. Shining waitresses' trolleys, packed with sandwiches and biscuits, were lined up in the middle of the floor, along with a further trolley that was loaded with drinks. Sherry bottles and whisky bottles and many other bottles of much more exotic appearance vied for space with a collection of glasses of all shapes and sizes, none of which seemed to match. Quite how so much had been prepared in so short a time was a mystery to Laura, who was all but stupefied by the spread. Little napkins folded into interesting shapes sat upon a pile of little white plates, and shining silver cutlery lay in neat rows. Little sausage rolls piled up alongside a plate of boiled eggs steamed lightly, and there was enough mixed salad to keep an army of vegetarians happy for several days. There was even, Laura discovered, as she wandered further into the room, a plate of sausages on sticks. A jar of mustard stood next to them, with a silver spoon stuffed inside that stood stiffly to attention. She whistled.
"Are you expecting an army, Miss Mortimer?"
"Oh no dear." Happily wheeling out another trolley, this one laden with scones and small cakes, Charlotte Mortimer beamed at her in the endearingly sunny fashion that she seemed to cultivate. "But you've got a murder to solve. It's bound to make you hungry. And you'll be wanting to talk to the other guests, and they'll be hungry too, and before you know it the room will be full of hungry people. I've hosted wakes here, so I know what it's like."
"We weren't planning on waking anybody up just yet, Miss Mortimer." Trying not to look too spooked by the party atmosphere that the sisters seemed to be encouraging, Laura cast a quick look around at the spread. Looking at it for the second time made it appear to be even bigger than it had looked before. Sausage rolls, sliced ham, potato salad... It would have done the five thousand justice, and still left enough over for the guests still asleep upstairs. Murphy was munching on what looked like a peanut butter sandwich, happy holding out a mug for Emily to fill with coffee. He noticed Laura's glare, but was obviously too happy with the situation to try acting with a little more decorum. She scowled at him, and sat down in the nearest chair. Almost immediately Charlotte presented her with a plate.
"You must try the sandwiches in the middle, Miss Holt. They're made with local cheese."
"Oh and do try the sandwiches on the floral plate just there Miss Holt," added Emily, clearly not about to be outdone. "Our next door neighbour makes the pickle, and the ham is locally produced too."
"And the bread," interjected Charlotte. Steele raised an eyebrow.
"How about the plate?" He had come from the periphery of the gathering, to stand beside Laura's chair in much the manner of a towering protector. There was something vaguely proprietorial about the stance, and Laura wasn't sure that she liked it.
"Oh no Mr Steele." Missing his sarcasm entirely, which was probably just as well, Emily seemed eager to warble off at a tangent. "The plates were brought back from Europe by our great aunt Miranda, in - what was it now Charlotte?"
"1898, I think dear." Charlotte pointed to one of the ancient photographs displayed upon an equally ancient bureau nearby. "That's her, Mr Steele. The one in the calico bonnet."
"Ah yes. I see." Steele smiled at them both, although it was more of a twitch of the lips than a proper smile. "Very pretty."
"She brought back some Wedgwood china too. All blue and white it was, and very special. We've still got it in the cupboard. Would you like to see it?" Charlotte's tone was almost like that of an excited child, and Emily's, as she joined in, was even worse.
"Oh yes, Mr Steele. You must see it. It's wonderful. All blue and white, with little shepherd boys on it, and sheep too."
"Er... maybe later ladies." Steele was all charm and gentle command. "Miss Holt and I do have some rather urgent business to discuss, if you remember."
"Oh. Yes of course." Charlotte looked immediately bashful. "How silly of us. We were thinking that it was a party, weren't we Emily."
"I think we were, yes. All this food, and such charming company." Emily gave a surprisingly girlish giggle. "It feels like a party, doesn't it. A bit."
"But just a little bit, Emily dear. We mustn't forget poor Mr Petersfield." Charlotte's tone was gently admonishing, and Emily nodded sadly, than grabbed for a handkerchief and began to sniffle.
"I'm sorry," she piped uncertainly, looking around at the little gathering as though she had committed some dreadful sin. "I seem to... Oh dear I really must--" and she hurried away back into the kitchen, with Charlotte following more sedately at her heels. The door swung shut, and on the other side of the clearly too flimsy barrier, Laura and her companions could hear the gentle sobs of one sister, and the soft encouragements of the other. Bernice let out a long sigh.
"What a pair."
"They're kind of unique, aren't they." Wandering over with the latest in a string of sandwiches gripped in one hand, and his mug of coffee in the other, Murphy sat down in the chair nearest to Laura's. "So what do you think, boss? It is a little bit creepy, having this party laid on when we've just found a body. Do you think maybe the sisters aren't as innocent as they were making out?"
"Ignoring the fact that I suggested that some time ago?" Steele glared down at the other man, who glared unapologetically back.
"I don't think that either of them had anything to do with Mr Petersfield's death." Glaring at both of her assistants, Laura succeeded in breaking off their own little glaring match. "They probably just don't see these things the way that we do. Maybe they think it's a bit exciting to have a guest murdered. Maybe they're very religious, and don't see death as something to be very solemn about."
"Or maybe they're just stark raving mad," Steele clearly couldn't resist adding. Laura's scowl deepened.
"Either way," she announced firmly, "we still have a murder to solve. And with or without our hostesses, who may or may not be a little odd, we have to decide what to do. Do we rouse the house and start asking questions?"
"Harder than you think." Steele offered her a faint shrug. "I asked for that guest list, but they don't seem to have one. Emily said that there were about twenty guests here at the moment, not including us, and Charlotte insisted that we're here alone. They looked like they were going to have quite an argument about it, but in the end they agreed on the number seven."
"Seven? Including us?"
"I have no idea, Miss Holt. I got the distinct impression that they didn't either. They were going to ask their brother what he thought, but he seems to have vanished. Still, I suppose we can always try knocking on doors and seeing who answers."
"And then invite everybody to the murder party with full buffet you mean?" Still happily munching on his sandwich, Murphy seemed oblivious to the marked contradiction between his evident unease at the magnificent spread and his clear willingness to consume it. "Bring them all in and ply them with sausage rolls and whisky, then ask which one of them battered Petersfield to death?"
"Whisky? Hardly, Murphy." Approaching the drinks trolley with the air of a head waiter about to serve a classic vintage, Steele picked up a large bottle containing a liquid of deep, hypnotic translucence. "A good brandy always goes best with accusations of murder. It's a tradition that goes back to the turn of the century. Either that or a finely aged port." He poured four glasses of the brandy, choosing an eclectic selection of drinking vessels that resembled proper brandy glasses most closely. Handing them around in his best 'Hercule Poirot presiding over a dinner party' manner, he raised his own into the air to admire the way that it refracted the light. "Inspiring, don't you think? Can't you just feel it encouraging your thought processes, your investigative instincts?"
"Not really, no." Laura looked unenthusiastically at the spirit, for she had never been a great fan of strong drink. "Can I get a little ice with this?"
"Ice?" Steele looked deflated. "One never mixes ice with a brandy as fine as this, Laura."
"I do." She held out the glass. "Ice. Lots of it. The colder and chunkier the better."
"I'm disappointed in you Miss Holt." He took the glass anyway, and eyed it as though it were the Mona Lisa, and he was being asked to paint her hair blond and give her a moustache. "A good detective is supposed to be properly acquainted with the finer things in life, and know how best to compliment them."
"Only if the good detective in question comes from a nineteen twenties British crime thriller. I'm not Dorothy Vale, and you're not Albert Campion." She nodded at the glass. "Ice."
"Me too." Bernice held out her own glass, and Steele took it with a glower that might have melted the ice had it already been in the glasses.
"I'm sure there's a law against this kind of vandalism." Setting the glasses down, he looked about for some ice but could not find any. The drinks trolley contained nothing but glasses and bottles, and the food trolleys seemed to contain nothing but copious amounts of eatables. Only one trolley looked like a possibility; a longer one, evidently used on occasions when the sisters really pulled out all the stops. It stood in one corner of the room, draped in a white satin cloth that swept the floor all around. There was a promising lump on top, which looked very much like an ice bucket. He headed towards his prize, like an explorer trekking towards his final destination after weeks of fruitless search. "If it's ice you want, Laura, it's ice you'll get. As cold and as chunky as the house can provide." He caught hold of the white cloth and swept it aside with a manoeuvre that would have done credit to a magician. Underneath was a sizeable serving trolley, with shelves of teak and a framework of highly polished metal. An ice bucket, containing a mound of ice and a large bottle of champagne, rested squarely in the centre of the top shelf; and on the bottom, stretched out to the full extent of his apparently considerable height, was the pyjama-clad body of a man. Steele blinked. Bernice took a step back. Laura groaned.
"This just gets weirder and weirder." Joining Steele beside the cart, Murphy rather unnecessarily checked the dead man's pulse. "I guess that's what they call putting someone on ice, huh?"
"Except that he's under the ice, not on it." Steele crouched down beside him, eyeing the corpse with a professionally detached air. "Well he's got good taste, whoever he is. Those pyjamas are silk. Unusual choice of colour for a man of his age."
"Dark purple. How very seventies." Murphy fingered the collar of the jacket, wondering how Steele could be so sure that it was silk when he hadn't even touched it. "He looks about your size. Maybe you should ask the next of kin if you can take them in lieu of a fee."
"Hardly de rigeur, Murphy." Standing up, Steele shot Laura a questioning glance. "Shall we move him?"
"There's no point leaving him there. I think we can be sure that it's not the original crime scene." She joined him with a twinge of reluctance, wishing that she had never asked for ice. If only she had been content to drink the brandy neat, they would still be dealing with only one body right now, instead of two. "I don't suppose he's got any identification on him?"
"Hard to tell as yet." Bending down to the task, Steele joined Murphy in manoeuvring the heavy figure out of its resting place and onto the nearest piece of furniture; a horsehair sofa that looked at least as old as the Mortimer sisters. The figure looked oddly at home there, with his purple silk pyjamas and large, midnight blue smoking jacket. The latter had fallen open as they shunted the figure about, and as soon as the dead man was lying still once again, Steele pulled it back into place. It provided only a minimum of dignity for the unfortunate corpse, but it seemed to be better than nothing.
"There's a wallet here." Holding up a simple leather case which had come from one of the pockets of the jacket, Murphy flicked quickly through its contents. "A hundred dollars in twenty dollar bills, an old photograph of a... looks like a bride and a groom... ah, here it is. ID." He looked at the small slip of plastic that represented the difference between an anonymous corpse and a man with a name and an identity. "Clarence Tuttenham. Born Idaho, 1916." He tossed the wallet to Laura, who glanced at it perfunctorily before passing it to Steele. "So who killed you, Clarence?"
"Let's see if we can get him to tell us." Bending over the body, Laura examined as much of it as was immediately on show. Murphy helped her to lift the torso so that she could look at the back of the head, and the two detective shared a meaningful look when they saw what they had uncovered.
"Same MO," Murphy commented. Laura nodded.
"Except that in this case it took several blows. Probably knocked out, first, and then a couple more knocks saw to it permanently." She shook her head, obviously tired. "I'm rapidly coming to hate this place."
"Me too." Peering down at the body, Bernice winced noticeably. "There's still just the one killer though, right?"
"So far as we know." Murphy fetched the largest napkin that he could find, and draped it over Tuttenham's slack, pale face. The once black skin had become an unpleasant shade of grey, and it was a relief to hide it. It looked unnatural. "Somebody should tell the Mortimers, Laura. Until this guy is caught, they're in danger too. We can't have them bustling about this place like normal, when there could be some crazed killer hiding in the kitchen."
"What's that dear?" Appearing in the doorway like some snowy-haired jack-in-the-box, Charlotte raised aloft a tray of ice cream sundaes that positively twinkled in a fountain of multi-coloured sauces. As a snack offered to a team of hungry detectives battling a murder case it was even less appropriate than the sizeable buffet, the blues, yellows and reds of the sauces suggesting celebration rather than tragic death. "Were you wanting something out of the kitchen?"
"Er, no Miss Mortimer." Wondering how best to break the news, Laura moved slightly so that the elderly woman could see past her, and therefore catch a glimpse of the dead man on the horsehair sofa. Charlotte stared at the body. The body, covered as it was with a large white table napkin, did not stare back.
"We think he's called Clarence Tuttenham," Steele offered, suddenly remembering that he was supposed to be the one in charge. Charlotte glanced towards him as though only just noticing his presence.
"Really?" She sounded detached. "He was a lovely man you know. Very chatty. Such a hard life he'd had when he was younger. He came here to spend a few weeks with us, and I'd become terribly fond of him."
"Who's that dear?" Wandering out of the kitchen with a plate of sandwiches, Emily looked about at the trolleys as though amazed that more food had not been eaten. Her sister gestured to the corpse on the sofa.
"Mr Tuttenham, Emily. It seems that he's dead."
"He is?" Emily put down the sandwiches and advanced upon the sofa. "Oh dear yes. So he is. I'd recognise those pyjamas anywhere. Used to wear them to breakfast every morning. Two slices of toast and a glass of orange juice wasn't it Charlotte?"
"I believe it was, Emily. Two slices of toast, with just a little butter, and then a cup of coffee afterwards. Milk, no sugar." She heaved a sigh. "Did he die peacefully Miss Holt?"
"Probably not." Steele's comment earned him a sharp look from Laura, who continued the tale with a little more tact.
"Mr Steele found his body on that trolley over there, ladies. Since it seems unlikely that he put himself there, Mr Steele feels that the most likely explanation is that there's been foul play. And since he seems to have been killed the same way as Mr Petersfield..."
"Oh dear." Emily sat down rather heavily, and looked up at Charlotte with obvious distress. "You do know what this means, don't you Charlotte, dear. If this gets around we're going to get the most dreadful reputation. People will be too scared to come here."
"Miss Mortimer..." The women's rambling talk was starting to annoy Laura, and she had to struggle to keep her irritation under control. "Two men have died. Now do you know any reason why that might have happened? Do you know who could have killed them?"
"They were such nice men." Looking around at the four members of the agency, Charlotte sounded utterly helpless. "I do hope it wasn't too unpleasant for them."
"They were going to stay here." Sounding like an excited child again, Emily pushed past her sister to stand alongside the fallen Tuttenham. "Both of them. They said that they wanted to rent rooms here permanently. We were going to be like a big happy family."
"All together under one roof." Charlotte stared wistfully at the dead man. "Mr Tuttenham was a marvellous electrician. He would have done wonders for the place."
"And Mr Petersfield was going to do the garden. He was a horticulturist." Emily straightened Tuttenham's wrinkled bathrobe, and absently plumped the cushions that surrounded his - as far as anyone knew - unappreciative form. "I'm afraid that we can't help you though, Mr Steele. No matter how much we might want to."
"You can't suggest anything at all." Seething just as she usually did when somebody assumed that it was Steele who was doing all of the thinking, Laura avoided looking at his apologetic flicker of a smile. Charlotte shook her head.
"There's nothing that we can think of, and of course with the weather being so bad you can't possibly go asking around the town. I suppose somebody in the general store might have heard something, but Emily and I always ignore that kind of gossip. Daddy always said that we should."
"A sensible man, I'm sure." Steele moved smoothly forwards, taking over the situation the way he did so well. "Laura, we're not getting anywhere this way. Perhaps it might be better if we organised a search for the murder weapon. That might given us some clues. Fingerprints maybe?"
"That would be an excellent plan of course, Mr Steele, but perhaps you've forgotten the state of the weather? Even if we could get hold of the murderer's fingerprints, we've got no way of checking them against police records." Laura's measured voice, increasingly well accustomed to phrasing her irritable comments in a manner that sounded as though she was being polite to her renowned 'employer', brought a look of vague sheepishness to Steele's face. He nodded to concede her point.
"Of course Miss Holt. Good to see that you're on the ball as always. All the same, it could still be useful to find the murder weapon. At least then we'd know that it was in rather safer hands."
"I agree." Looking extremely surprised by his own admission, Murphy waved a hand in the air as though casting a vote. Laura raised an eyebrow.
"It can't hurt, certainly. Shall we take the bottom of the house Mr Steele, while Murphy and Bernice check upstairs?"
"Certainly Miss Holt." Steele smirked at Murphy, happily rubbing it in that yet again he was to be the one accompanying Laura. Murphy didn't rise to the bait.
"Is there a basement?" Directing the question at a point in space somewhere between the two Sisters Mortimer, Laura hoped that one of them at least would give her a comprehensive answer. In the event it was both of them who responded, with a nod so perfectly timed that it was almost as though they had been practising. Charlotte pointed to the kitchen door.
"The door's in there."
"In the kitchen," added Emily.
"It's red," followed Charlotte. "But the lights don't work, so you won't be able to see anything. Perhaps if we were to get Geoffrey to take you down there?"
"Geoffrey said that he was going to bed, dear." Her sister gestured towards the stairs in such an illustrative fashion that it seemed as though her brother's current whereabouts was the most important piece of information she could possible divulge. Charlotte nodded her understanding.
"Well if he's in bed I suppose it would be unfair to disturb him. There's really nothing down there though Mr Steele, and it's really awfully dark."
"Mr Tuttenham was going to look at the wiring." Emily heaved a long sigh, then stole a look at her sister. "Are you sure that you want to go down there Mr Steele? The stairs aren't safe."
"And there are rats."
"And spiders." Emily gave a hugely emphasised shiver. Laura smiled.
"We'll be quite alright, thankyou." She gestured towards the kitchen door. "After you Mr Steele."
"Thankyou." Looking less than enthusiastic, he crossed to the door and pushed it open. Murphy watched him, before glancing towards Laura.
"Be careful Laura." As always he was concerned for her, and as always she underestimated the depth of his concern.
"You too Murph. Bernice. I'll see you later." She grinned. "Unless the rats and the spiders get us first."
"I wouldn't make jokes about that sort of thing if I was you Laura." Now in the kitchen, Steele was struggling with a stiff red door. It opened in the end, the warped frame clearly showing its full distended size once it was fully visible. "It looks like the kind of place where the spiders grow to be six feet tall."
"Then maybe one of them is the murderer." She followed him down the flight of stairs, listening to the creaking of the wood. After the sisters' warning she had been expecting the steps to collapse, but all that they did was to creak very loudly. Not being pitched to the bottom of the flight was definitely a bonus, and that simple thought put Laura in a good mood as she stepped off the bottom stair and onto a packed earth floor. The faint light from the kitchen showed cobwebs in the corners of the room, a selection of gardening tools lying on a workbench, and another door set into the wall opposite the stairs. Other than that the place was deserted.
"What do you suppose is through there?" Approaching the newly discovered door as though he thought it might explode, Steele strained his ears in an attempt to discover whether there was anybody else around. Somehow it was hard to shake the feeling that they were not entirely alone down in this unpleasant cellar.
"Probably more tools. A workshop maybe. The place where Daddy Mortimer made his furniture, or worked out that special recipe of his. Can you hear something?"
"Yes. It sounds like..." He frowned, trying to identify the noise. "Like somebody digging."
"Maybe it's the next house."
"The houses aren't that close together in this street. This is an It's A Wonderful Life sort of a town. Few houses well spaced." He pointed to the door handle, and Laura nodded.
"I wonder what's being dug up," she pondered. Steele shot her a look that told her she was grasping entirely the wrong end of the stick.
"I'm a little bit more worried about what it is that they're burying. Or planning to bury."
"Mr Steele..." She gestured towards the door handle, and he sighed. Sometimes she just wouldn't listen. Very, very slowly, and with extreme care, he turned the handle and pushed the door. It edged open an inch or two, then stopped. Beyond it the scratching sound that Steele had identified as digging came to an abrupt halt.
"Hello?" Peering around the doorframe, Laura got a view of a partially lit room, illuminated only by a lamp standing in the middle of the floor. It showed a hole, about six feet long and of indeterminate depth, and a pile of earth that had obviously just been excavated. A pair of legs stood beside the hole, wearing dirt-stained shoes and expensive, but old, trousers. Everything above the thighs was invisible, stolen by the gloom.
"Er, Laura? Might I suggest caution?" Easing her gently aside, Steele finished pushing the door open. It stuck on the earthen floor, but obeyed him in the end. The pair of feet moved back a step.
"Who's there?" The voice was masculine, but beyond that it was impossible to identify. Reduced to a hoarse whisper, it was as devoid of personality as though it had been electronically altered. "What do you want?"
"We just wanted to talk." Striding further into the room, shoulder to shoulder as though carrying out some long practised manoeuvre, Laura and Steele moved towards him. Laura kept her voice level and calm, the way police officers sometimes spoke when talking to would-be suicides. "Who are you?"
"Keep back." The spade that stood in the pile of earth lifted suddenly, raised up by unseen hands. The two detectives could not see it once it rose above the limits of the lamp's yellow glow, but they knew where it was all the same; lifted to shoulder height, held threateningly against them. Steele tried to signal to Laura to retreat, at the same time addressing their largely invisible assailant in jollying tones.
"Come on old chap. Steady on. We're just taking a stroll down here, seeing what's around. Didn't mean to disturb your... important work. Building something are you? Constructing some... drains perhaps?"
"No." The voice that came in answer suggested that the speaker did not like being humoured in such a fashion. "I'm digging a grave."
"Oh." Steele's resolve drained away, and he had to struggle to maintain his usual smile. "Well that's... nice. Anybody in particular that you're planning to bury?"
"No." The feet came a step closer, and Laura and Steele, as one, took a step back. "I just happen to enjoy digging graves. Burying people."
"Um... dead people, one would hope?" Steele's voice, steeped in hopeful curiosity, sounded like an inquiry that did not really want an answer. The shadowy figure was silent for a second, but a rustling sound suggested at a shrug.
"Usually. Dead people are easier to bury." Another step closer. "They're better at lying still."
"Ah. Yes. They probably would be." Steele shot a look at Laura, eyebrows raised as though demanding What now! She made no answer, and instead stepped back to the threshold of the doorway. Beyond it was the better lit main cellar, where there were tools that might do as weapons. She remembered seeing a hammer, and one or two smallish gardening implements. Any one of them might provide a little defence; and at least in that other room they would be able to see their attacker. She took another step, aware only faintly that the damp air in the room was beginning to smell rather strange.
"Laura?" Steele's voice struck her as being rather louder than normal. She wondered what he wanted. Couldn't he see she had a plan? Murphy would know. He would understand, and would do his best to distract the enemy for long enough to get things moving. Why did Steele always want to talk?
"Laura?" He sounded Irish now, which she was starting to recognise as reason to be alarmed. It usually meant some sort of urgency; anxiety perhaps, or danger. Once or twice possibly even fear. The strange smell in the air seemed to be getting stronger, and only then did she make the connection.
"What's going on?" Her voice sounded thick. Nearby Steele was groping blindly, trying to grab hold of her. She realised that he was trying to pull her; to drag her across the floor and back towards the steps. Clearly he didn't have the strength. Neither did she. The last thing that she was aware of especially clearly was the realisation that cold earth floors were not especially comfortable - and neither did they taste very nice. After that she didn't think about anything, until she began to dream.
Laura returned to consciousness wondering why there was no light shining between her curtains, and then wondered why her alarm clock wasn't working. She flapped her hand ineffectually at the switch of her beside light, and encountered nothing but faintly damp earth. Her other hand refused to meet her demands at all, and she wondered if she had been drinking. She didn't usually, but it had been known.
It was only after a drawn out moment that she remembered where she really was - or thought that she was - and what exactly had happened. Despite her clearing head her memory took an almost frightening time to return, which she blamed on the gas. At least she thought it had been gas. She remembered the peculiar smell, and the unfamiliar urgency in Steele's suddenly Irish-sounding voice. Steele. Where the hell was he?
It didn't take long for the pieces to connect, once she had worked out the preliminaries. The darkness, although complete in so much of the room, was broken by the light of the digger's lamp, which illuminated a spherical microcosm near to her legs. As her mind grew less jumbled, this limited lighting allowed her to see a still form just beside her, which had to be the estimable Mr Steele; and by the hardness and coldness of the floor, and the uninspiring gloom that covered everything, she deduced that the pair of them were locked in the second cellar room. Her left wrist was attached to Steele's right, by means of a set of discouragingly sturdy steel handcuffs; and if she wasn't very much mistaken there was a second such set fixing Steele's left wrist to a pipe on the wall. She wondered if there was any chance that the pipe would turn out to be the flimsy, ancient type, rusted and deteriorated by the years. It didn't seem very likely.
"Mr Steele?" She spoke quietly at first; very quietly. There was no telling how far away their captor was, and how displeased he would be to hear them communicating. One could never be too sure how an angry adversary was going to react, particularly when one was somewhat inexperienced in such things. Laura didn't exactly make a career out of being abducted, although admittedly she was getting a good deal of practice in the field of late. "Mr Steele?"
"Laura?" He opened one eye, and peered at her out of the semi-gloom at the limits of the lamp's pitiful illumination. "Oh. Hello." His other eye opened, and he looked around at the largely invisible surroundings with unhappy resignation. "When I awoke to the sound of your voice I thought that my prayers had been answered, but I see a distinct lack of silk sheets and satin pillows."
"Your prayers?" She sat up, remembering the gas just in time to experience a nasty set of after-effects. "This is more like a nightmare. We're in the cellar."
"So it would appear." He followed her to a sitting position, discovering the twin sets of handcuffs when he attempted to steady himself. Steel rattled against steel, and Laura heard a soft, soft voice mutter a word that she couldn't quite catch. "I seem to be rather incommoded. How about yourself?"
"I have one hand free, but it doesn't seem to be helping matters much. Do you have anything that we could use to pick the locks?"
"No." He sounded angry with himself, although not so much that he couldn't indulge in a little suggestive humour. "Much though I like the idea of you going through my pockets, Miss Holt, I have to let the better side of my nature come out on top. I don't have anything on me except poor Mr Tuttenham's wallet."
"Nothing else at all?"
"Not even a cocktail stick from our gruesome little midnight buffet. Would you by any chance happen to have a hairpin? Something similar would do just as well."
"I don't have anything either. Some small change maybe. I don't have many pockets in these clothes." She shifted around, trying to manoeuvre her free hand so that it could search what pockets she did have. Nothing turned up. "Any other ideas?"
"Shout for assistance? This house isn't the sturdiest construction on the planet, so there's always a chance we'd be heard."
"Quite possibly by whoever put us in here. I don't want another dose of that gas thankyou very much."
"But on the other hand we might be heard by Murphy, and whilst his is hardly my most favourite face in all the world, I'd be quite happy to see it right now." She felt him shrug. "Unless he turns out to be the murderer of course."
"I think that's just a little unlikely, don't you?"
"Of Murphy?" He arched an eyebrow. "Since you mention it, I wouldn't put anything past him. Obvious criminal type. And don't forget how much time he spends in morgues, Laura. Collecting autopsies, reading coroners' reports... Things like that are apt to warp a man's outlook on life. Turn a normal, sensible, steady sort of chap into a mass murdering maniac. And let's face it, Murphy was never a normal, sensible, steady sort of chap to begin with."
"Murphy is not the killer." She glared at him, and at his teasing smile. "But somebody is."
"Apparently so." He frowned, clearly turning events over in his mind. "Petersfield was the quiet type according to our hostesses upstairs. Tuttenham was rather different. They had different careers, and neither of them was local."
"Neither of them had any family, either. Both alone in the world, the sisters said." Laura remembered the two old ladies, teary-eyed and reflective, talking about their late guests with such obvious fondness. Steele arched his eyebrow again.
"Two lonely men meeting their deaths in an old boarding house. There are some very unpleasant parallels in this case Laura. All we need is a mad little doctor and a murderer who looks like Boris Karloff and--"
"Mr Steele..." She shook her head in faint exasperation, and wished that she was handcuffed to Murphy instead. At least he would help her deliberations instead of hindering them.
"Miss Holt?" She could hear Steele moving around, apparently trying to get comfortable, and wondered if that was at all possible on this hard, earthen floor. It was so damn lumpy, for one thing.
"What?" His constant shifting about was causing him to pull on her arm, chafing the wrist where her hand was cuffed to his. She pulled back, hard and meaningful, and then immediately felt rather guilty. He was probably rather more uncomfortable than her anyway, given that both his wrists were bound.
"Ow." He shifted about a bit more, then seemed to remember that he had originally had something to say to her. "Miss Holt, have you noticed that there's something a little bit odd about this floor?"
"Odd?" She hadn't thought about it before, but it came to her now, and she nodded - then realised that he probably couldn't see her very well and made her agreement rather more vocal. "Yes, I suppose so. I thought that it was a bit lumpy, but it's more than that isn't it. It's very uneven."
"Yes." He sounded unhappy, as though unwelcome conclusions were forming in his mind. "Big, long lumps in the ground. Humps, rather than lumps."
"Well I suppose that if you want to get technical, humps does cover it better than lumps, yes." She frowned, and felt about with her free hand. Sure enough she could detect one of the humps just alongside of her; long enough for either end to be out of her reach, the sides sloping in a shape that was most familiar. It reminded her of something, but she couldn't quite decide what. "What do you suppose it all is? Badly positioned pipes? Debris left by flooding?"
"I doubt it." The cuff on his left wrist rang out against the pipe it was attached to as he shifted his position yet again. "Have you ever spent the night in a graveyard?"
"Er... no." She wondered where this was leading. "I can't say that it's something I've ever had any particular inclination to do. Why?"
"Because I have. Er... 1966 I think it might have been. Crowded place, but the neighbours were quiet. Anyway, when I was sitting there, in the pitch black, the ground felt very much like it does now. Lots of lumps."
"I thought they were humps?"
"Humps, lumps. Humpy lumps. At any rate Miss Holt, they were long, and faintly rounded, and formed out of earth. Admittedly they were also covered with grass, but I think you'll admit that the comparison still rings true."
"Maybe." She thought about the implications of that; the idea that they were sitting here, in the dark, in the midst of a graveyard. It wasn't very pleasant. Just how many people might there be buried here, in this dark cellar beneath the friendly boarding house? "You don't really think that we're sitting on... I mean... this isn't...?"
"I don't know." A faintly self-deprecating laugh rang out hollowly from the darkness beside her. "But I don't really fancy waiting to find out. It's bad enough being locked up in a graveyard, but it'd be a whole lot worse to be buried in one."
"Good point." She tried to drag her mind away from the somewhat disturbing thought that she might be sitting on somebody's grave. "I really can't believe that with your history and supposed talents you don't have anything with you that could help us to pick these locks."
"Ah. Yes, well. My apologies Miss Holt." He could feel her familiar glare pointing in his direction, and summoned up a charming - although largely invisible, and therefore useless - smile. "You can't really blame me, Laura. It was supposed to be a simple conference! I didn't imagine that I'd be needing to break out of a couple of pairs of handcuffs, in order to prevent us from being murdered and buried beneath a charming little boarding house run by the quaintly mad. You said it would be boring. Uneventful, I think was the precise word that you chose. Routine was another one that was mentioned. Even Murphy said that things would be boring, and since he's the sort of fellow who usually thrives on the mundane I thought that it was a fair bet we'd be in for a slow weekend."
"So we're definitely trapped?"
"For the time being." He wriggled about a bit. "But cheer up, hey? We've both been in the business for a while now, and we've managed to make it this far without being murdered."
"Strangely I don't find that terribly encouraging." She used her free hand to fumble hopefully with the handcuff that attached her to Steele. "Maybe if we pull very hard that pipe will come away from the wall."
"That's not likely. It's very well made." He stared away, out of the circle of light. "Somebody is bound to come down here sooner or later, Laura. Everybody knows where we went, and when we don't return even Murphy will probably manage to add two and two together."
"Or just decide to leave you down here." Her voice was scathing. "You haven't really given him much reason to come dashing to your assistance, have you."
"No." Unsurprisingly he didn't sound in the least bit perturbed about that. "But you on the other hand are his reason for getting up in the mornings. If he doesn't come hurtling down here with a pistol in each hand and a cutlass between his teeth I'll be very surprised."
"I'd be even more surprised if he did." They lapsed into silence, listening to the oppressive lack of noise that seemed to press in around them. A scratching noise that Laura hoped was only a rat came from somewhere nearby, eerily muted as though originating beneath their feet. Rats munching on human bones? She almost shuddered at the thought, and then told herself that there was still no proof that the long lumps in the ground really were graves. Just because they were the right size and shape didn't necessarily have to mean anything.
"When the lights come on," she began slowly, wishing that she was rather more convinced herself, "we're going to feel very stupid. We'll be sitting near some ditches, probably built to help counteract flooding, and there won't be anything in sight that looks even nearly like a grave."
"Whoever the person we disturbed down here was, he said that he was burying bodies. He rather hinted that he'd done it before." Steele cocked his head on one side, staring at Laura through the mist of gloom that filled the air at the edge of the ring of light. "He didn't knock us out and tie us up because we interrupted his flood preparations."
"Then why did he knock us out and tie us up? Why didn't he just kill us? We were helpless once he turned that gas on, and he had a spade to use as a weapon if nothing else. Why are we still alive?"
"I don't know." Steele's voice was measured, thoughtful. "Perhaps he liked us? Perhaps he was hoping for some intelligent conversation? If he spends all his time burying corpses in the cellar he probably doesn't meet many people."
"And maybe he's just saving us for later." Having almost managed to convince herself earlier that there were no bodies nearby, Laura now found herself certain that there were. What other explanation could there be? They had found somebody digging a hole, after all; and he had claimed to be preparing it for a body. She wondered which one. Petersfield or Tuttenham? Or was there another body lying somewhere around the house, waiting to be discovered? There were quite a few rooms in the house, most of which she had not yet investigated. She thought about them all, arranged in the building above her, each one perhaps with a dead body waiting forlornly within it. On beds, on floors, seated at desks, stuffed into cupboards... It didn't bear thinking about, which was probably why she couldn't help doing just that.
"Saving us for later?" He was clearly giving the matter some thought, but eventually shook his head. "Unlikely Laura. As a rule killers just kill, they don't hang victims up in the refrigerator to keep them fresh, and then come back and kill them later."
"Laura, Laura, Laura." His hand, so close to hers anyway thanks to the handcuffs, found her fingers and gave them a gentle squeeze. "I'm an expert on murder. I've watched every film Hitchcock ever produced, not that they're all about murderers of course. Most killers follow a certain basic pattern, and I can't think of any reason why anybody's pattern should involve tying up stray detectives, especially in such a clumsy manner."
"He was probably in a hurry."
"Probably." The silence came between them again, momentarily. "Do you think he was one of the guests?"
"Could be. He might even be somebody who lives down in the cellar without the Mortimers knowing anything about it. It was hard to tell anything by his voice, though. Not terribly young, I thought."
"Middle-aged at least." Steele shrugged. "I suppose that lets Murphy off the hook."
"And the sisters?"
"Probably." As usual his habit of having backed the wrong horse for so long didn't seem to bother him. "They might still be involved though. For all we know it's part of some complicated insurance scam."
"Killing off guests? Unlikely." She shivered. "Well whoever it is I wish he'd just come back down here and tell us. It's getting cold."
"Dawn probably. It often gets colder around then." He pulled her closer to him. "Here. We can always keep each other warm."
"I can stand a bit of cold you know." She tried to resist at first, but he pulled her closer.
"I'm trying to be a gentleman, Miss Holt. Indulge me."
"A gentleman? Selflessly offering to hug me?" She shook her head, but didn't object any further. It was warmer lying beside him, and was certainly infinitely more comfortable.
"I'd offer you my jacket, but I can't get it off with both my arms like this." He moved the arm that her own wrist was fixed to, trying and failing to settle her into a more conventional hug. It proved impossible, for he couldn't put his arm around her without bending her own arm behind her back. In the end, beginning to shiver, she slid across him, nestling into the crook of his other arm. It was not the most convenient fashion in which to lie, but they both felt considerably warmer.
"I wonder if it's still snowing." Steele's voice came from close beside Laura's ear, soft and curious and extremely Irish. She smiled.
"There's something strangely seasonal about being huddled together in the cold, when there's snow falling outside. I have a strange urge to start singing Christmas carols."
"I thought that you were Californian. Surely a Christmas for you is all about hot sun and beach parties? Volleyball beside the sea whilst the turkey's cooking, and all that kind of thing."
"We get snow in California." She thought about the raging blizzard that had been going on earlier, and had to concede that Californian snow didn't tend to be anything like as powerful. "Did you get many White Christmasses when you were a child?"
"You do realise that Christmas is still quite some time away, don't you? Before we slip into this charming little exchange of heart-warming memories?"
"I know what the date is." She snuggled a little closer, and he reacted to her movement by settling himself down a little more. It made his left hand tug a little painfully on the metal bracelet fixed around it, but if it meant getting on such close terms with Laura Holt he was prepared to withstand the discomfort. "But I still want to know about Christmas when you were a kid. I've never had a White Christmas, but from all the paintings and old photographs, I get the impression that they happen all the time in Europe."
"Not as often as nostalgia would have you believe, Miss Holt. Not in my neck of the woods, anyway. Scandinavia possibly, and towards the east. Britain and Ireland just tend to be cold at that time of year. I remember it snowing once on Boxing Day though."
"You're lucky. Christmas in California never feels quite the way that all the stories say it should. If Santa Claus had turned up at my house dressed in all that fur he'd have died of heat exhaustion."
"Which is never a pleasant way to go." His voice had that oddly reflective serious edge to it, which she had heard only once or twice before. It reminded her of the drive in the limousine on the night that Steele's old friend Wallace had turned up dead. "A friend of mine once fell asleep beside a hotel swimming pool on the Riviera. It was midday, and when they found him later the coroner said it looked as though he'd been cooked alive."
"You like coming up with these little stories every so often, don't you." She shivered, and wished that she had put on something more substantial before descending into the cellar. The coldness of the earthen floor was seeping up through her clothing, even though she was mostly lying upon Steele. The stone wall was close to her back as well, and she could almost feel what little heat remained to her start to radiate out through her skin, and get sucked into the icy surroundings. "But if it's all the same to you, I'd much rather talk about warm things now."
"Good idea. Do you suppose that getting closer to that lamp would help?"
"I could try to pull it over towards us." She started to lift herself up, unwilling to leave even the limited warmth that Steele's body provided. "I can reach it, but it might be too heavy to lift one handed."
"Well I certainly can't get any closer to it." He watched her as she leaned out for the lamp. "Mind the handle. It'll be hot."
"Great. So I only have one hand, and I can't use the handle." She tried to get a good grip on the base, but the lamp was the kind built to withstand rough handling, and proved too heavy to move easily. Leaning at a very awkward angle, wishing fervently that she could use her left hand to help the operation, she paused just as success seemed within her grasp.
"Did you hear that?" She wasn't sure herself what she thought that she had heard, but she was certain that a noise of some kind had filtered through the wall. A noise from the first cellar room perhaps - the one with the stairs, and the nice door that led to the nice rest of the house. And Murphy.
"Hear what?" He leaned forward, straining his own ears, but succeeded only in causing a clatter of handcuff against pipe. Laura shushed him, waving a hand in urgent patterns.
"Quiet. There's somebody out there, I'm sure there is."
"Then surely we should be making a noise, not keeping quiet. We should be calling for help, or cheering on our rescuers."
"They might not be rescuers." Her voice was an urgent whisper, but when he responded to it Steele's own voice was just the same as it always was; the same volume, the same clarity, and the same edge of veiled amusement.
"Miss Holt, if it's the killer then there's really no point in keeping quiet. He already knows that we're here."
"Yes. I suppose so." Her eyes darted about the room, but she had no way of knowing in which direction the door lay. It was impossible to see it in the darkness, and she had lost all idea of direction when she had passed out, and been moved to her current position. "If I can lift the lamp, we might be able to use it to overpower him. A good blow from that would knock anybody out."
"Violent, Miss Holt, but probably effective." He edged forward to the limit of the chain on his second set of handcuffs, giving her as much free movement as he could. "Shall we try standing up?"
"There's no need to stand up on our account Mr Steele." The slightly querulous voice of Emily Mortimer was unmistakable, and even more so in this atmosphere of almost complete silence. "You stay sitting down. You'll be far more comfortable."
"Miss Mortimer?" Staring into the darkness Steele could see no more than a vague, indistinct blob, which might have been anything. "Is that you?"
"It's both of us Mr Steele." Charlotte's voice, a little stronger and more decisive than her sister's, echoed flatly through the damp chill. "If you'll wait for just a moment we'll find the light switch."
"I think it's near the doorframe, Charlotte."
"Yes dear, I think you're right." There was a second of inactivity, followed by a scraping and scuffling as the two old ladies felt about for their goal. Moments later bright, warm light flooded the room. Laura gasped, blinking furiously.
"Ow. Bright." She squinted at the two new arrivals, both of whom now seemed distinctly blurry to her over-compensating eyes. "I thought you said that the lights didn't work?"
"We lied, dear." Charlotte's voice was utterly devoid of apology. "Anyway, it's nice and bright for you now, so I shouldn't bother about it."
"I'm not..." She shook her head. Never mind. "Look, Miss Mortimer... and Miss Mortimer... Do you think that you could go and find Murphy for us? We'd really appreciate it."
"Oh we can't do that dear." Coming closer to them, her steps surprisingly certain even on so uneven a floor, Charlotte looked the pair up and down. "We're terribly sorry about the inconvenience though."
"Oh yes. Very sorry." Emily joined her sister, smiling so sweetly at the imprisoned detectives that they almost found themselves smiling back. "But we're not sure that we can let you go just yet. Your friend Murphy is upstairs somewhere. We told him that you'd gone to fetch the sheriff."
"I don't believe this." Staring from one to the other of the old ladies, Laura shook her head in a combination of anger and disbelief. "I stood up for you. When Mr Steele was theorising that you might be involved in all of this, I told him that he had to be wrong. I'm disappointed."
"Er, Laura? May I suggest not getting the murderers angry?" Rising to his feet, Steele offered both old women a charming smile. "So... What was it? Insurance?"
"Oh we didn't kill those men Mr Steele. We didn't kill any of them." Charlotte made a nondescript gesture with one hand, which seemed to suggest quite a number of people. Laura's eyes followed the hand - and for the first time she saw Steele's 'humps', so impossible to visualise adequately in all the preceding darkness. There was no denying now that they were graves; perfectly dug, carefully filled, graves. The spade was still stuck in the pile of earth beside the freshest of them, the one dug by the mystery man who had confronted Steele and Laura.
"Oh no. We couldn't have done that." Emily gave a little shiver. "Killing all those nice men. It wasn't us at all."
"It was Geoffrey." Speaking as though it were a perfectly normal thing to denounce one's brother as a murderer, Charlotte beamed at the two detectives in her usual kind, slightly confused way. "He's been doing it for some time now."
"Since 1976." Emily was counting on her fingers. "I think."
"Poor dear Mr Finton was first I believe." Charlotte glanced towards her sister. "Do you remember? He was the little one with the moustache and the hairpiece."
"The toy salesman." Emily nodded. "Poached eggs for breakfast if I remember correctly."
"And grapefruit juice. Always grapefruit juice. He wouldn't drink anything else." Charlotte sighed. "And always so polite. When I found him in his bathroom I was so very sad."
"We were going to call the police," continued Emily, her eyes wide with the wonder of the tale. "But then Charlotte noticed that he'd been hit over the back of the head, and that it didn't seem to be an accident. We were alone in the house with Geoffrey at the time you see. Mr Finton was our only guest."
"So we knew it had to be Geoffrey." Charlotte shook her head in obvious woe. "We didn't know what to do."
"After all," put in Emily, "he is our baby brother."
"Although of course he's never been a very nice person. Even as a little boy."
"But we still couldn't tell the police about him, could we." They both fell silent, staring intently at the confounded pair before them. Laura glanced towards Steele, and Steele raised both shoulders in an utterly helpless shrug.
"So you knew that your brother had killed your two guests. The ones that we found?" Trying to put herself in the place of the two old ladies, Laura was forced to give up almost immediately. "But you pretended that you didn't know anything?"
"He always kills them that way, usually when they're asleep, or if they've had some of daddy's recipe and they're all relaxed. It's quite kind really." Her eyes wide and earnest, Charlotte sounded as though she was desperately trying to defend her brother's actions. "He only does it because he doesn't want them getting in the way. They like it here you see, and sometimes they say that they're not going to leave. Geoffrey doesn't like that, and it makes him upset."
"So he puts them out of the way." Emily pointed at the graves, so many neatly arranged humps in the ground. "That way they get their wish, and never leave, but Geoffrey can be sure that it'll always be just the three of us living here."
"And you've stood by and let this happen for six years?" Laura struggled to gain control over her anger and exasperation. "And now you're going to let him do the same thing to us?"
"Oh he's not going to kill you dear." Charlotte's smile was as kind as ever. "He can't."
"So you're going to do it instead." Steele would have folded his arms if he could, and done his best to look resolute. "I'm not drinking any of your special recipe."
"Oh don't worry dear. We aren't going to kill you. And besides, we never bring the recipe down into the cellar. All this cold and damp is bad for it. Makes it taste sour." Charlotte seemed to have switched to an almost businesslike mode, although her voice, bordering on querulous, didn't sound especially convincing.
"We did tie you up though." Emily sounded almost shy, a nervous giggle caught somewhere between the embarrassment and the strange honesty of the admission. "We turned the gas on too."
"You did that?" Laura was beginning to feel as though she was still unconscious, and all of this was part of some weird dream. These two sweet, charming old ladies had clearly followed them down into the cellar, and then presumably had knocked the pair of them out to prevent them discovering Geoffrey going about his warped business. Except that now they knew about it anyway, which didn't bode well.
"Of course we did that." Charlotte positively beamed with pride. "Well we had to do something, didn't we. You would insist on coming down here. We tried everything we could think of to dissuade you, without getting unpleasant, but you would still come. We thought it would be alright if Geoffrey was in bed, and that you probably wouldn't notice anything. We didn't realise that he was down here until we went to his room. Daddy had the gas installed, you know. As part of his rather wonderful burglar alarm."
"We had to use it, to give us time to think. To stop Geoffrey from killing you, or you from getting away and telling somebody. It's all very well when he kills people that nobody will come looking for, but there's no telling how many friends and relations all you youngsters have back in the city." Emily was shaking her head, illustrating with every inch of her body just how awkward the whole situation had become. "So we had to stop everything, just for a little while, until we had a chance to decide what was to be done. I don't suppose you'd be willing just to stay here?"
"Not in the slightest, no." Steele forced a polite smile. "And I find myself wanting to less and less all the while."
"Well of course you don't want to stay, Mr Steele." Missing the sarcasm completely, Charlotte simply smiled at him much the way an indulgent aunt might look at a nephew. "You've got your homes and your agency to get back to. You don't belong here with our other guests."
"Which is why we couldn't let Geoffrey put you down here with them all. Not permanently. So we turned on the gas and got all three of you." Charlotte looked a little embarrassed, as though she was terribly ashamed for having done such a thing to her brother. Her voice dropped a few decibels. "I don't think he was terribly happy."
"Well he wouldn't be dear, would he." Emily shook her head, clearly now touching on a subject that was a source of some contention between the sisters. "You've put him in the place that he was getting ready for Mr Tuttenham, and now there's nobody left to fix another place for him. We can hardly put them in together, can we. They didn't even get along particularly well." She scowled. "And he doesn't seem to have prepared anything for Mr Petersfield, so we'll have to do that; and imagine us having to carry him and Mr Tuttenham down here all on our own."
"Um..." Laura held up a hand, anxious to interject a question into this flustered exchange. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"What are they saying Miss Holt?" Steele was looking at her in the expectant fashion he usually had when he assumed that she had all the answers. She might have glared, had she not been quite so focussed upon the sisters.
"Ladies... Have you killed Geoffrey?"
"Killed him?" Charlotte sounded horrified. "Oh good gracious me no. No, not at all."
"No, we just hit him with his spade so that he wouldn't wake up." Emily pulled the spade out of the pile of earth, indicating the copious red stains on the flat of the blade. "We didn't kill him."
"He's probably dead by now though." Charlotte peered into the open grave, the contents of which were hidden to Laura and Steele by the depth of the hole, as well as by the pile of earth beside it. "It's terribly sad, but we had to do something. He can't carry on killing people now that somebody knows about it. It would cause all kinds of trouble."
"Indeed." Steele put up a hand to run it through his hair, and discovered that he couldn't lift either arm that high. It perplexed him for a moment, but he didn't spare the time to think about it. "You said that you didn't kill him, but you admit that you caused his death? Judges tend not to make much of a distinction between those two acts. Both sound rather like homicide."
"Judges?" Emily looked pale. "Charlotte dear, they won't make us talk to any judges, will they? Or lawyers? We haven't really done anything wrong."
"Covering up numerous homicides, murder, kidnap... I wouldn't say that's doing nothing wrong." Laura couldn't quite bring herself to use the sharp tone of voice that she might have turned on somebody else. Somehow these two little old ladies, despite all their admissions, still seemed terribly sweet and affectionate. She kept expecting one of them to offer her some home-made shortbread and a glass of milk. They looked like the sort to do that. "You have to have a look at Geoffrey. See if he's still breathing."
"He isn't." Emily was frowning down at the body within the grave. "I can see him very well, and he isn't moving at all."
"But then your eyesight isn't really the best in the world, is it." Charlotte also bent over the hole, looking rather more closely than she had done before. "Oh, but I think you're right you know. He isn't breathing, is he."
"You have to call the police." The sight of the two aged sisters behaving in so unbalanced a fashion was disturbing Laura greatly. Clearly the pair of them belonged somewhere safe; and certainly nowhere where they could have unsuspecting guests at their mercy. "Let us go, and we'll handle everything. You probably wouldn't need to talk to any judges or lawyers."
"Daddy didn't like lawyers," Emily told her, her tone confiding. "He said that they were snakes, and that we weren't to have anything to do with them."
"And I'm certain that he knew what he was talking about." Laura was trying to stay calm and patient, despite wanting to shout at them both. "Which is why you have to let us go. We can make sure that you don't have to meet any lawyers."
"We can't let you go, Miss Holt. Not yet." Charlotte's voice had dropped to a whisper that was horribly similar to that used by Geoffrey earlier on. "We can't let you loose with everything that you know. And where would you go, in this weather? No, we're going to have to think this through properly. You'll have to stay here until the snow stops anyway.
"But that could be days! And what about Murphy and Bernice?" Laura glanced towards Steele, silently demanding that he join her in trying to make the sisters see sense. "If you let us go now, we can talk to the authorities. We can sort everything out for you here. You do see that you need help, don't you?"
"Well..." Charlotte was looking doubtful, but Emily nodded enthusiastically.
"Of course we need help, Charlotte dear. And Mr Steele looks quite strong don't you think? Only we must have somebody to dig another pair of holes, and then carry Mr Petersfield and Mr Tuttenham down here, mustn't we. They'll be getting terribly cold and lonely upstairs, and I'm sure Mr Michaels means well, but he will keep looking at them, and hoping that they're going to give him a clue. I don't think that they enjoy that very much."
"Well then it's settled." Steele's broad grin was undoubtedly the very same one that he had once used to con very rich ladies out of very expensive jewels, and it seemed to have no less an impressive effect on the two old women witnessing it now. "I'd be happy to help you two very charming ladies to finish off your work here. After all, those two gentlemen have been kept waiting for a long time now. If I was to dig a nice pair of holes, perhaps we could have some kind of a service? Do you happen to know what religion either of them followed?"
"Oh Mr Steele!" Emily sounded delighted. "Would you really help us?
"I'd be delighted ladies." Using his best and most honest smile, he inclined his head in the politest of gestures. "Miss Holt used to sing, you know. Perhaps she could lead us in a few hymns, if you think that would be appropriate?"
"Oh Mr Steele!" Clapping her hands in a veritable fit of excitement, Emily was practically bouncing up and down. "Oh that would be wonderful. Wouldn't it Charlotte? Oh I can't wait. I must just pop upstairs and see if I can find daddy's hymn and prayer book." She froze in mid scurry towards the door. "You do think it's a lovely idea, don't you Charlotte?"
"Yes dear." Charlotte seemed to be wiping a tear away from the corner of her eye. "And perhaps, Mr Steele, if you wouldn't mind, you can think of a few appropriate words to say over poor Geoffrey? He needs something poor dear."
"Yes. Yes of course." Wondering just what exactly would be an appropriate thing to say given the circumstances, Steele didn't let his smile waver. "Happy to ladies. Happy to."
"Er, Mr Steele..." Clearly Laura wasn't so happy, but he didn't give her time to voice her concerns.
"Don't forget the key to these handcuffs though ladies, if I'm to dig those extra graves."
"Not graves, Mr Steele." Charlotte's eyes narrowed, and her voice suddenly took on a scolding quality. "Resting places. Like beds."
"And always lined with cushions." Still hovering about in the doorway, Emily was looking terribly earnest again. It didn't quite look right, with her naturally cheery face, but something in the eyes warned both detectives that she was being extremely serious. "Silk ones, with tassels."
"And a feather pillow each." Charlotte wagged a finger at Steele. "You can't just dig any old hole you know."
"Certainly not." He drew himself up into as impressive a figure as it was possible to be whilst tied up. "I was considered an expert digger of all kinds of holes in my youth. I once dug the final resting place of the beloved young wife of an extremely important French policeman. There was velvet in that one as I recall, and fresh flowers."
"Oh that sounds lovely." Emily was all smiles again. "I'll go and find that book now. You wait here Mr Steele."
"Naturally." He managed not to sound too sarcastic, although Laura couldn't imagine how. Charlotte frowned at them both for a moment.
"And I shall get the keys." She sounded almost reluctant, as though, somewhere deep inside, some slightly less confused part of her distrusted them immensely. "You will see that our two gentlemen get a good service, won't you?"
"The best, Miss Mortimer." His expression and voice were one hundred percent sincere, and after a moment's further hesitation, she nodded and scurried out. Steele breathed a sigh of relief.
"What exactly was that all about?" Apparently either extremely annoyed or extremely exasperated, Laura was glaring at Steele. He was used to that, however, and allowed her nothing more in response than his usual charming smile. "You're going to dig graves for them? Say prayers over their murdered guests? Help them to conceal the murder of their brother?"
"I didn't say that."
"And you're a hole connoisseur too now? Policemen's wives? You honestly expected them to believe that?"
"They did believe it." He smiled again, and she saw then that he had been telling the sisters a truth of sorts. "I only need them to take off these handcuffs, Laura. After that we'll have the upper hand again. A quick message to the outside world and all of this will be somebody else's problem. When I promised to get Tuttenfield and Petersham buried decently, I meant it. Anonymous graves in forgotten places are the sort of thing a man like me spends his life trying to avoid."
"Oh." She was still annoyed, but with the situation now more than with him. "So while you're digging holes and saying prayers..."
"Hopefully somebody else will be tipping the sheriff the wink. You, or possibly Murphy. I can't see those two sweet little old ladies carrying the bodies down on their own, can you?"
"No." His reasoning was impressive, she had to hand him that. Infuriating though he might be, he really did hit the nail on the head every once in a while. "All the same, they're not fools. They're not going to let us just walk out the door." Something returned to her mind. "Especially not me. You've got me singing hymns, remember? I don't even know any."
"Everybody knows some, Miss Holt. They might not be quite the thing for a funeral, but you're sure to come up with something."
"I know a few Christmas carols." She shrugged. "It's almost nearly the right time of the year."
"Why not? Everybody likes Christmas."
"So they say." A sound from somewhere above them distracted her, and she stared up at the ceiling as though she might be able to see through it to the floor above. "I should apologise I suppose. While we've got a few minutes alone."
"For what exactly?" He couldn't think of anything immediate, but she seemed to think it was important. She flashed him a faintly embarrassed look.
"You know. You were trying to tell me that Emily and Charlotte were up to something, and I wouldn't listen. They seemed so sweet."
"You weren't entirely wrong." He used their connecting cuff to pull her closer for a brief hug. "I thought they were the killers remember."
"Yes, but I'm used to you accusing the wrong people. That doesn't mean I shouldn't listen to you though. It's your suspicions and film allusions that very often point me in the right direction."
"I wish you'd tell Murphy that. He might start taking me seriously then."
"Oh Murphy takes you seriously alright." She smiled up at him. "Very seriously. You know what he thinks of you."
"Yes." Steele didn't seem particularly bothered by that fact, but then presumably had been thought worse of by others in the past. "Murphy thinks that I'm slightly less trustworthy than Dick Dastardly on a particularly dastardly day." He shrugged. "But who cares what Murphy thinks?"
"I do." He was still holding her close, in a half hug that was disturbingly enjoyable. "He's my best friend."
"But he's a lousy judge of character." He was pulling her more tightly against him, and she found that she couldn't help responding. He was warm and relaxing and it was so very hard to resist... She managed to get a question out though, her voice sounding almost sleepy as she felt her defences drifting away.
"Really? Are you saying that he's wrong about you?"
"Probably not." There was a wicked laugh behind the voice, but she knew that he wasn't joking. Not entirely. It was very much as though her irrepressible Mr Steele was proud of his own unreliability. Somehow she wasn't surprised, and was even a little amused; enough to let her defences down that little bit further, and rest her head on his shoulder. He smiled.
"We should do this more often."
"No thanks." Her voice sounded as relaxed as she was fast becoming. "I don't like cellars, and I definitely don't like handcuffs. Besides, I can't shake the feeling that we're not entirely alone down here."
"We're not." This time he didn't sound amused, and there was no laugh - wicked or otherwise - hidden in his voice. "There are quite a few people keeping us company."
"You weren't supposed to point that out." A creak on the stairs made her lift her head from his shoulder and glance towards the door. "Oh dear. It looks like the ladies are coming back."
"With their hymn books." He was smirking at her, and she almost felt like hitting him. Instead she simply drew away, straightening her clothes as best she could. It was quite a surprise to realise that she missed his embrace, and she found herself almost wishing that she could sink back into it once again.
"Mr Steele." Emily came down the stairs first, laden with cushions, her eyes shining with an excitement that was almost endearing. "We've found daddy's old prayer book, from when he was a schoolboy. You don't suppose that it'll be too out of date do you? Only both the dear gentlemen are quite a bit younger than daddy, and they must have been brought up on something very different."
"Although Geoffrey won't mind," added Charlotte, already standing beside her brother's grave, staring down at the bloody corpse within. "He's used to things being a little bit old-fashioned. It's the way we've always been, here."
"I shouldn't think it will matter all that much ladies." Wishing that they'd stop chattering, and just take off the handcuffs, Steele was having to swallow his impatience as best he could. It wasn't easy, especially when dealing with the Mortimer sisters. "Religion is often a little old-fashioned, don't you think? Prayers haven't changed much in the last two hundred years."
"Well if you think so." Emily laid the books down carefully on the nearest of the graves, where they balanced neatly in a pile. There were three of them, all, so far as Steele could see, of the kind made at least a hundred years ago. The edges of the pages looked much as though they had been hand-cut, and the covers were clearly weathered leather, faded and a little cracked down the spine. Old-fashioned indeed, but infinitely at home in this place. "Oh and we checked. Mr Petersfield was a Protestant, and Mr Tuttenham was a Catholic. Do you think that will be a problem?"
"Not at all ladies. We can, er... mix and match perhaps." Laura rolled her eyes, and he sensed her disparaging attitude, but continued unfazed nonetheless. "Now if I could trouble you for the keys to, er..." He held up the wrist that was connected to one of Laura's, and gave the chain a quick rattle; a nice neat sound effect to complete his sentence. Charlotte looked less than keen.
"I don't see why you shouldn't perform the service from over there. We know what you think of us Mr Steele, and it's quite obvious that you and your young associate don't think we're doing the right thing. How do we know that you won't run off and get the police if we take the handcuffs off?" She seemed different somehow; less confused and confusing than she had been before. Clearly the suggestion of a threat to her way of life had brought out a sharper side to her personality; one that was rather more capable of handling the situation than its doddery predecessor.
"How will we dig the holes if we're tied up over here?" Losing patience even more rapidly than Steele, Laura managed to remain polite only by the skin of her teeth. "We really do want to help you, ladies. I know we didn't seem like it at first, and weren't sure then, but we've had time to think about it since. We were discussing it when you were upstairs, and we've agreed now that what you're doing is... is lovely. You obviously care about your guests, and to want to give them such a beautiful send-off... well we just want to be a part of that. Don't we Mr Steele."
"Absolutely Laura. Couldn't have put it better myself." He gestured about at the many graves, nearly pulling Laura's arm out of its socket in the process. "You see ladies, these people down here, safely and securely and loving restored to the soil by your good selves... they have something that most other people in the world don't have. Attention. Care. Respect. Nobody will ever desecrate their graves, or stand disrespectfully on their heads... No picnicking children will drop litter on top of them. No bad weather will risk flooding them, and washing them away... And then there's the cushions. What cemetery boasts silk and satin, or feather pillows? None that I know of, unless you're willing to pay a small fortune. We respect you ladies. Really."
"Oh Mr Steele." Emily was bright red with embarrassment and pleasure, and even Charlotte seemed impressed by his words. Her tight little smile peaked before becoming a grin, but the light in her eyes was unmistakable. She nodded.
"Very well Mr Steele. Since you seem so eager." She delved about in her pockets and produced a small silver key, polished to a high shine, which she held up. "But I want your word, Mr Steele. If I take the handcuffs off, you'll help us complete our preparations, and won't try to escape from us."
"I promise..." His mind worked hard, trying to find a way of wording the oath that would let him off the hook without too much guilt later on. "I promise that I'll stay down here and dig the graves, and help you the way you need to be helped, and that I won't try to run for help. He held up his right hand, with much rattling of the thin handcuff chain. "Remington Steele always keeps his word, dear ladies. Always."
"You're so gallant, Mr Steele." Taking the key from her sister, Emily scurried forwards, carefully unlocking the cuff that linked him to Laura. Backing away Laura rubbed her wrist and wisely kept silent. She had been asked to make no such vow, and if she kept out of everybody's way, there was a fair chance that she wouldn't be. Emily meanwhile had freed Steele's other arm, and was showering him with apologies and expressions of gratitude for his assistance. He waved them all away with a magnanimous gesture, and smiled broadly throughout.
"Miss Mortimer, please. Really, it's nothing. A man in my position, respected, wealthy, filled with a measure of well-earned authority, has a certain responsibility to his fellow citizens, and it's always my pleasure to do whatever I can to assist people so clearly in need of my expertise. It's an honour to be a part of this... this absolutely charming little ceremony. Now, where do we begin?"
"By digging a hole for Mr Petersfield." Charlotte handed him Geoffrey's spade, the blade of which was still noticeably marked with the recently demised Mortimer's blood. Steele tried not to wince at that, and managed a smile that was almost entirely faultless.
"And how big should I dig the hole? Perhaps if somebody was to nip upstairs with a tape measure? Miss Holt could--"
"There's no need for that." Charlotte didn't sound suspicious at his suggestion, just proud of her own foresight. "Mr Petersfield is six feet tall exactly, and not terribly broad. A width of three feet should be quite sufficient, and a length of perhaps a few inches spare, just to give room to breathe. Wouldn't you say?"
"Breathing room. Hmm." Steele smiled again, this time with just a little less spontaneity than before. "Fine. Shall we say, then, an even six foot five?"
"That would be perfect, yes." She beamed at him. "And six feet in depth, of course. You look like a good tall sort, so you shouldn't have any trouble getting in and out of a hole that deep."
"I doubt it." He glanced down at the ground, where an empty patch next to Geoffrey's final resting place made an obvious place to start digging. "Then I suppose I'd better get to work, hadn't I."
It was with little real enthusiasm that Steele dug the holes, thinking as he was, all the while, that his time would be much better spent finding a way to alert the authorities. After all there was no certain way of knowing how many people had met their ends at this gruesome little boarding house, for the already filled graves that the cellar boasted might simply be the icing on the cake. There might be other bodies, in the back yard, in a tool shed, or even shored up within the plasterwork in the walls. However many there were, they all needed identifying, and even if they had no families they at least needed reburying where somebody would be able to see them, and spare them a second's thought. As a con-man and penniless drifter Remington Steele had seen anonymous graves before, and had known some of the people who had wound up in them; pauper's graves, unmarked and unmourned; graves that lowly non-citizens were dumped into, when they died broke and alone by the roadside. There had been a time when he had foreseen that as his own likely end - had been times when he had come perilously close to just that, and well knew that he still could - and he had come to see it as no worthy end at all. Not even for these strangers, with their names he might never know, and their faces that he would never see.
Then there were the ladies themselves. They had to be stopped, obviously, for even if they hadn't been responsible directly for the deaths of the guests, certainly they had not tried to stop it. They had played an active part in the death of their brother, and displayed not an ounce of remorse for that. And would they stop killing their guests, now that Geoffrey was no longer around to do it for them? Or would they simply carry on his work if left to do so? He couldn't help thinking that they would very likely do just that, particularly since it seemed more than a possibility that they were planning to kill Laura and himself. They knew too much, and no matter how good an actor he was, he didn't think that he could successfully convince Charlotte that he would remain quiet about all of this. Then there was Murphy upstairs, and Bernice too - quiet at the moment, since they apparently believed that he had Laura were trying to get to the sheriff's. But how long would they believe that, and how long would the sisters allow them to remain upstairs as potential whistle-blowers? It seemed much more likely that, sooner of later, they too would wind up buried in the cellar. Steele wondered if the old ladies themselves would dig the holes then, or if they'd just try for some kind of mass cremation instead. He didn't much fancy being sprinkled about in a cellar, or thrown out with the trash. Even dust and ashes had their pride, after all.
He knew that Laura was watching him, and he knew that she was nervous. Hell, he was nervous, so why wouldn't she be? She wanted to do something to help, probably to take her mind off the awkwardness of the situation. There was something about being trapped by two self-confessed murderers in a cellar full of dead people that tended to give one a desire to stay active. Sitting still in such conditions was well nigh impossible, even for the stoutest of souls. He would have tried a joke, or even an encouraging smile, but he wanted to keep the ladies' attentions away from Laura. She was their best chance, after all; the one who was most likely to be able to slip away. Murphy was hardly likely to wait around for ever, and the last thing they needed was for him to come blundering down here. Old the ladies might have been, confused they might certainly appear; but they didn't seem especially infirm, nor particularly immobile; and he was almost certain that he had seen a shape in the pocket of Charlotte's cardigan that was unlikely to be anything other than a gun. She could shoot down Murphy, or Laura, or Bernice, before any of them had a chance of disarming her, and no matter how much Steele claimed to dislike Murphy, he didn't really want to see the poor fellow shot dead. He might have been a stick-in-the-mud, but he was the agency's very own stick-in-the-mud, and Laura at least was fond of him.
Perhaps it was Steele's disquiet or Laura's; perhaps it was both. Soon enough, though, whatever the reason, the unrest obvious in the atmosphere began to seep into Charlotte's mind, and Steele saw it coming like a huge black cloud looming on the horizon. Emily at least seemed unaffected, still happy as she was about her work. She had taken to sorting through the prayer and hymn books, trying to remember her father's favourite prayers, and choosing a few that seemed to her to be the type Petersfield and Tuttenham would also have liked. She paid no attention to Steele or to Laura, and seemed oblivious to the growing tension in the room. Charlotte, far more grounded in reality than her sister, was beginning to pace, shooting suspicious looks at Steele, at her brother's body, at the cellar door - everywhere from where she thought that there was a danger betrayal might come. Laura found herself watching Geoffrey's grave with some disquiet, wondering if perhaps he wasn't quite as dead as they had all assumed. Nobody had as yet made any definitive check, after all.
"What are you looking at?" Charlotte's voice came as a jolt, and Laura's head snapped around. She had thought at first that the eccentric sister was speaking to Geoffrey, and it was in part a relief to find out that it was actually she who was the focus of attention. She blinked.
"I know what you're thinking." Charlotte's eyes had narrowed. "You think we shouldn't have killed him, don't you."
"Killed who?" Emily sounded bright and cheerful. If she was aware that she had conspired in the murder of her brother, she certainly gave no sign of it. Perhaps she had forgotten.
"Wrong?" There were a million and one answers to that question, but the real one had to remain unsaid. Laura forced a smile. "Not at all. If you hadn't killed him Mr Steele and I would be dead now. I'm, er... well I think you did the right thing. Of course you did."
"Huh." Apparently at least partly mollified, Charlotte gave a picturesque scowl. "Just don't think we killed him just to save you." She looked sulky, as though she had been hoping Laura would give her more of an excuse to argue. "And you'd better sing the hymns nicely too."
"Er... okay." A bit disconcerted by the woman's unpredictability, as well as by the sudden lurch in the conversation, Laura managed a wobbly smile. "Um... how's that hole coming, Mr Steele?"
"Oh, right enough." He was digging with an energy that he rarely displayed in any work that she asked him to do, which led her to wonder if she should try acting deranged every now and again, just to encourage him. "I don't suppose anybody has a tape measure?"
"Oh!" Emily looked up from her prayer book, face flushed bright red with embarrassment. "I was supposed to get that, wasn't I. It was in the dresser drawer you see Mr Steele. Beside the sewing basket and on top of Charlotte's book of knitting patterns." She cocked her head on one side in thought. "Or was it inside the sewing basket, and then that that was was on top of the knitting patterns?"
"Um... I don't know." Steele's innocent blue eyes turned themselves towards Charlotte. "Um... I do really need that tape measure. Now if you'd prefer to stay and make sure I dig the hole properly, and if Emily..." he offered her a quick smile as apology for referring to her in so familiar a manner, and received in reply the most girlish giggle he had heard in years... "would prefer to stay and sort out the details of the funeral service, I'm sure that Miss Holt could do the honours. Up and down in less than five minutes, or..." He couldn't think of an or, and had to shrug. "Well we'll both apologise a lot."
"You think I'm some sort of a fool, don't you." The sudden switch in Charlotte's voice, from its previous sulkiness to its present vitriol, made even Emily flinch. She started to move towards her sister, froze, wavered, then turned back to her prayer book.
"You shouldn't speak to people like that, Charlotte. It's not friendly." She said it in hushed tones, although everybody heard. Charlotte shot her an icy look.
"You know what he's planning, don't you Emily. He's going to tell the sheriff all about us, and when he comes down here he'll take all of our guests away and bury them somewhere else. They don't want to be in some cold, damp graveyard, and we can't let them be taken away. Not by the sheriff, and not by anybody else." She reached into her pocket, struggling to draw the gun that was inside. Clearly it was snagged on the material of her cardigan, but when Laura started to move forwards, Steele signalled to her to remain still. There was no telling whether or not the safety was on, and a gun that was being treated that roughly could go off at any moment. He considered ducking down into the deepening grave, but decided in the end to remain standing.
"Miss Mortimer..." He had no idea what to say to her, and left it at that for the time being. She glared at him, pulling the gun free at last, and pointing it directly at him.
"Shut up. I know what you're thinking, Mr Steele. I know, and don't think that I don't. You think we're just two old ladies, don't you. That we're all mixed up and not too sure what's going on most of the time. Well we're not. We know what we're doing, and we know what you're doing too. And we're not letting you get away with it."
"Hear hear." Emily didn't look as though she had a clue what the conversation was about, but she joined in with it anyway, happy to support her sister. Steele's eye caught Laura's, and registered the fact that neither of them had a clue what to do next.
"Put the gun down Miss Mortimer." Holding the spade up as though he might somehow be able to use it to deflect the bullets, Steele took a single step back. He was perilously close to the edge of the grave now, its black shape yawning beneath him. It was a weird image; a little old lady with a gun, Steele standing in the midst of mounds of earth and waiting cushions, Geoffrey sprawled in gory splendour in a hole nearby. Laura gripped her hymn book until her knuckles went white, and tried desperately to think of something to do next.
"We can't let you tell anybody about this place." Charlotte's voice was frighteningly calm and level. "Our guests belong down here now. They're a part of the house. Permanent residents, just like they wanted. We won't let you interfere with that."
"You really think that what they wanted is to be buried here? It's not exactly the kind of 'permanent residence' that most people are looking for." Even as she was speaking Laura saw the warning glint in Steele's eyes, but wasn't quite prepared to stand back and let him handle this on his own, whatever his plan. Charlotte's eyes flickered towards her, but she kept the gun pointed at Steele.
"You don't understand, Miss Holt." Despite the incongruity she was speaking with great courtesy, her eyes still warm and friendly. Even with the gun she still looked like somebody's sweet little grandmother. "These people are our guests. They've paid rent. We have a responsibility to them."
"They're dead." Somehow it seemed a terribly cruel thing to say, for both sisters seemed to talk of the occupants of the many graves as though they were still alive and well, in some way at least. Steele shot a nervous glance in her direction.
"Er, Laura? Do you mind?"
"Don't tell me you've got a plan." He looked so hopeless, standing there in his ruined clothes, with nothing save a battered spade to defend himself from two mad old women and a gun - and yet he still looked perfectly in command of the situation. For some reason she found that infuriating, which was getting to be a very familiar condition.
"I don't need a plan." He was beaming again, turning the full force of that roguish smile on the delicate looking old lady with her snub-nosed, gleaming black automatic. "Do I Miss Mortimer? We're all friends here."
"Are we?" Emily sounded as though there was nothing in the world that she wanted more. "Oh Charlotte. Did you hear that? If we're all friends we don't really need to kill him. Do we?"
"I don't know." Charlotte's brow was twitching as her thoughts raced. "We are going to have a proper service, aren't we?"
"Naturally." He was all smiles, all affability and acquiescence.
"And you're not trying to trick us?"
"Do I look like I'm trying to trick you?" He didn't look at Laura now, who was having to fighting her own instincts to intervene. That gun could go off at any second, and she knew that she could easily overpower Charlotte. Steele could throw that spade too; damn it, he could probably just move aside faster than she could try to shoot him. He was just standing there though, taking it with barely a murmur. Not trying to avoid the relentless stare of the gun; not trying to take it away from its determined owner. He was just standing. Was there some film plot that he thought he was following? He had that look about him, like when he was trying to emulate one of his heroes. Standing the way Humphrey Bogart had done, in this film or that, or smiling in his best Cary Grant fashion. That was nothing rare, though, in a man whose very personality seemed sometimes to be made of plasticine. You never knew what circumstances would mould it into next.
"Can we go back to getting things ready?" Emily's voice was almost plaintive. Charlotte turned to look at her, then shrugged her thin shoulders and nodded.
"Of course we can dear. Finish digging, Mr Steele. We have to get all of the cushions right before we can make our gentlemen happy."
"Certainly." He snapped off a quirky little bow, then bent back to the task at hand. It wasn't until she had watched him remove several spades full of earth that Laura realised he was signalling to her; frowning agitatedly every time he bent back down to the growing hole. She frowned back, asking a silent question, and as he tipped a fresh load of soil from the blade, he pointed with the spade handle towards the door. She got the idea. So long as she could avoid being shot, it would be easy to get past the two women. Easy to out run them, and to reach the ground level. Murphy was up there, and together they would be more than a match for any number of deluded old women, no matter how many guns were floating about in the equation. They might even be able to find a gun of their own. Except that that meant leaving Steele behind. Odd though it had seemed to her to take seriously the threat of two such frail looking old sisters as these, Laura had come to realise that they genuinely were dangerous, or could be. They might fumble and stutter, and they might be easily confused, but they had a gun, they had a definite goal, and they were determined not to be foiled. That made them as potentially deadly as any more conventional opponent. Running off and leaving Steele to face that wicked looking little gun just didn't seem conceivable. All the same, though, the two old women were no longer paying her the least bit of attention, and it was clear that she had an excellent opportunity to attempt something. Torn, she began edging her way towards the door.
Nobody saw her as she slipped into the cellar's other main room. Neither Emily nor Charlotte cried out at her departure, and as she reached the steps she heard Steele engaging them both in conversation. It was one of the things that he did so well, charming people so that they were not aware of his true intentions. They were talking about how best to arrange the pillows and cushions in the first of the graves as Laura pushed open the cellar door and emerged into the kitchen. It was warmer there than it had been in the cellar, and felt somehow brighter, even though the light was no more powerful. The thick, drawn curtains prevented her from seeing if morning had come yet, but somehow it felt as if it had - or, if not, that it was not far away.
"Laura!" Murphy, sitting peacefully in the living room, looked up in surprise as she emerged from the kitchen. "I thought you'd gone to look for the sheriff. Couldn't you get through?"
"We never left." She hurried over to him, not wanting to speak loudly unless her voice carried down into the cellar. "We've been downstairs all this time. Steele's still down there with the old ladies."
"The old ladies?" Murphy was frowning. "It was them who told us you'd gone. Are you saying that they lied? That they're mixed up in all of this?"
"I'm afraid so." She shared a quick smile with Bernice, who was looking as though she would like to start drinking 'daddy's recipe' once again. There were several bottles of it amongst the food still standing on the trolleys before the fireplace. No other guest had come forward to join the meal, and Laura couldn't help wondering if there really were any. Just how many people had been in the other rooms when she had her companions had arrived - or, rather, just how many living people had there been? For all she knew they were alone in the house now, and anybody else who might be asleep upstairs might be well beyond any hope of ever waking up.
"You mean You-Know-Who was right? The Mortimer sisters really have been killing off their guests?" Sitting up with a jolt, Bernice gaped back at her. "Those two sweet little old--"
"Those two sweet little old ladies have been helping cover up goodness knows how many murders over the years. It was Geoffrey who was actually doing all of the killing, and they've just killed him. I don't know why exactly, except that they seem to have wanted to make him stop. They had Mr Steele and I tied up down in the cellar, until we agreed to help them finish off their funeral plans for the latest quota of victims. Steele's down there now digging graves." She took Murphy's hand, which made his heart beat a little faster, and his face look almost as red as his hair. She didn't notice of course, for as ever she remained oblivious to his feelings.
"Murphy, listen to me. I don't know how bad the snow still is out there, but you have to get to the sheriff. Somebody has to know about this. The chances are that nobody will believe what's been going on here, but you've got to try."
"No problem." He frowned at her. "But I don't like the idea of leaving you here on your own."
"I'm not on my own. And besides, they're not much of an enemy, are they. Two little old ladies with a gun."
"It doesn't matter if they're two little old ladies or thirty massive prize-fighters, Laura. If they've got a gun they're dangerous."
"They're not. So long as we don't seem to be getting in the way of them having their funeral down there they're not going to do anything. Mr Steele could have broken us both free by now, but I think he's hoping not to have to hurt them. They're obviously a little senile, or just very peculiar."
"Very peculiar." Murphy sighed, frustrated by Laura's obvious determination to stick by a plan that he didn't think very much of. "Look are you sure you want to stay here? There's no telling what two crazy old women are going to do if they think you're trying to get them turned over to the police. They've got Steele right where they want him, and they can keep him there too. If they decide to stay down in that cellar there's very little anybody can do about it."
"It'll be okay Murph." She gave his arm a squeeze. "Now go on. Just get out there and find somebody. Even if you have to tell them that we're the killers and we're holding the Mortimers hostage."
"This is crazy, Laura."
"Probably." She shrugged. "But there's no talking to them, and I don't want to risk getting them angry when they've got that gun pointed at Mr Steele. If you can get the sheriff over here - somebody that they know, and trust - we've got a chance of ending this without anybody having to get hurt. Those two women need careful handing."
"Yeah." He still looked very unimpressed. "All it takes with somebody as nuts as them is the slightest sign of trouble, and they'll flip and shoot anybody they can point that gun at. Laura, I--"
"Just go, Murphy." There was authority in her voice, but mostly just fondness and understanding. "Please? You're the best chance we've got of finishing this quietly."
"Alright." He was shaking his head, clearly preferring the idea of just running down into the cellar and taking the gun away by force. Part of her sympathised with him, but there was a tender side to her nature that didn't want to see the two sweet old women she had come so close to befriending being hurt or upset too much. They needed special handling, and maybe more than a little consideration.
"Thanks Murph." She pushed him towards the door. "Now get on out of here. I have to go back down into the cellar."
"You what? Are you nuts?" He looked as though he was going to change his mind about leaving, but she carried on pressing him towards the door.
"I'm not nuts. Well not very. Listen Murph, they're expecting me to be down there, and pretty soon they're going to notice that I'm not. Steele could get hurt, and--" She broke off. "Murphy, stop looking like you think that's a good idea. You don't really want him murdered."
"Maybe, maybe not." He glanced towards the kitchen, beyond which lay the unpleasant mystery of the cellar. "So you're going back down there for a funeral, huh."
"Yes." She looked rather abashed. "I'm leading the congregation in song. The Mortimer sisters want the full musical experience."
"As they bury their brother." Murphy shook his head. "Who they killed?"
"As they bury their brother and his two victims in graves full of pillows and cushions, in a room that looks like it's fast running out of space to bury anybody else in. It's creepy down there, Murph."
"Then I guess we'd better shut them down." He smiled at her. "I'll get things sorted out, don't worry. Just try to keep things together here."
"I will." She looked towards Bernice, well aware that sending the secretary along with Murphy would only slow things down. There was no way of knowing how deep the snow was, nor how difficult it would be to force a passage through it, and Bernice, no matter how game, was not the type for strenuous physical activity. "You'd better find somewhere to hide."
"Hide?" Her voice showed considerable displeasure. "Laura I may not be trained the way you two are, and I may not have years of dubious experience the way Steele does, but that doesn't make me useless. I might be able to help you."
"Maybe." Laura hesitated. "Okay, but listen. I don't want you down in the cellar, because the more people there are down there, the more chance there is of somebody getting hurt if that gun goes off. Hide somewhere in here, and keep your eyes and ears open. We never got a proper answer about whether or not there are other guests here, and if as much of the night has gone by as I think, there might be people waking up soon. I don't want them walking into any of this."
"Plus there's no telling how innocent they are." With this parting shot Murphy opened the door. Beyond was a wild rage of snow, faintly lit by the first, earliest signs of approaching dawn. It looked terrible; a maelstrom, impenetrable and confusing. Snow gusted in over the threshold, and everybody shivered involuntarily. Even with the fire raging in the hearth, still the place felt frozen from the mere sight of the angry blizzard.
"Anybody got any snow shoes?" Staring out, Murphy took a deep breath, and wondered if he was going to land up to his knees in icy white stuff. Laura handed him his coat, warm now from its long stay in the hot room.
"Thanks." He shrugged it on, wishing that it made more difference. There was a biting wind that had little but contempt for the material of his jacket, and was determined to make him as cold as it possibly could. He pulled the coat close around him, told himself that he wasn't as cold as he thought he was, then turned around and plunged out into the blizzard. He was gone from sight almost immediately, but Laura watched for a few moments anyway. In the end it was Bernice who shut the door.
"If you're going back down into that cellar, you'd better make a move now." Her voice was more serious than usual, and Laura nodded.
"They're only two little old ladies, Bernice. Why do I feel like Steele's down there with the world's most desperate killers?"
"Because there's no way of telling what they're going to do next, I guess." The secretary put a hand on her arm. "Or maybe because you know that they've already killed at least one person, and helped cover up goodness knows how many other deaths. Don't seem to have much conscience, do they."
"They seem so warm, but they must be as cold as ice." Laura almost shivered, then managed a smile. "I'd better get going. Otherwise I'm not going to be there when they want to start singing."
"Rather you than me." A mischievous grin crossed Bernice's face. "Weren't you doing a strip tease the last time you sung in front of an audience? I'm sure I remember hearing something about Acapulco."
"Thanks. I really wanted to be reminded of that right now." She smiled. "Stay out of sight, okay? Somebody will be up before much longer to fetch the bodies."
"Just another day in Hicksville, huh."
"Something like that." She headed back to the kitchen. "If you hear dreadful noises, don't worry too much. It'll only be the singing."
"Right." They shared a smile, then with more than a trace of butterflies in her stomach, Laura pulled the kitchen door closed, and hurried back down the cellar steps. As she reached the floor she could see through into the next room, where Steele, obviously not too hampered after all by the lack of a tape measure, was still digging. Charlotte was still watching him, gun pointed in his direction. Emily was fussing about something, brushing imaginary dust from her all important cushions, and trying to compose a suitable speech to say during the funerals that were to follow. She seemed to have large amounts of the Bible memorised, and was mixing quaint little tales of Geoffrey's youth with memories of the two unfortunate guests, mixing it all in with choice quotes from the New Testament. In her curious, sing-song voice it all sounded very merry, not to mention slightly confused. Laura remembered how that particular jumble had been one of the things that had first made her warm to Emily, and then tried to reconcile the old woman's essential amiability with all that she was mixed up in. It didn't seem to work.
"Ah, Miss Holt." She had only just stepped in through the door when Emily noticed her. "Have you been there long?"
"Yes." She smiled, looking and sounding a little bit distracted. "I was thinking how lovely everything is looking."
"Oh do you really think so?" Delighted, Emily scuttled over. "Which bit do you like best? The cushions? The nice neat edges of the holes? Or how about this?" She pointed to the hole where Geoffrey was lying, neatly arranged upon a woven rug. His head rested on a pillow that looked as though it might have been satin, and somebody had clearly taken some time to wash the blood from his face. A very little had dribbled onto the pillow, but that was all.
"The ladies have done a wonderful job, haven't they Laura?" Up to his neck in the hole that he was digging, Steele was flushed and rather less dapper than she was used to seeing him. His hair stuck up on top, and there was mud on his clothes. Even more shirt buttons were undone than was customary during his less formal moments, and he seemed to be needing a rest. He still had energy enough for a teasing smile, however. "How are the hymns coming along? Chosen anything suitable yet?"
"Um... bit stuck actually." She glanced back at Charlotte, who looked as though she was concentrating so hard on Steele that she had now ceased to be able to see him. "Mr Steele, can I--"
"Not now Laura." His eyes narrowed in a definite warning, and she followed the direction of his gaze. Charlotte was frowning at them, the gun still aimed without a waver, her face now devoid of its familiar geniality. Instead she now looked hard and calculating. For some reason a trail of ice trickled down Laura's spine, and she had to remind herself that she had come to know Charlotte to be only a little less confused than her sister. She was not really all that much of a threat. She couldn't be, not if she was handled properly. She obeyed Steele's call for caution however, and drew back from the grave's crumbling edge.
"I think this one's about finished." Scrambling out of the hole, Steele stood back to allow Emily to examine the grave. She did so with so much excitement that Laura felt a little repulsed. She didn't allow it to show, instead trying to copy the look of cheerful interest displayed by Steele. She wasn't as good an actor as was he, but she thought that she pulled it off fairly well. It was easier, she found, to look happily admiring, whilst thinking about Murphy on his way to find them some help.
"Oh it's wonderful Mr Steele." Gathering up an armful of cushions, Emily handed them around, watching with an air of cheery indulgence as the two detectives arranged them in the hole. Steele placed the last one - a feather-stuffed pillow with what was obviously a hand-stitched cover. Flowers twisted about, and birds and ribbons floated in a non-existent sky. Lace decorated the edges too, and Laura could easily imagine the ages-old woman who must have made the cover, early in the century perhaps, or earlier still.
"Thankyou. It was my pleasure, of course." Straightening up, he turned his attention towards Charlotte, a far more capable audience than the frankly hopeless Emily. "And what do we do next?"
"We make sure that we have everything we need for the service." Charlotte glanced towards the door, obviously thinking about the bodies waiting upstairs; the second on a sofa in the living room, and the first still ensconced in Bernice's bed. As far as she knew there was Murphy Michaels between her and her late guests, and presumably the last thing that she wanted was to have to explain matters to him, or add another awkward prisoner to the collection she already had. "You'd make a better impression if you had something to change into, Mr Steele, but I'm afraid that daddy's Sunday best is in pieces now, and Geoffrey's would never fit you." Tutting like a scandalised mother, she made an attempt at straightening his clothing, managing all the while to look both prim and threatening. "You're obviously an educated man, so I'm assuming that you know all the right things to say. You do know your Bible?"
"Um..." Having spent almost no time at all in formal education, and less time still in church whilst growing up, Steele was suddenly at something of a loss; but he had impersonated a priest once or twice in the past, and knew enough to make it appear that he knew a good deal more. Such an ability; a talent for feigning expertise in many fields; was all a part of producing a good con. "Yes. Okay." He acted with such decisiveness that even Laura began to think he knew what he was doing. "It seems to me, Miss Mortimer, that the best place to begin would be to fetch your brother's two... companions... and see that they're made comfortable in their... resting places."
"Oh yes." Laura nodded, horribly conscious that she had sounded rather like Emily in jumping in with such effusive signs of agreement. "We have to make sure that the cushions aren't too lumpy... or that they're not allergic to pillows."
"Allergic to...?" Steele winced, before adding in a whisper that Laura barely caught, "Don't let's get too carried away, hey Miss Holt?"
"Well how was I supposed to know that dealing with the mad, bad and dangerous was another of your weird talents?" She wondered why it was taking Charlotte and Emily so long to answer their suggestion, and hoped that they were not listening in too closely. "Mad old women aren't exactly my forte."
"Well let's hope funeral hymns are, hey?" He smiled, offering her a quick pat on the hand that might have made her angry at any other time. "Where do you suppose Murphy is?"
"I don't know. The weather is pretty bad out there. I don't think he can have got very far."
"Maybe he won't have to. The next house is only at the other end of the street."
"Yes, but there's no telling whether there's anybody there, or if they'll be willing to direct him to the sheriff, or if they'll even listen to him. And when he does find the sheriff he's going to have his work cut out making any of this sound like the truth. Would you believe it?"
"If I'd known these two for any length of time?" He shook his head. "Of course I wouldn't. We just have to hope that somebody will come over here anyway, just to check up on things. The weather is against us, but it's the best we can hope for. I'm not happy about trying anything while Charlotte's got that gun. It could go off, and with walls like these the ricochet could kill any one of us."
"What are you two whispering about?" Emily, sounding as though she wanted very much to be let in on the big secret, came scurrying up with a big grin making lights dance in the centres of her eyes. Laura smiled back, wishing that she knew just how aware the old woman was of everything she and her sister had done.
"We were talking about the hymns, Miss Mortimer. Mr Steele thinks that a traditional theme would be best, but I thought that your guests might prefer something more modern. It's all the rage at the moment."
"Really?" Emily seemed intrigued at first, then shrugged her thin shoulders. "Well I don't know. I'm not very good at decisions. Charlotte has just made one though."
"Really?" Both detectives looked up, staring at the second sister. She was watching them, her eyes suspicious and flickery, like those of somebody in the grip of an unhealthy measure of paranoia. She smiled her thin little smile, the innocence and friendliness that had been so much a part of her character before their discovery in the cellar returning to her in an infectious, warm glow.
"Yes, I have. I've decided that you're right, and we will have to bring our gentlemen down here. Do you suppose your friend Mr Murphy will help?"
"Er, probably not." Laura frowned, trying to look terribly serious and genuine. "He's awfully squeamish I'm afraid. Can't stand the sight of dead bodies. Odd problem for somebody in our line of work of course, but we try to get by as best we can. I'd be happy to help though."
"She's very strong," piped up Steele, perhaps a little over-enthusiastically. "Works out. Weights, you know. Very health conscious."
"Indeed." Frowning from one to the other of them, Charlotte at last gave the most reluctant of nods. "Then we'll all go upstairs. If your friends ask, you've just returned from the sheriff's house, but he's told you you're not to do any more investigating until the snow's stopped, when he can... can do his sheriffing properly. I won't have any more of you than is necessary tramping around down here asking questions, keeping everybody awake. Is that understood?"
"Perfectly." Laura hoped that Bernice had made herself scarce, half afraid that they might all wind up becoming permanent residents in this most peculiar of boarding houses. She couldn't help thinking that the sisters wouldn't be too opposed to doing anything to stop their dead guests from being moved elsewhere. Maybe Murphy had reached somewhere sane by now, and - provided he hadn't been arrested and locked up for telling ridiculous stories - was already bringing help back to them, in the shape of a handful of reassuringly burly deputies.
"We can trust them, Charlotte." Taking Steele's arm in her own, Emily beamed up at him. She felt so tiny and fragile beside him that he could almost have imagined she was a small child, or perhaps a porcelain doll. As soon as she began pulling him however, eager to get up the steps so that the funeral could be hurried along, she showed her true strength. Fragile she clearly wasn't. Perhaps it had even been she who had dealt Geoffrey the killing blow. Certainly she seemed strong enough.
"You're too trusting Emily." Charlotte was smiling again though, her previous self coming back out to greet them. She seemed sunny and friendly once again, just as when they had first arrived to register at the establishment. "Well if we must be going, I suppose we must be going. Come along. Don't dawdle."
"We're right behind you." Smiling and nodding and generally acting as easy-going and pleasant as he could, Steele followed her back to the steps. Emily was clinging to his arm with the tense and rigid grip of an over-excited child, giggling to herself every so often. Behind them came Laura, her usual calm detachment restored, her eyes seeing everything. He only knew that she was nervous because it was a feeling that they shared.
There was no sign of Bernice in the living room - just of Tuttenham, lying on the sofa where they had left him. Rigor mortis, encouraged perhaps by the warmth of the room, had taken a strong hold, and his body lay stiff and uncooperative. Steele tried to manoeuvre the rigid form around, hoping to get a better grip, but was left with Tuttenham's dead weight threatening to topple him. Laura tried to lend her assistance, but with negligible effect.
"I thought you two were professionals." Charlotte was looking distinctly unimpressed, although Emily still seemed in very high spirits. She was clearly finding everything very funny, but Laura was in no mood to extend the hilarities further.
"Maybe we'd better begin with Mr Petersfield." She was heading towards the stairs before anybody could suggest something different, and Charlotte and Emily scampered after her like a pair of excited puppies. Steele followed on at a more leisurely pace, looking around for Bernice as he went. He spied her in the end, peering out from behind one of the food carts, watching the proceedings with the expression of somebody who wasn't sure whether to be afraid or amused. She slid out of sight when she realised that his eyes were upon her, and trusting her to remain that way, he turned his back and pursued the others.
Petersfield was still lying upon Bernice's bed, where Geoffrey had no doubt hidden him after realising that his first resting place had been discovered. Clearly he had not known that the second room had also been rented out that night, but had been hoping that it would remain empty until after he was able to get the grave dug in the cellar. Such determined secrecy rather suggested that he had not been nearly as addled as his sisters, and that he had possibly known all along what he was doing. It made no difference now of course, since he would not be able to make an insanity plea. Somehow, though, it was not terribly reassuring to think of him lying down in the cellar, as dead as his various victims, his head all but stoven in by his sisters.
"He's a bit more pliable." Taking Petersfield by his shoulders, Steele heaved him into a sitting position. Laura raised her eyebrows.
"Go on with you Laura. You're a natural at this sort of thing." Trying to hoist the dead body onto his shoulder, Steele was forced to give up when it proved impossible to lift the man high enough. "Here, take his feet."
"You really can't imagine how much I hate this." She took the dead feet, encased as they were in a pair of faded brown brogues. "And I can't say that I think much of his taste in socks."
"Maybe it was his lack of sartorial splendour that got him killed." Steele managed to get his arms under Petersfield's shoulders, and together they lifted the body from the bed. Emily immediately got in the way, trying to straighten the man's clothes, and tidy his hair. Laura almost tripped over her.
"Get out of the way Emily." Charlotte, hanging back by the door, made a grab for her sister, ushering her out of the path of the suddenly back-pedalling Laura. Both old ladies shouted a string of useless directions to the detective, now trying helplessly to see over her shoulder as she stumbled towards the door. She ignored them both in the end, and promptly walked into the doorframe.
"Come on Laura. We've carried dead men before." Valiantly struggling to continue, Steele manoeuvred around so that he was the one walking backwards, leading the way blindly towards the stairs. Emily was still getting in the way, offering tips on the best way to negotiate the steps, and Laura bit back a sharp response that might well have got both her and Steele shot to death by the irascible Charlotte. That particular lady was at least keeping out of the way right now, and followed on quietly enough when they finally began to stumble in unison down the awkwardly shaped staircase.
"Perhaps you were right, Miss Holt. I can't honestly say that I'm enjoying myself all that much." Dumping his end of the dead body onto a chair near Tuttenham's settee, Steele pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket, and used it to dab ineffectually at his forehead. Laura nodded in rather breathless sympathy.
"Don't look too defeated just yet though Mr Steele. We still have to get them down into the cellar."
"Yes, I know." He eyed the two bodies without enthusiasm. "One each, or shall we go halves?"
"Let's just get this over and done with as soon as possible shall we?" Grabbing Petersfield under his arms, Laura heaved him up as best she could. "One each."
"Fine by me." He helped her to lift the body up, positioning it a little more comfortably over a shoulder, in something approaching a fireman's lift. She looked decidedly clumsy and uncomfortable, but seemed able to stagger along fairly competently. "I'll follow you down then."
"I'd appreciate that." She continued on her wobbly path to the kitchen, Emily wandering after her, her excited demeanour entirely unruffled. Charlotte quirked an eyebrow.
"Well, Mr Steele?"
"Well?" He didn't catch her meaning at first, then realised that she was undoubtedly referring to Tuttenham. "Oh. Right."
"We shouldn't waste any more time." Charlotte was looking so very like one of the many disapproving school teachers he remembered from his very early youth that he wasn't sure whether to be intimidated or amused. "I've no idea how long Mr Tuttenham has been waiting."
"Some time by the look of him." Starting to hoist the body upwards, Steele was momentarily flummoxed by the problem of lifting the rigid form. The large man's legs stuck straight out, and although his arms were stuck firmly at his sides, his height was enough to cause serious problems on its own. Charlotte seemed to find his struggles amusing, however, and he was sure that he heard her give a girlish giggle as he fought to lift the dead man into his arms.
"You could help me you know." He made it in the end, carrying the uncooperative form in his arms, the way he might carry a baby or a lover. It meant the risk of overbalancing, but was easier than trying to carry him on a shoulder, like a ladder or a plank of wood.
"No I can't." She was acting up, he was sure of it. "I'm an old woman, Mr Steele. I can't carry heavy loads about the place."
"Naturally." He rolled his eyes, staggering on his way, only realising when he encountered the kitchen door that perhaps it hadn't been so sensible to carry Tuttenham that way after all. The dead man's shoulders and knees connected heavily with the doorframe, and Charlotte shrieked in protest.
"Carefully Mr Steele! He's a guest!"
"I'm being careful!" Steele, whose own fingers had suffered almost as badly as Tuttenham's decidedly unfeeling arms and legs, swallowed his irritation and began trying to manoeuvre his load past the obstacle. Charlotte offered a few unhelpful tips, most of which resulted in Steele's fingers and elbows knocking against the doorframe even more. It was a relief when the doorbell chimed out, bringing an end to the aggravating monologue - even though the suddenness of the noise almost caused Steele to drop Tuttenham on the kitchen floor.
"Who could that be?" Charlotte didn't answer his question, which was hardly surprising given that she had no way of knowing who was at the door. "Are you expecting anybody?"
"In this blizzard?" She hurried over to the front door, straightening her clothes and neatening her appearance as she went. "Stay out of sight, and make sure that the others do as well. I won't have any outsiders coming in here trying to steal my guests."
"Right." He stumbled his way through the kitchen door, pausing to steady Tuttenham on the large table that stood in the middle of the room. The big, ungainly form slipped, sending a large metal serving platter clattering onto the floor. Steele almost followed it.
"Hello." The voice was male, ageing and extremely respectful, and Steele could hear it clearly. He heard Charlotte's surprised squeak too, and the little cry of welcome that she gave to Murphy. The exhausted con-man didn't think he would ever be so glad to hear his rival's name again.
"Murphy!" His voice was no more than a whisper, but it carried infinite measures of gratitude and relief. Clearly he had made it through, and was perhaps even now accompanied by the local officers of law. Five minutes, or ten perhaps, and they would be taking the Mortimer sisters away.
"Miss Mortimer." Murphy sounded polite but strained. "I'd like to speak to my friends if I could please."
"Your friends?" Charlotte sounded so innocent that Steele was almost impressed. As a man who had long ago learnt to value skilled dishonesty he could appreciate this woman's abilities. "Oh I'm sorry Mr Michaels, but they're all asleep. I don't really like the idea of disturbing them, especially after all the hard walking you had last night. I'm surprised to see you out and about."
"Mr Michaels has made some serious allegations, Miss Mortimer." The respectful voice was filled with a level of apology that Steele found ominous. "We'd like to come in and have a look around."
"Oh." Charlotte's frown was practically audible. "I don't know, Sheriff. It's so very early, and we have guests who are trying to sleep."
"I understand that." The sheriff's voice was firm. "But we have to investigate the claims that this gentleman has made. Is your sister available?"
"Yes, I suppose so." Charlotte offered her guests a strained smile, then gestured at the chairs and settees that filled the eccentric living room. "Sit down, make yourselves at home. There's plenty of food and drink if you're feeling hungry."
"So I see. Been having some kind of party?" The sheriff, obviously embarrassed, was doing his best to remain on good terms with the old lady. Charlotte shook her head.
"Not really, no. Just late arrivals, hungry people. We like to do what we can for our guests, Sheriff. I like to think that we have something of a reputation to keep."
"Absolutely." Beaming brightly, the sheriff headed for a nearby chair, glaring at Murphy as he passed. Feeling a little hurt, Murphy frowned in reply.
"Hey! What have I done?"
"You know damn well what you've done. You're going to pay for this, Mr Michaels. Guest in town or not, you can't go saying this kind of thing about respected citizens, and expect to get away with it. Even if all you get is a fine, I'll make sure it's a big one."
"I'm not making up stories, Sheriff." Watching Charlotte as she headed into the kitchen, Murphy wondered how she managed to keep it together, as impressed by her cool performance as was Steele. Perhaps she really did feel that her conscience was clear, which in itself was enough to make his skin crawl. The sheriff, unburdened by little things like knowledge, merely harrumphed, and muttered about minimum sentences for wasting police time.
In the kitchen Charlotte didn't bother speaking to Steele, ignoring him completely as she hurried to the cellar steps. She called down to Emily as though she were asking her if she would like a cup of tea; with that same, easy brightness to her tone that she had used to welcome the agency members into the house in the first place. Moments later her sister appeared in the doorway.
"Yes?" Her eyes were rounded with innocence, her expression suggesting eagerness to please. Charlotte hushed her.
"The sheriff is here. It seems that Murphy Michaels went to fetch him." Here she shot Steele a look so accusing that he found himself feeling almost guilty. "Somebody obviously told him what we do here."
"Well what do we do now?" Emily's eyes were wider than ever. "They won't try to take our guests away, will they Charlotte? I should hate that. Some of them have been here so long now, and we were just about to have such a lovely service."
"If I may make a suggestion ladies?" Still struggling to balance Tuttenham, Steele tried to speak up, but Charlotte glared him into silence.
"You be quiet." Her voice screamed of hurt at his apparent betrayal. "I think you've said enough, don't you?"
"It wasn't me that--" He broke off, seeing that neither woman was going to listen to him. "Fine. Go back out there. Tell them that they've made a mistake. They'll ask to look around though. These people always do."
"Then... then we won't let them." Folding her arms as though to prove how capable she was of standing firm, Charlotte headed back to the kitchen door. "And you get Mr Tuttenham down into that cellar, Mr Steele, or..." She frowned, clearly lost for a suitable threat. "Or I shan't be pleased to have you here as my guest any longer. Understood?"
"Understood." He hefted the body back up into his arms, not noticing when one of the stiff feet caught on the handle of a sizeable kettle. "I should hate to be barred from returning to this charming establishment." Sarcasm, despite his best attempts to restrain it, dripped from every syllable. Emily looked delighted though, and grinned hugely at her sister.
"He thinks we're charming. Did you hear?"
"Of course he thinks we're charming, dear. This is the best boarding house this side of the coast." Straightening her clothing once again, and giving her hands a quick wipe on a cloth, Charlotte gestured towards the door. "Now come along. We have to speak to the sheriff."
"Oh yes. Of course." Looking nervous, Emily followed her sister out into the living room. Steele watched them go, pondering the possible repercussions were he to follow, and tell all that he knew. He remembered the gun in Charlotte's position, however, and wondered what she might do if she were cornered. Certainly she could be shot down or overpowered easily enough by a sheriff and his companions, but there was too much of a risk that somebody else would get hurt before that happened. Steele found himself disliking the idea of seeing Murphy's bullet-riddled body almost as much as he disliked the idea of becoming a bullet-riddled body himself.
"Miss Mortimer... and Miss Mortimer." The sheriff's voice again carried to the kitchen, and Steele listened without any feelings of great encouragement. Whoever this sheriff was, he had obviously made up his mind long before he had agreed to follow Murphy back to the boarding house. "I hope you don't mind us coming here at this inconvenient time."
"Not at all Sheriff." Charlotte beamed at him as though he were a long lost relative returned to be with her. "Can I get you a drink?"
"Er... not now, ma'am." He smiled at her, apology bright in his eyes. "Perhaps you'd better sit down though, ladies. This young man has come to me with some rather disturbing allegations, and it might be distressing for you to hear them."
"Hardly." Although keeping his voice very low, Steele couldn't resist the rejoinder. He could see the sequence of events unfolding fast now - the Mortimer sisters showing shock at the tale Murphy had told to the sheriff; the sheriff departing, taking Murphy along as well to spend a night in the cells; and the sisters returning to the cellar to begin their funeral service. Where that left Laura and himself, Steele didn't like to think. The thought of Laura recalled to his mind that she was waiting for him, and with no other immediate plan, he gave the rigid form of Tuttenham a hefty pull, and began to move towards the cellar door. A massive crash answered his effort, and he froze in his place, watching as a massive metal kettle rolled unsteadily across the floor. From outside the kitchen somebody's voice came in noisy inquiry. Steele froze, recalling a second too late that he was in something of a compromising position. He had just managed to hoist Tuttenham up once again, and was heading towards the cellar door, when the kitchen door swung open, and a man in a snow-damp sheriff's uniform scanned the room. Steele offered him a nervous smile.
"Um... hello." He wondered if there was any chance of insisting that the dead body was actually some kind of particularly realistic mannequin, but dismissed the thought as soon as he saw the expression on the sheriff's face. Clearly this law enforcement officer had more than a passing knowledge of human biology, and knew a deceased electrician when he saw one, for he stepped forward with a look of anger upon his face, and seized Steele by the wrist before the usually agile con-man could move aside. There was a moment's struggle, more as a result of Steele trying to maintain a grip upon his silent companion than from any attempt on his part to escape. His attempts were unsuccessful, for with one arm hampered by the sheriff's hand, he had no way to adequately balance the dead weight. Tuttenham wobbled; a long, stiff shape that wavered like a see-saw upon Steele's shoulder, a pivot that was not broad enough to support it even nearly enough. With a thud loud enough to make Steele wince, the body fell to the floor, landing heavily on its feet. For a moment it seemed then as though it might be stable, but after a moment's gentle wobbling, it wavered, teetered precariously, then crashed over onto its side. This time it was the sheriff who winced.
"And just who the hell are you?" Glaring at the uneasy detective, the sheriff was already reaching for his gun. Steele considered a hundred and one possible replies, but in the end felt it was best to stick with his current alias. He smiled, uncertainty and discomfort showing in his eyes.
"Remington Steele, of the Remington Steele Detective Agency based in Los Angeles. At your service, er... Sheriff."
"I don't want your service, 'Mister Steele'." The sheriff had a familiar look on his face; a look that Steele had seen more than once when he was on the verge of being arrested. "I just want a few answers is all. Just what are you doing in here, carrying dead men about?"
"He's dead?" Steele stared at the body with what he hoped was genuine looking shock. "But I only dropped him. He didn't seem to hit his head."
"Don't mess me about, boy." With a practised hand the sheriff spun him about and pushed him against the wall. Steele felt the expert hands searching for weapons and ID, and felt a wallet being removed from within one of his pockets. There was a second of silence as the sheriff scanned the wallet, then Steele was spun back again to face the room.
"This wallet doesn't say anything about a Remington Steele." Steele's captor flashed the ID at his prisoner, and Steele winced inwardly as he realised which wallet he was looking at. "Who exactly is Clarence Tuttenham?"
"Oh." Steele couldn't help his eyes drifting towards the figure on the floor. Why had he kept the man's wallet? He didn't remember if there had been any reason beyond a once instinctive habit for doing such things. He saw the sheriff's eyes growing thin and unpleasant, and wasn't in the least surprised when he was whirled around once again to face the wall. This time there was rather more force involved, and he winced as his hands struck the stone.
"I don't suppose you'd believe that I was helping the Mortimer sisters to bury this fellow?" He asked the question in his best English gentleman's voice, one that usually had an agreeable effect in North America. "They have quite a collection of dead bodies down in the cellar."
"You people don't quit, do you. Just what is it you're hoping to get out of saying these things about the sisters?" The click of handcuffs told the detective exactly where this was going. "I'm going to enjoy locking you and your accomplice up. There'll be a long wait before you stand trial, with all this snow slowing everything down, and you're going to do your waiting in my cells."
"Sheriff I--" He broke off as his arms were manhandled behind him, fixed there by cold cuffs that were closed too tightly. "Look, he's been dead some time. If you ask around, you'll find out that my friends and I only arrived in town last night. He's been dead longer than that."
"That's hardly conclusive." Well that was true enough, although it had certainly been worth a try. "You and your buddy Michaels had better enjoy each others company, Mr Steele, because you're going to be spending a lot of time together, in a very small room."
"Mr Steele? What's the hold up?" Laura. Steele didn't know whether to be relieved by her appearance or worried about what it might trigger. She appeared in the doorway even as he was still wondering about the best way to greet her, and he was treated to the enjoyable sight of her pretty face twisting into expressions of confusion and disbelief.
"Hello Laura." He made it sound as off-hand as he could manage, all the while hoping that the Mortimer sisters did not chose this moment to rejoin their erstwhile captives. Their unique brand of assistance could hardly be counted upon to assist his cause just now. "This is Sheriff... um..."
"Sheriff Allwood, ma'am." There was a brief silence. "Who are you?"
"Laura Holt." Laura looked from Steele to the sheriff to the body on the floor, and clearly understood all that had happened. "Did Murphy bring you here?"
"You're in on that?" The sheriff looked disgusted. "Well I'm arresting your friend here on a charge of murder, Miss Holt, so unless you can convince me that you've never seen this poor fellow before, you'll be joining us all down at my office."
"You think we killed Mr Tuttenham?" Laura shook her head. "No, listen sheriff. You've got it all wrong. You see, the Mortimers--"
"You're all at it." Allwood rolled his eyes. "I've known those two little old ladies all my life, and they're as sweet as my own grandmother. If you really want me to believe that they've been burying dead bodies here for years than you've got another think coming. They're proper ladies, and they always have been. Now I think it's about time we got out of here, and left the ladies to their work. They probably have guests that are going to be wanting their breakfast before very much longer."
"Any guest around here that is still able to ask for breakfast in the morning is something of a rarity." Steele realised even as he said it that he was hardly improving matters; but sometimes things like that just said themselves. The sheriff's expression darkened.
"I've heard enough out of you to last me a lifetime. You'd better do us both a favour and pay close attention to your right to silence. Now you, Miss Holt. Just what exactly were you doing down in that cellar?"
"Cellar?" Laura glanced back to the door, then met Steele's gaze. He shook his head, which led her to wonder if she could get away with some brazen lie; but since she couldn't think of one on the spur of the moment she merely looked puzzled. "Nothing. Why?"
"Nothing." Allwood looked about as convinced as he had been by Steele's own explanations. "Maybe I'd better go on down there and have a look, huh?"
"That mightn't be such a bad idea." Steele remembered Petersfield's recently dead body, and wondered if they were about to be charged with his murder as well. The other graves should help to argue their innocence however. Allwood was apparently not going to play the game though, for he scowled and shook his head.
"Got some accomplice down there have you? All ready to shoot me and help you two to escape?"
"We don't have any accomplices." Laura's entirely honest reply was shattered almost instantly by a familiar squeak from the living room, and a second later a deputy burst in through the kitchen door with Bernice gripped firmly in his arms. She took one look at Steele, already handcuffed, and Laura in the act of being cuffed, and winced.
"Are we in trouble again?" She made it sound as though such things were a weekly event, which did nothing to lessen Allwood's suspicions. Glowering, he gestured to his deputy to put Bernice in handcuffs as well, before preceding the lot of them back out into the living room. Sandwiched between two further deputies, Murphy was also already cuffed. He looked crestfallen, and shot Laura an apologetic smile.
"Sorry Laura. I couldn't get them to listen to me. I see you didn't have much better luck."
"Afraid not. They don't seem to want to believe us." She wondered if it would work to glare accusingly at the Mortimers; to play on their consciences perhaps, or to underline their guilt. Nobody seemed to notice her though, for the Mortimers themselves were concerned almost solely with Remington Steele.
"Oh dear." Charlotte was looking terribly disappointed. "You're not a criminal are you Mr Steele?"
"A criminal?" Emily's eyes were wide. "A real one? Like Al Capone?"
"Hardly, Miss Mortimer." Feeling somewhat exposed, he offered her an awkward smile and tried to back away. Somebody was standing behind him though, and there was nowhere for him to go. Allwood was practically crowing.
"You see what you've done? How you've upset these two fine ladies? I sure hope you can live with yourself Steele."
"I--" His protests were drowned out by the ladies, pressing closer with their urgent inquiries.
"You will be alright, won't you Mr Steele. We could bring you something to eat later, and I'm sure that the cells won't be too uncomfortable. Sheriff Allwood is a terribly nice man."
"Oh yes, we've known him since he was a little boy, haven't we Charlotte. All the same though, I've seen these sorts of things in books, and they're always cold and damp, and they have racks and whips and things. It's very unpleasant."
"What did you do Mr Steele? Was it something terribly exciting?"
"Did you know Mr Capone? Or Bonnie and Clyde?"
"You will look after him, won't you Sheriff?"
"Ladies, please!" Finally obtaining a few inches in which to retreat, Steele managed to find himself a little space to breathe. "I can assure you that my companions and I have done nothing to break the law." Recently, he added to himself, in the interests of being strictly honest. "The good sheriff here just doesn't seem to like us very much, that's all."
"That's enough of that, Steele." Allwood looked incensed. "You know damn well why you're being arrested. Oh, er... sorry ladies. I didn't mean to swear."
"That's quite alright Sheriff." Charlotte nodded at him in acknowledgement of his apology. "Daddy used to say much worse when he'd had a hard day."
"So did Geoffrey," put in Emily, sounding rather sad. "He used to make me laugh, the things he used to say when he'd had a bit too much of the Recipe." She looked up at Steele, her eyes holding an expression that was almost tragic. "You will hurry back, won't you Mr Steele. Geoffrey is still waiting for his service, and I'd written such a nice eulogy. You'd love it I'm sure. There was a nice piece all about when Geoffrey was a child, and he drank some of the chemicals from Daddy's little laboratory, and his hair went quite green."
"Geoffrey's service?" Allwood's voice had gone very hard, carrying in the manner often possessed by the voices of self-important men, even though he was not speaking very loudly. "Eulogy? Geoffrey's dead?"
"Oh yes." Emily was smiling again, apparently happy to share this piece of information. "It was Mr Steele's fault really I suppose."
"Oh?" There was a hand on Steele's arm now, and its grip was becoming painfully tight. He found himself being dragged rather roughly towards the door. "I think it's about a time we were finding a nice little cell for you and your friends, Mister Steele."
"Yes, he would keep trying to find out who'd killed poor Mr Petersfield and Mr Tuttenham." Emily was still smiling, recounting the story for all the world as though it were a favourite family tale. Allwood froze, halfway to the door with Steele in tow.
"What did you say?" He sounded flabbergasted, and Steele, somewhat vindicated, attempted to pull free. Allwood wouldn't let him go, but did at least stop manhandling him for the moment.
"I said--" Emily broke off, suddenly looking terribly guilty. "Oh dear. Now I've said too much, haven't I. Oh Charlotte, I am sorry."
"Miss Mortimer?" Allwood turned to the second woman, questions widening his eyes and crinkling his brow. "What's all this about? What's happened to your brother?"
"Nothing." All innocence all of a sudden, Emily beamed at him, eyes wide, expression honest. "Who said anything had happened to him?"
"Be quiet Emily." Charlotte's voice had hardened to a degree that was by now familiar to both Laura and Steele. Her hand was close to her pocket, where both detectives knew the gun still waited. "I'm sorry to have held you up, Sheriff. My sister is... well, a little fanciful at times. We're neither of us as young as we used to be, and sometimes Emily can become a little confused. Perhaps if you were to take these people away as quickly as possible, it might be easier for me to calm her down."
"Of course." Allwood was already heading towards the door again, but Laura, incensed, began struggling furiously when one of the deputies began trying to hurry her along after.
"Hey! Hey!" She wriggled out of his grip, face red with indignation. "You're not going to listen to that? She's just confessed to you that her brother is dead, and you're going to ignore it?"
"In case you hadn't noticed, Miss, she also implicated your friend Steele. If Geoffrey Mortimer does happen to turn up dead, there's every reason to suppose that Steele here is the one that killed him."
Steele glanced up, beginning to look distinctly got at. "I didn't."
"Shut up." Allwood's anger was obvious, his eyes fierce as he glared around at all four of the supposed wrongdoers. Bernice offered him the sweetest smile of which she was capable, and Murphy did his best to look harmless, but neither attempt at pacification seemed to have any kind of effect. As one the little band of detectives was herded door-wards, until, when Sheriff Allwood reached for the door handle, only Laura was still offering any resistance. She struggled in the grip of an increasingly frustrated deputy, trying hard to think of a last minute interjection. If they were arrested there would eventually be an investigation, and it was very likely that the bodies in the cellar would then be discovered - but it was still possible that she and her friends would be accused of Geoffrey's murder. Even if they were not, they would very likely have already spent several days in jail, and the agency's hard won reputation might well be scarred irrevocably. That was something that she was not going to risk.
"Come along now." The deputy holding her elbow was trying to keep a rein on his temper, unwilling perhaps to allow the supposedly delicate old sisters to see any rough stuff. "Don't try to cause trouble."
"I just want a chance to explain!" She was thinking about the cellar, with its many bodies all lying as testament to the fact that whatever was going on in the house, it had been going on for far longer than she and her friends had been staying here. The deputy glared at her, pulling her harder. Nearby, offering her his usual steadfast and customary support, Murphy also slowed to a halt. Steele, less concerned with Laura's brand of resistance, remained focussed on Charlotte's pocket. There was no telling what sort of chaos might ensue were she to feel threatened enough to draw that gun. Anybody might be injured, and he certainly had no wish to see either old lady shot dead by the police. They needed help and care, not bullets and body bags.
"There will be plenty of time to explain when we're all back at the office." Allwood's patience, what little of it there had ever been, was clearly now stretched to its limits. "Now we have a lot of hard walking to do to get us through that blizzard, so I'd suggest that we get moving now. Otherwise I might just consider leaving the lot of you out in the snow, and seeing how chatty you are twenty four hours from now."
"You'd be a fool to wait that long." Laura knew that her words were driving Allwood perilously close to the edge of his temper, but she carried on anyway. What other choice did she have? "Twenty four hours from now it won't just be us who'll be looking less than our best. The evidence will be starting to look pretty unpleasant too, especially if this house stays as warm as it is now."
"Evidence?" Allwood's eyes strayed back to the kitchen door, as though he were remembering Tuttenham's body for the first time since making his arrests. "Oh, yes. Well obviously I wasn't going to leave him there. I'll get the coroner out here as soon as I can."
"Coroner?" This time there was no mistaking the hard edge in Charlotte's voice, and even Allwood had apparently noticed it. He frowned.
"It's just a formality Miss Mortimer. The coroner will come here, have a look around, take away the, er... the body... There'll be no necessity for you to see it yourselves of course."
"You can't take Mr Tuttenham away." Emily's anger was palpable; her voice rising to a volume that none of them had heard from her before. "He's one of our guests."
"Miss Mortimer..." Allwood hesitated, looking for the best words. "Mr Tuttenham is no longer with us. Now I'm sure it must be hard for you to accept that, but he's dead now, and that means that he can't be left here."
"Charlotte you won't let him take Mr Tuttenham away, will you? I had such a nice eulogy planned for him too. I was going to talk about when he first came here and registered, and the time when he said that he never wanted to leave. You won't let them take him? You can't." Her bright eyes surveyed the group of lawmen and prisoners before finally settling on Steele. "Mr Steele, you understand, don't you. You know how important this is. Our happiest guests never leave here. We're all one big family, and they're all so comfortable down in the cellar. You will tell him, won't you?"
"Huh?" One of Allwood's deputies was making no secret of his confusion. Steele found himself being propelled around to face Allwood, pushed against the wall by the force of a sheriff now at the limits of his patience and understanding. His face loomed close.
"Well..." Steele caught Laura's eye and Charlotte's; saw Emily's anxious face; saw Murphy looking mutinous and Bernice looking perplexed, and an assortment of deputies looking as though they wished they had never left the warmth of their office. He managed a winsome smile, and raised a querulous eyebrow. "I don't suppose you'd believe me if I said that I have no idea what this charming old lady is talking about?"
"Forget it Mr Steele." Charlotte's voice had regressed back to its earlier timbre, the way it had sounded when she had pointed the gun at him down in the cellar. "You don't have to get into trouble trying to keep our secrets. We can fight our own battles."
"Will somebody please tell me what the hell is going on here!" Allwood turned, apparently about to apologise once again for his language, then stopped and changed his mind. "You have guests down in your cellar, Miss Mortimer. Is that right?"
"The guests are down in the cellar, yes. Some of them at least." Charlotte's hand within her pocket was clearly gripped tightly around the handle of the gun. "And Mr Steele didn't put them there. He and Miss Holt were good enough to help us carry our latest two down there, and they were going to help with the services, but that's as far as they're involved." She looked affronted. "This is a family operation, Sheriff, and no matter how pleasant and helpful Mr Steele and his colleagues are, they're just not family. They can't claim any credit for our work."
"It's Geoffrey's work really," piped up Emily. Charlotte nodded her agreement.
"Precisely. Not Mr Steele's at all."
"Oh no. Not at all." The two sisters beamed at each other, then turned their attention back to the sheriff. "We can't let you take Mr Tuttenham away you know."
"And we're terribly sorry."
"Especially since we've known you for so long."
"So very long." Emily glanced up at Steele. "He used to mow our lawn for us you know, when he was just a little boy."
"Not that that makes any difference." Charlotte drew her gun. "Mr Tuttenham stays here."
"And so do Geoffrey and Mr Petersfield." Emily frowned as she tried to recall some of the other names. "And Mr Arnistol, and Mr Brewton, and Mr Scholl..."
"And the others." Charlotte's gun turned around, pointing at all of the outsiders arranged before her. "They're our guests, and you're not stealing them."
"They're staying here."
"For ever." She glanced back at her sister, who was almost bouncing with suppressed anxiety. "Lock the door Emily."
"Are they all staying?" Emily seemed quite happy about that, and as Allwood sensibly moved aside to allow her to get to the door, she chatted merrily on. "There's plenty of food for everybody, and it will be so nice to have a few more people at the services. It was just the three of us for so long, but we'll be able to have proper singing now. Do you still sing in the choir, Sheriff?"
"Um... yes." Allwood was blinking rapidly, like a camera with its shutter stuck. "Miss Mortimer...?"
"Do be quiet Sheriff." The gun wavering wildly between the various people at which it was pointed, Charlotte began to pace about a bit. "Alright, now we have to think. We can't keep them here indefinitely can we Emily?"
"We managed to keep Mr Steele and Miss Holt for a few hours, but they were tied up pretty tightly." Emily shrugged. "They've got quite a few pairs of handcuffs between them, and with our two pairs we'd have a good collection."
"Yes, but they'd get in the way down in the cellar. Besides, somebody would be bound to hear them eventually."
"We could bury them." Emily sounded as though she liked that idea. "Oh I know we said that Mr Steele and his friends didn't belong here Charlotte dear, but we were thinking of letting them stay anyway, weren't we. And the sheriff is a local boy, so it really wouldn't hurt if he and his friends were to stay, and if we were to have that many all joining us at once we could have a simply wonderful party, couldn't we. Of course we'd have to get them to help us dig up the cellar floor first, because we could never manage to do so much digging on our own, and - oh, do you think we have enough cushions and things?"
"Sure to." Charlotte's face was grim. "I don't know though, Emily dear. There are so many of them, and I'm not sure we have the room down in the cellar anymore. Geoffrey put so many people down there, and it's not a big room. He said we weren't to use the other room, because the floor there is too hard to dig. And besides, the smell might come up into the house then, and then where would we be? Nobody would want to stay here if they could smell their predecessors."
"Fair point," agreed Laura. Bernice looked faintly pale.
"Are they serious?" One of the deputies, who apparently was beginning to think that the whole event was some extraordinary and elaborate joke, moved forward a little, looking from Allwood to the Mortimer sisters and back again. "Are we really supposed to believe that these jokers here are innocent bystanders, and that these two old ladies have really been killing people? That city boy over there was telling the truth when he came to see us?"
"Mr Murphy came to get you?" Charlotte sounded incensed. "I'm very upset Mr Murphy. And I thought you were such a nice boy. Telling all our secre--" She broke off. "Just how did you know about it all anyway?"
"Miss Mortimer..." Sheriff Allwood, beginning to assert himself again now that the initial shock had worn off, had decided that the two old ladies were more confused than he had realised, and that somehow Remington Steele and his associates had managed to convince them that this whole crazy story was true. Charlotte pointed the gun at him, and he flinched.
"Do be quiet Nigel." She pointed at Steele. "Was it you, Mr Steele? Did you tell Mr Michaels what we've been doing, or did-- No, it would have to be you, wouldn't it Miss Holt. Mr Steele was digging our holes for us, and I was watching him all the time. You told Mr Michaels. You sent him for the sheriff. Didn't you."
"Maybe..." She smiled, looking nervous. "But that doesn't mean--"
"And I trusted you." Her fury was obvious. "I was going to let you sing at my brother's funeral service. You were going to be the soloist, and choose all the hymns. Well that's not going to happen any more." Her sharp eyes sought out Bernice. "Would you like to do that my dear? You can choose the hymns from Daddy's books, and then you can lead us all in song around the holes. Geoffrey will love you, I know he will."
"Thanks, I think." She looked up at Laura, searching for support, but Laura was as lost as she was. "Um... I don't actually know many hymns..."
"That doesn't matter dear." For a second Charlotte's smile was so tender and sweet that Bernice was charmed; but just as abruptly her face became cold and hard once again. "Now everybody is going down into the cellar. You're not to speak, or to shout for help, or to try to get away. We'll decide what we're going to do with you once we've had the services for Geoffrey and the others. Come along."
"You're not going to kill us?" Allwood was looking shell-shocked. "This is insane, Miss Mortimer."
"Yet at the same time I feel oddly vindicated." Steele glanced towards him. "This would be quite a good moment to apologise, don't you think?"
"Now is hardly the time, Mr Steele." Laura was making meaningful expressions, clearly hinting to Steele that he should do something to disarm Charlotte - either literally or figuratively, he didn't know which. Given that his hands were cuffed behind him, figuratively seemed to be the only likely option, but it still wasn't one that he liked. People tended to be hurt when guns were around, and when somebody like Charlotte was at the other end of the weapon, he wasn't happy with the notion of putting himself into the firing line. Murphy was trying his own placatory comments, without any obvious effect, and the deputies were just looking stumped. Feeling as though he was probably going to regret this, Steele dredged up the cheeriest smile he could manage just at the moment, and tried to look confident.
"Quiet." Her voice was sharp, her eyes even more so. "It's your fault really you know. They work for you. You said they did. So if she's betrayed us, and he has - it's your fault."
"Very likely." He tried to come up with a new tack, and wondered just why exactly none of these big strong deputies hadn't done the obvious thing and disarmed the frail (well okay, maybe not quite so frail) old woman. None of them seemed to have considered it though. Did he really have to do everything? Taking heart from Laura's sidling manoeuvres, as she apparently tried to get behind Charlotte, he struggled to maintain some kind of a distracting conversation. "Would you allow me to apologise? I regret to say that I had no idea what my employees were up to, and obviously it was a mistake to let them out of my sight. I can see that. It won't get in the way of our plans though I hope? I've been so looking forward to helping you dear ladies conduct the services downstairs. Everything was coming along so nicely."
"We'll think about it." Charlotte sounded sulky. Allwood merely looked very confused.
"I still don't really understand what's going on here." He also sounded sulky, although for very different reasons. "Steele, I--"
"Charlotte, look out!" Emily's scream made everybody jump, and as her sister spun around, stumbling as her less than agile limbs objected to the movement, she caught a glimpse of Laura Holt coming towards her. The gun wobbled and wavered, and with a shout of warning to Laura, Murphy jumped forward. His shoulder knocked Charlotte's arm, the gun whirled to point squarely at Bernice, and the shaky finger resting on the trigger began to tighten its suddenly uncertain grip. Steele leapt sideways, knocking the firm's invaluable secretary out of the way, and only just falling clear of the bullet himself. The gunshot rang out in the room, and a bottle of port exploded in a burst of dark red liquid. Charlotte squealed in surprise, almost dropped the gun, and then pointed it at the now horizontal Steele.
"That was very dangerous you know. I could have shot you, and then who would dig all of these extra resting places?"
"My apologies again." He smiled up at her, wishing that somebody would take the damn gun away. "I should hate to put a spanner in your... earthworks."
"Hmph." She was waving the gun at him as though it were a finger to be wagged scoldingly. "You and your friends have given me a lot of trouble Mr Steele. I think it's about time I stopped taking in you young city people."
"Sounds sensible." Half beneath Steele, an uncomfortable way to be even without her hands cuffed, Bernice sounded strained. "Can we get up now?"
"Maybe." Charlotte was still jumpy, still expecting further attacks from Laura. "Or maybe you should just stay there. Maybe I should just shoot you all now."
"Or you could just let us go?" Murphy's winning smile was entirely wasted on her, but he offered it anyway. The gun leapt to point at him, wobbled, and went back to Steele and Bernice.
"We can't let you go." Emily was still smiling even as she pronounced sentence. "We have to keep everything a secret, and I was very silly and told you all everything. So we have to keep you here. You'll be warm and comfortable, and we'll come and talk to you even when you're all buried. It'll be very nice."
"You're nuts." Allwood was shaking his head, clearly disgusted at himself for not having noticed this fact before. Steele's expression had I told you so written all over it, but everybody chose to ignore that. Charlotte pointed her gun at the sheriff, insult clear on her usually placid face.
"I'm not sure I like your tone, Nigel."
"Well this time I'm not going to apologise." He pointed at her, angry now and heedless of the gun. Laura was trying to get into position for another attack, but he ignored her too. Emily was pointing at her in hugely emphasised fashion, but Charlotte didn't seem to be taking any notice. "This is insane. Sweet little old ladies do not murder their house guests. They don't bury them in the cellar. They don't chat about it as though it's the most normal thing in the world."
"They do when they're related to Cary Grant," muttered Steele, apparently still cross that nobody had listened to him at the start of all this. Nobody seemed to be interested in his comments though, and as he and Bernice began to try to disentangle themselves from each other, Charlotte was raising her gun to point at Allwood's head. Laura was almost upon her now, and as Steele finally struggled back up to his feet, the situation finally boiled over. Laura, moving in for her strike, was within touching distance of Charlotte when Emily wailed out a final warning to her sister. Charlotte jumped in fright just as Laura jumped into action. Emily moved as well, flailing her arms at Laura and shrieking in fury, causing the detective to stumble backwards away from Charlotte. The gun, startled into a wild wobble by its surprised wielder, pointed at Steele, a deputy, Murphy, Emily, then finally back at Allwood. He took a step out of the way, collided with Steele, and in a moment of jumbled manoeuvring, knocked the protesting con-man right into the line of fire. The gun muzzle came to a halt no more than three inches from his chest, and he saw, without being able to do anything, the finger tightening once again on the trigger. Nearby Laura froze, paused in the middle of her awkward wrestling match with the furious Emily. Even with her hands cuffed she had been able to fight rather better than the agitated old lady, but as she now came to a halt she received a barrage of clumsy blows that made her stumble. She thumped into Charlotte's back, and the barrel of the gun jolted forwards, ramming into Steele's torso. He gulped. The finger jerked on the trigger. Everybody gasped.
But nothing happened. Charlotte frowned, looking more vexed than surprised. She gave the gun a quick shake, peered hopefully at the barrel, then shrugged.
"Blast. Daddy must have forgotten to reload it before he died."
"Huh?" Steele stared down at the gun, then let out a long sigh of relief that Laura echoed. Even Emily's still persisting blows didn't bother her, and she hardly noticed when two of the deputies, finally coming back to life, gently led the old woman away. Allwood whistled.
"I thought you were a goner then Steele."
"Yeah." Watching as Charlotte calmly handed her gun to the sheriff, raising her hands in the best tradition of surrendering gangsters, Steele offered Laura a vaguely tired smile. "Do you think you could take these handcuffs off now?"
"I don't know." Allwood handed the confiscated gun to one of his deputies and began a quick search of his pockets. "I've got a nasty suspicion that I left the keys back at the office."
It was a very different group that left the boarding house to the one that had arrived there. They had been tired, irritated and annoyed with each other, but as they finally took their leave of the little village, with the snow now falling at a far more manageable rate, all four members of the agency were looking decidedly more cheerful. Even Murphy and Steele had not argued for the best part of a day, which Laura was sure was some kind of record. Bernice was in a chirpy mood, her near death experience obviously having had some positive kind of effect on her energy levels, and Laura herself was in high spirits. It had been one of the weirder cases of her career, but a success was a success, and such things always left her in a good mood. She wandered along now at Steele's side, admiring the snow covered scenery, and looking forward to being back home in Los Angeles.
"I think that went well." She was in one of her sarcastic moods, and Steele decided to answer in kind.
"Absolutely. Personally I wouldn't have enjoyed the stay nearly as much if we hadn't been in immediate danger at least once."
"And it was certainly a variation on the normal theme. Crazy people, sweet old ladies with guns, bodies in the cellar... It's not often we encounter things like that."
"Certainly not all at once." Murphy, trudging along just behind them, also sounded in good cheer. "It's a shame we didn't get to hear you singing your hymns though Laura. Were you planning anything nice?"
"I don't know any hymns. Not counting Christmas carols, the nearest thing to a religious song that I know is Sympathy For The Devil, and I don't think the Mortimer sisters would have liked that very much." She nudged Steele. "What about you? What were you planning to do for your service?"
"Say a few prayers and look confident." He shrugged. "Anybody can pretend to be a priest. It's not difficult."
"And of course you have experience. Your policeman's wife. Was that the truth?"
"Absolutely." He frowned, searching for a date. "1980 I think. Spring. Of course it wasn't exactly a sweet occasion. He'd murdered her, and he blackmailed me into digging the grave in his next door neighbour's flowerbed, but I didn't think I'd share that bit with our dear friends the Mortimer sisters."
"Mmm." They walked on in silence for a little longer, enjoying the bracing wind and clean, fresh air.
"What's going to happen to them?" Bernice's question was one that they had all been wondering about, and it was Laura who answered.
"What can happen? They can't go to jail. They'll probably be put somewhere safe, together hopefully. I'm not sure they could cope if they were separated. Once the bodies in the cellar are identified, the house is probably going to be pulled down. I can't see anybody wanting it."
"Maybe the agency should put in an offer." Steele smiled at Laura, and she smiled back. "We could come here for holidays every once in a while."
"With respect, Mr Steele, I don't ever plan to come back here again. Weird little villages and their boarding houses are best left far behind. I prefer the city. Back there it's everybody except the sweet little old ladies that are trying to kill us. That's the way it's supposed to be."
"Hear hear." Murphy threw an arm around Bernice's shoulders. "What do you say, Bernice?"
"I definitely never want to come back here again. This has been the weirdest couple of days of my life, and I don't especially want to risk a re-run. I just want to go home, run a nice hot bath, and then get into a bed that I can be fairly sure won't have a dead man waiting in it."
"Sounds like a good plan." Steele stole his own arm around Laura's shoulders, basking in the knowledge that Murphy would be glowering in the rear. "Care to put it to the test with me, Miss Holt?"
"No thanks." She moved his arm aside, though not unpleasantly. "Actually I was thinking that I might search through the television channels, and see if I can find a showing of Arsenic And Old Lace."
"Does this mean that you'll listen to me next time?" He was eyeing her more with amusement than with any particular desire to have the question answered, and she smiled up at him.
"I thought as much." He sighed. "A God-given talent, and it goes unheeded every time. I don't know why I stick around, Laura. I really don't."
"I do." This time she actively encouraged his playful embrace, and they shared a warm smile. "But I suppose I might be wrong."
"Oh, I doubt it." He pulled her a little closer, although only for the briefest moment. "You're rarely wrong." He grinned. "Except when it comes to sweet little old ladies of course."
"You're not going to let me live that down in a hurry, are you."
"Oh, I might be persuaded."
"Keep dreaming, Mr Steele. Keep dreaming." She stepped away from him, glancing back at Murphy who was still wandering along in the rear. "Race you to the car, Murph?"
"Yeah." He broke into a run, overtaking her but staying only slightly ahead. She chased after, and soon they were running along together at any easy, steady pace. Bernice smiled, but was a little puzzled by Steele's own disinterest.
"Aren't you going to run after her?" She drew level with him, glancing up at him in surprise. He smiled, eyes warm and amused, yet still as mysterious as ever; and she knew in that moment that, whatever her previous doubts, their new Mr Steele was going to be a permanent fixture. His lazy smile became a broadening, confident grin.
"My dear Miss Wolf. Why chase something that you've already caught?" And with an easy gallantry that was entirely unexpected, he took her bag and strolled on ahead.