Do you like gothic suspense? Here’s chapter four from Murder for Christmas, which is now available on Amazon.
Psst: If you haven’t read them, chapters 1-3 were presented on the last three Fridays.
Maddy was the last to arrive.
An enormous table, covered in a white linen tablecloth, dominated the dining room. Intricate designs of mythical creatures crawled up its sturdy legs. Three elaborate candelabras sat in the middle. A table set for a 1930s mystery. How lovely.
Heads of animals covered the north-wall: stuffed deer, elk, moose and bear. Their black, beady eyes held death stares that made her stomach knot. Wide windows and French doors lined the opposite wall exposing the dark wilderness outside.
I may be the last to arrive, but I’ll be the first to leave. As soon as the boat returns, I’m outa here.
The smell of cooked flesh, garlic and roasted vegetables hung in the air. The flesh part curdled her vegetarian appetite.
Six people sitting at the table turned to look at her as she entered.
“Good evening,” Maddy said. “My name is Madison Rathborne, but you can call me Maddy.” She took one of the two empty seats, the one with Reggie’s name-tag sitting on the china plate. The name tag on the plate for the missing person to her left read: “Henri Larochelle.” The name sounded familiar, but before she could ponder his absence the silence in the room drew her attention.
“Mad Rath?” said the man seated at the head of the table, in a smooth Southern voice. “Your reputation precedes you.”
“Yes, that’s my by-line on the Puzzle website, Wowzers, which is syndicated here and there all over the Internet, but like I said, you can call me Maddy.” She smiled at the group.
The man stood. “Maddy it is then. Welcome. I am your host, Roger Reynolds.” While his words sounded suitably gracious, the rigid set of his square jaw sent a different message. She had the distinct feeling her unexpected appearance had messed up his plans. Her dress suddenly felt two sizes too small.
She studied him.Intense denim-blue eyes stared back at her. The bags beneath them suggested he’d seen serious shit in his thirty-something years. He wore a light blue linen shirt open at the neck with rolled up sleeves and expensive, black dress pants. No belt. A slight scruff on his square jaw gave him that sexy morning-after appearance. His thick white hair was mussed perfectly. An older man, but a handsome man, the kind her aunt would want to marry.
Her brain screamed: be careful. Who, after all, would invite eight strangers to a gathering on a cursed island, one week before Christmas?
He broke their staring contest to look around the table. “Now that most of us are here, let’s get on with the introductions. I know you’re all dying to know why I created this retreat, but I’ll leave that until everyone has spoken.”
“But we’re not all here,” Maddy stated the obvious. It didn’t take any mathematical skill to see the chair beside her was empty.
“Yes, you’re right, of course. One of the guests is late.”
A sturdy-looking woman in a light-blue maid’s outfit emerged from the kitchen and made her way beneath the dead animal heads with a tray in her hands. As she set the first bowl of soup down in front of Reynolds, he spoke. “Let me introduce you to our cook and housemaid, Mrs. Buchanon.”
The crowd murmured their hellos. She nodded, didn’t smile, and continued to place bowls in front of each of them.
Reynolds turned to the first person on his right. “Dr. Li would you start, please.”
A petite woman of Asian descent stood. Her shiny black hair had been pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck, revealing perfect skin and delicate features. She wore a simply cut, emerald-green dress that added to her classic beauty. “Good evening everyone,” she said in a confident voice. “My name is Linda Li. Please call me Linda.” She looked around the table, making eye contact with each of them. “I’m a research scientist at UBC. I live in a postage-stamp-sized condo in the west end of Vancouver, so I jumped at the chance to get away to the country.” Demure and sincere, her smile aimed to please, but Maddy’s gut sensed the woman was hiding a whole lot of something beneath the green silk, including a superior intellect.
“According to my invitation,” Linda continued, “I’m here to inspire dialogue about global warming. I study the effect of climate change on the marine environment and am considered somewhat of an expert in my field.” She giggled as if that were funny. God how Maddy hated how some women underplayed their brilliance. Because it works, she reminded herself, because it works.
The crowd murmured their approval. Could any of them talk her language of stats and theories?
“I don’t know any of you yet.” Linda Li engaged the eyes in the room once again. “But I’m sure we’ll get to know each other over the next few days.”
“Welcome,” Maddy said. Everyone piped in, “Welcome.”
Linda Li sat down.
A fidgeting foot inches from Maddy’s caught her attention as it touched hers. She looked at the man and he gave her a warm, friendly smile that made her feel a touch more comfortable. It appeared she wasn’t the only one anxious about this event.
The man to the right of Linda Li stood and scanned the faces around the table with an arrogance that made Maddy wonder if she had put her best undies on. He looked weathered, with deep wrinkles and a sagging chin. His features were losing their battle against time and sinking into old age, but at one time he had been a good-looking man. Cleanly shaved and immaculately dressed in a well-fitted jacket, white, open necked shirt and charcoal-gray pants, he gave the air of controlled confidence. Heck, his socks probably cost more than her hydro bill.
Really, she shouldn’t be so small. The decrepit lodge that was getting to her.
“My name is Dr. Charles Chamberlain Smith III. I’ve been invited to this …” he paused as if the words stuck in his alligator neck, “… gathering of adventurous minds to act as your medical doctor.” He frowned. “But given the weather I can’t imagine us doing anything more rigorous than lifting wine glasses.” Without waiting for a response, he sat.
The woman to his right did not stand, but her voice projected with the precision of a scalpel. “My name is Lucy Diamond, that’s diamond as in the most precious stone on the earth and Diamond as in Diamond Realty, a company I proudly own and operate.” She was a petite, plump woman, well-turned-out in a layered, red dress and glossy siren-red lipstick. Probably, mid-fifties. Rings covered her fingers, and her nails had been filed to sharp points and painted red. Her brown hair cut into a classic bob was highlighted, lowlighted and hair sprayed in place.
“We deal with real estate in the southern Island area and specialize in finding you your dream home.” Her smile was positively predatory.
Maddy sat back.What could we possibly have in common? The weather? Maddy tried not to stare at the realtor.
Lucy Diamond continued: “I was invited here to assess the lodge’s potential as a destination property. Roger is considering selling or developing.” She gave Roger an appraising look and her eyelashes fluttered.
Roger chuckled. “Yes, I’m considering my options.”
“Whose land do you think you’re selling?” The voice came from the other side of the table. A first nation’s man in his thirties smirked at the Diamond.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“You’re selling land you have no right to.”
Maddy smiled. Maybe it wouldn’t be a dull evening.
“I understand,” said Lucy.
“Yes, I understand your people have concerns.”
Maddy laughed. She couldn’t help it.
The man glared at Lucy Diamond. “People like you should be jailed. Making money off of land that doesn’t belong to you.”
Lucy put up her hand. “Now don’t you start about residential schools. I’ve heard it all before and I understand. Truly, I do.”
“But that’s just it. You don’t.” The words tumbled out of Maddy’s mouth before she knew it.
The man looked her way. He had long black hair and deep brown eyes
Roger Reynolds stood. “Now, now. In a diverse group this large, we will have differences of opinions …”
“They’re not opinions,” said Maddy flatly. Because they weren’t.
“On the invitation you claimed we were a like-minded group,” Linda Li stated.
“Yes, yes.” Roger stretched his back. “Thank you, Lucy, for introducing yourself. Sam can you tell us more about yourself?”
The first nations’ man stood. “My name is Sam Charles, I’m a lawyer and I was invited to the island to consider its place in the local first nations’, land claims.” He glared at the rest. “So far, all I can say is that the spirits of this place are unhappy.” With that, he sat.
Roger nodded towards the man sitting next to Maddy, the one with the fidgety foot.
He stood. “Good evening everyone. I’m Jago James. I’ve been invited to take photographs of the event. But, I have to say the wine is delicious…” He droned on with polite compliments to the host. Despite his regular attire: dark brown khakis and a cream-colored shirt, open at the collar, he intrigued Maddy. Intrigued with a capital I. Something about his energy: warm, engaging, youthful. He had cocoa colored skin, thick, black curly hair and dark brown, brooding eyes that a woman could get lost in. What was she thinking?
She zoned back to his speech. “I’m a freelance photographer. I work with National Geographic a lot.” Okay, not only handsome, but talented.And he smelled good, like aloe vera. He’s got to have a flaw. Please, God, give him a flaw.“I received an invitation to this event in the mail last week, and I don’t know why I was chosen.” He raised his wineglass in the air. “To an offer I could not refuse.”
“Cheers.” The crowd mumbled and I joined them, “Cheers.”
Jago turned her way and winked. Heat rushed to her cheeks. Maybe this weekend wouldn’t be a total loss. It would do her good to flirt, or … whatever.
My turn. Shit. “I’m Madison Rathborne. I like to be called Maddy. Like all of you, I am grateful for an invitation to a week away from the world, but I haven’t a clue what I did in this or my last life to deserve it.” She stopped to breathe and was thankful that they laughed. Best of all Jago smiled, which helped her go on. “My friend Reggie Thompson, who passed her invitation along to me, writes an environmental blog syndicated in The Post. When she came down with the flu, she gave me her invitation, and asked me to fill in as the reporter in the group. I’m a cryptographer by trade, but I can write a column. I look forward to getting to know you all better.” Had she raced her words? Her face burned.Everyone nodded politely and turned their attention to the next guest.
“I don’t think I need an introduction.” Mercedes Brown, the famous Hollywood actress spoke to the space in front of her and met no one’s eyes. When no one responded she rose, but her ascent was wobbly and her cheeks turned red despite her inch of makeup. “Sorry darlings, I’ve been drinking since dawn. My agent is giving me such a headache.” She wiped her brow with the back of her hand. Her agent? Does she think we don’t know? How could anyone on the planet not know? Plastered through all the tabloids are pictures of her with a number of men, while her husband, the rich guy who never says anything, looks on. Mercedes lifted her chin. “I’m pleased to be with you all and will leave you autographed photos by the front door.”
By media standards, she had all the star features: botox fish-lips, high cheek bones iced with a layer of expensive rouge, sparkling, blue eyes that looked more fragile than glass and enormous, silicon breasts well-accentuated in her low-cut, scoop-necked dress. Her interviews made her sound like an idiot, but Maddy had thought that was just a role she played. Yes, she had read about her in the tabloids as she waited her turn to pay for her groceries. Now she wondered. It was quite possible. The woman truly was clueless.
Mercedes flashed her eyes and grabbed the table with both of her hands as she finished her speech, “Is there champagne? I do like a good glass of champagne.”
Maddy tried not to stare at her. The guest list made no sense. What did an alcoholic starlet have in common with an environmental research scientist, a first-nations lawyer and a real-estate mogul?
Roger spoke up. “I’m sorry that Henri Larochelle didn’t make it to dinner. He arrived a day before the rest of you and according to the Buchanons wandered outside. I had hoped he would return for a meal.” Thunder cracked, as if timed by the director of a horror movie. “When the weather let’s up,” Roger continued, “I’ll coordinate a search. Larochelle must have twisted his ankle or gotten lost out there. It’s easy to get turned around in an old forest.”
Everyone nodded, but his words didn’t sit right. How does one get lost on an island? It’s surrounded by water. Could he be somewhere in the lodge? Wait … Henri Larochelle? Where had she heard that name?
“Excuse me,” she said interrupting the murmur of conversation around the table. “Is Henri Larochelle the one they call The Fixer?”
Her host gave her a patronizing smile.
Jago spoke up. “Actually, I think he’s better known as The Spin Doctor.” He coughed.
“Yeah, he sure knows how to spin,” said Lucy Diamond with admiration.
Maddy let Jago’s words sink in. Was Larochelle the one who did PR for all the big corporations around the world, hiding their secrets under a carpet of sweet-smelling lies? Kind of like spraying horse poop with Febreezy. Hadn’t Reggie written an article about him recently? She claimed he was as guilty as the corporations he worked for. Once she called him a slime ball, but her editor made her take out the statement. Maddy would check on that article when she got back to her room, if she could get a signal. She vaguely remembered he had ties to the car company that sold diesel engines claiming they were safe for the environment. They were not. So not.
Roger fussed with his sleeve. “Yes, Henri Larochelle has been called names, but I prefer to hold judgement until I get to know him better. Haven’t we all been misjudged in our lives?”
Roger continued. “In fact, I invited him to liven things up. I hear he’s quick witted and has an endless supply of dinner stories.”
No one around the table seemed too worried about Henri being missing, another telling sign that this really wasn’t Maddy’s kind of party. She wouldn’t even want the most despicable of characters lost outside in this storm. Of course, he could still be inside. Did they have a dungeon? It felt like the kind of place that would have a dungeon, or two. A tingling sensation slithered up her spine.
Jago touched her fingers. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she said quickly, retrieving her hand. “Just tired.”
As the dinner was done and everyone had spoken, the energy in the room ebbed. But Maddy’s unease continued to rise. Each guest may have been invited for a different reason, but the big reason eluded her. There had to be one. She knocked back the glass of wine she’d been served and stood.
“Mr Reynolds, you haven’t told us what this is all about.”
“Mad Rath.” As his eyes connected with hers, she felt a jolt of negative energy. “I didn’t figure on you being a spokesman for this group.”
He didn’t figure on me at all, but that’s okay, because he got me. She smiled.
“I recently retired. I sold my business, and I intend to make the rest of my life memorable. First on my agenda is to have dinner parties with interesting people.”
“Interesting,” she said. She didn’t buy it for a second. “Tell us more. I’d like to know what your expectation of us.” She sat down.
“I spent my working years committed to getting ahead, at any cost, I’m sorry to say.” His mouth twitched on the right side. It made him look vulnerable. “I did well financially, but as we all know that’s not what life’s about. Christmas is in a week and I have no one to share it with, so I’ve invited all of you.”
He invites strangers to spend a week with him because he’s lonely? Was he stupid, or desperate? It was hard to believe such a well-spoken and sociable guy could be the later. And he was handsome. He didn’t need to be lonely. His right hand trembled as he reached for his shot glass. Parkinsons? Alcohol?
“But we have nothing in common,” said Jago in a playful tone.
“Oh, but we do. I’ve studied all your lives and we have more in common than you know.” His eyes twinkled. “As the week unfolds, you’ll see.”
“Except for me,” Maddy said.
His lips flatlined. “There is that, Ms. Maddy. Except for you. You are the exception.”
She laughed and winked at him.
He didn’t even blink.
The French Doors banged open, shattering the glass panes. Wind and wet snow gusted into the room blowing out the candles. The electric lights, which had been set on low flickered and went out. They sat in total darkness.
A low, ominous chuckle echoed through the room. The hair on the nape of Maddy’s neck rose.
A woman screamed. Maddy’s hands shook as she pulled out her phone and turned on the flashlight app. The doctor and Reynolds were closing the doors. Linda Li had gone to the light switch. Jago was lighting a match for the candles. The others remained seated. Their faces twisted into masks of terror.
The Buchanons appeared in the doorway as the lights came on. They pulled thick, curtains over the far wall, hiding the windows and the storm outside. “I’ll get some plywood from the basement to cover the windows,” the man said, and hustled out.
Everyone returned to their seats. Maddy leaned towards Jago. “Did you hear that laugh?” That’s what bothered her the most. Everything else made sense.
“Laugh? No. I didn’t hear anyone laugh. I heard a woman scream.”
Reynolds stood and commanded their attention with his stare. “Let us retire to the sitting room.”
They gathered in the large room around the stone fireplace. The heat of the fire warmed the space, but not Maddy’s heart. The doctor looked around with furtive, probing eyes. Linda Li watched the people. Mercedes held her wine glass with a vice grip. The party was not in the mood to party. Nonetheless they took seats in chairs and sofas arranged around the fire.
Mrs. Buchanon brought in coffee, tea and liqueur.
Madison hated small talk at the best of times, and this was not the best of times. Slowly people began talking to those who sat near them. Maddy laced her coffee with Baileys and chatted with Jago about the storm, and her boat trip. Jago’s experience had been much the same. Conversation stalled by the time she finished her coffee.
Nerves. It’s just nerves, and this seriously, gloomy place. She put down her empty cup. “I’m sorry, I’m not good company right now.”
“I think you’re great company.” Jago smiled. His chocolate brown eyes held warmth and mischief. “Especially in these circumstances.”
His attraction warmed her, but the timing was all wrong. “Please excuse me. I need to write notes about our dinner.” She stood. “It will be an interesting part of my report.”
He laughed. “Why don’t I see you to your room.”
“To keep the chuckler away?”
“Something like that.” He touched her back gently in a reassuring and intimate way. “You know this isn’t the scariest place I’ve stayed.”
“Oh, tell me about the scariest.” She let him leave his hand on her back.
“It was a castle in Tuscany. The stories they tell about that place are even worse than the captain’s tales of Deadman’s island.”
Maddy was usually reticent, but the mixture of alcohol and fear made her want to open up and connect. Maybe it was his charm and his good looks. She swallowed. “I thought I saw a ghost tonight.”
“I could stay with you.” He smiled. “Keep you safe, you know. We’re safer together.”
She laughed. “I think I can handle a ghost.”
When they reached her door, he leaned in for a kiss. His lips were soft and full of promise. Maybe this week wouldn’t be all bad. If she survived, that is.