Dead and Breakfast
Twice a year Caitlin conducted a photographic tour of Europe – usually the Rhine region or Tuscany and, invariably, the Dordogne river valley. There was a purely mercenary reason for that, of course – these were places of such outrageous beauty that – providing one remembered to removed the lens cap – it was nearly impossible to take a bad picture, which made Caitlin a great teacher. Happy customers meant good word-of-mouth which, thanks to the internet, meant a harvest of bookings for the next trip.
Usually, fellowship flowed with the wine the first night at the Chateau and, once the awkward interval following introductions gave way to the initial peel of laughter, everyone behaved as is they’d fallen among long-lost friends.
Not this time. This group was different, and a more mismatched herd of human beings she couldn’t imagine. This became evident the first night at dinner, when, having left the table, Jeremy Farthing grinned evilly, and closed the door quietly behind him.
Mrs. Wagner sniffed. “Did anyone notice if that man cast a reflection when he walked by the mirror?”
“I’d lock the door on him,” said Mrs. Griffeths, “if those girls weren’t still out there somewhere. If this were a murder mystery,” she added, “that man would be found full of cutlery in the morning, with a house full of happy suspects.” She scooped a vengeful spoonful of raspberries. “I don’t suppose that’s very nice of me, is it?”
Mr. Piper seemed about to say something, but instead just smiled.
Dead and Breakfast
by David A. Crossman
oooo“No. You’re going to want to open the aperture as much as possible in this light, Mr. Wagner,” said Caitlin. She leaned over the shoulder of the semi-retired accountant, who was on his knees, and reset the f-stop. “And you don’t want telephoto.” She adjusted the lens. “There. How’s that?”
ooooThe begonia at which the accountant had been squinting burst softly from the background in his viewfinder. “Ah! There!”
oooo“Remember everyone,” said Caitlin habitually, “the brighter, the smaller. The darker, the bigger.” She felt she should copyright the refrain and put it to music. She wondered how many of the two or three hundred students who had gone through the workshop in the last six years remembered even that much. “The higher the f-stop number, the less light you’re admitting.”
ooooSecond verse, same as the first. Over and over again.
ooooShe stood up and massaged the hollow of her back, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply, absorbing the early morning. Had she been blind, the familiar grounds of the chateau would have taken shape in the smells and the sounds that rushed into the empty spaces in her senses: the geese fussing amiably at one another in the mill pond not twenty feet away, the rich residue of wood smoke, the earthiness of damp hay in the barn, the soft, unobtrusive overlay of the ivy. Crows tossed loud empty boasts from tree to tree, and the mindless, musical rush of the moat through the sluice of the gatekeeper’s cottage kept an indifferent cadence, punctuated now and then by worried snorts of the pigs in the distance as they greedily suckled the earth in search of some tasty treasure.
ooooIn the perfect stillness of the air she could almost feel the translucent train of mist that the night had left behind to whisper its regards to the dawn. She opened her eyes and smiled. It was going to be a perfect day. Within minutes the sun would unabashedly drench the Dordogne with the hazy gold peculiar to the region, and it would be impossible for the students to take a bad picture – providing they remembered to remove their lens caps. Thank God for single lens reflex cameras. Though by nature a night person, on these annual pilgrimages to the mountainous regions of southwestern France she preferred this mystical hour or so before sunrise when, detached from the concrete reality of day or night, the comfortable old chateau and all its surroundings were done in supernatural shades of blue. In such an unsure light, the real and the unreal mingled closely.
ooooPerhaps too closely.
ooooIt was always a struggle to convince the students that the world possessed any particular fascination at such an ungodly hour, especially after a late night at the Bistro in Rocamador. She understood that. Though English herself, she had lived in San Francisco long enough to appreciate the fact that her workshops were more a diversion than serious courses of instruction for most of these hardworking Americans – a curious breed of people who couldn’t even allow themselves to play without feeling they were “doing” something. Not that she empathized – her predilections were much more Mediterranean – but she understood.
ooooNevertheless, as the sleep left their eyes and the world came into focus in the narrow confines of their viewfinders and flowers woke with a start to find themselves the object of microscopic inspection and preened themselves like lingerie models, even the dullest among the students couldn’t help but sense a magic so primeval and deep that for a few moments at least, they actually fancied themselves artists of a sort.
oooo“I can see why they did it though, can’t you?” Unaware, Caitlin had drifted into the conversational orbit of Frances Griffiths, a lean, matronly bundle of kinetic energy from somewhere in Massachusetts whose ceaseless monologue defied conventional logic.
ooooPerceiving herself the only one within earshot, Caitlin reluctantly took the bait. “I beg your pardon? Did what?”
oooo“The fairies. Well, not the fairies. The girls. Those girls in England. Where was it? Cornshire? Yorkfield? They made a movie about it.” The woman’s mouth seemed to be operating entirely independently of her brain which, if the meticulous actions of her fingers were any indication, focused entirely on forcing three sleepy flowers into a suitable formation for a portrait. She punched the glasses up her nose. “This one doesn’t want to cooperate. I need a rubber band. I have one on the dresser in my room. Can’t think where it came from. Oh, yes I do! I kept it around my little bag of coins. I collect coins. Well, I don’t, actually. But I’d like to. My husband says I should. Poor thing. Too bad his having to cancel out at the last minute. He insisted I come along alone. Poor thing.”
ooooHaving in the last few days been roped into some of the most absurd conversations with this perfectly benign, completely frustrating woman, it was against her better judgment that Caitlin spoke. “What about fairies?”
oooo“Oh, you know. Those little girls…well, maybe they weren’t so little. I think they were in their teens, weren’t they? You know…they cut out paper fairies and took pictures of them posed on flowers and things.”
ooooThe statement was the closest thing to a complete thought Frances had voiced since her arrival at the chateau, and it resounded with crystal-clarity among the archives in Caitlin’s brain. “Oh, yes. Of course, it was in Yorkshire, toward the end of World War I.”
oooo“Yorkshire, that’s what I thought. You know what I’d like? A staple. ‘Course it’d kill the little suckers, but at least I’d get the picture. If I did that, you could airbrush the staple with the computer, couldn’t you?
oooo“I’m getting hungry. I thought I’d never look at another bite of food after dinner last night. Seems like all I’ve done since we got here is eat. But I’m always hungry when I travel. There was real butter in the croissants we had yesterday morning. Makes all the difference in the world.” Throughout the fractured monologue she wrestled patiently with the flowers, to no avail. “I hope we have croissants again this morning. I love those raspberry preserves. Screw it,” she said finally, letting the overwrought blooms go limp. They, in turn, seemed to sigh almost audibly in relief. She bent over their nodding heads like the shadow of death and framed them in the viewfinder. “I’ll call this shot: ‘family enmity’. How’s that?”
ooooIt was a rhetorical question, like most of them, and Caitlin could have left it alone and ambled off on her merry way. It was clear Amber Capshaw was having trouble with her camera. Nevertheless… “So, what’s this about fairies, then?” Why? Why hadn’t she just shut up and gone away? No one would have noticed, least of all Mrs. Griffiths.
ooooFrances pressed the button and the film had auto-advanced through three frames before she knew it. “Oh…Oh! Crap! I mean rats. Pardon my French. Actually, I guess since we’re in France I should say pardon my English. Oh, you’re English, aren’t you? Is ‘crap’ English? No?” she said, without bothering to wait for a reply. “Then, pardon my American!” She lisped when she laughed. Like a snake surprised by some private joy. “This thing is so much faster than my Instamatic. I’ll never get used to it.”
oooo“Remember, I suggested you might rather bring a digital…”
oooo“And let a drawer full of perfectly good film go to waste!” She got up off her knees and studied the camera as if demanding an explanation for its behavior. “What were you saying?”
ooooReprieve. “Oh, nothing. You seem to have everything pretty well under control. Just remember, don’t hold the button down too long. Hold the camera steady, frame your picture, and press once gently. One click is all it takes.”
ooooCaitlin was about to detach herself when Mrs. Griffiths tossed a harpoon and reeled her in. “Oh, the fairies! That’s what you were talking about.”
ooooCaitlin looked longingly out over the countryside. There was a rich, green field embossed on a hillside some half mile a way. She could be there. Way up near the top. “Yes. I was wondering how you happened to mention them.”
oooo“Oh! Yes. The girls who took pictures of them, and passed them off as real fairies. Fooled everyone. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – though I doubt they’d have fooled Holmes, do you? That’s what I was thinking when I was looking at those flowers, ‘wouldn’t it be something if a fairy appeared,’ I thought. ‘And I got its picture!’ Silly, isn’t it? Then I remembered that movie, and those girls. Heavens,” she looked up, her milky gray eyes the very embodiment of surprise. “I didn’t realize I’d been talking out loud. You sure you’re not a mind-reader?”
oooo“God forbid,” Caitlin thought. And God doubly forbid that Mrs. Griffiths be a mind reader, especially at the moment.
ooooOnce again, a lighthearted hiss of laughter escaped like gas between the older woman’s tongue and teeth. “Oh! Look at the goose! My father had a little porcelain ashtray shaped like a goose. He stole it from a hotel in…” She caught up her tripod and waddled toward the millpond, framing the witless bird as hungrily as a hunter through the cross-hairs.
ooooCaitlin cast a sympathetic glance at the exhausted trio of flowers. “I know how you feel,” she said under her breath.
ooooThe scuffling of feet on the gravel drive recalled her to the business at hand. Amber Capshaw, in defiance of the beauty with which she was surrounded, was taking pictures of a freshly-killed rabbit the groundskeeper had hung on a hook by the kitchen door.
oooo“Curious subject,” said Caitlin, approaching quietly.
ooooAmber didn’t respond. As if the animal, it’s wide-eyes moist with the residue of life, might bolt at any minute, she held her breath, the way Caitlin had taught her to, and gently squeezed off a single shot. This done perfectly, perfunctorily, she lowered the camera. “It’ll still be blurry, I expect?”
oooo“Probably,” Caitlin replied. “The camera really needs to rest on something steady this time of day. It’s a long exposure.”
oooo“It’s too high up for the tripod,” said the girl. She turned her pretty, still-sleepy eyes to window of her mother’s room on the second floor.
ooooCaitlin followed her gaze. “I hope she’s feeling better this morning.”
oooo“She’s too fond of sweets,” the girl replied softly. “They upset her metabolism.”
ooooIn the few days of their acquaintance, Amber had made a profound impression on Caitlin. She seemed a living anachronism, a feeling that was emphasized every time she opened her mouth. She never said or did what one might reasonably expect of a twenty year-old American girl. Her responses to the world around her were one moment hopelessly naïve, and the next unsettlingly profound. She spoke deliberately. Carefully. Almost as if rehearsing her words. “Too fond of sweets.” The phraseology was like something out of Jane Austin.
ooooAmber returned her attention to the rabbit.
ooooCaitlin’s hobby was nude photography. She had a deep appreciation for the beauty of the human form, male and female, and she surveyed the young woman with a professional eye. Taken in bits and pieces, she was imperfect: her legs a little too skinny, her breasts a little too large, her hair – a vibrant copper-red, long and curly – suggested a fiery temperament which was emphatically denied by her deportment. It had been cared for, but never loved. Like the girl residing beneath it? Caitlin wondered. Her neck was a little too frail, her skin a little too white so that a delicate tracery of blue veins could be seen on the backs of her hands and around her eyes, eyes of a curious gray-green flecked with gold that existed nowhere else in nature, to Caitlin’s knowledge. It was they that, in some supernatural way, united all the odds and ends in perfect harmony.
ooooEven Caitlin, after a critical appraisal, couldn’t resolve upon an improvement. If any of the components were perfected, the balance of the whole would have been compromised. “Slap a pair of wings on her,” Caitlin thought, “and Mrs. Griffiths would have all the fairy she could want.”
ooooAmber, pointedly braless in a white Paris! T-shirt, corduroy jacket with the collar turned up, blue jeans, and white sneakers – as one would expect of the modern fairy – set the lens of her digital camera on Macro, stood on tip-toe, and pressed as close to the rabbit as physics would allow, taking an extreme close up of the perfect, round, dead eye. Caitlin could imagine it filling the viewfinder. She shivered and walked away, with now and then a backward glance at the gruesome tableau.
ooooIt was during such a backward glance she ran into Mr. Piper, the most enigmatic of an eccentric group. Enigmatic not in type, in fact he seemed if anything too much the archetypal American businessman – never hesitating to register his opinion on any subject, grande voce, as if volume were an acceptable substitute for familiarity with the subject matter. Rich and boisterous he could at times be the prototypical ugly American.
ooooBut he wasn’t consistently prototypical. There was a vulnerable side to his nature that he left exposed at all times, as if unaware that it might be mistaken for weakness. Of course, he could be so rich and so powerful that he actually didn’t give a damn what people thought. But Caitlin, in her careful observation of human nature, had come to the conclusion that the person who didn’t care what others thought didn’t exist. Quite the contrary. She had developed the conviction that people were motivated, in word, deed, and thought, solely by what others would think – or what they thought others would think.
ooooShe recognized the trait in herself. As a photographer it wasn’t, ultimately, the perfect picture she was after, but the approbation that came with it. Had photography failed to fill that need, she’d have developed another skill – an emotional commodity – that would have.
ooooNone of which helped explain Mr. Piper.
ooooLeast explicable of all was his relationship with his Czech traveling companion Miss Tichyara, a somber young blind woman, as silent as he was loquacious and probably – behind the small, black sunglasses she wore at all times, possessed of a brooding beauty which was not much diminished by the long scar on her throat. A scar she made no effort to conceal. She wasn’t his wife. Nor did the young woman, who called him ‘Mr. Piper’, seem related in any other capacity that Caitlin could fathom – and she’d devoted some time to the question. She certainly wasn’t his mistress, at least not in the conventional sense. They kept separate, nonadjoining rooms, maintained an easy propriety – as opposed to the forced propriety which is so much in evidence between elicit lovers – and he seemed always genuinely solicitous of her comfort and well-being.
oooo“Damn thing’s going straight to the factory once I get back home,” said Piper as Caitlin dislodged herself from him with flustered apology. He was looking disapprovingly at his expensive new camera, one Caitlin would have given her lower lip for.
oooo“What’s wrong with it?” she said, taking it from him lest, in his wrath, he should smash it against the little carved granite lions that guarded the bridge.
oooo“Damn thing’s broke!” he said, his frustration rising. “You’re the one who said I should get it. You tell me. Damn thing’s got more buttons than the space shuttle. What I want is my damn Polaroid.”
ooooCaitlin, considering it part of the service to absorb the frustration of her students, patiently inspected the camera. “Now that’s not fair, Mr. Piper. I didn’t tell you to buy it, did I? You asked me what was the best camera in the world, and I gave you my opinion. Then you went out and bought it.”
oooo“Same damn thing,” said Piper, a little sheepishly. As a result of a promise he’d made to God some thirty years ago when beseeching the Divinity to preserve him from the consequences of a bad investment – to which request the Lord inclined His ear – he restricted himself to the one expletive, and he realized he’d pretty much used up his days ration. “Sorry,” he said, revealing his softer side. Maybe that would entitle him to another “damn” later on in the day. “I just can’t get the…blasted thing to do what I want it to. You know what I told the gardener when he couldn’t give me roses when I wanted ‘em? ‘You’re fired!’”
ooooHe tapped the camera which Caitlin now held up to her eyes. The little jolts of indignation traveled through her head. None of the indicators in the viewfinder were on. She flicked a switch and the camera sprang to life. “Someone forgot to turn it on, Mr. Piper.” She handed it back to him. He lowered a glare at the instrument, as if it had embarrassed him on purpose and, mumbling that he’d never heard anything so foolish as a camera that you had to turn on, toddled off to photograph a tree.
oooo“He’s got more balls than a bull moose.” The speaker, who had appeared silently at her elbow, was Jeremy Farthing – the dissolute literator of the group. “Someone should make a bolo of them and hang him with it.”
oooo“And good morning to you, Mr. Farthing,” said Caitlin, with emphasized cheerfulness, which she knew would annoy him. In their brief acquaintance she had inclined to the notion that he wouldn’t allow himself to be cheerful, except in a caustic, mocking way, for fear his muse would desert him for darker dwellings.
ooooIt was certainly a dark muse. And angry. He had poured forth some of its vitriol their first night out.
ooooIn the course of dinner at her favorite local eatery she had “gone ‘round the table” as she called it, asking each of the students to tell a little about themselves. It was a good icebreaker. When she discovered Farthing was a writer, unpublished as of even date, she coaxed him to read something from the notebook he always carried.
ooooUnfortunately, he complied.
ooooHis command of the language was beyond debate. But something about the anarchic force of his narrative clawed at the hasps of the emotional baggage carried by each of his hearers, threatening, at every moment, to scatter the contents boldly before the face of God and man. His words were the scratches of dirty nails at a raw wounds, ones he was determined would not heal.
ooooBy the time he folded the handwritten pages into his notebook, Caitlin felt as if she’d been filleted. Judging by the protracted, unsettling silence that followed, she was not alone. Farthing sat back and sipped his wine, defying the world to defend itself.
ooooPiper had been the first to speak. “That kind of drivel goes over well with the critics. But it’ll never sell.”
ooooIt had been the opening salvo in a battle of wits for which only one combatant was armed. However Farthing’s sarcasm was utterly wasted on Piper, who seemed either not to comprehend the repeated broadsides or pretended not to hear. Which only stirred Farthing to less subtle bursts of verbal energy, like this most recent.
oooo“Make a bolo of them and hang him with it.” Caitlin wondered how long he’d been working on that one. It wasn’t a spontaneous comment. She was determined not to give him the satisfaction of the anticipated response, especially at the expense of another paying customer.
oooo“Haven’t had our coffee yet, have we?”
ooooFarthing’s scowl was common amongst generals about to open up war on another front, but he thought better of it. “Do you think Christ is coming back?” he said, with his hands thrust defiantly in the pockets of his khaki shorts. The twenty-year old Nikon swung neglected from his neck on its rawhide string, like the pendulum on a flea market clock.
ooooCaitlin didn’t take the time to gather her wits before she responded. “What do you mean?” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized she’d risen to the bait.
oooo“Christ,” said Farthing, turning his red-rimmed eyes to her. “You know. Jesus? Surely you’ve heard of Him. Didn’t you see The Passion?”
ooooCaitlin smiled as if she was amused. She wasn’t, and he knew it. “I read the book.”
ooooFarthing ignored the riposte. “They say He’s coming back to take his people to heaven.”
oooo“So they do,” said Caitlin, noncommittally.
ooooFarthing wandered off amidst a little cloud of self-satisfaction. “Nice day for it,” he called over his shoulder. “Though, if I was Him, I wouldn’t bother.”
ooooIt wasn’t six o’clock yet, and Caitlin was drained. Four more days.
ooooBy four o’clock that afternoon it had begun to rain; that meant the photography class would be back early. It was now six and would be dark soon. Jill shooed the Prime Minister and Robespierre from the dining hall, together with another, nameless cat, by whom she had only recently been adopted. She got a bottle of the local burgundy from the wine closet and put it on the sideboard, together with a baguette, warm from the oven, some pate de fois gras she had made herself (tomorrow one or more of the guests was sure to wonder aloud “weren’t there more geese here yesterday? I counted six, now there are only five. Where do you s’pose the other one got to?”), as well as generous slices of ham and local cheese and a bowl of grapes from the vineyard. That should hold them ‘til dinner.
ooooEarly on, when she and her husband had spent another long, lonely winters day in the empty hulk of the chateau, defending their dreams against the relentless onslaught of reality with trowels, paintbrushes, saws, hammers, and whatever other implements fell to hand, they would spread their sleeping bags on the hearth of the massive fireplace and imagine warmth from the coals as the heat rose up the chimney to the chuckling approval of the pigeons who made their home in the rafters. Joe, his perverse sense of humor undimmed by the rigors of the day, had taken to calling the walnut logs “village maidens” and would grin maniacally as he carefully selected one from among its sisters in the bin and laid it gently on the fire.
ooooNow he was back in England, minding the pub – the business that supported their dream. But they’d be together again in seven days. Two weeks on, two weeks off. It was easy once, even fun. Every first night together had been like a honeymoon. Now it was a litany of chores that needed to be done, arrangements that had to be made. And the money. Always the money. The 500 year-old chateau was all belly, and never satisfied.
ooooIt wasn’t fun anymore.
ooooShe tossed another log onto the coals and watched the blue ghost-arms of smoke bear the sacrifice aloft. The gods had ceased to care.
The grandfather clock against the opposite wall reminded her that two of her guests, young women traveling unaccompanied, hadn’t returned from their afternoon bicycle trip “in a couple of hours” as they’d said they would. Normally she wouldn’t have given it a thought, but given what happened in Breteneau last night…only four kilometers away. Fortunately people on vacation are very rarely interested in local news. She shuddered.
oooo“Here we are, love!” sang Caitlin as she ushered the soggy mass of humanity through the little side door nearest the fireplace. She glanced at the sideboard and winked appreciatively. “I see you’re expecting us.”
oooo“Yes. Well, once I saw the rain wasn’t going to let up…you want good light for Rocamador, don’t you? Oh, don’t worry about that.” This last she addressed to Frances Griffiths who was fretting about dripping on the floor. “A little water won’t hurt it.”
oooo“You’re sure?” said Frances, doubtfully.
oooo“Positive. It’ll come right up. Only thing that bothers me is it’ll show up how dirty the rest of the floor is.”
ooooFrances looked at the rest of the floor, which countless generations of footsteps had polished to a deep sheen. Like everything else at the chateau, it was spotless.
oooo“Well, if you don’t mind,” Frances replied doubtfully. She shook her slicker with gusto, creating a microcosmic storm front from which she seemed to derive a guilty pleasure.
ooooJill glanced at the clock again. The girls were two hours late. It was dark and raining, two conditions which precluded any other activity but bar-hopping. The motherly instincts nature had denied her to lavish on children of her own were often exercised on her guests. Doubly so with Heather and Delilah, a couple of twenty-somethings who had showed up on the doorstep the previous evening, without a reservation, and begged accommodation. Fortunately, one of Caitlin’s students had dropped out at the last minute, so there was room to accommodate them.
ooooThey had slept in late and missed breakfast, which neither seemed to mind. They sipped orange juice and chatted amiably while Jill cleared the table, and she joined them over coffee. At their request, she recited the history of the Chateau D’Arnac, trying to make it sound fresh and interesting, as if they were the first to inquire.
ooooThe Chateau had been built in the 16th Century. Its subsequent history had been unmarred by events of any consequence, though it had been visited by Michael Lay, Napoleon’s Secretary of State, in the early 1800′s, and during World War II had served as both de facto headquarters for the Resistance and upon their forced departure, a command post for the local Vichy constabulary.
ooooYes, they had found secret tunnels, all of which, as the natural abode of vermin, had been blocked off, but no dungeons, or if there were, they were so secret she and her husband hadn’t found them in the course of extensive renovations. There were no ghosts, per se, though there were lots of odd noises. And yes, it was very difficult to live and work without Joe two weeks of every month.
oooo“Heather’s desperate for her boyfriend,” Delilah volunteered mockingly. “And we’ve only been gone a week.”
ooooFor their part, the girls, both pretty and robust in a fresh-faced, North American way, were crowning their academic careers with a one-month tour of Europe, devouring it whole as she had done her first time on the Continent, rather than in leisurely bites. She imagined that one day they would return with their husbands to see all they had missed.
ooooJill recalled the delicious pain of her early separations from Joe, and the ravenous joy of their reunions. She hadn’t realized it was gone until that moment.
oooo“What about you?” she said, shaking off thoughts with which she didn’t wish to contend at the moment. “You must have left any number of broken hearts behind.”
ooooDelilah’s laugh was loud and musical. “Me? As far as boys are concerned, I’m like the Black Plague.”
ooooJill wasn’t sure whether or not the reference was to Delilah’s skin color, and was fumbling for a diplomatic response when Heather interjected. “They can’t stand the competition. She’s too good.”
ooooJill’s eyes begged clarification.
oooo“I’m a little competitive.”
oooo“She’s a jock!” said Heather, throwing an arm around her companion’s neck and hugging her quickly. “She out-boys the boys.”
oooo“So do you, Madam Butterfly!”
oooo“I’m not sure I follow,” said Jill, a redundant comment given the expression on her face.
oooo“Heather’s queen of the butterfly stroke at school. They call her Madame Butterfly.”
oooo“Yes, but she is the one who got a full ride in track and field and golf,” said Heather, slapping Delilah on the back.
oooo“Call me Tigerette Woods,” Delilah said with a glowing smile.
oooo“A full scholarship,” Heather explained. “Anyway, that’s why she doesn’t have boyfriends. She scares them. They’re intimidated.”
ooooThere was a touch of sadness in Delilah’s answering smile. “I guess.”
oooo“Don’t you worry,” Jill said with a sisterly pat on the hand. “How many boys do you need?”
oooo“Only one,” said Delilah quickly. She’d apparently asked herself that question before.
oooo“Only one,” Jill echoed reassuringly. “And he’s out there. All that’s needed is for your paths to cross.”
oooo“Then we’d better get going,” said Heather, jumping from the table and pulling Delilah to her feet in a single motion. “We don’t want to miss him! Let’s get our stuff!”
ooooGiggles followed the girls from the room, and their sandals slapped loudly on the steps as they flew up the circular stairs in the southeast tower.
oooo“It gets dark early!” Jill called after them. She could hear her mother’s voice ringing in her ears. “Can I expect you for dinner?”
oooo“We’ll be back in a couple of hours!”
ooooA few minutes later she heard the garden door slam behind them.
ooooNow they were over three and a half hours late.
oooo“Probably holed up in a bar somewhere, with this infernal rain,” Mr. Piper posited when Jill raised her concern over dessert.
oooo“I’d thought our little party were your exclusive guests,” Farthing said for no particular reason. “Tell us about them.”
oooo“Not much to tell, really,” said Jill. “Just a couple of very sweet, naive young girls enjoying their freedom.”
oooo“Perhaps they’re not as sweet and naive as you imagine,” Farthing rejoined, lisping intentionally on the ‘sweet’. “My guess is they’re shacked up with a couple of Frogs, their nubile young bodies shuddering, even as we speak, with forbidden raptures of delight.”
ooooFrances Griffiths fanned herself exaggeratedly. “Oh, really, Mr. Farthing! You’re a romantic.”
ooooSeeing the biting brush of his words had painted pictures he hadn’t intended, Farthing eschewed subtlety. “Of course, they could be lying naked in a gully somewhere with their throats cut.”
ooooMrs. Capshaw started from the table with such force that her heavy oaken chair fell backward, slamming against the polished stone floor. For half a second she stood, trembling visibly like a bird struck by an arrow, then burst into tears.
ooooAmber rose at her mother’s side and threw her arms around her. “Mr. Farthing! That was cruel!”
oooo“What’s got into her?” said Farthing. “I just said what everyone was thinking. There has been a murder in the area, you know.”
oooo“Mr. Farthing,” Jill snapped, barely able to restrain her fury. “That’s enough!”
ooooIt wasn’t enough for Frances. “Murder?”
ooooMrs. Capshaw flew from the room, followed closely by her daughter.
oooo“Amazing the effect of a few well-chosen words,” said Farthing, sipping his brandy contentedly. “It’s in all the papers. Don’t any of you read French? You do, Caitlin. Surely you knew.”
oooo“You knew of a murder and didn’t tell us?” Mrs. Wagner said indignantly. “I should think…”
oooo“And of course it comes as no surprise to our charming hostess,” said Farthing. The eyes he turned on Jill brimmed with gleeful malevolence. “Wouldn’t do to have the patrons all riled up, would it?”
oooo“Mr. Farthing,” said Jill who, despite her apparent composure, had taken Caitlin’s hand and was squeezing the blood from it. “What happened in Breteneau has nothing to do with us. It was terrible. Horrendous. But I fail to see how knowledge of a local tragedy could possibly add to an enjoyable vacation for my guests. And that is what I am here to provide – an enjoyable vacation.”
oooo“You don’t think your guests, especially the young ladies, deserve to know there’s a murderer roaming the countryside, so they might take appropriate precautions?” said Farthing. He calmly studied his hostess’s face through his snifter.
oooo“You’re right, Mr. Farthing,” Caitlin interrupted gently, retrieving her hand from Jill’s and massaging the feeling back into her fingers. “I knew about the murder but, as I understand, it was the act of a jilted lover and therefore nothing likely to pose a threat to any of you. Of course I’m not going to advertise such a thing, any more than the New York Tourist Board advertises the murders that take place there.”
oooo“This is hardly New York,” said Mrs. Wagner. “What do you think, Harold?”
ooooHarold had had a perfect day. At the professionally ripe old age of sixty-three he had discovered a love of travel and of photography for which, Caitlin assured him, he had a natural aptitude. It had been a surprise, after so many years, to peer through the veil of carefully regulated jots and tittles that circumscribed his existence and find a three-dimensional world. He hadn’t really been paying attention to the conversation until Mrs. Capshaw upset the chair, and even the ensuing talk of murder failed to expunge from his mind the beauty of a shot he’d framed that day at Rocamador. “Evelyn, calm yourself.” He reached for his wife with a reassuring hand.
ooooEvelyn bridled at the touch. Caitlin ached for the man whose tender gesture had been so pointedly rebuffed. He seemed to take it in stride.
oooo“Scenes of domestic bliss always make me weepy,” said Farthing.
oooo“You’re an ass,” Piper announced. “If there weren’t ladies present, I’d add a hole to that, and stick you up it, ’til pigs fly.”
ooooThe twisted contortion of metaphors had the odd effect of diminishing the tension in the room. Farthing, apparently feeling any repartee would be wasted, lapsed into a thoughtful silence, though the smirk on his lips hinted that it wouldn’t be long-lived.
oooo“Well, now that it’s out, you may as well tell us about it,” said Mr. Piper. “What happened?”
ooooJill sighed and turned pleadingly to Caitlin. “There’s not much to tell, really,” she began haltingly.
ooooCaitlin, sensing her friend’s discomfort, quickly took up the narrative. “According to the newspapers, the girl was found in her bed.”
oooo“Strangled, I believe,” Farthing elaborated.
ooooFrances drew a sharp breath. “The poor thing!”
oooo“Yes,” said Caitlin. “Breteneau is a small town, so it was no secret she had dumped one man for another.”
oooo“Let’s not overlook the homely little fact that the party of the second part was married,” said Farthing.
oooo“Thank you, Mr. Farthing.” Caitlin choked down a sharper response. Farthing seemed to have made it his day’s mission to provoke an outburst from her – tears, anger, anything. It was as if he sensed that, emotionally, she was floating very close to the surface, and he wanted to see what would happen if she broke. Thus far she had turned aside his malice with the pretense, at least, of professional equanimity. But it was late and her reserves of good cheer had been worn to a nub by long hours of mental thrust and parry. She was determined not to give him the satisfaction of falling apart. That she would do in the privacy of her room. Nevertheless, tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. “Yes. He was married.”
oooo“Wouldn’t that make the man’s wife as likely a suspect as anyone?” Piper speculated.
ooooCaitlin rose from the table and began to help Jill clear away the dinner things. “She’s some kind of invalid. I couldn’t make out exactly what she suffers from – I speak French better than I read it. But I gather she’s incapacitated. Unable to get around.” In the corner of her eye, she caught Jill glancing at the clock. “Now, who’s having dessert?”
oooo“Oh, my goodness,” Mrs. Griffiths bubbled. “I couldn’t possibly! Just out of curiosity, though, what are you having?”
oooo“Creme caramel with raspberries and brandy sauce,” said Jill. She forced a convivial smile. “All fresh today.”
oooo“I trust the brandy’s not fresh,” Farthing said.
ooooHis inability to leave even the simplest, most innocuous misstatement alone infuriated Caitlin beyond expression, and it was evident from the look Piper shot across the table at Farthing that the feeling was not peculiar to her. In fact, Piper’s expression brought forth the words “if looks could kill” with such force they were almost audible. Sensing her watching him, Piper turned to Caitlin, the blank hatred dissolving with disconcerting ease into bland conviviality.
oooo“I don’t see how I can pass that up.” Piper turned with a smile to his companion. “How ’bout you, my dear? Sounds right up your alley.”
oooo“This trip is doing no good to my figure,” Miss Tichyara replied good-naturedly, her heavily accented voice curiously low and breathy. “It doesn’t seem fair that calories should count on holiday, does it?”
oooo“If they didn’t, I’d be on vacation all my life,” said Mrs. Griffiths with a giggle.
oooo“Someone should invent periods of time in which it is impossible to put on weight,” Caitlin suggested. “Or lessen the effects of gravity somehow.”
oooo“Done!” Piper announced good-naturedly. “From now ’til we get on the plane in Paris, all foods are hereby declared kosher and calorie free.”
ooooThe proclamation met with universal approval, excepting Farthing, whose mood at the threatened resurgence of goodwill was even blacker. He got up from the table and went to the coat rack, where he wrestled a cigar from the pocket of his tweed blazer. “I’m going to see if those young women are floating face-down in the mill pond,” he said, opening the door. Jill fled in tears to the wine nook. Farthing smiled. “Tell her to save my dessert. I’ll have it later.”
oooo“Farthing?” Piper called, as Farthing was about to close the door. He stopped. “Take care you’re not devoured by wolves.”
ooooFarthing, grinning evilly, closed the door quietly behind him.
oooo“That’d be animal abuse,” Piper added.
oooo“Hear, hear,” said Mrs. Wagner. “Did anyone notice if that man cast a reflection when he walked by the mirror?”
oooo“I’d lock the door on him,” said Mrs. Griffiths, “if those girls weren’t still out there somewhere. If this were a murder mystery,” she added, “that man would be found full of knives in the morning, with a house full of happy suspects.” She scooped a vengeful spoonful of raspberries. “I don’t suppose that’s very nice of me, is it?”
ooooMr. Piper seemed about to say something, but instead just smiled.
oooo“I’m tired, Mr. Piper,” said Miss Tichyara in a quiet aside which only Caitlin heard. “Would you see me up the stairs?”
oooo“Of course, of course,” said Piper, rising. “I’d be happy to.” He helped her from the table, took her hand and placed it in the crook of his arm. “If you folks would keep the cats out of my custard for a few minutes, I’ll be right back.”
ooooThose at the table bade their goodnights to the blind girl. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and turned. “Caitlin?”
oooo“Right here, Ella,” said Caitlin.
oooo“It really was wonderful day,” said the girl. “I know you kept Mr. Farthing occupied most of the time. It can’t have been pleasant. I just wanted you to know your sacrifice is appreciated.”
ooooThose around the table were abashed to realize it was true. Poor Caitlin had made it her business to entertain Farthing while the rest of them enjoyed themselves. Presently their thanks made a chorus.
oooo“You take the bitter with the sweet,” said Caitlin graciously. “And I’d say you lot are sweet enough to offset a roomful of Farthings. Thank you, my dear.” She nodded at Miss Tichyara. “You sleep well.”
ooooMiss Tichyara smiled. “Tell Jill to lock the knife drawer.” She squeezed Piper’s arm slightly, and he guided her up the stairs.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I hope you’ve enjoyed the sample chapters of Dead and Breakfast and are sufficiently intrigued by to download the book to your Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone or other reading device for only $4.95. To do so, simply click here, or click the book cover at the top of this page which will take you to Amazon where you can place your order safely and securely. And if you enjoy Dead and Breakfast you’ll also enjoy the Albert Mysteries. Meanwhile, PLEASE Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail everyone you know, tell them how much you love the offbeat cast and crew of Dead and Breakfast, and send them to http://www.davidcrossman.com!
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David A. Crossman