As though she had applied for the place of butler, not governess, Carrie led me through the entrance and guided me to the lounge in which she had said the guests would be waiting for their ‘inspector’. In the meanwhile, I gazed at the portraits of black-barb-haired Russians, and tried my best to avoid knocking into marble ornaments that crept out of the corners of rooms.
Karkroff Hall was certainly a lavish place. If normal carpets were cream, I was willing to bet that these were a fine mink instead. The walls had been carefully painted in a plain magnolia paint, but that only seemed to accentuate how glowing the rest of this place was.
The room we finally entered into, a large sitting-lounge room of sorts near the back of the mansion, was one of less glamour, but still one that held the aura of brilliance…although there was that horrible aura of tension bubbling between all the people gathered.
In this room, there were various cushioned seats, some in a material that looked, to me, like velvet; others were not dressed, but their bare, and slightly rough, fabric protruded. As I walked in, overcome with first impressions, I noticed the wide windows facing into the sculptured back-garden, and I noticed the little things that were there for modern-day comfort: a plasma TV on the wall, a music player (beginning of the twentieth-century old-fashioned) with CDs in a black rack beside it, a game’s console tossed aside clumsily into a corner… Already, the house had more of a life than the outside advertisements gave it.
The tension increased when I entered; there was some unsaid acknowledgement towards Carrie, but hostility for the stranger was all I received.
Nervously, I gazed from one face to another of each of the four assembled here. “Well,” I began, clearing my throat to grab the occupants’ attentions, “hello…”
Carrie slunk behind and around me, her smile hesitant.
A man with dark hair was muttering to the someone sat behind him. With a smile, he turned and managed to entirely disappear out the side of the room, using the back exit to leave. Now the lady behind him was revealed to me. The beacon of blonde stood out instantly.
“Hey, weren’t you stepping off a plane to England only a day ago?” I asked the teary-eyed diva sitting in the chair at the back.
She sniffed at me. A light murmur went round the others, curious.
Nevertheless, it would have been possible if she had taken a private jet and not stopped over to change planes at Madrid airport like we had done.
“Marina, this is the lady I’ve asked in to help our investigations.” Carrie began the introductions. “Agnetha, this is an acquaintance of the Karkroffs, Marina. Though I guess she is known more commonly by her stage name, ‘Marina R’. It is unfortunate that what happened here led to postpone her European tour…”
I gaped, looking at the woman that, less than three days ago, I was watching descend the arrivals floor with grace. Here, she looked far more at home, her blonde hair tucked over one shoulder, dressed in a fluffy blue sweater and jeans like mine. As I expected, she was slender, and dazzling, even without much make-up.
“It’s nice to meet you,” she remarked to my starstruck expression, her voice lightly tinged with the Russian accent. It sounded, even there, perfect for singing.
It wasn’t that meeting a foreign celebrity was a shock to my system, but finding that she was part of the mystery I’d been ‘hired’ to solve was slightly problematic. Nevertheless, fame did not mean that I was going to go easy on this woman; in my eyes, everybody still had something to hide. It was in her greeting that I missed something obvious, and the reason that she was here floated past my mind with her intangible words.
However, I pushed my confusion and awe aside, and turned to the other lady sitting across the room from Marina.
“Who else have we got here?” I asked, sounding more and more like a proper detective every minute.
“Nicola 'Nicky' Cunningham,” exclaimed the forty-something lady as she sat up in her chair. Her body was lean, her face sallow, tired; she was a stick-figure with a nest of dark flame-coloured strands upon her head.
“It’s nice to meet you. I live in the cottage directly next door with my three children. I have two boys, one girl; the eldest is seventeen, the youngest, thirteen. I work in a shop, but I’m not ashamed to say that-”
“And British?” I noticed.
“When my husband died, I decided that I- and my family- needed a fresh start. Russia’s beautiful, don’t you agree? All the spires and the neat rectangular houses are so tranquil… There’s not much, but it’s home now.”
“Okay,” I nodded, watching Carrie out the corner of my eye. Her auburn jagged cut glowed in the neon light of a nearby lamp.
“Right… That’s all of you, isn’t it?” I turned to look at the room as a whole again, at the three very different women, and placed my hands casually on my hips. “Is anybody going to tell me the situation you’ve found yourself in?”