“If I swear that I’ll be back before six, in time for dinner, and I’ll be as safe as I can be, will that help?” I bartered.
Not much was getting past my mother though.
“And I’ll wrap up warm, even if I’m inside,” I added. “Please!”
I guessed that she could hear the pleading in my voice, as, after a minute of wearing her stone face, she relaxed and smiled.
“Alright, Agnetha, you’ve got me. Every clause of your agreement seems lawful.”
“Yeah. That doesn’t mean that I’ll be a lawyer though,” I said, thinking back to her remarks the previous evening.
“Just go, Agnetha.” Still, her voice was strained. Still, she did not want a fight.
Laughing despite her tone, I made another hasty exit out our hotel. It had snowed even more during the night, and the blanket beneath my feet was thicker and softer with more of that lovely crunch when I took my first steps. My foot sank deeper whilst my conscience buzzed about personal safety, but that little thrill of the first snow of childhood returned, and soon I was creating a new trial of footprints around the outskirts of the hotel entrance.
When I got back to my adulthood senses, I hired a taxi, apparently the best way to get around the city, I had been told the day before, and reached Karkroff Hall in surprisingly quick time. By the appearance of a smart black car with Russian number-plates, I could discern that the Inspector had beaten me to my destination. I also noticed, as I walked to the gate, a smaller, plainer car, blue in colour; an American import, if its number-plates were to be trusted.
Having rung the bell and repeated yesterday’s scenario, I wandered up the drive, taking care to notice all the little things about the lawn: the shapes of the hedges (mostly square, with the occasional tree moulded into a circular, gumdrop shape), the worn-down quality of the path (meaning that many people had passed the way that I was going), and even the length of the ivy strands that clung like children to the building. This was an old place, very old, and very loved, and somebody was there to clear up the place when even a drip of the fountain felt out of place. There was a taste in the air, I noticed; the kind of taste only a detective notices that has a metallic ting that clings to the back of the throat: the taste of secrets hanging, cloudy in the air.
It was not Carrie, this time, who opened the door to me; instead, Maripose Karkroff was the one who held open the rosewood gateway. Today, she was dressed in a typical 1970s’ lady’s Russian outfit, the one with fur-lined hat, coat and gloves (and boots too, I imagined), the velvet a glorious bright red, as, evidently, red was her colour préfère.
“Ah, Meez King, the others are waiting for you in the lounge that you saw them in yesterday. I guess Inspector Simnova is briefing them at the moment, but I don’t pay much attention to figures of authority in my husband’s affairs. Even if they are quite…dishy personalities. Oh, you’ll find Ms. Peterson upstairs, but she’s busy, and I’ll doubt that she’ll come down for a while.”
I nodded, about to ask Mrs. Karkroff if anything was the matter, when the lady turned and glided away into the interior of the building. There she left me, rather bemused at her calling Inspector Simnova ‘dishy’, though perhaps her English wasn’t as polished as she would have liked us all to think.
I watched the fancy marble statues that occasionally adorned the hall of this historic home that I was in. Mrs. Karkroff had assumed, wrongly, that I, a mere visitor for one day, would have already picked up the route into the lounge from the entrance. No, that wasn’t me; Benny was the scout of the family, even finding a way to deliver my letter to Caroline without mother realising that he was popping to the post-office to send a parcel. I, however, pursued other, more comfortable, ways of life.
Finally, I decided that I was doing nobody any good standing in the entrance hall, and proceeded to attempt to follow Mrs. Karkroff’s ghost to the left, through more well-carpeted halls that I had not paid attention to when Carrie had been my guide.
Unfortunately, where I ended up was not where I had set out to go. In fact, this new room comprised mostly of a private, small double-bed, a love-seat in a tarnished red, and a simple wooden cupboard containing contraceptives and unlit candles. This room, so oddly undecorated compared to the rest of the residential part of the house, was most definitely a lover’s room.
I made my third hasty exit of the week.
I hadn’t been wandering far in the direction of my entrance into the building, when I collided with a maid shuffling round the corner of a third walkway. I looked up into her surprised face and did a double-take.
“Agnetha! I was just making my way to the lounge. I thought you’d be there already…”
“I got lost…” I lowered my voice, and my eyes began to glint, before I continued, “And, I was doing some investigating.”
“Oh,” the other lady’s eyes flashed too, “did you find anything interesting?”
“Oh, yes. I stumbled into a love-nest.”
“A ‘love-nest’? How brilliant!” Caroline giggled.
“Not particularly,” I remarked. “Probably one of Mr. and Mrs. Karkroffs.”
Caroline almost laughed at me.
“Oh, don’t you know? Their…bed relationship has long since dried up. I actually invited you to Karkroff Hall to investigate that mystery too, since it’s pretty obvious to tell that they’re not happy as a couple, but yet stay together for some strange reason.”
I was stunned, not listening to the sweet words of Caroline that dripped past my ears at that moment.
“Then, who does that room belong to?”
I wished I’d checked for love-letters or other marks of personnel. I wished I hadn’t made such a speedy exit, when I could have found another clue… Or at least some cobwebs.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps thundering down the stairs that Carrie had revealed when she had stepped aside. Suddenly, I could see small figures, imps were in our presence.
Two children ran about Carrie’s waist: her charges. She beamed and batted at them playfully. The girl, a young teenager in appearance and height, was overcome by giggles as she curtsied and bade my friend a neat ‘good morning’ in strong, yet stuttering, English. When her eyes shot to me, she played nervously with a long braid of glossy black hair trailing down her back, a piece of her mother’s genetics through and through. The girl was dressed in a fitted blue smock, accentuating her newly-formed curves.
A little boy was ducking around Carrie’s tickling hands and burbling in Russian. On seeing her, he had mumbled a ‘hello’, but he had yet to speak another word of English. Happy chestnuts gleamed up at me through the frame of jagged black hair. He was wearing odd trousers that reminded me of old-fashioned breaches, but a raincoat-like jumper, black, had been tossed over them.
"They are my students," beamed Carrie. "Beautiful Elsie just turned thirteen, my little talkative pal, even in her smart English!"
“Hello…” she muttered to me.
“And Ivor,” Carrie continued, “is ten, a strapping young lad already!”
Ivor also beamed, his face easily breaking into a grin. This boy was not fazed by my presence, unlike his sister. He made it as if he understood what Carrie had been saying, but she assured me that he spoke no English. Still, he grinned up at us, an attempt to be grown-up which made we three girls laugh; andthatonly settled to encourage his lopsided grin even more.
“Come on,” Carrie said, once she had finished dabbing at her eyes, “I’ll lead you to the lounge where everybody’s probably waiting. We’ve certainly given them long enough! It’s back this way, if you were wondering.”