We were to be served dinner at exactly five. By the time I had finished losing myself in conversation with Carrie, it had become half past four.
Marina led me down a familiar route, finally entering the dining room that I had wandered into yesterday. The dust had been swept away and the around gleamed with newly spread polish. It set me wondering who did all the housework. I couldn’t imagine Mrs. Karkroff in a twee, Russian apron, cleaning up after her household; however I had not seen any servants around the house either. The room, small already, was made to look even smaller by the guests scurrying in and out, reminiscent of mice.
It turned out, after I had glanced around, that the Inspector was the one leading the dinner for this evening, and in fact, it had been left up to him to set the troops. He stood by the entrance to a door to a secret room, the door tapestry-covered, and was stepping back and forth between the two entrances, collecting woven placemats and off-set coasters from another, tinier study-room with white-washed drawers that, when pulled out, stuck in odd angles, the paint catching the slide.
The faces of those people I had watched arrive whipped towards me, one, two, three; the Inspector busying himself in the other room. Marina parted my company at the door, making her way over to Mr. Thomason, whilst I, being followed by two pairs of eyes, went over to the Inspector, passing though the tapestry.
“Ah, Miss King, you’re finally here.”
Biting my tongue to resist any sort of insult, I took hold of the glasses he passed to me- and in turn, I passed them to the waiting Nicky. We were one microcosm of a chain reaction.
“Have you see Caroline?” the Inspector asked me as we were wandering back into the dining room.
“She’s just sorting out the children,” I replied. “She’ll be down in a minute.”
Nicky had changed into a long, plain evening dress, aqua in colour, and she smiled at me, a little dazed, as she arranged the chairs. There were the eight that I had seen yesterday set out neatly around the table, but still Nicky parted her smile with a frown.
“How nice of us all to be invited here, don’t you think?” Vladimere said, standing by a window, watching in, on us all.
“Not helping, sir?” I teased.
“You’re finished now, so what would my help do? I think you’ll find it useless.” He smiled back, showing those sharp teeth, his aura crackling again. The politician was electric. Still, not being useful.
Mr. Karkroff emerged from an archway at the side of the little storeroom; he let through a view of another small room, an office it seemed. As he smiled at me, I took in his appearance; in dinner-dress, black-tie, he looked strangely handsome, as though Josh Craig had come back to take me away with him…
If only Mr. Karkroff didn’t have his wiry black beard and hair, looking at least forty-five. And of course, my attraction to older men ceased past thirty-five.
“Good afternoon, Miss King,” he said. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“Likewise…” I murmured to myself as I held the door open for him, dizzy.
It was then, when I was running out of words to say, that Carrie swept into the room. She had discarded her work dress and had now taken up a short glittering number, vibrant cocktail pink with sequins that caught the radiance from the quartered lights hanging above. Her dark hair swishing as she turned, and her face coated with make-up, she looked beautiful and glamorous, a picture of the Carrie I used to know.
In an instant, Mrs. Karkroff was in the room, a figure-hugging dress in her typical shade of ruby out-shining Carrie’s frock, and suddenly all the guests had been led to their places. How it happened that the Inspector had remained standing in the mess of the Karkroffs and their guests, I had no idea as the time seemed to move in fragments around me.
As the Inspector made his way over to help Carrie, she ducked back out into the hallway and ushered the little Karkroffs forward, cleaned and dressed in evening clothes themselves: an expensive-looking pea-green dress, ruffled, and a suit that was the identical junior to his father’s. Elsie blushed as she slotted herself down into the seat next to the one I was leaning against. I watched her closely, feeling my own cheeks heat up at her state-blank reaction.
“I thought you were leaving them upstairs?” I quietly called across to Carrie.
She gave me a wry look.
“They’ve got to have their dinner too, haven’t they?” she replied. “They’re part of this group too.”
“Very well,” I eventually muttered, settling myself down into what was quickly becoming the remaining chair. A multitude of eyes looked up at me curiously. I was sitting opposite the Inspector, who had, rather smugly, taken his place beside Carrie, all the better for claiming her as his girl. Maripose had fetched a chair from the nearby office-room, and she placed it at the side of the table so that Ivor could sit between his sister and Carrie. On the other side of me was Nicky, and beside her, eyeing the style of the décor gathered around him, was Vladimere. They were opposite Marina and Richard, who were, once again, whispering; and then the Karkroffs sat opposite each other at the end of the table that faced the tapestry door. When closed, that small area was all but dust.
When we had all assembled, Mr. Karkroff stood up again.
“I’ll need a few people to help move the dishes in here. Karkroff Hall is no longer a servant-occupied domain.”
“We’ll all chip in, if you want,” Marina said. “You’ve been courteous enough to us all, especially for letting the Inspector into your home.”
“It’s the least my wife and I can do. This country should be without such faults as murder.”
“Well said, sir,” Vladimere added.
In some sort of order, we stood and made our way back through the tapestry, following Mr. Karkroff into the room beyond that which he had previously emerged from. It was a kitchen. It seemed fully-stocked, yet it was a tight squeeze for all of us to walk to and fro.
“There’s a bowl of soup for each of us compressed in a thermal flask,” Mrs. Karkroff said, directing us like a puppet-master from the doorway, “except me. I can’t manage a starter with a three-course meal. Try the top cupboard, Meez King, but, of course, be aware of the oven’s heat.”
I followed her eyes to an upper cupboard, positioned precariously above the stove. I manoeuvred around, passing down three flasks of steaming soup at a time down to Richard, balanced on one foot to reach up. Having fetched the tenth flask, I pulled back- and bashed my thigh against one of the stove-hobs, wincing as the heat seared into my leg.
“Are you okay?” Richard asked, his breath hissing into my ear. I’d almost forgotten that he was American, but now his accent was pronounced again.
“I’m fine,” I replied, blinking back the pain, as I clutched at the spreading mark.
“Aggie, are you okay?” Carrie cried, her head poking forward from the door.
“Agnetha…” Marina’s voice broke the chorus, commotion spreading through the kitchen. All eyes focused themselves on me.
“Really. I’m fine, really,” I reiterated.
“Yes!” I released my leg, clenching down the pain.