Panting I slowly turned - only to see myself secure in the hands of Inspector Simnova.
He looked down at me, at my frantic expression.
“Miss King…” The eyebrows were raised, the hands unlocked. “I’m sorry. It was not my intention to frighten you.”
Ivor had sprung away, an animal, into whatever room it was that he had been investigating. I myself had not turned away from the door until now, certain that my discovery would come from leaving my post. The place was bigger than I expected, and my claustrophobia subsided, along with the rising urge to vomit.
Ironically, I had been so fixated on the terrible past matters that I would not look forward, to the open space. There were dust-covers all over the place, but nothing more.
“No, no, no…” I muttered, trying to settle my worry.
“Don’t be trance-like, Miss King.” In addition, the Inspector spat a few words over his shoulder to Ivor, who stopped his adventuring before looking to me once more.
“Miss King…we have priority to walk through the tourists. Unharmed. There’s no use hiding when they’re going to be coming and going for a while. Besides, you’ve no reason to hide.”
But in that instant, as I prepared to step out into the group, chance thrust me one reason.
With a substantially loud gasp, I retreated into the hiding space. The Inspector shot me his glare again, peeking out through the door to assess the situation I had just seen. His eyebrows, in true fashion, rose higher.
“Miss King,” he said, staring at me from his tall post, “am I to believe that your mother doesn’t know that you are here?” For it was she who had just wandered in via another tourist group, eager to see the hall and clear her head. “How old are you, might I ask?”
“I’m old enough to be here on my own without permission,” I growled, closing my eyes as I turned my face away and waited for the reprimands to come.
In the silence that followed, Inspector Simnova clutched my shoulders and turned my body to face him. There followed an impressed look form the detective.
“I can stay?” I half-whispered.
“Very well. You seem to have become an asset on this team. Besides, I don’t know what a restless teenager like yourself would do otherwise.”
I pouted, but the pout was soon replaced with a grin.
“Oh, thank you! Yes, I’m a teenager, but I can’t help falling into mysteries.”
“Ah, Carrie needs your help. Who am I to stop the beautiful lady?”
I blushed, watching the floor. Luckily, the Inspector continued reeling off his monologue.
“You’re not going to come this way, are you?” he added.
“I…can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Well, Miss King.” He let the door slide shut. “There’s a back way that will pass away from them, and back to Caroline. I do suppose that is where you were going?”
“Trying to…” I chuckled meagrely.
As he began to lead Ivor and me through the nexus of rooms that reflected the pattern of the dining room the floor below, I cleared my throat, embarrassed to appear in such a bad humour against my mother.
“I thought they’d still be at dinner.” I decided not to press the matter of Ivor’s not being there.
“Indeed, dinner.” He held open a fine door, where, in the corridor beyond, the wallpaper was starting to mutate back to its royalty. Gratefully, I stepped through, keeping Ivor close by.
“I should probably dine, too,” he added. “In case of…repeats.”
“You’re not dining?” Here, I was at a confused loss.
“Evidently not, Miss King.”
“Yes, the poisoner would never try the same thing twice,” I quipped. “We’re vigilant this time. I know people like them.”
“I’m surprised that you yourself are not down at dinner-”
However, my stomach grumbled in catharsis of the statement. The Inspector grumbled a laugh.
“I only meant that you would want to keep your eyes on the rest of the guests. Come on, I know of an old servants’ kitchen around this position. I’ll heat you up some soup, or something.”
“Oh, I can’t-” I began, interrupted by both the Inspector and my stomach. By this time, Ivor was laughing along with them.
“I’m a Detective Inspector, Miss King. I’m not going to poison you.”
At the door to a small, tiled room, he turned to me, eyebrows raised, but this time in his amused way.
“So, can I tempt you? In here. Take Ivor as well; he’ll appreciate something, even if it isn’t the best of Karkroff nourishment.”
I snatched a glance at Ivor, but he was happily settling into the kitchen that must have been familiar to him. Instead of sitting- as Inspector Simnova probably would have been more comfortable with- I lingered by the doorway, twisting my fingers in and out of the knot-holes that wooden counters presented.
This old kitchen possessed a new-style microwave, and the soup no longer remained chilled. I gleefully lunged at the steaming bowl that slid its way along the surface towards me, Ivor already sniffing at his. Though it took a couple of stern sentences form Inspector Simnova to get the boy sipping at the watery goo, he seemed placated by its presence. Perhaps he had been hungry in the end.
I munched at my own, admiring the rich flavours of the Russian taste when it was not garnished with poison delicacy. Not that cyanide had much of a flavour. Bitter almond smell, so Carrie had said. But now I was wishing that, instead of a weapon focus, I’d learnt to research a broader spectrum of murder.
However, I put those thoughts aside, trying to push away my distaste at the day. I drank my soup tenderly, watching as the sun descended under a wave of cloud; night was heading in. This cerise sky bathed the ground in a dappled reflection of the stars above, as if it was a mirage or a pool, the surface just waiting for a quaint destruction. Here in a servant’s kitchen, I was able to see a different part of the grounds through the glass door that must have once served as an easy route for servers to get to their masters on the lawn in summer’s day garden parties. A fountain lay in the centre of a patio where stone slabs, so carefully crusted with moss, served as seats, carved from the very warp of the stone.
The whole scene was lit by wicked crimson moonlight. Some might have called it a deathly picture, but its beauty was evident to me.
Having both finished our meal, I discerned it the right time to slide down into the hard-back chair opposite Ivor.
“I wish I’d brought you a book. I’m sorry,” I told him pitifully.
Ivor simply chirped as a response, licking his lips.
“Yeah, I know. I wish it’d been a Russian dictionary. You got the cat’s cream today, didn’t you?”
Eventually, I swung myself heavily out of the chair, fully intending to head back to the quarters. Ivor knew his way, that much was certain. Then came a short knock at the door, which was duly pushed open to leave me surprised, face to face with Caroline. Her smile was warm. I hadn’t recalled the Inspector sneaking out, but he certainly must have to have fetched her.
“Yes, before you say it, Misha told me you’d be here. I remember first being rescued into this place.” She waved her fingers in Ivor’s direction. “At first I thought I’d be working in this place.”
“I get what you mean…aside from the confusing uses of the word ‘place’.”
Carrie met me with a loving scowl.
“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head frivolously. “You never told me how you escaped. I just left you stranded; you just left me heartbroken… Sorry, again, melodramatic. Look at that moon.”
“Big and red,” Carrie replied, joining me to where I had wandered at the window; “the Devil’s sign.”
Yet, she didn’t answer my question, and the thoughts began to haunt me. I turned back in that direction, watching Ivor instead. I caught my reflection in a hanging saucepan. Guilt was quite a picture. In spite of intense eyes, my mind was far from concentrating.
Luckily, Caroline was the first to break out of our individual stupors. She fiddled with her starched collar, but a shot from me gave her some strength to speak.
“Aggie, can you have a word with Nicky for me? I’m…worried.”
“Why?” I whispered.
Carrie swallowed. “I’ve just seen her crying her eyes out in the garden. Beyond this set of windows, there’s a grove with another decorative fountain, a sort of twin to this one. You can’t really see it from here, but I know she’s still there. I don’t think it’d be right for me myself to comfort her… And I have the children to look out for-”
I nodded, watching Carrie’s vague expression as it soared over Ivor.
“I’ll give it a shot.”
It seemed impossible, from here, to visualise that anyone was out there in the garden, but I turned to my instincts that trusted Carrie.