The condescension in her tone sent another little shivers throughout my body. I began to stride towards the door, saying as I did so:
“I’ll get to that investigation now. Be safe.”
“Sure,” Marina repeated. When I reached the doorway, I risked a glance at her; with eyes towards the windows now, Marina was ignoring me.
I had reached almost the end of my patience with the inhabitants of this Hall, always full of riddles and deception. Marina’s and her cold Russia heart did not calm my own fiery temper. I clenched both fists as I marched. I stormed through the corridor, luckily meeting no one. That was to be best. It must have been one of the days when it wasn’t open Hall, for there were no lines of eager Russians and scampering foreigners outside.
I cursed. Now I was beginning to sound like the natives. Or whatever. I rubbed my forehead. If I hadn’t had a headache before, I was certainly getting one now.
By the time I was knocking on Nicky’s front door, I was utterly confused at my place. Knowing my luck, the moment I would leave Russia, the whole aristocracy would hate me.
I crept in. The door, whilst not hanging off its hooks, was open, unlocked. The house was more than bare. I would have been convinced that it had been stripped of ornaments and decorations, aside from the fact that I don’t think it started off so well furnished. My eyes had become used to the glamour across the road. Now, I squinted against the low light that tripped in from outside, through the windows. Cobwebs decked the corners, but there was no one thing to suggest that the house had not been lived in recently. In fact, this dilapidated disorder pointed out the opposite.
Three doors were open, two to my periphery and one just beyond the stairs that suddenly emerged. To my left, I identified a living room. Of this I was sure, because of the typical sofa, TV and a small assortment of abandoned toys. I breathed in to rid myself of the creeping nerves – and promptly coughed out stale air. It was disgusting.
I lunged forward to check each of the three rooms, but did not push myself to check the two doors beyond that, suspecting that they were cupboards and lead-throughs. Instead, content that downstairs was empty, I laid a heavy foot onto the first stair, wincing as it creaked.
I edged upwards, careful of my steps the entire time. By the top of the stairs, I was aware of the presence of someone other than myself in the building. Clattering came from behind one of the doors. I wanted to arm myself, but all I could see were lampshades and bookshelves. That sucked. I didn’t think a novel would be very much use against an intruder.
I swung the door open…to find myself staring right into the eyes of Nicky. She let out a little gasp and began to back away.
“Why didn’t you knock?” she muttered, un-bracing the suitcase she had been holding and slinging in onto a double bed. This was, so it seemed, her own room.
“The front door was open and nobody answered. I thought you were an intruder.”
“Ha! As if. I know little about breaking in, unless it involves crypts and stonework.”
I pulled a face. “What?”
Nicky seemed to crumble in on herself again. Her features fell in the space of a second and she fell onto the double bed, evidently her own. I looked around. This must have been her room. The closet was open, stripped of most things like the rest of the house. Nicky herself seemed removed from her concentration. She swung back and forth, hands clasped in her lap. Yet, she was not entirely in the grips of her bipolar, I noticed.
“Mrs. Cunningham?” I ventured. “I just thought it was an odd thing for you to say, that’s all.”
She shook her head. “Never mind.”
It was then that I spotted the suitcase – actually spotted it and the implication of Nicky’s packing. I stood, wordless, in her doorway, as she reached for more clothes.
“Don’t you leave! It was Caroline who did exactly the same thing – on my advice – to get here. Ironically, it is she who is the reason why I am here at all.”
“Leave Russia’s politics to itself,” Nicky remarked. She stuffed a couple of tops into her suitcase before stopping still. “I’m glad you think I’m innocent. In any case, I couldn’t leave my four darlings, especially not whilst Del is still nowhere. She is still alive, I can feel it.”
“Nevertheless, you heard what the Inspector said,” I added. “Expressions do not deny you. Why are you running?”
“This bag is for my son. He is staying around a friend’s house tonight. I’m a friend of their mother, and she asked to borrow a couple of my tops whilst I’m not using them for the time-being. That’s the only reason I am packing this suitcase.”
I shrugged at the viable explanation. “Okay, carry on.”
She did so, and I tried not to snoop whilst she moved in the background. Her house was an imitation of mine, unremarkable in some ways.
“I know you haven’t committed any –”
“What? You are still accusing me?” Nicky spun.
“No…. Nicky, the Inspector is adamant that you have a background that’s dangerous.”
I ignored her sharp gaze. “What happened when your husband died? The Inspector is concerned about that moment.”
“I left England two months after the inquest. That doesn’t make me a murderer! You know I moved to Russia to find my baby girl.”
“What happened, though?”
“It was unresolved” Nicky marched over to a drawer of her bedside desk, lifting out a small silk-covered box. She loosened her locket, slipping the picture of Dean out to reveal a tiny key. It was this that she inserted into the keyhole of the box, clicking it open to reveal a wad of newspaper reports. She thrust the pages into my hands. “Here, read the article for yourself. ‘Accidental death’.”
I scanned the paper, reading it quickly. It was not that I didn’t care for her answer, but all the details were trivial lines, black on this white paper. All the facts were there as she had promised, even through the distorted and crumpled fade of the newspaper. Every second I spent rooting through the past, the present – and the answer I needed to find – were slipping away.
When I had finished reading, I looking up. Nicky had finished her ‘packing’ or whatever it was, and was sitting on the bed, a pillow crushed between her hands. As gently as I could, I grabbed the box and thrust the papers back in.
“Nothing is more certain in life than death,” I whispered.
She dug her fists into the pillow. “I know.”
“Nicky… I’m so sorry….”
She sighed. “The police, they don’t know the facts. Maybe someone did deliberately take the life of my darling Dean, but it wasn’t me. I went inside my home, happy, but came out with fear written all over my life. He lay there drowning and what could I say to them? Death by misadventure. I wish I could have….”
Now I cleared my throat. “Mrs. Cunningham, isn’t there anyway –?"
“What do you want?”
“It’s just the system. Like everything, it can be played, but you were not in the right mind back then. They’ll have wanted more at the inquest. You didn’t see anybody around your house that day?”
Nicky bit her lips, fiddling with the remains of the articles. It was obvious that she wanted nothing more to say about the incident. I wasn’t about to press the issue into her further. It was her past, after all, not mine. On her head be it.
“Miss Cunningham. I only say this for your own good, you know; if you saw something about the day, somebody out of place or acting strange – and I know you did – you need to tell the police, if only to clear your own name. Please don’t suffer in silence – it will only cost you. You would want to find out the truth, and it’s through truth that you’ll find peace with Dean.”
Her eyes searched the bag, roaming endlessly. “I don’t think I’ll ever find peace with Dean.”
I leant forward to clasp her hands, dearly hoping that she would take it as a sign of comfort, not hostility. Luckily, the lady didn’t twinge away much more than she had before. “If there’s anything more you would like me….”
Nicky trembled. “I – I guess so. Thank you.”
The box was pressed between the two of us, digging itself into my ribs and sternum. I pulled out of the hap-hazardous embrace to close it. The lid folded down with a quiet click, withholding all of its secrets again. I passed the treasure back to Nicky, who clutched it to her chest for a minute before slipping out her minute key and threading it back into her necklace. An ingenious hiding place, if there ever was one. A saddened face proved that her genius was not the cause of Petre’s death, however.
“It will mean something to them. Really, I must be going now….”
I let her pass, the both of us still aflutter. A moment later, I was aware of the slam of the front door. I was alone in the house of a stranger – a suspect. And for once I had no urge to search it for clues.