We are in the drawing room with the Great Detective. Everyone is assembled. All the family, the household staff, the weekend guests, anyone who has been near this place since we found the body of poor old Aunt Charlotte last Friday evening. It is time, it seems, for the grand finale. This is the moment where he lines everyone up and unravels the mystery for us. This is the part where he explains exactly what has been going on, displays at great length every facet of his genius before eventually, finally pointing a finger at the murderer.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I very nearly didn’t come. It’s a Sunday evening, after all. I should be out on the golf course, or relaxing somewhere with a cigar and a brandy, not sweating away in here with the rest of the family. Still, this detective fellow is a difficult man to say no to sometimes. He has an oddly persuasive manner about him. You find yourself agreeing to the oddest things.
Besides, it is rather in our interest to be here. We are suspects after all and we know it. We’ve all had to put up with a questioning and cross-examination from the man himself, as well as the usual clumsy prodding from the local constabulary. Nobody, it is fair to say, has enjoyed the process. All sorts of skeletons emerging from closets, you understand. You can’t imagine the feathers he’s been bristling this past few days. It really has been marvelously enlightening!
God only knows how he gets away with it. You'd have thought there'd be rules against this sort of thing. Other people have to play it by the book, to follow procedure and whatnot, but none of that seems to apply to him. Genius makes its own rules, I suppose. And he does have this habit of always, inevitably solving the crime. There is no puzzle, they say, that the great man cannot unlock, no code he cannot break. If there are jewels to be found, he will find them. If there is a plot to be stopped, he will stop it. Reading his press he comes across like some sort of all-seeing superman with a monocle and a waistcoat. The flawless bloodhound who always, always gets his man.
All of which is a little bit worrying for me at this stage, to be honest. You see (and I do hate to spoil the surprise for you) I am the murderer. It was me. I did it. So you can imagine how exceedingly disconcerting it is to have to sit here and watch him explain, in great detail and with no little flair, exactly how I managed to pull the thing off. Very worrying indeed.
So far, he has everything pretty much spot on. The motive - Aunt Charlotte's money, of course, and the threat of a horrid new codicil in that valuable old will of hers. The method - arsenic in the hot chocolate (I am so fond of the classics). The misdirection - putting the poison into Charlotte's secret brandy stash too, so as to make it look as though the murder might have taken place much earlier than it actually did. I have to say I'm very impressed. Even in my precarious situation I can't help but admire the skill with which he's picked it all apart. He's even unravelled that little double bluff I set up - planting the arsenic bottle in my own luggage but cunningly making it look as though young Emma - the waiflike maidservant who has a thing for Cousin Stewart - must have put it there.
I fear there's no denying it. He's seen right through everything and it's only a matter of time before I hear the snap of handcuffs around my wrists. I should be upset, but to be honest I'm enjoying the show too much. More than that, I’m actually eager to hear see exactly how he's going to pin me down. No doubt there was some shoddy mistake I made along the way, that's the way these things normally pan out. I'm sure that whatever happens I'll completely deserve everything that comes my way. I'm not asking for any sympathy. I am guilty after all, there's no question about that.
So I'm sitting back in my chair, quite resigned to my fate when he comes to summing things up and prepares to unveil the culprit. I'm not even listening properly anymore. It’s so obvious what's coming next that I've already begun to mentally prepare my confession and congratulations to the sleuth. Something suitably witty and self-deprecating I'm thinking. Something sharp with a little bit of style. If one has to go to the gallows, one might as well be cheerful about it, don’t you think?
You can imagine my surprise then, when his voice rises to a crescendo, a peak of flamboyant outrage and, standing right in front of me, he spins and stretches out a finger and declares the murder to be none other than...Great Uncle Philip? Really? That decrepit old codger in the wheelchair? Can he be serious?
At first I can't believe it. It doesn't seem possible he's made such an obvious blunder. I'm waiting for him to crack a joke and turn his glare my way, but he never does. Instead, to Uncle Philip’s horrified indignation, he runs through all the evidence that proves indisputably that he is the only one of us who could possibly have committed the crime. I'm glad to say that it does all sound very convincing. So much so that I begin to wonder whether I'm not the only murderer in the room. Maybe we both did it? Who knows? Either way it seems like I've pulled it off. I’ve managed to luck my way past the Great Detective and all his lackeys.
I sit back in my chair and try to force my heart to stop beating so fast. Everyone else in the room looks sick and drained, as if they're being dragged through an emotional wringer. For the first time this weekend I almost feel sorry for them. Cousin Stewart is on his feet and shaking his fist, arguing bitterly with the detective and his sidekicks. The maids are all weeping uncontrollably. Over in the corner Aunt Sophie is turning a very unhealthy looking pale yellow sort of a colour. Poor Aunt Sophie, with her bad legs and weak heart. This weekend's affair can't have done her any good at all. She probably doesn't have long left, really. Much more of this and she'll probably tip right over the edge, no doubt. She lurches forward in her chair and daps at her mouth with a handkerchief. She's looking right over to me, her eyes pleading for some help or some comfort. I get to my feet and take her over a glass of water. As her frail old hand takes it from me and she nods her thanks, a thought occurs crosses my mind. Just how, I wonder, are the contents of her will arranged?
Bio: Rufus Woodward lives and works in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the author of four volumes of stories and poems. To read more please visit www.shorecliffhorror.com