A STUDY IN CERISE (6/7)

He retreated to his room to digest the news. And because of the chaos. Noise, people wandering around clutching mobile phones, people shouting and sobbing. Cars arriving. Police sirens. He supposed, eventually, someone would come to tell him, ever so gently, that he had been bereaved. Not for a while, he suspected. They had forgotten about him.

‘Charles, have you by any chance seen my passport?’ Ursula’s voice was casual but Charles was not fooled. She had been crying, and in her hand he glimpsed a screwed up tissue. He felt a bit ashamed of himself.

‘Charles, sweetheart, it’s urgent. I don’t care why you borrowed it, I really don’t. I just need it. Now. Please. Where did you put it?’

‘Where have you put it for safe-keeping, my little magpie?’ Magpies again. He’d pointed magpies out to Mrs McManus, then she’d given him the new magpie rhyme, and here was Ursula calling him a magpie. It must be synchro.. synchro… that thing about coincidences. Wikipedia had a long section on it. A new thought struck him. Had he inherited magpie genes, too? Could he be a mixture of Mynah, Magpie and Boy?

‘In my evidence drawer,’ he said, fetching it from the drawer of the bedside cabinet.

‘Thank you, Charles.’ Her voice was getting shakier. ‘I may be away for a while. I am going – on holiday. For a while. Be a good boy, won’t you? Look after yourself.’

‘But you hardly ever go on holiday, Ursula. I mean, there was that once when you went to Cornwall, but that was because of that soppy Frenchman’s Creek, wasn’t it? You quite liked the idea of pirates sailing their boats up the river to carry you off to France.’

‘How did you know that?’

‘I know lots of things, you’d be surprised.’

‘What was it called, that boat?’ he asked. He realised he was trying to stall her.

‘La Mouette.’ A large tear appeared at the inner corner of her right eye and trickled slowly down.

‘Oh yes, The Seagull. I looked it up in my French Dictionary at school.’

‘Charlie, dear, I want to explain something. I probably shouldn’t, but I don’t want to leave you thinking…’ Another tear started down her cheek. Charles could never bear tears. He went and put his arms round her waist.

‘Don’t cry, Ursie. Please don’t cry.’ She took a deep breath, obviously attempting to pull herself together.

‘I didn’t kill Christina. I wanted to – oh, at times I could have – but whoever it was, it wasn’t me. But I did – oh dear, I’m getting this arse about face as they say at the zoo – I did do something wrong. I stabbed her wedding dress. She’d foisted this giant cerise bridesmaid number on me at the last moment…’

‘Yes, I saw it.’ Charles had felt nothing but sympathy for Ursula when Christina showed him the hideous thing, laughing. He hated their sister too, he realised. It had been at the back of his mind ever since Suit Lady accidentally informed him of Christina’s death – guilt. He should be wailing and screaming. What did they say, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Yet he hadn’t gnashed a single one of his.

‘I stabbed it with my nail scissors in a fit of rage, and because I knew I couldn’t wear the pink dress, and because I knew she was marrying him for the wrong reasons…’

‘She told you that?’

‘Yes, it’s the trust, isn’t it? He gets all this money when he’s twenty-five. What I can’t understand is why he’s marrying her. I mean, he isn’t of that…’

‘It’s something to do with a waiter called Jorge. I read her diary.’

‘You read -? Ah, that makes sense.’ It still didn’t make sense to Charlie.

‘But that isn’t all, Charlie. I did another awful thing. I took a bottle of red ink and I – I threw it at the dress. I suppose I wanted it to be really ruined, you know, beyond repair. I wanted her to know just how much it hurt, being fat, being plain, and being mocked. Being expected to wear a cerise bridesmaid gown with puffy sleeves that show off your blubbery bingo-wings. I wanted – ‘

‘Don’t worry, sis. I know you wouldn’t kill her.’

‘But somebody has! And by now they will have found the wedding dress hanging behind her door, all stabbed and everything, and ink all over it and all over the carpet and…’ She took another deep breath and untangled his arms from around her waist.

‘Now I must make my getaway too, Charlie. Like La Mouette. Right now. You remember that pirate? He had to flee or they would have hanged him at the Assizes in… Bodmin, or wherever it was. Look after yourself, Charlie. Have a good life. Oh no, that sounds…’

And then she was gone. And the moment he had gone Charles knew why his instincts had told him to stop her. If you run away people always assume you are guilty. Christina had always been horrible to Ursula, and Ursula hated her. Everyone knew that. And if someone told the police that, and then they learned that Ursula had run away, with her passport…

It was as good as a confession.

He had to get into Christina’s room. It had been a game before, now Ursula’s good name – maybe her life, or at any rate her freedom – depended on it.

Distractedly, he went to close the evidence drawer, and only then did he notice it had been burgled. Well, not burgled exactly, but the things in it had been looked through and rearranged. In particular, something had happened to the black and white necklace he had bought at the junk shop yesterday. It was still in the drawer, but someone had cut the thread that held it together. Four beads had been removed, two black and two white. He knew that because they were laid out in a neat little row on his pillow. Black, white. Black white.

It transpired that Ursula was not the only missing person. Mrs McManus and her son Patrick, for a start, together with Jorge the Brazilian. Charles scouted around, ears flapping. Still no one had noticed him or thought to tell him his sister was no more.

From what he overheard he gathered that the police were temporarily at a loss. It was no wonder, really. In Agatha Christie novels and suchlike all the suspects would lurk conveniently around in the library afterwards so that Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot could explain, often at incredible length, which of them was in fact the murderer. There wasn’t a library, of course, but not a single suspect had had the decency to lurk, anywhere in the hotel. Had they been in league with one another? Had the bride been murdered by a committee?

Christina’s bedroom was now a crime scene, and a uniformed policeman had been posted outside the door. Charles’s mind seemed to have gone into overdrive since the murder. No more daydreams and digressions into Mynah bird beaks and the various languages of the sub-continent. His sister’s actual body, he knew, had been taken away by the police. Everyone was still clamped to their mobile phones and shouting, so he kept overhearing things whether he wanted to or not. He had to get into her room.

What would Sherlock do, he wondered; manufacture some kind of diversion to lure the policeman away from outside the bedroom door? He peered round the corner at the policeman. The man was large and solid, with a granite face. Not the type to be diverted by an eleven year old boy, Charles decided.

The rooms on either sides of Christina’s were empty. This was because they had been inhabited by Mrs McManus, on the right, and Patrick McManus, on the left, and both now had ‘departed’. Charlie made a mental note of the floor they were on, and also counted the number of rooms from the far end of the corridor up to Mrs McManus’s room. Then he took an elaborately casual stroll outside the hotel and cast an equally casual glance upwards. He counted windows from right to left (since he had counted them from left to right inside the building) and noted that whilst all the rooms on this floor had access to a balcony, each of the balconies were shared between two rooms with some kind of division in the middle. Mrs McManus’s room shared a balcony with Christina’s whilst Patrick’s balcony shared with the room next to that. Which meant that he only needed to get into Mrs McManus’s room, open the window and climb out, get over the barrier (hopefully it wouldn’t be too high) and sneak into Christina’s. Which is what he did. The policeman, though still on duty, seemed to think it was his duty to face the wall in front of him, never wavering, like one of the sentries outside Buckingham Palace. Charles tiptoed along the wall. He was light on his feet, and had occasionally practiced tracking, which someone had given a book about last Christmas.

His sister’s corpse had been removed, naturally. Her wedding dress had also been removed (‘evidence’ he thought) although a puddle of dried red stuff on the carpet attested to Ursula’s version of events. He bent to inspect it more closely and touched it with his finger, which came away stained a watery bluey-red. Ink, no doubt about it.

It was under the bed that he found what he had been looking for. Three beads from his necklace, laid out in a row. One white, one black, one white. He left them undisturbed, just as he had left the four he found on his pillow. Finally, things were beginning to make sense.

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