Posted on 2012-10-31
The sign on the door would say E. Bertram, PI, if I had a sign on my door, which I don't. The Church of England probably would not approve, for the fact is, I am a mild-mannered parson by day, a private investigator by night. People know where to find me, though, either to save their mortal souls or save their loved ones.
I get all kinds, and sometimes, as now, on a dark and stormy day, they show up for one saving while I have been out doing another. I was not surprised to find this glamorous dame sitting in my parlor just as I was coming back from a baptism.
She was sitting by the fire, and I realized the hearth wasn't the only flame in the room. It was Mary Crawford, weeping quietly into what I decided was an expensive, lacy square of linen.
"Hello, Ed," she said softly, peeping out from underneath the curved brim of a black velvet fedora. A fall of golden hair in the style of Veronica Lake curled seductively over one shoulder. I wasn't seduced.
Once I had thought she was the woman of my dreams, but she had turned into a nightmare. I wondered what she wanted of me now.
"Hello, doll. Of all the parsonages in all the world, what brings you to mine? Here to repent of black-hearted deeds? Confession, as they say, is good for the soul." If I had hoped she would storm out at my words, I was to be disappointed. She just kept dabbing at her kohl-linedeyes.
"Henry is dead."
I'd heard that recently, and I can't say I wasn't surprised or disappointed. The man had ruined my sister, after all.
"I'd heard that," I repeated aloud.
"He was murdered."
"The police ruled it an accident."
"Someone tosses a radio into your tub and it's an accident?" Her tone was incredulous.
"Maybe he liked to listen to Benny Goodman in the bath?"
"He was a Glenn Miller fan," was her flat reply.
"Then it must have been murder."
"Can you not be serious? It happened at Mansfield, you know."
I did not know that. My family, I fear, did not always show me the same attentions they did my elder brother, Tom, or my sisters, even Maria.
"What was he doing there?"
"Maria and your aunt came to Mansfield for a visit and he followed them there." The hand holding the lace handkerchief fluttered to her chest. "Ed, I fear Mr. Rushworth may have had something to do with all this."
"Oh? How do you figure that, doll?"
"He… he was supposed to come to Mansfield, as Maria had asked him to meet her there to attempt a reconciliation."
I doubted that would happen, even more so now that Crawford had been found dead at the same location, but points to my sister for the attempt. The parson in me could only approve. The PI in me was suspicious. Too many people with too many motives, it seemed, were at Mansfield Park at the moment. Maybe it was time to go home.
"All right," I agreed after a moment of consideration. "I'll go for a few days, ask a few questions, see what I can discover."
"Oh, thank you, Ed!" In one swift movement, Mary was on her feet and in my arms. She tilted ruby-red lips up to me, but all she managed to do was whack me in the face with her fedora.
"I don't like being called Ed." I put her away from me. She was my past, and I lived in the present. The future could take care of itself.
I went that evening to Mansfield, sending word ahead to my mother so that there were no surprises. Not that Lady Bertram would care, but the staff of one might, and if Mary was to be believed, my Aunt Norris was there, and she would take offense at a sudden appearance. I was no one's favorite child.
Mansfield Park is one of those large manor houses that used to be a home to the aristocracy, or at least the landed gentry, dozens of servants and rooms full of countless antiques and fine art. Used to being the operative words when it came to Mansfield. Down through the ages the Bertrams had fallen on hard times, sold off most of the art and antiques, and now we were left with an old pile of threadbare rugs, scratched, rickety furniture and open houses three days a week so the tourists could gawk at what was left of our former magnificence. Admission was cheap, but then, we were no Blenheim, and the profit barely kept a roof over my parents' heads. No wonder Aunt Norris chose to live elsewhere with the adulterous Maria.
The other inhabitants of the house were my brother, Tom, who still believed the Bertrams would rise again in prominence without actually doing anything about that, and two cousins, Fanny Price and her sister, Susan.
Ah, Fanny. She was what you would call a poor relation - her own family sent her to my mother when she was young in order to give her a better life. The Prices must have been in dire straits, indeed, if they thought she was better off at Mansfield. We were hardly able to keep a roof over our heads, Aunt Norris browbeat her to death and my siblings rarely gave her the time a day. What a sweet little mouse she was, not cold-hearted like some dames I could mention.
It was Fanny who met me at the door when I arrived.
"You'll have to take your car around to the stables, Edmund," she said by way of greeting. Her authoritative tone took me a bit by surprise. "Otherwise the tourists think we're still open for the day."
"I see." I remembered that Fanny was the tour guide and handled all that revenue for the family. Aunt Norris and Tom were the only ones who did not approve of that arrangement, but our aunt did not live here any more and Tom probably hoped he could skim some off the top rather than seek meaningful employment.
I took my secondhand little roadster around back and came in the kitchen entrance in time to see the only employee left, Mrs. Carmichael, pull a pie out of the oven.
"Dinner at eight, Master Edmund," she said without looking up from the oven door. "And the family still dresses for the meal."
I frowned, even though I knew that. Mrs. C. treated me like I was ten.
"You're in your old room," she added as I left the kitchen. "Don't forget to wash your hands."
See what I mean? In the hall, I ran into another member of what Aunt Norris still called "the staff," Fanny's younger sister, Susan. She and Fanny were unpaid, as far as I could tell, although it could be they were skimming off the top of the tour fees.
No, I might be suspicious of Crawford's demise, but I could not suspect my cousins.
"Hello, Cousin Edmund." Susan gave me a brilliant smile. "Lady Bertram will be happy to see you!" She was my mother's constant companion, although Aunt Norris had been trying to steal her away for the same rate of pay, the old nipcheese.
I took the hint, paid my respects to my parents and aunt, and went upstairs to my room.
That night at dinner, I was able to make a mental list of all the players. That they were mostly my own flesh and blood had nothing to do with anything. As I said, Tom, and to some degree, Maria, were the favorites. Julia, the smart cookie had gotten out while she could, and had never looked back.
The murder could have been done by anyone, really, if it had been murder. One could not trust Mary Crawford any further than she could be thrown.
My father could have done it, for Crawford seducing his daughter or for letting Fanny refuse him. My mother was too far into her own little fantasy world to care for anything but herself, but still, she might have blamed Crawford for something. Maybe he kicked one of her dogs once.
Aunt Norris, of course, blamed everyone for everything, although she had definitely absolved Maria of any wrongdoing. Tom would find Crawford offensive only because he had seduced Maria at the cost of the family's social standing. Otherwise, he would not have given a flying flip.
Fanny and Susan thought the best of everyone, but what if Crawford had marked either one of them as his next conquest? Either sister would have killed to protest the other, unlike his own female siblings.
And that left Maria. Why not off the man ostensibly responsible for her downfall? Not that it didn't take two to tango, but Maria was so full of herself, aided and abetted by our aunt, that she could have easily taken it into her head that she had been the innocent, injured party, and it was all Crawford's fault that her marriage had fallen apart.
Where did that leave Rushworth? Just because he was home likely grooming the grounds of his estate did not mean he hadn't driven over one night and killed the scoundrel.
"Seen Rushworth here lately?" I asked Maria without thinking. You could hear cutlery drop on china throughout the room.
"Now, why would you ask such a nonsensical question?" Aunt Norris demanded before Maria could even open her mouth.
"I beg your pardon," I said politely to the room at large.
"As well you should," she said with a sniff and went back to her cold potato soup.
I assumed we were eating cold soup because Mrs. Carmichael was trying to save fuel, not because someone else thought it was fashionable. But who knew? We Bertrams were poor, but proud.
"I saw Mr. Rushworth's car in the village the other day," Susan said, all heads turning in her direction.
"You should have said so at the time!" Aunt Norris snapped.
"I thought perhaps he was coming to call, but he never showed and I considered it a moot point then." Susan might be young, but she refused to be cowed by our aunt.
"What was he doing?" I asked.
"Buying hardware. At least I thought that's what he had in the box when he came out of the hardware store."
"What box?" If Rushworth was supposed to be attempting a reconciliation, why hadn't someone said so just now?
Could Mary have been making that up? I'd been fed red herrings before, by others, it was true, but if there was a herring queen, Mary Crawford would be sporting the crown.
"Perhaps he was buying a present for his new girlfriend?" Maria said, startling everyone but our aunt.
"He is such a nice man," Mother noted with a faraway look. "Always cared about my dogs. He deserves a nice girl."
A few people cleared their throats and Maria, always the drama queen, got to her feet.
"I will than you, Mama, to remember that he was married to a nice girl."
"Was being the operative word," I heard Tom say under his breath. I thought I heard Fanny snicker.
As if to force penance on Fanny for her disrespect, Aunt Norris announced that she would join her the next day on the tours, making certain the correct information about the family was being passed along to the tourists.
Fanny and Susan rolled their eyes at each other and Maria, sensing that she was being ignored, sat down and stared at her soup. Most of the rest of the meal was spent in silence.
After dinner, I excused myself and went upstairs to think.
One, Crawford had died here at Mansfield. Being persona non grata, how was that possible, unless he had been killed elsewhere and planted here?
Two, almost everyone in the house had a reason to want Crawford dead.
Three, who was Rushford's girlfriend? No one had ever said.
I settled into bed for the night with a candle and a book and tried to read, but I kept hearing a voice, at a whisper, and it plagued me.
If there was a chambermaid at Mansfield, I would say Tom was entertaining one in the next room, but I hadn't heard him come upstairs for the bed, and it was a male voice.
It was getting louder and I tried reading Bible passages out loud to drown out the fear I was beginning to feel.
Mansfield did not have ghosts. Or had none when I was living here, but there had been a recent death in the house.
I heard the voice clearly enough now.
"Crawford?" I had to ask.
"You are my only hope, Edmund Bertram."
No, I thought, there is another. And I knew just who she was, too.
I found Fanny walking in the garden the next morning, as was her routine, wearing a pair of old shoes that did not mind the dew and would be changed out for a nice pair later, before the tours began.
"Is Mansfield haunted, do you think?" I asked after a greeting.
Fanny shook her head. "No indication of spirits here."
"That's what I thought. Any secret passages?"
Her smile grew wide. "Of course. No self-respecting manor house goes without at least one of those. Dates back to those hiding-from-bad-guys days, I believe."
"Do you mention the passages on the tours?"
"Naturally. Everyone knows about them."
Fanny looked thoughtful. "He might, through Maria, but as it has nothing to do with gardens, and I have never seen him on the tour, I doubt it."
"Who else that we know has ever been on the tour?"
"Julia brought Mr. Yates on it once," she recalled. "A few of Tom's friends, for larks; Aunt Norris, of course. Mary Crawford, Lady Brinkley…"
"Wait. Mary took the tour?"
Fanny shrugged. "I assumed at the time she wished to show me that it was beneath her to give a tour, but not to take one."
"And why was that?"
"Tom had been teasing her about losing some of her social standing once Henry had been marked an adulterer. She seemed to take that personally."
"I see. But why snub you? Why not Tom?"
Fanny made a face. "Why not me? I'm not male, I have no influence and her brother once offered for me."
"So Mary Crawford knows about the secret passages," he mused.
"I also think she might be a vampire," Fanny teased.
"What?" I grinned. "Next thing you are going to tell me is that Tom is a werewolf."
"And my father is a Dr. Frankenstein."
"Aunt Norris is. I think she convinced Maria to come home so she could use the cellar here for experiments. But Tom keeps eating her specimens."
We both laughed and I joked that she should be committed for thinking such things.
"Not me! Who would give the tours if I'm put away?"
She had a point. No one else besides Susan would ever dare stoop so low. And Susan was busy.
"And write all the historical pamphlets. Or the books of family and local legends. Or run the gift shop."
"All right! All right!" I put up my hands in protest.
"And I will be happy to help your investigation."
I started to protest once more, but paused. Perhaps she could be of some assistance after all.
"You can start by showing me the secret passages."
"Come on." Fanny ran through the wet grass, heedless of her shoes. I was a bit more conscious of my feet and took the path. We met at the kitchen door.
"We have to go through the cellars."
I shuddered, but this was part of the investigation. "Lead on."
Fanny gave me a dubious look, but she went ahead into the dim stairwell that descended into the cellars. I reluctantly followed. She knew I had a fear of these dark, dank interconnecting rooms that stemmed from childhood, when Tom thought it was great fun to bring me down here, extinguish all the lights and run off, leaving me to find my way upstairs in the dark.
Fanny reached a niche in the wall, retrieved a couple of torches and handed me one.
"Tom once locked me up down here in the dark. Once," she firmly added and I was astounded at her preparedness. I had never thought to keep a few torches handy, and I had been the Boy Scout.
"Do all the passages begin down here?"
"Yes. The one you might be interested in is the one in the west wing."
"The guest chambers, where Crawford would have been, uninvited or not. Do you tell the tourists where the passages are?"
"No, just that we have them."
"But that would not stop people from coming down here and searching." I could see Fanny thinking of those who were familiar with the rest of the house, like the Crawfords, and Rushworth.
I sent the torchlight out, seeking my way through the dark to where the passage to the guest wing began. And there I found what might be a clue. A scrap of pale fabric stuck to a protruding nail.
"I wonder who this belongs to?"
"Crawford. He was wearing a light blue shirt when he was found."
"He was fully dressed in the bath tub?" Now, why would the police rule Crawford's death an accident if he had been wearing clothes?"
"What else do you know?"
Fanny pursed her lips. "Maria discovered him. I do not know what she was doing in the west wing, actually, because Mrs. Carmichael insisted, upon their arrival, that both Aunt Norris and Maria take their old rooms in the east wing.'
"Hmmm. So, when Maria found him, he was fully clothed, and she did what?" I held up a hand. I knew what had come next. "She screamed, correct?"
"Typical," we both muttered at the same time.
Somewhere in the distance, I heard a rumble and wondered if it was thunder or the breakfast cart. I hadn't eaten yet and my stomach grumbled in sympathy.
"Let's go on up," I suggested as we reached a wall and she sprang a hidden latch. The faster we investigated, the closer I was to my next meal.
The air in the passage, which was just several flights of stairs at this point, was cold. I shivered. "Is it always this frigid in here?"
"No. It's usually dusty and dry. I should have brought a thicker jumper."
I could feel her shake beside me and I put an arm around her shoulder.
"A good climb ought to warm us up," was her brisk comment as she ducked out from under my arm and began her ascent.
I shrugged and followed, but the air was even colder on the first floor by time we reached a large landing with a door leading to one of the bedchambers.
We went cautiously inside.
"It's the room Crawford always used when he spent the night," I noted. Perhaps Mary had known of this long before she had taken the tour. "Did the police take the radio?" I wondered, wandering into the bath and noting its absence.
"What radio?" Fanny was right behind me.
"The one that fell into the tub, electrocuting Crawford."
"Henry wasn't electrocuted. He drowned.
"Hence the accidental death ruling," I murmured. Why had Mary said one thing if… Never mind. Some of it was coming together in my head. "Do you know who asked me to come here?"
I shook my head. "Mary Crawford."
"I wonder you even bothered," she said with a sniff.
"I agreed because this is my family's home and that is the only reason."
"Do you know who did it?"
"I thought it was accidental."
"I did not say I agreed with the police," she countered.
"Let's hear your theory, then."
"All right, but not in here." We went back down through the secret passage and out into the gardens, breakfast forgotten.
"I think Rushworth killed Crawford," she said as we settled in the rickety old gazebo.
"Susan said he had a box from the hardware store in town. He must have bought a torch and some plumbing tools. Did you notice that the faucet drips in the tub? Tom just had someone fix all the leaks two weeks ago. That was one of the ones repaired."
I had known I could not do this without Fanny, and I had been correct. Only she would know something like the plumbing being fixed. Notice that it wasn't fixed any more.
"Also, Rushworth recently redid all the pipes and waterworks in his garden so that it was watered correctly. He would not risk using his own tools in case they were identified. He would, however, know which wrenches to use."
"How do you know about Rushworth's garden?"
"Your mother read it aloud from the newspaper."
"She has always liked him," I noted. "But where does Mary come in?"
"I know!" Fanny snapped her fingers. "She is Rushworth's new girlfriend! They did this together."
"Oh?" Big surprise there, and I was sure why, now, but it was more fun hearing Fanny think it through.
"She hated the loss of social prestige when her brother seduced Maria. Their circle of friends made it seem as if she were involved somehow. If Rushworth was the injured party on the one side, surely she was the same on the other. She probably managed to run into him somewhere and got him to buy her dinner."
Yeah, I thought, Mary had always been a good fisher of men. And herring.
"They must have convinced each other that the adulterers had to be taken care of, so they were not required to live with the social stigma forever," I added, picking up the narrative. "But did they both off Crawford, or did Rushworth do it alone? And if they got Crawford, doesn't it stand to reason they would…"
"Maria!" we both exclaimed. I noticed, as we ran back to the cellars, it was starting to turn black in the sky. The thunder was closer and I was certain we would have another storm soon.
"Quick, through the wine cellars," Fanny urged. "The family wing's secret passage comes out in Maria's room!"
It was cold again, and it seemed as if an unseen presence was racing up the stairs alongside us, moving us on.
"Save Maria!" it seemed to whisper in my ear. I felt as if we were on the right track, and I prayed we were not too late.
We paused outside the room and listened for my sister. There was no sound.
"I'll go in first," I said, pulling out a gun. I would not hesitate to use it, even on Mary. "When the coast is clear, I'll whistle."
Fanny nodded. "You know how to whistle, don't you, Edmund?"
I leaned in close and kissed the tip of her nose before she could pull back. "You just pucker up and blow."
If we had more time, I would have kissed her lips, but my sister's life was more important. Still, when I came in softly through the passage, Maria's room was empty. I whistled for Fanny and she came in, looking around.
"She's not here."
"Downstairs?" I suggested. "At breakfast?"
The cold air whooshed by us and out the door into the hall. We followed, exchanging puzzled glances.
"Crawford?" I whispered. Fanny nodded once more. The truth was sometimes stranger than fiction.
And the ghost of Henry Crawford led us right into the dining room, where my family was being held hostage by Rushworth and Mary.
"Took you long enough," Mary purred. "Ed."
"I said to stop calling me that!"
"You can hand over that gun, Ed," she replied, and I looked down and realized I had forgotten that I had it in my grip. "You're done playing private dick."
That's what she thought, but it was something I was going to have to discuss later. With Fanny. Right now, I was looking for an opening, hoping to pop off either one of the killers, but they each had one of my parents covering them. Cowards.
And then, the cold air blasted right into Mary's face. She cried out, dropped my mother back into her seat, and tried to fight off whatever vision was in front of her eyes. A vision no one else could see.
"No, Henry! No! It was for your own good!" she insisted. "You made me a laughingstock! You made Rushworth one, too! Maria was next - you never should have let him seduce you!" she screamed at my sister.
I did the only thing a man in my position could do. I prayed. I prayed that the shot I was about to get out only hit Mary in the shoulder, taking her down so that the law could finish her off.
But I forgot about Rushworth. Undaunted by Mary's viewing of some private hell, he shot a bullet into the void in front of her. It hit Aunt Norris square between the eyes, so maybe old Henry knew what he was about.
Maria screamed and rushed Rushworth, who got off another bullet, this one into her foot. It appeared that he could fix plumbing, but he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with anything. Except perhaps Aunt Norris.
Fanny came at him from behind and knocked the gun out of his hand, twisting the other arm behind his back and shoving him to the floor, sitting on his back. Tom plowed his fist into Mary's fine face, sending all that blonde hair flying. My mother cheered.
"I'll call the police," practical Susan announced. Fanny looked up at me and beamed. And then tears ran down her face as she looked at something only she could see.
"Rest in peace, Henry," she whispered, and the cold wind was suddenly gone.
Six months later, after a long and arduous courtship, Fanny finally agreed to marry me. On All Hallow's Eve, no less. I quit the church and we opened the Mansfield Detective Agency, specializing in ghosts. It seemed Fanny was quite the medium.The End