From the Private Diary of A. Christie (Mrs)
The captain of our paddle steamer seemed a little put out by my insistence that he ferry Maudie and I across to the island, so I slipped him twenty pounds over and above the usual fare and promised him a feel of my bosoms if he made the crossing in less than an hour.
Needless to say, the man took to his task with enthusiasm, and we were soon speeding across the choppy waters to what I hoped would not be an almighty mess of bloody bodies.
During the drive to Dolphin Cove, I did some serious thinking. I may be a piddle-headed twit sometimes, but I felt sure something wasn’t right with my maid-turned-chauffeur. Being a staunch supporter of women’s privileges and the vote, etcetera, I could hardly object when one of my own staff turned out to have a bit of good old get-up-and-go. That said, I did take one small precaution before we left, which may have been a little pre-emptive on my part, but Maudie has only been in my employ for a few months and her announcement that she could drive a car floored me somewhat. Anyway, if it turns out I’ve made an error of judgment in bringing her along, my old jodhpurs might still save the day.
‘Nearly there, ma’am,’ said Maudie, half an hour later. I stood behind her and gazed out across the water at the stark image before us. Seeing it there, in real life, brought the book back to me, almost as if I’d based the novel on this very island. Strange, I mused, how one’s imagination can conjure up images of things that do not exist, and yet that exact image lay here before me, as if I’d created it myself and plopped it into the sea, readymade for a murderous gathering.
‘Be dark soon, missus,’ said the captain. ‘Might be needing this.’ He handed me a paraffin lantern and a box of Swan Vestas.
‘Thank you, my man,’ I said. ‘Tell me, did you take the party of guests across to the island a few days ago?’
‘No, not me, missus,’ he said. ‘That were some detective bloke from Londen. I rented ‘im moi boat. Fetlock Soames, I think ‘e said ‘is name were.’
‘Sherlock Holmes,’ I said.
‘That’s ‘im. Made me hide in the galley while he dressed up in me gear an’ pretended to be captain. Nice bloke, though. Gave me twenty quid.’ His face took on a pleading aspect, as if I had not already paid him, but allowing his expectation of fondling me later, I slipped him another ten pounds to keep him happy.
We pulled up at the small dock a few minutes later, and Maudie helped me onto the jetty while the captain stood there looking like a little boy who’d lost his lollipop. I waved a hearty goodbye and promised we’d be back shortly.
We trudged up the hill to the top and on reaching the crest found ourselves on the edge of a vast lawn. As I took in the scene in front of us, the flagged path snaking away through a series of shaped hedges, depicting odd-looking woodland animals, I was again reminded of how similar the whole thing was in relation to my book. Could the mastermind behind all this have used my novel to plan every little detail?
Walking through the ornamental gardens, past the Leylandii hedge we came upon the house itself. I’m no connoisseur of architecture, but it was obvious to me that the structure must be modern, perhaps built in the last few months and modelled on that awful Tudor Revivalist style so popular a few years ago. Even so, whatever else I might have thought of it, the place had a striking air of self-importance and I couldn’t help marvel at the mind that must have created such a monstrosity in order to carry out such a monstrous plot.
‘There’s the front door, ma’am,’ said Maudie, striding forward in a rather mannish way.
‘That’s alright,’ I said. ‘We’ll have a look round the back, first.’
Maudie scowled, but did not object. We walked off to the right, skirting around past the end of the tree-lined walkway, and followed the path to what I suppose they like to call the fenêtres françaises.
On rounding the corner, I’d spotted something sprawled on the lawn. The growing darkness made it difficult to perceive details, so as we drew closer, I left the path and strode over to where the thing lay, holding my lantern high. As I feared, it was a man, and he was dead. If I’d harboured hopes this adventure might turn out to be a bizarre game, the image of that tragic and bloody figure caused those hopes to vanish.
Heading towards the French windows, I saw that one door stood open. I peeked inside. There were no lights on, and I muttered another ‘thank you’ to the captain for the gift of his lantern. Making our way into what must be the drawing room, I noticed a chair in the middle of the floor. Several lengths of cut rope lay here and there, which indicated someone had recently escaped, though as the result of that escape had skewered him on the grass, I could only imagine the man’s fleeting thoughts of victory before meeting a truly horrible end.
Maudie had not uttered a word through all this, and when I touched her arm, thinking she may have descended into a state of shock, she looked up, smiled, seemed to realise her mistake, and frowned.
‘Ain’t it awful, ma’am?’
I agreed that it was and hurried her to the door and out into the main hall where yet another door stood open, inviting us to explore whatever hell lay beyond. Its location beneath the main staircase suggested it led to the cellar. Yes, I thought, definitely hell.
We stood together for a moment, peering into the darkness. ‘Off you go, then, Maudie,’ I said, waving a hand towards the stone steps.
‘Ooh, no ma’am,’ said she. ‘Oi couldn’t go in front of you. Oi’m only a maid, after all, ain’t Oi?’
I gave her my sweetest smile. ‘No, I insist.’
Was it my imagination, or the eerie glow from the lantern? I don’t know, but I swear her face drained of colour for a moment, before she gave herself a shake and returned my smile. Seeing her close up like that, the lines around her small mouth and eyes seemed more pronounced than usual, and I realised she had lied about her age when we’d first met. No doubt she’d lied about other things, too.
Holding the door, I waited until she’d begun to descend before removing my Remington Derringer from its hiding place in the back pocket of my corduroy trousers. Fitting snugly into my hand, the twin barrels promised two shots. I could only hope it would be enough.
Reaching the foot of the stone staircase, I noted the space where the floor ought to be, but there was nothing there. At the other side of the small room was a door but again there was no floor to hold it up. Given this unexpected circumstance, I paused, peering into the gloom. The meagre light offered by the lantern, illuminated the vast expanse beneath us and somewhere in the distance, I discerned the sound of voices.
‘Well, will yer look at that, ma’am,’ said Maudie, affecting all innocence. ‘There ain’t no floor.’
‘Come along, Maudie,’ I said. ‘Stop playing silly-buggers. You’ve been here before—you know what to do.’ I gave her a nudge with the Derringer in case any doubt lingered about my intentions.
Her smiled faded, and she pouted in the most unappealing manner. Then, leaning one hand against the wall, she reached over and pressed one of the smaller bricks. Immediately, a grinding noise started up somewhere below us. Looking down, I saw what must be the missing floor sliding up towards us.