Lately my husband and I have been watching a series about some young people who left their religious community – the one they had grown up in all of their lives. What struck me was how they all said over and over they were never praised, never encouraged. They all had dreams they were never allowed to do anything about. This made me so sad for these young people.
The old woman turns and smiles.
A smile that quickly turns into a shocked gasp as soon as she catches sight of me. “Rob!” she cries out, but I push her away. Now is not the time. I try to speak, try to warn her of the danger that’s coming. Not a sound comes out. A knife wound in the chest can do that to a person. Even someone as stubborn as me.
“We have to get you to a hospital.” Not ‘Who did this?’ I think we both know. I sink down to the plush floor of the library. The red coming from me mixes with the red on the carpet. A carpet that, not so long ago, Peggy begged me to have installed. “It will make the mansion quite complete,” she said. It’s funny what memories filter through when you’re about to die. For instance, I don’t remember anything from my childhood – the old saying about life flashing in front of you? It isn’t true. But I can remember the events that led me to this place so clearly. So, so clearly. But not as complete things. More like little snippets of the bigger picture. The bigger picture that reveals itself through the little things.
Mother and Peggy arguing.
That, in itself, wasn’t surprising. Mother never approved of my marriage to Peggy. There were many reasons, the biggest being that she didn’t feel Peggy was worthy of me. The fact that I was rich and she was not probably had something to do with it too. But we were, as the cliche goes, young and in love. Everything was good.
I’ve since been disillusioned. Money was the main objective in the marriage – for her that is. Still, I never quite fell out of love with her. It’s a shame. A crying shame, but that’s the way it is.
Back to the argument: I couldn’t hear what they said, but it was flying venom on both sides. I know. I’ve heard enough fights to recognize one when I see it. And this one was quiet. That’s the worst kind of argument. You might think that an all-out shouting match with blows and swearing is the worst, but it’s not. It’s the silence, the quiet hatred, and the pale disdain that are the worst.
The only phrase I caught was “It won’t be a loan.” This from Peggy. I sighed and moved into the library.
The colour of Mother’s face the day her Ruby (yes, it’s deserving of a capital letter) was stolen. Now don’t get me – or her – wrong. She wasn’t mercenary. But that ruby was one of a kind. ‘River of Blood’. That was the name. I wouldn’t have picked it, neither would mother have but that was the name that came with it. It’s one of the most precious gems on earth. Father’s last gift before he died. And now it was missing.
So, you see, if it meant anything to her, it was Father, not the money. But that didn’t stop it from being stolen. She’d seemed nervous for several days before the theft, but this pushed her over the edge. Hysterics wouldn’t come close to telling what she went through. And no-one knew how it could’ve been done. Lasers, trip wires, heat detectors. It was all in place. No outsider could have stolen it. No outsider. Which meant…it was one of us.
The start of my investigations.
I felt a duty to mother to figure this whole thing out for her. She called the police, who came and duly took down notes. Checked alibis. Took non-existent fingerprints. But they didn’t hold out much hope. “Someone who was smart enough to steal this would certainly have covered his or her tracks well,” they said. They were right. If it had been an outside job, we would have little chance. But not if it was someone in here. There were four of us. Mother, Peggy, myself, and Jeremy – Mother’s brother. I didn’t do it, and I wouldn’t think any of the others would have.
I hoped not.
I couldn’t rule out the servants either, though I doubted any of them could have the expertise. But it was time to stop underestimating everyone.
I had thought Mother would still be in tears when the police came, but she presented a stern, iron exterior. The interior? I had little idea. Peggy was the one who seemed the most rattled. Not tears, just nervousness. And Jeremy was his usual, sleepy-eyed self. Laziness rubs itself off on its user, so it becomes not a thing, but a condition.
A conversation with Peggy.
“What do you think?” That was me.
She turned around in the seat in front of her mirror. “About what, dear?”
I knew she knew. She knew I knew she knew. It was all a game. A game I was tired of. “The robbery.”
“Oh. Yes. That.” Flatly. She turned back to her mirror. “Nothing.”
“I saw you arguing with Mother earlier.” I could see her face in the mirror. It tightened – a look I was used to whenever anyone walked into a topic she didn’t want to discuss. “I thought maybe you might have heard something that would-” I broke off as she turned back around suddenly.
“Would what?” her voice was taut.
“Help with figuring this out.”
She laughed, but it wasn’t pleasant or happy. “You are trying to solve the robbery? Oh, come on, Robert. That’ll never happen.”
“Let the police catch whoever did it.” Once again, she turned back.
“So you don’t think it’s one of us then?”
She didn’t say anything. Of course I was suspicious. Who wouldn’t be? Her silence and deflection of questions and tension all led to one thing. But I didn’t want to see it at the time. Stupid, loving stubbornness. It got me into more trouble than anyone deserved.
Checking the family ledgers.
Even though we can afford a clerk, I’ve always done Mother’s ledgers and accounting. I don’t have a normal day job, and keeping up with the finances is a way to keep myself, as Peggy puts it, ‘busy and out of trouble’. I’d just finished running up some figures the day I heard Mother and Peggy arguing. Now the beginning of March was here and it was time to calculate everything again.
There was nothing wrong with the figures, as far as I could see.
Mother doesn’t trust banks – although I thought she probably would now that her Ruby had been stolen – and we kept all of our money in
a giant safe, with different compartments for each of us. It was our own personal bank in many ways and I enjoyed looking after it.
I was about to close the account book, when something caught my eye.
Mother’s column was decreasing almost daily. Peggy’s was increasing. I had kept so close to my work and the numbers that it was only when I stepped back that I saw the bigger picture. Mother was not in the habit of giving Peggy money, especially when she didn’t need it. I was holding a puzzle here. I only had two pieces. The theft of the Ruby, and Peggy’s newly acquired wealth. In some way, they fit together. I knew it. Abnormalities didn’t happen in our house without a good reason. I was determined to find such a reason.
A conversation with Mother.
“Ah, Rob. I haven’t seen you around lately.”
I stepped into the library. “I hoped I would find you here, Mother.” When she gave me a questioning look, I continued. “I wanted to speak to you.” She was sitting on one of the plush chairs near the fire – even though it was now March, it was chilly – and I took the other so we could talk comfortably. “It’s about the Ruby theft.”
Her hands clenched and re-clenched together in her lap. “I don’t want to talk about it. The entire subject-”
“I know how you must be feeling,” I said gently, reaching over and taking her hands in mine. “It was a gift from Father. I know that. But my question isn’t so much about the Ruby as about some oddities I found in the family ledger.” Her hands stiffened in my grasp and she withdrew them. “You’ve been giving money to Peggy,” I said. She shook her head. “Yes, Mother. I know. I just went over the books. I’m just curious as to why. That’s all.”
“It’s none of your concern,” she said stiffly.
The knowledge of what it was hit me. “She’s…blackmailing you, isn’t she?” The look on her face told me I was right. “Why, Mother? You have to tell me. Then I can talk to her – well, I’ll talk to her even if you don’t tell me – but wouldn’t it be better to be on equal ground when I confront her? You need to tell me. I promise not to tell anyone.”
She bit her lip and then gave me a weak smile. “Of course you won’t. It’s just-” She cleared her throat and looked at her hands. I know from personal experience that not looking at someone while you divulge a painful secret is the easiest way to go about it. That way, you can’t see the shame or guilt or anger in their eyes. But I was determined to keep all those emotions away. “You know I never approved of your marriage to Peggy.” She didn’t need an answer. She knew I knew. “Before you were married, some rumours went around about her family. She said they weren’t true and you believed her and married her. She was right. They weren’t true. I-” She swallowed. “I had those rumours circulated. She found out several months ago and threatened to reveal everything. To you. To Jeremy. To the world.”
“And in return, you were to give her money.” It was more a statement than a question.
“No. The Ruby.”
“But the Ruby is-”
“-gone. And she stole it.” She sensed my question, but forestalled it. “She had the Ruby, she has the money, and she’ll keep asking me until I don’t have anything and then she’ll expose me. I’m only telling you this so that you can stop her. She might not love you, but I believe she respects you. But be careful.”
I went off to deal with Peggy.
The knowledge of what she’d done hurt me. Really hurt me. I’d always thought that someday things would be different. That she would come to love me. That we might even have a family. But now the entire emotional make-up of our home had changed, and it would never go back to normal. I confronted her in our room. Oh, she denied it, but I knew. I could see it in her eyes. And the moment I stepped toward her, hoping to assure her that we could work this out if she’d just return the Ruby was when she snapped.
As she pulled out the knife, it seemed unreal. I knew she didn’t love me, but…
The pain. It was terrible. Worse than I’ve ever felt. Or ever will feel again.
“She’s coming,” I say, finally able to push the words past the tatters and rips. “You have to get out. I’m not-” I can’t continue.
I close my eyes.
A sharp gasp from Mother brings them open again. I turn my head painfully to see who it is. Even though I know.
Peggy saunters into the room. She saunters. How someone can be so casual after attacking her husband with a knife I will never understand. But that’s how she is. And now she’s come to finish me off and kill Mother. If only I hadn’t let myself collapse to the floor I could do something. As it is, I’m lying on the floor, almost unconscious – or dead, I don’t know which – and unable to get up.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Mother says. Her voice shows otherwise.
“Oh, I would have said the same about you spreading dirty rumours about my family,” Peggy says coolly. “Since then, I’ve learned never to give people the benefit of the doubt. A mind-set you would do well to adopt. But I’m afraid you don’t have much time left to change your ways.” She looks down at me, disgust in her eyes. How could I ever have thought-? “You’re probably thinking I won’t get away with it,” she says, turning her attention back to Mother. “I will. I’ll murder you – then him” -she nods down to me- “and leave here. Someone else will eventually find you, but it won’t be for a while. The door will be locked, and the TV on. By the time someone forces the door, I’ll be far away. You see, I’ve been planning this. I actually have a plan, unlike all those murderers on detective shows.”
I attempt a sitting position. Peggy puts the knife to my throat. “Not just yet,” she whispers. “It’s not your turn.” She smiles and steps over my body. I turn my head again. Mother stands at the other side of the room, against the wall. No escape routes are open to her. Not even the window. Peggy stands a few inches from me. I ease myself over to one side. Now I can reach out, and-
I grab her ankles and pull her down.
As soon as she’s down on the ground, Mother runs over and looks all over the floor. “The knife,” she mutters. “It’s got to be-”
I can see it. It won’t take her long either. Or, I can’t see it, but I can see the results. A pool is forming to the side of Peggy’s body. That’s all it is. A body. Not Peggy.
“You’ll have to find a new accountant,” I whisper. Only I can’t say it loud enough for Mother to hear.
But that’s okay. She’ll be able to cope with the family records without me. She-