Authors: Jennifer; Wilde
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Betrayal at Blackcrest
Jennifer Wilde writing as Beatrice Parker
I was lost. There was no denying it now. I had no earthly idea where I was. There had been a sign some miles back, but the rain had been falling so violently that I had been unable to read it properly. I was not really alarmed, not yet. I felt sure that this twisting back road would eventually take me to Hawkestown. The place had an improbable name, but the crumpled road map at my side assured me that it existed.
The rain fell in torrents, sweeping with small waves over the road ahead and splattering noisily over the windshield. I drove slowly. The tires slid over the wet pavement with a swishing sound, and the headlights barely penetrated the swirling sheets of rain. It seemed impossible that only a few hours ago I had been in London, closing up the flat in Chelsea and checking to see that the windows were locked and the gas properly shut off.
It was nice to be away for a while, even if I didn't know what to expect when I reached Hawkestown. Getting away from the noise and furor of London for a week or so would do wonders for my morale. Perhaps when I returned my agent would have news of some wonderful job. That was just wishful thinking, I told myself, but I did not intend to worry. For at least a week I was going to devote myself to fun and relaxation. Perhaps Delia's new husband had a friendâmale, unattached, and eager to meet a girl like me.
I pushed these thoughts out of my mind and concentrated on my driving. The inside of the car smelled of mothballs and dust. It rattled and chugged, but I had complete confidence in its ability to carry me safely to any given destination. I was not so sure about this particular destination. Had I made the right turnoff when I left the highway this afternoon? These country road markers were frightfully vague.
I had not passed a car in the last half-hour. For all purposes, the road belonged to me. It was narrow and in poor repair. Dark black trees grew close on either side, and their branches reached down like fingers to scratch the roof of the car. It was like driving through some ghostly tunnel. The clock on the dashboard informed me that it was after seven. It might be hours before I reached the house. I had no idea what Delia would think of my barging in on her in the middle of the night. Whatever her reactions, I could be sure they would be fraught with drama and completely typical.
I had a few things to say to Delia. None of them were flattering. I considered her neglect criminal. Even if she had given up a not quite glorious career to marry some country gentleman, that was no reason for not writing her only surviving relative. I had received no word from her since the enthusiastic and expensive telegram she had sent the day she arrived in Hawkestown.
That had been over a month ago. Since then there had not been even so much as a postcard. The promising young actress Delia Lane might now be the respectable Delia Hawke, chatelaine of a swell country estate and ever so elegant, but she need not think she could snub me. And if her mysterious new husband didn't approve of my unexpected visit, he could just lump it.
I intended to see Delia, and I intended to shake her by the shoulders. After that, of course, I would settle down and listen to all the delicious details of her new life. I could hardly wait to hear all about it. Knowing Delia, I was certain she had already managed to set the local gentry on their ears.
I swerved to avoid a rut in the road. The tires slid alarmingly. I clenched the steering wheel tightly and held my breath. The car righted itself and moved on down the road. The rain showed no signs of slacking. I would arrive at Blackcrest looking like a drowned sparrow. That would delight Delia, who always liked to have the upper hand. I would be in no state to meet the much discussed Derek Hawke. I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my sudden trip.
I should have telephoned long distance to announce my arrival, but I had had no idea where to call. Delia had mentioned the house, Blackcrest, and had babbled merrily about its dark and bloody history, but I did not know where it was. I presumed it was somewhere near Hawkestown. For all I knew, Blackcrest might not even have telephones. From the way Delia described it, I would be surprised if it was even wired for electricity. I refused to speculate on the plumbing.
I knew so little about any of it. Delia, who was always so open and frank about all her affairs, had been deliberately evasive about everything concerning Mr. Derek Hawke. In the past, I had always met all her boyfriends, and she had been eager for my approval of them. Derek Hawke remained a man of mystery, although she kept promising to bring him to the flat to meet me. When she quit the show, drew her savings out of the bank, and left for Hawkestown, I had been quite dazed.
I could not believe that she was leaving. She had kissed me gaily on the cheek and assured me that everything was marvelous and we would see each other soon. Then she had gone, and the shabby little flat had seemed squalid and unbearable. We had shared it for years, ever since we had arrived in London, two orphaned teen-agers determined to find fame and fortune in the big city. Both assets had been highly elusive during the ensuing years.
Many people in our profession thought Delia and I were sisters. We were, in fact, first cousins, and Delia had lived with my family in Dorset ever since her own parents were killed in an automobile accident. We grew up together, inseparable companions, and when my own parents died, barely a month apart, Delia and I were left alone in the world. We spent little time grieving. We shook the dust of Dorset from our heels and left almost immediately for London.
We had many jobs, mostly menial, before either of us got a toehold in the theater. Delia landed in a revue and I finally got a series of walk-on parts with a repertory company. Delia soon soared with her raffish charm and incredible vivacity, and she had had steady if unspectacular employment ever since. My own climb had been more gradual and far less remunerative. Few people in England would recognize the name Deborah Lane, while almost everyone who attended music halls would remember Delia, though few could say what she had last appeared in.
When Delia left London I had been working as a guide in a museum, a “temporary” thing until my agent could find something more suitable. After a week, the museum job evaporated, too, and I had been living ever since on funds nervously withdrawn from my savings account. Deborah Lane had reached another of the all too frequent crossroads of her career and had decided to do something impulsive.
I had phoned my agent, closed the flat, taken my ancient car out of the garage, and headed for Hawkestown. Now, on this rainswept road, it seemed like sheer folly. Delia must have had her reasons for not writing, and I must have been out of my mind to have decided to call on her without the least warning. She would have every right to be furious. She might not even be home. She and her husband might still be on their honeymoon. I began to be plagued with doubts as the car hit a particularly nasty rut and skidded across the road.
The wheel seemed to jump out of my hand. The car shook and bounced viciously. I seized the wheel and managed to keep from going completely off the road. The car seemed to make a series of froglike leaps before lurching to a halt. The motor spluttered and the car sagged miserably in the rear. My heart sank as I realized what had happened. A tire had blown out. I was stranded in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire, in the midst of a downpour that would probably make history for its ferocity.
It was typical of my luck, I thought, and just what I needed to make the whole affair a total disaster.
I felt like bursting into tears. Instead, I let loose a series of highly descriptive words that were not ordinarily a part of my vocabulary. That relieved me somewhat, but the rain still poured on the roof of the car and I was nowhere nearer a solution to my dilemma.
I had a spare tire in the trunk and all the tools necessary to put it on. However, I was wearing my best white heels and a dress of white muslin printed with tiny pink and green flowers, my best, and I would starve to death before getting out in the rain thus attired. My luggage was in the trunk, too, so there could be no quick change in the front seat. I sat huddled over the steering wheel, listening to the rain and watching the minute hand of the clock slowly traverse the circle.
It was only a few minutes before the car passed, although it seemed like hours. It zoomed past, braked, then slowly reversed until it was directly in front of my own. I turned on my headlights in order to see better. The car was a jazzy red sports coupÃ©, and the man climbing out of it was very tall, wearing a slick yellow mackintosh. I rolled down my window as he ambled over to the side of my car, for all the world as if this were a summer day without the least suggestion of rain.
“Trouble?” he inquired.
“Not a bit,” I replied gaily. “I'm just admiring the scenery.”
He missed the sarcasm. He pressed his brows together and looked at me as though I'd taken leave of my senses. The rain poured down on him. His hair fell in drenched dark curls over his forehead, and water ran in rivulets off his mackintosh. He seemed oblivious to it.
“I have a flat tire,” I explained, somewhat impatiently.
“Oh?” He arched a brow.
“Jolly weather for it, isn't it?”
He seemed totally bewildered.
“You see,” I said, “this dress cost a small fortune. I'm afraid I couldn't afford to ruin it. Consequently â¦”
“I'll change your tire for you,” he said.
“You really are an angel,” I replied, “but I couldn't ask you to do that.”
I waited, tapping my fingers on the steering wheel. He was dreadfully slow in replying.
“Of course I will,” he finally said. “Glad to be of assistance.”
“My faith in mankind is restored,” I said. “Here are the keys. If you will open the trunk, you'll find a somewhat bedraggled maroon suitcase. When you unfasten it, you'll find a long blue coat piled on top of some beige underwear. Ignore the underwear, but bring me the coat. I'll have to get out of the car while you're working.”