“And another thing!” Annabelle says as she tries but fails to rise from the sofa. “Those people, those fucking people, they're gonna pay one day! They're not gonna get away with what they're doing! I hope there
a god, because I want those bastards to pay in this life or the next! I want them to get to the pearly gates and suddenly feel a trapdoor opening beneath their feet!”
She tilts her head back and empties the glass of whiskey down her throat, before slumping back against the cushions. After that she lets out a few groans, but it's hard to tell whether she's trying to get up or simply wriggling to force one of the cushions behind her neck. Finally she elbows a different cushion hard, as if she's annoyed, before mumbling something under her breath. More obscenities, no doubt.
“I'm sorry,” I say after a moment, turning to Tim, “I just... I didn't know what else to do with her. She was already drunk when we parked outside, and I was worried she'd have a terrible accident if I let her keep going. It took me forever to get her car keys.”
“You were right to bring her inside,” he replies, before turning to watch as Annabelle gets to her feet and stumbles back to his drinks cabinet. “She's clearly in no state to be alone.”
“Harry always told me to be wary of that fucking place,” she continues, slurring her words and clearly having trouble seeing properly as she pours herself another glass from Tim's selection. “He told me he'd heard stories about Knott's Court all his life, but that he'd turned a blind eye. He told me he regretted that, and that he wanted to put it right. But my God, when he tried...”
She downs the whiskey in one go, and then immediately pours yet another.
“Steady on there, young lady;” Tim says cautiously. “That's a 1997 Laphroaig. You'll enjoy it more if you sip it, I'm sure.”
“So he started looking into it,” she continues, staring down at her glass. “Poking his nose in, as he put it.” She bites her bottom lip for a moment, as if she's lost in thought. “That's when they decided to get him. He was the best reporter of his generation, and the best mentor anyone could hope to have, but he started causing trouble and asking the wrong questions and they decided to deal with him. He was fired from the paper, and then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Six months later, he died in St. Vincent's Hospital, and guess what?”
She turns to me, and now there are tears in her eyes.
“Annabelle,” I say after a moment, “I'm sure you -”
I let out a tired sigh. “I just -”
“I honestly don't know.”
“I managed to get a copy of the autopsy,” she continues, as a tear trickles down her cheek, “through a source. It was the chemo that killed Harry. He never had cancer in the first place. That's how they do it, you see? They keep their hands clean. They make sure the circumstances are plausible enough, and that way they avoid questions.”
“I've heard of Harry Plume,” Tim says, turning to me. “I always got the impression that he was one of those proper, old-fashioned reporters. I used to look forward to his pieces.”
“They murdered him,” Annabelle continues, before taking a sip from her whiskey glass. “Huh. You're right. This
better when you take it slow.”
“I'm sure nobody was murdered,” I tell her. “You're clearly tired and emotional, and I'm sure this means a great deal to you, but -”
“Fuckers!” she shouts, suddenly staggering back over to the cabinet and pouring herself yet another drink.
“I should have checked her into a hotel,” I mutter, feeling extremely bad for bringing this drunk, loudmouthed young woman into Tim's home. “I'm so sorry,” I tell him, “I rather thought she'd simply fall asleep, but it seems she's got the bit between her teeth. I should have warned you before she found her way into your liqueur supply.”
“She certainly seems passionate,” he replies, watching as Annabelle sways as she sips from her latest glass of whiskey. “I suppose that's an admirable quality.”
“They murdered him,” she continues, and now there are tears running down her face. “They murdered a good man, and for what? For asking questions. I bet he's not the only one, either. I bet they've murdered hundreds of people over the years, people who dared stand up to what they're doing.” She turns to me. “Suicide. That's their favorite cover. You'd be surprised how many people started taking an interest in Knott's Court and then decided to neck a handful of pills, or hung themselves, or jumped off a cliff. Real convenient, ain't it?”
“She's been like this all afternoon,” I tell Tim. “She has these theories -”
“Not theories!” she shouts. “Facts!”
“You have to give her points for enthusiasm,” Tim mutters. “So many young people are rather apathetic these days, but she definitely cares, even if she seems rather enamored of that whiskey bottle. I dare say -”
Before he can finish, Annabelle falls backward onto the sofa. She drops her empty glass, which thankfully lands on the rug without breaking. This time, clearly lacking the strength to rise, the poor girl simply turns and looks at me. I swear, I can see a hint of desperation in her eyes, as if she wants me to agree with her.
“I know you think I'm just a drunk,” she stammers, slurring her speech more than ever, “but that's just because I drank too much. Harry Plume was a good man, the best man I ever met, and when he was murdered I swore I'd bring those bastards to justice. That was ten years ago now, and I always knew it'd be a slow job, but I've been getting closer and one day I'll have the information I need. They can't hide forever. And then, finally, Knott's Court will -”
Her head drops and she slumps down, and a moment later she starts snoring.
I wait a moment, just in case she gets a second wind, and then I turn to Tim.
“Enthusiasm is all well and good,” I point out, “but some of the things she's been talking about this evening have been too extraordinary to be believed. I'm starting to wonder whether she's alright in the head.”
Stepping over to one of the armchairs, he picks up a blanket and carries it to the sofa. He sits next to Annabelle and carefully places the blanket over her shoulders, taking care to tuck it in at the sides so that she's properly covered.
“I had a daughter once,” he says finally. “A long time ago now. She died when she was six. Hit by a car. The loss was tremendous, and I'm afraid my marriage fell apart fairly rapidly. Losing a child...”
His voice trails off for a moment, and then he reaches past Annabelle's shoulder and moves the blanket a little, to make sure her toes are covered.
“I don't know what she was like,” he continues. “Her name was Jessica. For some silly reason, that's one of the hardest things to deal with. She was a happy, lively child, but she was taken before I could really get to know her. Perhaps that's partly my fault, perhaps I was too quick to let my wife look after her when she was young. But Jessica died before I could find out if she was going to be an artist, or a scientist, or...”
“I'm being rather mawkish, aren't I?” he adds with a faint chuckle, as he gets to his feet. He stares down at Annabelle for a moment, as she continues to snore. “I wouldn't have minded if Jessica had ended up as a journalist, if she'd been someone who wanted to change the world for the better. Someone who gives a damn about right and wrong. There's honor in that course of action, and a kind of nobility.”
Annabelle burps, but she remains asleep.
“Well, you know what I mean,” Tim mutters. “Of course, I'd have been proud of her no matter what she'd done with her life. I just wish I'd had the chance to see her grow up.”
“Annabelle certainly has some funny ideas,” I reply, as Tim and I leave the room. “I can't help thinking that I wasted the day with her.”
“I watched the news this evening,” he continues, “hoping to find out about that man with the goat's head, but it wasn't mentioned. I couldn't find anything about it online, either. Funny how the news works, eh? You'd think something like that would be worth a quick mention.”
He gently closes the doors before turning to me.
“Just because she seems to be quite the drinker,” he adds, “doesn't mean you can't dismiss everything young Annabelle is claiming. Plus, if she really
mentored by the great Harry Plume, she can't be all bad. I'm under the impression that he was a highly-regarded journalist, one of the best of the old school. He probably taught the girl some good skills.”
“She seems fixated on that Knott's Court house,” I mutter. “Have you ever heard of it?”
“I'm not sure, to be honest,” he says with a sigh. “Quite a lot passes me by, these days.”
“I need to find out if anything she told me is true,” I continue. “And there's only one way to do that.”
“It's simple,” I add, before shrugging. “I shall simply have to go and knock on the front door of Knott's Court, and ask them.”
A Room With a View
By day, Knott's Court doesn't look remotely fearsome. In fact, as I stand on the pavement and look up at the high stone facade, I feel that the place rather blends in against its surroundings. Since there's no sign nearby, nothing to announce the name of the place, I even pause for a moment to double-check that I've got the right building.
Finally, taking a deep breath, I start making my way up the steps.
I can't help feeling a faint simmering sense of concern in the pit of my belly, even though I know that this is most likely a wild goose chase. Annabelle was still fast asleep when I left this morning, and I imagine she's still extremely hungover, but her words from last night have left me rather unsettled. No matter how many times I tell myself that this is just a house, and that there's no reason to think that the place is connected to my dear Katie, I can't entirely forget my fears.
When I reach the top of the steps, I immediately knock on the black front door, and then I wait. After a moment, I hear footsteps approaching from the other side. At least the occupants of Knott's Court have the decency to answer their door like civilized people.
Turning away from the window, I see a well-dressed, middle-aged gentleman entering the drawing room. I had expected to wait quite some time after I was shown in here by the maid, yet it seems that the master of the house is already here. Whatever else one might say about Knott's Court, at least they don't keep people waiting.
“I'm sorry if you were kept waiting,” he continues as he comes across the room, extending a hand to greet me. “My name is Dominic Stewart and I deal with the day-to-day affairs here at Knott's Court. I must admit, it's not often that we receive visitors, but I hope I can help with whatever matter brings you to our door.”
“I'm afraid you'll -”
“Have you been offered refreshments?” he adds, interrupting me. “Tea? Coffee?”
“I'm quite alright, thank you. I simply -”
“Please, take a seat.”
He gestures for me to sit by the window, and I feel compelled to accept the invitation. He sits opposite me, and I can't help but think that he seems like a fine, cultured young man. A little eager with his politeness, perhaps, which makes me think that his manners are learned rather than deeply ingrained. Still, one can't fault him for that. Perhaps he dragged himself up to the level of decent society.
“We're very proud of the view from our drawing room,” he explains, looking out at the passing traffic. “Knott's Court is located on one of the city's main thoroughfares. I've always felt that a building gains its character from its surroundings, and it befits our work here for us to be so close to London's lifeblood. We also back onto the river, which of course is another great benefit. In general, we try to help improve the neighborhood.”
“That's very admirable,” I tell him.
“For example,” he continues, “just last week we purchased the derelict building opposite, and we plan to knock it down very soon and fund the construction of something more pleasing. Something that fits with the tone of the street.”
“I'm sure you'll think this is rather strange,” I reply, hoping to steer him onto a more relevant topic, “but I came here today because I was hoping you might be able to help me. You see, I'm trying to find my daughter, and a friend suggested that she might have found a job here at your establishment. It's a long-shot, I know, but I'm rather running out of options.”
“A job?” He pauses. “Here? Well, I'm not sure that we've made any new hires recently, but -”
“Her name is Katie Wren.”
I watch him carefully, in case there's a flicker of recognition in his eyes, but he seems to genuinely not know the name.
“I must confess,” he says with an awkward smile, “that I'm not familiar with every staff-member. Awful of me, I know, but one simply doesn't have the time. I shall have to check with house-keeping, but that's absolutely not a problem.”
He gets to his feet.
“If you'll be so kind as to wait here for a moment, I'll see what I can find out.”
I thank him as he leaves the room, and then I turn and look up at the grand oil paintings that line the walls. I still don't entirely understand the nature of Knott's Court, but so far the place seems entirely civilized. It's certainly not the den of iniquity that Annabelle described last night, and it's hard to believe that anything sinister could be lurking in the house's deeper reaches. In fact, this entire place seems so far like the most civilized establishment one could ever hope to visit. There are many things that I fear in London, but a well-run house is certainly not one of them.
Getting to my feet, I wander past the grand piano and over to the far side of the room, where several ornaments rest on an antique dresser. There's a door in the corner, and although my natural curiosity prompts me to contemplate taking a closer look, I quickly remind myself that it wouldn't do to snoop. After all, so far these people have shown me absolute courtesy, and Annabelle's drunken ramblings seem more and more like the paranoid ravings of somebody whose mind isn't quite right. Perhaps Annabelle is simply one of those modern girls who dislike tradition. Rather than despising Knott's Court, she might learn a little from its ways, although I doubt she lacks the necessary temperament to change.
Hearing footsteps, I turn just as another maid enters, carrying a tray of tea and biscuits.
“Compliments of Mr. Stewart,” she says with a faint, meek smile as she takes the tray to the table by the window.
As she sets the tray down, I can't help watching her and imagining my dear Katie performing the same role. I'd like to think that I raised my daughter to have certain manners, and to be possessed of common sense, so I certainly believe she'd be able to work here at Knott's Court. At the same time, she most certainly wouldn't do so while cutting off contact with the rest of the world.
“Do you mind if I ask you something?” I say suddenly, surprising myself a little.
The maid turns to me. She's young, and undeniably pretty.
“Of course, M'am. What can I do for you?”
“Do you like working here?”
“I beg your pardon?”
That's good. She's very polite.
“I simply wondered,” I continue, “whether you enjoy working here at Knott's Court.”
“Very much,” she replies, although she immediately turns and heads to the door. “Mr. Stewart will -”
“And what exactly is it that you do?”
She hesitates in the doorway.
“I greet visitors, mostly,” she tells me after a moment.
“And do you receive
She seems frozen for a few seconds, as if she's not quite sure what to say.
“I don't suppose you know my daughter, do you?” I ask. “Her name is -”
Before I can finish, Mr. Stewart steps back into view.
“That's fine, Mercy,” he tells the maid, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Please, return to the gathering room and await further duties. There is much work to be done this morning.”
The young lady smiles politely at me as she leaves the room.
“I see that tea was brought for you,” Mr. Stewart continues, stepping toward me. “I've made inquiries with the head of housekeeping, and I've determined that we employ nobody by the name Katie or Catherine Wren. Indeed, we have made no new hires since the beginning of last month. Since all employees are engaged by the household directly, rather than through agencies, we have files on everyone who works here. I'm very sorry, but it would appear that there's nothing we can do for you.”
“Well,” I reply, feeling as if perhaps I've wasted this gentleman's time, “thank you for taking the trouble to check.”
“You are of course welcome to stay a while and enjoy your tea.”
“Thank you, but I should get going. I have to keep searching.”
He turns and leads me back into the hallway, and toward the front door.
“I hope you find your daughter soon,” he says calmly, as ahead of us the door is opened by an attendant. “It must be a great worry for her to be missing, but perhaps she has merely neglected to keep in touch. I know the modern world can be awfully distracting.”
With the door now open, the sounds of the busy street are filling the hallway.
be distracting,” I mutter, stepping outside and then turning back to him. “Thank you again. Might I ask... I know this is probably inappropriate, but might I ask exactly what you do here at Knott's Court?”
I wait for an answer to what I had assumed was a simple question, but for a moment Mr. Stewart seems a little nonplussed, as if he isn't entirely sure what to say.
“Knott's Court is a club for gentlemen of the city,” he says finally. “We have been established for more than two centuries as a haven for those who wish to meet away from the clamor of modernity, although the current owners took over a little more recently. And of course, we prefer to operate with discretion, which is perhaps why information is rather scarce. We have no website, and no social media presence. I suppose that in an age when everybody is expected to share everything, this approach can seem a little... old-fashioned.”
“Of course not,” I reply, feeling a little reassured. “I entirely understand. In fact, I myself prefer to -”
Before I can finish, I spot another maid coming along the corridor. She starts to make her way into the reception room, but after a moment we make eye contact and she hesitates. It takes a couple of seconds longer for me to realize where I've seen her before, and I'm shocked when I see that Agnes Bresson is employed here at Knott's Court. She clearly recognizes me, and she loiters for a moment before scurrying into the room.
Mr. Stewart turns and looks over his shoulder, and when he glances at me it's clear that he knows something is wrong.
“I'm afraid I have a great deal to get done,” he says with a faint, polite smile. “Again, I hope very much that you will find your daughter, and I would urge you not to give up hope, even if the police are less than helpful. People
disappear in London, but they can also reappear. The city breathes, Mrs. Wren, and sometimes it takes people when it inhales and then returns them when it exhales. The rest is simply a matter of waiting.”
I stare at the door the drawing room, and for a moment I'm minded to go charging back inside so I can confront that wretched girl.
“Mrs. Wren? Is anything the matter?”
I turn to him.
“No,” I stammer, feeling as if perhaps I should be more cautious. “No, I just...”
“If you'd like to leave a card or a phone number, or an address where you can be reached, I can let you know if I hear anything that might be of help.” He pauses. “One never knows.”
“I'm sure that's not necessary,” I reply. “Thank you. Goodbye.”
With that, I turn and hurry down the steps. My heart is beating fast and the mere sight of that awful French girl has filled me with concern. I've seen enough of her in the past week to know that she's a delinquent, so it's difficult to believe that she could be employed by the owners of Knott's Court. I'd have thought such a fine and cultured establishment would better screen its staff. When I reach the pavement and turn to look back, I see that the front door is already shut, but a moment later I spot a figure watching me from the window.
For a few seconds, I stare at Agnes, and I swear I see a hint of fear in her eyes.
And then she's gone, pulling back out of view and leaving me standing along on the street. Passersby are rushing past in either direction, talking on their phones and loudly discussing matters of the day. Not one of them so much as glances at Knott's Court, as if they haven't noticed the house or, rather, have been trained to look away. But I remain rooted to the spot, staring up at the windows, unable to shake the fear that behind the house's magnificent facade, there might yet lurk some secrets.