by Ruth Ware
“Yes, she’s dead,” she said to Freddie. “I got this tattoo in her memory.”
“Cool,” the boy said again, semiautomatically. He looked awkward now, in the presence of his mother. “Do you have any others?”
“Yes,” Hal said, at the same time that Mitzi broke in.
“Freddie, for heaven’s sake, stop bothering poor Harriet with personal questions. This isn’t appropriate conversation for—”
She stopped, the words a funeral unspoken on her lips.
Hal smiled, or tried to, and picked up the tea.
“Really, it’s fine.” Questions about her tattoos were easier to answer than the ones Abel, Harding, and Ezra had been asking. She felt a shift in her stomach as she saw Harding pat one of his brothers on the shoulder and then follow his wife over to the fire.
“Warming up, Harriet?” he said as he came up to the little knot seated on the sofa. “Very wise. This place is nothing short of perishing, I’m afraid. Mother didn’t really believe in modern comforts like central heating.”
“Has it—has it been in the family long?” Hal asked. She remembered her mother’s advice about conducting readings: Don’t let them ask all the questions, ask some of your own. It’s easier to direct the conversation if you’re in the driving seat, and they’ll feel flattered if you show an interest. “My mother didn’t ever talk about this place,” she added honestly.
“Oh, donkey’s years, I believe,” Harding said carelessly. He settled himself with his back to the fire, fanning up the hem of his jacket to let the heat reach his back. “The oldest part of the building is this bit where we’re sitting now, which was built in the seventeen hundreds and was quite a modest farm for many years. Then your great-great-grandfather—my mother’s grandfather—made rather a lot of money in the late eighteen hundreds from china clay, up near St. Austell, and he used it to completely revamp the place in rather grand style. He kept the Georgian core of the old farmhouse as the reception rooms and main bedrooms, but built a sprawl of wings and servants’ quarters in the Arts and Crafts style, turning it into quite an imposing place. However, unfortunately his son wasn’t a very good businessman and he lost control of the mine to his business partner. Since then there’s been very little money for upkeep, so the house is somewhat frozen in the nineteen twenties. It needs a good million-pound investment to bring it up to spec, certainly not money your average buyer has hanging around, though it’s the sort of thing one of the big hotel chains might accomplish. Of course, the land is what’s really worth the money now.” He looked out of the window, across the rain-swept expanse of grass, and Hal could almost see him calculating—imagining identical new homes sprouting up like mushrooms, hearing the ker-ching of cash registers as each new seed germinated into a sale.
Hal nodded, and sipped her tea for want of something to say. Her hands were still cold, in spite of the heat of the fire, but her cheeks felt hot, and all of a sudden she sneezed, and then shivered convulsively.
“Bless you,” Abel said.
Harding had taken a step backwards, almost tripping over the fender.
“Oh dear, I hope you haven’t caught a cold at the graveside.”
“I doubt it,” Hal said. “I’m very tough.” But she ruined the words by sneezing again. Abel pulled out a beautifully laundered cotton handkerchief and held it out solicitously, but Hal shook her head.
“Biscuit, Hal?” Mitzi said, and Hal took one, remembering that she had not eaten since that morning on the train. But when she put the shortbread in her mouth it tasted dry and stale, and she was not sorry when there was a cough from the other end of the room, and Mr. Treswick raised his voice above the conversation.
“If I might have a moment of your attention, everyone?”
Harding shot a look at Abel, who shrugged, and the two men made their way down the long room towards the lawyer, who was standing beside a grand piano, shuffling papers. Hal half rose from the sofa, but then stood uncertainly, unsure whether the summons included her, until Mr. Treswick said, “You too, Harriet.”
He put down his file of papers and walked to the door, opening it to the corridor so that Hal felt the draft of cold air from outside, a sharp contrast to the fire-warmed room.
“Mrs. Warren!” he called, his voice echoing along the passageway. “Do you have a moment?”
“Are the children needed?” Mitzi said, and Mr. Treswick shook his head.
“No, not unless they would like to listen. But if Ezra could join us . . . where is he, by the way?”
“I think he went outside for a smoke,” Abel said. He disappeared for a moment and came back with his brother in tow, rain misted in his dark, curly hair.
“Sorry.” Ezra’s smile was somehow a little twisted, as if there were a joke only he was party to. “I didn’t realize you were going to be pulling the old Hercule Poirot thing, Mr. Treswick. Are you about to reveal Mother’s murderer?”
“Not at all,” Mr. Treswick said, his face tightly disapproving. He shuffled his papers again and pushed his glasses up his nose with his knuckle, plainly ruffled by Ezra’s levity. “And I hardly think that’s appropriate given—well. Never mind.” He coughed again, rather artificially, and seemed to marshal his thoughts. “Regardless, thank you all for this moment of your time. This won’t take very long, but it’s my understanding from speaking to Mrs. Westaway that she hadn’t discussed her testamentary arrangements with her children. Is that correct?”
Harding was frowning.
“Not discussed, as such, no, but there was a very clear understanding, following my father’s death, that she would continue to live in the house until her own passing, at which point it would pass—”
“Well, that is my concern,” Mr. Treswick said hastily. “That there should not be any mistaken assumptions. I strongly encourage all clients to discuss their wills with the beneficiaries, but of course not all choose to do so, and it’s my understanding that your mother didn’t communicate her intentions to anyone.”
There was the sound of a cane in the hallway and Mrs. Warren came into the room.
“What is it?” she said, rather crossly. And then, seeing one of Harding’s children putting coal onto the fire, “Don’t go wasting coal, young man.”
“Do you have a moment, Mrs. Warren? I wanted to talk to all beneficiaries of Mrs. Westaway’s will, and it seems fairest to do it at the same time.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Warren, and a look came over her face that Hal couldn’t quite pin down. There was something . . . expectant about it. But Hal didn’t think it was greed. More a kind of . . . trepidation. It might almost have been glee. Did Mrs. Warren know something the others did not?
Abel pulled out the piano stool, and the housekeeper seated herself, resting her cane against her lap. Mr. Treswick cleared his throat, picked up the file of papers from the polished piano top, and shuffled them again, quite unnecessarily. Every inch of him, from his polished brogues to his wire-rimmed spectacles, signaled nervous discomfort, and Hal felt the back of her neck prickle. She saw a concerned frown line knitting an anxious furrow between Abel’s brows.
“Well, now. I will try to keep this brief—I’m not in favor of the Victorian-style theatrics involved in public will readings, but there is something to be said for transparency in these matters, and the last thing I would want is people committing themselves on a mistaken assumption of—”
“For goodness’ sake, spit it out, man,” Harding broke in impatiently.
“Harding—” Abel put a placating hand on his brother’s arm, but Harding shook it off.
“Don’t ‘Harding’ me, Abel. Clearly there’s something he’s circling around, and I for one would like to cut to the chase and find out what it is. Did Mother go cracked and leave everything to Battersea Dogs Home or something?”
“Not quite,” Mr. Treswick said. His eyes darted to Harding, and then to Hal, to Mrs. Warren, and then back to Harding, and he reordered the papers again and settled his glasses more firmly on the br
idge of his nose. “The, um, the long and short of it is this: the estate comprises some three hundred thousand pounds in cash and securities, most of which will be swallowed up by death duties, and the house itself, which is yet to be valued but is by far the most substantial part of the whole, and will certainly run in excess of a million pounds, possibly two, depending on circumstances. Mrs. Westaway left several specific bequests: thirty thousand pounds to Mrs. Warren”—the housekeeper gave a tight nod—“and ten thousand pounds to each of her grandchildren . . .”
At those words, Hal felt her pulse quicken and her cheeks flush.
Ten thousand pounds? Ten thousand pounds? Why, she could pay off Mr. Smith, pay the rent, the gas bill . . . she could even afford to take a holiday. A flickering warmth was spreading through her, as though she had drunk something particularly hot and nourishing. She tried not to smile. Tried to remember that there were a lot of hoops still to negotiate. But the words kept repeating themselves inside her head. Ten thousand pounds. Ten thousand pounds.
It was all she could do to stay still on the spot, when every particle of her wanted to dance with excitement. Could it be true?
But Mr. Treswick was still speaking.
“. . . excepting, that is, her granddaughter Harriet.”
The sensation was like a balloon, pricked of air, collapsing in on itself into a sad little pile of colored rubber faster than it took to describe.
In that one sentence, it was over. She imagined the ten thousand pounds blowing away into the sea breeze, the notes fluttering over the cliff edge into the Atlantic.
There was a wrench in letting the dream go, but as she watched the notes disappear in her mind’s eye, she realized: it had been an absurd fantasy to think that she could get away with this. Farcical, really. Forged birth certificates, fake dates of birth. What had she been thinking?
Well, it was over, but at least she hadn’t been found out. She was no worse off than she had been before. As for what she would do about Mr. Smith and his messengers . . . well, she couldn’t think about that now. She just had to get through this, and get away.
It felt cruel, though, to have the promise dangled before her for that one moment, only to be snatched away.
As the adrenaline of exhilaration ebbed, a sense of great exhaustion was creeping through her, and Hal put out a hand to steady herself on a chair as Mr. Treswick cleared his throat, preparatory to continuing.
“To Harriet,” he said, a little awkwardly, and he shuffled the papers again, as if reluctant to say what was coming, “to, um, Harriet, Mrs. Westaway has left the entire residue of her estate, after payment of death duties.”
There was a long silence.
It was Harding who exploded first, his voice breaking into the hush.
“I did realize that this was liable to be something of a shock,” Mr. Treswick said diffidently. “That was why I felt it only right to inform you pers—”
“To hell with that!” Harding shouted. “Are you insane?”
“Please don’t raise your voice, Mr. Westaway. It’s unfortunate that your mother didn’t see fit to discuss this with you while she was still—”
“I want to see the wording,” Harding said through gritted teeth.
“The will. The wording of the bequest. We’ll challenge it. Mother must have been crazy—when was this monstrosity dated?”
“She made her will two years ago, Mr. Westaway, and I’m afraid that while I appreciate your concern, there is no question of Mrs. Westaway’s capacity. She asked her doctor to visit her on the day she made the will, with a view, I believe, towards avoiding any such successful challenge.”
“Undue influence, then!”
“I don’t believe Mrs. Westaway had ever met her granddaughter, so it’s hard to see how that would stand up in co—”
“Give me the damn will!” Harding shouted, and he snatched at the pieces of paper Mr. Treswick held out.
Hal was holding on tight to the back of the chair, her fingers numb and white with pressure, feeling the eyes of Mitzi, Abel, and Ezra on her as Harding scanned down the long document, and began to read aloud.
“I, Hester Mary Westaway, being of . . . God, there’s pages of this stuff. . . . Ah, here we are: And to my granddaughter, Harriet Westaway, last known to be resident at Marine View Villas, Brighton, I give the residue of my estate—Jesus fucking Christ, it’s true. Mother must have been mad.”
He groped his way to a sofa and sat, heavily, scanning up and down the document as if looking for some kind of explanation, something that would make this madness go away. When he looked up, his face was purple and suffused with blood.
“Who even is this girl? We don’t know her from Adam!”
“Harding,” Abel said warningly, and he put out a hand to his brother’s shoulder. “Calm down. This isn’t the time for—”
“And as for you, Treswick, you bloody charlatan. What business had you letting Mother execute a document like this? I should sue you for malpractice!”
“Harding,” Mitzi broke in more urgently. “Abel, Mr. Treswick—look at the girl.”
“I think she’s going to faint,” said a voice, tinged with a sort of detached interest, from Hal’s right, and she felt all the heads in the room turn towards her, even as the room itself began to disintegrate into fragments.
Hal didn’t feel the chair slip from her loosening grip, and Mitzi’s cry of alarm came as if from a great way off.
She didn’t even feel the thump as she hit the floor.
The nothing washed over her, like a great, thankful wave.
* * *
The voice in Hal’s ears was persistent, dredging her up from far below, where she seemed to have been drifting a great while.
“Harriet. Come on now, it’s time to wake up.”
And then, as if to someone else, “Her temperature’s still high. Her forehead feels like a radiator.”
Hal blinked, screwing up her eyes against a brightness that hurt.
“What—how . . .” Her throat was sore and dry.
“Oh, thank goodness. We were getting worried!” It was a woman’s voice, and Hal blinked again and reached for her glasses. She slipped them over her ears, and the room slid into focus. First Mitzi’s face, and then behind her the figure of a man—Abel, she thought. Everything came back—St. Piran. The funeral. The house. And—oh God—that scene with Harding . . .
“Here,” Mitzi said. There was a rustle, and a glass of water loomed under Hal’s nose. “Have some of this. You’ve been asleep for ages. You must be very dehydrated.”
“I—what time is it?”
“Getting on for nine. We were getting quite worried. Abel and I were just discussing whether we should take you to A and E.”
Looking down, Hal saw she was lying on a couch of some kind, her dress rucked up to her thighs, although, thank God, there was a blanket over her legs. The room was one she didn’t recognize—some kind of library, by the looks of it, with honey-colored shelves rising to a high, damp-speckled ceiling, and ranks of peeling leather-bound books, swathed in cobwebs.
“You just keeled over, and when we went to try to help you, you were burning up. It’s a good job you’re a skinny little thing.”
“How are you feeling, Harriet?” It was Abel, speaking for the first time, his light tenor soft and anxious. He came and knelt beside the couch, and touched her gently on the forehead. Hal had to fight not to pull away from the intrusion of his touch, but his knuckles were cool. “Do you want us to call a doctor?”
“A doctor?” Hal struggled up against the sofa cushions, setting dust motes spinning in the golden light of the reading lamp. She imagined Abel picking her up from the floor, her skirt around her hips, and felt her cheeks flare with heat. “God, no. I mean, thank you—but I don’t think . . .”
��I’m not sure our chances of getting an out-of-hours GP are very good,” Abel said. He stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “But if you’re feeling nauseated, perhaps we should try A and E.”
“I don’t need a doctor,” Hal said, trying to sound firm.
“She’s still very hot,” Mitzi said, talking over Hal as if she hadn’t spoken. “Do you think your mother has a thermometer anywhere?”
“Goodness knows,” Abel said. He rose, dusting off his knees. “There’s probably some lethal Victorian apparatus involving mercury in the medicine cabinet. I’ll go and have a look.”
“Oh, would you? You’re a darling. Rich’s iPhone has some app that claims it can take a temperature, but I can’t see how it can possibly be accurate.”
“I’m fine!” Hal said. She swung her legs to the floor, and was met with a chorus of clucking disapproval from Abel and Mitzi.
“Darling—” Abel put a hand on her shoulder, pressing her back into the couch. “You just went white as a sheet and keeled over. The one thing you are definitely not is fine. Now, if I leave you alone with Mitzi to go and find a thermometer, do you promise not to go running off?”
“I promise,” Hal said, only half reluctantly. She put her legs back on the couch, and lay back, shading her eyes from the glare of the lamp.
Mitzi saw the gesture, and bent over.
“Is the light hurting your eyes?”
“A little bit,” Hal admitted. “You don’t have any painkillers, do you? My head’s really hurting.”
“I’m not surprised,” Mitzi said, a touch of tartness in her voice, as she angled the lamp to the side, pointing it away from Hal’s face. “You came down with quite a whack on the parquet. There’s an impressive egg on the side of your head. It’s a shame you didn’t go down the other way—you would have hit the rug, although it’s so threadbare I’m not sure it would have done any good. Yes, I have some paracetamol in my handbag, but it’s in the other room. Will you be okay while I go and fetch it?”