Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan (Excerpts)
The scream awakened him.
Mordecai Tremaine sat up in bed with the sound of it ringing in his ears, and at first he could not tell whether it was real. Imagination and reality, fantasy and fact had become so entwined within him that, aroused suddenly from a troubled sleep, he was left groping after truth.
And then the scream came again, and this time its shrill desperation impacted upon his mind with an effect that shocked him into full consciousness.
He groped for the bedside lamp, found it, and blinked at his pocket watch. It was ten minutes past two. He could not have been sleeping for long; the heavy, drugging legacy of first sleep still lay upon him.
As he huddled into his dressing gown, the screams went on. They formed a hysterical background to the slow working of his thoughts. He was listening to them and trying at the same time to assimilate their meaning. There was something he had to learn. There was some message for him. It was not merely that the screams were underwritten by terror; there was another, less obvious meaning.
But although he was conscious of it, he could not define it. His awakening had been too sudden. He had had no time to sort out his impressions clearly. This was it, his mind was saying. This was the something he had been expecting.
As he opened the door of his bedroom and stepped into the corridor, he could hear movements from other parts of the house. A voice called out in inquiry. There was a note of irascibility in it, and he thought it was Lorring’s. He heard the sound of running feet.
The screams were less frequent now. They had a sobbing note, as though exhaustion was reducing whoever was responsible to semi-impotence.
It was a woman who had screamed. The mists had cleared from Mordecai Tremaine’s mind now, and that much at least had resolved itself. He wondered as he padded along the corridor what he would find. He had located the source of the screams as the ground floor, and as he made his way toward the stairs, Gerald Beechley came out of a room just ahead of him.
The other heard him and turned. His normally red face had lost its high color and was drawn and tense. “What is it?” he said. “What’s happened? I was asleep…wondered what was going on. Is it Benedict?”
Mordecai Tremaine regarded him curiously. “I don’t know,” he said. “What makes you think it might be Mr. Grame?”
Fear flickered in Gerald Beechley’s eyes. His glance wavered. He gave a convincing impression of a man who had made a mistake and was trying to avoid being caught in a trap. He said haltingly, “It seemed the…the most obvious thing. I-I thought it must be Benedict. All the others are in bed.”
They were going down the stairs now. Mordecai Tremaine did not look at his companion. It was a method that encouraged people to talk more freely, either defensively in an attempt to throw up excuses against what they construed as cold suspicion, or confidently in the belief that they had nothing to fear.
“You mean you thought it was Mr. Grame because you knew that he would be downstairs attending to the Christmas tree after everybody else had gone to their rooms?”
“That’s right,” Beechley said eagerly. “You know Benedict’s habit, of course. He always stays up on Christmas Eve to get the tree ready for the morning. He likes to have the presents all waiting for us when we come down.”
“I see,” said Mordecai Tremaine. “The only thing is,” he added gently, “it was a woman who screamed.”
This time, he glanced sideways at his companion. Beechley’s newfound assurance had collapsed as rapidly as it had been inflated. The hesitant, fearful look was back in his face, and one hand had gone to his collar to caress his neck nervously.
As if, thought Tremaine suddenly, he was anxious on account of it…
Downstairs, lights were blazing through an open doorway. They heard the sound of voices and, crossing the hall, went into the room in which the activity appeared to be centered.
The first thing Mordecai Tremaine saw was the Christmas tree. He saw it as though it was a symbol, as though it was the dominant factor in a dark tragedy. And as though, in some strange way and as though it possessed a thinking brain, it knew.
It was, of course, only a fleeting and fantastic impression born of its momentarily seizing his attention as he went into the room. In the next instant, the full scene of which it was a part was photographed upon his mind.
It was Charlotte Grame who had screamed. She was seated in one of the easy chairs from which the house party had listened to the village carolers. Grief and horror had distorted her face, and her expression held the indefinable misery of someone who felt herself to be lying under the hand of doom.
She was dressed in a dark tweed costume that exaggerated her paleness into a pallor that shocked and that accentuated the dark rings marking her tortured eyes. Her emotion had stormed itself out, but it had left her weak and pitiable, huddled into the chair.
Austin Delamere was with her. The plump man had lost his official pose. He was no longer the potential elder statesman carrying the cares of office and relaxing with conscious dignity in between signing documents of historic importance. He was only an over-fat, harassed little man, whose thin hairs were straggling wildly down into his eyes and who was faced with a situation with which he was unable to cope.
He was patting one of Charlotte Grame’s hands, making an ineffectual attempt to revive her. For all the interest she was showing in him, he might not have been there. She was staring past him. She was staring at something that lay beyond him on the floor.
It was a heap of red cloth. It lay almost under the Christmas tree. It lay motionless, and it was the fact that it was so still that made it so terrible.
Mordecai Tremaine’s hand gripped Gerald Beechley’s arm. He said sharply, “Don’t go any closer! Don’t touch anything!”
It was an unnecessary warning. Beechley had stopped almost as soon as he entered the room. He stood there trying to say something, but with only inarticulate sounds coming from him.
Tremaine walked forward and looked down. His eyes moved over the crumpled red cloak, the plain red cap with edges trimmed with white, the long white beard that had slipped out of position and rested grotesquely against the dead man’s cheek.
It was a dead man. There was a darker red on the cloak. It was a red that had stained. It was a red that had seeped through when a bullet had drained the lifeblood from the heart. He stooped. He could see the hole—discolored around the edges, slightly irregular but quite small—through which the bullet had passed. It was in a vertical line with the heart, but well below it.
This was Father Christmas, Tremaine’s brain was saying crazily over and over again. It was Christmas Eve, and Father Christmas had arrived. Only he was lying dead under the Christmas tree. Father Christmas had been murdered.