Thursday, October 25, 2007
Trust & Treachery *NOT* a Story by Jane Austen
Fans of Friday Fiction, your wait is over! Chapters 3 and 4 of our latest project are now complete. I'm going to be swamped tomorrow, so I am posting them now.

Once again, El Capitan wrote chapter 3 and I wrote chapter 4. The first two chapters can be found here.

Trust & Treachery *NOT* a Story by Jane Austen

Chapter 3 (by El Capitan)

Major Allardyce Creighton of the Royal Constabulary paused briefly at the Dunwoody airlock. A quick check of uniform and kit ensured nothing was out of place. Personally, Creighton would have just as soon come straight from the patrol boat in slicksuit and helmet, but the gentry did so love the trappings of Empire.

An affair of this type could easily have been handled by a couple of Subalterns, but any crime involving Society had to be handled with kid gloves. Even with his rank and experience, a bruised ego whilst investigating this murder could still land Creighton out in the Belt for a decade, checking spacesick immigrants for proof of inoculations.

Creighton's omnicard could have bypassed the airlock's keycode, but deferring to propriety he tapped the annunciator, and leaned into the viewfinder. One of Dunwoody's lackies must have seen him coming on the vidscreen, as the lock hissed open instantly. A liveried footman was already in a deep bow, motioning him inside.

"Lord Dunwoody"? inquired Creighton, handing the footman his kitbag. The servant motioned towards the main hall, while backing into the cloakroom.

The first thing Creighton noticed upon entering the ballroom was the relative quiet. Odd, that, he thought. With a gathering this size it should be hard to dampen everyone's spirits and silence the chatter. Murders were certainly unusual, and worthy of much idle speculation. Most of the ladies present had found a place to sit, while the gentlemen stood in small groups, observing each other and quietly pontificating amongst themselves. Here and there a blue column of smoke rose above the assemblage, and Creighton noticed more than one cigar being discreetly tucked out of sight at his approach. Certainly even these upper-class twits knew he wasn't there looking for contraband tobacco?

A shock of silver hair seen pushing through the crowd served as a herald for Lord Dunwoody. The man was taller than most by at least a handspan, and the relief on his face when he saw Creighton was apparent.

"Ah, Major! Thank you for coming so quickly!" said Lord Dunwoody. "I'm almost out of Bollinger, and if we can't get the guests on their way, I'm afraid I might be found dead in my wine cellar!"

Creighton winced at the crassness of the statement. Nothing surprising there, long before Sir Spencer Marston assumed the mantle from his father and became Earl of Dunwoody, he was known system-wide for his uncouth asides.

Lord Dunwoody gripped Creighton's hand and with a casual arm about his shoulders, deftly turned him about so their conversation wouldn't be observed. "I'm afraid we have a spot of bother in the library, Dice. Someone's gone and ventilated Thom Brandon's daughter, and I'm afraid it might have been Jane Steele."

"Why Lady Jane?" asked Creighton, waving aside a footman offering a champagne flute. "Surely it's not over that Percy Fitzhugh matter?"

"Who can say?" replied the earl, leading the way to the library. "She and Wrenroth were found alone with the body, and he claims to have walked in on Jane sleeping."

"Sir Spencer, you haven't put anyone to the question, have you?" Creighton shuddered at the thought of Dunwoody's aristocratic hands muddying up the investigation.

"Heaven forbid, Dice, old boy," replied Lord Dunwoody. "You know very well I had to withdraw from the Law Court Academy on account of terminal boredom. Don't really know how you manage it after all these years."

"It's a character flaw, I suppose," said Creighton, turning to face Lord Dunwoody as they reached the library. "My crew should be docking with the V-K readers by now. We should be able to get statements from everyone and have your guests on their way in a few hours. Your staff might have to wait a bit longer. I'm afraid I can't have them wandering about the estate until we speak to them, Sir Spencer."

"'They also serve who only stand and wait'," quoted Lord Dunwoody as he turned to break the news to the crowd. "I'll leave my majordomo at your disposal."

Creighton opened the door to the library, instantly noting the rich coppery aroma of blood that the aircyclers had failed to disperse. Jane Steele and Drake Bayning sat on a divan, another couple unknown to him sat opposite on an overstuffed ottoman, clearly unnerved at being closed up in a room with a corpse.

"Good evening..." he began, only to be interrupted by Bayning catapulting himself up off the divan.

"There's nothing good so far, Constable. I insist you let these ladies depart at once from this... this... abbatoir!" exclaimed Bayning. The other gentleman nodded his assent enthusiastically. His partner seemed to be able to do nothing but grip her elaborately embroidered handkerchief tightly and stare with morbid fascination at the lower legs visible from behind the divan. Jane Steele sat silently, one hand grasping her temples as if trying to massage away a headache.

"All in good time, Lord Wrenroth. Does Miss Steele require a physician?" asked Creighton. As he had hoped, his inquiry instantly defused Bayning's ire, and the Marquess quickly turned to Jane Steele to see to her condition.

While Bayning was busy with Steele, Creighton took the opportunity to step over behind the divan. Perhaps he shouldn't judge Lord Dunwoody's phrasing too harshly, he mused. 'Ventilated' was the indeed the proper phrase for Charlotte Brandon's current condition. Not only did the slim blade appear to bisect her liver neatly, there were numerous bloody slits in her dress front, each one marking a thrust by a knife.

Creighton pulled his bioscanner from a belt pouch and extended a probe into one of the wounds. He keyed the scanner's touchscreen, and the unit beeped twice as thousands of microscopic nanoprobes were set loose inside the corpse, gathering temperature and tissue samples from vital organs, establishing time of death and toxicology data.

"A nasty business, this." he muttered. Someone really had it in for the girl.

Turning to the unknown pair huddled on the ottoman, Creighton inquired "And who might you be, sir?"

The young man stuttered a couple of times, swallowed, then managed to choke out a reply. "Sir... Sir Alfred Peters-Howe, Constable. My father is Sir William Peters, Count of Nuovo Corsica. This is Miss Pamela Fortson, from the Enceladus Colony. We... we spotted the... the ...body." he finished in a hesitant manner.

The lad had a slightly dodgy look about him, but the ashen pallor on his swain couldn't easily be faked. No doubt the girl's family had spent a great deal of money and whatever influence they had to get their daughter ensconced in Society's fickle bosom for the Season, and this is her reward. She would now be an object of pursuit, but not for reasons she had hoped...

"Why don't you take Miss Fortson out for some fresh air, Sir Alfred." said Creighton. "Please don't leave the premises, however."

The pair quickly made their exit, and Creighton turned back to Lady Steele and Lord Wrenroth, both eyeing him with some trepidation but still secure in their position. "Now then," he began. "As much as it pains me to say this, my lord, you and Miss Steele here are what some might refer to as the prime suspects. I'm afraid this might take some time. I'll need to speak to you each alone. Do you have a preference for who goes first?"

As one of the pair left the room, Creighton keyed his recorder and leaned toward the remaining person. Odd how such a simple choice as who went first could sometimes pry a case wide open, he thought...

Chapter 4 (by Phoenix)

Jane’s head was splitting with worry, dread, guilt, and from too much breathing of recycled air. She had opted for the first interview feeling that the thing was done better sooner. She was worried about Lucy and Sophia and what they must fear and had so sent the Marquess on an errand to calm them.

The dread, too, was overwhelming. She had felt her stomach drop when the Major had called her a suspect. Now the dread was spreading and she felt as though she might convulse. The guilt had been everpresent since her first obscene thoughts about Charlotte’s lips. There was no denying it: she had hated Charlotte Brandon. But there was also the guilt over the quite visceral feelings that had overtaken her as she had sat for so long in close proximity to Lord Wrenroth. She was damp in places ladies didn’t talk about, and it had nothing to do with the heat!

The Major cleared his throat, effectively interrupting Jane’s reverie over her turmoil. “Lady Steele, my name is Major Allardyce Creighton of the Royal Constabulary and I’ll be leading the investigation into this evening’s unfortunate events. May I begin by getting some background?”

“Yes, Major Creighton, of course. Whatever you need.” Jane looked the Major in the eyes, finding them to be an almost electric blue. They were hypnotic and she felt an unnatural urge to be completely forthright.

The Major broke eye contact, checked the status of his bioscanner which was still running tests from the samples it had taken, and then returned Lady Jane’s gaze. “How did you know Charlotte Brandon, my Lady?”

Jane pondered briefly the best way to answer the question, then plunged ahead, Major Creighton’s eyes offering support. “I’ve known Charlotte Brandon since we were eight-year-olds at Dame Puffin’s Primary School. We attended Mrs. Pickett’s Finishing School together after that. Her father’s estate is near ours, so I’ve also known her in Society, of course.”

“And your relationship? Is it…friendly?” Creighton knew some of the facts, but he needed to test the Lady’s honesty.

“You ask a difficult question, Major Creighton. In all honesty, no, I can’t say we were friendly.” Jane weighed her words with great care before pressing on. “I disliked her in school. She was a bully who preyed upon others. I’m not sure you’ll be able to completely understand, and I know that I may imperil myself by telling you, but I feel like you need to know.” Jane was speaking rapidly, the words skipping off her tongue before she had time to consider them fully.

“Charlotte Brandon was mean, spiteful, vindictive, manipulative, and sadistic. She delighted in causing pain in others for no reason whatsoever. When we were in school, Charlotte purposely cut off Monica Rathmore’s hair above the ear because Monica identified it as her greatest asset. There is also reason to believe she killed a kitten and a horse that belonged to Evangeline Penney.”

Major Creighton wasn’t sure if the lady was attempting to deflect suspicion or something else altogether. “And you? What are her crimes against you?”

Jane leveled her gaze at Creighton, now in better control. “I was one of her favorite targets in school, but none of those things really matters anymore. You know, I’m sure, that she is the reason that my engagement to Sir Percy Fitzhugh was broken. I can’t pretend that it didn’t enrage me: it did. It was some comfort to know that Sir Percy was getting the worse of the deal, but her real crime has to do with my brother.”

“Your brother? I didn’t realize you had a brother…” Major Creighton’s forehead furrowed with this unexpected new information. More deflection?

“He’s dead now. Samuel…” Jane’s eyes glimmered with the memory of her sweet little brother and his passion for life. “Samuel fell in love with Charlotte and she played him like a dreidel. He would have done anything for her and she manipulated him. She may not have pulled the trigger of that laser herself, but she was the instigator of that duel and I lay the blame for his death at her silk slippers.”

“I…see. It seems you have even more motive than I had originally thought.” Creighton wrote himself a note to look into the circumstances surrounding Samuel Steele’s death. “Can you tell me, Lady Steele,” he said lifting his gaze back to the lady’s fine features, “What you were doing here in the library? Were you confronting Charlotte or were you seeking revenge with Lord Wrenroth?”

“Dear Io, no! I became melancholy and weary of the press of bodies in the ballroom. I tried to catch some air on the terrace, but all of the couples only sharpened my feelings so I sought out this corner for peace. I came inside, sat down on the divan, and tried to clear my mind. That’s all. It can be emotionally distressing to see the man you thought you would marry parading your replacement so soon with another.”

“You did not see or speak to Miss Brandon?”

“I had no idea. She was still holding court with Sir Percy and her other admirers in the ballroom the last time I saw her.”

A sharp alarm sounded from Major Creighton’s bioscanner, interrupting the interview. He looked down at the screen, pressed a few buttons, and then looked up at her, judging her story in his own mind. He had two more questions to ask.

“Were you perhaps concluding your plans for revenge with Lord Wrenroth, then?”

“I apologize, Major Creighton, but I don’t know what you are talking about. I only met Drake – Lord Wrenroth – this evening. What is he to do with Charlotte?”

“Come, Lady Steele! Surely you are aware that Charlotte Brandon and Drake Bayning were affianced prior to her jilting of him. Shortly thereafter he inherited the Wrenroth title and estates. It seems to me that you have a mutual axe to grind….”

Lady Steele’s face was painted in shock. She was either an actress of the first water, or this was all news to her. Creighton was leaning toward believing the woman’s story, but he didn’t want her to know it.

“Major, I…I…I had no idea. I’m honestly astounded! He is what…her fourth fiancé? She really had a duck in every pond, didn’t she? Oh, that poor man! Another man used and abused by Charlotte Brandon! And, he seemed so nice, definitely more intelligent that Sir Percy – but then – perhaps he caught onto her games. Yes, that is more likely. He was too smart for her.”

“I am surprised at your reaction, Lady Steele.”

“Why is that?”

“Simply because you assert your innocence and then are not at all concerned that you may have been holding hands with a murderer.”

“Oh! I…”

“Did you kill Charlotte Brandon, Lady Steele? Did you kill her to exact revenge for childhood pranks, the seduction of your intended, and the death of your brother? Did you kill Charlotte Brandon?” Creighton badgered her, hoping for a reaction.

“Of course not! Major Creighton, of course I did not kill Charlotte! Did I not just say so? I never came off better for any meeting with Charlotte! I don’t trust her enough to get close enough to stab her!” Jane’s voice had risen to near-shriek, but she remained seated, gloved hands calmly laying in her lap.

“Nevermind, Lady Steele. Just one more question: What do you know of iocane powder and its use as a poison?”

Jane shook her head as if to clear out the sudden confusion. “Poison? But I thought Charlotte was stabbed?”

“Oh, make no doubt of it: Miss Brandon was stabbed, viciously and repeatedly. Shortly before that, however, she was given a large dose of iocane powder. Perhaps you poisoned her punch so as to make it easier for Wrenroth to kill her…?”

“That is ridiculous!” Jane rose quickly from her seat in indignation. “Ridiculous!” she shouted in fury.

Major Creighton, still calmly seated with his digital notepad in hand, raised an eyebrow at the lady’s outburst. “Is it now?” He looked back at his notes, jotting a notation in dismissal. “You may return to the ballroom, Lady Steele, but do not leave the premises until you are cleared to do so. And, if you please, inform Lord Wrenroth that I am ready for him.”

Jane, now in better control of her fury, smoothed the satin brocade of her gown and turned on her silk-slippered heel. “Good evening, Major Creighton,” she said and exited with all of the well-mannered dignity and grace she could muster.


posted by Phoenix | 10:15 PM


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