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An Old-Fashioned Mystery
By Runa Fairleigh, L.A. Morse
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Runa Fairleigh
All rights reserved.
"'This chutney tastes a bit off to me,' the major said. These seemingly innocuous words begin one of the most intriguing and challenging mysteries you will ever read." Sebastian Cornichon read aloud from the cover of the paperback he held in his hand, then made a rude noise. "No, I won't," he said, and lobbed the book across the large room, where it struck the nose of the moosehead mounted on the wall.
"Really, Sebastian," Violet Cornichon said from her place on a huge, overstuffed, floral-patterned couch.
"'Really', yourself," Sebastian said as he dropped heavily onto a matching couch opposite his sister. "You're starting to develop the precise tone of disapproval that I thought one encountered only in tight-lipped matrons who donate their time to art museums. I'm glad you've finally decided to get some help."
"Help? What do you mean?"
"Binky Edwards told me he saw you coming out of what's-his-name's office—that very au courant up-town therapist whose treatments tend to be noisy, painful, and expensive."
Violet sighed, rolling her very large, alarmingly blue eyes. "You're the one who needs treatment if you credit anything Binky Edwards says he saw. That near-sighted butterfly blurs out past the end of his cute little nose. I once saw him having a long conversation with his reflection in a mirror. Probably went away thinking what a nice young man that was—not terribly talkative but a really good listener."
Sebastian laughed. "That's Binky, all right. But if you're not seeing someone, then I think you should. You may not realize it, but you're beginning to act a little peculiar."
"Your concern touches me, Sebastian, but I'm not quite sure how to take being thought peculiar by someone whose every new deviation for the past ten years has been chronicled in the papers."
"That's called trend setting, my dear," Sebastian smiled.
"Only if someone follows you," Violet smiled back.
Sebastian started to say something, stopped, then laughed again. "Score one for the younger of the Cornichon twins, the erstwhile Society-Girl Detective."
They again smiled at each other, similarly ambiguous expressions that were a complex mixture of affection and hostility, maliciousness, understanding, and the kind of respect accorded a long-time adversary who's been found worthy.
An observer would have been struck by the similarity not just of their expressions, but of everything else about them. While, obviously, only fraternal twins, Sebastian and Violet, as occasionally happens, could not have appeared more identical had they in fact been monozygotic. Both were very blond, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed; both had high foreheads, prominent cheekbones, and expressive mouths; both were slender and lithe; and while Sebastian was slightly shorter than average for a man, Violet was a little taller than average for a woman, so they were essentially the same height. Indeed, except for the fact that Violet's hair was a little longer than her brother's, and that Sebastian wore a touch of eye shadow, there was nothing to choose between them. Some felt that perhaps Sebastian was the prettier of the two, while Violet seemed the stronger and tougher, but that was more the result of subjective impressions, not something that could be concretely demonstrated.
Thus, the major difference between them was not physical, but rather that Sebastian was four minutes older than his sister. This slight temporal advantage, combined with several unintended ambiguities in their parents' wills, had made Sebastian, ten years earlier at the age of eighteen, sole heir to the Cornichon fortune. Violet had been left, as Sebastian had put it (merely stating the facts), on her own.
The Cornichons had long been one of the city's leading families. That they could trace their ancestry back to the famous Ducs de Cornichon (advisors to the kings of France) only increased the high esteem in which they were held. High esteem, though, did not put bread on the table, and Violet was forced to do something that no Cornichon within memory had done. She went to work.
Violet scraped together some money, mostly borrowed from friends of her parents who felt under some vague obligation to the orphaned girl. Using this small stake, a good deal of energy, intelligence, and imagination, and a little luck, Violet founded a cosmetics company. Contrary to all expectations—except perhaps her own—the company prospered.
There was nothing terribly special about her products, but Violet was an effective and tireless promoter of them. In the early days of the company, when its future was still in doubt, Violet had had the good fortune to be instrumental in helping the police break a difficult case. This generated a fair amount of publicity, but when Violet followed it up by solving a sensational murder on her own, she became a major celebrity, dubbed the "Society-Girl Detective." She was very young, pretty enough not to need the cosmetics she manufactured, from an old, well-known family, intelligent, and a high-powered corporate executive. Thus for a brief period she became the darling of the media.
Violet was smart enough to realize that that kind of attention did not last, and also smart enough to parlay it into making her cosmetics the choice of all the modem young women who identified with her. Inevitably, of course, new darlings of the media came along, and Violet was finding it increasingly difficult to get the attention she needed. If not yet desperate, the situation gave some cause for concern.
Likewise, over the last ten years, Sebastian had worked hard to create a name for himself. It too was Cornichon—but there the similarity ended.
Living as though he would be penalized if there was anything left of the family fortune by the time he reached thirty, Sebastian seemed to want to achieve a reputation for flamboyance and extravagance unrivalled since the days of Caligula. So successful was he in this that an entire brigade of the Socialist Worker's Party devoted itself exclusively to picketing him. Whenever he went out on the street he was greeted by a small group of protesters holding signs and shouting, "Dung-eating parasite! Boot-licking oppressor!" Sebastian would often smile, wave, and say, "Doesn't that sound like fun?" Cynics said that Sebastian had hired them himself by making a large donation to the SWP, but that was probably just cattiness. It was true, however, that one Christmas he gave each of his picketers a small gold pin of a greyhound—in other words, a little yellow running dog.
For a long time, Sebastian, like his sister, was a favourite of the media, and each new adventure was catalogued and analysed at length. Even when he was resting up between excesses, he was sought out whenever a comment or reaction was needed, for he could usually be relied on to provide something quotable, if not absolutely libellous. Early on he was labelled "irrepressible", and that designation stuck to him like a title of rank—as in, "Present were Lord and Lady Hohum and the irrepressible Sebastian Cornichon...."
Perpetually maintaining a position in the forefront of the vanguard was arduous, and Sebastian was finding it harder and harder to avoid being swamped by each succeeding new wave. Violet had even heard rumours—which she'd dismissed as utterly implausible—that her brother was running out of money. It was a fact, though, that one of the leading arbiters of taste—who had previously participated in Sebastian's extravaganzas and called him irrepressible—had written that Sebastian was starting to sound like Joan Crawford doing her Oscar Wilde imitation. Tough times, it seemed, were ahead.
There was no way of knowing if Violet was bitter because her brother had received the entire Cornichon estate, or if Sebastian was envious of the success his sister had achieved on her own. Both had learned early on that there were certain things one kept to oneself. They did tacitly acknowledge that they appreciated each other most in very small doses; active, positive hatred was a real possibility, mainly avoided by their getting together only at infrequent intervals.
"Boring," Sebastian said.
"What?" Violet looked up from the book she had retrieved from the floor below the moosehead.
"Books like that are filled with pages and pages of boring exposition."
"Mostly it's necessary."
"Necessary or not, it's still boring."
Sebastian stood up, walked to the end of the room, and placed himself in front of the roaring fire. Then he moved to examine the rather ratty specimens that filled the wall above and around the immense stone fireplace. The moose was accompanied by parts of several dozen fellow creatures that some lover of nature had once slaughtered.
"Tasteful," Sebastian said.
He turned and walked the twenty or so yards to the opposite end of the lounge. The wall there was covered with a display of the weapons—bows, arrows, spears, clubs, daggers, shotguns, rifles, pistols, machine guns, and mortars—that had caused the destruction he had just considered.
"Charming," he mumbled.
Restlessly, he went over to the French windows that took up most of the room's long outside wall. The bleak November scene spread out before him contained nothing to lift the spirits. The windows opened onto a broad, grey stone terrace that ended in an ornate stone balustrade. Below and beyond the terrace, the land running down to the water's edge was hard and barren, dusted with a barely visible layer of granular snow, the emptiness broken only by the occasional concrete birdbath or toppled piece of statuary. And past the shore, the only things to be seen were the lake and the sky, both the same grim slate-grey colour, so that it was impossible to tell where one started and the other left off. Sebastian thought it was like being inside a giant overturned chamber pot.
This was Komondor Island, site of the Sill family country house. Located near one of the continent's most famous summer playgrounds (an area which had also bestowed its name on a popular salad dressing), the island was accessible only by a long boat ride, from either the mainland or another island. Urban Sebastian, distrusting any part of nature that could not be put into a food processor, felt slightly uneasy surrounded by so much of it.
The island got its name from a very rough anglicization of a Mohawk phrase, cho-moundhar, meaning "place of sacrifice". The first Europeans to visit the island found cairns—piles of stones—that apparently had had some ritual function. The precise nature of these rituals was never determined, but Indian legend held that it was extremely bad luck to remain on the island overnight.
Shortly after the American Declaration of Independence, the island served as a temporary refuge for a band of United Empire Loyalists who had stolen a large part of the war chest of the fledgling Continental Congress. Pursued by a revolutionary force led by Aaron Burr, they hoped to escape attention by hiding on Komondor Island. Apparently they were successful. By the time Burr learned their whereabouts and organized an assault, the island was deserted. Whether the Loyalists' stay on the island was lucky or unlucky is not known; where they went, or what happened to them, has never been discovered, and the incident remains an interesting historical footnote.
By the time millionaire magnate Augustus Sill purchased Komondor Island in the early nineteen-twenties, the region had long been a popular summer retreat for the very wealthy. There was something about owning an entire island that appealed to these people whose dominions tended to be more financial than territorial. Not surprisingly, these deep feudal urges resulted in the construction of some of the most fabulous gothic piles ever seen outside a film studio. The prime example of this period—known as Late Robber Baronial—was the mansion out of which Sebastian unhappily gazed. Built according to Augustus Sill's own detailed instructions, his house was a not altogether successful amalgam of a Loire Valley chateau and Dracula's castle—simple, classic elegance forcibly merged with crenellated battlements, fortified towers, and chortling gargoyles.
Seen from above, Komondor Island is roughly the shape of the stone ceremonial daggers found throughout the Americas, and this is possibly the reason it was known as—used for?—the "place of sacrifice." It is not quite a mile long, and at its widest point—roughly the bottom of the hilt—it is just under half a mile across. The woods at the top half of the island were preserved, and Augustus Sill put his house in the lower part of the "blade." From his observation turret he could survey the water on three sides, and thus would have plenty of advance warning in case any of the less fortunate rabble launched an expeditionary force against him. As near as can be determined from the few existing old maps, the house happened to be built over the site of the ancient ritual cairns.
By all accounts, Augustus was regarded as having quite a sense of humour. He was considered one of the world's great practical jokers, and thought there were few things more amusing than either observing people who didn't know they were being watched, or leaping out at them from a place of concealment when they least expected it. Thanks to the personality of the host, weekend parties on Komondor Island were famous for being hilarious, if slightly tense, affairs. One day, though, Augustus's inveterate kidding caught up with him when he sneaked up on a guest who believed himself to be alone in the room. Unfortunately, the guest had just finished loading a shotgun preparatory to taking a few pops at the local seagulls. The coffin was closed for the ceremony.
Augustus's son, Ripley, did not have much better luck on the island. In the middle fifties, shortly after his young wife died in a freak boating accident, he happened to be unluckily positioned when one of the gargoyles on the observation turret somehow worked its way loose and tumbled down. His two-year-old daughter, Rosa, thus became the last surviving Sill.
For a while the local residents talked about the Curse of Komondor Island. Then Elvis Presley got into the news and they had other things to think about.
Sebastian Cornichon, staring glumly out of the window, neither knew about any of this interesting history of the place he was visiting, nor much cared to.
"And speaking of boring," he said, going back to the couch, "what could be worse than being in a summer house in the middle of winter? In a grotesque mausoleum apparently decorated by Abercrombie and Fitch, on an island, in the middle of a lake, in the middle of a forest, in the middle of goddamn nowhere. Really! Why did I let you drag me out here?"
Violet looked at Sebastian, nodding her head and smiling. "If you'll recall, when I happened to mention that I was coming up here, you practically begged me to get you an invitation."
Sebastian fluttered his hand, as though to brush away this insignificant detail.
"What's the matter, Sebastian? Can you no longer get invitations from people who know you, only from people who don't?"
"Very funny—especially considering that lately you haven't exactly been numero uno in the hearts and minds of the natives. Besides, while I did express some mild interest in this function, I distinctly remember your enthusiastically urging me to join you. It quite surprised me."
"I did not urge you."
"You did so." Violet's eyes opened a bit wider as she tilted her head back, and Sebastian quickly held up his hands. "But let's not argue about this."
"You mean we'll have better things to argue about?"
Sebastian smiled. "Precisely. And anyway, no matter what, had I known it would take almost ninety minutes in that little boat.... And then to end up in a place like this...."
Violet looked at the trophies on the wall and grimaced. "It is a bit remote."
"Listen, New Jersey is remote. This is ridiculous. And why are we here, anyway?"
"I already told you. Weren't you listening?"
"You know I never listen the first time anyone says anything. I only pay attention to things that are important enough to get repeated."
"Yeah," Violet nodded. "It's one of your more endearing qualities. But are you sure it won't be too boring for you to hear it again?"
Sebastian sighed in a long-suffering way. "It probably will be, Violet. But if you do a really good job, it shouldn't be substantially more boring than, say, watching you read, or—" motioning to the wall "—counting the number of creatures who have lost their glass eyes."
Excerpted from An Old-Fashioned Mystery by Runa Fairleigh, L.A. Morse. Copyright © 1983 Runa Fairleigh. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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