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The Riddle of Sphinx Island
By R.T. Raichev
The History PressCopyright © 2013 R.T. Raichev,
All rights reserved.
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
'I have reason to believe that at some point in the course of the weekend party, a murder will take place. I am perfectly serious. It's not the sort of thing I'd joke about.' Sybil de Coverley's expression didn't change. She had one of those long oval faces one saw in Gainsborough's paintings. 'Your aunt said you'd find the prospect tantalising if not irresistible. Your aunt has little doubt that you'll come to the island the moment you hear about the murder.'
Major Payne cocked an eyebrow. 'My aunt has little doubt, eh?'
'Those were her exact words. She said you were interested in the more refined expressions of violence and lawlessness and particularly in murder as a fine art. Dear Nellie. She believes the whole situation is exactly up your street.'
'My aunt thinks she knows us so well ...'
'She says she has had the chance to observe you "in action".'
'A murder,' said Antonia. 'A real murder?'
'Well, yes. A murder that hasn't taken place yet but which is real enough. Would I have come all this way about an imaginary murder?' An impatient note crept into Sybil de Coverley's voice.
'You might have done,' Payne said. 'It could all be a game. Something concocted at my aunt's instigation. One of those Murder Weekends, perhaps?'
'It isn't a game. It's a matter of life and death. The most awful part of it is that I am the only one who knows. I really am at my wits' end. I am desperately anxious about the whole thing. I may not look it but I am. A Murder Weekend, did you say? I wouldn't dream of staging a Murder Weekend on Sphinx Island. That's the very last thing I'd ever do. It would be so much trouble, besides, I wouldn't have the foggiest how to set about it. Goodness, the idea!'
The faded gentlewoman with the vague, pale blue eyes, neat snuff-coloured hair and two-piece in fine heather-coloured wool gave a little laugh. No, it wasn't a game, Antonia decided. Only a moment earlier she had observed Sybil de Coverley dig the fingers of her right hand into the palm of her left hand. She was worried. Unless she was acting. Could she be acting?
Here we go again, Antonia thought wearily. It is our tenth wedding anniversary on Saturday and we have been asked to spend it on a privately owned island off the Devon coast, trying to catch a would-be murderer ...
No, they were not going. Of course they were not going. Out of the question.
She said, 'You have reason to believe that a murder will take place. What reason precisely?'
'Precision has never been my strongest suit – as we used to say at the bridge club. It's so terribly difficult to explain. Something happened. Several things, in fact. Seemingly unrelated incidents, some of them puzzling, some, well, very silly. At first I thought it was all nonsense but I found myself wondering – then I made a discovery, which left me speechless. You see, I realised that I'd been looking at the thing the wrong way up.'
They expected her to continue, but she didn't. She went on sitting quietly, a little frown on her face.
Payne leant back in his chair and reached out for his pipe. 'I wonder if you'd care to give us some more details?' Of all the idiotic rigmaroles, he thought. The vagueness of it. He resented being edged into a mood of suspense and irritated curiosity. Pure fiction, he thought. It was fascinating but it didn't touch the ground. Nobody could be so vague. The bloody woman was putting it on, he was sure she was putting it on, must be.
'I'd rather not be too specific,' Sybil said. 'I haven't completely discounted the possibility that I may be making a fool of myself. John – my brother – says I don't need to make a fool of myself since I am already one. I believe you have met John?'
'I don't think we've had the pleasure,' said Payne. Something stirred at the back of his mind. Hadn't there been something in the papers concerning a John de Coverley and Sphinx Island – some years ago – what was it? – some freak accident?
Sybil said that most people thought of her as the most rational person on earth, but sometimes she had to admit she had fancies about things. 'I blame the island. If one lives on an island as small as mine – one can walk across it in twenty-five minutes – one tends to lose one's sense of perspective completely. But this is different. I am sure it is different. That's why I am here. I need your help. On the other hand,' she reasoned, 'it would be awful if I opened my mouth and besmirched the reputation of someone who was perfectly innocent. I can't simply say I am awfully sorry but I have reason to believe that A is planning to kill B, can I? Not the done thing. That's why I would very much like a second opinion. A second opinion is always helpful – wouldn't you say?'
'It can be helpful, yes, though not invariably so.' We mustn't encourage her, Antonia thought. We are not spending our wedding anniversary on her island.
Payne asked if their visitor had considered talking to the police.
'The police? Oh but I couldn't possibly. Not to the police,' Sybil drew back a bit. 'You see, I am not in possession of anything approximating "tangible evidence". I don't believe the police would take my story au grand serieux. They would laugh at me. I am sure I'd be dismissed as yet another neurotic rich woman who's got nothing better to do than suspect her guests of wanting to murder each other.'
'More tea?' Antonia picked up the teapot.
'Yes, thank you ... This room is not in the least oppressive or demanding or colour-coordinated ... What magnificent embroidery.' Sybil patted one of the sofa cushions. 'I don't suppose you do it yourself, Antonia? You do? How perfectly splendid. I thought you'd be too frightfully busy with your writing. I must say I am impressed. So wonderfully soothing, embroidering. Not my sort of thing at all, but I do admire people whose sort of thing it is. You are clearly a woman of many talents, Antonia.'
'No, not at all.'
Payne started filling his pipe with tobacco. He'd changed his mind. He didn't think Sybil de Coverley had come to deceive them. He had to admit his natural inquisitiveness was piqued. Only the day before he and Antonia had decided that they were a little bored. Antonia had written the last sentence of her new novel and, having submitted it to her editor, was feeling at something of a loose end. He had been asked to conduct a private inquiry into the affair of that terribly peculiar friend of the disgraced defence secretary, but that had also been brought to a successful conclusion. He and Antonia had lamented the fact that nothing much seemed to be happening, that their minds were like racing engines, tearing themselves to pieces because they were not connected up with the work for which they had been built.
Payne had quoted Sherlock Holmes. Life is commonplace, the papers are sterile; audacity and romance seem to have passed for ever from the criminal world.
Sybil de Coverley raised the teacup to her lips. 'It's Thursday today, isn't it?'
'No, it's Wednesday.'
She sighed. 'If you live on an island, you tend to lose track of time. Everything seems to happen in limbo. Well, I have reason to believe it will happen on Saturday evening. This gives us three whole days, doesn't it? Saturday evening has been – how shall I put it? – indicated. Sorry, I've got a bit of a headache. Nothing like the kind of headaches my brother gets but bad enough. The truth is my nerves are in a terrible state.' She opened her bag and produced a bejewelled pill box. 'Neurophen Plus. Have you ever tried it? It's heaven.'
'You believe that on Saturday evening an attempt will be made on someone's life? At your house on Sphinx Island?' said Antonia.
'It does sound absurd, put like that. Or maybe it was the way you said it? No, I don't blame you, Antonia. I don't mind one little bit, I really don't. My reaction would have been very much the same. If I were to meet someone who said the kind of things I'd been saying in my kind of voice – well, I'd take against them right away! A friend of mine once described my voice as "clipped and staccato – simply made for instruction, chastisement or summing up." That is not exactly a compliment, is it? I said a "friend", but she is nothing of the sort, really. Little more than a fifth columnist, as we used to say at school.'
'Let me get this thing clear. You know who the would-be killer is,' Payne said slowly, 'and you also know the identity of his intended victim?'
'I do know, yes. Actually, I never said it was a man. I never said "he" or "his". You are trying to catch me out, aren't you?'
'I can't help wondering how you know. Perhaps the would-be killer talked to his accomplice about the murder and you overheard the conversation? Or else he wrote something which you happened to read? The only other possibility I can think of is that you saw him – or her – look at the victim in a certain way?'
Sybil shook her head resolutely. 'No, no, I couldn't possibly tell you what it is, Major Payne. It wouldn't be right. I am sorry. I have no doubt you think me frightfully irresponsible, playing games with human lives. I must say I did deliberate whether or not to warn the victim – I mean the person who is going to be the victim. I suffered agonies of uncertainty! I had the idea of writing an anonymous note and leaving it in their room!'
'Beware of X. Don't let X get anywhere near you,' Payne murmured.
'Something on those lines, yes.'
'But you didn't write the note?'
'I didn't. In the end I decided that that was one road down which I most definitely must not go. I was suddenly riddled with doubt. What if I'd made a mistake? What if I'd got the wrong end of the stick after all? It would be so terribly awkward, wouldn't it?'
'I suppose it would be.'
'More than awkward! It would spell the ruin of somebody's good name! These things do matter, even in this irresponsible day and age. I'd never forgive myself if that did happen – never. You know how accusations tend to stick? No matter how wild? Pitch, as they say, soils.' Sybil de Coverley smoothed out her gloves on her knee. 'Well, when you come to the island on Friday afternoon, you'll be able to meet everybody and of course I'll show you the – the thing.'CHAPTER 2
TEN LITTLE SAILOR BOYS
'What thing?' This time Antonia didn't try to keep the exasperation out of her voice.
'It's an object. I found an object,' Sybil said evasively. 'What I believe to be proof of someone's guilt. Your aunt says both of you are astutely analytical, which means you will have no problem seeing the object's significance at once. I am sure it will come to you in a flash.'
'How much does my aunt know about your suspicions?' Payne asked.
'No more than you do, I assure you. Dear Nellie. She was one of mama's greatest chums, you know. She's been on the island since Monday. I think she's enjoying herself. I have told her exactly what I have told you. Not a word more not a word less.'
'I don't suppose you have told your brother about your suspicions, have you?'
'No, of course not. My brother is the very last person I would ever tell. John would say I was bonkers. He often says that. He once compared me to the woman in the Chekhov play who lived in a cupboard because she believed herself to be a seagull! John has a thing about seagulls.'
'I think he got Chekhov mixed up with Strindberg,' said Payne. 'The woman who lived in a cupboard believed she was a parrot.'
'My brother has a thing about seagulls,' Sybil repeated. 'I am afraid relations between me and my brother have been strained for some time. I think he suspects I intend to sell the island, you see.'
'The island belongs to you?'
'Indeed it does.' Her father had left Sphinx Island to her. Sphinx had been her albatross. She got a sense of floating melancholy each time she thought about it. 'Well, it took me quite a while to make up my mind, but then I decided that enough was enough. It's my island, so I can do with the damned thing as I jolly well please. John can't really prevent me from selling it. He's got no legal right. I'll sell it and then I'll buy myself a nice little flat in South Kensington, so there.'
'Would your brother be very upset?' Antonia asked.
'He wouldn't be "very upset". He would be terribly upset. He'd kick up a hideous rumpus. There would be ugly scenes. He would try to stop me in some way. John said once he would rather cut his throat than live in South Kensington.' Sybil heaved an exasperated sigh. 'Would you live on a small island, Major Payne? If given the choice?'
'I am not sure. I don't think I would.'
'No. Not on a small island.'
'What if someone left you an island in their will?'
Payne said he would sell it. He put a match to his pipe.
'That's exactly what I intend to do. I am so glad we are singing from the same hymn book. If my lease of life were suddenly to run out, the island would go to John. I have made a will to that effect, though of course I have no intention of kicking the bucket. Not in the foreseeable future at any rate,' Sybil said brightly.
Payne looked at her. 'Does your brother know that you've left him the island in your will?'
'I have an idea I told him. I believe I said, "If I were to snuff it before you, dear boy, Sphinx is yours for life," or words to that effect. I do try to be fair.'
Sybil went on to say that she hated the sea as much as she hated the island and of course you couldn't have one without the other. The cruel alien sea. Either layered in purple and blue or muddy green or gun-metal grey. She'd got to know the sea so well, she could write a paper on its changing colour. The island used to bear their name – De Coverley Island – but it was popularly known as Sphinx Island. Crackpots seemed to be drawn to it as bees are to honey. There were pictures of the island on the internet, if they wanted to look at them before they came. Aerial photos and so on.
'You can read about the island's history, it's on Wikipedia, all about the secret military experiments during the Second World War, the UFO landing in the fifties and so on and so forth.'
'Where is Sphinx Island exactly?' Antonia asked.
'It is situated three miles off the Devon coast. From some angles, it does bring to mind a crouching, smiling kind of Sphinx. It looks absolutely hideous. We've got our very own launch, Cutwater, so you won't have to hire a boat or anything like that. Oswald said he would collect you himself. Oswald is terribly keen on sailing. Mad about it. He said he would be at Wanmouth to meet the 4.50 from Paddington. I'm talking about Friday afternoon ... Unless you decided to drive?'
Payne smiled pleasantly. 'We haven't yet said that we are coming.'
'You'd recognise Oswald right away by his rather superior-looking yachting cap. Thank God for Oswald Ramskritt! He is an American. He is the man who's going to take the island off my hands. He is awfully zealous and territorial. The frontier spirit, wouldn't you say? Apparently, at one time, before the Crunch, he was so frightfully rich; he seriously considered the idea of buying Venice and turning the Grand Canal into a six-lane expressway.'
'Can one buy Venice?'
'Perhaps not in the normal course of things, but he said there was a way round it. Oswald has the smiling self-assurance of a man who has achieved success early and easily. I believe he is a self-made man, but then aren't all Americans? He and his entourage are already on Sphinx. He's got a yacht. Not a particularly vast one, but it's terribly smart. Are you a sailing man, Major Payne?'
'I'm afraid I am not.'
'Poor John used to do a lot of sailing himself, when he was younger, before the attack, but he is a virtual recluse these days. He never goes anywhere and he tends to keep to his room when we have visitors. Expecting him to come down and say how-do-you-do would be futile, like waiting for a badger to start tap-dancing. Nobody seems to mind. Oswald says he loves English eccentricity in every shape or form. I am sure he means it. Mrs Garrison-Gore of course is too busy to notice anything. I must admit I find Mrs Garrison-Gore's kinetic intensity a little exhausting.' Sybil bit her lip. 'Oswald's secretary – not Ella, the new young one – seems to like John. Her name is Maisie, I think. The other day I saw her standing outside John's door, talking to him through the keyhole.'
Antonia had the impression Sybil regretted mentioning Mrs Garrison-Gore's name.
'I wonder if she's been attempting to nudge him into a more enlightened direction? That's the sort of thing an American girl would do. She is terribly well-meaning and of course she is pretty as a picture. So refreshingly innocent and unspoilt, a tabula rasa, as papa would have put it – unless she turns out to be an accomplished little actress who's after Oswald's millions. I find American girls incomprehensible, don't you? Apparently John told her that he liked fried chicken best, he whispered it through the keyhole, which suggests some kind of a bond might have been forged between them. He also told her she mustn't think he enjoyed chewing blotting paper.'
'Does your brother chew blotting paper?' Antonia asked. I want to see these people, she thought.
'He does. As it happens, there's a perfectly rational explanation for it. I bet you'll never guess what it is.'
Payne cleared his throat. 'Old-fashioned remedy for headaches that develop as a result of shooting?'
Excerpted from The Riddle of Sphinx Island by R.T. Raichev. Copyright © 2013 R.T. Raichev,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Praise for R.T. Raichev,
Also in the Antonia Darcy and Major Payne Mystery series,
About the Book,
1 A Matter of Life and Death,
2 Ten Little Sailor Boys,
4 Sunshine on the Spotless Mind,
5 The War in the Air,
6 Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
7 Warning to the Curious,
8 A Mind to Murder,
10 The Lives of Others,
11 An Affair to Remember,
12 Au Coeur de la Nuit,
13 Dead Calm,
14 The Players and the Game,
15 The Broken Thread,
16 Enter a Murderer?,
17 Truth Triumphant,
18 The Body in the Library,
19 The Actor and the Alibi,
20 Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,
21 The Door in the Wall,
23 Dawn of the Dead,
24 Twisted Nerve,
25 The Perfect Storm,
26 Sparkling Cyanide,
27 A Little on the Lonely Side,
28 The Heart Has Its Reasons,
29 What Maisie Knew,
30 Darkness Falls,
31 Cold Hand in Mine,
32 The Clue of the Silver Bullet,
33 Confessions of a Justified Sinner,
34 A Question of Proof,
35 Old Lamps for the New,
About the Author,