Chapter I

Red break lights cut across all four lanes as she pulled her green Ford Explorer onto the highway. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel. There was no way she would make it there by daybreak, not if this traffic persisted. The merging lane was about to end, and she couldn’t find enough space for her truck to get in.

Natalie sighed and turned on the radio. Static filled her speakers, and she fumbled with the knobs to find a decent station. There was nothing. She had only recently installed a radio in here, but only used it to connect to her music player. In the rush to get out of the house, she hadn’t brought it with her, and now she was stuck listening to static. Natalie sighed again and turned the radio off.

Now it’s just me and my thoughts.

The GPS on the dash claimed it would only be seven more miles until Carline Island, but she knew she wouldn’t be there any time soon. Kenneth had warned her about traveling in the wee hours of the morning, but she had to take the chance. Getting to Livingston Manor was her highest priority.

I’m finally going to have some work!

The thought of it exhilarated her, and for a moment she forgot she was stuck in the middle of a gridlock zone. Ever since that fateful day a few months ago, she had sat in her apartment bored to death. Sure, it gave her a chance to spend some time with her friends, but it wasn’t the life she had intended to live. Being on the police force had made life exciting. Now, she was finally getting a chance to do something again.

This was the only reason she had agreed with Kenneth’s proposal to come back. Otherwise, she would never have stepped foot on Carline Island again. She had too good of a memory…one that was not so easy in letting go of the past. Her career had started here, and in some ways, it had ended here.

She didn’t want to think of it anymore.

Carline Island, her destination, had been a famous tourist spot in the early twentieth century. Just off the coast of Miami, Florida, it boasted beautiful hotels, beaches, and forests. Nothing quite like it had been experienced before, and after vacationing there, many people began settling in Southern Florida themselves. Massive fairs and carnivals were held there every summer, and the small business that owned the island had exploded with profits and even considered buying up some more islands further south.

Then came the 1950s and the revolutionary ideas of Walt Disney. The resort in California drew thousands of tourists, and Carline Island faced bankruptcy. 20 years later, another resort opened in Central Florida, finally crushing the poor company.

It was then that a wealthy young man by the name of Carline Livingston approached the company. His family had been the first to purchase a home on this island, and two generations had already grown up there. His parents loved the island so much they named their first son after it. Carline told them that he wanted to purchase the island from them at whatever price they named. An undisclosed amount was settled on, and Carline Island moved into the hands of the Livingstons.

Carline immediately set to work on the island, removing any trace of its carnival past, and transforming it to center around his home, Livingston Manor. All bridges connecting the island to the mainland were destroyed, except one, the largest, most elaborate and central one. Carline did not want intruders on his island, but he needed a way out for supplies. When his son took over, he rebuilt that bridge into a smaller and simpler wooden one.

That is the one that stood today. Although she prided herself in knowing much about the Livingston family, she learned most of the island’s history from a brief highlight in the local newspaper. Its young resident, Josiah Livingston, was getting married, and the paper wanted to celebrate the fact by giving a history lesson.

Natalie thoroughly enjoyed history. Without history, there was no understanding. Everyone is guided by the events that shape their past. There was none who knew this more than a detective. Natalie had solved many cases in which it was the criminal’s past – the actions that most overlooked because they occurred when he was still a teenager – it was those actions that turned him into the criminal he was today.

Of course, Natalie never liked thinking about her own past. It was too cloudy, filled with more regret than she cared to understand. There were so many things she wished she could have done differently…but there was no use dwelling on the past. Those events were long forgotten now, and even if it could get her nabbed for being a criminal, she didn’t want to think of them right now.

The green and white signs indicating her exit suddenly appeared to her right. She beamed.

Finally getting off of this highway!

It didn’t matter that the ride to Carline Island was another hour from the exit. She had left at 2 this morning, and she was already halfway there.

She cast a sidelong glance at the passenger seat. Her small red phone sat in the crevice where the seat ends and the back portion begins. Natalie reached for it, and then hesitated.

What am I going to say to him? She asked herself. The only person she wanted to call would never pick up. Kenneth was upset at her again, for reasons she could never understand.

If anyone has a right to be angry, it should be me, she thought to herself. He had never called her in the five years since she last saw him, and he calls last night, asking her to come to Livingston Manor.

“I have a job for you,” he says, all mysterious and excited. Then, he gets upset and hangs the phone up on her.

Natalie could not understand him. Not that she wanted to. They had worked together during that case a few years ago, and Natalie was grateful for his help. It had been her first case on the force, and the one reason she didn’t want to go back to Livingston Manor.

How did I get here again?

Natalie shook her head and picked up the phone. Scrolling down her contacts list, she stopped at a name, selected it, and raised the phone up to her ear. Cradling the phone between her cheek and shoulder, Natalie placed both hands on the steering wheel again. It was three in the morning, but he would be up anyway. She braced herself for his bitter and icy tone, or the possibility that he might not pick up at all.

What have I gotten myself into? (Chapter end)

 

Chapter T

THE WEATHER could not have been any worse. Kenneth stood leaning his forehead against the cold bedroom window, looking out the streaked glass at the muddy grounds beneath. From here, he had a clear view of the center courtyard, or what he called the Square. It was through the Square that you reached the main building of the manor, and it was also the only way to get to the manor’s “back-yard”.

Palm trees lined the Square, slapping their gargantuan fronds against each other and the side of the buildings as they swayed in the wind. The rain fell down at an angle, occasionally being brushed aside by the violent wind.

And I have to go out in all this. 

Kenneth never made a promise that he didn’t keep. He had always believed that being reliable was the only way to build trust, and that was the most important aspect of any relationship. The only problem was that Kenneth made far too many promises. He often wondered if his coworkers and family members purposely asked him to do things for them simply because they knew that once he said ‘yes’ it would actually get done.

Kenneth sighed. That was the only drawback to being reliable.

It had only been raining for an hour before daybreak, and already the grounds were nearly flooded. The Square was pushing a few inches, and Kenneth didn’t even want to think about the main gate. The estate was designed on an incline, with the Manor at the peak, which meant that all of the rain pooled around the main gate.

“Of course, it would be just my luck.” Kenneth knocked his head against the window pane. He had promised to pick up Natalie when she arrived, and she was due any minute now. She hadn’t spoken to him since yesterday, but he was sure she would get into contact with him soon.

The thought of her brought him to his cousin. Kenneth replayed the conversation he had with Josiah over again in his mind. The boy was going through something, and he wasn’t sure what it was. There had been rumors in the past of substance abuse, but when Kenneth confronted him, Josiah was, to say the least, offended.

“Did you think that everything my parents taught me, everything I know to be true for myself – did you think I would throw it away for the sake of an experiment? That I would stoop to such a low that I would find no end?”

“Josiah, I was just asking you to be sure. For some peace of mind on my part. Besides,” Kenneth added, “if you don’t have a problem, why do you need to be upset?”

That was before Kenneth’s discovery in the basement a few months ago. After that, everything changed for him.

A slight tapping at his door drew his attention. He turned.

“Yes, who is it?”

The door opened and one of the maids stepped into his room.

Kenneth smiled.

“Ah, Andrea. What news do you have for me?”

The young woman leaned on the doorpost. She was a small one, a little over five feet, with large brown eyes and her hair neatly pulled back into a bun. Her lips were slightly pouting, giving the appearance that she was trying to hold back a smile. She frequently busted into that very smile, showing off her perfectly white teeth. Kenneth could never understand how she got them to be so straight and white.

Andrea wore a simple black dress with lacy white cuffs and a white head band wrapped around her head – the classic young maid. She smiled then, baring her teeth in a way that made Kenneth’s smile even brighter.

“She called you back, Kenneth,” Andrea said sweetly, her voice a few octaves higher than he was used to hearing. Most of the women working here on the Manor were just that – women. Having a young girl around, even if she was 17, and had been here for a while, was still unnerving for him.

Kenneth asked:

“Well, what did she say?”

Andrea smiled mischievously.

“She has already made it across the bridge. She will be here in a few minutes.” Andrea stepped into the doorway. “You had better get on out there. She isn’t the type to be kept waiting.” With that, Andrea disappeared down the hall.

“The nerve of that girl!” Kenneth exclaimed aloud. He sighed. He was unsure which girl he was talking about, although it could have gone both ways. Natalie was certainly not one he would want to keep waiting.

Kenneth looked around his room. An unmade, twin size bed sat in the far left corner across from the door, running parallel against the wall. Along the back wall was a small couch which faced the room’s only window. It had no curtains, only white blinds, currently drawn all the way up. On the right side of the room was his built in bathroom, and a dresser drawer. The white oak desk, the only piece of furniture in this room that actually belonged to him, ran beside the right wall, next to the bathroom. Stacks of papers were strewn haphazardly across the desk, nearly covering the large laptop in the center. A small gray lamp rested on the table, as well as a few scattered crumbs that the maid had yet to take care of.

Kenneth had half a mind to call Andrea back and have her clean the mess. Of course, the mess was his own fault anyway, so he ignored the idea. He made his way over to the bathroom which also served as a makeshift closet. His bright yellow raincoat (yes, it was bright yellow – they didn’t seem to make them in many other colors) hung on the shower curtain pole.

He was on his way out the other night to fetch something for Josiah when the rain started to pour. It stopped almost as soon as he made it into the Square, but the jacket still got wet. Kenneth tried to remember what Josiah had wanted him to get, but for some reason he couldn’t.

Kenneth slipped the jacket over his white t-shirt and stepped back into his room. He was sure he looked like an overgrown bumble bee. He certainly felt like one. All he needed was a black stripe around the middle, some fake antennae sticking out of his head and a recently sharpened stinger hanging from his rear, and then the transformation would be complete.

Kenneth chuckled.

“These are the good days,” he said. “This is the calm before the storm.”

He hadn’t really meant it when he said it. After all, it was pouring down hard out there.  He was just being dramatic, and maybe a little sentimental. There was no way he could have known that this was, indeed, the calm before the storm. Even further still, he could not have known just how bad that storm would be.

Kenneth made his way into the hallway, and down the stairs, hoping no one would see him and laugh at his expense.

(Chapter end)

 

Chapter M

THE JOURNEY over the bridge was difficult. The old wooden bridge had seen better days, and Natalie wondered how anyone could stand traveling over it. The time she came to this island it had been by helicopter, and she left by boat. Both seemed like better options after what she had experienced. The panels of wood that made up the bridge ran horizontally, but they were raised at different elevations than the ones adjacent to them, which made the whole thing rather difficult.

The only good thing about the journey was that it had finally stopped raining. Several drain grates ran along the front of the gate, forming something similar to a moat.

“I guess that was where all the water went,” Natalie mused to herself. She leaned against the steering wheel and sighed. Kenneth was supposed to be here ten minutes ago. What was taking him so long?

The Manor was part of what newspapers called the Livingston Estate. The manor itself was at least thirty minutes by foot from the main gate, but only ten by car. Without authorization, however, there was no way for her to get in. David Livingston, the manor’s current owner, believed the only way to keep unwanted people out was to force its residents to go to the gate to let a guest in. If an obscure relative showed up at the gate, it was easier to ignore them and never make the trip to open the gate, than it would be if they rang the doorbell or knocked on the door.

Natalie considered calling again. Kenneth didn’t have a cellphone, though, so it would make no difference. She would only get in contact with a maid, who never seemed to stop smiling, even though Natalie couldn’t see her face. It annoyed her, for reasons she was still trying to understand. Being happy was something reserved for youth, and she was no longer a youth.

Although barely pushing twenty five, Natalie had already seen enough of life to consider herself beyond repair. She had seen, and done, far too many things to ever possess that innocence and naiveté that came with youthfulness. Her best friend Daria always argued with her on that point.

“The world isn’t black and white, darling,” she would say, her Southern drawl accentuating every syllable. Daria was a few years older than Natalie,  and slightly overweight with locks of black hair that tumbled onto her forehead and shoulders. Her skin was smooth and light, although that was most likely attributed to the massive amounts of makeup she applied to herself every day.

Daria would shake her head and place a hand on Natalie’s shoulder.

“You don’t really like yourself, do you, Natalie?”

Natalie never argued with her, but she didn’t really agree.

I’m alright with myself.  

Even she wasn’t convinced.

A rumble from the driveway caught her attention as a white and blue golf cart pulled up to the gate. A figure wrapped in bright yellow sat in the driver’s seat, not looking in her direction. The cart stopped and the person climbed out.

“You’re going to have to move your car back,” he said as he drew closer to the gate.

Natalie recognized him at once. She broke into a smile.

“Kenneth! My goodness, I haven’t seen you in ages! What in the world are you wearing?”

Kenneth grimaced.

“Oh, this old thing?” He choked out a nervous laugh. “I’ve had this for a while now, but every time I put it on to go into the rain,” he gestured at the sky, “it suddenly stops raining.”

 

Chapter A

THE RIDE across the wooden bridge was more than a little difficult. Each plank of wood that made up the bridge was stacked at various heights and angles, with some pieces lower than others. It was a wonder her tires didn’t blow out. Whoever was in charge of making sure the bridge was maintained was obviously not doing a very good job. As she neared the end of her journey, the bridge transitioned from wood to concrete, and that was indeed much smoother. The bridge led to a small dirt path, which cut through the forest for a mile.

Livingston Manor was suddenly in plain sight. Her mouth hung slightly open, even though she had seen this place before. The actual manor was off in the distance, but it was still beautiful. The lush landscape boasted rich greens and beautiful reds and yellows. Flowers popped up from bushes carved neatly in the garden, and the top of an elegant marble fountain was just visible above them. Behind all of this was the Manor itself, three stories high and painted in various shades of beige and light brown. The Manor was designed in the shape of an E, with the center stick missing.

Although it had been pouring when she started out from her home, there was not a cloud in sight. A large rainbow stretched into the sky, and it added to the feeling of calm and peace that surrounded her.

She parked her car in front of a large black gate. Its grooves were delicately crafted with swirls and exotic flowers. It stood about ten feet in the air, but only about five in length. A concrete wall, which rose seven feet in the air, ran from both ends of the gate, around the entire perimeter of the manor. It was painted a deep blue, which stood as a stark contrast to the rest of the light, tropical colored manor.

Natalie climbed out of her car and headed for the gate. She gave it a slight push, and then stopped herself. A few years ago, she remembered, the owner of the Manor, David Livingston, had made headlines with his new gate installation. As with every celebrity, there were a group of people dedicated to find every detail about the Livingston’s lives and report it online where there were still more groups of people that seemed to care. Although she paid little attention to whatever the tabloids had to say about them, as most of it was scandalous and entirely fictional, she did remember the controversy over the new gate David was installing.

Supposedly, it was unable to be opened from the outside, and it required someone coming all the way down from the house to manually unlock it and open it form the inside. Why that was so controversial, Natalie didn’t care to know. All she now knew was that she had to call the house and ask someone to come pick her up. The maid had assured her someone would be there for her when she arrived, but looking around, it was obvious that no one was here.

Natalie sighed. She considered getting out her phone and calling the maid again, but she didn’t want to keep bothering her. They were going to be spending quite a bit of time together any way, since Natalie was staying her for nearly a week.

I’m not one to sit around and stare at the scenery all day, she thought to herself. And besides, Kenneth mentioned some thing about a job, so that should keep her busy for a while…

Her train of thought wandered for a bit, until she heard the slight rumbling of an engine. She looked up, and in the near distance, passing between bushes and trees, was a small white golf cart. Its driver was dressed in a bright yellow raincoat, but she couldn’t see who it was from this far away. As the vehicle drew closer, however, recognition dawned upon her.

“Kenneth! My goodness, it has been ages since I’ve seen you!”

The golf cart slowed to a stop, and he shut off the engine. A sheepish, embarrassed grin played across his face as he made his way to the gate where she stood. Natalie smiled and looked him over.

A New Yorker by birth, Kenneth only had a slight hint of an accent left. His skin was light, and his eyes were small and blue. Straight black hair covered his forehead and the tops of his ears and ran down a little of his neck. His jaw was slightly bearded, although it was cut perfectly symmetrical to the other side of his face. Although she couldn’t really tell anything about his body from the ridiculous raincoat he wore, she already knew that he was would be lean and slightly muscular underneath it all. He had always been one for fitness and keeping himself in shape, and she knew that he wouldn’t have changed that anytime soon.

Kenneth stopped in front of her. She crossed her arms.

“What are you wearing?” She teased, and the sheepish grin came back.

“Oh this old thing?” He glanced down at himself. “Every time I put this on, it just suddenly stops raining, making me look like a fool.”

Natalie laughed. “Well, if it makes things any better, I don’t think you look like a fool.”

Kenneth looked away from her. She cleared her throat.

“So, can you get this gate open for me, so we can be on our way?”

Kenneth nodded.

“You are going to have to move your car back a little,” he said, gesturing with his hands as he spoke. “This gate is going to open quickly, and I don’t want your car getting destroyed.”

“No concern about me?” She joked. Kenneth gave her a severe look.

“Of course,” he said. “I would not want you to get hurt either.”

Natalie raised her eyebrows and headed for her car.

Note to self: stop joking around with Kenneth. Twice she had said some thing that was in the realm of funny, and even light hearted teasing, and twice he had responded negatively. She wondered what was going on with him.

Twisting the key in the ignition, her Explorer screamed to life. She switched the gears to reverse, and, leaning on the passenger seat, she brought the car a few dozen feet away from the gate.

Over at the gate, Kenneth gave her a thumbs up sign and did some thing to make the gate move. It took a full minute to open completely, and Natalie spent that minute staring at Kenneth.

They had worked together on a case several years ago, but that was not the first she had heard of him. In fact, when Kenneth first moved to Florida in the late 90s, his family moved into the house right next door to hers. They had not really known each other until high school, but even then, their paths never crossed. He was the popular athlete with all the girls and guys surrounding him. She was the nerd with all the other nerds preparing for a successful future. It was during college that they actually spent some time together.

Her first case as a detective brought her to Livingston Manor. It was here that she met Kenneth again, a few years after college. She was happy to see him, and they worked well together to solve the case. It was that case that vaulted her to national fame and put her on the fast track to success. Of course, things had happened, but she still remembered how vital a role Kenneth had played in solving that case. She often wondered if it was merely coincidence that kept bringing them together here at Livingston Manor, or if it was actually fate.

Natalie was not sure she believed in fate, though. How could a person being slaughtered in a most vicious and brutal way – how could that be fate? Oh, it was his destiny to die this way; this is why he was born. Natalie could never understand people who thought everything happened for a reason. She preferred to think that these bad things just happened – that the victim was just an unlucky soul who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, she knew that not all victims in criminal cases were entirely innocent. In fact, there were many times when she was glad for the person to have been murdered.

However, her sense of justice prevailed over all other feelings, and she worked as hard as she could to bring criminals behind bars. Even if there was a perfectly valid reason for the killer to have acted, as was the case with Adrian Gray, she still felt it her responsibility to bring justice. She thought about that case, and involuntarily shuddered. There were so many things about that case hat were wrong. She didn’t want to think about it right now.

How many things are there that you don’t want to think about, she asked herself. There were far too many more things than she could count. Maybe it was true, what they said about her.

Kenneth started waving, and it drew her away from her thoughts. As the days passed by, she realized that her thoughts were more dangerous than the criminals she worked hard to put behind bars. Even though she was a detective, she had been forced to patrol the streets and work regular police officer duty for a few years before her breakout case. Facing down gunshots and violent, resistant youths was nothing compared to the harsh words she spoke to herself.

Thoroughly convinced that she was messed up inside, Natalie welcomed the thought of some thing else. She started up her car and rambled through the gate, careful not to hit Kenneth’s little golf cart. She rolled down her window and stuck her head out.

“Where am I going with this?” She asked, calling out to Kenneth, who stood behind her watching the gate close. He turned around.

“I am going to take you in this gold cart,” he said. “You have to leave your car on the side over there,” he gestured to a small spot on the grass just off the main dirt road. Natalie gave him a look of disbelief.

“Why can I not bring my car all the way up to the Manor?” She asked. Kenneth shook his head.

“You have to keep your car down here that is what David wants. We don’t have cars near the manor because there is no place to put them. No garages were built, and David does not like to see them around.”

“So there is no valid reason for why a garage was not built up there?”

“Oh no, there is a reason,” Kenneth contested. “A few generations ago, there was a horrible accident in the garage, involving fumes and a dead man. Ever since then, cars have not been allowed near the manor, and neither have any garages been built.”

“But what about that golf cart you have there?” Natalie asked.

Kenneth laughed.

“This baby runs on two things: electricity and the sun. I don’t know how it works exactly, but it stays out back by the mail and trash bins, and we use it whenever we need to traverse the grounds.”

Natalie sighed. “All right, if you say this is fine.” She moved her car off the main road and shut it off. Reaching over to the bench in the back, she gathered her belongings, which included: a large, black purse filled with her cell phone, a few pens and some papers, as well as some personal items. She also had a small duffel bag with clothing and even more personal items, like tooth brushes and other hygienic products. She kept more than one tooth brush with her at all times: using a different on every day, as well as a few different tooth pastes and mouth washes as well. She didn’t want her teeth to get used to one particular product and build up an immunity to it. Natalie was unsure if that was scientifically grounded in any sense of the word, but she did it any way.

That was just one of her many quirks.

“Will my car be safe out here?” Natalie asked, climbing out of the driver’s seat and giving the door a hard push to ensure it closed all the way.

Kenneth laughed.

“Of course it will be safe,” he said, more out of disbelief than anything else. Natalie sighed and climbed into the golf cart. Kenneth sat down on the driver’s side and started its engine. They rode in the car silently, past the bushes, the fountains, the trees and the marble garden decorations.

They didn’t say a word as they made the ten minute journey to the manor, not speaking when they parked by the trash bins and mailbox. As Natalie gathered her belongings from the back seat of the golf cart and Kenneth shut it off, neither of them said a word.

For a person so used to conversing and making small talk to find information, Natalie was, strangely, all right with the silence. She knew she would have some trouble getting words out of Kenneth when the time came for it, but she was ready for the challenge.

 

Chapter K

KENNETH WAS more than upset. He was absolutely furious. The golf cart came to a complete halt and she climbed out to get her things from the back.

Why did I not say anything? He chastised himself for being the one to come and pick her up. He should have delegated that job to someone else, someone who would be able to carry on a normal conversation … His thoughts drifted.

“Where are we going from here?” Natalie called out from behind him. He turned around in his chair and leaned against the headrest. He forced a smile.

“Well, we have to get you inside and unpacked,” he began, “and also, there are a ton of people that have not seen you in a few years.”

Natalie laughed.

“They still want to see me?”

“Of course,” Kenneth said. He watched her as she pulled her bag from the back seat. She wore a pale blue blouse with a collared neck and turned in cuffs. Dark gray slacks coupled with navy blue heels completed her outfit. Her shoulder length dark brown hair was swept back and a significant chunk was tucked under her left ear, revealing a small studded earring perched at the top of her ear. Several strands fell across her forehead, slightly covering her thin eyebrows and light touch of eye shadow. Her lips were a dark red, and her nose, lightly pointed.

“What is it?” Natalie asked, coming over to the passenger side of the golf cart again. Kenneth blushed. He had been staring. He shook his head and climbed out of the driver’s seat.

“No, seriously, what is it?” Natalie pressed. She waited until he came over to her side and picked up her bags before continuing. “You know, I remember when you used to look at me that way all the time.”

Talk about presumptuous. Kenneth bit his tongue before responding to her in that fashion. He thought for a bit, and came up with a less controversial, and slightly made up answer.

“You look a little older, I guess.” He didn’t want to think about how she would take that.

“Come with me,” he said, gesturing toward the house with his head. “Let me show you to your room, and we can get you all settled in. Jennifer is preparing lunch for us and she claims it is going to be amazing.” Kenneth’s voice raised a few decibels with the last words as he imitated Jennifer’s voice.

Natalie laughed. Kenneth smiled to himself. All right, maybe things were not going as badly as they seemed before.

The golf cart was parked in the back of the manor, on the opposite end of the Square. Large green and blue garbage bins lined the side of the wall. At the end of the procession of six alternatively colored cans was a door leading into the kitchen. On the left side of the door was a metal mailbox, which had been painted white and tacked to the wall.

“Why such a small mailbox if so many people live here?” Natalie inquired.

“That box is only for David and Josiah,” he explained. “Every day of the week, a special team drops in from helicopter with their mail and delivers it back here. They also pick up the garbage every Saturday.” Kenneth shook his head. “They managed to work out a deal with the city somehow, but I don’t question it.”

“What about everyone else’s mail? Where do you receive any mail you might receive?”

“David encourages us to make as many transactions as possible on line, so we don’t have to worry about paper,” he began, “but there is a communal mailbox in the local post office that I was charged with going for every Wednesday and Saturday to collect everyone’s mail.”

“How do you do it with such a horrible bridge?” Natalie asked. “I could barely make it over there alive this morning.”

Kenneth glanced over at her.

“Oh yeah, I forgot,” he said, shaking his head. “That bridge is being worked on this week, so they probably already started removing some pieces. I didn’t think they had started that yet, or I would have asked the local ferry to bring you over here.”

Natalie waved the suggestion away. “I made it here in one piece, so I am not going to complain any more.”

Kenneth nodded, and pushed open the door to the kitchen. It was an a rather large kitchen, with several refrigerators that ran along the back wall. An ‘L’ shaped counter cut into the center of the room, and a hexagon shaped wooden table lay on the inside of the counter area. Six chairs lined either side of the table, and there was just enough space for the workers and those seated at the table to move around comfortably. The door was at one end of the counter, while at the other there sat a large garbage receptacle.

The counter was cluttered with items you would expect to find in a kitchen: coffee mugs, bread boxes, recently sharpened knives and a rolling pin. A half eaten apple core rested on the countertop. Kenneth scooped it up quickly and dumped it into the light blue trash can.

Seated at the table was Annabelle and Jennifer, both of them taking a break from cooking duty. In front of them were aluminum containers, covered with foil, along with a few serving spoons and other utensils. They appeared to be almost ready for lunch.

Kenneth’s stomach grumbled, and the two of them turned around.

“Natalie?!” The high pitched squeal came from none other than Jennifer, and she was over the table and into Natalie’s arms in a few seconds. Kenneth emitted a nervous laugh. If she ever did anything similar to that to him, he would absolutely freak out. He was sure that anyone would, and looking at Natalie’s face, it was apparent that she was quite taken aback. She gave him a confused glance and placed her arms slowly across Jennifer’s back.

“Um, it is nice to see you,” she said slowly, and Jennifer pulled back. She was still smiling broadly.

“Wow, you look so beautiful, did you know that?” Jennifer gushed. Annabelle turned around and gave Natalie a nod and a big smile. Kenneth crossed his arms and gave a little cough. Natalie took the hint.

“I have to get going, Jennifer,” she said, “but I will speak with you more a little later, all right?”

Jennifer smiled again, but directed her gaze to Kenneth this time instead. Natalie glanced at him amusedly and he blushed.

Turning away he made his way to the other door which would lead him into the rest of the house.

“Come this way, Natalie,” he said. He didn’t want to turn around, because, once again, his face had turned beet red. When was he ever going to learn how to stop blushing? Was that not some thing that only girls did? Why was it that all he ever seemed to do was blush whenever he was embarrassed?

Inwardly he kicked himself. Why did Jennifer have to be so pretty but at the same time so not? He didn’t like her in the least bit, but she kept showering him with compliments and attention. Kenneth didn’t want to think any more about the troubles that came along with members of the opposite gender. He had spent most of his high school and college days immersed in that lifestyle, and he was ready now for a steady career and financial income.

Of course, he was spending his days scrubbing toilets and travelling for hours to go to town just to pick up some mail which no one read any way. But that didn’t mean that once he finally was able to support himself he would not leave the manor and make a better life for himself.

Please, Kenneth, he said to himself. You already tried leaving here once before, and look where that left you. Broken hearted and all alone in the world. What more could you ask for here?

Kenneth was starting to realize that he had more harsh things to say about himself than most others. But that was all right for him to do, because most people held their tongue when it came to criticizing him any way. He was always too close to the family to mess with, but not close enough to respect the same way. It frustrated him that his father didn’t choose to be raised as a Livingston. If only he had been part of this family, he would never have to worry about finances again. He would be able to accomplish his dreams without anyone telling him he was not good enough, or that he didn’t have what it takes to be successful.

He turned around. Natalie was following behind him as he made his way over to the main staircase. He furrowed his eyebrows.

“Do you think that if someone found the right career, that they would be happy then?”

She frowned, contemplating. He was used to seeing her act this way – whenever she stumbled across some thing she didn’t understand right away, the frown went up and she sunk into thinking mode. Natalie thought for a few seconds then spoke.

“I suppose,” she said, although she didn’t sound very convinced.

Kenneth nodded and turned away, continuing to lead her up the staircase and into her room.

He had not been convinced by her words either. But what did he expect? She was just a detective, and it was not as though she had all the answers.

“You know, I may have some answers,” she began as though she had read his very thoughts, “but I don’t know all of them.”

She spoke with such bitterness that it sent an involuntary shudder down Kenneth’s back.

 

Chapter E

“ALL RIGHT NOW, we’re ready to start.”

Jennifer clanged a fork against her glass, calling for quiet. The staff had gathered together for lunch – well, it was more like brunch, since no one had really eaten breakfast any way. They ate in the dining room, which was normal for Sunday afternoons. The servants were allowed to eat wherever they wanted, but just never when the Livingstons were eating. Only Kenneth occasionally was asked to join them for dinner. It had been a recent push by David to develop some sort of relationship with him, and having dinner with the family was just one of those outlets. Kenneth sat on the end of the table, with his back to the kitchen. All of the servants were gathered here, along with a few guests.

Seated across from him was Dennis Silverado. He was a taller man, with short black hair and steely blue eyes. Dennis was the Manor’s butler, and it was his job to carry out errands, answer doors, pull out chairs, and any other old fashioned functions of butlers in the United Kingdom. This was part of the Manor’s history – every new “master” hired a new staff team. If they were thoroughly satisfied with the ones they had, however, they were not entitled to fire them. However, it was pretty guaranteed that you would have a job as long as the one who hired you was still alive and in control of the household.

Only on one occasion had the staff been fired before the change of households, and that was under Kenneth’s grandfather, Marcus. The staff had been extremely critical of his grandmother, and didn’t like the fact that she was not of high financial standing like the other Livingston wives. To end their bickering and mutterings, Marcus gave them an ultimatum: stay here and live with the wife I chose, or leave and find some where else. Most of the staff chose to stay, but they continued to grumble and cause a difficult time for Marcus’ wife, so he was forced to fire them all and hire new people.

When David gained control of the Manor, he got rid of everyone his father put into place. The very first person he hired after that was Dennis Silverado. He had been impressed with Dennis’s resume: the man had been fired form his previous job as a butler because he was too “old fashioned” for the woman in charge. David was looking for someone just like that, and hired Dennis on the spot. Dennis had served the Manor faithfully for more than twenty years, as he had been hired before Josiah was born.

Kenneth didn’t really have much to do with Dennis, partially because of his stiff nature and inability to carry on a normal conversation. Sure, Kenneth said to himself these same things all the time, but that was only on certain occasions, and even then, he didn’t really believe it to be true. But Dennis on the other hand, needed a few books to teach him how to talk to people. Kenneth never really tried to get past that stumbling block, so he didn’t really know much about who Dennis was as a person.

Seated to Kenneth’s left was Natalie, and on his right was Jennifer. She had considered herself the leader of sorts during lunch time, mainly because she was the cook and Annabelle didn’t make appearances any more.

Next to her sat Andrea, the maid. Kenneth made a mental note to himself, reminding him to schedule some time to talk with that girl. She did little more than giggle and talk in a high pitched voice all the time, Kenneth as unsure what his cousin saw in her.

Moving down the line, Diana sat next to her. She was another one who had been here for several years, and yet Kenneth knew nothing about her. Diana seemed to spend a lot of time hanging around Dennis, though, that he was sure of, but other than that, he didn’t know anything else.

Seated across from her was a young man named Victor. Kenneth was unsure what his actual job was here at the Manor, but he knew that it had some thing to do with locks and doors. This, of course, was very unsettling for Kenneth, considering the fact that he always locked his bedroom door before he went to bed. He didn’t like to think that there could be someone else with the key to unlock his door after he had locked it. But Victor didn’t seem like a creepy kid, so Kenneth was not really worried about it.

The circle was almost complete with the final person seated at the table. Selena Last sat on Natalie’s left. Kenneth smiled when he looked at her. She had been one of his closest friends when he first came to the Manor a few years ago.

Selena used to work here at the Manor, but she left when she got engaged to be married five years ago. There was a whole going away party for her and everything, but then some thing happened to mess the celebration up. Selena went off to get married, and he had not heard from her since then. When Josiah announced his engagement to Andrea, he wanted to invite everyone who knew him, which was severely limited to those who had worked there in the past. Selena was the only one besides Natalie that Kenneth was able to get into contact with.

Selena had been more than excited. The first thing she wanted to know was his age. That was one of the first things everyone thought of when they heard the words “married” and “Josiah” in the same sentence.

“Josiah is getting married?” She gushed over the phone. Her voice held the same raspiness that he was used to from many years ago. “How old is he any way?” She had asked. Kenneth laughed and told her the details and even settled on her travelling arrangements. She would come here alone, on Saturday, the day before Natalie got here. Selena and her husband lived in Ohio some where, and she had little difficulty getting away for a few days.

Josiah wanted them all here until the day of his wedding, on Friday, and then they were free to leave if they wanted to. Selena would stay only until the wedding, as her tickets were set for that afternoon.

She had not said much since she got here, though, which disappointed Kenneth. He wanted to know a little more about her life outside of the Manor. They had been close enough friends to talk about some personal things with each other, and Kenneth had been one of the first people to know of her engagement to her husband, Scott. Of course, he had been the one to introduce her to the young postal worker, but even still, they had been close friends. He didn’t like how quiet she was being, even if it had been a few years since they last saw each other.

Everyone was eating now that Jennifer had sat down. Kenneth glanced down at his plate. He had subconsciously filled it with a scoop of eggs, some bread and assorted fruits. The meat portion of the meal would come out later, although it didn’t consist of anything too hearty or difficult to digest. Kenneth had seen a few chicken breasts in the oven when he and Natalie passed through there earlier. Here at the Manor, they were big on chicken.

David’s shipping company brought a week’s worth of various parts of the chicken to them every week. Kenneth absolutely loved chicken, and used it for everything whenever he cooked for himself. Of course, that didn’t happen often, seeing as they had the two best cooks in the world doing that already. Once again, his thoughts were drawn to Jennifer, and that bothered him.

“So what are you doing with yourself, Natalie?” Jennifer asked, nonchalantly. Kenneth threw her a glance.

You know full well what she does, he wanted to tell her. And that’s Detective Natalie to you.

“Well, I am sure you know this, but I am a Detective.” Natalie smiled and spooned some fruit into her mouth. After chewing and subsequently swallowing, she continued. “I don’t own my own agency or anything like that. I would consider myself a Homicide Detective in the State of Florida Police Department.”

“So you pretty much cover everything in Florida?” Victor chimed in from her left. She glanced over to him.

“Yeah, any homicide cases that come through, or anything that was related to a homicide. I am currently on the trail of a particular group that kills pretty much anyone who gets in their way, or threatens to turn them to the police.”

“Is it really dangerous, your job?” Dennis asked in his deep voice. He looked very much the naive school boy in this case, and Kenneth stifled a laugh. “I mean, do you come into contact with many dangerous criminals?”

“Of course,” she began, sitting straighter in her chair. “I have to face down life or death every time I go out to work.”

Kenneth looked over at Dennis. He didn’t seem as big and strong as before, but that didn’t surprise him. Kenneth had a feeling that there was a lot more about Dennis that he had yet to find out.

“So, when can I meet the lucky woman?” Natalie asked, her eyes sparkling in laughter. Everyone glanced at Andrea, and Natalie turned to her, smiling broadly. Kenneth grunted.

“Here I am,” she said, raising her hand in a half embarrassed wave.

“Whoa, you were seated next to me this whole time,” Natalie shook her head. She looked around at everyone. “You know, I am really glad to have come back here,” she said, nostalgically. “I have not been around this many people that I know in such a long time. When you are constantly dealing with criminals, you always have to crawl into their minds, and it gets lonely in there some times.” Natalie sighed and shook her head. The smile was back again.

Kenneth smiled as well. He liked having her here. But more than the fact that she was here for his cousin’s wedding. He knew that the real reason he was happy to see her was much more important than that.

He cleared his throat and placed his fork on his plate. He stood up and made his way over to the back of Natalie’s chair. He touched it.

“Are we ready to go now?” He asked her. She turned around and nodded. He pulled back her chair and she stood up.

“Josiah should be waiting for us in his office,” Kenneth said. He actually was not sure if Josiah was really there, but he needed to speak with him any way, so it didn’t matter if he was really there. Kenneth just needed to get her out of here before Josiah ran off or some thing like that.

The others stared the two of them down as they left the lunch table.

 

Chapter Q

THEY WALKED quietly down the hall. Kenneth loved walking down this particular hallway in silence. With the massive pictures hanging form the walls, the silence reminded him of just how small he really was. Once he started thinking about his own problems, they seemed to pale in the face of those large portraits. Everyone of them was a testament to the past generations that had gone through everything he had, and made it to their end fine.

Suddenly he was scared. Was that all there was to life? Meeting a desirable end? Making enough money to live out the rest of your days in a mansion? Kenneth was unsure if that was what he really wanted.

He considered asking Natalie about it, but held himself back. She was not some sort of theology master, he didn’t know why he always thought she would have the answers toe very thing.

Behind him, she cleared her throat.

“So what should I expect when I see him?” she asked. Kenneth turned to her and stopped walking. He shook his head.

They had reached the library, and were about to enter it. From here, Natalie looked so calm, almost as though she didn’t have a care in the world. She was merely curious as to the state of her young friend. Kenneth sighed.

“You will find that Josiah has changed significantly.” Those were the only words he could find at the moment.

“What do you mean, changed significantly?” Natalie crossed her arms. “I knew him when he was ten years old, and even then I would not say that I actually knew him. I knew more about him form everyone else, but what did you think I thought? That he would still be a little ten year old boy?”

“No,” Kenneth said, shaking his head. “I just wanted you to know that he is not your average teenaged boy. I am sorry, I meant to call him a young man. He always gets on my case for that.”

“What do you mean?” Natalie asked, genuine concern seeming to lace her voice. Kenneth looked at her.

“Josiah does not trust people,” he began plainly. He does not understand that not everyone in this world is out to get him.”

“So will he not trust me?” She asked, raising her eyebrows. “Is that what you are getting at?”

“No,” Kenneth said, shaking his head. “Look, you will just have to come inside here and see for yourself.”

Kenneth pushed open the library door, and they hurried inside. A strange smell filled his nostrils, and he made a face. It smelled almost like metal burning. That concerned him, especially since he was in a library, where the smell of anything burning was objectionable.

Kenneth knocked on Josiah’s office door. No reply. He looked behind him at Natalie, who was careful not to look him in the eye. Kenneth assumed she was thinking about what he had said about Josiah. There was a lot more truth in what he said than most people understood at first glance. Josiah was a complicated case, and Kenneth hurt for him. He wanted to do more to make the young man feel better about himself and the world, but it was so difficult when he didn’t want to open up and talk to anyone.

Kenneth knocked again, and this time, he heard a soft grunt from inside. Good, he thought to himself, Josiah is inside. He gave Natalie a quick glance, this time she was staring at him. He didn’t let it bother him and pushed open the door.

Josiah sat in his desk, poring over another set if yellow pages. It struck Kenneth as odd that he would be going through those same papers again. Kenneth cleared his throat, and Josiah looked up.

“Oh hello, he said, smiling up at Natalie. He stretched out his hand. “You should know that I am very glad to see you here.” Natalie shook his hand gingerly and sat down. Kenneth gave him a slight nod.

“So, how are things to your liking?” Josiah asked, folding his hands on the desk in front of him.

Natalie titled her head from left to right. “Things look pretty much the same here,” she began. “It has only been what, five years since I was last here?” Natalie leaned back in her chair. “I must say, though, that there is one major change to this household.” She pointed at Josiah.

“You have grown into quite the young man,” she said. Kenneth studied Josiah’s reaction. He smiled nervously and looked away.

Ah, Josiah. You are not used to such compliments, right?

“I have yet to meet this young woman whom you are marrying,” Natalie continued, “but I would very much be honored to do so.”

“You will meet her in due time,” Josiah said calmly. “I wanted to thank you again for coming here. Your presence those many years ago was instrumental to my survival -”

“Oh, Josiah, it was not that important -” Natalie interrupted. Josiah suddenly grew grave. His face contorted and Kenneth watched in silence on the sidelines as Josiah began slipping into that mode of his again. The smile erased from his eyes, Josiah was unable to react the same way that most others would in these situations. He looked away from her and cut back into the conversation.

“It meant a lot more to me. There were many things that happened back then that have helped shape me.” Josiah stood up from his chair. Kenneth could be silent no longer. He tried changing the subject, hoping his cousin would not get started on his troubles again.

“We were hoping to see the demolition together tomorrow,” Kenneth said, crossing his arms. It was not really his idea, more like Jennifer’s, but it would give them a chance to all be together before David came back. Josiah glanced at Kenneth.

“What demolition are you talking about?” Natalie chimed in. Kenneth turned to her.

“That is right, I mentioned it earlier, but I forgot to go into great detail.” He shook his head. “David has hired a rag tag group of construction workers to rebuild that wooden bridge of ours that connects us to the outside world. Quite frankly, you have seen the condition of our current bridge, so it should come to you as no surprise that we would like to have it fixed.”

“But why a complete demolition?” She asked, leaning forward. “Why not rebuild a portion at a time, thus allowing people to still travel over it as they so desire?”

Kenneth had not thought of that.

“The only reason that comes to mind, and granted, your reason is a valid one, is that David acts in strange manners. He does things that are unconventional at best, and no one can question him about it because he owns this place.”

“He owns more than just this place,” Josiah suddenly cut in. Kenneth sighed.

Not now, Josiah. Please, don’t get started on this subject again.

“What do you mean by that?” Natalie asked. She was slipping into investigative mode, he could tell. She was such an expert in the art of questioning and interrogation. She made it feel like there was nothing really to fear when answering her questions.

Josiah fell for the bait.

“He likes to think that he owns all of us in here, dictating where we can go, and who we can be with. It is not that we are able to act as we so desire.”

“But you are getting married, right? Is this marriage all right with your father David?”

“Of course it is all right,” Kenneth chimed in. he looked over at Josiah. The young man was not saying anything. He didn’t agree with the way Josiah was trying to paint his father, but he was not to easily blame everything on Josiah’s fractured state of mind. It would be easier to say that he was just not feeling good, that was why he said such strange things, but that would be sugar coating the problem. And there was nothing Kenneth didn’t like more than to sugar coat the problem.

“Josiah, are you all right?” Kenneth wished she would not ask. It was better for no one to know.

But is that not why you brought her here? Kenneth asked himself. Was it not out of concern for him that you asked her to help you out?

I guess I thought she would have all the answers.

Josiah sat back down. He was dressed in the same shirt as yesterday, and his hair was slightly more ruffled. He looked like he had not eaten in a few days, and he definitely didn’t get much sleep.

“I have always lived in this house,” he began somberly. He didn’t make eye contact with either of them. “There were many days when I wished nothing more than to leave this house hold and everything, everyone, in it. I was not brought up like other children in the world. As you can tell by the condition of the Manor, my father raised me in an old fashioned style of living, almost like the great olden days where people lived in large houses and had tons of servants. My father’s wish was to keep the tradition the same.

“But I was not content to live that way. I was allowed to watch the television only occasionally, and I saw a world that I didn’t understand. Technology is some thing that I have never fully been able to embrace. I saw you a few hours ago trying to use your phone – it is useless. Those kinds of things don’t work on this island. We have our own way of communicating with the outside world.”

Natalie leaned forward. “Let me guess – letters?”

“Yes,” Josiah said, nodding slowly. “If there is nothing better in the world, it is receiving a letter in the mail.”

“Josiah, I don’t mean to cut you off, but we have business to discuss.” Kenneth looked carefully at his cousin. Josiah was not eager to talk about this yet, Kenneth knew, but he had to move things along. There would only be a few more minutes of this discussion before Josiah would touch a nerve and then collapse into a pool of tears on the floor. And then, Kenneth would follow, and there was no way he was going to start crying in front of Natalie. That is to say, not again.

“Yes, yes, we do have some things to discuss,” he waved his hands, “but we are not ready to talk about them now.” He looked at Natalie. “There are a few things I need to take care of first before I let anyone get in here.” He tapped his forehead. Kenneth sighed and shook his head.

“Josiah, you don’t have to be so mysterious. We really care about you, Natalie and I, and we want help you in any way we can.”

“Kenneth, I already spoke to you about this before.” Josiah threw him a glance that said: no more discussion about this. He then turned to Natalie and offered her a pained smile.

“I appreciate you coming out here for my wedding, and I realize that Kenneth misled you into believing I had some sort of job for you to complete.” Josiah shook his head. “However, I don’t have anything to tell you right now, except for you to find the letters when I am gone. That is the only thing I can ask of you.”

Kenneth sat up, alarmed.

“When you are gone? Josiah, what is this kind of talk?” Kenneth and Natalie shared a glance, both thinking the same thing. Surely he cannot be thinking suicide? Josiah scrunched his mouth tightly.

“I mean what I say. I don’t have much more time left on this earth, I can feel it. But I have had a relatively good albeit difficult life. I want you all to know that I am at peace with the fact that I will die.”

“Josiah, I don’t want to hear you speak this way any more -”

“Please, Kenneth,” Josiah raised his hands. “There is nothing you can do to change this fact. We all will die one day, it is just that my day to die comes a lot sooner than most.”

“Josiah, has some one said they are going to kill you?” Natalie asked, the professional in her coming out. Kenneth turned on her.

“Are you suggesting that some one here might be trying to kill him? That is the most absurd thing I have ever heard!”

“I didn’t say that,” Natalie retorted. “There are other people in this world beside those who live in this Manor, Kenneth.” Her words were biting and hit their mark where they were supposed to. She was taking out some of her anger on him, he could tell. What she was angry at, though, he couldn’t be sure. But this was taking his focus away from the true crisis at hand – that is these strange remarks from his cousin Josiah.

“Is this some thing we should take as a threat to commit suicide? Should I call the doctor?”

Josiah waved their suggestions away. “Pardon me if I got carried away,” he said.

“Carried away?” Kenneth stood from his chair. This kid was really serious? He said all that and he didn’t even mean it? “Josiah, what is going on here, I need you to tell me. How can you go from one moment saying you are ready to die and at peace with the fact, and then you say you got carried away?”

Josiah said nothing. Kenneth resisted the urge to hit him over the head.

“Josiah, answer me!”

“I believe in justice.”

Those were his only words. Kenneth shook his head, resigned. He turned to Natalie. She was sitting there, staring at Josiah. He wondered what was going through her mind. What kind of people must she think they all were to allow him to get to such strange a state? Kenneth had his suspicions, and had spent many days trying to understand what was going on in his young cousin’s mind. If only there were some thing like a journal or whatever that he wrote his thoughts in. would even that provide enough insight into the young man’s mind? Kenneth was unsure.

“Natalie, I think it is time for the both of us to get a move on.” He didn’t know how that phrase came to mind, but it made him sound like some one from the late 1980s or early 90s. of course, he had been born then, and even lived many years in those time periods, but he considered himself a slightly dwarfed millennial. Sure, he didn’t know how to use the most modern technology, but he knew how to get on a computer and use the internet once in a while. He never really had a need for much beyond the four, or rather dozens, of walls in the Manor. He would very much like to change that, though, he told himself on many occasions. There was just some thing about being back in the world that appealed to him. He had been so long here in isolation, that he felt it was almost time to get back into the mix of things.

Natalie rose from her chair, scraping it along the wooden floor as she did so. Kenneth’s thoughts were brought back to the here and now. This was the only room in the entire house that didn’t have any carpeting, except for the kitchen and that was linoleum. When David had it built, he wanted the wooden flooring because he thought it added to the mysteriousness of the Manor. David was all about the aesthetics. In Kenneth’s opinion, he wanted some thing that would easily burn if it caught fire and continue to spread until it reached the library. Kenneth was unsure why he thought of this, but he got the vague impression that David was not so fond of books, and lit up whenever talk arrived of books and fire. It was slightly disturbing, but David was a good man with very few quirks, so Kenneth forgave him that.

“Kenneth, I want to go to my room, but first I want to ask Josiah a question.”

Kenneth nodded. It was not as though she really had to ask him permission. He was not her father or anything like that. But it was still nice to know that she respected his opinion and what she was going to do. She turned to Josiah.

“Did you mean what you said about believing in justice?”

Josiah looked at her curiously. “Yes, I did. Why do you ask?”

“Because I am a solemn believer in justice. In fact,” she said, reaching out to rest her hand on his desk, “I swore my life to bring justice to the law breakers and criminals in this world. Rest assured, my young friend, that I will do whatever it takes to bring justice to this world, because I too believe there is such a thing. Granted, I don’t have as much faith in our system as I should have, but I do believe that it works for the most part. I will make sure that justice is brought, wherever it may appear to be being overlooked.”

“Thank you, Detective,” he said, addressing her for the first time. Kenneth didn’t like how this conversation was going. Natalie was just fanning the flames and feeding his internal fire. She was giving him some thing more to imagine, and he didn’t appreciate it. It was one thing to suggest that the young man’s life might be in danger from himself, but another all together to start this talk of justice, almost as though some one was actually going to do some harm to him.

“Josiah, thank you for your time,” Kenneth said, lips pulled into a tight grin. He couldn’t give any more, mainly because he felt there was little happiness left inside to show.

“Kenneth, you know I am always delighted to see you. And Detective Natalie, you don’t know how happy it makes me to see you.”

Suddenly, Josiah was all smiles again. He stood up, crossed form behind his desk and wrapped Natalie in a hug. She didn’t look confused or frightened by it like she had with Jennifer and Kenneth liked that.

Josiah next came over to his cousin.

What are you thinking? Kenneth wondered. There was little way he could actually get Josiah to respond to him with real feelings. Josiah was such a drama queen, or rather a drama king. He liked to act, even if it gave him a little attention. Kenneth didn’t like that about his cousin, but he had to remind himself that Josiah was, after all, still only a young boy. He had a lot more learning to do, and much more maturing to do as well.

Which was why Kenneth so disagreed with him getting married so young, Josiah didn’t have much of what it took to take care of himself, how did he expect to be able to provide for a wife?

It was useless thinking about this now. Josiah was reaching out to him, trying to get him into an embrace. Kenneth obliged him, but he was surprised by what happened next.

Josiah clings to him, like a child to its mother’s leg, afraid to let go and go tumbling to the ground. The embrace was more than a fleeting expression of ‘glad to see you’ or even ‘I love you’.

As Josiah clung to Kenneth’s body, he reached up and rubbed the back of the young man’s head. His embrace was more akin to an ‘I need you’ embrace, and Kenneth was afraid that if he let Josiah go, there would be no way to protect him.

Protect him from what? Kenneth asked himself. How can I protect him from the demons inside his head if I don’t even know what they are or if they even exist? How can I know if he is just playing around or if he is truly serious when he talks about death and justice and being all right if it is his time?

The two of them left the office, but Kenneth couldn’t move further. He shut the door behind Natalie and leaned against the wall. She stood quietly beside him, not saying anything. He was grateful for his silence, yet again in the same day. He ran a hand through his hair, brushing it back from his forehead as he did so. It quickly fell back into place. It had become a habit of his, so he didn’t care that his actions were really useless. He turned to her.

“Now do you see what I have to deal with?” it was more of a rhetorical question than anything else. “It is always so hard to go in and speak with him because his mind,” Kenneth raised his hand, his fingers curled as though they were grabbing onto some thing invisible. “Because his mind is so messed up. I cannot understand anything that goes on in there, and quite frankly, I am scared.”

There. He said it. He was scared. Scared of the way his cousin was talking. Scared to think that he was losing his mind. Scared to think he might lose his cousin. Scared to think that he might slip back into depression.

Where did that come from? The last bit was a bout himself, and he didn’t even realize it. True, Kenneth was afraid of going back there. Images of him lying on the floor next to his bed early in the morning came flashing back. Holding his mother’s blanket in his hand, long after everyone else in his family had moved on, he was still holding on. His father had chastised him and told him he needed to start living again, but Kenneth would not have it. Some how, it gave him strength to wallow in his weakness. It made no sense, but that was how he felt now.

Kenneth felt entirely out of control and powerless. Weak. Those were the only words to describe himself right now, and he loathed it. Why did this always happen when he came into contact with his cousin? He loved his cousin. They had had so many good times together. They had grown up here in the Manor. Kenneth had learned most of what he knew about himself while he was here, and even though he didn’t know as much about the real world, he knew a lot about people and the way they acted. He knew that Josiah was reacting negatively to some thing, and Kenneth wanted to take that away from him. He wanted to make everything better, but he didn’t know how. And that was how he came back to feeling weak and powerless.

“I feel like I am about to throw a pity party with Josiah in there,” Kenneth choked out. He could feel the tightening of the throat as he spoke, and he knew it was all down hill from here. Natalie was at his side in an instant. She touched his arm.

“What Josiah is going through, there is little you can do yourself. Most of that is in his mind, so I don’t want you to think that you are some how responsible for it, or that you must find a way to make everything right. Those things com with time.”

“How do you know all of this?” Kenneth asked. Tears were beginning to stream down, so he kept his face turned away from her. He knew she could still see them any way, but he had to try some thing.
“I didn’t expect to come here and find you all like this, and I don’t mean it in a bad way. I want to help you, I really do. So if there is anything I can do, please, let me know. I consider you to be my friend, even if you are angry with me, so I want you to know that you can tell me what is bothering you and I won’t judge you or hold it against you later on.”

Kenneth choked out a laugh. Why would I be mad at you? What was there possibly to be mad at?

But all of this was too much for Kenneth, and he didn’t want to wallow in this any more.

“Would you like me to show you to your room again?” Kenneth offered. He was unsure of how that sounded, coming from a half crying full grown man. Natalie smiled and nodded her head.

“I would like that,” she said.

Kenneth was unsure why she thought he was mad at her, seeing that they had not seen each other in years, and they had been such good friends back then. He often wondered if…he didn’t allow his thoughts to travel into those uncharted waters. Many a day had been wasted day dreaming on crushes when he was younger, on girls that talked to him but were not really interested. It was strange, he had been such a ladies man and a flirtatious character when he was a teen, but he never seemed to be able to get the girl that he wanted. When he lost some of that character when he went to college, it had bothered him even more. He often felt that when he did find a woman that was right for him, it was going to happen in some sort of unconventional way and he would be able to tell the story to his grand children one day, just like his grand mother told him hers.

Kenneth walked with Natalie to her room, not talking, but once again, he was all right with it. It seemed that there was some sort of bonding going on in the silence, if that even made any sense at all. Kenneth was glad that Natalie was back here again, even if only for a little while. At least they would have a chance to become friends again. After what happened when she left the first time, Kenneth was unsure she would even consider herself to be a friend of his.

I guess that is what she means when she says she thought I was angry with her. She thinks that I am still holding on to that case.

Kenneth was all right with letting things go. He just wanted to help others, which was why it hurt him that he couldn’t help Josiah. Natalie entered her room, without saying so much as a good bye. But Kenneth was all right with that, again. He only wanted to make sure that Josiah was going to be all right. If that meant he was going to hurt himself, Kenneth vowed he would be there to keep anything like that from happening.

Of course, there was no way he could know how terribly wrong things were going to go from here, and how he would be unable to help anyone, regardless of Josiah. Fate had its way of coming around at you like that.

 

Chapter R

DINNER WAS in a few more minutes. It may seem like all I ever think about is food, and you would be only partially right in assuming that. Most of my days were spent scrubbing toilets and fixing clogged sinks, so it is sort of strange that I would want to even think of food in association with those images. But there has always been this underlying desire for food I guess in full grown men, so I am excused.

I sat in my bedroom, waiting. Waiting for the call down to come for dinner. Waiting for someone to explain to me what life was about. The last one was wishful thinking. I often wondered what the purpose of life was, but never really cared enough to find out what other people thought of it. I guess, if other people had more of an opinion than I did, maybe they were closer to the truth.

My stomach rumbled. Dinner needed to get here soon.

The meeting with Josiah earlier today still bothered me. I didn’t like to think that he might try to hurt himself, but this was not the first time we had heard some thing like this, so I was unsure whether or not to take it seriously. I wanted to believe him when the threat was real, but how would I know when it was real?

Questions plagued my mind. I decided to head over to my desk. Maybe there would be some thing there to take my mind away from my troubles. It made me feel like a wimp, searching for distractions, but I sure needed it. The desk was covered in papers, and I rummaged through them to find some thing interesting. A few folded newspapers from weeks ago were thrown to the floor. I used to care a lot about what was going on in the world, so I would always pick up a newspaper or two when I went into town every week. The feeling of joy that came with opening a fresh paper, reading article after article of a world I had not experienced, that quickly faded as the years wore on. It was out of habit that I still picked one up when I went into town, but they did little more than line the floor by my desk nowadays. I didn’t have much interest in the world outside. There was no way it came into contact with me, and I didn’t come into contact with it. I kept to my personal affairs and dreamt about leaving the island, while everyone else in the world kept to their affairs and were already off the island.

Thus was my menial existence. I was glad to have a change of pace around the manor: two guests, plus a recently engaged couple always made things exciting. Call me an old romantic, but I liked the idea of two people falling in love and making the best of their lives together. Granted, I didn’t like the idea of these two people in particular getting married, but even still, it made for more interesting table side conversation. When David was not here, they all ate together, Nicole and Josiah included, and they felt like a real family then.

I thought of Nicole. I had not seen her in a few days, and I kicked myself for that. She had been sort of a mother to me here in the Manor, and even though she was only my aunt through marriage, I felt her close enough to be blood related. It pained me to go up there and see her though. Her room was more hospital room than anything else, and it unnerved me to go in there. The pain from my mother’s death was still too fresh. Going in there would reopen the wound again, and there was no way I could be of any service to Nicole then. Reduced to a shivering pile of weeping flesh on the floor, what good could I possibly provide to her? What sense of comfort and acceptance could she glean form that image? I knew there was absolutely none, so for now, until I got myself together, I would have to stay away from there.

When David gets back, though I will go in there, I told myself. There was no one she wanted to see more than David, so I figured I could go in then, hopefully I could keep myself together.

The dinner bell sounded, however so softly. I had already been trained, like Pavlov’s dog, so I knew exactly when to start getting hungry and salivating. I bolted form the room like an impatient five year old, ignoring the others exiting their rooms slowly as the slight bell reached their ears. I was determined to be the first one into the kitchen, even though it mattered little. We followed a policy here at the Manor, at least among the servants, that no one ate until all were seated at the table. Except Annabelle. She didn’t eat with them any more. She blamed it on her aging and sagging flesh, but I didn’t think they were a problem. I liked Annabelle, and she was a grand motherly figure to all of the servants here at the Manor, including myself. It seemed that the older ones at the Manor, Annabelle, Nicole and David filled all the roles a child wanted to have placed over them, and ones that I never could see filled. Maybe that was why I had so much trouble dealing with things. I wanted so badly to go back and do growing up all over again, but it was not as though my growing up had been all that bad. I guess, in isolation, there are a lot of things you make up, partially because you are so bored, you have to do that in order to survive.

The dining room was empty of people, except for Annabelle and Jennifer, who busily filled glass containers with water, and set dishes in their proper order around the table. Neither of them noticed me as I slipped over to the fireplace on the left. There had been a huge debate over whether to use the fire place, or to rely solely on the central heating systems put in place a few dozen years ago. I personally loved to use fireplaces. It lent further to the feel of the Manor as an old fashioned estate, straight out of Victorian novels like Jane Eyre or equally grand stories.

I had only read that book once, but its content stuck with me. Maybe because I had expected it to be dry and old fashioned. Granted, I had read the abridged version, but the simple story of two ordinary, plain, broken people falling in love with each other made a huge impact on me. Once again, you can call me an old romantic, but I liked that kind of stuff. Of course, that was not some thing I would readily tell others, but it was true none the less. I liked people to think that I was a manly man, that I still liked the outdoors and sports and chasing after women, or rather, having them chase after me. I used to be that way, but I found myself repulsed by chasing after women, since it was mostly the women who chased after me nowadays.

Jennifer was the prime example. She stopped what she was doing and let out a soft gasp as she saw me. I tried to pretend I had not noticed her notice me, but there was no faking it. She went about her business, but I could tell she was slightly flustered by the many times she clanged the utensils against the plates. Jennifer was usually very careful, but not when she was nervous.

I felt bad for her. At first, the attention she gave me was flattering, but after a while it grew into pure embarrassing. I didn’t like the looks she gave me, but it did make me feel good to think she was flustered in my presence. I smiled to myself as others filed into the room.

Dennis and Diana were the first inside. They laughed together at an inside joke and found their seats at the table. Annabelle cast them a knowing glance. I wondered if there was more to the two of them than most people assumed at first. Could they be soft on each other? I didn’t want to think of that right now. Hunger was calling and nature was just beginning to strike. His stomach rumbled yet another time and he made his way over to the table.

Natalie came in next, Andrea and Josiah at her side. Josiah’s eyes looked sad, but he smiled any way. Natalie cast a partial glance my way and I nodded in return. She was occupied in a deep discussion, it seemed, with Andrea, and I respected her decision not to talk to me.

They sat next to me and continued their conversation.

“There are some times when I think they apply too much and it makes everything look unnatural,” Andrea was saying. Natalie nodded appreciatively.

“Yes, I understand what you mean. There always has to be this kind of balance, otherwise, it will come out looking like a zoo animal that discovered face paint.”

They had to have been talking about makeup. Only someone with my powers of observation could have figured that out. I knew it was no real topic for me to get in on, although I had engaged in many my share of makeup conversations, many more than I cared to recall. Josiah sat uncomfortably on Andrea’s side and he looked over at me.

I smiled at him knowingly. He didn’t seem to know at all what they were saying, and it was thoroughly amusing. Everyone was here, so I reached over and started filling my plate.

The menu was freshly mashed potatoes and beef stew. Gravy had been whipped together, and the delicious aroma hung in the air. A container of cranberry sauce – actual cranberries mashed into a sauce, not the canned variety – sat in the middle of the table next to the pot of beef stew. A plate of corn on the cob sat next to a tub of butter and table salt dispensers. Drinks at dinner were limited to water and ice, although I never considered ice to be a drink. The Livingstons didn’t believe in getting drunk during meal times, not that they really believed in getting drunk at all, but especially not when everyone was gathered for dinner.

David was known for occasionally drinking once in a while, but the only one that seemed to ever get drunk was Dennis, and that was only a few times. It had been Christmas, and Dennis was feeling a little too holiday spirit and he drank at least four beers, plus more alcoholic beverages whipped together with eggnog and other holiday drinks. They had all been having a good time, except for me, of course. I had never touched anything alcoholic, but I guess I still had a good time any way. On e didn’t always need alcohol to have a good time, I knew this for a fact.

Any way, the supply of alcohol on the island was limited any way, so it didn’t really matter how much of a good time it brought on – once it was done, it was done and everyone had to drink water if they wanted to drink anything at all.

The smell of the beef stew marinated in the gravy sauce caused me to salivate, even though I was already in the process of eating. I kept all of the side dishes separate, but poured the gravy, beef stew and cranberry sauce straight onto the mashed potatoes. I used to mix them together, but the result was an oddly colored creamy mixture, and it grossed many people out. I didn’t want to see people gag over my food, so it was easy to pour it all together and leave it unmixed. The collection of colors still weirded people out, but I was hoping today they would be too hungry to pay much mind.

“So what do you all do around here for fun after dark?” Natalie asked. I was surprised by the straightforwardness of her question. I didn’t think she was one for having  a lot of fun, especially since she was now a detective, and they had to be hard if they wanted to stand up to criminals. At least, that was what my ignorant mind thought of them. I am sure they have some sort of life, even if there is no way I cold imagine Natalie going to a party and dancing or anything liker that. Of course, I couldn’t imagine myself doing any of those things either, so it didn’t really matter much.

“We usually get together in the living room to play some cards,” Diana chimed in.

“Oh, that would be fun,” Selena said, swallowing a spoonful of cranberry sauce. “That is sort of what we used to do back when I was here on Friday nights. When you were still just a kid,” she said, gesturing to Josiah, “you always wanted us to make Friday night, game night, and I would have to recruit as many of you as I could to play some games with the two of us.”

Everyone laughed. I remembered those days. She always had a monopoly board or life I think it was, and she would bribe us all to come play with her.

“Please, it will only be for an hour,” she said to me once so many years ago, grabbing onto my arm. I had wanted to place a call to my father that day – we had not talked in many months. But I decided, with much pleading, and even a promise that she would help me get the mail that week, to go play with her and Josiah. It was one of the most fun experiences I ever had. I didn’t think I could have so much fun playing a simple board game, but I did that day. I think it was then that Josiah and I started getting closer to each other.

“Yeah, I remember those days,” Josiah said. He was smiling, which automatically made me feel happy. I wanted him to feel better than he did this morning, and I knew that being around other people would help bring about that change.

“Are you all going to be there tonight?” Natalie asked, finishing off her corn on the cob. Everything she did was clean and perfect, every bite calculated to leave not one smudge on her face or teeth. I liked that – cleanliness. Most people I knew had such trouble eating a piece of corn without getting anything on their faces, and a new feeling of admiration for Natalie swept over me.

It made me feel really dumb.

“Well, I can only stay until 11,” Josiah said, crossing his arms. “You don’t know this I am sure, but every night at eleven o’clock, I go outside for a little walk. It helps me clear me head.”

“You go by yourself?” Natalie was not playing. She was the no nonsense type that would ask those kinds of questions.

“Yeah, I go by myself. I like to be alone to think.”

I knew where she was going with this before she looked at me and gave me that pleading glance. Of course I will go with him tonight, I responded to her mentally. Turning to Josiah, I put down my fork   – food and I were done, and I would not even think about anything to eat again until tomorrow when I got hungry – and raised my hand above the table.

“I will go with you tonight, I think.” He started to object, but I shook my head. “No, there is no getting out of it, Josiah, you and I are going to spend some time together. There are a few things we need to talk about before,” I glanced halfway at Andrea. Josiah smiled, embarrassed.

Good, I thought. At least he was getting embarrassed. I didn’t know what he thought I meant by that, but it kept him smiling. Josiah looked at me with a sad smile on his face, and I felt like an old man – one who gets the younger kids to look at him with their faces like, you are the craziest person I have ever known, but I still love you any way. I some times thought of myself as strange, but very rarely. I often thought of myself as a relatively friendly person, although some might object to that, I didn’t purposely try to make enemies. Those people that I didn’t like, knew right from the beginning that I didn’t like them. There was no love lost between me and anyone, that was for sure.

Except Jennifer. The voice nagged at the back of my head, but I pushed it away. That didn’t count, I reminded myself. There was nothing I had done to indicate that I had any feelings for her, so it was not my fault that she fawned over me.

“Kenneth, can I speak to you for a bit, when you are finished?” Natalie asked, reaching over and laying a hand on my left arm. I looked down at it. Her fingers were white, although one finger in particular had a small sliver of ultra white skin. I pulled my arm away from her slowly so as not to offend her too much.

“I am finished now,” I said, scraping the chair back noisily. The others didn’t seem to notice. Natalie stood up as well, and without looking at me, she led the way out of the dining room.

(Later)

We stopped in the living room.

The entire room was decorated with creepy fat cherubim, holding arrows and scrolls in their hand as they flew in their marble place. The color scheme of the room was the same dark blues, dark greens silk curtains and velvet cushions. The room held a few couches, a love seat, and a large table with a few more pulled up beside it. That was where we played cards every other night, when enough people could be roped in to join in.

The new season of Tres Leches, a horror series, had started last week, and everyone seemed obsessed with it. I personally loved horror movies, but the television series’ were all for the cheap scares and fake graphics. If I wanted to be scared, I went to the Hollywood blockbusters and watched them in the dark. I was not one for the cheap indie films that everyone thought was so scary.

But here was my mind, wandering again. I looked over at Natalie. She was still dressed in the same clothing as this morning, so I assumed she was still getting used to everything here. She sat uncomfortably in one of the couches, so I parked myself in the one opposite her.

“So,” I began, resting my hands on my knees. “What did you want to talk with me about?”

“Nothing specifically,” she said, turning to me. “I just wanted to talk for a bit, seeing as how we haven’t done so in so many years.” She smiled sheepishly, and I was compelled to do the same.

“How has everything been for you since then?” I asked. She had given a little information to Jennifer earlier, but I wondered if she would say anything different when it was just the two of us.

“Well, it has been going pretty well for now,” Natalie crossed her arms. “I have been doing some pretty hard cases lately.”

“What is the most recent case you are working on?”

“I am currently on the trail of this drug ring,” she began cautiously. “We have been after them for a few months now, and I am starting to get discouraged.”

“Why is that?” I prodded. She looked away.

“Well, for starters, we have not been able to find much about them, except that they operate with a few shipping companies here in the US.”

“So they are a largely international ring?”

“Yes,” she acknowledged. “A few weeks ago, we managed to find one of their warehouses, but,” she suddenly grew quiet. I knew there was no need to press on, so I switched the subject. I didn’t want to reopen a wound when she was not ready to speak of it.

“How is your friend, what was his name, Jim, I think?”

I knew full well what his name was, but, of course, no one could know that.

“Joe.” Natalie said the word quietly and without much feeling. This time, I had to restrain myself from reopening the wound. It was one I felt that I had a right to open, but I couldn’t do that to poor Natalie. She looked scared suddenly, and lost. I felt bad for her. I usually held her in such high regards, that it was hard to see her not have all the answers. I wanted to help her out of this, so I figured the best way to do so would be to change the subject. Again.

“And Dana, your cousin. How is she doing, is she doing all right?”

Dana and I had known each other in high school – she was one of the type who hung around me for my looks, and I never gave her much of a second glance because she was not my type of girl, too overweight for my liking at the time – all of it terribly shallow stuff, now that I thought of it. I often wondered about all the people I didn’t care about when I was younger   because they didn’t look the part that I liked. If I could go back and change that, I am so sure that would be the first thing I made better.

“Dana, she’s doing pretty well. She got a job in one of the old newspaper agencies, she spends all of her days typing up old papers to put into the archives and online databases. She was the one who initiated that, you know.”

I didn’t know, but it was best to keep her talking. She suddenly sat straighter, as though the conversation from earlier didn’t happen.

“So what about you, Kenneth? How has life been treating you, my friend?”

I sighed. “Well, I am afraid it’s not a very long or interesting story. I live here, I work here, and these people are my life. I have brothers and sisters here, even though a few of them are rather young, and ones like Josiah are hard headed and terrifying at times.” I chuckled. “I don’t have a girlfriend, in fact, I have not had one since -”

I stopped myself. No need to get into that right now.

“Other than that, I think life is dealing me a fair hand. Maybe not a winning hand, but it is fair to say the least.”

Natalie smiled at him and gave a small chuckle.

“I know what you mean. I often feel the same way, when I get to see the criminals I chase after every day locked safely behind bars. It makes me feel like justice has been served. Even though these people were terrible all of their lives, in the end, justice was served, so it makes it fair in the end.”

“You chase criminals often?” I asked, tilting my head. “I thought you were a detective, one they called out only on special occasions, like Colombo or some thing like that. Why do I hear you talking about chasing criminals?”

“My job extends to more than just solving crimes. I have to be out there on the street because if not, how do you think I will be able to solve those crimes? I have to run the streets, otherwise some one else will do it for me, and I won’t be able to be at the top of my game.”

“So what is the top of the game for detectives?” I put in. “Being known throughout the world as like the next Poirot or some thing?” I put on a fake French accent.

“Hullo, my name ees Natahlie Cahmbell. Mon Cheri something or other.”

Natalie burst into laughter, and I followed suit. It was good to laugh together like this. We had been such good friends then, it hurt me when I thought of how fractured our relationship was now.

“Thank you for coming down here,” I said, quite unlike myself. I was surprised by the words, but they were how I truly felt.

Natalie looked at me fondly. “Thank you for having me. I have been enjoying myself, getting to know all of you again. It had been very fun for me and I wished I had not taken so long to get back here.”

Noise from the front of the living room caught our attention. The others had finished their dinner and were getting ready for their game. I stood up and placed my hand on her shoulder. She looked up at me.

“You go on and have some fun tonight,” I said, like I was her father and she was asking permission. She gave me a funny smile. I continued talking. “I have to go out there and make sure Josiah is doing all right.” She nodded and the rest of the servants and Selena filed into the room.

I ignored Jennifer as I rushed out of the room and back into the kitchen. I was sure she was upset by that, along with the fact that there was a huge smile on my face that I couldn’t wipe off for the life of me. You will have to forgive me. I was a very happy man at that moment.

Of course, I could never know this, but all of that was about to change (It just seems like the best way to end chapters, does it not?).

 

Chapter F

“SO YOU are about to get married, Josiah. How does it feel to be getting married before this old man?”

Josiah and I walked along the cobblestone path that led to the fountain. Lampposts had been installed every few yards or so to keep the path slightly lit. This path ran alongside a hedge of bushes along the right, and open grass along the left. I knew Josiah liked walking this way, but I usually took the shorter rout from the Square. I figured he must have wanted to take the longer journey. He had told me earlier that these walks of his took forty five minutes exactly.

“It takes fifteen minutes to get to the fountain, fifteen spent looking into the fountain and thinking for a bit, and then it will take me another fifteen minutes to get back.” Josiah was convinced of this, even after I told him it didn’t take that long to do the trip. He brought along a stop watch with him to prove it to me.

He was looking at it now as I started talking to him.

“Do you ever want to get married, Kenneth?”

I scrunched my lips tightly.

“Well, I always imagined myself settling down, raising a family. I don’t see how it could happen now, though,” I admitted.

Josiah turned to me.

“What do you mean? Why not?” I looked over at him.

“Well, for starters, when you are around, no one seems to notice any of the other guys around here,” I joked. Josiah chuckled. “No, on a serious note, I don’t think that there are many opportunities for me to get involved in that kind of way.”

“You are being cryptic again, Kenneth,” Josiah warned me. I laughed.

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I just feel that there are not that many women out there, at least, since I don’t travel any where besides the Manor. In here, there is only Jennifer, and you know how that is.”

“NO, actually, I don’t.” Josiah said. I looked at him, and he had on the most serious of faces.

“Jennifer is in love with me for my looks,” I admitted to him. “There is no substance to any of it, and it really bothers me.”

“But what about Natalie.”

I kept myself calm.

“What about her?”

“Well, did you and her not have a thing going a few years ago?”

“I don’t know what you mean by thing, nor do I want to know,” I snapped. I knew I was being a little harsh on the guy, but I continued. “We were just friends, all right. There was nothing more, and there never will be.”

I hoped that would put it to rest. It did. Josiah sighed and was just shoving his hands into his pockets when I glanced over at him.

“So how are you feeling about Andrea?”

“About marrying her?” Josiah looked at me.

“Yeah, about her as a person, about marrying her, about everything.” I had to get him talking.

“Well,” he let out a half chuckle, high sigh. “Aside from the fact that I am totally in love with her? I find myself lying in bed, stomach torn to pieces, just thinking about her. I am imagining things that we would say to each other, how we would react in different situations, what kind of life we would have together.” Josiah turned all dreamy and I laughed. He looked at me funnily and pushed me gently away from him.

“It is not funny, Kenneth!” he said, laughing.

“Oh yes it is!” I burst out laughing harder than him, pushing him back. “You sound like a normal man would a few days before his wedding.”

Not that I knew many men before they got married, I thought to myself, but that was beside the point. We were both laughing, so that was a good sign.

“I know you think that this marriage is a bad idea,” Josiah said, suddenly not laughing and his face serious. He continued, “But do you think that I will really be a bad husband?”

I ran my hand through my hair.

“I know you are a good person, Joey, and I have enough faith in you to continue being a good person, but,” I hesitated. I didn’t want to get into the same argument again, but I did want him to know how I felt.

“But,” I continued, “I am not so sure how you will be able to provide for someone else -”

“When I cannot even provide for myself. Is that what you were going to say, Kenneth?” Josiah’s voice turned into ice. I shook my head fervently.

“No,” I said. “A million times, no! I only wanted to say that you might know how to treat her when she is your best friend or girlfriend, but you might not know how to treat her when she is your wife.”

“And you think you know how to?”

“Of course not!” I scoffed. “That was why I told you earlier, there was no real reason I would be getting married soon. I am not the kind of guy who knows how to handle any of that.” I shook my head. “Of course, for the right woman I would learn really quickly, but she has yet to appear before me.”

“You say that like she will show up in thin air.”

“I wish. No, I was only being figurative. I know that there are two parts to every equation, and she has to be just as ready as I am.”

“But how will you know if you are ready if you never try?”

They had reached the fountain, and Josiah perched himself on the side of it. I looked over at it.

The fountain was circular, about three or four feet deep. A tall, marble statue of a woman reaching toward the east stood in the center. I had always been creeped out by the statue of her, simply because her back was facing us when we approached from this direction. This was the only way to reach the fountain, and you had to walk all the way around to get to the benches. I never understood why she was not facing us from the front, but David claimed it had some thing to do with her facing the sun as it rose. It had a symbolic meaning, I guess, but I didn’t really care for it that much.

I thought about Josiah’s question as we made our way around the fountain. A small bench sat in front of the fountain, facing a large hedge which led into what I liked to call the woods. I often wondered if there were people or wild beasts hiding in there, because it was so thick and dense that I would not have been able to tell even if there were.

“Well,” I began, sighing deeply as I sat down next to Josiah on the bench. “I have never tried, so I will never know. That is your assumption, is it not?”

Josiah looked at me. I continued on.

“Do you think knowledge is only garnered from personal experience? Or can I not also learn from the experience of others? Sure, I won’t be able to talk from personal experience, but does that detract from the validity of my statement?”

I knew Josiah liked talking like that, which is the only reason I construed my sentences that way.

“I see your point of view,” he said, leaning back in his chair. Splashes from the fountain hit our necks as we sat in silence for the next few minutes. I turned to him. His eyes were closed and he was just resting, thinking about whatever what on his brain, I didn’t have a clue.

“Josiah,” I began carefully. He opened his eyes and turned to me. A thin smile played on his lips, and he seemed so calm and at peace.

“Josiah,” I continued, “I am happy to see you happy. It hurts me when I see you hurt, and I cannot bear the thought of you going through needless suffering.” I paused, hoping I was not making the lad a little too uncomfortable. He made no sign to show that it was, instead he merely looked at me. I rambled on.

“I know I have said this before, but I want you to know that I am here for you no matter what. Regardless of the girl you choose to marry, regardless of the age you choose to marry her. I want to be there for you when you need someone to talk to. And if there is anything I may have done to upset you, I want to apologize fervently for it. I want you to know that I am sorry and I don’t want anything to stand between our friendship.” I paused. The tears were already starting to form, but I held them back. “I love you, my little cousin. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. Please, let me know how I can help you.”

That was all it took. Josiah’s face contorted and he collapsed into a heap of sobs. I looked around, not out of shame, but out of concern. I reached over and wrapped my arms around him, pulling him closer to me. I never thought there would come a time when I would get into a man hug like this, but it was well worth it.

“I just don’t understand,” he choked out. “I don’t understand why I feel this way when everything is going right. Why do I feel so sad and depressed when there is really nothing wrong?”

I sighed.

“Josiah, I don’t understand either. Some times, you feel like you can never do anything right, even when no one has told you that or made you feel that way. Other times, you feel that you are somehow not good enough for them.” I shook my head. “All of this comes down to how you feel about yourself. How do you see yourself, Josiah? What kind of person do you think you are?”

I knew I was giving him a lot to go on, considering the fact that he was still sobbing, so I was not sure how much of it he actually understood. But I had never done this kind of thing before, so I was inexperienced.

“I feel like they will never understand me. That there is no way for them to accept me because I am the most horrible person in the world.” He choked out some more words. I knew this was good for him, to let out all these feelings. I had been hoping to draw some thing out of him, and I was finally getting some where.

“I feel like no one cares. If I died, I don’t think that anyone would notice.”

“That is absurd!” I pushed Josiah away from me. He looked horrible, face puffy, nose red. I waved my pointer finger. “I don’t want to hear you say that again. EVER! There are tons of people that would care if you died, and by that I mean really care, so much so that they would not be able to get any sleep at night, that is how much agony you will cause them. And what about your mother and father? What would they think when there son is dead? They will have more than just a little care for you! And what about me? Do you not value my love for you, in that you think that if you died I would somehow not notice? That I would not be torn apart? That I would not spend countless moments of every day wondering how I could have kept you alive?”

The tears were beyond tears at this point. I was sobbing uncontrollably by now. I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing. He was probably crying as well, but I couldn’t tell. Everything was blurry, and the back of my throat was hurting.

We stayed that way for at least five minutes. It felt good to cry like that, together. I wanted him to know that I would always be there for him, so here I was, being there for him.

But there was some thing else at work here. I found myself being plagued by some of the thoughts that had come up when my mother first died. When I sunk into a depression so deep that I never thought I would come out of it. It was those horrible months of feeling so worthless that was coming back now. I tried to push it away, but the wound was resurfacing. I guess it never really healed.

Josiah stood up.

“It has been fifteen minutes,” he stated matter of factly. “We have to go back.”

“Why?” I asked, wiping my eyes with my hands. I wore a short sleeve polo, so there was no way I could wipe any of that onto my sleeves like a normal persona would, so I rubbed it onto my pants.

“Because I have people waiting for me.” His face was serious. “Namely, Andrea. I cannot take longer than forty five minutes on my walk, otherwise, she will get worried.”

“Well, we cannot have the poor girl worried about her future husband, now, can we?” I asked sarcastically. I selfishly felt that he would consider our relationship more important than Andrea’s worrying, but I let it go. He was the one about to get married, and according to him, I would not be able to understand any of it until I went through it myself.

He didn’t seem to hear what I had said and waited patiently for me to arouse myself and get on two feet. We walked down the path slowly. Even though he wanted to get back, I guess he knew that he needed to clear up his face before getting back there. I felt the same way. I didn’t mind crying and showing emotion, but I didn’t want to show nay of that to Natalie.

Why do my thoughts keep coming back to her? It is because we were so close growing up. And because I admired her. I liked to leave the explanation at that. Going any further, I might embarrass myself, her, and whoever might be present when I said whatever I said. If I ever said anything. It was giving me a headache, and I was already busted from all that sobbing.

As we walked along the path, I wondered what good crying really did for you? It felt like a pity party to me: we just cried our hearts out because we felt bad about the situations we had been in in the past. That was pretty pitiful if you ask me. But then again, I felt a little better after all the tears. I felt that maybe some thing I had burdening me was suddenly lifted. It was a good feeling, and I realized that it was beneficial to cry.

While I was busy getting philosophical about crying, Josiah stood beside me, not saying anything. I assumed he was taking some time to think about what I had said. He still had yet to make a comment, and I resisted the urge to feel hurt. He understood how much I cared for him, that much was true. It was just some times, you listened to the nasty little lies your heart told you, even though you know it is not true. I have experienced that many times before, so I knew how it felt.

We reached the end of the path and the house in less than fifteen minutes. I found that strange because we had been walking slower than normal. But I guess we picked up speed toward the end a bit.

Josiah went up to his room and I went up to mine. Neither of us said anything to the other as we retired to bed.

We didn’t have to. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter J

THE MORNING came sooner than I wanted it to. Daylight savings time had recently set in, but I was still having a hard time getting used to it. I always forgot to draw my curtains before I went to bed, because then in the morning, like right now, the sun would be beaming in my eyes.

I lay on my side, facing the alarm clock on the night stand beside my bed. It read seven fifteen a.m., which was fine with me, even if it was rather early. I had not managed to get to sleep until at least midnight because I couldn’t find suitable pajamas to wear when I got out of the shower. For some reason, the ones I always wore – white with blue stripes running down vertically, almost like prison garb – were no where to be found. I searched my drawers, the bathroom laundry bucket, and every place that might have been mistaken for a place to put clothing – I checked those places, but couldn’t find anything.

I wore a simple white tee shirt and a pair of cut off shorts. My sheets were red, although there was a huge quilt I had found some where that was light purple. The color was hideous, but it was so warm that I absolutely adored it. And by that, I mean, absolutely adored. I used it every night, even when it was not that cold, simply because I loved the soft, feathery feel against my body. Although most of the time I wore long sleeves and long pants to go to sleep, I could still feel the quilt against my face, neck, hands, and feet, and I loved it.

Maybe I am gushing too much about a blanket for a guy.

I threw back the quilt and jumped out of bed. I really had to go to the bathroom. After I was done, I changed into a different polo shirt, although it was the same dark blue color as yesterday, and slipped into a pair of black jeans. I had never been a fan of skinny jeans, but the style was interesting, so I conformed with straight legs. Many people tried to argue that they were both the same thing, but there was no way I would squeeze into some thing that clung to my skin. There was just no ‘breathing room’ as I had heard it put once.

On my feet went an old pair of classic converse chuck Taylors. I loved high tops, but I never got much of a chance to use them because of work. Everything was always boots or slippers, depending on whether I would be scrubbing toilets or working in the sewage thing that I don’t know the name of. That is sad, seeing as I am the official plumber in this house, but whatever. I blame the author.

I finished brushing my teeth and passed a brush through my hair. My hair was interesting, because it never needed me to do much to it. All I had to do was wet it, pass a brush through it, and it stayed the way it was supposed to. A nice chunk fell over my forehead, and I liked flicking it out of my eyes with my head. Everything else was rather short, so I didn’t need to put much of anything on it.

I left the room, making sure to shut it all the way behind me. I was not hungry, much to my surprise. It was usually around dinner, I supposed that I got really hungry. I made my way down the stairs. I passed Dennis on the way, and I stopped to say good morning. He had a tray in his hands, so I assumed he was going to bring Nicole her breakfast. Poor Nicole.

David was coming home today, so that was when I would go see her again.

I found Annabelle in the kitchen with Jennifer, which was no surprise. Unlike me, they spent all of their time in their area of operation. If I spent too much time in any of the five bathrooms and sewage compartment downstairs, I would literally die of some form of poisoning or other.

“Good morning, Kenneth,” Annabelle said politely. I responded in kind, and then turned to Jennifer. She had not said anything, but I felt it wrong not to say good morning to her at least.

“Good morning, Jennifer,” I said nicely. She looked at me for a second, then looked away embarrassed.

“Morning, Kenneth.”

Two words. That is all they were. But they seemed so hard for her to squeeze out.

I reached into the cabinet and pulled out a bowl and a package of cereal. Annabelle was all about order, and even though she was initiating the transition out from head cook and giving that position to Jennifer, I could still see where her influence lay. Even in the smallest details, Annabelle sought order. Now, Jennifer was picking up on those same habits. She had placed several bowls in the cereal compartment, because everyone knows you need a bowl to have cereal. It seems like the most simplest thing ever, but it made all the sense when you were really hungry. Which was not the case now.

I poured myself some peanut butter captain crunch cereal, stopping about three quarters of the way in. I didn’t want to have an overflow when it can time to put in the milk. I found the milk in one of the many refrigerators lined up against the wall. Everything was labeled on a huge sheet of dry erase paper on the door, so there was no real need for me to scour everyone until I found what I needed. I poured the milk inside the bowl until it nearly overflowed. Perfect. I returned it and brought my plate, and a recently acquired spoon to the kitchen table.

Annabelle wiped a few crumbs from the table in front of him as I spooned some cereal into my mouth.

“Everyone else is up?” I asked, my words garbled because there was still plenty of food inside. Annabelle cast a glance at me that mothers usually give their kids when they are resisting the urge to tell them not to speak with their mouth full. I swallowed to avoid hearing her tell me that and repeated my question.

“As usual, you are the last one up.”

“At what is it?” I checked my watch. “Seven forty five in the morning?”

“Everyone is getting ready for David to come back home,” Jennifer chimed in from the other counter. I looked over at her. She was still focused on her work, but she was saying some thing to say the least. Even though I didn’t appreciate her advances on me, that didn’t mean that I felt any ill will toward her. There had seemed to be some thing seriously wrong earlier, and it was nice to see that some of it was gone.

“Oh, that is right,” I said, even though there had never been a second in the last few weeks that I had not thought about my Uncle David’s return. He pretty much ran the whole thing, gave me a home and a job, so I had a lot to be thankful for from him.

“And what about Selena?” I asked. “Is she awake?”

“By everyone, I mean everyone,” Annabelle said, “I mean everyone.”

“Okay, okay,” I responded defensively. “I was only asking to make sure.”

I hoped they would not know that I meant I was making sure that Natalie was awake, but I was sure they probably knew that. Annabelle gave me another one of those glances and I raised my eyebrows.

What did I do this time?

She gestured with her head at Jennifer and I sighed. She wanted me to go and find out what was wrong with her, what was bothering her. I didn’t want to get into that with Jennifer right now, because it just might turn out that she was doing this all so we could spend some time together. Not tat I was unappreciative of her as my friend. I just didn’t like the way she liked to act.

I finished my bowl of cereal and deposited it into the sink. I let the cool water splash against my fingers and I rinsed it off. I was never a big fan of dishwashers, and I liked to clean up after myself whenever I could, so that meant I resorted to soap and water. I reached for the two of them now and transformed my plate from unclean to clean in a manner of seconds.

When I was younger, I used to believe that rinsing a plate or cup automatically made it clean. The same thought carried over into taking baths and all that good stuff. When I got older, however, and the health classes started teaching on hygiene, those habits of my childhood changed instantly.

I placed my dish in the appropriate rack on the side of the sink. Since there was so much cooking done in this kitchen, there were two sinks: one was large and was for the pots and major dishes, while the other was smaller and was only for the quick dishes like breakfast or dessert plates, along with utensils that only needed a quick rinse before dipping into another pot. Jennifer stood by the large dishes sink, cleaning a few pots and a baking rolling pin. I don’t understand how many times I have to see the rolling pin in that very sink before it gets clean.

I sidled up to Jennifer, careful not to get too close.

“Do you guys ever clean that rolling pin?” I asked bluntly. Jennifer gave a forced laugh.

“Not really. I think it fell in there by accident, but we never really use it.”

“Ah, okay,” I said. I leaned against the counter and watched as she rinsed off a particular misshapen pot. I ventured to ask.

“So, how did you sleep last night?”

I figured out that the best ways to get people talking is to talk about sleep. That is the easiest topic to talk about, because most people either don’t get enough of it, or they have the strangest habits that it makes it down right hilarious. I have always felt it safe to talk about these things, because no one could really tell you whether you were right or wrong. And when you asked a person how well they slept, it was easy for them to feel like you cared about them enough to ask. And I did care enough, so it was not like I was faking any of this.

“Well, I went in at around eleven thirty, which is unusual for me on Sundays because we always have large dinners then and it takes many hours to clean up after we relax.” She was referring again to the “game time” as I liked to call it where we basically just sat around and relaxed for an hour and talked about whatever we wanted to talk about.

“But what happened last night? I mean, why did you go in early?”

“I was tired,” she said plainly. “I wanted to get some extra sleep, but when I went to my room, at around eleven forty fire, after I had been in bed for a few minutes, someone started making a lot of noise in the room beside me.”

I blushed.

My room was next to hers, and she had to be referring to my crazy search for my favorite pajamas. I started to explain.

“Yeah, about that, I am really sorry, you see, I was looking for, um, well I was looking for my,” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I was looking for my favorite pajamas, and I cannot sleep without them, so that makes me akin to a wimpy little baby. Not that I have anything against babies.

“it is perfectly fine, Kenneth,” she said, laughing at my expense. I gave her a light push out of frustration.

“That is okay, laugh it up because I lost some thing dear to me.”

“Hey, you and I both know how much those pajamas mean to you. Now, don’t look at me like you don’t know what I am talking about. I can clearly hear you from my room mumbling to yourself: oh where can those pjs be?” she convulsed with laughter, and I joined in, except more guarded than she. After all, it was my frustration we were talking about here.

“You actually called them pjs, I find that so hilarious!”

“Okay, okay, I think we have had enough fun on my account,” I said, ending my laughter and trying to pull a serious face for her. She smiled and poured some more soap onto the dishwashing rag.

“So aside from my nighttime perils,” I chose my next few words carefully, “everything is going all right with you.”

I braced myself, but she did nothing. Her smile slowly faded, and she looked kind of grim.

“Jennifer?”

“Yeah, I am okay,” she said, tossing her head back, causing the hair to follow suit. Jennifer looked at me for a moment, regarding what appeared to be everything on my face. It was unnerving but I was determined to stick it through. I needed to know if she was all right. Not that I could necessarily help her, but I wanted to know if there was anything I could do. What could I say? Helping people made me feel happy. It made me feel like I was able to accomplish some thing in this dark world. Which I knew very little about, comparatively.

She continued.

“I just was unsure about, you know,” she hesitated. I moved closer.

“About what?” I asked. She looked away.

“Never mind,” she responded. I was upset.

“Are you sure?” I didn’t like to hear those two words: never mind, simply because that meant she had some thing to say and she was either afraid to tell me, or it was some thing that she felt she had no business saying. Or maybe she made a mistake, and slipped on a few words, and realized now that she does not want to share with me. Which was okay. At least she told me some thing.

“Yeah, I am sure. It was nothing.”

I nodded. There was no more words I could get out of her.

A familiar sound echoed from down the hall. I groaned. The bathroom was located there, and that could only mean one thing.

It was time to get to work. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter B

I FOUND Natalie just before lunch time. She was sitting in the Square, looking at all the different hedges and flowers gathered there. She sat on one of the two benches there, my favorite one. It was wooden, unlike the other one, which was metal, and it had one thing about it that I particularly like: a small plaque near the back where you leaned against that dedicated it to Marcus and (Grandma) Livingston. Of course, I loved it because it was my grandmother’s name on it, but more than that, I felt it was extremely comfortable.

I sat down next to Natalie, and at first I don’t think she noticed me.

She was dressed in a knee length black skirt, with a white blouse with the sleeves cut off. On her feet were small shoes, flats I think they were called, and she wore no stockings or socks with that. She looked very comfortable, but out of place. I think it would be better to say that she looked in place for the manor, as everyone here ran on a different time frame than everyone else. It was one of those old fashioned feels you get when you watch an old movie or visit a museum. I think she was trying to fit in here, but I would know from experience that there is no fitting in here at the manor.

She looked over at me, finally, and I ventured a smile. She smiled back, which was always a good sign.

“How has your day been going so far?” I asked. She looked away, back at the bushes in front of her.

“Well, I have been sitting here for the past half an hour, soaking in nature and the wonderful work your Aunt Nicole has been doing in this place.”

I beamed.

I was proud of Nicole’s work here too. She had taken the formerly empty Square and breathed life into it over the course of ten years. Kenneth had never seen the actual Square without any of its trees and gardens, but he had seen pictures, and heard tell of it a few decades ago. It always made him proud when other people appreciated his aunt’s work.

“What about you?” she asked, throwing the ball into my court. I sighed.

“The main floor bathroom was clogged again.”

“You need not say any more,” she said, turning back to me.

I laughed.

“Other than that, I have really just been looking for you,” I stopped myself. No need to say anything more. She smiled.

“I must have giving you a run for your money.” Natalie laughed. “Andrea and I had a little chat this morning over breakfast about a group of hedges right over there.”

She pointed across from them. Hedges had been planted to run directly under two sets of windows. I did a quick run through of the blueprint for the manor.

“Ah, so that is Victor’s room on the first floor, and above that, it is David’s room.”

Natalie nodded.

“Yes, we figured that out the hard way. No one seems to have a blueprint or schematic handy nowadays.”

“What about them caused her to want to talk to you? Not that she cannot talk to you without a valid reason,” I clarified. “I just want to know what that reason might have been.”

Natalie crossed her arms.

“Andrea told me that those hedges had been moved.”

I glanced at her curiously.

She continued.

“They had previously been over to the left, but now they are lined directly under the windows.”

“Is that a problem?” I inquired. Natalie looked at me and shook her head.

“No, not really. It got both of us to wander around the grounds for a bit, noticing the different ways Nicole had set this garden up. We also walked to the fountain, which was not as difficult as Josiah made it seem the other day.”

I quietly held my tongue. I didn’t want to bring up the fountain excursion last night. Sure, it had been bonding time between Josiah and I, and I would like to keep it that way: between Josiah and I.

“And so you ended up alone, here in the garden, with nothing but your thoughts to pass the time.” I sighed dramatically.

Natalie let out a little chuckle.

“Your day has been pretty stressful so far, huh?”

I nodded.

“Cleaning bathrooms is getting to be one of the most annoying things about my life here,” I confessed.

“But is this not the place where you work? I mean, I don’t expect everyone to like their job, but you of all people, do you not have to like your job?”

“Because my uncle owns the place?” I scoffed lightheartedly. “There is nothing my uncle could find out about me to fire me from here. Nothing I could say, nothing I could do will get me fired. He sees me as his family, so he keeps me here.”

I continued before she could get the wrong idea.

“Granted, I do appreciate what he has done for me, and I would never wish to appear ungrateful for the home and source of income that he provides me. It just gets annoying after you have unclogged the same two toilets every other day for the past five years.”

I was complaining, I knew, but I had to get it out. It seemed I did little more these days than let out my frustrations. She was sympathetic to say the least: she didn’t mention it again.

“Your uncle, David, he is coming back today, right?”

I nodded.

“We are having a whole “welcome home” party for him outside on the West Hill, if it does not rain today.” I said that in contrast to the horrible weather of the past few days. Yesterday had been no exception, even though it had cleared up pretty quickly. I was still surprised by the fact that the gate was not flooded when I went to pick Natalie up from there. I figured that the construction group fixing the bridge might have done some thing to it, but it would have been nice to know, seeing as I was the Manor’s number one source of all things related to a pipe, water, and anything else you might happen to shove down a toilet or sink. And I mean literally shove.

“I stopped by the kitchen before coming back here,” Natalie said, tucking some of her hair behind her ear. It looked soft, and I resisted the urge to stroke it. That would have seemed only a little bit creepy. She went on.

“Jennifer was shouting at the kitchen staff, and Annabelle was just watching calmly from the side.” Natalie grinned. “They were whipping up some thing in there that smelled amazing. I had wondered what the special occasion was, but I never got the courage to ask.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, usually, it is Annabelle who is the scary one in the kitchen, but on occasions like this, Jennifer turns into some thing else. I would have been afraid of her to.”

“What is going on between you and Jennifer?” Natalie asked. I loved her bluntness. She never ceased to make me squirm in my seat. I looked away.

“In my opinion, there is nothing. We are, the two of us, great friends, and I always do what I can to make sure she is comfortable and happy here at the manor. But,” I hesitated. Natalie turned to me.

“But?”

“But,” I continued, taking a breath, “she seems to think that the two of us are some sort of couple.”

“She has told you that?”

“She has … inferred it.”

“How can you infer some thing like that?”

“Well, I don’t really know, by saying things about feelings and acting like we are together.” I let out an anguished sigh. Natalie gave me a pat on the shoulder.

“I think you are inventing some thing where it is not.”

“Can you invent some thing you don’t like? I mean, I don’t like her to look at me certain ways, to comment on my appearance, to call me in for these mysterious ‘talks’.”

“Kenneth,” she said, giving me a look like a wise old professor would to a young ignorant kid. “You might be misinterpreting these actions of Jennifer because you secretly wish them to be true. Your first instinct is to push them off, and,” I didn’t let her continue.

“That is absurd.” I would not talk about it any more.

“Look, Jennifer just has a schoolgirl crush on me, no different from all the other girls in high school that felt the same way.”

I made sure to throw in the whole ‘high school’ bit. I wanted to see if she would bite and get angry. As usual, she didn’t.

“Did Josiah ever talk to you about the investigation?”

“It is a no go,” I responded. “There is no way we are getting anything out of this kid.”

“Well, I don’t want to give up on him just yet.”

“We don’t have to,” I responded, “but if he gives us nothing to go on, how can we do any kind of investigation?”

“I guess you are right,” she conceded. This was a first. I blamed it on the exposure to too much pollen from staring at flowers all day. I thought of some thing.

“Are you going to see the demolition?” I asked. She looked at me curiously.

“What demolition?” she replied. I raised my eyebrows.

“Oh, so you don’t know about the demolition.” I leaned forward. “David and his construction worker friends got into a huge debate last year over when to destroy the bridge and build a new one. David wanted it to happen over a weekend, that way none of us were likely to cross over, but they would not have it. They told him that the only days they could do it were today, Tuesday and Wednesday. After that, the bridge would be done, and they would get paid and move on with life.”

“So that is why the bridge was hard to cross over yesterday?”

“It was hard simply because it was hard. That is one of the reasons why the bridge is being destroyed,” I explained. “It has been years since anyone carefully examined the bridge or provided any kind of maintenance for it. David decided that enough was enough, and he found a group of contractors that would destroy and rebuild his bridge in record time.”

“That sounds kind of incredible,” Natalie said. “To think that in three days they could have a working bridge, one that is better than the, excuse me if this offends you, but the old bridge was horrifying!”

I was not offended.

“So,” I continued, “do you want to go watch the bridge get demolished?’ I barreled on before she could interject. “I have found a really incredible spot on the West Hill, a little further from where we are eating lunch, that gives us an amazing view of the bridge.”

“Why did I not see any construction workers when I crossed the bridge?”

“Because it was ridiculously early in the morning,” I explained matter of factly. “And because they are not allowed to come onto the manor. They have a little hut by the bridge that has all their supplies. I think they are already there now.” I wondered why that mattered to her.

She stood up.

“When are we going?”

I took that as a yes.

(Later)

“So are we going to wait for David before we start eating?”

I was the only soul brave enough to ask what we were all thinking.

Victor cleared his throat.

“Mr. Livingston did tell us we could eat without him,” he recalled, raising his hand as he spoke. I looked over at him. The tall, thin young man sat on a folding chair. He wore a black leather jacket with a black tee shirt underneath. He wore black fitted jeans, and a pair of pointed black alligator shoes. Around his neck hung a thin gold chain, resting just above his collar bone. His jacket was open, and his stylish sunglasses sat perched on his head. His short hair was brushed to the front and a small cowlick was formed.

Victor had a very clean look about him, and unlike me, he never dreamed of having a beard. He always seemed to be the one who got everyone to make their final decisions. Like now. Here he was, backing me up on a decision that was purely motivated by my own selfish desires. I was starving. I know I talk about my hunger like I never eat any food during the day, but this time I was serious. The only thing I had eaten since this morning was the bowl of cereal, and that was long gone. I had drank a few bottles of water, and that did keep me going for a while, but now I was getting really hungry.

I don’t even know if David actually said that, but everyone seemed to be nodding and agreeing as if they had remembered. Victor gave me a quick, concerned glance and lowered his sunglasses. He covered clear blue eyes that seemed to make every girl’s heart melt. At least, that is what I was told. I had never believed that blue eyes looked good on anyone, considering the fact that this was the color of my eyes and I didn’t like thinking too much about my looks. But I could tell why the girls acted the way they did, because there was some thing different about blue eyes. I didn’t like the way Victor looked with his eyes, almost as though they were clear enough to see right through me. I was grateful when he put the glasses back on, so I would not have to feel that way any more.

Everyone was here, except for Annabelle, and Nicole, of course. I didn’t think I would see Annabelle again for a while now. She had already made enough public appearances, what with both Selena and Natalie here as visitors. She was still transitioning from main cook to assistant, and that was a hard thing for her to do. But I knew it was only because she was getting along in years and David didn’t want her to push herself too hard and then suddenly collapse and die. He didn’t like the thought of a person working to death, which was why he called these infrequent holidays, such as this event, where we could all relax and enjoy ourselves without thinking about work.

I won’t describe what we ate that day, because in all honesty, I cannot remember. The only thing that I can recall came a few minutes after we had all finished eating.

Andrea, who was not outside with us – for some reason, I didn’t notice this earlier – came running from the house. She had not used the tram for some odd reason, and I was surprised that she was not really out of breath or red like she usually is when she runs long distances.

Josiah was the first one at her side.

“What is wrong?” he demanded in that gentle tone of his. He made it sound like he was more concerned with her safety, than he was if it had nothing to do with her.

“Your father, Mr. Livingston,” she took in a short breath, “he is coming here.”

Talk about anti climatic! We all breathed sighs of relief and went back to our conversations. Natalie was engaged in a heated discussion with Diana about the concept of treasure.

“So you really think that there is some merit in being a treasure hunter?” Natalie asked Diana curiously. I had no idea what they were talking about, so as was the custom here at the manor, I moved closer to the two of them and started listening to what they were saying.

“Well, I never said that I was a treasure hunter,” Diana defended calmly. “I merely suggested that being a treasure hunter could indeed be beneficial, if you hit gold, that is.”

“So you feel that the only valuable commodity to found in the ground is gold?”

“No, no, of course not,” Diana waved the suggestion away. She looked flustered. “I am sorry, it is hard to explain, I am basing most of this off of a few books that I read on the subject. I don’t really know much about the subject of treasure hunting myself.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” I said as I cut in. of course, I was not sorry in the slightest because their conversation was bordering on painful, but I had to say some thing to get away with it. I tapped Natalie on the shoulder.

“If David is going to be here soon, we will have to get a move on to the part of the hill I was telling you about.”

“Oh yes, I remember now,” Natalie said, picking herself from off of the picnic blanket. A huge blanket, red and white checkerboard, of course, had been laid out on the grass. Everyone sat on it, except for Victor.

“My pants are too tight for me to bend,” he said, as he pulled out his chair. “No one here wants to see my pants split, I can assure you.”

No one really cared that much, but he had to explain what he was doing for the sake of Natalie and Selena. I felt like he was trying too desperately to get their attention, but hat was Victor, so what could I say?

Natalie and I walked away from the picnic blanket and headed over to the hill. From here, we could see the entire manor and the estate as a whole. Turning west, we could see the fountain and the bridge in the background. I turned to her.

“This could happen any minute now,” I warned. “But of course, it won’t be some thing truly amazing, just a bridge getting blown up, so don’t expect special effects.”

Secretly, I was hoping there would be some form of special effects. I was big on seeing things get blown up, unless they were children and human bodies. Other than that, I wanted to see a huge explosion, but I think I was getting my hopes up to high.

A few minutes of silence later, the bridge suddenly burst in to flames. My mouth hung open in shock. Beams started to collapse and the bridge fell on top of itself in a manner of seconds. I looked over at Natalie. I was not surprised to find her equally taken aback by what had just happened.

“I thought there would be some sort of explosion,” I said, shaking my head. “Instead, the bridge died a slow and painful death, each timber pushed until there was no more left inside of it.” I was dramatizing it all, I know, but Natalie didn’t seem to notice.

Once again, she seemed too absorbed in her thoughts to realize why I had brought her over here away from all the rest. We sat there quietly for a while, then she broke the silence.

“It is so peaceful up here.”

Indeed it was. The grass was carefully cut – this was Victor’s doing. He was responsible for all of the wild life, also known as the gardens and lawns, that stretched for a one mile radius. He didn’t touch the woods, although he did fix up the land immediately surrounding the main road and the front gate. I thought he did a good job. He never touched the Square’s garden though. That was and forever would be off limits for him. That was Nicole’s thing, and no one would let him take it away, even if he tried.

“I wonder if my car is safe from those construction workers,” Natalie said. I looked at her.

“What would any of them want with a beat up, old fashioned ford explorer?” I asked, laughing. “Who would want one of those in the first place any way?”

She gave me a look, but I could tell that she understood I was joking.

“Do you want to head back?” I asked, looking over at her. Her hair was tossed wildly because of the wind, and she reached into her pocket and pulled out a small blue hair tie. I watched as she carefully put it in her mouth, scooped all of her hair into a ponytail, and shoved it under the hair tie. She looked over at me.

“Yeah, I think that would be all right.”

We headed down the hill. About halfway back to the picnic camp, however, Natalie stopped walking.

I turned to her.

“What is the matter?”

“I don’t think I want to go back there for now,” she said hesitantly. “I would like to go back inside the house, if that is all right with you?”

“Of course,” I said slowly. I had no real desire to get back to everyone else, so I gladly accepted her offer to go back inside the manor. But what bothered me was the way she asked me, like I had some sort of authority over her. I didn’t like when she seemed to be asking me permission to do some thing. I guess she was just getting used to being here with other people. Maybe, like me, she had a more difficult time getting used to us.

We made it all the way to the house without much problems. We walked the whole way. Natalie brought up an old case from the past, one that ended rather horribly and left the both of us depressed. But I had pressured her into telling me about it, so I couldn’t complain. We talked a bit about a particular movie we both liked, then our favorite holidays. We got into a deep discussion on the topic of sleep, but we had just reached the manor then. The two of us went inside and stood in the main hall for  a bit, neither of us unsure how to end our conversation.

I sighed.

“Well, I guess I should get going.”

Natalie nodded and crossed her arms.

“Yeah, I have to go as well.”

We reluctantly went our separate ways. I headed to my room on the second floor, while she continued up to the third floor.

I unlocked my door and closed it softly behind me. I leaned against the door and sighed. What had just happened there?

I didn’t think I would ever know. But I was fine with that. (Chapter End).

Chapter N

THE BEDROOM had only one window, and its curtains were drawn to let in a soft stream of light. Nicole had always been one for conserving energy, even if she lived in a mansion and her husband came from one of the wealthiest families in America.

Everything from the overstuffed leather chair by the bed to the walk-in wardrobe on the left wall was hued in various shades of red and gray. This was another one of Nicole’s signature touches that she managed to pass through, with much deliberation, to the interior designers.

Resting atop the bedside table was a lamp and a pitcher of what appeared to be water. There was only enough light in the room to make out a thin figure covered in sheets lying on the bed, and a taller figure, seated erect on the chair next to it.

Kenneth cleared his throat, careful to alert the room’s occupants of his presence without startling them. The man seated at Nicole’s bedside turned and searched the newcomer’s face until finally a spark of recognition flashed in his eyes.

“Kenneth, my boy, come inside,” he said softly. The man stood and spread his arms out, as if for an embrace. Kenneth shuffled across the burgundy carpet to him, kicking up layers of old dust. A familiar mixture of cologne and medicine washed over him as he folded into the older gentleman’s embrace.

He had been staying with the Livingston family for almost ten years now, and David had become somewhat of a second father to him. Not that he had any problems with his own father when he was growing up. There had been a few bumps in the road along the way to be sure, but the two of them were still close, probably closer now, ever since his mother passed away three years ago.

Things had gotten a little rough between them when Kenneth decided that college wasn’t the right thing for him. His father did not support his decision to drop out, considering the amount of money he had already spent to get Kenneth through two years of schooling. To make matters worse, Kenneth was offered a job as a high school janitor, a position that his father claimed “would besmirch the Andrews name forever.”

In an effort to patch things up between the two of them, his uncle David had interceded on Kenneth’s behalf, offering the young man a paid position on Livingston Manor’s staff. His father was pleased with the thought of his son putting his skills to better use, and Kenneth was happy not to have to take the janitorial job. Besmirching his family name had never been on his ‘to-do’ list.

From the moment he handed Kenneth his first check to the time when Kenneth decided he was ready to pursue a different career, David had been alongside him, giving him guidance and keeping him out of trouble. He had done the same for all his employees, even after they moved beyond Carline Island and Livingston Manor, and each felt they owed him much more than they could ever repay.

But things had changed once Nicole’s cancer kicked in. As she slipped further and further, and the doctor’s visits became more frequent, David too had started to slip. No longer the cheerful businessman who hadn’t let the power corrupt him, he withdrew from society, from his family. He often forgot faces, even the faces of those who he loved the most.

Dr. Haines, the live in physician, had assured Kenneth that his uncle was merely going through a light bout of depression. The doctor moved into Livingston Manor shortly after it became evident that Nicole did not have much time left. It was his job to help ease her passing, but he insisted on giving the Manor’s residents regular check-ups as well.

“He doesn’t have as much control over things as he wants to,” Dr. Haines told Kenneth on his most recent visit. The bearded old man smiled warmly and removed his wire framed glasses from his nose. He twirled it in his hand, continuing in his soft, gentle voice. “He just needs some time to clear his mind, but he’ll be alright.”

Kenneth knew how fragile life was, and he wanted to make sure his aunt experienced the best with whatever time she had left. He broke off from his uncle’s embrace, turning his attention to her thin figure covered in blankets on the bed.

He lowered himself onto the bed slowly, careful not to sit on any of her thin limbs. Nicole’s eyes moved under her eyelids as he sat down. Kenneth brushed a stray lock of blond hair from her forehead.

“She hasn’t moved in hours,” David said, sitting down on the chair beside the bed. Kenneth turned to him. David’s brown hair, now flecked with gray, reached barely below his ears. It was parted down the left side and kept neatly in place by a thick layer of hair gel. This was only because he had just returned from a business trip, though. Kenneth knew his uncle despised gel, and preferred to keep his short hair wild and messy, simply because “it was easier that way.”

“How was your trip, David?”

Kenneth had met this side of the family far too late to start using titles like ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’. Neither of them minded, however, and he stuck to calling them by their first names.

“It was fine,” David said, leaning back in his chair. Kenneth nodded. Work was never something David liked to discuss with him, or anyone else for that matter. He flew out on business trips often, but kept them short and less frequent now that Nicole’s condition was getting worse.

“So what’s this about that girl, Detective something or other.” David was already on another subject, which was somewhat of a trademark of his. Steamrolling through difficult topics didn’t make anything better, but he still tried it anyway.

Kenneth turned away from his uncle and returned his attention to his aunt. Her face was pale, but her lips were shockingly red. Even in her sickly state, she retained that beauty that had defined her in her youth. She had a sense of strength that shone out, even as she slept and the sickness took over her body.

“Detective Campbell,” Kenneth responded, not taking his eyes off his aunt.

“Yes, yes, I know her name,” David said impatiently, “but what is she doing here?”

Kenneth hesitated. He was unsure whether Josiah wanted others to know the actual reasons he had for bringing Natalie to Livingston Manor. Kenneth himself had ulterior motives, but he wouldn’t bring those up, of course. He decided to play it safe.

“She’s here for his wedding,” he said, turning to look at his weary uncle. “The detective was instrumental in the case involving your son all those years ago. He felt it necessary for her to be here.”

“Hmm,” David said, pursing his lips. “And you are sure you had nothing to do with her being here?”

Kenneth furrowed his brow.

“What are you talking about?”

David laughed – the first real sign of joy Kenneth had seen from him in weeks.

“You know very well what I am speaking of,” he said. “I remember how you used to look at her all those years ago.” David leaned closer to his nephew, a mischievous spreading across his face. “The two of you used to have a thing for each other, am I right?”

Kenneth turned away from his uncle, certain his face was turning the deepest shades of red.

David was right. So many years ago, the two of them had shared something that was now confined to long forgotten memories. Kenneth did not like to think about it much, especially since it had not ended favorably. Yet, when Josiah asked him to recommend a detective, she was the only one who came to mind. It was then that Kenneth realized that he still dared to hope; to hope that there was a chance.

Unfortunately, he was sure she did not feel the same. (Chapter end)

Chapter Z

I couldn’t concentrate throughout dinner. My thoughts were entirely on the conversation I had with my uncle before I came down here to eat.

Had he been right? Were there some kind of feelings that I still wanted to express for Natalie? Sure, the two of us had been a little more than friends a few years ago, but that was now long behind us. I was not ready to admit that there might be some remnants of those years I only allowed myself to describe as pure bliss. It sounded sad, that I had felt this way once, but now I was trying not to feel that way ever again. It confused me, so I tried not to think of it. I realized how ridiculous that was as well, but there was nothing I could do about it now.

Since David was home, I ate with him and Josiah. Because they were guests for the week, David invited Natalie and Selena to sit with us as well. Both of them eagerly accepted the invitation. Natalie spoke with David now, which made things even harder for me. Every so often he gave me a knowing glance, and I kept having to avert my eyes to prevent myself from blushing. That was one of the downfalls of being white. You could never hide your face if it turned red. Which was all mine ever wanted to do.

“I wish I could eat a lot of chips,” David said in response to some thing Natalie had said. “But,” he continued, “it is not allowed in my diet. As you can tell, I seem to have a problem with food.” He laughed robustly and rubbed his stomach.

I would never have described his fat, but he was round around the belly, although only slightly so. The rest of his body was average for normal human beings, so I never considered the fact that he might have a problem with his weight. I could understand why he found food distracting form doing his work. I always felt his stomach was round that way because of his alcohol drinking days in the past few years. He had cut down the beers and wine, and even the straight hard liquor over the years, but he still turned to them when he had a rough day.

“Well, I would never have thought you had to deal with that kind of a problem,” Natalie said, laughing along with him. Selena sat quietly eating her food. The table was made to hold eight, but there were only five, so she sat on the end opposite David, furthest form the rest of us. I knew she was still taking some time to get used to being here again. There were so many memories attached to the walls that it made it had to concentrate some times.

I knew all about that, but it had nothing to do with memories stuck to walls, merely hands stuck together. I brushed aside the pleasant thought. I couldn’t allow myself such fantasies. Not when she was clearly sitting in front of me.

David sat to my left at the head of the table, while Josiah sat on my left. I glanced over to him. He didn’t appear to be enjoying his food much. ON his plate were a few green beans, a pile of white mushy rice and a piece of medium rare steak. He pushed around the green beans with his fork, and he had not even touched the piece of steak or the rice. It was his favorite food, made just the way he liked it, so I found it strange that he was not enjoying it.

David must have noticed it too. He cleared his throat and turned form his conversation with Natalie to his son. He furrowed his eyebrows.

“What is the matter, son?” he asked. Josiah looked up at him slowly.

“Huh?” Josiah blinked. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I asked you what was the matter,” David replied, scooping some rice into his mouth. Josiah waited until his father had swallowed his food before answering him.

“I guess it has to do with my getting married. I am just so nervous about it. I want to make sure that everything goes right, and that it goes exactly how we planned it.”

David nodded.

“Are you sure there is nothing else?” He looked at him carefully, and I found myself doing the same. Josiah’s eyes were sad, and his mouth turned in a small frown, but he merely shook his head. “Nothing you want to tell us?”

“I don’t have anything to say,” Josiah replied firmly. He pushed his plate away from him. I looked down at my own plate. It was empty, much to my surprise. I had not remembered eating anything at all, but apparently I had done so. Too much distraction on my part I guess. I looked across at Natalie and then at Selena. Both had also finished their plates and pushed them forward. We were all waiting for David to finish so we could go into the living room.

David placed his fork on his plate, reached for his napkin and wiped his face slowly. He rose, and we all followed suit.

“Natalie, I presume you are going to join the others in their games tonight?” he asked casually. She glanced at her watch.

“Oh goodness, it is already ten o’clock.” She shook her head. “I am going up to my room,” she said. “I have a few things that I need to take care of.” She nodded at everyone in the room before walking out. She turned at the door and gave me a slight smile. I smiled back, careful not to misinterpret whatever the smile meant. I decided to take it as a friendly smile, and that is how it would remain in my mind.

“Well, then,” David said cheerfully, “the rest of us can go into the dining room and have some fun, am I right?”

He led the way for us to the dining room. It was just across the hall, and most of the others were already inside.

Dennis and Diana sat huddle over a book in the center. Jennifer sat with a  photo album in her hand. Victor stood over the main card table, a deck in his hands. He was attempting to shuffle the deck, but he kept getting it wrong and ended up with a sloppy mess of cards in his hands.

“Well, Victor, are you getting the cards ready for us?” David joked, moving closer to the young man. Victor smiled sheepishly and handed the cards to David.

“I was getting them ready for you, sir,” he said respectfully, “but you already knew that. So why did you ask?”

I sighed. They always went through this whole: you already knew so why did you ask routine. It was starting to get on my nerves. Victor liked to make people happy though, so what can I say? It made my uncle David really happy to have someone respond that way to him, for some odd reason.

I parked myself down on the couch and looked around. Josiah sat next to me, arms crossed. I motioned at him.

“Where is Andrea?” I asked. He looked at me curiously.

“I am not so sure,” he responded, looking around the room. I shrugged.

“She has probably gone to her room to get some extra sleep,” I suggested. Josiah seemed concerned, but he did little more than nod and lean back in the couch.

David cleared his throat.

“Are we already to start this game?”

I stood up slowly. The others had started to move toward the table.

I made my way behind Selena. She turned to look at me. I smiled and sat next to her.

“Have you had any kids yet?” I asked rather intrusively. Selena smiled.

“Sadly, no,” she responded. “We both wanted to have a child, Scott and I, but we are still trying.”

“There is nothing wrong, right?” I asked fearfully. I remembered how Selena treated kids, especially Josiah growing up, and I knew how much they meant to her. She shook her head.

“No, we are both fine,” she said, “but it is just not the right time, I guess.”

I nodded.

“So, will it be Rummy five hundred?” David asked, shuffling the cards in his hands. “Or will it be Go Fish, for the young one?” He nodded his head at Josiah. He wore a large smile, indicating that he was only joking. I was unsure if Josiah even noticed.

“Let us play rummy five hundred,” Jennifer chimed in. she sat across from me and I regarded her with a glance. She smiled at me, but I looked away quickly.

“Rummy five hundred it is,” David said, distributing the cards. “Let us increase the pressure, though,” he continued. “We will make it a three round elimination game, for ten dollars, the entire prize will come from me. The first game will remove all but three players, second round will leave us with two players, the final round will leave us with a champion.”

That sounded interesting. I was always in the mood to win money. I completely forgot the fact that I was a horrible rummy player.

Round one was over in less than fifteen minutes. Josiah, David, Selena, Dennis, and Diana were eliminated from the game. Only Victor, Jennifer, and I managed to stay in the game. I am unsure how that happened, but I figured it must have only been because the others were not feeling so well tonight.

Josiah stood up from his chair.

“If you will excuse me, I have to go.” He pushed back his chair just as Victor was handing out the next set of cards. I turned to Josiah.

“Good night, Joey.” He looked at me.

“Good night Kenneth.”

I smiled and turned back to my game.

The others followed with similar wishes of good night and Josiah left the room.

“So how do you all feel about this detective showing up?” Victor asked, picking up a card from the deck. He rearranged a group of cards in his hand and threw some down. I looked closer at these cards.

“Why would there be anything to it other than the fact that she was invited to my boy’s wedding?” David asked, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms.

Victor shrugged.

“How does she know him any way?” he asked. “I have never seen nor heard about her in all the years I have been here.”

“And that has been how long again?” Dennis asked in his deep voice. Victor smiled.

“A little more than four years, thank you very much for noticing,” Victor responded sarcastically. He looked around. “Still. I want to know why she is here, or in the very least, why Josiah likes her so much.”

“You have not thrown any card back into the pile,” Jennifer remarked. She was next to go, and it looked like she might have some thing good.

“She is here strictly on family business,” I told him. Victor chuckled. “That is what she told me to tell anyone who asked,” I said in my defense. He laughed further still.

“So you, Kenneth, you are her spokesperson?” He placed a card in the main pile. “I find that to be quite amusing.”

I was upset.

“I will forgive you for that, Victor, because I know you are still young and prone to thinking you have all the answers.” I barreled on, even though he was starting to protest. “I have been here for many more years than you, and I was one of the only staff or family here that was able to assist the Detective in the famous case involving Josiah.”

I purposely said it like that because he would have no idea what I was talking about. I was going to tell him, but I needed him to ask me first. Some of that pride of his needed stepping on. Jennifer made some menial action on the field, but neither of us was looking. Victor swallowed.

“What happened with Josiah?” He asked reluctantly. Selena jumped in.

“He was kidnapped. Right after I had tucked him in for the night.” She spoke softly, looking at the wall behind us, as though watching the scene unfold in front of her eyes again. “I had gone upstairs after dinner, and when I opened the door to his room, I found it unlocked, which was strange. Turning on the light and going in, I found the bed empty. Josiah was gone.”

Selena stopped speaking. I looked around. Everyone had stopped moving about, remembering the account and the events that had transpired because of it. I noticed that David was gone. He had probably slipped out a few minutes ago. Diana cleared her throat.

“It was Mr. Livingston that called in the detectives,” she said, getting nods and murmurs of affirmation from everyone in the room. “Detective Campbell was amazing. She found the young boy in a few days. It turned out he was still on the island.”

“Still on the island?” Victor asked.

I joined the conversation.

“Yes. Detective Campbell requested my help on that case, and I led her around the grounds. After a careful investigation, we found that the kidnapper was none other than Josiah’s babysitter, an older woman named Winona Curell.” I paused, remembering the event. “She was in league with her boyfriend, Joseph Winters, but I cannot remember what he did here at the Manor.”

“I am not sure if he did anything,” Dennis said. “I would always see him around, but I assumed he was just here to see Winona.”

“It was creepy because they were both old,” Jennifer mused. “It always seemed creepy to me, that old people could fall in love with each other. I mean, I can understand being in love with someone until you turn old, but not falling in love once you have already turned old.”

“Ah, leave it to you, Jennifer, to bring this all back to romance,” Selena sighed. I nodded.

“Well, I am a girl, after all,” Jennifer defended. Her lips turned pouty. “And besides, you are married and in love, so you should know what I am talking about better than most.”

“Are you saying that I am old?” Selena asked in mock anger, “I feel quite young at thirty one years old, thank you very much. How old do I have to be until I lose that youngness?”

I looked at my cards. A pair of aces, and three sevens. I looked over at the others cards on the table. A cascading group of two , three, and four hearts lay in front of Victor. I could hit that and win this game, I thought to myself.

I proudly carried out that action.

“I won!”

The feeling was gone in a few seconds. After counting up the points, it became plainly obvious that I only had thirty points. That was nothing in comparison to the triple digit numbers that both Jennifer and Victor had. I sighed. Obviously, I knew nothing about this game, or the way to win it, even though I had done all right the first round.

I stood up from the table.

“So you are going to leave now?” Victor asked as he passed the deck of cards to Jennifer to shuffle. “You lose your game and you just leave instead of watching me victoriously destroy your girlfriend?”

“She is not my girlfriend, and I don’t care if you win or lose.”

I stated matter of factly. I stormed out of the room. The watch on my wrist said it was only ten thirty. I had wanted to get some extra sleep in, but there was no way to do that tonight. I thought it might have been eleven or later. I made my way over to my bedroom and sat at my desk.

The talk on Josiah’s old kidnapping case had brought back memories. That was the first case Natalie and I worked together, and I think that was the first time I felt some thing other than friendliness towards her. I sighed and out my hands behind my head.

There was no use going back to those old times, I told myself. What is done is done.

So why did I want it to come back again? Why did I want to revive a relationship in a way that was already dead?

I could never understand myself. (Chapter End).

 

Chapter TL

THE KNOCK on the door startled me. I was already lying in bed, although fully clothed. I stumbled to the door, bleary eyed. The alarm clock read eleven fifty. It had only been twenty minutes? It felt like I had been sleeping for hours.

“Hello?” I asked, reaching for the doorknob. I twisted it open. Natalie was standing there, her arms behind her back. I moved quickly.

“Come inside,” I told her, stepping aside form the door. She came inside.

“I am sorry to bother you late like this, Kenneth,” she said. I shut the door and pulled up my chair from the desk. She sat down at my request. I parked myself on the bed.

“Hey, you don’t have to worry about it,” I responded. “But tell me, what is the matter?”

Natalie looked down.

“I just came from a visit with your aunt.”

I looked away.

“It was tough, was it not?”

“It hurt to see her that way.”

I had no words to say. Natalie shook her head.

“Why do things like that have to happen to people? I mean, what has she ever done to deserve that?” Natalie started to cry. It caught me off guard. I had never seen her cry before, not even when she decided to leave me. I guess, she would have had no real reason to cry then, seeing as she was the one who made that decision.

I turned to Natalie. She covered her face in her hands. I didn’t know what to do. I had comforted other people before, but never Natalie. That was just not some thing you did. Natalie was the strong, unmovable rock. She was the one that had it all together. No one had to comfort her. I sat in silence for a few minutes.

“We can never know why things like this happen,” I began. “When people we love, people we feel are almost perfect, when they are hurt, it does not make any sense to us. But does their health rest on the fact that they are good? Does their body care if they have never stolen anything or done any really bad acts?” I shook my head.

“I don’t understand why my aunt Nicole is sick. I don’t understand why she is dying. But I cannot say it is unfair. Everyone on this earth has been dying, for centuries. I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but she is going to die as well. I can only hope to make her last memories the best ones she has experienced.”

Natalie wiped her eyes and looked up at me.

“I have never heard anyone comfort anyone else that way before,” she admitted, “but I fell better, for what it is worth.”

I smiled.

Natalie looked down at her wrist.

“I have to go,” she said, standing up. Her face was red, but there remained no traces of tears or puffiness. She seemed awfully good at hiding her emotions, even when she was in the middle of showing them to me. “I need to speak with Andrea but I cannot seem to find her in her room. She may be there now, though.”

I stood up.

“Thanks for coming to talk to me,” I said, quietly. We stood by the door for a full minute, not saying anything. Natalie turned around and reached for the doorknob.

“Thank you, Kenneth. For helping me.” She smiled and slipped out of the room.

I sighed. She was making things so difficult!

I shut the door and climbed onto my bed. I looked over at the alarm clock. It was not even eleven fifteen yet. Somehow, that small conversation with Natalie had taken all of the sleep out of me. I sat up.

What if everything goes back to the way it was before? I wondered. Could we ever go back to being … I didn’t dare to think about it yet.

There was some thing I had to do. A decision I had to make if I wanted to make things right.

I was convinced that I could od some thing about it. If there was a way to get back together with Natalie, I was going to jump for the chance. Of course, there was still one thing standing in between us. I had always felt it was either Jennifer, or even Natalie herself, but I was starting to see my error. There was some thing I had to do, some thing I had to bring into the light if I wanted to make things whole again.

I used to love the dark. No one can see you, no one can judge you. Whatever you do under the blanket of darkness, no one can bring back to haunt, shame, or humiliate you. But the only problem with the dark, is that it is so easy to turn on the light and expose what is hidden. Or maybe that was the good thing about it. Maybe there was a reason why I needed to expose this dark area of my life.

I jumped out of bed and slipped my shoes on. A huge smile was plastered across my face as I slammed the door closed behind me and sped down the hall.

(Later)

“Kenneth! My goodness, you scared me!”

I had turned the corner by the main stairway and walked straight into Andrea.

I stepped back sheepishly.

“Sorry about that,” I sad. She chuckled nervously.

“Hey, don’t worry about it.” She wrung her hands. I looked at her curiously.

“Is everything all right?” I asked. Andrea shook her head.

“No, actually. I cannot seem to find Josiah any where.”

I tilted my head.

“You remember, he goes out side every evening for his nightly walk.” I glanced at my watch. “It is not even eleven thirty,” I said, showing her my watch. “He will be back in at least fifteen more minutes.”

She didn’t seem to notice what I had said.

“I will go check in his office,” Andrea said, moving in that direction. She walked with short steps. She looked like some thing at scared her to death. I hit myself on the forehead.

Of course! I had just slammed into her from no where. That was bound to give her a little scare, I guess. I continued on my journey.

It brought me to the basement. I got what I needed form there and returned to my bedroom.

“All right,” I said to no one in particular. “It is time to end this.”

I lit the match and watched the paper burn over the fire place. It was a satisfying feeling. I tossed the match onto the timbers and crawled into bed.

The soft glow of the tiny fire was comforting, even though it was very small. I smiled. In the morning, I would finally be able to tell Natalie how I felt. Now that this was out of the way, there was absolutely nothing that could keep us apart.

I fell asleep to the thought of Natalie and I on the West Hill, just talking, laughing, having a good time. What good friends did. It was a nice thought to fall asleep on. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter G

ONCE AGAIN my sleep was interrupted by banging on my door. I rose quickly from my bed this time, though. I had only been laying here for a few minutes, but it felt like hours. This felt like it was happening all over again. Maybe I am still dreaming, I told myself. It does not really feel real.

“Hello?” I called out, reaching for the door knob. Everything was blurry and I was having trouble locating the door knob. I pulled it open.

“Kenneth? Oh my goodness, I need to speak to you!”

“Andrea?” I pulled her into the room. “Tell me, what is the matter?”

She was sobbing now.

“Kenneth, I,” she gulped. “I told Natalie already, and she told me to get you.”

“Why did she tell you that, Andrea? What happened?”

Andrea shook.

“It is Josiah,” she managed to get out. “He is missing!”

“Andrea, I told you already, he should be back by eleven forty – ” I glanced at the watch on my wrist. My mouth fell open.

“Twelve fifteen?!” I grabbed Andrea by the shoulders. “You told Natalie already, right?”

“That is what I told you when I first came in.”

“All right, now I want you to go tell everyone and get them to come downstairs.” She started to move. “Wait, don’t wake up Nicole.” I shook my head. “Sorry, you already knew that. You can go, please, hurry up.”

She ran from the room. I quickly put my shoes on.

Images from five years ago came flooding back. The feeling of panic was starting to set in. I remember when we first heard he was missing when he was a boy. The thought that he might be kidnapped again hit me like a ton of bricks. There was no way I would let that happen to him again. I rushed out of the room.

I had to find Natalie. Together we would be able to find my cousin and bring him back home safely. This would be just like before. I sucked up the tears that were threatening to fall as I ran down the steps and into the kitchen. Everything would be all right. Just like before.

 

Chapter SCV_2000

THE KITCHEN was already crowded by the time I got there. Everyone stood there in various states of sleepiness and sleep wear. I seemed to be the only one dressed.

“What is going on?” Diana asked me. I shook my head.

“Josiah seems to be missing,” I told her. “We are waiting for Natalie, I think.”

As if on cue, Natalie walked through the door. Everyone turned to her expectantly. She looked around.

“Is everyone here?” she asked. I looked around.

“Dennis went to go get David and Victor,” Diana said. As though they had heard her speak, the three of them walked in. David came over to me, as did Natalie.

“What is the meaning of this?” he asked. “NO one has been able to tell me.”

“Josiah has gone missing,” she explained to his father. David frowned.

“That is absurd! Is this some sort of game, meant to repeat the horrors of that night long ago?”

“No, sir, I assure you, it is not,” Natalie said calmly. I turned to her. How could she be so sure?

“Mr. Livingston, I need you to help me with the staff.”

“What is it you need me to do?”

“I am going to search for Josiah now. But I need to ensure that everyone stays here and is calm.” She crossed her arms. “Can you do that for me, MR. Livingston?”

“David,” he said, nodding his head. “Yes, I can do that.”

Natalie headed for the back door.

“Wait!” I said, pushing my way towards her. She looked at me.

“Natalie, I have to go with you.”

“Kenneth, I”

“No!” I shouted. She reached for the door and I slammed it shut on her. my eyes were wild and she looked concerned, but I didn’t care in the least bit. This was some thing I cared very much about.

“there is no way you are going out there to look for my cousin and not letting me help you.” I shook my head. “Do you not remember the first time this happened, how I was able to help you find him because I knew the grounds? Well, the same thing applies here.”

She shook her head.

“I don’t like this, but all right.” She yanked open the door. “Grab that flashlight and let us go.”

I did as she said and followed her out of the door. As I closed it behind me, I glanced back. Through the small window, I could see Diana and Jennifer praying. Hopefully, their prayers would do us some good.

{LATER}

“HOW FAR have we gone?” Natalie asked. Neither of us had said anything for a few minutes. I was trying to retrace Josiah’s steps as accurately as possible. He usually didn’t leave from the back of the kitchen, so it was difficult to find his path from here, but we did find it. I turned to her.

“We have been going at it for a while now,” I replied. “The fountain should be just up ahead.”

“And you think he will be here at this fountain?”

“This is where he goes every night,” I said. “He has to be here.” I turned away from her.

“Maybe he fell asleep or some thing.” I wanted to believe it as I said it, but I was having trouble convincing myself.

“Is that it?” Natalie asked, flashing the light up ahead. I felt my stomach jump in my chest. I recognized the statue sticking out of the fountain. It was dimly lit, which meant that no one had passed for a while now, but that someone had been there within the last thirty minutes or so. That was how long it took the light to automatically shut off.

“Yes, that is it,” I said, picking up speed. Everything was quiet except for the sound of my footfalls, and now Natalie’s beside me. The fountain had stopped running a while ago, and as we drew closer, the light shut off.

“What happened?” Natalie said. I turned to her.

“It will turn on once we get over there,” I reassured her. “It shuts off like that because it runs on a sensor. We were within a few feet from it now.

Light flooded the fountain area. We faced the back of the fountain. All we had to do was go around to the other side, with the benches.

“Come on,” I said, looking behind me. “It is just this way.”

I rounded the corner. My foot hit some thing. I looked down. My heart turned violently inside me and I let out the most horrified scream ever known to man.

“Josiah!” I collapsed on the floor.

His body lay on the ground, arms flat on his sides. I grabbed his face. He was not breathing.

Natalie pulled up beside me.

“He is not breathing!” I shouted, reaching for his arms to take his pulse. I screamed again.

They were bloody, both of them, marked with slices across the wrists.

No! It cannot be!

“No!” I turned to Natalie. “This is not true! This, no!”

I let out a sob. No! he couldn’t be … I couldn’t even think about it. Natalie rubbed my back, but I couldn’t feel anything.

I picked up Josiah’s limp body in my arms, my body shaking from the sobs. I let out a wail.

“No, Josiah, please, don’t do this to yourself!” I pressed his body against mine and rocked him, hoping that would make some thing happen. Nothing happened.

“Natalie, what do I do? What has he done?”

She kneeled next to me and wrapped her arm across me chest.

“Josiah!” I hit his face, I shook him, but I couldn’t get him awake. “Joey, wake up!”

“Kenneth, I am sorry,”

“No! He is still here,” I said, shaking my head. the sobs were getting worse and it was hard for me to speak.

He cannot be dead. There is no way this is even real.

I stood up and backed away from the body.

“This is all fake,” I said, pointing at the body. “I am still asleep. None of this is really happening.”

Natalie walked over to me. I fell to the floor.

It was real. And it was crushing me. I was reduced to a heap of sobbing flesh on the ground. How could he do this? Why did he choose to leave us like this?

The pain was intense. I couldn’t look at his body like that. It was making me sick. My stomach turned in my chest. There was no way this was real. Whatever was inside me emptied out onto the ground next to me. I was choking out sobs, shaking in pain. This was not real. None of it was. I just needed to wake up from this dream.

“Kenneth.” Natalie pulled me up from the ground and held me close to her. She turned me away from the body.

“How am I supposed to go on like this?” I asked. “How can I live knowing I couldn’t save him?”

“Kenneth, he was not yours to save.”

“But I wanted to save him! I didn’t want him to take his own life!”

“We cannot do anything about that now,” she said, leaning against me.

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. The anger inside of me started to grow. Was I not good enough to save him? Why could I not see that he was going to do this to himself? Why could I not stop him? Too many questions plagued my mind.

Sobbing hurt. I pulled away from Natalie and went over to his body.

He looked at peace. Which freaked me out. How could he be more at peace with death than with life? There was nothing worse than death. Why would he look happy now that he chose it? Why did it hurt so much?

I dropped to the ground next to him and pulled his body to myself. I was covered in blood and stomach acid by now, but I didn’t care. I held the body of my young cousin close to me and closed my eyes.

This was all a dream, I told myself. When I fall asleep, I will wake up, and I will be in my room and all of this will go away.

I felt the sob coming on again. I was convincing no one.

I laid like that, next to Josiah, next to Joey, sobbing my heart out. Natalie bent down next to me.

“What is this?” She asked curiously, picking some thing off the ground. I didn’t even care what she said. The only thing I could think about was Josiah.

He was really gone. And there was not a thing in the world I could do about it. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter 001

NATALIE WENT back to the Manor for help. I stayed with my cousin’s body. It was hard to believe that it was actually really his body, but as the minutes passed, the reality of it all was setting on me. I couldn’t look at his face any more, I could only hold him close to me and think.

Oh what a terrible thing the mind is! It is just you and your thoughts in there, the dark cavernous regions that are willing to tell lies, willing to seduce and manipulate with bitterness and hatred. And anger. That was one I knew very well.

The rumbling of the golf cart interrupted my mourning. I stood up. Only Natalie and the doctor came during this trip. I was extremely grateful. The less people that had to see Josiah like this, the better. Once they got him cleaned up for the funeral, he would be more presentable than right now.

Dr. Haines climbed out of the vehicle before Natalie brought it to a complete stop. He rushed over to me and I grabbed his arms.

“Kenneth, you have to let me see him,” he said, removing my hands gently from his arms. I didn’t know why I tried to cling to him, so I let go. He went over to the body and began his examination.

Natalie shut off the golf cart’s engine and called me softly over to her. I made my way over to the golf cart and plunked myself down on the passenger’s side. I kept my gaze straight ahead, at Dr. Haines and he work he was doing on Josiah. It looked more like a physical examination, but I was sure he would bring him to the lab later for an autopsy. It was strange how we had almost a mini hospital here at the Manor. It was all for my aunt Nicole though. David had poured every bit of resources into making her get better, and nothing short of a hospital lab had been built here. Dr. Haines didn’t require a staff – he was a hands on, live in doctor, who loved what he did. I had much respect for the man, but I admit I never saw much of him, aside from when I went in for physical examinations or things related to that.

I could see Natalie cross her arms out of the corner of my eye. She sighed.

“Kenneth,” she said slowly, “how are you taking all of this?”

That was one thing I liked about Natalie. She was always to the point, never beating around bushes or scared to say what she really meant. I turned to her and replied honestly.

“I have no idea how I am going to make it through.” I willed myself not to cry, but getting choked up was never going to be avoided. I continued speaking. “I still cannot believe that he did this to himself.” That was the only way I could bring myself to describe it: as some thing he did to himself. There was no way I could say that he … even thinking about it brought the sickness back into my stomach.

“How could he do this?” I asked. “How could he leave me like this, not knowing why he did this, or whether I could have stopped it or not?”

“Kenneth, you must not blame yourself for what has happened,” Natalie replied. She leaned forward. “Neither of us knew he would do some thing like this, and neither of us were prepared for it. Granted, you knew Josiah better than I did, but we both talked to him and we both felt that he needed help. Okay, we were a little naïve to think that he was starting to get better, or that getting married would be the best thing for him. But aside from that, there is nothing we could have done to stop this. It was his decision to make, not ours. And as harsh as it may sound, his act today was a selfish one. We could spend as much time crying about it and fretting over it, but in reality, Josiah would not have cared what you felt. He wanted his own comfort or his own relief apart from yours. If he killed himself, then he must not have cared about any of us at all.”

“Stop it!” I shouted, covering my ears. It was childish, but it was getting to me. “Please, stop saying things like that!”

“Kenneth, I am only speaking the truth,”

“Well I don’t want your truth!” I snapped back angrily. “I want my cousin Josiah back. I want him to be happy. I want him to enjoy life. I want him to grow up and have kids and do all the things he wanted to do with his life.” The tears came now, along with the body racking sobs. “I want him to be here with me again,” I choked out. I covered my face with my hands and let it all out. Natalie reached over and rubbed my shoulder. I was unsure how that would provide comfort, but it did, in the strangest of ways.

“I just don’t understand.”

Dr. Haines cleared his throat. I looked up, wiping the tears from my eyes as quickly as possible. He offered me a bleak smile and rested a hand on my shoulder.

“He is dead, as I am sure you already knew, but I have to say it myself. I put the time of death as between eleven thirty and eleven forty five.” Dr. Haines turned to Natalie.

“Detective, I would like to speak with you privately for a moment, before we go back to the Manor.”

“Yes, Doctor.” Natalie turned to me. “I will be back shortly, okay, Kenneth?”

I nodded, and she and the doctor walked back to the body. I was not concerned with what they were talking about. I assumed it had some thing to do with the actual details of how it happened. I wondered how doctors were able to tell the time of death of a person through a simple examination. I found myself not wanting to really know. I didn’t want to know how much blood he loss, or whether he experienced much pain, or anything else related to the incident. I wanted to think that he was in a better place, but I was unsure where that better place could possibly be. I didn’t want to think of anything, so instead I watched the two of them talk.

Natalie mostly listened, while Dr. Haines did most of the talking. She occasionally gestured to the body and looked around the woods like she expected someone to be there. She bent down on the ground and picked some thing up to show it to Dr. Haines. I couldn’t see it from here, but she then put it into a plastic bag and gave it to him. He pocketed the bag and resumed his speech.

This ended a few minutes later, and the two of them turned back to me. They walked in my direction. Natalie approached me first.

“Kenneth, I am going to leave the doctor here while I take you back to the Manor.” She paused, but I made no objections. “He will stay with the body until we can move it to the laboratory.”

“He will stay with Josiah,” I corrected. “Not the body, but Josiah.”

“Okay, he will stay with Josiah,” Natalie corrected herself. She looked at me sadly, but I shook my head. none of this left me in my right mind, so I was liable to say the strangest things. But I meant it, which was the strange part.

Natalie climbed into the driver’s seat. Dr. Haines came over to my side once again.

“Kenneth, don’t let this tear you down,” he said. “We all will mourn his passing, but be careful not to let the weight of guilt bear on you.”

I nodded, but I was not really listening. I think the only thing I felt at that moment was numbness, even though that supposedly means you cannot feel anything. Natalie turned the golf cart on and backed up, careful not to bring me within eye sight of the body again. We drove on, taking about five or ten minutes to get back to the Manor.

Natalie stopped the cart and got out, but I couldn’t move. She came over to my side and slipped her arm under mine and helped me out. She looked at me.

“You have to pull yourself together now,” she said. “You have to go in there and they already know what has happened, so you don’t need to say a word. Just get in there and be there for your uncle and aunt,” she told me. I nodded and let her lead me to the back of the kitchen. I opened the door on my own and stepped inside.

I could hear the sounds of the golf cart rushing away as I closed the door softly behind me. Everyone was already there in the kitchen, watching and waiting. I didn’t look at nay of them. I didn’t hear any of them. My thoughts were focused only on my aunt. I wanted to get up there as fast as I could and be with her. David could handle this better than I could. He was a strong man, and he had experienced death before. It would hurt him to be sure, but he didn’t need my comfort. My aunt Nicole, on the other hand, was already more sensitive due to the fact that she was sick. Add that to the fact that she bore Josiah, and raised him, would be even more crushing and difficult to handle.

I pushed my way through the kitchen, up the stairs and into my aunt Nicole’s bedroom. The light was off, as she was sleeping and it had been decided that she would not be disturbed until the morning. I shut the door behind me, fully enveloping the room in darkness. I made my way over to her bed and climbed inside it. It was a queen size, so there was enough room for the both of us. I didn’t go near her body, I simply laid in the empty space next to her. She was asleep but I knew that I needed to be here. I needed to be close to my family, to the ones that were still alive. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter 237

I FOUND myself awake in my own bed the next morning. I had no idea how I had gotten there, although there was some thing about David waking me up that felt hazy, so I figured it was a dream. He must have woken me up and sent me to my room, like a good parent would when their child comes running to them scared in the middle of the night.

I was still full clothed, although my shoes were suspiciously and neatly placed under my bed. I was notorious for kicking my shoes and socks off at random angles, leaving them to fall wherever they so desired, so I was surprised to see them neat like that. I made my way over to the shower, peeled back dirty and smelly clothing and let the water run over me for five whole minutes. I just stood there, feeling cleanliness wash over me, before I even started washing myself.

After my shower, I gathered all of my clothes and shoved them into a plastic shopping bag I had lying around under my bed. I left the bag with the clothing near my laundry hamper, knowing that someone would come to take it later. That someone would have been Andrea, the maid.

Andrea!

I had not even thought about her at all! She was probably suffering just as much as I did last night. I hurriedly slipped into some decent clothes: a blue tee shirt with the words “Look at me still talking when there’s science to do” scrawled across the middle in faded yellow lettering. I had on some pale blue jeans and a pair of all white canvas sneakers. I looked in the mirror of the bathroom.

My face looked horrible. Dark circles ran along my eyes, and the distinct traces of five o clock shadow showed on my chin and cheeks. My eyes were bloodshot and puffy. How could they still be puffy after so many hours of not crying? I figured I must have cried in my sleep. Was that even possible? I wondered.

I made my way out of my room and down the hall in a few minutes. Andrea’s room was right down the hall, and I knocked on it softly. I heard a muffled voice and opened the door slowly. Her room was organized much like mine, except way neater and more pink. She even laid a pink carpet on top of the regular carpet. That sickened me, but that is not what I was here for. Andrea lay in a heap on her pink and gray bed, which sat under an enormous digital clock. I must confess, I had never seen the inside of Andrea’s room before, and I had never seen a clock that huge any where but on gas station signs or banks.

It read seven forty five. Wow. I was up rather early. Considering the fact that I had barely gotten any sleep before they called me out …

Andrea sat up. She looked like a mess. But of course, that is how I expected to find her. Her hair was undone and out of place. Her eyes stained black, with streaks running down her cheeks. I wondered why she would have been wearing mascara last night, but then I realized that she had probably not gone to bed yet, so there was no time for her to clean it off. She was dressed in sleep clothing, but she looked slightly dirty.

I walked up to her and sat on the edge of her bed.

“You held him, didn’t you?”

Andrea looked at me, tears welling in her eyes.

“Yes,” she said, letting out a deep breath. “They tried to not let me go to him, but I would not let them take him away before I could touch him.”

Neither of us said anything for a while.

I ventured to break the silence.

“It was hard, I know. But we will be able to move on.”

She looked away from me. For a second, it looked like she was guilty, or had a guilty conscience. I smiled.

“Andrea, don’t fret. There is no need for you to feel guilty about this.”

I resisted the urge to tell her that I was the only one to blame, but I knew it would do more harm than good. When she didn’t look at me again, I stood up. I knew that my stay was no longer welcome. I cleared my throat.

“I will speak with you later, Andrea.”

I don’t think she heard me. It was all right.

I closed the door behind me softly and stood in the hall.

What should I do? I asked myself.

Of course. Natalie. There was no way I would be able to get all the details from Dr. Haines. He was just too nice. He would not tell me what I wanted to know about Josiah’s … my heart beat quickened.

Natalie would be able to help me though. She understood that there were just some things I needed to hear. I had to find her as quickly as possible.

I figured she would be at the kitchen. Yesterday morning, by the time I got there everyone had already eaten and gone, including Natalie. If I wanted to find her at this hour, my best bet would be in the kitchen. If she was eating there, we could talk then. If not, some one may have seen her, and that would be more of a lead than just looking around the whole house and manor grounds.

I headed down the stairs as quickly and quietly as possible. No one else seemed to be up, or at least, they were doing a good job at keeping quiet. I was unsure how everyone was taking this. It seemed like avoidance would be the number one thing this time around.

I pushed open the kitchen door. Much o my surprise, I found both Natalie and my uncle David sitting at the table. They looked up when I walked in, and I offered them a grim smile.

“I see you are up,” David said, standing up from his seat. He looked tired, as though he had not gotten any sleep. I walked over to him, and welcomed his embrace. We stood that way for a while, neither of us saying anything. We didn’t need to say anything. It just felt right. After a while, I heard him let out a little sniffle, and I started to pull away. David looked me in the eye.

“Are you going to be able to hold up, kid?” he asked, running a hand along my shoulder. I smiled.

“Yeah,” I said, my voice choking up. He liked to talk to me like I was a little kid, but never in a demeaning way. It always felt like he absolutely cared about me and had my best interests in mind. I realized how little time I spent thinking about my uncle, and I wondered how much of him I really knew about.

I turned to Natalie.

“Good morning,” I said with a nod. I went over to the table and stood next to her.

“Thanks,” I began, “for last night. It was a real help.”

“Don’t mention it,” she said quietly, pulling her lips into a tight smile. I went over to the cabinet and proceeded to serve myself cereal. I brought my plate, complete with milk and spoon, over to the table where the others were sitting. Natalie had an empty bowl in front of her and played with her spoon. David still had food in his bowl. I struggled to see what it was, without looking like I was really trying. I was unsure if it was peanut butter captain crunch, or reses puffs cereal. Both had graced our cabinets before, and I could only see light brown puff balls. I myself chomped into some luck charms, and from the color of the milk in Natalie’s bowl, it looked like she had eaten some thing chocolaty. The only thing I remember seeing in the cabinet with chocolate was cocoa pebbles. I never thought of Natalie as a cocoa pebbles type of girl.

“So how did everything go last night, with the body and everything?” I addressed my question to the air, but it was mainly directed at Natalie. She turned away from me, and David sighed.

“What did I say?” I asked sarcastically. I knew that some would think it too soon to think about these kinds of things, but I truly wanted to know.

“Kenneth, both your uncle David and I were with Dr. Haines when he examined the body.” Natalie began slowly. I turned to her and made a face. Well? 

She continued.

“Your uncle has an interesting idea about this whole thing that he wants to share with you.”

I looked over at David, curiously. He looked frustrated and sighed.

“I didn’t want to tell him, Detective,” he said, shaking his head, “but now it seems as though you have forced me to.” He leveled his gaze with mine and dropped his spoon into his bowl.

“There were some things about the scene of the accident, okay I will call it an accident, and there were some things about it that just didn’t settle right with me. Now, you may call me an over analyst, but there were some things that didn’t seem like it had been suicide.”

I dropped my spoon in my plate.

“What are you trying to say?”

David looked at me.

“I am trying to say that maybe, and mind you this is only a hypothetical, maybe Josiah really didn’t kill himself.”

That hit me like a ton of bricks. The first thought that came into my mind was relief. But why should I be relieved to find that he had not killed himself, but that someone else had killed him? It felt almost better to think that he had not done this to himself, even though the fact is that it was already done, so there was no going back. He was forever gone, but at least someone did him in instead of him doing it himself. What kind of sad idea was that? At this moment, that was the only thought I had.

The next thought was, of course, more rational and made more sense.

“Wait, so if he was killed, then, I have to ask, who killed him?”

I found myself not wanting to know the answer after I had just said it. Did I really want to know who the murderer was?

David cleared his throat.

“Uh, we are, uh, unsure about that.” He turned to Natalie for words. She stepped in quickly.

“Kenneth, your uncle has hired me to investigate this matter.” Natalie reached across the table and touched my hand. I stared at her hand on top of mine. “I will work as hard as I can to find out who did this to your cousin,” she glanced at David, “and your son.” He nodded somberly. She turned back to me.

“But there is more,” she said. I looked up. “I want you to work with me, Kenneth. Just like before.”

“Of course,” I said, without even thinking about it.

My demeanor changed then. All emotion was gone, or rather, all my feelings of guilt and mourning were gone. I felt that this new responsibility of mine would help end this grief, and I was willing to do whatever it took to end it. If I could help Natalie find the murderer, than we could see them brought to justice, and Josiah would have been avenged. The thought of that felt good.

David stood up.

“Is there anything I can do to assist you further?” he asked. Natalie nodded.

“Yes, please, don’t tell anyone else of what has transpired here. I will schedule appointments with them, in which I will reveal to them what needs to be revealed.”

David nodded.

“All right, I will do that. I give all control of this investigation over to you,” he said, “but if I see that it is going nowhere, I have the right to take back my money and hire a real team, or just bring in the police, and they will do it for free.” He left the room on that somber note.

I chuckled.

“You will have to forgive my uncle. He likes to say strange things some times.”

“I have noticed,” Natalie said, joining me in my chuckling. “I have been in here with him all morning, negotiating everything for the past few hours.”

I frowned.

“So this is about money?”

Natalie shook her head.

“Of course not,” she began. “I was negotiating with David to see the lowest price I was willing to accept. I wanted to do this for free, but David has pride, and he wanted to give me some money. I managed to get away with only a few thousand dollars, and even those I am trying to figure a way to put back into the Manor.”

I looked at her.

“You know, not many people would do some thing like that.”

“I know, Kenneth.” She stood.

“Come, let us go into the living room. We will set up our headquarters there, using it to think and talk to people.”

I placed my dish in the sink and followed her out of the room.

Finally, things were starting to happen. Natalie was getting into the Detective mode, and I was playing Watson. After my cousin’s death, what more could I ask? (Chapter End)

 

Chapter O

I LED her to the living room. It was empty, which was what I expected. We pushed together some chairs around one of the taller glass coffee tables. Natalie produced a briefcase from her side that I had not noticed until now. She started sifting through it and pulled out a few sheets of paper and two pens. She handed me a sheet and a pen, which I accepted quickly. I uncapped the blue ballpoint pen and picked up the paper.

“All right, let us start this the right way,” she said, stacking her papers neatly. She tucked a clump of hair behind her ear and adjusted the pen in her grip. She glanced at me.

“We have to first think this through.” She paused. “We know that we have to find the murderer. So, who is the murderer?”

“Like do you want to know their name, or?” I left it up to her to fill in the blank. She shook her head.

“I mean to say is the murderer someone here in the Manor, or are they a random lunatic that is running around the woods without anyone knowing?”

“Well,” I cleared my throat. “It would be easy to say that it was a ‘random lunatic’ as you so eloquently put it. However, I don’t think it is possible for some thing like that to happen. If this truly was a murder, then it was made to look like a suicide at first glance. This couldn’t have been done by some crazy person who wanted a few thrills.” It sounded harsh to think about it that way. But it was true. Some people got thrills out of killing people. I shuddered.

“That is good thinking,” Natalie said, scribbling a few notes onto her paper. I had a nagging suspicion that she already knew that, but was just testing me. She continued speaking. “So this narrows it down to someone inside the Manor.”

I froze.

The reality of her statement hit me again.

Someone here at Manor. That terrified me.

“Someone inside the manor?” I repeated, swallowing a huge lump in my throat. Natalie nodded.

“Now that we have narrowed it down, everything will be so much easier.”

“Easier?” I asked incredulously. “You are going to pin this on one of these people here? Natalie, I know all of them, there is no way any of them would have killed Josiah!”

She leveled her gaze at me.

“Kenneth, I know these people too, or at least, I think I know them.” She looked at me curiously. “Can you say that you really know them, Kenneth?”

I was silent. She had a point. I didn’t know much about any of them, aside from some of the basics you can glean from everyday conversation. I had never taken an interest in learning about them any way, so I was not surprised.

“So you think one of them could have done it?” I asked slowly. Natalie nodded.

“Yes, in fact, that is exactly what I believe. One of them had to have done it, and set the whole thing up to make it look like Josiah had killed himself.”

“And we are going to find that person?” I felt like a little child.

“We are going to find them, but more than that, we are going to bring them to justice.” Natalie said, confidently. She returned her attention back to her paper and drew a huge box in the center of it under some of her notes from earlier. She drew a line separating the box in half. She looked up.

“Each of these squares represents one of the floors in this house. I want to be able to see just exactly where everyone’s room is.” She twirled her pen in her hands. “For organization purposes, of course.”

I nodded. I had the blue print memorized.

I reached over to her paper and quickly scrawled this crude blueprint in the boxes she had provided. Natalie turned the paper toward her and examined it. She nodded, satisfied.

“This looks about right,” she said. “Ok now to start with the suspect list. From there we can figure out who was where, alibis can be established; people will lie to us, et cetera, et cetera. But we will find the culprit in the end, so don’t worry.”

I frowned.

“So we are all suspects?” I asked. “Including you and me?”

“I must admit that I don’t seriously consider either myself or you as the killer,” Natalie said, setting down her pen. She crossed her arms and continued. “However, I am willing to go through my actions and you can dot he same and we will both of us be on the same level.”

I picked up my pen.

“Let us do this then.”

Natalie cleared her throat.

“After dinner, I went immediately upstairs to see your aunt Nicole. Let us say that was eleven thirty. We talked for about twenty minutes then I came down and talked to you. We were done a little after eleven, say eleven oh seven or eight. When I got to my room it was eleven ten that much I remember. I got into bed before eleven thirty; I set my alarm then that is why it had to be before eleven thirty. Andrea came in at like 12 o’clock. I sent her to you, and then rushed downstairs. I passed victor on the way and asked him to go upstairs for whoever else didn’t hear (I heard you tell Andrea to tell everyone else). Well, you know what happened when everyone got there.”

Natalie leaned forward.

All throughout her speech, I had written little snippets of what I had heard, trying toy construct some kind of time sheet for easy cross referencing. I looked up as I finished writing. I slid the paper over to her side.

“Now you can fill it in as I dictate,” I said, capping my pen and setting it on the desk in front of me.

Natalie smiled and stifled a chuckle. I grinned and began walking through the events of that night with her.

“I played with the others a few hands of Rummy Five Hundred,” I began. “After about twenty minutes I decided to leave. The game had gotten a little out of hand,” I said, looking away. “Any way, I went to my room, and then you showed up and we talked for a bit.” I picked up the pen and twirled it in my hands. “I went out of my room and ran into Andrea. I had to use the bathroom, but I needed to get the plunger form the basement, so I went there first. I used the downstairs bathroom since I was already there. I came back upstairs, got ready for bed and went to sleep almost immediately afterwards. Next thing you know, Andrea is tearing down my door, telling me she cannot find Josiah.”

I paused as she filled out the time sheet I had written up.

“Andrea never told me she had spoken to you already,” I said.

Natalie looked up at me a few seconds later, totally detached.

“What did you say?”

“I said that when Andrea came to me, I sent her to you, but she had already been there. She never mentioned that when she left my room. She showed up a little later o the kitchen, and I just assumed she had been going to get you.”

Natalie shook her head.

“It seems we have our second strange piece of evidence in this case.”

“Our second piece?” I repeated inquisitively. Natalie returned my paper back to me. She took out another sheet from the bottom of her pile and labeled it EVIDENCE. She underlined it.

“Yes,” she finally responded. “Last night when you lifted Josiah’s body off the ground, I found some thing strange on the ground beneath him.”

She pulled out her phone and sifted through its photo application until she found what she was looking for. She turned the phone towards.

“What is that a syringe?” I asked. Natalie nodded.

“Yes, that is exactly what it is.” I squinted at the tiny photo. “I cannot tell.”

“It did have some liquid in it,” she replied, reaching for the phone. I handed it back to her. “Dr. Haines will start work on testing it later. First, he has to do an autopsy, and he is having concerns about doing it himself.”

“Where has he put Josiah?” I said abruptly. “Surely he is not in the lab all this time?”

Natalie gave me a look.

“I am surprised, Kenneth. You live here and you don’t remember the freezer in the basement?”

“Oh yes, I had forgotten about that.” I ran a hand through my hair. “But I consider it to be more of a Freeze Room than just a simple freezer. I guess it would make sense to put him in there.”

“I find that room fascination,” Natalie said, leaning forward. “To think, it reaches below zero degrees and it is almost the size of this room.”

“Yes it is pretty cool,” I admitted, “although I am not sure who will go in there for meat with him in there.”

“You don’t keep some meat in the upstairs freezers?” she asked. I found it odd, the question, but I answered.

“Of course we do, but never in huge amounts. We take out whatever it needed I guess – I cannot really tell you that.” I shrugged. “Maybe Jennifer or Annabelle knows,” I suggested.

“SO you are never sent down there to get meat?”

I shook my head.

“No, but what does this have to do with the investigation?” I asked. She turned her palms upward.

“Curiosity,” she replied.

Natalie was a strange one that much I knew. But she was good at what she did. Her record – or at least what she told us any way – was pretty amazing. I trusted her with this investigation, even if she asked weird questions.

“Any way,” she said, continuing to write on her evidence sheet. “We can list Andrea’s late arrival here. It is definitely some thing worth looking into.”

“So, are we going to investigate or interrogate first?” I asked humorously.

Natalie smiled and stood up.

“Come with me,” she said. “We can do both at the same time.”

I gathered my papers and followed her into the hallway. She turned to me.

“We will go to Josiah’s office, the kitchen, then over to the fountain,” Natalie said.

“Together?” I knew I sounded like a little kid, but I didn’t want to go any where by myself for a few moments. Not when we had just acknowledged that a killer might be loose.

Natalie smiled.

“Yes,” she said. “Together. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter H

JOSIAH’S OFFICE was not locked. I pushed open the door and allowed Natalie to enter first. She immediately went after his desk, pulling open drawers and surveying their contents.

I set Natalie’s briefcase on the chair I had sat on the other day. I made my way over to her.

“What are you looking for?”

She pulled a large stack of paper and deposited it on the desk. She gave me a quick glance out of the side of her eye.

“I don’t know if you remember our meeting with Josiah a few days ago,”

“Yes, I do remember but,”

“Josiah spoke to us about finding a letter,” she interrupted as though I had not said anything.”

It came back to me.

“Yes, he did say that. He said that if anything happened to him it would all be in that letter.” I watched her sift through the papers on his desk.

“But I thought he was talking about a suicide note,” I said, running a hand through my hair. It felt messy, so I tried to fix it. Natalie calmly looked away from her work.

“Yes, I did think it was a suicide note initially. However, since we are assuming his death was not a suicide, this note couldn’t have been for suicide.”

“What do you think it was?”

Natalie resumed her search in another drawer. She waited a few seconds before answering.

“I am not so sure,” she finally responded.

I turned to the bookshelf. Although his office was in the library, Josiah still kept a few books for himself in here. By a few, I really meant at least two hundred books. Some of them looked technical or political. A few leadership titles by John C. Maxwell were thrown in there. I scanned the lower shelves, and they turned into paperbacks and fiction titles. Most names I didn’t recognize, although I had seen the name Dekker before. I pulled out one book from the shelf. It was yellow and orange, called The Assignment  by Mark Andrew Olsen. The slightly yellowing pages called my attention. It brought me a strange sense of comfort, and as I opened to the front page, I could tell that it had been read a few dozen times already. I loved the feel of a broken in book.

I turned the pages carefully to the start of the first chapter.

“Silently, ceaselessly, seven priests shoveled beside the death camp fence line,” I read aloud the first sentence.

“Whoa.” Sounded kind of interesting. I flipped forward a few chapters. The book stopped in the middle, for a yellow sheet of paper was wedged inside.

“What is this?” I asked, pulling it out.

Natalie let out a small noise next to me. I looked over at her.

“Well, I seem to have found some thing,” she said, holding some thing triumphantly in her hands. I squinted and pushed my glasses further up my nose.

“What is that thing?’ I asked. Natalie smiled.

“Do you need to get your eyes checked?” she asked jokingly. “You seem to be having trouble seeing things lately.”

“I am not so sure when the last time I was checked, to be honest.” I shook my head. “But either way, what is it?”

“It is a floppy disk.”

“A floppy disk?” I asked incredulously. “Who has a floppy disk lying around nowadays?”

Natalie shook her head.

“This was found on the side of the desk, right in front of the bookshelf. Someone dropped it down there and forgot about it.” She dropped it on the desk. “However, nothing is safe from the eyes of Natalie Campbell.”

“Wait, it is just a floppy disk,” I cut in. “What is so special about it?”

“There is a little note on it that could be of some importance later,” she said mysteriously. I sighed and looked at the paper in the book. Let her keep her mysteries for a while. I wanted to find out what was on this paper. It was folded in half, so I reached in and opened it.

“I think we have found all we can here,” she said, scooping up the floppy disk. I shook my head.

“Uh, Natalie, I think you would like to see this.”

She came over to me.

“What are you talking about?”

I lifted the paper from the inside of the book and handed it her.

“To Josiah. You know who is writing this, and you already know what message I have to tell you,” she read aloud from the paper. “But here it is once again,” her voice faltered as she read the next few words.

“You have exactly 360 days left to live. Use them wisely.”

Natalie looked up at me.

“So this makes it absolutely clear. Josiah didn’t in fact commit suicide. He was murdered, and whoever has committed this crime has done so willingly.” She turned the note over. “Does this say when this letter was written?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“I didn’t see any indication of date, only the number of days he had left to live.”

“I wonder,” she said, closing the book but taking out the yellow note. “Do you think that this note is the one Josiah was talking about?” she asked me.

“Well, I am not so sure,” I began. “We do know that Josiah was killed, and it seems that whoever sent this note wanted it to serve as some sort of calling card. If that is true, then Josiah’s death must have been on the three hundred and sixtieth day from when this letter was written.”

“That does seem to make sense,” Natalie said, tucking her hair behind her ear. She made her way over to the bookshelf, crossing on the other side of me. She pulled out a book and flipped it open. After a few seconds, she returned it to the shelf and picked out another one. I watched her do this for at least fifteen books.

“What are looking for?” I asked, finally. She didn’t stop her search when she responded to me.

“I am looking for other notes.”

I immediately understood. I crossed over to the other side of the room, where the second bookshelf lay against the wall. It was over here that Natalie found the floppy disk, but she seemed content on searching my shelf so I came over here.

I pulled a book from the shelf and fanned it open over the ground. A single yellow sheet fell out. I stooped to pick it up.

“To Josiah,” it began. “You know who is writing this,” I skipped to the bottom of the note. There it was: “You have exactly 231 days left to live. Use them wisely.”

“I found another one,” I said, turning around to Natalie with the note in my hand. I stifled a gasp.

“What in the world!?”

A pile of yellow papers rested on the desk. Natalie picked up a book from the shelf and systematically dumped its contents onto the table. Several yellow sheets fell out from this book. She looked up at me.

“I see we have a pattern here.”

Seriously. I grabbed a few more books from the shelf and fanned them over the pile. Only a few more books in that shelf had any notes in them, but Natalie was still going long after I had already finished.

“Can you start organizing them,” she asked.

“Organizing them?” I asked, reaching for a few sheets. “There are hundreds of them here, how am I supposed to organize them?”

“In cascading order,” she replied. “Start with the highest number of days left to live and keep going down until we reach zero.”

Indeed, there were countless yellow sheets of paper, each with a different number of days left for Josiah to live. Each note that I placed in order cut into my heart. If he had been getting one of these every day, how must that have made him feel? Maybe that could explain why he was always on the edge and seemed nervous all the time. But why did he not tell me about it? I wondered to myself. We had been such good friends, he was supposed to be able to trust me with everything, and he couldn’t even share this, and it was some thing so important and life threatening. I couldn’t believe it, and I had to stop myself from getting angry at the poor kid. He was dead, after all. What good would any anger do? Either way, it still felt much better than crying myself to sleep.

After a while, Natalie joined me in my organization venture. A few minutes later, we had successfully stacked and organized the yellow sheets into a thick pile on the desk. Natalie picked up the last note and stared at it.

“To Josiah,” she read aloud. “You know who is writing this, and you already know what message I have to tell you but here it is once again. You have exactly five days left to live. Use them wisely.”

She flipped the note over.

“Look, there is some thing written here on this side,” she said, turning it toward me. I reached for it and read it out loud.

“October 6.” I looked up at her. “October 6? Why, that was just yesterday!”

Natalie nodded.

“Yes, it was.” She took the note form my hands and examined it again. “This tells us quite a few things,” she began, “all of them pointing us closer to where we need to be.”

“What does this mean?” I asked, crossing my arms. Natalie looked at me.

“Well, what do you think?”

When I didn’t respond quickly, Natalie smiled.

“The most important thing it shows me is that the person writing the note got the date wrong.”

I frowned and she handed me the paper again.

“It says on here that Josiah had five days left to live, but he died that night. That can either mean that the person writing this note had no idea when he would actually die and was just writing these notes to scare him, or,” she cleared her throat and stopped speaking. I looked over to her. She was staring behind me, probably realizing what she was about to say was difficult. I cleared my throat and she continued.

“Either they got it wrong,” she said, “or they killed him early.”

“But why would they do that?” I asked. Natalie shook her head sadly.

“What is the one thing that changed in the last two days?” she asked. I thought about it for a second, and then shook my head.

“I still don’t see what you mean, Natalie. What changed?”

Natalie looked away.

“Whoever did this to him killed him early because one person was here that was not here before during all the times Josiah had been receiving these notes.”

My mouth fell open.

“You!” I shouted, finally realizing it. “They killed him early because you showed up and they got scared!”

Natalie nodded somberly.

“Whoever did this knows exactly what they are doing. They are going to be on their absolute best behavior during this investigation,” she said. “That means it is going to be that much harder to catch them.”

Natalie sighed and replaced the paper on the desk.

“Why cannot all murders be simple and murderers easy to catch?”

I smiled.

“Your optimism is very contagious.” (Chapter end)

 

Chapter PH

OUR NEXT area to investigate was the kitchen. I didn’t think there would be much to find there, but Natalie was insistent.

“I made sure that none of the garbage was thrown away from last night and this morning,” she said proudly. I looked at her curiously as I held open the kitchen door for her.

“Are you sure you are a famous detective?” I asked. She laughed.

“I never said I was famous. I have solved several high profile cases in the past, so I would say that my credentials are there.”

I scoffed.

“Where can I find said credentials?” I teased playfully. Natalie gave me an odd smile.

“There is a whole website dedicated to my accomplishments posted up by the Florida State Police Department. If you guys had any internet here, you would be able to look it up.”

“Ha ha very funny,” I mumbled. She knew it was a sore spot of mine that there was no internet or any connection with the outside world. She knew I liked to be plugged in and connected like some would say. I ignored her and entered the kitchen.

“So, what are we looking for?” I asked.

“Anything that looks out of place,” she said, making her way over to the main table used for the servants during meal times. I went over to the counter.

“But they make food here and are bound to clean it up,” I said. Indeed, the counter was in decent order, and the sink was empty, even though I had left my dishes in there and had not cleaned them.

“Yes, I understand that,” she said. Her voice was slightly muffled.  I turned around to her, but she was bending behind one of the counters.

“What are you looking at?” I asked. She laughed.

“You sure ask a ton of questions Kenneth, did you know that?”

I didn’t reply to her, but instead turned my attention back to the counter. Several dried plates were stacked next to the sink. A rolling pin sat next to them. That must have been the one that I spoke to Jennifer about yesterday, I surmised. Next to that was a bread box and … I moved closer to the table.

A package of unopened batteries? What were they doing here? I was the over all maintenance guy here at the manor, and things like this had a place, and they were downstairs, not here. I grabbed them and made my way over to Natalie.

She was digging through the trash can. That was honestly the last thing I expected to see from her.

“Natalie?”

She pulled herself upright, her hand still in the bin. Her face was flustered and her hair out of place. She looked like she had just been in a serious scuffle, even though she had done little more than stick her head in the garbage can. Natalie quickly fixed her hair with one hand and smiled sheepishly.

“Heh heh,” she laughed nervously. I shook my head.

“Did you manage to find anything?” I asked. She looked at my hand.

“You seem to have found some thing yourself,” she remarked. I looked down at the batteries in my hand.

“Oh yeah,” I said, “They were on the counter, so I am just bringing them back to the basement later.”

Natalie sighed.

“Kenneth, that is part of our evidence now,” she said. I scrunched my brow.

“What are you talking about? It is just a pack of unopened batteries that don’t -”

“They don’t belong here,” Natalie said, nodding. “But you see, that is precisely it. The fact that they don’t belong here makes it that much more interesting, and important, for us.”

I gave a soft grunt in acceptance.

She continued her speech.

“Take what I have here in my hand, for instance.” She pulled out a thick stack of papers, bound together by a single huge paper clip. It was ripped in half, so she held only the top half in her hands. The pages were wrinkled and wet. With her other hand, Natalie reached in and grabbed the other half of the pages, although they were less bound and stacked messily.

“What in the world is this?” I asked, reaching for the first half. She passed them over to me.

“Take a look at the first page,” she said, shuffling through the messy stack in her hands. I looked down at the pages in my hands. It looked like a manuscript, with the words typed out in type writer font. It was difficult to read, because it had been soaked in water, and all the ink was starting to run. I held it closer to my face and lifted my glasses to get in with the pages from the beginning. I widened my eyes.

“The History of my Company,” I began, “by David Livingston?” I turned to Natalie.

“My uncle wrote this manuscript?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Take a look at the date along the bottom there. You will see that is was written over several years ago.”

“This is so strange,” I said, shaking my head. “I didn’t know my uncle had written some thing like this.”

“It is fascinating, is it not?” Natalie said, coming over to my side. I gave her a strange look.

“Fascinating is not the word I would use to describe this, no.”

Natalie chuckled.

“NO, I don’t mean the contents of the book,” she said, shaking her head slowly, like one would when speaking to a disobedient child. “I mean instead the condition that we found the book in. it was torn in half, dunked in water, tossed into this garbage bin, all within a few hours. Whoever destroyed this book wanted to keep us from some thing.”

“So all we have to do is ask David what was in this book,” I said.

Natalie shook her head.

“No, I don’t think David is connected with this book,” she said. I looked at her strangely, and she continued slowly. “David informed me this morning that several items involving his business were missing. He didn’t know where they had gone off too, but he was sure that he had either misplaced them, or someone had either stolen them or inadvertently took them.”

“Wait, so this was used by the murderer?” I asked. Natalie shook her head again patiently.

“No, not necessarily. This book was left here by accident. Whoever wanted to destroy it didn’t succeed, and it would seem that they hastily deposited it here either this morning or last night. I don’t think this has anything to do with the murder,” she stated confidently, “however, neither do I think that a package of unopened batteries or a floppy disk has anything to do with it either. It is our responsibility to collect everything we find out of place here. The things we can use as evidence to build our case – those things we keep. Anything else, we throw away when we are done here.”

I liked her motto.

“So where are we off to next?” I asked. I had already forgotten where she wanted to go earlier, but I was sure she didn’t mind telling me again. I was right in my assumption.

“The fountain, Kenneth. Let us get one of the golf carts to save us some time.”

“I agree with you that would be a good idea.”

I opened the back door which led to the back of the kitchen. That is where we parked all of the golf carts. By all, of course, I only meant mine and Victor’s. Because he was the gardener for the grounds, it was only natural that he should own one. And because it was my job to run all of the outside the island errands, it only made sense that I would have one as well. I found only one cart parked out there, and of course it was mine.

Natalie followed me into the cart and I started the engine. We pulled away from the Manor and headed over to the fountain.

I was unsure how I would react when I got there again. It would be the first time I went there since I found Josiah … I didn’t want to think about it too much right now. I had a job to do, and there was no way I could risk getting emotional and messing things up in the heat of it all. That is just not how professionals worked. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter Forty

THE FOUNTAIN was undisturbed. The blood stain on the ground in front of the fountain was unmistakable in broad day light. I turned away from it, otherwise, I was sure I would get sick again. Suddenly, the emotions I was trying to hold in earlier came rushing forth. I made my way over to the bench on the opposite side of where his body was and sat down slowly. Natalie followed me there.

“I cannot do this,” I said softly, barely choking out a whisper. “I cannot do this any more.”

Natalie shook her head.

“Kenneth, I need you to pull yourself together. What has happened to Josiah IS a TRAGEDY: HE WAS MURDERED, and before that, he had been threatened and feared for his life for almost a year. Josiah had to go through so much at the hands of this person, and it is our responsibility – no, it is our right, to find and bring them to justice.” She paused and touched my arm. “Kenneth, there is no way I can do this by myself. I am here on this island alone, with no real equipment, no teams at my dispatch to examine the evidence or perform any forensic tests. I have to do all of this on my own, and there is no way I can bring justice to Josiah on my own. I need your help. I need you to bring some thing more to the table. Because I value what you have to offer. You know the grounds, you know the people, and you know Josiah. That makes you more than qualified to help me bring justice to this case that is so horrifying for the both of us. I need you to help me, Kenneth, more than you can know.”

She grew silent, and I sat reflecting on what she had said. Everything was true, I could tell. She was not one to lie or make up fancy words to try to comfort others. Every word that came from her mouth was truth, and I felt like I could trust her – really trust her. I knew there were bound to be some things she kept to herself, and I in no way thought she was perfect, but I knew that she meant what she said. She really did need my help, and I was determined to provide that help to her.

I stood up.

“All right,” I said, turning to Natalie. “I am sorry for getting a little overwhelmed earlier. I am now ready to help you, and help Josiah in finding and bringing the bad guy in.”

Natalie smiled and stood up as well.

“Good,” she said, taking a deep breath. “We have to search this area around the fountain. I will let you go a little further from the bench, if you want.”

“Yes,” I replied gratefully. “That would be the best thing for me.”

Natalie made her way over to the fountain and the bench where Josiah’s body was found. I walked a little ways away from there, combing the floor. The fountain area consisted of the fountain, the two benches and a few yards of cobble stone arranged in a circle around the fountain. Just beyond the cobble stone lay the woods in one direction, and in the other, lay a path that would lead back to the path that brought us here form the house.

I combed the outer edge of the cobble stone circle while Natalie did some thing over by the fountain. There was nothing much to find, except for a few fallen palm fronds, which I kicked off the cobble stone and onto the dirt and grass. Just as I completed the circle across from the bench where Natalie was near, my attention was drawn to something hidden underneath another palm frond. It looked yellow, and slightly shiny. I went over to it, curious.

I used my foot to gently kick the palm frond away. Underneath it sat a small yellow flash light. I picked it up carefully. The bottom hatch, where the batteries should have been, was hanging open, and when I looked inside, there were no batteries in there.

That is strange, I thought to myself. What if the batteries on the counter were supposed to go in here and no one ever got to it? I thought that might be the case. Last night, or rather, this morning, Natalie and I had taken flashlights, but the one I took was much smaller than this one, so I knew it couldn’t have been mine that was here. I figured I could ask Natalie if it could possibly be hers. If not, I was sure that this would constitute evidence. I turned toward her and carried the flash light toward her.

Natalie was leaning over the fountain, her knees on the bench, and her entire torso practically inside of the fountain. Her back side was sticking in the air, and I heard splashing and she looked like she was about to fall in completely by the time I got there. I stepped over to her side. She pulled herself out of the fountain. Her arms up to her sleeves were soaking wet. Although her torso was dry, her head had been submerged in the water.

“Wow, Natalie, if you wanted to swim we could have gone over to the shore,” I said jokingly.

Natalie turned to me and smiled.

“I was looking for some thing, Kenneth,” she said, catching her breath in short bursts of gasps, “and I found it here.”

“Well, what is it that you have found?” I asked, looking into the fountain.

“This.”

Natalie pulled out a clump of white cloth, that was all I could tell about it form here.

“What is it?” I asked, reaching for it. Natalie separated the cloths and handed one to me so I could look at it. I unraveled it and it became what looked like a white glove. However, there was some noticeable staining on the finger tips: it was stained red – blood red. I looked over at Natalie. The glove she held in her hand was the same. I shoved the flash light in the crook between my under arm and chest and looked at the glove further.

“This pair of gloves,” Natalie began slowly, “it tells us a lot about the crime.”

“Well, I would hope so,” I said sarcastically. “You practically had to go swimming for this. What made you think it would be inside there?” I asked. Natalie reached for and grabbed the other gloves from my hand. She removed a Ziploc from her briefcase, which she had laid on the bench beside her. She carefully placed the gloves inside the bag before answering my question.

“Take a look over at the blood stain,” she said. I felt my face turn green.

“Natalie, I told you, I don’t want to look at that, it makes me sick.”

“Kenneth,” she said, “you can trust me on this. Just take a look at it.”

Slowly, and after what seemed like an hour of telling myself it was perfectly all right, I turned to the spot where I had found his body.’

“What in the world?” I exclaimed incredulously. The blood stain that I had been so afraid of was little more than a small streak of blood and an oil stain. I turned to Natalie.

“Why is there so little bit of blood there?” I asked. “When we got here I could have sworn there was tons of blood there!”

Natalie shook her head.

“No, there was not. I figured this is what would have happened. You saw the dark stain, and since you knew Josiah had been there, you assumed it had to be blood.” She shook her head. “You were feeling sick, but I was not. I had a good look at this area, and it only made me think of one things: some one had cleaned up all of this blood – or they had done so before any of it came out of his body.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The lack of blood in the crime scene leads me to believe that some one was trying to mask the cause of death.”

“What was the cause of death any way?” I asked. No one had actually told me, and I didn’t have a chance to go see Dr. Haines yet.

As though reading my mind, Natalie smiled.

“Let us go see the doctor,” she said, brushing clumps of wet hair out of her face. “He will be able to tell us what we need to know about that.”

I shook my head. Leave it to Natalie to be sensitive to me like that. I knew very well that she knew very well what the cause of death was. She just wanted to let me get a chance to learn it with out feeling like a mentally handicapped person. That was one of the things I liked about her.

I realized now how many things about her I was starting to realized that I liked. Maybe there was some thing to it. I held back the feeling of elation that was bringing me. I stared at Natalie’s face as she finished pulling the wet hair into a hair tie. She looked at me curiously, and I forced myself to look away.

Man, what am I going to do about this? I asked myself. When am I going to bring myself to tell her …? I couldn’t think about it now. I climbed into the golf cart after her and drove back to the manor, hoping that I could drive fast enough to leave the strange feelings I had about her back at the fountain.

Who was I kidding? (Chapter End).

 

Chapter TP

“AH, IT IS SO GOOD to see the both of you.”

Dr. Haines stood at the door of his laboratory on the fourth floor. It was the only room up here, and it extended the width of the entire bedroom wing. I had never really been inside of the lab, although I had seen part of it when coming to check on my aunt. A few months ago, she had been forced to stay up here and get several operations done. They had to call in a few doctors to help Dr. Haines out because he was unable to do it on his own. Nicole couldn’t move, and he didn’t want to risk travelling with her out to a hospital on the main land.

Right now, the doctor was dressed in a lab coat, and I couldn’t tell what he had underneath there though. He had a pair of gloves on his hands, and he quickly reached into his pockets and pulled out a few more for the two of us.

“Here, you have to put these on if you are going to come in here with me.”

“Yes, thank you, Dr. Haines,” Natalie said, accepting the gloves and handing a few more over to me. I slipped them onto my hands and helped Natalie put hers on. The doctor watched us, and then excitedly hurried us into the room. I had never seen the man this jittery before, and I was starting to get concerned.

“Dr. Haines, we came here to day to talk about some things,” Natalie began. He cut her off.

“Yes, yes, I know that is why you wanted to see me.” He looked at her with a wild look in his eyes. “You want to know the cause of death, no?”

“Yes,” I chimed in from the back. Dr. Haines looked over at me, his eyes watering slightly.

“Well, I am glad to report to you that this is some thing I will be able to provide for you.” he turned around. “Come follow me, I must bring you to the area where I am operating on him.”

The laboratory was huge. It was divided by glass panels and windows. In each of the rooms, there were several groups of sinks, tables, test tubes and beakers, all lined up and filled with various different colored liquids, all different shapes and sizes. Outside of the rooms, however, the laboratory was dark, and it was difficult to keep up with the others.

Several large pieces of equipment lay in haphazard arrangements all over the room. It caused me to question the ability of Dr. Haines to work well. It struck me as strange that I didn’t come up here before. I had lived here in this house with the good doctor for many years and I never thought to find out more about his occupation. It made me feel slightly sick to think of how I had treated the poor man. I always came to him when I had health problems, or when I needed some one to talk to about my aunt Nicole’s failing health, but I realized that I never thought about him as a person.

I hurried up to catch up to them. They had come to a small room in the back. It was brightly lit. In the center was a metal table, with some thing covered under a sheet. I held myself together and continued examining the rest of the room. All along the walls ran a series of metal counters and cabinets. Each of them held scissors, metal tools and other test tubes filled with strange colored liquid lay on the table.

Dr. Haines closed the door behind us. Natalie gave me a glance, her eyebrows raised as she looked around the room. The doctor picked up a clipboard from the counter.

“Detective, I have been busy all morning, working on a few tests and conducting the autopsy on Josiah.” He looked uncomfortable for a second, and then glanced at me. “Is it all right if I call him the victim? It seems so strange to me, to think of Josiah as being dead. You know, I was the one who delivered him for Mrs. Livingston. When they asked me to come work for them, I was overjoyed. I love to see the smiling faces of the children I helped deliver, all grown up. We have been through much, Josiah and I. we have talked for many hours, and I have tried to pick apart his mind, but that had been so difficult and nearly impossible. It is a shame that he had to die. He was such a good young man, so full of potential.”

Dr. Haines shook his head, and then continued.

“But I digress. You can here to find out the results of the autopsy, and I have them here to give you.” He walked over to the other side of the table. He lifted a small corner of it and beckoned us closer.

“Come over here, my friends. There is some thing I have to show you.”

Natalie rushed over there quickly, but I took my time.

“You are not going to take the rest of the sheet off, right?” I asked. DR. Haines shook his head.

“Of course not,” he responded. “He is no condition to be seen right now, and until I fix him up, I would not dare show him to you like this. It was difficult enough for me to do this to him, and I have performed autopsy hundreds, if not thousands of times.”

“You were a coroner once, right?” Natalie asked, perking up slightly.

“Yes, indeed, I was. Involved in several high profile cases too when I was younger.” He beamed proudly, reminiscing of the olden days. I smiled. Dr. Haines would have been convinced that any case he was involved in would have been high profile. He was a doctor, though, and a professional, and I was sure that he would know what he was talking about.

Some people say I am too trusting, that my policy of trust first ask questions later is impulsive and will only lead to danger. In my opinion, it is the lack of trust that leads to danger. It is fearing that those around you are only out to destroy you, that they are not simply people moving with their own lives, with their own problems. Of course, I don’t trust everyone I meet, but I can tell when one deserves it and when one does not. There is a huge difference between a slightly prideful old man boosting his creds, and a disgruntled man standing in the shadows with some thing that appears to be a sledge hammer. Yes, I know when to trust and when not to trust.

“It brings me great comfort to find there are other professionals here,” Natalie said, breathing a deep sigh of relief. I was not hurt by her statement, which insinuated that I was not a professional myself. Instead, I allowed myself to be comforted by the thought as well.

Dr. Haines smiled grimly.

“What can you tell us about Josiah?” Natalie asked, bringing the conversation back around to the main reason we came here. Dr. Haines nodded.

“Yes, what I have found is very strange indeed.” He crossed his arms.

“I had initially assumed that this was a suicide. Everything seemed to point in that direction, taking into account his state of mind, as well as the cuts on his wrists that seemed to prove he had taken his own life.” Dr. Haines shook his head. “However, there was no doubt about it when I performed to tests on his body.” Dr. Haines looked up, his face dark.

“Josiah didn’t die because of loss of blood.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, tilting my head. Dr. Haines looked at me.

“Yes, it is as I say. There was some thing else present in what ever blood he had left that is extremely disturbing for me.”

“You found some thing in his blood?” Natalie asked.

“Yes,” Dr. Haines replied. “I found a drug, one more toxic than any other I have seen before at such high a dosage. I found a sample of this drug once when I was still in college, even before I went on to medical school, and I had honestly never expected to see it again.” He looked away. Natalie crossed her arms.

“You experimented with it when you were younger, am I right?” she asked. Dr. Haines didn’t meet her eyes, nor did he answer her. I threw a curious glance at her. Was she serious?

Natalie pressed on.

“Yes, and more than that, you were addicted to it for a short time.” Natalie shook her head. “Tell me, Dr. Haines, what was it that you thought of when you saw this in Josiah’s blood?”

“That he was either an addict, or some one had deliberately put this into his system to kill him.”

“How could it have worked if he was an addict?” I asked. Natalie turned to me and answered my question.

“If he was an addict, the amount of this drug in his veins would be significant – it would be obvious to tell that the toxicity level had been reached, and he had died of an over dose. However, if he was an addict or not, that we cannot tell. How could we know that what is inside of him came from years of drug use, or simply an over dose at one point in time?”

Natalie shook her head.

“No, that cannot be determined. However, we do know that this was not a suicide, as there are several things that stand out and point in that direction. Our only bet is to say that this was the work of a third party, and that hey deliberately poisoned him with this drug.”

Natalie turned to the doctor.

“You used this before, have you not?”

He nodded his head slowly.

“Yes, I did use it for a time,” he said slowly, embarrassed. “I was involved with a few experiments during that time and it became a bit unbearable to deal with all of that stress. A friend of mine introduced me to some of it, and I accidentally took it one day, and eventually, it came to take over me. I could do nothing with out it, and even with it, I still couldn’t do anything. It was not until a few months later, when I was part of a control group in a university wide experiment, that I was forced to submit to several humiliating drug tests. It was then that I realized the addictive power of this drug and that I was, indeed, addicted to it. I immediately with drew from it, cold turkey, and I have been free from it for over fifty years.”

I was shocked. How old was this man anyway? And why did I not know this before? How could I have known this man for several years, but not know these little things about him? All right, I will admit, saying that you were addicted to a drug in your college days is not some thing one would readily say is little, but it was still some thing I would have liked to have known before hand, and not through an investigation.

Natalie nodded her head as he spoke, not judging him, or saying anything while he spoke. It seemed to me like she already knew what he was going to say before he said it: she just wanted to hear him say it himself. He didn’t look upset at what he just finished saying, nor did he look embarrassed. Instead, he looked relieved, as though a burden had suddenly been lifted from his chest.

“So we have determined that it was this drug that killed him,” Natalie summarized. Dr. Haines and I nodded in agreement. “Can you tell me anything about the cuts on his arms and the blood loss?” she asked.

Dr. Haines cleared his throat.

“Actually, that is what I have been working on all morning,” he confessed. “I had already figured out what was the actual cause of death, but I was having trouble understanding where the cut wrists came in.”

“But you managed to figure it out?” I asked impatiently. Dr. Haines nodded enthusiastically.

“Yes, yes, I did, just a few minutes before the two of you came knocking on my door, actually.” He rubbed his graying beard with his hands and sighed. “Yes, I did find that those cuts were made a few minutes after the drug had already killed him. It is difficult to explain this in every day layman’s terms, so I won’t bore you with medical talk. However, I can assure you that he had been dead for several minutes before these cuts were made.”

“That can only mean that who ever did this to him wanted us to think that Josiah had done this to himself, that is was indeed a suicide.” Natalie said. I shook my head.

“Why the emphasis on a suicide?” I asked. “Why is everything trying to point in that direction, when we know now that it is not?”

Natalie frowned and shook her head.

“I am unsure why,” she said, “but I do know that this gives the killer more time to set up their alibi and destroy evidence. Because that is what we have been finding all morning, form the messed up manuscript in the kitchen, to the gloves hidden in the fountain – all of these are attempts to destroy evidence, and it makes me upset. This killer has had a lot of time on their hands to plan and set everything up. This only makes things that much harder for us.”

“Why is it that everything is making things harder for us to catch this criminal?” I complained.

As if on cue, the sound of rolling thunder crashed into our ears. Natalie and I exchanged glances. The first thing that came into my mind was that some one had been shot. I was sure Natalie thought some one was hurt as well, as the two of us bolted for the front door. However, when we got outside, I headed toward the stairs, but she made her way over to the window.

I turned back and looked at her curiously.

“What are you doing, Natalie?”

She turned to me.

“It has only just started,” she said mysteriously. I gave her a look which read seriously? I walked over to the window. She looked back out of it.

“The storm has only just begun.”

I slapped my forehead.

“Of course!” I said dumbly. “Andrea had been warning me about the weather a few days ago, that she had heard on the news that there would be some storm or other, and I totally forgot about it.”

Indeed, the sky was dark with clouds, and in the distance I could see the torrents of rain making their way along the estate like a tidal wave. It would only take a few more minutes before the rains would make it to the manor.

“Wow,” Natalie said, staring at the sky. She cringed when lightning lit up the dark sky, closely followed by another peal of thunder. She grabbed my arm instinctively and I looked down at it.

Hmm, I thought to myself.

“Is it going to get very bad out there?” She asked, looking up at me. I nodded gravely.

“Yes,” I responded. “This is not the first time a storm like this has come upon us. Andrea was watching the news and they said that all of the water ways will be upheaved, and it will make both boat travel and air travel next to impossible.” I sighed and shook my head.

“I don’t know how those guys are going to get much work done on that bridge.”

“Surely they will take a break until the storm dies down?” Natalie asked. I shook my head again.

“NO, I don’t think so. They entered into a strict contract with my uncle David, that they would have the entire thing destroyed and rebuilt in three days – no longer, no shorter. They agreed to work rain or shine, and I trust them to do it.”

“But will they not be in danger working out there during the storm?” she asked sensibly. I shrugged.

“That is their job,” I said, “they will do what they have to, and we will wait and see when they are finished, or the storm dies down.”

“I must admit, that sounds rather crazy, but this is what they were hired for, so how can I expect anything less?”

I groaned suddenly.

“What is the matter?” Natalie asked.

“I just remembered, I have to close all of the shutters,” I started heading to the stair case.

“Wait for me, please, Kenneth.”

“You want to go out there before it starts raining?” I asked. “You know, by the time we get down there, it will already have started?”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Natalie replied. She looked uneasily about her. “I just don’t want to be here by myself for a while.”

I smiled.

“Okay,” I responded. “Grab one of the raincoats from the bathroom over there, and I will get mine and meet you in the Square.”

She seemed to already know what the Square was, even though I was sure I had never told her. I ran down the stairs to my room and grabbed my ugly yellow rain coat. I made sure to lead her to a rain coat that would be much uglier than the one I had on. There was no way I could let myself get into that horrifying thing, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything that would ruin what had just happened there.

She said she wanted to go with me because she didn’t want to be by herself here. That was not the Natalie I was used to hearing. When we were conducting our investigation, it was obvious that she wanted me there because of what I could bring to the team, but not because she didn’t want to be by herself. I would have sworn she liked to work alone, that she didn’t want anyone to try to help her out or be a part of her life.

That is what had been such a stumbling block between us. We had easily transitioned from the friend stage to some thing more, but we could never get any further because she always wanted to ride things solo. She never wanted to let me carry some of those burdens for her.

Ah, I thought to myself. This is so cool! There might be some thing here after all!

I had to stop myself though. Wishful thinking never got me any where productive.

But it did bring a smile to my face, which is why I was pleased to see Natalie smiling when I got downstairs. Neither of us had anything to smile about, really, so it had to be only one thing.

Wishful thinking. (Chapter End).

 

Chapter TOW

“WHAT DID I TELL YOU?”

The two of us were outside in the Square, and sure enough, the rains had begun. The palm trees swung their branches, the rain was blown by the wind in short bursts. It felt like we were in a movie, and the crew was dousing us with waves of fake water made to look like rain.

Natalie stood beside me, dressed in a white rain coat with pink circles dotting the surface of it. I laughed at her when I saw it, and she appropriately punched me in the arm.

“Why did you give me this ridiculous thing to wear?” she asked. I laughed again, and she pretended to pout. This, of course, made me laugh even harder because it looked so unnatural and just plain funny to see the great detective pouting like that.

I led us out into the middle of the courtyard where the benches were that we had sat on earlier this morning. I pointed at the row of windows visible from this side.

“Those are the ones we need to close,” I said. I more like shouted though because it was raining so hard and the wind made things impossible to hear.

“Why only those?” Natalie asked. I shook my head.

“Those were the only ones that cannot be closed from the inside. Don’t ask me why, but that is what I have to give you. I can close them both if I stand on that second window and close the top one. Then, I can come back and close the second and first windows in no time at all.”

I picked up the huge gardener’s pole and leaned it against the wall. I beckoned Natalie closer.

“What can I do?” she asked. I pointed to the hedge that sat directly underneath the windows.

“We need to move this,” I said, “if I want to get up there on that window.”

“All right,” she said.

“Grab that end, and I will grab this end. When I say move, we move, all right?”

“Yes,” she shouted, grabbing the end I asked her to grab. I picked up my own edge.

“Okay, in three, two, one, lift!”

We lifted the hedge in unison and moved it over to the side. I hurried over to the spot we just vacated.

“Wait!” Natalie shouted. I stopped in my tracks.

“What is the matter?” I asked. She didn’t look at me. Instead, she reached for some thing at my feet.

“I saw some thing here that I am sure you would rather me pick up before you step on and hurt yourself.”

I looked down, but could see nothing. Natalie tore at the wet ground furiously for a few seconds, then stood up straight, holding a dirty object in her hand.

“What is it?” I asked, straining to see it.

She held it up to me, and I was almost sick.

It was a knife, a small kitchen one, but it was stained with what appeared to be mud and dirt. It was honestly the last thing I expected for her to pick up and show me, so quite frankly, I was terrified. She quickly placed it in a Ziploc bag. I wondered briefly how many Ziploc bags she had in there before she closed her briefcase and looked up at me.

“Okay, I took care of that. What next?”

I looked up at the windows, then back down at her.

“All right, I am going to need to use you as leverage to get up there.”

She nodded and leaned against the wall, cupping her hands in a manner in which I cold step on them and use them to climb up. I stepped into her hands and pulled myself up. I was surprised by her strength, or at least, her ability to hold me up with out dropping me on my face. That would have been most unpleasant, and I honestly only thought about the possibility a long time after it had already taken place.

I reached up and placed my foot on the second floor window. I used my height from here to close the shutters on the third floor window. Then, I jumped back down when I was sure she was out of my way. I closed the second floor window, and I was just about to go for the first floor window, when I noticed that I was not really getting wet that much. I looked up and there was, sure enough, a small awning it appear sticking out from above the third floor. I had not even noticed it before, and it made sense how I was not getting wet.

I turned back to the wall only to find some thing a little more shocking.

There was a small trail of blood along side the wall, as though some one had dropped the knife from one of the windows above and it leaned against and stained the wall. I turned to Natalie. She was not looking in my direction, so I called out to her.

“Natalie!” I shouted. She turned to me. I pointed to the wall.

“So you see this?” I asked. “it looks like a streak of blood. Like some one took this knife and dropped it form one of the two rooms up there and it hit the wall before tumbling into the dirt.”

Natalie looked up at the two windows. She nodded.

“Yes, that does seem to make a lot of sense. It would also explain why these hedges were moved over this morning. Whoever did this intended to cover up the blood stain and the knife, which can only mean that they didn’t drop it there during the day. It was only in the heat of the decision – or can I say, in the middle of the night – that they dropped it here. This morning, when they woke up, it was obvious what had transpired here, so they sought to clean it up.”

Natalie shrugged.

“At least, that is what I think.”

“Come on,” I suggested, shaking my head. “let us go back inside where it is warm.”

Sure enough, it was freezing cold out there, with the rain, the winds and the ever increasing thunder and lightning flashes. I wanted nothing more than to get inside, to not feel the water pummeling me. We made it inside rather quickly.

“Now,” Natalie said confidently, “it is time to start investigating bedrooms and asking people questions.”

She had taken charge now, I could tell. Our brief stint outside gave me the opportunity to be the leader, and I enjoyed it. However, I had to remind myself that she was still the one leading this investigation, and it was not in my place to tell her anything.

It felt good to have been in charge for a little bit. I wondered to myself if there was a way for Natalie to ever get used to being in the passenger’s seat. I would love to find out. (Chapter End).

 

Chapter Waiting

WE DECIDED TO VISIT DIANA’S room first, simply because she was standing in the hall way when we got up to the second floor. She looked troubled, but let us in quickly.

“You guys can sit where ever you like,” she said, waving her hands wildly about her room.

It was, in all due respect, a very filthy room.

Her bed lay in the center, a twin bed with head boards and foot posts. Clothing hung from them haphazardly. More clothing was strewn all over the floors. Posters of deserts and old Egyptian tombs hung all along the walls. On her desk was a computer and piles and piles of yellowing paper and note books.

“Oh, goodness, I am so sorry for the mess in here,” Diana said, embarrassed. I looked over at her. It seemed like this was the first time she had noticed that this room was a disgrace. Natalie smiled politely and sat on the chair by the desk. I decided to stand underneath an old Indiana Jones poster she had on her wall. I was surprised. Diana likes Indy? I thought to myself. That would have been cool to know, seeing as how I had watched the famed treasure hunter for years when I was a kid, even though my parents probably would not have approved. They had always allowed me to see what ever I wanted, including all the graphic and bloody stuff that I some times wished I had not seen. But they still insisted that I not watch any of the Indiana jones movies. They were convinced that I would throw my life away by trying to become a treasure hunter of sorts. I thought that was preposterous, and reserved only for little fan boys and other actors like Nicholas Cage.

Trash littered the floor. An apple core rolled in the center of the room. No one had touched it or even gone near it, but it just rolled. It was starting to freak me out. I went over to it and scooped it up and tossed it in the bathroom garbage can.

Of course, there was no bathroom in her room, which meant that I threw it in the closet. I didn’t say anything, and neither did any of the other two.

“Sorry,” I finally said. “I had to get rid of it because it was totally messing with my mind.

Natalie looked amused, like she was trying really hard not to start laughing. I resumed my post underneath the poster. Diana looked sad, like she was about to cry. Natalie cleared her throat.

“Diana,” she began. “We wanted to come and talk with you for a little bit about Josiah.”

Diana suddenly burst into tears. Did I say tears? I meant wailing and shrieking and sobbing. Natalie acted quickly and pulled the crying woman into her shoulder and allowed her to take out her emotions on their.

I caught Natalie’s gaze and rolled my eyes. She shook her head slowly, almost as though she was a mother and she was gently telling me not to make fun of my sister or what ever. I found it odd that she wanted to comfort Diana, but I let her at it.

I knew little about Diana, which didn’t surprise me any more. I knew she was in her mid twenties. She had been rather young when she started working here five or seven years ago. She had always been a maid, all though I don’t know what her job actually was. I knew she was on charge of Andrea, and that she liked to spend some time with Dennis, but aside from that, I was unsure about her.

Natalie let her cry for a few minutes, then set in with the calming down actions. Those included rubbing of the back, gentle whisperings for her to shh that it would be all right. Then the big guns came out and she pushed away from her and told her that she needed to speak with her.

Knowing what little bit I did know about Diana, I knew that she was a stickler for more information. If some thing even sounded remotely like gossip, it belonged to her. She wanted to have anything that might even be construed as gossip, which meant that anything that she was going through paled in comparison to that. I shook my head. That was so sad.

“What do you have to tell me?”

She asked, wiping her eyes with her sleeves. She wore a long sleeved tee shirt and some jeans. She was barefoot, but her toes were painted pink. I guess David must have given all of the servants a day off, because no one seemed to be working or doing anything today. That was just as well. It was obvious that we needed to have some time to grieve, even those who were not his family.

“He was like my family,” Diana suddenly said, turning to me. I was taken aback. Did this girl just read my mind? That whole business with the apple core earlier totally creeped me out, and I was hoping she would not turn out to be a witch or some thing like that.

“What makes you think this information is about Josiah?” Natalie inquired. Diana blushed and looked away from me.

Ooo, Natalie was good!

She leaned closer.

“What do you know about Josiah?” Natalie asked. Is there anything about him that I should know?”

“Not about him,” Diana said. She shook her head. “But no, I cannot tell you about it. At least, not now. Not until you tell me what you wanted to tell me first.”

I wanted to call her a mean name, but I stopped myself. There was no use in getting the people angry. After all, she could turn out to be a murderer, and then I world find myself dead in a corner some where, and that would be the most frightening thing I could even imagine. I decided to keep quiet for as long as I could stand it, and just let Natalie and Diana do all of the talking together. Indeed, they had a lot to talk about.

“Diana, I am sure you have already heard this, but Josiah is dead and we believe it to have been a suicide.”

“Yes, yes, I know that you don’t believe it was a suicide, but what I want to know –”

“Wait, how do you know that?” I cut in. “Natalie didn’t even say that!”

Diana gave me a bored look.

“Seriously, Kenneth, did you forget who you were talking to? I am the queen of gossip here at this manor,”

“Don’t you call my Cousin Josiah’s death anything to do with gossip, do you hear me,” I tried to cut in.

“And there is not one thing that happens here that I am not acutely aware of.” Diana rambled on as though she had not heard a word I said. I was furious and looked at Natalie. I hoped she would do some thing to put this insolent girl in her place, but she just watched us gravely. Suddenly she turned to Diana.

“I understand that you know all of this, but I need you to be prepared for what I am about to tell you. We do believe that Josiah was not dead because of suicide, but that he was rather murdered while he went over to the fountain. The details of the actual murder are not to be discussed, and I have so instructed Dr. Haines, so don’t even think about going up there and trying to get information from him. I know what kind of a person you are, Diana, and I want to ensure that you don’t ruin this family’s piece with your tales and your mouth, do you understand me?”

Diana nodded. I looked at Natalie, a new kind of respect dawning on me. She would be a good mother, I thought to myself. But not in the way that most might first assume. I meant that she would be a good mother, just as much as you would say that some one would be a good lawyer. Any way, why am I explaining this to myself? Maybe it is because of this guilty conscious of mine. It makes me feel like I am convicting myself when no one has even committed a crime.

The two of them continued, forcing me to abandon my thoughts.

“All right then,” Natalie said, straightening in her chair and clearing her throat. “We have determined that Josiah was murdered, which means that the murderer is still at large here, and we need to find them as soon as possible.”

Diana let that sink in for a while before answering Natalie.

“What are you saying? Do you mean to tell me that the murderer is one of us?”

“Yes,” Natalie said confidently. “I don’t believe it to be me, but I do believe that it is one of the house hold members.”

“Why do you think that?’ Diana asked. “Why could it not be some raving lunatic who just chose poor Josiah as his target because he wanted to have some fun?”

This girl was getting on my nerves with her little words like that. I wanted to strangle her, I really did, but that would make me a murderer just as much as it made who ever did this to Josiah one, and I didn’t want to be in league with them in any sense of the word. I held myself back and let Natalie handle her.

“Diana, I cannot get into the details, those are confidential things that don’t help you help me in any way.”

“What can I do to help you then?” she asked. Natalie smiled and took some paper from her pocket. I did the same. Natalie had told me earlier that she wanted to have two people taking notes because we both saw different things about people and would find different things to be important. Together we would be able to reconstruct the most important aspects of this conversation and we would be one step closer to understanding who this woman was.

“I need you to answer some questions for me,” Natalie said. Diana nodded slowly. I pulled out my sheet of paper with the time log on it.

“Can you go through the events of last night with me, starting from after we all finished eating dinner?”

Diana crossed her arms and sank down on her bed. I was sure I heard some thing crack underneath her, but I didn’t say anything. Natalie must not have noticed because she just waited patiently for Diana to start speaking.

“Well, let us see, I don’t know when you all finished eating, after all, you were no where near the rest of us. You guys were in the dining room, while we were in the kitchen.”

Natalie nodded.

“Yes, that is indeed true.”

Diana continued.

“After those of us in the kitchen had finished eating, we went over to the game room. I stayed there until eleven thirty, talking to Dennis and the others.”

Diana shook her head. She had obviously given this much thought. But her words meant a lot more to me, simply because the same thing had happened with Natalie and I. or at least, that is how I took it. When she told me that she was leaving and moving on, I took it to mean that we could never be friends again. In fact, more than that, I was unsure how we could ever be friends again. But here we were and at least we were talking to each other so that was a good sign. Of course, once she found out exactly what I had done, she would not be so accepting. I had to count on the fact that I had gotten rid of everything, so she would never find out. Besides, when compared to the murder of my cousin, she would not care about any little thing I had done to ruin our friendship in the past. Yes, I decided. It was better that I had gotten rid of it, and if anything, I could just tell her about it. She would understand, and maybe she would only be a little hurt.

Diana and Natalie looked at me, waiting for me to respond. I realized now, and again, that I shouldn’t have opened my mouth. Once again I said random things that had nothing to do with the investigation. I shook my head.

“I am so sorry,” I said. “Go on with your questions, detective.” I had gotten used to calling her detective in front of other people, simply because everyone else called her that too and it felt weird to be the only one going around calling her Natalie. Heaven forbid I bring out the old nickname I used to call her, nat. that would be ultra embarrassing and would end in both her and me being shunned from the rest of society. Oh well, I thought to myself. As long as they shun us together, I will be perfectly all right.

What are you thinking? I asked myself. I was getting way ahead of myself and taking my mind off of what was most important here. And that was finding my cousin’s killer.

“What did you do after you finished talking to Dennis, and the others?” Natalie asked tactfully. Diana looked up at the ceiling.

“Hmm, let us see, I went over to my room, Dennis walked me there, we said our good nights, and he went up to his room, and I went down to my own. I stayed in my room from eleven forty I think until I was awoken by Andrea going into Kenneth’s room to find him. I came out of the room just as Andrea was about to tell me to go downstairs.”

“So you have been in your room the whole night?” Natalie asked. “You didn’t go any where ever since eleven forty when you went into your room?”

Diana shook her head furiously.

“No, I didn’t go any where else, I swear.”

“It is all right,” Natalie said, lifting up her hand. “No one is accusing you of anything.”

At least not yet, I felt like she would say at the end, but she held it in. surely, the next questions to come would deal with motive as opposed to opportunity. We had already covered the means, and although opportunity was still up in the air, there was still more we needed to learn in the way of motivation.

Natalie cleared her throat and tucked her hair behind her ear. I pushed my glasses further up my nose. For reasons I could never explain, my glasses were all ways falling down my nose. I was starting to seriously consider getting some contact lenses, even if I felt that they were kind of annoying and I really liked my glasses. I turned my sheet of paper over and thought better of it and found another sheet some where in my pocket. I wanted to do like Natalie said and write at the same time as her to catch some discrepancies.

“How can you say your relationship was with Josiah?” Natalie asked casually.

Diana looked rather shocked. She furrowed her brow, opened and closed her mouth a few times, then leaned forward.

“My relationship with Josiah?” she asked.

“Yes,” Natalie said, nodding. “How did you two get along with each other?”

“Good ness, Detective, he was a kid! How well do you suppose I would get along with a kid?”

“Josiah was seventeen years old and on his way to be married. I have it on good authority that he acted much older than his age, so I would hardly consider him to be just a kid as you are asserting.”

“All right, I will concede, I didn’t see him as just a kid. I thought he was more of a miniature man, if that makes any sense. He wanted so badly to be a man, but I was unsure if he knew much about what it meant to be a man. Josiah and I, we didn’t have many run-ins. After he got kidnapped and brought back, he sort of changed.” She stopped speaking. I nodded my head.

“Of course he changed,” I put in. “he was ten years old when that happened, and he eventually had to grow up. Did you expect him to be the same little kid he was back then?”

Diana shook her head.

“Of course not! I understand how much of a toll being kidnapped took on him. I know how it hurt him that he had caused so much pain for all of us.” She paused and I looked at her curiously. What was she trying to say? She continued before I had the chance to speak. Yes, I know that I kept saying I would not say anything, but I couldn’t help myself.

“After Josiah came back, he started paying attention to things more. He started listening in on conversations, started making little comments that were not necessary. He started causing some trouble between people.”

“Namely between you and Dennis,” Natalie said. It sounded like it should have been a question, but she said it like it was a statement. “Josiah found out that you had some feelings for Dennis and he did some thing to you, did he not? Some thing that caused Dennis to question whether or not to be with you?”

Diana didn’t say anything. After a few seconds, Natalie let out a half amused, some what sarcastic laugh.

“You and Dennis were a couple, were you not? And Josiah did some thing to you tow that drove Dennis further away from you. That is why you were so concerned that people would think you two were back together again. Because then that would mean that you were starting to become friends again, and you didn’t want anyone to mess that up. Good ness, I am right.”

Sure enough, Diana was nodding the entire time Natalie was speaking. Natalie leaned forward.

“Tell me what happened.”

“I cannot.”

“Oh but you must, Diana. Anything you hide will only make things harder for us, and for yourself. Do you want that to happen?” Natalie asked her softly. I watched as Diana’s expression changed. She looked up.

“Yes, it is true, Dennis and I were a couple. Josiah was upset at that fact because he wanted so badly for us to be as miserable as he was. He listened in at my door knob so many times when I was speaking to my parents, and he told Dennis about my job here, about what I did outside of the manor.” Diana hung her head in shame. “When Dennis found out about it, he was upset. He didn’t want to speak to me and avoided me for months. I was so miserable! But we made things better again, I swear! That is how we are able to deal with each other now, because we are making things better.”

“I don’t doubt this,” Natalie said. “How did you react to Josiah after you found out what he had done?”

Diana’s face grew grave.

“I got him in trouble.”

She stood up.

“I have to leave from here,” she stated matter of factly. “You two can stay in here and do your little investigation thing, but I have some where to be. You are wrong if you think that I did this to Josiah. Yes, we had some problems with him, but I have nothing against the boy. I would never do anything to hurt him, and I would have you know that.”

She stormed out of the room. I whistled and moved over to Natalie.

“Wow, so that went pretty well.”

Natalie gave me a dirty look. I was upset.

“What was that for?”

Natalie shook her head and started digging through the papers on Diana’s desk. She reached for something that had fallen and went under the table.

“Oh come on!” I whined. “Can you not tell me what is bothering you, and why you look like you are so mad at me?”

Natalie turned to me.

“Of course you all ways have to open that big mouth of yours,”

This was the first time I ever recall seeing Natalie angry, not even when I did all of those things to her. I was quite taken aback.

She continued with her rebuke.

“Instead of letting me handle the questioning when it is obvious that I have it under control, you want to lead her off topic and waste as much time as possible.”

“Me? Waste time?” I was incredulous. “Sure, I opened my mouth, and we had to let her go early, but what I got her to say was more important then any of that. You pieced it all together, and you couldn’t have done so if I had not gotten her to talk about her love life!”

“There was no love life to speak of, Kenneth! And that is what I am so upset about!” she shook her head. “Do you not understand that this woman was hurting, that she had been hurt by some thing your cousin has done to her? That the man that she loves was angry with her because of some thing she had done? Some thing that some one else revealed to him, not even when she did it herself? Do you know how that feels Kenneth?”

She shook her head, and I could feel the tremor in her voice.

“No you know nothing about that, do you Kenneth? You just sit here in this beautiful mansion, running away from the real world and leave everyone else to crash and burn in your wake.”

Natalie stood up.

“I found some thing in here that you might want to take a look at. For now, I am going to my room, to get myself together. I would have liked to go outside, but you see how bad it is out there.”

She turned and left after placing some thing on her chair.

I waited for a few minutes, shocked. All that she had said hit me like a ton of bricks. Natalie was more honest with me than I ever remember her being before, and I didn’t know how to take it. I stood up and went over to her chair.

What I found momentarily shocked me.

It was a map, of the Livingston Manor Estate. On the top, the title read: TREASURE MAP. It was signed, Diana . [CHAPTER END]