The Sword in the Stone-Dead – Sample Chapters

Chapter One

 

Sunset and the clouds were lit pink like the inside of seashells. Off the main road, two massive crumbling gateposts stood like sentries: no gates between them and no walls beside them, but still it seemed that they could refuse access. A weathered sign: Silberman’s Keep. The unpaved road wound through trees that dusk had already turned into spiky shadows. Darkness grew deeper under the canopy of leaves. Suddenly the road broke out of the trees into ground. The surface changed to pale  crushed stone and it became a long, straight driveway, running between regimented lines of poplars. At the top of the drive stood the keep.

The crenellations of the tower were a medieval silhouette against the rosy sky. The keep was a castle in miniature, its walls rough-faced stone, the corners standing out in smoother limestone, like mortise and tenon in a dresser drawer. Windows in the upper floors were dark, but orange light flickered lower down, as if the tower had been placed on a bonfire.

In front of the tower was a gatehouse: square turrets on either side of an arched entrance, portcullis raised. The diamond panes of mullioned windows above the gate caught the evening light like dragon scales.

Before it reached the gatehouse, the driveway split and curved around a circle of grass that contained an ornamental pond. In the centre, three monstrous bronze dolphins rose out of the water, mouths gaping, but the fountain they promised did not appear. The surface of the pond looked oily and dead, mottled with the leaves of last year’s water-lilies.

Beyond the gateway was a courtyard, alive with activity. To one side, a huge cone-shaped pile of timber blazed, splashing a shifting orange light up against the tower. On the other, close to a line of rough wooden tables, was a glowing pile of coals over which a spit was being turned: the roasting hog glistened like brown toffee and its juices dripped and crackled on the embers. Servers carried platters and jugs and huge wooden bowls out of the main hall, and laid the banquet on the trestle tables. The men were dressed in simple smocks over tight leggings; the women in tightly-laced bodices and full skirts. A group of musicians occupied a corner of the courtyard, all in simple peasant dress, nursing fiddle, lute, drum or recorder, awaiting the arrival of the guests.

Mist rose over the open ground as the sun disappeared. The croaking of a horn came from somewhere in the woods, and then two glowing yellow discs appeared, like eyes peering through the rolling vapour. There was a throaty rattling and rumbling as something emerged from the trees, crunching over the gravel, and moved towards the gatehouse. Cries arose from within the courtyard.

“It’s here!”

The rumbling and crunching drew closer, and again the horn croaked out a warning. The coach loomed out of the mist, gleaming red and cream paintwork, twin silver bumpers beneath the black radiator grill. People began spilling out of the side door before the wheels had stopped turning. The women wore full-length gowns—no serving wenches, these—and the men in white shirts, velvet doublets, and hose. They had all been brought here from the set of the motion picture Arthur and Guinevere: the medieval banquet was a ‘thank you’ from their director. Or perhaps he was doing it for the sake of publicity

As its passengers trooped in through the gateway, the coach rattled into life again, bluish smoke clouding the air behind it. It ground slowly around the pond. There was a violent honking of horns as a small bright blue sports car sped around the fountain in the opposite direction, directly towards the coach, swerving at the last minute to avoid a collision. The coach driver leaned out of his window to hurl words at the grinning young man who clambered out of the little MG, and who seemed to be dressed as an off-duty knight. A Rolls Royce Phantom drew up to a more statesman-like halt. But its apparent calm was short-lived, as a wild-haired, red-bearded giant threw open the rear door, bursting out: Leo Fulbright looked like a Viking stuffed into the costume of a medieval King. He bellowed at the drivers of the coach and sports car.

“Get them out of the bloody way! I said no vehicles!” He stomped back towards the Rolls, where the driver stood looking lost. “Why is it that no one can take bloody direction these days?” Fulbright fumed. “You,” he pointed at his driver, “I want all of these cars out of sight. I don’t want to see a single one. This is meant to be medieval bloody England!”

Fulbright’s driver, Malloy, moved towards the MG. He was a broad-shouldered young man with dark hair and bright blue eyes that were almost turquoise.

“Where are you going?” Fulbright bellowed at him. “After you’ve fetched Miss Trenton from the station, you idiot!”

Malloy shuffled back towards Fulbright’s car: he walked with his eyes down and head turned in an attempt to hide what might have been a grease smudge on his chin, but was probably a bruise.

As the Rolls Royce was pulling away, another limousine purred up behind Fulbright. He harrumphed and strode towards the latest arrival. Standing with his hands on his hips, he tried to present a regal figure and assert his mastery.

A uniformed chauffeur opened the door of the Bentley and helped his passenger out. She wore a long black evening dress and a black shawl; leaning on a silver-topped walking cane, she stood aloof and erect, like a Victorian dowager.

“Leo,” she said, by way of greeting. He looked her up and down, clearly displeased with what she was wearing.

“You might have made an effort, Margot.”

“I did: I am here, aren’t I?” Without sparing him another glance, she strode past him towards the gateway, limping slightly.

Leo Fulbright muttered something under his breath as her Bentley drove away. He turned and was startled to find someone standing beside him. The thin man wore evening dress, his hair was slicked back and parted on one side, and his pencil-thin moustache twitched as his lips formed a half-smile.

“Vickery,” Fulbright said, still regaining his composure. “You came.” Was there a hint of disappointment in his voice? “No costume?”

“I feel I am too old for dressing up,” Vickery answered. “I shall leave that to you actors.”

“I—” Fulbright missed his cue.

“Shall we go in?” Vickery smiled his half-smile again, and set off towards the gateway into the courtyard. After a moment, Fulbright blew air out through his moustache and stomped after him.

“Benjamin, darling, how lovely to see you,” Margot McCrae said as Vickery entered the courtyard. She was standing on some stone steps looking down on the goings on in the courtyard with an expression of disdain. “You avoided the fancy dress too, thank you.”

Vickery shrugged. “My armour is at the dry-cleaners, they’re trying to get a rust spot out of it. What is that smell?”

“They’re burning a pig on a spit–presumably because they couldn’t find the Standard theatre critic.”

“A wild boar in place of a vile boor?” Vickery said. “We’re not dining alfresco one hopes?”

“Only the hoi polloi are eating at the outdoor trough,” Margot said. “You and I will be joining the blue-bloods and gentlefolk for a banquet in the ‘great’ hall.”

“I do feel ever so honoured,” Vickery mock-gushed. “Are all these people working on Leo’s motion picture? There are dozens of them.”

Margot looked down on those milling around in the courtyard. “And they will all be shipped back to civilisation on the charabanc come midnight—lucky blighters.” She looked up at the keep and shivered. “I can’t believe we’ve agreed to stay in this dreadful place for the whole weekend.”

“It is rather medieval,” Vickery said. “Though it’s all fake, of course, a folly built as the country home for a wealthy Victorian businessman. He put all of his money in a South African diamond mine and lost it. The money, not the mine. No diamonds, you see. Drowned himself in the lake behind the keep, though his family maintained it was a boating accident.”

“Who drowned himself?” Margot asked.

“Ephram Zilberman—of Zilberman’s Pickles: made his fortune bottling eggs and onions, and later tried herring and pig’s feet, but they never really caught on. Rumours that he requested his body be preserved in vinegar before burial are entirely spurious.”

“Why are you telling me this, Benjamin? I have almost no interest in the living, never mind the dead.”

“I want people to think we were deeply engaged in a fascinating conversation,” Vickery said.

“Since when do you care what people think?”

“When I am seeking to deceive them,” Vickery said.

Leo Fulbright stomped across the courtyard, looked out through the gateway, and then stomped back to the door into the keep, where he shouted over the heads of the servers.

“Where’s that butler chap, Crawley? I said I wanted that bloody fountain working before nightfall. And did it happen,” he muttered, “did it buggery.”

“Tell me, how is your secret investigation progressing?” Margot asked.

Vickery sighed. “Does everyone know my purpose here?”

“Only the family, dear. Everyone else thinks you’re here to teach that old drunk a few tricks to make him look like a master magician.”

“Oh, to have my services rated so highly.” Vickery rolled his eyes.

“Was King Arthur really medieval?” Margot asked, watching Fulbright progress around the courtyard and stir the musicians into life.

“No, earlier. Until the French adopted him: they were mad keen on tales of chivalrous knights.”

“I was married to a knight. He wasn’t at all chivalrous. Though he does have a castle, apparently.”

“The keep belongs to—?”

“My ex-husband, yes.”

“Sir Geoffrey?”

“I only have one ex-husband—at the moment.” She growled this last as she watched Leo Fulbright trot across to the gateway to greet the latest arrival.

Eleanor Trenton was his Guinevere, here tonight, and in the motion picture that Fulbright was currently directing. She was dressed in a long, pale dress, with tightly laced bodice and a richly embroidered belt. She wore her hair in a single long plait, and it was topped with a plain metal coronet.

“What do you think of Leo’s leading lady?” Margot asked.

“Everyone knows he has only one leading lady, Margot.”

“Insipid isn’t she? I have never seen such absence of colour in a woman. Even her eyelashes are pale—like a piglet’s. I suppose you think she looks angelic, you men are all…” Margot caught herself and coughed. “I’m sorry, Ben, I didn’t…”

“It is nothing.”

“Do you know her? When I first met her I thought she seemed familiar,” Margot said.

“I don’t believe I have ever seen her before,” Vickery said.

“Hmm, there’s something about her…”

“Where do you think you’re off to, Molly?” Fulbright yelled at the driver who had delivered Miss Trenton.

“To ‘shift those bloody cars’ like you asked,” Malloy answered, his voice calm and with a hint of an Irish accent.

“Yes, well, be quick about it. And then come and find me inside. I want you to set up the screen and the projector, if it’s not beyond your ability.”

“Sire.” Malloy bowed and exited.

“Why do people stay in his employ?” Vickery asked.

“They don’t. Malloy is the third driver this year—and it’s only May.”

“Malloy, that’s his name?”

“Jamie Malloy. You know him?”

“I—he used to work for someone—an acquaintance,” Vickery said, staring after the departing figure.

“But his name wasn’t Malloy?”

“I’m sure it was. I just forget these things.”

“But you remembered his face. Interesting…”

“What is?”

“The fact that I can never guess what you’re thinking.” Margot smiled and shook her head.

Fulbright took Eleanor Trenton’s hand and led her around the courtyard, like a young man on a high school date.

“Does your husband’s behaviour embarrass you?” Vickery asked.

“You know I was unfaithful to my first husband with Leo?” She said.

“I had heard that,” Vickery replied.

“Actors are flighty. We are not to be depended upon. You know what it’s like in the theatre, Benjamin. A lot of scurrying around behind the scenes to make everything look effortless. Then a few short hours of high emotion—that’s the thing we crave. Anything that occurs away from the limelight is only ever half as bright. Real life never quite reaches the heady peak of a first night performance.”

“Even love?” Vickery asked.

“Even love. So it would be hypocritical of me to throw a tantrum now, wouldn’t it? And it’s not as though I have any great desire to share my bed with him anymore. Husbands are like children, they stray if you’re too strict with them. Or in Geoffrey’s case, not strict enough.”

Vickery stifled a laugh. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be: I think it was hilarious. Geoffrey loves dominant women—not a word from you! He strayed because I wasn’t… strict enough with him. But when he was caught with his trousers down in Madame’s dungeon, well, I just had to divorce him.”

“It must have been a terrible shock when poor Geoffrey’s secret was made public,” Vickery said.

“Well, of course, one has to give that impression,” Margot said. “Though you have to be careful with the moral outrage—particularly when you’re carrying another man’s child. That’s why I married Leo—for Linette’s sake. It certainly wasn’t for his money!” She seemed to think this particularly amusing. “Geoffrey saw to it that I would never be penniless. And I got to keep the London house. He withdrew from public life, as they say. The divorce, marriage to Leo, it was all sorted before Linette was born. As with all plots, timing is the key.”

She and Vickery regarded each other for a moment.

“Did Sir Geoffrey ever come to suspect that Leo was behind his public disgrace?” Vickery asked.

“Leo had nothing to do with Geoffrey’s exposure, far too subtle a plot for him,” she said.

“I see. Sir Geoffrey is unlikely to be a suspect then?”

“Suspect?”

“The death threats that Leo has been receiving,” Vickery said.

“You mustn’t take those too seriously,” Margot said. “I’m sure they are just an attempt to court publicity. That sort of melodrama Leo is quite capable of plotting himself.”

“Will he be here this weekend, Sir Geoffrey?”

“I very much doubt it. He’s rarely seen in public nowadays.”

“You two are still on speaking terms?” Vickery asked.

“We weren’t on speaking terms when we were married. I haven’t seen him in years.”

“Leo has obtained the use of Sir Geoffrey’s folly, for the party tonight, and for the filming of some scenes for his motion picture. Does it not strike you as odd that your husband and your ex-husband should engage in any kind of business transaction.”

“Should it?” Her tone suggested that it didn’t

“If I were Sir Geoffrey, I’m sure I wouldn’t even want to be in the same room as Leo Fulbright,” Vickery said.

“Benjamin, dear, nobody wants to be in the same room as Leo, we do it because we have to.”

Vickery spied Margot’s daughter across the courtyard. She was wearing the long dress of a medieval lady in a rich green colour, the sleeves trailing almost to the ground. She had on a pillbox-like hat with her hair in gold crispinettes.

“Who’s that young man with Linette?” Vickery asked. “I saw him arrive in a tiny sports car.”

Margot raised her lorgnette and peered across the courtyard.

“He’s a photographer—Oliver something. Fast car, easy smile—could charm the knickers off a nun, as they say.”

“Linette seems rather taken with him.”

“Hopefully she’s doing it to spite her father. Leo has forbidden her seeing him.”

“Why? They seem a charming couple.”

“Leo needs Linnie to stay at home and tend to me, otherwise he might have to do it himself.”

“Ah,” said Vickery. “And yet I see…”

“What do you see?” Margot peered through her glasses again.

“It is probably nothing.”

“Out with it. You always ‘see’ more than anyone else.”

“Linette, I think, has gone beyond a mere desire to defy her father. Those two are engaged, I should say.”

Margot laughed. “There you are wrong, I can tell you that. Oliver asked Leo’s permission, and Leo refused.”

“And yet the pair went ahead despite his forbidding. See how she touches her finger? There is a ring, I think, that she is just now not wearing.”

“She wouldn’t dare…” Margot breathed.

“You were quite daring yourself at her age, if I am not mistaken?” Vickery raised an eyebrow and smiled. Margot smiled too.

“Well, well, the little minx. She’s coming this way: I shall speak to her and try to catch her in a lie.”

“I am sure she is up to the challenge,” Vickery said.

“Hello, mother. Daddy says you look like a ‘bloody widow.’”

“You can tell your father that I live in hope,” Margot said. “Walk with me and tell me what you’ve been up to, I haven’t seen you for days…”

Vickery edged away from mother and daughter, and was stopped by a brisk tap on his shoulder.

“Are you the wizard?”

Vickery turned. The woman who had spoken was tall, broad-shouldered and dressed in trousers and a man’s tweed jacket. Her cheeks were ruddy and her hair a bright carrot red frosted with white.

“Miss Fulbright?” Vickery said.

“Veronica. The hair’s a dead give-away, isn’t it? Glad to meet you.” Her handshake was firm. “I just came down on the train—didn’t have time to dip into the dressing up box. I’m so glad my brother has hired you—‘The Great Vicari’—a real magician! You look exactly how a magician should.”

“I am a ‘technical advisor’ only. Mr. Bannister is portraying Merlin,” Vickery said. “I retired from performing some years ago.”

“You really shouldn’t do that.”

“Do what, Miss Fulbright?”

“Make out that you’re some sort of old fossil. You’re not as old as my brother, and he’s chasing after some woman half his age.”

“My chasing days are over, I think. It is so undignified.”

“What rot! You’re just afraid.”

“I am?”

“You suffered a personal tragedy and are determined not to allow anyone close enough to hurt you again.” Veronica laughed. “Don’t look so shocked: we had newspapers, even—where I have been.”

“Indeed,” said Vickery. “But not everyone is so adept at reading between the headlines.”

“I do believe that was a compliment. But don’t worry, I’m not going to tell anyone your little secret: we’ll let them go on believing you are the enigmatic Vicari, Man of Mystery!”

“You are most kind.” Vickery’s attention was caught by Veronica Fulbright’s shoes: they were highly polished men’s brogues, glossy as horse chestnuts. Veronica Fulbright seemed amused by his interest them.

“They were daddy’s,” Veronica explained. “They’re about all I have that belonged to him. It amuses me to wear them. My brother believes he walks in my father’s footsteps—”

“—but it is you who wears your father’s shoes,” Vickery said.

“You get it, I am pleased.” Vickery gave her a little mock-bow. “I have daddy’s pipe too, but Leo doesn’t like me to smoke in public.”

“Your brother is watching us now,” Vickery observed.

“Brothers do that, don’t they? Even little ones.”

“He’s younger than you?”

“By three years, yes. But he’s always felt a need to watch over me—make sure nothing terrible happens.”

“It is natural that he doesn’t want any harm to come to you.”

“Yes, that as well. I was first-born—but daddy wanted a son. And my mother wanted a daughter. I disappointed them both!” She grinned, showing the same large, yellowish teeth that Fulbright had.

“I am sure that is not true. You hinted earlier that you had been away for a while,” Vickery said. “Abroad?”

“Not abroad, no. And not in a convent. Do girls still do that?”

“Some do, I am sure.”

“Leo knows we’re talking about him.” A note of concern had crept into her voice. “He’s coming this way. He’ll want to know what we were talking about.”

“My sister behaving herself, Vickery?” Fulbright asked.

“Indeed, yes. We were just comparing notes on family history.”

“Were you, indeed? Well, we were brought up to believe that nothing is more important than family, isn’t that right, Veronica?”

“Yes, Leo.” Veronica Fulbright seemed unusually subdued in her brother’s presence.

Fulbright scowled at them both and turned away. She brightened the moment he was gone, like a cloud had passed from the sun.

“He’s always checking if I am behaving myself. I have to do what he says: I’m dependent on him since daddy died. He doesn’t let me forget.”

“Your brother inherited the family estate?”

“He has all of it now.” Her voice was curiously flat, as if she was resigned to her fate. “And I—Do you believe in love, Mr. Vickery?”

“I believe it exists.”

“Some people spend their whole lives wondering if they will ever meet that one special person who is out there for them, don’t they?”

“And others find that person, and then lose them,” Vickery said.

“Yes, that happens to some of us, doesn’t it? And when it does—I wonder if we can ever find happiness with someone else?”

“Widows remarry,” Vickery suggested.

“But we are not widows, are we Mr. Vickery?”

They were both silent a moment then, until: “I still wonder what my life might have been like, if I hadn’t—if Leo hadn’t had to—to lock me away.”

“Lock?”

“It was for my own good,” she said, too quickly. “I wasn’t ready to live by myself. And poor George—well, he wouldn’t have been able to take care of me. He wasn’t the right sort at all.” It sounded as if she was repeating something she’d been told, probably more than once.

“But George loved you?”

“Oh, yes, he does,” she said brightly. But then the cloud crossed in front of the sun again. “Or he did at least.”

“Until—?”

“Until he—until my brother had to intervene.”

“And lock you away?”

“For my own good, yes.” Her face brightened again. “I’m sorry, you must find all this family stuff frightfully dull. It’s not important now. After all, everyone has their secrets, don’t they?”

“Indeed.”

“Shall I tell you another one of yours?” She asked.

“I—”

“You’re not really here as a magic advisor.”

“I’m not?”

“You’re here because my brother thinks someone wants to kill him. I know about the poison pen letters. And about your clandestine activities.”

“My—?”

“You’re a detective, Mr. Vickery,” Veronica stage-whispered.

“Hardly a detective, Miss Fulbright. I have merely helped out an acquaintance on occasion.”

“Solving mysteries.”

“Something like that. Now, I think perhaps I ought to show you a little sleight of hand in order to demonstrate to any onlookers that I really am here as magician-in-residence.” Vickery took a pack of cards from his pocket and fanned them out, faces towards Veronica Fulbright. “Think of a card.”

“Don’t I get to pick one?”

“You already have.”

Veronica frowned.

“What was your card?” Vickery asked.

“Seven of clubs.”

“As I thought. It’s in your top pocket.”

Veronica dipped her fingers into the jacket pocket behind her handkerchief. The card she extracted was the Seven of Clubs. She smiled.

“Do you investigate as well as you prestidigitate?”

“That remains to be seen,” Vickery said.

“No clues so far?”

“The night is young.”

“Yes it is,” Veronica said. “I think you should go and talk to Malloy.”

“Malloy?”

“Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed him. My brother’s driver. Shoulders like a rugby player, eyes like a poet.”

“And what should I talk to Mr. Malloy about?”

“You’re the detective. But if I were you, I’d ask him how he got that bruise on his jaw.”

“Not playing rugby?” Vickery asked.

“You’ll have to ask him that—if you want to know.” She turned her body away, but kept her eyes on him. Then she winked and was gone.

“I don’t know what she was telling you,” Fulbright said, looming over Vickery, “but she shouldn’t—”

“She was telling me about George.”

“What about him?” Suspicious.

“He was her one true love.”

“Pshaw! She was infatuated with him. Schoolgirl crush. I don’t think George felt the same way about her. Or he would have stuck around when—”

“When Veronica ‘went away’ for a while?”

“You know about that?”

“You did it for her own good,” Vickery said flatly. “And that’s also why you had to take control of your father’s estate while she was away?”

“She wasn’t fit to look after herself, not the state she was in.”

“And George?” Vickery asked.

“No idea what happened to him. But I think I did him a favour too, in the long run.”

“I’m sure he sees it the same way,” Vickery said.

Fulbright humphed. “I had better go and look out for Eleanor.”

“It must be quite a burden for you,” Vickery said, as Fulbright turned away.

Fulbright stopped and cast him a quizzical look.

“—being surrounded by women who need you to take care of them,” Vickery finished. “Veronica after her ‘episode,’ shall we call it? Your wife after her accident. Your daughter. And now Eleanor—”

Fulbright frowned. “We do what we have to, for the people we care about. Don’t even question it, do we? Don’t go looking for motives there—they all need me. They’re not going to poison the golden goose, are they?”

“Interesting you should say ‘poison.’ That is typically seen as a woman’s preferred method.”

“What?”

“For murder. Men tend to prefer something that better demonstrates their—power over the victim.”

“That right?” Fulbright said. “In case you’ve forgotten, the idea is that you find out who has sent those blasted letters before I am murdered.”

“I shall endeavour to oblige,” Vickery said.

“Do that.”

Seeing that Linette had gone to re-join her fiancé, Vickery returned to Margot’s side. She was staring up at the walls of the tower.

“Is Leo thinking of buying Silberman’s Keep?” Vickery asked.

“Good lord, no. He hasn’t any money.”

“I heard someone referring to ‘Fulbright’s Folly,’ and thought they meant this place.”

“They were probably talking about this dratted moving picture of his.”

“Did you apply the thumbscrews to Linette?” Vickery asked.

“Couldn’t get a thing out of her. She’s hiding something, though. Walk with me, let’s go and frighten the groundlings.” Taking his arm, she led him down the steps and across the courtyard.

“Isn’t it unusual to have a party like this before the shooting of the motion picture is complete?” Vickery asked.

“I think Leo’s afraid none of them will be talking to each other by the time they get to the end. Assuming they even get to the end. This thing will probably bankrupt him. Again. Remember that Shakespeare tour of Belgium? That’s why I insist on separate finances. He’s only invited me down here because he wants me to stump up the cash to get his blasted picture finished.”

“Is it going well?”

“I doubt it. A bunch of old Shakespearean hams bellowing at the camera and gesticulating wildly, working without a prompt. It’ll be like… well, we’ll see, won’t we? The highlight of this evening is going to be a screening of the first few days’ filming. Every retake, missed cue, and fluffed line, I suppose. I intend to be well and truly sozzled before then. Come on, there must be drink here somewhere. I just hope it’s not bloody mead.”

“I distinctly heard the sound of champagne corks inside,” Vickery reassured her. They headed through the open door into the keep.

 

Chapter Two

 

Margot and Vickery entered the great hall. People were standing by a wooden table to one side, drinking and chatting in twos and threes. Vickery collected glasses of champagne and returned to Margot’s side.

“Look at that bloody table,” Margot said. “There’s no escape, is there?”

The table—a replica of King Arthur’s round table that had been built for Fulbright’s motion picture—looked vast, with a dozen places set around it. The centre was covered with plates of carved roast meat, dishes of steaming vegetables, jugs of wine, and platters of breads and fruits.

The great hall looked to have been painted recently, but already damp was beginning to discolour the walls in places, and cracks had reopened. Bare oak beams in the roof made the hall seem larger than it really was, and a fire in the inglenook fireplace cast a pleasant glow.

The keep was furnished in Victorian Gothic style, with dark wood panelling. Large oil paintings and various bits of medieval weaponry adorned the walls. Electric lighting had been installed, but that looked to be the limit of any attempted modernisation.

Silberman’s Keep was built around the courtyard. The gatehouse, with walls either side, made up the front. A large drawing room made up the left wing of the building, and the great hall the right. Both wings had an upper floor containing bedrooms. At the back, the tower dominated, with a library to its left and dining room to the right. Behind the keep, outside the dining room, was a terrace; outside the library was a small orchard. Beyond this, paths through the uneven gardens and lawns down to the lake, a summer house, and—away to the left—through a small wood.

The ground floor of the tower consisted of a stone-floored entrance hall, with a grand staircase facing the door. Half-a-dozen steps carpeted in a rich red led up to a wide first landing, on which a stately grandfather clock stood. The landing was almost big enough to serve as a stage. Stairs led off left and right to the bedrooms above. There was a small servants’ staircase in one corner of the entrance hall, leading down to the kitchens and cellars, and up to the staff quarters in the middle floors of the tower.

Margot took a sip of her champagne and grimaced. “Perhaps Leo is broke already. Now, where’s his flat-chested little queen?”

“Here I am!” Said a voice brightly. Margot turned and under her gaze the thin young man in the minstrel costume visibly wilted.

“Not you, half-wit,” Margot growled. The man smiled weakly and scurried away. Margot watched him go. “If my legs looked that good in red stockings, I could have done better than Leo Fulbright.” She saw that Vickery was frowning at her. “Was he a friend of yours?” She asked.

“No, but still—” Vickery said.

“Simpering idiot. Artie used to be Ted Kimball’s dresser. How on earth he got Leo to cast him as a minstrel, I have no—”

“Perhaps on the strength of his singing voice?”

“He sings?”

“As a minstrel, one would hope so.”

“You’ve heard him?”

“Not as a—minstrel, no.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

“Why do you say that?” Vickery asked.

“Because there is always something you don’t tell me.”

“I have a reputation as an enigma to uphold,” Vickery said. “Will you sit by me at the table? I’m going to have a word with one of the waiters, get him to serve us the good champagne for the rest of the evening.”

“That will help ease the discomfort.”

“Your back troubles you tonight?”

“That as well.”

“Ah, and there is Excalibur!” Vickery said, as people moved away, allowing them to see the papier-mâché rock into which the sword had been plunged. “Aren’t you going to try and draw the sword from the stone?”

“If I had a sword in my hand, I might be tempted to use it,” Margot said.

They watched as several people tried and failed to pull the sword out of the rock.

“It’s a trick rock,” Artie Delancey said, appearing beside Vickery. “I can tell you how to draw Excalibur out.”

“A disguised foot-pedal,” Vickery said. “Used in stage magic for years.”

The young minstrel looked disappointed, until Vickery told him that he himself had been ‘in the trade.’

A camera that looked like it had been made from an accordion and a Meccano set had been mounted on a tripod, and the young man from the sports car could be seen ushering those in costume to stand before it to remain motionless for portraits, or to adopt frozen poses to give the impression that an action had been captured spontaneously. Even Leo Fulbright struck a kingly pose for a photograph and hardly seemed annoyed when he was half-blinded by the flash bulb.

“Young Mr. Garvin has been hired to provide publicity photographs?” Vickery asked. “I thought Leo wanted to keep him away from your daughter?”

“Ollie offered to do it for nothing,” Margot said. “He must be an idiot.”

“The work he does tonight may lead to paid work in the future,” Vickery suggested.

“As long as he doesn’t have to pawn the camera to pay for whatever he’ll need to print those photographs. He can’t afford to be doing this.”

“Perhaps he’s hoping that Leo may look more favourably on him in future.”

“If he thinks that, then he’s definitely an idiot,” Margot said.

“Places everyone!” Fulbright’s voice echoed out, silencing everyone. They set down empty champagne glasses, and moved to their places around the table. Once they were seated, Fulbright leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of him. For a moment it looked as though he was about to say grace.

“Dear friends,” he said. “I want to thank you all for coming here this weekend. And I also want to thank you for being part of Arthur and Guinevere—our first motion picture together! Like all productions, there will be a great deal of work put in before our performances are seen by an audience, but this time we are creating something that will not fade from memory after a handful of performances, it will entertain audiences for generations to come!” He got to his feet and raised his glass. “To Arthur and Guinevere!”

“To Arthur and Guinevere!” Everyone echoed.

“Let the feast begin!” Fulbright bellowed.

Silberman’s Keep was not Sir Geoffrey Atterbury’s main residence: when he had left London in disgrace, he had purchased a large house just outside Bath. The folly was a country retreat that was overseen by Crawley, who lived in the gatehouse and acted as butler and factotum when Sir Geoffrey was in residence. There was a cook, Mrs. Battison, and three maids who also lived permanently in the keep. The gardener, Grives, lived in a cottage in the village a mile or so away. It had the appearance of a country house in miniature, but at the same time there was something not quite real about it. A suitable back-drop for this round table of theatrical gentry.

After they had eaten their fill, people got up and lit cigars or cigarettes, and set about the cheap champagne again.

“You’ve read the photoplay,” Margot said, “what do you make of it?”

“It’s not exactly Shakespeare,” Vickery said.

“Can’t film Shakespeare, Vickery,” Fulbright said, butting in and slapping Vickery heartily on the shoulder. “The hoi polloi get numb bums if they have to sit for much more than an hour. You’ve got to give them sword fights and dramatic death scenes. A villain to boo, a hero to cheer, a break halfway through to buy ice-cream, then a couple of gory corpses and a wedding at the end.”

“You’ve just described half of Shakespeare’s plays!” Margot said.

“Yes, but we’ll do it in half the running time,” Fulbright said. “The Yanks are making thousands doing it: don’t see why we can’t do the same.”

“A draughty shed in Hertfordshire isn’t exactly Hollywood, though, is it?” Margot said.

“Come through to the drawing room when you’re ready. We’ve set up a projector to show the first scenes we shot.” Fulbright wandered away to perform more hearty back-slapping.

“Can they really do King Arthur justice in six reels?” Margot wondered.

“The script includes all the famous scenes. But it owes more to those school storybook retellings than to Mallory or Wordsworth,” Vickery said. “And there seems to be a suggestion that Arthur stole Guinevere from Lancelot, perhaps they had to do that to make the love story seem slightly less adulterous.”

“Or perhaps Leo put it in to make a point of his own. Do you think Teddy is a bit old for Lancelot? I always imagined him younger and more—virile.”

“I imagined him as blond with a neat little beard,” Vickery said. Margot looked at him and smiled.

“What do you think that’s all about?” Margot asked. Across the room, Ted Kimball and Artie Delancey were having what appeared to be a heated discussion in hushed voices.

“Pretend that I’m listening to you, while I watch them, then I’ll tell you what they’re saying,” Vickery said.

“How? You read lips?”

“And sign language. I was deaf for over a month after a stage explosion during my act was rather more vigorous than expected.”

“Is that true?”

“No, but it sounds better than saying I learned so I could eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.”

“What are they arguing about?”

“Give me a few seconds to catch the rhythm and then I will repeat what I hear. Artie is saying something about not knowing ‘he’ would be there, but I’m not sure who he is…”

Vickery nodded as if attending to what Margot was saying, and kept watching the two actors. After a few moments he began repeating their dialogue.

Kimball: “Did you know what sort of club it was?”

Artie: “Of course I did.”

Kimball: “Why the hell did you take me there?”

Artie: “It’s the only place I know that serves gin to drunks after midnight. Well, that and the bar in the Houses of Parliament.”

“You’re awfully good at this,” Margot said.

“How would you know?” Vickery asked. “I could be making all of it up.”

“Are you?”

“I’m guessing at some of it.”

“What about whispering?” Margot asked.

“We could,” Vickery stage-whispered, “but I don’t think they can hear us all the way over there.”

Margot slapped him on the arm. “I mean, can you lip-read when they’re whispering?”

“Sometimes—depends how stiffly they hold their lips. Or if they do it out of the corner of their mouths. Mr. Kimball is accusing Artie Delancey of having done it on purpose to ruin his reputation. He’s just a jealous little queen.”

“Kimball?”

“No, Delancey, according to Kimball. No, don’t turn your head away.”

“Who said that?”

“I did. Ah, he’s back.”

“He called my name, Artie. How did he know I was there?” Kimball asked.

“Perhaps somebody tipped him off,” Artie suggested.

“I thought you people had a code. Aren’t you supposed to be discreet?”

“We are, darling. We have to be because of the way you people behave towards us. No one in that bar called the photographer: it must have been someone else.”

“You think somebody followed me there?”

“Possibly. Or somebody knew that I went in there sometimes and guessed I’d take you there.”

“I’m still not sure you didn’t set this up.”

“Do you really think I would do that to you? Why would I?”

“Because you can’t have me.”

“Darling, I’ve already got you. I wouldn’t jeopardise that: You’re my friend.”

“But you want more.”

“I’m a grown-up, I know that isn’t going to happen. I can’t give you what Eleanor’s got.” Artie couldn’t manage to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“You are jealous then. That’s why you had that photographer there. You wanted to break up what she and I have.”

“If you want to believe that, then fine, believe it. Next time you can find someone else for your after-hours pub crawl.”

“Admit that you are jealous of her,” Kimball insisted. “You wish I was on top of you, not her.”

“You’re a drunken oaf. I feel sorry for her.”

“You make me sick!” Kimball said.

“No, that’s the whisky, love.”

“I should bloody smack you.”

Artie stood with his arms wide, presenting his chin. “If you really want to hit me, fucking do it. You won’t be the first.”

Kimball, too late, realised he’d gone too far.

“Artie, I didn’t—”

“No, maybe you are right, Teddy. People like you and people like me can’t just be fiends.”

“Artie, please—”

But Artie was already striding away, resolute.

“Lover’s tiff?” Fulbright, at Kimball’s elbow, laughed.

“We’re not—”

“Lovers? I know that, you idiot. I’ve seen you at work, remember? The hunter and the prey. Chasing down some poor unsuspecting doe-eyed bint.”

“And you’re so different?” Kimball asked.

“I’m the King of the Beasts, Teddy—they come to me!”

“How much longer will that last? How long before Leo the Lionheart is a toothless tabby?”

“I’m King Arthur, my boy, not Richard. My legend will last forever!”

“But has King Arthur’s sword been in Guinevere’s stone yet, that’s what all the groundlings want to know.”

“It doesn’t matter if I have or I haven’t—”

“No then.”

“It’s what they believe that matters.”

“They believe you’re an old goat. And every one of them has a reason to hate you. Does that make you feel like a king, Leo?”

“They’re supposed to hate me, you fool: they’re afraid of the King’s power over them. Your problem is you think everyone should love you. That’s why you keep dear old Artie around to fawn all over you, you love to be worshipped. But how much longer will that last? Keep at that bottle, my boy, and those matinee idol looks will fade quicker than a politician’s smile.”

“I should be more like you then?” Kimball sneered.

“There comes a time when you have to stop filling a role, and become a character. You will face that choice very, very soon. Better to be a bastard than to be a has-been. When the looks go, it’s the forceful personality that gets the women wet.”

“Artie said I was an oaf…”

“There you are then, there’s hope for you yet. And try and lay off the booze. You know where it gets you.” Fulbright roared as if this was the best joke he’d heard all night.

“Bastard!” Kimball hissed as Fulbright swaggered away.

“You shouldn’t let my brother provoke you.” Veronica Fulbright handed Kimball a half-glass of whisky, no ice, no water. “He hates it if you don’t rise to the bait. He feeds on anger and tears, like a leech.”

“Are you two not close, then?” Kimball favoured her with a smile over his glass—then took a good gulp of whisky.

“No one is close to Leo. How could they be?”

“Did you really try and shoot him?” Kimball asked, slyly.

“Did you really fuck his wife?” Veronica smiled. He grinned back at her.

“If he dies, do you inherit?” Kimball asked.

“Why, are you planning to kill him?”

“Haven’t the guts—even with this.” He held up the empty glass.

“Pity,” Veronica said.

“Perhaps we should have a whip round and hire an assassin.”

“Would you hurt him, if you could?” Veronica asked. “If you thought you would get away with it?”

“Would you?”

“I didn’t get away with it. Had to pay the price.”

Kimball gave her a quizzical look.

“Locked up for my own good,” Veronica said.

“Why’d you try and kill him?”

“Because he’s Leo.”

“There must be more to it than that.”

“We lived in the same house for twenty years, with my parents, then just me and him. One day I thought I’d found a way to escape. I was in love, Teddy, can you believe that? Someone loved me!”

“Leo didn’t approve of him?”

“Leo didn’t approve of the fact that I was older than him, and would inherit half of daddy’s estate if I married.”

“What did he do?”

“He did what Leo does. How do you think that photographer happened to be outside that backstreet bar the other night?”

“Not Leo?”

“Someone ought to give him a taste of his own medicine, don’t you think?”

“I’ll drink to that.” Kimball raised his empty glass. Veronica produced the whisky bottle and provided a refill. “Not joining me?” Kimball asked.

“I don’t drink. Don’t want Leo thinking I’m not in control of myself.”

“That man takes away all the pleasures in life.”

“Not all of them,” Veronica said.

A hand seized Leo Fulbright by the shoulder and spun him round.

“It was you!” Kimball’s face was bright with anger.

Fulbright expression registered confusion, perhaps even fear, but then he recovered himself and grinned—triumphant.

“Did you figure it out yourself, or did someone have to explain it to you?” Fulbright gloated.

“Why?”

“For Eleanor’s sake. You weren’t the right man for her.”

“And you are?” Kimball asked.

“Of course not. But then I’m not going to keep her. I’ll go back to Margot, I always do. I just needed to rescue Eleanor first.”

“Bollocks!”

Fulbright considered this, then nodded. “You’re right: I didn’t do it for Eleanor at all. I did it because I wanted to. Because of what you did to me—to Margot!”

“Leo, that was one night, six years ago!”

“You made me look like a fool!” He began stabbing Kimball in the chest with a pointing finger, in time with his words. “No one makes me look like a fool. Ever!”

Kimball took a step back, his own anger swept away in the onslaught: he was staring into the open jaws of the lion for the first time.

And then the storm passed, and Leo was smiling into his face.

“Consider it over. I’ve won.” And then dismissively: “Go and get yourself another drink.”

Kimball felt his cheeks redden.

“You didn’t win. This is not over. You didn’t get your wretched pictures. I stamped on his camera, ruined his film!” His eyes were bright with this small triumph.

“There is more than one photographer in my kingdom, Teddy.” Fulbright’s voice was quietly mocking. “I got my pictures. And you gave me so much more when you attacked that poor fellow.”

“You’re lying.”

“I have a set of prints upstairs. They’re a little dark, but you can make your face out plainly enough. I’ll push the envelope under your door later.”

“I don’t—You haven’t—Has Eleanor seen them?”

“I don’t think she will need to. Do you?”

“No. I’d sooner she didn’t.”

“Now,” Leo smiled magnanimously, “how about that drink?”

“I don’t—” But Leo’s look said he wasn’t going to accept a refusal.

“Scotch, no ice,” Kimball said quietly.

Edward Kimball didn’t think it was possible for him to feel any smaller. Until he glanced up and saw that Veronica Fulbright had watched the whole exchange between him and her brother. He couldn’t bear the look of disappointment on her face, and so turned to follow Leo Fulbright.

“Mr. Vickery? We weren’t introduced properly earlier, I’m afraid.”

“Miss Trenton, how delightful.” He took her hand and bowed his head slightly before releasing it. “I feel I should say ‘your majesty’!”

“Ridiculous, isn’t it?” She took off the coronet and dropped it on a table. Her hair was white-blonde, as were her eyebrows, and her eyes a deep blue. She was coolly beautiful, and yet there was also something of the gamine about her. Vickery suspected that she had been quite the tomboy in her youth.

“That dress looks frightfully uncomfortable,” Vickery said.

“It is. But no one can see my feet, so at least I escape having to wear heels.”

“And can instead wear tennis shoes,” Vickery said.

“You can see?” She sounded horrified that her secret was known.

“The merest glimpse earlier as you crossed the room. No one else witnessed it, I assure you.” He smiled and, finally, so did she.

“You must be used to this sort of party,” she said.

“One’s tolerance increases as the years pass,” Vickery said. “I avoid them as much as I am able.”

“I hate it that everyone seems to be staring at me. Or am I being paranoid?”

“No, they are staring,” Vickery confirmed. “After all, you are the star, and also the most beautiful woman in the room.”

“Thank you, but—”

“A statement of fact based on observation, not merely flattery.”

“You are very kind.”

“And old fashioned and a little boring,” Vickery said.

“To be truthful, that’s quite a relief from—all this.”

“Ah, then I am pleased to be of service, and shall continue to bore you!” He smiled.

“It is good to speak to someone who is not quite so—”

“Actorly?”

She laughed. “Yes. It is all rather insular. I feel a longing for real people. Is that terrible of me?”

“Perfectly wicked. I approve! Though I should, in the interests of honesty, point out that I am not entirely untainted: I too used to ‘tread the boards.’”

“Yes, I thought there was that whiff about you.” Eleanor Trenton mocked his mockery.

“It does not matter how often one’s things are laundered, alas the smell seems to linger.”

“But you are not an actor?”

“Didn’t Shakespeare say that we are all actors?” Vickery asked.

“Did he?”

“He did.”

“Does that mean that none of us are ever quite what we seem?” She asked.

“Perhaps. Or that we all have to play our parts in a larger story. We adopt different roles depending on where we are and who we are with. Sometimes you are the actress; sometimes a daughter; and sometimes a lover. But none of these roles are all that you are, or ever will be.”

“Did Shakespeare say that?”

“He would have done, if he’d been here instead of me. Only he’d have made bits of it rhyme.”

“All the same, I am glad it is you here, rather than he.”

“Indeed, he was both an actor and a writer—terrible combination. Actors have enough pride without they become writers too.”

“Or directors?” She asked.

“Since we are both currently in the employ of a director, I shall refrain from expressing an opinion.”

“But he is rather pompous?”

“I shall not say.” Vickery shook his head.

“Overbearing?”

“Not a word.”

“In love with the sound of his own voice?”

“That I might concede.”

“Does he love Margot, do you think?”

“Without a doubt. Unfortunately he tends to stray occasionally.”

“But he always goes back to her?”

“Thus far, yes.”

Eleanor thought about this for a moment, then: “Do you think a person can change, Mr. Vickery?”

“That is a question poets and philosophers have pondered for centuries.”

“With no hint of a conclusion?”

“Has Mr. Fulbright promised you that he will change?”

“Leo? I think that would be highly unlikely, don’t you? Unless he were to become possessed by an evil spirit.”

“Or dispossessed of one?”

“You said you wouldn’t,” she admonished.

“I do not always tell the truth.”

“Who does?”

“I thought perhaps Leo had promised that he would leave Margot and marry you,” Vickery said.

“I suppose everyone thinks that he and I are ‘an item,’” she said. “Leo said they would.”

“He is not exactly discouraging the idea,” Vickery said.

“He is flattered that people believe he has a younger woman for a lover. It is only natural.”

“For some men, perhaps,” Vickery said.

“To share your life with a younger partner, that must make you feel younger too, do you not think?”

“I do not know,” Vickery said. “It does not concern you if people are mistaken in their thinking about the relationship between Mr. Fulbright and yourself?”

“Not presently. It gives the magazines something to write about, and keeps our motion picture in the spotlight.”

“Or so Leo would have you believe?”

“My agent, actually.”

“And he has your best interests at heart, I am sure.”

“Hardly! He merely intends that he and I should profit from this as far as possible. It may be that this is my only motion picture. We need people to flock to the cinema to see the great Leo Fulbright and the mistress who is young enough to be his daughter.” She paused then. “Does that sound frightfully cynical?”

“It is difficult, I know, when our business requires that we must peddle some version of ourselves to the public,” Vickery said.

“Then you don’t think it is wrong to exploit Leo’s interest in me?”

“Leo Fulbright is old enough to look out for himself, Miss Trenton. But how does your Mr. Kimball feel about it?”

“He is no longer my Mr. Kimball,” she said frostily. “I have no interest in how he feels.”

“I think, perhaps, that is not quite the truth, if you would only admit—”

“I can assure you, Mr. Vickery, that the relationship between Teddy Kimball and myself is ended.”

“And yet you use Leo Fulbright’s infatuation with you to punish Mr. Kimball, which you would not do if you did not care about his feelings.”

“He has behaved like an absolute fool!”

“Sometimes people do that when they are in love. And then we must forgive them.”

“Must we?” She asked. “I do not see why. There must be a line. And if they overstep it, well, they are beyond forgiveness. That is my view.”

“No second chances?” Vickery asked.

“In this case—no.”

“Then you must let him go, Miss Trenton. To do otherwise will only confuse both him and yourself.”

“He knows how I feel. I have let him go.”

“But have you?”

“I did not come to you to discuss my private life, Mr. Vickery,” she said haughtily.

“Then why did you come to me, Miss Trenton?”

“I just came to ask you about—well, to see what you—”

“I am sorry that I wasn’t able to help you. But if ever I can be of service—” He gave a little bow, and left her to her thoughts.

“What?” Fulbright roared so loudly that the room fell silent and everyone turned towards him.

Fulbright’s driver, Malloy, was standing with an open film canister in his hands. It was empty, and it soon became clear that the footage from Arthur and Guinevere was missing.

For a moment it appeared that Fulbright was about to explode. Malloy took a step back, perhaps anticipating another blow from his employer’s fist.

Then Fulbright let out a loud sigh, like steam leaking from a pipe, and stomped out.