Chapter 02 - The Red Letter
The ride towards Nottingham by carriage was long and cramped. His knees
kept bumping into the detective girl's, making him apologize more often than
necessary. Even with the coat he was wearing, it was a chilling night. Since he
was shivering, he couldn't help but wonder if she wasn't cold. She only seemed
to wear a brown detective cape and hat beside her dress, the material thinner than
his. Yet, she didn't seem affected by the cold temperature at all. It was
courtesy to offer a man's coat when a lady was cold, so he swallowed his own
desperation for warmth.
"Look at you!" she exclaimed. "I think you would freeze if I take you upon that offer. I'd nearly offer you my own coat, pathetic as you look right now."
Alright, so he was wrong in that. The person in front of him is definitely not a lady.
He wrapped his arms around him, embarrassed by his attempt to be polite. He decided to switch subjects. "This case… how did you get it?" he asked her.
"Reputation," she replied casually.
"Really?" his voice mocked her. And she sharply found his gaze, her eyes narrowing in silent allegation. "As I recall, you have been in business for five months now and your previous cases seem nowhere near that important," he announced.
She looked at him skeptically, the silence thickening between them. "You've investigated me," she concluded.
"Of course. After you hired me," he replied. "I am a writer. We're naturally curious."
"…Well, what else do you know?"
The young man folded his arms together, a frown appearing on his face as he started to sum everything up. "You're a small organization plundered underneath the bigger detective agencies in England, who have more experience then you do. You usually take the smaller police cases to build a reputation and to pay the rent," he started telling. "Other agencies know you as the 'the red-eyed girl detective', a nickname that once started as an insult to your age and gender. Most other detectives dislike you, but mostly for your sharp attitude."
She continued to gaze at him with her eyebrow raised and for a moment he hesitated, before he decided to state exactly what had been bothering him. "Your assistant was named Nerill Akery. She never resigned. She disappeared over two months ago." The detective girl's eyes flashed dangerously, but the young man felt that he needed to continue. If he didn't voice this, it would hang between them for the rest of their cooperation. "There are rumors that you two… never got along," he voiced. "That you might know more abou-"
Without warning, he was roughly yanked forward, her fingers clutching the collar of his coat tight. He felt his heart leap in his chest when she pulled him close to her face.
"Don't you dare…" she threatened. Her narrowed eyes nearly glowed in the darkness of the night and he felt her warm breath on his face. "Don't you dare say another word… You will not mention that girl in front of my face again. Do I make myself clear?"
His wide eyes stared back at her and he found himself nodding stiffly in response. Her grip slowly loosened, allowing him to take a shaky breath. With one last intimidating stare, she returned him his freedom.
She turned her head away from him, her lips tightly pressed together. He found himself looking anywhere but the detective girl as well, his heart still racing at what just occurred. With each passing moment filled with silence, it became more and more evident that he wouldn't receive an apology.
It started to rain outside, something common in autumn. It was more of a blessing than a curse. He shifted his attention to the window, watching random raindrops stick against the glass. His frustration with the detective girl's behavior lessened as the minutes passed and after a while, he started to forget his anger. The uncomfortable quietness inside the carriage took some time to get used to, but as the hour passed, he started to relax his tense shoulders.
He listened to the small sounds audible around them and started focusing on them alone. What filled the air was the sound of rain clattering against the windows, an occasional snuff from the horses and the sound of the wheels of the carriage through the muddy ground. It was rhythmic and with slowly, he started to feel more at ease.
Along with this feeling of assurance, came the fatigue that has been plaguing him these last few weeks. The lack of sleep only now seemed to gain in on him. And as his eyes fluttered shut, surrounded by these quiet little sounds, a feeling of relief wrapped around him like a warm blanket.
"Wake up." He flinched at the sudden movement on his shoulder, shaking him awake. The first thing that he noticed, was how bright it suddenly was. The sun had already risen and he was vaguely aware that the carriage had stopped moving. He blinked a couple of times, trying to adjust to the light. It was morning already? He still felt drowsy and he wondered how long he'd been sleeping.
"Oh come on," he heard her complain, her hand still shaking him. He rubbed his eyes, in an attempt to feel more awake. The detective girl was already with one foot out of the carriage and expected him to do the same. Groggily, he slowly moved his body, yawning as he made his way outside… and gaped at the huge castle in front of him.
"Wonderful, you're awake," Rin said, yanking his arm and dragging him to the front door. He couldn't help but stare at his surroundings, barely noticing how roughly she pulled him inside.
The castle's inside was even more impressive. It was incredibly big and filled with rich paintings, statues and golden ornaments. Multiple crystal chandeliers hung on the high ceiling of the main hall. The floor they walked on was made out of white marble and the walls were painted like the sky. He truly couldn't keep his eyes off it.
"Stop drooling" Rin warned, squeezing his arm once, as she dragged him through the hall. She knew that he wouldn't be moving on his own if she let him go.
"Welcome, detective," a woman's voice rang, warm and sweet like a spring day.
Wearing a silky peach-colored dress, stood a woman, many would find more beautiful than the expensive jewels she wore. Her teal hair was flowing behind her like water, some of its strands braided and tied up together. Her eyes were like the river, calm and delicate. She had an amazing natural beauty and must have broken a lot of hearts in her life. Next to her stood a tall man in a neat suit wearing a pair of glasses. He was no doubt the butler.
"Millina Vanquost," Rin acknowledged.
The young woman smiled gracefully. "Not anymore."
"Ah, I see… You got married after all."
Len blinked, looking from the detective girl to the young woman. "You met before?"
The blonde girl almost seemed to tense. "In an old case," was her quick response.
"I believe proper introductions are in order," the high, velvet voice of the teal-haired woman spoke. "My name is Millina Callisford-Vanquost, lady of this castle. Please call me by my first name." She smiled at the young man. "May I ask for your name, good sir?"
"A-ah," Len stammered, hesitating for a moment, almost spilling out the name she had forbidden him to use. "It's Len, I-"
"He is my new assistant," the detective girl answered for him. "He will write down anything important regarding the case, if that's not too much trouble for you."
Millina laughed, her voice soft like a chime bell. "I do not mind at all. This young man seems very delicate, I am fond of him already."
Len blushed and Rin rolled her eyes. "Great. Now, I need to see that letter."
"Straight to the point as always," Millina said, signaling her butler, who handed her the dark red envelope. Len held his breath at the appearance.
The girl detective accepted it with her gloved hands and started analyzing the envelope, not yet reaching for the letter inside. She held it above her head for a moment, her eyes narrowed in concentration. She observed the broken wax seal. After only a good minute of studying, she carefully reached for the letter inside.
He had no idea what she was looking for, but he didn't want to interrupt her. Silently he grabbed his own notebook and pen, already writing a few things down. He was just about to pen down the appearance of the strange red envelope when a loud laughter send chills down his spine.
The red eyed girl detective was laughing like a drain as she clutched the piece of paper. …Had she discovered something? "What is it!?" he couldn't help but shout and her laughter died down instantly, as if the joke suddenly wasn't funny anymore.
She turned her head and with a wide smirk, looked at him through half-lidded eyes. "It's a fake," she grinned.
Millina took a step forward. "It is?" she exclaimed.
The detective girl then reached into her own coat, revealing another red envelope. He quickly realized that it was the same piece of paper he had seen in her office weeks ago. He hadn't given it much thought back then, but now…. "This case died out years ago," Len breathed. "How did you... shouldn't this be under the supervision of the police?"
"I think you can tell the difference between them yourself…can't you, my assistant?" the detective girl told him instead. The corners of her lips had spread into a sharp smile and her eyes lingered for a moment as she handed both letters to him. As if she was personally challenging him.
At first glance, the two envelopes looked exactly the same. The complex pattern of the wax that had once sealed them off… identical. Both letters were of a thick, rich paper and handwritten with black ink. Like the rest, the handwriting seemed…
"Found it yet?" her voice mocked him.
He analyzed the handwriting. The letters looked quite the same, but… somehow the letter 't' was written with an upwards movement in the 'real' letter and in the 'fake' letter, it stayed horizontal. Was that everything, really?
"The letter 't' is different," he muttered. He started reading through the letters, something he hadn't done yet. He had searched for something visible first.
The real letter was actually addressed to 'My dearest detective girl'. While it was an intimate addressing, he put it aside for a moment and read the rest.
~ Most apologies for the wait. Your next case will present itself shortly. For you, I sincerely hope that it will be able to capture your interest ~
There was no name or signature left underneath. He quickly read the second letter.
~ Tomorrow night, a murder will be committed here. Can you stop the crime before it is too late, detective? ~
"It's strange," he concluded, his eyes narrowing at the second letter. "I don't know how to explain it… It isn't the message itself, but the feeling I get when I read it."
He paused for a moment, looking up to meet the detective girl's eyes. "The first one is affectionate. The second letter is much more reserved. Why would he address you in an intimate way at first, only to create more distance in his second letter?"
Rin's lips spread in a subtle smirk. "You failed to miss one vital clue," she told him. "The candle wax is of a different structure. But not bad for a first attempt."
He blinked, wondering if he should be grateful or feel insulted. He took a closer look at the broken white seal on the back of both envelopes. He had a hard time trying to see the difference in structure, but after a few seconds he noticed the grained texture.
In the meanwhile, the detective girl addressed Lady Millina. "I cannot help but notice all those white candles you seem to have in this hallway… Are they preparations for tonight's ball?"
The teal haired lady seemed taken aback by that. "Why, yes… We did purchase them to light later this evening. We usually have blue candles, but my husband wanted a change of décor for this special occasion."
The writer couldn't help but notice how the detective girl's eyes lightened up. "I see…" she replied smoothly. "That is interesting. I would like to know when they arrived and how many you have purchased. If I understand correctly, these are the first white candles in your possession… they haven't been lit once?"
The lady exchanged a nervous look with the stoic butler, who then cleared his throat and answered the questions his mistress wasn't sure of. "On September the twenty-first, my master has let me order three hundred and twenty four identical white candles to replace the candles of the chandeliers. They arrived on October the fourth. We kept them stored in their original boxes until we started decorating the castle yesterday evening after my master and mistress went to bed. They are still unused."
"Three hundred and twenty four is certainly a specific number," Rin mused.
"The five chandeliers in the main hallway here need thirty-six candles each. The larger three in the dance room need forty-eight a piece. Together, they make the exact number of three hundred and twenty four, madam."
There was a childish smile on the detective girl's face. "And did you count them?"
The butler hesitated then, readjusting his glasses before answering. "No, madam, we did not count them. The boxes were still intact and we didn't miss a candle during our preparations."
"We found the letter yesterday around four in the afternoon," Lady Millina explained.
"Then it's a coincidence," Len concluded. "If the boxes weren't opened before last night and none of the candles were missing, the wax on the seal comes from somewhere else. White candles are common to have."
Rin met his gaze. "That's dreadfully naïve of you."
The writer froze on the spot.
"I want one of those candles. Right now, actually," she commanded.
The butler eyed his mistress, who then gave him her timid approval. He spun on his heel, walking away with long, even steps to retrieve one of the candles. Millina parted her lips to address the detective girl, but suddenly found her vanished from her side.
Even Len, who had taken this chance to retrieve the notebook from his pocket, was alarmed by the quiet disappearance of the girl in question. She had taken quick steps to catch up with the butler, disappearing around the corner just when he lifted his head.
"But… he…" the lady stumbled, perplexed. "Would come… right back."
What could she be thinking, making such an unpredictable move? With his notebook clutched tightly in his hand, he needed to take a small sprint in order to find his way back to her. He didn't want to miss any vital parts of the investigation. The sharp clicks of high heels echoed through the hallway, indicating that Lady Millina was close behind him.
They found the detective girl in the middle of the grand hall, smiling at the ceiling where one of the grand chandeliers hang. With forty-eight candles and decorated with at least a hundred shining pieces of crystal, it truly was an impressing sight. The butler was already retrieving the steep ladder from the corner of the dance room, not batting an eye to the audience he had. He proceeded his orders by climbing the ladder.
"The third candle at the second row, next to your left hand, please!" the detective girl called up. Len could only raise his eyebrow at the detailed command. "What does it matter what candle he gives you? Aren't they all the same?" he asked.
"How simple-minded…" she commented softly. "If our culprit is this butler, he could have easily prepared a decoy candle. I won't allow my investigation to be disrupted by something that could be this easily avoided."
He let out a small breath. That actually made a lot of sense.
"Light it," she demanded as soon as she obtained the requested candle. With a nodded approval from his mistress, the butler did what he was told. With the candle still firmly in her hand, she watched the flickering flame, waiting patiently for the wax to melt. Giving him the opportunity to write a few words down.
At least a minute passed in anticipation and he had quickly penned down everything that happened so far, including the different structure of the candle wax. In his notebook, he had collected all the details that had passed by. He would be able to change it into a fully detailed story as soon as there was enough time.
Satisfied for now, he lifted his head. And witnessed an accident about to happen.
He clasped her hand out of instinct, the force of it startling the detective girl, tilting the candle to the right. The melted wax instantly dripped on the floor.
"Careful!" he yelled at her, angrily meeting her surprised eyes. He took the burning candle from her hand, holding it out of reach. "You were about to burn yourself!"
She looked taken aback at this. "You're exaggerating. It's only wax."
"Hot wax," he corrected her. He felt his heart rate quicken when he noticed the way she clutched her hand against her chest. "…Wait, you aren't hurt, are you? Did any of it touch your skin?"
At this, her eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips in irritation.
This lack of response only made his concern grow and he reached for her hand, something she didn't seem to appreciate at all. "Stop it!" she raised her voice.
"Let me see your hand!" he demanded instead, struggling to reach for it.
She raised her arm, glaring at him. "You're acting ridiculous, let go!"
Suddenly, the sound of laughter filled the air, the light-hearted sound creating such a contrast to their heated discussion, that the both of them stiffened.
Lady Millina was watching them both with an warm smile on her face. Her lightly-colored eyes contained an amused sparkle that made the writer's cheeks flush instantly. He only now realized how overly protective he had reacted.
"You two are absolutely adorable," the lady commented affectionately.
The detective girl huffed, yanking her hand back from his slacked grip. "…I'm not hurt," she muttered angrily, her own cheeks heated in embarrassment.
He glanced at her averted gaze, before nodding stiffly. "…Alright. Good…"
The flame had gone out in their struggle, but the detective girl didn't seem to mind when she circled the small puddle of wax they had left on the floor, sinking through her knees to observe it closer. It had already cooled down and taken form. "It's the same," she told them. "It's structure is rougher than the candle wax on the real letter, quite easy to tell."
"The second letter isn't written by that serial killer then," Len concluded.
She nodded. "It seems that way, doesn't it?"
The lady of the castle breathed a sigh of relief. "So it was a hoax after all."
"Oh no, in fact, it's worse," the detective girl replied, an amused smile on her face. She gracefully lifted herself up. "The threat was genuine alright. Whoever has written this letter, has the full intention to commit a personal murder and place the blame on a rather well-known serial killer. Despite the fact that he hasn't been active for over three years, most of the detectives would instantly link this letter back to him."
Lady Millina looked devastated, her face paling at the news. "I… it's impossible to cancel the ball now. The letters would arrive too late. Anyone of them could be…"
"Then all we can do now, is prevent this murder from happening," the detective girl announced. "To do that, I will need the names of every person who had walked in and out of this castle from October the 4th until yesterday afternoon."
The lady slowly blinked. "You… can't suspect any of my…"
"With all due respect, everyone in this castle is a suspect at this point."
That created a thoughtful frown on the lady's lovely face and she started searching through her memories. "My husband, of course and little Julie. My brother-in-law and his wife have been staying over these past two weeks. Our family friend arrived around the same time as well… Let me see, I have twelve maids, a gardener, a chef and my butler… Myself included, there would be twenty-one of us."
Rin smiled. "No one else has visited, aside from us?"
"No, not at all."
"That sounds about perfect."
"Don't trust anyone," were the first words she spoke when they entered the guest room assigned to him. Her eyes were strict as she leaned against the closed door, watching him. He dropped the suitcase on the bed and opened the lid.
"The culprit is someone in this castle and we can't tip them off," she warned him. "You're not allowed to share any information regarding the case to anyone. The more friendly and nice they are, the more reason you have to be suspicious of them. They often have much too hide behind that smile…"
The writer momentarily paused in his actions. "You still can't prove that anyone outside of the castle hasn't used the exact same candle. Besides, I'm afraid I don't agree with that statement," he told her. "There are plenty of people who are genuinely nice to others… I can't even imagine someone like Lady Millina hurting anyone."
The detective girl looked at him, before breaking into a smile. "Oh, that's right," she said, lifting her chin. "You fancy her."
His eyes widened by her statement and he frowned when her smile only grew larger at his reaction. "That's not my point at all," he protested. "I don't li-"
"Don't bother," she interrupted him, holding her hands up. "I don't mind, so you don't have to defend yourself. You're clearly not the first one that finds her attractive. She is obviously very beautiful, but she's also married and has a child. The sooner you pull your head out of the gutter, the better."
His eyes narrowed and he averted his gaze, staring down at the suitcase."She's…" he muttered below his breath. "… not that wonderful."
She rolled her eyes, placing both her hands in her side. "I'm not blind, Len, so don't pretend that she's not the type any man would fall for."
Sharply, he turned towards her, pinning her between him and the door, his arms at both sides of her head. Her eyes had widened, her folded arms now in front of her chest almost protectively. She hadn't expected a move like this.
He stared down at her and she stared up, confusion in her round eyes. She felt trapped, but not by his arms. She felt her heart beat faster and her lips twitched as the normal remarks she had somehow died away."W-what?" she hesitantly said.
With a single movement, he removed her detective hat and leaned in. Her hair was messy, she glared at him and her eyes were two different colors, but he couldn't help but think once more that she looked absolutely beautiful.
"Like that," he said. "When you're like that, you're very pretty as well."
Her cheeks went red. Whether it was out of anger or embarrassment was left to be discussed, when she harshly shoved him away.
"Hmph… I don't appreciate you making advances on me," she said coldly.
"Actually," he laughed. "I was just complimenting you. I wasn't about to kiss you if that was what you were thinking, detective."
Her eyes narrowed. He knew he had struck a nerve.
"But I meant it," he said, a lot more serious this time. "You're pretty in your own way. Don't ever feel like you're worth less in comparison."
"Well, thanks," was her reply as she snatched her hat from the ground. "Next time, I don't need a demonstration with it."
He shook his head, smiling as he walked back to the bed to unpack. He carefully folded the clothes he had quickly stuffed into his suitcase. He had thrown them in carelessly and he was glad to see that they were not too wrinkled.
It didn't took long for him to notice that the detective girl showed no intention to leave. She was still leaning against the door, simply observing.
After a few minutes in silence, he slowly started to feel uneasy. "Do you… need anything else?" he asked.
She immediately responded. "When you're done, I'd like to bring both of our empty suitcases back to the carriage."
He looked at her for a moment, before raising his eyebrow skeptically. "Why would you walk all the way back for that?" he asked her. "It seems rather pointless if we're going to need them later. Besides, we have plenty of space to keep it in our rooms."
She tensed, her eyes widening slightly before she redeemed herself. A small chuckle came from her. "You're right. I'm just so used to bringing it back to the carriage in my other cases. I don't usually spend the night."
He smiled back. "I understand. Do you have a room nearby?" he asked as he walked towards the closet, putting a small pile of clothes into it.
"Right next to yours," she answered. "I asked them to place us close together, just in case anything happens in the middle of the night. It would be bothersome to search for you then."
He closed the empty suitcase, shoving it underneath the bed. "I appreciate it," he told her. "Everything, really…" He paused for a moment, taking a step in her direction. "Thank you for hiring me… and giving me the opportunity to write this story."
"The pleasure is mine," she replied, matching the warmth of his smile. "I must say that I've missed an extra pair of hands." She spun around, her hand on the doorknob, before pausing. "I'm going to unpack in my room now. Will you come with me?"
He looked surprised and his facial expression quickly changed to an apologetic one. "You know that it isn't possible…" he replied. "You're a lady. For me to look into your belongings is… well…."
Her smile fell. "I don't have anything to hide."
He hesitated for a moment, before slowly shaking his head. "I'm sorry, I can't…"
She sighed softly, before opening the door. "I'm back in two minutes," she muttered. Before waiting for a reply, she left the room.
He blinked at the closed door. Walking back to the bed, he shook his head. She was such a strange girl…