The Mirrors at Barnard Hall: Chapter 21

4 May

Yesterday at work I had a brilliant epiphany for a drama-intensive rewrite for my debut novel, The Mirrors at Barnard Hall.  Multiple notebook pages, a few crude diagrams and one pounding headache later, I determined that the events brought about through said rewrite would have been impossible. 

So I threw away my sloppy writing, tweeted a picture of my diagram (to showcase my artistic talent), and popped two aspirin.  With that bee out of my bonnet, I was able to use the aforementioned account as a convenient prelude to today’s post. 

Now, without further ado, enjoy the next installment of The Mirrors at Barnard Hall.

New to the story?  Click HERE to start from the beginning.

Don’t want to read this online?  Click to download the .pdf of Chapter 21

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Chapter 21: Homicide

“Callista?”

“Mother?”

The woman in front of me had her back toward me, but I would have recognized her highlights anywhere.  She turned slowly, and my breath caught in my throat.

Sylvia Franklyn Burns was more beautiful than I had remembered.  Maybe it was because it had been ten years since I had seen her smile.  But she was smiling today, only the look on her face was sad.

“Mother?” I repeated.

“Callista?”

I ran to her but stopped just out of reach.  She noticed my hesitation and her smile disappeared.  Her worried eyes searched mine and she slowly, uncertainly lifted her arms, allowing me to choose.  But there had never been any choice for me; I had waited too long for my mother to notice me.  I fell into her embrace; the warmth flowing from her body felt like coming home.

“Callista, I have missed you.”

“I missed you too, mom.”  So much

“I’m so sorry.”  Her voice waivered.

“Me too,” I whispered.  Regret racked my weary body.  I was sorry that I hadn’t been able to make her happy, that I hadn’t made her proud, and that I hadn’t been there in the end.

“You never made me sad, I was always proud of you, and there was nothing you could have done.”

“How did you…” know?

“I think you already know the answer to that.”

How was I supposed to know the answer to any of this?  Why was she being so cryptic?  “Mom, what’s going on?”

Sylvia smiled then frowned.  Wrinkles of concern marred her porcelain skin.  “Callista, you need to rest now.”

“I’m not tired,” I lied, unleashing a traitorous yawn.

“Close your eyes.”

“I don’t want to, not yet.”  But I did just as she had quietly commanded.

“Shhh… I’ll wait for you.”

“Promise?”  I asked, my eyelids fluttering.

“I promise, baby.”

“Callista, please wake up.  I’m here now”

First my mother and now Nick?

So I had failed.  My mom had died.  Nick had died.  But at least in death we could all be together.  She would love him.  She would see how much he meant to me and be proud that I had found someone who made me as happy as my father had made her. 

I tried to open my eyes but they would not listen.  The lids were cemented shut by two weights.  Nick was saying something, but I could not speak to let him know that death had only hurt a little.

Great.  My voice was lost, and I was blind.  Yet even without my most vital senses I knew I was in heaven.  Heaven was Nick.  If I could never talk to him or see him again, knowing he existed was enough.  That’s all I had ever needed.  And my mom had been here too.  This was definitely heaven.

“Callista, please…” He sounded hysterical.  I wanted to tell him I would be fine, that I was just resting, but I was too tired.  Had my eyelashes always been this heavy? 

What had the end been like for him?  I prayed that it hadn’t been painful and that he wasn’t too angry that I had let him down.

I surfaced slowly and could hear the angry wind whistling around me.

There was wind in the afterlife?  The weather did not matter as long as Nick was there.

I licked at my lips; they cracked deeper with the movement.  “Nick?” I said.  No noise came through.  My throat burned and it was hard to breathe.

This could not be right; heaven would not hurt this much.

“Callista…”

I should have bought the plot next to Nick; I wanted to be beside him in body and spirit, forever under the tree, looking out over the green fields.  Why hadn’t I planned ahead?  I was usually more practical, but ever since I had met Nick I had become distracted.  Maybe Rosa would see how pretty that spot was and put me there anyway, shielding me from the incessant rain.  I only hoped she didn’t ship my body back to America.  I belonged in England now, with Nick.

“Nick?” I said louder.  My voice broke.

“Oh, Callista!  Look at me, please.”  The relief in his voice was laughable.

I opened my eyes and blinked through the sudden brightness.  It felt as though I had been reborn, resurrected.  This time I would not be afraid of anything.  I would not think, I would just feel.  Everything was bright and new.  And then it darkened.  Dust swirled around me, invading my vision.

“Where is she?”

“Who?”

“Where’s my mom?”

“Who?” he repeated.

“My mom.  She promised she would wait!” I said, anxiously searching the obscurity surrounding us for her familiar face.

“Callista, look at me.  I’m right here.”

“You look horrible,” I whispered. 

And he did.  Nick’s eye was swelling and his lip was cut.  Blood oozed from the gash and dripped onto the wooden floor.  There was a bloody smudge by his temple and the beginnings of a bruise marred his cheek.

“Thank you,” he dripped sarcastically, rolling his eyes for good measure.

 “You need to put something on that cut.  It could get infected.”

His grin widened and he chuckled.  “Always practical.”

“Oh, by the way, you need to clean out your carriage house.  The more wood inside, the quicker the fire will spread.”

“Alright.”

“Oh and…”

“Callista?” he interrupted.

“Hmm…”

“This probably isn’t the best time for these conversations.  Could this wait until later?”

“M’kay.”

I tried to sit up but fell back onto my elbows when dizziness overwhelmed me.  Nick rushed to steady my drained body.  When he moved I saw a person lying beside Nick.  The man was not moving; he must have been sleeping.  A memory pricked at my subconscious, but I quickly suppressed it.

“Is he okay?”

“I don’t think so.  I tried to keep him alive for the authorities, but the bastard took the easy way out.”

“He’s… dead?”  And we were alive?  But…

“He tripped over the bench and hit his head on the side of that table.”

I nodded deliberately and tried not to freak out.  It was wasted effort; there was no other response registering in my brain.  Lying next to the dead body of a man who had tried to kill me was petrifying.  My breathing hitched, and I began to hyperventilate.  Each time I tried not to look at the body, my eyes kept connecting with the vile stranger’s sightless gaze. 

My hero saw where I was focusing and moved to block my view.

“Who was he?”  Nick asked, serious.  He rubbed reassuring circles between my shoulder blades and kept a firm grip on my arm with his free hand.

“I don’t know.  I have never seen him before,” although his image would haunt me forever.

Nick took one last look at the man on the floor then reached to help me up.  I stared at Nick’s wiry frame then down at the man on the floor.  He was not as tall as Nick, but he had been very strong, built like a Mack Truck.  I shuddered when I thought of his hands around my neck; the flicker triggered my memory and his hands were once again squeezing the life from my body.  Strong arms reached out to hold me, and I kicked at my attacker.  I punched and twisted but he kept a firm grip. 

“Callista, it’s me.”  Nick’s voice called me to the present.   He held me silently as sobs raked my body, pulling me closer to his warmth.  Carefully he put my arm around his neck and helped me out the door.  I allowed him to carry most of my weight, unsuccessfully willing my own stubborn legs to move.

“Wait!” I shouted.  The noise was panicked and shrill but thankfully lost in the windy night.

We both froze as the echo bounced off Barnard Hall.

“What’s wrong, Callista?”  Nick sounded exhausted. 

“Someone may see you.”  It was an inane argument; someone had already seen him only that person was no longer breathing.  But we still had to be extremely careful, especially when there was a dead body involved. 

“It’s a little late to worry about that, I have already gone through your house, searching for you like a madman.  Besides, it’s after dark, so we should be able to sneak into the house undetected.”

“We could use the back stairs.  They are inside and to the left.”

“I know.  This was my house long before it was yours,” he reminded me.

“Oh, right.”

“Callista!”  Nick and I had made it halfway across the lawn when Rosa rushed out the back door.  She ran to me and her hand flew to her own throat.  “What has happened to you, sweet child?”

No logical explanation for being half beaten, bruised, and bloody seemed plausible.

“Can we tell you after we get inside?” Nick answered.  It was only mildly annoying that he had answered for me.  The carriage house had been longer than I had remembered and I was too out of breath to speak for myself. 

Rosa scowled at my escort.  She offered him a tight-lipped nod and ran ahead of us into the kitchen.  The questions I would be subjected to after tonight would never end. 

Nick and I sat on the worn wooden bench as Rosa did her best to patch both of us up.  She refrained from asking the questions burning the tip of her tongue, and for that I was thankful.  At this point, I did not know what my answers would be.  The first and most basic question being: who was Nick?  The answer to that question was also the most complicated.

After Rosa tended Nick’s wounds, she put her hands on her hips and looked between the two of us with a knowing glance.  I was mortified at the insinuation in her eyes.  Nick seemed amused.

“You need to contact the authorities, Rosa.  Our adversary did not fare as well.”

She nodded then went to make the necessary call.  When she left the room, I turned to my accomplice.  I waited to speak until Rosa’s low voice pierced the silence from the hallway.

“What are we going to do?”

You are going to speak with the police, and I am going to wait for you in your room.”

“But what about Rosa?  What am I going to tell her?”

“Do you trust her?” he asked, a smile playing on his broken lips.

I responded without thinking.  “Implicitly.”

“Then tell her the truth.”

“She’ll totally freak out.”

“Something tells me she’ll be more receptive than you give her credit for,” he said cryptically.

“But…”

“Shhh.  We can speak afterward.” 

Nick stood to leave just as Rosa came in. 

“Where do you think you are going, Nicholas?” she asked, her voice hard.  I had never heard my housekeeper speak to someone like that, let alone a stranger.  She most likely attributed the trouble we were in to Nick’s presence.  Little did she know, the dead man had been after me, and Nick had saved my life. 

“Upstairs.  Unless, of course, you think it a better idea for me to stay and attempt to explain my presence to the authorities.”  Nick returned her glare until she nodded her acquiescence.

The cops arrived ten minutes later.  Rosa escorted them directly to the crime scene, affording me a few more minutes to think.  When they came back inside, I recognized James from the last time the police had visited Barnard Hall.

“James.”  I nodded in greeting.  His new partner looked stern and unyielding but James’ brows came together with concern when he saw the state I was in.

“Miss Franklyn.  As I’m sure you already know, I have a few questions.”

“Go on.”  Let’s get this over with.  I wanted to be upstairs with Nick.  We had not had much time to discuss the whole situation, and I was anxious to hear his true reactions.  He had to be as freaked out as I was.  Someone had tried to kill us.

James placed a reassuring hand lightly on my shoulder before he said anything.  I looked into his green eyes, but he shifted away quickly.  “First off, are you alright?”

“I’m as good as can be expected.  Scared mostly.”

“We should call an ambulance.”

“No, I’m fine.  Really.” 

He studied me carefully.  “You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me what happened?”

I avoided Rosa’s stare when I began to recap a Nick-free story for the officers.  “I went to our carriage house this afternoon out of pure curiosity.  I had never been in there and I thought I would be able to find some antique treasures for the house.  I was upstairs when I noticed the door leading outside was open.  When I went to close it I saw an extra set of footprints in the dust.  Then, out of nowhere, some man came from behind me and started choking me.”

Involuntarily, my hand went to my neck.  It would be bruised; I bruised easily.  Everyone’s eyes fell to the sensitive skin.  It was tough to swallow, but the marks probably looked worse than they really were.

“I remember struggling.  He must have gotten off balance because he fell backward.  I woke up and he was just lying there…”

“Had you ever seen the man before?”  James asked quietly.  He ran his hands nervously through his short-cropped hair.

I shook my head.  Thankfully I did not need to identify the culprit; he had not escaped.  But his face and his cold eyes filled with lethal rage would haunt me until I too stopped breathing. 

“Is there anything else you can remember?  Anything else you think we should know?”

My eyes connected with Rosa’s.  She raised one eyebrow but remained silent.  I couldn’t tell them about Nick; there was no explanation for his presence—or existence.  Would Rosa keep my secret?

The two officers exchanged glances.  “Alright, Miss Franklyn, it has been a traumatic evening for you.  Rest up and be assured that we will get to the bottom of this.”

“Thank you.”

“And, Miss Franklyn,” James said, just as they reached the door.

“Yes?” 

“Please take extra precautions until we find out who is behind all of this.  I may be wrong, but knowing what happened to your parents, there could be a connection between the two events.”

Although I could feel myself being pulled upstairs, I did not bother going to my room.  Rosa would only hunt me down and grill me.  Our conversation needed to be a private one.  Silent questions had been burning in her eyes as the police had interviewed me.  She would not be put off for long.

Sure enough, I looked up and saw Rosa standing in the parlor doorway, leaning heavily on the frame.  I waited for her to speak but, when she didn’t, I decided to break the tense silence myself.

“Rosa, I…”

I stopped mid-sentence when the woman descended upon me and pulled me in for a hug.  She squeezed me tightly to her tiny frame, and I felt safe. 

“Hush, child.  You are safe.  That is all that matters tonight.”

By some miracle I had been spared another interrogation.  Maybe I would be able to come up with some explanation, with Nick’s help, for his presence. 

Nick.

I sighed.  I had been spared Rosa’s interrogation, but I had a strong feeling the questions were not over yet.

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