This is the ninth part of a prequel to Time's Fool, which begins here:
Letting himself in to Fulbeck's house, is it answers Charles Morland is seeking? Or revenge?
[CN: mention of suicide, murder and funerals]
Stepping in to the hall, he was aware of how loud his footsteps were upon the tiled floor. The sudden enormity of what he had done struck him, but it did not stop his steady walk. He did not know these rooms, saw nothing he recognised - not the carved, medieval staircase, the drawing room with its merry fire, the little parlour with the yellow curtains. But perhaps around here he would find Fulbeck's study, with his desk and whatever secrets it contained. Perhaps he would find the room where he slept – but that would be up those stairs, and there were no stairs in this narrow hall.
Morland took a book of matches from his pocket and lit one, leaving the glow of the oil lamp by its light, trying the first door he came to.
He entered a room, empty and unloved. What furniture there was lay shrouded under dust sheets, neglected. So, he walked on, striking new matches when the previous one began to burn his finger, letting the dead ones fall to the floor. His steps echoed, his very breath seemed harsher, louder than it had ever been, his heart a distant drumbeat, his footsteps a great, heavy pounding. Beyond the glow of his little match, the darkness was thick, like heavy fabric. The hair on the back of his neck prickled, as though strange eyes watched him, as though unknown breath blew gently on to his skin.
He walked on, through one room and another, because the thought of turning back, of catching sight of the things that might be hiding in that darkness was more than he could bear. The house was not that big. He would come to a room he knew soon, and he would -
A white faced shape stepped out to block his path. In shock, he reeled back, dropping his match, plunging himself into darkness, fear drenching him, ice-cold and breathless.
“Morland,” said a voice that he knew, but which had none of that well known warmth, “I don't believe I was expecting you.”
Fulbeck, he tried to say it, just as his fingers tried to grasp another match, but left him silent, and in darkness.
“There's no need to stutter,” Fulbeck said, “What is it now?”
“The,” Morland took hold of himself, “I let myself in. The door was unlocked.”
“No, it was not.”
“The, the other door. At the back. I thought...” but his words left him.
A pause. “Well, as you're here, you may as well come in to the light.” Then, with more impatience, “I've not laid on gas in this part of the house.”
The dim, white oval that was Fulbeck's face vanished, and there was no sound, only the a sense that he was moving away.
“Do come along,” and a door was opened, bringing them out into the shadow of that old, staircase, with its carvings and steps worn by time. There was the sound of a dial being turned and the soft light of the gas lamps filled the hall-way. Fulbeck stood with his arms folded across his chest, his face blank of expression. He wore nothing but a silk robe of dark purple, belted loosely at his waist. Beneath it, his nakedness was obvious, almost aggressive. “Well?”
“I,” Morland could not look at the white triangle of his friend's chest, at the hollows made by his shoulder bones. He looked down at his shoes, “I need to talk to you.”
“Im sorry,” he said, “I didn't... It wasn't my intention to...”
“Your intention to what? Break in?” There was no humour or forgiveness in the voice, “I assume you know what hour it is.”
“Yes,” said Morland and his hands fell to his sides, ashamed. Until his thumb caught against the weight of the gun in his pocket. There was a man – a soldier – who had been pulled from a river with a gash across his throat. “This is serious, Fulbeck. Did you kill Felicity?”
Fulbeck did not dismiss the question with a laugh, and there was no change to that cold stare of his, “So the boy comes to the point at last. I thought you couldn't think such things of me.”
“Tell me that you didn't and I'll believe you.”
And now it was there, just that edge of a sharp smile, “But what if I did?” The words were soft and teasing and as cruel as sly punches. “Ah. There's the conundrum. If I were a murderer, why on earth would I tell you the truth? Even you must have thought of that, but all the same, here you are, wanting me to,” a little tailing away, and those eyes glittered, “to what, precisely?”
He would not make himself ridiculous. “I just needed to know.”
“To reassure you. I see. And do I not reassure you? Is your curiosity still unsatisfied?”
“Fulbeck, please,” his voice cracked on the words.
“You said that you were in my debt. You said that I had...”
“Ah, so I did. And you have come here to call in my account.”
“I don't want to believe it,” he said, and swallowed, hard, two or three times to stem the the tears that were threatening him, “why must you speak like this? Why can't you...”
“Why can't I what? Pet you and tell you what a clever boy you have been, and how much I adore you?” A sigh, “At least Henry had a little originality. But, as you say, I am in your debt.” Fulbeck didn't even sneer, did not look anything but bored. “What is it you want?”
“Graves found the letters.”
“The ones you wrote to Felicity. The love letters.”
Fulbeck said nothing.
“He showed them to me. And to the police. He wanted to know if you had written them.”
“And you told him.”
“Of course not.”
“You lied to him?”
“What possessed you to do that?” Fulbeck's voice was quiet, but there was something dangerous in it, something that was ice pressed down so hard that it was invisible, frictionless, just waiting to trip you and shatter every bone.
Morland felt his palms begin to sweat despite the cold. “I was trying to, to protect you.”
“Were you? As if I could not explain away a dalliance with some girl?” he smiled, thin and critical, “But if the police find out my particular friend has been lying for me? In the circumstances, Morland, you can hardly expect thanks.”
He wanted, very much, for Fulbeck to stop in his cruelty. “Then you didn't,” he took a breath, “didn't kill her, I mean.”
“Oh, come now,” Fulbeck said, with no kindness, “these are civilised times.”
“Yes,” and despite it all, he was washed with relief. He tried to fight it, tried to cling on hard to the co-incidence, the man in the canal, the purpose that had brought him here. No use. No hope. He let out a long, deep breath “Yes, I'm sorry. It was,” and he rubbed his eyes, looking away, “it was poor Henry's funeral today.”
“Of course. And you are upset. But that is no excuse. Really, this is hardly the hour for a social call.”
Almost, almost it came burbling out of him, the Colonel's anger, the locked door of his room, the bruises that were still striping the backs of his thighs. But of course, he would not, would not make himself seem a complaining child. Instead, as levelly as he might, he said, “I know. It's only that they have found another body. Like hers.”
Morland looked down, at the tiles on the floor, the runner of rich carpet, at his own shoes, covered in dust from the road, “Fulbeck, I saw you with him.”
“The night after Henry died. I went out for... and I saw you with him.”
For a breath, for the silence of a moment, he thought Fulbeck would deny it with that same breezy contempt with which he dismissed anything for which he did not care. Then, he said, “And am I being warned, or threatened?”
“It looks bad.”
“I see,” a pause, and a measuring look, “or perhaps you mean that it will look bad if I don't convince you not to take your suspicions to the police. Am I to assume that you've not already done so?”
Ashamed, Morland shook his head.
“Then it appears I am not merely in your debt, I am in your power. Tell me, do you like the sensation?”
“Fulbeck,” he said, angry in reproach.
“What,” he seemed to weigh each word, mocking, “is the price of you discretion, Morland?”
“I don't have a price!” his voice pitched upwards, loud, but squeaking, unsteady. “Fulbeck, I'm not blackmailing you, I'm,” he ran his hands through his hair, desperate, “I just need you, I need you to -”
But he was stopped in middle of his knotted words, when a voice called something down the stairs.
“Julian. Is owt the matter there?”
"And on that bombshell..." as Alan Partridge would say, we end this update. Well, I didn't much see the creature riding a roadster bike around Barchester.
How on earth is Charles going to take this?
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