The Scandalous Smuggler.
Or: Murder at Malharbour Manor
Rain lashed the tall windows of the gallery. Spray from the harbour below mixed with the downpour and left salt stains on the panes. Night's darkness made each square of glass a little mirror and Andrew's reflected face followed him, lit golden by his candle, as he tiptoed down the long room, excitement and guilt in his wide blue eyes. He was stalking dangerous prey, and he didn't know if he was eager or afraid to finally catch it.
Andrew could smell Philip's perfume, civet and musk, as smoky dark as the man's eyes. He could all but see Philip's footsteps ahead of him, and his stomach clenched delightfully as he emerged from the long gallery in time to just catch the swing of coat tails as Philip disappeared up the stair to the tower.
A sharp crack interrupted his pursuit. Had someone thrown a stone against one of the windows? When he turned, he saw out on the black sea a bobbing light and a haze of sparks, as the wind blew away the residue of cannon fire. What on earth?
When he lifted his candle to clear his line of sight, the distant light also lifted, then lowered, fading in and out of sight in a pattern that seemed a deliberate signal. Annoyance swamped Andrew's lustful anticipation. That was a ship out there. And no legitimate vessel would be coming into shore in this weather. It must be… a small glimmer of excitement took the place of his frustration. It must be the smugglers William had told him about. He should abandon this immoral game and find William. They could spend the evening together, hunting pirates in the dark. Show William's father that the young man wasn't the indolent scapegrace Septimus took him for. Andrew thought about mortal peril faced shoulder to shoulder, pulse quickening danger and heroism, together. That might be more exciting yet than taking Philip up on his vague hints.
What did he know about Philip after all, except that his mouth had a cruel curve to it when he smiled, and there were secrets in his dark eyes that made Andrew shiver?
Instinctively, almost against his own will, he took a step forward, up the stairs. It could be a blackmailer's smile, and he a fool for letting it fill his dreams with thoughts of erotic torment.
He reached the top of the stairs in a haze of desire and reluctance. Light shone from beneath the closed door of the first bedroom to his left. He should not do this. Not with a man he didn't know, didn't trust. One conviction surely was already one too many?
But he spread a hand on the door and pushed gently. It swung open, creaking. There was an instant when he saw Philip's back to him, Philip's hand raised, and in it a burning lantern. Philip spun, his gaze slashing across Andrew's face. Andrew took a step back, pushed by the naked malevolence, his heart thundering in his ears. And then a woman's scream echoed piercingly in the corridor. A door slammed, and Evangeline's maid Julia came hurtling out from the master bedroom and threw herself into Andrew's arms.
"Blood, sir! All dripping down the curtains!" Tears showered onto his shoulder as she clung on to him hard. "They've killed him, sir. Septimus Hambley is dead."
Added by Charlie Cochrane:
Andrew's father had always said it was only at times of crisis that one could test a man's mettle. He prayed that he'd not fail in this examination, especially in front of Philip.
"Hush, Julia, now." He stroked the girl's hair. "Are you sure of what you've found?"
"How could I be mistaken? I won't go back in there, sir. I can't." Julia crossed herself, her trembling hand making strange shadows in the lantern's light.
"No-one will make you. Go and tell your mistress while Mr Hambley and I attend to the master." He found a small lamp, lighting it from the lantern with a taper. "Take this. Stay with Miss Evangeline until one of us comes for you."
"Come, there's no time to be lost." Andrew waited until the maid was out of earshot. "Philip. Philip."
Philip had remained quiet through the whole conversation, holding the lantern in a hand whose trembling exceeded Julia's. Suddenly he shook himself, as if rousing from a dream. "Aye. Lead on."
Septimus' room was the other end of the narrow corridor, although the shadows and the thoughts of horrors lying ahead made the spaces seem cavernous.
"Wait." Andrew laid a hand on his friend's arm. "Let me go in first."