DI Jennings was sat on a small fold out stool opposite Harry, he was using a flowery print ironing board as a desk to lean on as he wrote. If it wasn’t so ridiculous, it would be funny.
Several hours had passed since he and Matthew had discovered Ernest’s dead body, Harry wasn’t sure exactly how many, he never wore a watch and there was no clock in the room they’d locked him in.
When the police had finally arrived, they’d taken his mobile from him and shoved him alone into this room. Paranoia told him that he was the chief suspect, that they’d shut him in here for the safety of the others, who were all laughing and emptying the drinks cabinet as they told the Detective exactly how he must have done it.
Common sense, however, was whispering in his other ear and informing him that everybody had been shut away, to stop anybody getting their stories straight with each other before being questioned by the police. Still, after all this time on his own – had it been twenty minutes, three hours? He didn’t know – the paranoia on his shoulder was getting louder and louder.
Matthew hadn’t believed him at first, when Harry had told him his grandfather was dead, he’d had to come over and find out for himself. As he backed away, clutching his stomach and gagging, Harry had dialled triple nine on his phone. He told the operator what had happened, but then she’d asked for the address and he began to splutter down the line that he didn’t know where he was.
He was trying to describe the surrounding area, what he could remember from the car journey – a large, dead oak tree, recently struck by lightning, a long gravel path, with a hedge alongside it – as Pat entered the room. She looked from Harry gesturing wildly with one hand as if the operator would be able to determine the address with unseen vague hand movements, to Matthew vomiting and shaking on the floor, before her eyes finally rested on Ernest’s corpse, slumped over the desk. A loud scream shot from her lips.
He had thrust phone into her hands and half listened to her babbling about an ambulance as he attempted to soothe Matthew, and stop him from throwing up, by rubbing his back gently.
Disturbed by Pat’s scream, Nicola had been the first person to rush into the room, before stumbling back in surprise at what she found. Harry tried to usher everyone out of the room, literally having to drag Matthew out, and as he shut the door Victoria had appeared, demanding an explanation.
One by one the rest of the family arrived, disturbed by the noise, and wanted to know just what had happened. As Harry told them, their initial shock soon turned to suspicion and everyone stiffened as the tension in the corridor grew.
One of them, gathered there outside the crime scene, was a murderer, and they were all looking warily at each other, not letting anyone stand too close to them. Victoria started demanding to see his body, she said that she wouldn’t believe it until she saw it with her own eyes, and she pushed her way past Frederick and Harry into the old man’s study. Frederick tried to pull her away from the desk, but by then, the damage had been done. They’d all seen his corpse.
Elizabeth, in particular, was hysterical and while Robert tried to calm her down, Frederick and Reece once more moved everyone out into the hallway.
Fairly quickly an ambulance crew had turned up. Thirty seconds behind them a squad car with sirens blazing, crunched to a halt on the gravel driveway, sending a cloud of dust up into the beam of light produced by the floodlight above the front door.
Several more uniformed officers arrived, the paramedics departed, and one bleary eyed officer assembled everyone in the drinks room, adopted his best sombre tone and regretfully informed them all that Ernest Cromwell had passed.
Bleary eyed sombre cop explained that they would need to wait for the Detective to arrive, that he was on his way, but until he did arrive, they would all have to wait alone. Then he and several other officers, started to take them one by one from the room. He marched Harry past Ernest’s bathroom, past Ernest’s study, where Harry assumed the body still lay, diligently being inspected by a team of forensic officers.
Then he had sat in there, slowly waiting for the detective to arrive, waiting for the day to be over. The officer had suggested that Harry try to get some sleep, that the detective had to cross quite a distance to get here, and that he would want to examine the crime scene before even thinking about speaking to any of them, but he couldn’t sleep.
He kept thinking about Cromwell’s cold, pulse-less neck, about all the people he’d met that night. Everyone had a motive, including himself, and possibly even Joshua at a stretch, though he couldn’t quite imagine him sneaking up on his great-grandfather and pulling a trigger.
Harry had just started to doze off, sat on the floor leaning against the washing machine when Jennings had burst in.
“Harry Hicks,” he’d said, looking down at him, half asleep sat next to a pile of dirty clothes, “I never realised how glamorous a film star’s life could be.”
“This is nothing,” he said pulling himself up, “you should see what I get up to at New Years.”
“I’m DI Sam Jennings,” he offered his hand, which Harry gently shook, “I need to ask you a few questions about what happened here tonight.”
“I know, I’ve been waiting to answer them for about six hours now.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Mr Hicks, it’s twenty minutes to five, you’ve been in here less than three hours.”
“Still, not the best start to Christmas Day is it?”
“Yes, well, I apologise for the wait, but the traffic was… well, I’ll be honest with you, the traffic was non-existent, but this place is in the middle of nowhere, and it took me a while to find it.”
“Hey, not a problem, I’ve been looking to get some alone time, for a while now, this was just the break I needed.”
“Right, Turner, any chance of a chair?” The young officer who had followed Jennings in glanced around for a moment, before pulling out a fold away stool from behind the door. “You want me to sit on this? I suppose you want me to use the ironing board as a desk as well, don’t you?”
Turner simply shrugged and dragged the ironing board over in front of Jennings.
“Why don’t you have a seat?” The detective gestured to him and Harry rolled his eyes before hauling himself to sit on the edge of the washing machine.
He looked down at Jennings slightly too large for the stool, definitely too grizzled for the patterned ironing board cover. “Is this… usual?”
“It’s Christmas Day, and my marriage is over if I miss dinner for a third year running. I’m going to have somebody locked away for this murder by lunchtime. If that means I have to bend the rules a little bit, so be it.”
“Fine. Where do you want to start?”
“Why don’t we start with you telling us why you’re here?”
“This is where your man shoved me when he split us all up.”
“No, I don’t mean, here in this room, I mean here in this house, in these people’s lives? Why aren’t you with your family?”
“I don’t really have any family.” Harry said quietly. “Frederick was coming back to England for Christmas, he said I could come along. How could I refuse?”
“It’s all a bit odd, isn’t it? You and him?”
“In what way?”
“You’re a big Hollywood heartthrob, he’s a gay man.”
“He’s an Englishman,” Harry smiled, inwardly cursing himself, as the instinct to protect his secret kicked in automatically, “I’m an Englishman. We met in a British pub in Hollywood, the Bulldog.”
“So, you’re friends, nothing more?” Jennings asked.
“Nothing more.” Harry said quietly.
“I see.” He scribbled down a note in his pad. “Tell me, why do you suppose Mr Cromwell was murdered? Who could possibly want to see him dead?”
“How big is that notepad of yours?”
Jennings gave a curt nod. “Are you suggesting that he was not short of enemies?”
“I guess you could say that. There was a large argument over dinner about… nothing. Everything, really.”
“What started it?”
Harry frowned as he tried to think back. “Ernest did. He announced to his family he was going to make Robert his heir, put him in charge of the business.”
“Forrester, he’s here tonight. I’m not sure where you’ve put him though.”
“And his family didn’t like it?”
“Not one bit.”
“Reece, Jennifer. Gary. I guess Gary was probably the most upset about it.”
“Do you believe that Gary was upset enough to kill his father, simply because of his announcement?” Jennings asked.
“I guess it wasn’t entirely the announcement, more of the way he said it.”
“How do you mean?”
“He insulted the entire room, told them just why he wasn’t putting any of them in charge.”
“And why was that?”
“Umm, I don’t know,” Harry frowned, “Gary’s an alcoholic, Reece is going the same way. Nicola, Jennifer, Fiona, they’re all women – and whores as well, apparently.”
“What about the others?” Jennings asked, checking the notepad in front of him. “Elizabeth? Frederick?”
“I don’t think Mrs Cromwell’s ever been interested in running the business, she seemed perfectly happy about the whole situation.”
“So Elizabeth Cromwell is the only person who doesn’t have a motive, as far as you’re concerned?”
“I wouldn’t exactly say that. Ernest turned on Frederick, pretty much told him that because he was gay, he was worthless. He accused his mother of not standing up for him. Maybe she finally did, though, I’m not sure I can imagine her shooting him.”
Jennings wrote something down on his pad, paused for a moment, carefully choosing his words. “How close did you get to the body, Mr Hicks?”
“Close enough to know I didn’t want to get any closer. To be honest, I knew that when he was alive as well?”
“You’re an expert in gunshot wounds, are you? You knew straight away that Mr Cromwell had been shot?”
“Umm, no. I just saw the gun on the side and assumed.”
Jennings motioned for the young officer to come over. He pointed at something on his pad, and Turner nodded, before quietly leaving the room.
“Just to confirm, make sure everything matches up, what ‘side’ did you see the gun on.”
“I’m just trying to establish everybody’s movements, I need to know if anything was moved by anyone. Please, where was the gun?”
“It was just on the edge of the desk. The corner closest to the door.”
“Ok, so what happened after Cromwell’s announcement? Anybody make any death threats?”
“No. Gary let slip that Ernest had had another son, years before, but he’s not around anymore. Everybody started arguing and then when Ernest started picking on Frederick, Matthew told everyone that he was gay as well.”
“Matthew is…” Jennings checked his notes again, “Gary’s son, Cromwell’s grandson?”
“I’m guessing the old man didn’t like this very much?”
“What about Victoria, Frederick’s sister?”
“What about her?” Harry asked.
“Well, she’s done it before. She killed her father when he attacked her family.”
“They argued about that, he brought it up, threatened to tell Joshua, that’s Victoria’s son, what she’d done. But I hardly think that she would have – ”
“She stabbed her father in the back three times. Her grandfather died due to a… similar wound in his back.”
“It’s completely different.”
“If you insist. Who do you think did it then?”
“I don’t know, I guess… Robert. He and Ernest had a huge argument.”
Jennings frowned. “They had an argument? What about? The man was making him his heir.”
“He was. He changed his mind.”
“Ernest and I walked in on Robert. He was arguing with Victoria and Frederick.”
“Victoria and Robert slept together, years ago. He’s Joshua’s father. And…” Harry hesitated. “Frederick and Robert slept together as well. Robert used him to convince Ernest to give him a job.”
“And Ernest wasn’t impressed?”
“Not particularly. He told Robert, he wouldn’t leave him in charge of the business.”
“I’ve already spoken to Mrs Cromwell, she says that Forrester was in bed with her until her father’s body was discovered.”
Harry smiled. “She doesn’t know what he was up to with her children. Perhaps you should tell her and then ask her again.”
“I’ll do the police-work, thank you, Mr Hicks.” Jennings frowned a little but made a note on his pad anyway. “What did you do for the rest of the evening?”
“Not much,” Harry shrugged, “I talked with Freddie for a while. He was… he was upset that Robert had used him. Then I got a call from my agent, I spoke to her for about twenty, thirty minutes maybe.”
“So, when you finished the call with your agent, that would have been, what? Ten o’clock?”
“More like ten thirty,” Harry said, “I went down to the kitchen to get myself something to eat, I passed that big grandfather clock in the hall on the way.”
“Was there anyone else in the kitchen with you?”
“Ella, briefly, but she left to… she went to have a shower. It was just me and Pat, we talked for a while.” Harry wasn’t sure why he didn’t mention Reece’s attack on Ella, perhaps to protect her. It wasn’t as if it had anything to do with the old man’s death. Reece would have killed me before his grandfather.
“What did you talk about?”
“She told me about Raymond, that’s Ernest’s son, the one he lied to his family about.”
“I see. But you were with Matthew Cromwell when you discovered Ernest’s body?”
“Yeah. While Pat and I were talking, Ernest came into the kitchen. Said he needed witnesses for his new will, his lawyer had arrived by then.”
“I was under the impression that he didn’t like you very much?”
“He didn’t. But he only needed a signature.”
“Do you know what this new will said, Mr Hicks?”
“Not a clue. I couldn’t have cared less. I just signed the thing.” Harry shifted uncomfortably as another lie slipped out, and so easily.
“So, what did you do then?”
“I left him in his study.”
“With his lawyer and…” Jennings checked his notes again, “Patricia French?”
“No,” Harry avoided eye contact with him, “they’d already left by then. I stayed behind for a couple of minutes. I wanted to talk to him.”
“Ah, the gay grandsons. How lucky they are to have such a caring… friend like you sticking up for them. Do you remember seeing the gun on the desk when you were talking to the deceased?”
“Yes. He got something out from his safe, got it out then.”
“Was this before or after Mrs French and Mr Lloyd left the room?”
“It was just you and him?”
“According to you, the man was shot in the back with his own gun. That’s not a pre-meditated murder, that’s spur of the moment, an opportunity. Seems like not only were you the last to see him alive, you were the only one to know the gun was there. Mr Hicks, did you kill Ernest Cromwell?”
Harry almost choked on his own tongue as he felt Jennings eyes bore into him, gauging his reaction. Jennings was clearly hoping to catch him off guard. “What? No! I talked to him, that’s all. I was out of there before midnight.”
“Can anyone vouch for that?”
“Matthew. He saw me leave. I spent the rest of the night with him, he was upset, needed someone to talk to.”
“And then you discovered Mr Cromwell’s body?”
“That’s right. Matthew threw up and I rang the police. Several hours later, you turned up.”
He ignored Harry’s last comment and carefully scrutinised his notebook for a few moments. “Well, thank you, Mr Hicks,” he said with a false smile, “you’ve been most helpful. If you would just stay in here a little while longer, I may have some more questions for you a little later on.”
He stood up and walked out of the room, without even waiting for a response from Harry. Once again, Harry was left on his own, contemplating the night’s events.
* * *
Harry was woken up by the sound of the door opening. Again, he didn’t know what the time was, but he knew that some time had passed since Jennings had last visited him, early morning sunlight was streaming in through the small high window set in the window opposite.
“You’ve been lying to me, Mr Hicks.” Jennings snarled at Harry, as he pulled himself up.
Before he had been woken up, Harry had been dreaming that he was being arrested for Ernest’s murder, and no matter how much he protested his innocence, no one had believed him. He’d been dragged from the house in handcuffs, with everybody watching, Frederick hugging Robert for support, Matthew stood at the back, ignoring him and above them all, the large portrait of Ernest looking down and laughing maniacally.
Now Jennings was looking down at him, and he wasn’t looking happy at all.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean?”
Harry stared at him for a minute, but he stared back, just as hard. “Someone told you I was gay.”
“Oh, not someone, Mr Hicks, some people. Apparently, it’s almost public knowledge these days.”
“That’s exactly the point though, isn’t it? It’s not public knowledge, I can’t really afford for people to know. It would ruin my career. Do you honestly think that – ”
“What I think Mr Hicks, is that it’s Christmas Day, there’s been a murder, and one of the suspects is lying to me.”
“It’s not relevant.”
“I decide what’s relevant, not you!” He shouted so loudly, that Harry thought the vibrations could probably be felt in every room in the house.
“Who told?” Harry asked as Jennings sat himself back down at the ironing board, noticing for the first time, that he had brought a small laptop in with him.
“Let’s see, there’s your boyfriend, his sister, Robert Forrester, he seemed quite keen for me to know. And young Matthew.”
Harry sighed, a small smile on his lips. “He said he wouldn’t tell.”
“Don’t be too hard on the kid, he didn’t have a choice. He was trying to protect you.”
“Protect me? What do you mean?”
“Like I said, Robert was very adamant that I know that you were arguing with Mr Cromwell. He seems to think that you might have killed him.”
“What? Why could he possibly think that?”
“Oh, you’ve got to admit, it would be rather poetic. A rather homophobic old man, killed by a gay man… shooting at him from behind. It’s all rather… Freudian.”
“I didn’t kill him.”
Jennings stared at him for a few moments. “I know. In fact, that’s about all I do know at this point.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve been able to determine that Mr Cromwell didn’t die until some point after midnight. At 11.55 he made a phone call to an automated service, transferring some money from his personal account to the account of Mr Gregory Lloyd, presumably payments for his services tonight. You were with Matthew Cromwell by that time.”
Harry frowned. He’d had dealings with the police before, and his attitude seemed off. “And you’re just going to take my word for it?”
“Well, not just yours. Matthew has sworn to it as well. Plus, we have this.” He patted the laptop.
“Your alibi.” Jennings lifted the top of the laptop, waited for the screen to load and then pressed play on a video clip.
A view of Matthew’s bedroom appeared, a small clock in the corner indicated the time was 23:52.
“Just making sure it’s turned off.” Matthew moved away from the screen and Harry could his own face clearly displayed upon it.
Jennings quickly tapped a few keys and Harry watched in horror, as he and Matthew both quickly moved around the room, quickly gesturing to each other. Jennings looked away from the screen and turned to Harry as the video showed him pulling Matthew’s clothes from him. The two of them quickly started to have sex on the bed, both stark naked, faces in clear view.
Jennings closed the lid shut. “The video shows you and Matthew in the room until 01:07. The records show that your phone call to the emergency services came through at 01:13. Obviously, we’ll have to get the video verified, but it looks like you’re in the clear, Mr Hicks.”
“Do you know who did do it?”
“I have my suspicions. You were right about Mrs Cromwell, though. Once I told her the truth about Forrester and her children, she suddenly remembered that he was in the bathroom when she woke up. She has no idea where he was all night.”
“I told you.”
“Since you are so clued up on the goings on in this house, maybe you could help us with another little mystery. The gun, the one you saw on the desk. The thing is, we can’t find it.”
“What? It was right there.”
“Who else was in the room at the time?”
“Umm…” Harry struggled to remember, “Matthew. Nicola. Pat. Everyone was in there at one point, Victoria pushed her way in and everyone else followed.”
“You didn’t see anybody take the gun?”
Harry shook his head quietly, and found his gaze drifting to the laptop on the board in front of him. “If… If the media get hold of that – ”
“The media will be the last of your worries.” Jennings kept a stony expression on his face. “You’re not going to be charged with murder, Hicks, but someone’s going to want to talk to you about sleeping with a minor.”
“What? He’s sixteen!”
“In six days time.”
Suddenly Harry felt as if his insides had collapsed, as if he was no longer a man, but a hollow shell of skin and hair. This was it. His life, his career. Everything he’d ever done for Vincent. It was over. He’d be branded a sex offender and completely shunned by everyone he knew.
Harry pulled myself up from the floor and slowly followed him towards the door. “Are you arresting me? Because of Matthew?”
“I could, but I won’t. Just remember this, I don’t like being surprised, Hicks, if I find out you’ve told me any more lies, I’ll have you down that police station on statutory rape charges so quickly, you won’t have time to pack your Oscar.”
* * *
“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” Harry asked Jennings, stopping outside the oak-panelled door to Ernest’s drinks room.
“Don’t worry, Hicks,” Jennings muttered as he pushed open the door, “your secret’s safe with me.”
Harry saw his gaze settle on Pat, who was sitting on a chair just inside the door, he wondered if she’d told him about her affair with her boss.
“Looks like I’m the last to arrive to the party.” He said, looking around at everyone sat around the room on assorted chairs. Reece was leaning against the wall on the far side of the room, looking out at the early morning sunshine.
“Hey,” Robert raised his voice, as he pulled himself up from the small cards table, “why are you keeping us all locked up in here like animals? When are you going to let us out?”
“I’ve already warned you, Forrester, it might be a good idea if you try to keep a lid on that temper of yours. I’ll be with you shortly.” With that, Jennings turned and left, closing the door behind him.
Robert stood close and looked down at Harry, curling his lip in a sneer. “We were just talking about you.”
“Not really,” he said coldly, “we were just contemplating why he might have kept you longer than the rest of us.”
“Turns out he’s a fan. Wanted my autograph”
“Robert has a theory,” Victoria said, sitting on the floor with Joshua as he played with a few small toys, “he thinks that since you were the last to see him, you killed him.”
“Ernest’s murderer was the last person to see him alive, since I didn’t kill him, I wasn’t the last person to see him.” Harry looked Robert in the eyes. “Do you think you can grasp the logic of that?”
“That’s not entirely true. We know you were the last to see him, Pat told us she left you alone in his office with him.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Pat rasped, sounding as if something was stuck in her throat, “I wasn’t meaning that you killed him.”
“He has an alibi.” Matthew said slowly and clearly, almost as if he’d said it a thousand times already. He was sat on one end of a couch, there was a spare seat on his left, and on the far end sat Frederick, who was just looking at Harry quietly.
“Ah, yes, I forgot,” Gary spoke up, but remained sitting at the same table Robert had stood up from, he was the only other person sat there, “he was with you all night, in your bedroom.”
“It wasn’t like that. I was just giving him some advice, listening to him. Someone had to.”
“Not all night.” Frederick mumbled.
“Matthew said the two of you were in his bedroom all night, you weren’t. I went up there to talk to him, there was no answer. Either you weren’t in there, or – ”
“We were in here.” Matthew quickly interrupted his cousin. “We came in here for a few minutes.”
“You came in here?” Jennifer asked, suddenly sitting a little more rigid on another couch. “Umm… what for?”
“Well…” Harry stumbled, looking down at her, “it had been a long night, I thought we could both use a drink.”
“You know he’s under age, right?” Nicola, sat next to Jennifer, looked at me accusingly.
“Believe me, I’m well aware of that fact.”
“Sodomy,” Robert sneered at him, “supplying alcohol to a minor, murder. No wonder the police kept you in there so long.”
“Sodomy isn’t a crime, Robert, you should know that.” Robert’s face flushed with anger and he grabbed Harry by the collar of his shirt and shoved him against the door.
“Just sit down!” Elizabeth stood over by the drinks cabinet shouted across the room at Robert. When he didn’t release his grip on Harry’s neck, she threw a scotch glass across the room. “Sit down!”
The glass smashed into the wall with a thud causing shards to fall down just next to Ella’s chair. Ella gave a high yelp and leaned over towards Pat to avoid the debris.
Robert stared into Harry’s eyes for another moment, before letting him go and turning back to the table. Both Frederick and Matthew were trying to catch Harry’s eye, but he purposefully avoided them and sat on the couch next to Jennifer.
For a few moments, there was silence.
“I need to go to the toilet.” Fiona said quietly, staring straight out in front of her, her eyes on a bookcase.
“Just hold it darling,” Jennifer said, just as quietly, “they can’t keep us in here much longer.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Reece muttered, continuing to watch something in the distant hedgerow, “they’re probably monitoring this room, got it bugged or something. Trying to catch one of us out, maybe all of us, maybe they think we did it together.”
“You can hardly blame them for thinking that,” Victoria said, “I don’t think anyone in here can honestly say they’re sad to see him go.”
Elizabeth glared at her daughter but said nothing, as the door opened and Jennings entered, followed by two uniformed policemen and Gregory Lloyd, Ernest’s lawyer.
“Good news everyone, we’ve found the old man’s will. Anyone want to know what it says?” A silence filled the room as Jennings looked at us all, a glint in his eye. “Oh, come on, all that money, all that power, you must be wondering which one of you lucky people gets it all. No? Well, I’m keen to know. Mr Lloyd?”
Gregory took a deep breath as he looked at Jennings sideways, before unfolding the piece of paper. “This is the last will and testament of Ernest Cromwell, I hereby declare that all previous – ”
“Oh come on, Lloyd, skip the boring stuff,” Jennings looked around, grinning wildly, “just give us the gist, who gets the money?”
“Upon the death of Mr Ernest Cromwell, all his assets shall be divided evenly between Mr Frederick Cromwell…” A few people looked at Frederick in surprise as the lawyer hesitated. “And his wife. Should Mr Frederick Cromwell not be married within twelve months of the death of Mr Ernest Cromwell and remain so for a period of two years, all assets will be sold off and the money donated to local government, to do with as they deem fit. Mr Frederick Cromwell’s claim on the inheritance shall be declared invalid if the union does not last for a minimum of twenty four months or produce a child of either sex.”
“Local government, eh?” Jennings smiled. “Sound like I’m going to get a shiny new desk at work.”
Everyone in the room, but Pat and Harry seemed shocked, they merely looked at each other and nodded. Only one other person in the room seemed unaffected by this announcement. Gary said nothing, he didn’t move or flinch as he heard the details of Ernest’s will. He simply stared into his glass, swirling the clear liquid around the bottom of it.
Read the next chapter here