Old Henry Mortimer was extraordinarily wealthy and universally loathed, two traits which had served him well his entire life. He enjoyed fast cars, fine wines and a good argument.
His relatives never asked him for money. Not after what had happened Aunt Gertrude. She hadn’t asked for much, oh no, just a few hundred, to fix that dreadful leaky roof, and he wouldn’t be so cruel to his own flesh and blood, would he? The roof had come crashing down the next month and Aunt Gertrude had ended up in a gloomy boarding house overlooking the railway, where she made ends meet by taking in washing. He’d sent her a curt letter to say she’d been cut out of his will.
The will was a source of great amusement to Henry. Once a year, he would invite his relatives and a handful of acquaintances over for dinner to insult their looks, their jobs, their personalities, and their lives in general, while they squirmed and tried to keep the fake smiles on their faces by thinking about all the zeroes in his bank account. Every so often, one of them snapped. They would then be escorted off the premises by the butler, a man named Jenkins who looked like he’d been carved out of granite. Jenkins would hand the relative in question their hat and coat, and a note from Henry telling them to forget about their inheritance.
Henry Mortimer was now seventy-seven, and there were just four guests at this year’s dinner party.
The youngest was William McPherson, who had been Henry Mortimer’s private secretary for more than a decade. He was short, brown-haired and had perfected the art of going about his business without resorting to any facial expressions whatsoever. He thought about his employer’s personality in the same way a heart surgeon thought about blood: it was unpleasant, certainly, but no job is perfect, and anyway, he had bills to pay. McPherson suspected he was only invited to these gatherings to make the rest of the family anxious about the family fortune passing to an outsider.
The second guest was Amelia Mortimer, Henry’s sister. She was eight years younger than him and had spent her childhood having her braids cut off and her dolls abducted. She lived in a little honeysuckle-covered cottage with eight cats, and thought she would quite like to give the family fortune to charity. Not that she would ever tell Henry this, because he would be sure to ring for Jenkins if she did.
Seated at Henry Mortimer’s right was Susan Fisher, his niece. Her mother had been another sister of Henry’s, but she and her husband had died in a car crash when Susan was fourteen. There had been some money left in trust for Susan, but she’d spent it a long time ago. She’d also sold her mother’s jewellery and her father’s diamond tie pin. The pearls around her neck were the best fakes she could afford. Her job as a typist bored her. If she could, she’d quit on the dot and move to Paris to become an artist. What the hell did Henry need all that money for, anyway? Sit tight, she told herself, and smile politely.
The fourth and final guest was Jeremy Mortimer, Henry’s cousin. He had a tendency to laugh at his own jokes, a habit he fought hard to control during Henry’s dinner parties. Recently, one of Jeremy’s old army buddies had whispered to him about money to be made in Argentinian gold mines. He was bound to triple his investment, but he needed to hurry, because stocks were selling fast. If only Henry would do the decent thing and die. Nobody would mourn the old boy.
The table in Henry’s dining room was big enough to seat twenty. The four guests cast nervous glances at the empty spaces. Jenkins brought the soup in, and Amelia inquired politely after her older brother’s health.
‘Never better,’ Henry said. ‘But you look absolutely dreadful. Like you aged a decade since last year.’
He addressed the table as a whole. ‘Doesn’t she look dreadful? That’s what happens to women when they get old. They sag and droop. Nothing to do about it, except die.’
Amelia stared at her soup.
‘Not that you look any better, Jeremy,’ Henry continued. He poured himself another glass of wine. ‘You’ve really let yourself go. What was it you did again? Oh, right, nothing! Retired, pah.’
Jenkins brought in the main course, roast pheasant, and silence descended for all of three minutes while Jenkins put down plates and refilled glasses.
‘Susan,’ Henry said, as soon as the butler had left again.
She forced a smile onto her face. ‘Yes, Uncle Henry?’
‘You smear paint on canvases, don’t you, in the mistaken belief it constitutes art?’
‘I - I paint sometimes, yes.’
‘McPherson found a review of an exhibition of yours. Read it out,’ he added to his secretary.
McPherson took a newspaper clipping from his pocket and smoothed it out. He read in a flat, emotionless voice. ‘The best thing about Susan Fisher’s collection “Flowers at Night” is that it’s small. There are six paintings, and each is more depressing than the last.’
Susan dropped her fork with a clatter. Henry studied her face, alert for any sign of anger.
McPherson continued, ‘The use of colour is staid and unimaginative, and -’
He stopped as the door swung open. Amelia let out a little shriek and nearly toppled of her chair.
‘What the -’ began Henry.
In the doorway stood a tall figure, shrouded in a tattered black cloak. They held a scythe in one skeletal hand.
‘If this is someone’s idea of a joke,’ Henry said, glancing at McPherson. The secretary leaped to his feet to ring for Jenkins, but the cloaked figure blocked him with the scythe.
‘Sit down.’ The voice was a hiss of wind through the treetops, a rattle of bones in a dusty tomb, a breath of icy winter.
McPherson sat back down.
Susan Fisher was the first to find her voice. ‘Who are you?’
‘Death,’ said the figure. They lowered their hood and Henry Mortimer and his four guests found themselves staring into empty eye sockets.
Jeremy gripped the tablecloth, his knuckles white. The clock on the mantelpiece struck eight.
Death turned their head slightly towards the sound. ‘It appears I am early.’
They set the scythe against the wall, pulled out a chair and sat down with their hands flat on the table in front of them.
Henry’s face turned red with rage. ‘I demand that you leave my house this instant!’
‘I could. But I will come back.’
McPherson said something in a croaky voice. He cleared his throat and tried again. ‘When would you come back?’
‘In fifty-seven minutes,’ said Death, with a glance at the clock. ‘I might as well stay.’
Amelia looked at Susan. McPherson exchanged a glance with Jeremy. Henry stared at each of his guests in turn.
‘Is there strychnine in my wine?’ he said. He put down his knife and fork. ‘Arsenic in my soup? You bastards! Which one of you was it?’
None of the guests would meet his eyes. Only Death stared calmly back with those empty sockets.
Henry grabbed Susan’s wrist. ‘You could easily have slipped something into my drink! Jealous, aren’t you, of all my money? You want to get your hands on it before you are too old to strut around in high heels? Or were you planning on buying a studio in Paris?’
Susan tore herself out of his grasp and hugged herself.
‘I wouldn’t have thought you’d wanted to get your pretty little hands dirty,’ Henry said. He rounded on his younger sister. ‘Or was it you, Amelia?’
Amelia buried her face in her hands as Henry jumped out of his chair and bore down on her.
‘You’re mad,’ he said. ‘Madder than you were before, I mean. Living on your own with all those cats!’
He pulled her hands away from her face and bent down so he was level with her. ‘You're not a frail little old lady at all, are you, Amelia? You’re strong enough to cut my throat.’
Amelia had begun to shiver violently.
On the other side of the table, Death got to their feet. They circled the room slowly. Two steps, pause, two steps, pause. The guests hunched down in their chairs as they approached.
‘Jeremy,’ said Henry. He dropped Amelia’s hands and squeezed Jeremy’s shoulder. ‘My dear cousin Jeremy! It could be you, of course, but you don’t have the guts. You always were a coward. Invalided out of the army? That limp never convinced anyone. Or are you so desperate for money that you overcame your fear?’
On one side of Jeremy was Henry, on the other stood Death. Jeremy stared straight ahead, motionless except for a slight tremor in his hands.
‘Bastards,’ Henry hissed. ‘Greedy, selfish bastards! Couldn’t wait to get your grubby hands on my fortune, eh?’
He sat down again at his place at the head of the table. ‘Speak up, then. Who did it?’
Susan, Amelia, Jeremy and McPherson stared at their plates. They didn’t speak or move. The food grew cold on their plates.
Death stood behind Henry.
The clock struck eight thirty. And still no one spoke.
Henry’s hands curled into fists. ‘Who did it?’ His glance fell on McPherson. ‘The loyal secretary! Tell me, did it all become too much for you? All that hard work? Writing, filing, typing, answering the phone. Have you finally snapped?’
McPherson jumped to his feet. ‘Shut up!’
Three heads shot up. Amelia, Susan and Jeremy stared at McPherson with mingled shock and awe. Death wandered over and stood by his shoulder.
‘How dare you,’ said Henry, when he found his voice again.
‘No, how dare you! You have no right to speak to me like that! I’ve put up with you for years, when no one else has. How dare you accuse me of murder!’
McPherson had turned very pale, but he held up a hand when Henry was about to interrupt him. ‘I’m not finished. I don’t give a damn about your will. Basic human decency would be sufficient, but that’s never going to happen.’ He was breathing hard now, and his voice grew fainter. ‘Because you’re not a decent human being.’
Then he collapsed in his chair. Death glanced at the clock and took a few steps back.
‘He’s right!’ said Susan. ‘And who says Death is here for Uncle Henry?’
‘It could be any of us,’ said Jeremy.
‘It could be all of us! What if Uncle Henry is the murderer? Maybe he’s dying but he wants no one to inherit, so he laced the wine with strychnine!’
Amelia stared in horror at her glass.
‘Oh, steady on, old girl,’ said Jeremy, and patted her on the shoulder.
‘Get off me!’ She threw his arm off and burst into tears.
‘Calm down, you old hag!’
Death peered over Jeremy’s shoulder as Amelia sobbed harder than ever.
Jeremy slapped her in the face. For perhaps a second, she froze with her eyes wide open in shock. Then she grabbed the carving knife from the table and drove it up under Jeremy’s ribs.
Susan screamed as Jeremy collapsed on the ground. Blood was staining the polished wooden floors. Death looked at the clock, shook their head silently and retreated into a shadowy corner.
Amelia dropped the knife. ‘Oh no, oh dear, oh no…’
‘Murderer!’ Henry yelled. ‘I knew it!’
He lunged at her and got his hands around her throat. She scrabbled at his face and hands, but her eyes were already becoming unfocused.
‘Stop it!’ Susan pulled at his shoulder ineffectively. In desperation, she grabbed a wine bottle from the table and smashed it against his head. He jerked and released Amelia, who slumped forward onto the table. Susan struck Henry again, and this time he collapsed. He swung one arm out as he fell and caught Susan in the stomach. She went down with a shriek and struck her head on the way down.
So there they lay, Henry Mortimer and his four dinner guests. Amelia was the first to go. She drew a few shaky, rasping breaths, but her windpipe was crushed. McPherson’s heart, never the strongest, fluttered and gave up around the same time that blood loss did for Jeremy. Susan and Henry held out the longest. A wine bottle to the back of his skull and the sharp edge of the table to the side of hers both proved fatal.
So in the end Death gathered up five souls.
The clock struck nine.
‘Perfectly on time,’ said Death.