“Uncle Alb! I’m so glad you’re here - step right in.”
The portly, heavily mustached figure of Uncle Albert stepped into the house, closely followed by his thin, shrew-faced wife, Aunt Matilda.
“Vera, my dear! So good to see you again -”
He bent over and kissed her heartily on the cheek. Vera smiled and kissed him back before turning to the snow-covered figure of her aunt.
“Aunt Matilda - let me help you with your things. Just started snowing?”
“Obviously - the ground’s hardly covered. And I’m not so old I need help taking off my things.”
Aunt Matilda jerked off her scarf and hat, her grey eyes snapping.
Vera shrugged, trying not to smile. “As you please.”
“Are we the only ones here, Vera?”
“Yes. I arrived here myself just a few minutes ago.”
“Oh? Well, where is Grandmother?”
Vera shrugged, her forehead wrinkling into a frown. “That’s the problem - I don’t know. I knocked for about five minutes, and when I didn’t get an answer, I let myself in. She keeps a spare key under the doormat, you know.”
Uncle Albert grunted noncommittally, and Aunt Matilda glared at him.
“Albert, don’t snort. It’s most unbecoming.”
Uncle Albert grunted again.
“I’m sorry, my dear!”
He turned back to Vera.
“So you let yourself in, and haven’t seen any sign of the old lady?”
Vera shook her head. “No. I didn’t want to go poking around upstairs just yet. It can be so, so-”
She broke off and flushed slightly. “I guess I’m a bit of a coward, Uncle Alb, but this house scares me a bit sometimes. It’s just so big, and large, and empty...I don’t see how she can live here at all.”
“Yes, well, each to his own! Don’t worry about it, though. We can go up together -”
He was interrupted by the doorbell.
“I’ll get it!”
Vera rushed over to the door and flung it open, letting in a shower of snow. A tall figure stepped inside, laughing merrily.
“Just in time, Vera! I didn’t bring any snow gear - didn’t think I’d need it! Guess I should have, though.”
Vera flung herself into his arms, ignoring the snow coating his jacket.
“Vera, you’ll get yourself all wet!” But Roger was laughing as he said it, squeezing her tightly.
“Such indecency! Really, I don’t know what to make of young people these days!”
They broke apart and found Aunt Matilda glaring at them over her spectacles.
“If you are going to embrace each other in that fashion,” she said, her voice dripping with disapproval, “...then I advise you do it somewhere private. It is most improper.”
“But Aunt Matilda,” Vera said, her eyes twinkling saucily, “Nothing like that is improper now. In fact, it’s quite common.”
“Common, my foot! Makes one quite queasy...”
And she stalked out of the room, still muttering angrily under her breath.
“Um, sorry about that.” Uncle Albert looked distinctly uncomfortable. Vera wished she could say something to soothe him, but she was trying not to laugh.
It was Roger who saved the situation, however. “That’s alright, Albert. Quite understandable - sounds just like my mother.”
Vera burst out laughing. Uncle Albert, realizing that neither one of the couple was hurt by Aunt Matilda’s remarks, allowed himself a faint smile.
“Well, quite glad it’s alright. I was going to say, Roger, right before you walked in, that we have to figure out where our Grandmother is - or Mrs. Ketterly to you. She wasn’t downstairs to welcome any of us.”
“You don’t know where she is?”
“Correct. This house is so big, she might have not heard us come in at all. But it’s still odd.”
“Very,” Roger murmured, his face showing signs of concern.
“She’s probably just upstairs. I can slip up and find her, if you wish,” Vera volunteered.
Uncle Albert shot her a quizzical look. “But, my dear, you just said-”
“I can go,” Vera said firmly. She looked hard at Uncle Albert, silently telling him not to say anymore. She didn’t want to look like a coward in front of Roger, a baby scared of a big, empty house…
Vera nodded crisply and turned to go up.
“Vera, want me to come up with you?”
Vera turned back, her face softening. “No, that’s alright, Roger. Go stand by the fire and try to dry off, or change into something warmer. You’re dripping wet.”
Roger grinned. “You read my mind, dearest. Exactly what I was hoping you would say. Not that I’m selfish or anything-”
Vera laughed and started up the stairs. Roger watched her go and then turned to Uncle Albert.
“Well, I’m going to change. I do have a spare shirt in my bag and I think it’s still dry.”
Uncle Albert nodded, his eyes wandering over the collection of slightly outdated newspapers on the coffee table. “Alright.”
Roger left the room and Uncle Albert sat down with an old newspaper. No sooner had he done so, however, than the doorbell rang.
Uncle Albert looked up, startled. “Who can that be?” he murmured to himself. “We weren’t expecting anyone other than the four of us - we were the only ones who could come.”
As he hesitated, the doorbell rang again, sharp and insistent. Uncle Albert, his mind suddenly made up, hurried over to the door and flung it open.
“Come in, come in! No night to be out in the cold like this!”
A tall, sparse figure swept into the room, bringing in a cloud of swirling snowflakes. For a moment, the man could hardly speak, breathless with the wind and the snow. When he did, however, catch his breath, his voice was thin and dry - almost as if the wind had blown all the life out of it.
“So sorry to intrude, but my car broke down right outside your driveway and I figured someone might be home. I can repay you, Mr. -”
“Diggleworth. And don’t worry about that! It’s quite understandable, a vicious storm out there. Come by the fire!”
Uncle Albert led the man over to fire.
“Sorry, your name is -”
“Discere. Dr. Discere, actually. I was trying to get home after an emergency call when the storm blew up. I am so grateful to you-”
Uncle Albert waved off the doctor’s gratitude carelessly. “Tut, tut, man! It’s not even my house, actually. It belongs to my grandmother - Mrs. Ketterly. She should be down any moment.”
“Ah. Family reunion for Christmas, I take it?”
“Precisely. Do you have any plans for Christmas?”
The doctor studied his hands in the ruddy glow of the fire. “Well, not really. I just meant to have a quiet, at-home kind of a thing. Like usual. My family doesn’t live very close, you see.”
“Quite understandable. However, Dr. Discere, you might have to abandon your dreams of a quiet Christmas alone! Even assuming the snow lets up any time soon, (and I very much doubt it right now), I’m sure Mrs. Ketterly would press you to stay with us.”
“Oh, but I really couldn’t! Christmas is a family affair-”
“Well, if you’d rather spend it in a broken car -”
Dr. Discere looked up at Uncle Albert, surprised, and then broke in a quiet laugh. “Mr. Diggleworth, I may just take you up on that offer!”
Uncle Albert beamed. “You won’t regret it! Mrs. Ketterly is a phenomenal cook - I practically live for her Christmas dinner - roast beef, potato casserole, fresh roles, salad, beets, green beans..”
Mr. Discere laughed again. “Stop! You’re making my mouth water-”
But Uncle Albert kept on. “And then for dessert, we always have her famous chocolate torte. And that’s-”
He suddenly broke off, however and smiled. “Ah, I think I hear Vera on the stairs. She should be coming with Mrs. Ketterly - Vera, is that you?”
“Yes.” The voice that had been so vivacious just a few minutes before was now flat and dull, like a balloon pricked by a pin.
“Vera, dear - you look awful! What has happened, child?”
Vera stumbled forward into Uncle Albert’s arms.
“Oh, Uncle Albert!” she cried. “I went upstairs, into her bedroom, and-”
She broke down in a flood of tears. Uncle Albert stroked her hair soothingly, trying to stem her sudden outburst of emotion. Though he tried not to show it, it alarmed him. Vera was always so composed, so collected…
“Vera. what’s wrong?”
For a moment, she did not answer. Then she raised her tear-stained face to his and whispered, “Uncle Albert, I went into her room, but she wasn’t there.”
“Well, where was she then?” Uncle Albert could feel a prickling sensation on the back of his neck, like a draft of cold air.
“She was lying on her bed, perfectly still.”
Uncle Albert knew what Vera would say before she said it.
“Uncle Albert, she was dead.”
“Impossible...” Yet he knew it was true.
“It’s true - I have only ever seen that look once before, on Mother’s face...Oh, Uncle Alb! She was so still and pale -”
Uncle Albert slightly turned his head away, trying to control the hot pinpricks he could feel at the back of his eyes.
“I’m sorry for your loss. Is there anything I can do?”
Uncle Albert had completely forgotten about Dr. Discere. Vera had evidently not seen him at all, as she suddenly raised her head in confusion.
“Oh, Dr. Discere. I’m so sorry, this is so unexpected -”
A lump was swelling in the back of his throat, nearly choking him.
“It’s alright. I can go up and have a look, if you want. I don’t want to raise false hope, but it could be a coma.”
“Yes, thank you. Just a moment, we’ll all go up. I need to tell the other people in the house -”
At that moment, Roger walked into the room.
“Hello! It felt so good to get that wet shirt off - Vera?”
Roger took a step forward, his face creasing in concern.
“Vera, what happened?”
When Vera did not reply, Uncle Albert answered for her. “We’ve just had a nasty shock, Roger. Vera found Mrs. Ketterly upstairs - dead.”
Roger stared at him, aghast.
“Dead? But how -”
Dr. Discere shifted from one foot to the other. “Most likely a heart attack or stroke. It can come on suddenly, you know.”
Roger looked around and noticed the doctor for the first time.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there, Mr.-”
“Discere. I’m not a relation - I just happened to be passing through when my car broke down. I’m a doctor, though, and I was just offering to have a look at the deceased.”
Roger nodded distractedly. “That’s good of you.”
“Can we see her?”
It was Aunt Matilda, who had not spoken this entire time. Her face was unusually pale and she was trembling slightly.
“Of course, my dear. But are you sure -”
Uncle Albert would never have expected to see his sharp-tongued wife in tears over anything, but he could see that her eyes had grown watery.
He sighed and eased Vera off his shoulder. “Alright, then. Let’s go up.”
“Yes, she’s dead. I’m sorry.”
Dr. Discere stood up from beside Mrs. Ketterly’s bedside and looked around at the small group that watched him numbly.
“How? How did this happen!?”
Vera looked up at the doctor pleadingly, her eyes red and swollen.
“She was so healthy - never had any disease that I knew of. I never would have expected this...”
Dr. Discere shifted, not meeting Vera’s eye.
“I’m sorry, I really can’t tell. There’s no evidence that she suffered any pain, though. Her face is completely relaxed -”
Vera shook her head, refusing to be comforted. “Dr. Discere, you know something you’re not telling. What is it?”
Dr. Discere looked up again, his face distinctly uncomfortable.
“Well, I don’t like to say -”
“Tell us.” Vera’s voice had suddenly become hard and cold.
Dr. Discere sighed. “If you insist.”
He held up a small bottle. “I found this by her bedside table. It’s probably just a prescription, but if a patient took too much -”
“But that’s ridiculous! I knew -” Vera’s voice faltered at the past tense, but she took a breath and kept going. “I knew my Grandmother very well. She was the sweetest, kindest, most cheerful person I had ever met. She would never -”
“I am not hinting that your Grandmother committed suicide,” said the doctor dryly. “I am trying to say something else.”
He paused and looked once more around the room, weighing the possible effects of his words.
“Mrs. Ketterly died a very short while ago - less than an hour I would guess. It’s absurd to assume an old woman, in excellent physical and mental health, would commit suicide a few minutes before her family arrives for their annual Christmas celebration. No, I fear something different has happened.”
His tongue suddenly became heavy, weighed down by what he wanted to say.
“I know you won’t believe me -”
“Please tell us.” Vera’s voice had sunk to a whisper, a mere shadow of a voice.
Dr. Discere met her gaze - her face was trembling with emotion, longing to know...
He tore his gaze away and took a deep breath.
“I am afraid that the facts point to murder.”