Mathas Bernard became the talk of Tortus Bay once again, though not for fond reminiscence or familial condolence, but for wild murder conspiracy. For that is what the village decided upon learning the true cause of the man’s death: it could be nothing but homicide. But by whom? And with whose assistance? Unanswered questions stirred the people of Tortus Bay into a frenzy. How had the coroner missed such a basic piece of information? Was it the sheriff herself, concealing facts? Or the family? By noon, Henry had enough of the whole lot.
He slipped out of the Tortoise Shell Inn and headed not toward the center of the village, as had become his routine, but to the park for a chance to catch his breath. To his mind, there was no doubt what would happen next. He saw the thoughts behind their eyes already. Emboldened by the chorus, people would start asking him what he knew, and demand to know exactly what he was doing in their village. A majority of them believed he was a journalist, and his silence on the matter would certainly now be taken as evidence that he was some sort of undercover reporter cracking a case behind the scenes.
The thought of himself as a hard-bitten murder investigator made him laugh, but if it could be believed anywhere then it would be in a small, insular community which eschewed newspapers in favor of their local barkeep. Up until that morning he’d thought that the entire thing would blow over. Time would pass, no theoretical story on the death of Mathas Bernard would materialize, and people would eventually forget the entire matter. He’d been wrong.
A buzzing in his pocket roused Henry from his thoughts, and he accepted the video call without thinking about it. “Am I speaking with Henry Cauville’s… torso?” asked a woman’s angular face. She had a dramatically pointed chin, and thin lips.
“Yes, it is. Speaking.” He hastily tried to right the phone to point at his face while he crossed the street to the park. “Hello.”
“Yes, hello. Can you stop walking for a moment? The motion’s making me nauseous.”
He pulled up short, looked around, and belatedly remembered that there were no benches in the park. Standing it would be. “Is that better?”
“Much. This is Aria Bethel, giving you a call from inHale. I hope I didn’t catch you off-guard—our office is open seven days a week, and we observe flexible schedules.”
“No, not at all.” Henry reminded himself to smile. “That sounds very productive.”
Aria met his smile with a slight frown. “We do our best. I have a referral here from my colleague Kara; I understand that you’re interested in our open Communications Assistant position?”
He told her that he was, and reflected on his past work as an in-house editor. She told him that the aim of her company was to provide clients with ‘a streamlined amalgamation of the latest diets, workouts, food science, and healthy lifestyle tips—personally tailored through clever data aggregation and delivered through a proprietary algorithm. To keep you hale.’ Aria went on in excruciating detail about how proud she was of having founded a successful, local tech company, and how she needed dedicated employees to keep it going.
All things considered, it was a standard interview, up until the very end. “I hope you don’t mind me asking,” Aria said, “but how long have you been in Tortus Bay? The referral doesn’t say specifically.”
“Almost a week now.”
“I see.” She visibly exhaled. “Well, Mr. Cauville, we believe in fast actions and direct answers here. I’d like to thank you for your interest, but at this time I don’t believe that your experience lines up with the expectations of the position. We have your information on file if anything comes up in the future.”
What had seemed to be a pleasant conversation and a hopeful interview was abruptly finished, leaving Henry staring down at his lock screen. It told him that it was already 2:15, and that reminded him of something important.
Glosspool Lane was a short jog from the park, but it may as well have been in a different country. Sprawling mansions dominated the wending drive, secluded from one another by stately lawns and immaculately maintained hedges. Wrought-iron gates of silver and gold bore old family names and barred casual entry from the street. It was the sort of place to have a wide street and no sidewalk. Henry walked in the margin up to number 27, to find two surprising things awaiting him.
The first was the name ‘Brihte’ in metal above the gate. The second was a broadly smiling Niles Homer, rising to stand from where he had been sitting on the curb. “You came,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
They met each other in an unexpected, and slightly awkward, hug. Outside of the bakery, Niles smelled more sawdust than confection. “This is where the Hiking Club meets?” Henry asked.
“Only every once in a while.” He looked much the same as he ever did, from the dark jeans to the bright sweater and that perfect bounce in his unruly hair, but there was something markedly different about his demeanor. No more was he anxiously dodging away from interactions in a fevered attempt to get from place to place; now he seemed to have all the time in the world, and the heart to enjoy it. It was a good look on him. “Lucy Brihte runs the club, and we rotate who hosts. Needless to say, we all look forward to her turn.” As he spoke, he punched numbers into a pad beside the gate, which promptly began to open for them. “Not that the rest of the family appreciates it. This is the family estate, and Lucy has always been the black sheep. Everybody knows it, but don’t tell anyone I said it.”
They entered the grounds and came upon a series of cobblestone paths that cut through the short emerald grass. Niles led them down the left-most path, which veered around the outskirts of the grounds to the left side of the four-story marble manor house. “How does Lucy relate to Beth?” Henry asked.
“They’re sisters. Never been close, but always been blood. Lucy spends as little time around here as she can. When she’s not doing something for the club, she’s running her bookstore.”
“The one that’s always closed?”
Niles laughed. “That’s the one. She only opens it when she wants to sit back and read, and with everything happening lately…”
The cobblestones brought them into a patch of taller, yellowed grass surrounding a shallow pool. Rotund toads hopped back and forth, grasshoppers sang, and there was the flitting of birds from branch to branch in the tree line not far away. It seemed no matter where a person went in Tortus Bay, they could never be far from the border of the forest. “I’m sure all of the Brihtes lead busy lives,” Henry said.
“They do tend to be perfectionists. It’s how they’re raised. I wouldn’t know anything about it; I’m just your typical workaholic.”
A fanciful but weather-worn bench sat before them, positioned to ponder the toads, but neither of them sat. “Is this where it happened?” Henry asked. He’d been looking around, trying to imagine how it might have played out. “Is this where Mathas Bernard died?”
“No,” Niles said. “Emil and Petunia Brihte are still alive, bless them, and they’re the ones who live here—their brood has long fled and all have houses of their own. But I see that I wasn’t as coy about inviting you over here as I thought. I need to talk to you about Mathas.”
His heart beat heavy and painful in his chest. Of course that was the reason they were having this conversation. What else did anybody in the village ever want to talk about?
“That’s part of the reason,” Niles clarified. He was talking fast now, his mood anxious once more. “Obviously I thought it was enough to tell you about even before the news today, but now there’s no way that it’s wrong, and I really think you have to -”
“Please,” Henry interrupted, “let me talk first. And listen. I am not a journalist, a reporter, or any kind of scientist. I have no authority over anyone or anything. If you think you know something about Mathas Bernard, you have to bring that to the sheriff.”
Niles’ face fell. He took a few steps, dropped down into the bench, and covered his face with his hands.
“I didn’t mean to be so direct,” Henry said. “It’s just that people don’t seem to want to hear that.”
“You’re not here to write a story?”
“No, afraid not.”
He uncovered his face, slightly paler than a few moments before. “Everyone said that’s what you were doing, and I thought I’d found the perfect solution. It’s nothing I can prove. It wasn’t enough to cause a stir, but after this morning… now it might be important, and I’ve just been sitting on it for over a week.”
“Okay.” Henry sat beside him, and briefly considered throwing his arm over his shoulder before deciding against it. “Maybe you should just tell me what it is, and then we can decide what to do about it together.”
Niles nodded, breathed out, and steadied himself. “I overheard Lucy talking on the phone, the day after it happened. She wanted to speak with me about catering the funeral service, but I showed up early—and obviously I know how to let myself in. I don’t know who she was talking to, but she thinks her sister was at home that night. Beth told everyone that she’d been out, that there was nothing she could do for her husband, but it’s not true. She was there. Beth killed Mathas Bernard.”