Chapter 35 (Alternate Ending)
The train ride's pleasant, tranquil beginning soon came to an abrupt, tragic halt.
Clad in a morose suit of black, Herb Hawkins trudged up the steps to the Newtons' residence. He hoped, rather than believed, that the expression of guilt upon his face could be passed off as a look of mourning. It was his fault, wasn't it? The last time he entered this house, he had seen both Charles and Charlotte, looking as pleased and excited as ever before. But now, as he entered the grief-stricken house, he knew that one of them would be ominously missing. He should have turned Oakley in before when he was given the opportunity. Certainly it would have hurt the family. But at least there wouldn't have been an 'accident', as they had all been told.
According to the official story, when the two of them boarded the train, Charles had closed the door carelessly. As the train gained speed the door swung open. They were both standing unusually close to the door. And then… The police did not feel the need to go into details.
Obviously Emma became hysterical as soon as she heard the news. Herb hoped that she would be in control today. He understood that losing such a close relative must be devastating. But watching her grieve made it all the more difficult for him to remain silent. He wished that the surviving witness who had boarded the train with the 'victim' might speak up. But as soon as Herb opened the door, he knew that this was not likely to happen.
Though Herb and Emma had never been particularly intimate, as soon as she perceived him standing nervously in the doorway, she crossed to him, squeezing him tightly as though by doing so, she could gain the strength she needed to raise the dead. She stared at the top of the staircase, wishing that her loved one might stroll down the stairs as thought this had all been one horrific nightmare.
There was a Charlie standing at the top of the stairs, but for once it was not the Charlie that Emma desperately wished to hold. Herb did not particularly wish to see him either.
"Emmy," Charles whispered soothingly, pulling her away from Herb and into his arms.
"Lucky thing that you brought a black suit," Herb said quietly, trying to keep control.
"Lucky isn't how I'd put it," Charles said with a feigned air of disgust.
Glancing down, Herb noticed Ann huddled under a table, her face buried in her lap as she gently rocked back and forth. For the first time since Herb met her, she looked like a sad, frightened child. Being a quiet observer, she doubtlessly had heard Jack Graham's 'rumors' about her uncle's notorious past. He stared at her with pity. She was a smart little thing. She knew the truth about this monster just as much as he did. And like Herb, she was in no position to cross Oakley, unless she wanted the same fate as her sister. As soon as Charles led Emma to the kitchen, Herb kneeled down, uncertain of whether or not he should comfort her. After several moments, she lifted her tear-stained face to him.
"I should have known," she whispered. "I always knew there was something off about him. I thought he was after Charlie. I thought he was in love with her. I never thought that he might actually…" Her words trailed off as she buried her face in her hands.
"I was deceived too," Herb said, not wanting to admit the entire truth to her. "But listen to me. You can't say a word to anyone. I know you loved her… I did too… But you have to protect yourself. Do you hear me, Ann?"
Without looking up, Ann slowly nodded her head. "I'll never say a word." Herb gently patted her hand, giving it a squeeze before rising.
Normally Herb was not one to use liquid courage. But there was a conversation that he knew he must have with Oakley as soon as possible and there was no way he could go through with it unless he helped himself to a glass of wine first. Suddenly, as he lifted the glass to his lips, he felt a certain pair of eyes on the back of his neck and he knew that the moment had come.
"Have a little wine for thy stomach's sake," Charles whispered, his arms crossed as he strolled towards Herb.
"You're awfully bold… Quoting the bible after all you've done," Herb mumbled, taking another sip of wine.
"Join me upstairs, Herb," Charles said calmly. "I think we should have a talk, don't you?"
Herb took another sip, his hands shaking. "Upstairs? Alone with you?"
"'Alone with you' would be somewhat contradictory, wouldn't it, Herbie? Of course, if you prefer, we could go out to the garage." Charles smiled callously and led a very reluctant Herb up the stairs. Becoming more and more agitated the further they went from the rest of the mourners, Herb glanced over his shoulder at Charles every couple of steps, nearly tripping down the stairs in the process. "Don't be frightened, Herb. I wouldn't kill you at my niece's funeral."
"I thought she wasn't your niece," Herb mumbled.
"Neither does anyone else," Charles said, leading Herb to the bedroom. "I'll give you a full explanation… Once we're totally alone."
Leading Herb into Charlie's bedroom, Charles closed the door behind him and stood there for a moment in silence, assuring that no one had followed them.
"This has all been a lie, hasn't it?" Herb asked, sitting on the bed.
"Don't act so surprised," Charles said, chuckling. "As to my 'adoption', well… Let's just say it's fairly easy to convince my family of anything. About a year ago, I sent Emma an anonymous package containing very interesting though unquestionably false information about my past. Poor Emmy. I didn't even give her an idea of who had sent it, yet, judging by subtle hints she gave me in her letters, I quickly found out that she had bought every word of it. Then all I had to do was wait. Emmy's never been one to keep a secret. I'm amazed that she was able to hide the information as long as she did. But it worked quite well. Within a year from my sending the package, I managed to convince every member of my family that I was an estranged orphan, completely ignorant of my past."
"But Emma- That is, Mrs. Newton is quite a bit older than you," Herb said. "Wouldn't she remember if-"
"Emma's dim-witted and naïve. If I had tried, I might have convinced her that I was from Mars. Causing her to question her own memory wasn't that difficult at all."
"But why?" Herb asked. "What was your point in doing this?"
"You should know better than anyone, Herbie. It was for Charlie. She had her morals, after all. I knew that the only way I could force her to face her suppressed feelings for me would be to convince her that there was nothing wrong with the attraction between us."
"Sounds like an awfully elaborate plot for such a small detail."
"It worked, didn't it?" Charles snapped. "How else was I going to get her on the train with me? I thought about finishing her off the last time I was in Santa Rosa. I tried to, twice. But finally I decided that it would be too risky. She was too suspicious. Even Emma was starting to become suspicious. But this year, everyone was completely unprepared."
"Why did you do it?" Herb asked. "What did she know?"
"Everything," Charles said simply, lifting an emerald ring from his pocket. "But now she doesn't know a thing. And I have this… Oh, I was planning on returning to Santa Rosa ever since I left two years ago. I just wanted to give the family a little time to find the information about my past. I was hoping that the secret would be out in the open before I arrived… But when I received Emmy's letter about Charlie's engagement, I knew I had to put my plans into action. For two years I had practiced over and over again in my head how I could convince her that I was a reformed sinner. 'I never wanted to hurt her', I would tell myself. 'I'm a new person'. You know, at times I almost had myself convinced… Almost. I couldn't let her marry anyone. It would ruin my original plan of seducing her. When I found out that Graham was the husband-to-be, I became even more shaken. He never trusted me. On top of destroying the engagement, I had to create a sort of enmity between the two of them that might prevent him from poking his nose into my affairs, were Charlie to have an 'accident'. As you know, that plan went smoothly without too many problems. But then you became involved. My one mistake was when I didn't take care of that letter." At this, Charles crossed to Herb, who was quivering.
"But I don't have it!" Herb cried out. "As soon as the accident occurred, I felt for it in my pocket and it was gone. Charlie must have taken it when she hugged me at the station."
"Wrong," Charles said simply. "I took it when Charlie hugged you. Really, Herbie, I'm surprised you didn't figure that out. By taking it, she would have been signing her own death warrant."
"Why are you telling me this?" Herb asked. "All I can assume at this point is that you have no choice but to kill me too."
"Perhaps…" Charles mumbled. "How's that wine, Herbie? Does it taste all right?"
Herb glanced down at the glass of wine and immediately dropped it onto the floor in a state of panic. The crystal shattered and the wine splattered across the rug. "Oh my…" Herb began, breathing heavily. "You mean, you- you-"
Charles began to laugh. "Relax, Herbie. I was only joking. There's nothing wrong with your wine… Well… There wasn't anything wrong with it."
Herb, weakened by his sudden burst of excitement, allowed his head to slouch down into his perspiring palms. "Just kill me now. I know you're going to eventually."
"On the contrary!" Charles exclaimed, sitting next to Herb on the bed. "I destroyed the letter. You're no threat now. In fact, I think that killing you would do more harm than good. People might get suspicious if both of you drop dead within the same week. And quite frankly, Herbie, you're no spring chicken. It would be easier for me to wait you out."
"Why should I believe you?" Herb asked. "I might not have proof of what you did, but I know the truth. You just gave me a detailed description of all that you had done. I may not have physical proof now, but in time, some clue might-"
"In time, you'll either be dead or too old to do anything about it."
"Then what about Charlie?" Herb asked. "She didn't have any physical proof, but you still felt the need to 'take care' of her."
"Haven't you been listening, Herbie?" Charles asked, lifting the emerald to his eyes. "This was her proof. It was my fault for giving it to her. But I have a strange feeling that this ring is bound to meet the same fate as that letter."
Herb had no response. He stood from the bed and slowly paced the room. Charles watched with vague amusement. "You told me all of this because… You're gloating. No… I know… You're trying to torment me with the truth, knowing full-well that I'll never be able to use it against you."
"Herbie!" Charles exclaimed with mock-pain as he lit a cigar. "That's hardly my intention. I told you because I know you're an amateur detective. You love a good murder mystery. Obviously you knew who did it … But wouldn't it be cruel of me to deny you the satisfaction of finally telling you why I did it and how I did it? It wouldn't be a good murder mystery unless it had an equally satisfying conclusion."
"There's nothing the least bit satisfying about this conclusion."
Lifting himself from the bed, Charles crossed to the door and smoothed his hair. "As soon as you've collected your nerves, Herbie, come down and join us. You may think I'm a heartless criminal, but the truth is, this is far more difficult for me than it is for you. Do you realize how confusing it becomes when you spend your entire life masked as a strong, endearing angel, knowing all the time that you're nothing more than a vile, monstrous demon underneath? Someday the stress of it all might actually kill me."
Switching off the lamp, Charles quit the room, leaving Herb in eerie darkness.