Michael West's cottage wasn't big—bedroom, living room, and a kitchen that was more of an alcove than a full room of its own. It had, however, the cozy, lived-in feeling of home: personal touches like a driftwood sculpture on the mantel, dishes left unwashed in the sink in the firm knowledge that they could be done later, a tin of tea in easy reach of the stove and kettle, a lap blanket casually thrown over the arm of a rocking chair where it had been tossed when the occupant stood up.
It was a snug, peaceful home, a home whose only hint that its occupant wasn't content or at ease was that he didn't share it with anyone else, not even a dog or cat. But some people were that way. Not everyone who scorned close companionship did so because of some past sorrow that made them push people away.
Nothing in the cottage suggested to a casual observer that Michael West might be a haunted man.
He didn't even keep the door locked.
While he didn't socialize often with his neighbors, one of West's habits that they did know was that he was prone to walking. Long, rambling afternoon hikes every day into the evening were his way, covering several miles in the rolling gait that still spoke of the sea even after fourteen years on the moor. Though in its way the moor was like a sea, still wild and untamed despite humans crossing it. Now in November he would return to the cottage in twilight, leaving only a tiny bit of light among the shadows inside. He opened the door and stepped in, reaching for the matches and candle he kept on a small table for just this reason.
Before he could reach them, a spark flared, the pinprick glow of the oil lamp surging into bright flame as the wick was turned up.
"Hello, Mr. West. Come in."
My right hand was still on the lamp key. My left hand was pointing a revolver directly at him as a deterrent against casual stupidity. But he wasn't looking at the gun. I doubt that he even knew that it was there. His gaze was fixed on my face while his own went ashen pale, eerie against the brick red of his bristling muttonchops.
We'd never met. Probably not even at that time—a ship's purser and a child of five.
But I'd seen photographs.
We looked almost the same.
Oh, yes. Despite what the cottage told, Michael West was a haunted man. His limbs seemed frozen and rigid, while his hands trembled. Shock and fear stared at me from his eyes.
I slid from the chair.
"S-stay back!" he stammered.
I'd had enough of ghosts at Warburton Grange. And this particular ghost was mine. West had no right to her, and I wasn't going to share. I raised the pistol into his line of vision. I've read too many yellow-backed novels not to know that a gun has its own romance, but it wasn't the romance of the supernatural. The fear it caused was not the spectre of old memories and divine justice. I knew of nothing more immediate and brutal, more here and now than the threat of hot lead.
It was a miscalculation. Shizuru would have handled it differently, I'm sure, deftly played on his fears to get him to talk without ever pushing him over the edge into panic. I'd botched it, though. All I did was add a threat on top of West's fear, and at the same time grounded that threat in reality.
He lunged, pivoting to my right side away from my gun hand while at the same time pulling a knife. I could have shot him even so, but I hesitated. What I wanted from West was what he knew, not his life. If I was honest, that might come later, depending on what he said. Not now. Not before I knew.
That didn't mean I was defenseless. He was right-handed, so the knife was on the side nearer to me and coming in on an arc, not a straight stab. I turned out away from his body and caught his wrist in my hand, pushing it down as my knee came up. The force of my leg going one way was added to by the power of his swing going the other; he gave a sharp cry and the knife tumbled from numbed fingers. I kicked it away, well out of his reach.
West threw a punch with his left hand, a big, looping roundhouse that would have hurt a lot—if it had hit. I released his wrist so I could slip the punch, then brought my foot up into his exposed abdomen. He grunted, slumping as the breath was driven out of him, and I stepped in with two quick strikes that sent him reeling back. He crashed against the corner of the mantel, his shoulder dislodging a tin box that struck the hearth and spilled loose contents over the fireplace rug, scattered slips of yellowed paper.
He came back at me with a bellow, but I caught his arm again and used his own momentum against him, pitching him over my him to slam hard on his back on the plank floor. He twitched, but didn't try to immediately rise.
"I'm not here to kill you, West," I said, "unless you make me."
"Then what the hell do you want, you damned ghost?" he spat back. Despite his retort, there was no real defiance in his voice, just a sullen resignation. The majority of the fight had gone out of him.
"If you're calling me a ghost, then you know what I want."
He sighed heavily.
"I knew it would come for me some day." He rolled over, grunting from the aches as he did so, and pushed himself up to his knees. "You're here about the Friesland."
He stared at me again, trying to take in everything he saw and not quite believing it.
"You look just like her."
I picked up one of the loose slips of paper that had been spilled. It was a newspaper cutting, one of several. "Tragic Accident at Sea" was the headline, and the story told how Saeko Kuga, 26, naturalized British subject, had fallen from the rail en route from Hamburg to Liverpool. "'She is survived by a daughter,'" I finished reading aloud.
"And so you found me. I knew someone would. Even after fourteen years."
He grunted, getting to his feet in slow, pained motions. I stepped back as he did, making sure that he couldn't make a grab for the gun. I wasn't letting my guard down, even now.
"I want to know everything."
"Lemme get a drink."
I nodded, and watched while he went into the kitchen and took a bottle and a glass from one of the cupboards. He pulled the cork and poured cheap rum into the glass, then dropped into a chair at the kitchen table. I didn't sit, but leaned up against the doorjamb. West took a deep swig of the harsh spirit, then set down the glass, curling his hands around it.
"You have to believe me. I didn't know what they did. I didn't!" he protested. His eyes pled with me. I ignored him, my expression a mask of anger. After about ten seconds he gave up and gulped more rum.
"There were two of them, two men. Englishmen," he added. "That's actually the first thing they said, that they'd approached me because I was English, too. The Friesland was Dutch, you see, as was most of her crew. My assistant was, and he could have given them the same thing. By God, I wish they'd gone to him instead!"
He shuddered in his chair.
"I thought they were thieves, that's all. Or maybe spies. Something like that. They looked ordinary enough." He sighed. "Mrs. Kuga had checked a bag"--it was actually Miss Kuga, but I knew that my mother had sometimes pretended to be married since she had a child in tow--"when we first embarked in Hamburg. The men knew about it. They wanted it. They offered me money."
"You stole the items entrusted to you as purser. How much? How much did you sell your duty out for?" I spat at him.
West licked nervously at his roughened lips.
"Seven hundred and fifty pounds," he whispered. "Seven hundred and fifty pounds in gold and banknotes! I'd never seen so much money before in my life!"
That was a year's income for a middle-class family. West was telling the truth when he said he'd never seen that much cash in one place before, I was sure.
"And all those men wanted for it was my mother's bag?"
"That and to change the records so it didn't show that she'd left anything. I'd have to lie and deny it when she came to claim it, I thought, but the thought of all that money...I...I just couldn't resist it! It meant security to me, a safe and secure retirement when I quit the sea, a decent life for a family...there was a girl in Liverpool I was courting..."
His voice trailed off and he recoiled from the intensity of my glare. It sickened me, to hear this man snivel, reciting his pathetic excuses for being part of Mother's death! Rage surged up within me; I wanted to raise my hand and shoot—no, that was too cold and distant, better to step across and hit him, beat him, crash my fists into his skull again and again and again until he was dead for what he'd done. I recoiled from the force of my own hate, caught off-guard.
For just a moment I saw Colonel Warburton's face in my mind, twisted with the force of his passions, and I saw Gregory Dashiell as he'd leered cruelly at the tortured, guilty man.
And then I saw Shizuru, her elegant mask gone as she watched them, sorrow shining in her crimson eyes. It was so strange, somehow, that eyes of such an eerie color could carry such kindness and empathy. And when that image filled my mind, the thought came to me that the Warburton case had been a lesson to me in the price of hatred, of being controlled by passion, almost as if Shizuru had taken me to Warburton Grange for that precise reason.
This isn't the man I want revenge on, I told myself. He's a greedy fool, nothing more.
I shoved the hate back where it belonged and controlled myself.
Is that better, Shizuru?
"I didn't know that she was dead!" West screamed. He'd seen it in my face, how close he'd come to death. "I didn't find out until later that Mrs. Kuga had gone overboard an hour before those men approached me. It...it was an accident, everyone said so, but I...I knew it at once. They'd killed her, killed her for whatever she'd had in that bag."
He looked up at me, a desperate appeal in his face.
"I didn't know! If I'd known, I'd have thrown their money back in their face. It...it made me sick when I realized that I'd given them whatever it was they'd committed murder to get."
"Not sick enough to denounce them. You could have proven they were thieves, and the police would have had a chance to open a murder case as well. Without that, the accident story stood."
"What good would it have done?" West protested. "She was already dead! And I'd...I'd have been disgraced, jailed--" He stopped, emptied his glass. His shoulders slumped. "And I'd have lost the money. I couldn't give it up. It was in my hands, a small fortune."
The man who'd bribed him had known their mark. Greed and fear had kept him quiet, and had kept them from having to silence him another way. Not that they'd have cared about West, but another death could have started raising eyebrows.
"But...but I couldn't stop thinking about it. The idea of going back into that office, accepting another passenger's trust...I quit as soon as the Friesland reached port, and I haven't even seen the sea since."
"Tell me about the men," I said flatly. "What did they look like? Did you know their names?"
"One was named John Brown and one Adam Davis." Probably false names. "They were ordinary-looking enough—that's part of what was so awful about it, how normal they seemed! The only thing at all odd about them was that they had the same cuff links."
"Yeah, they were black and gold, a triangle of some black stone and a gold ball just inside one of the points."
"And you say both of the men had these?"
West nodded, head bobbing. It might have meant nothing—something that caught their eyes when they happened to be together. But then again, maybe not. It might be the symbol of some club or group, and that could mean a way to trace them. It might even explain why. It was, at least, something to go on.
"What else?" I asked. "Did you notice anything else about them?"
"No, nothing," he murmured, and again I thought of Shizuru, of how much of a person she was able to take in at one glance. How much of those murderers' world would she have been able to learn, had she been there?
But then again, was that even a reasonable wish? She was unique; no one else I knew or knew of could do such things. I couldn't do them myself, not even the adult me I was now. So how could I expect it of West?
That he'd been able to give me anything at all was a blessing.
And now there was nothing left to say.
I put the revolver away. Something flared in his face—relief? hope?--that made my stomach turn. He was a haunted man, he suffered, yes, but he clung to his life now even as he'd clung to it fourteen years ago when he'd come to this cottage.
"Then...then you forgive me?"
My gaze seemed to pin him to the chair.
"You told me all this to save your neck, not to put things right. You gave me what I wanted, and now I'm going to leave here and try to forget your sniveling face. That's all that's between us."
I yanked open the door.
"You want forgiveness, West? Go talk to the dead."
I walked out into the twilight, leaving him to his ghosts, and myself to mine.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A/N: Thank you very much, everyone, for reading, and for making this second story in the series an even bigger success than "Elementary, My Dear Natsuki" (only my third story with 100+ reviews!)! I'm really happy for all your kind words and that you've taken the time to follow my tale of our heroines thus far.
The story of Colonel Warburton's madness was taken from "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb," where Watson mentions it as the only other case besides the title story which he brought to Holmes, while the Dartmoor setting of course owes much to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Natsuki's subplot, of course, is more firmly rooted in the HiME storyline than in Holmes.
And, of course, we're by no means done. Please come back for the next story, in which a telegram draws Shizuru and Natsuki to a country estate where murder has marred a house party. But what mystery can there be when the murderer and the motive are already known? And does it have anything to tell Natsuki about her mother's death?