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Chapter 1 : T is for Treachery
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“Miss Parsons,” a male voice asks from behind me suddenly, and I freeze, my key still in the lock of the door to my flat.
Subtly, I weigh the contents of my carrier bag with my fingers, wondering if my shopping is heavy enough to knock out whoever he is. If I turn around fast enough, I should gain enough momentum to hit the carrier bag and its contents against his head — and while I know that my bread, eggs and one pint of milk isn’t enough to hurt him, I’m fairly sure that three frozen ready meals, a four-tin pack of tomato soup and a bag of potatoes should do the trick.
It’s clear that it’s a different man speaking this time from his accent; while the first has a Berkshire accent native to the locals, this one is speaking with a metropolitan accent that gives away his South London roots. I loosen my grip on my carrier bag — there’s no chance in hell that I can take on two men without using magic, and if they aren’t already Ministry officials then I don’t want to alert them to my presence here — and slowly turn around to face them. It’s times like this that I regret my haircut: my long brown hair has been styled to prevent people and CCTV recognizing me without looking me directly in the face, but that also means that I can’t see people easily out of the corner of my eye.
Fluorescent neon yellow uniforms bearing a chequered blue and white pattern surrounding the words Thames Valley Police, on a background of black jackets and trousers. They’re Muggle police officers, and I can’t help visibly relaxing — no-one from the Ministry would send Muggle police officers to apprehend me, especially not with Pius Thicknesse as the current Minister.
“I’m sorry,” I answer, smiling at them with as innocent an expression as possible. “Not many people know my address, and those who do would call me by my first name. I wasn’t sure who you were.”
“I’m sorry for alarming you, Miss Parsons,” the first officer says. “Could we come inside, please?”
“Is there a problem?” I ask.
I don’t particularly want to let them in, in case they see the assortment of passports and driving licences bearing my photograph but with different names. They’re all hidden away in my bedroom, of course, but I’ve watched enough crime shows and read detective novels to know that if they ask to use your bathroom, it’s an excuse and in reality, they’re snooping through your personal belongings.
“We’ve been contacted by our colleagues in the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary,” he explains. “You’ve been registered as next of kin for a young lady, whose name is…”
Immediately, he pauses to check his notes and reads the name aloud just as I finish his sentence, so we end up speaking in unison. “Penelope Clearwater.”
The second officer looks at me somewhat suspiciously, and I’m obliged to clarify before he comes up with wild theories that might suggest that I have psychic abilities, or know more about the reason for their presence than I’m letting on.
“Penelope asked me some time ago if I was prepared to be her next of kin, as her parents passed away recently — and before that, they were living in Canada. I know I’m not registered as next of kin to anyone else; I’m currently estranged from my parents and I don’t have any sisters. What’s happened to her? Is everything all right?”
“Miss Parsons,” the second officer says, “I really would suggest you let us in.”
I frown. “Why, what’s going on? Tell me, please.”
“I’m very sorry, Miss Parsons. We’ve been informed that Penelope Clearwater is dead.”
Commuters are bustling through Reading train station, clearly changing here from smaller, local stations with less frequent trips to London — here, you can get a train to London every five minutes or less. I’m sitting on one of the chairs in the station café, nursing a mocha as I watch the other commuters discuss their meeting for the day loudly on the phone or tapping their watch in impatience even though the next train to Paddington isn’t due for another two minutes. Unlike them, I’m not on my way to some high-flying job in the City or to meet with eyewateringly important clients who my firm’s continued existence depends upon. My train is going in the opposite direction — to Penzance, Cornwall.
The place where Penelope died.
Yesterday, after the police officers came to inform me of her death, they said that the police in Cornwall needed someone to identify her body and since I’m the next of kin, that responsibility falls to me, particularly since Penelope has no family remaining except for a couple of distant relatives she and her parents were never close to. That’s the reason I’m on my way there now — that, and to arrange for Penelope’s body to be transported to Bristol. It was where she grew up, and she always used to talk about how much she loved it there whenever we were reminiscing over our childhoods. When the war started and You-Know-Who stepped out publicly, Penelope gave me a letter and told me to open it if she died — she was always much better at preparing for what if scenarios than I’ve ever been.
One of the things it mentioned was what she wanted at her funeral, and she asked to be buried at the church she’d been baptized at. I’m trying to make that happen now, for her. She was my best friend, and although I’ve not seen her for some time now, she always will be. When the Ministry found out that I was the person falsifying documents to give Muggle-borns and their families new and untraceable lives — like when I gave Penelope’s parents the opportunity of a new start in Canada — they came after me and I had no choice but to go on the run. Before I did, I gave Penelope my original copies and a full list of before-and-after names of my clients, just in case the Ministry found me. That’s another reason I need to go to Penzance, even if I wasn’t her next of kin: I can’t risk those documents falling into the wrong hands.
“Hey, cutie,” a strange man says, sliding in the seat opposite me and dropping his newspaper onto the table. “Can I get you a refill?”
“No, thank you,” I answer, keeping my eyes averted from him.
While I can understand that there are few seats available in the café and I’m bound to share the table with someone else since I’m on my own at a table seating four, I have no particular desire to engage in conversation, especially with preposterous fools who think it’s acceptable to call a complete stranger cutie. Hopefully, he’ll get the hint and read his newspaper in silence — or better yet, go and pester some other girl.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
I look up to glare at him defiantly. “I’m quite sure. I’ve not yet finished this drink, and even if I had, I’m perfectly capable of buying my own.”
He laughs. “All right, all right — I get the hint, Little Miss Feminist. Where are you going then?”
“Swansea,” I lie, catching sight of the electronic revolving noticeboard that’s announcing a train due to depart for Swansea in eleven minutes. The man’s a complete stranger; there’s no chance in hell that I’m going to tell him the truth.
Pretentiously, he leans over and stares at my orange train ticket — which, like a fool, I’ve left on display next to my coffee so that I don’t forget which pocket I’ve put it in and spend ten minutes standing in front of the conductor, swearing blindly that I do have my ticket and drawing unnecessary attention to myself.
“Hmm. That ticket says Penzance; you might want to get it changed at the ticket office if it’s Swansea you’re going to,” he comments.
“And you might want to keep your nose out of other people’s business,” I retort quickly.
Instantly, I regret my words: though I don’t particularly care about this stranger’s opinion, I can’t risk fraying my temper. I take a deep breath. Calm. I have to remain calm, and rational. That’s what I’ve always been good at — I’ve needed to be, when my career consisted of breaking both magical and Muggle laws and rendezvousing with complete strangers who very well might have been Ministry officials in disguise. While I’d like to collapse on the ground and sob my heart out, I have to pull myself together for Penelope, and for my own survival. As long as I don’t think too carefully about the circumstances surrounding her death — though I’ve not yet been told precisely what those circumstances are — I can pretend that life is peachy.
“Sorry,” he says, and for a moment I think he’s finally taken the hint before he reopens his big mouth. “I just thought that you were a cool girl, you know, since your clothes are pretty eye-catching.”
I glance down at my own attire, wondering what he’s on about. My jeans are perfectly normal, just like everyone else’s, and so are my trainers — though they’re barely visible as it is — and the rest of my clothes are hidden underneath my coat which, although brightly coloured, is otherwise a normal trench coat.
“This?” I ask in incredulity, pointing at my coat. When he nods in response, I can’t help rolling my eyes. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you? Red means danger. Now go. Away.”
Finally, as the unwanted stranger takes himself and his newspaper elsewhere, I lean back into my seat and sigh. I didn’t expect someday like today to happen. I never thought that one day, I’d be on my way to identify Penelope’s body — I always thought it’d be the other way round. I always assumed that my notoriety with the Ministry and the fact the Muggle-born Registration Commission is only sentencing forty per cent of Muggle-borns — of which I’m not wholly responsible, but I’m definitely taking up a good chunk of the remaining sixty — would eventually lead to my death.
But Penelope? I just can’t believe it. When the Muggle-born Registration Commission was first set up, Penelope was one of the few who chose a quiet life. Instead of fighting to stay in her official position at the Ministry and poring over her family tree in search of Squib ancestors to prove her connections to pure-blood families, or joining up with the Order, she left the wizarding world discreetly and because she volunteered to leave, some politician pulled strings to get her a job as a criminal profiler.
Some people may say that she’s a coward — was a coward, but I disagree with that. She’s smart. She chooses the path of least resistance because it’s the best way for her to survive. Yes, she could have joined the Order and I’m sure whoever’s running it now would have accepted her, but her skills aren’t translatable. Weren’t. There wouldn’t have been much for her to do, while she’d always insisted her profiling made a difference. Not to mention that now You-Know-Who and his minions are on the rampage and there are Snatchers all over the country, her knowledge of the wizarding world could help to protect the Muggles.
Suddenly, the tannoy announces that the express train for Penzance is approaching the station. Quickly, I hoist my weekend bag over my shoulder and pick up my ticket while I’m rising before throwing my empty coffee cup into the bin. It takes me a few moments to exit the café and linger on the platform before I finally board the train, but I don’t expect to see a familiar face sitting at a table seat by the window. I blink several times while staring at him to make sure that I’m not having some kind of hallucination, and yet I’m still certain it’s unmistakably him. At the same time, he looks up nonchalantly and freezes when our eyes meet.
"Bex?" he asks, clearly as shocked as I'm feeling. "Rebecca?"
"Oh please," I groan, approaching the table and sliding into the seat opposite him before placing my bag on the aisle seat so that no-one can sit next to me. "You of all people should know that only my parents call me Rebecca."
He sighs. "I know; I just wasn't sure which name you were using at the moment, since you flitter between them both so often. How are they, anyway? Your parents?"
"I don't know, Oliver," I answer, looking up to meet his gaze.
Oliver Wood has changed since the last time I saw him. Six months ago, he was laughing and celebrating Puddlemere's latest win even though he was just the reserve; now, his eyes betray the same sense of discomfort and worry that I'm sure the entire wizarding world is feeling. His brown hair is shorter than I recall and he clearly hasn't shaven; a sure sign that something is very wrong.
"Bex," he begins, "I don't know how to tell you this, but -"
"Tickets!" the conductor calls out abruptly as the carriage door opens and he wriggles through.
I hold my ticket up in the air for the conductor to take, and Oliver glances at it to see my destination.
"Penzance?" he asks, surprise clearly audible in his tone. "You know about Penelope?"
"That she's -" I begin, but I can't finish the sentence.
I can't say the word out loud, not when it's my best friend. It's easier to announce someone's death if they're a stranger or one of those people you pass in the street or buy things from or even vaguely recall from school. But when the person is the girl who spent hours tutoring me in the common room, who made banners to support the Ravenclaw Quidditch team when we had a match, who was the only person I could trust one hundred percent, it's different.
"Yes," Oliver answers. "I would've told you, but I didn't know where you were. How did you know, anyway? Lee hasn't announced it on Potterwatch yet."
Why does it seem like everyone knows before me, especially when the police said that I was the first to know? If Penelope was killed by Death Eaters, the Ministry would've announced it by now and made an example of her. If the killer was someone magical, the Order would have taken over the Muggle investigation to protect the police from getting involved and breaching the International Statute of Secrecy. Because the Muggles are involved, common sense dictates that Penelope's death must have been caused by someone without magic, or be a simple accident like being run over or something - but when the officers visited me yesterday, they told me that I needed to get to Penzance as soon as possible and when I did, to go to the police station and ask for Detective Inspector Prentice. Why would I need to speak to a high-ranking policeman if it was just an accident?
"I'm registered as her next of kin with the Muggle authorities," I answer, but my thoughts are far from Oliver and instead revolving Penelope and the circumstances of her death.
"That makes sense, since you were so close and all. Did the Muggles tell you anything about what happened? Is P for Penzance or not?"
I'm confused. "What do you mean? What's this P for Penzance thing?"
Oliver looks completely astonished. "You're living in the Muggle world and you don't know? It's all over the news: Muggle-borns are talking about it because they're terrified for their families." Turning to a gentleman sitting at the table across the aisle from us, he reaches his hand. "Excuse me, sir, do you mind if I borrow your newspaper for a minute?"
The elderly man obliges, and Oliver turns back to me before pushing the newspaper into my hand.
"It's in every newspaper," he says. "Even on the black box that shows you pictures; I can't remember what that's called."
"A television," I answer automatically, my eyes immediately drawn to the headline.
P IS FOR PENZANCE
As I read the article, I'm strangely compelled to explain my ignorance to Oliver.
"I'm running out of money. I didn't make that much with the paperwork I was doing" -- hopefully he'll get the hint and not let it slip in front of potentially undercover police or government officials -- "especially when I started knocking my rates down for Muggle-borns and even paying out of my own pocket to help the families who couldn't afford it. Newspapers might not be that expensive, but all those pennies add up, and I can't watch television either because you need a licence. It's not helping that I live in Reading, because the fact it's so near to London makes the rent expensive but if I go near the poorer places or to shack, that's where a lot of Muggle-borns are hiding among Muggles. And why the hell has no-one caught this lunatic already?!"
Oliver shrugs, and I let out a sigh of exasperation. Learning that my best friend may or may not have been targeted by a psychotic murder who selects his victims based on the first letter of their surname and the town or village they live in, kills them and then sends taunting letters to the police was the last thing I expected. It seems stupid, pointless even, for Penelope to have been killed by chance -- at the very least, there ought to have been a reason. At least that would make sense; her death should have had a purpose, instead of just being another name for some serial killer copying Agatha Christie's methods.
"It might not be ABC's handiwork," Oliver points out. "Lee said that when he found her, the copy of the book ABC always leaves behind wasn't there. And he chose his victims by their last initial, but Penelope's last name started with C -- it's just her first name beginning with P that's causing all the paranoia."
I shake my head. "I've read that book, The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie, and ABC's real victim was his own brother, Sir Carmichael Clarke. When he wrote to Poirot -- the private detective in the book -- he deliberately got the address wrong because Poirot's address was similar to a brand of whiskey. Everyone thought at first that ABC drank that kind of whiskey, but in reality he just wanted the letter to arrive late so that Poirot wouldn't have time to warn the people of Churston, where Clarke and ABC lived."
"And your point is?" Oliver queries, raising an eyebrow.
"Penelope lived in my old flat. My landlord wouldn't let me leave so early in the tenancy and she needed somewhere to live, so we arranged that she'd give me the rent money and I'd pay it to the landlord from my bank account. He's not very hands-on -- as long as the rent was paid in full and on time he didn't care what I did, so we got away with it. The problem is, my name's still on the tenancy."
"So P might have been for Parsons," Oliver muses. "But no -- I've been reading the papers and ABC's too calculated for that. He's really careful about who he picks; even admitted that he stalks his victims before killing them."
"That's precisely my point!" I exclaim before gulping when other passengers turn to glare at me, probably for disrupting their peace. "Sorry," I murmur before continuing quietly. "What if Penelope was ABC's real target? What if the people from A to O were just victims who were in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
Oliver shakes his head. “It can’t be. There was no book, her name didn’t match the pattern — there was nothing that would point to ABC being the killer.”
“Exactly,” I answer. “Whoever ABC is, he’s copying from the book. The fictional ABC made a mistake to throw the police off the scent. If this ABC killed her, and then he goes and kills someone who does fit the pattern, whose last name starts with P and lives in Plymouth or Portsmouth or wherever, no-one will suspect him of being Penelope’s killer.”
There is a long pause as Oliver thinks over what I’ve said, and I can feel the tension in the air as he frowns.
“You do have a point, Bex,” he concedes, “but it’s still possible that ABC has nothing to do with it and it’s just a coincidence.”
I shake my head. I don’t want to think about that theory, because before I was forced to go on the run, Penelope confided in me that she hated lying to the Muggles she socialized with about the existence of magic; that as a result, she avoided them. So if the murderer was someone she knew, then the logical explanation is that it was one of us -— one of our circle of friends.
My friends can’t be killers. I don’t want them to be killers.
“You still haven’t told me about why Lee was visiting Penelope,” I point out.
“Oh, didn’t I?” Oliver asks, looking genuinely surprised. “When you disappeared, Pen was on her own. She needed a friend, and then one day she went on Potterwatch and she and Lee got talking, and they became pretty good friends. I know they weren’t that close before, but they didn’t know each other well back then. You and Penelope were as thick as thieves and Lee was always busy with trying to get a job and helping out Fred and George in their shop…”
I look out of the window at the countryside that we’re travelling through. There are endless green fields, some trees and a river next to the train tracks, but we’re going so quickly that it’s not much more than a blur. Maybe it’s my own fault for not keeping in touch with my friends for the past six months —- but I didn’t have a choice, really, since we’d all have been in danger from the Ministry if I had —- but things have changed more than I’d anticipated. Less than a year ago, Oliver and Penelope were dating but she broke it off with him because she was afraid that being Muggle-born would put him and his family in danger. Oliver was heartbroken, and Lee seemed to be most angry at Penelope than the rest of us. When I confronted him, he admitted that he was in love with Oliver and if he couldn’t be with Oliver, he at least wanted him to date someone who made him happy, not heartbroken.
Maybe Lee forgave Penelope once he really got to know her. Maybe he fell for someone else and I don’t know about it. Maybe. And then maybe he didn’t.
I don’t want to think about that. I don’t want to believe that the boy who I shared classes with for seven years and have been friends with for almost a decade is a murderer. But in the end, it’s either ABC or someone Penelope knew — someone I know — and if it’s the latter, it has to be Lee.
“Come on, Bex,” Oliver says suddenly just as I feel the train slow down. “This is our stop.”
I get up and follow him off the train, and when we’re on the platform I lead the way to the ticket barrier. Oliver looks bewildered at the contraption, so I retrieve my ticket and mutter the instructions under my breath, looking down so that I can place it in the slot.
“Rebecca!” someone calls out, but I don’t look up.
It’s a common name, after all, and I’m sure that Detective Inspector Prentice wouldn’t be lingering around Penzance train station on the off-chance I’d come by train -- I could have driven, or caught a coach -— whoever it is probably doesn’t mean me.
“Rebecca Grace Parsons!”
Or maybe they do.
Curious, I look up and scan the crowd in front of me in search of someone I know as I pass through the barrier, and then I catch sight of a familiar face. In shock, I stop abruptly and feel Oliver crash into me, having not had enough forewarning to stop walking, but right now I couldn’t care less. I don’t believe it. She can’t be standing just a few feet in front of me, but she is.
It takes me a few moments to find my voice again, but eventually I’m able to respond.
“Hello, Mrs Clearwater.”
Author's Note: Hehehehe, cliffhanger :P
I hope you enjoyed this first chapter! There'll be five chapters in total of this story, which was written for Rumpelstiltskin's Murder Mystery Challenge ^.^ My prompts for the challenge were #9, copy-catting fictional murders and #11, serial murders, and that's all I'm saying for now ;)
The story title is from NCIS season 9, episode 3, written by Nicole Mirante-Matthews and broadcast by CBS. The plot was inspired by Agatha Christie's novel, The ABC Murders. References to the novel and certain similarities between Christie's plot and mine are credited to her.
If you liked this chapter, please do let me know! I'd love to hear how you're finding this mystery so far! :)
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