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A Lesson in Latin

Hubert "Bertie" S. Hudson plays detective

By D.K. ShepardPublished 6 months ago Updated 5 months ago 15 min read
Runner-Up in the Whodunit Challenge

“You’re looking a little green, Ace,” Bertie Hudson remarked as their driver accelerated up another steep curve.

“This blasted road gets to me every year, but don’t worry this hatch is battened down,” Ace Bishop said as he patted his stomach.

Bertie smiled weakly and scooted an inch closer to the window. For an adventure novelist with a thirty year career under his belt, Ace clearly didn’t have the hardened constitution his titular character, Jason Steel, did. But Bertie knew he had no place to judge, for surely he would be squeamish if he ever encountered some of the sights his mystery novel hero, Detective Sebastian ‘Bash’ Hunter, had.

Even so, he regretted running into Ace at the airport and agreeing to share a car to their final destination: Domignus Manor. The mountain estate of Mrs. Clara Scintilla, the owner of their publishing house, D&S Publishers. Every year she invited a select group of eight publishing house writers to the manor for a weekend of entertainment. This would be Bertie’s seventh year in attendance.

“Finally,” Ace sighed.

Bertie peered out the window as the trees parted slightly before spitting them into the wide stone paved driveway that led to the sprawling monstrosity of a house.

The Scintilla’s butler, Oscar, greeted them at the front doors. Then he led them down a wide hall which deposited them into a large parlor.

“Bertie, darling!” exclaimed a melodic female voice. Its source was Gloria Vanmar, the darling of D&S, with the most awards and best-selling books in the house’s history.

Bertie chuckled as he took in her maroon lips stretched in a smile. “Good to see you, Queen Gloria! Congratulations! I hear rumors that No Faint Hearts will be your biggest triumph yet!”

She waved away his words nonchalantly, but with a coy smile that revealed how much she still enjoyed the praise after all these years. She turned and said, “And Ace dear, a pleasure as always.”

They were the Big Three: Ace, Gloria, and himself. Each a giant in their respective markets and together they constituted the majority of D&S sales.

Bertie scanned the room to see who else had made the cut:

First there was Ursula Luxe, the harlequin romance novelist who had made the invitation list a couple of times in the past few years. She sat sipping champagne in a vibrant dress that matched her signature ruby red lipstick.

Then there was Ava Richie, novelist turned screenwriter who got contracted for most D&S film deals. She leaned against the mantle dressed in designer apparel from head to toe. She seemed to want to flaunt her film industry salary despite knowing she only got invitations on years when there was no clear contender for the eighth spot.

And Ira Turner who was impossible not to recognize. Decorated with piercings and tattoos galore, as well as a permanent scowl. She was a political and current event writer, or as Bertie had labeled her in his head, a “tirader.”

The final occupant of the room was a man standing at one of the windows. His profile looked chiseled from a magazine page, hair slicked back, and a brooding expression. Tristan Duran, the biographer who specialized in tragic figures.

“I see we’re short a guest,” Bertie observed. “Who’s missing?”

“No one, actually,” Gloria answered. “You and Ace were the last arrivals. Laila Gulati is here. She’s in the kitchen pestering the Scintilla’s chef.” She rolled her eyes dismissively.

Laila was a popular cookbook writer and recipe blogger. Not the type of writer that garnered much respect from the likes of Queen Gloria.

The clicking of heels in the hallway caught Bertie’s attention and he turned as their host entered the parlor. Mrs. Scintilla beamed at her collection of writers, “Welcome everyone, it is an honor to have such talent within these walls once again. I’d like to invite you all to follow me to the dining room. Dinner is served.”

The entourage traversed to the dining room where they were joined by Laila and Mrs. Scintilla’s son, Lucius.

“Ah, good! I was wondering if I’d have to fetch you from the study,” Mrs. Scintilla said to her son.

The young man looked down at his feet and blushed. He must be about twenty now, but still seemed like a boy to Bertie.

They all took their seats and enjoyed a delicious meal while indulging all of Mrs. Scintilla’s questions and remarks.

“My compliments to your chef, Mrs. Scintilla,” Gloria declared once they’d finished eating.

The meal had been quite tasty, though a little spicy for Bertie.

“I will pass on your praise,” Mrs. Scintilla said. “Francesca is divine. From Brazil, you know. Such excellent cuisine. I suppose I have you to thank, Gloria. Your assistant, Inez, suggested her. Such a shame Inez couldn’t be here this year.”

Bertie couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed right away that Gloria’s shadow of an assistant was missing.

“Indeed,” Gloria sighed. “Couldn’t be helped, I’m afraid. Terrible business with her family after her brother got arrested for setting off explosives at a rally in Denver. I feel completely out of sorts without her. Had to have her increase my sleeping medication doses before she left, otherwise I don’t think I’d get a wink.”

“Glad I’ve never had need of the stuff,” Ace said. “Always sleep long and deep.”

“How shocking,” Tristan said in a low mocking voice.

Everyone stiffened.

Ace looked confused.

“What are you getting at?” Gloria asked.

Tristan chuckled dryly. “Does the great Ace Bishop even have to wake up to write his books anymore? Same character. Same plot. I’m sure anyone could write a Jason Steel adventure in their sleep after all these years.”

Ace scowled.

“How dare you!” Gloria exclaimed. “Keep in mind without the success of writers like Ace, hit and miss biographers like you would be dropped before you ever got a chance at a breakthrough. You owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Tristan looked unabashed and in a callous tone said, “My apologies, I didn’t mean to ruffle the Queen’s feathers.”

Gloria was ready to boil over, her eyes flashed as she opened her mouth to reply.

But Mrs. Scintilla brought the escalation to a halt. “I think that’s quite enough for tonight. It’s time we get settled for the evening. Maria!”

A young woman with glasses and long dark hair braided down her back stepped in from the hall.

“This is Maria Menda, Chef Francesca’s niece, she’s filling in for my housekeeper who’s away on holiday. She’ll show you to your rooms and make sure you have everything you need.”

Bertie and the other writers followed Maria up a grand staircase in uncomfortable silence. After showing Laila, Tristan, Ira, and Ava to rooms on the second floor, she led Bertie, Gloria, Ace, and Ursula up another flight to the remaining guest rooms.

Bertie was assigned his usual room with a splendid view of the valley below. Exhausted from the day's affairs and the evening's drama, he climbed into bed and was asleep in moments.

***

Bertie awoke around midnight in a coughing fit as he often did. He’d forgotten to request a glass of water from the kitchen before going to bed and now there’d be no stop to the coughing without it. He slipped on his house shoes then opened his door into the hallway. Before he reached the stairs Ursula’s door swung out wildly in front of him.

“Ah!” he cried out.

The door swung shut, but instead of Ursula it was Tristan that stood before him.

“Sorry,” Tristan said briskly as he slipped a book into his jacket before rapidly descending the stairs.

Bertie rubbed his eyes, then trudged down the steps himself.

When he finally reached the kitchen, Tristan was there too, pouring a glass of wine.

While Bertie got himself a glass and filled it with water, Maria entered carrying a dirty broom. She gasped when realized the kitchen was occupied.

“Sorry to startle you,” Bertie said gently.

“I’m fine,” she declared, “Is there anything I can get for you Mr. Hudson. Or you, Mr. Duran?”

“No, no,” Bertie said, extending his glass of water. “I’ve got what I need.”

Bertie glanced at Tristan who was holding his glass of wine and studying Maria carefully. “I got what I came for too. But Ms. Luxe’s room may require that broom.”

“Of course, sir. I’ll head upstairs right away,” Maria said. She pivoted and exited the kitchen.

Bertie started to follow after her. Then turned back to say to Tristan, “You should learn to be more careful.” He didn’t wait for a reply.

***

This time Bertie awoke to screaming. The blood curdling kind he wrote about so frequently in his books. He leapt out of bed and followed the piercing sounds to the second floor.

He found Ava trying to console a sobbing Maria outside of Tristan’s room. The door was wide open.

“What’s wrong?” Bertie questioned.

“I don’t know,” Ava said. “She won’t say.”

Bertie turned his focus to Tristan’s room. There were muddy footprints on the floor. He walked in and saw Tristan laying on the bed, not stirring despite the commotion. Just still. Two empty wine glasses on the nightstand beside him. As Bertie crept closer he realized Tristan’s eyes were wide and unblinking. He pressed fingers to his neck. No pulse. Tristan Duran was dead.

***

“I’m afraid the police won’t be getting here until tomorrow” Mrs. Scintilla announced to the parlor full of distraught writers as she set down her phone.

“What? Why?” Ava asked incredulously.

“There was a landslide last night that covered up a large part of the road. It’ll take all day to clear. Quite peculiar. There's been no rain in weeks."

“So we’re trapped? And we’re supposed to just stay here with a dead body for a day?” Gloria asked.

“It’s worse than that,” Bertie claimed. He wasn’t sure how the others would respond to what he said next. “We’re stuck here with a murderer who is still alive.”

“Certainly not!” Mrs. Scintilla exclaimed.

“I’m afraid so. Mr. Duran was poisoned.”

“How can you be sure?” Ava asked. “I know you write about murder, Bertie, but you’re not really Detective Bash.”

“You’re right. I’m not. But based on his pink hued skin and bitter-almond scented mouth, I’m positive Tristan was poisoned with cyanide.”

“Maybe it was Ace or Gloria,” Ira muttered. “They both looked mad enough to kill after last night’s dinner.”

“Maybe, it was you, Ira,” Gloria spat back. “Since you’re mad enough to kill all the time.”

“Don’t leave out Ursula,” Ava interjected. “Anyone who’s seen your last two book covers and seen a picture of Tristan Duran can’t help but notice he’s your latest muse.”

Ursula rolled her eyes.

“Ms. Luxe, I do hate to pry,” Bertie said. “But I did run into Mr. Duran as he was leaving your room last night. Could you explain why he was there and why he left?”

Ursula’s eyes darted around the room. “It’s not what you think. Tristan came to my room last night. Said he wanted to talk. I went into the bathroom and when I came out, he was rummaging through the bookshelves in my room. I told him to stop. He didn’t. I grabbed his arm and he wrenched it back; knocked my champagne glass to the floor. It shattered, cut my heel on it this morning... Tristan left in a huff.”

“Mrs. Scintilla, I noticed you became a bit agitated when Ms. Luxe mentioned the bookshelves. Is there a reason?”

Mrs. Scintilla tapped her chin with her fingernail. “The bedroom Ms. Luxe is staying in used to be my daughter’s room. Both she and my husband died in a sailing accident a decade ago. Mr. Duran was very keen to attend this year’s gathering and after last night’s dinner it became clear his intent was not to make friends. I fear he was only here to seek out a subject for his next biography.”

Bertie digested these statements as hungrily as his Detective Bash would have. Motives abounding. Threads unwinding. And more questions to answer.

“And Gloria,” Bertie began. “I notice you’re not wearing any lipstick today.”

Gloria looked taken aback.

Bertie added, “You wore a maroon color last night.”

“Yes, I couldn’t find it this morning.”

“Did you and Mr. Duran spend time together last night?”

“No, of course not. What are you playing at, Bertie?”

“There were two empty wine glasses in Mr. Duran’s room and one had a lipstick stain that matches the color you wore last night.”

Gloria looked anxious. “Then someone must have taken it from my room…” That notion really seemed to unsettle her.

“Regardless of who it might be,” Bertie said, “I suggest we all sleep with our doors locked tonight.”

Silence took hold as everyone eyed the other occupants of the room with fear and suspicion.

***

Bertie entered the kitchen in search of an evening snack and a word with Chef Francesca. The police would be here tomorrow, but Bertie felt a responsibility to do his own investigation in the meantime.

As he walked by the grand stairs he discovered Gloria and Ava whispering. As he approached they grew quiet. And after a parting glare, Ava began her ascent.

“Is something the matter, Gloria?” Bertie asked.

“There’s always something, isn’t there,” Gloria huffed. She walked with Bertie toward the kitchen. “Tristan’s been poisoned, there’s a murderer among us, and Ava is pestering me about filming prospects for No Faint Hearts.”

“She didn’t look satisfied with the conversation.”

“No, she wouldn’t be. I want to go in a different direction. Entirely.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean my contract is ending and I’m considering submitting my new secret project to a bigger publisher. D&S has been wonderful, but I’m ready for a change.”

“Do the Scintillas know or anyone else?”

“Not yet. But they will soon.”

They entered the kitchen and found Laila scribbling notes in a journal while Chef Francesca recited a list of ingredients. Both paused at once.

Gloria snorted. “Having to steal recipes from someone else now? All those estate sales you go to must not be able to keep up with your blogger’s hunger for more.”

Laila’s face reddened and she quickly departed.

“Sorry, Bertie. I’m in a foul mood, I'm afraid,” Gloria said apologetically. She poured herself some water from a pitcher on the counter, withdrew a pill from her pocket, and gulped down both. “Some sleep ought to do me some good.”

“I hope it does. I’ve just got a couple questions for Chef Francesca and then how about I escort you upstairs?”

Gloria nodded her assent.

“Chef Francesca, who would have had access to Mr. Duran’s food last evening?” Bertie asked.

“Only the butler and myself,” Francesca replied nervously.

“Did you notice anything missing from your kitchen this morning?” he continued.

“Just four glasses, a bottle of wine, and a broom.”

“And your husband, Thomas, is the gardener, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you, Chef Francesca.” He grabbed a biscuit from a platter. “And thank you for your excellent food.”

Chef Francesca nodded and smiled.

Bertie and Gloria made their way upstairs. Bertie ended up having to stabilize Gloria by firmly grasping her elbow.

“Thank you, Bertie dear. Inez packed me the good stuff and it kicks in fast. I’ll be fast asleep standing up in a moment.”

“No need for that,” Bertie remarked as they entered her room and he guided her to the bed. “See you in the morning, Gloria. I’ll twist your lock on my way out.”

“Thank you, Bertie,” Gloria mumbled as she affectionately patted a large metal box on her nightstand and sleepily crawled into bed.

***

Everyone was assembled in the parlor waiting for news of when the police would arrive. Everyone except Gloria. Bertie figured her sleeping pill hadn’t worn off, but it was almost noon. He decided he should try and rouse her. He climbed the stairs and knocked on her door. Waited. No response. He gave the door knob a twist and found it unlocked.

The door didn’t have to swing open all the way before he caught sight of the blood. A huge pool of it extended beneath Gloria’s raven hair on her pillow. Her eyes were closed. A pistol clutched in her hand.

On the nightstand lay a typed note with Gloria’s perfectly swooping signature at the bottom.

The metal box was gone.

***

The police thought it an open and shut case: Gloria Vanmar had killed Tristan Duran and then at the prospect of being discovered, killed herself. That was what the note said and it had her signature on it.

While everyone else finished giving their statements and packed their belongings, Bertie paced the study hoping for an epiphany. He stared out the window for a while then strode back to stare at the paintings on the opposite wall. There were three panels. The first depicted eight animals within a fiery heart: a lion, a peacock, a snail, a pig, a raven, a goat, a boar, and a toad. The second panel showed the spiraling body of a snake with a peacock and a raven in its jaws. The final panel had the same fiery heart but showed only seven animals; the snake replacing the raven and the peacock.

“How’s your Latin?” asked a voice.

Bertie startled and saw that Lucius Scintilla stood beside him gesturing at the words on the paintings.

“A bit rusty, I admit,” Bertie replied.

“Have you heard of the seven deadly sins?”

“Yes, but don’t ask me to recite them.”

“Well, before the seven deadly sins there were the eight terrible temptations: pride, vanity, sloth, gluttony, sorrow, lust, wrath, and greed. Then vanity and sorrow were removed, but envy was added.”

Bertie stared at the paintings. Several moments passed. The snake. Who was the snake? Then it occurred to him in just the way it did for Detective Bash: the only possible explanation.

He flew out of the study and down the stairs as fast as feet could carry him.

As he searched the crowded entryway, he hoped he wasn’t too late.

He wasn’t.

There she was.

He couldn’t believe he’d missed it. Now that he knew, it was so obvious.

Maria Menda.

He grabbed hold of the suitcase she carried. There were cries of alarm from police and houseguests alike.

The case fell to the ground and he unfastened it. Inside was Gloria’s metal box.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Mrs. Scintilla demanded.

“In that box is Gloria’s secret manuscript, stolen by her killer!” Bertie declared.

“Why would Maria kill Gloria?” Ava asked.

“Not Maria. Inez. Inez Vidal.”

“Impossible!” Mrs. Scintilla exclaimed.

“It’s true,” Bertie said. “Maria is the niece of your chef, correct?”

“Yes, Francesca said she had a family member in need of a short term position.”

“Indeed, but the niece is the person who recommended Francesca to you for hire years ago: Inez. Who could access rooms to steal Gloria’s lipstick to frame her? Who could get Gloria to sign a piece of paper without her reading its content? Who could employ her brother’s knowledge of explosives to trigger a landslide? Who could get pesticides from her uncle’s gardening supplies to poison Tristan? Who knew about Gloria’s secret new manuscript? Who could give Gloria such a high dose of sleeping pills that she wouldn’t hear her room being entered or feel a gun against her head? The game is up, Inez, it’s time to come clean.”

Maria reached up to her head and pulled the wig free. Then took the glasses from the bridge of her nose. Inez.

“Such a simple disguise,” she muttered. “I couldn’t believe it actually worked. But I suppose when no one notices you to begin with, it’s not that hard to hide in plain sight. Until someone looked too closely. Tristan wasn’t part of the plan, but he recognized me. Thankfully, I had Gloria sign a blank page a few weeks ago and was able to add a confession to the planned suicide note.”

“You cleaned up the dirt after your excursion to rig explosives, but left a second mess. Instead of cleaning up the broken glass in Ms. Luxe’s room you retrieved pesticide from the muddy gardening shed. Tristan waited for you didn't he? And you convinced him to hear a proposition over a glass of wine.”

“Very good, Mr. Hudson,” Inez said bitterly, “No wonder your Detective Bash novels are such a hit. If only you and Queen Gloria had made room for the rest of us. It never would have come to this.”

Bertie and the others watched as Inez was handcuffed and placed in the back of a squad car. The envious snake would be in a cage where it belonged. And the prideful lion would mourn the loss of his darling, but vain peacock.

fiction

About the Creator

D.K. Shepard

Character Crafter, Witty Banter Enthusiast, World Builder, Unpublished novelist...for now

Fantasy is where I thrive, but I like to experiment with genres for my short stories. Currently employed as a teacher in Louisville.

dkshepard.com

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Comments (7)

  • Katarzyna Popielabout a month ago

    Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish! Frankly, whodunits are one genre I don't feel capable of writing so my hat off to you, lol

  • An enjoyable read… Agatha Christie feel.

  • L.C. Schäfer3 months ago

    Wait, why didn't this win 🤔 I love that your characters are writers. We all know they're a dodgy bunch 😜😜

  • Hannah Moore4 months ago

    Nicely done.

  • Babs Iverson5 months ago

    Congratulations on the runner up win!!!

  • K. Kocheryan6 months ago

    Oh wow. This was good. You got the crime genre down.

D.K. ShepardWritten by D.K. Shepard

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