The Owl in the Conservatory
Your Crimes Were Seen
Allow me to introduce you to her. She lies barren in the pines, far away from the people of the town. Her sad eyes look out upon the estate. No one stays, but she will let anyone inside. The sign at the edge of the lawn says Barn Owl Farms Bed & Breakfast, but I know her as something else. And I call her Persnickety.
The last time she had guests was on a hot summer day. She let them in with a mournful gaze and open arms. She was repaid with evil. Only my eyes witnessed it, but I cannot speak as to what I saw.
I remember well that fateful evening when they arrived - the last guests she would ever invite inside. The air felt hot and sticky, the cicadas were singing, and I was watching ever so closely. That was when the first of the guests arrived. The Irishman, Eric MacDowell, didn't take long to offend the Barrel's maid, whose nose crinkled in repugnance. He entered the pristine mansion with the stench of his tobacco pipe clinging to his clothes. Signing the guest book, he grunted at the woman entering behind him and signaled for her to sign her own name. Under the diamond-laced chandelier, she gazed upon every exquisite artifact in sight. Miss Berry, I believe, was her name. I can smell greed, and it seeped from her pores with great pungency. They made their way to the Autumn Grove suite, and I would not see either of them again until almost eight o'clock that evening.
A few hours passed when a squirrely man wearing gold-rimmed, circular glasses walked in carrying a rather large leather suitcase. Usually, Roger Barrel would greet the guests, but not this night. Instead, Lois Barrel met him with her usual smile and the metal tube she used to help her breathe. I cannot recall the word. Oxen-something, I believe. She moved slowly to keep the tube strolling along beside her, and the man smiled at the sight of this. I did not like that twinkle in his beady little eyes. No, I did not like that at all. He introduced himself as Professor Lyle Aikman and seemed to take a lengthy amount of time adding letters to the end of his name. When he was done reciting the alphabet, he went to the suite he had reserved, Gulliver's Dream.
The final guest to arrive was the retired Navy Lieutenant and close friend of Roger Barrel. I had seen Maddox come and go over the years. He was allowed free stays, but quite rightly deserved this accommodation, seeing as he provided financial help on several occasions when business was slow for the Barrels. He always stayed in the Fisherman's Wharf suite - sentimental reasons, I suppose.
Certain things cannot go unnoticed if any amount of time is spent in observance of the estate and its many guests. One - Roger Barrel hates when the mail comes following a full moon night. Two - Lois Barrel cries often in the conservatory when alone. Three - Persnickety holds a deep, dark secret.. and only I know.
Come now and let me tell you her story. It all began with a woman named Scarlett, and her blood-red lips. She sat in the train station and was soaked from the torrential downpour. Her dark brown hair was nearly blackened from the rain. "Can I help you, madam? I don't mean to meddle, but you appear lost and in need of assistance." A tall sailor asked her. She shook from the cold and her chin trembled, "A room one night, please, for me, sir." She said in broken English, locking eyes with him. Hours later when the clock struck midnight, she would be in his arms, the taste of his whiskey on her breath. The necklace of the barn owl in flight that once graced her collarbones now entwined in his fingers. Years would pass and this would be the only part of her that remained with him. Every sonnet he wrote in the privacy of his study would be for her. Each of the beloved owls he raised on the property of the Victorian bed and breakfast would be named after Scarlett. It started with Redd and Ruby then Rose, and soon followed Scar and Scar the Second.
The last night Roger ever stepped foot into the owlery to tend to his owls, he was joined by someone else. "Good evening," they said. Roger turned, startled, but resumed his friendly expression. "Ah, good evening. Come to see what the life of an owl keeper is like?" Roger said with a friendly chuckle. He set down the bath pan he had been cleaning and signaled for his company to take a seat on the stool across from him. What followed minutes later I will never forget. Cursing and shouting from Roger, whom I had never even heard raise his voice in all these years, began bursting from within the owlery. Several barn owls took flight into the moonlit night, a couple of them spattered with blood from Roger's bleeding skull.
Lois Barrel was in the conservatory and looked up as soon as she heard noises coming from the owlery, but her poor vision provided little help to see what was happening. Straining her ears, she listened for a minute before returning to the armchair with her coffee in hand and shrugging off the noise as nothing. Little did she know her eyes had rested directly upon the killer, hidden under the cover of night. The killer saw her standing before the glass walls of the conservatory, watching and listening. Minutes later, when the conservatory door creaked open, Lois looked up, expecting to see Roger. She had no sooner turned to set her drink on the table when the owl talons on the handmade fireplace poker came swooping down upon her. She barely had time to scream before falling upon the tile floor. Drawing in her last few breaths, Lois pointed at the glass ceiling of the conservatory as her eyes rolled to the back of her head.
I saw everything - from the murder of Roger and Lois to the things whispered and done in secret within the dark walls of the Victorian mansion that I love. Yes, I love her.
Allow me to take you back to the time between the guests' arrival and the demise of the Barrels. The second day of the guests' stay, dinner was served later than usual. It was nightfall when the maid, whose cooking abilities fell short of her cleaning prowess, pushed the swinging door open with her rump. She carried two plates of roast beef, fringed by potatoes and carrots. The only guest who reserved a meal that evening was the professor. Setting one plate down on the table for herself, she began making her way to the Gulliver's Dream suite. As she raised her free arm to knock, the door swung open and before her stood the very intoxicated professor, half dressed, steadying himself on the door frame. "Please, cm'in," he slurred, giving a half-smile. The maid shook her head irritably, "No need, I'll just set your tray on the nightstand and be on my way." She pushed past him, knocking him slightly off balance. He stumbled forward and grabbed toward her to steady himself, but his hand caught in her apron string. Fumbling to untangle himself in his drunken stupor, he reached toward her shoulder to stand and fell into her chest. "Professor! Get off me this instant!" She shrieked, causing the doors along the hallway to fly open. The Irishman, Eric MacDowell, came rushing from his suite to assist her as Roger Barrel called out to her from down the hall. "What's the matter? What's going on out here?" He shouted, his face drowsy and full of sleep lines. "I- well, he just, he tried," she began, but was too flustered to speak. MacDowell looked Professor Aikman up and down in contempt and gently patted the maid on the back, "There, there." He said, glancing back down the hall toward his own room. "Stella, are you quite alright, my dear?" Roger asked the maid once he reached her. Leading her out into the hallway and away from the dazed professor, he asked again. "What happened?" She drew in a deep breath and shook her head firmly, "It startled me is all. He stumbled right into me. He's a bit inebriated and, you see, it was an accident. I'm sure that was all it was, you can go back to bed." She said breathlessly. Later when Roger was explaining the incident between the maid and the professor with Lois, she gasped in shock. "Are you absolutely certain it was an accident? My goodness, she must have been frightened half to death. Poor dear. He grabbed Stella?" Roger stood from the wing chair, "Like I said, she told me it was an accident. He couldn't have walked a straight line in his condition. It's believable enough that he tripped. He'll be checking out in a couple days. She'd tell you if it was anything more than that. No need to make a big deal over it." He shrugged. Lois shook her head irritably. "Leave it to you to-" Lois began, but the rest was too mumbled to understand. "You're not a great influence, you know." Roger said with a wink, referring to the way their maid would do the same thing while cleaning when irritated.
On the third evening of the Lieutenant's stay, an hour after Roger left for town to gather more supplies for his treasured owls, Maddox knocked upon the innkeeper's bedroom door. Lois cracked the door open and looked up at him. She looked feebler than ever before. Her eyelids drooped and she had dark circles beneath her beautiful eyes that gazed up at him. One learns a few things when paying attention, and this I can tell you without any doubt. Lois Barrel loved with all her heart - and that love was placed on Lieutenant Maddox.
That same evening Roger hid himself away in his study, scribbling out a sonnet to his lost love. Constantly grabbing the crumpled letter in his pocket nervously, he licked his lips when penning the last line. Bringing the paper up into the light of his desk lamp, he smiled with satisfaction. The smile faded from his weathered face when he once again pulled the letter from his pocket and unfolded it cautiously, as if it would bite him. Threats, coming in by the dozen over the last three years, were scrawled in blood-red ink all over the paper. They came invariably following each full moon. He sighed when he came to the end of the letter. One more month, he hoped, until he would have to worry about another one finding its way to Barn Owl Farms' post office box.
I remember a number of years ago seeing a lawyer, I believe they are called, come to the Barrels' with an expensive-looking leather suitcase, filled to the brim with paperwork and brochures. He met with Roger in the study. I don't recall seeing Lois anywhere around that day. As a matter of fact, I don't remember seeing her for about a month around that time. When the lawyer was leaving, Roger thanked him and waved goodbye when the sleek black Cadillac made its way down the long drive. A couple days later there were police officers speaking to Roger inside the residence. His face looked rather grim when they left. I'll never forget the way he buried his head in his hands moments later, slumping down onto the concrete steps with his shoulders shaking. He looked like a man whose heart was inconsolable. I watched him grieve and, thinking back on it now, it scared me.
A couple months following that, I saw another lawyer show up to Barn Owl Farms. He carried himself confidently and waltzed into my precious mansion without so much as a courteous knock. It was Lois who met with him. They discussed the will and Lois was adamant regarding one thing and one thing alone - her maid was to be the heir. Now I do not know much on these things - legal terms and the law - but I do know one thing with certainty: Lois was quite put out that Roger had not included this. She raved about the maid being like a daughter to her and each time anything was mentioned of another heir, she would thump her cane she used at the time and make a spitting noise. I'm not sure what happened to her that caused her to need the cane, but I was rather moved when I noticed the owl carved into the handle of it. No doubt, this was one of Roger's artistic touches.
Goodness me, I am becoming quite sidetracked. Back to the guests and their intolerable intrusion. Now when I first saw Miss Berry, I must say, I did not like her. She envied the beautiful mansion and all the luxuries the Barrels had from the occasionally moody staff to the tempered ruby tile and emerald-framed mirrors. On more than one occasion I saw her pocket a trinket here and a trinket there. The vase she kept eyeing during her stay with her fiancé, MacDowell, I noticed was gone after they left. I remember one evening of their stay, though the exact night escapes my memory, MacDowell found her thumbing through one of the hundreds of leather-bound books in Roger and Lois' study. I could not hear what he said to her, but she snapped the book shut and began to stride past him. He grabbed her arm and swung her around, tossing her into Roger's sofa. Her face hit the wooden rim of the armrest, and she looked stunned as she looked back up at him. In the middle of the night following the assault, I saw her step out into the front lawn and sink to her knees. I watched for a long while, growing in pity at the thin-framed creature. I wondered if she had nothing, and if she thought this life was worth it. When she stood, rather than heading inside, she made her way to the owlery. Roger was there, cooing over his beloved owls. A couple had been injured and he was nursing them back to health. He would check on them at all hours and seemed to pity them at night especially, as though he felt their frustration at not being able to hunt with their other comrades in the darkness. When Roger saw the darkening bruise around her eye, he walked toward her, saying something I could not understand. He gently brushed away the strand of "fiery red hair", I heard him say adoringly. She began to cry again and rested her head upon his chest as he stroked her hair and gently patted her on the back, whispering something softly over her. Watching from the suite that overlooked the back lawn was MacDowell, wearing a face of white-hot fury. The morning that the couple left, I couldn't help but notice a few more bruises on Miss Berry's arms that she quickly covered upon stepping outside. It had to be nearly 90 degrees already, though the sun was just beginning to rise. She looked back in sadness upon my mournful Persnickety. She had looked for the maid to say goodbye and thank them all for the wonderful stay, but she was nowhere to be found. MacDowell hurried her out to the car making a snide comment about getting more sympathy from the man she had robbed blind. He shook his head in embarrassment as he ushered her into the passenger seat. They drove off into the breaking light of day, my Persnickety a few trinkets lighter.
Professor Aikman woke that morning, stretching himself and yawning for an absurd amount of time, as though he had only slept a wink. He turned his head, displaying that same creepy grimace as he had the night he arrived. "Hello gorgeous," he said, stroking the maid's hair. Her eyelids fluttered as she awoke, cooing when she saw his face. That was when I realized, to my grave disappointment, the tiny diamond that was now bound to a finger on her left hand. When the maid saw the clock, she jumped from the bed cursing. "Stella will be riding my case all day! Why didn't you wake me earlier?" The professor just smiled for a long time before responding. "What kind of way is that to talk to your husband on the first morning of your life together?" The maid grinned in spite of her frustration. "She'll be livid, you know that? The old grouch." She said. He laughed, clearly enjoying the idea. "You don't think she will be happy for you?" He asked. She shook her head, "Stella? Happy? No way. She could win the lottery and still be unhappy because of the taxes they would take out of it." His eyes danced in hers, "I just did." He said. She smiled at this, tucking in the strand of hair that kept falling out of the tight bun. "Mark my words, as soon as she finds out that I sneaked my fiancé into the bed and breakfast like an ordinary guest she will be more than a little put out. Not to mention, you got sloppy drunk at your bachelor party then assaulted her when she brought you the dinner I'd reserved for you," she sighed fondly. "I tripped!" He protested, cracking a smile at her giggle. She kissed him deeply and gazed into his eyes for a long moment before sighing and turning toward the door. "Duty calls," she said before freezing at the sound of a petrified scream coming from the conservatory.
The maid raced as fast as her feet could take her toward the backyard. She crossed the small patch of lawn before reaching the detached conservatory. Stella was sobbing, cradling Lois' battered head in her arms. The maid stopped dead in her tracks. Taking in the horrific scene, she could feel vomit rising within her chest upon seeing the once-beautiful conservatory covered in her employer's blood. Five feet from the body the maid saw the owl-taloned fireplace poker that matched the set in her very room.
An hour later, every person in the Victorian mansion was a suspect. They sat in the parlor as the officers and detectives surveyed the scene and conducted questioning, pulling each one individually into the study for this. When the older maid, Stella, had finally composed herself enough to speak it was in bitter, fragmented statements. She was numb with shock and grief, but anger coursed through her veins. "Am I understanding correctly that you were named heir in her will?" One of the detectives asked her. She shook her head solemnly. "No. You'd think that would be the case. I've loyally worked here over twenty years, but no. Mrs. Barrel is- well, was.." She bit her lip as her chin quivered. "I suppose that will take getting used to, so sorry. Mrs. Barrel was very fond of the young maid - thought of her like a daughter." The detective flipped to the first page of his legal pad. "Mrs. Aikman?" He clarified. Stella looked up, confused. "No, her last name is Morgan. Ivy Morgan." The detective glanced at his partner, who had spoken briefly with the young maid. "She introduced herself as Ivy Aikman." Stella shook her head then paused, lips parting in betrayed surprise. "No," she breathed, piecing together what had been done. "That little devil!" She screamed. Throwing the door open, Stella burst back into the parlor where Ivy sat hand in hand with the professor. "How could you?" She hissed. Ivy jumped up from the fainting couch. "It's not what you think!" Ivy cried out, barely escaping Stella's long-nailed grasp. One of the officers stepped between them. "Stop!" He ordered. Stella's nostrils flared, her face becoming beet red. Ivy stuttered terribly until she finally spit out her defense between frightened sobs. "Lyle and I eloped, yes. I brought him here to be with me this week. I figured if he could get to know Lois she would see him as the kind, brilliant professor that he is and give us her blessing. She was like a mother to me. That didn't happen though - she had her concerns about him taking me far away. I am the only family she had besides her brother." Stella seethed at the unintentional slight. "Her brother?" One of the detectives prodded. "Roger was her brother. Most guests assume they are married, but neither of them ever did marry. Lois joined him in running the bed and breakfast a few years ago, since he was having some trouble keeping up the day-to-day operations. She's been by his side ever since that day." Stella crossed her arms, "You're almost right. He sent her away for a month when he began receiving the threats. Shows how much you really know." She scoffed. Ivy looked indignant. "When who started sending threats?" She asked. One of the detectives pulled Stella and Ivy to the side. "Let's take this back into the study." Signaling to his partner, they retreated to the privacy of Roger's study, which still smelled of his pipe tobacco that he would occasionally smoke in the study as he sat upon the bay window seat feeling the breeze coming through the cracked window. Stella always hated that.
Stella's pursed lips opened again as soon as the study door was closed. "Roger had a son, although he himself only found out about it when Scarlett passed away three years ago. He was a hopeless romantic, which is what makes it surprising he never married. His thoughts were all wrapped up in her - everything about this place is somehow inspired by her. She was rubbish as far as I'm concerned," she spat. "Having his child and never saying a word." She shook her head. "Nevertheless, right before she passed away, she gave her son a letter telling him who his father was and where he lived. She was able to keep better tabs on Roger than he was her, apparently. She lived thousands of miles away in Dublin. Well, this piece of work found out Roger had money and decided to work his way into that money. Understandably, along with the shock of finding out he had a son, he was disgusted that the money was all he was after. The threatening letters began coming by the dozen each year ever since then."
Hours of questioning for all those inside the bed and breakfast continued. When Roger's friend and former Navy comrade was questioned, tears welled in his eyes. "I've known Roger for over thirty years. And I've loved his sister over half that time. Couldn't ever muster the courage to propose to her. I know it sure broke her heart. Feels pretty cowardly now - maybe I could've protected her from all this." He said, casting his eyes in the direction of the conservatory on the back lawn. "Roger told me about the letters. I got him the best lawyer I knew to help him get his will in order and encouraged him to tell the police about the letters. He's not stupid - he got the police involved right away. He and Lois co-own this place, and she was pretty upset that he didn't mention anything about Ivy in his will. When Lois had her lawyer draw up her will, she made sure Ivy was the heir of all her property and money. I'm not sure if the "son" ever found out that he was not mentioned whatsoever in Roger's will. The last letter he received was just days ago. It's probably still in this room." Maddox nodded toward the desk. Another detective entered the room and showed the lead detective a picture on his phone. "Does he look familiar?" The lead detective asked Maddox after taking the detective's phone and turning it in his direction. "I'm not sure what he looked like, I'm sorry to say." Maddox shrugged sadly, glancing at the photo. An officer entered the room carrying the guest book in hand. "Who were these two?" He asked, pointing at the sloppily scribbled names on the page - Eric MacDowell and Miss Dinah Berry. Maddox went pale as his head swiveled between the names and the image on the detective's phone. "He was here, under our very noses. About ten years older than in this picture - evil has aged him." The officer said something to the detective holding the phone. "That's him. I can bet my life on it." Maddox said, pointing a shaky finger at the image. The detective cleared his throat, "Oliver Kelly. Or, as you knew him over these last few days, Eric MacDowell, the son of Scarlett Kelly and Roger Barrel."
I have full confidence that they will catch him, however many miles away he is from here by now - for his crimes were committed before my very eyes, the eyes of the owl in the conservatory.