Outside, beautiful and lush greenery didn’t whirl past because it had all died. Instead, sticks of barren black and a cloud of heavy white, featureless but for the occasional jutting stick or utility post, flew on by, less like the New England greenery and more a magical wonderland that looked suspiciously like someone had piled a rather large amount of cocaine outside. The outside of the car yielded no relief for the mind, but the inside had its own problems.
“God, do we have to listen to this?” Eris groused.
“Sparrow’s driving, so Sparrow chooses.” Jude murmured from the back seat.
Eris squirmed around in her seat, holding the shoulder of the chair so she could look over into the back seat at Jude. “It’s Taylor Swift,” she said, waving one hand. “Taylor. Swift.”
“I like it,” muttered Sparrow.
Fitting those four people into that car had a certain clown car feel to it. Jude had to sit back behind Sparrow, who had the seat pulled all the way forward. Eris and Tally sat on the other side of the car, but the idea of wearing a seatbelt was clearly new to Eris, and she didn’t seem to appreciate the idea of it.
Tally mouthed I like it too over into the mirror at Sparrow – then their eyes widened as Eris glared at them.
Tally shrunk a little in their seat. Jude cleared his throat, looking down at his phone through the whole exchange. “You know the way out here, Sparrow?”
“Not really,” Sparrow said, drumming his thumbs on the wheel. “Roads out here aren’t exactly GPS friendly. Last road the car told me to turn down was a river.”
“It is pretty remote,” Eris said. “You think anyone’s gunna travel this far out here to kidnap someone?”
“Uh,well, um,” Tally murmured, then cleared their throat and spoke louder. “Marshall is a pretty big name in business. Sprague too – they run an investment firm, very popular with coal magnates and uh, um, with political movers, you know?”
“I really don’t.” Eris groused.
“Well,” Tally said, bending forward to fish up tablet from their footwell, “A quick google skim found him having fundraiser dinners for senators in Texas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Florida and Utah. Even some state houses, which is weird because he mostly moves in the big leagues, you know?”
“Huh?” Eris asked, leaning back, looking up at the roof of the car.
“Um, like, governors and state senators, instead of national senators…?”
“States have senators?” Eris asked, peeking over the back of her chair again.
“You’re… you’re not big on politics, are you, Eris?”
“Hahey, land ho.” Sparrow called to the back of the car as finally through the line of snow-coated trees, a shape emerged – a sprawling, multi-storey array of estate houses, high pale sandstone walls, jutting iron spikes up into the sky. The car rolled up to a black iron gate, across which was emblazoned in proud, ornate letters—
“Live Fred Or Die?” Eris asked.
“It’s Live Free, isn’t it?” Tally asked, still looking at their notepad.
“Not there. Look. Line of the grille behind it. That E looks like a D with a little bit in it.”
Sparrow giggled. “Well, I guess we’ll have to see how we Live Fred around here.” Winding down the window, he leant over to speak to the intercom. “Hey! We’re from Mycroft Consultancy, and Mr Marshall’s expecting us?”
The estate in full was four buildings – a large greenhouse, snowed over. A multi-door garage, which fronted to a circular driveway road. A small building about the size of a share house – and a enormous deep manor, that sprawled out behind the others like some sort of host organism. Everything was coated in snow, and everyone’s feet crunched against the gravel of the driveway as they stepped out.
Marshall walked up to the car in deep flurrying steps while he waved them in. “Ah, Mr Jude, and … associates. Ms Mycroft phoned ahead, thank you so much for your time.”
“It’s alright,” Jude said, fishing his phone from his pocket – and then looked to Marshall. “Just checking in with Ms Mycroft…” he murmured, then tapped the phone. “Hm. No reception out here?”
“Ah, yes, I’m sorry. We’re just out of the normal distance for most broadcast networks – you’ll find your mobile reception’s a bit flaky out here. We have a land-line if you want to call Ms Mycroft directly…”
“That’s an understatement,” Tally said, tapping the side of their tablet. “I haven’t got any reception out here. I’m gunna have to find a spot I can access a network on the grounds.”
“Guess we’re on record mode only today,” Jude said. “Alright, then,” he turned to address the group. “Gather information, all the data you can. Then we take it back to Ms Mycroft, and she’ll tell us what’s right.”
“You have remarkable faith in that woman,” Eris said, grinning up at him.
“Faith is hope for things unseen and truths unproven. I have no faith in Ms Mycroft.” Jude said.
Inside, the air wasn’t as cold, but the spaces were easily as large and empty. Huge halls and towering rooms, adorned on the walls with paintings of American history, of great civil war events, and more than a few paintings of Paul Revere didn’t do anything to fill the spaces between them, giving the whole building a quiet echo.
Marshall explained as they walked, leading the four into the home. “I was away for a trip to Colorado all weekend. On the weekends, we run a minimal staff, you see – just a maid and a chef for small things – and with the snow we haven’t needed a groundskeeper for anything but clearing the roads.”
“The maid – ah, here, Joanie – only arrives in the morning and commutes to her own rooms on the grounds.”
“Separate housing for the staff?”
“Yes, it is.” Jude noted.
“Anyway, Joanie arrived of a morning on Monday – about an hour before my flight arrived back in New England – and she found Persephone’s room the way it was when… well, it’s probably best to just show you.”
As Marshall spoke, a side door had opened, and through had stepped a young woman, dressed in a very simple, modern maid’s outfit – white collars and cuffs, black body, with a small triangular apron over her hips. The young black woman’s expression was that of a service industry mainstay – the look of of course I’m dealing with this. Still, there was concern about her, but something Jude couldn’t read properly. It was either Oh goodness, I hope Ms Persephone is alright, or perhaps This has really messed up what was supposed to be a light work day.
“Did you want me for anything, Mr Marshall?” Joanie asked, bobbing her head slightly, as if by way of apology for interrupting.
“Ah, yes, there’s a little – um, our guests have a fourth member, uh – you, young—” Marshall stopped short, looking down at Tally, hesitating for a second.
“Tally,” Eris growled.
“… Right, young Tally. Joanie, would you be so kind as to guide Tally around the place? He’s looking for uh, a network access point? I’ll show Mr Jude to Persephone’s room… if that’s okay?” he asked, raising a white-grey eyebrow.
“Of course,” Jude said. “Eris, you want to come with me. Sparrow – you think you can investigate the garage?”
“Sure. Looking for…?”
“Figures.” Sparrow grinned, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his vest. “Do I need a guide?” he asked, glancing up at Marshall.
“The garages are open. It’s just a short walk across the quad,” he nodded. “Please do be careful around my cars, though.”
“Of course!” Sparrow grinned cheerily, swaggering his hips as he strutted away.
“This is your wife’s bedroom?” Eris asked.
It seemed to follow naturally that any space in this house would be expensive. It was also large. The bed wasn’t as ostentatious as a four-poster bed, but goodness it came close. Expensive mattress, soft to the touch; perfectly crisp bedlinen, untouched from when a maid made it up before its owner’s disappearance. A rose hue to the walls, with a white skirting that ran up to the hips. The whole room was very pretty, but pretty in an elegant way, with almost all the fixings and fittings echoing the dusty rose or white motif.
“Yes.” Marshall answered, not understanding the question.
“And not … your bedroom?”
“We both appreciate our space.” Marshall said, standing in the doorway like the room might bite him.
Jude cleared his throat and interrupted. “You don’t mind if we look around in here, do you, Mr Marshall?”
“Oh, no, no, not at all. I mean, anything that will help find her.”
“Yes, yes.” Marshall said, drawing himself up, resting his hand in his beard. His eyes were a storm of anxiety but the rest of him held steady, almost like he was holding his damn breath. “My wife, Mr Jude. Now, if you’d be so kind?”
“Eris?” Jude asked, stepping into the room. “You mind looking at the windows for me?”
“Which one, the one that’s intact, or the one that’s broken?” Eris asked, trotting over to the window whose frame was mostly filled by a thick piece of dark brown cardboard. Under her feet, tiny shards of glass crunched. “Hey Jude, I think I found a lead.”
“Don’t be sarcastic,” he said, moving around the room, turning small objects on the shelves and counters. Lifting up frames, looking underneath at the photographs of the woman Persephone and Marshall. Smiling pictures, happy pictures. Pictures out by Cancun, pictures out by the Vineyard, pictures of summery beach sunsets. Each one shown, then set down again after a moment. Sometimes, he’d hesitate, then set the picture down again.
“It’s all I got, captain,” Eris sneered. With a small wooden footstool under her knees, she knelt and peered into the lock mechanism for the window, before giving a low, deep whistle. “Holy crap, Jude.”
“Hm?” he asked, looking up at the top of shelves, at stored bundles of summer clothes.
“Someone did a number on this lock recently. Fresh metal scrapings right by the chamber.”
“Someone picked it?”
“With like, an icepick. This thing’s been stabbed.”
“… Interesting. Thing that’ll force it open?”
“If it’s made of butter inside. A good lock won’t give it up to blunt force unless some… oh, I dunno, some ox of a guy with a fricking firefighter’s tool punches into it from a moving car.”
“Hm.” Jude said, turning and walking towards her, hearing the crunch-crunch-crunch of the glass under his feet. “Very interesting.”
“I don’t know. Ms Mycroft will though. Show me?” he asked, gesturing down at the windowframe.