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One Got in Chancery

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She needn’t have been frightened. Of everyone on the island—besides Philip—she had the least cause to fear. But Hugo’s murder of Cyril was always on Vera’s mind, and the seaweed crawled around her throat like the watery hand of doom that had dragged Cyril into the depths. More practically (for she would prefer to avoid metaphor when she explained her hysteria to Philip, later, in private) it was their first sign of anything going wrong. They had stage managed everything up to this point, but the seaweed was not in their plan. Neither was Philip’s gun being stolen. Someone on the island was seizing a bit of initiative, and they had to find out who. And why that person had killed Mr. Justice Wargrave, three hours before his intended death.

It made no sense. In all their theorizing, nobody had claimed to think that Wargrave was “U. N. Owen” except for Philip. And Philip had no reason to betray her now, this close to success. Of the other survivors, Armstrong had said he suspected Blore, and Blore—half right—had said Lombard. Ideally, one of them might have been lying to cover a deep suspicion of Wargrave, or changed their suspicions after Philip gave his reasons for suspecting Wargrave. But it didn’t seem likely. They’d made it too far to have the plan fall apart now. Vera sat up in bed and started running through the contingency plans in her head again.

It was nearly ten when she noticed a slight break in the silence. The sound faded before she was scarcely aware of it. Perhaps she had imagined it entirely—or perhaps someone was walking around the house. She reached for the wine bottle she had brought with her earlier; it was the best weapon she’d been able to find that wouldn’t attract suspicion.

More footsteps sounded as she waited, and then voices murmuring. After a minute, Philip tapped on her door. “Vera?” he said. “Armstrong’s missing. We think he must be the murderer. Blore and I are going after him. Whatever happens, sit tight and stay calm.” The last part was their code, and it nearly caught Vera off guard. She’d been expecting him to say stay put or at very least there’s no need for alarm. But he’d said to sit tight: he wanted her to continue with the plan.

Vera wasn’t sure how he’d get Blore in place, but she’d be ready. “I will,” she told him. “Don’t worry.” She waited for their footsteps to recede down the hall, then two more minutes of silence to let them get safely away and to make sure there was no return of the other footsteps (Armstrong’s?) she’d heard before. Finally, she took a deep breath. Wine bottle in one hand, key in the other, she unbolted the door and slipped into the hall. If Philip had indeed meant that Armstrong had gone missing (and not that he had taken him out ahead of schedule), then he could be anywhere. But she did not have far to go, only across the hall to the sitting room whose windows looked out over the balcony entrance. And she did not meet Armstrong on the way. With a sigh of relief, she unlatched the window and settled in to wait.

The men were barely visible in the gloomy night as they walked back to the house. If Philip saw her as he crossed the balcony ahead of Blore, he didn’t indicate it, but she knew that he knew she was there. He fumbled for a moment with the doorknob, while Blore waited behind him—which gave Vera all the time she needed. She cast the clock out the window, and didn’t even wait to see it hit before she was scrambling out of the room and down the hall. There was nobody to see her as she unlocked her own door and slipped inside. A twist of the key, and she was safe from suspicion in the same place that she had been left in. Not that it mattered, with Blore dead and Philip her ally. All that remained now was to find Armstrong, and they would be home free.

It seemed ages before Philip tapped on her door. Five knocks, unevenly spaced, so she knew it wasn’t Armstrong. “Well?” she whispered, opening the door just enough for him to slip inside.

“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?”

“The good news.”

“I found my revolver. The bad news is that Wargrave’s body has gone missing. How sure are we that he was dead when we found him after you screamed the house down?”

Vera’s blood ran cold. “I never touched the body. Armstrong had things in hand. Did you?”

“Only to help Armstrong and Blore carry him into his room. I didn’t confirm absence of a pulse.”

“Do you suppose Armstrong allied himself with Wargrave and helped him fake his death?”

“If so, then we’re still lacking the advantage of numbers. But we still have the advantage of knowing why this is happening and what the plan is.”

“If Wargrave’s alive, then this may still have all been for naught.”

“Look on the bright side, dear,” Philip replied. “If Wargrave manages to kill you and me, he’ll have made himself the de facto top suspect in all the other murders as well.”

Vera shivered. “We can’t count on that. He’s too sharp. And I don’t want to die.”

“Well, we can hope it won’t come to that,” Philip said. “I didn’t point it out to Blore, but I thought I noticed movement when we were out looking around. If I claim that Blore is the killer, it may put whoever I find off guard long enough to take them out. A red herring, as it were.”

“And I suppose you want me to stay here?”

“Well, we only have the one gun.”

“Fine, I’ll wait until morning, but then I’m coming out and finishing the job if you haven’t. We’re running out of time; the sea’s gone down enough the motorboat may make it out this morning.”

Philip rejoined her well before morning, reporting that he had run across Armstrong and pushed him over a cliff. Still no sign of Wargrave, whose body was still missing from the house. The most positive thing to be said was that they hadn’t gotten completely off track from the poem, just a bit out of order. Vera would have found that a better comfort if she hadn’t been constantly fearful of what Wargrave could be getting up to.

“He’ll have found Blore’s body,” she whispered. They were lying side by side on her bed, too tense to sleep. “He’ll know it’s us. Or at least one of us.”

“It could still be Armstrong,” Philip replied. “Double-crossing him and all that.”

“Are you willing to risk your life on the man who killed my step-brother falling for that? He knows as well as we do that Armstrong doesn’t have the brains.”

As it turned out, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to test whether Wargrave would or not. As soon as the sun rose, they took a turn around the island, trusting in superior numbers and Philip’s revolver to protect them, and almost immediately stumbled across Armstrong’s body. Someone had pulled the body out of the water, laying it out neatly above the high-water mark.

“The currents run fast around here,” Philip remarked. “We were nearly on the other end of the island when I pushed him in.”

“Philip,” Vera said urgently. “There’s nobody left on the island, so if one of us were innocent, this is when we realize the other is the killer. If Wargrave is watching…” Philip pulled out his revolver and pointed it at her. “Philip!”

“Grab it,” he hissed. “Shoot me in the shoulder, so Wargrave thinks I’m Owen, then find him and shoot him. I’ll follow when I can.”

Vera did as he asked, cringing as he stumbled backwards, red blooming on his shirt front. There was no time to worry, though. She scrambled back up the cliff and ran toward the house, glancing back over her shoulder repeatedly as though afraid Philip would be following her.

Wargrave was standing just inside the front door. Vera stopped with a start, mostly feigned. “You’re alive?” she murmured. “But I thought...Philip…” She raised the gun, hesitantly, as if she didn’t know how to use it, as if she didn’t want to kill anybody.

“I’m not the murderer,” Wargrave assured her. He took a slow step towards her, then another. “I pretended to be dead out of hope I might thereby survive. And have you determined who the murderer was? Mr. Lombard, it seems. You know, I always suspected it was you.”

“The murderer…” Vera said, watching him come closer. And closer. Not much time now. “The murderer” She pulled the trigger.

Wargrave fell to the floor, unquestionably dead this time. She looked down at him. It had been so fast. She wished she’d had more time to tell him why he’d had to die.

Philip joined her after a minute. He held a handkerchief pressed tightly to his shoulder, but he looked more relaxed than she’d seen him in months.

“It worked out quite well,” Philip said. “We’ll still be able to use the original plan and blame Wargrave. We’ll just have to take a minute to get our story straight before any boats reach us. Wargrave faked his death, killed everybody, tried to kill you but you get the drop on him—it all fits. He essentially walked right into our hands.”

“And Edward will finally have his revenge,” Vera whispered.

“He’d be proud,” Philip assured her. “Edward Seton always could appreciate a good murder.”