"As a dog returneth to its vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly." The words forced their way into Eugene Ackerman's mind as he strolled up the walk to Prewitt Manor. Time had hardly touched the place over the past ten years. The only thing that stood out to Ackerman as different was the stone marker over a patch of unkempt grass.
Could it be Mildred Prewitt's final resting place?
Ackerman tore his eyes from the sight and rang the doorbell two times in quick succession. Before anyone could answer, he slipped a domino mask over his eyes and removed the invitation from his pocket.
"You are cordially invited to attend the Lena Historical Society's first annual Halloween Masquerade Ball. Date: The thirty-first of October, 1899; Time: 5:00 PM; Place: Prewitt Manor on North Ridge. Please come dressed in attire appropriate to a masquerade."
Standing there, Ackerman wondered if he would have done better to come in full costume. Before he could change his mind and turn around, the door opened.
"Inspector Ackerman!" the maid cried.
Ackerman stared at her. "How did you know?"
"Your hair! It was always sticking up in funny places. You haven't changed a bit."
Betsy Miller had hardly changed either. She had the same dirty face and wrinkled half-apron; and she wore the same wide-eyed expression that she had ten years ago.
"Mr. Ackerman, actually," Ackerman said in what he hoped was a jovial voice.
The woman blinked. "Oh, so you've retired, then?" Before he could give an affirmative, she stood aside and said, "Don't let me keep you out in this cold, Inspector. Just let me take your coat and you can join the party." She helped Ackerman out of his coat and offered to take his gray gloves.
"I'll hold onto them, thank you," he said.
The maid shot him a quizzical look, but made no comment. "You're one of the first to arrive, I must say. Those that are already here are in the drawing room. You remember where that is."
Of course he did.
As he walked past the grand staircase and ducked through the entryway, he made quick mental notes of the changes that had occurred. The grand piano was no longer displayed in the middle of the floor, but was shoved off in a corner and covered with a dust cloth. Also, the crowd of masqueraders now populating the room replaced the swarm of mourners, reporters, investigators and suspects.
Three women stood grouped in the middle of the room. One was dressed in white and wore a silver mask with matching silver wings. Another wore a light green dress and a gold domino mask; what she was supposed to be escaped Ackerman. The third woman was dressed in the most shocking red. Red dress, red mask, red horns… Blood-red, he thought with a shudder and looked elsewhere.
Now there was a sight!
Two identically-dressed women stood in opposite corners of the room. Their deep blue gowns matched down to the gold thread and bunched up ruffles. The black masks were of the same feline curves and points. Their hair was the same. The only difference Ackerman could detect was in the women's attitudes. While the lady on the left spoke animatedly to a fat friar, whose hood had just slipped, the lady on the right stood rigid and quiet with a peacock one could only assume to be her beau.
Ackerman smiled. No one had given him more than a look.
As he ladled punch into a crystal glass, he heard the woman with the friar say, "—Stupid cow; it serves her right. She stole him right from under me!"
The friar puffed out his chest and shook his head. "Really, Miss Smithe; show some grace, and mind your language."
The girl drew her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. "Forgive me, Reverend. I forgot who I was talking to." Her eyes flitted to the punch bowl and then to her costume "twin." "Why don't you have a seat, and I'll fetch you some punch."
"A lovely gesture, Miss Smithe; but I'm afraid I shall not be indulging tonight. Drinking aggravates the ulcer, you know."
Not pausing to listen to the girl's subsequent fussing, Ackerman sat down several feet away on the window seat.
The women in the middle of the room now turned their attention to the instrument in the corner. Ackerman hoped they wouldn't pry and remove the cover, though he knew the bloodstains had been wiped clean.
The grouping was too far away for him to make out what they were saying, but they all seemed absorbed. What a bunch of old biddies, Ackerman said to himself.
He sipped his punch and let his gaze wander around the entire party. “Dull as tombs,” he thought. Drier than this punch, even. He thought of the flask in his hip pocket and sighed; he really oughtn't. Alcohol always gave him that strange prickly sensation in the back of his neck.
It was nearing five twenty when the doorbell rang, and a group of six women and three men were shown inside. There were several gasps followed by a whirlwind of whispers; they had spied the piano as well.
Ackerman spied something else: A stray medicine bottle near one of the piano legs. As he went to retrieve it, in respect for the homeowners, a gaggle of women swooped down upon the instrument. He pocketed the bottle and paused to listen.
"Is that it?" a witch asked an orange cat.
The cat nodded her blonde head and pointed a gloved hand. "Yes, but it was in the center of the room when they found her."
"Was she really—"
"Stuffed half inside?" a flamingo finished for her. "Yes, my dear; it's sad but true." The woman fluttered a fan and dabbed her brow. "I was there that afternoon, you know. What a sad way to go, strangled with a piano string in one's own home. Poor, dear Mildred."
"You must be very brave to speak of this, Mrs. Dent."
So, that was Gillian Cartwright—wife of the now-deceased millionaire, Lucius Dent. She had been one of Ackerman's main suspects in the Prewitt murder. She had had the motive: Greed. Aunt Prewitt left her a hefty sum, though the estate itself had been left to her nephew, Philip Janson and his wife, Martha. The Jansons had been suspects at first but, along with Miss Cartwright, they had a solid alibi. And that was before the "X" symbols began showing up all over Lena and Amherst.
Ackerman moved away before he could be recognized.
The chattering had increased in volume, and more persons forced their way into the room, some heading for the punch bowl, and others searching out acquaintances.
"Inspector Ackerman," said a booming voice that caused half the room to stop and stare.
Mr. Ackerman winced. How'd he know it was I?
"Oh, right, Mr. Ackerman. Forgive me," said the friar, who now stood beside him. "You perhaps don't remember, but I'm Reverend Martin Vervain. I administered the Last Rites right here, in this room, ten years ago—to the day, come to think of it. Sad business, really sad business."
Inclining his head, Ackerman smiled and took a sip of punch.
"And I haven't noticed you in church since." The man shot him a stern look, then broke down in laughter. "It's all right; we all lose our faith at some point along the way. It's understandable in your case."
Ackerman raised both his eyebrows. "Is that so?"
Reverend Vervain gave a wry smile. "Well, what I mean to say is, the X Murderer has given you quite a bit of trouble."
"That he did. But no more. I am retired." Ackerman returned the smile and waved the matter away. "So, has the ministry been keeping you busy?"
"Busy? I should daresay it's been running me all over the place. I just returned from a missions trip to Africa with a group of volunteers. A few of them are at the party this evening, in fact."
"Still fighting for souls?"
"Oh, yes." The reverend rubbed his hands together and laughed. "The harvest is ripe for picking."
"Leave me alone!"
"Ethne, are you all right?" asked the gentleman dressed as a peacock. He pursued his partner across the room.
As the lady passed, Ackerman noted that she was rather pale in the face, and her blue gown was stained with perspiration marks.
"I'm not Ethne," she gasped, then dropped to the ground. She convulsed several times and was still.
"Out of the way!" Ackerman yelled. He pushed through the throng of people and dropped next to the girl.
"I don't understand," said the peacock, ripping his mask away. "She left for the punch bowl a few minutes ago, and came back looking like—"
"Quiet!" Ackerman listened for the girl's breathing and felt for a pulse; nothing. "Does anyone here know how to perform chest compressions?"
There was more murmuring.
"Never mind," he snapped. He pressed one hand over the other on the woman's chest and proceeded to apply and remove direct, hard pressure to the ribcage. For nearly five minutes he went on like this, until…
"I've just rung for the doctor," cried a middle-aged woman.
"You're too late," Ackerman panted, looking at his watch. It was five thirty-nine. "She's dead."
The silence was broken at once.
Ackerman rose. "Do not touch the body," he roared at the dead woman's beau. "And do not leave this house. That goes for everyone."
"Erik? What's going on?" someone cried.
A woman wearing a blue gown and a feline-esque mask pushed her way through the crowd.
"Ethne?" said the beau, whose gaze flitted between the woman on the floor and the woman in the crowd.
Ackerman looked at the X scratched into the floor. He blinked. “Of course,” he thought. “Of course.”