Pink-stained clouds hindered the sun over the rooftops of the mansions of Altrincham, on the outskirts of Manchester. A black swan flew smoothly, landing on an open lawn.
Nearby, a group of about four hundred people, wearing robes and suites, were chatting and drinking around a five-pointed star swimming pool.
Wearing a bridal dress, Tracy, a 27-year-old slim blonde, approached a tanned-skin 34 Latin-American man on his 30s, Ricardo Saint-André. They hugged each other and kissed, an outpour of emotion that raised some eyebrows amongst the concurrence.
Wearing a black suit and a gray scarf, the most prominent feature of Ricardo Saint-André was his protuberant aquiline nose. Standing behind him as a Greek goddess, 29-year-old Gabrielle, covered in a pearl silky gown, looked at them with complacency. A professional camera hanged from her neck. In a sudden impulse, aware of the interest the guests had on the relationship between the bride and Ricardo, Gabrielle turned around as she lifted the camera’s viewfinder to her eye. She snapped pictures of those staring at them in a sequence. Some guests, visibly upset, turned their backs at her. Her lens was obstructed by the wrinkled skin of an old man. As she lowered her camera she faced the stern mien of Frank, the 70-year-old steward of the House.
“Champagne?” he asked her offering a tray full of foaming cups.
“Thanks,” Gabrielle answered, taking a cup.
“I’m sorry to interrupt your photographic session,” Frank said with British sarcasm.
Gabrielle wondered which guest felt uncomfortable about her shooting. She returned to Tracy and Ricardo as the electric lights were turned on.
“My dear Ricardo!” Tracy said. “I’m so delighted you made it all the way from America.”
Tracy looked at Gabrielle with a sense of expectation.
“I’m sorry!” Ricardo stuttered. “This is… This is Gabrielle, my wife.”
Tracy nodded slowly, in a gesture of dubious acceptance.
“Are you…?” she asked.
Gabrielle assented with a smile.
“Of course! I’m so silly. I’m so sorry I couldn’t come to your wedding.”
“Never mind,” Gabrielle said. “We sent the invitations too late.”
Tracy’s dark blue eyes perused Gabrielle’s body with impudence. Her face turned meditative for a moment, as if recollecting memories from a happier time. Then she looked at Ricardo’s eyes and smiled.
“Five years is a long time,” she said with trembling voice.
Tracy opened her mouth giggling.
Gabrielle feared she could add something embarrassing. “Did she still love my husband?” she wandered.
“Now we both will be married,” Ricardo said, concluding the impasse. “I’m anxious to congratulate the groom.”
“What for?” asked Tracy. “You could have married the daughter of a tycoon as well.”
Gabrielle fell that sentence as a slap on her face, but before she could react she felt Tracy’s gentle hand on her arm.
“How did you like the University in America?” she asked. “Ricardo has written me a lot about you via email.”
“I’m glad it’s over,” Gabrielle smiled. “I just finished my one-year internship with the US government.”
“I see,” Tracy said as her smile vanished from her face. “Is it true that you both intend to move to England for good?”
Gabrielle smiled with a hint of surprise in her eyes.
“Gabrielle found a job in a Manchester-based consulting company,” Ricardo answered.
“We are quite surprised as well,” Gabrielle assented lowering her head. “Believe me.”
“I believe you,” Tracy smiled in a patronizing tone. “An outcome of globalization. And I supposed, Ricardo, you are going to open a detective bureau, as in Portugal.”
Ricardo drank the content of his cup and scoop another from a waitress’s tray as she walked by.
“You are so gracious, Tracy,” he said. “I’d rather work as a Professor.”
“Of Spanish?” Tracy asked.
“Of theatre,” he corrected her. “I studied Cinema in the US.”
“Yes, of course,” Tracy nodded. “Theatre and Cinema are just very much alike. What a pity. Scotland Yard requires with urgency people like you. There are too many weirdoes on the streets.”
A fox crossed the lawn under the last rays of sunset. Gabrielle observed a bleeding fowl under the grasp of its jaws. –
“We have also sent the sick and the desperate to jail,” Gabrielle replied.
Tracy opened her mouth, puzzled by such unseasoned comment.
“I beg you…,” Ricardo said. “Don’t take Gabrielle’s remarks too seriously.”
“Now I understood why you referred to Gabrielle as your pythoness.”
And old man, wearing a hat, and young fellow were escorted by Frank.
“Thanks, Frank,” the old man said.
“Sir Max Weyden,” Tracy said introducing him to Ricardo and Gabrielle. “And this is Albert Urwin. Mister Saint-André and Gabrielle, his wife.”
Albert and Gabrielle exchange smiles as Sir Max and Ricardo shook hands.
“Enchanté!” Albert said to Gabrielle in well-pronounced French.
“How was your flight from Portugal?” asked Sir Weyden.
“We actually flew from Pennsylvania,” Ricardo replied.
“Ricardo just testified in a trial,” Tracy intervened.
“Did you?” asked Sir Weyden with a hint of skepticism.
“We did. Gabrielle was hired to gather evidence against a man accused of murdering his second wife.”
Albert laughed heartily.
“I suppose those Quakers intend to murder him in return!” he said to Sir Weyden, seeking his approval.
Sir Weyden looked coldly at him.
“Actually, Gabrielle proved his innocence,” Ricardo said.
Albert inclined humbly his head, in an effort to excuse his previous expression.
“Are you a lawyer?” asked Albert to Gabrielle.
“I have just developed an instinctive sympathy for victims, Mr. Urwin.”
Albert looked intensely at her.
Tracy returned his gesture with a smile.
“Albert and I study dentistry at the University of Manchester,” Rachel said.
“Rachel!” Albert exclaimed.
65-year-old red-hair busty Rachel and 56-year-old bonny white-hair Mrs. Lawn approached them.
“Tracy!” Mrs. Lawn exclaimed. “Max! How are you, Albert?”
Albert breathed looking at the blue sky.
“Enjoying this placid evening,” he said.
“Thanks,” Max replied scratching his aquiline nose. “Are you still leaving your French guest locked outside, Mrs. Lawn?”
Albert laughed heartedly.
Mrs. Lawn looked at him offended.
“Monsieur Philippe is blaming me for all the awful sicknesses he has developed while living in this country! It offends our sense of justice. He has gone so far as to ask me to pay for his medical bills!”
She recounted how, on a cold winter day, Monsieur Philippe, a 55-year-old man, tried in vain to open the front door of her pension. According to her neighbor he stepped back from the door and screamed out at the windows.
“If you locked him outside on a winter day,” Albert retorted, “you must assume the responsibility. You were lucky he didn’t get pneumonia.”
“It was snowing.” Mrs. Lawn nodded, showing the owl on her hat. “The windows were close. But, as I see, that Frenchie is not suited to our weather conditions. Monsieur Philippe coughed for quite a while, unable to unlock the main door to his bedroom.”
“It sounds awful,” Max intervened with sarcasm.
“I know,” Mrs. Lawn accepted. “But you should know I’ve never left a creature outside my house in 35 years of dedicated work.”
“Henry Purcell,” Gabrielle intervened, “one of my most dear composers, was never locked out of his house until he was 35. One week later, he died.”
A tense silence fell for several seconds.
“Oh!” Mrs. Lawn exclaimed. “Are you a foreigner?”
“I’m a human being,” Gabrielle smiled, “and a Frenchie.”
Sir Weyden chuckled impatiently.
“Mrs. Lawn suffered a heart attack last week,” he said.
“No kidding!” Gabrielle exclaimed.
“This weather is extraordinary, Indeed.” Rachel said, suddenly smiling. ” You see, Sir Weyden, in our past celebration we had rain the entire evening.
“I know what you are talking about,” Albert said. “But, back then it was a simple wedding. I hope you don’t mind, Tracy.”
“Tracy knows my life as much as I know hers.” Sir Weyden said.
“May I know, then,” Ricardo said. “How many times have you been married, Sir?
“Four,” Sir Weyden answered ill-humored.
“A remarkable record.” Ricardo assented. “Is Tracy your fifth bride, then?”
“Yes.” He answered coldly.
Tracy took Ricardo’s arm as she smiled.
“Mister Saint-André is an old acquaintance of us,” she said. He once helped us resolving a family dispute, in Portugal.”
“Oh!” Rachel exclaimed examining Ricardo’s suit. “Sir Weyden owns a country house near Lisbon. I love the South of Portugal.”
“Do you?” Gabrielle said. “Or do you rather love Sir Weyden’s company?”
Sir Weyden laughed heartedly. Mrs. Lawn and Rachel looked at Gabrielle uneasy.
“French fellows have a unique sense of humor,” he said.
“How do you like England, Monsieur?” Mrs. Lawn asked Ricardo.
“I love all countries,” he answered. “North England’s greenness and coldness are very inspiring for a good reader. By the way, Ms. Rachel, congratulations on the sale of your house.
Rachel opened her eyes in a gesture of surprise.
“Have we met each other before?”
“This morning, in front of a restaurant. You came out of a small house on sale. A married couple followed you.”
Rachel raised her head.
“Are you used to intrude in other people’s lives, Mister…?”
“Rachel, please!” Tracy exclaimed.
“Let him impress us,” Albert said. “He was, after all, a private detective.”
Sir Weyden clap thrice with a conciliatory smile.
“You have an admirable memory, Mister…”
“Saint-André?” Mrs. Lawn exclaimed rolling her eyeballs. “Are you also French?”
“You are not the first person surprised by my swarthy complexion, Mrs. Lawn. I was born in Bolivia.”
“Tracy!” Rachel gazed at Sir Weyden with surprise. “Can you introduce us to Hernan Sousa?”
“The football player?” Albert asked. “I also should meet the bridegroom.
Tracy laughed and walk away followed by Albert and Mrs. Lawn.
“I find your house quite suitable for these festivities.“ Ricardo remarked to Sir Weyden.
“What do you do for a living, Mister?” Sir Weyden asked.
“Well… I translate books.”
“No wonder.” Sir Weyden said scornfully. “I import goods from America. My business relationship with that young country is fairly profitable.”
“I’m sure that Tracy will help you to increase your wealth,” Ricardo remarked.
On the terrace of Sir Weyden’s mansion 26-year-old Sara, a slender girl than Tracy, and 31-year-old Hernan, a tall African-Latino sportsman, walked along a swimming pool, along a wooden fence.
“They have always preferred your sister.” Hernan argued. “Didn’t you see the car
they bought Sara for her wedding?”
“We’ll get another,” Sara replied. “My step-mother promised me an equal share for our wedding.”
“Right.” Albert nodded upset. “And the Cottage?”
“That was a gift from Lord Halifax.”
“Ah! Lord Halifax. That old bastard removed you from his will. They must consider your future. Sir Weyden is a gold digger. I don’t have interest, whatsoever, in the investments of your family.”
“Quit your job with the club. Let’s go to Boston, Hernan!”
“A soccer player is nobody in the United States.”
Sara stared at Ricardo, who stood on the other side of the swimming pool.
Nearby, 65-year-old Mr. Perry stood close to 35-year-old Mrs. Petra Baltimore. Perry bore a facial deformity that obliged him to nod his head every time he speaks. Petra was a bonny woman with a severe outlook. She seemed to be ready to scold anyone who approached her. Seated close to them, 70-year-old Mr. Baltimore read a newspaper.
“Did he sign the contract?” Petra asked.
“All the papers are in order,” Perry answered.
“Wonderful,” Petra said.
She walked to Mr. Baltimore, dragging her long silky red dress.
“At this pace we’ll be able to print the brochures before the end
of the year,” she said to her husband.
Mr. Baltimore raised his eyes and fixed his gaze first on Petra and then on Ricardo, who stood near the pool.
“Darling!” she scolded him.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Baltimore said. “Sara has invited an exceptional character.”
Petra looked around and discover the silhouette of Ricardo.
“Who is he?” she asked.
“Ricardo Saint-André,” Mr. Baltimore answered. “He worked for me as a private
detective. The diamond affair. Didn’t I tell you?”
“Yes,” Petra recoiled. “I’ve heard something about it. Now I remember. Where is he from?”
“From India or Brazil—I’m not sure…”
Sara and Hernan approached them.
“You bought a splendid dress, Sara, “Petra said. “Was it another of your presents,
“My father paid for it, Petra,” Sara answered. “Did you forget to check his accounts
“I did,” Petra answered smiling.
“Petra has asked you a simple question, Sara,” Mr. Baltimore said. “Be patient with us today, please.”
“Congratulations on your last victory, Mr. Sousa,” Petra said.
“Did you receive the tickets on time?” Hernan asked.
“I’m afraid we couldn’t get them. But I read an enthusiastic article
“I will mail you another couple of tickets.”
“They’ve never been interested in your professional career, Hernan,” Sara said. “They hope we’ll split up before Christmas.”
“You almost succeeded in inviting the whole community, Mr. Baltimore,” Hernan said in a conciliatory way.
“This is our community, Mr. Sousa,” Mr. Baltimore said folding his newspaper with evident irritation. “You will understand me better once you go back to your country.”
“This is now his country, Daddy,” Sara intervened.
Mr. Baltimore smiled as he saw Albert, Gabrielle, Rachel, Tracy, and Mrs. Lawn approaching him.
“Is it?” Sir Weyden asked in a patronizing tone.
Petra snatched gently the newspaper from her husband’s hands and read it.
“Gabrielle!” Sara exclaimed. “I’m so happy to see you again.”
Petra raised her eyebrows as Sara hugged Gabrielle.
“Where is Ricardo?” Sara asked.
“My dear!” Petra told Albert, handing him out the newspaper. “Did you hear about this wicked dentist? He has been infecting his patients for 30 years.”
Albert read the headline of the newspaper’s page: «Doctor Knox, portrait of a serial
killer. » Beneath it there was a photo of Doctor Knox, a bonny 70-year-old bald man.
“Actually,” he said, “Dr. Knox is one of our professors. A wicked genius, no doubt. Tracy! Weren’t you with him the day they arrested him?
“It was a nightmare,” Tracy acquiesced.
“How so?” Albert exclaimed.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Where are you staying?” Sara asked Gabrielle.
“Sara!” Tracy approached her. “Let me introduce Hernan to Albert.”
Albert and Hernan shook hands.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you!” Albert said. “I hope you will stay in Cheshire for
“I cannot think of a better place to live,” Hernan agreed sipping from his cup. “Sara’s family has been very warm and hospitable.”
Rachel laughed spitting drops of champagne.
“I heard you were planning to get married, she said to Sara. “Is it true?”
“You don’t know, darling, how much gossip Hernan’s family has triggered amongst our relatives and friends.”
“What do you think about that, Mr. Baltimore?” Rachel smiled at Mr. Baltimore as he drank from his cup. “Would you like to increase your family all over Brazil?”
Mr. Baltimore suddenly choked and coughed. Sara padded him on his back.
“Sara deserves the best,” he said recovering his breath. “I think it´s time for the ceremony.”
On Sir Weyden’s house’s terrace, Wagner’s nuptial march was interpreted by an Orchestra of young students from the University of Salford, all of them standing on a three-step stage. Hundreds of lilies, sweet peas, freesias, tulips, carnations, sunflowers and anemones decorated the altar and the guests’ benches, illuminated by towers of purple and pink lights.
“Cheers!” Tracy exclaimed as the orchestra ended Wagner’s march.
About two thousand guests–the beau monde of Manchester City, seated around a white-linen-covered long table, raise their champagne cups, responding to her toast.
Tracy and Sir Weyden drank from medieval metallic cups, their arms linked. The guests applauded, laughed and whispered as they scattered and clustered.
Hernan and Sara walked away towards the mansion.
“Sara!” a voice called them.
As they turned around they faced Ricardo, holding a cup in his hand, and Gabrielle, taking a picture of them.
“Ricardo!” Sara exclaimed.
“I may presume you are the bride, Sara,” Ricardo said. “You look splendid!”
“How charming!” Sara said. “This is my boyfriend, Hernan Sousa. I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to introduce you before.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Hernan said shaking his hand. “Sara has talked about you both in the most commendable terms.”
“I’m very glad,” Ricardo smiled. “That’s very generous of her.”
“I understood you cleared her name after her mother’s death.”
“We were worried about you,” Gabrielle said to Sara. “Why didn’t you answer my e-mails?”
“I haven’t had the strength…” Sara answered, “to tell you.”
“Sara has been in psychiatric treatment for five months,” Hernan intervened.
“I’m sorry to learn it,” Gabrielle whispered. “Are you leaving the party?”
“Just for a while,” Sara stuttered. “I see you met the groom.”
“What a bloody asshole.”
“A proud and ambitious man,” Ricardo bent his head.
“No one exceptional, by my standards,” Hernan assented.
“Your dress is spotted,” Gabrielle said pointing at Sara’s belly, where a yellow spot spread for about three inches.
“Oh, dear!” Sara smiled. “That’s why I’m leaving. Excuse us… I’m so happy to see you both!”
Ricardo noticed a tear drying on Sara’s cheek. She stared at him, turned around and walked away towards the house over the perfectly-trimmed grass. Hernan followed her.
“Something is rotten in Altrincham,” Ricardo whispered to his wife.
Minutes later, on the main hall of the imponent Victorian Lancaster-family mansion, Petra played Mozart’s second movement of the piano sonata No 11, K. 331 on a newly-bought Bösendorfer Opus 50.000 piano. Ricardo, seated on a canopy beside Gabriella, looked across the hall.
“Have you noticed, mon amour,” he said to Gabrielle’s ear, “that all members of the Lancaster family are absent.”
Gabrielle assented with a nod without taking away her eyes from Petra’s hands.
“Her French manners doesn’t allow her to whisper on a piano concert,” Ricardo said to himself.
As a waiter served him a cup of Oporto wine, Ricardo turned around and studied the glass wall erected behind the hall. Two silhouettes were visible across it. One of them raised its hand and slapped the other across its face. As they stepped back they both vanished by the optics of the frosted glass. Ricardo tried to ignore the scene and concentrated on the notes of Mozart. Petra was, according to him, a fine interpreter, but her notes were too precise; they lacked emotion. He thought on giving her a copy of Death in Venice, the classic by Thomas Mann.
As it became evident, he was not the only one to notice the hosts’ absent.
“They have all left the party,” a woman said. “There is no reason why we should stay here.”
“They will reward us with an Austrian piece of cake,” a cracking male voice retorted.
“If we don’t leave, Tommy, I’ll fall asleep in this chair. This woman is awful”!”
“Silence, please…” a haughty voice whispered behind them.
Suddenly, the loud explosion of a window glass and the acute sounds of car crashing against a solid object were heard.
Petra interrupted her sonata as women screamed. Most of the audience jumped from their seats to run outside the hall. Ricardo took Gabrielle’s right hand and bought her to the closer window.
They saw a mc555 black Mercedes half-smashed against a wall. Inside, Hernan, behind the wheel, lied unconscious, his forehead bleeding. Mrs. Lawn, arriving first from the hall, screamed before him and raised her head in a gesture of horror. She fainted on the arms of Mr. Perry. Ricardo lifted then a canopy and threw it at the window, breaking the glass. He jumped over the windowsill, getting beside the Mercedes, from where he discovered a pair of shoes amongst the shaggy willow’s branches. Fearing the worse he stepped back and stumble over Mr. Baltimore. They look at each other in fear. A waiter brought a lantern and focused a beam of light on the willow’s branches.
The multitude screamed in awe as the face of Sara became visible, her corpse hanging from the tree. A note was fiercely grasped by her right hand.