A Spider on the Stairs by Cassandra Chan is a contemporary reimagining of the classic English mystery following best friends Phillip Bethancourt and Scotland Yard Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons and their investigation of a serial killer in Yorkshire over the holidays.
Best friends Phillip Bethancourt, a wealthy man-about-town, and Scotland Yard Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons are each on their way to Yorkshire over Christmas, though not together, and neither of them are looking forward to their respective trips. While Phillip is returning to his family's estate to spend the holiday with relatives—a dreaded task—Jack must determine whether a particular murder is the work of a serial killer. It looks like it most likely is. As it turns out, Jack isn't on the case for more than a day before the understaffed locals ask him to look in to another.
Jodie Farrady, a former bookshop employee who disappeared about a year ago, is found strangled in that same shop Christmas morning. The modus operandi is similar to the serial killer's, but not exactly the same. It could be a copycat. It could be a coincidence. Either way, Jack could certainly use his good friend's help as he investigates the citizens of a Yorkshire that has suddenly turned quite deadly. Luckily, Phillip is all too eager to escape his own holiday and join the hunt.
In Which Bethancourt Contemplates the Awfulness of Christmas
The twenty-third of December was a grey, cheerless day, with black clouds scudding across the sky and spatterings of rain. Phillip Bethancourt, looking out the window of his parents’ house in Yorkshire, felt it suited his mood exactly. It had been many long years since the exciting scent of the Christmas tree with the brightness of its ornaments and the munificence of the presents spread beneath it had been enough to ameliorate the essential awfulness of the holiday at Wethercross Grange. Attendance, however, was not optional, and every year saw him making his way grudgingly northward, resigned to sacrifice.
It was not that his family did not celebrate the holidays with enthusiasm; quite the contrary, the Grange was decked out for Christmastide. The old manor house was filled with the mixed scents of evergreens, candle wax, and the burning Yule log, along with the fainter aroma of cooking; the mantels were all draped with evergreens and holly, and the Christmas tree in the drawing room was ablaze with lights and colored ornaments. There were even Christmas carols playing softly on the old stereo system. No, it was not that the Grange lacked anything in the way of Christmas cheer, it was Bethancourt’s place in it that caused his gloom. On these occasions, there were invariably endless criticisms of his lifestyle, of how he spent his money, of his lack of a proper job or a proper wife. It was no fun, he reflected, being the black sheep, though for the life of him, he had never meant to be. He had taken a first at Oxford, and he had shepherded the money he had inherited carefully, investing wisely and conservatively; he really did not see why he should not now be left alone to do as he liked.
He was in his bedroom at the Grange, dressing for dinner and admittedly dawdling over the process. In the mirror he saw the reflection of a tall, bespectacled young man whose normally shaggy fair hair had been recently trimmed in anticipation of parental criticism, his lean frame dressed in a perfectly tailored dinner jacket made for him by Redwood & Feller. A jacket that he had not worn, to his recollection, since last Christmas.
He was disturbed from the contemplation of his image by the ringing of his mobile phone. Glancing at the caller ID, he recognized the number as that of Scotland Yard and his mood immediately plummeted further. His friend, Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons, had just come off a long sick leave during which he had continually fretted over his enforced inactivity, and he was now conversely cheery despite having pulled the Christmas holiday shift. In his present mood, the last thing Bethancourt wanted was to talk to someone giddy with joy, but Gibbons was a close friend and he answered the call nonetheless.
“Hullo, Phillip,” said Gibbons happily. “How is the weather in the Dales then?”
“Dreadful,” answered Bethancourt morosely.
“Buckets,” affirmed Bethancourt.
“Well, maybe it’ll clear up,” said Gibbons with what Bethancourt viewed as an overly optimistic air. “Or perhaps it’ll turn to snow.”
“Don’t say that,” begged Bethancourt. “If it starts snowing the way it’s raining, it’ll block all the roads and I’ll never get out of here.”
“Oh,” said Gibbons. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“So,” said Bethancourt, endeavoring to change the subject, “what are you up to? Have they given you a case yet?”
This was mere masochism on Bethancourt’s part, as he was an avid amateur detective who followed Gibbons’s cases closely and would only be disappointed if an interesting case was to come up now, just when he could not take part in it.
“There is a case,” affirmed Gibbons sunnily. “I just got the call and I’m on my way over to the Yard in an hour to meet with Superintendent Brumby.”
“Splendid,” said Bethancourt, although there was a slightly hollow tone to his voice. He sat down in the chair by the window and lit a cigarette.
“I’m to get briefed on the Ashdon killer,” said Gibbons. “And then run up to see if this new murder is connected.”
Surprise shook Bethancourt momentarily out of his doldrums. “The Ashdon killer?” he repeated. “There’s been another victim?”
“Possibly,” said Gibbons. “Anyway, another girl’s been found dead in a shop.”
Bethancourt sighed. “I hate it when they’re young and innocent,” he said. Then a thought struck him. “Wait a moment,” he added. “They’re sending you off on a serial-killer case?”
“Just to confirm or rule it out,” answered Gibbons. “If I think it really is Ashdon’s work, the superintendent will come up and take over. But, Phillip, it’s in Yorkshire.”
“This new murder,” explained Gibbons. “It’s in Yorkshire.”
For the first time since he had arrived in the Dales, a gleam of hope showed in Bethancourt’s eye.
“That’s brilliant, Jack,” he said. “Where in Yorkshire?”
“In York,” answered Gibbons. “A body turned up this morning in a little shop called Accessorize in Davygate.”
“But York’s just up the road,” said Bethancourt. “You could drive over for Christmas dinner—won’t take you an hour.”
“Thanks, Phillip,” said Gibbons. “I’d like to do that if I can. I’ll have to see how it all goes, though. Will your mother mind a last-minute guest?”
“Not at all,” responded Bethancourt. “She’s got one of those expandable dining-room tables. Er,” he added as another thought occurred to him, “you’d better pack a suit, just in case. We’ll be dressing for dinner.”
“Oh,” said Gibbons, sounding a little nonplussed by this. “Will do, then. I’ll ring you again once I’m on my way, although I don’t expect I’ll know anything till I get there and see the scene for myself.”
“Of course,” agreed Bethancourt. “Er—are you feeling up to a long trip? I mean, you were only pronounced fit last week, after all.”
“I’m tip-top,” replied Gibbons. “Never better and all that.”
Bethancourt suspected this was not entirely true, but let the remark pass at face value; there would no doubt be time later to remind his friend not to overdo it.
“That’s good then,” he said.
“I’d best ring off and get changed,” said Gibbons. “I’ll let you know when I find out my schedule.”
“Yes, do,” said Bethancourt.
He sat silently for a moment after he had rung off, a slow smile spreading over his face. He looked over at the large borzoi hound curled on the carpet and said, “Well, Cerberus, this mightn’t be the worse Christmas ever, after all.”
Cerberus thumped his tail in agreement.
Gibbons knew of Detective Superintendent Ian Brumby although he had never met him before. The superintendent was the Yard’s authority on serial murders, heading up the division that investigated such crimes, and his expertise was greatly respected. Gibbons was curious to meet him.
Serial killings being fodder for the tabloids, Gibbons had seen Brumby’s picture occasionally and knew well enough what the man looked like: a trim forty-five, average height, close-cropped grey hair. But in person the superintendent’s face had a drawn look, the lines etched more deeply than forty-five years should account for, and his grey eyes were intense and hollow at the same time.
Gibbons could not help but wonder what Brumby made of him. He knew well enough what the older man saw: a young man with short reddish-brown hair and bright blue eyes, whose recent convalescence had left his normally stocky frame a little pudgy and given his complexion a slightly pasty tinge.
Brumby’s manner was quiet and serious.
“These are the photographs they’ve sent down from York,” he said, pushing an open folder across the glossy surface of the conference table. “The body doesn’t conform in several instances to what we’ve come to expect of our Ashdon killer. For contrast, here’s his latest work, in the bath shop in Kettering.”
He pushed over a second folder, open like the first, and Gibbons bent over the two sets of color photographs. He was by this time tolerably accustomed to the gory scenes such photographs generally depicted, but there was something in these that sent a shiver down his spine.
Both of them portrayed the body of a young woman lying on the floor of a shop: in the first instance, a clothing boutique, and, in the second, a shop specializing in scented soaps and bath salts. Both women had been carefully arranged in coyly suggestive poses, and the fact that they were obviously dead made the positioning grotesque.
“You can see the obvious discrepancies,” said Brumby, though in fact Gibbons had not got beyond his initial horror. He hurriedly tried to make a better assessment.
“There’s an artistic quality to Ashdon’s work,” continued Brumby in his even, dispassionate voice, “and a certain care displayed which is lacking in the York murder. Here’s another set from the second of Ashdon’s killings—I think you can see what I mean.”
Another girl, another shop—this time a stationer’s—and another deliberately arranged body, the scene for it set with scatterings of brightly colored Post-it notes and a greeting card pressed open against her bosom. Gibbons’s eye ranged over the photographs, picking out the details, and he began to have an inkling of what the superintendent meant.
“I’ll go over all the fine points with you,” said Brumby. “Because although this doesn’t look very much like Ashdon’s work on the surface, these things are never consistent. His plans for this particular body might have gone awry, or he might have had to hurry for some reason. And,” he added, a note of exasperation coming into his tone, “most of the Yorkshire detective force is down with the flu, so I’ve not been able to contact the detective on duty. But if you get there and have any reason to think this could be another Ashdon murder, don’t hesitate to ring me at once.”
“Yes, sir,” said Gibbons automatically, the larger part of his attention still focused on the photographs before him.
“Let’s make a start, then,” said Brumby, opening yet a fourth folder.
Bethancourt had finished dressing and was idling in his room, putting off joining the company downstairs for as long as possible, when there was a knock on the door.
“Open up,” came a familiar voice. “I’ve brought you a drink.”
Grinning, Bethancourt swung open the door and beheld Daniel Sturridge with a glass in either hand.
“Happy Christmas,” he said, taking the proffered glass and adding, “Ta very much.”
“Happy Christmas to you,” said Daniel, raising his own glass.
The Sturridge family lived in Burnsall, and Bethancourt and Daniel Sturridge had grown up together, attending the same local prep school and then going off to St. Peter’s at age eight. They had grown apart thereafter, Bethancourt going on to Oxford while Daniel got a law degree at York University, but they were still on good terms and were accustomed to join forces to withstand their elders at Christmastime.
“Ah,” said Bethancourt, setting down his glass on the bureau. “That’s just what was needed—I haven’t had a drop since the sherry this afternoon.”
“God, I hate sherry,” said Daniel, collapsing into the armchair as though the very thought of the liquor wore him out. “Scotch for me every time. So what’s this I hear about you dating Kate Moss?”
Bethancourt gave him a severe look. “I am not dating Kate Moss. I have never even met Kate Moss.”
Daniel shrugged, unrepentant. “To hear my mother tell it, you’ve been disporting yourself all over London with the most notorious women and have probably taken up heroin as well.”
“Dear God,” said Bethancourt mildly, and took a drink.
“Yes, but what’s all the fuss about then?” asked Daniel. “My mother couldn’t have dreamed that up herself—she’s not that imaginative.”
“The fuss,” said Bethancourt, “began because my cousin Neil is apparently going out with some baronet’s daughter.”
Daniel let loose a whistle. “Neil found someone to date him?” he asked. “Are you sure?”
“As unlikely as it seems, it appears to be true.”
“Well, pigs must be flying tonight is all I can say,” said Daniel, shaking his head and taking another drink of his whisky. “But where do fashion models come into it? The baronet’s daughter isn’t one, is she? Because you’ll never get me to believe any respectable model would date Neil.”
“No,” admitted Bethancourt. “So far as I know, the baronet’s daughter has no aspirations to a modeling career.”
“Probably just as well,” muttered Daniel.
“Possibly, although not having seen her, I couldn’t say,” replied Bethancourt. “Anyway, the model came up because my sister Margaret couldn’t stand the thought of having to congratulate Neil on his coup in catching a member of the aristocracy, so she nicely diverted attention from it by announcing that I was dating a fashion model.”
“Ah, the light dawns,” said Daniel. “Margaret was always very good at diversions.”
“Age has only improved her abilities,” Bethancourt told him glumly.
“Shall I call her ‘Mags’ all evening for revenge?” offered Daniel.
Bethancourt sighed. “Let’s not provoke her further. I shudder to think what other bits of my personal life she might drag out for public examination.”
“Speaking of your personal life,” said Daniel, “let’s get back to the model. Are you actually dating one then?”
“I was,” admitted Bethancourt. “But she’s nothing like Kate Moss. She’s not notorious or a drug addict or bulimic or anything like that. She’s just a very pretty girl from Kent.”
“It’s probably better that she’s not a drug addict,” opined Daniel. “And bulimia is so off-putting. Well, my hat’s off to you, old man. I always said, if ever anyone of us is going to date a fashion model, it will be Phillip. It was a pity they didn’t have that as a category in the yearbook.”
Bethancourt laughed. “I like to fulfill my friends’ expectations when I can,” he said. “But honestly, the entire thing’s been blown out of proportion.”
“I’ll be sure to tell my mother that,” said Daniel dryly. “I’m certain she’ll see your side of things if I can only get her drunk enough. Oh, by the way, be sure and tell her how nice she’s looking, will you?”
“Of course,” said Bethancourt, surprised. “Any particular reason?”
“Well, she is looking nice,” said Daniel. “She’s been on some new diet recently, and she’s dropped at least a stone. She’d never admit it, but she’s hoping everyone who hasn’t seen her for a while will notice and say something.”
“I’ll be sure to say something then,” said Bethancourt. “Coming from a connoisseur of fashion models, possibly it will have some impact. Wait a moment, is this the same diet my aunt Evelyn’s been on? She’s lost a good bit of weight lately, too.”
“Everyone’s aunt and mother have been having a go at it,” said Daniel. “Well, except your mother, of course—she’s kept her figure. It’s some new American diet and it’s all the rage this year. Anyway, Mum’s worked hard at it, so do say something, eh?”
“Will do,” promised Bethancourt. He finished his drink and reached for his dinner jacket. “I expect we’d better go down before they come to get us.”
As if his words were prescient, there was a knock on the door, and when he opened it, his cousin Bernadette said, “Aunt Ellen says to come down and bring Daniel with you.”
“We’re coming,” said Bethancourt. “Right this moment. You with me, Daniel?”
“Yes,” said Daniel, rising from the armchair and buttoning his jacket. “Let’s go face the horde together.”
Led by Bernadette, the two young men went to join the Christmas festivities.
Gibbons settled into a seat on a train packed with holiday-goers and pulled out his mobile to check the time. The train was already late starting, and it was not due to get into York until half ten even had it been on time. In addition, they had not yet been able to find him any place to stay, York being an extremely popular destination for the holidays. This in Gibbons’s opinion did not bode well for wherever he ended up, which was likely to be a rather nasty B&B, if he was any judge. For the first time, he really felt the absence of a Christmas spent with his family in the warmth of the old house in Bedfordshire.
With a sigh, he flicked over to his contact list and scrolled to Bethancourt’s number.
His friend, when he answered, sounded rather tipsy.
“Jack!” he said. “Are you here yet?”
“I’m on the train,” replied Gibbons, “but God only knows when we’ll get into York. I doubt I’ll get to view the scene of the crime until morning—I just thought I’d let you know.”
“Well, in the fullness of time and all that,” said Bethancourt.
“How’s your holiday going?” asked Gibbons.
“Oh, well enough I suppose,” said Bethancourt. “I can’t say I feel very festive, but that would mostly be because each agonizing minute that passes feels like an eternity. I can only speak for myself, of course. My sister Margaret seems happy enough, in her usual humorless way. Not that I want to put you off coming for Christmas dinner.”
“Not at all,” said Gibbons. “Is your father on about you finding a career again?”
“Hasn’t got to that yet,” replied Bethancourt. “They’re still in an uproar over Marla.”
Gibbons frowned, puzzled. “Marla?” he said. “What’s she done? I didn’t know she was up there with you.”
“Good God, of course she’s not,” said Bethancourt. “But Margaret saw fit to tell everyone at lunch that I was dating a dissipated fashion model—ironic, really, since I’m not anymore.”
“What?” Gibbons straightened up in his seat, startling his neighbor. “What do you mean? Have you and Marla broken up again?”
“I forgot you didn’t know,” said Bethancourt. “It happened at the last minute, before I had to head up here.”
“But what happened?” asked Gibbons.
“It was all quite tawdry,” said Bethancourt in a weary tone. “I’ll tell you later—I have to get back inside now before I’m missed. I only came out to smoke.”
“Are you all right then, Phillip?” asked Gibbons, rather concerned.
“Tip-top,” said Bethancourt. “Never better and all that. Ring me when you get here.”
“I will,” said Gibbons, but Bethancourt had already rung off.
He closed his phone and leaned back in his seat, shaking his head over his friend’s many problems, and reflected that for some people the holiday season was simply rife with peril, a time to tread carefully rather than celebrate with abandon.
On occasion, he envied Bethancourt his wealth—it was only natural, after all—but moments like these reminded him that nobody’s life was trouble-free, and if you had it easy in one way, there was always something else that you had to struggle with. Gibbons definitely did not envy Bethancourt his family, nor, despite her beauty, did he envy him his relationship with Marla Tate. Like any other man, Gibbons had daydreamed of bedding a woman like Marla, and of showing her off on his arm, but in reality he did not like her much better than she liked him, and months of watching his friend deal with her had convinced him that coping with her mercurial temper could not possibly be worth it. In that regard, he supposed, any difficulties could be said to be Bethancourt’s own fault: he had chosen to have such a girlfriend.
“Poor Phillip,” he said.
Copyright © 2010 Cassandra Chan.
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Cassandra Chan was born in New York City, and grew up in Connecticut. Her books are set in England, which may seem odd for a dyed-in-the-wool American, but she has always been an Anglophile, and was strongly influenced by English children's literature in her youth.