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The Silent Witness - A Short Story

decorated christmas tree with title

I saw it all. The murder, I mean. The whole ugly scene played out before my very eyes. The screaming was deafening and the blood sprayed everywhere with a fine mist of red that coated the floor, furniture, and even sprinkled onto the family’s Christmas tree.


It was not a dark and stormy night, but rather, a cold and somewhat dreary evening when it occurred. The sun had barely set behind the bushes outside of the single-pane bay windows and the candles that were lit by the gentle care of her hand. She was a pretty one, Winnifred; a young woman, just eighteen, who had a wonderful life of her own to pave. And what a life it would have been…with her interest in medicine and wanting to become a doctor. A female doctor! Who would have thought?


            Oh, pardon me. What is that you said? You never heard of the murder on Mulberry Street? Near midnight at the Mulligan house? Why, that was the reason the reporters proclaimed it to be “The Triple M Murder” from coast to coast. At least, that is what I have been told. You see, I am a friend of the very family from which this horrible disaster struck, on the twelfth day of Christmas nonetheless. Who am I? People have called me different names; depending on which part of the world they hail from. And while I may consider myself to be of close relation, as all my like-minded friends do, Christmas is the only holiday of which I am able to visit with the Mulligans.


            From that monstrous evening, and up till now, the killer has not been found nor brought to trial for her wicked ways. The astute detective, a man whose name rhymes with the very mineral used to dry out beef, only ever found a small shard of silver from whence the knife was pulled out in haste and…well, perhaps I shall start at the beginning.


            Snow fell down in sheets from the heavens all that morning and afternoon, with a crisp wind beating against the house. Seldom have I been more grateful for where I was positioned next to the fire. It did a body’s soul good to keeping the pulsating flames near him on a day like that one. For the twelfth day of Christmas was both a wonderful and saddened day for Mrs. Mulligan. Memories she dared not share with passing friends, nor with condescending relatives, would bring tears to her eyes when the candles on the tree were lit for the last time.


fireplace

            Winnifred, with her colorful eyes of green and her walnut silken hair, rushed past me in a blur with a letter clasped tightly in her right hand. As she ran, I took notice of the necklace she was wearing and the pendant that dangled just below the collar of her blouse. She thrust the letter into her mother’s face angrily. For the past few weeks, a separation had been slowly brewing between the two strong tempered females and it was a matter I made sure to steer clear of during my brief stay.


            Her mother’s face suddenly turned from that of irritation at her eldest daughter, to one of sincere worry. Calling out to her husband, Alexander, my closest friend, Mrs. Mulligan handed him the letter and dashed down the hall to pack her belongings. I could see the sadness written in my dear friend’s brows while he walked over to me. It was then that he bent down to look me in the eye, him being much taller than myself, and whispered to me in confidence of the depressing news. His wife’s mother had contracted pneumonia and was terribly ill. The doctor urged her step-father to write the letter in case the worst should happen.


            “She is also a mother to me. You of all should know that, Nicholas.” Alexander’s words rang in my ears so loud and true. My poor friend had lost his own mother at the age of seven. When Mrs. Brightwell came into his life, being the family’s maid and all, he clung to her with an affection that all young lads have for their mothers. She helped Alexander’s father raise him in the strength of the family name and all that it stood for; continuing to lead the family’s hat company. Since I had known Alexander from whence he was a mere newborn, I would find him talking to me whenever something bothered him. Often times I wondered if I was a poor substitute for his grandfather, having been introduced to Alexander by him, but it made no difference in my mind. I was glad to be of some comfort, no matter how small. And I dare say that I rather enjoyed his talks.


            By that time, Winnifred decidedly popped her head back into the parlor room, holding a kerosene lamp in her hand. In the steady light within the hurricane glass, Winnifred’s face took on a younger gaze as she waited for her father to give her some guidance. “Winnifred,” Alexander’s voice was deeper than usual, causing him to cough and clear his throat. “Your mother and I will be heading to your grandmother’s. You will have to remain here for when Ms. Thayer arrives. Introduce yourself to her, politely, and explain what has occurred.”


            “Father, why must I stay? Angelica can tend to the fire and handle Mother’s friend.”


            “We have already given Angelica the rest of the day off so that she may be with her cousin before he heads back to New York tomorrow.”


            “We could send Ms. Thayer a telegram.” Her pleading voice still sounds in my head once in a while. It was as though the angels spoke through her lips whenever she tried to be more persuasive. Sometimes, I regret to say, Alexander would give into her requests; whether it be for more candy at the general store, or a new dress when she already owned four others. However, my friend was not swaying from his post this time. I watched as he shook his head adamantly.


            “No, Winnifred. We cannot be sure of where she is on her journey. You must remain here to welcome her in from this snowy weather. It would not do for us to have her travel 200 miles just to leave only a darkened house to greet her by.” His gaze felt distant as he stared into the fire’s orange coals. “Especially that one.” Alexander moved swiftly away from my side and over to his daughter at the threshold to the room. “Ashley can help you ensure that all of the windows are shut. She can even help make dinner for when our guest arrives.”


            “That will be the day.” Winnifred rolled her eyes, mumbling under her breath as her fingers stroked the pendant dangling from a darkened ribbon. It had been a gift from her best friend, Nancy, for her birthday two days prior. The cameo was that of her own profile, with her face staring to the left while Nancy’s cameo pendant stared to the right. Both backgrounds were of the same coloring, something I considered to be a nice touch and one that made it unique to the two girls.


            I do not recall much more talking after that, before Mr. and Mrs. Mulligan left. Winnifred slumped into the chair closest to me, where she left out a sigh that filled the empty space. She was bored of being kept inside the house that winter. All of the books in her room had been dutifully read cover to cover more than twice, and even the copy of a Mark Twain adventure she received on Christmas had been read already. As I remembered from prior years, young Winnifred loved the outdoors and studying anatomy under the sun’s rays. It was a far different atmosphere than that of being confined inside four walls with the feeling as though they are slowly closing in on you with each passing day. I should know.


old shelf of books

            After Ashley helped her sister check all of the windows in the house, on both floors, Winnifred toyed with her hair in front of the fireplace. A bow at the back of her head restrained most of her strands from falling over her nose, though she managed to pull some loose against her mother’s best efforts. Most days, she ignored me. I suspect it was because she was lost in a world of her own. Perhaps it was a fun filled realm where she could escape society and be who she wished to be, or perhaps it was one of dismal dread as she waited to heard from the college in Philadelphia. Regardless, her secret hideaway was her’s alone, and one I never knew anything about.


            A knock at the front door startled me; that I do remember. In anticipation, I thought it was to be Ms. Thayer. She was a woman I never met before, and one I was quite anxious to see. According to Mrs. Mulligan, she was of a lovely family who’s money came from that of the railroad before the depression took their business. Fortunately for them, her father saved most of the money he earned for such an emergency and the family managed to keep above the red line. When the person stepped into the light, however, the face turned out to that of Nancy rather than the woman from Ohio. I tried to keep my surprise hidden from the young lady, as to not hurt her feelings.


            The cloak of black she removed, revealed a dress of darkened red that was sculpted in the latest fashion of the day. Straight shoulders adorned the tops of her arms as an offset draping added a flattering look in the front, whilst a bustle created a bell shape in the back of her skirt. Having witnessed the two girls growing up side by side, it impressed me to think that they were no longer five-year-old troublemakers who required a firm hand in discipline. But rather, they were grown up and off to college if their parents deemed so. Nancy was far more inclined into the world of art as opposed to Winnifred’s desire of medicine. And if my memory serves me right, Nancy’s parents had no intentions on continuing her education.


            “Where are your parents?” Nancy asked in the sweet tone she always used. As Winnifred explained the situation, her friend’s eyes grew wide. “In this weather? They hope to reach your grandmother’s house in this weather?”


            “She just lives in the neighboring town. Besides, you traveled here from your house.”


            “Two blocks over. Not a huge deal to walk. But my father thinks it is going to snow all night too.” Nancy brushed off her cloak and hung it by the fire. “So, has Ms. Thayer come yet?”


footprints in the snow

            “Not yet.” Winnifred quickly shut her mouth. She peered from side to side, and after deeming that no one could hear them, Winnifred inched closer to her friend. “And I believe she is the woman my father turned down to court my mother. Held a strong affection for him, she did.” Nancy’s attention was hooked, I could tell.


            “Why would your mother invite that woman here?”


            Winnifred shrugged her shoulders with mild disinterest. “I overheard Mother say that it was time to mend old wounds. Father did not seem pleased, though.”


            “Winnifred, you should be careful of women like that.” Nancy rubbed her hands together before holding her palms out to the flames. “I mean it, Winny. Women like that harbor deep resentment toward the woman who stole their man from them, especially to their children.”


            “Father would not have left me here by myself if he believed I was at risk.”


“Who knows what lurks in the hearts of people we rarely see. Let alone, the ones we do see every day.” Nancy leaned into her friend. “Remember what happened between my cousin and Uncle? I visited my uncle almost every week and never realized the pain he was concealing.” Nancy flicked her braided blonde hair over her shoulder. “Maybe their sudden leave was staged. Perhaps your parents decided to abandon ship rather than face the woman your father discarded?”


            Winnifred shook her head. “I do not believe it.”


            “Did you actually SEE the writing on the letter?” Her friend challenged.


            “No.”


            Pulling a pocket watch away from her dress, Nancy blinked when she saw the time. “I do not have long to stay. Just wanted to tell you good luck at school.”


            “I am not sure they will accept me.”


            “You will get in. I have no fear of that.” Nancy smiled her pink lips at Winnifred. “Father will be taking us on an extended business trip next week, and has us busy for the entire time leading up to the departure.” She arched her eyebrows. “Apparently the house is in such disarray.”


            “Thank you for stopping by…” Winnifred paused as the sound of knocking on the door interrupted them. Nancy snatched up her cloak from the fire screen and walked up to the front porch alongside her friend. Before I knew it, the sound of heels clicking their way toward the parlor reached my ears. Ms. Thayer had indeed arrived, introducing herself to the two girls as they brought her over near the warmth of the fire. With a quick dip of her head, Nancy bid her farewells and left the way she had come. “It is a real treat to finally meet you at last Ms. Thayer.”


            “Why yes. It is good to see someone I have heard so much about.” Her eyes twinkled like the night sky and her face beamed with good nature. “You have your mother’s mouth and your father’s eyes. Beg my pardon if that is too bold to say.” She watched Winnifred blush in the calming glow of the flames. Glancing down at her wonderfully ornate boots, Ms. Thayer spotted a button unhooked and tended to it right away. Her philosophy was to look your best and to keep your outfit as clean as humanly possible. “Where are your parents, my dear Winnifred?”


            “My grandmother is ill and they left to visit her earlier today.”


            “I am truly sorry to hear that.” Ms. Thayer’s face turned mischievous. “But that does alter my plans just a shade.”


            “Come again?”


            “Well, I was hoping that I would be able to talk to you and your sister alone. Much earlier than planned…” She felt around in her purse, showing her frustration upon not finding the bottle. “I must have left it back in the carriage. Hopefully he is still out there. I shan’t be long.” Ms. Thayer dashed out the front door, leaving Winnifred with myself.

The clock chimed at eleven precisely, sending shivers from my fat toes to my chubby cheeks. Then, silence descended upon the house. Nothing sounded. Until suddenly, a scream pierced the still air outside. Winnifred and I recognized Nancy’s voice. Helplessly, I watched as she raced out to the porch. Within minutes, I witnessed my friend’s daughter shuffling back toward the fireplace and stammering her words in mumbled confusion. “She’s dead…my best fr…” A creak in the floorboards hit our ears as the click-clacking of boots moved in our direction.


            Winnifred’s terrified eyes sent a bone chilling cold through my soul. Her teeth chattered while she stood frozen in front of the chair next to the tree. I wanted her to dive behind its tall back, to hide from whoever was in the house. Instead, she just stood there and stared at the darkened entrance to the eating room. I could see that she was thinking of rushing up the stairs to find her sister, but dreaded the thought of making her another victim. The killer methodically encroached on the parlor as Winnifred used the sound of the boots to mask her own steps toward the couch. She was about to dive behind it when a woman cloaked in black, and wearing ornate boots, entered behind her from the hall.


             A knife was cradled loosely in the killer’s right hand, as though a painter would with a brush. In a single, swift action of the attacker’s fingers, the knife was hoisted into the air above Winnifred’s head. The killer grabbed onto the darkened ribbon, yanked Winnifred back and brought the metal blade straight down as she tried to fight her off. In the chaos of the struggle, I heard something fall from Winnifred’s neck, and watched the killer frantically bend over as Ashley called down from the top of the stairs. The rest you already heard me describe earlier. 


berries and greens

            I remember how Detective Galt’s smacking gums had hurt my ears as he studied Winnifred’s lifeless body. “Shame. An awful shame. Blood-soaked blouse, blood smeared right facing cameo, and...” He rubbed his eyes. “All pointed away from the attacker so their clothing would not be marked.” For him, it was a simple case of bitter envy that turned into a murder by knife and suicide by poison. “At least Nancy got away from her.”


Looking back on it now, I realized that the extra clicking of the ill-fitted shoes was the key to the whole case. When I discovered who the killer truly was, my stomach churned at the thought of her taking Winnifred’s place. Although, I must admit, the detective did have one thing right. You see, in honor of their daughter, Alexander established a bi-annual scholarship for women wishing to attend college. The first one was, for obvious reasons, awarded to Nancy; who never wore her pendant again, supposedly out of respect, and smelled of roses from her new perfume. 


And now that you know my story, a witness statement you may say, I must ask of you to inform the proper authorities on my behalf. For a Christmas tree ornament cannot talk, not even one modeled after Santa Claus.


 

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