by Trevor Hopkins

I rang the doorbell at the elegant sandstone mansion that had belonged to Merton Vale. This time, the front door was opened almost immediately by an elderly but still spry Goblin whose black dress and respectful demeanour said "Housekeeper". To my surprise, she did not ask my name or my business, but immediately ushered me inside and gestured in the direction of a reception room off the entrance hall where from within came the low murmur of many voices.

The entrance hall itself was an ode to perfection in pristine white marble. Ornately patterned and highly polished tiles tessellated the floor, while serried rows of pillars in pale stone supported the gallery on three sides above as well as the curving staircase on the fourth side. Plush chairs with those carved wooden feet that look like dragon's claws gripping an egg stood here and there, separated by low tables with ashtrays and potted palms in stone urns. It didn't look if anyone actually ever sat there. Gaps on the walls were filled with oil paintings in an old-fashioned style, although I didn't recognise anyone. Grand double doors stood open on either side and at the end of the hall, and a smaller door discreetly hidden which led no doubt to the servants' quarters below.

I took off my hat and declined the housekeeper's offer to take it or my coat. I followed the old dear to the reception room door, whereupon she gestured again, bowed informally and turned back towards the hidden door. I stepped inside. This room was more intimate, but only by contrast with the grand hall outside. Wide windows framed with ornate drapes let in whatever light there was. The floor was muffled in a deep-pile carpet, and armchairs and davenports suffocating under a load of cushions and soft furnishings.

It was hard to see much of the furnishings, or even the walls. The reception room was almost filled with well-dressed Goblins of all shapes and sizes, the only common factor was that they were all wearing unrelieved black. It was, I quickly realised, a wake for the dear departed Merton Vale.

The room was buzzing with conversations the low voices which seem to be mandatory in gatherings of this sort. Many of the guests were circulating from person to person, no doubt making polite small talk. Others were queuing to offer their condolences for the grieving widow, who was sitting prettily with her ankles crossed in a large chair close to the centre of the room, and lifting the black veil of her hat from time to time to dab daintily at her glisteningly moist eyes. It was hard to believe that this was the same female who was enjoying the carnal attentions of another not twenty-four hours ago, her husband dead just the day before that.

Other servants circulated carrying silver trays, most of whom were the kind that suggested that they had been hired for the day's work as part of a catering package. Some of the trays held titbits and canapes of the kind preferred by Goblins while others, reassuringly, appeared to include filled glasses. As I looked around, a young Goblin expertly carrying a tray with an ice bucket containing an open wine bottle and half a dozen tall glasses approached.

"Glass of Champagne, sir?" he murmured discreetly.

I nodded slowly. Champagne is not my favourite tipple, I'll admit, but I wasn't above accepting a free drink every now and again. The waiter poured the wine carefully, concentrating on getting the foam just right. They hadn't stinted on the quality of the Champagne, either. As my glass was poured, I caught sight of a vintage year and Père et Fils on the label. Father and Son. How very appropriate, I thought, looking across the crowded room at Old Man Madderfy, who was talking to several younger Goblins stood in a group by the fireplace.

I took the proffered glass and sipped, looking over the rim. Apart from Madderfy and the lovely Alva Vale herself, I did not recognise anyone in the room. Monzie Hosh, unsurprisingly, was absent. So too were both Clunie and Clathy. Mrs Vale clearly believed in keeping up appearances.

Even so, I wondered about one of the younger Goblins stood with Madderfy. I know that humans find it difficult to tell one Goblin from another - "you all look alike to me" - it struck me that one of the youngsters bore a striking resemblance to Madderfy. I thought I could guess who he was.

Part 36 Part 38