The Banquet (Part One)
Following the long, winding driveway, I came across a magnificent spectacle that was most pleasing to the eye. Langley castle in Northumberland was my destination, built in the fourteenth century the leaflet had said. I did not know quite what to expect after receiving an invitation from a mysterious host. The invite had been too tempting and had aroused my curiosity.
“Congratulations,” the letter had begun. I looked over the letter with a suspicious eye. "You are invited to a grand evening at Langley Castle, where King Henry VIII has summoned you to his supreme banquet. I’m afraid the invitation is for you only, but your attendance will not go unrewarded. You may find this invitation rather forward, but all will be revealed on the evening. Costumes will be provided for the banquet; all we require from you is your presence. I look forward to meeting your acquaintance. The evening will bring you your just rewards.”
The letter was not signed and I had no inkling who had sent it, but it was enough to tempt me to the north east. The just rewards part had me hooked. The possibility of a long lost aunt or uncle wishing to leave me their fortune entered my greedy thoughts. How I could do with the money.
Nobody would employ me after the events of the last year. At the age of thirty-four, my life lay in tatters, disgraced and branded for something I was not guilty of. The additional letter I received this morning had lifted my spirits. These two letters could possibly change my life and offer me financial security. Perhaps it would be a happy Christmas after all.
I switched off the window wipers and peered through my windscreen at the smattering of snow, and viewed the splendid structure, with its white walls and numerous towers. I attempted to count the arched windows, but gave up at thirty.
As I eyed the other plush vehicles, my battered old Escort looked so out of place in the presence of such grandeur. I exited my car and ran towards the main entrance. A doorman greeted me and took my invitation card before showing me to the bar.
The light-hearted conversations were evident and nobody seemed to notice me. I ordered my expensive beer and shuffled over to the open fireplace, where a roaring fire was most welcome.
My eyes scanned the lavishly decorated room. Umpteen portraits of the castle occupied the wooden panelled walls. The Christmas music was playing gently as my eyes searched for a familiar face, but I was disappointed.
"Mr Fallon," came a voice behind me.
"Yes, I’m Fallon."
I faced a short wiry fellow in a tuxedo. I immediately felt out of place, and as his eyes looked me up and down, I think he agreed with me. My blue suit was three years old, but I only ever wore it for occasions such as weddings. Shorty didn’t seem too impressed.
"I’m George. It is I who sent you the letter."
Shorty resembled a weasel on heat. “George, I don’t understand. Why’ve I received this invitation?”
"Why indeed. All will be revealed shortly... It adds a hint of mystery to the occasion, don’t you think?"
"Let me introduce you to some of the guests."
He ushered me over to three people, who whispered amongst themselves.
“Excuse me, this is Robert Fallon. Robert, this is Tanya Jarvis, Victor Dupont, and David Palmer."
We exchanged handshakes and they seemed just as bemused as I was.
"I must leave you now,” said George. “I’ll be back shortly for the commencement of the Kings banquet."
"What a strange man," mouthed Tanya, stirring her cocktail.
She was not a bad looking woman, probably in her thirties, and single, owing to the absence of a wedding ring. She had long blonde hair, undoubtedly dyed judging by the visible black roots. Such striking green eyes; I had not met anyone with green eyes before. She wore a little too much mascara, and her perfume was strong and irritating to my delicate nose. Her long, thin nose was the only feature that prevented her from being classed in the beautiful bracket.
"I suppose you received a letter too, did you?"
It was the obese Victor Dupont who spoke. He was an unattractive man. His few strands of hair were combed across his head; in fact, I swear they were glued on. His thick lips and treble chin reminded me of the great Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty. He nibbled on some salted peanuts, awaiting my answer.
"Yes, in fact I did receive such a letter."
"What’s it all about?" quizzed David Palmer, who looked to me like the original train spotter. His thick spectacles and poor excuse for a moustache, along with his curly, grey, unkempt hair, sparked a hint of recognition within me. He seemed disturbed at my stares, as I searched my memory and tried to recall where I’d seen him before.
"It beats me, but it’s free and I intend to make the best of it," I replied.
“Here, here," said Tanya.
The more I looked at her, the more attractive she was, and judging by her actions, she had been drinking before she arrived at the castle. I had high expectations, and the competition was feeble. She couldn’t possibly fancy Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum; and after all, I’ve been told quite often how good-looking I am.
George returned and we were led to separate rooms to change into our costumes for the night. I felt such a clown when I re-entered the bar. My shame dwindled as I realised everyone looked just as stupid as I did.
I wore a white blousy type shirt with puffed sleeves. A rust coloured vest and tight brown pants completed the transformation. We were able to keep our own shoes on, which was a great relief.
I let out a girlish like giggle when Dupont emerged, dressed in a monk’s habit and reminding me of Friar Tuck. Palmer was dressed similarly to me, but only in green. My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as the lovely Tanya joined us. I hadn’t noticed her cleavage earlier, but I certainly did now. She wore a low-cut bodice, a long flowing cream dress, and a sky-blue surcoat with matching headdress.
The weasel clapped his hands and the numerous guests made their way into the banqueting hall. The flickering torches caught my attention, along with the enormous, blazing log fire. The flames reflected onto the marvellous stain-glass windows, which added a mystical aura to the occasion. Medieval music accompanied us when we followed the line, and strode past the long wooden tables adorned with iron candlesticks.
Eventually, we halted and stood at our designated places. I was delighted to be seated next to Tanya, but not so elated, as Friar Tuck sat on the other side of me. The pleasant aroma of food from the kitchens reached our nostrils.
The music ceased and the two trumpeters blew a loud fanfare, welcoming a man who was dressed as King Henry VIII. He clambered onto the stage and was accompanied by his Queen. The fanfare ceased and the king stood facing his guests.
"Good morrow to ye all and welcome to the Kings banquet. Tis a merry occasion and tonight ye will be entertained by the Kings own performers. Ye will witness the roaming minstrels, the jugglers, jesters, and so much more. Ye are free to dance after or during the festivities. Raise yon goblets ladies and gentlemen and drink to your King."
Again, I thought I’d seen this man before. Of course it was difficult to say, with his mock beard and the padding, but I’d swear we’d met before.
"Eat, drink, and be merry!" he bellowed.
The serving wenches poured out our mead and wine as the juggler took to the stage. The minstrels played their citterns, recorders and mandolins and we took our seats. I felt Tanya’s leg touch mine, and my loins stirred.
Within minutes, we were served a splendid soup with a blend of fresh vegetables and a splash of cream, sprinkled with herbs. The main course followed; prime sirloin of beef in rich red wine and horseradish sauce. Breast of chicken, roasted and served with fresh asparagus, accompanied by a mushroom and rosemary sauce. Pot roast lamb, deuce of salmon poached in white wine, served with watercress sauce. Roast turkey with apricot stuffing; roast potatoes with garlic and herbs. This was indeed a feast fit for a King.
I opted for the chicken and beef, which was delicious. Dupont I swear, must have sampled the lot. I watched in disgust as he wolfed down the food, a chicken leg in each hand, the grease dripping from his slobbering lips. I turned to Tanya, who smiled provocatively.
Every time our glasses were emptied of mead or wine, the serving wenches promptly refilled them. The latest offering of mead tasted bitter and Tanya agreed with me, but we put it down to the spicy food and garlic we had devoured.
I wished I had left some room for the delicious dessert of honeydew lemon and prawns, brandy snap baskets with fresh strawberries, or the summer pudding and protiferoles with hot chocolate sauce. Dupont certainly had.
Tanya’s hand wandered to my leg and my first instinct was to remove it, but what the heck. My divorce had come through and I had no ties.
A wandering minstrel, dressed in red and white checks took to the floor and sang ballads as he walked amongst the guests, accompanied by a piper and a mandolin playing man.
I looked to the King and Queen, who whispered. I held his stare and he smiled. I was bursting with curiosity. Who was he and why were we here? Tanya nibbled my ear, and judging by her gaze, she was drunk.
The minstrel faced Dupont and he began to sing.
"They called her plain Jane,
Until she was slain,
The culprit being the clown,
Stuffed down a drain,
Without her mane,
Little Jane was cut down."
Dupont dropped his chicken leg to the ground, his face crimson red. "What foolishness is this?"
The minstrel then turned to me.
"I’ll sing you a tale,
Of evil and woe,
On his way to school, was little Joe,
All that was found was his bloody coat,
His bastard tormentor had cut his throat."
I have to admit I lost control at that stage. Rising to my feet, I looked towards the King. “You're mistaken. You’re out of order, do you hear me?”
The King clapped his hands and the minstrel faced the drunken Tanya, who lit a cigarette.
"At twelve-years old,
With hair of gold,
Ann was the perfect daughter,
And now she lay cold,
For Ann the bell tolled,
As she lay beneath the water."
The tears rolled down Tanya’s cheek. "I didn’t kill Ann. I was cleared. I loved my daughter. I loved her."
The minstrel approached Palmer, who perspiried heavily. He dabbed his face with his handkerchief.
"Gentle young Ted,
A six-year-old child,
Beaten and badly defiled,
You cut off his head,
And now he lay dead,
Somewhere out in the wild."
"This is a sick joke, right? I don’t have to put up with this. I’m out of here."
"Sit down, Palmer," boomed the king.
The room was silent. All that could be heard was the cracking of the fire. The flickering flames projected eerie, dancing shadows on the walls.
"You still don’t know who I am, do you?" asked the king.
The voice now registered. “Jeremy Granville, right?"
"Well-done, Mr Fallon; I admire your powers of observation."
"It was the turn that gave it away. I must say he sang well, but I’d sack the lyricist," I joked.
Granville glared at me. "The ballads served their purpose, don’t you think?"
Granville rose from his throne. "Why are you here? I’m sure you’re anxious to find out. Have a look around the room. Recognise anyone? You should. All of the guests here are relatives of the children you callously murdered."
Dupont staggered to his feet. He appeared a comical figure in his monk’s habit.
"But Granville, you defended me. You got me off remember. In the public eye I’m innocent."
"True, I defended you as I defended the others. You all only got off as you put it because of my skills in the courtroom. After your trial, Dupont, I had nightmares. I keep seeing the face of Jane; her agile body stuffed down that drain. She trusted you, the friendly funny clown. Only you strangled her, didn’t you?"
"You tell me, Granville. You defended me?"
"Oh, you murdered her all right. The evidence after the trial pointed to you, only it was too late by then, as you couldn’t be tried for the murder twice."
"I loved my daughter," said Tanya, stubbing out her cigarette.
"When you were sober, I believe you did, Tanya; but in drink you were a monster, who continually beat your daughter. Only one night, you went too far, didn’t you? You hit her so hard that she fell down the stairs and died. You then hid her body in a lake, only she surfaced the next morning. My skills again procured your release.. Ann also visits my dreams regularly. You see, I developed a conscience; not an asset for a solicitor, wouldn't you agree?"
"You’re mad, Granville," yelled Palmer.
"I’m mad? No, Mr Palmer, it’s not I who is mad. It was not I who sexually assaulted young Ted in the woods that night. And if that wasn’t enough, you cut off his head with an axe. You know, I hate myself? I lay awake at night, thinking over the events of each trial. To think you four are only here because of me... Finally, we come to Mr Fallon, and if it’s any consolation, I really did believe you were innocent."
"But, I am innocent."
"Silence! Let me finish... Poor Joe made the mistake of his life taking the short cut to school through the woods, didn’t he? Who should he venture upon, but Mr Fallon? You sexually abused the child before cutting his throat. His body was found two weeks later, two miles away from your house. Witnesses stated and swore that your car was seen on the edge of the woods that day. Also, one of your kitchen knives was missing. Again, I saved you from a certain life sentence."
"Wait a bloody minute. Who made you God, judge and executioner? I’ve told you, I’m innocent and now I can finally prove it. Do you think I’ve been on holiday since my trial? I’ve been beaten, spat upon, and my neighbours won‘t even speak to me. My wife even doubted my innocence and left me. She and my children had to revert back to her maiden name. I was turned away from job interviews, time and time again. Oh yes, Mr bloody Granville; I’ve been serving a life sentence all right, but not anymore. This morning, I received a let..."
Granville loudly interrupted. "Enough! I heard your pleading in the court. My queen, would you kindly reveal yourself please?"
She removed her wig, and Joe’s mother faced me.
"You’ll get your comeuppance, Robert Fallon. My Joe’s death has been avenged."
What she meant by that last statement I was about to find out.
“And now, you must wonder why I’ve brought you all here,” said Granville. “Well let me explain. As I’ve already stated, my conscience troubled me greatly. I decided I could no longer defend child-killers, so I called it a day. The images of those four children haunted me; they seemed to be calling out to me to do something, so I have. Your greed and curiosity brought you here. As far as the outside world knows, this banquet today never took place. You see, the owner of Langley Castle is a lifelong friend of mine. He kindly let me rent the castle free of charge. The food and drinks were kindly donated by the relatives of your victims.”
The hoards of relatives rose to their feet and surrounded us.
"You see, when your bodies are found many miles away from here, there will be no obvious connection with this castle. Every person in this room has a cast iron alibi."
"Aren’t you forgetting something?" said Dupont, the perspiration making his sallow skin glisten.
"And what is that, my fat friend?"
"My mother knew where I was going. You see, you cannot kill me."
"Oh no? What does your mother know? You have had a strange invite to a medieval banquet. As I said, there will be no recording of this event. There will be no evidence here to say you ever came to Langley Castle. Your cars will be removed and dumped many miles away from here."
"So, what’re you waiting for, Granville?" shouted Palmer.
"Waiting for? Why nothing; you’re already dead...the four of you."
I scrambled to my feet. “Meaning what, Granville?"
"The mead was delicious, don’t you think? Especially with the touch of arsenic."
Dupont held his vast neck, placed his fingers down his throat, and vomited onto the table.
Granville laughed loudly. "My my, what an animal. It won’t do you any good. 130-195 milligrams of arsenic is enough to kill a man or a woman. How do you feel? Have you got a sore throat yet? What about your stomach? It’s only a matter of time before you develop excruciating abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Total collapse and a convulsive death will occur within hours, given the amount you were given. A slow agonising death, I’m delighted to say."
Tanya stared, as if in a trance. Shock is certainly a rapid cure for alcohol abuse.
I could not help but laugh, when I felt the pain in my stomach.
"Laughter in death, I admire your courage," smirked Granville.
I looked across at the comical sight of Dupont vomiting, and of Palmer rinsing his mouth out with wine whilst clutching his stomach.