On the night of her birthday party at Queen’s Court Hotel, 33 year old heiress Arlene Rainford is brutally stabbed to death. Hannah Brown, the nondescript 25 year old receptionist of the hotel, is the first one to reach Arlene after she has been stabbed. The dying woman beckons Hannah close to her and whispers two cryptic words in her ear. They are “Glass Beads”.

As the police interrogates the murder, Hannah too gets sucked into the investigation. She is convinced that Arlene’s last words hold a clue to the identity of her murderer. Hannah starts working on the case by interviewing all the guests at Arlene’s party; each of whom, by default, is a murder suspect.

As Hannah proceeds deeper into the investigation, she discovers that each of the guests had a motive to murder Arlene. Among others, the suspects include Arlene’s less competent younger brother Bradley, husband Lord Lofthouse, a titled personage on the verge of bankruptcy, Angus Ryne, a portrait artist betrayed by Arlene and Florence Keeling, a social worker who has, in the past, been deliberately mislead by Arlene.

Will Hannah succeed in catching the murderer? Will Hannah’s own personal secret interfere with the solving of her case?

The Murdered Heiress

“Hannah Brown, Transgender Sleuth” series

Chapter 1 – “Glass Beads”

Hotel Queen’s Court justified its name that day. It was decorated with ribbons, buntings and balloons. After all, a rich heiress didn’t celebrate her birthday every day. The décor Arlene Rainford had ordered really enhanced the stucco finish of our three star hotel building. The stairs, porches, railing posts and balconies, illuminated with low voltage lights, made the place look quaint like it was supposed to. I looked out of my window from my reception desk. The pansies, snapdragons and lilies of the valley had retired for the night.

For a receptionist in charge of routine work, life did get a little boring. I had been employed at Queen’s Court for three years, starting after my transformation. I didn’t particularly like dwelling about my life before that. I was comfortable now that I had a body that matched who I truly was. And the best part is, nobody in Queen’s Court knew or suspected who I had once been.

So, that made life peaceful. A little peaceful for my liking. No one could possibly blame me. I was only twenty-five years old at that time, and craved action and excitement. At that age, I could hardly have been like some self-contended old tabby knitting away on an easy chair. I was restless.

I sneaked a peek into the guests’ list of Arlene Rainford’s 33rd birthday party that evening (I knew her age thanks to the gossip columns I had read in the newspapers). There was Trevor Lofthouse, who I knew was Arlene’s husband. The tabloids described the brown-haired, grey-eyed young man as “one of the remaining vestiges of royalty”. Rumor-mills said that there was much opposition from the Lofthouse family when Trevor had announced he was marrying Arlene. Though Arlene was the daughter of Alistair Rainford, a multi millionaire who built his business empire from scratch, he wasn’t of royal lineage. People said that he was the son of a humble garage mechanic, though no one was willing to swear about the the veracity of this information or divulge the source of it.

I returned to skimming the guest-list. There was “Bradley Rainford” whom I know was Arlene’s brother though I had never seen his pictures. The names “Gladys Moore” and “Meredith Larch” didn’t ring a bell. Nor did “Paul Drysdale” and “Florence Keeling”. There was “Angus Ryne” on the guests’ list. I vaguely wondered if he was the renowned portrait artist who had painted several beautiful women. I recognized “Nitin Chopra” as a businessman of some renown.

Drowned by monotony, I rearranged my desk and chair so that I could peek inside the party hall. The grayish marble flooring and the vintage chandeliers enhanced the quaintness of the hall. I saw a few people inside anxiously waiting for other guests to arrive. The hotel manager, Mr. McIntosh had told me Arlene’s party was going to have guests wearing masks.

Among those I saw in the hall first was Arlene Rainford herself sitting on a chair and sipping a glass champagne. She was wearing a shimmering green evening gown and tapping her high heeled feet impatiently. With her shiny auburn hair, slim figure and impeccably beautiful skin, Arlene was undoubtedly considered good-looking by some. However, there was something about her—a hint of fiery temper around her green eyes and a tight disagreeable compression of her thin lips, which put me off. Arlene didn’t come across as a very nice person. Hypothetically speaking, she was someone I wouldn’t have particularly liked to be familiar with.

A man of average height and squarish shoulders approached Arlene. I recognized him as Lord Trevor Lofthouse. As her husband appeared, Arlene jumped up like a tense spring, giving me an uninhibited view of her glorious back. Arlene raised her voice slightly. I was sitting too far away to hear the exact words, but was sure that Arlene was having an argument with her husband. Lofthouse’s reactions were mild and placatory; I got the impression that he was trying to pacify his irate wife. Lofthouse’s placatory gestures seem to have an especially provocative effect on Arlene, as she yelled “Don’t try to patronize me!” and smashed her champagne glass on the marble floor. The glass smattered into tiny little pieces with a resounding clank.

“Jesus, Arlene, look what you’ve done!” said Lord Lofthouse clutching haplessly at his thick brown hair “glass shards could be so harmful! They might pierce one of the guests if they happen to take their footwear off!”. His kindly grey eyes looked highly distressed. For a moment, I felt sorry for Lord Lofthouse.

“If you’re so concerned about the guests” snapped his bitchy wife “why don’t you clear up the goddamn mess yourself!”. With a haughty ill-tempered movement of the shoulders, she stomped out of the party hall and traipsed up a short flight of stairs before disappearing down the short hotel corridor to where I assumed her room was located.

Lord Lofthouse stood looking after the sleek retreating figure of his wife. He had a weary look on his face, which I have seen only on men double his age. Lord Lofthouse seemed torn between running after his wife and remaining where he was to deal. He tiredly looked at the smashed shards of glass. At this moment, a woman descended down the same stairs Arlene had raced up. Quietly, and with obvious unquestioning devotion, she bent down and started picking up the glass pieces. The woman who had come into the room was tall, thin as a willow and quite unimpressive to look at. She was, I judged, in her early thirties. I noticed that she had a servile, timid air about her. Her pale blonde hair, blanched rabbit-like little face and washed-out peach-colored gown did nothing to accentuate her personality. The woman held the front of her drab peach-colored gown as a bag to collect the glass shards.

“You really don’t have to do this, Meredith” said Lord Lofthouse. In spite of the highly-strung state he was in, an unmistakable tenderness had crept into his voice.

“That’s absolutely okay, Sir” said the woman said timidly “I am here to help”.

“You know how Arlene behaves sometimes” continued Lord Lofthouse in an apologetic manner.

“Ms. Arlene is prone to bursts of temper” said Meredith, and then, with evident loyalty, added “but you mustn’t mind. Deep inside, she has a heart of gold”.

“You’re very kind” said Lord Lofthouse looking at Meredith tenderly.

“I’m not going out of my way to be, Sir” replied Meredith “it’s my duty, that’s all”. She left the party hall with a part of her dress still hitched up, presumably to empty the shards of glass into a dust bin. Lord Lofthouse sighed, poured himself champagne, and went and sat down at the far end of the hall. He sat sipping his drink broodingly.

“The poor idiot” said a voice from immediately inside the hall, startling me “this is what happens when a man marries beneath him”. I know snooping and overhearing are unethical things to do, but I discreetly shifted my desk and chair to the opposite corner of the room, so that I could see the speaker clearly. He was a tall, skinny man dressed simply in a light blue shirt and dark navy blue trousers. He had sandy brown hair chopped into a convenient crew cut. Everything about the man reflected economy.

“I’d like to think the opposite” said the man sitting next to him “I think Arlene married beneath her”. The speaker was a romantic-looking man with intoxicated melancholy black eyes and a mop of thick black wavy hair on his head. I noticed that his lips were full and a rich red. Though he had deliberately tried to present an appearance of stylish carelessness, I noticed that the man wore quite an expensive Dolce and Gabbana suit. Upon closer scrutiny, I recognized him to be portrait artist Angus Ryne.

“Excuse me?” said the first man “but Lord Lofthouse is royalty. Arlene is nobody but the daughter of a man who got rich by screwing everyone else. He stayed rich by screwing everyone else even harder. And I must say” he gave a short, cynical laugh “that Ms. Rainford is carrying the legacy forward brilliantly. When it comes to business, the dame doesn’t mind tweaking a few rules”.

Angus Ryne laughed gently. “I must say the socialist in you is very strong, Mr. Drysdale” he said.

“Yes” said his companion passionately “I despise rich, selfish leeches. They suck the lifeblood of the hoi polloi to live in lavish homes and to sponsor their expensive whims. If I was to have my way, I would personally murder each and every one of them and redistribute their wealth among people!”

“So, we have our very own version of Robin Hood here” sniggered Angus Ryne “steal from the rich, and give to the poor, eh?”

“Exactly” said Drysdale with utmost seriousness.

I didn’t have a chance to enjoy the rest of their conversation, as guests started pouring in. They weren’t too many, but were substantial enough to fill a small hall. Among the guests, I noticed an elderly lady being wheeled in by a pretty frail wisp of a girl. Lord Lofthouse put himself together and received all of the guests warmly. Arlene, who had regained her composure, also came down and greeted all the guests in bright albeit slightly uppity manner. Champagne and good music flowed. The deck lights were made dimmer. Waiters from the hotel walked around, carrying trays of eats. Soon the guests disappeared into inner chambers and emerged wearing identical black masks. They selected their partners and started waltzing to the slow retro music.

I noticed that Arlene was unmasked. She had evidently made up with Lord Lofthouse, for she danced with him. I noticed Arlene put her white cheek against her husband’s clean-shaven one and gently close her eyes. At the position at which they were dancing, Lord Lofthouse’s face was turned towards me. The expression that came over his face startled me. His handsome face was distorted with undiluted hate and grey-eyes ablaze with a furious, murderous rage I had not seen on any human face. Lord Lofthouse’s lips were pulled back from his teeth in an unsightly manner, making him resemble a vicious wild animal. Then in a moment, his face was mild and placid again. So drastic was the change in Lord Lofthouse’s expression that I found myself wondering if I had imagined his hatred.

At one end of the room, I caught sight of a masked Angus Ryne standing in a corner and sipping his champagne dreamily. He was gazing at the dancing Lord and Lady Lofthouse wistfully. I vaguely wondered if he was in love with Arlene.

I didn’t pay much attention to other guests, but caught sight of Paul Drysdale dancing with a skinny woman in a white evening dress. The woman’s dress was well-tailored, but no doubt inexpensive. This masked woman (whoever she was) obviously didn’t believe in splurging money. Drysdale seemed to be dancing with a partner on a similar mental wavelength as him.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder, distracting me from my observations. It was the kindly-faced, avuncular manager of Queen’s Court. “Hannah” he requested “could you please chug down to the left wing of first floor and switch on the deck lights? We are terribly short-staffed today”.

“Oh, Mr. McIntosh…” I protested “Queen’s Court rules say I have to be at my desk all the time. What if we receive an important phone call? What if an important guest walks in?” The hotel rules were just incidental to my reluctance to leave my desk. The reason I wanted stay there was because I wanted to observe the glittering, glamorous people of high society. Considering I am from an ordinary middle-class Anglo-Indian family, no one could blame me.

I walked through the masked dancers across the party hall. At this moment, something happened. The heel of Arlene Rainford’s left stiletto broke suddenly . “Damn!” Arlene cursed out loud. She took off both her shoes, excused herself from her husband, and started moving in the same direction as I—towards the staircase.

While moving upwards, Arlene crossed me. At this moment, I was acutely aware of how different I was from this rich socialite. Even in bare feet, Arlene was a good four or five inches taller than my petite 5 feet 4 inches. The expensive fabric of her gorgeous green gown was a total foil to my own practical brown tweed skirt and pink cardigan. The fragrance that emanated from Arlene was an expensive one, unlike the affordable functional deodorant I used.

Both of us reached the top of the staircase at the same time. I moved towards the left of the corridor to accomplish the mission Mr. McIntosh had asked me to. Arlene wafted off in the opposite direction, presumably to her room. I vaguely wondered how she intended repairing the broken heel of her shoe.

I went about the job assigned to me. It was a difficult thing to do, considering I didn’t really know where the light switches were. I finally succeed in finding them and illuminated the left side of the corridor. Just then, a few indoor plants caught my eye. I felt that the pots they were grown in were arranged in a haphazard manner. Now, I have a secret problem I never discuss with anyone. It’s a mild OCD. I can’t bear anything being out of order. This, doctors say, is an aftermath of the intensive identity crisis that I suffered throughout my life until… until I decided to transform. During the post operative care, my OCD had reached such ridiculous heights that it was the stuff dark comedy is typically made of.

As I was rearranging the potted plants to adhere to the order in my mind, I heard a cry.

To call it a cry would be an understatement. It sounded more like the baying of a mortal whose lifeblood was being squeezed out of them. Disabling numbness seized me. The cry had been so bloodcurdling, that I temporarily lost the movement of my limbs.

A second later, I realized I could move my arms and legs again. At this moment, my brain also started working. The blood-chilling cry seemed to have emanated from the right side of the corridor. And it seemed to have come from a woman.

A second cry followed. It was even chilling and bloodcurdling than the first.

Suddenly, it was as if my previously frozen limbs were propelled into serious action. I rushed towards the source at lightning speed. I was vaguely aware of two other people following a few paces behind me. Guests in the party-hall below stirred uneasily. The retro music in the background played on serenely, undisturbed by the cry.

I stopped in front of a room the door of which had been thrown ajar. As I prepared to go inside, a figure in a black leather raincoat pushed me violently and ran out of the room. Since the person had the costume party mask on, I couldn’t see his face. The impact of his (I wasn’t sure if it was a man or a woman) push was such that it sent me flying to the ground. I caught hold of one of the legs of the bed to prevent my head from hitting the ground.

When I lifted my head, I was in for the most terrible shock of my life. Arlene Rainford lay on the bed , drenched in her own blood. A long knife had been plunged into her stomach. A brief flicker of eyelashes told me Arlene was still alive.

My first concern was the knife that Arlene had been stabbed with. I was confused as to whether I should pull it out or let it remain. At the moment, my concern was to keep Arlene alive. I rushed out to the corridor. I spotted Mr. McIntosh below looking rather confused. He clearly had no idea where the cry had emanated from. “Mr. McIntosh!” I cried on top of my lungs “the ambulance—please call the ambulance!”. Mr. McIntosh looked up at me in a dazed manner. Then the import of my words seemed to dawn on him. He picked up his mobile phone and started dialing.

Comforted by the thought that help would soon arrive, I went back to Arlene’s room. Not knowing what to do, I sat on the bed next to her.

At the moment, a weak gesture from the victim caught my attention. Arlene reached out a bloodstained hand and weakly tugged at the rim of my cardigan. It was almost as if she was beckoning me close, wanting to tell me something…..

I moved my ear close to the dying woman’s mouth, hoping she would tell me the murderer’s name. Arlene murmured something incomprehensible.

“Ms. Rainford” my voice was an urgent plea “I know it is difficult. But please try to speak louder”.

This time I heard. The dying woman said “Glass beads”.

I wanted to make sure I had heard right. “What?” I said putting my ear to Arlene’s mouth again.

“Glass beads” said Arlene again. I withdrew my ear from her mouth and peered into her face. She jerked once, convulsively. Remnants of light faded from her green eyes. Arlene Rainford was dead.

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