Bitter 187

The dwarf in the painting had a grim look on his face. He was dressed in a purple velvet jacket and green velvet trousers. Britta had a very strong feeling that the grimness was directly related to the clothing. He looked very uncomfortable.

“Who’s that?” asked Britta.

Freddy looked up. He had been sitting in a plush chair with his large chin resting on an equally large fist, lost in thought. “Who?”

“That.” Stan pointed at the painting.

“Oh, that’s Uncle Roman. He’s Aunt Ginnie’s husband.”

“She married a dwarf?” asked Britta.

“Yes.” Freddy sounded quite defensive. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“No,” said Britta. “I’m not saying there is. I’m just surprised.”

“Yeah, well, they loved each other very much, before he left.”

“Where did he go?” asked Stan. Freddy was clearly reluctant to talk about it so they were forced to keep prompting him.

“No one knows. One day he just walked out and never came back. She was never the same after that.”

Britta took another look at the painting. The dwarf was standing with one foot on a small boulder with a pickaxe resting against. The backdrop was quite dark, but there was a definite rocky texture to it.

“Did it have anything to do with your dad selling the mine to the kobolds?” asked Britta.

Freddy raised his head with an angry light in his eyes. “I know what people say, but it had nothing to do with that. He didn’t just marry her to push the deal through. He wasn’t like that.”

“Of course not,” said Britta. “I just meant, perhaps someone wanted him out of the way, because of the deal.”

Freddy sprang to his feet. “There were quite a few dwarves who didn’t want the deal to happen. They were dead set against it. You think they killed him?”

Britta and Stan looked at each other. They had a fairly strong reason to believe the dwarf was indeed dead, but the person responsible may not have been a dwarf.

“Maybe,” said Britta. “Someone might have killed him and dumped his body in the mine.”

“But that’s great,” said Freddy, eyes wide and smiling. “That’d mean he didn’t skip out on Aunt Ginnie. She’ll be so happy.”

It wasn’t often the news of someone’s murder was met so enthusiastically. Britta tried to act supportive, although she wasn’t sure she was supposed to.

“We could find out for her. If it’ll put her mind at rest.”

Freddy’s mood had become quite buoyant in the last couple of minutes. He excitedly paced up and down. Britta and Stan exchanged looks, wanting to speak, but not in front of Freddy.

The doors at the far end opened and Aunt Ginnie entered. She wore a large dress that trailed behind her, making it look like she was floating. She was a tall woman, even taller with the beehive wig, and not quite as old as Britta had imagined. Maybe in her fifties. Possibly older. It was hard to tell because of all the makeup. She had thick, white powder covering her face and neck. It had been smoothed over to create an even surface with no signs of lines or wrinkles. Her bony, thin-skinned hands, however, told a different story.

“Alfredo, how lovely to see you. Why do I have to wait so long between visits from my favourite nephew?”

“Sorry, Auntie.” Freddy stepped forward and air-kissed her on each side of her face. It was an odd thing to see the brute do, but in this case it didn’t feel pretentious, it served a much more practical purpose. If he had made contact with her face, the cloud of powder would have blinded everyone in the room.

Freddy turned holding one of Aunt Ginnie’s hands in his. “These are my friends. Stan and B. They have news about Uncle Roman.”

Aunt Ginnie gasped and covered her open mouth with her hand.

Britta was taken by surprise. She hadn’t expected Freddy to go off on this particular tangent without discussing it first. She understood why he was keen to tell his aunt their theory, but there could be repercussions. It was too late now. They’d just have to hope the repercussions were good ones.

“They think he was murdered,” said Freddy, not one to stop and get his bearings, or ask anyone for theirs.

“Murdered!” Aunt Ginnie’s mouth opened even more. “I always suspected foul play. He had so many enemies, like all great men. And he was only little.”

Britta had spent quite a lot of time running away from the dwarf in question, or at least, his possessed body. He may have been below average height, but the rest of him made up for it in volume.

“Who was it? Who killed my little Roman?”

“We don’t know,” said Stan. He had decided to run with the ball and just hope it didn’t have a lit fuse attached to it. “That’s what we’re trying to find out.”

Aunt Ginnie let go of Freddy and floated across the room towards Stan. She reached out her hand and placed it on Stan’s cheek.

“Will you do that? Will you do that for me? I’ve been ever so lonely since my Roman was taken from me. I’d be ever so grateful.” She put her arms around Stan and squeezed. Stan’s eyes bulged. Britta could see Aunt Ginnie’s hands slide down Stan’s back, making his eyes bulge even more.

“I’d be delighted,” said Stan through his tight and airless windpipes as he tried to squirm free. He was caught fast.

She released him and Stan nearly collapsed. He tried to pass it off as a bow, waving his floppy hat about like a dandy.

“This is wonderful. To think he’d been brutally murdered when all this time I’d…” There was a hint of a tear but it was quickly sucked back into her eyeball. The powdered face wouldn’t have reacted well to salt water. “Is there anything I can do to help you track down this fiend?”

“Yes,” said Britta. “We have some questions.”

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