One (1)

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England, May 1922

When the decapitated deer was found on the mansion's front lawn, it gave Vita hope this wouldn't be such a bore of a day after all.

She still wore her silk dressing gown, and her bobbed curls were a mess, but she leaned out of her open window anyway. At her feet, her black cocker spaniel let out an anxious moan. Vita lit a cigarette and blew out the smoke in the chilled early morning air. Thompson, the gardener, was the one who had discovered the dead stag. He circled the animal, scratching his receding hairline under his cap with a despondent expression. Blood had pooled between the severed head and the body to which it used to be attached. From where Vita stood on the first floor of the country house, it was a large dark stain on the perfectly-cut green grass.

Next to Thompson, Mr. Lawrence surveyed the scene, his gun in hand. He only wore his trousers and an unbuttoned white shirt, one of his suspenders hanging down his left leg and his boots untied. He must have been asleep when the alarm was raised. He ran his hand through his short hair, shifting his weight from one foot to the other in a nervous gesture.

Vita stubbed out her cigarette in a green onyx ashtray. Fog clung to the edge of the lawn, shielding it from the outside world. An eerie silence enveloped the estate. Whoever it was who had killed the deer and left it in front of the porch, they were long gone.

"Pixie, stay," she told her dog.

She put on her fur-trimmed slippers and strode out of her room. Her feet sank into the hallway's thick carpet as she made her way down the grand wooden staircase without a noise. Graham, the butler, stood guard at the front door, his gaze on the scene outside. Next to him the housekeeper, Mrs. Philip, had her arms folded on her chest. They didn't hear Vita come up behind them. She slipped past them and marched down the steps.

"My lady!" Mrs. Philip's voice called after her. "Please come back inside! What would your mother say?"

Nothing, Vita thought, bitterness at the back of her throat.

"What's happening?" she asked when she reached Mr. Lawrence's side.

He shot her a nervous glance, his handsome face lined with worry.

"Not sure, m'lady," he said. "Better get back inside."

Vita frowned at the carcass on the ground.

"It's a warning, isn't it? From whom?"

A cold draft made her shiver, and she wrapped her nightgown more tightly around herself. High above them, a scavenger bird already circled in the grey sky.

Mr. Lawrence shrugged. "Don't know, m'lady."

Vita looked up at Thompson.

"Well, what are you two doing? Shouldn't you call for a couple of groundsmen to help you remove this thing from the lawn?"

Mr. Lawrence shook his head, uneasy.

"We're waiting for the boss, m'lady. He said not to touch anything before he gets here."

"You called Archie?!"

She let out an annoyed sigh, although she wasn't surprised. Of course this had been Mr. Lawrence's first reaction. His job was to watch over Vita, and finding a wild animal in pieces on her front lawn likely qualified as a good reason to wake up her fiancé at dawn.

"Go back inside, please, m'lady?" Mr. Lawrence asked. "He won't be happy if he finds you out here in the cold."

Vita ignored him. She wasn't worried about aggravating Archibald. She circled the dead deer, with its beautiful eyes now whitened and blank. A sickening smell rose up from the corpse, and flies gathered around the cut at his neck. The head had been hatched off with several uneven blows, and thrown next to the rest of the body.

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