Monday, 19 May 2008
"It's amazing!" Trish gushed that evening as she closed the Venetian blinds over the windows of Bunnz Salon, "The way you just pieced it together like that and still got back to the salon in time for your 2 o'clock appointment!"
"It was nothing really, Trish," Chelsea said, "As soon as the Professor told me about the Malabarite belief that the Lord or Rajah who leads their sect has supernatural powers, everything else fell into place. Let me explain. You remember the Rajah of Rajpooristan who was killed in mysterious circumstances?"
"The geezer who got pushed out of his palace window by Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe, you mean?"
"Assuming that Chief Inspector Spiggot's theory is correct, that is," said, Chelsea, "Well, I've felt for some time that the Rajah was the really unexplained link in all these murky dealings. When Professor Carruthers told me about the Rajah at the head of the Malabarite cult, I suddenly had a hunch about the identity of the mysterious cult leader."
"The Rajah of Rajpooristan!" squeaked Trish.
"There are times, Trish, when the acuity of your intellect frankly stuns me. The Rajah of Rajpooristan indeed. So I made a few discreet enquiries among various personal contacts in the twilight world of international crime and the general feeling was that my hunch was indeed correct."
"Blimey!" gasped Trish, "So you think that someone from the cult had Hartleberry-Smythe bumped off as a kind of revenge killing, then?"
"I do indeed. And what's more, I know exactly who did it. There is only one person sufficiently unhinged to dare to kill the leader of a bloody-thirsty, opium-dealing Himalayan sect in order to gain demonical supernatural powers. Cast your mind back, if you will, to the Latin-American Open-Style British Ballroom Dancing Finals at the Chipplestoke-in-the-Mire Palais de Dance in August of last year."
"How could I ever forget!" Trish sighed, "The music! The glamour! The heady perfume of styling mousse and hair wax!"
"As you will recall, my old chum, Melissa Peaberry, had asked me to create some special hairstyles for her boys and girls. And thus it was that on the fateful night of the Championship itself you and I found ourselves teasing, tweaking and backcombing until our fingers were numb from exhaustion."
"I remember it well! That was the first time we used the Frangipani shampoo!" Trish squeaked.
"Indeed it was, Trish. And as the competition progressed, it increasingly seemed that our efforts were paying off. Each time the Melissa Peaberry Latino Ensemble took to the floor, gasp upon gasp went up from the crowd. I flatter myself that they were impressed as much by our stunning coiffures as by the quality of their Fox Trot."
"Yeah," Trish agreed, "Them hairdos was good…"
"At last it came to the final section. The excitement was intense. The audience was silent with expectation. You could have heard a hairpin drop. The Melissa Peaberry Latino Ensemble was by now in joint lead with the Tanya Tittlefeather Syncopated Orpheans. All that remained was the final showdown."
"Yeah. There was just the Valeta, the Military Two-step and the Cha-Cha-Cha!" Trish squealed.
"It was neck-and-neck. The Orpheans dazzled the crowd with their pink sequinned crinolines in the Valeta and their diaphanous bodystockings in the Two-Step. It all hinged now on the Cha-Cha-Cha. And, as you know, that's where we were about to unleash our secret weapon."
"Ooh, yeah!" Trish said, "I waxed down all the men's hair and you…"
"Yes! And I plumped up the women's beehives with a generous dollop of my new, experimental Sandalwood conditioner. It was the first time I'd ever gone public with that conditioner. People have told me that those hairdos might well have been the deciding factor that helped the Melissa Peaberry Latino Ensemble to win the contest."
"Tanya Tittlefeather was absolutely furious. D'you remember? Red in the face she was!"
"She had every reason to be furious, Trish. You see, in her life beyond the confines of the ballroom, she is the same Tanya Tittlefeather who owns the chain of high class salons going by the name of Tittlefeather's Titivations. I only discovered afterwards that she too had styled her troupe's hair that night using a new range of root-nourishers, emollients and highlighting gels. She had planned to launch the range the following day at an exclusive press conference in Mayfair.
"Each item in the range was to have the name of a dance step - there would be a Foxtrot shampoo, a Rumba conditioner, a Cha-Cha-Cha Split-ends remedy and so on. She was planning to call them 'Tanya's Salon Swingers - the hair products that win every time!'"
"Except they didn't win," said Trish.
"That's right, Trish. Tanya always blamed me, you know. She's never really forgiven me."
"Golly!" squeaked Trish, "You don't mean to say that you think it was Tanya, who…?"
"…sent me the sandalwood boat with the frangipani flower? Yes, Trish, that's exactly what I think. Tanya had hatched a master-plan drag me into the sordid world of Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe's murderous drug-dealing empire. Hence the mysterious gifts. Tanya knew I could never resist a mystery."
"But just a minute," said Trish, "What did Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe have to do with all this?"
"Yes I wondered that at first too," Chelsea said, "It was only after I phoned up Mandy Althorpe…"
"Your exotic ingredient supplier?" Trish interjected unnecessarily.
"…that I realised what had happened. Mandy, it turns out, had employed Hiram to handle the importation of the sandalwood and frangipani for my new range of Bunnz Salon Specialities. It seems only he could supply the very finest Malabar sandalwood in the quantities required.
"Meanwhile, however, Tanya Tittlefeather was hatching a plot to duplicate my new range and flood the market with her own brand-name. Of course, she too went to Hartleberry-Smythe for her supplies. Hiram didn't tell Tanya that he had already committed all his supplies to Mandy Althorpe. So he agreed to supply Tanya too. But instead of supplying the finest white Malabar sandalwood, he sold her some vastly inferior red sandalwood, passing it off as the genuine article.
"Mandy rushed her new shampoos and conditioners into production in time for world-renowned Tonypandy And Surrounding District International Coiffeur Challenge Cup. It was, as you will recall, a disaster. Two of the models even tried to sue her for damaging their follicles."
"You did all right though," Trish said, "Won the gold, silver and bronze cups, didn'tcha?"
Chelsea blushed, "For Tanya Tittlefeather that humiliation was the last straw. She became totally unhinged, psychopathic. And, as everyone knows, hell hath no fury like a hairdresser scorned. Tanya concocted a fiendish plan that would, at a stroke, eliminate the two people who had, in her warped imagination, been responsible for her downfall. First she would kill Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe… And then she would kill me!"
"What a bitch!" gasped Trish.
"As you say," agreed Chelsea, "But in the event, due to an unforeseen turn of events…"
"Mrs Van de Graaff's poodle!" interjected Trish.
"…instead of killing me, she very nearly killed you."
Trish shivered theatrically at the thought.
"You see, it was Tanya Tittlefeather who poisoned our last delivery of shampoo and conditioner with a binary nerve agent. Fortunately, you were wearing rubber gloves at the time, otherwise…."
"Ooo, don't!" twittered Trish, "You'll give me the creeps. There's still one thing I can't figure out though, Chelsea. I can understand why Tanya Tittlefeather wanted to kill Hiram and you. But why did she bump off the delivery boy too?"
"Ah, that was the most devilish thing of all. You see, Trish, that was no delivery boy. In fact, that was no boy at all."
"You don't mean...?"
"Yes! The so-called Cedric Crackington-Haven was none other than Tanya Tittlefeather herself!"
"The moment I first set sight on Crackington-Haven, I knew there was something strangely familiar about him. Maybe it was the way he minced into the room? Or possibly it was that high-pitched, irritating voice? But, disguised in that black-leather biker's outfit and dark glasses, she fooled me completely.
"It wasn't until I looked more closely at the prize-giving photograph that was taken at the award ceremony of the Latin-American Open-Style British Ballroom Dancing Finals that I noticed how very singular was Tanya Tittlefeather's nose. An unmistakable, hooked nose. The very same nose, indeed, that I had so recently seen supporting Cedric Crackington-Haven's dark glasses."
"Flip me!" peeped Trish, "Your amazing detection capabilities have come up trumps again, Chelsea! There's just one more thing I don't understand, though. If the bike boy was Tanya all along, doesn't that mean she must have killed herself?"
"In the matter of the motorbike accident," Chelsea said, "I believe we see the hand of Fate at work, Trish. Just as she was putting into action the final step of her master plan, Tanya Tittlefeather's motorbike was cut down by a ten ton truck which, by a horrible coincidence, happened to be transporting a cargo of sandalwood to the Malabar Emporium."
"Spooky," simpered Trish.
"The body, of course, was pulverised out of all recognition. But Chief Inspector Spiggot of Scotland yard has ordered the grisly residue to be exhumed. I have no doubt that tests will verify that they are indeed the mortal remains of the unfortunate Tanya Tittlefeather."
"Makes your blood run cold, don't it," said Trish in a low, quavering voice before adding chirpily, "Fancy a cocktail?"
"Hmmm, well, I think I might be able to force down a teensy Singapore Sling."
"I'll go into the kitchen and make one, then, shall I?"
"You're forgetting something," said Chelsea, "Whenever I come to the end of a case, it is I who make the cocktails!"
"Oh, yeah! Sounds good to me," burbled Trish, "I'll tidy up the magazines and stuff in the salon then, shall I?"
"Good idea." As she rattled through the Moorish beaded curtain that led to the kitchen, Chelsea smiled with pleasure at the thought of another case brought to a satisfactory conclusion. In a matter of seconds she had squeezed two limes into a stainless steel cocktail shaker and added a substantial measure of gin, Cointreau, cherry brandy and a few other added extras from the fridge. Having shaken them all together with a few ice cubes, Chelsea was straining the cocktail into two pre-chilled glasses when she heard the doorbell to the salon.
"I'll get it," Trish shouted.
As a final flourish, Chelsea decorates the two glasses with maraschino cherries. She placed them onto a silver tray and was just about to take the drinks into the salon when telephone rang. Chelsea snatched up the handset from the phone bracket next to the fridge. "Bunnz Salon," she said with practised cheerfulness, "Can I help you?"
When the caller spoke, Chelsea instantly recognised Chief Inspector Spiggot's gruff voice. His message was brief and to the point - "The body," he said, "It wasn't Tanya Tittlefeather."
Chelsea put down the receiver, hardly able to comprehend the significance of Spiggot's words. A moment later, the beaded curtains rattled as Trish came into the kitchen holding a small cardboard box, about the size of a shoe box.
"Special delivery, apparently," Trish said.
In the near distance, Chelsea heard a powerful motorbike speeding away.
"Describe the delivery boy," Chelsea said.
"I don't know. Couldn't really see much under all that leather. He was wearing dark glasses."
"Hooked nose?" Chelsea asked.
Trish gasped and turned as pale as bottle of almond oil root conditioner. "You don't mean…?" she stuttered.
"Give me the box!" Chelsea said.
Trish handed it over. Chelsea tore off the wrapping.
"Be careful!" Trish warned, "It could be dangerous."
But Chelsea had already taken the lid off the box and was now staring, wide-eyed at its contents. Then she smiled. She took out a single frangipani flower and a note written in lilac ink. The note said simply, "You have missed your appointment with Death, Miss Bunn. But in my Salon, appointments are not always necessary. I'll see if I can fit you in soon!"
It was signed: "The Demon Styliste".
"Hmm," Chelsea mused, as she carefully refolded the note, "At least she has a sense of style. You know, if she weren't such an out and out rotter, I rather think that the two of us might have been good chums."
"So," said Trish, "What are you going to do now then?"
"Drink this cocktail of course. And then, quite possibly, mix another one."
And so, with the chink of glasses and a girlish laugh, Chelsea Bunn brought the curtain down on yet another adventure. However, she somehow felt that this would not be the last she had heard of the Demon Styliste.
Saturday, 10 May 2008
Roman statues and Grecian temples dwarfed Chelsea Bunn as she walked through a maze of long, echoing corridors. She turned a corner and emerged into a vast gallery filled with crumbling Egyptian mummies and gleaming golden sarcophagi. She had always thought of the British Museum as a sombre place, a great mausoleum stacked high with monuments to the dead. And today the Museum seemed more sombre than ever.
Past the ancient treasures of Western Asia she walked and on into the long, twisting galleries of the Orient. Then along a dark little corridor beyond a sign that said 'Private: Museum Staff Only' and down an old wooden staircase that led into the dusty gloom of the basement.
Finally, she arrived at a heavy oak door bearing a brass plate on which was engraved:
"Prof. Chearsby Carruthers (Snr. Curator, Crypto-History)"
Chelsea hesitated before she knocked upon that door. If anyone could help her unravel the sinister trail of events which led from the opium fields of Rajpooristan to the backstreets of Kings Cross, Professor Carruthers was that man. But all the same her mood was far from jovial. There had been too many deaths, too much tragedy in this affair. And Chelsea still trembled when she recalled once again the stark white face and staring eyes of her friend and chief styliste, Trish Winterbottom, as she had slumped to the floor of the salon.
At first, Chelsea had feared that Trish had breathed her last. But then, after a few terrifying moments, Trish's rigid features had begun to slacken into an expression of witless imbecility. At that moment, Chelsea had realised, with relief, that Trish was on the mend again.
"That was a close shave, young Miss," grumbled Chief Inspector Spiggot of the Yard who, by a fortunate coincidence, happened to be visiting the salon at the time, "If my suspicions is correct, one more squirt of that conditioner and your blow-drying days would've been well and truly done."
The Chief Inspector had immediately seized an entire consignment of Bunnz Salon Specialities shampoo and conditioner which had been delivered to the salon that very morning. After analysis by the boffins at Scotland Yard, it had been discovered that his suspicions were correct. The bottles of Frangipani Deep-Cleansing shampoo and Sandalwood Rich Emollient Conditioner had been tampered with to potentially deadly effect. Each had been contaminated by the addition of a volatile oil of a sort well-known to certain sects of the Near and Far Orient. On their own, each of these two oils were harmless. But when mixed, they were deadly. They were, in fact, precisely the same two agents which had been used to kill Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe in the unseasonal monsoon at the Malabar Emporium!
"But why would anyone want to kill Trish?" Chelsea had asked Chief Inspector Spiggot.
"I don't think this shampoo was meant for your styliste," Spiggot had answered grimly, "It is my belief that it was meant for you!"
"Yes, yes, of course," Chelsea had spluttered.
"That still leaves us with a mystery," Spiggot had said, "I mean, after all, Miss Bunn, who on earth would want to kill you?"
"Oh, it could be almost anyone," Chelsea had answered sombrely, "You see, Chief Inspector, a hairdresser makes many enemies."
Chelsea rapped upon Professor Carruthers' oak door.
"At last," she thought, "I may be about to discover who that enemy really is."
A quavering voice called out from within - "Come!"
Chelsea opened the door and stepped into a small room filled with an almost palpable gloom. Books lay everywhere. Huge, leather-bound volumes were piled upon the floor. Ancient tomes weighed heavily upon the sagging shelves. And in their midst a tiny, grey-haired man crouched over a vast cherry-wood desk, peering through a magnifying glass at a dusty yellow scroll of imponderable antiquity.
"Just a moment," he said, without looking up, "Two more glyphs and one cartouche, then I shall be at your immediate service… ah, now, ah, yes, yes! Yes indeed! I see it now. It is all as clear as day. There's the sign of the Pharaoh and there's his servant boy and there's… oh, my!"
"An Egyptian death scroll?" Chelsea asked.
"What? This? No, no! Ha-ha! Certainly not! No, no, just some ancient pornography, I fear. Deary me, yes, the scribes of the Middle Kingdom, you know, had a rather fine line in smut, do you see? Tut-tut, dear, dear. Quite crude, really! Yes, yes, smutty, crude and vulgar," and with that the professor put down the magnifying glass and put on a pair of half-moon spectacles, "And who, I wonder, may you be?"
Chelsea presented her card.
"Ah," said the old man, "Miss Bunn! I am a great admirer of yours. Oh yes, indeed. The manner in which you solved the case of the Afghan Dung-Beetle Murders has become quite legendary."
"Oh, that?" said Chelsea, "A mere trifle. As soon as I discovered the trap-door in the Queen Anne commode, the case practically solved itself."
"You are too modest, indeed, Miss Bunn. Yes, yes, too modest by far, I must protest. But how on earth can I, a mere crypto-historian, be of service to such a notable sleuth as yourself?"
Chelsea explained, in brief, the macabre chain of events in which she had become an unwilling link. When she had finished her story, she produced from an inner pocket of her poncho a scrap of red paper. "I believe," she said, "That this scrap of paper may hold the key to this mystery. But of its true significance I am ignorant."
The professor took the scrap of paper, pushed his spectacles back above his voluminous eyebrows and, using his magnifying glass, examined it with care and attention. When he had finished, he slid his spectacles down upon his nose again and looked Chelsea straight in the eyes.
"Where in the name of Amun Ra did you get this paper?" he said.
Chelsea told him about the mysterious delivery of a pound of coffee from an anonymous benefactor. The paper, she explained, had been wrapped around the gift.
"You are in more danger than you can dream of," the Professor said, his voice quavering with dread, "Would I be right to assume that the precise variety of coffee formerly enclosed by this fragment of paper was of the Malabar variety?"
"Quite right," said Chelsea, "I am told it is known as Monsoon Malabar."
"What do you know, may I ask, of the Malabar Rites?"
Chelsea thought a moment and then answered with confidence, "Nothing, Professor. Not a single thing."
"Then let me explain."
Sitting there in the comfortable gloom of that tiny office, Chelsea could barely believe the strange and fearful histories which Professor Carruthers unfolded to her.
"It was in the year 1605," the Professor began, "...that Father Roberto de Nobili, a missionary of the Society of Jesus, began to serve his apostolic apprenticeship in the Southern part of India. Father Nobili was a man of ferocious religious fervour by all accounts, and threw himself into his devotions with a passion that was terrifying to behold.
"But no amount of missionary zeal could convert the equally zealous Hindus to the faith of Mother Rome. And so Father Nobili conceived a more audacious plan. After studying the secret rituals and holy emblems of the high caste of Hindu ascetics called the Saniassy, he began to adopt a most curious manner of dress and was frequently to be seen wearing crimson robes and a tiger's skin. These garments, as you are no doubt aware, were regarded as signs of high learning among the native peoples of that time. Furthermore, it was reported that father Nobili claimed to be none other than the great sage, Tatuva Podagar Swami."
"Through his cunning, Father Nobili mixed the Hindu and the Christian doctrines in such a bizarre and, one might say, blasphemous manner that the matter of those so-called 'Malabar Rites' was brought to the attention of the attention of Pope Clement XI at Rome. Apparently, particular objection was made to a fashion among the Christianised Hindu women in Father Nobili's flock, of engraving a cross upon the traditional golden tingum or, ahem, male organ, which they wore between their breasts.
"But several Popes and dozens of decrees later, the whole thing was more or less brushed under the Papal carpet. After all, converts were converts. And better a corrupt Catholic than a virtuous Hindu." - the Professor broke off at this point, cleared his throat slightly and looked sheepishly at Chelsea over the rims of his spectacles, "Oh dear, oh dear," he said at last, "I do hope I'm not offending you with my perhaps over-forthright views."
"Not at all," Chelsea assured him, "A hairdresser is not easily shocked, Professor."
"Ah yes, quite so, quite so. But to get to the crux of the matter. As far as most scholars of divinity are concerned, the Malabar Rites are no more than a minor curiosity which passed into the oblivion of history more than two and a half centuries ago.”
"But you don't believe that?" interrupted Chelsea.
"Quite so, quite so," agreed the professor, "As a crypto-historian, my study takes me into strange highways and byways of both past and present and I have discovered that the Malabar Rites live on to this very day, and in a far more depraved and malevolent form than in the days of Father Nobili.
"As the centuries have passed, the Rites have grown into a distorted and malignant mixture of dark mythology in which the Lord Siva and the skull-garlanded Kali ride, each in twin incarnations, upon four horses signifying War, Strife, Hunger and Death. Upon the horse of Hunger sits Siva's incarnation as Sundashvara the beautiful. Upon the horse of War sits Siva's incarnation as Bharaiva the terrible. On the horse of Strife sits the goddess Kali Yuga the destroyer. And finally, on the horse of War sits Bhavani the Kali to whom the Thugee murderers dedicated their victims.
"This impious admixture of the Hindu Vedic traditions with the Christian Apocalyptic legends forms today the dark core of the secret society of the Malabarites. A more ruthless, vicious and dangerous sect I know not. Curses are their prayers, blood sacrifice their sacrament, murder most foul is their daily bread. They believe that the world is passing from the light into a new dominion of darkness - one which they, and their dark Lords, shall rule! They further believe that Father Nobili possessed the supernatural powers acquired from blood sacrifices to demons and gods and that his powers have been passed on from generation to generation to an earthly Lord or Rajah who leads the Malabarite sect."
"And how are these powers passed on, Professor?"
"There are only two ways. Either the sect leader appoints his successor. Or he is killed by a more powerful adversary."
"Murdered? How ghastly!"
"It has happened several times in the bloody history of the sect."
"Who, then, is their present leader?"
"Nobody outside of the cult itself knows his identity. But surely, Miss Bunn, your sleuthing activities can not have brought you into contact with these most barbarous of heathens?"
"I…" Chelsea hesitated, "To tell you the truth, Professor Carruthers, I am not entirely sure. On the one hand, there is the evidence of the scrap of paper which you hold in your hands. Wrapped around a package of Monsoon Malabar coffee bought at the Malabar Emporium, it bears a hand-written addition that can only be a reference to the Malabar Rites."
Staring once again at the scrap of paper, Professor Carruthers read out the inscription: "'Two wrongs for Two Rites?' I suppose," he suggested, "This might be some sort of practical joke?"
"I don't think so," said Chelsea, "It is my belief that the two wrongs refer to the two deaths - first, the fatal accident that claimed the life of Cedric Crackington-Haven as he made another delivery of Monsoon Malabar coffee to a restaurant in King's Cross. And then, the following day, the murder of the proprietor of the Malabar Emporium, Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe. I was there as he died, Professor. His final words were, 'The Malabar Rites'."
"Ah, I see," murmured the Professor, "That is, indeed, compelling, if somewhat circumstantial, evidence!"
"It is the final piece of a complex puzzle," Chelsea said, "I believe now, I know who the killer is!"
"How very, very thrilling!" bumbled the Professor, patting the palms of his hands together excitedly.
"Would you have a telephone to hand, by any chance?" Chelsea asked.
"Oh, indeed I have!" said the Professor, sliding an antique two-piece instrument across his desk. When Chelsea picked it up, an operator at the Museum asked if she required an external line.
"I certainly do," Chelsea said, "Get me Chief Inspector Spiggot of Scotland Yard."
Sunday, 4 May 2008
"The awful truth of the matter is that Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe had gone to India to kill his old friend, the Rajah” (Spiggot continued), “The Rajah, you see, was the drugs lord of the region. The Opium grown in them there hills is, by repute, of the very finest quality money and human misery can buy. Between them, the Rajah and Hartleberry-Smythe had a very profitable importation business in hand. But now it seemed the Rajah had begun working with a new partner. His supplies to Hartleberry-Smythe had started to dry up. And as the quantity diminished, so the price rose.
"But Hartleberry-Smythe had an alternative supplier in the region - someone who was working in cahoots with a bunch of native warlords and priests of a strange and vicious blood cult - a nasty bunch of fellas, by all accounts, who inspired in the Opium farmers a terror as great, or greater than the terror of the Killer of PooshMurtran itself! With the Rajah out of the picture, Hartleberry-Smythe believed that he and his associates would be able to take over the entire Opium production operation in the area.
"And thus it was that, one day, Hartleberry-Smythe suggested to the Rajah that it might be a bit of a jape to go on a tiger hunt, to track down the legendary Killer and bring it back alive or dead.
"One morning, as the mists of dawn still clung to the scummy waters of the mangrove swamps, a strange party wended its way out between the huge marble gateways of the Rajah's palace. The Rajah himself led the way on his largest and most fearsome pachyderm. Hiram and some half a dozen skilled native hunters followed close behind, perched on top of armoured elephants.
"After almost six hours tracking the Killer, one of the native hunters finally caught sight of the beast. In an uncharacteristic turn of bravery, Hiram immediately suggested to the Rajah that the two of them should at once dismount and hunt the animal alone and on foot. The plan appealed to the Rajah's reckless nature and he assented without a moment's hesitation.
"Unknown to him, two of Hiram's associates - professional assassins - had secretly been following the hunting party and, at that very moment they lay in wait in the undergrowth. Everything was going according to Hiram's devilish plan. All being well, within a few moments the Rajah would be brutally slaughtered. The assassins planned to tear his living flesh so that, as far as anyone would know, he was just the latest victim of The Killer of PooshMurtran. But, as Shakespeare said, the best laid plans of mice and men often gang awry…"
"Burns," muttered Trish.
"What does?" sputtered Spiggot.
"It was Robert Burns who wrote that, not Shakespeare."
"I beg your pardon, young lady," said Spiggot, "But I believe you'll find that it was Shakespeare. Sonnet Number 323 if my memory serves me well."
"It obviously doesn't," said Trish, "Because it was Burns and it's not the best laid 'plans', it's the best laid 'schemes' and, what's more, he didn't write 'gang awry', he wrote…"
"Trish!" Chelsea interrupted.
"I believe Mrs Van de Graaff's poodle is about ready for its shampoo and blow-dry now. If you'd care to…"
"But I was just in the middle of…"
"Trish!" Chelsea pointed imperiously at the dismal dog, "Shampoo Foo-foo! Now!"
Grumbling to herself, Trish snapped on her rubber gloves and unceremoniously dumped the poodle into the nearest sink. Opening a new box of Bunnz Salon Specialities, she took a bottle of shampoo and started to massage it vigorously into the unhappy-looking animal. Under her breath, Trish could be heard grumbling, "The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley…"
Chief Inspector Spiggot twirled the ends of his moustaches briskly and threw himself into his tale with renewed vigour - "As Fate would have it, while the Rajah hunted the Killer, and the two assassins hunted the Rajah, the Killer of PooshMurtran himself was not idle. There in the undergrowth, the beast cowered, its whiskers bristling with the scent of its future meal. Suddenly its muscles tightened and whoosh! Out it leapt, taking down the two assassins in one fierce leap! Then slash! rip! tear! bite! It gorged itself monstrously upon their still pulsating flesh! The Rajah heard the melee and, in a flash, he spotted the beast and brought it down with a single bullet straight between the eyes!
"Two days later, Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe contrived to push the Rajah through an open window of his own palace."
Chelsea sucked the dregs of her Singapore Sling and bit the cherry off the end of the little paper umbrella - "So," she said at last, "That may explain the murder of the Rajah. But what about the murder of Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe? Not to mention his, er, 'delivery boy'?"
"I thought that was obvious," Spiggot said with a hint of a sneer, "The delivery boy as you call him was, in fact, an agent of the Rajah's new partner, to whom, you will recall, I alluded earlier. A fellow by the name of Cedric Crackington-Haven"
"Hartleberry-Smythe's rival, you mean? Are you really asking me to believe that Hartleberry-Smythe's delivery boy was, in reality, the same man who'd secretly been importing drugs from PooshMurtran into London?"
"Precisely!" rapped Spiggot, "Unbeknownst to Hartleberry-Smythe, he was actually employing his rival in iniquities! It was Crackington-Haven who had placed the first toxin into the sprinkler system of the Malabar Emporium and had impregnated the second toxin into the kipper tie!"
"How terribly fiendish," said Chelsea, with an appreciative smile, "But tell me, Inspector, how was it that Cedric Crackington-Haven came to meet with a fatal accident the very night before Hartleberry-Smythe was also bumped off?"
"Pure chance, miss. It is my experience that the quality of driving in the King's Cross area at that time of night often leaves a great deal to be desired."
"And I still don't understand who sent me the wooden boat? And the coffee?"
"Oh, I shouldn't worry about those, Miss," Spiggot said dismissively, "They are probably completely unconnected and quite innocent. Have you, f'rinstance, considered the possibility that you may have an anonymous admirer?"
"One with a very morbid sense of humour, if that be true," mused Chelsea, "Ah, but there's yet one more mystery to be solved, Chief Inspector."
"The man in the Malabar Emporium. Somebody entered just after I myself arrived. He departed moments before the sprinkler system went to action. But before doing so, he had set a flame to a great number of Oriental joss sticks. It was the smoke from those joss sticks which triggered the sprinklers."
"Aye, miss," Chief Inspector Spiggot grumbled, and played nervously with the ends of his moustache, "That is a mystery and no mistaking. Then again, I shouldn't worry about it. In my experience, if Scotland Yard was to try to solve every piddling little detail of a case we'd never solve a damn' one of them."
At the back of the Salon, Trish had just finished towel-drying the wet poodle and was now ripping open a box of conditioners. "I like the new design," she said, as she took out a bottle.
"What new design?" said Chelsea.
"Flowers," Trish said, holding up a bottle, "All the shampoo bottles in the box they delivered this morning have got flowers on them. And the conditioners have got pictures of trees. Quite nice, actually."
"Odd," said Chelsea, "The agency didn't say anything about a redesign."
"Maybe there's something in this letter?" Trish said, and she handed Chelsea a sealed envelope from a plastic pouch that was stuck to the outside of the box.
The envelope was simply addressed to 'Miss C. Bunn'. There was something oddly familiar about the lilac ink in which the name had been written.
"So, Chief Inspector," Chelsea said as she tore open the envelope, "If your theory is correct, then our murderer is already dead and we have nothing more to worry about."
"Precisely so," rumbled Spiggot, "The case of the poison kipper tie is, as we say down the Yard, well and truly closed."
When Chelsea set eyes upon the sheet of paper contained within the envelope, she gasped involuntarily. The letter comprised just one short sentence: "Frangipani and Sandalwood is a killer combination, cha-cha-cha!"
At the far end of the salon, Trish was squirting a blob of green goo from one of the bottles into the palm of her hand. "Hmm," she said, "Smells nice."
Suddenly Chelsea realised the awful significance of the note in her hand.
"Which shampoo did you use on that poodle?" she screamed to Trish.
"The new batch," said Trish, "Frangipani."
"Hold that conditioner!" Chelsea yelled, "Or the poodle's dog-meat!"
"What's the matter?" said Trish, taking an appreciative sniff of the gunk in her hand, "Hmmm, this Sandalwood conditioner smells yummy. Good enough to eeeeeeeeee……"
But Trish never finished the sentence. She slumped into a vacant styliste's chair which spun around once on its axis before depositing Trish's lifeless body onto the black-and-white tiled floor beneath the sink containing the poodle, Foo-foo.
"Shitbags!" murmured Chelsea, "And Trish was my best styliste!"
Sunday, 17 February 2008
Chief Inspector Spiggot paced the length and breadth of the Salon. "Aye, it's a rum do and no mistake," he said and he twisted the corners of his ginger moustache for dramatic effect, "I've seen many a rum do in my time at the Yard, Miss. But this, I can honestly say, is one is one of the rummest."
"So how exactly was he killed?" Chelsea asked as she sank back into the soft leather of her styliste's chair.
"Oh yes, many's the rum do I've come across in my time. The case of the Grantham surgical support salesman and the belly dancer, f'risntance - now, there was a rum do if ever there was…."
"Cup of Coffee, Chief Inspector?" a mouse-like voice suddenly peeped up.
"Thank you, Trish," Chelsea replied, "Chief Inspector Spiggot will have a mug of tea with two sugars. I'll have my usual…"
Trish, who was sitting in the corner, nursing a vaguely blue-coloured toy poodle, went off into the kitchen at the back of the Salon, tugging the reluctant animal behind her on its jewel-encrusted leash.
"Then there was the Adventure of the Phantom Colonal Irrigator of Clapham West…"
"But to get back to the current case, Chief Inspector," Chelsea interrupted, "What I don't understand is, if someone had poisoned the overhead sprinkler system at the Malabar Emporium, as you say, how did I manage to escape its mortal effects, when Mr Hartleberry-Smythe evidently succumbed so speedily?"
"Now, there you have a conundrum," Spiggot said, "Or so I thought. Until our forensic boffins examined the kipper."
"The kipper?" exclaimed Chelsea, "What on earth do you mean?"
"The tie, Miss. A large, pink garment of a silken fabrication decorated with a design known to the trade as a Paisley Pattern. In most respects, Mr Hartleberry-Smythe favoured a somewhat antiquated style of dress with the exception of an inexplicable fondness for kipper ties. Had a whole wardrobe of the blasted things!"
"I see," said Chelsea, "But then again, I don't see. What on earth has the kipper tie to with his untimely death?"
Chief Inspector Spiggot grasped the lapels of his overcoat and bobbed slowly up and down on his toes, "Have you, by any chance, heard of…" and here Spiggot leaned forward, twiddled his moustache and stared at Chelsea with eyes as round as saucers (a dramatic technique taught to all Scotland Yard Chief Inspectors by one of the most celebrated stars of the London stage who cannot, alas, be identified for reasons of National Security) "…binary agents?" spluttered Spiggot with an explosive release of saliva.
"Hmmm, now let me see," mused Chelsea, "Aren't they those chemical things produced by the combination of two substances such as, for example, Methylphosphoryldifluoride and Isopropanol which are themselves non-toxic but are, in combination, deadly poisonous nerve agents which can enter the body via the skin or respiratory system resulting in nausea, delirium, excessive production of saliva and, in a very short period, death?"
Spiggot glared at her. "How did you know that?" he said.
"You'd be surprised what you pick up in hairdressing, Chief Inspector," Chelsea said as she idly applied a coat of purple varnish to the fingernails of her right hand.
"Well, then," Spiggot bumbled on, "Let me ask you this. Think back and tell me if you ever saw anybody suffering with the very symptoms what you have just this minute described?"
"Shitbags! Of course!" Chelsea exclaimed, "Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe. So that's it! What you are saying is that somebody must have put one of the two binary agents into the overhead sprinkler system in the Malabar Emporium so that when it kicked into action its poisoned waters would combine with the second agent and suddenly, splooosh! Bye-bye Hiram?"
"But if that's the case, where precisely was the second agent hidden and why didn't it affect me?"
"That's what was so devilish. The second agent was impregnated into the fabric of the Pink Paisley-pattern kipper tie. So, when the two chemicals combined, only Mr Hartleberry-Smythe received a nostril-full of the deadly fumes."
"I say!" said Chelsea, "How awfully fiendish! But why on earth would anyone want to kill the poor chap?"
Just at that moment, Trish came back into the Salon with a mug of tea for the Chief Inspector and a Singapore Gin Sling for Chelsea. The poodle was toddling along behind her, looking as miserable as only a blue-rinsed poodle can.
"The story begins in the PooshMurtran Highlands of Northern India," Spiggot said as he settled back into a leather chair beneath a pink hairdryer unit, "Aye, PooshMurtran. As uncivilised and heathen a place as ever there was, high up in the bleak foothills of the Himalayas. Aye, aye, I say, PooshMurtran, a dangerous and a sinister region which, to this day, is the haunt of bandits, Thugees and all kinds of faithless foreign devils. PooshMurtran is tiger country," Spiggot took the tea and slurped it noisily through his moustache, then added, "And never was there any man-eater more dreaded than the tiger they called The Killer of PooshMurtran."
"The rug!" exclaimed Chelsea, "In the Malabar Emporium."
"Imagine if you can that deadly beast stalking its human prey silently through the foetid steaming air of the hot malarial swamps of PooshMurtran…"
"Erm, excuse me…" squeaked Trish, "Hope you don't think I'm interrupting or anything, like…"
Chief Inspector Spiggot glowered at her and his moustache bristled menacingly.
"Only, see, what I mean to say is," blathered Trish, "Is that I think you'll find that there ain't actually any malarial swamps, like, in the foothills of the Himalayas an' that. In fact, I think as how you'll find it's a bit on the chilly side there actually."
Spiggot said nothing but slurped his tea with an air of unfriendliness.
"Aye, PooshMurtran," he continued grimly, "Whose steamy malarial swamps are fed by a hot spring that gushes from very heart of the Himalayas. Aye, aye, 'tis as strange and ungodly a place as any white man," (here Chelsea cleared her throat and raised an eyebrow meaningfully) "…as any white man, woman or hairdresser has ever clapped eyes upon. Aye, aye, PooshMurtran. That is where this diabolical mystery all began. And that is where, one day, it shall surely end.
"For more than five years, the Killer of PooshMurtran had terrorised the countryside, for miles around, spreading a trail of blood, bones, giblets and entrails wherever it went - aye, blood I say! And bones! And giblets! And entrails. Human entrails!
"At the time when the carnage was at its most gruesome and grisly, a certain Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe arrived in PooshMurtran, ostensibly on a holiday to visit an old chum from his days at Cambridge, a certain Reginald Patel, otherwise known as the Rajah of Rajpooristan.
"But this was no ordinary holiday. For Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe had gone to conduct a certain business deal. A business, I say, of a most nefarious and mortal character."
"Mortal?" said Chelsea, "You mean to say…"
"Aye, aye - deadly, Miss. For Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe was a killer every bit as fearsome as the tiger which stalked that dreadful heathen land.
"Opium, that was the reason of it. The Malabar Emporium was more than just a shop full of exotic knick-knacks and curiosities. When the boys from the Yard broke into the cellar of the place, they found the biggest stash of nauseous drugs and narcotics ever to be uncovered since the days of Doctor Fu Manchu himself!”
Sunday, 13 January 2008
Hartleberry-Smythe was just about to flutter away into a distant corner of the shop but Chelsea restrained him by gripping his upper arm. Her grip was perhaps a little more firm than might have been considered strictly polite - "Please continue," Chelsea said, "You were telling me about the al-mug trees…"
"Oh, yes, yes, of course," Hartleberry-Smythe gasped as the blood gradually began to circulate through his arm once more, "Now then, where was I?"
"O-phir," Chelsea reminded him.
"Ah, yes, O-phir. Well, it is my understanding that O-phir was either located in Arabia, as suggested in Genesis, 10, 29 or in India, which was the site proposed by Saint Jerome. I personally favour the Malabar Coast of India as the most probably location. In any case, while its location is open to dispute, the reason for its fame is well established. O-phir was in Ancient times a source of gold, ivory and, above all, sandalwood. Which is another name for Almug. Santalum album, white Sandalwood. The same wood from which your boat is carved."
"How very intriguing," said Chelsea.
"And now, if I might perhaps see to my other customer?"
"There's just one more thing," said Chelsea. "This coffee." Chelsea took the second mysterious gift, the package of coffee beans, from another pocket in her poncho, "What can you tell me about it? Is it in any way special?"
"All our coffees are special, madam. We only use the best beans from the finest plantations. Now then, let me see. Ah, yes. That's a particularly fine Bean even by our own high standards. Monsoon Malabar. Medium Roast. Truly a King among coffees."
"Malabar again?" mused Chelsea.
"Another gift from your secret admirer?" asked Hartleberry-Smythe.
"Yes," said Chelsea, "And an odd one. It was addressed to me but delivered to a rather insalubrious restaurant in Kings Cross."
"You really are the lucky one aren't you," simpered Hartleberry-Smythe.
"I'm not sure," said Chelsea, "You see, it came with a threat."
"I'm afraid so."
Chelsea handed over the second note. Hartleberry-Smythe gasped as he read it. "Your incompetence has already cost one life'. Oh, no! It couldn't mean…! No, no! Surely not! Surely not poor, poor Cedric!"
"Cedric? And who, may I ask, is…?"
"Was, Miss Bunn, Cedric Crackington-Haven was my delivery boy."
"Good Lord! Not, by any chance, a tall chap, hook-nose, dark-glasses, a penchant for black leather?"
"Yes, that was him. Had a terrible accident. Last night. On the way back from a coffee delivery - Monsoon Malabar - to a certain insalubrious restaurant in King's Cross."
"So! Violent death seems to follow you around, it seems?"
"I was thinking of the Rajah of Rajpooristan."
"Ah. Yes. Poor old Reggie. Of course, you know I couldn't be held responsible for that, Miss Bunn," said Hartleberry-Smythe and he began sniffing the air like a bloodhound with pretensions to the aristocracy, "I say! Can you smell something odd?"
Chelsea sniffed. "You mean apart from the dust, the mould and the elephant's foot umbrella stand? Hmmm…. I'm not really sure. The sandalwood carving perhaps?"
"Possibly. Well, no matter. In any case, I'm afraid I really can't throw any light on these little mysteries of yours, Miss Bunn. It's probably some sort of prank isn't it?"
"Cedric's death was no prank, surely."
"No but… oh, on mature consideration, I'm sure this note of yours can have nothing to do with that. I mean, what does this note really mean, when all's said and done? 'Your incompetence has already cost one life. Tomorrow it may cost another…If it doesn't rain it pours'. It's probably nothing more than a practical joke, some sort of play on words, perhaps?"
"And now, if you'll excuse me, I have another customer to attend to. Hmmm…. now, what on earth is that smell?"
"Hmmm…" Chelsea sniffed the air, "Yes, you're right, I can smell something too. Seems oddly familiar."
"Oh tut, tut!" blathered Hartleberry-Smythe, "My other customer seems to have left while we were chatting."
"It reminds me a little of the scent of Frangipani," Chelsea said.
"Oh no!" said Hartleberry-Smythe, "Surely not Frangipani!"
"Why? Don't you like the smell?"
"My olfactory preferences are of no consequence, Miss Bunn. You see, the only Frangipani-scented items here are my Sumatran joss sticks made exclusively for me by an order of mendicant monks in the foothills of the volcanic mountains of Pegunungan Barisan. But it really wouldn't do to have them burning here in the Emporium."
"Too Holy?" suggested Chelsea.
"Too smoky," Hartleberry-Smythe corrected, "The sprinkler system, you see, is activated by a smoke detector. Oh Good Heavens! Look!"
Hartleberry-Smythe pointed towards the ceiling. There they were, a whole packet of Sumatran joss sticks, clenched incongruously by the beak of the stuffed dodo peering over the rim of the W.C. once used by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of India. Smoke was drifting out of the regally-appointed bowl in sweet-smelling clouds.
"Here, quickly, take this," said Hartleberry-Smythe, as he handed to Chelsea a saffron coloured Thai silk parasol, "I think we're in for a change in the weather."
He was right. First with a hiss and a drip and a splutter and then with a splash and a gush and a spurt, the sprinkler system surged into action. Within seconds the entire shop was doused in water. It soaked through the ancient Mogul embroideries adorning the walls, it flowed in runnels between the ears of The Killer of PooshMurtran and it cascaded over the wrinkled knee-cap of the elephant's foot umbrella stand.
"You'd better take shelter under my parasol," Chelsea shouted over the noise of the downpour, "I say, Mr Hartleberry-Smythe…? Hiram…?"
Something was wrong. Hartleberry-Smythe had slumped backwards and had fallen into the deadly embrace of a large stuffed grizzly bear. His hands were clutching his throat, streams of saliva were pouring down his chin and his face was contorted into a grimace of pure agony. He was trying to say something, but his voice was no more than a hoarse whisper which could barely be heard over the noise of cascading water. There were just three words that Chelsea could make out with any clarity - "The Malabar Rites". And then, quite suddenly, he fell to the floor and lay quite still in a pool of water. He was dead. Stone dead.
"Well as the saying goes," said Chelsea, "It never rains but it pours."
Friday, 4 January 2008
Chelsea could barely believe her eyes. Close at hand, a Balinese Garuda, exquisitely carved from mahogany, stood upon an Agra marble table inlaid with amethysts and lapis lazuli. Further off, she saw countless leather-bound books of unimaginable antiquity, untidy heaps containing trinkets and ornaments that had once belonged to the crowned heads of Europe, a rack of Polynesian sacrifice robes, a Ming Dynasty vase and an ebony statue of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead.
As the door to the Malibu Emporium swung shut behind her, a Tibetan prayer bell tinkled gently signifying her arrival. Chelsea paid it no heed. She was too overwhelmed by the bizarre accumulation of opulence and exotica that surrounded her on all sides.
Suspended from the ceiling was a Victorian flush Water Closet, which according to a brass plaque fixed upon it, was once used by the Queen herself while on holiday in Arbroath with Prince Albert in the autumn of 1858. Peering over the W.C.'s bowl was the decidedly un-regal face of a stuffed dodo.
Chelsea's eyes were fixed upon the dodo when she stepped into the tiger's mouth. As the teeth sank into the skin of her ankle, Chelsea let out an involuntary gasp and jumped backwards, banging into an elephant's foot umbrella stand which, she noted with surprise, was half filled with water.
"Ah you've spotted our leak, I see," a voice said, "The overhead sprinklers have been playing up all morning, I'm afraid."
A small, dapper man, wearing a velvet smoking jacket, a fez and a broad, pink, Paisley-pattern tie stepped into view from behind a life-sized replica of Chief Sitting Bull. "Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe at your service." he said, extending his hand.
"Chelsea Bunn," Chelsea replied, shaking the proffered hand with a muscular vigour that belied her delicate appearance, "Not necessarily at your service."
"You've met the Killer, then," Hartleberry-Smythe said, "A real beauty, isn't he."
"I beg your…?"
"The tiger-skin rug, I mean. The Killer of PooshMurtran, you know. Interested in Big Game, are we?"
"Well, I must admit I'm always interested in a killer."
"Then you'll certainly be interested in the Killer of PooshMurtran. Vicious brute. Death on four paws in his hey-day. Killed twenty-five men, three women and two elephants. Not to mention a score or two of horses, dogs, goats and natives. The beast was finally bagged by the Rajah of Rajpooristan. I was in the hunting party myself, as a matter of fact. The Rajah's widow gave me the skin as a personal gift."
"The Rajah's widow? Then you mean the Rajah was…?"
"Cut down in his prime, alas."
"Ah. Big mouse, was it?"
"History, I fear, does not record the dimensions of the beast. The Rajah was as brave a fellow as you could wish for in a tight spot. Apart from one thing. Poor chap had a phobia don'tcha know."
"Mice?" suggested Chelsea.
"The very same," agreed Hartleberry-Smythe, "Seems a mouse ran across his bedchamber one day. Rajah ran in the opposite direction. Straight through the window. Two hundred feet up. Over the Ganges. Tide was out. Took two days to find him. Six feet down. In the mud."
"These things happen," twittered Hartleberry-Smythe, "But what can we do for you today, I wonder? Here at the Malabar Emporium we pride ourselves on our ability to provide gifts for the lady who's been given everything."
"I was wondering," said Chelsea, "If you might have anything similar to this," and she handed him a small brown-paper package.
"Ah," said Hartleberry-Smythe, as he unwrapped the package, "And 'Ah' again, I say. A Javanese death-boat if I am not mistaken. Carved from Sumatran sandalwood by the Great Master Tidak Baik in a secret location just south of Yogyakarta. Bought from this very establishment, undoubtedly. I'm afraid we haven't any others in stock. We could order another if you wish, but it could take up to a year before the carving is finished, I fear."
"I'm not looking for something for myself," Chelsea explained, "In fact, I'm looking for something suitable to send to the person who gave me the carving of the boat."
"Oh, well, I'm sure we can find something," Hartleberry-Smythe smiled, "What sort of thing might the gentleman like?"
"Now that's the problem, you see," Chelsea said, "Because I don't know who the gentleman is."
"I don't. The gift was anonymous."
"So I was wondering if perhaps you might look in your order book and…"
"…find the gentleman's name?"
"Oh no!" Hartleberry-Smythe shook his head so enthusiastically that the tassel on his fez flicked from side to side like the tail of a tiny horse, "No, no, no, no-no-no-no! I'm afraid I couldn’t do that. No, no, quite impossible. You see, here at the Malabar Emporium, a customer's confidentiality is a bond of trust. And we could never break a bond of trust."
"I am so glad to hear it," said Chelsea, "I may be confident then that I can trust you not to divulge the details of another mystery which has been troubling me."
"A mystery?" - Hartleberry-Smythe's whole demeanour took on a noticeably sprightly aspect at the mention of the word 'mystery', "Oh, I say, but I should have recognised the name! Bunn, you said? Chelsea Bunn? But surely you cannot really be the same Chelsea Bunn whose startling crime-breaking exploits have so often enlivened the pages of the London press."
"Oh, tush!" Chelsea said modestly, "Trifling matters, I assure you."
"I beg to differ, Miss Bunn," Hartleberry-Smythe oozed, "The affair of the Grand Duke, the Salamander and the Athletic Supporter can, by no means, be dismissed as trifling. It is an honour to meet you, Miss Bunn, and I should like to assure you that I am at your complete disposal."
Chelsea took from the pocket of her poncho the scrap of paper which had accompanied the mysterious gift of the carved sandalwood boat. Hartleberry-Smythe glanced briefly at the spidery lilac handwriting - "Dinner for One, Kings X. Eleven. No kippers for Miss Bunn." He then gave a single, snorting laugh. "The exegesis of this message is quite clear," he said, "You are familiar with One Kings, I take it?"
"I am certainly familiar with Kings Cross," Chelsea said.
"Kings Cross? My dear young lady, what on earth has Kings Cross to do with this? 'One Kings' is what I said, 'One Kings' is what is written here, and 'One Kings' is quite clearly what the author of the message intends.
"Look, it's perfectly clear - Dinner for One, Kings, eleven. The First Book of Kings in the Old Testament, Chapter Ten, verse eleven. Now, let me see, that would be the story of the King of Tyre who gave Solomon some cedar trees and gold."
Chelsea congratulated Hartleberry-Smythe on his Biblical scholarship. "Ah yes, well," he babbled, "I had once planned to take the Cloth, you see. But, ahem, certain personal interests proved incompatible, shall we say, with the Calling."
"Ah," said Chelsea sympathetically, "All too often the case, I believe."
"Yes. But in any case, One Kings has always been one of my favourite book of the Bible. Not quite as racy as Deuteronomy, maybe, but a thumping good read all the same," He reached across to a pile of ancient dusty volumes standing near at hand, took from it a large Victorian Bible, and began thumbing through the fragile pages, "I don't know, maybe it's just vanity…"
"Oh, well, the name, don't you know. The name don't you know. Hiram, King of Tyre. Same as my name, Hiram. Mother had an enormous fondness for the Old Testament. Hiram's not such a bad name, though, really. I mean, could have been worse. My brother, for example, is called Nebuchadnezzar.
"Now, then, let me see, yes, yes, here it is, One Kings, Chapter Ten, verse eleven."
Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe handled the venerable tome to Chelsea. The verse, though obscure in its significance, seemed somehow pregnant with meaning:
'And the navy also of Hiram, that brought gold from O-phir, brought from O-phir great plenty of al-mug trees, and precious stones.'.
"Well," she said, "My carved boat, if indeed that was bought here, might certainly be said to have come from Hiram, though I'm not sure it quite amounts to a navy. But who or where is O-phir? And what on earth is an al-mug tree?"
"I do hope you won't think it unseemly of me to flaunt my knowledge in the matter…" Hiram hesitated.
The Tibetan prayer bell over the door tinkled gently. "Excuse me, madam," Hiram said, "I'll be back with you in just a moment. Good morning, sir, Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe at your…"
Monday, 31 December 2007
Kings Cross can be a forbidding place at any time of day. At eleven o'clock on a Friday evening, it is positively unnerving. Gaudy neon lights flashed over darkened doorways. Green-eyed, snarling dogs scavenged among the litter. Dark, human-like shapes cackled and hooted from the depths of the labyrinthine alleyways.
At first Chelsea had assumed that her unknown admirer might be planning a tryst on one of the overnight sleeper trains departing from Kings Cross station. But there was no departure at eleven o'clock. The first train after the specified time was the 11:03 to Chipplestoke-in-the-Mire, but that had no dining carriage. She had next turned to the restaurant listings of Yellow Pages. Within moments, she had discovered precisely what she was looking for.
In a narrow passageway leading off a side-lane, deep within the maze of sordid little alleyways which sprout like fungus around the diseased heart of Kings Cross, Chelsea now stood in front of a squalid little fish restaurant named The Crimson Kipper.
A dismal light shone through the greasy, steam-streaked windows of the restaurant. As she pushed open the front door a small bell tinkled harshly and a large dog growled in a back room. Aside from a few fat bluebottles buzzing around the desiccated scraps of food on the bare-topped tables, the Crimson Kipper appeared to be deserted.
But appearances can be deceptive.
"You lookin' for something, love?" - the voice rumbled out of the darkness in tune with the growling of the dog.
"I believe I have a dinner appointment," Chelsea said uncertainly.
A large man in impressively stained off-white overalls emerged through the door connecting the restaurant to its kitchen. "We're closed," he snarled and then, eyeing her slowly from head to toe, added, "But I might be prepared to see what I can do for someone as lovely as you, my dear."
"What you can do," said Chelsea, delicately seizing the man by the neck and pressing her thumb against his artery using a secret Aikijitsu death grip, "Is tell me everything you know, and quickly. In two seconds you will lose consciousness. In five seconds you will be dead."
"Ggggghhhhhh…" said the fat man. Chelsea loosened her grip slightly.
"OK, OK," he said, rubbing his throat and wincing, "Gawd luv-a-duck, where did you learn a nasty little trick that?"
"You'd be surprised what you pick up in hairdressing," Chelsea said.
"You," rasped the man, "Must be Miss Bunn. Miss Chelsea Bunn. You should have said. If I'd known, I'd never have given you no bother. Fat Frank knows better than to mess around with an homicidal hairdresser. I got a parcel for you is what I got." He took a small brown-paper package from an inside pocket. Chelsea brushed off a piece of battered fish and examined the package closely. There was no writing upon it. But there was perfume. It smelled quite strongly of sandalwood and coffee.
"Who brought this?" she asked.
"Just a courier," he said, "Some fella on a bike. Something a bit funny about him, there was."
"Hooked nose, black leather, dark glasses?"
"You know him?" asked Fat Frank.
"No," said Chelsea, "Just a lucky guess." - She tore open the envelope and discovered, inside, a small paper package wrapped in a single piece of vellum upon which was written a message in lilac ink. It said simply: "You disappoint me, Miss Bunn. I deliver you a victim, but you pursue a red herring. Your incompetence has already cost one life. Tomorrow it will cost another. Ah well, if it doesn't rain it pours."
She saw now that the package contained a half pound of Arabica coffee beans wrapped in glossy red paper. It bore the label of "Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe's Malabar Emporium (Coffee Purveyors, By Appointment)". At the bottom edge of the label, someone had written: "Two wrongs for Two Rites?"
"How very intriguing," said Chelsea…