Sunday, 13 January 2008

Killing In The Rain

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."

"Oh dear!"

"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?"

"How so?"

"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

Episode Three: Encounter With A Killer

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."

"The tiger?"

"A mouse."

"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."

"How tragic."

"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."

"You don't?"

"I don't. The gift was anonymous."

"I see."

"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…"