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…"

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