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."

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