Month: January 2015

The Master’s Court

Since I was very small, I have found myself hauled before authority figures with alarming regularity. It would not surprise me if there is a plaque bearing my name on the chair outside my old Headmistress’ office, such was the frequency of my occupying that particular piece of furniture. In the years following, admonishment and discipline would be metered out variously by managers, Sergeants and Inspectors and even our own dear Head Porter on one memorable occasion. I have been told-off in such a plethora of practices, with such reoccurring regularity, that I rather have the whole experience down to a fine art.

Standing in The Master’s drawing-room is somewhat more foreboding than previous experiences, it must be said. Accompanied by an irritatingly-delighted Bursar, I am feeling rather less than welcome in the candle-lit room, heavy with solemn opulence and an over-bearing fug of academia. The Master himself is yet to make an appearance and I suspect that this is a device of psychological warfare; the waiting period designed to fritter my nerves and unsteady my resolve.

The Bursar looks to be on the verge of wanting to converse but I frustrate his endeavours by avoiding eye contact completely. I pass the time by examining a stray thread on my shirt cuff and reminding myself that the last time I was in The Master’s Lodge was for Junior Bursar’s retirement party. That was quite an evening. The Master will have to go some way to top that.

A muffled clanking sounds from somewhere behind one of the elaborate wooden bookcases on the wall behind The Master’s writing desk. I glance over to The Bursar who is visibly unsettled by this; his features twisted in confusion, his already pallid complexion turned almost grey. I remain unfussed. I know exactly what that sound is.

Seconds later, one of the panels in the bookcase swings stiffly towards us The Master emerges from one of a myriad of secret passages connecting The Lodge with the rest of College.  I throw a smug little look in the direction of The Bursar. He is evidently not quite as well-informed as he supposes.

Although now aged and diminished, The Master still wields an astonishing presence and his face wears the shadow of his youthful allure with resolute conviction. Immaculately dressed in a blue suit and delicate cravat, The Master is not only one of the country’s most eminent academics but also a Lord of the Realm and noted aristocrat. In ordinary circumstances we might struggle to find common ground. He makes himself comfortable behind his desk. I am offered no such similar luxury.

The Master casts a doubtful eye over my good self before turning his attention to The Bursar.

“You are perfectly sure that you have the right culprit, Bursar?”

“Quite so, Sir” replies The Bursar, his voice dripping with sincerity. “All the evidence points to her.”

“Evidence?” I ask, but am hushed by The Master’s raised hand. The Bursar continues.

“I assure you, My Lord, that once you hear what I have to say… you will agree that there can be no other logical conclusion.”

“Hang on a minute, what am I actually being accused of?” I ask, getting a little annoyed now.

“Why, bringing the great name of Old College into disrepute!” roars The Bursar. The Master seems as put out by this outburst as I am and fires a glance of molten steel at his subordinate. He allows the resonance of The Bursar’s words to subside before speaking.

“The reputation of our beloved establishment is being called into question, Deputy Head Porter. We have become the subject of idle chatter and debate. And it rather does seem that some very… unsavoury incidents have occurred since you joined us…”

BANG! BANG! BANG!

The knocking is so forceful that daylight can be seen between the door and its frame. There is only one person with a knock that distinctive. As The Master stands to protest, a fourth BANG! liberates the latch and The Dean bursts into the drawing room. He is not alone.

What is it with Old College and bursting through doors? Must every entrance be quite so theatrical?

“Unsavoury incidents have been occurring for very much longer than THAT, I can tell you!” The Dean strikes a heroic pose, chin tilted defiantly. Next to him, dressed in a white suit—always a white suit—a top hat and holding a cane of magnitude is… It cannot be!

“What is the meaning of this unforgivably rude intrusion?!” barks The Bursar. “And who is this… gentleman?”

“My man,” the fellow in the white suit says, “I am none other than Professor VJ Duke. Adventurer, ex-gardener, and worm hunter.”

“And a jolly good friend of mine!” The Dean adds. “We are here to defend Deputy Head Porter and quash these scurrilous accusations against her.”

“Deputy Head Porter has involved herself in things that should have been none of her concern,” The Master’s voice has an underlying darkness that is as mesmerising as it is chilling. “The actions of one uppity College servant have resulted in much embarrassment in certain circles. Important circles. And still the atrocities continue!”

“Hold on for a few!” The Professor springs forward to join the battle. “I can assure you (with most assuredness) that Deputy Head Porter has only ever acted in the best interests of the college, dadblameit! And secondly, we can prove that the three young people have nothing to do with the previous…unpleasantness, dadblameit!”

That’s right!” says The Dean, really getting a feel for the dramatic, now. “Last year’s… events… were centred around The Fellowship and the dastardly political undertones of The Vicious Circle…”

“They tried to kill me three times!” I point out, reasonably.

“…The Vicious Circle – a clandestine committee who had been plying their murderous trade for more than half a century!” The Dean finishes with a flourish. The Master looks towards The Bursar, whose suggestion that I was one of them now seems rather less likely.

“And plus and plus, Deputy Head Porter has already put in lots and lots of work to get to the bottom of what happened at the bottom of the garden,” says Professor Duke. “In truth, this is true: she would have probably solved it already if you weren’t keeping her in a room and shouting at her! She should get a medal of honour—no! Something better, I say!”

An eerie calm falls across the room. The Master’s gaze has fallen upon The Bursar and the look he gives him suggests that this was not quite what he was expecting to hear. The Bursar has obviously been telling tales. But why? The Bursar covers his rage with perfectly executed haughtiness.

“Deputy Head Porter is a very busy lady, one way or another, all for the benefit of Old College,” The Dean has masterfully gained control of the room. “I would respectfully request, My Lord, that Deputy Head Porter be free to continue her good work.”

The Master seems concerned only with The Bursar and silently waves us away. Not wishing to outstay our welcome, we leave the man to his fate and retreat to the courtyard.

“Well, what a wonder” exclaims The Professor.

“An more unlikely event than even we are used to,” agrees The Dean.

“Definitely keep an eye on that bursar chap,” says Professor Duke. “He seems to have it in for you, Deputy Head Porter. And, plus, he’s rather vexing. And scary.”

“Yes, that is odd” I reply. “I wonder why that can be? I barely know the chap.”

“Well, the reasons behind that will have to wait” says The Dean. “This is the other piece of exciting news I had to tell you! Our good friend Professor Duke has come to visit! I did want it to be a surprise.”

The Professor smiles a smile of The Professor.

“It certainly was surprising,” I nod. “But what a way to be surprised! It is super to see you, Professor. How long are you here for?”

“I must needs be at Warwick Castle tomorrow some time. But for tonight—we can drink cherry green tea and tell some exciting stories!”

“And I have opened that bottle of Japanese whiskey…” muses The Dean.

This could be an exceptionally long night, I suspect.

Although I am expected in The Lodge early tomorrow, I feel I should at least stay for awhile and make tea for The Professor. Anything less would be rude. A small celebratory whiskey wouldn’t hurt, either.

 

Many thanks to the shockingly brilliant Professor VJ Duke, without whom none of this would have been possible. It is a wonder that he can find the time to rescue me, what with all the happenings he has to deal with…

Called To Account

I am jauntily making my way along the now well-trodden route from the Porters’ Lodge to the rooms of The Dean. He sounded quite excitable on the phone, which is rather unusual for him. I have, of course, been summoned with the utmost urgency; but this time I feel he might have something cheerful to impart. Or, if not quite cheerful, then certainly something that doesn’t require his more likely communication style of bellowing inventive profanities, some of which he has clearly made up.

The light of the day is beginning to fade but the frosted flagstones still find a way to twinkle in the dusk. Although the air is icy, there is a warmth in the courtyards that is just on the very edge of perception, albeit the source is unknown. Old College doesn’t hold with obeying the rules of nature, so perhaps it just isn’t in the mood for the cold this evening.

Someone else who has no tolerance for a chill is The Dean, whose rooms are something akin to a circle of Hell, thanks to a roaring fire burning away ferociously. I find him poking at it viciously with an ancient-looking iron implement. I wouldn’t fancy being on the business end of that, I tell you. Hearing me enter, The Dean swings round and greets me with a broad, toothy smile and open arms. This sounds rather friendly, but when you consider that he is still brandishing the white-hot poker and that his smile is even more disturbing than his snarl – the over-all effect is somewhat alarming.

“Deputy Head Porter! It’s you!” he declares. Who else would it be?

“Yes, Sir, it is I” I reply, keeping a careful eye on the jiggling poker. “You have some news?”

“News, news and thrice news!” he says, before leaning the poker against the fireplace. Thank goodness for that. “Actually, only two bits of news but I’m buggered if I can think of a dramatic announcement for two bits of news. Take a seat.”

I make myself comfortable amongst the books and papers on the battered red leather settee that serves as seating for guests. The Dean pours a couple of unfeasibly large whiskies, one of which he places on the coffee table before me. I regard it with some suspicion; drinking whiskey with The Dean rarely ends well. I decide to ignore it for now.

Settled in his own armchair, which has been dragged slightly closer to the fire, The Dean sips at his whiskey and licks his lips. I can tell from its hue that this is not his usual brand.

“Japanese, would you believe” he says, obviously noticing my curiosity. “Drink up, it’s perfectly palatable.”

I’ll just have a little bit. It can’t hurt. Probably.

“It’s quite smooth, actually” I remark, a little surprised. It’s not too bad at all. Then again, The Dean would not keep bad whiskey. Never.

“Well, quite. Now anyway, I had a flying visit from that blasted DCI Thompson earlier. He handed back to me the keys to Maurinio’s rooms, it would appear they have finished their work there for the time being. This is most excellent news!”

“Indeed it is, Sir”

“Yes, we can get in there and have a nose around ourselves. Hunt for clues and whatnot.”

Something tells me that any notable clues will already have been picked up by our law-enforcing friends. But he seems to be so looking forward to the prospect that I elect to remain silent on the issue. Besides, rifling through the mundane artifacts of virtual strangers is interesting enough in itself.

“We should get in quick,” The Dean continues “Before the blasted Bedders get in there and start rearranging things. Head Of Housekeeping must be itching to get those rooms cleaned.”

This is a very good point, actually. If there is anything of any relevance, it will no doubt be decimated by the unforgiving sanitation of Head Of Housekeeping’s merciless minions. It also occurs to me that the police may be as yet unaware of the possible witchcraft connection so we might be able to lay our hands on something significant before they do.

I point this out to The Dean and also take the opportunity to bring him up to speed with my conversation with Hershel and Penelope. He takes great delight in pointing out that he was right about the importance of the occult and a brief lecture ensues, detailing the many incidents spanning several decades of when The Dean has been right. I listen with solemn intent, nodding occasionally and gasping where appropriate.

“Of course, this is only a modest account of such incidents,” The Dean continues, loftily. “We haven’t the time to discuss the rest now. But, perhaps, another time? Over dinner, maybe?”

This throws me rather off kilter and before I know it, I have gulped down the remainder of my whiskey in surprise. To my immense alarm, there are butterflies in my stomach. Actual butterflies. But that could just be the Japanese whiskey. Get a grip. It’s dinner. Dinner is food and you like food. Focus on that.

“That sounds nice,” I reply, rather pathetically. I am aware that my voice sounds rather unsure so I smile and nod madly to make up for it. He must think I am demented.

“Marvellous!” The Dean claps his hands together in delight. “Saturday night, then.”

“Ah” Bugger! I have already invited Head Porter over on Saturday evening.

“You already have plans?”

“I do. But it’s only Head Porter.”

“Oh. I see.” The Dean seems a little deflated.

I open my mouth to explain the situation, but barely a breath escapes before the door is flung open and a familiar, sinister figure enters the room. The Dean immediately leaps to his feet, furious at the intrusion.

“Sit yourself down!” hisses The Bursar, in that strange accent that I am still unable to quite place. Almost like two accents…

“Bursar! I will not tolerate this rudeness! Bugger off this instant!”

Sneering with practiced malice, The Bursar stalks across the room and comes to rest right in front of me. He has the look of a man who has a terrible task to execute and simply cannot wait to begin.

“You will be coming with me, Deputy Head Porter” he says coldly. “The Master wishes to speak with you.”

“What? What about?” I ask, nervous now.

“I believe you know very well. Didn’t I warn you? Didn’t I give you fair admonition? And yet – the slaughter does not stop. You have much to answer to, Deputy Head Porter.”

The Dean explodes in a flurry of expletives, some of which a sailor would think twice about using. He gives the general impression that he is unhappy about the accusations levelled against me and The Bursar may well find himself with foreign objects inserted into him if he does not leave fairly quickly. The Bursar is unperturbed.

“You will leave with me now. The Master is waiting.”

“I’m coming too,” snarls The Dean.

“No! The Master wishes to see her alone” The Bursar pulls me roughly to my feet and I suppress an overwhelming urge to punch him in the face.

“It’s okay, Sir” I say to The Dean. “I am completely innocent. I have nothing to worry about.”

“This isn’t over!” The Deans calls after us as I allow myself to be led away by The Bursar. This is an interesting turn of events, certainly. But The Dean said he had two pieces of exciting news. The first was about Maurinio’s rooms. I wonder what the second could be?

 

And, Eventually, There Is Cake

I break into a swift trot to pursue Hershel, who is slinking his way towards the nearest cloister. Whilst not actively trying to elude me, Hershel seems unenthusiastic about the prospect of a quick chat. This is in no small part due to the fact I know he has been sneaking around Hawkins College.

“Hershel!” I call out to him when I am barely six feet away. He stops, then turns.

“Sshh!”

“Hershel, look…”

“Sshh! Please. I know you’re going to give me the hairy-dryer treatment about being at Hawkins earlier. But I had good reason.”

“I’m sure you did,” I reply “I just want you to tell me what you know, that’s all.”

“Yes. But look, it’s Penelope you really need to speak to. She knew her – the Hawkins girl – and it was something you said before, about Maurinio being interested in the occult?”

I take a moment to think, a little taken aback.

“What about it?”

“The Hawkins girl – well. Look, come with me to Penelope’s rooms and she can explain.”

Penelope’s rooms are rather tidier than I was expecting and I am happy to be settled comfortably on a sagging, but cosy, settee. I also see that the snow globe has moved from the writing desk and found its way to the bedside cabinet. That’s nice.

“Maggie was quite into witchcraft, she took it fairly seriously,” Penelope is telling me about the Hawkins girl. “Not in, like, a super crazy way or anything but… it was something she believed in.”

“Do you think she could have been… practicing her craft… when she died?” I ask.

“Well… that’s the thing. She might have been.”

“What makes you say that?”

Penelope huffs a little and rolls her eyes. Whatever she is about to tell me, it is clearly something she finds tiresome.

“There’s this boy she really liked. Really, really liked. She sort of joked about doing this spell she knew to make him fall in love with her.”

“Who was the boy?” I ask, intrigued.

“I don’t know, I never met him. He wasn’t a University boy, you know. And I don’t think the feeling was reciprocated, I don’t think he even knew. She worshipped him from afar, if you like.”

I press Penelope for a few more details and pose another question or two. Then, I am rather sad to say, my rumbling stomach which was some time ago promised tea and cake, forces me to make my excuses and leave. Not just my stomach, I should add. Feeling fairly faint, my head must shoulder some of the blame. I certainly have a lot to mull over. I should probably think about speaking to Detective Chief Inspector Thompson about all this, I bet he knows nothing of any of it.

Happily, Head Of Catering was able to generously oblige in the manner of cake and Head Porter and I are enjoying it over a well-earned cup of tea. Head Porter is less shocked about the witchcraft angle than I had imagined. But then, he has been Head Porter for so many years that he must be used to all kinds of unusual youthful behaviour. And probably quite a fair bit of unusual elderly behaviour, where The Fellowship are concerned. I share with him my curiosity regarding Hershel’s clandestine presence at Hawkins College. Head Porter puts it down to youthful exuberance.

“He’s a bright, curious chap,” Head Porter says through cakey mouthfuls. “I expect his interest was piqued. I quite admire his initiative, actually.”

“I agree,” I reply, dropping crumbs and jam all down my waistcoat. It doesn’t matter. It’s ruined from falling off the wall, anyway. “I think he might be quite helpful.”

Head Porter nods enthusiastically. It appears that he has something either urgent or exciting to impart to me as he is hurriedly attempting to chomp down a portion of Victoria sponge that is several sizes larger than his mouth. I am quite literally on the edge of my seat, when there is a knock at the door. It is Porter.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he says. He sees what little remains of the Victoria sponge and looks rather put out. We were going to offer him some, I promise.

“Help yourself,” I offer generously, gesturing with a sticky hand.

“Right. Thanks” Porter scoops up the last skinny slither of cake in his bear-like paw and sniffs it.

“Was there something you wanted?” asks Head Porter.

“Oh, right” replies Porter. “Yes. Ma’am – The Dean would like you to call him immediately.”