Standing here at the bottom of Old College gardens, at the scene of Ryan and Maurinio’s final embrace, I would like to say that I had summoned together the finest minds of The City to hear my revelations. Sad to say, those that were summoned are not quite the finest minds and the finest minds are people who do not respond well to summoning. Regardless of this, I believe I have gathered everyone who needs to be present.
Detective Chief Inspector Thompson is certainly a man not to be summoned. He and his fragrant side-kick, the lovely Detective Sergeant Kirby, are here thanks to the earnest request of Porter, who seems ready to fall down on one knee before DS Kirby at any moment. As ever, Head Porter is at my side (or I am his side, I am never quite sure which way round it is) and we are joined by a very puzzled Head Gardener. The Dean has been coaxed from his breakfast table, with much protesting and demands of recompense. Hershel, funnily enough, was already making his way towards this very spot when we encountered him in the cloisters.
The patience of the Chief Inspector would make a saint weep. The last time he was called to one of my Agatha Christie-style explanations, events took a rather embarrassing turn. I can see it in his eyes that his expectations of this occasion are reassuringly low.
“I believe I know how our unfortunate young people died,” I say nervously. There. It’s out there. I said it.
“Are you saying… this really was witchcraft?” says The Dean, eyes wide as saucepan lids. Hershel lets out an involuntary snort.
“That simply isn’t possible,” he mutters.
“But the incantation!” exclaims The Dean “I have it here! See!” He holds aloft the strange but neatly written verse, inscribed on ordinary lined paper. Hershel snatches at it and inspects it intensely.
“I don’t know that this is an incantation,” he says.
“Exactly!” I cut in, before The Dean can erupt in a flurry of contradiction. “I think Hershel could be right. What if it isn’t an incantation?”
“Well what is it, then?” asks Head Porter.
“Look,” I say. “We were all very keen to skip down the path of witchcraft, probably because this is Old College and that’s the sort of thing we do.”
“But we searched his rooms!” The Dean pleads, seemingly desperate to cling to the shreds of his pet theory. “If there were ever the rooms of an occult enthusiast, Maurinio’s rooms are they!”
“Maybe,” I reply, as kindly as I can. “But I think it more likely that his fascination was more with the heavy metal music scene. The two disciplines have remarkably similar appurtenances, it is no surprise that we were mistaken.”
“Deputy Head Porter, that doesn’t explain the incantation” huffs The Dean, folding his arms.
“They’re song lyrics!” Hershel exclaims. “They’re from a song. By The Wildhearts. It’s called ‘Bad Time To Be Having A Bad Time’. Not the most cheerful of ditties, I must say.”
“Wait!” Detective Chief Inspector Thompson halts the discussion and steps a little closer. “Our investigations have thrown up compelling evidence that the Hawkins girl was indeed of the mind to execute an occult ceremony at the time of her death. She had on her person items relating to such an endeavour, complete with written instructions for a… what was it, Sergeant Kirby?”
“A love spell, Sir” replies DS Kirby. Not something she and Porter had to resort to, evidently.
“Fine,” I reply, undeterred. “The Hawkins girl was there to cast a spell. Maurinio and Ryan were here to… well, to do what you do when a love spell has been successful, I suppose. But the point is – they all came to pretty much the same location, by and large, and they all lit a fire.”
“The fires are the connecting thing!” Hershel says, getting rather excited. “So.. it was the fires that killed them?”
“Not the fires,” I reply. “But the smoke.” I walk purposefully towards the remnants of Maurinio and Ryan’s fire, now barely visible in the rambling flora. Close by, is a rampant crop of attractive-looking weeds boasting little purple hooded flowers. So virulent is this plant that it appears in bunches all along the boundary wall and is present, I am sure, at the boundaries of Hawkins College. Head Gardener realises my interest and slaps his forehead.
“Bloody hell!” he exclaims, instantly embarrassed by his outburst. “I mean, goodness me! That’s Aconitum – Wolfsbane!”
“Wolfsbane?” DCI Thompson places his hands on his hips. “A plant containing the toxin aconitine, the effects of which slow the heart until both it and the respiratory system are paralysed.”
“I believe that both the Hawkins girl and our chaps added Wolfsbane to their fires, either by design or mistake, and were overcome by the poisonous fumes,” There! My deduction is revealed and it doesn’t even sound too unlikely. I take the briefest of moments to muster a little pride. “They could have picked it up by accident when building the fire, or, on being attracted to the unusual bloom, thought it might add a certain fragrance to proceedings. I suppose we will never know.”
“We will have to run an analysis of the debris, of course,” muses DCI Thompson, failing miserably to hide his surprise at my sensible suggestion. “But this is a line of enquiry we had not previously considered. There is a correlation with the post-mortem report, certainly.”
I suppose it would have been too much to expect an expression of gratitude or praise from our friends of the thin blue line, but Detective Chief Inspector Thompson definitely leaves us on better terms than when he arrived. That, in itself, is something. In truth, I had no idea that Wolfsbane was growing so readily at the bottom of the gardens. On knowing that all three died from multiple organ failure I began to suspect that a toxin of some sort might be involved. With the fires being the connecting factor, I began to ponder how they might act as a conduit for such a thing. And that, as they say, is that.
The Dean was most insistent that witchcraft had indirectly played a part in one death and therefore he was right, again. I didn’t see fit to argue with him, for two reasons. Firstly, there is little point in arguing with The Dean. Secondly, who is to say that he isn’t right? I imagine it rather depends on your point of view. Certainly from the point of view of the Hawkins girl, if she hadn’t been spell casting she would still be with us today.
Perspective is a funny thing, you know. For example, the often celebrated smell of freshly cut grass, a favourite up and down the land, is in fact the smell of fear from the rest of nature, terrified that it might be the next to be cut down. A delightful scent reminiscent of bright spring mornings and long summer nights? Or the palpable expectation of vegetative genocide? It all comes down to perspective.
It just goes to show that things are rarely what they seem to be, even when they actually are.
The world is merely a theater of misdirection.
And life itself?
It’s all just smoke and mirrors.