For you, my dear readers, a little snippet from the upcoming installment of PorterGirl – Sinister Dexter, where we welcome back a favourite from The Vanishing Lord, Detective Chief Inspector Thompson…
It never does to keep The Dean waiting, but I do take a moment to wash the cream and jam from my hands and face before leaving the Lodge. If he thinks we’ve been having cake without him, there could be trouble. The condition of my waistcoat is perturbing, but there is little I can do about that right now. I imagine I shall have to order a new one. Still. I doubt The Dean will notice such a thing.
Stepping out from the Porters’ Lodge, a chill wind nips at my ears. The only downside of the bowler hat is that it does little to protect the ears from the elements. I am given to thinking that perhaps a deerstalker might be better this time of year and would certainly be appropriate for investigating all the mysterious things that happen around here. Mind you, I doubt that the miserly purse strings of The Bursar would stretch to additional hats, considering his cost-cutting measures where essentials such as tea are concerned. And that’s another thing. Although I am grateful for the embezzled brew purloined by Hershel, the police really do drink substantially second-rate tea compared to that of the fine selection provided by Head of Catering. It’s given me wind. I can’t imagine it can be the cake. Cake can’t be blamed for anything.
The smallest of shudders tickles my spine, but it isn’t the cold. A familiar creeping oiliness puts my teeth on edge and I look around me. There he is, swaggering towards me with his rakish pearly grin and the icy blue eyes that never quite look you in the face.
“Professor Palmer, what an unexpected pleasure,” I say through gritted teeth. The Dean seems sure he has the means for revenge upon the vile creature so I had best maintain a pretence for now.
“Yes, Deputy Head Porter, I’m sure it must be! What are you doing out here all alone?”
“I’m on my way to see The Dean,” I reply, forcing a smile.
“Oh, The Dean, really?” Professor Palmer positions himself so close to me that I have to tip my head in order to avoid talking to his chest. “While you’re up there I don’t suppose you could measure up for curtains, could you? I’m thinking of going for a Regency theme, actually. You won’t recognise the place, Deputy Head Porter, it will be beautiful – very inviting and comfortable for discerning ladies such as yourself.”
“I like The Dean’s rooms quite as they are,” I reply, quickly tiring of diplomacy. “They serve very well for the business of being The Dean. They are not generally used for entertaining ladies, discerning or otherwise.”
“They will be when I get in there,” snorts Professor Palmer. “Besides, you seem to spend quite a bit of your time up there. I do hope this is something that will continue during my tenure? Keeping on the good side of The Dean of College can be very beneficial, as I’m sure you already know.”
“The Dean doesn’t really have a good side,” I point out. “I find it best to ignore his sides and simply maintain a safe distance.”
“You’re not wrong there, the man is stark staring bonkers! All this nonsense about Russian spies. You would think he had more important things to worry about.”
“What do you know about Russian spies?” I ask, narrowing an eye meaningfully.
“Enough to surmise that they are unlikely to be paying Old College much attention,” Professor Palmer smirks. “It’s no wonder The Master wants to find a replacement. The man’s a liability.”
“A liability maybe, but at least he has a proper degree.”
I wish I had been brave enough to say this but I cannot lay claim to such a riposte. It seems we have been joined by the stealth-like Detective Chief Inspector Thompson and he appears in no mood for Professor Palmer.
“Do you mind!” shrieks Professor Palmer. “I am a member of The Fellowship and you are merely a policeman. How rude!”
“I don’t mind at all,” replies the Chief Inspector, dry as a bone. “Being a policeman has all sorts of interesting benefits – being rude to people is one of them. I’ll thank you to run along, now, I want to speak to Deputy Head Porter.”
“You can quite clearly see that I am already speaking to Deputy Head Porter,” huffs the Professor. “Not that such social norms usually stop you, as I recall.”
“The young lady in The Albatross? Police business, Palmer. As is this, because, as you so cleverly pointed out, I am a policeman.”
“A likely story!” Professor Palmer squares up to the detective, who looks rather pleased about the matter. “Tell me, Chief Inspector, is it because you can’t find any female company of your own that you insist upon stealing mine?”
“It certainly says something about your company that I find them so very easy to steal,” DCI Thompson gives the Professor possibly the smuggest look I have ever seen in my life. And I have seen some pretty smug looks, let me tell you. “Come on Deputy Head Porter, walk with me.”
DCI Thompson strides past, his sturdy shoulder clipping the Professor’s as he does so. I trot along obediently behind, doing my best to keep up and giggling girlishly at the prospect of being ‘stolen’. But the Chief Inspector has little time for giggling. We head over the Bridge and into the cloisters of Old Court and find ourselves alone. I wait politely as DCI Thompson silently looks around the empty courtyard, taking in the stoic grandeur. The light of the day is beginning to fade but the frosted flagstones still find themselves able to twinkle in the dusk. Although the air is cold, there is a warmth of sorts in the courtyard that is difficult to explain. Old College doesn’t hold with the laws of nature, so perhaps it just isn’t in the mood for winter this evening.
“I can see why you stay here, Deputy Head Porter,” says the detective. “The place certainly has its charms.”
“It does rather get to you after a while,” I reply. “Also I really like the hat.”
“Is that why you left the police? Because they did away with proper hats?”
DCI Thompson is referring to a recent amendment to the uniform adopted by several forces, where the traditional hats of officers have been replaced by baseball caps. An absolute travesty, in my opinion, but something that occurred after my departure.
“Something like that, Sir.”
“I looked into your background, Deputy Head Porter. By all accounts your career seemed to be going rather well. What made you up sticks to The City and join Old College?”
Well. This is uncomfortable.
“It’s a long story, Sir.”
“Just what is your story, Deputy Head Porter?” the Chief Inspector asks. “There’s something about you that doesn’t quite… fit.”
My story? Now there’s a question. Really, I could write a book. But here and now are neither the time nor the place. I’m expected by The Dean and discussing my personal life with a senior detective isn’t high on my list of priorities. I decide to distract the Chief Inspector with information regarding the investigation.
“I’ve been speaking to some of the students, Sir,” I say. “It seems that The Dean was right – there is an occult connection between the deceased. How relevant that is, I couldn’t say – although I’m sure you know more about it than I do.”
“I would hope that I do, Deputy Head Porter, I am the lead officer in the case after all!” the DCI laughs as he removes his pocket notebook from his jacket. “Nonetheless, thank you, this is certainly useful.”
“How are things going, in the investigation?” I ask, watching as DCI Thompson makes notes in his little book.
“Oh, I think I’ve gained the upper hand,” he replies. “I always do. Sooner or later.”
I can believe it.
The detective snaps shut the notebook and returns it to the jacket, turning to me with a concentrated frown. I’m sure he intends to ask me something awkward, but is thrown off course by the sudden eruption of the chorus of Sweet Home Alabama from his trouser pocket. I suspect that this is his personal – rather than work – phone and he scrabbles to answer it. I take the opportunity to escape to the relative safety of The Dean’s rooms while I can, making vague pointing gestures to indicate my departure. The Chief Inspector displays utter disinterest, throwing a cursory wave over his shoulder as I scuttle off along the cloister.