Smoke & Mirrors

Take Me Home With You. For A Small Fee, Of Course.

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Theater Of Misdirection

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.

Deep breath.

“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.

Another mystery sort of solved. Feeling smug.

The world is merely a theater of misdirection.

And life itself?

It’s all just smoke and mirrors.


Of All The Things I’ve Lost, It’s My Mind I Miss The Most

I am annoyed. Standing at my kitchen counter peeling potatoes, I am irritated to notice how many of them are a sort of long shape, rather than more rounded. I know that, by their very nature, potatoes tend be particularly irregular in shape. But there is a higher-than-acceptable percentage of long-type potatoes occurring here. I tell you, if I want a potato I want it to be round-type.

Dwelling somewhat longer than is sensible on the subject of potatoes, I am reminded of The Bursar’s mysterious monologue on the virtues of the egg people and the potato people. I did not understand it then and it is no clearer now. I am feeling a little light-headed. Maybe I need something to eat.

Even more annoying is this business with Maurinio, Ryan and the Hawkins girl. We have The Dean running around babbling about incantations and witchcraft whilst The Bursar ruminates the peculiar social skills (I use the term loosely) of the academic classes. I can’t help thinking that we are overlooking something very obvious. Chances are that this is exactly the case as I am surrounded by people for whom the blindingly obvious is as tactile as fog. The longer I remain in their company, the further into the fog I wander. You know what I need? A holiday.

I think Hershel may have had a point, you know. There were camp fires at both scenes. Such an unusual coincidence must suggest a nexus of some kind and I think we would be foolish to assume that witchcraft is the one and only exposition.

Think, think, think.

Although never a scintillating intellect, I was at one time quite good at thinking, at least. I rather fear that my sensibilities have been swallowed whole by Old College and its deceptively relentless regime, leaving me with little more than a cheerful mush between my ears. Perhaps I need a hobby? (The first person to suggest forming a band will be soundly spanked until their bottom turns purple).

Let’s see… what is a good thing to help with pondering? Tea could do it, I suppose, but even the miraculous effects of a good Assam seem to be less potent these days. There is always wine, of course. Maybe not a good idea. A mild distraction could do it. The moment you take your mind off a thing, the answer is sure to leap forward. I decide to put away some work shirts I had been diligently ironing before I started on the potatoes. Blasted potatoes!

I am sorry to say that this only proves to make matters even worse. Of the five shirts I have laundered, three of them have only one arm ironed. One arm! How does one forget that one has two arms? I shake my head in dismay. First thing tomorrow I am asking Head Porter for some leave. A change of scenery is evidently required.

Now in the mood for only the most impractical of pursuits, I spy an elderly packet of dry-looking cigars on the occasional table. I consider lighting one up to see if any kind of clarity lies within the intoxicating smoke…

…Smoke. There is none of that without fire.

Like a match on flint, a blinding spark of realisation explodes before my eyes.

By Jove, I think I’ve got it!