muder

Never A Cross Word – Part Four

A Poirot parody for Captain Hastings fans everywhere

 

“The first of the Marble Murder victims is a name and face we all know well,” began Chief Inspector Japp, consulting a dishevelled collection of notes written in a spidery hand. “Not that there was much left of his face, to be honest.”

This was in fact true. American actor and socialite Randy Beavis had been discovered in various pieces at his London address some three weeks ago. At the time he was playing Algernon in the Aldwych theatre’s production of The Importance Of Being Earnest, but he was better known on both sides of the Atlantic for his rambunctious antics in the public eye, and yet even more salacious ones in private. He was a man with many enemies; the theatrical community regarded him as an abomination, his wild behaviours bringing shame upon their number – a treachery to the thespian tribe. Yet the public adored him for his exotic good looks, his fine moustache and for being just as entertaining on the stage as he was off of it. Although reviled by his peers, he was favoured by theatre management for his incomparable ability to draw the crowds and so found himself abundantly availed of work of his choosing. Quite aside from Beavis’ contemporaries, there was also many an angry husband who might bear bloody inclinations towards him, not to mention the fury of dozens of discarded damsels.

“Monsieur Beavis was certainly a man of some character,” said Poirot.

“He’s a little too fond of baring his chest in public for my liking,” muttered Hastings. “If you ask me, a fellow like that is asking for trouble.”

“Perhaps Monsieur Catchpool has an observation he would like to share?” Poirot turned with imploring eyes and an encouraging smile towards the armchair. As silence mounted, Catchpool became uncomfortably aware that he was the focus of interest.

“I say!” exclaimed Hastings “The rascal is reading a newspaper! Good lord!”

“I’m not!” retorted Catchpool. “Really, I’m not. It’s just that… four down…”

“He’s doing the ruddy crossword,” Hastings was furious. “I say, I have a mind to bop him on the nose.”

“Chief Inspector, I think it better that you proceed with haste to our next victim,” Poirot said quickly, motioning for Hastings to help himself to another sherry.

“Actually, Hastings, I think this one might be of some interest to you,” began Japp, shuffling his notes. “A Margot Askwith, the leading lady in the Novello’s Oh, Crikey – a play with which I believe you are familiar?”

“Oh, yes!” replied Hastings. “A wonderful show. What could be better than a good British farce? But I am afraid I haven’t seen this particular production as I’ve been out of the country, as you know.”

“Tell me Hastings, what is this ‘farce’ you speak of?” asked Poirot, polishing his spectacles as he spoke. “If it is something that entices you to seek out some culture then I wish to know all about it.”

“A farce is a sort of comical play,” explained Hastings. “Lots of slapstick, trousers falling down, people saying ‘I say!’ and ‘Oh, crikey!’ all the time, you know.”

Poirot sighed. It was clearly not the soul-enriching experience that he had come to expect from a theatre. But the name of Margot Askwith was somewhat familiar to him. She had been a celebrated star of the musical hall style in her youth and was, by all accounts, a great beauty. Much of that glamour had been retained into her later years, until the point she was found on the floor of her dressing room.

“You notice gentlemen, do you not, the connections between our first two victims?” Poirot believed the question to be a straightforward one, but when no response was forthcoming, he gladly took it upon himself to explain. “Both are actors, currently starring in lead roles. And the theatres in which they were until so recently performing? They are both on the same street in West London. But this is where our third victim is indeed a mystere – please, Chief Inspector, for you to continue.”

“Well, our third chap is a different prospect entirely,” agreed Japp. “Maurice Kelly – he’s an actor, there is that, but he hadn’t worked properly in months. His last role of note was as the third brother in a touring production of The Fishmonger’s Daughter. They were last seen being booed off stage by an angry mob in St Albans.”

“I can’t say I’ve ever heard of that one,” said Hastings, visibly searching his mind for reference.

“No, nobody has,” Japp concurred. “And no one seems to really know much about him. At least, if they do they aren’t letting on to us.”

Mais non!” exclaimed Poirot. “Ce n’est pas vrai! Catchpool – you know of Monsieur Kelly, do you not?”

Catchpool looked up sharply from his seat, once again in the position of trying to find his place in the conversation.

“I say, I SAY!” Captain Hastings fumed, cheeks flushing at his rising anger. “The wretch has got his nose back in that newspaper. I told you I should bop him. You utter philistine!”

“What have I told you about those blasted crosswords?” boomed Japp, his moustache wild with contempt.

“You should be careful how you speak to me, Chief Inspector…” mumbled Catchpool, bowing his head.

“Don’t you talk back to him, you hear?” raged Hastings. “You’re nothing but a good-for-nothing ingrate!”

Hastings bounded in great strides towards Catchpool, ripping the newspaper from his grasp and tearing it to pieces with the same ferocity deployed by the Marble Murderer, no doubt.

“You’re lucky I don’t jam the ruddy thing down your throat!”

“My dear Captain Hastings, please!” protested Poirot, rising at once to his feet. “It appears to Poirot that we should adjourn our endeavours until the morning. Catchpool, you will meet with me in Chief Inspector Japp’s office at nine o’clock precisely tomorrow morning.”

“I’m coming too, I can’t leave you with this fool at your right hand, Poirot,” said Hastings, eyeing the shredded newspaper and knowing that his host would be irritated by the mess.

Non, Captain Hastings,” Poirot replied. “The detection of the criminal requires both the calmness of the mind and the most precise of the temperaments. At this moment you possess neither one!”

Hasting’s anger was bested by a creeping sense of chagrin and he cast his gaze towards the toes of his shoes. With much remorse, he made a polite but bilious egress.

Keeping Up Appearances

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing” – Abraham Lincoln

 

Involuntarily, my fingertips grip the arms of Head Porter’s chair just that little bit more tightly. The Bursar is smiling through the veil of his unnaturally jet hair and his every gesture exudes affable indifference. Not his eyes, though. Especially not the one partly hidden by his sweeping fringe. They exude something else entirely, although what it is I couldn’t say. Thin lips creep back across a row of gleaming white teeth as the smile is expanded.

“Ah! Good evening, Deputy Head Porter,” he says. “How nice to see you again. I was hoping to catch a word with your superior.”

“He is… unavailable,” I reply, remembering to keep in mind that this gentleman is ultimately responsible for overseeing the Porters’ Lodge.

“What a shame. When might he become available, do you think?”

“I imagine not until tomorrow morning, Sir. Is there anything I can help with?”

“Perhaps you can” and The Bursar takes the seat usually occupied by my good self, on the opposite side of Head Porter’s desk. I shuffle myself into a more attentive poise and adopt my famed ‘helpful’ expression. “The thing is, Deputy Head Porter, I am feeling a little perturbed by the plethora of corpses that seem to find their way onto College grounds.” You and me both, old chap.

“It is a damned inconvenience, Sir” I say, meaning every word. The Bursar stares as politely as it is possible to do so; I can feel his eyes searching mine for something lurking behind my words. He will find very little, I am sure.

“You know, Deputy Head Porter, I do you the disservice of relating an untruth.”

“How so, Sir?”

“I am not at all perturbed by corpses. Corpses do not perturb me in the slightest. But The Master – now, he is less than enamoured…” which is a bit rich for a man who solves sudoku puzzles in crypts “…It looks so bad for the College, don’t you know. College reputation is such a fragile thing, as is any reputation, wouldn’t you say?”

“I cannot help but agree, Sir.” I am not so sure that I do agree, however. In my experience, reputations are rather hard to shift.

“There is some concern that perhaps the old ways might have found new hands to work them, Deputy Head Porter?”

Silence like ice falls across the room. I wrestle the chill in my spine into submission and focus the cold in my bones into searing points behind my eyes. I have a terrible inkling as to what he might be referring. The very thing we spent the last academic year battling (and defeating, I might add) has returned to the forefront of College consciousness. But that is impossible. The Vicious Circle are now all dead. Except for one…

“None remain” I answer, simply.

“Are you quite sure about that, Deputy Head Porter?” The Bursar leans closer, almost threatening, cajoling. I have had quite enough of this.

“Now listen here,” I start “I had all this with Professor K. I would rather you chaps from The Fellowship just said what you mean and I can guarantee you that you will receive some straight-talking in return.”

The Bursar drifts back into his seat, yet retains a certain degree of malice.

“The dear Professor K. Yes. You were quite the great chums, were you not?” He does not wait for me to answer. “You must miss him dreadfully. He was an active member of… the Circle, was he not? Which is why he had to die, as I understand it. The rules of that strange organisation seem fairly clear. Those who expose The Circle have no need for pension plans, it seems. Which is one less thing to worry about. No matter. It is no bad thing as that organisation is a great threat to the academic reputation of Old College. The Master is quite clear that any stragglers of The Vicious Circle are to be dealt with quite absolutely.”

“And, indeed, they were, Sir” I reply. “None remain.”

“And yet you are here, quite unscathed, despite keeping close quarters with Professor K?”

Hardly unscathed. I narrowly escaped being burned alive, poisoned and being thrown off the flag tower. But I can see what he is getting at. The Circle was supposedly vanquished and yet here are two more fresh cadavers in College grounds. But this must be something else entirely, mustn’t it? It must be, I know that. The Bursar seems to think differently.

“Your predecessor tried, and failed, to kill me on no fewer than three separate occasions,” I say through clenched teeth. “He went to great lengths to provide an inventive selection of accidental deaths for me. And yet, as you say, here I am. How can I be one of The Circle? I have outlasted them all.”

“The Master is most definite on this matter,” says The Bursar, darkly. “The reputation of College must be maintained. If these latest deaths are not as they seem, there will certainly be a most finite resolution for whosoever is responsible.”

The Bursar sweeps to his feet and out of Head Porter’s office in one fluid and dreadful movement, the door closing firmly behind him. I let out a sigh of frustration. Not only has yet another impossible Fellow been appointed by Old College, this one seems to think I am somehow involved in cheerfully indiscriminate murder. I shake my head. This job doesn’t get any easier, certainly.

I need a drink. Time to make my way to The Albatross to meet with Head Porter.

Things Of Significance

Head Of Catering appears to be a man on the edge. On the edge of what, one cannot be entirely sure, but he is certainly teetering atop a precipice of some description. The Catering offices are often host to scenes of, shall we say, high octane activity and enthusiastic discussions. The academic world runs on its stomach and the Catering staff are often at the sharp end of an ever more demanding Fellowship.

Head Of Catering is partially concealed by a colourful array of paperwork stacked up on his desk. I notice a small bead of sweat tracing a haphazard path from his right temple, the progress of which is only mildly hampered by a throbbing purple vein twitching erratically. At present, both his desk and mobile telephones are ringing, almost drowning out the near-incessant ‘ping!’ that heralds the arrival of a new email. Head Of Catering spots me lurking by his office door and waves me in.

“Hallo, Deputy Head Porter!” his greeting is surprisingly jaunty.

“Morning,” I reply “Busy?”

“I’m a bit pushed, yes. What can I do for you?”

I am thinking that maybe I should come back later, when things have calmed down a bit. Then again, there is no telling when that might be.

“I just wanted a quick word about a thing or two,” I say. “But I can come back, if you’re busy.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine, sit down” Head Of Catering indicates the chair opposite his and silences his telephones with a few swift jabs of buttons and switches. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, first and foremost we are clean out of English Breakfast tea in The Lodge” I start with the most pressing matter first. Head Of Catering chuckles.

“Oh! Well, that’s obviously a disaster, Deputy Head Porter, I’ll get that put right immediately.”

“Glad to hear it,” I reply, grinning from ear to ear “It’s a bloody disgrace, I tell you.”

Head Of Catering pulls a face that suggests he feels suitably chastised, before moving on to the other, less important, matter.

 “So, I hear you’ve been lumbered with organising the party of the century, then?”

“Quite so. I’ve no idea why. It’s all very odd. Still,” I take a breath and settle into my chair “Chances are I’ll get to go as a guest, so at least I will be able to enjoy whatever delicious treats Chef has prepared for the occasion.”

“Blimey, lucky old you, eh?” Head Of Catering looks surprised. “You must be on the right side of somebody important.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I reply.

I am keen to take up as little of my colleague’s valuable time as possible, so get straight to the point and request a copy of the proposed menu and any recommendations Head Of Catering may have regarding entertainment and decor. He is cheerfully obliging, but I cannot help but get the feeling he is a little confused as to why this particular task has fallen to me. I proffer a clumsy apology regarding this fact, but he laughs and dismisses my plea. As we approach the end of the academic year, there are an inordinate amount of feasts and events to keep the poor chap on his toes. Not to mention the highly anticipated May Ball, followed shortly afterwards by the dizzying climax of College life – Degree Day.

As I return to The Lodge, clasping reams of helpful information and suggestions in my sweaty mitts, I am struck (as I often am) by a thought. As we approach what is undoubtedly the most exciting time in the academic calendar, I am heading towards a milestone of my own. My first complete academic year as Deputy Head Porter at Old College. This is a thing of significance. My heart swells a little as I muse upon this. There is even the prickling of a tear or two and the suggestion of a lump in my throat.

I swallow back any ideas of blubbing as I enter The Lodge, but obviously not quite as effectively as I had hoped. Porter regards me with mild panic.

“Are you alright, ma’am?” he asks “You look like you’re about to cry.” Bugger.

“I am not about to cry,” I reply, cursing my crackling voice for betraying my underlying emotions. “It’s hay fever.” Porter remains unconvinced. We are joined by a flustered-looking Head Porter. Of course, he is heading off to his ‘lunch meeting.’

“I’ll be as quick as I can,” he mutters, his mind on other things.

“Take your time,” I assure him.

“Deputy Head Porter, you look like you’re about to burst into tears!” Oh for goodness’ sake.

“It’s hay fever” I reply, bluntly. “Go on, get to your meeting.”

Head Porter scuttles out of The Lodge and into the lively City streets beyond. Porter is chatting away happily at front desk to a couple of Bedders and I settle down at my desk to go through the paperwork Head Of Catering kindly provided. After a few minutes, I realise that nothing I am reading is actually registering in my head, so I push the papers to one side. Rather self-indulgently (and surreptitiously, I might add), I find myself poring over the very first entries of my Secret Diary. How naive and twee those early scribblings seem to me now. Two murders, a secret society and nine months later, Old College is almost unrecognisable from the fairytale world depicted in those first writings.

Recalling those initial thoughts and feelings on what was then such a strange new world is bitter sweet. In those early days – those early, ignorant days – my joy and appreciation of the history and magic of Old College was untainted and voracious. How quickly the rose tinted spectacles fell from my eyes, only for my more usual temperament of suspicion and cynicism to return to my everyday thinking. I sigh to myself. Has life and experience really made me this distrustful and acerbic?

Maybe.

But then I wouldn’t mind betting the casual assassinations have something to do with it as well.