Another of the slightly odd stories of Private Detective and Surrealist Investigator Simian Simpering. This is the fourth chapter of the snappily titled book 'Dredging Silkworms and Ten Reversible Faces.' As dry as a month old corpse but much more fun to play with unless you are Jimmy Savile.
The Pride of Ryde
Mrs Kosticwit’s enormous rear end settled over Simian Simpering’s head like a heavenly vision. The detective appreciated a woman whose rump announced itself upon entering a room. This posterior positively sent out a clarion call to all lovers of fat-bottomed girls. Whoa whoa, won’t you take me home tonight. It was, thought Simpering, too good an opportunity to miss. Placing both hands firmly on each cheek, the surrealist investigator pushed with all his might. His efforts were not in vain. Feeling unaccustomed hands on her buttocks gave the dumpy dame all the motivation required to ascend the steps into the charabanc.
Turning a furious eye upon the ex-policeman, she began to wag her finger in protest, but before she had the opportunity to open her mouth, Simian Simpering had doffed his hat, a purple homburg, at her.
“The pleasure was all mine,” he affirmed, in all honesty.
The good lady’s eyes bulged, but she said nothing, preferring to waddle to her seat where her shrew-like husband awaited her. He of the small, piggy eyes, white pinched nostrils, mouth like a pink, puckered anus.
“That man fondled my bottom!” she whispered.
“Has he large hands?” inquired the stouthearted fellow, who promptly received a thump across his head that sent dandruff flying in a cloud of white particles.
As Simpering boarded the bus, he looked down the aisle at the other passengers. Some of the faces he knew, some he didn’t. He had been invited to take this trip by the Warden of the Isle of Wight. It had been an unexpected invitation. As soon as he had read the gilt-edged card, he had accepted it, informing Mrs Scrubber, his loyal housekeeper, of his intention to pack a suitcase.
“Going anywhere nice, sir?”
“I am taking the maiden voyage of the first Isle of Wight to Guernsey ferry crossing. There will be a number of other dignitaries sailing with me, including Rupert Snatch-Kiss, the billionaire businessman, Regus Nasaltwist the ex-member of parliament, Lady Dragvein and her son Douglas and one or two current pop stars.”
“Oh, I say, sir. Imagine you with all them well-to-do people. Going up in the world, eh?”
Indeed that was exactly how Simian felt. Finally, after years of slogging his guts out for the ungrateful brass of the Winchester CID, he was ascending to his rightful position in society. His fame had followed from the three cases he had, if he said so himself, ingeniously solved.
His move to the island had been the making of him. Now he was determined to enjoy all the fruits of his labour, especially any food featuring fish.
The ferry’s menu had sent his senses spinning. No less than five different fish dishes: prawns, sea bass, squid, herring and tuna. The very thought had made him salivate. Now, though, he concentrated on finding his seat - number 46.
Finding it, he discovered he had someone sitting next to him. It was a lady with the narrowest of waists but the largest of bosoms. All thoughts of fish faded fast at the sight of such magnificent flesh.
“Good day. I am Simian Simpering.”
“Hello. I am Isobel Onnabike. I am very pleased to meet you.”
Her accent could have melted steel. Her eyes fluttered like two moths declaring war on a flame. Her looks were dangerous, taking Simpering’s blood pressure to hazardous heights. Most of the sanguineous fluid had fled his head and limbs in a swift exodus to his groin region. His face turned ashen. He could hear the sound of waters running over cold stones. The voices of angels sang in a declaration of God’s lyrical love. Simian Simpering was smitten.
A little in front of them and to their right another couple sat. They were Delphinium and Circumfort Chevalet. Their business, huge on the island but also growing on the mainland, had risen to prominence selling refurbished and reconstructed farming implements as armchairs. It had become all the rage and was now making news not only in Albion but also on the continent. Delphinium was chalk white with eyebrows pencilled thick and heavy in mimicry of Audrey Hepburn, whilst her husband, all bulging eyes and waxed moustache, was the very likeness of Salvador Dali, though slightly fuller of figure and plumper of face.
The only concerns they had were for themselves. Not for each other, mind, but for their individual selves. Delphinium cared not one whit about Circumfort and him not an iota about her. She basked in the self-indulgent light of her own introspection, assured by the mirror’s reflection of her divine aspect and the surefire knowledge that it was her designs that had assured the company’s success. He wallowed in the muddy mire of his own secluded swamp, where he fondled his ego with unscrupulous disregard for all else, knowing full well that it was his industry, his mechanical ability, that made their company what it was.
Love had never been an option. Theirs was a partnership made in far higher circles, a more cerebral, if not celestial, alliance forged in the factory of monetary gain and influence. They were becoming rich beyond their wildest notions – purple with power and prissy with it. Never before had two such people floated so high upon their self-satisfied, indulgent bubble, a bubble that desperately needed someone to burst it, and soon before it engulfed all in its smothering constriction.
The Chevalets were a couple uneasy with being a couple, so concerned were they with their personal pursuits.
Directly in front of them, in seats numbers 23 and 24, were two brothers: Boldie and Barnaby Bimblelop. They were twins, identical twins, both of whom had an unfortunate skin complaint. Their faces were scabbed over with a violent outbreak of red protuberances: a series of swellings, a bulge of bumps like the crust of the moon. Across Boldie’s head was a thinning of hair combed over his pink pate. His effort to disguise the fact that his hairline was, like Napoleon’s forces at the battle of Borodino, in serious retreat, was futile and only highlighted the truth. Barnaby was less follicly challenged. His hair had begun the process of fading but had not gathered the same momentum, at least not yet. Time was on Boldie’s side.
The twins seldom spoke unless in company. When they were together with no one else about, words were redundant, for each knew instinctively what the other was thinking, what he was about to say. It was an uncanny ability.
This was obviously the case now, for Boldie passed his brother Barnaby a tissue before the latter had sneezed. Then, having blown his nose, Barnaby said thank you out loud, even though no one had said bless you. Brodie smiled.
To the left of the brothers, seated alone, was the one-time political high flyer Regus Nasaltwist. Since his fall from grace, having been kicked out of the Tory party, he had become successful as a self-help author. His books sold by the truckload. In the United States, he had become something of a celebrity and was often seen on chat shows. His last work, “How To Get What You Want By Bending the Rules,” was his biggest selling book. With two million sales worldwide and increasing, it had assured him wealth enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life.
Nasaltwist was a dark-haired, pale-complexioned man. His eyebrows sat at a vicious V above his thin, long nose, below which a mouth with far too many teeth, white and fang-like, puckered. His thinning hair was swept back from his forehead, giving him the appearance of Bela Lugosi.
On the seat next to him, was a small leather satchel which he held one hand against protectively, as though it were an infant. Occasionally he would turn around to look at his fellow passengers, even though they all were unknown to him. Seeing Simian Simpering looking back at him, Nasaltwist smiled. It was a terrifying expression that made the private investigator shiver and hastily cast his gaze elsewhere. It felt like being in deep water as a shark approached with open jaws.
To Nasaltwist’s left and one row in front was the young pop starlet Mincing Waters. She was only eighteen and as pretty as a spring morning. She had found fame during the television show “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” when Simon Squarehead spotted her and signed her to his recording label, Svengaliphone. Mincing was pale, with frothy, coffee-coloured hair and large eyes that exuded innocence, thereby making a lie of the phrase, ‘eyes are the windows to the soul.’ Mincing Waters’ soul was the sound of gate receipts rising sharply. Her blue eyes were mock sapphires, of which she had plenty.
After a series of clap along, dance about a bit hits, Mincing was now hoping to become an actress. She was unconcerned that she had no talent whatsoever, for she reasoned she had no talent for singing either, and that hadn’t stopped her. What she did have, and in abundance, was fame. Fame, according to her mentor, was a new talent.
She sat demurely in the allocated seat, reading a book. She seldom listened to pop as she detested its hackneyed sound. She noticed nothing or anyone else as she sat by herself, for in her world she was the only one worth noticing.
Seated in front of the pop starlet was Hilton Cussit, a medical man of some note whose general practise operated out of Ventnor. The business had given Cussit a decent standard of living that afforded him some simple luxuries in life. One of these was this very trip, the inaugural sailing from The Isle of Wight to the Channel Isles.
Cussit was a man of impeccable taste. He wore tailored suits and handmade shoes. He bought his clothing, along with his footwear, in London: Saville Row for his suits, Jermyn Street for his shirts and St. James Street for his boots and shoes. He was a man of rude health with a discerning eye for horseflesh. The bookies referred to him as Monkey Mickey, for he always laid down five hundred pounds each time he made a bet.
Hilton Cussit had eyes made of two differing colours. One was brown the other blue. It was an odd sight to see two eyes that both looked as though one had been borrowed. These strange eyes were looking now at his neighbour in the next seat, famed female scientist Valentine Hump.
Flame-haired with pale skin and emerald green eyes, she sat slouched with her head cupped in her hands. She appeared to be studying the water in the glass as it sat on the seat tray in front of her. It was sparkling water. The bubbles rose in a constant stream that broke and fizzed at the top. As each bubble popped she made a mental note.
Simpering knew of her. Her renown was global, for she had won the Mullins Award for Science Innovation. Her thesis had been on robotics. At that stage her theory was nothing more than her thoughts committed to paper; it had both alarmed and excited the world when, three years later, she announced she had manufactured the first android. Many had doubted her claim until she had presented Marvin to a global television audience. Audiences sat transfixed as Marvin had walked across the stage. It had been a night that people would forever more remember. The world’s press had gone into manic overdrive with a mix of positive and negative reports. That had been fifteen years ago, and since then there had been no new developments. Her fame had been made and her fortune secured, but the world of science wanted more.
To Simpering’s eye she was not attractive, but Hilton Cussit had a different point of view. He thought Valentine Hump was possibly the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, even with the prominent nose and the large mole on her upper lip with just the suspicion of a moustache growing above it. Cussit doubted that Aphrodite cut such a fine figure of womanhood as Valentine.
A sudden hiss of hydraulics was heard as the large door near the front of the vehicle opened, announcing the arrival of Lady Dragvein and her son. Douglas was unable to walk following a motorcar accident that had left him paralysed from the waist down. The accident had occurred when Douglas was in his early twenties. He was now thirty-nine. As the heir to his father’s fortune, he had not only inherited a vast sum, but also the title. It was something he was less than happy with, and he seldom used or referred to himself as “Lord.” He sat still as his mother wheeled him up the ramp and onto the bus.
The front section of the vehicle had been especially refurbished to allow adequate room for not only the wheelchair, but also a small bar. Lady Dragvein parked her son near the front window then settled herself down on the seat nearest him.
Simpering observed all this with a keen eye. He of course had two, each as sharp as the other. The passengers were now all gathered, ready to be driven onto the Pride of Ryde.
The ferry lay in the port upon becalmed waters. The mayor and local dignitaries were gathered at the jetty, where a bottle of champagne, decorated with a large blue ribbon, waited to be hurled against the ship’s hull. It was a curious ceremony, thought Simpering, and a wicked waste of good wine.
The charabanc rolled onto the ferry, taking its place at the front, as befitted the luminaries it carried. The first to disembark were the Dragveins, with Lady Prunella pushing the stoic Douglas. After that the passengers left in the reverse order to that which with they had boarded the vehicle.
As the small party ascended to the upper decks they were greeted by the master of the vessel, Captain Briny, who welcomed them all on the inaugural sailing of the P and O-line ferry, Pride of Ryde.
The captain was a ruddy-faced, barrel-chested man whose stomach engulfed his waist, overcharging his legs with a superfluity of ballast [? UNCLEAR]. He spoke to each member of the group, in turn, coming finally to Douglas Dragvein. “I knew your father, sir. He was a good man.”
“Thank you,” muttered the reluctant Lord.
“As you know, your father served in the Royal Navy, and I am proud to have sailed with him during the Korean War. You father knew a thing or two about ships, I can tell you.” The Captain winked as he said this in a conspiratorial manner, as though he and the young Lord had a shared secret.
“Thank you,” said Douglas Dragvein again.
“I was mortified when I heard about your father’s death, especially the way in which he met his end. Being run over by a threshing machine is no way for a salty old sea dog to end his days. It was a tragic end for a dignified man. It must have upset you very much.”
“Thank you,” repeated the laconic [“Thank you” is 2 syllables, not monosyllabic] aristocrat.
Captain Briny raised his eyebrows and coughed. He then shook his head once, smiled at Lady Dragvein, saluted the gathering and returned to doing what captains of ferries do best – drinking half a bottle of rum before sailing. Leaving the chief steward to give the passengers a guided tour of the ship, the captain returned to his cabin.
With the steward guiding them, the select group went onto the upper deck, where they all stood watching as Mayor Mustard spoke a few words, then threw with insufficient vigour the bottle of Dom Perignon against the hull, where it bounced once before being caught by Alderman, or in this case woman, Ursula Grunt. She returned the bottle to the inept hands of the mayor, who threw it again with increased muscle, whereupon it shattered to the great approval of the watching crowd.
A great roar went up as the ferry, with Captain Briny now on the bridge, started to move forward. The ship slid into the water like a duck lacking any of the elegance of a swan – all quacks and feathers flying. The crowd waved and cheered as though this were the Titanic setting sail or the Golden Hind as it made way to discover the New World, not just another ferry crossing the Solent on its way to the Channel Isles.
During the crossing, due to the occasion and time of day, the captain invited the very important people to dine with him. Unfortunately the chef had food poisoning, so the steward quickly threw together bowls of finger food for the distinguished guests to nibble on. Simpering declined to eat. He offered no explanation why, but the truth was there was an abysmal lack of fish to be seen. After the delightful promise offered by the menu, Simpering wasn’t so much disappointed as devastated.
The self-proclaimed surrealist investigator surveyed the other passengers standing round the dining room. Including Simpering, there were fourteen: fourteen faces, all distinctly different from each other.
The detective observed Lord Dragvein, whose eyes swivelled around the gathering, taking them all in. His mother was beside him, constantly on hand should he need her. A little to their left, the good doctor stood, attentive and ready to administer medicine if required. Beside the doctor Valentine Hump slunk, like ermine sipping sherry from a stout glass.
Isobel Onnabike was chatting with Regus Nasaltwist, who eyed the woman as though she were lunch. The couple stood close to each other, with Nasaltwist leaning over her like a vampire smelling blood.
The Kosticwits, the Chevalets and the brothers Bimblelop gathered in a gaggle, with heads nodding and jaws flapping as they gave vent to whatever it was they thought worth talking about, which, in truth, was very little.
Captain Briny had gone along with the chief steward to check on the chef to see how he was. This left Simpering alone with pop megastar Mincing Waters. It was a situation one of them felt less than comfortable with.
“I like your songs,” wheezed helium-voiced Simpering.
“Thank you,” smiled Mincing graciously.
“I also like your dance routines.”
“I’m so glad. They take forever to choreograph,” replied the pretty starlet.
“You must keep very fit?”
“Oh yes, I work out every day in the gym. I must spend four hours in there.”
“Getting very sweaty no doubt,” suggested the detective licking his lips.
“I do get awfully hot when working out,” she conceded, seeing a glimmer in Simpering’s eye that unnerved her slightly.
“The shower after must be most welcome?”
“Er . . . well – yes; yes it is. I wash myself down thoroughly, but love to stand just letting the water cascade over me.”
“Hmmmm,” replied Simpering, looking rather vacant, as though his mind was elsewhere.
“I’m just going to go and powder my nose. I’ll catch you later,” Mincing said, feeling a little uncomfortable and oddly naked.
Simpering nodded, smiling all the while, then moved over to where Isobel Onnabike was conversing with the disgraced ex-politician.
“Hello,” hissed Simpering, clenching and unclenching his fingers so that they cracked and popped. The pair looked up distractedly. Regus exhaled deeply. Isobel ran her index finger around the curve of her chin.
“Mister Simpering,” she sighed, “have you met Regus Nasaltwist?”
Simpering made a sound like a depressed key held long on a broken organ. He then inclined his head toward the notorious retired Tory minister.
“Mister Nasaltwist, your reputation precedes you.”
The shark eyes glittered as the vampire features formed a stoic mask before the hungry mouth revealed a set of sharp white teeth. “And yours before you.”
Hands were extended, then shaken – limp as lettuce. A tension grew taught between the detective and disgraced statesman, so Isobel interceded. “Regus and I were discussing the vessel we are on. What do you think of her, Mister Simpering?”
Simpering smiled, then ran a forefinger around his collared throat. His voice slipped out from between pinched lips like the hiss of steam.
“It is a fine vessel, robust and hopefully watertight.”
“Like a duck’s arse?” submitted Nasaltwist a little caustically.
“You don’t like her, do you?” enquired the wealthy widow.
“I can think of better ways to spend money other than on boats,” remarked Nasaltwist, as he arched an eyebrow.
“I would have thought as an entrepreneur you would applaud the idea of having a ship carry tourists from one island to another?” squeaked Simpering.
“I only back dead certs, not dead ducks,” was the retort, fired back at velocity, from the pallid-faced politico.
Isobel tried to inject some levity. “You seem to have a thing about ‘ducks.’”
“Only when they are cooked,” sneered Nasaltwist, still looking at Simian with blazing eyes, “what about you, old chap, what do you like?”
“And beautiful women,” said Simpering, looking longingly at Isobel Onnabike, who blushed seductively.
“And on that note, I must away. I have a deadline that my publisher has set. I have another 2,000 words to write. Please excuse me.”
.Onnabike and Simpering watched as he departed. Onnabike turned to the toad- like effigy standing beside her.
“You don’t like him, do you?” she purred.
“Not in the way I like to fish or attractive females,” susurrated Simpering in his most beguiling way, waggling his eyebrows mischievously.
“And I like nothing better than a man with taste. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet him. Now I must take my leave of you as I feel a migraine coming on.”
With that Madam Onnabike went the way of Mincing Waters and Regus Nasaltwist and left the room. As she left, Captain Briny returned and walked directly over to the detective. “How’s it going, Mister Simpering? It seems as though some people have drifted away?”
“Perhaps we should join the others,” suggested Simpering, pointing a thin, stalk- like finger in the direction of the Kosticwits, the Chevalets and Boldie and Barnaby Bimblelop. “They seem set on staying.”
Captain Briny nodded his head. Together the two men walked, or in Simpering’s case waddled, over to the group.
Mrs Kosticwit eyed the surrealist expert with suspicion. She had not forgotten the way he had, in her opinion, manhandled her rear end. Her husband, diminutive and balding, shrunk beside her with a fixed smile on his face. If he had been dead it would have been a rictus grin, but since he was very much alive it had to be a form of palsy. He was swaying slightly as though a breeze were blowing against him. In his hand, a large glass filled with the froth of beer was half drunk. Stood around his feet were three other large glasses emptied of content. It struck the Captain that if Mr Kosticwit were a bowl he would now be overflowing.
“I hope you will keep your hands to yourself this time?” the stout woman threw out, in Simpering’s direction.
“My hands are like satellites that orbit the magnificence of your blessed sphere,” he shrilled.
Nonplussed, the good lady blinked once or twice before emitting a snort. “Then keep your astronomical objects in their own galaxy, if you don’t mind,” retorted the femme concrète, her eyebrows soldered together to form a distinct line across the slab of her forehead. “Ahhhh, but the twin moons of Venus are magnets to virile Mars,” emitted the high-pitched Simpering. “Your telescope isn’t large enough to view my Venus,” riposted the large lady indignantly, before turning to her husband. “Mister K, it is time we tidied our room.” The couple shuffled off with the Mister holding on tightly to his Missus. Delphinium and Circumfort looked at each other. The sudden departure of the Kosticwits had surprised them. Ignoring the famed investigator, they turned to the brothers Bimblelop, who were both gazing at their shoes. “Look over there, won’t you. Why are they being so standoffish?” The people they were speaking of were Lady Dragvein and her son Douglas, Doctor Hilton Cussit, and Valentine Hump, who were standing closely together not speaking. It was as if they were statues or mannequins idly watching the world, or in this case, the occupants of the room conversing. Boldie looked uncomfortable. He scratched his ear with vigour before asking if anyone wanted a top-up. No one did, so Boldie made a mumbled excuse and left. Barnaby, anticipating his brother’s next move, went before him. “Well, I never,” declared Delphinium, to which her husband concurred, as he slipped his hand into his wife’s. “I think we might as well retire to our room as well, my dear. There is less life in here than in a corpse.” The couple glided past the stock still enclave, who remained motionless but smiled stiff farewells. “What do you make of it all?” asked captain Briny. Simpering sniffed, then tugged at his collar. He lifted his chins, pursed his lips, then pouted. “Something here is not what it seems,” he said, cracking his knuckles. The Chief Steward returned with a harrowed expression. “The chef has swallowed all the pain killers prescribed, sir. He is sleeping like the dead. Will he be all right?” The Captain sucked on his lower lip before answering. “I only gave him six to take, so he should be okay. Just keep him an eye on him. How is the evening meal coming on?”
“Spuds are peeled, carrots sliced, onions diced, sir.”
“Good, good; well done. I’ll be along shortly. Will you please excuse me, Mister Simpering?”
The private eye waved his hand dismissively, then crossed the floor to where the clique stood observing him. As he approached, Lady Dragvein took hold of her son’s wheelchair and pushed him toward the door. Doctor Cussit intercepted the former policeman.
“Douglas was feeling in need of a rest, so his mother has taken him back to his cabin. They’ll be out again for dinner,” said Doctor Cussit, and he blew his nose forcefully on a cotton handkerchief. “How are you finding the trip? I should think we’d be there before dinner time at this rate.”
Simpering considered the question asked him, then studied his fingernails before responding. “The trip is proving most interesting. The meal will be ready after we have docked, but I think that was the plan,” ostinatoed the neckless gumshoe.
Valentine Hump sashayed next to Cussit, then threaded her arm through his. “Hilton, it is high time we investigated the cabin.”
Her tone was seductive. Simpering felt his blood throb through his veins, making his heart beat faster. The doctor gazed apologetically at Simpering, then allowed the sensual scientist to lead him from the room. He mouthed a silent “Sorry” to the detective. Simpering watched enviously as they departed. He looked around the room, then realised he was alone, totally and completely on his own.
When the Pride of Ryde docked, slipping into the quay like a priest sliding into a nunnery, silent with suppressed, sanctimonious sin, the gaggle of V.I.P’s had gathered on the foredeck to observe proceedings.
It had been a rather dull business watching the crew as they manhandled unbelievably thick ropes, dashing about the deck as industrious as ants.
Regus Nasaltwist stood imperious, looking down his high-dive, razor sharp nose with his own sense of self-importance palpable to those around him, all of whom stood some distance back. Amongst them were Mr and Mrs Kosticwit, Mincing Waters, Isobel Onnabike, the brothers Bimblelop, Captain Briny, Delphinium and Circumfort Chevalet, and the Chief Steward. Slightly to the left were Lord and Lady Dragvein, accompanied by Doctor Cussit and Valentine Hump.
Simpering watched them all through a pair of binoculars.
The ship docked. An insincere cheer went up; then the Captain announced, a little too shrilly, thought Simpering, that luncheon was served. He invited the V.I.P’s to follow him through to the dining hall, where the celebratory feast awaited them.
The seating arrangements had been made, allowing two tables for the fourteen guests but also the Captain: fifteen place settings in toto.
The Captain, Simpering, Boldie and Barnaby Bulger, Isobel Onnabike, Regus Nasaltwist and Mincing Waters were at table one, whilst Mr and Mrs Kosticwit, Delphinium and Circumfort Chevalet, Valentine Hump, Doctor Cussit, Lady Dragvein and her son Douglas on table two.
Menus were pressed into eager hands, but none as keen as those of the surrealist investigator, who scanned the page with gluttonous eyes. Upon seeing the starter of his dreams Simpering licked his lips, his hands trembling ever so slightly; then he squeaked with delight: Soupe de Poisson, rouille, gruyere et croutons. Looking further down the list, he spotted a dish that made his eyes light up as drool gathered in the corner of his mouth: Wild sea bass, Marinda tomatoes, wilted greens and aioli. Gathering his wits, which had slipped down into his socks, he gave the waiter his order. He then clapped his hands together like a sea lion.
Captain Briny gave him a curious look. “Everything alright?”
“Oh, yes. Everything is heavenly.”
The waiter, a man with a large forehead, a small, almost insignificant chin, incredibly big eyes and clipped arms, moved away to take orders from the other diners. He buzzed among the tables, fluttering his shapely eyelashes as he hovered by each guest’s shoulder.
Simpering observed them, making mental notes.
One by one the guests placed their orders.
The waiter hummed and nodded, then wrote down the particulars before buzzing away to inform the chef.
Outside the light grew dim, as day faded into dusk and night descended like a crow.
Simpering observed them still.
Nasaltwist and Isobel Onnabike sat next to each other. He was leaning toward her and she toward him. They looked like two pigeons on a fence. Beside the disgraced ex-politician was Mincing Waters, who sipped carbonated mineral water from a tall glass. She frequently looked toward the Captain, who sat on her other side. Next to Isobel Onnabike were the brothers Bimblelop. Boldie, then Barnaby, then Simpering.
On the other table, the Kosticwits and the Chevalets squawked at each other like a flock of hungry birds. Each couple had engaged the other and appeared to be deeply engrossed in whatever subject it was they were speaking about. Noticeable in both their silence and reluctance to join in were Lord and Lady Dragvein, whose brooding solemnity was matched by that of Doctor Cussit and his companion, Valentine Hump.
After a short period, a little too long, complained Mrs Kosticwit to the returning waiter, wine was served, followed swiftly after by the first course.
Simpering tucked into his with uncommon zeal. The others too, apart from Lord Dragvein, licked their lips and raised their knives and forks or, in some cases, spoons, before diving into savour what looked a splendid feast.
Everything went very quiet. The only sound to be heard was the clink of cutlery against china plate and the occasional “hmmm” and “Ohh” of heartfelt satisfaction emanating from Simpering.
The first course devoured, with not a single plate having even a crumb of food upon it, the waiters and waitresses appeared like clockwork to clear the plates away, making room for the main course.
When it arrived Simpering clapped his hands together with delight. The other guests made no remark on this, but merely looked on with mild puzzlement.
The Captain raised his knife and fork, then buried them in the food on his plate. This act signalled the guests to follow suit, which they all, apart from his Lordship, did.
It was a meal unmatched in the history of nautical cuisine. All delighted in the food they had selected, which had been so beautifully prepared. None was happier than Simpering, who savoured each mouthful as though it might be the last he ever tasted. When he was done he tapped the sides of his mouth with his napkin, then folded the cloth in two before sliding it beneath his plate.
“Delicious,” he announced to the waitress when she cleared away.
The dessert menu was then placed in the Captain’s hand (he being the head of the table). A similar one was thrust into the hand of Lord Douglas, who didn’t seem much pleased by the courtesy, for his mother took it from him and ordered on his behalf before passing the list a la carte to her neighbour.
When the menu finally arrived at Simpering, he gazed at it as excitedly as a teenage boy reading Playboy beneath the bed sheets.
Mirabelle plum and frangipane tarte, vanilla ice cream or crème brulée or Valrhona chocolate delice, pistachio, honeycomb and ice cream or baba au rhum, crème chantilly or a selection of sorbets. Upon seeing the final dish (assiette de fromages, walnut and raisin loaf) he sniffed, wheezed a cough, then passed the sheet back to the waiter. “Crème brulée, please.”
The waiter nodded his dipteran head, then swiftly departed to the other table.
Dishes were chosen, then served. The collective V.I.P’s slid spoons into ice cream, prodded forks into pastry or nibbled on walnuts. When they had finished eating they raised their napkins in seemingly orchestrated, synchronised formation and rubbed their stomachs in satisfaction. The waiter returned and coffees and teas were ordered, then delivered. Conversations took on the tone of a Schöenberg symphony. Voices then rose and fell as spoons rattled inside cups, chairs were noisily scraped back, coughs emitted and laughter tinkled in counterpoint.
Without warning, the lights, which had come on to defeat the approach of night, went off, leaving the room in total darkness. Shouts of irritation went up. The captain called out for people not to panic; then, as abruptly as they had gone off, the lights came back on. As they did, and as the gathered guests looked around, a violent scream erupted from the mouth of Valentine Hump.
Beside her, covered in blood with a large knife thrust in his throat, was Lord Douglas Dragvein. The heir to the Dragvein line slumped to one side in his wheelchair. And while the young lord had previously seemed uncommunicative, having a large blade shoved into his neck had not improved his oratory skills. He was as dead as the proverbial dodo.
The captain, not mildly shocked, stood up and with a booming voice took control. “Do not touch the body. Please keep well away from the murder scene.”
It was the last bit of the sentence that made the guests all stop and think. In fact not so much the sentence but that one word – “murder.”
As though they were a group of flies that had been approaching a steaming hot turd when captured on a film which was then played in reverse, they nervously backed away.
“I would ask that no one leave this room,” instructed the captain, “Please stay where you are. My men are on their way.”
Turning to Doctor Cussit, Captain Briny asked if he would mind looking at the corpse and confirming that Lord Dragvein was indeed dead.
The Doctor said he would do so. “The blade has sliced through his larynx, then penetrated his windpipe. Lord Douglas is dead.”
Lady Dragvein, the deceased’s mother, who had been highly composed until the doctor’s announcement, started weeping. Beside her Valentine Hump began a peculiar wailing that reminded Simpering of Jews gathered by the wall in Jerusalem.
“Thank you, doctor. Would all of those of you who were seated at the same table as the deceased please remain precisely where you are. I would also ask the guests at my table to remain exactly as they were when the lights came back on. This is a very grave matter. Someone in this room is guilty of murder, and as I am captain of this vessel I have supreme power. On this ship I am the law. Until the police can be called I shall be detaining all of you. In the meantime I shall be conducting a rigorous interrogation of all suspects, and as you all fall into that category, Mister Simpering to one side, I shall expect your full cooperation.”
A murmur of dissent fluttered. Regus Nasaltwist spoke out.
“Why is he not a suspect? Why does he get special treatment?”
The captain remained standing. He thrust his hands behind his back and cleared his throat.
“Mister Simpering is a retired police inspector, one of some renown. He is also a surrealist investigator whose success in apprehending villains is legendary. As captain of this ship, I have authority to engage anyone I think suited to assist me in my duties. Mister Simpering will undoubtedly prove an invaluable resource.”
A degree of muttering commenced; then the captain spoke again.
“We shall begin by asking those who shared their table with the deceased what they saw or, in this case, what they heard. We shall commence, maintaining due courtesy, with a lady. Mrs Kosticwit, please enlighten us.”
The lady in question seemed a little flummoxed. She bent her unwieldy frame to pick up her handbag with which she started to fiddle.
“Well, I was chatting with Mrs Chevalet when the lights went out. I heard her scream just as I did; then we grabbed each other’s hand until the lights came back on.”
At this point, the Captain turned to Simpering, who inclined his head by a small degree.
“And neither of you moved during this time?” asked Briny.
“Not a muscle,” replied the matronly madam.
“And during this period, what of your husband?”
“What of him?”
“What was he doing?”
“He was sitting next to me.”
“How can you be so sure?”
A delay in response may have indicated Mrs Kosticwit’s giving full, unreserved thought to the question or, on the other hand, it may have been that she hadn’t the faintest idea. “I suppose I can’t be,” she mumbled.
Captain Briny nodded his head then turned to face Mister Kosticwit. The captain shifted from one foot to the other before addressing the red-faced man.“When the lights went out what were you doing sir?”
The poor fellow appeared to be suffering severe doubts. “I was next to Doctor Cussit. We were talking about bits of this and that.”
“I can’t remember now; it was just idle chit-chat.”
The captain looked to the doctor, who was sitting now with his head bent forward and his hands clenched between his knees.
“Doctor, are you able to confirm this?” asked the senior sailor.
The doctor shook his head in the negative. “No, I am afraid I cannot.”
The captain glanced at Simpering, who stared at the fishy shape he had just drawn on the tablecloth.
“I see,” said Briny, turning on his heel to point his nose in the direction of Circumfort Chevalet, who sat stoically statue still. “And you sir. What were you doing when the lights went out? I see that you have wrapped a napkin around your right hand. What happened?
Chevalet took in a sharp breath, then exhaled heavily. “I had been talking with my friend across the table. When conversation ran dry I listened to my wife conversing with Mrs Kosticwit.”
Captain Briny frowned. “How did you damage your hand?”
“I inadvertently cut it when the lights went out.”
“The sudden lack of light startled me. I accidently ran my hand across the blade.”
“I see,” said Briny, and once again looked at Simian Simpering, who was now sharpening a pencil.
Besides, Mister Chevalet was Valentine Hump. Captain Briny focused on her fine female form.
“Miss Hump, were you aware of this gentleman’s accident?”
Valentine Hump ran her fingers through her blazing mane of hair. Her green eyes flashed like gemstones caught in the glint of the sun. “No, I am afraid I wasn’t. However, I did see the said gentleman pick up a long knife prior to the lights going out. Does that help?”
Simpering looked from Circumfort Chevalet, whose face was flushed crimson, then back to the gorgeous damsel Hump. He made a hissing noise like steam escaping from a pipe.
Captain Briny continued with his interrogation. “Mister Nasaltwist, you were sitting nearest the second table. You would have heard something, I am sure?”
The fallen dark angel of politics smiled a lethal smile. It was the sort of expression a lion wears having just eaten a gazelle.
“When the lights went out the lovely lady seated beside me, in a moment of sheer terror, grabbed hold of me. My attention was, unfortunately, diverted.”
“She grabbed your hand for comfort?”
“For comfort, perhaps, but it wasn’t my hand she grabbed.”
“I see,” said the old sea dog, who patently didn’t. “How about you, Miss Onabike? Did you hear anything?”
“Yes, yes I did. I heard Regus gasp when I gripped him.”
Briny sighed heavily as though exasperated, which he evidently was. Simpering cracked his knuckles.
“And you Miss Waters, did you manage to catch any odd sounds, anything that might give us a clue as to what occurred?”
“I’m afraid not. I was rather shocked at the time; so shocked, in fact, that I couldn’t move.”
“The lights going out immobilised you?” queried Briny.
“No, someone had shoved their hand up my skirt.”
Captain Briny’s face was scarlet with rage. Someone, so he felt, was not playing the game, or perhaps they were: playing games with him, that is. Finally, and at the end of his tether, he motioned toward the brothers Bimblelop. “What about you two? Surely you must have spotted something odd or heard something weird going on?”
Before either brother could answer, Simian Simpering pushed back his chair, then rose up to his full height. His feet splayed out at right angles, he waddled away from the tables and into the neutral area between them.
“Ahem!” he uttered, in the timbre of a helium huffer. “I think, Captain, that I have the solution to this impenetrable mystery. Would you like to hear it?”
The Captain nodded he would. Nasaltwist groaned. Isobel Onnabike threw her hands up in exasperation.
“Is this really necessary?“ enquired Doctor Cussit, “I mean, the police will arrive shortly and no doubt will want me to carry out an autopsy. Can we not do without this histrionic display?”
Simpering hissed violently. “One moment, if you please, Doctor – you too, Mister Nasaltwist; you see, not everything is how it seems, particularly in this extraordinary case. I ask you this, Miss Onnabike, and you also, Brothers Bimblelop: what was to prevent anyone at this table from memorising the deceased’s place, calculating the distance between them and him and then taking up a knife, crossing the floor and plunging it into his throat? I agree it is highly unlikely, but not impossible. It is, however, highly improbable, but for a reason, that shall shortly be obvious.
“You see, when murder is committed, it usually requires motive. This is not always the case, as occasionally we encounter some murderous psychopath who kills at random, but this case is, if a little surreal, not like that. The one thing that distinguishes this case from the run-of-the-mill is that the deceased was dead long before the knife was plunged into his windpipe.”
At this point Simpering stopped. Not because he wanted to allow some theatrical pause to enter proceedings, but because he had the desire to sneeze. This act gave Mrs. Kosticwit the opportunity to throw some scorn onto the head of the man who had the temerity to fondle her bottom. “Oh for God’s sake, man! You are behaving like some boring Belgium sleuth. You are talking utter bilge. How could he have been dead before the knife entered his neck? We all saw and heard him conversing with the captain on deck!”
Simpering ran a finger around the restrictive collar of his shirt. “Ahem. Forgive me, madam, but you are wrong. What you and everyone saw was an illusion of a healthy young Lord. The knife is nothing more than a conjurer’s trick, one to take your mind away from what really happened, allowing a smoke screen to be cast to fog the senses and to shift the blame onto some poor innocent.”
Circumfort Chevalet, never the most patient of men, blustered forth like a summer wind – all hot air and dry as a bone. “I have heard enough of this tommy rot. We all know of your socalled reputation, and quite frankly I am not impressed. If you have something to say then say it. Stop dilly-dallying about the bush!”
Simpering stuck out his lower lip like a petulant bullfrog, which he remarkably resembled. “Very well then, let me cut to the chase. Three people in this room stood to gain from the sudden death of Lord Dragvein. Not you, Regus Nasaltwist, for although you are a disreputable politician, one capable of doing dastardly deeds, this murder is not your style.
“Nor you, Isobel Onnabike, for although you desire money and power, you could never face being caught; your vanity would not allow you to serve a prison sentence.
“Mincing Waters has no motive either. Her career as a pop singer has brought her great wealth, and now she seeks pastures new. Killing someone for no reason at all is an insufficient motive.
“Neither Boldie nor his twin has anything to gain from Lord Dragvein’s death. Besides, they have not the character. They have only two loves in their lives, and those are each other.
“Mr. and Mrs. Chevalet had the opportunity, that is certain, as did Mr. and Mrs. Kosticwit. The question remains, though; what motivated them? Why would either of these two married couples even consider killing someone, especially when both have wealth enough of their own?
“Then there is the captain, for whom I can vouchsafe, as he was sitting beside me when the lights went. I heard him gasp, then him mutter under his breath.
“No, none of the above killed Lord Dragvein, and as I said, the young noble was dead long before he came on board this ship.
“Lady Dragvein, Doctor Cussit and Valentine Hump are the trio of miscreants who planned this affair. Lady Dragvein did not get on with her dead husband when he was alive, and when he disinherited her in favour of their son, toward whom she bore little love, she was furious beyond belief. She had no means and insufficient courage to kill her own child, so she employed Doctor Cussit. He administered the lethal injection that killed the young heir, and he had the knowledge and wherewithal to apply his doctoring ability to his taxidermist skills. When you couple that with a scientist who is renowned for her genius at robotics, it soon becomes as clear as crystal that among the three of them they prepared a stuffed, roboticized dummy of Lord Dragvein. This dummy had elementary vocals that, although poor, passed for someone who is a little curt. All body movements were kept to a minimum, with just enough to convince any casual observer that the body in the wheelchair was alive.
“The knife was plunged into the corpse’s neck by Doctor Cussit. Valentine Hump smeared sauce upon the blade to make it look like blood. They then intended to implicate either Mr. Kosticwit or Mr. Chevalet as the murderers. This deception would have been furthered by the doctor when he performed the autopsy, as he would have confirmed Douglas had been killed by a knife.
“I imagine the deal that was brokered would have seen the vast fortune the young Douglas stood to inherit shared evenly among Lady Dragvein, Valentine Hump and Doctor Hilton Cussit.”
There was a knocking at the dining hall door , to which Captain Briny answered, “Come in.”
Two police constables, along with two plainclothes officers, entered the room.
Simpering concluded his monologue. “And here we have the police who I will be most happy to help by relaying all I have just said. The plot was ingenious, but regrettably for those who planned it, they failed to allow for one contingency . . . me. They had not allowed for my being here.”.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.