Evening all, and apologies. I know it is rather late in the week to be posting content, but the outernet is, at times, a stressful place, and I have had many matters to attend to. This chapter is rather short, which makes up for the extreme length of the last one. The first scene was carefully engineered to provide the protagonist with 99% of the clues necessary to solve the murder, which means that you can, too, dear reader. Answers on a postcard.
Episode Two: The Smoking Room
DeLongue and I had become rather fascinated by the displays of clockwork miniatures in the hallway, and so we entered the smoking room last of everyone. Grimsby had taken the main chair by a large table. It occurred to me that perhaps he had done so on purpose, to spite the Captain, as it was clearly the best chair in the room. His cigar, evidently coming from the open box by the door, was already smoking by the time we entered, nestled in a cigarette holder and ashtray that was actually built into the table.
Turnbull was sitting in an armchair in the corner, facing Miss Peckerel, who was not smoking. The Coopers shared a chaise longue, while O’Leary, DeLongue and I took our places in various armchairs organised around a Persian rug. Thus, we made a kind of ring, conducive to conversation, while Grimsby remained outside, like a rogue planet in orbit.
Like Miss Peckerel, the Reverend was not smoking, but Turnbull and I shared a love of pipe tobacco, it seemed, as well as clockwork. He offered me some from his pouch and I graciously accepted, knowing with a secret pride that my own tobacco was far superior. Mr Owen Cooper, I noticed, was a cigar smoker, while his wife smoked cigarettes. He, too, had taken a cigar from the open box, identical to Grimsby’s, and was puffing away quite contentedly. DeLongue, on the other hand, had opened a perfectly majestic-looking silver cigarette case, inside of which were several self-rolled cigarettes – an odd choice for a man of his taste, I thought. He caught me looking at it and snapped the case shut.
“Russia,” he said, but did not elaborate.
Had we only prodded him a little, I am sure that we would have heard another of DeLongue’s tales, and I remember even now exactly how anxious I was to hear it. Everyone leaned forward in their chairs in anticipation, and I puffed eagerly on my pipe. Yes, I am quite certain that DeLongue would have soon indulged us, had Grimsby not begun to choke. The sound was strangled and reedy, an unnatural noise for a man to make. Miss Peckerel’s face blanched. She was facing him, but I was not. I scrambled out of my seat in time to see him clutch at his throat before his eyes rolled back into his skull. His desperate hands clawed at his throat twice, thrice more, then he fell forward across the table and was still. The sudden silence was almost worse than Grimsby’s last piping gasps.
Miss Peckerel, half-risen as Grimsby had started to choke, fainted back into her armchair, whereas Mrs Cooper fainted into the arms of her husband. The room sat variously stunned, unmoving, and unconscious. O’Leary was the first of us to regain his wits. He approached the man and, laying two fingers upon his neck, pronounced him dead.
And just like that, the life of a man was snuffed out, and nobody knew what to do.
Brandy was fetched for the recovering women, and then more brandy for the men. I took a glass myself, noticing my hands shaking slightly as I did so. I had seen death before, and violent death at that, as had all who had served with me, but nothing like what had just happened in this room. I drank deeply of the fiery liquor, and slowly the warmth drove out the tremors in my body. I offered a glass to DeLongue, but he politely declined the brandy and instead approached the corpse. He lay a steady hand upon O’Leary’s back, who first looked up, then straightened up, then nodded and retreated to the Persian rug to accept some brandy. Nobody spoke.
The women whimpered quietly, but nobody could think of anything to say that seemed appropriate. For my part, there were so many thoughts jockeying for position that my mind resembled the static between the channels of a radio. Turnbull opened and closed his mouth a few times, but no words came. The silence stretched on until it became unbearable.
“He’s been murdered,” said DeLongue. As silence-breakers go, I had to congratulate him.
The room was too stunned to question him further, so DeLongue obliged of his own accord. He extended a finger and placed it into a handkerchief from his pocket. Then, carefully avoiding the ash, he wiped it once around the top of the ash tray built so expertly into the table. He approached us, holding the handkerchief delicately before him.
“Cyanide,” he announced. “This cigar has been poisoned.”
“Impossible!” said Turnbull. “This room I keep locked at all times.”
“It’s true,” added Miss Peckerel weakly. “I… I wanted to open the door and I couldn’t. James opened it with the key from his pocket.”
Turnbull extracted the key and hung it from his index finger.
“So you see,” he said, “nobody was in this room before us.”
“Excuse me,”said Cooper, “but I smoked one of those cigars. Am I in any danger?”
“You’re perfectly safe, Mr Cooper,” replied DeLongue. “Had your cigar been poisoned, you would, I’m sorry to say, already be dead. And in any case, this cyanide is crystallised. That means that it had to have been placed into the cigar holder, and that not less than five minutes ago.”
I did not like the direction of DeLongue’s logic, but I thought I could see the destination, and I decided to take a short cut.
“Therefore it was one of us.”
“I am afraid so, my friend.”
Mrs Cooper looked as though she might faint again, but Miss Peckerel this time remained in control, the glint of steel showing in her eyes. It appeared to me as if her anger had routed her grief. In those eyes I saw no mercy, I saw no forgiveness. In that steely green gaze I saw a lightning spear of condemnation, determined to penetrate the veil of humanity and reveal the heart of the murderer in our midst.