return of the clockwork toy

Another late-in-the-week entry.  There are no excuses, only laziness and distraction, but I hope you’ll agree that this chapter is certainly worth the wait.  Will you change your mind again?  Or did you know it all along?  Well of course, you’re a clever little sausage.  You knew it all along, didn’t you?


“This is impossible!” Turnbull roared. Miss Peckerel had burst into tears and The Reverend was silent. The Coopers were busy blustering and flapping in equal parts, starting many sentences but finishing none. My friend DeLongue observed the scene only, his eyes narrowed into extreme focus. Clearly, here was a man who missed nothing.

Suddenly Miss Peckerel turned to me and buried her face in my lapels. Through my jacket, I could feel the warmth of her face and the dampness of her tears, and I tentatively folded one arm around her, feeling this the proper reaction. Evidently this was the last straw for Turnbull, who stalked toward me with clenched fists.

“You swine!” he thundered. With Miss Peckerel in front of me, I could not hope to defend myself properly, but in her grief she had seemed to take root. Her tears soaked into my shirt, bitter tears which rolled from her cheeks and fed the roots that held her until she became quite immovable. The Reverend O’Leary came to my rescue.

“Calm yourself, James!” he said in a voice surprisingly stern, moving between myself and the Captain. At the sight of The Reverend, the fight went out of the stout Captain and he sagged before us, despondent. I had never before noticed how old he was, how deep the lines on his face. He seemed in that moment not the courageous Captain I had come to know, but an old man, utterly beaten. For a while, the only sounds were Captain Turnbull’s laboured breathing and the muffled sobbing of Miss Peckerel from within my jacket.

“I know how the key came to be under your bed, Captain Turnbull, and you did not put it there.”

I found myself wondering how DeLongue was always able to utter sentences such that the prevailing silence was not merely broken, but completely shattered. For a moment, those assembled were too stunned to react. Miss Peckerel left the safety of my lapels, though I noted that one hand remained on my coat-tail, in case circumstances forced her to once again take her damp refuge.

“I’m sorry I had to put you through this, Captain, but it was necessary to draw the real murderer out.”

“Whatever do you mean, DeLongue?” I asked, astounded.

“The chandelier was positioned perfectly to drip onto one particular brass holder. How was the killer to know that Mr Grimsby would sit in precisely that place?”

“He couldn’t!” gasped Mrs Cooper.

“On the contrary, Mrs Cooper,” replied my friend. “The killer could be fairly certain that the intended victim would seat himself in that chair…because the intended victim was Captain Turnbull!”

We all stared at him.

“The chair in which Mr Grimsby sat was your usual place, is that not right, Captain?”

“Why yes, but how did you know?”

“Until we saw your room, I could not be sure, but I suspected it from the start. The furniture that you choose to keep by you in your room, in style perfectly matched to the chair in the smoking room, confirmed my suspicions. Who would sit in the chair of their host? Therein, the killer made a mistake. For Mr Grimsby, unfortunately for himself, was also here, and for that rascal, nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to inconvenience the illustrious Captain James Turnbull, which he gladly did.

“However, my first clue was the faint line on the ceiling.”

“Which ceiling?” asked Turnbull.

“There is a faint line on the ceiling of your smoking room, Captain. The person that re-hung your chandelier also moved it, and covered their tracks with quick-drying paint that was not quite the same shade of white as the rest of your ceiling. Tell me, Captain, who was it that did this work for you?”

“It was my usual man, Irons.”

“Are you absolutely sure of that, Captain?”

“It was either Irons or his partner.”

“Irons has a partner?” asked Miss Peckerel. “I thought Irons worked alone. He always said he preferred it that way.”

Turnbull was beginning to turn red again. “When I telephoned Irons, he said that he was busy, but that either he or his partner would come to re-hang the chandelier, which had come slightly loose at one edge.”

“Could we call this man Irons, do you think, Captain?”

“What the devil do you mean, Mr DeLongue? It’s past midnight!”

“If you would please indulge me, Captain. I don’t believe Mr Irons will be much put out.”

“Call his bluff, James!” urged Mr Cooper.

Turnbull stalked over to the telephone by his bed and pulled a small address book from his jacket pocket. “I certainly don’t know why I am allowing myself to be bullied in my own home, but you say you can clear my name, Mr DeLongue.”

The dial clicked and Turnbull glanced from the book in his hand to his phone. Shutting the book with a snap, he held the receiver to his ear. He fumbled one-handed with his address book, attempting to replace it within his jacket, which had clearly decided not to co-operate. Presently, though, his hand fell to his side. The expression of indignation dropped from his face as he slowly turned the receiver to face us.

“There’s no signal,” he said. “Nothing. It’s as if the number doesn’t exist.” He replaced the receiver and carefully held his jacket open to accept the address book.

“But what has happened to this man, Irons?” I asked, bewildered. “A phone number can’t disappear.”

“Oh but it can, my friend. If the person were to request the number be removed from the exchange, it would cease to exist.”

“Mr Irons wouldn’t do that, Mr DeLongue,” said Miss Peckerel. “He relies on his telephone for business.”

“I’m sure he does, Miss Peckerel, but the number your guardian has just dialled is not the number of Mr Irons.”

Turnbull scrabbled in his pocket and produced once again the black book. He flipped through the pages and stabbed one of them with his outstretched finger. Then, he lifted the receiver and began stabbing the dial. After he had wrenched the dial round a half-dozen times he held the receiver out to us. We strained our ears to hear the sound of ringing, but nothing happened.

“You see?” he announced triumphantly, “I dialled that exact number, and there is no-one there.”

“May I?” asked DeLongue. The black book was placed upon his upturned palm. He turned to the relevant page and nodded. He turned the book so that we could see the number written in black pen. “This was rather expertly done,” he said, “but every deception leaves its mark. Can you see that this ‘eight’ has been altered?”

I had to admit, although not out loud, that I could not. However, Mrs Cooper evidently had very keen eyesight. I once again imagined her immaculate house; with the eyes of a hawk and a pair of rubber gloves I could see her obliterating all traces of dirt and dust with a wrathful fury.

“I see it!” she cried. “If you look at the very top of the ‘eight’ you can see that it used to be a ‘three’.”

“I see it, too!” Miss Peckerel added.

I peered a little closer, and then I saw it. A tiny slip had ruined an otherwise perfect work. I added my voice to the others, and Mr Cooper soon submitted that he, too could see the alteration.

“My final clue,” said DeLongue, ignoring the interlude entirely and continuing his explanation, “was what Mrs Cooper removed from underneath your bed. You were a Captain in the RAF, were you not?”

“Indeed I was.”

“Did you have a gift for strategy, Captain Turnbull?”

“Of course! They don’t allow any old fool to be a Captain in the RAF.”

“Precisely. Only a great fool would hide such a damning piece of evidence under his own bed. Captain, I am confident that you are not our murderer. You were the intended victim, and your would-be killer is a person who is on such familiar terms with you that they know the person you call to work in your house. They know of the book in which the number of that person is written, and they can enter your house without suspicion in order to alter that number. They are also foolish enough to believe that others are as foolish as them.”

“My word, DeLongue, do you know who the killer is?”

“I am about to prove it to you. Mr Cooper, please could you give your key to Mr Falconer?”

“Absolutely not! Are you accusing me, now? What is the meaning of this? This is an outrage!”

Mrs Cooper was trembling, and I felt terrible for her, however it seemed as if DeLongue was accusing the pair of murder, and I thought that if that indeed was his intention then I should show him my support, as he had supported me before. I drew myself up to my full height and held out my hand.

“The key, please, Mr Cooper.”


I was rather at a loss. If it came to blows, the portly Mr Cooper would surely be no match for my trained fists, but it was precisely that vulnerability that would prevent me from striking him. That, and the presence of his wife and the fair Miss Peckerel, not to mention the fact that in civilised society, a man should not have to start laying about himself every time a request is met with refusal.

Once again, the good Reverend acted the peacemaker. He crossed to where Mr Cooper stood and placed one hand on his shoulder, looking into his eyes. Cooper looked around the room for support, but found none. Turnbull’s face was dark; it was clear his suspicions had been awakened. Miss Peckerel, believing herself to have finally found the killer of her beloved, stared piercing daggers at him. Cooper looked as though he might try to make a bolt for the door, and I prepared myself to intercept him. The Reverend’s hand tightened, firmly but without violence.

“Owen. No-one has accused you. Mr Falconer needs the key if Mr DeLongue is to show us who the killer was. You want the killer found, do you not?” The unfortunate Mr Cooper was caught in a cruel trap of unassailable logic. Knowing that to act otherwise would only incriminate him further, Mr Cooper had no choice but to place the key to his room into my hand.

“I will need some witnesses,” said DeLongue. “Please, could you and your wife stay in this room with myself and the Captain? Thank you. And Mr Falconer, could you please go downstairs to the room of Mr and Mrs Cooper? I would like Miss Peckerel and The Reverend O’Leary to go with you, if that is possible. Thank you.”

Obediently, we all followed DeLongue’s instructions. Turnbull appeared to have forgotten his animosity towards my friend in his anxiety to apprehend the real killer. I could not think of anything to say as the three of us trooped downstairs to the Coopers’ room, directly below. A vision of the future began to form in my mind, but I hoped that this vision was false. I turned the handle and we entered the room.

This room was more comfortably furnished, alluding to a host who wished his main guest bedroom to be as cosy as possible. Having said that, Mrs Cooper’s eagle eye had seen to it that not one piece of luggage or item of clothing was out of place, neither was a single speck of dust to be found. In short, it was spotless.

“Can you hear me?” DeLongue’s muffled voice came through the floorboards.

“Yes,” I shouted.

“I’m going to knock on the floor. Do you think you can find the place where I’m knocking?”

“I’ll do my best!”

There followed a tedious scene which I do not deem necessary to recount in full. In summary, DeLongue knocked patiently from above, while I attempted to follow my ears to the source in the ceiling above my head. After one or two minutes, Miss Peckerel and O’Leary came to my aid, and eventually we tracked it down to a spot above a clear space of floor between the bed and the door.

“I’ve got it!” I called.

“Can you knock on the ceiling?” came DeLongue’s voice.

I cast around for something which could support my weight, and found a wooden chair by the desk which looked sturdy enough to stand on. Wobbling slightly, I climbed up and knocked on the ceiling.

“Yes, that’s it!” I heard DeLongue say.

I looked at my knuckles, which were covered with a curious white powder, but I didn’t have time to inspect further; DeLongue’s voice was coming through the ceiling again, demanding my attention. From on top of my chair, he sounded very close.

“Mr Falconer, I need you to push up very sharply on the ceiling.”

“How sharply?”

“Push as hard as you can, Mr Falconer.”

In the short time I had known him, I had learnt not to question the methods of Mr DeLongue. I pushed up against the ceiling as hard as I could, and to my surprise a neat section popped out and up, showering me with dust and white powder.

“Just as I thought,” said DeLongue. I could hear him quite clearly now. When I looked up, I saw his head in the gap where the ceiling used to be. “I think you all ought to come back up here,” he said. “It is now our duty to arrest Mr and Mrs Cooper, and Captain Turnbull and I may need reinforcements.

the clockwork toy strikes back

Do you still think it was who you thought it was?


Episode Four: Suspects Galore

We had left the smoking room again and, keeping together, made our way to the lounge, where several cooling cups of coffee waited for us. DeLongue had somehow completely taken charge, although, considering his natural charm and strong personality, I supposed that wasn’t too surprising.

“I suggest a hunt,” he was saying. “The murderer is not confident of him- or herself physically, the intricate poisoning method proves that. Two strong men should be enough to overpower them, whoever they are.”

My heart leapt as he turned his head and indicated me. It was childish, I know, but for a man like him to deem me so necessary pleased me greatly.

“I shall need you, Mr Falconer. I hope you remember how to spar, if we should meet this villain.”

“It’s like riding a bike.” I replied.

We left the room, and I followed DeLongue through the hall, past the clockworks which we had admired before, and towards the stairs. On the way, we walked past several closed doors, though DeLongue did not try any of them.

“Shouldn’t we go room to room?” I asked.

“No, my friend. We are looking for a rug.” He began walking up the stairs.

“A rug?”

“A rug. Not a murderer but a rug. Did you see the faint line on the ceiling? That chandelier was not re-hung, it was moved nine inches to the left. Someone had been planning this murder as far back as the seventh of October. Would such a person as that simply hide in a room and wait to be caught? Ah, here is the rug.”

“So, why are we looking for a rug?”

“That is not our goal, merely another point on the graph. And if I have as good a grip on the situation as I think, the rug will lie rather too close to a cupboard or some such thing.”

To my mounting astonishment, that was exactly what we found. The rug had seemingly been pulled across the hallway so that it lay at an angle, and was wrinkled at the foot of a cupboard.

“Open the cupboard and tell me what you see, Mr Falconer.”

I obliged him. The cupboard was a long, low piece of furniture with drawers on one side and a door in the other. It was made of a dark and expensive-looking wood, and locked with a key that was still protruding from the door. I turned it and pulled. Lying in the darkness inside was a small painted soldier. Without thinking, I pulled it out and showed it to my companion, dislodging in my haste a small rubber pipe, which flopped back into the gloom.

“It’s a clockwork,” I remarked.

It seemed I had piqued DeLongue’s interest. He held out his hand eagerly and I placed the toy into it.

“Have you ever seen the like, Mr Falconer?”

“Many like it, but none of the like, if I may be so vague.”

“Not at all, my friend. I, too, am certain that this one is quite unique, though that fact would be visible only to you, to me, and, I am quite sure, our Captain Turnbull.”

“There was a pipe, Mr DeLongue.”

“Oh, yes, naturally there was a pipe. How else would the poison be delivered under the rug and through the floor to the chandelier? And please, call me simply DeLongue. After you have said my name one hundred times this simplification will have saved you well over a minute and a half.”

“In that case, you had better call me Falconer.”

“Forgive my hypocrisy, my friend, but to you, the sound of those first two syllables is as much a part of your name as the last three, and I would be quite the ruffian were I to do away with them for simplicity’s sake.”

“DeLongue, I have just realised that you believe this clockwork to be a poison delivery system.”

“Quite so, Mr Falconer. And if you would be so kind as to help me with this rug, we will see – I am quite sure – a hole in the floorboards, through which this pipe feeds, and which is directly above the chandelier downstairs.”

Together, our fingers sinking deeply into the pile, we cleared the rug to the side, and saw that the pipe which I had so carelessly unplugged did indeed lead down through the floorboards. We left the heavy rug where it was and proceeded back downstairs, DeLongue holding the toy.

“Behold the murderer!” cried DeLongue, entering the sitting room with the soldier held before him.

“What do you mean?” asked Miss Peckerel.

“This toy was discovered in an upstairs cupboard, and we believe it was instrumental in the murder. What do you make of it, Captain?”

“I have never seen that before!” declared Turnbull as we presented him with our prize. Clearly he felt that the clockwork incriminated him in some way, until DeLongue appeased him, pointing out that there were three clockwork enthusiasts in the room, all equally implicated. Our attentions turned to the toy itself. It was passed from hand to hand, though most guests reacted with bewilderment before passing it on. Finally, it was back in Turnbull’s hands, and after peering closely at it, a sudden smile sprang to his lips.

“It’s a Benedict!” he cried. The complete lack of recognition on anyone’s face prompted Turnbull to continue. “C. Batch Benedict was an eccentric clockwork maker in the seventeen-hundreds. He was a genius, creating the smallest and most perfectly-running chronographs of that century. Indeed, Benedict’s designs are surpassed today only by the most skilled watchmakers in Switzerland.”

“He made watches?” asked Miss Peckerel.


“Is this a chronograph?” said Mrs Cooper, indicating the tin soldier.

“No, Mrs Cooper. Let me explain: Benedict was such a genius that some said his mind began to unravel. He embarked on strange projects with no clear purpose; chronographs with no means of reading them, or that ran precisely one second faster per year. The last of those finally broke late in the seventeenth century, with the hands whizzing round so fast it made the experts studying it quite dizzy.

“Later in his life, he must have turned his mind to toys, for this toy soldier clearly bears his makers’ mark – if you know what you are looking for, that is.”

Turnbull examined the little soldier more closely, turning it this way and that in his hands.

“What are you hunting for?” I asked.

“This panel,” he said, pointing. “Benedict was a notoriously proud man, and always included a way for people to study his handiwork.”

He popped a catch on the panel, which sprang open to reveal an intricate network of gears inside the soldier.

“Now that’s interesting,” he remarked.

“Have you found something, Captain Turnbull?” inquired DeLongue.

“Indeed I have, Mr DeLongue. This toy’s mechanism allows it to be primed for up to one hour before activation.”

“Whatever do you mean, James?” said Mr Cooper.

“Well, this bulb here –” he pointed to the back of the soldier’s rifle “– can be filled with liquid.” He re-closed the panel. “Then the key goes in here –” he pointed again, this time to an odd-shaped opening in the back of the panel “– and you turn the key. The maximum number of rotations allows for one hour before the liquid is ejected through the gun.”

O’Leary snorted. “That’s ridiculous! No child would wait an hour for his toy soldier to shoot a gun.”

“This piece was not meant for children, Reverend.”

“Then what is its purpose? Why make it?”

“He was quite mad, Reverend.”

DeLongue cleared his throat. The attention of the room turned to him.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “unfortunately the presence of this toy changes everything. As I told you, this toy was found in an upstairs cupboard. Attached to the gun was a small rubber pipe, which ran underneath a rug and through the floorboards above the smoking room. I am quite sure that if we were to examine the reservoir on the gun of that toy soldier, we should find yet more cyanide crystals, and one of us knows how they got there.”

“What are you saying, Mr DeLongue!” cried Miss Peckerel.

“I am saying, Miss Peckerel, that we are once again all suspects in a case of murder. Someone in this room prepared this toy, wound it and hid it upstairs, knowing that it would, at some point in the next hour, drip its deadly cargo onto the cigar of the unfortunate Mr Nicholas Grimsby.”

Cooper’s face was red. It was clear he had had enough.

“Mr DeLongue! You have come into this house a guest, and you have shown nothing but the most barefaced effrontery with your continuous accusations of murder! My wife and I have been attending dinner parties at Downey Hall for years. James is Genevieve’s guardian, and Mr Grimsby has been courting her for months! One of your suspects is a Reverend, for God’s sake! A Reverend!”

“Control yourself, Owen!” commanded the Captain. “Mr DeLongue is my guest!”

“I will not! Who is this guest, to accuse us of murder? Who are you, Mr DeLongue? And while we are on the subject, who are you, Mr Falconer? I do not know you! How can I be expected to trust you?”

DeLongue’s voice was silk.

“Mr Cooper, you have hit the nail, as they say, right on the head. You all know each other. You all knew the deceased. Mr Falconer and I had never met most of you before tonight. Pray, where is our motive to kill poor Mr Grimsby?”

“You talk of motives, Mr DeLongue! Who among us had a motive? Me? My wife? We went to church with him every Sunday! Miss Peckerel was ready to marry the gentleman!”

“Be silent,” said Turnbull, in a voice dead of emotion.

“Where was The Reverend’s profit in murdering Grimsby, snake that he was?”

Miss Peckerel gasped.

“Be silent!” spat Turnbull. This time, Cooper was.

I had not trusted myself to say anything since the atmosphere had changed for the accusatory, but in some dimly-lit corner of my mind, a very small voice was commending Mr Cooper on his venturing from the land of the bland. I tried to focus on the room; Captain Turnbull was speaking again.

“Let us cease this charade. I am the only one of us with a motive for murder. It is no secret that I despised the man; he was only at my table at the insistence of my god-daughter, Genevieve. I have protested in the strongest possible terms against his courtship of Genevieve, so if anyone here should come under suspicion, it should be me. However, Mr DeLongue, this toy has a one-hour timing mechanism, which means it was wound sometime during dessert. Which of us left during dessert?”

My insides now felt as congealed as the strudel I had left cooling on my plate.

“I did,” I found myself saying. “I had to check the windows of my motorcar.”

“And I did,” said DeLongue. I was unimaginably happy for his support. “I lent Mrs Pott my umbrella so that she could reach her cottage in relative dryness. Mr Cooper, I believe you and your wife left to check the lock on your upstairs bedroom, no?”

Mr Cooper looked ready to explode.

“I had to wash my sleeve,” admitted The Reverend O’Leary.

Miss Peckerel’s eyes once again had that dangerous, stormy quality to them.

“I, too, left the table, to powder my nose,” she said, her eyes locked on her guardian. “And you left the table, James. You left the table to bring in the dessert. That was less than an hour before we went into the smoking room. You left the table, just like the rest of us.”

Turnbull sank into a chair. DeLongue took the toy from his unresisting fingers and examined the winding hole closely. At length, he spoke again.

“This winding hole is quite unique. I have never seen one like it. Mr Falconer?” He held it out to me. I took it, hoping I would not let myself down, but indeed, the winding hole was absolutely one-of-a-kind. The eyes of the room were upon me. I had never seen anything like it, and I said as much.

“It seems to me,” said DeLongue, “that if we find the key that fits this hole, we will find our murderer.”

“Why don’t we start with your room, James?” suggested Miss Peckerel sweetly. Her eyes had never left her guardians face.

“Now hold on,” said The Reverend, his palms outwards as if to slow the terrible pace that was building within the room.

“It would be quite the quickest way to clear your name, James,” continued Miss Peckerel unabashed.

“James, you have nothing to hide,” added Mr Cooper. His wife nodded reassuringly.

Turnbull appeared to consider for a moment, then nodded. He glared first at DeLongue, and then at me. My heart sank as he did so, and I knew that our budding friendship had come to an abrupt end. I wasn’t certain how it had come about, and I was sure it wasn’t my fault, but it was clear that this was the last of Captain Turnbull’s dinner parties I would ever attend.

The next few moments happened in a similar state of numb inevitability. DeLongue provided the plan: everyone would move together, and one person would search each person’s room, the volunteer being drawn by straw. In this way, nobody would be able to slip away, and nobody would be able to plant any evidence. Turnbull unlocked his door while we drew straws. A short moment later, Mrs Cooper and her short straw walked past a glowering Turnbull, apologising as she went.

We crowded in the entrance to the Captain’s room, a surprisingly sparsely furnished affair. A magnificent bed took centre stage, but aside from that the furniture was scant. Grand, but scant.

Mrs Cooper, looking increasingly flustered, was flapping around in the middle of the room, going first in one direction, then in the other, before looking to the spectators in the doorway for deliverance. Curse my soft heart, but I couldn’t bear her look of helplessness. I can only assume that this is what drove me to speak, while everybody else had the sense to remain silent.

“Under the bed?”

Turnbull glared at me. The more colourful phrases from my army days flared bright in my mind, repeatedly and in large letters.

Mrs Cooper hitched her dress in as ladylike a fashion as she could muster, and bent to peer under the bed. I averted my eyes from the sight of her hind quarters, but all civility was forgotten when I heard her gasp. The eyes assembled in the doorway ceased their roving and snapped as one to focus on Mrs Cooper. She emerged from under the bed and came up trembling. In her hand was a small, golden key.

dear hummingnames…


(Sorry for late upload.  Normal service resumed next week.)


Episode Three: The First Clue

Coffee was brewed.

The remaining seven guests of the dinner party had collected in the lounge, leaving the unfortunate Mr Nicholas Grimsby in the smoking room. Mr Cooper was muttering under his breath, a constant whispered leitmotif that, while perhaps preserving Mr Cooper’s wits, threatened the sanity of everyone else in the room:

“I refuse to accept that one of us is a murderer. It’s a preposterous notion. I’ve known these people for years. Years! Absolutely preposterous. One of us a murderer. Preposterous…” And so on, and so forth, until I began to despair of it ever stopping.

“Shouldn’t we call the police?” asked Mrs Cooper.

“I should much prefer it if we didn’t,” Turnbull replied. “At least, not yet.”

“Why, for God’s sake? Nicholas is dead!”

“Genevieve, my dear, please! Gentlemen, is it not possible that we apprehend the criminal ourselves, instead of having booted constables tramping around my home and disturbing my collections? Mr DeLongue, you must be mistaken. Mr Grimsby was not well liked in my household – Genevieve, please! – he wasn’t well liked, but murder? It just doesn’t make sense.”

“I also have no desire to spend the night in a police cell being interrogated,” said DeLongue, “but we all saw the cyanide. Mr Grimsby was poisoned while all of us were in the room with him.”

“We have to do something!” said Miss Peckerel. “Nicholas has been killed and we are sitting in soft chairs drinking coffee!”

I wished I could put her mind at ease. “We will do something,” I said, hoping that somehow the correct words would tumble out of my mouth in something approaching the right order. “First, I suggest we take a sheet to cover Mr Grimsby, and then perhaps we will find one or two things to tell us how this deed was done. I shall see to it that before this night is out, justice will be done.”

“I absolutely agree with you, Mr Falconer,” said DeLongue. I was very relieved to have his support. “I would like to accompany you back to the smoking room and take another look.”

“Yes, and I as well,” said O’Leary.

“I will remain here,” Turnbull said. “I cannot see what good it will do me to go back into that room. In any case, if the killer truly is one of us, then they cannot slip away as long as we all keep our eyes open.” He paused for a moment, his eyes suddenly wide with disbelief. “I cannot believe I am talking this way about my own good friends.” He shook his head and sat down, stunned.

The others agreed to stay in the lounge, leaving O’Leary, DeLongue and myself to walk back to the smoking room. It was hard to believe how much the atmosphere had changed since dinner, which had been most congenial, apart from the rain cloud Grimsby himself had brought with him.

Once in the smoking room, we crossed the carpeted floor and examined poor dead Mr Grimsby. I suggested we cover him, but DeLongue – thinking more practically – first proposed that we search the man, in case something illuminating was secreted within a pocket. O’Leary was equal to the task, for which I was glad, as I had absolutely no desire to rummage through a dead man’s pockets. It put me uneasily in mind of a certain battlefield, strewn with corpses, and of the men and women who took their clothes, their boots, and their trinkets.

The search turned up nothing except a billfold, which was crammed full of notes of small denomination. DeLongue nodded, indicating that the Reverend was to take charge of it, and nodded again when the man lifted the sheet we had brought.

O’Leary sat Grimsby straight in his chair, closed his eyes and covered him with the sheet, crossing himself as he did so. He eyed us with some suspicion, though he tried to hide it – and why shouldn’t he be suspicious? We were recent acquaintances, whereas the people in the lounge were his flock, whom he saw – at the very least – every Sunday ‘without fail’.

DeLongue was crouched on his haunches, his eyes flickering from one point in the room to another, to another, far too quickly for me to follow. I felt completely lost. There was nothing in the room which I found even remotely suspicious. The table itself was made of a heavy wood, something like mahogany. The cigar holder, as I had seen earlier, was built into the wood in a fine example of the joiner’s craft, and it was one of four on the table. They were made of brass, and were highly polished. I supposed you could also place cigarettes or even pipes into them, though I knew that pipe smokers preferred to keep hold of their smoking apparatus. The room was lit by three chandeliers.

I understood nothing.

Though I had spoken bravely to Miss Peckerel in the lounge, in truth I was well out of my depth. Suddenly, DeLongue straightened up.

“We must go straight back to the lounge,” he said.

O’Leary and I turned to him with raised eyebrows, but he wouldn’t elaborate. He was already striding towards the lounge and we hurried after him. He opened the door with a look of relief on his face. Miss Peckerel must have seen it, though she reacted with concern.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I do not believe it was one of us. Come to the smoking room, everyone, I have something to show you.”

And so we had to follow him back to the room we had just been in. DeLongue explained as we walked.

“Nobody was close enough to poison the cigar, I was certain of it right from the beginning. The cyanide must have reached the cigar in some other way. Reverend, Mr Falconer, forgive me for marching you about like this, but if I’m right then it is important that from now on no one is alone, even for a minute.”

Once more we entered the room of death. Mrs Cooper buried her head in her husband’s chest, but Miss Peckerel stared resolutely ahead. DeLongue came to his point.

“It is my belief that the poison was very carefully dripped onto Mr Grimsby’s cigar from above. If this is the case, then we should find crystallised cyanide on that chandelier.” He pointed, and we followed his finger to a chandelier which hung over the table at which Grimsby had sat.

“Very well,” said Mr Cooper. It was clear that he was a frequent guest of Captain Turnbull; he slid a panel near the bookcase to reveal a small ladder suitable for reaching books on the top shelf. He was surprisingly nimble as he sprang up the rungs and took out his own handkerchief to inspect the chandelier.

“You look most at home on that ladder, Mr Cooper,” observed DeLongue

Cooper peered around the brass fitting as he answered. “Before I managed the station, I studied as a railway engineer. I’m quite at home on tall or unstable platforms, tinkering away with electronics and such.”

“You must be very pleased to have such a man around the house, Mrs Cooper. I can barely change a light bulb,” I said. It was a lie, but I hoped it would lighten the mood.

“Oh yes,” she replied, “Owen can do all kinds of little jobs.” She beamed.

Cooper leaped lightly down from the ladder, holding out the handkerchief. Tiny crystals were just visible against the white cloth.

“It is as I thought,” said DeLongue, “and that is why it is too dangerous to go anywhere alone. Somewhere in this house, a murderer is hiding. Someone who dripped cyanide onto Mr Grimsby’s cigar under his very nose.”

It was almost possible to hear the gears spinning in Mr Cooper’s brain. “Could it have been one of your servants?” he asked. “I hate to suggest it, but everything else seems so unlikely.”

“Impossible,” said Turnbull. “Mrs Pott was the only help I kept on for the dinner party, and she was dismissed at the start of dessert.”

“That’s right,” added DeLongue. I escorted her to the door in order to lend her my umbrella, and she locked the door behind her.”

“She locked the door?” I was astounded.

“Quite right,” replied Turnbull. “Security is a watchword of mine, with so many valuable clockworks in the house. Every window and door to this house is completely sealed. Locked tight.”

Mr Cooper held his wife in a firm embrace. Once more I was struck by the affection they showed one another.

“So the murderer is definitely still in the house?” asked Miss Peckerel.

“I should say so. As I said, I dismissed Mrs Pott, and she locked the only door remaining unlocked at that point. The murderer would have had to break a window to get in or out, and we would have heard that.” He shook his head in disbelief. “And I just had that chandelier re-hung. Tuesday. Now I shall have to get it cleaned as well, if the police don’t take it away as evidence.”

part two – whodunnit?

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.

a two-parter

This one is called THE AFFAIR OF THE CLOCKWORK TOY, heavily inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.  I present to you this week the first episode, and next week the episode in which a person is killed and the mystery begins.  To find out who did the killing will be much more difficult…


Episode One: A Dinner Party

There were eight of us sat around the grand dining table of Captain James Turnbull, late of the RAF. Stout of frame and ruddy of cheek, Captain Turnbull looked a man who could toast your health with one hand and box your ears with the other. What he lacked in height he made up for in girth but, although nudging sixty, he had not yet run to fat. He was solidly built, with a barrel chest straining at the buttons of his waistcoat, his knife and fork engulfed in fists the size of prize hams. Judging by the enthusiasm with which he attacked his beef, he was a man of strong appetites, appetites for life, for love – but mainly for a good roast.

To Turnbull’s right sat his close friend and neighbour, Mr Owen Cooper, a rather bland gentleman who managed the local railway station in Crawston. Where Turnbull was stout, Cooper was portly. Where the Captain was full-faced, his friend was jowly, the jowls being covered in sparse bristles. Cooper would never grow a full beard. Turnbull, on the other hand, was already showing a blue shadow and I was sure that, left to his own devices and deprived of razor and foam, he could soon grow a magnificent mane. Both of them strained the buttons on their waistcoats, however, and both took pleasure in their food.

To Turnbull’s left sat his godchild, Miss Genevieve Peckerel. A dazzling creature, she had captivated the room when she had swept to her place at the appointed hour. She wore a stunning dress which succeeded in being both modest and provocative at the same time – modest in cut, but provocative in colour. The dress was a deep and decadent shade of red, warning and enticing at once. There was not a woman in England who would not be content with that dress and Miss Peckerel’s figure, but our hostess had also been blessed with perfect complexion and a smile that could incapacitate a man at fifty paces, and could probably kill one at five.

To the right of Mr Cooper sat his wife, a woman of surpassing blandness who, as far as I could tell, did absolutely nothing of interest – though she did have the commendable look of one who kept an immaculate house. Underneath her thinning hair glowed a pair of bright eyes that flitted left and right in a nervous manner. Judging from the speed at which her food was disappearing, however, I judged that she was anything but nervous.

In the corner, next to Mrs Cooper and as far away from Miss Peckerel as physically possible, a man glowered into his roast beef. I had a suspicion that the glower, far from being a reaction to any circumstance in particular, was, rather, seared onto the man’s face by force of habit. He was not a tall man, even by normal standards – I say ‘normal standards’ because I am six feet tall when I stand up straight – but he was wiry as a coiled spring: wiry build, wiry, black hair. He was possessed of an intensity which pervaded his every action. When he cut his meat, he severed it, and threatened to wound the plate into the bargain. His fork was a spear, and his chewing could have reduced a castle to dust. I was surprised when his wine glass made it from his mouth to the table without shattering into a thousand pieces, although this would admittedly have caused a problem for the young gentleman, as his glass was empty as often as it was full.

My own neighbours at the dining table could not have been more different. I was sat in the corner opposite the glowering man, whom I had not met before, but whom I soon came to know as Mr Nicholas Grimsby. To my right, however, was a man who not only had the singular good fortune to be sitting next to the radiant Miss Peckerel, but also had the most astounding collection of stories I had ever heard. Any disbelief I might have had at first was soon willingly suspended as he wove tale after tale, some for my private entertainment and some for the amusement of the table. This man went by the name of Mr Henri DeLongue.

He was a slender man, and graceful. I could tell even by the way he lifted his fork that he could have graced any ballroom in Europe. His eyes were grey, and they never blinked. He had an immaculate pencil moustache. The creases on his clothes were sharp enough to cut you. His dark hair was effortlessly stylish, something which I had given up trying to achieve long before the army gave me a short back-and-sides, the cut which I had favoured ever since. The only similarity between myself and the man to my right was that we parted our hair on the same side: the left.

To my left, on the short edge of the table opposite Turnbull, was The Reverend Thomas O’Leary. He was a man of solemn countenance, practically dripping with dignity in every word and gesture. He was taller even than me, but so thin he appeared to be made of twigs, or perhaps string, like an old puppet I used to have. His hair was jet black and wild, in direct contrast to my sandy blonde side-parting. His was a face of striking features, very handsome – if a little gaunt – and the strong bone structure was plain to see.

Under normal circumstances, his conversation would have been most interesting, however O’Leary was sharing the table with Henri DeLongue, next to whom the keenest wit in England would appear blurred and fuzzy by comparison.

As to what we were doing sat around the table, at that moment I could not have told you. In fact, I was personally rather amazed to be there at all. All of the guests were known to Turnbull except for DeLongue and myself, though we had met recently at a meeting of clockwork lovers and collectors in London. Being somewhat fascinated by clockwork, I had decided to take the train there, and had been very pleasantly surprised to make the acquaintance of Captain Turnbull himself, who, as any lover of clockwork knows, owns the largest collection of clockwork toys in the Western world. Evidently my conversation must have pleased the man, for I received an invitation to attend dinner at his house before the train reached Reading.

If DeLongue was surprised at his invitation, he had never shown it. Turnbull and I had agreed to take the six-forty train from Paddington together, but by the time I met him there I had made the acquaintance of, and become fascinated by, the man DeLongue. We had come to the train station in the same taxi and I had at once fallen under his spell. By chance, DeLongue was to ride the same train, and of course, after a mere ten minutes in a carriage with DeLongue, Turnbull had extended his dinner invitation one plate further. But back to the present.

There were eight of us sat around the table, and we were currently tucking into a delicious side of beef, served of course with horseradish and roast potatoes. Colour was available in the form of various vegetables, though I personally don’t spare the time for such things. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a carnivore, and I had spurned my greens in favour of extra plate space for potatoes and meat. I do, however, have a hearty appetite, and at this point in my recollection I was setting to with great enthusiasm, whilst at the same time trying to remain on my best of behaviour around this most distinguished company.

Reverend O’Leary was in the middle of telling me about his days in the Cambridge drama society, but I was rather more interested in the conversation of Miss Peckerel, who was busy giving insider information to DeLongue.

“James is fast friends with the Coopers,” she was saying, “He’s known them for years, and he goes to church with them every Sunday without fail.”

I made some noises to the Reverend to simulate the act of listening, whilst at the same time straining my ears backward to catch snippets of DeLongue’s conversation. Finally, however, the effort became too much for me, and as I feared my eyes would soon cross from the exertion, I resignedly gave my full attention back to O’Leary, who was now bemoaning the state of repair of his church. Grimsby looked up from his dinner long enough to shoot a comment at him.

“You’ll fall off that ladder one of these days.”

I was astounded. “You repair the church yourself?”

“Needs must, I’m afraid. There is no money to repair it, neither for materials, nor for the work. I have become rather adept at fixing up holes with whatever I can find, but they’re really only stopgap measures.”

“Nonsense, Reverend!”

Our exchange had caught the attention of Miss Peckerel, who beamed down the table at O’Leary, dazzling all in her path.

“Nonsense,” she repeated, “That church of yours is more waterproof than it has been in decades, according to the parish folk, and I declare it is warmer, too.”

“Thank you, Miss Peckerel, but all the same, I should dearly like to have a few hundred pounds to get the job done properly.”

“When I’m gone, if your church is still standing, you shall have that, and more!” said Turnbull, and then chuckled as he saw the shocked expression on the priest’s face.

“Oh, James, don’t be so macabre!”

“Genevieve, everyone I care for will be looked after.” His eyes narrowed slightly and the laughter fell from his voice. “Even if they can’t look after themselves.”

A silence fell over the table. Grimsby drained his glass of wine again and signalled for a refill. The sound of pouring wine sounded absurdly loud in the stillness that prevailed, and I fervently wished for someone to fill it, but my mind was blank, and Miss Peckerel was looking aghast at her godfather. The incredibly bland Coopers were more likely to cause a silence than to fill one, but there was one man at the table who was more than capable of rescuing dinner.

“There are times when even looking after yourself seems almost impossible, Captain Turnbull,” DeLongue began, and promptly launched into an anecdote about his adventures in the Swiss Alps, through which he had trekked alone. When asked why, he replied simply ‘For love’, though love of what, or for whom, he would not say.

Soon the unpleasantness was forgotten, cleared away to make room for dessert. Turnbull rose from the table, and DeLongue and I turned toward him, expecting him to perhaps make a speech or to propose a toast, however he did neither. He simply turned on his heel and left the room.

“Don’t worry, Mr Falconer,” said Mrs Cooper, upon seeing the expression of shock on my face, “It’s just his custom.”

“Excuse me, Mrs Cooper, but what custom?” asked my friend DeLongue.

“You mustn’t tell half a story, Mary!” Mr Cooper chided gently, kissing his wife on the cheek. It occurred to me that the two Coopers, each no more interesting than a hessian sack, in each other had perhaps found a perfect love. “It’s a little custom of James’s,” he droned. “He insists on bringing the dessert in himself, as his father used to do. The coffee is also his responsibility. He’ll probably dismiss the help after the dessert is on the plates and everyone’s topped up with wine. I wonder what he will bring us…”

I realised I was nodding. My eyelids had grown dangerously heavy under the combined assault of both Mr and Mrs Cooper’s voices, which surely could be used in hospitals as a soporific. I was rescued by Miss Peckerel, who had decided to cast her line for another of DeLongue’s anecdotes.

“Have you ever been to America, Mr DeLongue?”

“Certainly I have, Miss Peckerel.”

And he was off again. This time the tale was about prospecting for oil in the south of America, striking instead gold. Grimsby snorted and drained his glass again. Signalling for a refill, he stood and left the room. Miss Peckerel’s eyes never left him. In that moment, I finally answered the question I had been asking myself all evening – what was the intense and quite unpleasant man in the corner doing here? Now I had my answer.

“Yes, Mr Falconer.” Miss Peckerel’s voice jerked me from my reverie.

“Yes, Miss Peckerel?”

“Yes, Mr Falconer. It was I who invited Nicholas.”

“You certainly are perceptive, madam.”

“It was written on your face quite clearly, sir. I was the one who invited Nicholas, and Captain James Turnbull, my legal guardian, was the one who seated him far away in the coldest corner of the room. He does not approve of Nicholas’ courtship of me.”

O’Leary tried to keep the peace.

“Miss Peckerel, are you sure this is appropriate?”

“Of course it is. James has done nothing to hide his dislike of Nicholas; I believe I am justified in spelling it out for our guests. James thinks Nicholas a fortune hunter!”

“I say!” I couldn’t help myself.

“After my parents’ death on the Nile, my protection passed to James, along with their money in trust, to be conferred on me upon my marriage.”

“I say!” I was becoming as bland as the Coopers.

“But I love him. He’s brilliant, and passionate, and he will soon propose, I’m sure of it. And when he does, I will accept, and that will be that.”

I felt nothing but pity for this spirited young woman, who would soon commit what I felt was an extreme folly. I hoped that my face did not betray me again, for it had been shown to be traitorously expressive. Miss Peckerel began talking to DeLongue again.

“Did you know, he can tell how fast a horse is just by looking at it?”

Their conversation continued, though this time I determined not to listen, as I was sure it would upset me further. Not long after, Turnbull re-entered the room, bearing a delicious-looking apple cake of a kind I hadn’t seen before.

“My word, it’s a Strudel!” exclaimed DeLongue.

“Indeed, Mr DeLongue! I should have known better than to think I could surprise a man like you with something new!” But he was chuckling as he said it. It seemed Turnbull was a man given to laughter, though I shared his concern for the bright young woman under his protection, and like him I was wary of the man in the cold corner.

A slice of the hot, sweet cake was placed on each of our plates, including the one before the empty chair of Nicholas Grimsby. Presently, he returned, winking at Miss Peckerel and mouthing ‘Too much wine’. As Miss Peckerel giggled and blushed into her napkin, I found myself wondering where the young woman’s taste in men had come from. I did not ponder the question for too long, however, for suddenly Mrs Cooper gave a start and whispered something to her husband, who patted her knee comfortingly.

“Do excuse me,” he announced, “I must check our room. My wife is convinced that I have left the door unlocked, and it is a peculiarity of hers that all doors must be locked.” He neatly folded his napkin, got up and strode out. As he walked past the window, I noticed that it had begun to rain, and I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“I’m afraid I, too, am going through a crisis of confidence,” I said. “I came here by motorcar and I am now not at all sure whether I closed my windows or left them open. I’m afraid I must check or the consequences could be quite ruinous.”

Gazing longingly at the remaining portion of strudel, and full of regret as the warmth seeped out through the plate, I turned my back on the room and went to check my car. Of course, all the windows were fully closed, and thus my trip had done little more than rob me of warm dessert and make me very wet. I re-entered the house and walked past the staircase to the dining room, in time to see the Coopers descending. Mrs Cooper looked almost apologetic, though I couldn’t see what she had to apologise for.

“I had to make sure he did it properly,” she explained.

“Honestly, darling,” replied Mr Cooper, giving his wife’s shoulder a playful squeeze.

Back in the dining room, dessert was nearly over. I resumed eating my pie, surprised that there had been no perceptible cooling in the time in which I had been away. The servants had been dismissed, or at any rate were no longer there, and once again Grimsby had drained his glass.

Eventually, dessert was over, and it was announced that everyone should retire to the smoking room to enjoy cigarettes, pipe tobacco, or Turnbull’s fine cigars. Miss Peckerel requested that we wait for her to powder her nose – to Turnbull’s considerable consternation – but when O’Leary plopped his sleeve squarely in the apple sauce on his plate, it was of course necessary for him to immediately wash the offending fruit off (“More fool me for dismissing the help so early,” Turnbull had grumbled).

I decided to try my hand at anecdotage. My reasoning was sound: I had had my share of adventures, had seen the world as part of the British army, and had particularly excelled at the sport of boxing. The only thing I lacked, as I found out, was DeLongue’s skill at storytelling. Somehow, I managed to turn one of my greatest fights – my victory against the reigning champion, Bill Ramsey, a boxer of some renown – into a lethargic and bloodless tale of self-aggrandisation. I could not seem to draw my audience into my world, as a skilled fisherman slowly draws in his line, as DeLongue himself so effortlessly did. Rather, I seemed to recount endless facts in a vaguely chronological order until it seemed I was drowning in them.

In the end, DeLongue swooped in and rescued me as I floundered there, seamlessly steering the story from one single combat to another – from pugilism to the duel – in such a way that he saved my dignity as well as the evening’s entertainment. As it turned out, DeLongue spoke from experience: in France he had fenced for glory, and won no small amount, but in Monaco he had duelled for his very life when his pride had refused to let him back down. He was forced to meet his adversary at the break of dawn, and they had taken turns to shoot at each other with pistols.

“The trick, as I saw it,” he said, “was to make my opponent believe that I was somewhere I wasn’t, or that something somewhere else was me, in order that he shot at that, and not at my body, to which I had by that time become rather attached.”

“Did you manage it?” enquired the incisive mind of Mrs Cooper.

“I sit before you today, Mrs Cooper, unpierced by lead and steel.”

“I wish I had been there,” I said. “I should have liked to see a duel.”

“There were no others there, my dear Mr Falconer. Had you been there, you would have been my opponent, which would have been quite unfortunate for one of us.”

At that moment, O’Leary held the door open for Miss Peckerel, and they took their seats to savour the last of their wine. Turnbull, however, was growing visibly impatient, and it was soon necessary to drain the glasses and proceed to the smoking room. I wondered whether to tell DeLongue about my time in America, or the six-shooter in my pocket. Admittedly it was unsuitable for duelling, but it made a fair old bang when you pulled the trigger. I decided that there would be plenty of time for that later – the night was young!