Black Thumb Society: A Scribe’s House Mystery

Black Thumb Society: A Scribe’s House Mystery

Writers are such bores, aren’t they? Well, not all writers, certainly. Being one myself, I can’t say that all writers are bores, but a good number are. They’re usually the ones who take an age to write a few pages and when they do get published, win all sorts of awards and are lorded about at restaurants and theatres like prize horses. I, at least, produce work at a reasonable clip and don’t have to worry about saying something profound and philosophical. I get to say something interesting.

I write detective stories, in case you were wondering.

Now, of course, writing detective stories is nothing quite like being an actual detective. We get to skip over the hours of waiting in uncertain weather for our suspects to do something interesting. We also get to make certain that all the clues are in the right place, for our fictional detectives to find. We get to sit and figure out how everything fits together, without having to do much more than glance at the tide tables for reference.

(Of course, that can produce it’s own problems. I once had a reader write to me and tell me that the tides couldn’t possibly be how I had described, because of something about the weather and the moon and spring tides and whatnot. I responded with a polite letter saying I’d fix it next time I used the tides in my novels. I make it a point never to kill anyone the same way twice in my stories, so I don’t think that’s much of an issue.)

Some writers, though, think that being a writer of detective stories means that we can do just as well as any real detective.

I tried telling them that it isn’t true, but they wouldn’t listen to me.

They never listen to me.

Anyways, it was a Wednesday afternoon at the Scribe’s House. It was adjacent to a club, but since I’m a woman and the others are too… well, I don’t know the precise word, exactly… to put up with any of the normal club nonsense – like no talking – we went to the Scribe’s House instead. We had every comfort you could want: fireplaces in every room, a library of books, a kitchen complete with angry cook, a doorman who served as our butler and gentleman’s gentleman, and a general dogsbody for odd jobs that none of us could figure out how to do. You’d be surprised how many of us tried to do things we had no business doing. Like electrical work. (We had a whole week when the electrics went out, but honestly, that wasn’t Rome’s fault. Anyone else would have been electrocuted.)

Loads of writers practically live at the Scribe’s House. It requires a membership, but people are always bringing guests. And once a guest shows up, it’s difficult to throw them out. However, there are only four detective writers that attend there, on Wednesday afternoons: Rome Seville, Cassidy Jones, Dr. Howard Graustark, and myself. We call ourselves the Black Thumb Society…

“You can’t put that in a story, Marie darling,” Rome waved his pen at me. I was tempted to pluck it from his hands and throw it at him, but I didn’t. Some people have restraint.

“Why not? What’s wrong with talking about the decomposition of my body?” I snapped.

“People aren’t going to want to read about how seagulls and house cats eat the flesh from your bones. Or about the various small bugs that live in decaying flesh.” Rome sighed dramatically. He might have a point.

“Unenlightened people won’t read that, perhaps,” Graustark said slowly, sipping his tea. “But the intelligent populace, whom I assume you are trying to reach, Marie, they will take it as it is: a fact.”

“Oh, you and your facts!” Cassidy Jones threw his head back and leaned it against the leather club chair. “Readers don’t care whether you’re absolutely accurate. They just want to know that you care enough to get things mostly right. It’s the story that they want.”

“Pah, story,” Rome waved his pen again, splattering yet more ink on his already-stained trousers. “Readers want characters. The mystery is only a means of dealing with characters.”

“The mystery is the central piece of a mystery story,” Graustark quirked one perfectly sculpted eyebrow and scowled. “The characters only matter as much as they further the mystery. That is the intellectual exercise that readers are looking for.”

“Soup’s on!” The cooks’ call came through the woodwork, loud and clear. I swung my legs over the arm of the chair and stood, silently thanking the women that decided a pair of tweed trousers and a men’s smoking jacket was suitable attire for the working woman.

“Thank goodness.” I slid my arm through Cassidy Jones’ as he stood and directed him towards the door. Rome and Graustark wouldn’t keep arguing, not without the two of us as further fodder. “I’m starving. My gas is out, so I can’t do any proper cooking at my flat. And a girl can only go to so many restaurants in two days.”

“You poor dear,” Cassidy crooned. I elbowed him in the ribs, not really caring that it was completely unladylike. I had stopped pretending to be a lady when my first book did well enough for me to afford my flat without my parents’ help. My second book had rocketed me to relative financial success. Cassidy was a big hit in America, which is likely why he had such a ridiculous name. Someone had to write stories about detectives in the Wild West, and apparently, a born-and-bred Yorkshireman was the one to do it.

Sometimes, I don’t think we appreciate irony enough.

“If you are looking for a place for dinner, Marie, you can always accompany me to Figaro’s,” Graustark said, brushing his suit jacket for stray pieces of lint, even though he was immaculate. “I have a standing Wednesday reservation there, for after the theatre.”

“That’s really very kind, Howard dear. I wouldn’t want to interrupt your ritual, though. It’s such bad manners,” I replied. He mumbled something which I pretended not to hear and we strode into the dining area of Scribe’s House.

Because Scribe’s House fed a good number of writers, the dining area looked more like an undergraduate college than a proper club. There were long tables that lined the room, with a head table – if there were guests or speakers – and a few extra chairs sitting around. Wednesdays were fairly quiet, so tea was a quiet affair, with only us four and a poet who habitually took tea at the House.

We were served by a nervous girl who hadn’t quite gotten used to the ways of writers, despite having worked there for four years. “Well, Alice, what do you think? Would you rather read something that is scientifically accurate – if a little unsettling – or something that just glosses over the gory bits?” I asked, being impolite and propping my elbows on the table. Alice blinked and her hand shook a little as she poured tea into the cup in front of me.

“M-Miss?” Alice asked. I suppressed a sigh and served myself some of the cold-cut sandwiches while she poured for Cassidy.

“What Miss Leclerc means, Alice,” Rome smoothed over, using his not-quite-Italian charm to bring a flush to the maid’s face, “is that, if you read a detective story, would you want it to be as realistic as possible, or just sensational?”

“Oh!” Alice pulled the tea pot back a few inches, splattering a few drops on Graustark’s napkin. He straightened in shock, his mouth gaping like a fish. “Oh, I don’t think I would like it at all if it were realistic. I mean, then I’d be looking around every corner for a murderer, and knowing all the horrible things that could happen — no, no, I wouldn’t like that at all.”

“Well, that solves that,” I said, nodding towards Rome and Graustark with a smile.

“Alice, do you actually read detective stories?” Graustark dabbed at the drop of tea on the table before serving himself a sandwich and a cake.

“No, Dr. Graustark, sir,” Alice shook her head, her white cap loosening on her fair curls. Apparently fastening her cap was another thing she had yet to figure out. “They’re much too frightening for me.”

“And thus the question still stands,” Graustark nodded as Alice bobbed and went to go serve the poet. “Her answer is irrelevant, as she does not even read mysteries.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter much anyways. I’ll do exactly as my publisher and editor demand,” I put a firm end to the argument. These sorts of things could go on for weeks if you let them. Once, over Christmas, there was an argument about whether it was preferable to use a serrated knife or a straight dagger when stabbing someone. The experiments ruined the suckling pig; it appeared on the Christmas table with a disturbing number of holes in its hide.

Cassidy took up the cue and launched into a story about a letter one of his readers had sent via his publisher. Apparently, he had praised Cassidy to the point of being disconcerting, but it didn’t matter because the fan was in another country. His real location — and name — were kept quite secret from all possible admirers, critics and the like. It was something I had often wished I had done, but alas, it was too late. My name was well and truly out in the world. At least there were few people who recognised writers by face. I wasn’t that famous.

Tea was interrupted by our butler, Mr. Quimby. He walked in with his usual stately, slow stride, head held high and posture impeccable. His black suit was pressed and starched to perfection, the creases hardly moving despite the steps he took. His mouth was set in his typical disapproving tilt and his eyes were half lidded. The only thing that ruined his perfectly austere appearance were his eyebrows, which were full, wild, and a startling shade of yellow. Quimby glided over to where we four were sitting and, deferring to the highest social standing in the room, he bowed his head to Dr. Graustark.

“I do beg your pardon, sir,” Quimby drawled, the words rolling around in his mouth.

“What is it?” I asked, leaning forwards and almost putting my elbow in my sandwiches.

“A, hmm, body was found in the upstairs storage closet,” Quimby said in a low voice. “We believe it was Thomas Rottery, who is responsible for general maintenance here at Scribe’s House. Having no experience in bodies, it was thought best to consult, hmm, you.”

This last bit was directed specifically to Graustark, but all four of us detective writers sat up and looked around eagerly. Graustark sighed and folded his napkin neatly before putting it on the table and standing up.

“Well, we had better phone the police,” he said. “Then do an initial examination.”

“Very good, sir.” Quimby deferentially followed Graustark from the dining hall. Cassidy was faster in getting to his feet, but I beat him to the door. Rome, though, was the one who put our thoughts into vulgar — if accurate — words.

“A body, here?” he grinned. “It must be Christmas.”

I will admit to being nosey. I practically leaned over Graustark’s shoulder as he rang the police. He, dear man, didn’t push me away. Though, Rome and Cassidy — who were both standing very close as well — did receive annoyed looks.

“Dr. Howard Graustark here… Yes, calling from Scribe’s House… that’s right. Well, a dead body has been discovered in one of our upstairs storage cupboards… yes, it has been identified. A Mr— oh, very well. When might that be? Half-an-hour. Very good, thank you.” And he rang off, placing the receiver onto the cradle with quiet efficiency.

I hate being only on one side of a conversation.

“Well?” Rome asked, raising his brows.

“They are sending someone round. Should be here in half-an-hour,” Graustark said. As if we hadn’t figured that out. I grumbled and moved towards the stairs.

“Might as well have a look, then,” I called over my shoulder as I walked up.

“Be careful not to disturb the evidence!” Cassidy practically shouted, running up behind me.

“I have been writing detective stories for a goodly period of time,” I poked him in the ribs to keep him behind me. I wanted to be the first to see the body. (Truth be told, I had never actually seen a dead body. I had come by my knowledge from medical texts, a good deal of sensational readings from magazines, and a healthy dose of my fellow writers’ works. I had been waiting for a chance to be involved in an actual investigation for ages now.)

We reached the top of the stairs and everything went muffled. The thick carpets of Scribe’s House were picked especially for their plush, sound-dampening quality. It’s amazing how many writers demand absolute silence when working. It’s also amazing how loud writers can be when not working. I felt like I was creeping up on some child sneaking cakes when it was past her bedtime.

The storage cupboard door was standing slightly ajar, leaving enough of a gap for me to see that there was definitely someone in the room, lying over a collection of buckets and mops and other cleaning supplies. Well, I say lying, but what it really looked like was Thomas Rottery had stood near the window before staggering forwards, slipping sideways and falling on top of the buckets and mops and things. His arm was cast dramatically over his head and his legs were splayed on the floor.

“Are bodies meant to look so… vaudeville?” I asked, turning to Cassidy who stood beside me. He had his hands folded across his chest and was looking quizzically at the body, mouth gaping slightly.

“It does look as though he’s come out of a rather bad play, doesn’t he. You know, the ones where the detective has clues practically waved beneath his nose, along with every attractive woman in the show?” This delightful piece of dialogue came from Rome, who was peering over my shoulder.

“What do you think, Howard?” I stepped back so Graustark could have his chance at a look. None of us dared to actually open the door any farther, or poke our heads over the threshold. I think in all of our books, someone had been ribbed for ruining evidence at least twice. Graustark waited a beat until both Rome and Cassidy also stepped back before having his look.

“Hmm.”

That was helpful.

I stepped up to Graustark, having another look at the body. Frankly, it was more than obvious to me that the man was dead. There were no obvious contusions, no blood, no gaping wounds or signs of decomposition. If he hadn’t been dead, he could have been an actor just laying there for dramatic effect. But that essential, human thing was missing, leaving only a corpse in his place. Unfortunately for this corpse, his death left a comic impression. It was rather a strange feeling, looking at the dead body and wanting to laugh.

“I would say that the stiffening set in some time ago,” Graustark said, his voice clinically detached, as it was with many things. “See how his fingers are starting to go limp?”

“How long is some time ago?” I asked, craning my neck to see.

“It can depend. Perhaps twenty-four to thirty hours ago, depending on various things,” Graustark looked at me and blanched, realising, perhaps for the first time, what I was doing. “You really shouldn’t be looking at this, Marie! Or any of us. We should have let the police—”

“Please don’t try and protect my delicate female sensibilities,” I said drily. “After all, I do write murder stories for a living.”

“Of course, I didn’t mean to suggest—”

“And we haven’t disturbed the body or the scene. All we’ve done is have a look to see if there were any overt causes of death. Maybe see if someone left a knife behind. That sort of thing.”

“We didn’t even touch the door,” Rome chimed in, Cassidy nodding eagerly at his side.

“I did not mean to imply that none of you could handle this sort of thing,” Graustark straightened up, his authority obvious. “It has been some time, yes, but I have worked with the dead before. I am aware of police procedure and—”

“Please spare us more police coroner stories.” Cassidy was the one to interrupt this time, the corners of his mouth pulling taught. “We all know that you spent the formative years of your career in the depths of the police morgue, dealing with suicides and murders and accidental deaths. We don’t need a reminder on how police procedure works.”

“Cassidy!” Now, I was usually the first to quietly dismiss Graustark when he got to be too pedantic, but there were lines of human decency that one had to maintain. And these writers often pushed those boundaries. (They called women catty. I have never seen women behave in quite the way writers behave to one another. There must be something about professional pride when you’re making up a good deal of what you write. Either that, or writers are just catty by nature. I do my best to stop it, but one can only play nursemaid for so long.) “Where would you be without Howard’s help on your last book, hmm? Now that we have a real body, there’s no need to be jealous.”

“Jealous?!” Cassidy spluttered, eyes bugging out at me. I lifted my chin and raised my eyebrows. He didn’t take the hint. “Why would I be jealous? I don’t need help to put my books together. If you want to take advantage of a man’s experience using whatever feminine wiles are at your disposal, that’s your prerogative. Leave me out of your fantasies.”

The temperature in the hallway seemed to drop suddenly. Graustark and Rome took subtle but firm steps away from Cassidy. Even Cassidy seemed to regret his words; his face became an ashy sort of grey. The men weren’t often dumb enough to bring up my being female in any sort of negative light. But it did happen occasionally. This was not a profession where women thrived, but I had clawed my way into a position of success. The rest of the world noted that with something akin to scorn or disdain. None of the Black Thumb Society was stupid enough to do that. Except, when they were.

“I’m sorry, Marie. I just —”

“Dr. Graustark? Dr. Howard Graustark?” The man who successfully diffused the situation — that is, he saved Cassidy before one of us killed him — was being trailed by two rather despondent looking uniformed policemen. The man was obviously a plainclothes detective, one who had earned his position by skill or favours. He was average looking in every respect except for the look in his eyes that said he’d rather seen too much. I would put him about fifty years of age.

Graustark turned and fixed the detective with a firm, uncompromising look. “Yes?” he asked slowly.

“Detective Yorrik Renfrew,” he held out his hand, which Graustark took with a look of disdain.

“Yorrik?” I couldn’t help my curiosity.

The detective gave me a long look before smiling and nodding, “My father had an unfortunate affection for Shakespeare.”

“Good answer,” I smiled in return.

“We received a call regarding a body…?” Detective Renfrew looked around the hallway. Rome pointed at the slightly ajar door to the storage cupboard.

“Thomas Rottery,” Graustark said. “The House’s maintenance man.”

The two constables went to work, carefully pushing the door open and taking dutiful documentation of the scene. I was torn; should I watch the scene documented or have further conversation with Detective Renfrew.

“Our coroner is on his way,” Renfrew said. “But I have heard of your previous career. I should like your opinion.”

“I left giving opinions to the police when I left my job as a police coroner,” Graustark said flatly. “I have neither the tools nor the qualifications to form an opinion.”

“Surely you can think of something. I’ve read your books.” Renfrew looked hopeful, but that was about the surest way to get Graustark to shut down. Dr. Howard Graustark was not one to give in to pleading, whining, stubborn persistence, wheedling, begging, questioning or hopeful looks. If you had the right to question him, you could do so. Otherwise, he would prefer you left him in peace.

Rome, on the other hand, was happy to oblige. “Well, we didn’t see any obvious signs of a struggle or death. Could be a heart attack. Accidental, perhaps.”

Renfrew, it seemed, was also very good at the disdainful look. “I have also heard of you and read your books. Rome Saville, isn’t it?”

“Indeed,” Rome threw out his hand with a cheeky smile. Cassidy shot him an alarmed look. Obviously Cassidy hadn’t recovered from his earlier brush with death. Wise man. “I’ve been studying police methodology for —”

“And you must be Cassidy Jones. I hear you do very well in America.”

“I-I try,” Cassidy gave a shaky smile and edged slightly away from the group.

Renfrew turned his attention back to me, smiling at me with more kindness and affection than his previous looks. “And you must be Marie Leclerc. I must say, it is a surprise to find you in this company. Dr. Graustark I can understand, but these others…”

I realised what he was doing seconds after I started answering. He was distracting us from the constables processing and securing the scene. Very clever, that one. Play on the egos of us writers. Get us to turn on one another, blush about our success. Meanwhile, the important things were happening behind us.

“They’re a good sort, if you can get to them after they’ve been fed. Besides, who else would let a women writer join their society?”

Cassidy winced.

“Ah, yes. The, what was it? Black Thumb Society?” Renfrew raised his brows and put his hands in his pockets. A casual stance. Firm.

“Comes from our mutual inability to grow anything or keep anything green alive. We figure it’s on account of our tendencies to spend many hours working with ink and libraries with little to no lighting at odd hours of the day. Black Thumb Society was far more appealing than Plant Murder Society. That and most of the other names weren’t allowed to be printed on the register,” I explained with a shrug. It was a true story. More or less.

“I see. Well, what can you tell me about this Thomas Rottery?” The question was no longer directed at one person, but at the group as a whole. As one, though, we all turned to Rome.

“Rottery was a good sort,” Rome nodded. “He didn’t mind fixing things at odd hours. He didn’t seem to have much of a home life. I think he lived here most of the time.”

“You had much contact with him?”

“Well,” Rome hunched his shoulders, going slightly red. “I have a, ah, notorious history with trying to fix things. I don’t break them, per say, but when I try to fix what’s already broken… it just…”

“Gets worse,” Graustark supplied.

“Right.”

“Did Rottery have any problems with anyone in the House?” Renfrew asked, as though he were just mildly curious, not actually interested. If I had been writing him, he would have dutifully been taking notes down. He was probably one of those people that just remembered everything.

“You would have to ask Quimby,” Cassidy said. “Rottery didn’t much talk with the writers. He said once that they were members and he wasn’t and shouldn’t be talking with us. I think Rome was probably the one he had the most contact with.”

“How many writers are members of Scribe’s House?” Renfrew glanced over his shoulder at the muttered grumblings of a constable.

“About seventy,” I said. “Quimby has a register of members. But there are guests coming in and out all the time. You’re asking questions like there’s been a murder. I didn’t see any obvious signs of violence, do you think that—”

“We just like to be thorough, Miss Leclerc,” Renfrew flashed one of those reassuring smiles that is meant to make people feel better, no matter the circumstances. It was a quintessentially British smile, one that tells you to go have a cup of tea and let other people do the worrying.

“Mhm,” I said, not believing him in the slightest. Maybe he was just buying time until the coroner arrived, maybe he was indeed covering his bases, maybe I’m just naturally suspicious. Before any of us could question the detective further, he pulled his hands from his pockets and nodded firmly.

“Well, if you will excuse me, I have to go supervise my constables,” Renfrew said. We replied with the requisite polite farewells and we were herded slowly towards the stairs. Renfrew watched us until we had started our descent.

“What do you think?” Rome asked.

“I think it’s awfully suspicious,” Cassidy said, some of his courage returning.

“We won’t know anything until the coroner does his examination,” Graustark did his best to end this area of speculation.

“Poor Thomas Rottery,” I mused. “Someone needs to figure out what happened to him.”

Graustark laughed drily, “And the police are not the ones to do that?”

“Of course not!” I waved my hand dismissively. “He worked and died in Scribe House. It’s only fair that the scribes investigate his death.”

Knowing Dr. Howard Graustark as I did — as did all the members of the Black Thumb Society — he was going to be protesting for a while yet. So, I led the march back to the dining hall where we were greeted by another round of hot tea. The poet had disappeared off to wherever poets go, meaning it was just the four of us, Alice, and Quimby.

“They will want to talk to you,” I said to Quimby, sipping at my tea. Scalding, just the way I like it. “You knew Rottery the best.”

“There is nothing much to say,” Quimby said in his stiff manner. I exchanged a glance with Rome. Quimby was acting stiffer than usual.

“Don’t worry,” I reached out and grabbed Quimby’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “We’re going to do everything we can to figure this out.”

“You’re investigating?” Quimby asked, not quite able to keep the disbelief from his voice. I guess years of training and practise at being formal couldn’t quite compare to dealing with a body and an investigation.

“Of course,” I smiled. Graustark opened his mouth to complain but I cut him off. “We won’t let the police muck this up.”

“That is a relief, Miss Leclerc,” Quimby nodded his head. I believed he was being sincere. Not because he was incapable of lying (there was this one time that a journalist tried to get into the house under the pretence of being a proper writer. Quimby lied through his teeth to say that we were closed for repairs, when there was a huge party with famous authors from all over the world going on). But because I don’t think even Quimby could be quite so sarcastic under stress. Not even Cassidy, Rome, or myself was that capable. I’m fairly certain Graustark could be sarcastic under any circumstances.

“You’re serious about this investigation,” Graustark said, drawing a hand over his jaw. I frowned, taking another sip of tea.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“This isn’t some sort of game,” Graustark replied flatly. “This is someone’s life — death — you would be meddling with. There are police procedures, laws to follow. Things you can and cannot do.”

“I’m not with the police,” I pointed out. Technically, then, my hands wouldn’t be tied quite so tightly.

“If this is murder,” Graustark continued, as though I hadn’t said a word, “then you could be getting into danger. Someone who doesn’t want you to find out what happened. Why it happened. How it happened.”

I set my tea cup down in its saucer and leaned back in my chair. Rome, sitting next to me, looked between Graustark and I with obvious interest. Cassidy was sitting there with his shoulders hunched, trying not to get involved. I suppose he had been attacked enough for one day. And he wasn’t going to feel the last of it, not if the glares Alice was giving him were any indication. I, though, focused my attention on Graustark.

He was, after all, the obvious obstacle standing in my way.

“I may be just a writer,” I started, “and a woman at that, but I am not a fool. I have done my research into how these things work. If I hadn’t, then my novels wouldn’t be quite as successful as they are. Not only that, but I have shadowed the police on a couple of occasions. Nothing like a murder, of course, but enough to ask them questions about how things work. Besides, I wouldn’t be doing this alone. The Black Thumb Society is investigating. Aren’t we?”

Rome nodded eagerly, “Absolutely. I know it’s a bit crude to use Rottery’s death to our advantage, but I would love to put some of my methods to practise. And I know that you’ve had experience with the whole thing, so you’ll be able to tell us what to do.”

“Rottery was one of us,” Cassidy mumbled. He shrugged. “Maybe not a writer, but he belonged to Scribe House. If we don’t take care of our own, who will? What good are we but for entertainment?”

Graustark sighed and sat back in his chair, looking up at the exposed rafters of the ceiling. “If we do this,” he ground out, “then you follow my lead. Do everything I tell you to do.”

“You’re the one with the experience, Howard,” I said in my best soothing voice. We had ruffled his feathers and I needed him to cooperate with us as much as possible. Or, rather, to let us cooperate with him as much as possible. “We’ll do what you say.”

He let out a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Alright. Fine.”

I grinned and immediately felt bad. Rottery was dead and I shouldn’t have been so happy for it. “Where do we start?” I asked, trying to smooth my expression into a polite neutral. I’m not sure it worked, based on the equally infectious grins Rome and Cassidy were giving me.

“We start by determining whether or not it was actually a murder,” Graustark grumbled. “Which we can’t do until the police coroner makes his determination.”

“When will that be?” Rome asked.

“Sometime tomorrow. At the quickest,” Graustark replied. He nodded to the windows at the far side of the dining hall. “They’re taking the body away.”

I shot out of my chair, practically knocking the tea cup to the ground. “What?! I thought… I missed it!”

“They’ll take it away to be officially diagnosed, if the cause wasn’t easily seen. I doubt it was a heart attack. None of the signs,” Graustark followed me to the window, where we watched the stretcher with the white cloth covering Rottery’s form loaded into the back of the police van.

“You would not be wrong.” A quiet, accented voice had me turning around, my hand to my throat. A small man with a solemn expression blinked at me. He was thin, almost skeletal, but obviously young. Frankly, he looked like he should be the one being examined by the coroner, not the other way around.

“Dr. Kamińsky,” Graustark stepped forwards and extended his hand. “I’m surprised to see you here.”

“The position came to me after your successor left. Something about General Practise involving fewer bodies,” Kamińsky said, his face as expressionless as Graustark’s. The two were made for each other, I frowned. Solemn, quietly intelligent. With that unavoidable ability to ignore everyone else in the room when something interesting was happening.

“Indeed,” Graustark nodded.

“What do you mean about Rottery? It wasn’t a heart attack?” I asked, interrupting and not feeling a bit sorry about my rudeness.

“Please, let me introduce Marie Leclerc,” Graustark hovered a hand over the small of my back. “Miss Leclerc, this is Dr. Abel Kamińsky, the police coroner.”

“A pleasure,” Kamińsky said, bowing over my extended hand. “I take it you are also a writer?”

“I am,” I said. Curse these social niceties. The doctor nodded and turned his attention back to Graustark. “There was some blistering on the skin of his fingers. And it looks as though he died from an internal attack of some sort. Possibly due to ingestion of a poison. If it is a poison, though, I have never seen something quite like this.”

“Have the constables checked the cupboard for toxic substances?”

It was like I wasn’t there. I suppose I should have been grateful; most men wouldn’t dare talk about such things in front of a woman. It was a little annoying, though.

“They have. There seems to be nothing stronger than arsenic for rat poison. Detective Renfrew is ordering a search of the entire premises,” Kamińsky said. Graustark nodded slowly, like he was tasting a vintage wine.

“He’s calling it murder, then?” Graustark asked, a slight curl to his lip.

“Indeed,” Kamińsky replied, that same curl present. I wondered if it was a common thing in coroners, or just the fact that these two were so similar. “I do apologise, Howard. I know how much you hate this,” Kamińsky bowed his head slightly. He turned his attention to me, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Leclerc. So rarely does one in my profession get to have such a nice introduction.”

“You flatter me,” I nodded, that pleasant smile that all females know how to wear, in full force. The doctor let out a slow breath and turned to go, taking his coat and hat from Quimby as if it were the most natural thing in the world. There was silence while we waited for him to leave and then, it was like the world had stopped.

Murder.

An actual murder.

Rome was standing by our table, his eyes wide. Cassidy was still sitting, but he looked somewhat sick. I felt somewhat sick. This wasn’t just a heart attack that we could pretend to investigate for kicks. Someone had actually, vindictively, wanted Thomas Rottery dead. And now he was.

“Are you taking this seriously, now?” Graustark asked. The dining hall was empty and his words carried. Cassidy flinched and turned back to his tea. Rome wobbled where he stood. I just stood there, not looking at Graustark.

“I never did not take it seriously,” I replied evenly. Graustark sighed the sigh of the long-suffering and walked back to finish off the tea.

“Miss Leclerc, ma’am!” Alice came bursting into the room, eyes wide.

“Is everything alright, Alice?” I asked.

“They’re searching everything! The whole kitchens! The rubbish, the ice box, the—”

“It’s alright, Alice,” I said, trying to be gentle. “The police are looking for what killed Rottery.”

“What?!” the maid screeched. I looked to the others for help, but they just stood there, useless. Actually, Cassidy was useless, Rome was practically smirking and Graustark was his usual obstreperous self. Which left me to deal with the hysterical maid.

“It’s procedure, Alice,” I said, thinking about my dear fictional detective and what he would say. “They… they want to be sure they know where the toxin came from. And they don’t want anyone else to accidentally take some.”

“Tha… That’s horrible,” Alice covered her mouth with her hand and I nodded.

“But it would be worse if someone got hurt because the police didn’t do their job thoroughly,” I nodded encouragingly, hoping the girl would take the hint and go tell everyone in the back what was going on. Tell them to keep out of the way. Alice just nodded and stared vacantly at me, her mouth opening and closing like my cousin’s goldfish. She considered this option for a few moments before she spun on her heel and walked back to the kitchens.

“The information is going to be all over the House by tomorrow morning,” Rome said. I gaped at him, then felt my face grow red. Oops.

“Keeping everything quiet while still getting people to remain calm and answer your questions is a lot harder than I thought,” I muttered.

“You’ll figure it out,” Cassidy said quietly as I walked by. “You’re the most capable one here.”

“Stop trying to flatter me, Cassidy,” I grumbled. “You’re still in huge trouble.”

I marched out of the room and went to the front coat closet, where they stored the writers’ things — those that weren’t staying in a room for the night, that is. The others, naturally, followed. Quimby handed me my coat, his usually solemn expression even more so. “Detective Renfrew has asked that I meet him at the station tomorrow morning at ten.”

“We’ll be there,” I said.

“Miss Leclerc and I will be there,” Graustark corrected, taking his own coat from its hanger. Quimby looked shocked by the breach of protocol. Or the announcement of the halving of our society.

“I beg your pardon?” Cassidy spluttered.

“Five people showing up at the station would not go over well. You two should go talk to Thomas Rottery’s family,” Graustark ordered. Cassidy continued to splutter and this time it was Rome who went pale.

“Talk to the family?” I honestly don’t ever think I’ve heard Rome’s voice hit quite that pitch.

“Of course,” Graustark replied cooly, showing just the slightest hint of disdain. “The police will have already informed them of Rottery’s death. You will just be expressing sympathy from us at Scribe’s House. And if you happen to ask some discreet questions as to how Rottery spent his free time, whether or not he had any enemies, that sort of thing, well, the police can’t argue about that.”

Cassidy nodded and clapped Rome on the shoulder. “We’ll be there.”

“Hmm,” was all Graustark said. I sighed and shook my head, tightening the belt on my coat. We left the House together, unusually subdued. Rome peeled away first, likely heading to the closest pub for an early supper and a long night of libation. Cassidy went next, muttering a quiet farewell and slipping away.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” I told Graustark, debating whether I wanted to catch a cab back to my flat or walk there and clear my mind. The wind picked up, blowing a few leaves right into my legs.

“Are you sure you’re alright for dinner?”

“What?” I tried to remember when I had mentioned dinner in the last few hours. Right. My flat had no gas, which meant no cooking. “Oh, of course.”

“I can always change my reservation—”

“There’s no need, Howard,” I tried to muster up a smile. “I think I’ll have a quick bite to eat at the pub across the street from my flat. They serve a lovely pie and warm toddy. Then I have to get some writing done…”

“Death is a lot harder to deal with than most people expect,” Graustark said calmly. I stiffened.

“You read minds, now?” I snapped, harsher than I imagined. He just stood there. “What did Dr. Kamińsky mean when he said you hated this? Murder? Death? Is that why you left the police?”

“No,” Graustark shook his head. “My… my expertise in being a police coroner is in the area of poisons. When the police don’t have the expertise to determine cause of death due to a poisoning, they call on me.”

“Oh,” I blinked. Wanted to reach out a hand to him. Didn’t. “I’m sorry.”

“I left for a reason, but my business is still in death, so they expect me to be fine with coming back in.”

“Why did you leave?” I asked, perhaps too quietly.

“I will see you tomorrow morning, then, Marie.” Graustark pulled the collar of his coat up against the wind and stepped off the cobbled curb into the street, jogging between two automobiles and vanishing into the park across the way.

“Men,” I shook my head. “They like to be so mysterious. They’re fooling no one.”

At precisely 9:02 the next morning, I shuffled through the door to the police station, thoroughly wet. Not only was it raining outside — enough to drown a fish — but it was also windy. Too windy for an umbrella. And my coat was wool, which lasted fairly well in the weather but once it got wet, it took ages to dry. Apparently, a pipe had burst in the flat above mine, soaking my coat closet in a fine mist of damp. Then, the rain, and now, I looked like a bedraggled cat.

“You’re late,” Graustark said at my entrance. Then, he took a good look at me and widened his eyes in shock. “What happened?”

“Ask me in ten minutes,” I said, teeth chattering as I took off my coat. It dripped forlornly onto the floor as I hung it on a hook.

“Sergeant,” Graustark stood and went to the desk sergeant, who was staring at me in shock. “Can we get some tea, perhaps?”

“O-Of course, Doctor,” the poor lad said. He didn’t move. I wrung out my sweater as best I could and Graustark coughed pointedly. The sergeant jumped and rushed off to fetch some tea.

“Where’s Quimby?” I asked, wondering if the station had a working radiator nearby. Or if I should just go to the nearest pub with a roaring fire.

“He should be here any minute,” Graustark said. He kept looking at me like he wasn’t quite certain what to do. I just stood there, dripping. A moment later, the desk sergeant came running out with tea. He handed me the cup and I took it, hands shaking. I sipped at the drink and hissed appreciatively. Hot. Perfect.

“Good morning, Sir, Miss.” Quimby’s voice startled me out of a few drops of tea. They landed on my skin and sizzled nicely until my ambient temperature practically froze them. Quimby was standing just inside the door, shaking his coat out as much as possible. His wasn’t soaking all the way through, and once he removed his hat, there wasn’t a drop of water on him. I eyed him jealously.

“Ah, Mr. Quimby, there you are,” Detective Renfrew said, walking out of his office as though it were the most casual thing in the world to meet someone in the station. It was a moment before Renfrew caught sight of Graustark and myself. The detective nodded to Graustark and then coughed in shock at me. “My goodness! Miss Leclerc, what happened?”

“I took a drink from the Thames,” I grumbled. It was, perhaps, in poor taste, but that’s just the sort of mood I was in this morning.

“Sergeant, have we got any spare clothes in the Lost Items bin?” Renfrew asked his desk sergeant, never taking his eyes off of me. I finished my tea sullenly and handed the still-warm cup back with great reluctance. The sergeant ducked behind the desk and rummaged through a bin.

“Er… no,” he said, returning with a single sock.

“Very well. I believe I have an old set of working clothes,” Renfrew sighed. He gestured at me to follow and I did, squelching unhappily along. The detective gave me the old clothes and went to deal with Graustark and Quimby. I changed and tried to belt the trousers as tight as they would go. There was absolutely nothing I could do about the old jumper. And I still had to wear my shoes, given that the detective had nothing of the sort that would fit me. But, all in all, it worked well enough.

I trudged my way to the interview room, where Renfrew, Quimby and Graustark waited. They took one looked at me and fell into silence. Poor Quimby had his sensibilities so shocked that he was able to do nothing but stare. Renfrew seemed as though he was trying very hard to suppress laughter. Graustark, though, just looked baffled.

“You’ve seen me in trousers before,” I grumbled, sitting in the vacant chair.

“Not ill-fitting men’s trousers,” Graustark coughed. I glared.

“The pipe in the flat above me burst. My coat was already soaked by the time I got out to meet the rain.”

“You can discuss this later,” Renfrew said after he had regained his composure. “If you don’t mind, I have actual work to do.”

Graustark nodded imperiously and I tried not to huff like a spoilt child. It’s hard to focus on detecting, on discovering all the details surrounding someone’s death, when you’re caught up with your own life. But I wanted to be there. I wanted to help Rottery and Quimby and prove that I wasn’t just some worthless writer who made everything up as she went. Well, most everything. Basically, I was in a bad mood and felt it.

“Now, just for the record, Dr. Graustark, Miss Leclerc,  you are only here at Mr. Quimby’s request and your relationship to Scribe’s House, correct?” the detective pulled out a small stack of paper and unscrewed his pen.

“We are lending whatever assistance to the investigation that we can,” I agreed, tugging at the too-large neck of the jumper so it sat more comfortably. Graustark coughed.

“Mr. Quimby, how long had Thomas Rottery been working at Scribe’s House?” Renfrew asked.

“Five years, sir. He’s mostly a contractor we have on retainer. Takes on other clients, if things are slow and is available at odd hours of the night, should we require,” Quimby replied smoothly. Renfrew nodded, taking down the information.

The detective asked further questions, such as what Rottery’s general duties were — maintenance, the occasional joinery work, electrics and plumbing — and whether he got on particularly well or badly with any of the members. The questions went on for a considerable amount of time. In my books, I usually just stuck to whether or not my victim had any enemies, or if anything remarkable had happened recently in their lives. Renfrew wanted to know everything about Rottery. He asked things like what sort of tools he carried, whether he was paid directly or by cheque, what he worked on the most, whether he had ever used the House telephone to call his wife, family, or anyone else, whether he received holiday bonuses, brought his lunch or ate what was provided… on and on.

I was jotting down a few notes in my own notebook (thankfully saved from soaking by my leather bag), but I could hardly keep up with Renfrew. Graustark just sat there, keeping a mildly interested expression on his face.

By the time we finished, it was past one in the afternoon and everyone was looking worse for wear. Except possibly Renfrew, who looked like he had been having a fairly easy morning, for a detective.

“Detective,” I asked after we had risen and been given the usual information and farewells. “You don’t think Quimby is a suspect, do you?”

“That is not for me to say, Miss Leclerc,” Renfrew smiled at me in a mildly patronising manner. “I haven’t yet collected all the facts.”

“Will you keep us informed on the investigation?” I pressed. Graustark looked like he wanted to say something. I ignored him.

“You are not police. I allowed you to be here in support of Mr. Quimby because he worked closely with you. However, I am in no way obligated to allow you to take any part in the investigation.” Renfrew’s voice became cold.

“Detective,” Graustark said, somehow maintaining a perfect calm. “Have you spoken to Dr. Kamińsky regarding cause of death?”

Renfrew frowned, “I am fully aware of your qualifications, Dr. Graustark. I am also aware of Dr. Kamińsky’s request. I have no hand in the police coroner’s work, but that does not mean I must involve you in any other part of the investigation. Actually, if you do end up crossing my path and I fear that you are causing more trouble, then you will be written up.”

Graustark said nothing to that. He just opened the door for me and followed me out. I wanted to snarl something vicious at the detective. Somehow, I had a feeling that would have made things much worse, so I kept my tongue quiet.

“Good day, Mr. Quimby, Dr. Graustark, Miss Leclerc,” Detective Renfrew said as we marched past the desk sergeant. “If I have any more questions, then I will be sure to call.”

I nodded tersely and opened the door to leave. Only to be barrelled aside by a uniformed police man wearing a slicker and his pointed hat. He looked just as miserable as the two men he was escorting, both wet, dishevelled and thoroughly embarrassed.

“Rome, Cassidy!” I said in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”

“These two were harrassing the family of Thomas Rottery,” the uniform said, giving Rome an extra shove.

“We were not harassing the family,” Cassidy insisted. “We gained entry just before the police came and Rottery’s wife had us arrested. She was hysterical because she had just found out about her husband —”

“Because you told her,” the uniform growled.

“We were doing nothing wrong,” Cassidy sniffed. Rome just hunched his shoulders and glared at the floor. I glanced between them and Graustark.

“Well, well, it looks like we’re going to have a few problems,” Detective Renfrew said, putting his hands in his pocket. He was definitely smirking.

About half an hour later, I was sitting at a table in a pub, nursing a hot pie and a pint of ale. The table was closest to the fire, partly because I was still trying to dry my coat, partly because I was trying to drive away the chill. I was still wearing the clothes Detective Renfrew had loaned me, with the promise I would return them as soon as I could.

Rome and Cassidy sat across from me; Rome poking absently at his soup and Cassidy holding his pint like it was a lifeline.

“So,” I said, taking a bite of the pie. “Did you really get arrested?”

“No,” Cassidy tried to brush off the incident like it was a joke. “The officer brought us to the station, but only because we needed to be there. And he was rather cross with us.”

“The widow was rather cross,” Rome grumbled. “We arrived at her door and she demanded to know where Rottery was. Apparently, she’d been visiting a sick sister for the last week and he hadn’t been home when she got back. This morning.”

“That explains why she didn’t know about his death,” I nodded.

“The officer said that Renfrew had gone around to her house last night, but she wasn’t there,” Cassidy confirmed. I winced.

“I am sorry,” I said. “I never expected that she wouldn’t know… was it bad when you told her?”

“In all my novels,” Rome said, “I don’t think twice about writing the grieving family being hysterical. I mean, why wouldn’t they be? But this was just awful! I’ve never had a woman scream so loud at me.”

“I will be certain never to write that lightheartedly again,” Cassidy shuddered and took a long pull at his pint. “I always liked the thought of a solemn, emotionless widow. My hero could break her down and, well, you know. This? I never ever want to go near a woman again. Well, except you, Marie. I think you’re very rational.”

“I’m not certain that’s a compliment, but I will accept it all the same,” I said. I tugged at the collar of my borrowed jumper. “How much longer do you think Graustark will be? I want to get back to my flat and see if there’s anything dry I can wear before I have to figure out where I’m staying tonight.”

“You’ve had rotten luck with your flat,” Rome pointed out.

“It’s been terrible,” I agreed, stabbing my fork into the pie. “First the renovations on the lift, then the gas being out and now this… I thought that it was a good place when I first moved in.”

“Your flat is nice,” Cassidy said. He’s one of the few people from Scribe’s House who had actually been to my flat. I had held a cocktail party there to appease my publisher. She had brought Cassidy along. “It is in a very nice area, and I wouldn’t expect any problems from it.”

“Except for all the problems I’ve been having,” I said. “So, how long do you think Graustark will be?”

I was more than willing to complain about my flat, but I also wasn’t a fool. Rome and Cassidy were trying to change the subject. To get me to stop thinking about — or talking about — the murder. I was more stubborn than they were.

“Can we leave it alone for a little while?” Rome asked, glaring at his soup. “After this morning. And that scene at the station. I just want a quiet lunch.”

“You’ve had worse critiques from your publisher,” I waved my hand dismissively. “Surely you can handle the smug looks from a police detective.”

“Marie, we know you’re keen to get experience, but this isn’t, well, you know,” Cassidy hunched his shoulders. I said nothing, waiting. He looked up at me from under his brows, trying to look inconspicuous and innocent. “It’s not a game. It’s not part of your novel.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” I asked. “Don’t you think that I’m horrified a man has died? And before you say anything about me taking advantage of the situation, you both are doing the same thing. But we’re also helping. We want to make this right, or as right as we can. Do you really think that we could just lay this aside and go back to our daily lives? Our weekly meetings where we gripe about our publishers or try to figure out the best way to stage a body in the most dramatic fashion? I know the police are working on this. But I also know that I wouldn’t let either of your deaths go uninvestigated by me. Why should Rottery be any different, even if he was just an employee?”

I hadn’t meant to make a speech, but it just came out. Rome nodded encouragingly and Cassidy sat back in his chair. “Maybe you’re right,” Cassidy said slowly, his tone reminiscent of the drawl he had once practised on us. He had been trying to figure out what an American cowboy might sound like and had given up when we all could barely contain our laughter. To this day, though, it was his tie to the investigative spirit of his horse-riding cowboy-detective.

“Maybe?” I replied, managing a snarky grin.

“Didn’t you know?” Rome sat up straighter, a mischievous light in his eyes. “Marie is always right.”

“Except, apparently, about my flat,” I said. Perhaps we did all need a reprieve. There wasn’t much we could do until Graustark joined us, anyways. We had to know cause of death before we could really investigate. And we certainly couldn’t go talking to Rottery’s widow, now. That mess would have to be cleaned up at a later point. By someone with a bit more tact and finesse. Someone female. Me, to be short.

I certainly wasn’t going to do it dressed like a dog recovering from drowning.

“What are you going to do? Get a hotel until everything gets sorted out?” Rome asked.

I shrugged, “That would be nice, but not terribly practical. I would be there for an age.”

“You could always stay at Scribe’s House,” Cassidy said. “They have rooms for long-term stays…”

I shook my head, “I couldn’t. Not after… Rottery was up there, where everyone lives, for days. And no one noticed. I don’t think that’s a place where I want to stay. Not until we figure out what happened.”

“No one at the House killed him, surely,” Rome said. I shrugged. Silence descended on the group, broken only by the crackling fire.

“I’ll probably just go stay with my parents,” I said. “It’s not directly in the city, but I can borrow a car and get here easily enough. Do either of you have a car to drive me out there this evening?”

“Sorry,” Cassidy shrugged and shook his head. “I never could understand what you would want with your own car. I get around just grand on my own. With the occasional taxi, of course.”

“Of course,” Rome agreed. “I just don’t make enough money.”

“I can drive you.” We turned and found Graustark standing there, looking less put-together than I had ever seen him. His suit was slightly dishevelled and he looked drawn. “I keep a car at a garage nearby.”

“I forgot you live around here,” Rome said. What I believe he meant was ‘my goodness, what happened’.

“You look terrible,” Cassidy said.

These two have all the tact of a dead badger.

“Sit down, Howard,” I said. “Do you want something to eat? Drink?”

“Thank you, I’m not hungry,” Graustark slid into the seat between Cassidy and me, his back to the fire. He hunched his shoulders. “Before you start to grill me, I may as well tell you what I discovered… Thomas Rottery had ingested a poisonous plant, in the form of a cooked dessert of some sort. This plant is known as the Beech Apple and is extremely dangerous and can cause death if ingested.”

“Sorry, what?” I asked. “A Beech Apple? He ate a poison apple?”

“It’s not a true apple,” Graustark rubbed a thumb over the woodgrain on the table. “The tree, native to the tropical Americas, is called the Mancheel tree. It produces a fruit that looks similar to an apple. The sap of the tree and its fruit are extreme irritants and will kill a person.”

We took a moment to soak that in. Poison from a tree from the Americas. It was definitely murder. And well planned in advance. “How… how do you know about this tree?” Rome asked, tilting his glass to examine the last of the ale. He didn’t look up to meet Graustark’s gaze. To be fair, Graustark didn’t look up from the table to meet Rome’s gaze, either.

“During the war… I worked with a man who was told to see if we could find something to incapacitate the Germans,” Graustark started. “He had heard of this tree from a man who lived in Florida. The tests did not go well.”

We sat there in silence for a while longer and I gave up on the rest of my pie. “If you don’t mind,” I said, pushing the dish away, “could we stop by my flat before I go to my parents? I’d like to pick up a few things. And talk to my estate agent.”

“Of course,” Graustark replied. He pushed away from the table quick enough that the chair rattled as he moved. We left Rome and Cassidy sitting there, no promises about where we would meet tomorrow.

Graustark was silent as he drove me to my flat. I stopped inside and he waited, neither of us really up to social niceties at the moment. I returned a few minutes later with a valise and a thoroughly bad mood. I gave him directions to my parents’ estate and complained.

“It will take months before they get everything fixed. They’re talking about having to replace almost the whole building’s plumbing. And the gas is a city problem. I may have to move,” I grumbled. Most of my clothes were ruined. Thank goodness my books were in a part of the flat well away from any pipes.

“Did your estate agent recommend moving?” Graustark asked.

“No, of course not,” I sighed. “The flat was a good investment. And I haven’t got a good deal of capital saved up for the expense. No, I will be moving back to my parents’ for a good while, it seems.”

We drove in silence for a bit and left the craziness of the city behind. I turned to look at Graustark, whose hands on the wheel were white. “Are you alright?” I asked.

“I don’t know what you mean?” he replied, carefully calm.

“I’m not a fool,” I raised my brows. “I’m not going to judge you if you say no. It’s not a crime.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Alright then, that was the end of that conversation. I nodded to a turn in the road, “There. Just follow that road for a few minutes. Then we’ll be at my parents’ house.”

He must have noticed the dread in my voice. “Did you phone ahead? Do they have the space?”

I nodded my head to the large house and surrounding estate that appeared as we crested the hill. It was one of those old estates that had been modernised in a thoroughly ostentatious manner. The gardens were well-kempt and absurd and there was even a peacock striding along the gravel drive. “Trust me,” I said flatly. “They’ll have plenty of space.”

One good thing about my parents’ estate was that it shocked Graustark out of his fugue. He fairly gaped as we drove up to the front of the house. We had barely stopped when the butler came out and greeted me, opening the door with regal formality.

“Welcome back, Miss Marie,” he said, using the familiar name rather than my true last name, for which I was supremely grateful.

“Hallo, Gunther,” I said, kissing his cheek fondly. He had been a bright light in my years here. Unlike a good portion of everything else. “Is everyone in?”

“Yes, miss,” Gunther said, taking my valise before I had even pulled it out of the car. By some unseen signal, a driver came and took Graustark’s place behind the wheel, pulling the car away before I even extended the invitation to stay for supper. Oh, dear. “They’re in. And your cousin, Mr. Denning, and his sister are here as well. And a Mr. Talworth?”

“Oh, dear,” I repeated, out loud. I turned to Graustark. He was still gaping. “Well, you had better come in, Howard. I imagine supper can be extended to one more this evening?”

Gunther nodded in the affirmative and we started up the steps into the house. Graustark took my arm. “Um, Marie…?” he breathed in my ear. I sighed, ready to explain, but it was too late. We were already being ushered into the drawing room. The entire party was there, the noise startling. My parents, dressed in the impractical costumes of the wealthy, were sitting on the long couch, laughing over some joke that my cousin was telling, a drink in his hand. Gunther stepped in and everyone turned to greet us, their smiles frighteningly effusive.

“Marie!” My father rose and walked over to me, giving me a swift hug. I kissed his cheek.

“Hello, father. This is Dr. Howard Graustark,” I said, introducing Graustark before things became too awkward. “He writes novels, too.”

“Charmed,” my father said, pumping Graustark’s hand energetically. I went around introducing everyone and somehow we ended up with Graustark being poured a drink and me exchanging awkward greetings with Charlotte Denning, a woman who despised me and whom I also despised.

“Marie, darling,” she said, giving me those air kisses so popular in Paris. “What are you wearing?”

“The flat above mine burst a pipe,” I said. “I had to borrow some clothes off a friend.”

“A male friend?” Charlotte snickered. “My goodness, darling, I have some frocks upstairs which would suit so much better. Come, we’ll go get you dressed appropriately.”

I was dragged away and left Graustark standing near the piano, staring wide-eyed at the idiotic splendour around him. John Denning was edging closer, starting to ask questions about his books and what he was working on at the moment.

It was going to be a very, very long evening.

Charlotte went through my small case of clothes I had rescued from my flat, and promptly decided that none of them was worthy of dinner. I had to agree — my parents’ dinners were still known for being formal and absurd. None of my tailored mens’ coats would work. And the one frock I had saved was still damp.

Once I had handed off my laundry, Detective Renfrew’s clothes included, Charlotte sprawled on my bed and crossed her ankles. I shrugged into some green monstrosity that was too tight and too revealing. In other words, not comfortable at all.

“My dear Marie, you desperately need to get some new clothes. Isn’t your job paying you at all?” she plucked at a thread on the duvet.

“A writer’s uniform is comfort more than fashion, Charlotte,” I said. “I don’t attend many formal dinners.”

“Such a shame,” she sighed. “And with a background like yours, too.”

“Oh, for —” I was seconds away from strangling the woman when someone knocked on the door. My mother poked her head in, smiling brightly.

“Marie darling, so glad you came up. And brought a friend, too. We so rarely see you these days,” my mother simpered. Simpering was her one great talent. That and spending money like water.

“A pipe burst in my flat,” I explained again, thought I was fairly certain that she already knew this. “I’ll have to stay a while. Not during the days — I have things to do, but at night, certainly.”

“How wonderful! We’ll put together a party, even though Christmas is coming up. But it will be grand, none the less. Oh, and dear, I’ve put your friend in the Blue Room. He said he didn’t mean to intrude and he really should get back, but I convinced him. He can borrow some of John’s clothes for tonight. They’re about the same height.”

Before I could say a word, my mother was gone. Great. Just great.

I went down to dinner as quickly as possible, hoping I could head Graustark off before he got cornered by my various family members. Unfortunately, a women’s toilette takes slightly longer than a men’s. I reached the small parlour where cocktails were being served too late.

Graustark was standing with a drink in his hand like he had no idea what to do with it. He was also in some sort of conversation with John Denning and the Mr. Talworth — whom I suspected was Wallace Talworth, son of the MP for the district. My father had some sort of anti-political addiction and loved to surround himself with such people, if only to tell them off. I approached with trepidation.

“Miss Grange,” Talworth smiled annoyingly as I approached. “Come, have something to drink!”

Graustark, upon hearing the other half of my name, coughed. He took a sip of the cocktail and coughed even more, a horrified expression on his face. I was fairly certain things were only going to get worse.

“Would you tell Gunther that I’ll just have a gin and tonic?” I did my best to simper at Talworth. He nodded and strode off to find Gunther. I turned back to Graustark, trying not to scowl.

“Grange,” he said slowly. “As in Leclerc-Grange? The business magnate?”

“Robber baron, more like,” I said. “But, yes. My big, dark secret. You won’t tell the others, will you?”

“I don’t think they’d believe me if I did,” Graustark said. “You being part of the most…”

“Pick your favourite word,” I said flatly. “Rich, notorious, scandalous, absurd, cunning, cruel. My family has been all of those and more. Which is why I use only the partial name in my books. And live in town. By my own means.”

“It is a bit unusual to think about,” Graustark mused. “You just seem so normal.”

I beamed, just as Talworth returned. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Dinner proceeded just as the pre-dinner cocktails. Graustark kept looking around as though there was something completely fantastical about the place. Charlotte and John kept making remarks to Graustark, trying to goad him into revealing something about the work we did. Apparently writing novels couldn’t be so simple as putting words on the page, with time set aside for research and dealing with one’s publishers. Neither one of us enlightened them about the current issue. Talworth, having discovered my connection to his host, was far too polite for my tastes. I could fairly see the word ‘heiress’ in his eyes and made a point to ignore him.

Finally, everyone at the dinner table was busy talking with someone else, which left Graustark and me to discuss our business in peace.

“How do you think he acquired it?” I asked, poking halfheartedly at my pheasant in some sort of white sauce.

Graustark didn’t offend me by asking who he and it were. “I wouldn’t imagine that particular plant is terribly common, given its, ah, dangerous nature. And we are not in the Americas, either.”

“It certainly requires a knowledge of botany — or poison — and premeditation,” I agreed. “How would you even go about making inquires on the matter?”

“The police will make inquiries at the various ports. If it was ordered, then there will be a record. If it was smuggled in, then they’ll have to do work with some of the less than legal people in town.” Graustark frowned at the food and pushed it around on his plate. I completely agreed.

“So it’s unlikely that they’ll get anything out of that quarter,” I gave up on my pheasant and took a sip of the wine instead. On my other side, Charlotte was doing her best to engage Talworth in a conversation about fishing or some such. Both had obviously imbibed far too much alcohol. Charlotte was more than a little squiffy and kept giggling. I pushed the wine away, too.

“It would be better if they could,” Graustark said. “That would lend a certain amount of credibility to whatever evidence they find. But, no, it is unlikely.”

“I say we talk to his widow, again. We’ll provide the appropriate apologies for this morning’s intrusion and see if we can’t get a decent idea about Rottery’s life.”

“She might have some idea as to who gave Rottery the poison fruit,” Graustark said.

Charlotte turned and gaped, “Poison? My goodness, what horrid dinner conversation. What do you need to know about poison?”

“I do write murder mysteries,” I pointed out. Charlotte waved a hand dismissively.

“Well, yes, but there’s no need to talk about it over dinner,” she hiccoughed. Talworth looked at me, eyes shining from too much alcohol and the obvious designs on my wealth.

“I think it’s jolly grand, a woman writing mystery,” he said.

“As opposed to what?” I muttered, sipping from the glass of water Gunther had brought me.

“You could have been working as a secretary or some such,” Talworth said. I had a bad feeling about where this was heading. “But you decided to write instead. It’s almost a real job, but so much better. So much more interesting. And you get to spend your time relaxing. Maybe I should take it up.”

And, there we go. One of the many reasons why I stay away from my parents and the people they invite.

“Not a real job?” Graustark asked, putting on his most ‘highly-educated’ uppity attitude. “Do you suppose the books just appear on the page? Do you suppose that we just laze around and wave our hands and make the words magically appear?”

“No, of course not, I just—” Talworth struggled to coherence.

“It takes a good deal of work, and research,” Graustark continued. “We have to determine how long after a death a body remains pliable, or how long after that it remains rigid. We have to understand the best way to kill a person with a fountain pen, or whether they’re more or less likely to commit murder while drunk.”

Charlotte started to look a little green, “Really, must we—”

“This is not for the fainthearted. We get as much practical experience as possible. Why, just today, Marie and I were helping the police determine the cause of death for a corpse that had been fed poisoned apples. It requires a good deal of science and thought to determine such things from the intestinal matter of—” This time, Graustark was the one cut off, but he had made his point.

Charlotte pushed her chair back from the table with a scraping sound that drew the attention of the entire table. She pressed her mouth very tightly together and fled the dining room. Talworth gaped after her, then looked at me, eyes wide. I smoothed over the smirk resting on my features and shrugged, “She’d had too much to drink.”

My father let out a chortle and John looked embarrassed at his sister’s antics. Talworth said nothing and returned to his own drink, suddenly pale. Just then, Gunther walked into the room with the pudding.

“An apple crisp,” he announced grimly. Talworth fled as well and I couldn’t help but laugh.

The next morning was pretty much as bad as I could have expected. I had asked to be woken early, so I could get a car and go into town. What I didn’t realise was that the definition of early for people who have no concept of a job, or of life outside of their own pleasures was completely different than my own. I should have specified my father’s type of early. At least he worked.

Instead, I was woken at half past eight and had to rush to dress and get to town before nine. Breakfast was nothing more than a pipe dream. At least I had clean, dry clothes, if they were a bit bourgeoise for my taste. Still, I managed to pull up outside Scribe’s House at ten minutes past nine.

Graustark was already waiting. Rome and Cassidy were wiping the last crumbs off of their plates and my stomach growled. “You’re late,” Graustark rumbled. I started to explain and decided that, considering I hadn’t even had tea this morning, he could stuff it.

“Well, I’m here now,” I said. “Are we still going to see Mrs. Rottery?”

“What?” Rome shot out of the chair fast enough to topple over. He stared at us from the ground. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Not you,” Graustark said gently. “We are going to go and deliver our most profound apologies from the Scribe’s House. Unfortunately, I don’t think the two of you are going to be much help in that.”

“So, what, we’re just going to sit around again while we wait for the two of you to get everything done?” Cassidy asked, scowling. I frowned.

“We’re just going to talk to the widow,” I said. “Which you could do if you hadn’t caused problems yesterday. We’ll be back here directly afterwards and we can go from there. Alright?”

“There’s no need to snap at us,” Rome said, recovering his seat. I frowned some more. I hadn’t realised I was being snappy. Apparently, that’s what happens when I miss breakfast. I sighed.

“Look, I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been a trying couple of days.”

“We’ll talk to you later,” Cassidy fixed his gaze on the bottom of his tea cup in obvious dismissal. I looked at Graustark to back me up, but he was already heading to the door. I had no choice but to follow or be left behind.

I slipped into Graustark’s car and we went off on our not-so-merry way. After a few minutes of driving in silence, Graustark spoke, “You know they’re just feeling left out. They want to help as much as you do.”

“Huh? Oh, Rome and Cassidy you mean,” I said. “It’s nothing terribly worrying. We’ll tell them everything over lunch and we’ll go from there. Provided the widow even gives us useful information. Because if she doesn’t, then I think we’re going to be stuck.”

“Are you always this optimistic first thing in the morning?” Graustark asked. It took me a minute to realise that he was being sarcastic.

“Only when I haven’t had any breakfast,” I sniffed. Graustark just shook his head and we finished the drive in silence.

Thomas Rottery had lived in a part of the city that boasted Victorian era flats. They were on a nicely kempt street and even had a few small trees in the plots out front. I nodded, impressed, and we got out of the car. This was a place you saved up for, and where your children could grow up in relative peace. Graustark pulled the bell for Rottery and we were let in after hardly ten seconds of waiting.

Mrs. Rottery was standing in the doorway of the second-floor flat, scowling deeply. She was a small woman wrapped in the skirts and aprons of ten years past. Her hair was prematurely grey and she had deep lines around her mouth and eyes. “You’re not the police,” she accused.

“No, Madame,” Graustark touched the brim of his hat respectfully. “We are representatives of the Scribe’s House, where your husband worked —”

“and died,” Mrs. Rottery cut in. “You musn’t forget that.”

“Of course not,” Graustark’s voice turned slightly more posh and his expression slightly more grave. At the change, Mrs. Rottery straightened, responding to some deeply-ingrained instinct of all English people to take heed at such a voice. “We offer you our deepest condolences. May we come in?”

The woman sniffed for a moment, examining the both of us for any sign of a trick. Then, she slowly stepped back into her flat and let us in. The interior of the flat did not match the pleasant exterior of the building. The interior, much like Mrs. Rottery, looked as though it hadn’t been changed for a decade or more. The furniture was old and worn, holes showing through on the upholstery, the wood chipping away. There was laundry strung across the door to the kitchen and I was glad not to be able to look into that room.

Mrs. Rottery put her nose in the air and led us to a small sitting room. I perched gently on the edge of a chair and tried my best to look polite. I think borrowing some of Charlotte’s high-end clothes might have helped, because Mrs. Rottery certainly didn’t look me in the face; she just kept staring at the cut of the skirt and blouse.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked after we had all been seated. Graustark rose almost immediately.

“Why don’t I make the tea? Miss Leclerc will keep you company,” he said, then fled.

I reached out and took Mrs. Rottery’s hands in mine, knowing full well what was expected of me. “You have our deepest sympathies, Mrs. Rottery,” I said in my most comforting well-to-do voice. “Thomas, ah, Mr. Rottery was such a blessing to the House.”

“You mean he took care of all those things you writers don’t know how to do,” Mrs. Rottery sniffed. She blinked a few times and I examined her closely. I decided that she wasn’t about to break into tears, so I just nodded.

“We would have been hopeless without him,” I agreed. “I only wish I had known him better. Maybe this whole terrible business could have been prevented.”

Mrs. Rottery let out a disbelieving snort, “Had you known my husband better, you would have realised that there was nothing about this that could have been prevented. He was a… a skirt-chaser. He upset countless husbands and brothers and fathers. And if that wasn’t enough, he spent every penny we had at the races. And you see what I’m left with. Absolutely nothing.”

I gaped, fish-like, for a moment before recovering my composure. “Oh, I’m sure that things can’t be as bad as all that.”

“You writers really are just stuck in your own words,” Mrs. Rottery said with a twist of the mouth. “Do you want to know what I received in the post?”

Before I could answer, she rose and shuffled over to the mantle, snatching a letter from where it had been hidden behind a picture. She thrust the paper out at me and I took it, trying to be respectful and not betray my eagerness. I didn’t quite manage, however, to contain my shock.

You think you can get away with it because you’re in another country? Don’t think we don’t know how to get to you.

It was unsigned. I looked at the envelope and saw that it had been mistakenly sent by way of Angola, which was odd in of itself. Underneath the mark from Angola, there was a fainter one with three letters that made my heart sing: U.S. of A. The letter, whoever it was from, was American.

“When did you receive this?” I asked, doing my best to sound shocked.

“Yesterday evening. It came with the late post,” Mrs. Rottery growled. “The postman was astonished it got here at all, considering how badly the address was written.”

“I quite agree,” I said. “You should give this to the police.”

“And what business is it of theirs?” Mrs. Rottery held out her hand for the letter, but I held onto it under the pretence of reading it through again, examining the paper and the envelope.

“They informed the house that Mr. Rottery had been poisoned with a substance, ah, native to the Americas,” I said. Mrs. Rottery frowned and held out her hand with another shake.

“It’s no business of theirs,” she snarled. “I just want him buried and gone so I can move on with what’s left of my life.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” I said, folding the letter and putting it into my handbag. Mrs. Rottery paled. There were some things you couldn’t do, and demanding another woman’s handbag was one of them, no matter that she had just pocketed a letter addressed to your dead husband.

“Do you want milk or… ah,” Graustark poked his head into the sitting room and saw the widow’s hands clenched in definite fists, her expression caught somewhere between horror and fury. “I take it we have outstayed our welcome.”

“Indeed you have,” Mrs. Rottery snapped. “And I’ll even give you one more piece of information before you go. I didn’t kill my husband. I don’t know who did and I don’t want to know. I only know I wish I had gotten there first.”

With that cheering note, we fled the flat with only a few polite good days as a shield. After we were in the car, I handed the letter over to Graustark. He examined it minutely before nodding and returning it to me. “It seems as though whoever sent this may have been our poisoner.”

“Really? Because it would be rather difficult to get someone to eat a poisoned pie if you weren’t here. They may have sent the poison to the cook or whoever actually did the baking, but it seems a long way to go,” I said.

Graustark sighed, “Of course it couldn’t be that simple.”

“What did you find in the kitchen?” I asked. Graustark raised an eyebrow at me as he started the car. “Well, I assume you didn’t actually go in there to make tea. You would have sent me, if that were the case.”

“Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean I expect you to make the tea,” he replied wryly. Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. “I assumed that she would be more comfortable talking with a woman. Apparently, I was wrong.”

“Thomas Rottery may have been a skirt chaser, but Mrs. Rottery certainly blames the women he went after just as much as she blames the races for drawing him in,” I agreed. “But what did you find in the kitchen?”

“Nothing,” Graustark grumbled. “Well, nothing of importance. If that woman has baked, it hasn’t been in the last few years. The flour had gone off.”

“So the letter is the only lead we have so far,” I said. “That and our maintenance man’s penchant for risk.”

“Indeed.”

“Well, we’d better go tell Rome and Cassidy and then deliver the letter to the police,” I said. “And can we please get some food. I’m starving.”

Coming 17 November

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