With seven faces turned towards us and a silence I could have sliced with a knife, we were faced with little choice but to take the bull by the horny bits. Clearing my throat in a manly way, I stepped forward.
“Good evening. I understand that my wife and I, along with several other individuals will be ferried across to Huge Island in the morning, so I suggest we all introduce ourselves. My name’s Armstrong and this is my good lady.” Turning to our young companion, I gave him an encouraging nod.
“Oh, right,” said he, clearly feeling I’d put him on the spot. “Marston. That’s me.” He sniffed and looked purposefully at the nearest of our fellow travellers, an elderly chap sitting alone by the fire.
“Ah-ha,” announced the man, giving Marston a surly stare. “Righto. MacArthur. Jack. Major. Retired. Veteran of the Crimea, don’t you know.” He twirled a thin moustache between finger and thumb and gazed at the rest of us as if expecting a round of applause.
At the next table, a spinsterish-looking woman in a raincoat and headscarf, mumbled something inaudible. The man closest to her held up a finger.
“Says she’s called Bent Emily.” The woman tapped him on the arm and whispered in his ear. ”Sorry,” said the man, “Emily Bent.” The woman smiled appreciatively. Her saviour lifted his head in a superior sort of way and told us he was a former police inspector. “Blah’s the name. Billy Blah. Private investigator these days, if anyone’s interested. Cheap rates.”
The other three persons in our happy band turned out to be Dilip Lombardi, a middle-aged ex-soldier, Vera Claymore, a twenty-eight year-old teacher whose haggard face gave her the appearance of a lady of the night, and our last companion, a bald-headed mean-faced man named Lawrence Warmonger, who declared himself to be a Justice of the Peace and who did not relish sharing a room, let alone a house with anyone else.
“Right, then,” I said. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” I forced a smile and raised my glass in a toast. “To the island.”
The others responded half-heartedly, apart from Warmonger who simply peered at me over the top of his spectacles, his pale forehead furrowed like a ploughed field on a rainy day.
“Well done, Johnny,” whispered Mary, giving me a peck on the cheek. “Now, how about some food?”
“You’ll be bleedin’ lucky,” said Marston, indicating the toothless crone behind the bar. “Cheese toasties is all they’ve got, and I reckon we’ll be getting ‘em for breakfast an’all.” He laughed heartily and threw back the remains of his pint. “Another one, squire?”
Ordering more drinks and a helping of the aforementioned toasties, Mary, myself and our new friend settled down at a table close enough to our travelling companions to listen in on their conversations. Unfortunately, it seemed everyone else had the same idea, and apart from the crackle and hiss of the fire, the room remained obstinately silent for the remainder of the evening.
Retiring to bed shortly after eleven, I took the precaution of bracing a chair against the door.
“Expecting visitors, darling?” said Mary, pulling a flannelette nightie over her head.
“I’m hoping not,” said I. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if the would-be killer decided to get one in the bag before morning.” Tucking my trusty revolver under the mattress, I crawled into bed and prepared myself for a sleepless night.