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Strangers in the Night


Diary of Doctor J. Watson
Dolphin Cove

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.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2019 in Detective Fiction

 

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The Victims Gather…


The Diary of Mary Watson (Mrs)

By the time we’d reached our destination, Johnny had finished his book and for the past several minutes had sat opposite me with a look of total confusion on his face. I smiled to myself as I recalled he’d worn that very same expression on our wedding night.

“Any the wiser, darling,“ I asked, patting his knee.

“Wiser,” said he, “but no happier. I do hope this Mr UN Owen does not intend to follow the plot of the book to the letter, otherwise we’ll all be in the shit.” He cast the novel aside and with slumped shoulders and a downturned mouth, gazed mournfully out of the window.

“Don’t forget, Johnny,” I said, “it’s likely that none of the others who’re invited will react according to their counterparts in the story either. I should think Mr Owen will have his work cut out if he means to kill us all off.”

We said no more about it, for the train had pulled into the station at Saint Just and we spent ten minutes hauling our bags across the platform and down the hill to the market square. Considering that it was only six o’clock, the place was deserted and only the light from an inn (appealingly titled The Budgie Smuggler) showed any signs of life. On questioning the innkeeper, we were directed to a gnarled individual huddled near the fire nursing a tankard of ale. After some prompting and the promise of six shillings, he agreed to transport us the five miles to Dolphin Cove in his cart.

The ride was not in the least comfortable, so I distracted myself by asking our driver a series of questions regarding other visitors bound for the same destination.

“To Dollen Co, yer mean?

“That’s what I said – Dolphin Cove.”

“Rum ol’ place that. No near nob’dy ner go there this time o’ yur. No’tin there, ‘ceptin the ol’ house. No doins nor not’in.”

“We’re going to the island.”

At this, the surly fellow turned his face to me and stared hard. “What’n go there fer?”

“We’ve been invited.”

“Wouldn’t go there meself. Not fer nobody.”

“But have you seen anyone else going there?” I persisted.

“Ye mean apart from yerslves?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

Johnny rolled his eyes. “Helpful chap.” Then digging into his pocket he produced a sovereign. “Look here my man, we’d like some information…”

The driver’s eyes lit up at the sight of the coin and he snatched it out of Johnny’s hand in an instant.

Two minutes later we knew all he knew – that seven other people had arrived in Saint Just that day and all had been transported to Dolphin Cove via this very cart (except for one fellow who had insisted on making the journey on foot).

“Strange that none of them were on our train,” murmured Johnny. “Surely we’re not the only travellers from London?”

I knew what he was thinking. “I’m sure our companion will have made alternative arrangements. He wouldn’t want to meet any of the others face to face just yet.”

Johnny nodded. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right.”

Half an hour later, we arrived at our hotel. I use the word in a very general sense, as the resemblance to anything I’ve previously experienced was similar only in that the building had a roof and four walls.

Johnny and I were billeted in a sparse room at the top of the house with a window that looked onto a back yard containing several pigs and a small horse. As we’d eaten nothing since lunchtime, we decided to forgo unpacking and seek refreshment in the bar. It was there that we met the first of the other invitees.

Leaning against the bar stood a young man in a pin-striped suit. His hair was greased back in the American fashion and a cigarette hung limply from the corner of his mouth. On seeing me, he withdrew the item and flicked it into the hearth.

“What’s a gal like you doin’ in a place like this, then?” he gushed, staring at my chest.

“Smacking you in the gob, if you don’t stop looking at my tits,” said I with a smile.

The man’s mouth dropped open and his eyes widened so much I thought they might fall out of his face.

Johnny stepped in front of me and patted the stranger’s chest. “Don’t mind my wife,” he said, “just her little joke. Can we buy you a drink?”

“Oh, yeah, course you can, son, course you can. I’ll have a dry martini, mate.”

“You’ll have a pint of bitter and like it,” said Johnny with admirable masculinity. He leaned on the bar and ordered the drinks, while I took in our surroundings.

Looking around the room, there were several other individuals sitting in twos or threes and keeping their conversations to general chit-chat. There were seven of them, a figure which corresponded with the number of people invited to the island. It seemed odd that each would have chosen this particular dwelling as their overnight lodging, but then again, the likelihood of the village being able to offer anything more suitable in terms of accommodation was minimal.

“On holiday?” asked Johnny, handing the man his drink.

“What, oh no, nothing like that.” Taking a sip of his beer he wiped a hand down his trousers and held it out. “Tony Marston’s the name. Greetings cards and related ephemera.”

“Ah,” said Johnny, shaking the man’s hand firmly. “I’m Doctor Wa…Wa…” He stammered and coughed, then regaining his composure, said, “Doctor Armstrong. Wedward Armstrong. Though you can call me Edward.”

“And this must be your old lady, eh?” said Marston, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on my face.

“That’s right,” I said. “So…Marston. That’s an interesting name.” I glanced at Johnny and unseen my our companion, he mouthed The first victim. I nodded. “Related to the Marston’s of Kent?”

“No love, I mean, Mrs Armstrong. “Just a common-or-garden Marston.”

“So you’re going to the island?” I said, giving him a sly grin.

Once more, the man’s mouth dropped open. “You two going there an’all?”

“We are,” I said, gazing around the room. “Along with seven others.”

As my eyes slid around the room, all heads turned towards me and the hum of conversation came to an abrupt halt.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2019 in Detective Fiction

 

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Death and Other Anxieties


Diary of Doctor J. Watson

Our travelling documents stated that we must reach Dolphin Cove – a small village a few miles up the coast from Land’s End – by the following Friday lunchtime. Some chap with a boat would meet us at the harbour and take us across to Huge Island (which apparently does not live up to its name). Whether we were to encounter our fellow travellers at that point was unclear, and it was for this reason, and several others, that I decided to spend our train journey reading a copy of Mrs Christie’s novel, in the hope it might shed light on our forthcoming adventure.

“You do realise,” said Mary, flicking through a copy of Detective Monthly, “that we shall probably all be horribly murdered?”

“I should have thought that horribly was the only way to be murdered,” I said, giving her a playful wink.

“Don’t be obtuse, Johnny,” she snapped. “The only reason I agreed to this mad outing is my belief that between the two of us and Mr Big Nose, we can solve this thing.” She cast the magazine aside. “I do hope I’m right – If we all get killed, I’ll be really annoyed.”

Flipping to the end om my book, I said, “D’you recall who the culprit is in Mrs Christie’s version?”

“The judge.”

“Ah. So all we need do is look out for a wizened old magistrate or some such.”

Mary sighed and shook her head. “Really, husband, sometimes I despair of you.”

“What on earth d’you mean, darling?”

“Well, for a start, I’m not in the book and you’re not who you say you are. Don’t you think it’s probable none of the others will be who they say they are either?”

I considered this for a moment. “Of course. Even so, they’ll all have the same names as the characters in the novel? I mean, I am posing as Doctor Armstrong, the Harley Street Doctor.”

“Yes, but your Doctor Armstrong – the one with consumption – doesn’t work in Harley Street, does he?”

“No – he’s a junior doctor at St Bart’s.”

“There you are, then.” She sat back, satisfied.

I gazed out of the window at the long gardens and allotments whizzing past in the fading afternoon light. “I hope the hotel’s nice.”

“In any case,” said Mary, deftly avoiding my attempt to change the course of the conversation, “we’re not taking part in a book, are we? This is real, with real people and a real murderer.”

“We don’t know for sure it isn’t some ghastly joke.”

“Yes, darling, we do – no-one in their right mind would go to all this trouble to play a trick on a bunch of strangers.”

“No, I suppose you’re right.” I returned to my book with a view to finding out how my particular character meets his end and was a little disturbed to discover, a short while later, that Armstrong’s body is found washed up on the beach, having previously been suspected as the killer.

I persuaded myself there was nothing to worry about. Sherlock Holmes would utilise his skills in observation, logical reasoning and all-round clever-dickiness to save the day. After all, he’d pulled us back from the edge of death many times before.

“Besides, “ said Mary, butting into my musings, “Holmes won’t let us die – he’d have no-one to write up his adventures.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said I, but my resolve had begun to slide away and I had the awful feeling that this time, Holmes had made a terrible error of judgement.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2019 in Detective Fiction

 

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The Game’s Afoot

Exchanging a meaningful look with Holmes, I approached our visitor and knelt down beside him.

“How long have you had this cough?” I said.

He shrugged. “Three weeks, maybe four.”

Looking at his jacket I saw that it hung rather loosely about his torso. “And you’ve lost weight?”

He nodded.

“Night fevers? Sweats?”

Again he nodded, then looking into my eyes, I saw he knew as well as I did what the trouble was.

Returning to my seat, I allowed myself a moment before confirming my diagnosis. “Consumption, I’m afraid.”

Holmes waved the white card. “You think a spell on this island might help?”

“Of course, if it happened to be in the Caribbean, but the Devon coast is too cold at this time of year.” I cast a sidelong glance at Doctor Armstrong. “It might finish him off.”

“That’s it, then,” said Holmes, leaping to his feet. Crossing the room, he pulled the doctor from his chair and patted him heartily on the back. “Off to Barbados with you, my man. My colleague and I shall deal with this other matter.”

The visitor muttered his thanks and left.

“This other matter?” I said, when Holmes had seated himself again.

My friend took a few moments to fill his pipe and light it, puffing away until a cloud of blue smoke had almost engulfed him. “This doctor has been invited to an island, all-expenses paid, for reasons neither he nor we can guess, except for the ‘wonderful opportunity’ mentioned in the invitation. The doctor does not know his benefactor and has no conception of what may occur on his arrival. Following my initial interview with Armstrong and my investigations yesterday, I took the liberty of amending the doctor’s tickets to include another passenger – your wife.”

“You wish me to go in his place? And with Mary?” I sat back, aghast.

“To the Eastern Isles, yes.” Holmes dropped his voice. “My enquiries have unearthed a few odd, but important facts – as well as the good doctor, seven other individuals have been invited to this island. I suspect each of them has no idea as to why, which is suggestive, don’t you think?”

“Of what, Holmes?”

“Of murder, Watson. This has all the hallmarks of a master plan – something that has put the perpetrator to a great deal of trouble.”

A short burst of laughter escaped my lips before I could stop it. “Sorry, Holmes, but this whole thing sounds completely ridiculous.”

Holmes nodded. “Indeed it does, and I should think so to if it were not for one small fact.” Standing, he reached behind his chair to the bookshelf and took down a single volume, sheathed in a colourful paper dust-jacket with white and red lettering. “Here,” he said, waving the item. “A piece of fiction by the female authoress we know as Mrs Christie – I believe your wife has read a few of her efforts.”

I took the proffered volume and looked at the cover. “They changed the title?”

Holmes grunted. “Ah yes, some issue with offending certain communities, I believe. However, the point is that this story starts off with eight individuals being invited to a mysterious island where they are picked off, one by one, until there are none.”

I considered this for a moment, then said, “And you want Mary and I to go there and find out if this is some copycat killer?”

“Precisely.”

“And you don’t think this mysterious person may cotton on to the fact that I am not Doctor Armstrong?”

Holmes shook his head. “I suspect Armstrong has never actually met his intended benefactor and the latter’s knowledge of him likely relates to personal details, education and so forth. Also, as it happens, you do bear a vague resemblance to Armstrong in terms of height, bearing etcetera, though I suggest the application of a little hair dye and the removal of your moustache will aid the charade.”

“Shave off my moustache?” I exclaimed, fingering my facial development. “But I grew it especially for Mary – she likes the way it tickles her–”

“Yes, yes, spare me the details, Watson. The point is, the only fly in the ointment from the point of view of our would-be murderer, will be the appearance of Mary. And I’m certain you’ll be able to explain that away without arousing his suspicions.”

“But surely,” I protested, “It would be easier to simply prevent each of these people from going to the island in the first place?”

“Of course it would, Watson, but then we should not find out who the murderer is.”

I let out a long sigh, though I could not conceal my curiosity. “Seems a bit of a risk.”

“Yes, which is why I shall be coming along too, though no-one must know of my presence in order that I may have time to evaluate the situation and catch the killer before he, or she, strikes.” He raised an eyebrow. “Is the game afoot?”

I smiled. “Yes, Holmes, the game’s afoot.”

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2018 in Detective Fiction

 

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Invitation to a Murder


Diary of Doctor J. Watson
Wednesday January 25th, 1892

NB It has been some months since my last encounter with my friend and colleague Sherlock Holmes and even longer since we were involved in a case of any significance. Shortly after the adventure related in my story ‘Revenge of the Hooded Claw’, the Great Detective set off for Burma on the trail of arch-villain Dr Fu Manchu. Though I had urged him to allow me to accompany him, he was adamant I should remain in Londen with a view to ‘being my ears and eyes’ in his absence.

Initially, I interpreted this as a snub, and spent several weeks bemoaning the fact that my worth must be as relevant to him as a dead horse, since he rarely gave praise or complemented me on my intuition. However, after prompt replies to my weekly letters, I realised he did value my contributions but had considered my safety (and that of my wife’s) as paramount in his investigation.

Having dispatched my latest missive last Friday, I was somewhat surprised to receive a telegram from Holmes this morning summoning me to Baker Street. It seems he’d returned to the metropolis and wished to see me as a matter of some urgency.

Mrs Hudson caught me in a bear hug at the front door, then showed me upstairs with her usual eagerness, though all the while uttering remarks relating how that, in her tenant’s absence, I had simply ‘not bovvered’ with her, or considered that she might like ‘a bit ov male company ov a dark and dreary night’.

Issuing a few compliments on her appearance and the warmth of her welcome, I was heartened to see her wizened face light up once again. She left me at the door with the promise of heating up a trayful of muffins and a pot of hot chocolate.

“Ah, Watson,” said my companion as I entered the sitting room. “Glad you could make it.”

Holmes was seated in his usual armchair by the fire, and waving me into my former pew opposite, gestured to the corner of the room to which, until that moment, I had not paid any attention. Making myself comfortable, I looked over and for the first time discerned the figure of a man sitting in shadow. His hat was pulled over his eyes and a dark suit did nothing to illuminate his complexion.

Glancing at Holmes, I said, “A visitor?”

Holmes nodded and resting his elbows on the arms of his chair, steepled his fingers. “Doctor Watson, I should like you to meet a fellow medical man, Doctor Eddie Armstrong. In a moment I should be obliged if you would utilise your skills and examine him, but for now please take a look at this.” Reaching up to the mantelshelf, he took down a piece of white card and passed it across to me.

Holding the item between finger and thumb, I peered at it. “Postcard size, weight – perhaps two hundred or two hundred and fifty grams. Standard layout for an invitation. Printed by…” Turning it over, I saw the reverse side was blank. “No printer’s mark, which might suggest the sender doesn’t want anyone to know where it was produced.”

Holmes nodded. “Excellent. What else?”

“Well,” I said, “the wording is traditional – request the pleasure of your presence, etcetera etcetera. Sort of thing one might expect from a well-to-do house in relation to a ball, or some such.”

“Good. And?”

Holding the card up to the light, I detected no watermark or other signature. “Nothing, except…”

Holmes leaned forward eagerly. “Yes?”

“Rather enigmatic, I should say.”

“Why?” said Holmes, a smile playing around his thin mouth.

“Why? Because of the name – Mister Ulrich Norman Owen. The first one, Ulrich, is German. Old High German I should think, then Norman, well that’s of English origin, possibly from Scottish or Gaelic derivation. And, Owen of course, is Welsh.” I passed the card back to him, feeling rather pleased with myself. “So this is an invitation from a German English Welshman.”

Holmes guffawed, but his features immediately slid back into his customary impassive gaze. He looked across at our visitor. “Which is exactly what Doctor Armstrong thought.”

The man in the corner coughed suddenly and whipping out a large handkerchief, covered his mouth. Even so, I couldn’t help noticing a few spots of blood appeared on the cream-coloured material.

“Yes, indeed,” said the Doctor. “But more importantly…” he coughed again. “More importantly, I’ve never heard of this fellow, or the place mentioned on the invitation.”

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2018 in Detective Fiction

 

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