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?”
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.