Real Engineering

Many moons ago there was a TV programme called “Tomorrow’s World”, and I used to love it. It was devoted to showing off new inventions, the things that would shape the way we live, or even stuff that was just clever. The reason I was so enthralled was because of the ingenuity of what it showcased. It was possible to see how things worked, and what would happen if that little cog there engaged with this lever here. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I ended up an engineer.

But then, disaster! The silicon chip arrived! What had once been a tour of mechanical ingenuity became a procession of black boxes. “I plug this in here, and then the computer does all the interesting work.” All the bits that I was interested in were handled by a computer.

In terms of functionality, life transformation, economics, all that dull stuff, yes, computers are brilliant. But for me, the weird and wonderful designs of yesteryear are a cause for delight. I want machines that were designed by serious looking types with pipes who wore Fedora hats to work and worked in Imperial units. Real engineers.

There are many brilliant examples of “proper” engineering in the field of aviation, such as my personal favourite aircraft, the English Electric Lightning. Two massive engines with wings glued on the sides (pilot an optional extra). Maximum range was only 800 miles, but wow! Could it get there fast! Plus, it had a really cool classification. It wasn’t a fighter plane; it was an “Interceptor”. You can imagine how that went down in the flying officers’ mess.

But for sheer engineering ingenuity, perhaps one of the most wonderful aircraft is the Fairey Gannet.

Fairey Gannet AEW.3 XL502 at the Yorkshire Air Museum

It also has the virtue of being one the ugliest aircraft I have ever seen. Quite apart from the bulge of the belly-mounted airborne early warning system, the (hidden in this picture) third cockpit and finlets, there’s the two contra-rotating propellers. These are driven by twin turboprop engines running through a single gearbox, with a mind-boggling array of epicyclic, planetary and sun gears.

And the truly amazing thing about all this – apart from the fact that it worked – was that none of it was designed on a computer. There were no CAD packages or anything like that. It was pen and paper. And if you needed to do some of the horrendously complicated maths involved in this kind of work, there were no calculators. You had to use a slide rule. Real engineering designed by real engineers. There’s probably a hat peg in the cockpit.

Just one thing, though. Despite being a really impressive feat of engineering, and despite the wonders of flight… Would you feel comfortable at ten thousand feet in an aircraft that had wings that folded in three?

Free story – final part – Death of an Annoying Person

Finally! The last instalment of the short (but not as short as I had originally anticipated) story “Death of an Annoying Person”.  Thank you for your patience.

Shards

“Engineer!” called Monty, as he strode into the kitchen, followed by Florence, Helen and Mark. The Engineer looked up from a kitchen table as he approached. She had changed back into her usual black leather trousers and white blouse. The white blouse was marked with brown stains that Monty assumed were chocolate. Normally, with the Engineer, it was grease. Considering that she seemed to get marks on her clothes almost immediately, it was hard to fathom why she chose to wear white. The cleaning bill must have been horrendous.

Having attained the Engineer’s attention, Monty continued, “When was the last time you saw Miriam Davies?”

“Who?” asked the Engineer.

“Alan Droightman’s research assistant.”

“Oh, that’s who she is, is it? She seemed very annoyed at his murder. Annoyed more than upset. She was in here a couple of hours ago.”

“And was she doing anything with sugar, do you know?”

“Something with crystals. She seemed to know a lot about it. Gave me some useful tips on growing chocolate crystals. Look at this one,” said the Engineer, holding up an elongated triangle of chocolate. “You could do some serious damage with this.”

“You have a chocolate dagger?” asked Monty raising an eyebrow. The eyebrow seemed appropriate.

The Engineer grinned, and Monty turned his attention to Helen. “Helen, what ways are there off your estate?”

“There’s the train. That’s about it, really,” said Helen. “I believe there’s a few gates to the countryside, for trading with local communities, but they’re not obvious. I’ve never used them.”

“I understand,” said Monty, and indeed he did. The train would lead to the Railway, and all the other transport systems. For those who lived and worked within the transport systems, the outside may as well have been another world. It was not somewhere that you naturally thought of going. Yes, Helen’s estate may have access to the outside, but it was hardly surprising that she wouldn’t have used it herself.

“Engineer,” said Florence, stepping forward, “I understood that you were going to disable the train line. I assume that you did that?”

The Engineer shrugged. “Yes, it was easy enough. It’s an electric line, so I just tripped the circuit breakers. And made sure they’d stay tripped.”

“Miriam Davies will be walking, presumably along the tracks. Can you reset the circuit breakers, so we don’t have to walk as well?”

“Better than that. There a small diesel in the engine sheds. I disabled that as well, of course, but it’ll only take me a minute to fix it. The tracks here have a third rail, and If I turn on the electricity, I might fry anyone walking the tracks. I assume you don’t want that?”

“Absolutely not,” said Florence. “Let’s go.”

A party of five set off towards the engine sheds. On another estate, it might have been a garage for expensive cars, but on the estate of the former Rail Baron, it was an engine shed. As they walked, the Engineer nudged Mark, “So what’s this about?” she asked.

“Alan Droightman came here with two research assistants, Miriam and Rahul,” said Mark. “He’s been stealing their ideas and passing them off as his own in return for promises of good careers. Miriam believed Droightman, but the other one, Rahul, didn’t. Rahul killed Droightman with a chocolate fountain, Miriam found out and killed Rahul with a sugar crystal.”

“Scientists,” said the Engineer. “Can’t trust them.”

“What would you have done in their place?” asked Mark.

“Usually, I shove ‘em under a train. Tragic accident, very sad, no evidence of foul play. It’s when you start getting clever with ingenious devices that you leave evidence and get caught.”

“I believe you,” said Mark, as they reached the engine shed.

The engine shed was a red brick structure, with doors that opened directly onto the track, large enough for a train to pass through. At the peak of the tiled roof were the vents that associated with steam engines, but when the Engineer hauled the doors open, they revealed a single carriage fitted with a diesel engine. The carriage had a small cabin for a driver at the rear, raised so that the driver had to look over the length of the carriage. The Engineer hauled herself underneath to tinker with something. As she did so, Helen opened a door and hauled down a small ladder. She climbed up and gestured for the others to join her.

Inside, it was luxury. There was the usual Railway tendency towards polished brass and wood panelling, but the interior was fitted out as if it were a lounge. Chairs, tables, a drinks cabinet, bookcases… If you had to spend a few hours travelling, then this was the way to do it.

“There’s a kitchen at the back if anyone wants it, as well as other facilities,” said Helen.

“Thank you,” said Florence, “But I don’t think we’ll have time for that. Miriam won’t have gone that far on foot in the hour or two she’s had.”

Monty noted that Mark has already seated himself by the panoramic window at the front with a certain air of familiarity. It was clear that this wouldn’t be his first trip in this carriage. Helen sat next to him. Florence nudged Monty and nodded in their direction. Monty flicked his eyes towards the ceiling and shook his head.

“Why is the driver’s cabin raised at the back like that?” Monty asked Helen. “Makes the thing look like a giant running shoe.”

“Papa wanted to be able to see where he was going,” replied Helen. “You can’t do that if there’s a driver’s cab at the front.”

The Engineer climbed up into the carriage and asked, “All set, then?”

As the others nodded, she pulled up the ladder, closed the door and climbed up further to the driver’s cabin. “Nice view from up here,” she called down as she started the engine.

With little more than a murmur, the carriage eased its way out of the engine shed, through a neat little station dedicated to the estate and down the track towards the estate’s perimeter. It didn’t take the most astute person in the world to realise that not only had Helen’s father wanted to see where he was going, but he wanted mechanical perfection too.

“If she’s walking the tracks, then Miriam will have got about three or four miles,” said Florence.

“That will take her to the edge of the estate in this direction,” said Helen.

“Is there anything of interest, or will she have to keep walking until she reaches the main line?”

“No there’s… wait. Just past the estate perimeter there’s a level crossing. Not part of the Roads, not a transport system crossing, just a level crossing.”

Monty nodded. Very often, when the Railway passed under a bridge or over a level crossing, it wasn’t crossing another transport system, but just an ordinary street. “It seems to me,” he said, “That we’re dealing with someone familiar with Interfaces. Perhaps she could use that to escape the Railway?”

“But then she’d be outside the transport systems,” objected Florence. “Any resources she has, whether money or anything else will be in the transport systems somewhere.”

“Leave the Railway at the level crossing, re-enter another transport system just about anywhere else.”

“We’ll find out in about thirty seconds,” said Helen. “Engineer! The estate ends just around this bend!”

The carriage slowed as it entered the bend, and as the track straightened again, they could see a high stone wall marking the end of Helen’s territory.

“The level crossing is just past the wall,” she said.

As the diesel carriage passed the wall, Monty muttered, “What on Earth?” as he leant forward.

The Engineer slowed them to a stop, about twenty metres from the level crossing. The reason for Monty’s comment was plain. Around one of the gates of the level crossing the air appeared to be filled with shards of glass. Some were as small and as narrow as a finger; some were as tall and as broad as a person. Gradually they were coming together like a three-dimensional jigsaw, forming a tunnel between the Railway and the road outside. As more pieces clicked into place with the sound of crockery breaking, the road past the Railway became more sharply focused. At the centre, they could see Miriam Davies adjusting controls on a black cylinder as long and as fat as her forearm.

“Come on,” said Florence, opening the door, and jumping down from the carriage without bothering about the ladder.

Monty jumped down after her, closely followed by the others. He strode down the tracks towards Miriam, saying, “I’d stop that, if I were you, young lady.”

Not the most original line, he was forced to admit, so as she turned to look at him, he drew his swordstick and took an en garde position. He realised that he’d come too close to whatever Miriam was doing when a spinning, fractal shard of Interface sliced through his swordstick. Half his swordstick dropped to the ground.

“Oh, I say,” he said, shuffling rapidly backwards. “That was a present from Florence!”

“Don’t come any closer,” said Miriam. “Next time, it could be you.”

“Yes, I can see that, but what are you doing?” asked Monty.

“It’s a device that Rahul built for Alan. It demonstrates some of the principles of Alan’s new equations.”

“Would these be the equations that Rahul had… developed for Alan Droightman?” asked Florence.

“You mean,” replied Miriam, “the equations that Rahul gave to Alan in exchange for a glittering career and the fame that goes with it? The science of Interfaces was never Alan’s strength. He relied on us for that.”

“So, what did Droightman do?”

“It was simple. He gave us careers, a secure life, and the chance to apply for positions that would never normally come our way. In return, we gave him scientific knowledge to publish so that he could maintain his contacts on our behalf.”

“And has your professional reputation reached the stellar heights that Droightman promised you?”

“You’re just as bad as Rahul,” spat Miriam, returning her attention to the throbbing black cylinder. “He didn’t believe Alan’s promises either. He thought that Alan was ripping us off. That’s why he killed him.”

“And is that why you killed Rahul?”

“He has ruined my career! All those contacts that Alan carefully cultivated for me, and Rahul destroyed it by killing him!”

“What are you doing now?”

“Rahul built this Interface Generator. I’m using it to generate a temporary interface to outside the transport systems, and then I’ll use it to re-enter again.”

“And what then?”

“I’ll contact the people Alan had lined up for me. Then everything will be alright again.”

While Florence kept Miriam speaking, Monty edged round to the side, trying to get a clear view of the Interface Generator. Satisfied that he had a clear shot, he took the remains of his swordstick, drew his hand back, and threw it at the Interface Generator as hard as he could. It was a good throw, bang on target. It should have caused some hefty damage. Instead, the remains of the swordstick just winked out of existence.

“Unfortunately, that piece of metal wasn’t a single crystal,” said Miriam. “Unless the lattice structure is correct, then anything entering the Interface field will just – well, you saw.”

Florence took something from the Engineer and passed it to Monty. “Here,” she said, “Have a single crystal of chocolate.” It was the crystal that the Engineer had grown earlier in the kitchen.

“Why, thank you,” said Monty.

“Oh, and Monty,” said Florence.

“Yes, dear?”

“Don’t aim for the generator. Aim for that point there.” Florence pointed to what appeared to be a nexus where all the shards of Interface energy were focusing.

Monty turned slightly, drew back his arm again, and threw the chocolate shard like a knife. Automatically, he dropped to the ground. His last sight of Miriam Davies – or at least, of an entire and whole Miriam Davies – was of her opening her mouth to scream, holding her hand out is desperation.

Then the myriad shards exploded outward, spinning, circling, slicing, before imploding again. The Interface Generator fragmented, and the crystalline energy, cut through Miriam Davies, again and again. There was no blood, no mess, just pieces of her floating in the air, gently orbiting a common centre above where she had last been. Every now and then her face would come into sight, revealing an expression of shock and horror, then it would turn again, showing a cross section suitable for a biology textbook.

Standing, Monty glanced around, checking off each of their group. Florence, Helen, Mark, Engineer – yes, each was intact.

“Well,” he said. “That was educational.”

“Indeed,” said Florence. “I wonder how long Miriam will remain in that state?”

The Engineer watched for a few seconds, hands in pockets. “Potentially forever,” she said. “It’s held in that configuration by the inherent tension between the Railway and the world outside. That’s what holds a normal Interface stable. This is the same, except it’s been caught half-formed.”

Helen nodded as if she had understood every word the Engineer had said, while Mark stuck his hands in his pockets and stared around aimlessly.

“Good thing she didn’t try to open the Interface on the track, then,” said Monty, turning back towards the diesel carriage.

Dangerous stuff, chocolate.

Two days later, Monty and Florence were boarding a train at the estate’s little station. It had four carriages, but they had the train to themselves as the other guests had departed the day before. Helen had managed to get her celebration after all.

“Well, thank you for having us,” said Florence to Helen, as she stood beside the open door of the carriage – first class, of course.

“Yes, it was far more interesting than most of these events,” added Monty, resting both hands on a walking stick he had liberated from somewhere.

“Thank you as well,” replied Helen. “If you hadn’t straightened things out for me…”

“Then you would have found another way out of your troubles,” said Florence. “Someone like you always does.”

“Still, better be going,” said Monty.

Air-kisses were exchanged, and Monty shook hands with Mark before climbing aboard the train. They waved to Helen and Mark as the train pulled out.

“You see how close Helen and Mark stand to each other?” asked Florence.

“You’re incorrigible,” replied Monty.

The train was still moving slowly as they crossed the perimeter of the estate, and past the scene of Miriam Davies’ demise. Her remains were still circling each other, levitated by the strange physics of the half-formed Interface.

“Someone’s written a sign,” said Monty, “It say, ‘This is what happens to trespassers’”

“It’s Sophia’s handwriting,” said Florence.

“The Engineer?” Monty shrugged, in a most un-Monty like fashion. “I’m going to get changed.”

With that, Monty opened a case, and took out some small brown bottles and a mirror. He wet a fine cloth with the contents of one of the bottles and wiped his face with it. As he did so, a fine, waxy coating came away, and the wrinkles on his face smoothed. A cup took a carefully measured quantity of liquid which he swilled around his mouth. Reaching into his mouth, he removed a small pad from each cheek, released now that the specialised glue had been dissolved. Now the shape of his face had changed, the contents of a third bottle was rubbed into his hair, changing it from grey to spiky blond. A final application from a fourth bottle removed wrinkles and liver spots from his hands.

“How’re you doing?” he asked Florence.

She had already altered the appearance of her face, which was now less matronly, and more sharply defined. A very high-quality iron-grey hair piece had been removed to expose short, almost albino blond hair.

“Doing alright. Just dreading the day when I don’t have to get dressed up to look like this.”

“You say that every time.”

Florence grunted, and removed a wrap-around segment of a body suit, slimming her waist by several sizes.

Monty removed kicked off his shoes with their insoles that changed his walk and posture and dug jeans and a black T-shirt from his bag. Quickly, he changed, discarding the starched white shirt and flannel trousers in a heap.

Flopping down on the seat. He looked like he was in his mid- to late- thirties, which was probably somewhere close to the truth. Florence, with dark eye makeup to contrast with her almost white hair and a sleeveless, faded black T-shirt and jeans had lost a similar number of years.

“These parties,” she said, draping herself across Monty and putting her arm around his neck, “Fun, but they make me feel so old.”

Free Story Part 6 – Death of an Annoying Person

Death by Cream Slice

Monty strolled over to the boat house. He was greatly in favour of strolling, especially when there were dead bodies. It projected an air of calmness and detachment. Florence stayed with Aubretia Williams, the Air Baron. While they did not think that Aubretia had anything to do with the murder of Alan Droightman – and now, perhaps, the murder of Rahul Anand – it made sense to keep her away from any corpses.

The boat house was a white, wooden structure, two stories tall. The upper storey had a veranda that looked out over the lake, while below the building was open to the water. A gravel path led up to a door set in the side of the building. The door had a window split into four panes, so Monty followed the path and peered through the window. Inside he saw several boats against jetties, and a work area on the side furthest from the lake. There was a boat upside down on a set of trestles, with a man working on it.

Just as he raised his swordstick to tap on the door, he heard the sound of someone trotting down the gravel path towards him. In the door’s window, he could make out that it was Mark.

“Ah, Mark!” said Monty, turning with a smile, “Have you finished going through the rooms of Alan Droightman’s two associates?”

“Yes,” said Mark, breathing a little heavily. “Miriam Davies room was very boring. Nothing personal there at all. Rahul Anand’s room, though…”

“Yes?” prompted Monty.

“The Engineer said that the chocolate fountain had been rigged to electrocute someone, right? And that meant adding a chunk of equipment to it – so guess what I found in Rahul Anand’s room?”

“Sufficient electrical equipment to suggest he might have done the job,” said Monty nodding. “Do you think it was planted on him?”

“I don’t think so. There were short bits of wire around – you know how stuff can ping off when you cut a wire? Like that, as if he’d been working on something in his room.”

Monty nodded again. Either he or Florence would check the room later, but for now he was inclined to trust Mark’s judgement. After all, you wouldn’t go to the effort of framing Rahul for Droightman’s murder, and then kill Rahul anyway. Which made for a rather interesting problem. If it had been Rahul who had killed Droightman, why was he now floating around the lake being dead? Murderers falling out, perhaps? Something more complex? Either way, talking to Miriam Davies had to be a priority now.

After he’d taken care of Rahul and his little boat trip. He tapped on the door of the boat house with his swordstick. The man working on the upturned boat looked up and stopped what he was doing. Monty waved, and the man came over and opened the door.

“Yes, sir? What can I do for you?” asked the man.

“I say, you see that chap out there in the boat? I’m pretty sure he’s dead. Be a good fellow and bring him back in, would you?”

The man’s whiskery face blanched and he asked, “Dead, you say?”

“As a doornail. So, if you could just bring him back in, then that would be capital.”

The man hurried towards a boat, and Monty called after him, “Don’t touch anything you don’t have to on the other boat, there’s a good chap!”

“Who’s dead now?” asked Mark.

“Our friend, the chocolate fountain electrocutioner,” replied Monty.

Mark grunted, and they stood together watching as the boat attendant rowed out to Rahul’s boat, tied a rope to it, and towed it back. From the efficiency of the operation, it was clear that the man was used to handling boats.

“Here you are, sir,” said the boat attendant. “Haven’t touched anything, just like you said. That’s not a pretty sight, there, sir.”

“Indeed not,” replied Monty. “I will be sure to inform Lady Worthshire of how helpful you’ve been.”

The boat attendant took this as his cue to leave and returned to the boat he had been working on. From there he kept sneaking glances at what Monty was up to. He had been right. It was not a pretty sight.

Monty peered at the figure lying across the bench of the boat, with Mark by his side. At first glance, it did appear that Rahul was asleep, but on inspection it seemed that the unfortunate man had collapsed in that position, probably striking his head in the process. Carefully, Monty observed the position of everything in the boat before touching anything. There was the bag that Rahul had carried his snacks in. On the floor, covered with blood was a cream slice – Rahul’s self-confessed weakness. It seemed that he had been eating it at the time of his death. Most the blood seemed to have flowed from the mouth. Strange.

He prodded around the body a little with the sword stick.

“Ah! What’s this?” said Monty.

On Rahul’s wrist was a bracelet.

“Isn’t that one of those medic alert bracelets?” asked Mark.

“Yes, it is,” said Monty, kneeling down beside the boat. Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he turned the bracelet until he could see the warning. “Haemophilia.”

“That’s the bleeding thing, isn’t it?”

“That’s right. Without medical attention, he would have kept bleeding, and bleeding, and bleeding. Looks like he cut his mouth, and then, maybe in a panic, slipped and struck his head. He would, of course, have been vulnerable to bleeding in the brain following a blow to the head. Result, in this case, death.”

“Didn’t even get to finish his cream slice,” muttered Mark.

“A particular favourite of his,” said Monty as he reached over and picked up the remains of the cream slice in his handkerchief. He took out a penknife and started poking at it. After a few seconds he found something. “Now, look at this for something nasty,” he said showing it to Mark.

“Is that glass?” asked Mark.

“Oh, far more subtle. It’s a single crystal of sugar. Wide, flat, and very sharp. Easy to slide into a cream slice, especially if you know that the victim is a haemophiliac. Look, I’ll show you.”

Carefully, Monty took the crystal and a piece of paper from his notebook. With a quick movement, he sliced the paper in two. “You know,” he mused, “I think you could shave with this.”

“You’re saying that someone has done this deliberately, and this is someone who knows that Rahul Anand is a haemophiliac and has a weakness for cream slices?” asked Mark. “Sounds like you’re looking at a pretty short list.”

“Oh yes, a list of one, I would think,” said Monty standing up. “Miriam Davies. Come on – let’s go to the kitchen.”

“To check if there’s any other cream slices?”

“No, because I want to see the Engineer.”

Monty exited the boat house and started walking briskly up the gravel path. He waved to Florence who came over.

“Nothing new from Aubretia,” said Florence as she joined them.

“I’m not surprised,” said Monty. “But I have an idea, and I want you to poke holes in it.”

“Certainly,” said Florence.

“Alan Droightman has made a career from stealing students’ ideas and passing them off as his own, in return for promises of high-flying careers. He did this most successfully with Miriam Davies, who, despite all evidence to the contrary, continues to believe his lies.”

“And why would she still believe him?” asked Florence.

“We’ll be able to work that out better when we talk to her. I’m not one for the clever medical definitions, but as a lay person I would say that her genius has come at the expense of her having a few loose toys in the attic. In any event, at the moment, this is still only an idea.”

Florence nodded that Monty should continue.

“Under pressure to come up with something new – perhaps someone is questioning his exalted status – Droightman tries the same trick on Rahul Anand. Steal the idea for fake dreams of glory. But! Rahul gets wise to him. Rather than expose Droightman, he decides to kill him.”

“You need to work on why Rahul would kill rather than expose him,” said Florence. “Murder is an extreme step to take on any occasion.”

Monty waved a hand, dismissing the concern. “I’m sure we’ll find a reason. Perhaps Droightman had some further leverage, perhaps details of some studently misdemeanour which would discredit Rahul, or which would cast doubt on Rahul’s word. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. Mark found the pieces for making chocolate fountain killing equipment in Rahul’s room. At this stage we can be pretty sure that Rahul did for Droightman.”

“And who killed Rahul?” asked Florence.

Now at the steps of the house, Monty spun around, and raised his swordstick, as if raising a finger. “Aha! Someone who knew he had a fondness for cream slices, and who also knew that he was a haemophiliac! Miriam Davies!”

“I will allow your reasoning that she would fulfil those criteria, but how do you kill someone with a cream slice? And where are we going?”

“We’re going to the kitchens to find Sophia!”

“Sophia?” asked Mark.

“The Engineer. And Miriam did it by growing a single razor-sharp sugar crystal and inserting it in a cream slice which she then ensured Rahul would have.”

“I grant you that she would have specialised knowledge of crystals. Droightman’s equations – or perhaps we should call them Davies’ equations now – are all about the crystalline nature of Interfaces and how they are created by growth. However, that still doesn’t explain why she would kill Rahul.”

“Ah! Helen!” called Monty, seeing her on the stairs. She was dressed more conventionally for her, in T-shirt and combat trousers. “Come join us! Significant developments are afoot!”

As Helen came down the stairs, Monty continued, “Miriam found out that Rahul had killed Droightman. I don’t know how she found out – perhaps he even told her, thinking that she might like to be free of him too – but she found out. Believing that Rahul had cost her her imaginary meal ticket, she then decides to kill him.”

 “Mark,” said Helen, “Rather than asking Monty to repeat everything I missed, can you update me?”

“But before you do that, Mark,” said Monty, “Tell me what you think Miriam Davies will be doing now.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Mark, the former Runaway Avatar of the Railway. “She’ll be running.”

“And that,” said Monty flourishing his swordstick, “Is why I want to see the Engineer!”

“He does so enjoy this kind of thing,” Florence confided to Helen and Mark.

“You may update Helen now,” said Monty, entering the kitchen.

Free Story Part 5 – Death of an Annoying Person

Elimination of a Suspect

After his shower, Monty headed away from his rooms towards the balconied main entrance hall. As he reached the balcony, he met Florence coming the other way.

“There you are,” said Florence. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d fallen down the plug hole.”

“My dear, sometimes you are positively unkind,” replied Monty with a smile. “Now, it seems to me that we really need to talk more closely with Miriam Davies and Rahul Anand.”

“I agree, but Miriam is still off on her walk, and Rahul is floating around the lake in his boat. When I saw him, he appeared to be asleep.”

Monty nodded to himself and leaned on the railing of the balcony. “Ah, well. Did the Engineer finish with the… arrangements to ensure that people couldn’t leave the estate?”

“Oh yes, she came back a little while ago. She’s down in the kitchens now.”

“Really? What on Earth is she doing down there?”

“Attempting to grow chocolate crystals. I am led to believe that it is a difficult process as there are six different crystalline forms of chocolate.”

“This isn’t about that chocolate steam engine thing, is it?”

“She is very tenacious when faced with a new problem and has an unconventional outlook.”

“Yes, I recall. Frustrating that we know so little about her. You would think that as a major Avatar of one of the largest transport systems we would have her full biography by now.”

“We knew the full biography of the last Railway Engineer, and precious little good it did us,” remarked Florence.

Monty nodded. That had nearly been a total disaster, and it was only because a certain Runaway called Mark had risen above himself in an extraordinary manner that the situation had been saved.

“Still,” continued Florence, “I can tell you her name. Sophia.”

“I’m impressed,” said Monty, and he was. This Engineer had been very close-lipped about her past. Granted, no normal person hands out copies of their autobiography, but generally a few details emerged. The Engineer – Sophia – was a master of deflection on questions of history. It seemed that before arriving at the Railway, she simply didn’t exist.

“You know, I really quite like this balcony,” said Monty. “It lets you see everyone entering and leaving without being too obvious. See – isn’t that Morton Ainsworth down there?”

“Mr Ainsworth,” agreed Florence, “Director of the Residual Properties Board, appointed three years ago. He had been lined up for a similar position with the Academy, but the late Alan Droightman took a dislike to him, so Residual Properties got him instead.”

“All of which puts him firmly on our list of potential murderers of Alan Droightman, so let us go and talk to him.”

With that, Florence took Monty’s arm, and they descended the stairs towards Morton Ainsworth.

Ainsworth had just sat down on a sofa when Monty and Florence reached him, but he immediately stood up. He was a somewhat portly man, and looking at him, Monty reflected that something about the transport systems encouraged people to dress as if they were from the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

“I was wondering when you’d want to talk to me,” said Ainsworth.

“And why is that?” asked Florence.

“It’s not impossible for someone who runs five miles a day to have a heart attack, but it’s not common. Droightman did have a thing for chocolate, but otherwise, he was sensible. I don’t know why he died, but it wasn’t his heart.”

“And how did he come to die, then?” asked Monty.

“I don’t know. Poison, perhaps? But it’s common knowledge that I dislike the man… disliked the man, which is enough reason for you to want to talk to me.”

“Are you suggesting that he was murdered?”

“If he wasn’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation”

“You’re being unusually abrupt,” said Florence.

“And you’re not contradicting me,” said Ainsworth. “Look, I’m pretty good at seeing how things stand.”

“And what happened to the charming man that I was talking to earlier?” asked Florence. “At the buffet you were quite the pleasant fellow.”

“That was social, this isn’t.”

“Yes, quite,” interrupted Monty, “but what did happen between you and Droightman?”

“Oh, it was simple enough,” said Ainsworth, sitting down on the sofa again. “Droightman hadn’t produced anything new for a few years, which was strange for someone in his position at the Academy. Most of them publish a paper a year, regular as clockwork, just to make sure that they get noticed professionally. Not Droightman. It looked like he was just resting on his laurels.”

“So what happened?” prompted Monty again.

“I made an ill-judged joke about how he’d have to wait for a student to come up with something new for him to put his name on.”

Monty winced. “How did you ever think that would be an acceptable joke to make to an academic?”

“His attitude that day had been especially offensive, even for him. He’d been spoiling for a fight. I gave it to him. What I hadn’t counted on was his influence with the Academy selection panel.”

“Which is why you’re now with Residual Properties?”

“A better position for me, as it turned out. But here’s the strange thing…” Ainsworth leant forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I looked into things a bit more, and you know, I’m not sure that he didn’t ‘borrow’ his theories from a student.”

“Any student in particular?” asked Florence.

“Yes, she was here earlier. Miriam Davies.”

Monty and Florence had been together too long to give the game away by exchanging significant glances. Instead, they thanked Morton Ainsworth and moved on. Exiting the entrance hall to the terrace that overlooked the grounds, they walked, enjoying the sunlight.

“Nice place Helen has here,” commented Monty.

“Indeed. Do you fancy a stroll down to the lake?” asked Helen.

“Catch up with that Rahul fellow, you mean?”

“Yes. I am thinking that perhaps it might help to talk to him first.”

Gently, they strolled down towards the lake, arm in arm. The lake was artificial, the creation of massive landscaping like most of the estate. It was fed on one side by a similarly artificial river which drained from the far side. Offset from the centre, there was an island, large enough to have a pavilion for more intimate parties with carefully selected guests.

“I say,” said Monty, “Isn’t that Aubretia down there?”

“Aubretia Williams?” asked Florence, “Yes, you’re right. I’d been thinking of talking to her later, but if she’s here now…”

“Then there’s no time like the present,” agreed Monty.

They had been walking towards the boat house, but now they angled across the lawn slightly, to where Aubretia was sitting on a bench, looking over the lake.

“Lady Williams,” called Monty as they approached.

Aubretia Williams turned and smiled when she saw who it was.

“Monty, how many times have I told you to call me Aubretia?” she asked. “And Florence, you’ll have to forgive me for not making time to talk to you before this unpleasant business with Alan Droightman.”

“Do not concern yourself. I should have made more effort too,” said Florence.

Aubretia waved the matter away as Monty and Florence joined her on the bench.

“You know why we’re here, of course,” said Monty.

“Indeed. As the Air Baron, I know exactly what your position is, unlike most people.”

“Yes, weren’t you a friend of Helen’s father?”

Aubretia nodded. “That’s why I’m here. After his death, I kept contact with Helen. It seemed the right thing to do.”

“And by the fact we’re taking an interest, you know that it wasn’t a simple heart attack that killed Alan Droightman.”

“Special Envoys without Portfolio from the Board of Transport don’t take an interest in natural deaths.”

“True.”

“And you wouldn’t be who you are if you let our friendship get in the way of an investigation.”

“Aubretia,” said Florence, placing her hand on Aubretia’s arm, “although we have to talk to you, I really don’t think that you will have had anything to do with it.”

“Really? And why’s that?”

“Because you knew we were here,” said Monty. “If you’d wanted to kill him, then you’d have bided your time and done it when we weren’t around. Besides, your disagreement with him was years ago. If you wanted him dead, then something would have accidentally fallen off a plane from ten thousand feet and hit him on the head long before now.”

“Yes,” agreed Florence, “You don’t become a Baron by being inefficient. What was the problem you had with Droightman? For once, a bit of scandal has passed me by.”

“Oh, there was no scandal,” said Aubretia, “At least, not as far as I was concerned. It’s about the girl he keeps around.”

“Miriam Davies?” asked Florence, and Monty raised his eyebrows.

“Yes, that’s the one,” continued Aubretia. “He was keeping her on as a ‘Research Assistant’, long hours, low pay, doing all the boring work for him.”

“So why did she stay?”

“That was what the row was about. However foul Droightman may have been, he did have a certain charisma. He persuaded her that he could push forward her career, help her make a name for herself. There was a long stream of supposed positions that she was eligible for, or grants that she might get with his patronage.”

“She doesn’t sound too bright, then,” said Monty. “From what I can see, she’s been his Research Assistant for years.”

“Oh, she’s very clever,” said Aubretia. “Very clever indeed – as long as you’re talking about Interfaces between Transport Systems and their orthorhombic lattice structure.”

“That’s like crystals,” Florence said to Monty in a loud stage whisper.

“Yes,” said Monty, resting his chin on his swordstick. “So very clever as long as she doesn’t have to get involved with people, but rather naïve to be dealing with someone like Droightman.”

“Well,” said Aubretia, “I don’t like to see people treated like that. As a Baron, I often have to make hard decisions, but I balance that up by being absolutely fair, and treating people properly. Droightman was just using Davies as his servant, and I didn’t like that. So, I said so.”

“And how did Miriam Davies take this?” asked Florence.

“She refused to listen to me. She was convinced that Alan Droightman could do no wrong, and that he would ensure she had a glittering career. After that, there wasn’t much more I could do. And now Droightman has found another young person to do his bidding.”

“His new research assistant, Rahul Anand?”

“Yes, that’s him. He went out on the lake earlier in a boat. Look – there he is. Looks like he’s asleep. Funny that he should be able to sleep considering what’s just happened to his boss.”

“I think,” said Monty, peering at the figure recumbent in the boat, “That people generally don’t fall asleep in pools of blood.”

“Oh, well,” said Florence. “That’s one less suspect.”

Free Story Part 4 – Death of an Annoying Person

Apologies for the delay in the latest installment of “Death of an Annoying Person” – just the way things worked out, I’m afraid. But as recompense, this installment is about twice as long as normal….

There’s always time to train

Mark looked at Florence, then Monty, before asking, “I know it’s pretty serious that Droightman didn’t write the equations that made his name, but why would someone murder him for it?”

Monty regarded Mark for a moment. He considered handing him the answer on a plate but decided to make him work a little for it. “Tell me, what would be the consequences for Droightman if people find out he didn’t write the equations that made his name?”

Mark cocked his head on one side. “His reputation would be destroyed. All those cosy jobs he’s got on different committees would disappear. He’d lose his income. Maybe he’d have to pay the person he got the equations from.”

Helen added, “And don’t forget he wasn’t a nice person. As someone once said to me,” she nodded towards Florence, “Never be bad to people on your way up, because they’ll all be waiting for you on the way back down.”

Mark opened his mouth, but Monty jumped in before he had a chance to start bickering with Helen again. “Yes, you’re both right, but that just gives Droightman a motive to kill someone else. I can easily imagine him murdering someone to prevent people discovering what he is. But suppose you had been the person that he stole the originals from. When might you think it was worth killing Droightman?”

Mark looked blank, but Helen jumped in. “When you couldn’t get anything else from him,” she said.

“Oh,” said Mark, looking up again, “So like if they were blackmailing him, and he told them the money had run out, or something?”

Monty nodded his agreement before saying, “Although I think it’s a bit more subtle that blackmail. Tell me, Mark, what makes you think Droightman didn’t write those equations?”

“A little while back, he did a guest lecturer thing at the Academy and he did one of those ‘work hard like me and one day you will be annoying too’ talks. Look, he’s come up with two sets of equations…”

Helen interrupted, “One set. He’s come up with one set of equations.”

“No, two sets,” said Mark. “People only talk about the second lot, because the first ones are pretty rubbish, but they were enough to get him a job at the Academy. His story is that he did lots and lots of work for years, and then came up with the second set.”

“Fine, so he’s written two sets of equations,” said Helen, “And one set had made him a superstar – which makes the management career path sound sane – but that doesn’t mean that he plagiarised them.”

“That’s because no one has seen his third set of equations, yet.”

“Three sets of equations? Where has this third set of equations suddenly come from?”

“I found them in his room. Do you know how long it is since Alan Droightman did something new?”

“You’re going to tell me it was his second set of equations, aren’t you.”

“Yes. About ten years ago. And it’s a joke at the Academy that he only has one lesson that he repeats word for word every year. I’ve seen his notes. The paper’s so old it’s gone yellow.”

“Yes,  academics have to keep on publishing new papers, or people forget about them,” said Helen. “If they don’t, then people would say that they’re past it, or they’ve burnt out, or that they’ve got no new ideas, things like that. But that still doesn’t mean that he’s copied someone else’s work.”

“Except what I’ve found doesn’t look anything like Droightman’s work,” replied Mark, waving a sheaf of papers around. “But I have found where he’s re-writing it to look like his.”

“What do you mean? Are you saying it’s not his handwriting?”

“Oh, it’s his handwriting, at least I guess it is. But it’s… Look, you know when you copy off someone else’s homework because you don’t know how to do it?”

“No. I never cheat.”

“Yeah, well….”

“I have someone to do that for me.”

“Well, they’ll  have to change things a bit, kind of make it into your style for you, otherwise you’ll get caught copying.”

 “Obviously”, said Helen. “And you’re saying that he had a set of equations that someone else had written out, and for all that it might be made out of letters and symbols rather than numbers, he’s re-writing it his way around?”

“Exactly,” said Mark, glad that Helen had apparently grasped what he was saying.

“But that doesn’t mean that his other equations were stolen. That doesn’t prove he took his famous equations from someone else.”

“Yes, but then I found the original version of the famous ones.“

“You’re saying that he had the originals for his other equations on him?”

“If you were really paranoid about people finding something, would you leave it at home when you went away for a few days, where someone might break in and steal it?”

“So he brought them here?”

“Yes. Nothing with the original author’s name on, but showing the same trick as he’s doing now. Re-writing the equations in his own style.”

 “Let me see,” said Florence, and Mark handed her some sheets of paper. A couple of minutes inspection was enough to convince her. “Yes, you’re right. I’ll have to do a more detailed analysis, but this isn’t his style at all. Yet if you look down here, you can see how he’s starting to sanitise it, to make it look more like his.”

“Well,” said Helen, “the people you need to speak to are down there now.” She pointed to a young man just a few years older than her but quite a few kilograms fatter, and a young woman who was maybe ten years or so older. “Those are the two who came with Droightman.”

“Looks like they’re going out somewhere,” observed Monty, “Mark, how’d you like to check over their rooms while I offer my condolences.”

Mark shrugged and departed.

Monty trotted down the stairs leaving Florence with the sheets of equations. Helen disappeared somewhere before he reached the bottom of the stairs.

 Stepping quickly across the entrance hall, he called out, “I say! I say!”

The two people stopped and turned towards him.  Reaching them, he rested both hands on the pommel of his swordstick, breathing heavily for a few seconds. Not that he was out of breath, but it didn’t do any harm for people to think that walking quickly fatigued him.

“I understand that you were colleagues of Alan Droightman. May I offer my sincere condolences.”

“Thank you,” said the young woman. “I’m Miriam Davies, and this is Rahul Anand.” Rahul nodded briefly before Miriam continued, “You said that you were conducting some preliminary enquires about Alan’s death.”

“Yes,” said Monty, “I’m afraid so. Would it be possible for you to spare a few moments? I realise that this is a difficult time.”

“I was going for a walk, and Rahul had been going to the lake for some boating, but I’m sure both activities can wait.”

Rahul held up a small paper bag. “The kitchen staff made a small snack for me. They even found some cream slices for me.” He gave a slight smile.

“Oh, well done! I’ll have to see if they’ve any left.”

“I think I had the last ones – they’re a bit of a weakness of mine, I’m afraid.”

“Yes, well, just trying to tidy up a few loose ends. As you probably guessed, it looks like Droightman had a heart attack. Would you say that Droightman was looking at all unwell earlier?”

Both Miriam and Rahul shook their heads.  Now, was it his imagination, or had Rahul relaxed slightly? If so, what did it mean, if anything?

“And can you tell me your roles?” Monty asked.

“We’re both research assistants,” said Rahul. “I’ve only been working with him the past few months, but Miriam has been with him a lot longer.”

“Really? And what happens to those roles now?”

“I don’t know,” said Miriam, “I hadn’t really thought about it. I was more concerned with Alan.”

“Of course, of course. Well, don’t let me keep you any longer. I expect I might have to bother you again later, but I’ll try and avoid it.”

The pair muttered goodbyes, and Monty watched as they exited the entrance, and went their separate ways.  He stood there a moment longer, wondering if he’d learnt anything. He’d have to check dates, but it would be interesting to know if the latest Droightman equations appeared at the same time as Rahul was taken on as a research assistant. Definitely something to look into.

Glancing around the entrance, he saw another hallway on the opposite side to the ballroom. Out of curiosity, he decided to explore it. Similar décor to the hall that led to the ballroom, with murals decorating the vaulted ceiling. From behind one of the doors he could hear a thudding sound, three rapid thuds followed by a heavier thud a fraction of a second later. He raised his eyebrows and smiled, before letting himself through the door.

Inside the floor was covered in heavily padded mats and hanging from one corner there was a punch bag, about a metre and a half tall, suspended from the ceiling. Helen had changed her dress for T-shirt and shorts and was working out on the bag – no doubt working off her feelings at having a prominent guest murdered at her party, concluded Monty. Around the walls there were stored a variety of weapons and trainings pads. Monty would have loved to have had his own training gym like this.

He slipped his shoes off and watched Helen working. Three punches, jab, jab, cross, followed by a kick with the ball of her left foot to where the floating rib would be on a real opponent. A standard combination, but a good one. And something you could pump a bit of aggression into, as Helen was clearly doing.

After a minute, Monty strode forward, saying, “No, no, no, no, no. Don’t ever let me see you doing that again.”

Helen stopped, and turned to him, clearly surprised that he had entered without her knowing.

“What?” she asked.

“Every time you throw that kick, you’re dropping your right-hand guard.”

“Bringing my right hand down counter-balances the kick and gives it more power.”

“Whoever told you that should be shot. If you did that with me, I’d take your head off. The power in that kick comes from turning your hip over,” said Monty. He rested his swordstick against the wall and picked up a pair of training pads, strapping them to his arms.

“You wouldn’t have time to take my head off with that kick coming in.”

“Try it,” said Monty, holding up the pads.

A pair of training pads. Strap them on your arms, and work hard

Helen came in hard and fast with the same combination. The three punches landed on the pads, but while the kick was still coming up, Monty clipped her round the ear with one of the pads. She fell on her side, slapping the mats with her hand to absorb the impact.

“Again,” said Monty.

Helen tried again with the same result.

“Now, try like this.”

Monty demonstrated the technique, stopping the kick a millimetre from Helen’s rib cage. Helen’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, and he permitted himself a small smile. He still had his speed, whatever act he might put on for the public.

Helen started working the combination again, as he held the pads.

“No, more hip,” said Monty. “Better. Again. Again. What was that? My granny can kick harder – again. More. Yes. Yes. I almost felt that. Again.”

Monty kept her going hard for five minutes before letting her rest. He was impressed at how long she could keep it up. Not many people had that kind of endurance. Twice she had dropped her guard, and twice he had knocked her down, but each time she got up. Perhaps he could have kept her going for longer, but the truth was he wasn’t sure that he could carry on. It could be almost as much work holding the pads as hitting them.

“When you two have quite finished,” called Florence from the door.

Monty started guiltily, and with a sheepish grin took the pads off. Helen rested her hands on her knees, breathing heavily.

“Honestly, if I leave him alone for a minute, he starts acting like a schoolboy,” said Florence. “Now, Monty, go and get washed. You’re dripping with sweat. Positively disgusting.”

He retrieved his swordstick and walked briskly to their rooms. A shower was a good opportunity to get his thoughts in order.

Now, if Mark was right about those equations, and Alan Droightman nicking them all, the question was who had he nicked them from. Would he give, say, a promising student a research position and take their work for his own? Possible. Risky, but possible. Problems with leverage and keeping them quiet, but, yes, it could be done.

In which case, Anand had turned up recently, meaning that he might be the source of the latest equations. And Miriam Davies… It would be interesting to learn when she had turned up. When was it Mark said Droightman had risen to fame? Ten years ago? Wouldn’t it be interesting if she had started working for Droightman ten years or so ago.

Monty put on a fresh blazer, picked up his swordstick, and left his rooms. It seemed that he needed to ask Miriam Davies a few questions.

Free story part 3 – Death of an Annoying Person

Motive for Murder

Florence squeezed Monty’s arm gently.

“Yes, my dear?” he enquired.

“Before you get the guest list from Helen, shouldn’t you say something to the other guests? The rumour mill will be doing overtime, and that won’t help us.”

“Of course, you are absolutely right. Helen, my apologies. Perhaps you would accompany me to explain the situation to your guests?”

“Yes. I’ll get the list of guests from Gerald…” said Helen

“Gerald?” Monty interrupted.

“…My butler. I’ll get the list from him at the same time.”

“Captial! And…”

Florence squeezed his arm again.

“What have I forgotten now?”

She nodded towards the corpse of Alan Droightman.

“Oh, yes – did you find anything interesting amongst the items Mark found in his pockets?”

“Actually, I was wondering if you really wanted to just leave him lying there like that. It might upset people. Murdered bodies can have that effect.”

“Yes, I see your point. Engineer!”

The Engineer whipped the table cloth from a table, leaving plates, cutlery and uneaten food behind. She drew the cloth over Droightman, showing that she had been using the tablecloth to sketch out a practical design for a steam engine made of chocolate. Naturally, she had used chocolate from the fountain to draw with.

“But Florence, did you find anything in his pockets?” persisted Monty.

“Travel chits from the Board of Transport for three people, some lose change, an identity card, a set of keys, that’s it.”

“Well, we’ll need to see if the keys fit anything here, like luggage or such-like. I assume the identity card was his?” Monty received a nod from Florence. “And the travel chits. For three people?”

“There were two other people in his party,” volunteered Helen. “He invited them himself, which was rather rude, but typical.”

“Interesting that he kept hold of them himself. Still, he was always a controlling type,” said Monty. “Now, Florence, before I make any more mistakes, what else have I missed?”

“Only that although we have asked people not to leave, and asked that communications be stopped, it’s only a matter of time before someone decides the rules don’t apply to them.”

“At which point things will get tediously official. Yes, you’re quite right, dear. Engineer!”

The Engineer jumped off the table where she had been sitting. “I love being popular,” she said. “Let me guess – you want me to make sure that no one enters or leaves the estate until you say so?”

“It would be helpful.”

“No problem. I’ll see you soon,” she said, and left the ballroom through the French windows. As she did so, Monty, Florence and Helen exited the ballroom into the hallway.

The hallway was a broad space, with dining and drawing room on either side, leading to the main entrance. Overhead it arched in a series of vaults, and in each vault there was a painting of romanticised country scenes.

“A very fine ceiling,” said Monty to Helen, then, calling to the other guests who were milling around, “This way, please, into the main entrance!”

“I can’t stand it,” Helen replied. “It was one of Papa’s little conceits, but I’m afraid that I find it a little too obvious.”

“Why not paint it over?” suggested Florence.

“Because it is very difficult to find something to paint it over with that won’t be equally bad.”

“Magnolia,” said Monty. “Couple of coats of magnolia paint will fix anything.”

The main entrance was a large area, double height, with a broad staircase leading up to a balcony that surrounded it. Monty climbed to the head of the stairs with Florence and Helen, and looked down at the faces of the guests. One of these people had murdered Alan Droightman. A clever murder, it was true, one designed to evade detection. Most ingenious the way the chocolate fountain had been used to kill the victim, but most definitely murder. Someone who could come up with a plan like that was not some common thug, but someone who would be a challenge. He started to smile at the thought, then remembered that he should appear solemn. A person was dead, after all.

He banged his swordstick on the floor at the top of the stairs, and the low muttering of guests’ voices died away. Remarkable how much power people gave you if you had a stick to bang on the ground. Everyone was looking at him, expecting instruction. Capital!

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “It is with deep regret that I must inform you of the passing of Mr Alan Droightman. You will be aware that he was taken ill a short while ago while using the chocolate fountain. Apparently, he suffered from a heart attack, and it was not possible to revive him.”

He paused, and looked around the room, at all the upturned faces. What were they thinking? What were they feeling? None of them appeared overcome with grief, that much was certain.

Monty continued, “Naturally, there will have to be a proper investigation. Can’t just have leading members of the Board of Transport dying without someone looking into it. Not the done thing. As my wife and I have some experience in this area, we will be making some preliminary notes in order to help the investigative team.”

Checking the crowd again, there seemed to be mute acceptance of this. He nodded.

“Meanwhile, I must ask you to remain on the grounds of the estate, so that we can contact you if necessary. In any case, I understand that there is a problem with the train line out of the estate at the moment, which the Railway Engineer is looking at. Thank you for your time.”

Monty took a step back, still watching the guests. Helen chose that moment to step forward.

“I am, of course, most terribly sorry for the inconvenience and distress this situation must be causing you. Please feel free to use the facilities of the estate if you need to distract yourself. In addition to the boating lake and stables, there are many walks, and my staff will provide you with anything you need. Thank you.”

Helen turned away and called to her butler, while the guests broke into small groups, talking amongst themselves. They started to drift away from the entrance hall.

“Well, what do you think?” Monty asked Florence.

“I think you need to stop bashing that stick of yours on the floor. Have you seen the dents you’re making? Some poor servant will be having to sort those out now. I know you think it makes a nice noise, but you really must stop.”

“Sorry dear,” said Monty bowing his head. He had been doing this double act with Florence for so long now that it had become automatic. Both of them playing elderly has-beens who didn’t realise that their time was past. It was surprising how many people fell for it and underestimated them.

“I don’t know why I bought you that thing anyway,” she said, turning her attention to Helen. “Do you have that list of guests yet?”

“Gerald is just bringing it now – ah, here he is.”

The butler handed Helen a list and faded into the background. Helen passed the list on, watching the last few guests in the entrance way as they dispersed.

“Let me see… There’s no mention of the two extras that Droightman brought with him,” said Florence.

Monty peered over her shoulder and said, “Well, they’d be at the top of my list of suspects. If I was at Droightman’s beck and call he’d last about ten minutes.”

“And Mr Ainsworth. I believe we should talk to him.”

“Wasn’t there some kind of problem between them a few years ago? Something to do with the Board’s Academy project?”

“Yes – he was supposed to have been a director, but Droightman interfered, and he got shunted off sideways.”

“And don’t forget Aubretia Williams.”

“I don’t think I heard about that one.”

“Really?” asked Monty, “It was quite the thing at the time. You remember when she became Baron of Air Travel? Almost didn’t happen. Some kind of disagreement between them.”

At that moment, Mark returned.

“I’ve finished with Droightman’s rooms, and I think I’ve found something interesting. You know how everyone apprenticed to the Board of Transport has to learn Droightman’s Equations?”

“Of course,” said Monty. “Considered the basis of our understanding of how the Transport Systems interact across Interfaces.”

“That’s why he has the influence that he has,” said Helen, “And why I was so pleased that he agreed to come to my party.”

“What if I told you that he didn’t write the equations that made his name?”

“That,” said Florence, “Would be a very sound motive for murder.”

Free short story part 2 – Death of an Annoying Person

The second part of the story, which considers the price difference between chocolate and steel, and the advantages of an apprenticeship.

Method of Murder

Monty glanced at the dead body, then asked Florence, “Do you want to start proceedings, or shall I?”

“Oh, please, be my guest.”

He nodded. Squaring his shoulders, he strode back to where Helen, Mark and the Engineer were gathered around the corpse of Alan Droightman. Helen and Mark were quietly bickering, while the Engineer was taking the duff defibrillators apart in great detail. Florence went to the door of the ballroom and called to one of the servants. No doubt she had thought of something he had missed – she was very good like that. He rapped his swordstick on the floor a couple of times to get their attention.

“Right,” said Monty, “Listen up, this is the situation. Droightman is dead, apparently from heart failure. The two defibrillators have been sabotaged, which makes it look suspicious. He was very important and influential, but rather unpleasant. This makes it quite believable that someone might want to kill him. Helen!”

“Yes?”

“How long will it take Board of Transport police to get here?”

“A few hours for the locals – they’ve got a long way to come. After that it depends whether or not they think the death is suspicious. If they call in an investigation team, that could take up to a day.”

Monty nodded. Helen’s late father had been the Rail Baron. As a result, he had had a train line built to his country estate – the estate that Helen had inherited and where the party had been held. If you’re the baron of a transport system, you can do things like that. No proper access by road, either. You wouldn’t want a rival transport system to get to your personal estate. The downside is that a private, picturesque train line winding its way through beautiful valleys is not especially quick.

Florence returned from talking to the servants. “I’ve impressed on your staff the necessity that there should be no external communications”, she said to Helen.

“Does that mean that you’re going to investigate Droightman’s death?” Helen asked.

“Yes,” said Monty. “You know how people will react to this. They will be pointing the finger while secretly cheering. The Transport police have many virtues, but subtlety is not one of them. We need to close this down before your name gets associated with it.”

“And the way we will do that, dear,” added Florence, “Is to hand over a murderer, neatly packaged for when they arrive.”

“Capital,” said Monty, clapping his hands together. “Now, cause of death. Heart stopped. I’m not a medical man, but Florence tells me he wasn’t in a high-risk group, and if she says that, it’s good enough for me.”

Helen raised an eyebrow, but he carried on, “So, what might cause a heart to stop?”

“Poison,” suggested Mark.

“Good. It would be difficult to administer orally at a buffet – too much risk of getting the wrong person – so it would have to be through the skin. Mark, as it was your idea, you can start checking for any scratches or punctures to Droightman’s skin.”

Mark looked uncertainly at the body for a moment, and then knelt down to start checking. Both Monty and Florence nodded approval at this. Not the nicest job in the world, but he was getting on with it.

“Could you check his pockets for anything interesting at the same time, dear?” asked Florence.

Mark just bobbed his head once and started the awkward task of removing Droightman’s jacket.

“Other ways for his heart to stop?” asked Monty.

“Sudden shock, physical strain,” said Helen.

“Not in this environment. The last thing he did was place a strawberry under a chocolate fountain. That’s not a very strenuous activity. Other ideas?”

“Electric shock,” said the Engineer.

“Again, how?”

Then Engineer shrugged. “The chocolate fountain has an electric pump.”

“Many people used it, but only one person died. Besides, I might not be an engineer, but I don’t think chocolate conducts electricity very well.”

“Oh, it doesn’t. Not at low voltages. But it’s still used for electroplating.”

Monty blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“Sure. You know how we electroplate different metals?”

Monty waggled a hand. “Broadly speaking.”

“Well, with chocolate it’s called electrohydrodynamic spraying, but it’s a similar idea.”

“But does it kill people?”

“No – but a sudden high voltage electrical discharge through the chocolate would do it.”

“The chocolate fountain is there – please check it out. Why are you so knowledgeable about chocolate? It’s not like you can make a steam engine out of it.”

“Of course you can. It’s just that steel is cheaper,” said the Engineer, turning her attention to the chocolate fountain.

Monty sighed and returned his attention to Mark.”That was quick,” he said, seeing that Droightman was already stripped to his underwear. Stripping unconscious and dead bodies was a lot more difficult than films would have you believe.

“I’ve done it before,” Mark said. “A Board of Transport Apprenticeship teaches you a wide range of skills that will help you throughout your life. That’s what I found in his pockets,” he nodded at a couple of small piles, “And I haven’t found any scratches or punctures on his skin.”

“Did they really teach a course on how to strip dead bodies?” asked Florence, raising her eyebrows.

“No, that’s what the work placements are for.”

Florence appeared disappointed, but turned her attention to examining the meagre collection of objects from Droightman’s pockets.

“Good work, Mark,” said Monty. He was a little surprised at Mark’s responses. He had heard him indulge in that kind of banter with Helen, but not with others before now. “Have you learnt how to go through someone’s room looking for things?” he asked.

“What kind of things?”

“We don’t know, that’s the problem. People kill people for a reason. Even if they’re completely mad, they will still have a reason, maybe not one that makes sense to the rest of us, but a reason. If we can out what it is, that puts us halfway to finding the murderer.”

“So, blackmail material, stuff like that?”

“Exactly! Anything that might help us! Do you think you can  search Alan Droightman’s bedroom?”

Mark thought a moment, then said, “OK”.

Monty watched as Mark left the ballroom, curious as to what might be going his head. He still maintained  an air that he might run at the first opportunity, but he had just accepted two jobs that many people would have avoided like the plague. Of course, being bombed, torpedoed and shot at, not to mention several out-and-out murder attempts can change your perspective.

“Got it!” said the Engineer, breaking into Monty’s reverie. She had removed a panel in the base of the chocolate fountain, and was removing a small device.

“And that is?” asked Monty.

“Short version is that it stores an electrical charge, and discharges at a high enough voltage to overcome the resistivity of the chocolate. Set it off at the right moment, and whoever’s using the fountain gets zapped.”

“Death by chocolate fountain. Remarkable. How is it triggered?”

“Magnetic switch. Quite clever. All you have to do is walk past carrying a strong magnet, and bang!”

Monty turned his attention to Helen, who had been sitting quietly, watching proceedings. He suspected that she had been running the possibilities in her head, and seeing all the ways that this could end her career. No bad thing, in his opinion. With someone as headstrong as Helen, it did some good on occasion to realise that there was a real chance of failure.

But, he’d left her long enough to stew. “Helen,” he said.

“Yes,” she replied, looking up. “I need to know exactly who you invited, and who came. Especially anyone who might have a connection to our late friend.”

Free short story – Death of an Annoying Person

And now I’m going to try something a little different – a serialised story set in the world of “Runaway’s Railway”. Both “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River” were told from the perspective of Mark, but this time the story is told as seen by Monty and Florence. Mark and Helen are still there, but I thought that telling the story through another character’s eyes might be interesting.

If you haven’t yet encountered the world of “Runaway’s Railway”, then there’s a guide on the home page of this website.

This story takes place after the events of “Runaway’s River”.

Death of an Annoying Person – part 1

Monty looked around the ballroom as his wife, Florence made pleasant conversation. Maybe he was no longer all that young, but he still enjoyed parties. He straightened his dark blue blazer and smoothed back his thinning grey hair while pretending to listen to the conversation. White shirt and tie, light grey flannel trousers and a swordstick disguised as a walking cane gave him the appearance of being ex-army. A convenient label. He liked it when people labelled him.

A string quartet was playing something classical while people circulated and talked. There was a buffet available, but like most people, he’d already had his fill. Some were still getting desserts from a table dominated by a large chocolate fountain. Something of a beast, that. It was at least as tall as he was and very impressive – but then, he couldn’t imagine Lady Helen Worthshire settling for less. Helen was one of the people he kept an eye on, a protégé, some might say. Hence, he’d been absolutely delighted when she’d invited Florence and himself to the party. She’d just been promoted to Mediator for the Board of Transport, despite still being in her teens. Of course, she had decided to celebrate. Florence had claimed that she had wanted to go so that she could be nosey about Helen’s estate and country house, but she was just as proud as he was.

“Oh, look, Monty!” said Florence, “There’s Mr Ainsworth! I simply must have a word with him!”

If Monty cultivated the air of being ex-army, his wife gave the impression of the social butterfly who had drifted into the role of society matron without realising it. Another carefully cultivated persona. Still, Monty reflected, she still looked incredible in her cerise dress. Not pink, but cerise. Florence was quite definite on the colour, and Monty wasn’t about to argue with her. He nodded politely to the other guests and followed in Florence’s wake.

And so here they were, at a country estate, in a ballroom that looked like it came from a film set. Around them circulated a wide range of people, some of them friends, some contacts from the Board of Transport. Helen believed in having a diverse network, and it showed in the mix of people at the party.

“My word, isn’t that Alan Droightman over there?” he asked Florence, nodding in the direction of a man with slicked back hair and a slicked back attitude. To Monty’s mind, he had a slicked back morality, too.

“I do believe it is,” replied Florence. “How did she persuade him to come, odious toad that he is?”

“Helen has a way with people, even with people as influential and important as him.”

“Indeed, although he does rather lower the tone of the party.”

Monty couldn’t help agreeing as he watched Alan Droightman making yet another excursion to the chocolate fountain, apparently unaware of the dribbles of brown on his dress shirt. Droightman held another strawberry under the stream of milk chocolate and paused. Monty saw him wince and drop the fruit into the reservoir before dropping to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut.

“Florence,” Monty said, rapping his swordstick on the hardwood floor to gain her attention, “I think we may have a situation.”

“Do excuse me,” Florence said to Ainsworth, “I believe my husband needs me.”

Monty offered Florence his arm. She took it and they walked rapidly but calmly to where Droightman had fallen. People at the party were starting to notice something had gone wrong, meaning that it was up to Monty and Florence to take charge. There were other people who would take charge given a chance – Helen, for example, and as it was her house, and her party, she might have a case. Which was all the more reason for Monty and Florence to make their bid first.

Monty knelt beside Droightman and did a quick check. “Not breathing,” he said to Florence, and started CPR.

“Attention!” Florence said in a loud voice; not shouting but projecting her voice very effectively over the growing noise. “Can I have your attention, please? We need a defibrillator. Please can someone bring a defibrillator?”

Monty was performing CPR on Droightman with the efficiency of a machine, but an awareness was growing that it was hard work for someone of his age.

“Need a hand?” asked a woman in a white silk blouse and black culottes.

“Please,” he said. He’d been around long enough to know when pride was foolish, and he recognised her as the Engineer from the Railway.

She knelt down opposite, waited until he’d finished the set of compressions, flicked her chestnut hair out the way and took over.

“Thank you,” he said, aware that he was breathing heavily. “Any news on the defibrillator?”

“Here,” said Helen, her hair in a French plait for the occasion. She knelt in the space vacated by Monty, ignoring what this did to her blue ball gown. While Florence kept other guests away, she opened the box she had brought. Strangely, the string quartet kept playing in the background.

“Battery’s dead,” she said a moment later. “Mark! Stables – there’s a second one there.”

A boy about the same age as Helen ran off as the girl knelt ready to take over CPR from the Engineer. It was hard, tiring work, and few people could do it for more than ten minutes. Monty frowned. Helen was nothing if not efficient, and she made very sure that people who worked for her were efficient too. Most peculiar that she would have brought a defibrillator with a bad battery.

Helen and the Engineer swapped over as Mark returned with a box that he handed to the Engineer.

“Everyone clear the room, please!” called Monty. He was starting to get a nasty feeling. “Come on, you can’t do any more good here. Clear the room, please!”

As people started to leave, the Engineer said quietly, “This defib’s dead too.”

“Help me clear the room, then”.

Between Monty, Florence, Mark and the Engineer, they got everyone out of the room while Helen carried on CPR. It was quiet now, with even the string quartet silent. Monty watched Mark as he closed the doors, and then closed the curtains over the large French windows. He was another of Monty’s protégés, and had come a long way from being a Runaway scared of his own shadow. He had never lost his slightly untidy, waif-like appearance, but at least he no longer looked half-starved.

“You may as well stop now, dear,” said Florence to Helen. “There’s nothing more you can do.”

Helen gave a couple more compressions, then sat back on her heels. She stared down at Droightman and asked, “What now?”

Florence glanced around, verifying that the room was empty, and that doors and windows were closed. “Engineer – can you give me an opinion on those defibrillators?”

“Already on it,” said the Engineer, as she took the back off one of them.

“Well,”, said Florence, “We have Alan Droightman, one of the Board of Transport’s leading lights, lying dead on the floor. Coincidentally, he is a very unpleasant man with a lot of enemies. He has apparently had a heart attack, despite not being in a high-risk group for heart failure. Both the defibrillators that could have saved his life seem to be broken.”

“That’s because someone has shorted out the batteries,” said the Engineer. “See here? This capsule on the battery that has burst? That’s to prevent an explosion if the battery shorts out. That can’t happen by accident. What are the chances I’ll find the same in the other one?”

Monty stalked to the door, cracked it open a little and called the butler over.  “Please ensure that no one leaves the estate, there’s a good fellow.” He waited for an acknowledgement and closed the door again.

He drew Florence to one side, and asked, “I assume that we’re treating this as a murder?”

“Yes, I think so,” replied Florence.

“You realise that Droightman being killed at Helen’s party will be very bad for her reputation?”

“Of course, I do. That arrogant man’s work has become the foundation of our understanding of transport systems. If his murder is connected with Helen, then she’ll spend the rest of her career negotiating season ticket discounts for a local bus company.”

“Does that mean that we’re going to use our positions as Special Envoys of the Board of Transport to sort this out before the Board of Transport Police turn up?”

“Special Envoys Without Portfolio.”

“Ah. I always forget that last bit.”

“I know. Yes, we will get involved. Because if we can’t sort this out quietly, then Helen will be ruined.”

“Getting involved is going to upset people,” said Monty, smiling. “Oh yes,” said Florence, smiling back. “And the first order of business is to find out how it is possible to induce a heart attack in an apparently healthy, if rather annoying man.”

Bookcases

Coronavirus and the lockdown have had a variety of curious side effects. For example, people have become accustomed to video conferencing in a way that they would not have considered a few months ago.  In fact, a few years ago, this level of video conferencing would not have been technically possible. TV shows where pre-lockdown there would have been a live audience watching notable people interviewed on a comfy sofa have changed radically. Now the interviewers sit at home while the interviewee appears in a picture-in-picture box, floating around the screen, talking from the comfort of their front room.

This, in turn, has given rise to a new phenomenon – other people’s bookcases. Granted, you can visit a site such as Goodreads to find out what people are reading, but you are only able to find out about your friends’ bookshelves. There is none of the voyeuristic thrill of seeing the bookcases of the unsuspecting stranger. This is a experience that lockdown has brought us. Today we watch chat shows not to hear what the guests are saying, but to see what they are reading.

For authors, this is particularly important. However original an author may be, it is a certainty that they will be affected by the authors they read. This is a good thing, because reading is one of the ways that we learn to write.

So, as we don’t have a video conference scheduled for today, after some suitable prodding from Hayley, I thought I show you my bookcases.

There are three of them, two large ones from Ikea chosen for size, and a smaller one which was chosen for looks, rather than capacity. The Ikea bookcases hold most of the books, one in the hallway, one at the top of the stairs. The smaller bookcase resides in the living room and has carefully chosen books for visitors to see.

And here’s the first bookcase:

The bookcase in the hall

It’s the one in the hall, and the books are two deep, so you can’t see everything.

What you will see in addition to copies of “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River” is a large number of Terry Pratchett books. Of course, these days there’s not much remarkable about having Terry Pratchett on your book shelf, but I first started reading him when he wrote “Strata”, and before he was well known. If you haven’t read it, it’s a kind of proto-Discworld book. Straight science fiction rather than fantasy, and fascinating because you can see how the ideas fed into Discworld.

Alistair Maclean features quite heavily too – there are very few people who could write an action/thriller story like he did. He had an ability to write the big set-piece action sequences, and combine them with a plot that never felt contrived. Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat is another favourite on this bookcase. There is a string of Agatha Christie books on top of the bookcase, although you can’t see them here.

Worthy of mention is Genevieve Cogman’s “Invisible Library” series. If you haven’t read these, and you’re looking for a teenage/young adult book, then take a look at them. A clever idea and well written.

Scattered here and there you will also find various reference books, covering an eclectic range of topics.

Now we move on to the bookcase at the top of the stairs. Again, books are packed  two deep, and stacked on top as well.

The bookcase at the top of the stairs

Books that you can’t really see here because they’re hidden behind others include Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” saga, epic fantasy at it’s best. On the top of the bookcase, in addition to a number of Biggles books you will find Jack Campbell’s “Lost Fleet” series. Good military science fiction is hard to find, and Jack Campbell represents this genre at its best.

Various other authors you might recognise include Brandon Sanderson (who completed the “Wheel of Time” saga after Robert Jordan’s death), and China Meiville. If you haven’t read Jonathan L. Howard’s “Johannes Cabal the Necromancer” series, then you’ve missed out.

You can also find most of Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles of St. Mary’s” on the shelves. The ones you can’t see are probably being read at the moment. They are highly readable and a lot of fun – another series I can happily recommend.

And of course, more reference books, and more copies of “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River”.

The bookcase in the living room

Going back down the stairs to the living room, we find the bookcase that holds the book that we like people to know we read (including yet more more copies of “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River”). Mostly. I will confess that Mickey Spillane is possibly not the most intellectual of writers, even if he does tell a good yarn.

On the other hand, there’s Seamus Heaney’s “Beowolf”, which has got to be one of the better translations. You’ll also find a book of his poetry in there somewhere. Probably next to Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series.

You can also see a scattering of titles like Garth Nix’s “Abhorsen” books, but also some by Catherine Aird. You may recall that she’s mentioned in the dedication of “Runaway’s Railway”, for having given me very good advice and encouragement when I started writing. Her books are well worth reading if you like detective stories. She has a devious mind.

Finally, you will find some of the novels of Umberto Eco, who really is in a class by himself.

Hopefully this little tour of my bookcases will have sated your curiosity, and maybe suggest a few authors that you might like to try yourself.