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.”