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.”

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