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.”

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