An Embarrassment of Corpses: An Oliver Swithin Mystery #1

An Embarrassment of Corpses: An Oliver Swithin Mystery #1

Scotland Yard is hunting the worst kind of serial killer—one with a sense of humor. When children's book author Oliver Swithin, reluctant creator of the notorious "Finsbury the Ferret," finds ...

About The Author

Alan Beechey

Alan Beechey was born in England and grew up in London. He moved to Manhattan in his twenties and now ...

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Chapter One

If Sir Hargreaves Random had been a character in one of his own adventure yarns—aptly named, for they were inclined to be woolly, drawn-out, and clumsily wound-up—he would surely have written a more glorious death for himself.

Not that death ever struck down the plucky heroes of Sir Harry’s stirring stories for boys. And although the hero’s best friend was occasionally required to hurl himself into the path of a flying kris, a rearing cobra, or a chillingly accurate Luger, Sandy (or Corky or Dusty) always managed to recover from his flesh wound in time for the next term’s adventure.

But when an older and therefore more dispensable character was forced to sell himself dear for King or Queen and Country, Sir Harry made sure he was dispatched worthily: the Prof picked off by a Boer sniper as he tried to escape from the besieged fort; or the Doc stabbed with a treacherous alpenstock in the Klosterpass, wielded by that tall, blond guide (who’d claimed to be Swiss). Sir Harry would never have written an embarrassing end like his own. A Random character simply wouldn’t be seen dead in a Trafalgar Square fountain on an August Bank Holiday morning, floating face down with a look of mild irritation on his face, mortified in all senses of the word.

It’s also unlikely that the young man who had just run unsteadily into the deserted Square could have featured in one of Sir Harry’s books. His fine, hay-colored hair was too straight and floppy for a Harry Random hero, his chin was insufficiently square and firm, his front teeth were too prominent, and his blue eyes were rather docile behind wire-framed spectacles. The tuxedo he was wearing had clearly seen better days, most of them upon a former owner.

The young man trotted across the empty street to Nelson’s Column, and with a nervous glance around, clambered unsteadily onto one of the plinths that supported Landseer’s sentinel lions.

“Snark!” he shouted halfheartedly. He paused, hoping to hear an answering cry over the gush of the fountains and the flapping wings of petulant pigeons. When none came, he stepped gingerly onto the lion’s paw and dragged himself onto the beast’s neck. “Snark!” he called again, holding onto the statue’s mane as he scanned the square for any other sign of human life. His voice echoed from the porticoed front of the National Gallery, but there was no other reply.

Far above him, the rising sun was gilding the pigeon guano on Nelson’s hat. The young man sank down on the lion and studied his cheap wristwatch: 6:13 a.m. “Nearly quarter past six,” he translated. Feeling no time-check was complete without an adverb, he detested the digital watch-face. Oliver Swithin believed the purpose of a timepiece was not to tell you what time it is, but what time it isn’t.

From the other end of Whitehall, Big Ben tetchily confirmed the inaccuracy of its Japanese cousin. Swithin listened to the chimes, clear on the morning air, and yawned loudly into cupped hands, recoiling slightly from his recycled breath. He closed his eyes and gently massaged them with his fingertips. As he opened them again, he found himself staring at something black and shapeless, floating in one of the nearby fountains like an inflated rubbish bag. He frowned, aware that a terrible suspicion was penetrating his claret-fueled headache. Then he slithered awk- wardly to the ground and ran across the square.

Sir Harry Random’s corpse was bobbing gently on the choppy water, the arms floating on either side. As Swithin stared, an eddy dribbled it into a jet of water spouted by one of the fountain’s bronze Tritons, and it swirled away again like an adolescent losing his nerve at his first dance.

“Oh my fur and whiskers!” Swithin muttered. “It’s a Boojum!”

There was nobody in sight. With a haste that would have pleased his tailor—if such a person had ever existed—he wrenched off his jacket and suede shoes and plunged into the cold water, splashing across to the corpse. He tried to turn it over, but Sir Harry’s waterlogged dinner jacket kept slipping from his grasp. So Swithin grabbed the body by one outstretched hand and hauled it across to the edge of the basin, as if he were towing a boat.

# # #

Police Constable Urchin longed for the day when he could say he’d seen everything, but so far he’d seen nothing. In his first week on the beat, he’d dutifully spent each night patrolling the streets around the British Museum, but to his disappointment, he and PC Grunwick, his more experienced companion, had made no arrests. Grunwick’s conversation was also taking its toll, as it consisted almost entirely of pointing out some hapless passer-by and whispering: “I bet chummy there’s got something to ’ide. I can spot a villain a mile off.” When Urchin asked how, Grunwick would merely tap the side of his extensive nose and say “Ah, you have to be in the force as long as I ’ave, son,” which only deepened the new policeman’s discouragement.

But now Urchin, still in uniform as he made his way home through Trafalgar Square, was finally witnessing an incident. Two men were taking an early morning dip in one of the fountains. In black tie. The policeman locked his hands behind his back and strolled over.

“Bit early to see in the New Year, isn’t is, sir?” he asked insouciantly, as he watched the younger man attempt to carry the older one over the fountain’s rim. “Or is this perhaps some early morning baptismal rite?” Good, he thought, the right hint of erudition. More of the coiled steel than “Having a spot of trouble, sir?” and a considerable improvement on “You’re bleedin’ nicked, mate,” which he suspected would be Grunwick’s choice of phrase.

The young man, up to his hips in the cool water, stared at the policeman for a moment through glasses that were beginning to mist up. His lank, fair hair was dripping.

“So there is one around when I need one,” he said calmly. “Here, take an elbow.” Momentarily lost for a witty response, Urchin found himself obeying mutely, and between them, they maneuvered the body out of the fountain and onto the ground, where it lay in a spreading puddle of water. Swithin crouched quickly beside Sir Harry, grabbing him under the neck and sealing his lips over the older man’s mouth.

“Here, I say, none of that, really, I don’t care how drunk you are,” protested Urchin, with an anxious glance to see if they were being watched.

“I’m giving him artificial respiration, you donkey,” Swithin snapped between gulps of air. “If you want to help, check his pulse.”

Urchin felt for a pulse at Sir Harry’s wrist. There was none. He started to reach into the buttoned-up jacket to feel for a heartbeat, but recoiled as his hand scraped across something sharp. Several needles with trailing threads were stuck in the wet lapel. “Shall I do CPR?” he asked, sucking at his grazed skin.

Swithin broke away abruptly.

“No,” he replied. He wiped his mouth on his wet shirt-sleeve. “Well, how long has he been in the water? We shouldn’t give up this easily.”

“It isn’t the water,” said Swithin. He took his hand from behind Sir Harry’s neck and showed it to the policeman. It was smeared with thick blood. Pink rivulets began to run down his soaking wrists.

They sat the body up and stared at the shattered skull.

“I’d better call for an ambulance,” Urchin said eventually. He turned reverently away and began speaking in a low voice into his radio.

“They’ll be here in a minute,” he said, looking back at the corpse, which was once again flat on its back. Swithin sat damply on the ground beside it, gathering his knees in the crook of each elbow. He had draped his jacket around his shoulders.

“Aren’t you going to take a statement?” he asked quietly. “The duty officer will do that, Mr.…?”

“Swithin. Oliver Swithin. And the recently departed is Sir Hargreaves Random. Harry to his friends.”

“Is that the Harry Random? The writer of those old boys’ stories? I didn’t know he was still alive.”

Swithin nodded sadly but inaccurately. “He was a good friend of mine. I’ve been with him for most of the night.”

Urchin remembered from his recent training that in the presence of sudden grief, he should make a cup of tea for the bereaved. He scanned the terrain—plenty of water, but no kettle. “Then I offer my condolences, sir,” he concluded lamely.

Swithin looked up at the policeman. “I really think you should take a statement, you know.”

“And why’s that, if I may ask?” “Because Sir Harry was murdered.”

Urchin started and closed his eyes, as if flinching from a momentary attack of vertigo. A murder! Alas, poor Grunwick, where be your jibes now?

“You saw it happen?” he asked eventually, moving his tongue across suddenly dry lips.

“No. I found him floating here, just a moment before you came on the scene.”

“Then how can you be sure it was murder?” Urchin asked, his mind racing. “Because of that bash on the head? Isn’t it more likely that he stumbled into the fountain and hit his head on the bottom?”

Swithin hauled himself to his feet and located his shoes, which he began to tug over his soggy socks. “It takes a lot of force to do that much damage to a skull. If Harry had fallen accidentally into the fountain, the water would have cushioned him.”

“Perhaps he fell into the fountain from a height?” said Urchin, gazing first at Nelson’s Column and then more realistically at the main water jet, which sprouted from the middle of the fountain like a giant chalice. Swithin smiled.

“Harry Random was born on the twenty-ninth of February, so he claims he’s only nineteen, but he’s actually in his late seventies. He hasn’t scaled a national monument since VE-night.” He looked tenderly at the body sprawled by his feet. Urchin, notebook in hand, noticed the emotion.

“I will take that statement, Mr. Swithin,” he said, with sudden decisiveness. Grunwick! thou shouldst be living at this hour. “When did you last see Sir Harry alive? In your own words, please.”

“A couple of hours ago.”

“I assume from your dress that this is a late night rather than an early morning.”

“Yes. We’d been taking part in our club’s annual Snark Hunt.” “Snark Hunt?”

“We play characters from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. You’ve heard of it?”

“Of course I’ve heard of it,” snapped Urchin in an offended tone. “I went to Christ Church, Lewis Carroll’s college, as a matter of fact, although I suppose you think it beneath the dignity of an Oxford graduate to be a police officer.” He chose to ignore the fleeting slap from his superego for implying that he had, in fact, graduated.

“Not at all,” Swithin answered quickly, detecting the distant metaphorical click of a can of worms meeting a tin opener. “I have the highest respect for the police force. My uncle, as it happens, is—”

“Well, never mind about that,” Urchin interrupted, with a petulant wave of his notebook. O mute, inglorious Grunwick. “What’s all this about Snark Hunts?”

“Sir Harry and I both belonged to a club for authors of children’s books,” Swithin said. “The Sanders, on Pall Mall.” He pointed west. “It’s just a few hundred yards that way.”

“Why’s it called that?”

“The club operates under the name of Sanders. Not a Car- rollian reference. We have to balance the enthusiasms of the members—the Pooh contingent can get quite militant.”

“So you’re a writer yourself?” Urchin asked, after taking down Swithin’s exact words in longhand.

“I’ve written several books for young children.”

Urchin looked up with interest. “What are they, perhaps I’ve heard of them? I’ve got two little nieces and I often read to them.” He blushed. “They call me Uncle Plod,” he added shyly. Swithin was equally abashed. “Well, I write a series of books about a family of field mice who live on a British Rail train.

They’re called—”

“The Railway Mice!” exclaimed Urchin, with a slight hop from one foot to another. “I’ve read them! But I thought those books were written by O.C. Blithely?”

“A penname, inventedtosparemethiskindofembarrassment.” “Oh, but you shouldn’t be embarrassed,” said Urchin sincerely. “My nieces love your books, especially since you introduced Finsbury the Ferret. But it’s funny, I always pictured you as a woman. Oh well, back to business.” The smile rapidly faded from his face, and he officiously licked the end of his pencil, only to discover with a grimace that it was a pen. “Go on about this Snark Hunt.”

“Every year, the club organizes a Snark Hunt, in which ten members impersonate the fabled hunting party. You know, the Bellman, the Boots, the Beaver, the Banker, the Billiard-marker, etc. Sir Harry was the Bonnet-maker. Hence the needles and thread in his lapel—we all had a few props to identify ourselves. Well, all the other members who turn up become Snarks, and disperse themselves around St. James. We give them a few minutes’ head start and then come after them. When they’re all caught, we can ‘softly and suddenly vanish away’—usually back to the club bar. That’s where most of the Snarks hide in the first place, anyway.”

“And what time did the Snark Hunt start last night?” asked Urchin.


“So you and Sir Harry had both been wandering the streets for six hours?”

“Good heavens, no, Constable! Harry and I very quickly gave up and went back to the club. We’ve been playing poker most of the night. I’m afraid I dozed off about four o’clock, and when I awoke a little while ago, Harry was gone. The club porter told me he’d left ten minutes earlier, heading toward Trafalgar Square. I followed, and that’s how I found him.”

Oliver Swithin shuddered, as much from the memory as from his clammy clothes. Sunlight was trickling down the column above them like peach-colored paint, but the Square was still cool in the shade.

“Okay, how about this?” said Urchin suddenly. “Sir Harry gets to the Square and wonders if any of your Snarks could still be hiding. There are plenty of statues and bollards and parapets to conceal themselves behind. He notices that the water in the fountains is off and the basin is empty, and so he takes a look inside. In fact, he climbs in and looks around.” The policeman started walking around the perimeter of the fountain until he drew level with a statue on an island a few feet from the rim. It was a half-man, half-fish figure holding sea creatures in his hand. Water gushed loudly from their mouths into the basin.

“He gets in front of this statue,” he shouted, “just at the very second the water gets turned on. The force of it, flowing out of this dolphin’s mouth, knocks him off his feet and onto the bottom of the fountain, stoving in the back of his skull. By the time you get here, ten minutes later, the fountain’s filled up.”

The harsh notes of an ambulance siren, like a crudely synthesized cuckoo, could now be heard above the steady rush of the water. Oliver Swithin, crouching over Sir Harry’s body, looked up.

“Rather a convenient coincidence,” he remarked.

“All right,” said Urchin huffily, “the CID will need to check to see what time the water came on, but as a theory, it’s no worse than yours, which posits the existence of a murderer for which we have no evidence. The principle of Occam’s Razor would say mine’s the more likely explanation.”

“Really,” replied Swithin casually. “Then how do you explain this?” He unbuttoned Sir Harry’s sodden jacket and flung it open. On the starched front of the dead man’s dress shirt were a series of blue lines—a straight line drawn vertically, crossed twice by two semicircles, like a double-ended trident. “That wasn’t there the last time I saw him.”

The ambulance swerved into sight, slowed to mount the curb, and coasted toward them, scattering the slow-witted pigeons. A moment later, a crowded police car also made the turn from the Strand.

“You realize what you’re saying,” said Urchin hastily, as several men in belted raincoats clambered out of the car. “You’re saying that a murder has been committed, and you are the only person known to have been in the vicinity at the time of death.”

“Well, yes, I suppose so.”

Urchin tucked his notebook into the breast pocket of his tunic and placed his hand grandly on Swithin’s shoulder.

“In that case, Oliver Swithin, alias O.C. Blithely, I arrest you for the murder of Sir Hargreaves Random. By the way,” he added quickly, as the ambulance team descended on the body, “can I have your autograph? It’s for my nieces, you understand.”

# # #

Unlike Police Constable Urchin, Detective Superintendent Timothy Mallard had seen it all during his thirty-five years with the Metropolitan police force, and the deep creases etched into his forehead showed how much of it had challenged his dogged belief in the basic decency of the human animal. Otherwise, he appeared younger than his age, which was closer to sixty than fifty. His milk-white hair, which showed no signs of thin- ning, always looked a fortnight overdue for the attentions of a barber, and his handsome features were decorated with plain spectacles and a slightly rakish moustache. Tim Mallard’s slim frame, military posture, and remarkable vigor continued to win him decent roles with his local amateur dramatic company, the Theydon Bois Thespians, and also discouraged his superiors at New Scotland Yard from starting conversations that might involve the word “retirement.” (Through a clerical oversight, which had muddled Mallard’s personnel file with the criminal record of a video bootlegger from Streatham, the system had so far failed to pension him off.)

The superintendent was currently rehearsing the role of Banquo for the Theydon Bois Thespians’ autumn production of Macbeth, and, although resentful that this wouldn’t involve any swordplay, he was comforted that the character’s early death would allow him to play a “blood-baltered” ghost in the third act and a ghastly apparition in the fourth and still get to the local pub before closing time, if he didn’t wait around for the curtain call. (The audience rarely did.) He was pleased to get such a large part; it was a standing joke in the company, which was exclusively Shakespearian, to give Mallard roles that slyly reflected his profession, such as the Constable of France, Snout, Pinch, or Paroles. (Alas, not Dogberry yet.) For the current production of Macbeth, he had narrowly avoided being cast as the Bleeding Sergeant.

On this scorching bank holiday Monday morning, Mallard would much rather have been sitting under a tree learning his lines in his North London garden than standing in a cell in Bow Street police station staring at the alleged murderer of Sir Hargreaves Random.

Oliver Swithin, feeling Mallard’s eyes upon him, stirred and turned over awkwardly on the narrow bed. The single blanket fell onto the floor.

“Hello,” he said huskily to the frowning policeman. He ran his tongue over his lips and scowled. Mallard closed the door behind him and leaned against it.

“Ollie, I wish you’d accept it that alcohol is not one of the major food groups,” he said. Oliver lifted his head from the grubby pillow.

“I didn’t know this was your manor, Uncle Tim,” he said, registering pain as he sat up.

“It isn’t. Your friend Geoffrey Angelwine called me in a panic and said you’d been arrested. I thought I’d better come and bail you out. I was expecting a ‘drunk and disorderly,’ but you certainly don’t do things by halves. Murder of a Knight of the Realm—I wonder if that means you can be hanged by a silken rope. Or is that reserved for peers? Perhaps they’ll attach a tassel, anyway.”

Oliver slowly dropped his feet to the cold floor of the cell. Without replying to his uncle, he reached for the trousers of his dinner suit, dragged them over his damp underpants, and stood up, clutching the waistband. (His braces and shoelaces had been removed to prevent any self-administered justice before the Crown could make its case.) Still half a head shorter than Mallard, Oliver yawned and pushed the fair fringe off his forehead with his free hand.

“God, you look awful,” said Mallard distastefully. “And would you mind staying downwind of me until you’ve brushed your teeth. Preferably your tongue and tonsils, too. I brought you a toothbrush. And a sweater. And you’ll need these.”

He reached into his breast pocket and handed Oliver his glasses.

“What are the charges?” the young man asked.

“No charges. Not a stain on your character, which is more than can be said for that suit.”

“Not even resisting arrest?” Oliver persisted.

Mallard smiled for the first time. “Oh, they were considering it. But not after the statement you gave that young constable— what was his name?—Urchin. How did it go? Something like ‘It’s a fair cop, guv. Gorblimey, I reckon you busies ’as got me bang to rights, so ’elp me, I should cocoa.’”

Oliver grinned as he pulled his laceless suede shoes onto his bare feet. He slipped the damp socks into a jacket pocket.

“Urchin took it all down,” Mallard continued, knowing better than to upbraid his nephew for wearing Hush Puppies with a tuxedo. “And I can just see the magistrate’s face. So the locals have decided not to press charges, providing you turn up at the inquest and say all the right things.”

“Thanks, Uncle.”

“Oh don’t thank me. Believe me, I had little enough to do with it. I’m as welcome here as a fart in a spacesuit. The last thing any local shop wants on a bank holiday Monday is a visit from the Yard.”

“Not even when Sir Harry Random has been murdered?” asked Oliver quietly, without looking up.

“Now don’t start that again,” snapped Mallard. “I’ve heard about that story you were trying to spin earlier, and I put it down in equal parts to the alcohol and your diseased imagination.”

“‘Judgment of beauty can err, what with the wine and the dark,’” Oliver quoted. “Ovid,” he added smugly. Mallard stared at him.

“Maybe they should keep you here, after all,” he murmured. Still clutching his trousers, Oliver followed his uncle out of the cell, and after a brief visit to the washroom, joined him in the main public room of the police station. Mallard was deep in conversation with one of the detectives who had responded to Urchin’s call earlier that morning, and who, despite the warm weather, was still wearing his belted Burberry.

“Mr. Swithin, sir?” A stout, shirt-sleeved policeman behind a counter was waving a mustard-colored envelope at Oliver. “Your belongings, sir, if you’d just sign for them.” He smiled in a macabre manner, showing too many teeth, and Oliver found himself thinking inexplicably of the lyrics to “Mack the Knife.” (Although for some reason, he was hearing them to the tune of “Clementine.”)

The policeman tipped the contents of the envelope onto the counter and checked them off on a clipboard. “Handkerchief, still rather soggy, I’m afraid, sir.” He smiled again, and Oliver shivered. In the local pubs, P.C. Axelrod was very successful at selling raffle tickets for police benefits. “One pair of braces, pink; one pair of shoelaces; one digital watch; one bunch of keys on an ornamental key ring.”

He lifted it to his face, with a frown of feigned concentration. “Ah, I see. The young lady’s bathing costume sort of trickles off when you hold it up the right way.”

“It was a present,” said Oliver weakly.

“What’ll they think of next, that’s what I say, sir,” said Axelrod with another smile and returned to the list. Oliver took off his jacket and pulled on the sweater that Mallard had brought him. “One diary—rather spoilt by its illegal dip in a municipal waterway; one similarly sodden membership card to what seems to be the Sanders Club; one jelly baby; one small plastic telescope; one red plastic clown’s nose; one tuning fork; and several slips of paper in different colors that appear to me to be counterfeit banknotes.” “Monopoly money, actually.”

“Some of us just live for pleasure, don’t we, sir?” Axelrod swiveled his clipboard. “Right, sign here.”

Stuffing his belongings into the pockets of his dinner jacket, Oliver rejoined his uncle. They stepped out into the blazing midday sunshine of Bow Street and walked toward Covent Garden.

# # #

A nation’s character is the child of its climate, which probably explains why conversing in the open air has never been an English habit. Unlike the squares and marketplaces of Europe, public spaces in England are designed as places to go past rather than places to go to. When reluctant Londoners got their first Italianate piazza, in the seventeenth century, the empty space made them so nervous that they quickly filled it with fruit and vegetable stands and called it Covent Garden, convincing generations of tourists that the English speak better than they spell. Now the original Inigo Jones houses that first framed the piazza have all gone, and its main attraction is the renovated Victorian market building that was eventually built in the middle. Covent Garden’s architectural history always reminded Oliver of the ingenious American company that sells blobs of batter as the holes from long-departed doughnuts.

A handful of tourists, with Nikes and Nikons, were straggled in a loose, sweating crescent around a young man who was trying to juggle meat cleavers under the portico of Jones’s barn-like church.

“Are you hungry?” Mallard asked Oliver as they stopped to watch.

“Not really.” A cleaver clanged onto the cobbled pavement and skidded into the sunlight. The tourists moved away, to seek the shade of the shops and stalls in the old market building.

“Good,” Mallard continued unpleasantly. “Because I have strict instructions from your Aunt Phoebe to bring you back for Sunday lunch, and I don’t want to. You’re her favorite nephew, although I can’t think why. Personally, it’s part of my daily routine to thank the Almighty that I’m only related to you by marriage. By the way, Oliver, I’m sorry about Harry.”

Oliver smiled, and not just because he had made eye contact with a big-haired American teenager, who had blushed and cracked her chewing gum. He knew he was the favorite nephew of both members of the Mallard partnership.

“Thank you. And you’ll get to the bottom of his murder, I know.”

Mallard sighed. “Before I got you released,” he said quietly, “I had a long talk with the CID officer who’s in charge of the case. Harry’s death is easily explained as an accident, there’s nothing to indicate foul play, and you said yourself that you didn’t see anyone around.”

“But, Uncle…”

“But since you seem determined to but me buts and uncle me uncles, I’ll give you five minutes of my professional ear.”

“Fine,” said Oliver irritably. “Let’s revisit the scene of the crime.” A few minutes later, the two men were scooting through the ring of slow-moving sightseeing buses that by this time were besieging Trafalgar Square. Several hundred tourists had slipped through these defenses and were commemorating England’s greatest dead naval hero by feeding the pigeons that besmirched his statue. There was no sign of the more recent death.

Oliver and Mallard stood beside the fountain where Sir Harry had been found, watching water gush from the mouth of a dolphin, held tightly by an ornamental merman. The water level was high, and occasional wavelets spilled over the stone rim. Spray from the huge central element of the fountain blew in their faces. For Mallard, the spritzing was a welcome relief from the midday heat; Oliver, still wearing damp clothes next to his skin, hardly noticed.

“There’s a Sherlock Holmes story in which Holmes sarcastically asks Inspector Lestrade if he’s dragged the Trafalgar Square fountains in his hunt for a missing woman,” Oliver mused.

“Are you keeping me from lunch just to tell me that?” “No, but I’ll tell you something I didn’t tell Urchin. Harry had some kind of meeting arranged for this morning. We were going to have a late night anyway, so he decided to stay up.”

“When, where, and with whom was this alleged meeting?” “You’re not in court now, Uncle. In order, obviously sometime early this morning, I don’t know, and I don’t know. Harry  was

deliberately mysterious, the silly old buffer.” “Any corroborative evidence?”

“He was waving around a piece of paper—a letter or note. I didn’t see what was written on it. I don’t think he showed it to anyone else at the Sanders Club, but the porter may have seen him with it just before he went out.”

“The police didn’t find any letter on him,” Mallard commented tersely. “Just the usual personal items, some needles and thread, a thimble, and the remains of a small bar of carbolic soap.”

“He had the needles and thread because of his role in the Snark hunt. He was the Bonnet-maker.”

“Which explains the thimble too?”

“No, several of us had thimbles. It’s from the verse in the poem:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care: They pursued it with forks and hope;

They threatened its life with a railway share; They charmed it with smiles and soap.”

“I’m amazed you can remember all that,” said Mallard, as Oliver began to fumble through the pockets of his clammy dinner jacket, “but totally forget your aunt’s birthday year after year.”

Oliver produced two items: a bluish metal tuning fork and a tiny red plastic telescope. “I had a fork, just as in the verse. And my character carried a telescope in one of Holiday’s original illustrations for the poem.”

“Uh-huh. So far, we have a mysterious note that can’t be found. You’ll have to do better than that if you want to make a case for murder.”

Oliver thrust the objects back into his pocket. “Harry left the Sanders Club at about ten to six, or so the porter told me,” he continued. “I’d fallen asleep in the card room at about four, and woke up at six. I went out to look for him.”

“Why?” Mallard asked.

“I was concerned. The streets are very quiet at that time, especially on a bank holiday. Who knows what could have happened to him? And I was curious about where he was going. The porter said he’d headed in this direction along Pall Mall. I came into the Square at a quarter past six—I heard Big Ben strike. And I saw him floating here.”

“Did you see anyone else?”

“No. But there are plenty of places where the killer could have hidden, even if he was still around.”

“So Harry was seen alive by your porter at ten to six,” speculated Mallard, “and it would take him at least five minutes to get here. He was dead before you found him at quarter past. Then the accident—or assault—must have happened between 5:55 and 6:10 a.m. What time do these fountains come on, I wonder?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I think Harry got here, saw the empty fountain, and climbed into it for no other reason than he’d never been  in an empty fountain before. And I think he either slipped and hit his head on the edge or the floor—and the evidence of that would have been washed away—or the fountain came on while he was still frisking around. Look at the force of those jets. He could have been knocked right off his feet.”

Mallard indicated the spouting sea creature, but Oliver was shaking his head.

“That’s what P.C. Urchin said, but it’s not like Harry to behave that way. He was terrified of new experiences. He was a craven poltroon when it came to anything like travel, for example, because he hated to speak any language other than English. And he once told me he took cabs everywhere in London because he had no idea how to pay for a ticket on a bus and didn’t want to look a fool the first time he tried. Harry got all his background information for his stories from guidebooks and articles. He liked a quiet life, and the last thing he’d do is clamber into a fountain for the hell of it, especially at his age.”

“Well he didn’t fall in from this side,” said Mallard. He rested his palms on the waist-high parapet. “He must have been standing up on the rim or actually in the fountain to end up where he did.”

“That’s one reason why I say he was hit first and then dumped into the water. And then there are the marks on his shirt. Did you see them?”

It was Mallard’s turn to shake his head.

“On the starched front of his dress shirt,” Oliver continued, “there was an odd sign, a series of crossing lines. It wasn’t there when I was playing poker with him in the club.”

He felt in his pockets again, but realizing he had no pen, he dipped his hand in the water, bent down, and traced the symbol on the pavement. A straight vertical line, crossed near each end by a semicircle, like a squat, two-ended trident.

“Seen that before?” Oliver asked. His uncle shrugged.

“All right, that’s an oddity. But he could have done it himself after you’d fallen asleep.”


Mallard didn’t answer, but turned and surveyed the Square, with its monuments and bollards arrayed like condiments on  a banquet table. A troop of pigeons strutted past, changing direction together, like a game of Simon Says played by clairvoyants. Eventually, Mallard spoke again.

“Sorry, Oliver, it won’t do. There are several unanswered questions here, certainly, but not enough for the Murder Squad to push their noses in where they’re neither wanted nor invited.”

“Occam’s Razor.” “What about it?”

“Urchin brought it up just before he arrested me.”

“Really? What is the Met coming to? Most of my lads would assume that Occam’s Razor is exhibit A in a G.B.H. trial.” Mal- lard grinned. “Well, if I understand that principle correctly, it means we first try to solve a problem using the evidence we already have. Now I’m going to check what time these fountains came on this morning, but I’ve got a feeling it was six o’clock on the dot, exactly the time that Sir Harry was here, unseen by you. A plain, unfortunate coincidence, which doesn’t involve notes that nobody can find and invisible murderers given to scribbling cabalistic symbols on their victims.”

“So how does that account for the symbol?”

Mallard glanced down at the diagram Oliver had drawn, but the water had evaporated. He scraped the crude outline again with his toe-cap.

“Try this,” he said. “Harry decides at six o’clock in the morn- ing to get a breath of fresh air and have a few more minutes  of Snark hunting. With Carroll’s verse rolling around in his befuddled mind, he elects to prepare himself a little better for the fray. He remembers that the hunters pursued their quarry with ‘forks and hope.’ So on his way out of the club, he picks up a pen and idly draws a fork on his shirt front. A toasting fork, or a pitchfork—something with three tines. But he catches sight of himself in a mirror and realizes that he’s made a mistake. He drew the fork looking down at his chest, so it’s upside down to anyone who sees him, like a nurse’s watch. To correct the mistake, he draws a couple of tines at the other end. And there you are.”

“A refrigerator light,” Oliver muttered. “What?”

“How would Occam’s Razor account for a refrigerator light. I mean, you see the light on, and you close the door. Then you open it again, and the light’s still on. So isn’t the simplest expla- nation that the light is on all the time, even when the door is closed?”

“I know someone whose light isn’t on all the time, and I happen to be his uncle, God help me.” Mallard paused and wiped his forehead. “Ollie, you’ve just lost someone very dear to you, and you had the misfortune to be the person who found him. One moment Harry was a fun-loving playfellow, the next he was gone. It’s natural on these occasions to look for some meaning, some explanation beyond the absurdity of the word ‘accident.’ But please don’t let that seduce you into believing something for which there’s no evidence.”

Oliver sniffed the air. A sea gull landed on the merman’s head. “I’ll have to go and see Lorina, I suppose,” he conceded at last. Mallard seemed pleased.

“See her tomorrow,” he said gently. “You can’t bring her much comfort today.”

“Okay.” Oliver looked over the scene one last time, and started to walk away. “Let’s consider Mr. Occam shaved.”

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