Tea and Ladyfingers
By Mark Brandon AllenFollow the author on Twitter
On a clear Monday morning the sun rose over Gloucester Commons, a small fishing village, on a narrow inlet formed by the Mersey River. Two early morning risers, digging for mussels on the sandy beach, found the Reverend Hollister’s corpse - wide eyed and stiff as a board, on a sun bleached bench, inside the townships weatherworn seaside gazebo. The vicar’s hat and neatly folded frock coat were by his side. Within minutes of their discovery the beachcombers notified a nearby bobby who in turn passed on the information to the village’s Northern Constabulary. The news of the cleric’s demise spread quickly through the hamlet.
It appeared to Coughlin, the constabulary’s Chief Inspector, that the vicar’s death was self inflicted. “Caused by a poisoned Ecuadorian bird arrow from the clerics own colonial collection. Found clutched in his fist,” he announced.
But Buckminster, Gloucester’s famed Flemish detective, had a feeling that the poisoning was more than a simple suicide. Behind his coal black eyes, tallow complexion and sartorial dress Buckminster was a shrewd detective. His fertile mind, dedicated to deductive reasoning, outshone his portly body. “It was not the suicide, Chief Inspector,” Buckminster advised Coughlin.
Coughlin pulled himself away from his pipe to snort, “Ridiculous my dear fellow. A simple case of self inflicted accidental death. Unfortunate for the reverend of course, but accidental.”
“No, no, you do not see,” the plump detective retorted. “There is indeed a puncture in the palm of the hand caused by the obsidian arrow,” Buckminster surmised, “ but the amount of curare on such a small arrow could not cause the demise of so portly a fellow as the vicar who weighed over sixteen stone.”
“Harrumph!” Coughlin cleared his throat. “Ridiculous my dear fellow,” he said.
A search of the cleric’s effects by Buckminster yielded nothing unusual, save one crumpled piece of note paper with the words “low tea at three” scrawled upon it.
“The note is it not important?” He questioned Coughlin.
Engulfed in a haze of tobacco smoke, the Chief Inspector responded “Nothing more than what it says.”
“Your bobby’s report on the matter Chief Inspector, it indicates two sisters were the last to be seen with the clergyman. Is it not so?”
Coughlin puffed out a bellow of smoke while neatly brushing several burning tobacco embers from his short coat. “Um, yes,” he said “The Von Gildersleeve sisters, Gloucester's somewhat eccentric spinsters. Observed chatting with the vicar after Sunday morning services.”
“Ah, the little crumpled note then,” Buckminster smiled triumphantly. He tucked the note into his vest pocket.
In the glass enclosed sitting room of the Von Gildersleeve mansion the dapper detective sat on the center cushion of a large, red leather chesterfield, his grey bowler and gloves to one side, one hand resting gently atop his walking stick in a manner of assumed casualness. With his other hand, as was his habit, the squat investigator tweaked at the waxed end of his petite mustache. The sisters sat on upholstered side chairs that blended perfectly with the silk floral wallpaper on the walls between the leaded windows.
Buckminster carefully observed the two middle aged women facing the chesterfield, across a tea table. He studied the sisters with a trained eye. Prim with taupe eye shadow and pink cheek rouge, Jeannette, the younger of the two wore her purple-grey hair in a bun on the back of her head. Enormous diamond earrings pierced her ears. Guinevere appeared the more plain. Only a touch of lipstick changed her coloring. Her white hair, pinned up with whalebone combs cascaded over her shoulders, clung subtly to the white lace trim of the black bodice she wore over her ample bosom. An ornate onyx cameo hung from a gold chain about her neck.“It was nice of you to receive me on such short notice,” he said.
Removing a knit cozy from a sterling tea service Guinevere dutifully poured afternoon tea into three translucent, porcelain cups “Tea?” she asked.
“But of course,” Buckminster replied.
“One cube or two?”
“Two, thank you.”
“No, sugar is quite enough.”
Guinevere expertly dropped the cubes into the steaming tea from silver service tongs and then leaned forward to present the detective with the hot, fragrant brew on a gold rimmed saucer.
Buckminster sniffed the herbal beverage and then carefully set it aside. He nibbled politely on a warm, spongy ladyfinger from a chafing dish set in the center of the tea table.
“You knew the minister, of course?” he asked.
“Why yes, “Jeannette responded.
“He visited here Sunday?”
“In the afternoon.
“My… the lady fingers are quite tasty.”
“Why thank you, they’re Guinevere’s own special recipe.”
“May I try another?’
“By all means,” Jeannette replied, “and do remember to sip your tea.”
Buckminster smacked his lips and then shoved a morsel into his mouth. He chewed. He swallowed. His pulse rate increased and his senses seemed to become keener to his surroundings. Even the late afternoon sun appeared brighter through the leaded glass of the sitting room. Buckminster commenced to eat several more mouthfuls of the warm, spongy sweets while he interrogated the sisters. He did not drink the tea.
“You invited the vicar for tea?” Buckminster skillfully resumed his inquiry while he licked at the corner of his mouth to retrieve an errant crumb.
“Why yes…he asked to come by,” Jeannette responded.
“And you set a time?”
“At three for low tea. He noted the time in his pocket journal.”
Buckminster fingered the crumpled note in his vest pocket. “Ah yes,”he said,” and … the purpose of the visit?”
“The Reverend was interested in sharing knowledge of the Quichui tribe of Ecuador with us. He even brought several artifacts.”
“For what purpose?”
“It was his means of soliciting support for the missions in South America.”
“He was successful in winning your donation?”
“You served tea?”
Jeannette looked nervously to her sister for support, splashing tea from her cup onto the starched lace doily that covered the tea table. “Oh my, “she uttered.
“Tea,” Buckminster prompted. “I asked if you had served him the tea.”
“Only one cup.”
“Why yes….just… but he…”
“And it proved to be fatal?”
Just as Buckminster elicited this hint of disclosure concerning participation in the scandalous affair from Jeannette, he pitched forward off of the sofa and onto the floor. His cane fell to his side as he bounced slightly on his ample belly and then rolled over onto his back. The rotund detective’s muscles began to flex into paralysis.
“But how?” he gasped. Buckminster’s lungs tightened. “You both drank… I didn’t drink…. tea... I…”
Unable to move, Buckminster could still hear the sisters talking. His eyes widened into a frozen stare. The crumb from his last bite of ladyfinger lingered stubbornly on the corner of his mouth.
“Serves him right,” Guinevere snapped. “Just like the vicar. He gobbled up the ladyfingers and didn’t once take a sip of your wonderful serine tea.”
“Poor fellow,” Jeannette, observed. “My lovely crystal tea always reverses the breathtaking rush that we get every day from eating one of your sweet curare ladyfingers.”
“Well, we can’t have him found here,” Guinevere sighed. “We’ll have to drag his fat ass down to the riverside gazebo, stick a bird arrow in his hand and plop him on a bench just like we did with the vicar.”