The Disappearing Duck…
(At the end of 2016 and again in 2017, I created stories – if they could be dignified by that name – using the titles of all the books I’d reviewed in the year… in the order I reviewed them! I missed last year, but couldn’t resist seeing if I could do it again this year. As you will see, I’ve been reading an awful lot of vintage crime…)
It all began with the shop window murder. So, at that time I was a boarder at the Katharina Code School for Wayward Girls, a spooky old place where it was rumoured there were ghosts in the house. It was situated on the wild coast of the Western Highlands, just to the east of Belting Hall and the seashaken houses of the village. Far indeed from where I used to watch the glorious game at weekends, the Arsenal Stadium. Mystery was soon to creep out of the Highland mist and engulf us all.
My cousin Rachel lived in the nearby village. She was engaged to a zookeeper Tarzan, of the Apes House, who was heir to the Belting inheritance. But old Mr Belting’s lawyer and his gang had a dastardly plot to keep the inheritance for themselves. The plotters crept like spiders out of the dark, spinning false rumours to blacken Tarzan’s name. Soon the lost man was being accused of having broken the window of the local bookshop, killed the owner’s pet duck and stolen some festive stationery – the newspapers luridly referred to it as the Christmas Card Crime. And other stories, even darker, circulated about him and a scantily-clad woman named Jane. But love is blind and Rachel was true. The break-through came when they decided to flee to Europe, hoping that one day Tarzan’s reputation would be restored.
But once the police are involved it’s inevitable that the dead shall be raised from their tomb for a post-mortem. For the local constabulary, investigating the murder of a quacking duck provided a welcome break from their only other case – trying to track down the night tiger that, locals claimed, roamed the shore, leaving strange-looking pawprints on the beach. But enough of the riddle of the sands! We shall leave that mystery for another day.
The murder in the bookshop became more baffling when the police dug up the spot where the duck was rumoured to be buried, and found nothing! Now they had no body and no idea what their suspect looked like, since Tarzan wasn’t one for selfies. The police knew nothing about the man with no face except that during his time in America he had survived even the Dakota winters in only a loincloth, suggesting he had either superhuman endurance or really bad fashion sense.
With malice aforethought, the lawyer Humphry Clinker, the adversary of Tarzan, had arranged to meet his gang at the Friday night theatre show in the nearby spa town to divvy up the proceeds of the burglary. Each gave the sign of the four – their secret signal – then went into the theatre bar. Old Roger Ackroyd, always a bletherer, began to tell the others how to pick up a maid in Statue Square, but little Dorrit Smallbone, deceased, (or at least so the feckless police believed), turned a song of Solomon Burke up loud on the juke box to drown him out.
The fourth man, Dunstan Redmayne, was mostly known for the cruel acts he had carried out against the American heiress who once inexplicably loved him. But she had screamed blue murder and threatened to spearhead the clouds of witnesses against him when she learned of his part in the affair of the fair maid of Perth, a well known communist heroine. Following these critical incidents, Dunstan had trapped the heiress in a disused kiln and left her to die. But a brave young airman found her in time and rescued her, sadly then tumbling down into the kiln himself and breaking his neck. The death of an airman has never been more tragic.
But I digress! The spa town of Wakenhyrst was a poor shadow of its grander English rival, Bath. Tangled up in these tales of the death in captivity of the fair maid, or perhaps we should say the death of a red heroine, we mustn’t lose sight of the secret adversary of Tarzan. The man who made this town a dead land was the lawyer himself – a true criminal mastermind. The expedition of Humphry Clinker into his life of crime began when he defended the killers of the Flower Moon Dance Troupe and learned how much he could earn if he just left his morals behind. He became twisted and this led him to mistrust everyone. “Go set a watchman,” he ordered Dunstan now and Dunstan quickly obeyed. He didn’t want his name to be added to the blotting book where Clinker listed those who had crossed him – case histories showed that Clinker’s enemies did not fare well. Johnnie the Elephant’s journey to prison began when he ignored an order of Clinker’s. (Poor Johnnie – no one who saw his nose ever forgot it.)
Dunstan Redmayne’s bank balance was, as usual, in the red. Redmayne’s last attempt to burgle a house had fallen foul of one of the adventures of Maud West, lady detective, who held him at bay for several hours, shooting three bullets at him every 10 minutes 38 seconds. In this strange world where odd coincidences happen, he was saved by a group of UN Peacemakers who chanced to be passing, but he required a pinch of snuff to calm his nerves after those furious hours!
“The tree of death has deep roots” was always a proverb of the Highlanders, especially the women. Of the moon, they said that when it was full in midsummer one could see spectres converging on the shore from left, right and middle, marching from the caves in the heat of the night straight out until they were twenty thousand leagues under the seas. Mister Pip, the famous Scotland Yard detective, thought the Highlanders were a right superstitious bunch! He looked anxiously at his phone, always victim to the menace of the machine, and as he read the story about the mystery of the missing duck the conviction stole over him that the village policeman, Constable Sanditon, had a surfeit of suspects and very few resources to solve the crime. Sanditon had been helpful to him last winter when the famous spy Nada the Lily had nearly evaded capture by hiding out in the mountains. One good turn deserved another, Pip thought, remembering how the observations of the constable had trapped the spy, who came in from the cold rather gratefully in the end.
The town had three churches and Pip arranged to meet Sanditon outside the middle temple. Murder on the beach was what he feared had happened to the poor little duck – a mercy if it had been quick and painless. He shuddered as he remembered the case of Miss Elliot who had been brutally killed during a robbery at her home. Seven men of less than average stature had given the pearl they stole to the leader of their gang, an albino whose skin was snow white. And other tales came back to him too, all showing the infinite variety in the art of murder. In the mill-race at the edge of the village, the water frothed and churned. Too turbulent for ducks, Pip thought as he passed by.
Pip and Sanditon stopped for a beer at The Jewel in the Crown, and talked of the crimes they’d solved in the past, most of them involving bodies. From the library next door Mrs McGinty the librarian emerged, and locked up with the turn of the key. Pip realised it was late and although he’d napped on the train up, felt a great need for the second sleep. It seemed to him anyway that they needed an extra pair of hands on the case. But who should they get to help – that was the question? Mark Pearl, suggested Sanditon. Pearl was noted for his bravery and strength – while in New York, he had apprehended three bad guys single-handed, and was then seen walking wounded all the way to the last exit to Brooklyn. Sadly he had had a recent tragedy. The mother of Pearl had fallen victim to the hour of peril when the village was experiencing a big freeze – she slipped on the icy pavement outside Mrs McGinty’s. Dead, alas! But Sanditon was sure that Pearl would help them watch the river at night for signs of the duck, putting family matters aside. He phoned Pearl but as he was out, spoke to his wife instead. During the long call Sanditon told her about the mystery of the duck – had it gone missing or was it murder? She said she had never heard of such evil under the sun! Busy Mrs Pearl had to ring off then as her sons and lovers demanded her attention.
Pip asked the barman to put their drinks on the slate, then, payment deferred, made his weary way to his hotel. In the bathroom he gazed at the face in the glass, thinking he looked old and wondering whether he might soon be meeting up with St. Peter. Looking out of his window, he saw that the river was busy despite the hour – as well as the swan, gondolas containing lovesick romantics were punting up and down. He also saw old Mr Tarrant looking curiously around him in the evening light. The curious Mr Tarrant spotted him too and shouted “Hey, Mister Pip! Did I hear you were looking for a duck? One flew over the cuckoo’s nest in the trees there just fifteen minutes ago and landed in the deep waters of the village pond.”
While Pip was still mulling over this piece of hopeful news, a text arrived from Constable Sanditon. “Just received a Christmas card from Roger Ackroyd, signed on behalf of Clinker and the gang. It’s one of the stolen cards!” Suddenly everything was clear! Next day Clinker, Redmayne and Smallbone were arrested and charged with burglary. “Lucky for you” said Pip “that we believe the duck may have escaped so I can’t charge you with the murder.” Of Roger Ackroyd, however, nothing more was heard except a rumour that he had fled to the far north and joined a strange cult led by the notoriously deranged mystic, Enoch Powell.
Pip and Sanditon were congratulated by the Chief Constable, Lord Jim Campbell. Rachel and Tarzan returned to the lovely Belting Hall, leaving a darker domain in the French backstreet where they’d been living under a cloud. However, Rachel never forgets the woman in black who gave them lodgings when they most needed it in the wild harbour of Marseilles, and every year she sends her a bottle of the Christmas eggnog she has specially made. Tarzan and Rachel are so happy together they changed the name of the Hall, and now the school buildings are just east of Eden Place. But in the old deserted wing sometimes things fall apart and strange yodelling noises can be heard. Rachel tries not to listen to the old ghost stories the servants sometimes tell…
Oh yes, the duck! Well, having tasted freedom when it flew out through the broken shop window, it decided never to go back, and now it spends its days dabbling in the village pond. But sometimes, when the moon is full and the tide is out, it walks by night on the beach, leaving strange marks that, to a superstitious villager, might be taken for the pawprints of a tiger…