The CWA Debut Dagger
The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie
Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie,
Who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?
William King: Cookery
It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness. Luckily for me, they had pulled the gag so tightly into my open mouth that my nostrils were left unobstructed, and I was able to draw in one slow lungful after another of the stale, musty air.
I tried hooking my fingernails under the silk scarf that bound my hands behind me, but since I always bit them to the quick, there was nothing to catch. Jolly good luck then I’d remembered to put my fingertips together, using them as ten firm little bases to press my palms apart as they pulled the knots tight.
Now I rotated my wrists, squeezing them together until I felt a bit of slack, using my thumbs to work the silk down until the knots were between my palms—then between my fingers. If they had been bright enough to think of tying my thumbs together, I would never have escaped. What utter morons they were.
With my hands free at last, I made short work of the gag.
Now for the door. But first, to be sure they were not lying in wait for me, I squatted and peered out through the keyhole at the attic. Thank heavens they had taken the key away with them. There was no one in sight: save for its perpetual tangle of shadows, junk , and decaying bric-a-brac, the long attic was empty. The coast was clear.
Reaching above my head at the back of the closet, I unscrewed one of the wire coat hooks from its mounting board. By sticking its curved wing into the keyhole and levering the other end, I was able to form an L-shaped hook which I poked into the depths of the ancient lock. A bit of judicious fishing and fiddling yielded a gratifying click. It was almost too easy. The door swung open and I was free.
I skipped down the broad stone staircase into the hall, pausing at the door of the dining room just long enough to toss my pigtails back over my shoulders and into their regulation position.
Father still insisted on dinner being served and eaten at the massive oak refectory table, as it had been when mother was alive.
“Ophelia and Daphne not down yet, Flavia?” he asked peevishly, looking up from the latest issue of The British Philatelist, which lay open beside his meat and potatoes.
“I haven’t seen them in ages,” I said.
Neatly put, Flave, I thought. It was true. I hadn’t seen them: not since they had gagged and blindfolded me, then lugged me hogtied up the attic stairs and locked me in the closet.
Father glared at me over his glasses for the statutory four seconds, then went back to mumbling over his stampish gore.
I hoisted the lid of the Spode vegetable dish and, from the depths of its hand-painted butterflies and raspberries, spooned out a generous helping of peas. Using my knife as a ruler and my fork as a prod, I marshaled the peas so that they formed meticulous rows and columns across my plate: rank upon rank of little green spheres, spaced with a precision that would have delighted the heart of the most anal Swiss watchmaker. Then, beginning at the bottom left, I speared the first pea with my fork and ate it.
It was all Ophelia’s fault. She was, after all, seventeen, and therefore expected to possess at least a modicum of the maturity she would come into as an adult. That she would gang up with Daphne, who was thirteen, simply wasn’t fair. Their combined ages totaled thirty years. Thirty years!—against my eleven. It was not only unsporting, it was downright rotten. And it simply screamed out for revenge.
I was busy among the flasks and flagons of my chemical laboratory when Ophelia barged in without so much as a lah-di-dah.
“Where’s my pearl necklace?”
I shrugged. “I’m not the keeper of your trinkets.”
“I know you took it. The Scotch mints that were in my lingerie drawer are gone too, and I’ve observed that missing mints in this household seem always to wind up in the same grubby little mouth.”
I adjusted the flame on a spirit lamp that was heating a beaker of red liquid. “If you’re insinuating that my personal hygiene is not up to the same high standard as yours you can go suck my galoshes.”
“Well you can. I’m sick and tired of being blamed for everything, Feely.”
But her righteous indignation was cut short as Ophelia peered shortsightedly into the ruby flask, which was just coming to the boil.
“What’s that sticky mass in the bottom?” Her long, manicured fingernail tapped at the glass.
“It’s an experiment. Careful, Feely—it’s acid!”
Ophelia’s face went white. “Those are my pearls! They belonged to Mummy!”
I looked up slowly from my work so that the round lenses of my spectacles would flash blank white semaphores of light at her. I knew that whenever I did this, Ophelia always had the horrid impression that she was in the presence of some mad black-and-white German scientist in a film at the Gaumont.
“Hag!” I retorted. But not until Ophelia had spun round on her heel—quite neatly, I thought—and stormed out the door.
Retribution was not long in coming. But then with Ophelia, it never was.
She was not a long range planner—unlike myself, who believed in letting the soup of revenge simmer to perfection.
Quite suddenly after dinner, with father safely retired to his study to gloat over his collection of coloured heads, Ophelia had too softly put down the silver butter knife in which she had been regarding her own reflection, like a budgerigar, for the last quarter of an hour. Without preamble she said, “I’m not really your sister you know—nor is Daphne. That’s why we’re so unalike. I don’t suppose it’s ever even occurred to you that you’re adopted.”
I dropped my spoon with a clatter. “That’s not true. I’m the spitting image of Harriet. Everybody says so.”
Harriet de Luce was our mother. She had died in a mountaineering accident when I was only three, and we didn’t often speak of her.
“She picked you out at the Home for Unwed Mothers because of the striking resemblance.”
“How could there be a resemblance when she was an adult and I was a baby?” I was nothing if not quick on the uptake.
“Because you reminded her of her own baby pictures. Good Lord, she even dragged them along and held them up beside you for comparison.”
I appealed to Daphne, whose nose was firmly stuck in a calf-bound copy of The Castle of Otranto. “That’s not true, is it, Daffy?”
“‘Fraid so,” Daphne said, idly turning a page. “Father always said it would come as a bit of a shock. He made both of us swear never to tell you. Or at least until you were eleven. He made us take an oath.”
“A green Gladstone bag,” Ophelia said. “I saw it with my own eyes. I watched Harriet stuffing her own baby pictures into a green Gladstone bag and dragging it off to the Home. Although I was only six at the time—almost seven—I’ll never forget her white hands—”
I leapt up from the table and fled the room in tears. I didn’t actually think of the poison until next morning at breakfast.
As with all great schemes, it was a simple one.
Buckshaw had been the home of our family, the de Luces, since time out of mind. The present Georgian house was built to replace an Elizabethan original burnt to the ground by villagers who suspected the de Luces of Orange sympathies. That we had been ardent Catholics for four hundred years, and remained so, cut no ice with the inflamed citizenry of Bishop’s Lacey. “Old House”, as it was called, had gone up in smoke, and “New House” which had replaced it was now well into its third century.
The lines of the original structure had been spoiled by two later de Luce ancestors, Antony and William de Luce, who had disagreed about the Crimean War. Each of them had subsequently added a wing: William the east wing, and Antony the west.
Each had become a recluse in his own antipode, and each forbidden the other ever to set foot across the black line which they caused to be painted dead centre from the vestibule in the front, across the foyer and straight through to the butler’s WC behind the back stairs. Their two yellow brick annexes, pustulently Victorian, folded back like the pinioned wings of a boneyard angel which, to my eyes, gave the tall windows and shutters of New House’s Georgian front the prim and surprised look of an old maid whose bun is too tight.
A later de Luce, Tarquin—or “Tar” as he was called—after a sensational mental breakdown, made a shambles of what had promised to be a brilliant if not spectacular career in chemistry, was sent down from Oxford in the summer of Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee.
Tar’s indulgent father, solicitous of the lad’s precipitous health, had spared no expense in outfitting a laboratory on the top floor of Buckshaw’s east wing: a laboratory replete with German glassware, German microscopes, a German spectroscope, brass chemical balances from Lucerne, and a complexly shaped, mouth-blown German Geisler tube to which Tar could attach electrical coils to study the way in which various gases fluoresce.
On a desk by the windows was a Leitz microscope, whose reflecting mirror could be angled to catch the first pale rays of the morning sun, and for cloudy days or for use after dark, was equipped with a paraffin microscope lamp by Davidson & Co. of London, whose brass still shone with the same warm luxury as it had the day it was brought by pony cart more than sixty years ago from the train at Buckshaw Halt.
Three walls of this room were lined from floor to ceiling with glass-fronted cabinets, two of them filled row upon row with chemicals in apothecary jars, each labeled in the meticulous copperplate handwriting of Tar de Luce who, in the end had jiggered Fate and outlived them all, dying in 1928 at the age of sixty in the midst of his chemical kingdom, where he was found one morning by his housekeeper, one of his dead eyes still peering sightlessly through his beloved Leitz. It was rumoured that he had been studying the decomposition of nitrogen pentoxide, the first clear-cut case of a first-order reaction which was to lead eventually to the development of the A-Bomb.
Uncle Tar’s laboratory had been locked up and preserved in airless silence, year after dusty year, until what father called my “strange talents” had begun to manifest themselves, and I had been able to claim it for my own.
I slashed at the foliage with a bamboo walking stick pinched from an elephant’s-foot stand in the front hall. Back here in the kitchen garden, the high red brick walls had not yet let in the warming sun; everything was still sodden from the rain that had fallen in the night.
Making my way through the debris of last year’s uncut grass, I poked along the bottom of the wall until I found what I was looking for: a clump of bright leaves, whose scarlet shine made their three-leaved clusters easy to spot among the other vines. Pulling on a pair of cotton gardening gloves that had been tucked into my belt, and launching into a loudly whistled rendition of Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo, I went to work.
Later, in the safety of my Sanctum Sanctorum, my Holy of Holies—I had come across that delightful phrase in a biography of Thomas Jefferson and adopted it as my own—I stuffed the colourful leaves into a glass retort, taking care not to remove my gloves until their glossy foliage was safely tamped down. Now came the part I loved.
Stoppering the retort, I connected it on one side to a flask in which water was already boiling, and on the other, to a coiled glass condensing tube whose open end hung suspended over an empty beaker. With the water bubbling furiously, I watched the steam find its way through the tubing and escape into the flask among the leaves. Already they were beginning to curl and soften as the hot vapour opened the tiny pockets between their cells, releasing the oils that were the essence of the living plant.
This was the way the ancient alchemists had practiced their art: fire and steam, steam and fire. Distillation.
How I loved this work.
Distillation. I said it aloud. “Dis-till-ation!”
I watched in awe as the steam cooled and condensed in the coil, and wrung my hands in ecstasy as the first limpid drop of liquid hung suspended—then dropped with an audible “plop!” into the waiting receptacle.
When the water had boiled away, the operation was complete. I turned off the flame and cupped my chin in my palms to watch with fascination as the fluid in the beaker settled into two distinct layers: on the bottom the clear distilled water, atop which floated a liquid of a light yellow hue. This was the essential oil of the leaves. It was called urushiol and had—among other things—been used in the manufacture of lacquer.
Digging into the pocket of my jumper, I pulled out a shiny golden tube. I removed its cap, and couldn’t help smiling as the red tip was revealed. Ophelia’s lipstick: purloined from the drawer of her dressing table, along with the pearls and the Scotch mints.
And Feely—Miss Snotrag—hadn’t even noticed it was gone. Remembering the mints, I popped one into my mouth, crushing the sweet noisily between my molars.
The core of lipstick came out easily enough, and I relit the spirit lamp. Only a gentle heat was required to reduce the waxy stuff to a sticky mass. If Feely only knew that lipstick was made of fish scales, I thought, she might be a little less eager to slather the stuff all over her face. I must remember to tell her. I grinned. Later.
With a pipette I drew off a few millimeters of the distilled oil that floated in the beaker, then, drop by drop, dripped it gently into the ooze of the melted lipstick, giving the mixture a vigorous stir with a wooden tongue depressor.
Too thin, I thought, and fetching down a jar, I added a dollop of beeswax to restore it to its former consistency.
Time for the gloves again—and for the iron bullet mold I had pinched from Buckshaw’s really quite decent firearm museum.
Odd, isn’t it, that a charge of lipstick is precisely the size of a .45 calibre slug. A useful bit of information, really. I’d have to remember to think of its wider ramifications tonight when I was tucked safely into my bed. Right now, I was far too busy.
Teased from its mold and cooled under running water, the reformulated red core fit neatly back inside its golden dispenser.
I screwed it up and down several times to make sure that it was working. Then I replaced the cap. Feely was a late sleeper and would still be dawdling over breakfast.
“Where’s my lipstick, you little swine? What have you done with it?”
“It’s in your drawer,” I said. “I saw it when I abstracted your pearls.”
In my short life, bracketed by two sisters, I had of necessity become master of the forked truth.
“It’s not in my drawer. I just looked, and it wasn’t there.”
“Did you put on your glasses?” I asked with a smirk.
Ophelia had been fitted with reading glasses, but refused to wear them. She slammed the table with the heels of her hands and stormed from the room.
I went on plumbing the depths of my second bowl of Weetabix.
Later, I wrote in my notebook:
Friday, 16th June, 1950, 9:42 a.m. Subject’s appearance normal but grumpy. (Isn’t she always?) Onset may vary from 12 to 72 hours.
I could wait.
Mrs. Munster was in the kitchen formulating one of her sebaceous custard pies.
“Oh, Miss Flavia! Here, help me with the oven, dear.”
But before I could think of a suitable response, Father was behind me, his hand heavy on my shoulder.
“Flavia, a word.”
Mrs. Munster, who always fled at the slightest hint of unpleasantness, eased shut the oven door as if it were made of Waterford crystal.
“I must be off,” she said. “Lunch is in the warming oven.”
“Thank you, Mrs. M. We’ll find it.”
She opened the kitchen door and gave out a shriek like a cornered badger.
“Oh, good Lord! Begging your pardon, Colonel de Luce, but oh good Lord!”
It was a dead bird: a Jack Snipe. It lay on its back, wings extended, the long black needle of its bill pointing straight up into the air. Something shifted in the morning breeze—something impaled upon it—a scrap of paper.
No, not a scrap of paper—a postage stamp.
Father bent in for a closer look, then gave out a loud gasp. And suddenly he was clutching at his throat, his hands shaking like aspen leaves in autumn, his face the colour of wet ashes.
– end of excerpt –
© 2007 Alan Bradley
Used with permission
All rights reserved.