Reaching into his pocket, Aloysius Pendlebury removed his worn briar and tapped it on the inside of the fireplace, dislodging the compacted ash which drifted onto the broiling flames like a fine, grey snowfall. Taking his embroidered Moroccan tobacco pouch from another pocket, he pinched a clump of Black Mallory between his fingers and started to prepare a pipe to aid his cogitation of this particularly gruesome case.
“If we may,” he continued, replacing the smoking ephemera in his pockets, lighting the pipe with a long match and taking a slow, satisfying draw of the smooth, heady smoke, “let us examine the evidence once more; a small but deadly amount of cyanide was present in the remains of the victim; a suicide note was found in his left hand trouser pocket, written on a typewriter with a fifteen degree slant on the ‘F’, identical to that in the bedroom of Mrs. Willowbark; and, last but by no means least, he suffered a hideous death in the jaws of that mighty predator Carcharodon carcharias, The Great White Shark.”
Pendlebury took another draw of his briar, savouring the aroma.
“It would appear, to all intents and purposes, that Lorenzo Cacciatore went to Mrs. Willowbark’s bedroom to confront her about his uncle’s estate. Inside the room, he found his dead father’s diary, which contained a terrible secret – Lorenzo Cacciatore was actually the bastard son of Ms. Emilia Petri, the very woman with whom he had been conducting an illicit affair these past six months. Enraged and humiliated, he decided in his consuming oedipal grief to take his own life, writing the note, swallowing poison and, for good measure, throwing himself into Lord Fitcher’s exotic aquarium.”
Inspector Crabbe stared blankly at Pendlebury for several moments, opening and closing his mouth in a pantomime of shock. “Good Lord,” he said at last, “that’s astounding Pendlebury! So it wasn’t murder at all!”
Pendlebury smiled modestly and looked down, carefully picking a shred of tobacco from the lapel of his worsted suit.
“Well, Inspector, that’s what the murderer would like us to think. Isn’t that right, Mr…?”
George Wensleydale jumped, knocked over his cup of tea and dropped The Jaws of Death: An Aloysius Pendlebury Mystery into the spreading puddle of Earl Grey on the concrete floor of his balcony.
Cursing, he leapt to his feet and grabbed the soggy book by its creased spine. Scurrying inside, he entered the bathroom at speed and quickly wrapped the well-read paperback in a large, fluffy towel, pressing down on the dampness before it permeated the paper too deeply.
Every time he sat outside reading, enjoying the sunshine and trying to get a little peace and quiet, a few moments of solitude from the constant barrage of idiotic babble that assailed his tired ears, that awful, boorish woman from next door would insist on trying to call her cat indoors. Waddling outside in a pink dressing-gown, her yellowing feet rammed into a pair of grubby carpet slippers, she would shuffle up and down the garden path calling the cat’s name:
Wensleydale sucked air through gritted teeth as he continued to pat the book with the towel. Even the mere thought of that cake-snuffling dullard and her red, bloated face filled him with unspeakable anger. Those beady eyes, like a pig’s, buried deep within the folds of her saggy eye-bags; that squashed, swollen nose, exploding with burst capillaries from her regular mid-afternoon gin-swilling sessions; that thick-lipped, slavering mouth, dusted with icing sugar, flakes of pastry nestling at the down-turned corners. It was fair to say, that he hated nobody in the world as much as that unpleasant, crapulent old hag.
Lifting the towel, he looked carefully at the pages of his book. Discoloured and damp, they clung together like wet leaves. He tried carefully peeling one of the pages from its brother and, silently, the paper tore straight across and came away in his hand.
“For God’s sake!” thundered Wensleydale, veins throbbing at his temples, eyes extruding from his skull; apoplectic with rage, incandescent with fury.
He flung the book across the bathroom where it hit a bottle of aftershave which teetered precariously on the edge of the glass shelf, seemingly considering its options for a few brief seconds, before giving itself up to gravity and leaping into the sink to explode in a shower of glass and musk.
Wensleydale remained absolutely still for several long seconds then stalked out of the bathroom with the slow, methodical gait of a man on the verge of either murder, weeping, or murder whilst weeping.
Moving into the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator and placed his head inside, resting it against a plastic bottle of milk, feeling his racing blood slowly cool.
He had endured this torture for three years. Every summer, when the weather became pleasant enough for reading al fresco, he would repair to the balcony and immerse himself in a world of literary delicacies.
Sometimes, he would crave the gustatory pleasure of the Russian classics – a rich serving of Dostoevsky or the satisfying delicacy of Tolstoy. At other times, he hungered for the earthy comfort of Joyce, or the pleasing mastication of a slab of Chandler, dripping with idiosyncratic juices.
But, of course, his favourite repast was the Aloysius Pendlebury novels.
To him, they were a banquet for all the senses, like a sliver of finest stilton melting on the tongue, creamy , almost cloying, washed down with a sluice of sweet ruby port. An afternoon with the razor-sharp mind of that great detective was something to be savoured, even wallowed in. It was most definitely not something to be interrupted by the piercing whining of a greasy-fingered, snaggle-toothed old harridan like that beast next door.
But, interrupt she did. Every single day. Padding into the garden, she would blunder about, stooping at rosebushes, peering over the fence, leering at tree-branches, all the time repeating her mantra in that incomprehensibly irritating voice of hers, impossibly both shrill yet nasal at the same time:
And Wensleydale didn’t even have the respite of brevity, oh no. She would call the cat’s name again and again, at exactly the same pitch, in exactly the same tone, sometimes for up to fifteen minutes. Like a sadistic form of auditory water torture, she would pick away, syllable by syllable, at Wensleydale’s sanity.
Oh how I’d love to take that cat by the scruff of the neck and ram it down her fat throat, he thought. To see her, wide-eyed, aghast, as the mangy ginger tom struggled and scratched at her puffy cheeks, the sound of her shrieking stifled by several pounds of writhing fur and a cacophony of frantic mewing…
A cackle slipped out and echoed around the interior of the refrigerator, jolting Wensleydale upright for a second. Consumed with loathing, he had closed his eyes and descended into bitter reverie, quite forgetting that his face was pressed up against a bottle of semi-skimmed.
Removing himself from the fridge, he closed the door and his eyes alighted on a selection of kitchen knives, mounted in a regimented row on a magnetic strip affixed to the wall.
He couldn’t kill her; that would be ridiculous. No matter how maddening she may be nor, conversely, how peaceful a few years in the relative sanctity of a prison might seem in comparison to this hellishness, he was certainly no murderer. No, that wasn’t the answer. He needed to do something else, something which would put paid to this ridiculous situation once and for all.