“I’m the team captain, for my sins,” Flora Fenton said, every few days. Or sometimes a few times every day. Nobody was deluded, and probably Flora herself (and say what you liked about her, she wasn’t stupid) wasn’t either. Had anyone suggested that someone other than Flora should be the captain of the Archer’s Arms pub quiz team, then Flora’s sin might well be murder. Or at least GBH. Nobody did suggest it. And her teammates tolerated her with resigned good humour. Anything she didn’t know about the flags of obscure countries or the names of obscure dinosaurs probably wasn’t worth knowing and no question setter was likely to unearth it. True, her habit of overriding people and making sure she had her say could be irritating, but in the first place she WAS the team captain, and in the second place she also had a habit of being right. As her long-suffering teammate Denise Monroe said, she might be a pain in the posterior but she was their pain in the posterior. And credit where it was due, she did stand her round and she did (on occasion) defer to one of her colleagues if she thought they knew more about a subject than she did. Which did happen. Occasionally.
The Archer’s Arms team were due to play their arch-rivals for the local quiz league championship, the Magic Lanterns, who all worked at a local cinema, though the cinema wasn’t called anything as romantic as the Magic Lantern, it was the Middle Street Multiplex.
The two teams regarded each other with mutual respect and loathing. Or at least when they were playing each other. Outside that, there were even a couple of vapid, rather guilty friendships.
But when battle had commenced, and as they prepared for it, they made Manchester United and Liverpool look like the epitome of amity. The other teams in the league knew they were condemned to the role of also-rans, though, as Flora put it (she had damning with faint praise off to a fine art) the Carthorse and Cleaver’s team had “Pulled their socks up a bit, I suppose.” The Greysthorpe Quiz League (which some people still called the Greysthorpe Pub Quiz League even though the name had been officially changed three years ago as quite a number of the teams now didn’t represent pubs) was one of the main sources of entertainment in the town, where not a lot happened, and even the Middle Street Multiplex tended to get movies so far after the release date they were already out on DVD. There was even talk of splitting it into two divisions and introducing promotion and relegation.
The Archer’s Arms team was playing on home territory tonight. Flora had a key to the salon, and often let herself in early, in the afternoon before engagement was joined. Denise followed about half an hour later, calling out, “Flora, I’m here!” It was force of habit, as it was for Flora to retort, “Well I had noticed that, you’re not exactly fairy-footed.” Which was ripe, coming from Flora, who wore boots in a heatwave.
There was no reply, and Denise presumed she was in the bathroom, either relieving herself or assuring it met her demanding standards. That was before she saw Flora in one of the old-fashioned red velvet upholstered chairs. She always thought that when it came to sitting down, Flora must have Scarlett O’Hara’s mother as her role model, as her back never touched the back of a chair. Well, it did now, and she was slumping. Flora was more likely to strip naked except to her boots than she was to slump. A very large carving knife with a wooden handle was embedded in her chest. She looked furious.
Denise thought she was either going to faint or be sick or both. She slumped down on a chair herself. There was no need to check Flora’s pulse and no point to getting the pub’s defibrillator off the wall. Like thousands and millions of people before her she thought that something couldn’t have happened that manifestly HAD happened. Despite everything she had been very fond of Flora, and though she knew, of course, that her teammate had enemies, there were enemies and enemies, and with the best (or worst) will in the world she could hardly imagine one of the Magic Lanterns doing such a thing. People just DIDN’T. Well, they did, but not in the world she was used to.
“Call the police, Denise,” someone said. “Not that they’ll be much good, in my experience, but these are procedures that have to be gone through, don’t you know?”
“Why must you persist in this notion that all the police are always useless?” someone else asked.
“Denise, I know you are in shock, pauvre enfant, but my colleague is right, and it must be done.”
Oh, dear God, I am hearing voices, thought Denise, this really has sent me haywire. She was, apparently, not only hearing things, she was seeing things, or people, and people she recognised. The first man to have spoken, with his monocle and his affected mien, was Lord Peter Wimsey. The second, though in plain clothes, was a man born to wear a uniform, and it was Inspector Lestrange, and the third, dapper and moustachioed, was Hercule Poirot.
“Listen, old girl,” Lord Peter said, “Rum do and all that, but chin up.”
“We can’t do it for you, but we can tell you what to do” Lestrange said.
“We do not work – how do you say it –ensemble – very often,” Poirot said, “But when someone who loves to ask questions and to solve puzzles is snatched away – there is the esprit de corps.”
“I’ll settle for good old fashioned team spirit” Lestrange said. “And the three of us might rub each other the wrong way but we can forget our differences if needs must.”
“Oh – OH I DO beg your pardon inspector, but don’t you mean the four of us? Good afternoon, my dear.” Even if the lady in the powder blue cardigan hadn’t laid down her knitting on the table, Denise would have known it was Miss Marple. “But you really must call the police, you know.”
Denise called them on her mobile, which attracted interest and admiration from all four of them, “Dashed handy gadget, what?” Lord Peter said, “Thought at first it was a lighter and you were having a cigarette to steady the old nerves!”
“It’s not allowed in the pub, not now,” she said, amazed at her own glib and banal words.
“You’ll be telling me they’ve banned beer next,” Lestrange muttered.
It is amazing how quickly we can adjust to a new reality, no matter how surreal it is, and begin to have thought patterns that reflect it. Denise was already wondering how the police would react to the others in the bar-room. They did not react at all, because when they came, the four of them had all disappeared. But Denise looked on the table and saw a little strand of pink wool from the baby jacket Miss Marple had been knitting and knew that it represented all of them. It was proof. They had been there.
Uneasily, she remembered hearing that if the spouse wasn’t the first suspect, it was the person who found the body. But the police couldn’t have been kinder and more tactful, and gave no impression at all of suspecting her.
No matter what manner of horrible and bizarre events have come to pass, there are always things to be done and it’s not easy to say if they are calming or churning. Denise called the other members of the team, and called the members of the Magic Lantern Team. The latter seemed scarcely less horrified and stricken, and even their captain, Vince Moray, who had never struck her as being the milk of human kindness, didn’t say anything crass along the lines of, “Don’t you have a reserve?” In fact, they did. But it goes without saying that the match was postponed. The pub manager, Idris Pritchard, who had a Welsh name and a Geordie accent, also refrained from saying anything like, “It’ll lose us a lot of custom.” He might possibly have been thinking that that might apply short term, but that some people (himself included) tended to be fascinated by murder, and long term, it might do trade no harm whatsoever. He was also (thought Denise) genuinely affected by the terrible event, “I mean, okay, she could be an irritating old bat, but nobody deserves this.” All the same, he couldn’t help adding, “We’ll need a new carpet.” He said it as if he wasn’t quite sure and wondering if the blood stain might be a point of interest but – no, that wouldn’t do at all.
That night, the quartet came round to Denise’s house. She was having what her father termed a “medicinal brandy”.
“Jolly good idea,” Lord Peter said, “An old snifter to soothe the nerves.”
“Well, I really prefer a nice cup of tea,” Miss Marple said.
“Can I – er – get any of you a drink – a brandy or – or a cup of tea or – whatever.”
“That – will not be necessary, mon enfant,” Poirot said, gently and she understood.
But when they sat down – Miss Marple and Lord Peter on either side of her on the sofa, and Lestrange and Poirot at the table, they seemed substantial enough, if oddly (or not so oddly) two-dimensional.
“Did Flora have any enemies, dear?” Miss Marple asked.
“The police already asked me that, and I said – not so far as I knew – oh only quiz team rivals ….”
“People HAVE killed over a game,” Lord Peter mused, I remember one particularly unfortunate incident on a golf course,” Denise couldn’t work out what he said at first, as he pronounced it “goff”.“But something’s tellin’ me that isn’t the case here.”
“And we are asking you to think harder and deeper, Mademoiselle,” Poirot said, quietly. “Do we mean just the – enemy of the moment? Non! Madame Flora had led a long life. She had a life before and beyond your little games.”
“But don’t think only of her enemies,” Miss Marple said, crocking her finger as if she were really drinking that invisible and longed for cup of tea. “Think of those you consider her friends.”
“As the saying goes Miss Monroe, keep your enemies close and your friends closer,” Lestrange observed.
“I – don’t really know much about Flora’s friends,” Denise admitted then, realising how bad that sounded, “Well, I suppose I am – I was – one of them. I didn’t kill her!”
“No-one is for one little tenth of an instant suggesting you did, Mademoiselle,” Poirot said, “You have the honest face …..”
Lestrange snorted. “Now there’s foreigner logic for you. But I tend to agree with our Belgian friend. You do indeed have AN honest face, as people brought up speaking a civilised tongue would say.”
“Stop your confounded bickerin’, chaps,” Lord Peter said. “And the cavalry have come, what?” They all went to the window and a silent, beautiful, red Jaguar had pulled up, and Inspector Morse got out.
“At least we know he hasn’t been drinking,” Miss Marple said, as she might speak of her nephew Raymond when she was feeling stern and indulgent at the same time.
“I wouldn’t bank on it with that one,” Lestrange said, “What’s that saying – Love finds a Way! Though I’ll grant him he has an uncanny knack for working things out when he’s been – at the sauce, as you might say, My Lord, more than a lot of folks do stone cold sober.”
Denise realised that Inspector Morse was not alone. The passenger door of the beautiful red Jaguar opened, but his faithful henchmen and successor Lewis did not emerge. It was a woman in a sensible dark blue skirt and houndstooth check jacket, wearing sturdy boots and with a purposeful tread. “Flora!” she exclaimed, joyfully.” This was one occasion when she definitely felt like embracing her team captain, who normally had little time for such things, but she knew it would not be a good idea at all, and not because of Flora’s reaction.
“Well, don’t just gawp like that, girl,” she said, “Let us in, at the risk of sounding like that infernally tedious Catherine Earnshaw.” But she knew full well that she had no need to let them in, it was just a turn of phrase. She couldn’t help her eyes falling to Flora’s chest, wanting to know and not wanting to know. “And you can stop looking at that like a sick cow, too. You won’t see anything, and I won’t make a mess of YOUR carpet, or what passes for it.” Though they didn’t visit each others’ houses that often, they did on occasion, and Flora had never tried to hide her opinion of Denise’s “so-called Aztec rug” (whose provenance, Denise herself had to admit, was more likely to be Shanghai than Machu Picchu.) but had tersely said that what she trod on was her own business. “In fact, take that sick cow off altogether. Am I making a big fuss about it? Not very nice when it happened, I’ll grant you, but no more painful than when I let my mind wander gutting a chicken and nearly sliced my finger off. Own stupid fault. And I’d go so far as to say it was worth it. Never thought I’d get to meet such interesting people.”
“You are too kind, Madame,” Poirot said.
“I know you think I’ve been sharp with you at times, Denise, and you’re not going to hear me apologise now. But I expect you know I’ve always thought you were the best of a bad bunch. At least you’re not a narcissistic know all or a wool-gathering wimp like certain others I could mention. And though I’ve never needed this feminist nonsense, it was nice to have another woman around. It still is, and you could definitely have your uses.”
“Flora, I could never rival you – or Miss Marple.”
“I’m perfectly well aware of that, and so is Jane, though unlike me she’s too much of a lady to say so. But you have either feminine intuition – which I’ve always said is some women’s excuse for not using their brains, but can come in handy on occasion – or are a lucky guesser, and you’re a good listener, which can come in useful. It’s no bad thing you’re going to join us.”
“Of course – I’m happy – and honoured to help –“ but Denise realised she was stuttering and rambling, and trying to convince herself that this conversation wasn’t going in a way that she liked at all, not one little bit.
“You are really intent on this, Madame Flora?” Poirot asked.
“I’m not for turning, and in your heart and your famous little grey cells you know I’m right.”
“Be of courage, little one,” Poirot said.
“It will be over in a moment, don’t you know?” Lord Peter asked, studiedly jaunty. “Do the deed, my good Lestrange. I assure you he is a fine shot.”
“And this way it saves the carpet and will stop idiots and ignoramuses coming to look at it,” Flora said, crisply. “Idris the Idiot is already making his plans.”
It was not long before the eyes of the national media had begun to “gawp” in considerable numbers at the little town where nothing exciting ever happened. Two of the tabloids even alit on the same headline. The Quiz Team Killer Strikes Again! Flora and Denise’s teammates were (they also agreed in unison) “too shaken to give an interview” and “were being offered police protection”, but Vince Moray, looking suitably stricken, issued a statement about “our dear friends and rivals”. And although one of the Archer’s Arms reserves (if the team were to carry on quizzing, which he was fairly sure they would, saying it was what Flora and Denise would have wished….) would be an unknown quantity, he knew the other, and knew that she was almost unnaturally clued up on past winners of Wimbledon and the FA cup. It would do no harm for the Magic Lanterns to start mugging up on those subjects.
But he didn’t say that to the papers.