The Case of the Calamitous Currency
a detective story
The MP and his wife were guided up the stairs of the hotel by a young Italian porter. He informed them that they were too late for lunch but if they wished a platter of cold sandwiches could be sent up.
The MP grumbled that the service in Europe is no better than in Torquay, and normally his wife would have apologised for this, only she saw that the young man did not speak English well enough to discern the dialectic mumblings of a gruff Yorkshireman whose pipe was always stuck in his mouth.
The suite they were shown to was exquisite, arranged in a style to give it an atmosphere of decadent opulence, a tumbledown palazzo which royalty might have stayed in once. Deliberate cracks in the plaster and decorative pillars accentuated this effect.
The MP thrust a fistful of notes at the surprised and grateful porter, who with gloved hands placed them in a jacket pocket and left. The MP's wife began the business of unpacking.
She hoped that the bags with tags marked MRS STEPHEN MORRIS had been handled with extra care. As she sorted the hangers in the ample closet into his and hers, she reflected that a different man would have paid for someone to unpack for them. MP Stephen Morris wasn't happy unless his wife was drudging, it seemed.
'I suppose I'd better be on the bell about room service' he grumbled, refilling the bowl of the pipe without removing the stem from his mouth.
'You shouldn't have done that' said Mrs Morris.
'What are you talking about?'
'The porter. You tipped him. You're not supposed to do that anymore. Don't you read the papers?' She took a London Times from her bag and opened it to the relevant page. He read:
"A question for those who stay in hotels is when to tip and whom to tip. In Italy, the problem has been solved by the all-powerful Camera di Lavoro (Chamber of Labour), which has abolished hotel gratuities altogether. Wherever the traveller goes now he finds tipping “rigorously forbidden” and a percentage charged in his bill for service."
He snorted. They were in the Riviera for a meeting with Giovanni Giolitti, the constitutional prime minister much embattled by Mussolini's fascist Blackshirts, a meeting which to Stephen's mind would establish his liberal credentials. 'Giovanni's got the right idea about this tipping business. Give 'em a wage, not a handout...' He carried on, but Mrs Morris wasn't listening. She was sorting her blouses and thinking of the finer things a finer man could buy her.
Both his prattle and her reverie were disturbed, however, by a scream from the hallway. They looked at each other then rushed for the door to see the porter sprawled in the hallway by the stairs. Death's Latin dream, he lay rigid. The lira he received was clamped in one fist as if it was his fee for the boatman.
As luck would have it, staying at the Bianco Palazzo (or White Palace, so named for its stunning exterior whitewash, blindingly reflective in the summer sun) was the gentleman sleuth Homer Featherstonhaugh. (Pronounced "Fan-shaw".) When the murder occurred, he was sat on the veranda smoking an ugly and pungent cigar, disturbing the fine nostrils of his fellow guests.
He was, as a newspaper once put it, a man of rich intellect but poor habits. Fifty-two and fat, his years of wine, women, and song were behind him, though in the late '90s and early Edwardian days he was known as something of a rake. Then came the war and the flu of '18, the former of which saw his service as a correspondent, and he limped over the hill more than ready for retirement.
The solving of crimes was the merest hobby, ever since he stumbled across a string of murders at a Wimbledon tennis club. Several of the pros were poisoned, and it was he who led police to the culprit: an insane and jealous husband convinced that his wife had been seeded.
The porter's scream barely made him twitch, though certainly, it was unexpected. He lowered the corner of his broadsheet and looked through the French windows to where a group assembled. Sighing, he stood, folded and placed the paper on his wicker chair, and ambled over. 'Give him air, for God's sake!' cried one man.
'I think it's a little late for that' observed Homer, the cigar still stuck in his mouth. He took it out and dumped it in a potted plant as he approached and knelt beside the corpse. The lad was in his early twenties, by the looks of it, had that healthy Riviera complexion that was now purpled and rigid, and was clutching a fistful of lira in his right hand. Homer noticed that he wasn't wearing his gloves, which were poking out a waistcoat pocket. His dead eyes were wide and staring.
An actress in the crowd took the opportunity to faint and the rest of the menfolk attended to her. 'Has anyone been called?' Homer asked of the remaining gawkers.
Indeed, they had. The Polizia made their presence known, marching up the stairs bold as Blackshirts. They were led by an old friend of Homer's from back home, Inspector Worthing. The Inspector was in Italy to oversee the motor racing. A minor British royal was involved, and Worthing was to serve as the whipping boy should anything go awry. Right then he looked steeled for the crack of the whip.
'Featherstone! I might have known your fat arse would be crammed in here somewhere.'
'Fan-shaw' replied Homer, correcting the chief's pronunciation.
'Don't blame me for the poppycock toff-name you were saddled with. What have we got here, then?' He knelt down opposite Homer while the Polizia herded guests back to their rooms. As they did Homer noticed a man even larger than himself with a woman a fifth of his size (and age, he thought), he smoking a pipe and she fiddling with a handbag's clamshell clasp. 'Well,' said Homer, 'if I'd known I was sharing digs with Yorkshire's brightest...'
'What are you mumbling about, Featherstone?'
'Would you like it if I called you Wort-hinge, Chief Inspector?'
'Only you wouldn't call me that because unlike yours, my class prefers to not play silly beggars, with either our names or our cousins.' Homer conceded the point. Worthing reached for the lira in the dead man's grip. Homer stopped him. 'I wouldn't do that if I were you.'
'Oh, and why not?'
'He's not wearing his gloves.' Homer picked these up from beside the corpse. They were of cheap white leather. 'He takes off his gloves to count his tip, which is the lira you see here. Then he doubles up and falls down dead. I'd wager he was poisoned by something on the bills.'
'Much experience with poisons, have you?' asked Worthing with a touch of incredulity.
'A little. I once heard of a German spy who killed himself with his own suicide note. The paper was tainted with a nerve agent and he was found dead in his cell the morning after he was captured.'
'What did the note say?'
'No doubt whatever the German is for 'ha-ha, no military secrets for you, English pigs.' Worthing snorted. 'At any rate, Inspector, you'll need to get these bills to a police chemist for tests. Sorry to ruin your little holiday.'
A young duke sailed the Riviera's winding streets in his motor car as the Latin sun, like a pitiless inquisitor, scorched all in its sight. Meanwhile, a pauper's body was taken to the morgue in a haycart. 'All that's available' said Worthing as he slapped the horse's rear and the driver rode up the street from the White Palace. 'And if I don't set about babysitting our boy-racer duke, I'll be joining him in there. Let's get this done, Fanny.'
'Either or.' They re-entered the hotel and went to the porter's quarters. The chief of the local Polizia was delighted to pass the case to the visiting Scotland Yard man and his gentleman sleuth.
Though an Italian had died, it was in a hotel full of English tourists, and one whose bar was frequented by a certain minor royal. It was part of Worthing's job to clean up droppings that might befoul the path of the monarchy. Besides, the victim was just a young and lowly porter. If it was an Italian nobleman who'd died, that would be a different matter.
The quarters were little more than a cubbyhole behind a curtain. 'Very ascetic' remarked Homer as he took in the bed below a barred window. 'You can't say he didn't live paneless-ly' he punned, putting a hand through the bars.
'Your jokes are as funny as the wind that gushes out of your hole.'
'Really, Worthing! Are policemen born vulgarians?'
'It takes a great deal of training. Now help me get this trunk out.' The two of them, a fat man in a knitted vest and a thin man in a crumpled suit, felt under the bed for brass handles and pulled from opposite ends to haul out their quarry. A keyring was taken from the porter's belt and Worthing now used this to open the trunk.
After five or so keys he succeeded. The ark was opened and the heathen were struck by the wrath of God... in the form of drawings. The draughtsman was manifestly a student of the female nude. Piles and piles of sketches of naked women filled the trunk, and as the detectives pawed through them like a pair of mucky old perverts, Homer noticed one in particular. He drew Worthing's attention to a sketch of a young woman. She lay on a chaise-longue looking lazily over her shoulder.
'I say, Fanny,' said Worthing, winking, 'I didn't know you had it in you.'
'You ass, look at the handbag.' Beside the chaise-longue lay a handbag with a clamshell clasp. 'What about it?'
'I saw it in the hotel just a moment ago. Being clutched by a certain politician's wife.'
'As a ham and cheese sandwich.' Worthing whistled. 'Jealous husband, maybe? This is shaping up just like your tennis case.' But Homer was frowning, still studying the sketch.
Of the two, Elizabeth seemed more flustered by the presence of detectives in their hotel room. Stephen was a touch put out, but understood the situation and merrily puffed his pipe while grumbling on occasion about sandwiches he'd never get to eat.
'Here last year, of course' he said, though Homer couldn't imagine why that would be of course. 'Guests of a local dignitary in some pile not far from here. The service was better there, but then that's because they've had servants for generations. Really it doesn't become a Labour MP to enjoy such luxuries, but neither is it wise to make a Yorkshireman skip meals...'
'Oh, do shut up about lunch, Stephen. I'm sorry, detectives, he's been like this since the ferry. As he was saying, we stayed in a castle last summer. We left rather hastily, however, when we learned that we were sharing a dinner table with Benito Mussolini.' Stephen gave an angry snort. 'We were more than happy to up sticks to the Bianco Palazzo then!' he interjected. He looked at his wife. 'Though that wasn't the only reason...'
Homer and Worthing looked at Elizabeth, who refused to be embarrassed. The four of them were sitting on the balcony, which overlooked the promenade and the sea.
'What my husband's referring to so crudely and without attention to his own wife's feelings' she said, 'is a pleasant conversation I was having with a Florentine nobleman. He'd served in the war and was telling me all sorts of interesting things about his career as a spy catcher. He was an expert in what's called "chemical warfare"-'
'The man was a bloody Blackshirt!' Stephen roared. Homer winced. Elizabeth closed her eyes and breathed through her nose.
'If we could return to the matter of the porter' said Homer. Stephen simmered down and Elizabeth seemed relieved by the distraction. 'He was found clutching a handful of lira' said Worthing, 'which I'm sure you know is rather odd since hotel gratuities have been abolished.' Man and wife looked at each other. Stephen took his pipe out his mouth. 'About that...' said Elizabeth. 'My husband was, well... unaware of the present situation, and happened to give the man a tip.'
'As is my rightful habit, abolishment or not!' declared Stephen, though not with as much vigour as before.
'Is the tip relevant?' asked Elizabeth. 'After all, it can't be a crime to tip a porter, even with the abolishment. And surely it can't have any bearing on the poor man's death...'
Worthing shifted in his seat. 'Well, actually, ma'am, there's the rub, you see. Based on a hunch of my good friend Mr Featherstonhaugh here, I had the currency tested, and it appears that it's been laced with a particular nerve agent employed by spies during the last war.' The Morris' eyes widened in unison. 'You're not suggesting...' began Stephen, then stood up and roared an expletive. Worthing's posture hardened, as did his manner.
'Sit down, Mr Morris' he said coldly enough to chill the man's ardour. 'I'm not accusing anyone of anything yet. I'd just like to know who was in the habit of handling your money. As a Member of Parliament, you must have assistance when travelling abroad. Someone to organise your chequebook, itinerary, and the like?'
Stephen slumped back down. Elizabeth rolled her eyes. 'You'd think that, wouldn't you?' she said, almost under her breath. Then, catching Worthing's unamused eyes, she promised to check who'd handled their spending money. 'I suppose we're lucky that my husband wears gloves everywhere. An explosion tore the skin from his hands, during the war.'
'Perhaps you could help Mr Morris fill out a simple statement, just so we can get his testimony on record' said Homer to the Inspector. Stephen acquiesced and followed Worthing into the room. With Stephen gone Homer pulled a piece of paper from his jacket and handed it to Elizabeth. 'Bear in mind that this isn't the original, just a trace.'
The balcony overlooked the streets, which descended to the promenade and the blinding blue sea. The smell of saltwater and the sound of lapping waves formed an odd background to what was now an extremely tense interview. Elizabeth's hand shook as she re-folded the paper and placed it in a fold of her blouse. 'Do you intend to show my husband?'
'Have you considered that he might already know?'
She considered. 'It started when we came here last year, for the Grand Prix. Stephen was out all day and gave me some rubbish about wives not being welcome at the track, that it was a gentleman's pursuit.' She pronounced "gentleman" with disdain.
'The boy was so sweet. He made me feel attractive.'
Next on their list of interviewees was another infelicitous wife, that of a Birmingham jeweller who came to the Riviera each year to gamble and work on his tan. Like Elizabeth, this lady was attracted to the scoundrel by his flattery. 'To think I almost destroyed a marriage to a man who can keep me for life, and in fine furs at that, for a fling with a penniless gigolo!'
'Did you and he actually...' Worthing began.
The woman reddened. 'Absolutely not!' she cried. 'He just liked to draw me.'
'May I ask your opinion of a certain Elizabeth Morris?' said Homer.
The woman made a disgusted noise. 'Ugh, that madam!' she ejaculated fiercely. Her eyes lit up with green, cat-like anticipation. 'I say, she wasn't dallying with the porter as well, was she?'
'We'd just like to know what your general impressions are, feminine instinct and all that' said Worthing.
'Well, we were here last year, for the Grand Prix. Just like Mrs and her husband, and I happened to see her in the lobby.' She leaned forward as if to give a confidence to other women in a hair salon. 'Wouldn't you know it, but I saw her with some swarthy Italian gent. Bold as brass, the pair of 'em!
'It was the oddest thing, but she was wearing this jet-black blouse and I thought for a moment that she was on her way to a funeral. She was laughing like anything, though. Well now, what do you make of that?'
Worthing and the Polizia caught Mrs Morris just as she was leaving the Bianca Palazzo, to meet a Rolls Royce which had pulled up outside. The occupant of that vehicle's back seat was hauled out amid a flurry of invective. Homer emerged from the lobby and into the merciless glare of the Riviera sun, knowing that soon his elegant shirt would be soaked in sweat.
'What is the meaning of this?!' shouted Elizabeth, throwing off the hand of a poliziotto.
'Mr Morris taking a siesta, is he?' said Homer. 'Just like last year, when you met your nobleman for coffee.' He indicated the Royce's passenger, tall and handsome and obviously wealthy, with silver hair groomed to a knife-point. He swore at Homer in Italian, looking at him in the manner of a hotel inspector who's just found a cockroach in the bedsheets.
Elizabeth started to shiver, though the sun was drawing sweat from her scalp. 'What do you know?' she said, almost whispering.
'We know everything, ma'am' said Worthing in a measured tone, almost kindly.
'I first had my suspicions on learning that it was your husband who'd given the porter his fateful tip' said Homer. 'It seemed a rather clumsy murder, given that the poisoned lira could so easily have been traced to its source. Your husband doesn't strike me as a cunning man, but if he was the one responsible he must have been cunning enough to locate a rare toxin and apply it to the notes. Yet he enacts his plan even though hotel gratuities have been abolished, which he supposedly didn't know, making him the only suspect once the cause of death was determined? No.
'The next clue came when you and your husband were asked who handles the money while travelling. My esteemed colleague suggested that an assistant would likely be handling this, to which you replied: "you'd think so, wouldn't you?" Now, what did you mean by that, Mrs Morris?' The Italian became agitated and had to be restrained by a poliziotto on each arm.
'Allow me to answer that for you' continued Homer, as merciless as the sun. 'You meant that, contrary to what you might reasonably expect as a Member of Parliament's wife, you were required to handle such chores as organising traveller's cheques, spending-money, etcetera.
'Then there was your husband's annoyance at remembering your conversation with a man he referred to as a "bloody Blackshirt." He glanced at the Italian. 'As it happens, the Inspector and I were made aware of a black-shirted chap with whom you'd met for coffee last year. Quite happily too, though you appeared to be dressed for a funeral...
'Here's what I think happened, Mrs Morris. You've been having an affair with this man. He's a fascist, and wealthy, and treats you as you wish to be treated, as a lady of leisure. So you align with the Blackshirt cause yourself, finding more pleasure in it than you ever found in the cause of a liberal MP from Yorkshire. The only obstacle is your husband, but on learning of the porter's predilections last year you came up with a plan. A beautiful, evil plan.
'You would pose as one of those neglected wives - I'm sure it didn't take much effort - and accept the porter's request to draw you. This would create evidence to suggest your infidelity. Then when you returned to the Riviera, you would obtain a nerve agent from your lover (you told us yourself that he was an expert in chemical warfare) and apply it to several notes in your husband's possession. Or have it applied. A lady doesn't get her hand's dirty.' Elizabeth sneered at him. She looked as if she could have beaten him to death, given half a chance.
'It was convenient, of course, that your husband wore gloves due to an incident in the war, so he himself wouldn't be poisoned. With any luck, when the porter died the sketch would be found, your identity recognised, and the assumption reached that your husband had killed him out of anger at being cuckolded. Worthing' he called, having turned to address the Inspector. 'Have Mr Morris's luggage checked. Carefully. You'll find the agent used to kill our young victim somewhere inside it.'
He turned to the nobleman. 'You'll also find it somewhere in the possession of this Blackshirt.' The nobleman spat at him. Homer re-turned to Elizabeth. 'Anything to say, Mrs Morris?'
Her face was red. She was apoplectic. 'You... you great, thundering... FANNY!'
'Fan-shaw' corrected Homer.