Once before, I shared an excerpt from the MacGuffin Island Mystery: a collaborative whodunnit (and more importantly, whydunnit) that was undertaken by the T* writers at TransScripts back when we were still getting to know one another. We were working in pairs and taking turns to move the story forward.
While I don’t believe the whole story will ever see the light of day – too many cooks stirring that particular broth – it was certainly fun. Each author had skin in the game, having contributed one (in some cases, two) of the characters from their T* fiction to a gathering on a remote Scottish island where nobody was quite what they seemed and suspicions abounded. My character was the terrifying Drusilla Spankwell, disgraced former Headmistress of St. Slattern’s, an expensive finishing school for gir– er, for young people.
I was freebasing on a potent mixture of ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ and ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’ at the time, so everything I wrote was a little bit crazy. On this occasion, Rebecca drew the short straw and had to work with me. Here’s what we created: as we rejoin the tale, it’s time for dinner and the guests have each been given a fancy dress costume chosen by their host, who has yet to appear. Dot, dot, dot.
Over aperitifs, the guests had shared what in some cases was an awkward discussion about the costumes that their host had provided. At last, Chrissy announced that it was time for dinner, and ushered the guests into the Great Hall. (It was formerly the Quite Good Hall, but Sir Bernard had got the decorators in and brought it up to snuff.)
Resplendent in her blue prom dress, Rebecca Cross tried her best to make an elegant entrance, but she almost stumbled as her attention was distracted by the sheer quantity of death that the room appeared to celebrate. As is traditional in Scottish castles, the walls were festooned with the heads of dead animals: mostly deer shot on the mainland; a few badgers and lesser critters. Unfortunately, a first-rate marksman like Sir Bernard always went for a headshot and when the shooter’s preferred weapon is an antique elephant gun, even the best reconstructive taxidermist can only do so much.
Beneath the cross-eyed gaze of a hundred deceased wild things, the dining table was enormous. There were fifteen place settings, each with five wineglasses and a bewildering array of silverware. Always one with a craftsman’s appreciation of well-kept tools, Rebecca cast a processional eye over the cutlery: some looked as if it might be more at home in the hands of a dentist, while other pieces looked like instruments of torture, models of the devices used aboard whaling ships in the 19th century, or miniature medieval weapons. There were a few good old-fashioned knives, forks and spoons around the table, but these were outnumbered and clearly outgunned. Each place setting featured up to nine different pieces of silverware on each side, and no two were exactly alike.
At the head of the table there was a chair that might almost have been described as a throne. (In fact, as Chrissy would have been happy to explain, one of the many features incorporated into the chair by a former Laird was a commode – but that doesn’t form a part of our story.) No eating irons had been provided at this place setting and it was clear that this had been left vacant for Sir Bernard.
There was no indication as to who should sit where and Maid Chrissy wasn’t offering any clues. Faced with the twin challenges of trying to sit with a stranger who wasn’t too obviously irritating (or intimidating) and choosing a place setting that featured cutlery that they at least recognised, the guests all shuffled awkwardly into place around the table. At last, everybody had a place, although the two who found themselves at Drusilla’s left and right may have felt that in this they had been outmanoeuvred.
Rebecca regarded the motley collection of diners. Proceeding widdershins (anti-clockwise, as is the practice when describing seating arrangements in 21st Century Scotland) from the empty ‘throne’ of Sir Bernard, she could see Leslie Kerr – appearing in a fancy dress that was half male, half female. It was cleverly done; particularly his/her hair that showed in equal parts a bedraggled, casual look that a male could pull off with ease, and a neatly-styled female ‘up-do’. Like his/her neighbour, Leslie wore a ballerina’s tutu, and this seemed to be a source of some amusement.
The ballerina neighbour was Leila Nordham – a striking transwoman who moved and spoke with precision. From the little that Rebecca had heard, a sharp mind was at work behind those baby blues, although she seemed unsure of herself.
Next was Abi Mayland; a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Maybe even an enema. Rebecca simply didn’t know what to make of her – and the girl wasn’t offering any clues.
Paige and Jessica, each dressed in a sexy parody of a flight attendant’s uniform, Rebecca had already dismissed as a pair of sluts. They seemed determined to treat the whole occasion as a joke and an opportunity to down as much free booze as possible. A nagging voice of reason said that perhaps they were simply nervous, but they were loud and their laughter grated. So what the hell: sluts.
Then came the chilling figure of Drusilla Spankwell. Beneath the hood of the black robe and the strangely repulsive tiara, her face was hidden in shadow. She seemed content to let it remain so and Rebecca wasn’t going to argue. If it meant that the cold-hearted woman could shut out the others and refuse to participate fully in the gathering, so much the better.
At Drusilla’s right hand was Delilah Devereaux, in a beautiful evening gown. The contrast really couldn’t be greater. Rebecca understood that Delilah was a pianist of some renown, although it seemed unlikely that her skill as an entertainer would have been the sole reason that she had been invited to this strange gathering.
What, then? The founding of some new, secret order? A hard sell for some questionable Scottish property scheme? Rebecca realised she was speculating wildly and returned her attention to the diners.
At the far end of the table, where she would have faced the absent Sir Bernard, sat Danni Wentworth. She looked more than a little uncomfortable in a striped prison uniform. What did that signify? Was she a jailbird? Was she on the run, or perhaps guilty of something that Sir Bernard could only hint at? Perhaps time would tell, but she put out a powerful “don’t fuck with me” vibe and Rebecca decided not to test her patience too much.
She sat on Danni’s right, in her blue sheath prom dress, still astounded that Sir Bernard could find, let alone know about, the dress that Katherine had worn all those years ago when Rebecca took her to her prom, from before. It was an exact duplicate in every way, other than the size. She would have thought it impossible, there being only around eight pictures from that night in existence. Plus it was just so long ago…
If Sir Bernard had gone to that much trouble to ensure that her own costume was so thoroughly authentic and deeply personal, what did that say about the attire of other guests? Was Danni really a convict? Did Drusilla’s ‘mad monk’ attire indicate that she was a cultist of some kind? Curiouser and curiouser.
On her right were Angela Clemence and Anwyn Danforth. Despite the different family names it was clear that they were a couple. Maybe in a… what did the limeys call it? A civil partnership. Angela was Emma Peel to Anwyn’s John Steed, just like the old TV series. From something she’d said earlier, it appeared that Angela was some kind of private dick.
Beyond were Jenny something-or-other (wealthy dilettante, and perhaps something of a control freak, although Rebecca was still making up her mind about this one) and her girlfriend Alexa. Both were dressed as University of Minnesota cheerleaders and so clearly a couple. Young love… didn’t it just make you want to vomit?
Beyond was Esme Entwistle, not so much a wolf in sheep’s clothing as a journalist in school uniform. More than a few of the guests had resolved to tell her as little as possible about themselves – just in case. Rebecca recalled a newsman who had once told her, with wisdom garnered from the bottom of his glass of bourbon: “I like ya: don’t ever make me write about ya!”
Finally, there was another Jessica: Silverman, was it? She appeared as a classic Disney princess, but apparently she was a pharmaceutical whizzkid, or something. She was the archetype of a Jewish mother; competitive, hard-nosed and maternal. Rebecca thought she might come to like her, if she could weather the initial storm of sarcasm from the talkative New Yorker.
This completed the group: if Sir Bernard had been present, Jessica Silverman would have been sitting on his left hand – as it were.
With everybody seated, there was an awkward pause. Nobody suggested that they ought to say grace. Nobody said anything at all, in fact. The pop of a cork was a welcome distraction as Chrissy opened the first of an apparently endless supply of wines. There was no butler, so it seemed that self-service was the order of the day. The bottles were deposited unceremoniously in the centre of the table: no two alike and no apparent rhyme or reason for their selection.
Leslie, something of a wine connoisseur, suspected that the Bordeaux that had been left at the other end of the table, beyond his reach, was all but priceless. The Blue Nun left in from of him was far less appealing. Elsewhere, there were sparkling wines, rosés, and reds that should really have been cellared for a few more years (plus others that ought to have been drunk or disposed of long since). There was even a dessert wine. He suppressed a shudder: people were using the wrong glasses.
Rebecca had her back to the door and she jumped as the maid dragged in a protesting trolley that needed some oil. Upon it was a large, steaming tureen that resembled an upturned armadillo. With difficulty, Chrissy lifted it onto the dining table.
“Soup,” she announced, simply.
Next, she dashed around the table, depositing a bowl before each diner. Then she made another lap, seizing the outermost implements from every place setting (and in two cases, from the hands of diners) and replacing them with soup spoons. Delilah was relieved as she hadn’t had anything resembling a spoon before her, and the tiny halberd that was taken from her certainly wouldn’t have done the job.
Looking somewhat pained, Angela dared to ask: “What soup is it?”
Chrissy halted, and bit her lip. If she’d ever known, she couldn’t remember. She leaned forward, to get her nose close to the tureen, in the process forcing herself between Jenny and Alexa. She sniffed several times, like a bloodhound.
Rebecca noticed that Abi gazed at the drudge’s cleavage. That wasn’t lust, so… was it envy? Interesting.
“Dunno,” the maid said at last. “Broccoli? Chicken?”
Chrissy seized the ladle and dredged experimentally. Assorted small cubes of vegetable and animal matter were revealed.
“Oh,” she said, “it’s Cook’s Special Soup.”
That, it seemed, was the only explanation the diners were going to get.
Rebecca thought that it smelled surprisingly good. Better than anything she’d had during the journey, anyways.
As she headed back down the passage to the kitchens, Chrissy resolved to ask Cook what she was serving up for the subsequent courses: it seemed that there might be some fussy eaters in the assembled group.
There was another pause.
Few in the group would have identified sufficiently as ‘gentlemen’ that they might be disposed to offer assistance in the matter of serving up the food to those assembled, but old habits die hard: perhaps the sluts really were flight attendants, because they took pity on their fellow diners and one collected the bowls while the other ladled out the soup.
It really was surprisingly good and the diners all had some. Rebecca was two thirds of the way down her bowl when Chrissy reappeared with a tray of assorted bread rolls. Seeing that she was too late, the maid was nonetheless unapologetic: she grunted in disgust, whirled and took the bread back to the kitchen.
More courses followed, the diners picking as best they could from among the supply of curious cutlery. (How does one best eat whale bacon gnocchi? If you use the thing that looks like a miniature harpoon, as would seem appropriate, you might have nothing suitable when the roast suckling porpoise is served…) Air-dried hyaena in camel hoof jelly seemed a curious sort of salad, but apparently the Old Laird had picked up the recipe for this while campaigning in the Sudan and it was something of a MacGuffin staple.
The hubbub of conversation was generally comfortable, and it became increasingly companionable over time – with one exception. Apparently oblivious to the discomfort of the woman opposite her, Angela had asked Drusilla about her career – which led inevitably to questions about St Slattern’s.
Who, exactly, held Saint Slattern as their patron saint, Rebecca’s neighbour inquired.
The question was met with a brief silence. Within her shadowy cowl, Drusilla was as inscrutable as ever. If she was glaring at Angela, nobody could tell, although in that instant the room seemed to have become fractionally colder. Drusilla raised a napkin to her lips, but her normal poise appeared to have deserted her: as the linen square was raised it dislodged a Moroccan truffle skewer, which tumbled to the floor with a clatter.
This made matters worse: everybody fell silent, regarding the dark spectre in their midst.
The napkin was frozen, halfway between dining table and mouth: the hand that held it shook, as if palsied.
Drusilla cleared her throat, and at last she spoke:
“St Slattern is a mentor for those in dire need of changing their erroneous ways,” she said – apparently through clenched teeth.
“Are you a fan of the Avengers?” Rebecca asked Angela, seeking to reduce the tension in the room by changing the subject. It worked, and the other diners breathed again.
By the time they were cleansing their palates with partridge sorbet, the supply of silverware had diminished to the point where the diners were using entirely inappropriate utensils. Leila’s unwise use of a head cheese strainer for the miniature capybara burgers had left her with a stain on her costume, and it was at this point that Rebecca cut her tongue on the wickedly sharp serrated edge of a whelk spoon.
Throughout all this, the wine was flowing. Especially the bottle that Alexa had knocked over. Fortunately, the ancient table had gutters carved into it for just such an eventuality and none of her fellow diners were greatly troubled.