THE ASTOUNDING ADVENTURES OF PROFESSOR HORATIO STERLING - VICTORIAN DETECTIVE

9.11.10

The Case of the Mislaid Lord

Tis November and NaNoWriMo time, again. (No, that’s not some Japanese dish.) It’s National Novel Writing Month where everyone writes a best selling novel in four weeks. Anybody can do that, right? Here is my attempt. All right, so it’s missing several hundred pages but I do have a day job. This is my next installation of the astounding adventures of Professor Horatio Sterling.

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Outside the smog was so thick it beat against the window. I stuffed tea into my pipe and lit it. I prefer to smoke my Lapsang souchong tea myself. I stared at the wall, using my keen sense of observation to make out pictures in the stains. The biggest smudge looks like a bunny.

My name is Professor Horatio Sterling, London’s foremost consulting detective. All right, foremost consulting detective with a history degree. London is full of blasted consulting detectives these days.

I heard the wind sigh--wait, that wasn’t the wind. I knew that sigh anywhere. I turned to see Dr. Obadiah Dullard, my old roommate, sitting in the corner, all droopy like a wilted tulip, staring at the floor.

“Dullard?” I jumped from my chair like a dachshund had bitten me. “I didn’t notice you. How long have you been sitting there?”

Dr. Dullard took out his pocket watch and looked at it. “Oh, I’d say about--erm--five days.” He sighed again and stuffed the watch back in his pocket.

“I thought you ran off to get married to Lady Chesterfield?”

“I thought I did, too. Then Madeline disappeared.”

“Egads! Disappeared? What happened?” I sat back down.

“I took her to a restaurant. She got up to go to the loo, and never came back.”

“Great Zeus! Was she kidnapped?”

Dullard shrugged. “It’s happened before.”

“All your girlfriends get kidnapped?”

“All of them say they are going to the loo and never come back. I called her house, but the staff says she’s not in. I think she just dumped me.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because when I call I can hear her in the background saying ‘If that’s Dr. Dullard, tell him I’m not in.’ Last time we talked she said she thought we should break up. She said I was too clinging. She said she was getting tired of me following her everywhere.”

“Is that true?”

“I didn’t follow her everywhere. I stayed out of the bathroom. I waited outside. Oh, I did whine and scratch on the door a bit.”

“And that bothered her? She couldn’t learn to ignore it, like I did? I mean you are always underfoot, but I don’t remember ever tripping over you. You’re quiet and housebroken, more or less, which is more than I can say for most pets.”

“Do you care if I move back in?”

“Poor Dullard. Some men are born leaders and some have a biological need to follow.”

Dullard nodded. “I come from a long line of sidekicks.”

“I thought you came from a long line of Earls and Rajas?”

“Exactly. Aristocracy has to suck up to their betters or they don’t live long enough to breed.”

“Never looked at it that way.” I tapped the finished smoked tea into a canister. “You are most welcome to move back in, old chap. But why do you want to live in this dump? Don’t you have some palace or castle you can go to?”

“Do you know what it’s like to live in a sumptuous palace being waited on hand and foot?”

“Can’t say that I do.” I felt a sudden twinge of envy.

“Well, it’s boring! Living in the middle of a filthy, crowded city is a lot more exciting!”

“You can have your old room back.”

“The one under the stairs?” Dullard looked excited.

“Of course.”

There came a sudden hammering at the door, breaking up our happy reunion. I masterfully stepped over to the wooden barrier and swung it open.

There stood a balding man, even more weasely-looking than Dullard. He stood with his top hat in his hand. “Professor Horatio Sterling?”

“I am he.”

“My name is Percy Twiddle. I need your assistance in a family matter.”

“Marriage counselor is two buildings down. My only advice would be to grab your lady up in your manly arms and smother her with kisses.”

“Doesn’t work.” Dullard shook his head sadly.

The stranger cleared his throat in his scraggly neck. “Erm, no, sir. I’m not married. I am the closest nearest living relative to Lord Ashpoke.”

“The Lord Ashpoke who disappeared with his wife in the jungles of Africa twenty-two years ago?” I asked. I recalled the tabloids had a field day with that story until they realized no one was really interested.

“Yes. I should be the new Lord Ashpoke but until I have proof that the last Lord Ashpoke is actually dead, the title and estate are in limbo. It’s a pity to have a title just sitting there and no one using it.”

“I would think twenty-two years without a word would be proof of death--or at least proof of indifference to being the Lord Ashpoke.”

“One would think.” Twiddle twiddled his hat nervously. “My lawyers, however, said I need proof. I want to hire you to find that proof. Or at least bring back Lord Ashpoke, if he’s still alive.”

“Ah!” I grabbed Percy by the arm and pulled him in. “A paying customer!” I shut the door before he could escape. “Dullard, get Mr. Twiddle a cup of tea. Darjeeling should do the trick.”

“Of course, Sterling.” Dullard began bustling domestically.

I politely shoved Twiddle into a chair. “Now, then, where was Ashpoke last seen?”

Twiddle pulled out a postcard and handed it to me. It read “Welcome to Beautiful Mumbossy.” The name “Mumbossy” was cleverly made up of photos of snarling savage beasts. I turned it over. In lovely cursive was written the cryptic message: “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.”

“What pray tell was Lord Ashpoke doing in Mumbossy?” I queried.

“He went there on his honeymoon.”

“Deepest, darkest Africa, for a honeymoon? Why not Paris or Vienna or even Blackpool. Why the deuce would a man take a wife to such a God-forsaken place for a honeymoon?”

“Lord Ashpoke liked to collect butterflies.”

“He could easily have found those in Paris or Vienna or Blackpool.”

Dullard poked a teacup at me. “Perhaps he was in search of the rare Mumbossy Mamba Mimicker.”

“Mumbossy Mamba Mimicker?” I was afraid to say that fast three times..

“It’s wings look like the highly poisonous mamba viper’s eyes and fangs. It’s tail looks like a flicking tongue. It’s very rare because every time the natives see it, they scream and kill it before they realize it’s just a butterfly. It’s valuable because the Church of England wants a specimen as an argument against Darwin’s Evolution Theory.”

“They are trying to prove God is a practical joker?”

Dullard shrugged. “I suppose. They already found a frog in South America that emit’s a sound like a whoopie cushion when you sit on it.”

“I’m afraid to ask it’s name.” I turned back to Twiddle. “So, all you know is that Lord Ashpoke left Mumbossy and headed into the jungle with nothing but a butterfly net and a disappointed bride?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm, I would probably need to go to Mumbossy and find more clues. Do you have a photo of this Lord Ashpoke?”

“No. Poor Lord Ashpoke was not very handsome. His face kept breaking the cameras. He did, however, have the Ashpoke birthmark all heirs have.”

“Birthmark?”

Twiddle unbuttoned his shirt and tore it open to expose his sunken, hairless chest. There, over his left nipple, was a brown silhouette of a cat. “Our family motto is ‘Touch not the cat.’”

“Hmm, I can see why.” I turned to Dullard. “Birthmarks aren’t hereditary, are they?”

“Of course, they are! All the English nobility have them. I can show you my family birthmark.” Dullard grabbed his pants.

“No! That’s quite all right. I believe you.” I was afraid to ask where his family wore their birthmark.

Dullard shrugged. “It’s an iris. Quite lovely really. Of course, I can only see it in a mirror, so it’s backwards but--”

“Please, Dullard. Don’t paint pictures for me.” I tried to get that disturbing image out of my mind. Thank heavens I learned meditation from the Zen masters of Nagasaki. I tried to imagine one hand slapping--I mean, one hand clapping--Oh, never mind. “Another cup of tea, Dullard.”

I turned my full attention to Twiddle. “We shall go at once to the dark continent, my good man. We will need an advance for the tickets, of course.”

“Of course.” Twiddle handed me a sack of money. Apparently he coveted that title more than the estate. “There is a steamship leaving tomorrow.”

“We shall be on it!”

“I’ll pack the teapot.” Dullard got busy.

###

This is the Golden Age of Steamships. These wonderful luxury liners are filled with crystal chandeliers, mahogany paneling, brass railings and plush Turkish carpets. You are waited on hand and foot by eager stewards, plying you with exotic drinks and gourmet food. Unfortunately, all those boats were headed for New York. The only boat headed for Mumbossy was a rusty tramp steamer full of goats.

I spent most of the trip on deck toward the front of the ship, upwind from all the goats. Dr. Dullard found the trip quite delightful, having had a deprived childhood in a luxurious palace. I found his cheerfulness rather annoying. It interfered terribly with my moping.

After two weeks of swill and fleas, we made landfall at the east African port. Mumbossy’s major import was eager missionaries and major export was dead missionaries. The major industry was people trying to make a fast buck off of passing said missionaries.

I disembarked, looking resplendent in my pith helmet and khakis. Dullard, of course, just looked ridiculous in his. We got a room at the Mumbossy Hilton. There was only one room vacant. There was only one room period. It was a small establishment. I would be forced to share a bed with Dullard. Not the first time he had slept curled up on the foot of my bed.

After a meal of roasted warthog with meerkat sauce, we hit the streets. We needed to interview everyone to find someone who knew anything about Lord Ashpoke. We visited the British Embassy, the police station, the army post, the country club, the newspaper, the theatre-- All right, we didn’t expect anyone at the theatre to know anything, but they were putting on Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. We could hardly pass that up.

We dragged our exhausted bodies down the dusty streets lined with charming colonial shacks that looked ready to fall down. We were about to fall down ourselves when we were accosted by a giant chicken. “Hey, jive turkeys!”

“Jive turkeys?” I archly arched my eyebrow at the cocky fowl.

“Yeah, in the language of my tribe that means ‘honored sirs.’”

“Chickens have a tribe?”

“No, fool!” The chicken jerked it’s head off, revealing a native girl’s head underneath. “I ain’t no chicken. I’m just wearing this stupid costume because it’s the only job I could get. I’m suppose to stand here and get people to come into this stupid fried chicken restaurant.”

“You couldn’t get a better job than this humiliating endeavor?”

“Hey, it’s the Victorian Age, in case you haven’t noticed. I’m black and I’m a woman, so this is the best I could do.”

“Is there something we could help you with?” I asked as gallantly as possible.

“Maybe I can help you. Maybe you could give me a few bucks for some information. You been running around asking about this Ashpoke dude? Is he that crazy old coot with the butterfly net?”

“Why yes he is?”

“Was. Got eaten by hyenas.”

“Eaten by hyenas?” I gave a nervous chuckle.

“Hey, hyenas ain’t no laughing matter, chump. Before that though his wife up and left him, last I heard. Left him with the kid.”

“Lord Ashpoke had a child? Apparently he must have laid down that butterfly net at some point. What happened to the offspring?”

“No one knows. Only person out in the jungle nowadays is that crazy white boy hanging out with the gorillas. We call him Zantar, which in my language means ‘crazy white boy hanging out with gorillas with cat tattoo on his left nipple.’”

“By Jove! Isn’t that the Ashpoke birthmark?” I turned to Dullard.

“I believe it is.” Dullard nodded so hard his pith helmet fell off.

I turned to the lady informant. “We must find this Zantar. He is the new Lord Ashpoke!”

She shook her head. “He lives in the jungle. You can’t go out there by yourselves. It’s full of all kinds of nasty stuff.”

“We will hire a guide then.”

“No one goes out there. It’s full of man-eating beasts. I only know one person who’s been through there and lived. Only one person could guide you.”

“Your father? Brother? Uncle?”

“No, me.”

“Aren’t you afraid of man-eating beasts.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I ain’t no man.”

“She’s got you there.” Dullard winked.

“You say you have been through the jungle?”

“Hell, yeah. Had to go through it to get here. My village is on the other side. My dad told the chief he could marry me for three goats. I ain’t marrying that fat, ugly old coot. Ran away to the city to find my fortune. Some fortune, huh? All I got is this stupid chicken costume. You hire me and maybe I can get a ticket to a better place than this dump.”

“I don’t know.” I hesitated. “I couldn’t possible hire a lady to--”

“I’m no lady, you--” At this point she let loose with a string of obstinacies of such exotic color that I only recognized half of the words.

“She’s got you there.” Dullard winced.

“Still you are a member of the fairer sex,” I argued.

“Nothing fair about me, whitey.” She pulled her wing up to expose her brown arm.

“All right, a member of the weaker sex.”

She grabbed up Dullard and held him over her head.

“For heaven’s sake,” Dullard yelped. “Hire her before she drops me!”

“Fine, you’re hired.”

“Good!” She set my wide-eyed companion down. “I can finally get out of this stupid chicken outfit.” She started to yank it off.

I pulled my pith helmet over my eyes. I nudged Dullard to follow my example.

“I ain’t buck naked under this, fool!”

I lowered my helmet to see her wearing a baggy khaki shirt and shorts. She had the costume over her arm. “Let me take this back to the Colonel, and I’ll be with you.”

“The Colonel?”

“Yeah, the retired officer who owns the restaurant.” She turned and stomped off into the adobe building with a giant bucket on the roof that read "Kenyatta Fried Chicken."

I watched her with misgivings. “I don’t like this, Dullard. Taking a woman like her into a jungle full of wild animals.”

Dullard nodded. “Yes. She could push any endangered species into extinction.”

###

We found out a few things about our native guide. Her name was Jainama and she was excellent with a machete. Dullard marked it down to pent-up rage. She hacked at the saplings and vines with a determined snarl, mumbling. “Take that, you--” I won’t fill in the blanks. We nearly needed a machete to hack through the air she was turning blue.

I walked behind Jainama carrying a rifle. Dullard followed us with his carpet bag and my steamer trunk balanced atop his head.

Jainama stopped and let out a bloodcurdling scream. There before us loomed the malicious gold eyes and ivory fangs of the black mamba viper. (Which is actually green. I think the chap that named it was color blind.)

A higher pitched squeal joined her scream. At first I thought it was Dullard, but then I realized it came from my own throat.

Before I could raise my rifle, Jainama launched herself at the giant snake, machete flying like a sushi chef. She looked down at her dead adversary panting, then rolled her eyes. “Oh, man! It’s just another one of those stupid butterflies again. I hate those things. Don’t know how many of those critters I killed on the way to the city. I hope this is the last one.”

“The rare Mumbossy Mamba Mimicker,” Dullard whimpered, gazing down at the shredded wings. “I would have loved one for my collection.”

“Perhaps you could glue this one back together?” I offered.

Dullard looked at me like I was an idiot, and adjusted the trunk on his head.

“Perhaps we should take a break.” I sat down on a log. “Brew up a cup of tea and catch one’s breath.”

Jainama crossed her arms. “Yeah, what with me hacking our way through this thick jungle, and the little dude hauling all the luggage, I can see where you would be all exhausted, Bwana.”

I found out later that "bwana" is Swahili for "stupid white man."

“Yes,” I agreed. “How many days have we been at this?”

“About two hours, bwana.” Jainama was now tapping her foot. “We’ve only gotten 100 feet. If we had taken the path like I had suggested--”

“But the man-eating lions would be expecting that, right?” I raised my finger to make the point. “They are probably sitting there beside the trail, waiting in ambush, wearing bibs and licking their lips.”

“So, what is the plan, bwana? You going to have me hack down the entire jungle and expose Zantar that way?”

“What would you suggest?”

“Why not set a trap for Zantar?”

“Good idea, madame.”

“I ain’t no madame! I may not be a lady, but I ain’t no hooker, chump! Try making a grab at me and see what happens.” She clutched the machete tighter.

“I assure you, I am a gentleman, my good woman--and I’m not that stupid.”

“Just so we understand each other.” She relaxed a little.

“Moving along, you suggested a trap? What, pray tell, would we use for bait?”

“Zantar is a lonely young bachelor, right? I know the perfect bait.” She gave me a big grin.

###

I looked up at the heavy net constructed from vines we had rigged over the small clearing.

“You think this will work?” I asked Jainama.

“Worth a try. I got the perfect bait.”

I looked at the brown well-toned body in the zebra-skin bikini. I must say, she did clean up nicely. “Yes, I suppose you do.”

“Haven’t met a man yet that can resist my banana cream pie.” She held up the pie tin in her hands.

“Erm, exactly why are you wearing that bikini?”

“Hey, hacking through the forest is hot work. If I’m going to sit out here in the sun, I’m going to wear something cool.”

“Of course. Silly me.”

She sat down on a convenient rock. “Now you two go hide. When Zantar comes up to me, you let go of the rope, drop the net and we’ll have him.”

We followed our native guide’s instructions, hiding behind ferns.

“Hey Zantar!” Jainama yelled. “Come and get it, big guy. Got just what you want!” She held the pie over her head.

Suddenly from the underbrush came crashing a giant creature. At first I thought it was a gorilla, but then realized it was a young man, over six foot tall with a body like Mr. Universe. His leopard skin breech cloth set off his bronze tan nicely.

“It’s our wild man.” I whispered to Dullard.

“If he’s a wild man, why does he look like he just stepped out of a barber shop? Shouldn’t his hair be past his shoulders, Shouldn’t he have a beard? I’ve seen over-night campers look a lot grungier than this.”

“Zantar may be a wild man, but he is also an English lord! You of all men should understand that.”

“Yes.” Dullard rubbed his smooth chin. “I think we nobility are born clean-shaven.”

“I believe most people are born without beards, Dullard.”

“Even babies from the working class?” Dullard gave me a skeptical look.

Zantar saw Jainama and got a leer on his face. He crept toward her, stalking her like a cat after a rubber mouse. He sprung, and swept up the woman with one arm. “Zantar want!”

He then grabbed the pie with his other hand and let go of Jainama. He buried his face in the pastry, lapping it up greedily.

“Hey, chump!” She slapped his arm. “That is not how we do things around here! Where are your manners?”

Zantar ducked his head. “Zantar, sorry. May Zantar have banana cream pie, please?”

“Okay. I’ll let it go this time.”

He gave her a big grin and finished off the pie. While Zantar was occupied Jainama waved her arms at us.

“Let go of the rope, Dullard!” I hissed.

The net dropped down, trapping our wild man. Unfortunately it also trapped our wild woman. They were tangled up together. Maybe we should have thought this one through.

“Zantar tricked!” The giant bellowed, looking both angry and scared.

“Relax, honey.” Jainama patted his arm through the netting. “No one’s gonna hurt you. If they try, I’ll kick their butts!”

He relaxed. “Zantar like female. She smell good and makes great pies. You not all hairy and ugly like females in Zantar’s tribe.”

“That’s because they’re gorillas. I’m a human being, just like you.”

“Zantar think you pretty.”

“Hmmm, I normally don’t go for white boys, but you are a hunk, aren’t you?”

“What pretty female’s name?”

“I’m Jainama, but my friends call me Jain.”

“Me Zantar, you Jain?”

At this point I stepped forward. “Your real name, my good fellow, is Lord Ashpoke. Your real parents were English nobility.”

“Zantar not ape? Zantar adopted? Hmmm, that would explain many things.”

“Yes, Zantar. I was sent to bring you back to England and your family where a title and estate wait for you.”

“Zantar like jungle.”

Jainama took his hand. “Honey, if you don’t like England, you can sell the estate and come back and buy your jungle. That way the lumber companies can’t come in and cut it down.”

“Zantar like plan. Zantar agree under one condition.”

“What’s that, honey?”

“Jain come as Zantar’s mate.”

“Oh, how sweet! You want to get married, huh?”

“Zantar not know what ‘marry’ mean. Zantar want to share life with Jain. Make Jain his mate, forsaking all others, until death do part Zantar and Jain. Jain want same?”

“I do!” Jainama looked over at Dullard and I. “Well, don’t just stand there, you fools! Cut us out of here and go find a preacher before he changes his mind!”

###

A month later, I sat in my London flat, sipping tea and congratulating myself on a job well done. “Well, Dullard, that was a job well-done. We didn’t find the Lord Ashpoke Percy Twiddle asked for, but we did find his son. His family was thrilled that we found the lost heir they never knew they had.”

“Yes, Sterling. I know all this. I was there, remember?” Dullard looked bored.

“Of course, they were a bit upset that the new Lord Ashpoke squats on the dining table and eats with his hands and the new Lady Ashpoke is a non-Anglo-Saxon with a smart mouth and a bad atttitude.”

“I don’t know. Jainama seemed a lot mellower since she got married to Zantar. The two are constantly sneaking off together. They make a cute couple.”

“Bit of an odd couple, if you ask me. Fortunately, so many bankrupt English noble families have been forced to marry wealthy Americans, the gentry should have no trouble accepting them.”

“Yes.” Dullard nodded. “The Ashpokes are classier than most Americans I’ve met.”

“If only Lord Ashpoke could cure that nervous twitch of his.”

“The one where he beats his chest and gives an operatic yell?”

“Yes. You can hear him for miles. I understand the it nearly gave Queen Victoria the vapors at that luncheon.”

“I find it amusing.” Dullard chuckled.

“I’m sure Her Majesty was not amused. Personally, I think those little personality quirks just make a person more personable.”

“In your personal opinion?”

“Precisely.” I decided to pour myself another cup of tea and wait for our next amazing adventure.

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