Soup to Nuts

Fiction
Amanda Marlowe


It is always embarrassing for a host when a dinner guest slumps face forward into the soup. It is even more embarrassing when that dinner guest has just been poisoned. But it is excruciating when the host of the dinner party also happens to be the world’s best private detective.

Nigel Rathskeller had always loved a good formal dinner. And tonight he had been entertaining five of the city’s more notable residents with tales of his exploits. Suddenly he was entertaining four. Harvard Pomfrey III, the richest man in the country, had collapsed in the soup just as Nigel was reaching the climax of his story. Nigel stared in horror at the tablecloth, now splattered blood red. Borscht stains terribly. The silence that followed that heart-stopping splat was shattered by a melodious crash.

Dr. Whitsun had leapt from his seat, sending his wine glass plummeting to the floor. Shards crunched unheeded beneath his shoes as he rushed to Harvard Pomfrey’s side. Morris Whitsun avoided touching the flabby fist that still gripped a small soup-splattered spoon as he sought for a pulse. Finally he pronounced, “He’s dead, Nigel.”

Jarvis, Nigel’s butler, appeared in the doorway with the salad tray. The multicolored leaves peeping over the edges of the stark white plates quivered as he paused in the doorway. His eyes swept over the table, lingering on the borscht-covered body. “Shall I tidy up the mess, sir?”

Nigel considered. “No. Do not disturb Mr. Pomfrey’s place, Jarvis. I have reason to suspect it may be murder.”

Both Dr. Whitsun and Chief Inspector Mansfield whipped their heads around to stare at Nigel. Angelica LeMarion screamed dramatically.

Her husband, Bradford Kincaide, snapped, “Calm yourself, my dear. We all know you have the best scream in the cinema. You needn’t prove yourself.” The shrill sound stopped as Angelica pouted dramatically.

Inspector Mansfield glowered. “It would be murder on my day off. How do you know, Rathskeller?”

“My dear Inspector, use your nose. Borscht generally does not reek of bitter almonds.”

Dr. Whitsun sniffed at the corpse’s mouth. “He’s right, Mansfield. It was poison.”

Mansfield growled. Give someone a doctorate for writing a few murder mysteries, and he thinks he’s qualified to identify poison. “I’ll have to call the medical examiner. Unless,” he said as he eyed Nigel, “unless you think you can have the whole thing solved before dessert.”

Nigel Rathskeller lifted his wine glass and swirled the pale liquid inside. He raised it slightly in Mr. Pomfrey’s direction, then touched it to his mouth in a silent toast. He carefully placed it down again and stared for a moment at the silverware reflected off the glass. Finally he said, “Nothing would be easier, Inspector. Obviously it is one of us here. Jarvis, you may serve the salad now. I trust you can work around Mr. Pomfrey.”

“As you wish, sir.” Jarvis placed the crisp greens in front of Angelica. She looked at the plate, sniffed dramatically, then looked over at the dead body.

“I can’t eat this. It smells like almonds.” Her voice rose hysterically. “Mr. Rathskeller is trying to poison us all one by one! How does he expect us to eat with a dead body sitting at the table??”

“I believe what Madam smells is the aromatic almond pesto vinaigrette dressing. A family recipe. Quite safe, I assure you.” Jarvis kept his tone soothing. “Mr. Rathskeller would no more poison you than I would, Madam.”

With a melodramatic gesture, she raised a small leaf towards her mouth. She paused, and turned to her husband. “If I die, sue Nigel, my love!” The scrap of green vanished behind scarlet lipstick. Disappointment flooded her face when, after a brief interval, she found herself still alive. Death scenes were always a specialty of hers.

Nigel was talking, “Indeed, Miss LeMarion, I am also a suspect in this murder. My motive? Mr. Pomfrey dined here last week. I believe Jarvis hoped I would not ask him back. Mr. Pomfrey scandalized him by using a dessert fork for the salad. But I digress. We were discussing raising money to help my favorite charity, The Home for Aging Detectives. Mr. Pomfrey felt this was not a worthy cause. We had words. He said I could have the money for my Home over his dead body. I fear I lost my temper, and told him that could be easily arranged.” He paused to savor the vinaigrette soaked mescaline.

Inspector Mansfield pulled out a pair of handcuffs. “I always did want to arrest you, Rathskeller. You make the police of this city look like idiots.”

“Inspector, patience. I will deliver the culprit into your capable hands in due course. I said I had a motive. But I am innocent. For only a dastardly miscreant would murder a guest at his own dinner party. No, if I had wanted to kill Mr. Pomfrey, I would have poisoned him at your dinner party next week, Inspector.”

Jarvis disappeared with the almost empty salad plates. Rathskeller continued, “And that brings us to your own motive, Inspector.”

Mansfield sputtered, “My motive? What do you mean?”

“Why, you are due to retire soon. It would be very much to your advantage if I had been able to raise that money for the Home. But I exonerate you as well. You would not stoop to poison. You don’t have the dexterity to slip something into a cup unnoticed. Instead, you would have had Mr. Pomfrey shot in one of those unfortunate police accidents that we are continually reading about in the papers…”

Rathskeller was interrupted by the reappearance of Jarvis bearing a suckling pig on a wheeled cart. The aroma of roast pork wafted through the room, mingling with the scraping sounds of the knife against the honing blade. The pig, roasted to crispy golden-brown perfection, presided on a throne of lettuce and pineapple. The golden snout tapered into the red of a small apple. It was, perhaps, unfortunate that the delectable dish vaguely resembled the dead millionaire. Several of the guests shuddered as the knife first slid through the skin and shaved off a razor thin slice. After precisely layering the slices on the antique china, Jarvis served. Since Nigel refused to discuss crime over the main course, an appreciative silence followed. Amid the gentle clinking of cleared dishes, Nigel commanded their attention again.

“It is a pity Mr. Pomfrey did not survive another half hour or so. He did so enjoy roast pig. But let us proceed in finding his murderer. You, Miss LeMarion, wanted Mr. Pomfrey dead as well. The two of you were having an affair, but he was about to break it off, was he not? And Hell hath no fury…”

Angelica gasped. “How dare you!! You couldn’t possibly have known that.”

“Now, now, my dear. Don’t bother to deny it. The clues are all obvious to the alert observer. The back of your dress shimmers with a phosphorescent pollen found exclusively in a very rare South American orchid. The only local source of these orchids are Mr. Pomfrey’s greenhouse. So I knew you were having an affair, either with him, or with his gardener. A quick glance at Mr. Pomfrey’s clothing confirmed my deduction that you would not stoop to dallying with a gardener. I will not bore you with the other details that led to my conclusions.”

“And I don’t suppose that our arguing about the matter as Jarvis was opening the door had anything to do with these so-called deductions?” muttered Kincaide.

“Certainly not. Jarvis merely confirmed my already well formulated theory. And you, Mr. Kincaide, you also have signs of the pollen on your shoes. From which I deduce you walked in on your wife and Mr. Pomfrey as they had their little spat. Ah, yes, from the clenching of your hand, I see that your rage would be sufficient motive for his murder.”

“I begin to feel left out,” murmured Morris Whitsun, fidgeting with his coffee spoon.

“Don’t, my old friend. For I know that Mr. Pomfrey was about to sue you for plagiarism. He mentioned how you had stolen his idea of murdering his mother-in-law for your latest book. By poisoning her soup.” Nigel’s sharp gray eyes observed Dr. Whitsun’s face growing pale. The Inspector pulled out the handcuffs again, but a wave of Nigel’s hand arrested him. Nigel continued, “But, despite all these motives, I know you are innocent. Just as I know I am innocent.”

Angelica’s brow wrinkled delightfully. “But that eliminates us all as suspects. Which means it wasn’t murder.”

“Ah,” announced Nigel, “but it was. For there is one more person in this house, with an overwhelming motive for murder.” He got up and slipped over to the dead man’s chair. “With your permission, Inspector?”

Inspector Mansfield nodded, and Nigel worked the silver spoon from Harvey Pomfrey’s flaccid hand. He flourished the cold silver implement under his guests’ noses. “This, my dear friends, is the final clue. Observe this spoon.”

Kincaide frowned. “It’s just a spoon.”

“But, no. It is not ‘just a spoon.’ It is a dessert spoon. Mr. Pomfrey was slurping his soup with a dessert spoon.” He gazed at each living guest one by one. “Surely that makes it all clear.” He glanced at Jarvis. “Doesn’t it, Jarvis?”

The butler placed a quivering crème caramel in front of his employer. “Indeed, sir, you are correct. Mr. Pomfrey would be alive now had he used his soup spoon. I would have contrived to replace the dessert spoon at this juncture, before he could use it.”

Nigel smiled. “Inspector, you may pull out your hand cuffs now.”

A cacophony of “Why?” burst out around the table. Nigel held up his hand for silence. “Jarvis is the perfect butler. In his eyes, anyone crass enough to use a salad fork for the main entree, as Mr. Pomfrey did when he dined here last, deserves instant death. But, being a fair man, he was willing to give Mr. Pomfrey a second chance.”

“Indeed, sir. It is as you say.”

“Thank you, Jarvis. That will be all. Please take the body with you on your way out, Inspector. Justice is served.”

Jarvis cried out, grabbing a bowl from the side board with his manacled hands and dumping it on the table. Several pecans clattered onto the tablecloth. A nutcracker hastily joined them. Jarvis turned to his erstwhile employer and pleaded, “But not, sir, before the nuts!”

pencil

Amanda can be reached at bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com.

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