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I hope you enjoy it.
(John Light)


The Enigma of the Speeding Toadstool

    Although its inception was so light-hearted, the enigma of the speeding toadstool proved to be as serious as any that Hugo led me into.
We had been walking the wild fells north of Hadrian's Wall and as we headed back to less lonely countryside Hugo was for once driving at a non-alarming pace and I was relaxing as he negotiated the lanes'  twists and turns and was enjoying the varied views of the Simonside Hills thus afforded. As we headed into a wooded area a truck shot out of a side road just ahead of us and accelerated away.
    "Maniac!" observed Hugo, although it was exactly the sort of manoeuvre he normally perpetrates himself. I was inclined to agree with him although not on account of the driver's shortcomings as a driver but because of the unusual load secured by ropes to the flat bed of the lorry. It appeared to be a toadstool, bright red with white spots, but about eight feet high.
    "Follow that toadstool," I cried facetiously, though I later wished I hadn't.
    "What do you know about fly agarics?" asked Hugo.
"Not a lot," I answered. "Taxonomic name amanita muscaria."
Hugo glanced at me in surprise. I felt rather smug – I don't often manage to startle him.
"Are you a mycologist as well as a chemist?" he enquired.
Having a deep-seated aversion to any kind of dissembling, something which is a severe handicap if you want to impress people, I admitted that I was not and that I just happened a short while ago to have done some research on natural products derived from the species. The rather odd fact that it concentrates the metal vanadium had been the focus of my interest but perhaps the fascination of this is only comprehensible to those as thoroughly marinated in chemistry as I am so I didn't elaborate. Instead I continued.
"They are a fairly common fungus, typically about three inches high, very poisonous as well as hallucinogenic mainly due to the psychoactive compound muscimol and they don't usually move as fast as the specimen in front."
Hugo grinned.
    "So you think that one is unusual enough for us to take an interest in?"
    "Oh no!" I protested. "You're not going to involve me in some wild toadstool chase."
Hugo collects the unusual, both professionally - he is a social anthropologist - and as a hobby and has too often embroiled me in time-consuming investigations of odd, even bizarre, occurrences - like the enigma of the benevolent banker, though that's a tale to which I suspect the world is not yet ready to give credit.
    "There's bound to be some boring run-of-the-mill explanation of this." I was keen to get back to London that night, which meant relying on Hugo to deliver me to a main-line station, preferably Newcastle, while there were still trains running that would do that.
    "Suggest three possible dull explanations," demanded Hugo. I thought rapidly.
    "It's a theatre prop, or it's destined for a children's playground, or - or it's part of an advertising campaign!" I finished triumphantly.
    "Hm! Not bad," conceded Hugo.
    "Your turn," I said maliciously.
"It's part of a scam, or a plot or a fraud," he replied promptly.
"Two of those are just synonyms," I objected. "Anyway I can't imagine any plot or fraud that would involve the use of a giant toadstool."
"Nor I," said Hugo, which surprised me as, even if true, it wasn't his style to admit such a thing.
"So," he continued, "it is definitely worth looking into."
I realised I'd been out-manoeuvred.
Hugo had accelerated to keep the fleeing fungus in view. Of a sudden, the truck's brake lights flared, causing Hugo to stamp on the range rover's brakes, and without other signal the driver executed a sharp left turn into an even narrower lane which ran like a tunnel into the thick forest now bordering the road. Hugo cursed, screeched to a halt, backed up and then turned left in its wake onto a single track side-road with passing places, and with grass growing in the middle of the metalling in places..
"That signpost pointed to Scatterdene Woods," I remarked.
"I noticed. It's a no through road and I can't think of anywhere along it that could possibly interest the transporter of a large toadstool." Hugo had now dropped back, well away from our quarry and we glimpsed it only intermittently so we were lucky (though that wasn't how I felt at the time) to catch sight of it making another abrupt left turn. Hugo accelerated and then slowed as he approached the spot where the truck had turned. There was no sign of another lane but a few broken branches and a gouge in the soft verge pin-pointed the spot where the vehicle had turned off the highway and into the trees. Hugo hesitated and then drove on for about a hundred yards until he reached a passing place where he pulled as far to the left as he could so that he wasn't blocking the road.
"Come on," he said, jumping out and closing his door with a careful click. I followed reluctantly. We walked back along the lane to where the truck had entered the wood. Hugo led the way into the gloom of the firs, carefully keeping a bit to one side of the tyre tracks, and leaving no prints in the springy cushion of pine needles. We seemed to be following an old forest way through the trees deeper into an oppressive silence such as only coniferous plantations seem to generate, a dead silence, a secret, permanent silence.
We didn't have far to go before we spied the truck. It was stationary at the nearer edge of a clearing surrounded by deciduous trees and rhododendron bushes. The toadstool had been unloaded and positioned in the middle of the glade where its bright red gleamed in the sun shining through the break in the tree canopy, the big white spots stark against the red in a somehow sinister realisation of an illustration in a child's book of fairy stories.
An overalled figure carried a basket from the lorry towards the toadstool. The contents clinked. He put the basket down on the grass while he opened a door in the stalk of the fungus, picked the basket up again and ducked through the low doorway. After a few minutes, he re-emerged, took the now empty basket back to the vehicle and tossed it in the back. He opened the cab door and retrieved a hessian bag, said a few words to his mate, slammed the door, and stepped back.
The truck reversed out of the glade, presumably back towards the lane. The remaining workman took off his cap, shook out a mass of shoulder-length blonde hair and stripped off his boiler-suit. He rolled it up and as he stuffed that and the cap into the bag, he half-turned and it was clear from the face that he was in fact a woman. Removal of the coverall had revealed she was dressed in a white blouse and slacks. Taking a pair of women's sensible shoes from the bag, she pulled off the boots and replaced them with the shoes, standing easily on one leg to complete the operation. She turned and strode off along a broad grass path leading out the other side of the glade.
Hugo waited a minute or two and then crossed to the toadstool; I followed less certainly. The door wasn't locked. (The very idea was of course ridiculous. My mind seemed to be in some sort of unresolved quantum state, seeing the toadstool both as a growing fungus and as a small building).
Hugo pulled the door open, ducked, and stepping inside the stalk, straightened up again. I could see his legs turn his body round slowly before he re-emerged.
"Have a look," he invited.
"Really Hugo," I remonstrated, "this isn't one of your investigations, this is sheer nosy-parkering."
"It's interesting though," he smiled. With a sigh I did as he said, anxious just to get back on the road and reach Newcastle.
Inside the cap of the toadstool it was fitted out as a miniature room with a table, chairs, cupboards, shelves and even a child sized bed with its head against the curving wall. Above me a window in the dome let in light. On the shelves were books, crockery, boxes, packets and a line of labelled bottles. It had all the appearance of a singularly well equipped play house. I withdrew, noting as I did, the ladder affixed to the inside of the stalk. I confronted Hugo.
"I was right. It's a children's playhouse, an impressive one I'll grant you, but that is all it is. Now can we go back to the real world? I need to catch a train."
Almost as though he hadn't heard what I'd said, Hugo asked:
"Have you got a specimen tube or small bottle with you?"
"No I haven't," I replied with some asperity, "I'm not a mad scientist out of a trashy story; my pockets are not stuffed with chemicals and apparatus; no real scientist has pockets full of test tubes – well perhaps one or two if he's in his lab coat, but in case you hadn't noticed I'm not in uniform today! Anyway what do you want it for?"
As too often in the past, my curiosity was my undoing. The smile on Hugo's face broadened – he knew he had me suckered.
"You saw the bottles? Did you sniff their contents?"
"Really!" I protested weakly.
"The one labelled Dreams of Faerie especially? No? It was – suggestive. You wait here and keep watch; I've got a few empty specimen vials in the car I'm sure. I'll only be a few minutes."
He was off, ignoring my protest.
The silence enveloped me as he disappeared between the trees in the direction of the range rover. I looked round. Keep watch indeed! There was nothing to see except for the serried ranks of trees and the surreal form of the gigantic toadstool.
Feeling uneasily exposed standing there in the glade I, quite illogically, set off towards the path leading out of it, the one taken by the woman. It curved away through what quickly transformed into a shrubbery, leaving the tall spindly pines behind. I welcomed the sunshine for its brightness and its warmth. Shortly the path opened out onto a lawn and I hung back, hoping to remain inconspicuous. I stared across the grass at the old house beyond. Somehow it didn't have the appearance of a house where there were children. It was hard to say why but certainly there were no discarded toys lying about, no clutter of any sort, no sounds. It was a gloomy example of Victorian gothic and as silent as the sinister wood. I started as the word sinister slipped into my mind but it seemed entirely appropriate.
I quickly returned to the glade and was glad when Hugo got back. He reinserted himself into the toadstool and in a moment or two backed out again grasping a small tube filled with amber liquid. He flipped up the cap and held it out to me.
    "Have a sniff," he invited. I did so gingerly, for a chemist learns early in his career (if he doesn't want it to be a very short one) not to breathe too enthusiastically of the unknown. However this was in fact quite pleasant. I dipped the tip of my little finger in and equally gingerly tasted it with the tip of my tongue.
    "Brandy," I said in surprise, "at least that's my impression. Although there is a hint of something else there," I added reflectively. Hugo nodded.
"It was in the bottle labelled Dreams of Faerie; not really what you'd expect in a children's playhouse!"
I had to agree; the toadstool house was looking more and more like an adult fantasy.
"You'll analyse this specimen?" Hugo half queried, half commanded!
"I'm not an analytical chemist."
"But you have colleagues who are?"
"Yes, yes, all right." I was now intrigued myself – it was that half-recognised lurking taste.
"Straight away if possible," he insisted. "I've a bad feeling about this whole set-up."
"Very well, if it means I can get the next train back to London!"
We returned to the car, Hugo backed it onto the lane and we set off.
"Isn't this the wrong way? The sign said the lane was a dead end."
"It's a no through road," corrected Hugo. "The sign is right but fails to reveal that it's because it loops back on itself in another half mile or so and eventually rejoins itself before the junction with the main road. I had a look at the map."
Sure enough the lane soon veered to the left and very soon I sensed we were travelling back in the direction we'd come. Abruptly Hugo slowed the car.
    "There it is," he pointed, "the front of the house whose back you saw."
It was set well back from the lane and looked more pretentious from this side as seen through the open gateway but the only sign of life was a red sports car parked on a broad stretch of gravel in front of it. The garden was bounded by a hedge and at one end of this a discreet notice board was instantly recognisable as an estate agents sign. As we passed I noted the agent's name and I presume Hugo did too. After that he accelerated and we were soon hurtling along as he resumed his normal driving style.
The next day was a Monday and as soon as I got to the Chemistry Department I rang Martin Maclean, a colleague in the analytical group and a friend of many years. I explained what I wanted.
"Sure, bring it along," he replied. "No use resisting if it's Hugo behind it after all. I've got a student for whom it'll be a nice exercise. I'll phone you with the result."
When he got back to me he sounded unusually serious and said he'd come along to see me. He arrived in a matter of minutes.
"I don't like this at all," he said. "By rights I ought to report it direct to the police. What on earth have you been doing?"
He sat down in the chair on the opposite side of my desk.
"It isn't quite as you suggested. It is indeed a solution in brandy of a psychoactive drug, but that tube contains a lethal concentration of morphine-diacetate."
I pursed my lips.
"Heroin!" I said.
Of course I'd been brooding on the matter and was already prepared to hear something unpalatable and had decided what I would do next. I rang Hugo. Martin settled back in his chair and regarded me thoughtfully. Hugo's departmental secretary Mrs Desai answered. I'd met her during the enigma of The Indian Ladder Trick.
"Can I speak to Hugo please, it's very urgent," I requested after exchange of the customary greetings.
"I'll see if I can find him." He came on the line quite quickly. He must have been awaiting the call. I told him the news, including Martin's anxiety about his results.
"Right," said Hugo, "I've been doing some phoning around up here and I've formed a theory about what is going on. I do agree that we need to involve the constabulary, but the local force here have a somewhat jaundiced view of me – no don't ask me now, I'll tell you why some other time – but I think the best thing is for me to phone Sebastian. Can you stay within reach of a phone for a while? I may have to ring you back." (Hugo can't be bothered with mobile phones).
Sebastian Sinclair was a former student of Hugo's and now a senior officer in the Metropolitan Police. I'd first met him at a conference attended by Hugo and I, as well as by Sinclair, and the meeting led to the resolution of the enigma of The Vanishing Punk. I told Martin what Hugo had said and explained who Sinclair was. He seemed placated.
"I'll write up the analysis and let you have it. I rely on you to pass it on to the police." I promised to do so.
When Hugo rang again he told me Sebastian had been promoted to superintendent and transferred back to East London so that his bailiwick now included my college and he was taking the matter seriously enough to send a car to take me and Martin Maclean into his office. I exclaimed in exasperation – I had work to do! But Martin was relieved when I told him – he would clearly like to get the analysis off his mind and see for himself that a proper report was made! Ten minutes later the porter on the front door of the department rang.
"The police have come for you Dr Dunkley," he said. Ever since it became generally known that I was a friend of Hugo, I'd been regarded as some sort of eccentric and therefore a fair target for levity. "They asked for Dr Maclean as well. Shall I ring him?"
Martin and I met in the lobby and accompanied the uniformed constable out to the patrol car. I quite enjoyed the journey to Sinclair's nick, lights and siren affording us comparatively rapid passage through the congested streets of the East End, though I couldn't see that our trip was that urgent.
Sinclair asked me to tell him exactly what had happened and what I'd seen. I gave him the specimen tube and Martin reported his results.
"We'll do our own analysis here," Sinclair said to Martin, "not that I doubt your competence but it's a matter of the chain of evidence. I'd also like a copy of your report and a formal statement from both of you. You won't mind making your own way back I hope?"
I wouldn't have said no to another trip in a police car but reflected it might be better not to wish too fervently for that in case the next occasion was less benign! As it was, Martin and I journeyed in the gloom of an almost empty Metropolitan Line train rattling through the stygian tunnels to Stepney Green.
I rang Hugo and brought him up to date.
"Now" I said, "clue me in on exactly what you've found out up there?"
"Ah, you are speaking crime writer lingo! Right, there's really not much to tell so far. After I left you at the station I made a few enquiries but a Sunday evening is a frustrating time for investigations. Most of them had to wait until today. I did see the estate agent yesterday, the one whose board was outside the house. He didn't know much and all I could learn in my guise of possible purchaser was that the house is lived in by two unmarried sisters and that it belongs to the elder, Miss Ariadne Trevelyan. This morning I spoke to the editor of the local rag, The Advertiser, but he could tell me nothing at all – they clearly have no newsworthiness as far as he knows. Then I thought of the local public library. You know, people underestimate the value of the less advertised sources of information in libraries, the amount of gossip that the librarians themselves accumulate about their customers! They get to meet many of the people in their locality. They may only exchange a few words with them at each encounter, the time it takes to check books in and issue new ones, but they see them again and again, often over a long period, and they notice what sort of books are borrowed. People ask them about books and they tend to remember the more unusual ones."
"I don't doubt they remember you," I interjected as he paused to collect his thoughts. He ignored my comment.
"I looked in at libraries in Wooler, Alnwick and Berwick," he went on, "and I spoke to one assistant who remembered the Trevelyan sisters well. It was the elder who made most use of the library on a regular basis. She was particularly interested in that area of the occult pertaining to what are often derisively termed 'the little people', most especially fairies, elves, pixies, hobgoblins and the like."
Things started to fall into place in my mind with that thud of finality exhibited by the operation of old-fashioned railway signal box levers.
"Of course," said Hugo, "the study of people's belief in such beings is a significant sub-division of my own subject so tracking down the next clue was perhaps easier for me than it might have been for someone like you for instance, unless like Conan Doyle you'd been inveigled into giving credence to the existence of such creatures yourself. Anyhow I discovered that the elder sister was a regular attendee at the meetings of a local society of like-minded enthusiasts. I located one of them and talked to him.
"I learned that Miss Trevelyan the elder was generous with her financial support for the club and, much more significantly, made no secret of her resolve to sell her house so that she could move into a somewhat smaller property closer to Alnwick, and to donate any surplus from the sale to a national organisation dedicated to the study of the faery realm.
"Whilst in the library I'd also asked what the younger sister was interested in and again the answer was most revealing. Her passion was the theatre and from time to time she ordered sets of drama texts from the library for use by a local theatre company. I asked if she knew which it was. She replied that of course she did as that was something that had to be recorded. It was The Cheviot Thespians. I won't bore you with a blow by blow account of my investigation of the theatre group, but there was a member of the company who was at great pains to deny that she was in any way a gossip and so of course was exactly that and from her I learnt that Miss Selena Trevelyan, the younger of the two sisters, had recently become increasingly chummy with the company's props man. And as my informant confided to me, 'he can make anything, he can', I surmise that he will have been responsible for the making of the toadstool and its furnishings. That's how matters stand at the moment but I think it is already evident that some action needs to be taken urgently and I am hoping Sebastian can precipitate it."
Hardly had Hugo rung off than the phone went once more. This time it was the porter.
"The police have come for you again Dr Dunkley," he announced with some relish and then, clearly turning towards someone at his end, "No, wait, you can't just ...", but evidently they had. He returned his attention to me.
"Sorry sir, they're on their way up."
"No need to worry Harry," I assured him.
A few minutes later there was a brief rap on the door and it opened immediately to reveal Sebastian and a uniformed policeman.
"Sorry to burst in but we're in a hurry. I'd be obliged if you'd come along with us," he said with just a suggestion of a grin to indicate he was enjoying his self-parody of the plod.
"Where to?" I asked.
"Northumberland."
"But I ..."
"You won't need anything," he assured me, "but time presses. You should get back tonight."
So I went. I got my wish of another trip in a police car, though it was rather more than I'd bargained for - three and a half hours of it. That meant we averaged ninety miles an hour and so on the easier stretches of the great north road we must have reached considerably more as it was inevitably slower both threading our way out of the East End to start with and in the far north on the still single carriageway stretches of the A1 north of Newcastle. The driver was no doubt very good but frightening was the word that came most readily to mind, and for much of the way as well as the flashing light she had the siren on. Sebastian fell asleep as soon as we were out of London. The driver caught my eye in the mirror. She had nice eyes but I'd have preferred her to keep them on the road even so.
"He conducted a dawn swoop this morning," she confided quietly, smiling. I reflected that her words could be interpreted in more ways than one if your mind was inclined to scent ambiguities and I felt a mild envy of Sebastian. I wasn't able to sleep, feeling that almost every minute might be my last and that I wouldn't want to miss it, even though everyone says when it's time to go it's best to go in your sleep!
There was a brief stop at a vestigial service area south of Morpeth to rendezvous with officers of the Northumbrian authority and then we were off once more, now following the Northumbrian cars. Sebastian was awake.
"We're going straight to Scatterdene House," he said. "All I'd like you to do is observe and let me know if you see anything different from the last time you were there. Don't get in our way or touch anything please. I know that's self-evident to most people of any intelligence but there's always the odd one, like Hugo, who finds it difficult to hang back, so I have to say it nevertheless."
"Of course," I replied. Truth to tell I was surprised to be included as I doubted I'd have anything to contribute. I said as much to Sebastian.
"I'd much rather not be here myself," he replied, "and my northern colleagues aren't very happy about my presence either."
"So why are you here?"
"It's entirely due to Hugo of course. He's so persuasive when talking to you and then as soon as he's gone you realise what he's been saying is ridiculously tenuous. So my opposite number up here contacted me for my opinion, Hugo having studiously dropped my name."
"And you reassured them?"
"Did I heck! I tried, but nothing would content them but I should embroil myself too."
"I see," I said, "so if it turns out to be a mare's nest and the peace of England is riven by the sound of laughing policemen, it'll be you, the big man from London they'll be laughing at."
He eyed me grimly.
"You have an unpleasant talent for making things sound worse than I'd realised they were."
It was my turn to sigh.
"It's Hugo," I returned. "When my thoughts turn in his direction, which is as seldom as I can contrive, they are liable to turn dark and bitter."
"There you go again," he remarked. "Dark and bitter used to be my favourite real ale taste. Now you've spoiled it." Unexpectedly he grinned. "Perhaps that's the real reason I brought you along; as a companion in misery." He relapsed into silence until we arrived.
We pulled up in the lane either side of the gap where the path led into the forest, completely blocking the road in both directions, presumably deliberately. Everyone piled out except the drivers and we set off along the path. Hugo had been in one of the other cars but now joined me and fell into step beside me.
"Thought you'd like to be in at the death," he whispered, a choice of phraseology which seemed to me unfortunate to say the least. A detective touched his arm and put an admonitory finger to his lips. Hugo nodded. We came to the clearing. Hugo had obviously been given instructions in advance. He opened the door of the toadstool and stuck his head inside. A moment later he withdrew it.
"The bottle's gone," he mouthed silently.
Sebastian nodded and set off along the broad ride towards the back of the house. We came to a terrace. It was now growing late and artificial light glowed through French windows at one end of the house. No curtains had been drawn so we could see the interior clearly whereas we were probably hidden from inside by the gloom of the garden. The two women sat in armchairs with a low table between them, in front of a fireplace where a fire was laid but unlit, the evening being warm. In front of the younger of the two was a decanter and a glass of amber liquid. The elder had a similar glass but in place of a decanter was the bottle labelled Dreams of Faerie.
Sebastian didn't hesitate. He took two strides to cross the terrace, grasped the handle of the French windows and pulled it sharply down. The door opened without resistance and he stepped inside with us following. The sisters looked up startled. Sebastian bowed in an anachronistic gesture of courtesy – the tableau seemed to require it, like a stage production of An Inspector Calls.
"Please don't be alarmed ladies, and do forgive our intrusion. We are pursuing enquiries and the matter is urgent."
"Who are you?" demanded the elder sister.
Sinclair held out his warrant card for her inspection.
"Superintendent Sinclair," he replied, adding as though acting out his role, and with some disregard for strict accuracy, "of Scotland Yard."
"And the nature of those enquiries?"
Sinclair stepped closer to the table, as he did so pulling on gloves. He leaned forward and picked up the glass of the elder Miss Trevelyan in one hand and the bottle of Dreams of Faerie with the other. He sniffed the glass.
"This," he replied. He half turned.
"Charlton," he said. A youngish uniformed constable stepped forward, also donning gloves.
"Secure these," he commanded, "and don't spill any."
"Sir," replied the constable, although his expression expressed confusion as to exactly how he was to comply.
Sebastian readdressed Miss Ariadne: "I'll give you a receipt of course but, if what we suspect is true, I doubt whether we will be able to return the items."
"And just what precisely do you suspect," she asked icily.
"We believe that the bottle and the glass contain brandy laced with a lethal dose of heroin."
"Preposterous," she answered but her eyes were on the younger sister, as were mine. Selena seemed to react hardly at all although I fancied I did detect a slight rigidity of countenance.
"Of course," went on Ariadne Trevelyan thoughtfully, "we know so little about elves or fairies." She faced Sinclair once more.
"I found the bottle in an elf-house in the woods," she informed him. "I was surprised by the size of the house, but I have been misled no doubt by popular misconceptions about what ignorant people derisively call 'the little people'. Prof Tolkien had a much more accurate perception of them than most although he chose to pass his research off as fiction. It is quite believable that a concoction that is deadly to mortals would have a very different effect on immortals, as elves and fairies are, or seemingly so to creatures of such miserably short-lived lives as ourselves. If you are right that this magical beverage would have proved inimical to me then you will deserve and indeed receive my thanks for preventing its consumption, although I think you could have achieved that end with less drama and a more economical use of police manpower."
Sinclair had listened with commendable patience to this peroration and I noticed that one of his officers was recording it in a note book, presumably in shorthand unless he had a magic pen!
"I'm sorry madam," answered Sinclair politely, "but it isn't quite as simple as that."
I gave him full marks for calling her madam rather than 'You barmy old bat', and immediately mentally chastised myself for indulging in so uncharitable a description.
"Forensic examination of the toadstool has shown it not to be genuine but to be a construct of wood, canvas and paint." I felt sure the wording 'forensic examination' was pure persiflage on Sinclair's part. We'd broken a piece off the magic mushroom and just looking at it could see how it had been fabricated.
"I'm afraid someone has imposed on you," he went on. "Not everyone is as respectful of unorthodox beliefs as I am." He looked rather pointedly at Selena Trevelyan. Whether it was this or whether she just realised that events called for a readjustment of her plans, she now turned to her sister.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I appreciate you didn't want this to be generally known, but I'm sure we can trust to Mr Sinclair's discretion and unless we tell him the truth he may come to some highly prejudicial conclusion." She turned towards him. "My sister uses morphine taken in brandy as a sedative, just as the Victorians used opium in brandy – they called it laudanum. It's rather old-fashioned I know and I suppose it may technically be a bit illegal, but there's no harm in it. Coleridge used it you know, wrote some of his poetry under its influence. You may have heard of Kublai Khan," she added in a condescending tone, underlying which I nevertheless sensed a note of anxiety. She refaced her sister.
"I'd better tell all," she went on apologetically, "before this nonsense gets out of hand." She switched her attention back to Sinclair, very much the amateur actress now, playing to her audience. "If you look in the wine cellar inspector you'll find a box full of bottles like the one you've appropriated, but empty. This has been going on for quite a while."
"Selena!" Ariadne Trevelyan sounded outraged.
"Sorry Aria, but this is all getting a bit heavy. We don't want to be accused of wasting police time. Best to be as helpful as possible even though it is all very irritating."
Sinclair nodded to the sergeant who left the room, beckoning a constable after him. They returned quite quickly carrying a cardboard box, just as Selena had said, filled with bottles like the Dreams of Faerie except these had no labels on. Sebastian picked one out with his gloved hand and, removing the stopper, gingerly sniffed it before passing it to me with an expression that implied I should do the same.
"Smells like the mixture in the bottle from the toadstool," I said. "Of course it may not be the same strength; can't expect to estimate just by sniffing." He nodded. Clearly we'd both had the same thought: if it were the same concentration of heroin and she really had drunk the stuff, even in very small amounts, she wouldn't be calmly sitting in her armchair now.
"You see," said Selena, "this has been going on for a while and if that latest bottle really is a dangerous strength it must be the fault of the supplier. It is a good job you somehow found out." It was an audacious attempt to maintain the fiction of her own non-involvement.
Just then another sergeant, one from the Northumbrian constabulary, came in through the French windows and signalled to Sinclair. They conferred outside for a moment. When Sebastian returned there appeared to be the hint of a smile on his face. He regarded the younger sister reflectively.
"That was a clever little reminder of the mythology surrounding the creation of Kublai Khan to which you treated us earlier," he began. "If I were to continue the conceit I might cast Sergeant Shiel in the role of the man from Porlock who interrupted Coleridge's recall of his vision causing him to leave the poem forever unfinished. In this case it is your little fantasy he has interrupted and I'd recommend you emulate the poet and forget all about what you were going to say. You see, we've arrested your accomplice. He doesn't have quite your flair for lying."
I learned later Sinclair had removed the police cars blocking the lane and instead had concealed three men to keep an eye on the toadstool. They'd seen the props man from the Cheviot Thespians theatre group drive up in his truck and prepare to dismantle and cart away the fake fly agaric. He'd admitted that as soon as Selena Trevelyan knew that her sister had found the monstrous fungus and taken away the bottle of Dreams of Faerie, she'd phoned him to let him know it was time to remove the prop. They wanted to leave no evidence of the charade they'd played to deceive her sister and so leave only the bottles in the cellar to suggest the tragic accident suffered by Ariadne.
The face of the elder Miss Trevelyan which had assumed a stony aspect during Selena's  mendacious disclosure of Ariadne's alleged laudanum addiction remained unmoved even by these latest revelations.
"I must ask you to accompany me to the station to continue this interview," Sinclair said to Selena.
At last Ariadne Trevelyan broke her silence.
"You don't have to go," she said to her sister, "unless they are arresting you."
"I am quite prepared to do that," Sinclair assured them. "Indeed I suspect it will come to that and if it does you will of course be cautioned and will be entitled to representation."
"I shall arrange for our solicitor to be present at any further interview, regardless of whether you are arrested," Ariadne assured her sister.
That really was the end of our involvement in the case until it went to trial and Selena Trevelyan was found guilty of attempted murder. Both Hugo and I were of course summoned as witnesses for the prosecution, as was her accomplice who turned Queen's Evidence in return for partial immunity. Evidence was adduced that Selena was her sister's sole heir.  Ariadne Trevelyan refused to testify against her sister but the Crown Prosecutor decided, rightly as it turned out, that the case was strong enough without her evidence and made no effort to compel her to give it. She was nevertheless present and seemingly unmoved throughout, and continues to this day, I have heard, to seek grounds for her sister to appeal although that seems a hopeless endeavour.
Some considerable time later I was again driving through Northumberland and met Hugo for a bar lunch at The Hairy Lemon in Alnwick's Narrowgate. We fell to discussing The Enigma of the Speeding Toadstool.
"It was an imaginative crime," I opined. "Pity it had such a banal and sordid motive."
Hugo looked unusually pensive.
"And such a waste of talent," he replied. "In all senses of the noun," he added grinning. It seemed clear to me that he had been pondering the prolonged sentence of incarceration visited on the younger sister but it turned out that was only part of his regret.
"If only Miss Ariadne Trevelyan applied her financial and mental resources to more worthwhile enterprises than fairies and the vain defence of her obviously guilty sister she could make a considerable contribution to the world."
"I daresay you are right," I commented, "but the viability of civilised society depends on its plurality and it's as well to remember that the freedom to espouse apparently madcap beliefs and the pursuit of seemingly lost causes do on occasion reap unexpected benefits without which we should all be the poorer."
Hugo smiled.
"I see you are a doctor of not just natural philosophy but of social philosophy too."
"Heaven forfend!" I shuddered theatrically as I deliberately uttered the archaism.


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