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I hope you enjoy it.
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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."
"I see you are a doctor of not just natural philosophy but of social
"Heaven forfend!" I shuddered theatrically as I deliberately uttered