The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is the first in the Cait Morgan mystery series, a classic whodunit series featuring the eccentric Professor Cait Morgan.
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The Corpse with the Silver Tongue: Chapter One
The chatter among the dinner guests was bubbling along nicely, when Alistair Townsend suddenly clutched at his chest, made gurgling sounds and slumped into his bowl of escargots. Reactions around the table varied: his wife told him to stop messing about, one of his guests looked surprised, one a little concerned and a couple were quite cross. All of which led me to suspect that “How to react when one’s host drops dead at the dinner table” is not tackled in any modern etiquette books.
I was the only one who leapt up, rushed to Alistair’s side, and shouted that someone should call an ambulance. Silly of me, really. Any fool could have seen that he was dead before his face hit the garlic butter. I felt I had to do something, because everyone else was glued to their seats, agreeing with Tamsin Townsend that her husband was putting on some sort of attention-seeking show for us all.
Gerard Fontainbleu was the first to pick up on my concerns, and he moved to the telephone as quickly as his bowed octogenarian legs would carry him. He barked instructions into the instrument “requesting” that action be taken. The seriousness of the situation only gradually dawned upon the rest of the group.
Admittedly, my first thought upon seeing Alistair’s rather alarming face-plant into the snails was “heart attack.” Alistair was over sixty, overweight and overindulgent. He smoked several fat cigars each day and apparently thought that exercise consisted of meandering from one bar on Nice’s famous Promenade des Anglais to another. He was the personification of “a heart attack waiting to happen.” Now, it seemed, the waiting was over.
When Alistair’s ethereally blond, twenty-eight-year-old trophy wife, Tamsin, finally realized that her husband wasn’t “messing about,” and was in fact dead, she began to act very oddly. Trust me, I’m a criminology professor, so I have a pretty good idea of what constitutes “odd” under these circumstances. Everyone acts and reacts differently to a sudden death, of course, but what she did took even me by surprisewhich takes some doing. She rushed from the table and returned moments later with a bunch of smoldering twigs in her hand, which she proceeded to waggle around her late husband’s body. To “ease the path for his departing soul,” she said. She chanted to some ancient gods with guttural names as she brushed “evil spirits” toward the open windows with the smoking twigs.
See what I mean?
Understandably, my fellow guests removed themselves, rapidly, from their seats and scuttled away from the table. Before dinner we’d all gathered on the large balcony that led off the apartment to admire the view of red-roofed Old Nice below us and the glittering Mediterranean beyond. Now the balcony offered an attractive alternative to sitting in a room with a corpse. Not a difficult choice, I suppose. Given that the only person I’d known at the table before the party was now slumped dead in his chair, I hesitated before making any suggestions about what we should do while waiting for the sadly unnecessary attendance of the paramedics. But I know from experience that at such a time someone has to take charge.
“Does anyone know if we’re supposed to call the police, too?” I thought I’d better check. I know only too well what happens in the event of an unexpected death in Britain, my old home, and in Canada, my new one. As a visitor to Nice, I wasn’t sure if we needed to make an extra call, of if the French police would automatically show up along with the ambulance.
“We will not require the police, Professor Morgan,” replied Madelaine Schiafino in her delightfully formal English. I’d gathered from the introductions over pre-dinner drinks that Madame Schiafino had been a lawyer in Cannes for decades, and that one pronounced her name “Sha-feeno.” Now over ninety, she was a frail, bent woman, but she managed to maintain a dignified air, despite the unnatural darkness of her hair.
“Please, it’s Cait.” Away from my academic life at the University of Vancouver, I don’t care much for “Professor.” It makes me feel like some crusty old has-been who decorates her office walls with diplomas and degrees. I’m not crusty; I don’t think that forty-eight is old, and I like to think that my best is yet to come. However, I do have my degrees hanging on my wallsin my defense, it’s the sort of thing that students expect.
“We will not require the police, Cait,” said Madelaine Schiafino, smiling and nodding: her dark, intelligent eyes twinkled quite cheerfully, given the morbid circumstances.
“I ’ave tell them to send the police,” announced Gerard Fontainbleu gravely as he joined us on the balcony. His weathered complexion and gnarled hands bore testament to his almost seventy years of tending the gardens that surrounded the Palais du Belle France, where we were all gathered.
Madelaine “tutted” and rolled her eyes, as Chuck Damcott snapped, “Madelaine says we don’t need the police, Gerard!” He sounded cross, impatient with the old gardener, unfairly, I thought. A tall, slim, sandy-haired American in his late forties, Chuck Damcott had been living in Nice for ten years. Our host had seated him next to me at dinner. After all, why wouldn’t an American spy novelist, now living in France, and a Welsh criminology professor, now living in Canada, get along? To be fair we hadn’t had a bad evening, until Alistair had dropped dead, of course. Chuck had been attempting to “entertain” me with stories about how the Palais du Belle France had been Gestapo headquarters for the area during the Vichy years. He’d apparently been delighted to be able to buy an apartment there, it being so well known among World War Two espionage aficionados. Odd though the topic had been, he’d been engaging and almost charming in his childlike enthusiasm. His rather acid rebuff of the aged gardener was, therefore, all the more unexpected.
By way of a reply, Gerard Fontainbleu shrugged slowly. When he spoke, it was disdainfully.
“Whatever Madame Schiafino might say, it is better to ’ave the police. Otherwise they think we do something wrong. Monsieur Townsend, he is English and he is rich. There will be an investigation.” Gerard spoke with all the authority that his presence at the Palais allowed.
“If you think so, Gerard,” was Madelaine Schiafino’s polite yet curt reply. All through drinks and dinner I had noticed the body language between these two: they didn’t like each other, and they weren’t new to the emotion.
Doctor Benigno Brunetti was the next to offer an opinion. His rich, Italian baritone made Chuck Damcott’s high register sound positively nasal. “I, too, think it is better to call the police. Alistair’s death is a shock, but we have our reputations to consider.”
Beni, as he’d jovially insisted we call him, was the head of the nearby Cimiez Museum of Roman Antiquities. Somewhere in his mid-fifties, he possessed perfect English, perfect white teeth, perfect olive skin, and probably, knowing my luck, a perfect wife. He was obviously well educated as well as charming, witty, and heart-achingly good-looking, with dark eyes that bored into your very soul. Well, they bored into mine, anyway.
“But Beni,” cooed Madelaine, “it is clear that Monsieur Townsend has suffered a heart attack. It was not unexpected. He was an unhealthy man.” Madame Schiafino was echoing my own initial thoughts, but she was doing so with all the coquettish charm that a woman in her nineties could muster. Beni Brunetti smiled graciously: I suspected he must have grown accustomed to women of all ages batting their eyelashes at him.
“What do you mean, Madelaine? Alistair was hale and hearty,” Chuck Damcott whined, as though he had suffered a personal slight. “He loved his life here in France and took an interest in everything around him. Why, he initiated the whole idea of the swimming pool just so he and Tamsin could exercise right here at the Palais without having to go to one of the local hotels.”
“Tsst! The swimming pool?.?.?.” Madelaine hissed angrily at the American.
I’d caught something earlier on about a swimming pool that was about to be dug into Gerard Fontainbleu’s beloved gardens, but the topic had been abandoned at Tamsin Townsend’s request. She’d said that it was too “divisive” for her birthday dinner. Frankly, I’d been surprised at the time that she’d even known that the word existed. Alistair hadn’t dropped the subject without making a final snide remark about “good things coming to those who won’t wait.”
Typical of Alistair, of course. Selfish bugger. He always had to have the last word. As I looked out again over the city beneath me and the sea beyond, I wondered whether I was even sorry that he’d died. I know they say you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but I’d never had a good word to say about Alistair when he’d been alive, so it would have been hypocritical of me to start now that he was gone. It was best to say nothing.
You see, before I’d gone off to get my master’s degree in criminal psychology, I’d worked at the London advertising agency that Alistair had owned. He’d certainly earned his industry-wide reputation as a pompous bombast who specialised in finding timid clients with huge budgetsclients who could be talked into spending more than was really needed on a campaign. Somehow, he’d also managed to coax great work out of several of the most famous creative prima-donnas in the business, so his agency didn’t just have huge billings, it also had an awe-inspiring array of creative awards from around the world. I’d worked there for a few years, but, honestly, I’d hated the man (no one says you actually have to like the person who pays your salary, do they?) and I could quite happily have lived the rest of my life without seeing his florid face ever again.
Which was why I’d been so dismayed when he’d unexpectedly accosted me as I was relaxing outside a bar in Nice’s beautiful Cours Saleya earlier that very day.
“Good heavens, it’s Cait. Cait Morgan!” He’d cried out so loudly that everyone relaxing at the bar had turned to look at us. “What brings you here? I expect you’re surprised to see me! What? What?”
Surprised? I was speechless. A condition which, for me, might last a whole second. I’d closed my eyes, hoping I was imagining the whole thing. But when I opened them again, he was still there. Beaming. Effervescing with fake bonhomie.
“Hello, Alistair.” I sighed, resigned to his unwanted presence. “How are you?”
Like I cared.
“Top hole. Top hole.”
I’d forgotten he did thattalked like some Hollywood version of an Olde English Squire.
“What brings you to our fair Cote d’Azur? Eh? Eh?” he quipped, with a wink. Ugh!
“I’ve been presenting a paper on the psychology of internet fraud to an international symposium here. I’m a criminologist now.” I must have sounded as though I was apologizingwhich was annoying, because presenting a paper at an international symposium is a Big Deal.
“How jolly nice. Jolly nice,” had been his irritatingly patronizing reply. I’d felt my shoulders hunch with annoyance and I slurped at my rosé wine, which no longer seemed refreshing but necessary.
“Will you be with us for long?” Alistair seemed to imply that my visit to Nice was all about him. Again, typical.
“I leave on Tuesday,” I said before I could stop myself.
“Ah, so you’ll have the whole weekend with us...Marvellous! Marvellous.”
Not if I can help it, I thought.
“Oh sweet, sweet Cait,” he cooed, as he insinuated his flabby body, uninvited, into the chair next to mine. “You were always one of my most valued employees, most valued,” he’d lied. “I was bereft when you departed for pastures newI could never imagine why...And then there was all that terrible trouble you had in Cambridge...Oh dear me, yes, Cambridge...”
There it was! That was why he remembered me. He couldn’t remember a thing about all the hours I’d put in for our clients, all the boring press stories I’d written, all the successful campaigns I’d managed...all the money I’d made for him. Oh no, if my face hadn’t been plastered on the front page of every British tabloid, accused of “viciously slaying” my boyfriend, he’d never have remembered me at all. Of course, I’d been completely cleared. I was never even charged. But I wondered if he remembered that, or if he only recalled the lurid mud-slinging that the journalists had seemed to think was “investigative reporting.”
He rattled on. “You simply must come to my lovely wife’s birthday party this evening. We’re at the Palais du Belle France in Cimiez. I’ll be serving my very own escargotssomething I’ve taken up since I moved here...Oh, the things I’ve taught the locals up at my little snail farm in the mountains, you wouldn’t believe it?.?.?.” I could imagine how delighted the French must have been to be told by an Englishman how to raise snails. “You’ll meet some dear friends of mine, Cait! Six for six-thirty. Don’t be late! No, no, don’t be late! Must be offgot a birthday cake to collectvery specialoh yes, very special!” Then he pushed himself out of his seat and was gone, as unexpectedly as he’d arrived.
As he was blathering on I’d been trying to think up any excuse to not go. A previous engagement? Bubonic plague? Instead, I’d folded like a cheap tent and accepted his invitation. I hit the shower at my hotel and caught a cab. That’s how I came to be on the spot when Alistair Townsend died. Given how much I’d disliked him in life, and how he’d bullied me into being there, I’ll call it ironic, because I don’t believe in Fate.
“The ambulance is here!” wailed the freshly minted widow Tamsin, as though she wasn’t the one who should tell them what had happened to her husband.
Before any of us could respond to her pathetic call, we were all taken aback by the sudden collapse of Madame Schiafino. Luckily she was standing near Beni Brunetti as she let out a little cry of surprise and grabbed at her left arm. She looked ashen as he helped her to a seat.
“Tell them to come here,” called Beni authoritatively, “Madelaine needs help now!”
Of course, this time everyone was immediately concerned, and that concern grew as Gerard Fontainbleu suddenly sat down hard and lost his color, too.
“I, also, am not very well,” the old man stated somewhat feebly.
I was wondering who’d be next to drop, and my immediate thought was “poison.” I did a quick mental review of what we’d consumed that evening. We’d all drunk champagne poured from the same bottles, we’d taken slices of sausage or nibbled olives from the same plates, we’d helped ourselves from one huge bowl of salad and one huge platter of Alistair’s escargots, and we’d ripped bread from the same loaves. If some sort of poison had already attacked three of our party, surely we would all be affected, sooner or later? I could feel panic grow in the pit of my stomachat least, I hoped that was what it was.
Clearly, Beni was working through the same mental processes as me, and his expression showed concern. As one of the paramedics attended to Madelaine, Beni’s commanding voice carried through the shimmering evening air.
“We must all be attended to, and the police must be alerted. I think we have all been poisoned.” I hated to hear my own fears spoken aloud.
“Surepoisoned,” scoffed Chuck, then he turned pale. A fearful look crossed his face almost immediately. “You know, I don’t feel too good myself,” he admitted.
By the time the police arrived Madelaine was being given oxygen, Gerard was having his blood pressure taken, Chuck was squealing with terror and trying to measure his own pulse, and Beni was shouting loudly in Italian into his mobile phone. I was beginning to wonder if I was just getting caught up in some sort of mass hysteria, or if I was really experiencing palpitations.
To top it all, Tamsin was still waggling her smoking twigs about the place and wailing something about the “Curse of the Celtic Collar,” which she seemed to be convinced had befallen our group. She was also ranting on that the “Celtic Collar” in question had been stolen. Not knowing anything about the missing item, nor believing in curses, I decided it was best to tune her out completely. I mean, her husband was dead and we’d probably all been poisonedwhere was the woman’s sense of priorities?
Luckily, one of the policemen spoke English: he immediately told Tamsin to extinguish her sticks and he quietened Chuck with some sharp words about “disturbing the peace.” He ensured that the paramedics attended to us all before we were whisked away to the hospital for a battery of tests that left me feeling like I’d had a run-in with a particularly bad-tempered porcupine.
For hours I was told to restez-vous on an incredibly uncomfortable hospital gurney, endured being poked with syringes, and had innumerable little sticky patches attached to various parts of my anatomy, only to have them unceremoniously ripped off again without their seeming to have served any purpose.
I finally found myself being pushed by two giggling nurses into a corridor, where I was then completely abandoned, still hooked up to a drip that was feeding clear fluid into me and a monitor that had the most annoying habit of buzzing every few seconds. To be honest, I felt fine. Well, okay, I felt very annoyed and quite frustrated, but fine.