Even from the outside, I could see that the Fern was an extravagant restaurant; light and airy, with large windows, wicker chairs and shiny tables. I peered through the snow-dusted window. Expensive-looking silverware rested on expensive napkins. The entire far wall was mirrored glass, further enhancing the spacious feeling.
I had half-expected that the British stiff upper lip and resolute calmness would mean a reasonably full restaurant. However, a sign on the door read closed until further notice.
I stopped outside. “Well, that’s that.”
Hemlock continued to the door and pulled. It was locked.
“Hemlock, it’s closed. It says so on the sign.”
“Irrelevant,” she replied as she knocked loudly on the door. She waited for a few seconds, then hammered with her palm on one of the glass panels. “Daddy! Daddy! Let me in! I won’t do it again, I promise!” She shouted.
“Hemlock! You’re making a scene,” I hissed. Passersby were indeed taking note of the two young people loitering outside an expensive, upmarket restaurant. I was certain it wouldn’t be long before Hemlock’s carrying on was reported to a constable and we found ourselves dragged by the ear to a local station to explain our behaviour. “And why are you shouting about your father?”
“Of course I’m making a scene. How else am I going to force the owner to let us in? Any moment now, whoever is hiding in there will be so embarrassed that there is a girl crying outside his establishment that he’ll come and let us in, just to save his reputation.” She hammered on the door and shouted for her fictitious father again.
A round man scuttled from the rear of the restaurant. His bald pate glistened with sweat, his thin moustache with wax. He came to a halt on the other side of the doors.
“Go away, we’re closed,” his voice was nasal and exceptionally posh-sounding. It so reminded me of my old headmaster that I took a step back. Hemlock grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to stand by her side.
“Please do let us in. We’re investigators,” Hemlock said, giving her best impression of a friendly, well-to-do young lady.
“The police have already taken the body away, the area is still out of bounds. Especially to children. Go. Away.”
“I’m awfully sorry, sir, but I’m afraid we can’t do that. Our age is really irrelevant to our investigative ability, and we have been instructed to investigate the scene of the potential crime.”
The man raised one eyebrow and sniffed. “By whom, exactly?”
Hemlock smiled, “Why, sir, our employer. The widow of the man who died in your establishment yesterday.”
“I have been instructed that it is a matter for the police. Good day.” The man turned and began walking away.
Hemlock twisted her face so she looked like she was crying and cried out, “Please, Father! Oh please let me in! It’s cold and I’m hungry!”
The portly gentleman sagged a little. He turned back to face us and reached into his pocket, pulling out a key and unlocking the door and opening one of the restaurant doors. “Be quiet, you’ll ruin my reputation. Come in. Quickly, please. If Monsieur Gerard were to find out I’d let you in…” His accent was suddenly a lot less nasal, his pretence of being posh forgotten.
Hemlock smiled and strode in to the restaurant. I was half-dragged behind her, still attached by an arm.
“He won’t, I assure you. And, thank you, Mister…?” I managed to say as I was pulled along parquet flooring.
“Clarke, Jeremiah Clarke. I’m the maître d’hôtel,” the man replied, relocking the door and scuttling behind Hemlock, dabbing his forehead with a white handkerchief.
“Right, Mr Clarke,” said Hemlock, suddenly back to her bossy self. “I assume the area is still cordoned off, awaiting some amateur from the police force to investigate?”
“Not exactly, no. Who did you say you were?”
“I didn’t. What do you mean, ‘not exactly’?”
“Well, the table is cordoned off, but the inspector said that unless they had any leads that required further investigation here, they were unlikely to return.” He sniffed again, ran his fingers over his moustache. “Most inconsiderate of the constabulary I must say. The Duke and Duchess of Cranford were to dine here this evening. This whole debacle may ruin our reputation.”
“Were he alive, I’m sure Professor Bantam would be most apologetic that his death had proved an inconvenience, Mr Clarke,” said Hemlock.
“Well – ahem – yes. It’s a tragedy of course.” I saw a small rivulet of sweat make its way down the portly man’s brow.
“Of course.” Hemlock had come to a stop, meaning I too halted. “Now, please be quiet so that I can observe.”
Jeremiah Clarke sniffed again, but was otherwise silent.
“Hemlock, what do you hope to find?”
“Answers, Eddie. Now do shut up and let a genius work her magic.”
“Uh, sorry.” Unused to being ordered around in such a manner, particularly by someone my own age, I stood next to Mr Clarke in silence, trying not to stare at how much he perspired. This is a habit I adopted early on in my relationship with Hemlock, and one that I still hold; whenever she orders me to do something, I do it and then take offence later.
In front of us was the table where the murder took place. Half-full glasses of champagne, a carafe of water. Two bowls of soup, one with a spoon locked in place by the skin that had formed around it. The other bowl had a great deal of soup splattered around it. The spoon was on the floor. In its place in the bowl were the metal arms of a pair of spectacles, sticking straight up from the pale beige stodge.
While I took all this in, Hemlock studied the scene. Her eyes roamed from chair to table, squinting then muttering to herself.
Uncomfortable with the silence, I spoke up. “Did you happen to see the strange ghost that was mentioned in the papers?”
The man scowled. He paused, as if uncertain whether or not to continue. “I heard screaming when the lights went out and of course I immediately came into the dining room.”
“What happened then?” I asked.
“I really shouldn’t…”
“No, no, I quite understand. I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble with Monsieur Gerard,” I replied.
Hemlock spoke without looking in our direction. “You saw what killed Professor Bantam. It would be most helpful if you could tell us.”
“I’m terribly sorry, but Monsieur Gerard –”
“Swore you to secrecy, yes,” Hemlock cut in. “I understand that. But, you might be able to help us find out what happened here. We won’t be telling your employer, I promise you that.”
Mr Clarke sighed. “Please don’t tell anyone, but, well… I think it must have been a trick of the shadows or similar, but it did appear that there was a strange figure, a creature that… floated through the restaurant.”
“A figure that floated? What sort of figure?” I said.
“Yes. A figure. Not a man, not a normal person. A giant, but one that drifted through the tables.” he replied.
“How did it drift and float, Mr Clarke?” said Hemlock, head tilted to one side as she inspected a table leg.
“Do not think me strange but, if pressed, I would say…”
Hemlock stopped inspecting the scene and looked straight into Mr Clarke’s piggy eyes.
“I would say, um, it had wings.”
Hemlock’s face remained neutral. “And did you see this winged figure touch Professor Bantam? Perhaps fire a pistol or stab him with a weapon?”
Mr Clarke shook his head. The quiet in the room was chilling, somehow pressurising.
“Then, what did kill Professor Bantam? The food, perhaps?” said Hemlock.
“I should think not!” Jeremiah mopped his brow and pate again.
Hemlock leaned over the table and stuck her finger in one of the bowls of soup, before putting it in her mouth.
“My God, Hemlock!” I was disgusted. “That’s been sat out for over a day! And worse, a man died in it!”
As usual, she ignored me. “Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke?”
“Indeed. Made with the finest Jerusalem Artichokes grown in Suffolk. However, madam, I must insist you refrain from tampering. The police inspector was quite specific, and Monsieur Gerard was insistent that it was to remain untouched…”
Hemlock dipped her finger in to the other bowl and then sucked on it.
“A most interesting recipe. Would you be able to furnish me with a copy?”
Mr Clarke attempted to fluff himself up, like a fat pigeon in Trafalgar Square, before replying, “I’m afraid, madam, that our recipes are secret. Monsieur Gerard would have my guts for garters were I to divulge it to any member of the general public.”
Hemlock spun on the spot and pointed her still-damp finger towards Mr Clarke. “I am not a member of the general public. I am Hemlock Jones, demystifier, employed by the widow of the man who died at this table to uncover how and why he was killed in your establishment and it is your duty, your duty, sir, to provide me with any and all assistance in unravelling this puzzle and solving the mystery for the poor bereaved woman currently waiting at home, alone, for someone to tell her what happened to her husband!”
Mr Clarke deflated. “I do understand, young lady, but I do not have the recipe.”
“What about the ingredients? You have those here I presume?”
“Excellent. To the kitchen.” She pointed in the direction of the swinging double doors at the back of the dining room. As Mr Clarke and I moved in that direction, I noticed Hemlock crouch by the table and tug a folded-up piece of card from under one table leg. She stood again, pointedly ignored my questioning look and walked swiftly after the rotund maître d’hôtel of the restaurant.
“Come on Eddie, stop dawdling,” Hemlock said as she pushed open one of the port-holed doors and stepped inside. The interior was clean and tidy. Fresh fruit and vegetables were piled on the wooden table-tops.
“Ah, Jerusalem Artichokes,” said Hemlock, pointing at a pile of small tubers on one side. “I presume you simply add some stock, cream and white wine, along with onions and garlic, in order to make the soup?”
Mr Clarke didn’t quite shrug, but to my ears the tone of his reply suggested a certain lack of familiarity with his own menu. “Indeed.”
“Are you aware of any other ingredients in the soup? Any other flavourings or similar?”
The owner of The Fern sniffed again. “Certainly not. This is a traditional restaurant, offering traditional cuisine of the highest quality. Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke soup would not be Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke soup if we were to add other, unexpected or avant-garde ingredients.”
Hemlock stared at him. Seconds passed. I could hear them ticking away on the clock on one wall of the kitchen.
“Hemlock?” I asked.
She continued to stare at Mr Clarke, then suddenly drew in a deep breath and looked at me with a smile. “Yes, Eddie. I think we’re all done here for now. Shall we?”
“Uh, we are? You don’t want to ask Mr Clarke about anything else he saw, or what the police did?” I replied. Given Hemlock proclaimed herself a demystifier, an incredible solver of any and all mysteries, I expected a more thorough examination of things. Perhaps involving magnifying glasses and such.
“If you like. Did you see anything else you could tell us about, Mr Clarke?”
He breathed in to answer.
“No? Thought not. The police came, poked around for a little while and then just carted the body away?”
Again, Mr Clarke looked set to reply.
“And there’s really nothing else you can tell us, is there.”
A clearly indignant intake of breath.
“As I suspected. Shall we leave, Eddie?” Hemlock pushed open the kitchen door and walked quickly towards the front of the restaurant.
“Excuse me, miss. Miss!” Mr Clarke scuttled after her, while I followed, my affectational cane clacking on the wooden floor in an attempt to hide my utter bewilderment at Hemlock’s behaviour beneath a confident façade.
Hemlock stopped at the door and turned to face the portly gentleman. She looked down at him with barely concealed impatience. “Yes, Mr Clarke?”
Her withering gaze had an effect all right. He stumbled over his words. “This, this is… well, it’s… highly irregular. You can’t just burst in and… burst… out?” His voice ended plaintively, lacking the sense of authority for which he was clearly aiming.
“On the contrary, that is precisely what we can and will do. Please unlock the door, Mr Clarke.”
“I am quite certain I have never met such a rude young lady in all my years!” he replied, even as he drew out the keys and turned the lock.
As the glass-and-wood door opened, Hemlock suddenly assumed the persona of an innocent young woman. She smiled sweetly and nearly, nearly kissed Mr Clarke on one sweaty cheek, but stopped short and made an appropriate kissing sound instead. “Thank you so much for your help, Mr Clarke. I do hope everything works out for your charming establishment.”
I half-expected her to curtsey. Instead, she began walking away. I tipped my hat to Mr Clarke. “I do apologise for Miss Jones. She’s rather eccentric. Thank you for your assistance, sir, and good day.”
I hurried after Hemlock, even forgetting to tap my cane on the cobbles in my haste.