Game, Set and Match - part 2

The University Book Shop short story series brings you three stories in which local writers relocate famous fictional characters to Dunedin and send them on twisted adventures. Yesterday, Prof James Moriarty came up with a plan to reclaim his former notoriety. Today, he puts that plan into action.

PART TWO

Moriarty sat down at the table. He was clean shaven, wearing a freshly ironed shirt, sports jacket, smart pants and polished lace-up brogues, and his recently cut hair was groomed with a lick of Brylcreem. The chart spread in front of him listed the regular users of the Lilliput Library, the time and date of their visit, title and author of any books they had removed, and the titles of any books they had donated to the library. That was one thing he could thank That Woman for. The arrival of the Lilliput Library had given him a welcome diversion from the monotony of his life. The recording had started the day the little library had opened for business — he had become the literary equivalent of a trainspotter. As well as the surveillance from his kitchen table, Moriarty conducted regular inventory checks, but only when he saw That Woman leaving her house. He could not risk her nosiness getting in the way of his plans.

The morning’s task was to select the first target for his deadly plan. He had to be very specific about this. Ideally the first few poisonings would go unnoticed, but then as more occurred and patterns were recognised the police would come to realise they had the work of a master on their hands. Then they would be scrambling to find further victims and the source of this scourge.  But he would be many steps ahead and able to counter their every move. He would play them, and it would be just like old times.

Moriarty looked across the road to the smart red-brick bungalow and cocked his head to the side. Hmmm. That Woman? The temptation was immense, because for some reason he found her extremely irritating. But the satisfaction of killing her would quickly be diminished by the aftermath — the inevitable sale of the house and loss of the library. That would completely thwart his plans, for he was in this for the long game. Besides which, she was too close to the distribution hub and someone could make the connection. She wasn’t worth the risk, more’s the pity.

What of Book Nerd Boy? Year 9 pupil from the local boy’s high school. Oversized uniform — optimistic room for growth on the part of his parents. Frequent visits on the walk home from school. Sometimes left empty-handed. Predominantly took science fiction, fantasy and westerns. Always returned them. He mulled the possibility for a few moments, fingers drumming on his lips, and then dismissed it. Too young this time, but potential for later when he wanted to trigger mass hysteria — nothing like threats to schools to strike fear into the community.

Purple Puffer Lady? He dismissed that idea as well. Too fit and healthy. A sudden death and the subsequent post-mortem would gather too much attention at this phase in the game. He needed someone older, someone ill. His eyes scanned down the list, skipping over those he deemed too young and robust, pausing over those in their twilight years.

Then Moriarty’s eyes alit on  one name in particular and he reached out and tapped it with excitement. This was the one. Zimmer Frame Man. Elderly, clearly unhealthy and no doubt with a myriad of complex medical conditions. Best of all though, he was a one-book-a-week man, same day, same time, as regular as clockwork. Perfect. He would plant the book just before Zimmer Frame Man arrived, removing the risk of some random borrower inadvertently selecting it. The poison could be placed towards the end of the novel, so it would be days before he was exposed, by which time no-one would make the link to the Lilliput library, even if they did suspect the death wasn’t the result of a medical event. No-one would suspect the murder weapon was a book.

But what bait to set the trap? He looked at the column recording what Zimmer Frame Man had read in the last few months. He was an avid crime fiction fan. He’d borrowed some Rankin, McDermid, as well as more vintage fiction, Agatha Christie, and most recently two Ngaio Marsh books. Was he on a series binge? There was only one way to find out. He would tempt him this week with a Marsh to test the theory, and then next week, plant the poisoned chalice.

Moriarty got up from his chair, stepped around Lestrade asleep in the puddle of sunlight on the floor, and stood before his bookshelf. There she was, Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead — so wonderfully apt. This edition had a particularly garish 1970s cover. Ah, but that would not do. His fingerprints were all over that book; he needed a clean copy. There was nothing for it, he would have pay a visit to the second-hand book shop. It was Tuesday morning, time was tight, but he could make it. He picked up his coat, hat and a pair of gloves and made for the door.

The bait was set, deposited in the Lilliput Library on his way back into the house. He sat down at the table armed with a cup of tea, binoculars and settled in to wait. He did not have to wait long. Within half an hour Zimmer Frame Man shuffled into view, taking up his usual position on the seat of his walking frame as he examined the contents of the library. After what seemed like an eternity perusing the books, the man’s hand reached in and pulled out the Marsh. Yes. Moriarty punched at the air. The game was on. His excitement was tempered by the sight of That Woman passing through her gate and conversing with Zimmer Frame Man. They chatted briefly before she placed two books in the library, farewelled the man and returned into her house. Damn busybody.

A week had passed and preparation for this moment had been an exercise in meticulous care. The poison had been dissolved into water and brushed on to pages 205 through to 209 of Ngaio Marsh’s False Scent. He knew he shouldn’t have but Moriarty couldn’t resist the beautiful synchronicity of laying poison in a book about a murder committed with poison — the deliciously named Slaypest. Carefully gloved, he crossed the road and with mounting anticipation opened the door to the library and placed the bounty inside. If he had timed it correctly, Zimmer Frame Man would be there within the hour, and his master plan would be set in motion.

Once back inside he sat at the table, ready to watch the drama unfold. He’d allowed himself the luxury of a glass of sherry, rather than the usual tea’ after all, the occasion warranted celebration. Half an hour elapsed before the figure of Zimmer Frame Man shuffled into view and slowly took up his position before the library. Moriarty leaned forward, rubbing his hands together. But at that moment the bungalow door across the road opened and That Woman descended her steps with what looked like several books tucked under her arm. Even from here he could hear her voice hailing "Mr Arthur, Mr Arthur". Moriarty snatched the binoculars and focused them in on the objects in her hands as she passed them to the clearly delighted old man. No, they couldn’t be, surely not. Moriarty rose to his feet, knocking the sherry glass flying, and watched aghast as That Woman handed over two, no, make that three Ngaio Marsh novels, looking his way and smiling as she did it.

The rage that seethed within him threatened to overwhelm all reason, but he had to keep a cool head, and he had to retrieve the tainted book. That interfering old bat had recently left her house on foot so he took the opportunity to slip out and remove the evidence of his failed endeavour. The Ngaio Marsh books could not have been coincidence. That Woman must have known something was afoot, but how? He crossed the road and opened the cabinet. As he withdrew the book he heard a voice behind him.

"Are you fond of Ngaio Marsh, Major Ayers?"

The voice was tinged with amusement, and as he turned to face her, he could swear he saw pleasure in her eyes.

"I noticed you’ve selected False Scent."

"Please, call me Tim," he said, and reached out to shake her hand.

"I don’t believe we’ve actually met."

She placed her gloved hand in his, her grip firm and assured.

"And how did you guess that I like Ms Marsh?"

"Oh, I just like to notice people’s tastes, dear, to see if I can accommodate their needs. This little library is quite the community hub, don’t you think?"

"It certainly is," he replied.

"I’m also very fond of puzzles, which I believe you are too. Particularly anagrams. Take your name, for example. Did you know that your name is an anagram of James Moriarty, the criminal mastermind. Isn’t that quite a thing?"

She coolly looked him in the eye and he had the unmistakable feeling that he might have met his match.

"That is fascinating," he said, struggling to keep his voice even.

"I had no idea."

She smiled and turned towards her house. He watched her walk away, mortified but captivated at the same time, and realised she was doubly at the advantage as he did not know her name.

"And what might I call you?" he asked after her.

She turned back.

"Marple," she said.

"Jane Marple."

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