“The game is afoot.”
― Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It was a bright and tranquil evening and the sun was slowly sinking behind the rolling Cornish hills. Chycoose Manor was slowly being enveloped by creeping shadows off the trees to its rear. The stout front doors stood slightly ajar as jazz music drifted out into the early dusk. Outside, a sickly-looking man of around thirty-five in rumpled Oxford bags and a pair of black-rimmed spectacles steadied himself against the winding stone bannister. He puffed enthusiastically, almost medicinally, on a crumpled Woodbine. After a deep drag, he tipped his head back and exhaled with a satisfied sigh.
From the welcomingly warm interior came a cadaverous old man dressed in black. He stealthily walked up behind the unsteady character with his gloved hands outstretched. Resting one of his trembling paws gently upon the man’s shoulder, he asked, “Feeling better now sir?” in a formal manner that betrayed a slight American twang. The old fellow gestured towards a large puddle of pink vomit that trickled down the old stone gutter. The sickly-sweet smell of regurgitated strawberries, cream and champagne drifted on the breeze.
“Yes, thank you, Simpkins. I’m much better now.” The man’s voice sounded like gravel due to his acid-ravaged larynx. “Spiffing party, what?” he continued, suddenly brightening.
Simpkins, the long-suffering butler, merely grunted and purred “indeed sir,” then shuffled back indoors. The slender gentleman’s gentleman muttered oaths quietly under his breath as he tramped back inside, leaving the drunken man swaying and grinning inanely.
As the shadows lengthened and shrouded the entrance to a weed-choked drain, a large shiny black beetle emerged and seemed to regard the man with some degree of curiosity. After a moment, it clacked its mighty mandibles in contempt at the foolish creature on the steps then scuttled back into its cosy hole.
A long, curved gravel driveway led away from the door towards the only road that passed the stately pile. In the distance a motley collection of kitchen staff, cleaners and maids could be seen crunching their way wearily towards the road and the village beyond. They were all thankful that their hellish day was finally over. Each one of them muttered a silent prayer that they didn’t have to stick around for the remainder of the party. They all knew their employer well enough to know that come midnight the revels would be loud, drunken and debauched. In fact, everyone within a fifteen-mile radius knew about the owner and his spiffing parties.
Chycoose Manor in north Cornwall had been the family seat of the Lexington-Browns for generations. It sat nestled betwixt rolling hills and an ancient stretch of woodland, alone and isolated. The nearest village was three miles down the road, so the master of the house didn’t have to worry about disturbing anyone when he was raising hell.
Tonight, a party was in full swing in celebration of the current master of the house’s fortieth birthday. Rumour had it amongst the staff that Bertie Lexington-Brown had something big planned for the evening. He had a reputation for really pushing the boat out at events like this. This only meant one thing for certain… that there would be a whole load of cleaning to be done on the morrow and a whole load of sore heads and upset stomachs.
A jazz quartet comprised of Bertie’s closest school chums, Bongo, Stevens, Charlie-boy and Rufus, had set up in one corner of the cavernous and lavishly furnished main hall. Chycoose Manor was a sprawling sixteenth-century pile and its décor matched its antiquity. The walls were painted in deep reds and golds and the hard-wood floors outfitted with decorative rugs. The band was on rare form and in full swing, belting out the Charleston with gusto.
Two smartly turned-out gentlemen sat on a luxurious leather couch bookended by a pair of magnificent aspidistras. Their mouths hung agape in appreciation of the unexpected spectacle unfolding before them. The younger of the two men, a playboy and motor mechanic named David Potter, turned to his dapper companion with a broad grin on his face.
“It’s remarkable, isn’t it? The effect of the perceived anonymity of the masque, I mean… Don’t you think, old boy?” Dave’s thin pencil moustache twitched with excitement and he flashed a gap-toothed grin as they watched the temptresses formerly known as Mrs Slater, Miss Tailforth and Professor Penrose enact their decidedly lewd, topless performance of the flappers’ favourite dance, the Charleston. The heels of their t-strap shoes were clacking and clopping like hooves in a wildly choreographed dressage contest.
“Remarkable! Yes… Uh, that’s one word for it, old chap,” his stout companion, the redoubtable Doctor Sullivan replied, nearly choking on his cognac.
Mere moments before the outbreak of this titillating display, the three usually demure ladies had been dancing, fully clothed and self-conscious. This changed in a heartbeat, almost exactly as the old grandfather clock struck eight. The evening’s proceedings had shifted towards the risqué when the youngest of the group, party girl and socialite Virginia Tailforth, discovered a pile of masquerade masks lying on the mini-bar. There was an impromptu rugby scrum of whispering and childish giggling before the three scurried into the adjacent library and closed the door.
After a short period of furtive activity, the ladies reappeared unencumbered by dresses, brassieres and inhibitions. All three tipsy ladies seemed to be labouring under the mistaken assumption that they were now completely incognito. Each was clad in identical peacock feather headbands, black feather boas and bejewelled masque. None of the inebriated dancers could seemingly fathom that it didn’t take Hercule Poirot to work out who was who, surrounded as they were by partners and long-time friends.
“This is very interesting from a psychological perspective,” Dr Sullivan told his leering companion, as his ruddy cheeks and walrus moustache fluttered with excitement. “It must be some subconscious effect of having the face hidden. Like a child who covers its face and thinks you can’t see them because they can’t see you. From this display, it makes one wonder what a man without a face would get up to… mischief I’d wager.”
“Cut the psycho-babble doc,” Potter grinned. “Just check out the, err… tan-lines on the prof!”
“Oi! That’s my fiancée you are talking about, you rotten cad!” Sullivan bellowed, puffing out his tweed encased chest in mock outrage that quickly morphed into a wolfish and smugly satisfied grin.
“I know,” Potter chortled. “You lucky old devil!”
“No luck needed dear boy,” Sullivan said proudly. “What woman could resist my animal charm?” Sullivan gave a small guffaw of self-mockery and flexed his pudgy biceps. “Talking of being a lucky devil. How goes it with the divine Miss Tailforth?”
“Oh, you know,” Potter sighed. “Hot and cold.” He paused for a second. “Well, from a volcanic eruption to Arctic winds, to be more precise. The damn woman is as changeable as a politician’s promises. One minute she’s all over me like a rash and the next…” Potter shrugged and took a hearty gulp of brandy. The mechanic was far more at home in a pair of oil-streaked overalls than the sports coat he currently wore, but even Sullivan would have to concede that the young rascal scrubbed up well.
“Ah, well… not to worry, old chap.” Sullivan patted Potter on the knee roughly. “Women are fickle creatures, she’ll come around eventually. And… look at it this way, most men would kill to just be in the same room as such a beauty, never mind having her all over them, as you say, like a rash!’”
The grin reappeared on Mr Potter’s face. “That’s true enough,” he said with a nudge and a wink. His mood continued to brighten as he watched her lithe form prance and caper.
“So, what’s your professional opinion of the shy and retiring Mrs Slater over there shaking her bits and bobs?” the doctor asked his motor enthusiast friend, breaking his rapt concentration.
“Not bad at all, I must admit,” Potter mused. “A few miles on the clock, certainly, but not yet completely clapped out. I think we are lucky that she’s only had one careful owner, what?” Both men erupted into fits of hysterical laughter at Potter’s quip.
“Oops! Watch it…” Potter barked suddenly. “Here comes Stan.”
Stanley Slater came in from the night air and began to weave his way across the room towards Sullivan and Potter. He had found a straw-boater somewhere on his drunken meanderings and had perched it on his neatly trimmed, short back and sides, at a jaunty angle. His pinched cheeks and sensible spectacles gave him the look of a vicar that had imbibed one-too-many at the summer fete.
Seemingly refreshed from his violent evacuation, Slater grabbed a high-fluted glass of champers off the bar and popped a strawberry in his mouth before taking a revitalising gulp. He waddled his way over to the two giggling men on the sofa. “What are you pair of reprobates giggling about?” he asked with a boozy grin. “Blimey!” he exclaimed as his drifting eyes fixed on the dancing girls. “Is that my bally wife?” Sullivan and Potter both grabbed a shoulder and plonked him down on the sofa with a glass in his hand before he could intervene.
Sullivan put his finger on his lips and gestured towards the girls. “Think of it as an experiment, dear boy. Those masks seem to have altered their perception somewhat.”
“Eh?” Slater scratched his head.
“That daft lot seem to think that we don’t know who is who,” Potter explained in layman’s terms. “Personally, I prefer to look at it as a demonstration of the effects of alcohol and cocaine on ladies in their prime.”
“Well, whatever you call it,” Slater summed up, “it’s dashed fine entertainment.”
As the band’s tempo increased, the hotter under the collar the trio became. This, in turn, made the dancing quicken. The three men grinned like lecherous teenagers as the Charleston neared its climax. Faster and faster, wilder and wilder it went. Then, suddenly…
A blood-curdling scream put a decisive halt to the revels.
The shaken form of Sylvia Lexington-Brown appeared on the landing in a hysterical state, wearing a look of utter horror on her rounded features.
“Come quick! … Something ghastly has happened to Bertie!”
Spiffing is available from Amazon for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here.
Find more from Tim Mendees on his Amazon page.