Fateful Choices: Part One
Inspector Alexander Collier Mysteries will often provide a choice for the reader. If you want to obtain a deeper understanding or a ‘feel’ for the period follow the embedded links (high-lighted blue and underlined) found in the text of the story.
A Short-Story of Fiction by B. B. Wright
The English south coastal resort of Bournemouth in 1939 had a population of 130,000. The natural beauty of its cliffs and the wide sweep of its bay embraced a magic carpet of sand while the Bourne stream—fringed with parkland and public gardens—stretched into the heart of the coastal community. Bournemouth’s outstanding characteristic and attraction was its breadth of view and openness.
Perhaps that’s why psychic, medium, spiritualist, mental healer, psycho-analyst, folklorist, Mary Elizabeth Stoddard (a.k.a. ‘Queenie’) and her husband, Lawrence Stoddard who was said to be a ‘powerful deep-trance medium,’ arrived there in 1934 to set up residence. But, then again, maybe that wasn’t the only reason they moved from Gloucester to this tourist location. Within the first six months of setting up shop, so-to-speak, their business had surpassed their wildest expectations.
In April 1939 the local pub was abuzz with the mysterious fire and capsizing of the S.S. Paris (the largest liner under the French flag at that time) and the expected war with Hitler’s Germany.
The bartender, Jock Mahoney, reached under the bar and slapped March’s Bournemouth Echo with the banner headline face up on the bar’s surface and pointed his pudgy finger at it: Spiritualist Prophesies Sinking Of S. S. Paris. “Last month’s paper boys! Read and weep! Told you blokes she’s the real deal. Kept this to rub your faces in it.”
“Nothing more than a lucky guess Jock,” chortled Quentin Hogg from the far end of the bar.
“Then how she’d know it was goin’ to be a fire that sunk the Paris in the port of Le Havre? Tell me that ‘Hogg-face?’” retorted Mahoney. “And, unless the rest of you soused heads missed the obvious, how she’d know it would be the Paris?”
Joseph Phillip Morris, who was often called ‘Philly’ by pub regulars, had just purloined a whiskey chaser to accompany his pint of ale from the inebriated person beside him when he leaned in to the conversation: “Maybe tha’ focken bitch,” he hiccuped, “is a spy for tha’ Hitler fella.”
The conversation stopped dead as everyone turned to look at him.
“Hey, Philly?!” Quentin Hogg called out.
Joseph took a draw from his cigarette and purged the smoke through his nostrils before he straightened to a wavering position to focus his attention at the far end of the bar. “Wha’ canna I do fa’ ya Hogg?” Unsteadily, he used the cigarette in his mouth to light up another. For a moment he stared at his deeply stained nicotine fingers holding the used cigarette until Mahoney slid an ashtray under his nose and he quickly butted the cigarette out before it burnt him.
To most of the people there, Joseph ‘Philly’ Morris was a loser. The clientele of this pub he frequented had come to know that and, as a result, could barely tolerate him. A chain smoker and alcoholic, he had an ego bigger than he should ever have dared to have.
With a Cheshire cat-like smile, Quentin winked mischievously at those who could see him at the bar and nudged the person beside him with his elbow. “What’s that secret formula you use… you know… the one for picking football winners?”
A quiet chuckle rippled among the patrons listening in.
“What’s that got to do with the sinking of the Paris?” bellowed Mahoney, perturbed by Quentin’s hijacking of the conversation.
“Be patient, Jock. Don’t get your knickers in a twist. There’s a point or two to be made here. When done, I expect a round for everyone from you except for that scoundrel at the other end of the bar.”
Regularly, Joseph had been tolerantly allowed to interject his slurred wisps of ‘erudite wisdom’ about the home team to this well-informed and loyal pool of men of the Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic Football Club but, at the moment, he silently sat in a drunken stupor shrouded in cigarette smoke trying to figure out which man on either side of him was the scoundrel that Quentin referred to.
“Huh?” Joseph blinked a few times before Quentin came into view.
“Isn’t your secret formula ‘Queenie?’” asked Quentin.
“How da know tha’?…She’s no focken goude! “
Everyone’s eyes were now fixed on Mahoney, who slowly slid the newspaper from the top of the bar to the shelf beneath.
“Now tell me somethin’ else, Joey. Who’d ya bet on when the home team played in March?”
Joseph drew in the smoke and blew it out as he looked up at the ceiling. “Tha’ be March you said?…Hmm…Notts Co. Stupid woman…she got it wrong again.”
The two men sitting beside him slipped off their stools and moved further down the bar.
“Well, what doya think there, Jock? Have I made my points? A free pint for everyone?”
Reluctantly, the burly figure of Jock Mahoney nodded and began to service the rush to the bar.
It had not mattered that the home team had won in March because Joseph had committed the unforgivable act of betting against the home team. For all present, his revelation was particularly heinous because the game was against their arch-rival, Notts Co.
By the middle of May, Joseph had been shunned by even among the slightest of few who might have given him a pardon. The week of May 15th had been an unusually difficult time for him to find odd jobs and by the Friday of that week he had already paid out his last shilling for cigarettes and beer.
Joseph’s wiry and unkempt figure sat alone in an uncontested far corner booth of the pub. Several empty mugs cluttered his table as he slung over his last pint of frothy dark ale. Lifting his mug he toasted his imaginary companion opposite him and took a large swallow. Licking off his beer mustache, he lit up another cigarette and drew in deeply before exhaling. “You know…I’ve got me a new strategy.” He removed a piece of tobacco from the end of his tongue and took another swig of beer. “Strategy for wha’ you ask?” Why for picking football winners! Wha’ else? Not a sausage! ‘Queenie’s’ no focken good! Here’s my secret.” Sliding his half pint to one side, he bent forward and whispered his strategy to his imaginary companion.
For the first time, Joseph was just sober enough to appreciate that his alcoholic haze had made him feel untouchable by the sneering glances of the men around him. Yet, the truths those men carried about him stung deeply and had already left its imperviously permanent mark that could not be ignored. Success! That’s all he wanted to feel! To no longer feel the failure that had dogged him most of his life!
He sat back and looked at the remnants of beer in his mug and made a decision. He didn’t care that Friday would be outside his usual routine to see her. He didn’t care that she was “no focken good.” He had made up his mind to see ‘Queenie’ that evening.
Perhaps, he thought, she would get it right this time.
At 7:00 that evening, Arthur Brodley placed the Bournemouth Echo he was reading on the table beside him and got up from his armchair to get ready for his eight o’clock appointment.
He was a stout man with thinning hair and a thick, white mustache. His appearance belied a man much older than his sixty-four years. A widower, he had attended a séance every Friday evening at 8:00 o’clock at the Stoddard residence since Mary Elizabeth (a.k.a. ‘Queenie’) and her husband, Lawrence, arrived in Bournemouth five years ago.
Though Arthur Brodley had paid a hefty price on each occasion for the Stoddards’ services, he was convinced that it had been money well spent because it provided precious time with the spirit of his late wife, Nancy.