Santa in need of a drink
“Of course it was easy to guess that you want to be a novelist,” she continued. “All that writing in your notebook, the question you asked. It’s clear that you hope to write mystery stories.”
“On that, my dear Miss Miller, you are entirely incorrect,” said Jack triumphantly. “I have neither the talent nor the inclination.”
“Oh,” said Agatha, disappointed by this reply. “I was so certain. Then might I ask why you were so intent on taking notes about criminal behaviour?”
“What most interests me is how you knew that my Uncle Edward liked me the most,” said Jack, ignoring her question. “I could have fallen off my seat when you said it. How could you possibly have known such a thing?”
“I was right then?”
“Well I must admit that it was an outrageous piece of guesswork. Your satchel, you see, is quite old. Probably something an older male relative has passed down to you. Could it have been your father’s? No, because your surname is Stapleton, while the initials branded into the lapel offer the letters EH. It’s possible that it belonged to your maternal grandfather, of course, but I decided that an uncle was more appropriate and it’s such a fine piece that it could only have been given to the child he loved the most. The “E” therefore was your uncle’s first name. The most common male name beginning with that letter is Edward. So there we are.”
Jack shook his head. “Ingenious, Miss Miller,” he said, the crowd from all sides descending on them as they got closer to the doors, pushing them against each other in a not entirely unpleasant way. “You could give Sir Arthur a run for his money should you set your mind to writing mysteries. I applaud you.’
“Thank you,” said Agatha, delighted by her triumph. “Oh, but there was one other thing I said. That you receive a lot of personal correspondence. Was I correct?”
“If I receive a letter a week I’m surprised,” said Jack. “I’m afraid you missed out on that one too.”
“Oh, how disappointing!”
“Why did you think so anyway?”
“When you opened your satchel,” explained Agatha, “I saw a long dagger-like implement in there. I assumed you receive a lot of mail and bring the letters with you to work, along with your letter opener, to answer them there.”
“Ah, I see,” said Jack, as they pressed through the doorway into the street beyond where the carol singers were shaking their donation jars as the first flakes of snow began to fall. “A nice guess, but no. That, in fact, was not a dagger-like implement, as you put it. It was an actual dagger.”
Agatha stared at him, worrying already whether they might be separated when they emerged on to the street, for it felt as if all 500 attendees at the lecture were either before them, alongside them or pushing them from behind.
“A dagger, Mr Stapleton?” she asked. “Why on earth would you be carrying a dagger?”
“Oh come now, Miss Miller,” he replied, leaning forward. “For such an avid reader of Sir Arthur’s, surely you know that Jack Stapleton is a character in The Hound of the Baskervilles? I thought it best that I withhold my real name. I wouldn’t want to put you to the trouble of pursuing me. And as for why I am carrying a dagger, the truth is I intend to murder my landlady tonight. It’s a private matter, the result of an indiscretion on my part, but I simply can’t be lumbered with a child. Not at my age. My father would hang me out to dry if he found out. He would certainly cut me off and I’m not built to survive on a clerk’s wages alone.
“Do you know what we poor fellows earn? Why do you think I have to moonlight as a Santa Claus? There’s good money in this, let me tell you. Although, of course, it’s seasonal. No, I shall murder her, then throw the dagger in the Thames, wake up to a bright Christmas morning and a new life ahead. Anyway, it was a pleasure to meet you. Wish me well, won’t you?” He shivered in the cold. “Christ, I need a drink,” he said.
Agatha stared at him, uncertain whether or not he was teasing her, but the expression on his face told her that he was in deadly earnest. She gasped, tried to speak, couldn’t, and Mr Stapleton simply winked at her as he turned away, pressing through the crowd to the left as an arm reached forward from her right and plucked her from the throng into a pocket of free space at the side of the building.
“There you are, old girl,” said Monty, raising two arms filled with wrapped gifts. “Presents for all! No one can call me selfish this year. Sorry I was so late. I hovered outside until it was all over. Any good, was he?”
Agatha barely glanced at him, feeling light-headed as she raised herself on her toes and looked over the heads of the people, but there were Santas everywhere, each one mingling with the crowd, and it was impossible to find her Santa, and anyway Monty was shouting something incoherent in her ear now and all that she could think was why was he always late? It had been his idea to come here; couldn’t he just be reliable for once in his life?
John Boynes’ most recent novel is The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket (Doubleday)