The mid-morning crew shift aboard the Britannia had turned the hallways into a hum of activity. While Moira Wycliffe and Adonia Salgado were busy with their interview, Lieutenant Greg Mason navigated between sailors either heading to, or coming from, their duty shift. The first officer ignored the first three doors he came across, and stopped in front of the fourth. A plain undecorated door, entirely unremarkable save for the brass plate affixed to the wall next to it. The plate read, “Purser’s Office” in bold, etched letters. The first officer fished about in his uniform pockets for a moment.
Dr. Thomas Hunter walked down the busy hallway to join Lieutenant Mason. “Locked?” the doctor asked.
The first officer nodded. “This time of day, most certainly.” He retrieved his keys from an inner pocket. “Ah, here.”
Dr. Hunter watched thoughtfully. “I trust the safe is secure? After all, I would think the Purser’s office would be a likely first choice to rummage for something valuable.”
Lieutenant Mason selected a key then unlocked the door. “Indeed, you would be right. Which is why there are certain precautions aboard the Britannia that few other airships enjoy.”
“I see. Intriguing. Lead on then, sir.”
Beyond the door, the purser’s office was a spartan affair with only a few furnishings. A narrow room, only a few feet across, it was fortunate to have a single porthole to the outside. A rare advantage in such a small space. Beneath the porthole was a small wooden table, on which sat a wooden box two foot across with brass trim. Its lid was open to show the brass keys and “S” shaped turn crank of an airship’s opti-telegraphic device.
A single wooden desk and chair sat to the left of the door, beneath a modest painting of the English countryside. Papers were stacked neatly on the desk, arranged in one of two trays marked “processed” or “inbound”. On the other side of the room hung a second painting over a set of four filing cabinets, for any records maintained by the purser. The cabinets were set slightly away from the wall but were secured to the deck to prevent them from sliding. The room was rather orderly and well kept for a ship’s office.
In fact, the most remarkable feature of the room was the pair of bodies that lay on the wooden floor. One figure was dressed in a Britannia uniform, another in an ominous black frock coat, suit and cloak.
The first officer reached the bodies first. “What the devil? This is Officer Standil, our purser. This other fellow, I don’t know.”
Dr. Hunter quickly knelt down next to the first officer. Carefully, he checked for a pulse on both men. He let out a small sigh, though his expression was still grave. “They’re alive, but only just.” Briskly, he took stock of each victim, the purser being first. “His breathing is labored, and eyes unfocused. Some bruises, which seem to match smartly to the skinned knuckles on his black-garbed companion.”
“I’ll send for the ship’s doctor,” Mason explained quickly.
The doctor frowned at a bit of blue-gray dust on the man’s fingers, then at a faded wet stain on the sailor’s sleeve. “Quick, before you do, search the desk. Is there a cup of tea on the floor? Perhaps a small bag or tin of what look to be dried blueberries somewhere close at hand?”
Mason bolted for the desk. In moments, he found both items. A small tin lay inside a thin drawer, while a porcelain cup and saucer lay under the chair, its contents spilled on the deck. “Both, actually. A cup and a tin.”
“Throw me the tin,” Doctor Hunter ordered. Lieutenant Mason tossed the tin, then raced for the office door. The doctor snatched the small aluminum container out of the air.
Mason grabbed the first crewman by the arm that walked past the door. “You there! Fetch the doctor! Step lively! We have a medical emergency here!”
“Yes sir!” The sailor raced off down the corridor.
Meanwhile, Thomas Hunter popped open the lid to the container. Inside was a collection of dried berries; some had been already ground to a fine powder. Their dark dust was a thin blue-gray layer in the bottom of the tin. Doctor Hunter sniffed experimentally at the powder, then snapped the tin shut.
He looked down at the afflicted crewman, feeling his forehead; the man’s temperature was still high. Gently, the doctor turned the man’s head so he could see where most of the damage had been done. A dark bruise marred the purser’s forehead; cuts along the man’s face were consistent with a man who had been severely beaten. Doctor Hunter quickly looked at the man in black with the large welt on his cheekbone. The doctor’s eyes immediately swept the room, then settled on the filing cabinets that sat against the wall. At least they seemed to sit against the wall.
The first officer returned from the hallway. “I’ve sent for the doctor, is there anything you can do for them now?”
“Yes, indeed I can.” Doctor Hunter quickly shed his coat and tossed it over the head of the man in black on the floor! Immediately, the man sat bolt upright and yanked aside the coat, only to meet Doctor Hunter’s fist aimed at the man’s mouth. Thomas Hunter was rewarded by a howl of pain from the man beneath the coat. “Stop his accomplice!”
“Where?” Mason practically shouted in alarm.
In answer, a second man dressed in a dark long coat burst into view from behind the filing cabinets! He raced for the door, but in his haste snagged his coat on the edge of a drawer. The man stumbled forward, quickly trying to free himself.
The first officer frantically searched around for anything to use as a weapon. Thinking quickly, the doctor tossed the tin of berries to the lieutenant. “Use these!”
Mason caught the tin from reflex. He stared in disbelief at the container’s contents, then at the doctor. “These? How?”
“Bloody hell if I know! Be inventive, man!” The doctor snapped before blocking a sound kick aimed at his head. In response, Thomas hammered a strong right fist across his assailant’s already sore mouth. The force of the blow flung the man backwards against the wooden floor.
Across the room, Mason glanced at the tin in his hands, then at the man snagged on the filing cabinet. While the first officer hesitated, the man shed his coat, then bolted for the door in a mad run.
On impulse, the first officer flung the contents of the container at the man’s face. A cloud of blue-gray dust stung eyes and filled the running man’s nose and lungs! He yelled from as much surprise as pain. Unable to see, he stumbled sideways at the same instant Lieutenant Mason flung himself at the man. The pair slammed into the doorframe, the man in black trying in vain to fend off Mason’s flurry of blows.
In seconds, it was over. The first officer stood guard over his semi-conscious opponent. Nearby, Doctor Hunter worried over the Britannia’s purser. Next to them, the doctor’s attacker lay curled in a tight ball, his hands clutching his nose to staunch a slow stream of blood. The man moaned in pain.
“Best check the safe,” Mason announced. He quickly crossed the room and stopped to the right of the painting behind the purser’s desk. Choosing a slightly discolored section of wall next to the lower right corner of the painting, Mason depressed the panel. He was rewarded with a click, and the panel swung free; behind it was a brass combination dial and a lever. The first officer tugged at the lever experimentally. It was locked. Mason let out a small sigh of relief.
“Good, everything’s still secure.”
Doctor Hunter was checking the purser’s pulse once more when the door to the office burst open. Five sailors carrying a stretcher, followed by the Britannia’s chief doctor rushed into the room. Greg Mason closed the secret panel while Thomas briefly greeted the doctor.
“Your man’s taken an excessive amount of belladonna berries,” Doctor Hunter explained. “I suspect it was in his tea. You’ll need to prepare some calabar beans for the purser and the man Lieutenant Mason has subdued.”
The Britannia’s doctor frowned, then nodded. “I see. We’ll take it from here.”
Doctor Hunter moved away to let the newcomers do their work, then stepped outside the office. The first officer joined him a moment later. “Impressive, Doctor, and thank you. How did you know?”
Hunter raised an eyebrow at the officer. “The toxin? There were stains on his sleeve, quite fresh so therefore likely tea. Since there was none on the desk, I suspected the teacup had been turned over onto the floor. The berries were a guess, frankly. Your man has a blue stain on his fingernails. This would correspond with the a particular strain of blue belladonna dust and berries. It stains the fingers after successive use. Combined with his physical conditions, and the faint aroma from the powder, it would be consistent with poisoning due to overdose of belladonna. Some use the foul berry for medicinal purposes … when it’s taken in very small amounts. Likely, the tea was already tainted before he added his usual amount. Therefore, your man was poisoned. This would have happened before he was beaten. I suspect his guests arrived after the tea had begun to work.”
Mason blinked. “Thank you, but I meant the two men. How did you know about the second man?”
Thomas Hunter watched the four sailors ease past them with the purser on the stretcher. The Britannia’s doctor followed a moment later. Hunter waved a hand at the question. “Oh that. A bit of deduction with an educated guess. The purser was most certainly beaten, yet he showed no signs of having fought back. For example, look to your own hands, sir.”
The first officer looked down at his own hands, they were raw and marked from the fistfight a moment ago. He understood immediately. “I see. Therefore, he never fought back. He wasn’t able to.”
Doctor Hunter nodded. “Correct. This indicated the man on the floor was waiting for us to let our guard down. I suspected there was a second man waiting to assist the first.”
The first officer rubbed his sore knuckles. “Amazing deduction. Here I was lead to understand you merely ran a clinic in London.”
Doctor Hunter smiled. “Indeed I do. However, I do occasionally find myself as a private consulting detective. Something of a hobby, I suppose.” He paused thoughtfully. “Four,” he said.
“What?” The lieutenant looked completely perplexed at the abrupt change of conversation.
“Four men left with your doctor! Five arrived with him! I should’ve seen this! It’s all been a ruse to expose your hidden safe!” Doctor Hunter rushed back into the purser’s office with Greg Mason a step behind him.