Brian Quinn

The Case of the Missing Tea Spoons

A few months ago we had a dozen. Then it went down to eight. A couple of weeks back I could only find three. Last week, there was just one.

Sorry – in my excitement I’ve left out an important detail. I’m talking about teaspoons. Our teaspoons have been disappearing. Time was there was barely enough room in the cutlery drawer for them. Not now.

Other things have been vanishing as well. The mugs used to fill two shelves of the cupboard: now they barely occupy one. Double sheets and tea towels too. All these things we used to have, if not an embarrassment of, then at least a comfortable supply. Now we’re almost down to sleeping on bare mattresses, drying up with paper towels and drinking tea and coffee out of vases or egg cups.

In such cases, the wise man summons expert advice. I made some calls and soon had four appointments. To make them feel at home, I slipped out to buy sirop de menthe, a packet of Lapsang, a seven-per-cent solution of cocaine and a bottle of Bourbon, none of these being things we normally keep in the house.

Holmes was the first, Watson following with a notebook, like some North Korean flunkey ready for on-the-spot guidance. Holmes looked awful but perked up after a bit of the seven-per-cent. While the great detective was dealing with this in the bathroom, Watson and I chatted about his time fighting in Afghanistan in the 1880s. He was saddened though not surprised when I said that, 140-odd years later, the war there was still going on.

I told Holmes my story. He listened with great attentiveness, his hands pressed together, the tips of his fingers resting against his lower lip. When I had finished he sat back and closed his eyes.

“A most singular narrative,” he said at last, “and one that presents several features of interest. You first noticed these disappearances about three months ago?”

“Yes.”

“Did anything else happen about that time?”

I thought back to mid-July. “One of our cats disappeared.”

“And hasn’t returned.” I was about to ask how he knew but he anticipated me. “There’s only one feeding bowl.”

“Might these things be connected, Holmes?” Watson asked in that dim and dogged way he has.

“I cannot say. It is a capital error to formulate a hypothesis on insufficient data.” He was silent for a moment, lightly drumming his fingers on the table. Then he stood up. “I would like to examine the kitchen, as that appears to be the principal scene of the crime. The sheets we shall leave to one side for the present.”

He then subjected the room to a minute scrutiny, much of which was conducted on his hands and knees. He took samples from the dust, fluff, pieces of onion skin, stray cat biscuits and the other things which are normally found on our kitchen floor. He looked in the drawers, under the sink and on top of the cupboards. It was impossible not to smile.

“You find my survey amusing,” he said, though not unkindly, when he had finished. “It is rare these fail to reveal features which have a bearing on the case.”

“Has it on this occasion?” I asked.

“There are four things of cardinal importance and nine others which may prove to be so. As you may know from the sensationalist accounts my dear friend Dr Watson has fashioned, I keep my own counsel until I am certain the quarry is in sight.”

“But surely…” Watson gasped, his pen poised.

Holmes closed his eyes, as if with boredom. “Beyond the obvious facts that the person who prepares most of the vegetables is left-handed, that the household has changed its brand of dishwasher powder twice in the last month, that chickens are kept here but have not recently been laying, that a guitar has been re-strung and that the fridge has a tendency to leak, no.”

“But Holmes!” Watson expostulated. (He expostulates at least once in each case: I was glad he was running true to form.) “How could you possibly…”

“He’s quite right,” I said.

Holmes almost purred. “The direction of the marks on the chopping board are suggestive and became conclusive when I examined the blade of the paring knife. There are rings where glasses and mugs are placed in the cupboard which reveal three different types of powder. The trained eye can distinguish at least thirty-five different brands. Perhaps you have read my monograph on the subject?”

I confessed I had not.

“No matter. The evidence suggests you ran out of your preferred type, substituted it for something else which was unsatisfactory and then moved on to a third which proved even more so.” He cocked his eye at me. I nodded. “For that machine, and given you consume a lot of rice, I advise Sainsbury’s Powerball-plus.” I thanked him for the suggestion. He sat back, now thoroughly warming to his task. “That bowl on the window ledge is where you keep eggs. There is plentiful evidence in the form of straw and small feathers to suggest this has been used for storing these fresh from the fowls. However, the ones currently there are shop-bought. The inference then becomes obvious. As for the guitar, there is the ball-end of a top E by the dustbin – probably a nine-gauge Ernie Ball – and a small cross-section of a thicker string, probably an A, on the floor by the oven. Top Es break sometimes, As rarely: for both to break at the same time would be inadmissible. Ergo, all the strings were changed. The sometimes-leaking fridge reveals itself by the slight discolouration on the linoleum.”

“But the rice, Holmes!” Watson was expostulating again. “How did you know that?”

“There’s a big bag of it in the cupboard.”

I was becoming bored by what was starting to look like showing off. We were also getting off the point. “What about the spoons?”

“This will receive my fullest attention,” Holmes said curtly and got to his feet. “There are several promising lines of enquiry. I hope to have more definite news before the weekend.” He gave a final glance round the room. “I note you currently don’t have any domestic servants.”

“You could lose the ‘currently’. We’ve never had any.”

“I see,” Holmes said after the briefest of pauses and swept out, Watson wallowing in his wake.

Poirot was up next. Remembering his obsession for neatness and order, things in short supply here, I feared that he would refuse to set foot in the place. His good manners prevailed, however, and a glass of sirop put him slightly at his ease, if not to the extent that he could be persuaded to sit down. Instead he paced the kitchen in his patent-leather shoes while I told him the story.

Mille pardons,” he said at one point, holding up his hand. “So – we have twenty of your English feet this way and sixteen this. Most interesting…but please – conclude your most fascinating narrative, I implore you.”

When I done so he stood stock still in the exact middle of the room, carefully stroking his moustache. “Most intriguing,” he said. “I need to grasp the psychology of this crime. Some things still perplex me.”

“I find the whole thing perplexing.”

Poirot smiled. “But of course you do, mon ami!” he said. “That is what Hercule Poirot is for, to shed light in the darkness.” He clapped his hands together. “Now – first, I must interview all members of your household.”

“Penny’s out and the boys are at school. There’s just me at present.”

“But the servants.”

“We have no servants.”

“Indeed?” the dapper Belgian sleuth replied. He looked about him, much as Holmes had earlier done, then nodded. “I see. Well, I shall not derange you further. I shall return home and apply the little grey cells to this problem of the tea spoons for a day or so. Expect to hear from Hercule Poirot when the solution has been divined. The issue is, sans doute, a psychological one.” With this enigmatic remark he took his leave.

I had only just got the tea made when Miss Marple arrived, pink, flustered and apologetic for being five minutes late. “My nephew, Raymond – the writer: terribly clever but he does make silly mistakes sometimes, like the time he insisted GK Chesterton was French. He would take a short cut which was anything but, as they often are. In the long run one is better sticking to the main roads, despite the traffic. At least there are signs.”

During all this I had managed to divest her of her coat, manoeuvre her into a chair and provide a cup of tea. I recounted the problem.

“Oh, I do see,” said when I’d finished. “It reminds me so much of when Mrs Crabbit in the village believed she’d lost a brooch – not valuable, but you know how people claim an affection for an object once it’s gone missing whereas they never seemed to care for it when it was sitting on the dressing table – then a hat, and then a goldfish bowl. And her poor maid Ethel was in tears as she thought she was being accused of theft, which she was in a way, although she’s the most honest girl: from the village, you see. I’ve known her all her life so you know these things but Mrs Crabbit didn’t choose to see what was under her nose. Dear me. Then it turned out to be the most absurd misunderstanding, to do with the vicar’s son who, on the other hand, was not to be trusted one inch.”

She nodded several times, lost in her memories. Beyond suggesting the tea-spoon question would prove to be a muddle in some way of my making, we seemed no further advanced. I coughed lightly.

“I’m sorry – a silly old woman talking about people you don’t know and all the time you need to discover what has happened to your spoons. Now – how long have your servants been with you?”

“We have no servants,” I said for the third time that day.

While the other two had merely been surprised, Miss Marple seemed genuinely upset. “Oh dear. That’s to say, I know people now have very different ideas about how a house should be run. I suppose you cook your own food?”

“We do and will continue to until all the cutlery and crockery has vanished,” I said, making another attempt to drag the conversation back to the matter in hand.

“How very modern.” She looked at me narrowly. “My point really was that…well, it’s not a nice thing to say – but if it’s just you and your family living here then it does rather narrow it down, doesn’t it? I know anyone could have stolen them but it’s the fact they’ve been disappearing gradually that’s so interesting. Why risk returning when you could take what you wanted in one go? And what a fascinating assortment of objects. What were they? Tea spoons, sheets, mugs – cups of course, in my day – tea towels…oh, of course! I see now what has…”

There was a melodious toot of a car horn from outside. Miss Marple stood up. “That’s Raymond – he does hate to be kept waiting. This has been terribly interesting. I’ll be staying in the area for a few days so I shall certainly return. I just need to think about…tell me, do you have cats?”

“Yes. Two until recently. Now just one. We’re about to get two more.”

“How very interesting.” The horn tooted again, this time for longer. Before I had the chance to ask about her insight into the pattern of the missing objects she was off down the garden path and giving me a delicate wave, like the Queen Mother after opening a supermarket.

Marlowe was an hour late. He had a bruise on his face, which I didn’t ask about, and a half-smoked cigarette in his mouth which he eventually doused in the remains of Miss Marple’s cup of Lapsang. I uncorked the Bourbon and gave him a large shot. He drank it off and poured another while I described the problem.

“You called the law?”

“No.”

“Any reason why not?”

“I didn’t think they’d be interested.”

“Maybe not. If it’s not a strangled blonde in a Chinatown flophouse with a press angle the big boys figure it’s not worth the candle. You’d end up with a sap like Nulty who’d get the whole thing so ballsed up he’d pinch his grandmother and have her on a rap before the DA’s office could pull the shutters.”

I agreed that this wasn’t at all the sort of outcome I was hoping for.

“They worth anything, these spoons? Jade handles, silver filigree, that sort of thing?”

“No.”

“Sentimental value?”

“No. The point is…”

“From a dame? Dames buy presents sometimes, so I’m told.”

“There’s my wife, but…”

“I was thinking of another kind of dame, if you take my drift.”

I took his drift. “Nothing like that.”

“There normally is.” He poured himself another slug of whisky and then, for no reason I could see, put his hat back on and immediately took it off again. “There’s usually a dame. I warn my clients but nothing seems to do any good.” He lit another cigarette. “Trouble is, the dame often is the client. I should never have taken cases from dames, ju-ju men or one-legged conjurers from Cincinnati.”

“No, quite. So…”

“OK, you want to get back to the spoons. That’s jake with me. Anyone tried to sell them back?”

“No.”

“Uh-ha.” He put his hat back on and stood up. “Problem with a case like this is knowing where to start. It’s like playing playing blackjack in a Vegas funeral parlour with a pair of damp Mexican riding gloves strapped to your trousers.” He knocked back the rest of his whisky and refilled his glass. After some further wisecracks he’d finished the bottle. Then he got into his car and drove off, promising to return with news in a couple of days.

I started washing up. The last tea spoon had disappeared. There were no tea towels to dry anything up. Still at the back of my mind was the nagging question of what these objects had in common.

Half an hour later Penny came back. “How did it go?” she asked.

It was hard to know where to start. I gave a confused account of the conversations.

“What about money?”

“It wasn’t mentioned. Holmes ‘never varies his fees save where he remits them altogether.’ I’m hoping we’re in that category. Miss Marple is strictly amateur. Marlowe’s rates are $25 a day plus expenses, or used to be in 1943, but he normally gets into a moral tangle and gives the money back. Poirot costs the earth but he seemed to feel sorry for me. I really don’t know.”

“Mmm. What happens next?”

“They’re reporting back in a couple of days.”

“All at the same time?”

“That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”

The next day I was driving my son Toby and a friend of his, Billy, back from football training. Without mentioning the private eyes I summarised the problem.

Toby had heard this several times before. Billy hadn’t. He thought for a moment. “Somebody knows something,” he said at last. I agreed.

Later that day, I realised what all these had in common.

They were all things you didn’t buy: you just had them. When did you last buy a tea spoon or a tea towel? Exactly. As for sheets and mugs, they seem to breed. Someone was therefore removing objects that we had been using but not in fact bought. Did this make it a crime? I didn’t know.

The tea-spoon situation was becoming critical. None of us takes sugar but they’re useful for measuring spices and eating grapefruit, two harmless activities that were now impossible. I realised I had no idea where one bought tea spoons from. Chardonnay, guitar strings, lamb chops, toner cartridges – all these things and more I could find with no trouble. But tea spoons? It was as if I were being confronted with the problem of restocking my life from the basics upwards as a reminder from a higher power that nothing was god-given. I eventually found some in Poundland in Newbury. To be on the safe side, I bought a dozen.

Another possibility struck me when I was discussing it with my son Adam. The thief was softening us up to accept the idea of things disappearing without explanation or apparent motive. Once we were used to this with minor objects we hadn’t even bought, larger items going missing wouldn’t be seen as odd. A few months hence and we might come back to find a strip from the living room carpet, or half a guitar, or the oven, or one of the walls, gone. We’d shrug and say “that’s what happens here.”

Then there’s the feline aspect. This started when Nimbus disappeared in July. A few days ago we got two kittens. Since then, some tea spoons have reappeared, the mug shelves are filling up and the tea-towel drawer is once again hard to close. I haven’t checked the sheets but I’ve no doubt what I’d find. The number of cats seems important. But how? And why? Above all all, is this respite permanent?

No shortage of theories, with more to come when the experts report back. It’s been a week now and I haven’t heard from them but they’re doubtless piecing together this elaborate jigsaw puzzle of deceit and will shortly return to reveal the true culprit. In the meantime, I’m prepared for the next assault from whichever direction it may arrive. Come on, damn you – I’m ready!

Brian Quinn
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