DETECTIVE TENTINS AND THE FOREIGN PRINCE
By Christopher Woods (alias Beregond)
Summary: Detective Tentins solves the mystery the Foreign Prince brings him.
Detective Barnaby Joshua Tentins stood in the cold, miserable September rain. At his feet, his Scottish terrier, Muddy, huddled against an icy brick wall. Above him, the sun was hidden by relentless clouds. That was the downside of living in London in the end of the nineteenth century: everything was cold, and almost everything was heartless.
And that was why he was standing in the rain. Whenever he closed a case, he always visited the victim of the crime one last time, telling them in person that everything had been done. It always gave him some small hope in humanity, that justice was being served, yet he always thought there was something missing. Something vital to life in such a dreary place, something everyone desperately needed. He told someone that their attacker had been brought to justice, and they gratefully accepted the news and asked if the good detective would like some tea. Then Tentins left, and life for both of them continued. It was the same every single time, and Tentins wondered why he bothered to do it when so few people were enthusiastic about a job well done.
And then he remembered.
This was London. Nothing was enthusiastic here.
The door flung open.
“Oh, Detective! Please tell me, tell me! Is there any word? Have you got him? Oh, tell me!”
Except the weeping. That could be very enthusiastic at times.
“Please, madam, let us go inside. You could catch your death of cold clinging to my knees in weather like this.”
“Of course, Detective, come this way.” The young woman unwrapped her arms from around Tentins’s legs, got to her feet, and pulling the detective inside after her, hurriedly closed the door. A little too hurriedly, thought Tentins, looking down. Muddy had been left outside. Oh, well. He’s Scottish. He could deal with a little rain and cold. He probably thinks this weather down south here is positively balmy.
On the other side of the door, a little brown dog sat in the rain, dreaming of the nice warm hearth from which he’d just been excluded.
Tentins cast a brief look around the entrance hall as he hung up his dripping hat and overcoat. It was typical of many of these houses: a nondescript, hardly memorable exterior, but when you get inside, everything changes. A set of stairs ascended to the next level, guarded by an ornately carved banister. Exotic rugs covered the floor, and lamps with delicately embroidered shades cast a warm, soothing glow over everything. He’d seen it all before.
“This way, Detective,” the young woman said, motioning to the parlor. Tentins followed her, noticing the lingering signs of her grief. These last visits were never pleasant.
“The tea’s just boiling, I’ll go and fetch it. Do sit down, please.”
Tentins complied with the young woman’s request, and sat on one of the doubtlessly incredibly expensive chairs. He allowed himself a couple of moments to sink into the upholstery and stare into the fire and dream that there was nothing more than this… comfy chair… fire… comfy chair… fire…
Tentins jumped at the voice, saw the young woman leaning over him with a pot of tea and a concerned look.
“Are you all right, Detective?”
“Yes, yes, I’m perfectly all right. I was just appreciating your nice chair here in front of the fire. Excellent, really excellent.”
“Thank you, Detective, but I think you had something else to tell me.” Reassuming the character of a bereaved maiden, the young woman poured a two cups of tea, handed one to Tentins, and sat down on the sofa.
“Yes, of course. Thank you.” Tentins took a sip of the tea, grimaced at the sudden heat. “Just the thing for weather like this.”
One look at the young woman’s face said more than she ever could. Tentins gulped, set down his tea, and looked the young woman in his eyes.
“We found the man who ran over your dog.”
The young woman waited, expectant.
“He said he’d be more careful driving his butcher’s cart.”
“I knew he was a butcher!” The young woman had a gleam of revenge in her eye.
Tentins sighed. “No, he’s a butcher by profession.”
“You mean he earns money by running over people’s dogs?”
“He chops meat for our dinners!”
“Chops them with his wicked wheels! You should imprison this horrible, horrible man!”
“Madam, this man has not committed any crime punishable by prison. While it is regrettable that your dog is now badly injured, there is nothing we as the police can do about it. With your permission, the butcher would like to come around himself and apologize for his lack of vigilance in his driving. I trust you will be more civil about him in his presence.” Tentins rose, straightened his suit, and looked the shocked young woman in the eye. “If you’ll excuse me, I must leave now. The Yard is rather busy, and doesn’t always have time to track down careless drivers.”
Grasping breathlessly for words, the young woman watched helplessly as Tentins donned his hat and coat and walked back out into the rain.
“Some people,” Tentins said aloud as he closed the door behind him, “have no idea how the Yard actually operates.”
Quite so, thought Muddy, as he padded miserably alongside his master. They operate with far too few snacks for old Scots like me!
“We don’t have time to address the minor complaints of everyday life!”
You don’t have time to notice the faithful friend, pawing your knee!
“That woman should be thankful her dog is even still alive!”
You should be thankful for everything I’ve done for you!
Tentins stopped in the middle of the empty street, looked Muddy straight in the eye. “But you understand, Muddy. Somehow, you understand.”
Muddy cocked his head and panted. I understand far more than you’ll ever know!
“Well, just a few more things at the office. Then we can go home and sleep. In my own comfy chair, next to my own fire.”
This pleasant thought upheld Tentins throughout the rest of his dreary, wet walk, and he spent so much time fantasizing about the comfort ahead that he was sure it would all turn out just as he predicted. But when he opened the door to his office, Fate played a cruel card, and Tentins glimpsed a stranger in the room. A sudden lightning flare showed him to be more little more than an ordinary beggar, by all appearances.
“I didn’t know the weather had taken such a sudden turn,” Tentins muttered.
“Many things take strange turns, Detective,” the stranger said. His voice was rich and cultivated, and had the hint of a foreign accent. “For example: your life.” The thunder rumbled again.
“What do you want?” Tentins said as he reached for a light.
“I want your help, Detective.”
Tentins struck a match, lit the lantern, and everything took on a much less sinister appearance.
“Well, then, I’m afraid you found the wrong man,” he decidedly declared. “I’m just about the most incompetent detective in the whole force. It’s a miracle they haven’t ditched me yet.”
“How can this be? Unless you are being modest. The people told me you were the best.”
“The people were wrong.” Tentins sat heavily across from the stranger. This late-night meeting was aggravating him. He began to think it was some kind of prank. “Who told you?”
“The people whose clothes I share.” The stranger spread his arms.
“It’s a prank. Either it’s a prank on me, and you’re in it, or else it’s a prank on you. I’m sorry, but I’d wait till tomorrow. Then you can get someone else on your case, someone who will actually be able to solve it. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Tentins began to rise.
“Wait, Detective!” The voice was full of command, and Tentins had no choice but to obey. He fell back into his chair with an audible thud. “My problem is of the utmost urgency and secrecy. It must be solved tonight, and I must be away when the sun rises.”
Tentins swallowed, his nerves shattered by the amount of authority suddenly revealed. There had been a hint of it in the beginning, but now the full force was unleashed.
“Call me Prince Vasily. Three days ago, my father, the old king, died. Foul play is suspected, and my nation’s finest are at work figuring it out. But that was not all. The crown has been stolen. Without that crown, I cannot become king, and chaos will engulf my nation. Investigations showed that the thief would be coming here, to London. I have come with two of my own excellent detectives, but I need someone who knows the lay of the land. And the crown must be found tonight, for it takes three days for me to return to my home. Now, if you insist on refusing to aid me, I must kill you. No man must know of this mission I undertook.” The prince slipped a finely wrought pistol from his pocket. Muddy growled, fur bristling.
“Your Highness, please!” stammered Tentins. “There’s no need for that! Where, uh, where are your own men?
“Guarding this room.” Prince Vasily motioned with his pistol.
“Really? I didn’t see them when I came in.”
“You weren’t supposed to.”
“That…that would explain it.” Tentins cleared his throat, the immensity of the situation overwhelming him. “Could we, maybe, do away with the threatening? I’m more than happy to help you.”
“Maybe so,” conceded the prince, “but I will have my eye on you at all times. The penalties for betrayal are… severe.”
“I’m sure.” Tentins swallowed again. “So, now, let me guess: you have a half-brother who might want your throne?”
“Full brother, then?”
“If I had one, he’d certainly be more capable of taking the throne. I cannot think how half a man could outwit me, even if he was my brother.”
“It’s a—oh, never mind. Any family member at all who might want to do away with you?
“My father is dead, and my mother loves me immensely; there is no deceit in her heart.”
“Any aunts, uncles, cousins?”
“None of them were in the city when the crown was stolen.”
“Look, why don’t you just tell me what you know?”
“The shipping guild has been growing incredibly ambitious recently.”
“Our country depends on the sea for most of its trade and produce. The shipping guild holds vast power already, and now thinks it can claim the throne. My father died after eating a fish dinner; the guild could have poisoned the fish easily. The safe that the crown was kept in was pried open with a fishing hook.”
“Perhaps someone is trying to frame the guild?” Tentins suggested, mind racing to all possibilities.
“Impossible!” Prince Vasily declared. “The sea-smell was everywhere!”
“All members of the guild have a particular smell, due to spending most of their time sailing. The rooms of the palace have yet to be rid of that odor.”
“But wouldn’t guild members be walking in and out of the palace all the time?”
Prince Vasily shook his head. “Not into the room where the crown was kept. But the sea-smell was especially thick there!”
“Were the windows open? Are there any windows?”
“There is one window,” Prince Vasily conceded. “But it faces away from the sea. Also, a fishnet was found stuffed in an alcove nearby, and the window had been opened from the outside. The door was still locked.”
“These guild members sound incredibly clever and incredibly sloppy. Interesting fellows.” Tentins rose, walked over to his safe. “Just let me retrieve a few things, Your Highness, and we’ll go into the field.” He stooped, turned the key, then froze, surprised. “It’s already open.” Shaking all over, Tentins slowly opened the door of the safe, expecting someone to leap out of it at any second. But a bigger surprise waited within, for when Tentins summoned the courage to open the door fully, there, in all its glory, glittered a splendid crown.
Prince Vasily sneered. “Incredibly sloppy indeed, Detective. Thank you for the crown. But still, you must die; you know the result of betrayal, dog of a guild member!”
I’ll never get used to that insult, Muddy thought. The way they use my species’ name, you’d almost think it’s vulgar!
“Wait, please, wait!” Tentins nearly screamed. “Smell me! There isn’t a hint of the sea-smell on me, is there? How can I possibly be a guild member if I don’t have the sea-smell?”
Prince Vasily hesitated. “You are right; but still, you could be in their pay!”
“I was hardly here all day today!” Tentins screeched.
“Boris!” The Prince barked.
“It is true, Your Highness,” said a voice from the shadows. “He spent all day away, investigating the great tragedy of a man running over a dog.”
“Fine, then. You will live—for now. But tell me…” Prince Vasily sat, assuming an air of friendship. One would never have thought he had been threatening death a moment before. “Who could have gotten into your office?”
“Anyone, absolutely anyone.” Tentins gasped, staggering to his feet. “Wait a minute! I’ve got it! I know who stole the crown!”
“Who?” shouted three voices at once. In their excitement, the other foreign detectives poked their heads around the door.
“The young woman and the butcher!” shouted Tentins triumphantly. “Think of it: the guild sends them over here with the crown and just a little time to form a plan. One sets up as a prosperous young lady, the other masquerades as a butcher. The butcher drives down the street the young lady lives on, and the young lady drives her dog out into the street just in time for the butcher to run him over!”
Despicable! Muddy barked.
“The young lady at once runs to me, begging me to pick up the case. I do so, and she drags me all over town. While she does that, the butcher changes costume and enters my room on pretext of delivering a package; the package is, of course, the crown. He cracks my safe, opens it, but hesitates; after all, the crown is such a beautiful thing. He takes off the wrapping, has one more chance to see it, touch it… but time is short. He stuffs it in the safe, throws the wrapping away…” Tentins lifted a pile of wrapping from the wastebasket. “That wasn’t there before—and away he goes (as a butcher again), just in time to be found by me and confess to running over the dog. You come in here, find the crown in my safe, and frame me for the whole thing!”
Prince Vasily’s eyes were wide in amazement. “Admirable deduction, Detective. However did you figure it out?”
“Simple enough,” Tentins replied. “The butcher and young lady stank of the sea-smell. As do you.” He reached up and tore off his own fake moustache and wig, revealing features quite similar to those of the astonished Prince Vasily.
“But, but—how is this possible?” the foreigner stammered.
“Indeed, I am the real Prince Vasily, and you have fallen directly into my trap. Though might I suggest, next time you try to disguise yourself as me, do try to wash some of the sea-smell off. This place will stink for days.”
The fake prince sneered again. “There’s still a chance; you are alone! Boris, Yuri!”
“No help from them, my friend,” the real Prince Vasily said, fiddling with the bowler he’d worn as Detective Tentins. “Isn’t that right, Detective?”
“Quite right, Your Highness!”
The fake prince started. The voice was Tentins’, or rather, the voice that Prince Vasily had just been using as Tentins. But now the real Detective Tentins walked into the room, taking off his disguise as Boris and pushing a handcuffed Yuri in front of him. “By the way, Your Highness, thank you for taking the weight of that little investigation today. I would’ve hated having to do something so trivial.”
“My pleasure, Detective,” Prince Vasily replied. “You missed a wonderful… what do you call it? Ah, yes! A wonderful comfy chair and fire!”
Tentins sighed. “I love it when I get to have one of those!”
“This is only round one!” growled the fake prince, bringing the focus back to the matter at hand, as the real prince handcuffed him as well.
“Oh, to be sure,” the real prince replied, “but I think I shall have the advantage of the other rounds as well. You were right about one thing: the shipping guild has too much power. I will have to change that when I return.” He turned to the policeman he had imitated all day. “Tentins, these crafty men would be a bit much to handle all on my own. Could you join me and escort them back to my country?”
“It would be a pleasure, Your Highness!” Tentins replied.
Throughout the entire scene, a bewildered dog cowered in the corner, unsure of which man was his master.
A few hours later, the prince and the detective stood side by side on the deck of a rolling ship. The sun was just beginning to climb, but already the coast of England had fallen far behind. Around them, sailors scurried fore and aft, and below decks five guild members were under arrest. The prince himself carried the crown, wrapped again. Suddenly, Tentins started and smote his forehead.
“Good heavens! What a mistake I’ve made!”
“Don’t tell me it’s anything serious, Detective!” The prince clutched the crown tighter, as though it would vaporize out of his grasp.
“Deadly serious, I should think!” Tentins replied. “I forgot to tell anyone I’d be gone for a few days!”