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A Very Busy Afternoon
Pete Watkins

The bell above his head tinkled as Sylvester Harrington closed his pharmacy door for the last time. He reversed the sign to show CLOSED and strolled back to the counter. His bags were packed and the plane tickets were in his pocket. All he had to do was empty the till and then pick up Deborah Schoonmaker.

At that moment the phone rang. It was his oldest acquaintance, the recently deceased Emeric Schoonmaker.

It seemed as if Sylvester had no need of air, for his breathing stopped for the duration of the call.

“Meet me at the boat,” said Emeric. “Are you listening, Sylvester? At the boat, 6pm. Bring Deborah.” Emeric’s voice wavered, but was still compelling. It had echoed down the phone and Sylvester knew he’d have to make the rendezvous.

Sylvester supported himself against the wall and, putting down the phone, he finally gulped for breath. He went through to the back of the pharmacy and poured himself a large whisky into a laboratory beaker. He downed it in one and wiped his sweaty palms on the sides of his white labcoat. He phoned Deborah Schoonmaker, but Emeric had called her a few minutes before.

“I’m still in black,” she shrieked. “He was dead. I saw that coffin go in the hole not three hours ago. What are we going to do, Sylvester? He’ll kill us. We can’t meet him, let’s just get the flight and run.”

The slug of whisky had calmed Sylvester somewhat, so he poured himself another. “I don’t know what’s happened, but what I do know is that we can’t run. He’ll come after us. We’ve got to meet him and finish it. We were prepared to kill him before, we just have to make sure this time.”

Deborah was not persuaded. “He told me he still loved me. Couldn’t live without me – clichéd shit – but, Sylvester, he said he’d make sure we got ours. He’ll do something stupid, I’m sure. He doesn’t care about himself any more.”

“For Christ’s sake, calm down,” said Sylvester. “You weren’t so squeamish when you gave the bastard my poison. I seem to remember an occasion when you called him pathetic.”

They retraced their steps in an attempt to figure out where things had gone wrong. They couldn’t. Deborah had stopped screaming and Sylvester had poured himself yet another drink, but pauses and slurring don’t make for a great conversation. “We’ve got to stick to the plan, Deborah, we’ll just have to give a few swimming lessons down at the marina first. Know what I mean? Then it’s off to the airport.”

A little earlier Emeric Schoonmaker had called the travel agent he knew Harrington used. Was Sylvester Harrington away on holiday? Dulcie, the sales consultant, had paused, not sure about giving out such information. Emeric offered a plausible tale about chronic claustrophobia and the need for a repeat prescription of his regular medication. He wanted to check when Harrington was back. It had worked.

“You’re lucky,” said Dulcie. Apparently he wasn’t flying until tonight. “But it’s one-way for the time being, with a friend, Deborah something or other. You’d better catch him before he goes.”

“I surely will,” said Emeric, adding that the police would be around to see Dulcie later. He didn’t say why.

That afternoon Emeric had also called the marina. He and Sylvester Harrington had sailed for years. They’d often gone away with their wives, usually on extended trips to Europe or along the south coast. The four of them had been the best of friends, until Jean Harrington had died of cancer. As a sort of act of defiance over her death, Emeric, Deborah and Sylvester had continued to sail together until last summer. That last trip.

It had been almost perfect, two days across the Channel to Antwerp. They fished and sunbathed en route, taking their time, with nothing better to do than enjoy each other’s company. Sadly, Deborah and Sylvester had taken to enjoying each other a little too much.

“Look, it doesn’t matter.” Emeric had told her. “We’d all had a few too many. Too much sun too. No harm done. Let’s forget about Sylvester.”

But Deborah couldn’t and, over dinner with him six months later, she’d described her husband as “a pathetic little man”. In fact, by this time she despised Emeric. “No fight. He just thought it would be all right. He tells me how much he loves me and yet he’s too weak to do anything about the situation. He said we should talk more. I bought him a new mobile but he didn’t get the joke.”

This tension in their once cosy group had, not unnaturally, caused the decision to sell the boat. It was now moored at Sloane Yachting. Emeric decided that revealing to Jock Sloane that he was, in fact, not dead would get in the way of what he wanted to find out, and so he took a different tack.

“Hi, Jock. Sylvester Harrington here,” said Emeric.

“You sound weird, Mr Harrington. Are you okay?”

“Fine, just a bit breathless. In a hurry. Hey, has anything happened on the boat?” Emeric was guessing, but found that he had guessed right.

“Oh, no problem. That guy from Sheffield bought it eventually. I put the cheque in your account this week like you asked. It’s a grand gesture, Mr Harrington, I’m sure Mrs Schoonmaker will be very happy, what with Mr Schoonmaker and everything …”

I’m sure she will, thought Emeric. “I’ll drop the keys off around six,” he said and hung up before Jock could ask Harrington how the funeral had gone.

Emeric Schoonmaker had been busy. Besides Sylvester, Deborah, the travel agent and Jock, he had made a series of other phone calls.

One was to the local newspaper, The Farnborough Bugle. An anonymous call; he had spoken to their crime reporter. Did the reporter know how many poisonings were committed by pharmacists? After all, who else would know what was poisonous, how much to give and whether it was detectable? He’d suggested the reporter check out how many such people left town over the next few days. “Check the Yellow Pages and then go round and see if they’re open. It’ll be worth your while.”

Deborah was a fastidious woman and had always been so. It was one of the things that had originally fascinated Emeric about her. She always looked perfect. Make-up, hair, the way she looked after her figure. Her clothes were so clean and well pressed you’d swear they were new. She went everywhere with a full set of luggage. Emeric called the dry cleaners, explaining that he’d forgotten his ticket. Could he pick up his wife’s dresses without it?

“Name and phone number, please?”

“Schoonmaker. Farnborough 51243.”

“Excuse me sir, we have Caller ID. That’s not the number you’re calling from. Are you sure the name was Schoonmaker?”

This kind of pedantry drove him crazy at the best of times but this afternoon he didn’t have the time. Best or otherwise. He tried to stay calm and explained that although he was on his mobile, his name was most certainly Schoonmaker.

“Bad line, isn’t it,” observed the haughty girl at the dry cleaners. “No need to worry yourself, sir. Our records show your wife picked up the dresses this morning.”

“She’s away at the moment,” lied Emeric. “You’d better call the police and report the dresses stolen. You’ve got my phone number now, I think, could you pass it on to them?”

Next was NatBank. Emeric thanked God he’d signed up for telephone banking and didn’t need to plough his way through unhelpful staff. It was a quick call revealing exactly what he had anticipated. Zero, zip, nada, nothing. All the money was gone. Presumably withdrawn about the same time as the dresses. Using his emergency PIN he finished the call. That would alert the bank that there was a problem. They’d call the police.

The final call that Emeric Schoonmaker had made that afternoon was also to the police.

“There’s not much time. Just listen. Don’t ask questions. Act quickly when you figure it out. Have you read The Case of The Brazilian Blow-Pipe? It’s about a poison, Curare, that slows the metabolism down, initially inducing a death-like coma. If you haven’t read it you’ll find it on the bookshelf of Sylvester Harrington, the Farnborough pharmacist. Next, call the marina and ask when the keys of My Fair Lady will be available. Be there for that. A phone call to Dulcie at Heavenly Holidays might be useful and you’ll probably be getting one yourself from Dry AZ in the High Street. NatBank will have a problem with one of their accounts – it’s been cleaned out – and Dick Lee over at the Bugle might be on to something.”

“I said don’t ask quest …” Emeric was briefly interrupted by the detective at the other end and then responded.

“Me? Yes, I’m Emeric Schoonmaker, but that’s not important right now. You can worry about me later. What? Yes, 66 Green Farm Close. And visit there too, there’s a plant in the garden – Chondrodendron tomentosum, it’s South American – such an exotic gardener, my wife. She found it at Dig Deep. You’ll find it in the Blow-Pipe story. Good lu…”

The battery eventually died on Emeric Schoonmaker’s phone. The one Deborah had found so funny to buy him and bury him with. Emeric died not long after. Despite the confines of the coffin, the police decided that at no stage had he succumbed to his chronic claustrophobia. The phone in his hand was the only sign of what had been a very busy afternoon.

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