We congratulate Mark Thielman for his winning entry in the 2017 Black Orchid Novella contest, which AHMM cosponsors with the Wolfe Pack, an international association of aficionados of the Nero Wolfe novels and novellas by Rex Stout. Mr. Thielman also won the BONA in 2015 for “A Meter of Murder.” Both stories reach back to historical figures for inspiration and models for their sleuths. For more information about the contest, go to www.Nerowolfe.org.
The Black Drop of Venus
by Mark Thielman
“Pass the preserves, will you, Jim?” I asked.
I received the reply I intended.
Bent over the cramped table, the captain lowered his chin slightly and stared at me, his fixed gaze crossing his lined forehead, mouth set in a scowl. He made no effort to push the compote in my direction.
Fortunately, the close quarters of the HMS Endeavour allowed me to reach across the table and retrieve the jar myself.
“You know, Mr. Banks, were you in the navy, I would have you flogged for insubordination,” the captain said as I dropped a bit of jam onto my morning biscuit.
“If, through some sad state of my affairs, I found myself in the navy,” I replied, “it seems highly unlikely that I would be sharing sleeping quarters with the esteemed captain, James Cook.”
Nodding, he conceded the point, his hooked nose with its bony prominence dipping towards me. “You are the guest and entitled to my full hospitality. I grant you the full run of my abode,” he said. As he spoke, the captain opened his arms. His extended fingertips nearly brushed the far walls. The captain’s quarters aboard the Endeavour would be cramped with one, let alone both of us. Though I had learned little of proper naval terminology, the fact that this room was identified as the Great Cabin highlighted the misnomers of language aboard ship. We had been confined together for weeks as the bark, the name the captain insisted was the proper label for this vessel, continued to push westward. Through the stern windows, I had watched dawn’s slivers of rose-colored light suddenly be replaced by the brilliant yellow orb of sun, shining above the forever expanse of the Pacific Ocean extending eastward. I experienced the same sense of amazement every morning at how quickly the sun cleared the horizon without the impediments of hills, trees, churches or houses. The addition of sunlight, however, did nothing to enhance the size of the space. “Please,” he said, “finish the breakfast which I have arranged for you.”
“A truly gracious host,” I continued, “would not demand that his guests consume a morning serving of sauerkraut.”
A bemused smile replaced the captain’s earlier scowl. His morning never seemed quite complete until he had elicited my tirade against the required dose of pickled cabbage.
“Mr. Banks,” he replied, “I should demand that you and I stand upon the quarterdeck as we consume our sauerkraut. In this way, we set an example for the sailors and civilians alike. We eat it in pursuit of scientific knowledge, to see if kraut will prevent the onset of scurvy. You do approve of advancing knowledge, even at some personal expense, don’t you, Mr. Banks?”
I exhaled audibly, eliciting a chuckle from my host. I served as the chief naturalist assigned to the bark Endeavour for this voyage to Tahiti, the entire expedition for scientific advancement a joint project of the Royal Navy and the Royal Society.
“As the scientific advisor on this journey, I cannot recommend that course of action,” I replied. “Were I to taste this foul concoction while standing, my knees might very well grow weak and I collapse onto the quarterdeck, crying, Jim, save me!”
Here, Captain Cook’s face momentarily grew serious. “You vex me so, Joseph,” he said. “Behind the closed door of our shared cabin, my Christian name is acceptable. Standing before the crew and addressing me in such a manner would be a breach I could not tolerate. I would have to assist you to your feet only to remonstrate you in the harshest possible terms.”
Although his voice remained even and a faint smile returned to his face, the implications of his statements came through clearly. I had rarely felt the weight of his captaincy fall upon me since the Endeavour had slipped out of Plymouth harbor last August. No one, of course, had been spared his full authority during the rounding of Cape Horn and the violent storms which had accompanied it. That, however, had been ten weeks past, and I had nearly forgotten those days. I filled my mouth with sauerkraut, allowing my pinched face to replace any other display of emotion. I swallowed my ration whole and promptly chased it with my slathered biscuit.
“Good lad,” the captain said, his face in full smile, “science thanks you.”
The captain appeared ready for more banter. A harsh knock on the door, however, interrupted my reply.
“Enter,” the captain commanded.
A sailor stood in the doorway, reluctant to step inside, an older man, he had the leathery skin of one who had spent years out of doors. He inhaled and exhaled in short, rapid bursts.
“Beggin’ the captain’s pardon,” he began, his hands twisting his small cap, “but there’s something up by the foredeck, I think you need to see, sir.”
“What is it, Jones?” Cook bellowed. Interruptions, I have learned, are a regular part of the life of a captain at sea.
“A body, sir . . .”
Copyright © 2018. The Black Drop of Venus by Mark Thielman