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The Convivial Codfish
A Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1984 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
Exalted Chowderhead Jeremy Kelling, of the Beacon Hill Kellings, gazed benignly around the luncheon table at his eighteen Comrades of the Convivial Codfish. Wineglass raised, he proposed the Ancient and Time-Honored Toast:
"Here's to us!"
"And to hell with the rest of 'em," roared the Comrades in one great voice.
"Down the hatch, Comrades!"
"Bottoms up," shouted seventeen of them.
"A dead whale or a stove boat," yelped Comrade Wouter Tolbathy. Nobody paid any attention. They were used to Wouter.
The glasses were drained. The Exalted Chowderhead dabbed at his lips with a black-bordered napkin to which a spray of holly had been affixed, minus its berries and upside-down.
"I hereby declare our annual Scrooge Day to be in session. 'Tis the season to be snarly. Whither art thou, Marley's Ghost?"
"Present and clanking, Exalted." Hung with safe deposit boxes, piggy banks, petty cash vouchers, a streetcar conductor's nickel-plated coin sorter, and fragments of an old cash register, Formerly Exalted Comrade Tom Tolbathy rattled smartly to attention.
"Canst thou produce the Detested Object?"
"I canst, Exalted. At least I think I canst."
Considerably impeded by his plethora of piggy banks, Marley's Ghost reached under the table and tugged forth the chosen artifact.
"God, is there no bottom limit to the depravity of human imagination?" murmured Comrade Billingsgate.
Last year's affront to his aesthetic sensibilities had been a Styrofoam elf with sequined eyeballs that lit up and twinkled. This year, it was an inflatable plastic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer standing four feet high from hooves to antlers, wearing a red-and-green chicken feather tutu. Even the Exalted Chowderhead winced, but went manfully on with the ceremony.
"Ghost of Christmas past, what sayest thou?"
Comrade Billingsgate lumbered to his feet. "Bah, humbug," he growled.
"Bah, humbug!" the Comrades howled back.
"Ghost of Christmas Present, may we have your report?"
Comrade Ogham settled his wreath of wilted mistletoe more dashingly over his left ear, gave the assemblage a good look at his teeth clear back to the bicuspids, and replied sweetly, "Bah, humbug. Comrades, I hope you've followed your Exalted Chowderhead's sterling example and been bad little boys this year."
"Bah, humbug!" they replied, all but Jeremy Kelling. He maintained a dignified silence until the dust had quit falling from the finely molded old plaster ceiling.
"Ghost of Christmas to Come, pray speak."
Formerly Grand Exalted Chowderhead Wripp groped for the edge of the table. Thus supported, he managed to hoist himself halfway out of his chair. "Bah, humbug," he quavered.
This was Obed Ogham's idea of fun, Jeremy Kelling thought sourly. He'd been the one to insist on Wripp for the role. Dash it, the Comrades didn't need to be reminded what sort of shape they themselves might be in a few Christmases hence. Nor was it even decent, let alone amusing, to use poor old Wripp as a pawn in a tasteless joke.
Jeremy Kelling himself was a relative infant among the Comrades of the Convivial Codfish, being still on the sunny side of seventy. He'd had to wait until the belated demise of his own Great-Uncle Serapis, the only other bon vivant in the Kelling clan, before he could even be considered for membership, which was strictly limited and generally went by inheritance. Then he'd had to work his way up through the ranks. For years he'd been dreaming of the time when he, little Jem, would get to wear the Great Chain with its perch-sized sterling silver codfish pendant and sit at the head of the table. Only this past November, when the Comrades gave formal thanks to be rid of their previous Exalted Chowderhead and announced themselves ready to take on an evil they wotted not yet of, had he been raised to august rank. This was his first whack at chairing a meeting and if that bastard Ogham thought he could crab Jem's act, he could think again, by gad. Avoiding the Ghost of Christmas Present's no doubt sardonic leer, Jem swept a gallant bow in the oldest member's direction.
"Thank you, Formerly Grand Exalted, and a hearty bah, humbug to you. Comrades, a triple rejoinder for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come."
They gave it with a will. Perhaps some felt this might be the last bah, humbug their once-puissant leader would ever receive. It was a poignant moment. Even Obed Ogham seemed to feel some small pricking of remorse for his ill-judged prank. At any rate, he appeared to humbug with due reverence and sobriety.
But sobriety was not the object of this gathering, and Jeremy Kelling would have been the last Scrooge to pretend it was. "Bob Cratchitt," he ordered, "get to work or I'll fine you thruppence and take away your coal hod."
"Aye, verily, Exalted." Bob Cratchitt, known to his underlings as Mr. Ashbroom, to his wife as Edward, and to a lady in an apartment on Joy Street as Cuddles, cringed around the table refilling the wineglasses in a properly servile manner.
"And now, Tiny Tim, may we have the malediction?"
Comrade Durward, who had taken off his spectacles so that he wouldn't be able to see the Detested Object, put them on again and peered around the table in search of his wineglass. He located it at last two points southeast of his plate and succeeded after a few tries in making safe hand contact with the stem. At last he rose to speak his one immortal line.
"Bah, humbug, every one."
Bob Cratchitt sniffled. "Fair tugs at the 'eart strings, don't 'e?"
"Bah, humbug, you old humbug," snarled Obed Ogham. "As for you, brat, one more word out of you and I'll splinter your crutch. Comrades, do you suppose Scrooge is ever going to give us anything to eat?"
Not by word, glance, or so much as a flaring nostril did Jeremy Kelling indicate that he found the plastic reindeer only the second most detested object present. He merely got on with the agenda.
"Marley's Ghost, prithee conjure up a Suitable Receptacle."
Tom Tolbathy, at least, could be relied on not to pad his part. Managing his chains as deftly as his grandmother had done her bustle, he clanked away to the corner of the meeting room and returned with a tinsel-bedecked garbage can. Jeremy Kelling gave him a nod of thanks, then raised the Detested Object high above his head.
"Comrades of the Convivial Codfish, let us keep Christmas in our own fashion."
"Thar she blows," said Wouter Tolbathy. It was a surprisingly relevant remark, for Wouter.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer proved too big for the Suitable Receptacle. Marley's Ghost solved the dilemma by whipping a jackknife out from among his impedimenta and sticking Rudolph in the rump, to tumultuous applause. The Exalted Chowderhead then crammed the deflated wad of repulsion into the garbage can, flung the feathered tutu in after it, and dusted his hands.
"Whoop, whoop, halloo. I am as merry as a schoolboy. Cratchitt, the bottle. Mrs. Cratchitt, the chowder."
It would have been unthinkable for the Comrades of the Convivial Codfish to order anything but genuine Boston fish chowder, made without any superfluous abominations, and that was what they got. The waitress who brought it, however, albeit an acceptable Mrs. Cratchitt in every other respect had been so misguided as to adorn her bodice with a superfluous abomination in the shape of a whimsical Christmas corsage. Comrade Dork voiced the general outrage.
"Exalted Chowderhead, I move Mrs. Cratchitt be requested to park that bedizenment in the Suitable Receptacle, as constituting an affront to the curmudgeonly spirit of Scrooge Day and to the disgruntlement for which we so proudly stand."
"Second the motion," growled the Ghost of Christmas Past.
"Any objections or abstentions?" asked Jeremy Kelling.
Comrade Durward raised his hand. "I can't see what the fuss is all about."
"Can you see Mrs. Cratchitt?"
"Er—actually, no." He took off his spectacles, wiped the enormously thick lenses with his napkin, put them on again, and peered earnestly into the face next to him. "Oh, hello, Wouter. I thought you were Tom."
"I am," said Marley's Ghost. "Wouter's over there."
"Oh." Comrade Durward took off his spectacles again and subsided. Jeremy Kelling ruled him out of order and appointed himself to unpin it, feigning not to hear the lewd asides from Obed Ogham.
Mollified by his assurance that she'd be allowed to retrieve her corsage afterward, Mrs. Cratchitt served the chowder. Excellent chowder it was, and lustily did the Comrades bail it in. Even their Exalted Chowderhead forgot the cares of office and concentrated on getting his full share while maintaining a properly Scrooge-like demeanor. It wasn't until he had laid down his spoon and untied his black-bordered napkin from beneath his nethermost jowl that Jem Kelling noticed a horrible vacancy over his waistcoat. He was no longer wearing the Great Chain.
"The Codfish," he gasped. "It's gone!"
"It fell into the Receptacle, you jackass," retorted Comrade Twitchett, who had not spoken at all until now, except for an occasional humbug.
"I didn't hear it clink."
"Naturally not. You're deaf as a haddock and drunk as a skunk."
This intellectual repartee was right up the Comrades' alley. They varied and embellished the theme while Jem bellowed for Marley's Ghost to go get the goddamn Receptacle and bring it back. That done, he personally removed the corsage, the deflated Rudolph, and the feather tutu, shook them out to no avail, and at last stuck his head inside the Receptacle, to the accompaniment of coarse ribaldries.
"The Codfish isn't there," he groaned.
"Then it's under the table where you usually wind up, you old souse," replied the Ghost of Christmas Present.
It was not. It wasn't anywhere. Those cumbrous silver links, that piscatorial pendant that had so short a time ago rested in splendor atop Jeremy Kelling's neat little paunch had vanished like the chowders of yesteryear.
"You've taken it off and forgotten to put it back on," said Bob Cratchitt, forgetting to cringe. "Softening of the brain, that's all. Nothing to worry about. I'll serve the port, shall I?"
All hailed the suggestion except the Exalted Chowderhead. While the decanter went around and the Comrades waxed, despite their worst intentions, merry, Jeremy Kelling brooded. Where in hell had the damn thing got to? It couldn't have fallen off. Those massive, overlapping links had been clinched together for aeons to come by an old-time artisan who'd known whereof he clinched. There was no clasp to come unfastened. The only way to remove the chain would have been to lift it over his head.
And that had not happened. So experienced a toper as J. Lemuel Alexander Kelling Kelling could hardly have got drunk enough on a paltry four glasses of Chardonnay Sauvignon not to notice a trick like that. Furthermore, where could it have got to? A damn great thing that weighed about five pounds and had six inches of codfish attached to it was no mere bauble you could stuff out of sight in your hip pocket. None of the Comrades had been out of his sight since he'd donned the Great Chain, except when one of them had required to be excused for nonceremonial reasons. He himself hadn't left the room once. They didn't call him Old Ironpants for nothing, by gad!
As Bob Cratchitt continued his appointed rounds, speculation about the Great Chain's disappearance grew more imaginative. Everybody accused everybody else of codnapping. Comrades took to visiting the men's room in squads, to make sure nobody was trying to sneak the Codfish off in his codpiece.
Mrs. Cratchitt was exonerated, firstly because it would have been ungallant to accuse her, secondly because she was found on inquiry to be somebody's mother, and thirdly because she'd had her hands full ever since she'd entered the room; initially with the chowder tureen and latterly with Obed Ogham. She was allowed to gather her corsage and depart in peace.
At last a thorough search of the room was conducted, with all the Comrades crawling around the floor on hands and knees making what they fancied to be reindeer noises; except for Wouter Tolbathy, who chose to be a wyvern and probably was. Most of them appeared to regard the Great Chain's disappearance as a jolly jape, and to be confident it would turn up at the next meeting in some arcane guise.
Jeremy Kelling was not so sanguine. His first act on returning to his Beacon Hill apartment was to fight off the ministrations of his faithful henchman Egbert, who took it for granted Mr. Jem must be sick because he'd come home from the luncheon sober and perturbed instead of sloshed and jolly. His second was to put in an emergency call to his recently acquired nephew-in-law, Max Bittersohn.CHAPTER 2
"Max," Howled Jem, "I've lost the Codfish."
Even though he'd taken a long leap away from his own family tree, Max retained many of its traditional values. Among the Bittersohns, grown men didn't go around losing codfish. Grown men worked, albeit they were entitled to be merry in their labor. Grown men improved their minds with serious study and their souls with deeds of noble self-sacrifice. Grown men looked after their wives and their kids, if they had any which Max didn't as yet, and had certain responsibilities to the ganze mishpoche, even when their family connections had grown to include uncles-in-law like Jeremy Kelling.
Though he still hadn't figured out why some of his new wife's relatives were allowed to run loose, Max remembered his duty and delivered what he thought might possibly be a suitable reply.
"I knew a man who lost a stuffed muskellunge once."
He'd flubbed it again. Jem was irate.
"Dash it, man, cease your persiflage. The Great Chain of the Comrades of the Convivial Codfish is a sacred relic. Like the grasshopper on the Faneuil Hall weathervane, or George Washington's teeth," he added to emphasize the gravity of the situation. "It disappeared some time after I'd put the Detested Object into the Suitable Receptacle."
"That would be as reasonable a time as any, no doubt," Max answered. "You don't suppose it fell into the receptacle?"
"How the hell could it? The blasted chain was around my neck. There was no way it could have got there unless I fell in, too. Which I can assure you I did not. Damn it, I'm not drunk. Egbert can testify to that:"
Now it was getting ridiculous. "Put him on," said Max.
Egbert, to their mutual amazement, was able to vouch for his employer's unprecedented sobriety. "It's very worrisome, Mr. Max. I've never seen him this way before. Except sometimes on the morning after," he qualified, for Egbert was a truthful man when circumstances did not require him to be otherwise. "I think he might accurately be described as shaken to the core."
"Good God! He can't be that bad."
"Who can't?" Max's wife, Sarah, had just come into the room.
"Your Uncle Jem. Egbert says he's shaken to the core. Put Jem back on, Egbert. Come here, angela mia."
By holding the receiver a little way out from his ear and Sarah as close as possible to his chest, Max was able to include her in the conversation. There'd been too damned many years when he had no Sarah to hold and he was not about to miss an opportunity. Theoretically, of course, he now had every chance in the world. In fact, his crazy profession kept him away from her far too often.
Despite the necessary sacrifices, though, Max loved his work as a tracker-down of vanished valuables. The disappearance of any sacred relic, even a codfish, acted on him as a mayfly on a trout; and any codfish that could reduce Jeremy Kelling to a state of palpitating sobriety gave him a glorious excuse to satisfy his sense of family duty and indulge his second-favorite occupation at one swoop.
Sarah was interested, too. By calling on Max's expertise and forcing her uncle to talk sense for once in his life, she managed to obtain for her husband a complete and perhaps even reasonably accurate account of the bizarre occurrence. Jem was all set to tell it again, but Max wasn't about to listen.
"Okay, Jem, you've told me that. How much is the chain worth?"
"Worth? What do you mean worth? It's priceless, damn it. As a historic relic—"
"Relic of a thousand binges," snapped his niece. "Quit sputtering and tell Max what it's made of."
"Solid silver, of course."
Excerpted from The Convivial Codfish by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1984 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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