A Henry and Mrs. Kent Mystery
“It was with great fanfare that Sir Anthony McLaughlin embarked on his balloon journey round the globe, traveling south-east from northern England. It has been his mysterious death, however, which has really grabbed the attention of the masses. McLaughlin’s body was found alone in a desert in Africa, dead of a broken neck. The corpse was unclothed; there were no footprints around him, nor was there any sign of his gaily coloured balloon. In fact, the only other item found near his body that did not belong to the desert environment was one half of a matchstick, unlit…”
Henry let the Herald fold back limply. “What a way for a man to go…” he mused.
“What’s that dear?” Mrs. Kent twisted her neck ‘round to look at her husband; her arms still scrubbing mechanically at the hardened remains stuck to last night’s supper dishes.
Henry tossed the paper away from him and began cutting his grapefruit. “Nothing, just some explorer who died out in Africa.”
“Eaten by cannibals?”
“No, and that’s the queer part.” He recounted the news item.
His wife turned back to the sink. Henry scooped at his breakfast. Abruptly, Mrs. Kent turned off the water and rested her forearms on the counter.
“What were his lungs like?” she asked.
“How would I know?”
She nodded, and then turned the water back on.
Henry let a full minute pass by, pretending to eat, but really watching the clock. As soon as the second hand finished making its round, Mrs. Kent turned the faucet back off.
“He was an Englishman, right?”
“That’s right,” her husband answered.
“Aristocratic and all that?”
“Sounds like it.”
She frowned. “His lungs are black and shriveled, I’d bet the teapot on it—you know, that ugly blue one my mother gave us at the wedding.” She gave a short nod as if confirming the fact that the balloonist’s lungs had indeed been the way she’d described and then turned back to the wash.
Henry stood from the table, taking his grapefruit and spoon with him. He strolled over to the counter and rested against it, watching his wife scrape at a particularly stubborn piece of grime.
“Why should his lungs be black and shriveled? He asked finally. He stabbed at the fruit, squirting some of the juice onto his shirt. Rubbing at it, only making it spread.
“Because he smoked, dear. Father used to bring us home lungs in glass jars; lungs of those he’d gotten hold of for science. Smoker’s lungs look a lot like massive decayed teeth. Full of blackish cavities, you know.”
“And how do you know this McLaughlin fellow smoked?”
Mrs. Kent tucked back a clump of hair with a damp hand. “A proper English man would smoke. Also, it accounts for the match.”
“But the match was unlit.”
“Yes, but did it mention which half? If I were the sort who betted, I would lay down money that it was the half that is normally unlit. What the news meant is that it was just a bit of thin stick, un-charred; which would make sense if it were fallen all the way from whatever height the man’s balloon had reached. The wind and gravity would have blown away all the burned bits.”
Henry pondered this as he swallowed down some grapefruit. “But,” he said finally, “No cigar was found. Or pipe, for that matter. He could have smoked a pipe, you know.”
Mrs. Kent didn’t look up, but spoke as she battled her chore. “No, none would have been found. At least, not near enough to the body to be of any help to the investigators. It would have fallen quite a bit away as the man tried desperately to right himself.”
“You’ve lost me,” Henry said expectantly.
Mrs. Kent gave him a patient smile. “It’s very simple, dear. You see, if he smoked—which I’m almost certain that he did—then going up in a balloon wouldn’t have broken this habit. His wife might have told him beforehand that it would be a dangerous activity to enjoy in a balloon, what with all the combustibles about, and I’m sure he agreed and swore off smoking for the duration of his expedition; but all the same he would packed a supply of cigars, ‘just in case’.”
With a final scratch she dislodged a stiff bit of broccoli from a fork and set it in the drain to dry. She pushed her sleeves up further and began to tackle a bowl. “The man probably smoked his way across the continent.”
“But how?” Henry asked. “I mean, you did mention all those combustibles—”
“By leaning over the edge of the balloon. He’d light the cigar, let loose the match over Morocco, have a smoke for a bit before letting fall the remains.”
“I see…put that way, I think I do see. This McLaughlin had a smoke, dropped the cigar, leaned over to grab at it, lost his balance while still holding the match and tipped over to his death while his balloon sailed onward without him.” Feeling rather pleased, Henry speared another eighth of his breakfast.
“And his lack of clothes, dear?” his wife questioned him gently.
“Oh, forgot about that. Right, what about his clothes? The newspaper said he’d had none on.”
“He wouldn’t have.”
Mrs. Kent bit back a wicked grin. “What proper Englishman would bother that high up in the air? None to see him, that’s for sure; except the African birds and such. Bet you a sack of sugar he was pleased not to have to button up or shave his beard.” She frowned momentarily. “Too cold to go without for very long up there, though.” Then her face cleared. “Of course, if it were a midday smoke and he were in the desert leaning out of the balloon’s shade he may have been attempting to sun bathe just a bit—keeping warm that way.” She nodded to herself and finished scrubbing the bowl, allowing the water from the tap to rinse away the soap. “Yes, I’ll bet the top half of him was nice and brown in comparison to the rest of him. The newspapers wouldn’t have reported such a thing, of course, but it’s probably so all the same.”
Henry finished the last slice of grapefruit, and dropped the peel and spoon on the counter before swiftly pecking his wife’s cheek. “A good one for making up stories, you are.” Tapping his watch he announced, “Well, best be off! I can’t leave John alone to figure out the accounts. Poor boy doesn’t have much in the way of brains, if you know what I mean.”
Mrs. Kent smiled fondly at her husband. “Have a good day, dear. And mind you don’t forget to bring those accounts home when you’re done with them. You know how I love to look over your numbers.”