'Are you familiar with the Wittering-Churnleys?' asked my gifted friend.
I was somewhat taken aback, as the question came at the end of a prolonged silence. Either that or I had gone temporarily deaf. Perhaps it was a bit of both. I made a mental note to consult and earwax specialist and learn to lipread.
But Whelk was speaking again...
'Oy, bumface. Wittering-Churnleys. Any clue?'
'The only family of that name I'm aware of are the hereditary bailiffs of Trample-Badger. The first baronet was ennobled by Charles II for devising a billiard table with pockets, considerably shortening the game. Since then the Wittering-Churnleys have distinguished themselves in statecraft, the military, the navy, the church, and 'I'm a Victorian, Get Me Out of Here!' Rather unusually, their coat of arms is in fact a coat, with lots of arms on it. Oh, and their entire stock of goldfish was eaten by Swinburne when the current baronet defaulted on payment for a particularly disgusting limerick...
'Right, they're the ones. They've got problems with the undead. Load up and let's move out.'
I needed no further admonition. I checked the chambers of my trusty Webley 38EE, packed my Gentleman's Collapsing Skiff, and ordered some nice fresh lobsters. I then hied me to the bustle of King's Cross, where I purchased two tickets. Unfortunately - as Whelk pointed out somewhat acerbically upon my return - they were tickets to see Miss Tryphena Botts in 'Ankles Wahay!' at the Adelphi Theatre, Streatham.
The error was soon rectified, however, and by midday we had settle into our compartment in a Sleuth-Class Carriage of the Ay Oop Northern Railway for the long journey to the bleak, grouse-ridden, heather-infested domains where the Wittering-Churnleys had churned and wittered since time immoral. As Whelk sat musing on life's passing show and sucking on his old meerschaum (I regretted once more that I had never succeeded in weaning him onto a pipe) I perused for the thirteenth time the curious letter from the umpteenth baronet, Sir Frisby.
I am writin you coz the forin secterry sez you know about all that weird stuff and I am proper cheesed off with these bleedin zombies. They is always coming round the manshun and biting the gardeners and that. I have tried shootin the barstids but unless you blow out all theyre brains it don't do no good, also me bird is getting the hump about the mess on her curtains and that. I'd make it worth your while if you figgered out a way to keep the stiffs in the ground where they belong. (And not a word to the effin taxman, wink wink.)
'From the style he is evidently a fellow Old Etonian,' I hazarded.
'Yes, but what about the zombies you shortarsed nit?' ripostulated Whelk.
Sensing a hint of irritation in my companion, I endeavoured to recall all I had read in the Wholesome Chap's Book of the Arcane about the strange Caribbean practice of raising the dead.
'Surely a zombie must be raised by a priest of the voodoo cult?'
'And this priest bloke would look like what, exactly?'
'A tall, imposing Negro in particoloured feathered robes and a terrifying mask or corpse-like face-paint, typically surrounded by frenzied wild-eyed Haitian drummers and perhaps a dozen half-naked mulatto maidens writhing in an ecstacy of unholy bliss. Sort of thing. At a wild guess.'
'So, not too difficult to spot in the environs of Barnsley then?' returned Whelk.
It was a typically canny observation. Why had not the local constabulary stamped out any zombielicious antics? Why hadn't someone written to their MP about the sharp decline in property prices? And why hadn't young loafers and ne'er-do-wells started talkin' in, like, dat ludicriously affected sort o' way, an' ting?
A puzzler and no mistake.
To be continued...