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A Diagnosis at Dinner
About the Author: Barton Paul Levenson has 70 published short stories, poems, and essays. His novels "The Celibate Succubus," "Another Century," "Recovering Gretel" and "The Argo Incident" are available from Barton was banned from entering the Confluence Short Story Contest again after winning first prize two years in a row.

“Find something,” said Brigadier General Hopton-Smith.

The two of them sat in overstuffed green armchairs in the India Club, which, despite its name, was in London. A dignified old man in a tie and tails had led them to the private conference room, and the brigadier had asked him that they not be disturbed.

Dr. Gerald Mannington had already felt out of place when he arrived at the opulently outfitted club, with its green carpets, ancient paintings, and quiet, well-dressed men smoking in armchairs, and now he felt helpless. “Suppose there’s nothing wrong with them?”

“There will be. I’ll tell you about that later. I’m just hoping you’ll be able to find something else, some clue.”

“I’m not Sherlock Holmes, you know.”

“You have somewhat of the same reputation. Diagnoses from tiny clues.”

“But those were medical cases. I’ve no police experience at all.”

Hopton-Smith scratched his nose. The brigadier very much matched the stereotype—ruddy complexion, just a bit overweight, clean-shaven except for the black mustache. He had been Mannington’s defender when they were both in public school, and now that he was asking for some help in return, Mannington felt like he wouldn’t be able to grant it.

“Go over it again for me,” said the doctor.

“Very well,” said the brigadier. “There are three chaps in London who are possible suspects. All three flew in some time in the last few days from overseas, despite the war, or at least that’s their story. All three have friends in high places. Williamson’s tight with the Duke of Windsor—”

“That’s a clue right there,” said Mannington.

“It’s not enough. All their friends are reactionary bordering on Nazi. Still influential, though, and it would still cause the devil of a row—will cause the devil of a row—when we finally arrest one of them. So Williamson’s a friend of Windsor, Markham’s in with both Decca and Lord Halifax, and Robineau’s tight with at least five Conservative MPs. But they’ll all be at the dinner tonight.”

“What in the world induced the PM to invite three espionage suspects to a dinner at his private retreat?”

“Hopton-Smith took a deep breath. “I did.”

“You’ve influence with Churchill?”

Hopton-Smith toyed with his fingers. “I didn’t say that. Menzies and Lord Dowding and I all went to see him, and afterward Menzies said it was something I said that convinced the PM … Well, none of that matters. The point is, we are all invited to Chequers in Buckinghamshire tonight at seven—forget that place name after tonight, by the way. You, me, and three near-fascists, one of whom is actually a Nazi spy. Oh, there’ll be plenty of policemen waiting in the wings if our man tries anything, and for that matter, I shall be armed myself. We’ll all be searched, you understand—this is the PM, for Heaven’s sake—but the fellow doing me will fail to find anything.”

“But what possible excuse could I have to give them a medical examination?” Mannington looked at his fingernails. “I can’t just say, Oh, Missus Churchill, what a splendid dinner this is—can I just have three of your guests strip down for me so I can give them a thorough going-over?”

“I’ve thought of that,” said Hopton-Smith. “We’re going to put something into their drinks.”

“Oh, dear! You don’t mean—”

“I’m not saying we’re going to poison them. Just something to make them a touch queasy. You’ve heard of xylamine?”

“Uhhh, no, no, I don’t believe I have.”

“Just a minute, I’ve got it written down.” Hopton-Smith searched in a pocket and drew out a folded piece of paper, passing it to Mannington. The doctor took it, unfolded it, and looked. Written on it in Hopton-Smith’s neat lettering was:


“Oh, yes,” said Mannington. “I’ve seen that one in Beilstein. They use it for experiments on rats—when will a rat eat, what does it take to stop a rat going through a maze, that sort of thing.”

“Very well, then! I’ll have a car pick you up at five, just so we’re sure to get there on time.”

This story appears in our AUG 2023 Issue
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