It took a few seconds for Imalad’s eyes to stop smouldering, but they did. He hitched up his sleeves. “If I can’t bring her round to our point of view I’ll waste her myself. There—will that do?”

Grimwald rubbed his beautifully manicured hands. “That’s what I like to hear. Dedication to the Cause. I’ve no doubt you can do the job perfectly well. But be assured of our complete co-operation…”

Imalad settled back into his chair with an injured smile, thinking that was the end of the matter. But Grimwald wasn’t for letting it go. “And we must all think of ways to implicate her as an accomplice. Ways which will compromise her so thoroughly, she has no choice but to cast in her lot with us. Mr Overdale—that means you too.”

I sat up in my seat. “Why—what can I possibly do about that? Short of persuading Elandrine to murder me…?”

“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” I could see down Grimwald’s throat. “No, I don’t think that will be necessary. Just watch your precious Miss Gee carefully for the next day or two. Something will present itself to you.”

I was puzzled. “What do you mean by that?”

“Never you mind. Just wait and see.”

Something Imalad had said was burning a trail through my mind like a shooting star. I wondered if I dared clarify the matter there and then.

“Morfindel and Elandrine…” I ventured. “Is that story true, then?”

Imalad turned hostile eyes on me. “I’ve never seen them at it, if that’s what you mean.”

“No—no… I mean to say, surely they go to some lengths to conceal the appointment? However does Elandrine get in and out of Morfindel’s bedroom unseen?”

“Through the secret passage of course!” Imalad snapped.

I nodded slowly, glazing my eyes as if he had hit me between them with a leg of ham. I wanted to say, “But the secret passage that you and I both know about leads to the ground floor!” …but I didn’t dare. Not in the present company. Later maybe, if I got the chance.

But it didn’t make sense. Elandrine, as the Queen’s personal bodyguard, lived with the latter in her apartments when she was on-duty. To be seen leaving those apartments on a regular basis, in the wee small hours, when she was supposed to be guarding the Queen, to go down the main staircase to the Grand Hallway—but once there not to proceed on out of the building, would invite curiosity and unfavourable comment. There was another secret passage, as I now knew, from the King’s bedroom. But Elandrine was most unlikely to be using that. Unless—that is—she had something going with the King? …I dismissed the idea without a second thought. It was exactly the sort of liaison Aragorn had told me he was at pains to avoid and I had no cause to doubt it. Unless Queen Arwen was actually lending him Elandrine? …but that too I rapidly dismissed.

So there must be a further passage that I had yet to discover. One leading to Morfindel’s bedroom… from the Queen’s apartments.

And then it struck me! This must be the very passage the plotters were planning to use to convey the Queen from her apartments to Morfindel’s bedroom, where she would be rolled up in the carpet waiting there to be taken away!

The existence of such a passage added a whole new scenario to the murder. What if it was Elandrine that had murdered Morfindel? I could picture him crouching naked on his bed, leaning on his elbows, fingers laced tightly around the back of his neck, awaiting the caress of the whip. But instead one day he gets a white hot poker between his conveniently presented buttocks. No need to tie him up, hence no marks on his limbs. No evidence of a struggle, beyond the obvious signs of his death-throes. Elandrine wouldn’t require assistance to hold him down. The guards—and this was crucial—the guards had been ordered to ignore screams! And after it was over she could quietly tiptoe out again… back to the Queen’s bedroom. With or without the knowledge of the Queen. But on balance I thought, with her knowledge.

I pictured them sitting side-by-side on the edge of the Queen’s bed, holding hands and laughing as Elandrine described, in detail fit to make an old maid blush and a minstrel go green with envy, how the son of Gollum had writhed and squealed under her merciless ministrations.

And how the Queen would laugh! Oh yes—how she would laugh!

I gazed round at the faces of my fellow conspirators. Grimwald had just cracked a joke to mollify Imalad and it seemed to have done the trick. All three of them were guffawing heartily till the blood rose to their faces. All of us were sitting here, feeling very much in control of events, as if the fate of Middle Earth rested in the palms of our hands—or sat there on the table in the guise of the black ring.

And yet—what if we were all merely the Queen’s instruments? Her cat’s paws? What if that endlessly refined elvish mind had engineered all this as her escape route? If she were at risk of being unmasked as the murderess, as indeed I had threatened her with at our tryst in the Mallorn, without really meaning to, then Orthanc was to be her bolt-hole. It would give her time to conduct the delicate negotiations with her husband to escape the harsh if impartial law of Gondor. She was Queen of Elves as well as Men—and the Elves would have scant sympathy with Morfindel’s death being avenged in anything more than a token manner. And the Elves were not alone in that!

When I got back to my room, in my pocket a banker’s draft cashable in Minas Ithil for a million gold crowns, Goldberry wasn’t there. But soon there came girly chuckles from the corridor and Goldberry staggered in, her arms around the neck of Elandrine. Both of them were in the standard hotel garb of bathrobe, slippers and nothing else and both were glowing pink from the sweat-lodge and the massage slab, birch branches, hot volcanic poultices—and what else I durstn’t think.

“Oh, Goss! You’re back!” I couldn’t tell whether she was pleased to see me or not. “How did it go?”

“Wonderfully,” I said, my eyes on Elandrine. “I got everything I asked for.”

“No half-dead fish this time?—I told Elandrine about that…”

“No, you missed a treat.”

The girls looked at each other and giggled. “No, I don’t think so. We’ve had a gorgeous time together.”

I was about to say that I’d met up with Imalad and had had an equally gorgeous time with him, but something stopped me. Either Elandrine knew all about our little conclave, or she knew nothing. Either way, making her a gift of that intelligence was profitless.

…to be continued.