Diabolical Plots! Beyond the Poisoned Apple

Today I saw a posting of a Malachite Bathtub at a gallery showing in Munich.

It is stunning!

A lovely lady in a group I was visiting, had shared it in a post. She captioned it being her bathtub aspirations to own one.

She was hit with more toxicity warnings than that of the tobacco and cleaning supply industries combined!

They had completely missed the point of what she was sharing via a geology enthusiast group, and why.
(Not to mention all of their misinformation being launched at her. Yes, I looked it up thoroughly researched and the Malachite tub is a safe place to linger in water, but the myth of toxicity was intriguing to me. What if it truly made for a deadly dunk?)

I felt bad for her that folks could not bite their tongues, just enjoy her sharing a pleasurable daydream in the beauty of something so special, skillfully made into a true one of a kind work of art.

Then I got to thinking. (It’s always scary when I get to thinking. My inner diabolical plot wizard engages!)

Under deadly assumptions, is it that this tub was built only as beauty to admire from a far, or unknown to the creator the medium of their choice was potentially lethal? Or was that the point?

Muahahahahahahaaaa! ( Maniacal laughter, thunder rolls and lightening clashesa, lights flicker to black out)

My mind continues churning away on this puzzle of sorts. Why that much work for something unusable? Or perhaps a diabolical brilliance to neutralize one’s enemies in unsuspecting hospitality?

Hmm… it could work i guess, so long as said enemies are over for the weekend and chose to take a bath right?

Now my mind is picking up speed and I can imagine several possibilities for plot lines where such a thing exists.

Double agents and Russian political royalty, plausible deny ability in the death of a honored guest aka, visiting political opponent.

The Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory treating her ladies in waiting to one final luxurious bath before death, (where then she uses them to bath in their blood. Like a twisted “spa day” at the Spanish Inquisition.)

Rival Artist understanding their assignment in an expression of deadly beauty, and bodies are turning up everywhere. (Something in the style of 70’s TV homocide detective, Columbo)

A Medieval master of torture devices that is trying to impress a ruthless Usurper/Future King/Queen/Cardinal in their ingenuity of undetectable/unsuspecting murder devices.

Cursed objects in a traveling midnight Carnival with tales of death and horror in their wake. Unexplainable misfortune befallen anyone that so chooses to use these items. What would its story be? What else is in the collection? Why do the warnings not outweigh the item’s alleur do they offer false promises of some kind to the user?

A mansion of splendor in its day now fallen to rack and ruin. Now just an old delapitaded house with hints of decadent extravagance from a bygone era. It stands abandoned, frozen in time, a place rumored to bring death to all that have ever lived there.

An eccentric DIY-TV house flipper decides to take the property on in a series called, “From Ghost to Gorgeous! Revamping your neighborhood’s most haunted houses” (he takes suggestions from viewers about homes they want him to tackle, perhaps to bring up the value of their own by association)

What topic has sparked your imagination lately?

Where do you find your unique ideas?

Would anyone else be willing to share an example of their brainstorming here? You just might inspire another writer to their best story ever!


On the one hand, I was wondering if there’s something wrong with me—that as you described ever more diabolical scenarios my grin grew broader and broader … but then I realised your brain had to come up with the ideas in the first place!

Great sharing and I do love that bathtub, though I may be careful if I visited you and you offered me a dunk. :face_with_monocle:


I wonder the same kinds of things when I am engrossed in a dark tale and can not tear myself away. On all counts. Lol!

“Why am I engaging in this? Wait, who wrote this? OMG! What inspired this!?!”

Then down the rabbit hole of research I go.

Kas you should not be worried about me. After all, I’m no Jessica Fletcher. :rofl:

That woman attracts corpses with rapidly solvable murders, like peanut butter attracts jelly into sandwiches.

(The only stains on my hands are from an ink pen. Everyone lives to tell the tale.)

I am so glad I made you smile!


Death By Wallpaper

Opinions are divided over Napoleon’s death in exile. His wallpaper is more likely to have delivered the coup de grace than British assassins.

Redecorated in the highly fashionable Scheele’s Green, the wallpaper contained arsenic to fix the green pigment. The house on St Helena remains notoriously damp, especially when closed to the harsh elements of the South Atlantic. In such conditions, the wallpaper broke down emitting arsenic dust and arsenic fumes. It capped long-term exposure in his Imperial residences in Europe.

His favoured ‘tonic’ was a sweet apricot-based drink containing hydrocyanic acid. A tartar emetic given by his Corsican doctr contained Antimony. His British doctors in exile prescribed calomel containing mercurous chloride.

His lead bathtub was the centrepiece of a house connected with lead plumbing.

The mystery isn’t so much how he died but how he survived to age fifty-one.

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Great summary of all Napoleon’s poisonings. I’d heard about the wallpaper, but not all the other delights. I wonder if whilst being inexorably poisoned, he also built up some tolerance? Is that even possible? Just mulling these things over – for possible research towards another manuscript in the future (nothing to do with Napoleon, since writing historicals don’t appeal, but for some other thriller/mystery).

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Yes, as I understand it is very possible to build tolerance to poisons. Thus dragging out the time til inevitable death, with some excruciating symptoms of toxicity.

Selling the King’s Bridge

Effram straightened his Imperial red coat and smoothed back his thinning hair. He approached the merchant’s table.

“Maister Satchell. May I?”

Effram perfectly pitched his accent to Middle Ward respectability.

“No, you may not. Can’t you see I’m at breakfast. Be off with you.”

The merchant’s bodyguard stepped closer, large and ugly as bodyguards were wont to be, one hand on the short blade at his belt.

Effram dared a step closer, his voice dropping to a whisper as he leaned in.

“Of course, Maister. But I understand you are in the capitol seeking… opportunities?”

Effram allowed the word to hang over the table, promising more in the silence.

Satchell held up a hand. The bodyguard backed off. The merchant inspected Effram more thoroughly.

“What kind of opportunities?”

“The kind a strategic thinker recognizes as a lucrative investment. The kind that makes a man… noteworthy in the highest circles.”

Satchell thought himself no man’s dupe and waved Effram away.

“I’m not interested in fool’s gold. Away with you.”

“Quite so, Maister. Your reputation as a sharp and wise investor precedes you. Which is why the institution I represent thinks you worthy of consideration.”

Satchell paused in his breakfast, exchanging glances with his two sons either side.


“What institution?”

“May I?”

The merchant indicated the seat across the table. Effram sat.

“My name is Maister Erdig. I’m not at liberty to disclose which institution I represent. But you would recognize its stamp on the back of every coin in your purse.”

It took Satchell a while to decode the heavy hint, which Effram found disappointing.

“The Imperial Treasury?”

“Please, Maister,” Effram hissed in mock indignation, glancing around the common room of the inn. “We cannot be heard discussing such things.”

“We can’t?”

“Absolutely not. This matter is far too sensitive. Any mention of it in the capitol will set every one of the Guilds and the Old Houses running in protest to his Excellence.”

Effram played his part well; the crucial name dropped without mentioning the name. That and the Imperial red coat baited the hook still further.

“What matter? What consideration?”

Satchell motioned to his sons on either side. Both left the table. The bodyguard stood back.

“May I be assured of your discretion, Maister?” Effram asked, masking his mouth with a hand casually but deliberately raised against eavesdroppers and lipreaders.

“Of course. What matter?”

“Will you swear on it?”

Effram’s baited hook raised Satchell’s impatience. The merchant made the sign of the Maker over his heart.

“By the Maker, I swear. Now then, what matter?”

Effram knew the merchant had no religious devotions, but the gesture helped.

“I represent a certain house on Minter’s Hill.” Effram let that sink in. “You can imagine the outlay of the Emperor’s war again the rebellious Southlands?”

Eight years of war and several declarations of victory later, the Emperor’s army had yet to extinguish the insurgent campaign in the remaining rebel counties. The merchant knew little of military matters other than the disruption to trade.

“Of course. What of it?”

“As you can imagine, the Emperor is loathe to raise taxes directly. So a certain institution…” Effram paused for effect. “A certain institution is looking for more imaginative ways to secure immediate and ongoing revenue.”

Satchell’s blank face betrayed his utter lack of imagination.

“What sort of ways?”

“Specifically, Maister, a bridge. Or should I say, the bridge.”


Effram sighed inwardly. He leaned in a little closer, his voice dropping to a hush.

“The King’s Bridge.”

“What of it?”

“You crossed it yourself, Maister. It is the foremost engineering marvel of the Empire. Of the Republic before that, and of the Old Kingdoms before that.”

The massively built timber swing-bridge across the Kam allowed trade barges upstream to the city docks. It carried the bulk of road trade from the South into the city. Shepherds’ Bridge lay inconveniently East of the docks. The two minor bridges even further East of the city walls were unsuitable for wagons.

“Yes, yes, but what of it?”

“It represents a significant expense to the Treasury, year on year. And traditionally brings in no revenue. In the right hands that could well change.”

Effram stressed revenue and right hands, planting the seed.

“Change? Change how?”

“If the bridge were to transfer to private hands, the new custodian would be obliged to levy certain tolls for its upkeep and maintenance. The heavier the traffic, the higher the toll. Both crossing the deck and by the opening of the bridge for river traffic. It’s the first rule of taxation: proportionality, based on the ability to pay. From a few coppers, as high as a whole silver crown?”

Satchell’s brain churned, wondering what this had to do with him. Effram found this much harder work than he anticipated.

“With the amount of freight traffic entering the city via the King’s bridge, the custodian would stand to make a significant fortune.”

Satchell’s face lit up in a rare moment of insight.

“This custodian…?”

“Has yet to be appointed.”


“There are many individuals and institutions in the capitol would jump, indeed, kill for the opportunity. The Guilds, the Old Houses, even the Church of the Messenger. The Church prides itself on its civic and administrative capability.”

Satchell found those coffers of copper and silver coins melting away before his eyes.

“However, should custody of the bridge be awarded to any of those, the outcome would be…”

Effram let that note hang, like a virtuoso playing a musical instrument.


“His Excellence shows any hint of favoritism, that is tantamount to a declaration of civil war against the others. The disruption to markets and trade in the capitol would be catastrophic.”

“I see.”

It hit Satchell in his most painful place: his purse.

“So you also see the solution?”

“Of course.” the merchant declared firmly, a little too loudly. Effram sat in silence.

“But what is the thinking on Minter’s Hill?” Satchell finally asked, eyes darting side to side.

“A private consortium, from outside the capitol, with no vested interests. A neutral candidate, if you will. Left to manage the trade routes under and across the bridge, in exchange for a prearranged commission, paid direct to the Treasury.”

Effram let that sink in.

“I understand you represent such a consortium, from the major trade ports along the Kam to the West. Unfairly, may I say, excluded by the Guilds here in Kamsen.”

Satchell’s natural distrust slammed down like the portcullis at the Kam Gate.

“And how much is this candidacy likely to cost us?” the merchant asked sharply.

“It is an undertaking, a commitment to be sure. The Treasury expects the consortium to bring sufficient working capitol to sustain the operation of the bridge until the quarterly accounts are settled.”

“No fees? No purchase? No tokens of good faith?”

Effram put on his most offended face.

“By Jossif’s blood, certainly not, Maister. This is not the Republic. His Excellence stands firm against such graft. Recall what he did to the tax collectors.”

The day the first of the crooked tax collectors entered the arena, the cheers could be heard clear across the capitol, over the river and in the townships beyond.

Satchell sat back, suitably cowed.

“Of course, Maister Erdig. I meant no offense. You must know how this scheme sounds?”

Effram offered him smile number seven; moderate courtesy, combined with business-like efficiency.

“My apologies, Maister Satchell. I appreciate this is all radical thinking and your fellows from the Western cities may not appreciate the nature and scale of the venture. Forgive me for wasting your time.”

Effram rose from the table, offering a curt bow.

“A moment, Maister Erdig.”

Satchell’s ambition refused to let go both scheme and messenger so quickly. Effram sat.

“My consortium is, at times, a little risk averse. They would doubtless seek assurances before embarking on such a scheme.”

“Doubtless,” Effram agreed. “And I am sure a certain party on Minter’s hill would be more than willing to provide them. In person.”

Once more, Effram name dropped, without mentioning the name of the Chancellor himself.

“I am due at the residence at the ninth bell. I would be happy to pass on your interest and begin the arrangements. The meeting could take place as soon as tomorrow? If that’s your wish.”

Satchell broke into a broad smile. It stopped at the eyes. The merchant held on to his suspicion.

“Certainly Maister Erdig. You may count on us."

“Then I shall inform…” Effram deliberately avoided the name drop. “…the relevant party. I’ll be in touch. Shall we say this evening? The eighteenth bell?”

“With pleasure, Maister Erdig. With pleasure.”

Satchell maintained his smile. Though not in the eyes.

Effram rose, leaving the inn. He risked a cautious look back, to find Satchell in heated conversation with his two sons and the bodyguard.

Time to let out some line, lest the hook pull free.

Effram walked briskly through the Middle Ward. He turned East toward the administrative district and made his way up Minter’ Hill.

He checked his progress once or twice to make sure Satchell’s eldest son could follow. The youth lacked the street-craft to surveil and pursue unseen. Amateur.

Effram quickened his pace a little to arrive on the stroke of the Basilica’s ninth bell. Other bells clamored across the city as Effram mounted the steps. Two guards there paid little attention to his Imperial red coat, just another ministerial flunky.

Effram barely raised his hand to the elaborate brass knocker when the door opened and he strode in without hesitation.

He took a moment, standing in the very atrium of the Treasury. A fine, double staircase curved up on either side, rising toward the second floor gallery under the sunlit central dome. The light glinted off marbled floors and brass handles on fine hardwood doors, polished so brightly he could see his reflection. Behind each of them lay so many prizes for a gutter rat raised in the Bands.

Pieter, the footman in his plain black domestic coat, closed the street door.

“Come. Most of the staff are in the morning meeting in the Great Chamber. You need to move quickly.”

The pair took a side door from the entrance hall, through a narrow passage and descended the back stairs.

Pieter unbarred the back door for kitchen deliveries. Effram handed over the purse of silver coin and Pieter let him out into the street.

Effram shrugged off the coat and turned it through, the plain brown lining outermost. Not that the merchant’s son would see him. Effram took the hat from his pocket and put it on.

He circled around the treasury building and a quick check on the street confirmed Satchell’s son stationed opposite, in for a long, long wait. Likely a patrol of the Lances would spot him and move him on during the day.


The eighteenth bell found Satchell at table again.

The merchant bade Effram to sit as he approached.

“Your meeting went well?”

“I arrived in time for the Chancellor’s full Board meeting.”

“I know. You stayed some time.”

The merchant imitated a spy-master several degrees more skilled. Effram let him believe it.

“I see. And you know what time I left the residence?”

Doubt flickered behind the merchant’s eyes.

“Of course.”

Satchell did not. The son shuffled in his seat with embarrassment, moved on by the Lances, of course.

Effram reached inside his coat.

“I have an agreement. You should come to Minter’s Hill at tenth bell tomorrow. You’ll have the Chancellor’s personal seal on it by midday.”

Effram set the scroll on the table. Fully three feet of vellum, packed tightly with hand written script in the High Speech.

As Satchell reached for it, Effram cleared his throat.

“There is a complication.”

Satchell’s hand hovered over the scroll.

“A consortium from the Southern townships got wind of the scheme. It seems they have backing from the wheat growers and teamsters from the Mid-Counties. They have a vested interest in managing the bridge for their own traffic.”

Once more, Satchell saw the coffers of copper and silver melting away.

“What are we to do?” he squeaked.

“A small consideration to the Chancellor might close the door to the competition.”

The Chancellor’s reputation carried throughout the Empire. A genius of finance so valued, the Emperor allowed Demmik Frenzen, a free hand on two conditions: keep the army content and don’t overtax the working population of the Lower and Middle Wards. Beyond that, the Chancellor taxed, siphoned and clipped to his heart’s content.

“How small a consideration?”

“Five thousand crowns should be enough. The Chancellor is ill disposed to the Townships for their conflict of interest. He’s happier by far with your reputation and neutral position. The Townships and the Guilds will likely make a better offer of commission on the tolls, however.”

Satchell fidgeted at the prospect.

“Five thousand?”

“The bridge is easily worth ten thousand a quarter. Perhaps four thousand in costs?”

Effram described eye-watering amounts of silver for a provincial merchant.

Satchell ruminated for the longest time.

“Shall I return at, say, twentieth bell?” Effram ventured.

Satchell nodded once. Effram left in haste before the merchant raised any further questions or doubts.


At the back of the inn, Effram set down the small chest given him by the bodyguard, opening it with the key Satchell so reluctantly handed over.

The inside was filled with silver, inches deep, the most coin Effram ever handled. Clipped, re-clipped and shaved, coin regularly recalled and rotated through the Chancellor’s bastard smelt, as much tin as silver, it didn’t detract from the shine and the weight of it.

Effram transferred the coin to two sturdy leather bags and put those inside two plain hessian sacks, netted and roped so he could carry the heavy weight on his shoulder.

Leaving the Middle Ward through Antor, the thieves’ gate , made Effram smile. Walking quickly through the Lower Ward, twisting through narrow alleyways, Effram began to sweat in his double-layered coat.

He stopped beside a wooden building erected as a lean-to against the sturdy city wall. The sign of a barrel hung from the eaves. He took out a key for the side door and entered the cooper’s premises. The floor was filled with half-completed barrels, stacks of metal bands, wooden staves, butt-ends and caps of different diameters.

He moved a work table aside, lifting a large flagstone easily, counter-weighted from below. He lit a lantern, illuminating the wooden staircase that descended into a rectangle of darkness. The stairs led to a low passageway, shored up with timbers. The passage cut through the stout foundations of the city wall, braced with sturdy, cut-granite blocks to the same thickness of the fortifications above. He passed under the wall into the Bands; unseen, unheard.

Effram changed coat as he went, his Middle Ward apparel far too fine for the filth and squalor of the Bands.

On the other side, he passed into the cellar of another building, a ramshackle space filled with laundry baskets, through into a different cellar, this one more spacious, with laundry hanging from the beams above, dividing the space and hiding further doors or stairs.

There lurked a short figure in layers of black, a widow’s mourning weeds, frayed and faded, like those of an old woman.

The newcomer pushed back her shawl, revealing a young woman of twenty or so.

Effram put down the sacks, achingly sad. For less than an hour, he’d been a very wealthy man.

“We did it, Sorcha. We sold the King’s Bridge.”

“No, we didn’t,” came the sour response in the Cant.

“Your father…?”

“About other business.”

Jester, head of the Coterie, seemed always about other business. Mostly the business of hiding, under a reward large enough to tempt the denizens of the Bands to turn him in. Some said Jester was dead. Effram saw Jester’s hand prints all over this audacious scheme. Jester relied on Effram’s skills to pull it off.

Sorcha threw him a modest purse. Effram caught it, hefting its weight. He didn’t need to count it.

Wistfully he took a last look at the sacks of coin.

“What will Jester do with it?”

“What he needs.”

What the Coterie needed; pay off informers, the City Watch, a couple of ministers, some Guildsmen; supply enough bread to the Bands to remind them whose side they were on. Silver kept the wheels of the city turning, like the wheels in the central pier of the King’s Bridge itself.

“Satchell read the agreement?”

Effram scoffed.

“Of course not. He won’t find a scholar this time of night to translate it.”

“Where did you find it?"

“Apothgems’ guild. Far as I could make out it’s the first chapter of the founder’s memoir.”

“Satchell will go to the Treasury tomorrow?”

“The guards will deny him entry. He’ll make a fuss. Anyone from the Board will call him a liar and a fraud. The Lances will either throw him down the steps or arrest him.”

Effram smiled as he pictured the scene on the front steps of the grand Treasury building.

“How’s Maister Erdig?” he asked.

“Tied to a chair next door, dosed with henbane and brandy.”

Sorcha had no time to relish the outcome of a successful winding.

“You’ll need to find another scroll,” she instructed.


“The representatives of the Townships will be coming to talk to the Chancellor’s Agent tomorrow. Maister Erdig will explain how the Western Consortium has all but tied up the deal for the bridge. The Chancellor doesn’t entirely trust them, but the commission on the tolls is too good to pass up. Should be worth another five thousand to secure the agreement. I’ll leave the rest to you. I trust you can gain entry to the Treasury again, to make things look respectable?”

Effram risked a sly smile.

“About the Treasury…”

:copyright: Robin Catling 2022

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The concept of generating even more painful symptoms from the increased tolerance to poisons makes me cringe. But, hey, we’re writers. There’s definitely food for thought there. Brings to mind the old Stephen King story of Misery. Although that wasn’t poison, the same intrigues could be generated.

I was totally captured in your clever story of greed and extortion. Which book is it part of? Or is it a WIP?

Thank you. Standalone short story for a bit of practice on the prompt of diabolical plots.

It uses the setting of my WIP novels. Effram and Sorcha pop up as side characters in book 3 and have a less successful experience.

I like a good heist story. Even so, I had to sit down and formulate what makes one successful and wrote that up for the blog: The Art of the Long Con

Your story puts me in mind of a book I read years ago, that you may enjoy, called “The Palace Job” by Patrick Weekes. It’s the first in a series called “Rogues of the Republic”. I don’t recall the details (and had to look up the name to be honest), but it’s a similar type of book being a well-contrived heist of sorts in a fantasy world (although The Palace Job is perhaps more fantastical than your own in that the rich live in a city that floats above the proletariat below). Anyway, it was fun and I thought it might appeal to you.