The Stone Of Secrets

(being, in some sort, a continuation of The Light Of Araby)

by John M. Joyce (December 2009)

 

“Yes, well, talking of silver: have you any idea what these are?” Lushkins asked, handing him two small knife-like silver instruments encased in clear plastic bags, “I didn’t think that you would be here so I was going to ask Samantha but you still being here is a bonus.”
 
Mark took the two pieces of bagged silver and examined them carefully for a few moments.
 
“This one,” he said, holding up the bag containing the one with the strange little half-moon blade on the end of a stalk projecting from a finely worked handle, “is a sterling silver orange peeler made by Gorham and Company in 1900 in Providence, Rhode Island, and it’s worth round about £300.”
 
“And the other one?”
 
“Is a silver marrow scoop,” Mark answered, taking out his jewellers’ loupe and examining the marks as best he could through the plastic, “made by George Adams in London in 1843 and worth about £350. Are these pieces significant in some way?”
 
“You could say that. They were both found rammed into the neck of a very dead Sir Bernard Harks of Teal Hall.”
 
Mark was shocked by the news that Sir Bernard had been killed.
 
“But Bernard doesn’t collect silver, he collects antique furniture. He’s one of Sam’s best customers,” he blurted out, quite unable to think of anything else to say.
 
Lushkins noted the look of shocked sadness on the boy’s face but he carried on asking the things he needed to ask.
 
“Would Sam know what was in Sir Bernard’s collection?”
 
“She most certainly would because she catalogued it for him just a month or so ago, maybe longer. I’ll go and find her for you,” he volunteered, as he shot the D.C.I. a huge grin, “Here we go again.”
 
With that he sped off in search of Mrs. Samantha Fox-Talbot.
 
***
 
Lushkins had to wait just a minute or two before Mark re-appeared escorting Mrs. Fox-Talbot. As they walked towards him down the length of the elegant and well appointed reception area of the emporium he was struck by the singularly beautiful picture which they made against the backdrop of the carefully and artfully positioned objets d’arts.
 
Her fine halo of silver-gold hair above a delicately sculpted, beautiful and distinctly feminine face was complemented by Mark’s deeply rufus-gold shock of hair set above an equally finely sculpted, but masculine, face. Her clear, English-rose, complexion was matched by his equally clear and fine, pellucid, skin. The sinuous actions of their bodies as they walked towards him spoke of a comfort in each other’s presence. He noticed their eyes. Hers were a pale cornflower blue, deep and shining, but his, Mark’s, were of a deep and strange Royal blue – intense in colour and clear and bright. Both of them moved, however, with an easy beauty. They were comfortable in their bodies. They were completely unaware of the impression of beauty and elegance which they created and their utter lack of self-consciousness made them almost overwhelmingly magnificent in that opulent and gracious setting.
 
For D.C.I. Sir Michael Lushkins there was something incredibly sexual about watching the two of them walk towards him. Very nearly were his policeman’s instincts overtaken – nearly, but not quite.
 
“You two are related exactly how?” he asked as the pair drew level with him.
 
“That is not quite the question which I thought you would ask me first,” Samantha replied as she drew smilingly near to him, “But, since you do so ask, my dear Michael, Mark is my nephew. I thought that you knew that.”
 
“I didn’t. I never thought to ask either of you before.”
 
“Hmmn! My youngest sister married Mark’s father shortly after they both graduated from Cammbridge some thirty years ago now. Mark is their youngest child and my most very favourite nephew,” she said, as she turned towards young Mark and smiled a devastating smile at him – a smile, Lushkins noted with some small pleasure, which Mark seemed compleately impervious to.
 
“Yes indeed, Chief Inspector, this harridan is my aunt,” Mark added, laughingly, “And I, too, thought that you already knew that.”
 
“I didn’t. I really didn’t. I should have seen it sooner, though. It was only the sight of the pair of you walking towards me side by side that made me realise that you might be related. I’ve never seen you close together before. It’s not so much in your Saxon colouring as in your bone structure. There is a similar delicacy about your features, a fineness and a lightness, which made me think that you two are related.”
 
There was a brief moment of silence which Mark broke, a high colour flushing his cheeks.
 
“Well, that’s kind,” he said awkwardly, “My looks will be tempered by age, as I’m sure I told you once before. Samantha’s looks will, by the Grace of God, stay with her for all her years. However, you wanted to know about Bernard’s collection, did you not?”
 
Aware that he had committed some solecism or other in their canon, that he had touched too nearly upon some forbidden territory, Lushkins moved on swiftly and took his cue from Mark’s final sentence.
 
“I do. I need to know what was, precisely, in Sir Bernard’s collection. I understand, Sam, that you recently catalogued his collection.”
 
“I did,” she volunteered, “I catalogued and photographed, room by room, his entire collection for his insurance company. They needed to have an up to date professional valuation of the collection in order to determine the premium to be paid in these changing times.”
 
“What valuation did you place on the entire collection?” Lushkins asked.
 
“Thirty-eight million pounds,” Samantha replied without any hesitation.
 
“Plus or minus?” Lushkins asked.
 
“Five hundred thousand,” she replied. “Not more than that. I’m good at what I do, as you well know, and there’s no profit in trying to fool insurance companies.”
 
“Have you any method of telling me what might be missing from the collection – assuming that anything is missing, of course?”
 
“Naturally! I kept, as is usual and with Bernard’s full permission, a complete record of my assessment. I have a copy of all my written descriptions, photographs and judgements as to the value of his pieces. That’s standard practice when called upon to value a collection for insurance purposes. One gives two copies to the owner – one for him and one for his lawyer – a copy to the insurers, one keeps a copy and one deposits a copy with ones own lawyer – in my case with my brother-in-law, Mark’s father, who, naturally, is my lawyer.”
 
Lushkins turned to Mark. “Was there any silverware at all in Sir Bernard’s collection?” he asked the youngster.
 
“Yes,” Mark answered, “But nothing to write home about. Just the usual stuff which one would expect to find in a well appointed country house. A couple of sets of good cutlery, some good early plate, a dozen or so good pieces in sterling silver, five reasonably good epergnes, some Indian stuff – not surprising given that the Harks made their money out there with the John Company – a few other bits and pieces and a rather nice dressing case which Bernard kept in his bedroom. I valued the silver for the insurance company and I reckoned it was worth, in today’s market, about a quarter of a million. Like Sam, I kept a copy of my assessment, gave two to Bernard, one to the company and I deposited one with my father, who, naturally, is my lawyer as well.”
 
Lushkins noted Mark’s last phrase. He had the distinct impression that the pair of them was, in common police parlance, ‘lawyering up’.
 
“Were the two pieces which I showed to you a few minutes ago in Sir Bernard’s collection?” Lushkins asked Mark.
 
“The marrow scoop, or at least a nearly identical one, was – and nine almost identical ones were made by George Adams in that year, but I would be able to tell each of them apart, naturally, but the Gorham orange peeler wasn’t – at least it wasn’t in the collection when I valued his silver ten weeks ago,” he replied, “However, given Bernard’s ongoing purchasing of anything which took his fancy it’s not inconceivable that he could have bought the peeler within the last ten weeks. Oh, and just like the marrow scoop, the orange peeler is not unique – Gorham made a lot of them, probably a hundred or so of them in that year and I couldn’t tell all of them apart because Gorham used industrial processes to mould silver and there was very little hand-finishing involved on their cheaper pieces. It’s going to take a lot of work to track down all of the scoops and peelers and tell you just which ones were involved in this murder if it turns out that neither of them belonged to Bernard.”
 
“OK. So, Sam, it seems that the furniture might be important,” Lushkins continued decisively, “How quickly could you tell me if there was anything missing from Sir Bernard’s collection?”
 
“Give me unfettered access to Teal Hall for two working days and I’ll tell you if there is anything missing,” she answered, “But with the same proviso as Mark stated; I can’t tell you about anything which Bernard might have bought after I conducted my valuation and for all you, or we, know the solution to this crime might revolve around a recent purchase – or, as I’m sure you’ve already considered, it might have absolutely nothing to do with Bernard’s collecting habits whatsoever.”
 
“Yes, I’d considered that but in the absence of any other clues I think it might be a good place to start. After all, I’d have to eliminate Sir Bernard’s collection as a possible motive, anyway,” the D.C.I. answered.
 
“Very true,” Mark said, “When can you give us access to the Hall?”
 
“Us?” Lushkins queried.
 
“Yes, us,” Mark replied firmly, “You can’t just come in here and produce two pieces of silver, one of them which I probably valued ten weeks ago, and then exclude me from the Hall. I must check the silverware against my lists because for all you know at the moment it might be that the silverware was the motive rather than the furniture. After all, it was the silverware rammed into his neck which killed poor Bernard and that strikes me as being in some way a little ritualistic, wouldn’t you agree.”
 
Lushkins was much struck by this point of view but decided to agree with the boy only in a grudging way. He knew he was being mean but he hated to be out-thought by a teenager – even one as intelligent and commandingly beautiful as this one.
 
“Well,” he said letting doubt and uncertainty suffuse his voice, “I don’t suppose it would do any harm. I suppose that I can let you check the silver. Just don’t go messing up my crime scene!”
 
“Really!” Mark exclaimed with a broad smile playing across his face.
 
‘Damn it,’ thought Lushkins, knowing from Mark’s expression that his faux reluctance had been seen through, ‘this young man is just too clever!’
 
“OK,” he said aloud, “Forensics should be finished by the morning. I’d be grateful if the two of you could start anytime after that.”
 
“We’ll drive out just as soon as we can after we open up here,” Samantha assured him, “and we’ll let you know what we find – or don’t find – as soon as possible thereafter.”
 
A little social chitchat ensued and then Lushkins made to leave. As he opened the door and stepped out onto the High Street Mark called out to him.
 
“Don’t worry, Sir Michael, I won’t let Samantha mess up your crime scene!”
 
Ouch! Lushkins continued smoothly out onto the pavement without a backward glance and quietly closed the door. Although he was piqued by the cheek of the boy he was smiling in admiration at the perfect timing of the remark – any acknowledgement that he had heard it would have been boorish and would have put him in a weak defensive and explanatory position – and smiling also at the carefully calculated use of his title. The boy had deftly delivered a real Shavian moment of social wit and put-down and in that instant Mark’s stock went up in Lushkins’ estimation.
 
***
 
Mrs. Samantha Fox-Talbot and Mr. Mark Simmons drove out to Teal Hall shortly after half past nine the following morning in Mrs. Fox-Talbot’s Bugatti Type 55 Roadster – the model with the twin valves and the double overhead camshaft 130 horsepower unit with the Roots-type Supercharger and the four-geared manual shift transmission. Only thirty-eight of these cars had ever been built and this particular exemplar had been engineered in 1934 in the factory at Molsheim in Alsace under the supervision of the great Ettore Bugatti himself. It is an exceedingly light and powerful motor vehicle – skittish in its handling and inclined to break any speed limit without warning. Samantha controlled the little beast in an assured manner born of familiarity and let it break every speed limit it wanted to.
 
As a result it took scarcely twenty minutes before they were bowling up the two miles long driveway to Teal Hall. As they approached the great house Mark and Samantha thought that they caught a momentary glimpse of several soberly dressed men in the undergrowth beside the carriageway.
 
‘Forensic teams’, they both thought, and dismissed them from their minds.
 
Samantha parked the car in front of the great, rambling, old house and Mark assisted her in fitting the tonneau cover for the sky had a distinct look of rain about it. They went inside carrying their briefcases and laptops and after a few brief words with the Police Sergeant in the entrance hall they split up and started work.
 
Five minutes later Mark took out his mobile ‘phone and called Samantha.
 
“This is all wrong!” he said when she answered.
 
“Yes, it is. Meet me in Bernard’s study,” she replied crisply and hung up.
 
She was already there when he opened the door and stepped into the room.
 
“You’ve got a lot more silverware than was here when you catalogued it ten weeks ago?” she asked.
 
“More! Masses more!” he exclaimed, “There must be at least five or six times more than was here when I did the valuation – maybe even more than that. There’s some really good English pieces but the bulk so far are really good pieces from India but some of them are incredibly old. Some, I’m almost positive, are over fifteen hundred years old. I’ve got innumerable boxes and carved animals and Raj era cigarette cases and card cases from Rajasthan, incredibly good and very old filigree work from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, tons of etched and engraved items from Kashmir and so much magnificent Lucknow plate that it’s going to take me ages to identify it all. There’s even two solid silver banqueting services probably made in Kashmir in the early years of the Raj but then sent south to Orissa where some of the most stunning lace filigree borders I’ve ever seen were added to the items. I’ve got...”
 
“OK, OK. I get the picture. Do you want to know about the furniture?” Samantha asked, amused by the sparkle of excitement in Mark’s eyes.
 
“Sorry, sorry, yes. I get carried away sometimes.”
 
“I had noticed,” she said, smiling kindly at him, “I’ve got four or five times more furniture than was here when I valued the collection. There are quite a number of magnificently fine English and European pieces but the bulk of the increase is Indian furniture – some of it over a thousand years old and so fragile and rare that I don’t even want to touch it without getting our conservators from the shop to come out here to advise me! It’s going to take weeks to sort this mess out. I think I should telephone Michael and let him know, don’t you?”
 
“Yes, I do. This is really very odd indeed, Sam. I mean Bernard couldn’t possibly have purchased all of these extra items in the last ten weeks. We would have known about the sale of most of these pieces; in fact the entire trade would have known. And I don’t think that any of them are stolen, either. I cull the Police watch lists regularly, as I know that you do, and I haven’t spotted anything so far that’s been on watch lists since I learnt to read.”
 
“Same here,” she agreed, reaching into her pocket and taking out her mobile.
 
She pressed a few keys and waited for Lushkins to answer.
 
“Michael, it’s Samantha,” she said when he did, “I think that you had better come out to Teal Hall as soon as you can. We have a most unusual problem.”
 
Some reply was given by Lushkins and Samantha said a goodbye and hung up.
 
“He’s going to come out but he can’t get away for another hour so we’ve got at least an hour and a half to kill. What do you want to do while we wait?” she asked, turning to face him.
 
Mark was staring intently at the carpet and he didn’t appear to have heard her. She walked across to him and placed her hand on his shoulder.
 
“It’s a Thomas Whitty carpet made for this room in 1759, just shortly after he opened the first factory at Axminster,” she said.
 
“Yeah, yeah; any fool can see that. And it’s been restored shortly before the Second World War – that would be during Harry Dutfield’s time at Axminster – as any other fool can see. But look at these four indentations in the pile. They’re deep and they’ve crushed and broken the wool fibres to such an extent that those marks’ll be permanent. Something very heavy indeed stood here and whatever it was it’s not in this room now. What was it Sam?”
 
She walked back to her briefcase and opened it on Sir Bernard’s huge Edwardian partner’s desk which dominated the room. Riffling through the papers inside she found the photographs of the study which she had taken some ten weeks before.
 
Mark joined her at the desk. Together they inspected thoroughly each of the photographs but not one of them showed any object at all in the precise position where the indentations were. The last eight pictures they looked at were the cardinal shots – one taken from each of the four corners of the room and one taken from the centre of each wall of the room – showed nothing, also. They straightened up and looked at each other.
 
“There’s nothing here,” Samantha stated.
 
“There is, you know. All the furniture in that corner of the room where those marks are has been moved. Look at this photo’,” he said, picking up and brandishing the cardinal picture taken from the middle of the south wall, “You can see clearly when you compare this photograph with the room today that all of the furniture has been moved by several inches since you took it in order to accommodate whatever made those marks and if you look at the room now you can plainly see that it has never been moved back again after whatever has stood there was removed. You’re just looking at the furniture, look at the positions of the pieces.”
 
Samantha grabbed the waving picture from his hand and studied it minutely and then she looked at the room.
 
“Grief! You’re right,” she agreed, “Everything’s been moved since I took these pictures. Whatever stood there is missing and that’s exactly what Michael wanted us to find, isn’t it?”
 
“Well...yes! But, and but, we don’t know what stood there and we don’t know that whatever it is, or was, isn’t somewhere else in the house, do we?” Mark answered in a gently patronising way, “And we also don’t know whether or not anything else is missing either so let’s go carefully before leaping to conclusions.”
 
“You’re right,” she replied, decisively, “But it shouldn’t take you and me more than three quarters of an hour to do a walk through of this place and determine whether or not there is anything here that could have made those marks in the carpet. We know the footprint and its size and we know that the piece was very heavy. You take the west side of the house and I’ll take the east.”
 
“Let’s do it! Meet you back here in forty-five minutes,” he agreed, “And I’ll bet my bottom dollar, Sam, that the piece we’re looking for is probably a piece from the sub-continent.”
 
“Yep. I agree. Let’s go! Meet you back here as soon as maybe.”
 
Just under forty minutes later they both arrived back, almost simultaneously, in Sir Bernard’s study.
 
“Did you find anything remotely likely?” Samantha asked Mark.
 
“Not a thing,” he answered, “You?”
 
“Nothing remotely answering to that footprint,” she replied, indicating the dents in the carpet, “But lots more stuff than was here when I did the valuation.”
 
“Same here. Lots and lots of silver pieces that simply weren’t here ten weeks ago but nothing that could have made those marks.”
 
“I think that I’ll go down to the kitchens and rustle us up some tea. There’s nothing quite like a good a cup of tea to clear the mind.”
 
“Good idea,” Mark agreed, “Make it a big pot. Something tells me that this is a four cup problem.”
 
“Oh, very Conan-Doyle,” Samantha said as she walked across the room to the door, “You’ll be asking for your pipe and your needles soon, if you’re not careful.”
 
“Why on earth should I require a tubular wind instrument and acerate leaves, Sam?” he asked with a markedly humorous note in his voice, “when this problem merely requires the application of the ‘little grey cells’.”
 
Oui, Hercule, I shall fetch your tisane.”
 
Merci, Miss Lemon. Be speedy in your self-appointed task, if you please,” he replied in a cod Walloon-cum-Picard accent – a mere pale imitation of Suchet’s excellent rendition of Christie’s imagined great detective.
 
Laughing, she closed the door on her way out and strode down the corridor towards the kitchens. Mark sat down in the study and gazed vacantly at the comforting bookcase which lined the wall opposite to where he sat whilst letting his mind consider all that he, Samantha and Lushkins, had found out. Nothing made very much sense and he knew that he was missing something – something important. By the time that Samantha, in her role as his Miss Lemon, returned with the tea tray he had almost worked out this part of the puzzle.
 
As she set the tea tray gently down on the low table in front of Mark and lowered herself into the chair opposite him he suddenly stood up.
 
“Got it!” he exclaimed, “Whilst you were in the kitchen making tea I just sat and tried to make sense of what information we have but something kept trying to surface in my brain and every time I tried to let it then it just sort of sidled off. However, I grabbed it this time as it sidled back again as you put the tray down.”
 
With that, he sat down again.
 
“Well, what was your stray thought?” Samantha prompted him
 
“Oh, oh, yes. Sorry. It’s simply this. Bernard lived here quite alone except for the twelve women he employed who came in twice a week to dust and vacuum and polish and so on. It’s a huge old house but it’s kept immaculately. Everything is tidy – even his desk. There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. Now, do you remember that he was fascinated by our way of working – by the way we took photographs of each object in a room and cardinal shots of the room in its final arrangement, by the way we always laid a brightly coloured foot rule on each piece for the second shot of the piece and by the way we asked him for several floor plans of the house and measured each room and dotted in the furniture?”
 
“Yes, I do. We impressed upon him that if he acquired any new pieces he was to do the same and add his description of the pieces just as we do. He went out and bought a digital camera and a printer and dozens of coloured foot rules the very next day.”
 
“Precisely! So where are the photographs of, and the reports on, all the new bits?” Mark asked, “There was something of the obsessive/compulsive about Bernard so I feel absolutely sure that he would have done as we advised once he determined to himself that what we showed him to do was the correct way of working.”
 
“The photographs are probably in his desk,” Samantha replied, “I’ll check. He never locked it.”
 
She got up and went over to the desk. After two or three minutes of systematically searching every draw she had to admit defeat. There were no photographs and no reports in the desk. She went back to the tea which Mark had poured and sat down. Mark looked at her quizzically.
 
“Not there,” she said and took a sip of her tea, “I’ll ‘phone the insurance company and ask if he turned in a new report after we turned ours in.”
 
She reached for her mobile just as Mark sprang to his feet again and strode quickly over to the bookcase and started to thrust his hand behind the books systematically on each shelf and slide it along.
 
“Do you know Sam,” he said as he was performing those actions, “I sometimes think that I don’t even have the brains that I as born with. Ah-ha, got it.”
 
With that there was an audible click and an entire section of the bookcase swung outwards into the room. Mark pushed this revealed door of books wide open and there in a space behind stood a large safe.
 
“Good grief,” Samantha exclaimed, “Do you think the new records are in there?”
 
“Yep, I do.”
 
“Well, without the combination we’re not going to find out, are we,” she stated in a slightly questioning way as Mark walked across to his briefcase, opened it and took out his stethoscope.
 
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” he said with a wicked grin on his face.
 
“Michael is not going to like this.”
 
“D.C.I. Lushkins isn’t here,” he replied, dragging one of a pair of George III upholstered mahogany side chairs across to the safe, sitting down on it and starting to work on the dial.
 
She poured herself another cup tea and sat and watched him. Occasionally he grunted to himself in a satisfied way but mostly the only sound she heard was of him counting upward.
 
“One,” long silence punctuated by the odd grunt.
 
“Two,” then another silence.
 
“Three,” followed by another silence broken by grunts.
 
“Four. Oh damn and blast it! It’s been tricked up,” upon which he stood up and left the room.
 
Samantha was only slightly surprised for she was used to Mark’s sometimes unusual behaviour. She sat and sipped her tea and awaited his return with patience.
 
She didn’t have long to wait for a scant five minutes later he returned with a youngish man, obviously a Policeman, in tow.
 
“Sam, this is Detective Constable Matthew Ashburton and what he doesn’t know about safes isn’t worth knowing. Matt, this is Mrs. Samantha Fox-Talbot.”
 
They shook hands and Samantha liked what she saw. There was intelligence in D.C. Ashburton’s eyes and firmness in his grip – but not an overpowering, dominating firmness. He stood just slightly shorter than Mark but his colouring and build couldn’t have been more different. Where Mark was light and gossamer, he was dark and full muscled. Mark looked as if he had never had to shave in his life whereas Matthew had a smudge of stubble shadow even that early in the day. Mark was crisp and trim and elegant in his startlingly white hand-made silk shirt and bespoke charcoal Saville Row suit but Matthew, although neat, looked somehow provincial and dowdy in his tailor-made dark suit and off the shelf shirt. Mark, when his face was in repose, looked forbiddingly beautiful but somehow, she knew, this man, Ashburton, could never look anything other than friendly – he had that sort of a face, the sort of face that people could, and would, trust. She sensed, in a womanly way, that the face didn’t lie and that he was a trustworthy and honest man. She noted the gold wedding band on his finger, the carefully pressed in creases in his trousers and the high gloss on his cheap department store shoes – all of which spoke of a loving and attentive wife.
 
The proper pleasantries having been exchanged D.C. Ashburton turned his attention to the safe.
 
“You’re right,” he said to Mark, “It’s a Phoenix but you should have noticed the dial. That’s not a Phoenix fitted dial. Of course it’s been tricked up! Didn’t I teach you anything? You were on the fourth move, I think you said, so what did you hear?”
 
“Three falls then a short silence then one fall then a short silence then two falls.”
 
“Definitely tricked up. The next move has to be clockwise and we need to count the falls when you find the number. Blast! I haven’t got my ‘scope with me.”
 
“You can borrow mine if you want,” Samantha offered walking across to her briefcase and withdrawing her stethoscope from it. She handed it to him and he gave her a warm smile of thanks – completely unfazed by her possession of such an implement.
 
She watched as the light and the dark hunched against the safe and smiled inwardly. Ever since Mark had joined her in the business life had become very much more interesting than it had been previously. It was almost as if he was some sort of magnet which drew adventures and mysteries inexorably towards him.
 
It was thus that Lushkins found them when he walked quietly into the late Sir Bernard’s study. Samantha, cup of tea in hand, gazing at Mark and D.C. Ashburton intently trying to crack open the safe. He took in the situation at a glance and, since he was by no means a stupid man, he refrained from uttering a word lest he broke the concentration of the pair working on the safe. He had in the past been grateful for his Detective Constable’s somewhat unorthodox interest in safes and the art of cracking them and, like Samantha now did, and Mark also and for some months, knew him for an honest man.
 
The pair by the safe suddenly hollered and did a high five. Simultaneously they reached for the lever, pulled it upwards and swung the door open. There was no sudden sight of great riches as the door swung open – no gasping moment of sparkling gewgaws spilling to the floor – just the sight of serried ranks of box files all carefully labelled in Sir Bernard’s spidery hand. It took scarcely a moment for Mark to identify the correct one and pull it out.
 
“OK! Enough! Would somebody please tell me what’s going on,” Lushkins demanded.
 
Samantha rapidly filled him in on what she and Mark had discovered so far.
 
“So,” he said at the end of her recitation of events, “You think that what’s missing from this room might be the key as to why Sir Bernard was murdered?”
 
“Might be, yes,” Mark answered for both of them, “But might not be, also. We won’t know until we’ve been through the file and even then we might not find anything conclusive.”
 
“Well, let’s go through the file,” Lushkins said, indicating the desk.
 
Mark carried the box file over to the desk and the other three gathered round. He opened it and began to disinter the papers within. The topmost papers were copies of the Will and the Death Certificate of the late William Harks, younger brother of Sir Bernard, and it was clear from them that all the additional items present in Teal Hall were from his estate. He had left his entire collection to his older brother, or his brother’s heirs, together with a substantial amount of money (some five hundred million pounds) along with instructions that the two collections were to be amalgamated and that Sir Bernard was to make arrangements for their collections to be available for public viewing if he thought it correct to do so. The rest of the file was a detailed inventory, compiled by Sir Bernard, of William’s collection as it was returned to his ancestral home – Teal Hall. About three quarters of the way into the file were the photographs of Sir Bernard’s study after he had joined together the two collections. It appeared from the papers in the file that William had died some five months ago so Sir Bernard’s insurance company’s request for an independent valuation of his collection was obviously to help in the quantification of the different risks arising from the two collections before they were amalgamated. It appeared that probate on William’s will had been granted shortly after Samantha and Mark had valued Bernard’s collection and that the many additional pieces present in Teal Hall had arrived shortly thereafter and were from William’s collection.
 
The pictures of Sir Bernard’s study taken after the amalgamation of the two collections were carefully laid out on the desk by Mark. Four heads bent over them. They quite plainly showed the repositioned furniture but it was obvious that they had been very carefully taken so as not to show more than glimpses of a corner or two, or some tiny parts of, the missing piece of furniture.
 
“Well I never did!” Samantha exclaimed. “Fairly obviously Bernard didn’t want anyone to know about whatever it was that was in this room.”
 
“Least of all his insurance company,” Lushkins added, glancing at Mark who was simply gazing pensively into space.
 
He suddenly snapped out of his reverie: “Come on Sam, let’s get back to the shop. There’s nothing more we can do here,” he said decisively. “Matt, can you put this lot back in the safe and secure it again?”
 
“Not a problem,” the Detective Constable replied as he began to gather the file together again.
 
“Just a moment,” Lushkins broke in commandingly, “This is my investigation and I give the orders around here. Mark, tell me, have you spotted something in the photographs that I should know about?”
 
Mark noted the steely and commanding tone in his voice. “No, yes...maybe, oh I don’t know! I just have a stupid feeling that I have done, or that leastways I ought to have done. I’ll tell you tomorrow when I’ve had time to think,” he replied in a somewhat flustered fashion. At that he grabbed his briefcase and laptop and swiftly left the room before Lushkins had a chance to say anything further. Samantha flashed a look of apology to Lushkins and followed suit.
 
***
 
Samantha knew better than to interrupt Mark’s ratiocination as she drove them both back into town. She’d seen him like this on a number of occasions and knew him well enough to know that he was desperately trying to dredge some half-forgotten piece of information from the recesses of his memory. Even so, she was surprised when he asked to be set down at the railway station.
 
“Why?” she asked him as she pulled into the station forecourt.
 
“I need to check something at the British Museum and trawl through a few manuscripts at the National Library,” he replied, “Don’t worry, Sam. I think I can guess what the missing object from Bernard’s study is but it’s so fantastical a theory that I don’t want to tell anybody until I’m certain. I’ll catch the last train back. Don’t wait up for me.”
 
***
 
Mark used his time in London very profitably indeed. He was well known to the staffs at the BM and the National Library and they helped him in their usual calm and courteous ways. If some of his requests seemed illogical to them then they didn’t show it or argue with him, they simply provided their usual impeccable levels of service. He’d left his laptop by accident in Samantha’s car so he had to take copious shorthand notes from many of the documents he viewed, and he requested photocopies of some of the illustrations from one or two of them as well.
 
Early in the evening he took the Tube to Green Park and made his way to his father’s club on St. James’s of which he was a junior member. He borrowed a laptop from one of his father’s many friends and composed an exhaustive document which he emailed to Lushkins, to himself and to Samantha. Then he destroyed his entire notepad through the crosscut shredder in the club secretary’s office, put the photocopies he’d obtained earlier into an envelope addressed to Lushkins and left it with the club porter for posting in the morning. He then ate a late dinner at his father’s expense in the club’s well-appointed dining room and shortly thereafter left the club and caught the last train from Paddington back to B_____shire.
 
***
 
Round about half past one in the morning Mark quietly unlocked and opened the courtyard door which gave access to the stairway that led to the flats above the shop. Deftly he cancelled the burglar alarm well within the allowed twenty seconds, closed and relocked the door and made his way up the three flights of stairs and onto the residency level at the top of the building. Just as he was about to let himself into his own flat he noticed a tell tale glow of light escaping from around the edges of the door of Samantha’s flat. He crossed to the door and scratched gently upon it. Moments later his aunt opened it and ushered him inside, closed the door and, from long habit, reset the alarm.
 
“Sam, I said that you shouldn’t wait up for me.”
 
“What on earth did you think I was going to do after I got your email?” she replied, “Are you absolutely certain about what you found out?”
 
“As certain as it’s possible to be after sixteen hundred years.”
 
“What did you do with photocopies?”
 
“Posted them to Lushkins. He should get them in the last post tomorrow; today I suppose I mean. Put the kettle on, Sam, I’m parched. I know I shouldn’t have drunk that entire bottle of Johannisberger Spatlese at dinner. Rieslings, even the great Johannisberger, always give me such a thirst.”
 
“From which I divine that you chalked your dinner up to your father at the club,” she said rather waspishly, “You really shouldn’t, you know.”
 
“Why not?” he replied with a note of bitterness creeping into his voice, “It’s the least that he owes me ...us. Oh, don’t let’s argue about all that again. Get some tea and I’ll tell you all about what I found out that I didn’t put in my email.”
 
The momentary, well worn and familiar to both of them, spat was over and they smiled at each other. Samantha went through to the kitchen and put the kettle on. She shivered as she flicked the switch and instead of returning to the sitting room she headed into her bedroom to find her black Chanel wrap. As she glanced through her wardrobe and reached out the wrap and draped it over her shoulders she heard a sudden and almost deafening crash followed immediately by the loud yammering of the alarm system and a scant second or two later another and much louder crash. Startled by the noise it took her a moment or two to realise what must be happening. Once she did so she quite calmly and very quickly walked across to her bedside table, opened its top draw and picked up the little silver-stocked, 1866, point four one rimfire caliber Remington derringer which lay within. She’d never had to use this little vertically double barrelled pistol before but she knew that it was in perfect working order and that it aimed true and straight for David Anstruther, her firearms expert in the shop, had told her so when he gave it to her – against his better judgement as he never ceased but to remind her – some few years ago.
 
In a quite collected and composed manner she ran back to her sitting room and burst noisily into it just in time to see one of two armed and masked men snatch Mark’s briefcase from the occasional table where he’d put it down whilst the other one fired two rounds from the doorway into Mark’s slight figure. As she saw Mark crumple under the impact of the two shots a huge surge of anger engulfed her and she raised her little pistol and fired at the man in the doorway.
 
He dropped his gun and clutched at his left arm and yelled something that to her ears sounded like ‘gayheeba kara beech’(Notes). Calmly she turned and levelled her pistol at the other man who bolted for the doorway whilst repeatedly snarling something that sounded much like ‘koos’(Notes) to her. Like some cartoon the two of them became momentarily wedged in the door frame and she fired at the one who had snatched the briefcase. She saw a spurt of blood from his right side just below his ribcage and she knew that she had seriously wounded him. Suddenly they burst free of the doorway and with panic at their heels they dashed madly down the stairs and out of the building.
 
She stood absolutely still for a moment or two knowing that if the men returned she was now defenceless for the Remington held only two shots and all her other guns were locked safely in the vaults in the cellar four floors below and that their firing pins were in David’s safe in his office at the far end of the building. He was the only licensed firearms trader she had and he took his responsibilities very seriously indeed. He didn’t just obey the letter of the law he also went out of his way to comply with the spirit of it also.
 
Then she remembered Mark and suddenly all in a panic she leapt across the small room and dropped to her knees beside him. He was still conscious but obviously in great pain and he was bleeding copiously from two wounds – one to his neck and one to his chest. Madly, and in desperation, she attempted to staunch the flow of blood. She grabbed the cushions off the chairs around her and pressed them to his wounds. She tugged her wrap from her shoulders and bundled it up and put it under his head. She lunged for her handbag and grabbed her mobile ‘phone from its innards and in blind panic punched the ‘9’ key repeatedly.
 
She looked down at Mark. “It won’t ... do ... them any ...good,” he gasped up to her, “I ... shredded ... everything at ... the club.” Then silence. She couldn’t even hear him breath. She couldn’t hear anything. She felt two strong arms around her lifting her up. She saw, but she didn’t, she couldn’t, hear the room fill with policemen and ambulance medics in their fluorescent jackets. In perfect silence she witnessed these strange people, were they people, gather round Mark and do strange things with awful implements to him and then float him from the room and away from her.
 
Suddenly the sound rushed back and she became aware that she was standing in her own sitting room and that Michael Lushkins had his arms wound tightly around her and that he was trying to say something to her and that she was struggling in his grip in a futile attempt to follow Mark. She stopped struggling. The voice inside her, the essential her, reasserted itself.
 
‘You’re an Englishwoman for G_d’s sake,’ it whispered to her, the spirit of England born into her blood and bones whispered at her, ‘What on earth are you doing behaving like some foreigner and going into hysterics because of some pistol shots and some spilt blood. Your ancestors built an empire and tamed a world. You’re better than this – pull yourself together and act rationally.’
 
She did just that. She knew it was right and Lushkins sensed the change in her and released his grip as she calmly sought to disengage from his protective embrace, but he kept hold of her hands and guided her to an untainted chair.
 
“He’ll be alright,” he stated looking straight into her eyes, “I know that it looks like he’s lost a lot of blood but he hasn’t, honestly. A little blood goes a long way. I’ve seen shootings before and believe me, Samantha, the bullets haven’t hit anything vital. He will survive. And I need you to tell me what happened here. I need you to be you – the rational ‘you’ I’ve known for the last many years. Can you do that?”
 
“Yes, I can do that Michael,” she replied quite composed but with a slight nervous sob in her voice, “But I’m confused. What are you doing here so soon? How did help arrive so quickly? I didn’t ... I couldn’t ... even dial 999 correctly – I remember that – and the terrible silence. Why did everything go so quiet, Michael?”
 
“OK. Let me answer your questions one by one. First off, I figured out just after I got Mark’s email that he would probably take the last train back from London and I was already half way down the High Street to interview him before he went to bed when your alarm went off. Secondly: because of his email I had already thought that he might be at some risk and I’d already asked the uniformed branch to place a twenty-four hour watch on your premises so there was already a Constable on duty just outside. She saw the men who attacked you both follow Mark up from the railway station and she had already radioed for backup as they broke in. Thirdly: as soon as your alarm went off both she and I called the ambulance service because it’s standard procedure to have medics in attendance if one suspects that a violent crime might be about to be committed. Fourthly: after the incident with, and Mark’s Godfather’s murder, the Chiming Stars of Persia, I am much more inclined to believe than ever before that we are facing some organised Islamist criminal attempt to gather in all the superstitious elements of that psuedo-faith, and any items of power of the other faiths that they feel might benefit them in their bid for world domination.”
 
“As for the awful silence which you experienced I think that there are two probable explanations for that. The first is, naturally, shock. Some people seem to lose the power of recall totally; some lose the visual memory and others lose aural memory but I think that on this occasion you temporarily lost the power to hear anything because you experienced some very loud gunfire reports in a confined space – this small room – and your ears simply closed down.”
 
“Look, let’s go the hospital and see how he’s getting on and you can tell me all about what happened here whilst we wait.”
 
“You mean, let’s get out of the way while forensics do their stuff,” Samantha responded.
 
“Yes,” Michael replied bluntly, “and you can tell me what the heck you were doing in having that Remington pistol in your possession. And I’ll tell you all about the man we captured in your loading bay – the one you, I presume, wounded in the side.”
 
“OK,” she agreed, “But I think that there is something else that you ought to know.”
 
“What?”
 
“The Light of Araby never made it to the Vatican!” Samantha stated baldly.
 
That threw Lushkins completely out of his stride.
 
“That’s impossible!” Lushkins yelped, “We monitored everything every step of the way right up to the handover in the Chapel of Saint Martin and Saint Sebastian inside the Vatican itself – the Swiss Guard chapel, for Heaven’s sake. Nothing went wrong. We never left Mark and those blasted candelabra alone for one single second. I had my instructions from London and I followed them to the letter. I can track those damned pieces right from the Mosler vault at Selby Manor all the way to the Chapel and I’ll guarantee that they made it to the Vatican!”
 
Very quietly, almost inaudibly, Samantha simply said, “But Mark unpacked them in the Chapel and recognised, instantly, the Light of Araby which he unpacked for the forgery that it was. As did Father Basil.”
 
“Basil Fotheringay, S.J.?”
 
“Yes!”
 
“Oh s**t; oh s**t; oh s**t. Where did we go wrong?” Lushkins panicked and vocalised. Father Basil was the Vatican’s foremost, nay, the world’s foremost, expert on antique and ancient silverware – well, next to Mark Simmons he was.
 
“You sure?” he asked in a slightly calmer voice.
 
“Yes,” she replied, “Mark told me so when he came back from Rome and I’ll swear that he was telling me the truth. I wasn’t to tell anybody unless something happened to him. Something has happened to him so I’m telling you now.”
 
Samantha noted the tacit acceptance by Lushkins that Father Basil and young Mark must be correct in their diagnosis of forgery. But she noted, also, the willing belief that the pair of them was on his side, on her side. In that very acceptance she suddenly found doubt, she became unsure. Just what was Mark playing at, she wondered? She knew Mark very well indeed. So well, she suddenly realised, that she wouldn’t trust him one single inch in this affair. In her world he was only nineteen but, she suddenly realised, he had an old, an ancient, spirit – likely corrupt and following its own star. It was an awakening moment, a startling and, for her, an unwilling and nasty awakening moment that she knew she could never share with Lushkins, that she could never let Mark see that she had realised either.
 
She felt very alone and she knew, she just knew, that events were running much, much deeper than either she or D.C.I. Lushkins could ever know – but she suspected that Mark knew much more than he was telling!
 
***
 
Forty-eight hours later Mrs. Samantha Fox-Talbot and D.C.I. Sir Michael Lushkins were seated side by side at Mark’s hospital bed. Mark was conscious and propped up on several pillows but he looked, to Lushkins’ eye, almost transparent – much as one might imagine a forest elf to look. It seemed that he was somehow less real, less substantial than he had been before the shooting. Samantha noticed the same thing but for her he simply appeared more fragile and more unreal – more like some precious and easily damaged piece of Sevres early soft paste porcelain.
 
Those fanciful notions were quickly dispelled by Mark’s first words.
 
“Where’s my grapes?” he asked, “Don’t you know that it’s traditional to bring grapes and chocolate digestive biscuits to the wounded who have been hospitalised?”
 
Lushkins grinned and handed over a brown paper bag full of lusciously sweet red, almost black, Regent grapes.
 
“Will these do?” he asked as handed the bag across.
 
“I didn’t bring digestives, I brought Jaffa cakes,” Samantha added as she gave Mark her package, “I know you prefer them.”
 
“Ripping! Thank’s both. But I’ll bet that this isn’t just a social call!” Mark stated, cramming a handful of the grapes into his mouth and following them with two Jaffa cakes.
 
“Well, no,” Lushkins admitted, “I need to know some more detail about the Stone of Secrets you emailed me about. What is it, precisely? Why is it important? Does it have any bearing on Sir Bernard’s murder? Do you feel well enough to fill us in on the details?”
 
“Good Heavens, I’m well enough but the idiots here keep giving me pain-killers and I keep falling asleep under the influence of them so listen carefully for I will say this only once. The piece that is missing from Sir Bernard’s study is the Stone Throne – the Stone Of Secrets was embedded in the throne of the ruler of Mahlhwha in the fourth century AD. It’s a story, a legend, but probably, wildly improbably perhaps, maybe now true.”
 
“OK, but what, exactly is it, this Stone of Secrets?” Lushkins asked.
 
“It’s the timber seat which, legend has it, holds the stone which the Buddha sat on when he delivered His first sermon at Benares. It’s supposed to contain all of His wisdom. The stone listened to Him, the Buddha, and through the stone the entire earth heard His wisdom. When the Buddha had finished preaching the stone, which had heard everything, asked him the most pertinent question – the one great question. The Buddha answered the stone and gave it the compleat and final answer, but the Buddha forbade any part of the Earth from answering such a question when asked by man until such time as all the elements of truth were assembled or a man addressed the stone using the word of power. Ever since then the stones of the Earth have been silent and man has been alone – no part of the Earth has ever answered man’s questions (well, they answered one man’s questions but that’s a different story). All the elements of the planet have always kept the pact of silence which that one stone made with the Buddha, and no man knows the word of power,” was Mark’s answer.
 
“So,” Lushkins asked jocularly, “Do you know the word of power?”
 
“Well, I can guess at it,” Mark stated quite seriously, “But it would only be an educated guess and I suppose that many others could guess at it too. Anyway, it’s all superstition. The real mysteries are what was the Stone Throne doing in Sir Bernard’s possession and how did it come to be there and where is it now, because it’s definitely not in his house at this moment. I’m inclined to believe that your murderer, or murderers, is and are the people who removed the Throne from Sir Bernard’s study.”
 
As Mark spoke Lushkins felt the firm ground of ordinary murder dissolve into a bog of politics, diplomacy, terrorism and guesswork. Instinctively he knew that this would not be an easy case to solve for so many factions, so many groups, would murder to possess such an object as this Throne with the Stone of Secrets in its seat – The Stone Throne.
 
“OK. But how on earth did The Stone Throne end up in William Hark’s possession?” Lushkins asked, “and what damage can it do to us in the wrong hands now it’s been stolen from Sir Bernard’s?”
 
Samantha chimed in at this point: “That’s easy,” she said, “William’s wife was the last surviving member of the wrong side of the blanket family spawned by the union of the bastard daughter of the third Earl of Cumberland, George Clifford, and the bastard son of Sir James Lancaster, he of Pernambuco. Both men were founding shareholders in the John Company.”
 
“Now, I was at school with Christina Lancaster and she used to laugh about the idea that Lancaster’s son, of course and like so many others at the time, was alleged to be the Good Queen’s illegitimate offspring. Given Mark’s discoveries in London I’m now reasonably sure that she was right in doing so. Her illegitimate ancestor is much more likely to have been encouraged into the East India trade by one of those noblemen, their fathers, than they ever would have been by our good Queen Elizabeth the First had either of those bastard children been her offspring”.
 
“You’ve got to remember that the India trade was a sure-fire way of making money and establishing yourself and your family. I’ll wager a farthing to a pound that The Stone Throne came into William’s possession, and subsequently into Bernard’s possession, through Christina’s inheritances and some very shady dealings in India a few centuries ago. And, what is more, Bernard certainly knew what he’d inherited from his brother – why else did he go to such pains to avoid photographing it?”
 
“How on earth do you know about William’s wife?” Lushkins asked in some surprise, “I thought that bastard daughters, and sons for that matter, were kept fairly quiet way back then.”
 
“Honestly, Michael! Do you think that anything in England is private for long? For the last ten thousand years this country of ours has gossiped its way through history. For Heaven’s sake, we can even name every one of Chaucer’s mistresses! Do you honestly think that anything can stay private in England?” she answered.
 
“That’s irrelevant,” Mark chimed in, “What’s important is that the illegitimate, so to speak, Lancasters were John Company servants during the Carnatic Wars. Sometime in that period of warfare The Stone Throne came into their possession and it was shipped back to England as part of their personal plunder. From everything that I was able to ascertain at the BM and the National Library I’d guess that The Stone Throne was part of the plunder when Pondicherry surrendered to us on the sixteenth of January in 1761 after the Battle of Wandiwash. Anyway, all that history is quite irrelevant. The really important point that you, Michael, my rational and scientific policeman friend, sensibly asked, is what damage can The Stone Throne do if it’s not in our hands? I can trace The Stone Throne from Mahlwha in the fourth century to Pondicherry in the eighteenth century – that’s an obvious course and completely verifiable from the documents as I demonstrated to you in my email. What on earth the Mughals were thinking of in entrusting The Stone Throne to the French I just don’t know – for G_d’s sake you can’t trust the French, everyone knows that – but I’m convinced that it ended up in Teal Hall and that it has been stolen from there by the self-same people who murdered Sir Bernard in order to gain it. And I’m equally as certain that the theft and murder took place because someone somewhere thinks that he, or she, has, just as I have, guessed the Word of Power. It’s a good job that Bernard was cleverer than they are, and that I am better at decoding mysteries than they are.”
 
“So why are we still looking for The Throne and The Stone?” Lushkins asked, missing the point, “Why hasn’t the power of the Stone been used by now? Why are we not all by now subject to the evil dominion of Islam?”
 
Those were pointless questions for Mark had fallen asleep. The painkillers had finally overtaken him again and given him, as he needed, blessed relief from the pain of his wounds.
 
***
 
Mrs. Samantha Fox-Talbot, majority owner of Europe’s most trusted, most elegant and most exclusive antiques trading business, was nobody’s fool. She thought long and hard about Mark’s words as she sat beside his bed and waited for his next lucent period. Lushkins had left her to this vigil in order to check up on the condition of the captured man whom Samantha had shot.
 
***
 
Two days later Mark was released from hospital into the competent care of his aunt. When she had settled him comfortably into the small flat next to hers above the shop she made some tea and sat down opposite him.
 
“Well,” she said, “ I think you owe me an explanation, don’t you?”
 
“Whatever for?” Mark asked in genuine surprise.
 
“You said,” she reminded him, "That ...It’s a good job that Bernard was cleverer than they are, and that I am better at decoding mysteries than they are. I’m not a fool so what exactly did you mean by that?”
 
“I don’t even recall saying that,” he answered her, “It must have been me just rambling on – I was full of Tramadol, you know and I can hardly even recall anything except that I know I must have explained everything to you and I can remember Lushkins being there as well. Did I explain everything to you both?”
 
“Yes, you did.”
 
She carefully changed the subject but the disquiet she had felt on the night of the shooting returned. She knew that he was lying but she didn’t know why and she couldn’t work out whether or not to trust him any more.
 
“The Doctor said that you can return to work next week for a few hours each day.”
 
“Thank G_d! I’m so bored that I’d even do reception for you just to get some non-medical human contact again.”
 
She smiled at his obvious frustration. Even though Mark appeared to be, and indeed was, a delicate young man he wasn’t a slouch and he would much rather be doing something, anything, rather than nothing at all. She moved the ‘phones to within his reach.
 
“I’ve got to go down to the shop. I’ll be back up in couple of hours and cook us both a spot of dinner. Be good and don’t move too much – you don’t want to re-open those wounds and end up back in the hospital do you?”
 
“Most certainly not,” Mark replied in some alarm and she knew that she had made her point.
 
After Samantha left him Mark picked up his mobile ‘phone and dialled a number.
 
“Matt, hi!”
 
D.C. Matthew Ashburton enquired as to Mark’s recovery.
 
“Yes I’m recovering well, thanks and I’ve got a favour to ask. I need to get back out to Teal Hall tomorrow and I need you with me.”
 
Ashburton expressed some surprise and obviously asked why.
 
“Because that tricked up Phoenix hasn’t yielded up all its secrets by any manner of means, has it Matt?”
 
Matthew agreed that it probably hadn’t.
 
“So, pick me up about ten o’clock. Samantha is out all day at an auction in Bristol. Don’t tell Lushkins if you can get away with it – or invent some plausible excuse if you can’t. I’ve got a hunch, but it’s only a hunch.”
 
A few minutes of small talk then ensued. After he’d hung up Mark fell asleep and dreamt of his dinner.
 
***
 
Shortly after eleven o’clock the following morning Matt and Mark were standing in front of the safe behind the open panel of the bookcase in the late Sir Bernard’s study.
 
“Highest number to lowest as a first try?” Mark asked.
 
“Doubt it,” Matt replied, “Much more likely to be something more cunning. What do you think?
 
There were a few moments of silence as they each gazed at the safe and considered the options.
 
“Of course!” they both ejaculated simultaneously.
 
“It’s got to be in the tumbler falls, hasn’t it?” Mark asked excitedly, turning to Asburton.
 
“Yep,” agreed the D.C, “Highest to lowest or vice versa first?”
 
“Oh, you know me – I’ll always recommend that one should try vice versa first.”
 
“Really!” exclaimed Matt in mock shocked tones but with a broad and appreciative grin plastered across his face.
 
They both set to work on the safe and were rewarded a scant few seconds later with a loud click from behind it. Matthew Ashburton firmly tugged at the left hand back corner of the safe and it swung easily out into the small space behind to bookshelves to reveal a large, shelved cupboard behind it. Every shelf was filled almost to overflowing with small ingots of gold and on the floor between the shelves was a medium-sized, flattish, comfortable looking rock.
 
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Matthew asked Mark.
 
“I think so,” Mark replied.
 
“And the gold?”
 
“Ten tola bars from India dating back to the days of the John Company by the look of them.”
 
“How much do you think is here?”
 
Mark stopped to consider.
 
“Well, gold’s around eight-hundred U.S. Dollars an ounce at the moment so probably about ... just a rough estimate, you understand ... forty to fifty million U.S. Dollars, maybe more.”
 
“Is it legal?”
 
“By some given definition of legal, probably yes, but that’ll be a matter for the lawyers, the revenue service and the courts.”
 
“The stone?”
 
“I think that you should give D.C.I. Lushkins a call. In fact, I think that you should do that right now.”
 
***
 
When D.C.I. Lushkins arrived at Teal Hall he wasn’t above half pleased with the pair of them for not informing him earlier about where they suspected the Stone’s hiding place to be but his anger was tempered by the fact that they had obviously discovered the Stone of Secrets and the hidden and private wealth of the Harks family. Once again, he realised, he had cause to be grateful to his loyal Detective Constable and his somewhat unusual interest in safecracking – not to mention young Mark’s keen and enquiring brain.
 
“There’ll be many generations worth of inheritance tax to pay on that little lot!” was his only comment about the gold, “And I doubt that they’ll get much change from it either!”
 
Mark’s disconcerting deep royal blue eyes met D.C.I Sir Michael Lushkins’ as he said that and he, Mark, began to laugh.
 
“You find this funny?” Lushkins snapped at him.
 
“Oh Michael, much more funny than you will ever know!” Mark replied barely controlling his laughter, “ Much, much more funny than I hope you will ever know.”
 
However, Lushkins was in no mood to tolerate teenage humour, as he saw it, and he ordered a uniformed Constable to take Mark home. It would be a long time later that he recalled Mark’s rather odd phrasing and paired it with the final sentences of the interview with Mark in the hospital – ... it’s a good job that Bernard was cleverer than they are, and that I am better at decoding mysteries than they are.
 
***
 
A couple of weeks after the discovery of the Stone in the cupboard behind the safe Mark drove his car, a white MG Tickford drophead coupe built by Salmons of Newport Pagnell on an MG Chassis in 1934, out to Teal Hall. The main gates were closed but an elderly lady emerged from the lodge and opened them in response to the sounding of the Tickford’s horn. Mark moved the great car through the ornate late eighteenth century, gilded, cast-iron gates, which were promptly closed behind him, stopped the engine and climbed down from the motor carrying a large, stout plastic bag.
 
“Why, if it ain’t young Master Mark!” exclaimed Mrs. Browse, “Whatever brings you back hereabouts?”
 
“Not much, really, Mrs. Browse. I just thought that I’d like to take a final walk in the gardens before Sir Bernard’s son and his family move in and maybe,” he said with a conspiratorial wink whilst indicating his bag, “Steal a few cuttings for my own gardens at Selby Manor.”
 
“Oh, go on wi’ ye then,” Mrs. Browse said, for this beautiful, elfin boy had long been one of her favourites, “But don’t be long because t’ family is due here later after noon and it won’t do for ‘em to think that I cain’t be trusted to gate-ward or I’ll lose my position, for sure.”
 
With that Mark set off into the sunlit gardens. However, Mrs. Browse, despite her advancing years and country simplicity wasn’t a fool so she gave him a minute or two of a head start and followed him. She followed him across the great south lawn; she followed him through the arboretum; she followed him through the bog garden and past the small lake; and finally she followed him into the large, early nineteenth century, rockery.
 
She watched as he patiently quartered that garden feature and watched as his interest finally alighted upon one medium-sized, comfortable-looking stone. She watched as he dug the stone up and laboriously lifted it into his large, stout plastic bag. Then she stepped forward and offered to help him carry it to his car.
 
“For ye don’t want to open them twa wounds agin,” she offered by way of explanation.
 
If Mark was surprised then he didn’t show it. He merely said:
 
“I don’t want to involve you in this.”
 
“I was involved when me late Master put that there stone here and I seed him a-doin’ it,” she said, “’Sides, I can guess what its power is, else he wouldn’t ha’ tried to have the hiding of it so well.”
 
Deep royal-blue eyes looked into ... deep royal-blue eyes!
 
“I see,” he said.
 
“You’m see,” she agreed.
 
Together, in friendly silence, they carried the heavy bag back to his car and put it in the boot.
 
They took some tea together but not much was said.
 
“It’ll have to come back here eventually for it rightfully belongs here,” he offered.
 
“It’s not yet safe here and that’s the right of it,” she offered, “And you’m can hide it from them as will misuse it until it returns?”
 
A cup later he said: “I’ll try to.”
 
A cup after that she said: “That’s all any of us English folk can do now, now that we’ve been sold out by them as ought to know better.”
 
As she escorted him to his car after tea she asked: “Howsomever did you guess that the rock ahint the safe bain’t be the right one?”
 
Mark smiled at her.
 
“By the size of the bribe. All that gold was obviously meant to mislead. It was too much and too obvious. Of course, what our good and loyal, to a point, Police Force didn’t see, can’t see, is that such a bribe to believe must mean that there is much, much more. Not even your late master, Sir Bernard, would put all of his wealth into such a bribe of invitation to believe. There’s obviously a lot more gold and Bernard judged the size of the invitation against his holdings rather than against the expectations of the real world. Actually, it would have been much more convincing – might even have thrown me off the scent – if there had been no gold at all. Besides, I don’t need a Petrological Microscope to see what’s plain in front of my eyes – that rock behind the safe never came from Benares! Wrong rock entirely, in any era, to have come from there.”
 
Mrs. Browse walked away from the car and opened the gates. Mark stopped the car beside her as he drove through the open gates and wound down his window.
 
“Thank-you!” he said.
 
“He weren’t trying to bribe the likes of you, my little elf,” she said, “He were just trying to bribe the gullible into believing – and it worked. He were far cleverer than you credit, mayhap? After all, where can one hide a rock? And it worked, didn’t it?”
 
There was a full minute of silence, barring the noise of the great car’s pulsating engine.
 
“I think I may have underestimated the late Sir Bernard,” Mark said to her, smiling at her – strange eyes meeting strange eyes. “I’ll keep it safe as I can, my lady, ‘till it can lie hidden here again in safety.”
 
“There are other Ladies apart from me who can help you – never forget that,” she replied with all trace of a bumpkin accent gone from her voice, “And what of the other stone?”
 
“’Tis safe...for now.”
 
“Not in the same place, I trust.”
 
“No, that would be too dangerous.”
 
“They could be used to save us!”
 
“No, never!” he stated in some alarm, “Some powers are just too dangerous to be used and should never have been formed in the first place!”
 
There was a short silence.
 
“So the dream ends?” she asked sadly.
 
“I don’t know. Maybe the dream of England never dies. Maybe it just becomes something different somewhere else and the world turns and brings it back to us. I have to go now. Good-bye,” he smiled with her, at her.
 
“Good-bye,” she said, with a certain wistful note in her voice as he gunned the vintage limousine out into the lane.
 
***
 
They did meet again, Mark, the golden boy, and Mrs. Browse, but that’s a different story; but the future, and the past, is as all things will be. However, nothing’s set in stone – as Mark, much later on, found out; even though, ever after and through all the events surrounding the three Major Stones (and the seven Seals of Destiny), he wondered to himself that that exchange at the gates of Teal Hall had actually taken place – that The Ladies had revealed themselves to him just as he needed them most!
 
***
 
A few weeks after Mark’s encounter with Mrs. Browse, D.C.I. Sir Michael Lushkins strolled down the High Street from County Constabulary Headquarters and entered the exclusive store of Fox-Talbot & Simmons. Mark wasn’t manning reception being as how he was now more or less fully recovered from his wounds but, as chance would have it, he was nearby and he moved swiftly to greet Lushkins.
 
“So nice to see you again, Chief Inspector,” he said very formally.
 
Lushkins smiled at the beautiful boy’s professional manner, then smiled at the boy who dropped pretence and grinned broadly back at him.
 
“How are you, Mark?”
 
“Well mended thank-you. Would you like to come through to the office and take some tea with Sam and me?”
 
“I’d like that very much but first can you tell me what this is?” Lushkins answered as he produced a clear plastic bag containing what was very obviously a piece of silver.
 
Mark took the bag but before he looked at its contents he looked the D.C.I. squarely in the eyes and asked:
 
“Is Sam going to face charges over wounding that man with her Remington?”
 
“No,” Lushkins replied, “The C.P.S. have decided not to press charges because the two men who broke in here had a bigger gun and used it on you. They don’t think that they could convict Sam in any court because of that, so she won’t be charged. The Remington will probably have to be returned to her as well.”
 
“Did you get anything out of the man she shot?”
 
“Yes! And yesterday, but this is not common knowledge yet, we recovered the Throne – but not the Stone from its seat! We’ve also made several arrests and we’re about to charge three men, all known Muslim criminals with previous form, with Sir Bernard’s murder. There is very little doubt that he was murdered because he was trying to protect the Throne. We think, also, that we can connect two of the men we arrested with the gang that murdered your Godfather.”
 
Mark started at that news.
 
“Do you think that we’re facing an organised conspiracy?” he asked Lushkins.
 
“I do,” Sir Michael replied.
 
“For Heaven’s sake, so much death and destruction over some stones and some primitive superstitions!” Mark exclaimed in very upset way.
 
“Kind of an Islamic hallmark, wouldn’t you say,” Lushkins answered with an odd note in his voice, “Stones, superstitions – you know what I mean.”
 
Mark became aware that he was holding the evidence bag that the D.C.I. had handed to him a minute or so ago. He lifted it and inspected its contents. The little, oval, silver box inside the bag looked greasy and had a few brown, almost black, marks on its surfaces.
 
“This is a tobacco box made during the reign of Queen Anne,” he informed Lushkins as he reached into his pocket and took out his loupe and inspected the marks, “The hallmark is London in 1702 and the maker’s mark ... is... gosh, it’s faint ... ‘BE’, I think, so it’s probably a piece by Benjamin Bentley; oh gosh, yes, I’d say it’s certainly made by him, just look at the quality of the beaded rope work on the cover. Yep, it’s certainly a Bentley piece.”
 
“This a piece that I sold a year or so ago to Father Wistleigh, the Vicar up at St. Michael and All Angels. He paid fourteen hundred pounds for it – which is more or less what it’s worth today. Why is it all greasy and stained and why have you got it in an evidence bag?”
 
Lushkins ignored Mark’s questions and handed the boy a second bag.
 
“We found this inside the box,” he said.
 
Mark took the bag and looked at the contents – an unassuming piece of rock crystal about three inches long and two-and-a-half inches wide with some very peculiar markings incised into its flat surfaces.
 
“Oh G_d, no!” he exclaimed, “Greg Wistleigh’s dead isn’t he?”
 
“I’m sorry to be the bringer of bad news,” Lushkins stated, “This box was extracted from Father Wistleigh’s anus when he was autopsied yesterday. That’s why it’s greasy and stained.”
 
D.C.I. Sir Michael Lushkins noted the incredible look of shock on the boy’s face and stepped forward just in time to catch a very sick looking Mark as he fell over in a dead faint.
 
Notes:
In Arabic rendered into modern English orthography:
gayheeba = bitch
kara beech (or beek) = shit in you
koos = cunt
And some folks persist in believing that good Muslims can’t swear and that Arabic’s a pure and Holy tongue! But then, some people will believe anything!
 


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