The Rudhollys hoard
A Hawthorne and Benton Mystery
It was late at night, but Andrew Clarke was still at work in the conservation room. He leaned back to stretch his arms, then hunched forward again over the piece he was working on. He picked up a fine brush and began to clean the ornately enamelled buckle, trying to breathe slowly and keep his hand steady. A sudden rustle behind him made him sit up again and turn in his chair. An envelope had been pushed under the conservation room door. Andrew crossed the room and picked it up, muttering under his breath about student pranks and promising vengeance on the perpetrator of this particular outrage, whatever it should turn out to be. He opened the envelope on his way back to the desk and drew out … a blank sheet of paper. He turned it over, snorting, but there was nothing written on either side. Andrew screwed the paper and envelope into a ball and threw them towards the bin. He missed, which made him even angrier. Having picked up and deposited the paper where it should have landed, he sat back down, trying to slow his breathing again before he picked up his brush. After a moment or two he leaned forward again to get back to work, but after about a minute he had to put the brush down. It suddenly seemed terribly hot. The room was temperature controlled, but Andrew felt a sweat break out on his forehead. His shirt collar felt tight, he raised his hand to loosen it, but slumped forward over the microscope, his arms hanging limply. There was another rustling noise from the door as a sheet of paper appeared, this time with writing on. Scrawled red letters spelled out:
Two envelopes flipped through the letter box and landed on the well-worn woven doormat beneath. A tabby cat approached them, sniffing suspiciously. The cat was followed by Olive Hawthorne, who bent down and scooped up both the envelopes and the feline and went back down the hall to her sitting room, gently scolding the cat, who objected to being summarily transported in this manner. Miss Hawthorne sat down in an armchair and released the cat, which scooted to the hearth rug and sat licking its paws and regarding its owner with an injured expression. Miss Hawthorne shook her head,
“really Gabriel you do make a fuss,” then turned her attention to her post. The plain brown envelope proved to be the gas bill, which she put on her writing desk until she could next visit the post office. The other envelope was addressed by hand. Miss Hawthorne gave a small exclamation of surprise.
“Amelia! I wasn’t expecting another letter so soon … let’s see,” she slit the envelope with the brass paper knife that lay in a lacquer tray at the back of her desk and sat down again, drawing out several sheets of notepaper, closely written on both sides. As she read, Miss Hawthorne’s expression changed from interest to alarm. She exclaimed “Heavens!” under her breath more than once, and re-read some of the letter to make sure she hadn’t missed any important details. She held the pages in her lap and seemed lost in thought. Then she turned abruptly, opened her address book and picked up the phone.
“Amelia? It’s Olive. I’ve just been reading your letter, dear. What on earth can be happening down there? My goodness! And are you quite safe? No (as the speaker at the other end interrupted) no, of course you wouldn’t, but this is rather alarming. Yes, yes I know you can, I’m not suggesting that (another interruption) but really … and the police are involved now?”
The snort from the other end of the line was audible to the cat on the hearth rug. “No, well I don’t suppose it would be.” Miss Hawthorne paused, considering. “Amelia, would you allow me to call some people I know who deal with this kind of thing? No, by no means, they can be very discreet” Miss Hawthorne paused, an image of an exploding church flitting across her mind “when they need to be. Yes, yes, that’s right, at Addershall, yes. Then I shall. I will call you as soon as I have spoken to them. Oh! Well if you think it would be helpful, yes, I’d be delighted to. But I will telephone first and then we can arrange. Yes, yes, do take care. Goodbye.”
Miss Hawthorne hung up the receiver and turned to her address book once again. The number she dialled this time was longer and she had to wait a few minutes for an answer.
“UNIT Headquarters, Private Jenkins speaking”
“This is Olive Hawthorne to speak to Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart please.”
At UNIT HQ, the Brigadier looked with dismay at the pile of files in his in tray. Not that he wanted a quiet life, if he had he wouldn’t have joined the army, but there seemed to be an explosion of strange events and diplomatic incidents lately and most of them seemed to have ended up on his desk. And now this (he flicked the edge of the file) cursed jewellery? Who on earth had decided that UNIT should deal with cursed… now that was an idea! Not that he wanted to palm things off, but in this case… He reached for the phone, which rang just as he was about to lift the receiver.
“Ahem! Lethbridge Stewart. Who? How the devil did she…? Oh, never mind Jenkins, put her through!”
There was a click and then the familiar voice sounded at the other end of the line:
“Brigadier? This is Olive Hawthorne.”
“Miss Hawthorne. You may not believe this, but I was just about to call you.”
“Really? How extraordinary! I should say, it’s cheeky of me to call, but I’ve had the most alarming letter from an old friend of mine in Cornwall.”
“Yes,” Miss Hawthorne was surprised at the force of the Brigadier’s question, but carried on, “she is an archaeologist, she has been working at Rudhollys on a … why Brigadier!”
“HA!” The Brigadier couldn’t help himself, “I’m sorry Miss Hawthorne, but I have a file on my desk relating to a suspicious death and a hoard of cursed jewellery in Rudhollys!”
“Goodness! Well then, you know all about it!”
“And so do you, apparently. And as you also know the Professor… Look here, Miss Hawthorne, would you be prepared to represent us in Cornwall? The police are already involved, obviously, but some aspects of the case are beyond them and,”
“Well, if you think I could be of assistance, but how will the police feel about it? Won’t they object to having an amateur treading on their toes?”
“They needn’t,” said the Brigadier gruffly, “But I see your point. If you prefer, you can leave liaising with the police to Benton.”
“Well of course I’m not going to send you down there alone! Now, about accommodation, I gather there are a couple of guest houses in the village and hotels in the nearest town, would that be acceptable?”
“Of course. Amelia, that is to say, the Professor has offered that I stay with her, but ...”
“You can’t foist Benton on her at short notice, I understand. Suppose we say that you stay with the Professor and we will arrange accommodation for the Sergeant in the village?”
“Thank you, Brigadier. As you say, I can’t surprise Amelia with Sergeant Benton, it wouldn’t be fair.”
“No indeed!” The Brigadier smiled to himself as he imagined a surprise Sergeant, quite a large surprise that would be! He recalled himself to the business in hand, “ahem! That’s settled then, how soon can you be ready to travel?”
“Well. Let me see. I will need to telephone Amelia, but I can do that immediately and then I will need to make arrangements for my cat and pack some necessities … say tomorrow morning?”
“That’s fine, it will give us time to make our arrangements and for Benton to get his kit together. As you’ve had the details from the Professor, there’s no need for you to come here, Benton can bring the file with him when he comes tomorrow.”
“Oh, I, will we go by car?”
“Yes, it’s a long drive, but you’ll need a car when you get there, makes more sense to take one of ours than try and hire one down there, unless the Professor..?”
“Oh no, Amelia only has a bicycle.”
“Ah, well then. I’ll let you get on and Benton will be with you tomorrow.”
“Thank you, goodbye Brigadier.”
“Goodbye Miss Hawthorne.”
The Brigadier hung up. He hoped he was doing the right thing with this case. It had worked in Addershall, but this might be a different kettle of fish. Oh well, he reached for the intercom, the decision was made, time to get the wheels moving.
“Send Corporal Scott in, would you Jenkins? And find Sergeant Benton … oh, is he? Well he can finish his lunch, but get him to report to me as soon as he gets back from the mess.”
The Brigadier put the case documents back in the folder and called “come in” in answer to Corporal Scott’s knock at the door. Having briefed her on the transport arrangements, he sat back and waited for Sergeant Benton to finish eating and join him. He hoped the lunch in the mess would be good enough to compensate for the surprise he was about to deliver.
The following day saw Miss Hawthorne and the Sergeant on their way to Cornwall. As Benton drove, Miss Hawthorne leafed through the UNIT file, comparing it with her friend’s letter and making notes.
“Well, Sergeant, this is a nasty business.”
“Looks like it, Miss Hawthorne. Could there really be a curse, d’you think?”
“Hmm. Well, curses certainly have certainly been invoked against people for centuries, and placed on objects. It may be that this treasure was, indeed, cursed by the chieftan who buried it, though if that were the case, I would have expected it to be well-known in the area, rather than recently discovered, but...”
“That wasn’t quite what I meant, I mean is...”
“Ah, is the curse likely to be ‘real,’ has it caused this unfortunate man’s death? I’m afraid I don’t know, not yet. There is clearly some evil purpose at work here, whether it is human or supernatural remains to be seen. However,” as she studied a photograph of the note found in the conservation room, “in my experience, evil spirits do not generally communicate by writing things down on pieces of paper and pushing them under doors.”
“No. I suppose they would just walk straight through.”
Miss Hawthorne looked sharply at the Sergeant, but his face betrayed no sign that he was joking. She turned her attention back to the papers on her lap.
Sergeant Benton changed the subject slightly;
“So, how do you know the Professor?”
“We were at school together. She was in the year above me, but we became friends when we were library monitors and found that we both had an interest in history.”
Miss Hawthorne looked out of the side window, but her inner gaze was looking back over the years.
“Of course, our lives took very different paths after school. Amelia went to university to study archaeology and I, well, followed my own interests, but we remained friends, even if we don’t see each other very often.”
“I see, ah, is this the place?”
The car drew up outside a cottage which had clearly been extended over the years, giving it an untidy, but not unattractive, rambling appearance. Professor Rumford came down the path to meet her guests.
“Well, Olive, here you are!”
The contrast between the two friends was so marked as to be almost comical. Where Miss Hawthorne was tall, the Professor was short. Miss Hawthorne was dressed in her habitual outfit of skirt, cape jacket and cloak, while Amelia Rumford wore slacks with a capaciously pocketed linen jacket over her blouse. Miss Hawthorne’s long hair was caught up on the back of her head in its usual style, and the Professor’s face was framed by her short, white hair. Sergeant Benton looked from one woman to the other as the friends exchanged greetings. Although they bore little resemblance to each other physically, there was something, a sense of a steely determination lurking not far beneath the surface, which seemed to connect them.
“Two of them,” thought Benton, unconsciously echoing his commanding officer, “I didn’t know when I was well off!” Suddenly he became aware that he was being introduced;
“And this is Sergeant Benton.”
The Professor held out her hand.
“Good to meet you, Sergeant.”
“Olive, we must get you settled in and then we can talk this absurd business over. Will you come in for a cup of tea, Sergeant?”
“I won’t if you don’t mind, Professor. I’ve got to call in at the police station in Wythyton before I go to the bed and breakfast, I don’t want to leave it too late.”
“Ah, never mind. We will see you tomorrow, then.”
“Yes, I’ll be along in the morning.”
“Good! Goodbye for the time being, Sergeant. Come along Olive.”
Professor Rumford turned and escorted her guest to the front door. Sergeant Benton got back into the car and headed for Wythyton, the nearest town and location of the main police station for the area. He grinned to himself as he drove. A cup of tea would have been nice, but he did need to get on and he was sure the two ladies would have plenty to discuss without him cramping their style!
In this he was correct, though neither the Professor, nor Miss Hawthorne would have put it quite like that. A warm fire was blazing in the hearth as Professor Rumford carried in a tray bearing tea and cake. Miss Hawthorne was seated in an armchair on one side of the fireplace and the Professor took a similar seat on the other, after serving her guest. There was silence, as Miss Hawthorne sipped her tea and the Professor read the UNIT file. Then she balanced the folder on the edge of her overcrowded desk and picked up her cup.
“Yes, well, that seems to cover most of the details. Your friends are very thorough, I must say, even if their archaeological descriptions are somewhat inaccurate.”
Miss Hawthorne hid her smile behind the rim of her teacup.
“well, their expertise lies in other fields. But tell me, do you know if the police have found out what killed that poor young man?”
“Pah! That poor young man was a thorough kill-joy with an inflated sense of his own importance! Not that I wished him any actual harm," The Professor set down her cup again, “but if the police have worked anything out, they aren’t likely to tell me. For all they know I might be a suspect! They are more likely to tell your young man.”
Miss Hawthorne rose to the bait.
“Really, Amelia, you mustn’t call Sergeant Benton that, you’ll embarrass him!”
“Ha! ‘Bout time you found yourself a young man, though, isn’t it?”
“Well! You’re a fine one to talk about that sort of thing, you show no sign of settling down, do you?”
The Professor looked over at her desk, then at her friend.
“Oh, I daresay I will sometime, but not now, haven’t got the time.”
Miss Hawthorne’s gaze lighted on a portrait photograph on the desk with a black ribbon across one corner and her eyes softened. The photograph was of a pretty young woman in a WAAF uniform and inscribed “to Amy, today and always, Verity.”
“Well. If I were to find a young man, it wouldn’t be Sergeant Benton, so you can put that idea right out of your mind! Really, Amelia, what has got into you this evening?”
Professor Rumford had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. She crumbled the remains of her cake on its saucer.
“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s having you here after so long, makes me feel young and silly, or perhaps I’m trying to drive this horrible nonsense out of my mind.” She shook her head, impatiently. “But moping and being silly won’t help, will it? I suppose you have some questions for me?”
“You gave me a lot of details in your letter, but I would like to hear the story from you in person.”
“Straight from the horse’s mouth?”
“You said that, dear, I didn’t! But yes, unless you’d rather wait until tomorrow, when the Sergeant is here and you can tell us both at once?”
“Oh I don’t mind. I’ve told the university, the police, I haven’t told any journalists yet, one of them tried to get in here the other day, but I keep a bucket of water handy,” she and Miss Hawthorne shared grins that made them look every bit the schoolgirls they had once been, “so I don’t mind telling you tonight and him tomorrow. I keep thinking if I tell someone else, will it start to make sense? Will I see something I didn’t see before?”
The professor leaned back in her chair. She suddenly looked very tired. Miss Hawthorne sat forward.
“Let’s wait till the morning. Then we can all three put our minds to it together. Besides, the Sergeant may have some news from the police.”
The Professor sighed.
“I suppose you’re right. Well, I had better see about some dinner for us. You stay here, unless you feel like peeling potatoes?”
Miss Hawthorne stood up, smiling.
“My dear, I thought you’d never ask!”
After leaving Miss Hawthorne at her friend’s cottage, Sergeant Benton had driven on to Wythyton. He parked in the town square and walked over to the police station, a solid, brick construction with some oddly gothic touches that marked it out as a Victorian building. Benton entered the building and showed his identity card to the desk sergeant.
“Sergeant Benton to see Inspector Strang.”
The desk sergeant had been informed of the visit and made no comment, other than to ask Benton to wait and pass him a visitor’s pass and form to complete, while he called the inspector on the internal phone. Benton filled in the form and was just clipping the pass to his jacket when Inspector Strang arrived. The Inspector was a slim man of medium height, with thinning dark hair and a moustache that reminded Benton slightly of the Brigadier. His dark blue suit seemed designed to help him fade into the background and his tie was a nondescript blur of dark colours. Benton had been slightly worried as to how he might be received, would the police object to UNIT involving themselves in their case? But the Inspector smiled as he approached and shook Benton’s hand heartily.
“Sergeant Benton? How do you do, come through,” he opened the door next to the main desk.
“Thank you, Sir, I thought I’d better report this evening.”
“I hoped you would be able to. Is this your first visit to Cornwall?” The Inspector chatted amiably about the town and its surroundings as he led the way through the corridors of the station. Benton was confused at first, did the Inspector work for the tourist office? But he then decided that Strang was deliberately avoiding talking about the case until they had reached the office. This proved to be the case. The Inspector ushered the Sergeant into his office, called to his secretary to ask for two cups of tea and then closed the door.
“I hope you’ll excuse my chatter, Sergeant, word gets around, even at a police station, especially at a police station and I’m trying to keep gossip about this case to a minimum.”
“Understood, Inspector.” Then, as this was still uppermost in his mind, “I hope you don’t feel that we are poaching on your territory, Sir?”
“Honestly, Sergeant, if the entire United Nations and Scotland Yard turned up on the doorstep tomorrow I would welcome them with open arms.” The Inspector leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair. “the chief constable is after me, there is hardly any evidence, and what there is, is inconclusive and now whoever is responsible has stepped up from threats to murder…? No, you can put that idea out of your head. I am very, very glad for any assistance you and your associates can give us.”
“Thank you, Sir, I hope we can help. Have there been any developments since you spoke to my C.O.?”
“Not as yet, but I can fill you in on the details so far, if you have time now?”
Benton looked at his watch.
“Thank you, yes, I’ve got another hour before I need to go to the B&B.”
“Good. Well, then,”
The Inspector opened a bulging folder on his desk and Benton pulled a notebook and pencil out of his jacket pocket.
“The first sign of trouble (said the Inspector) was the letters to the local paper. There was quite a bit of hoopla when the hoard was first discovered, national papers, television, that kind of thing. Well, it was a big deal for the area. Apparently it had been talked about for years by historians, I wouldn’t know, Professor Rumford can fill you in on that, but nobody was sure where it was. Then, a couple of months ago, a geologist was taking samples of the soil, drilled down and there it was. I say ‘there it was’ it took them another month to get it out of the ground, and they still haven’t finished poking around up there to this day.”
He passed a photograph of the dig site over to Benton.
“The university tried to keep quiet about it until they were sure what it was that they’d found, but word gets out about this stuff and in the end we had to help them out up there to keep the press and the punters out of their hair.” Another photo, this time of a line of onlookers behind a string barrier, guarded by a police constable. In the foreground, Benton recognised Professor Rumford, trowel and brush in hand, an expression of furious concentration on her face. “Once they were pretty sure they had got most of it up, though, as I say, they are still poking around up there, the stuff was transferred to the university and proper announcements and photos put in the papers. And that’s when it started. I don’t know if you read local papers, Sergeant, but their letters pages aren’t generally full of sanity and clear thinking.” Benton smiled “Ah, I see you do. Well, for whatever reason, in this part of the world we seem to have more than our fair share of green ink merchants. One of them, a chap calling himself Professor Beeching, got the ball rolling by suggesting that the archaeologists were profaning a sacred site by digging it up and everything should be put back immediately. That wasn’t going to happen, obviously. So he kept on, the ground wasn’t just sacred but cursed and he had the documents to prove it. The paper lapped this up obviously, would he be interviewed, could he show them the documents? Then the so-called Professor got cagey, no, it was too dangerous he wouldn’t risk it, lives could be at risk… so they dismissed him as a crank and looked for another angle. And we breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that would be the last we’d hear of him. Until…” the inspector reached for another photo and shot it across the desk, “he turned up dead without a mark on him and no sign that another person had been with him when it happened.”
Sergeant Benton studied the photograph. The body lay on a rug near the study desk, presumably where it had fallen. The study was untidy, with a large wastepaper basket full of screwed up paper and other detritus and the desk was piled high with books. The Sergeant handed the photo back to the inspector.
“How did he die?”
“Poison, some kind of fast acting paralytic, but not one the pathologist has seen before. He has put out a call to all the forensic labs in the country to try and trace it.”
“And how did it, how was he poisoned?”
“Apparently through his skin. The pathologist found the substance on his fingertips, so it must have come from something he touched or held. Which, as you can imagine, was a problem. Well, you’ve seen the study. The lads at the lab are still testing every conceivable object he might have touched and they haven’t finished yet. And there’s a chance that the drug might degrade and disappear, so we might never find out how it got into him. We had to announce his death, but we tried to keep a lid on the circumstances. He might have been killed because of the hoard, that amount of gold does funny things to people and there’d be a lot of people wanting to either get their hands on it, or talk to a man who said he had the inside track. On the other hand, when we started looking into it, he had annoyed a lot of people, not only locally, but nationally. He was in the habit of writing to scientific journals, rubbishing the research they published and making slanderous accusations about the authors.”
Benton couldn’t help himself;
“Sounds like a nice man.”
“Yes, a real charmer.”
“What was he a professor of?”
“That’s another thing, he claimed to be a chemist, but we haven’t been able to find proof of him actually being qualified in anything. He may have been a fraud. Or a loony. Or a fraud and a loony. My personal theory is that someone thought he could give them the lowdown on the treasure, found that he couldn’t and then finished him off to cover their tracks, but that’s just a theory.”
“So we kept on looking and tried to keep quiet about exactly what had happened, but either there was too much information, or it turned out to be a dead end. And then came the lad at the university, same MO, but with the note. We couldn’t keep a lid on this one. Someone at the campus blabbed and the next thing we knew we were knee deep in journalists, with too much, or not enough evidence, an apparently invisible murderer using a drug nobody knows about and on top of all that, a curse!” The Inspector leaned back in his chair and breathed out heavily. “so, when the Brigadier called, I could have bitten his hand off to take his offer.”
“And that,” said Benton, closing his notebook, “was about all he had to say.”
It was the morning after their arrival and Miss Hawthorne and Sergeant Benton were having tea and biscuits with Professor Rumford at her kitchen table which was, predictably, almost as covered in books and papers as her study desk. Benton had brought copies from the police file with him and the photographs and documents were laid out in the remaining space. The Professor frowned.
“Beeching. Beeching. Doesn’t ring a bell. Oh, wait a minute!”
She hurried out of the room and there was a sound of papers being rifled through from the sitting room. Sergeant Benton took the opportunity to help himself to another biscuit and raised an eyebrow at Miss Hawthorne, who smiled, but said nothing. After a few minutes of rustling and banging of drawers, the Professor returned carrying a box file labelled “Cranks.” She set the file down on the table and opened it. The file was crammed full of letters, on a variety of notepapers, postcards and, in a couple of cases, wrapping paper. Professor Rumford sat down and drew the file towards herself. She rummaged in the papers for a moment, then drew out a letter. She smoothed out the creases and then placed it in the middle of the table so that her visitors could read it. The letter was hand written in a spidery hand on fine lined foolscap. It was, to Benton’s surprise, actually written in green ink.
He leaned forward to try and decipher the writing. For the size of the paper, the letter was brief:
My dear Professor Rumford,
I see with alarm that you are intent upon unearthing the Rudhollys hoard. I beg you, madam, do NOT DO THIS! You will bring a terrible retribution upon all who have to do with this treasure. I have seen the CURSE. Do NOT raise the treasure out of the ground.
Professor of Chemistry
“Turns out the name did ring a bell after all.”
“Have you shown this to the police, Professor?”
“My dear Sergeant, if I showed every letter I got from the assorted druids, cranks and nutcases that write to me, none of us would ever get anything done! But,” she paused and smoothed out the paper, “I suppose they should see this one, as it turns out to be rather more important than I realised at the time.”
“and you get a lot of these?”
“Oh yes. My job is to dig things up and investigate them and this is not always popular with people. I am frequently criticised for interfering with sacred sites, interfering with things that I don’t understand and risking doom and destruction. I ignore them.”
Benton and Miss Hawthorne exchanged glances, both of them thinking of the unfortunate demise of Professor Horner at Devil’s End. Professor Rumford snorted.
“I know! You’re thinking about that fool Horner! I’m not likely to let my ego run away with me like that, I can assure you.”
Miss Hawthorne felt it was time to get back to the matter in hand.
“Sergeant, the Inspector said that nobody had seen this curse, apart from the professor?”
“No, Miss, and when they searched the house, there was no sign of it.”
“Ah, so either the curse is a complete invention by this man, or he was shown it by someone else.”
“That must be the logical conclusion,” said the Professor, “and he then shared this knowledge through his favourite means of communication”
“Yes, quite,” replied Miss Hawthorne, “so can we conclude that he was not supposed to share the information and had to be silenced? Or was there some other reason?” She shook her head, “I feel as though we are going round in circles.”
The Professor turned to Benton;
“And you say the police couldn’t find any sign of Beeching being a Professor?”
“No, they circulated his name, but nothing came up”
“So he was a fraud?”
“That’s what they reckon.”
Silence fell. The Professor studied the photograph of the alleged chemists body in his study.
“Have you seen something, Amelia?”
The Professor appeared not to hear her. She rooted among the papers and found the close up photograph of the body.
“Ha! Did the police send a photograph with their enquiries?”
“I don’t know, Professor, I can ask.”
“Why do you ask that Amelia?”
“Because I can think of one institution that would have recognised him! His name wasn’t Beeching when he worked there, of course, it was …” she paused, searching her memory, “no, it’s gone. It may come back to me. Anyway, the name is immaterial. What matters is that he was sacked from Wincaster University about ten years ago.”
“Really! And what was the reason?”
The Professor looked cautiously at her friend.
“He, um, well the Times Higher said it was ‘ideological differences’ but I heard on the grapevine that it was because he had developed an obsession with the occult.”
“Now, Olive, don’t get het up. Look at it from the University’s point of view, no modern institution is going to countenance their academics trying to transmute lead into gold at midnight on New Year’s Eve.”
“He really tried to do that? Turn lead into gold?”
Miss Hawthorne had recovered her equilibrium.
“The alchemist’s trick. After all, Amelia, what we know as science,” (Benton suppressed a grin, hearing the Doctor’s voice in his head), “was once considered to be magic. I can see their point of view, but I don’t see why studying the old ways should disqualify a man from being a scientist. Surely there should be room, even in the modern world, to embrace and explore the deeper mysteries? Thank you (as the Sergeant, with a sympathetic expression, pushed the biscuit plate towards her).”
“The University didn’t see it that way, I’m afraid. A colleague who was there said it all got quite nasty, he threatened to go public, which would have been embarrassing all round. In the end, I believe he was paid off to go quietly.”
“Suppose you call the Inspector and let him know what we’ve discovered. He can get in touch with the people at Wincaster.”
The Sergeant left the room and, after a few moments, his voice could be heard from the other room, asking to speak to Inspector Strang. The Professor patted Miss Hawthorne’s hand.
“I’m sorry, Olive.”
“Oh! I shouldn’t allow myself to be upset by these things, but somehow I can’t help it. If people would only realise how little we know about the world around us…” she nibbled a biscuit.
The Sergeant returned from the sitting room.
“The Inspector is going to get on to the University and let us know. They’ve almost finished searching the house, looks like the Professor was keeping up with the alchemy, or at least the chemistry, in his basement.”
“Really. That is interesting, but it doesn’t get us much further at the moment.”
“No, but I was thinking...”
“Well. We can’t find the curse, at least not at the moment. So perhaps we should look at it from another way. If the curse isn’t real, or even if it is, someone seems very keen to get their hands on this hoard. Should we try and work out who that might be?”
The Professor slapped the table top, startling both Miss Hawthorne and Benton.
“Excellent, Sergeant! There must be several collectors who would be prepared to use dubious means to get hold of such a treasure.”
“But, murder?” protested Miss Hawthorne, “and if they could have it, what good would it be to them? They could never show it to anyone, or tell anyone that they have it.”
“Some of them wouldn’t care about that. To them, just having the treasure and knowing that nobody else did would be enough.”
Miss Hawthorne sighed.
“Avarice. You are right, of course, Amelia. Where would we start to look?”
The Professor stood up.
“I may be able to get us started at least”
She left the kitchen and, after more rustling and what sounded like a minor avalanche, returned with an armful of auction catalogues that bristled with scraps of paper. The pile of catalogues landed on the table with a thump.
“This takes us back a few years, but we might be able to spot patterns, where people are buying the sort of objects we are dealing with.”
“Right.” Sergeant Benton picked up a catalogue at random and turned to a marked page, “Oh, it says ‘anonymous buyer’ here,” He pointed at the annotation, “not much help.”
“Not necessarily, Sergeant, the auction house will have had to keep the purchaser’s details, even if they aren’t disclosed at the auction. I am sure the police would be able to compel them to hand over the name, at the very least.”
“Right!,” the Sergeant took out his notebook. “I’ll make a start then.”
“And I must be off. Got a faculty meeting to attend, God help me, then I’d better see if we can get the conservation room back from the police. It’s fairly secure, but I want to get on with stabilising the pieces and get them on their way to the museum. And then there’s the question of replacing poor Clarke.” The Professor picked up a satchel from beside the kitchen door and slung it over one shoulder. Sergeant Benton looked up from the auction catalogues
“Would you like me to run you up there in the car, Professor?”
“No thank you Sergeant, I’ll stick to my bicycle. Anything else would cause a sensation on Campus!”
With that, she left, leaving the Sergeant grinning at the kitchen door as it closed behind her. He turned back to the table and became aware that Miss Hawthorne seemed lost in thought.
“Alright, Miss Hawthorne?”
Miss Hawthorne’s gaze, which had been distant, refocussed on the Sergeant.
“Oh. I am sorry, Sergeant, did you speak?”
“I only asked if you were alright. You looked a bit, well...”
“Ah! I am sorry to have worried you. I was thinking about alchemy and the old sciences. I wonder if the police would allow me to inspect Professor Beeching’s laboratory. If he was experimenting with alchemical methods, he may have been experimenting with other ancient arts..”
“You mean poisons?”
“Exactly! The police scientists are assuming that the poison was too new for them to have heard of. Perhaps it is simply too old, a refined version of an ancient poison. If I could see the laboratory, or the professor’s notes, I might find a clue to its origins.”
“We can try. I’ll give them a call and see what they say. But the professor was poisoned too, how does that fit in?”
“He may have been betrayed by his fellow conspirators, perhaps.”
“Maybe, he seems to have been difficult to get on with, perhaps they thought he was a liability. Anyway, I’ll get on to the station.”
The Sergeant went to the phone. While he made the call, Miss Hawthorne washed up the tea things, hoping the small activity might clear her mind a little. After about five minutes, Sergeant Benton stuck his head round the door
“Miss Hawthorne? I’ve got the Inspector on the line. He says he is happy for you to look at the house, providing you take an officer with you and promise not to touch anything.”
Miss Hawthorne smiled, she imagined that those were not the Inspector’s exact words.
“Tell him I am happy to abide by those conditions.”
The Sergeant returned to the sitting room and could be heard speaking to the Inspector, finally hanging up with a vigour that set the telephone bell jangling. He came back to the kitchen
“Right, they will send a car round in about half an hour.”
“Unmarked, I hope! It would cause a sensation if Amelia’s neighbours saw one of her guests leaving with the local constabulary!”
Sergeant Benton grinned,
“He didn’t say, Miss, but I’m sure they’ll have thought of that.”
As it turned out, this was the case. About thirty minutes later, a nondescript saloon car drew up outside the house, driven by a young woman in a dark suit. Miss Hawthorne picked up her handbag and donned her cloak.
“Good luck, Miss Hawthorne!”
“Thank you, Sergeant, and to you. Are you staying here for the time being?”
“Yes, I’ll hang on here and have a go at the Professor’s catalogues. One of us should probably be here anyway, in case she phones.”
“Ah, yes, quite right.”
The plain clothes policewoman opened the passenger door of the car for Miss Hawthorne, then got back in herself. As the car pulled onto the main road, Miss Hawthorne turned to the driver.
“Olive Hawthorne, very pleased to meet you.”
“Very pleased to meet you Sergeant. Are you my escort to the house?”
“Yes, Ma’am, the Inspector says we can take as long as you need, but nothing is to be touched or moved.”
“I quite understand. He need have no fear that I will interfere with his crime scene.”
Sergeant Baines smiled.
“I’m sure he doesn’t, Ma’am.”
The drive lasted about 20 minutes. Sergeant Baines parked the car close to the house and she and Miss Hawthorne made their way up the front path, through an untidy, but not unattractive, garden. Miss Hawthorne looked at the plants as she went through the garden, noting the species almost instinctively. A mass of blue-flowered plants grew on either side of the front door. Sergeant Baines spoke to the constable on duty, who opened the front door for them. Miss Hawthorne entered, feeling an unpleasant shrinking sensation on her scalp. This was unknown territory. The Sergeant passed her a pair of cotton gloves and she put them on, nerving herself for what was to come.
“Would you like to look at the study or the lab first?”
“Oh, I think the laboratory. I have seen the photographs of the study”
“Right, this way, then.”
Sergeant Baines led the way to the rear of the house and then turned to go down a narrow staircase. Miss Hawthorne followed her, feeling not unlike a fairy tale character approaching the villain’s lair. She had a strong impression of evil, though whether that came from the crime that had been committed in the house, or from the owner, she wasn’t sure. The Sergeant unlocked and opened the door to the basement and the two women entered.
As Miss Hawthorne looked around, she was surprised at how light the room was. Two windows, set high in one wall, let an unexpected amount of daylight. The single, bare bulb suspended from the ceiling would have cast little light, but the workbench was surrounded by adjustable lamps. The bench itself was crowded with equipment, some of which Miss Hawthorne recognised from her work with distilling herbal remedies. An easel held a blackboard covered in scrawled diagrams and formulae and two of the three stools at bench held piles of books, some of them clearly of great age. Miss Hawthorne approached the desk and looked at the equipment. Clearly a refining process of some kind had taken place, but she was unfamiliar with some of the vessels and processes that were set up. She turned to look at the books, but her eye was drawn to an incongruous pile of objects at the end of the bench.
“yes, Ma’am and a writing pad. Some of the pages are missing, but it doesn’t look as though anything was written on the pages, at least, nothing came through to the pad underneath.”
“How strange. Had it just been the envelopes, I would have thought that he was using them to store samples of some kind, though those aren’t the kind of envelopes one would expect, but with the writing pad…” she broke off as he looked at the open book on top of one of the piles. It was a herbary; a guide to the identification and use of plants. It was bound in vellum and the pages were discoloured and tattered at the edges. The page bore a column of text and an illustration of a plant with tall stems bearing spires of bell shaped flowers. Miss Hawthorne gasped.
“Of course! Monks Hood!”
“Monks Hood, Sergeant, aconite, the queen of poisons! I should have guessed, it is growing outside the house!”
The sergeant joined her at the bench.
“Oh! The blue flowers?”
“Yes. They are aconite, known as wolfsbane or monks hood. Deadly poisons can be made from them and the plant itself can be toxic to the touch..”
The sergeant broke in,
“Absorbed through the fingers...”
“Yes! This ‘professor’ may not have been entirely sane, but he was clearly a skilled herbalist. If he managed to refine the essence of the poison in a new form ...”
“That would be why the lab boys didn’t recognise it.”
“Precisely, though this room would have surely have given them the clues they needed.”
“I’m sure it would, but they have been at the university for the last few days and they haven’t had a chance to go over this room yet.”
“Ah! That would explain it. We must inform the Inspector.”
“Yes, I’ll get on the radio, the lab can go ahead now, though I don’t know if helps with how the stuff was given to the victims..”
“No, though, perhaps ...Sergeant, when your colleagues investigated the scene at the University, did they analyse everything?”
“I think so, at least they will, they haven’t had time to cover everything yet. Why do you ask?”
“I was thinking about those envelopes. If I wanted to poison someone, but to do so by... by remote control, so to speak, how could I deliver that poison in a way that I was sure they would touch?”
The Sergeant cut in excitedly;
“In an envelope!”
“Precisely! A mundane object that nobody would suspect. Of course one would have to find a way to stop the poison seeping through the envelope so that it would only affect the intended victim… no leaves or flowers have been found, so it must have been the refined substance that was used… I wonder… Sergeant, could you ask your colleagues if it would be possible to impregnate say, a piece of paper with the poison, and for the paper to dry, but the poison still to work?”
“Like the notepaper? I’ll ask them, but I bet that’s it!”
Despite the gravity of the situation, Miss Hawthorne had to smile as the poised policewoman became a slangy teenager.
“It seems the most likely explanation, for the unfortunate Mr Clarke at any rate. But a different method would have had to have been employed for the professor, he would surely have been suspicious.”
“Yes, I see what you mean. But we can ask the scene of crime people to check for these envelopes at the university, can’t we?”
“We can indeed. Lead on Sergeant.”
Miss Hawthorne and Sergeant Baines left the basement, the Sergeant locking the door behind them, and went out to the car, where the Sergeant radioed the station to pass on the results of their inspection. The Inspector had the file on his desk and was able to confirm that the wastepaper basket at the university had indeed contained an envelope of the brand found in the house and a blank sheet of notepaper screwed into a ball. The wastebasket contents were still awaiting analysis, but the Inspector phoned the lab to make sure that that particular envelope and page were given priority. He agreed with Miss Hawthorne that the poison had probably been administered to the professor by a different method, but made a note to concentrate his team’s efforts on the desk and waste basket in the study where the body was found.
Her report given, the Sergeant replaced her radio receiver.
“Well, Miss Hawthorne, what now?”
“Back to the village please, Sergeant, I must report to the, er, other Sergeant and if it is not lunchtime now, then it must be very nearly.”
“Right you are!”
Sergeant Baines started the car and headed back towards the village, the cottage and, Miss Hawthorne hoped sincerely, lunch.
At the university, Professor Rumford was struggling to maintain her composure, with little success. The faculty meeting had been as excruciating as she had expected and her temper was not improved by the news that the conservation room was still off limits to all but the police for at least the next week. Feeling that she had achieved nothing of any use and angry at the waste of time, the Professor called into the department office and took the post from her pigeon hole and then retired to her office to nurse her grievances with the assistance of the bottle of brandy that she kept in her desk drawer. Having closed the office door firmly behind her, the sign on the outside set to “do not disturb,” the Professor sat down at her desk and poured herself a generous drink. Having taken a gulp of brandy, she set the glass down in a small space on the desk that might have existed purely to accommodate it and picked up her post. She sorted the envelopes rapidly, some into her in tray, some on the desk in front of her and a few directly into the wastepaper basket. History Today magazine went into the tray, as did a memo about a funding meeting. The Archaeologist journal went onto the desk to take home and read at leisure and an invitation to a faculty dinner dance went into the bin. The next envelope was a mystery. A square, white envelope as might be used by a private correspondent, but it was completely blank. Professor Rumford turned it over. No, nothing on the front or back of the envelope. Well, she was in no mood to deal with people who couldn’t be bothered to address an envelope properly. Into the bin it went, unopened. The Professor looked at her watch. Time to be getting back and seeing what Olive and John (having discovered the Sergeant’s first name, Professor Rumford had taken to using it, in her head at least) had been up to. And time for lunch. She shoved the journal into her satchel and got up. Going out of the office she bumped, literally, into a student who was hurrying past with her head down. The student stammered an apology and the Professor was about to ask her sharply why she didn’t look where she was going, when she noticed the girl’s reddened eyes and tear-stained cheeks.
“My dear Miss Ainslie, what IS the matter?”
“I, oh, it’s nothing, I’m quite alright!”
“My dear girl you are nothing of the sort! Come in here and tell me about it. I’m sure it can’t be anything we can’t sort out.”
As she spoke, Professor Rumford edged around Miss Ainslie, leaving her with nowhere to go but into the office. Having got her inside, the Professor closed the door and installed her unexpected visitor in an armchair, then pulled the chair from behind her desk round so that she was sitting alongside her student. She waited in silence for a few moments, then proffered a large linen handkerchief.
“Now then. Mop up with that and tell me what the matter is.”
Miss Ainslie accepted the handkerchief and scrubbed at her eyes with it. She was still very upset, but something about the quiet atmosphere of the office and the calm, brisk kindness of the Professor was already doing her good. She hiccupped, then began to breathe more evenly. The Professor asked again.
“I, I think I’ve done something terrible.”
“Oh, really? What was it? Copied someone else’s homework? Put a whoopee cushion on the Dean’s chair at Senate? Ah, no, I remember now, that was me.”
Miss Ainslie gave a watery smile, in spite of herself.
“That’s better. Now, tell all.”
The student looked at her hands.
“I ...He said it was only a joke, and Andrew had been so beastly, I didn’t think there was any harm in getting my own back a bit, but now he’s dead and I ...”
“Ah, so this has to do with the late, not particularly lamented, Mr Clarke does it? Hmm. You had better begin at the beginning, one moment,”
the Professor filled a glass with water from the sink near the office door and passed it to her student.
“Thank you. Well, some of us had gone to the pub and we were talking about the hoard, and who it might have belonged to, was there really a curse, that sort of thing. And then Andrew got on his high horse and started carrying on about how we were making fun of a serious business and we had no idea what we were talking about, his usual stuff and how we would never amount to anything if we spent all our time gossiping in pubs. People were starting to look at us, it was embarrassing.”
“I see. And then what happened?”
“After we left the pub, I said goodbye to the others, my digs are the opposite direction to theirs and then, after they’d gone, a chap who had been in the pub came up to me and asked me if I’d like to get my own back on Andrew…” she paused and took a sip of water.
“You’d seen him in the pub?”
“Well, no, it was too dark to see his face properly, but he must have been there, because he knew what Andrew had been saying. Anyway, he gave me an envelope and a bit of paper with this creepy message on about the hoard and said if I pushed under the door where Andrew was working it would put the wind up him and we’d get our own back… so I did…but now… now… I don’t know…”
The Professor thought over the girl’s story. Was it possible that she had delivered the poison that had killed Clarke? If that were the case then that could mean she was in considerable danger herself, although the fact that the anonymous conspirator had taken pains to hide his face from her was hopeful. Professor Rumford made a decision.
“Thank you, my dear. I’m glad you told me all this. Now I’m going to make a phone call and you are coming home with me to have some lunch.”
“Oh but I ..."
“Now don’t argue, Miss Ainslie. You are in no fit state to go to lectures and, as your tutor, I am responsible for your well-being, am I not?”
“That’s settled then, good. Hello? (this into the phone) Amelia Rumford here. Could you possibly come and collect me from the university? Only I’m bringing one of my students home for lunch, she has had a nasty fright and I think she may be able to help us clear up one or two points that have been troubling us. Good. Thank you. Once you’ve reached the campus, take the main road through and the history building is second on the right. Yes, See you soon, goodbye!”
The Professor replaced the receiver and smiled at the bewildered Miss Ainslie.
“All arranged. He should be here in about 20 minutes, which will just give us time to talk over your dissertation topic!”
Sergeant Benton set aside another auction catalogue and looked at his watch. He wondered how Miss Hawthorne was getting on at the house and the Professor at her meeting. He also wondered whether the Professor’s welcome of “make yourself at home” had included getting himself lunch or if he should wait for his host to return. This train of thought was interrupted by the telephone bell.
“Hello, er, Wythyton 4786? Oh, hello Professor. Yes? Yes, I’d be glad to. Right.” As he spoke, Benton had the impression that the Professor was being deliberately diplomatic, presumably so as not to alarm her student, “Yes, that’s fine, I’ll see you shortly.”
Benton hung up and, pausing only to leave a note for Miss Hawthorne under a stone by the front door, he ran to the car and set off.
The University was well signposted and Benton had no trouble finding the History Building. As he pulled up, he saw the Professor waiting outside with a slim girl with long, fair hair. The Professor was looking out for him and hurried over with the girl as soon as she saw the car pull up.
“Here we are then, in you get Miss Ainslie!” She ushered her student into the car and then got into the front passenger seat beside Benton, “off you go, Sergeant.”
As the car pulled away, the Professor turned in her seat
“Miss Ainslie, this is Sergeant Benton. Sergeant Benton, this is Miss Ainslie. Oh don’t worry, he isn’t from the police, the Sergeant is here with a good friend of mine, who is helping sort out this horrible business.”
Benton smiled into the rear view mirror,
“Pleased to meet you, Miss.”
Miss Ainslie, who was beginning to wonder if she was being kidnapped by her tutor, smiled back nervously and whispered “Hello.”
“And how have been getting on with our search, Sergeant?”
“Pretty well, I think? There’s been a lot of anonymous, but a couple of names have been cropping up.”
“Good, we can look into that after lunch. And Olive?”
“Miss, er, Miss Hawthorne went to look at Professor Beeching’s house, she had an idea that she might be able to throw some light on the, er, alchemy side of things.”
“Ah, she may well be right. So we all have news to share.”
The Sergeant and his passengers arrived at the cottage just as Miss Hawthorne arrived with Sergeant Baines. Sergeant Baines made her excuses and left, and the Professor swept her party up the drive and into the cottage, refusing to listen to any news until they were indoors and around the kitchen table. Once she had them settled, she insisted that Miss Ainslie speak first and bustled around getting together a spread of bread, cheese and fruit. Miss Ainslie nervously retold her story, then lapsed into frightened silence, looking at Miss Hawthorne and the Sergeant. Miss Hawthorne reached a comforting hand across the table.
“My dear Miss Ainslie, what a terrible experience you have had. Nobody could possibly imagine that you meant Mr Clarke any harm.”
She looked at Benton for confirmation and he shook his head.
“No, nobody would think that. We’ll sort out the person who did this, don’t you worry.”
Miss Ainslie looked from one to the other and felt reassured. Professor Rumford put down a glass of wine in front of each of her guests and invited them to “tuck in!” While they ate, she kept to the subject of the possible theft of the hoard. Benton fetched his notebook and showed them the list of names he had collated. The names meant nothing to Miss Hawthorne, but the Professor gave a grunt of recognition as she read the list.
“Hmmm, Lord Hornbeam? No, I think we can write him off, he dabbles, but it’s not an obsession with him. Gloria Fitzherbert? Well, maybe, but I doubt it. Ah, now, this one, this is a possibility I would say. Benton leaned forward. “Marcus Wagstaff?”
“Yes. He inherited a firm from his father in the early 60’s, animal feed, fertilisers, that sort of thing. Lot of money in it and the family wasn’t badly off to start with. Anyway, he developed an obsession with all things Anglo Saxon and started buying up whatever he could get his hands on that wasn’t destined for museums and some of the things that should have been. I don’t know if you remember the Hockridge sale a few years ago?” Miss Hawthorne and Benton shook their heads, “Well, it was a strange story, but nobody ever really got to the bottom of it. It was a big sale, with some really good pieces and there had been a lot of interest from private buyers and a couple of museums. Suddenly, the interest started to tail off. There were rumours of bribery, or even threats to discourage people from bidding and in the end Wagstaff scooped the big prizes. He has a reputation for being ruthless in business too and playing close to, if not actually over the line at times.”
“Sounds like a nasty piece of work.”
Miss Hawthorne cleared her throat, delicately reminding them that Miss Ainslie was still at the table. Professor Rumford stood up and began to clear the table. The Sergeant got up:
“Let me do that, Professor.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. Now, Miss Ainslie, I have a sofa in the next room that is just right for a nap if you want one, or there are plenty of books to distract yourself with. When you have rested we will plan what to do next.”
She left the room with her student, and returned a few minutes later.
“I daresay she will be asleep before long. Poor child was worn out.”
“Using an impressionable student to do their dirty work, it’s disgusting!”
“It is, I shall be very glad when we can inform the Inspector and see that Miss Ainslie is properly protected. In the meantime, I think she will be safe enough here. Now Olive, what have you discovered? I thought it best to wait until we were alone before discussing poisons.”
“That was very wise of you Amelia. I’m afraid it will come as a further shock to Miss Ainslie but,”
Miss Hawthorne shared what she and Sergeant Baines had found out at the house. When she mentioned the envelopes, Professor Rumford gasped.
“But, there was an unmarked envelope in my post, I threw it in the bin, thought some damnfool was playing pranks on me.”
Miss Hawthorne turned a horrified face to her friend.
The Sergeant was half out of his seat to call the police, when he remembered Miss Ainslie.
“It’s alright, Sergeant, I have an extension in my bedroom, I will call the Inspector from there.”
She left the room and the Sergeant and Miss Hawthorne exchanged worried glances.
“This is getting a bit close to home.”
“What I don’t understand though, is why they don’t just nick the stuff. I mean, it’s there at the University, it’s not like it’s in Fort Knox.”
“I must admit I am not entirely clear on that point myself. Perhaps they were hoping to persuade the University to part with the hoard because of the curse, although that seems unlikely, or possibly they are planning to steal it, but wish to use the curse as, ahem, a ‘cover story’ and attribute the robbery to supernatural means.”
“I see, yes, that makes a bit more sense.”
Professor Rumford returned at this point.
“I spoke to the Inspector, he is sending a man to campus to get the envelope from my wastebin, assuming the cleaning staff haven’t got there first, and he is coming here himself and bringing all the information he can find on Marcus Wagstaff.”
“And Miss Ainslie?”
“He thinks it would arouse suspicion if she were to disappear, so he is going to suggest that she return, but take Sergeant... Baines, was it?”
“Yes, take Sergeant Baines as a friend and protector. But we must see what Miss Ainslie herself has to say.”
“This Wagstaff bloke,” put in Sergeant Benton, “does the Inspector think he’s a likely suspect?”
“He wasn’t about to say so over the telephone, but his having a file on the man suggests he is at least suspicious. However,” as she picked up the kettle, “it is useless to speculate until he arrives. Shall we have coffee?”
The Inspector arrived after an unexpectedly short time, bringing Sergeant Baines with him. They questioned Miss Ainslie closely but sympathetically in private, then the Inspector asked Professor Rumford and her guests to join them in the sitting room. Miss Ainslie looked pale still, but less frightened than she had earlier. The Professor looked questioningly at the Inspector.
“Yes, Miss Ainslie has decided to stay at the University, so Sergeant Baines will be going back with her.”
“Ah, I see. That is brave of her.” Miss Ainslie blushed, “and now, Inspector, you have some information for us?”
The inspector smothered a smile at his host’s business-like approach.
“Yes, I, ah,”
The Professor guessed his dilemma.
“Miss Ainslie, why don’t you and Sergeant Baines go to the kitchen and help yourselves to coffee and biscuits? If you are going to be spending time together on campus you had better get to know each other.”
The two women left the room and the Inspector pulled a bulging file from his briefcase.
“Here we are. Marcus Wagstaff.”
“Blimey,” said Benton when he saw the size of the file.
“Yes, he’s a busy boy.” The Inspector leafed through the papers, “suspected money laundering, suspected of bribery and putting the frighteners on his competition, suspected of threats and bribery at the auctions… but note the ‘suspected,’ we’ve been gathering evidence for years, but there’s never enough to make anything stick.” He passed the contents of the file to the others and they read in silence. Benton was the first to speak.
“Nasty piece of work.”
“Certainly, Sergeant, but we can’t arrest him for that. All we can prove is that he is a ruthless businessman who doesn’t let anyone get in his way, either in business or out of it.”
“But how does a bloke like that get obsessed with ancient jewellery?”
Surprisingly, it was the Professor that answered.
“It isn’t so much the jewels as the history he is after. The man is obsessed with genealogy, I believe he has had his family tree traced back to Saxon times, money for old rope if you ask me, and he sees the artefacts as rightful heritage. Man’s a fool, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous.”
“Quite,” replied the Inspector, “but how do you know all this, Professor?”
“Oh, he has tried throwing money at universities from time to time, wanting to fund research that will prove him the rightful king of Cornwall or some such nonsense! Most of them turned him down, we certainly did, but I believe some places might have fallen for the size of his wallet… let me see, yes, I believe he did fund some projects at Wincaster, in biochemistry and history, now I think of it.”
The Sergeant and Miss Hawthorne spoke at once:
“Isn’t that where ..?”
“Of course!” exclaimed the Professor, “Beeching! Or whoever he was in those days. Inspector, can we find out if Wagstaff funded any research undertaken by, what was his name then?”
“Ah, Stevenson. Well?”
“We should be able to, I should think, I’ll get on to the University. If it turns out to be the case, that would give us a definite link between them.”
“It would. And did your constable manage to retrieve the envelope from my office?”
“I don’t know yet, Ma’am, I’ve asked them to rush it to the lab and call me when there is any news.”
“I see, well , we don’t need to go hungry while we wait, there is an excellent fish and chip shop in the village, if you would care to come with me and assist, Sergeant Benton?”
While they tucked into their fish and chip supper, which was, indeed, excellent, the Inspector, the Professor and her guests discussed their strategy. A call to the University of Wincaster had established that Wagstaff had, indeed, funded research undertaken by Professor Stevenson, as he was then, so a definite link had been established between the two men. Professor Rumford voiced a question that was in all their minds:
“But if Stevenson was working with Wagstaff, why would he kill him?”
“Ah, I do have an idea about ...”
The telephone bell cut off the Inspector in mid-sentence. The Professor picked up the receiver.
“Wythyton 4786? Who? Yes, yes he is, one moment.”
She passed the receiver to the Inspector.
“Strang here. Yes, yes… right. Thanks, yes. Good. WHAT? Are they mad? With a murderer on the loose and the treasure still in the ..? Right, well, thanks for letting me know, if we can’t stop it, we will just have to try and deal with it, I suppose. Yes, thank you, Woods. Goodbye”
Miss Hawthorne and Benton exchanged bewildered glances at the Inspector’s tone, but understanding dawned in the Professor’s eyes. The Inspector hung up with a bang, then apologised.
“I’m sorry, Professor. “
“Not at all, Inspector, was there bad news?”
“News, anyway. The paper from your office was contaminated with a poison derived from aconite. The paper from the conservation room had traces of the same poison, but very faint.”
“I suppose it must have degraded in the time since the murder.”
“That’s what the lab boys think. As to how it was done, they aren’t sure, but their idea is that the warmth of the victim’s hand causes the poison to pass from the paper to the victim, at least that’s the best they can come up with at the moment.”
“I see. And may we ask what was exercising you so?”
The Inspector drew a deep breath.
“It appears that the University is determined to go ahead with a civic event tomorrow night. We’ve advised them not to, but they’ve invited a lot of bigwigs and potential donors and they don’t want to cancel. Never mind that there is a murderer at large and that a valuable treasure is still locked in their buildings…”
“Of course!” Professor Rumford struck the arm of her chair with her hand. “I’d forgotten all about that wretched bunfight. I was invited. Hadn’t got round to telling them I wasn’t going to go.” She walked over to the fireplace and picked up an invitation card that was propped up behind the clock. Then she paused.
“I wonder though... You say that there will be potential donors and bigwigs there?”
“Yes, so I gather. Why? Oh I see what you mean!”
“As far as moneybags go, they don’t come much bigger than our Mister Wagstaff do they?”
“But I thought you said the University had turned him down?” queried Miss Hawthorne.
“They had, but times change. Everyone is after cash these days and they are getting less and less fussy who they take it from.”
“Ah I see.”
“But do you think he would be there to steal the treasure? I mean to steal it himself?” asked Benton, “Don’t blokes like him usually get other people to do their dirty work?”
“Perhaps the chance to take the treasure would be too much to resist,” said Miss Hawthorne. “From what you have told us, it is clear that he is an egotist. Stealing the hoard would be his triumph, and he may not wish to share that, even with his henchmen.”
The Inspector looked thoughtful.
“You may be right, Miss Hawthorne. But it’s a problem for me. I can post a guard at the conservation room, in fact I already have, but I can’t have Wagstaff followed. For one thing, I haven’t got the manpower and for another he would probably spot that he was being tailed and then we’d be back to square one.”
It was the Professor’s turn to look thoughtful. She stood by the fireplace, tapping her invitation card against her lower lip. Then she spoke.
“I believe we may be able to solve your problem, Inspector, at least partially. Here’s what I suggest ...”
It was eight o’clock the following evening when Professor Rumford and Miss Hawthorne arrived at the party. The room buzzed with chatter and the clink of plates and glasses. Forewarned by the Professor, Miss Hawthorne had made a hearty tea earlier in the evening and, seeing the serried ranks of vol au vents and curious jellied concoctions warming under the hall lights, she was glad that she had. The Professor maneuvered two glasses of wine off a passing waiter’s tray and handed one to her guest.
“Here you are Olive. If you’ll take my advice, you’ll avoid the prawns.”
“Thank you. I think I’ll avoid all of it.”
“Very wise. Now where’s our.. ah, there he is.”
Miss Hawthorne followed the Professor’s gaze across the hall. A man stood chatting to the Vice-Chancellor in one corner of the room. He was a little above middle height, with thick, fair hair brushed back from his forehead and a small goatee beard. Though not fat, there was a solid muscularity about his figure and an intensity about his manner that made Miss Hawthorne recoil. The Sergeant’s description of “a nasty piece of work” seemed accurate.
“Yes, that’s him. Mr Wagstaff himself.”
The Professor gave a tiny nod, which was echoed by a tall figure who stood just inside the side door of the hall.
“Then follow me.”
The Professor threaded her way through the partygoers, pausing now and then to greet acquaintances and to introduce Miss Hawthorne to some of them. She stopped a short distance from the Vice-Chancellor and Wagstaff and nodded to Miss Hawthorne.
“And are the police really going to let you reopen the conservation room?”
Miss Hawthorne’s clear voice cut through the surrounding hubbub. Professor Rumford, who was facing the two men, saw Wagstaff’s shoulders suddenly tense. She raised her own voice slightly
“Yes. Isn’t it wonderful? I can’t wait to get back in there and start working again. They tell me they have gathered all the evidence they need, and I hope they have, poor Clarke,” she paused, watching for a reaction, “but it will be a relief to be able to start the stabilisation process again. The longer the things are out of the ground, the more fragile they become. And then (dropping her voice to a stage whisper) there’s the question of security”
“Security?” asked her friend, apparently baffled, ”but surely you have a safe?”
“We do, ah, I suppose it’s safe enough there really. I’ll just be happier when it is on its way to the museum.”
“Ah, I understand.”
“It’s so tempting. I might just nip along there and make sure..."
“But Amelia, at this time of night?”
“It won’t be for long, I just want to make sure the police haven’t made a mess of the place. You stay here and hold the fort and I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Oh very well. But do be careful, Amelia.”
“Nonsense! I’m always careful! Here,” she passed her half-empty wine glass to her friend, “I shan’t be long.”
The Professor left Miss Hawthorne and went out of the nearest door. Miss Hawthorne stood still for a moment, as if considering what to do next. As she did so, Marcus Wagstaff made his excuses to the Vice Chancellor and also left the hall. Miss Hawthorne turned and nodded and the tall figure near the side door also exited the room. The Vice Chancellor, deprived of his guest, saw Miss Hawthorne standing alone and came over to engage her in conversation. Miss Hawthorne, seeing him approach, rapidly drained the contents of both the glasses she held and set them down on a nearby table, then tried to assume an air of festive nonchalance.
Professor Rumford unlocked the door of the conservation room and went in, turning on the light as she did so. She closed the door, but left it unlocked, then walked over to the workbench where Andrew Clarke had been found. The buckle he had been cleaning was still on the bench, its bright enamel gleaming under the light. The Professor pulled a stool up the bench and sat down, then picked up a brush and began to clean the buckle, humming under her breath as she did so. The door opened, and quiet footsteps sounded behind her. Without turning round, she said
“Good evening, Mr Wagstaff, come to look at our treasure, have you?”
She turned on the stool to face the intruder. It was, indeed, Wagstaff, and he was holding a gun.
“Your treasure? Your treasure?” His voice was quiet, but full of suppressed emotion. “It isn’t yours. It’s mine. It should be mine. The legacy of my Saxon forebears. And I’m not going to let any interfering academics take it from me!”
“I see. I’m afraid I can’t let you take it, you know.”
“Oh, and how do you propose to stop me?”
“I? Oh, I don’t need to.”
At that moment the door opened again and Sergeant Benton stepped into the room, his pistol trained on Wagstaff.
Wagstaff turned, and slowly lowered his gun to the floor. Suddenly he charged, pushing Benton against the door and reaching for the hand that held the gun. Benton brought his knee up into his assailant’s gut and, as the man staggered back, punched him hard on the jaw. Wagstaff fell to the ground, apparently stunned, but Benton was taking no chances and he picked up both guns to cover his prisoner. The door opened for a third time and the Inspector came in, followed by two police constables, who handcuffed Wagstaff and dragged him to his feet, then half-carried him out of the room. Sergeant Benton holstered his gun and handed Wagstaff’s to the Inspector.
“Good work, Sergeant.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“All safe, Professor?”
“Yes, thank you, Inspector, but we had better get back to the hall, Olive may need rescuing from the party by now!”
The next morning, Miss Hawthorne, Sergeant Benton and the Inspector were, once again, in Professor Rumford’s sitting room. The Inspector was reporting back on what had happened following Wagstaff’s arrest.
“He talked. We thought he wouldn’t, but he seems to want to boast about his brilliant plan and how his superior intelligence and Saxon blood means we should all be bowing before his greatness.”
The Professor rolled her eyes, but didn’t speak
Miss Hawthorne looked pensive, “I see. So why did he kill Stevenson? He did, I suppose?”
“Yes. It seems that he had become a liability. Wagstaff made up the curse and showed it to Beeching, sorry, Stevenson, to convince him to join him. He knew that Stevenson was a bit …um… eccentric after meeting him at Wincaster and he convinced him that only he, Wagstaff that is, was the true heir to the hoard and that they would be dealing divine retribution on anyone who kept it from them.”
“Good Heavens! And the letters to the paper?”
“I think they were Wagstaff’s idea to start with, spread a bit of panic, or at least get the curse into the public imagination. But Stevenson was starting to enjoy the attention, and Wagstaff must have been worried that he would give away the plan”
“I see. And how did he..?”
“Stevenson had given him some poisoned paper and some envelopes. He had one of the pieces of paper printed with an advertisement and had one of his men slip it through Stevenson’s letter box, wearing gloves, of course. Stevenson might have recognised one of the envelopes, even if wasn’t blank, but he wouldn’t have suspected a loose sheet of paper. We found it in the wastepaper basket in the hall, he didn’t even take it into the study.”
Sergeant Benton put down his coffee cup.
“And do you know why he wanted to delay the university? He didn’t really think they would put the stuff back did he?”
“It turns out that Miss Hawthorne’s suggestion was accurate. The hoard was much less secure at the University than it would have been at the museum and the curse provided a useful cover for his real motive.”
Professor Rumford stood up.
“Well, thank you, Inspector, it was good of you to come.”
“Not at all, Professor, it was the least I could do.”
“Well, well, it’s done with now, so we can go back to the everyday, or what passes for the everyday at any rate!”
“Indeed. Goodbye, Professor, Miss Hawthorne, Sergeant.”
The Inspector went out to his car and Miss Hawthorne and Sergeant Benton followed him out. While the Sergeant packed their bags into the boot, Miss Hawthorne went to say goodbye to her friend.
“Well, goodbye Amelia.”
“Goodbye Olive, don’t leave it so long next time, I don’t want to have to lay on a murder just to get you to come and see me!”
Miss Hawthorne laughed. “I should hope not! Well, we must be going, we’ve a long drive and we will need to report to UNIT when we get back.”
“Very well then, good bye, but don’t forget, you are welcome any time, and so is your young man!”
And with that the Professor turned and went back into her house, leaving Miss Hawthorne breathless at the cheek of her friend and Sergeant Benton torn between embarrassment and a terrible desire to laugh.
They got into the car and Benton started the engine.
“Home, Miss Hawthorne?”
“Thank you, Sergeant, and I trust that, that ...”
“Oh, don’t you worry, Miss Hawthorne, your secret is safe with me!”
Grinning broadly, Benton steered the car away from the cottage and back on the way to UNIT and to Devil’s End.