Monty Bust & Carlo – Part Four

marblebust

“Croesus! Good to see you. What can I do you for?”

Croesus sauntered into the shop. Then stopped, mid-saunter, before he’d reached the counter. “What did you just say to me?”

“Eh?” asked Fletcher. Suddenly the man looked wary and shady, ready to dive for cover behind his counter, which was carved into the crenellated shape of a castle wall. “I only asked what I could do for you. You know, doin my bit to be friendly. Helpful, like. Providing a spot of customer service. Not that I’d take you for a routine customer. You’re not usually in the market for arrows. What’s up? Taken up archery in your spare time?”

“No. Before that. ‘Good to see me’. What was that?” Croesus advanced with eyes narrowed.

“Friendly. You know. Being nice. You oughta try it sometime.”

“All right. Never mind.” Croesus relaxed, laid an arm atop the counter’s faux battlements. The fact was, he didn’t have a lot of spare time for archery or anything. And he stood to get a few more answers if Fletcher wasn’t on the defensive. He let the unexpected friendliness go this once. “What you can do or me is tell me if certain items have shown up in your shop.”

“Arrows, you mean? Certain types of arrow? We only sell arrows here, mate.”

“Don’t get cute.” Fletcher had inherited his original trade from his old man, but it had quickly turned into a front for more underhand commerce. He was a pasty-skinned fellow with red hair and a moustache that drooped to partially hide a droopier face. Croesus would have deemed him well-suited to boredom, but he had found the business of churning out arrow after arrow to be pointless drudgery and had sought to spice up his life by fencing stolen goods.

The shelves and racks out front were stacked with arrows. Every possible variety plus bolts for crossbows over in their dedicated corner section. But Croesus knew if he hopped the counter and wandered into the back rooms he’d find other treasures missing from their rightful homes. Not necessarily the specific treasures he was looking for, but still several hot items waiting to be sold that were not cakes.

Not only did he know that, he knew that Fletcher knew he knew it. And knew that he could have guards summoned for an impromptu store inspection and shut him down. Which was quite a lot of knowing between them and Croesus framed as much knowing as he could in the look he gave the bushy-lipped storekeep.

“All right, all right,” Fletcher caved. He leaned across the counter and muttered through his moustache. “What sort of items d’you have in mind?”

Croesus reeled off the first few objets d’art like he was reciting his week’s grocery list. “Two commemorative silver sandwich platters marking the centenary of the Battle Of Thistle Fjord; glass galleon threaded with dragonscale filigree; one sapphire-collared porcelain Pekinese; seven authentic gold-framed triptychs by Avgost Velophin depicting the Trials Of Lady Jenoise; diamond chess set with pearl and jet gameboard and hourglass pawns; twelve Sinoan warrior figurines fashioned from pure – ”

“Wait, wait,” Fletcher waved him quiet. “Can’t you just give me a list?”

“What does it sound like I’m doing?”

“No, no. Written. On paper. A proper list list.”

Croesus wrinkled his upper lip. “Because I don’t have one.” He tapped the side of his skull. “It’s all up here. Committed to memory.”

“Really?” Fletcher eyed Croesus’ head dubiously, as though doubting there was room for so many words between his ears. He sniffed eventually though, apparently impressed. “Quite a feat if you ask me, to keep that lot stored in your head. Some days I can’t even remember whether I’ve brushed my teeth or not.”

Croesus would hazard a guess not today. Although the smell of stale food may have emanated from morsels lodged in the man’s moustache.

“It’s not that difficult. The King has me do routine inspections all the time. Number of times I’ve toured that vault and checked inventory, wasn’t hard to learn it all. What’s more I don’t just know every item in the collection, I know exactly where it is.”

Croesus nodded, allowing Fletcher time to be impressed some more.

“Except now, you mean,” said Fletcher.

Croesus grumbled irritably. He straightened, tired of leaning on the counter. “Yes. As it happens. Except now. What I mean is, I keep a mental picture of all the items and their position in the vault – as they should be. Bit like I now have a vivid mental image of you languishing in His Majesty’s dungeon feeding the royal rats.”

“Steady on, Croesus, I’m doing my best to assist.”

“All right then. I’ll keep going. You just nod if anything rings a bell.”

Fletcher made a face like he was all ears. Leaned forward some more.

“Right, where was I?” Croesus shut his eyes momentarily to recall his mental picture. Turned the image of the vault interior around in his head. Noting each item again in turn, up to the Sinoan warrior figurines.

“Go on then,” urged Fletcher, a touch impatient.

“Wait,” said Croesus. That was odd.

He stared hard at the insides of his eyelids. Wherever his mental image was projected, everything was in its place. Except –

No marble bust of Montgomery Prye.

Funny. Why wouldn’t he have memorised that?

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

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Monty Bust & Carlo – Part Three

marblebust

“The King wants results, De Vere. I understand results may take time, but do not fool yourself that you have an ample supply of hours to play with.”

Croesus fought the urge to yawn his way through the Chancellor’s lecture. If he pretended attentiveness and showed a keen eye, that might buy him some allowance when negotiating terms for his investigation. He had to be free to operate on a lengthy leash. So that, at a minimum, he might be able to wing it until some inspiration struck. For now, Chancellor Seedgrape was not quite done.

“But in the meanwhile, you must have theories. Something to impart. It falls to me to report to the King and I cannot go to him empty of words.”

Croesus considered it very unlikely that Seedgrape ever found himself empty of words. He appeared to have paused his speech for now though.

“Well, best I can tell you is we’re dealing with an absolute mastermind. A genius to rival my own. But I’m sure you figured out that much yourself.” Croesus cracked a smile like he used to crack safes. “But the good news is, we don’t have to trouble ourselves with working out how it was done.”

“We don’t?” queried Seedgrape.

“Not a priority. We’ll have to eventually. Well, I’ll have to. There’s some security loophole about the size of a volcanic crater, obviously, so I’ll need to see about plugging it at some point. But the beauty of stolen goods, from our current point of view, Chancellor, is that regardless of how they went walkies they have to go somewhere.”

“Ah.” Seedgrape nodded sagely. And with an arch of his nostrils that hinted of disapproval. “You mean to contact your associates of old. Fences, I believe, is the term.”

“Well, yes. The goods have to be handled. And I know all the leading players in the business.” Croesus leaned in to confide – and also because he knew the closeness would get up Seedgrape’s sensitive nose. “Thing is, I have to act quickly – most of these items will be hotter than hot potatoes so our thief won’t want to hold onto them for any length of time. Same goes for the dealers. Some folks like to sit on the fence, but fences rarely like to sit on anything for too long. Trickier aspect is, I’ll also have to tread carefully. Most of my old associates care less for me than you do. Since I turned coat and started working for the law they don’t appreciate when I come calling. And I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything quickly and carefully at the same time, mate, but try running a tightrope some day.”

Seedgrape sniffed and spent a while clearing his throat. “Yes, well, I quite appreciate the difficulties. But I will not concern myself over the methods, De Vere, as long as you produce the results. Recover the goods – as many of the items as you are able. And bring the criminal to justice. You need not apprehend him yourself. Merely supply his identity and the guards will do the rest.”

“Right. I’d best get my careful skates on then. Leads to pursue, inquiries to be made. I take it I’m free to go?”

Seedgrape stepped aside. The guards parted to make an exit. Croesus started along the aisle they’d created between them.

“Just one thing.” He halted and spun about in detectively fashion. “Out of curiosity. What’s the story on that marble bust?”

“That thing?” said Seedgrape. “Well, it’s not marble as such. But it is a bust of Montgomery Prye. Brother to the King.”

“Oh? The King has a brother?” Couldn’t be much love lost there, figured Croesus. The King prized the valuables (that had been) in his vault, but surely such a fine likeness of his own sibling would carry additional sentimental or emotional attachment and you’d give it pride of place somewhere you could look on it every day. Unless it was a poor likeness, in which case the reverse would apply. In other words, you’d give it pride of place if you didn’t like him. Love, hate. Either way, emotional attachment was involved.

“Had,” amended Seedgrape. “Regrettably the King’s brother – passed away some years ago.”

“Oh.” Croesus wondered if a ‘sorry’ was called for. But he had no idea how Seedgrape felt about the dear departed Montgomery Prye. He ran through his reasoning again, calculating how a deceased state might alter the rules. But no, it didn’t change a thing. You’d keep the statue or bust in daily view if you loved your brother and the sculpture was a decent likeness. You’d display it even more prominently if you hated the guy and it was a shabby likeness. Emotional attachments deepened when the subject was dead. Especially if the emotion was loathing.

“What happened to him?” Croesus wondered.

“Ah – an unfortunate riding accident. The King does not care for us to speak of it. Now, if that will be all – ”

Interesting. Relevant? Possibly. Or possibly not. Croesus filed the information away right next to whatever Seedgrape wasn’t telling him.

He had people to see. Most of whom would not be wanting to see him.

 

 

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Monty Bust & Carlo – Part Two

marblebust

Scene of the crime.

The first, most immediately obvious thing that struck Croesus was that Chancellor Seedgrape had told a porky. The Royal Vault was only mostly empty.

A solitary bust, mounted on an ebony pedestal, observed Croesus from one alcove. Croesus did his best not to let the stern gaze bother him as he completed his third circuit of the chamber.

Nope, he thought. This was wrong. All wrong.

The vault was housed under a sixteen-sided dome. And no, Croesus did not know the geometric term for the structure. He thought of it as hexadecagonal as that was adding ten and six and putting pieces together was his specialty. In his old days, the maths had been more about subtraction: one vault minus much of its contents. Rarely all though. All wasn’t often practical.

All was to make a statement.

He finger-drummed on his lower lip. Shot a glancing frown at the marble bust. “Curious. Between you and me,” he addressed the sculpture, “this has me foxed. Temporarily.” He wagged a finger. “Yes. Only temporarily, mind. So no need to go blabbing to old Seedgrape.” Seedgrape would pounce on any opportunity to have Croesus fired. Seedgrape was probably one of the advisers who whispered in the King’s ear when the question arose of where to house Croesus while on staff. “Not in the palace, Your Majesty. Anywhere but the palace.” Yes, Croesus could hear the old sourface muttering those exact words. “Well,” Croesus declared aloud, “stumped is not out.” He was about as familiar with the sport of cricket as he was with geometry. “The pieces are all here – even if they’re also all gone.”

Croesus toured the chamber again. Examining the mosaic floor, bending to inspect individual tiles – both to check for scuff marks and to be too close to view the overall picture. Although he was fully aware the mosaic formed a portrait of the King, graced with a pair of eagle’s wings and framed against a burning sun. Croesus had heard that fable and knew how it turned out. He poked around in every alcove. Recalled how he’d told the King alcoves were a bad idea. Alcoves afforded hiding spots for thieves. But the King liked them as an architectural feature and for the presentation of some of his valuables. And to be fair they only worked as places of concealment when masked by curtains or with things other than thieves in them. Objets d’art of concealment. There were none here. And no thieves.

The chamber stank of emptiness. It echoed of cleaned out.

The echoes were trapped inside, obliged to bounce back off the high hexadecagonal dome.

The shutters were closed, allowing in only slatted light. Narrow shafts like harp strings, waiting to be played by the waltzing dust. The shutters were part of his security installation, the oculus and decorative petal windows being an early-identified weakness that any thief unafraid of heights and rooftops would have cheerfully exploited. All the windows had been fitted with bars over the stained glass, but Croesus had ruled it insufficient. Armoured shutters routinely locked into place over night and clearly Seedgrape or somebody had ordered them to remain closed, perhaps to guard against further break-ins. Yeah. In case the thief came back to steal the mosaic tiles off the floor. Or the bust. But nobody in their right mind would want that thing.

Croesus was accustomed to working in shadows, had a good pair of dark-adaptable eyes. So the current gloom of filtered winter daylight was nothing to him.

Even from the middle of the chamber he could tell the bust was ugly. Well, not ugly exactly. But the subject had been in some kind of mood whenever he’d posed for the sculptor.

Bald as a dragon-egg, the subject had a nose that might have served well as an axe-blade and a set of cold marble lips that sneered at the world. The eyes had been left as a pair of blank orbs and that didn’t help make the subject’s expression any rosier. Add to that the chiselled bony cheeks, the wattled turkey-neck and a forehead with more ridgelines than most mountain ranges and Croesus could see why a thief might leave it behind. Few fences would want that face staring at them from some corner of their warehouse. It might have some value as a piece of art, he supposed, but who would you offload it on?

But – but – but –

Croesus sauntered in a small area in the centre of the vault and those dead pupil-less eyes seemed to follow his motions. If only they could tell him what they’d witnessed during the night.

He shrugged. And slouched out of the chamber.

He set his shoulders straighter and firmer as he met Seedgrape outside, waiting in the antechamber with a dozen guards. “Well?” said the Chancellor.

“There were a few telltale clues. I’m optimistic,” Croesus lied. What he really wanted to do was climb all over the building and inspect the exterior inch by inch. Or go home and think for a week.

Fat chance of the latter. He could tell from Seedgrape’s scowl his investigations were on a clock. At best, if he couldn’t produce answers, he’d be getting all the thinking time he could ever wish for. In the dubious comfort of a dungeon cell.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Monty Bust & Carlo – Part One

marblebust

COME AT ONCE. STOP. THE KING. STOP.

Croesus De Vere re-read the telegram through a haze of lost sleep and steam from his hastily brewed cuppa. He wished he could read it another way – like, come at once and stop the King from doing whatever. Sending telegrams before breakfast, for instance.

But once broken, the code of the telegram’s manner of punctuation allowed little room for misinterpretation. The King demanded the presence of his Court Investigator.

Croesus massaged away the sleep-deprivation, knocked back a gulp of his tea, then threw together his outfit with the same care as he’d taken in tossing the tea bag into the mug.

The morning was as bracing as a torturer’s rack. No sense wasting time stretching his legs. Croesus ran, hurdling the neighbourhood cats who populated the maze of narrow lanes he called home. Although an appointee on the staff of the Royal Court, Croesus was not of worthy enough stock to qualify for quarters within the palace grounds. Truth was, he had been born in a district not unlike this one and risen only so far as was needed to climb in through people’s windows. A shady past, long-since pardoned, followed him like his shadow. And while the King employed him as ‘Thief Of Police’, the royal visage probably held him in about as high regard as the scruffier felines of the Crippling Narrows.

Pah. Kings. What did they know?

‘King’ was the world’s shortest verb. To be king was to do precious little. Duties included a lot of sitting on thrones, which were only a form of chair made grand and impressive enough to accommodate all the sitting that had to be done by blue-blooded behinds.

Ah but, Croesus, some had argued, kings preside and decide over a host of difficult and weighty issues. But Croesus had observed this process in what might be termed ‘action’. Matters were raised, questions begged of the monarch’s ears. To all of which, the kingly head would nod, before turning to ask advice from a collection of counsellors, experts and authorities on this and that. And if a matter fell outside of the comfort zone of any one of the available advisers, new experts were sent for. Once equipped with the facts and a number of possible answers, the King would pick the solution he liked best and, by voicing it while wearing a crown and sitting on the aforesaid throne, convert it into law. It always seemed to Croesus that you could achieve much the same with just the council of experts and a bucket, in which they could chuck little scraps of paper inscribed with the best solutions to any problem. And hold a lucky dip. A governmental tombola.

But until anyone thought to replace the King with a bucket, Croesus was among those experts called upon to counsel and advise. His own purview: crime. And the position provided a steady income. With the only downside being the occasional emergency summons, like today’s.

Warmed up a tad, Croesus slowed his jog for the middle stretch of his journey. Progressing through the market district at a more seemly rate and taking care not to bump baskets out of shoppers’ hands. Then he upped himself to an energetic dash for the last leg, demonstrating a committed sense of urgency once within sight of the palace walls.

Croesus darted across the bridge, running the gauntlet of twenty-foot statues. All of them brandished polearms with blades that looked set to fall on faintly treasonous necks. And thoughts of replacing kings with buckets probably qualified as treason.

The actual ordinary flesh-and-bone guards ushered him through with half-salutes and tips of their helms. But the figure awaiting him in the Palace forecourt was ready with a greeting that had a bite similar to the ‘fresh’ morning air.

He stood to the left of the great needle of shadow cast by the giant sundial that was the courtyard’s centrepiece. As though to imply he had stood there all the while that shadow crawled by over him.

Croesus figured he’d been there a minute or two at most. “What’s His Maj panicked about this time?”

“If I were you, I would not compound my tardiness with disrespect.”

Croesus slapped on a fake smile. His disrespect was all for this bloke. Chancellor Seedgrape always had a pinched-nose look like he was helping down a bad taste. “I was only implying if there’s such a flap on, His Maj is unlikely to be very jesty.”

“Indeed. Perhaps even you will be keen to set such humours aside once you learn what is amiss.”

Amiss? Croesus hadn’t imagined anything was actually amiss. The King was a security hypochondriac. Always perceiving flaws and potential weak points where there couldn’t be any. Because Croesus had devised the system himself and he did not do flaws.

“Go on then – what’s amiss?”

“Everything,” said Seedgrape. “The entire vault has been emptied.”

Croesus swallowed some tea that wanted up again. “Stone me,” he said.

Knowing full well that was one very possible outcome.

 

[To Be Continued…]