Croesus marched up to the vault door. The guards crossed their halberds, barring his path.
“No admittance,” stated one, as though the message of the crossed weapons was ambiguous.
“I know,” grated Croesus. “By my order. Or by Seedgrape’s order, but it originated from me. Because I didn’t want anyone interfering with the crime scene. But I’m the investigator. So I’m going to need access to the scene. To investigate. Aren’t I?”
Croesus smiled a tight smile, like he was stretching his face to make a drumskin. He waited for the guard to reason his way through the difficult decision-making maze. Finally, the guards relaxed their polearms and returned to standing stiffly either side of the door. Croesus passed between them.
He shoved the doors open. Paused and spun in the opening and told the guards, “I’m not to be disturbed. And if Seedgrape insists, you can inform him I’m close to solving the case and any interruptions could jeopardise the whole thing and I’d be sure to make it very clear to the King who it was did the jeopardising. Clear?”
“Clear.” The guards nodded to Croesus then to one another. Croesus ducked into the vault and closed the doors.
Shutting himself in with the suspect.
En route to the palace, Croesus had swung by home to pick up some of his old tools of the trade. A short enough detour, but he’d also stopped to wash his head of some of the effects of the rum he’d consumed, with a mug of coffee. By now it was evening and the vault had succumbed to gloom. Only broken by thin slats of dusky light sliding down from the high shutters.
The first thing he did was to approach the suspect, hugging the wall so as to advance from the target’s flank. Once within reach, he grabbed the pedestal and turned it so that the bust was facing the wall.
“So,” he said to the back of Montgomery Prye’s skull. “We meet at last.”
The bust gave no answer. At this stage, Croesus realised he’d given no thought as to whether it could speak. He supposed he should have considered the question before now. A does or three of rum might slur your syllables but a pair of stone lips would surely impede speech more. Never mind. For now, he only needed the bust to hear him out. And Croesus could speak freely without fear of any mesmeric effects from that stony gaze.
“Suffice to say, I have you bang to rights. I should’ve seen it sooner. Much sooner. Who knows – maybe you were using your hypnotic powers to dull my senses, but I’ve got it all figured out now. Oh yes.”
The bust listened. Or pretended not to hear him. Tricky to say which.
Croesus rested an elbow on the back of the pedestal. “Come on, Monty, my old china. Fess up. I know you were in on it. You and your accomplice, Carlo. Oh yes, I’ll track him down sooner or later, don’t you worry your not very pretty head on that score.” Croesus laughed. “Yes, you can give me that cold shoulder treatment all you like. But I’ve got you. It’s the only possibility that adds up. There’s a few minor details I’m missing – like how you went from being a whole petrified brother to just a bust on a plinth, but I’ll give you a chance to tell me all about that.”
The bust maintained its stony silence.
“Of course, if that’s the way you want to play it…”
Croesus flung his bag of tools to the tiled floor. They clanked. He crouched and rummaged in the bag. Stood up, armed with hammer and chisel. He reached around the bust to waggle the tools before the thing’s eyes.
“Your friend, Carlo, has apparently been breaking the stolen items down into smaller pieces,” he told the bust. “Selling them off as other goods. Maybe I’ll take you out of here piece by piece. What should I chip away first? The nose? Yeah. You’ve got a generous hooter on you. Could afford to have that whittled down a bit.”
The bust said nothing. Croesus touched the chisel blade to the side of its nose.
He held the hammer, poised.
Croesus gave the chisel handle a delicate tap with the hammer.
The tiniest crack appeared above one nostril and a minuscule flake fell away from the stone.
All right! All right!
The voice echoing around Croesus’ head was not his own. It was like thunder breaking in a cave. Every syllable of iron hammered out like blades on a blacksmith’s anvil.
Turn me about and we shall talk.
“I was right!” said Croesus. “You are alive. And you were in on this whole business.”
Funny, said the stone bust. You sound more surprised than satisfied.
The bust had a point. Being right should have lent Croesus a sense of superiority. Instead it had thrown him a little off-guard.
[To Be Continued…]