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…]