I’ve gotten pretty good at reading people over the years, and unless Vicky Wilde was a very good actress, then that was the unmistakeable look of shock on her face.
She took a moment to compose herself.
“I assure you, Chuck, that I was nowhere near the Museum last night. I don’t know anything about the break in, and I certainly don’t know anything about my card…”
She corrected herself.
“A card, being left there.”
She stared at me. I guess she was looking for some sign that I believed her. My gut instinct was that she was telling the truth, but I’ve been fooled by dames before, so I wasn’t just going to roll over and have my tummy tickled.
“Ok.” I said. “So let’s assume you’re telling the truth.”
“Assume? Assume? Of course I’m telling the truth!”
“Well, to be fair, if you weren’t, it wouldn’t be the first time I had a crook tell me ‘I didn’t do it!”.
She looked grim, but didn’t say anything.
“Like I say, let’s assume you’re telling the truth. If that’s the case, then someone wants to cause you some trouble. So what do we know? We know that someone got in to the Museum, didn’t appear to steal anything, and left something that looked like one of your calling cards.”
I thought for a minute.
“Tell me about these cards. Would they be difficult to fake? I know the Police didn’t release all the details to the public.”
“The cards themselves were just regular cards, like, I don’t know, placecards or something. I bought several packets of them in a stationer’s in Paris. Just a plain white card with a silver border. You could probably get something like them in a hundred different places. The lipstick was different. It was a particular shade. I loved the colour, but couldn’t wear it - it just didn’t go with my skin tone, but when I settled on what my calling card was going to be, I decided to use that. Bought the last three in the shop, and I’m pretty sure you can’t get it any more.”
That tied in with what I’d read earlier.
“So if someone was going to fake a card, the card itself would be easy, but the lipstick wouldn’t.”
“I suppose so, yes.”
I thought for a while.
“Right. First off, we need to find out whether there’s anything to worry about. The Police might just treat this as a prank, they might not. I’ll see what I can find out. In the meantime, go home, and call me at the office at 6pm.”
She pulled a pen out of her bag and wrote on a napkin.
“Here’s my number at home if you need anything.” she said, pushing it across the table. I folded it up and put it in my pocket.
“Don’t worry.” I said. “It’s probably nothing.”
We left the cafe.
She headed home. I made for the office.
o o o o o
I picked up the phone and dialled. After a few rings, I got an answer.
“Who is this?”
I put the receiver to my chest and silently counted to ten. Getting mad would have no effect, other than to make the call longer.
“The password is s, upper case C u one one y z h zero upper case T.”
Look in the dictionary under ‘Paranoid’ and the entry will say ‘See Ralph ‘English’ Carter.’ And if it doesn’t, it should.
“Able. It’s been a while. Been robbed again?”
“Not this week.”
“Then I deduce that this is either a social call, which is unlikely to say the least, or you wish me to risk arrest and possible incarceration by carrying out something dubious and almost certainly illegal.”
“Which is it? The former or the latter?”
“English. In all the years that we’ve known each other, how many times have I rung you to shoot the breeze?”
“Hold on, let me consult your file…”
He’s got a file on me?
“Right.” I said. “And how many times have you called me to shoot the breeze.”
“You know I don’t make outgoing calls on a landline that can be tapped, Able, and mobile telephones are simply a Government sponsored device to make the public traceable at all times. If I need to contact someone important, I take the necessary precautions. You are hardly what I would class as important, so obviously I have never called you.”
The line went quiet for a while.
“So this would be the illegal option?”
“Let’s not say illegal. Let’s say… socially frowned upon.”
“So which morally dubious activity, of which the public would take a dim view, are you attempting to drag me into? This time.”
“The Lincoln Museum. More specifically, their Martin Gallery CCTV records from last night between, say 8pm and 8am.”
“Can you do it?”
“Can you afford it?”
If there’s one thing that English takes seriously, apart from UFO’s, conspiracy theories, Government cover ups and the British Royal family being lizards in disguise, it’s his bill.
This has worked to my advantage on more than one occasion. If I owe him money, and I die, he doesn’t get paid, so it’s like having a twitchy, mercenary, guardian angel.
Right up until the money’s in his account (after, no doubt having been laundered through several dummy accounts to stop the authorities tracing him), at which point he couldn’t give a rats behind about you.
“As long as it’s reasonable I can afford it. This is coming out of my own pocket.” I said.
“My prices are always... appropriate.”
“Your prices are always outrageous! Ok, go ahead. Let me know when you’ve got something.”
“I shall proceed.”
He hung up. Hopefully he’d come up with something. English isn’t the world’s greatest hacker, far from it. But he is good. And he knows how to exploit the weak link in any system, which is, without fail, people. He may not get exactly what you need, but he can usually get pretty close.
I sat and fed Ella some cat treats while I considered my next move.
After a few minutes I got fed up of being dribbled on, so I went over to the desk and stuck the datastick from the Archive room into my machine and dumped everything I’d taken. In addition to the audio of the phone call from earlier, I’d got the stuff from yesterday.
I fired up Interconnect, which was some homebrew code that English & I and knocked up a few years ago. Well, English mainly, but I did do a bit of it. It took the data you supplied as a start point and began looking for connections. I’d developed the algorithms when I was a wrangler, and while it sometime threw up red herrings, now and again it would find a link between two or more seemingly random bits of information that you or I would never have found.
Well, you anyway.
I kicked it off and it started churning away in the background.
Meanwhile, I worked the old fashioned way and just thought about the problem. Ten years ago, Vicky breaks in to the home of Andrew & Phyllida Sullivan, trying to steal the McGuffin. She fails through some bad luck, and I catch her. Detective in charge of the case is a guy named Harris. The trial was well publicised and the public galleries were packed most days, but nothing out of the ordinary happened. The legal eagles did their thing, the jury went off for a chat, and Vicky goes down for seven years. Because she refused to reveal what had happened to all the loot she stole, every time she was eligible for parole, she got turned down, so she served every last day.
So who, in that little collection, might want some revenge?
None of them.
In fact, the Sullivans were the only people who didn’t have something taken. It was more likely to be one of her earlier victims that had a grudge. But like I’d seen, every one of them got paid off by the insurance…
Ok, so let’s say one of the other saps had something lifted that money couldn’t replace and it was rankling them... Vicky had gone to jail for it. The state said she’d been punished. If they were going to go on some vigilante trip, why wait until now?
None of this was making any sense.
Interconnect beeped to say it had finished processing, and it hadn’t been able to come up with much more. The fact that all the thefts were carried out by the same person, the fact that the last two victims had been sisters… other than that, there wasn’t really much of interest.
I looked at the clock. It was a little after five. I heated up some beans and wondered if I was going to get a break on this case.
Then I remembered that Vicky hadn’t actually hired me, so this wasn’t even a case. At the moment, it was a hobby.
I ate my beans.
As I pushed my plate away, the phone rang.
“Chuck Able, Private Detective.”
“Chuck, it’s Vicky.”
“What’s up, dollface?”
“Sorry. Old habits die hard. What’s up?”
“The Police have just been here. A Detective Cash. They want to talk to me about the Museum. They’ve said that it’s ‘just a chat’, and that I’m not under arrest, but they’d appreciate it. Although they made it pretty clear that saying ‘no’ wasn’t an option. I’ve said I’ll go in tomorrow morning. Was that wise?”
“It’s fine.” I said. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, then they can’t charge you with anything. Do you want me to come with you?”
“Would you? Are you a lawyer?”
“Well, no. But I’ll know enough to be able to tell you if you need to get a lawyer. What time?”
“The 18th Precinct, at ten tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll see you there.”
I cracked my knuckles. The game, it seemed, was very much on.
o o o o o
Three hours later I was still pondering why some old dear from a decade ago would be going to all this trouble when my machine spoke to me.
Braniac or no, one day I was going to kill that guy.
English had built me a new machine a while back after a couple of gentlemen - representing someone who’s interests I was interfering in - had left me a note scrawled on my old one.
They’d apparently written it using a magic marker and a couple of baseball bats.
After I’d informed English that my data backup strategy consisted of ‘trying to remember what I’d looked at on the web’, he’d installed a wireless backup system on this new box. Trouble is, I had no idea where it was backed up to. The images from the cameras that he’d put in (there was the one from the corridor, and the two in the office, which I’d found after an afternoon of searching from floor to ceiling) also backed up to this mystery server. I wasn’t about to ask him where the server was or how to access it, and he thought it was amusing that I didn’t know, so we both acted like it didn’t exist.
It was only about a month after I’d got it, that I found out what else he’d installed.
I’d asked him to find something or other, and was wondering how long to give it before ringing him, because he ‘never calls - you know that’, when suddenly the dulcet tones of Joanna Lumley tell me, in a firm voice : ‘Please pick up the telephone and place a call to Ralph.’
Lesser men would have jumped out of their skin.
It seems he had a remote connection to my machine and was able to use it, to get me, to ring him.
I’ve no idea what it is with him and Lumley - his car talks to him like that too. And she always pronounces it ‘Rafe’.
It still makes me laugh. And wonder why he doesn’t just mail me or something.
Anyway. Right no, Joanna was telling me to call ‘Rafe’ - I hoped it meant he’d got something. I picked up the phone.
After the usual nonsense, he directed me to a secure site. It was a simple page with a play button.
“Still images from three cameras, one every 5 seconds. Guard patrols and passes through the room I suspect you’re interested in at five minutes past and thirty five minutes past the hour. Skim forward to 3.15am. The bill will be with you shortly.”
And with that he hung up.
I hit play. The three camera feeds each displayed in a separate window, and between them, covered the room that I’d seen the police keeping everybody out of this morning. At the East end of the room was the large arch that led through to the rest of the museum. There weren’t any other obvious entrances, and from what I remember of the quick glance I got, there weren’t any windows.
I watched for a few minutes as the still images flicked through. As English had said, at 8.05 I saw a guard make a stop motion tour of the room, then nothing. I clicked on the fast forward and ran it through to 3.10, then watched. For a while, there was nothing.
Then at 3.16 a figure suddenly appeared in the middle of the room. Slim, face covered and dressed in black. In the next image they were in front of a cabinet towards the West end. They stayed there for less than a minute, and within two frames, had gone. I rewound the tape and watched it again a few times. With the images being stop motion, it was difficult to see where the figure had come from. It didn’t look as though they come from the main entrance, but the room was relatively small, and in the 5 seconds since the previous image, could have covered most of the room.
For the same reason, it was difficult to tell which way they’d left. It looked like they went to the main entrance, but I couldn’t be sure.
There were plenty of cabinets in the room. It got me wondering.
I went over to my coat and got out the guide I’d bought at the Museum. It had a small floor plan of the exhibition in the room - it was the 20th Century Jewellery thing that the Mayor had opened.
I spread the plan out, worked out which cabinet the figure had stopped in front of and looked at the notes.
“Four pieces by A.S. Frost : The Edmund ring, The Kelvin Necklace, The Wyatt Necklace and,”
Of course it would be.
“The McGuffin brooch.”