The Old Book.
My uncle had many disreputable traits, and an occasional paddle in the collectors' world was one of them. He did not do it through a love of the items he bought, or even, which is more common, the thrill of possessing things which you know to be rare. Rather, his pleasure came from owning things which other men wanted more than him and would resent him for keeping away from them.
In such circumstances, he needed an audience and whenever he flaunted his latest acquisition before the noses of fanatics and obsessives he would invariably ensure at least one of the family were present to admire him. His wife had served her tour of duty and in retirement was almost permanently abroad on a cruise or at the ranch of a friend. My cousins, both his children and the children of my aunt were called upon in turn and, of course, I also featured on his list from time to time.
I parked the sportscar I could not afford in the stable yard and walked along the gravel drive past the guests' cars to my uncle's columned porch. I'd been summoned to his country house, with its fourteen bedrooms, its 'Armoury' and its Rococo garden, to see a book.
The guests were in the Queen Anne room. Alexander Frell was a professor of theology from a New England university. He was perhaps fifty, disturbingly tall and bony and, as far as I could tell, humourless. He was in England to accept an academic medal from Manchester University for his work on the socio-economics of survivalist pagan beliefs in Stuart England. In essence, he was an expert on the social history of witchcraft and had no other interests.
Mrs Langermain was also an authority on witchcraft, but one who actually believed in it. Happily she did not dress accordingly. She was statuesque and exceedingly rich and had successfully displayed her impeccable taste by wearing clothes which cost more than my car. Mrs Langermain had been known to speak to the dead, but only in private and without any vulgar trances. She had written a number of books for Pagans with low reading ages.
Father Davies was in his late twenties. He had been a Jesuit but I couldn't work out whether he still was. His fame came from having, in a slow news week, featured in all the flimsy newspapers for carrying out an exorcism. As far as I understood, exorcisms are no longer strictly doctrinal in the Catholic Church and purporting to conduct them is not a good way to further your career. Father Davies was a gawky, affable lad from Newport, who wore his black shirt and dog collar with pride and smiled too much.
Stephanie Dawes-Burritt was a valuer for Sothebys. She was sharp-eyed, sharp-eared and sharp-minded and stared penetratingly at you when you spoke. She was the auction-house's leading expert on antiquarian books, was fearsomely well informed and uproariously blunt. She was young, short, slightly podgy and unstable on her heels.
My uncle was leaning against the mantelpiece where the flames from a decorative candelabra were flirting with his wispy hair. Happily my uncle was a paranoid man who kept several fire extinguishers to protect his treasures and mentally I conducted an exercise of recalling where they were kept. Mrs Dornley, who ran the house while her husband did the cooking, gardening and maintenance, was circulating with the sherry.
Nothing consequential happened until we were seated at dinner.
"So, Mr Ross," Father Davies was addressing my uncle rather than me, "will you tell us a little about this book? Where you got it, for example?"
"Private collector. Man, used to be in shipping. Very rich. Lots of stuff - it's got provenance - died. Son planning auction the lot." Here my uncle gestured at Ms Dawes-Burritt in a condescending way. "I got in first. Dealer I know, call on the quiet - mentioned a book, King James he thought. Just my line. I offered the son, buy all the old books. Forty-seven books I bought, job lot. He didn't realise, only wanted this one. Rest were kindling. Sold them for more than I'd paid for the lot. Little thank-you to the dealer. There it is. Didn't cost me a penny."
"So you conned the son? Won't he complain when he realises?" asked Ms Dawes-Burritt.
"What if he does? And anyway - won't know - gone back to Cyprus."
"And what is in the book?" asked Professor Frell.
"Claim a witch wrote it. Seventeenth century. Very rare. Witches not normally literate." He laughed. "Still aren't," he said, looking at Mrs Langermain.
After dinner we followed my uncle down the corridor past the back stairs to the 'Armoury'. He propped open the door with an antique stone ewer-jug and indicated a wooden cabinet built against one wall. Reaching into his dress shirt, he retrieved a pair of brass keys from a chain around his neck and opened the cabinet's two sturdy locks.
The book was larger than a modern hardback, had thick pages and what looked like leather or vellum stretched over wooden covers. There were signs of damage and use but, overall, it seemed in good condition.
My uncle placed it on a lectern, inserted his thumbs and opened it at random. Each of the guests shuddered while he did this and Ms Dawes-Burritt went as far as shutting her eyes. While thoughts of his oily fingers passed through her mind, the others no doubt had their own views on this disrespectful invasion of the text.
"Old English," grunted my uncle. "Here, Frell. Read this?"
My uncle allowed Professor Frell to join him before the lectern while ensuring their combined backs kept anyone else from seeing even the smallest of the book's content.
"Yes," said Professor Frell after a short time and tried to turn the page.
My uncle physically stopped his hand, "Not studying it. Just fun, read a bit." Professor Frell stared down at my uncle with great distaste.
"This passage is most interesting. It is the account of a spell which the author claims to have cast upon those who angered her. From what I can tell she appears to be telling of punishing a lazy quarryman. I would very much like to see how the episode resolved."
"No need," said my uncle still with his hand on Professor Frell's arm. "Not doing research now, Frell. Few sentences, amuse the ladies."
The suggestion of the reading being offered for their amusement didn't seem to please the ladies. Father Davies didn't seem amused either. He and Mrs Langermain started speaking at once, although she completed her question because he was more polite than she was.
"What does it say about the spell, Professor Frell? Does it describe how she cast it?"
Father Davies began to say something, which would probably have been disapproving if Professor Frell had let him finish.
"Yes, in part it sets out the first stages of a formistic rigmarole and what are said to be some words of power, words I have not seen in this context, but the further detail is upon the following pages. Perhaps Mr Ross, you will allow me to satisfy Mrs Langermain's curiosity." Again my uncle prevented him turning the page.
"Not tonight, Frell. Tomorrow, have a look, all together. Just a few words now - flavour," responded my uncle menacingly.
Professor Frell turned back to the book and chose a paragraph.
"I will modernise the language, so it is easier to follow." He paused and his lips moved as he silently absorbed the passage he had chosen. "And, with a word, the name of Lidonnan, who is stone… I am not sure of the next word - perhaps 'force' or 'blow'…, held him to me, to prevent him running for he knew what would come to the lazy man, and there before his… brother masons, I drew upon, or perhaps sucked upon, the power of sky, or maybe heaven… with the words and the scratching of blood along my… the next is a bit imprecise but maybe split hand or cut hand… so his legs collapsed and in the rain that came he was unable to find shelter. And the words…. At this point it goes over the page."
Everyone opened their mouths at once but my uncle spoke loudest.
"Thrilling, Frell. Excellent. Keep the rest, tomorrow." With no regard for politeness he jostled Professor Frell away from the lectern. Then to Ms Dawes-Burritt's horror he slammed the book and tossed it into the cabinet.
With an elaborate flourish he relocked the cabinet, rehung one of the keys around his neck and presented me with the other.
"Safer, in different places," he said. "Case any of you get ideas. Weak old man, but Hamilton's lot tougher." He laughed alone.
My uncle ordered everyone back to the Queen Anne room while he closed the Armoury. He kept me back with a hand until the guests were away down the corridor, then with a schoolboy smile slid a small wire out of the doorframe and clipped it onto a tiny hook at the top of the door. "Bell pull," he whispered pointing at it. "Open this door - starts ringing, my bedroom." He laughed again and looked happily down the corridor where his guests were disappearing into the Queen Anne room. The last of them, Ms Dawes-Burritt, gave us a hard stare before joining the others. By the time we joined them, Ms Dawes-Burritt had seized the decanter and taken it upon herself to serve port. Although my uncle held out his hand for a glass she pointedly thrust the last one into my hand. Red-wine does not agree with me but I took it out of politeness and, unfazed, my uncle poured himself a whiskey.
"I was wondering," I said to Ms Dawes-Burritt, in an attempt to dispel the tension, "how valuable the book really is?" Over her shoulder I saw my uncle smirk.
"Your uncle knows very well that it is priceless and probably unique," she replied with disgust loudly enough for everyone to hear. "A private seller who the right contacts could get several million, no questions asked. At auction, with provenance proven, it might fetch six or seven million." She paused and cranked up the volume a little more. "Another week in your uncle's hands and he'll have ruined it beyond repair. These things need gloves, climate controlled vaults and mould protection. Not a Victorian drinks cabinet!"
The company was tired and dispersed quickly to bed. I extinguished the candles, left my untouched port on the mantelpiece and stared nervously at the rain. I thought about all the nooks and crannies in a sportscar where a loving owner who had, from time to time, conducted extensive maintenance, might find an impenetrable hiding place and about how much safer the book might be if the key was no longer in my pocket. However, I shelved the thought as idle paranoia. We managed about two hours sleep. I remember a tinkling of fairy bells, followed by a gust of cold wind and the wailing of banshees and then I was awake and a lady's voice was shouting for help. On the landing outside my room I could hear more clearly. Ms Dawes-Burritt was calling from the ground floor and I caught the words 'Mr Ross' and 'ambulance'. I also heard Mr Dornley's voice and his footsteps on the stone flags. Hearing my uncle's name made me worry and I stepped quickly into his room to check on him.
The light was on and his bed was disordered but he was not there. A little bell hung over his head-board and his clothes and effects were flung over the back of a chair. I rushed downstairs.
My uncle was lying in the corridor beside the back stairs. Mr Dornley crouched beside him conducting first aid, Mrs Dornley was calling the police and ambulance and Ms Dawes-Burritt was hovering ineffectually and biting her nails. The candelabra from the Queen Anne room stood in the open doorway to the Armoury with one lit candle whose flame was fluttering in a cold draft. Beside my uncle's body was an antique stone ewer-jug on which there was some wispy hair and a lot of blood.
Ms Dawes-Burritt saw me and shrieked before regaining her composure.
"Mr Ross," she said, meaning me this time, "I shouted and shouted and no-one came! Where are the others? Mr Ross," meaning my uncle, "has been attacked. I heard a thud from my room - I am a bad sleeper and was still awake - so I came to investigate. I found him like this and there was blood everywhere." She was indeed covered in blood. It was on her hands and on her dressing gown.
I stepped past her and bent over my uncle. There was a large gash on the top of his head, however, he was breathing steadily and his eyelids were fluttering. There was no sign of a key chain at the open neck of his dressing gown. I looked into the Armoury where the cabinet was locked and untouched and the French doors to the Rococo garden were open.
By the time the paramedics arrived we had roused the other guests. They had been remarkably resistant to being waked and it had required Mrs Dornley to physically shake Mrs Langermain and myself to flick water at Professor Frell and practically lift Father Davies into a sitting position to get them on their feet.
My uncle had also regained consciousness. He was able to mumble a few words which I diligently noted for the benefit of the police but it was clear that he had seen nothing. All he could remember was hearing the bell ring, creeping down the stairs, seeing the glow of a candle in the Armoury and blacking out. While he talked I could not help fiddling with the brass key in my housecoat pocket.
He submitted easily to the stretcher and everyone else followed the slow procession through the main doors and out onto the gravel drive. I, however, took a different route, slipping through the open French doors and round through the stable yard to rejoin the crowd beside the ambulance. By the time I reached them I felt much more relaxed.
Mr and Mrs Dornley accompanied my uncle to the hospital and the rest of us returned to the house. Acting as host I offered them a nightcap in the Queen Anne room. Professor Frell and Mrs Langermain expressed themselves barely able to keep their eyes open and excused themselves to go to bed. Father Davies asked permission to investigate the kitchen for coffee and disappeared towards the back stairs. Ms Dawes-Burritt, however, said she needed a drink and promised to return after changing her clothes and cleaning off the blood. It was fifteen minutes before she reappeared with wet hair, in a baggy jumper and jogging pants.
"Do you think someone broke in?" she asked as I gave her a sherry.
"The French windows were open so that must be the best guess."
She smiled and nodded. We talked for a while until flashing lights and crunching gravel told us a police car had arrived. As we opened the front door a sudden range of aromas dominated by coffee washed over me and Father Davies appeared with mug in hand. Cold air was clinging to him and his hair and dressing gown were damp.
The first question from the officers was surprising.
"Has someone just been in the grounds, sir? We saw a figure in the stable yard as we came up the drive."
"I thought I saw someone from the kitchen window," replied Father Davies. "I went out the back door to have a look but I didn't stay out long because it didn't feel entirely safe, considering what happened to Mr Ross."
The rain was falling hard now and none of us particularly wanted to venture out. Ms Dawes-Burritt also explained at some length that the French doors were still open, so the police could look at them and that it might not be safe to leave them that way if someone dangerous was around.
Then the alarm went off.
It surprised us at first and no-one moved. I only realised it was the fire alarm when I smelt the smoke.
In line with natural impulse and completely contrary to safety guidance we all ran into the house towards the smoke which was coming from the corridor from where my uncle had been struck.
Professor Frell joined us at the bottom of the stairs, fully dressed except for his shoes.
"Fire," he said, unnecessarily. "In the Armoury," he went on, anxiously. It didn't take me long to retrieve an extinguisher and, flanked by a rather interfering policeman I entered the Armoury and approached the blazing Victorian cabinet. The fire had gotten hold of this one wooden item but around it was mostly stone and plaster and, beyond scorch marks, it had hardly spread.
It was only when I had finished dousing the flames that I saw Mrs Langermain standing in the open French windows with her mouth open and something which looked like a black christingle in her hands. Its candle was still burning and its orb, rather than being a fruit, was some kind of pottery skull. Her shock was evident.
The police asked their questions and investigated the scene. They took our details and allowed us to leave the next afternoon shortly after my uncle and the Dornleys returned from the hospital. He was substantially unharmed apart from a headache, a large scar and a sense of outrage. A few important facts emerged from the investigation. The fire had been accelerated by petrol. An empty can of an untraceable type was found on its side in the Rococo garden.
Professor Frell claimed to have smelled smoke before the alarm went off and had dressed quickly to investigate. His room was directly above the Armoury so he had guessed the fire's location.
Mrs Langermain said she had been too nervous to sleep and had sensed unhappy spirits around the house so had gone out to calm them with a pagan charm she often carried. She had avoided being seen by any of the other guests because she expected them to sneer at her activities. No footprints or evidence of a stranger were found outside the French windows or elsewhere in the grounds.
Professor Frell and Mrs Langermain left as soon as they could. Father Davies stayed for a short time to provide spiritual comfort to my uncle, but left when it became clear that he was merely incensed by the destruction of his property. When he'd gone I offered to drive Ms Dawes-Burritt to the station.
"What would you have done with the book if you'd succeeded?" I asked her in the car. She looked startled so I carried on.
"It had to be you who mugged my uncle. Only you knew that opening the Armoury door would ring a bell to summon him - you saw him setting it after we left last night. And only you needed to entice him to the bottom of the back stairs to do it. The rest of us are tall enough to hit him on the head without standing on a couple of steps. Also, only you would have done it last night."
"What do you mean?"
"My uncle suggested we read more from the book today. Mrs Langermain and Professor Frell had no reason to try to steal the book last night. They would have waited to hear more and see whether the book was really so important. Only you wanted the book for itself and had no interest in its contents. And on last night's performance, if my uncle spent a day handling the book he might well damage it enough to affect its value. The sooner you took it away from him the better."
"But you said you thought it was a burglar." "If you think someone would break in, take a candelabra from the Queen Anne room, set it up in the Armoury doorway, ring the bell and wait in the dark before crowning the householder, and then escape without stealing anything, leaving any footprints or closing the French doors, you're mad."
"Well, why me? What about the Dornleys?"
"The Dornleys could steal a thousand valuable things any day of the week. Why last night? Anyway, why make such efforts to steal this book in particular? They have no interest in the occult to make them want to read it and no sensible way of selling it. There are also a lot more ways Mrs Dornley could relieve my uncle of the keys than batting him on the head and she would have done it when my uncle was in possession of both keys - not when he had given me one."
"But if I wanted the book so much, then why didn't I knock you out too?"
"You tried. But failed because, unlike the other guests, I didn't drink any of the port you dropped your sleeping pills into. You said you discovered my uncle because you're a bad sleeper. Is that because you'd sacrificed all your pills to keep the rest of us in bed? I suspect you would have tried to drug my uncle too, but worried that taking a necklace off a sleeping man might be too risky even if he had swallowed a load of dissolved pills. Of course - I had no key chain so it would be easy to go fishing in my pockets. My appearance, awake and undrugged must have been a shock. Particularly when you discovered my uncle wasn't wearing the key around his neck, after all."
"How do you know that?"
"When I heard the commotion and knew Mr Dornley was on the scene, I went to my uncle's bedroom. Laughably, he'd made no effort to hide the key chain - it was sitting on his clothes on the back of a chair. I've had both keys since."
"Well, whatever you say, you are obviously wrong. I can't have planned to steal the book and, at the same time, decided to set fire to it."
"You didn't set fire to it. As you say, you had no motive to do so. Neither, of course, did Professor Frell or Mrs Langermain. Only Father Davies wanted it destroyed. He could not allow a book which might contain instructions for evil spells to fall into the hands of an academic or, worse, a practising witch. And believe me - both Mrs Langermain and Father Davies believe that practising witches exist. As soon as Father Davies realised that someone was trying to steal the book he had to act immediately. He did so while taking half an hour to make coffee. But he did not attack my uncle. There was no point. He had no need for the keys and consequently no need to bother me or my uncle. He only needed a petrol can, which I am sure he had in his car."
"So your theory is that I drugged everyone and knocked out your uncle but Father Davies burnt the book?"
"No, Father Davies merely burned the cabinet. Remember, I had both keys and knew someone was trying to steal the book. So, while they were taking my uncle away on the stretcher, I took a detour through the stable yard where my car was parked. The book is in the seat padding behind the small of your back."
"I have a contact in New Mexico."
"You asked me what I was planning to do with the book if I'd succeeded."
"Tempting as that is, I'm afraid I shall be returning the book to my uncle. No more need be said by anyone."
No arrests were ever made.