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"Reading like an Agatha Christie thriller, RATTLE HIS BONES is a charming look at life shortly after the first world war."
—RT Book Reviews
"A clever cozy."
He hurried up the stairs from the basement and unlockedthe door which kept the public from wandering down intothe private areas of the museum. Pushing it open a crack, heheard voices in the North Hall. He froze, still as a rabbitmesmerized by a stoat, nerves aquiver.
"Regular maze down there, Sarge, innit?" The constablemust have just come up the stairs on the other side of the hall."Proper sinister, the pipes gurgling away up by the ceiling,and all them pillars with their shadows moving when youwalk past with your torch. And all full of bones and deadthings—ugh! Like a cata-thingummy."
"Catacomb. It's live people you're looking out for, Jones.Anyone in the offices downstairs?"
"Nah, they don't work late, mostly, these light summerevenings."
"There's a bloke in one of the Bird Rooms, stuffing a birdof Paradise. Lovely thing."
"One of them taxi-whatsits," suggested the constable.
"-Dermists. Taxidermists. Couple of chaps in thelibraries, too, noses stuck in their dusty old books. Me, I'drather be outdoors smelling the roses."
"Wouldn't mind being out on the beat, nice day likethis."
"No kettle on the beat," observed the sergeant. "Let's gobrew up. Twitchell'll be down in a minute."
Their voices receded, accompanied by the clink of thesergeant's great bunch of keys and the thunk of police bootson themosaic floor, echoing hollowly in the vast spaces ofthe museum.
The listener hesitated. The third policeman, ConstableTwitchell, would probably descend by the main staircase aftercompleting the night's first patrol of the upper floors. Even ifbad luck brought him down these stairs, he would thinknothing of meeting another late worker, like the taxidermistin the Bird Room, the readers in the libraries.
Still, better not to be seen unnecessarily. He stayed wherehe was, ears straining for a third set of footsteps.
Only his own breath soughed in his ears. The massiveVictorian building absorbed even the heavy tread of threepolicemen, relaying no hint of their whereabouts. Two wouldhave reached the police post by the main entrance by now,but had the third come down to join them yet? Vital minutesticked away while he listened.
Surely Twitchell must have gone down the main stairs bynow.
Rubber-soled shoes silent on the stone steps, he spedupward again. Now he was committed, at least to the extentthat he had no legitimate purpose above the ground floor.
Slightly out of breath, he reached the first floor. Instinctshrieked, "Go with care!" but to be caught peeking aroundthe corner would instantly arouse suspicion. He stepped outboldly. No one in sight in the long gallery ahead.
As he passed the head of the main staircase, keeping wellback, he glanced that way. From the corner of his eye, hecaught a glimpse of a still figure standing on the broad half-landing.His heart jumped.
Sir Richard Owen did not stir, being bronze. But footstepssounded down in the Central Hall.
The tread of heavy boots, not a scholar's shoes—all threecoppers accounted for. Tempted nonetheless to look over thebalustrade to make sure it was the third policeman, not astray museum employee, he made himself move on along thewindow side of the gallery. Between him and temptationmarched a silent, motionless parade of giraffes and okapi.
Four steps up, then the stairs to the second floor, bridgingthe central hall, rose on his right. The heavy blackwrought-iron gate to the Mineral Gallery barred the way tohis left, and Pettigrew's private office lay straight ahead. TheKeeper of Mineralogy had just started his annual fortnight'sholiday.
It was a shadowy corner. He had not reckoned on beingsilhouetted against the frosted glass door-panes, all too visiblefrom the giraffe gallery and the stairs.
Crouching below the level of the glass, he fumbled in histrouser pocket for the key.
His discovery that the key of the Keeper of Geology'soffice also opened Pettigrew's directly above had been purelyfortuitous. He happened to be present that day last year whenDr. Smith Woodward, having—typically—mislaid his ownkeys, borrowed Pettigrew's. From that chance had developedhis present brilliant plan. The old man's forgetfulness of anythingnot directly concerning his beloved fossils had made iteasy to borrow the keys and have the important ones copied.
The door-key copy grated in the lock and his heart stoodstill. He glanced round, but only Giraffa camelopardaliswatched him, with a glassy-eyed stare.
The key clicked round. Taking out his handkerchief, hewiped his suddenly damp forehead, then used the cloth toturn the door-handle. The door swung open. He steppedthrough and closed it quickly behind him ...
... Leaving the blasted key on the outside.
That was the sort of stupid mistake which could get himcaught. All the same, he decided to risk leaving it there for afew minutes. He must find Pettigrew's keys very soon, or hemight as well give up. Of course, if the Keeper of Mineralogyhad taken them home, the whole thing was off.
As he put away the handkerchief and took out his lightsummer gloves, he scanned the spacious room. The two largewindows admitted plenty of light in spite of the trees outsideand the late hour.
On a row of pegs behind the door hung a silk scarf in abrown and blue Paisley pattern. The keys were not convenientlyhanging next to it, nor under it—he checked.
On a work-bench to his left, under the east window, layvarious tools and a dozen or so pieces of rock, of varied sizeand colour but undifferentiated and uninteresting in his eyes.Pettigrew apparently liked the view of trees and theomnibuses, hansoms, motor taxis, and horse-drawn vans inthe Cromwell Road, for the government-issue pedestal deskfaced the south window. Against the right-hand wall stood afiling cabinet and a bookcase.
Desk, cabinet, and bookcase, appropriate to the grade ofkeeper, matched Smith Woodward's in the office below.Whether they were keyed alike he was about to discover.
He crossed to the desk and pulled open the centre drawerto find paper, envelopes, a book of penny-ha'penny stamps,blotting paper to fit the pad on top. The first drawer on theleft held an old fountain pen with a cracked cap, a bottle ofblue-black ink and another of India ink, a paper knife, andother odds and ends. The second drawer down was locked.
Smith Woodward's desk key turned in the lock. So muchfor government standardization! The drawer slid open to disclosea plethora of keys.
For a moment he stared, scarcely able to believe his luck.There they lay, the big iron key for the iron gate and threerings of small brass ones for the display cases. The latter evenhad tags with the numbers of the cases they opened.
He began to feel a sense of inevitability. Everythingseemed to conspire to help him: the keys falling into hishands; Pettigrew's absence when short summer nights made abetraying torch unnecessary; one lucky coincidence afteranother. Dame Fortune favored those with the guts, brains,and patience to take advantage when opportunity offered.
Long patience had made tonight possible, but for thenext few hours time was of the essence. He picked up thekeys, stuffed all but the large one in his pockets to stop themjangling, and hurried to the door.
Now caution was called for. He had crossed the line; if hewas caught coming out of Pettigrew's office laden with Pettigrew'skeys no excuse would serve, his goose was well andtruly cooked. Opening the door a crack, he peered throughthe narrow gap.
The view was singularly uninformative. Eyes shut, headcocked, he listened. His heart thundered, but no whisper ofexternal sound reached him.
Pull the door open; step through; close it, gently; lock itand take the key. He tiptoed ten long yards to the iron gate.Set in a grid which filled the archway, it was backed by a woodand glass screen and door which kindly limited the view of theinterior, as did the double row of rectangular pillars within.
The clumsy key turned silently. Not a creak escaped thewell-oiled hinges. And the door opened with equal ease. Hewas inside the Mineral Gallery.
He cast a long, yearning look at the Colenso diamond,but a hundred and thirty carats of crystallized carbon was tooconspicuous, too recognizable. The rest of the diamonds hepassed with a disdainful sneer. They were all paste copies offamous stones, including the uncut Cullinan, a monster atover three thousand carats.
Without a jeweller's lens, the heavy lead glass inventedcenturies ago by Herr Strasser was virtually indistinguishablefrom the real thing. They were all inanimate objects, unchanging,never alive, their value artificial, one very like another inall but size. Studying them taught nothing. What did it matterwhether the public gaped at genuine gems or counterfeits?
Moving on, he opened case after case. His inside breast-pocketsfilled with amethysts, sapphires, garnets, topazes,aquamarines, rubies, emeralds. Kind of Sir Arthur Church tobequeath his splendid collection to the museum!
He hesitated over the Transcarpathia ruby. It was anuncommonly large stone, famous half a century ago, but fewcolored jewels achieved the lasting notoriety of the largestdiamonds. Weight for weight, though, a large ruby was morevaluable than a diamond. He pocketed it.
Under the arch to the meteorite pavilion stood the caseof precious stones mentioned in the Bible. Superstitiously, heleft it untouched.
The rear exit was close by, with little-used stairs rightdown to the basement. He had the key to the door. Alas, theinnocent wood was backed by another of solid steel, and onlythe police had the key to that. No choice but to return theway he had come.
He started back along the north aisle, glancing from sideto side to check that he had closed all the cases. Had helocked the iron gate behind him? In a sudden flash of paniche could not remember. The patrolling constable probablytried it every time he passed.
The constable might even now be on his way upstairsafter his cup of tea. The gate was two hundred feet away,nearly the whole length of the gallery.
His immediate impulse was to run. Sweating again, hetried to force himself to be calm, to think. The urge forspeed won.
Feet thudding dully, he loped towards the entrance. Thekeys clinked in his bulging pockets. Suspiciously bulging—somany details he had not envisioned! But it would take toolong to return Pettigrew's keys to his desk.
As he approached the entrance he slowed, and stopped,panting, to one side of the arch. Craning his neck, he couldsee through the glass that the gate was still closed. No policecountenance frowned back at him. Bent double, below thelevel of the glass panes, he crept forward and reached for thehandle of the inner door.
He had locked it, quite unnecessarily. Dammit, he cursedunder his breath, what a waste of time! Fumble for the key,open a crack to listen, reach through to try the gate.
It, too, was locked. All that panic for nothing.
The big key turned easily. A moment later he was out,feverishly locking door and gate behind him while strainingfor the sound of boots.
The nearest stairs were in a nook just around the cornerfrom Pettigrew's office. He had avoided them before because,on the ground floor, they opened to Smith Woodward'soffice, right beside the police post. Now, time slipping away,he unlocked the door at the top and tiptoed down the narrow,gloomy stairwell, heart in mouth, clutching his pockets tokeep the keys quiet.
On the ground floor, only a wall and a yard or two separatedhim from the police.
Back in the basement at last, in the dim light beneathgrumbling pipes, he leant weakly against the yellow brickwall and blotted his brow. He would not use those nerve-rackingstairs again.
Just a little farther, to the staff cloakrooms, and he wassafe. He had left his hat and attaché case there. From here on,he was just a late-working employee on his way home.
As on any ordinary day, he left the museum by a door atthe rear of the basement. The usual staff entrance, it wassecured with a Yale mechanism. Every employee had a key,though he did not need one to exit. He walked along thearcade to Queen's Gate and turned south towards South Kentube station. There, he showed his season ticket at the barrier,and plunged into the depths, breaking into a trot as asubterranean rumble warned of a train's approach. Emergingonto the platform in its chasm, open to the darkening sky, heautomatically turned to the west-bound side.
Then he remembered he was not going home. He hadtold them he had been invited to give a lecture in Cambridgeand it would be easier to stay the night there. Swinginground, he made for the east-bound platform. The first trainto come in was on the Inner Circle, but he took it anyway.The sooner he escaped the vicinity of the museum, the happierhe would be. He could change at Mark Lane onto a Districtline train to Whitechapel.
A rosy dawn stained London's sooty skies when he returnedto Kensington. He was tired and hungry—he had felt conspicuousenough walking down the street among the bustlingHebrew population of Whitechapel without venturing intoone of their cafés to dine. Besides, he had no idea what sort ofweird, foreign concoctions they ate.
He was also hurried. All too soon an army of housemenwould arrive to sweep, scrub, dust, and polish. He had to begone before then.
Haste and lack of sleep must not lead to carelessness, hethought, yet caution must not slow him. If he was seen, noconceivable excuse could explain away his presence at thathour of the morning.
Slipping in through the basement door, he made for thewest end of the west wing, where stairs led all the way up tothe second floor. That was the safest place to cross to thecentral block at this time in the morning. The constable onduty upstairs would be busy later keeping an eye on thehousemen. At this dead hour, he was probably to be foundwith his colleagues in the police post on the ground floor,drinking endless cups of tea to stay awake. If he made occasionalpatrols, he might not even bother to go above the firstfloor.
In the dim dawn light, the Upper Mammal Gallery onthe second floor was an eerie place. The gorillas, lurking intheir artificial jungle, seemed about to pounce. Once or twicehe could have sworn a chimpanzee or a monkey turned itshead to watch as he trudged wearily past.
The human skeletons on the other side sent atavisticshivers down his spine. If they affected him so, he told himself,no uneducated boor of a policeman was likely to enterthe gallery unnecessarily until full daylight drove the ghostsaway.
Guarding the top of the main stairs, the massive marblestatue of Sir Joseph Banks was a friendly figure in comparison.In Sir Joseph's shadow he stopped to listen.
The huge, sound-deadening mass of the buildingweighed oppressively on his nerves now. He felt as if anofficer could creep up silently behind him and tap him on theshoulder before he became aware of his presence.
Utter bosh! Police boots could be heard a hundred yardsoff, he reminded himself. He crossed to the stair head, stareddown into the shadowy depths. Nothing moved.
Another shadow, he tiptoed down, turning right on thehalf-landing. More monkeys watched, a terra cotta troupeclimbing the arch over the stairs, chattering at him silently.
Twenty minutes later, he returned by the same route and lethimself out by the basement door.
The cleaners who polished the glass cases in the MineralGallery, their every move scrutinized by the constable onduty, noticed nothing amiss. Nor did the public, when theywandered in later to ooh and aah at diamonds and sapphiresbefore moving on to the meteorites.
Naturally, nothing was missing. Yet.
That was Monday night and Tuesday morning. The followingFriday he went out to Whitechapel after work, to makesure everything was proceeding according to plan.
Satisfied, he did not return until the Friday after, fortunatelya sunny though cool and breezy day. He went at mid-day,setting off from the museum with his attaché case, as ifto eat his luncheon sandwiches in Kensington Gardens. Onlythat day, the case contained no sandwiches. It was stuffedwith banknotes, every last remaining penny of his nest-egg.
Sitting in the Tube, as it joggled its rattling way beneaththe West End and the City, he wondered if he was crazy. Hecould turn around now, open a new Post Office savingsaccount, and redeposit his few hundred. No one would everknow what he had already done, what he planned to dotonight.
But he could not bring himself to abandon hope. Notwhen he had already paid over half the price, with no chanceof recovering the money.
Besides, what he had to do tonight was no riskier thanwhat he had already accomplished—if anything, less. He wascleverer than the police, cleverer than the museum authorities,cleverer than Pettigrew. He had the cool daring to completethe business, the patience to wait for time to cover histracks.
Pettigrew always returned from his holiday laden withrock specimens. Until he had studied them thoroughly, hehad little interest in anything already classified, catalogued,labelled, and locked away. Weeks, if not months, would passbefore he discovered that the jewels in his display cases wereall as false as the Cullinan "diamond."
Stepping off the train at the Whitechapel station, hewent up to the noisy, anonymous street.
The strass glass gems were ready. They looked to himjust as good as the real jewels. Having—that night two weeksago—taken photographs and minutely precise measurementsof the originals, and matched the colours against dozens ofsamples, the old man swore he had made perfect copies.
"Better qvality you vill novhere get," he declared. "Vuncezese stones are beautifully set, only an eggspert can ze differencetell. Your vife vill be proud to vear. You vant I tell you zeaddress mine cousin's, can make rings, necklaces, bracelets,vhat you like?"
"No, thank you!" He lifted his attaché case onto the worktable and opened it. "My wife has her own favourite jeweller.Here you are."
Peering through thick spectacles, the old man watchedhim count out every note. Then he tenderly tucked each ofhis creations into its own little chamois bag. The exchangewas made. Another bridge crossed.
He left it late, until even the most dedicated of his colleagueshad surely gone home. It couldn't be helped that that madehis own presence the more questionable. He must not beseen!
This time, he had to put the keys back in Pettigrew's desk.The gods were assuredly on his side. As he left the MineralGallery, nothing moved among the giraffes and okapis.Nothing moved on the stairs. No footsteps echoed. Turningleft, he sped to the Keeper of Mineralogy's office.
The key which had grated, he had taken to a locksmith tobe smoothed. Now it rotated in the lock as easily as a spoonin a soft-boiled egg. He was in and out of the office in nomore than ninety seconds.
He intended to leave via the giraffes and the back staircaseat the north end, but as he came abreast of the mainstairs to the second floor, he changed his mind. If he wasspotted, the farther from the Mineral Gallery the better. Itwould be safer to go along the far side of the Central Hall.The stairs tempted him, arching over the hall below, but heresisted—far too exposed. Back he went and around, past theiron gate and Pettigrew's office, past the entrance to theLower Mammals: stuffed everything from aardvark to zebra.
The stairs rose on his right, now, and ahead four steps leddown to British Nesting Birds.
A shadow moved. His heart stood still.
"I weren't asleep, sir," protested a thick voice. From hisseat on the steps, a stout police constable lumbered to hisfeet. An elderly man, he blinked bewilderedly as he movedforward, straightening his jacket. "Jest resting me pins aminute. The knees ain't what they was."
"I shan't report you, officer." He had to force the wordsthrough his constricted throat.
His one thought now was to get away without doing anythingwhich might fix him in the man's memory. His headaverted, trying not to scurry, he carried on between the glasscases, scrutinized as he passed by the beady eyes of plover andpigeon. The policeman would surely presume he had comefrom the Lower Mammals, or perhaps down the stairs fromthe second floor. Anyway, the fellow would not mention seeinghim, for fear of his unauthorized nap coming to light.
The door to the stairwell closed behind him. Down thestairs he ran, past the ground floor and on down to thebasement.
An old man, confused with sleep, the constable would notremember whom he had seen—probably had not recognizedhim. The police seconded to the Natural History Museumcould not know every employee by sight. No prompt outcrywould make him recall the incident, for the substitution ofpaste for precious stones would not be discovered for ages.Should not be discovered.
With an effort, he slowed his stride. The gloomy corridorseemed endless. At last he reached the still-gloomier pillaredcavern beneath the east wing. He was halfway acrosswhen he heard the approaching tramp of police boots.
He froze behind a pillar. A regular patrol? Or had theconstable upstairs reported his presence?
The officer passed no more than ten feet from him,swinging an electric torch so that its beam probed the darkestcorners. If it was a search, it was far from systematic—butnonetheless alarming.
His heart pounding, palms sweaty, he ducked around thebrick pillar. Suppose the old man was suspicious, had calleddown to his colleagues in the Central Hall. Suppose they puta guard on the basement exit? He dared not try to leave carryingthe jewels.
Better to lock them in his office overnight and take themhome tomorrow at midday, at the end of the short Saturdayworkday, when he was one of a swarm of departing employees.
No, he did not want to keep them at home. He did notknow how long it would take to find a buyer, and when thepaste gems were discovered, the police might search everyone'sresidences. And what if the theft was somehow detectedbefore tomorrow noon? It would be safer to hide the realstones somewhere in the museum until the furor died down.Then, if they were found, there would be nothing to linkthem to him.
The torchbeam bobbed away, the footsteps faded. As helet out the breath he had unconsciously been holding, theanswer came to him.
Perfect! He could hide the jewels tomorrow morning,before the museum opened to the public, and no one whosaw him would ask what he was doing. No one else wouldconceive of looking there, however long he left them. Whenthe moment was right, he could retrieve them with ease.
He should never have doubted himself. Not only was hisplan brilliant to start with, but he was quite capable of improvisingbrilliantly when advisable. He was going to outwit thelot of them.
Excerpted from RATTLE HIS BONES by CAROLA DUNN. Copyright © 2000 by Carola Dunn. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted December 9, 2008
In 1924 England, the separation between the social classes was so wide, most citizens believed that one should marry within one¿s background. Deputy Constable Alec Fletcher is not so sure that perspective is incorrect, but he cannot give up his fiancee Daisy Dalyrmple just to satisfy conventional wisdom. The honorable Miss Daisy does not give a fig about social class distinctions as she plans to marry into the middle class. <P>Unlike most blokes of the period, Alec appreciates Daisy¿s independence and fully supports her need for a career writing magazine articles. However, at the same time he wishes she would stay outside of his homicide cases. Daisy wants to comply, but fate seems to keep pushing murdered bodies along her path. She currently works in the London Museum when she finds the corpse of the Keeper of Mineralogy impaled on a dinosaur bone. Daisy later learns that a fortune in jewels is also missing. Unable to resist, Daisy starts snooping, which places her in danger from the killer and sends Alec towards a potential stroke from her latest involvement. <P>The eighth installment in the Daisy Dalyrmple series, RATTLE HIS BONES, contains the humor of a sitcom that makes it more enjoyable than the entertaining previous seven. Daisy and Alec are an adorable couple, whose enlightened outlook helps them transcend the loud objections to their relationship. The era and the crime scene provide an ideal locale for Carola Dunn¿s first class story line while the ending is perfect for those readers who relish a well designed puzzle. The author has done historical mystery fans a big favor with this wonderful tale. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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