At a Bath auction house, a large slab of carved stone is up for sale. At the height of very competitive bidding, there is a holdup attempt by three masked robbers. They shoot and kill the highest bidder, a professor who has recognized the female figure carved in the stone as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. The masked would-be thieves flee, leaving the stone behind.
Peter Diamond and his team are assigned to investigate, and the stone is moved into Diamond’s office so he can research its origins. The carving causes such difficulties that he starts to think it has jinxed him. Meanwhile, as Diamond’s leads take him to Chaucer’s house in Somerset, his intrepid colleague Ingeborg goes undercover to try to track down the source of the handgun used in the murder.
About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
‘Will somebody start me at five hundred?’
A card with a number was raised near the front.
‘Thank you. Five-fifty. Six hundred. Six-fifty. Seven. Seven-fifty at the back. Eight.’
The bidding was keen by West Country standards. Morton’s auction house in Bath was used to lots being knocked down without much show of enthusiasm. The dealer’s faces were giving nothing away.
Now the increments would be in hundreds. Four or five bidders were still interested and Denis Doggart, the auctioneer, needed the help of his assistants to keep track of the small movements that signified bids.
‘Fifteen hundred. Sixteen. Seventeen on the phone.’
Heads turned. Not everyone in the room had realised bids were being phoned in. This wasn’t a sale of impressionist paintings at Sotheby’s. It was only the regular quarterly disposal of bits brought in to the Bath office for valuation, and most of them were bric-a-brac or tat.
Doggart was unfazed. He had been told to expect two telephone bidders, from New York and Tokyo.
The opening bidder shook his head. This was beyond his top figure. But the others were still in. The price mounted steadily, in two hundreds now.
‘At three thousand pounds.’
A stifled gasp came from the back where some onlookers had gathered.
Doggart knew who the main bidders were, except one, a dark-haired man in a cream coloured linen jacket and white shirt with a red bow tie. This stranger, more than anyone, was driving the sale. A spark of determination had kindled in his blue eyes. But who the hell was he? He’d obviously registered and been given his number. He’d shown no interest in any of the hundred and twenty-eight lots that had gone before. Doggart would have liked to check with his clerk to learn the name, but controlling the auction demanded total concentration.
After three thousand, the bidding is stepped up by larger amounts.
‘Four thousand in the front.’
Bow Tie Man was in it to win it.
Far from it. A new bidder raised his card, Sturgess, a London dealer who only made the trip to Bath when the catalogue contained something exceptional.
Immediately Bow Tie topped the bid.
The interest from Japan and America had ended somewhere between three and four thousand. Sturgess and the mystery man could settle this between them. And now the bids were coming in with the pendulum precision that auctioneers love.
‘Five thousand, then.’
Who wears a bow tie these days? A few doctors and academics. The occasional eccentric. Certain auctioneers.
After a moment’s consideration, Sturgess nodded for five thousand five.
No hesitation in the response.
‘Six thousand from the gentleman in the front. Are we there yet? A unique item of excellent provenance.’
A new, aggressive voice broke in: ‘Nobody move.’
The shock in the room was unimaginable. When an auctioneer is at work, his voice and his alone is all anyone expects to hear. The bidding is silent. An utterance from anyone else is an outrage.
If “Nobody move” was an order, it was not obeyed. After the collective jerk of surprise, all heads turned to see who had spoken.
A larger shock awaited. The speaker was wearing a black mask that covered his face and was holding a handgun. He must have been standing all the time against the wall within ten feet of the auctioneer. He’d slipped on the mask and produced the gun and spoken his two words while all the attention was on the bidders.
Denis Doggart, on his rostrum, was supposed to be directing the show. He turned his head and said, ‘What’s this about?’
‘Shut up.’ The masked man said, ‘Everyone stay right where you are and nobody will get hurt.’
Doggart said, ‘This is intolerable.’
‘I already told you to shut it.’
If any doubt remained how serious the situation was, it evaporated when two more masked men with guns entered the saleroom by the door facing the rostrum. They marched up the aisle that was kept clear for safety reasons and took a grip on the handle of the wooden dolly supporting lot 129, the object currently under the hammer.
This was too much for the bidder with the red bow tie. ‘You can’t steal that,’ he said in a shrill, appalled voice. ‘Get away.’
‘Shut up, mister,’ the first gunman said. ‘Get on with it,’ he told his companions.
‘It’s under auction. I made the last bid. No one is taking it.’
‘Let them be, sir,’ the auctioneer said. ‘They’re armed.’
‘They’re not having it. It’s too precious.’ Bow Tie was up from his chair and striding towards the men starting to shift the heavy burden. ‘Get your hands off.’
The steady build-up of adrenalin during the auction must have given him extra courage, blind, foolhardy anger at the crime being committed in front of everyone. He was a slight man, no match for the crooks except in strength of will. He grabbed the sleeve of the nearest and succeeded in tugging his hand away from the dolly.
The gunman swung around. He had the automatic in his right hand. He levelled it and squeezed the trigger.
The report echoed through the auction room, deafening everyone.
The force of the bullet sent Bow Tie Man crashing against a walnut table stacked with china. He hit the ground at the same time as a mass of cups, saucers and plates. Pandemonium followed, screams and shouts, some people diving for cover, others heading for the door.
The would-be thieves panicked like everyone else. Any thoughts of stealing lot 129 were abandoned without a word passing among them. All three dashed for the exit, stepping over their wounded victim.
A silver delivery van was waiting in the street outside with rear door open and a ramp in place. Two of the crooks dived in and hoisted the ramp aboard and the third slammed the door, dashed to the front and climbed in. The driver, obviously primed for the getaway, had the wheels in motion before the door closed. With a screech of rubber on tarmac, the getaway vehicle rounded the tight corners of Queen Square and was gone.
Inside the auction room fumes of cordite hung in the air. People were kneeling beside the victim, wanting to assist, but a man shot through the belly needs more than first aid. Blood had seeped through his clothes and dribbled from his mouth. He had turned as grey as the lump of stone he’d been bidding for.
‘Who is he?’
‘Doesn’t anyone know who the poor guy is?’
‘He was bidding. He must have signed in.’
‘Good point. We can check.’
‘Someone better phone the police.’
‘I already did,’ Doggart said, down from his rostrum. ‘They’re on their way and so is the ambulance.’
‘Looks like he needs an undertaker’s van, not an ambulance.’
From saleroom to crime scene: a swift, harsh transformation. A forensics team was already at work in a cordoned area among the array of antique glass, silver and furniture.
There is only so much information you can get from looking at a shot corpse. Peter Diamond, Bath’s head of CID, had now moved past and was taking more interest in lot 129. ‘Someone was killed for this?’
‘I know what you mean,’ Detective Sergeant Ingeborg Smith said. ‘As a motive for murder, this tops everything.’
‘Topped him, for sure.’ He passed his fingertips along the chipped surface. ‘It’s not even in good condition.’
‘It’s antique,’ Ingeborg said and added before realising he wasn’t being serious, ‘There are going to be signs of wear.’
‘As I say when I look in my shaving mirror each morning.’
‘Why would anyone want such a thing? It’s not decorative. Would you give it house room?’
‘Speaking personally, no, but people were bidding good money for it.’
‘Did you find out how much?’
‘Six thousand and rising.’
‘Six grand?’ Diamond said on a high note that startled the CSI team behind him. ‘For this?’
The object in front of them, standing on a wooden dolly, was a slab of weathered stone about one metre in length, half a metre wide and as thick as a mattress. Whoever had lifted it on was probably nursing a back strain.
‘Can you make out what it is?’
‘Isn’t it supposed to be someone on horseback?’ Ingeborg said.
‘Looks to me like a bunch of bananas.’
The face of the slab had been worked by a sculptor at some time in the remote past and any detail had long since been eroded. Thanks to the build-up of centuries of grime in the chiselled areas you could conceivably make out the outline of a horse and rider, Diamond was willing to admit. If so, the horse had thick legs, which was no bad thing. Either the sculptor’s sense of proportion was faulty or the person in the saddle was an XXL.
‘Does the writing give any clues?’ he asked.
Along the base was some damaged lettering: ‘. . . N . . AMB . . RE ES . . Y SHE SAT.’
Ingeborg shook her head. ‘The last two words are all I can make out. I suppose they tell us the rider is female.’
He eyed the carving again. ‘You could have fooled me.’
‘The auction catalogue may throw some light. There must be some about.’
He nodded. ‘See if you can find one while I have a word with the pathologist.’
Bertram Sealy in his blue zip-suit was squatting in a mass of broken china beside the body and speaking into a tape-recorder. He flapped a hand as Diamond approached. ‘Don’t come any closer with your big feet.’
Diamond let go of the do-not-cross tape as if he had never intended to creep under it. ‘I’m not new to this. First impressions?’
‘No great loss,’ the pathologist said.
There was a pause. ‘That’s callous even by your standards.’
‘Bits of a tea service, cheap nineteen-fifties willow pattern. The table may take some repairing, but they’re clever, these restorers. It will take something off the value, even so.’
There is an unwritten law that the professionals hide their emotions, and black humour often comes to the rescue. Sealy’s laborious efforts always put an extra strain on his dealings with Diamond. ‘I was asking about the victim.’
‘Him? He’s beyond repair.’
‘I can see that. What’s your opinion?’
‘I’m not a ballistics man.’
‘And you’re not here because a few cups and saucers got broken.’
‘Single shot to the abdomen seems to have killed him. The witnesses say he died in a short time, so it must have hit a vital organ. You don’t expect one bullet to the body to kill someone outright. In the skull, yes. In the belly, hardly ever.’
‘Bad luck, then?’
‘Not at all,’ Sealy said. ‘I just told you it was quick. Could have been slow and painful. That’s what I would call bad luck.’
Diamond should have saved his breath. Whatever was said to Sealy always got corrected. A sure sign of insecurity.
‘You’re going to tell me you’ll find out more when you open him up.’
‘And you can have a ringside seat.’
Diamond didn’t answer. He’d long ago stopped attending autopsies.
‘Or will you send your deputy as usual?’ Sealy added with a sly smile.
‘There are more important matters to attend to in a murder enquiry,’ Diamond said with dignity. ‘I’m better employed in the incident room than watching you pick over the entrails.’ With that, he turned away to see where Ingeborg was.
She was waving the auction catalogue as she approached. ‘Found it, guv. Lot 129. Stone tablet, medieval, depicting a bunch of bananas.’
The joke wouldn’t have been worthy of Sealy.
‘Pull the other one, Ingeborg.’
‘What it really says is that it’s a figure on horseback believed to be the Wife of Bath.’
‘You’re serious now?’
He didn’t respond. Memories from way back had surfaced in his brain, of struggling through a dog-eared school textbook much defaced by notes of uncertain reliability from previous users. Like most of his classmates, he’d survived with the secret aid that the English master turned a blind eye to, a translation into modern verse even an eleven-year-old could understand.
Ingeborg added, ‘The Canterbury Tales.’
‘Remarkable as it may seem to you, I once went to grammar school, and passed an exam on Chaucer,’ Diamond said. ‘Does it tell us any more?’
She read from the catalogue: ‘The inscription is indistinct, but is almost certainly line 469 of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: “Upon an amblere esily she sat.” What’s an amblere?’
He sniffed and looked away. ‘Can’t remember everything I was taught.’
She stooped to examine the stone. ‘The words do seem to fit. If it’s a quote from the poem, then I begin to understand the interest.’ She read some more from the catalogue: ‘Formerly in the collection of William Stradling of Chilton Priory, Somerset antiquarian.’
‘A medieval carving of the Wife of Bath must be a rarity,’ he said. ‘I still can’t see why someone had to be killed for it.’
‘Especially as the killers left it behind,’ Ingeborg said.
‘Botched job. They panicked when the shot was fired. The whole idea of hijacking a block of stone strikes me as daft.’
‘It’s not any old block of stone, guv.’
‘But you can’t pick it up and run off with it.’
‘It was on wheels. If they’d succeeded, we might have said they were master-criminals,’ Ingeborg pointed out. ‘It was audacious. It involved planning – the masks, the firearms and the van. If there was any security, they cracked it. No one was prepared for three masked men interrupting the auction.’
‘No one was prepared for a fatal shooting. It was never in the script. The victim’s actions weren’t predictable.’
She nodded. ‘As you say, he must have got shot because he created a moment of panic. Everyone was supposed to respect the guns and let the robbers get away. I would have. Wouldn’t you?’
‘Every time,’ Diamond said, looking down at the stone, ‘but then I can’t think why I’d want to own this. He must have wanted it badly. We need to discover what made it such a desired object.’
‘I’ve bought things at auctions,’ Ingeborg said. ‘The pressure builds, even at the low levels I was involved in. When the bidding is in the thousands it must be heartbreaking to see a bunch of crooks about to walk off with the prize.’
‘What were you buying?’
Ingeborg reddened. ‘Shoes. Designer shoes.’
Diamond decided to speak to the auctioneer, whose name was on a card still displayed on the front of the rostrum: Mr Denis Doggart. He’d been pointed out when they arrived, a stocky figure in a red corduroy jacket doing his best to cope with the crowd outside the entrance. After their contact details had been taken by the police the bidders had all been asked to quit the building. They weren’t going far. Most were dealers who had no intention of leaving Bath without their booty.
Doggart was now with his clerk checking the computer record of who had been there.
‘This is a situation I’ve never encountered before,’ he said when Diamond went over.
‘Pleased to hear it,’ Diamond said.
‘We’re not a war zone. We’re country auctioneers. Most of what we offer is pretty small beer. Security isn’t usually an issue.’
‘Meaning what? You don’t have any?’
Doggart reddened. The reputation of Morton’s obviously mattered to him. ‘There’s always someone here. We had two people in the entrance issuing paddles and taking names.’
‘Paddles?’ Diamond frowned, thinking about canoeing.
‘Cards with numbers on them. They raise them when they bid.’
‘Does everyone get a paddle, then?’
‘Serious buyers. Everyone intending to bid. All the dealers, certainly.’
‘Can other people get in – without a paddle?’
Doggart shrugged. ‘It’s open to all.’
‘I expect you recognise most of them.’
He hesitated, as if it was a trick question. ‘The regulars, anyway.’
‘Did you know the robbers?’
Doggart took a sharp breath between his teeth. ‘Certainly not.’
‘So did you notice them as newcomers before the incident happened?’
‘No chance of that. I’m fully occupied looking for bids – watching for numbers, basically. I don’t have the luxury of checking everyone in the room.’
‘After they interrupted the auction you must have got a look at them.’
‘They were masked. Balaclavas with holes for eyes. I haven’t a clue who they were.’
‘They couldn’t have arrived wearing balaclavas.’
‘The main man must have pulled his on a moment before he spoke. The others came in after he’d drawn the gun.’
‘You didn’t recognise the voice of the first man?’
‘I don’t know if you’re familiar with auctions, inspector.’
‘The bidding is silent. I’m the only one who speaks.’
‘Yes, I got that much,’ Diamond said. ‘It’s all done with paddles. But he spoke.’
‘I said I’ve no idea who he was.’
‘Do you recall anything about him, what he was wearing, what he looked like?’
‘About your height.’
‘A bit above average, then.’
‘But slimmer, quite a lot slimmer.’
Diamond didn’t take it personally. He’d heard worse.
‘Black top and blue jeans,’ Doggart added. ‘All three were dressed the same.’
‘And they all carried guns?’
‘Yes, the one who fired the shot was one of the pair who came in after. A young man, going by the way he moved.’
‘Did you get a look at the guns?’
‘Revolvers, all of them.’
‘You’re sure of that.’
‘I know what a revolver looks like.’
‘What about the victim? Have you identified him yet?’
‘He wasn’t known to me, but we have his name from the list of bidders: J. Gildersleeve.’
Diamond turned to Ingeborg. ‘Did you get that? See what you can find out.’ He glanced back at lot 129 before asking Doggart, ‘Was the Wife of Bath the main attraction today?’
The auctioneer nodded. ‘Certainly there was a lot of interest. We circulated dealers in advance and there were telephone bidders from America and Japan. As it turned out, the bidding went considerably higher than our valuation.’
‘Is that unusual?’
‘A piece such as this is a challenge. You don’t have anything to compare it with. We settled on fifteen hundred and evidently underestimated the value. Mr Gildersleeve got into competition with a London dealer and things were getting exciting when the interruption came.’
‘Above six thousand, I heard.’
‘Yes. When the bids outstrip the valuation by as much as that, there’s an element of embarrassment I can’t deny. Did we miss something that certain people in the know discovered? In the trade we call that kind of item a sleeper. Our reputation as experts is called into question.’
‘Six grand sounds a good whack to me for a carving you can hardly recognise,’ Diamond said. ‘I suppose it was the link to Chaucer that pushed up the bidding.’
‘Yes, and the provenance. The piece was once in the collection of an early nineteenth century antiquarian called William Stradling who made it his mission to rescue bits of masonry at risk of destruction from modernisers. There was a campaign of so-called restoration going on in the early eighteen-hundreds and Stradling’s home at Chilton Polden became a refuge for fragments that would otherwise have been destroyed or discarded. The tablet was listed as one of his finds, so we know it can’t be a modern fake.’
‘A fake?’ Diamond’s eyes widened. ‘Faking never crossed my mind.’
‘It happens all the time. We’re trained to watch out for it. Reputations can be ruined if you get taken in.’
‘Difficult to fake a block of old stone.’
‘But well worth it if the artist does a good job. They’re still artists, even if the work is fraudulent.’
‘But this, you say, must be genuine?’
Doggart nodded. ‘The provenance. Stradling knew what he was doing. His pieces came from centuries-old buildings.’
‘You knew there would be a lot of interest?’
‘It’s always difficult to predict, but as I told you we had plenty of enquiries.’
Diamond gave the matter some thought. There was more to this auction business than he’d first appreciated. ‘Anyone keen enough to bid would want to see the thing ahead of the auction, I expect.’
‘Anyone able to get here. We’re open for viewing six days a week.’
‘I’m thinking one or more of the gunmen may have come here to case the place, posing as a possible buyer.’
‘Conceivably.’ Doggart plainly didn’t enjoy the suggestion.
‘We’ll need to talk to your staff.’
‘That shouldn’t be a problem.’
‘They would have been hired thugs – the crooks, I mean, not your staff. We can assume they were acting for someone else, someone with a good eye for an antique sculpture.’
‘It’s not a Dresden shepherdess,’ Doggart said.
‘A unique item such as this is difficult to classify and even more difficult to dispose of.’
‘I get you now. Like trying to unload the Mona Lisa.’
The auctioneer wasn’t impressed with Diamond’s example. ‘One of the Elgin marbles might be a better comparison.’
‘True,’ Diamond said. ‘Unique and a bugger to move. Who would have dreamed up something like this?’
‘Don’t ask me,’ Doggart said.
‘You’re in the trade. Better placed than I am.’
‘I can’t think of anyone.’
Ingeborg had been busy with what Diamond liked to call her pocket computer. ‘This sounds as if it could be the dead man, a John Gildersleeve, author of a book called Chaucer: the Bawdy Tales.’
‘I hope we’re not getting into something my mother wouldn’t have approved of,’ Diamond said with a wink at Doggart. ‘How did you find this out?’
‘Googled the name.’
‘You Googled Gildersleeve.’ He turned back to Doggart, who was more his age. ‘Sounds like something out of the Goon Show.’
‘Professor of Medieval English Literature at Reading University,’ Ingeborg added, still using her iPad. ‘Here’s a picture of him.’
Diamond glanced at the tiny head and shoulders photo. ‘That’s the victim, I’ll grant you. Now it’s falling into place. He must have lectured on Chaucer. Not surprising he was a bidder.’
‘As an expert, he may well have been consulted when the piece was identified earlier this year,’ Doggart said. ‘Until then, it was a miscellaneous stone tablet of the medieval period of no particular interest. It was sitting in the Bridgwater Museum for at least half a century. The story is that a student came in one day and worked out what the lettering was and where the quote came from. Some Chaucer experts confirmed that he was right. The museum committee had a meeting. Some were in favour of keeping the thing, but the majority voted to cash in on the discovery and upgrade the museum. They had their exhibits crowded into a few Victorian showcases. So the piece was put up for auction.’
‘The news must have travelled fast in academic circles,’ Ingeborg said.
‘We publicised it quite widely,’ Doggart said. ‘It got into The Times and History Today, which would explain the telephone bidding. America and Japan are quickly onto anything like this. Even so, I couldn’t see it making much over fifteen hundred. It’s a mystery to me why the bidding went so high.’
‘The bigger mystery is why Professor Gildersleeve took on the gunmen,’ Diamond said. ‘That wasn’t the act of an intelligent man.’
‘I warned him from the rostrum not to get involved,’ Doggart said. ‘He took no notice. He was very agitated.’
‘We’ll look into his motives.’
‘Was the Wife of Bath a bawdy character?’ Ingeborg asked.
Neither man answered.
‘I’m thinking about the professor’s book,’ she said. ‘He’d written about the bawdy tales.’
‘All I can recall about the lady is that she’d been married several times,’ Diamond said. ‘I suppose you’d call her a woman of the world. I don’t remember anything bawdy, as you call it. My school would have made sure we didn’t get to read stuff likely to corrupt our pure young minds.’
‘The Miller’s Tale is the rude one,’ Doggart said.
Diamond grinned. ‘Now you mention it, yes, I do have a memory of that. A copy was passed round, but not in class.’
‘Your young minds weren’t so pure after all,’ Ingeborg said.
‘I was being ironical. I bet you read it at school.’
‘That’s beside the point,’ she said, giving nothing away in her look. ‘We’re dealing with the Wife of Bath here, not the miller.’
‘One thing of immediate concern is what happens next about the tablet,’ Doggart said. ‘Clearly someone will stop at nothing to acquire it. I can’t see the owners wanting it back in the Bridgwater Museum and we can’t keep it on the premises here, with the risk of a break-in.’
‘That’s all right,’ Diamond said. ‘It’s evidence. We’ll get it shifted to the nick. I’ll send a van and some fit young coppers. But I’ll let you know when to expect them. These villains are well capable of impersonating the police to get what they want.’
‘This much is certain,’ he told Ingeborg when they were far enough away from Doggart. ‘It’s an organised crime – or was meant to be, anyway. We must get the local mobsters under the spotlight. That’s Bristol as well as Bath. Use all our snouts to see if there’s word of a failed job that ended with a shooting.’
‘You want me to handle that?’
‘Not at this point. I’ve got something more urgent for you.’
‘You won’t be alone. I’ll get reinforcements.’
‘What for, exactly?’
‘Freeing me up to work out what the hell was going on.’
‘Okay,’ she said in a tone that left him in no doubt she’d expected a better answer.
But Diamond was off on his own track. ‘I need to look at it from the angle of the victim, try and find out why he was so keen to buy the tablet, as Doggart calls it. I find this fascinating. What’s so special about a beaten-up chunk of old stone you can hardly recognise as anything at all?’
‘He’s dead. He can’t tell us.’
‘We can question the other bidder, the London dealer who was pushing the professor all the way.’
She nodded. This was a point she’d missed.
‘Who was he?’ Diamond asked.
‘His name is Sturgess. Came down from London,’
‘Most of the bidders are, waiting to collect their purchases.’
‘Did Sturgess bid for anything else?’
‘I’d better find out. He could be gone by now.’
She left to check and was soon back.
‘Sturgess is still here, but I don’t think you’ll get much from him.’
‘Try me. Did you say I’ll see him now?’
‘Yes, and he said you’ll be wasting your time.’
‘He’s got something to hide, then,’ Diamond said. ‘Bring him in.’
She hesitated. ‘What about all the other bidders?’
‘Are they outside as well?’
‘Well, yes. I’m thinking someone in that auction must have got a good look at the first gunman before he put his mask on. People were standing pretty close. We’re going to need statements from everyone who was present.’
‘Thanks, Ingeborg,’ he said. ‘You’re a mind-reader.’