The telephone rang, rudely waking Oliver Black from his blissful slumber. He lifted his head up from the desk, glared at the phone, let it ring several more times, and then picked it up.
‘Hello, Oliver Black, private investigator speaking.’
He frowned and listened attentively. The voice at the end of the phone did not have the tell-tale cough of his father, nor did it clear its throat before beginning the call like his mother. Most importantly, the caller did not begin mid-flow, berating Oliver and his incompetence or lack of progress. This led the young man to believe that, auspiciously, he was talking to a potential new client.
‘Ah yes. I wonder sir, if you could meet me at the Museum of Natural History as soon as possible.’ The voice was crisp, thin and with a distinctly Irish accent.
‘Erm… might I ask who is calling?’
‘Cameron. Reginald Cameron. I’m the museum’s curator. Could you come quite urgently, it is an emergency.’
‘I’ll be right over Mr. Cameron.’
The caller hung up, leaving Oliver to stare, perplexed, at the receiver, the way characters in films do when they have received an unusually abrupt or obscure telephone call. He then dropped the receiver, opened his desk drawer and took several pep pills, before beginning his arduous morning routine.
At about the same time, Lisa Rickman was rapidly moving between tables at ‘Le Plateau Argenté’, ensuring everything would be perfect for the critics’ night later that evening. The manager, Charlie Amylase, was following after her, checking each table a second time to ensure they were spotless, his round physique, red face and flapping jacket giving the impression of a sunburnt penguin. Despite having seen hundreds of similar occasions and served men and woman of the highest celebrity (which he never tired of telling his staff) he always became particularly flustered on critics night.
‘Hurry up, hurry up, everything must be…’
‘Perfect, I know. Oh, the party from Toynbee & Mortimer cancelled their reservation.’
She picked up a goblet and began to polish it so that the crystal gleamed, waiting for Charlie’s inevitable panic.
‘What! Now we’re going have to reshuffle everything…’
Lisa’s best friend Amanda, the restaurant’s three star soùs chef, came out from the kitchen, her smock immaculately white in preparation for the propitious evening. From back inside the kitchen, Primo Ciccaglione, the restaurant’s continental chef, could be heard alternating between singing and shouting at his juniors as he ensured the kitchen was immaculate and ready for custom. They tried to do as he asked but his instructions were often lost amidst his thick Southern Italian accent.
‘Calm down Mr. Amylase, the restaurant doesn’t open for another seven hours.’
Amanda tried to reassure her anxious employer. The manager went to protest, but he knew that despite Amanda’s elfin exterior and pleasant nature there was a woman to be reckoned with. Lisa finished checking the cutlery on nearest tables and began laying out the napkins.
‘It’s never as bad as all that Mr. Amylase. You’re going to make yourself sick again, remember Dame Woodall and the concert party?’
Amylase went red and walked off as he remembered spending three hours alternating between serving the British singer and her entourage and rushing off to the bathroom to be violently ill.
‘Nothing will go…’
Suddenly, Lisa’s phone rang, playing a light, polyphonic pop beat. She pulled it out of her pocket and snapped it open, ignoring her boss’s protests.
‘Lisa. It’s me.’
‘Oliver? Do you need bailing out again?’
‘No…I need you to meet me at the Museum in five minutes.’
‘Oliver, we’ve talked about this, this is hardly the time for a date, not that I’m interested anyway. I’m working my backside off seeing as Ellouise called in sick, its critics’ night tonight, and we need the place gleaming…’
‘Lisa, I think we’ve got a client.’
‘Oh.’ Her rapid-fire delivery was halted as Lisa Rickman was rendered speechless for the first time in many years. ‘I’ll see you there then.’
She arrived at the museum exactly five minutes later. Lisa Hannah-Marie Rickman was a striking, attractive woman in her early thirties with sleek brown hair that fell down to her shoulders, meeting a silver locket necklace that hung delicately around her neck. She had hastily thrown a grey jacket over her working clothes, but despite her unusual attire, still managed to receive winks and wolf-whistles from several workmen who passed her along the street. Lisa had lived in this city since she was ten years old, and had no intention of leaving anytime soon. She had a well-paid job that she enjoyed, a good home and a reliable circle of friends. Her parents had moved away several years ago having to relocate because of their jobs, although they stopped by occasionally to see how Lisa was doing. Her parents had always been good to her, even during her difficult adolescence, when strange things kept happening to her. Sometimes it had been things as minor as giving people an unusually strong static shock when she touched them, other times it was as extreme as having objects fling themselves from their places when she was in the room. Her parents seemed to take it all in their stride, saying that absolutely nothing was wrong, and acted as though this was perfectly normal. Over time, Lisa had come to agree with them.
Ten minutes after Lisa arrived, she saw a taxi pull up to the curb, and Oliver Black threw himself out before it had even stopped moving. She sighed at his dramatics, and handed over a crisp note to the driver, before pulling the dishevelled detective from the pavement.
‘Ah… Christ…easy… mind the shoulder.’ He pulled at the creases of his rumpled suit.
‘Oliver, why didn’t you just take your moped?’
‘I lost the keys.’
‘Again? This is becoming a habit isn’t it? Are you sure they’re not in the fridge like last time?’ She smiled at him in spite of herself; it was difficult to stay angry at Oliver for long.
‘I don’t know…I was in a hurry. Honestly, all this complaining, you’re just like my sister Mary.’
‘That’s probably why she and I get on so well. We share the same opinion of you.’ She smiled again, affectionately smoothing his hair back and straightening his tie.
‘It’s an opinion that many share.’
Oliver Black was a scruffy looking Irishman of thirty five years. He was tall and thin, and had often been referred to by his classmates and by colleagues as a ‘beanpole’. His impish good looks were somewhat masked by an air of grubbiness, as well as a large explosion of unkempt, frizzy hair that sprouted abundantly from his scalp. He was, in virtually every sense, the exact opposite of his partner. The two had met whilst still engaged in other professions, Lisa had been working freelance as a journalist, while Oliver had been a lowly beat cop who was generally assigned whatever job kept him far from his superiors. The two had bonded over their mutual interest in films and fiction, before deciding to pool their collective resources and start a firm. Initially, they had some success, but job offers had dried up over the past year, and Lisa had jumped at the chance to take a second job as maitre d’.
‘Oh, I finished that book you gave me…’ he handed over a battered biography that if one squinted, they could just make out the title: ‘One, please’ by Lucy Cardoni.
‘It’s got coffee stains on it. And… I don’t even want to know what that is.’
‘Ah, yeah, sorry.’
‘Oliver I had to go all the way back to England to get her to sign this.’
‘I know it’s just… I’ve never been very good at keeping things tidy.’
‘Or returning things on time. I gave you this three months ago.’
‘I know.’ He shuffled awkwardly.
‘Oh don’t give me that look; you know I can’t be mad at you when you do that.’ Oliver’s face brightened. ‘You owe me big time mister.’
The duo ascended the museum steps and entered the great stone building, which, despite the early hour, was absolutely full of people. However, instead of bored schoolchildren and middle-aged history enthusiasts, the lobby was filled with policemen. There was also a puckish, slightly-built, excitable gentleman with gray fuzzy hair and enormous spectacles who was gesticulating wildly to the head officer, a man built like a rugby player. When the officer saw Oliver and Lisa approach, he groaned.
‘Well, well, Black and Rickman, detectives. I didn’t think you were still in business.’
‘Inspector Marks. Let’s not make this more unpleasant than it has to be.’ said Lisa, ever the voice of reason.
‘On the contrary, I was just leaving. I advise you to do the same, rather than embarrass yourselves.’ Marks turned on his heel and went to march away, before turning slowly back to face the detectives. ‘Do anything to disturb this crime scene and I’ll have your hides, understand?’
Lisa nodded and tried to smile cordially, but Oliver scowled at the Inspector and held his gaze.
‘Good day.’ And with that, he strode off. It was at this point that the museum director noticed the detectives and swiftly made his way towards them, to the obvious distaste of the remaining policemen.
‘Ah you must be Black and Rickman, the detectives. I found your advertisement and called the moment the police refused to press an enquiry.’ He looked over to the policemen and lowered his voice conspiratorially. ‘Cameron’s my name. Reginald Cameron, I’m the curator here.’ The man spoke quickly, as though his words were fighting to escape from his mouth. He shook hands with the two detectives, shaking nervously as he did so.
‘We were your first choice?’ Oliver asked hopefully.
‘Well I did work alphabetically through the phonebook, and since Mr. Ampleforth was away on holiday… here you are.’
‘Oh thanks.’ muttered Oliver, receiving an elbow in the ribs from Lisa for his troubles.
‘So what seems to be the trouble?’
‘Well, last night, an incredibly valuable piece of our Egyptian collection was stolen.’
‘Why?’ asked Lisa. ‘How on Earth would anyone be able to sell something like that?’
‘There are private dealers and black markets that would leap at the chance to own such a prize. But these officers here seem to think that thefts of this kind don’t fall under their jurisdiction.’ Cameron gave a disgruntled nod in the direction of the officers, who were idly scribbling in their notebooks.
‘I see.’ Lisa cut in before Oliver could make any of his usual comments about Inspector Marks. ‘And do you have any leads, any idea as to who may be interested in the results of such a theft?’
‘You’ll be looking for a higher class of criminal. Someone who knew the proper value of the piece. I’m afraid that’s all I can think of. The security tapes don’t seem to be much help, they only show three men dressed entirely in black, which unfortunately isn’t very useful in terms of identification. They’d covered their faces you see.’
A comment about stating the bleeding obvious crossed Oliver Black’s mind but he decided it would not be profitable to voice it. Lisa seemed struck by a sudden thought, and she smiled brightly at Cameron before taking his hand to shake it firmly.
‘Well, thank you for hiring us Mr. Cameron. We’ll do whatever we can to help you find the culprit of this theft and hopefully get your artefact back to you in one piece.’
‘Given a reasonable fee.’ muttered Oliver, just loudly enough.
‘Ah yes… would one hundred dollars a week be enough?’ That stopped Oliver in his tracks, his eyes gleaming, and he could only nod dumbly. ‘Excellent. Well detectives, good luck. Please keep me informed of any progress. Here is a photograph of the piece in question, and there’s a detailed description of it in our guide book on page 6.’
Lisa and Oliver made their way down the steps, Lisa taking long strides while Oliver struggled to keep up.
‘You’re marching very purposefully.’ Lisa did not reply. ‘Where are we going?’
‘Well, the best place to look for criminals of a higher class is usually the club.’
‘Rondinelli’s of course.’