One of the most refreshing stories we received in this year's WGI was John Higgins's fifth-place entry, ABOLITION OF MIDNIGHT. What set this story apart was that instead of striving for nouveau grit or cutting edge as so many authors are doing, the author paid effective homage to the classic English mystery.
by John Higgins
“Better get over to Cheriton now, Merton. Take Sergeant Blake with you. Let me know if you need a forensics team.”
“It’s only an attempted, Super.”
“Stately home robbery? Lot of publicity? Can’t be seen not to be taking it seriously. But take an unmarked car. No point in alerting the press too soon.”
Inspector Merton and the sergeant set off, reaching the outer gate in twenty minutes. The notice said Cheriton Hall—Admission to House and Grounds £15—Concessions £12—Grounds only £4. The barrier was down and alongside it another notice saying House closed for maintenance, but they were expected and the barrier was raised immediately.
The house manager greeted them at the main entrance, and inside the Duke himself was waiting. They set off towards the library.
“Can you tell us just what happened, your Grace?”
“No need to be formal. We were alerted by Mrs Armstrong, who is head of the cleaning staff. She was making her usual rounds this morning. Got to the library at half past eight. She was suspicious about the display case holding Lady Isabella’s Psalter, so she called up the conservator on duty. Then she looked round the rest of the room carefully and found the satchel with the real Psalter pushed behind the drapes at the north window.”
“Was it just the Psalter that was moved?”
“Yes, nothing else. All the electronic alarms were switched off while the cleaners were in, and at some point between closing time and nine o’clock when they left the building the case was opened and the replica exchanged for the Psalter itself.”
“Within easy reach from outside if the window was opened.”
“But it wasn’t taken.”
The Inspector was puzzled. “What would the value be?”
“Priceless,” said the Duke. “”I was offered five million for it last month by an Indian billionaire. Couldn’t accept, of course. It’s not mine to sell.”
“The nation took it when my father died. In lieu of death duties. Belongs to the British Library in theory. And they’ll probably want to take it down to their building in St Pancras after this has happened. So nobody in Devon will be able to look at the most important mediaeval relic of their county’s history without buying an overpriced rail ticket to London or sitting in traffic jams all day.” It was obvious the Duke had strong views about the transport system.
“Tell me about the replica.”
“We sell them in the shop. £275.”
“You can’t sell many at that price.”
“You’d be surprised. But mostly it is catalogue sales by post. We brought it out two years ago and we must have shifted over two hundred.”
“Are there any missing from stock? Or was this one brought in from outside?”
“We haven’t checked yet.”
“How easy would it have been to recognise it as a replica?”
“For you not very. For anyone who has been familiar with it over a period quite easy. You get a feeling for these things. Mrs Armstrong thought something was wrong as soon as she opened up the room, and you couldn’t describe her as an authority on mediaeval manuscripts. That was why she checked round rather carefully.”
The library was some way from the main hall, through several reception rooms with no walls unadorned with pictures or mounted stags heads. It consisted of a long gallery leading to a high window assembled from small leaded panes and looking out over a lawn and fountain. The walls on both sides of the gallery were lined with shelving rising at least ten feet, several thousand books caged in behind padlocked wire doors. When were any of them last read, the Inspector wondered. Most of them were anonymously leather-bound and looked unentertaining.
The drapes which had concealed the package were fully fifteen feet high. In the centre of the room was the display case for Lady Isabella’s Psalter. A hinged flap covered the case with a notice asking visitors to keep the case covered when they moved off. Today the Psalter itself was open at the twenty-third psalm, with lambs gambolling in the middle of the capital letters to assure visitors that the Lord would take care of them.
“I presume this is the replica,” said the Inspector.
“Of course,” said Kirby, the house manager.
“Where is the real thing?”
“In the safe in my office. Oh, don’t worry. We handled it with gloves. I double as head of security. But we hope you won’t need to dust it for fingerprints or anything. Not without consulting the conservators.”
“How about the satchel?”
“Over here.” He pulled back the drape on the left, revealing something half way between a school satchel and a designer handbag. “We left it exactly where we found it. Somebody could break the window from outside and grab it. Alarms would go off, of course, but it would take at least a minute for anyone to get here.”
“But nobody did break in. It was intact this morning.”
“I wonder why they didn’t come.”
“Perhaps they were expecting to pick it up from inside today. Just come in, pay admission and pick it up. But in that case you would expect them to hide it a bit better.”
“Excuse me, your Grace,” came a timid interruption from a young man at the door. “The caterers are at the front gate. Do we let them in?”
“Any objection?” asked the Duke. “We are hosting a Jubilee event tomorrow, after the Olympic flame goes through the town. A lot of charity workers. And your own Superintendent, of course. It’s the sort of thing we get let in for when you have the right amount of space.”
“If they stay out of our way. I want everything to seem normal until we know more about this.”
“Okay, Barnett,” said the Duke. “But have somebody stay with them while they are here. Keep them out of the rooms on this side.” The timid young man slid away, as unobtrusively as he could.
“Meanwhile,” said Inspector Merton, “could I have a list of everybody who might have been in the library yesterday evening?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Are they all well known to you? Any recent recruits?”
“Ask Mrs Armstrong. I think she has taken on some temporary cleaners. Their references will have been well checked, I imagine. The temps are staying in the staff hostel, so we could ask them to come in early if you want to talk to them. Otherwise they don’t come in till four o’clock.”
Mrs Armstrong was positive that none of her regular staff could have been involved, and as it happened none of them had been assigned to the library wing that night. Inspector Merton left his sergeant to talk to the security staff, while he was driven to the staff hostel in Cheriton village to interview the two women who had been working in the library itself, a Mrs Capling and Miss Kyrszyk. Both very upset to hear about the Psalter. No, neither of them had opened the Psalter display case. Yes, they had been in sight of each other all the time while working, though Mrs Capling seemed a little hesitant about that. Yes, they had returned to the hostel at ten last night and had been there ever since. Miss Kyrszyk in particular seemed ready to say an enthusiastic “Yiss” to any question the Inspector asked, and he wondered if her English was good enough for her to have understood anything he said.
Returning to the Hall, the Inspector talked to the Conservator, the house manager and then to the Duke again.
“I’m really puzzled why no attempt was made to take the Psalter last night. Your security patrol did not spot anybody in the grounds who might have been scared off. But I have a hunch, sir. I would like you to open the house to visitors again as usual.”
“And have you another copy of the replica?”
“Put it in the satchel and put the satchel back where it was. Let the room supervisor keep a discreet eye on it and let us know if it is touched. The supervisors have two-way radios, I assume.”
“Oh yes. What if nothing happens?”
“In that case I’ll have a couple of men covering the library window from outside all night. My hunch is that something went wrong with the timing and the thief may come tonight. Make sure your own security patrol knows we are going to be there but behave quite normally.”
At two minutes after midnight Sergeant Blake and a police constable hiding in the sunken garden area near the library wing heard the noise of breaking glass, followed by the whine of the house alarm and the sound of running feet. Sergeant Blake used his radio to alert the dog handler. The sound of barking told them where to go, and soon they were shining their flashlights on the face of a frightened man holding a leather satchel. The dog was called off, cautions administered, and the culprit taken to the police station, where he eventually gave his name as Jeremy Capling. It would have been pointless to lie, since it was on his driving licence in his pocket.
The next day, after a telephone call and lengthy conference with a lawyer who turned up very quickly, he admitted to the break-in, but claimed he had been drunk and had no intention to steal anything. As to the suggestion that he was working on behalf of a wealthy Indian industrialist, that was quite ridiculous. Libellous, almost. He was released on bail, which was immediately supplied. Meanwhile the Duke told Mrs Armstrong to sack Mrs Capling from her post as cleaner. There was no proof that she had placed the Psalter in the satchel, but nobody had any doubts. Particularly not after the police had discovered a text message from her on Capling’s mobile.
“So what went wrong? Why didn’t Capling come on Sunday night?” asked the sergeant.
“Ah, that’s because he was never in the army.”
“I don’t follow.”
“His wife had found out that the ground patrols change their shift at midnight. For just a couple of minutes there is nobody out of doors. So that was when she told him to break the window. Just after midnight. On Monday. Meaning early on Monday morning.”
“Midnight. Monday. So he thought she meant Monday night and turned up twenty-four hours later. But how does the army come into it?”
“Midnight doesn’t exist for a soldier; it has been abolished. There is no twelve pm or 2400 hours or 0000 hours. You use a 24-hour clock running from 0001 to 2359. There is no time between 2359 and 0001. Any event or arrangement has to be assigned to one side or the other. After all, you don’t want the infantry to launch the attack on Monday while the artillery give covering fire on Tuesday, do you? So if Capling had ever been in the services he would have checked what his wife meant by midnight.”