Book 14 in the Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond series, one of Soho's bestselling and most critically acclaimed series, this time including a Chauceresque twist.
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.
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Peter Lovesey is the author of more than thirty highly praised mystery novels. He has been awarded the CWA Gold and Silver Daggers, the Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement, the Strand Magazine Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards, and many other honors. He lives in West Sussex, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
‘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 bal...
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