Here is The Ox’s first guest post – a short story by Hereward LM Proops, entitled “The Guardian of the Vaults”.
The story first appeared in the eBook collection, Strange Cases: The Adventures of Edmund Forrester.
Click here for the US version
Go here for an interview with the author.
The Guardian of the Vaults
Hereward LM Proops
Chief Inspector Pardoe tossed the well-thumbed newspaper onto his desk and lowered himself into his leather chair.
“It’s a bloody disgrace,” he snarled. “To run that story on the front page is irresponsible sensationalism, not the quality of journalism one would expect from The Times.”
Edmund Forrester peered through his spectacles at the lurid headline before him. He was forced to hold the glasses in place with one hand as they did not sit comfortably on the flattened bridge of his nose. As he read, he became aware of Pardoe’s unforgiving gaze lingering on his damaged features but he gave no reaction, having grown used to such unwanted attention.
“Cursed Emerald to be Auctioned at Sexton’s,” Forrester read aloud. “My guess is they ran with the story because they couldn’t afford not to. Every other paper has done the same.”
“Rags!” Pardoe spat. “The lot of them!” Every cutpurse, rogue and scoundrel in the city will have heard about it.”
“Sexton’s must be rubbing their hands with glee. This extra publicity will no doubt raise the price at auction,” Forrester stated.
“This publicity,” Pardoe’s lip curled when he spoke the word, as though uttering a curse, “will only serve to make your job a lot harder.”
“My job, sir? I thought I was assigned to the Moreland case.”
“You were assigned to the Moreland case, but I’m giving it to Walmsley and Gilchrist,” Pardoe pushed a sheaf of papers across the desk. “It’s high time they got off their backsides and did some police work. I need you for this particular assignment.”
Forrester took up the papers and gave them a cursory glance. They appeared to detail the strange history of lot twenty four, the “cursed” emerald whose imminent sale was the talk of the town.
“Why me?” he asked. “Surely Gilchrist or Walmsley could manage this?”
“Gilchrist is too old and too soft. Walmsley’s a bloody drunk who can’t be trusted with tuppence, let alone a priceless stone. There’s more to this case than just babysitting an emerald. I need a man who’s not just reliable and trustworthy but someone who’s capable of handling himself should things turn nasty.”
“What do you know about the Barton stone?” Pardoe asked, filling his pipe from the large tobacco jar on his desk
Forrester took the cue from his superior and removed his cigarette case and matches from his pocket.
“Only what I’ve read in the newspapers,” he paused to light a cigarette before continuing. “A large uncut emerald. Thought to have originated in Ancient China, the stone was taken over the Himalayas to India where it picked up this reputation for being cursed. It seems those in possession of the emerald have a habit of going missing. A fate, it seems, that befell the previous owner, Sir John Barton. He vanished two months ago and is presumed dead. His widow wants rid of the damned thing and is having it auctioned off tomorrow, most likely at a fraction of its actual value. Did I miss anything?”
Pardoe sucked on his pipe for a moment, quietly impressed by the way Forrester’s efficient mind sorted through the facts of the case. He shifted in his seat, leaning forward and placing both hands on the desk between them.
“Very good. That’s what the papers are saying, at any rate. If you take the time to read that file I gave you, you’ll see that there are a number of aspects of this story to which the press have not been made aware. The Lin Qui, for example.”
“The Lin Qui?”
“Supposedly the original owners of the stone. They were a clan of spies, assassins and sneak thieves who lived in the forests of Northern China in the dim and distant past. Got scattered to the four winds during the Tang dynasty and became a bedtime story to scare children.”
“How do they fit into this?” Forrester asked.
“Three nights ago, five dead bodies were brought out of an opium den in the East End. The owner of the seedy little establishment, a one one-eyed celestial by the name of Lo Fan, kept yammering on about the Lin Qui demon. One of the five dead men was Alfred Boyle, an employee of Sexton’s auction house and, it seems, a secret opium addict.”
“Hardly,” Pardoe tapped the last embers from the bowl of his pipe into the ashtray and immediately began to refill it, “Boyle was the first victim. He was garrotted. The four others stumbled across the body and were killed as the assassin made his escape. There’s no doubt Boyle was the target. Lo Fan caught a glimpse of the killer in action and came to us with his tall tale of demons.”
“You believe him?”
“You know what the Chinese are like,” Pardoe sniffed, “heads full of mystical mumbo jumbo. I don’t believe a demon killed those men but if what Lo Fan told me about the Lin Qui was true, it seems they want their stone back and will stop at nothing until it is in their hands.”
Forrester stroked his moustache as he pondered the Chief Inspector’s words. Although he didn’t believe in demons, he did know that any case involving priceless emeralds and garrotte wielding assassins was likely to prove troublesome.
“What is it you want me to do?” he asked, inwardly dreading the answer.
Pardoe reached under the desk and brought out a box wrapped in brown paper and string. He placed a vigilant hand on top of it. Forrester’s heart sank when he guessed what was kept within.
“Sexton’s heard about what happened to Alfred Boyle and they thought it would be safest here. They want it escorted over there by seven this evening where it will be locked in their vault with an armed guard,“ Pardoe pointed the stem of his pipe at Forrester. “That’s you. You’re the guard of lot twenty four until it goes under the hammer tomorrow morning.”
“Why me?” Forrester asked again.
“Because you’re one of the few men on the force who I can trust with this,” Pardoe’s fingers drummed impatiently on the package. “And because you’re a bloody thug. Anyone trying to steal that jewel is liable to end up with a nose like yours.”
Forrester’s hand tentatively probed the mess that was once his nose. A souvenir from a previous case, he was well aware that it gave him a brutish appearance but still resented the Chief Inspector’s habit of mentioning the fact in their conversations. Pardoe handed the brown paper package to him and fixed him with a steely gaze.
“Take it over to Sexton’s by seven o’clock. After that, you’re on your own until morning. That will be all.”
Tao Sen was not a demon, but like all members of the Lin Qui he knew how powerful a weapon such fearful rumours could be. It was for this reason that the Lin Qui hid their faces with grotesque masks and wore dark clothes with which they could blend into the shadows. Fear was their ally and every terrified witness who claimed to have seen the demons step from the darkness and claim their victim only added to their strength.
Crouched by a chimney stack overlooking the street, Tao Sen watched the figures enter and exit the nondescript red brick building. Although he was uncertain of who he was looking for, his keen eyes assessed the poise and bearing of each person leaving the police headquarters. A broad shouldered man wearing a greatcoat stepped from the doorway and pulled a black woollen scarf around his neck. The man kept one of his hands stuffed into the pocket of his coat but could not disguise the slight bulge of the bulky item concealed within.
He felt his pulse quicken whilst the man glanced up and down the length of the street, as though anxious of who might be watching him. With his full moustache nestled beneath a crooked, broken nose, Tao Sen thought the man exceedingly ugly. However, this was an advantage as he struggled to tell one Englishman apart from the next. The ugly man would be easier to recognise should Tao Sen lose sight of him.
With a final look over his shoulder, the ugly man began to walk in the direction of Sexton’s auction house. His brisk pace confirmed Tao Sen’s suspicions and the Lin Qui assassin sprang into action. Though young, he was experienced enough to know that the best way to trail a man was the way that would be least expected. Knowing that his appearance would look out of place amongst the English and wishing to remain unseen for as long as possible, he stalked the Englishman from the rooftops. He remembered the words of his master as he scrambled over the roofs, never losing sight of his prey, “A guilty man will often check behind him but will never cast his eyes towards the heavens.”
Mindful not to disturb any loose tiles, he sprang with practiced ease across the gaps between buildings. The Englishman was clearly in a hurry to arrive at the auction house unmolested and walked swiftly but Tao Sen had no difficulty in keeping up. Unlike the Englishman, his way was unimpeded by pedestrians or hansom cabs. He vaulted gables and scampered up sheer surfaces with the agility of a cat. Such exertion did not tire him, years of training had honed his body and mind far beyond the limits of normal human endurance. He did not even hesitate when the Englishman turned into an alleyway on the far side of the street. Though the busy thoroughfare was too broad to jump across in one bound, a doubledecker omnibus proved to be a suitable stepping stone. He sprang from the eaves of the building, landed lightly amidst the surprised passengers and then leapt once more, grasping hold of the lead guttering of a nearby building and flipping onto the rooftop. The passengers of the omnibus watched with slack-jawed amazement as the mysterious acrobat scrambled up a wall onto an adjoining building and vanished from sight.
Inspector Forrester was greeted at the doorway of Sexton’s auction house by a plump, red-faced man who shook his hand effusively and introduced himself as Samuel Frampton. The rotund gentleman was responsible for the security of the building and held the only set of keys for the vaults where valuable items were stored before going under the hammer. Frampton was clearly agitated by the prospect of the Barton emerald being in his care and Forrester did his best to reassure him that the jewel was in safe hands.
“I heard a rumour,” Frampton whispered conspiratorially, “that the curse of the stone killed poor Alfie Boyle.”
“Poppycock!” Forrester retorted. “There’s no curse. Alfie Boyle was bumped off because some crazed Chinaman thought he knew the whereabouts of this stone. There’s only a handful of people that know the stone is here right now so unless you’ve been flapping your lips unwisely, I’d say we’re perfectly safe. Curse!” he snorted derisively. “The only curse I can think of is the greed that motivates men to kill.”
Frampton agreed, nodding his head with such enthusiasm that his jowls wobbled. He led Forrester down several flights of stairs into the cellars beneath the building. They stopped before a large door of solid black iron.
“This is the entrance to the vaults,” he said with a hint of pride. “The door itself is several inches thick and can only be opened with a key that I keep on my person at all times.”
He produced a large key from his pocket, cast in the same black iron as the door. As he turned the key in the lock, the sound of a complex mechanism could be heard from within.
“The lock is one of a kind,” Frampton continued, “I designed it myself. Impossible to pick by conventional means. The only way to get this door open without the key would be to blast it open. Even then, the amount of explosives needed to do that would level the building.
“Most impressive,” Forrester said. “Be sure not to misplace that key whilst I’m locked inside.”
Frampton smiled nervously and pulled the handle. He heaved with all his strength and the heavy door groaned open slowly, revealing the heart of the vault. The air within was stale and thick with dust.
“Not the nicest of places to spend the night,” Frampton said as he led the way in. “I can’t say I envy you.”
Forrester looked around the gloomy cellar and shrugged. “All in a day’s work.”
The far side of the cellar was partitioned from the rest by stout metal bars that rose from the floor to the ceiling like a prison cell. Behind these bars lay a number of crates and canvas-wrapped paintings, antique pieces of furniture and trays of jewellery. The only item of furniture on their side of the bars was a small wooden stool, beside which sat a lantern.
“We should lock up the emerald,” Frampton said, extending his hands. “Might I have it now, please?”
Taking the parcel, Frampton unlocked a small gate in the partition of bars and they stepped inside. He placed the parcel on top of one of the crates and gazed at it for a moment before turning to Forrester.
“Do you think,” he spluttered with excitement, “do you think we could have a look at it? Just for a moment, like.”
“I don’t see why not,” Forrester answered. “Go ahead and open it.”
Frampton grinned like a child as he untied the string and carefully unwrapped the brown paper. Beneath the coverings was an ornate box, decorated with gold and silver and sealed with a small jewel-encrusted clasp. His hands trembled as he unfastened the catch and opened the box with reverential care. Nestled on a cushion of black velvet lay the Barton emerald; the reputedly cursed stone which was responsible for the deaths of countless men. The verdant green gem was the size of a fist and both men drew a sharp breath as they saw it glisten despite the dimness of the vault. The stone was uncut and its strange shape meant that it caught and refracted the light in unpredictable ways.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Forrester muttered, watching the uneven surfaces gleam.
“It’s perfect,” Frampton said dreamily.
They stood in silence for several minutes, both entranced by the play of light that danced across the unusual stone. Frampton reached out with one of his plump hands but froze before his fingers touched its side. Forrester slammed the lid of the box shut and broke the spell. Startled by the sudden noise, Frampton cried out then darted a look at him as though ashamed.
“Extraordinary,” he said, blinking away the tears in his eyes. “It called out to me. I felt I had to touch it but I was frightened.”
“Best to keep it in the box,” Forrester said, “in case temptation gets the better of either of us.”
With a final, lingering look at the decorative box, Frampton allowed Forrester to lead him from behind the bars, locking the gate after them.
Tao Sen had followed the man with the broken nose all the way to the auction house. He had watched the ugly man enter the building but had not seen him leave during the preceding hours he had kept watch with the aid of a portable spyglass. These hours were not spent idle, as Tao Sen had assembled a large kite from bamboo poles and a sheet of strong silk. The kite by his side, he watched the final few employees step out of the doorway. A fat man with a red face closed the door behind them before locking it from the inside.
Tao Sen pushed himself to his feet and placed the spyglass into one of the numerous pockets of his silk jacket. These pockets carried everything a Lin Qui assassin needed to carry out his duties. Smoke bombs, throwing knives, lock picks and climbing irons – they were the tools of his trade and he was adept at handling them all.
One by one, the lights in the windows of the auction house were extinguished. A solitary light remained, illuminating a small window on the second floor. Tao Sen knew that he would find the fat man in that room. He did not know whether the ugly man would be with him, it did not matter. Fighting two men at once did not concern him. Tao Sen had been trained to catch an arrow in mid flight. He could deliver blows that shattered bones and knew the places to touch a man that could incapacitate or even kill. His martial skills had barely been put to the test when attacked by the four guards in the house of Lo Fan. How much trouble could one fat man and a policeman be?
The church spire on which he stood had given him an excellent vantage point from which to watch the auction house. Now that Sexton’s was closed for the night, Tao Sen knew the time had come to reclaim the sacred emerald. His masters expected nothing less than success from him, the price of failure would mean the slow and painful death of Ling Chi, the death of a thousand cuts. Such a terrible punishment would never befall him for he would sooner die than return to his masters in disgrace.
Tao Sen fastened the bamboo frame of the large kite to his back and stepped onto one of the stone gargoyles jutting out from the side of the spire. He took a few deep breaths to steady himself before leaning forward and falling into the open air. The fabric of the kite was buffeted by the wind and the bamboo creaked in protest. Steering the kite by making minute adjustments to the position of his body, Tao Sen guided it towards the roof of the auction house.
Landing silently, he unfastened the ribbons that tied him to the kite and discarded it. He padded over to the nearest chimney stack, the slippers on his feet making no sound. Once there he examined the largest of the chimneys. Satisfied that it was wide enough to accommodate his slender frame, Tao Sen adjusted the mask covering his face then lowered himself into the gaping black hole.
Samuel Frampton had conducted his first round of inspections without incident. The wood-panelled hallways of the building were silent, the vast auction rooms empty. He had knocked on the heavy iron door of the vault to check that the brutish-looking policeman was content and heard the responding knocks to signify all was well. His checks on the building’s locked doors and windows complete, Frampton retired to the small office where he whiled away the idle hours during the long, lonely nights on duty. From a desk drawer he produced a crystal glass into which he poured a few fingers of whisky from the bottle he kept hidden beneath a pile of papers. Settling into the comfortable armchair, he contemplated lighting a fire but could not find the energy to do so. He sipped the whisky and savoured its warmth, allowing his heavy eyelids to droop shut.
He woke suddenly, his eyes snapping open. Ashamed of falling asleep on the job, especially on such an important night, he felt himself blushing. The glass was still in his hands and he drank the remainder of the whisky, admonishing himself for his lapse of concentration. The clock on the mantelpiece read ten o’clock, indicating he had slept for a little under two hours. He breathed a sigh of relief as he realised that his next inspection of the building was not yet overdue.
Having hauled himself from the comfort of the armchair, he noticed the trail of soot leading from the fireplace. He was beginning to approach it for a closer inspection when the thin wire garrotte was slipped over his head and tightened around his throat.
Frampton gave a barely audible squeak of terror before his windpipe was crushed. He collapsed to his knees, his fat fingers clawing desperately at the choking wire that cut into the soft tissues of his neck. The unseen assailant showed no mercy, pulling the garrotte tighter and tighter until Frampton’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he ceased struggling.
Tao Sen loosened his grip on the garrotte and allowed the lifeless body to slump to the floor. He rolled the corpse onto its back, noting the terrified expression on his victim’s red face and the purple tongue that dangled from his lips. Tao Sen searched the dead man’s pockets until he found the heavy iron key then slipped out of the room as noiselessly as he had entered.
Edmund Forrester sat in silent contemplation of the box containing the Barton emerald. The glimpse of the jewel earlier in the evening had been tantalisingly brief and he had passed the subsequent hours staring at the ornate box and thinking of its priceless contents. Like Frampton, Forrester had felt an almost irresistible pull towards the emerald as they had gazed upon it. He was unsettled by this, never having taken an interest in jewels before, not even when choosing a ring for his wife. Ex-wife he corrected himself with a sigh.
Was this the curse of the emerald? That those who saw it were inexplicably drawn towards it, their greed getting the better of their judgement? Was this how so many had come to die in pursuit of the stone?
His thoughts were interrupted by a sound at the vault door. He sprang to his feet and reached for his revolver. Something was wrong. Frampton had agreed to knock four times on the door before unlocking. He hurried over to the door and pressed himself up against the wall alongside it.
The locking mechanism went silent and the heavy iron door began to creak open. He held his breath, gripping the pistol tight and hoping that his pounding heart would not give him away. A figure moved into the room. Dressed in black, it moved without a sound. Forrester stepped forward and pressed the barrel of his gun to the side of the intruder’s head.
“Stop right there,” he said. “Something tells me you’re not meant to be here.”
The black clad figure moved quickly, spinning towards Forrester and striking his arm. The gun went off, the shot going wide and the deafening blast echoing around the vault. Another blow from the assailant sent a spasm of pain shooting up the length of Forrester’s arm and the revolver fell from his grasp. He moved to snatch it up from where it fell but received a kick to the side of his head that sent him spinning to the floor.
Stunned by the blow, Forrester staggered to his feet. He had lost all sensation in the arm that had been struck and the limb dangled uselessly by his side. His other arm was occupied in fending off the flurry of blows that came from his foe. He barely had time to register the hideous grin fixed on the figure’s unearthly features.
For each blow that Forrester managed to deflect, he received several others. Realising he was outmatched, he knew that his only hope lay in retrieving his gun. Feigning a punch with his one good arm, he moved in closer to his opponent and launched his head forward. The demonic mask shattered with the force of the headbutt. The wearer of the mask grunted in pain and stumbled backwards, allowing Forrester to make the dive towards his fallen weapon.
No sooner did he take hold of the pistol were his legs swept from beneath him, sending him crashing face first to the cold hard flagstones. The assassin pounced on his back before he could recover and struck four blows in quick succession. The wind knocked from his lungs, Forrester struggled for breath, beginning to panic when his body did not respond.
Unable to move a muscle, Forrester watched the assassin walk towards the partition of bars and begin to work on the gate with a set of lockpicks. The gate swung open in seconds and the man in black turned to Forrester, removed the broken remnants of the mask from his face and smiled.
If Forrester had been able to scream, he would have yelled countless oaths and curses at the cocky young celestial who smirked at him as he lay helpless. The young man’s almond shaped eyes were dark and without compassion. His cruel smile mocked Forrester, who boiled with rage at how quickly he had found himself defeated.
The man moved towards the gilded box and lifted the lid. He remained motionless as he gazed at the contents, hypnotised by the stone’s peculiar beauty. Forrester watched as the man’s hands moved towards the jewel and the tips of his fingers brushed against its smooth surface.
A blinding light filled the room, accompanied by the sounds of hundreds of voices crying out in agony. The voice of the assassin joined the chorus of screams as his body and soul were absorbed by the stone, joining all those who had dared to touch it before him.
“A fine bloody mess you made of that,” Chief Inspector Pardoe’s grey eyes narrowed as looked at Forrester. “And there was I thinking you couldn’t look any more disreputable.”
“It’s just cuts and bruises, sir,” Forrester replied, “nothing that won’t heal with time.”
“Time is one thing you do have,” Pardoe frowned as he pointed to the sling that Forrester wore around his neck. “That dislocated arm will keep you tied to your desk for a good few weeks. Even that should be enough time for a dolt like yourself to write up a satisfactory report of this disaster.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t thank me. You’re lucky to be alive, though you might feel differently when questions start to be asked as to how the Barton emerald was stolen from under your bloody nose!”
Pardoe struck a match and held the flame to the bowl of his pipe. His features softened somewhat as he exhaled a cloud of the rich smoke.
“Still, you did your best that I don’t doubt. We’ll just have to keep our eyes and ears open for any sign of those slippery Lin Qui. For now though, the best thing I can
recommend for you is a snifter of brandy, a hot bath and a good sleep, you look like you could do with all three.”
The Chief Inspector was right, Forrester reflected as he walked home to his modest lodgings. His body ached all over from the beating he had received at the hands of the masked man and his normally sharp mind was dulled with exhaustion.
The afternoon was mild and the pale sun occasionally presented itself from behind the thin veil of cloud. He walked with an unhurried pace, taking a longer route home than normal, one that brought him close to the river. Reaching a bridge straddling the tumultuous waters, Forrester walked half its length before stopping and leaning over the side.
A casual observer would have seen a bruised and battered man with one arm in a sling watching the ceaseless flow of the great river. Those with keener eyes would have seen the man reach into his sling and remove an ornate wooden box that he dropped into the murky brown depths before returning the way he came.
Copyright (c) Hereward LM Proops 2014
Here’s the US version
For a full-length adventure featuring the inspector, check out The Sound of Shiant
The US version is available here.