Vondemonde had found himself in a comfortable routine ” a dangerous thing if ever there was. He woke at six o’clock, would stretch off his tired muscles, have a quick rinse around the vital regions with a cold, damp cloth, then he would shave. There was nothing more detestable, he thought, than a man who wore an untidy chin. This, however, was easier said than done. He struggled with the old cut-throat blade, it was a vile instrument ” sharp and dangerous – but it served as a cold, hard reminder of his past and his own ascendancy above it. To shave was to prove control, not to do so would be to admit defeat. And that was something a Vondmonde did not do.
Every morning the blade trembled as it slid along old skin stretched tight, following the contours of his angular face. Every morning he held assurance that this time his was the hand that steadied it.
He dressed himself before a large mirror that stood in the corner of his chamber. The mahogany of the wooden walls loomed around him, warm but deep in the sparse morning light. He would then prepare and eat a simple breakfast of egg and toast, and read the morning’s paper whilst drinking a fine cup of Earl Grey. Very rarely did he receive post, but when he did he would slice open the envelope with his silver letter opener and read them in his modest study; a room with many bookshelves and a well-used desk.
Eventually he would make his way to the British Museum, a proud structure of pillar and stone in the Greek Revival style. Recently it had been criss-crossed with scaffolding and littered with common labourers as the over-flowing museum expended. Over the past fifty years the collection had grown so great that the current building could not hold all it had to, and the decision was made to demolish the neighbouring structures and build extensions. This proved a somewhat controversial move, many people argued against the destruction of what Vondemonde considered old and beaten excuses for buildings. They argued that they were heritage, they were ignored.
As the Curator of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, Vondemonde sat behind an excessively large desk in a needlessly large office and did nothing much for the majority of the day. Other curators, like William Westfold ” a large hammer of a man and Head of the Ancients (being Greek, Rome and Egypt, primarily), would be zealously active in his leadership, hardly ever behind his desk, and therefore terribly difficult to contact if ever the need arose. Shameema Westbridge, on the other hand, always had her head in a book. She was a scrawny young thing with large, round glasses, researching continually. It was the only way a woman could rise to be Head of the Sciences. She read things. She knew things. Many things. And then there was the Chinese chap whose name Vondemonde would never remember and so never tried. He was Head of Drawings and Prints and All Things Nice. He was a floaty fellow. A damned good artist, but peculiar, very peculiar, in many ways.
Vondemonde himself took the title of ‘Head’ to mean ‘Leader’ or ‘Overseer’, his subordinates saw to the majority of the workload as he sat and read the news. Occasionally one would disturb his afternoon tea with a silly question about an unsorted artefact or a foolish request, and Vondemonde would try to answer as vaguely as he could. They would often leave his presence under the guise of enlightenment, only to find that when push came to the proverbial shove they were as well equipped to deal with the task as when they first sought help.
It was during these empty hours that Vondemonde had written two manuscripts. The first was‘Adventures in the Yucatan’ (With that Traitorous Weasel Stephenson ” to give the full title), published in 1897 by Whitemannor House, Written and Illustrated by Charles B. Vondemonde. Then four years later‘Africa; Incidents of Desert and Jungle’, same publishers, author and illustrator. The third was in the making ” ‘In Search of the Heartstone of Oldham’ ” the northern town in which Vondemonde was raised was a less exotic setting, but mostly this manuscript served as a memoir of his earlier years.
The days drew on slowly and quietly. A quick journey home, a splash of supper and brandy, a hot bath and before he knew it he was sat in bed reading Jules Verne which always sent him into a deep slumber within the first two pages.
That was, of course, when he had not prepared himself a little exercise.
It would usually happen this way. A glimmering piece of jewellery in a store window, a well crafted work of art in a gallery, a new security system installed at his own workplace – something would catch his eye. Then some time would be dedicated to research, mostly the architecture of the building targeted. We would pay custom to the shop or spend long hours appreciating the gallery, watching, counting and laying out within his mind a blueprint, committing to memory every distance and dimension until he could explore the building in his mind as easily as in waking life. The more he knew, the better. That applied to the shop keepers and gallery care-takers as much as the drop from balcony to ground floor. Nothing was left to chance.
Then he would hatch a plan. The point and means of entry. Time of day, day of year. Large event or inconspicuous weekday. A building was a puzzle, a puzzle that could be cracked in more ways than one. One should attack at all angles to find the path of least resistance.
Once the plan had been formed ” weekday, slip the cabinet keys from the assistant ” one a.m. on Tuesday morning, abseil through the large window above the hall ” he would lock himself in his office and recite the plan again and again, watching the events unfold as though projected from his mind onto the back of his own eyelids.
And then it would be time to execute.
More times than not he would replace the item before it was noted missing. This was easier with the smaller objects, and tended to be retail work. For the larger prizes – the paintings and the sculptures and the like; the items one could not simply overlook – he would let the scandal fester. He would observe the goings on from the safety of his desk, the tabloids reported everything these days, and as the tension built and the fingers pointed, he would slip the piece back without anyone knowing. He had once ‘borrowed’ a priceless Monet from a prestigious gallery when on vacation in France. The police fingered the gallery’s own chairman, then the Monet mysteriously returned a week after the poor man had been locked away. It was a terrible scandal, but good sport for Vondemonde.
In the seven years he had practised and perfected his art, he had not once been accused or even glanced at by the law. And so the morning he woke, washed, shaved and received a letter outlining his private exploits, was a morning quite unexpected.
After eating his morning’s egg and toast, he retired to his study with a half drank cup of tea, the morning’s paper, and a series of envelopes collected from the welcome mat at the foot of the front door.
He sat behind his desk, the old leather squeaked as he eased into the chair and reclined a little. In his hands lay four envelopes. The first seemed to be a utility bill ” cast onto the desk ” the second was a letter from his accountant ” cast onto the desk ” the third was an envelope blank but for his initials. ‘C.B.V’ was handwritten in bold type in a deep blue ink. No address, neither his own or one of return, nor stamp decorated the envelope. He looked at the last letter. A bill. Cast onto the desk.
He leant forward and took his long, silver letter opener – one that resembled an old royal claymore, decorated at the handle with intricate weaving and jewels – from the case in which it lay and slid the full six inch blade under the closing fold. In one careful movement the envelope was opened, and from it Vondemonde extracted four pieces of folded paper, the front of which seemed to be a cover letter.
‘Dear Mr Vondemonde,
‘I have been contacted by a client who requires assistance from a man with your particular skillset. My client, a Mr K, is offering the sum of £350 plus expenses for the completion of the task at hand, which is the successful theft and delivery of an item known as the Orb of K’inich.
‘The item in question is believed to date back an estimated two thousand years before Christ and originated from the Meso-American region of the Yucatan. It is believed to be in the current possession of a private collector in Herefordshire, and is your task to retrieve the item with utmost discretion and deliver it safely and without detection to my client on the same night.
‘Please read the terms and conditions of this employment and sign the contract provided immediately. Once signed, place the contract under the potted Ann’s Iris in your front garden. We will then be in contact soon after with further details of your task.
Vondemonds hand shook, the paper held in it blurring the handwritten script. Who was Miss A.G? He searched the envelope for some sort of clue, but found nothing more. He checked the remaining sheets of paper ” two were the terms and conditions, the last was the contract. He read through, desperate to uncover the truth behind this disturbing letter. He didn’t know how they knew of his “particular skillset”, but surely they did! After all, who blindly accuses a man of being a thief hoping he may be courteous enough to give it a go?
No. Whoever was behind this was surely after money. The letter was personally delivered, possibly due to the delicate nature of the content. If it fell into the wrong hands, word of Vondemonde’s hobbies would get out and the whole damned blackmail attempt would fail! They cleverly made reference to a fabled treasure ” and he should know, he personally bloody well searched for it ” in the hopes that it may be a draw, a hook, something to get the old blood pumping, bait with which to trap him. They would sell him off to the authorities for judgement of his crimes, which he would have inadvertently admitted to in accepting the challenge.
The truth is, he unsuccessfully comforted himself, no one knows of my exploits. This is a hoax, and one to be dismissed at once.
Then; Damn! The Ann’s Iris!
He leapt to his feet and flew to the garden. The delicate purple flowers sat by the path, one of many potted flowers that decorated the meagre plot from roadside to doorstep. He pushed it over and reached beneath. Good. The key was still there. To be certain, he tested it on the front door and the lock moved fluidly. He returned to his desk placing the key on the dark wooden surface and slumped back in the leather chair. The key had lived under the pot since he inhabited the property some twenty years ago, well before he mastered the skill of the pick lock. Never once had he needed to use it – he wasn’t the sort of man to forget his keys, but it was nice to know that he could.
But dammit! Did they know, or was it just blind misfortune that they had chosen that plant? Vondemonde finished his morning tea ” now cold ” and reached for the bottle of whiskey on the book shelf next to him. A shot went down fast and with a shudder. He would have to get the locks changed, probably take the day off work. Burn the letter and the contract. None of this ever happened.
The letter burned well, practically in ashes as soon as the flame licked the envelope. He donned his coat and set out to the local locksmiths, a small converted house three roads down, when an envelope fell to the welcome mat at his feet. Vondemonde paused, staring at the letter. Quickly he opened the door and strode out into the busy street. He didn’t know who he was looking for exactly, but in the crowds the culprit was lost.
The envelope bore no address, no stamp, just the initials ‘C.B.V’. He locked the door and returned to his desk with haste to read the mysterious letter.
‘Dear Mr Vondemonde,
‘It is of utmost importance that you agree with the terms and conditions and sign the contract provided. This is required urgently. A second copy has been included on the off chance you burnt the first.
Once again, Vondemondes hand shook. An uncertain fear had gripped his heart and was squeezing hard. Another shot of whiskey.
So this Miss A.G., whoever the devil she was, seemed not only well informed but also a bloody psychic! She was watching him. Somehow she was spying into his very own mind. Another shot of whiskey. The windows and doors were locked, he searched each room with the sharp letter opener as a rudimentary weapon. Nothing was found, no intruder, no device. Another shot of whiskey.
‘Dear Miss A.G.’ the only step forward his logical mind could comprehend.
‘I do not know who you are, but I insist you desist this harassment immediately. I believe this must be a case of mistaken identity for I do not possess the skills you require.
‘If these letters continue, I will be forced to take this matter to the relevant authorities.
It took him a little while to write. The whiskey had mixed with the shock and played all manors of havoc against his motor skills. On the fourth attempt he had something fairly legible, and, doubtful but bloody well ignorant of those doubts, he folded the paper and placed it beneath the Iris plant. Then he sat, watching the door. Waiting for a reply.
He made himself a strong coffee. Not a drink he would usually consume, but with the amount of whiskey in his system and it being so early that the shops were barely opened, he thought it somewhat necessary.
Then came the response.
The envelope fell gracefully to the welcome mat.
‘Dear Mr Vondemonde,
‘Thank you for your swift reply. Unfortunately you are not in the position to negotiate. We know fully of your skills and your past. It is for these reasons we have made contact with you.
‘Should further proof be needed, we are well aware of your exploits starting with the experimental breaking and entering of your own British Museum on the third of October 1906, through to the theft and return of the Knightrose Jewels on the twentieth and twenty-second of April 1911.
‘We appreciate your honesty in your returning the items taken, and are impressed with the stealth and discretion with which you work. This proves to us that you consider your work little more than simply good sport, but a sport you take seriously.
‘However, we hope that you appreciate the seriousness of our threat. We have the knowledge of those items you did not return. The Reliquary Ring of the Thame Horde, which mysteriously disappeared from the Ashmolean Museum, can be found in the glass cabinet of your dining room. The three inch Emerald that sits between the taxidermy desert cat and Chinese puzzle box on the drawers in your bed chamber was taken from the vault of London’s own Royal Opera House.
‘You will find, Mr Vondemonde, that there is no case of mistaken identity. Please sign the contract or we will contact the relevant authorities.
Vondemonde writhed in the back seat of the automobile as it drove at a reckless speeds through small towns and villages. It seemed every road in-between had fallen into disrepair, he could feel every bump and crack the vehicle hit and it caused a tremendous pain in his now swollen ankle. The leg was stretched out on the seat beside him, and now that the adrenalin had worn off the pain became a constant, aching distraction. Every jolt of the car sent a new explosion of pain direct to his brain.
After the realisation that Miss A.G, whoever the hell she was, was in deed in the game of blackmail, he succumbed to the pressure and accepted the job. Soon after a hefty document outlined what he was to do; break in silently, discover the location of the treasure and, quite simply put, take it. And all whilst the owner was attending a gathering at Butterblume House.
No. That would not do. A Vondemonde may steal, but not from one he wasn’t acquainted to, at least in a corporate sense anyway. He would take the job, and take the money of the poor fool funding it, but the job would be done his own way and in his own time. The client, Mr K, wasn’t best pleased with this, but now they were playing by Vondemonde’s rules. Maybe that was why the driver hadn’t spoken a word.
The automobile drove on along twisted and cracked roads, then exhaustion hit him as unexpectedly as the vehicle had and Vondemonde fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
A sharp, torturous pain kicked him from his slumber. It took a moment in his startled confusion to remember where he was and why. He lay awkwardly on the back seat of the vehicle, at his feet the door stood open and a dark figure placed his left foot back to the ground.
‘Y’can’t walk on that.’ The figure stated matter-of-factly in a broad Lancashire accent. Then he sighed as though Vondemonde was the most inconvenient of inconveniences. He slammed the door which made violent contact with Vondemonde’s foot and walked away leaving him to squirm in the pain.
Two minutes later the door opened again. ‘Get out,’ said the man and Vondemonde saw the wheel chair.
The house was large, much larger than the Fransworth Residence, frigid and deathly dark. The open spaces seemed to continue forever in to gravely shadows, the squeak of the wheel and the footsteps of the man echoed around the hallway as Vondemonde was pushed in the chair. He breathed into his hands and rubbed them together, trying to generate any heat he could muster.
The glowing package sat silently on his lap. The floors were tremendously smooth and the chair glided effortlessly down the corridor. The bare brick walls to his right were painted criss-crossed with the light of a large moon shining through impressive windows on his left. The house was empty, unsettlingly so for Vondemonde. Here lived man willing to pay a small fortune for the recovery of one ornate item, yet seemed to own no other furniture. And it was this emptiness that focussed the mind on the architecture. It was an old, Gothic building with intricate carvings along the skirting and frequent pillars. Carvings that, in this terrible darkness, seemed to be deep as any pit of hell.
It then struck Vondemonde that he did not know, not even roughly, where he was. He would ask the figure pushing the chair, but the silence which surrounded them seemed a dark holy and restricted his ability to speak, almost as though the walls themselves beckoned his quietude. The figure pushed Vondemonde through what resembled cloisters, rattled upon by the overgrown garden outside, to the back of the house where stood a large, doubled door, the likes of which Vondemonde had only seen on ancient cathedrals.
As they drew nearer the silence was disturbed by the echoes of a heated discussion. The voices were as hard to decipher as the words they spoke, but the tone suggested anger, sorrow and distress. Voices which came from beyond the large wooden door. Panic gripped Vondemonde as he sat helpless before it, desperate to turn and run from this place, but even more so to witness the horrors that lurked on the other side. The figure approached the door and knocked three times. The voices suddenly fell to silence. Then a very clear and distinct ‘Enter’.
The figure opened both doors, revealing to Vondemonde a world of warmth. A large fire roared behind a sturdy desk, the walls were filled with ornaments and test-tubes, books and scrolls. The moon spilled its silent light through the large windows, illuminating with silvers that which the fires gold could not.
‘Ah! Gatiss! Come in!’ a thin man in his thirties sat behind the desk. His tone was high and clear, welcoming and well-spoken, but a brief look around the room revealed no other. ‘And you must be Mr Vondemonde! Wonderful to finally meet you.’ he paused as he looked on, ‘Good Heavens, man, you’re crippled!’