Authors: Peter Lovesey
Also by Peter Lovesey
Sergeant Cribb series
WOBBLE TO DEATH
THE DETECTIVE WORE SILK DRAWERS
THE TICK OF DEATH
A CASE OF SPIRITS
SWING, SWING TOGETHER
Peter Diamond series
THE LAST DETECTIVE
UPON A DARK NIGHT
THE HOUSE SITTER
THE SECRET HANGMAN
COP TO CORPSE
THE TOOTH TATTOO
Hen Mallin series
FALSE INSPECTOR DEW
ON THE EDGE
Copyright © 2014 by Peter Lovesey.
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The stone wife : a Peter Diamond investigation / Peter Lovesey.
1. Diamond, Peter (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Police—England—Bath—Fiction. 3. Bath (England)—Fiction. I. Title.
“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 almost at once. This had a sense of energy, even though the faces were giving nothing away.
Four or five local antique dealers were still interested and Denis Doggart, the auctioneer, needed the help of his assistants to keep track of the small movements that signified bids.
“Two thousand. Two thousand two. Four on my left. Six. Eight. I have three thousand 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, many of them bric-a-brac or tat.
Doggart was unfazed. He had been told to expect two telephone bidders from New York and Tokyo.
“At three thousand.”
The man who had appeared to be pushing hardest shook his head. He’d reached his limit. But others were still in. The price mounted steadily, way past the valuation figure.
“At five thousand pounds.”
A stifled gasp came from the back where some onlookers had gathered.
The remaining bidders were regulars at auctions all over the West Country, 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 the paddle bearing his number. He’d shown no interest in any of the hundred and twenty-eight lots that had gone before.
Doggart believed he recognised the man. He would have liked to check with his clerk to learn the name, but controlling the auction demanded total concentration.
After five thousand, the bidding would be stepped up by increments of five hundred pounds.
And was, with no sign of anyone faltering. Each fresh bid from the local dealers was immediately topped by the visitor.
“Ten thousand in the front.”
Bow Tie Man was in it to win it.
At last came a pause.
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.
Unfazed, Bow Tie topped the bid.
The interest from Japan and America had ended somewhere between five and ten thousand. Sturgess and the mystery man could settle this between them. And now their bids were coming in with the pendulum precision auctioneers love.
“At twenty thousand pounds, 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 twenty-two thousand.
No hesitation in the response.
“Twenty-four 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 balaclava mask that covered his face. He 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 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 from 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, middle-aged 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, stepping 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 seen all he wanted, moved past and was taking more interest in lot 129. “Someone was killed for
“Crazy,” Detective Sergeant Ingeborg Smith agreed. “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?”
“Twenty-four thousand and rising.”
“Twenty-four 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 carved 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 most of the 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. 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?” Diamond 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 an audio recorder. He put up his 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?”