The Old Hand And Diamond
I was holidaying with my parents at a cottage near Shrewsbury in 2013 and there was a pub nearby with the unusual name of The Old Hand And Diamond Inn. Someone made the comment that this would make a good title for a story and so, during any down-time during the week, I bashed this out.
It’s a bit rough-around-the-edges, and wears its influences on its sleeve more than is strictly becoming, but for a bit of holiday fun it works well enough.
The unmarked parcel appeared on the table in the entrance hall without any of the household being able to remember it having been delivered. It was bound in brown, waxed paper and tied up with string but there was no address or postmark or any other identifying feature visible on any part of the wrapping. Indeed, so sudden and unexpected was the arrival of the parcel, that it was a day and a half before anyone thought to open it, by which time any hope of tracking down whoever it was who had put it there had long passed.
It was one of the maids who first thought to ask about it.
“Does this need taking to the Post Office?” she asked. “Cook asked me to go to the butchers and I could deliver it on the way.”
The housekeeper didn’t know, so she asked the valet, who in turn set the matter before Captain Weatherby, the master of the house. This military gentleman, late of the Derbyshire 77th and honourably discharged on medical grounds soon after the siege of Constantinople, brought the parcel to his study where he cut the string with the curved, bone-handled knife given to him by a Turkish mercenary while on his tour of duty to the near east. He then peeled back the waxed paper and opened the weather-beaten wooden box which he found inside. It was with an exclamation of surprise and fright that he recoiled in horror at the contents.
There was a hand, shrivelled and brown with leathery skin the colour of burnt chestnuts, balled up into a tight fist lying in the box. The discovery caused not a little commotion. The maid who had originally found the box fainted at the sight of it. “Give her some room,” said the valet, seating her in a chair and fanning her with a newspaper. “I’ll call for the mistress,” the housekeeper offered.
Lady Weatherby - a tiny, china-doll of a woman with a lion’s heart and resolve of iron – swept into the chaos of the room and immediately took charge. She telephoned for the police and twenty-five minutes later Inspector Jacobin of the Whitbourne Constabulary arrived on the scene.
“Now see, here, Inspector,” said Weatherby, as the policeman entered. “This sort of thing really won’t do. We mustn’t have a scandal you know.”
“Come, now, my dear,” said his wife, calmly. “The Inspector has only just arrived. He can hardly be expected to get to the bottom of all this unpleasantness before he has had a chance to avail himself of the facts.”
She turned to the policeman with a polite, hospitable smile borne of generations of good breeding.
“Before we begin, Inspector Jacobin, may I offer you some tea?” she asked.
The detective confirmed that he would indeed like some tea and so the little woman glided across the room, and rang the bell for service.
“Now,” she said. “Where would you like to begin?”
Inspector Jacobin quickly established the facts of the situation, examining the household records of incoming and outgoing mail, the comings and goings of tradesmen, and the movements of the staff insofar as they could be determined from the information available. The detective was delighted to find the various ledgers and accounting books had been most diligently kept and before too long he had a clear picture in his mind of the traffic through the main hall in the days leading up to the discovery of the parcel.
Captain Weatherby watched the proceedings with growing consternation, before finally bursting out, “Dash it all man, some damn fool is going about sending me dismembered human remains and all you do is sit there looking at grocery receipts.”
But Jacobin, a detective of some experience who had a healthy respect for the importance of thorough research, was not to be hurried. When he was finally satisfied that the picture was complete, he collected up the hand, box, paper and string, placed the whole collection into a large attaché case, and told the Captain that he would contact him before the end of the week to let him know the progress of the investigation.
With one last plea to keep the matter discrete the whole unpleasantness was out the door and, everybody in the household hoped, done away with for good.
Back at his desk in the Whitbourne Police Station, Jacobin carefully emptied the attaché case and regarded its contents with an analytical eye.
Opening a desk drawer he drew out a pair of snub-bladed surgical scissors, and carefully cut one inch from the string which had bound the parcel. This he examined minutely under the microscopic apparatus he kept on his desk, to the derision of those of his colleagues who did not understand his methods, even while respecting his results. They were of the old school of policing – the truncheon-and-bribery brigade – while Jacobin was a fierce exponent of the very latest investigative techniques.
After ten minutes of close study, Jacobin walked to the wall of filing cabinets in which he kept tens of thousands of small, indexed cards: the fruits of a lifetime’s labour. After a few minutes of searching through the many, many drawers of material he returned to the desk with a dozen samples of string each stuck carefully onto a piece of card and exhaustively labelled and described. Another half hour of study revealed the manufacturer of the string and a list of thirty shops within a fifty mile radius of Whitbourne which might have sold it.
Again, Jacobin took up the surgical scissors, but this time a square-inch of the waxed paper was the object of investigation and within an hour the list of thirty shops had been reduced to a mere four which stocked both items. Sergeant Timms was dispatched to question the owner of each about anyone who might have bought both products within the last three weeks – a period approximated from the fadedness of the paper having been exposed to the lighting conditions in Captain Weatherby’s entrance hallway. While he awaited a result, the Inspector took down his copy of Who’s Who, along with several volumes of military journals and sundry other publications from the shelves and shelves of reference material which took up the wall opposite the bank of filing cabinets. He settled back into his chair to familiarise himself with the life, character and adventures of Captain W. John Weatherby, late of the Derbyshire 77th.
It was dark by the time Sergeant Timms returned, a list of possible suspects in hand. He had questioned each of the shopkeepers in turn, poring over invoices and examining bills of sale written in close, messy scrawls to determine who might have bought the paper and the string. There was a chance, of course, that the items had been bought in London, or Manchester, or even abroad, but the list of eight names he had produced was a promising start.
Jacobin, meanwhile, had become probably as great an expert on Captain Weatherby as almost anyone else alive. He had joined the army young, a rich Uncle buying his commission into the officer class soon after he had proved his mettle during a first tour of duty in India. As an officer, he had gained further distinction in Rhodesia, and then again in the near east until a Mohammadan bullet had lodged itself deep in his right thigh and ended his career in active service. After his discharge there were a few unfortunate months about which it was difficult to ascertain anything, although in the few oblique references he could find referring to that episode, Jacobin thought he could detect the clatter of dice and the strident odour of opium smoke. Weatherby, his commanding officers, and all who might have been involved were obviously rather keen to keep the whole affair quiet now that the Captain had returned home, a decorated hero with rumours of greater honour come the New Year. Weatherby had since established a respectable and surprisingly comfortable retirement with his wife – whom he had married while on leave after South Africa – and their young son.
The Inspector wrote all of this and more in a tiny, precise shorthand of his own devising, making no more than a cursory glance over Sergeant Timms’ list of names before deciding it was long past time to go home. The hand itself, and whatever other mysteries went along with it, would have to wait until morning.
He awoke in the early hours of the morning and was immediately wide awake. Something deep down in the instinctual part of his policeman’s brain, the part no amount of patient research and deduction could supress, was a deep uneasiness.
He dressed quickly, and slipped quietly out of the door of the lodging house in which he lived so as not to awake the landlady who did not look kindly on comings and goings of this nature, even from the nice, polite police inspector who lived on the top floor. “This is a respectable house,” was the mantra she would repeat to all her patrons. “We mustn’t have any impropriety, you know.”
Walking down the road in the pale light of the full moon, he turned his feet toward the police station. The clerk on duty seemed surprised to see him especially when Jacobin swept past him with barely a look.
Opening the door to his office, the view which met his eyes froze for a second with the clarity of a photograph. The drawers of his filing cabinets were open, spilling their contents onto the floor. The books on the opposite wall were similarly in disarray. The desk drawers, too, had been forced open and the notes he had spent most of the afternoon compiling had been taken from them. Most importantly, the parcel which had been sent to Captain Weatherby, the only physical evidence in the whole case, had been taken from the desk – hand, box, paper and string – and was even now disappearing out the window in the hands of a figure dressed all in black. Framed by the moonlight which flooded in through the window, his face was cast in shadow as he looked back into the room, seeing the Inspector before turning to run.
All of this Jacobin saw and processed in an instant, giving chase almost before he had registered what was happening. He clambered through the window but by the time he had dropped to the ground and started running the figure was already some fifty yards ahead.
The two men darted along the twists and turns of Whitbourne high street, the usually busy shop fronts eerily dark and silent, the still night air broken only by the clattering of two pairs of footsteps, one racing in pursuit of the other. There was something strange about the other man’s gait, an inconstancy to the rhythm as if he had hurt his leg as he dropped to the ground outside the police station window. Jacobin got to the end of the high street, where the road began to turn into the highway which ran from here to the next town and, for a moment, it seemed like the man had escaped. But the sound of sloshing water and of wood scraping on wood registered in the policeman’s brain and he turned down a little side street which led down to the river.
Jacobin arrived just as the man had pushed off and was beginning to row out away from the landing stage. It wasn’t until he was already in the air and coming down onto the little boat that he saw the glint of moonlight on metal and realised that the man had let go of the oars and was pointing a revolver straight at him. The inspector landed unsteadily, striking imprecisely at the dark figure who cried out as his gun went one way and he another, both landing heavily into the water. But the darkness was on the man’s side, and by the time Jacobin had steadied himself and the water had calmed the man was nowhere to be seen.
The next day, Sergeant Timms would discover where the man had exited the river, almost a mile downstream, but by that time the trail had gone cold. But luck had not been entirely on the mysterious figure’s side, because there, lying safe and dry in the bottom of the boat, was the Captain Weatherby’s mysterious parcel.
When Inspector Jacobin returned to his office, he replaced the parcel on his desk and began tidying up the mess the intruder had made. Slowly, methodically, he filed away the index-cards of samples, lists of businesses and contacts, and the many, many pages of observations which had been his life’s work. By the time the room was back in order, the sun had risen and Jacobin realised he was hungry.
He walked home, changed his clothes and ate a slice of burnt toast with a scrape of butter. Two cups of milky tea washed down the breakfast and while he drank them he sat at his table with a sheet of writing paper and wrote a list of tasks which would need to be completed before he would know his next move. Everything in order, all due diligence attended to.
On his return to the office, he finally turned his attention to the hand. The skin was tough and wrinkled, and there were strange shapes tattooed onto the fingers, which he didn’t recognise. The end where the hand had been severed from the armwas blackened - the result of being cauterised through the application of great heat, but the rest of the flesh looked preserved, rather like cured meat. Poring minutely over the hand was distasteful, but necessary, and Jacobin went about it without showing any outward emotion, carefully noting his observations in shorthand. It was not until he tried to prize open the fingers of the hand that he gave any indication of his thoughts and when he did his eyebrows raised in surprise.
Pressed into the palm of the hand was a small, exquisitely cut diamond. Jacobin sat in his chair, looking at the small stone as it glinted in the early morning sunlight. He picked it up with a pair of tweezers and placed it on the base of the microscope. To his untrained eye, it was completely flawless. This was an unexpected development: to send a retired military man a severed hand was unusual; to also send him a diamond which must have been valued at several years’ worth of a military salary suggested there was more to the story than Jacobin had at first suspected. The detective took the list of taks he had drawn up over breakfast, tore it from top to bottom and threw it in the wastepaper basket.
But before he formulated any new theories, there was still much to learn. He reached across the desk and lifted the receiver. When the operator came onto the line, he requested a connection to Lionel Fairbrass at the British Museum. While he waited for his former professor to come on the line, he called for Sergeant Timms.
“Everything all right, sir?” said Timms. “I heard we had a break in last night.”
Jacobin waved away the question. He said that he would need to visit London for the day, and asked the sergeant to follow up on the list of people who had bought both string and waxed paper over the last few weeks, giving instructions to find out if any of them had served abroad at any time within the last decade, and if so where and when. Timms nodded his understanding and hurried out the door.
Presently, the line crackled into life and Jacobin heard the voice of Professor Fairbrass, who had taught history at Oxford for the best part of thirty years, including the time that Jacobin had spent there as first an undergraduate and then while he conducted research for a PhD which had never been awarded: the great disappointment of Jacobin’s life. They spoke for a few minutes before the inspector rang off, let the desk sergeant know that he would be in London until late that night, and headed for the railway station.
When he returned many hours later, having spent a pleasant day discussing the case with an array of experts at the British Museum, he hung his hat by the door, sat wearily in the chair by the window and reviewed what he had learned:
A hand which had been crudely mummified (“I would say more pickled, and then dried,” the professor had said) within the last six weeks had been sent to a retired army officer;
Clutched in the hand was a diamond, cut into the distinctive, eighteen-sided South Africa Gem shape;
Tattooed onto the knuckles was an Arabic word meaning ‘guilt’ (or, in some contexts, ‘debt’).
It was not difficult to set these facts alongside Captain Weatherby’s tours-of-duty in Rhodesia and the near east. But what it all meant, the motives which had driven such a peculiar course of events, were still obscure to him.
Jacobin sighed. He picked up a report from the desk and saw that one of the patrons of a post office in Prestwich, a town some twenty miles away, had once had a brother who had spent time in the near east as a merchant seaman. Jacobin would probably have to speak to the fellow himself. He had little doubt that the fellow could be charged with something-or-other on the evidence which they now possessed, but the detective was sure there was more to the case than the illegal handling of human remains, or whatever would be cooked up against him. But just what had gone on during those few dark months in Istanbul, between the time that Weatherby had been shot and his return to wife and family several months later?
It seemed to Jacobin that there was no way to proceed without interviewing the man himself, something the inspector had hitherto strenuously avoided. Interviews involved talking to other people, and in Jacobin’s experience people had a tendency to lie, distort and obfuscate, especially when asked the kind of questions he typically found himself asking. Facts, observation, and reason were the true paths to the heart of the matter - diligent research in search of the truth. It had served him well up until now, but the last little jump – the final stepping stone between where he had got to up to now and the far bank on which the truth lay – would regrettably require him to speak to a suspect.
He looked at the clock and saw that it was after midnight. Blessedly, he could put the encounter off until the next day.
Jacobin was shown into Captain Weatherby’s study and took a chair by the fireplace. There was no pleasure for him in what he was about to do. Now that the puzzle was solved he had little interest in what came next, but his duties as an officer of the law necessitated that the matter was brought to a satisfactory legal conclusion.
“Now what’s this all about?” asked the Captain after a drink had been offered and refused and the two men found themselves alone.
Jacobin described how, at twenty five minutes to three that afternoon, the police had arrested a man in Prestwich. They had discovered sheets of waxed paper and a quantity of string both of which matched same kinds that were used to bind the parcel which had been sent to Captain Weatherby’s house sometime in the last week. Hidden in the larder, they had also found a bottle which was believed to contain the solution used to preserve the hand and said that a sample of this had already been sent to a laboratory in Manchester for analysis. The man had, therefore, been duly charged with trafficking human remains and had confessed to stealing the hand from a cadaver at the Whitbourne Infirmary Morgue.
“Better imprisoned for theft than hanged for murder,” he had said.
The indefatigable Sergeant Timms had been dispatched to Whitbourne Infirmary where he had uncovered evidence that it had, indeed, been broken into in the last few months and Inspector Jacobin said that he had no doubt that they would be able to link the hand to one of the bodies which had recently passed through that institution, perhaps on the way to the incinerator which would account for the fact that no remains had previously been discovered missing.
As he listened to the detective’s report, a broad smile crossed Captain Weatherby face. He sprung to his feet and shook Jacobin warmly by the hand.
“Oh, that’s highly satisfactory,” he said. “Yes, indeed. A very satisfactory conclusion to this whole unpleasant business.”
He stepped over to the drinks cabinet, his gait betraying a slight limp – a relic of his old battle scars - and began pouring a large glass of brandy.
“You’re sure I can’t tempt you, Inspector?” he offered, but Jacobin shook his head.
He expressed surprise that the Captain seemed uninterested in what had motivated the man to send such an unusual parcel.
“Well, I’m sure we don’t need to worry about that,” said Weatherby. “So long as the fellow is in your capable hands, Inspector, I am glad to call that an end to the whole affair.”
But Inspector Jacobin was not to be put off. He reached into his pocket, and withdrew from it a neatly folded handkerchief. Carefully opening it up, he extracted the South Africa Gem cut diamond which had been found clutched in the dismembered hand. He passed the stone over to Weatherby who examined it, his face beginning to redden, but his expression difficult to read.
Jacobin began speaking again and once he had started, nothing Captain Weatherby could say or do would stop him before he reached the conclusion of the tale. He told of a young army officer with a talent for command, but a weakness for gambling. During a tour of duty in Rhodesia – a tour during which this young officer distinguished himself as having every potential for high command – he had the good fortune to win a round of dice, at the end of which he had not only pocketed a considerable sum of money but also the deeds to a virtually worthless piece of African land which had been accepted in lieu of money during the later stages of the game. Soon after, he returned to England, where he married the youngest daughter of the Earl of Kidderminster and, supplementing his army pay with the winnings of his gambling habit, was able to buy a comfortable house in the countryside and keep his young bride in something approximating to the style in which she was accustomed.
Soon, though, his regiment was dispatched to the near east, and now the officer’s luck began to change. While recuperating from an injury sustained in battle, he threw himself once again into the lap of fortune, and was soon a familiar face in the back rooms of the opium dens of Istanbul where he rolled dice with locals and visiting Englishmen alike. There he gambled away his invalid pay and was soon making promises-to-pay which he could not hope to keep. He was relieved to find the old deed to the land in Rhodesia and used this to pay off a few of the debts. No sooner had he done so, he received a notification, long delayed after being sent on from England that the land with which he had just parted had been discovered to contain a substantial deposit of unusually high quality diamonds and that his fortune had been made. A fortune which now belonged to a twenty-four year-old merchant seaman from Brighton who had thrown a lucky seven.
After a sleepless night, the captain knew what he must do. He paid a local mercenary to begin a fight in the bazaar, during the course of which the same young sailor was stabbed and killed and his pockets emptied of everything he carried on him.
Presently, the captain returned home to his wife. They had a son and lived comfortably off the proceeds of a South African diamond mine until the brother of the unfortunate victim, in an ill-advised attempt to scare the captain, sent him a diamond from the very mine that had been stolen from his murdered brother clutched in the fist of a severed hand, a memento of the ancient Arabic punishment for theft. The captain had perhaps recognised the meaning immediately, but perhaps not; either way after going through the motions of telephoning for the police, he had made an attempt to retrieve the parcel by burglarising the local constabulary.
When Jacobin finished his story, Captain Weatherby simply snorted derisively.
“It’s a very fine tale you tell, Inspector, but completely divorced from reality. And even if it were true you have no material evidence to prove anything of the kind.”
Inspector Jacobin rose and averred that the captain was probably correct. He supposed that it would not worry Weatherby to learn that the inspector had raised his suspicions with the Exchequer, who said they would be interested to audit the household finances in due course. Weatherby had not, they had informed the Inspector when he had made the enquiry, declared any interests in South Africa, and would certainly be required to pay a sizable fine in back taxes if the story was discovered to be true. But if, as the Captain had just assured the Inspector, it was not then there need be no cause for concern.
Jacobin rose, indifferent to the blusterings of Captain Weatherby, and showed himself out of the house, feeling very glad to brush the dust of it from his feet.