Sunlight poured in through the open curtains. White walls were polished a warm primrose yellow. Bird song was clear in the early morning calm. As I lay there a cold breeze came through the small open window and stroked my face, the contrast to the rest of me snug in the depths of the bed made me feel content. This sense of well-being carried on as I dressed quickly in the cold bedroom and clattered down the wooden stairs to the kitchen for breakfast. I opened up the damper on the stove and stoked it with small sticks. Soon the room smelled of fresh coffee, bacon frying and pancakes.
Vernon’s house was about three miles outside the city across the valley in one of the outlying villages. Actually getting into the house wouldn’t pose too many problems, one of Diego’s burglarious friends had shown me some of the tricks of his trade. More problematic was whether I could approach and leave the neighbourhood unremembered.
I dressed in old, dark, nondescript trousers, jacket and cap. I slipped a knife into the outer pocket of the jacket and hauled my toolbox out from the kitchen cupboard. It made me look like a tradesman and gave me some reason to be carrying the tools I might need to break in. I collected my bicycle from beside the studio and left by the garden gate, down the alley away from the main street. It was early but I didn’t want to run into inquisitive neighbours.
A beautiful crisp morning, the air clean and a bright blue sky overhead. Mist rose from the river and filled the low lying fields in the far distance to my right, overflowing like spilt milk. Ahead, the other side of the valley rose gently, well wooded on the steeper sections. The city was still quiet. Smoke rose from chimneys, people were beginning to make their way to work. The streets I passed through were mostly small terraced houses, the occasional corner shop and café, still closed. The tool box rattled as I free wheeled down toward the river. Houses fitted in the spaces in the outer defences of the city. The river had been diverted to make a moat, the road running along beside it to one of the gates. This section of the moat had been transformed into a fish farm. In the smooth green water I could see the shoals cruising up and down. At the gates I turned left and started the long gentle climb toward Upton Willoughby and Vernon’s house.
Thinning leaves on the trees made delicate shadows on the empty road. Their fallen brethren piled up in the hedgerow. I sailed through Netherley just as the village shop opened its shutters. Repairs on the old church were progressing well, the derelict tower had been demolished years ago and finally a new one was rising to match the rebuilt nave. Smooth creamy stone blocks piled ready, enough to complete the first storey before the winter. Upton Willoughby appeared around the shoulder of the hill. Houses either side of the road, with long gardens up and down the slope. I could see the pub, much older than the mainly new houses here. No church, the nearest school back in Netherley.
Vernon’s place was on the near side of the village. I slowed at the crest of the rise, I wanted to make it look like I was out of breath after the climb. I carried on slowly past the house and stopped at the end of the village. The view back across the city was superb. I was more concerned to see if I could spot any observers. I couldn’t but that didn’t mean a lot, there was plenty of cover. I turned back and slowly cycled along the street, ostentatiously checking numbers. I got to Vernon’s, number 14. Trying to look like I was supposed to be there I wheeled my bicycle down the side of the house and parked it against the wall, out of sight of the road. The back door was locked. None of the windows were open. I returned to the back door and a chisel unlocked it. The crack as the wood of the door jamb gave sounded shockingly loud to me but no one raised the alarm.
I leant back against the door and surveyed the room in front of me, a square, neat kitchen. Sparse, practical, furniture. Everything seemed normal. The potted plants on the window sill were wilting. A narrow hall led to a larger front room, very comfortable with leather sofas and two deep wing-back chairs either side of the stove. Several bookshelves lined the walls. Philip clearly liked to read; well-thumbed classic novels, Dickens figured prominently, two copies I noticed were antiques. Modern philosophy, theology and history, especially medieval English history. A leather-bound Bible sat by the chair facing the window. A quick survey of the upstairs showed no one else to be present and nothing obviously out of place. I paused at the bottom of the stairs, wondering where to start.
I realised I had no idea what I was seeking. I was not a professional agent with any trade craft. How big a thing was I looking for? The files had mentioned several hundred in coin, that’s bulky, even in gold and gold coins are rare enough for comment. More likely it was silver half guineas or smaller, that would need a box about the size of Vernon’s bible. Would they be here?
Wondering, I stood by the kitchen window and looked at the narrow, business-like, vegetable garden. Could he have buried anything in the garden? Possibly. Better to be as sure as I could be about the house before digging up the garden in full view of the neighbours.
I started on the kitchen, the underside of the table, inside the cupboards, all the dry goods bags in the pantry. I tapped the backs of the cupboards and the stone laughed solidly back at me. I found two bunches of keys hanging on leather thongs on the back of the pantry door. The larger bunch was obviously his house keys, the smaller one only had two keys on it. One was peculiar, small, but with an unusually long shank and an intricately carved grip, the other a perfectly ordinary small flat key. I pocketed the keys and moved on to the living room. Whatever I was looking for would surely be somewhere readily accessible and yet not obvious. Pulling aside the rugs, I looked at the slabs of the flagged floor; they hadn’t moved since they were put down. I lifted and shook the chair cushions, no rattles or lumps to be found. Nothing inside the frames of the chairs. I rifled through every book, hoping to find papers in the pages, or even a hollowed out book. Zero. The walls sounded solid, the pictures didn’t hide a safe.
Upstairs a bare and functional study yielded nothing. The desk was nearly empty. A stack of files held receipts, paid bills, a few personal letters. Just the bathroom and Philip’s bedroom to go. I set to on the bedroom, lifting all the draws from the chest and stacking them on the bed. As I crossed with the last drawer I noticed the creaking floorboard under a towel sized Persian rug. Pulling it aside revealed a small hatch, very neatly made but still clear enough. Trembling slightly I looked for a way to open it. A small knothole on one side made a convenient handle.
Inside was a shallow recess containing a different side of Philip Vernon. I pulled out a collection of pornography, some quite lurid pictures and a couple of extremely explicit novels. The public and the private man. I put them back.
There was nothing else in the bedroom, so I started on the bathroom. I had just started tapping the bathroom tiles when a thought struck me. I went back to the secret cupboard and took out the contents. The recess was only four inches deep. The gap between the floor and ceiling below would be at least three times that, why so shallow? I pushed and prodded at the base until it slid sideways.
Jackpot! I had very nearly fallen for the bluff, the contrast to the piety downstairs; the stock reaction had almost kept his secret. I wondered if a more judgemental audience would have taken a second look. The lower tray was about six inches deep. Inside were several long thin cardboard tubes, labelled “25MM Washers Headley Forge”. One tube was open, the end stuffed with a grubby handkerchief. I tipped the tube and, sandwiched behind a plug of washers, a solid column of new silver half guineas slid on to my palm.
Next out from the lucky dip were four passports, all with Philip Vernon’s photograph, in different names and matching ID cards in those names for the Commonwealth, Scotland and the Emirate. Bank books matching two of the names, the accounts held in Emirati banks.
Finally came two envelopes and a small bag of presumably legitimate Emirati coins. One envelope held the equivalent of four hundred or so in tatty Emirati notes, the other held several sheets of handwritten notes.
I stowed the notes in my inside coat pocket and buttoned it tight. Suddenly I felt very alone and exposed. I collected my toolbox from the kitchen and lifting the top tray put everything else inside, I had to press the lid down to get the hasp over. A heavy flower pot, I hoped, would wedge the back door shut and keep the weather and inquisitive neighbours at bay until someone could be sent to make good the damage. I cycled away from the house, smiling a good morning to the two women gossiping by their garden gates at the end of the village.
The ride back to the city in the bright morning sunshine was glorious, listening to the shush of the breeze in the trees over the purr of my tyres as I free wheeled down to the river. It was an odd feeling, knowing I was maybe holding clues as to why Philip Vernon was killed and the source of the forged coins.
More coming next week. Extract from ‘Renaissance’ an adventure thriller by Jeremiah Hope. Copyright Jeremiah Hope 2019.