April 1 is a Monday this year, therefore it’s time for the second edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for exactly one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
And since Easter is later this month, what story could be more fitting than Egg Hunt, an Easter mystery from my Helen Shepherd Mysteries series? This one is technically a novelette, since it’s just over the 7500 word mark.
So follow Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd and her team as they tackle the mysterious case of a priceless Fabergé egg that has gone missing from the London home of a Russian oligarch.
by Cora Buhlert
Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd manoeuvred her car into a parking space in a quiet side street in Belgravia, the dark green Rover looking distinctly shabby among all the BMWs, Mercedeses and Porsches parked along the curb. She even spotted a Bentley and — holy ghost, was that a Ferrari?
The street was peaceful, the blooming forsythias and Japanese cherries giving it a springtime flair. Number 34 was one of the familiar cream white stucco houses that lined the street. In many ways, the place looked like and probably had served as the set for Upstairs, Downstairs. However, instead of the English upper class and their army of servants, number 34 now served as the London residence of a Russian oligarch named Yevgeny Ivanov and his wife.
Police Constable Martin Jackson and another uniform were flanking the entrance, looking more like decorative security guards than police officers.
“Good morning, ma’am,” PC Jackson said, tipping his cap.
In his hand, there was a little box of what upon closer examination turned out to be chocolates. “Belgian chocolate Easter eggs,” he said by way of explanation, “Would you like one, ma’am?”
Now Helen actually had a bar of Marks & Spencer Swiss dark chocolate in her coat pocket to be enjoyed as an after-lunch snack later. Nonetheless, she’d never been one to pass up free chocolate, so she said, “Thank you, Constable. That’s very kind of you.”
PC Jackson handed Helen an egg of marbled dark and white chocolate. “Here you are, ma’am. Enjoy!”
Helen popped the egg into her mouth and indeed enjoyed it. Meanwhile, PC Jackson lifted the police tape for her. “Just go right through. DC Walker and the forensics people have already started.”
Inside, the house looked even more like the set of Upstairs, Downstairs — the Upstairs part at any rate. The furniture was classic, the paintings tasteful, the flower arrangements artful, the carpets thick and elegant. Nothing was out of place, nothing was jarring, nothing was less than absolutely perfect. All in all, the place looked more like a photo spread from Ideal Home rather than a house that was actually inhabited by living breathing human beings.
Helen suppressed a shudder. This house gave her the creeps and not just because something appalling had happened here.
She found Detective Constable Kevin Walker and Scene of the Crime Officer Charlotte Wong at the back of the house in the living room. At any rate, Helen assumed it was supposed to be the living room, since the place looked more like a showroom than like any living room she’d ever been in.
At least there was neither a body nor blood. Helen supposed she should be glad about that.
“Morning, boss,” DC Walker greeted her, while Charlotte Wong continued dusting every available surface for fingerprints, disturbing the sanctified perfection of the room in the process.
“All right, Constable. What happened here?”
“See that?” DC Walker pointed at an upright glass case, one of several scattered around the room. “Until approximately an hour ago, that case used to contain a priceless Fabergé egg.”
“It’s one of a series of sixty bejewelled Easter eggs made by Peter Carl Fabergé, jeweller to the Czars of Russia,” Charlotte Wong supplied, “They were originally given as Easter presents to female members of the Romanov family.” She fluttered her lashes at DC Walker. “Whatever you think of the Czars, they sure knew a thing or two about Easter presents.”
“I know what a Fabergé egg is,” Helen interrupted before DC Walker and Charlotte could flirt some more. They’d been dating for a few months now and were still in the sugar shock sweet honeymoon stage of their relationship. “However, I don’t know what this one was doing here. Until today, I thought that the only Fabergé eggs on British soil were the three owned by the royal family.”
“Well, obviously not,” DC Walker said, “Turns out that Yevgeny Ivanov is one of the very few private collectors lucky enough to own a Fabergé egg. That is, he was one of the few private collectors lucky enough to own a Fabergé egg, since this one vanished barely an hour ago.”
“How much of a value are we talking about here anyway?,” Helen wanted to know.
“Difficult to say since Fabergé eggs are so rare,” DC Walker replied.
“However, the last time one came to auction — after being found in a junk shop in the American Midwest of all places — it was sold for thirty-three million pounds,” Charlotte Wong added.
Helen whistled through her teeth. “Not bad. Not bad at all.”
“And that’s not the only ridiculously valuable work of art in here,” Charlotte continued, “See that?”
She pointed at a statue of a painfully thin man that seemed to be assembled from scrap metal.
“That’s a genuine Giacometti. And those…”
She pointed at a series of gloomy sepia-toned sketches of what appeared to be scenes of heretics being tortured and executed in exceedingly gruesome detail.
“…are real Goyas. That misshapen lump of clay over there…”
Charlotte pointed at a display case containing what looked like a kindergartener’s first attempt at pottery.
“…is Shape No. 9 by Bulgarian brutalist Vassily Bagdanorovsky.”
“And that accumulation of rubbish in the corner over there…” DC Walker pointed at the corner in question.
“…is a genuine Beuys grease corner,” Charlotte Wong completed, “And that’s not all. You should see the kitchen. They’ve got a Warhol, a Lichtenstein and a Mondrian. In the kitchen.”
“With so many high calibre artworks in one place, surely the security system must be quite formidable,” Helen said.
“State of the art,” DC Walker said, “The security system is a Rhodenbarr 5000, one of the best in the world. Lasers, heat sensors, motion sensors, pressure sensors, breakage sensors, the whole kaboodle. The windows and display cases are bullet proof glass, the locks have reinforced titanium steel bars.”
“In short, this room, let alone the whole house, should be impenetrable,” Charlotte added.
“So what went wrong?” Helen wanted to know.
“Even the best security system in the world isn’t very effective, when it’s switched off.” DC Walker rolled his eyes.
Helen sighed. Human stupidity truly knew no bounds.
“And this one was switched off? Why?”
“Because the cleaning lady was in the room dusting off the artworks.”
“So the mop, bucket and vacuum cleaner are not actually works of concept art then,” Helen remarked.
“The cleaning lady had the display case open and was just dusting off the Fabergé egg, when the phone rang,” DC Walker said, “She answered and when she turned around, the egg was gone.”
“Did she see or hear anybody coming in?”
DC Walker shook his head. “She said she was only on the phone for a minute or two. The windows were closed, the doors locked, the security system still active everywhere except in this room.”
“So in short, we have a priceless work of art that vanished from a locked room, while there was someone in said room,” Helen said, “Wonderful. Just wonderful.”
“All evidence points to an inside job,” Charlotte Wong pointed out.
“Very likely in this case,” Helen agreed, “Random thugs don’t just wander in from the street and make off with priceless Fabergé eggs. They’d be far more likely to snatch the stereo, the TV and Mrs. Ivanova’s jewellery collection.”
“But why would someone who knew about the Ivanovs’ art collection take only the Fabergé egg and leave the rest of the goodies here?” Charlotte pointed out, “Okay, the Giacometti might be a tad heavy to carry out of here without help, but the rest? I would have taken it.”
“Probably a theft to order,” Helen said, “With objects like these it usually is, since they cannot be sold on the regular market.”
“The Ivanovs are accusing the cleaning lady,” DC Walker said.
“Any grounds for suspicion there?”, Helen wanted to know.
DC Walker shook his head. “Not as far as we can see. She’s been working for them for years now without any incident. Besides, she was the one who called us.”
“Might be a distraction to deflect suspicion away from herself,” Helen said, “So what about the Ivanovs then? Could it simply be a case of insurance fraud?”
“As far as I know, the Ivanovs are richer than God,” DC Walker said, “I don’t think they need the insurance money.”
“Even Russian oligarchs occasionally make bad investments and have cash flow problems,” Helen pointed out.
“But if they need money, why not just sell the egg?” Charlotte said, “Or one of the other artworks?”
“Auctions take time to set up and the auction house takes a hefty fee,” Helen said.
“On the other hand, insurance companies aren’t known for speedy payments either,” DC Walker countered. He shook his head. “It simply doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Ivanovs to steal their own Fabergé egg.”
“I still want a financial overview for them. Ditto for the cleaning lady.” Helen looked around her. “Where is the cleaning lady anyway?”
“In the kitchen,” DC Walker said.
“And the Ivanovs?”
“In the living room.”
“I thought this was the living room,” Helen said.
“No, this is the art museum room.” DC Walker shook his head. “Rich people are weird.”
“You can say that,” Helen agreed. Charlotte Wong nodded.
“So who do you want to talk to first, boss?” DC Walker wanted to know, “The Ivanovs or the cleaning lady?”
“The Ivanovs,” Helen decided, “The cleaning lady can stew a little, just in case she is involved in the theft after all.”
The living room — the other living room — was upstairs and outfitted with a state-of-the-art home theatre system as well as yet more works of art that were likely as priceless as they were ugly.
Yevgeny Ivanov was in the mid fifties. His shaggy grey hair and stubbled chin contrasted sharply with his elegant Savile Row suit. He was pacing the living room, clearly furious.
His wife Natasha was in her thirties, tall and statuesque. Her boobs were as fake as her fire-red hair. She’d been a model once and even in her own home, she still seemed to be strutting along a catwalk, swathed in a black designer gown.
There was a third person waiting in the room, a man, black, bald, handsome, clad in a nice suit. He remained in the background, seemingly not connected to either Ivanov.
“Mr. Ivanov, Mrs. Ivanova, I’m Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd and I will be investigating this case.”
“Finally.” Yevgeny Ivanov glanced at a diamond studded chronometer that probably cost as much as a small car. “It is about time.”
“You must as excuse my husband,” Natasha Ivanova said in a heavy Russian accent, “He is very upset. We both are. You see, the egg was a present from Zhenya to me for our five year anniversary.” She smiled at her husband. “He is so romantic.”
“Believe me, Mrs. Ivanova, I understand,” Helen said, “And I shall my utmost to recover your property.” She turned to the third man. “And you are, sir?”
The man rose to his feet and held out his hand. “Colin Simonson, Lloyd’s of London.”
They certainly didn’t waste any time, did they?
“Your company insured the missing object?” Helen asked, shaking his hand.
“We had that honour. And as you can imagine, we’re very eager to recover the object.”
“As are we, Mr. Simonson.”
The Ivanovs were showing distinct signs of impatience, so Helen decided to get down to business.
“Mr. and Mrs. Ivanov, do you have any idea who might have stolen your Fabergé egg?”
“That is obvious, is it not?” Natasha Ivanova exclaimed, “Eva did it.” Though she pronounced the name “Jeva”.
“Eva Hart, the cleaning lady,” DC Walker whispered to Helen.
“Did Ms. Hart have the code for the alarm system?” Helen wanted to know.
“Of course. She needs it for cleaning.”
“For how long has Ms. Hart been working for you?” Helen asked Natasha Ivanova.
Natasha Ivanova shrugged. “Five, six years. I do not remember.”
“And in all this time, did Ms. Hart ever steal anything from you, even something small?”
“Of course not,” Natasha Ivanova replied indignantly, “I would have fired her at once.”
“Or did anything ever vanish inexplicably, even if you didn’t make the connection at first?”
Natasha crooked her head, sending her luscious red tresses tumbling over her shoulder. “No,” she said, “At least I do not remember.” She turned to her husband. “Did you miss anything, Zhenya?”
Yevgeny Ivanov seemed to consider for a moment. “No,” he finally said, “Not that I recall.”
“So let me get this right,” Helen said, “Ms. Hart has been working for you for five or six years now and in all that time she didn’t even nick a single pen. And yet she suddenly decides to steal a Fabergé egg worth millions of pounds, which is not even sellable on the open market? Somehow, this does not seem very likely.”
“What are you implying?” Yevgeny Ivanov demanded.
“That she didn’t do it,” Colin Simonson said wearily. Apparently, he had also come to the conclusion that the cleaning lady wasn’t a likely suspect.
“She might still be involved and of course we will question Ms. Hart most closely,” Helen said, “But right now we have no evidence that points at her.”
“But if not Eva, then who stole the egg?” Natasha wanted to know.
“That, Mrs. Ivanova, is what we’re trying to find out,” Helen said, “Objects as rare and valuable as this one are usually stolen to order. And therefore finding the client means finding the thief. So is there anybody who showed an unnatural amount of interest in the egg?”
“It’s an Imperial Fabergé egg…” Yevgeny Ivanov replied, “…and a true beauty. People are always fascinated by it.”
“But was there anybody in particular? Someone who tried to buy it from you and was declined or who bid against you during the auction?”
Yevgeny Ivanov scratched his stubbly chin. “Well, Prince Hashim of Qatar bid against me. The Qatari royal family already have one Fabergé egg and would love to have another, you see…”
Helen nodded, wondering how on Earth she was going to question a Qatari prince, if necessary.
“Then there was Hiroshi Nakamura, the famous collector from Tokyo. He already smatched up a Van Gogh, a Renoir, a Gauguin and a Monet in front of my nose and he wanted the egg, too.”
Helen nodded to DC Walker, who jotted the names down in his trusty notebook.
“And Rhonda Laurelski, the cosmetics queen, is always buying up the good pieces for her museum in New York. And of course there is the American barbarian, Sam Winslow…”
Helen raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Sam Winslow runs several casinos in Las Vegas,” Yevgeny Ivanov explained, “I have been there, for gambling. Winslow is rude, crude, crass, a typical American, if you know what I mean.”
Helen nodded, mentally moving Winslow to the top of her list. Not because he was a typically barbarian American, but because there seemed to be a lot of bad blood between him and Ivanov.
“He is also collector. Of course, Winslow cannot tell a Jackson Pollock from a finger painting…”
“That makes two of us,” Helen thought.
“…but he still thinks he knows art. He even has his own museum, in one of his casinos. Can you imagine a Rembrandt or a Vermeer on display in Las Vegas, surrounded by American vulgarity?”
Ivanov shuddered theatrically.
“He wanted to buy my Fabergé egg, even made me an offer. But I said, ‘No, you will get it over my dead body.’ He was angry then. Winslow does not like people who say no.”
But was Winslow the sort of person who would resort to theft to get what he wanted? Of course, the fact that the egg was stolen meant he could never display it in his casino museum, but would he care?
On the other hand, the inability to publicly display the egg would also rule out Rhonda Laurelski, the cosmetics queen of New York. Which left the Japanese collector and the Qatari prince.
Helen made a mental note to check out all of the rival collectors and see if any of them had ever been involved in or suspected of theft to order. Questioning, let alone charging them would still be a problem, though. They might even have to involve Interpol.
“Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Ivanov,” Helen said, “We will contact you if we have further questions.”
“This… this is all?” Yevgeny Ivanov sputtered, “You are not going to ask more questions.”
“Is it necessary to ask more questions, Mr. Ivanov?” Helen shot him a piercing glance. “Is there something you haven’t told us? Cause if there is, I suggest you tell us now.”
“What are you insinuating, Inspector?”
“Nothing,” Helen replied coolly, “You merely seem very eager to tell us something and I’m wondering what.”
“I… I have nothing to say, Inspector.” Ivanov defiantly crossed his arms in front of his chest. “I am just very interested in the status of your investigation.”
“Understandable, Mr. Ivanov,” Helen said, “However, I’m sure you’ll also understand that our investigation must remain confidential for now. Rest assured that when we locate the egg, you will be the first to know.”
Helen turned to Colin Simonson. “Mr. Simonson, might I have a word? Outside.”
Colin Simonson nodded. “Of course, Inspector.”
“Where… where are you going?” Mr Ivanov demanded.
“I’m going to continue my investigation by talking to Mr. Simonson and questioning Ms. Hart,” Helen said sweetly, “Unfortunately, you must remain in this room, while our forensics team is still working. However, Detective Constable Walker here will be pleased to fetch you a cup of coffee, while you wait.”
The Ivanovs glared at Helen, but said nothing.
“All right, so why exactly must I fetch coffee for the shouty Russian oligarch and his trophy wife?” DC Walker wanted to know as soon as they were outside.
“Because someone has to and I’m the senior officer.”
“You could always send Jackson,” DC Walker grumbled, “He’s the most junior member of the team.”
“Which is why he is currently guarding the entrance,” Helen countered, “You are of course welcome to relieve him.”
Colin Simonson cleared his throat. “Ahem, Inspector, you said you wanted a word. Because…” He glanced at his watch, which — though not nearly as pricey as Yevgeny Ivanov’s chronometer — was still rather nice. “…I have to write up my report on the theft for my employer.”
“I’ll only need a moment of your time…” Helen said, “…as well as your experience.”
Colin Simonson smiled. It was a very attractive smile. “Of course, Inspector. Cooperation is in our mutual interest.”
“I think we both agree that this was very likely a theft to order.”
“Indeed, we do,” Colin Simonson said, “An object like this — famous and in highly limited supply — is basically unsellable in the open market. And while the materials themselves do have a certain value, the artistic and historical value of the egg vastly eclipses it.”
“So what do you think of the various suspects Mr. Ivanov mentioned? How likely are they to be the mastermind behind this operation?”
“If you’re asking who’s capable of something like this, I’d say all of them. These are rabid collectors, Inspector, who are willing to do anything to get their hands onto a coveted object.”
“Including resorting to theft or at least ordering it?”
“I’d not just say they were capable of it, but that very likely they’ve all done it at one time or another.”
“What about the two who are operating museums?” Helen wanted to know, “Surely we can scratch them off the list. After all, they couldn’t display the egg publicly.”
“I still wouldn’t scratch them off the list,” Simonson said, “You see, Rhonda Laurelski primarily operates her museum as a fig leaf. Her modus operandi is to seek out works of questionable provenance in public museums and guilt the museums into returning those works to the heirs of those deemed the rightful owners. Then she turns around and buy those works up from the heirs for exorbitant sums to add them to her collection. There was a bit of a backlash about her basically removing notable works from public display, so she opened the museum. But don’t be mistaken. At her heart, she’s a collector, not a curator.
“And Sam Winslow?”
“He’s the typical American self-made man. Came from nothing, gambled his way to enough money to buy his first casino, gambled more, bought and built more casinos. He’s mainly a braggard, a show-off. He has his own museum for the same reason he has a zoo with tigers and lions and pandas on the premises of one of his casinos. To show off that he can.”
“What about the other two?” Helen wanted to know.
“Prince Hamid is very much like an overgrown kid in a toy store. He sees something and he wants it. And because he or rather his family is richer than God, he’s also willing to throw money at the problem, until someone gives him what he wants. If he’s denied his wish, he reacts very much like the kid that’s denied that third scoop of ice cream. He throws a tantrum.”
“They sound like lovely people, all of them,” Helen said dryly.
Colin Simonson shrugged apologetically. “Curse of my profession, I fear.”
“So what about the Japanese guy?”
“Hiroshi Nakamura is probably the quietest of them all. A tech billionaire with a serious fascination for European art. He’s been quietly buying up notable works at auctions all over the world for years to spirit them away to his private vault. None of the works in question have ever been seen again, once he’s bought them.”
“If you had to pick, which one of them would you say did it?”
Colin Simonson seemed to consider for a moment. “Winslow,” he finally said, “He’s got the balls to attempt something like this and the criminal contacts to pull it off. My second choice would be Nakamura, since there have been whispers about him having items stolen to order for years, though nothing ever stuck.”
“And the other two?”
“I wouldn’t exclude them completely, but this doesn’t really fit their modus operandi. Rhonda Laurelski would rather dig up a Romanov heir and persuade them to sue for restitution of the egg and Prince Hamid would simply throw money at the problem, until someone decided to sell.”
DC Walker was busily numbering and ranking the suspects in his trusty notebook. Helen smiled at Colin Simonson. “Thank you. You have been very helpful.”
Colin Simonson smiled back at her and yes, his smile was gorgeous. “Always happy to help the Met. You will keep me updated on the investigation, will you?”
The kitchen was in the semi-basement or “garden floor” in modern estate agent parlance, the same place where it has been since Victorian times. Though it had been extensively remodelled since then and now looked like something that would be more at home in the TARDIS than in a Belgravia townhouse. As Charlotte Wong had said, the walls boasted a Warhol — the soup can, what else? — a Lichtenstein — young woman whining about her boyfriend in heavy pixelation — and a Mondrian — all black lines and rectangles in primary colours.
Eva Hart, the cleaning lady, provided a stark contrast to the artistic splendour around her. She was a short, unremarkable woman in her early thirties with mousy brown hair. The only thing colourful about her was her flowered work smock. She was clearly nervous, though Helen couldn’t say whether from guilt or just because suddenly finding yourself at the centre of a police investigation tended to make people twitchy.
At any rate, she was pacing the room. When Helen and DC Walker entered, she stopped and turned to face them, pale with worry.
“Ms. Hart? I’m Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd and this is Detective Constable Kevin Walker.”
“Oh my God, I… I…”
“Do sit down please, Ms. Hart,” Helen said and pointed at the stools surrounding a granite-topped counter. Only then did she notice that one of the stools was already occupied by a little girl. She was drawing, quietly humming to herself.
“And you are…?” Helen asked the little girl.
It was Eva Hart who answered. “That’s my daughter Emily. I don’t normally bring her to work, but the kindergarten is closed because of measles and I didn’t know what to do with her.”
“It’s all right, Ms. Hart. My own niece is a few years older than Emily and I understand how hard such emergencies can be on working parents.”
Helen spotted a coffeemaker, one of those gleaming Italian machines, on the counter and turned to DC Walker. “Constable, maybe you could make that coffee we promised to Mr. and Mrs. Ivanov. And I guess Emily here would really enjoy a cup of hot chocolate.”
Emily finally looked up and beamed at Helen.
“Sure,” DC Walker grumbled, “Provided I can figure out how to work this thing.”
Helen turned back to Eva Hart. “So, Ms. Hart, for how long have you been working for the Ivanovs?”
“Six years this summer,” Eva Hart said.
“And what are they like as employers?” Helen wanted to know.
“They’re good bosses,” Eva said, “They pay well and even let me take time off when Emily was born. And they… they didn’t fire me when I almost cleaned away that rubbish in the corner that’s apparently a famous work of art by some German fellow.”
“So the Ivanovs never gave you any reason to be unhappy.”
Eva Hart shook her head. “No. I mean, I know many people like to believe the worst about Russians, particularly rich Russians. But the Ivanovs are not like that. They’re not mafiosi or anything. They’re good people. Or do you think I would bring my daughter here, if they weren’t?”
“The Ivanovs believe that you stole the egg,” Helen said.
“But I didn’t.” Eva shook her head emphatically. “I’m not a thief.”
“The Ivanovs have got a lot of very beautiful things in this house,” Helen said, “And you’ve come here every day for six long years. Surely it’s tempting to see all those pretty things every day, things you could never afford. And the Ivanovs have so much, surely they wouldn’t even miss one or two little things.”
“I don’t steal from my bosses,” Eva exclaimed, clearly agitated, “I may be poor, but I’m honest. And I’d never have taken that egg. I know how much it means to Mrs. Ivanov.”
From a corner of her eye, Helen noticed at the little girl Emily was twitching. Of course. Children were sensitive, after all, and Emily had obviously sensed her mother’s agitation. Time to do something about that.
“Calm down, Ms. Hart,” Helen said, “I actually believe you. But the fact is that there is still a very valuable object that has gone missing. And you are our best hope of finding it.”
“But I don’t know anything,” Eva Hart said, while her little daughter returned her attention to whatever it was she was drawing.
“Maybe you just don’t know what you know,” Helen pointed out, trying not to wince at the sight of DC Walker struggling with the Italian coffeemaker, “So why don’t you tell us in your own words what happened?”
“I… I came to work like every day,” Eva began hesitantly.
“Did someone follow you?”
“No. At least, I don’t think so.”
“So what happened then?”
“I switched off the master alarm system like every day. And since it’s Tuesday, that means it’s time to clean the downstairs parlour with all the artworks…”
“So you always clean the art room on Tuesdays?”
Eva Hart nodded. “I have a regular schedule about which rooms to clean on which day of the week.”
Which meant that the thief might have known when the alarm system would be switched off.
“Who knows about this schedule?”
Eva crooked her head, considering. “I don’t know. A few people. It’s not exactly a secret.”
“I’ll need a list of everybody who knows your schedule,” Helen said.
“Yes, of course.” Eva’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my God! Do you think one of them has stolen the egg?”
“Not necessarily. But I’d like to exclude them anyway.”
DC Walker emitted a curse, still struggling with the coffeemaker. The fact that Emily, the little girl, was avidly watching his every move didn’t seem to help either.
Helen just rolled her eyes. How bloody difficult could making a cup of coffee be, even on a machine that looked as if it belonged on the bridge of the Enterprise?
She forced herself to return her attention of Eva Hart. “Have you ever heard of Hiroshi Nakamura?”
Eva Hart shook her head. “I don’t know who that is.”
“Prince Hamid of Qatar?”
Eva Hart emitted a harsh laugh. “Do I look as if I know any princes?”
“How about Rhonda Laurelski?”
“That woman from Golden Laurel Cosmetics, you mean? I think I bought one of her lipsticks once. Bloody expensive and no better than the cheap stuff from Boots.”
“What about Sam Winslow? Do you know him?”
“Isn’t that the landlord of The Goose and the Gander pub in Tooting Broadway?”
Helen smiled. “Different Sam Winslow, I’m afraid. This guy is American. Owns a couple of casinos in Las Vegas.”
“Las Vegas…” Eva’s eyes grew distant. “I’d love to visit that city one day. Not going to happen in this lifetime though.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why are you asking me those questions?”
“All of the people I just asked you about are potential buyers for the stolen Fabergé egg.”
“Well, I don’t know any of them,” Eva Hart declared, “The Ivanovs are the only rich people I know.”
“So what happened after you switched off the master alarm?” Helen wanted to know.
“I went into the downstairs parlour and switched off the alarms there. Then I started working. I always dust the paintings first, then the statues and finally the objects in the display cases. And of course, I leave the rubbish in the corner alone, since it’s art.”
“That means you have to open the cases, doesn’t it?”
Eva Hart nodded. “All of the cases have a separate alarm code. I have to punch it in or they won’t open.”
“I was just dusting off the egg, when the phone rang.” Eva lowered her eyes. “I know I’m supposed to close the case and reset the alarm, when I take a break or something. But it was just a phone call. A single phone call.”
“Who was on the phone?” Helen wanted to know.
“Mrs. Ivanova’s sister. I had a bit of a problem finding out what she wanted. Her English isn’t very good, you see. Anyway, somehow I managed to make her understand that Mrs. Ivanova wasn’t in. Then I hung up, turned around and the egg was gone.”
“How long were you on the phone?”
“Not very long. Two, maybe three minutes.”
“And the door and windows were locked during this entire time?”
Eva nodded emphatically. “The Ivanovs say I must always lock the door when I’m working in the downstairs parlour for security reasons.”
“Did you see or hear anything, while you were on the phone? Anything out of the ordinary?”
“I was talking to a woman in Moscow who speaks very little English and trying to make out what she wanted. Oh yes, and I was taking notes, too.” She shook her head. “So no, I didn’t hear or see anything, cause I was kind of busy. All right, so I heard Emily playing, but that was more like background noise.”
Helen ears pricked up. “Your daughter was in the room at the time of the theft?”
Eva nodded. “Of course. I can’t possibly leave her alone in the house with all the precious and fragile things on display. Emily is a good kid, but… she’s still a kid.”
“You never mentioned that your daughter was in the room as well,” Helen said.
“I didn’t think it was important. I mean, she’s just a kid.”
“She’s also a witness,” Helen pointed out.
On cue, Emily decided to leave poor DC Walker, who had finally succeeded in making one cup of something that actually looked and smelled like coffee, alone. Instead, she watched Helen and her Mum intently.
“The kid knows something,” Helen thought, “She’s just too intimidated to talk.”
“Emily was quietly playing by herself,” Eva insisted, suddenly shifting into full-on maternal protection mode, “She was completely absorbed in her play. She didn’t see or hear anything.”
“I’d still like to talk to Emily, if I may.”
“Why? I told you she didn’t see anything.”
“But I’d like to hear that from Emily herself.”
“Mum?” Emily asked, nibbling on a biscuit. So at least DC Walker had found the biscuit tin.
Helen leant across the counter until she was face to face with Eva Hart. “Ms. Hart, I know you’re worried about Emily and believe me, I understand.”
Eva Hart defensively crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Oh, so you understand me. Are you a mother, Inspector?”
Helen forced herself to be calm. “No, Ms. Hart, I’m not a mother, but I have a niece who’s only a little older than Emily. So believe me, I have experience with children, including questioning young children.”
Eva didn’t uncross her arms. “I still don’t like it,” she said.
“But Emily might be our best chance at finding out what really happened and recovering the egg. And you do want the Ivanovs to get their egg back, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course, but…”
“What is more, Emily’s testimony could also help to exonerate you from any involvement in the theft.”
Eva Hart narrowed her eyes. “You drive a hard bargain, you know?”
Helen shrugged. “All part of the job.”
“Ahem, boss…” DC Walker interjected, “I’m finished with the coffee now. Should I take it up to the Ivanovs?”
Helen suppressed a sigh. “Yes, please do so, Constable.”
“And the hot chocolate?”
“I’ll make it.”
“He’s actually a very good investigator,” Helen said to Eva Hart, once DC Walker had left with two mugs of steaming coffee, “But unfortunately he seems to be completely unable to operate a coffeemaker.”
“Oh, I can never figure out how to work that thing either,” Eva said, “So I don’t even try, I just bring a thermos.” She turned to her daughter. “Emily? Would you please come over here?”
“Yes, Mum,” Emily said and trotted over.
“Emily, the Inspector here would like to ask you a few questions.”
Emily eyed Helen warily. Time to put the kid at ease.
So Helen crouched down until she was at Emily’s eye level. “Hi Emily. I’m Helen and I’m with the police. Do you want a cup of hot chocolate?”
“All right, so let’s see if we can make this machine work.”
Helen got up and walked over to the counter with the coffeemaker. Emily obediently followed her.
Figuring out how to get it to make hot milk was easy enough, since there was a button labelled “hot milk”. Figuring out where to find a suitable mug was a bit more difficult, but not very much, since DC Walker had already found the mugs while making coffee for the Ivanovs. The chocolate part, however, was a problem, since the Ivanovs did not seem to own cocoa powder. Or if they did, they didn’t store it in any logical place.
With a sigh, Helen reached into a pocket of her jacket to withdraw her bar of Marks & Spencer Swiss dark chocolate, which she’d saved for dessert. She broke off a generous chunk and dumped it into the mug. Then she shoved the mug under the machine, pressed the respective button and poured hot milk on top.
“That’s a funny way to make hot chocolate,” Emily remarked.
“There’s plenty of ways of making hot chocolate,” Helen replied, “And this is mine.”
She found a spoon, stirred the melting dark chocolate into the hot milk and handed the mug to Emily. “Here you are, sweetheart.”
Emily took a cautious sip. “It’s bitter,” she announced.
“Maybe we need some sugar.” Helen looked around her and actually did find a sugar pot. She took a lump and stirred it into Emily’s hot chocolate. “Better?”
Emily took another sip and smiled. “Better.”
Helen crouched down again. “So Emily, do you know why I’m here?”
“Because everybody is upset?”
“Right. And do you know why everybody is so upset?”
Emily nodded. “Because the pretty Easter egg has gone missing.”
Well, that was certainly an apt description.
“Right. The pretty Easter egg has gone missing. But the Easter egg is not just pretty, it’s also very, very valuable. And that’s why Mr. and Mrs. Ivanov want it back.”
Emily nodded thoughtfully. “Mr. and Mrs. Ivanov have many pretty things,” she said, “I really like the stick man, too.”
Another apt description, this time of the Giacometti sculpture in the art room.
“He’s so funny. But Mummy says I mustn’t touch the stick man or the other pretty things.”
“Your Mummy is right,” Helen said, “Because all of those pretty things are worth a whole lot of money.”
“How much money?” Emily wanted to know, “A hundred pounds?”
Helen shook her head. “No. A lot more than that.”
Emily’s eyes went wide. “Wow!”
“So when you went to work with your Mummy today, did you notice anything strange?” Helen wanted to know.
Emily took a gulp of chocolate. “Like what?”
“I don’t know. People following you. People who were just weird.”
Emily bit her lip. “No,” she said finally.
“And when you came here, what happened?”
Emily took a sip of hot chocolate.
“First, Mum cleaned the bedroom and the bathroom. Then we went into the room with the stick man and the pretty Easter egg and the other funny things.”
“Was there anybody else in the house except Mummy and you?”
Emily shook her head.
“So what happened when Mummy and you went into the room with the stick man and the egg?”
“Mummy started cleaning and I played with My Little Pony toys.”
“My Little Pony, huh?” Helen said, “I have a niece who’s a few years older than you and she loves that programme, too. So which pony is your favourite?”
“Twilight Sparkle,” Emily said without a second of hesitation.
“Good choice”, Helen said, “I’ll tell you a secret. Twilight Sparkle is my niece’s favourite pony, too.”
Not that Helen had any idea which pastel-coloured pony Olivia preferred — they all looked the same to her. But then Emily didn’t know that.
“Do you remember that the phone rang while you and your Mum were in that room?”
Emily took another sip of hot chocolate and nodded.
“Do you also remember what happened next?”
Emily nodded again. “Mum answered the phone. She talked very loud, because the other person couldn’t understand her. Then she hung up and screamed.”
“Do you know why she screamed?”
“Because the pretty Easter egg was gone.”
“When the phone rang, did you see anybody else in the room with you and your Mum?”
Emily shook her head.
“Did you hear anything?”
Emily shook her head again.
“Do you know what happened to the pretty Easter egg?”
Emily chewed her lip, thinking hard. “M… maybe the Easter Bunny hid it?”
Helen suppressed a sigh and imagined giving out a description of the suspect to the media. “The suspect has white or light brown fur, long floppy ears and an unnatural fondness for carrots and eggs.” Yeah, right.
On the other hand, she and her team had solved a case involving a robber dressed up as Father Christmas last winter. And if Father Christmas could turn to a life of crime, then why not the Easter Bunny?
“Did you see the Easter Bunny take the egg?”
Emily shifted from one foot to another, clearly uncomfortable. “You can’t see the Easter Bunny,” she whispered, “Or it wouldn’t be a secret.”
All right, so the suspect was not just a bunny, but an invisible bunny. This case was getting weirder by the minute.
On the other hand, Helen was pretty certain that Emily had seen something and was so disturbed by whatever had happened that she blamed everything on invisible bunnies instead. But what? Had she seen her mother take the egg? Or something else?
“Emily, you know that you must always tell the truth to the police, do you?”
Emily nodded, her cheeks flushed the colour of rosy apples. So she was hiding something.
“So have you really told me everything that happened today?”
Emily bit her lip and looked down at her feet. “But it’s a secret.”
“For God’s sake, Emily, if you know something, please say so,” Eva Hart demanded. Helen shot her a withering glare and she shut up.
“But you can’t keep secrets from the police,” Helen said to the little girl, keeping her voice calm and friendly.
“Why?” Emily wanted to know.
“Because the police must know everybody’s secrets, if necessary. That’s how we solve crimes.”
Emily looked even more uncomfortable. “Will… will something bad happen to the Easter Bunny for taking the egg?” she wanted to know, “Will he go to prison?”
Helen shook her head. “Don’t worry, we wouldn’t lock up the Easter Bunny. After all, he’s still needed. Though he would get a very stern lecture about taking eggs that don’t belong to him.”
Emily was still chewing on her lower lip. “And if it wasn’t the Easter Bunny?”
All right, so they were getting somewhere.
“Well, that depends…”
“On why whoever took the egg took it. If that person sells the egg or keeps it for themselves, then they will go to prison. If they give it back, they probably won’t.”
“And if it was an accident?” Emily whispered, still unable to meet Helen’s eyes.
“What sort of accident?”
“Maybe the egg just got lost,” Emily suggested.
“Well, if the egg just got lost, then no crime was committed, because getting lost is not a crime.”
“And no one will go to prison?”
“No crime, no prison,” Helen said, “That’s the way it works.”
Emily emitted an audible sigh of relief.
“But you must tell me where the egg is, Emily.”
Emily’s eyes were still cast down on the floor. “It’s under the sofa,” she whispered.
All right, so that was… unexpected.
Helen held out her hand. “Can you show me?”
Emily nodded. She set down her mug on the counter, took Helen’s hand and led her back into the art room. Eva Hart followed, near shaking with worry.
In the art room, Charlotte Wong was still dusting the now empty display case for fingerprints. She looked up when the door opened.
“Uhm, Inspector, I’m not finished yet.”
“That’s all right, Ms. Wong. Emily here wants to show us something.”
Helen crouched down again. “Emily, where’s the egg?”
Emily crossed the room, all eyes on her. She stopped in front of a white sofa and dropped to her knees. “There,” she said, pointing under the sofa.
“Ms. Wong, could you take a look?”
Charlotte dropped to her knees next to Emily and bent down, until her chin almost touched the carpet, and shone the beam of her torch under the sofa.
“I can see something, Inspector,” she announced, “Wait a minute.” She reached underneath the sofa, emitted a few groans and finally pulled something out.
“Wow!” she exclaimed, as she held up the object in triumph.
The egg was about the size of those big chocolate Easter eggs filled with candy and it was really very pretty. It was chequered in dark red and white and studded with pearls and topped by a golden crown.
“I… I have no idea how…” Eva Hart sputtered.
“Emily, do you want to tell us something?”
Emily shook her head.
“Emily, please!” Eva exclaimed.
“How did the egg get under the sofa?” Helen wanted to know.
“The Easter Bunny…?”
Helen took a deep breath. “Emily, I happen to know for a fact that the Easter Bunny is a very busy bunny. Much too busy to play pranks and hide Fabergé eggs.”
“I… When the phone rang and Mummy talked to that woman, I took the egg. I just wanted to take a look at it and put it back, honest. But then I dropped it and it rolled under the sofa. And before I could get it out, Mummy finished talking on the phone and then she screamed.”
“Why didn’t you tell me what happened?” Eva Hart demanded, clearly agitated.
Emily lowered her eyes. “Because you were so upset and I thought you’d be angry with me, because I wasn’t supposed to touch the egg. And I thought Mr. and Mrs. Ivanov would find the egg on Easter and then they’d think the Easter Bunny hid it and everything would be okay.”
The little girl turned to Helen, eyes full of fear.
“Will I have to go to prison, because I lost the egg?”
Helen shook her head. “No, you won’t have to go to prison.” She smiled. “In fact, I think the Ivanovs and Lloyd’s of London owe you a very large cup of ice cream.”
I hope you enjoyed this installment of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when there will be a new story available.