Head Porter and I are in his office, ensconced in a large nest-like structure of College maps. Clearly fired up with excitement at the prospect of another adventure, our brave and fearless leader has sprung into action and devised something approximating a Plan. ‘Sprung’ is perhaps rather generous. A little skip into action is probably more like it. But anyway.
Head Porter reliably informs me that he has checked the ‘obvious places’ for the missing -presumed stolen – Lord Layton. Quite where these obvious places might be I did not get a chance to find out. Head Porter obviously knows a lot more about art theft than I give him credit for. But he has come up with a surprisingly logical method of searching College in the meantime. With the help of a large amount of very dusty documentation pertaining to the layout of Old College, we are finalising our strategy.
Some of the maps are so old, I was initially handling them like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls or something, but after seeing Head Porter fling them across his desk with gusto I am rather more confident in having a good rummage through. I cannot claim to make much sense of them, it has to be said, but some of the plans are marvellous creations indeed. Hand drawn with such precision and beauty, the yellowing pages before me seem to exude the air of a perfect moment in time, caught forever in the embrace of ink and paper.
Whilst Head Porter mutters animatedly and makes little notes here and there, I busy myself with pretending to understand what I am looking at. I am doing a splendid job of this when there is a knock at the door, immediately followed by the arrival of Porter.
“The Dean is on his way to see you two,” Porter says “I thought I’d better let you know.”
“Yes, thanks Porter, advance warning of The Dean is always advisable” I reply.
“We’d better hide these maps, I think” Head Porter suggests. “Porter, go and stash them in the back for now, will you? Be careful, some of those are quite old.”
Porter scoops up the maps in his short, thick arms and transports them with all the grace and reverence of a drunken pirate making off with treasure. Head Porter seems suddenly a little flustered.
“Just act normal” he says. I hate it when people say that. Act normal? Normal for what? “Just… sit down here and we’ll act like we’re having a normal conversation.”
“We should just have a normal conversation. I’m a horrible actress.”
“Right!” Head Porter exclaims. “What do we normally talk about in my office?” This is a tough one. What passes for ‘normal’ in Head Porter’s office can change daily.
“I know. Let’s talk about the weather,” I suggest. “We’re always banging on about that.”
“Excellent, Deputy Head Porter! We shall bang on about the weather.” Head Porter launches enthusiastically into an account of the effect the recent changeable climate has had on his hollyhocks. Not to mention the roses. All very interesting – but more importantly, normal – stuff. Such is his fervour for the subject, I am starting to have serious concerns for his hollyhocks, but we are interrupted at the very climax of the drama by the arrival of The Dean.
“Good lord you chaps, do you ever get up to anything other than discussing the weather?”
Head Porter artfully raises one eyebrow. That is enough to suggest to The Dean that it would be wise for him to come to the point rather quickly. Spotting this, The Dean decides that he will do no such thing and sits himself down on the remaining chair.
“To what do we owe the pleasure, Sir?” Head Porter says, smiling.
“Two things,” replies The Dean. “First thing. The first thing is that our short-listed candidates have been informed of the happy news that they are in with a shot at the chance of a lifetime to become Old College’s new Bursar. No doubt they will want to pay us a visit under the guise of tourism and I want you two to try and winkle them out, do you understand? Get a bit of a feel for them and the like. Not literally a feel, obviously.”
“Obviously” I reply.
“And what was the second thing, Sir?” Asks Head Porter, genially.
“Oh yes, the second thing,” The Dean stops in his tracks for a second as a thought comes to him. He turns to me. “Deputy Head Porter, are we still supposed to be having this affair or not? I can’t think.”
“No, Sir,” I begin slowly. “That was purely for the benefit of Junior Bursar. With him now in Tuscany I see no reason to continue the pretence.” There is the briefest, yet most awkward of silences. “Why, Sir?”
“Well the second thing is also Bursar related. I think you two can be of some assistance to me. I just thought the affair ruse might be a good cover for us getting together.” That… doesn’t make any sense. “Look, why don’t you both join me for a few drinks in my rooms after hours. Make a proper night of it, you see?”
“I am afraid I already have arrangements for this evening,” says Head Porter. He and The Dean both look at me.
“Well, I’m not coming for a drink with you,” I huff. “You’ve only got the one glass.”
“I’ll get another glass if it is really that important to you, Deputy Head Porter.”
I sigh. I see no other option. I really cannot turn down The Dean of College. I nod in acquiescence and The Dean claps his hands together. I will be seeing him at eight.
Once The Dean has left, I turn on Head Porter crossly. He had better have bloody good ‘arrangements’ to excuse him from landing me with this. Apparently, he has.
“I’m taking my daughter to dinner,” he explains, his voice quiet but content. “I could maybe try and join you after, or..?” I hold up a hand and shake my head.
“It’s fine, really” I reply. “I expect an evening drinking with The Dean will be quite interesting.”
“To say the least, Deputy Head Porter.”
Through the office window, Porter catches my eye. He is frantically waving at us with one chubby paw and with the other he jabs frantically at the CCTV screen. Such excitement and obvious joy can mean only one thing. Porter has found something on the CCTV.