By the time I get into the Lodge the next morning, Head Porter is already out and about searching the nooks and crannies of Old College that might possibly be harbouring the missing Lord Layton portrait. I would like to think that his enthusiasm for the task is behind his keen endeavours, but it is more probable that he is avoiding me after last night. What with the debacle with The Dean the night before, I do not appear to be very good company just lately.
At least Porter seems pleased to see me. He already has a steaming mug waiting for me – filled to the brim with tea so strong you could stand a spoon in it. Perfect. As I idly leaf through the Incident Book and drink my tea, he hovers around looking unusually pleased with himself. Perhaps something is afoot. I decide to put him out of his misery.
“And what is this uncharacteristic cheeriness in aid of, Porter?” I ask, with practiced indifference. Porter glances quickly around the Lodge, before edging closer to speak to me in a hushed voice.
“I think I might have made a bit of headway with our investigation, as it were, ma’am” he says, a hint of pride evident in his rich Northern tones. I raise an eyebrow and put down the Incident Book. He has my full attention. “Thing is, ma’am, I have a bit of a contact in the, shall we say, underground world of what you might call illicit trading.”
“Really?” I ask. This is indeed a surprise. “What kind of contact?”
“Well, ma’am. This pal of mine runs the second-hand shop on Shelley Street. Some quite unusual bits and bobs come through his door, you know.”
“Porter. The Lord Layton is a priceless and irreplaceable work of art. It is not some house clearance trinket. Whoever took it is very unlikely to be carting it down to the second-hand shop on Shelley Street.”
“You don’t understand, ma’am” Porter continues. “It’s not the stuff that comes through the door I am referring to. It’s the stuff that comes in… under the counter, as it were.”
“He gets to hear about all kinds of immoral transactions and that. I just thought I’d get him to keep an ear out, like.”
I allow this new information a brief moment to sink in. It would now appear that a local shopkeeper with questionable business acumen is now privy to one of the most intimate and unfortunate nuances of recent College events. One would presume that the continued success of his commercial exploits relies on some degree of discretion. One would presume.
“Porter, I am not entirely sure that sharing our woes with the guy from the second-hand shop is the best idea” I say more gently than I would like to. The poor chap looks a little crestfallen.
“He’s a canny operator, ma’am” he replies glumly. “I thought he might be able to help us out.”
I sigh and return to my tea. I am by no means comfortable with relying on the volition of a decidedly dodgy-sounding local trader, but I can see how Porter may have come to the conclusion that this was a good idea. It is at least nice to see someone making an effort, for once.
Trying to put my concerns about this recent development to the back of mind, I distract myself with the prospect of one of Chef’s celebrated bacon and sausage sandwiches. Just recently I have managed to convince him to squeeze an egg in there as well. They all said it couldn’t be done, but I have proved them wrong. It does make for quite messy eating and I have practically dislocate my own jaw to get it in my mouth, but it is a feat well worth undertaking. Yes, that could cheer me up considerably.
“Good morning, Porters!”
I look up from my tea to see a sight that is possibly even cheerier. It is The Dean, looking in fine fettle, accompanied by a rather jovial Head Porter. My, isn’t everyone jolly today?
“Good morning, Sir” I reply, offering a little salute with my mug. “You two look pleased with yourselves. What have you been up to?”
“Bonding, Deputy Head Porter” The Dean replies. “Male bonding!”
I throw a glance in the direction of Head Porter who responds with a discrete shrug of his shoulders. I am tempted to enquire as to what form this bonding has taken, but think better of it. The Dean is obviously getting a feel for the topic now and continues with gusto.
“It is crucial to the success of our investigation. We must be a tight unit, in tune with each other and with an almost telepathic connection if we are to uncover the evil genius behind the theft of the Lord Layton. And if this has got anything to do with those buggers at Hawkins College I want to bring them to book sooner rather than later. The absolute buggers!”
“Sir, we don’t know for sure that Hawkins are involved” I say, stemming the rather erratic flow of The Dean’s pronouncement. “But I admire the male bonding aspect. Very contemporary. You know Porter is in on this too, you should bond with him.”
There is a gruff spluttering and a small choking sound from the direction of Porter. We all turn to see him staring back, aghast. His moustache bristles dangerously at The Dean, who seems to lose confidence in his tact. He comes to a diplomatic conclusion.
“Well. Bonding comes in all shapes and sizes and Porter is from Yorkshire, after all” he concedes.
My eye is drawn to the doorway of the Porters’ Lodge, where two people, a man and a woman, are loitering quietly. They don’t look like tourists, certainly. They are smartly dressed and paying us a little more attention than I find comfortable. Head Porter spots them, too. He politely but firmly advises them that the College is not open to visitors until ten. They pay him scant attention and make their way towards The Dean. The Dean is not impressed.
“Didn’t you hear what the man said?” he says, firmly but not politely. “I am The Dean of College and I am asking you to bugger off.”
The gentleman, obviously not well versed in the handling of The Dean, fixes him with a condescending glare. We brace ourselves for the inevitable fury that will no doubt follow. We do not have to wait long.
“I tell you I shall not have the likes of you two cluttering up my College” The Dean is a regal shade of purple, now “Deputy Head Porter! I command you to remove these persons immediately! Throw them out!”
A command from The Dean of College is something akin to divine instruction so I move towards our unwelcome guests. The male visitor reaches into his jacket and for a moment I think he might draw a weapon. Poised to defend myself and the Lodge, I am stopped in my tracks as the gentleman swiftly extends his arm and I find myself brushing my nose against a shiny badge. Oh. Dear.
“I am Detective Chief Inspector Thompson,” the gentleman says flatly. “And this is Detective Sergeant Kirby. And we would like a word.”