Mrs Bennett

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“Have you ever been to Egypt Mrs Bennett?”

“Yes, I have. Our father took us on a tour of all the major sites in Egypt when we were children.”

“All five-star hotels and hot and cold running servants, I’ll bet.”

Scarlett was already on guard, and under normal circumstances, she would not have made this arrangement, but these were not ‘usual circumstances’, so here she was.

“You can waste time denigrating my family if you wish, but need I remind you that you called me, and it was you who asked to meet.”

Appearing to be only vaguely interested in the proceedings was a ploy that Sam had taught her. ‘If you seem too eager, the seller will know they have the upper hand.’ Sam knew about this kind of thing. It was a big part of his life until he had met her. Getting information from someone who does not want to give it up without a fight, is a skill learned after many a bruise.

“I don’t know what ‘denigrate’ means, but if it means hanging shit on rich people then that’s me. But, you are right, I did ask you here. I want to help you, Mrs Bennett. Word is out that you are looking for the reason behind the attack on your husband.”

“What is this ‘help’ going to cost me? Or are you going to pass it on for free because you would not like to become one of those rich people that you despise?”

“I don’t have a problem being a little bit rich.”

“I can make you a little bit rich but only if your information leads me to the people I’m looking for, and answers to all of my questions. Right now I don’t know what is going on so if I walk out that door I am no worse off than when I got here. So why don’t we stop dancing around each other, and you tell me what you know, and I’ll tell you what it is worth.”

Their conversation lasted exactly thirty-four minutes and at the end of it Scarlett wrote an amount on a piece of paper and pushed it towards the slightly dishevelled woman sitting across from her. Scarlett had seen this done in a movie, and she had always wanted to do it and now she could. The slightly dishevelled woman had apparently seen the same movie because she read the amount and nodded meaningfully.

Scarlett reached into her bag and pulled out a post office box key. She slid this across the worn Laminex table.

“This is the key to box 237 at the Belgrave post office. Half the money will be in that box tomorrow. You take the money and leave me the rest of the information that you promised. When this problem has been resolved, I will put the rest of the money in the box. But you had better hope that this information leads me to the people I am looking for because I have powerful friends, and they would not like to see me being taken for a ride. It’s your choice; be rich because you held up your part of the bargain, or be hounded by the authorities for being a crook and a con-woman.”

Scarlett’s threats were idle. She just wanted to find the people who hurt Sam; revenge on a scruffy woman who was probably taking her life in her hands by passing on information was not on her agenda. If it all worked out, she planned to add a little extra money to the pile. It was only money after all. If her information led to Sam’s tormentors, then it would be worth every penny.

“Belgrave! That’s the middle of bloody nowhere. Why did you have to make it bloody Belgrave?”

“You live ten minutes from Richmond Railway Station, and Belgrave is the last stop on the line. Even if you fall asleep, you cannot miss your station. And besides, you can take a trip on Puffing Billy while you are there, or get an excellent cup of coffee at Reel Cafe, or pizza at La Colina. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and you look like someone who could use a bit of beauty in her life.”

The last time Karen Clark’s house had been cleaned Queen Elizabeth the second was being crowned. Sitting in her kitchen was necessary, but leaving it was a relief.

~oOo~

Finally, a break in the gloom.

Karen Clark had popped up out of nowhere, and the information she gave was enough to start with. In a couple of days Scarlett would have it all, and if it were as good as the scruffy Ms Clark said it was, it would lead to the reason and the people behind Sam’s near death experience.

Scarlett travelled directly from her meeting and deposited the first half of the money in the Belgrave post office box. She could have waited until the next day, but her excitement carried her forward. The hardest part would be to wait for two more days to receive the balance of the information.

Scarlett walked the few steps to the Laughing Owl Cafe, ‘the cafe with a conscience’, and sat outside with her ‘long black’ and tried to work out her next move. “I wonder how all the cafes without a conscience live with themselves?” asked Scarlett with a smile. Belgrave was alive with the late lunch crowd and a few mums grabbing a coffee before the onslaught of collecting their children from school. She could hear Puffing Billy arrive at the station, and soon a surge of tourists would flood the main street.

~oOo~

Erstwhile Antiquities was situated at the top end of Collins Street; the so-called Paris End.

Any two items in its sparsely stocked interior would account for the price of a modern two bedroomed apartment.

Scarlett was no stranger to such exclusive establishments, and she knew that her presence would not arouse suspicion. She didn’t have all of the information but she did know that this shop was at the heart of the mystery.

Many of the pieces being offered for sale were of disputed origin. A hundred or more years ago thousands of objects were looted from countries that were colonised by the major European powers.

Egypt was a favourite target, and the West’s fascination with all things Egyptian fuelled the frenzy.

In modern times, governments have strict laws governing the removal and sale of such items, but the rich have their rules, and they always have.

From the price tags, none of which were on display, (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it) you would think that the owners could live comfortably for several months every time the cash register rang, but selling these items wasn’t the problem; obtaining sufficient stock was the big problem.

The shop itself had been there since the mid-1880s, and along the way, it’s highly polished copper framed windows had seen Melbourne grow to be one of the most sophisticated cities in the world. Its brash older sister was slightly larger, but she would never have the class that Melbourne had, and it drove her crazy. Sydney had the Opera House, but Melbourne would remind them that not a single original work had been written to be performed there; most of the artists and most of the money was in Melbourne.

Scarlett needed to see for herself but in reality there was not much to be seen. The shop was well presented, but the lone staff member seemed to be remarkably ill-informed.

“Do you have any Egyptian artefacts other than the ones on display?” asked Scarlett

“Not at the moment madam, Egyptian pieces are hard to source.”

“Can I ask where the Ankh came from?”

“I’m sorry madam, which piece were you referring to?”

A salesperson in an antiquities shop should be able to recognise an Ankh.

“The gold cross-shaped piece in the showcase. Do you know where it was found?”

“Oh, that. I’m not sure. I’ll have to look it up.”

“Don’t worry about that for the moment. May I have a look at it please?” said Scarlett.

“Certainly madam.”

As the young woman walked over to the antique glass display case, Scarlett noticed the storeroom door open. An ugly looking man with a three-day growth looked out briefly before closing the door. He looked out of place in such a high-class establishment as did his friend who was stacking something into a box.

Scarlett handled the Ankh, made the appropriate noises and left the store. Collins Street shops are serviced by a labyrinth of laneways which dated back to a time when tradespeople were kept away from the front door.

Scarlett did not have to walk very far to find a narrow laneway which led to an even smaller laneway which ran across the back of the Antiquities shop. A small van was parked, and one of the ugly gentlemen was putting a box into the back of it. The van didn’t appear to have any markings, but Scarlett photographed it for future reference.

~oOo~

The taxi driver was beginning to wonder who he was waiting for when the unmarked white van emerged from the lane way.

“The white van, can you follow it please?” Scarlett was excited, but it was no time to abandon her manners.

The taxi driver didn’t bat an eyelid. Maybe it happens all the time, in any case, he knew what he was doing, and the van driver didn’t spot that he was being followed. Their journey took them to Doncaster and just as the driver was about to point out the total on the meter, the white van pulled into the driveway of an enormous house on Elizabeth Street, only a few doors up from the Water Lily Farm. Scarlett took note of the address, but she felt she had pushed her luck enough for one day, so she asked the driver to take her home. All through the pursuit and on the journey home, the driver said nothing. In the annals of taxi driver history, this was a first.

“You are very quiet for a taxi driver?”  said Scarlett.

“Yes, missus.”

“Any particular reason?”

“Yes, missus. My wife says I’m boring when I talk, so I tend to keep my mouth shut most of the time.”

When he got home that night, the taxi driver had a story to tell and a bundle of money to show for what should have been a quiet day. He took his wife out for dinner at their local Indian restaurant. He ordered chicken tandoori, and she had butter chicken. They drank wine, and his wife didn’t think he was boring that night.

~oOo~

Scarlett waited two days before she checked the post office box. There was an envelope stuffed with papers and a note wishing her good luck.

She sat at Cafe Reel and carefully read through the information. The cafe was quiet, and no one seemed interested in her.

She didn’t know who Bill Deaks was, but it would not take her long to find out, she was not the only person who wanted to catch Sam’s tormentor.

As it turned out, Bill Deaks was into all sorts of nefarious goings on. His favourite pastime was collecting rare items. He built his collection while brokering deals for people with more money than they could possibly spend.

Word had it that he had gotten his hands on the Archibald Ankh. It was so named because Reginald Archibald looted it from the Great Pyramid of Giza in 1932. The Ankh disappeared when Archibald was killed. He was waiting in a cafe in Cairo when someone silently slipped a dagger between his ribs. Everyone thought he was drunk, so it took more than an hour before he was discovered. According to the staff, and particularly the bartender, his customer never arrived, and no one remembers anyone else sitting at that table. Bartenders are notoriously unreliable.

There were alleged sightings every few decades, but the Archibald Ankh never surfaced in public, let alone come up for sale. It was widely believed that it was in one of two private collections — the Tilbury or the Westfield collections. Both collectors were now old or near death and both had a reputation for taking rather than paying for items with a checkered history. Archibald was reputed to be asking a vast fortune for his Ankh, and it got him killed.

Her scruffy informant had done well, and Scarlett momentarily wondered how she came by such detailed information. She put the fat envelope into the P.O. box and gave it a pat for good luck. The dishevelled Ms Clark had earned her money. Scarlett doubted she would spend it wisely. Most probably she would splash it around and draw attention to herself. Assuming that Bill Deaks was not a complete idiot, he would probably work out that something was up, and a beating was coming her way. She’d eventually confess her deal with Scarlett, which would end her life. Scarlett could see it unfolding like a cheap movie, and she was powerless to stop it. Her concern was how long this scenario would take to play out. If she got lucky it might take weeks; unlucky and it could be days. Either way, she needed to move quickly.

Instinct told her that Deaks did not yet have the Ankh, and it also told her that Sam probably knew where it was. Deaks was probably waiting for Sam’s memory to return.

Assuming her theories were correct, it did not make any sense for Deaks to try and kill Sam. She was hoping that he wanted Sam alive, and the accident was just that — an accident.

Finding the missing Ankh seemed like a good idea, “But where does one start.”

Scarlett realised that her last thought was said out loud, and the girl mopping floors looked at her as though an answer was required.

“Sorry, just thinking out loud,” said Scarlett.

“That’s okay; I do that all the time. Drives my husband crazy, but he’s a bastard, so I don’t care. Oops! There I go again.”

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