“Anyone fancy a drink?” said Sid. “I think maybe we’ve earned it, don’t you?” The Elise had been chugging steadily across the Mediterranean for an hour, the four of us sitting in a vaguely anxious silence on the narrow bunks of her cabin, before the tension relaxed sufficiently for such a suggestion to be made.
“I didn’t bring any champagne,” Felicity promptly said in a defensive tone. “One doesn’t like to tempt fate.”
“That’s alright, I’m sure Captain Dupree’ll have something to offer,” suggested Sid. “All part of the service.” Preferring not to disturb the Captain, who remained at the wheel up above, he rummaged around the small galley behind the cabin stairs for a minute or two before coming up with a bottle of thick dark rum which he proceeded to pour into whatever drinking vessels he could find.
“Here’s to a job well done,” he declared, raising a chipped and grubby glass.
There was a brief pause whilst all eyes turned instinctively to the bulging black velvet bag that lay on the table between us. Then we all parroted, “To a job well done!” and downed the potent liquid to a chorus of coughs and splutters.
“Naturally we’ll try and get your cut to you as soon as we can,” Sid said earnestly to Michael and me while he poured out a second round, “but a haul like this is going to take a bit of fencing. If you could give us a few days…”
“A little longer than that I should think,” Felicity hastily cut in. “Let’s not forget why we stole the rubies in the first place. Before we can fence them we must show them to the Promethean Circle. I expect they’ll want to see them before we can be admitted as members.”
“If that lot are half as savvy as they claim to be they should know straight off who took the jewels,” growled Sid.
“Well, of course but it would be nice to have the rubies with us when we attend our first gathering, don’t you think?” said Felicity. “I thought perhaps they might make a nice centrepiece for our invitation dinner. They’re bound to arrange an invitation dinner, wouldn’t you say, just as soon as they hear that their challenge has been met?”
Sid could only shrug in reply. It was pretty obvious that his enthusiasm for hobnobbing with the social elite of the landscape’s thieving fraternity fell way short of Felicity’s but she continued her speculation undeterred. “I wonder where we shall meet,” she mused. “Paris? Rome? Somewhere a little more exotic perhaps? I have heard it said that the Circle never meet in the same place more than once. A security precaution, I presume. I only hope they give sufficient notice. One must be suitably dressed for the location…”
While Felicity drifted away into her own world of posh frocks and fancy dinners Sid turned back to Michael and me with a somewhat sheepish air. “Maybe it’ll be best if we make arrangements for forwarding your share onto you,” he suggested. “I don’t suppose you know where you’ll be headed next, do you?”
“Well, our first move as soon as we get off this boat will be to head straight back to the Riviera,” I told him.
Sid’s expression creased into a puzzled frown. “But I thought you’d already destroyed that hidden room above the Oyster Bar.”
“We did but hidden rooms are no longer our business,” I explained. “It turns out that Sturridge has already escaped from his trans-dimensional prison.”
“Really?” said Felicity, snapping out of her society day-dreams. “How?”
“I don’t exactly know how,” I admitted, “but I know he’s escaped cos I saw him just this afternoon on the harbour-side.”
“Didn’t you ask him how he’d got out?” said Sid.
“I didn’t get the chance.”
“Well, when I called out to him he just sort of turned around and walked away,” I rather awkwardly confessed.
“But you’re sure this was your guy?” said Sid doubtfully.
“I’m positive,” I insisted.
“Have you seen him too?” Felicity asked Michael.
“No, only Natasha has.”
There was a rather unseemly haste to the way Michael issued this disclaimer, as though he were especially eager to distance himself from the whole Sturridge-spotting issue. I turned and glared at him.
“But I didn’t,” Michael repeated to me, spreading his arms in a defensive gesture.
I glared at him a little longer, rather put out by his lack of support, before turning and adding to the others. “Anyway, it was definitely Sturridge. I know because I’d already seen him the day before in the hotel storeroom.”
“What on earth was he doing in the hotel storeroom?” asked Felicity.
“I don’t know.”
“You never mentioned this at the time,” she remarked thoughtfully.
“I told Michael.”
“To be accurate you said you thought you’d seen Sturridge in the hotel storeroom but you weren’t sure,” corrected Michael.
“Well it was kind of crowded and there was a lot going on at the time,” I pointed out. “We’d just discovered two dead men in the fridge – I don’t think you can blame me for being a bit distracted.”
“Yet you insist now that it was Sturridge?” Felicity clarified.
“Yes!” I snapped, increasingly irked by this apparent determination on everyone’s part to disbelieve me.
“Oh well, I suppose you know your own friend,” Sid mused doubtfully. “But you really ought to be careful about showing your faces around the Hotel Majestic again before the heat’s died down. If it were me I’d think twice about going back to the Riviera on a whim.”
“This is not a whim!” I all but yelled.
A rather awkward silence fell in the wake of my outburst. Michael, Sid and Felicity exchanged none-too-discreet glances that were clearly intended to share doubts about either my sight or my sanity. I was just about to launch into a robust defence of both when Sid forestalled me. “Wait a minute. Do you hear that?” he said.
“I can’t hear anything,” said Michael.
“Exactly,” said Sid. “The engine’s stopped.”
He was quite right. At some point during our debate about the validity of my Sturridge sightings the heavy throb of the Elise’s engine had ceased.
“Why would the engine stop?” asked Felicity. “We can’t possibly have reached land yet, can we?”
Sid shook his head tersely.
“What’s that?” said Michael.
Another sound now seeped through the silence, rather quiet and distant to begin with. It was another engine, smoother and sleeker than the Elise, and it was growing steadily louder, suggesting that whatever vessel it belonged to was headed straight for us.
“Who can that be?” Felicity murmured nervously. “The police? The coastguard?”
The roar of this new engine continued to grow until, just when it seemed almost on top of us, it cut out abruptly. The Elise gave a sudden jolt as the unknown vessel drew up alongside.
“Whoever it is, Dupree will deal with them,” muttered Sid in a low voice but he fixed his eyes nonetheless on the top of the cabin stairs with a grimly determined expression.
There came the sound of footsteps and a few brief words being exchanged up above in muffled voices. Then, after an almost interminable pause, the cabin door creaked slowly open and a figure began to steadily descend the narrow stairway. You can probably imagine my utter astonishment when I realised that the figure belonged to none other than the man we had just been discussing, Sturridge himself.
My first reaction to this wholly unexpected intrusion was to turn to my colleagues beside me and utter a loud, satisfied “Ha!”, feeling that this was pretty conclusive proof that I was going neither blind nor off my rocker. But the “Ha!” soon died on my lips when I realised that Sturridge was holding a gun in his hand, a gun that he happened to have trained in a quite casual but decidedly deadly fashion upon the four of us. As Sturridge came to a halt at the foot of the stairs my triumphalism died a little further as I noticed Captain Dupree looming in the doorway above him, also pointing a pistol in our direction.
“What the hell is this…?” Sid angrily began.
He was interrupted by Michael exclaiming, “Sturridge! What on earth are you doing here?”
“This is Sturridge?” said Felicity in surprise. “The man we’ve just been talking about?”
“I am glad to see that my reputation has preceded me,” announced Sturridge rather grandly. “It will no doubt make things simpler.” His words had a strange, slightly plummy tone to them, as though he were putting on his Sunday best voice.
“Sturridge, what the hell is going on?” I demanded.
“Ah yes, I saw you at the harbour, didn’t I?” said Sturridge, his eyes sweeping over me with a lightly appraising gaze. “I’m afraid you have me at something of a disadvantage young lady. Though you are familiar with my name, I do not know yours.”
“Don’t be daft. It’s me, Natasha!” I replied.
“I hope you will forgive me, Natasha, if I dispense with the usual ‘getting to know you’ formalities,” said Sturridge with a slight nod of the head. “They would be rather pointless as I am afraid our acquaintance is destined to be a brief one.”
“Getting to know you formalities?” I repeated, growing ever more bewildered. “What are you talking about?”
“Are you quite alright Sturridge?” Michael asked solicitously. “You haven’t had a bump on the head or anything like that, have you?”
“I’m perfectly fine thank-you,” retorted Sturridge, seeming a little put out by the unexpected question.
“So tell us, how did you escape from the trans-dimensional prison?” I eagerly asked.
Now it was Sturridge’s turn to look bewildered. “Prison? I can assure you I’ve been in no prison,” he declared somewhat huffily. “They haven’t caught me for anything yet and, what’s more, they never will.”
“Natasha’s talking about the building in which the Explorer’s Club trapped you and then scattered across the landscape,” Michael helpfully explained. “Were you aware that we’ve been trying to rescue you? You must have noticed the disappearing rooms.”
Sturridge’s brow only furrowed deeper and deeper until finally he shook his head dismissively. “There seems to have been some kind of misunderstanding,” he insisted. “You people clearly seem to be under the mistaken impression that we have met before.”
Michael and I exchanged glances.
“Amnesia?” suggested Michael to me in a low voice.
“Most likely,” I murmured back to him.
“Try to remember, Sturridge,” I urged in a clear, encouraging tone. “I met you before you entered the landscape when you came to visit my class in Bristol. Then we followed you after you came through the door in the wall. You enlisted our help against the Explorer’s Club.”
Sturridge thought about this for a moment or two. “You say that we met outside the landscape?” he said slowly.
“That’s it! In the Student Union bar first of all,” I went on. “You skipped out of a talk you were supposed to be giving and we went to the pictures instead.”
A light of recognition seemed to be slowly dawning in Sturridge’s eyes. “Ah, I see. Then you must think that I am CJ Sturridge.”
“Well you are,” I insisted, before adding, a little more falteringly, “aren’t you?”
Sturridge smiled. “I am sorry to disappoint you but I am in fact RL Sturridge.” He paused for dramatic effect. “CJ Sturridge’s evil twin.”
“Evil twin!” exclaimed Michael.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I protested. “Nobody actually has an evil twin.”
“This is the landscape of the imagination young lady, everybody has an evil twin,” declared Sturridge (or rather Evil Sturridge as I should perhaps call him from now on in order to distinguish him from the original). “Even you.” He looked me up and down with a supercilious eye. “Though I suspect yours is probably to be found in some dreary provincial town, committing some kind of minor tax fraud.”
“Oy!” I said, the surprises of the past few minutes leaving me incapable of any more coherent objection to this outrageous slur.
“And now that we have that little matter cleared up, I think it’s time I took my rubies,” announced Evil Sturridge, shifting his gaze to the black velvet bag on the table. He flicked his gun menacingly. “Hand them over.”
“Listen, I don’t give a damn who you think you are.” Sid, who had been following the discussion so far with an increasingly confused expression, suddenly snapped to attention. “But what’s in that bag definitely ain’t yours.”
“I’m afraid I must beg to differ,” returned Evil Sturridge, entirely unperturbed. “I have put a lot of time and effort into acquiring those jewels.”
“You’ve put a lot of time and effort into acquiring them?” spluttered Felicity. “I don’t know where you get that idea from. We’re the ones who have just stolen them from the Hotel Majestic. I don’t recall you being involved at all.”
“You’ve put in a fair amount of the legwork, I’ll concede that,” Evil Sturridge smoothly replied. “But I think you’ll find that I have the stronger claim. After all, I came up with the plan for stealing them.”
Sid snorted derisively. “I don’t think so. Listen mate, that plan was the work of me and Fliss and nobody else.”
“Ah, but you see it was my plan to use your plan,” declared Evil Sturridge. “Which makes the jewels mine.”
“What the hell…?” muttered Sid, utterly confused.
“Think about it,” urged Evil Sturridge. “Who gave you the idea to lift the rubies in the first place? More importantly, who smoothed your way at crucial moments?”
“Smoothed our way?” repeated Felicity uncertainly.
“Precisely,” said Evil Sturridge. “I’m sure you’d have found the business a good deal harder if all those other thieves who were also after the jewels hadn’t fallen so conveniently out of the running at just the right moment.”
“You’re not saying…?” murmured Sid.
“You see, at the point when it occurred to me that I was going to need the Dirwali rubies it also occurred to me what a bore it would be to have to go about stealing them myself,” Evil Sturridge continued. “I find all that dressing up and running around quite tiresome these days. So I thought perhaps I would get someone else to do the menial labour for me. It all proved quite simple really. I simply put the word out on the criminal grapevine and then watched and waited. As matters progressed I eliminated those schemes I felt weren’t quite up to scratch, leaving the field clear for the best-placed team to complete the job.” He paused to offer us a particularly self-satisfied smile. “Rather a neat plan I’m sure you’ll agree and quite definitely my plan.”
“So all those other thieves that died – Dietmar the Rat, Bruno & Lang, La What’s-her-face – that was you?” I clarified, feeling somewhat disturbed by just how evil Evil Sturridge was proving to be.
“Of course,” confirmed Evil Sturridge with a casual nod. “You should probably feel quite proud of yourselves to have come this far. I was obliged to eliminate some almost-quite-talented thieves along the way.”
“Do you really mean to say you killed all those people for a place on the Promethean Circle?” said Felicity in an awestruck tone that fell somewhere between horror and admiration.
Evil Sturridge let out a suitably evil laugh. “My dear lady, there is no place on the Promethean Circle! I simply put that out to ensure a decent number of bids.”
It was as though somebody had let the air out of Felicity. She seemed to visibly deflate before all our eyes. “But…” she said, stopped, tried again with another, “but…”, then faltered again.
“I’ll be honest, I was quite surprised at the number of thieves who were enticed by the prospect of joining that pathetic organisation,” Sturridge added, taking an obvious delight in rubbing salt into Felicity’s wounds. “They have always seemed to be me to be a particularly unappealing bunch of self-regarding amateurs but I suppose each to his own.”
“If there’s no place on the Promethean Circle what do you want the rubies for anyway?” demanded Sid. “If it’s money you’re after you’d be better off robbing a bank. By the time you’ve re-cut the jewels for the black market you’ll get barely a quarter of their true value.”
“But I have no intention of re-cutting the rubies,” replied Evil Sturridge. “I want them just as they are.”
“I’m not sure they’ll suit you,” I snidely remarked, still smarting somewhat from the comment about my evil twin.
“Probably not,” conceded Evil Sturridge with a cold smile, “but they are more to me than mere decoration. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the curse of the Dirwali rubies.”
“You want the rubies because they’re cursed?” said Michael uncertainly.
“An effective curse is a rare thing indeed, even in the landscape of the imagination,” replied Evil Sturridge lightly. “In the right hands it can be a powerful weapon indeed.”
There was a brief pause whilst we all stopped to wonder how exactly you might weaponise cursed jewellery.
“Anyway, that’s quite enough chit-chat for now,” Evil Sturridge suddenly declared. He flicked his gun in the direction of Sid who happened to be standing closest to the table. “Time to hand over the jewels.”
Sid looked uncertainly from the muzzle of the gun to the bag of jewels and back again. Then he lifted his gaze over Evil Sturridge’s shoulder and called out to Captain Dupree, still lurking in the doorway above, “So you were planning to sell us out this whole time, eh Dupree?”
“I had a better offer,” replied the Captain with an indifferent shrug. “It’s just business, nothing personal.”
“Judas!” growled Sid.
“Yes, yes, that’s enough stalling for time,” cut in Evil Sturridge impatiently. “Hand over the rubies.”
Sid turned reluctantly back to the bag on the table. As he lifted his hand very slowly towards it his eyes slid along ever so slightly to where the half-empty rum bottle stood beside it.
It was a glance that did not go unnoticed. “Try something if you must,” announced Sturridge with a heavy sigh. “But you should remember that I’ve already killed four people for these jewels. It will be no skin off my nose if I am obliged to add another four to that number.”
Still Sid hesitated. There could be no doubting that Evil Sturridge was every bit the ruthless killer he claimed to be and if he chose to start shooting in the narrow cabin he would probably find it harder to miss than to strike his targets, yet Sid still couldn’t quite bring himself to give up our hard-earned bounty.
Eventually it was Felicity who stepped forward, grabbed the bag out from under Sid’s hovering grasp and thrust it at Evil Sturridge. “Here, just take it,” she said unhappily.
“Thank-you my dear,” said Sturridge with a sarcastic smile. “If anyone moves a muscle, shoot them,” he called up over his shoulder to Captain Dupree but his words were wasted. As he turned and climbed swiftly up the stairs we were all too stunned to contemplate any action. At the top of the stairs Evil Sturridge paused to give us one last sly wave. “Pleasure doing business with you,” he called out, displaying his ill-gotten gains to us with one final flourish before he slipped away, slamming the cabin door shut behind him.
We remained frozen like statues as we listened to footsteps moving away across the deck. We heard what sounded like Captain Dupree and Evil Sturridge climbing down into the second boat before the engine started up with a soft growl. There was a long, rather unnerving pause and then all four of us jumped as several sharp retorts like the sound of gunfire cut through the quiet night air. There was another brief pause and then the second boat roared away across the sea, leaving us in silence.
It was a minute or two more before anyone felt able to move. Then Felicity slumped with an anguished moan onto one of the bunks at almost exactly the same moment as Sid darted up the stairs to check the cabin door. “Locked and bolted,” he announced, giving it an exasperated thump before slinking dejectedly back down the stairs.
“Were those shots we heard?” Michael asked uncertainly. “Who do you suppose they were aimed at?”
“Maybe your friend decided that Captain Dupree had outlived his usefulness,” suggested Sid hopefully.
“In case you weren’t following, that guy was no friend of ours,” I pointed out. “He was the evil twin of our friend.”
“Whoever he was, he’s landed us right in it,” complained Sid. “Adrift in the middle of the Mediterranean in this tin bath, it could be hours before anyone spots us. Days even!”
“Can’t we signal to somebody?” suggested Michael, nodding towards the admittedly rather dilapidated-looking radio that sat on a desk by the galley.
“I’ll bet you ten to one that thing doesn’t work,” said Sid gloomily.
“It’s got to be worth a try,” insisted Michael and, going over to it, he began randomly flicking at switches and fiddling with dials.
While Sid joined him, still muttering darkly, I turned towards Felicity. She sat on the bunk, shoulders hunched, gazing disconsolately at the empty spot on the table where the bag of jewels had so recently lain. I was just trying to summon up some words of consolation when I was distracted by a disturbingly familiar feeling of dampness in my shoes. I crouched down to investigate.
After peering into the shadows beneath the bunk for a moment I let out a worried exclamation. “Oh bollocks!”
“What’s the matter?” asked Michael.
I looked up. “I just found out who got shot,” I told him, gesturing to everyone to come look. “And it wasn’t Captain Dupree. It was his boat.”
As the others ducked down alongside me I pointed out the neat row of bullet holes along the hull through which a steady stream of water was now pouring.
“Oh hell!” murmured Sid.
“That doesn’t look good,” remarked Michael with a nervous gulp.
“We’d better hope it doesn’t take days or hours for another boat to spot us,” I remarked. “Cos at this rate the Elise will be at the bottom of the Mediterranean long before then and us with it!”
To be continued…