The Nearly Invisible Man
Monday, 20 June 2016
Hey you guys!
A big thank you to all of you who suggested ways for me to 'get out of the doldrums' regarding raising funds for this book. I've taken all of your suggestions on board and I'm working my way through them. One of them was to reword the Unbound page for this book to make it seem more attractive prospect. That's been done. I hope it works.
As it happens, something has worked as I've climbed 4% since my last shedpost a week ago. Great news! What I need to do now is somehow maintain that kind of inertia.
Someone did suggest that, once I reach a certain percentage, I dress up as my fictional lady detective, Millicent Cutter. 75% maybe. I'm game if it gets the book published!
Anyway, here's a little treat.
I've written several short stories involving characters from A Murder To Die For. I believe that it's a great way for an author to get the 'feel' of a character; how the character speaks and thinks. And, of course, any writing is good practice and flexes the writing muscles.
One such character is Detective Chief Inspector Gavin Quisty. You'll like Quisty. He's smart and clever and cocky. So here's a short story about one of his cases. If you like it, and you're not already subscribing to A Murder To Die For, why not make a pledge and find out more about him?
See you all next week!
“Draw me a bicycle, Kim.”
“Go on. Draw me a bicycle”, said Quisty. “Indulge me. I want to prove a point.”
“Whatever you say”, said Kim Woon. She produced a pen from her jacket and began scribbling on a piece of paper. Her brow furrowed.
“Having a problem there?” said Quisty.
“Just trying to remember how the pedals connect to the frame”, said Woon. “This is surprisingly difficult. Certainly more difficult than I’d have thought it would be.”
“Exactly”, said Quisty. He tapped on his smartphone and found a photo of a generic bicycle. He placed it next to her drawing.
“Hell, I was way off target”, said Woon. “I got the frame completely wrong.”
“Don’t knock yourself out about it. Most people get it wrong”, said Quisty. “Which was entirely my point. Everyone looks but very few see.”
Detective Chief Inspector Gavin Quisty and his staff officer, Detective Sergeant Kim Woon, were sitting in the security office of the South Herewardshire County Museum in Uttercombe reviewing CCTV footage from the previous 24 hours. During that time, someone, somehow, had entered the museum and stolen several important and valuable artefacts, all part of the famous Ordon Hoard.
The hoard had been discovered in a pig field near the village of Ordon in 1988 and, until 2009 and the uncovering of the Staffordshire Hoard, it had been the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. Consisting as it did of over 2000 artefacts, mostly items of war and made primarily of gold and silver, the find had caused a sensation. Archaeologists argued over why anyone would choose to bury hundreds of decorative helmets, sword-hilts and shields in a field in what was then the kingdom of Mercia, but the most popular theory was that it marked the burial of a great king or chieftain. Much of the hoard now resided in the British Museum in London, partly because it was far more accessible to the viewing public there, but mostly because of security. The Uttercombe museum was small and its security system was adequate but not extensive enough for the display of something as valuable as the hoard. As the result, all that the museum had retained was a handful of small choice pieces: some coins, a beautifully decorated sword hilt inlaid with precious stones, a helmet and various torcs, bracelets, rings and necklaces, all made of gold. All had been stolen except the helmet.
The museum consisted of several rooms, the largest of which – the Great Room in which the hoard was displayed - was at the centre of the building; a tall and windowless space with a high dome-shaped ceiling. The doors to the room were alarmed, as were all the doors and windows in the building, although the individual exhibits were not. Upon the walls of the Great Room hung portraits of notable historical Herewardians such as Elizabeth ‘Big Bessie’ Cockering the suffragette, and Sir Geoffrey Saltonstall, gentleman astronomer and animal husbandry enthusiast, whose farms had developed the Herewardshire Hog, a breed of pig famed across the world for its delicious meat and fatty bacon. It was Saltonstall who had also funded the building of the museum. There were 18th century landscapes by Morbridge prodigy Porter Angrosse and modern abstracts by Jasper Fikiss. And at the centre of the Great Room stood a large bronze composition consisting of several life-sized male figures. Henry Maypie’s The Meatmen of Goyle portrayed a group of fat, jolly and evidently affluent men all facing inwards in a circle as if in deep discussion.
The theft had occurred overnight; of that the museum staff were sure. The stolen pieces had all been on display when the museum was locked up and the alarm set. But when the museum had opened the next morning, they were gone as if evaporated into thin air. Local police had visited the site and had admitted themselves to be utterly baffled. There were no signs of a break-in, no indications of even an attempted break-in, and none of the alarms had been triggered. The museum manager had told the local newspaper reporter that it was as if they’d been robbed by the Invisible Man.
DCI Quisty had been asked to cast his enquiring eye over the case. Logical, analytic and brilliantly intuitive, he had made a name for himself country-wide and, at the age of just 32, was one of the youngest Detective Chief Inspectors in the UK.
He had begun by examining the scene of the crime. Accompanied by the museum manager and trailed by Kim Woon, his partner in both crime and the bedroom, he’d moved around the Great Room speaking into the voice recorder on his smartphone.
“Door into the Great Room bears a large number of scuff marks and scratches … similar marks on architrave and chips to paintwork …”
“Made by coat zippers and bags?” said Woon.
“Excellent”, said Quisty. “And what else can you tell me about the marks?”
“They’re lower than you’d expect them to be”, said Woon. “So, either long coats or, most likely, shorter than average people. School parties I guess?”
“We don’t guess, Kim. We surmise”, said Quisty. “And I am sure that you’re right. Unless this is the museum of choice for persons of restricted growth I think we can assume that school children are responsible for those marks. Children do tend to jostle more than adults.” He returned to his narration. “However, no evidence of door being forced open or of hinge removal.”
“Either of which would have set off the alarm”, said the manager. “All of the doors and windows are alarmed throughout the building, even internal doors like this one.”
“Just being thorough”, said Quisty. “Now, looking upwards I see no possible entry point … no skylights or windows … you’d be amazed Kim, just how many detectives never look up. In fact I’m constantly surprised by how many people in general don’t look up. My old art teacher used to implore us to always look up because that’s where you’ll find the hidden history of a building. Above the homogenous shop fronts you’ll see the Gothic folly, the neo-Georgian tomfoolery, the Victorian statues and extravagant mouldings, the gargoyles, grotesques and sculpted brickwork chimneys. You miss so much if you restrict your vision to eye level.”
“That’s particularly true here in the Great Room,” said the museum manager. “The domed ceiling is painted with a precise copy of the night sky. You can’t see it now but every star has been picked out in luminous paint and when we switch the lights off it comes to life. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”
“I remember reading about a street robber who was being chased and, being somewhat athletic, he climbed up into a tree”, said Woon. “The officers pursuing him didn’t look up and they missed him, a fact that only emerged when he gloated about it after being arrested for a different offence some months later. He’d been sat there, just five feet above their heads. Embarrassing to say the least.”
“Well, quite”, said Quisty. “I’ve often said that my art teacher probably taught me more about detective work than any police college ever did because he taught me to see. Not to look, but to see. And speaking of art, look at these magnificent swaggering jackasses.” He had stopped before The Meatmen of Goyle. “Aren’t they wonderful?”
“They’ve always struck me as somewhat pompous”, said Woon.
“Which is exactly the effect that Maypie was looking to achieve”, said Quisty. “Did you know that his sculpture is a parody of Rodin’s famous The Burghers of Calais?”
“I can see the similarity of the composition”, said Woon. “I once saw the copy they have in London next to Westminster Palace. But aren’t the Burghers all emaciated and dressed in rags?”
“Indeed they are”, said Quisty. “And I’m sure you know their story.”
“I don’t actually”, said Woon.
“Rodin’s sculpture commemorates the heroism of Eustache de Saint-Pierre and five other notables who, in order to save the port of Calais, were willing to surrender their lives”, explained Quisty. “They’d held out for a year against the English invaders – this was during the Hundred Years War – but they were eventually forced to negotiate a surrender to avoid further bloodshed. The price that King Edward III demanded in return was the lives of six prominent citizens. Six promptly volunteered and that’s why Rodin’s figures look so anguished and wear nooses around their necks. They’re anticipating their deaths. They were eventually spared of course, but their heroism has never been forgotten.”
“I’m impressed,” said the museum manager.
“Don’t encourage him”, said Woon.
“However, in stark contrast, Maypie’s sculpture is all about boasting and self-congratulation”, explained Quisty. “Most art historians agree that it’s a parody of the Burghers, isn’t that correct?”
“Indeed it is”, said the manager, pleased to have an opportunity to show off his own knowledge. “The Meatmen was sculpted just two years after Rodin’s figures went on display and the figures all have very similar poses. The piece also follows Rodin’s plan of six individual figures arranged in a tableau and sufficiently spaced apart so that everyday folk can walk in and around them. Ah, but here’s the clever thing, do you know what the sculpture is actually called?”
“I’ve only ever heard of it referred to as The Meatmen”, said Woon.
“And that’s the name that most of us use”, said the manager. “However, just as ‘The Statue of Liberty’ is the common name for the statue that is actually called Liberty enlightening the world, this piece is properly called The Bourgeoisie of Goyle. Rodin’s sculpture, meanwhile, is called Les Bourgeois de Calais. And therein lies the joke. What looks to the English to be a slight difference in spelling – a couple of extra letters tacked onto the end of a word – actually changes the meaning considerably.”
“I’m afraid my French isn’t very good”, said Woon.
“Basically, bourgeois means the middle classes, the property-owning gentry of which the Burghers were a part”, said Quisty. “Bourgeosie, by comparison, is more insult than descriptive. It means those members of the affluent middle classes who love opulence, excess and hedonism and who aren’t afraid of boast of their wealth.”
“And that’s the genius of Maypie’s work”, said the manager. “He’s contrasting Rodin’s gaunt, heroic, self-sacrificing burghers with our plump, overstuffed and pompous meat growers. Instead of anguish, we have lascivious, greasy smiles. Instead of rags we have rich frock coats and bulging waistcoats. Instead of nooses, there are moneybags. These were the men who ran the stock yards and meat markets at Goyle and they represented the wealth of South Herewardshire, which, in Regency times, was the richest county in Great Britain.”
“We were known as the meat locker of England you know”, said Quisty. “It’s a glorious work of social satire isn’t it?”
“And the best thing of all is that the men who commissioned the artwork never sussed it out”, said the manager. “Isn’t that joyous?”
“Yes it is”, said Woon. “But if you’re going to let the public wander around among these figures, you should clean them better.” She held out her hand to show a large reddish-brown smudge across her palm. “All I did was brush my hand against that porker’s fat belly. I don’t know if this is polish, Marmite or the result of a dirty protest but if that had got on my suede jacket I’d be livid.”
Quisty took hold of her hand and bowed his head to smell it.
“Now, that’s interesting”, he said, sniffing. “That’s very interesting.”
Woon had a tentative smell for herself.
“Waxy”, she said. “Or greasy. Like a candle.”
“I do apologise”, said the manager. “The bronzes are given a thin waxy coat to protect them. A professional firm comes in to do it. But nothing should ever rub off on a customer.”
“I don’t imagine for a second that you’re to blame”, said Quisty. “I suspect that it may be something else altogether.”
After he had completed his investigative tour of the Great Room, Quisty had asked to see the CCTV recordings. Frustratingly, the museum wasn’t lit at night so as soon as the museum had closed for the evening and the lights were extinguished, the Great Room had been plunged into darkness. Nothing showed on the screen except impenetrable blackness.
“It’s like that for the whole night. Whoever committed the crime did so in complete darkness”, explained the museum manager.
“Not so difficult to do if you’re a frequent visitor to the museum and know the layout”, said Quisty.
“Like a member of staff?” suggested Woon.
“Definitely not”, said the manager. “We have a small staff and I know them all extremely well. None of them would have done this.”
“Then a schoolteacher perhaps?” said Woon. “We do know that the museum gets a lot of school parties visiting.”
“Or dwarves did it,” said Quisty, smiling. “But no, there’s something else going on here. Something we’re not seeing.”
For a further two hours, Quisty watched the CCTV footage. He fast-forwarded through the eight hours of darkness and watched as a curator opened up, switched on the lights and discovered the theft. He saw police officers come and go and conduct their investigation. And then the public were let back inside. Visitors came and went, singly and in groups, all moving about the Great Room and nearly all stopping to look at the scene of the crime.
“What are you hoping to find?” said Woon. “The theft happened overnight.”
“Yes and I know how it was done”, said Quisty. “I just need one more connection, one more fact to give the idea veracity.”
Suddenly a curator entered the room and appeared to be asking for everyone’s attention. The screen went black.
“What’s happened?” said Woon.
“That’s the morning blackout”, said the museum manager. “We do it every day at 11am and 3pm. It’s when we show off Sir Geoffrey Saltonstall’s planetarium.”
"Ah, the painted ceiling,” said Woon.
“Yes”, said the manager. “It takes a few seconds for people’s eyes to adjust but once they do it’s like looking up into the clearest night sky you’ve ever seen. It’s one of the museum’s most popular attractions even though it only lasts for a couple of minutes. Health and Safety won’t let us do any longer. It has to be a complete blackout to work, you see.”
“Yes, I do see”, said Quisty. “I do see indeed.”
On the CCTV screen, the lights came back on and people rubbed their aching eyes as they made the transition back to light.
“Just as I thought”, said Quisty and he sat back triumphantly in his chair. “Were I a boastful man, I’d shout eureka right now and run naked down the street.”
“What?” said Woon.
“Look closely at the screen”, said Quisty. “What can you see?”
“I see people mooching about in the Great Room letting their eyes adjust”, said Woon.
“You’re looking but you’re not seeing”, said Quisty.
“What’s the difference?” asked Woon.
“Draw me a bicycle, Kim”, said Quisty.
Later that evening, and back in the CID office at Uttercombe, Kim Woon reflected upon the day.
“I now understand what you said about learning more from your art teacher than from the police”, said Woon. “I can’t believe I didn’t spot it.”
“It’s not your fault”, said Quisty. “You’re at the mercy of your own brain. It may be the most powerful processing engine in the known universe, handling something like 400 billion bits of information every second, but it doesn’t have unlimited capacity. We experience everything we are exposed to but we are only really conscious of around 2000 bits of data per second. That’s because we are able, quite unconsciously, to filter out most of the noise so that we don’t go bonkers from sensory-overload. Our brains also take shortcuts by creating snapshots of things; very basic impressions of what things look like for comparison and recognition purposes. So, for example, if I ask you to visualise a bicycle, you can do that easily because your brain holds a snapshot based upon all the bicycles you’ve ever seen. But if I ask you to draw a bicycle what happens? Things go horribly wrong is what happens. What shape is the frame? How do the pedals and gears work? What’s the pattern of spoking on the wheels? You may have a snapshot of a bicycle in your mind but it’s very basic and low res. It’s missing all of the fine details, the things you don’t really need to know and memorise unless it’s really necessary. Like if you’re a bicycle repairer. Or an artist who has to draw one. The ability to represent something reasonably accurately as a work of art requires you to examine a bicycle closely to see how it all fits together. You need to see it rather than just look at it. J P Loveless once said: ‘I can't teach you to be an artist; all I can do is help you learn to see.’ It takes time to learn to really see things. It’s a skill.”
“Which is why I didn’t see the extra Meatman”, said Woon.
“Exactly,” said Quisty. “You were concentrating so hard on looking for a suspect that you let your mental snapshot of the sculpture override your ability to see it.”
“It’s ridiculous”, said Woon. “I know that the sculpture has six figures. I walked all around the bloody thing yesterday. So why didn’t I notice that there were seven Meatmen on the CCTV footage before the blackout?”
“Because you filtered it out”, said Quisty. “There’s an amazing experiment – you may have seen it – where the researcher asks a subject to watch a short video clip of a basketball player and to count how many times the player scores. Afterwards they ask the subject for an answer and it’s generally correct. But then they ask ‘Did you spot the gorilla?’ After some confusion, they replay the same piece of video and, sure enough, about halfway through, a guy in a gorilla suit walks across the screen from left to right and even waves at the camera. But 90% of subjects never see the gorilla. Their brains filter it out so that they can concentrate on counting the basketball dunks.”
“I bet you’d spot the gorilla wouldn’t you?”said Woon.
“Probably”, said Quisty. “But only because I’ve learned to see.”
“And you did spot the extra Meatman.”
“I did", said Quisty. "And, all of a sudden, that greasy mark on your hand made sense. That was an important clue.”
“Have you never trod the boards, Kim?” said Quisty. “Have you never strutted and fretted your hour upon the stage?”
“I was always more of a sports girl.”
“Shame. If you had then you’d know the smell of greasepaint”, said Quisty. “And bronze-coloured greasepaint immediately made me think of those living statues you see on the High Street. After that it was simple to put two and two together. Except I couldn’t. Not quite. There was an important piece of the jigsaw missing. Namely, how did the suspect change out of his living statue costume and back again without being seen?”
“Exactly. He makes a series of visits to learn the layout of the Great Room, each time dressed differently so that he doesn’t stand out I'd imagine. On his last two visits he poses as a blind man and does the whole thing with his eyes shut, just to prove he can move around in complete darkness. Then he makes up a reversible set of clothes for the quick change and he’s ready to go. I reckon he practised it a few times, experimenting with using masks and make-up in the dark. That’s probably when he accidently got greasepaint on one of the statues.”
“So he comes into the museum as a customer and waits for the blackout. He then changes in the dark, slips on a mask, and when the lights come back on he’s a seventh Meatman”, said Woon. “But no one notices because their eyes are adjusting and because it doesn’t even occur to them to check how many sculptures there are.”
“That’s it,” said Quisty. “He’s the gorilla. Now all he has to do is stand still and wait until closing time, something he’s trained himself to do for hours on end. He commits the theft in the dark, has a little rest and then, come the morning, he’s back in position for opening time. With all the distraction caused by the theft , no one notices an extra Meatman. Then, a couple of hours of standing still later, he uses the morning blackout to remove his mask, turn his clothes inside out and he joins the museum visitors unnoticed. Quite brilliant.”
“He was audacious, I’ll give him that”, said Woon. “But, as he’s one of only four human statues in the borough, he wasn't so hard to track down and arrest. I guess he didn’t suspect that we’d work out how he did it.”
“Not guess. Surmise”, said Quisty.
"Your art teacher sounds like he was an iteresting bloke."
"he was", said Quisty. “You should take up drawing as a hobby, Kim. It trains the eye to see and focuses the mind. It teaches you to see past the superficial. You’ll learn far more about the human body by drawing it than you ever will from looking at photos.”
“I see. And will you pose for me?”
“Of course”, said Quisty. “As long as it’s not too cold a day. If I’m going to be immortalised in oils I’d like it to be when I’m at my most impressive.”
"You're assuming that I'd want you to pose in the nude?"
"Of course. You have excellent taste", said Quisty.
There you go!
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