SET THE WORLD ON FIRE
‘Morning love. I brought you a drink.’
The covers erupted and the tousled hair emerged from the snowy drifts of duvet.
‘Mmm. Thanks. God! What time is it?’
‘It’s okay you aren’t going in today remember? Holiday? ’
The look of mild panic disappeared, replaced by a smile.
‘Oh yeah. I forgot.’ she looked at the clock. ‘You should have woken me earlier.’
I put the tea on the bedside table and sat on the bed next to her.
‘I thought you deserved the lie in. You needed it after that case.’
Her eyes clouded for a second at the thought of the Minassian case, over three years in the investigation, preparation and trial.
‘Hey, you won remember?’ I leaned over and kissed her forehead where the worry lines had started to form. They disappeared and light flickered back in her eyes.
‘Oh yes. Hooray for me.’
‘I thought you’d have taken a bit of leave right after the decision.’
‘Few things to tidy up.’ She said sipping tea.
‘So, the day to ourselves.’ I let my hand slide over the curve of her hip beneath the covers. ‘Whatever will we do all day?’
‘Gardening? Have a think where we are going to put the stuff when we get it out of store?’ She took another sip of tea. ‘Not what you’re thinking anyway.’
She put the tea down and let her hand rest high up on my thigh. ‘Not until I’ve had a shower and breakfast anyway.’
Breakfast was a longer affair than I would have wished it to be and the post which arrived during the meal rather put the lid on my lascivious plans for the day. The post had started arriving earlier again since a reorganisation of the delivery routes. We had been on the end of one of their rural circuits and mail arrived in the early afternoon when we had bought the place. It wasn’t really a problem as the days of needing urgent responses to business post has largely disappeared with digital communications. Someone had shaken things up at Royal Mail however and we were now getting mid morning deliveries.
On the bright side, our schedule got cleared really quickly. The down side was somewhere in Manchester a huge warehouse full of storage units had gone up in flames and removed the need to think about where to put our belongings in the new house.
One of Charlie’s hands held the letter and the other was clamped over her mouth which had opened wide in shock. I came round the table, held her by the shoulders and kissed her head. We read the letter from the storage company.
The bad news was the place was wrecked. What had survived the flames had been ruined by the smoke and then drenched beyond recovery by the fire brigade stopping the fire spreading to neighbouring industrial units.
The company was pleased however to inform us that our insurance was valid and that an assessor had made a valuation based upon our estimate of the listed goods. The company was pleased to pay a claim amounting to the estimate in full. If we were happy to accept this we could sign the enclosed form, and payment would be made within fourteen days.
That seemed suspiciously easy to me. I was used to insurance companies arguing, challenging, dragging their feet and paying up, if ever, years down the track. I said as much to Charlie.
She didn’t reply. I could understand her shock but the hand clasped over her mouth seemed unusually dramatic for her. She was in control of her life and her emotions and when surprises did occur, she took them in her stride. Take the Minassian case. A simple charge of exporting ancient artworks without the correct licence had spiralled in a matter of days to cross Europe trafficking, then illegal importing to Europe, looting of protected sites in the Middle East and Caucasus region and possible war crimes. Each escalation had elicited a sigh and fresh paperwork. Even the pictures and testimony of murder, rape and slaughter from warzones to the back streets of Italy hadn’t caused any display of emotion as overt as the one I saw now.
The things in store were not the most important things in our lives. That’s why they had been in store. Sure both of us had things in there from our childhoods, but they weren’t, or so I had imagined, things whose loss would be world shattering. Maybe I was wrong.
‘Never mind sweetheart, we’ll get what we need with the insurance. And now we don’t have to try and fit my parents’ hideous sideboard in somewhere.’ I said trying to make light of it. I tried giving her a reassuring hug, but her shoulders were rigid and it was like squeezing a clothes horse.
She touched my hand. ‘How long will it take us to get to Manchester?’
The M5, M6 interchange had been insane as usual, but at least we didn’t hit it at rush hour so it only took us about fifteen minutes to crawl through rather than the half an hour plus I’d expected. Before we set out I’d asked all the questions you would, the main one being of course, “Why?”, but I hadn’t got any sensible answers. I’d insisted on ringing the insurers before we set out. They hadn’t been as much of a deterrent as I had hoped. They didn’t think the site was open, but they didn’t see any harm asking at the place itself. It has been a suspected crime scene, but the police had released it back to the owners. They and the fire brigade had done all the forensics they needed. The assessors and adjustors had been over the place and the insurance company didn’t think there would be any point in looking at a scene of smoky carnage, but they didn’t have any objection to us trying.
I suspected the intention was rather more than just looking but I kept that bit to myself and ended the call.
‘They think it was arson. Probably some sort of insurance scam.’
‘I thought so. The arson I mean.’
She accelerated smoothly through the traffic, avoiding the crush to get off at the Wolverhampton turn off.
‘What are we going to do when we get there?’ I asked again. Even I was getting bored with this line of questioning, but I was even more frustrated by the lack of a convincing answer.
‘I just want to have a look, okay?’ she said for the umpteenth time.
I slumped down into my seat again.
‘Hell of a way to spend a day off.’
It looked a lot worse in the ashes than it had sounded in the letter. The complex had been part of an old set of warehouses from the late nineteenth century, repurposed successively over the years as light engineering works, wholesale fabric outlets, dodgy import export stores and latterly units catering for the mass expansion of the ownership of things. Things too numerous, too cumbersome, too unwanted to fit in modern homes, but not unwanted enough to be binned forever, just yet. A limbo for consumer capital acquisition.
A large car park next to the skeletal remains of the main building had been jammed with containers, part of a self store facility. The entrance to the whole compound was through a wire link fence locked with a thick chain and a massive padlock. The remains of blue and white police tape fluttered from the posts either side of the gate.
There were no obvious signs of life and even if there were people inside, which seemed unlikely given the padlocked gate, no way of attracting their attention. There was a security camera on a pole but it lay in the prone position, filming the sky. Except it wasn’t. The cable at the bottom had been ripped from the ground when the pole had been knocked over. By a fire engine, police vehicle or whoever had set the fire wasn’t clear.
‘Shall we go home now?’ I asked.
Ten minutes later I was trying to slide through a broken bit of fencing on a disintegrating tarmacked track between the main building and an even more dilapidated version next door.
‘Come on, hurry up.’ Charlie snapped.
‘I’m trying. My shoulders are wider than yours.’ I said, managing to unsnag myself from a bit of trailing wire. ‘We’re bound to be on cctv somewhere you know?’
‘Keep your face down then. You know how crap the quality of these things is. They’ve just had a major fire. All that smoke? All that heat? All that water? Even if they are working they aren’t going to give a clear picture. Just don’t go staring into them, looking for them.’
I knew that but I still didn’t understand what we were doing. Love makes you do mad things but driving two hundred miles and breaking into a burnt out warehouse had never crossed my mind as a sign of devotion until now.
We shuffled through the trampled nettles and willow herb and after about twenty metres came to what had once been a small doorway, boarded up after a change of use, but now rotted through and burnt. The hinges and lock were sound but as I saw when she pushed through the flimsy planking, no longer attached to anything sound enough to pose a bar to entry.
I thought it would be pitch black inside, but of course the roof had gone and the sky gave plenty of light. We weren’t in the main space yet. It was what had been some sort of office. The door into the main warehouse was a little more solid than the exterior one had been, but across the room an internal window offered easy access to the main part of the building.
It was madness inside. Collapsed roofing lay like a Satanic maze of blackened timber and steel framing, twisted and stinking. The floor was a mulch of soot and ash still soaked from the fire brigade’s efforts and subsequent rains. Nails, screws, roof ties, shards of glass lay in a frenzy of caltrops and punji traps. I tried to peer through the debris to see if the floor was solid or disguised deadly pitfalls.
‘This is crazy love. Look, we gave it our best shot. We can’t go in there, it’s a death trap.’
‘ Row C, block 5 section 1.’ She muttered in reply, and seconds later she stood before a giant steel pillar that had once supported the roof. I was still picking my way between hazards as she scraped a gloved hand through the carbon and revealed a peeling letter “B”. Before I could reach her, she was off to the next steel trunk. This one had caught more heat and the letter wasn’t as clear, but just visible through the encrusted filth was the curve of a ‘C’.
She was off among the sections of shelving and boxes and for a minute I lost sight of her as I navigated my way across the floor. There were ominous creaks and cracking sounds across the building but the fire had been a couple of weeks ago and I was hoping any major post conflagration collapses had already happened. No doubt a completely unfounded assumption but hope is a wonderful thing. At least the floor was concrete so I wasn’t going to end up ten feet below ground impaled on a tie rod.
I turned the corner by pillar “C” and about twenty metres away recognised the remains of my mother’s pride and joy. It was a Victorian thing of solid wood and although it was beyond recovery as a piece of practical furniture, it was surprisingly still recognisable as the awful sideboard of memory. Which was odd, as I thought it was supposed to be inside one of the steel containers. But there it was, half in the storage unit and half in the sludge and filth, And up to her shoulder in the compartment that had held the bottle drawer, which now lay discarded to the side, was Charlie.
‘What are you doing?’
She ignored me and pulled at something from inside the remains of the drawer.
It was a small bag. It hadn’t burst into flames but it looked charred. Charlie slid a box out. It was about twelve by six by six inches. She opened the lid and looked inside. By the time I had made my way here it was back in the bag and being tucked inside the backpack she had brought with her.
‘What is it? Is that what we’ve come for?’
She nodded. ‘We’d better go before anyone comes.’
‘Why does it matter? It’s our stuff isn’t it? You said we were entitled.’
‘I just don’t want to get into it here. Let’s go.
We were filthy after our foray into the warehouse. I was desperate to get the stink off me. ‘Let’s go and book into a hotel and get a shower. We can’t drive home like this.’ I said.
‘We can’t turn up anywhere in this state. And we can’t wreck the upholstery. Change first.’
I was about to ask how when she pulled a bin bag from her back pack.
We stood at the end of the tarmac lane and changed our outer clothes and shoes for the ones Charlie had brought.
‘Wallet out? Nothing else in the pockets?’
I shook my head, rapidly disoriented by the sudden turn of events.
She dumped the contaminated clothes and shoes in the bag and we went back to the car.
‘Look, what’s going on love?’
She said nothing, but drove a couple of blocks down the industrial estate we were in. She stopped the car, got out, motor running and dumped the bin bag in a skip.
Before I could protest she was back behind the wheel and driving.
‘Not like they’d be any use after being covered in that crap is it? She said, though I hadn’t asked
I shook my head. ‘I suppose not’.
The room was as anonymous as the hotel. We showered and my pre-breakfast idea finally got an airing. Charlie seemed very enthusiastic, but I confess my heart wasn’t really in it. Call me an old romantic but the previous eight hours hadn’t really been my idea of foreplay.
In what for me was normally a period when that euphoric post coital glow left me feeling without a care in the world, all I could think about was how to broach the subject of what was in the back pack.
As usual she was way ahead of me. She raised her head from my chest.
‘You want to know what it is?’
‘Well…do I want to know why we abandoned everything to raid a burned out warehouse two hundred miles from home and get something out of my mother’s wrecked sideboard I never knew was there? Er let me think.’
She nipped my chest with her sharp little teeth, making me yelp. She leaped off the bed to rummage in the back pack.
The leather bag still stank of burning but the box looked okay.
I nodded. She opened the box and placed the contents on the small bedside table.
It was black, but not through the effects of the fire. It was polished stone, covered in carvings. It stood almost a foot high but somehow looked bigger in the room. Charlie handled it almost reverently.
‘What is it?’ I looked from it to her. ‘Can I touch it?’
She nodded. ‘Just be careful. It’s very old.’
It felt heavier than it looked. I didn’t know what kind of stone it was made from. I peered at the carvings. On the top half were exquisite pictures of what looked like a temple and stylised lions and someone with a curled beard in a chariot, riding over people on foot. The lower half was covered in pointy lines in a geometric pattern. I wasn’t any wiser.
‘What is it? How did it get in my mother’s sideboard?’
‘It’s a sort of Kudurru.’ She said, as if that explained everything.
‘I’m a simple soul.’ I said ‘I’m not the one with the degrees in archaeology and ancient languages. What’s a whatever you just said?’
She took it back from me and put it back on the bedside table.
‘It’s sort of Babylonian title deed. They kept the stone ones like this in the temple and gave a clay copy to the landowner to mark his boundary.’
I must have looked less than impressed.
‘But this one’s more than that.’ She said.
I nodded as if I knew what the hell she was talking about.
‘That,’ she pointed to the pictures, ‘is the defeat of the Elamites by Nebuchadnezzar I, about 3,000 years ago.’
Now I had heard of him. I wasn’t sure why. He didn’t come up in serious crime briefings very often.
‘And this, says their land is now his, his title document.’ She pointed to the lower design. ‘This is cuneiform script.’ She traced her finger around the stone, ‘and this bit tells you how he did it. This bit wouldn’t be on the clay versions.’
‘So it’s worth a fair bit?’
Her eyes blazed at me. ‘Worth?’ She snorted. ‘Everything.’
‘A million? Cos whatever, it isn’t worth getting…’
‘You don’t get it. This isn’t just another artefact, just a title deed or a military manual, or a history book, this is a gateway to power. This tells you how he really did it. ’
She gazed at me and for the first time I realised that I was a bit afraid of her.
‘This is about power. Real power. How to summon it like he did. Whoever owns this stone can wield it for real power in this world.’
I really didn’t want to ask the next question.
‘So who does own it Charlie?’
‘I do.’ She smiled at me. ‘We do.’
‘And where did “we” get it?’
She looked at me and the craziness I had seen had gone.
‘You know where, you saw me get it.’
I shook my head. ‘No, I mean before it was there.’ I had a fair idea where it had come from before it made its way into my mother’s sideboard. ‘This is from the Minassian case isn’t it?’
She smiled some more.
‘Never catalogued. Recognised it at once. More than that slob did. He’s not going to need it where he’s going is he?’ She got off the bed and started dressing.
‘What? Come on get dressed, we’ll go home now.’
‘Who does it really belong to?’
She looked at me like I was the densest pupil in a remedial class.
‘Me of course.’ She smiled at me. ‘Us darling.’
‘What was the fire about? Who knows about this?’
She finished dressing and put the stone back in the box in the bag.
‘Might be anything. Could be a gang war. Could be somebody burning evidence. You know what gets left in these storage facilities. Who knows what went up in flames in there?’
I raised my eyebrows.
‘I doubt Minassian knows. He never mentioned it, and it was in a box marked “assorted stele”. It was still full of them when it was catalogued by the evidence team.’ She shrugged. ‘There are a few loose ends. You don’t need to worry about it sweetie. Trust me. And the stone. Look at the Minassian case. I’m being promoted for that and it won’t stop there. With practice following the text I could be commissioner in ten years. Maybe politics? Maybe PM in twenty years. Sky’s the limit Sweets. We’re rolling now.’
She pulled a black automatic pistol in a pancake holster from the bag, tucked it into her jeans belt and pulled her top down over it. She swung the bag onto her shoulder and reached a hand out to me
‘Come on darling. Time to go.’