"I reckon we're on to a good thing here." Colly Hopkins scratched his thick, black sideboard with a podgy index finger, releasing flakes of dandruff into a shaft of sunlight. He was sitting with his back to one of the grime-filled, frosted side windows of a town centre pub called The Wanting Nail. Facing him sat Lenny Frazer, his pinched features drawn together into an expression of deep concentration.
"Three weekends, you said?" encouraged Frazer.
"Right," nodded Hopkins. "I've watched the place Sat'day and Sunday night for the last three weekends. No sign of any lights. No one going in or out. No milk or papers delivered."
"Big house like that, must be full of stuff."
"It is. I went and cleaned their windows on Wednesday. There's a lot of junk, like. But about a couple of grand's worth of good stuff."
"So what's the set-up?"
"We'll do it tomorrow night, Sat'day. About half ten. It should be pretty dark, and if we can get out of the place by half eleven, the pubs'll still be chucking out and the Old Bill won't look twice at us."
"Right," grinned Frazer, "I like that."
"Okay," Hopkins got down to details, "there's a sort of alley across the road. You'll park the van there. There's a bedroom window that just sort of drops open. I'll get in there, check the place over, then open a side door on the right-hand side of the house. When I give you the signal, you drive over, we load up, then off. There's a good, big hedge all round the place, so once you get the van to the door, no one's going to be able to see us; from the front or next door."
"Sounds like a good one," said Frazer. He had spent five of his twenty-eight years in various prisons, but he had been enjoying a run of good luck since teaming up with Hopkins, two years earlier.
"All my jobs are good ones," said Hopkins smugly. He was a compact, twenty-seven-year-old, who played football every Sunday without regard to the season. Nine months in prison had prevented him from making an occasion of his twenty-first birthday, but the experience had surrounded him with willing tutors.
Since his release, he had acquired a respectable if dull job as a labourer in a timber yard, a reputation as a cautious but successful gambler, a wife whose full figure was starting to overflow and two loud kids.
He was not a greedy man. Six or eight major burglaries in a year sufficed to maintain his very comfortable lifestyle, and his prosperity could be ascribed to picking outsiders and backing them quite modestly. Claiming that he had put a pony on a ten-to-one shot explained away half his share of the proceeds of an average burglary.
Frazer poured the remains of his pint into his narrow mouth. "Fancy another?"
Hopkins glanced at his half full glass of brown ale. "No, I'll not bother. I'll have to be getting back to work in about five minutes. I don't want to get the sack."
"No, you'd be in dead stuck, wouldn't you?" grinned Fraser.
Behind the main road through the growing town of Greckam, the houses were spaced at more comfortable intervals. Leafy trees and sprouting hedges helped to break up the good work of street lights into overlapping pools of shadow. Tewfik Avenue was deserted, but lights and music beyond the continuous hedge barrier confirmed that the avenue was not uninhabited.
As Colly Hopkins shinned up a substantial cast-iron drainpipe, his thoughts were on the interior of the house. The possibility of being spotted during his ascent was so remote that the professional burglar did not worry about it.
A bedroom window at the side of the house surrendered without protest. Hopkins brushed through the gap between sill and window, to find a cheap carpet beneath his feet. He began a rapid exploration.
In an alley, which ran between two hedges to provide access to a small park, Lenny Frazer drew on his cigarette. The van was dark blue, and merged well with the night. He was half way through one of his king-size cigarettes. There would be time enough to finish it before he was needed.
The radio transceiver on the seat beside him was a cheap model with a range of half a mile. In common with other users of a device slightly more advanced than a child's toy, neither he nor Hopkins had bothered to buy the licence required by optimistic bureaucrats.
The transceiver crackled, emitted a static hiccup, then a voice said: "Joe, there's a phone call."
Frazer pressed the send button on his own transceiver. "Tell them I'm out."
The exchange meant that Hopkins was in the house, he had checked the upper floor and he was now about to investigate the ground floor for occupants.
Hopkins eased down a flight of stairs, keeping close to the wall to reduce the risk of revealing creaks. He reached the ground floor and turned right, towards the front of the house, following a spot of torchlight no bigger than a twopence piece, swinging his torch like a blind man swings a cane.
Having established that all three ground floor rooms and the kitchen were unoccupied, he returned to the passage and headed for the side door. Suddenly, there was light spilling from behind a large, solid silhouette directly in front of him. Then stars. Then blackness.
"What the bloody hell?" Eric Rush nursed his right wrist and kicked at the cellar door again. It hit an unexpected obstacle again and recoiled.
"What's all the bad language about?" asked David Fennel as he caught up with his colleague.
"Hello, who's this?" Rush had switched on the passage light and discovered the reason why the cellar door had not swung open as far as the rubber stop near the wall.
"Looks like a burglar," grinned Fennel, taking in the dark clothing, a balaclava helmet and the small torch on the floor beside the unconscious man.
"Well, bloody hell!" said Rush in wonder.
"I suppose we'd better phone the police and resign ourselves to having flatfoots tramping all over the place," sighed Fennel. "And asking us silly questions half the night."
"Perhaps not." Rush frowned at the still figure on the floor, considering. Then his frown melted into an expression of enlightenment. Fennel, who had seen this cogitation process in action many times, waited patiently for the oracle to pronounce.
They were unlikely companions, who had met at their university's squash club. Both were bright young men fading into their late thirties. Rush was a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics. Fennel moved in the dusty circles of the Department of Ancient History. An archaeologist by profession, he was also interested in electronics, and therefore able to assist Rush in the construction phase of their joint project.
Certain anomalies, reported in the scientific literature as intellectual curiosities, had led Rush to the conclusion that time travel was possible under special circumstances. Their principal objective was to construct a form of time-trawler. They hoped to be able to recover important antiquities just before the instant of their assumed destruction.
If Rush's theory was correct, they would not be creating damaging anomalies by doing so. After three years of weekend work, they had succeeded in building a relatively low-powered device, which they were in the process of testing. They were feeling cautiously optimistic after sending objects and small animals on trips through time. They had not dared to experiment on themselves, however.
"You know," said Rush slowly, "there's another way of doing this. If we turn our sleepy friend over to the law, they'll probably find he's been at this for years and shove him inside for five years. Suppose we try out our Mark I time trawler on him? Let him pay off his debt to society by serving the cause of science?"
"What if something goes wrong?" stalled Fennel. "But why should it? All the testing we've done has been successful. Okay, let's try your experiment in penology."
The two scientists carried Hopkins down to the main cellar and placed him on a large plastic tray. The tray was the size of a coffin lid. Rush had been using it as a supporting shelf for a collection of spectroscopic equipment borrowed from the university.
"Now then," Rush scanned the laboratory, "we need somewhere to put him. If we're going to send him into the past, we can only do so if we don't create paradoxes. As we have no memories of tripping over him, it has to be somewhere we've not been for a few days."
"What about in there?" Fennel pointed to a boxed-in rack of transformers and control circuitry. "We've never used the room behind there because it's so damp. He could have been in there for a couple of years and we'd have been none the wiser."
"A touch of brilliance," grinned Rush. He closed a switch set in the side of the cabinet. With a faint hum, retractable castors descended to raise the collection of instruments a few centimetres from the floor. He pulled out half a dozen plugs and pushed the rack aside like a sliding door.
The unused cellar room had a damp, earthy smell. Irregular patches of black mould dotted the whitewashed wall at the rear of the building. Rush and Fennel lowered the tray to the dusty concrete floor. With mounting excitement, they returned to the main cellar.
"Let's try a double experiment," suggested Rush. "We know it's possible to send things a limited time into the future. Let's send him a couple of days into the past, then two into the future."
"Can we do that?" frowned Fennel.
"Oh, yes. Remember the time as a railway explanation? What we're doing is giving him an excursion ticket. He'll travel back down the line two stations, and we'll catch up with him two stations further on."
"Fine in theory, but will it work in practice?"
"Let's find out," grinned Rush.
It took them five minutes to bring the unconscious burglar in the next room into a satisfactory focus on the time trawler. Then they tossed a coin to decide who would press the transmit button. Fennel won the honour. His thumb poised over the green panel-switch, he paused and looked at Rush.
"What if he wakes up? We're sending him on a four-day excursion. Running into a door isn't going to keep him quiet for that long."
"Yes, I didn't think of that. But it won't be four days subjective time for him, if the theory's right, but yes, you're right, we'd better give him something to keep him quiet, just in case. Can't have him running around two days ago, can we?."
"There's that stuff we used on the test animals."
"Yes, that sounds about right for our Homo Burglarensis," grinned Rush.
Eric Rush tapped figures into a calculator, then injected the burglar with a dose appropriate for his body weight to keep him unconscious for an hour; twice the calculated subjective time of his voyage through the days. Then Fennel pressed the button that would send Colly Hopkins on his round trip.
When the scientists had shut down their equipment, they pulled out the plugs and pushed the rack aside. They looked eagerly into the side room. Burglar and tray had gone.
"What do you make of that?" said Fennel.
"Interesting," remarked Rush. "I'd imagine he's hovering two days in the future now, waiting for us to catch up with him. After spending ten minutes in the past while we refocussed on him."
"What now?" said Fennel.
"Now, we just wait till Monday night. At precisely 10:46, we'll catch up with him and he'll have lost a couple of days of his life."
"Or gained two days. If he hasn't lived them yet, we've added them on to his life expectancy."
"Yes, that might be true," nodded Rush. "Still, it should be interesting to be able to ask one of our experimental subjects whether he notices any ill effects. Or any effects at all. All it seemed to do to next door's cat was make him hungry."
"Two days as opposed to five years," said Fennel thoughtfully. "Sounds a fair rate of exchange. This is going to be in the way now," he added as they returned to the main laboratory.
"We can put it back where it belongs for the moment." Rush moved the heavy rack of instruments back to the doorway and retracted the castors. When it settled into its former position, the huge blue cabinet looked as if it had never been moved.
Lenny Frazer finished his cigarette. Five minutes later, he lit another one. By a quarter to eleven on his dashboard clock, he was starting to become impatient. After another cigarette, anxious. He waited another quarter of an hour. Then, unable to restrain himself, he crossed the road and advanced cautiously up the drive of the darkened house.
He circled the building, trying back and side doors on his way. The house was closed and silent. It had apparently swallowed Colly Hopkins. All the windows on the ground floor were closed and secure.
Frazer contemplated going into the house to look for his partner, but he had no head for heights and he had no idea which was the window that was easy to open. The only way to get into the house, as far as he could tell, was to break a ground-floor window. He knew that the sound of shattering glass would carry a long way at that time of night.
He retired to the concealment of the hedge at the front of the garden. Some time later, lights appeared in various parts of the house. Frazer returned to the van hurriedly, expecting the police to arrive at any moment. An hour passed very slowly.
A Panda car on its routine patrol drove past, but the occupant ignored the house. By now, Frazer had brought the van out onto the road. He had felt vulnerable in the alley. Concealed in the back of the vehicle, he smoked another cigarette. Then he went home, trying to work out what was going on and failing completely.
A day of indecision followed. Lenny Frazer took a stroll through the park where Colly Hopkins usually played football in the afternoon. There was a game in progress, but no sign of his partner.
By Monday morning, Frazer had convinced himself that Hopkins had disturbed someone in the house and that he had been forced to make a run for it, abandoning his partner in the van. Hopkins had either managed to escape, in which case he was in hiding, or he had been arrested. There was no other reason for not contacting his partner to tell him why their weekend job had failed.
After a normal Monday spent driving a forklift truck around a warehouse, Frazer returned to his bachelor flat with a Chinese meal from the shop on the corner of the long, winding street. He had just arranged all the foil containers within easy reach on his card table, and switched on his television, when the telephone rang.
Beryl Hopkins was ringing round her husband's friends and acquaintances, seeking news of the missing Colly. After telling her, quite truthfully, that he knew nothing, Lenny Frazer returned to his meal in a thoughtful frame of mind. The police would have told his wife if they had arrested him. But if he wasn't in a cell somewhere, where was he?
Frazer switched the television off at nine o'clock and retired to the Froggat Arms in the next street. His luck was out with the cards. He managed to get into three games of Don, and lost all of them. But he was able to use the time between games for some further deep thinking.
There had been people in the house. Perhaps Colly had fallen down some stairs and was hiding there with a broken leg. No, he would have given himself up. Which meant that he might be injured in some other way and unable to move. There was only one way to help him, really. It would be tough on Colly, but it seemed necessary.
The Rush/Fennel partnership carried out their weekend experimental work at night in order to take advantage of off-peak electricity tariffs. This meant that they were usually quite tired on Monday evenings, having spent the previous night experimenting and the day working at the university. It was their custom to sleep from six p.m. on Monday until about six a.m. on Tuesday in order to get back into phase with the normal day and night cycle of activity.
On this Monday night, however, Fennel had taken advantage of one of Rush's guest rooms, and they intended to rise at ten-fifteen so that they would have time for a quick meal before the present overtook their burglar.
The insistence of a doorbell dragged the scientists from sleep at about fourteen minutes past ten. Rush dragged on his trousers and a shirt, and staggered downstairs to find out who was hammering on the front door. Fennel decided that he might as well get up and use the bathroom. He felt in need of a reviving shower.
"Police, sir," said the chubbier of the two uniformed constables when Rush opened the front door. "We had a report of someone climbing up one of your drainpipes." He paused, inviting a reaction from the violated householder.
Rush stared at him for a moment, then retreated behind his hand to conceal a yawn. "Sorry, I've been doing a lot of work at night and I've been trying to catch up on my sleep. I'm not quite with it. Someone climbing one of my drainpipes? When?"
"The call came in about ten minutes ago, sir," said the constable in an efficient tone, which hinted at underlying ruthlessness and had probably been copied from a television detective. "Do you have some form of identification on you, sir?"
"Me?" frowned Rush. "Well, yes." He found his university identity card in his shirt pocket.
"We have to check, sir," said the policeman. He looked at the photograph and the address. "Some of these lads are bloody cheeky. We've had a look around outside, Dr. Rush, and there's marks on a drainpipe at the side of the house. We've got a couple more men watching outside in case he tries to climb out again. Now, we'd like to come in and look for him."
"Yes, of course," said Rush, slightly stunned. He stepped out of their way.
"This is the way upstairs, sir?" asked the chubby constable, pausing at the foot of the staircase.
"Er, yes." Rush was thrown off balance by such a superfluous question. "Oh, I have a colleague here, staying with me. Doctor Fennel. Just in case you happen to bump in to him."
Unable to communicate without being overheard, Rush and Fennel reached agreement by default. The best thing to do, they decided, was to say nothing and let the policemen get on with their search. Uniformed figures poked their noses into every room, every cupboard, under every bed, and even through the hatch that led to the coal bunker.
As 10:46 and the return of their burglar to the present and possible full consciousness approached, the thoroughness of the search bit deeper and deeper into the scientists' nerves. Then the chubby policeman noticed the door to the cellars. It was set in the side of the staircase, painted the same colour and not obviously a door at first glance.
"What's down there, sir?" he asked. Not finding the burglar had frustrated the policemen to roughly the same degree as their extended stay was working on Rush and Fennel.
"It's only the cellar," said Fennel dismissively.
"If we've looked everywhere else, I reckon we might as well look down here," said the chubby constable, who had sun-baked mud-flats of wrinkles around his penetrating, dark brown eyes.
Rush looked ready to argue but Fennel opened the door. "A quick look can't hurt. Just don't touch anything, though. We have a lot of delicate instruments set up."
The policemen took five minutes to decide that there was no one hiding in the main cellar and the side room that was used to store surplus equipment. As if expecting a priest hole behind it, the younger, taller constable gave the cabinet of transformers and control circuitry a tentative shove. He soon learned that it was not to be pushed around.
Rush and Fennel breathed joint sighs of relief when the policemen left the house, baffled, at 10:44. They scampered down to the cellars at once and lowered the retractable castors. The instrument cabinet moved reluctantly away from the wall. Their burglar and the tray on which he was resting had not yet returned. A chronometer display on the control panel warned them that he was still ten seconds in the future.
The ringing of a timer at the end of its count seemed to trigger a sudden outward burst of damp air. Rush and Fennel blinked reflexively, then hurried over to the figure on the tray, trailing wires from inspection lamps.
"He doesn't seem to be breathing very deeply," said Fennel. "How much longer will the drug depress his metabolism?"
"He doesn't seem to be doing much of anything," said Rush, taking a swipe at an orbiting fly. "I think he's dead!" There was total surprise in his voice.
"Dead?" repeated Fennel. "That's impossible. How?"
The fly settled on the burglar's nose, attracting Rush's attention to a thin trickle of blood from a small hole in the cheek. There was another small hole in the burglar's brow, near the hairline, a third beside his right ear, and two more concealed by his hair.
"I don't suppose you remember that paper on the theory of prior residence, do you?" Rush remarked.
"Not really," said Fennel. "Why, does it have a bearing?"
"It's to do with the prevention of paradox in time travel. Suppose some insect has been flying around in here. When we put him where we did, we evidently put him into the path the insect had followed in the past. As the insect has already done its flying, a paradox is only prevented if it flies right through his head as if it wasn't there."
"You mean, we killed him?" gasped Fennel.
"Well, to be strictly accurate, the fly killed him. But I suppose, technically, we might be accessories. But the fault's really his for breaking in here in the first place."
"Do we bring those coppers back?"
"Let's not dash into anything, Dave. For a start, our story is going to sound rather bizarre. And for another, I don't feel like being dragged through the courts and probably slung in gaol."
"Good point," admitted Fennel. "We'll have to get rid of the body somehow."
"How does one get rid of a body?"
"One of the traditional ways is to cut it up and shove it in the furnace."
"I don't think I could stomach the butchery," shuddered Rush.
"Nor me. How about an acid bath?"
"It's a thought. I wonder where we could get hold of enough phosphoric acid? That dissolves the bones faster than the traditional sulphuric."
"We're going to have to come up with a discreet source pretty speedily. In the meantime, what do we do with him?"
"Just seal him up in one of the polythene rubbish bags for the moment," Rush decided. "And leave him in here."
After making his telephone call to the police, Lenny Frazer got his van out of the garage and motored round to Tewfik Avenue. He saw two police cars parked outside the house when he drove past. With feelings of vengeful satisfaction, he headed for home. Further thought had convinced him that the outraged householder had beaten Colly up, had gone too far, and had been landed with a corpse.
Four policemen left the grounds of Eric Rush's house about twenty minutes later. They held a brief conference beside their cars, then they drove away in different directions to resume their patrols.
"I've been thinking," Eric Rush said when he joined his archaeologist friend at lunch the following day.
"About what?" David Fennel leaned forward across the table. The refectory could be a rather deafening place at times.
"Remember our Saturday visitor had what we thought was a transistor radio in his pocket? Well, I went home and had a closer look at it earlier on. It's really a cheap radio transceiver. I think he must have had a pal outside, keeping a lookout. And I think the pal must be wondering where our visitor is."
"Hence that rum visit from the boys in blue last night?"
"But he can't have told them the full story because they were two days late."
"Which means we have to get rid of him in a hurry. Before the pal becomes more explicit. You know, the pal might even be watching your house. Which rather rules out dragging gallons of phosphoric acid back there."
"And we could have the police sniffing round again," agreed Rush, "looking for recent building work, and signs we've been digging up the garden, or the cellar floor. "We'd better get our thinking caps on."
"Anything?" said David Fennel when Eric Rush let him into the house on Tewfik Avenue at the end of the afternoon. Rush had been able to go straight home to stand guard. Fennel had had two lectures to deliver.
"Nothing," said the physicist. "I take it you've not been struck by inspiration?"
"About all I can think of is cutting him up small, shoving him through the mincer on your food processor, and flushing..."
"I don't think you need go on," interrupted Rush with a shudder. He started down the stairs to the cellars. "I wonder how long you can keep a dead body hanging around before it starts to stink the place out?"
"That depends on the conditions of storage. Temperature, humidity, availability of oxygen, and so on. Pity you don't have a deep freeze."
"I don't think I'd fancy anything out of it in the future if we'd been keeping a dead body in it."
"You know," mused Fennel, "it's rather ironic. My profession involves digging up the dead of the past at times, and one of the dead of the present is liable to bring an otherwise promising career to an abrupt halt."
"The past," muttered Rush. "Mummies! I wonder?"
"Hello, are you starting to crack up, Eric?"
"No, I was just thinking. Suppose the police start to suspect us of a recent murder? But what, if the worst came to the worst, if the only body they were able to find was so ancient, the owner had to have died long before this house was ever built?"
"And how would you achieve that?" scoffed Fennel.
"It's laughably simple," grinned Rush. "I've lived here for fifteen years, and I've never once been up in the loft. Looking up there didn't even occur to those coppers. Suppose we seal him up tightly in a polythene bag and send him back in time fifteen years? Then let him get to the present in real time. And then move him a short distance and repeat the process. And keep repeating it?"
"Won't we be creating anomalies if we populate the past of your loft with increasingly ancient burglar remains?" frowned Fennel.
"Oh, no. Nobody has memories of the recent past of my loft, whether or not populated with burglar remains. It's a blank space in the past, if you like. And we can fill it in the same way that one can add marginal notes to a completed text book. We'd only create paradox if a living person spent consecutive periods in the same fifteen-year stretch of the past. Because the second time around, he'd not have any memories from the first time around of being with his future self. If you follow me?"
"Barely, if at all," said Fennel. "But a dead man has no memories? That's your point?"
"That's it precisely. And if we put some sachets of silica gel desiccant in with him, that ought to speed up the ageing process."
"The ones you, er, acquired to keep the instruments dry in case it was damp down here?"
"The very ones. Well, what do you think?"
"What are we waiting for?" encouraged Fennel.
Colly Hopkins, dried and fifteen years dead, was a shadow of his former self. His garments clothed a shrunken skeleton, and his digital watch had stopped due to the expiry of its battery fourteen years previously.
By eight o'clock, the mummified body was over three hundred and fifty years old. David Fennel had burned the burglar's clothes. He fused metal items, such as the zip from the burglar's trousers and his digital watch, to an unrecognizable blob with some improvised thermite powder.
After a pause for dinner and a rest from dashing up and down stairs, Rush and Fennel continued their task. Once the flesh had gone, moving the bones became a one-man job. Part way through the night, while Rush was taking his turn to sleep, Fennel took the precaution of extracting most of the corpse's teeth. Modern fillings and a body from the Dark Ages did not go well together. He hammered everything to coarse grit and flushed it down the toilet.
Their uninvited visitor was almost two thousand years old by morning, and the past history of most of the loft had been filled with Colly Hopkins. Repeated moving had reduced the skeleton to individual bones. The burglar's ribcage and pelvic girdle had not survived intact the experience of being heaved around in a cavalier fashion, and his right femur was now in three pieces.
Well satisfied with their work, Rush and Fennel took the bones down to the cellar and began to think of removing the night's grime followed by breakfast.
Neither Tuesday's local-radio news nor the Thorminster Evening News carried a report of either a burglar or a body being found in a house on Tewfik Avenue, Greckam. Lenny Frazer listened to the local radio station's breakfast bulletin on Wednesday morning. A few minutes later, he made a telephone call. Beryl Hopkins confirmed that her husband had neither returned home nor contacted her.
The sequence of events began to make sense to Frazer. Colly Hopkins had been caught in the act and done to death. When searching the house on Monday, the police had been looking for a man in hiding. When they should have been seeking was a dead body. Frazer decided that it was his public duty to spill some beans and set the police on the right track. Revenge was his public duty.
The doorbell dragged Eric Rush from his breakfast. When he opened the front door, he found himself looking down from an advantage of two steps on a pair of callers, whose eyes shouted copper.
"Good morning, sir," said the shorter of them. "You are Doctor Eric Rush?"
"That's right," admitted Rush cautiously.
"I am Detective Inspector Kellet and this is Detective Sergeant Leraine."
Both men showed a warrant card with a speed that proved ownership of a small, plastic wallet containing a printed card, but prevented any form of close examination.
"You'd better come in," said Rush. He led them to the dining room, where they found David Fennel and two half-eaten breakfasts.
"What can we do for you?" said Fennel when introductions had been made.
"We have reason to believe your house was broken into on Saturday night, sir," the inspector told Rush.
"Saturday? You mean Monday, surely?" he replied.
"No, there was some confusion over the original call. It was Saturday."
"That explains how the chap got away," remarked Fennel.
"Have you missed anything, sir?" DS Leraine asked Rush.
"No, can't say I have," he replied with suitable academic vagueness.
"Would you mind having a look around?" suggested the DI.
"As long as it doesn't take all day." Rush glanced at his watch. The time was eight-thirty. Neither he nor Fennel was required at the university before ten.
A look around the house for missing possessions developed into a full-scale search for the remains of Colin Rodney Hopkins. Rush explained the disturbance of the dust in the loft by telling the detectives that he and Fennel had been up there taking measurements to work out the cost of insulation.
The search moved down to the cellars when Inspector Kellet suggested that the motive for the burglary could have been the theft of research secrets. After examining the main cellar and a side room used for storage, the sergeant paused in front of the massive cabinet containing the transformers and control circuitry.
"Aren't there two side cellars in these houses, sir," he asked, a smirk in his voice.
"That's right," nodded Rush guiltlessly. He lowered the castors and pulled the cabinet aside. "As you can see, the room is rather damp. I've been meaning to do something about it, but I've never got round to it."
The damp, dingy room was empty, apart from a small heap of dust beside the door and a forgotten sweeping brush, which Rush reclaimed. "So that's where I left it," he remarked absently. He swept the dust onto a small shovel and emptied the shovel into a waste bin.
Thwarted, the detectives turned their attention to a crate on the work bench. The wooden box was three feet long, two wide and about a foot deep.
"And what's in here, sir?" asked DI Kellet.
"Just bones," said Fennel casually. "Mine, actually."
"Bones?" repeated DS Leraine significantly.
"I'm an archaeologist," explained Fennel. "Be careful with that," he added when Kellet, Hamlet like, plucked a skull from the box. "The bones are about two thousand years old and rather brittle."
"Looks like there's a complete skeleton in here," said the inspector. "And I understand there are ways of treating bones to make them look a lot older than they are."
"I think you'll find they're rather too young to be another Piltdown Man," said Fennel.
"But maybe young enough to be contemporary?"
"What?" said Rush, displaying studied incomprehension.
"Well, sir, we have a slight problem," said the inspector. "A man called Colin Hopkins entered your house on Saturday evening at around ten-thirty with intent to commit burglary. He hasn't been seen since. He's on our books as a missing person, in fact. And now we find a skeleton."
"And?" invited Fennel patiently.
"And I'd like to take these bones away for forensic examination."
"You think that's your burglar?" scoffed Rush.
"Just checking, sir," said the inspector in a sinister tone. "We have to eliminate all the possibilities."
"Are you planning to arrest us?" said Fennel.
"Not, sir, not at the moment," said the inspector.
"I should bloody well think not," said Rush with a convincing show of indignation.
"But I would like you to inform us if you intend to leave the area, sir. Write him a receipt, Sergeant."
Detective Inspector Frank Kellet received a telephone call at lunchtime the following day. He pushed aside a small mountain of paper and found the telephone lurking behind it.
"John Romney, Frank," said the caller. "About your bones."
"Ah, good. What have you forensicked out of them?" said Kellet eagerly.
"I've had a good look at them under the microscope. They're very old, and they've been knocked about a bit over the years. There's quite a considerable difference in age between the newer and older fractures. But I can safely say the most recent were made long before you or I were born."
"That couldn't be faked, could it?"
"Not a chance. He rotted away quite naturally. There's still a certain amount of identifiable tissue adhering to the bones. There's no way that could be faked. And there's no way this ancient Briton could have been climbing drainpipes a couple of days ago. I could send samples off for carbon-14 dating if you're willing to pay for it. But I'm sure the results will agree with Doctor Fennel's opinion of two thousand years old."
"Oh, well, we'll draw the line there," said Kellet philosophically. "Thanks anyway, John. I'll send someone over to collect the bones."
Kellet replaced the receiver and stared moodily at his paper-covered desk. Solving a nice, juicy murder, in which the victim had been reduced to a boxful of bones, would have looked very good on his record. Now, it looked as if the more likely explanation was true. Colly Hopkins had grown tired of his fading wife and he had done a bunk with a girlfriend. And, more than likely, he had the proceeds of a decent number of burglaries to live on. It happened all the time.
"Got my bones back," David Fennel told his physicist colleague when he joined him in his laboratory for a three o'clock cup of tea.
"Oh, good," said Rush. "What did they say?"
"The sergeant brought them back. He was vaguely apologetic, but his attitude said everyone's guilty of something. They just didn't find out what we're guilty of this time."
"Typical!" snorted Rush. "And what did you do with him? With Mr. X?"
"There's a huge collection of bits and pieces our Victorian predecessors gathered and never bothered to catalogue. I put him in among it, down in one of the air raid shelters."
"So it's over. But it could all boil up again if we tell the world about our time trawler."
"It probably has," said Fennel. "I bet there are a few headlines about us in the newspapers of the future. And all sorts of academics making a reputation by ripping ours to shreds."
"As long as those headlines aren't written until we're just heaps of bones like our burglar," grinned Rush, "I don't think we have anything to worry about." ■