It was late morning when Huxley and Inspector Hugo arrived at Finsbury Square. Hundreds of people filled the streets surrounding the vault compound. Uncharacteristic of other crime scenes, however, none were attempting to get a peek at something, or inventing guesses as to what had happened or who’d been involve. All were unaware, and the inspector explained the necessity of absolute secrecy in order to avert any chance of public panic.
Within the walls of the square, all was somber, and a strange dew of gray death had settled over the ground. Sergeants Helman and Moss, a plump pair of robins, stood together at the open vault door.
“It certainly appears impregnable,” Huxley commented as he approached. “Not that anyone would want to go in there now.”
The three looked on as the final body, covered in a white sheet, was carried away. Huxley held out his wing for them to stop before pulling back the shroud with a sigh. “Thou knowest ‘tis common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.”
“What’s that?” asked Moss.
“Gertrude spoke it to Hamlet, encouraging him to cease mourning the death of his father,” explained Huxley.
“Oh. Right.” The sergeant nodded, bordering confusion.
“What did you find when you opened the door?” asked Huxley, returning the cloth over the face of the dead.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” said Moss quietly. “All nineteen of them, piled up on top of each other.”
Huxley nodded before walking past them toward the vault entrance. “I think we can all agree this was some kind of poisonous gas.”
“We can,” Helman agreed. “The pungent odor, the frantic way in which the victims tried to escape; it fits the bill for such a horrible death.”
“Best get out your handkerchief,” warned Moss. “It’s a bad smell in there.”
Huxley entered, heeding the sergeant’s advice, though with little success at diminishing the odor. It stung his senses, momentarily bringing tears to his eyes before he continued in. He avoided stepping on the maze of intersecting white chalk marks covering the floor near the door.
“This is where the gold was,” said Helman, pointing beyond to a large platform in the center of the vault.
Light cascaded from long, horizontal slats in the high ceiling like a holy sanctuary. Huxley leaned over to look closely at the concrete slab raised a few inches higher than the main floor. The sergeants watched silently as he walked around. It was nearly thirty feet on all sides, and periodically, he would stop, bend down to inspect something, then continue.
“See anything?” Moss asked. They watched Huxley take his handkerchief and run it along the base of the platform. He folded it carefully and put it in his breast pocket.
“Perhaps.” Huxley returned to them and they exited into the fresh air. The two sergeants sighed in relief, pulling at their collars.
“What do you think?” asked Helman. “Any idea how the gold disappeared?”
“Gold doesn’t disappear,” he answered in annoyance. “If you continue to think it did, how are you to see that it didn’t?”
“But it’s a Sceptre vault,” Moss said. “Those things are impregnable.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Then how do you steal something out of a vault you can’t break into?” asked Helman.
“By breaking out of it,” said Huxley. “Or by already being inside…We need the blueprints to the vault. I assume Sceptre has them.”
“That’s right,” said Moss. “But they’re kept confidential for security purposes.”
“Not anymore. If you’d be so kind, Sergeant Moss, telephone my man Engle at No. 2 Chesterfield and instruct him to retrieve the blueprints from Sceptre and place them on my office desk.”
“No need for that,” someone said from behind the three. An old pigeon bowed politely. “I’ll have them sent over myself. I am Maxwell Stein, owner and chief executive of Sceptre.”
“Mr. Stein, do you have any idea how this might have happened?” Huxley asked.
“None at all. We pride ourselves on the strength of our vaults.”
“Well, technically no one broke into the vault. Unfortunately, no one was able to exit the vault either.”
“Yes,” he bowed his head. “I’m heartbroken at such a loss of life. Part of what makes this model of vaults so secure is the removal of the inner latch.” Mr. Stein removed his hat in mournful respect. “I can’t believe this happened. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Could you describe the procedure for opening and closing the vault?” Huxley asked. “I assume there is a procedure.”
“Yes, it utilizes both combination and key. There is a six-digit combination for this vault, the numbers randomly assigned. Between spinning the knob from the third number to the fourth, a unique key was to be inserted into the single keyhole, turned one full rotation clockwise, then removed. Following this were the next three numbers of the combination and the second key with one full rotation counterclockwise. Finally, after waiting twenty-two seconds, one could open the door.”
“Why wait twenty-two seconds?” asked Helman.
“It’s what we call the glass interval. Attempt to open the vault any sooner, and a pane of glass within the door shatters, allowing a steel plate eight inches thick to fall inside the vault. This plate would be impossible to get through without dismantling the vault itself or without using explosives, though you’d need so many that it would consequently destroy what’s inside.”
“Impregnable…” Huxley said, and Mr. Stein nodded. “Who was in possession of these keys?”
“The night watch captain had one and the guard commander had the other.”
“Both keys were recovered on the scene,” Helman told Huxley.
“In that case,” said Huxley, “We’ll need to speak with the commander as well as the captain.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible…” Moss said. “The guard commander’s body was among the dead. Still no word on the captain.” The four stood in a long silence.
“If that’s all then,” said Mr. Stein finally. “I’d best be getting on my way. I’ll have those blueprints delivered as soon as possible. Number 2 Chesterfield, yes?”
“Correct. Thank you, Mr. Stein.”
The old pigeon nodded, took a sorrowful glance at the vault, and walked away slowly.
“Poor bloke,” said Moss. “If word of this gets out, that’s the end of his career.”
“Shall we have tea?” asked Huxley. The two sergeants looked at the clock tower in confusion.
“But it’s still a few hours until teatime,” Moss protested.
“Sergeant Moss!” A voice rang out from across the square. The three of them turned to see a constable running towards them, one wing holding onto his helmet as he huffed and puffed. “Sergeant Moss!”
“What is it?” asked Sergeant Helman, attempting an assertion of his superiority. Moss stepped in front of Helman.
“Sergeant Moss, it’s the night watch captain,” he said, catching his breath. “He’s awake and needs to speak to you right away.”
“Ah, excellent.” Huxley smiled. “Just in time for tea.”
Copyright © 2019 by Stephen Daniel Ruiz