Chief Inspector Richard Langley was inspecting a mummified foot in his basement office at New Scotland Yard when the phone call from the Superintendent came.
The foot wasn’t the most valuable item confiscated from an Egyptian traveller at Heathrow Airport earlier that week but it was certainly the most interesting. The toenails were still intact and the sole of the foot still preserved the puffy flesh of its owner, the palmar flexion creases criss-crossing from side to side. The top of the foot had an area where the skin had given way and the waxy yellow of the bone beneath it was visible.
A leather cord hung loosely between the two biggest toes and must have been at one time part of a leather sandal. Lifting it up, he could see colourful beads were sewn onto the thong in an intricate pattern, all of them threaded through with fine gold wire.
Looking at the delicacy of the foot, Richard guessed it had once belonged to a woman but he was no expert in mummified body parts.
The phone rang suddenly, startling him and shattering the silence in the office with its ringtone.
Richard quickly put the foot down on the sterile container in front of him, took off his white gloves and picked up the handset.
He gave a cursory look at the phone extension calling him and sat up a little straighter in his chair.
Richard cringed inwardly at his Superintendent’s colloquial use of his name.
‘Could you pop up and see us at Room 402?’
Surprised by this request, Richard began to rub at the five o’clock shadow on his cheek and as he felt the bristly hairs prick his fingers he remembered he hadn’t shaved that morning, or the previous one either, come to think of it.
He doubted he was looking presentable. Never one to preen himself, he had become sloppier than usual about his appearance in recent weeks. More so on days when he had no important meetings to go to. Given the nature of his job he was going to be summoned without notice at some point but this time, thankfully, he was lucky. Superintendent Lionel Grieves, who was on the other end of the phone, was unlikely to pay close attention to his outward appearance.
The request to head up to Room 402 came as something of a bombshell to Richard because Room 402 was a meeting room used by his colleagues in the Homicide and Serious Crime Command at New Scotland Yard and this was not a department he was at all familiar with.
On the other side of the phone, his boss cleared his throat, hinting at his impatience.
‘Yes, sir,’ Richard answered at last, feeling he had no other option but to agree to go.
‘Thank you, Dick.’
Puzzled, Richard hung up and stared at the wall in front of him.
Facing him and attached to the grey wall with bright red pins was a large poster of Canaletto’s painting The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day. Flags, sailing boats and rowing boats crowded the surface of the river in Canaletto’s painting but although the jovial picture was situated directly in front of him, Richard wasn’t observing it and in any case, he wasn’t in a celebratory mood.
Quite the reverse in fact. His mind was filled with a sense of foreboding as he mulled over Lionel’s strange phone call.
In his entire career at the Art and Antiquities Crime Unit he had never worked with anyone from Homicide Command, for not only was homicide not his speciality, he had never actually dealt with any murders within the scope of a job that entailed protecting art and artefacts of value from those intent on stealing them.
It wasn’t unusual for him to be involved in high profile cases because unlike other countries, like Italy or France, the Art and Antiquities Crime Unit in Britain was so underfunded they only had the resources to deal with stolen items of exceptional value. But it was rare for any homicides to be involved in the professional art theft world, even though it was often a deeply unpleasant criminal enterprise.
Realising he had better get a move on if he wasn’t going to irritate the hell out of the colleagues waiting for him along in Room 402, Richard nevertheless decided to store away the Egyptian hoard before he left the office, accepting that this new meeting probably meant his investigation into the small collection of Egyptian artefacts would have to be postponed until some other, much later, time or even abandoned altogether.
Putting his gloves back on, Richard stood up and placed the mummified foot carefully back into a large plastic box, where it had been keeping company with a gold, turquoise and carnelian neck-collar, two dented gold armlets, several glazed scarabs, a diminutive hippo made of lapis lazuli and a wooden figurine of an ancient Egyptian woman.
He sighed as he placed the lid on the box.
Looting had become rife in Egypt since the Arab Spring. The Egyptian specialists at the British Museum were going to look at these items and if they determined they were in fact genuine, the Egyptian embassy would have to be notified. Gone were the days when British archaeologists appropriated ancient Egyptian artefacts; nowadays they were only temporary custodians of such treasures, and rightly so.
After removing and returning the white gloves to an empty desk drawer, he then picked up and carried the plastic box over to a shelf where a number of similar containers reposed, each one meticulously labelled.
Turning back to his desk, he reached across and grabbed his grey suit jacket from the back of the chair, shrugging himself into it as he picked up his mobile phone.
Richard walked out of the large, windowless office, which had shelves stacked from top to bottom with miscellaneous items connected to unresolved art theft cases and tugged firmly at the heavy keypad door as he left, making sure it locked securely behind him.
Making his way slowly down the enclosed corridor he checked the emails on his phone and then, once he reached the lift door, he pushed the button to call it down to the basement floor.
He smiled to himself as he bent his head backwards to look up at the lift shaft.
The lift was encased in glass and revealed within its innards the technical engineering involved in its daily function.
The building’s design hinted at transparency. The upper reaches of the Curtis Green Building were light and airy, with plenty of shiny floors, large windows and a pale colour palette wrapping itself around the newly refurbished rooms.
In contrast the Art and Antiquities Unit was located in the basement area of the building and had been left in the shadows, windowless and drab. When he ascended in the lift, he always felt like he was emerging from the dark, ugly and hidden parts of the ocean, reaching up to the unfamiliar sunlit surface.
The basement was an apt metaphor for the general status of the Art and Antiquities Unit within New Scotland Yard. Even though his department might rank low on the Met’s priorities, art crime was now estimated to be the third highest grossing criminal enterprise behind drugs and arms dealing, and recent figures suggested that thefts of art and antiquities in the UK alone totalled more than £300 million.
In Richard’s opinion art theft was more than losing cultural property. It was currency to fund arms, drugs and terrorism but unfortunately the general public didn’t seem to recognise this. Inevitably, his was a lone voice in the wilderness, a wilderness in which his fellow police officers were also struggling with the burden of reduced staffing and resources as they desperately tried to tackle rising rates of knife crime, acid attacks and terrorism. All of which were considered more important than art theft...