In which Sergeant Paxton outwits a notorious safecracker.
Only a crazy Dutchman like Van den Burg would want to own the Magna Carta, thought Toby Ross as he stepped off the Edinburgh train at Durham station. But as ‘e’s payin’ me so ‘andsome, why should I care?
He glanced cautiously up and down the platform in search of any familiar face who might recognize him and give him away to the cops. Toby, one of the finest safecrackers in the country, had to be careful. With a reputation such as his, he could never be quite sure who might be watching him.
On this occasion he saw nothing to alarm him. On the platform were friends and relatives greeting each other, students returning to the University, and businessmen carrying their brief-cases. He breathed a sigh of relief, and set off down the platform toward the exit.
Further down the platform a tall, dark-haired man with fleshy features was scanning the crowd. All of a sudden he paused and frowned.
I know that face from somewhere, Paxton thought. From somewhere way back. Who the devil can it be?
He was so intent on the task of putting a name to the face he had spotted that he failed to notice the arrival by his side of a short, pleasant faced woman, carrying a small suitcase.
“Day-dreaming as usual, Albert Paxton!” she exclaimed in a strident voice. “What kind of a welcome d’you call this then?”
Paxton came out of his reverie with a start.
“Eh, Dora lass, forgive me,” he said. “Dunno where my mind was. Here let me take your bag.”
“Did you miss me then?” said his wife, rising on tip-toe to peck him on the cheek.
“Every moment of the day, pet,” replied Paxton with a smile.
“Aye, but you’re a champion liar, Bert,” she said, pinching his arm affectionately.
“Haway then, pet,” said Paxton. “Let’s get away home.”
He carried her suitcase in one hand, and slipped his other arm through hers, guiding her towards the exit.
“How was Gwen?” he asked.
Dora had just been down to Darlington for a flying visit to her older sister’s house. Gwen didn’t altogether approve of Dora’s choice of husband, considering police officers, to be unreliable, poorly-paid and not always honest. “Sometimes there no better ‘n the criminals they’re supposed to be catching,” she had once told Dora.
“Well,” replied Dora in answer to her husband’s question, “Gwen was just as she usually is. Not too many nice remarks about you Bert, but I’m used to that. Water off a duck’s back as far as I’m concerned. But she’s my sister, she’s family, and I’m fond of her in my own way.”
By this time they had arrived at the exit where a line of people had formed, taking turns handing their tickets to the collector. Paxton noticed again the man he had seen on the platform standing just a few paces ahead of them. Although he had his back to them, there was something familiar about the shape of the man’s head.
Just at the moment they joined the queue, the man turned around, and Paxton looked full into his face – dark complexion, hawk-like features, neat black moustache and a small scar at the corner of his mouth.
Toby Ross, thought Paxton with a sudden flash of recognition. It was all he could do to stop himself from exclaiming the name out loud.
Ross turned back to the collector, surrendered his ticket, and set off at a brisk pace through the station door.
Moments later Paxton thrust his wife’s ticket and his own platform ticket into the collector’s waiting hand, and then nudged Dora hurriedly towards one of the horse-drawn cabs lined up outside the station.
“Here, Bert,” protested his wife. “What’s this then?”
“Take this lady to 34 Hallgarth Street,” ordered Paxton, shoving some coins into the cabbie’s hand.
He looked at his wife apologetically.
“Sorry, Dora,” he said. “Duty calls!”
He helped her into the cab. She fixed him with a withering look.
“You are the limit, Bert,” she snapped. “I only just got home, and you’re running off to…”
“Sorry, pet, gotta go,” he interrupted, and then he hurried off in pursuit of the disappearing figure of Toby Ross, leaving his wife fuming in the cab.
Paxton closed the gap on his quarry rapidly, and then slowed to keep a safe distance behind. Fortunately Ross was wearing an overcoat with a loud checked pattern so it wasn’t difficult to keep him in sight as they descended the hill and turned onto North Road.
You always were a flashy dresser, Toby, you old rogue, thought Paxton. Ran into you down in the smoke when I was just a green street copper and you were an amateur safe-cracker. We nailed you for the Simmons Warehouse job and you did five in the Newgate. You made sure you never got nabbed again, and now you’re known across Europe for your skills. So, what’s a flash harry like you doing on my sleepy little patch?
Paxton’s internal dialogue continued as he trailed Ross up Silver Street. Around the edge of the market place and down across Elvet Bridge. Ross, who was carrying only a small suitcase, crossed the street, and entered the Three Tuns Hotel.
Paxton waited for ten minutes, and then went inside. The lobby was empty. The clerk had been momentarily called away. The register lay open on the desk, and Paxton peered at it rapidly. The last entry read ‘Thomas Randall, London. Room 107.’
Paxton decided not to linger. He knew where his quarry had gone to ground and the assumed name he was using. He wished to keep this information to himself for the moment. He exited the hotel as swiftly as he had entered before the clerk returned.
Upstairs in room 107 Toby Ross had set his suitcase on his bed. He opened it and rummaging underneath a clean shirt and a black sweater, took out a rolled piece of canvas material. He laid it on the bed, and unfastened the strings which held it closed. Unfolded, it revealed a series of small compartments holding several shiny fine-pointed tools, some straight and some curved, as well as some flexible lengths of wire of varying thicknesses. He carefully inspected each one in turn, ensuring that they were ready for use, and then he fastened the canvas roll again and replaced it in his suitcase. He locked the suitcase, and slid it out of sight under the bed.
He had thrown his overcoat over a nearby chair when he arrived in the room. He retrieved it, and hung it up on a hook on the back of the door, then kicking off his boots, he stretched out on the bed.
Something was troubling him, and he couldn’t quite lay a finger on it. It was something to do with a face at the train station. Someone there had seemed vaguely familiar, but now he couldn’t even recall which face it was that had momentarily caught his attention.
Someone in my line of work’s gotta be careful, he thought, but who in the blazes would I know in this little town? There couldn’t be anyone here knows me. I must be getting jumpy in my old age! Must be imagining things!
He closed his eyes. Just time for forty winks before supper, he thought.
“Stephenson,” said Paxton to the young constable standing in front of him. “I’ve got a very important job for you, my lad.”
The young police officer puffed out his chest, and stood up a little straighter.
“I’m ready, Sarge,” he replied.
“There’s a big-time villain from London just checked into the Three Tuns,” said Paxton. His name’s Toby Ross. He’s a professional safe-cracker. Short, stocky chap, dark-haired, moustache, scar near his mouth on the left side. He’s registered in Room 107 under the name of Thomas Randall. We want to find out what he’s doing in Durham, but without him knowing that we’re checking up on him. Got that, Stephenson?”
“Yes, Sarge,” was the reply.
“Right then, lad,” continued Paxton. “Change into your civvies, get down to the Three Tuns, and find a spot where you can keep an eye on the place, observe what our friend’s up to. If he goes out, follow him, but don’t get too close, and for God’s sake try not to look like an off-duty copper!”
“Right, Sarge,” said Stephenson eagerly. “Don’t worry! I’ll not let you down. You can rely on me!”
“That sets my mind at rest then,” remarked Paxton with just a trace of sarcasm. “I’ve got complete faith in you, son,” he continued more kindly. “I’ll send Thompson down to relieve you at ten. Now I’d better get off home to the wife. I’ve got some explaining to do!”
Dora Paxton stared at her husband in stony silence as he sheepishly entered the kitchen,
“Let me just make you a nice cup of tea, Dora pet,” he began cautiously, “and then I’ll explain why I had to leave you so suddenly.”
“Don’t bother!” snapped his wife. “I’ve already had some tea, thanks! I’ve a good mind to make you sleep in the spare room tonight!”
Paxton, knowing his wife’s bark to be usually worse than her bite, suppressed a grin and replied in as humble a tone as he could muster:
“You’ve every right, I know, love, but if you’ll just give your poor wretched apology for a husband a chance to explain, then he’ll take any punishment you think he deserves without any complaint.”
“I swear, Bert Paxton, you’re one sly, silver-tongued devil,” said Dora with a twitch of her lips. “I’ll listen to your explanation, but it’d better be a good one!”
So Paxton sat down, and told his wife about his sudden recognition of the notorious safe-cracker at the station and his need to follow him and find out where he was staying so that he and his men could watch the man’s movements, and hopefully prevent whatever crime he was contemplating. As he spoke, Paxton could see his wife’s stern visage softening and the tense set of her shoulders easing.
When he had finished, she said:
“I should know by now that you’re never off duty even when you’re with me, Bert. I suppose that’s what makes you a good copper. But my, it’s vexing sometimes!”
“Well, pet,” said Paxton playfully, “you just come ever here, and I’ll see if I can’t make it up to you.”
“You just keep your hands to yourself, Bert Paxton,” replied Dora sternly.
But she moved across the kitchen towards him anyway.
Nothing much had happened on Toby Ross’s first evening in Durham. Stephenson reported that the safe-cracker had taken a brief stroll down to the river bank, and then eaten supper in the hotel restaurant before retiring for the night. Constable Thompson’s overnight watch had proved even more uneventful, Ross having remained in his room the entire time.
The following morning, however, after a hearty breakfast, Ross, followed at a discreet distance by a rested Constable Stephenson, was heading for Durham City’s magnificent Norman Cathedral which loomed out of the mist above the river.
Ross entered the church from Palace Green, and walked directly to the cloisters where a group of visitors was assembling for a tour of the monks’ dormitory which had been converted into a small museum housing some of the Cathedral’s most famous artifacts.
Wonder what he’s up to, thought Stephenson as he paid his sixpence to join the tour. I suppose there’s stuff in here that’s valuable, crucifixes and rings and old documents and such like.
The young policeman followed the droning voice of the tour guide with only half his attention as he focused on the figure of Toby Ross. He watched closely, hoping for some expression or gesture that might give a clue to the safe-cracker’s intentions, but Ross behaved exactly like the other visitors, listening intently to the guide, nodding and murmuring occasionally in appreciation.
Finally the tour was over, and the visitors were dispersing. Some shook hands with the guide while others just thanked him. Toby Ross seemed to be holding back. Then he was next to the guide, asking him a question. Stephenson unfortunately was not close enough to hear what the two men were saying, and could move no closer without drawing attention to himself.
Recalling Paxton’s warning to be inconspicuous, he waited, peering intently at some ancient coins in a nearby case until Ross was finished with the guide. As the safe-cracker left the dormitory, Stephenson followed carefully at some distance. He watched as Ross walked down one side of the cloisters and stopped opposite a large oak door in the side of the main building. The safe-cracker then appeared to drop the hat he was carrying in his hands on the paving stones right next to the door. He then squatted down to retrieve it. Looking once over his shoulder, he proceeded to retie both of his shoelaces carefully and deliberately. Even at the distance of some twenty yards, Stephenson could see that Ross was examining the door.
There’s summat behind that door he’s anxious to get his hands on, thought the young officer with gathering excitement. Wonder what it is.
At last Ross completed his shoelace tying, retrieved his hat and walked on out of the cloisters towards the Deanery and the green space called the College. Stephenson followed him out of the gates at the far end out into The Bailey, a cobbled street, which led down to the river bank. He then trailed his quarry along the river towards Elvet. Fortunately there were a number of people strolling in the same direction, so that Stephenson was able to remain inconspicuous, and follow Ross back to the Three Tuns without further incident.
“And did you find out what was behind that door?” asked Paxton to Stephenson who was giving the sergeant a report while his colleague Constable Wilkins kept an eye on Ross.
The sergeant could tell from the constable’s flushed face that he had discovered something momentous.
“Yes, Sarge,” declared Stephenson excitedly. “After Wilkie took over from me, I dashed up to the cathedral, and asked one of the vergers what was kept in the room behind that oak door, and he told me that it’s…”
He paused for breath.
“Out with it, son,” said Paxton impatiently.
“Valuable manuscripts, Sarge,” continued Stephenson gleefully. “Illuminated manuscripts from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. You know those hand-written books with all those beautiful colored pictures!”
“Yes, lad, I do know what an illuminated manuscript is,” said Paxton patiently. “You’ve done well, lad, very well. Now, are you sure Ross didn’t rumble you?”
“Pretty sure,” answered the young constable. “I wore different clothes today from yesterday. I kept my distance at all times, and I tried to mingle with the crowd.”
“Good!” said Paxton. “So now we know what he’s after, we need to have a word with the Dean, and see if we can set a little trap for our Mr. Ross!”
“So you believe that this scoundrel means to carry out a robbery in the sacred precincts of out cathedral,” said Dean Lake with a somber expression.
“As I said, sir,” answered Paxton, “we have been watching him closely since his arrival in the city. My constable observed him examining the door to the room which I understand houses some of your most valuable manuscripts.”
“Can you not arrest him?” asked the Dean in some alarm.
“I’m afraid that as yet he has committed no crime,” said Paxton apologetically, “but we would like to catch him in the act.”
“Yes, I see,” said the Dean thoughtfully. “I wonder what he can be planning to steal. Most of the books are very large and heavy, and would be difficult to carry, and well-nigh impossible to steal!”
“Anything small, sir,” asked Paxton. “Perhaps an unbound document?”
“Of course!” exclaimed the Dean with rising excitement. “It must be our copy of the 1216 version of the Magna Carta! It’s only fifteen by twenty inches of sheepskin parchment. It could be rolled up and put under someone’s coat. Of course, one should never do such a thing,” he added hastily. “These documents are very fragile! But whoever would want a copy of the Magna Carta?”
“Well, sir,” replied Paxton thoughtfully. “It’s an unusual target for a theft, I’ll grant you, but he may want to steal it and then return it for a ransom, or there may be a collector who is keen to add it to his collection for prestige purposes. But anyway, what I am seeking from you is your permission for my men to be stationed at various points inside the cathedral after dark in order to apprehend Mr. Ross when he breaks into your ‘treasure room’.”
“Of course, of course,” said the Dean. “But when do you anticipate that he will make his attempt.”
“Almost certainly tonight,” replied Paxton. “Ross is a notorious criminal who cannot afford to spend too long in one place, especially a community as small as this one. He will be afraid of being spotted. So he must strike fast, and make his escape. Now by how many ways can the Cathedral be entered and left?”
“There is, of course, the main door to the Nave on the north side of the building,” replied the Dean. “On the opposite side is a door which leads to the cloisters. There are two exits from the cloisters, one close to here outside the deanery, and one through the crypt.”
“Good,” said Paxton. “I will have men covering all of those places. We believe that Ross will enter as a visitor shortly before the Cathedral closes, and will probably conceal himself somewhere until everyone has left. After he has accomplished the break-in, he may attempt to leave immediately or he may hide again until morning and exit when the visitors begin arriving. Either way I am confident we’ll catch him.”
“It all seems terribly risky if you don’t mind my saying so,” sighed the Dean. “I am responsible to the Chapter and the Bishop for the protection of out ancient relics and documents. Couldn’t you just warn this fellow off, Sergeant?”
“We could, sir,” said Paxton evenly, “but if we can nail him in flagrante delicto as it were, we can put him away for ten years or more.”
“Oh, very well, Sergeant,” said the Dean in a voice still tinged with indecision. “I’ll summon my head verger, and you can explain your plan to him, and tell him how he can cooperate.”
“That would be most helpful, sir,” said Paxton appreciatively.
At that same moment Toby Ross was lying on his bed at the Three Tuns Hotel, arms behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. In his mind he was rehearsing his plans for the evening for the umpteenth time.
What could go wrong, he thought. Into the cathedral at four-thirty, ‘ide in the choir stalls. Soon as they’ve all scarpered, I’m out into the cloisters through the door below the clock. The oak door of that treasure room’s child’s play. In sharpish, grab the Magna Carta. Lock the door behind me and go ‘ide. Soon as they open up in the mornin’, I’m out o’ there. Back to the ‘otel, grab my bag, up to the station, and off back to the smoke by the mornin’ train. If I don’t leave no traces, they mightn’t know anythin’s missin’ for days.
As he concluded his triumphant mental rehearsal, he should have felt completely relaxed and confident, but a nagging sense of unease lingered at the back of his mind. Some vague memory troubled him. A face that seemed familiar but which he couldn’t identify. He tried to remember where he’d first had this feeling, but he couldn’t put a finger on it.
He sat up, crossed to the dresser and poured himself a glass of water. He drank it slowly to calm himself.
“Nah,” he said at last, “It ain’t nuffin’. Get a grip, Toby lad. It’ll all go like clockwork!”
He donned a black woolen sweater and a dark blue watch-cap. Retrieving his lock-picking tools from his suitcase, he tucked them into his waistband under the sweater.
Twenty minutes later he entered the Cathedral by the main door unobserved as Evensong was ending, and the attention of the visitors was on the choir as they processed out. Ross respectfully removed his cap, and slipped down a side aisle.
All of a sudden, a verger clad in purple cassock stepped out in front of him.
“Sorry, sir,” the man said. “You’ll have to wait until the service is over. It’ll just be a couple of minutes.”
Toby Ross froze, and stood next to the verger until the choir completed their exit, and the cathedral organist played the final chords. A small rivulet of perspiration was running down his back, but he remained calm.
“This is the way to Cuthbert’s tomb, ain’t it, mate,” he said at last.
The verger smiled.
“Straight ahead. You can’t miss it,” he replied. “But don’t forget, we close in thirty minutes.”
“Cheers, mate,” said Toby, proceeding on his way with a sigh of relief.
“We know he’s in the building,” said Paxton to his officers. “One of the vergers just ran into him. Recognized him from our description. He’s wearing a black sweater and a watch-cap. He’s gone up to Cuthbert’s tomb, probably looking for a place to hide out.”
“By, he’s a brazen bugger!” exclaimed Constable Phillips.
“Watch your language, lad,” said Paxton sternly. “We’re in a house of God, not your local pub.”
“Sorry, Sarge,” said Phillips apologetically.
“Alright, men,” continued Paxton. “Everyone knows their positions covering the various exits. Off you go, and stay well-hidden. He’s got to believe the building’s deserted. Stephenson, you’re with me, out in the cloisters.”
The bloody ground’s freezing, thought Stephenson with a shiver. Hope that Ross gets a move on, else I’m gonna catch my death. Good thing it’s not raining.
He and Paxton were stretched out prone, in the cover of the cloister wall on the outside, opposite the treasure room door. Darkness had fallen several hours ago, and as long as the two police officers lay still, they were invisible to anyone walking down the inside of the cloisters.
The Cathedral clock chimed again, and Stephenson counted ten. Good thing I wrapped up warm he thought. Even so his fingers and toes were beginning to go numb with cold. He shifted ever so slightly, and turned his head to peer up into the inky black night skies where the stars were twinkling far away. Fortunately there was little moonlight to pierce the gloom of the cloisters.
All of a sudden Stephenson tensed as he heard the stealthy shuffle of footsteps approaching along the cloisters. He felt the warning touch of Paxton’s hand on his shoulders. He lay still, scarcely daring to breathe.
Then the footsteps paused, and he heard the faint scratching of metal on metal, followed by a distinctive click as the lock gave way, and then the creak of a door being eased open.
Next to him Sergeant Paxton was cautiously raising his head above the rim of the cloister wall. Stephenson followed suit.
The door of the treasure room stood open, and inside a dim light from a candle revealed the silhouette of a figure crouching down in the gloom.
The two policemen silently eased their legs over the stone rim and stepped into the cloisters, edging silently forward towards the open door. Stephenson could see that Ross was attempting to open the lock on an inner barred door which provided further protection for the precious manuscripts. As they neared the door, a distinct click told them that Ross had gained access to the inner chamber. They could just pick him out, apparently scanning the shelves of vellum bound books in search of his goal.
With a muffled exclamation of satisfaction Ross carefully took a document into his hands, and turned to examine it in the light of his candle.
“You’re nicked, Toby,” said Paxton suddenly. “Come on out o’ there!”
Toby Ross jumped like a startled rabbit, and dropped the manuscript he was holding. However, his recovery from his surprise was rapid and his reaction unexpected. He leaped forward through the gate, and up the stairs to the door, cannoning into Paxton and sending him staggering backwards. Thrown off balance by this sudden lunge, Paxton stumbled into Stephenson, and both fell in a tangled heap. Toby Ross was off like a rabbit down the cloisters.
“Damn,” muttered Paxton as he rolled clear of his constable’s flailing arms and legs.
He put a whistle to his lips, and blew three sharp blasts.
“Now, at least they’ll know he’s loose!” he exclaimed. “Stephenson, fetch that lantern we have behind the wall!”
While the young constable was carrying out his instructions, Paxton replaced the fallen document carefully on its shelf. There was no time to check if it had sustained any damage. He swiftly relocked the two treasure house doors with keys he had obtained from the Dean.
“Come on, lad,” he said as Stephenson re-appeared with his lantern. “He can’t’ve got far.”
The two men sprinted to the end of the cloisters, and were met by the figure of Constable Thompson panting and puffing from his sudden exertions.
“He didn’t come this way, Sarge,” said Thompson in a puzzled voice when he had finally regained his breath.
Paxton pointed to the dark entrance-way to the crypt on their right.
“Down there,” he muttered. “Thompson here at the entrance. Stephenson, you and me are going down.”
Cautiously Paxton and his constable descended the steps into the blackness of the crypt.
“Why, it’s right creepy down ‘ere, Sarge,” said Stephenson nervously. “All them bones and such!”
“Steady, lad,” said Paxton. “Swing your lantern around slowly. If he’s lurking down here, we’ll find him.”
As the lantern’s light played on the walls and corners of the crypt, shadows rose and fell and danced against the stone walls. The two men strained their eyes in the gloom, and methodically examined every inch of the darkened chamber, but there was no sign of the fugitive. They rejoined Thompson at the top of the steps.
“I don’t understand, Sarge,” said Stephenson, scratching his head. “It’s like he’s disappeared off the face of the earth!”
“There’s a logical explanation,” said Paxton. “There’s several doors in the walls around the cloisters. He probably unlocked one or two of them in advance to give him an escape route in just such a situation as this. Now to try and find him in this immense building in the dark is an impossible task. Stephenson, you go back and stand guard on the treasure room. It’s not likely he’ll make another try for that document, but he’s a bold and slippery customer, and you just never know. We’ll hold our positions till morning, and then we’ll catch him.”
Sergeant Albert Paxton was careful to invest his statement with a note of firm confidence that nevertheless did not necessarily reflect the way he felt.
“Keep your eyes peeled, constable,” said Paxton tersely.
He was standing next to Constable Thompson outside the door from the crypt leading onto the College Green which had just been unlocked by a verger moments before.
“Won’t be too many folks coming out this way, Sarge,” said Thompson.
“Stay alert anyway,” instructed Paxton. “He’s a desperate fellow, and we just don’t know what he’ll do. I’m going over to the main entrance.”
As Paxton descended into the crypt, he saw a man, wearing overalls, enter from a side-door that opened into the yard where the cathedral stonemasons worked. He quickened his pace to catch up to the man, and tapped him lightly on the shoulder. The man turned, and Paxton noted with disappointment the aging lined face below the cloth cap.
“I’m Sergeant Paxton of the Durham Constabulary,” he said. “And who might you be?”
“Jack Holdsworth, stonemason,” answered the other. “On my way to do some repairs in the south cloister.”
Paxton nodded and watched the man go on his way. He himself proceeded to the Main entrance where Constables Jenkins and Parry were watching the early visitors arriving at the cathedral.
“Nobody came out yet, Sarge,” said Parry.
“Early days yet,” grunted Paxton in reply. “He’ll likely wait until there’s a good crowd milling around before he makes his move. I’m going to check on Hanson at the other exit.”
Paxton frowned. It was almost ten o’clock, and there was still no sign of Ross. Surely he had to come out of hiding soon! And how did he plan to get away? Paxton had already posted men at the train station, and on the main roads leading out of the city.
The sergeant was on his way back to the main exit when he spotted the stonemason walking about twenty yards ahead of him.
“Mr. Holdsworth,” he called.
There was no response from the man.
Must be hard of hearing, thought Paxton, and he called out the name again this time louder. Again there was no response. Then Paxton noticed something about the shape of the man’s head and the way he was walking.
“Parry, Jenkins,” he shouted urgently. “Stop the man in the cap and overalls! Don’t let him get away!”
At these words, the stonemason suddenly swerved to his left and set off running down the main aisle of the cathedral.
“Jenkins, stay on the door! Parry with me!” called Paxton urgently as he broke into a run after the disappearing fugitive.
Ross, for it was surely he, showed a clean pair of heels, and it was all the two policemen could do to keep him in sight. Paxton gestured to Parry to take the east side of the nave while he covered the west.
Visitors had stopped in their tracks, gaping in amazement at the bizarre scenario being played out in front of them.
At last Ross, seeing that he would be trapped when he reached the end of the nave, swerved to his right into the Main Transept, and made a desperate rush for the door beneath the clock, but just at that moment two vergers entered blocking his path.
Ross tried to push his way past, but the vergers, seeing the police officers in hot pursuit, grabbed his arms. He struggled, but to no avail, and when he heard Paxton and Parry skid to a halt behind him, all resistance drained out of him.
“Game’s up, Toby,” said Paxton quietly.
The safe-cracker’s shoulders sagged, and he turned to face his pursuers. He stared at them for a moment, then a glint of recognition appeared in his eyes.
“I know you,” he said in a voice tinged with bitterness. “The cove at the station, meetin’ ‘is wife! But I remember you from somewhere before that. Wait a minute…Constable Paxton!”
“Sergeant Paxton now, Toby,” replied his captor triumphantly. “Long time no see!”
“Not long enough in my book,” snarled Ross. “Well, copper, after this they’ll probably make you an inspector. I’m famous, you know!”
“What did you do with Holdsworth?” asked Paxton.
“Oh, you mean the old geezer what was wearin’ these togs?” replied Ross. “’E’s trussed up like a chicken in one o’ them rooms off the cloisters. ‘Ere I’ll show yer.”
“Parry, put some cuffs on our friend, Mr. Ross,” said Paxton, “and keep an eye on him. We wouldn’t want him running off again!”
“Take a look at this, Dora!” exclaimed Paxton excitedly.
He had just opened a letter amongst the morning mail. He handed a card to his wife.
‘The Dean and Chapter cordially invite Sergeant and Mrs. Paxton to a special tour of the priceless treasured manuscripts of Durham Cathedral in gratitude for the gallant actions of members of the Durham Constabulary in protecting the above-mentioned treasures from a threatened theft. Tour to take place on Saturday, the twenty-sixth of March at 3:00 pm. RSVP.’
“Am I forgiven, pet,” asked Paxton hopefully.
“That you are,” said his wife decisively, placing a tender kiss on his cheek.
In 1970 during my ‘gap year’ before going up to Oxford University, I was employed by the Dean and Chapter of Durham to clean and polish with beeswax the leather bound volumes in the Cathedral Library. Having completed the printed volumes from the 15th to 19th centuries in the main library area, I was then escorted to a room off the cloisters very similar to the one I describe in my story. There I undertook the task of polishing the leather bound volumes, hand-written on vellum, a kind of parchment, during the Middle Ages. Every so often I had the opportunity to pause in my work to admire the beautiful illuminated capital letters with which the medieval scribes had adorned the manuscripts. They were indeed exquisite!
Of course I had to be locked in whilst I worked on these priceless volumes. As I describe in my story, there was a stout outer door, as well as an inner gate and bars that made the storage area reminiscent of a jail! My heart certainly sank as the key turned in the outer door, and I was locked in till coffee break time! Had I wished to get out for any reason before that, I would have been out of luck. There were no cell phones at that time, no way to communicate with the main library office further down the cloisters!
Nevertheless it was a special privilege to me to be entrusted with the care of these ancient volumes and a once-in-a-lifetime thrill to be able to peer inside them.
I have taken some liberties in my story. I don’t know if the books were already being stored in that manner back in Sergeant Paxton’s time. Nor do I know if tours of the Monk’s Dormitory were available then. All the characters in my story, with the exception of Dean Lake, are my own creations. I apologize for any errors or inaccuracies in my descriptions or directions inside the great Norman Cathedral. I grew up and was educated in its shadow, but that was many years ago!
Finally I hope the story will be as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write.