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Losing a Treasure

Losing a Treasure
By Sandra Unerman

Gregory Bridge was used to nightmares. He had qualified as a doctor in 1923, too late to serve in the Great War, but his life had provided plenty of other material for his unconscious mind to work on. So he knew the difference at once, when cold fingers tweaked his ear and a weight landed on his stomach. Awake and alarmed, he pushed his disturber away as hard as he could.

"Rough brute." The stranger shifted to the end of the bed and spoke more in amusement than reproach. She shone in the darkness of the bedroom, her skin and hair both a silvery green.

"I wasn’t expecting you." He did not recognize her but he knew what she was, one of the People of the Hills, the Hidden Ones. He had thought of them as fairies, when he first met them, although they disliked the name. They seldom invaded his home.

"I’ll not stay long." The visitor leaned back on her hands and stretched her legs. She was thin and knobbly, as though made out of twigs, body and clothes alike. "I’ve a message for you from the Queen."

Greg did not try to hide his wince, as he would have in any human company. "That won’t be good news." Professional arrogance had drawn him into his first encounter with the Hidden Ones. He had taken the place of a midwife afraid to answer a summons from strangers, to a place which turned out to be one of their castles. They had not been pleased by the substitution or by his refusal to fetch a human wet-nurse, once the Queen’s favorite had been safely delivered of her child. They had threatened to keep him prisoner, until he had persuaded the Queen that he might be of use to her, out in the world. Since then, he had undertaken some disturbing adventures on her behalf.

"She requires no more than you promised," the visitor said. "And for which you are handsomely recompensed, more than you deserve."

"Only so that I am better placed to do her bidding." The recompense had been his ability to see the uncanny and to act as go between for other humans who wanted to have dealings with the Hidden Realms.

"And persuade us to meet a parcel of fools, besides," the visitor said.

His time under the Hill had lost him the medical practice he had begun to build up. Instead, he had set out to make best use of his new abilities, by healing people troubled by ghosts or other manifestations. Most of his clients turned out to be bored, well-to-do women or young idiots in search of a love potion. He let very few take the risk of a direct encounter with the Queen’s people, otherwise his livelihood would have been blighted as soon as it began. Mostly, he listened to nonsense and provided practical advice.

"What does the Queen want this time?"

"Nothing dangerous." The messenger’s smile widened her narrow face. "She would have this treasure returned to its place in the human world."

She tipped a pouch onto the bed. A shallow gold bowl slid out, moony pale and about the size of a dinner plate. Its surface was covered with a network of curved lines.

"That’s beautiful," Dr. Bridge said.

"It’s a nuisance. It mutters incessantly of bloodshed and spite. And bewails the absence of human listeners. Even the Queen has not been able to silence it and she has wearied of the challenge. That’s why she has decided to send it back."

Greg stared at the bowl and did not touch it. He could hear nothing, although the gold seemed cloudy, agleam with ice instead of fire. "But how am I supposed to find out where it came from?"

"See the family crest in the middle," the messenger said. "Their son stole the bowl to give to the Queen as a love token, because it was the greatest treasure they owned. They ought to be glad to have it back."

He peered more closely and saw the shield engraved at the bottom of the bowl, its design faint and hard to decipher. Daylight and a magnifying glass would help with that but his wariness grew. "How long ago was it taken?"

The messenger sniffed. "Who keeps count of the Queen’s lovers and their times? If you can’t find the family, give it to someone else willing to listen. Or keep it yourself."

Greg shivered. Now that his first alarm had subsided, he could feel the night air from the open window, deepened by the chill from the messenger’s body. Her smell of green sap and salt stirred uneasy memories. His bare feet and second-best pajamas did not help his confidence, although he knew perfectly well that she would scarcely notice them. In any case, to refuse the errand would lead him into worse trouble. "Very well," he said.

* * *

Careful examination enabled Greg to identify the coat of arms, a knot of snakes with different marks on their bodies. He made an appointment to see the head of the family, Sir Nigel Hunter, a youngish man, brisk and cheerful. He welcomed Greg into his study.

"Glad of the opportunity to meet you," he said. "Heard about you at the Club."

"I have something that belongs to you." Greg unwrapped the bowl and set it down, without looking at it directly. So far, he had heard nothing from the thing but it made him uncomfortable. The elegant pattern seemed to brim with noises, ready to drown his ears if he gazed at it for long.

"My dear Dr. Bridge," Sir Nigel stared at the bowl and then at Greg. "I’ve never seen that before in my life."

"It bears your crest. See there."

"Extraordinary! Do you have any documentation for it? Any provenance, as they say?"

"You won’t need anything like that. I’m not at liberty to explain but I’ve promised to restore the thing to its rightful owner."

"My dear doctor." If Sir Nigel could hear voices from the bowl, he gave no sign. "I couldn’t possibly afford to pay you what it’s worth."

"No need--"

"And I can’t possibly accept such a thing as a gift. You must appreciate my position, a chap like you. My standing in public life would never survive that sort of scandal."

"Nobody else would know anything about it."

"They would find out. They always do." Sir Nigel stood up. "Most kind of you to offer but it’s quite impossible."

* * *

Before he headed home, the doctor walked along the Embankment and onto Westminster Bridge. There he stopped, to look down at the river, dark and turbulent even while the ripples glinted in the sun. If he kept the bowl for himself, even in its cover, he would be afraid that it would speak to him, in words he would not want to hear. He would rather throw it into the river. He hoisted the pouch up, shoulder high, but it slipped out of his grasp and dropped at his feet. When he reached down for it, the golden pattern shone through the felt and he heard voices, pure as ringing glass.

"Keep us safe," they said. "Guard us well, or you’ll never draw a peaceful breath again."

"You don’t belong to me." Greg clasped his knees with his hands. "I don’t belong to you."

"Then find us another owner, someone to admire our beauty and wit."

He could not stay bent over in the street, arguing with the unseen. He picked the bowl up. "Let’s talk later."

* * *

That night, in the privacy of his sitting room, he poured himself a brandy and soda and sat down in his favorite chair. The naked bowl was propped up on his bookshelves, quiet now and just out of reach. This did not make him feel any safer. Nor did a careful swallow of his drink.

"All right," he said aloud. "I won’t try to drown you. Or have you melted down." The glass in his hand blazed hot at that thought. He hurried to put it down, before it blistered his fingers. "I said I won’t have you melted. What can I do with you?"

"Find us a new owner." The voices were sweet and fierce. "New hands to fondle and cherish us."

"I’ll do my best," he said. "It may take a while."

He finished the brandy, before he put the bowl back in its pouch, covered by a blanket, and shut it into a stout box for the night.

* * *

He read about the amateur archaeological dig in his newspaper the next morning. Many discoveries were expected, although the mound, outside a manor house in the country, had so far disappointed the landowner and his enthusiastic friends. Greg recognized one of the names as that of an acquaintance. What better provenance could there be for Sir Nigel, if the bowl turned up in the dig? Or if nobody recognized the crest and it was sent to a museum, it would have plenty of admirers there.

A few days later, he toured the site, by invitation, along with a handful of skeptical antiquaries. The landowner appeared to regret the publicity from the newspaper; the man in charge of the dig was plainly resentful of the interruption and his helpers were fiercely protective of their work. They had nothing to show, except damp holes, broken stones and lumps of clay. The sky was overcast, the wind cold and nobody complained when the tour ended in less than an hour.

Dr. Bridge motored back to the hotel in the local town, where he had left a bag. He confirmed that he would stay the night and went out for a walk, with his doctor’s bag in hand. He bought a trowel, torch and a pair of gum boots, not the kind of footwear he had ever needed before.

He dined alone at the hotel and warned the night clerk he might be late back from an appointment. The drive back to the dig site took longer in the dark but at least he did not lose his way. As he had hoped, the place was deserted by the time he arrived. He climbed into a ditch, as close as he could judge by torchlight to the current workings. He did not want his efforts to be too obvious, so he churned up only ground that was already disturbed. He bedded the bowl down, until only a raised rim was visible, which he heaped with dirt. 

When he stood up to go, voices spoke from the mud, "Don’t leave us."

"People will come to find you in the morning. You won’t be here for long."

"Don’t leave us." The whisper was a threat, not a plea. The words crept up his legs and tightened round his belly. He could not tell whether the grip was real or only in his mind, but his time under the Hill had taught him not to take chances.

"Just be patient. They’ll be on their way soon."

"Wait here for them."

"I can’t stay here until morning." The voices were silent but the grip on his body did not slacken. He was afraid that he would tear himself to pieces, if he tried to move. He sat on the ground, switched off his torch and huddled into his coat, as best he could.

As he dozed through the deep of the night, he dreamed of spite and slaughter, among men who hated him, although he recognized none of them. When he woke, the sky was iron grey and he hoped that dawn was near. He had never realized that daylight took so long to arrive. By the time a pair of archaeologists turned up, he was almost too stiff to stand up and numb with cold. 

They halted and stared at him. "Who – what the hell?"

These were the young helpers, not the man in charge. Greg produced the best professional smile he could manage, frozen and caked in mud. "I’m Dr. Bridge. I was here yesterday, remember. And I couldn’t resist coming back for another quick look this morning, before I headed back to town."

"You can’t just wander around here, unsupervised."

"I won’t get in your way. I meant to be off, before anybody came. But then I noticed something I must show you, before I go. Look down there." He pointed his toe at the rim of the bowl and the pair crouched down beside it.

"Don’t touch that," they both said.

"Wouldn’t dream of it." Greg backed away, his trowel and torch in his coat pockets. "I’m hoping there’s something exciting down there but you should be the ones to unearth it."

"How could you possibly …?"

"Just caught my eye. I’ll leave you to it now. Good luck with whatever is down there."

One of the pair stood up and frowned at him. "Hang on," he said and Greg shook his head.

"Can’t stay any longer. I have to get back to town." He turned and walked off, not as fast as he would have liked.

* * *

Three days later, a caller arrived at his house in London, not the owner of the dig site but his son, young Smithson. He was shown into the study, where he slapped a parcel down on Greg’s desk.

"I believe this belongs to you."

Greg knew it at once but he said, "I beg your pardon?"

Smithson cut the string and unwrapped the bowl, now clean and gleaming bright. "We may be amateurs," he said. "But we’re not complete fools."

"Do sit down." Greg took his own seat and waited for Smithson to follow suit. "You’ll have to explain what this is all about."

"We knew the thing didn’t belong in our dig as soon as we took a proper look at it." Smithson held himself upright and stiff. "The mud was from the wrong layer, for one thing. And the workmanship is completely out of period."

He’d underrated them. Greg raised an eyebrow. "Is that what I saw the other morning?" he asked. "What makes you think I’m responsible for it?"

Smithson did not hesitate. "Nobody spotted it before you turned up at the site on your own. Besides, the other people we’ve shown round take their research seriously. So do we, however little you think of us."

Greg stared at the bowl, which looked more poisonous than ever, and wondered whether it would help for him to take offence. He doubted he could bully Smithson into keeping the thing, whatever he said. Before he could make up his mind, Smithson sighed and sat back in his chair. "Look, we don’t want to make a fuss about this. The guv’nor’s not happy with all the attention, as it is. If some silly asses inveigled you into a stupid hoax, all we want to do is put a stop to it."

At least that explanation would do him less damage than a quarrel. Greg grimaced. "Something like that. I should have known better. I’ll write and apologize to your father."

"No, no." Smithson was on his feet, bouncy with relief. "I won’t ask you who they are, although I could make a few guesses. Just tell them not to try again."

* * *

The little shop was even more unappetizing than Greg had expected. Its shelves were crammed with pewter tankards, clocks with broken cases and dusty gewgaws of paste and glass. He would have left at once, if he had not been so close to desperate. A woman came through from the back, a young woman, bony and pale, but with a swagger in the tilt of her head and her gaze. She wore a long pink jacket, its elbows patched and its cuffs worn. The crimson rose in her hair was bruised and ready to drop its enormous petals. The woman’s flamboyance almost distracted Greg’s attention from the diamond clip into which the rose was tucked, the one good piece of jewelry in sight. Maybe he had not been misinformed about the place.

"Nothing for you here," the woman said.

"Good morning to you, Mrs. Uncle, is it?" Greg put a briefcase on the counter and took out the bowl. After his previous experiences, he had decided against taking the thing to an established jeweler, who would ask questions about paperwork and ownership. Patient inquiries among his acquaintances had led eventually to this place, which had a reputation for not asking questions. And not paying a tenth of the value of any purchases, of course. But he did not care about that.

Uncle’s was the name of the shop. Greg did not suppose for a moment that it was the woman’s name and she did not wear a wedding ring. But she did not seem inclined to answer his question. Her face did not change, as she gave a brief glance down at the bowl and then one far more leisurely at Greg. 

"I’m not buying anything from you." Her voice was educated and confident. "Out you go."

"Why the blazes not?" A row with this woman would not damage his practice like a quarrel with Sir Nigel or young Smithson. But neither would it achieve his objective. He swallowed and calmed his voice. "I am prepared to consider any offer you could make."

"Not interested."

He wanted to shake her. "But I need to dispose of this piece somehow." It could do no harm to let her see how keen he was to sell, so long as she believed he had the usual reasons. 

"I don’t know you. I don’t want to know you. Out."

Did she think he was a police spy? "I assure you, nobody sent me here. Nobody else knows I’ve come. Surely you can see your way to some kind of offer."

The woman walked to the door and opened it. Greg was tempted to threaten her but common sense warned him that she would have a heavyweight protector within earshot. Else she would not behave like this. He could endure pain when he must but he was not fool enough to provoke a beating. He tried not to let his hands shake with anger, as he put the bowl away and left the shop.

Halfway down the little alley towards the street, a cloth dropped over his head. He was kicked in the back of the knee, so that he fell forwards and let go of his briefcase. A weight landed on top of him.

"Don’t move." He could not see, through the folds of scratchy wool. But it was the woman’s voice and the decaying scent of her rose was close by his head. Instinct pushed him upwards, until he felt the cold touch of metal against his neck. "Don’t move, I tell you." She sounded as confident as before, dry and determined. "Any excuse and I’ll be pleased to knife you. You’d be coughing blood by now, if dead bodies weren’t such a nuisance in the neighborhood."

"You can’t--" Sheer astonishment flattened Greg and kept him still, while she removed his wristwatch and his wallet.

"That’s what your kind always think." She sat comfortably on his back as she worked. "What are you going to do? You won’t want the busies inquiring into your affairs, or you’d have found a better class of buyer for that shiny saucer. You’ll be too ashamed even to tell your friends you’ve been floored by a woman. You’ll crawl home and forget this ever happened."

"All I wanted --"

"You wanted as much cash as you could squeeze out of me. Your error. I take everything I can from the likes of you, in exchange for nothing."

She shifted her weight, snatched up the cloth and pushed Greg down again, as he started to move. She was gone before he had a chance to look round.

She had taken the briefcase with her. Rage brought him to his feet and nearly drove him back to the shop to confront her. But she would surely have locked him out. And anyhow – he took a deep breath and rubbed his hands over his face. If anyone could see him, from behind the boarded-up windows and darkened doors, they would be on her side against him. He did not want to show them the smile that was beginning to pull at his mouth. He was sorry to lose his watch but it was worth it, to be rid at last of the Queen’s treasure.

* * *

Sandra Unerman is the author of two fantasy novels, Spellhaven and Ghosts and Exiles. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and magazines, including Humanagerie and Frostfire Worlds. She is a retired Government lawyer, who lives in London, UK. She is a member of Clockhouse London Writers and is currently studying for an MA in Folklore Studies at the University of Hertfordshire.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Ideas come from all over the place. I read a lot of nonfiction, especially history and folklore. I accumulate intriguing details, which ferment in my imagination, until they turn into something new. A character in a dramatic situation may come into my mind and challenge me to work out what happens to them. Or I may grow fascinated by a setting or a puzzle and want to work out the consequences. All three elements came together into this particular story.