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Authors: Philip Gooden

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The Durham Deception

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available from Severn House
THE DURHAM
DECEPTION
Philip Gooden
This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the authors's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
This first world edition published 2011 in Great Britain and the USA by SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of 9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF. Trade paperback edition first published in Great Britain and the USA 2011 by SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD.
Copyright © 2011 by Philip Gooden.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Gooden, Philip.
The Durham deception.
1. Newlyweds – Fiction. 2. Lawyers – Fiction. 3. Mediums – Fiction. 4. Magicians – Fiction. 5. Murder – Investigation – Fiction. 6. Durham (England) – Social conditions – 19th century – Fiction. 7. Detective and mystery stories.
I. Title
823.9'14-dc22
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-6995-1 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-332-8 (trade paper)
ISBN-13: 978-1-7801-0010-4 (ePub)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
For Eleanor
Act One
The curtain rises and the first reaction of the audience is puzzlement. They have been expecting something eastern, exotic. But there is no painted backdrop depicting snow-capped mountains and plunging ravines. There are no rocks or trees which might conceal apes and serpents. There is nothing at all, in fact, except a tent-like structure surrounded by patterned fabric on three sides and open to the audience on the fourth. In the centre of this space sits a three-legged table not much larger than one which would be used in a card game. The table is bare, without a cloth of any kind.
Then on to the stage strides Major Sebastian Marmont. He is a short man with the soldier's swagger and a complexion long burnished by foreign suns. He wears a tropical suit and a solar topi. He is greeted by applause. Those who have not yet seen him and his Hindoo troupe are familiar with his reputation and, despite that unpromising card-table, they give him the benefit of the doubt. Major Marmont raises one hand to quieten the audience. He steps towards the footlights.
‘
Ladies and gentlemen, I appear before you tonight as a soldier – as a traveller – and most of all as a tireless seeker into those strange realms which lie tantalizingly beyond our reach – the realms of mist and mystery. It is well known that the source of everything which is truly wondrous and magical in our world lies to the east. Yet, through my endeavours, I am able to bring to all of you assembled here tonight an experience from the fabulous Orient such as has hitherto been vouchsafed only to the privileged few even in those antique lands.
'
The Major pauses to let this sink in. He turns slightly and claps his hands, once. On staggers one of his servant boys. The boy is cradling a black travelling case like a small hat box. The Major wags a finger at him to indicate that he must handle the case with particular care. The boy passes the case to the Major who accepts the burden in an almost reverential spirit before dismissing the boy with a nod of the head. Major Marmont places the case in the centre of the table. He stands back. He says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, behold the Sage of Katmandu.
'
Major Marmont moves forward again to the case on the table and unfastens the lid, which is hinged. He folds the lid back so that the interior is revealed. It contains a human head. It is the head of a holy man set within folds of red silk. The head has flowing white hair and a seraphic expression. Its eyes are closed. The audience gasps. A few of them start to look at the Major with suspicion and alarm. (There has recently been a celebrated murder involving a head, a torso, two suitcases and the left-luggage department of a railway station. The murder filled the more sensational papers for weeks.) But this object, realistic as it seems, is surely made of wax.
In the meantime the Major has shifted to the side of the stage. He too is gazing at the disembodied head as if he had never seen such a thing in his life before. He is tugging at his moustaches. Now he claps his hands once more, not in the commanding style he used to summon the boy but in a way that is gentle, almost deferential. He says softly, ‘Sage, awake.
'
The eyes of the head flick open and move from side to side, then up and down, as if the head is ascertaining exactly where it finds itself. There are more gasps from the audience. Then the head of the Sage of Katmandu smiles, as if it is pleased to be here, in this very theatre on this very evening. The smile is not ghoulish or disturbing, it is actually quite benign.
‘
Sage,' says the Major, ‘you have enjoyed a long rest, I hope, in your voyage across the continents of the world.
'
The head moves slightly up and down. It is nodding in agreement. Some of the wiser heads in the audience are nodding too. They can see how this trick is worked. It's easy when you know. This is a head made out of wax or a similar substance, somehow operated by pumps or cords or other machinery, although the space beneath the table is absolutely bare. The head will open its eyes and smile. It will nod in agreement and even shake in denial but it will not be capable of speech.
Yet the mouth does open! The head does speak! It says, ‘I am content.
'
The voice is a curious strangulated sing-song. Is this how people speak in India? Perhaps it is.
The Major, still standing to one side so as to give the audience a clear view of the white-haired head within the box on the table, says, ‘Sage, are you prepared to answer questions from these good folk assembled here tonight? They are eager to hear your pearls of wisdom.
'
‘
They are welcome.
'
The Major looks round the audience. He shades his eyes with his hand and gazes across the stalls and up into the galleries. ‘Your questions, ladies and gentlemen? Ask anything you like.
'
No one wants to be the first to speak out. Then comes a screech from the gods: ‘Ask 'im where my 'usband is, the bastard! 'E walked out three weeks ago.
'
There is some guffawing from the upper reaches of the theatre, as well as plenty of tutting and shushing sounds from the more expensive seats down below. Major Marmont pretends not to understand the question. The Sage of Katmandu blinks slowly as if a response to that kind of query is beneath him. Soon a more sensible demand comes from a gentleman in the stalls (three shillings, reserved). The question is: ‘What is the secret of the universe?
'
The Major turns towards the head in the box. The head nods and the wide brow furrows slightly.
‘
The secret of the universe?' it muses. ‘The answer lies all around us. But you will not find it by searching for it. You must wait for it to reveal itself . . .
'
The head continues in this vein for some time. The same individuals who thought they had the head worked out – it's a waxwork animated by compressed air – now check to see whether Major Marmont is throwing his voice. He's a ventriloquist. That must be the solution. But no, it cannot be, because Major Marmont is wiping his brow with a handkerchief and then drinking from a tumbler of water brought out by one of his boys. He is pretending to be hot and thirsty but, of course, he is really demonstrating that it is almost impossible for him to throw his voice several yards across the stage and simultaneously to be draining the tumbler to its dregs. Nor is there any change in the voice of the Sage of Katmandu as he continues to unravel the secret of the universe.
A couple of other questions are thrown at the Sage (‘Where is happiness to be found?' ‘Above our heads, below our feet, within our grasp.') before the Major brings proceedings to an end when he asks the disembodied head to show its esteem for the British nation by reciting from their greatest writer. So the Sage reels off most of the ‘To be or not to be' speech from
Hamlet
in a voice that is not so strong as formerly. Since its powers seem to be fading, Marmont thanks the head, wishes it a peaceful sleep and closes up the lid of the case.
The Major lifts the case from the table and bears it towards the footlights. Once again he unlatches the lid and displays the interior to the audience. Cries of surprise. The case no longer contains the Sage's head nor even the silk which had surrounded it. Instead there is a mound of reddish dust or ash.
‘
Do not trouble yourselves, ladies and gentlemen,' says Major Marmont. ‘The Sage of Katmandu has the ability to dissolve and recreate himself time after time. It is a power beyond our understanding; it is the magic and the mystery of the East. The Sage of Katmandu will return in his own good time, with more wisdom from the Orient.
'
The Major tips a little of the red dust on to the stage floor in demonstration. Then he closes up the case for a final time and hands it to a boy who carries it offstage. There is a small pause while the audience struggle to take in what they have just seen, a talking head which could answer questions and recite from Shakespeare and which has now been reduced to a heap of dust. Then someone begins to clap, and then half a dozen more and, within seconds, the theatre is filled with volleying applause and wild cheering. The building seems to shake with the noise.
Major Marmont bows to every quarter of the house before striding off with the same manly soldier's gait. For an instant the little table is left in its alcove illuminated by the lights, so that everyone can see that's all it is – just a bare three-legged table – and then the curtain comes down.
67, Tullis Street
‘Are you nervous?' said Tom.
‘Why do you ask?' said Helen.
‘Because your arm through mine feels awkward, and you haven't said very much for the last few minutes.'
‘I've been picking my way along the street with care,' said Helen, ‘and I am holding on to you for support. It's wet and slippery underfoot.'
It was an early Sunday evening in May but still overcast after the rain which had left a greasy deposit on the pavement. Church bells were ringing and couples were strolling to evensong or just taking the air after being shut up all day. Helen was right, you needed to be careful as you walked. But Tom thought that was just an excuse. She
was
nervous.
‘And you, Tom? Are you nervous?'
‘Me? No, more curious.'
‘Liar.'
‘Apprehensive then.'
‘I will settle for that,' said Helen, tugging Tom so that he was closer to her. ‘Let's be apprehensive together. It's an adventure though, isn't it.'
‘And good material for you.'
‘We'll see.'
Tom and Helen Ansell were walking arm in arm along Tullis Street which lies to the north of the British Museum. They had taken a cab as far as Maple's in the Tottenham Court Road and got down there because Tom said he wanted to walk the last few hundred yards, even though Helen complained her skirts would pick up the mud. Really Tom wanted to delay the moment before they reached number 67. Not for the first time he was regretting that he had said yes to Helen when she suggested this little outing. This adventure.

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