Detective Inspector Lisa Anderson stared at the iPad she’d been handed, then pinched to zoom in on the image.
“It’s a spoon,” she said, eventually.
“Not just a spoon, Guv,” said Detective Constable Ben DeSouza, adopting a pretentious tone, “it’s an ‘insight into the inconsistency of our future via the medium of a replica of a mundane object.’”
“It’s a spoon, Des.”
“Yeah,” he conceded, “but it’s a spoon worth over a million quid. It’s an original Junion.”
Lisa whistled. She considered her surroundings. The house was Edwardian, spacious, but not enormous. Round here it would be worth a fair bit, but hardly millions. The furnishings were tasteful, neither super-modern nor antiques. The parquet floor was probably original. Smells of leather and polish drifted in the overheated air – yesterday’d been the hottest day so far this year. There were a few framed photographs on the wall, but none of the usual detritus that accompanied a family. In short, this was the home of a retired, single man who was well-off, but probably not hugely wealthy.
Everything seemed to be in place, apart from a Perspex box lying on the floor below a shelf containing a small, but conspicuously empty, white plinth.
“I’m thinking Mr Ekal isn’t a millionaire art collector. So how’d he end up with a piece by Daniel Junion?”
“He was given it a few years ago by the artist, he says. Knew him before he was famous. Family friend, apparently.”
“Some people get all the luck, eh?”
“Yeah, until he got robbed, I suppose.”
“True. What happened yesterday?”
Des looked at his notes. “Mr Ekal left yesterday afternoon at 1pm. Locked everything, set the alarm. Spent the evening with friends. Came back 2am, found the back door lock smashed, spoon missing. Nothing else touched.”
“Did the alarm go off?”
“No. But logs show it was definitely set.”
“What about the cleaner?”
Des frowned. “What cleaner?”
“This place smells of polish. Maybe Mr Ekal is a lover of lemon Pledge, but I think it’s worth checking.”
“Good point. Will do.”
Lisa lowered her voice. “Is it likely he took it himself?”
“Maybe,” murmured Des, “thing is, he was massively under-insured. Says he hadn’t realised how valuable this thing’d become.”
“He’ll be lucky to get a hundredth of its value.”
“Ten grand is still a decent chunk of money, especially if he’s still got the damn thing to sell on.”
“Don’t reckon that’d be easy, guv, Junion’s pretty famous. Something like this up for sale would be hard to keep quiet. And if Ekal really wanted to get rid of it, why not just sell it publically? From what I can make out, he’d easily get seven figures at auction, especially with some publicity. Why go to all this trouble for a measly ten grand?”
Lisa drummed her fingers on the iPad’s screen. She had to admit, if it was an insurance scam it wasn’t the smartest she’d ever seen. “Anyone hear anything last night?” she asked.
“Nothing from the neighbours. And before you ask, the only fingerprints are Ekal’s.”
“Damn. Looks professional.” But, she mused, why would a pro silently disable the house alarm yet clumsily smash a lock?
Lisa stepped towards the plinth on the wall. It was a small, slender cylinder with “Number 31” etched onto one side. A hairline crack split the letters. The top surface was slightly concave. She looked again at the image on the iPad, which showed the elaborate, bluish-silver spoon balanced vertically in the dip, handle upwards.
“No crack here. When was this photo taken?”
“He said two days ago. A friend wanted to see it.”
“Follow up that ‘friend’.”
“Already on my list.”
“Why Number 31?”
Des shrugged. “That’s what the sculpture’s called. It’s an arty name, I suppose.”
“How does it stay upright? I can’t see any wires.”
“There’s a spike on the rounded bit at the bottom. It sticks in here.” Des pointed. Standing on tiptoes, Lisa peered and saw the small, dark hole.
“Why,” she muttered, half to herself, “would you leave the plinth?”
“Mum? You never listen to me!” complained Lisa’s daughter, Ella, as Lisa opened the front door of their home.
“Hm? Sorry, I was… never mind. What did you say?”
“I said, can I go round to Ruby’s tonight?”
“How much homework have you got?”
Lisa raised an eyebrow.
Ella scowled. “I’ve got a bit of chemistry to finish. It’ll only take ten minutes.”
Lisa’s eyebrow remained raised.
“All right! History. And art, but I’ve got another week to do that.”
“You can go when you’ve finished chemistry and history. And don’t leave the art until the last minute.”
“I won’t, Mum.”
“You say that, but last…” Lisa stopped, staring at one of the books Ella had just opened on the kitchen table. “Why’s this bit a different colour?” she asked, pointing.
“Oh, yeah, Mrs McCastra told us this story. It was, like, quite interesting. I coloured that in as she was talking,” Ella shrugged.
“Really? Tell me.”
“I think,” said Lisa, that you know exactly where the spoon, or should I say Number 31, is, Mr Ekal.” She picked up the plinth. It was heavy in her hands.
Mr Ekal ran his hand across his balding head. “I don’t, I told–”
The cylinder hit the wooden floor with a crunch. “Oops,” said Lisa, “butterfingers.”
“How dare you! I’ll sue, I–”
Lisa prized apart the plaster to reveal a lump of silvery metal. “Goodness me, what’s this?”
“I have no idea!”
Lisa gazed at him, letting silence fill the space. Mr Ekal’s left eyelid twitched.
“It’s the spoon, isn’t it?” she said eventually. “It was made of gallium metal, element 31. It melts at thirty degrees Celsius. It was very hot yesterday, it must’ve tipped over that with all the doors and windows closed.”
For a moment, it looked as though Mr Ekal was going to argue. But then he made a sound like a deflating balloon and slumped into a chair.
“We’ve spoken to Daniel Junion. He insists that he warned you.”
“He didn’t! Not properly! He… told me not to handle it. He said people used to make joke spoons out of gallium, because they melt in hot tea.”
Lisa smiled. It was the same story Ella had told her when she’d asked why the square for element 31 was coloured in pink in the periodic table in her chemistry book.
“He never said it would melt in a room,” continued Mr Ekal. “When I found it missing I thought it had been stolen.”
“But then you saw the plinth was cracked and… what? You picked it up and realised it was heavier?”
He nodded despondently. “I… panicked.”
“So you smashed the back door and reported a theft.”
“I wasn’t sure my insurance would pay out anything if I just admitted…” he tailed off. “Are you going to arrest me?”
She paused, “I should. This has been a serious waste of police time.”
Lisa took pity on him. “But I think you’ve probably suffered enough, losing a million quid’s worth of spoon. Tell you what, though, I could murder a cup of tea.”
This is my attempt at a mystery, and naturally I wanted to include a dash of chemistry. Poison seemed a little obvious, but I’ve always liked the story of the disappearing gallium spoons (I also wonder if perhaps this is the secret behind certain spoon-bending “psychics”?) Mr Ekal’s name, by the way, is a little nod to Mendeleev – the scientist who developed the periodic table. He predicted the existence of the as-yet undiscovered gallium, and named it eka-aluminium.