The Sugar Quill
Author: catmeat (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Alexandra Sutton and the Nighthawk's Trinket  Chapter: Chapter Two
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Alexandra Sutton and the Nighthawk's Trinket

Chapter 2

The odd thing about flying half way round the world is the sense of dislocation doesn't hit you until long after you've arrived. All airports are identical; when you land you may as well have spent twenty hours flying in a huge circle so the mild we're-not-in-Kansas-anymore feeling doesn't seem to kick in until you've moved on to the next stage in your journey. And after a summer in Hong Kong, even somewhere as familiar as London feels strange for the first few hours.

That slight dislocation, together with the sleep deprivation and the itchy feeling from not changing my clothes for twenty-four hours were the reasons I wasn't quite myself. We touched down at Gatwick Airport at three in the morning after the flight from Hong Kong. Ben Stebbins' father was there to take him by train to Brighton where they could Floo home from a friend's house. My uncle had driven Rachel and myself into London. We stopped off at his place in Kensington long enough to put Rachel to bed and pour some drug-strength coffee into ourselves. I had been dragged out the door again, just in time to see the sun rising over the rooftops, because Uncle Charles said he needed me. I was very unhappy about this but felt too shattered to whine.

Our destination turned out to be New Caledonian market. London has numerous antique markets. Among them, Portobello Road is generally where tourists go, Camden Lock is where Londoners go and New Caledonian, which is neither new nor anywhere near Caledonian Road, is where dealers go.

Despite it being late August, the early morning air was damp and chilly. Normally, I'd be running round a place like this, bubbling with happy carefree excitement. Like a child in a toyshop or a dark wizard in a mortuary. But today I was just feeling numb indifference. While Uncle Charles was off gossiping with cronies in the trade and looking for bargains, I was leaning against a burger van, surrounded by a miasma of frying onions. The tea they sold was stewed and lukewarm but I didn't care - I was drinking my third sugar-laden cup in the hope it might have a reviving effect. Their burgers, I'd just discovered, were made to some magical recipe that could cure ravenous hunger after only one bite.

Why were we there? Ask any well-fed early bird. Every Saturday at New Caledonian, the first vans unload and the first stalls are set up before 5am. Only the dregs are left by lunchtime. All around me, there was frantic business in progress. Men mostly - many looking like they'd spent the night in a homeless shelter - were discretely exchanging wads of banknotes for every variety of object that could be imagined: 18th century porcelain, 19th century silver, Edwardian long-case clocks, a 1920's set of chimney sweep's brushes, a tea-chest full of wartime gas-masks, a Victorian novelty cigar-cutter made to look like miniature guillotine. I decided I liked that: it's somehow reassuring to know our ancestors' taste could be just as bad as ours.

I was scrutinising the remnants of my burger and idly wondering if forensic examination of it might solve the mystery of what happened to all the BSE cattle when a loud voice startled me enough to spill some tea on my jersey.

"Hey, Trouble! Come and look at this."

Uncle Charles was standing at the back of a white van and was beckoning to me. He was a tall man with an untidy shock of blond hair. Unusually, his clothing was nondescript this morning. He preferred to dress meticulously in an old fashioned way that was just flamboyant enough to suggest tasteful eccentricity rather than conservatism. Around here however, this would generally be a bad idea because when you ask the price of something, the reply is based on how much money you appear to have - hence the popularity of the doss-house look.

Resentfully and with some effort, I persuaded my legs to start working and plodded over to look at whatever wonderful find Charlie wanted me to see. He waved me towards a small table that had just been unloaded. It looked Georgian, but could've easily been a 20th century knock-off. I didn't know enough about furniture to spot the difference but I knew how to act like I did. The first thing a doctor does is take the patient's pulse, the first thing a furniture dealer does is pull out a drawer.

"It's junk, Charlie! It's a blatant marriage; there's even modern screws securing the top! The handles are replacements and the oxidation on the drawer looks like staining put on last week. Even the most gullible Yank won't look twice at this thing. I'd call a penny more than 500 quid daylight robbery!"

This was of course, complete nonsense. The piece was about as married as I am! The patina looked good, wear patterns on the feet and drawer runners looked better, dealers and serious collectors don't care two damns about replacement handles, it's common to find modern screws used to repair perfectly respectable, antique pieces and hand-saw marks rather than mechanical-saw marks said 1810, not 1910. This should've been Charlie's cue to negotiate the purchase, at around the 900 pound mark, of a piece that could be churned round next week to a specialist furniture dealer for something like two thousand. Instead, he and the seller, a tubby but tough looking bruiser with a goatee beard and an ear-ring, both folded their arms and grinned at me.

"Yev been really educating 'er, Charlie," he said. "She's got the patter all right! I'd've been wettin' meself if I din already know 'ow good the thing was."

"Now don't stamp off in a huff, Blossom," said Charlie, my expression must've told him what I thought about being patronised. "I told Gospel Eddie here how good a pupil you are and he wouldn't believe me. This is what I really wanted you to see."

He ushered me forward so the open doors of the van could give a bit of privacy. Eddie produced a cardboard box that he reverently opened. Nestled inside, on a bed of cotton wool, was a greeny-black, corroded car hubcap.

No! That can't be right. Look again, Alex.

It was a bowl: possibly copper, probably bronze. Months later, I could've described from memory the reeded edge, the fluted design, little lion-claw feet and, on a central medallion, the embossed figures of a man plunging a sword into the neck of a bull, with a snake and dog greedily lapping up a spectacular waterfall of blood. There was also a scorpion who was doing something that the bull certainly would have objected to if he hadn't been too busy getting stabbed to death

"Mithras, the light giver," said Charlie. "A Persian cult god who was a hit with the Romans."

I knew that. The Mithras cult was the main competition to early Christianity. Suspicious minds will note some curious similarities between the two that suggest that when Mithrasism went down for good, sometime in the fourth century, early Christianity grabbed many of the good bits from the cult in a kind of religious fire sale.

Oh boy! OH BOY! It looks like junk now but underneath the crap it's museum quality!

"Nice," I said, colourlessly, not wanting to spoil Charlie's bargaining by looking too excited. "Any point in asking where you got this... Eddie?"

"Nighthawk I know; works up round Lincolnshire and the Fens."

"So it's got impeccable provenience," said Charlie. And they both laughed.

I knew 'nighthawk' was the slang term for archaeological looter. Using metal detectors, they rip apart sites under the cover of darkness. This is very, very illegal yet it's the essential bottom rung of the trade that finishes in the top auction houses and expensive shops in Bond Street. Whoever found this could probably do a PhD on British archaeology; assuming some university would accept a thesis with the title: 'Archaeological Artefacts and Their Current Market Values With Additional Notes on Avoiding Farmers With Shotguns'.

The haggling was done quickly; Charlie and Mr Gospel both knew exactly what the thing was worth. Between two pros, spouting nonsense for twenty minutes in order to arrive at a number exactly midway between the buyer's starting price and the seller's starting price is viewed as a gauche waste of time. A cardboard box and a large bundle of banknotes changed hands and that was that. I didn't think anything further of it; I was only grateful we were be heading home because Charlie was now cleaned out of cash.

***

Uncle Charles had premises in a 19th century terraced house near the north end of Kensington Church Street. The ground floor was his shop and the upper two floors had been turned into a small, two-bedroom apartment, an office and a large showroom that got used as an extra living space in the evenings. The cost of a place like this in central London must've been excruciating yet it suited him well. He was always there to keep an eye on things and he could use some of his stock to furnish the upstairs. Although antiquities - ancient artworks and artefacts - were what he had made his name in, he'd quietly deal in almost anything he could sell for more money than he'd bought it for.

The shop itself was aesthetically Spartan: a polished wood floor, lots of bare white walls and concealed spot lighting. It generally contained only about twenty carefully lit objects. Everything was unpriced to let casual passers-by know that if they fancied something in the window, they needn't bother coming in because they wouldn't be able to afford it. The fierce presence of Lydia, Charlie's assistant, who had the air of a demonic librarian, would deter the non-rich people who didn't get the hint. If somebody really wanted to buy something, they had to make an appointment.

The customer, sorry - guest, would be shown upstairs to admire in a comfortable, yet exquisitely tasteful, domestic setting whatever item caught their eye. After a couple of hits of twenty-year-old scotch and a masterfully subtle sales pitch, they'd start thinking that twenty thousand pounds was a bargain price for a Polemic Egyptian, bronze figure of Osiris. Then, they'd be encouraged to think how wonderful it would look in their law-firm office back in Houston and how it was much cooler than the 19th century watercolours or the original, silent-era movie posters the other law-firm-partners had on display.

Fortunately, none of this theatre happens during the weekend. After an unlocking-the-door-and-deactivating-the-alarms ritual that seemed to occupy a full five minutes we trooped inside. I was about to climb upstairs to the kitchen to make coffee when Charlie beckoned me to follow him.

Under the shop, reached by a narrow flight of stone steps, there was the house's old coal cellar which he had converted into a strong-room with several tons of concrete and a steel vault door salvaged from a long-demolished bank.

"Petal, I'm going to tell you the combination..."

"Why?" I asked suspiciously.

He grinned. "I'll change it in a few days, I don't trust you quite that much. Look, I want you to look this bowl over. Photograph it from every angle, translate the inscription, go up to the Institute of Archaeology's library to see if anything like it has ever been found, go through Christie's and Sotheby's lists to see if anything like it has been auctioned in the last hundred years. Think you can handle that?"

"Sure…but-"

"And don't let Rachel in here. If anything gets broken I'll drop you both in the Thames with weights round your feet."

Oh, I see. Another test to see if I'll be worth hiring in a couple of years time.

***

On Sunday morning, I was up early. My internal clock was behaving as crazily as usual after a long flight. I stared blearily at the early morning TV for a while, before I remembered the bowl.

I padded down to the strong room, in dressing gown and slippers, clutching a cup of coffee, and casually spun the dials on the door. The shelves in the strong room held rows of tough cardboard boxes, each marked with a number. Opening one at random, I pushed aside a filling of Styrofoam peanuts to reveal a Greek vase.

There was also a hand-written card.

Catalogue Number 287
Attic Red-Figure Stamnos, by the Eucharides painter, circa 480 B.C.
King Pentheus being torn asunder by the Theban Bacchantes.
References: Hoppin - page 334. Beazlet - page 296. Sotherby's 12th May 1922, lot 143.
Provenance: LL.

Ewww! That unknown two-thousand-year-old artist was good! This is not the kind of thing you want to look at on an empty stomach.

I carefully repacked the vase and found yesterday's bowl. Looking at it, I realized it would take most of the day to do everything Charlie wanted. Not to mention most of Monday doing research in the archaeological library.

Ah, but there is a spell that could be a shortcut.

You see, all objects have a subtle relationship with their owners. Like a tarnish, they slowly collect shadowy hints of the thoughts, emotions and memories that happen around them. It's a little bit like a Pensive though the effect is vastly weaker and the charm to read the memories is tricky at the best of times. Though, as Flitwick warned us, you don't do this with any kind of weapon - you'll be having nightmares for months.

Actually, it wasn't much of a shortcut. But I was bored and had never tried it on something this old.

Right…wand in hand… reach out to the infinite - clear my mind of all thought. That's the only useful discipline I learnt in Divination. Those who like Divination seem to find this easy as there's little to clear.

Eyes closed. Clear, calm, quiet. Think of nothing, breathe steadily; let yourself drift. Clear, calm, quiet-

"ALEX! WHY THE HELL IS THE VAULT DOOR OPEN!"

I dropped my wand and the coffee cup.

Uncle Charles, also wearing a dressing gown, stared at me through the doorway. I stooped to pick up my wand and furtively shoved it into my pocket, but that only drew attention to it. Charlie said nothing for a second. I was so sure his next words would be "What are you doing with that stick, Petal?" that I was already composing a response that was vaguely plausible and wouldn't leave me looking completely ridiculous. Instead, he showed that even he could be full of surprises.

"Bloody hell, Alex! You're one of them, aren't you?"

"Sorry... one of who?"

He ignored me and continued to talk to himself.

"Should have guessed - sent to some boarding school in Scotland and no mention of which one. No offence, Alex, but I told your father there was something weird about that Patricia Boardman when he was dating her, but did he listen? Of course not. As for her family! I only met them at the wedding but…"

I let him rant. Actually I agreed with his opinion of my wizarding relatives. But that didn't suppress a burning question that had formed, now my mind had caught up with the events of the preceding thirty seconds.

"Uncle Charlie, you seem to know some things you really shouldn't."

"Ahh…well… there's something of a story there."

***

It seems, fifteen years before, whilst he was still at Cambridge, Charlie spent a summer working on an archaeological dig in Somerset. In his expert opinion, it was a crummy Anglo-Saxon farmstead, nothing but ditches, postholes and sheep bones; even a potsherd counted as an exciting find. They lived in tents and it was a five-mile walk to the nearest pub. He wondered what he’d done to piss off the Professor who had signed him up for it.

The site was in a field owned by a Mr Lambert Lovell, an elderly bachelor who lived in an adjoining cottage. Although nothing was said, Charlie got the impression the old gentleman quite appreciated being able to open his curtains in the morning and look out on half-a-dozen, sun-tanned fit young men with no shirts on, busy with spades and trowels. The bloke was a retired stage magician who’d been quite famous in his day and it was no surprise when, after a week, he invited all the diggers to take afternoon tea in his meticulously neat garden.

According to Charlie, who even then was making money on the side as an antiques runner, he'd finished his slice of Victoria sponge cake and half-drunk his tea when he idly took a close look at the delicate china tea-cup.

That was the point at which he nearly had a heart attack.

***

"Bloody Meissen," he said. "About 1760. That cup alone would've kept me in beer for a year. The complete set: cups, plates, saucers, teapot, sugar bowl and milk jug would've fetched the price of a luxury car, even in those days."

"You didn't let that chance slip by?"

"Of course I didn't! I decided not to try and diddle him. The next day, I told him exactly what he had, what I thought it was worth and that if he was short of cash, I could find him a buyer for a ten-percent commission."

"Let me guess: he was short of cash."

"Acutely, as it turned out. He said my honesty impressed him so we shook hands on the deal and I was getting up to go when the he said, just as casually as you please, that he had a few more bits of old crockery I might want to have a look at."

***

To avoid attracting attention, they spread the selling over eighteen months. They celebrated the final sale by spending the price of one of those teacups on a four-hour lunch at the London Savoy. As well they might, Lovell's stage career had fizzled out years before and he had had few savings. Now, he could buy a large house and pay cash if he wanted to.

Naturally, Charlie had been writhing all that time with agonising curiosity about how a cupboard, full of exquisite antique pottery, had materialised in rural Somerset. As they sipped their coffee he popped the question. Lovell said some vague things about family heirlooms, but Charlie wasn't satisfied and continued to prod. Finally Lovell, who'd had too much Cognac by this time, lent back, puffed his cigar and told Charlie his life story.

It seems he'd been stage-struck from an early age. As a young man, his all-consuming hunger to be a performer had made him spend two years, knocking on the doors of agents and attending audition after audition in every theatre in London. But in the end, all this effort just proved that he really had no actual talent in acting or singing. It was then, when he was penniless and on the verge of giving up, that he remembered he did have E grade NEWT's in Charms and Transfiguration.

His stage magic act had been the talk of London and had been playing to packed audiences for over a year before the Ministry of Magic noticed what he was doing. Of course, he was hauled up in front of the Wizengamot for about a thousand charges of violating the Statute of Magical Secrecy. But as his expensive lawyer pointed out, everybody assumed the act was like all other stage magic, just slight of hand and trickery. Not one person suspected he was pulling rabbits out of hats for real. Technically, the Wizengamot couldn't touch him and besides they'd have to obliviate half of London if they wanted to keep all this quiet. So they let him go.

They did, however, quietly amend the Magical Secrecy Statute so that if anybody tried pulling this kind of stunt again, he or she could be locked-up for about a century.

***

"Of course, I assumed he was a raving nutcase," said Charlie. "But I just smiled and nodded - he was paying for lunch, after all. It was only when he made my half-smoked cigar grow back to its original length that I realized that either somebody in the kitchen had dropped acid into my consommé or he might be telling the truth. Later, I used up a lot of favours to ask one or two questions to some people I knew in various government departments. I got vague replies about a group of people who could do strange and remarkable things and who were best left alone. I got the hint."

"But that's not the end of the story, is it?"

"Well... no."

I could guess where this was heading. You see. wizards live a long time and their families go back a long way. Importantly, wizards tend not to replace things. This is partly because of innate conservatism that dislikes anything "new-fangled", partly because of good old-fashioned thrift and partly because there's no need - things that are broken or worn-out may be restored with simple spells almost indefinitely. I’d noticed this when staying with Ben Stebbins, the only things in the house that seemed to post-date 1920 were the copies of the Daily Prophet and the food in the larder (or some of it at least – with preservation spells, you never can tell).

"Who first suggested a partnership?" I asked.

"He did. He could buy the antiques from other Wizards - usually for very little. I used my Muggle contacts to sell them and we split the profits down the middle. He also made sure any enchantments were safely removed which would help cover our backs with the Ministry of Magic, should they ever find out."

"But they weren't going to. You didn't whisper a thing about wizardry for fifteen years because you knew that word might filter back to the Ministry of Magic. You would wake up one morning and your very profitable little sideline would be just a memory - or not even that as you'd be obliviated."

"Bingo! You're not just a pretty face, Alex."

I said nothing for a few seconds as this sudden revelation slowly sank in. I was still quite shaken by his casual references to the Ministry and use of the word Muggle. I suppose it was a bit like listening to your elderly vicar describe, in disturbing detail, the various ways of fixing horse races.

"You know, I'm going to want a lot more money if I decide to work for you."

"Witch or not, you're definitely my brother's daughter."

***

Author’s Notes

Marriage - A supposedly antique piece that's been recently assembled using a mixture of antique and modern parts.

Runner - A runner is a antiques dealer who mainly sells to other dealers. They have little money or stock and rely on a rapid turnover, buying and selling items as fast as possible. 'Eddie' is one such.

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