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4: The Missing Crux Ansata

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Author Topic: 4: The Missing Crux Ansata  (Read 3 times)
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« on: May 23, 2023, 12:01:58 pm »


IF Penpeti was a well-known character in Welworth, Miss Minnybell was famous. For one thing she had lived in the place since its inauguration and for another, where Penpeti was silent and aloof, Miss Minnybell was talkative and utterly unselfconscious. She waylaid any and every citizen at the slightest provocation. She revealed to them with unblushing gusto all the intimate problems and actions of her circumscribed existence. But nobody minded and nobody was unkind to Miss Minnybell---for Miss Minnybell, poor soul, was “not quite all there”.

For twenty-five years she had tested the patience and tempers of the Welworthians, but she had never harmed a soul. She had her obsessions, of course, but she was not, and never had been, dangerous. Her story was a tragic one. At the age of twenty-one she had taken up missionary work in Turkey and for five happy years had devoted herself to this service. And then late one night poor Miss Minnybell had found herself struggling in the arms of her Turkish male servant, who was endeavouring, with considerable intimacy, to embrace her. Luckily she had been rescued by a member of the mission before she had suffered any real damage, but the incident so preyed on her mind that she eventually had a nervous breakdown and was forced to return to England. Although she recovered her bodily strength, her mind, alas, lagged behind. From that day to this Miss Minnybell had a horror of and a hatred for anything Turkish. Even Turkish Delight. She was known in the Garden City as “Mad Minny”, but it was kindly meant and everybody felt genuinely sorry for her. She was just a harmless old lady who was not quite right in the head.

And then one December dusk Miss Minnybell first set eyes on Penpeti. He was just coming out of a bookshop and the light from the window illuminated every detail of his odd attire. But it was not his cloak, his caftan or his purple umbrella that arrested Miss Minnybell’s attention. Her whole interest, with a sudden uprush of fear and loathing, was centred on his fez! It was the first time she had seen a man wearing a fez since she had left Turkey nearly forty years before. The shock to her nervous system was profound. Her old obsession flamed higher. With the cunning and patience of a plain-clothes man she “tailed” Penpeti home through the December twilight. Then, with equal cunning, she began to find out all about him. She was convinced that he had turned up in Welworth with designs, not this time, alas, on her virginity, but on her life. She was absolutely certain that Peta Penpeti and Ali Hamed, her one-time servant, were one and the same man. The beard was merely part of a disguise. Beneath his caftan she was sure he concealed a long jewelled dagger, whose destined target was her own heart. It was revenge he desired---for through the swirling mists of her memory Miss Minnybell seemed to recall that Ali Hamed had been sentenced to two years solitary confinement for assault.

Thereafter, at night, she barricaded the doors with tables and chairs. She contracted with a local builder to fashion her a set of stout wooden shutters for every window---shutters that she barred and bolted the moment it was dark. From among the effects of a recently deceased brother she unearthed a large and cumbersome revolver and a box of ammunition. Then she went to the Public Library and, with the aid of the Encyclopædia Britannica, learnt how to load and cock this instrument of defence. Every night she slept with it under her pillow. It was for Miss Minnybell a period of intense activity and suspense.

And although, with the passing of months, nothing happened, Miss Minnybell’s conviction remained unshaken. The would-be assassin was biding his time. She was being too clever for him. She wasn’t giving him the opportunity to lure her into a dark corner, where he could commit his crime unseen and in silence. Meeting Penpeti in the street, Miss Minnybell would take not the slightest notice of him until he had passed by---then she would skip into a doorway and watch him, or dodge after him from tree to tree like an enthusiastic Boy Scout out for a good day’s “tracking”. She soon learnt all about his connection with the Children of Osiris. Often she hid in the laurel bushes that surrounded the corrugated-iron temple and spied on his movements. As long as she knew where he was and what he was up to, Miss Minnybell felt comparatively safe. But when she went home after dark she always kept to the most frequented and best-lighted streets. Luckily she lived only a stone’s throw from the town centre.

And of this flapping, fluttering female in his wake Penpeti remained unaware. He was probably one of the few people in Welworth who were ignorant of “Mad Minny’s” existence. After all, the oddity of her dress and behaviour were probably less noticeable in Welworth than they would have been in any
other town in England. It was her conversation that marked her down. And to Penpeti Miss Minnybell never spoke.


Although Hansford Boot had noticed with satisfaction that Mrs. Hagge-Smith had suddenly cooled towards Penpeti, he refused to let the grass grow under his feet. In another week Mrs. Hagge-Smith would be returning to Old Cowdene, which gave him exactly seven days in which to widen the rift between them. Seven days that he devoted to a constant and subtle broadcasting of anti-Penpeti propaganda. Perhaps Hansford’s desire to wreck Penpeti’s position in the hierarchy of Coo was not entirely disinterested. True he was wildly anxious to avoid any split in the Movement, but deep down he was also jealous and envious of the Prophet-in-Waiting. As one of the cult’s oldest members, he felt that the office should have been his. With Penpeti discredited in the eyes of Eustace and Alicia, he had no doubt that the office would be offered to him. This was his great opportunity, and he must seize it.

He began by underlining Penpeti’s reticence about his past. Who was the man? What was his background? Why was he so elusive about it? Didn’t it suggest to Mrs. Hagge-Smith that Penpeti had something to conceal? And the very name Peta Penpeti---didn’t Alicia feel that it had a false ring about it? It was too beautifully ancient Egyptian to be true---surely? Wasn’t it possible that Penpeti had deliberately adopted the name to further his own position in the Order? Perhaps he was using them all as pawns in some clever game of his own. Perhaps his devotion to the cause was, so to speak, all my eye and Betty Martin. Wasn’t it possible that Penpeti was no more than an unprincipled opportunist who hoped to make something out of his connection with the Children of Osiris? And was that something . . . money?

It was the word “money” that first convinced Alicia that there might be something in Hansford Boot’s suspicions. Penpeti had come to her and tried to borrow money. He refused to say for what he wanted the money. It was certainly odd. And aware that the seeds of doubt were beginning to germinate in Alicia’s mind, Hansford sought around for further evidence of Penpeti’s shiftiness.

And then, like manna from heaven, came the alarming disappearance of the Crux Ansata from above the temple altar. It was a beautiful piece of work, fashioned of solid gold and set with semi-precious stones, centring on a single faultless ruby. Needless to say Mrs. Hagge-Smith was the donor of this magnificent symbol. Night and day it stood in a small niche directly above the altar-piece. The temple itself was always kept locked and the windows, set high in the walls, were fitted with metal grilles. Three people owned keys to the building---Eustace, Penpeti and Mrs. Williams, the caretaker. The latter, a decent elderly widow with an unimpeachable record, lived in a bungalow adjacent to the temple itself; an arrangement which enabled members, anxious to meditate in the quiet and privacy it afforded, to call on Mrs. Williams at any time of the day and get her to unlock the door and lock it again after their departure.

It was Mrs. Williams herself who first gave news of the Crux Ansata’s disappearance. She sent her daughter, Annie, post-haste to Mr. Mildmann with a brief yet dramatic note.

When I went to cleen up same as ushal this mornin the Crooks and Sarter was gorn from its place abuv the alter. I carnt say how its gorn but am wurred and remain.
yours truly
Sissie Williams.

Eustace at once informed Mrs. Hagge-Smith who was in the drawing-room dictating letters.

“Send for Hansford immediately,” she said. “We must go round to Carroway Road at once.” She turned to Denise who was seated demurely at her portable typewriter. “Tell Arkwright to bring round the car in ten minutes.”

Hansford, who lived only a short distance from “Tranquilla”, was there five minutes after receiving the news over the telephone. Five minutes later, Arkwright, in his plum-coloured uniform, drove the sleek, forty-horse Daimler round to the door. This luxurious monster was another of Alicia’s “little gifts” to Eustace, who prior to her munificence had bounced about Welworth in a decrepit Austin Seven. This Alicia considered out of keeping with the dignity of his office. And with the Daimler had come Sidney Arkwright---a young and handsome under-chauffeur from Old Cowdene, a staunch disciple of Cooism and one of Alicia’s many “finds”.

Having piled into this glittering barouche, Alicia, Hansford, and Eustace were swiftly transported to Carroway Road. The agitated caretaker was waiting for them at the gate of her bungalow and the whole party at once entered the adjacent temple. There Alicia began to cross-question Mrs. Williams with typical efficiency.

“You first noticed the Crux Ansata was missing when you came in to clean up this morning, Mrs. Williams?”

“That’s right, mum.”

“When did you last see the Crux Ansata in its proper place?”

“Yesterday morning, mum.”

“So it must have been stolen sometime during the last twenty-four hours.”

Eustace broke in:

“But I was here early yesterday afternoon. Arkwright drove me round about two o’clock. I left the building about half-an-hour later. The Crux Ansata was certainly in its niche when I left.”

“A most useful piece of evidence,” boomed Mrs. Hagge-Smith with a nod of approval. “Now, Mrs. Williams, did you let anybody into the temple after two-thirty yesterday afternoon? Think carefully. This is a very unsavoury business, remember.”

Mrs. Williams adopted an expression which she considered appropriate to careful thinking and announced:

“Why to be sure now, Miss Parker came round about six and stayed until nearly seven. That’s her usual time, of course.”

“Usual time for what?”

“Meddlytating, mum.”

“You’re sure you locked up securely after Miss Parker left?”

“Yes, mum.”

Mrs. Hagge-Smith turned to the others.

“We shall have to ring up dear Penelope and see what she has to say.” She pivoted again towards the caretaker. “And you didn’t open up the building again until this morning?”

“No, mum. But I saw Mr. Penpeti a-coming out of the place a little after nine. He’s got his own key, of course.”

“Mr. Penpeti! Why on earth didn’t you tell us this before? But how did you know it was Mr. Penpeti? Surely it was dark, Mrs. Williams?”

Mrs. Hagge-Smith sounded like a persuasive yet malicious K.C.

“I was just coming back from my sister Aggie’s, mum, and saw his figger against the open door before ’e turned out the light. There’s no mistaking Mr. Penpeti, is there, mum? I mean with that there little tasselled ’at of ’is.”

“Did you speak to him?”

“No, mum. I’d reached my own gate before ’e’d finished locking up---and ’e never was a talkative gentleman at the best of times.”

“Think now!” broke in Hansford sharply. “Mr. Penpeti---was he carrying anything? Any sort of parcel? Bundle? Eh?”

“No, sir---but I did notice ’e had a little bag in his hand. A sorta doctor’s bag, if you take me.”

“Umph!” Hansford exchanged a meaning glance with Alicia.

Mrs. Hagge-Smith concluded her cross-examination.

“You, yourself, know nothing about the disappearance of the Crux Ansata, Mrs. Williams? You’re quite sure there’s nothing on your conscience? I promise you that anything you say to us here will be treated in the strictest confidence.”

“I ’ope you’re not suggesting,” bridled Mrs. Williams, drawing herself up with outraged dignity, “that I pinched that there Crooks and Sarter? Because if so, mum, you can kindly look elsewhere for a caretaker. I’m as put about by this nasty business as any of you. And if I thought you was----!”

“Come now, Mrs. Williams,” broke in Eustace soothingly. “Mrs. Hagge-Smith was only posing a very natural question. But now that you’ve answered it so clearly, I’m sure we’re all more than satisfied.”

“I should ’ope so, sir!” snorted Mrs. Williams, still fuming. “And if there’s nothing further I’ll be getting back to my ’ousework. Anything on my conscience indeed! I never did!”

The moment Mrs. Williams had stumped out of the temple, slamming the door behind her, Hansford turned to Alicia.

“Must ring Penelope. If the Ansata was there at seven o’clock---looks fishy. Penpeti, I mean. Carrying a bag. Note that. Know he’s pushed for money. Ansata worth a packet, eh?”

“Oh I’m sure such a dreadful thing’s out of the question,” bleated Eustace forlornly. “It’s unthinkable.”

It was Alicia Hagge-Smith’s turn to ejaculate that queer indeterminate word which is usually written down as “Umph!”


Penelope, her lovely drawl trickling along the wires like spilt syrup, was emphatic. When she had left the temple shortly before seven o’clock the Crux Ansata was gleaming in its niche above the altarpiece. Hansford Boot hung up the receiver with a sigh of profound satisfaction. His intuitive reading of Penpeti’s character was even more accurate than he had imagined. Not only was he an opportunist and a scrounger but now, so it appeared, a common or garden thief. It was too good to be true!

He hastened to Eustace and Alicia in the study and handed on Penelope’s information. Eustace’s face crumpled with dismay.

“But how terrible,” he breathed. “If our suspicions prove to be correct . . . how truly terrible! We must see Peta without delay and give him the chance to show us how wrong we are in suspecting him.”

“No,” said Hansford shortly. “Wrong approach. Even if true, he’d deny it. What then? We couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t prove anything. Agreed?”

“Then what do you suggest,” enquired Alicia with an impatient glance.

“Police. Get them to investigate. Know how to cross-question. Find clues. Drive home guilt. Their job.”

“Oh no, no!” wailed Eustace unhappily. “What ever happens we must avoid any undesirable publicity. We can’t afford a scandal. We simply mustn’t call in the police!”

“That’s all very well,” put in Mrs. Hagge-Smith practically. “I spent a great deal of money on that Crux Ansata. It was an expensive one. Even if you’re content to let the matter slide, Eustace, I’m the one who should really be asked to make any decision. Personally I entirely agree with Hansford. We’ve got to recover that Crux Ansata. And we’ve got to discover the thief. We’ll go to the police-station without delay.”

Eustace’s watery eyes gleamed defiantly through their pince-nez.

“I refuse to come with you.”

“Very well,” said Alicia with a sniff of disapproval. “Hansford and I will go alone. At once! Come along, Hansford.”

Arkwright drove them to the police-station. It was a sedate mock-Anne building in Lavender Lane with a beautifully espaliered wistaria trailing over its red-brick façade. They were ushered at once into Inspector Duffy’s office, where with admirable clarity Hansford laid the facts of the case before the alert bullet-headed little man behind the desk. The inspector made voluminous notes.

“And this Crux Ansata?” he asked, puzzled.

“It’s the Ancient Egyptian symbol of eternal life,” explained Mrs. Hagge-Smith. “A cross with its upper arm bent into a loop. The loop being a circle, and a circle, as you know, is the nearest geometric expression to something that has no beginning and no end. Which is, of course, eternity!”

Inspector Duffy scratched his head and pushed a slip of paper towards Mr. Boot.

“Perhaps you’d better draw it for me, sir.” Hansford did so. “And what would be the approximate value of the missing article?” continued Duffy. Mrs. Hagge-Smith suggested about four hundred pounds. Duffy whistled. “I see---quite a nice little sum. And this Mr. Penpeti . . . what makes you suspect that . . .?”

Hansford etched in the details, stressing Penpeti’s apparent lack of funds and his attempts to “touch” the determinedly “untouchable” Alicia.

Duffy nodded.

“Well, sir, until I’ve something more definite to go on, I can’t do more than put this Mr. Penpeti through an ordinary cross-examination. And even then he’s under no obligation to answer my questions. Of course, he may be anxious to put forward an explanation. He may have his alibi. You’ve got no real evidence to suggest that he stole the missing article.”

“Quite,” admitted Hansford, “but felt it easier for you to put the questions. Difficult for us. Embarrassing. Agreed? Can only hope he’s cleared. Unpleasant if not. Create a scandal. Member of our faith. High up in the order, too.”

It was Inspector Duffy’s turn to say “Umph.”


Penpeti looked glum. He was glum. Even the very excellent rissole à la Bernard Shaw, which was the plat du jour of the Rational Feeding Restaurant, failed to relieve his depression. Sitting over his lunch he tried to take a more optimistic view of the future, but no matter in which direction he gazed the outlook was black. It was just one damned thing after another. First Yacob’s untimely visit; then the sudden loss of Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s patronage, and, finally, his utter inability to make any headway with Penelope Parker. Financial headway, that is. His headway in other directions had been both startling and swift. At his second visit, Penelope, with the brazen shamelessness of a woman who knows exactly what she wants, declared that she was in love with him. At the third visit, for decency’s sake, he was forced to take her into his arms and kiss her. Beyond that dangerous moment he dared not think. He only knew that his original surmise was correct. Beneath the mystic veils lurked a really virulent specimen of the Eternal Eve. In less than a week he had landed himself in a very ticklish situation.

But Penelope’s purse-strings were as obstinately knotted as Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s. His hints had been broad enough, but not a penny-piece was forthcoming to make this amorous adventure worth-while. Penpeti felt desperate. In another week Yacob would come sneaking back into Welworth demanding the money that Penpeti had been unable to pay out on his previous visit. Yacob had given him just fourteen days in which to find, what he always referred to as, “the necessary”. Either “the necessary” was forthcoming, or else . . . and Penelope was his last hope!

Then there was another upsetting complication. Penelope had warned him that Hansford Boot was out to sabotage his position in the Movement. Penelope swore that Boot wanted the office of Prophet-in-Waiting for himself. He was working day and night to set Mrs. Hagge-Smith against him. Well, there was some truth in that! Alicia certainly seemed cold and unapproachable these days. She was constantly in Hansford Boot’s company. Yes---it was all very depressing.

Penpeti had always detested Boot. No definite reason---just an instinctive antagonism. His dislike was coupled with the firm belief that he’d met Boot before. He couldn’t for the life of him say where and when, except that it was during the period of his life in which Yacob had so expansively figured. Perhaps Yacob would remember. But no matter in what circumstances he had previously met Boot, the idea lingered that the fellow had been connected with something shady, something secret, even criminal. Penpeti decided that when Yacob next turned up in Welworth, he would show him the group photo of the Coo hierarchy taken outside the temple, and see if Yacob could identify Boot. After all it would be very, very useful to know something about Boot, that Boot himself might be anxious to conceal. Such knowledge could be used as a lever. Or would “chisel” have been the better word?

And then, startled by the coincidence, Penpeti was suddenly aware that Hansford Boot had entered the restaurant and was escorting Mrs. Hagge-Smith to an adjacent table. Penpeti hastily clapped his napkin to his mouth, hiding his beard, and bent lower behind the tall vase of cape gooseberry. Once the couple were seated he knew he would be safe from discovery, for the tables at the Rational were separated from each other, like loose-boxes in a stable, by a series of low partitions. The wood of these partitions, however, was so thin that it was possible by listening carefully to overhear at least the gist of any conversation that took place behind them.

From the moment they had settled down and given their order, Penpeti’s interest was aroused. In the very first sentence he heard mention of his name, and fast on the heels of that, his own name in connection with the police. He listened intently, almost holding his breath, whilst Hansford quickly slashed his reputation to shreds in his peculiar telegraphic English. From mention of the missing Crux Ansata, he passed on to a detailed exposition of his belief that he, Penpeti, was the only possible person who could have stolen it. It all sounded devilish clever and convincing and there was no doubt that Hansford’s reasoning was cutting a great deal of ice with Alicia.

Penpeti’s hackles rose. So Penelope was right, by heaven! Hansford was out to besmirch his good name in the eyes of the one woman he was most anxious to impress. Damn the man! It was intolerable, despicable! Somehow, by hook or by crook, he must put an end to this devilish slander. But how? Was Yacob the answer? Was it possible that Yacob’s memory would prove to be more alert than his own? Was it possible that Yacob would recall just where he had met Hansford Boot before? Yacob was smart. He forgot nothing. If there was anything shady in Hansford’s past record then, by God, Yacob was the man to know all about it!

“But the police,” he thought. “No---that’s more serious.”

It was obvious that they had got the police on to the job of recovering the missing Crux Ansata and that he, himself, was destined to be put through some sort of cross-examination. And, at that moment, an interview with the police was something that struck Penpeti as peculiarly distasteful. But how to avoid it without rousing suspicion? Damn this fellow Boot!

Well, he’d have to wait until Yacob turned up to collect the money he didn’t seem likely to get. Unless, of course, at the last minute, Penelope . . . ?

But Penpeti, for all his prowess as a high-powered Casanova, had little hope in this direction. He shook his head dolefully and dug a vicious spoon into his sickly-looking fig mould. His world seemed to be falling apart.

Beyond the partition, the hateful voice of Hansford Boot was saying: “So secretive about his past. Sticks in my gullet. Never been happy about his reserve. Suggestive. But mustn’t influence you, my dear Alicia. Unfair. Fellow not here to defend himself. But queer, eh? Air of mystery. Personally I don’t like it!”

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