Summer fiction

The Strange Case of the Illyrian Emerald: A Christmas cracker

It was one Christmas Eve morning when I received an urgent summons from Lady Nougat-Krokant, my own second cousin by marriage, and lady in waiting to the Dowager Empress of Kakania.

‘Mark my words, Preseren,’ I said briskly to my faithful secretary as we set off, ‘Lady Nougat-Krokant has come to ask for my help in some knotty case.’

Imagine Preseren’s astonishment then when Lady Nougat-Krokant began proceedings by declaring, ‘Franz-Wilhelm, I believe you have a reputation as an astute and discreet private detective to the great houses of Europe.’

‘That is so,’ I affirmed. ‘Preseren will confirm that I have solved many cases where utter discretion and sensitivity was required, such as the case of the Transylvanian Tomb and the case of the Petersburg Bronze and the..’

‘Yes, yes,’ broke in my cousin by marriage, with a preoccupied air, and that is why the Empress has decided you are to investigate the case of the Illyrian Emerald.’

‘Ah-ha!’ I leant forward with a keen air. ‘The Illyrian Emerald! It is..er..’ I looked at my secretary.

‘It is a beautiful green emerald once set in the ancient crown of Illyria, Baron von Weisswurst,’ Preseren put in, smoothly. He has a grasp of detail which you will often find in the more plodding kind of mind, and so I leave such detail to him. ‘In Illyria, it is known as the Jewel of the Forest, for it has the peculiarity that though it is translucid, there is what looks like a tiny pinecone trapped in its heart. The Jewel of the Forest was set in the crown of the great Illyrian King Josip I in 1125 and was amongst the royal family’s most treasured possessions. However, in 1793, a hundred years ago, the Jewel of the Forest vanished. It did not resurface until just a year ago, when it was bought by the Empire of Kakania, which now administers Illyria. The Illyrian royal family in exile has protested, but to no avail. The Empress refuses to give it back.’

Lady Nougat-Krokant raised her eyebrows at that, but addressed me. ‘The jewel in question was stolen two hours ago from the Empress’ private museum.’

‘Stolen!’I exclaimed. ‘Ah, then this must be the work of no ordinary thief, then, for it would not be easy to sell in this country! ‘

‘Of course,’ snapped cousin Nougat. ‘It must have been stolen by a master thief from one of the jewel capitals of the world. It’s probably out of the country already. Amsterdam, I imagine.’

I agreed. ‘Cousin Nougat, was there forced entry to the museum, guards knocked out with rare stupefying toxins, perhaps? ‘

She looked impatient. ‘No forced entry. The room was still locked, but the glass case containing the gem was smashed, and the stone gone.’

‘Ah-ha! Make a note of that, Preseren.’

On the way back to my lodgings, Preseren seemed lost in thought. Confused, no doubt, poor fellow, by the magnitude of our task. He has many sterling qualities but quick wit is not one of them. But I already had many possible leads in mind, and as soon as we were back, I told him, ‘Now go and look up train timetables. ‘

He stared at me with a bewildered expression. ‘But, Baron, won’t a cab do just as well?’

I laughed. ‘My dear Preseren, I do not think that even with my fortune I can afford to take a cab all the way to Amsterdam, where it is clear we must begin our inquiries.  Now as well as train timetables, I want you to make me a list of all the gem merchants who..’

‘Perhaps, Baron, ‘ he said, quietly, ‘it would be useful to return to the Palace first.’

‘Return to the Palace? What for?’

‘I believe it would be useful for us to have a letter of introduction to the Dutch court,’ he said, smoothly,’ just in case.’

‘That is a good thought, Preseren. Very well, call a cab and we will see my cousin again.’

While he was gone, I glanced down at the notes he’d been writing. ‘No forced entry, ‘I read, ‘though glass broken… No police or palace security sent for..Empress at her hunting lodge in the mountains.

At that moment, my secretary came back in. ‘Lady Nougat-Krokant is your cousin by marriage, is she not, sir?’ he said.

‘Of course she is, Preseren. You know that.’

‘Where was she born?’ he asked.

‘What? Oh, she was born in Illyria. What sort of irrelevant question is this?’

‘Quite irrelevant, sir,’ he agreed, humbly.

We set off for the Palace, and went straight to my cousin’s private quarters. Cousin Nougat was none too pleased.

‘Why are you here already? Why aren’t you out investigating, you fools?’ she yelled.

‘We have come to get a letter of introduction to the Dutch court,’ I informed her, sharply, ‘which you neglected to give us, and which we will need.’

‘Yes, yes.’ She crossed to her desk and pulled out a sheet of paper. ‘But then you must leave straight away, or when the Empress returns..’

‘She will find the Illyrian Emerald back in its place, and learn of the attempted theft, and how very soon it was cleared up, only hours after the jewel was reported stolen’ said Preseren, from the doorway. ‘The Empress will be very happy with you both for being so prompt and efficient. And so will Illyrian patriots all over the world. The Jewel of the Forest is safe, back with the Illyrian royal family, where it belongs. And yet there is the Illyrian Emerald, safe in the museum of the Empress of Kakania. ‘ He paused and looked at my cousin. ‘I am Illyrian too, Lady Nougat-Krokant. I understand. But give me your word that you will tell the Empress how clever the Baron has been. ‘

Lady Nougat-Krokant stared at him then nodded, slowly. ‘Of course I promise.’ Then she made a strange sound, half laugh, half sob, and hurried away.

‘Well!’ I observed, bewildered. ‘What is all this moonshine you were spinning, Preseren, to poor Cousin Nougat? Where is the gem?’

‘Why, in the museum, sir. Or it will be by tonight.’

‘By tonight?’

‘We will go and see it with our own eyes.’

And so we did, and so it was: green, gleaming, with what looked like a tiny pine cone in its glowing heart: a pine cone so perfect it looked like it had been made by a master craftsman. But it was, of course, a fossil; everyone knew that.

‘I say, Preseren,’ I remarked, ‘when you were talking to Cousin Nougat, you spoke almost as if there were two emeralds.’

He looked at me, flustered. ‘Did I?’

‘That’s absurd, you know, there’s only one.’

‘Quite so, Baron,’ said Preseren, humbly.

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