By Sviatoslave Loginov and Anatoly Belilovsky
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The detective appeared neither unusually kindly, nor particularly tired, yet there was something in his features of a man who, like Maigret, is doomed to understanding.
"Now, Konstantin Sergeevich," the detective said, "and this time, calmly, if possible, please list the stolen items one more time."
The leader of the expedition, a huge bearded man, moved with a distinctly un-archeological impulsiveness; he seemed ready to leap up and run around the tent, but settled down under the detective's steady gaze.
"Everything has been stolen, every single piece!" he exclaimed. "A month's worth of digging, gone!"
"Love's Labor Lost," flashed through the detective's mind, but aloud he only asked:
"Anything gold or silver?"
"What gold? This is the Neolithic, one of the first settlements of the Volosovo culture. Polished stone axes, scrapers, hand-molded pottery, ornaments made of bone and amber, a unique sickle made from a single piece of stone, a wonderful, well-preserved Neolithic Venus - all gone!"
"Did any photographs survive? I mean, of Venus ... and all the rest."
"Yes, of course." He produced a digital camera and clicked through the images. "I'll find them for you--"
"The camera is not stolen," said the detective. "What about the rest of your staff - have any of them noticed any missing personal belongings? Cameras, mobile phones, other valuables?"
"Personal possessions are all here, where would they go?" Konstantin Sergeevich looked up, his brow furrowing as if in pain, and muttered: "Two shovels disappeared! Regular shovels, like garden spades. We left them overnight in the excavation. What in hell did they need the shovels for, the crooks?"
"Shovels, you say?" the detective said, looking at the image on the camera display. "Shovels - now, that is serious..." He turned the camera around. "This is the Venus you are talking about?"
"Ugh. Aptly named - definitely looks like something venereal."
"Hardly," said the archaeologist, gazing upon the image with something akin to infatuation. "She's the archetypal mother goddess. A symbol of fertility! Hypertrophic hips, big sagging breasts - indicating a woman who has borne many healthy children. And the abdomen - clearly an image of a pregnant woman."
"And what happened to her head? Or is this stump all the head she has?"
"In this case, it's all the head she needs. The important features are all there - thighs, chest, stomach... Essentials of procreation."
"My apologies for the naive question, but what could thighs and stomach like this cost? I mean, for how much can you sell your Venus, for example, to collectors?"
"I have no idea. Such things are not for sale, they belong in museums. There are very few artifacts like this in private collections, and their authenticity is usually in grave doubt."
"A very few. Don't mind me, I'm just thinking out loud about our thieves. Where could they fence this stuff? If they left the personal valuables alone, they are not random thieves. These are educated criminals who understood that they came to steal, probably items specifically ordered. Who knew that you found this Venus?"
"Everyone knew. I called the university and sent them photos."
"Do you have enemies? People who envy you, academic rivals, others who might wish you harm?"
"Of course. But none who would stoop to stealing finds. They are, after all, persons of culture. And then, the box weighs a hundred kilos, too heavy for one person to carry; not easy for two, either."
"I see..." The detective cycled through the images quickly. "And what's this? Fingerprints?"
The archeologist squinted at the picture over the detective's shoulder. "That's an example of hand-shaped ceramics," he said. "Before the invention of the potter's wheel, bowls turned out crooked, but they were better than nothing. The potter would decorate the finished product by tracing a wavy line across the wet clay, or by leaving impressions of his fingers in it. Think of it as a hallmark. The bowl in the picture is almost undamaged, just a tiny chip off the edge; it was still useful, possibly for many years. As the saying goes, a cracked pot will last two hundred years."
"So how old do you think these finger impressions are?"
"Six thousand years, give or take."
"Beautifully preserved. I wish we had prints this clear at crime scenes. No matter; thieves always slip up somewhere. You also mentioned the shovels that disappeared?"
"Yes, two shovels. Who would steal something like that?"
"A spade is always useful, in the garden, or in the field. Let's go see what my staff has dug up."
"The staff" - an elderly sergeant and a young man in civilian clothes - found more than fingerprints. They found an entire palm print. Apparently the unknown intruder had first fumbled in the dig and then wiped the mud off his hand on one of the boxes, leaving an exemplary print on the plywood.
"Look at the size of that hand!" The detective shook his head. "Not one of your people, is he?"
"God forbid! Arkasha, he's a junior, and I are the only males here, the rest are girls! And we always wash our hands after excavating. I would certainly never leave prints like this."
"I see. Well, Konstantin Sergeevich, I'll leave you temporarily, but I'll be back tomorrow. I'll ask you, all of you, not to touch anything, either here or in the excavation. Also... Could you lend me your camera until tomorrow? We'll need copies of your photos of finds, personal pictures, you understand?"
The autumn slush kept the police "Mercedes" well away from the camp. They parked more than a kilometer away, and the detective and his team walked the rest of the way. And they returned not the next day, as promised, but the very same evening, and this time they numbered among them not only the detective and two police officers, but also a dog handler who was a skinny bright-looking youngster, and his charge, a shepherd of unclear pedigree but imposing size.
"Didn't expect me back so soon, did you?" the detective said. "I didn't expect to come back so soon, either. But then I got to thinking, the box is too heavy to carry off by hand, but only a tractor could drive up here in this weather. Also, your shovels are gone. Most likely, our thieves dragged the box a little ways away and tucked it away until better times. Here along the river it's all cliffs, ravines; you could play hide and seek here till cows come home. Unless your box got airlifted away, the dog will find it."
The dog, meanwhile, ran along the riverbank, dug a hole in the sand the size of a good foundation pit, then found a fat frog in the thick coastal grass and began pushing it with his nose, forcing the batrachian to jump. The frog was in a stupor and did not want to jump. Most likely, it had already prepared for hibernation, and everything that happened seemed to it like a bad dream. Fortunately, the frog gods took pity on the poor amphibian; people finished talking, and the dog handler who looked more like a boy than a hero of the invisible front, said, quietly and apparently to no one in particular:
"Baron, to me!"
A fountain of sand spouted from under his paws, and the dog, losing in an instant all his good-natured simplicity, came to heel at its master's feet.
"Baron, work! Seek!"
Having carefully sniffed at the clay imprint, Baron took off in the direction away from the camp. The students, crowded into their tent, looked at its retreating shape and marveled at its amazing metamorphosis.
The detective and the archeologist followed quickly in its wake.
"If the dog comes at you," the detective said, "don't react, don't pay attention, and especially don't look it in the eye. Never irritate a dog when it's working."
From the river came the sound of barking and a moment later the handler's whistle.
"Found something!" The detective sounded cheerful.
In the bushes under the cliff, debris from a broken box were strewn about a pile of abandoned artifacts. It was clear that the vandals who stole the box proceeded to rummage its contents, not caring about the safety of exhibits, and left after hastily picking what they thought was most valuable.
Letting out an inarticulate moan, Konstantin Sergeevich rushed to the remains of his treasures.
"Easy now!" the detective warned. "Do not touch anything yet. Just look and tell me what is missing."
"I do not see the Venus," the archaeologist rasped. - "Two stone ax-heads, perfectly preserved - gone. Sickle of speckled flint, amazingly beautiful ... You see, sickles were usually made from sheep's or goat's ribs, and the cutting edge composed of flint chips. These sickles broke quickly, chip inserts are the most frequent finds in these layers, more even than the arrowheads. An all-stone sickle is very rare; they were difficult to make and were passed from generation to generation for hundreds and thousands of years. Even in the Bronze Age there were stone sickles, but they gradually disappeared from everyday use, becoming sacred weapons. Some tribes harvested sacrificial crops with stone sickles as late as the last century. And now, they are gone!"
"So the missing items are quite rare, possibly unique?"
"Not all, but the sickles and the Venus, most probably."
The detective stood up, stroked his chin, and suddenly looked up at the archaeologist.
"I would urge you, Konstantin Sergeevich, to think carefully. Try to recall where you hid them? If you think about it, there is a difference in whether your sincere repentance comes before or after I find the missing items."
For a few seconds the archeologist stood silently clutching his beard; he swallowed the air convulsively before catching his breath to say:
"Do you understand what you are saying?"
"I know. And I strongly advise you to also understand that our conversation just became quite serious. The theft of valuable items is a crime, and if we open a criminal case and you are formally charged... I think you'd better admit it now, and hope for leniency."
"Why not say what you really think?" the archeologist grated. "You are too lazy to go looking for the real culprit, so you decided to pick on someone closer. Well, it won't work. First of all, how would I benefit from stealing my own finds?"
"That is a very good question Why did you do it? You are an honored, renowned scientist. Name, reputation - you have it all. Money ... No one has enough money, but that wouldn't push you to crime. It's just that everything ties up so neat: Your expedition found at least two unique artifacts, you had time enough to describe them, and attest to their authenticity, and then -- your Venus disappears along with your sickles, and other, less valuable items. As I understand, now we have only the most ordinary items, not worth much, but their presence at this site suggests the possibility of finding real treasure here. What a shame to lose it all! When in truth you sold the collection to some connoisseur of antiquities, a rich aficionado of ancient trinkets..."
"What?!" - the archaeologist roared, shaking his fists. - "I sold? To a collector? I would rather strangle these collectors with my own hands! Those bastards! This is all their fault!"
"Excellent! Now I hear true sincerity! Oh, how you hate such people! And to tweak the noses of all these fences, you steal your own finds that you never found. Academic fraud, pure and simple, if well-intentioned."
"Ah, so that's why you need armed guards with dogs? So you don't have to answer right now for making these accusations?"
"Sure, I will answer. But first, you will answer a few questions. For example, what would you say if the palm print on the box turned out to be yours? We have not taken your prints, yet, but what if we do?"
"There is no what if. I always wash my hands after excavation in that small river nearby, but my fingerprints are on everything in this camp."
"Very good. And here is another point. In the expedition you are the only digger with a degree. All the rest are either students or amateurs. Why is that?"
"Because the expedition needs only one leader, otherwise everyone will try to tell you how and where to dig."
"Very convincing. And now I will tell you how and why you, as they say, ‘salted' the dig. You made the Venus, the sickle, and the other valuable items in advance of the expedition. I think with modern equipment that's easy to do. Then you tossed them into the excavation, using the fact that except you, no one here is a professional. Students who have no idea what they are looking at dig up a fake antiquity. Then you steal them yourself to sell to collectors, not so much for the money, but to foist a deliberate forgery upon the odious hoarders. Isn't this logical?"
"Very logical," the voice of Konstantin Sergeevich grated. His beard bristled, and suddenly he looked less like a researcher, a museum rat, and more like the soldiers who six thousand years ago broke with polished axes the heads of their enemies. "You left out one thing: there are still many objects found in the same layers as the missing artifacts. And I'm sure that radiocarbon dating will show their true age!"
"First of all, some shards can be real, if not particularly rare. But most importantly, radiocarbon dating is easy to throw off. Before firing the clay, add a pinch of coal dust, it's millions of years old. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you can age any piece of pottery to the precise period you need."
"You should be writing mysteries," Konstantin Sergeevich said. "You'd be great at it."
"It's something I might take up in my retirement. And while I am still on duty, I'll show you exactly where you made a mistake. All that has been said before is pure speculation, but there is one piece of evidence that cannot be challenged. Fingerprints! The fact is, the fresh prints on the box, and the finger impressions on the bowl which, according to your assertions, was made six thousand years ago, belong to the same person. And I am sure that this person is you, or at the very least your accomplice."
"Nonsense," muttered Konstantin Sergeevich. "Pure nonsense."
"Just the facts, Professor."
"I do not believe it!" Konstantin Sergeyevich sat down on a boulder exposed from the riverbank by the spring flood. "I don't know what part of this you are making up, but it cannot be."
"Let's proceed as follows," the detective said. "It is possible that the thieves will return at night to pick up what remains of their hoard. So we're going to post an officer tonight to watch the area. You are welcome to stay with us. We'll tell everyone in the camp that the dog did not find anything, and that you went with me to the city, to testify. Next, there are several options. Most likely, no one will come here. The thieves, whoever they may be, may be satisfied with what they have taken, and will not come back for items they discarded as junk. In this case, we have learned nothing new, and we wait for test results. But if someone appears we'll see who it is. I have a feeling he'll turn out to be your student, Arkasha. You need two people to carry the box, and he seems the only one strong enough to be of help to you. But I'll be happy if I am mistaken."
"You are mistaken," the archaeologist said without turning.
"That would be excellent, and I will beg forgiveness in all sincerity. And tell me, this rock on which you sit, would it be suitable as raw material for a prehistoric master?"
Konstantin Sergeevich sat on the sand, stroked the boulder with his hands with something akin to affection. The stone was smooth, honey-yellow and translucent.
"It would do just fine. Such stones were highly prized. You say ‘prehistoric' times, and probably mean ‘savage,' but they had a highly developed culture: art, trade. They would travel hundreds of kilometers in search of good flint, or buy it from their neighbors. Mammoth ivory reached India, tropical cowrie shells turned up in the tombs of the Polar Urals, Siberian artists used Spanish cinnabar. Flint-knapping developed in all these places to an amazing skill."
"Then why is this stone lying around?"
"It was never accessible before. Only now has it been washed out of the silt by the river. Good flint is rare in this area, it would have been snapped up in an instant." A faraway look came into his eyes. "Some experts believe that the stones were pretreated by boiling in special concoctions to reveal hidden fracture lines. I do not subscribe to this hypothesis myself, although perhaps some of the trade flint could have been cooked in this way. In any case, the rock would then be split along these fracture lines. Paleolithic and Mesolithic masters simply hammered at it until it broke, and then selected pieces suitable for each application. It made for lots of waste and low quality products. In the Neolithic, pressure methods became prevalent. The stone was tightly clamped between other stones or logs, and then crushed." His clenched fist moved as if pushing an invivible lever."Sometimes a small but sturdy stone called a ‘striker' would be placed where they wanted the fracture to occur. In this case, a relatively thin sliver would flake off the top, which can be used to make a sickle or a knife. Then they would refine its shape by pressure-flaking, using a bone striker, not stone, so that the flint would flake off without crumbling." He stood up and began pacing. "Archeologically, the Neolithic began when people mastered this technology." He smiled. "A fracture surface is amazingly beautiful in itself, especially on obsidian. But the old masters wouldn't stop there," he said, wheeling on the detective. "The product was polished, first with fine sand rubbed with a wooden spatula, then with sifted clay mixed with lard and applied to a leather strop, as we now use polishing pastes."
His hands made rubbing motions; he kneeled to touch the stone again. The detective observed him with unwavering attention.
"So it's not too far we've come from the Neolithic period," the archaeologist continued. "Axes, adzes, scrapers could be considered finished after polishing, but knives and sickles still had to be retouched, that is, given a serrated edge so they would cut properly. It's funny: when you use serrated kitchen knives, you think of them as a modern invention, but it's really Neolithic! Retouching was done with a bone needle: a thin bone with a grain of quartz sand at the tip. They had to search a pile of sand to pick that special grain out of thousands!" His voice fell to a reverent whisper. "A master spent a long time making that knife, and he treasured it."
"And now," the detective thought to himself, "you can retouch a flint in minutes with a dental drill or an engraving needle."
Aloud, he said nothing. On the face of it, the scientist condemned himself with his own words, with these detailed step-by-step instructions to forge an ancient artifact. But in his heart, this near-confession strengthened his belief in the archaeologist's innocence more than any alibi could have.hat about fingerprints? That's physical evidence, an incontrovertible fact.
On the other hand, where is the crime? making a forgery, then trying to steal it? Attempted fraud, that's a year's probation at most, and, of course, an indelible stain on the reputation.
The archaeologist quieted down, apparently realizing how inappropriate his exuberance had been. He grew silent and sat down on the boulder again, the boulder which would have made such a perfect starting material for a knife.
"Do you smoke?" the detective asked.
"I do. But now I can't, you can smell tobacco in the night air from far away, so I have to be patient. Let's move to cover, too; out here in the open isn't a good place to hide."
They sat in a blind fifteen meters from the abandoned box. No matter whether the intruders would come from the river or from the road, they would be seen from a distance, while the observers remained invisible. Konstantin Sergeyevich sat between the detective and sergeant, so that the prime suspect was watched as well as allowed to watch. The archaeologist smiled, but said nothing.
Late September nights are of impenetrable darkness, especially after the Indian summer has ended and October clouds roll in. Impenetrable darkness and bottomless silence. All is still in anticipation of winter, becalmed in the distilled air, the only sound a ringing in the ears, most likely the music of the spheres. Sight, smell, hearing, none are of use in the nothingness of night. Deceived, the senses rebel, and one's entire skin feels pressure of halted time. In mid-Autumn, under a naked sky - this is the time when anything can happen.
Later, none of the three remembered from what side the night visitors came: they walked in neither from the road nor from the silent river, but suddenly appeared directly at the box, shattering the magic of the night with the clinking of potshards.
Konstantin Sergeevich sensed the motion as the sergeant and inspector rose silently, ready to apprehend the thieves who had come back for the rest of the loot. Two bright beam cut through the darkness.
"Stop!" someone shouted.
A figure froze in the crossbeams. A large man, beard overgrown to the eyebrows, dressed in something unimaginable, crudely fashioned of wolf skins. In his right hand the man held a polished stone ax attached to a solid handle, one of the axes that disappeared along with the sickle and Venus. The axe no longer looked like an archaeological rarity. It looked like a common tool for breaking heads.
Behind him stood a younger man who bore an uncanny resemblance to Arkasha the undergraduate. He held a shovel in his hand, but in such a way that "garden spade" seemed the wrong qualifier for it. The Italian word for "sword," spada, seemed more appropriate.
"Stop, or I'll shoot!" the sergeant shouted, failing to convince anyone of his sincerity.
The men did not move, but Konstantin Sergeevich realized that they were leaving. With each passing moment they seemed less and less substantial, as if dissolving into nothingness.
"Stop!" He cried. "Wait!"
The elder of the two stepped aside and with his left hand casually picked up the rock on which Konstantin Sergeevich sat minutes ago, and then the two figures melted into the night. A warning shot exploded, belated and unnecessary, as unconvincing as the sergeant's shout.
"Did you see that?" Konstantin Sergeevich shouted. "That..."
"I saw," the detective whispered.
"Well, why didn't you stop them? How are we ever going to find them now?"
"I think they went home," the detective said.
"If I knew they'd pull a fast one, I'd have aimed at them," the sergeant spat.
"Aim at them?" The detective exclaimed. "You should never even have drawn your weapon. We don't even have cause to detain them."
"What do you mean, no cause? They're thieves!"
"Thieves? That's a bit harsh, don't you think? They only took back what was theirs. The bowls have his fingerprints on it, molded in clay, and they are his by right. And he made that sickle, and sculpted that pregnant Venus. They did not take anyone else's property, so there is nothing criminal in their actions."
"What about the shovels?" the sergeant said.
"Yes, the shovels. That's a good question. Tell me, Konstantin Sergeevich, are you done excavating this settlement?"
"No," the scientist said. "We plan to return next season."
"Something tells me," the detective said gravely, "that you will find your shovels right here. They might be a bit rusty, though, after six thousand years."