A Testing Time by Debb Bouch

There it was, nestled in velvet and lustrous in soft light from a concealed spot. Several other small collectibles lay scattered tastefully around it within the confines of the glass cabinet. No doubt about it though, the Faberge egg was the jewel in this particular crown. With reluctance, I brought my attention back to the suit giving me the tour.

“…his lordship is very fussy. You did say you were from here originally, didn’t you? Only he won’t give you the time of day if you’re not Berkshire born and bred.”

I nodded. Best to just let them rabbit on. Say nothing and let them make assumptions. Meanwhile I continued my scrutiny, looking for pressure pads, cameras, alarm beams. All the things that make life interesting. The suit coughed to gain my attention.

“He said he’d talk to you afterwards. So if you’ve seen all you need to here, we’ll go round the grounds now.”

I glanced out of the window. Rain fell relentlessly. I’d arrived in light drizzle, thankful for the trench coat I’d thrown on. It wouldn’t keep me dry in this downpour, though. I hate country jobs. It’s always wetter and colder than in town. Of course, in town, you’re never more than a step away from a warm pub. Out here in the sticks, you’d probably have to drive miles for a beer.

“We always have spare wellingtons and umbrellas. Don’t worry about the mud.”

He prattled on. Patronising git! Did he think I was a proper townie?

Exiting via the side door, we ambled around to the front. His lordship certainly had a nice spread. Acres of green leafiness surrounded the house. A wide gravelled turning circle led into the drive. Half a dozen stone steps brought you up to the imposing front door. I hadn’t seen this when I came in. Would-be employees were strictly side door people.

A vicious-thorned rose sprawled across the front of the house, clustering thickly around the window ledges and downpipes. Whoever had set up the security knew his stuff. You couldn’t climb into any room unscathed.

Beyond the gardens, the drive continued through dense woods emerging into cleared parkland some fifty metres from steel gates bolted to a high brick wall. The entrance was all electronic surveillance and no admittance without orders from the house. The wall ran unbroken all the way around the estate. Of course, I’d already be inside. Getting out might be more of a headache.

We approached the back of the house.

“There’ll be a large marquee there, on the back lawn,” he said pointing. “Those doors will be open so that guests can come in and out as they please.”

A security nightmare if ever there was one. Did his lordship vet his guests as poorly as he vetted his potential staff? If so, this might be easy. We continued, taking in stables, exercise yard and outhouses.

***

The interview was perfunctory. His lordship was so stressed about the upcoming wedding that he agreed to all of my suggestions without demur. He couldn’t see past the persona I had created. The night before the wedding, I was based in a pleasant ground floor suite with carte blanche to roam around, checking up on things.

At four in the morning, I entered the display room. I’d disabled the security camera earlier. The replica egg was ready to go; it weighed exactly the same and had identical dimensions to the real thing. I disconnected the power supply and did the swap, then powered everything up again. The pressure sensors didn’t trigger when I cut the power. Decent pressure sensors are really expensive and I knew he wouldn’t have sprung for them. Slipping the little beauty into my pocket, I headed out.

Getting out without a pack of slobbering hounds was tricky. They all wanted to come walkies. In desperation, I shut them into the kitchen and left the house.

I set off at a run, planning to go over the wall rather than through the gate. But it’s so dark in the country, without streetlights and car headlights. I fired up the torch app on my phone and jogged cautiously into the woods. It was even darker here and the feeble gleam wasn’t enough to stop me tripping on tree roots and getting tangled in brambles. I left quite a bit of skin behind in one way or another.

A screech and a wild rush of wind close to my ear had me jumping out of my skin. What the hell was that? Another screech and I glimpsed it, gliding like a pale ghost above me. Only a barn owl hunting. No need for this panic, I told myself and tried to calm my pounding heart.

Once I won free of the woods, I thought it would be easier going but I forgot about the livestock. This was a farming estate, not a town park. The field I entered was full of inquisitive young bullocks. I stepped into several cowpats before I encountered the beasts themselves. They wanted to play and surrounded me, jostling and licking. Breaking free of them, I headed back towards the main gate. At least I could scale the wall in an animal-free zone there. With luck, the theft wouldn’t be discovered until after the wedding and I’d be long gone by then.

Imagine my surprise to find his lordship and some of his workers waiting for me at the main gate.

“We’re not all yokels here,” he said curtly. “I did my research before I got you up here. I was testing you as well as my security. So if you’d like to just empty your pockets, we can go back to my office and discuss this.”

I handed over the egg. He tossed it over his shoulder and to my horror, it smashed against the gatepost.

“Don’t worry. It was just a fake.”