"Well, I think this is one of the most unique pieces it's ever been my privilege to handle. Where did you get it?"
All a-flutter, the young woman began breathlessly, "Oh, it's a lovely story! When my mother was five years old, she was taken to visit a distant relative in the country, a very elderly gentleman who lived in a beautiful manor house. While she was there, she became fascinated with this clock and kept wanting to play with it. My grandmother was trying to stop her, but the old man said, 'Oh, let her, if she wants to. She has great taste.' So she was allowed to play with the clock, and just a couple of years later the elderly gent died and lo and behold, he'd left it to my mother in his will!"
A small crowd of curious onlookers had gathered to hear the tale, and now murmured in delight. The antiquarian replied, "How absolutely charming! And you've obviously kept it well maintained, it's in excellent condition, I must say. Now, do you know anything about its origins?"
The woman shook her head. "Not a thing. That's the main reason I brought it here today."
"Ah, then I have a surprise for you. This clock was made by Josef Faller, one of the famous Faller family of clockmakers from the Black Forest region of Germany. His craftsmanship was renowned throughout Europe, and one of his sons came to Britain in the mid-1800s. It's thought that he brought with him some of his father's earlier work, and I rather suspect that this lovely piece may be one of those originals."
The woman made appropriate "impressed" noises but didn't ask the obvious question, the one everyone else was dying to ask.
"Do you have it insured?" queried the expert.
"Oh, no, that never occurred to me! It was just a trinket passed down through the family." A few sceptical eyebrows were raised around the room, but still no-one else chipped in.
"I would strongly advise you to have it valued, insured, and stored in a very secure location. An original Josef Faller clock, in this prime condition, is likely to fetch upwards of £600,000 at auction."
A low gasp blew like a breeze through the assembled crowd, and there were a few amazed whistles. The owner of the clock looked suitably stunned. The valuer smiled kindly and said, "That's quite the find you have there."
"I'll give you three hundred grand for it, cash, no questions asked."
"Do I know you?" the attractive young lady narrowed her eyes and took in the smartly-attired businessman who had met her at her car.
He gave a patronising smile and said, "I'm certain you don't, or I wouldn't be making you this offer. Off the books, no tax, no auction house commission – you'll barely lose any money, in fact."
The woman was very reluctant. "I actually wasn't planning to sell it…" she began, but was cut off mid-sentence by a barking laugh.
"Oh, that's a good one! Look, dearie, that's what they all say when they come to these antique roadshow things." He feigned a woman's surprised voice: "'Oh, my goodness, I had no idea it was worth that much!' - my arse. Pardon the French."
"I didn't say I wouldn't sell it."
Now she had his undivided attention. He delved into the inside pocket of his coat and produced several wads of pound notes. "What say we just count this out here, and we can both be on our way with something we want?" He started to flick through the rolls of money, but was taken aback when the woman helped herself to one from his hand, unwrapped it, and checked every last note. She did this with each bundle until she was satisfied that the full amount was present and correct.
Stowing the cash in her roomy handbag, she leaned down, lifted the box at her feet, and handed it to the eager buyer. "Here you go. 'No questions asked', right? We'll never see each other again."
"Suits me fine, darling. Au revoir!" The man walked briskly away across the car park to a Land Rover. He did not see the smile of satisfaction that spread slowly across Emma's lips as she jumped into her car and drove away at exactly the right speed so as not to attract attention.
"So the moral of the story is, 'Let the buyer beware'!" declared Albert in triumph as he removed his tweed jacket and Paisley-patterned cravat.
"Three hundred thou's not a bad haul, sis, not bad at all," Sean commented with admiration as he unrolled the banknotes. He smiled approvingly at Emma as she lounged, with a definite air of smugness, on the sofa.
"You played the ingénue to perfection, my dear girl." Albert kissed his fingers like a chef declaring his approval of a dish. "There wasn't a single soul in that hall who doubted for a moment that what they saw was the real thing."
"Couldn't've done it without you, Albert." Emma nodded her respect to the crew's elder statesman.
"All right, have we finished with the mutual appreciation society already?" asked Mickey, annoyed that he hadn't been there to witness the spectacle for himself – Ash had been lurking in the queues of people waiting to have their antiques appraised, just in case any backup was needed, and Sean had been outside on his motorbike, keeping an eye open for whoever approached Emma.
"Oh come on, Mick, don't be such a grouch," grinned Ash. "What about heading down to Eddie's to wet the clock's head?"
Mickey rolled his eyes, but conceded, "Only if we go for something to eat first." All agreed, and by the time the taxi they ordered had arrived, a restaurant had been decided on, and they headed off into the evening.
"I don't…what the hell happened here?!" Mickey was the only one of the five of them who could find words. They stood and stared at the wreckage of the hotel suite. It was in a much, much worse state than they had once left it as part of a con.
They walked through the debris, still utterly gobsmacked at what lay at their feet - for everything lay at their feet: pictures, ornaments, cushions, even a door to one of the adjoining bedrooms.
"I hate to think what this is going to cost us," Ash finally managed to mutter.
"Not a brass farthing," Albert announced resolutely. "I'm calling the manager." With that, he lifted the phone and dialled reception; no-one stopped him.
The crew had resolved not to get chucked out of yet another hotel, and were faithfully keeping up-to-date with the bills. Mind you, they weren't using their own credit cards, but they weren't using fakes, either. So the management viewed them purely as valued customers who should be afforded every courtesy.
After the horrified duty manager had seen the damage for himself, he agreed to keep the police out of it (mainly to avoid having to report the incident to his head office) and also to let Albert and Ash inspect the hotel's CCTV footage to try and identify the culprits.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team returned to Eddie's bar while the housekeeping staff went about restoring the suite to its proper order. An hour or so later, Mickey, Sean and Emma were joined by Ash, brandishing a DVD that the manager had let him take away, and Albert, steam coming out of his ears.
"Well?" Mickey demanded, as they budged up around the table to accommodate everyone.
Ash produced his netbook and ran the DVD on it. Simply put, he had selected and pasted together all the footage that showed the arrival and departure of the people who had ransacked their room. They had been easy enough to identify as they had arrived in a group of eight and gained access to the hotel unnoticed, through the service entrance - much to the chagrin of the manager and his security officer.
"They're just kids!" exclaimed Emma, astonished.
"Students, to be precise," said Albert, his voice heavy with disapproval. "It would seem, on the face of it, to be some kind of rag week stunt."
"Apparently one of them – this guy here" – Ash indicated a young man with long dark hair – "used to have a job at the hotel. They had to let him go because he was suspected of pilfering from the other members of staff…"
"…and this is his way of sticking two fingers up at the management?" finished Sean in disbelief.
Ash nodded. "Luckily, the manager had to leave us for a few minutes, and our man's personnel file just 'happened' to be lying open on the desk" – here Mickey gave a wry smile – "so we have an address for him, although it may not be current. But it's somewhere to start."
Emma looked from Ash to Mickey to Albert. "Are you seriously proposing that we exact some sort of revenge on these idiots? They're really not worth the hassle, and surely if anyone takes them to task it should be the hotel, not us!"
Mickey finally spoke up. "I'm curious as to why they chose our suite. Did the manager have any ideas as to why that might be?" he asked Ash.
"They hotel's not particularly busy at the moment, what with it being the low season for tourism and all that, and ours is the best suite that's currently in use," was the answer.
"Ah." Mickey, and everybody else, understood. "So it wasn't personal, we just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time." Emma nodded her agreement, and relaxed.
"Doesn't make a blind bit of difference," shrugged Mickey dispassionately. "We're still going to teach them a lesson. Ash, in the morning you can follow up the address you've got…"
"No time like the present, Mick. When are students likely to be at home? Not this time of night, that's for sure." Ash gave a knowing wink and, leaving his computer, said, "Coming, Sean?" The younger man joined him with altogether too much relish for his sister's liking.
"No, come on, guys, not tonight!" she protested, standing up with them as they prepared to go.
"Doesn't make any difference, sis; tonight or tomorrow, these guys are going to get what's coming to them. Don't worry, it won't be anything too nasty – will it, Ash?" Sean finished hopefully.
"That depends on how high on the hog they're living," came the reply.
"I think we should take it in shifts," suggested Ash. "You up for that?"
"Just try and stop me," Sean answered. "Where'll we be?"
Ash cast a practiced eye around the neighbouring buildings. "Well, most of these places are university-related offices, so there's bound to be one or two of them lying empty." He sized up a likely-looking entrance nearby, strolled casually over and gave the door a tug. It opened easily, and he entered the building, followed by Sean.
On the second floor, they found what they were looking for: a vacant corner office with two windows, one looking directly into the mark's flat, and the other onto the street that ran past the campus.
"Perfect," pronounced Ash. "Right," he gave Sean's shoulder a friendly punch, "you take the first spot. I'll come back and relieve you about nine o'clock, all right?"
"Nine…in the morning?!" Sean was rapidly going off the idea.
"They're not in now, are they? So it stands to reason they'll be rolling back at some point, having gone out and got slaughtered to celebrate trashing our gaff."
"Yeah, I suppose so. But what about grub? I haven't got so much as a packet of chewing gum on me."
"No problem, I'll see to that. We passed an all-night Spar on the way here, I'll just nip back and…"
"Tell you what, Ash, I'll go down the shop and buy what I want. You get stuff that only my granddad would touch, custard creams and Fisherman's Friends and all sorts of rubbish. Back in ten!" Sean waved breezily as he closed the door behind him, and Ash couldn't help smiling at his protégé's talent for getting out of things. He settled down on a packing crate to observe their adversary's apartment.