5. Good Grief

“Is this John Shannon?” Cameron asked.

“Aye, John Shannon speaking.”

“Mr Shannon, do you live in 63 Full Moon Crescent in Melbourne, Australia?”

“Aye, that’s me. Who’s this?”

“Mr Shannon, I have some bad news.”

“Bad news?” came the predictable echo. At once confusion and apprehension entered the man’s voice, heightened by a momentary lag on the line.

“My name is Doctor Robert Ozan,” Cameron said. “I’m calling from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Bridgetown, Barbados.”


“Yes, Mr Shannon.” Uncomfortable pause. “Your wife Belinda Shannon has met with an accident.”

“Oh my God.”

“Are you sitting down?”

“Uh, no,” came the uncertain reply.

“I have to ask you to sit down for this, Mr Shannon,” Cameron said solemnly.

He could hear the man quaking on the other end. “I, uh… okay,” John Shannon wheezed. “I’m in the garden,” he heaved. “I’m heading indoors right now.”

An awkward minute passed as Shannon grunted and cursed and heaved on the other end of the line. Cameron could hear him exerting himself horribly as he crashed up a flight of stairs, and through a set of swinging ranch doors.

“Yes?” Shannon shouted out eventually, breathless. “I’m here, sitting down.” There was a palpable sense of panic in his voice.

“Well, Mr Shannon,” Cameron said, “I’m afraid the news is as bad as it can be. Your wife had an accident – on a Jetski, here in Barbados. It happened at 4pm yesterday afternoon. It was a freak, unforeseeable event. She collided with a boat while she was looking the other way.” Pause. “She could not have prepared herself for it. It hit her like a freight train moving with unstoppable force.” Pause. “Are you still there?”

“Yes, Christ, of course.”

“I’m afraid she required urgent surgery, Mr Shannon. This morning, we had to make the decision to operate. The procedure had a 50-50 chance of success, but not operating would have meant losing her during the night.”

“Oh my God.”

“I’m sorry to say – your wife didn’t make it.”

“Oh my God. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

“I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry.”

On the other side of the line, a great crescendo of silence was building. Cameron could hear it rising in pitch, becoming more hysterical in its intensity. There’s nothing as frenetic as sheer silence. From where he sat, Cameron thought he could hear John Shannon’s heart imploding.

“There’s one more thing, Mr Shannon.”

“Yes?” John Shannon croaked despairingly.

“Before she passed away, your wife said…well, she said…”

“She said what? What? What?” Shannon yelped.

“She said she forgave you.”

“I see,” Shannon wheezed. “She forgave me,” he echoed flatly, as if he could not quite comprehend the words.

“She didn’t say what for,” Cameron said gently. He waited just a moment before saying: “I get the feeling that maybe you know.”


“I will leave you to come to terms with this, uh, terrible tragedy. Again, Mr Shannon, I’m so very–”

The phone went dead.

Cameron sighed, and put down his handset. It was never easy having to make calls like this, but it had to be done. And, unfortunately, of all the people in Good Grief Incorporated only he had enough ice running through his veins to be able to do it without faltering.

He fumbled on his desk for his packet of chewing gum, and sat there, staring into the middle distance. He’d have to phone Shannon back eventually, of course.

How long should he wait?

A day?

Two days?

There was no fixed time in these matters – at least, nothing in the company guidelines. It was all down to his professional intuition. It all depended on how badly the recipient had taken the news. One didn’t want to leave it too long – not if the person seemed likely to do something stupid, like swallow a bottle of pills.

Cameron sighed.

John Shannon definitely seemed like the type to do something dumb. He could picture the bereaved husband already stumbling over to his liquor cabinet, reeling with the sheer enormity of the news he’d just received.

A day would be more than enough for John Shannon. A day would give him all the time he needed to renew his perspective on life, and contemplate just how lucky and blessed he had once been.

What a pity people could simply not appreciate exactly what they had before they lost it. What a pity people became insensate – incapable of seeing things that were right in front of them. What a pity it always took a dramatic change in circumstance for people to see that life is too short to be mean and vain and selfish.

Would the experience change Shannon?

Maybe not.

But for one day John Shannon would be consumed with sincere regret for all the things he had done, and had not done. For one whole day John Shannon would be the best version of John Shannon that he could be. And even if he reverted to type, for one whole day he would be in direct communion with the angels of his better nature. And that, at least, was something.

Cameron picked up the phone and pressed a number on his speed dial.

“Yes?” A woman answered.

“Belinda, please don’t leave your room for a day or two. Don’t phone any family, or friends. Just watch a little television, or read a good book. Just lie low until I give the all clear.”

“I see.”

“Our invoice is on the way, disguised as manicure treatment. No one will ever trace this back to you. It will be over before you know it.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Cameron sighed as he put down the phone. Sometimes it took the devil to the Lord’s work. He sat there for a while, just chewing gum, before making another call.


“Hello, is this Mr Francis Key?”

“Yes, speaking.”

“Mr Key, my name is Doctor Robert Ozan.” He paused. “Are you sitting down?”





4. The Bone Demon and The Ruby-eyed Snake

A great weariness seized the little bone demon as he lay by the side of the ruby-eyed snake. For any artefact, auctions can be trying, but for the bone demon they were agonising beyond measure.

You see – he’d been through far too many auctions. He’d seen far too many markets. In fact, at 5000 years of age, he’d now been bought and sold more times than he could remember.

Worse still, with every auction, he feared that he might lose the ruby-eyed snake forever.

The bone demon and his little ruby-eyed silver snake ring had been together for over two generations – in fact, since the reign of Edward VII, at the height of the British Empire, when curiosities were being looted from all over the world, and somehow finding their way to England.

So far, in a dozen auctions, he and his ruby-eyed love had managed to stay together. For the first six auctions in a row they’d been sold in the same lot, and bought by the same buyer. For the last six they’d been returned to the vendor, who had unreasonable price expectations on both. Back they went, both of them, to the same old and established London collection.

Tonight, however, was different. Tonight they’d been placed in separate lots – for the first time ever. He was in lot 89, with a bunch of other bone fragments, mostly of middle eastern origin just like him. And she was in lot 90, with a chipped mediterranean bowl and a carnelian intaglio of Roman lineage.

Of course, from an antiquarian perspective, that made absolute sense, but it also made the horror of separation virtually inevitable, unless the unlikely came to pass – and one buyer bought both lots. However, that was just too much to hope for. Not for the first time both artefacts felt the noose of circumstance tightening around their necks.

The bone demon, who’d been carved by hands older than history, felt weary to the…well, to the bone. Even the relatively young ruby-eyed snake, said to be Parthian, and not quite old enough to remember the Late Bronze Age, was still more than ready to settle down to the quiet life with her little bone demon in the bottom drawer of their little walnut filing cabinet in their cramped Soho apartment.

Millennia before, she had been invested with real power, and great magic. She’d been no mere accoutrement back then. Even a casual collector of antiquities might deduce that she’d once had real juju. But old age can make you vulnerable, and now she too was just a curiosity, appreciated only for her novelty value, and the crudity of her manufacture.

“Lot 89,” the auctioneer called out, “a collection of bone idols from Assyria, Babylonia, Uruk, Palmyra and Elam.”


“Do I hear 190 pounds?”


“Do I hear 180?”


“Ladies and gentleman, 170 pounds. Come on! This lot features some quite remarkable antiquities, including a little bone demon thought to hail from Mesopotamia, and conservatively dated to about 5,000 years old.”


“Okay, no sale. This will be returned to the vendor. Moving on. Lot 90 – three delightful classical antiquities, including a bowl of Mediterranean manufacture, a carnelian intaglio with an erotic scene, and the most delightful silver snake ring. The eyes are rubies, ladies and gents – not glass, genuine rubies. The silver, however, is likely to be electrum, or silver of a relatively low grade. Still, a wonderful and elegant piece, with obvious votive significance, in a wonderful lot. So, do I hear eight hundred pounds?”


“700 pounds?”


“600 pounds, ladies and gentleman. It’s a steal?”


“Okay, no sale. It will be returned to the vendor. Moving on. Lot 91 – a collection of Levantine fishing hooks. Very rare, ladies and gentleman. Do I hear 100 pounds?”

The bone demon heaved a sigh of relief. The little snake ring with the ruby eyes seemed to uncoil for a second, as if freed of a great burden.

Artefacts are bought and sold endlessly over the course of their lives. Most collectors get bored with an object, or run out of money, or switch from one collecting hobby to another, from Middle Eastern antiquities to South American art, from Napoleonic militaria to old maps from the Age of Exploration, always searching for the promise of some new rarity, always seduced by some new bauble with the promise of great collectability, but holding onto it only till they’ve sucked the life from it, like vampires feeding on the past.

And so it is rare for a bond to develop like the one that had formed between the bone demon and the ruby-eyed snake.

Whatever their divergent origins, way back in the folds of time, they had a common past, even if it was recent – in relative terms. They no longer saw themselves as being from a particular archaeological site, or epoch. Like all immigrants, they were now naturalised citizens.

They were British – not Parthian, not from Jericho or Ur.

For years they’d sat in the same museum storage facility, in adjacent boxes, listening to one another breath. By some curious chance, they had both been subject to the same deaccession, and sold on to a collector without much money – a collector shaking with collector cold turkey, in desperate need to buy something, anything.

Sooner or later, it was inevitable that fate would tear them apart.

Sooner or later, the law of impermanence would prevail on them, as it prevails on all things.

Sooner or later, like every artefact, and every sentient being, and all manner of entities living and dead, and conscious creatures and inanimate things like rocks and stones and ancient flints and arrowheads, in fact like all conditioned items subject to causes and conditions, the bone demon and the ruby-eyed snake would have to endure the suffering that comes with being separated. You see, unfortunately, things just become attached to other things, quite inexplicably, without even knowing why.

Fortunately, there’d be no separation today.

Today, they’d be returned to the same old and established London collection.