John Burnham


Detective Chief Inspector Nigel Martin looked over his half-glasses and studied the youngish man who was perusing the contents of a dossier. Newly-minted Detective Constable Chris Ashcroft was the latest addition to Martin’s team. What did he have in this man? Martin wondered. Did Ashcroft regard this assignment as a stepping-stone to bigger things or was he a cop at heart? Martin would soon know. Handing a young eager-beaver a file that was—for all practical purposes—dead, was a good way to take the measure of the man. 

Martin let his eyes drop to the paper cup on his desk and wondered if he could indict the purveyor of such swill. Surreptitiously, he stole glances at Ashcroft’s face while adjusting some of the mementos on his desk. The kid’s face showed no sign of reaction as he turned the pages.

Ashcroft looked up. “Well, Chief, we don’t have much here, do we?”

“Nope. That’s why we’re cutting him loose. He’ll be here about ten to pick up his diamonds. Any idea why we were interested in him in the first place?”

“I’d assume you were looking for a Blood Diamonds connection.”

Right answer, thought Martin. “Care to elaborate, detective?”

Ashcroft stretched his neck as he looked beyond Martin. “Well, this Oliver Smith—if that is even his real name—looks like the classic example of a middle man in a fencing scheme: he flogs diamonds to legitimate dealers on a regular basis, he refuses to reveal the source of the gems, and he doesn’t seem to have any visible means of support.”

Martin nodded in approval. “Good run-down. Why do you doubt his name?”

“Mind if I answer that with another question?”

Slight furrows appeared above the bridge of Martin’s nose. “Go ahead.”

“Since ‘Smith’ has refused to provide details about his personal history, I’d assume you asked for a name search from the jurisdiction that issued his driver’s license.”

“Yeah—standard procedure—so?”

“Since there is no report on that search in this dossier, I’d further assume that it came up dry.”

Martin’s frown deepened. “Not exactly dry, but so blummin’ many hits that we didn’t know where to start.”

“Exactly. ‘Oliver’ and ‘Smith’ are the most common given and surnames in the U.K.”

The frown disappeared from Martin’s face. “No shit? ‘Smith’ I get, but ‘Oliver’; I’d never name a kid that.”

“You can verify it on Wiki if you like, Sir. But ‘Oliver Smith’ would be an excellent choice if someone were creating a false identity.”

Kid’s right—smart, Martin thought. “Anyway, I’ve asked the gem guy from forensics to bring the diamonds over personally; I want him in on the interview with Smith so you can hear what he has to say.”

Ashcroft briefly drew his lower lip across his upper. “Thanks, Chief.



Martin and Ashcroft looked through the one-way glass into the interrogation room. It was a stark box with light green walls and ceiling. One large florescent fixture bathed a dark grey metal table with too much light. Smith was sitting at the table, a water bottle in front of him, a slightly bemused expression on his face. 

“Thoughts?” Martin prodded.

“Poster child for nondescript I’d say.”

Martin grinned. “Good turn ‘o phrase, but go on.”

Ashcroft inhaled. “He’s middle-aged male, on the short side of average,  roundish on the corners, hair thinning, dressed to teach school or flog mutual funds. In other words, exactly the type of bloke most people would look right at without seeing.”

Martin smiled inwardly. The kid had cut to the chase without trying to impress him with numbers.

Oliver Smith stood, smiled, and held out his hand as Martin and Ashcroft entered the room. In a soft, sincere, voice laced with bass tones, he said, “Good morning, Chief Inspector Martin.”

Martin took the hand. “Mornin’ Mr. Smith. This is Detective Ashcroft.”

Smith released the handshake with Martin and extended his hand toward Ashcroft. “Pleased to meet you, Detective Ashcroft.”

The young man smiled as he returned the courtesy. “I as well, Mr. Smith. Mr. Oliver Smith, is it?”

“Aye, that is correct,” Smith responded. The three men took chairs. Ashcroft looked at Martin with a raised eyebrow. The older man nodded.

Ashcroft looked at Smith. “Mr Oliver Smith of  . . . of . . .”

“Of nowhere in particular,” Smith responded, “but I’m sure you’ve been all through this with Chief Inspector Martin here.”

Martin waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Nah . . . go on . . . tell him like you told me; the guy with your diamonds won’t be here for a few minutes anyway.”

A slight twinkle appeared in Smith’s eyes. “Checking to see if I give you the same story twice eh?”

Martin shrugged.

Smith took a drink from the water bottle and turned to Ashcroft. “Some years ago, at a time when I were down on me luck—no job, no family, and, no friends—I won a lottery. Suddenly, people appeared from nowhere, like out of the woodwork and from under the rocks, wanting to be friends. Women claimed to find me fascinating. It became obvious why winning a lottery ruins lives. So, I disappeared. I keep a low profile, enjoy meself and when people begin to suspect that I have more than the average chap, I move on.”

There was a soft knock at the door. Martin leaned his chair back and twisted the door handle. A thin, bi-spectacled man with an aquiline nose entered.

Martin gestured. “Mr. Oliver Smith; Mr. Eustace Odling, our gem expert.”

Smith stood while extending a hand. “Mr. Odling, pleased to meet you.”

Odling appeared, for a moment, to be taken aback by Smith’s cordiality. Then, he accepted the handshake. “Likewise Mr . . . uh . . . Smith.”

As the men seated themselves, Odling put an attaché case on the table and opened it. From the case, he extracted a smaller case, opened it, and pushed it toward Smith. “Your property, sir. Please examine it.”

Smith rotated the case so Ashcroft could view the contents. Five three-carat diamonds sparkled as they reposed on red velvet. “Ever see anything like that?”

Ashcroft involuntarily did a double take. “Cor blimey—can’t say that I have.”

“Nor have I,” Odling offered.

“Tell ‘em why you think there’s no connection to blood diamonds,” Martin commanded.

“It’s all in the report—” Odling began.

Martin interrupted. “I want Detective Ashcroft to hear it from you.”

Odling cleared his throat. “Well, to begin, blood diamonds are usually negotiated while still in the uncut state. The skill of diamond cutting is a carefully guarded craft and tightly policed. Blood diamonds are usually cut by renegade cutters and the finished product is usually inferior. These stones,” Olding adjusted his glasses, “are the most perfect job of cutting I’ve ever seen. As near as I can tell the facets are all exactly the same—a feat I’d consider impossible. And, the five stones are exactly the same weight—again, something I’d think beyond the realm of possibility.”

“So, they’re not blood diamonds,” Martin cut in. “What about moody gear—from an unsolved heist?”

Odling cleared his throat again. “Diamonds of this size have, for years, been laser-inscribed with an identification number during the cutting process. We know the numbers on all unrecovered diamonds. These stones have no identification numbers.”

Martin, obviously bored, interrupted again. “Finish off with the bit about the flaws.”

Odling’s jaw tightened. “Inclusions. All diamonds have inclusions, commonly known as flaws. They are catalogued on the stone’s certificate of authenticity. These stones have no flaws.”

“Could you explain inclusions?” Ashcroft asked.

Odling relaxed. “All diamonds have inclusions—streaks, spots, cloudiness, voids—due to impurities in the  carbon from which they are formed. These inclusions are regarded as part of the stone’s character or personality as it were. Any gemologist would give his or her eyeteeth to be able to study these stones.” He turned to Smith. “I’d implore you, Sir, to get these to a facility where they can be properly analyzed.”

Smith smiled, “I’ll take that under advisement.”

Thanks, Eustace,” Martin said. “We’ll let you get back to your microscopes and test tubes now.”

Without a word, Odling closed his attaché case and left.

As Martin and Ashcroft returned their attention to Smith, he smiled and said, “I have a little surprise for you gentlemen.”

“Yeah?” said Martin with dwindling interest.

Smith’s voice became firm. “I’m going to tell you where I get the diamonds.”

Ashcroft’s eyes widened. Martin’s jaw worked. “Why now?”

“I guess, because I think I owe you. If I saw somebody like me flogging diamonds, I’d think something fishy were going on. I’d think the police weren’t doing their job if they didn’t look into it. I know you men have spent a lot of time and effort watching me. The least I can do is to give you the personal satisfaction of knowing what is happening.”

Martin eyed Smith suspiciously. “Ain’t that gonna blow your cover?”

“I don’t think so,” Smith returned casually, “you won’t believe what I’m going to tell you and I’m sure you will consider it too outlandish to repeat.”

Martin moved his chair back, opened a drawer and withdrew a pad of paper. “Try us,” he growled.

“I’ve always been interested in crop circles,” Smith began. “I get the Crop Circle Connector newsletter and visit as many formations as I can.”

“The what newsletter?” Martin interrupted.

“The Crop Circle Connector. They provide a clearing house for crop circle reports and publish data on, and locations of, any that are deemed to be genuine.”

“ ’Nother nut-case outfit,” Martin muttered as he wrote.

“If you will excuse me Sir,” Ashcroft interjected, “although the crop circle phenomenon is, itself, questionable, the data gathering, vetting, and dissemination done by the Crop Circle Connector organization is top-o’-the-line. They don’t engage in opinion-peddling; they just present the data.”

Martin waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah. Carry on, Mr. Smith.”

Smith sat back and tented his fingers. As he looked away from Martin to a far corner of the ceiling, he gave Ashcroft a sly smile. “As I said, I visit all the crop circles I can. Some years ago, I came home after making such a visit and found a diamond in me pocket. I didn’t think it were real . . . thought I were the victim of some sort of prank. During me next visit to a crop circle, I were walking around with me hands in me pockets and suddenly realized that there were something other than me hand in the left trouser pocket. I felt around and sure enough, there were another diamond in there. I took the stones to a gem dealer. He assured me that they were real and offered to buy them on the spot. The next few times I visited crop circles, no diamonds happened. Then, on one occasion, I were talking with another crop circle visitor—you know, most people who have an interest in crop circles think the patterns are trying to tell us something—and he were speculating that they might be trying to tell us that the New Order is going to operate on entirely different principles.”

“New Order?” Martin interjected. “We gonna get a Labour government?”

Smith chuckled. “Oh, no. This speculation transcends politics. It posits an upheaval that changes the natural order of things.”

Martin’s impatience began to show. “Like up is gonna be down and pigs ‘r gonna fly?”

Ashcroft raised a finger. “If I might, Sir. The earth’s history is punctuated by widespread disasters that changed the environment. Species that had evolved following the dictates of the old environment died out and species that could cope with the conditions of the new came into being.”

Martin frowned at his young associate. “Spare us, Einstein.” Then he turned back to Smith. “How much more ya got?”

Smith returned an indulgent smile. “Only a little. After that conversation, I began to ponder about what seems to be natural law—not the laws of physics, but how society works . . . like why some people struggle while others have it good. I came to a disturbing conclusion: greed and selfishness seem to be the operative principles.”

Martin yawned. “It’s called the golden rule.” Smith looked at him, puzzled. Martin continued, “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

Smith sat back and clasped his hands.” Well said! That’s a good way to put it. Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if the message of the crop circles isn’t something along the lines that the ‘Golden Rule’ as you’ve just elucidated it, won’t work anymore. So, I did a little test. I sold the diamonds and gave the proceeds to various charities. Sure enough, the next time I visited a crop circle, diamonds appeared in me pocket. You know the rest. I flog the diamonds and give the lolley away.”

Martin sat back and shook his head. “You’re right, Mr. Smith. I don’t believe it—but I’d like to know what you’ve been monged out on to come up with a tale like that. You’re free to go. Have a nice life.”

As the three men stood, Smith spoke. “I’ve got another surprise for you gentlemen.”

In a bored voice, Martin replied, “Spare us.”

As if he hadn’t heard, Smith continued, “There’s a new circle up by Little Knoll in Wiltshire that I’ll be visiting tomorrow. I’d be pleased to give you a demonstration if you’d care to meet me there.”


The interior of the unmarked Vauxhall looked unloved and it smelled of stale cigarette smoke. The little pine tree shaped dingus hanging from a knob on the dashboard only served to turn a bad odour into an unholy stench. Martin cranked the window down before entering. While buckling the seat belt, he grumbled, “Bloody bureaucrats—encourage us to quit smokin’ then won’t buy vehicles that don’t smell like ashtrays.”

Ashcroft climbed in behind the wheel and set course for Wiltshire. The sunny day beyond the windscreen provided a welcome contrast to the atmosphere within the vehicle. As they drove, Martin muttered. “Fool’s errand. Flogging a dead horse it is.”

Ashcroft stole a quick glance at the puddle of gloom beside him. “It’s our only shot to catch him in some sleight-of-hand. If we can do that, we have a chance to find out where he really gets the rocks,” the younger man observed cheerfully.

Martin was morose. “I got this feelin’. This whole bloomin’ thing is gonna turn out like it has so far. Nothin’ makes sense—queer as clockwork orange—but we can’t refute any of it. So, we got Sweet Funny Adams.”

“Had anybody told Smith that we had a tail watching what he did after leaving the dealer?”

“Not to me knowledge.”

“Yet, he described exactly what the tail reported.”

“That’s the hell of it . . . looked like a perfect setup for laundering money, but all the places where he left brass were bonafide not-for-profits. I had a few sets of books checked—the amounts were modest and there weren’t any evidence of clever accounting. And, the hell of it were that we had him tailed after three sales. He didn’t hit the same charity twice. He even wanders around rail yards and parks giving money to homeless people.”

After a space in which both men had retreated into their own thoughts, Ashcroft asked “Without meaning to sound impertinent, I’m surprised that an officer with your experience couldn’t wheedle something about personal history out of him.”

Martin sighed. “Me too . . . wouldn’t answer personal questions . . . tried every tack I knew . . . seemed to have no interest in talkin’ about himself . . . odd . . . seems to know the law.”

“Do you think he has legal training?”

Martin scratched his neck. “Don’t think so . . . doesn’t use legal terms . . . but knew exactly how far I could push him without layin’ charges . . . odd . . . donno what to think of it.”

“So he just appears out of nowhere about two years ago and starts flogging diamonds; textbook example of a middleman in a money laundering operation.”

Again, Martin sighed. “That’s what we thought. I figured that keepin’ an eye on him would lead us right to the big players, but all it did were to eat up a lot of resources.”


The pleasant weather held as Martin and Ashcroft journeyed toward Wiltshire. Once out of the city, aromas of mown crops began to drift into the vehicle. Martin released his seat belt and then squirmed around to roll the windows of the rear doors down. Back in his seat, he put his head against the rest and inhaled deeply. “Hope to be able to smell this every day after I retire.”

“Plan to go into agriculture?”

Amusement tickled Martin’s voice. “Nah, just far enough outta town to annoy me in-laws. Maybe a place where they have to wade through some pig shit to get to the front door.” 

The countryside around Wiltshire was idyllic: lush green crops covered rolling hills crisscrossed by hedgerows. At the appointed rendezvous point, They found Smith—clad in running shorts and a wife-beater top—sitting on the fender of his Mini Cooper. “Good day, gentlemen,” Smith shouted as he slid to the ground.

“Gonna run a marathon?” Martin said as he and Ashcroft approached.

“Oh, no. I dressed this way to make it easier for you to search me. I assumed you’d expect sleight of hand.”

“You expected right,” Martin said, “but I need to ask you something else. You seemed genuinely glad to see us. Why? Cops don’t often get that reception.”

“Because I am genuinely glad to see you,” Smith replied with a pleasant smile.

Martin held his palms up. “Why?”

“Because you gentlemen are doing an important job and I’m happy to assist you in doing it.”

Martin shook his head. “Don’t get it.” He turned to Ashcroft. “Pat ‘im down.”

Smith obligingly raised his arms while Ashcroft checked him from head to toe. The young detective stood. “He’s clean. There are no pockets in the garments.”

The field they were standing next to boasted a waist-high cereal crop. Smith pointed to two lines of bare dirt running into the field. “These lines are used by the equipment for crop servicing and harvest. Please stay on them and do not stray out into the crop.”

Martin could see an irregularity in the line some way out into the field. “That where we’re goin’?”

“Aye,” replied Smith. “That’s the closest element of this formation.”

“Element? Formation?” puzzled Martin. “I thought we was goin’ to a crop circle.”

“We are,” replied Smith patiently. “But, ‘crop circles’ are actually designs comprised of many circles and other geometric shapes. This particular formation covers more than a hectare. It will be warm out in the field; you gentlemen might want to leave your jackets in the car.”

As Martin and Ashcroft returned from the car, they rolled up their sleeves. Martin ran his hand around his neck. “Always feels good to be rid of the tie.”

“Aye, it does,” Ashcroft agreed.

As they walked up the line, each man inadvertently ran a hand along the standing grain plants. The connectedness with growing things felt good. The soft ground underfoot yielded an earthy smell as they stepped on it. When they got nearer, they could see that the irregularity was a circle about forty feet in diameter where the stalks of the crop had been bent over a couple of inches above the ground. The heads of the plants all pointed in a common direction as though swept down by a force moving in a clockwise direction.

Smith stopped just inside the circle and turned. “No need for you to enter the circle. You’ll be able to see all you need to from the edge there.”

Martin and Ashcroft stopped where stalks were lying across the dirt path. Smith took a step backward into the circle and raised his arms so that they were parallel to the ground. He spread his fingers with his palms toward Martin and Ashcroft and then he rotated his hands to show them the backs. “See, nothing in either hand.”

“So—“ began Martin, but stopped. Diamonds had appeared between Smith’s thumb and forefingers as he rotated his hands back.

Smith took a step toward Martin and Ashcroft. “Hold out your hands.” Dumbfounded, the men complied.

Smith placed a gem in each man’s outstretched hand. “A little something to remember me by.” Then, he turned and walked toward the center of the circle.

“What the hell?” exclaimed Ashcroft.

“Diamonds is what,” Martin stumbled.

“No! Look at him, his feet!” Ashcroft exclaimed.

Martin raised his gaze from the diamond in his hand to the retreating figure of Smith. “I don’t believe it,” he said with widening eyes—the man was not leaving any tracks as he walked over the supine crop.

Smith stopped in the middle of the circle with his back to them. He held his right arm out. As he did so, a line of plants, from the center of the circle to the periphery, became erect. Smith began to turn in a counter-clockwise direction. The plants stood as his arm passed over them. Smith stopped turning as he again faced Martin and Ashcroft. “It is now me turn to tell you boys ‘have a nice life.’ Goodbye, I hope to see you again.”

Martin closed his eyes and shook his head. “Eyes ‘r playin’ tricks . . .”

“No they’re not,” Ashcroft offered, “I see it too.” It now appeared as though they could see through Smith to the crop behind.

The transparent man resumed turning. By the time the circle was all filled in, no trace of him could be seen.

Since the crop was now standing, the lines of bare dirt upon which they stood continued through where the circle had been. They walked up the lines, looking around, but uniform crop was all there was to be seen. When they came back down the line, they were hard pressed to identify where they had been as they watched Smith.

Upon reaching the Vauxhall, both men settled heavily into their seats. Ashcroft started the engine and maneuvered the vehicle onto the road. After travelling in silence for awhile, he ventured, “I’d like some guidance in how I should write this up.”

Martin settled back into the seat and smiled thoughtfully. “I’d say we gave him back his diamonds, he walked out of the interview room, and that’s the last we saw of him.”

“Right, Chief.”

— end —