My friend, Fairfax Holmes, and I went to the museum to see something unique; a priceless pearl. It was on display for one day only. Security at the entrance was on red alert and visitors were scanned by X-ray cameras and metal detectors. Nothing passed through that might have enabled theft of the pearl. Even the tiny bag of grapes I carried was scrutinised.
"Given the level of surveillance, Fairfax, your worries that the pearl might be stolen seem unfounded."
"Perhaps so, James, but the criminal mind is ingenious and it often takes lateral thinking to outsmart it."
The pearl's location appeared impregnable. A three hundredweight rock lay in the exhibition hall and embedded in it stood a one-inch diameter, foot-long pipe of thick clear glass. The pearl lay at the bottom of this pipe where it appeared larger than normal for the curved glass acted as a magnifying lens. It was, however, possible to see its true size by looking down the pipe.
"How do the museum staff recover the pearl from the pipe?" I asked.
"I imagine the rock is tipped on its side by hefty men and the pearl caught when it rolls out."
Several piles of notes about pearls and a box of paper clips were to hand. Patrons chose pages of interest and we did likewise. We caught our first glimpse of the pearl as we edged through the crowd. On reaching the centre I gaped in wonderment at this incredible object. Fairfax, to my surprise, seemed to have knowledge far beyond the notes for he talked of pearls with a passion, even endowing them a female persona.
"Shape," he declared, "shape and shape and shape. Always keep your eye on shape when judging a pearl's quality. She must be round, geometrically round, the perfect sphere. Yet shape without lustre is of small account. Her shining lustre is a half-uncanny thing. She must have other qualities, too: translucency, colour, shade and purity."
"My goodness," I said, "you speak of 'she', the pearl, almost poetically. What do you say, then, of this pearl?"
"Perhaps 'starlight on a frosty night' but if that is too poetical take heed that nothing but poetry is good enough to describe some pearls."
"Indeed, beautifully put."
"Be so kind as to hold my notes for a moment, please, James."
No sooner had I taken them than the room was plunged into darkness.
"Lights! Turn on the lights."
There was scuffling and agitation in my neighbourhood.
"Stay calm! Stand fast!" I called, but to no avail.
A torchlight flashed and some forced their way to the exit. Then the lights came on again.
What a shock met our eyes! The rock had been tipped over and the pearl was gone. Everyone was profoundly shocked at the theft, everyone, that is, except Fairfax, for he was laughing.
"But why are you laughing? How can you laugh at such a loss?"
"It's not lost. Here it is."
Fairfax held the pearl aloft, gripped between thumb and fore-finger. Once the crowd realised the pearl was safe he was cheered to the echo.
"I'm flabbergasted. How did you know thieves would strike?" I asked. "And how did you get the pearl?"
"I anticipated thieves would try to steal the pearl. Tipping the rock was the obvious thing. It needed two strong men to overturn it and one to slip a bag over the pipe to catch the pearl. While we stood near the rock I saw two thick-set fellows approaching from the right and another approaching from the left. A fourth villain stood with his hand on the light switch. When the lights went out I quickly jumped onto the rock and they were unable to lift it. I pulled the pearl out of the pipe and then jumped off the rock. Unwittingly, the thieves continued the theft as they planned. They escaped in the torchlight, but not empty-handed for in their bag they actually have a pearl-like prize that rolled out of the glass pipe."
"But how did you get the pearl out of so narrow a pipe?"
"It was easy. I used a fishing line. I bent a paper clip into a curve and tied it to a piece of thread. I lowered the line down the pipe and pulled the pearl out. Then, I dropped a grape into the pipe. So, now you see why I am laughing, I have 'the pearl of great price'; the thieves are no doubt griping for they have 'the grape of wrath.'"