"And the only things you can find in common between these...incidents are parsley and caterpillars?" Edmona looked sceptical.
"There are theories," admitted Treece. "Generally, Devlin finds them for me late at night in funny little holes of the internet being promulgated by self-identified bot accounts."
"Oh, really sound theories then." Edmona was less than impressed.
"At least they have theories," riposted Treece. "I've got nothing. Zilch. Nada. Maybe a supposition."
"Certainly not the missing antiquities." Edmona thought for a moment. "You've factored in that all the taken items have less than pristine provenance?"
"Yes, but it's not the same less than pristine provenance." Treece sighed. "Multiple points of origin. Multiple, mainly unrelated collectors. Multiple periods of manufacture. They were all 'liberated' from their original locations within a two-hundred-year time frame but none of the items taken were acquired at the same time. They've never been in the same exhibition or the same collection. They haven't been through the same auction house. Other items sitting right next to them that were collected by the same person from the same place and at the same time as a stolen item were left behind. I'm asking about past and current curators, cleaning and admin staff now."
Edmona looked quizzically at her. "Someone's taking their favourite pieces?"
"That possibility is as close as I get to a theory." Treece sighed again. "Whoever it is has either skills or money to buy skills. Also, I have nothing to explain the parsley and the caterpillars."
"So, your latest acquisition is off to its new home?" Pemberton was sipping tea and watching Fredericks over his teacup.
"More like its original home," corrected Fredericks gently. "A place it should never have left."
"Your ancestors would be upset with you," commented Pemberton. "Some of them went to great lengths and expense to have those items acquired."
"I choose not to support all of my ancestors' choices," replied Fredericks. "I also choose to...rectify some of their actions. I also admit to being selfish enough not to give away everything I inherited from them because I like living in comfort."
"Which also allows you to take those rectifying steps." Pemberton acknowledged. He put the teacup down and picked up the plate holding his chosen slice of cake and a cake fork. "May I ask what you're planning to repatriate next?"
"You may not. However, congratulations may be in order shortly - I intend to acquire a certain lady investigator...for my personal collection, so to speak." He drank some tea.
"Gerring Fredericks, do I need to be worried about you? You do realise that you can't go around collecting people, don't you?" Pemberton put his cake down again.
"Don't worry, I have no intention of staging an abduction or kidnapping." Fredericks smiled and added, "I am allowed to scrape an acquaintance and launch a courtship, aren't I?"
"I find her attractive. Also, she's beginning to ask questions that will eventually lead her to some gardeners and a landscaper, and as my wife she couldn't be made to give testimony in a trial, if I went to trial. If she were my wife, I could offer persuasive arguments and blandishments for her not to become involved in my trial, if it came to that." He smiled again and added, "I can make it possible for her to be far more comfortable than she is now."
"Is she uncomfortable now?" Pemberton picked up his cake again, elegant brown hands contrasting with the pale china.
"She's a freelance investigator living with a rather ramshackle brother - no readily apparent moral issues on the brother's part but no reliable apparent source of income either." Fredericks drank a little more tea. "If she were married to me, she would be financially secure."
"Money can't buy happiness but lack of it can make you miserable," noted Pemberton just before he ate a forkful of cake. "When do you think your investigator is going to connect you to the liberated items?"
"Probably after I introduce her to my butterfly house." He squinted while he spent a moment considering his options. "As late in our courtship as I can contrive, I believe."
“What has your butterfly house got to do with your other endeavours?” Pemberton loaded up his fork with more cake and some whipped cream.
Fredericks smiled beatifically at his friend. “I left caterpillars in my garden work for those fine establishments I moonlighted at. The world needs more butterflies, don’t you think?”