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¤ CHAPTER 10 ¤
The snow had melted, but there were still patches of ice both on the roads and making smooth, semi-transparent islands in ponds. Steed was on his way to Alston’s Toy Shop, the place where the mysterious puzzle seemed to have originated, and as he guided the Bentley carefully down the village high street, looking for a convenient place to park, he closely observed the placement of the shops and the behavior of pedestrians and shopkeepers.
Helen had stayed home to await the return of the Jenkinses and of James and the children. She and Steed had decided that it would be best if James took the children to visit his mother in Norwich, while the Jenkinses would go visit Mrs Jenkins’ sister in Peterborough. James’ mother had been prevented from joining them at Christmas because of a bad chest cold, and Mrs Jenkins’ niece had had a baby recently, so there were already valid reasons to suggest visits.
They anticipated some resistance on James’ part: he didn’t like guns or fighting, nor was he a particularly physically active man, but he was no coward, and so wouldn’t have stood for letting his wife stay to face a crowd of villains, even with his brother-in-law’s formidable help. The Jenkinses likewise might be difficult to budge, but Helen promised that she would be able to convince both them and James. Anyway, she had said, they all knew how stubborn she could be, and that her brother was worth ten men by himself. Besides, there was always the hope that the burglars had given up, and that the holes around the spring had been dug by none other than a bunch of local boys who got ahold of their uncle’s tools and decided to have a go with them in a place they thought their activity was unlikely to be discovered. Steed rather thought not, but if she could convince James and the Jenkinses with that argument, he’d take it.
Steed eased the Bentley into a space not far from the toy shop, and on the opposite side of the street. The village was large enough that a stranger might pass relatively unnoticed, but Steed didn’t want to arouse suspicion by barging in and asking questions right away, especially not if the large man who looked like James were still anywhere about to recognize him. So after grabbing his umbrella and vaulting lightly out of the car (to the obvious delight of two young ladies who were walking towards him, to whom he tipped his bowler), Steed strolled away from the toy shop, apparently window shopping, then dove into a place that sold antique books and prints. This wasn’t entirely a case of misdirection on Steed’s part: there might be another plate or two of Napoleonic uniforms that he could add to his collection, and maybe something Mrs Peel would enjoy.
About fifteen minutes later, Steed emerged from the book shop bearing two wrapped parcels: one for himself (a nineteenth-century engraving by Charles Vernier illustrating the history of the uniforms of the French king’s bodyguards) and the other a copy of the 1801 edition of Gauss’ Disquisitiones Arithmeticae for Mrs Peel, who had been nattering about Gauss’ work after having attended what apparently was quite an exciting mathematics conference in Malta. Steed didn’t understand a word of what Mrs Peel said about what she had learned, but he knew that it was important to her, and that was all that mattered. After leaving the book shop, Steed went to the stationer’s a few doors down, where he bought some watercolors and a block of heavy paper for Gracie. He slipped all his purchases into the paper carrier bag supplied by the stationer, then went back out into the bright winter morning, where he looked this way and that as though trying to decide where to go next, a gentleman from Town spending a pleasant day in a country village.
Preliminaries thus concluded and cover thus established, Steed crossed the street and ambled in a disarmingly aimless way towards the toy shop, as he did so noting who was coming and going from that establishment, and keeping a lookout for large men in dark overcoats and fedoras. He was not disappointed. As he stood apparently examining the fashions modeled by the mannequins in a shop that sold women’s clothing, out of the corner of his eye he saw the man who had come to the door on New Year’s Day round the corner of the block below, and then march his heavy way up the street, apparently intent on going into the toy shop himself.
There was no time to lose. If Steed were right and the toy shop were implicated in the plot somehow, he needed to find out how the large man (to whom he had privately given the nickname “Crassus,” in honor of the man’s size and the apparently Roman overtones of the case) was involved and what he wanted. But he also needed to do it without revealing himself, at least not immediately, since Crassus would presumably recognize him from the altercation at the Burrows’ two days earlier.
Steed slipped into the toy shop. The bell attached to the door rang, summoning the shopkeeper. A slight man in a tweed jacket, green cardigan, and bow tie stood up behind the counter, to the left of the door, where he apparently had been dealing with something that was kept in a cupboard below.
“Can I help you?” said the man.
“Yes, please,” said Steed with a courteous smile. “I am looking for a puzzle for my nephew.”
“Those are to the right, sir. You’ll find the puzzles on the shelf behind that one. I’ll be here if you need assistance.”
Steed nodded politely, then slipped in between the shelves, stationing himself in a place where he would be hidden but still able to observe what Crassus did and said when he came into the shop. Mere seconds after Steed entered his blind, Crassus lumbered in, as expected. It immediately became apparent that he was not there to buy toys. Instead he planted himself in front of the counter and glared at the shopkeeper, who seemed to be wary and a bit frightened of the other man. They spoke in low voices, but Steed was nearby and his hearing was keen.
“Is it done?” said Crassus.
“No, of course it isn’t,” said the shopkeeper. “I don’t have the materials for it. If you and Portnoy would simply allow me to use modern copper wire it wouldn’t be a problem. But with your mania for Roman Britain and ‘authenticity,’ whatever on Earth you two mean by that, I’m short of supplies.”
“We can’t wait, Swinburne,” said Crassus. “The nones are approaching. It already took a great deal of convincing to get Portnoy to agree to making a duplicate, but now I’m afraid there’s nothing for it but for you to try to get the original back.”
“And what if I can’t? I really don’t understand what the date has to do with this. If the mechanism doesn’t work, it doesn’t, and if it does it will be because the science is sound, not because of the superstitious contortions you’re putting me through.”
“The auguries said that it must be at midnight on the eve of the nones of January,” said Crassus. “So at midnight on the eve of the the nones it must be. That’s tomorrow night. We won’t have time to get the copper by then, never mind construct a new matrix. And are you daring to mock a vision given by the god of gateways himself, in his own temple in Rome?”
Swinburne scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Auguries. Nones. Visions. Puzzles. Sacred springs.” He crossed his arms and glared at Crassus. “My Classics master at Harrow would have had my head on a plate for spouting that kind of nonsense.”
Moving with a speed belied by his bulk, Crassus grabbed the other man by the jacket front and pulled him towards the center of the counter. Steed also suspected that Swinburne had been pulled off his feet, and so rather hoped that it wouldn’t come to blows. Despite Crassus’ nickname, it was clear to Steed that a good deal of the big man’s heft was muscle, not fat. As satisfying as it could be to take a swing at the villains, Steed didn’t fancy the amount of damage he knew it would take to put a man like Crassus down, or the amount of damage he himself might accrue in the process.
Steed took a quick look at the merchandise on the shelves next to him. As Swinburne had said, the puzzles were in this part of the shop. Steed grinned as his eye alighted on the perfect one. He grabbed it, shook it for good measure, then sauntered out from behind the shelf.
The sound of the shaken puzzle had alerted Crassus to his presence. As Steed rounded the corner, he saw that Crassus had let Swinburne go, and that the latter was making hasty adjustments to his clothing. Crassus glared at Steed, his stare changing from anger to menace as he recognized him.
“Good day. I must thank you for the suggestion about the puzzle,” he said to Crassus, smiling, as Swinburne rang up his purchase. “I think my nephew will enjoy this one, don’t you? Perhaps you might get one for yours.”
Steed then turned to Swinburne, ignoring Crassus’ glower. “Harrow, eh? I’m an Old Etonian myself. Maybe I’ll see you at Lord’s?”
“Perhaps,” said Swinburne, with a glance towards Crassus.
Steed leaned on the counter with one elbow, shook his head in mock dismay, and tapped the picture on the puzzle box with a gloved finger.
“HMS Hermes. Good ship. Pity she was destroyed. War of 1812, you know. Never should have let the Colonies go.”
Steed took his change from Swinburne, slid the puzzle into the bag alongside his earlier purchases, and headed for the door. He opened the door and then turned back, standing on the threshold.
“Hermes,” said Steed, with apparent thoughtfulness. “Interesting chap. God of boundaries. And tricksters.” Steed touched the brim of his bowler to the other two men. “Good day,” he said, a light smile on his lips but a warning in his eyes. Then he stepped out onto the pavement and in a few swift strides disappeared from their view.