Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 12 ¤
Steed parked the Bentley in front of the house, having driven the Jenkinses to the train station and seen them off safely on the 12:24 to Peterborough. He entered the house, taking care to close and lock the door behind him. He stood in the hallway where he hung up his coat and hat, sounds wafting from the back of the house indicating that his sister was busy in the kitchen. He sighed. His feelings were at war with themselves: on the one hand, he really would rather she hadn’t stayed (not that he doubted her courage, which he knew to be considerable), but on the other, glad of the company and glad for the backup if he needed it when (and he knew it would be “when”) things got ugly with Crassus and company. Worry over James and the children’s welfare should something happen to Helen was adding a different layer of anxiety to this case, one that had an edge that was both unfamiliar and sharper than his usual concerns about his partners’ safety. Not for the last time did Steed silently harangue the universe over Mrs Peel’s choosing such an inconvenient time to vanish into the wilds of Scotland.
Still, there was nothing for it. Here they were, and a job of work to be done. Steed mentally shook himself, then pushed into the kitchen to find Helen setting the table and the room perfumed with the fragrance of pork and vegetables, a hearty, homelike smell.
“Hello,” Helen said. “I wasn’t sure whether we’d be able to have a proper meal later, so I concocted something while you were out. Mrs Jenkins found some lovely chops at the butcher’s today. I thought they’d do the trick.”
“It smells divine,” said Steed, as he walked over to the stove and inspected his sister’s handiwork with approval. He went to the sink and washed his hands, then took off his jacket and hung it neatly over the back of a chair. “Shall I fetch a bottle of wine?”
“Yes, please,” said Helen. “There are some in the drinks cabinet in the dining room.”
Steed returned a few minutes later, a bottle of what he knew to be a quite decent Riesling in hand. Steed had just about no idea what made James tick, but the man did have fairly good taste in wine, and as far as Steed was concerned that was certainly a mark in his favor.
Steed and Helen settled in to their meal. By unspoken agreement, they didn’t discuss what they expected to have to face that night or, failing any actions of the villains at that time, the night after. But the shadow of that looming battle weighed heavily on them: Steed and Helen, normally so at ease with one another, both felt strained, and their conversation, while polite and lighthearted, was undergirded with tension.
The meal was quickly consumed, and afterwards Steed insisted that Helen go upstairs to rest, saying that he expected it to be a very long night. He parried her protests that he should rest instead by reminding her that he was well used to dealing with villains on little sleep, and anyway someone needed to do the washing-up. She relented (much to Steed’s relief) when he promised to relax once the kitchen was clean. Although Steed had masked his requests in his unfailing courtesy as a guest and concern for his sister, in reality right then he desperately needed both some time alone to think and something physical to do; as he so often did when a case approached its conclusion, he felt like he might explode if he had to sit still.
About an hour and a half later, Helen descended the stairs and peeked into the living room to find her brother still in his shirtsleeves, stretched out on the sofa apparently asleep, having propped himself on a pile of cushions placed behind his shoulders and pulled a rug over his legs. The book about King Arthur lay open face down on his chest, while in the fireplace burned what must at one point have been a good, roaring fire. That one lock of hair had also worked its way loose yet again, giving him a boyish air that she well knew was a magnet for other women, but that was also dear to her own heart. She had come down the stairs and peered through the doorway nearly silently, but the mere presence of another person in his vicinity was enough to wake Steed. He opened his eyes and smiled at her. It was odd, she thought as she returned his smile, how this man, so extremely dangerous when needs must, could also be so disarmingly open, and how that same man had once been a small boy in short trousers who in the summer kept a running tally of how many times he could go scrumping in neighborhood fruit trees without getting caught.
“Sleep well?” she said, leaning on the lintel.
“You know, I believe I did,” he said, with genuine surprise.
“It’s the good country air and your big sister’s cooking, to be sure.”
“To be sure,” said Steed, grinning. He pushed himself upright and folded the rug, placing it on the arm of the sofa.
Helen proposed coffee, to which Steed readily agreed. It was just past three-thirty in the afternoon, but the sun still set early at this time of year. Steed strongly suspected the house was under constant surveillance, and according to the plan they needed to be on their way while it was still light enough for any observers to see them go. Steed’s suspicions were confirmed when he peeked through the window on the front door and was rewarded by the flash of field glasses catching the last rays of the westering sun from a copse on the opposite side of the road.
Steed reached up to the shelf over the coat rack and pulled down the powerful field glasses he had found there earlier. He blessed his sister’s husband for not only having good wine laid on in his home but also for having an occasional penchant for birdwatching. Steed took the glasses out of their case and went back into the darkening living room, where he lay on the floor and inched his way up to the window. Placing the glasses as close to the windowsill as he could while still being able to see out, he scanned the area around the copse for signs of life. Yes, indeed: there was at least one man in that copse, although it was neither Crassus nor Swinburne, who had put his own field glasses down for a moment in order to smoke a cigarette. And in the narrow country lane just beyond the copse was the back of a white van that Steed was positive would have the legend “JANVARY SVRVEY” written on its side.
Steed heard Helen’s footsteps approaching, so he wriggled his way back out into the hall, where he found her watching him with a wry expression.
“Your laundry must do good business out of you,” she said.
“You don’t know the half of it,” said Steed, putting away the glasses and brushing himself off. “And I am the despair of my tailor at times. He says he knows eight-year-old boys who wear out the knees of their trousers more slowly than I do. Occupational hazard.”
Helen chuckled. “Coffee’s ready.”
“Lead on!” said Steed.
Over coffee and sandwiches, they solidified their plans to deal with Crassus and his friends, and reviewed a few self-defense techniques for her to use if necessary. That done, while Steed put some things in readiness downstairs and went to swap his waistcoat for a wool cardigan, Helen went up to change into riding kit, which Steed thought would be the best clothing for the evening’s activities: warm enough that she could operate at least for a while without the restrictive bulk of an overcoat, loose enough that she would have good freedom of movement, and sturdy enough to withstand the outdoor terrain they would have to traverse. Steed forced himself not to think about the need for her clothing also to possibly withstand a physical attack on her person.
Steed came out of James’ study as his sister trotted down the stairs, clad in her hacking jacket with a warm shirt and cardigan underneath, riding trousers, and a sturdy but well broken-in pair of boots. Her long hair was tied back on the nape of her neck, and in her gloved hands she carried a swagger stick, topped with a silver cap bearing a regimental device.
“Where on earth did you find that?” said Steed, indicating the stick.
“It was James’, from the war. I remembered we had it stashed away in the box room with a few of his other things, and thought it might be a good idea for me to have it with me tonight. He won’t miss it; in fact, he’s been considering auctioning it off to military history enthusiasts for some time now.”
Steed let out a bark of laughter, delighted at seeing his sister thus armed and ready for battle. “Excellent. Now, are we ready to go?”
Helen met Steed’s gaze and became suddenly somber: they were actually going to do this. It was starting now. She nodded.
“Right. We put on our overcoats and things now. We want it to look like I’m taking you out for the evening, so put the stick up your sleeve.”
Steed helped his sister into her coat, then got into his own. He picked up his umbrella, and showed her the handle.
“If push comes to shove, and if you should need to use it, there’s a sword in the shaft. Twist it like this, then pull,” he said demonstrating how to free the blade, then sheathing it and locking the handle into place. “But be careful: it’s pointed and double-bladed, and very sharp, although it’s better for thrusting than for slashing.”
Steed saw Helen’s troubled expression as she looked down at the umbrella. He put a hand on her shoulder and bent down to look her in the eye.
Steed spoke quietly and gently, but with grave authority. “It’s not too late, you know. You can back out any time. But you need to be prepared for these kinds of eventualities. You need to be prepared to defend yourself without hesitation, even if it means hurting someone else. The villains aren’t going to fight fair, and you might only have one chance. Do you understand?”
Helen nodded. When she looked up, her glance flashed steel. The fierceness of it nearly took Steed aback. But then the flash was gone, and Helen’s usual intelligent good humor was to the fore once again.
“Yes,” she said. “They’ve disturbed the fairies in their glade, and we can’t have that, now, can we?”
Steed smiled. “No, indeed. Once more unto the breach?” he said, opening the door.
“Indeed,” she replied, going out into the chill evening. “And he that outlives this day and comes safe home,” Helen began as she sprang down the steps.
“Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named,” continued Steed, pulling the door to and making sure it was locked.
“And rouse him at the name of Crispian!” they recited together.
They got into the car attempting to sing the Agincourt Carol, although neither of them could remember the whole thing: they laughed and cheeked one another as they stumbled over the words and the tune. Steed was glad that Helen was able to joke with him like this, like an old soldier rehearsing well-worn jokes with his mates on the way to the front, like he so often did with Mrs Peel. Their laughter had a brittle edge to it, but it did help make the thought of what they might need to do later more bearable. Steed wondered whether Mrs Peel knew the Agincourt Carol, and made a mental note to ask her once he got home.
Steed navigated the drive, pausing only for Helen to open the gate and then close it behind him once he had eased the Bentley through. When she had settled back into her seat, he looked at her and said, “Last chance. We’re going over the wall now.”
Two pairs of hazel eyes met, and locked.
“Yes,” said Helen. “We are.”
Steed nodded his assent and approval, then turned the Bentley to the right as though he were going to drive into the village. If the villains wanted that puzzle, that puzzle they would have, but only after Steed had turned it into bait.