Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 14 ¤
Helen glanced behind them.
“Anyone following us?” said Steed.
“I don’t think so,” she replied.
Steed drove a little further down the country road, then pulled into the lane that led onto Farmer Haskins’ land. Turning the Bentley sharply, Steed drove close to the high hedge that divided the field from the road. He drove along it for a short way, then stopped the car. Steed turned off the engine and set the parking brake. He sat for a moment, listening, looking, and thinking, then turned to his sister.
“We’re going to put our overcoats in the boot, then walk back to your place. We need to stay as hidden as possible; stay close to hedges and walls and be ready to duck down at any sign of people or cars. Understood?”
Helen nodded. They deposited their coats accordingly, and then continued back towards the Burrows’ home. They got to the stone wall that divided the Burrows’ property from the Haskins’ without incident, and crouched behind it. The house was visible in the gathering dusk about a hundred yards away in front of them to the northwest; the gate to the drive about half that distance away, visible as a gap in the hedge that ran perpendicular to the boundary wall. From where they stood, the copse where the man had been stationed was blocked by the hedges, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway: it wasn’t exactly close by, and the light was nearly gone.
Steed gestured to Helen, and they both ran along the wall, bent over, finally drawing even with the house. After checking that the coast was clear, they hopped over the wall and dashed into the garage, where they took up a position at the window that faced the house. Because the garage was to the south of and at an angle to the main house, they would be able to see anyone coming up the drive or attempting to break into James’ study or get in through the kitchen. The waxing moon, two days from full and well above the horizon, would be either a blessing or a curse. It would make it easier to see any enemies and to follow them, but it also would make Helen and himself more visible to unfriendly eyes.
After nearly an hour, Helen grabbed Steed’s arm and whispered, “Look!”
Steed saw it too: a man was hurrying up the drive and then across the lawn towards the house. He seemed to be wearing a courier bag with something rectangular and bulky inside, and as he got closer they could see that he was carrying a large flashlight that was not turned on. Apparently the man thought the moonlight sufficient to see by without it, or else he was trying to avoid attracting attention. When the man got to the front corner of the house, he stopped and exchanged the flashlight for whatever it was that he had in his bag. It seemed to be some kind of electronic device: the man pulled at something that could only be an antenna, then touched something on the surface of the device, causing the green glow of some kind of readout panel to illuminate his face. Steed recognized him as Swinburne, the keeper of the toy shop.
Swinburne pointed the device at the house, and waved it to and fro, as if searching for something. The arc of his movement diminished until finally he was pointing directly at the window of James’ study. Swinburne turned the device off and put it back in the bag, but not before he had fetched out some kind of long, flat tool. He took the tool, and seemed to be attempting to slide it between the sill and the window catch.
“He’s breaking into the house. Oughtn’t we to stop him?” she said, beginning to move towards the door.
Steed put a steadying hand on her forearm, but didn’t take his eyes off Swinburne. Steed and Helen heard the sound of the window sliding open.
“No, indeed,” said Steed. “The prey needs to take the bait before the hunters can move in.”
Swinburne removed the flashlight from the bag, then took the bag off and put it down. Gripping the flashlight in one hand, he hoisted himself onto the windowsill, and wriggled with difficulty into the house. A faint thump testified that he had gotten inside, but that he had arrived with some violence on the floor. Steed smirked.
He turned to Helen.
“Now we go,” he whispered. “Stay close to me, stay close to the house, and don’t let yourself be seen through any of the windows.”
Hand in hand, they made their quick and stealthy way to the house. Keeping Helen behind him, Steed peered around the corner. Swinburne hadn’t emerged yet: the bag containing the device was still on the ground under the window, and once a beam of light played across the window frame. Steed turned to his sister and gestured with his head. Crouching down, he led her silently along the side of the house. When they got to the window Swinburne had opened, Steed indicated that they should stand with their backs to the wall and wait for the other man to come out.
They didn’t have long to wait. Apparently having learned his lesson about going through a window head-first, Swinburne swung one leg over the sill. The rest of him followed, clumsily and, Steed was gratified to note, with his back to them. Clutching both the flashlight and the puzzle box, Swinburne arrived without mishap back outside the house. He crouched to put the puzzle and his tools into the carrier bag, still completely unaware of Steed and Helen’s presence. Swinburne stood, beginning to lift the strap of the bag over his head, but before he could get himself completely upright, Steed pounced, taking the back of Swinburne’s neck in an iron grip and propelling him face-first into the side of the house with enough force to cow him into submission without knocking him out. Swinburne yelped and dropped the bag with a crash of shattering electronics.
“Arms out, hands on the wall,” growled Steed.
Swinburne shot a glance at Helen out of the corner of his eye: she stood to his left, swagger stick in hand and obviously ready to lay it on if need be. Swinburne obeyed with alacrity.
“I … I’m not armed! Please don’t hurt me!” he said.
With his right hand, Steed tightened his grip a fraction on Swinburne’s neck. He used the handle of the umbrella in his left to drill firmly and painfully into the smaller man’s kidney. Swinburne gasped and writhed, but Steed did not relent.
“Now,” said Steed, his voice a soft, menacing purr. “How about explaining what you are doing here? Breaking into other people’s houses after dark is a dreadfully ill-mannered thing to do, you know.”
“I came for the puzzle! I need that puzzle,” said Swinburne, his voice shaking. Then with a sudden burst of nerve, he said, “It doesn’t belong to you, anyway. I was just reclaiming my rightful property.”
“Indeed,” said Steed, releasing Swinburne’s neck to grab his shoulder and spin him around. Steed pushed Swinburne back against the wall, then put his umbrella against the other man’s windpipe, under his chin. Swinburne grabbed the umbrella and tried to force it away from his throat, but in vain. He might as well have tried to shift the house with his bare hands.
“Tell us more about your rightful property,” said Steed. “What’s it for, and why do you need it so badly that you’re willing to commit burglary?”
He released the pressure on Swinburne’s neck just a fraction to let him speak.
“It’s the matrix for the portal. The portal won’t work without it. I told Portnoy that doing the thing with the puzzle was foolish, but he wouldn’t listen,” said Swinburne.
Helen, who had been standing behind Steed to his left, took a step closer to Swinburne.
“Which portal is this?” she said, her voice edged with steel. “And what does Janus Portnoy have to do with it?”
Swinburne’s eyes shifted to look at her, and he shrank back ever so slightly at this new threat. Steed couldn’t see his sister, and anyway he needed to keep both eyes on Swinburne, but he could imagine what she must look like to the other man. It was a pleasing thought.
“Who is Janus Portnoy?” said Steed.
“Local eccentric,” Helen replied. “Apparently has a passion for Roman Britain. He bought the property behind ours a couple of years ago. We don’t see much of him in the village.”
Steed glanced over his shoulder at his sister and smiled inwardly—she was indeed as fierce as he had imagined—then returned his attention to Swinburne. Steed seemed to consider something for a moment, then gave the umbrella a shove. Swinburne winced, then his eyes widened in surprise as Steed pulled the umbrella back, planted the point on the ground, and leaned elegantly on the handle.
Swinburne looked nervously at Steed, then at Helen, then back again, a mouse in a cage between two cats.
“It’s a portal. To an alternate dimension. Or maybe through time. We don’t know yet. We were supposed to test it tonight, but that can’t happen without the puzzle matrix.”
“What does the fairy glade have to do with it?” said Helen.
Swinburne seemed confused. He looked at Helen. “The fairy glade?”
“The place in the forest, where the spring is,” she said.
“Well, that’s the focal point for the energy,” said Swinburne. “The telluric currents and ley lines all converge there; there’s a reason why springs like that were sacred in ancient Britain. They’re pulsing with energy.”
He glanced at Steed, whose right eyebrow was seeking the shelter of his hat brim.
“Look,” said Swinburne, begging. “You have to let me go back, with the puzzle. If I don’t, Burroughs and Portnoy will kill me, just like they did Kirwin.”
Steed, who had been looking at Helen during this exchange, suddenly pivoted to look back at Swinburne.
Steed and Helen both spoke at once.
“Bertram Kirwin?” said Steed, while Helen said, “Burrows?”
“Yes,” said Swinburne to Steed. “Why? Do you know him?”
“I know of him. He’s been on the radar for a year now, but suddenly disappeared about four weeks ago.”
“That’s because he’s dead,” said Swinburne. “Portnoy and Burroughs killed him.”
Helen stepped forward to press the ferrule of her swagger stick into Swinburne’s chest.
“Who is ‘Burrows’?” she repeated.
“Arthur Burroughs,” said Swinburne. “Portnoy’s friend. Big chap. Unpleasant.”
“Ah,” said Steed. He looked at Helen. “Must be the man I told you about, the one who looks like James from the back.”
Steed gave Swinburne a sidelong glance as Helen withdrew her stick. Then Steed drew himself up to his full height and, smiling, gave the umbrella a flashy twirl by its handle, sending the point in a complete circle, then bringing its length to rest against his shoulder.
“Well!” said Steed, with a cunning grin at his sister and his captive. “We can’t leave portals to alternate dimensions untested, now, can we? And I would so very much like to meet this Janus Portnoy.”