Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 15 ¤
Having secured Swinburne in the cellar, tying him to a pillar so that he could not escape, Steed and Helen set out for the foot of the drive. They were on their way to deal with Ralph, who Swinburne had said was waiting for him with the van. With Swinburne’s help they had put the puzzle together quickly and sandwiched it between two pieces of cardboard secured with packing tape. Steed carried this package, which was only a little bigger than an A4 piece of paper, tucked under his arm. He and Helen walked in silence on the grassy lawn, to the left of the gravelled drive, in an effort to muffle their approach. When they arrived at the high hedge that formed a boundary between the lawn and the road at the gate, they crouched down, listening. Nothing and noone seemed to be moving, until they heard the scrape of a match against a matchbox. Evidently Ralph had parked the van quite close to the gate, and was now enjoying a cigarette. This might complicate things: there was no way they’d be able to walk on the gravel and open the gate without attracting his attention, and if Steed whispered Ralph might hear that, too. Although there were possibilities attached to drawing Ralph towards them, rather than sneaking up on him, as well as drawbacks….
Steed paused. If Mrs Peel had been with him, he would have simply taken off and started the next phase of the operation knowing that she would follow his lead (or even take the lead herself) and do what was necessary. Events thus far suggested that Helen probably could be trusted to hold up her end in a fight, but Steed wasn’t sure how well she would manage without instructions. He settled on a few hand signals indicating that she was to watch him and follow his lead, and when it appeared she understood, he crept toward the gate, Helen following close behind.
When he reached the stone pillar that held up one side of the gate, Steed held his umbrella by the point, and then reaching as far as his long arm could go, put the handle underneath the metal gate latch and gave it a quick upward shove. This released the latch and sent it spinning around its pin with a clank and rattle of metal. A tense, brief silence followed, then what Steed had been hoping for: Ralph came to the gate to see what had just happened. Steed then hooked his umbrella around one of the bars of the gate, down near the ground where the other man couldn’t see it, and slowly pulled the gate towards him, opening it on silent hinges. Ralph froze.
“That you, Swinburne?” he rasped.
Ralph took a cautious step into the opening Steed had created. He called a little louder.
“Swinburne? Don’t play games, mate.”
This also was met by silence.
Ralph frowned and shook his head, waving one hand dismissively towards the empty drive. He turned and started back toward the van, but he didn’t get far. Steed and Helen rocketed out of their covert and leapt onto the far end of the open gate, causing it to swing violently back towards Ralph. He didn’t even hear it coming until it was on top of him. With a dull clang, the metal gate, weighted with the bodies of Steed and his sister, a pendulum swinging on its fulcrum under the laws of physics, hit Ralph hard, knocking him down, stunned.
Steed and Helen jumped off the gate and ran around to where Ralph was struggling to his feet. With one quick blow, Steed knocked him unconscious. Steed rolled Ralph over, and hooking his umbrella over his arm, the puzzle packet still tucked under the other, put his hands under the other man’s shoulders.
“Take his legs, please” he said to Helen. “We’ll put him in the back of the van. Oh, and remind me to thank James for keeping those hinges well-oiled, won’t you?”
Helen grinned at her brother, then picked up Ralph’s legs, and between them they made their way to the van, which was parked about five yards away along the Burrows’ front hedge.
“It was good you remembered the gate trick,” said Helen, as she trudged after her brother, with one of Ralph’s legs under each arm. “That was even better than the time we ran at the gate so hard that it nearly wrapped itself around the post. Remember that one?”
Steed laughed. “I do indeed. Father was furious. But I still remember how to calculate arcs from all the extra work he told the maths masters to give us.”
“So do I,” said Helen. “Actually that extra work was one of the things that led me to architecture.”
Steed halted and looked at his sister, surprised. “Was it now? I didn’t know that.”
“It was, actually.”
“Huh,” said Steed, and they resumed carrying their burden to its destination.
They reached the back of the van and found that the doors were unlocked. Helen gently set Ralph’s legs down and opened the doors, then helped her brother slide the unconscious Ralph inside. Steed stepped in beside him, and cast around for something to tie the other man. This van belonged to January Survey, so there were chains and coils of light rope available, part of the equipment used for measuring; Steed had Ralph trussed securely but not cruelly in a few minutes. He jumped out and closed the doors.
“We need to get to Portnoy’s, post-haste. He’ll be expecting delivery of the puzzle, and it’s probably already taken longer than he expected. What’s the quickest way?” said Steed.
“At this point, driving would be fastest,” said Helen.
Steed trotted along the side of the van, past the image of Janus and the company’s name to the driver’s-side door, where he peered through the window.
“Keys are still in it,” he called to Helen. “Hop in; there’s a delivery to be made, alternate universes to explore!”
He heard Helen chuckling quietly as she ran around to the passenger side. She got into the van and closed the door.
“Is your work always this much fun?” she said over the sound of the engine starting.
“No,” said Steed, becoming suddenly somber, gazing into the distance where the road disappeared into the darkness. “No, it isn’t.”
Steed looked through the windscreen a moment more, then he flashed a crooked grin at Helen. “But I have learned to take the fun as it happens.”
With that, Steed put the van in gear and steered it into the road. Off they raced into the night, under the blazon of the god of gateways.