Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 16 ¤
Helen took a swig from Steed’s hip flask and coughed as the brandy burned its way down. She passed it back to Steed, who took a sip himself, then pushed his bowler back onto the crown of his head and also began to cough.
“That’ll put hair on your chest,” gasped Steed, as he capped the flask.
“Just what I need,” said Helen, trying to get her breath back. “I wonder what James will have to say about that?”
Steed snorted a laugh as he returned the flask to his pocket.
“That’s not your usual tipple, John. Seriously, what is it?”
“It’s something I found in the kitchen. I didn’t recognize the vinyard, but it was already open, and there didn’t seem to be anything else.”
“Oh, dear. Yes, that,” said Helen. “James and I don’t drink much brandy, so we rarely have any. The one you found is our annual Christmas gift from one of James’ cousins. He means well, and he’s a very dear man, but he doesn’t know much about wine. Mrs Jenkins generally uses it for cooking.”
Steed and Helen sat in the survey van, which they had parked at the entrance to Portnoy’s estate. The house was a fine Georgian one, with a columned porch in front, and a white gravel drive lined with carefully trimmed privet hedges on either side. Lights were visible in one of the ground floor windows at the front, but it wasn’t possible to see inside from where they were parked. Steed gripped the steering wheel and leaned forward, peering at the house.
“We need to find out what Portnoy and Crassus are doing,” said Steed, using the nickname he had given to Arthur Burroughs, “and we need to find out whether they’re alone. They may have other confederates.”
Helen studied the house herself. “So what do we do, walk up to the door and pull the bell?”
Steed grinned. “Well, that is one option.”
A groan from the back of the van indicated that Ralph was coming to. Steed and Helen turned to look at him, then back at each other. Steed folded himself up and crept between the front seats to crouch next to Ralph, while Helen watched from the front. Steed helped the other man into a sitting position, then fed him a swig of brandy from the hip flask. Ralph also coughed and sputtered, but the drink did its work: he was fairly alert now and fixing Steed with a baleful eye.
“What was that, turpentine?” said Ralph.
“Come now,” said Steed. “Purely medicinal, and good for the soul.”
“Medicinal I’ll warrant,” said Ralph. He struggled vaguely against his bonds. “I haven’t done nothing. Let me go, guv.”
“I’ll consider that, if you answer some questions.”
For answer, Ralph glared at Steed some more.
“What’s your name?” said Steed.
“Wiltern. Ralph Wiltern.”
“How many people are in that house, Ralph?”
“Which house, guv? Can’t see nothing trussed up like a Christmas goose, now, can I?”
“Janus Portnoy’s house,” said Steed.
“I got nothing to say about Janus Portnoy,” said Ralph. “Nor Arthur Burroughs, neither.”
“I see,” said Steed. “So who else is in there besides Portnoy and Burroughs?” said Steed with a sly smile.
Ralph seemed to recognize that he had made a misstep; he began squirming and trying to inch away from Steed.
“I ain’t said nothing about nobody being in that house, understand? Nothing!”
“How many other people are there?” said Steed, an edge creeping into his voice.
“How should I know?” said Ralph. “I spent the whole evening sitting in a bloody copse freezing my ar—” Ralph noticed that Helen was looking at him keenly, and revised his locution. “Sitting there in the cold, and then Swinburne showed up and told me I was to be waiting to collect him in the van when he got done with whatever it was he had to do. Then you lot showed up, and here we are. I have no idea who is in that house. Portnoy and Burroughs might not even be there. ‘S not like they’re expecting callers at this time of night, are they.”
“Oh, I rather think they are,” said Steed. “Where were you supposed to go with Swinburne tonight?”
“He didn’t tell me, now, did he. He told me to wait at that gate, so I waited like he said. I don’t get paid to know things. I get paid to fetch and carry, that’s all.”
“How many entrances are there to that house?” said Steed.
“How many entr— D’you think they give me the run of the place? I ain’t never been inside, but for the once, and that was through the tradesmen’s entrance at the back.”
Steed crouched next to the other man a moment longer, thinking, then crept back into the driver’s seat.
“So what will it be?” said Helen. “Tradesmen’s entrance, or front door?”
“Side window?” said Steed. “Won’t know until we get a closer look at the place.”
Steed picked up his umbrella and the puzzle from where he had placed them between the seats. After tucking the puzzle under one arm and making sure Helen had her stick, he gestured to her with his head. They opened their doors and got out.
“Oy!” said Ralph. “What about me? You gonna leave me out here to freeze?”
Steed put his head back into the van.
“Ah. Yes, well, I’m afraid you’ll have to, er, cool your heels here for a bit longer. But not to worry; someone will be along to fetch you out soon.”
With that, Steed and Helen closed the van doors, muffling the protests of the helpless Ralph.
Steed and Helen walked silently towards the house on the grass of the lawn, the privet hedge between them and the gravel of the drive. The light in the first-floor window was at the far corner of the house to their left. Steed was still figuring out a plan of attack, but he was sure that he didn’t want to waltz up to the front of the house and into the small pool of light that was spilling onto the lawn from the window: the moon, now well risen, was making things precarious enough as it was. To top it off, there were no trees or shrubbery beyond the waist-high privets in the fine expanse of green, open lawn that formed the front of Portnoy’s property, and the trees that ringed it on either side were too far away to be serviceable.
They had about twenty yards to go when the two large carriage lamps on either side of the door were suddenly illuminated. Steed gave Helen a warning push, and they both dove down as close to the hedge as they could manage and lay flat, Steed putting a protective arm over his sister’s shoulder. They lay there as still as they could until the sound of the front door opening reached them. Steed motioned to his sister to stay put, then crawled forward a little and, using his umbrella to gently part the branches of the hedge, raised himself up a bit to peer through the gap. Standing in the doorway was a short, barrel-chested man who Steed hadn’t seen before, but whom Ralph and Swinburne would have recognized as the one who had delivered the materiel at the barn just a few nights earlier. The man looked around suspiciously, then closed the door. The carriage lamps went out.
Steed and Helen lay still for a moment longer, then got up, but stayed crouched behind the hedge.
“What does Janus Portnoy look like?” said Steed.
“Middle aged, goatee, portly. Generally well dressed,” said Helen. “Why?”
“A man looked out the door just now. I’ve never seen him before. It wasn’t Crassus. And it evidently wasn’t Portnoy, either,” said Steed.
“So there are at least three of them, then,” said Helen.
Steed nodded. “From the look of that one his job is to be the muscle. Whether he opened the door because he somehow heard or spotted us or whether he was checking to see if Swinburne was on his way remains to be seen.”
They crouched in silence for a moment, then Helen said, “Front door, side window, or tradesmen’s entrance?”
“Tradesmen’s entrance, I think,” said Steed. He pulled the puzzle out from under his arm and waggled it at Helen. “We are making a delivery, after all.”