Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 17 ¤
Steed and Helen were gratified to see that the tradesmen’s entrance was at the back of the house on the side they had chosen to creep along. It lay in a longish area beneath the dining room, and was hidden from the view of the main house by a short wing that extended out from the main body of the house, giving its footprint a truncated “T” shape. Brother and sister arrived at the area unmolested, having seen no obvious signs of life from this end of the house.
They stole along the short wrought-iron fence that lay along two sides of the area and descended the stairs from the open end, which lacked a gate. A cautious peek through the windows that were set in the wall between the stairs at one end and the door at the other revealed nothing. There were no lights on inside: nothing was visible save an inky blackness.
Steed sidled up to the door and began to pick the deadbolt. Without prompting, Helen stood at his back, swagger stick at the ready, alert for the approach of Portnoy or any of his crew.
A few moments passed. The a few more. Steed emitted a low, quiet growl. Helen looked over her shoulder at him.
“I thought agents were suppsed to be dab hands at things like locks,” she said.
“Yes, well, some locks are easier than others,” said Steed, a note of annoyance creeping into his voice.
Finally the lock gave way, and Steed pushed the door open slowly.
“Forgive me, my dear, but I think this is one occasion on which ladies ought not to go first.”
Umbrella at the ready, Steed took two cautious steps into the room. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He eventually was able to see that he was in a room longer than it was wide, one that had a door that most likely led to the kitchen in the middle of the wall opposite. Nothing and noone seemed to be stirring, and since there was no light leaching through the edges of the kitchen door, Steed felt around for a wall switch and turned on the light.
Discerning that the coast was clear, Helen entered the room and stood at her brother’s shoulder. They both looked around at the contents of the room, which resembled nothing so much as a collection of equipment to maintain the electrical systems for a small village.
“Well, this is where all the stuff from that lab in Cambridge ended up, I’ll wager,” said Steed.
Helen nodded assent.
“Right. Here’s where it starts to get really dangerous,” said Steed. “We need to get into the house and locate Portnoy and his crew, and see whether there’s a way we can stop them doing whatever it is they’ve been planning. Ready?”
Heen gripped her stick a little tighter.
“Ready,” she said.
“And now for the pièce de résistance,” said Steed. “Up we go, and what we’ll find, nobody knows.”
They crossed the room, Steed in the lead. He paused at the door and listened carefully for a long moment before switching off the lights and opening the door, which was mercifully unlocked.
As expected, the door led to a capacious kitchen worthy of a stately home. But the place was a disaster: the sink was piled high with dirty crockery, and the stove was littered with stacks of pots and pans in various states of encrustation. Steed and Helen stopped short to gape at the mess.
“It’s a good thing Mrs Jenkins isn’t seeing this,” whispered Helen. “She’d die of an apoplexy.”
Steed chuckled, then gestured to Helen to resume their way through the darkened house.
They went up a flight of stairs that led to a corridor, along which was the dining room, where another surprise awaited them. They peered into the room, and in the dim light that filtered through the uncurtained windows where, instead of the usual table and chairs, they saw a low table surrounded by long couches: the room had been set up as a Roman triclinium, complete with frescoed walls and mosaic inlay across the whole floor.
“Mr Portnoy certainly takes his fancy for Roman Britain very seriously,” said Steed.
“Mm,” said Helen. “Although he apparently is not averse to having electricity laid on.”
“No. I suspect it’s hard to construct time portals without the stuff.”
Steed and Helen followed the corridor, moving noiselessly on the thick carpet towards the front of the house. At the end of the corridor was a window overlooking the front garden. The wall on their right ended about four feet shy of the front of the house, opening into an entry hall with a staircase in the center, while on their left there was some kind of parlor that sat empty behind a closed door. Steed and Helen stood in the archway, listening. Directly across from them was another arch the twin of the one they were now standing in, and another door, from beneath which was shining a sliver of golden light.
“They’re in there, aren’t they,” whispered Helen.
“Yes,” said Steed. “Well, one of them, at least.”
Steed tapped the handle of his umbrella against his chin. If Mrs Peel were here, they could just brazen it out and walk into Portnoy’s lair. He wasn’t sure whether that would work with Helen, and wasn’t sure whether to chance it.
“So what do we do next?” said Helen.
She was answered by the click of a gun being cocked behind them, and a rough voice saying, “Next you’re gonna put your hands up and not try any funny business.”
Steed and Helen stole a glance at each other, and complied with the gun-holding voice.
“Now turn around, slowly,” said the voice.
They did so, and found themselves face to face with the barrel-chested man that Steed had seen in the the doorway earlier. The carpet that had muffled Steed and Helen’s footsteps so well had apparently performed the same service for the man, who was covering them with a large revolver. He did not look amenable to negotiation.
The man waved his gun towards the puzzle.
“What, this?” said Steed, wiggling the packet. “A little something Mr Portnoy is expecting. Mr Swinburne was unavoidably delayed, so he asked us to bring it over for him.”
The man frowned, apparently trying to decide whether Steed was telling the truth or not.
“Come now,” said Steed, with a friendly smile. “We mustn’t keep Mr Portnoy waiting, must we?”
“All right, I’ll take you to him. But you lot keep your hands where I can see ’em, and no funny business, see? This gun’s loaded and I’m not shy about plugging holes in them what cross me, and Mr Portnoy ain’t gonna cry if I do.”