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¤ CHAPTER 18 ¤
The double doors on the other side of the entryway, which were framed on either side by a collection of Roman weapons, swung inward in response to the barrel-chested man’s knock. Framed in the doorway were Portnoy and Crassus, the former dressed as a Roman priest, or flamen, the latter in the robes and head covering of a Celtic druid.
The man holding the gun stood immediately in front of his employers, continuing to hold Steed and Helen at gunpoint to the right of the door. Portnoy looked first at the man, then over at Steed and Helen, who stood with their hands raised, the puzzle packet still in Steed’s left.
“Who are these people, Garrick? And what is that?” said Portnoy, indicating the puzzle Steed held.
“This,” said Steed, “is compliments of Mr Swinburne, who at the moment is indisposed to deliveries.”
“And Ralph?” said Crassus.
“He has been similarly detained,” said Steed with a cheeky grin.
Portnoy took a step towards Steed.
“Is that … is it …?”
“It is indeed,” said Steed. “Shall we see whether it works? From what Mr Swinburne told us, it sounds to be something quite spectacular.”
“No!” said Portnoy, moving towards Steed. “Give it me. Give it me this instant.”
Steed hesitated, until Garrick gestured with the gun. Steed shrugged, then held out the puzzle to Portnoy with his left hand, while at the same time hiking up his umbrella with his right so that he gripped it towards the point and the top of the shaft rested against his shoulder. Steed made a quick sidelong glance at Helen, who gave the faintest of nods and subtly changed her grip on her stick.
Portnoy took hold of the puzzle packet with great reverence. He tried to pull it towards him, but Steed held it fast in a vise-like grip. Angered, Portnoy tugged on the puzzle, simultaneously trying to use brute strength to get it away from Steed but also to avoid damaging his prize. Portnoy strained at the packet once more, then Steed abruptly let go, sending the other man reeling backwards. Portnoy went down hard on his backside.
This provided the distraction Steed was looking for. Garrick had turned away when Portnoy went flying past him, and at that moment Steed brought his umbrella down hard on Garrick’s shoulder. Garrick staggered, but did not fall. But before he could recover, Steed grabbed the wrist that held the gun and gave it a savage twist. Garrick cried out in pain and dropped the gun, which in his struggle to escape Steed was kicked in Portnoy’s direction.
With Crassus’ assistance, Portnoy regained his feet, still clutching the puzzle.
“Get them!” he said.
Crassus turned to face Helen and Steed as Portnoy, with a speed belied by his bulk, scooped up the gun and scuttled back through the door, the puzzle tucked under his left arm. He slammed the double doors shut.
Crassus, who had been crouched to spring on Helen, spun round at the sound of the closing doors and pushed at them, but to no avail. Portnoy had locked them. Crassus pounded on the doors and bellowed Portnoy’s name, but there was no response from inside. Helen stepped forward and brought her stick down on Crassus’ shoulder with a mighty crack, snapping the stick in he middle and sending half of it spinning through the air to land at some distance from the combatants. This unfortunately had little effect. Crassus turned, then lunged at Helen and struck her across the face with a vicious backhand. Helen staggered back, stumbling into the banister of the staircase, where she clung to the newel post trying to stay conscious.
While Portnoy had been locking himself in his study, Steed had been facing Garrick, who had managed to work himself free of the armlock. Steed knew that he would have to be quick in order to put Garrick down: the man’s jaw was anything but glass, he was very strong, and he obviously knew a thing or two about unarmed combat. The one thing Steed thought might work in his favor was that the other man was relatively slow.
Garrick closed on Steed in a prizefighter’s crouch, fists clenched. He struck out at Steed with a right. Steed sidestepped the blow to the outside, and replied with a left to Garrick’s short ribs. The man spun around, carried by the momentum of his punch that had hit nothing but air and the blinding pain in his side. But before Garrick could get himself squared up to have another go, Steed tossed his umbrella to his left hand and struck quick as a cobra with his right, hitting Garrick in the jaw, sending him crumpling to the floor, where he lay flat on his back, stunned but still conscious.
Steed glanced around to see what had become of Helen just in time to catch sight of Crassus delivering that backhanded blow. Steed drew the sword from its umbrella sheath and held the point at Garrick’s throat.
“Burroughs!” Steed roared. “Leave her alone or your friend here dies.”
Crassus turned to face Steed, then began stalking towards him, apparently having decided that he presented a greater threat than Helen did.
“It’s all one to me what you do with him,” said Crassus. “I suspect you’re bluffing, and in any event he’s expendable.”
“Oy!” said Garrick, who had regained enough of his wits to understand what was being said about him. “Without me, you lot wouldn’t have the gear you have now!”
Crassus darted over to the left side of the door, the one opposite Steed, and prised a pilum, a Roman javelin, from the wall. He flipped it round to point it at Steed. Steed’s eyes widened as Crassus took a step forward. Somehow he had no doubt that Crassus knew how to use the spear, with its heavy wooden butt and long, elegant upper shaft that ended in a diamond-shaped head.
Steed held his ground, but his mind was racing over what to do next. He could release Garrick, but there was no guarantee that he would come to Steed’s aid rather than try to get back into Crassus’ good books by joining him instead.
Sensing Steed’s indecision, Garrick tried to take advantage of the situation by making a quick feint as though he were going to try to rise, but this only resulted in Steed planting a foot on his chest and placing the point of the sword even closer to his throat. Garrick raised his hands in surrender and lay still.
“Burroughs, I’m warning you,” growled Steed.
Crassus took another step towards Steed, then paused, hefting the javelin as though considering whether to try close combat or throw the thing. Steed braced himself for Crassus’ attack.
The tension was broken when an object came hurtling at Crassus from the direction of the staircase, striking the big man on the shoulder. It was the half of Helen’s stick that she somehow had managed to keep in her hand.
Whirling to face this new threat, Crassus broke into a wolfish grin. Steed went speechless with rage and fear. He lifted the sword point from Garrick’s throat and took one long stride forward, a stride that would put his sword within striking distance of the big man. But that was as far as he got. Evidently deciding to throw his lot in with Crassus—or else to do what he could to work free of both his employer and Steed—Garrick grabbed the foot that was planted next to his body when Steed was in mid-stride and pulled. Steed went down hard on one knee, and as his opposite shoulder slammed into the floor the sword went flying from his hand and skittered away.
Feeling as though his knee had been struck by the hammer of Vulcan itself, and wondering whether he might have cracked the kneecap, Steed rolled painfully over and tried to rise but hadn’t done more than prop himself up on his hands and uninjured knee when Garrick got to his feet and kicked him in the flank. Steed went down again, badly winded and desperate to get back into the fight before Helen got hurt. He managed to uncurl himself sufficiently to see Garrick prising his own pilum from the wall on the right side of the door. Steed braced himself for the attack as best he could in his injured state, but he needn’t have worried: Garrick instead hurled the javelin at Crassus’ back, where the big man stood holding Helen at bay against the staircase as she crouched to meet his assault.
Garrick’s javelin went only just wide of its mark, embedding itself in the solid oak of the front door. Crassus turned to look at Garrick, seeming to weigh his options: Steed was hors de combat for the moment; should he continue toying with Helen, or deal with Garrick? Choosing the latter, Crassus hurled his own javelin with an accuracy born of long practice, striking Garrick full in the chest. Garrick’s hands clenched at the cold steel of the pilum’s upper shaft, but it was no use. He tottered and fell to the floor, dead.
Crassus walked over to the door and chose another javelin. When he turned to resume his pursuit of Helen, he first looked contemptuously down at a still-winded Steed, who was struggling to get to his feet, hampered by a badly bruised knee and the pain in his side from Garrick’s kick. The big man sneered at Steed and then turned his attention back to Helen, who began sidling along the staircase, backing away from the big man’s advance. Closing the gap between them at the moment seemed not to be a priority: after all, he could always throw the javelin if needed, and in the meantime he could provoke further terror.
Helen was brought up short as her hip bumped against a console table that had been placed along the wall under the upper portion of the staircase. Something on the table rattled in response. Not wanting to take her eyes off Crassus, Helen reached behind her to find that the table held an assortment of what seemed to be chunks of carved stone.
Crassus took another step forward, obviously enjoying Helen’s retreat and fear and the sound of Steed’s gasps from his left as he strained to get up and go to his sister’s aid.
Crassus went towards Helen one more slow pace. He was still about twenty feet away, but he was in no hurry. Helen’s hand fumbled over the pieces of rock behind her. She picked up one that bore a floral medallion and was slightly smaller than a cricket ball. Holding the piece of marble at her side, she stood tall to face Crassus.
“Stop there,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Crassus did stop, but only to roar with laughter.
“Come now, my dear. You can no more hurt me than Garrick can.”
Helen raised her arm.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and then threw the piece of marble with all her might at Crassus.
The stone hit him squarely between the eyes, and he collapsed into a huddled heap.
Steed collapsed back onto the floor too, albeit with relief. Helen rushed to her brother’s side and helped him up. Steed was finding it difficult to place much weight on his left knee, and his breath was still shorter than he would have liked.
Helen glanced back at Crassus.
“I’m afraid I’ve killed him,” she said.
“No, I think he’s still breathing,” said Steed, “But there’s no time to deal with that now. We need to find Portnoy.”
Knowing that the study door was well locked, brother and sister went out through the front entrance at best possible speed. They went around to the study windows, to look through curtains that were translucent enough for light to filter through but otherwise prevented a clear view of what was inside. Steed took off his steel-lined bowler and smashed it into one of the window panes, then pulled Helen down into a crouch beside him. When there was no response from inside, Steed and Helen stood up. Steed put one long arm through the hole in the glass and pushed the curtain aside. The room was empty.
“The fairy glade,” said Steed. He hobbled off around the corner of the house, heading for the glade, Helen close at his heels and ready to prop her brother up if he should need it.
As they cleared the back of the house, they could see in the silver moonlight that many yards ahead of them Portnoy was putting something carefully down on the other side of the wall. He then clambered over it, picked up whatever it was he had set down, and disappeared among the trees.
Nearly forgetting the pain of his injuries, Steed leapt back to the chase, his sister keeping pace with him. She put on a burst of speed as they neared the wall and vaulted over first, then turned to hep her brother over. Once they had both made it to the other side, they saw that Portnoy had lit a lantern near the mechanism that surrounded the spring, and seemed to be busying himself about Swinburne’s machine.
Helen made to continue their hot pursuit of Portnoy, but Steed grabbed her arm as she tried to bound forward. When she turned to look a question at him, he put a finger to his lips and pointed to their left, towards the place where he had hidden the children and himself exited the forest the other day.
Taking her brother’s cue, Helen stole into the woods and crept silently through the trees, Steed at her back. As they drew closer to the spring, they could see Portnoy kneeling next to it, working with something suspended over it by the struts Swinburne had installed, and oblivious to their presence. Finally Portnoy seemed satisfied that that piece of work was done. He grabbed the grille that leaned against one of the posts that encircled the spring and laid it across the opening, slots in its edges matching the places needed to accommodate the struts.
Portnoy laboriously got to his feet and surveyed his work with an attitude of satisfaction. He took a step back from the spring and raised his arms to the heavens.
“Mighty Janus! According to thy will, I have caused this portal to be built, a gateway between the worlds, a gateway to bring me into thy eternal presence, a gateway to …”
Steed stepped out of the shadows, Helen immediately behind him. She took up a stance at her brother’s shoulder.
Portnoy reeled around at the sound of Steed’s voice.
“You!” bellowed Portnoy. “Come no further! You cannot prevent me from achieving my goal!”
“I’m afraid I must,” said Steed.
Never taking his eyes off Steed, Portnoy sidled over to a post to his left, which in addition to the cabling and the box at the top bore a large electrical switch. He grasped the switch in his left hand.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” said Steed. “After all, Swinburne never got a chance to test it. What if it doesn’t work?”
“It has to work! It must!” Portnoy gestured grandly around the clearing. “All this was a vision from Janus himself. When Janus speaks, I must obey. The energy of the universe is gathered here, and when the harbors and ports and ways of Portunus are fused and become one, the portal will be opened, and I shall pass into Olympus, I, a living man shall regard the gods, face to face.”
Steed took a step towards Portnoy. The other man stood at bay for a moment, then turned and threw the switch. An electrical hum, faint at first, but gathering in intensity, began to fill the glade. The boxes on the pylons began to glow.
Steed advanced on the other man, slowly, cautiously, Helen following close behind, brother and sister both intent and tightly coiled as tigers on the hunt. Portnoy took one sideways step back towards the spring, then another. The main matrix box at the center of the spring began to glow red-hot. Portnoy glanced behind him. When he faced Helen and Steed once more, his face was alight with victory.
The electrical hum in the glade became louder, tinged with zaps and sputters. Portnoy took one more step backward. He moved to stand between two of the struts, then looked down at the matrix box. A chill ran down Steed’s spine as he realized what Portnoy was about to do. He froze in place, Helen following his lead and doing the same.
“Portnoy, don’t,” Steed said. “Don’t do it.”
The other man said nothing. Then his eyes blazed in triumph once more. He gathered his toga around his arm and sprang onto the metal grille. But the grille was not made to take the combined stress of Portnoy’s weight and the violence of his arrival upon it. There was a sudden metallic crack, followed by a splash and a monstrous sizzle. A jet of steam billowed up from the spring, lit from within by blue arcs of electricity. Helen stifled a cry, and covered her mouth with her hand. After all the perils of that night, this was a bridge too far. Steed turned. He put his arm around her and gathered her close. She closed her eyes and buried her face in her brother’s shoulder.
After a few moments, the steam in the glade cleared. Helen stopped trembling and looked towards the spring, above the edge of which the top half of Portnoy’s dead body was visible.
“What happened?” Helen whispered.
“He found a portal to another world.”