Quite Glorified Uncle


Table of Contents
¤ I ¤ II ¤ III ¤ IV ¤ V ¤ VI ¤
¤ VII ¤ VIII ¤ IX ¤ X ¤ XI ¤ XII ¤
¤ XIII ¤ XIV ¤ XV ¤ XVI ¤ XVII ¤ XVIII ¤ XIX ¤
epilogue

¤  CHAPTER 4 ¤

At around 4 a.m., Steed decided that it was probably safe to sleep for a bit, so he stretched out on the sofa, pulled a woolen throw blanket over his legs, and drifted off. He was awakened a little more than five hours later by Gracie pulling on his elbow, saying “Uncle! Uncle! Uncle! It’s snowing! Everything is all white! Come look!” This was followed a moment later by the sound of William thundering down the stairs, also exclaiming about snow.

Steed managed to haul himself to his feet and totter over to the window, where he agreed that the snow was indeed a splendid thing, and that perhaps after breakfast they might build a snowman. Steed was glad he had given the Jenkinses the morning off, which meant no early clattering in the kitchen, and glad that the children had slept in. With some breakfast and a very strong cup of coffee, he might just make it to the end of today. And taking the children out to build a snowman was the perfect excuse for an unobtrusive tour around the house to look for clues.

While the children got dressed, Steed prepared breakfast: eggy bread made with thick slices of the loaf Mrs Jenkins baked yesterday, slathered with melting butter and strawberry jam. Steed set the children the task of doing the washing up while he had a quick and much needed shower and changed into his tweeds. Thus fortified against whatever might come, he bundled the children up in their warmest things and out they went for a romp in the snow.

As Steed expected, there were no clues to be seen. Whatever signs might have been left on the ground were now thoroughly covered by about six inches of snow, and more was on the way. There was no sign of an attempt to force open any of the window frames. Either he and Jenkins had been imagining things, or the person or persons who were there hadn’t tried to get in.

Steed and the children made snow angels and a snowman, then had a rousing snowball fight. Steed ought to have been warned by Gracie’s skill with the air gun. And by the fact that she was her mother’s daughter. Gracie had an uncanny knack for finding the back of his head with a well-aimed snowball, and soon he felt like he had almost as much snow tucked in his collar as they had used to make the snowman.

For the second time in as many days, the three of them were cold and soaked and ravenously hungry, so they all piled back into the kitchen where they found Mrs Jenkins preparing another delicious meal for them to eat once they had changed out of their wet things, which she collected and set out to dry. After lunch, neither Steed nor the children had energy for anything more strenuous than roasting and eating chestnuts, so the next part of the afternoon passed quietly. The chestnuts consumed and the hulls tossed onto the fire, Steed settled down with a newspaper, Gracie with a coloring book and crayons. William trotted up to his bedroom and came back down with a jigsaw puzzle his father gave him for Christmas, which had a picture of a two-masted schooner called Portunus fighting its way through heavy seas.

William opened the box and began sifting through the pieces. A few moments later, he stopped.

“Uncle?” he said.

“Yes,” replied Steed, looking over the top of his paper.

“Is it usual to have pictures printed on both sides of the puzzle?”

“It depends,” said Steed. “I have seen puzzles like that, but they’re not common. Is there a second picture in addition to the one on the box?”

“No, and the picture on the back of the pieces is odd. There aren’t any colors. It’s just a collection of black lines and curves, maybe. And look—this one has numbers and letters on it.” William handed some pieces to his uncle. Steed turned them over in his palm. On one side was the print of the picture of the ship. On the other—which ought to have been blank cardboard—were the things William had observed. Steed picked up one of the pieces that had the lines and looked at the cut edge. Where the line had been drawn on the cardboard side there was a corresponding sheen of metal in the edge, as though some kind of wire or a very narrow, thin strip of metal—it looked like copper—had been embedded in the puzzle piece. Steed’s antennae began to quiver.

“It may not be anything,” he said, not wanting to frighten William, “but may I take the puzzle and look at it more closely?”

“May I put it together first, Uncle?” said the boy.

“No, I think it would be better not. Perhaps tomorrow we can go into the village and get you a replacement. Would that suit?”

William agreed, then went upstairs to get another project to work on, while Steed packed up the puzzle and took it to his room, where he locked it in his suitcase. Whatever had been done to that puzzle, it was unlikely that it was something that was supposed to have come home with James. At least Steed hoped that it wasn’t supposed to have come home with him. Unless his brother-in-law were up to something he hadn’t discussed with Steed. Steed didn’t like the direction his thoughts were taking, but he had to follow the evidence. He resolved to put the puzzle together himself tonight, after the children were asleep. He needed to find out what the pattern on the back meant.

As Steed descended the stairs, he heard the doorbell ring and, thinking to save Mrs Jenkins a journey from the kitchen, went to answer it. He opened the door to find a thickset man standing there, wearing a topcoat and fedora, his back to the house. Steed was momentarily startled, thinking that it was his brother-in-law standing on the stoop.

“James! Did you forget your key? Where is Helen?” said Steed.

The man turned around. It wasn’t James at all. He was about the same height and build as James, and the topcoat and hat were the same style and color as the ones James used, but this man had blue eyes. He was holding what appeared to be a jigsaw puzzle.

“I beg your pardon,” said Steed. “I thought you were someone else.”

“Please don’t worry about it,” said the man. “I’m sorry to intrude on you like this on New Year’s day, but I’m in a spot of trouble and was wondering whether you might assist me.”

“Oh?” said Steed.

“Yes. You see, I went to Alston’s Toy Shop in the village before Christmas, and ordered a puzzle for my nephew. It was a special order: he’s mad for sailing ships, and this one had a picture of the schooner Portunus on the front. I asked them to wrap it and had it delivered. But when my nephew opened it, to my surprise it wasn’t the one I had ordered at all. Instead, he had this.”

The man held up the box, which had a picture of a schooner very similar to the one on William’s puzzle, except the name of the ship was Quirinus.

“He did a school project on the Portunus, you see,” continued the man, “so when I saw the puzzle I thought it the perfect Christmas gift for him. He rang to thank me, but mentioned that it wasn’t the Portunus on the picture. I live in Town, and was spending Christmas and Boxing Day with other friends elsewhere, so I wasn’t able to go back to Alston’s to sort things out until yesterday. They told me that the only other edition of that puzzle had been ordered by someone at this house.”

“I see,” said Steed.

“So I was wondering whether you would be willing to exchange your puzzle for this one? The ships are identical, and my nephew is so set on having a puzzle with the Portunus on it.”

“I’m sorry to have to disappoint you, but noone at this house received a puzzle at all this Christmas,” said Steed.

“Are you quite sure?” said the man. “The gentleman at Alston’s was quite specific about the address.”

“He must have been mistaken. We’ve no puzzles here.”

“But I must have that puzzle!” said the man. “My poor nephew is heartbroken.”

“That is most unfortunate,” said Steed. “I’m afraid I can’t help you. Or your nephew. Good day.”

Steed began to close the door.

“Wait!” said the man. “I’ll pay you for that puzzle. I’ll pay good money for it!”

“I couldn’t take your money in exchange for something I haven’t got,” said Steed. He glanced up at the sky. “Dear me. It looks as though it might start snowing again. You wouldn’t want to be caught on the roads in that.” Steed smiled, but his eyes held a hard and meaningful look.

For a moment it looked as though the man were deciding whether to push past Steed and force his way into the house, or maybe even take a swing at him, but then he suddenly flung the puzzle he was carrying to the floor, whirled around, and stormed down the drive. Steed did not move from the doorway. He stood watching the man until he had gone through the gate, yanking it shut behind him with a resounding clang. Steed went back in and closed the door at that point, but kept watch out of the sidelight to see whether  anything else would happen. The man was walking along the wall to the left of the gate. Steed lost sight of him when he was obscured by the high hedge that framed part of the Burrows’ property at that point. He nearly turned to go back to the children, whom he could hear sniping at one another from the parlor, when he heard the distant cough of an automobile motor starting up. A moment later a white van went speeding past the gate, the legend “JANVARY SVRVEY, LTD” blazoned clearly on its side, the impassive face of Janus gazing simultaneously at the road ahead and the road behind.

janus.02.transparent.03

Continue to Chapter 5 »
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