Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 5 ¤
Momentarily ignoring the squabbling children, Steed went back out on the porch and picked up the puzzle the man had thrown down. He shook the box: it certainly sounded like a puzzle. He lifted the lid slowly and carefully. As far as he could see, the box contained only puzzle pieces. He set the lid on the porch, and then poured all the pieces into it. There was a faint metallic rattle as they slid from one half of the box to the other, and an odd glint or two from the stream of what otherwise looked like ordinary pieces of cut cardboard. He picked up the lid, and shook the pieces about. He hadn’t been wrong about the glint. Some of the pieces had metal edges. Sharp edges. Edges like razor blades. Steed raised an eyebrow at the discovery. If he checked, no doubt he would find that the razor edges had been poisoned or drugged. He needed to destroy this puzzle as soon as possible, but the rising voices of the children and a “What’s all this, then?” from Mrs Jenkins recalled him to his other duties. He closed the puzzle box, avoiding touching anything but the outer surfaces, and slipped back into the house.
“… no you can’t use my crayons!” protested Gracie, holding her crayon box behind her back. “Go get your own!”
“But I don’t want to go all the way upstairs again!” shouted William. “You can share. You can’t use all of those at once.”
Hiding the puzzle box behind his back, Steed peered into the parlor.
“What seems to be the trouble?” he said.
“Oh, there you are, sir,” said Mrs Jenkins, “I heard a row and came to see what was going on.”
“Yes, I had to step outside for just a moment, but I’ll take care of it now,” said Steed. “Thank you, Mrs Jenkins.”
Mrs Jenkins nodded curtly, and with a “you had better behave” glare at the children went back to the kitchen.
“So,” said Steed. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“Gracie won’t share her crayons!” said William.
“William has his own!” said Gracie.
“Upstairs,” said William. “I’ve already been up and down three times already. I don’t want to go again.”
“I have an errand upstairs,” said Steed. “If you tell me where to find your crayons, I can bring them back down for you.”
“They’re on my desk, Uncle,” said William. “Can you bring my drawing pad with you as well? It’s on the desk, too.”
“Right you are,” said Steed. “Now you two behave. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Steed turned to leave the room, but not before he saw the children sticking their tongues out at each other from the corner of his eye. Chuckling, he trotted up the stairs. First he deposited the deadly puzzle in his bedroom, then went to William’s room, where he found the crayons and the pad. He brought them down as promised, then told the children he needed to go up to his room for a few minutes more and admonished them to play nicely.
Fortunately, the Burrows’ farmhouse was an old farmhouse, which meant that most of the rooms, including the one Steed was using, had their own fireplaces. Steed built a good blaze in his fireplace, then put the puzzle on top, after using a pair of tweezers to put one of the doctored pieces into an empty matchbox, which he secured inside a handkerchief and hid on the top shelf of the wardrobe. Keeping an ear out for any more trouble from the children, he watched the puzzle burn, making sure that the whole thing was consumed. It didn’t take long for the cardboard to flare and then shrivel into black curls. Even though Steed suspected that the heat of the fire would render harmless any substances on the metal parts, he’d still find a way to keep Mrs Jenkins from clearing away the ashes later. He didn’t like the way things were going. And he desperately needed to talk to Mrs Peel.
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The grandfather clock in the entryway chimed half-past eight as Steed eased into his bedroom and shut the door. He leaned against it for a moment, savoring the quiet of a house containing two exhausted and cranky children who were now sleeping peacefully. Steed was no longer sure he regretted not having children. Yes, they were fun companions for an afternoon or so, but it was a blessing to be able to hand them back to their parents and walk away when they got tiresome. One couldn’t do that with one’s own children.
Helen and James had called just before dinner to say that they would be spending another night in London. The snow had snarled the train schedules and the London roads; not only would getting to the station have been a strenuous affair, it was possible that they might not be able to get a train out once they arrived there. Steed asked a few outwardly benign questions about the purchase of the puzzle, and learned that not only had it not been delivered, James had had it wrapped at the store while he stepped out to do a bit more shopping and have a cup of tea. He had called back at Alston’s to pick it up and had taken it home himself in the carrier bag that held the other gifts he bought that day. So either something had gone wrong in the process of purchasing and carrying the puzzle home, or James was up to something. Steed had a very hard time believing the latter. And how had the man known to come here?
Before Steed could come to any further conclusions, he needed to find out what the back of that puzzle was all about. After carefully checking the puzzle to make sure there were no booby traps that they had blessedly not tripped earlier today, he sat down at the desk that overlooked the farmhouse’s back garden and the white expanse of starlit fields beyond it. It looked lovely and peaceful outside. Steed wished he could have a walk, to listen to the crunch of the snow under his boots, and to experience the special scent the air had when it was so cold and there was snow on the ground. He hadn’t been able to pay attention to those things when he was playing with the children. Or else he wished he could make himself a hot toddy and tuck himself into bed: the children weren’t the only ones in need of an early night. But duty called. He had to assemble that puzzle.
A couple of hours later, he popped the last two pieces into place. The picture of the schooner Portunus was now complete. Steed liberated a desk blotter from an unused guest room. He sandwiched the puzzle between it and the blotter on which he had built the puzzle, then flipped the whole thing over and put it back on the desk. Whether by luck or skill, the puzzle remained intact between the blotters, and when Steed replaced them on the desk and removed the top one he saw what the back of the puzzle contained.
It looked like an odd sort of contour map, with words in a language Steed didn’t recognize and some strange symbols on it. The copper wires embedded in the pieces apparently all connected up once the puzzle was done, suggesting some kind of electronic device, but it didn’t look anything like the circuit diagrams with with Steed was familiar. He couldn’t tell by looking at the map or diagram what it was for. Somehow it had ended up in James’ carrier bag, and now strange men in strange vans were hanging around the farmhouse. If only he had a way to contact Mrs Peel! But her cousin lived out in the country and wasn’t on the telephone.
Steed decided that it was probably best not to leave the map or circuit or whatever it was assembled. Before he started putting it away, he carefully searched the box to see whether any other devices or clues were there. As far as he could tell, there were none. He briefly considered hooking up the copper bits to some kind of electric current just to see what would happen, but soon rejected the idea. There was no telling what the circuit device was intended to do. What if it were some kind of beacon? The last thing he wanted was to attract more attention from the man and his friends, or to cause any other kind of havoc.
He locked the puzzle inside his suitcase once more, and then put the suitcase on top of the wardrobe, hoping that would be enough to keep it away from the children. He was tired, but now his mind had latched onto the problem of the puzzle and the stranger at the door and the survey van. He knew he wouldn’t sleep. He really wanted to take a walk, but the Jenkinses had already gone home, and he didn’t want to leave the children unattended with recent strange events unsolved.
In the end, Steed contented himself with pulling on his boots and his overcoat and walking around the house a few times. The temperature had dropped now that the clouds had gone, and the night sky was crystalline with stars. Steed enjoyed living in London very much, but he did miss being able to see the stars. Visits to the country were always welcome for this rare treat. He paused in the snow in the back garden, feeling the bite of the cold on his cheeks and the stillness of the air, gazing at the blaze of stars above him. Orion stood watch to the south, while Jupiter flamed white and diamantine in Cancer as it crept up the sky towards its zenith. A half moon lately risen hovered over the trees to the east. It was lovely, and peaceful. And it was also late, and he needed sleep if he were to deal with children and what was shaping up to be a new case, unlooked for and unassigned. With a crooked grin and a salute to the celestial hunter, Steed went back indoors. He made sure every latch and bolt was fastened tight, poured and drank a quick measure of whiskey, checked on the children, and then finally went to his own bed and a much-needed rest.