Quite Glorified Uncle

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¤  XIII  ¤  XIV  ¤  XV  ¤  XVI ¤

¤  CHAPTER 6 ¤

Janus Portnoy was livid.

“I told you to give that puzzle to Burroughs, and no one else! What on earth were you thinking?”

“I did give it to man named Burroughs, sir. And he matched the description you gave me. How was I to know there were two of them, when I’d never met either one before that day?”

Hugo Swinburne, a thin, faded-looking man of medium height was feeling very put upon. As far as he was concerned, he had followed orders exactly. And it’s not like they really paid him what he was worth. Shopkeeping, indeed, when he had an advanced degree in physics. He never should have agreed to help Portnoy with this ridiculous project.

“B-U-R-R-O-U-G-H-S, not B-U-R-R-O-W-S, idiot. You’re fortunate that Burroughs—”

Swinburne gave Portnoy a hard stare. “Which one?”

“Oh, all right. We’ll call our Burroughs ‘Arthur.’  Will that suit?”

Swinburne agreed with a curt nod.

Portnoy stuck his thumbs into his dove-grey waistcoat pockets and swiveled his large frame one revolution in his richly padded leather desk chair. The desk and the various drafting tables in his study were covered with blueprints and sketches, Ordnance Survey maps in various states of crispness and legibility, cups of tea in which the dregs had dried to sticky brown patches at the bottom, and ashtrays full of the remains of cigars and pipes, or at least those that had not been knocked out into some of the teacups.

“You’re fortunate that Arthur was able to track the puzzle down,” he said, contemplating the ceiling and gently swinging the chair in a small arc to the left and right while stroking his neatly trimmed and rapidly greying goatee. “Without that, our plan will come to naught. And if our plan comes to naught, I will be severely displeased. You do remember what happened the last time I was displeased.” He arrested the motion of the chair and fixed Swinburne with a gimlet eye.

Swinburne swallowed. He shivered despite his warmest tweeds and the green cardigan his aunt had sent him for Christmas. His bow tie felt suddenly tighter than normal. He remembered. Those sorts of things were impossible to forget. And they still hadn’t found a replacement for Kirwin. It was one of the things that was slowing them down.

“So,” said Portnoy, taking a fresh cigar out of the breast pocket of his black pin-striped suit and lighting it. “You have to get that puzzle back. Your mistake, your correction.”

Swinburne swallowed again. “Yes, sir.” He paused as if weighing the wisdom of the thing he wanted to say next. “But—“

“Yes?” said Portnoy.

“But the man at the house said that he didn’t have it. Maybe it was the wrong Burrows? Maybe he gave it to someone else’s child?”

“That man was lying. Burrou—, er, Arthur, at least, was foresighted enough to embed a tracking antenna in the puzzle box against just this eventuality. The puzzle is in that house. We must have it back. You will fetch it back.” He puffed on the cigar. Swinburne fidgeted uncomfortably.

“Shall I go tonight?” he asked.

“No,” said Portnoy. “It’s too soon after the last attempt. Thanks to your blunder, they have been alerted to our interest in the puzzle and will be on their guard. Give it two more days. And anyway we have the next equipment delivery to expect tonight. That phase of the project is further in arrears than I would like, and we still do have something of a cushion before the Red Hour.”

He swiveled the chair gently away from Swinburne, and took another pull on the cigar. “Be at the rondezvous at 11:30 sharp to take delivery,” he said. Then Portnoy whipped back around and leaned over the desk, cigar gently smoldering between the fingers of his right hand. “And no mistakes this time.”


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