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 7 ¤

The phone in the hallway rang. Leaving the children to finish their breakfast, Steed went to answer it.

“Steed.”

His sister’s voice came in reply. “Good morning, John. I hope everything is all right?”

“Ship shape and Bristol fashion, thanks. And you and James?”

“Very well, thank you. The Lawrences have been so kind, and we’re grateful for their hospitality, but we’re both quite ready to come home.”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Steed. “But, er….”

“When will we be home?” said Helen. Steed could hear the smile in her voice. “By dinner time tonight. The snow is melting and the trains are running again, but things are still chaotic. So I shall take myself out for a museum and tea while James does some work at his office, and we’ll be on the 5:43 from King’s Cross. If all goes well, we should be home by half seven. Do you think you can manage until then?”

“Certainly.”

“I do hope the children haven’t been any bother.”

“They are quite well behaved, and we have been having a jolly time,” said Steed. “Don’t mind about us. We’ll see you when you get home.”

After exchanging a few more pleasantries, Helen rang off. Steed hung up the phone and went back into the kitchen, where he told the children that their parents would be home that evening.

“So does that mean you’ll be going home, too, Uncle?” said William.

“Probably not tonight, but soon, yes,” said Steed.

“But you haven’t seen the fairy glade yet!” said Gracie.

William rolled his eyes. “Uncle doesn’t want to see that….”

“Yes, he does!” said Gracie.

Steed saw that Gracie was drawing  breath for another salvo, and stepped in. “I think I can spare a little time to look at the fairy glade before I go. Is it far from here?”

“Not far,” said Gracie. “About as far as the first rabbit warren from the other day.”

Steed snapped his fingers. “Rabbits! I forgot to pick up that carrier bag of tins we left by the wall. So I think an excursion to the fairy glade is a capital idea; we can fetch the bag on our way back home.”

About a half hour later, Steed, Gracie, and William—who, despite professing that belief in fairies was for babies, insisted on going along—went out into the bright morning across ground that was spongy with meltwater and still patchily covered with piles of snow. The temperature was rising: by midday the snow would likely be gone. The air smelled of damp earth and decaying grass; a pair of rooks flew cawing overhead; Steed walked hand-in-hand with Gracie, listening as she explained the ways of the fairies to him, while William charged ahead. He had heard all those stories before, and it couldn’t be helped if Uncle thought that little sisters were worth listening to.

They walked in the same general direction they had gone to hunt rabbits, but where they had veered left before, this time they veered right, heading for a large stand of trees that occupied a good portion of the back of the Burrows’ property.

“… and there’s even a fairy spring, and in summer there are lovely flowers all round the edge.”

Gracie’s monologue was interrupted when William, who had entered the small forest ahead of the others, came running back out, looking worried.

“Uncle,” he panted as he pulled up short in front of Steed, “something odd is going on in the glade. Come and see!”

Instinct and experience warned Steed that this might be connected to the puzzle. Probably not the best place to take two small children, if there were skulduggery afoot.

“William, I think it might be best if you took Gracie home.”

“No!” said Gracie. “I want to see what happened!”

“Do you think it might be villains, Uncle?” said William. Steed generally avoided discussing his work with his family, and especially with the children, but they did have a vague idea that Uncle John’s livelihood involved catching bad men and making sure they couldn’t hurt anyone else, which of course to William sounded splendidly adventurous.

Of course Uncle did indeed think that it might be villains. But evidently they weren’t there at the moment: William had come back without incident. Although it was possible that they were just hiding themselves and had let William go because kidnapping a small child would bring more scrutiny than they could afford. Then again, if Steed told the children to go home and went in by himself, there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t simply disobey him and follow him in once his back was turned.

Steed went down on one knee and called the children in close. “Right,” he said, as quietly as he could. “We need to go and see what’s happened to the fairy glade. But it might be dangerous, so we need to make a deal, like the one we did for the guns and the rabbits.”

Both the children nodded solemnly.

“Here are the terms. We go in together. We stay together. We come out together. You always stay where you can see me. If you see someone you don’t recognize, you shout. And if I tell you to run, you run like the wind, right back home, and tell Mrs Jenkins to call the police, and you don’t stop running until you get there, no matter what is happening to me. All right?”

William frowned. Steed looked the boy in the eye, sternly, but without anger. “No matter what is happening to me,” Steed repeated. “I can look after myself. And I need you to look after Gracie. If you can’t follow those rules, we shall have to go home together right now.”

“I don’t need William to look after me,” said Gracie. “I can look after myself, too.”

“I’m sure you can,” said Steed, ignoring William’s derisive snort. “And I was about to say that you need to look after William.” Steed forestalled a protest from his nephew. “If we’re going to have this adventure, we need to trust each other. We need to trust that each one of us will do their jobs. And your job is to run home if I say run. Both of you. Can I trust you?”

“Yes, Uncle,” said William and Gracie.

“Right, then. Shake on it.” The three shook hands, then Steed got back to his feet. He held out his hands. “We’re going in together. Hold hands, everyone, and go as quietly as cats in carpet slippers. William, you show us which way to go. Point; don’t speak.”

Following William’s directions, the three made their way into the trees, walking as stealthily as they could. Soon they came to a little clearing, in which was a small spring which someone long ago had attempted to contain by lining its sides with stone, but many of the stones had fallen loose, others looked about to go the same way, and most of the others had moss growing between them. Gracie stopped short. Steed, taking her cue, looked down and saw her shocked expression, then gazed out over the glade. Everything around the spring had been trampled by heavy booted feet, and there were signs in the damp, muddied earth that someone had been planting tripods here and there. And someone had used a posthole digger to make a series of holes at regular intervals all around the spring, and in other apparently random places throughout the glade.

Steed bent down and whispered. “We’re going to move around the edge of the glade now, very, very carefully and quietly. Try not to tread on any of the footprints or other indentations, and mind the holes.”

They moved off to the right, still holding hands. Steed tried to make sense of the postholes and indentations, but except for the circle around the spring, no pattern came together in his mind. When they had gone about halfway around perimeter, Steed spotted the place where the boot prints entered and exited the glade.

Keeping to the side of the track so as not to mar the prints, Steed and the children crept through the trees. About a hundred yards on, they came to the edge of the small forest. The trees ended, and after a strip of grass about five yards wide was a stone wall similar to the one they had used for shooting practice. It ran in a meandering line to their left and right. Where it went to the left wasn’t visible; it curved around the edge of the forest and thence out of sight. To the right, it ran for about forty yards before making a T with the connecting wall running back towards the house, and then on past that for another twenty yards or so before diving down the slope at the foot of which wound the road. Noone seemed to be in sight, although Steed caught the faint sound of a motor car passing in the distance.

“What is this wall?” said Steed.

“That’s the boundary for our property,” said William. “Father says we’re not to cross it.”

“Yes,” Gracie chimed in. “We may play in the forest all we want as long as we stay on this side of the wall and out of the spring.”

“Have you seen any strangers here recently? Does anything look out of place to you?” said Steed.

“We haven’t really been here much,” said Gracie. “It’s been too cold to play outside for very long, and then there was Christmas, and anyway the glade is sad in the winter and the fairies are sleeping. But I forgot to show you last time, and I wanted to make sure you got to see it before you went.”

“Well,” said William, “I don’t think that shed was there before.”

He pointed to their left. Not far from where they stood was a small wooden shed built against the opposite side of the wall. It was both obviously new and hastily built. And the boot prints led right to it. Steed needed to see what was in that shed, but he was loath to involve the children in breaking and entering.

“Right,” said Steed. “I’m going to hop over the wall and take a look at the other side of that shed. I need you two to be my lookouts. I’ll not be long, but if you see anyone coming, hoot like an owl. Can you hoot like an owl?”

In response the children made hooting noises that Steed knew wouldn’t fool anyone, but it did give them something to concentrate on. He took them a few yards away from the track of the booted feet, and had them hide in the trees. With an admonition to the children to stay put and keep their eyes peeled, Steed trotted across the grass and vaulted over the waist-high wall. He crouched at the side of the shed, listening intently in case anyone was inside, and at the same time trying to keep one eye on the children. Noone seemed to be about, so he went to the front of the shed. It was locked with a sturdy Yale lock, and also barred with iron and secured by a heavy padlock. Steed examined these closely. There was no way he’d be able to break in now, even if the children weren’t with him: he didn’t have the tools, and the door looked sturdy enough that it probably could withstand even a kick or two from Mrs Peel.

Steed stood back and took a last glance at the shed. As he turned away to go back to the children, a flutter of something white at the foot of the door caught his eye. He bent down and pulled at it. It was a piece of paper; a bit of an invoice or office stationery perhaps. It was incomplete, only a portion of the upper right hand corner, but the roundel with the face of Janus was intact there, and what remained of the lettering at what had been the top of the page indicated clearly that this came from the office of January Survey, Ltd. A few figures were written in a fine copperplate on the bottom section of the fragment. So a bill or an invoice of some kind, then, or maybe an estimate. Steed put the fragment into the breast pocket of his coat, making a mental note to go into the village and have a thorough snoop, preferably without the children in tow. But he was still responsible for them in the meantime, and he needed to get them away from here and back home as soon as possible.

“Did you get in, Uncle?” whispered William, as they took hands once again and headed for home.

“No. It’s locked up tight,” said Steed.

“Maybe we could borrow some of Mr Jenkins’ tools and come back,” said William.

“We are not going to do that,” said Steed. “You and your sister need to stay away from here until I find out what’s going on. The shed might be harmless, but I don’t like that strangers have been trespassing on your family’s land.”

“I don’t like it either,” said Gracie. “They’ll frighten the fairies.”

“I certainly hope not,” said Steed. “For their sakes. Fairies can be quite nasty when roused.”

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