Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 8 ¤
At the time Steed was stepping out into the snowy night for a bit of air after finishing the puzzle, Hugo Swinburne and a man he knew only as “Ralph” were in a lorry heading up back roads in the direction of Cambridge. Hugo was unimpressed with Ralph’s skill at the wheel and only hoped that they would not finish up in a tangled heap of metal before they arrived at the rondezvous point. Of course if that happened, they’d also be free of whatever it was that Portnoy decided should be their fate if they didn’t make the rondezvous and the delivery on time.
Ralph pulled off the road and bumped along a slushy track that ended near a derelict barn. He parked the lorry with the cargo end facing the door of the barn. There were no lights, and no signs of movement.
Ralph and Hugo jumped down and went towards the barn. They stopped just outside the barn. A hard voice from inside asked, “You got the dosh, mate?”
“You’ll be paid when I’ve inspected the goods and they’ve been properly loaded, and not a moment beforehand,” said Hugo.
“Suit yourself,” said the voice. “But if I’m not paid right and proper, I’ll not be answerable for what comes next.”
“Where is the materiel?” said Hugo, after an uncomfortable pause in which he contemplated what might come next.
A short, heavily muscled man stepped into the dim moonlight. He cocked a thumb at the black void that was the interior of the barn. Ralph and Hugo went to fetch two large flashlights from the cab of the lorry, then made their way into the barn. The stocky figure of the man parked itself against the lintel of the door, keeping a keen and, Hugo thought, very unfriendly eye on the other two men.
Hugo took a manifest out of his coat pocket. Shining his light over the contents of the barn, he made sure that everything there matched what was on the list. There were boxes of vacuum tubes, transistors, capacitors, and other electronic bits and bobs; some tripods; and what seemed like acres of electrical cable. It all seemed to be there.
“Right,” said Hugo. “Let’s start loading.”
The men worked in silence for about an hour, transferring crates and boxes and coils of cable into Hugo and Ralph’s lorry. Hugo checked off everything as it went aboard. It all seemed to be there, except for one thing.
Hugo went over to the man, who had lit a cigarette and was now staring up at the clear night sky.
“Excuse me,” said Hugo, “but this item seems to be missing, and Mr Portnoy had requested it most especially.”
The man tossed the still-burning cigarette to the ground and mashed it into the mud with his heel. Then he walked around to the side of the barn, where another lorry had been parked. The man opened the cab, and brought out a single wooden box about ten inches square by four inches deep. He lifted the latch, opened the lid, and held it up for Hugo to examine.
Hugo relaxed. According to Portnoy, this was the most important element in the whole project, the keystone. Unlike the puzzle—Hugo could always make another if he couldn’t get the original back, after all—this was completely irreplaceable. Hugo wasn’t convinced as to its efficacy, but Portnoy had insisted.
Hugo closed the box and refastened the latch. He took the box from the man, then pulled a thick envelope crammed with fresh bank notes from the breast pocket of his coat. He handed it over and turned to go, but the man called him back. “Oh, no,” he said, “you got to check your delivery and I get to check mine. Nobody goes anywhere until I’m satisfied.”
Dawn was not far off now, and Ralph and Hugo still had to bring the cargo to Portnoy’s house before they were seen.
“Do you really need to count it all?” said Hugo.
The man looked askance at Hugo. “Yeah. I do.”
He opened the envelope and looked through the contents. Inside were three packets of twenty-pound notes, one hundred notes to the packet. Riffling through each packet to make sure that they were indeed notes all the way through and not filler paper, the man soon pronounced himself satisfied and climbed into his lorry. Ralph and Hugo got back into theirs, Hugo clutching the special box on his lap and praying that the return trip would be less jarring than the outbound one had been.
Because in the box on his lap was a fragile piece of history: a marble medallion from Roman Britain, carved on one side with the bust of Janus, the two-faced god.