Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 9 ¤
Steed lounged in the farmhouse kitchen in his shirtsleeves and waistcoat, reading the paper and enjoying the twin pleasures of hot coffee and silence in the short time he had left before needing to resume his investigation. Helen and James had returned as promised last evening, relieving him of child-watching duty. At the moment, the children were out on an errand with their father, while Mr and Mrs Jenkins had gone into the village to do some shopping. Steed thought that Helen was somewhere around the house, probably upstairs in her study getting ready for the start of the new term at the comprehensive school where she taught maths and mechanical drawing. Her degree was in architecture, at which she had no small measure of talent, but she had decided to wait until the children were older to go back to that practice, which could have unpredictable hours and sometimes involved travel, which she felt was too difficult for her to do while she had two small children to care for.
Steed heard the kitchen door swing open and the sound of his sister’s footsteps approaching across the flagged floor. He didn’t look up from his paper until she stood behind him and ruffled his hair, making that one recalcitrant lock fall loose onto his forehead. It was an old game from their childhood, a way she used to tease him, especially in front of his friends. The corner of Steed’s mouth turned up as he ran his fingers through his hair, coaxing it back into place, while Helen laid a hand on his shoulder and bent down to put her cheek near his.
“If you’re not careful, little brother,” she said, “you’re going to get a reputation for being a staid country gentleman who takes the Times with his elevenses and thinks that an excursion to the pub for a pint with an elderly spaniel in tow is all the excitement he can possibly handle.”
Steed shot a crooked grin at her, then reached up and squeezed her hand gently. “Oh, little sister,” he said, calling her by a nickname that was now affectionate but had originated in adolescent pique at her calling him little brother even after he was taller than she, “you have no idea how lovely that sounds some days. I may just take you up on it.”
“But not today,” said Helen.
“No, I think not today,” said Steed.
Helen grinned back at him and patted his shoulder, then went to fix herself a cup of coffee from the half-full percolator near the sink. Steed returned to his paper, a smile still playing on his lips as he listened to Helen clattering a cup into its saucer and pouring coffee, and then taking a seat at the table across from him. She held the saucer in her hand as she sipped her coffee, perusing the back page of the paper Steed was holding up.
Steed turned the page and frowned at the headline he saw there:
SECOND MIDNIGHT RAID AT CAMBRIDGE GEOPHYSICS LABORATORY: THOUSANDS IN EQUIPMENT MISSING
And two columns away on the same page, a second headline:
BREAK-IN NETS ANTIQUITIES FROM PRIVATE COLLECTION:
PRICELESS JANUS MEDALLION TAKEN
Steed abandoned his relaxed posture, his back straightening and shoulders squaring as he sat forward and slowly set the paper down on the table, his entire concentration on that one page of newsprint.
Helen watched her brother coming to point, his body taut, a hound on a scent. She had never actually seen him at his work, but she knew him well enough to understand that whatever he was reading was not good news.
“John, what is it?”
When he didn’t answer, she called his name again. This time he looked up at her, one eyebrow cocked, jaw set.
“Do you remember what I told you and James last night, about the survey company and the puzzle and the trespassers?” he said.
He tapped the newspaper with his finger.
“According to these articles, there were two break-ins last night in Cambridge, and another a few days before that. I think they might be connected to those events.”
Helen put down her coffee cup and saucer. Like her brother, she was now sitting ramrod-straight, tense and focused.
“Do you think there is any danger to the children?” she said.
Steed hesitated a moment before answering.
There was a flash of fear across Helen’s face, quickly replaced by resolve.
“What do we do about it?” she said.
” ‘We’?” said Steed. “There is no ‘we’. You and James and the Jenkinses and the children are going to find an excuse to go away for the next few days until I can get this cleared up. I don’t want to have to worry about keeping track of all of you when they make another bid for that puzzle, or when they finish putting together whatever they’re constructing around the spring. And it is ‘when’, not ‘if’. They’ll be coming. Soon.”
Helen crossed her arms and glared at him.
“John William Patrick Steed, if you think I’m leaving you here to deal with this by yourself, think again.”
Steed glared back.
“Helen, I am not going to—”
“Exactly. You’re not going to do this alone.”
Steed sat back, his eyes locked with Helen’s. He knew that look. He wasn’t going to get any traction here. He breathed in and out like a sea lion, then stood up and faced away from his sister, rubbing the back of his neck. Then he turned around and leaned on the table with both hands.
“All right. I suppose you can stay, mostly because I’d have to tie you up and stuff you in the boot of James’ car to get rid of you, and even then you’d probably find a way to get loose and come back.”
Helen sat back, triumphant.
“But you have to promise to do exactly what I tell you,” said Steed. “These men are dangerous, and there will be no room for error or heroics.”
Helen gave her brother a sly smile.
“No heroics? Not even on the part of one John Steed?”
He leaned forward, his face taut.
“Helen, this isn’t a time for jokes. Lives could very well be on the line. Including your life. And what are James and the children going to do if something happens to you?”
Helen held her brother’s gaze for a moment longer, then relented.
“Yes, of course,” she said, sitting back in her chair, arms still folded. Steed could see where Gracie and William both got their pugnacious streaks. “Agreed. I will follow orders. But if something goes wrong, don’t expect me to sit there and watch you get yourself killed, either.”
“Fair enough,” said Steed.
“Deal. Shake on it?”
“Yes, but I’ve rather outgrown the spitting part,” said Helen, referring to a phase in their childhoods where it wasn’t a deal unless both a handshake and expectoration were involved.
“Agreed,” said Steed, grinning.
Helen stood, and they took hands across the table. When she had let go and sat back down, Steed slapped the table top with both hands.
“Right,” he said. “Now we need a plan of action. Here’s what we’re going to do.”