I stood quietly and let David fuss over my suit. He was too pale even after our nap this afternoon. My shoulder ached a little but it was endurable. What was not, was the fear that my lover was trying to hide from me.
"David." His long elegant fingers stilled on the black scarf that was to serve as my sling. "I love you and we will be all right tonight."
Those bright blue eyes raised slowly to mine. "I know that in my head, Josiah but my heart is a different matter. Images from the fight flash across my eyelids and I keep seeing you struck. Again and again and again."
I pulled him close with my good arm and kissed his forehead tenderly. "John told you that would happen for a time. But you can't let it fill you with fear. Instead of old horror, think of the future and picture our triumph tonight. Visualize our finding the map and foiling the Baron after we sell him those books he asked to see."
He couldn't keep back a smile. "At an inflated price so we can go on a long vacation to the shore when this is all done?"
I laughed out loud. "Of course! For all the trouble he's put us through, I think ... oh let's see . . . double the price should be about right."
Gently, he rested against my chest, his ear over my heart. "No money can ever compensate for what he ordered done to you. But I will try to be brave, Josiah. I will not let you down."
"You could never do that, my love. Just be your own sweet self and let John and Wenton take care of any rough housing that's needed." I kissed the fair hair under my chin. "But I do want you to be careful and not leave my side for any reason what so ever. I do not trust the Baron at all."
He shivered, looking up at me with troubled eyes. "Nor do I, Josiah. He undresses me with his eyes, like some of the men do to their female companions at the pub. It makes me feel sick to my stomach."
I felt a rage building that I kept under control with some difficulty. "Don't look into his gaze, then. Keep those beautiful blue eyes of yours on his chin. It is very close to growing a twin and should keep your mind off what he's thinking."
He chortled in surprise. "He is going to seed, I think. Too much hiring out of the laborious chores while he sits back at his ease. His hands are growing flabby, too."
"There, you see, he's not such an ogre. He's certainly no match for Holmes." Trying to keep his mind off the coming confrontation, I continued in a thoughtful tone. "I wonder what disguise he will be using. Watson didn't say earlier."
"It's a secret, even from him." David pulled away and straightened my tie before moving away to the mirror above the dresser. Picking up his ivory handled brush, he began brushing his hair in time to a myriad of suggestions about what the master of disguise might be wearing.
I just hummed at his ideas, barely restraining a grin at some of the more farfetched ones. When I moved into the sitting room, he merely raised his voice and continued. His voice covered my opening the top desk drawer and removing the derringer that had belonged to my grandmother. The carved ivory handle felt like a toy in my hand. It was a ladies gun and only carried two bullets, one for each barrel, diminutive but deadly at a range of twenty feet or less.
Checking to be sure it was loaded and slipping it into the sling beneath my hand, I closed the drawer softly. No need to worry David with my foreboding. But I would not forego going into the Baron's domain without the means of protecting the other half of my soul. Holmes had said we should all go armed and I was quite sure that John would be carrying his service weapon.
The knock on our door brought my attention back to the here and now. Mrs. Green opened the door to a well-dressed Dr. Watson and I took a deep breath. It seemed the curtain was rising on our drama and I moved forward to take my place.
The drawing room was filled with tension and I could see the false bonhomie on the Baron's face. He really had expected David to come alone, I thought in disgust. My presence he took in stride but Dr. Watson's smiling face took him aback for a brief moment that satisfied something deep inside of me. Holmes had been right. There was more going on here than simple lust.
The good doctor was at his most self-effacing. Shaking his head at my stubbornness, he expressed interest in the books that the Baron had requested which David had set out on the center oak table. The leather bindings gleamed against the blackened surface of the heavily polished wood. I stood to one side while David explained the fine points of the first editions to both his listeners.
A man had followed the Baron's secretary into the room and he stood almost at attention near the door. Try as I might, I could not remember what the three who'd attacked us looked like, only a fleeting reminder of a solid body and strong hands. This one could be one of them but would even the Baron be so bold?
My eyes kept coming back to the Baron where he stood so closely by David's side. My brave love had taken my advice to heart and his eyes never raised above the Baron's smiling lips while he answered questions about the provenance of the title in his hand. His slender finger traced the lines of ink on the title page of the History of Gaming: From Ancient Times to the Present by Sir Alfred Stenson, pointing out the author's handwritten signature.
Restlessly, I checked the room for exits while pretending to look at the decorations on the walls. I ignored the display of swords that fanned across one wall, except to make a note of their position. The hanging art was very opulent, full of over blown maidens being pursued through tangled gardens of dense green foliage by amorous swains. Something bothered me about them and I divided my attention between the conversation in the room and a closer study of the paintings.
Once I focused on the faces of the figures, I barely kept back my grimace of distaste. The women's faces were full of fear while the lustful leers of their pursuers were positively satyric. Almost, I fancied I could see their cloven hooves. Each painting on the wall grew more detailed until I had to turn away from the depravity depicted on the last canvas. The bodies that writhed in painful ecstasy in the shadows of the obscene garden plantings were too much for my senses.
I concentrated on David's hands as they reverently handled the leather bound volume from the last century. Calming, I decided to pay attention to the living persons in the room and ignore the painted ones. I made my way over to the three men by the table and wondered when Holmes would show himself.
"Josiah, do you remember when the records showed the Duke added this title to his collection?" David's wide-eyed gaze brought me back completely to the here and now.
"1838, I believe. He picked it up in Genoa while on a diplomatic mission." I said genially. "He commented that it was the only item of worth in the whole trip. I took that to mean that the mission had gone badly."
"Ah, the Italians are ever talkative but rarely say anything of importance." The Baron laughed heartily at his own joke while the rest of us smiled politely. "Now, these appear to be just the books for which I was looking. The only question would be the price."
David and John stepped back and I began the bargaining session. It is said that a gentleman never haggles so it would seem that neither of us were gentlemen since I rather enjoyed the cut and thrust of the mock battle. For the first time that evening, I felt that his attention was totally with us. With me. Interesting. He got me down to twice what I would have charged another and three times more for the Stenson volume before I shook his hand.
David was right, his hands were getting flabby but the strength behind the grip was unmistakable. I plastered on a fake smile while he sent the self-effacing blond secretary for the notes that would finish our transaction.
Our only apparent transaction, I mistrusted the glitter in his eyes and the spots of red that rode high on each cheek. For the first time in our acquaintance, I wondered if he had a drug habit. His pupils had contracted to pin points and I was suddenly afraid. We were in the enemy camp and the opposing general had the false courage of what appeared to be a cocaine high.
He called for a round of drinks to celebrate his 'victory' and the man at the door quietly left to call the butler. For some reason, that made me even more nervous. David returned to my side and I could see the slight tremor that he tried so hard to hide. His smile lit our corner of the room and I could feel the Baron salivating like a bitch in heat. Suddenly I pictured David in the perverted paintings of the room with a leering Baron chasing him.
It would not happen.
Not if the good doctor and I had anything to do with it. When the door opened and three of the Baron's underlings entered, I tensed, for now we were outnumbered. But a cheery voice prevented the door's closing and when Wenton walked into the room with a cocky expression on his expressive face, I felt a frisson of relief.
"David! I wondered if you were tending to business tonight. Have you acquired any new treasures, Baron?" His laughing voice was a welcome addition to the rather stilted conversation. The secretary handed me an envelope satisfactorily stuffed with bank notes and I thanked him with a nod while watching the others out of the corner of my eye and placing the envelope into my side pocket.
The butler opening the champagne had wide shoulders and a barrel chest that spoke of power restrained. John was joking with Wenton while David stood by with a rather relieved smile of his own. The secretary's glance at them revealed a look of fear and loathing that quite took me aback. It seemed to be evenly divided between his master and David.
I took the glass of champagne and raised it to the Baron's toast automatically, trying to understand what I was seeing. Why loathing, unless the Baron held something over his head? Then why fear when he looked at my lover? Unless ... I thought I had it. He and David were both slender and blond, although Schultze looked to be a good ten years older than my David. If the secretary was the Baron's current catamite and he knew he was being replaced by another then he would fear the loss of his patron.
But if he hated his master then surely he would be relieved at his replacement? With just a sideways glimpse, I wondered if they shared the drug habit. Perhaps he was afraid of losing his connection to the drugs he'd come to depend upon. As Holmes would say, I was arguing ahead of the facts but at least I had a working hypothesis. I would leave him on the Baron's side of this equation and treat him as an enemy until he proved otherwise.
I sipped the fizzy wine slowly and kept my eyes busy, watching for the Baron's next move. Wenton had a brotherly hand on David's shoulder and I hid a smile at the Baron's glower. The talk had turned to puzzle boxes and John asked a question about the Baron's collection. The prompt invitation to come up and look led me to believe that he'd been waiting for just that request.
We all trooped up the wide staircase that curved from the front hall up to the next floor where I imagined the State bedrooms would be. John steadied me on one side with a piercing look that told me he could see my small reserve of energy was running low. But leaving wasn't an option now that we had hopefully scotched whatever evil deed the Baron had planned in regards to David. For the map had still to be found and retrieved from his grasp.
So far, I had seen no one who could be Holmes, since each member of the household had been German and obviously a long time employee of the Embassy. The butler who let us in had been rather tall as had been the footman I'd seen in the back hall carrying an ornate silver tray in his white gloved hands. Neither felt right to me but I was at a loss as to just what position Holmes could drop into occasionally and not be suspected of being a spy.
At the third door to the left of the stairs, the Baron ushered us into a room lined with bookshelves of polished oak. But the shelves held no books instead displaying a plethora of boxes in every shape and size in an astonishing mix of materials. My eyes darted from side to side in astonishment at the vast array of puzzle boxes.
"My word, Baron von Hauptmann, I've never seen such a wonderful collection in my life. I swear you must have more boxes than the British Museum." John mirrored my own startled look.
"You are right, Herr Doctor." The Baron practically purred his satisfaction. "Actually there is no other collection of this size or value anywhere in Europe. I have over five hundred puzzles, some of which are at my estates in Wiesbaden. These will be joining them this trip."
"I say, Baron, you should start your own museum." Stephen had steered David over to the west wall where an ebony box inlaid with gold glinted in the lamp light. "This looks like ancient Egyptian."
"You have a good eye, Wenton. It came from a tomb of some Vizier or other from the third dynasty. One of my rarer pieces." He said with a rather gloating smile and I did not miss the look he cast over David's fair head where it bent over the foot long box.
I felt a surge of adrenaline that restored my flagging spirits with the determination to stay alert. John pressed my elbow reassuringly and moved us to the other side of the room so we had the Baron and his henchmen bracketed. Wenton cajoled our host into demonstrating how some of the boxes worked. And puzzling they were, with tiny conjoinings that baffled the mind and the hand with their intricate pressure points or slides.
Fascinating as they were, I still felt the denouement had yet to be reached in our little drama. A knock at the door brought two brawny footmen in with packing crates filled with straw. My skin crawled as I realized we were now outnumbered five to four. Taking a quick look around, I searched unobtrusively for objects to use as weapons, finding little with any heft or size. I'd just have to depend on my one good fist and the tiny gun I carried in my sling.
The Baron was explaining that the bulk of the collection would be packed tonight and shipped with him in the morning. It was evident that the two men in their hastily fitted uniforms were English, temporarily hired to provide some muscle. I made a careful note of one of them that sported a twisted lip and broken nose. He limped slightly and by the length of his arm could be impressively tall should he stand upright. It might be Holmes but I couldn't tell for sure.
Better to be safe than sorry, I decided and put him down in the enemy column. A squeak from the door announced still another underling, this one female. The Baron genially beckoned her in and the rawboned creature stepped gingerly inside while peering about her over her wire rimmed eyeglasses.
"Sorry, Sir. You want I should come back later?" The cockney accent was there but not too pronounced. Her gray hair was straggling out of a rather untidy bun atop her head and she had a chronic sniff that spoke of catarrh. She was wearing a black cotton dress that had seen better days but it was scrupulously clean and neat. Her shoes were polished to a high gloss but the leather was almost worn through.
"Now is fine, Mrs. McGill. I was just showing these gentlemen my treasures before you wrap them up carefully and stow them away." The Baron nodded at her and she bobbed her head like a pigeon, the glasses sliding down to the tip of her prominent nose before she pushed them up again with the practiced gesture of someone who habitually had to save her lenses from peril.
"Treasures, indeed, Sir. 'Ave you shown them me favorite, Sir?" Her high pitched giggle was grating to the ears. "Such a pretty little thing. And you so clever at figuring out 'ow to open it. In all me years 'ere, I ain't never seen the like."
He laughed at her but not unkindly. She was obviously an old retainer who amused him with her quaint ways. "Bring it here then and I'll ask our guests to have a go at opening it."
She darted to the wall behind the door and carefully lifted a black and silver box in her claw-like hands, bringing it back to set in her master's hands. It was octagonal with inlaid patterns of what looked to be ivory set in cloisonne style among the silver wires imbedded in the ebony. John and I crossed to where Wenton and David were examining it.
The two footmen removed half of the straw packing material behind us and Mrs. McGill scooted over to them, scolding them for making a mess on the carpet. She ordered them out to bring in the soft cloths that would first be wrapped around the boxes before they were packed safely in the straw. I returned my attention to the box and watched as Wenton poked and prodded at the sides, trying to reveal the opening.
"You are not even close to the solution, Wenton." The Baron laughed smugly. "Let young Harbottle have a try. His fingers are more sensitive than yours." This was said with a caressing look that tightened my jaw so hard I could feel the bones pop.
But David simply smiled his thanks at our host and took the box from Wenton. "Would you give us a hint, Baron von Hauptmann?"
"Certainly. There are three pressure points and a sliding panel which must be touched in just the right pattern to reveal the secret hiding place." He smiled at David and fleetingly touched his hand where it cradled the box.
The smell of benzine suddenly filled the room and I turned to watch Mrs. McGill rubbing briskly at a brass box, removing away some invisible tarnish to the metal. The homey smell seemed out of place in this stuffy room and that's when I realized there were no windows anywhere. The inside room was the perfect vault for the Baron's treasures. I brought my attention back to David only to find that John had taken up the challenge and even found the sliding panel on one side of the box.
"Bravo, Dr. Watson. All those years with the great detective have obviously sharpened your puzzle solving skills." The Baron was rather condescending in his praise, I thought.
"But not enough, Baron von Hauptmann. It would take a genius to figure this one out." John complimented him with a little bow and handed the box over to its owner.
The Baron preened with sudden good humor and with a flourish, opened the box. Inside was a scarf of pure red silk, which he drew out with a theatrical flare. "All of my boxes have little treasures inside of them. It makes the game more interesting, don't you think, gentlemen?"
Mrs. McGill gave another high-pitched giggle, drawing our attention. "Me Christmas bonus this year was a pound of chocolates in just such a puzzle box, your 'onors. Took me nephew, Silas, 'till Twelfth Night to figure out 'ow to open it. Good chocolates they were, too."
"Mrs. McGill has become quite the connoisseur of puzzles, haven't you?" The Baron smiled genially at the figure stooped over the high-sided crate. Her high pitched laugh was barely muffled by the straw.
"S'right, Sir. You give me one every year for Christmas and I've got all twelve of them lined up on me mantel, pretty as a picture." She stood up, still stooping slightly. "I'm the envy of me block, I am."
He just laughed and handed her the scarf and box together. I watched her carefully fold the scarf up small and gently close the box with reverent hands. How interesting that he'd found a charwoman with a love of puzzles. It reminded me not to judge a person by their accent.
The footmen returned with two boxes of white cloths and she immediately began a quiet haranguing that had them bobbing their heads in chagrin. Returning my attention to our host, I found him explaining yet another box to my lover while Wenton hung over his shoulder. I could feel my energy flagging badly and I tried to lean unobtrusively against a bookcase.
Trust John to notice, I thought fondly as he pointed to a seat near the door and looked sternly at me. Smiling, I did as he bade me and settled in with a suppressed sigh of relief. David cast a worried look at me but kept to his role of na´ve ingenue. Mrs. McGill clucked at my pallor and asked in a stage whisper if I'd like a nice cup of tea.
The others overheard of course and my protests were ignored while the Baron dispatched his secretary, Schultze to order tea and began gathering our group together for a trip back to the drawing room. I watched him giving a few last minute orders to the footmen and a gentle pat to Mrs. McGill's shoulder. But just before he left that wall, I noticed he slipped a box into his right jacket pocket.
My heart leapt and I pretended not to notice, letting David help me to my feet. Could it be that that was the box that held a map treasure? I wondered how I could get my suspicions to Wenton but he was drawling some tall tale to John. Murmuring quietly to David, I waited until we were settled onto the burgundy satin settee before sending him over to catch Wenton's eye.
John took my pulse and gave me an admonishing look. "A cup of tea will give you a lift then it's home to bed for you, Josiah."
I agreed with a subdued grimace, muttering my suspicions to the doctor. He acknowledged my words with a glint in his eyes. But the butler was carrying in the tea tray and the next few moments were busy with our host making sure we all had our choice of refreshment. The tea was a rather refreshing Darjeeling and I drank it down thirstily, feeling a lift in my spirits almost immediately.
But all my theories came to naught when the Baron pulled out the box from his pocket and presented it to David with a little bow. "Please accept this little puzzle as a thank you for accommodating my need for such a late meeting. It's a duplicate of one already in the collection and it's a mere token of my esteem for your fine firm."
"Th-h-hank you, Baron von Hauptmann." David stammered his thanks and accepted the satinwood box while we looked on. Turning it over in his hands, he frowned charmingly but refused the Baron's offer to just show him how it opened. "I shall work on it until it yields up its secrets. Thank you again."
"It's an amusing little puzzle and should give you an hour or two of enjoyment." He smiled on us all with great good cheer and I felt my spirits plummet.
It appeared he had outfoxed us. I could only hope that Holmes had better luck than we had. Dr. Watson set down his empty cup and checked my pulse again, shaking his head at the rapid pace. "It's time for us to leave, David. Your partner has done enough for his first day out of bed. Baron von Hauptmann, it was a great pleasure to make your acquaintance and see your wonderful collection. I wish Holmes could have been here."
I made my way to the hall and our coats, thinking that that was God's honest truth. David helped me on with my overcoat and wound my muffler about my neck with a worried look that told me just how pale I'd gotten. We said our good-byes to both the Baron and Wenton who'd made some excuse to stay behind.
Wenton called out that we were to use his carriage and the dappled gray horse pulled it smartly up to the curb. It would have seated four of us quite nicely and John sat across from us with rather a worried look. My head was feeling rather fuzzy and I yawned before I could stop myself.
"Josiah, what's wrong?" David's worried voice sounded at my shoulder where I swayed and tried to stay upright.
"Sleepy. Very sleepy." I could feel myself slumping against him while he fought to keep me upright.
"Hold him up, David. I think the tea might have been drugged."
I could hear John's voice slurring from far away and my last coherent thought was the fear that the Baron's men would attack now when all connection to him would be lost. As I fell fathoms deep, I prayed that somehow Holmes would be able to save David
End chapter ten