I straightened with a silent groan. Taking four inches off my height with posture alone wasn't impossible but it did lead to a nasty cramp between my shoulder blades. I'd have to have John massage it away for me. Humming tunelessly which is the only way my alter ego knew how, I finished wrapping the last puzzle box and placed it gently in the bed of straw.
Bennett was waiting and he hoisted the heavy lid up and onto the crate. Solomon had the hammer and nails with which they sealed up the wooden box full of boxes. I'd gone through each and every one this evening, finding nothing at all. John and the others had left two hours before and as the clock struck midnight, I pondered where else to look for our missing map.
Quiet voices from the back stairs brought me out of the door of the puzzle room in time to see an unconscious David carried in the arms of the Baron's favorite bully, Krauss. My brain seized for one brief terrible moment with the knowledge that neither John nor Josiah would have willing let the young man come back to this place.
"The poor sweet dear. Was there an accident, Mr. Krauss?" I remembered to raise my voice an octave and put Mrs. McGill's accent firmly back into place. The Baron was right behind and for one brief moment, his scowl was a terrible thing and his hand tightened on his walking stick.
"That's right, Mrs. McGill. A terrible carriage accident in which I'm afraid young Mr. Harbottle was the only survivor." His smooth words were like daggers in my heart and how I kept my wits about me, I'll never know.
Darting to the closest bedroom door, I opened it and hurried inside to turn down the bed. "You'll want to call a doctor for 'im, I expect. Poor little thing to lose 'is cousin like that. I always say, you can't trust them drivers. Going all speeds around corners and such." Tsking, I turned towards the dresser and the basin of water. "Bleeding too, 'is poor 'ead is."
"If you'd watch over him for a few moments, Mrs. McGill, I'll see about sending for a doctor." The Baron's gaze down at the still form was not a pretty sight when I raised my eyes to the looking glass. He leaned over and ran a caressing hand across the lean shoulder and down the limp arm. I shuddered internally as if he'd touched me instead of the comatose young man.
First things first, stop the bleeding and check to see if there was a concussion. I bobbed a curtsy to the departing Baron then crossed to the door in three long strides in time to hear his words to Krauss.
" ... them in the warehouse until just before the drugs wear off then smash the carriage and leave them artistically strewn among the wreckage. We'll be leaving in two hours so you'll have to catch the next ferry from Dover after you've made absolutely sure that their deaths can not be traced back to us." His voice was menacing in the extreme but then Krauss was used to that.
I dashed back to the bed and inspected the wound gently. David had probably been hit on the head when the carriage was stopped. Why he wasn't drugged with the others I didn't know. I'd have to wait until he came to. A faint moan alerted me to his stirring. His eyes fluttered once than opened with a dazed look about them while he looked at me uncomprehendingly.
Then memory returned with a rush and I saw stark terror in his eyes. "Josiah," was all he said and he struggled to sit up.
Taking a chance, I held him still with one hand and removed my glasses with the other. "David! It's Holmes. You are in the Embassy. Josiah and John are still alive but they are not here. We have only a few moments before the Baron returns. Tell me what happened."
"Holmes. I thought you were the footman." He searched my face with awe. "The tea was drugged and both Uncle John and Josiah passed out. The carriage stopped at my call but I think the driver had been replaced with one of the Germans because he just laughed when I begged him for help. Others came and when I tried to fight them one of them hit me."
My brain whirled while I tried to conceive a plan that would retrieve our missing lovers; keep David out of the Baron's clutches and still find the damn map which had started this whole fiasco. Those pleading blue eyes so much like John's distracted me no end. I'd never felt so vulnerable before with the divergent desires to save my lover and my country fighting for prominence.
Taking a deep breath, I let it out. "All right, here's what we'll do. You feign unconsciousness until I can get Wenton to go and retrieve John and Josiah. If worse comes to worse, pretend you've just come to and you have amnesia. That should keep the Baron from ... well from any action other than getting you ready to leave with him." I faltered over my words.
But David simply nodded, the fear in his eyes under control. "I can do that. But I will not go with him. Not alive anyway. Josiah was carrying this." He showed me a dainty little weapon from another age.
I nodded in complete agreement. "I hope it will not come to that but if it should, shoot to kill. The Baron is full of the courage that comes from the frequent use of cocaine. Let him get close, then shoot him straight through the heart."
He simply nodded and tucked the pearl handled gun into his pocket. I caught the sound of footsteps and quickly retrieved my glasses. David must have heard them too for his eyes widened then closed while he let his head loll against the pillow case which was no whiter than his face.
I went back into character, dabbing at the cut on his temple and keeping up an almost silent stream of encouragement to the 'poor little thing'. The Baron came in quietly and joined me by the bed. "The doctor is on his way. Has he regained his senses?"
"Not yet, the little dear. That's a nasty cut for sure though. Take a stitch or two, I expect. Me cousin Bert was in an accident like that. Didn't come 'round for almost two days and when 'e did, clean out of his wits 'e was. Didn't know 'is own wife or kiddies, 'e didn't. Poor man 'ad to relearn 'is trade and all. Kind of a fresh start it was and should it 'appen to this little one, it might be a blessing in disguise. Then 'e wouldn't know to grieve for 'is poor dead cousin and friend." I watched the Baron's smirk and itched to slap it off his face but I just shook my head and managed a woe-be-gone look.
"You may be right, Mrs. McGill. But should that happen, I will be right there to take care of the dear boy. He shall want for nothing under my auspices." The smooth voice was almost gloating in its satisfaction.
I made myself simper. "A lucky young man, 'e is. Not all would 'ave such a good friend. Will you be staying on then?"
"No. That's not possible. If the doctor says he's fit to travel, I'll simply take him with me. That way, he'll be spared all the bother and grief." He positively glowed before turning to me. "But we've kept you far too long, my good woman. Here's your pay for your fine work today and you must be off to your husband."
I bobbed a curtsy to him and accepted the gold coin with extravagant thanks. "I thank ye, ever so much, yer 'onor. But I'd not like to leave you without a woman in the 'ouse. The 'ousekeeper left this afternoon and who's to watch the poor boy until the doctor comes?"
"I wouldn't think of keeping you from your well deserved rest." He all but bared his teeth to me. "I'll watch him myself until the doctor arrives. I will see you again when I return in three months time. Perhaps with some more of those puzzle boxes you so enjoy?"
Curtsying again, I left with many good wishes for a safe journey. It felt like the basest betrayal to leave David in the clutches of his enemy but the need to dispatch Wenton to what I hoped was the right warehouse in time to rescue the others was growing urgent. Time was running out for all of us.
And I still hadn't found the damn map.
Hobbling a bit down the back stairs, I found the kitchen empty. Ducking out the back door, I sped down the alley to the small garden of the house next door. Wenton had encamped there after publicly leaving the Baron with his own best wishes for a safe trip. He blended with the shrubbery so well that I almost passed him.
"Here I am, Holmes." His murmur brought me to a halt while I immediately began to fill him in on the events of the last two hours. He was cursing steadily under his breath by the time I finished with the location of the warehouse I'd discovered two years before. He'd used it to store smuggled drugs. "Yes, of course, I'll go and rescue them, Holmes, but what about David? Not to mention the thrice damned map."
"Mrs. McGill is going back inside and make everyone a nice 'ot cup of tea." I mimicked her high pitched voice before dropping to my own. "I think I may have an inkling as to where the Baron has stashed the map. David is armed with a derringer and as far as I can tell, he has no qualms about using it. Hopefully, it won't get that far."
Wenton's eyes gleamed in the starlight. "Oh, I don't know. Part of me rather hopes it does, although, I'd prefer to do the honors myself. Preferably with his own sword cane."
And the inkling became more solid yet. Giving him a duplicate key to the back door, which I'd had for years, I waved Wenton on his way. He had a fast carriage waiting nearby. Another of my brother's time saving measures. Stretching to my full height, I did a few limbering up exercises before stooping back into Mrs. McGill's persona and making my way down the alley to the kitchen.
Still empty and taking that as a good omen, I put the teakettle on and began arranging a tray for the gentlemen upstairs. Counting off those members of the Baron's household who were left, I weighed the odds in our favor. Krauss did no thinking on his own and he was on his way to the warehouse. That left the butler, who preferred to see no evil and would be in any case completing the packing for his master.
Mutterings from the cellar reminded me that Bennett and Solomon were still on the premises. Thinking quickly, I rummaged in the cupboard and pulled forth a jug of beer. Emptying a sleeping potion of John's making into the frothy potable, I slipped the empty vial back into my pocket. Pulling down a glass from the sideboard, I made sure they caught me pouring out a full portion, ostensibly for myself.
"Well, I'll be." I pretended great surprise. "Still 'ard at it, boys? I was just about to 'ave a cool one before I pushed off 'ome. I don't suppose you'd care for one as well?"
"After all the hauling up and down and in and out? Course we would." Bennett sat down heavily and rubbed his knee. "Hit me leg on a bleedin' iron stand down there."
"Language!" Shaking my finger at his profanity, I still pushed the glass over to him. "Let me get another glass for you, Solly. Mr. Bennett, you wrap a wet cloth soaked in arnica around the bruise and that will ease the pain." I poured another glass and handed it to Solomon. "Worked a proper treat on me boys when they'd get into fights. Course that was when they was younger."
The teakettle burst into song and I hurried to remove it from the stove. Pouring the boiling water over the tea leaves, I watched the two men chug down their first beer. Casting a surreptitious look at my back, Bennett made haste to fill up both their glasses again. Watching them reflected in the silver teapot, I took my time setting out the little cakes on the Wedgwood plate. A few moments later, I turned to find them yawning.
I scolded them for not going home and seeking their beds. They peered at me through blurry eyes and I just smiled, suggesting that they lay their heads down and take a little nap. They laughed at me but within three more minutes, they were snoring in drugged slumber. We were back to two against three since I'd just remembered the secretary, Schultze. He was such a self-effacing chap, visitors to the Embassy often overlooked him.
Finishing up the tray, I took a deep breath and focused my mind on the current problem. While the tea steeped, I leaned against the wall by the stove and sorted the facts, as I knew them into a tidy sequence of events. The cocaine use did not surprise me. He had been increasing his dosage for over a year and I knew that his irritability had also increased. He frequented a male brothel in Limehouse and gossip had it that he'd grown ever more violent in his passions.
His obsession with David and the deadly means he'd used to gain his objective showed an increased tendency towards passionate rather than dispassionate decisions that would be his downfall. I grimaced and wished the problem was not so cluttered with emotions. Smiling wryly to myself, I admitted that my own passions were engaged in this endeavor. My empathy for David's plight was strong and my fear for John's well being was almost overwhelming.
My first instinct had been to follow after Wenton and participate in his rescue but my mind had over-ruled my heart. The map could not be permitted to leave the country and the Baron must leave without his desired slave. My place was here even though every fiber of my being longed to be at John's side. I took another constricted breath and mentally cursed the stays that bound me. Ever since I'd begun this masquerade twelve years before, I'd had a new appreciation for the tortures that the women of England suffered every time they got dressed.
Fashion had much to answer for. I often wondered how any of the poor creatures ever took a breath. No wonder they were all so thin. Eating while encased in whalebones was an exercise in futility. Levering myself from the wall, I rolled my shoulders back and forth, quieting my mind of all extraneous thoughts. I must be alert and clear minded to essay this rescue attempt. Preconceived plans were apt to fail when confronted with the reality of human passions.
I would let the Baron show me the best way to foil him and retrieve the map. Lifting the silver tray, I backed through the swinging kitchen door and began the long trek down the hallway that led to the back stairs. Treading lightly, I listened for anyone else who might still be on the premises. When I reached the next floor, I surprised Schultze on his way up to the next floor.
"Oo-oh, Mr. Schultze, you startled me, you did. 'ave you been checking on the poor young man?"
"Young man?" He looked honestly puzzled until I poured out a garbled version of the accident. His eyes went from ice blue to blazing sapphire in the space of a moment. "I see. How thoughtful of you to make tea. Why don't I go with you to open the door?"
He stalked down the hallway with me right on his heels. When he flung open the door, a rather grim sight met us. The Baron was seated on the side of the bed with David's hand in his. Both sets of eyes turned to us but the emotions on their faces could not have been more different.
David showed white-faced relief while the rage in the Baron's gaze flushed his cheeks with a quick wash of red. I filled the aching silence with Mrs. McGill's natterings, bustling in and setting the tray down on the bedside table with my usual clatter. This persona had the hide of a rhinoceros and often rushed in where angels feared to tread. I really was rather fond of her and hoped that this would not be her last performance.
"There now, young man, awake at last and parched, I 'ave no doubt. A nice 'ot cup of tea will soon put you right." I began pouring while the Baron and Schultze moved a slight distance away. Their voices were vehement but low, the secretary practically hissing his words. They were speaking German to keep their conversation private but I had an ear for languages and translated easily.
"Ma'am?" The voice was weak and somewhat slurred. Really, the stage had lost a marvelous actor when this young man became a bookseller.
"Mrs. McGill, at your service. Sugar is good for a shock, so I'll put in three lumps." I stirred in the sugar and cream before matter of factly pulling him up and stuffing a couple of pillows behind him. His pallor was unfeigned and I tried to look at the pupils of his eyes to see if we were dealing with a concussion.
Holding the cup for him, I watched him sip with real pleasure. A little color came back into his pale cheeks while his eyes flickered to the two men arguing at the foot of the bed then back to me. I kept up a steady stream of homey wisdom that I had learned in my early years in London from women and men of Mrs. McGill's background.
Behind us, the argument was escalating and Schultze was accusing his lover of plotting to get rid of him. The Baron was rather heavy handed in his denial but his impatience was evident to the meanest intelligence. The secretary practically vibrated with emotion while enduring the cutting remarks of his employer. He was trying desperately to salvage his pride at being passed over for a younger man but his livelihood was also at stake.
"Enough!" The Baron quivered in his attempt to appear calm. "Please go to the study, Herr Schultze. I will join you in a few moments."
For a moment, I wondered if the secretary would defy him but with slumping shoulders, he silently left the room. I calmly kept urging a cake into my patient while the Baron joined us from the other side of the bed.
"Now, Mrs. McGill, it appears that you did not go home but kept right on working. And I, for one, am glad you did. It's good to see a little color in your cheeks, young man."
David blushed. "Thank you, Sir. I appreciate all the care you've taken of me. The tea is most welcome."
"And 'ow is your 'ead feeling?" I said anxiously.
His hand trembled a little as he brought it to his temple. "It aches a little. The room seems to spin so when I move."
"Poor little thing. Just like my cousin when 'e lost his memory."
"I'm sure it's temporary, David. Just rest for now while I go tidy up some loose ends. You're in capable hands with our good Mrs. McGill." He smiled genially and patted David's shoulder lingeringly just a moment too long before heading for the door.
We both waited for a few minutes while David finished his tea. When I was quite sure that the Baron wouldn't return immediately, I urged him off the bed so he could find his legs. I needed him able to walk on his own but for the moment he had developed an alarming tendency to list to one side so I had to thread an arm around his waist to keep him upright. We paced slowly from the bed to the dresser and back again. On the next circuit, he took some of his weight off of me while his step steadied. One more round of the room and he was walking on his own, limping just a little but uncomplainingly testing his limits.
"Holmes, how long until we know about Josiah and Uncle John?" His voice wasn't quite as steady as his tread.
"It's been," I checked the clock on the plaster mantel and calculated the times, "about an hour and a half. Wenton will have, no doubt, liberated our friends and be on his way back. He expressed an interest in taking care of the Baron with his own sword stick."
"I devoutly hope he will." David looked longingly at the door then resolutely went back to making another circuit of the room. "I just hope the drug will wear off soon or they may be incapacitated. Have you come to any conclusions about where the map is hidden? I expect you checked all the puzzle boxes before packing them."
"Yes, I did. Except for the one he put in his pocket." That still rankled.
"Oh, he gave that one to me. It's here in my jacket pocket." He reached for the jacket slung over the chair then hesitated and dove for the bed. His young ears heard what mine had not, the sound of muffled footsteps. I hurried to the water pitcher and dabbed the waiting cloth until it was damp.
Then turning to the bed, I slowly made my way to David's side. The Baron opened the door just as I draped the cloth across the young man's brow. With a worried look, I clucked alarmingly. "Sir, I think the poor thing's running a fever. 'e suddenly went all flushed. Where ever can the doctor be?"
"Why, he came while David was unconscious. He said he might run a slight fever while the healing process continued. But there is no impediment to our travels. I wonder if you could go and call Bennett here?" It was not really a question and I bobbed my head and left immediately.
I needed to hide the sleeping footmen before the Baron discovered them. And my curiosity was piqued as to Schultze's whereabouts. Dashing to the kitchen, I found the drugged men in the same positions I'd left them. Getting a good grip around Bennett's chest, I dragged him through the cellar door and down the stairs to the coal bin. He never even stirred. I'd have to make a note of that particular drug.
Hurrying back up the stairs, I silently cursed my voluminous skirts. Solly was heavier than Bennett and I worked up a sweat getting him down to his companion. My corset was digging into my ribs and I decided then and there to invent one without bone stays. Dragging in deep gulps of air at the alley door, I calmed my mind and wondered how much longer it would be before Wenton returned with our friends.
Closing my eyes, I conjured up John's smiling face as I'd last seen it in the puzzle box room. Blue eye's gleaming as he pondered, poked and prodded the puzzle in his beautiful hands; he'd never looked more desirable to my eyes. Sighing softly, I hoped to soon see him for real. But for now, I really needed to look for the secretary and get back to David.
The downstairs study was an ornate office with massive furniture and rows upon rows of books. But my eyes paid no attention to the familiar sights for they were drawn to the bloodied corpse of the missing secretary lying sprawled on the Persian rug before the oak desk. Stooping, I checked for a nonexistent pulse. It seemed that Schultze had had good reason to fear being replaced.
Studying the pattern of blows about the head and face, I deduced that something of rather small dimension but with some weight behind it had performed its grizzly work. My mind brought forth the picture of the Baron's demeanor when he returned to the bedroom. His clothes had been a little disheveled and he'd clutched his walking stick with a white knuckled grip. Had there been any discoloration of the silver knobbed head?
Moving back up the stairs, I pondered the ramifications of this murder. Diplomatically the Baron was immune to prosecution so Scotland Yard could not touch him. My brother was concerned only with the return of the fortification map. The loss of a single man would not weigh heavily on him. But I could not let this go so easily. The secretary had been a quiet soul with a sincere love of books and the Baron as hard as that was for me to conceive.
Reaching the upper landing, I strode to the back bedroom and entered with wringing hands. "Oh, Sir, I can't find nobody below at all. The beer's been took from the cupboard and it looks like the boys might 'ave indulged a bit before they sloped off."
The Baron frowned at me from his seat on the bed at David's side. "That is unfortunate. We needed their help in loading the carriage with the luggage. I will carry David down myself. I'll go and see if Stephens is finished in my room. Perhaps between the two of you, the important cases can be loaded. Krauss, at his return, can see to the others."
"But, Sir, who will drive the carriage?" I was prepared to drag in every objection I could think of to delay him.
"Stephens used to be a driver before he moved inside and became a butler. Why don't you try and get another cup of tea to strengthen this young man for our journey? David, I know you're anxious to regain your memory but time is on our side. Just rest now and you'll soon be in a lovely stateroom where you can rest for the trip to the Continent." He held David's hand between both of his and smiled fondly down into the flushed face.
"I'll do my best, Sir. I don't want to be a burden to you." He gazed up at his 'benefactor' through his long dark lashes and spoke bravely with a hesitant smile.
"Never a burden, my boy. And your best will be more than good enough." He rose reluctantly and spared a smile for me as he left.
The closing door was echoed by a sigh from the young man prone on the bed. "Thank God. I thought I was going to be sick. Please tell me that this is almost over."
His pleading eyes begged me for reassurance and I smiled ruefully. "There are a few complications. I've stashed Bennett and Solomon in the coal bin. And it seems the Baron has murdered his secretary."
David's eyes grew wide and he sat straight up in the bed, glancing wildly at the door. "You're not joking, are you? I knew he was capable of violence but cold blooded murder?"
"I'm afraid so. The cocaine has dissolved any inhibitions he might have had." I debated if I should warn him again. His solemn face told me he was already concerned. "I'm more worried about the map which we have still not found. I suspect that it's hidden in his walking stick. We need to get it away from him so I can check out my theory."
"If I can't walk, he'd have to carry me and you could hold onto his cane until we get to the carriage. But I won't go any further, Holmes." His eyes shone with fear and determination. "I can't. He makes my skin crawl."
"I understand, David. I will not ask more of you than what you have just outlined. In fact, I couldn't have planned it better myself." I patted his shoulder and he lay back with a sigh of relief. Smiling, I poured him out another cup of tea but left out the sugar at his request.
So, when the Baron returned abruptly, I was tidying the bed while David sipped at the milky tea. "Capitol, Mrs. McGill. If you would be so good as to help Stephens carry down the bags, I will keep David company."
"Be glad to, Sir. Try and get him to eat something. I made the cakes meself." And with a curtsy, I left to help load up the luggage. Perhaps I'd see our reinforcements coming. I was ready to end this investigation but had still to decide what to do about the murder.
It wouldn't be the first time I'd served as judge and executioner.
End chapter eleven