Our expedition came upon a small village on the outskirts of Moscow. The cold was dreadful, and I feared for the health of our frailer fellows. I was reluctant to enter the village as it appeared to be uncivilized or, at the very least, unsophisticated, but the nearest city was kilometres away, and the cold had rendered our engine inoperable. The steam turned as quickly to ice as it hit the freezing air, and the wind made it impossible to maintain speed. We were forced to hire a sleigh and driver to haul our equipment over the icy terrain, and we were all in desperate need of a warm fire and a stiff drink.
Upon reaching the village gates, it became immediately apparent that there was something decidedly odd about its denizens. They seemed unusually jubilant at our arrival and overly acquiescent to our needs. We were immediately directed to a small inn in the centre of the village. I was pleasantly surprised by its agreeable accommodations.
The innkeeper was a jovial, portly fellow called Luka, and his wife, Duscha, was soft-spoken and suitably attentive without making herself a nuisance. We dined well on lamb pelmeni and course, strong vodka before Duscha directed us to our suite. It was obvious we were the inn’s only guests, and I realized the villagers must indeed have been pleased by the arrival of a party of seven gentle fellows; tourism is unlikely a thriving commerce in the miniscule, out of the way village. Subsequently, I marvelled at the necessity of maintaining an inn at all, regardless of its size, and a clean, well-managed one at that.
Nestled in the crisp, newly laundered linens of the soft, warm bed in the suite I shared with the Lady Elisabeth Weston, I allowed my earlier suspicions to dull and eventually fade. I soon discovered this sense of security was premature. I awoke in the depth of night to a foreign noise in my room. I became instantly alert; the expedition fellows are close acquaintances, but I was hard-pressed to trust our feminine virtue to the swarthy sleigh driver Lord Benedict had hired out of the city.
I saw nothing in the darkened room, and after a few moments, I began to believe I had imagined whatever had awakened me. However, I was unable to shake the distinct sense that we were being watched. A sudden glint in the corner of the room confirmed my suspicion. I rose from the comfort of my bed to examine the metallic object that had caught the reflection of the pale moonlight through our bedroom window.
To my surprise it was, in fact, a fly on the wall, though such a fly I have never seen. The design was impeccable; the tiny clockwork was sleek and well crafted. Though nearly silent, its soft humming must have been what had interrupted my slumber as it passed over my sleeping person. As I reached for it, it darted away as quickly as the creature in whose image it was cast. After a few moments of stalking it around the chamber, I determined I would be unable to catch it by hand, and I was loathe to risk damaging it by attempting to swat it out of the air. I needed reinforcements. I did not wish to disturb the Lady Elisabeth whilst sneaking about in the night, but I suspected a disrupted beauty sleep would be infinitely preferable to remaining alone with the bug, and I made haste to our provisions.
How right I was. When I returned, it was to a horrifying scene. The poor Lady Elisabeth was engaged in a very close encounter with our tiny night-time intruder. Though the clockwork had yet to attack, it was hovering in dangerous proximity to the Lady’s aristocratic nose. “Stay still, Lady,” I ordered softly, and she seemed inclined to comply, though she may merely have been too shocked by the unexpected visitor to respond.
Ensnaring the bug was easier than I had anticipated; young Xander’s fishing net proved sufficiently successful. Again, however, I found myself lulled into a false sense of security. The automaton had no shortage of tricks up its proverbial sleeve. The clever little thing was well up to the challenge of escaping my net. To my astonishment, the bug was equipped with, not only an uncanny sentience, but a tiny, oscillating blade that shredded my young cousin’s net to ribbons in mere seconds. The like of it I have never seen.
The Lady dove for cover in anticipation of an attack, but the clockwork seemed disinclined to exact revenge upon my person. Though I had been its captor, it had eyes only for the Lady Weston. It did not appear to have any intent to harm my companion, but as she moved experimentally around the chamber, it followed as a Spaniel follows its master, never moving more than several centimetres away.
“What is it, Astrid?” Lady Elisabeth whispered. Unlike many of her peers, the Lady is not prone to hysteria; it is one of the numerous qualities I admire in her. I was pleased to note there was no panic in her voice.
I shook my head. “I’m not sure. It looks like an automaton.”
“What is it doing here?”
I pressed my finger to my lips. I suspected, if the tiny clockwork bug could produce a moving blade from its metal exo-skeleton, it was likely equipped with a listening device of some kind. I became quite certain after a few moments of watching the creature circle the Lady that someone was controlling it remotely. Luka, perhaps? I thought this unlikely. The innkeeper was kindly and did not seem bright enough to have constructed such a sophisticated machine. I felt equally certain that Duscha was not our puppet master.
The implications of this were perplexing and disturbing.
Attempting to keep myself at the fly’s back, I motioned the Lady to return to her bed and sought the assistance of our mechanic and electrician, Mr Reinhart. Unfortunately, as the Lady’s betrothed, Lord Benedict insisted upon accompanying Mr Reinhart, young Xander and me back to my chambers. Thus, being the only member of the party left out of the night-time escapade, excepting of course the swarthy driver who had no part in our expedition aside from our safe passage to our awaiting airship in St Petersburg, Mr Murdock, our endlessly capable yet infuriatingly meddling guide, joined the skirmish.
The Lady Elisabeth appeared to be asleep upon our return, and the automaton hummed over her bed like a tiny sentinel. I allowed the gentlemen to examine the creature. Xander in particular seemed highly impressed, though I was hardly surprised; the lad has always had a keen fondness for mechanics, which I attribute to my dear, departed Nathaniel. But I digress. Lady Elisabeth was not, despite initial appearance, asleep. In fact, I am sure she found it quite impossible to sleep in the presence of the intruder. Lord Benedict, being of quick temper and sadly lacking in the poise and grace his intended had displayed thus far, was highly irate and demanded Mr Reinhart swat the fly out of the air at once.
Mr Reinhart, possessing a curious nature and passionate interest in science and all its innovations, most emphatically refused. Luckily, Reinhart, being a former student of my late Mr Darby, had come prepared for such an event. He carried a compact, electro-static generator, the function of which I can only assume was to emit a brief, powerful shock that disrupted the mechanical controls within the tiny creature. Blue lightning arced from the spherical metal wand and unceremoniously zapped the bug from the air. Its humming effectively silenced, it lay on the end of Lady Elisabeth’s bed like a small, benign tinker toy.
Reinhart was very keen to examine the bug up close, but the question of who had sent it remained in the forefront of my mind; I am a woman of action and resolve, not science and supposition. I had little interest in what the bug did; I wanted to know why and for whom. However, it had been a long and trying day, and the incident had only succeeded in reminding my weary body how badly it craved a refreshing night’s sleep. Order restored and our privacy ensured, for Mr Reinhart had kindly left his device with me in case of a replacement bug, the Lady and I returned to our beds to enjoy several hours’ uninterrupted sleep.
It was not to be, however. At dawn, the village came to life, and I was awakened by the shouts of children calling to each other on their way to school. With a groan, I rose from bed, hoping at least for a decent cup of strong, black tea
to chase away the early morning fatigue.
As usual, the Lady appeared perfectly rested, impeccably coiffed and unbearably cheerful compared to my likely rumpled, weary and grumbling mien.
I paused, startled at the interruption, my forgotten quill poised and dripping small beads of black ink over the pages of my memoir. Alexander Knightly, my young cousin and most trusted associate, stood in the doorway to my study, still dressed in the tan frockcoat and brown corduroy suit he’d worn on a tour of Lord Ignatius Fairway’s acclaimed aviation exhibition at the Centre of Scientific Innovation and Speculation earlier that day. I assumed Xander’s disapproving expression indicated he had been attempting for some time to tear my attention from my journal. “I beg your pardon, cousin. I did not realize you were there.” I returned my quill to the small inkpot beside the blotter, pushing the thick, leather-bound tome aside. “What is it then?”
“You have received a telegram.” He moved hesitantly into the large, wood-panelled study; Xander had never gotten used to the luxury of Darby Manor and even less so the ability to move freely through its splendid halls. I had no such qualms, despite our similarly humble beginnings, and his less than speedy foot annoyed me.
“Yes, yes, come in, Xander,” I ordered irritably. “Who is it from, then?”
“It’s from Rake & Gage. They urgently request an audience in London.”
I raised my eyebrows, holding out my hand to take the parchment. When he neared me, I realised young Knightly was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet in an anxious fashion. I frowned at the undignified behaviour.
“What is the matter?”
Xander immediately stilled, suddenly cognisant of his movement. “Sorry, cousin, it’s just—well, Rake & Gage is England’s top manufacturer of the government’s military defence systems.”
“Yes, I am well aware of that, Xander, but you don’t see me bouncing where I sit.” I peered over my square-rimmed spectacles at him.
He hesitated, looking away for a moment. “Well, they are known to employ the best engineers and scientists. I only thought…”
I smiled. “Ah, ambitious, are you, my young cousin? I hear they are recruiting assistants this time of year. Are you hoping to fill one of the vacancies?”
Xander looked aghast. “Certainly not! I am perfectly happy with my present employment and accommodations; you know how I feel about returning to the city.”
“Indeed, cousin, so why the unrestrained excitement?”
“Astrid, don’t you remember anything from Nathaniel’s lectures?”
I pursed my lips at his scolding tone, suppressing a smile. “Of course not, Xander. You know I am not interested in such things. I attended merely to humour my dear husband; surely you must know I paid absolutely no attention to his blathering.”
Xander chuckled at this, for he had known me long and knew me well. “I beg your pardon, cousin. How foolish of me; you are a woman of action and resolve, not science and—“
“Supposition, yes. Now if you’d be so kind as to let me in on what it was I missed in Mr Darby’s lectures that is so important as to have you practically flying out of your trousers.”
“I beg your pardon! I most certainly am not flying out of my trousers. They are quite soundly fastened and will remain as such—“ When I rolled my eyes at him, he paused and redirected. “Rake & Gage is rumoured to have commissioned Dr Sebastian Cross, one of England’s most acclaimed physicists and inventors, to invent a mysterious new defence system, the nature of which they have been extremely secretive regarding thus far. It is to be revolutionary, at least according to the Society of Mechanics and Automata Inventors. He was the creator of one of the original directed energy beams, the Crystal Wave. It was dismantled, obviously, when its true destructive nature was discovered, but it was a masterpiece of physics.” He pressed his hands together, his eyes burning like blue flame. “Dr Cross was one of Mr Darby’s heroes. He always wanted to meet him before—well, the tragic event of August 25th three years ago.”
I bowed my head in a moment of silence for my late husband and returned my gaze to my eager cousin. “Well,” I said in a softer voice, “perhaps you will have the chance. Nathaniel would be honoured you remembered.” Xander smiled sadly, and I directed my eyes to the telegram, skimming it swiftly.
Dear Mrs Darby STOP Your attendance is urgently requested in London at the offices of Rake & Gage STOP This is a matter of extreme importance and security STOP Please respond at your earliest convenience STOP Signed Mr Maxwell Cole Executive VP Rake & Gage END
I peered at the missive a moment. “Xander, kindly respond to Mr Cole. I will be arriving in London in—” I removed a small, gold pocket watch, a gift from my late husband on our second anniversary, from my lapel pocket, glancing at its opened face. “Approximately two hours, provided we can catch the late airship travelling to the city this evening. I shall expect strong, black tea and chocolate biscuits upon my arrival. You may accompany me on the journey.”
Xander nodded politely, but I suspected he was suppressing a grin; his pale, blue eyes twinkled in merriment. “Yes, Mrs Darby,” he replied smartly, spinning from the room in a flurry of tan coattails.
I sighed, peering mournfully at my abandoned journal. The epic recounting of our adventures in Russia would again have to wait. It is just as well, I thought. Thwarting an evil inventor was not nearly as exciting when he was a hormonal fifteen year-old employing his automatons to kidnap women only to release them, utterly unharmed, three hours later. He hardly even put up a fight, and he treated the Lady Elisabeth quite pleasantly, by all accounts. I believe she still occasionally writes to the lad.
The car that awaited us when we disembarked in London was emblazoned with the Rake & Gage crossed keys, and a tall, overly thin man in a smart, charcoal-grey suit stood beside it, as perfectly contented as if he’d nothing better to do than idle away at the airship port at ten in the evening. He bowed to young Xander and me, motioning us inside the spacious back seat. He did not speak to us, but he gave us an appraising sort of look as if to determine whether his time had been well spent. I was not especially concerned with his determination and turned my attention to the sights of London as they skimmed past our window.
Beside me, Xander was practically vibrating with excitement. The zeppelin flight had done little to calm his nerves, as he had developed a distinct distaste for dirigibles of any sort since my late husband’s fatal accident. He had managed to suppress the unseemly quivering from earlier and appeared to be quite in possession of himself for the time being. I envied his enthusiasm at times; it seemed like ages since I had felt the spark or passion for the job. Perhaps I had grown weary from too much of the same. When one is an adventurer, the novelty of foiling evil schemes, espionage and mad science is soon to wear off. I had not realized how I missed the thrill of the job until I had taken my young cousin into my employ. There were times when I would easily trade the wisdom of experience for the keenness of youth.
It was wisdom, not keenness, however, that had won me my reputation, and so I gave Xander a cautionary look as we arrived at the monolithic metal and glass structure that housed the offices of Rake & Gage Defence Contractors. The taciturn driver beckoned us inside brass doors twice the height of a man and into a darkened lobby. Our heels clicked smartly on the shining, mirrored floors, and a glass lift took us to the topmost level.
Maxwell Cole’s office was at the end of a long corridor on the thirteenth floor. The night-lights of London twinkled outside the glass walls, making it seem as if we were walking along a bridge in the sky towards a floating room. Xander appeared quite uneasy, and I was uncertain if I appreciated the effect. Our driver and lately guide knocked once on Mr Cole’s door. “Enter,” a voice called from within. When the heavy door swung open, a tall man in a sleek, expensive, black, pinstripe suit stood up from behind the desk to greet us. He had shortly cropped black hair liberally streaked with grey and a thin, elegant goatee. “Mrs Darby,” he said, shaking my hand vigorously, relief written on his thin, patrician face. “And this must be young Knightly.”
“Yes, sir.” Xander gave the older man a quick, tidy bow.
“I am Maxwell Cole. This is Junior Vice President Edgar Thorne.” Cole gestured towards the man standing silently beside his desk with his hands clasped behind his back. He was shorter, squatter, and, unlike Cole, he appeared displeased to see us. He gave a slight frown before rearranging his features into a neutral expression and nodding curtly at us. His suit was dark brown and custom tailored, but he did not wear it well; he shifted uncomfortably, as if the suit were scratchy or too warm in the fire-lit office.
Cole gestured to the chair across from his desk, and I seated myself primly, folding my hands into my lap and striking an expression of professional interest. “Mr Harlow,” Mr Thorne spoke up in a clipped voice. “Perhaps young Mr Knightly would enjoy a tour of our facilities.”
The driver nodded, turning to Xander. “This way, Mr Knightly,” he said in a deep, drawling sort of voice, speaking for the first time since we had come into his company.
Xander glanced at me, and I nodded. He was not unused to being dismissed by clients in such a fashion, and I suspected he was far keener to explore the offices and laboratories than sit quietly whilst I conducted business. When Xander and Mr Harlow had disappeared, stepping back into the night sky, I turned my gaze to my potential employers, clearing my throat politely to indicate I was prepared to listen to their proposal.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Mr Cole said. I noticed Mr Thorne scowl and slide into the chair next to mine, turning it towards me as if to watch my every move.
“It was no trouble. I do hope you have the tea and biscuits I requested.”
Mr Cole smiled fractionally. “Yes, of course. I am a man of my word. Mr Thorne, if you’d please.” Mr Thorne looked exceedingly disgruntled by this command, but he rose and moved into a sub chamber of his superior’s office, returning moments later with a tea service.
“Ace,” I said, accepting the plate of chocolate biscuits and scones from Mr Cole and adding a lump of sugar to the strong, aromatic bergamot tea. “Now. On to business. What is it that I can do for you, Mr Cole?”
He sighed heavily, weighing his words with care. “As I stated in the telegram, this is a matter of the utmost urgency and security. Your strict confidence is required before I may proceed with an explanation of the situation.”
“I assure you, Mr Cole, my word is my bond. My reputation for discretion is unblemished.”
“I have heard said, Mrs Darby,” Mr Cole agreed. “However, as this is a matter of national security, Rake & Gage requires further assurance of your silence.” He slid a parchment across the desk towards me, and I picked it up, my eyebrows travelling upwards. “We do not mean to imply that we do not trust you, Mrs Darby. It is merely our company policy to acquire an agreement that our meeting this evening will remain off the record. You understand the debacle that could ensue should the media get wind of this situation.”
“Of course, Mr Cole. Naturally, I understand your position. You’ll allow me a few moments to study the document?” It was a standard confidentiality agreement, but the last stipulation caused me to raise my eyebrows once again. “Mr Cole, I am compelled to inform you that, as per your request, neither I nor anyone I might employ in this matter will approach the authorities regarding this meeting or any subsequent meetings. However, if I am approached by our government or any of her subsidiaries regarding this contract, I am both legally and honour bound to provide them with any information I may possess that they may consider pertinent.”
“That is quite unacceptable,” Mr Thorne began heatedly, but Mr Cole held up his hand to cut him off.
“I understand, Mrs Darby. We would not presume to require you compromise your delicate sensibilities.” He sighed again, and I could see the strain around his eyes and in the tightening of his thin mouth. “I regret we may be unable to remain mum on this situation for very long. I fear it is only a matter of time before we are quite thoroughly exposed.”
“Maxwell, I don’t think—“
“It is alright, Edgar,” Mr Cole said, cutting off his subordinate again and eliciting a deep, impotent scowl. “I trust, once we have explained, our reasons will become clear, Mrs Darby.”
I signed the agreement with a flourish, sliding it back across the desk towards Mr Cole. “I am most confident that they will, Mr Cole. If you please, then.”
“Maxwell, I must again object to this course of action,” Mr Thorne piped in.
“Yes, yes, Edgar, I heard and noted your objections the first several times you voiced them,” Cole said impatiently, frowning slightly at the interruption.
“I only hope to persuade you that this…woman’s integrity is questionable at best. She is a mercenary. How can we be assured she will not run directly to the media the moment she leaves this office?”
“I beg your pardon, Mr Thorne,” I interjected mildly, tamping down on my indignation; causing a scene was hardly conducive to a smooth business transaction. “My integrity has been tried and tested many times over. If you require more than my signature on an official, legally binding document to be certain of my fidelity, I have a number of recommendations and referrals from past satisfied clients including royalty, aristocracy, government and military from all over the world. I have completed hundreds of assignments to the highest standards of excellence and expect this assignment to be no different.”
“Mrs Darby comes highly recommended, Edgar,” Mr Cole added. “I am quite confident she is the best person for the job. Now, that aside, Mrs Darby, we called you here to recover an object that has been…misplaced.”
“Well, you see…” Cole inhaled heavily, and I understood that his position was dire indeed. Though I had little patience for hemming and hawing, I sat quietly, waiting for him to continue. He seemed to gather his bearing, meeting my gaze with steely green eyes. “As you may have heard, being a woman of culture and erudition as it were, Rake & Gage has commissioned Dr Sebastian Cross to invent a new, state of the art, military defence system.”
“I have heard as much,” I replied as he had paused a moment, peering at me, and seemed to be waiting for my confirmation. “In fact, young Knightly was just explaining that Dr Cross is a most well-known physicist deeply admired by the late Mr Darby.”
Mr Cole nodded grimly. “Yes, Dr Cross is most esteemed and his invention most ingenious. You see, then, why it is quite alarming that both he and his apparatus have, inexplicably, gone missing.”
Mr Thorne scowled. “Defection,” he responded darkly.
“We fear the worst,” Mr Cole admitted. “Dr Cross required only a small lab with one assistant he hand-picked from outside the firm. None of our employees were welcome inside the laboratory, including myself and Mr Gage. We received periodic updates on his progress every other week, and he seemed to be nearing completion of the prototype. His last update was expected on my desk today, but it was never delivered. I checked with the courier—a young intern from the university, very steadfast—and discovered the papers had never reached the tube deposit. Thus, despite Dr Cross’ strict orders, I sent my assistant, Waverly, to check in on him. When Mr Waverly arrived, it was to find the lab empty. Dr Cross and his apparatus were gone, as well as his assistant.”
“Any signs of a struggle?” I asked, leaning forward in my seat. “Has anyone been able to locate this assistant?”
“No, nothing. Everything was gone. His assistant is one Dr Joseph Ramsey. I had not previously heard of him, but Dr Cross refused to take anyone else. I understand they have been working together for many years. Cross does not trust many people.”
“They likely had it planned all along,” Thorne growled, his back stiff and his knuckles white where he gripped the arms of his chair. “Use our resources and materials to construct the blooming prototype and vamp it right out from under our noses.”
“Mr Thorne!” Cole scolded in astonishment. “Please, mind your language. You are in the presence of a lady.”
I was sure I heard the shorter man mutter derisively under his breath, but I ignored him pointedly, returning my gaze to Mr Cole. “Is it possible one of your competitors lured him away?”
Cole nodded mournfully. “It is possible. Competition for military contracts is fierce. If one of the other defence firms got wind of the project, they may have contacted Cross and made him an offer.”
“Could one of your employees have leaked information to one of your competitors?”
“Mrs Darby, our employees couldn’t have done this,” Thorne told me coolly. “We trust them implicitly. If anyone leaked information, it was Cross. Or that upstart Ramsey.”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps something more sinister is afoot. Do you have any reason to believe the doctor was kidnapped?”
“Kidnapped?” Thorne exclaimed. “This is a business, Mrs Darby, and real life, not a work of fiction. That is simply preposterous.”
“Mr Thorne, please control yourself,” Cole cautioned, but he too appeared unconvinced. “Mrs Darby, industrial espionage of this magnitude is unheard of. I find it far more likely to believe the doctor left of his own accord and entered into the service of one of our competitors.”
I nodded. It was clearly not the time to speculate on the possible reasons for the doctor’s and his assistant’s disappearance. However, one of the best known verities is that the gut, in which I now felt a distinctive sensation liken to gnawing, is the part of the body most sensitive to unconfirmed certainties. As a woman of action and resolve as opposed to science and supposition, I was not usually given to such far-fetched notions, but as an adventurer, I have come to regard them as noteworthy if unreliable. I was confident the truth of the matter would come to light soon enough.
“As you like, Mr Cole. Am I to understand my charge is to locate the missing doctor and his assistant?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Mr Cole was looking uneasy again, and I had the distinct impression he was a man quite comfortable being ruthless and quite uncomfortable with anyone knowing about it. “Our concern is the apparatus, Mrs Darby. You must understand our position; we have been given the prodigious task of providing our military with a revolutionary defensive strategy. It would be catastrophic should she then learn that we have allowed the apparatus to disappear right from under our noses.”
“Ah, yes,” I replied, amusement in my tone. “It becomes apparent why you have contacted me. You wish me to locate the apparatus and bring it back here to you before anyone finds out you ever misplaced it.”
“Just so. With the utmost secrecy and alacrity.”
“Naturally. I can do this for you, Mr Cole.” I seized a parchment and quill from his desk, penning my required compensation with a flourish and sliding it across the table to him. “This is in addition to any expenses that I may accrue in the course of the charge. Are these terms acceptable to you?”
Mr Cole peered at the parchment, and I saw his lips tighten slightly. “Is this your usual fee, Mrs Darby?”
“Dependent upon the nature of the commission, sir. As this is a case of the utmost urgency and security, a supplemental fee has been applied. In addition, should I be found to be providing this service to you under the very nose of our esteemed military, there is likely to be a penalty for aiding and abetting a conspiracy to keep your potentially disastrous situation under wraps. You understand my position I am sure, Mr Cole?”
He considered a moment, his eyes darting from me to my proposal as if measuring my merit against the likelihood of my violating our confidentiality agreement and alerting the authorities should he fail to accept my terms. I endured his scrutiny patiently, meeting his gaze with a bland expression. Mr Thorne strained to read the parchment, but Cole twitched it away from him, ignoring any protest he may have made. I had the most emphatic impression that Thorne was dying to leap to his feet, red-faced, and exclaim, ‘That’s outlandish, sir!’ Or, at least, I imagined it was something he might be likely to do, and I had to take a deep, steadying breath to suppress a snigger.
After a long moment, Mr Cole laid the parchment face down on the surface of his oak desk. I noticed, for the first time, that it was so polished I could see his reflection. A man who keeps a desk so clean and smudge-free that his reflection is nearly flawless upon its surface is a meticulous and unforgiving man. I could see this in his eyes despite the congeniality with which he had regarded me thus far. I wondered to what extent he would go to ensure my silence; as far as I was concerned, I had little to gain by sullying the firm’s reputation and in turn my own as a trustworthy and reputable adventurer. However, he was clearly not a man who bestowed blind faith.
“Mrs Darby, I will accept your terms on one condition,” Cole announced finally, pressing his fingers together on top of the parchment.
“Yes, Mr Cole?”
“I require that you undertake this assignment alone.”
“Alone? I beg your pardon, Mr Cole, but I employ a team of highly skilled mechanics and navigators to accompany me on my assignments. I am afraid I would not be nearly as effective without their assistance,” I protested, sitting up in my chair in surprise.
“Nevertheless, that is my condition. I have decided to trust you, Mrs Darby, as you come highly recommended. However, the more people find out about our situation, the more difficult it will be to keep it mum. I expect you will locate Dr Cross and return our property with minimal fuss and unnecessary staff,” Cole explained sternly, and the affable, somewhat deferent man was gone, replaced now by the ruthless businessman I had sensed beneath the surface.
I am not a woman susceptible to intimidation, and I met his glacial gaze with calm dignity. “Mr Cole, I am afraid that is quite out of the question. I will agree to forego gathering my usual associates, but I must insist upon the aid of young Knightly. He is my personal assistant, quite capable of performing the functions of any number of labourers and skilled mechanics and as faithful as any man could be. I require him by my side.”
Cole sighed quietly, taking another moment to consider me. “Very well. I will allow Mr Knightly’s attendance.”
“I am grateful, sir. Now, as negotiations are closed, I require a gander at the doctor’s laboratory.”
Thorne inhaled sharply through his nose, then heavily out again in a long-suffering sigh. “Is that really necessary?” he demanded tersely. “We have already searched the lab. Dr Cross and his apparatus are most obviously not there. We would merely be wasting valuable time we do not have.”
“Begging your pardon, Mr Thorne, but I realise Dr Cross is not in the laboratory,” I replied, my voice climbing a register in my irritation. “However, if I am to, as they say, get to the bottom of his disappearance it is necessary for me to retrace his steps. As you are a junior vice president and not a detective or adventurer, there is a great likelihood that you have passed over some important clues that may assist us in discovering where he and his apparatus have gone. If you are concerned about wasting valuable time, sir, I suggest you abstain from contradicting my methods in future.”
Thorne’s eyes widened, and his face darkened to a ruddy shade of red, but Cole cut him off as he sucked in a breath, preparing to retort. “Mrs Darby, you’ll excuse Mr Thorne; our laboratories are state of the art and highly secured; we are reluctant to permit outsiders entry.”
“With all due respect, Mr Cole, it was you who requested me and hired me for this assignment,” I reminded him. It had been ages since I had worked for corporate executives, and I suddenly remembered why I usually avoided them. They were impossible. They often spent more time hindering me from performing the job for which they had hired me than providing pertinent information and necessary access. “If you intend to encumber my efforts to locate your missing weapon, please inform me now, and I will spend less time actually endeavouring to achieve success.”
A small crease appeared between Mr Cole’s eyebrows, but I did not concern myself with his irritation. Negotiations were over, and the time for being gracious was at an end. I was charged with a job, a job I intended to complete with satisfactory results, and I would not stand for the foolish men impeding my progress with their silly corporate boys’ club antics. Cole took a deep breath through his nose, but he did not puff it out as had Thorne. As he exhaled slowly, steadily, the crease vanished by degree until his face was smooth and unlined again. Calming himself then; it must have been irksome for him to be dressed down by anyone, least of all a woman.
“Very well,” he said stiffly. “I will escort you to the laboratory. Mr Thorne, if you would kindly locate Mr Harlow and Mrs Darby’s young assistant so they may join us?”
Thorne, still red-faced with impotent fury, nodded and rose inelegantly to his feet. When he had stormed from the office into the glass corridor, Mr Cole turned to me, his eyes shrewd.
“Mrs Darby, I want to be very clear. I will not tolerate impudence from my hired help.”
I raised my eyebrows at him. “Mr Cole, if I may be perfectly frank, you are not in a position to admonish me. You are familiar with my achievements and understand that I am the only one in whom you can entrust this task.” My voice was low and calm, though aggravation was pumping hot in my veins. “That being the case, I suggest you keep your imperiousness to yourself. I have every intention of completing this job to your absolute satisfaction as I have completed many jobs before this. I expect to be treated with dignity and respect, not as a common underling, and I expect that you will not stand in my way when I make requests, regardless of your delicate corporate sensibilities. As you are not capable of performing this job yourself and are unable to enlist the aid of the authorities, I am the best you have, and you will treat me as such. I have no interest in quarrelling or delving into matters that do not concern this particular case. My ambition is simply to find your missing scientist and his project; I have no need to divulge your corporate secrets to the media or your competitors. I have nothing to benefit from that. You, on the other hand, will greatly benefit from my success. Hence, it is in your best interests to work with me instead of obstructing our mutual goal. Is that perfectly acceptable to you, Mr Cole?”
Cole sighed, but this time his frown was contemplative as opposed to affronted, and he finally nodded, offering his hand. “Mrs Darby, I regret my attitude. We are working for a common goal. I will offer any assistance you need in order to accomplish it.”
I bowed my head to him, shaking his hand firmly. The tension in the room seemed to dissipate in a puff of smoke, and I carefully concealed my relief behind an amicable expression. “Thank you, Mr Cole. I am at your service.”
“Splendid. Come; allow me to escort you to the laboratory. I look forward to hearing your theory of what has become of our missing doctors.” He stood, opening his office door and motioning me out into the hallway with an exquisite bow.
“Much obliged, Mr Cole,” I said as I swept past him with my head held high. “I am most eager myself.”
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