Chapter 21 – Saturday Night, June 7 – Skulking About
Sherlock and Flummox parted ways at the front of the Longbottom estate. Sherlock went clockwise to take up a position near the lily ponds to watch for intruders from the direction of the Exchequer estate. Flummox headed counterclockwise to the graveyard, which had a good view of the trees of the arboretum that masked the border with the Oolong estate.
As soon as they were out of sight of one another, Flummox doubled back and headed in the front door. The zombie on guard gave him no trouble, and he was again in the Longbottom’s entry hall. Glancing up towards Fern’s bedroom, he made a beeline for the hall between the stairs and the coat closet. Two doors on the right stood open, revealing simple washrooms.
The hall then T-ed. Every door he could see led to a room he had been told about, except the one that doubled back under the staircase. Opening it, he could see stairs down in the faint light of the house lamps. There were no lights below, but a lantern on a shelf inside stood ready. He checked the oil level – it was full – and lit it before starting down the stairs and closing the door behind him.
There was a landing with shelves, including various items of food, wine, empty containers, and tools. Flummox picked up a bent table knife and slipped it behind his belt. Another flight of stairs doubled back the other way, which he labeled in his mind as ‘north’, though he knew it was more north-east, toward the spur of the ridge that ran out beside the herb garden. “Must not get turned around in here,” he muttered. At the bottom of this flight of stairs, he was faced with three doors. The door to the left led to a wine cellar with several barrels of ale in evidence. The door to the right was full of labeled crates containing foodstuffs. The door ahead was locked.
It took only a few seconds to deal with the lock, bending the table knife further, and he was through the door. The passages from here on were rough stone with little or no wood bracing. It also seemed a little damp and smelled odd, but he continued forward, cautiously.
The walls were lined with niches, four high, about half containing bodies. Some were in wooden boxes without lids. Some lay exposed in their niches. Some were mere skeletons.
“No.” Flummox hurried past.
“I’m a friend of Master Longbottom.” Flummox hurried on.
He came to a junction, beneath a point about where he thought the herb garden would be. The passage went forward and also branched to the right. A door to the left opened easily, and he entered. It had a large table in the center, and several shelves and workbenches around the outside. Tools were scattered everywhere; this appeared to be a preparation room. He walked around the perimeter, surveying what was there, until he came to a desk with parchment, quills, inkpot, and a large, bound book. He riffled through the book. It was hand written, but very neat and regular, as if it had been carefully copied. It was in a script he could not decipher in the lantern light, but the title of the book was legible: “On the Preservation and Utility of Our Ancestors.” He looked around and found a light leather wrap that would serve to protect and conceal the book. Tucking it under his arm, he returned to the passage.
Choosing quickly, he headed down the side passage, in the direction he labeled as ‘east’. “Damn,” he muttered, “this is just taking me deeper into the mountain.”
As he hurried by more niches, a few more zombies reacted as he passed, and joined the slow pursuit. The passage came to a Y, and he took the right-hand branch. “Running down the ridge behind the greenhouse, maybe?” Further on, he came to another Y, and he again took the right-hand passage. It was short, and ended with a climbing stone staircase. With relief he hurried up it and came to a blank wall. He searched frantically, aware of the sound of dragging feet on the steps behind him. Finally he found a brick that yielded to his push. The wall swung forward and he rushed through, and shut the door behind him. Pushing it with his back, there was a sharp click as it seemed to lock in place. All was silent.
Holding the lantern high, he realized he was in a mausoleum or crypt. He found the wrought-iron gate that opened onto the grounds and made short work of the lock, dropping the ruined table knife behind him. He was now in the open, on the Longbottom estate, having just emerged from the very crypt that Sherlock had mentioned earlier in the evening.
Flummox drank in the night sky, leaned against the wall of the crypt, and shook.
Sapphire was awoken by Rufus’s voice, calling faintly. It took her a moment to realize that this was not a mind-to-mind contact; he was in their private room in the inn! With one hand she pulled up the bedcovers, with the other she reached for her wand on the nightstand.
“Shhh! Let the others sleep, but you are needed. I’ll be in the hall.” The door closed softly.
Sapphire made herself ready and stepped into the corridor. “Rufus. What’s happening?”
“The mission to recover the longboat is about to happen. It has to be tonight, before they have a chance to pull the Buccaneer off the sand bar in the morning light.”
“So why do you need me?”
“Your invisibility spell. Cast on the fishing boat, it would help immensely to get the warriors onto the longboat.”
“Okay, let’s talk as we go.” They headed out of the inn, towards the north bridge gate. “So what happens when they board the longboat?”
A group of dark figures were assembled at the far side of the bridge. Rufus waved at them, and they turned and went ahead towards the peninsula. “Well, I imagine they will be detected at that point, and invisibility would be pointless.”
“But if they try to get away, missiles across the water would be problematic. I could help them with a cleaner escape.”
Rufus looked at her with respect. “I think the warriors need all the help they can get, but I’m not too sure about how Gin-Tzu will react. He can be pretty prickly.” They turned onto the dirt road leading to the fishing huts.
The fishing boat was tethered on the beach. Screetcher sounded the alarm as they approached, and there was much rustling of the grass behind the huts, then silence as he too took refuge in the tall grasses.
Rufus took a commanding stance. “Okay, I think everybody knows the plan. I will lead Mama-San’s group up to the moorings of the Buccaneer. Sapphire will go with Gin-Tzu’s group in the small boat, to provide arcane cover as the warriors take the longboat. She and I will be in communication, so I will know when to hail the ship and create a distraction. Also she’ll tell us when to beat a retreat and get Mama-San safely away. Any questions?”
Achilles went first in file toward the ship. “I will hail the ship when you give me the signal. I will speak as representative of the Earl. The healer will hang back, just in case he is needed. The rest of you stand where you can be seen, but do not present more of a target than I do. I have armor, you do not.”
Mama-San called forward to him. “Just make sure you seem intent on determining the ransom they want. They must be lulled into thinking we want a peaceable solution. There must be nothing that endangers the prince at this point in time.”
“Agreed. I hope I can be in on the operation when you do strike to recover the prince. I delight in these deceptive devices in the face of the enemy.”
They settled into position, near but not visible to the ship, and waited for the fishing boat to approach. Of course they saw nothing, but Rufus kept them appraised of their progress. “Sapphire seems to be working up more spells than just invisibility. I’m not sure just what, but I don’t want to distract her by asking.”
After a bit, Rufus held up a hand and cocked his head for a moment. “We are in luck, there are sentries on the ship, but not on the longboat. So far, so good. Let’s go.”
Achilles strode from the bushes to where the heavy ropes from the ship were tied to a scrub tree. The longboat was on the far side of the Buccaneer, presumably thought to be safe. The others spread out behind him. He beat his spear on his shield. “Hail, aboard the ship! I am Achilles, representing my Lord, the Earl of Foundering Valley. I demand to speak with your captain!”
No one replied at first, but there was a flurry of activity as buccaneers appeared on deck with ready weapons, and spread around the edges of the ship. Rufus counted seven all told. Finally the captain came to the railing. “What do you want, coming to us like thieves in the night?”
Achilles laughed loudly. “You have a great deal of gall, speaking of thievery to us. You have our friend, the Prince Aahzah aboard. We want him back, and have come to discuss terms, as you yourselves suggested in the ransom note you left.”
The captain and Lady Lund exchanged a few words, and she nodded. The captain turned back. “Very well, we want his weight in precious gems – we understand this is a region rich in mineral wealth. When can you provide it?”
“You know that is an excessive ransom. Even if you had said gold, that would be in excess of a ten thousand coins. I doubt that many can even be found in all the coin boxes in this valley. Be reasonable.”
“Well, I’m sure there are countries out there that would prize highly the political advantage of holding a prince hostage. No doubt they will meet our price.”
“No doubt the prince will take his own life, before he allows himself to be used in such a vile manner. You would then be left with nothing but a vendetta on your hands. Better you take what we can offer, and make a clear, clean profit.”
“But you say you have no gold. What do you have to offer?”
“Mama-San, if you please.”
Mama-San drew forward and made a show of spreading a white cloth upon the ground. Lanterns were placed around it, and she drew several objects from under her kimono. “Observe the treasures of the orient. The jewelry of queens, the gazing crystals of sages said to see into the depths of Hell itself, and the jade carvings of the Masters, showing the classic erotic poses of naked beauties from the Royal Court. Do not these things interest you?” Indeed the crew of the ship seemed somehow to all be at the front rail of the ship now, looking down at them.
The captain conferred briefly. “Perhaps if we could examine them more closely. If you could just…”
One of the buccaneers cut him off with a cry. “The longboat! It has vanished!”
The captain turned to look, then whirled back to Achilles. “What trickery is this?”
Suddenly the crew erupted into screams and shouts as a giant shape loomed up out of the water. It appeared to be a crab-man, twice the size of the ship.
Rufus called out loudly, in disguised tones. “My God! It is the king crab! It’s been known to swallow small boats whole!” He then turned and silently urged his party towards the bushes. Butterball helped Mama-San scoop up her cloth and pushed her ahead into the darkness. Achilles grabbed and extinguished the lanterns.
Sapphire chuckled aboard the longboat. “They fell for it! We got clean away.”
Gin-Tzu turned away from the four rowers. “Hush. Nice illusion, but they might still hear us. I had not thought ahead to where we might stash the longboat so that they would not just steal it back. Any thoughts?”
“How about in the marsh? Follow the shore to the first or second break in the road, and cut through. I presume the fishing boat is still secure behind us – we can return to town in it.”
Gin-Tzu smiled. “A good plan, but…” He turned to the red ninja. “You. Your loyalty is beyond question. You will stay with the longboat and guard it, until we are ready to move to rescue the prince.”
“As you say, my lord. It will be my honor.”
Flummox hurried along between the graveyard and arboretum. He was about half way to the front gate, before he realized he could not explain to the zombie there why he had this book. Cutting through the trees, he found the wrought iron bars of the wall, overgrown with hedge. Rooting around, he found a small gap where he concealed the book in its wrapper, where it would be just within reach from the other side. He stuck a branch under the fence as a marker, and headed back towards the graveyard.
In shock, he saw a masked figure in black coming out of the graveyard and slipping away into the trees. He was too late! He had spent too much time underground. Perhaps he could still cover up his actions from Sherlock.
He hurried to the front door, went inside again, and ran up the steps. Around to the right he ran to the last door — the door to Fern’s bedroom. He opened it carefully. Very little appeared disturbed, except a jewelry box on her dressing table. This had been broken open. The lid hung by one hinge, and was empty.
Spying a pad covered with talcum powder, he fingered it thoughtfully. He quietly tipped over a couple chairs, pulled the covers half off the bed, and spilled a water jug across the floor. He then closed one eye and hit himself in the face with the pad of talcum powder. It hurt like crazy, but he could still see well enough to stagger out to the balcony.
Sherlock looked up, to see Flummox collapsed against the baloney railing. He ran up the stairs two at a time, and rushed to his side. “Are you wounded?”
Flummox tried to wave him off. “I’ll be fine, I think. I followed a masked man up here. He was dressed in black. I thought I had him cornered, but he ambushed me. Threw powder in my eyes – it burns like the fires of hell.” He breathed deeply and feigned a wince. “And my ribs are a bit bruised. Sorry, he got the jewelry.”
“That doesn’t matter. We’ve proved my thesis. There are indeed two robbers, one in black, one in the tan overcoat, and now we know they are Oolong and Exchequers – the only ones to have left the party. Here, let me help you back into Fern’s room to flush that stuff out of your eyes.”
Some time later, Flummox was blinking and seeing as well as ever. “So what now?”
Sherlock paused a moment. “I must cross-correlate this new information with my observations from past burglaries. I must know if these two can account for all the thefts, or if perhaps there are others involved. You, my able helper, must go home and get some rest. Excellent work.”
The two men made their way to the front steps of the mansion. Flummox sat down and feigned a wheeze. “You go ahead, I’ll be fine. I just need to catch my breath.”
“Very well. I’ll get with you and D-Stract tomorrow at the inn to compare notes about the events at the party. Good night.”
Flummox watched him hurry down the driveway. “And now, it’s time for me to recover a book.”
Back at the party, D-Stract was having the time of her life. Princess Pumpkin had been put to bed by several of the ladies, leaving her to monopolize the men. She enjoyed playing one off against another.
She raised her eyebrows. “Beg your pardon?”
He took her arm and escorted her to a quieter corner. “The way you pull their strings, like puppets. But of course you are here playing a bigger game.”
“And what pray tell do you imagine that is, Charles?”
“Charlie, please. Nobody calls me that but my father. On the surface, you are here to help Sherlock investigate jewelry burglaries, but the kinds of things you and your missing companion are interested in point to another level of interest. You are gathering every bit of personal information you can – to what end, one wonders?”
D-Stract tossed her chin. “These are all very interesting people.”
Charlie shook his head. “They are not. A few of them do interesting things, but for the most part they are shallow and boring. One would almost imagine you are collecting information to use as… leverage?”
D-Stract laughed. “To leverage them into doing what? You make it sound like we’re a couple of con artists trying turn tricks here.”
Charlie smiled. “A bit of honesty, wrapped in a feigned dismissal. Masterful.”
D-Stract frowned. “What do you want, anyway?”
“In part to acknowledge another player. In part to offer you some advice.”
“If you’re trying to beat Sherlock to a solution, so that you can blackmail the jewel thief, don’t bother, you’re too late.”
“Oh really, so you know who is stealing all this jewelry?”
Charlie laughed. “You have no clue, do you? They are all stealing jewelry, the same jewelry back and forth. It’s a game with them – outwit the zombies, outwit each other. What’s more, they all know what the others are doing. I already tried to blackmail each of them in turn, but they just laughed at me and told me to go back to my chess board, ‘little boy’. Almost broke my legendary cool, that did.”
D-Stract looked intently at him. “So you never went to the authorities?”
Charlie shook his head. “Why would I do that? No fun there. Better to watch and see who manages to steal what next, and how they do it. They’ve even elevated the game to baiting each other with paste copies and outwitting each other with traps, decoys and other tricks.”
D-Stract went a bit pale. “Oh my.”
Charlie lifted a finger. “By the way, give Fern my compliments on her acting ability tonight, she’s as guilty as any of the rest of them. I wonder what she actually left as bait.”
“So what’s going on at the Longbottom estate…”
“A bit of play-acting for Sherlock’s benefit. He does juice up the game a bit, don’t you think? Well, have a nice evening.”
“See you later.”
“Not if I see you first.” Charlie winked. “Bye.”
D-Stract was left in that quiet corner and took advantage of the privacy to call out to Flummox mentally, to fill him in on what Charlie had said.
Flummox’s only response was, “I really hate when the mark is running a con of their own. Makes me feel like an idiot, unless I can figure out how to turn it back on them. That’s the mark of a true artist. See you back at the inn, we have some planning to do.”