A Less Than Civil Service: Part IV

The Plan – not that it really deserved such a grandiose title – was something I think I’d picked up from the pages of the Strand Magazine at some point. One of the lines of information I’d been feeding our foreign friends were plans of a certain British weapons advance (and didn’t I have the devil of a time getting permission for that from the War Office!). On the canvas of one of the last of my paintings to be sold at auction, however – the canvas which was supposed to be graced by the technical drawing of the weapon’s single most vital component – I had daubed a polite note, informing my Prussian contacts that I really felt my contract should be renegotiated before I sold my country out irrevocably, and gently requesting an audience with their representatives in Great Britain.

If my men had run true to form, that painting would have winged its way out of the country by the first boat-train, would have been rushed to a safe-house in France by lunchtime, and been attacked with paint-thinner for less than aesthetic reasons in time for tea. After that there would be a series of cryptic and angry telegrams, and, I judged, there would just be time for them to arrange to keep the meeting I had suggested for that night, and not time enough for them to think harder about it and get suspicious. As things had turned out, the immediacy of the meeting had turned out to my advantage, as there was just a chance that they hadn’t yet heard of Adamant poking his distinguished nose in.

“May I ask why you couldn’t have chosen a more comfortable spot for a rendezvous?” Adamant murmured, his words coming in puffs of steam from a point about a foot or so nor’-nor’-west of my ear.

“Surprisingly, foreign agents tend to prize privacy over comfort,” I hissed. We were perched on top of a heap of packing pallets, peering in through the window of one of the warehouses off Rotherhithe Street. It was, admittedly, a rather uncomfortable perch, with a tendency to sway and creak alarmingly if one moved too much. It was also bloody freezing. But I was technically the senior agent on this operation, and Adamant could damn well put up with my instructions.

The line of warmth he made against my side where we pressed together was not more than faintly distracting.

“And might I also ask why your colleagues at the ‘Royal Academy’ have neglected to give us any support in this endeavour?”

I sighed. “Have you ever heard of plausible deniability? No, I suppose you probably haven’t. The man we’re after is very well connected. He’s related by marriage to the Kaiser. He’s gone shooting with the King. If this evening goes badly, then my superiors would really rather it was the fault of a mad adventurer and a devilishly talented portrait painter, not a small cohort of intelligence operatives. Makes it easier to sweep up the mess, you see.”

Adamant was silent at that. I don’t think it cohered terribly well with his world-view.

“Right,” I said, standing up and softly pushing open the little window. “I’m going in. Give me five minutes after they arrive.”

“I am quite capable of following instructions,” said Adamant, a trifle stiffly.

“And could you at least try to keep your shirt-front covered so as not to dazzle the villains?”

Adamant fastidiously flicked his shirt-cuff into a neater alignment with his jacket. “I fail to see why you have such great difficulty with my clothes.”

“White tie? For house-breaking?”

“What else should a gentleman be wearing at this time of night?” he asked, apparently in all seriousness.

I was wearing a black sweater, a dark greatcoat and dark trousers. I glowered at him.

“Elegance and practicality are not merely compatible,” Adamant continued, imperturbably. “They are – or should be – synonymous.”

I raised an eyebrow. “My dear fellow – I’d taken you for a practical man, and now I find you out to be an aesthete! Are you acquainted with Mr Wilde’s works on dress reform?”

“I was acquainted with Mr Wilde.”

I paused, one leg over the sill of the window. “Well acquainted?”

“Intimately so.”

I shot him a very sharp glance, but his expression was bland.

“A friend of yours from Eton, perhaps?”

“I was in my final year at Magdalen when Lord Alfred Douglas was in his first,” said Adamant, carelessly. “I met Oscar a few years later.”

It could have meant anything or nothing. I began to suspect that perhaps – only perhaps – a few of my initial conclusions about Mr Adam Adamant might not have been entirely correct.

“Perhaps this is a conversation for another time, however,” said Adamant in a sharp whisper, glancing towards the road. “I can hear a cab approaching.”

I slipped my other leg over the sill, let myself down to the extent of my arms, and then lightly dropped the last foot or so onto a high gantry, which I then proceeded to creep along to a rattling metal staircase. The advantage to choosing the location of a rendezvous is that you can use whichever semi-abandoned docklands hideaway you feel most comfortable in. This particular hideaway I had used on two previous occasions for different jobs, and was beginning to feel that I knew it rather better than I knew certain rooms of my own house. My preferred method of espionage is sitting my target down to a sumptuous dinner and slipping him some cyanide in the caviar, but unfortunately that wasn’t always practicable. And, as my old house-master used to tell me (don’t enquire too carefully about the circumstances) – it’s always best to be prepared.

The Plan, as I have already noted, was a fairly simple one. Some might say too simple; but I generally feel that the fewer opportunities for cock-up in a plan, the better it’ll go. We could have scooped up half a dozen members of the information-smuggling ring already, if we’d wanted to – the artists, like Letty Allenson, the gallery owner, the middle-men like poor old Wittering. But, as usual with HMG, that wasn’t held to be dramatic enough. We had to get not only the small fry, but the big fish too, if you’ll pardon the cliché. The secret services tend to think in clichés, which explains rather a lot.

The important nature of the plans I’d been handing over, and the especial necessity of the plans for the missing component, gave me a certain amount of leverage. I had demanded to see their top man in England – the only man with the authority to negotiate a new and more lucrative contract for me on the spot – and I had a reasonable amount of confidence I’d get him. But I needed to make sure. I didn’t doubt that the main door of the warehouse would have been watched for several hours before the time of the meeting, checking that I’d come alone rather than with a select band of policemen. Of course, I actually had come alone; but entering awkwardly via the window left my watchers in doubt as to how many others might perhaps have entered by the same mysterious route as me.

I lit the oil-lamp which hung over an area set aside for paperwork, then stepped back out of the reach of the light, half concealing myself behind a stack of boxes. It wasn’t very many minutes before I heard the sound of several pairs of feet. I craned my neck around the cases, There were a variety of half-seen blurs on the far side of the circle of light.

“Mr Lucifer Box?” said a voice, after a long moment.

“Step into the light, if you’d be so kind,” I called out. “I want to be certain you are who you’re supposed to be.”

“Mr Box, it is absurd for me to hold a conversation with a shadow,” came the gently chiding voice, with hardly a trace of a German accent. “I must ask you to step forward too.”

I took a deep breath. “All right.”

The deputation was a fairly small one – fortunately for us. There was Miss Allenson, unobtrusive in the background, representing the English side of operations; there was one of my Prussian benefactors from the auction house; there was a rather impressively thuggish-looking thug, with a gun in one sweaty paw; and, stepping into the circle of clear lamplight, was our man.

I knew him by sight, of course. Anyone who read the better class of illustrated papers would have known him by sight. Indeed, certain issues of national security mean I can’t include his name even in this sort of private reminiscence. You’ll just have to put up with some rather cryptic repetitions of ‘the smartly dressed gentleman’ and other meaningless phrases. He was soberly but elegantly dressed, his pale hair clicked back in the most stereotypical manner, and the moustache which adorned his upper-lip was small, yet perfectly formed. It almost felt surprising that he wasn’t wearing a monocle, the impression of Prussian precision was so pronounced.

“Mr Box,” he said, in a comparatively friendly tone. “I am glad to make your acquaintance in person at last. Your paintings have been greatly admired in Berlin.”

“I fear they’ll never be on public display though,” I sighed.

The man smiled. “Unfortunately not. But you may rest assured that the Kaiser is a particular devotee of your work.”

“Well, keep me in mind if he ever needs a portrait done.”

“To business, I think,” said the gentleman, briskly. Miss Allenson and the junior Prussian agent were both in the process of melting into the shadows, and it was getting increasingly difficult to keep an eye on them both at once.

“I’d rather you all four stayed where I could see you,” I said, a touch apologetically.

“Don’t you trust us?”

“About as far as you trust me.”

A short and almost pleasant laugh. “But you have given us no reason to trust you, Mr Box. You have gone back on our agreement. You have failed to supply the goods which we have contracted you to supply. And you have been spending a surprising amount of time in the company of a known agent of the British crown.”

“I just thought that the information I was supplying was worth more than you were paying me for it,” I said, though my voice sounded a trifle strained even to me. “You’ll get it, I swear.”

“And your friend, Mr Adamant?”

I spread my hands, in a gesture of helpless innocence. “My dear fellow, have you met Mr Adamant?”

The gentleman smiled very slightly. “As a matter of fact, yes.”

“Then you’ll know that he’s hardly the sort to be the friend of a humble artist such as myself,” I said.

The agent barked a laugh. “I will grant you that there are reasons why you might seem an odd partnership.”

“Mr Adamant approached me to paint his portrait,” I explained. “I agreed. He came for the first session this morning.”

“Mr Adamant is a dangerous man,” said the gentleman, mildly. “Or were you not aware of his work for your government?”

“I had heard something about it,” I admitted, shrugging elegantly. “It would be difficult not to. But all he wanted from me was a painting. I do have a day-job, you know.”

“You were seen together in Pall Mall this afternoon.”

I glanced at Miss Allenson, standing quiet and demure in the shadows. “Yes, I know. And I don’t much appreciate being mown down by in a public thoroughfare. It’s so...bourgeois.”

The gentleman’s eyes flickered slightly at that. “My associates were, perhaps, a little precipitate. They thought you were cooperating with Adamant in a matter of security. Absurd, isn’t it?”

“Utterly,” I agreed earnestly. “Indeed, I’m sure your associates will confirm that Adamant and I were in the middle of a slight difference of artistic opinion when we were seen. A difference which culminated in him threatening me in my own home, and me refusing to have anything more to do with him or his damned portrait. We hardly parted amicably.”

“You did not inform Mr Adamant of the details of our...little arrangement?” he asked, gently, taking a step forward.

I took a step back. “Of course not! I’m in this as deeply as you!”

“Oh, not quite, Mr Box,” the agent murmured. “As your little prank with that last painting proved, you do not entirely have my country’s best interests at heart. You are a petty blackmailer, Mr Box, and once you have handed over the final section of the design, your involvement with this business will end.”

“My dear chap, nothing could suit me better,” I said, injecting just the right degree of nervous bravado into my drawl. “I just wanted to make sure I got a fair price for it.”

The nervous bravado, I might as well admit, wasn’t entirely feigned. The Plan, as I have already indicated, was simple. I was to confirm that we had our bird safe in the trap, then and to keep him and a couple of his cheerful cohorts happily occupied until Adamant had crept down from his inconspicuous perch and contrived some form of diversion. Well, I had confirmed our bird’s identity some half-dozen threats ago, and was getting increasingly impatient for phase two to kick in before I ran out of excuses.

“You have the plan of the component with you?” asked the polite Prussian.

I laughed – pitched a fraction too high, perhaps, but understandably so. “Of course not! I know quite well that the minute you have that design you won’t need me any more. You’ll get it by the same route you got all the other pieces.”

“But Mr Box,” protested the agent, not unreasonably. “You have already – what is the expression – double-crossed us once. What guarantees do we have that you will not do so again?”

I took another step backwards. “Because I’m not such a fool as to try this more than once?” I managed.

The gentleman smiled, warmly. “An excellent answer, I will admit.”

Then – finally! – there came the most blood-curdling yell from outside. The gentleman’s head whipped round, and at the same instant, the henchman began to raise his gun.

Even as I saw the gleaming muzzle of a revolver being turned in my direction, I was already throwing myself backwards, through the last half-foot of light and into the inviting darkness. No, I hadn’t just been retreating on account of cowardice. Shame on you. I’d been hoping against hope that the glare in the gunman’s eyes would prevent him from getting a good view of me in the darkness. I rolled to a halt behind one of the innumerable packing cases, scrambled into a half-crouch, and scuttled away.

“After him, you idiot!” I heard from behind me, in a clipped and rather terse tone. “And you – go and see what that racket was about!”

I peered warily over the top of one of the crates, as the junior Prussian agent made for the doors, and the Designated Henchman lumbered off after me in completely the wrong direction. Our moustachioed friend had stepped back out of the lamplight, but I could still make him out in the gloom by the gleam of the gun in his hand.

“A trap, Mr Box?” he called. “A rather bold move for a somewhat effete dauber. I take it this was Adamant’s grand plan? But I don’t hear your reinforcements arriving...”

He was making his way towards the far side of the warehouse, where I knew – and unfortunately it was possible he knew – there was a door leading straight out onto the river, for moving goods directly to and from the barges.

Bugger that for a lark. I’d gone to some considerable effort on this job, and I wasn’t about to let our prize bird get away like that.

There was a small pistol in my hip-pocket – much as I deplore the tendency of firearms to ruin the cut of one’s clothes, there are times when they’re inevitable – but HMG, as per usual, wouldn’t be too happy if I just did the sensible thing and shot him in the back instead of worrying about questioning him. My best chance, as I saw it, lay in the fact that our Prussian friend still apparently thought of me as Lucifer Box, R.A., dashing portrait painter to the great and the good and occasional amateur blackmailer, and not as a government agent with experience – as Adamant might have put it – on three separate continents.

I ran after him, making an indecent amount of noise and clatter, while still keeping myself shielded behind the rows of cases. “Look, none of this is my fault!” I cried. “I just wanted a few hundred pounds, is that so bad? But that maniac Adamant – he said if I didn’t cooperate he’d have me sent to prison! I’m a civilised man, how long do you think I’d last in there? I’ll give you the last section of the plans for free if you’ll just help me out of this frightful mess - !”

The Prussian gentleman had paused and looked back at me – presumably with an expression of disdain, but it was a bit dark to tell for sure.

“You are truly a fine flower of English manhood, Mr Box,” he sneered.

A small tip here for anyone thinking of going into the threatening-with-guns trade for a living: no matter how absurd your opponent seems to be, never let him get within arm’s length of your weapon. I’d got hold of his wrist, twisted, and made the gun drop from his fingers, before he’d even had time to register the surprise.

Of course, by the time he had registered his surprise, I was reeling backwards with a split lip and a dazed expression after a left-hook that would have felled a small tree. Another small tip for the would-be secret agent: no matter how much of a long wet streak of Prussian nothing your opponent may appear, never assume that he won’t have a left arm that would do a navvy proud.

I made a desperate lunge for the gun, kicking it hard enough to send it skittering off invisibly into the gloom, while fumbling for my own in my pocket. I might not have wanted to shoot him, but a gun in the hand does tend to have remarkable powers of persuasion.

A third tip here for the aspiring spy: really. Take the first tip seriously. My gun was hardly out of its pocket before an elegant Malacca cane came cracking down on my hand, and sent it spinning off to join its fellow somewhere in the darkness.

“I appear to have underestimated you, Mr Box,” said the foreign agent, thoughtfully, hefting his stick.

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” I agreed, pleasantly, trying to think of a way out of this fight that didn’t involve that rather solid looking stick being applied to some other portion of my anatomy. I was still trying to think of one when the gentleman leapt like a tiger, and we went rolling over and over in the dust.

He was a good deal heavier than me, and a good deal brawnier about the shoulders underneath all that good tailoring. I nevertheless like to believe that I gave him best, right up until the point when he got me pinned against the floor with his wretched cane pressing down on my windpipe. I bucked, I hit, I kneed him somewhere that no gentleman should ever think of applying his knee – unless requested, of course. I’ve known one or two odd fish in my time – in short, I did everything I could think of to throw him off. The man seemed to have the sort of tenacity only usually displayed by certain species of barnacle.

The edges of the room were going reddish purple.

“If I might cut in, sir?”

The pressure on my windpipe easily, suddenly, and I gasped and choked my way back into consciousness in time to see Adam Adamant, in full evening dress, squaring off against our Prussian friend (whom he had evidently just dragged off me by main force; typical Adamant, he couldn’t have just whanged him over the head and had done), much as if the Marquess of Queensbury had been watching.

I’d have laughed if it hadn’t hurt so much.

The smartly-dressed gentleman, however, didn’t seem terribly inclined to laugh. His eyes were shining with excitement.

“Mr Adamant!” he said, apparently pleased. “A pleasure to meet you at last.”

“The pleasure, I fear, sir, is largely yours.”

The other man shook his head sadly. “What a pity it is under these circumstances. But fisticuffs are surely no way for gentlemen to settle their grievances?” Slowly, he raised the stick with which he had recently been throttling me, and twisted and pulled the handle to reveal –

I rolled my eyes. I wish I could have put a pound on the odds of two sword-stick-wielding gentlemen being in the same Rotherhithe warehouse at two o’clock of a Tuesday morning. I’d have made a fortune.

Adamant smiled, genially, made a small and very elegant bow, and picked up his own cane from where it was carefully laid on a convenient crate.

Damn. This is another of those interludes when the ability to describe a fencing match in excruciating detail would probably come in handy. This time, however, it wasn’t just Adamant who was into the flashing-blades-of-whirling-death bit. I may not be the world’s best fencer, but even I could see that his opponent appeared to have taken a course in advanced duelling at Heidelberg. In the dimness, around and between and occasionally over the numerous packing crates, their swords flashing like lightning, it looked like as close an approximation of derring-do as I’ve ever seen. (I, naturally, stayed safely on the ground. I do have some sense.)

Adamant was still smiling.

“You fight well, sir,” he remarked, utterly unruffled.

“You are too kind,” replied his opponent, parrying a particularly daring thrust with an elegant action of the wrist. “From the great Adam Adamant, that is praise indeed.”

“I am flattered,” said Adamant, jumping a particularly wild slash and landing on top of a handy crate with the grace of a cat. “I had not thought my reputation had spread so far.”

“My dear sir, I have been eagerly following your career since we met in ’88!”

“Ah, of course!” said Adamant, ripping off his cape and throwing it at the other man. “Forgive me, sir, for not recognising you before. The circumstances being so different – “

“Not at all,” said the agent, thrusting the cloak aside with his sword-hand and giving half a yard’s worth of ground. “Your career has been rather more...public than mine.”

“And rather more honourable,” said Adamant, jumping down from the box and landing sure-footed.

The Prussian gentleman’s eyes narrowed. “I have served my country, just as you have.”

“I believe, sir, that there is an apposite point to be made here about means and ends.”

A feint; a parry; a swift disengage; a lunge against an unshielded breast.

Adamant pressed close to the other man, sword plunged through the sober waistcoat to the hilt, and a clear foot and a half of blade protruding from the sober greatcoat at the back.

“God save the King,” said Adamant, softly, the smile grown into something hard and feral.

He pulled his sword free, and the body collapsed to the floor.

“Um,” I said, intelligently.

Adamant wiped his sword calmly on the man’s back, and resheathed it. Then he turned, and offered me his hand.

I had the overwhelming urge to say something along the lines of ‘You’re actually quite insane, aren’t you?’, but I withstood the temptation, and mutely allowed him to help me to my feet.

“I must apologise for my delay in arriving,” he said, in his neat, amused way. “I had a touch of difficulty with a gentleman of the Neanderthal persuasion who had been left outside on guard.”

“Um,” I said again, looking down at the corpse. “He was wanted for questioning, you know.”

“He was an honourable man – a soldier of the old school,” said Adamant. “He would not have told you anything worth hearing.”

“You try telling that to my superiors,” I complained.

At that point the first shot rang out, and we both dropped, instinctively.

“Bloody hell!” I swore, equally instinctively.

“There’s one up on the gantry,” said Adamant. “Allow me – “

“Thank you, I’m quite capable of dealing with this myself,” I snapped. “You go and check the rest of the ground floor for stragglers. I think that Sir Joshua might rather like it if we left them at least one witness capable of answering a few questions.”

I made it over to the far wall, underneath the high gantry where I could make out the shape of a crouched man. This, oh my best beloved, is the point where the benefits of an intimate knowledge of your abandoned warehouse du jour become obvious. I knew – though the gentleman with the firearms-fixation didn’t – that the metal stair was not the only way up onto the raised walkway. Oh, yes, it was certainly the only convenient way. But if one is, say, justifiably proud of one’s sylph-like figure, and prepared to scrape ones elbows in the cause of justice, then there is one place – where a tall doorway for the loading of carts is set slightly into the wall – where you can just squirm up between the gantry and the door. Providing, of course, that some far-sighted soul has helpfully attached a rope to one of the lower projections which supported the metal walkway.

Sometimes, my foresight astounds even me.

I managed to shin up the rope and to wriggle through the excruciatingly small gap without attracting any attention; my man was still taking occasional pot-shots into the warehouse, and I could only hope that Adamant had been sensible enough to keep his head down for a change. I crept towards him, sure-footed and silent.

Until the bloody gantry creaked with a noise like a thousand battleships scraping along the quayside.

My man’s head jerked round, followed rather quickly by his gun.

“Oh, sh-“

You will be happy to hear that as well as swearing, I also jumped bodily on the thug. The gun went off close by my ear, leaving my head ringing, but the bullet missed me entirely. Then there was just a confused and thoroughly inelegant rolling scuffle, with both of us trying to get hold of the gun. The man was bigger than me, and it was a great relief when I managed to roll us close enough to the edge to smash his wrist down on the sharp metal and jolt the gun from his fingers. I heard it crash to the floor somewhere a long way underneath us, but the next moment there were fingers around my neck, and my old friends the purple splotches began to make an unwelcome reappearance.

This time, though, my scrabbling fingers managed to make contact with something. The edge of a packing case. I reached out, desperately, straining for every inch of grasp, and within the open top of the crate my fingers encountered something cold, rounded, heavy.

I managed to get a grip on it, and smashed it down on the back of my opponent’s singular unappealing head. His hands around my windpipe went suddenly slack, and he collapsed on top of me with an expression of some surprise.

I took the opportunity of lying and wheezing quietly for a few seconds, before rolling his heavy body off me and trying to massage some feeling into my throat. I was clearly going to have bruises on top of my bruises from this one, and be stuck in high collars for days. Such are the sacrifices I make for my country.

I sat up, and peered into the case. It was filled with indescribably ugly little stone busts of Napoleon. My rather over-solid friend probably even now had the features of the little Corsican dictator imprinted in the back of his head.

I can think of less embarrassing ways to get knocked out.

There were no obvious signs of life on the rest of the gantry. I looked down into the body of the warehouse, which had gone oddly quiet, just in time to see Adamant step warily into the single brightly-lit circle (typical of the man, it’s a wonder he hasn’t been shot more often than he has), sword-stick in hand.

“A-“

The name died on my lips, and I was approximately an inch away from covering my eyes with my hands, with a dull laugh of disbelief. Because tip-toeing after Adamant, looking every inch the distressed damsel and safely behind his undefended back, was Letty Allenson.

I never did find out the details from Adamant of what actually happened, but I think I can pretty well imagine. Adamant, sneaking through the darkness in pursuit of his prey, and having handily dispatched one minor henchperson and one moustachioed Prussian operative, had stumbled across Miss Allenson lurking disreputably around some packing cases. She, unsurprisingly, had used her cool head and excellent intuition, and spun some tear-jerker of a story about being forced into this dreadful business against her conscience because of the threats made against the safety of her aged mother and five angelic little sisters. She probably cried. And Adamant, unsurprisingly, had melted like snow in the springtime.

“Fear not, Miss Allenson,” I can imagine him saying. “I swear I will extricate you from this nightmarish affair. Stay close to me. There is no knowing what dangers may still be lurking in this hellish place.”

Or similar.

And, of course, Miss Allenson would have fallen in step behind him with the meekness of a lamb, and eyed the back of his gleaming black head with the impartial eye of the true sportsman.

When she followed him into the circle of lamplight, I saw the gleam of a small revolver in her demurely gloved hand. There was no point in shouting a warning, as I had no doubt that the inappropriately named Laetitia would fire before he had a chance to turn. And there was no chance of shooting her, as the nearest blasted gun was approximately twenty feet away from me, in a vertical line.

Silently, I picked one of the indescribably ugly busts of Napoleon out of the open packing case, hefted it thoughtfully, wound back my right arm, and let it fly.

It may well have been the best ball I ever bowled. Not that that’s saying a great deal, I’ll admit – I always was better with the willow than the leather. It described a graceful grey arc through the darkness, before flashing into the circle of light and catching Letty Allenson a crashing blow on her gun hand. She cried out, and dropped the weapon.

Say what you like about Adamant’s blinkered ideas with regard to womankind (and I do), you can’t fault his reflexes. The interval between the crash, the scream, and Adamant ruthlessly pinning her arms behind her back, tying them with his own cravat and dropping her onto the ground, was approximately five seconds. Only then did he look up at me, squinting up through the darkness as I clattered down the stairs.

“An excellent throw,” said Adamant.

“I was aiming for her head,” I said, a little weakly. “I think ‘I told you so’ is a little superfluous now, don’t you?”

Letty Allenson regarded me from floor level with eyes that positively spat hatred. I’d always believed that phrase to be simply artistic license before, but clearly I was mistaken. I was just counting down the seconds until she started on the ‘you will suffer terribly vengeance for this insult!’ speech, when Adamant crouched down next to her and took hold of her chin between thumb and forefinger.

“Who do you work for?”

She jerked herself free. “You know.”

Adamant let out a short breath of satisfaction, looking down into her still defiant face. “Yes, I believe I do.”

I frowned. “She’s a freelancer working for the Prussian crown, isn’t she?”

Adamant stood up, smiling an odd smile. “Oh no. This has all the hallmarks of The Face.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Adamant’s eyes were intent, focused, glittering like the sea. “The most dangerous man in Europe – perhaps in the world. No crime is too great or too evil for his diabolical ingenuity; no crime too small or too petty to be beneath his notice.”

“Adamant,” I said, patiently, prodding one of the miscellaneous henchmen with the toe of my boot to check he was still safely unconscious, “this little operation was not the brainchild of any Moriarty, and you are most certainly not Sherlock Holmes.”

“Perhaps not,” said Adamant, softly. “But I shall nevertheless have to do what I can.”

It should have seemed absurdly over-dramatic. It should also have seemed egotistical to the point of mania – this assumption that events which might shake the crowned heads of Europe depended on his personal struggle against this nameless nemesis.

It didn’t.

Damn him.

“Well, Mr Box,” said Adamant, throwing off the fit of abstraction like a soiled cloak. “I believe it is time for you and I to contact the local constabulary and have these men arrested.”

“No need for that,” I said, forcing myself into a more practical frame of mind. “The Domestics from the Royal Academy will be along soon. Sir Joshua is nothing if not thorough.”

“Then I fear there is nothing else we can learn here,” said Adamant, look around the rather battered warehouse disdainfully.

The night air was cold and crisp as we walked up through the docklands to more civilised reaches of the town. We walked in silence, for the most part – not precisely an easy silence, it must be admitted, but more companionable than I’d have believed possible when I first met him. I at least was tired, sore, and deeply uncertain about what I could possibly find to say.

As the ridiculous monstrosity that is Tower Bridge lurked into view, we were able to hale a cab; and a further fifteen minutes’ drive brought us to Downing Street.

“A moment, cabbie,” Adamant called up as we stopped at my door, and hopped lightly down from the hansom.

We stood and regarded each other across the pavement. It was an awkward sort of ending, but I’m damned if I can think of any other kind between us.

I opened my mouth to say ‘you could come in, if you like’, and then closed it again. Right at this moment, I needed a hot bath, a hot cup of tea, and a warm valet. I emphatically didn’t need Mr Adam Llewellyn de Vere Adamant.

“I shall of course submit a full report of my actions in this case,” said Adamant, after a moment’s pause.

I made an airy gesture. “No need for that. The secret service usually prefers that we keep little scuffles like that off the official books.”

He put out his hand, and it was a moment before I realised he was offering it for me to shake.

“I must thank you once again for your help in securing a successful conclusion to this affair,” said Adamant – more than a trifle pompously, I thought, considering whose little affair it had been in the first place. “You may not be entirely a blackguard.”

“No, no - thank you,” I replied, taking his proffered hand. We each wore gloves, so there was no touch of bare skin on skin; but I could feel the strength and certainty of his grip. “You may not be entirely an idiot.”

Adamant smiled a sharp, swift smile which made my mouth go dry. “Farewell then, Mr Box.”

I smiled the smile of the devil. “Let’s just say au revoir.

* * *