"With the artifacts of Dire Grove now safely locked away, we may begin to reassess our understanding, not only of the ancient Celtic people, but of all civilizations. Might it not be wise to look upon the tales of earlier ages with a new curiosity?"
The young woman at the podium smiled when the audience in the packed auditorium erupted in a standing ovation. As the applause died down, someone near the front spoke up.
"Doctor Sterling, much has been discussed of your experience, yet you only briefly described the individual responsible for saving you and your friends. Can you reveal the identity of this Good Samaritan?"
Doctor Sterling’s smile turned enigmatic as she glanced at someone standing against the back wall of the auditorium before focusing on the questioner once more. "That person has asked to remain nameless, but I can give you their business card." She held it up proudly.
The person against the back wall, a young man in his mid-twenties, nodded in approval. The card had no individually-identifying information on it. It was a generic card for an American federal investigative agency called Mystery Case Files. He should know. He was the one who gave it to her. He pushed off the wall, murmuring under his breath. “Congratulations, Alison. And Susan, Jack, Matt – take care of yourselves.” Shoving his hands into the pockets of his coat, the detective turned for the doors, only to find his way blocked by a pair of police constables flanking a man in a peacoat and deerstalker cap.
“Darnell Barrett?” The man looked to be in his late thirties to early forties with sandy blond hair and dark eyes.
Darnell felt himself tense, frowning. Only Alison Sterling and her friends knew he was here, let alone his name. “Yes. And you, sir?”
“I need you to come with me, please.”
The man held up a badge that identified him as being with the Royal Security Service, an agency that roughly equated with the FBI of the United States. Darnell recognized it in no small part from having been made an honorary member of its sister agency, the Royal Secret Service – Britain’s analog of the CIA – last year after solving the mystery of Ravenhearst Manor up in Blackpool. The first mystery, the detective silently corrected himself. Aloud, he asked, “Is there a problem, sir?”
Agent Peacoat – since the man had not deigned to share his name – glanced meaningfully around the auditorium. “I think this is something you don't want to discuss here, since you did request to remain nameless as Doctor Sterling said.”
Darnell’s frown deepened, and he looked behind him as the Q&A continued. Both agents were keeping their voices down, but just the sight of the two bobbies had already started drawing curious looks from people in the back rows. Darnell didn’t like it, but Peacoat had a point. He turned back to the agent with a nod and gestured for him to lead on, shifting to follow.
Peacoat headed them out through the lobby and down the stairs to the street where a black car with dark windows and British government license plates waited at the curb. The driver opened the back door for them, and Peacoat gestured for Darnell to get in. The detective slid across the seats to the other side, making room. Once both agents were settled, the constables took their leave, and the car pulled away from Strayer University, merging into London's traffic.
“May I ask where you’re taking me?”
“That’s classified.” The answer came quickly and easily, almost too much so, as if it were a reflexive response.
Darnell arched a brow at the older man. “It’s just you, me, and him in this car.” He nodded to indicate the driver. “I’d hope he already knows where we’re going, and I’m going to know as soon as we pull up to it. Or am I going to be adding a snazzy blindfold to my styling accessories before we get there?” He indicated his attire - a worn trench coat, a scarf that had seen better days, and leather gloves with the seam of one finger that had torn open - he did that when he slipped on ice and caught himself on ragged wood in the collapsing farmer's house outside of Dire Grove. He’d lost his fedora in the blowing wind and piling snow and had already resolved to replace it as soon as he got back stateside. In his defense, he’d just worked three difficult cases back-to-back with no real downtime to speak of. Struggling for hours through conditions that rivaled Antarctica’s climate only a few days ago had done him no favors either.
At the question, Peacoat cracked a small grin, glancing at him. Well, it seemed he’d won at least one point with the man. “No, no blindfold needed.” The agent shifted to study him. “You asked Doctor Sterling not to give your name in her presentation. Why? If things truly happened as she described them, you saved the whole of England, possibly the whole world. I’d say that warrants some recognition. Wouldn’t you?”
Darnell grimaced and turned to look out the window at the passing buildings and all the people going about their daily lives. “That’s exactly what I don’t want. I don’t need that kind of attention and the celebrity it’d bring. All I did was try to survive the worsening environment I’d been stranded in. And I did my job. I’d stumbled on a case of sorts, evidence of four people who’d also freeze to death if I couldn’t find them. It was only through the course of things that I realized the investigation was far more than a missing persons case.”
“If the reports are to be believed, you persevered and succeeded at an incredibly complicated and unbelievable task, in conditions where most anyone else would have given up or otherwise failed.”
Darnell shrugged. “It’s not like I had much choice, not if I wanted to survive. Besides, it needed to be done, and I was the only one who could do it.” He frowned as he realized how that sounded. “I mean, anyone could; I'm not special like that. Just that I was the only one there to do it, the only one still free from-“ He caught himself. Alison’s account of what had happened hadn’t been a one-hundred-percent accurate tell-all. Few would believe to quite that degree. “Free to act,” he finally finished.
“Free from The Ice Lady’s influence,” Peacoat stated quietly, speaking the words Darnell had not.
The detective looked at him, trying to figure out how much the agent knew. And believed.
All of it, if he had to guess. The guy was MI5, after all. Whether or not he believed it all, he probably at least knew it all.
“Speaking of names, you still haven’t told me yours.” Darnell managed not to grin at the faint wince that crossed the man’s face, a clear ‘oh, I didn’t, did I?’ flickering in his eyes.
Peacoat offered out his hand. “Sorry. Officer Thomas Blackwell at your service.”
“Pleased to meet you, Officer Blackwell.” Darnell easily accepted the hand in a firm shake.
Blackwell nodded. “Do you go by ‘Agent Barrett’ or ‘Master Detective Barrett’? I’ve heard that Mystery Case Files lets their detectives call themselves ‘master’.” The statement tilted up phonically at the end to make it more of a question.
Darnell grinned, feeling a little self-conscious at the question. “As a United States federal investigator, I'm a special agent. In the hierarchy of my particular agency, my title and pay grade is that of ‘master detective,’ and it's how both Payroll and HR list me . . . but ‘agent’ or even ‘special agent’ is less of a mouthful and sounds a lot less pretentious to people who don’t already know MCF’s structure.”
Blackwell gave him a small grin in return. “Right, you don’t strike me as the pretentious type, mate.”
“Nope. Or anyway, I try not to be.” Darnell glanced forward out the windshield just then and felt his breath stick in his throat at the sight of the building the vehicle approached. Speaking of pretentious… “Whoa, wait. That’s…isn’t that…?” In his astonishment, he couldn’t even finish the question.
Blackwell nodded, amused. “Buckingham Palace, yes. There’s someone who’d like to speak with you,” he added before Darnell could voice his next question – what in the world they were doing there.
“Are foreigners even allowed in there?” Darnell had grown up in California before moving to Texas to join the rest of his family after college and score a prestigious internship, then full employment, with the Houston-based investigative agency. Never in his life would he have thought he’d even view the home of Great Britain’s royal family in person, let alone visit it.
Blackwell just chuckled.