Chapter 1: Hot Town (Summer in the City)
The crowd at the Kitty Kat Club was just the regular for a Saturday night, which meant that about a solid half of them were men in women's clothing and another dozen or so were women in men's clothing and the rest were all drunk socialites there to take in the sights. My magic act is pretty popular, even though I wear a coat and tails like my tailor intended; it's not as in vogue as the pansy craze, but a little hey presto and a shaker of razzle-dazzle can still get the crowd's attention. The straights were all liking it well enough-- of course, most of them were drunk as lords-- but the Kings and Queens were warm to the act. They're my crowd; I may not wear a ballgown to work, but I've got my own eccentricities, and I find that guys who wear garters three nights a week are a little more tolerant of a man's lifestyle.
But I haven't introduced myself: the name's Dresden. Harold Blackstone Mesmer Dresden-- conjure by it at your own risk-- but pals call me Mimsy. Whether I like it or not. I'm a magician (two shows Thursday and Friday, three shows Saturday) and a wizard (all the time). The wizard thing I don't make free of to the general public; there's plenty of reasons for that. One of them, for example, was sitting front row center, an older guy with an unfashionable beard and an unfashionable suit, arms crossed, glaring at me as if every ring trick was evidence of state treason and every card was loaded and ready to fire. Doom’n’Gloom Morgan doesn't smoke, drink, or do the Charleston; I think the only pleasure he takes in life is putting the screws to me. This is coincidentally the job he is paid to do, making him a luckier man than most of us.
I produced the last handkerchief out of thin air and bowed; the curtain whisked in front of me, shutting off my view of Morgan glowering sourly while the crowd clapped. I sighed in relief and plodded stage left, ready for a rest and a drink of something in the dressing room. I say the dressing room and not my dressing room because the Kitty Kat Club is a smaller joint, and we're a cozy crowd; we all make do with one room full of mirrors and dressing tables.
The door was opening as I got there; Thora, Maiden of the Snows, was heading out for her act. Thora looks like a longshoreman when he's not dragging, and he looks like a longshoreman in a dress and blond braids when he is, but he's one of the most popular acts and he's pretty swell for a Norwegian. He stepped politely past me, ruffly skirt swishing, wooden shoes clopping, enormous milk pail held with ease. "Johnson is waiting for you," he tossed over his shoulder.
"Thanks," I said, a little less than giddy to hear it. I stepped inside; good as Thora's booming word, Johnson was waiting inside. Jonathon J. Johnson--if you think that’s his real name I’ve got a bridge to sell you-- is a sharp looking man, sports conservatively combed dark hair with a trustworthy bloom of gray at the temple, fills out his suit well enough to be popular with the performers who swing to men, and when he turns his eyes on you they’re just the particular color of folding green. He has a wholesome, old fashioned face, and I think that if you took him into the street and left him wearing nothing but a burlap sack he could still walk into any bank downtown and come out with a sizeable loan. Come to think of it, he probably has. People think he's my valet, for the completely forgivable reason that I tell them he is.
"What's up?" I said, a bit sharply.
He dipped his head, polite enough to shame a politician at twenty paces. "Sir," he said, doing a perfect impression of actual good-hearted concern. "Two gentlemen are here to see you. They were quite anxious that they should be able to speak with you." He talks, of course, like he eats dictionaries for breakfast and grammar primers for lunch, but don’t let him con you for a second. It’s a bigger put-on than my rabbit in the hat gag. People who aren’t me tend to think it’s charming.
"Strangers?" I asked warily.
"One of them indicated that he knew you," Johnson said, subtly pointing out the pair.
They were waiting in the corner, watching the hubbub with varying amounts of interest. The older one looked grim about it; he was a big dignified bruiser in a black and white suit with tails perfectly starched and jet black hair severely brillantined. Looked like a prize fighter turned city judge in his middle age: all rise for the Right Honorable Judge Heavy. His eyes were dark, tracking across the room, taking in everything and disapproving of it.
The younger half of the pair was the day to his night; whip thin and fair-haired, dressed in the latest, looked happy to be a part of whatever was going on, jawing eagerly with the nearest queen. His voice was bright and clear; I could hear that he wasn't local across the room. At that, I thought I did know him.
"Hey," I said, slipping past a pair of gals who were changing out of nylons and into long trousers, sidestepping a pair of workman’s boots, and striding over. "Aren't you Bertie Wooster?"
He broke off his conversation to gape at me, then grin and grab my hand in a firm shake. "Mimsy, old thing! Who else would I be?" And then it was laughing, hand shaking, a little back-pounding, the general formula for a pair of guys on fair or better terms who’ve shared a few good times in the years past.
"Jeeves," he beckoned, and Judge Heavy floated over, so I was guessing the name was attached to him. "Jeeves, this is the fellow we're here to see. Mimsy Dresden! Mimsy, this is my man Jeeves."
"Harold Blackstone Mesmer Dresden, of the Chicago Dresdens. A pleasure to meet you, sir." Jeeves looked down his nose at me, a real feat what with me having a solid half foot on him. I flinched a little at the whole name-- he didn't get it just right, not right enough to really get a grip on me, but it gave me the crawling creeps anyway.
"I say, that's not on," Bertie exclaimed. "Jeeves, he has a real horror of going by his full name. I'm sure I told you."
"A momentary lapse, sir," said Jeeves, but the chill in his eyes said he'd done it to see how I'd take it. I looked him directly in the nose and scowled. I was just shy of saying something nasty when Johnson appeared at my elbow; he was carrying a salver with a couple glasses on it, and it lightened the mood like a charm.
"Bertie, this is Johnson," I said, over drinks of the Kitty Kat Club's finest apple juice-- at least as far as any stray bulls were concerned. "Johnson, this is Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. Bertie and I are old pals. We met on my tour of Europe."
"I was just out of Eton," Bertie agreed. "and you were touring with your aunt." He smiled dreamily. "I remember her. But I'm afraid I don't recall her name."
"Lea. My Aunt Lea." I said, less fondly than he did.
"That's the one! Splendid lady. Not at all what one pictures when tries to envision a member of the species, wot? Aunts, I mean. But she must be a bit older now."
"Oh, she's the same as she ever was." I changed the subject. "But you needed something?"
"Right!" Bertie's smile disappeared. "Dreadful thing. I'm engaged."
"What, still? I thought you and Pauline had tied the knot years ago."
"Pauline? What's Pauline got to do with it?" His honest face wrinkled up into a map of puzzlement.
"Last I heard," I reminded him. "You were shackled to the heiress of the Stoker's automotive fortune."
"Oh, that? Ages hence." He waved his hand, like the engagement was so much smoke he was fanning away. "She broke it off. For the best; all water under the bridge. No, I speak of an altogether more foreboding prospect. As you know, I am not against engagements out of hand. Proper ones, discussed and rings purchased and an appropriate period of pining. It's only the ones that come out of nowhere and pounce when a chap's not expecting them that give me trouble. And this is one of those, I’m afraid. I'm used to them, you know, and if it was just me Jeeves could oil me out of it. But it's my pals-- some of the fellows from my club in London are visiting. You remember the Drones Club?" I nodded; the Drones has a partnership with my drinking holes of choice, the Pumpkin Club in New York and the Red Goose in Chicago. I'm not overseas much, but it's nice to have a place to hang my top hat when I am.
"Well, Tuppy Glossop is here-- and Oofy Prosser, and Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Bingo Little. Barmy's in the metrop as well, only thankfully he was spared--"
I catalogued the names, matching them with figures from my memory. The human stomach; the wealthy tightwad; the human amphibian; and the guy who thought every woman was Mrs. Right were all in the same jam, but the guy who'd forget which way was up dodged the bullet. Check. "Spared what?"
"Haven’t you been listening, Mimsy? Spared the ball and chain, the middle aisle, the donning of the spongebag trousers," he babbled, waxing a little hysterical. "Most of my chums-- and half the Pumpkin Club to boot-- are engaged!"
"That's going to be a lot of wedding dresses," I observed, not sure why he was getting so worked up over it.
"No, no, only one." He gave me a seasick look. "We're all engaged to the same girl, you see."
"Huh," I said, sipping at my giggle-water. "Who's the lucky female?"
His smile seemed to be trying to disappear out from under him as he said, "Mavis DeWintour."
I choked on my drink.
"Mavis de--" I thought better of it and quick; some types have long ears for their names. "Mavis DeWintour," I said, in a much lower tone. "The daughter of-- you mean-- the youngest daughter--"
"Of the DeWintour family, Mister Dresden, yes," Jeeves said, too uptight to sound impatient. "The situation is complicated by her mother, who has not only allowed her daughter to propose polyandry, but requires the suitors to undergo trials of strength and skill that a hierarchy may be established among them."
"Hell's bells!" I swore, making the fainter of heart around us go pale, a few pearls clutched to broad chests. "The DeWintours are a bad bunch to fall in with," I said darkly. "You were right to ask me about it."
"Mister Wooster did indicate that you had some experience with the Old Families," Jeeves said, disapproval a notch more frigid, if it was possible.
"Now how did you know that the DeWintours--" I started, startled.
“My great aunt Mildred was hired as a chambermaid for the family in 1850, and disappeared without a trace shortly thereafter. She reappeared in the year of 1919, seemingly having aged no more than a month in the intervening time. She mentioned that the family kept a large supply of silver and no iron appeared on the premises.”
Dreadful! But just like the Old Families to take you on a five-day cruise in May and let you off the boat next January. “Ah. I hope the shock wasn’t too much.”
“I am afraid it has been severe. The first time she saw a young lady with an Eton Crop she was entirely overtaken. She is visiting with a second cousin in Norfolk, a county which I am assured has changed in no significant detail since Mildred was a girl.” He twitched a brow about the width of a hair. “I trust nothing similar will befall Mister Wooster as a result of seeking your help.”
"Well, that's jake with me," I said easily enough. "I'm not one of the fair folk. I'm a wizard."
"Then you deny that your aunt is connected by blood to the DeWintour household?"
A-hah! Thence the cold shoulder. I waved a hand. "Not even for a second. But I'm not connected by blood to her. She was a school pal of my mother's; she promised Mom she’d look after me. If you don’t believe it, I can handle some iron if you like, or there’s the old eggshells gag. Mac might even let us at his backroom for that.” Mac, a good pal and the manager of this here den of inequity, has a backroom with a setup the feds would love to get a look at-- if they knew it about it, that is. He keeps a good stock of Canadian lager and rum behind the false backs of his cupboards, as do many in these temperate times, but nothing beats what our reticent barkeep serves up for his own tea parties.
Jeeves eyed me for another moment, and then shook his head solemnly. “That will not be necessary, Mister Dresden; I apologize for my initial suspicion, but I feel that I now understand the situation.”
“That’s one of us,” I said, with feeling. “Bertie, you’ve got to tell me how you got mixed up with the DeWintours so thoroughly.”
“It’s a longish story,” my friend said, looking a little haunted again. “The sort that might be better with a bit more of the sauce to go with it.”
“You’re in luck. Mac’s got a new batch of apple juice waiting at the bar.”
Once we were ensconced in a quieter corner, glasses of the good stuff in front of us, Bertie bared his soul, Johnson and Jeeves disappearing into the scenery of ‘very good, sir’ and ‘seeing that things were done’ out of respect for Bertie’s obvious embarrassment over the whole sorry story. Or Jeeves did at least; Johnson can’t fall back on human kindness as an excuse; he’s only ever read about it.
“The Old Families aren’t the sort of thing a chap expects to happen to him,” Bertie said. “Everyone knows them, of course. Not pop down for a visit and how’s your mother, but knows of them, of children turning up missing for months at a time and estates all overgrown with thorns and music in the night and that sort of thing. I suppose I heard the proper etiquette on my nurse’s knee, about gifts and holly and iron and not drinking, but how was I to know? Nobody knows quite who’s of eldritch extraction and who’s just a bit odd, because it’s dreadfully bad luck to say their names and they’re as secretive as monks. Wait, is it monks?” He paused long enough for me to nod. “Ah-- as I was saying, when a filly perches beside you and offers a noseful of her family’s best, it’s simply not preux to turn her down cold. And I was parched as anything. They set me at the piano and-- well, I don’t know how long I was playing. It felt like days, I can tell you.”
“You’ve lost me, pal,” I told him, but kindly, because I recalled that Bertie could be a little tender about being treated like a chump, even when exhibiting chump-like behavior. “Start from where you met Mavis at all.”
“Ah! Well. As it happened, I was going through a bit of a social drought. I’ve been cooling my heels here far from the reaches of my Aunt Agatha, toddling about the metrop and trying to do the odd good deed-- which backfired horribly, leaving my stock pretty low with my chum Corky.” I gave an understanding grimace. Whatever the details were, I could imagine the set up: Bertie’s as well-meaning as they come, but he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer-- and has all the luck of a professional mirror breaker and ladder walker-underer, at least in my experience. He continued on, blithely unaware of my character assessment. “As I’d been avoiding the bohemian circles in which I might collide with poor Corky, and the moneyed set seemed to have been oppressed by this unseasonably warm spring, the invite happened just at the right time. Funny-- I can’t recall who got the original tap on the shoulder, but half the Pumpkin Club and my chums put on a showing.”
My face tightened up in a frown. Mavis could be a sly doll, slippery as a snake. Or an icicle, as the case may be. “You’re saying she didn’t ever invite you?” I clarified, hoping I had the wrong end of this. “Didn’t pop in, or send a note to the club inviting everyone?”
Bertie’s eyes narrowed-- he was either trying to remember, or just trying to see me through the sideways view of his apple juice. “A pal of Mavis’ dropped by to spread the word a few days before, made sure we all knew the particulars-- keen girl, Jennifer Greene. Bingo was rather crushed in the jaws of fresh infatuation for a bit there.”
“But Mavis never actually invited you personally?”
“Afraid not,” he said. “No, never even met the girl until she offered me that drink. ...Is something wrong, Mimsy?”
“Just putting the facts in order,” I reassured him, waved a hand to urge him to continue, and hoped he couldn’t tell from my voice how wrong this something was. Bertie and his chums were well and truly caught; Mavis had lured them in, hook, line and sinker. Uninvited guests in her home, drinking her drink, probably eating her food, who knows what else. The fair folk could turn even a polite ‘thank you’ for a held door into a debt.
“It was a smashing do,” Bertie went on, “before it got to surprise finish. There was no end to the wine and spirits, the merrymaking and the carousing. In fact, thinking back, there seemed to have been a good deal more evening packed into the evening than usually fits in the space of a few hours. I remember being plunked in front of the piano at some point, like I told you, and then next thing I knew I was waking up in bed with sore feet and aching hands. The whole evening’s like a badly scrambled puzzle.
“The terrible climax of the thing was when Mavis perched behind me on the bench and mentioned, coy as you please, that the wine I’d been consuming was by way of being a family tradition, and she was pleased to accept my hand in marriage.” He sighed miserably. “It wasn’t till days later that I emerged blinking from the flat again, in desperate need of the company of friends, and found out that similar conversations had befallen every eligible man at the party. I say, it’s hardly something one is truly prepared for. Marrying into that bunch is to be regarded as a hazardous endeavor at the very best of times, and to be avoided when possible. If it were punishment by each offense, of course, Tuppy would have to marry the whole family, so there’s something,” he finished up glumly.
I winced. “That much?”
“Two bottles, an entire cold ham, and then had a nap in the foyer.”
“Slept in her house.” I groaned. “It’ll take a miracle to get him out of this one.”
"And we've got to get it all sorted out before Midsummer. An old school chum of Mavis' is going to be in town for some semi-annual do and Mavis wants to show her up with a big whiz-bang of a wedding ceremony. Mind you it's beyond me how you measure the middle of summer without knowing exactly when winter's going to start. Why, just last year, it didn't even snow until--”
"Bertie. Bertie." I held up a hand to stop him before he wandered off into the pastures of speculation. "I know when Midsummer is. It's the longest day of the year."
"Is it? Gosh. Sounds like when I had old Millington-Woolf for history at Oxford. Nearly every day was a year in itself. Is he still teaching?"
"For our purposes," I said, firmly but kindly, "it's... oh Stars and stones, Bertie! It's next week!"
This revelation put a damper on the proceedings, I don’t mind telling you. We both lapsed into a kind of quiet reverie-- him contemplating mass matrimony, me contemplating how in the world I could stop said. We imbibed freely of the good stuff, until good old Mac grunted at me in that particular tone that said I'd had too much, and started giving us pitchers of actual apple juice.
Some time after that, Bertie struck it up again, with forced cheer. "Well, you're doing well for yourself these days. When you were in Chicago, you didn't have a valet."
This did not have the cheering effect that he had intended.
I slumped. "Johnson," I said, in tones of the somber resignation, "is not my valet, and I am not doing well."
“Poor old thing, what’s wrong?” He gave me a look of concern-- cross-eyed, but touching.
“As you know,” I said regally. “Chicago is my home and the loving hearth to which I return when tempers among a certain set are not high. They are currently high, Bertie. There are Ritz hotels that are not quite so high as these tempers. I was solving a bit of a case for a nice lady-- the Shadowman Affair,” I said, because if I ever write my memoirs that’s the name I was going to give it. Or The Storm Front Over Chicago; I’m not sure yet. One of Johnson’s friends knows bookbinding, he could tell me how long a title should be.
“Yes?” Bertie said expectantly, and I blinked, stepping back aboard my train of thought.
“That is to say. It was a case that went pretty well-- but pretty badly, too-- and cost me quite a bit out of pocket, not to mention leaving me in the bad graces of some local bigwigs. I fled to the Big Apple to cool my heels, but I was mostly broke, and-- well, my Aunt Lea and old Nicky Dixon got wind of it, and they both started in on me to get married.”
His brow wrinkled up. “Nicky Dixon? That domineering paper magnate? But Ashley Dixon is a lovely creature. Might even be worth a father in law like that”
“Oh, Ash is the face of temptation, Bertie. Even in the face of her father’s threatening noises about becoming a manager in one of his paper factories. But then you look in her eyes and see that you are but the inadequate clay that she’ll be moulding into an adequate spouse--”
He shuddered. “Say no more. And who does your aunt have on the line for you?”
“Mavis,” I said glumly. “She and Lady Mabel are thick as thieves and she’d like nothing better than me to marry into the family officially. Says that Mavis could take care of me and keep me fed and groomed. That, or I should move to her estate in Britain-- she keeps a big house on the Isle of Mann.”
“Would that be such a bad proposition?” Bertie said. “A visit to Brinkley Court usually has me in fine spirits-- well, generally, when unreasonable favors are not being asked of one.”
"You don't know who inhabits her estate,” I said with a shake of my head.
"Dogs. Dozens of hunting dogs, and zero nephews. After a week under her roof one starts to feel one's going to be soothed in one's distress with a loving scratch behind the ear and a juicy bone." I pulled a face. "And I can't say that in certain dire straits it hasn't been tempting. But a man's not a dog, Bertie."
"No," he agreed firmly. There was a pause. "But what does that have to do with you having a valet? Or not having one, as the case may be?"
"Ah." Well, Mac does serve the best, and it was possible I'd meandered off my subject a bit. "Well. I'm pretty much unequipped to face the threat of matrimony or auntly concern except inasmuch as I appear to be an independent gentleman of means. Jonathon Johnson is a bit of a thorn in my side who got burned in the Shadowman Affair as well. We both found ourselves at loose ends-- me staring down the barrel of a nine-to-five, him standing to lose his business concern-- I won't mince hairs, Bertie. Split words. The man'sh a rum runner, and a racketeer." Something seemed to be going amiss with my tongue, but I soldiered on. "He pretends to be my valet, and he has an alibi and I look like I’m in the black. Quite the upset from when he wanted me to work for him, but I'm not for hire to scum like him." I scowled.
"Dreadful," Bertie sighed, and we lapsed back into silence.
“Speaking of valets,” he said, after a bit, “I had no idea that Jeeves took you for one of the fair folk. I would have given him the rest of the story at once.”
“How do you know I’m not one of the Quality?” I asked, only to be argumentative, but Bertie shook his head solemnly.
“Mimsy, you dope, I’ve seen you scale a wrought iron fence with your bare hands. You remember when that policeman took after us in Chicago?”
“Do I! We were stone terrified, no idea what we’d done wrong-- turns out he thought I was messing around with his cousin.”
I drew myself up to an indignant slump. “Never! Karrin’s just a pal of mine. She was teaching me how to shoot a pistol. And was she mad when she found out that he was running off her friends. Why, she left Chicago pending an apology from the menfolk of her family and she’s been working as a bouncer since.” My tired eyes focused past Bertie’s shoulder. “And alakazam, she appears. Presto.” The lady in question was standing next to Thora, Maiden of the Snows, the both of them having appeared sometime in the last five minutes without my noticing.
“Oh,” Bertie said, eying the pretty young figure-- flaxen haired and button-nosed and five solid feet of irascible womanhood-- with a bit of chagrin. “We’ve met.”
“He asked me if I knew Pat and Mike,” Karrin Murphy said, with that certain charming brogue that clues you in to a recent family connection to the Emerald Isle, and that certain edge around her syllables that tells you she doesn’t want to hear any guff about it, either.
“He’s British, Karrin,” I pleaded on his behalf.
“Isn’t he just,” she said darkly. “Come on, Dresden. On your feet. Mac says you should be getting to bed.”
I bet he hadn’t; Mac saves complete sentences for birthdays and holidays. But I let her haul me up to lean on her sturdy shoulder, and Thora offered his higher, broader shoulder to Bertie, and we all hoofed it lightly towards the door.
We found our respective valets or semblances thereof there, in a circle of interested parties. Jeeves and Johnson had cleared a table and folded their suit jackets, the better to engage-- in rolled up shirt sleeves, no less-- in a bout of arm wrestling. It seemed to have the gravest import to it, and there was not a drop of love lost between the pair as they gladiated, straining against one another in a dead lock in the center of the table.
The look of comparative mortification on Johnson's face was a welcome sight, when he saw me and flickered from position to position, he and Bertie's man suddenly on their feet and in their jackets again-- to the great dismay of the bettors.
"Sir," said Johnson, compelled as if by magic-- hoho, but not really, and I’d know-- to escort me home; he replaced Murphy's support against me.
"Sir," said Jeeves, insinuating himself under Bertie's arm.
They sirred us away into the night, and I lost track of Bertie, and of my feet until the cab dropped me off and Johnson was extracting me from my jacket and tie and shooing me towards bed.
I was about strapped into my threadbare pajamas, and the sheets were calling my name, when Johnson knocked.
“Is it an emergency?”
“Yes,” he said, coming in without being asked. His jaw was set stubbornly, and he was brandishing a telegram.
“This was left with the doorman.” He dropped the sirs indoors, but stayed roughly valet-ish in the case of sudden company. “I’ll read it.”
“Well, I can’t stop you.”
He cleared his throat and read, in a calm tone:
Understand Mavis gathering harem.
Expect you to apply post haste.
Have wired Mabel to expect you at noon on Tuesday.
Your loving aunt
“Oh,” I said, feeling the blood drain away. From where? From everywhere.
“It would be disastrous for both of us, of course.”
“Put it that way,” I said, not meaning it but wanting to stick one to him in the worst way, “And I might have to get in the race just to spite you.”
“Sir,” he said, with a good dose of irony.
“I’m going to bed, Johnson. Don’t murder anyone too important before I wake up.”
I almost thought he had, just to spite me, when someone came pounding on the front door at five a.m.. I jerked awake like I’d overextended my tab at the Land of Nod and was being helped out the door by the management’s burliest retainers, and had just struggled from my blankets and readied my first spell for a fight-- I’ve made fewer friends than I have enemies over the years, and with an entrance like that you can’t be too careful-- when I heard the murmuring of Johnson’s valet voice, and the sound of someone’s angrier reply.
I yanked on my pants and crept cautiously from my room, shield up and ready for a spray of bullets or magic that might come my way; just because Johnson could talk civilly with anyone from to extortionists to evangelists to door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen it didn’t mean whoever was there wasn’t bringing trouble with him.
As it turned out, he just was trouble.
“Mister Morgan to see you, sir,” Johnson said when my bedroom door creaked open, the same moment Doom’n’Gloom and saw me and snapped:
“May I take your coat, Mister Morgan?” Johnson asked, with all the bland inflection of a professional gentleman’s gentleman, not a tone or hair out of place. I had no idea how he’d beaten me to the door; he seems to be able to get dressed and pressed in under two minutes. What he hadn’t said, however, was “Won’t you come in, Mister Morgan,” and without a proper invitation, Doom’n’Gloom was out of luck.
There are rules for fellows like us. Wizards, that is (full time), not magicians (part time, not that D&G is one at all)-- we belong to the same club, so to speak and I’m sorry to say, although possibly not as sorry as he is. Rules about homes and when you enter: it’s not just good manners to be invited in, it’s a requirement. At least if you want to take your magic with you, that is, and Doom’n’Gloom wasn’t the type to leave his with his coat, not when he had such a high opinion of me that earthworms could use it to scrape off their boots. How much of your magic you leave behind is dependant on how strong a home it is-- how strong the threshold is, to be precise, but they’re the same thing when it comes down to it-- and while mine wasn’t the strongest, it did have two people living here, and I’d put my own extra touch into beefing up the kick it would give you if you tried to enter unasked. It was nothing to sneeze at, in short.
Old Doom gave Johnson the stink-eye for a minute, but whatever tell he was looking for he wasn’t going to find it in Johnson’s poker face-- the man could have a Royal Flush or a seven-high and you wouldn’t know the difference, and either way he’d be just as likely to have a knife at your throat-- and he gave up, fixing his glare back on me.
“Where is it, Dresden?” he demanded
“Little more specific, Morgan old buddy.”
“The Sommerset Sword!” he snarled. “I know you have it.”
“Then you know more than me, pal,” I said, cross.
“You are a liar and thief, Dresden,” he steamed at me, puffing up like a locomotive. “Whatever perfidious heist you’re planning--”
There was a thump on the floor-- or rather my landlady’s floor which also goes around dressed as my ceiling. My landlady’s sweet as a summer day-- and just as likely to turn into a thunderstorm. I’ve gotten a few stern lectures in my time-- it’s hardly my fault excitement sort of follows me around-- and I wasn’t going to cross her one time too many and end up on the curb with the furniture following me at high speed, not when it was pretty well past the first of the month and the rent check hadn’t found its way under her door yet.
“Is all in your head,” I broke in, voice lowered to an indignant whisper, dignity badly wounded. “I wouldn’t cross the Sommersets with a mile of road between us.”
“Your association with the Leanansidhe-!” Which is pronounced roughly Lan-ON-she, if you’re pronouncing it all, which you shouldn’t be.
“Don’t bandy Lea’s name around in public,” I hissed, staring about as if the lady herself was going to pop out of a broom closet-- and if you know the Old Families, it wasn’t such a long shot that she would. “Come on, get inside before you summon the Dread Aunt from the corners of the British Isles.” Better even a Morgan in the flat than an Aunt Lea in the Big Apple, nose in my business, slinking about tutting about my diet and my wardrobe and the hours I kept and wondering pointedly when I’d give her grandnephews and grandnieces. I shivered.
He realized what he’d done and nearly looked sheepish as he bulled inside and over my threshold; kept his voice to a nearly human level as he wound up his indignation for a second go. “I knew at once--”
I cut him off with a sigh: I might not know what was going on, but I knew Morgan like a bad dime novel, back to front. “The Sommerset Sword going missing is some kind of a big deal in the Old Families, and nothing good; the DeWintours have a percentage in it somehow. You’ve cleverly deduced that it’s me, because Lea’s thick with the DeWintour bunch and also because a pin can’t drop in this city without you thinking I’ve pushed a seamstress out a window somewhere. Is that about what you had in mind, DG?”
He was taken aback. I’d stolen his thunder. “Where is the sword?” he said again, returning to certain ground to try again.
“Don’t have it.” In his eyes I saw a long, hopeless standoff. I groaned. “Morgan, even uncivilized people are sleeping by now,” I pleaded. “Search the flat if you want to, just push aside my unconscious body.”
“Tired by your larcenous exertions, no doubt!”
“Stars and stones, Morgan!” I threw up my hands, exasperated, then winced and tapped down on the magic boiling up in me when the candles all flared, lest that be taken as assault and a stand-in for a confession. I didn’t need to give Doom’n’Gloom much rope before he’d expertly tie a noose and hang me with it.
“If you wish, Mister Morgan, I could provide a full account of Mister Dresden’s were-abouts this evening,” Johnson said primly, from the corner where he’d been watching.
I could see the battle on old D&G’s face, spread out with full colors, cavalry, and a final, strategic advance to the rear. I’m the bone to his dog, but besides his obsession with Dresden-persecution, he’s a pretty fair hand, even if I have to say so myself. Does his job minding the magically inclined from here down to Boston, up past the border, and back to Chicago, making sure we all toe the line, and he does it well. He’s a cop, a shyster, and a parole officer all in one-- and sometimes the judge, jury and executioner. But he couldn’t turn down evidence offered willingly like that.
Johnson took him by the elbow, lightly, like he was touching a hot stove-- still closer than I’d ever have come to laying a hand on his august personage
“I am at your convenience for such an interview at any time of day,” he said politely, steering the sputtering Doom’n’Gloom towards the door. “Perhaps you should like my testimony at lunch tomorrow. I shall be at the flat. At eleven? Of course. Splendid. Thank you, Mister Morgan.” He shut the door lightly on Morgan’s barely-begun bellow.
He turned from the door and gave me a look. “You have no idea how to manage things, Dresden. You might as well got to bed.”
“Oh, take a long walk off a short pier,” I grumbled, and stumped back to my room.
Chapter 2: From the notes of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster: On Mimsy
When I met Mimsy Dresden, as I told my man Jeeves, I was just out of Eton and just shy of Oxford, visiting my Uncle Tom and my Aunt Dahlia at Brinkley Court. Aunt Dahlia was hosting one of the authors for Milady's Boudoir-- a prolific young chap who wrote romance serials under the name Cecily Warchester. Said p.y.c. had in tow his lady patroness of the hour, Miss MacShea, and she in turn had brought along her nephew.
I did not notice said nephew at first, as I was rather startled by the aunt-- by Aunt Dahlia's description, the young Wooster had expected a formidable dowager, white haired and full to the brim of artistic talk. Confronted instead by a lively Titian-haired figure with dewy golden eyes and pale skin and a profile that would instantly make of any young man an avid stamp collector-- well. The young Wooster was taken entirely off his guard and that’s all that need be said about that.
The author chap was casting darker and darker glares my way the more attention I paid, and Aunt Dahlia gave me a sidelong suggestion, delivered in a quiet, subtle voice that could only be heard one or two counties over, to 'show young Harold the grounds, Bertram.'
At this point I realized that what I had vaguely assumed to be sort of a giant dead spider curled up on the ottoman nearby, and had promptly ignored-- Miss MacShea having been rather more interesting than any potential giant insect life-- was a sullen young man about my age with his arms wrapped around his legs.
"Right ho," I said. "Grounds, eh?" This was not the most sparkling of introductions, not up to the Wooster standard, but Miss MacShea laughed sweetly and I altogether forgot to mind.
"All right," said Harold, uncurling and revealing himself to be a slimmish person, all arms and legs. Since my last term, in which I'd outgrown trousers and shirts as quickly as they could be dashed onto me, I hadn't met another young person who was taller than me, and I was a bit taken aback to find myself looking up at him, and he was obviously quite as embarrassed with the sitch. He had a sharp, worried face, a bit like a young hawk that had found itself in front of a board of review. He stared determinedly at my nose, darting his eyes away when I tried meet his gaze.
"Er," said I. "They're outside. The grounds are."
This established, we both made for them post-haste, fleeing the fiery glare of Aunt Dahlia.
Despite this illustrious beginning, if illustrious is the word I want, I found that I got along with him pretty well. We were in about the same circs, he and I-- without parents, in the care of various relations, and recently out of school. He'd been the ward of an evangelical preacher in Iowa, which I found pretty interesting, only he didn't much want to talk about it.
"That must have been pretty interesting," the young Wooster said, admiringly.
"I don't want to talk about it," said the young Dresden, with that characteristic American charm and gregarity.
He owned up that his name was Harold but he generally answered to Mimsy; that he'd had a falling out with the evangelist in Iowa, and that when his tour was over he was going to stay with a friend of his mother's on his farm in Missouri. The mother's friend's farm, I mean, not Mimsy's.
"What's he like?" I queried of said farm-keeping maternal chum.
"Don't know. Keeps sheep."
"Do you think you'll like it?"
"Well, I can't like it worse than Iowa."
"Why do they call you Mimsy?"
His face darkened, and I thought that he was going to stop talking altogether-- when he suddenly brightened and said, "I know some magic tricks. Would you like to see?"
"I would," I said, and we managed to fill the time up pretty well.
I didn't find out the story of the name until I was a grown man in my last year of Oxford-- having concluded the studies that could be made of the Missouri types of sheep, Mimsy had taken himself on another tour of Europe, sans aunt. When he touched foot on the shores of old Blighty, he quite intelligently looked me up for a drink and a native’s guide around the streets of London. He was still thin and tall, but he'd grown out of looking like he expected to be ambushed by a geometry professor around every corner; I showed him the Drones club and, once we were both a bit lubricated, found myself asking after his moniker again.
"Oh, that,” he said. "At school in Iowa, my school mates all found out I had a terror of hearing my whole name spoken aloud. And they thought it must be because one of my middle names was embarrassing-- so it was Blacky and Stoney and Mesmy and Merman for a year until Mimsy finally stuck, and that suited me better than them trying to go around hitting me with my full handle all the time."
"I'll say. Nothing worse than hearing Aunt A bellow down the hall 'Bertram Wilberforce W--'" and I cut off then not because I'd forgotten my name, but rather because he'd slapped a hand over my mouth.
"Don't!" he said, shaking a finger. "It's terribly unlucky, Bertie. If someone gets hold of your name they can do the most terrible things to you."
I thought on Aunt Agatha and considered that he was probably right.
At the time of this writing, Jeeves suggests that Mimsy's school chums probably got the name from a bit of fluff by some mathematical bird named Dodson-- Jeeves is a genius, a paragon of paragons, but he’s sadly uninformed on the subject of schoolboys if he thinks they'd be able to remember one word of anything their maths teacher said.
Ta for now!
Chapter 3: Calling on DeWintour
I'd barely gotten back to sleep after old Doom’n’Gloom’s social call when Johnson was waking me up again with a soothing "Time to wake up, sir."
"Why?" I demanded tiredly. It was too early for the gracious manservant act and I was far too red-eyed and bushy tongued to swallow the irony. "What time is it?"
"Is the building on fire?"
"Not at present, but Mister Wooster is here to see you."
I scowled into my pillow. "Bertie? Up before eleven? Johnson, I'm ashamed of you; I thought you could spot any fetch or shapeshifter at twenty paces."
"Actually, the young gentleman telephoned about an hour prior. He had something of a distressing incident this morning and wished to see you for breakfast." He cleared his throat. "If you're still concerned, he came through the wards without incident."
"He's inside?" I sat straight up, flailing for something to drape around the body, feeling like the worst slug to be laying abed when a pal was in need.
"He's in the living room waiting for you." Johnson dropped the genial mask for a second and grinned nastily. "Which means you'd better get your pants on, pal."
"Johnson," I said with feeling. "You're scum."
"As you say, sir," Johnson said, all starch and class again, and butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth.
I stumbled out about five minutes later, not too shamefully dressed-- not that Wooster's man didn't give me an eyeful of disapproval for every wrinkle on my jacket. But then he turned his razor disdain on Johnson, as if to say Shame on you, letting him out in public looking like that, and the indignance on Johnson's face was balm to my tired soul. At least the breakfast table looked respectful-- a hell of a spread, with toast and muffins, eggs and heaps of bacon. We hadn’t been able to afford bacon in ages; I’d been starting to dream about it. The butcher must owe Johnson some kind of favor.
I tore my eyes away from the table and gave Bertie my best attempt at a concerned, engaged kind of a look. "Bertie, what's happened? The sun's barely up. Are you sick?"
"Well after a night like that, one's bound to be," He said, sighing deeply. "But Jeeves has a restorative concoction that sets me right. No, my problem is Stilton."
"Too much cheese," I said sympathetically. "I realize it's by way of being your patriotic duty, but maybe on the really late nights you should pass on it."
"No, no," he said impatiently. "This isn't a matter of cuisine. Stilton Cheesewright is an old... well, I knew him in school. Full of vim and prohibitionary vigor... and just at present, the zeal to see himself head husband of the dread Mavis. He got wind that that pal of Mavis’ had some family heirloom stolen and came over this morning to shake it out of me. Assumed I'd done it to get a leg up on the competition; I told him that he was welcome to her and he called me a cad and threatened to break my leg in two places. Jeeves saw him off, but it rattled me, old thing." He shook his head, pale.
"Fancy that," I said dourly, and gave him a quick rundown of my encounter with Doom’n’Gloom. "I only wish I knew what it was all about."
"The Sommerset Sword," said a smug voice from the rough vicinity of the table, "is the pride of the family and a symbol of their ancient might. Ditto the DeWintour Saber. Both families are forever showing them off, trotting them out for parties and viewings. If one went missing, it would be scandalously shameful. Everyone who's anyone knows that."
So saying, the speaker popped half a muffin into his mouth and chewed triumphantly.
"Robbie!" I said, pretty cheesed off. "Where did you come from?" Robbie Crain is a persistent pest, one I knew well; a thinnish, energetic figure with bright eyes and fine blond hair over a high domed skull. Not one of nature's beauties-- he's too thin in the face, cheekbones too high, eyes too sunken. When he smiles, it puts you in mind of a pirate flag. He was usually underfoot when you didn't want him, bumming a few bucks or setting himself up in the guest bedroom for a few nights without so much as a 'may I'.
"Window," said my visitor with a full mouth, waving insouciantly at said aperture. "I brought the cat in. Thought you might be missing him."
"Oh did you? Where is he?"
Robbie looked down, as if he was expecting to find his shirt pocket full of feline.
"Help," said Bertie, a little strangled.
I turned to see him sagging into the couch under the weight of a massive, battle-scarred tomcat, who'd claimed his lap in the name of Spain and settled in.
"See Here Mister!" I said happily.
"I didn't do anything," Bertie objected, but I'd already picked up the tom to scritch his ears. He filled my arms like a purring sandbag, limp as a rug-- and then a few seconds later he wanted down, as communicated by a paw like a catcher's mitt shoved right into my face. I set him on the floor, sparing poor Bertie for the time being.
"He wasn't hurting me, actually." Bertie looked contrite. "You didn't have to yell at him."
"Oh, no," I hurried to assure him. "He thinks it's his name. It's pretty funny, actually, because-- NOW SEE HERE MISTER," and that last outburst was aimed at the feline in question, who'd hopped lightly up onto the breakfast table and was eating my bacon. At my bellow, he gave me a look that plainly said 'yes, here I am, now let me eat breakfast.'
"He shouldn't eat that toast. Cats shouldn't eat toast, should they?" Robbie asked. "Here, I'll take care of that." And he picked up both slices.
"Oh no you don't," I growled-- I consider myself a pretty level-tempered guy, but I'm never at my best when I'm hungry.
"Oh, fine," Robbie sulked. "I won't. I'll keep my girlish figure. But don't look at me when you're buying your bloomers a size larger."
Bertie went red; he's not used to hearing that kind of talk before lunch, and Jeeves looked just on the verge of breaking his stoic silence when Johnson swept in with another rasher of bacon and a fried egg to replenish my plate. He scooped See Here Mister up under one arm, bicep flexing, and took Robbie firmly by the elbow. "If you'll come with me, Mister Crain, there may be something to eat in the kitchen--" and Jeeves took his other side to muscle him out of the room.
That left Bertie and me and breakfast in peace-- we sighed with relief and sat down to top up the tank, and a welcome silence reigned until we'd polished off the last muffin and we could talk like civilized people.
Before we got down to brass tacks, there was one point had been puzzling me since last night. "Now, I was a little under the surface when last we spoke, and I didn't think to ask-- when last we met, the Wooster household wasn't encumbered with a valet either. Where'd you get that specimen?"
Bertie brightened a little. "Oh! That was a stroke of luck. I'd been looking for a valet through this agency-- they kept sending me duds, you see. My last one-- well, I'll put it plainly. He stole socks." I shook my head at this perfidy. "But Jeeves appeared. He just sort of happened... trickled into my life like a ray of sunshine to set everything in order. Oh, he gets it all his own way, you know, I've resigned myself to that; it's as bad as being henpecked. But all in all, the Wooster sitch has improved leaps and bounds since his addition."
Now, he could talk about being henpecked, but one who dabbles in the investigative arts-- meaning me-- has to learn to read between the lines. And between the lines of Bertie Wooster was the story of a man deeply content in his choice of helpmate.
I couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy. It would be nice, I thought, to have a loyal someone who’d bring me coffee in the morning even if there wasn’t company over, someone who wouldn’t wake me up with a cheerful “Dresden, if you’re still asleep in ten minutes I’m calling the coroner to come get you.” While stage performing paid the rent, I consider investigation my real calling; it’s a lonely life, lived in the late hours, spent in solitary vigil. It makes a fellow feel outcast; unloved; alone.
The pay is bupkis, too.
I cleared my throat. “Bertie, on a different subject, and I don’t want to sound like a bum, but this case of yours-- I’ll work on the sword thing too, natch, but we haven’t discussed... well, remuneration. I’ll give you a discount, of course, but the rent’s coming due and the Kitty Kat Club won’t cut me a check until the twentieth.”
Like the angel he is, he reached immediately for his checkbook. “If you need something, Mimsy--”
Sweet of him, but a man’s got his pride: “Come on, Bertie, have I ever taken money from you that I haven’t earned by honorable victory at the card table?”
“Well, no, but you used to be fairly opposed to employment, too,” he said a little dubiously.
“Oh, a few nights a week at the Kitty Kat isn’t work!” I poo-pooed. “And investigation isn’t employment. It’s a lonely mission. A calling,” I said piously.
That satisfied him, and we settled on a price-- quite reasonable, discounted for a pal, but I got half upfront and that did ease a little distress on the rent front. Bertie seemed pretty chipper about it all. “You know, it’s all terribly exciting. Just like hiring a real detective--” I bridled a little. “And there’s a missing sword. If someone turns up murdered it will be just like in Black Mask. I say, have you read those? The new story by-- oh, what’s the name? Darcy Hambone? It’s really quite the thing!”
“Dashiell Hammett,” I said, “and I’m hoping we don’t get a murder to top it off!”
“No,” Bertie agreed. “Not even Stilton, for all his zest to mangle the Wooster person We were chums at school-- I shouldn’t like to see him hurt, not really. And I suppose a missing sword and an irregular engagement are enough to try the strongest constitution-- you’ll need to establish a motive, isn’t that right?”
Usually I don’t like to talk shop with people who aren’t in the business, but Bertie had just handed me a fairly large sum of money and I was inclined to be encouraging. “Well, I don’t think we need one for the engagement thing. Cut and dried, that one. But for the sword, I’d say it’s pretty likely that someone wants to stick it to the Sommerset family. Doom’n’Gloom thought it must be the DeWintours pulling the strings, but why?”
The door to the kitchen slammed open, helped along by Robbie’s hip. He sailed into the room with the maddening cheer of someone who’s been caught listening at the door and isn’t even a bit ashamed.
“Because unlike you, Harold,” he said, skimming across the floor like a twig on a summer river and with about the same amount of care, “the good Mister Gloom keeps enough of an ear to the ground to know that if anything happens to the Sommersets or the DeWintours, the other family’s involved. I would have thought that everyone in the world knew that, but here you are, lowing my standards again.” He took a bite of the scone he had clutched in one hand and shot me a rather too familiar grin around it, making Bertie twitch with startled sensibilities.
“They’ve been putting on quite the production of despising each other for generations,” he continued, smirking at me. “The feud is the theme of every one of their big midseason ‘dos-- which you’d know,” he told me, after a pause to pop the rest of the pastry away into that bottomless pit he keeps attached to his mouth, “if you listened to anything your dear aunt tried to tell you. Why, who would the DeWintours be, if they didn’t have the Sommersets to show up? Who would the Sommersets be without the DeWintours to cast a constant dark shadow on their affairs? My word,” he sucked at his fingers-- he’d probably convinced Johnson to break out the honey for him, too, the big mooch. “Who would any of us be? The whole New York social scene, my word, the whole European social scene! Crashing down in ruins. I can’t bear to think on it.”
He sprawled across my lap, and I pushed him out of it-- he gave it up for a bad job and draped himself over a wingback chair. “You need better literature,” he scolded me, changing the subject out of the blue. “If you’re not even going to pay me, you might as well have something that challenges my intellect lying around.”
“I’ll give you an ace,” I said; a small price to pay for not having to listen to him extol the virtues of his sort of literature.
“Do you hear that?” he turned a suffering gaze on Bertie. “I labor and slave in my eternal confinement--”
“Columbia post-graduate,” I translated for my pal’s benefit.
“--doing whatever small and pathetic favors are within my abilities--”
“Shocking gossip,” I said mercilessly.
“--and how does he repay me? I’m a free soul. I need to breathe. To read of adventure even if I can never be free to taste the cup of life--”
“He collects dirty novels.”
“Your problem,” Robbie said acerbically, “is that you have no romance in your soul.”
“Well, good thing you’re full of it, then.” I fished around in my trouser pockets and found a somewhat tattered bill, thrusting it at him. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”
“I don’t have to take this kind of abuse,” he sniffed, pouring himself onto his feet and slinking over to the window, the bill in my hand suddenly peeking out of his shirt pocket instead. “Good day, Harold.”
He disappeared from whence he came and I sighed. “I’d be able to stand him better if he were ever wrong about anything.”
“I say,” was Bertie’s shaken assessment. “What a strange bird.”
Well, I wasn’t about to deny that. I suppose I could have run the pest off a bit more harshly than I tended to-- not the least because he’d been at Columbia a few decades longer than one would imagine from his youthful appearance, and he knew the DeWintour family well enough to be on first name terms with Mrs. Mabel DeWintour. As in, “Oh, Mabel? I owe her some money; she says if she ever sees me again she’ll skin me.” But for the various members of the Quality I’ve tangled with-- all the things that go bump in the night and lounge around in classical paintings-- Robbie's the only one I've ever met in such a sad financial state that he has to rent himself out as a tutor to keep himself in starched shirts. It gives a guy who’s down on his luck a bit of fellow feeling.
Robbie’d been the academic bane of young men from Germany to Georgia to the Galapagos, lecturing on everything from Calculus to Kinetomancy, and never came away from it with much more than enough to feed himself for another semester. His eternal scholarship gave him only a pittance for room and board. Once, he’d drilled potion-making and dead languages into a sullen young fellow in Iowa; when things went badly, he’d gone on the lam with the lad because he couldn’t bear parting with a pupil until said pupil’s Latin was at least a little less abysmal.
Not that it did him much good, as I still can’t conjugate a verb on command to this day.
All in all, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that he’d been the closest thing to a pal I’d had in some pretty dark hours and-- supernatural origins and taste in scandalous literature aside-- I couldn’t just toss him out for good.
“You get used to him. Mostly. And he’s an absolute encyclopedia of lore and potions recipes-- which he won’t let me forget,” I said. “Look, I’ve got to go see the DeWintours for lunch. Before then, I ought to get the facts down. Let’s go for a walk in Central Park and we can talk it over, get some fresh air.”
“I say, are parks around here open at this hour?” Bertie wondered. “I haven’t seen them on this side of the morning before.”
One of nature’s innocents, that guy. Not used to being drummed out of bed by fire and demonic infestation and rowdy cluricaunes and that kind of thing. Bless him. I wish I wasn’t, either.
I parted ways with Bertie before I headed over to the DeWintour place; he was naturally wary of meeting the family of the affianced. A bit of luck that he’d been here, and had had the sense to come to me for help; most men would have already succumbed to the glamor of the DeWintour fortune, the by-all-accounts delectable DeWintour daughter, and, well, there’s no other way to put it: the DeWintour glamor. Whatever that special something is, that thing the French can’t identify, the Old Families have it in boodles. I mean, when a lady with a birth certificate that predates the US of A can snag a dozen fiancees and throw them a one-night bash that lasts two weeks, and nobody bats an eye, something’s up, and it’s not just the hooch. Well. Not all the hooch. Glamor!
Bertie, though, had been engaged so many times (the count had more than doubled since last seen, I learned during our walk) that he’d built up a natural tolerance for the temptations of the matrimonial state, and he had the uniquely advantageous Jeeves acting as his guide, to catch him when he started to drift.
I, unfortunately, had only a few scuttled engagements under my belt-- most of the Pumpkin Club could probably match my count of four, and they’d all gone dippy for Mavis, if the accounts of bloodthirsty dinner-roll stickball matches and desperate games of tiddlywinks were true. All of them were vying with full heart to become Mavis’ favorite husband, and if I didn’t look sharp, I might find myself jockeying for top slot in accordance with Aunt Lea’s wishes.
All I could do was trust in my natural obstinacy and quick wits. (I made the mistake of saying as much to Johnson, who had to go into the kitchen until he stopped laughing. When he came back out again, composed, tears of mirth wiped from his eyes, he said simply: “Half right, anyway.”)
The place the DeWintours were renting was a modest little manse on Sixty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, one of the old ones still standing in the face of modern apartment development, and if you didn’t know how the Old Families redecorated you might be forgiven for thinking that it was pretty shabby in terms of the Who’s Who and the What’s What.
But that’s the way they operate; pick a cozy little spot, someplace innocuous, and settle down. If you weren’t let into the house itself, you’d never know they were much of anything at all. And that’s how they like it. Because that’s how they get you.
But I was ready, and when the butler-- a handsome guy who could have been on the silver screen, if he could wipe the permanent leer off of his face and go with about a pound less of brilliantine-- let me in, my jaw barely hit the marble floor at all.
See, if the Ladies and Gents don’t like the interior of a place, they just make the front door lead somewhere else.
The butler led me along via a firm grip on the collar of my jacket, dragging me past grand staircases that were bigger than the entire NY exterior of the house and vast sitting rooms where various things that looked peoplish or not so peoplish were sitting around playing cards or shuffleboard or dice. We passed a big old oak study carved with prancing reindeer, out of which barely cracked door curled the happy scent of clove and pipesmoke, and strolled past some immense picture windows that gave a view of snow-capped mountaintops, peeking through what I fervently hoped were very, very low-lying clouds. The butler strutted, leading me like a dog on a leash, shooting me the occasional mocking look-- until we stopped and he tossed me into a sitting room with a smirking “Harold Dresden to see you, ma’am.” Then he oiled away, and oiled is exactly the word for it.
The room was full of young people of a mostly human appearance, all dressed for a nightclub and dancing to swing jazz on a gramophone; holding court in the center-- sprawling on a chaise lounge and surrounded by cow-eyed, silent suitors-- was a young woman who had to be Mavis.
Her dress was a short white flapper number, with enough fringe that it might have looked like a decent length if she were standing still, but draped as she was, with the fringe breaking across the knee, I could see a pretty shocking amount of thigh. Her eyes were a sparkling blue green, pupils slanted in the same way my Aunt Lea’s were, betraying the family connection, and her hair was so blond it was nearly white, cut in a severe shingle bob. I’ve heard it complained that with the advent of the bob, good honest folk can’t tell girls from boys when seen from behind. I dare every last one of them to look at Mavis from any angle they pleased and mistake her for a boy. She was wearing black oxford saddle shoes with the laces in a pink bow that, combined with the general round vibrancy of her face and the certain pout to her full lips, gave her an unsettling air of the schoolgirl.
“Aren’t you a funny thing!” she said, giving me the once and then twice over. “Jennifer, isn’t he a funny, dear thing?”
A pretty olive-skinned creature-- in a sort of olive-toned silk frock that made her, at first glance, look like she wasn’t wearing anything at all-- looked up, and noticed me, and smiled, showing a mouthful of leafy-green sharkish teeth. “I wouldn’t mind a nibble.” Every man there-- self included-- suddenly found himself contemplating the merits of being a bar of chocolate.
“Er. My Aunt Lea said you’d be expecting me.”
“I am, Harold sweetie. Why don’t you come sit down? I won’t bite.” She patted a bit of the cushion she was sitting on, next to her thighs, which were rather snowy and just pillowy enough to make you think of bed, but not necessarily sleeping, and smiled sweetly. It was a tight fit, even for me, and I have to cross a spot twice just to cast a shadow. If I actually managed to wedge in there, it would mean she’d have to lie on my lap.
“I’ll stand, thanks. Good for the posture.”
“Oh p’shaw,” she said. “If you’re going to be my fiancé, shouldn’t you be more comfortable with me?”
What a good thought! said certain southerly parts of the Dresden anatomy.
Splendid logic! said certain parts of my stomach, eying the party spread in one corner of the room and contemplating the many advantages of life as a kept man.
“Um,” I said, ignoring the complaints of the flesh. “As it happens--”
“You’re not here to beg my hand in marriage?” she frowned, eyebrows slanting down. Her nose wrinkled adorably. “Lea specifically said you were.”
“I shouldn’t like to have to tell your aunt that you stood there and coldly broke my heart.” She pulled a pout, and her suitors all started to look at me rather grimly. Jennifer licked her teeth, and I wondered less what it would like to be a bar of chocolate and more if this was what a fish felt like when the shark turned its way.
Then she smiled, and laughed merrily. “And I don’t have to! If you do me one eensie weensie favor, Harold honey.”
“What favor?” I said cautiously. You might’ve thought I would jump at the chance-- but one doesn’t want to owe the Quality a favor. I’ve been in dutch to Aunt Lea ever since she paid off a debt of mine-- made a rash promise to come live on her estate on a permanent basis, I was in a bad spot at the time-- and since I welshed it’s been nothing but a doom over my head. The kind of doom that lets her order me off to brace the dread Mavis in its den, or else trot to her estate with my head down to be fitted out for a nice kennel.
“You might have heard that the Sommerset’s family sword went missing. I don’t know why anyone would want the silly old thing-- ours is so much nicer-- but they did. And knocked poor old Mister Reuel down a flight of stairs to get to it.”
“Their head butler. He’s not a patch on our Mister Slate-- he’s older than Lloyd and not at all as dashing, but I certainly didn’t wish him any harm. It’s all very sad, of course, but it’s their duty to guard the swords. It’s all so wonderfully prestigious. Dukes and barons have left their titles to work as Mama’s head butler--”
I tried to reconcile the oily, odious butler who had lead me in with ‘dashing’ and failed. I mean, I could see that technically he fit the bill, with his square jaw and handsome profile-- just as Robbie fit the bill of ‘prestigious, high-minded graduate of a noted university’ if you ignored the positively shocking collection of Tijuana bibles hidden in his room. At least Robbie could pretend to be respectable by dint of a few well-locked trunks. I didn’t know if Slate could ever not look like an absolute horse’s ass.
“Just the facts, ma’am. The sword is missing. What else?”
“Well, isn’t it obvious? It’s almost Midsummer and I’m all set to just turn Rory Sommerset green with envy with my new wardrobe and my new beaus, and then this goes and happens! It will ruin everything!”
“I heard,” I said cautiously, “that you wouldn’t mind getting one over on Miss Sommerset.”
“Well of course I wouldn’t, but not like this. And everyone thinks I did it, it’s so embarrassing. Rory will think I’ve cheated. And nobody will give one fig for my new boys or my new dresses, they’ll be being sorry for her-- and Mama is furious because now Mrs. Sommerset isn’t speaking to her. The last time they had a quarrel it lasted for just ages and absolutely everyone was miserable.”
“And you want me to find the thing?” I was cautiously optimistic; after all, I was already signed up to find the burgled cutlery. I’m an honest man, but not so honest I mind being paid twice.
“Yes, and soon! If it doesn’t turn up before Midsummer I don’t know what Mrs. Sommerset will do. She and Mama will have one of their tiffs again, and the galas will be horrid and the parties will be canceled, and everything will be so dull!”
I remembered Robbie’s pat recitation of how many circles these particular families spun in, and the weight of my task started to sink in. If I couldn’t find the missing metalwork, I might be party to the end of the entire New York party scene as I knew it. Libations going unpoured, rugs uncut, galas ungala’d. I could only imagine the oppressive pall that would sink around the city.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said to Mavis, not willing to make a promise. And then I started edging towards the door before my stomach could steer me over to that buffet table and get me in real trouble.
She waited until I was at the door of the big room to call out, sweet as pie: “Say hello to my darling Bertram, won’t you? I know you’ve been thick, and he hasn’t come to see me this whole time.”
I mumbled noncommittally and stepped outside-- where the odious Lloyd Slate, sneer in tow, was waiting for me.
I gave the worm a polite grimace, wishing him nothing but the most ill fortune with my gaze, and he smirked back, slipping a cigarette packet from inside his jacket and lighting one, exhaling a cloud of smoke before turning with a “This way, Mister Dresden.” Johnson makes no attempt to hide his various vices and general failings of messy humanity from me and I wouldn’t expect it of him: he’s scum and a rat and a fink and only a valet when the circumstances require it, but even he wouldn’t do that in front of company. From Slate, I had no doubt, this was just another greasy facet of the man’s personality-- and a clear signal of how little regard he held for me, and how little he cared if I knew as much. I followed him grimly, past the people and peoplish, past the big study door with the carved reindeer and pipesmoke and briefly fancied I could hear sleigh bells from the other side, and then down a new hallway and another and another, and more than a few flights of stairs, Slate clucking me a long the whole while like someone’s terrier. I couldn’t shake the idea that we were being followed, though when I looked behind-- generally to Slate’s protest-- I couldn’t see anyone.
We wound up in a kitchen that would about do for a banquet, and Slate took me to a dingy little service door. “Here you are.”
“No thanks to you, pal.” I only pretend to be wealthy; I don’t have the inner conviction (and that’s not exactly the word I’m after but let’s be polite) it takes to be rude to the serving class most of the time. Slate, on the other hand, obviously didn’t let his position burden him; and neither was I going to.
He shoved me out briskly, like a lush after closing time; I found myself in an alley somewhere downtown, the door slamming behind me set into a wall not anywhere connected to the DeWintour manse. I sighed, and started looking around to try to catch my bearings. With my luck and the Quality’s sense of humor, I might not even be in Manhattan anymore.
I’d barely placed myself roughly on a mental map-- still in the same city, thankfully, if a mile or so away from where I’d started-- when the door behind me banged open, and a man stepped out. I recognized him immediately-- one of the men draped worship-fully around Mavis. I’d taken him for one of the fair folk-- or a bit of ogre in the bloodline, at least, if he wasn’t a full relation. He had a large pink face, flushed red with ire.
“So! A friend of that Wooster’s, are you?” he boomed, and if he was an ogre he was a Britsh one. “I have a word or two to say to him! The nerve, neglecting Mavis like this. Where is that snake?”
“Haven’t seen him,” I said loyally.
His eyes narrowed and his face got so red it went purple, a vein in his forehead throbbing. He was either completely ignorant of the personal space a fellow likes to keep around him or completely uncaring, and pressed up so close to me I had to look down and he had to get up on his toes to wave a fist under my chin, the other hand being busy yanking my head down by my collar. “Are you lying to me, you boob? If you’re lying to me I’ll break your shins in three places!”
“Now wait just a minute, bo,” I said, and stomped forward so he had to let go of me or risk my heavy boots or bony knees hitting something fragile. “You keep your mitts to yourself. I’m telling you, no idea where Wooster is.” Which wasn’t entirely a fib; I wasn’t his schedule keeper.
“Are you calling Mavis a liar?” he growled, puffing up his chest, recovering his lost ground with righteous aplomb, and this time I had to shimmy back a few steps lest the Dresden-toes be lost to the cause.
“No, no-- nothing of the sort. Just. You know, ha ha. What’s this message of yours?”
His eyes narrowed. “Perhaps I’d better show you!” He descended on me, hands outstretched to grab me, and I tipped my hat politely and backed toward the street. He pursued single-mindedly, and I realized that he wouldn’t be deterred by ordinary means.
I used a technique I’d picked up in the investigating business-- a bit of misdirection. It’s very complicated and involved strategy, and all the fine details would take too long to explain, but the thrust of it, what the layman looking from the outside would see, was that I pointed over the guy’s left shoulder, said ‘Isn’t that Bertie there?’, and took off running in the other direction.
I’d gotten a good thirty-foot lead by the time the angry shouting started; I was ducking and weaving through the crowd when someone grabbed my shoulder.
“Mimsy! Madman! Sword!” Bertie panted, his eyes wide, and over his shoulder I could see none other than Doom’n’Gloom Morgan plowing through the crowd, said article strapped to his belt and tripping hapless passers by as he came.
“Where’s Dresden?” bellowed Morgan.
“Where’s Wooster?” bellowed the ogre.
Bertie and I shared a horrified look, and realized what must be done.
We moved as one, ducking through the crowd and pelting for the nearest sheltering door when I heard the clatter and thump of our pursuers colliding, like two badly-steered ships in the night.
Bertie and I had thrown ourselves to the floor behind the nearest solid object before we really took stock of the room we’d found ourselves in. It was a milliners-- Baker and Co, if memory served, popular with the Kitty Kat Club regulars because it stocked fancy women’s hats in large bands and dapper men’s hats in smaller bands. We were behind the counter, the shopkeeper no-where to be seen, and my view was obscured, when I peeked above the sturdy oak surface, by a frothy topper with more ostrich feathers than an actual ostrich. A flash of insight struck, however, and I realized that by that wearing feathery contraption, I could watch out the store window with no fear that the highly identifiable top of my head would draw in Morgan. Bertie took my lead and procured a really fetching veiled thing, and we peeped out, watching through dangling feathers and whatnot as Morgan and the other man scuffled briefly, untangled, brushed off their jackets, and started hunting in different directions.
The ogre stuck his head in Baker and Co, but-- seeing nobody but the hats-- stalked off to look for us elsewhere.
“Does everyone you know own a sword?” Bertie whispered, when it seemed safe.
“Only about half,” I whispered back.
“Do you think they’ve gone?” Bertie whispered.
“Don’t know. Better not risk it,” I whispered back.
“Why are we whispering?” whispered the friendly young shop keeper, leaning over the pair of us.
“Oh!” I said, whisking my hat off. “Ah.”
“Er,” Bertie added, doing likewise. “Um.”
“You gentlemen looked pretty fetching in those. There’s a back room if you’d like to try on something else in privacy,” the shopkeeper offered. I could see the gleam of a sale in his eyes, and wondered if I would get out of here without an ostrich hat in tow.
Bertie rose to the moment like a professional. “I don’t think I could. My man will kick at the sight of a white straw boater; I think tulle would be the bridge too far.”
“Really rules the roost, does he?” the shopkeeper gave Bertie a knowing look. “Well, when you’re ready to assert a little sartorial dominance, my doors are open. Until then, don’t scare off the clientele. Shoo!”
We were clucked out of the store into a street happily free of pursuers and both of us took a breath.
“Mimsy-- I don’t mean to pry,” Bertie said, “But where did you run into Stilton Cheesewright?”
I gave him a rather lost look until I realized that he meant the ogre. “He was at Mavis’ place. Where did you pick up Doom’n’Gloom?”
“If you mean the blighter with the sword, he came prowling around the Pumpkin Club asking after you.”
"He would,” I grunted. “Must have got wind I had to go see the DeWintours and took it as a signed confession. Has it in for me, you know.”
“A little too much of the zealot in his eyes,” Bertie agreed, nodding knowingly. “One sees him on the battlefield at the Siege of Jerusalem.”
“I think he’d like to lop off a few heads, at that.” I shook myself all over. “Say, Bertie, my contract including expenses as it does, what say we head over to King’s Diner for a steak sandwich and fries and we can talk about what I’ve got to do next.”
He looked a little dubious-- he being used to higher class fare-- but I was sure the Salisbury steak sandwich with lots of onions would bring him around to my way of thinking. He let me lead him down towards the diner, and we were just about to turn onto Main when we were intercepted by two dark figures, which would have been more worrying if they weren’t Jeeves and Johnson.
“I say, Jeeves old thing,” Bertie said, beaming with renewed cheer. “How did you know where to find us?”
“Johnson suggested that this diner was a frequent haunt of Mister Dresden; we had merely to wait in the vicinity,” Jeeves said politely.
“Glad you caught up with us, but that’s lucky,” I said. “You couldn’t have known we were going to be here tonight.”
Johnson shot me a discrete smirk that implied, in so many words, that I was a chump, and a predictable chump, and that he knew I would eat at King’s diner five nights a week if I could, and that if I was rich as a lord I’d still swing by on Sunday for the blue plate special, and this was all due to my inexorable and inevitable chumpliness.
He said: “I’m afraid that Mister Morgan returned to the house twice today; firstly to hear your alibi and some two or three hours after that in search of you. I told him that you would likely be dining at King’s; however, he has recently arrived to the diner with a young man who I am told is of Mister Wooster’s acquaintance and is in deep conversation with him. It would be rude to interrupt them.”
“Mister Cheesewright came to the flat this afternoon with a similar goal,” Jeeves said to Bertie, his slight frown seeming to convey a kinder, more concerned message. “I am afraid I assumed you would be with Mister Dresden and, consulting Johnson, suggested that he might meet you at King’s. However, this had slipped my mind, and I had prepared a full meal at home before I recalled that you would likely be dining out.”
“Well,” said Bertie, entering into the spirit of the thing with somewhat uncalled for relief. “King’s will keep another night, won’t it, Mimsy? We might as well go back to my place and mangle a few courses. Shouldn’t let them go to waste”
Well, may I never be so rich that I can turn my nose up at food offered freely out of the bosom of friendship. “Certainly. I can introduce you to New York’s best another time,” I said, forcing some levity that I didn’t quite feel. The knowledge of Mavis’ ultimatum hung heavy over me; I could only hope that a full meal took the edge off.
We strolled across Main, and I glanced back at King’s out of the corner of my eye. Old D&G was there, at a table I could just see through the window, in matey conversation with Bertie’s ogre, Cheesewright. They looked so pleased to have found one another’s company that I almost fancied they’d never miss us.
Of course, this meant that they would be sharing tips and tricks on the harassment of innocent young persons; that sent a bit of a chill up my spine, and I followed briskly along with Bertie and his man.
Johnson glided along at my elbow. “Don’t expect a medal for handling Morgan,” I said out of the corner of my mouth.
“Sir,” he said sweetly back, “I would never ask for recompense so far outside your means.”
“Oh, go stuff yourself.”
But as portentous as the day had been, I’m happy to report that three courses at Bertie’s place and a few drinks of something or other saw Bertie and I both into better spirits, and I was able to think about things with a critical, investigative eye once more.
“The thing to do is see the scene of the crime. The sword, not the engagements,” I said, my eyes narrowed in deep thought, my gaze piercing into the very heart of the problem.
“Of course. Say, Mimsy, something in your eye?”
Some people, no matter how well intentioned, have no appropriate sense of drama. I cleared my throat and carried on. “We’ll have to wrangle an audience with the Sommersets, and that’s that. They aren’t likely to be too friendly towards someone connected to the DeWintours like I am; I’ll have to try to sneak in under your banner. Wooster’s a good solid name. You are engaged to Mavis, though. Hmm."
“I seem to recall Aunt Agatha being on good terms with a cousin of a cousin of a Sommerset,” Bertie said, eyebrows furrowing. “I shudder to bandy her name about, but it might get us a look at the place.”
“That’s good of you,” I said with feeling, and that warmed him up. The guy likes being useful; I try not to take advantage. I’d do my best to keep him out of trouble, and perhaps I’d get in and out and on my way without anything catching fire.
Full of plans for the coming day, we shared a friendly evening and a friendly bottle, chatting like old pals do. Bertie did a few numbers on the piano, exciting modern stuff I knew the words to, and I croaked along with him while the valets disappeared somewhere to nurse their offended sensibilities.
We caught them later in the kitchen locked into a game of chess-- Johnson taking black and Jeeves white, both of them glaring at each other like a couple of street cats after the same garbage can. There was an even pile of captured pieces on each side of the table, though I thought Jeeves might almost have the upper hand-- but they broke it up when we arrived, sniffing at each other disdainfully as Johnson and I headed out.
As I toddled home, ignoring Johnson’s pointed comments in re: my singing and detecting and walking in a straight line abilities, it was with renewed strength and a sense of purpose towards the next day. And perhaps a bit of tipsiness, because I don’t recall getting through the door and getting into my nightclothes, but at some point my cheek hit the pillow and I slept the sleep of the moderately just.
Chapter 4: From the notes of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster: On Johnson
Being in the know as I was, I kept a sharp eye on the Dresden household at dinner that night. I felt a bit disappointed as the evening wore on and no shocking signs of Johnson’s background as a hardened criminal emerged. I was hoping for a throaty, foreboding laugh or a particular way of brandishing the silverware, but he comported himself pretty well for an American valet.
There were hard feelings between them-- a man who has known a superb valet can tell when a polite eyebrow means ‘go boil your head, sir’, and when “Thank you, Johnson, that will be all," is meant to sting most cruelly. Still, the domestic strife seemed to be generally no more pronounced than any time I’d brought home an article of clothing that Jeeves took a dislike to.
They did have a bit of a spat over an article in the paper. I hadn’t realized it would be a bone of contention, and wouldn’t have mentioned if I knew, but it was a really corking article-- full of intrigue and detecting-- and I thought Mimsy should like to see it.
The title was: ‘CHICAGO RACKETEER MURDERED!!’ and it was every bit as gripping as a title like that promises. I read my favourite bit out to Mimsy:
“‘The body fished from the Chicago River was in such a state of decay that a positive identification could not be made. Police discovered a silver tie pin that they confirmed to be the signature tiger's head of Gentleman Johnny Marcone, infamous bootlegger and racketeer and suspected one-time rival for control of Chicago's biggest North-Side gang.
"When asked for comment, Officer Murphy of the Chicago Police Department said: "It must be him. He disappeared months ago. Who did it? Well, the case isn't solved yet, but my money's on Marco Vargassi. They were old rivals, word on the street was.”' Isn't that something?" I asked the room at large.
"Shocking," Johnson agreed politely.
Well, I don't expect valets to show excitement. Still, I thought that was pretty neat detecting.
"Well isn’t that pretty neat detecting," Mimsy said, with tones of deep irony. "I hope Karrin hasn't read about her cousin’s splendid skills of deduction. She'll be ashamed to show her face."
"What in the world's wrong with it?" I asked, rather surprised at his fervor.
"What's wrong with it! Well, besides nobody pausing for a moment to think that you could put a tie pin on anyone."
"Oh," I said, frowning. "But--"
"But surely the criminal element is hardly so intelligent," Johnson interrupted smoothly, a certain mocking something in his eye.
"Oh, surely," Mimsy said back, with a bit of a growl. "You know what I think? I think they should all be rounded up and given hard labor."
"Very properly, sir," Johnson said quite deferentially, and I got the feeling that quite a bit more was being communicated than was being said.
It brought down the mood a bit, and I tried to liven things up with a bit of music, which worked a charm. Mimsy and I partook of a few more glasses, caroled out a few show tunes, and harmony was restored
"Say," I thought to ask, when Jeeves and Johnson had taken off to the kitchen. "That Johnson fellow-- HE'S not one of the You-know-who's, is he? He's a light fellow on his feet and he winds you up like a charm."
This observation didn't please Mimsy, who scowled. "Johnson! As human as they come, not even a wizard. But the Quality can't help being devious rotters, Bertie; Johnson's worse, because he chose to. But let's not talk about him!"
Sensitive to his feelings, I poured him another little something and retook the piano. "Say, have you ever heard 47 Ginger-headed Sailors?"
"Well, no," he said with interest, and I spent the rest of the evening teaching him the words. He took to it like a champ, with some noted enthusiasm for some of the lesser known verses, and even taught me a thing or two about what exactly I was saying about some of those sailors-- the bits an adventurous boyhood and the company of the Drones hadn’t taught me, of course. It's to be expected though, even if it is a bit startling. Americans take such a theater view toward the whole thing; everyone’s in on it. Not like home, where names need to be known and passwords need to be passed and about the flashiest bit of business you can wear is a green carnation. None of the masculine women and the feminine men, as the song says-- but we scuttle by. And I’m glad that Mimsy and his pals have a place to hang their hats, even if it’s in broader view than this Wooster would prefer.
As he and his dubious valet stole off into the evening and I started to prepare for bed, Jeeves braced me with a worried expression hiding around the corners of his eyes.
“I hope you will forgive me for speaking out of turn, but I must tell you, sir: I have the gravest doubts about Mister Johnson’s character.“
I wasn’t supposed to make free of the wheeze to others-- but informing Jeeves is hardly ‘making free’, and I could see that this distressed him. It moved the Wooster heart to see that concern for the young master, and I couldn’t leave him thinking I was in peril. I gave him a quick sum-up of the scheme. He still looked troubled at the end, but his worries had taken a different form.
“A most dangerous game, sir. I cannot say that such company is proper for a young gentleman.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, old thing,” I said with confidence. “Mimsy’s a good sort and stubborn enough to keep the most felonious of manservants in line. They may not get on, but the pair keep the household running more neatly than either could alone, and they’re more likely to get me in trouble on their own than as a matched set.” And as for Johnson, racketeer and smuggler he might be, but he seemed to restrict his evil energies to spatting like a school-boy with Mimsy-- who, it must be admitted, only encouraged him by returning it in kind.
“Besides,” I said. “If I were in trouble, you’d help me out of it, wouldn’t you, old thing?”
“Indeed, sir,” he said, in tones rather more fond. We may have our differences of opinion, Jeeves and I, but where there is perfect understanding (on his side) and perfect trust (on mine) there can’t be strife for too long.
That’s all for tonight; best turn in, there’s the Sommersets to charm tomorrow.
Ta for now!
Chapter 5: Calling on Sommerset
Dawn came and went without disturbing me, and it was more around ten-ish, the light warm and golden, when I broke the surface of consciousness.
It's the rare sort of morning that doesn't involve either a panicked knock on the door-- or an accusatory knock, come to think of it-- or Johnson deciding to stir me up for no other reason than his own amusement, but it does happen. Still, as I usually do on such mornings, I entertained the mild concern that the felonious scum had actually gotten himself shot during one of his late-night smuggling endeavors.
I struggled out into the living room in my pajamas and was immediately embraced by the smell of fried bacon. A glance toward the table confirmed that there was a breakfast spread, a bit less ostentatious than the one we'd put on for company, but still containing a welcome amount of scrambled egg and toast.
"Johnson?" I called out, a bit of a frown pulling at my face. "Is someone over?" Even he normally wouldn't stoop to embarrassing me this thoroughly in front of company, would at least get me from bed and tell me to make myself presentable, if unceremoniously so when the walls blocked our charade, but he'd been in a nasty mood yesterday with one thing and another. There hadn't been scandalized screams yet, but I wasn't counting the possibility out.
I needn't have worried: I was met pretty instantly with a: "You don't actually employ me, Dresden, I'm not at your beck and call," from the direction of his room.
"Just wondering if the food is poisoned, that's all," I said, cheerfully returning to our routine-- because he's never cooked me a hot breakfast that I haven’t followed with that question.
"Poison is expensive," he dismissed me, as usual. "I wouldn't waste it on you. The condition of getting such an agreeable price from the butcher included my promise to take a certain large quantity of the stuff, so you had better get used to it for the time being."
I didn't mind that thought at all, and I was pretty sure he knew it. More: "You didn't stir me out this morning or threaten to have me taken to the drunk yard. Are you feeling well?"
He came out of his room with a bundle of something in his arms. "As I just pointed out, I'm not your valet. Or your alarm clock. Wake yourself up." He tutted me away from the table as I was reaching for a piece of toast. "Oh, no you don't. Put these on first." At which point he shoved the bundle at me.
"What are they?" I took it gingerly, as one might the thoughtful gift of a live wolverine, and poked through the layers-- and, if I wasn't mistaken, they weren't anything but trousers, vest and shirt, albeit ones I only dimly recognized. "Where did you get them?"
"Out of your to-mend pile, the mighty peaks of which have not diminished since I entered your employ," he said with a mildish sneer. "The trousers needed letting out and the shirt had been slashed along the back-- the seam will be hidden by the vest, which needed entirely new buttons."
"I've been busy. I'd have gotten around to it," I said, and cast him a suspicious look. "As you've mentioned no less than twice this morning, you aren't actually my valet. It was specifically agreed when we started this ruse that you wouldn't do any more work than you had to to keep up the illusion, and I wouldn't be involved in your various criminal activities.”
“Well, maybe if you’d half attempt to look like you weren’t destitute-! You can’t be seen always in the same clothes, and if you go to the Sommerset’s dressed as badly as you did yesterday your aunt will hear about it.”
“Don’t you think she’s a little more likely to hear about it from the DeWintours? They’ve already seen me at my rumpled-est.”
“Hear about it, perhaps. But the difference between hearing it from a friend and hearing it from a social rival is immeasurable.”
I looked down at the clothes and up at him. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were sore about catching the gimlet eye from Wooster’s man the other day.”
His mouth tightened nigh-imperceptibly, but beyond that there was no other indication that the bolt had struck home. “Fortunately,” he said primly, the threat in his voice more veiled than a bride with a fear of drafts,“you do know me more deeply than most, and aren’t prone to fits of fantastical thinking. Get dressed. Quickly; I’m not going out of my way to save any breakfast for you.”
“Extortionist,” I labeled him, and snatched up the clothing.
His faults being as various and numerous as they are, Johnson is still passingly skilled with a thread and needle, and there was a certain buoyancy in my step when I left the house, setting out to the Pumpkin Club. Normally I’d have seen no downside to lunch at the Club; I’d sharp some confident high roller out of a few dollars and buy him a drink so that he’d leave feeling friendly, have lunch, and settle in to top up on the gossip that makes up a good detective’s stock in trade.
But I hadn’t been by since before Mavis’ bash-- thankfully enough, or I might be engaged to her too-- and I wasn’t looking forward to seeing what the attentions of one of New York’s most eligible elven heiresses had made of my old pals.
It was as grim as I’d feared. Bicky Bickersteth (a native of England but long exiled to our shores) and Thomas ‘Rotter’ Tomm had brought a croquet set in-- seemingly only the latest weapon in the Club’s battle among themselves to establish who would be the most favored husband of Mavis. Nearly the whole Club was in on it, going about the thing with all the strategism and forethought that one attributes to the bulls in Pamplona.
It was going badly; they’d realized after some experimentation that there was no way to stick the wickets into the solid old floors and had improvised with chairs, tables, and one clammy young man I recognized as Bertie’s friend Fink-Nottle. Said moist fellow was the gum in the works; he was pitching a fit over being used as a croquet hoop and all force, guile, and bribery wouldn’t keep him in one place.
I could see straight off that I wasn’t going to be roping any of these people into a friendly card game, and I didn’t want to eat lunch here anyway. I looked around to see who else was in. I could see three people not caught up in the havoc: good old Morty Lindquist, an older Clubber, had his head buried in the obituaries-- keeps strange company, does Morty, but he’s a solid pal-- and two figures, one fat, one thin, having a smoke in the corner. Them I wouldn’t touch for money if I hadn’t a dime to my name; Thorny Marcell and Magog Jackson were cronies of Dixon’s, a couple of unlikeable confidence men, Thorny the brain and Magog the brawn, both the type that you couldn’t give the time of day to without reaching into your pocket five minutes later to find your watch missing.
In short, nothing like good company. Except for Mort, but he looked so tickled by whatever murder he was reading about that I didn’t want to disturb him.
A nearby potted plant hissed at me.
I whirled-- I’d run across a few too many dryads and floral fiends in my time to reach the logical conclusion first. Someone who wasn’t up to his neck in magic, though, would have instantly and correctly guessed that there was someone hiding behind the plant; to whit, my pal and current client.
“Bertie,” I said with relief. “I thought I’d have to wait here for you.” I shot the croquet match a worried glance. Fink-Nottle’s dissatisfaction was reaching a precipitous peak, and I tried to shield my head from the rain without much luck.
“Just got here a few minutes ago myself; only just managed to convince Tuppy that I wouldn’t be taking part in any activity where anyone gives Stilton a large mallet.”
“He’s not here, is he?” I asked, ducking quickly behind the plant myself.
“No; apparently he’s off talking philosophically with that sword-wielding shadow of yours. They’re going to a lecture together about the moral decay of society.”
“That’s a break, I hope,” I said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t give them ideas.”
“I don’t see how they could be worse-- but let’s not be here to find out,” Bertie advised, and I found this pretty sensible advice.
We had to crouch in silence a while as a soup bowl went flying into the wall nearby (they’d sorted out the wickets only to realize there weren’t enough balls for everyone), and then made a break for the door.
“I had some dreadful news just the other day,” Bertie told me while we tiptoed past the Club’s windows. “I was talking over the Sommerset thing with Jeeves, and I’m afraid even the name of Aunt A won’t get us through the door. Jeeves warned me-- he had it from the Fotheringay’s underbutler who had it from the Williamson-Williamson’s chambermaid who got it straight from the Sommerset’s underbutler. Aunt Agatha was at a bit of a fête with some protégé or somesuch-- this Cyril Bassington-Bassington, an utter chump that I had the displeasure of shepherding around the metrop once or twice-- and he got into the wine and tried to return to his acting career. He up and did a monologue he called ‘highlights from A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and managed to horrify and offend all present who were, as I’m now in the know, of otherworldly origin. The resultant feud is still ongoing-- this Wooster is more likely a millstone around your neck than a help through the door.”
He looked less than thrilled about this, and I hurried to reassure him: “Not your fault, Bertie; we’ll manage somehow. If the thought of facing the family horrifies you, you needn’t come with me.” Truth be told, I would have been glad not to come with me, if I offered myself the chance.
“I should like to, though. I’ve never been at a crime scene before, not one that I wasn’t a suspect in.” He looked thoughtful for a moment; shook it off with a cheerful: “Well, I suppose Stilton thinks I’ve masterminded this one, too.” Where angels fear to tread, goes Bertie.
“Nothing to do but knock,” I said, giving him a companionable pat on the shoulder. “And well-- careful!”
We’d been so wrapped up in plotting that we’d drifted into the path of a young woman, her vision obscured by the load of parcels she was bearing-- we collided, and her packages scattered as if a billiards shark had shot a cue-ball into them.
“Miss, I’m so sorry,” I said, stooping down to help her gather them up. “I can’t say how--” and then for the second time in under a minute I completely failed to complete a sentence, as I looked into the lady’s pretty face. The familiar hair, golden as patriotic wheat, the sweet mouth and regal brow-- I mean to say! How often does a man sweep to the aid of a damsel on the street and, stooping to rescue her packages from the gutter, find himself face to face with his first love?
“Elaine Mallory!” I said, taken completely by surprise, heart filling with the warm memories of summers past, of the balmy remembrance of young affection. She took her feet quickly, and so did I, a few packages forgotten in my hands.
“Harry Dresden,” she said, eyes wide in similar shock. “You pig.” It was at this point that she punched me, and in hindsight I was due that one.
I stumbled back and fell onto my rear end-- punch like a lightning bolt, has good old Elaine, and time’s done her the favor of strengthening it-- and beamed up at her, rubbing my jaw, her packages back on the ground around me. “Elaine! I thought you’d gone off and joined a convent!”
“You would think that," she said darkly. "I suppose all young men think that if they jilt a woman she's so heartbroken that a nunnery is the only alternative."
"I'm terribly sorry about the wedding," I said sincerely, because it hadn't been entirely of my own volition that I'd ducked the altar, and once upon a time I'd had no dearer wish than to become Mister Elaine Mallory. "I had a bit of a scuff with Pastor Goodmorning-- I know you loved him terribly, Elaine, but he did turn out to be a sincerely bad egg."
"P’shaw, I know that," she said disdainfully. "On that terrible day when I learned about his inheritance scheme-- and was left at the altar-- and the church burned down--"
"It was an accident," I protested, retaking my feet. "Just a little magic. Got out of hand. I hardly meant to."
"I didn't think you did it on purpose, you boob," she huffed. "But you took to the hills like a common criminal. It was embarrassing, Harry. A girl can take her beloved guardian turning out to be a common con man. She can take a bit of jilting. But not on the same day, not like that. And you didn’t come back even after the Parish dropped the charges and rebuilt the church. It was really lousy of you.”
I stood, a man chastened. It hadn't been a proud day. That little display of youthful indiscretion had landed me in severely hot water with the servants of the laws of the land and also of magic-- the trial thereafter had landed me under the watchful eye of Doom'n'Gloom Morgan himself. And as for the cost of rebuilding the fine old church... well, I told you I was in dutch with my Aunt Lea.
"I was off on a sheep farm in Missouri. I couldn't help it."
"You could have written."
I hadn't precisely had a forwarding address, but it would be less than chivalrous to argue the point further, and she probably had a rejoinder to that, too. Never slow off the mark, Elaine.
"So what are you up to these days, Elaine, old pal?"
She sniffed, and patted her hair. "Well, after the whole debacle, I was kindly taken in by an old school friend. I'm a ward of the her family and doing some odd errands for her--I don't know if you know her; name of Rory Sommerset."
“I say, Mimsy,” Bertie said, and I blush to say I’d completely forgotten about him in the surprise of meeting Elaine again. “Isn’t that who you were going to see?”
"What's this?" Elaine said, frowning between the pair of us. “Who’s that?”
I could see that the burden of explanations and introductions was going to be up to me. “Elaine Mallory? Bertie Wooster, native of London, visiting us for the summer. Bertie? Elaine Mallory.
"As it happens, Mavis DeWintour has laid a certain amount of pressure on me to get her off the hook for the missing Sommerset Sword,” I admitted.
"Oh has she?" Elaine arched a significant eyebrow.
"She certainly has. And I can't do too much about it until I see the scene of the crime."
"Well." Elaine considered this. "Since you were rude enough to waltz back into my life after ten years, you and your dapper friend there might as well help me get these things back to the house." She sniffed, tipping her chin at her scattered load, redistributed to the graces of gravity with her punch.
“Right.” I said gratefully, re-gathering the packages that had fallen to the street, while Bertie collected an armful from her.
“I should warn you, you know,” she said, lifting her chin. “I think Mavis is dirty as anything and I’m going to prove it. You’re not the only detective in town-- Harry, old pal.” She shot me a challenging look and strode determinedly off, Sommerset-wards.
The Sommerset place was pretty much directly across town from the DeWintour manse, on a tree-lined avenue that I couldn’t help but notice was rather more green and flowered than the streets surrounding. It had a cheery air that buoyed the spirits-- Elaine must be used to it, as she strode confidently past the heady spring blooms with steps no more buoyant than usual, leading Bertie and I like a pair of sheepish ducklings right up the path to a big ivy-swathed house and around into the rear. We were both pretty fairly covered in cherry petals by the time she let us in the back door, and anyone might have taken us for just having come in out of a blizzard. It occurred to me that it was rather late in the season for the cherry trees to be in full bloom, and rather early for the purple and rouge spread of asters and irises beneath them, and then thought better of thinking of it at all, given who’s garden I was winding through.
The kitchen was as immense as the DeWintour place, and Bertie indulged in some gawping; I did too, a bit-- but it was only to put him at his ease, you understand.
“Just put the parcels on the table,” Elaine said crisply. “Felix will get them sorted. Felix?”
As if summoned by magic (except that he hadn’t been; I’d have noticed), a head of blond hair popped around a corner-- followed by the gangly body attached to it. This apparition turned out to be an awkward, slender young man, a few years my junior and a good head shorter than my shoulders, in a severe black suit that was slightly too big for him, and the aforementioned hair like the top of a dandelion, the blond so close to white I had to check the youthful face twice for wrinkles.
“Hello, Miss Elaine,” he said, holding himself up primly and desperately trying to look older than his age, his attempts belayed by the unfortunate fact that he would lose to a peach if they were opponents in the Pumpkin Club’s semi-annual mustache growing competition. “I trust your shopping went well?”
“Yes, thanks. Sorry, Felix, I do forget you’re filling in for Mister Reuel while he’s at seaside,” she said, with a smile of sympathy. “I can have these two ne’er-do-wells sort out the packages if Mrs. Sommerset’s got you hopping.”
(“I say,” Bertie objected, his protestations of innocence and frequent-do-wellness going sadly ignored.)
“It has been an uneventful sort of day,” young Felix said-- solemnity rather ruined when his voice made a break for the next octave higher, but he plowed on. “I am at your convenience.”
Bertie and I gratefully unloaded our armfuls on the table, nodding to the young dandelion and politely not commenting on the way his ears were turning tomato red.
“Why, thank you, Felicitus,” Elaine said, with some gravity. “I’ll be taking these young men upstairs to show them around a bit.”
“Splendid, ma’am,” he said with a very good try at an expression of aloof respect, holding himself up to his full height, chest puffed, until we were out of the room (I heard him deflating with a sigh behind us).
“Poor Felix is the underbutler,” Elaine explained in an undertone as she led us out of the kitchen and up the stairs. “Started terribly young, but Mister Reuel is so fond of him and was training him up himself-- until the robbery. The beast who did it got Ron from behind with a vase, and he took a tumble down two flights of stairs,” she said, with a sad headshake. “It’s a mercy he came away with only a bruised skull and a broken leg; he’s off at the shore to recover, and if the doctor says he’s not to work on his feet any more he may have to take the gold watch at last. He talks about a villa in Spain sometimes, where he can work on sculpture, but I don’t think he’d wanted to hand in the mitten and resign himself to the hammer and chisel so soon. And Felix is running himself ragged keeping things in order in the meantime.”
“And does young Mister Felicitus have an alibi?” I asked with a frown. “Reuel’s tumble down the stairs certainly tumbled him right into a fairly cushy spot.”
Elaine cast me a look of dismay. “Harold Dresden! Hold your tongue. Felix loves Ron like a father. Furthermore, he has got an alibi-- I compiled them for all the staff, even the ones who never would have done it. He was out at a performance of Rose Marie with some pals of his, and you can ask them yourself. I have the names.” She produced from out of her handbag a leather-bound book that in another lady’s possession would have been taken for a dear-diary; I knew her of old, though, and Elaine’s a more practical creature than that. She thrust a page at me, and I could see how full of dense writing it was, names and dates boldly circled and cross-referenced. It was a disheartening feeling to walk into a job and realize one’s two steps behind the rest of the pack, who is coincidentally making a good start at turning the whole affair into a 100 meter dash.
"You've got it all sorted out, I guess," I said, not too bitterly-- I can handle being beaten to the punch, and as long as I sorted out the engagements I'd still get a few dollars from Bertie. ...I'd handle Mavis' ire, somehow.
"Not by a long jump," Elaine said as she lead us through the warm, tree-filled halls (not the little kind in pots, I mean they came out of the floor, big fruit bearing things and oak trees that I was half sure would take away the ceiling). "I've cleared the staff here, but what am I supposed to do about the DeWintours? You can guess that I'm less welcome in that household than a revenuer, good luck getting evidence or a witness statement. Unlike some young men I know."
"Are you suggesting we swap evidence?" I asked. "Share and share alike, an even footrace to the solution?"
"I may've been hinting in that direction," Elaine said agreeably. "But where's your cute friend got off to?"
I didn't think it was exactly by Hoyle, calling an old flame's pal 'cute' to his face, the old flame’s face, I mean, not the pal’s. But then again, our split was a fairly done and friendly thing, the overdue punch aside; if Elaine wanted to make a pitch at Wooster and stand the test of his valet (I should warn her, if she was serious), then that was her business.
The other important detail, of course, was where the heck had Bertie vanished to?
We backtracked quickly, finding him caught in reverie in front of a set of massive oak double doors, buttressed by thorn trees; one of the doors was half open, which meant you could get two horses side by side through the opening without leaving hair. Through the doors was a darkened room that smelled of a sharp, spicy tobacco and appeared to be dominated by, not floating animal heads, as my first wild imaginings had it, but hunting trophies. The mistake wasn't so difficult to make; the only light in the room was a dim red fire, burning despite the general warmth of the house, and the walls were dark.
Seated under a glaring ram's head was a large, shadowy figure in the kind of canvas gear you'd expect to see on a man on safari, not in his own home; he was buried behind his afternoon paper but as I bumped accidentally into Bertie's back and Bertie let out a startled yawp, he lowered the newspaper and looked at the three of us.
His eyes caught the firelight rather menacingly, and at his grumble, a manservant (less peoplish than moreso) appeared at the door to slam it briskly in our faces.
"That poor servant," Bertie said, shaken. "Had he been in an accident?"
"Rafforut dropped a bust of the Lord Marshal on his foot the other day; good of you to notice his limp," Elaine said, taking his elbow.
"It's all right," I whispered, taking his other side. "Goblins are meant to look like that."
Elaine steered us back onto track, airily saying: "And don't mind the Earl; he's a grouch, but he wouldn't have you hunted down and stuffed just for visiting."
"Thanks a bundle, Elaine," I said dryly. "It puts my heart at ease."
“Any time, Harry,” she said.
I saw Bertie giving me a puzzled look and mouthing ‘Harry?’. I shrugged; I’d done my best to make the name stick, but Mimsy had stuck a little more doggedly. Elaine, bless her, had always used it anyway, after I asked her to.
The three of us broke out of a last tree-lined hall and into a foyer lined with more trees and illuminated by the golden-tinted sunlight breaking in through the high windows; Elaine tugged us along as we gawped around and started us up a wide oaken staircase, at the top of which was a carven alcove. Once we had ascended the peak of the stairs (two flights, in fact, with a wide landing between), between huffing and puffing and leaning with my hands on my knees, I could see that there was a copper wire-work grill in front of it, hanging half open, with a heavy lock set into the wall. Inside the alcove was a pair of sad, empty pegs, where might have hung, for example, a sword.
“Whoever it was got the key off of Ron,” Elaine said, and I straightened up and tried to stop making a sound like a broken bellows when I breathed. She’d taken the steps like a light stroll, I couldn’t help but notice. I suppose that’s the kind of healthy living Aunt Lea is always telling me about-- she certainly thinks I could do with more exercising (although she usually recommends a brisk trot at the end of a lead and then a nice bowl of mince).
“Was he the only one with a key?” I asked, trying to disguise my wheezing by way of inspecting the lock closely.
“The culprit pushed Ron down the stairs and took the key from his belt,” Elaine clarified, her mouth hardening in a scowl.
I grimaced sympathetically, and asked again. “Was he the only one who had a key to take?” I mentally counted up the years Elaine would have spent with the Sommersets, and worried it had been too many, if she was starting to answer questions like the Quality. It’s a fetish for them, not answering with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ when a coy misdirection will do. An answer like that sounds quite a bit like ‘no, Harold, nobody else has a key’ when in fact it’s nothing of the sort, you see?
But Elaine happily proved me wrong by going on: “The family have their own keys, of course-- Mrs. Sommerset and the Dowager, and Rory, and the Earl-- Lily will when she comes of age but she’s still in school. Ron’s is the only one missing though.”
“Lily?” I asked, abandoning my lock perusal.
“Rory’s little sister-- oh, Harry, you don’t suspect her, do you?” Elaine said, exasperated. “She’s about the size of a kitten and she’d sooner break her own leg than hurt Ron. He’s practically her second father.”
I had to admit that it seemed unlikely.
“I say, Mimsy,” Bertie came up behind me, tapping something against my arm. “Look here, have you seen-?”
There were light footsteps down the upper hall, and Elaine straightened up quickly, sorting out her dress and tucking her hair into place. “Look respectable, Harry, here comes Rory.”
She hooked me by the elbow and tugged me towards the stairwell, leaving poor Bertie to scuff around by the alcove.
“Rory! Rory, this is Harry Dresden. My old friend, I’ve told you about him. Mavis has roped him in on the sword case-- wants to clear her name-- and I’ve told him what nonsense that is.”
It took me a moment to see who she was talking to: then the young lady drifted into my line of sight like she was carried by the breeze on a summer day, slender and long-limbed, her hair as long and golden as said summer day’s afternoon-- if lighter, almost white, like a child’s after too much time in the sun-- and her eyes a sparkling green of a shade not usually seen on the fauna side of the flora/fauna divide. Her face was sweet, almost a twin to Mavis’, with her round cheeks and Clara Bow smile, but her healthy flush put one more in mind of youthful energy than a youth spending her energy in whole manner of unsuitable ways.
“Hello, Harold,” Rory Sommerset said graciously. She was wearing a loose dress that fell below her knees, simple demure sleeves and collar, belted with a sash about the waist, and not a fringe in sight. I wondered, briefly, if she had gotten it from the Dowager’s closet; I hadn’t thought anyone made dresses like that for young women anymore, at least not without some beaded embellishment, lest they be dismissed from the practice of dressmaking on the charge of being too much of a wet blanket.
“Harry, this is Rory Sommerset,” Elaine said formally. “And, oh! His friend Bertie!” she remembered.
We ‘hello’d’, poor Bertie having to shuffle up so we weren’t blocking him entirely, nodding politely. I didn’t reach to take her hand--and was cornering Bertie in too closely to the wall to let him offer a friendly shake-- because you never know quite how one of the Old Families might interpret being given your own in return.
“Hello, Bertie,” she said, giving us both a gentle smile, rather akin to the sun coming out from behind a cloud, or however the poets might say it, and taking Elaine’s arm. “I’ve heard some good stories about your friend Harold from Elaine, here, but none about you. How are you enjoying your visit?”
“Smashing,” Bertie said cheerfully, “Those trees are something else; do you have to rake up after them indoors in the autumn?”
Rory tipped her chin back to laugh prettily. “Oh my, you are a clever one, Bertie! I must get to know you better.”
I fixed my smile in place and turned quickly to Bertie, trying to let him know with my eyes that that would probably not be the best idea, all things considered, but he missed me entirely, his attentions still on Rory. “I say, have I seen you before? It’s just that you look frightfully familiar. Do you know George Caffyn?”
"I can’t say the name springs to mind, darling!" She gave a shy little look. "I'm not quite as good as mingling as that Mavis is. I know she's quite the social butterfly this season, with those poor-- oh dear, you aren't one of her new beaus, are you?"
"It was an accident," Bertie offered sheepishly.
"Oh dear, I'm so sorry. She does take to these flights of fancy. She's a sweet girl-- I firmly believe the best in her-- but sometimes she doesn't think at all," the young Ms. Sommerset said, free of judgment and ire. "Well, I'm sure it will turn out for the best!"
And saying so she stepped forward to press an impetuous kiss to Bertie's cheek.
"I say," he said, going red as a sunburn.
"Er!" I said, and Elaine stepped on my foot.
"Oh, dear, Harold thinks I mean to enthrall you. I don't at all, Bertie!" She extended her hand, palm down. "Here, let's make it even and you won't have to worry."
Bertie dipped almost to his knee to kiss her knuckles. Elaine gave me a smug look, which wasn't called for. I hadn't asked to work for Mavis.
“But I’m being terribly rude,” Rory realized. “Who’s George Caffyn? If he’s a friend of yours I should like to hear all about him.”
“Er, he’s...” Bertie almost went cross-eyed. “He’s a pal of mine. He. Hmm. You know it’s terribly hard to bring him to mind just now.”
“Well no wonder you’re confused! With the things Mavis must have put you through,” Rory said, her face aglow with sweet sympathy. “Some of poor Mavis’ beaus are having a rest in my sitting room, recovering from the ordeal-- oh, not that I mean to say that Mavis is an ordeal! But they’d gotten a little tired of her scene and wanted someplace to rest. I’m afraid it’s not quite so exciting here,” she said. “Would you like to join them?”
I wasn’t sure how to warn him off-- I have a sense for when I or a chum is being messed around-- but apparently Bertie’s also developed a second sense for when a lady was trying to wind him around her littlest finger, if perhaps not literally in this case, but you never know, because he gave her a shaky smile and said that no, he’d just toddle out for a bit of fresh air. So never let it be said that he’s without common sense.
“Just what will do you good, dear Bertie. Felix will see you out,” Rory said. “Felix?” But this time, the young man didn’t appear on command. “Felix,” she called again, voice carrying like a skylark’s, and then frowned. “Elaine, be a dear, will you, show him to the front door and then try to sort out where Felix has gone?”
“Of course, Rory,” Elaine said deferentially-- she might be on first name terms with the Misses Sommersets, but I could sense that ‘ward’ fell somewhere betwixt and between above-stairs and below-stairs.
Rory turned her sunny attentions back to me. “So you’re helping Elaine with our little mystery! I hope Mavis isn’t dogging you too hard; she’s such a tyrant to her friends. She doesn’t mean to, I’m sure.” The heiress sighed and shook her blond locks sadly. “But it’s all too bad. There really isn’t a mystery; if I could only bear to break the news to Elaine you could have spared a whole trip.”
“You’ve got proof it was Mavis?” I said, heart sinking.
“Oh, heavens, no. She wouldn’t dare, not in Mama’s house,” Rory said. “No, it was Lily, Mama’s almost certain of it! My poor little sister. I’m sure she didn’t mean to do any harm; she just thought it would be a sort of a prank. She and dear Reuel must have startled each other in the dark. The poor thing.”
I compared this to ‘about the size of a kitten’. “Poor little Lily pushed the butler down two flights of stairs?”
“I told Mama not to let her go see the roller derby,” Rory agreed with a sigh.
“But she’s confessed?”
“Oh, no. I can only imagine how frightfully guilty she feels-- she denies it completely but who else could it be? We found one of her slippers right on the landing, she must have dropped it running back to her room. Oh Lily. I’m sure she’d thought she could put his key back before he even noticed it was missing; she’s always had the lightest touch. He must have startled her so-- I’m sure she didn’t mean to hit him so hard with that vase. We all understand it was a prank gone wrong. If only she’d just talk to us.”
“Can I have a word with her?” I asked hopefully, and got another wistful sigh.
“How I wish you could, Harold! But Mama’s frightfully angry with her-- she packed her straight off to Mrs. Stonewright’s School for Girls until she’ll tell where the sword is hidden. It’s such a wretched place, Harold, I wish she could come home. I miss her so.”
“Well,” I said, troubled, not the least at the apparently universal habit young heiresses had to make free of my given name. “I suppose you don’t want me to tell Elaine?”
“Oh no, please. Can you imagine-- coming from a stranger. You’re not a stranger, of course, but it should be one of us.”
“Well. I’ll just look around-- in case, you know.”
“Of course, darling.” She flitted over with me, looking encouragingly over my shoulder as I poked around behind ornamental plants and looked under side tables.
I was turning up deuces when Elaine came back, looking troubled. “Rory, I can’t find Felix anywhere. I think he must have gone out for something; I wish he wouldn’t work so hard. He should send Rafforut or Korrick on errands; they’ll listen to him even though he’s younger.”
“Oh, dear,” Rory said, looking more downcast than ever. “Oh, what a dreadful day it’s turning out to be.”
“Something wrong, dearheart?” Elaine asked with genuine affection, and Rory gave her a brave smile.
“No, Elaine honey.” Rory dimpled and gave her a gentle, sisterly kiss on the cheek. “It will be all right. I’ll shoo the boys out of the grotto and we can have some sandwiches, what do you think? Oh-- but can you show Harold out?”
“Of course.” Elaine gave her a warm look. “I’ll be right up.”
Rory floated out on the same warm breeze that had brought her in-- but I should be careful with my poetics, because she’s the kind of girl who might just literally be borne off on a breeze whether she was inside or not.
Not that I’m not sure I didn’t feel a ruffle of wind around the tips of my ears as she left.
“Isn’t she a doll?” Elaine said loyally. “I hate what this burglary has done to her. I’m going to find out which of Mavis’ little lackeys did the job and give him three or four kinds of hell, you watch me.”
“It still might not be Mavis,” I protested.
“Oh applesauce, Harry. Who else would do such a thing?” She cracked her knuckles, baring a wrist and the thick chain-link bracelet around it. “Whoever it is, I’ve got a dandy new lightning spell worked out.”
“So it’s going to come as a shock to them?” I sallied weakly, and Elaine gave me a grin and a slap on the arm.
“That was absolutely terrible, Harry. I am awfully glad to see you, though. Let’s not wait ten years till we meet up again.” She offered me her arm, and I took it; the trip down the stairs was a good deal easier than that up it, and I was able to converse pretty handily as she led me along, without sounding like a locomotive.
“Let’s not! We’ll have to swap intelligence on the case anyway-- tomorrow night, do you think?”
“All right! Somewhere with a good spread-- in the beverage way,” Elaine said thoughtfully.
“Well, Mac has the best this side of the Mason-Dixon line, but finding a quiet corner of the Kitty Kat Club is like looking for a needle in a haystack. After the haystack’s been set on fire.”
She laughed heartily. “Nonsense, sounds wonderful. I need to get out on the town a little, I’ve been setting my nose to the grindstone so hard on this sword case, I haven’t been able to breathe! I’m surprised you can’t see the polished shine. No, let’s do the Kitty Kat,” she said decisively. “Sounds like a hoot. Bring your English friend along. We might need a chaperon.”
“Oh bah, more like I’ll be chaperoning for you pair,” I said, putting on a long face to tease her. “Nine-ish, then? I don’t run my act tomorrow so I should be free all evening.” I ought to have known that saying that was going to jinx me, but I can only plead that I was carried away with optimism at rekindling my friendship with Elaine.
“I’ll bring my notes! And hope I remember how to decipher your awful chicken-scratch,” she said fondly. “Gosh, Harry, it’s good to see you again!” She'd said as much already but I returned the sentiment whole-heartedly and didn't mind it repeated-- so much so that I voiced my agreement once again.
Then we fell into a sort of patter about what we'd been up to between then and now, Elaine never having been to Chicago, but both of having seen San Fransisco in different years, and before I knew it we were standing in front of the back door to leave.
"I've got to see about Rory," she said, freeing my elbow. "I left Bertie right outside in the garden; if he hasn't found a bit of stray sod he'll be easy to spot. Keep yourself in one piece till tomorrow, won't you? "
I bowed gallantly and promised that I would-- another terrible temptation placed right in fate's grasp, but I've always been a bit silly when it comes to a pretty girl.
I waved her goodbye and stepped smiling out into the garden.
Where I found a terrible tableaux including Bertie Wooster, young Felix, a short, stocky young man with dark curly hair, sunglasses, and an unfortunate attempt at a mustache, and a young woman with fists like a couple of hams and shoulders about as wide as a Model T.
"There's Mavis' lacky!" the young woman exclaimed.
"Who?" asked Bertie, more than a bit disoriented-- understandable, as he was being dangled by one ankle from the sturdy young woman's steely grip.
"Hah! You won't get away with this!" she said, shaking him a bit. "Come to find a scapegoat and clear up Mavis, have you? Toss Lily under the wheels of convenience, will you?"
"Yeah!" said the stocky young man.
"What?" I said, helplessly.
"It's a stinking, filthy frame-up," the lady growled. "And we won't stand for it. Lily's innocent!"
“Well that’s fairly likely, in fact!” I said, bewildered. Rory might think her little sister had done it, but I wasn’t convinced for a second; I trust Elaine’s judgment pretty far, farther than one of the Quality any day.
“Yeah! Hold on, it is?” said the stocky young man.
“Say what?” said the lady, and let Bertie slip from her grasp.
“Ouch!” said Bertie, landing in an ungainly heap.
Felix cleared his throat-- young and untested he might be, but he’d patently gotten top marks in Reuel’s ‘respectful throat clearing for domestic staff’ lessons, and we all fell silent-- except Bertie, who was groaning a bit, but none of us blamed him.
“I apologize,” Felix said with great aplomb. “I seem to have misconstrued your reason for visiting, Mister Dresden. I was under the impression that Miss DeWintour, having framed the youngest Miss Sommerset, had sent you to further secure the deception.”
I mentally gave him top marks for four-dollar words and dignity, but had to regretfully mark him down in the subject of not looking like a dandelion.
“To that end,” he continued respectfully, seeing as he had our attention, “I summoned Miss Oglesby and Mister Mann to talk over the matter with you.”
“Oh, don’t call me Miss Oglesby, Felix, you know it gives me a rash,” the young lady said uncomfortably, voice modulated to a bare bellow. Then to me: “You aren’t here to shove Lily further into the soup?”
“No. I am here to solve the case at Mavis’ behest, but it’s not a done thing, and from what Elaine told me Lily’s as likely a vote to have done it as my pal Mac is for orator of the year.”
“Well gosh! Terribly sorry!” she said, her booming voice all apology, and offered one of her massive meathooks to Bertie. “I’ve got it all wrong, then, sorry about the little nudge.”
“Quite all right,” Bertie said weakly, sticking to his guns as a preux chevalier even as he allowed her to pull him easily to his feet. “Don’t think we’ve met. Bertie Wooster.”
“Meryl Oglesby! This is Ace Mann,” she said, indicating the squared off young doorstop beside her.
“Yeah!” he confirmed.
“Lovely to meet you!” Bertie said graciously, dusting himself off and plastering a smile back on. “This is Mimsy Dresden. Mimsy? Meryl, Ace.”
“Charmed,” I confirmed, and stuck out my hand for a bone-crushing shake from Meryl. “Are you, er, affiliated with the Sommersets?”
“DeWintours! A few times removed, no love lost,” Meryl boomed. “Just enough of the line in me to be trouble. Nothing against the Sommersets, not a bit. I’m not particular friends with the elder Miss, if you get me, but Mister Reuel’s a solid old bird and Lily’s a great pal. Met her in finishing school.”
“I don’t suppose either of you did the sword deal,” I said, without much hope.
“Couldn’t have! Out at Rose Marie with Felix, we both were.”
“Yeah!” said Ace.
So this was young Felix’s alibi. They could be in cahoots, but I didn’t think that was particularly likely either. I’d keep it in mind, but I wasn’t going to pound down Miss Oglesby’s door any time soon. For my own safety, if nothing else.
“You’ve got to to clear Lily,” said blossom of womanhood exhorted me in thundering tones. “She’ll wither at Stonewright’s. It’s a misery, that place. I know she didn’t do it. Can’t prove it, but I know she didn’t.”
“Well,” I said, not wanting to engage Meryl in a discussion of the finer points of detecting lest she engage me in a discussion of the blunter points of her right hook. “I’ll certainly keep that in mind. I’m comparing notes with Elaine Mallory. She’d never let Lily go down for it if she wasn’t guilty, would she?”
“Guess she wouldn’t, at that!” Meryl said thoughtfully. “All right! Sorry to have bothered you!”
“Yeah?” Ace said, dubiously, but didn’t prevent Bertie and me from trotting rapidly out of the garden and away from the whole scene.
“Well, I certainly am getting a long list of people who didn’t steal the thing,” I said, once we were safely a few streets away and only surrounded by tne normal amount of seasonal greenery. “Sorry for getting you mixed up in this, Bertie. I should have had you wait in safety.”
“P’shaw,” he said magnanimously. “If you knew Honoria Glossop you wouldn’t think for a moment that I haven’t been dangled by my feet a time or two, and on the back lawns of much less interesting houses to boot. This is all old hat to me; dire and fae Mavis may be, but she hasn’t once told me that the stars are God’s daisy chain or tried to have me read improving books. If you ask me to steal a silver cow creamer, Mimsy, then I fear we’ll part ways until the case is done-- barring that extremity, though, I am your faithful assistant! The Watson to your detective. It’s as much excitement as I’ve had in ages.”
“Well!” I said, significantly bucked up by his expression of trust. “Glad to hear it! We’ll grab some grub, talk it over-- you have to try to remember why you though of George Caffyn, it might be important.”
“Caffyn’s a friend of mine. Lives in this very city-- in the theater business. But for the life of me, I can’t remember what Rory Summerset would have to do with it. If I remember, I’ll tip you the word.” He started. “But say! I tripped over something when we were poking about the scene of interest, wedged under a side table. Here!”
I hefted the packet of cigarettes. “Probably not Poor Little Lily’s,” I observed, unless PLL had picked up more bad habits at the roller derby than just pushing butlers down stairs.
“I haven’t seen that brand around,” I said, eyeing the gold lettering suspiciously.
“They’re European,” Bertie told me helpfully, “French-- Bingo Little smoked them for a while, before he discovered a new American brand, or was it the heavy Scottish ones...? You don’t suppose it’s a clue do you, Mimsy? I mean to say, if it isn’t this Reuel chappie’s, it could be the thief’s!” That it could. I thought I just might have seen the brand before, for all they weren’t in my local drug store, though I couldn’t pick it off the tip of my tongue. Might be just the thing for a little spell I knew.
“Quite likely,” I agreed, and tucked the packet into a pocket, nodding to him. “A good find, Bertie. Way to keep your eyes peeled.” He looked pleased.
My stomach rumbled, and I eyed the sun, trying to gage what time it was. Late afternoon sometime, but still hot and bright enough out to be darn near mid-morning. Still, this was same place we’d entered the Sommerset estate, and it was roughly the proper time. Elaine had done us a favour. Much like a pocket watch won’t keep accurate time for me, the Old Families aren’t keen shots at keeping time with the rest of the world.
“Say, I could about mangle a steak,” I suggested. “Or a sandwich. You know, over at King’s--”
“Love to, Mimsy,” he said a little too quickly. “Only I have reservations at the Ritz and I was hoping to treat you.”
“You hit below the belt,” I said with a sigh. “When in Rome, Bertie, eat American cuisine! You pale at the sight of a milkshake. I can’t allow your palate to go unexpanded this way.”
“Maybe another night,” he said, all innocence, but I’d wager about as much on him actually agreeing to it as I’d put on Shoeless Joe Jackson for the ‘26 World Series.
“Well, have it your way. Wait, I need to stop by Bock’s newsstand; going to grab a racing form.” I didn’t mention I was doing it for Johnson as a quick and pleasing favor; Bertie would think I going was soft on him, when the truth was I just all-too-aware of my mended clothes, far better suited for company than anything from my usual wardrobe and far less threadbare. As I had told Bertie the night before: Johnson’s as human as they come, but he’s an extortionist and a crook down to the very soles of his feet. I wasn’t going to keep the scale tipped in his favor; much like the Old Families, our little household worked best in balance. One good turn deserves another, lest the whole ruse crash to the floor. Not to mention, I couldn’t let the fink think he was the only one who knew how to do a favor. He would know what it was about; no need to explain the most distinct un-softening of my feelings to that crook.
I consoled myself somehow with duck a l’orange and a slice of chocolate cake about the size of my fist and was back in charitable spirits toward my friend as we wended back to his place for a drop of something or other-- the Ritz, although pretty swell in all other respects, having been pretty scrupulous about prohibition laws.
Once in his flat, though, on adjourning to the kitchen to break out the good stuff, we were braced by the valets, or reasonable imitations thereof, as the case may be in the case of Jonathon J. Johnson.
They’d been having a poker game, but they levitated up from the kitchen chamber so neatly you couldn’t hear the chairs scoot, cards abandoned. They were playing for toothpicks; it looked like Johnson might have had the upper hand by a sliver, but it was a close thing-- and we’d never get to see how it panned out; they had a proposal for us.
“Sir, Mister Dresden; if you permit it, we have a proposal for you,” said Jeeves.
“What, you too?” Bertie exclaimed, eyes dancing. “Not another one, Jeeves!”
Jeeves gave him what might have been a fond look, perhaps a nigh-imperceptible softening in the expression, as if the severity of his perfectly starched collar had relaxed or the cool shine off of his perfectly brilliantined hair had warmed. “I hope indeed that this proves to be more acceptable,” he said perfectly straight-facedly, and for all that I generally consider Bertie about as deep as a puddle there was pretty obviously a subterranean conversation happening in which a joke was shared and enjoyed.
It must be nice, I guess.
“We have, after some deliberation, developed a method by which Mavis’ suitors may be extricated from their coercive engagements,” Johnson agreed, looking suspiciously at Jeeves.
“Have you!” I said, a bit surprised, contrasted to Bertie’s warm “Knew you would, old thing!”
Jeeves looked pleased, I think, if the fractional shift in his eyebrows and slight re-shaping of his eyes was any indication; Johnson twitched the corner of his mouth about two hair-widths and looked somehow infinitely smug. I scowled at him, trying to tell him with my eyes not to get too full of himself: he was still a rat and a fink and scum of the worst order. He smarmed back at me, and I dare to think we could have gone on indefinitely if we hadn’t been interrupted.
“It depends on several factors,” Bertie’s man said. “First; these young men are of some breeding and should have some record of the family line; bound in a bible, perhaps, or a book of peerage. We require these records at least one full day before they are presented at the wedding ceremony itself, and the gentlemen need to have these records in their hands for church the morning of the gala.”
“They’ll be in church?” I wondered. “The fae aren’t much for the wine and wafers, last I heard anything about it.”
Johnson smirked a bit. “Through various channels, I am given to assume that the excursion is less an exercise in piety and more a ritual observation of the rival faction’s numbers and fashion.”
“Sounds likely,” I said, thinking back to Pastor Goodmorning’s congregation in Iowa. There were tides there that rose and fell based on the gravitational pull of large hats.
“Whatever the tradition, our sources are certain: the Gala falls on a Sunday this year, and church will be attended. It is there that the plan will unfold,” Jeeves said.
“Jeeves,” Bertie said delicately. “One hates to mention, but Tuppy and Bingo and Fink-Nottle and Oofy Prosser likely didn’t pack their pedigrees when they made for the shores of the New World, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t bring mine. Did we?”
“I was told,” Jeeves said, looking a question at Johnson, “that this would not be an insurmountable obstacle.”
“I can get to England, of course,” I said, dubiously. “But that’s quite a bit of work for something that’s not a sure thing.”
“Tish, Mimsy. If you can procure the paperwork and Jeeves said it will work, I trust him,” Bertie said, rising admirably to the defense of his valet. Johnson gave me an impassive look, but his eyes had a peculiar sheen, and I fancy perhaps he was anticipating Bertie’s next comment with a little smug foreknowledge. “If you can get to England in less than a day’s time, which I’m not sure how you’ll manage.”
“On foot, of course,” I said.
“Know a shortcut between New York and Manchester?” he said, giving me a deeply doubtful look.
“No. But I know someone who does.” I sighed. “We’ll have to buy a book. Meet me tomorrow, Bertie, at Hendricks’ Booksellers.”
Chapter 6: From the notes of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster: On Matrimony
Devoted readers will know that this Wooster’s excursions into the shadow of matrimony have been a pretty mixed bag. On the one hand, there have been some sallies on the Wooster side; I am not blameless. It was I who first broached the question to Florence Craye, under the sway of her handsome profile; I made a shot for Stiffy Bing once, and I came within a hair of being Pauline Stoker’s lifemate by my own intent. But mostly I seem to sort of tumble into the thing, being in the wrong place, saying the wrong thing, giving off whatever terrible radiance it is that seems to signal young women that ‘here is a young man who devotedly wishes to be your spouse.’
Hearing that Mimsy had a few disasters in his wake was rather heartening, actually; though I'd never wish misery on another chap, finding him sitting in the same hole as I did meant that at least there was enough company for a round of gin rummy.
"So that Elaine filly seems spirited," I said, over dinner at the Ritz that evening. "Thinking of rekindling the old flame?"
"I can't say it didn't cross my mind," Mimsy said, spearing a piece of asparagus on his fork. "But it crossed it pretty fast with a pack of common sense on its heels.” He shook his head, chewing the top off said asparagus. “No, Elaine and I are split for good; we were just kids when we were engaged; in the cold light of adulthood, the proposition isn’t quite for either of us."
I remembered that the number was about ten years past, and tried to do the subtraction in my head. "But that would have even been before I met you. You couldn't have been more than sixteen or so."
"No 'or so'," he replied, chasing down a fingerling potato with relish. Demonstrating relish at the prospect of spearing said potato, I should say; there was no chutney to be seen. "We were both sixteen: Iowa's pretty traditional about that kind of thing; it didn't raise any eyebrows. I don't think I'd be an unhappier man if it'd gone off-- well, as long as Pastor Goodmorning hadn't managed to fleece us for everything like he'd planned." Mimsy shook his head, eyes going slightly strained as he peered back into the past. "It was the day of the wedding when I overheard him talking with Walker, his lawyer, about the scheme. I confronted him, and-- well, The Pastor's a wizard. Like Elaine and I. It got pretty heated and spells were flung around without much thinking about it and between one thing and another, the next thing I knew Goodmorning was out cold with a broken nose and Walker had gone and the church was on fire."
"My word!" I said. "Anyone hurt?"
"Nothing but the hardwood; I legged it pretty fast to Lea's place and didn't look back, not even to see about Elaine. Whence came this shiner," he said meditatively, patting at his jaw, and I had to say that the punch the good Miss Mallory had landed was blooming into quite the battle scar. "The first of a series of bad engagements. Nothing on your record, of course."
"Well, tell me all about it," I offered loyally, cutting into my filet de bœuf.
“Well,” He went a little red. “I don’t like to. I mean there’s traditional and then there’s traditional, and a fellow doesn’t like to-- well.” He cleared his throat, took a drink from his water glass. “Cousins and things. I know it’s done. Perhaps even aunts when said aunt isn’t precisely of blood relation.”
“I say, your Aunt Lea?” I paused with a forkful of steak halfway through the journey to my mouth. A fellow could be content-- better than content-- with his life and the lack of female entanglement therein, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate the charms of the species from afar, and it is this Wooster’s opinion that Ms. MacShea is greatly endowed with charm.
“Don’t look so moony, Bertie!” He stabbed an asparagus spike at me like a weapon. “It was awful! I didn’t know, but she’d decided that the best way to keep her promise to Mom was to go ahead and marry me when I came of age; it wasn’t as if she’d be getting older in the interim, and once she had me by the ring finger she could keep me someplace out of trouble and keep a close eye on me as she wished. The first thing I heard about it she showed up to Farmer Ebenezar’s place while I was tending the sheep and announced the date of the ceremonies. I don’t know how good old Eb managed to talk her out of it. ...Well, I suppose the barn burning down helped.”
“Mimsy, you seem to have veered into a different anecdote,” I informed him. “What barn? What burning down?”
“What do you mean what barn? Of course there was a barn. You don’t think Eb let the sheep sleep in the house, do you? Would the horses eat in the kitchen? The goats pen in the landing?”
“No, and your reasoning is sound, but how did fire enter the picture?”
“Funny thing, that-- see, I was practicing a bit of a conjuring trick, a bit of the old sleight of hand, something impressive, and one of the goats had gotten out of the yard somehow and, seeing as I was using an apple, decided it wanted it for its own. And if you’ve never had a goat bleat directly into your ear from the distance of about an inch--” he shuddered. “You would have thought it was a monster from the abyss, too. I cast the first spell I could think of-- didn’t hit the poor beast, so there’s that-- but then the haystack by the barn had caught and that was all for it.”
He paused, a considering look on his face while he chewed a bite of his duck, chasing a bit of sauce around the plate with his next bite. “Now that I think about it it, her zeal did seem pretty noticeably dimmed when she left. She gave me a pat on the head, and told me to stay out of trouble, and reminded me that there are three other elements. I think she was afraid for her kennels.”
I nodded “Showing a bit of irregularity can be just the discouraging element a young man needs to ward off the families of eligible young ladies. Or eligible young family. Jeeves came up with this real corker once, where he convinced Sir Roderick Glossop that I was dotty by letting my cousins and their chum hide a bunch of cats in the flat and then let the old fellow think I was mad about the beasts-- and that I’d stolen his hat! Made me look like a hopeless boob, but I escaped the grasp of Honoria. Glossop will barely tolerate my company to this day, which is generally to be considered something of an advantage.”
He brightened, but them dimmed. “Some people won’t be dissuaded. I set Nicky Dixon’s tablecloth on fire, once, and he’s still after me to work in that factory of his.”
Dixon was ranked as one of his chief concerns, I had learned on this visit, second only to the comely shadow of his aunt and the attentions of that fellow with the sword, Morgan. I’ve met Nicky Dixon; a friendly looking fellow with a severe tie and a positive mania for the intrepid spirit, if that’s the word I want-- (at the time of this writing Jeeves suggests it’s entrepreneurial I’m after). Why he thought Mimsy was such a catch I had no idea.
“Being engaged to Ash was so lovely at first,” Mimsy remembered, drifting away on his own thoughts. “We stomped around the Sumerian exhibition at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, we visited booksellers together, we went to guitar concerts-- all the courting things. I mean, her family’s rotten to the core but I thought she might be different. It just goes to show, I suppose, that a pretty face isn’t everything. Her cousin Roseanna had been on a tour of Russia, if you can believe it, and come back with this prize fighter who she intended to shape up into an admirable beau. At the time I thought it was pretty liberal of her, even if he was a thug. But would you know? He broke it off with her and the whole family turned on him.”
“Well, no loss, then?”
“But he was such a swell guy when he wasn’t under Roseanna’s thumb, is the thing,” Mimsy said ruefully. “Friendly and a sharp sense of humor and did good works for the church; much to be preferred. But the way the Dixons acted you’d have thought he was burning down orphanages, not helping repair them. I was at dinner one night, and Ash had a few particularly cutting things to say about him-- and I considered that Sunny was a pal by then, and the server had just brought a flambé to the table, and you know how fire reacts when I get in a temper--”
“I do,” I said, kindly. It takes some getting used to, having a chum who can summon a stiff wind when he’s in a sour mood or light your gasper with a thought and a word, but I’d come to realize that Mimsy was like any of us, really, with his own trials to face. I’d be in a pretty sorry state if I could shut down the electric just by having a startle, so I had nothing but sympathy and fellow feeling.
“That was the end of the engagement, and I confess I didn’t mind as much as I’d thought. If just being engaged to the brood for long enough could make a completely decent fella like Sunny Sanya Antonovitch into a grunting, witless, bad humoured hulk, what would being 'Harold Dresden, paper factory manager' do to me?"
"Don't think of it," I consoled him, around a mouthful of garlic mashed potato. "Forewarned is something or other, as they say. You're free, and Johnson may be a bit of a menace but he's certainly got reason enough to keep you out of rented trousers. If you have a good valet, you need not fear engagement, take it from the expert."
"I don't fear engagement, not to the right lady," Mimsy protested, perhaps a hair too vigorously. "Why, if Susan Roades would still have me I would be a married man today."
"You poor chump, what did you set on fire?" I asked sympathetically.
"I'm hurt that you should assume that, Bertie. Also it was a shipment of rotgut she was smuggling up the river." He caught my look and misread it a bit. "Now, she's not like Johnson! No extortionism and confidence schemes for her. No, a good honest provider of the hooch, is Susan. A little pulp writing on the side, but the most respectable entries in the field, I promise. And a fine supplier of things that need to be supplied under the noses of the law. Her father was in the navy, you know-- married a lady in Cuba, took his beloved and his little girl all over the world, so Susan knows every trick of the trade there is. But she was in a bit of a turf scuffle with this Blanche St. Clair down in Chicago and moves were made and she and I were pinned down on the docks, surrounded by thugs with tommyguns, and I needed to do something. Even Susan agrees it that blowing up the shipment was the only way to get us out of the bind we were in! ...She just also returned my ring after and told me that she loved me dearly but that I was too expensive to marry."
He sighed, biting forlornly at a piece of carrot. This obviously still ached deep in his soul.
“There, there,” I patted his shoulder. “Even the best laid plans, and all that. You’ll get past her, and the right beazel will come along. And if she doesn’t, well, a few broken engagements can be just the thing to keep people from giving you the sideways look during a long period of happy bachelorhood.”
“What are you saying?” he said, puffing up a bit.
“Well, nothing, Mimsy; only it’s done wonders for me.”
“Well, all right.” He deflated to his normal size, poking at a pea pod despondently with his fork. “I have had the most rotten luck, though. ...Speaking of which, you’ve got to come to the Kitty Kat tomorrow. Susan’s there most evenings with Martine, you might meet them-- Susan and I are still friendly and Martine’s a lovely girl, don’t know what it is about a pair of long trousers that turns her into a tax accountant, you’d think it was magic but it isn’t. But really you’ve got to come because Elaine says she wants a chaperon when we swap case notes. Mostly I think she wants to ogle you.”
“This Wooster isn’t on the market at present,” I said pretty firmly. “But if she restricts her attentions to good conversation and the occasional glad eye I shouldn’t think Jeeves will mind.”
“You shouldn’t let him boss you around.”
Well, perhaps he didn’t understand as well as I’d thought how sharing the management of home and life with a competent and like-minded helpmeet could be all that man desires. So I just smiled, and went back to my dinner, and told him that I’d do my best.
Chapter 7: Hopping the Pond
At the crack of eleven the next morning, I set out to meet Bertie at Hendricks’.
It’s one of my favorite booksellers, even if the proprietor is an old pal of Johnson’s-- nobody’s perfect. He’s a sweet, agreeable, bookish type, the owner, I mean, not Johnson-- only he’s roughly the size, shape, and color of a brick wall and can about lift a bookshelf under one arm. He stocks all manner of dangerous and prohibited material; from the grimoires of Rasputin to the diaries of de Sade to the most shocking collection of Tijuana Bibles outside of the Anti-vice squad’s personal lockup. When they ban it in Boston, say those in the know, they ship it to Nathan Hendricks.
“I wouldn’t have asked you here,” I murmured, as I led Bertie by the elbow into the back room, waving at Nathan as we went. “But we need a bribe and it’s going to take a significant outlay of cash.”
“And we couldn’t just lay sufficient quantities of moolah on the table and let whoever-it-is buy the whatsit themselves?” Bertie wondered, though he didn’t seem to object to the outing.
“No.” I shook my head. “Not if I know Robbie Crain; offer him cash and he can turn it down, but offer him a bit of scandalous and he’ll just salivate until he’s got it. I need to show him the item, get his brain whirring in anticipation.”
“Clever,” Bertie approved. “He does seem like the kind of chap who can’t let go of an idea. He’ll have a tip on how to abscond with the family records of the Drones?”
“Oh, information is cheap. I’m going to ask him to stick his neck out; that’s where I need to bankroll a real whopping incentive. He’s going to be our walking guide over to England; he knows the ins and outs of the worlds between worlds like a seasoned cartographer.”
“Hah. And anyone who’s everyone knows that, I suppose,” Bertie said jovially.
“You said it, mister.” I left him to his own devices while I perused the juicer stuff, looking for something rare and obscene enough to tempt the wild Crain out of his safe little lair. I’ve had to develop a bit of a collector’s eye for this stuff; not due to my own interest, you understand, but Robbie’s a pretty good resource, and I’ve used him for the whole kit and billing of things packed into that skull of his-- even if this installment was going to need to be the cherry on the sundae. I browsed along Hendricks’ back shelves, eventually ending up in the backroom altogether, crouched down to get at the stuff on the bottom shelf, where all the really filthy stuff tends to settle.
I saw a title that made me frown-- then when I leafed through my eyes bugged a bit. This particular pamphlet was just up Robbie’s alley. And it was rare and expensive enough that he wouldn’t have been able to snap it up himself (nor would I have without Bertie’s contract for my expenses; the price scribbled inside the front page made me wince).
“These are from England.” I didn’t realize that Bertie had drifted in after me until he spoke. He was handling the smut with general aplomb-- but then I recalled that the Drones had a few well-travelled members who probably kept their fellows abreast (pardon me) of the latest in French Photography. "What does Robbie like?" Bertie asked, looking at the cover art of the book he’d found. Something and Someone by 'an imaginative gentleman'. Imports, but I vaguely knew the series; they were popular at the Kitty Kat, there was generally a copy being handed around. "Romance or scenes in the sheets?"
"In the sheets, in the hayloft, in the carriage, swinging from a lamp-post. Romance gets in the way," I sighed.
"Not this, then." Bertie put it back. “Er, I should say; there’s quite a lot of… a lot to choose from. Does he restrict his preferences?”
“Well, perhaps this, then. Just in case the first isn’t enough.” Bertie picked up another from about the same section, though not by the author he disapproved of.
“Good thinking!” A prince among men, that Wooster. “I’m sorry about this. It’s more than one generally wants to pay for this kind of thing even if you do like the stuff; if the bulls wouldn’t make it their business and I don’t know why it is, anyway, nobody would make such a fuss.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” he assured me with a bright, well-meaning smile. “The prices are better here than at home. So whispers around the Drones say, I mean.” As if I’d look askance at him if he was a collector of the Adventures of Fanny Rose; just because I don’t partake doesn’t mean I look darkly on those who do.
At any rate, we left the backroom, clicking up the bare bulb behind us and barking our shins on the step-stool outside the door and sashaying up to the front counter as casually as we could.
“Like you’re smuggling rare snakes down your trousers. As usual,” the proprietor said, watching me walk innocently up to the front.
“I don’t recall asking, Nathan,” I said, and laid my prize carefully on the table. “Delivery for Robbie. Bertie here is paying. Old pal,” I added, when Bertie caught the considering shade of the Hendricks stare. He’s a fine fellow, Nathan Hendricks, only he has this habit of conducting sales of shady literature with about the same level of concentration you expect of some sort of museum jewel heist. “Known him a decade, trust him completely.”
Bertie stuck his hand out across the counter. “Bertie Wooster,” he said. “Quite the corking collection here, I must say.”
Nathan enveloped Bertie’s slim hand with his own massive mitt and shook lightly; he was more interested in the purchase, now that Bertie wasn’t quite as much of a potential snitch. He looked at the books with a calculating eye, and nodded. “Must be quite the favor you’re after. Usually it’s them asking us for our firstborns, and not the other way around. But give him these, and he’ll agree... five dollars, please, gentlemen.”
I’d realized it would be steep, but hearing it spoken aloud was a bit of a shock, it had to be said. Bertie counted out a few bills and offered them over without fuss, though. He’s a real pal, is Bertie.
Hendricks rung us up, scribbling out a receipt in his neat hand, the little pen like a toothpick in his giant mitts. “Do you have a current address for Mr. Crain? Still in his little monk’s cell at Columbia?”
“Don’t worry about it. The delivery is personal; I’m doing it personally,” I said.
“One way to save on postage,” he said cynically. “Well, you know the drill. Don’t get caught. If you do get caught, you got it in Boston, from Morelli’s.”
“Who are you again? Where am I?” Bertie offered, with a sort of upper-class dimwitted innocence that even I’d once thought you couldn’t fake.
Nathan gave him a warm, approving smile, making his little eyes almost disappear, and reached across the counter to offer his receipt. “Five dollars for The Complete Shakespeare. Thank you for your purchase.”
“Next time make it Spinoza, would you?” Bertie asked gaily, tucking the receipt into his inside pocket. “Jeeves is awfully fond of Spinoza.”
“Ah, the old Ethics-ist himself. Good taste,” Nathan approved. “Good day, gentlemen. Got a shipment coming in this afternoon, but this evening I’m completely devoted to the plan. Leave it to me.”
“Thanks!” I said brightly, and steered us out before I said something that revealed I had no idea what he was talking about.
Robbie’s not a hard one to find-- or, let me correct that: Robbie’s not a hard one to make find you, as long as there’s a hot meal and sometimes a soft bed up for the offering. Johnson had let See Here Mister out sometime in the morning, and with the judicious application of a fresh rasher of bacon from Johnson’s haul from the butcher, some hashed potatoes and a few pieces of toast (my own belly was growling happily; we only eat like that when there’s company or bribery in the works), a familiar figure appeared in the spare seat to steal my teacup right off my saucer, passing it down after a sip to his large, furry footrest of a companion. See Here Mister dutifully licked out the dredges then wound his way over to my seat, purring and shoulder blocking my legs like a professional heavy.
I smiled. “Robbie! Would you care for some extra bacon?”
He froze, a quarter of toast and jam halfway to his mouth, eyes suddenly wild. “What is it? What do you want?”
“Why would you say that!” I said jovially, and gestured at Johnson to quietly but quickly lock the windows and the door. “I can’t be glad to see my old tutor? Can’t offer him the hospitality of my home?”
“What’s on fire? Who’s after you?” Robbie said turning quickly in his seat and staring around him.
“Robbie, Robbie, old buddy, beloved teacher. It’s the tiniest favor. I just need you to come with Bertie and me on a stroll--”
“Through where, Mount Vesuvius?”
“--through the NeverNeverland over to Britain, short little visit--”
“Worse! Through DeWintour property and over Sommerset land, too, and right over the Tuatha de Danaan’s back lawn! Harold, you beast, you can’t make me! I won’t do it! Wild horses couldn’t drag me! I owe them money, there was a misunderstanding with a pretty young cousin; it’s more than my life is worth to set foot back on Unseelie ground--”
“Not for nothing, of course,” I said loftily, and produced the little cardboard bound book from Hendricks’.
“...You monster,” Robbie breathed. “Sherlock Holmes and the Problem of Three Swords. I heard of a copy in Montreal but someone snapped it up. You’re a real brute to bring this kind of force to bear, you know.”
“It needs done,” I said mercilessly, dangling the book in front of his face.
“You don’t understand. I’ve heard whispers about this one. It’s got Irene Adler and her clever strapped on device--”
“Britain. Need to get some bibles.” I waved it under his nose, letting him smell the binding glue.
“You tyrant,” he said, bowing his head in defeat.
“I’m going to leave the book with Johnson,” I said, hardening my heart. “So you’ll have to get Bertie and I there and back safely to get your paws on it.”
“Oh, twist the knife a bit, will you,” he sulked, even the plate of bacon forgotten while he stared after the little book. I held it out and Johnson floated up to take it, tucking it safely away in his crisp black jacket.
We first had to snatch the pedigrees of the benighted Pumpkin Clubbers; New York natives all and sadly vulnerable to a fellow with a see-me-not potion under his belt and a set of lockpicks; that took all of an hour and a half. Robbie skulked along with us, making very sad noises about how he was too pretty to go to jail and we were terrible influences on him, which given just who taught me how to make see-me-not and pick locks when I was a young thing in Iowa is pretty unlikely.
Bertie took to the whole thing with admirable spirit, only commenting on how dashed convenient it would be to have a barrel of the potion and a set of picks, and something about a cow creamer again, and also a painting, which, my senses for such things honed by years of dealing with the precarious nature of the magical and the occult and the performers at the Kitty Kat, I knew better than to ask after.
The trip to England, of course, was a bit more complicated. It was up to Bertie to supply the addresses of his fellow Drones’ abodes (reading from a list in a neat, precise hand that had Jeeves written into every letter), and those of their parents or guardians more likely to actually be keeping the family records and bibles in good care, up to Robbie to get up across the Atlantic (and, with a little leaning, to the various addresses on the list), and me to keep us from getting caught, or at least seriously waylaid while doing so. And, natch, to be the doorman.
Bertie looked a little askance when I led him into the public library and down into the military history section, but when I rapped on the side of the bookcase with my knuckles and incanted a casual ’Apparturum’, a shimmering doorway appeared where just previously had been a complete collection of tomes on the many models of Crusader belt buckles.
“Gosh,” Bertie said, wondrously.
“Oh, don’t swell his head,” Robbie poo-pooed him. “I taught him everything he knows, which didn’t take long, either.”
“You speak like a man who doesn’t have rare literature waiting for him back at my place,” I said sweetly, and hopped through the door.
New York’s sister city in the Nevernever is sort of a sprawling metropolis and sort of a forest; turn your back on a building and it starts to look like a tree out of the corner of your eye, glance twice at a tree and you’re liable to see a dryad in a top and tails stepping out of its front door.
It was about as populous as New York and certainly home to the who’s what of the spirits of earth and stream; the naiads rising from the trickling brooks were in ermine and pearls; the dryads and meliais and Gille Dubh and other forest spirits were pressed and dressed in their best. Even the shellycoats had decked their capes of river debris with glass beads and fringe and those rotten little pranksters, the Will o’ Wisps, flashed in the colors of neon.
“Gosh,” said Bertie again. “Hello, miss. Nice day for it, isn’t it?” He tipped his hat to a willowy (rather literally, by her hair or rather the leaves that did its job) lady who was lounging against her residential tree, and she laughed a shivery leaves-in-the-wind laugh and crooked a finger at him.
“Engaged to Mavis DeWintour,” I said firmly, grabbing him by the elbow before his good nature could get the better of him. The woodland dame pursed her lips like she’d tasted something sour and vanished into the bark. “Careful, Bertie. These people make a lot of hay out of a little favor.”
“Quite like home, then,” he said, and gave a rueful little smile.
“Come on, let’s -- Robbie!”
Our guide was chatting up a shimmering naiad that could have been Victor or could have been Victoria, not that Robbie would have given a dog's bark either way. He looked up at me, offended.
"Can't a fellow reconnoiter?"
"Reconnoitering looks a lot like pitching woo," I observed.
He sighed to his conversational partner. "I can't teach the boy anything." His new pal bubbled some arcane words of sympathy at him and patted him on the shoulder.
"I was just catching up on the gossip around these parts, and you're lucky I did. Or I wouldn't know that Mister Vax just got a big parcel of land off of the Tylwyth Teg and the way I'd meant to take you leads right over that. So there, you ungrateful beast."
"Urgh," I said, going a little pale. "Do you know a way around?"
"I do, but it's going to take longer than we'd planned. Hope you didn't have any plans tonight," Robbie warned.
"Of course not," I said, though a smallish voice of caution warned me that I did have plans and it was going to be my own fault when I missed them-- but I couldn't remember what I'd penciled in on the calendar, and resolved to ask Johnson when I got back. I patted the cigarette packet in my pocket; I’d have to run that little tracking spell when I was back as well, before I’d carried it around for so long it forgot it hadn’t been mine to begin with.
Bertie looked pensive and puzzled for a while, but as we stomped onwards, his face cleared up. "Who's this Vask fellow, Mimsy? Why's his land such a vale of tears?"
"Mister Vax? He's a businessman of sorts. We had a bit of a run-in at the Chicago Policeman's Ball-- and that's not my fault, Bertie. He came on the arm of that miserable Blanche St. Clair who'd been such a pain and a half to Susan, and I can't tip my hat to a man who's in that kind of company."
"Didn't set anything on fire, did you?"
"No! Nothing of his, anyway! Anyway it was only the engine of St. Clair's new car; the rest of it was perfectly fine. She deserved it for ruining that shipment for Susan, anyway. This Vax fellow’s taken the whole thing entirely too personally."
Bertie gave me a nod of understanding; there are duties a man has, if he lives by any kind of code.
“He also wants to pull Harold limb from limb, and he will if he gets half an excuse,” Robbie said disgustedly. “Honestly, Harold, you could do with a little less chivalry and about a boatload more charm, so you didn’t get on the wrong side of all the wrong people.”
“He sounds like a bit of a dragon,” Bertie observed quietly.
“Oh, you’ve got no idea.”
We wended on our way, a pleasant walk through the great tall forest, detouring up into a set of mountains that don’t feature on any maps our side of the wall between worlds. Up those, down again; into a dell; it felt like we’d barely been walking at all and yet, if you looked behind us, we were pretty well out of sight of where we’d started.
“How near are we?” I asked, frowning back over my shoulder.
“Well, I’m sorry if I’m not quick enough for your tastes. It’s just over this rise,” Robbie said briskly. “We’re nearly there, hold on to your hats.”
But no sooner had he said that than the merry sound of a hunting horn split the air.
“Oh, no,” I said, with dread.
“Riding the hounds? Here? What could they be hunting?” Bertie said. “I haven’t seen a fox or pheasant the whole time.”
“That’s because the folk in the Nevernever don’t generally hunt fox or pheasant,” I said nervously. “It’s all unicorns or Questing Beasts or Caledonian Boars. Or-- us!” I yelped, as the sound of pounding hooves drew near and the baying of dogs surrounded us.
Our path was blocked sharply; a great black horse pawed the air, showing teeth more fitted for a wolf, and the evening light caught in the streaming red hair of the rider, a creature of a beauty great and terrible and seductive, a figure of blood and moonlight, of ice and fire.
“Harold Dresden!” scolded that majestic figure. “What a perfectly awful thing to say about your own family. I demand an apology.” There was a sound from behind me-- a sort of garbled, high-pitched wail, the type to frequent in ghost stories about dames falling to their deaths from tall towers and icy spine shivers and the like, and I dared to look behind me, and around me, at Aunt Lea’s dogs. One of them tipped its head at me, steam billowing up from around it, and I realized I hadn’t been hearing some poor thing about to be bashed upon the rocks, but had instead been whined at expectantly-- by about three dozen of the beasts, red of eye and white of fang, each waiting for me to mend my errant rudeness.
“Why, L, you lovely thing!” Robbie said with delight. “You haven’t aged a day!”
“Hello, Miss MacShea,” Bertie said shyly.
“Hello, Aunt Lea,” I sighed.
“I’m waiting, Harold,” my aunt said primly, adjusting the reins of her great mount as she slid easily from its back. It snorted and huffed, baring its fangs, which sparked against its bit.
“You aren’t hunting us?” I asked instead, edging only so slightly away from the baleful glare those mad, rolling horse-like eyes were giving me. That took me a bit to close to the circle of steaming, fire-eyed hounds, though, so I opted for the better part of valor and stood stock still, feeling rather like a jackrabbit desperately trying to convince the coyotes I was just a twitchy-nosed rock.
“Not presently,” she said with a sniff. “Although there is always room in the hunt if you wish it, sweet child.” She pressed a finger to her lip, considering. “You may wish to avoid the Earl of Sommerset, however. I understand he’s in a terrible humor as of late.”
“Because of the sword?” Bertie asked.
“The Earl’s never really cared for the galas,” Robbie said knowingly. “More the hunting and skinning and stuffing type. Out for a warm-up ride, eh, L?” Lea was done up in a quaint red hunting suit, simply trimmed. The way she wore it would have made any New York debutante bite a mink coat in half out of despair.
“Robbie, darling,” Aunt Lea said, and leaned over so they could kiss at each other’s cheeks. “You’re looking well. I hope my dear pup of a nephew isn’t working you too hard?”
“Oh, no more than I can stand. He needed a guide over to Britain. We’re looking in on some of this one’s friends for him,” Robby said lightly, his firm nod encompassing Bertie.”
Lea cast a hurt-filled look at me. “Visiting the Isles and you didn’t tell me? You weren’t even going to visit the estate?”
“It’s not a picnic, Aunt Lea,” I said. “We’ve got to--” I had to think fast, as I didn’t think expressing our intent to scupper Mavis’ engagements would go over well “--collect evidence on Bertie’s friends to see if one of them double-crossed Mavis and stole the Sommerset Sword. Mavis asked me specifically to do it. Before Midsummer,” I added.
This mollified the old blood-drinker, who was all smiles again. “Dear puppy. At last you’re keeping company with the right people. I’m so proud!” She hoisted me easily off the ground, pressing me to her bosom and planting a maternal kiss on my forehead.
Bertie repeated ‘dear puppy?’ in tones of disbelief; I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say I’m sure he didn’t mean to say it loud enough for me to hear.
“How splendid! And your little friend. Travers’ nephew, I remember you,” she cooed sweetly, turning said bosom in his direction. “Dear little Bertram, haven’t you grown up handsome?”
“Gah,” Bertie said, going about as red as Lea’s jacket. “Garble. Clue!”
“Bertie’s in possession of a vital clue,” I supplied quickly. “So it’s essential he get back to America with me in one piece.”
“A clue! How exciting? What is it?”
“Don’t remember,” he mumbled, staring at the ground, the tips of his ears still doing their best to pass as tomatoes.
Lea gave him a long look, pursing her blood red lips thoughtfully. “Well, I can see that. You’ll need to take that binding off of him, Harold, or he’ll never be able to.”
“Lea!” Robbie objected. “Harold’s got a touch like a bull in a china shop; he’s as likely to make the poor boy think he’s a frog as clear up that curse.”
“Curse?” both Bertie and I said, with various shades of horror.
“Oh, Harold, you didn’t notice? You dissolute young men, dazed by hard liquor and dancehall music,” she tutted. “Well, I’ll take care of that, as a favor for my old friend Mabel. And for the price of a song, Bertram! Just one.”
“Sounds all right,” Bertie hazarded, and I groaned.
Lea gathered him close into her arms and tipped his chin up, kissing him lingeringly on the cheek.
“There,” she said with some satisfaction. “I’ll call on you in the winter, Bertram! Tata!” She flung herself back into the saddle with catlike grace and spurred her horse.
“Goodbye, Lea! Take care!” Robbie said, waving furiously as she reared and circled us.
“Take care of Harold!” She called back as she turned back to the hunt, her dogs gathering around her feet. “Make sure he wears clean socks and keeps warm in the winter, and make sure he’s eating! Wash behind your ears, Harold! Don’t eat chicken bones or too much liver! Runs in the park every day and don’t bite any policemen! Don’t roll in things that might give you worms! Don’t take money from a Spre' na Skillenagh! Goodbye, sweetling!”
I mumbled something neither a confirmation or denial, and hooked a blushing, weak-kneed Bertie by the elbow and hauled him in the other direction.
“Stop kissing up and get us to mortal ground, will you?” I hissed to Robbie, still mugging and waving towards the disappearing figure.
“Spoilsport,” Robbie told me, looking sour and stomping off over the rise. “Here!” he said, pointing to a promising looking patch of nothing in particular. "You're just awful. A lovely woman like Lea McShee wants to take care of you and all you can do is be rude," he said.
I didn't dignify this with a response, rather too relieved to be able to knock a hole in the air and step through, onto a paved street, in an alley that stunk of nearness-to-river, and not a very clean river at that.
We were in London, and the dawn was breaking over the city.
"What ho!" Bertie murmured, as if waking from a dream. "Morning already? I feel like I've been out all night for boat race day, only my mouth doesn't feel like a mother toad is rearing her young in it. Mimsy, I'm perished; let's have breakfast. If anywhere serves it to strangers."
Despite Bertie's doubts on the subject, the town did turn up an establishment or two that was laid a breakfast table, and we settled in for kippers and muffins and coffee and tea. It was by way of being my fourth solid breakfast in as many days. and I was starting to feel pretty spoilt; we'd had a bad run of luck, and both Johnson and I had been tightening our belts for a month or so there.
It put all of us-- even the sullen Robbie, less sullen now that he was going through Eggs Benedict like an invading army-- in optimistic spirits. We made plans quickly; dash to Bertie’s place, get his proof of pedigree, take a fresh swig of the see-me-not potion, then another jaunt through the Nevernever to Prosser’s estate, Fink-Nottle’s country abode, Bingo Little’s flat, and the Glossop place. In a touch of danger, Stilton’s bible (we’d learned by observing him in his rented flat in New York) was in the keeping of his occasional fiancée Florence Craye in her father’s home; not perhaps an issue except in as much as on the occasions that she was not Cheesewright’s intended, she intended to shackle Bertie. And see-me-not doesn’t work nearly as well when somebody’s got a nose out for you.
“Still, we’ll manage,” I said optimistically. “I can always pretend to be a salesman and distract her while you sneak in.”
“Mimsy, the last time I snuck into a lady’s house--” he looked pained, and I frowned.
“Robbie can do it, then.”
“What! Not on your life, pal,” Robbie said, jabbing his fork at me. “Our deal was for a guide, not for a burglar. Not even licentious literature is going to get me to sneak thief in an unfamiliar house--”
“Well, perhaps I could come with you, if you promise not to vanish at the first sign of trouble,” Bertie said uneasily.
“No! I refuse. Wild horses--”
“Say, Mimsy, did I tell you I picked up a copy of Samson Sprat in Satin Spats the other day?” Bertie interjected conversationally, and Robbie’s mouth snapped shut.
“You’re in on this together!” he realized with more than a little outrage, shoving an indignant bite of sausage into his mouth. “The upper class conspiring against the student class!”
“I hear it’s a real corker,” Bertie said. “I don’t mind not parting with it, if the deal’s no good.” I thought, at that, I could detect a certain wistfulness. Well, Mimsy Dresden isn’t blind and deaf-- I admit I thought I had a bead on my old pal after the Stoker thing, but it’s not as if there aren’t folk who enjoy the company of all kinds. Dear old Susan, for a just a one.
I’d gotten caught up in thought and they’d sealed the deal without me; I sat there blinking as Robbie bewailed his fate and the waiter slunk up with the bill.
“I’ve remembered about George Caffyn,” Bertie said, once the waiter had slunk back off with a cheque, probably glad to be free of our company. Can’t say I blamed him; Robbie in a sulk can send even the bravest knees to quivering. “That Rory girl was at one of his musicals; saw them chatting at the party after, him and her, and some handsome fellow I think might be in the theater himself-- looked the part, you know.”
“She said she didn’t know him. That’s suspicious,” I noted suspiciously.
“Not necessarily; you barely remember your own name at a function like that; he might have forgotten to drop it or she might not have picked it up. I’ve been to George’s bashes,” Bertie said, half reminiscently, half with reminiscent befuddlement.
“I’ll have to talk to Caffyn when we get back-- and try to hunt down that mystery man.” I narrowed my eyes and said, as ominously as fresh eggs and sparkling orange juice would let me, “I want to know where he was the night of the theft.” It didn’t come out very ominous it all, it turned out; so I decided to focus on the fresh and the sparkling.
But that wasn’t the only thing preying on my mind: on our way out I nudged Bertie a bit away from Robbie and said in a low tone: "I hear there's a chance I may have been a jackass about the private company a pal was keeping, without realizing. I'm awfully sorry."
"All forgiven, old fruit," Bertie promised with a sunny smile. "Didn't mean to get your back up about the company you aren't keeping, either."
"Think nothing of it."
With this resolved, the sun seemed sunnier and brighter and lighter. I thought it had been an awfully short night, our walk through the Nevernever having taken about two hours altogether, but then I've never got the hang of the time difference thing-a-ma-jig.
We popped into Bertie's place-- a lot cleaner than last I'd seen it, Jeeves' work no doubt-- and then made a short stroll through DeWintour territory on the other side of reality to emerge at Fink-Nottle's place, shaking off icicles and blowing in our hands to warm them as we muscled through the green hedges and stomped up the sun-dappled path. The only really adventurous bit was when Florence Craye caught us sneaking by and I had to pretend to be a Baptist Evangelist, but Bertie tells that one better than I do and I'll leave it to him.
Even the walk home seemed to go without a hitch, even if it was a bit more of a slog-- the Prosser bloodline being pretty hefty and bound up in a massive gold-plated bible to boot-- I daresay we were in pretty good spirits when we stomped up to my place, the early evening sun merrily baking us to the streets.
Jeeves answered the door, white as a sheet.
"What're you doing here?" I said, startled by his obvious startlement.
"Sir!" he said, looking past me, with eyes for nobody but Wooster.
"Dresden!" Johnson barked from just behind him, peering over Jeeves’ broad shoulder. "Sir!" he added, for the benefit of anyone listening. "Get yourself in--ah-- I strongly advise that you come inside!"
"What's wrong? We've got the bibles, maybe a bit late, but--"
"A bit late," Johnson hissed, chivvying us inside and shutting the door, then getting back up in my face, several inches too close to ever pass for a professional gentleman’s gentleman. "Have you got any idea what time it is? If Jeeves wasn't here to alibi me Murphy would have had the bulls in on me for murder!"
"What, Karrin? Why's she so upset? It's only about seven in the evening," I hazarded, peering at the sitting room (and dining room, and study, and occasional guest bedroom) window.
"Mister Dresden," Jeeves said, looking over at me from where he loomed protectively in front of Bertie. "It is six-thirty on Saturday evening. You have been gone for four days."
"But-- it was just Wednesday," Bertie wavered.
"My shows at the club!" I realized, and then-- "Midsummer! Tomorrow! How did this happen?"
"Ah," a quiet voice interjected. "That detour we had to take around old Vax's place. It must not have been as straight a shot as I thought," Robbie said. "Must have wandered a bit out of step with time, you know how it is in there. Thought you'd be back Thursday evening at the worst, Harold! I didn't have any idea--"
Johnson turned on the hapless Crain with murder blazing in his green eyes. "Why you little son of a pixie! I'll wring your supernatural neck-!"
He made a lunge for Robbie, who ducked him like a professional lunge ducker and whipped a hand into Johnson’s jacket, coming out with his book; Johnson stumbled back under a rush of air, the window burst open with the glimmer of a spell, and Robbie was out onto the fire escape and gone. I'd never seen the man rattled enough to use his native talents before, but it didn't phase Johnson a second-- he bolted to the window a second after Robbie, stopping in frustration, hands to the frame as he searched the scene for the fleeing graduate.
Finding nothing, he huffed: "Well!" and turned back to the room, eyes nearly flaming-- poetically speaking, as I'd never seen the fellow look more human and less uncanny in my life. He looked at us staring at him and straightened his jacket, running a hand over his wind-mussed hair to settle it.
"There's still time; the gala is tomorrow and we have the paperwork," he said, with as much aplomb as if he hadn't been about to commit assault. "We'll have to move quickly, Mister Jeeves."
"Indeed," Jeeves said somberly, and gave Bertie's collar a last brush before he gave up fussing over him and shimmered over to collect the spoils of our labor from me. "I apologize, sir; I must go."
"I'm fine, old thing," Bertie promised, giving him a significant look. "Go on; you've got to fish the Clubbers and the Drones out of the soup; that's more important than a few scratches on the young master. I'll still be in one piece when you're done."
"Sir," Jeeves said, equally significantly, and disappeared out the door-- Johnson followed, only pausing to look back and jab a finger at me.
"And I wasn't worried about you!"
The door slammed and Bertie let out a long breath.
"Oh Stars," I said. "I've got to call Elaine."
Elaine is a darned good sport and understood completely, blowing off my apologies with a hearty P’shaw. She’d figured out we weren’t coming after an hour or so of being stood up at the KKC (said she had to give me at least an hour, knowing it could take me that long just to get lost in my room, but I let her have that one) and had endeavoured to thoroughly enjoy the night. She’d made fast friends with another patron, one with whom I had only a nodding acquaintance, an Ann Alice Ash on most days, Alan on others, had quite the raving review for the entertainment, and all in all only slid in a few jibes about my reliability, that at least this time nothing had burned down, and that at least it hadn’t been ten years before I had the nerve to show my face again (I let her have those ones too).
She’d called the apartment and asked after me with Johnson, and once the assorted parties decided to trust each other enough to share pertinent facts, she guessed nearly at once was was up. I think her casual acceptance that a fellow could misplace a day or two on a half-hour stroll in the Nevernever was the only thing that kept Jeeves from cleaning my flat to the ground-- it was spic-er and span-er than even the days when Johnson cleaned up all my research to get even with me; I’ve met nervous nailbiters before, but Jeeves was the first nervous cleaner I’d crossed paths with. Must be quite the poker tell; you’d know he was bluffing if he got up in the middle of the hand to dust the silver. When he hadn’t been trying to polish my counter tops out of existence, he’d apparently turned to dominoes; I found the set out, and a discarded tally sheet of games marked ‘RJ’ and ‘JJ’; no clear victor.
But Elaine’d reassured him that I would call her when I returned-- officially making her, I believe, the only one of three to be certain Bertie and I would return from our jaunt-- and had left it at that.
She was in the middle of a throng when Bertie and I staggered into the Kitty Kat (the longer we were out of the Nevernever the more I felt like I’d just been on a four day hike after all) but broke out with a wave and a few goodbye pecks on the cheek as soon as she spotted us.
“Nice little walk?” she asked innocently, helping herself to a chair at one of the few empty seats.
“Elaine, have mercy. Don’t joke,” I groaned, sagging onto the booth across from her.
“It’s been murder on the soles,” Bertie agreed, collapsing next to me. “My word, I hadn’t realized what an odyssey it was.”
“Oh, boys,” Elaine said fondly, with the patience a healthy young woman reserves for a couple of louts who’ve proven themselves unequal to even a flight of stairs. “I’ll grab some of the good stuff and you’ll feel better soon. Harry, I’ve got more notes on the sword case; crossed off a lot of suspects, not much else.”
“Sooner or later we’ll have asked everyone in the world, and the last person who hasn’t promised that they definitely, positively, didn’t take the sword will be the criminal,” I predicted with a sigh.
“Well, we’ll just have to ask fast, then-- if it’s not sorted out by tomorrow, it’ll be too late. It’s the principle of the thing; it’ll all be thrown out of balance and Mrs. Sommerset won’t forgive it.” She smiled, but I could tell that the butterfly population of her stomach was about large enough to form up a football league and go in on matches against the ones in mine.
She swept up suddenly, a tornado of linen. “Sit, sit,” she said chivalrously. “I’ll get your drinks!”
The mood of the place, plus the condensed four days and deceptive distance of our little hike, must have caught up with Bertie, because he didn’t even protest un-preux nature of sending the fairest of our party to fetch refreshment. I plumped my elbows on the table. “Oh, Bertie. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“Mm?” He was looking past me. “Sorry, old thing. Thought I caught a glance of that fellow who was at Caffyn’s bash.”
“What? Where?” I sat up straight, peering around the largely familiar crowd with a fresh eye.
“At a table over there-- behind the broadshouldered filly in the peacock feathers--”
Someone shook my shoulder. “Oh, not now!” I said, irritated.
“Yes, now!” It was Thora’s straight-man stage partner, George, who I’d normally be happy to see and catch up with, but not when he settled himself squarely in my frame of view and I was trying to track a witness. “Where’s your pal with the hair? She’s got to talk sense into Thora!”
“Thora? What?” I craned to see past him, trying to see Bertie’s suspect.
George bobbed and weaved, keeping himself firmly in front of my gaze despite my best efforts. “Three extra shows we did to fill in for your spots and the new props are the last straw. I’m only human! They’re breaking my back!”
“George,” hissed Thora, from a backstage door nearby. “Stop bothering people! We’re on in five! If you ruin the bit over a prop sword that isn’t to your standards--”
“It’s ugly and it’s heavier than a sack of bricks!”
“Feels the same to me,” Thora said dismissively, shrugging one massive gingham-swathed shoulder.
“Oh well it would-- a cow could sit on your lap and you’d expect it to meow, you big palooka!”
There was a commotion backstage, I could hear it. “Take it!” Thora hissed, and lobbed the article in question at his partner. Said gentleman recoiled and the cutlery clanged loudly against the table, half sliding out of the scabbard. It didn’t look like the usual prop sword for The Milkmaid and the Brigand Foul-- it wasn’t half as shiny, much lower on rhinestones, and looked rather... deadlier.
I picked it up, frowning at it, the unexpected weight nearly jerking me down to the ground, a sort of warm feeling jolting through my fingers as if I’d touched a bit of pavement on a hot summer day.
From the bar, Elaine yelped in surprise, and Bertie yelled: “It is him and he’s coming this way fast!” and someone else yelled “It’s not in here, you animals!” and a whole horde of humorless looking guys came pouring out of backstage, chased by a larger horde of half-dressed and completely cheesed off kings and queens-- and then it was all yelling.
“Harry!” Elaine cried over the din, trying to push her way through the sudden milling, shoving crowd. “The sword, Harry!”
“Give me that!” growled one of the thugs, and made a lunge for the sword himself, but Thora bopped him lightly on the head with a fist and he went down like a sandbag.
“Mimsy!” Bertie said, and his urgent cry cut off with a grunt-- I turned to see him stagger back, and over him, the odious Lloyd Slate, fist still cocked.
“Give me that sword, you worm!” he yelled, and Bertie took advantage of his distraction to duck down and away, taking cover.
“Yeah!” said another, familiar, voice, and I saw Poor Little Lily’s not so dear friend after all, Ace, just before George threw himself into his brigand role and then followed up by tossing a chair.
Slate dove over Ace’s slumped form, scooping to grab a slat of the freshly broken chair back, and charged at me. “Give me the sword!”
I gave him a solid kick instead, and a whack with the flat right over his perfectly coiffed skull. He was no lightweight, though, and kept on coming-- I dodged around a booth to get a bit of distance and felt myself seized from behind and hoisted up by a brawny fellow. The breath wheezed from my lungs and I twisted around to see just who was so rudely cutting in on the relationship between my feet and the floor-- he was a new face but had grim eyes and a horsey smell, his teeth bared in an unfriendly grin. The sword clattered to the floor, and Slate lunged for it.
Bertie was there first, snagging it and dragging it under our table, disappearing into the panicking crowd on hands and knees to surface ten feet away, making for the door.
Slate started pushing his way through the crowd, and met Elaine coming the other way.
“Thief!” she shouted, pointing at him.
He slapped her.
Elaine’s eyes went narrow. She raised a hand to her mouth. Her bracelet glittered.
A second later, Slate flew past me in a shower of sparks. My captor had to drop me to dodge him, so I rolled well out of reach, seeking shelter behind the lee of Thora (who was holding his own against four of the interlopers, using a fifth as a bludgeon).
Slate had left a dent in the wall where he hit; he was lying on the floor, groaning and smoking slightly. His perfectly brilliantined hair was standing straight on end, his clothes in disarray. On the ground next to him, fallen from a pocket, was a pack of cigarettes in a familiar brand. I wouldn’t have to do that tracking spell after all.
“Ah-HAH!” I said, grabbed them, and legged it.
There was by now a fully-fledged bar fight between me and the door; the Summer goons (for Summer they were, I know a centaur when one’s shaking me down) against the performers, the audience joining in on whichever side was convenient. Some patrons were trying to get behind the bar; Mac was tossing them back out and over to Murphy, admirably living up to her job description by bouncing them off of whatever was still standing and then throwing them out the door. I could see Susan and Martine-- they’d been interrupted mid tête-à-tête, I guess, because they looked angry. Martine was very blandly gripping a heavy bottle, Susan had a chair leg, and they were holding their own over there. I was worried, more than a little-- I am a man of chivalry-- but not so much chivalry that I didn’t recognize that Susan knew things about brawling that would make me blush.
I ducked behind a table that was still mostly intact, and was almost immediately pinned there by a brawl; an ogre with his glamor starting to fray around the edges socked Thora in the eye, while a couple goblins held the Norwegian’s arms. Not a wise idea when a guy’s fiancée is at hand; Sif always drops by to watch her fellow on stage, and she’s as tolerant about threats to her beloved as any five jealous swains-- as the party quickly found out when she broke a chair over the ogre’s head and turned on his cronies with the remainder.
I forged through the crowd-- a slender hand caught mine, and Elaine and I formed a sort of wedge, ducking fists and shoving brawlers out of the way. There was a smallish blondish hurricane in front of us; Murphy took a moment out of bouncing to clear a path for us and then shove us through the gap and toward the door-- and we burst out into the night. Bertie was crouched behind a car outside; he popped up when he saw us, holding the sword.
“You’ve got it!” Elaine gasped rapturously. “We’ve got to get it somewhere safe!”
“The first place they’ll look is my apartment,” I said worriedly. “Then Bertie’s!”
“My place isn’t safe if Korrick is in on this,” Elaine said grimly. “Let’s get some distance and we’ll figure this out-- but run!”
Slate had regained his feet at some point, and fought to the door-- he pointed out from the tangle of fists and limbs, yelling something after us. I couldn’t understand it, because of the noise of the crowd and how dazed he still was by Elaine’s tap on the cheek, but the intent was clear.
“Forzare!” I snapped, and with the flick of my wrist the club’s heavy door slammed in his face.
And then I took off at a run, because Elaine and Bertie were both already a good block ahead of me. I could hear the clang of fire engines-- surely the place wasn’t on fire, too? It wasn’t my fault!
We only stopped when we were so far away that we couldn’t hear the fire engines anymore, and collapsed together on a bench in Central Park, the sword across all of our laps.
“So Slate’s the villain!” I said with disgust.
“Slate?” Bertie asked, his voice sounding rather like it was coming from under a whole winter’s worth of quilts and blankets.
“That tick who gave you a knock on the jaw. He’s the DeWintours’ butler.”
“So that’s his name! He’s definitely the fellow I saw canoodling with Miss Sommerset,” Bertie said, his frown interrupted by a yawn wide enough I half expected a peek at his dinner.
“He must have been kissing up to get Rory to let him into the house,” Elaine said angrily.
“Yeah,” I agreed tiredly, then remembered. “That was Ace! In the club! Felix the butler’s friend!”
“Oh Harry,” Elaine said, heartbroken. “Not Felix, you don’t think--”
“No,” I said firmly, and looked around quickly lest Meryl Oglesby appear from the shadows to make certain I didn’t think so at all. “Just him, I think.”
“I bet he got Felix to tell him where the sword was kept,” Elaine sighed. “Even who has the keys. Mavis must have put him up to it; she could smile at any chump and have him wrapped around her little finger.” I shuddered vaguely at the imagery, the Quality being the type to wring every bit of literal from the figurative. “Strange; I would have sworn he had the biggest crush for Rory. Oh Mavis, when I get my hands on you....” She gripped a tired fist.
“My Lord, detective work is exciting,” Bertie said vaguely, and slumped against my shoulder, starting to snore.
I blinked down at him, the prodded him lightly in the nose. He sniffed and mumbled, turning enough to hide his nose in my shoulder, and snored a bit louder.
“Let him sleep a minute,” Elaine said wearily, “and then we’ll wake him up when we’ve figured out what to do.”
“Good thinking,” I said, and closed my eyes for a moment.
And then dawn was peeking over our shoulders and Johnson was shaking me. “Mister Dresden. Mister Dresden!” I saw that in his free hand he had a tray with several cups of coffee on it, and in that moment forgave him all things.
“Urghle,” I said, and felt a heavy weight shift off of my shoulder as Jeeves’ deep tones coaxed Bertie and Elaine awake; we’d fallen asleep as one heap, the sword safely tucked across our laps. As we unheaped ourselves, we were ministered to with coffee and first aid; the valets or similar had come prepared.
“What sort of a morning is it?” Bertie asked fuzzily.
Jeeves took a large satchel from over his shoulder and opened it to show the pilfered bibles. “It is a morning for action, sir.”
Chapter 8: From the notes of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster: On More Things Than Are Dreamt Of
I’m not the sort of chappy who kicks up a fuss and minds a bit of a jaunt off to greener pastures and sites unseen and all that. There are times in the heat of summer where a jolly old pip off to the country does one no little bit of good-- despite with Jeeves will tell you about my resistance to some of his holiday suggestions. Still, I am a bit of a homebody and the stroll to England through the worlds between worlds was a bit more than I’d bargained for.
Then again I was already a bit shaken; creeping into Stilton Cheesewright’s flat had been harrowing. I’d thought he was out, but his lecture had been canceled-- he said so very loudly and irritably as he stomped in, necessitating Mimsy and I to take hasty cover in the broom closet while he and his guest-- the besworded Morgan, it turned out-- settled in for a bit of coffee and a strong gripe.
They got pretty fairly into the matter, and talks on the unreliability of lecturers turned to talks on asperity and literary novelists, and the literary novelist who at present Stilton wasn’t speaking to, and then lapsed into silence. I peered out, to see the two chaps looking deeply into one another's eyes.
"Ope," said Mimsy, peering over my shoulder. "We ought to go now; they won't notice us."
"Are you sure?"
"Very!" we hustled out of the closet and out of the flat door, shutting it lightly behind us; true to Mimsy's prediction, the two barely stirred.
"Bit of the narcodispepsia, is it-?"
"--you have to mean narcolepsy," Mimsy said, after a moment of bewilderment. "And no. It's-- it's a sort of a-- look, have you ever read a novel where the protagonist looks his lady love in the face and it says he 'falls into her eyes?'"
"Yes. It would be a rum thing, toppling over into a lady's baby blues. She'd never forgive you."
"Yes, well; she might if she were a wizard. The thing being that a good long stare in the eyes does sort of topple you into the other fella's brain for a bit, and you can poke around before you trip back out and learn a lot about them. Of course, they're lifting up the tablecloths in your head at the same time, running fingers along the mantle to see if your thoughts are dusty. Not something one does with strangers, obviously."
"Really!" I exclaimed. "You never said!"
"The muckity-muck wizards don't like it getting out," he said solemnly. "Too much potential for embarrassment."
"Is that why you always stare at my left eyebrow? I thought you were shortsighted."
"It was for your own good," he said, a little sorely; by then we'd rejoined Robbie, waiting impatiently outside for us, and that fidgety fae led us off to hop between worlds.
You can imagine that after seeing Cheesewright in intimate rapport with a fellow whose idea of diplomacy had about stopped with Charlemagne, a chap was somewhat jaded to the sights and scenery of Never Never Land. In fact, it was a bit refreshing, and Robbie and Mimsy played tour guide quite nicely.
For example: “I say,” I said, and tipped my hat to a fellow crossing our path, all decked up in Sommerset green and gold and obviously on an errand. “He ate his eggs and bacon as a lad.”
“Giants do tend to be on the largish side,” Mimsy mused, when the fellow’s politely thundered ‘good afternoon’ had stopped ringing in our ears. “I thought most of them sided with the DeWintours, but then again maybe it’s only the Norwegian ones. Bit of a feud there, you should hear Thora after a couple pints. His father’s always in a scrap with one of them.”
“Largely because Thora’s father’s cousin was on extremely friendly terms with Gertrude Frost,” Robbie put in helpfully. “And the things I could tell you about that family--”
“Don’t enough people want to flay me already?” Mimsy asked piteously, flailing his arms about as he hopped from one stepping stone to another over what one must presume to have been water, for all it danced and shone like blue colored light and was roiling with fish decked out with scales that would put rainbows to shame and were about the size of schooner. I wondered what a fisherman would make of them; you’d need a line like a… particularly thick line to land one of these babies’. “Do we have to get the Wednesdays in on it as well?”
Robbie tsked. “You are a wet blanket, aren’t you?”
That summoned a worrying image: I was traversing the stones myself, and wet is what I’d be if I weren’t careful, especially with those prestigious-- if that’s the word I’m after-- fish slithering past just as one wanted to put a foot down. I tried not to look like a crumb of bread. The ducks in these parts must the size of bally houses.
“Say, who are they?” I said brightly, waving at a couple fencers out on the other side of the river, and the change of subject was embraced by all. Robbie went into some funny history about the larger fellow’s uncle Sharon had gotten into a fluff at a dinner at a cousin’s house involving some far too potent wine, quite the stampede of merrymaking relatives-- which sounded rather like the Drones on good rip, with just as many policemen’s helmets in up for the nab, I’d wager, or whatever the local equiv may have been-- and an ill-timed archery demonstration. All went awry in what I’m sure was a humorous way, but I’m afraid I was distracted imagining the fits my tailor would have if I were horse from the waist down and I don’t remember a bit.
Everyone was polite; a few offered gifts and I recalled my fairy tales and turned them down with a polite compliment and a bit of flatter; that went over well, and I shared a bit of a story about overzealous suitors with a large bullheaded fellow. I mean he had horns and soulful brown eyes and a large wet nose, not that he was stubborn; he was a perfectly splendid fellow who’d felt the prick of misplaced ire himself, where lovely lasses and jealous swains were concerned.
Things get a bit blurry after that, though I’ve had a few rum dreams about being a twitchy-eared deer running from a pack of black Bentleys since. We met Mimsy’s Aunt Lea-- as eternal as an hourglass, with a resemblance to said article a gentleman shouldn’t elaborate on. I’m rather afraid I promised her something-- and I don’t need to ask to know that it’s going to be more than a little ditty. I was fairly confident that between Mimsy and Jeeves, though, I could come out the other side unscathed.
Whatever my doom was to be, I got one doozey of a smack on the cheek in return; a kiss so shocking it knocked the Wooster brain for a loop and jarred loose the thing with Caffyn that I’d forgotten so thoroughly. It was quite an experience-- it doesn’t happen twice in a man’s lifetime, or at least I hope not-- but I wasn’t sorry not to repeat it on our way back. No, the journey back was untroubled; we tipped our hats to swan maidens and satyrs, gave all the obligatory politenesses about the upcoming Midsummer gala, and got home in one piece. If rather late, and I’d trade all the wonders I’d seen if it meant I needn’t see Jeeves’ map so painted in worry ever again. It was lovely, but it wasn’t a thing like home.
“It wasn’t bad,” I told Jeeves, days after the fact, when I’d had a chance to think on it and he to reassure himself that the Wooster personage was sound. “Not a patch on Totleigh-on-the-Wold for menace and general uncanny foreboding. But one got the sense that one wasn’t welcome.”
“It will be to the comfort of the denizens of that realm and this one, then, if you refrain from further excursions therein,” Jeeves said, with a certain firmish thingness coloring his voice as he poured a B&S for both of us.
“Even if the fishing is good?” I said lightly, taking my glass.
“Even so, sir.”
“Then I won’t, if I have any choice in the matter,” I said, tapping my glass gently against his to toast the matter, and that was that.
Chapter 9: A Disastrous Party and a Happy Ending
After our rude awakening in the park, though I’d admit that even Johnson had been on his best behavior, the rudeness was more on the part of the hard park bench, we adjourned, still blinking in the bright, early light, to--
“Hendricks’ Bookseller?” I said, as we were led up to it.
“Some number of suspicious personages have surrounded the flat,” Jeeves said soberly, opening the door in direct defiance of the ‘closed’ sign.
“Bunch of DeWintour goons are canvasing our place,” Johnson agreed, “if you’ll pardon the expression, sir,” he added, with a wary glance at Elaine.
“The ruse to extract the young men from the perils of polyandry is nearly complete.” Jeeves said, pointedly ignoring Johnson’s shocking use of the lingua not so franca. “It only remains to make sure that they have their familial documentation in hand on arrival at church; with their zeal to impress Mavis, and in the somewhat dazed state that accompanies long association with the fae, it should not be difficult to convince them to keep the materials in hand. However, it will be more difficult to do so if you appear to have recently been in a bar brawl.”
We young people shared a glance with one another. It was true that Elaine’s jacket was ripped and her lip swollen and her knuckles bruised, Bertie’s hair would impress the average cockatiel and the pool of dried blood on his upper lip and shirt attested to a jab in the nose, and there was no hiding that I’d taken a few smacks myself, my trousers muddy and smelling of centaur.
Johnson waited until I was done taking stock to level a disapproving eyebrow at me, patently berating me for letting his repairwork take a beating. “Nathan has kindly agreed to let us use his spare room to clean you and allow you to dress. We have a change of clothes; Miss Mallory, young Mister Felicitus was kind enough to procure a summer suit for you without alarming your hosts.”
“I’ll change first,” Elaine said. “I’m not going to show up to the gala looking a wreck. Rory would worry. If you please?” She took her clothes and disappeared into the spare room, leaving the men of the party to stare at one another.
“Say, Jeeves,” Bertie said, after a moment of silence. “I think this Hendricks fellow stocks the newest from Spinoza. Like a gander?”
“Indeed, sir,” Jeeves said, and they drifted off in a way that made me think something had just gone over my head.
“I might as well tell you,” Johnson said, once we had some privacy. “Your friend Murphy rang up last night. There was a fire at the Club.”
“It wasn’t me!” I said immediately.
“I know that,” he said briskly, not quite meeting my eyes. “So does she, and McAnally. The landlord knows your reputation, though. And someone fingered you as the brawl starter.”
Me!” I said indignantly, then, my stomach sinking: “I’m not on the hook for damages, am I?”
“Not as such.” He cleared his throat. “I won’t prolong the anticipation. You’re out. Not to set foot on the premises again.”
The Kitty Kat was the closest thing I had to a regular place. My friends were there, and it was the only thing I had to supplement the irregular paycheques that come from detecting. Stars and stones, even half the detecting jobs I got came by way of the Club. Word spread fast in our little corner of the city about who could be trusted to handle a case rife with certain delicate details without spilling them all over town, and it being easier for some to accept their shadows ankling off without them, or that the magpie snatching the bright colors from their clotheslines had a two legs, two arms, and a human face when they tucked and wrapped and bound different parts of themselves until someone else looked out of the mirror every week.
“Guess you’re out of luck, chump,” Johnson said, crowding up into my space. I whirled on him, head suddenly spinning, and he caught me by the front of my vest, yanking and sending me off balance and floundering into him, the stumble clearing my thoughts.
“No more than you, you scum,” I growled down into his hair, my voice still empty from the shock, despite my best angry efforts. “I’ll be out on the street, and what happens to your alibi then? You think you’ll be right there with me, dusting my bindle? How many hobos have a valet, rat?”
“You wouldn’t last a week,” he sneered back at me, but there was something missing from his voice, the thing I could feel missing from mine too, the early morning and Sommerset case sucking the energy from us more quickly and thoroughly than Robbie drained a teapot. “What do you think, Dresden? Would you even make it five days before you come running to me for a loan, a quick job? Just enough to put a roof over your head, something warm in your belly?” His mouth turned down, eyes dull. I almost pitied him the timing; distraction seemed to be keeping him from indulging the full pleasure of my defeat, since revel I knew he must. We’d had this argument before, about my morals and his lack thereof, the bloody racketeering money he’d once had such easy access to, the extra income he still earned arranging for shipments to make it into the city, and my long-standing refusal to have any part of it.
It was practically a formality by now that he tried to get me roped into his capital-B Business-- after all, we’d started this argument in Chicago and well before he slapped on the handle John Johnson, we’d worn it into the ground-- but just because it seemed like a pretty perfunctory attempt didn’t mean that his zeal had diminished a bit, or that he at all regretted our change in circumstance. I just know these things.
“You’ll never get me tangled in your felonious schemes,” I said dully, thinking of Mac’s best and cracking jokes with Karrin and Thora in the dressing room.
“You’ll wind up on my payroll yet,” Johnson said, with a tone of quiet smugness that less perceptive parties would have taken for sympathy. Johnson and I know better, of course. We loathe one another entirely and he was happy to have scored one on me. Any lack of enthusiasm on his part was a symptom of his late night.
“I’m done!” announced Elaine, wafting out of the spare room as lightly as a summer breeze (poetically speaking, her feet were still firmly on the floor with as much oomph as usual.) We split apart in a second, and if she’d noticed, or noticed that Johnson’s fists had wrinkled up two handfuls of my vest, she was kind enough not to mention it. “Harry, you look awful. Clean up.”
So I did, then Bertie did, and we were banished with a stack of paperwork to catch up with Mavis’ beaus. The bibles and suchlike looked just like they had when we dropped them off, but we were assured the less we knew about the scheme, the better it would work. Elaine carried the sword under one arm, her jaw squared in a way I knew from my youth, and I pitied the DeWintour goon or Sommerset servant who tried to take it from her.
We got to the chapel near the Sommerset’s place just as the DeWintour party was arriving, the beleaguered Pumpkin Clubbers wandering after Mavis like ducklings; ducklings under whose downy wings we tucked bibles and books of peerage to only the vaguest protest. Bertie had to surrender himself into their number, Jeeves looking worriedly after him.
I’m not much for the wine and wafers myself, truth be told; Pastor Goodmorning being the type of fellow he was, Elaine had the same feeling, and if Johnson goes to church he doesn’t tell me. I expected Jeeves at least to go in-- he couldn’t have looked much paler if he’d sent Bertie off to a firing squad-- but instead he joined us, loitering on the sidewalk nearby and watching a small army of staff setting everything up for the gala.
“I wish I could tell Mrs. Sommerset about the sword now,” Elaine said fretfully, twisting the strap of her little handbag, then using a corner of her blouse to polish the sword’s hilt for maybe the twentieth time. “When will they get out, do you think?”
I paused to watch a half-erected pavilion nearly break loose and make a dash for it when a gust of wind hit it just right. “It’ll be a while. You remember how the Pastor could sermonize when he had someone to impress.”
“Not when I can help it, I don’t,” she grumbled. “I hope it’s not too late.”
“I hope whatever Jeeves and Johnson cooked up gets Bertie off the hook before he disappears for a hundred years,” I said.
“You’ve no idea what it is? You must trust Johnson awfully, to let him whip up a scheme like this.” She looked at me shrewdly, surprise almost overtaking worry in her gaze in the second heat.
“Trust him to act in his best interest when money is on the line, you mean,” I grumped, shooting a glance over at the valets-or-similar, who seemed to be engrossed in nearly-friendly conversation. Some of Elaine’s jitteriness was rubbing off on me, and I shifted from foot to foot. “Say, speaking of manservants, seen Slate around? He might be a fly in the ointment if we aren’t ready for him.”
“Not yet,” Elaine said, squinting at the preparations. “I’d thought he might be about-- try to steal back the sword,” she patted the hilt. “Or to get the lay of the land. He’s a slimy one, and no doubt! But sucks to him if he’s within arm’s reach when I tell the Sommersets what happened. Mrs. Sommerset has a temper when she’s riled!”
“Then we’d better wait for the right moment-- and not tick her off!”
“Right,” Elaine said, and then twisted her purse strap again, and polished the sword’s hilt. I wracked my brain for something clever to say and came up deuces; all of the gray matter was dedicated to what might happen when the gala got underway and Jeeves and Johnson’s pigeons came home to roost. I shot the two another look-- conversation over, or at least lulled, Jeeves with his hands behind his back and his gaze fixed on the church, Johnson staring at me, raising an eyebrow when he saw me looking. I scowled back, and we tried to stare each other down, reassuring each other we were as chumpy and scummy and overall intolerable as we ever were.
“So,” Elaine essayed after a while. “Following the Giants?”
“No, no. I’m only visiting. The Cubs. You know.”
“How are they doing?”
“Oh. You know. Pretty well.”
“Ran into King Gwynn at a game. We talked about their chances in the World Series this year.”
“I haven’t actually been keeping up,” she admitted. “Although Rory assures me the Yankees have a good chance.”
“Ah,” I said, and gave her a helpless smile.
I whistled a bit and rocked on my feet. She twisted her purse strap and patted her finger curls. I started watching the stream of waiters carrying trays on both arms, laying bets on myself on if they’d trip.
There was a stir-- I barely noticed it, I’d gotten so caught up in watching the food being laid out in one of the tents, but Jeeves drew in a breath and Elaine stiffened up. She grabbed my arm, grip tight enough to bruise, and the church doors opened. “That beast! There he is!”
Slate was walking just a step behind Mrs. DeWintour-- on that lady’s right was Mrs. Sommerset, and behind her Felix with his jaw firm, keeping up with his lady and avoiding the tromping Slate was determined to give his toes. The ladies were strutting forward like a pair of race horses on a stiff rein, too dignified to try to burst out in front of the other but not about to fall an inch behind.
If I’d thought the daughters were imposing, the ladies of the family were downright monumental. Mrs. Mabel DeWintour wore blue silk that lay snug to her slim, regal form; her hair was pin-straight and down to her back, the color of wan sunlight on a patch of ice. She gave the impression of being larger than she was, somehow, or at least of owning all the space around her. One got the feeling that if she looked at you wrong you’d wind up frozen as a snowman. Then there was Mrs. Tabitha Sommerset-- waving golden hair, gauzy grecian sort of gown; would have been a little out of vogue on anyone else and on her looked like it had been hand delivered from Coco Chanel’s apartment that morning.
Behind them and their attendant butlers were Rory and Mavis, pointedly ignoring each other; behind them a jolly looking fellow in a heather suit and red tie-- a fuzzy-whiskered apple-cheeked soul who probably fed the beggars and gave money to birds or something. He must be the DeWintour spouse, as he was toddling along with the Earl of Sommerset-- who was still in his safari gear with a pith helmet to top it off. He looked even more craggy and out of sorts in broad daylight than he had in the shadows of his study. The husbands couldn’t have looked more different-- and yet they shared a momentary sympathetic glance of two males, both not sure what the fuss was about but equally sure that their spouses knew best.
Finishing the little parade was the trail of Mavis’ duckling fiances, still with their family records tucked under their arms, looking about as cognizant and collected as a litter of puppies let off their leashes for a morning stroll.
The procession split up when they reached the lawn, the parties scattering like they wouldn’t be caught dead walking together, and collecting into little cliques and circles as naturally as the tide turning and leaving little pools behind. I watched with interest as Mrs. DeWintour pulled young Mavis aside by the elbow, brandishing a gold-plated bible and indicating something in it with great displeasure. Mavis’s pretty face darkened like a storm cloud, her pink cheeks going red and her little bowed lips white.
Bertie stood with the rest of the fiancés, his bible missing, a bit more focused around the eyes than his fellows but doing a pretty good job at blending in with the general air of sleepy befuddlement. He scanned the landscape, caught sight of us and rocked up on his toes a moment-- I suppose it was the first thing he could think of to say hello without making it too obvious. From the corner of my eye I could see Jeeves’ shoulders relax the fraction of a cat’s whisker.
“It’s starting now, bub,” Johnson hissed in my ear, his hand landing on my side, pulling me back. “Don’t even breathe on it or you’ll foul it up.”
We held our breaths…
And nothing happened. Mabel broke away from her daughter and glided away towards the refreshment tents. Mavis stalked over to say a few curt words to the throng of young men, return the Prosser and Wooster bibles with an angry shove, and then shoo the young people away without a second glance, plopping down in a chair to sulk alone once they were gone.
I let out a breath. “Quite a bang, there, Johnson. Well done.”
“I know it worked,” Johnson said, eyes narrowing. “Even if there’s not going to be a bang.”
“The lady is proud,” Jeeves murmured, eyes fixed on the young men still, drifting over to us without a hitch nonetheless. “It is not completely unforeseen that she would deal with the matter privately, eschewing an embarrassing public outburst.”
“...Rub it in, why don’t you,” Johnson grumbled, and fished a fin out of his pocket, slipping it into Jeeves’ palm, where it disappeared somewhere.
“How privately,” I demanded, struggling to keep my whisper down. “Privately enough they’ll work it out hush hush, crab onto your plan, and leave us back where we started?”
“I do not believe that is likely,” Jeeves interjected, before Johnson’s sore look turned into sorer words. “However the ladies choose to handle their difficulties, the conclusion to the matter should not deviate in any significant detail. The young men have been seen to be unsuitable.”
“Going to mention how?” I said, to a rousing chorus of silence and slightly lofted eyebrows. “Well, fine then. We’ve still got to get the sword back into the correct hands, right Elaine? ...Elaine?”
“Shush,” Elaine hissed, jabbing me in the ribs. “Slate’s seen us.”
He had. He was looking our way, keeping a watchful gaze on us from the shelter of the refreshment tent, managing to refill Mrs. DeWintour’s glass of punch without breaking his menacing sneer in our direction.
“I want to go over, but he keeps standing between me and Mrs. Sommerset. I don’t want a fight.”
“You might be about to get one anyway,” I said uneasily, because there was a set to Mrs. DeWintour’s face I didn’t like. She gestured for Slate to refill Mrs. Sommerset’s glass-- giving Felix an elbow in the chest as he slunk by-- and said sweetly:
“A lovely day for your party, Tabitha. I do like the end of summer best.”
“Why thank you, Mabel,” said Mrs. Sommerset, poisonous and lovely as blooming foxglove. “A shame the event has to be spoiled by low, obvious treachery.”
“But look at it this way, Tabitha. At least you didn’t lose anything of very great value. It could have been ever so much worse,” Mrs. DeWintour said frostily.
“That tears it,” Elaine said, jaw firming up again. “Let’s go, Harry.”
“What, in there?” I said, recognizing a deadly shooting match when I heard one, but she grabbed me by the lapel and dragged me forward, and I realized it wouldn’t be gentlemanly to make her haul me along the whole way, so I straightened up after a few steps and trotted along beside.
Slate saw us coming and moved to block our path, and I, mindful of Elaine's bruised knuckles, gave him a bright smile and a stiff shove.
"You ruffian," he said, with his nose in the air as if he'd never thrown a punch in his life. I could see the greasepaint over what must be a really splendid black eye; he was doing a good job at pretending he hadn't been up to anything.
"I beg your pardon," sad Mrs. DeWintour, turning that frigid gaze on me, flicking it over to Slate.
"We've found the sword," Elaine said without preamble, addressing the other lady, and both of them snapped their attentions firmly to her.
"Where was it?" said Mrs. Sommerset, with obvious surprise and:
"Well done, child," said Mrs. DeWintour, with just as obvious startle, but genuine and terrifying pleasure. "You can tell Tabitha that I had nothing to do with it."
"Well, I don't know about you," Elaine said, bravely addressing that frosty female straight to her face. "But he certainly did."
She pointed at Slate.
"Slander!" Slate gasped. "Ma'am, I assure you--”
"He was at a local club just last night; he was trying to move it out of its hiding place before somebody found it," Elaine said, not moved by his theatrics.
"I was not."
"He started a bar fight like a common thug."
"You have no proof."
"He dropped his cigarettes," I interjected helpfully, brandishing the pack I’d picked up at the Kitty Kat.
If Slate had been a wizard, the gaze he leveled on me would have set my jacket on fire. "I was at a club, certainly; Mrs. DeWintour, in her kindness, allows me three nights off a week. And there was a fight, but I rather believe that you are the known instigator, Mister Dresden. I am certainly not connected with the disappearance of the sword, and I petition Mrs. DeWintour to be allowed to thrash you for suggesting it,” he said, finishing with an obsequious little bow to the chilly matriarch.
I pulled out the other pack of cigarettes, that same European brand, holding them up with the other like a pair of aces. “Dropped these at the crime scene, pal.”
The two great ladies slowly, like the wheel of summer stars or the grind of a glacier, turned to look at Slate. His pompous air whooshed out of him, and he started looking around like a cornered rat, folding like a bad hand. “It wasn’t my idea. I was only following orders. I’d never have gone back to that club if she didn’t tell me that that Mallory chippy was nosing around-- it was her idea to steal it in the first place and her idea where to hide it. She made me!”
We had the attention of the party, I realized; a hundred pairs of eyes turned on us, waiting in suspense for the twist.
“Who made you, Lloyd?” Mrs. DeWintour said, as soft and cold as a bed of snow.
Things all started to move pretty briskly at this point.
Everyone gasped and then went silent, a hundred heads instantly jerking about, trying to find Rory while still trying to keep an eye on Tabitha lest the volcanic eruption catch them by surprise or they missed the best part of the show.
“Aurora,” Tabitha said, her voice rich with a thousand things I was happy not have to put a name to. “There has been an accusation made against you. You would please respond.” Mrs. S didn’t have to search to find her daughter; the seas of guests parted where she looked, leaving Rory standing alone, defiant, her chin lifted and jaw set while the breeze tried to run away with one of the drink pavilions and more than a few hats.
“It’s true, Mother,” she said, and if I’d thought it was silent before, this was like falling underwater. The lack of sound was like pressure on the eardrums, strange and wild. “It’s all true. I paid Lloyd Slate to steal the family sword.”
“Aurora,” her mother said, and the hair on my head, never mind my arms, legs, and neck started to stand on end, something growing in the air like a lightning storm, charged and dangerous. “Explain yourself.”
“Oh Rory,” Elaine was whispering beside me, her eyes in some danger of brimming over. I grabbed her hand and pulled, trying to put a few extra surreptitious inches of space between us and Mrs. Sommerset and Mrs. DeWintour before I was tempted to break into a not so surreptitious run. She didn’t budge and I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave her there alone, so I tucked in beside her and tried to look like we weren’t worth noticing.
“I think the whole feud is stupid,” Rory said, her face flat and barren as a dessert, a far cry from the sweet demeanor she’d hit me with. “I’m tired of dinners with dignitaries. I don’t care about Mavis’ beaus,” (Mavis gave an affronted gasp from somewhere much closer to the back of my neck than she’d been before) “and I don’t care about your parties, and I don’t want to grow up and keep the whole thing going. I’m going to be something else, Mother! I’m going to be an actress. And poo on Lily and that wet blanket Ron Reuel and anyone who thinks I shouldn’t!”
The appalled silence was broken by Elaine’s shriek.
“Rory Sommerset! How could you!”
“Oh, applesauce, Mallory, hush,” the young lady said derisively, and Mrs. Sommerset inflated like a hot air balloon ready for take off.
Some one’s hand came down on my shoulder and I flinched before I recognized Johnson, who had no qualms about bodily dragging Elaine and I away, shoving us both behind a dining tent, however much Elaine might not have wanted to go. “Do you have a death wish?” he snarled in my ear, but before I could snap an answer:
“AURORA. Go to your ROOM!” Mrs. Sommerset bellowed, and I don’t think they heard her in Jersey. Maybe. “And you, you sneak-thief-” she pointed, and vines sprouted from the ground, snaring the legs of the hapless Lloyd Slate, who’d been trying to make a break for it behind the musicians’ tent.
“Oh, Tabby,” Mabel DeWintour said, her ire redirected neatly onto her treacherous valet, leaving her all sympathy for her opposite number. “Let me, darling, do.” She snapped, and a pair of fellows, one large and mountainous, one slender and rather pointy, both in tails, stepped out of no-where in particular. “Ganger, Jack, take Lloyd home, won’t you? Make sure he doesn’t lose his way. We’ll need to have a chat tonight about his continued employment.”
The two bowed. “Ma’am,” they said, and then bodily hauled Slate-- looking pleadingly over his shoulder at me as if I could do something to help-- out of his confining thorns and marched him away, in a different direction than Rafforut and a goblin chambermaid were escorting the young Rory. Elaine gave a little sob, clutching her handbag to her face and narrowly avoiding catching herself in the chin with the hilt of the Sommerset Sword, which no one seemed in any great hurry to claim from her.
“Oh Harry. I told her I was having such a grand time at the Kitty Kat. I invited her to meet my new friends! And she sent that brute to get me out of the way.”
“Elaine,” I said awkwardly, helpless in the face of my old pal with streaming eyes and a reddened nose. I offered her a handkerchief; she wiped her face and blew thunderously. “Er,” I said, and touched her elbow gently.
A large black car pulled up to the curb, stopping with a screech, its wheels a scant inch from the well-manicured grass. The door swung open, tumbling a young woman with frizzy blond hair out onto the lawn in a whirl of skirts and gangle.
“Mama! Papa! Hello! I’m home! Is it true, Mama, I can come home? Hello, Elaine, why are you crying? What’s wrong?”
The driver’s side opened, disgorging Meryl Oglesby, and I realized who the young lady must be-- not a difficult conclusion to come to, as the little blond belle came pelting up the lawn and tossed herself into the Earl of Sommerset’s arms with a merry “Papa!” Mister DeWintour, standing beside them, gave her a doting sort of smile and nodded at the Earl as he swept his daughter up into a hug that looked like it may have been in danger of crushing every bone in her body; until you noticed her hugging back just as tightly, that is.
“At least Lily’s home,” Elaine said, bewildered and red-eyed. “How could she possibly?”
Johnson leaned in between us. “With Felix’s cooperation, we phoned ahead to Stonewright’s and Jeeves pretended to be an agent of her father’s. The British accent is an authoritative one, and she was emancipated this morning.”
Ace came slinking out of the car-- but took one look at Elaine’s face and slunk right back in.
“Oh that little two-faced slug,” Elaine scowled, sniffling. “He’s always had a terrible crush on Rory, I knew it. Well, I don’t care. Meryl can give him an earful for me. I’ll just tell Felix what he did last night. Oh Harry...”
She leaned against me, and I put an arm around her shoulder; even Johnson essayed a dangerously non-valetish hand on her elbow. “I’ll have to go,” she said miserably. “It’ll be too awkward to stay with the family now.”
“It’s pretty irregular, but-- I could sleep on the couch. Or Johnson could--”
“”Sweet,” Elaine sniffed. “It’s all right. I’ve got some friends in the city now. Ann Alice will put me up.” She straightened herself, drying her face. “Sorry, Harry. I’ve got to go pack up a suitcase before they think to look for me.”
“Oh, Elaine,” I said, a deep sadness welling up.
“Don’t you cry too.” She patted my hand. “I’ll just be right across town. And I won’t wait ten years to drop by, all right?”
She gave me a kiss on the cheek and one for Johnson too, and then she was gone without any poetry at all-- I saw her stop to drop a word to Felix and pass off the sword with no love lost for the object.
“You have such a way with women,” Johnson sneered at me, but without too much bite, and his shove on the shoulder was distracted enough that it might have been mistaken for a comforting pat. By someone who didn’t know him like I did, of course.
The party had broken up into little clumps of scandalized gossip in two seconds flat; when we had our wits back, it was safe to sneak across the lawn, and go rejoin Jeeves-- and Bertie, who’d taken refuge in the lee of his valet’s imposing frame.
“What a day,” said he. “Saw you over there near the exploding Mrs. Sommerset. All right?”
“Tolerable. Saw you get the brushoff from Mavis. You all right?”
“Puzzled,” he admitted, hefting his family bible with a limp hand, casting around for somewhere to put it down. We were short on those, standing in the grass as we were, so I took it from him. “It wouldn’t be the first time. Not that I’m objecting, but she gave us all the nolle pros with no further explanation.”
“I will explain when I am sure the danger has passed,” Jeeves promised, giving his young man a warm look. I could wish I was getting that kind of inside shot from Johnson, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. “Mister Dresden, pardon me, but the youngest Miss Sommerset seems to be approaching.”
“I’ll handle it,” I said. “But if it’s a trap, one of you has to bail me out.”
So saying, I went forward-- to meet a whirlwind of kisses on the cheek and girlish hugs that sounded like this.
“HelloMisterDresdenFelixtoldmeeverythingyou’resoabsolutelylovelyyou’rethebeeskneesI’lloweyouforeverandeveranytimeyouneedafavorthankyousoverymuch! Oh, Mama wants me! Tata!“
Then it was gone and I was blinking and wearing a crown of flowers.
“Fetching on you, sir,” Johnson said, once he thought it safe to approach.
“Going to sit down,” I said, and staggered off to do that.
I found a bit of shade under a tree and thumped down, leaning my head back against the bark-- after a quick check to make sure it wasn’t inhabited, you never know around the Sommersets-- and shut my eyes, my flowery crown cool and refreshing against the already boiling heat of the day. The gala slowly got back up to speed around me, the excitement of earlier proving pretty rich fodder for conversation. I kept the company of my tree.
After a while I cracked an eye, and turned my attention to leafing idly through Bertie’s bible. I came across the family tree, remembering with a raised eyebrow what a fuss the valets et cetera had made about the whole thing....
A name well back in the history of the Woosters caught my eye.
“No,” I said, with surprise. “Coudn’t be.” I squinted suspiciously at the ink. Why, either it was genuine or they’d done a perfect forgery and then had someone rebind... the whole...
Johnson had been lurking nearby; if his desire to keep up his valetish charade beat out his wish to sample the best of the gala, that was his choice and I didn’t feel sorry for him.
“I know what you’ve done,” I said. “I’ve got to find Lily!”
I did, and just in time-- as I was hunting down the youngest Miss Sommerset, the maternal DeWintour was stalking Bertie; by the time I’d dropped a word in Lily’s ear about that favor she’d promised, Mabel had already cornered my pal by the punch bowl.
“Aunt Agatha’s great-grandfather’s second cousin? I, I’m not sure I recall,” he stammered, and she leaned over him like an avalanche about to fall. “Not the one at Agincourt, I know that.”
“You deny your connection to the Sommerset family?” she said. “Or perhaps it’s a clever mortal trick, my shy babe-in-the-cradle. Of all of Mavis’ pets you were the longest out of my sight...”
“Bertie! Bertie!” I said with a wave. “Your cousins are looking for you.”
“Cousins?” he squeaked.
“Cousins!” I said brightly, looking around and hoping that Lily was as good as her word and could make it snappy.
“Cousins!” boomed a happy voice issuing from the wide chest of a yellow-eyed, broad-shouldered, white-haired young man with a bit of the ungulate around his eyes and a bit of a bray in his laugh. “Thought you’d escaped us, eh, you mortal blot on the family tree?”
“I think he’s pretending not to know us, Bill Gruff,” said a second figure, slightly larger than the first and otherwise a twin to him.
“Perhaps he’s ashamed of ducking out on the bill at Delmonico’s, Will Gruff,” said the slightly smaller of the two, with tones of friendly reproach.
“Likely enough, Bill Gruff!” said the larger. “What say you, Rutherford Chesterton Gruff?”
I didn’t see a third they could be talking to-- until they both stepped aside, revealing a smaller, rather older-looking fellow with the same goatish features and a benevolent, wise looking face.
“I say you owe us a drink, Bertram,” he said judiciously. “Sorry, Mabel, darling. We’re going to steal him. If we let him stick around he’ll only try to hit up the Earl for money.”
Will Gruff hoisted Bertie over his shoulder-- Bertie caught my desperate mugging and didn’t struggle much, and I trotted after them as they strolled away. Behind me, I could hear: “It will be all right, Tabby; children are all rotten today. You'll never guess who my Mavis has just decided get engaged to now. And that young ruffian-- but my Lea darling will be arriving any time, she can tell you about him,” and trotted all the faster.
The bash at Oofy Prosser’s rental was a less put-together affair than the Sommersets’, very mortal and messy and full of drunken and celebratory Pumpkin Clubbers and dazed Drones; the few young men who were sad about the broken engagement even after Mavis’ whammy started to wear off could at least drown their sorrows in the company of friends, with the best that Prosser could procure.
“Because if he was going to open his pursestrings for his friends, it was going to have to be when a fairy spell was on him,” Bertie sighed, sprawling next to me on the chesterfield. “It’s been about a year’s worth of a day, Mimsy, old chum.”
“No joking, pal.” I toasted him with a glass of the good stuff. “I’ve figured out how the valets got Mavis to cut your friends loose. What do you think? They forged every single family tree! Using Johnson’s nefarious skills and Jeeves’ knowledge of the peerage. Had Hendricks and his bookbinding friends bind the new pages right in. Don’t you bet her mother was sour when she saw every single one of you was related to the Sommersets somehow? But I knew Mabel would see through the ruse-- if I didn’t get some conspirators in on it. Had Lily send over those uncles of hers and it was all over but the drinking!”
Bertie whistled appreciatively. “So that’s the secret! I don’t think I’ll tell the rest of them.” He waved his glass until it loosely encompassed the apartment and his fellow ex-fiancés. “All they need to know is that Jeeves and Johnson fished them out; they needn’t know how. It isn’t as if they usually understand when Jeeves has managed one of his marvels.”
“Here here. To the better part of valour.” We toasted again and got quite a bit closer to the bottom of our glasses. The party muddled along without us; young men sidled up to Johnson and Jeeves to show their gratitude with the green stuff, which had to please them; I knew a portion of it would find its way back to Nathan Hendricks. Honor among thieves, or among thief-and-his-bosom-pals, anyway. I was off the hook with Mavis myself; we’d sorted out the sword thing. Everyone was having a good time except a few wet blankets; I looked worriedly around for Bertie’s ogre Cheesewright, but he was nowhere to be seen, more the merrier. Someone had broken out a golf set to the sound of raucous applause and some breaking pottery. The Gruffs had gotten themselves invited along and were helping diminish the surplus of hoers d’oeuvres and everything else in the icebox. Except Bill, who was thoughtfully chewing the corner off the linen tablecloth.
I pointed this out to Bertie, who took it in his stride. “If he weren’t, Gussie might try to eat it after a few glasses. Handles drink about as well as a teetotaler. At least that Gruff fellow seems to be enjoying it.” Well, he did seem to be, at that. It was pretty high quality linen.
There was plenty to celebrate, and spirits were high. It was only...
I’d only lost my day job-- night job-- was all. And I wasn’t allowed to go see my pals and clap and cheer when Thora, Maiden of the Snows got it over on the Brigand Foul in their slapstick bit, or trade the news with Murphy in a slower hour, or have a glass of Mac’s own. That thought did chase me down another bottle of apple juice, I admit, and I was even starting to feel sorry for myself when Johnson drifted over to steal the spot Bertie had vacated, although don’t ask me when, to whisper hotly in my ear.
“Guess what, chump? I’ve figured out how to get you back in the Kitty Kat, considering how much they like you there and how infrequently the landlord actually darkens the door. See, as long as your name isn’t on the billboard and your face isn’t on any posters he’ll never be the wiser. Of course, it’ll make a laughing stock of you, and I’ll never let you live it down...”
There was something crackling in his voice, either excitement or rage, my brain was begining to grow something fuzzy in the thinking parts, but it put me shiveringly in mind of the dustup we’d had in the dark of a Chicago alley last spring, his racketeering empire on the brink, my steps dogged, the laying of our clever scheme and who would be who’s man debated mostly in shoves and snarls. It had worked out, if I do say so myself, even if it means I spend each day in the company of a man I loathe so thoroughly. Loathe, as he does me, as we are certain to remind each other in our endless spats, the digs he gets in by washing my sheets, the barbs I land when I thank him for his service.
I lifted my chin defiantly, squinting until I could focus on his eyes, bright and green like the fold of bills no doubt tucked in his pocket. “Lay it on me, you fink. I’m listening.”
Chapter 10: From the notes of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster: On Magic
It was a lively crowd for a Thursday night at the Kitty Kat Club, hardly a spare seat to be found and plenty of impromptu standing room at the back of the hall. I recognized more than a few faces-- Elaine Mallory in a tidy pantsuit seated at a table with Mimsy’s pal Thora, done up in a lace frock, his braids twisted into neat buns, rather like something one would expect to find on one's breakfast plate beside the eggs and bacon, his pal George across from them with his arm in a sling, and two beazles I didn’t know, one striking beauty in trim pinstripes holding Thora’s hand, and another in a prettily beaded dress and a cloche, her dark hair in a bob and her red lips turned up in a coy, bright smile. And at a table next to them, with a polite tip of the Wooster chin and no little bit of thanks for the distance between us, Miss Oglesby and young Felicitus sharing a malt with Lily Sommerset, although my newly found cousins were nowhere to be seen. Speaking of which, I had to remember to tell Jeeves I’d been invited out to dine with them next week, a place called Delmonico’s I’d been meaning to pop by anyway.
It was good to be out and about; Jeeves and I had hardly left the flat for a week, recuperating, you know, and I was in as fine of spirits as any of the other revellers I could see. Jeeves was watching the entertainment on the stage thoughtfully, a broad-shouldered filly in a sequined grown dancing through a theatrical rendition of “If You Knew Susie,” accompanied by a lass in tails and a top hat on the piano.
“I would not be surprised if Miss McShea did not remind you of your obligation until the time came to collect upon it,” Jeeves said raising his usual distant murmur to be heard above the crowd. “Still, we must remain prepared.”
“Winter,” I said. “She said she’d come in the winter. And I owe her a song.”
“Indeed. I believe she will attempt to parlay a single tune into a more lasting and-- forgive me, sir-- nutritive arrangement.”
“She’ll attempt to eat the Wooster person?” I said, alarmed.
“The histories do hint at a certain tendency towards haematophagy.” He saw my look of horrified confusion and said, solemnly: “Blood drinking.”
Well, that left me less confused, but even more horrified. “I say! I’ve nothing against a glass of red at dinner, Jeeves, but the Wooster vintage is not one I wish anyone to be making free of!”
Jeeves took my hand, under cover of the table. “I will not allow her to harm you, Bertram. I will never allow harm to come to you.”
“Oh, Reg, old thing. I know. You never do.” I squeezed his hand. “We’ll manage.”
“As you say. Sir,” he said, with a glimpse around, as if anyone in this din could have heard him break the veil of master-and-gentleman. There was a tension about his eyes that I could pick out even in the gloomy lights of the club. “I have done some introductory reading, and have ordered a book of Schubert sheet music for your perusal. I think it would benefit you greatly were you to study it careful upon its arrival.”
“You’ve performed Herculean feats for the young Master in the past two weeks,” I said firmly. “It is my strictest order that you sit here, enjoy the entertainment, and allow me to procure drinks and a bit of edible for us both.”
“Miss Murphy is at the door, and less likely than ever to let the wrong element in,” I reassured him, waving at the little figure standing crossarmed by the entrance. “Miss Mallory’s right there, and I’m assured the zap is back in her right hook. Try to relax a bit; and don’t lift a finger for anyone but yourself for the next hour. Not a bit of servanting or fretting or Wooster-from-the-soup-extraction.”
His “As you wish, sir,” was decidedly soupy, but I thought I could soften him up when I got back and crowded in to enjoy the show.
I elbowed my way up to the bar-- tipping a wave and a merry “What ho!” to Susan and Martine, giving Elaine a bit of wave and getting one in return.
The Club’s fine bartender was dishing out good brew to all comers, the shuffle of tall glasses mixed with the occasional pat on the back and sympathetic glance to the only long-faced figure in the room; Mimsy’s persecutor, Doom’n’Gloom Morgan himself. This old gentleman had his head on the bar and a few empties at his elbow, but he stirred himself to give me a baleful look.
“You’re Wooshter,” he said, with great disapproval. “Colluding with Dresden. Warlock. Certain of it. D'Arshy told me all about you.”
“Darshy,” I said, “er. D'Arcy. Er, you mean Stilton. Haven't seen him since Saturday. How’s the old boy doing?”
“Wouldn’t know. On the boat to London,” the stern old face crumpled. “He doesn’t even like novelsh.”
“Just shnap her fingers and he comes slinking back,” Morgan mumbled, despairingly.
“Ah.” All came clear; word must have reached Florence Craye of Stilton’s entanglement to another lady; the green-eyed monster had laid waste to whatever current blockade impeded the Cheesewright-Craye union, and she’d summoned him home. With no allowances for a goodbye to old friends, or new ones, despite the obvious deep philosophical bond that had been shared.
“He said we were as Shpartans in decadent Athenia,” Morgan said, and then hiccuped.
“Sorry, old thing,” I said, with a certain amount of genuine sympathy. I’d done some classical Greek studies of my own, once upon a time, pal of mine named Winship-- the lessons had ended when we left Oxford and the Wooster heart had taken a bruising. “Florence is a commanding sort. When she marshals her forces, it’s hard to go unmarshaled. I’m sure he’d have stayed as he could.”
“Bah,” he opined. The bartender whisked by and patted him on the back. “Don’t patronishe me, Mac Macanacanalally. Got to keep an eye on Dresden. Dark magic, whatever he’s up to. Sure of it.” The suspicious eyes closed, and Morgan started to snore. Two full glasses landed in front of me, and a folded apron appeared like a pillow under Morgan’s head, the bartender shimmering silently to his next task. I’d have to ask Jeeves if there was a relation.
But I was more interested in seeing what Mimsy was up to and spending a cheerful evening with Jeeves: I left poor Morgan napping and elbowed back to our table with the drinks.
“Say, you were almost on good terms with Johnson by the end,” I said, setting his glass neatly by him. “Did he say what his gag to get Mimsy back on the stage was?”
“Not in so many words,” Jeeves said. “I do know, however, that a certain amount of his windfall from the DeWintour affair went to a pair of gold velvet heeled lady’s shoes, size very large; and that a wager was mentioned, as to the likelihood of Mister Dresden's compliance in the scheme.”
The musical number on the stage wound down and the announcer popped up, asking us all to lend a round of applause to their very new performer, the Magnificent Madam Merlin; I complied with gusto, Jeeves likewise.
The curtain rose to reveal a lady in a sparkling gypsy gown all spangled with moons and stars, and a red scarf setting off her ebon curls. She was about the height and width of a streetlamp, and her gold velvet heeled shoes did look as if they were size very large. The strings of bells belted around her waist jingled merrily when she gave her hips a wiggle, catching the light pleasingly.
“The blue suits him, I think. Quite eye-catching,” I said.
“The pattern is garish, but appropriate to the venue,” Jeeves allowed. “I do not think that this will greatly diminish his popularity, though he may resent the necessity.”
I looked up at Mimsy’s coy smile as he appeared a pair of doves out of his wide sleeves, then rolled them-- his sleeves, not the doves-- up so that he could show how he transformed his jingling bangles into two wide interlocking rings. “He doesn’t look as if it’s too painful,” I said, as the Magnificent Madam Merlin threw a saucy wink towards the back.
Johnson was leaning against the wall back there, and didn’t look too upset at being singled out. He was watching the show with what Mimsy had at one point taken pains to tell me was disdain and utter loathing. It looked more like admiration to me, but Mimsy knows best. From the smile he didn’t quite manage to hide, I took it that he was handling his defeat on the wager re: Mimsy’s foray into frocked entertainment quite well indeed.
“I must express a certain amount of relief that we can now return to the illusion of magic, rather than the genuine art,” Jeeves said thoughtfully, after a bit. “With no offense meant to Mister Dresden, of course.”
“Of course. You know, magic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” I said. “The crowd wouldn’t know the difference, and sleight of hands doesn’t set things afire when you’re in a glum mood. A little magic can be nice, I suppose, but it’s not the help you’d think it would be, is it? Can’t mend a broken heart or keep you out of the clutches of Dixonian temptresses. And the less said about fairy tales the better.” I smiled over at Jeeves. “I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m pretty well satisfied with the hand that this Wooster was dealt.”
“Indeed, sir,” said he, in tones of perfect agreement.