“Mrs Peel.” The cheerful croak at the other end of the telephone was instantly recognizable, despite what Mrs Emma Peel assumed was an abundance of amphibians in the caller’s throat.
“Let me guess,” she interrupted, to save his voice for the important bits. “We’re needed.”
“You are,” Steed said. “I’m...”
“A bit under the weather,” Emma finished for him. “I can’t say I’m surprised. You did spend an inordinate amount of time sitting out in it the other day.”
“Couldn’t be helped.” For a man in danger of losing his voice entirely, Steed was either failing utterly at being miserable or putting up an excellent front. “But it does mean I’m not going to be able to...” He stopped to cough, and Emma winced at the rasping note of his throat being shredded. Excellent front it was, then.
“Look, why don’t you write down the problem and I’ll pop round to pick up my instructions,” she said. “That will save time for both of us, and let you crawl back into bed where you belong.”
“I should say ‘no,’” Steed began.
“But you’re not going to,” Emma finished. “Start writing, Steed. I’ll pick up some chicken soup along the way.”
“I’ll leave the door on the latch,” he promised.
She put the receiver back on the hook and tapped the phone thoughtfully. She hoped that whatever Steed had in mind for her wouldn’t involve spending the weekend in a manor house off in some remote location in the countryside. That sort of escapade seldom went well. Mind you, before she’d encountered a certain bowler-hatted stormcrow, invitations to the country hadn’t had quite the same thrill. Fending off unwanted suitors just wasn’t as stimulating as outwitting the elaborate traps of vengeful madmen. Then again, if Steed wouldn’t be along, she wouldn’t have to wonder whether someone was trying to control his mind.
Hm. Perhaps she’d best wear the outfit with the large pockets today. She’d just as soon not leave London, but if she did have to go, she was going to be prepared.
It was not an hour later that Emma arrived at Steed’s flat, bearing a basket that would have done Red Riding Hood credit. She rang the bell before letting herself in, calling out “Special Delivery!” to warn him of her arrival, in case he was in a state of deshabille.
There was no reply, but she heard the shower running upstairs, so she smiled and made her way to the kitchen, doffing her coat and pulling on Steed’s apron. It wouldn’t take a moment to put the kettle on for tea. Once she had water going she rummaged in her supplies to consider the tins of soup. Homemade was no doubt preferable, but Baxter’s Favourite Cock-a-Leekie would be quicker to make and, if she knew Steed, just as welcome—especially when supplemented by a few treats from Fortnum and Mason’s. Still best to check. He might prefer the Oxtail.
She took both tins with her and jogged up the spiral staircase to the upper level, well aware that she had an ulterior motive. She hadn’t explored upstairs since Steed had moved to the Mews, and here was her chance. The stairs led up to a long loft, unevenly shaped due to the cut out of the bathroom placed above the kitchen below. Opposite the bathroom was an dormer window where a mended Queen Anne chair (she remembered that fight) accompanied Steed’s desk from his old flat. A package in brown paper sat untouched on top of a pile of unopened letters, so presumably whatever he’d called her in for wasn’t a message that arrived by the post.
Beyond the bath, the loft widened. Curiosity drove her forward to examine the bedroom. It was a cozy space, the slant of the gabled ceiling starting high enough that Steed wouldn’t need to duck except at the very edges. Two more dormers, one a skylight and the other a fireplace alcove, were the exception to the bookshelves that lined most of the low walls. The skeleton clock she remembered from his last flat ticked quietly on one end of the mantelpiece, and the Sevres mantel clock from the flat before that stood silent at the other end. The Persian rugs over the wide-beamed floor were familiar too, and the 18th-century wardrobe on the far wall. The bed was old-fashioned brass, the covers rumpled and half-off the edge. Under the cracked open skylight a clotheshorse stood empty, the jacket and trousers that should have adorned it strewn with unSteedlike slovenliness at its foot. Emma tutted. Poor Steed, thrown off his stride by a lowly germ.
“I need a decision,” she called, remembering her errand. “Beef or bird for your soup?” There was no answer but the shower still pouring down and she frowned. “Steed?” She went to rap on the bathroom door, and her foot came down with an odd half-felt, half-heard sensation. She looked down and saw that water had begun to trickle over the doorsill, spreading into a growing pool. “Steed!”
With visions of an unconscious Steed dancing in her head she abandoned propriety and opened the door. Steed was slumped against the bathtub, wearing sodden white silk pajamas, and she only just had time to realize that the curl of white over his mouth was a gag when someone tried to clobber her from behind the door.
The blow skimmed the side of her head and landed hard on her shoulder, even though she’d done her best to duck. She swung at her attacker, letting the tin of soup in her hand add weight to the punch, and connected, but badly. The tiled floor was slick, her shoes too fashionable for gripping the wet surface. Still, it made him step back, his shoulders slamming into the wall.
Automatically, she assessed her opponent.
Short, bandy-legged, thin. Overfond of bright patterns. The stocking he’d pulled over his head did little to conceal his florid complexion, or his oversized nose. She hurled the tin at that flattened target and he dropped the cosh in his hand as he tried to block the missile. It landed with a splat, and, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Steed’s bare foot dart out to collect it.
Emma found herself grinning. Steed might be down, but he wasn’t out. And speaking of out, she’d have a lot more room to maneuver if she could lure Stocking Head out of the bathroom. She backed away carefully, tossing her head to get her hair back out of her eyes without taking them off her opponent. He took the bait and followed her into the open part of the loft bedroom, left hand fumbling for something in the pocket of his coat.
“None of that,” Emma said, wishing for the neat little Derringer she’d brought along in case of emergencies, now resting in the pocket of her own coat on a kitchen hook. She’d have to discourage long-distance attacks. She took two steps forward and delivered a hard kick to his left elbow, then a bum’s rush into the wall to disorient him. For once she was facing an opponent who didn’t outweigh her, and one who, it was becoming clear, had not been professionally trained. Not with the way he squeaked and shook out his left arm, pushing at her uselessly with his right hand. She brought up a knee, hard, and had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes roll back in his head before he crumpled.
“Oh good.” The rasp from the bathroom doorway wasn’t enough to make her turn until she’d crouched down to tug the stocking off of the intruder’s head. It wasn’t anyone she recognized.
“Friend of yours?” she asked, turning to look at Steed now that she knew the threat was neutralized.
Steed hadn’t even tried to get to his feet. There was a lump turning purple above his temple, and a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth. He curled against the jamb, hanging onto it as if it were his only hope of staying even partially upright. He squinted at her prisoner, started to shake his head, and then stopped, wincing. “Not even an acquaintance,” he said. His eyes closed and he grimaced. “Best call the Colonel.”
“And the doctor,” Emma said. She took a moment to substitute the hosiery in her hand for the handcuffs she would have preferred and then went to collect Steed from the floor. He was sopping wet and wobbly, but he beamed at her briefly and attempted to pretend he didn’t need the support. She steered him into the chair by the desk. “Sit. Stay.”
“Woof,” he offered, even though he couldn’t keep his eyes open. But that was enough to reassure her.
She smiled and patted him perfunctorily on the undamaged side of his head. “Good boy. Now. Where do you keep the towels?”
“Norbert Penfold of Wapping,” Emma read from the ministry report.
“I’d say the name doesn’t ring any bells, but I’m not sure I’d hear them if it did,” Steed admitted. “My head was splitting before he tried to drown me in my own tub.” Five hours later, he looked much improved, despite the bandage that entwined his head at a jaunty angle.
The doctor had come and gone and one of the Colonel’s burlier minions was downstairs, playing patience at the kitchen table. The Colonel himself had made a brief appearance, which Emma had used to point out that she had negotiated the right to choose assignments, and burly minion or not, she wasn’t about to leave Steed on his own until she had sussed out just what had made him a target (this time). To further that end, she’d taken up position in the Queen Anne chair, brought over to a nice comfortable spot between the bedroom hearth and Steed, who was tucked safely into bed.
She scanned down the page before her. “Penfold is, as the saying goes, not unknown to the police. He spent time in Her Majesty’s prisons twice, as a younger man, for burglary the first time, and grievous bodily harm, the second, although the sentence was reduced because it was clear that he hadn’t begun the brawl.” She tugged the mugshot photograph free of the paper clip and passed it over. “He’s been suspected in several thefts since his release, but there’s never been enough evidence to secure a conviction.”
Steed squinted at the photograph. “How old is this picture?” he asked.
“I thought you didn’t recognize him,” Emma said, standing up so that she could go over to look at the photo over Steed’s shoulder.
“I barely recognized you,” Steed confessed. “I didn’t realize how badly the room was spinning until it stopped. But this face. I... where did I see this face?”
“Was it recent?” Which was almost a certain bet, given the concussion, but leading questions might get past the block. “This year? This month? This week?”
Steed scowled at the picture. “Let’s start with this week and work back.”
“All right.” She went back to check the folder. “Have you been to Wapping, at all?”
“The closest I’ve been to Wapping in the past month is the City. And I don’t think Penfold would have been welcome in the club I was visiting.”
“So somewhere else then. Where have you been this week?”
“Other than dashing about Dartmoor in search of a spectral hound? Nowhere interesting. This morning I got no further than the chemist’s. And yesterday, I was in meetings for the ministry most of the day. But I did stop in at a shop I know in the Portobello Road for some clockworks.”
“Clockworks?” She felt her eyebrows climb. “Do you repair clocks in your spare time?”
“When you get laid up for several weeks in the service of your country, they tell you to take up a sedentary hobby. I wasn’t any good at knitting, but mending clocks has enough in common with defusing bombs that I get by.” Steed waved a hand at the Sevres mantel clock. “That one hasn’t kept time properly since I shifted quarters. I think I’ll need to replace the spring.”
“Clocks, clocks,” she skimmed through the pages in her hand. “The last time Penfold was suspected of burglary it was because he sold a clock that resembled one which had been stolen. Here it is. An antique ship’s clock. Mid-19th century. Quite valuable. He told the police he’d found it in a tip outside one of those blocks of flats that have gone all modern. And the shop he sold it to? Is at number 87 Portobello Road.” She passed over the relevant page.
Steed smiled a little crookedly. “That’s the same shop all right.” He gave her back the papers and leaned into his pillows, closing his eyes. “So if Penfold is a regular customer there, and happened to be there whilst I was discussing my purchases with the proprietor, he could have heard the entire transaction. Which in this instance included both my name, and my address.” It was a long speech for a man whose voice kept trying to squeak, and Emma had to work to keep her lips from twitching.
“Your address?” she asked blandly.
“Yes. I saw a clock I thought might be worth dismantling for parts, and asked to have it sent round.” Steed started to nod toward his desk and then converted the gesture into a wave of one hand when tipping his head proved injudicious. “It arrived this morning.”
“Along with the rest of the post,” Emma surmised, since Steed’s voice was growing raspy again. “You brought it upstairs, encountered Penfold, who had just come in via the skylight, and since your head was already full of fluff, you didn’t hear him before he clobbered you.”
Steed coughed into his sleeve but spun his other hand in a gesture for her to continue, which she did. “He decided to stage an accident in the bath, but before he could complete the project, I arrived.”
“Just in the nick of time,” Steed agreed, although his eyes were watering with the effort of keeping more coughs at bay.
She poured a glass of water from the pitcher and passed it to him. “You should get some sleep, Steed.”
“Not until I can stop wondering why I’m being murdered this time,” Steed protested.
“I’ll look,” Emma promised. She went to the desk and found the scissors to cut the string of the parcel, and then changed her mind about opening it there and then when she realized that Steed was craning up to see what he could see. Instead she brought both scissors and parcel over to the bed “Here.”
Steed happily bent to the task, discarding wrappings and box and still more wrappings until he unearthed a porcelain figurine of a shepherdess with a clock set between her and a seated cherub. The figurine had lost an arm, and most of her paint, and the clock lacked one hand, but even so bereft, there was something charming about the laughing girl and her small admirer.
“It’s a shame you can’t repair it,” Emma said.
“Beyond my skillset,” Steed said. “But if I can get the clock itself loose, you’re welcome to bring the rest to someone who might enjoy the challenge.” He tipped the clock sideways, to examine how the clockworks and porcelain were joined, and something small and shiny tumbled out of the hole in the shepherdesses arm to land in the bedclothes.
“Steed,” Emma said, taking hold of the clock to keep him from turning it back again. “Look.” She shook the clock and another small shiny object rattled free. With some twisting and turning, they managed to shake loose still more, until twenty-seven gemstones of different colors, none larger than a pea, had collected in an indentation in the counterpane.
Steed set the clock aside and leaned back, running a shaking hand over his face. “That clock’s been on a shelf in that shop for at least a year,” he said wonderingly.
“Penfold must have been using it like a piggy bank.” She scooped up the stones and put them in Steed’s empty teacup. “I’m willing to bet that these stones were acquired over time. He put them in the clock, waiting for the police to move on to other things, and then planned to have a nice nest egg all ready when he bought the clock himself.”
“And then I came along.”
“And then you came along.” She laughed as she carried the clock back to the desk. “If you get a goose this Christmas let me know. I’ve always wanted to see a blue carbuncle.” She looked over her shoulder to see if he’d make a riposte, but Steed had slumped back against the pillows again, and there was a faint line between his eyebrows, as if he were chasing the reference. It took him half a beat longer than it should have to come back with an offer to fetch his great-uncle’s deerstalker out of mothballs, and by then she’d already come back to collect his wrist for a pulse.
“It’s just a cold,” he said, but he didn’t pull his wrist away.
“And a concussion.” She rearranged pillows so he couldn’t sit up and he submitted to being tucked in. “Don’t get too comfortable,” she warned him. “I’m going to have to wake you up every two hours. Doctor’s orders.”
“I don’t mean to put you out,” he mumbled, but his eyes were closed, and he was melting into the mattress.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said, and settled into her chair with a book. “It’s always nice to be needed.”