The man in the black mask concluded his speech.
‘I have delivered my master’s message. You may have five minutes to decide, when I shall return for your answer. The sentence will be carried out immediately upon that answer.’
‘Wait!’ said Harriet. ‘Why do this? Why not just kill us?’
‘Revenge,’ said the man. ‘Our organisation was the perfect criminological engine, until his lordship decided to intervene. My master was defeated and forced to appear in court. He was exposed and humiliated in his defeat. Given the occasion for revenge, naturally he feels that his lordship deserved a taste of his own medicine. Against you, dear lady, he feels no particular animus, indeed nothing but gratitude for this unparalleled opportunity. Usually we kill intruders on sight: you should be grateful to have a choice.’
‘Between murder and rape?’ asked Harriet.
‘Between life and death. Five minutes, Lord Peter.’
He bowed and left the room. The iron door clanged heavily shut behind him.
‘Well that’s it,’ said Peter. ‘Harriet, I am most awfully sorry, I’m afraid I’ve made rather a mess of things. If we’d waited for the police – I suppose they’ll be in time to pick up our Moriarty and his men, but that will be small consolation to us. I can’t claim mine has been a godly, righteous and sober life, but bits of it haven’t been without use. Only it’s rather ironic that I’ve managed to drag the best bit of it to the end with me.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Harriet. ‘You told me it would be dangerous, and I came anyway. If my number’s up, you gave me a few years more than I should have had without your efforts. Only, Peter, aren’t you being a bit precipitate? We don’t have to die. I mean, if they don’t kill us afterwards anyway, like Angelo, and I don’t think that he means to or what’s the point of the ciné-camera?’
‘Yes, that’s a peculiarly nasty touch. But look here, Harriet, you can’t mean – you can’t possibly really want to. God knows, I’ve made demands of you, but nothing like this.’ His mouth twisted in disgust.
‘Of course I don’t really want to. But I want to be killed in some horrible way by these people even less.
'Peter, do you know what was the worst part of being on trial? It wasn’t the publicity, or standing in the dock and answering beastly questions, or hearing vile things said about one and ascribed to one, or even waiting for the verdict. It was the day afterwards, when there might have been a second chance, only the door was just as shut and the cell was just as small and I thought that if a jury were going to find me innocent they’d have done it, so it was really only a second chance for the prosecution. I’d never expected an acquittal, so just for one wonderful moment I thought that it really might be all right, and then I saw there wasn’t like that at all. If you really can’t stand it, that’s one thing. But for God’s sake, don’t think you have to let yourself be killed to spare my feelings, because my feelings on the matter are long since trampled.’
‘It isn’t that. Harriet, you said once that you’d live with me, but – ’
‘There isn’t time for all that. They’re coming back. Peter, I do understand that you'd prefer almost anything else, but would you really rather die?’
‘No. No, I wouldn't.’
‘All right. Whatever you want. I’ll try. Only whatever happens,’ he added with a wry smile, ‘I’d be awfully obliged if you didn’t take the performance as representative.’
The door opened.
‘So, Lord Peter. What is it to be?’
‘Harriet?’ She nodded. ‘Tell your master we have decided to trespass on his hospitality a little further.’
The strip of white forehead visible above the mask wrinkled. ‘I see. I do not scruple to say that this is somewhat unexpected.’
‘Awfully sorry to be a nuisance. You had better remind your master it was his own proposal.'
‘Very well. The terms remain as specified; my master is a man who keeps his word. Perform his bidding and you shall be released. So, of course, will the cinematic film.’
'I see. Do shut the door after you, there’s a good chap. There’s a beastly draft down here.’
The door closed behind him.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll get it off him. Besides, I fixed the focus during that tussle earlier. No-one watching will know us from Adam – or Eve.’
‘I’m awfully sorry,’ said Peter some time later, ‘but it’s no go. I would if I could, but I can’t. I believe this is the part where men are supposed to insist that it’s never happened before. As a matter of fact, that’s true, but little consolation under the circumstances.’
‘It’s my fault I bullied you into it. And the circumstances are hardly conducive; we neither of us perform to strangers.’
‘It’s not the strangers that are the bother. I’m sorry, that sounded rather brutal. I mean, I so much wish it were other circumstances, and the thought that it isn’t... It’s all rather lowering.’
Harriet shifted within his embrace. ‘Should it help if I – ’
He shook his head. ‘It wouldn’t do any good. The flesh derives its temper from the spirit, and the spirit is not whole-hearted. Under other circumstances, I should endeavour to make up for it in other ways, but here and now it wouldn’t qualify.’ His arms tightened about her. ‘I should like to have shown you pleasures in a long immortal dream. As it is, we’d better get dressed and die with our boots on. I’ll take a swing at our masked messenger, if it’s the last thing I do.’
‘It might not have to be. Listen! Something’s happening up there. Quick, hand me my shirt. I’m damned if – look at the door! Get back before it comes down.’
If Chief-Inspector Parker, entering the room some moments later, thought his quarry looked a trifle flushed and unkempt, he undoubtedly ascribed it to the strains of the past two hours.
‘Wimsey, you reprobate, why didn’t you wait? You might have been killed. Come on, we’d better get you out of here. We’ve rounded up the Big Chief and most of his men, but they’ve a past enthusiasm for blowing places up beneath them. You’re not hurt, Miss Vane?’
‘Thank you, I’m quite all right, though I suppose I must look dreadful. We had a bit of an altercation with one of the guards.’
‘I’m sorry about that. This way, up the stairs. Wimsey, leave the blasted camera, we’ve got plenty of evidence. Hurry!’
‘That was a close thing,’ said Parker, watching as the windows of the great house blazed merrily and the policeman played It with the escaping men. ‘I’m damned glad we got there when we did.’
‘Yes,’ said Wimsey. ‘We owe you a great deal, or at least I do. Miss Vane might call it honours even.’
Parker winced. ‘We shall have to deny you the pleasure of a trial, I’m afraid, at least for the boss. He seems to have swallowed poison as we were breaking down his door. Didn’t fancy a second stretch inside.’
‘I’m not too sorry about that,’ said Harriet. ‘What about the others?’
‘We’ve got most of them alive, though a couple are badly burned. A chap in a black mask fancied being heroic and doesn’t look like he’ll make it, but the rest should be all right in good time. By the way, do you know what they wanted from you? Or was it just revenge?’
‘Revenge,’ said Peter, ‘but not just revenge. He wanted there to be no going back, no forgetting.’
‘That’s the nastiest kind of criminal,’ said Parker. ‘They aren’t content with destroying themselves, but must ruin decent people with them. I hope, Miss Vane, that you won’t find yourself unable to forget this dreadful experience now that it’s over.’