“Very nice, Sarah Elizabeth. Once more, if you please.”
I beamed and sat up a little straighter on the piano bench. “Thank you, Mrs. Jamieson.” I positioned my hands carefully and began Bach’s Minuet in G once more.
I had just gotten to the first repeat when I heard a familiar tread on the front steps. “Father’s home!” I exclaimed, abandoning my music lesson. Mrs. Jamieson tut-tutted behind me as I dashed to meet him.
Father was stepping through the door as I flew out of the parlor. “Sarah, my dear!” he greeted. “Thank you, Nolan,” he added, as our butler appeared to take his coat and hat.
Mrs. Jamieson followed at a more stately pace. “Really, Sarah Elizabeth, you’re much too old to go haring off like that. Especially in the middle of a lesson.”
Father gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “She meant no harm, Mrs. Jamieson. I don’t think her studies will suffer if her lesson ends early today.” As my music teacher began to look worried, he added, “You’ll be paid for the full session, of course.”
“As you wish, sir.” She shook her head. “You really do spoil her, you know.”
Father gave her his absent-minded smile. “I suppose I do. Come along, Sarah, let me tell you about my trip.”
Nolan was already retrieving her coat, politely deflecting her additional reproach. Everyone knows Father spoils me terribly, but it’s not his fault—he’s a widower, after all, and what does a man know about raising a daughter?
It makes a great cover. When I was learning to pick locks or sneak around undetected, my flubs could always be excused by my well-meaning father’s inability to teach me proper girl behavior. Father himself cultivates an appearance of being rather naïve and absent-minded. Among our friends I have a reputation for being somewhat flighty, because I used to get the giggles when Father would put on his distracted-professor act. If only they knew!
I followed him to his study, and closed the door behind us while he lit the corkscrew candles. The candles were supposed to prevent scrying; the room was also lined with lead, but Father always believed in being thorough. Only I was allowed into the study. Here we could speak freely.
“We’ve been commissioned.” Father retrieved his wallet from inside his vest and took out a wad of five- and ten-pound notes. “A healthy deposit, and even more on delivery.”
I clapped my hands. “What’s our target?”
“Your target, dearest.” He smiled at my wide-eyed look. “I think it’s time you tried another solo assignment. You did very well on the museum job.”
I squealed and threw my arms around his neck. He returned my embrace, chuckling, then set me down so he could go over the details.
It looked straightforward enough. An unnamed gentleman was going to be in town tomorrow for Mr. Verne’s lecture at the Crystal Palace; my target was plans and papers he would have in his hotel room. “It is your job, of course,” said Father, “but it seems to me that the lecture would be the ideal time to acquire the items.”
“Yes, sir,” I agreed. “I imagine others at the hotel will be going, so not only that room but many others will be empty.” My chances of being noticed would be greatly reduced.
Father gave me some of the five-pound notes “for expenses,” and we spent a pleasant evening going over strategy.
The next day I went to the hotel itself, to have a look at its layout. Father didn’t accompany me; he was beginning preparations for another job. I was very proud that he had enough confidence in me to work on his own job while letting me go off on mine.
I wasn’t so blatant as to traipse straight over to the hotel. First I called on some friends who lived in the area; we had a nice afternoon tea and talked about their garden (his roses were coming on nicely). They had tickets to the lecture that evening, so it was a good excuse to ride over to the Crystal Palace and have a look at the lecture hall—except the hall was closed off for the afternoon so they could get it ready. A number of other people were already lounging about, waiting for the hall to be opened so they could get in early for better seats. My friends decided to stay for the same reason, so I bid them farewell and strolled aimlessly away, looking into shop windows, chatting with the street vendors, and admiring the architecture of the buildings. I passed the hotel on the other side of the street, taking note of its exterior features (easily navigated, plenty of handholds). I bought some ink and paper for Father, then strolled back down the street on the hotel side. As I approached, I saw a man climbing into a carriage—he looked familiar, but only later did I recognize him.
The hotel lobby was crowded with milling people, and no one noticed me slip through the room and up the stairs. I had hoped my target’s floor would be quieter, but there were a fair number of people there as well. A noblewoman and her maid were checking in to a room. A pair of serious-looking men were loitering about, giving everyone the once-over: police detectives, undoubtedly. They looked me up and down as I passed; I frowned disapprovingly at them and pulled my shawl closer around myself. One of them blushed and they both made a point of looking casually away. I marched past with all the stiff-backed indignation I could muster.
Outside my target’s room was a very tall young man, more than seven feet by the look of him. When he turned to watch me go by, I saw that his eyes were slitted like a cat’s. We stared at each other with equal interest until I had passed from sight. I had never seen a dragon before, not even in human form.
Around the corner, I paused to reflect. A dragon staking out my target, and a pair of policemen lurking about nearby? Clearly there was more to this job than Father had been told.
I thought it over I listened to the police detectives take the tall man away to “have a talk.” Was he after the same thing I was? It seemed unlikely, but then what did I know about dragons? Even if he was, the safest course still seemed to be my original plan. I would come back this evening and search the room during the lecture.
The tall man returned to his post; the police detectives passed by on the way to the stairs. I made myself inconspicuous so they wouldn’t notice me. I waited a moment, giving them time to get ahead of me before following, then started for the stairs myself.
As I did, I heard a muffled crash behind me. I froze, trying to determine the source—it seemed to come from one of the rooms down the hall. It seemed to come from the room I was interested in. I turned back, peeking around the corner in time to hear another crash. Definitely the same room; the tall man was looking at the door with lively interest.
He raised a hand and knocked on the door. “Hello?”
The noblewoman came out of her room, clutching her reticule. I judged there was enough interest in the commotion to explain my own presence, and trotted back down the hall to join them. “What’s happened?” the lady was asking him. She sounded French.
“I don’t know. I thought no one was in there.” He tried the door. Locked.
“Shouldn’t we call someone?” I remembered to wring my hands as if agitated.
“I will bring the manager.” The French lady hurried away. The tall man rattled the door again, then stared at me with those unsettling eyes.
“I could break the door in,” he suggested.
I thought it would be interesting if he did, but that wasn’t what a flighty little girl would say. “I think you should wait for the manager,” I told him.
We didn’t wait long. The manager was back quickly, already shacking out a key ring as he approached the door. “…do hope Mr. Verne is all right,” he was saying as he unlocked it.
He pushed the door open and gasped. The tall man peered over his head; the French lady and I clustered in behind them as they went into the room.
It was a shambles. The bed had been overturned, the mattress leaned against a wall. All the drawers had been pulled from the bureau, their contents strewn about. The wardrobe was the only piece of furniture still upright. Someone had been looking for something. My question was, had they found it?
Rustling noises came from the wardrobe.
The hotel manager crept towards the wardrobe. He looked as though he were wishing for a weapon. I moved to keep the tall man between myself and the rustling noises. The French lady was gripping her reticule and watching closely.
Just as the manager opened the wardrobe, there was a loud POP!
No one was in the wardrobe. Nothing but a few shirts and a jacket.
The manager poked at the clothes, looked rather disconsolately around at the mess, then straightened and ushered us all out of the room. “Thank you all for your assistance,” he said. “I must call the police, and I need to find out if Mr. Verne is all right.” He locked the door again and bustled off down the hall, shaking his head.
The three of us stared at each other for a moment, not sure of the etiquette for such a situation. Finally, I cleared my throat. “I had better be going home, before my father starts to worry,” I said. “It was very nice to meet you both.”
“And you as well,” said the French lady politely. The tall man was frowning at the door, almost pouting. He muttered something about a clock as I left.
I made my way home swiftly, turning over the events in my mind. Mr. Verne, the manager had said—the room was Mr. Verne’s. And now I recognized the man I’d seen getting into the carriage; he matched the photos of Mr. Verne that had been outside the lecture hall. So he probably wouldn’t return to the room until after the lecture. But the dragon, and the police, and now the mysterious ransacking of the room; why were all those things centered around the room that I wanted access to? Perhaps it was a coincidence, but my father always said:
“Never trust coincidence.”
“I know, father.” I had told him everything that happened, and we had some tea in the study while we mulled it over. “I think I should still go search the room tonight; even if they were after the same thing, they may have missed it. Or I may find information about who was in the room.” Seeing he was about to object, I added, “I know that’s what you would do, if it were your job.”
He didn’t object, but he still looked troubled. I know he worries about me if there’s any risk to the job, although he tries not to show it—he doesn’t want his worry to hinder my performance. But I know he worries, and I know why.
See, I’m not really his daughter. Father adopted me when I was seven or eight. He’d had a real daughter, and a wife, but something happened to them—he won’t talk about it, and I only asked a few times before I realized it hurt him to think about it. I stopped bringing it up. And I’m just as happy to pretend with him that I’m his real daughter, rather than a replacement for the one he lost.
But I know he tried to keep them separate from his “work,” in order to keep them safe. With me he went the opposite route; he’s taught me everything he knows and every skill he has, so that I can keep myself safe. And I know he still worries, because he couldn’t bear to lose another daughter. So I do my best to reassure him, and I don’t take any more chances than I have to.
“Don’t worry, Father,” I reassured him now. “I’ll be careful.”
He nodded and shook off his apprehension. “Of course you will. I have every confidence in your abilities, dear.” He got up and briskly tidied up the tea things—even the butler wasn’t allowed in the study, so we cleaned up after ourselves. “Shall we pass the time with some chess?” he suggested.
Later that evening, I returned to Mr. Verne’s hotel room.
This time I wore dark clothing, and I came down from the roof. The window was easily unlocked, and I slipped into the room without being seen.
The place really was a shambles. I had barely started to look around when I heard that rustling again. This time it was coming from the bureau, in the nest of drawers that had been thrown to the floor.
I moved silently over to the bureau to investigate.
Rummaging through the papers and clothes on the floor was a tiny man. He was about a foot tall, dressed in mouse skins. He looked up at me with bright little eyes as I approached.
A faerie! I’d read about them, but I’d never seen one. I crouched down slowly, so I wouldn’t be looming so high over him. “Hello,” I said quietly.
“Hello!” he answered. “You know great man?”
I blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
He gestured at the ransacked room. “Great man. His room. You know him? Know where he went?”
Now I understood. “I’m afraid I don’t know Mr. Verne, but I believe he’s at a lecture tonight.”
The little man shook his head sadly. “Not there.”
“He’s not?” The little man shook his head again. “I did see him get into a carriage this afternoon. I thought he was on his way to the lecture.”
He looked hopefully up at me. “You tell people?”
“Tell people that I saw him get into a carriage? Certainly, if you think it will help.”
“Do you mean, tell someone specific?”
I waited a moment, but he just looked at me expectantly. “Who do you want me to tell?”
“I take you to them. Tomorrow, lunchtime.”
Running messages for a faerie was a bit out of my wheelhouse, but I already liked the annoying little sprite. “All right, then. Do you know how to find me?” I told him where I lived.
“Yes, I know that place! One of us lives there.”
That was news to me. “As long as we’re doing each other favors, have you seen any plans in Mr. Verne’s room?” I described the papers I was here to find.
“No, nothing like that.”
“All right, I’ll keep looking. Thanks.”
I stood slowly, not wanting to startle him, and went back to my search. At some point I heard that POP! again, and when I looked over, he was gone. I didn’t find the plans I was looking for; the closest I could turn up was some sort of diagram. I tucked it into a pocket and left.
Father was less than thrilled.
“There’s one living in our house?” he exclaimed. “Good Lord. And you don’t know where this strange brownie is taking you tomorrow?”
“Please don’t worry, Father,” I soothed him. “I won’t go into any place that looks dangerous for a young lady. But if we can find out what happened to Mr. Verne, perhaps we can find out what happened to those plans. I might still be able to salvage this job.”
“Hang the job,” he snapped. I was speechless; Father rarely snapped, and I’d never known him to bail on a job. He must really be upset.
Seeing my shock, he paused and took a deep, slow breath. “I’m sorry, Sarah Elizabeth.” He sat down and rubbed his hand over his face. “This sounds bad, all of it. Too many people hanging about, Verne’s rooms get tossed, Verne disappears, now the Little Folk are taking you off to meet people of whom we know nothing. You’ve no idea what you’re walking into, or how to prepare for it. And I’ll be on a train to Holloway.” Father’s job in Holloway was happening tomorrow night; for a number of reasons, it would be his best opportunity.
“Father, I’ll be fine.”
“Sarah, I’m not doubting your abilities. But now that there are faeries involved…”
Finally I realized what was fretting him. I felt like an idiot for not seeing it sooner. “I really don’t think Puck is behind this,” I said gently.
The mention of his old enemy, even by alias, made him pale. “You don’t know what Puck is capable of.”
I waited quietly. After a moment he sighed and said what I’d been thinking: “And that’s my fault. I don’t like to talk about him, but you should know about the dangers you face, even the ones I’d rather not contemplate.” He nodded decisively. “I think you’re right; Puck isn’t behind your current pig’s ear.” I giggled at the slang, he smiled and went on, “You go with your little friend tomorrow, and see what you can learn. When I get back from Holloway I’ll tell you all about Puck. I hope never to hear from him again, but you should know, just in case.”
“All right, Father. Try not to worry.”
He scowled around the room. “Faeries in our house, now. Perhaps I should set out mousetraps.”
He held up his hands placatingly. “I’m only joking, my dear.” But he gave another suspicious glance around, as if he might catch faeries skulking around the baseboards.
I kissed his cheek and left him in the study, hoping he wouldn’t stay up brooding all night.
I spent the evening looking through our books and reading about faeries. I learned that my little friend was a brownie, just as Father had called him, and that they liked cream. Before turning in, I got a thimble full of cream and set it on my bureau for the one in our house. As long as it was living with us, we may as well be friends.
Just before noon the next day, my “little friend” popped in as I sat in the parlour, noodling on the piano. “Time to go!” he announced. Faeries don’t seem to be much for idle pleasantries.
I stood up. “I’m ready.” I hesitated, not wanting to insult him. “Um… would you like to ride in one of my pockets? That way no one will see you.”
I needn’t have worried; he hopped cheerfully onto my arm and climbed into my pocket. From there, he could give me quiet directions, and my own comments to him looked simply like a flighty girl chattering to herself.
We took a cab to the West End, in a very nice part of town. After the cab had dropped us off, he guided me another mile or so to a large, imposing building. The sign by the door named it “Planetary Exploration Society.” Very well-dressed people were coming and going.
“I don’t think this is the sort of place I can go without an invitation,” I murmured to my companion.
“You have an invitation!” he retorted. “You have me!”
“Quite so,” I replied. “I beg your pardon.” I took a deep breath and marched up to the door.
The man who answered my knock was better dressed than many of our neighbors. Clearly this establishment was very upper crust. “How may I help you?” he asked.
I gave him my brightest, just-a-harmless-girl smile. “Sarah Elizabeth Lexington. I’m here to meet some people for lunch.”
“Do you have an invitation?”
“My friend invited me.” I indicated my pocket.
The faerie stuck his head out. “Hi!” he piped.
The doorman didn’t bat an eye. “Very good. Follow me, please.”
He led me down a high, arching corridor that was so richly appointed I was practically drooling. How had Father and I never heard of this place? He showed me into a large room lined with books and complicated apparatuses. In the center was a celestial sphere map, with movable parts and beads that let one locate any point in the sky at any time of year. The tall man from the hotel was inspecting it. He glanced up as I entered, gave me a cheerful “Oh, it’s you! Hello again!” and went back to his inspection.
The French lady was there, as well. The doorman paused long enough to introduce us: the lady, Countess Fleurette d’Haviland; the dragon, Vespirion. The lady smiled and nodded; the tall man gave a distracted wave without looking over. I offered a meek “How do you do,” and sidled away to look at the books on the shelves.
They were fascinating books—mostly science tomes, about the planets, scientific theories, the deep ether, and so on. I wondered if they were ever loaned out.
The doorman ushered in a fourth person, introduced him as “Colin Wilkes,” and departed. He was the first person I’d seen on this job who would qualify, as my father might say, as a “dodgy character.” He was a little shorter than I was, but twice as wide, with a derby hat pulled down over an unfortunate face. He nodded to us and immediately tried to make himself invisible, a difficult task with the gaudy red feather he had attached to his hat.
Vespirion beckoned. “Come, join us!”
Red Feather touched his hat. “Thank you, sir, I’m better off over here, if you please.”
The tall man shrugged. “As you wish.” He seemed puzzled; I supposed dragons aren’t familiar with human social classes. Why would they be?
We all turned as the door opened and two newcomers entered. “Good afternoon,” said the man, a well-dressed fellow in his thirties. “Some of you I have met; my name is George Bernard. This is Miss Margaret Evans.” He indicated his companion, a plainly-dressed woman in her twenties.
“I am sorry to bring you all together in this fashion, but we are in something of a crisis and time is of the essence. It will be simpler to speak to you all at once.” He glanced at the countess as he spoke; she made a gracious go ahead gesture that I planned to practice myself, later.
Mr. Bernard explained that the scientist Jules Verne was missing, and presumed abducted—he had never shown up at the lecture last night, and no one knew where he went. Because the three of us had been in the vicinity of his rooms at the time of his disappearance, we were currently their best source of information for finding him.
We offered what scan information we could. I told them of seeing Mr. Verne get into a carriage yesterday. Vespirion had seen it as well, and could provide even more details: Mr. Verne had seemed hesitant, and from the description of the carriage, we determined that it had no markings identifying it. The countess had even more information; she had performed some scrying last night in an attempt to find Mr. Verne, and had determined that he was down at the docks—specifically, on the Thames itself, as though he were aboard a docked boat.
Mr. Bernard took it all in. “I must impose upon you further, and ask for your help. I need your assistance in finding Mr. Verne. We have hired Wilkes here as… protection, if it comes to that.”
We all looked at each other. “Sure,” said Vespirion. “I still want to buy the clock from him.”
The countess took a firmer grip on her reticule. “Of course,” she added. “My husband is also missing. I believe they may be together, wherever they are.”
They looked at me. I shook my head.
“I’m sorry, I would like to help, but my father would worry terribly if I took part in such a thing,” I demurred. Which was putting it mildly.
Mr. Bernard nodded. “I understand. However, we had really hoped that you could accompany us. We could use your … specific talents.”
Everything inside me went cold. I was sure he wasn’t referring to needlepoint or piano. How much did they know? And how did they know it?
I couldn’t ask him, not in front of all these others. Trying to seem calm, I asked, “May I write Father a note, first?”
“Of course.” Mr. Bernard summoned someone for pen and paper. As they gathered around deciding how best to travel to the docks, I composed a brief note.
I met some out-of-town friends at the train station. They have cordially invited me to attend the theatre with them, and we may also have a late supper. I will let you know if we make any other plans.
The note was in our private code; it would let him know that my cover was blown, but not by the police, and that the situation was still volatile. I hoped he wouldn’t worry too much.