Of all the mornings to be running behind, Giles dashed about his rooms in a frantic search for his stick. His usual cane leaned temptingly against the mantle and he passed it twice in his fruitless hunt for the other. Oh, he knew he could simply grab what was available and be out the door in a moment, but the walking stick he sought had special meaning and now that he knew it to be missing, he damn well wanted to know what it was. Besides, for all his other faults, Sir Crothall seemed to be a most punctual fellow—he could let Doctor Perrigordon in.
Ten more minutes of tearing apart his flat turned up nothing save an old glove he thought he’d left in the theatre last winter and Giles surrendered at last. And so it was with an already black humour that he entered the lower levels of the Yard to discover three voices emanating from the MDOPFGIASA offices instead of the expected two.
“Ah, Giles,” Reginald greeted him warmly as Giles entered the office, returning Prof. Perrigordon’s smile and throwing a penetrating and questioning glance at the unknown gentleman who stood in their midst. Devoid of coat and hat, and balancing a cup of tea in his free hand, the stranger reached out to offer Newberry a vigorous pump of the arm. Clearly at east in their midst, the gentleman’s poise bespoke a military background, an impression immediately confirmed by Sir Crothall’s introduction.
“Mr. Giles Newberry, meet Colonel Howard Spreenkerton.” He grinned at the little group and Giles could tell that he wanted him to ask for further information.
He obliged. “Please to meet you, sir. How can we be of service to you?”
“Reggie here has asked that I join up with you fellows. Seems that MDOP—” he paused to check his memory on the horrible acronym “—MDOPFGIASA could use some more fire power. Someone with a bit more,” he hunted for the words, “dash and slash, you know? And don’t you worry about all that sciency stuff—I’ve always been a bit of a whiz at maths.”
Giles shot a warning look to Reginald, who retaliated openly with, “Hey, you promised I could pick our next agent. And Spreenkerton here is military.” He worked to mollify the rapidly exploding Newberry while Dr. Perrigordon looked on in bemused silence.
"Ex-military, ol’ thing . . . But let’s not put too fine a point on it. Fact is, we’re all real excited,” Howard cut in, “I hear tell you’ve got some sort of whatzit on the loose?”
While he’d fought long and hard to develop a special face designed to deal with the unexpected, a washed out ex-military goon was not quite what Giles had in mind. Swallowing his rising anger, he nodded, “A small, homemade autotron. Intelligence as yet untested but clearly capable of basic reasoning and mobility—that’s to say, it doesn’t depend upon another to control its movements.” He briefly brought Spreenkerton up to speed on the events of the day before, perversely enjoying the widening of the man’s eyes as he told the tale.
“Well that sounds quite marvelous!” he ejaculated, “Like something you’d read in the papers.” Spreenkerton was hooked, face alight with childlike wonder, “But tell me, did this robotic rat’s owner explain how the thing stays wound?”
Giles almost missed the intelligence of the question in its ill-reasoned voicing, “You mean, how does it maintain its power?”
“Sure.” Howard nodded blankly, still clearly having in mind a child’s wind-up toy. “I mean it’ll run down eventually and the problem’s solved, right?”
Giles had to admit, this Colonel Spreenkerton did have a very good point. Yesterday, he’d been so caught up in the perceived urgency of the chase, the autotron’s frantic half-mad owner/inventor spewing nonsense that his creation was bred for destruction and nigh unstoppable . . . Newberry’d taken the man at his word, impressed as he was at the seeming capabilities of the little robot. “Well, I did have the gentleman in for further questioning—”
“Well, I never met him!” Crothall interrupted, indignant.
“Yes, well, we were, as of yesterday, still lacking the manpower to handle him ourselves, so I was forced to turn him over to the regular force,” Giles let his aggravation show.
“Has the regular force sufficient experience and expertise to ask the right questions?” Dr. Perrigordon mildly observed from his place near the door.
“Of course not,” Giles snapped, “But as I said, we were ill-equipped and-”
“By jove! Let’s go see this mad tinkerer then!” Col. Spreenkerton had snapped to action, abandoning teacup and reaching for his coat. “Can’t say we’re lacking in manpower now, eh?”
“Excellent suggestion, Howard,” Reginald, too, moved for his coat.
It was that last action that sealed the deal and erased Giles’ embarrassment and anger in one fell swoop—if this new regime could get Crothall out of the office and on the beat unasked, he was all for it. Besides, he had a feeling this Spreenkerton fellow was sharper than he let on.
* * *
The Yard officers in charge of Harvey Whitlock had, of course, let him go.
“What, are we to keep a man here because he’s smart and gots novel ideas, then?” the Inspector on duty had retorted sullenly, forcing their little band back down into their office with as few answers as before.
But Howard Spreenkerton was no quitter. “I say we pay this man a visit, eh? See if his robotic rat has come home at last.”
The short walk to Mount Street was tense and uncomfortable—Crothall clearly feeling put out by having to go all that way to question someone that Giles had let go, neither of the men entirely pleased with the reality of bringing two untested men to the field simultaneously. But all this was an afterthought, really, and for the moment, they were merely four gentlemen who were dealing with sudden close company, men who all viewed themselves as born to lead and now forced into compromise and teamwork.
“Now, I must warn you,” Giles began, “Mr. Whitlock is a rather eccentric—”
Nodding, Crothall shouldered past and rang the bell.
“—gentleman, and does not keep any staff,” Giles finished, giving Reginald an exasperated glare.
“Back door?” the ex-colonel jumped to attention, gesturing at Giles’ curt nod for the Professor to join him in the alley on the off chance that Crothall’s ring had spooked their crazed inventor.
First time we’ve acted like a team, Giles hid the smile as he watched the wary Colonel and apprehensive Professor duck around the corner, wondering what he and Crothall were left to accomplish now that the element of surprise was lost. The chances that Harvey hadn’t bolted and would open the door to them were slim, but the idea of returning with a force merely so they could question a man that the Yard had already released irked him. He glared at the door, as if his ocular expression of displeasure alone could open the offending portal.
A sudden clearing of the throat and a smooth, cheerful “Good morning” emanating from his partner brought Giles’ attention to the present.
Glancing sideways, he caught sight of his companion’s object of attention and quickly worked to rearrange his composure as his heart flipped in his chest and an invisible person punched him in the gut. Or at least that’s how it felt as the gentleman found himself face to face with a pair of soft brown eyes that carried a hint of humour, a mouth that promised the same. Set into a strong-boned, lightly freckled face and framed, unfortunately, by a royal blue bonnet that gave very little hint as to the character of the hair beneath, save that it was brown. The features now animated themselves in a responding, “Good morning.”
At the words, Giles hastily remembered that he had not, as yet, addressed the lady, that the words were meant for Reginald who stood beaming at Newberry’s elbow.
“’Morning,” Newberry managed to croak out at last, gently touching gloved hand to the brim of his gibus and inwardly blanching as the woman now ascended the steps towards them brandishing her key.
The two men automatically stepped aside, Giles noting with adolescent glee that Crothall seemed as nonplussed as he. Even so, it was his companion who found his tongue first.
“Ah, you live here then,” he raised his hand to his forehead in a gesture of relief. “I was just saying to my brother-in-law here that we never should have given his father the means to have an untended flat until we were sure the old fellow’d be alright on his own. You see, we’re in a bit of a pickle here as we’ve rung and rung and—”
“You’re needing someone to let you in so you might check on his well being, is that it?” the woman’s hand had strayed near her cloak as Crothall spoke.
Damn it, man, Giles narrowed his eyes as he noticed the subtle motion. Tensing, he readied himself to spring into action, understanding the woman’s need for defense against two no-gooders with an obviously false story but equally unwilling to deal with MDOPFGIASA’s first casualty this morning. It was tempting to see what this woman might do to Crothall, though. She certainly looked capable.
The hand retreated and she turned back to the door, uninterested. “Come back with the proper authority, officers, and I’ll be sure you see access to the building.”
“What the? How did she?” Crothall dropped all pretense, “I say, madam. That was jolly good.”
Turning with a shrug and a hint of the good humour Newberry had assumed lived within, the lady intoned, “You’ve no idea.” Disappearing through the darkened portal she called, “You clean up rather well, Inspector. I’ll tell Harvey you’re looking for another subterranean adventure.”
The door clicked shut, leaving the two men dumbfounded on the stoop, one with ears glowing redder by the moment. The silence was broken by a shout and scuffle ‘round the corner. Eyes alight, Giles leapt down the steps to greet the Colonel and his slippery quarry as they emerged from the alleyway, portly placid Professor in tow.
“’Ere now, I’ve answered your questions. Now lay off me,” Mr. Whitlock struggled to break Spreenkerton’s firm grip, “Have you no respect for a man’s rights? I’ll complain, I will.”
Giles harrumphed authoritatively, “Mr. Harvey Whitlock, meet Doctor James Perrigordon, resident expert in bio-electrics and autotronics at Oxford.“If you please, Mr. Whitlock, I’ve some questions about your autobot,” Dr. Perrigordon began.
“What robot is that, sir? I’ve no robot.” He flung wide his elbows in illustration, a gesture to show he’d nothing to hide. “Search my place if you’d like.”
“Look here, sir, you’ll start talkin’ now or you’ll be talkin’ back at Headquarters,” Crothall chimed in, looking for all the world as if he were playacting a favourite role. You could almost hear him say “That was fun!” in the resulting nod and smile he gave Giles at the conclusion of his small contribution.
Rolling his eyes, Giles nodded to Colonel Spreenkerton, who still held their alleged inventor tightly, “Come on then, back in for questions it is.”
Whistling a constable, they were able to hail an official Police vehicle, thus making their progress back to Headquarters less encumbered and infinitely more official. The look on Reginald Crothall’s face as he climbed aboard his first police wagon was exquisitely comical and Giles had to avery his eyes lest he laugh aloud. Darting his eyes to Whitlock’s residence once more as they pulled away from the kerb, Giles frowned, swearing he saw the curtains of the second floor window fall shut to conceal a now familiar female visage.