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#11: Diamond in the Hearth

Ins. Newberry tugged at his lapels and cricked his neck impatiently as he stomped upon the stoop. His predictions as far as the weather had been more than a touch off and now he found himself subject to an icy sprinkle, half-rain, half-snow. Glaring at the crystalline orb that clung to the fa├žade of the apartment building just above the ornate doorway, Giles hoped that Mr. Wexley was indeed spying upon his visitor.

A moment later, a small panel crackled to life at his elbow, confirming his suspicions. “Just a tic, Giles,” the tiny opaque screen issued forth a hollow imitation of a man’s voice. A resounding and multi-layered crash followed, accompanied by muted swearing, “Be down in just a moment.”

Winking an errant snowflake out of his eye, Giles waited in the deepening gloom for his friend to answer his front door. A rattling sound at the other end of the heavy wooden portal roused him from his reverie and he suppressed a smile over what was Vincent Wexley’s idea of adequate security.

Yanking the door open, a shockingly skinny man clad in over-large dressing gown and slippers bade Giles to enter. Or screamed at him, more like. “Quick, quick man,” the wild-eyed gentleman beckoned, running anxious hand through unruly shock of ginger hair and glancing over Newberry’s shoulder. Newberry knew better than to tarry when Vincent was in one of his moods and moved with alacrity through the open doorway.

Slamming shut the door with violence equal to that with which he’d opened it, the eccentric Mr. Wexley eyed his friend with a mix of fondness and well-meant reproof. Giles smiled patiently under the brief inspection, as always willing to overlook his friend’s quirks. “Well, no harm then. Could have been worse,” Vincent pronounced at last, offering his hand for a hearty clasp and gesturing towards the parlor, “And you know I’ve rooms should the inclement weather force your stay.”

“I’m sure it will not come to that but thank you,” Giles drawled, hoping that, by staying casual, his long-time friend might lose some of his agitation.

No such luck. Eight different bolts, locks, and slides securing the door behind him and with a nervous glance at the heavily curtained window, Mr. Wexley restated is offer of lodgings before leading the way down the dim corridor to the parlour.

Following behind, Giles once more marvelled at the curiosity that was Wexley House. Vincent aside, the estate was home to any number of oddities and, to Giles, had always felt like more of a museum than a house. Steady, yet dim, lighting illuminated rare artefacts and rarer mechanical wonders, the house’s sole inhabitant surrounding himself with the products of his hobbies, or obsessions more like. An itinerant inventor, the man had long fallen down the metaphorical rabbit-hole that was his imagination and then burrowed in for good effect. Giles began to feel his coming was a mistake.

“More numbers to crunch?” Vincent turned abruptly into a side room, an interior sitting area lined with shelves that would have been filled with books in any other man’s house, here they housed any number of small machines. “The last ones you had sent to me, did they work out for you?”

With a small pang of guilt, Giles accepted Vincent’s glass of hospitality and claimed a chair. He had not yet thanked the gentleman for his help in their last case and here he was expecting more help on work that was, by rights, his own to do. “Yes, well. . .” he began, finding distraction for his eyes in the curios lining the walls. The brandy was strong and smooth and Vincent proved himself a most excellent listener. The tale of the past several days was told quickly enough and Giles leaned back into the comfortable chair, watching with no small amusement at Wexley’s rapt expression.

“Oh, if I could but see their equipment. What marvels they must have dreamed,” Vincent caught himself and blinked, “Not that I approve of their mucking about with other people’s brains, of course.”

“Of course,” Newberry agreed gently, debating his next move. He decided the direct approach was best, “You know. It is my department. And we are down our scientific expert. . .”

“I’m a bit chill, are you?” Vincent didn’t wait for an answer, springing to his feet like a scalded cat and padding over to the open hearth. The harsh sound of metal on metal filled the room for a moment as he bent inside the darkened fireplace, muttering incoherently about the damp and the foul, foul weather. He stepped back and, with a resounding clang, a panel of smoked, leaded glass shielded the hearth. Flicking a switch on the mantle, Vincent dove back to the comfort of his own easy chair, a rumbling hum emanating from the fireplace before quieting, harbinger to the soft, greenish glow now flickering in the grate.

Raising his eyebrows questioningly, Giles looked from warming hearth to grinning host, “Something new, then Vincent?”

“Wood and coal—both too sooty. Couldn’t abide the mess and the buildup. And you know me and chimney sweeps”—Giles did not know but he smiled along—“So I looked into another solution. You know that diamonds are essentially compressed coal, yes? Well, this little factoid, my friend, makes for a very efficient, very long-lasting, very low-maintenance fuel source. Provided, of course, you’ve the proper shielding.” Vincent crossed his arms, puffing his skinny frame ever so slightly in pride.

“And provided you’ve the proper fuel,” Giles added with a smile and an eyebrow raised toward the very large diamond glowing in state behind the leaded glass.

Vincent coughed, “Yes, well. . . been in the family for years.” Used to Mr. Wexley’s sometimes underhanded methods, Giles couldn’t be sure if the rise in colour on the gentleman’s checks was due a flush of conscience or trick of the light but in any case he wasn’t in the mood to interrogate his friend and the fire was certainly cozy. Best he returned to the matter at hand. . .

“Well, the evidence in my possession isn’t going anywhere if you do decide to stop by—was deucedly hard to get it in there, actually. I’ve no idea how we’re to remove it,” he pinched his temples, hating to even think of the mess back at the office. Give me action, give me danger. . . anything but this, he moaned inwardly, as Vincent piped up, wondering aloud if it mightn’t be documented, described for him.

“Or better yet!” Vincent again vacated his chair, this time ascending a ladder to the topmost shelf on the opposite end of the room. Giles waited patiently while his friend rummaged around the darkened upper eschelons of his parlour. Half-jumping, half-tumbling from the ladder, and juggling his burden in the process, Vincent’s eyes again sparkled as he explained his idea. “This is the next best thing to my going there. Behold,” he opened a spring loaded series of flaps from the back of the black, box-like object, the smallish gadget telescoping out to now require two-handed handling. Bending in the middle and pressing his eye to the narrow protrusion now sticking out the back end of what Giles could see was a essentially a metal box (though infinitely more complicated, if he knew Vincent), Mr. Wexley exercised pressure on another panel, releasing a hand crank and opening the front to reveal a crystalline lens. Operating crank and peering through the eyepiece, Wexley executed a slow circle about Giles’ chair, narrating all the while, “It’s a touch remedial, but its infinitely more mobile than my other visual capture system. A slow crank on the handle here moves the receiving cards past the lens, capturing what it sees.” He stopped and righted himself, handing off the curious device to Newberry with the caution, “Just don’t open it, whatever you do. The chemicals inside—best not tampered with—or breathed.” He added the last bit almost as an afterthought and Newberry moved the heavy box-like item to arms-length.

“And I’m to. . .?”

“Bring the camera back to me. I’ll do my little bit to get the captured images and then can tell you what you’ve got,” Vincent nodded and busied herself at another eyepiece, this one mounted in the wall, as Newberry moved to reclaim coat and hat. “Now, you’re sure I cannot entreat you to stay?” he offered wistfully, “It does look positively frightful out there.”

Newberry took his leave and gratefully took to the outdoors where the “frightful” weather turned out to be no more than a playful snow flurry that’d just begun. Poor Vincent, he laughed, inspecting the curious camera more fully as he walked back to the office.