Briony clung to the safety of the shadows, feeling vastly underequipped. Her pursuit of the people who’d stolen the family’s textile patterns had led her to a warehouse on the Newcastle docks and she now found herself unexpectedly in a villain’s lair – or the import-export operation of a well-to-do businessman. If it was the latter, she didn’t think much of his ethics.
The men she’d tracked down the river road from Braebury were talking to a prosperous looking, middle-aged man wearing a silk waistcoat patterned to carry the Virtues of health and vigour, as well a healing Ability or Utility. The designs looked to have been woven in with coloured threads that made the whole garment look rather gaudy, but Briony could see that with a dark suit it would merely look eye catching. The men she’d followed were dressed much as she was: dark trousers, shirt and jacket; scarves knitted to contain useful Virtues, hers contained unobtrusiveness; leather boots; and flat caps. Briony was wearing her cap but the two burglars had theirs in hand. The holdall Briony had slung over her shoulder only held her gloves and lock picks while her targets had a patterned carpet bag and satchel each that must, between them, have held considerably more, particularly if their qualities were anything like those of Briony’s holdall.
“Do you have the patterns?” That was the prosperous looking man.
“Course we do, gov.” The thicker of the two men sounded cheerful. “A little trouble in one of their houses though. We got caught and had to break some of a cove’s bones so we could get away.”
“Fools who stand in the way of progress deserve to be swept aside,” said the prosperous man. “I shall make far better use of those patterns than they would. Knitting mills, not just weaving ones, are the way of the future and that will build me my fortune.” He smiled at the two men in their scarves and cloth caps. “My new mill will mean comfortable work for you two as well. Now I have the patterns they’ll have to be kept secure. The looms may need to be guarded too – I have no doubt that I shall have rivals and Luddites to deal with once the mill is in business. You two rest up tonight, and we’ll start south in the morning. At this point I believe our best security is a stout safe and no-one knowing that we have them.”
The two men shot a look at each other. “If we’re to be paying for a night’s rest in a hotel bed, we’ll need paying beforehand,” said the thicker man. “We had expenses getting to Braebury and back, so we’re not as beforehand with the world as we’d like at the moment.”
The prosperous man looked a little taken aback for a moment, then he smiled. “Yes, of course,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking. I’ll just get you your last two weeks’ wages from the safe. We’ll lock these patterns away with the others at the same time.”
Briony watched with interest as he unlocked a panel in the floor and then opened the safe it concealed. The two men she’d followed from her home town, and their robberies there, handed the prosperous man a small sheaf of mismatched papers which he put inside another box that was already in the safe. That done, he extracted a bag of coin and counted out the men’s wages on a desk in front of them. It appeared that working as a burglaring thug for this man paid well because he counted out more for each man than a labourer or a clerk would have earned for a fortnight’s work. The coins handed over, the bag was put back into the safe, the safe was closed and the floor panel was relocked.
Briony waited, hiding, while the three men locked up the warehouse. Once she heard the outer door lock she waited in place for another quarter of an hour, counted second by second in her mind and on her fingers, before she moved. Then she crept forward, slowly, testing the floor boards for unusual sounds and feel before committing her weight to the step. As she went she pulled her fingerless gloves out of the holdall and put them on, the Skill patterns knitted into backs of the hands unobtrusive in the same yarn as the rest of the gloves. She knelt beside the floor panel, then took her lock picks out of the holdall too. Just as she was about to insert her chosen tools into the panel’s lock there was a polite, throat clearing cough right behind her.
She rotated into a sitting position as she spun to see who was there because that way she could kick at an attacker if she needed to. Her unexpected companion was as Asian man, dressed like a British gentleman except for the woven silk belt tied around his waist, and the pair of swords tucked into it. He bowed and said politely in accented English, “My apologies, but I believe that safe contains documents stolen from my government that I have been tasked to recover.”
“Well, it contains patterns stolen from my family, too!” Briony had no idea whether she could dodge and run fast enough if he decided to pull those swords on her.
“Then you also have a legitimate interest in the safe’s contents,” the Asian gentleman agreed gravely. He bowed, “I am Oda Tesutsuwa, a samurai in the service of the Emperor.”
“A pleasure, sir, I’m sure,” Briony replied, “I’m Briony Peters, currently on family business.”
“Are you by any chance, Thomas Peters’ daughter?” That was another voice. Briony and Mr Oda, she assumed he was Mr Oda, looked at each other blankly and then looked in the direction it had come from. Another man, this one with an upper class British accent as well as the clothes of a gentleman, stood off to one side, tucking a scarf into a pocket of his coat. He looked at their surprise faces, and added, “I’m Sir Charles Goodman, agent of the British Crown, and some of those papers are ours.”
Briony took a deep breath and asked, “Did these people really rob my family, the Imperial Weaving Works in Kyoto and the Imperial Mills at Paisley?”
“And the Imperial Silk Works in Peking.” A third man dropped from the beams above and made a three point landing. He was dressed like a Chinese worker bound for the goldfields, his trousers and tunic both made from the same heavy, dark fabric. A single, heavy, black braid of hair hung over one shoulder to coil, briefly, on the floor before he stood upright. “Lu of the Plain Blue Banner.” He bowed briefly, one hand’s fist to the other’s palm. “I see no reason we shouldn’t each retrieve our principal’s property and be on our way.”
“I understood,” said Oda Tesetsuwa carefully, “that bannermen went by their given names, not their clan names.”
“Lu is simply the name I am using on this mission,” the Chinaman replied smoothly. “It uncomplicates things by matching the travel papers I was given. I can assure you, though, that I really am a member of the Plain Blue Banner.”
“Look,” Briony interrupted, “I’m sure it’s an honour and a pleasure to meet all of you, but unless one of you has a key to this panel and the safe combination, how about I get on with opening this safe? The longer we stay here talking, the greater the chance we’ll get found out by a passing constable or something. Besides,” she added, “did anyone think the gent with the waistcoat was a bit off? It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s back before the night’s over to scarper without his men.”
“The man I chased from Peking to his meeting with that gentleman,” replied Lu, “was found dead later over his bed in Hong Kong. Strangled with a waxed cord.”
“As was the man I followed from Kyoto to Hong Kong,” noted Oda Tesetsuwa. “After he’d handed over the stolen goods and been paid. Witnesses placed him alive and enjoying himself in a Chinese puppet theatre after the gentleman with the garish waistcoat had sailed for these parts.”
“If Clarence Abbotsford, and his lamentable taste in waistcoats, went from Calcutta to Hong Kong,” remarked Sir Charles, “then that explains why I lost him in India – I thought I was following him to Delhi. There are a lot of places where he could have stopped or turned off on the way and I’d have been none the wiser.”
Briony inserted her lock picks into the panel’s lock and went to work. Sir Charles insisted on watching what she was doing over her shoulder, while Mr Oda seemed interested in the building’s perimeter and Mr Lu prowled around the office space. The panel opened to reveal the safe inside just after Sir Charles asked, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Thank you, but I am,” Briony put her lock picks back in the holdall. “Now, do you want me to continue or can you crack a safe?”
Sir Charles looked embarrassed. “I normally leave it to chaps like your father. I understood,” he ventured delicately, “that you were training to follow in your mother’s footsteps?”
“As it happens, I’ve no talent for the trickier parts of the trade.” Briony lay on the floor so she could get her ear on the safe’s door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to listen to these tumblers.”
All three men managed to keep quiet while she turned the dial back and forth, finding the combination with the heightened sense of touch the gloves gave her as much as with her hearing. It took her another quarter of an hour before she got the last number of the combination and was able to twist the handle to open the heavy metal door. Sir Charles tried to get in to lift the box out but she beat him to it, putting the carved, metal bound, wooden coffer on the floor beside the panel so that the four of them could see it equally well.
“Oh, dear,” Sir Charles sounded concerned.
“Yes,” agreed Briony, gently touching the carved symbols. “This is a Master Weaver’s pattern box.”
“Stealing a Master Weaver’s pattern box would be a very unwise thing,” pronounced Sir Charles. “We should just take the patterns we came for and put it back.”
“It wouldn’t be a problem if has already been stolen and we returned it to the Weavers’ Guild,” replied Briony. “I know this Master’s mark. This was Enari Midson’s pattern box. She was my maternal grandmother’s grandmother.” Briony explained. “Grandmother was one of her apprentices and had just been made up as a journeyman weaver when Mistress Midson died. Great-great-grandmother was ninety three and there was nothing unusual about her death, but there was a fire while everyone was at the funeral. The house, the workshop, the looms and the fibre store were destroyed, but although the frames of the looms were found, there was no sign of the heat-resistant, fire-resistant pattern box in the ruins. It was almost as if it hadn’t been there to burn, so it was reported to the Weavers’ Guild as missing, not destroyed.”
Mr Oda said, “And now, all these years later, here it is?”
“Yes.” Briony looked up from the box and added in a business like tone, “We should recover our patterns and then deliver the box to the local office of the Guild. Much as I would like to hand it straight over to my grandmother once your documents are out of it, she’s not the only heir.”
“The only question then, is do we sort out our interests’ papers here or at the Guild office?” Sir Charles went on, “If we do it here, then there’ll be no chance for anything to be spirited out of the box, unbeknownst to one or more of us. There is the chance, though, that we could be interrupted. Alternatively, if we take care of business at the Guild office, then we would have a Master Weaver present to act as an independent witness.”
“We should leave,” said Mr Oda quietly. “I have two…servants watching the outside of the building and they report ‘someone of interest’ approaching.”
This is now followed by Recovery Action 2.