Briony didn’t know how Mr Oda and his servants were communicating, but she was more than prepared to believe that they were. That was the thing with textile patterns; any master’s or journeyman’s variation on a known piece could throw up something completely new. If she was going to have to leave in a hurry then she wasn’t going to leave the patterns that her family’s livelihoods depended on behind, but on the other hand she wasn’t going to make it obvious that something had been taken either. She closed the safe door again and spun the dial to make sure it was locked. Then she closed the wooden floor panel and used the lock picks to make sure it wouldn’t just open again.
She was scooping up the pattern box when Mr Oda spoke again. “Commendable speed, Miss Peters, but our interesting person is already at the yard door. Apparently they have some method of moving very quickly. I suggest we hide in place. As Miss Peters is apparently without a means of true invisibility, can either of you gentlemen help her? My own provisions,” he added a little guiltily, “will only work for myself.”
Sir Charles was pulling out his scarf again. “I’m afraid mine is a one person item too,” he said apologetically, “and it is only marginally more effective than Miss Peters’ own arrangements.” Briony noted that his scarf was woven silk while hers was knitted. Sir Charles was probably understating, or even underestimating, his scarf’s effectiveness compared to hers.
“I believe I can help.” Mr Lu produced a long, thin, sash-like item from a pocket, “if Miss Peters does not object to being held, in a purely platonic manner of course.” He was unrolling the sash, which had coloured stripes that made it hard for Briony to pick out the woven pattern, while Mr Oda was pulling a similar sash, only thinner, shorter, and covered in a cherry blossom design, from one of his own inner pockets, when they all heard a noise. “I believe we are out of time to have choices.” He backed into an empty space. “Miss Peters, if you would please stand over here with your back to me?”
Briony moved in his direction because it was a good place to get out of the way. “My scarf should be enough-”.
“Miss Peters,” interrupted Mr Oda, “I could see you quite clearly. My eyes and mind didn’t want to look at you, but I could. Your scarf is obviously a most useful item, but it is not sufficient to protect you from detection by the possessor of discipline, determination and an enquiring mind.”
“I could see you too,” agreed Sir Charles, “even if I did have to search to find you again once I’d looked away.”
Briony gave in and stood in front of Mr Lu as instructed. Sir Charles wrapped his scarf around his neck and faded from direct view as he did so, while Mr Oda did something complicated with his strap of fabric so it went across the back of his neck, around each arm, and tied across his front. Mr Oda did not fade like Sir Charles, he was gone with almost a visual snap.
Mr Lu requested, “Raise your right hand and hold on to this please.” When Briony raised her hand, Mr Lu wrapped his folded over sash around it and, as she held the sash, passed the bulk of it behind the two of them and brought it around to pass in front of them from Briony’s left. He passed the remainder of the sash from his left hand to his right and half-wrapped his left arm around Briony so he could use his hand to keep the sash outermost around them. His right hand was raised beyond Briony’s so that the end of the sash crossed over the beginning, and he wrapped the remainder of the folded sash around his hand with a practised flip. “There,” he whispered in her ear, “that’s done. Now don’t talk, move or even breath loudly.”
Naturally Briony immediately became concerned that she wasn’t holding the pattern box securely with only her left arm.
She also didn’t dare move because another person had entered the room from the direction of the yard door. There was some warehouse space between the office area and the rear exit and because there was a clear aisle through the goods from one to the other Briony assumed that the yard contained an outhouse for the privy or dunny. That meant she had a clear view of the newcomer who was wearing a set of dun coloured clothes and a matching turban. Briony would have thought she was looking at a woman, based on the stranger’s eyes and nose, but the flat chested body made her uncertain of that – the clothing was certainly male but then so was her own.
The newcomer glided unnaturally fast over the last few yards to the floor panel, confirming that he or she had some sort of assistance. A set of lock picks was produced and, without the apparent assistance of other equipment, the panel was quickly opened. The safe below it appeared to cause the dun-clad Indian some major concern because instead of attempting to open it, he or she began to go through the desk and the various office cabinet drawers, presumably in search of the combination. Whatever it was that was being sought, the Indian didn’t stop searching until every drawer had been rifled through and, although several pieces of paper were commandeered, the late coming intruder did not attempt to open the safe door. Instead, a business card extracted from the holder on the office desk was consulted and the lone intruder left again, closing the door to the yard as he or she went.
The intruders left behind maintained their disguises of non-presence for almost a quarter of an hour. Mr Oda was the first to reappear, saying simply, “I am told that a certain person has left the area,” unwrapping the band of silk cloth from around his torso as he did so. Sir Charles faded into view next, and finally Mr Lu dropped his end of the piece of cloth he was holding so that he and Briony too, presumably, became visible again.
Sir Charles asked, in a business-like fashion, “Gentlemen, did either of you recognise that person?”
Mr Oda and Mr Lu both looked at him, questioningly.
“There aren’t that many ships from Hong Kong to any port in New South Wales,” pointed out Briony. “For you two, Mr Abbotsford, and this other person to have gotten here from there, assuming that person was in Hong Kong, you would probably have had to have been on the same ship.”
“I was certainly aware of Mr Abbotsford and Lord Oda,” commented Mr Lu, “although they may not have been aware of me. So many Chinese, all travelling steerage to the gold fields.” He smiled. “Sometimes it’s easiest to hide in plain sight.”
“Indeed,” agreed the gentleman who was, apparently, correctly addressed as Lord Oda. “The only persons I noticed on the ship who might have been our Indian acquaintance were a Marathi gentlewoman and her attendants.”
“The Indian didn’t even try the safe door,” said Briony slowly, “so he or she would have been going…after Mr Abbotsford for the combination?”
“Blast it all, I think you’re right,” agreed Sir Charles. “I believe I’m obliged to do my best to prevent his murder.”
“Rank and privilege are paid for by fulfilling responsibilities,” agreed Lord Oda.
“I am against murder on principle,” noted Mr Lu, “but do any of us know where Mr Abbotsford lives?”
Briony asked, “Is it on his business cards?”
Sir Charles added, “Or on his calling cards?”
“There should be copies of his business cards here, at the very least,” said Briony. “Probably on the desk. Didn’t the Indian take a card of some sort?”
Sir Charles walked over to the desk and plucked a card from the same stack the Indian had taken one from. He glanced at it and announced, “It does have two addresses on it, but the second could be a shopfront or an office rather than a residence.”
“Even so,” said Mr Lu calmly, “that location may contain a document with Mr Abbotsford’s address, and it would put us where the Indian is.”
“Miss Peters,” Lord Oda turned to Briony, “as you are holding my Imperial master’s property, I must insist that you come with us, even though it takes you into possible danger. Please be assured that my servants will be tasked to ensure your safety.”
“I understand sir,” Briony nodded, “and I wouldn’t let you go off with my family’s patterns either. I can look after myself though, so your servants needn’t bother themselves with me.”
“On the contrary, Miss Peters,” replied Lord Oda gravely. “The thief I was following, one of the Edo Hichari family, was known as a hard man and he wound up dead. I would not like the same to happen to you.”
“Thank you,” said Briony, although she suspected that Lord Oda’s people’s primary task would be to make sure that she didn’t run off with the patterns. “Shouldn’t we get started before the Indian gets too far ahead of us?”
“Indeed,” agreed Sir Charles. “I don’t suppose that you know any short cuts?”
“Not really,” Briony admitted. “I haven’t spent that much time here, just a few quick visits. Even then, my business has always been around the docks, the railway station and the post office.”
“It can’t be that far,” pointed out Sir Charles. “It’s not like this is London we’re talking about.”
“It could be far enough,” retorted Briony, “although I’ve not heard of his name in connection with a farm or an estate of any description. He’s not likely to be as far out as Happy Flat. Besides, that’s all miners.”
“It says East Newcastle here,” replied Sir Charles.
“That puts it between the railway terminus, the ocean, and Beacon Hill,” said Briony. “Not that far, and not that big an area, but definitely beyond the lumber yards. Which street?”
“Stevenson Place,” answered Sir Charles.
“I think that’s up against the railway yard, near the bond stores,” said Briony doubtfully. “Beyond the station and Customs House. We’ll have to decide when we get there if it’ll be faster to dodge around the yard or go through.”
“Oh,” commented Sir Charles, “a choke point. How lovely.”
“At least we know it’s a choke point,” Lord Oda pointed out, “and we can take suitable precautions – even if we believe this person does not know we are here to follow them.”
“And if we don’t get started, then we won’t get anywhere in time to prevent anything,” added Mr Lu with some asperity.
“East it is then,” said Briony briskly. “If no-one objects, we’ll use the back door too. Far easier with so many of us than a window, or opening the main warehouse door again.”
“Certainly,” agreed Lord Oda. “My people tell me the Indian is out of sight and did not pause to do anything, let alone something that might compromise our exit.”
The four of them slipped out the back door the Indian had used and made sure that it locked behind them. Two men in foreign clothing with facial features that appeared not unlike Lord Oda’s to Briony’s eyes revealed themselves once they had done so, unwrapping narrow bands of cloth like Lord Oda’s cherry blossom cloth from around their bodies as they did so. Both were carrying a sword not unlike the larger of Lord Oda’s pair.
“Report!” Lord Oda didn’t precisely bark the order, but it certainly was an order.
“The unexpected person went west when they left here,” reported the middle aged man whose hair was up in some sort of forward facing topknot, “but the British Abbotsford went east.”
“Perhaps the Indian is trying to cross the railway line,” suggested Briony. “If we move quickly, we can get to Mr Abbotsford before him.”
“Then let us do it,” replied Mr Lu. “There seem to have been too many murders involved in this matter already.”
This is now followed by Recovery Action 3