The dock and the railway line both ran east along the river towards the ocean and the space between them narrowed until there was no longer any room for warehouses. At the terminal station there was nothing except the paraphernalia of the harbour side between the rails and the water, and Briony chose to lead their motley group over the rail crossing rather than risk running afoul of the watchmen in the railyards. She consoled herself with the thought that Mr Abbotsford was more likely to have done the same and thus they were staying on his route rather than losing time.
As it happened, even with the hazards of darkness and unfamiliar streets, it took them barely an hour to reach the address on the cards they’d found in the office. It turned out to be a brick terrace house built to support the style of, if not a gentleman, a well-off merchant. It had a floor below ground level, with an area dug out in front of it, a frontage at least twice that of the adjoining disparate terraces, and then it rose two floors above the ground level. It was a handsome building and suggested that Mr Abbotsford was doing very well for himself. Briony couldn’t help but wonder how much theft had to do with that.
There were lights on inside coming from both the ground level and the below ground level. The group surveyed the building and Lord Oda commented, “There appears to be a distinct lack of mayhem in progress.”
“Then we may be in time to prevent murder,” replied Mr Lu with satisfaction. “Do we simply post a guard or do we warn the man? If the latter, how?”
The younger of Lord Oda’s men, Mr Tanaka, surveyed the house with a professional eye that reminded Briony strongly of her father. “It doesn’t look that hard to gain access,” he commented. “There are unoccupied rooms on the ground level, and as long as there are no passers-by…”
“Or,” said Briony, “Sir Charles, and possibly Lord Oda, could simply knock on the door and ask to speak to Mr Abbotsford.” When the others looked her as if she’d said something strange she said, “What? They’re gentlemen, they presumably have calling cards, and they’re suitably dressed. Unless Mr Abbotsford has said he doesn’t want to be disturbed, I can’t see the servants turning them away and even then they’ll probably take your cards into him just to be sure, because you’re such important gentlemen. Unless, of course, he knows that you in particular are after him.”
Sir Charles gave a short, quiet laugh. “You’re right,” he agreed, “it really could be that simple. Shall we essay it, Lord Oda?”
“A simple, frontal approach.” Lord Oda smiled. “A social attack, in fact. I think we should. The worst he can do is slam the door in our faces, after all.”
“He can’t do that if I put my foot in the way,” replied Sir Charles.
“I don’t know that I’d risk my foot on an unknown door,” replied Lord Oda, then he said to his two men, “Niwa and Tanaka, protect Miss Peters and the pattern box. Abbotsford may not have henchmen here, but it would be unfortunate if there was an incident with an opportunistic footpad at this point.”
“Yes, my lord.” Both men grunted their answers and bowed. Then the four of them who were not going to try to gain entry to the house moved across the road and several doors down to a spot that was shadowy even compared to the rest of the roadway.
Sir Charles and Lord Oda climbed the steps to the front door of the house and Sir Charles used the door knocker. After a few minutes the door was opened, Bethany could not see by whom, Sir Charles spoke and handed over a card, then the two men entered the house and the door closed behind them. Mr Tanaka and Mr Niwa exchanged satisfied but slightly concerned glances.
Mr Lu kept an eye on the length of the street in both directions in case of company. Bethany had a chance to observe all three of them and came to several interesting conclusions concerning her companions. Firstly, none of them were speaking English. Secondly, Mr Niwa was a military man and, given his age, probably a sergeant – unless Lord Oda was even more important than he appeared, in which case his associate might be Major Niwa. Mr Lu, on the other hand, was probably a policeman. Those ideas made interesting suggestions about what equipment they might be carrying, and about what Mr Abbotsford’s contacts might have stolen for him.
Briony could see a great deal of point in not antagonising any of her current companions.
The gentlemen had been inside the house for almost five minutes when there was an indistinct banging sound from somewhere. Mr Niwa and Mr Tanaka took up more defensive positions and Mr Lu said, “Miss Perers, it occurs to me to ask whether there could there be another access to the property?”
She thought for a moment and said, “There’s probably a laneway along the back for the nightcartmen to collect the nightsoil. I’m sorry I didn’t think if sooner, but my home is too small to have a nightcart, so it doesn’t automatically come to mind.”
“There’ll be some sort of yard between the lane and the house, won’t there?” Mr Lu was peering over the railings into the open space under the front stairs as he spoke.
“I would expect there to be,” replied Briony. “The kitchen might be a separate building back there to the rest of the house too.” In reply to the look he gave her she added, “So the house doesn’t burn down too if the kitchen catches fire.”
Diverted, Mr Tanaka asked, “But how would you keep the house warm in winter? And get the food into the house while it’s still hot?”
Briony shrugged. “Fire was considered a greater risk when they built some of these older places, and it’s not like it gets cold enough to snow here. Up on the ranges that’s an issue but not down here. Somewhere grand might have a covered walkway, but most people with a separate kitchen would probably use covered dishes.”
Mr Lu asked, “Is there a standard layout for the yard?”
“The privy would be at the back, close to a gate to the laneway,” answered Briony, “so it can be emptied easily. The clothes line and a vegetable garden are likely to be in the centre of the yard, and open to the north for the light.”
Mr Lu gave Briony an odd look and asked, “So there are gates at the front and the back, but neither direction is south-east? Did they consider the feng shui of that at all?”
“I’m sorry,” said Briony, “but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“It’s a harmonious method for arranging one’s environment,” said Mr Lu. “It can be quite complicated and if I had a house, I would hire someone to make the correct adjustments to benefit my household.”
There was a metallic breaking sound from the house that could have been hinges and, perhaps, a lock giving way.
There was shouting from inside the house, if Briony was any judge, and the sound of something solid breaking. Admittedly the locals were all either inside for the night, or still down at the local pub, but Briony expected that someone with both good hearing and curiosity would stick their head out soon to see what was making the noise. It was possible that this sort of noise was normal in this neighbourhood, but that seemed unlikely. It was also possible that the locals were paid by someone, probably Mr Abbotsford, to ignore disturbances in the area. If that were the case, Briony wondered how he intended to handle a real problem.
Somewhere inside the building a woman screamed.
The two men guarding Briony prepared to draw their swords, their stances shifting significantly from merely being in their guard positions.
Mr Lu vaulted the railings to the side of the stairs and dropped down into the area below with the deftness of a cat. He kept going through the door that gave access to the lower floor, moving so surely that he must have had a means of seeing in the dark. The door itself opened smoothly and so could not have been locked.
There was banging and crashing from inside the house for several minutes, then the front door opened and Mr Abbotsford ran out, dressed in a smoking jacket and carrying a carpet bag. He turned away from Briony’s group and disappeared around the corner of the street before she, at least, could react. He had only just disappeared around the corner when the Indian from the warehouse burst through the door without opening it. Briony had the impression that the door had been both kicked and punched to cause it to splinter in such a thoroughly satisfactory manner. It was obvious that the intruder was using a combination of powerful Abilities and Utilities, and Briony thought that Mr Niwa was extraordinarily brave to fully draw his sword then take up position between the rest of them and the Indian.
The dun clad figure had reached the bottom of the steps and was about to pass through the gate that Mr Abbotsford had left open when Sir Charles appeared in the shattered doorway and called out, “Wait!” His voice was so clear and compelling that it had to have been enhanced in some way.
The Indian stopped in mid step. Mr Tanaka stopped drawing his sword. Briony stopped wanting to run away.
Mr Niwa somehow exuded a sense of ‘and what now?’
The Indian turned around and looked at Sir Charles.
This is now followed by Recovery Action 4.1.