By rights Port Leòdamas should still have been what it had been for centuries, a quiet fishing town on a large island off the northern coast of Cadlera. The re-development of ancient Atlantean airship technology shouldn’t have made any more difference to it than it did to the other towns in the rural region. However, that didn’t take into account influential interests objecting to a small, foreign airship company being allowed to set up a way port in a major city.
So instead being able to use Carrickfergus or Glesga, Peri-Arctic Transportation was obliged to break their voyages across the Atlantic at Port Leòdamas. By the time the influential interests realised that they may have made a mistake in allowing the regulating legislation to limit use of Port Leòdamas to Peri-Arctic, it was too late. There were consulates in Port Leòdamas, and vigorous, profitable trade out of the Highlands and the Isles going both east and west.
It was the consulates that were relevant to the urgent meeting that was taking place in an office within the Customs and Excise building on Frederick Place. The sign on the office door read “Oddments”. The four men inside it were not actually Customs and Excise officers, although McSporran did have one of their uniforms in his work wardrobe. McSporran, with his large beard and local accent, was the local knowledge man. Atkins and Crawley were officially attached to the Office of the Home Secretary and dressed like gentlemen clerks, with Crawley being the older of the two and most senior of the four. The fourth man was Collins, the younger son of a southern clergyman, who had stains on his hands from his work in the downstairs workshop and laboratory.
“The Russian Consul has reported a theft from the Consulate to the police this morning,” said Crawley briskly. “They say that they have no idea how the thief entered the building, but that they’re certain that she moved through it dressed as a maid.”
McSporran asked, “Don’t the Russians look at who hands them their breakfast?” His voice rumbled in the local accent. “They’ve some remarkably pretty lasses working for them.”
Crawley scanned his notes. “Apparently several of them did query the lady, and she claimed to be new and on her first day. As their housekeeper deals with hiring the maids this seemed perfectly reasonable, until afterwards when they realised that no-one had seen her with any of the actual maids.” He looked at his notes again. “Apparently whoever she was, she managed to make off with a sealed document meant for the diplomatic bag. The Russians have requested assistance in capturing the thief and getting their document back. His Majesty’s government is, of course, happy to assist,” Crawley smiled tightly, “but would like a look at this document too, just to know what all the fuss is about. That is where we come in.”
Collins spoke up. “Does the consulate have one of the Russian devices for tracking their diplomatic seals? Mr Thorndyke sent out a technical memorandum about the new Russian system several months ago.”
Crawley raised an eyebrow and said, “Apparently not. Either they don’t have very many of them or they didn’t think that they would need one up here.”
“We can use my prototype then,” replied Collins happily.
McSporran and Atkins looked at each other and it was Atkins who ventured, “You have a prototype device?”
“Oh yes.” Collins looked around the room at his colleagues in his customary technology-induced happy haze and added, “There was enough detail in the technical memorandum for me to experiment when things were quiet. I found that I can detect and triangulate on something that’s in the Russian consulate, and nowhere else in Port Leòdamas, from up to five miles away. I sent Mr Thorndyke a copy of my notes and diagrams three weeks ago, and the memo he sent back was very encouraging.”
“So,” Crawley took the lead again, “we have a way of finding the stolen documents, if they’re still on the island.”
“Unless they have a private boat, they’d have to be,” put in McSporran. “The last ferry that left here was the eight fifteen to Carrickfergus, and the next one out is at six thirty tonight. No airships are due out until later this afternoon: Zikher Yazde is due in at three and due out for Reykjavik at five thirty, while Langsýnn Raven should be docking now and is due out at four, bound for Veggberg.”
“I should take Collins and his prototype for a drive around town, shouldn’t I?” suggested Atkins.
Forty minutes later, a timing greatly assisted by having reliable stables staff, Collins and Atkins were back in the Oddments office. “Well, we’ve found it,” announced Atkins with a doom-laden voice.
“And it hasn’t moved yet,” added Collins as he peered at a bronze and silver object the size of a broadsheet newspaper page and as thick as the width of a pack of playing cards.
“So, what’s the problem?” Crawley looked at the two of them expectantly, awaiting the details.
“It’s in the School of Mechanics’ Meeting Rooms where the suffragette rally is being held,” explained Atkins. “We can’t go in there and be inconspicuous this afternoon.”
“Then we’ll have to go after it when the rally disperses,” replied Crawley.
“That’ll be just as hard,” pointed out McSporran. “You might not mind trying to grab an unknown woman in the middle of a suffragette protest march, but I value having all my bits, thank you.”
“But the Lord Lieutenant rejected their application,” Crawley reminded them. “They wouldn’t….”
“My friend,” Mr Collins blushed, “Miss Gallagher is there today, and I don’t think she would care what the Lord Lieutenant said. She feels very strongly about women’s education and suffrage. A lot of their movement do.”
“They’ll almost certainly march past the airport and the ferry docks,” added McSporran helpfully. “To make sure as many people as possible see them. It would give the thief good cover to get to either of those places.”
“So, we can find the documents,” summarised Crawley, “but do we have a means of getting to them? We know that none of us make convincing women.” The other three all managed to refrain from pointing out that Crawley did, properly dressed and made-up, make a very handsome woman.
Instead Collins said tentatively, “I’ve been working on a backpack that uses the same principles as airships, so one man could fly in tight spaces, that sort of thing. It only jumps for now, but it does jump to and from rooftop level to the ground and back again safely. Oh, and I haven’t been able to get all the controls into the device yet, so someone other than the pilot will need to steer it.”
Atkins said fatalistically, “I’m going to be the pilot, aren’t I? If I’m going to be launched into a crowd of women who live in the same town I do so that I can to steal someone’s handbag or slit open their clothing to get this envelope, then I want a disguise.”
When McSporran had finished working on him, Atkins looked in the mirror and commented, “I did expect to look like a person, and not a….”
“Boggart is the word you’re looking for,” said the older, bearded Scot. “If everyone is worried about describing how inhuman you are, they’re less likely to spend time thinking about which human you are.”
Atkins conceded the point to his colleague and, when he strapped on the experimental backpack, directional control of his movements to Collins. He was grateful that he had control of his vertical movement, but wished he’d had more of a chance to practice. The four of them then went up the stairs and through the attics of the Customs and Excise building to wait for the expected protest march to begin. When it did, Collins’ detection device registered movement of the stolen document just before the men began to hear the protesters’ chanting of, “Votes for women!”
It could be said that Atkins leapt into action. He certainly looked very dramatic.
Given the experimental nature of things, plus the congestion in the march, it was not to be expected that things would go smoothly. Or that one attempt would be enough. It was almost half an hour before Collins was back on the roof with his colleagues, a buff envelope closed with a Russian Diplomatic Service seal in his hand.
“Here you are,” Atkins thrust the envelope at Crawley. “We need to get down off this roof before anyone comes past looking upwards for me – I’m afraid that there was some screaming and fainting and I may have broken the Post Office roof.” He looked ashamed as he said that, but then added, “I’ve also been hit across the head by both a protest placard and a parasol, been stabbed by at least two hatpins, and our thief tried to cripple me with some well placed kicks.” He sighed. “I recognised her, she’s in the ‘Known Agents’ booklet that head office puts out.”
Crawley was blunt and his amusement at Atkins’ tale of woe had disappeared, “Who?”
“Fraulein Mechlin. One of von Linz’s people.” Atkins rubbed his head with the back of his hand. “My head’s starting to ache, and I can’t think what the Terrencians might be up to.”
Collins intervened with uncharacteristic firmness, “Give me the backpack to carry, and let McSporran take you downstairs to clean up and then to see Dr McLeod in the infirmary. Head injuries can be nasty, and you’ve reported in.”
“He’s right,” agreed Crawley. “You get yourself looked at and let other people worry about our foreign friends for now. If you must have a problem to worry about, I’m sure that by next week we’ll have Icelandic separatists and Corocottians in back alleys knifing each other over antique sighting glasses again.”
“Business as usual then,” and with that Atkins let himself be unburdened before being helped back downstairs.This entry was originally posted at https://rix-scaedu.dreamwidth.org/110700.html. There have been comments there.