There was a ping. Several vacuum tubes on the mechanical contraption lit up and the printer juddered into motion, spitting out a long paper tape, letter by letter.
Kai picked it up and looked at it. ‘Welcome,’ he read out. ‘Please make yourselves comfortable and I will be with you—’
The printer came to a halt with a grinding, permanent sort of noise.
‘Shortly, I hope,’ Irene said.
‘This is cool.’ Kai began to wander round the manuscripts, peering at them. ‘Look, this one says it’s an original of Keats’s Lamia, though I’m not sure what it’s doing in Classical Manuscripts in that case—’
‘That would be because I’m cross-referencing it with the Plutarch material.’ The door at the far end of the room had swung open to reveal a middle-aged, dark-skinned man. ‘Good day. I’m Dominic Aubrey. The action of seeing you is a pleasure,’ he added in the Language.
‘The action of conversing with you is a pleasure,’ Irene replied. ‘I’m Irene. This is Kai. We’re here about the 1812 Grimm manuscript.’ She was conscious of Kai frowning, and remembered from her pre-initiation days how strange the Language could sound. Listeners who weren’t trained in it heard it in their native language, but with a certain unplaceable accent. Librarians, of course, heard it for what it was, which made it an ideal tool for cross-checks and passwords and countersigns. Like this.
Dominic Aubrey nodded. ‘I’d invite you to take a seat, but there’s only one chair. Please lean wherever suits you.’ He fiddled nervously with his glasses, pushing them back up on the bridge of his nose, then brushed at his coat. He was in what looked like vaguely Victorian-period garb from the most common timelines. His regalia included the standard white shirt and stiff collar, with a black frock coat, waistcoat and trousers. His straight hair was tied back in a crisp tail, reaching halfway down between his shoulder-blades. ‘The situation has, um, developed a bit since I last sent in a report.’
Irene leaned against the edge of the desk, making an effort not to look condemnatory, judgemental, or recriminatory. However much she might feel it. ‘I quite understand. This is a chaos-infested world, after all. Perhaps if you’d give us the briefing from the beginning?’ She glanced at Kai, and he nodded in acceptance, waiting for her to take the lead.
‘All right.’ Dominic sat down in his chair, folded his arms, and leaned forward. ‘I originally found out about the Grimm first edition after the death of Edward Bonhomme, when it came into circulation. He was a local property owner and bibliophile. Owned a nice selection of slums and made a very good profit out of them, and put the money into his books. Unfortunately, he was a hoarder of the worst sort. Never invited anyone round, never even let anyone look at his books, just kept them all locked away and gloated over them. You know the sort?’
‘I’ve had to visit a few people like that,’ Irene agreed. ‘Anything suspicious about his death?’
Dominic shrugged. ‘He fell downstairs, broke his neck and was found by the housekeeper in the morning. He was in his eighties, bought the cheapest candles on the market, and the stair carpet was threadbare. A lot of people did quite well out of his death, but none of them seem to have had a significant motive. The police treated it as an accident and it was left as such.’
Irene nodded. ‘So, the book?’
‘It went up for auction after Bonhomme’s death, with some others of his collection. The money was to endow a scholarship in his name at Oxford. Typical post-death snobbery.’ He sighed. ‘Anyhow. Word got round fast and the bidding went up very quickly. It was bought by Lord Wyndham. He’s – he was, rather – more of a general collector of expensive trifles than an actual bibliophile, but the price on the book and the society interest made it something he wanted for his collection. And he got it.’
‘He was, you say.’ Irene had a growing feeling of doom.
‘Ah, yes. Precisely. Someone staked him a couple of days ago.’
‘He was a vampire. They used the traditional methods, you know. A stake through the heart, cutting off the head, inserting garlic in the mouth . . . though, to be fair, leaving his head impaled on the railings outside the front door, where all his party guests could see it, could be considered a little extreme.’
‘And the book then went missing, right?’
‘Yes!’ Dominic said brightly. ‘How did you guess?’
Kai raised a hand. ‘Excuse me. Are vampires considered a normal part of society here?’
‘Mm, well.’ Dominic held up a finger. ‘Being a vampire or werewolf isn’t illegal in itself. Assaulting or murdering someone due to vampiric or werewolf urges is . . . As ever, having lots of money helps ease the rules. Lord Wyndham had a great deal of money.’
Irene nodded. ‘So he was murdered – staked, that is – at his party, and someone stole the book?’
‘The plot thickens.’ Dominic raised his finger again. ‘A notorious cat burglar was observed escaping from the mansion that evening. Now while she’s never been known to kill anyone before, it seems a bit of a coincidence that she should just happen to be burgling the house on the same night Lord Wyndham was murdered.’
Irene nodded. ‘She was seen escaping, you say?’
‘Dramatically. She leapt from the roof of the house to catch a ladder dangling from a passing zeppelin.’