Even though she had to admit that being compared to Milady de Winter had its flattering side.
‘I observed you this afternoon, Mr Strongrock,’ the Earl of Leeds stated. ‘You were outside the Liechtenstein Embassy. You arrived while they were unloading their zeppelins. You watched the newspaper reporters and then questioned them afterwards.’
‘Your Lordship seems to have paid a great deal of attention to my movements,’ Kai said. There was an undertone of threat to his voice.
The Earl of Leeds tilted his hand. ‘Call me Vale, please. After all, this is a purely private meeting, in a very unofficial capacity.’
Kai raised an eyebrow, and sliced into his steak. ‘Oh?’
‘Indeed,’ Vale said. He smiled a little.
And it was at that moment that Irene remembered where she’d seen his face before. She’d picked up some newspapers earlier, to get a quick impression of the current political and temporal dynamics. Vale had been on the third page of one; shot half in profile, with him half turned away, clearly unwilling to have the photograph taken. The caption had been NOTED DETECTIVE CONSULTS WITH BRITISH MUSEUM.
Irene continued to eat, thinking furiously. If their companion was indeed a noted detective, investigating the Liechtenstein Embassy and working with the British Museum – they were either unexpectedly lucky, or in very serious trouble.
‘So,’ Kai said. ‘Leaving aside that I saw no sign of your following me . . .’
‘That,’ Vale said smoothly, ‘is what you may expect to see when I am following you.’
Kai choked slightly on his wine. ‘Pardon me. But then, sir, why were you following me? What was so interesting about my activities?’
Vale’s smile narrowed even further. ‘Why, Mr Strongrock, the fact that they mirrored my own. I suspect that we are investigating the same matter. To be frank, sir, if we are both chasing the same hare, I would rather that you did not start it and cause us both to lose it.’
Kai darted Irene a glance. Clear as daylight, she read a desperate plea for help in his eyes. ‘Mm,’ he said meditatively.
Irene gasped. It was probably a little theatrical, but, she hoped, not too much so. ‘Mr Strongrock! Our investigation is strictly private! Even if His Lord— that is, even if Mr Vale is a famous private detective, we could be looking into entirely different matters!’
She hoped that conveyed the message of we need more information thoroughly enough.
Kai patted her on the hand soothingly. ‘My associate has a point, Mr Vale,’ he said. ‘We are operating under conditions of strict confidentiality.’
‘As am I, sir,’ Vale said with equanimity, not seeming at all put off. ‘Whatever minor assumptions I might make about you are simply the result of anything you may have revealed to me yourselves, rather than from any investigations on my part.’
Kai raised his eyebrows. ‘But we have revealed nothing to you,’ he said, a moment before Irene could kick his ankle.
‘Forgive me when I say that it is obvious that you are strangers to London,’ Vale said. He turned his glass in his hand, regarding it with a dry smugness. ‘I am not speaking merely of Mr Strongrock’s need to check the street signs when leaving the Liechtenstein Embassy. Neither of you have the accent of native Londoners, and to be truthful, I cannot place either of you within the British Isles.’ He frowned a little. ‘Which is unusual. Miss Winters might perhaps have a trace of Germanic brutality to her verbs – possibly the result of a governess or boarding school at an impressionable age? Mr Strongrock, on the other hand, has the accent and the bearing characteristic of certain noble families of Shanghai. While neither of these in themselves is that unusual in London, both of you are dressed in a manner that suggests a hasty choice of clothing from a second-rate supplier. Miss Winters’s gloves, for instance.’
Irene glanced down at her gloves, which lay next to her table setting, unable to resist the impulse. She knew that they clashed with her dress, but there hadn’t been much of a choice in the shop.
‘Precisely,’ Vale said. ‘A woman as carefully turned out as Miss Winters would not commit such an elementary error in dress. Similarly, Mr Strongrock’s shoes – ’ Kai shuffled his feet further under his chair – ‘were clearly worn before him by a man with the habit of kicking the right side of his forefoot against his chair, but Mr Strongrock himself does not do so. And if the two of you had been in London for a while now, and making enquiries about Lord Wyndham and the Liechtenstein Embassy, then I assure you that I would have known about it.’
Kai opened his mouth, and Irene realized that he was about to say something like how did you know I asked about Lord Wyndham? Apparently he had never been taught the first defence in the science of provocative questioning: Keep Your Mouth Shut. This time she did manage to kick him under the table. He shut his mouth again.
‘Mm,’ Vale said, apparently satisfied. ‘A sharing of information could be quite useful. But on the other hand, as Miss Winters has said, we could be looking into entirely different matters. I believe we have come to the point where we decide whether or not to trust one another.’
‘So it seems,’ Kai said, making a recovery. ‘Some more wine?’
‘Thank you,’ Vale said, extending his glass to be filled.
There was silence for a few minutes. Irene turned over various strategies in her mind. Unfortunately, most of them involved Vale briefly leaving the table so that she could talk urgently with Kai, and this seemed unlikely to happen. She was simultaneously impressed by the man’s skills of observation, and significantly worried by them. This sort of intellect was splendid in fictional characters, but in practice it risked making their task a great deal more awkward.