He staggered back. She picked up another chair.
Outside there were more explosions. Inside, people were gasping and pointing at her and the pseudo-waiter.
Irene tried to decide whether it was more important to maintain her cover as a helplessly feminine secretary, or to beat the bag-snatcher over the head with the chair and take him prisoner. After all, he wasn’t definitely involved with any larger conspiracies, and might simply be a petty thief . . .
. . . the hell with it. She brought the chair down on his head, and he went backwards like a sack of potatoes.
She dropped the remnants of the chair, and put her free hand to her chest, hyperventilating. ‘I – ’ she gasped. ‘I come here on holiday, and this man, this thief tries to snatch my bag, and nobody tries to help me. Not a single person comes to a helpless woman’s defence . . .’
‘My dear Miss Winters, I am so sorry.’ Vale had stepped back into the restaurant, sheathing his sword. ‘I do regret that you should have suffered assault at the hands of some hooligan—’
He looked at the face of the prostrate man, and blinked. ‘Do I understand that this man assaulted you?’
‘He attempted to snatch my bag,’ Irene said, sniffling a little. ‘I – I simply reacted on instinct – ’
‘You.’ Vale snapped his fingers, and two of the waiters responded. ‘Have this man taken to the nearest prison at once.’
It’s good to be an Earl and a noted detective, Irene reminded herself, a little wistfully.
Kai walked into the restaurant, brushing ashes and powder off his jacket. ‘Well, that seems to be— Irene! That is, Miss Winters! What happened?’ He glanced warily from Irene to Vale, and back to Irene again, clearly wondering if the whole thing had been some sort of diversion.
Irene pointed a finger at the man being dragged off by the waiters. ‘That person attempted to grab my bag. I resisted.’
‘I suggest we return to our table at once,’ Vale said, lowering his voice. ‘This merely confirms my suspicions.’
Five minutes later, they were round the table again. The steak had gone cold, but the wine was still drinkable. The general buzz of conversation had resumed its former level. Irene was surprised at how quickly people seemed to have forgotten the centipede attack. It implied that such things were common, which wasn’t a comforting thought.
‘Forgive me my earlier discretion,’ Vale said. ‘And thank you for your assistance, Mr Strongrock. But this attack on Miss Winters only proves what I suspected.’
‘And what is that?’ Kai demanded, turning towards Vale. Irene had the impression that he was slightly miffed that she hadn’t asked about his valiant conduct vis-à-vis the centipede’s tail. She made a note to get the full details at some point – when a valuable contact wasn’t engaged in sharing useful information.
‘That your investigations into the Fair Folk have been noted.’ Vale leaned forward. ‘I observed your questions at the Embassy, Mr Strongrock. And now, a man whom I know to be a Fae agent tries to steal Miss Winters’s handbag. Am I wrong to suspect a link?’
Kai threw Irene a frantic glance. She gave him a slight nod.
‘You are not wrong, sir,’ Kai said firmly. ‘There is a link.’
‘I thought as much!’ Vale glanced between them. ‘In that case, we are investigating the same matter – though possibly from different directions. I too am concerned with the Fair Folk, Mr Strongrock. With the recent thefts of occult material. And with Belphegor.’
‘Belphegor?’ Irene gasped. ‘The mysterious cat burglar?’
‘Indeed.’ Vale’s brows drew together. ‘I have suspicions as to her identity. And what is more, I believe that all these things are connected. Even though you are both visitors to our city . . .’ He let the sentence trail away, as though expecting to be challenged on his deductions, then continued. ‘Even though you haven’t been here long, the newspapers have been blatant about the thefts. You can hardly open a paper without seeing a new headline. Let me be frank: is this what you are investigating?’
Irene caught Kai’s eye, and gave him a very slight nod. She suspected that Vale would pick up on this, but she hoped that he’d interpret it as a suggestion rather than the order that it was.
‘You are correct,’ Kai said.
‘Then I suggest we combine forces. My card.’ He flipped out a silver card-case, selected a card from it, and slid it across the table to Kai. ‘Please call on me tomorrow morning, when we can talk more privately. Your associate is also welcome, of course.’ He gave Irene a dry nod, which made her wonder just how much he had guessed. ‘Thank you for your time and assistance.’
Vale rose. Kai and Irene rose too. There was a quick confusion of bows and curtseys, followed by Vale striding off, the waiter hurrying after him with hat and cloak.
Kai and Irene sat back down.
‘I’m sorry,’ Kai said. ‘I didn’t see him following me earlier at all.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Irene said. ‘I suspect he’s rarely spotted. But I think he could be a very useful contact.’
Kai perked up. ‘So we got lucky?’
‘It happens,’ Irene said. ‘From time to time. Now finish your wine and tell me about the centipede.’
She was already working out a list of things that she needed to ask Kai later, in private. But for the moment, the centipede would do.