She supposed that it was interesting enough. But it was sadly lacking in books.
Vale clearly knew his way around and led them up one of the staircases, through several minor rooms of exhibits, then past a wide range of stuffed animals, stuffed plants, and possibly stuffed mineral deposits (she didn’t have time to check). Next they hurried down another staircase and into an even more cluttered and confused set of corridors, which was clearly where work actually got done. Crates were stacked against the walls, many with notes attached saying OPEN THIS TODAY. The only things that weren’t dirty or dusty were the office doors’ brass nameplates. These gleamed with a rather desperate shine, as if trying to compensate for their surroundings.
‘Here we are,’ Vale said, pausing before one which apparently belonged to Professor Amelia Betony, MSc, PhD, and Doctor of Divinity. ‘This was the person to whom the crate was addressed. Let’s see if we can eliminate this possibility.’ He shoved the door open without bothering to knock.
Inside, the low-ceilinged office was larger than expected. The small desk in the corner was piled high with unopened envelopes and packages, and the large table in the middle of the room was strewn with bones, gluepots and measuring devices. The air smelt of dust and drying solvent. Then a young man entered from a side-door, a steaming mug of tea in his hand. He stood there, blinking at the four of them.
‘Mr Ramsbottom, I presume?’ Vale said, stepping forward briskly. ‘Professor Betony’s secretary?’
The young man nodded and peered at Vale, and his eyes widened in recognition. ‘Ah, I’m so terribly sorry, but the Professor is away on the Egypt expedition, if you were wanting to consult her over a case – ’
‘Fortunately, I believe that you will suffice, Mr Ramsbottom,’ Vale said. ‘We are here to look into the matter of a parcel that may have gone astray.’
Ramsbottom glanced guiltily at the stacks of incoming mail on the corner desk.
‘We are looking for a crate from Lord Wyndham,’ Vale said. To his side, Irene could see Kai tense with excitement, watching Ramsbottom with a glare of anticipation that was probably unnerving the nervous-looking fellow. ‘It would have been delivered about five days ago.’
Was it really that short a time since Wyndham’s death, since Irene and Kai had arrived here? It felt so much longer, Irene thought.
‘Ah,’ Ramsbottom said, sidling towards the desk. He abandoned his mug and selected a ledger. ‘Actually, I think I do remember that one.’
‘You do?’ Vale asked.
Ramsbottom nodded. ‘There were particular instructions enclosed with it. Please, um, gentlemen, ladies, Professor Betony will no doubt answer everything with full dispatch as soon as she returns.’ He glanced guiltily at the pile of post again. ‘But she does have a very specific dislike of anyone else reading her post, and when she left, she told me that unless a letter or package specifically said that it should be opened . . .’
‘The crate, man!’ Vale snapped, striding forward. ‘What happened to it?’
‘Ah, ahem.’ Ramsbottom twitched at his collar. ‘The accompanying note stipulated that if Professor Betony did not return to open it within three days of its receipt, then her assigned subordinate, which is myself, was to open it and take all necessary actions with the contents.’
Irene swallowed. To one side, she could see Bradamant going white. To her other side, she could hear the hoarseness in Kai’s breathing. This must have been some sort of last gambit by Wyndham, in case he wasn’t able to collect his prized book . . . In expectation of his murder?! As just one more step in whatever relationship he’d had with Silver? As a deliberate ploy against Silver getting his hands on the book, or to hide it from someone else?
‘The package contained an Archaeopteryx skeleton,’ Ramsbottom went on, more nervous by the second, ‘and another parcel, to be forwarded elsewhere – ’ He stuttered to an anxious stop.
‘And where would that be?’ Vale prompted.
Ramsbottom hesitated. ‘This is a matter of confidentiality, Mr Vale, and while I do know your connections with the police, I, ah, that is . . .’ He trailed off, apparently unable to utter the words I’m not going to tell you.
‘Mr Ramsbottom.’ Vale stepped forward. ‘Naturally I will not press the matter. But I would be grateful if you could reassure me that there will be no difficulty in tracing the package, should such a thing prove necessary.’
‘Of course!’ Ramsbottom exclaimed, looking deeply relieved. He tapped a small blue ledger. ‘I have full details here of where the package went.’
Then the door in the opposite side of the room slammed open, and Silver strode through, followed by his bland-looking manservant and half a dozen hairy men in cheap suits and bad hats. ‘At last!’ he declaimed, pointing dramatically. ‘I have you now, my dear enemy!’
He was pointing at Bradamant.
‘What?’ Bradamant said, then quickly converted it to, ‘But, ah, how did you find us so quickly?’
Silver laughed merrily. His hair, loose over his shoulders, tossed in a wind which somehow blew around him and ruffled his clothing, but failed to stir a single hair on the louche, bearded thugs who crowded in behind him and leered at the room in general. Their clothing was as dirty and unkempt as Silver’s was elegant and stylish, and they all had eyebrows which met in the middle.
‘Hah!’ Silver preened. He pointed his cane at the unfortunate Ramsbottom, who was trying to retreat into a corner. Any corner. ‘You! Hand over the book at once, and your rewards will be beyond your imagination!’