The next day dawned early for me after a night spent with my new lady friend, Miss Agatha. Oh, did I mention she’s all of 11? She wants to be a writer, and grilled me mercilessly on multiple points regarding police procedure, dead bodies, and other rather shockingly grizzly topics. I think her parents were delighted to get rid of the child so had no objections to her hounding a poor suffering police detective inspector. But I confess she is rather fun. And it is nice to be adored by a lovely woman-child.
Agatha was with me at breakfast when Richard finally made an appearance. He looked hungover. Which surprised me, since I hadn’t seen him in the lounge the night before. And in fact had never seen him drink to excess. Granted, my exposure to him was limited.
He squinted down at Agatha who smiled winningly. Lucky for me, she was still too young to fall for rich, tall, dark and exceedingly handsome men. Besides, I knew about gruesome killings. Richard was a mere alchemist.
“Miss Agatha, may I present Mr Richard Ainsworth to you?” I said brightly, enjoying the fact I was causing Richard physical pain. I was sure he deserved it. “Miss Agatha Christie, Mr Ainsworth.”
Richard sank down gingerly onto the chair and poured himself coffee.
“Aren't you well?” Agatha asked politely.
Richard looked down at her and replied, “I suspect I’ve got altitude sickness.”
Right, I thought, suppressing a grin.
“We’re not nearly so high as to make that even possible,” Agatha replied knowingly. She went on to detail our current height above sea level, our current flight plan and exactly how long it would be until we reached New York. She also detailed the symptoms of sea sickness, air sickness and altitude sickness and decided Richard was suffering with motion sickness, which she explained was the most likely explanation of his ill health. Me, I stuck with the theory of too much single malt.
Richard looked at her through this extended conversation with mild horror in his eyes as if he thought she were possibly possessed. I grinned.
Despite his hangover, or possible motion sickness, Agatha had Richard engaged in conversation in no time. And when she found out he was an alchemist, well, the questions began to fly, and his answers got more and more animated. He was, I realized, actually enjoying himself.
I did my best to keep up with their conversation, but alchemy and science aren't my forte. I’m a people sort of person, so I listened with one ear, and kept an eye on the passing multitudes with the other. I like people watching, and find interest in watching normal day-to-day activities. Here I had quite an interesting slice of upper crust society to gaze at as they came into the dining room for breakfast, acted animated or not at table, found acquaintances or made new friends, then left in interesting new configurations brought about by the intimacy of an airship.
I probably wouldn't have spotted him if I hadn't been daydreaming, my mind partly engaged in the technical conversation Richard and Agatha were having regarding complex steam engines and the possibilities of further advances fueled by not only steam but also by other mysterious energy sources that scientists were developing even as they spoke. As it was my cop instincts were set on autopilot as I relaxed. That was when I noticed him.
I didn't have any special reason to suspect the fellow of anything. He was dressed much as most men were, his face looked normal, his expression not surprising. But notice him I did. The first time my eyes slid across him I merely made note of the fact he’d begun speaking to a woman who was with him and that he was nodding in our direction. The woman turned to follow his gaze and she smiled, apparently enchanted by young Miss Agatha’s enthusiasm, and Richard’s willingness to indulge it.
That wasn't particularly surprising. I’d seen a number of couples note our indulgence of Miss Agatha. I suppose young single fellows, or at least fellows travelling without female companionship are supposed to hate the attentions of children.
But after the woman left, I glanced over that way purely as part of my usual habit of keeping track of my surroundings, I realized the man was still sitting there. He was sipping tea and purportedly reading a newspaper. But out of the corner of my eye, I confirmed what my copper sense had already told me. He was watching us far more intensely than mere social interest might dictate. I’d met Agatha’s parents and she'd told me no one else they knew were aboard the Princess Louise. She was the sort of child who’d know that kind of thing for certain so I believed her when she said it.
So what was his interest? I worried for a time wondering if I should fear for Agatha. She was a precocious and rather nosey child and if someone meant her harm, they could simply offer some new knowledge or new adventure to engage her interest in them. But that didn't feel right.
I sat back and began contributing to the conversation a bit more, made possible by the fact that Richard and Agatha had worked their way around to speaking about Bletchley Park, its environs, and its intriguing inhabitants. The scientific establishment there made the papers fairly regularly, because of the usual Queen Victoria-inspired interest in science and harnessing the world in new and glorious ways. And Agatha was the sort of child who’d follow that type of news. In fact, when Richard told her he lived there Agatha became quite beside herself with curiosity and began asking him to describe different people she’d heard of who lived there as well. I contributed what I could regarding the few scientists I knew there, a bit more regarding the atmosphere of the place, and otherwise did my best to look totally engrossed in the conversation whilst I kept an eye on the suspicious fellow who was so interested in us.
Then finally Agatha’s long-suffering mother turned up to rescue us. I introduced her to Richard, who surprised me by assuring Mrs Christie that Agatha had been a delightful companion and that she’d been no trouble at all.
Mrs Christie looked as if she thought Richard were daft, but smiled and thanked him again. Finally, she insisted her offspring give us some time to ourselves and her protesting child followed reluctantly, feet dragging and head drooping, in her footsteps. Thus I was able to watch as mother and daughter walked out of the dining room, right past the fellow who’d been watching us.
I caught not the least hint of any sort of recognition amongst them, and our tail remained at his table even when I gave it ten minutes before I suggested to Richard we take a turn on the main deck.
Richard raised an eyebrow and said, “So you’re curious about our friend over there as well?”
I was surprised he'd even noticed. I had a sad habit of underestimating Richard Ainsworth “Yes.”
“I noticed him as I came into the dining room. He’d been staring at you for some time.”
I found this rather surprising. I’d expect extended interest in Richard, either because of his knowledge and his reputation, or simply because of his father. I hadn't expected anyone to be showing any interest in me, per se.
Richard watched me as I took that comment in. Then he grinned. “You do have a habit of underestimating yourself, Rory.”
I looked up, startled. “I’m a rather boring fellow compared to you, Ainsworth,” I commented.
Richard leaned in. “You’re a spy. What is more intriguing than that?”
I blinked. I really just thought of myself as a detective. A spy? Surely not. I just worked directly for the Crown, not through an intermediary. Besides, who would know that.
Richard got to his feet, grinning at me. “Let’s take that turn around the main deck. Agatha quite made my head spin.”
“I thought it had been doing that before you arrived for breakfast,” I replied dryly.
“Mmmm,” Richard muttered noncommittally.
We made quite certain to walk past the suspicious fellow’s table, and Richard was running on about how much he was looking forward to seeing New Orleans, purely for the fellow’s ears, since he’d begun without any prompting from me.
We walked out of the dining room and headed for the circular stairs leading up to the deck. Luckily the stairwell was lined with windows and glass where windows weren’t so it was easy to keep an eye on the doors to the dining room. Our fellow did not make a move quickly enough for me to catch him at it, alas.
No, that move would come a bit later in the day. And be a bit more surprising than even I might have imagined.
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