Authors: Gail Z. Martin
Tags: #Urban Fantasy
“We’ve got a fresh carriage and a change of horses,” their driver said. “Throw them off the scent. Standard operating procedure.” He gestured toward a small, elegant carriage that looked like something a fine lady might use for a day of shopping. “Don’t you worry,” the driver went on, at Jake’s skeptical expression. “It’s reinforced, like the other one. A bit faster and lighter too, just in case they pick up the trail.” Jake cast a backward glance at their carriage. The passenger compartment was peppered with marks where bullets had struck.
The driver waved them on. “Hurry now and get in the new coach. Then we’ll send this carriage on—in the other direction. That should get rid of the blighters, and keep them away from the warehouse. Wouldn’t do for them to catch up to us, or know too much about what Brand and Desmet does.”
Jake, Rick, and Nicki moved at a run to the new carriage, keeping the bundle with the precious urn safely between them. They climbed inside and the carriage took off, drawn by different colored horses than the original coach and with a driver wearing a brand new cloak and hat.
The next time the carriage stopped, it stood in the middle of a loading area for a large, featureless warehouse. At least a score of brawny men greeted the carriage, most holding shotguns that were agreeably pointed toward the ground.
“All clear,” the driver announced.
“Thanks for that,” Jake said, opening the door and swinging down. To his relief, the area around the warehouse did not appear to have been the scene of any recent fighting.
“Think nothing of it, Mr. Desmet,” the driver said with a broad grin. He shifted, and his dark cape gave a tell-tale jingle. “I was glad of the metal plates in my cloak and hat, that’s for certain.”
“Good to know,” said Jake with a laugh. Behind him, Rick helped Nicki down from the carriage as if they were alighting at the opera.
“Guess that ‘gut feeling’ of yours was right again, Jake,” Nicki said. “Now can you get it to be more specific about when and where?” She paused, as her gaze swept over the large warehouse. “Is that building one of yours?”
The driver bowed low and made a sweeping gesture with his hat. “Another fine warehouse of Brand and Desmet, m’lady.”
All across Europe—and increasingly throughout the United States—warehouses were emblazoned with the ‘Brand and Desmet’ name. George Brand and Thomas Desmet—fathers to Rick and Jake—had built their import/export firm into an amazing, if decorously low-key, success story. Discretion was a necessity, given their clientele. Museums on both sides of the Atlantic hired them to bring back the relics of antiquity for their collections. Aristocrats in Europe and the rising elite in the States retained the Brand and Desmet Company to outfit their country houses, or to buy back treasures sold off or gambled away. Hard-to-find antiquities, rare objects, valuable pieces with unusual provenance—Brand and Desmet had built its fortune by acquiring these items for clients for whom money was no object.
Jake had long ago gotten over being star-struck by the names of their clients: dukes, earls, and lords in Europe; Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Goulds, Morgans, and the like in America. But he had not yet grown completely comfortable with their other customers, the ones who came by night to arrange more ‘unusual’ requests, like the immortal for whom they had retrieved the ancient urn and nearly been killed for their trouble.
People say that everything has its price. Mostly, Jake found that to be true. But sometimes, when a piece’s ownership or provenance was in dispute and a buyer was insistent, successful acquisition had more to do with having a fast airship, good aim, cash for bribes, and a monetary relationship with customs officials. Those were the situations in which Brand and Desmet had earned a solid, if hush-hush, word of mouth reputation in the highest society circles. The rest of the import/export business was a well-maintained cover story.
“It’s rather plain, isn’t it?” Nicki asked. At first, Jake thought she was talking about the urn, but then he realized that she was staring at the unmarked warehouse.
Rick chuckled, his blood still rushing from the fight. “There’s a reason for that. It’s not just a warehouse, Nicki. It’s also a hangar. Best to keep a low profile.”
There was a hiss of steam, a whir of gears, and the muffled clank of chains. The sloped roof of the warehouse opened like the lid of a box and a large steel door slid back in the side of the warehouse, revealing just a glimpse of the private airship inside and a flurry of activity. Jake thrust his hands into his pockets, enjoying the show that he and Rick had seen before, but which was leaving Nicki, for once, almost speechless.
!” Nicki murmured.
“I had your things brought from the hotel and stowed aboard, as you requested, sir,” the driver said. “Looks to be a good idea, since there were sure to be more of those blighters watching your lodging.”
“Very good,” Rick said, as unruffled as if a valet had just brought him his riding horse. “We’d best get going before any more of our ‘friends’ catch up with us.”
Jake looked toward the warehouse, where one of the office clerks was running toward them.
“Mr. Desmet!” The clerk was out of breath when he reached them and his suit was rumpled. “I’m glad I caught you before you got aboard. Mr. Cooper asked to see you. He said it was important.”
Jake shot a puzzled glance toward Rick, who shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I wasn’t expecting anything.”
That wasn’t entirely true. That sixth sense Nicki joked about was right more often than not, and all day, the expectation of bad news had hung over Jake. He feared he was about to discover why.
“Maybe Harold caught wind of what happened in town,” Rick said with a meaningful glance. A telegram certainly could have reached their London office manager while Jake and the others were making their wild escape.
“Or maybe he’s got an update on our next appointment,” Jake replied, making an effort to keep the worry out of his voice. “Our Paris contact may have needed a bit more time to get the artifact, and our man in Krakow doesn’t run on a strict London-style schedule. There could be a delay there.”
“No way to know until you go talk to Harold,” Rick said. “But you know how he goes on a bit. We need to get into the air and out of here before our ‘friends’ show up.”
“I’ll make it brief—and warn him to watch out for trouble,” Jake promised, striding off toward the office next to the warehouse.
The office building was a two-story Georgian-style affair, understated yet dignified. It was all that remained of an old city estate belonging to a minor aristocrat who had owned this land long before the property was parceled off for other uses. Though converted to business use, the offices still had the feel of a stately residence, with beautiful woodwork, embellished plaster ceilings, and fine furnishings. It was every bit as grand as the New York office, and it was the standard the New Pittsburgh office had been designed to emulate.
The office building was unusually quiet when Jake entered. The grand home’s entranceway remained a foyer, with the rooms to either side of the sweeping stairway given over to the use of the clerks, and the upper floors reserved for a meeting room, storage, and the office of their London manager, Harold Cooper.
Usually, Jake enjoyed seeing Harold. Although he looked like the quintessential British accountant, he was quick with a joke and whip-smart when it came to business. A former officer in Her Majesty’s Army, Harold could hold his own on the occasions, like today, when the work got dicey. But he was also just as comfortable lifting a pint at the pub over a game of darts as he was reviewing ledgers and contracts.
“Mr. Cooper’s waiting for you upstairs,” the receptionist said, but for once, she did not greet Jake with her usual smile. In fact, she seemed to take pains to avoid meeting his eyes.
A leaden feeling grew in Jake’s stomach as he climbed the stairs. He knocked once at Harold’s half-open door. “Come in,” a voice called.
“Your clerk said you needed to see me,” Jake said, popping his head around the door. “Can we make it quick? We had a rather rushed departure from town. It would be good to get on to Krakow as soon as we can lift off.”
“I’m afraid there’s been a change of plans,” Harold said. The manager was ten years older than Jake, and while he was still in his mid-thirties, his dark hair had begun to gray at the temples, something he jokingly blamed on Jake and Rick. Now he looked somber, and Jake’s sense of foreboding grew. Jake sat down slowly, and Harold reached across the desk, extending a folded paper toward Jake.
“This telegram came through an hour ago,” Harold said. “I’m sorry.”
Jake stared at the piece of paper in his hands, reading and re-reading it as if the words might change their meaning. It took a moment for him to find his voice, and he blinked as his vision swam, then he crumpled the paper in his fist. “Father’s dead?” He met Harold’s gaze. “How can George be sure it was murder?”
Harold shook his head, and Jake saw loss in his eyes. Harold had worked with Brand and Desmet for over a decade, and his loyalty was absolute. “George sent a second telegram to me with the news, and instructions to have your ship ready to return to New Pittsburgh immediately. I’ve got another crew preparing to go on to Paris and Krakow, and we’ve got your airship prepped to make the Atlantic crossing.”
It was all too much for Jake to take in. Part of him wanted to believe that if he just discarded the crumpled paper in his hand, it would negate the message and return the world to its prior order. But the truth was, the world had changed, and he would never see his father again.
“Ruffians chased us through London,” Jake said, focusing on the immediate danger to avoid thinking about his pain. His voice was constricted as he fought for control. “We don’t dare linger—they could show up at any moment.”
Harold nodded. “The airship is ready. Rick and Miss LeClercq should be onboard by now. I asked Brant to give them the news. I thought that might be a little easier on you.” Brant Livingston was Harold’s long-time secretary, a thoroughly capable man with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of art and, occasionally, a fondness for ribald humor.
“Then I’d better get going,” Jake said, putting on a good front with effort. He met Harold’s gaze. “Someone just tried to kill us, and now this. I’m going to get to the bottom of it.”
“Just be careful, Jake,” Harold cautioned. “Someone out there wants something badly enough to commit murder, and if they didn’t get it from Thomas, they’re going to keep coming after you and Rick.”
Jake closed his fist around the telegram. “That’s what I’m counting on.”
he’s gone.” Jake stood at the window of the observation deck as the airship rose above London. The Thames snaked below them, but the smoky air obscured London’s best-known landmarks. Nicki laid a hand on his arm, her violet eyes searching his.
“I’m so sorry, Jake.”
Jake glanced away. Nicki was his mother’s niece, daughter to Jake’s eldest aunt, and right now, seeing her was a painful reminder of what his mother must be enduring. He swallowed hard.
Rick pressed a glass of scotch into Jake’s hand. “Drink this. You’ve had a hell of a day.”
The hum of the airship’s engines filled the silence. The
was the largest airship of the company’s fleet, designed for transatlantic trips and named after one of the three rivers of New Pittsburgh. Its pilot, Cullan Adair, was the best in the skies. The
was outfitted as comfortably as any luxury ocean liner, but its passengers were an exclusive few, the family and operatives of Brand and Desmet.
Jake pushed away from the railing and crossed to one of the leather chairs in the airship’s lounge. He dropped heavily into the seat, still numb with shock.
“How can George be certain Uncle Thomas was murdered?” Nicki asked as she sipped a gin and tonic.
Rick grimaced. “Considering our afternoon, and the fact that we were nearly all gunned down, it doesn’t seem that outlandish, does it?” He swirled the cognac in his glass. “The real questions are: why were we attacked, who gave the orders, and is there any connection to our most recent acquisition?”
Jake looked down at the amber liquid in his glass. “Father was always afraid something like this would happen. Moving priceless antiques. It’s too much of a temptation.”
“I have a feeling that this time, it’s different,” Rick replied. “That attack in London was too planned, and had way too many men, for the usual profiteers. Andreas paid a small fortune for that urn, but I’m wondering if the attack wasn’t about something else, something he and your father were mixed up in, and someone thinks we know too much.”
“When we don’t know anything at all,” Nicki said with a sigh. She settled back in her chair.
Andreas Thalberg, their client, was a man of many secrets. Jake was certain Thomas Desmet had known why the urn was so important, and when Jake returned to New Pittsburgh, he intended to find out.
“Andreas warned us that it was going to be a dangerous buy,” Rick said, leaning back in his armchair. “Apparently, the urn caught the eye of some collectors who are used to getting what they want by any means.”