Alex was amazed that upon arriving at the airport, they didn’t have to navigate a maze of parking ramps, deal with a crowd to check in for their flight, get poked and prodded and x-rayed at a security checkpoint, and then spend an hour or so hanging around with three hundred other people just to enjoy the luxury of being crammed in to a seat for several hours and mildly abused by the flight attendants.
And, of course, feeling like he had to rush through the entire process.
Instead, they were able to simply pull off the road that led to the airport and into a paved parking lot. Finding a parking spot took thirty seconds. There was someone waiting there to lead them to the airplane, which was only a few hundred feet away. Alex and Harold were on board the airplane less than five minutes after getting to the airport.
This really is the way to fly, Alex thought.
He and Harold had barely taken their seats (which were actually comfortable, upholstered in cream colored leather) before the plane started taxiing to the runway. Even though it was dark outside, Alex watched out the window as they taxied. He’d flown at night before, but never from a small airport. There were no other people around, no tugs hauling carts full of luggage, no other planes moving around, it seemed like the had the entire place to themselves.
Moments later, they turned on to the runway, and the engines spooled up. The takeoffs were always Alex’s favorite part of flying. He kept watching as the lights outside passed by, faster and faster, and then began to fall away below them. A few minutes later they were well out of the city limits, and the only thing to see beneath them was an occasional light in a sea of darkness.
Not long after that, Alex realized that, even with the luxury seating and service, sitting in an airplane with nothing to look at for several hours was going to be just as boring as if they’d been flying in an airliner.
Alex looked over at Harold, and saw that he was already engrossed in a copy of The Picture of Dorian Grey. He briefly wished he’d thought to bring a book along. A quick glance around the cabin didn’t reveal any magazines or other diversions, either. He looked at his watch. It told him it was two thirteen in the morning.
Getting some sleep was probably the best option, Alex figured. He settled back in his seat and closed his eyes, without much hope of actually sleeping. He’d never been able to sleep on airplanes.
Minutes later, he was deeply asleep.
When Alex woke up again, he had no idea how much time had passed. He stretched and glanced at his watch again. It was now roughly six in the morning. Alex couldn’t believe he’d been asleep for four hours.
It was still dark outside, which didn’t seem right. It was mid-July, he figured the sun ought to be rising already.
Alex looked over and noticed that Harold was awake too. He was sitting quietly, impassive as always, apparently just waiting patiently to land.
“Did you get any sleep?” Alex asked him.
“No, I don’t need much sleep,” Harold said. “Did you rest well, Mr. Minor?”
“Better than I’d expected to, honestly. Usually I can’t sleep on airplanes,” Alex said. He thought for a minute and then said, “Hang on, you were up before me yesterday morning. When is the last time you slept?”
“It’s been a while,” Harold said.
Something about the way he said it gave Alex the impression that he should drop the subject. Every now and then, he wished he co-workers were a little less private. It’s hard to converse with someone who won’t answer any questions you ask.
“I’m surprised it’s still dark outside,” Alex said, to change the subject. “I’d expect the sun to be rising already, this time of year.”
“Have you set your watch to Pacific time yet, Mr. Minor? It’s four in the morning here,” Harold said.
Alex felt foolish. Of course, the time difference, that was why it was still dark. Good morning, dimbulb, he thought. He made a note to remember not try to watch the sun rise over the ocean while they were in California.
“How much longer until we land?” Alex asked.
“I don’t think it’ll be much more than an hour,” Harold said.
Ugh, another hour, Alex thought. Another boring hour waiting to get off the plane and do something more interesting.
Harold seemed entirely content to sit quietly and wait until they landed.
How the heck does he stay so calm all the time? Alex thought. I wonder if he ever gets riled up about anything. And how did he end up working with Mr. Darcy?
Everyone else Alex worked with was, in a word, intense. Private, definitely; professional, certainly, and usually courteous to an extent, but there was no mistaking the fact that they were largely like him in that they were itching for action. Megan, for example, was positively brimming over with her eagerness to jump in to a situation and help out, despite her usual sarcasm.
But Harold was different. There was something threatening about him, for sure, but it was just impossible for Alex to put his finger on what it was that made him seem like a threat. Apart from his extreme stealth, of course. Maybe it was, in fact, his impenetrable calm that made him threatening. He was like a brick wall that could make pie and perfect martinis, and also make it clear that it could crush you at any second. And either way, there was no rush. Harold could wait.
“Who was the last person you worked as a butler for, Harold?” Alex asked.
“Discretion is a large part of the job, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.
“Well, you’ve already told me you have excellent references, who were they?” Alex said.
“Are you trying to offer me a job?” Harold said. Alex realized there was the slightest hint of humor in the question. It was barely perceptible, but there.
“No, I’m trying to get to know you,” Alex said. “But fine, don’t tell me who they were. How about what they did? Were they nobles, with a grand estate, and fox hunts and stuff like that?”
“I prefer not to talk about my past,” Harold said. “You’ll just have to get to know me in the present. But, since you asked, no, my last employer was an industrialist. He and his wife do have a mansion, but they aren’t nobles.”
“But you have worked for nobles before?” Alex said.
“Yes, for some of the finest families in the United Kingdom,” Harold said.
“How did you end up here in the United States, then?” Alex said.
“This is the land of opportunity, is it not?” Harold said. “I came for an opportunity.”
“Working for Mr. Darcy?” Alex said.
Harold said nothing, to Alex’s annoyance.
“Fine, be that way,” Alex said. He hoped they’d land soon so they could get on with the job.
Thirty minutes later, they landed at the Arcata / Eureka Airport. Five minutes after that, they were stepping out of the airplane on to a red carpet.
Fancy, Alex thought.
There was a black Lincoln waiting twenty feet away, with the passenger doors and trunk open, and a driver standing to meet them.
He walked to meet them as they approached, took Alex and Harold’s bags and put them in the trunk as they got into the car. Alex felt a little surreal – he didn’t think he would ever get accustomed to having people wait on him.
“We’re going to have a driver while we’re here?” he said to Harold.
“No, there’s a car waiting for us to use. This is just our ride to the car,” Harold said.
“We don’t even have to walk to the car? How much is all this going to cost us?” Alex said.
“It’s perfectly reasonable for the amount of time it has already saved us,” Harold said. “Is just having enough money still a concern for you?”
Alex was taken aback by the question. He’d always seen his money as a way to acquire toys and pay for living expenses. He certainly had enough for that. He’d never considered using it for paying other people to make his life easier. It was a foreign idea to him, and seemed almost wrong.
“Listen to me,” Harold said. “The point of hiring a private jet, or a driver, or having a housekeeper, or any other kind of assistant, isn’t just so you don’t have to do the work. It’s so you can spend the time you would have spent on trivial things doing something else more important, or at least more interesting to you. We’ve already saved ourselves at least four hours of time wasted at an airport, and given that the person we’re after is going to be leaving the country again in a matter of days, I’d say we’ll be able to use those four hours for something better. We could go waste our time trying to rent a car, or we can pay someone to take us straight to a car that is already waiting for us, and we can use that time to get to work.”
“You’re a fifth generation butler, though,” Alex said. “Isn’t attending to trivial details kind of your thing?”
“That is a service I am proud to provide, yes. I have been fortunate enough to learn from and observe the people who hire butlers, however. And, currently, I am not employed as a butler, and I am aware my time is valuable and better spent focused on our greater pursuit,” Harold said.
While they had been conversing, the driver had sped them from the tarmac to a parking lot at the edge of the airport, where there was another car waiting for them with the doors open and an attendant.
The car that was waiting for them was a dark grey Dodge Dart. Alex was a little disappointed when he saw it.
“An economy car?” he said.
“The better to remain incognito, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.
“I guess. Couldn’t we have been incognito in something faster?” Alex said. He didn’t think there was much chance that they would need a fast car (something told him the kind of person who steals artifacts belonging to a long dead alchemist wasn’t typically the kind of person who also engages in high speed chases), but all the same, he would have liked a fast car.
“I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, Mr. Minor,” Harold said. “I’ll drive.”
“You’ve got to be exhausted,” Alex said. “I can drive and let you rest.”
“I already told you, Mr. Minor, I don’t need much sleep,” Harold said. He got into the driver’s seat, and shut the door. Alex shrugged and got in on the passenger side.
The sky was just beginning to brighten, and the weather was cool. It felt humid outside, too. Harold drove them out of the parking lot and away from the airport. Minutes later, they were driving south along the coast towards Eureka.
Alex looked to his right, hoping to see the ocean, but there was only dark grey fog.
About twenty minutes later, they arrived at the Eureka Inn. Harold stopped the car in front of the main entrance, and shut it off. He got out of the car and grabbed his bag and Alex’s out of the trunk.
Alex looked at him sideways. “We’re going to check in the same hotel as the guy we’re looking for?”
“Yes,” Harold said. “We’ll be able to watch for him, and none of the employees will think twice about paying guests hanging around in the hotel. On the other hand, they’ll definitely notice a couple of random people staking out the hotel in their car.”
“OK, I guess that makes sense,” Alex said.
The two of them went inside. Alex was impressed with the interior, it continued the Tudor scheme, with dark wood beams everywhere. There were also portraits of famous guests who had stayed there.
The desk clerk seemed barely awake. Alex guessed that he was at the end of his shift. Or he was at the very start of his shift, and still needed coffee.
“We have a reservation under Derby,” Harold said.
“Check in isn’t until one o’clock,” the clerk said. “You guys are a little early.”
“I did request an early check-in when I made the reservation,” Harold said.
Alex was fairly sure he’d felt the temperature drop a few degrees in the room. The clerk didn’t seem to notice.
“You’re welcome to wait here in the lobby until check-in,” he said. He sounded like he didn’t care if they waited there, or went anywhere else, so long as he didn’t have to deal with them.
The temperature seemed to drop a little more, and Alex could have sworn the room got darker as well.
“I was assured it would not be a problem to check in immediately upon our arrival,” Harold said. There was the slightest hint of malice in his voice. The barest trace of anger. His expression remained perfectly calm and polite.
“Sorry, man, I don’t make the rules,” the clerk said.
Alex jumped back slightly as Harold suddenly sprung into action, stepping forward and grabbing the clerk by the collar in the blink of an eye. He pulled the clerk towards him, over the counter. Alex realized Harold must have lifted the clerk clean off of his feet.
The clerk and Harold were now face to face, inches apart. The clerk was wild-eyed, grabbing at Harold’s hand to no effect.
Harold still appeared completely calm. He didn’t even seem to be straining to hold the clerk.
“Are you certain there isn’t anything you can do to help us?” Harold said.
“Let me check, let me check,” the clerk said. He suddenly seemed much more eager to help. “There’s probably a room that’s already been turned. Let me see what I can find.”
Harold lowered the clerk to the floor again on his own side of the counter, slowly. He let go and stood back again. He appeared completely unruffled.
“Thank you,” Harold said.
Alex was stunned, and couldn’t quite believe what he’d just seen. He had never seen anyone move that quickly before.
Remarkably, the clerk was able to find a room that was ready for them after just a few moments of looking at his computer. He handed them the keys to their room, and asked if they needed help carrying their bags to their room.
“Yes, thank you,” Harold said.
The clerk hurried around the desk and took Harold and Alex’s bags, and led them to the room.
Alex opened the door, and the clerk hurried inside and set their bags in the middle of the room. Alex and Harold followed him in. He hurried back out of the room, and said, “I hope you’ll enjoy your stay with us. If there’s anything else you need, please let me know.”
“Thank you,” Harold said, and shut the door in his face.
OK, I guess that’s what it looks like when Harold gets pissed off, Alex thought. Remember not to make him mad.
Their room had two full sized beds, a desk, a couple of chairs and a TV. It was clean, and overall not particularly remarkable. Alex had been expecting a little more charm, from the Tudor decorating scheme everywhere else around the hotel.
“What do you think our next move should be, Mr. Minor?” Harold said. He took off his coat and hung it up, then sat down in one of the easy chairs in the room.
“Uh, well, I guess we can do a little research and see what places our friend Noah might be likely to visit around here. And, of course, we can check and see if he’s posted anything new about what he’s up to on Facebook, or in that forum.”
Alex took his laptop out of his bag, and set it up on the desk in the room. After he’d checked his email (nothing new), he figured he’d start with the Thomas Smith forum. He hoped this Noah guy would have left a few more hints about what he was up to, or maybe some new photos. He was pleasantly surprised.
“Well, would you look at that,” Alex said.