What Alex wanted to know was, why did he have to bring Harold along? Getting an assignment was supposed to be a relief. It was supposed to be an excuse to get out of the house and away from Harold. It was not supposed to be a male-bonding opportunity. Alex was pretty sure the time for that had passed just before Harold starting picking outfits for him to wear.
Megan had already left for the evening when Alex got out of Mr. Darcy’s office. Not that she would have been eager to lend an ear about Alex’s new butler woes, but she was usually good for a little banter. And she was significantly better at finding information than Alex. She might be able to give him a few idea for where to start looking for information about this Thomas Smith person, as well as who might be interested in getting their hands on his stuff.
Also, talking to her would delay his inevitable return to his loft. Not only was he going to have to work with Harold, but he was going to have to apologize for the creepy butler comment he’d made, too.
Alex took his time walking down the stairs and out of the building. He considered stopping somewhere to get dinner, but had to admit that he was still stuffed from eating what must have been two pounds of meat and another pound of fried potato for lunch. He reached the Mustang before long, settled in to the driver’s seat, took a deep breath and sighed.
I might as well get this over with, he thought.
Back at the loft, there was no sign of Harold. The furniture was casting long shadows from the evening sun, but it wasn’t dark enough that he would need to turn the lights on yet. Alex was relieved that he was going to have a chance to unwind a bit before he had to deal with him. He tossed his keys on a side table and slipped off his shoes.
“How are you tonight, Mr. Minor,” a voice directly behind Alex said.
Alex started hard enough that he nearly fell down. He turned around, without much grace, to see who was there.
“Jesus! Harold…” Alex said. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were here, I thought I had the place to myself.”
“I did go out earlier, to pick up some groceries. Apart from that, I’ve been in my bedroom, reading,” Harold said.
“Cool,” Alex said. “Look, uh, Harold. I’m sorry about the creepy butler comment I made this morning. That wasn’t very nice of me, and I didn’t really mean it. I guess I was just a little out of sorts this morning, and I was very surprised when I found my clothes laid out again, and I lost my cool. I shouldn’t have said what I said.”
Harold, impassive as ever, paused for a moment, and said, “It’s quite all right, Mr. Minor. I can understand how it might be unsettling for someone not accustomed to receiving service to find his things laid out and ready for him upon waking.”
“OK, thanks for being so understanding. So, you’re going to stop laying out my clothes?” Alex asked.
“Oh, no, of course not, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.
“Great,” Alex said, under his breath. He started to head for the sofa.
“Would you like some pie and coffee, Mr. Minor?” Harold said.
“You know, you can call me Alex. It’s OK with me,” Alex said, then paused. “Did you say you’ve got pie?”
“Yes, Mr. Minor. I made it this afternoon. It will just take a moment to make some coffee to go with it, if you’d like,” Harold said.
On the one hand, Alex was still full, and knew he really didn’t need any pie. On the other hand, there was pie. And any pie was better than no pie.
Assuming Harold hasn’t poisoned it, Alex thought. All the same, it seemed like it would be rude to refuse. Especially since there was pie involved. A life without risks (and pie), is a life not worth living.
“OK, sure, pie sounds great,” Alex said.
It turned out that Harold could make a mean pie. Alex’s concerns about poisoning were quickly laid to rest when Harold brought out a slice for himself as well.
“So, Mr. Minor, when I spoke with Mr. Darcy earlier today, he mentioned that he had an assignment for us, and that you would share the details with me once you’d gotten back. What can you tell me?” Harold said.
Nice of Mr. Darcy to make sure Harold knew about it, Alex thought. So much for leaving him in the dark for the time being.
“Well, I guess we have to recover some artifacts that have been stolen from a museum in London. I guess they belonged to an alchemist of some sort. Hang on, let me get the folder Mr. Darcy gave me,” Alex said.
He got up from the sofa, and went back to the entry way, where he’d left his courier bag. A moment later, he was settling back in on the sofa and handing the folder to Harold. Harold opened the folder and examined the papers inside.
Alex was surprised to see a brief expression of polite surprise cross Harold’s face. Alex leaned forward a bit.
“It looks like you already know something about this,” Alex said. Harold continued reading.
“Hmm?” Harold said. “Well, no, I don’t know a great deal about it. I’m surprised to see the name Thomas Smith, however. My great, great grandfather was his butler, for a time, you see.”
Alex laughed, and said, “That can’t be possible. If I remember right, Thomas Smith died sometime in the late seventeen hundreds.”
“Seventeen eighty four, I believe, yes,” Harold said.
“That was more than two hundred years ago. It’s impossible. Your great great grandfather couldn’t have even been born yet,” Alex said.
“Well, granted, he was still a young man at the time. My family is exceptionally long-lived,” Harold said.
Alex stared at Harold for longer than was polite. Harold simply looked back at him, waiting for his response.
It was hard to decide whether he should laugh at what sure seemed like a joke, or ask Harold to explain his family tree a bit. It just wasn’t possible. Harold didn’t look like he was a day over thirty years old. He might have even been younger than that. Some quick mental math told Alex each generation of men in Harold’s family would have had to be around fifty years old before having the next generation of children for it to be true. If he had done the math right.
“Well, OK Harold, why not? Maybe your family connection is why Mr. Darcy wants you to work with me on this assignment,” Alex said.
“The thought had crossed my mind,” Harold said. He continued reading the documents about Thomas Smith.
“I’m sure,” Alex said. “So, have you got any ideas on where we should start looking? I’m thinking we’ve got a trip to London in our immediate future.”
“According to the information Mr. Darcy has given us, there’s a good chance that the missing artifacts are here in the United States, actually. We might not even need to leave Minneapolis,” Harold said.
Alex’s heart sank a little. A trip to London would have been fun. He’d already done plenty of jobs around Minneapolis, and was having a hard time remember the last time he’d left the state on something work related. More Minneapolis was boring.
Of course, there was still a strong chance that none of it was in Minneapolis. And just because Harold didn’t think they’d need to go overseas didn’t mean that they actually wouldn’t. Alex hoped Harold was wrong.
“Really? You’d think that whoever took this stuff would be English,” Alex said.
“Not necessarily. Plenty of missing antiquities have turned up the personal collections of Americans with the desire and means to acquire them,” Harold said. “There seems to be a certain type that, short of significant historical American artifacts, will cheerfully pursue the historical treasures of other nations that have a longer history. It even makes a certain amount of sense. After all, England has thousands of years of history. There’s enough that one item going missing is hardly even missed. For comparison, imagine if someone tried to steal the Liberty Bell.”
“I guess I never thought about it that way. It makes sense. OK, well, where do you think we should start?” Alex said.
Harold looked up at Alex from the papers, flipped the folder closed, and handed it back to him.
“I think you should start by studying the documents in here, and once you have an understanding of what we’re actually looking for, then we can come up with a strategy for finding the missing artifacts,” he said. “I’ll get you some more coffee.”
Alex had barely had a chance to register that Harold was even moving before he had gone into the kitchen and returned with a fresh cup of coffee for him. It was spooky.
Harold set the freshly filled mug down on the coffee table in front of Alex, and said, “I’ll leave you alone so you can study the information Mr. Darcy provided,” he said.
“Thanks Harold,” Alex said.
Ugh, studying, Alex thought. And worse, being told to study by my self-appointed butler.
This assignment seemed to be getting less fun by the minute.
Alex opened the folder and began to look through the documents again.
He learned that Thomas Smith had been the astrologer and trusted advisor to the queen for a time, before falling out of favor. His fall from grace, as it were, occurred shortly after he took on a new assistant, a man called John Spencer. There wasn’t much information about what he did to lose favor with the queen, only a mention that his theories and ideas, the fruits of his collaboration with John Spencer, had become wild enough that even the previously credulous queen dismissed them as ridiculous ravings.
This considerable setback had not stopped Thomas from pursuing his work, however. Little verifiable detail was available about this collaborative work, apart from the occasional mention of angels found in his surviving writings. He had apparently been using a crystal ball, as Mr. Darcy had mentioned, as well as something called a scrying mirror. Alex had never heard of such a thing before, and made a note to look it up.
Thomas Smith had been also been, by all accounts, a brilliant mathematician. His methods had helped several astronomers of the time with their work, although astronomy was not Thomas Smith’s reason for pursuing mathematics. Indeed, he believed mathematics would lead him to a key that would unlock occult mysteries, and worked feverishly in pursuit of this key.
Reading on, Alex learned that there was currently a group working to carry on Thomas Smith’s occult experiments, based on the information in his surviving writings. In addition to the lack of documentation, this group was further stymied by how much of Thomas’s writing was in code. The bulk of their work was, in fact, trying to decode what he had written.
It was possible they would like to get their hands on the missing artifacts, in hopes of finding a clue that would help them decode his writings.
There were also a handful of historians who were interested in Thomas Smith. Due to the fact that Thomas was regarded by many academics as one of history’s great kooks, several of the historians researching his life and work were also somewhat eccentric.
Again, it would be possible for one or several of them to have stolen the missing disks in pursuit of their own work, seeing as the museum that had been in possession of them had generally been reluctant to let anyone actually examine or handle them.
And, finally, there was a list of various private collectors of the macabre and occult, any of whom may have taken an interest in Thomas Smith and desired to add his artifacts to their own collections.
“Nerds,” Alex said to himself, “we’re going to have to track down some nerd, and maybe a couple of his friends, who are all way too into mathemagicians. Great.”
He nearly jumped out of his skin when someone just behind him said, “You sound disappointed, Mr. Minor.”
“Jesus, Harold, could you try not to startle me like that?” Alex said.
“My apologies, Mr. Minor,” Harold said. “As I was saying, you sound disappointed.”
“Yeah, well, shaking down a bunch of math club geeks doesn’t sound like it’s going to be particularly exciting,” Alex said.
“I would think an easy recovery would be appealing to you, Mr. Minor. If they are, as you say, math club geeks, then it shouldn’t be much trouble getting the missing items back,” Harold said. There was something, barely perceptible (like usual), in his tone that made Alex think there might be more to this assignment than he realized.
“Are you thinking there’s something else going on here, Harold? Because this has ‘bored nerd’ written all over it to me,” Alex said.
Harold said, “I just think there’s a strong possibility that the people who have stolen these disks from the museum have a purpose behind their actions. Something more than a desire to just add a few more interesting objects to their collection.”
“Any ideas on what that purpose might be?” Alex said. “Because it looks to me like they either want some shiny new toys, or they’re hoping for a secret decoder ring.”
“Have you considered, Mr. Minor, that the person or persons who took the disks might already have the decoder ring?” Harold said.