Nathaniel Dennison rubbed the spot between his eyes where his head throbbed. He’d been reading files for the last three—he glanced at his pocket watch—correction, four and a half hours. After all that time, he had more questions than answers.
There was a connection between the disappearances he’d been asked to investigate. He just couldn’t put his finger on it.
He took a deep breath. He had to be missing something. The blank lines of his notebook mocked him. When had he ever come up with so few clues on a case?
Only with the Mastermind.
He scowled at the stack of files he’d reviewed. The Mastermind had all members of the Royal Intelligence Office on edge, investigators and officers alike. They had been searching for the men behind the political unrest and outright attacks on the royal family for almost three years. No one could pin down who was behind the espionage and hints of treason. His Royal Highness had become increasingly insistent on answers.
Not that Nathaniel blamed him at all. No one in the RIO did. They wanted answers almost as much as he did. Smoke would be easier to catch.
With a sigh, he straightened his mess and tucked his notebook away in the breast pocket of his coat. He reached for the lamp to douse the light but paused when something banged against the wall of the records room.
Most of the RIO staff had left for the evening. By now he should have the offices to himself, with the exception of the security officer who patrolled through the night. But he would have sworn he recently heard the officer’s footsteps echoing down the hallway.
As silently as possible he exited the file room. At the door to the records room, he paused and listened. There were shuffling sounds, like boxes being moved about, as well as odd clicks and whirls. Almost like a clock with a gear out of alignment.
“No, not that one,” someone whispered on the other side of the door.
Was that a woman’s voice?
“Hurry. We don’t have much time.”
Again, no response to the whisper, but the clicking sounds multiplied.
Nathaniel checked the lock on the door. It had been opened. The intruder either had a key or a considerable talent with locks. The locks used at the RIO were unusual and gave even the most experienced lock picks trouble.
He pulled his derringer from his pocket then as quietly as possible turned the door handle. The last click of the latch set off a flurry of activity inside the room.
So much for a stealthy entry.
He positioned himself against the wall, yanked the door open, and leveled his gun on whatever he found inside the room.
Some kind of insect jumped off one of the file cabinets onto Nathaniel’s outstretched hand and pinched him.
“Ouch!” He shook his hand and tried to dislodge the bug, but it moved too fast. “What the bloody hell?” He bellowed when the bug ran across his arm then down his chest and leg to the floor.
“Don’t hurt her. She won’t hurt you,” a woman called out from the other side of the cabinet. “Nid, get over here.” Papers were shuffled and more clicks came from that side of the room.
Her voice was familiar. Nathaniel lowered his gun but kept it at the ready as he made his way to the other side. As he crept forward he looked left and right for more bugs. “Who is that and what are you doing in here?”
More shuffling of papers. A drawer slammed shut. The woman whispered, “Squeaks. Hopper. Get in.”
Nathaniel stepped around the end of the cabinets and leveled his gun at the person crouched next to the cabinet. He blinked in surprise at the woman who looked up at him. “Trixie?”
Beatrix Wadeworth froze with her hand extended to two small creatures that resembled a toy mouse and small rabbit. “Nathaniel?” She started to stand, then paused and scooped up the toys and slipped them into her pocket. “I uh…” She glanced behind him toward the door.
He took two steps forward and grabbed her by the arm. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Wh… what are you doing here?” she asked breathlessly.
“I work for the Royal Intelligence Office so I’m allowed to be here but you’re not.” He tightened his grip on her arm. “What are you doing here?”
Two of the bugs ran up his arm. He tried to brush them off, but only managed hit one of them.
“Nid, it’s okay.” She nabbed the one shaped like a spider. “Come here.”
“What are those?” They looked like bugs, but the whirling noise and clicks gave away the fact that they weren’t.
“They’re my, well…” She shrugged and dropped the one she’d taken off his arm into the pouch at her waist. “They’re my friends.”
“Friends?” One of her other toys scratched at his pant leg as it tried to climb it.
“Oh, sorry.” She reached for the creature but stopped when her face drew too close to an area of his anatomy that no proper young woman should be near.
“I’ll get it.” He released her arm, slid his pistol back into its holster, then plucked the tiny mechanical insect from his thigh. He examined it for a moment then dropped it into her open palm. The strange assortment of metal gears and parts were shaped to resemble a scorpion.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
“How many more of those do you have?”
“I only brought five of them with me.”
He opened his mouth to say something then shook his head. “You can’t be here.”
“What the deuce is going on in here?”
Trixie’s eyes widened with alarm. Nathaniel groaned. Great, the security officer had found them. “I was just finishing up for the night, Adam,” Nathaniel told him.
“No one other than RIO personnel is allowed in the records room,” Adam said sternly.
“I’m sorry. That’s my fault,” Trixie said.
Nathaniel tried to grab her but she swatted his hand away.
“You see, we were supposed to have dinner tonight, but someone…” She gestured at Nathaniel. “Forgot.” Then she looked back at the guard. “He gets so forgetful when he’s working. I insisted that if he had work to finish, then I should at least sit with him.”
“That doesn’t explain why you’re in the records room,” Adam said stiffly.
Nathaniel opened his mouth to say something but Trixie cut him off.
“Oh, pish posh.” She waved one of her dainty hands at the guard. “I wasn’t about to be left alone in that boring old office. I need to make sure he finishes whatever he needs to do so that he has plenty of time to take me to dinner.” Her eyes grew wide. “Oh wait.” She faced Nathaniel. “Is that why you said I needed to stay in your office? Because I’m not allowed to be in here?” She looked back and forth between the guard and Nathaniel in mock surprise.
“Something like that,” Nathaniel said through gritted teeth as he slipped his pistol into his pocket.
“That’s right, miss. No one other than authorized personnel is allowed in the records room.”
“Oh, no. I thought you were just trying to avoid me.” Her eyes grew round and filled with tears.
Despite his annoyance, Nathaniel couldn’t help but be impressed with Trixie’s display. If he didn’t know better, he would have sworn she’d had some kind of training for the stage.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to break any of the rules.”
His breath lodged in his chest when she closed in on him, practically grasping the lapels of his coat.
“I didn’t mean to get you into trouble. We haven’t seen much of each other lately and I just wanted to stay with you. Please don’t be cross with me.” She suddenly released him and turned to the guard. “Please don’t turn him in. He didn’t do anything wrong. Not really. It’s my fault. I followed him in here. He really did try to make me stay in his office. You’re not going to tell his superiors, are you?”
She turned her attention back to Nathaniel. “I’ll explain to them what happened. Surely they’ll understand.” She drew one finger across her lashes, as if to wipe away a tear.
“I’m not sure—” Nathaniel said, momentarily distracted by the delicate floral scent that teased his senses when she had pressed against him.
“Please don’t get him into trouble.” She took a few steps toward the officer. “I’ll go back to his office right now. I promise. I won’t move a muscle from the seat. Just please don’t tell on him.”
“Now, Miss. Just calm down.” Adam told her in a placating manner.
“I’ll go right now.”
She tried to brush past Adam but Nathaniel rushed forward and grabbed her by the arm. “How about if we leave so Adam can get on with his patrol?”
“No harm done, Miss.” Adam said. “I’m sure you didn’t mean to break the rules.”
She turned large, pleading eyes on him. “No, I didn’t. Truly.”
“My apologies, Adam,” Nathaniel said. “I should probably take her to dinner. I’ve made her wait longer than I should have.”
“Yes, sir.” He tipped his hat to Trixie. “Good night, Miss. And just remember, if you visit again the Inspector there knows where you are allowed and where you’re not.”
“I will remember that.”
Nathaniel tugged her toward his office.
“And thank you,” Trixie called back to the guard.
When they reached his office she said, “Oh, my, that was close.”
He glared at her. “You have no idea.”