Where the manor house had been large, Fairfax’s estate was grand, in a way that words simply failed to encapsulate. Acres upon acres of land greeted us, just inside the pass-coded gates that sat at the edge of Fairfax’s land. Once inside, I saw that the property consisted of wide swaths of emerald grass, dotted at even intervals with flowers in colors like bubblegum pink, plum purple, and azure blue. As Michel drove the BMW up the driveway – that term seemed woefully inadequate to describe the wide road leading up to Fairfax’s front door, but no better ones came to mind – I could see at least a dozen men and women tending to the health of the flowers on the grounds. For a few months, my mother had worked as a gardener for a particularly vile business magnate in Maine. I’d picked up a little bit of knowledge in that field, so it wasn’t surprising to learn that Fairfax required so many people just to make sure that the plants looked fresh and crisp, every hour of the day, in case a visitor showed up. I was fairly sure that some of the plants on display weren’t even in season, but that wasn’t something I felt like wasting time to research.
The house itself seemed to burst out of the ground itself at the end of the driveway/road. In fact, to call it a house would more properly require capitalization on the word; what I saw through the front window of the BMW was a House, in the same size and proportions of one I expected to find on Pennsylvania Avenue or, perhaps, Downing Street. According to all of the information Sarah had been able to dig up about Fairfax, he was an unmarried man without children or close relatives with whom he had anything resembling a good relationship. The fact that he’d spent time and money acquiring an estate like this, when he could easily have purchased a lovely flat in the city center for far less trouble, told me a lot about the man he was.
Pompous. Arrogant. Overly concerned with his own self-worth. I’d guessed that much about Fairfax on our first meeting; seeing where he chose to spend his time only served to validate those earlier thoughts.
Having drawn conclusions about my surroundings, I set part of my mind to draw up possible ways to manipulate Fairfax and separated the rest of my thoughts from that particular problem. An answer would present itself, as soon as one was ready, and I couldn’t afford to spend conscious time working through possible conversations that might never happen. I’d have to let Fairfax lead the conversation at first until Sarah was able to penetrate his email accounts. After that, I could turn the tables and lay him out. It was a matter, then, of keeping my cool in the face of such wasted splendor.
I’d done it before, with people I liked even less. I strongly doubted that Fairfax could possibly be such an unpleasant person to be around that my abilities would shrivel up. Nearly three years in prison hadn’t dulled most of the useful talents; I’d be damned if I was going to let some trumped up nobleman throw me off of my game.
“The van’s providing my wireless right now,” Sarah said. “So it’s good that it’s working correctly. As long as it’s on, I can use it as a connection point. I don’t know what kind of security Fairfax has sprung for, but I’d rather not tie everything back to his house while we’re having dinner.”
“What does that mean for me? In Layman terms, of course.”
“I won’t be using his connection,” Sarah said. “Even if he’s got someone watching for strange packets or unusual traffic, they won’t find any trace of what I’m doing. Also, the computers are in the van are considerably stronger than anything I could carry on my person.”
I nodded dumbly. Some of those were words I knew. Some had even been used in a configuration that I might have been able to piece together.
Michel drove the BMW up a lengthy stretch of road, bounded by rows of carnations, lilies, and roses on either side. As we drew closer to the mansion itself, the flowers gave way to larger trees, standing tall and firm like arboreal sentinels casting deep shadows across the driveway they stood watch over. Inside of the car, it seemed as though we were literally driving into darkness as we passed beneath the trees; I found that thematically fitting, in an odd way.
A man dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a black tailed coat stood outside of the mansion’s front door with his hands held neatly behind his back. He inclined his head slightly as Michel eased the BMW to a stop, then reached out – with white gloved hands – to open the back door.
“Herr Ackerman,” he said, and I couldn’t help but notice how artificially crisp his Northern London accent was. Immediately, I formed a rough profile of the man: someone who’d worked his way up from an ignoble birth and who prided himself on the ability to walk amongst the nobility and higher class with his head held high. It was probably all an act, but I couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship with the butler.
“Indeed,” I said, lowering the register of my voice and slipping into Ackerman’s German accent. “I had hoped that Lord Fairfax would be here to meet me in person?”
“He means no offense by his absence,” the butler said, “but other matters called for his direct involvement. He will, of course, be away for only a short time.”
I pouted…well, I did whatever the rich business magnate’s version of a pout would be. I didn’t mind waiting. It might even give Sarah more time to penetrate what network security Fairfax had in place. But Ackerman would mind considerably, and I had to play that role to the hilt right now.
“Perhaps,” I said, “he does not consider my time important. Frau Ford, what do you think?”
Sarah tapped an index finger against her bottom lip. “We drove all the way out here,” she said, after a suitably long stretch of silence. “It would be a shame to leave already. Perhaps we could get a tour of the property?” She directed that question at the butler.
He seemed slightly uneasy with that but he recovered quickly. “It would be my pleasure, Miss Ford. It is the least I can do to accommodate you, until such time as Lord Fairfax returns from his obligations. If you would be so kind?”
I exchanged a look with Sarah. She gave a slight, almost imperceptible nod. We stepped out of the car and, a second later, Mila opened her door as well. The butler raised an eyebrow.
“Personal security,” I said in a droll voice. “One can never be too safe. There are always criminals running around, stealing property and threatening lives these days.”
“Ah,” the butler replied, “I was not informed that there would be another guest. I, uh…”
Mila cleared her throat and stopped him from saying anything else. “I go where they go,” she said. “Whether you’re going to make that difficult is your call.”
The butler struggled with that for a second, then nodded. “Very well. If you would follow me?”
He started off toward the mansion, taking long strides that made the tails of his coat flutter slightly, as if caught by an evening breeze. I turned slightly and, under my breath, said, “Michel, park by the van. Wait for the pickup signal.”
“And if something goes wrong?”
I hesitated. “There’ll be a signal for that, too. Get out of here.”
I watched him nod out of the corner of my eye. He started the BMW again, drove around the circle of cleared land in front of the mansion, and then left via the road leading off of Fairfax’s property.
Sarah touched my elbow with two fingers, then put those same two fingers to her earlobe in a quick gesture. Michel was still connected and able to communicate, albeit with a slight delay, through Sarah. There was every possibility, however, that the few seconds after I gave Sarah the ‘emergency’ signal, but before Michel received it, could end being crucial.
I put that thought out of my mind before I could begin to worry about it. The butler was standing in front of the building, one gloved hand on the handle of a massive door, cut from a wood so dark that it was nearly black. He was well-trained enough that his subtle tells of impatience and irritation took me a bit to notice.
The three of us walked over to the door. Sarah strode with the purpose of self-assurance of someone who knows that their presence is in high demand and I matched my gait to hers. Mila walked just behind me, to my right, and each of her steps was solid and deliberate. Mental images of military men and women came to mind with each rhythmic, sharp step she took. Something in her shoes must have been metallic. Or something on her shoes.
Inside the mansion, the butler turned and gestured magnanimously at a portrait on the wall, just a few feet away from the entrance. The man pictured there looked familiar: the eyes, perhaps, or the length of his nose reminded me of Fairfax. But there was also something about his forehead and the way his lips were only barely curled up into a smile for the painter that seemed odd.
“This was Lord Reginald Fairfax,” the butle said, his voice swelling with something resembling pride. “The current Lord Fairfax’s esteemed great-grandfather. It was his savvy with business and social skills that allowed the Fairfax family to rise to their current place of prominence.”
I suppressed a snicker. Through Sarah, I’d come into possession of a more than a few documents outlining the various debts that our Fairfax owed to creditors, both national and international. ‘Prominence’ was painting it a little heavy, but it wasn’t as though the butler could outright tell us that his master was in trouble. In fact, it was largely possible that the poor man didn’t even know.
“And his father?” Sarah asked politely, as if she didn’t already know the answer.
The butler sighed, caught himself, and turned the exhalation into a cough. “Charles Fairfax, Sr. He was…an ambitious man, with grand dreams and grander aspirations.”
That wasn’t an answer. Of course, Sarah hadn’t really asked a question.
“I must say,” I said, in Ackerman’s voice, “that I find the prospect of a tour less and less enjoyable with each passing second. It has nothing to do with you, sir, but…” I trailed off, let the silence hang in the air for a second, and then continued. “Perhaps another time. If I find myself in London on business again and Fairfax can deign to tear himself away from his business opportunities. Of course, I will have to tell all of my associates to beware working with Lord Fairfax in the future. He is such a busy man, of course.”
Blood fled from the butler’s face. He sputtered something incoherent. When he regained control of himself, he cleared his throat. “I am sure that Lord Fairfax will not be away for very long. If you could only wait just a little bit longer…”
“Calm yourself, Coleman,” a resonant voice said from upstairs, in the direction of an extravagant staircase. Sarah and I looked up at the same time; Mila’s weight shifted slightly and I could almost feel the gathering of tension around her.
“My apologies,” Fairfax said. He strolled into view, utterly at ease, and took the stairs at a leisurely, almost insulting pace. “I would have scheduled this dinner for later if I had known something would arise that required my personal attention.”
“Your man…what was it? Ah, Coleman,” I said, “was kind enough to inform us that your business was suffering some difficulties.”
“Nothing beyond my ability to handle. But the nature of the delay was personal in nature, not professional.” Fairfax reached the bottom of the stairs and paused. The angle of his body was reminiscent of a pose and, I had to admit to myself, the effect worked. He was wearing a crisp dark blue suit, cut to his precise measurements, and looked like nothing so much as a fashion model. The thin wisps of graying hair at his temples only highlighted his attractiveness, instead of taking anything away from the visual.
“Personal? I hope that everything is well.”
He heaved a dramatic sigh. Something felt wrong about that sigh, but I couldn’t quite my finger on what bothered me. “Family,” Fairfax said. “A member of my family in a similar line of business as myself requested a chair at this dinner.”
“Oh?” We hadn’t planned on conning more than one person. Still, as long as the façade held up long enough, we might be able to make an exit and return to blackmail Fairfax into submission later.
“Quite. The possibility of opening new lines of communication with our German counterparts was something that neither he nor I could pass up. Now, our dinner awaits. My insistent family member will have to show himself in, whenever he arrives. Coleman, you can see that, yes?”
It wasn’t really a question. The butler, Coleman, nodded twice, seemingly pleased to be given a valid reason to leave our company. I couldn’t blame him. Fairfax was such a deliberately over-the-top figure that it seemed he sucked up all the oxygen from a room just by entering. I couldn’t imagine working around the man on a daily basis, being required to rush from place to the other in deference to whatever whim moved him. Just thinking about it made me a little exhausted.
I resolved to find some way to supplement Coleman’s income…presumably through whatever payment we received from the Lady after taking down Hill. That thought cheered me slightly.
Fairfax led us through the mansion, occasionally pointing out a portrait or knickknack, until we reached a large door cut from the same wood as the front door. He pushed it open and gestured for Sarah, Mila, and me to enter the room in front of him. We did so and found ourselves confronted with a majestic table with enough room for at least ten people to sit and eat comfortably. Platters and trays were already set out on the table, stretching from one end to the other, tendrils of delicious-smelling smoke drifting up into the air from each.
“I must confess,” Fairfax said, taking no notice of the scents in the air, “that I am not a particular fan of this arrangement. I prefer more intimate settings, no matter what the occasion. There’s little that can’t be solved with a one-on-one conversation, in close quarters.”
“Ah,” I replied, “but would it not be preferable to have as many witnesses as possible to any handshake deals you make?”
Fairfax gave me a slight, anemic smile. “Of course not. People will make all sorts of concessions when they feel that no one else is looking. The trick is to lure them into a sense of safety and then to force them to accept your terms.”
I couldn’t help but grin at that. “I suppose I could not agree more.”
Surprisingly, Fairfax did not take a seat at the head of the table. Instead, he chose a chair a few spaces down and motioned for us to sit opposite him. When we were comfortable, he removed the lid off of the platter directly in front of him – revealing some type of roast, judging by the shape, size, and scent – and cut a large piece of meat free.
“Help yourself,” he said, when the slice of roast was safely on his plate. “Unless you’d prefer I called the servants in to assist you?”
That same feeling of wrongness intensified. Everything I knew about Fairfax – both from our conversations and the information Sarah had dug up about him – told me that he was the sort of person who would delight in using servants to display his wealth. As it was, we’d only seen Coleman since entering the house itself. The landscapers outside might not even work for Fairfax directly; it would be fairly easy to hire those sort of people on an as-needed basis. It would make more sense, as well.
A tray on my right was populated by a freshly baked loaf of bread, cut into thin slices and topped with a healthy smattering of herbs. I took a few of those and then ladled out some soup into a bowl. Fairfax raised an eyebrow. “I would feel better waiting for your family member,” I said, by way of explanation. The truth – that my stomach wouldn’t settle down while that gnawing feeling of missing something continued to work at it – wasn’t something I felt like sharing.
“All the same,” Fairfax said. “And you, Miss Ford?”
“I’ve already eaten,” Sarah replied. There was a slight hitch in her voice, a millisecond of hesitation. I didn’t need to look at her to know that I would see a slight puzzled expression on her face. Whatever was wrong, she felt it, too.
“Ah. I’m certain that our guest will arrive shortly, von Ackerman, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long.”
“You said that you do not prefer this sort of room?” I asked, more to fill the time than out of any real curiosity. Sarah had said to keep Fairfax in this room, where we could keep an eye on him, and I intended to do just that.
“Not particularly, no.”
“Then why do you not change it? Surely you can afford to redecorate?”
Fairfax froze, the roast speared on his fork and halfway to his mouth. Slowly, he lowered the utensil. “I am currently living on the largesse of a…shall we call him a friend? He is graciously allowing me the use of his estate while he’s away on business.”
“And you have been here long enough to hang your own paintings?”
Fairfax shrugged. “The business my friend is engaged is in the sort that will likely require much of his attention for the foreseeable future. Of course, I would be more than happy to leave if I were asked to, but I doubt he will have many problems with my decorative choices.”
The earbud I wore vibrated twice. The line didn’t activate. I read the signal as something Sarah had deliberately done, wordlessly sending me a message. The problem with that is that I couldn’t understand the message meant, in this context. Had she already broken Fairfax’s security? Or was she telling me that she’d require more time and to continue needling him, pushing him so that he felt compelled to engage in a battle of quips? Was something wrong with Michel?
I tapped my fingernail against the table twice, as subtly as I could manage, hoping that she could grasp my confusion. A second later, the earbud vibrated two more times, more intensely than before.
I almost turned to look at Sarah, thinking that I might be able to divine her intention with a moment of eye contact. I was stopped by a delighted noise from Fairfax. He set his fork down on the plate with an audible clink and smiled widely.
“Ah,” he said, “and here is our unexpected guest. It’s good to see you again, brother.”
I turned, almost involuntarily, to face the newcomer. Entering through the same door that we’d come through, I saw a man with tribal tattoos and a face like cut granite. In front of him, a man in a wheelchair.
“It has been such a long time, hasn’t it?” Fairfax asked behind me. “We have so many things to catch up on, don’t we?”