Adam marched along the corridor of the country hotel at a brisk step, drawing to a stop outside his room on hearing an all-too familiar voice from within. Irritation and resignation warred within his breast. Some things seemed to be too easy to lose; Miss Jones was, to his dismay, never one of them.
“See, listen to this: It was in 1903 that the first mysterious death occurred. Hanley, an odd-job man, had been engaged in clearing out the ditches, and on his return to the manor for remuneration, he collapsed, writhing in pain, his face an unnatural blue colour.” The unseen reader’s tone took on more lurid emphasis as she continued. “His ghost is said to haunt the former stable block. And this pattern has been repeated up to the present day. No wonder daring visitors have reported feeling a distinct chill on entering the grounds, and so on. There’s pages of this stuff!”
As Adam entered, Georgie put the book down – or rather, carelessly threw it open onto the bed, causing him to wince.
“Don’t you want to go and take a look, Simms?”
“Visit a stately home that causes visitors to curl up and die on the spot? No, thanks. If you want to go, however, feel free, Miss Jones. Sounds the right sort of place for a horror like you.” He cleared his throat, and screwed his face into a leer:
“There was a young lady called Jones,
Who had a strange passion for bones
She dug a ghost’s grave up
He fancied a rave-up
The last thing they heard were her hideous groans.”
“Simms! Groans is about right!”
He caught sight of Adam. “Ah, there you are, sir.”
“Adam!” said Georgie, jumping up from where she’d been most indecorously lounging on the hotel bed. “Hi! I thought I’d come and join you. I’ve got the room opposite yours. Nice and cosy.”
Adam reviewed all the things wrong with that greeting and failed to know where to start in expressing them. “Miss Jones,” he said, “did I or did I not expressly forbid you to interfere in my affairs? And I certainly do not recall inviting you to join us on this trip to the West Country.”
“Aha!” she said, giving a grin. “Then it is an official investigation. Look, I can help, you know I can. Is it Lyell Manor you’re after? It’s got to be, hasn’t it? You can’t be down here looking into mysterious goings on and it’s just a coincidence that right next door is one of the most haunted places in the country.”
Adam grimaced. “Lyell Manor is reputed to be haunted? How odd. I heard no such tales on the last occasion I visited.”
“And when was that?” said Georgie. “Eighteen hundred and whatever? Because the ghosts have got a lot livelier since, according to this local history book they had down in the lobby. Which is suspicious, wouldn’t you say?”
Adam would, but not to Miss Jones. “I will in that case take a look at the place but, no, Miss Jones, that was not my original purpose in coming here. And you will not be accompanying me. Simms will take you out for a ramble and you can both enjoy the pleasures of nature, well out of harm’s way.”
Simms visibly paled at that suggestion, but rallied, as the ideal manservant ought. “If you say so, sir. I’ll put together a packed luncheon. Ham sandwiches for me – and tea laced with strychnine for Miss Jones.”
“Unkind, Simms. Anyway, that’s the thing about these ghosts. They poison people. They keel over and peg it just like that.”
Adam raised his eyebrows and swung around to face her. “The ghosts – they poison people?”
“Yes,” said Georgie, and nodded. “And then they haunt the place and so on, yadda yadda yadda.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Etcetera, etcetera,” said Simms. He wrinkled his nose. “More or less. Or blah, blah, blah.”
Georgie nodded. “Fascinating, isn’t it? I mean, white ladies and black monks are the usual shtick, aren’t they?”
“Indeed,” murmured Adam, frowning. “Indeed they are. I shall have to take a look. Meanwhile, Miss Jones, you and Simms may explore the charming countryside of the Quantock Hills and keep well out of any danger.”
After Adam had swept out again, Georgie waggled her eyebrows at Simms. “Fancy a hike?”
She let herself thump down onto the mattress. “Still, you know Mr Adamant. He’ll expect you to do what he says. So, we’d better. Right?”
“Indeed. I’ll just go and hunt out that strychnine for the flask of tea. With your name on it.”
Georgie stuck out her tongue and then lay back, sprawled out on the bed, smiling up at the ceiling. Going on a walk was absolutely fine with her. After all, Mr Adamant had said nothing about which direction they should go and she had definite ideas on that front. Sort of generally westwards from here – towards Lyell Manor. She laughed aloud.
“Heaven help us all,” said Simms, giving her a dark look.
Georgie merely practised her best innocent expression, while whistling a phrase from Waterloo Sunset.
Lyell Manor was a name Adam had not heard in a long time, but it was well known to him. He had stayed there during what he thought of as the winter before last – December 1901, in the midst of an unexpectedly heavy snowfall that had brought railways and road traffic to a standstill across the nation.
However, Georgina’s strange tale – if it were true – was a coincidence that merited investigation. For Lyell Manor was a place where Louise had often stayed, both before and no doubt after Adam had known her, and as he now knew, to his great regret, where Louise went, one might also find that devil, the Face.
It was an uncanny business, revisiting such a once-familiar haunt. It didn’t precisely give Adam the sensation of walking over his grave, but perhaps that he was now walking over where his grave ought to have been, had he not been betrayed and his former life destroyed. He could not say he liked the sensation. Georgina might speak of ghosts haunting the place, but there were times when he wondered whether he himself might be one.
He drove the Mini down the overgrown drive at a pace, pulling to a stop in front of the manor, before leaping out, swordstick in hand.
“Good God,” he said under his breath, looking up and taking in the state of the building and its immediate grounds. The place had fallen to rack and ruin in the decades since, while for him it was less than two years ago he had last been here. It had been winter then, the snow beginning to fall so rapidly the world was already turning white – entirely unlike this beating hot July day – and the place had then been in pristine order. Adam was used to unwelcome change, but it still came as a shock.
Lyell Manor was, or had been, a neat Georgian building, although much of it was built over the original Jacobean manor. Now it was not only weathered by a few more decades, but several of the windows had been boarded up, and any that had not been had broken panes. Beneath his feet, the weeds were growing through the gravel, and ivy was making its way up over the house.
Adam walked up to the door, touching the cracked and worn paint – black now, when it had been yellow last time, and the only greenery a festive wreath affixed to it.
The snow was falling more heavily by the time the carriage wound its way down the long, straight drive. Adam had questioned the wisdom of travelling so far at this season, not wanting to risk stranding a lady like Louise, but she was a lady of spirit and courage and had insisted on continuing.
The lights were on in most of the windows, and they had no need to knock, for Henry Lyell came out to welcome them himself.
“Adam,” Henry said, taking his hand, pressing it with manly warmth and fervour, his voice still holding a transatlantic accent. His lineage might stretch back to the time of Henry VIII, but he had inherited unexpectedly as the son of a second son who had emigrated many years before. “It seems an age since we met. And, Louise, my dear, forgive me – Addie missed you greatly when you were in St Petersburg this summer.”
Adam smiled. “And how is Lady Adeline?”
“Oh, in fine fettle, my dear chap,” Henry said, ushering them both inside, where the butler waited to take their coats. “I’m so glad you are here safely. We feared the worst once we saw the weather, and it would have been quiet without you – no one here but ourselves and Cousin Robert.”
Adam smiled. “Robert! I shall be glad to see him again. I have yet to thank him for his invaluable advice in uncovering a dastardly forger of rare books. He was a master at his art – even I was hard-pressed to point out the copy from the original, but Robert was not to be fooled.”
“No, indeed. It’s why he’s here – I’m sure I’m finally onto something regarding the old family story of a secret passage, though he has been unhelpfully dismal on the subject so far, I have to say. He keeps telling me that if it ever existed, it must have been filled in when they rebuilt the place in the 1700s.”
Adam put one hand against the lintel, frowning, not over the memory, but the tales. Ghosts and poison? Whatever had happened to Henry, and Lady Addie and their descendants? More to the point, what vile devilry was now at work in this place?
“How far have we gone?” said Georgie, wiping her forehead, as she followed Simms up yet another wooded hillside. “It feels like miles.”
He glanced at the folded up map in his hands. “Yes. Possibly as many as two, although I doubt it.”
“Oof,” she said, trying to blow her damp fringe out of her face. “If I’d known it was going to be like this I’d have got the bus.”
“If you want to go back to the hotel, I shall be more than happy to accompany you. Or how about the nearest pub? Fancy a game of darts?”
Georgie considered for a moment, then shook her head. “No. We’ve got to make sure nothing happens to Adam. I don’t like the sound of that story about ghosts killing people.”
“If it’s been going on since 1903, the villain must be as old as Mr Adamant. I should think he can handle an octogenarian or a nonagenarian without much difficulty.”
She shrugged, and gave him her best smile. “Well, let’s at least see what the view’s like from the top. Come on, Simms!”
Adam rapped at the door of Lyell Manor with his cane, only for it to swing open. It was unlocked. Either no one was taking care of the place, or someone was already inside. There was only one way to find out, so he entered, stepping across the elderly floorboards with caution.
“Hello?” he called, dislodging dust as he went, but he noted that he had not been the only one in here recently – there were other, smaller footprints in the dirt and dust. Possibly a lady.
He headed along the hall to the library, much as he had that previous winter, only then there had been a fire burning in the grate, books on the shelves and a welcoming company inside – Louise, Henry, Lady Addie, and Robert Lyell. They’d greeted each other warmly, old friends all – Louise kissing Lady Addie (formerly the daughter of the Marquis of Bath), as Adam shook Robert’s hand. He was a second cousin of Henry’s, in his early forties with a mild voice and small spectacles balanced on his nose, looking every inch the antiquarian he was.
Now there was nothing left – only two old and broken chairs, silence, and dust. The contrast was harsh. Adam moved over to the windows, brushing away a hanging cobweb that caught on his coat as he passed.
“Hello?” he called again and then, at the sound of a slight rustling behind him, he turned, ready to meet danger, only to see the impossible facing him. Had someone spoken of ghosts? For here was one standing before him in the shape of a tall, upright woman.
“Good God,” he said. “Lady Addie!”
Georgie and Simms emerged from the comparative shelter of the wood into a sun-baked clearing at the top of the hill.
“Hey,” said Georgie, hurrying across to the hill’s edge, “what a view! You must be able to see for miles!”
Simms followed more slowly. “Five counties, I gather, on a good day.”
“Wait,” Georgie added, turning her gaze downwards to the valley more immediately below. “What on earth’s that?”
Simms sighed, as he reached her, and then frowned at the sight, as he followed her pointing finger. He raised his eyebrows. “Blowed if I know.”
“It looks like a concrete park or something – right out here in the middle of nowhere. D’you think it’s an attraction?”
“More like an eyesore.”
Georgie nudged him. “Tell you what – I think we’d better get down there and take a gander, don’t you?”
“No,” said Simms, with a glare, but tramped after her anyway.
The woman started and moved forward. “What on earth are you doing here? Who are you?”
“Forgive me,” Adam said. “My error, I see that now. But you are like – very like – a lady I once knew. A charming lady, married to an old friend of mine. Indeed, I see a distinct resemblance there, also.”
It had been the dim light that had caught him off-guard, he supposed, that and the fact that she had her hair pinned up, not so unlike the styles of his day, even if less neat and elegant. She was, however, wearing a smart jacket and skirt, of thick turquoise material, which was thoroughly modern. Lady Addie would have died rather than go out in such attire. Besides, as he had observed, on closer inspection, he saw a decided Lyell family likeness in the determined line of the mouth and the chin.
“That still doesn’t explain what you’re doing here. This is private property, you know.”
Adam gave a slight bow. “Yes. As I said, you must forgive me. I believed the place to be deserted and I used to know the family well many years ago. Of whom you must surely be a member. I am correct?”
“Yes,” she said, and laughed, holding out a hand, which Adam kissed rather than shook, causing her to raise her eyebrows, amusement dancing in her eyes. “I’m Hattie Lyell. And you?”
“Adam Adamant, at your service. Hattie, you say – short for Henrietta, perhaps?”
She nodded, frowning over his name. “Adam Adamant? I have heard of you, but – oh, you are the Edwardian adventurer, the man who was frozen in time?”
“I had that misfortune, yes.”
“Then that explains it. My grandfather knew you well, I believe? He used to tell us tales of your adventures. He said he even beat you in a duel once, but it was pure luck.”
Adam smiled. “No, no. Too modest, as ever. Your grandfather, I take it, is no longer with us? You have my condolences, madam.”
“Thank you, although I was pretty young when he died,” she said. “But my grandmother practically brought me up and she used to tell me about him. I owe her everything.”
Adam sighed. “Alas, poor Henry. That is sad news, though hardly unexpected. But no doubt you can help me, Miss Lyell. I am here to investigate a spate of unexplained deaths in the neighbourhood. Given that Lyell Manor is now empty, I must be certain it has not been used by these villains as a base for their murderous schemes.”
“Fine by me – I’ve nothing to hide,” said Hattie. “Follow me – I’ll show you about. Not that there’s much to see. And watch where you’re walking – some of the floorboards are rotten, especially upstairs.”
That must have been true, for even as he stepped out into the first room off the hallway on the first floor, something – collapsing masonry? – struck him from behind and he fell.
In the darkness, he saw Louise, saw the Face yet again (“So clever and yet so vulnerable”), but also more of that weekend. The laughter and the meals, and Henry’s insistence on uncovering the old secret passage while Robert assured him that would be impossible.
Adam had woken in the dark, unexpectedly, twice then: once, to find Henry shaking him with one hand, a candle in the other, still fully dressed.
“Adam!” he said. “I’ve found it! The passage. Now do come with me, my dear fellow, and help me look around – and we’ll give Robert the surprise of his life in the morning.
It had not been, alas, Robert who had been surprised, for Adam’s second strange awakening had come after venturing down into the passage, along old, narrow stone steps into an underground tunnel. While Henry hurried onwards, eager to see where it emerged, Adam, looking more closely at his surroundings, discovered a hidden chamber – and inside it a hidden laboratory.
He was sure he could not have imagined it, but there had been a strange smell, and he had passed out. When he had awoken, all he could see in the faint light that illuminated the chamber, was nothing but pillars, part of some old, forgotten cellar under the oldest part of the house, and there was nobody there.
“Weird,” was Georgina’s verdict on reaching the odd construction in the valley. She tapped a post beside her. “It’s all concrete, although – does it feel quite right to you, Simms? It’s too smooth somehow.” She swung round in a full circle, taking in her surroundings. “It really is a garden, made out of concrete. A concrete table and chairs – I suppose those things are meant to be trees.”
Simms wandered about among the structures nearby. “It is hard to be certain. I must say I prefer the regular kind.”
“Me, too. Maybe it’s some sort of modern art. But if it is, oughtn’t there to be a sign or a fence? It shouldn’t be just sitting here, in the middle of nowhere.” She wrinkled up her nose. “Wowee. Smells a bit funny, too.”
Simms nodded. “Makes me feel nauseous.”
“Me, too, a bit. Oh. Oh!” She clutched at Simms’s arm and waved her free hand about. “Simms! Maybe it’s the poison – this place! We’d better get out of here!”
“Look, I was joking about the strychnine; there’s no need to get so agitated.”
“Simms!” Georgie squeaked and dragged him back onto the grass, then fell abruptly to her knees.
“Miss Jones, are you all right?”
She nodded, and looked up at him, still crouched on the ground. “I am, but, look, the plants all round the side of this place aren’t. They’ve brown and yellow – all dead.”
“It has been a hot summer.”
Georgie rose and backed further away, one hand over her nose until she felt she was at a safe distance. “Yes, but nothing else is this bad. But this – well, maybe it’s in the grounds of Lyell Manor, but it’s not near it. It can’t have been what killed all those people, not unless they were moved afterwards. Besides, nobody built this thing in 1903 anyway.”
“Or,” said Simms with a gulp, “one whiff is enough and they peg it by the house as they stagger over there in hope of assistance.”
Georgie folded her arms. “Well, that’s a nice attitude. Whoa, I do feel a bit funny actually. Simms,” she said vaguely, and waved a hand about, before crumpling into a heap on the ground.
“Oh, Lord,” said Simms, freezing to the spot before keeling over sideways onto the grass after her with a thoroughly theatrical thud.
Adam was unsure where he was on first awakening, for his current darkened prison seemed identical to that in his nightmarish memories – an underground pillared chamber, dimly lit by some unseen source. Although this time, he was firmly tied to one of the pillars, and he was not alone.
“Mr Adamant? Are you awake? Oh, at last!”
He leant back against the pillar. Judging by the movement of the ropes, Miss Jones had also been affixed to the same. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Miss Jones. Will you ever deign to do what you are told?”
“Probably not,” said Georgina, but in far more muted tones than usual. “What are we going to do? Simms and I are feeling groggy, and I don’t have a clue where we are. How about you?”
Adam raised his eyebrows. “Simms?”
There was movement to one side of him on the pillar, and then a cough. “I’m afraid so, sir.”
“Then I am sorry, although I feel sure this was not your doing.”
Georgie sighed. “No. But, Adam, you must hear about the freaky place we found out in the grounds – concrete ground, garden chairs and tables, even sort of concrete trees, only it smelled really weird, and made us conk out.”
“Whatever that substance was, it wasn’t merely concrete,” said Simms, translating helpfully. “It was after taking a whiff of it that Miss Jones and I passed out and found ourselves here.”
Adam pressed himself back against the stone pillar. “And I was beginning to explore the Manor with Miss Lyell, when I unaccountably was struck by something that must have fallen from above –”
“Or maybe this Miss Lyell whacked you over the head?”
“Miss Jones, Miss Lyell is not only a most charming young lady, but a descendent of a good friend of mine.”
“Well, if she was innocent,” said Georgie, “and you fell like that, she’d have tried to help you and wound up down here with us, wouldn’t she?”
Miss Jones’s logic was, in this particular case, inarguable. Adam sighed. It was as well that Henry was no longer with them. He was beginning, somewhat reluctantly, to wonder about dear Lady Addie as well, and perhaps even Cousin Robert. Was no one in this world to be relied upon?
“Well?” said Georgie. “What are you going to do? This Miss Lyell or somebody is obviously up to something, and we’ve got to stop them!”
Adam laughed. “Yes, indeed. And we shall. Never fear, Miss Jones!”
“I’m not afraid. I’m cold and uncomfortable and, oh, dear, I think I might throw up.”
Adam closed his eyes, wincing in distaste. There were some constants – there were always dastardly villains to be fought, for one thing, and Miss Jones would never be a lady, alas, for another. But unlike many ladies – however unfortunate and misguided – she would always be true, and he would not suffer harm to come to her or to Simms.
“I’ve been here before,” he announced.
“Déjà vu?” asked Simms.
“No, December 1901. Henry Lyell and his wife Lady Adeline asked Louise and I to visit them at Lyell Manor. Henry and I discovered a secret passage, built into the old Jacobean quarter of the house – no doubt a bolt hole for priests in less enlightened eras. His cousin Robert had sworn such a thing could not exist, but it did. We explored, and I wandered into a chamber alone – this chamber – where I found a laboratory. However, at that point something struck me and I knew no more until Henry and Robert came to my rescue some hours later. Nothing was left of the scientific apparatus. The odd smell lingering had, however, made me feel quite unwell.”
Georgie swallowed. “So, wait, you think we probably aren’t going to die?”
“Not on such a brief exposure,” said Adam. “I had an uncomfortable few days of it at the time, but that was all. Take heart; it should not prove fatal.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” Simms said.
They all turned, hearing a thud from somewhere nearby, then footsteps on stone. The door to the hidden chamber creaked open, and Miss Lyell walked in, holding a gun.
“Good,” she said. “You’re awake again, Mr Adamant.”
He pulled at his bonds. “My dear lady, I beg of you to rethink this course of yours.”
“Rethink it?” she said. “After all these years of planning? My grandmother told me you discovered her lab, but she felt sure you had not realised who was behind it or what its significance was. And then, to her relief, you disappeared.”
“I see. And was this – whatever it is – all her own discovery, or was she also working with that villain, the Face?”
Hattie Lyell shrugged. “I believe he used this place as a base, but his initial tests here came to nothing and he moved elsewhere. However, my grandmother found some interesting uses for one particular formula she had helped him devise. But she was working with wax and the results were unsatisfactory. It took decades to come up with a more successful plastic-based product and to discover its potential when combined with concrete.”
“I cannot believe it! Lady Addie also in league with that devil?”
Georgie said, “Never mind that, what about this weird concrete stuff? Is that what this is about?”
“Lyell Industries is failing,” said Hattie. “By augmenting normal concrete with a plastic solution based on that formula, we can make roads and buildings that will wear less quickly and which won’t need any weed-spraying. The authorities will fall over themselves to accept our tenders. As a side-effect, of course, it will also make people sick and kill the less fortunate, but we have an antidote and a small pharmaceutical subsidiary that will make an equal fortune selling that. I believe we’ve accounted for everything.”
“You won’t get away with it,” Georgie said, before Adam could. “After your motorway has people passing out all over it and record numbers of pile-ups, they’ll prosecute you like billy-o, I should think!”
“A pessimistic view. It will take a while before the authorities identify the exact cause of the mysterious new outbreak – and by that time, I will have sold my shares and moved onto pastures new, leaving this old heap to moulder away while I try to work out how to spend the cash. After all this time, our family deserve it!”
Adam coughed. “You forget, madam. We know the truth – and I assure you, I will most certainly prevent you from succeeding in this immoral scheme of yours. Think again – have these vile experiments not caused death enough already?”
“Forgive me,” said Miss Lyell, with a quick smile, “it’s merely that you seem too tied up with your own affairs at the moment to trouble your head over mine. And once I leave, I’ll open this.” She nodded to the flask in her other hand, and then knelt down to put it on the floor. “It contains a concentrated version of the Lyell formula – you three will be quite dead before the hour is out.”
Hattie Lyell shrugged. “Perhaps, but after years trying to pay off all the debts this museum piece has accumulated, not to mention keeping up with the repairs and the falling estate revenues, I think I’ll live with it. As I said, we have the antidote – the death toll will be relatively contained. The profits won’t be.”
Adam was about to comment on these appallingly callous sentiments, when he was interrupted by a movement beside him.
Georgie stood up. “Hey, Mr Adamant – I’m free!”
Adam closed his eyes, unable from his present position to clasp his hands to his face in despair at her lack of stealth. “Miss Jones!”
Miss Lyell fired and Georgie from somewhere out of his vision squeaked.
“Miss Jones!” said Adam, writhing in his bonds. He glared at Miss Lyell. “If you have killed her, I promise you, madam, you will come to regret it in the little time that will be left to you!”
“Don’t worry,” said Georgie suddenly crouching down on the other side of him, breathing hard, as she tried to untie the ropes. “I’m okay. She missed.”
Miss Lyell couldn’t get a clear shot at Georgie, who was obscured by the pillar, from her point of view. “Come out where I can see you,” she called. “Otherwise I shall shoot both your friends.”
Georgie, one knot loosened, looked at Adam. He met her gaze and gave a brief nod, and she took a deep breath, rose to her feet and walked back into view with her hands up in the air.
“All right,” she said. “You got me. Now what?”
One knot was more than enough for Adam. It was a matter of seconds to be free of the rest and untie his feet, though he held his place, waiting for the right moment.
“Just keep back,” said Miss Lyell, gesturing with the gun. “Against that wall. I’m going to leave you now – with this!” With her other hand she held up the flask.
Adam chose that moment to leap up and knock the gun from her hand. Georgina, on the other side of him, grabbed at the flask.
“Step back, Miss Lyell,” said Adam, having possession of the gun. “It would pain me to shoot a woman, but I will if I must, believe me.”
She did so, though her gaze was fixed not on Adam and the weapon, but Georgina who seemed to have an imperfect grasp on the flask, which seemed about to slide out of her fingers.
“Miss Jones!” said Adam, catching hold of it, even as Miss Lyell took the opportunity to run, slamming the door shut behind her. They all heard the turning of the key in the rusty old lock.
Georgie screwed up her face in apology. “Sorry?”
Adam carefully placed the flask containing the fatal chemical on the floor in the corner of the chamber. “Never fear, Miss Jones. All is not lost by any means. We are at liberty again, the flask is out of Miss Lyell’s hands – and I believe we have an alternate means of escape.”
“We do?” said Georgina, staring about the gloomy, empty underground room. “Where? How?”
Adam smiled, retrieving his sword cane from the same corner he had placed the flask. Miss Lyell had evidently thrown it in after him earlier. She could not have been alone, either, to bring all three of them down here, a fact he must not overlook.
He gestured upwards with the cane. “My dear Georgina, you told me yourself. People have been routinely and mysteriously poisoned at Lyell Manor since at least 1903. And one does not produce lethal chemicals in an underground laboratory without some sort of vent. I suspect these two facts are connected.”
“Oh,” said Georgie. “Plus, there’s light coming from somewhere, isn’t there? I can see you.”
Adam gave a smile. “Quite. And I you, Miss Jones, I regret to say.”
“So, all we need to do is find the vent, and hope it’s big enough to get through?”
Behind them came a sepulchral cough, and they both swung around.
“I hate to be a bother,” said Simms, “but if someone would untie me, I’d be grateful.”
Georgie ran over and set to work on untying the knots while Adam began his search for their way out. “How grateful? I’d love a cream bun or two next time I come over.”
“Since you got me into this,” said Simms, getting up with a groan and a dark look in her direction, “I think we’ll count it even.”
Adam, with his usual athleticism, had little difficulty clambering up and out the narrow vent, and then helped haul Georgina up after him. Simms was another matter. Adam looked back down the hole, hidden behind a laurel bush in the front lawn.
“Simms, stay there for the moment and make sure no one comes back for that flask. I shall return for you as soon as I may.”
Georgina sat beside him on the grass, panting for breath. “Now what?”
“You, run for help,” he said. “As fast as you may – and take care, Miss Jones! Miss Lyell cannot be alone in this affair. Whatever her many talents, she is not capable of transporting the three of us into that hidden chamber single-handed.”
Georgie bit back protests, then nodded, and tore off down the gravel drive.
Adam looked back at the house. A reckoning awaited.
Simms, still underground, eyed the deadly flask with wariness. Was it best to keep his distance or stand guard by its side? He settled instead for hunting around among the few items left in the room for something that might serve as a weapon – a length of old piping – and then positioned himself by the door, and waited.
This was not his idea of a summer outing, he had to say – even less so once the door started to creak open.
Adam, searching the ground floor, heard a shout from down below. Now, where had that tunnel been? Henry had found the entrance in his chamber on the first floor via the wood-panelling, but it had also had an exit into the small drawing room. Adam closed his eyes, visualising the house as it had been, before racing away in the correct direction.
The entrance was not difficult to find – someone had left it open, a gaping dark hole in the wall. Adam tightened his grip on his swordstick and stepped inside, ready to descend into danger once more.
Simms dealt the first intruder a hefty blow with the pipe, causing him to stagger and then fall back into the passageway with a moan, hitting the opposite wall with a soft thud, and sliding down onto the floor.
The second was Miss Lyell, who had been warned by her companion’s fate. Simms yelled at her and grabbed at the gun she was holding, causing it to fall to the floor, but when he tried desperately to hang onto her, she bit him.
“Ouch!” he yelped, and then, as she followed it up with a sharp kick to the shin, “Ow!”
Suddenly, to his great relief, Miss Lyell turned away from him, to face someone else. “You again!”
“Yes,” said Mr Adamant, sweeping in. “As I promised, madam! Unhand Simms and surrender. The Law may be merciful – more merciful than I shall be if you do not.”
Miss Lyell gave a misleadingly demure smile and then raised her hands, before stepping back into the room.
“Simms,” said Adam. “Attend to the other fellow – ensure he does not try to rejoin the party.”
“Sir,” said Simms, hastening back out into the passage. The chap still seemed to be out for the count, so he turned back to be sure Mr Adamant was all right – in time to see Miss Lyell reach for the flask. She unscrewed it, even as Mr Adamant attempted to reach her.
“Mr Adamant!” said Simms, jumping forward to grab Adam’s arm and pull him back into the corridor in the nick of time, slamming the door shut on Miss Lyell. The key was in the lock, and Adam shook himself, and turned it, before straightening and pocketing the key.
He turned. “Thank you, Simms – a most timely intervention.” Then he frowned and put a finger to his forehead. “Déjà vu again. Ah, Simms – I fear I may have breathed in some of the formula despite your efforts to prevent it. I suspect may be about to –”
“Pass out?” suggested Simms helpfully, watching as Adam collapsed. He grimaced, looked from one prone body beside him to the other, decided to hit the other villain over the head again just in case, and then set about trying to drag Mr Adamant out.
Adam was in the dark again – the Face – Louise – and then, again, that winter. He was in a strange smelling place, feeling increasingly woozy and unsure how he would ever get out – if he would ever get out, when suddenly there was a draft of untainted air again, and Henry was bending over him.
“A timely intervention,” he murmured.
Henry patted his hand. “So it seems.”
“There was a laboratory – full of fiendish concoctions,” he said.
“In here?” said Henry, looking about the empty chamber. “You must have had a blow to the head, Adam.” He moved away to call out into the corridor. “Robert? Robert, I’ve found him!”
And nothing again – and then there was Louise, bathing his forehead, and Henry leaning over him – and the Face leering – no, no, that was another time –
Adam opened his eyes and found there was someone leaning over him, but it wasn’t Louise, it was Miss Jones. For a moment, it was hard to reconcile himself with reality, so lost had he been in the memories. He experienced a pang of loss, soon replaced by a bitter sense of relief. Louise had been treacherous, her friend Lady Addie also, although he hoped the same was not true of Henry, at least when he had known him.
“Mr Adamant,” Georgie said, kneeling on the grass beside him, stroking his hair. “Oh, Adam. I knew I shouldn’t have gone off and left you.”
“Sir,” said Simms, as Adam tried to rise. “I wouldn’t. The doctor’ll have to take a look at you again, but he reckons you’re going to be all right. Probably no more than a bit of a headache for a day or so.”
Adam propped himself up on his elbows. “Then I shall be grateful for the advances in modern medicine. Last time I had a bout with that infernal formula, I was ill for three days – a most uncomfortable experience I am in no hurry to repeat.”
“As long as you’re alive,” said Georgie. She looked grubbier and more waif-like than ever. “The police and the others have gone in after Miss Lyell and her friend, so it’s all sorted out now.”
“Alive, yes,” Adam said, and stretched out a hand to her, and when she took it, said sternly, “Have no fear for me, my dear Miss Jones. I am indestructible!”
“I don’t think he knows how awful he looks,” said Georgie, turning to Simms, before looking down at Adam again. “Mr Adamant, you’re white as a sheet. I thought you were a goner when they brought you out.”
“Miss Jones –”
“You do look a bit peaky,” Simms said. “Hardly surprising. I think my hair’s turned white. We’re only lucky we didn’t end up as another paragraph in that book of Miss Jones’s.”
Adam gave a short laugh. “Yes, I shall be most glad to get away from this place. Twice now it has almost proved fatal. I don’t think I’d care to visit it a third time.”
Besides which, he needed no more reminders of treachery. Lyell Manor would probably fall into complete decay now, a fact which failed to prompt in him any pang of regret. But not all that was there had been lost. He was, despite what had been done to him, still here and very much alive. He had not been destroyed, after all.
“I was right, though,” Georgie said. “Lyell Manor was at the centre of it all!”
“True,” said Adam. “However, next time I tell you to stay home, Miss Jones, I trust you will have the goodness to do as I say.”
Georgie tilted her head and choked back an unsteady laugh. “Not likely! Hey, if you do feel worse than the doctor says, don’t worry. I’ll come round with some chicken soup. I’m sure I’ve got a tin somewhere. It’s probably still in date and everything.”
“Heaven help us all,” said Adam, staring up at the blue summer sky.
“Don’t worry, sir,” Simms said, “there’ll be no tinned soup in my kitchen. No Miss Jones, either, if I can help it.”
Adam smiled as he lay back on the grass in sunlight, waiting for the worst effects of the formula to pass, not finding it worth the trouble to tell Miss Jones to let go of his hand. He had been in far worse places, indeed.
“Quite, Simms,” he murmured. “Quite.”