Baiting the Snare – No. 340

Helen stood at the threshold and kept her voice low.  “His pay is on the mantle in the sitting room.”

“Yes, Madame.”

Benedict bowed, and Helen waited for the butler to depart before entering her husband’s former office.  The Persian rug hushed under her delicate step, although it failed to muffle the tap of Winthrop’s patent leather toe or Mr. Giroux’s fidgeting at the emerald-shaded lamp on the mahogany desk dominating the room. 

“…state of the art,” said Mr. Giroux, his ramblings uninterrupted by her arrival.

“It better be,” murmured Winthrop.

Gliding forward, Helen touched her son’s elbow.

“You’re paying too much, Mother,” he whispered.

“I’m paying for the best,” said Helen.

Giroux glanced up at her voice, a slick grin blooming beneath his drooping moustache.  “And it is the best, I assure you.”

Winthrop shook his head and raised his arms in surrender.  With a huff, he strode to the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the forest encroaching on the estate’s perimeter and balancing the office’s surrounding wall of bookcases

“May I show you how it works, Madame?”

Straightening her spine, Helen floated to the edge of the desk. 

“By all means, Mr. Giroux.”

“Excellent.” 

He straightened from his bend over the lamp and nudged a stack of pamphlets his loose suit coat had knocked out of alignment.  Covering his mouth, he cleared his throat and then looped one thumb in his suspenders. 

“The contraption is quite simple.” 

Giroux clasped the beaded chain dangling from the lamp and pulled once.  The bulb illuminated, its topaz glow pooling on the letter-head stationary and ballpoint pens adjoining the leather blotter covering the desktop. 

“One tug and the lamp lights.”

A second tug doused the bulb, leaving the room basking in the mid-day sunlight.

“But,” said Giroux lifting a dust-smeared finger, “should you pull twice, in quick succession….” 

He demonstrated and the hinges hidden behind a plump set of tomes groaned.  Skittering to the bookcase, he gingerly opened the secret panel.  The steel face in the wall gleamed and the bright white numbers on the dial glittered like new fallen snow. 

“Even if the burglar gets this far, he’ll still be confronted by a state of the art locking mechanism.”  He started twisting the dial right, left and then right again.  “The combination is currently the manufacturer’s standard setting, but you can adjust it to whatever you like and then share the sequence as you see prudent.”

A bolt thudded and Giroux lifted the latch to reveal the safe’s empty cavern.

“I’d be happy to set it for you if you’d like.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Helen.  “Your instructions, I’m certain, will be quite clear to my son.”

Giroux’s smile faded a degree, like the first sign of sunset deepening shade.  “I hope they will be.  But if you have any trouble—”

“We’ll be sure to contact you immediately.”  Helen extended her hand, fingers limp, palm toward the carpet.  “It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Giroux.”

Giroux latched the safe and closed the bookcase before brushing his hand on his slacks and taking her fingers.  He stiffened and made an awkward bow.

“The pleasure has been all mine, Madame.”

Benedict hummed at the doorway, his arrival punctuated by the rustle of bills within the envelope she’d prepared.

“Benedict has your payment and can see you out,” said Helen, motioning toward the butler.

“Of…of course,” said Giroux. 

His eyes darted around the room before he forced a grin and began collecting his tools into the satchel filling one in the pair of armchairs.  He added a derby hat and tipped the narrow brim.

“Mr. Dauphine.”

Winthrop turned from the view and bobbed his head an inch, the motion barely shifting his slicked raven hair.

“This way, sir,” said Benedict. 

He motioned with one gloved hand and Giroux preceded him from the office. 

Helen rounded the desk while their strides dwindled on the hallway marble.  Eventually the front door opened and shut and Mr. Giroux’s motor car popped like a fired musket and rattled away.

“He’s a fraud you know,” said Winthrop.

“His safe seems to work,” said Helen. 

She gave the lamp’s chain two tugs.  The bookcase panel opened and she drifted over to stand face to face with the safe.

“Work maybe, but he knows where it is, he knows how to access it.”  Winthrop stormed to her side and crossed his arms.  “He’ll be back to get what’s inside.”

“Then we better set a proper combination,” said Helen, retaining her serene tone.

Winthrop snorted.  “You think a combination is going to keep him or one of his cronies from breaking in?”

“That’s the idea isn’t?”

“Mother, please.  You can’t think this is genuine protection.”

“It wasn’t my idea, Winthrop.”

He sighed and dropped his gaze the glossy toes of his loafers.  “I realize you’re just following through with Father’s last wishes, but I still don’t think it’s a proper course of action.”

“You never thought much of his notions in the first place,” said Helen. 

Winthrop looked up like a startled squirrel.  Even staring at the safe, Helen could sense the granite forming in his gaze.  She recalled the same firmness in Stuart’s eyes and beneath her cinched bodice her heart swelled.

Winthrop’s voice remained curt.  “That’s not fair, Mother.”

Closing the bookcase panel, Helen rested her palm against the dusty spines.  “What alternative would you suggest, Winthrop?”

“The vault at the bank.” 

“You’d trust the National Bank over this house?”

Helen strode around the desk and stroked her fingers over the stationary and writing implements still in place where he’d left them.

“It’s their job, Mother.  This is a house, not a fortress, it’s meant to live in not protect things.”  Winthrop loosened his arms and leaned onto the desk’s edge.  “And the last place anyone like Giroux is going to be able to break into is the National Bank.”

She met Winthrop’s muddy-brown eyes from across the desk’s tidy assortment and found bedrock certainty in his gaze. 

“You really think he’s going to try breaking in and stealing it?”

“I think the Heartford Diamond is worth too much for any unscrupulous character not to risk stealing it.  And from what I’ve heard, Giroux is waist high in those circles.”

“You’d think the Yard would do something about him if he was.”

“He keeps his hands clean,” said Winthrop.  “He shares the details with his cronies but never the deed itself.  He keeps a certain distance while leaving his finger in the pot.  If there could be some kind of connection, some kind of evidence linking him, I’m sure the police would arrest him, maybe even his whole crew, but they haven’t, and so he’s still selling his wares to unwary households, waiting for them to stow away their most precious possessions, putting them together for his men to scoop up at their earliest opportunity.”

Helen pursed her lips.  “You sound like one of those mystery novels you and your Father loved so much.  Perhaps your imagination is getting away with you.”

“Go ahead and put the Heartford in there and wait.  Before long that safe’s going to be just as empty as it is today.”

“I don’t think your Father would have demanded us to do something so foolhardy.”

“Father wasn’t exactly in his right mind in the end.”

Helen lifted her chin, her tone lancing.  “Watch your tongue.”

“It’s the truth,” said Winthrop, railing against the ire she could feel washing off her rigid frame.  “He might have been sharp once, so sharp the Yard would come to him for advice, but you heard his raves about conspiracies in Parliament, the secret societies supposedly collecting weapons and funds to overthrow the government, tainted water and—”

“Thieves stalking in the night,” said Helen, cocking a salted eyebrow.

Winthrop scowled.  “I’m not losing my mind.”

“No,” said Helen, “you’re as prudent as he ever was.”

“And like him I’m trying to do something about an obvious threat.”

Helen brought her fingertips to her lips, her mouth slightly ajar from the thought illuminating like the desk lamp’s bulb. 

“Perhaps that’s what he intended,” she whispered.

Silence filled the office while the notion spun beneath her graying coiffure.

“Mother?”

Winthrop’s concern washed upon her pasty cheeks and Helen blinked free from her train of thought. 

“You say Giroux is the mastermind behind this group of burglars?”

“That’s what my friends at the Yard say, and a half a dozen merchants agree.”

She drummed her fingers upon the desk’s blotter.  “Then perhaps it’s time to catch the cat in his own game.”

Winthrop cocked his head.  “What are you suggesting, Mother?”

Pausing her fingers, Helen locked onto her son’s puzzled face.

“You suspect he’s coming for the Diamond correct?”

“I think one of his men will be, yes.”

“And should one of these men be caught, do you think he’ll lead the police to Giroux?”

“It depends on Giroux, on how carefully he’s covering his tracks.”

“And what might make him less careful?”

Winthrop frowned, and she spied the considerations flitting behind his eyes.  “If he had to hurry, I suppose. If a better window of opportunity came up all of the sudden and he had to act, quickly, in order to seize the chance.”  Winthrop rubbed at his clean shaven chin.  “I’m not sure what you’re getting at Mother.”

“I’m getting at what your Father really had in mind,” said Helen. 

Striding to the doorway, she pulled on the braided chain.  The bell in the foyer chimed and Benedict’s swift stride headed in her direction.

“Mot—”

Helen silenced her son by raising her ringed hand.  Moments later, Benedict arrived and bowed.

“Madame?”

“Winthrop and I will be taking in the countryside for a few days.  Please let Madeline know so she can prepare my things.  Contact the carriage company.  They can pick us up in the morning.”

“Of course, Madame.”  Benedict swiveled his gaze to Winthrop.  “And for the young sir?”

“He can pack his own things,” said Helen.

“Yes Madame.”  Benedict bowed again before turning and marching down the corridors awash in a sense of purpose.

“You’re devious, Mother.”

Helen looked to her son, and kept her features innocent.  “What do you mean?  It’s been beautiful here, the countryside will be even more so.  And now that I know our family treasures will be safe, it seems a perfect opportunity.”

“Perfect indeed.” 

While Winthrop smirked, she strode back to the desk and claimed a key from the hidden pocket at her belt.  Unlocking the latch on the center drawer, she opened the one on the bottom left, gathered her skirts and dropped into an awkward squat.  She reached inside and slid back the panel obscured by the pile of bound ledgers.  Within the compartment the cut facets kissed her sand-paper skin, and with the jewel in hand, she rose, wincing at the creaks in her knees.

Winthrop had crossed the room in the meantime, and locked his gaze on the gem’s rainbow twinkle. 

“Do you really want to risk it?”

Helen curled her fingers around the rock and smoothed the wrinkles from her skirts.  “You think this is the real one?”

Tearing his eyes from the jewel, Winthrop frowned.  “It’s not?”

“Your Father was craftier than you give him credit for, Winthrop.”  Helen closed the drawers, locked the center latch, and then tugged twice on the lamp’s chain.  “Shouldn’t you be going?”  She waved at the doorway as she returned to the bookcase.  “I’m sure you have some things to prepare and friends to notify of our departure.”

Winthrop straightened his waistcoat and puffed out his chest.  “You’re quite right, Mother.  If you’ll excuse me?”

“By all means,” said Helen. 

As Winthrop departed, Helen turned the dial on the safe.  She set the jewel inside and then added a collection of accounting papers in folders sealed with the Dauphine’s wax stamp.  Plucking the sapphire earbobs from her lobes, she added them and the onyx pendant pinned to her breast and stared at the assortment fleshing out the cavern.

“It took us a moment to catch on,” she whispered, “but we’ll make you proud, you’ll see.”

With a nod to the ghostly face she sensed looking on from the grave, Helen closed the steel face and left the office under her son’s protection and her departed husband’s watchful eye.

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