I spun around in a state of near-panic, just in time to see Montague closing the door carefully behind us. He gazed coolly in my direction and raised an interrogatory eyebrow. I marched up to him, stopping closer than politeness or even modesty would permit and held my face close to his ear.
"What's going on?" I hissed at him, "These are the men I was just telling you about!"
"I know," he said in a calm voice, albeit one tinged with a strange alertness. Suddenly I noticed that he displayed a certain shrewdness of expression which I had not seen on his face before.
"So what is the meaning of this?" I demanded, stepping back two paces and frowning angrily.
It was not entirely a ladylike pose, I will admit, and even less so when I swung around with my hands on my hips to take a second look at the black man in the porter's uniform and the hatchet-faced Arab. Neither man had moved since I entered, and both looked at me with expressions whose polite coolness not quite succeeded in concealing a certain amusement at my discomfiture.
"My dear Miss Robinson, I will have to beg your forgiveness," Montague said, stepping forward with his hands spread wide, "I confess you have been the subject of a ruse, a trick."
"What are you saying?" I demanded angrily.
"This plot," he went on reasonably, waving his hands expansively, "The report of guns, the threat to the airships. It is all a fiction. We have been testing you, evaluating you. And, I have to say, you have passed with flying colours."
"I don't believe you, sir!" I burst out.
Montague had the good grace to look somewhat embarrassed.
"I feel sure that you be suspicious, so I have taken the precaution of engaging somebody whom you would undoubtedly trust without question."
As if on cue, there was a brisk knock at the door. Montague turned and opened the door; belatedly, I noticed that it was not, in fact, locked. Another man entered, another stranger dressed in the uniform of the British Army topped with a pith helmet. I became even more alarmed when I caught sight of the second person following him.
"Father!" I cried, rushing forward, "What are you doing here?"
He stepped forward and gently took both my hands in his own.
"Elizabeth," he said earnestly, "It is good to see you. You look well, very well. And your accomplishments appear to be everything I had hoped for."
He leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the forehead.
"Not quite the conventional reunion, perhaps," my father went on, "But then again, you have never quite been the conventional girl. Which is why I agreed to this little, ah, exercise, when my friend Mister Augustus Montague asked it of me."
"So, this has been some kind of test, as Mister Montague said?"
"It has, and one in which, as he also said, you have done well."
I turned to face Montague again.
"But why have you been testing me?" I demanded.
"A good question," Montague replied dryly, "And one which deserves a complete answer. But first, please, let me introduce you to the actors in this little production."
I nodded, making a conscious effort to suppress my earlier panic.
"Firstly, Major Cathcart," he said, indicating the army officer in uniform. The officer stepped forward, saluted and then shook my hand politely.
"The Major has been good enough to lend his authority to setting up this charade," Montague explained, then guided me across the room to where the other two men were patiently waiting, "This is Victor M'Tana."
The man in the porter's uniform smiled broadly, again flashing his startlingly white teeth, and said, "Hujambo Miss Na kuwakaribisha" which meant, unless I was very much mistaken, 'Hello and welcome'. I answered in the same language, an action which was well-received, it seemed, judging by the barely-perceptible nod that he directed at Montague.
"And this is Ahmed Chergaoui."
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance, madam," the Arab said in the rounded accents of a British public school, offering his hand politely. I took it unhesitatingly. I was immediately struck by the contrast between his sharp and villainous features and the educated composure of his speech.
"Please, be seated," Montague said, showing me to one of several chairs that clustered around the desk. I sat, with my father close by in a second seat. Montague seemed disinclined to settle himself, pacing the room as if suddenly unsure how to proceed. Finally, he stopped and leaned on the leather-bound blotter on the desk.
"Miss Robinson, I have a proposition to put to you," he said evenly, "It is a slightly improper proposition, I confess, which is why I have ensured that your father is present at this time."
I could not help glancing in the direction of my father, who sat looking unperturbed and smiled in my direction. "The British Empire is being challenged, here in East Africa, by other powers: the Prussians, the French, and others. Oh, subtly enough; nothing which could be construed as an act of war. But there acts of espionage everywhere, and even sabotage! We need to learn more about the activities of those who would act against us."
"You mean I should be some kind of a spy?"
"Yes. Not the kind of spy who sneaks around listening at keyholes, but the kind who attends society functions, perhaps those at foreign embassies; the kind who does charitable works, and talks to the refugees and the dispossessed; the kind who understands the potential importance of the words they hear."
He rounded on me.
"Your cool-headedness under pressure, albeit in a situation which I had manufactured specifically, leads me to think you could help Queen and country. So," he concluded, "What do you say?"
I sat up straight in the chair, thinking hard. This was, I realised, exactly what I wanted to do: something useful, something challenging. I did not hesitate in my response.
"I accept your offer," I said firmly.
If you have enjoyed this story, then why not take a look at the others in this collection? An eclectic mixture of science fiction and mystery/ghost stories under the title ...Then a Miracle Occurs.
You may also enjoy my earlier collection of fifteen interlinked short stories under the title Four Square Less One. Can you work out the hidden connections between all of the stories?
I am now working on a new series of Private Eye fantasy novels. The first is called Findo Gask - Goblin Detective, featuring the eponymous Private Eye, Findo Gask himself.