My steam car was waiting on the gravel turning circle in front of the impressive portico of Callaghan’s house. The driver leapt out of his seat to open the rear door as I approached. The rear cabin was still tolerably warm, but I was oblivious to mere creature comforts at this time.
The stoker too emerged with a tinder-flint box to light the two brass carbide headlights which adorned the prow of the steamer. Wrapped in his greatcoat, he fumbled with the lights for a few moments before succeeding in getting the spluttering acetylene lamps burning steadily. The man returned to the cab to add coals to the banked fire beneath the boiler and riddle the ashes. Within a minute, the steam pressure was adequate for our departure and the car rumbled into life, the iron tyres crunching on the raked gravel of the drive.
I stared fitfully through the glass at the road ahead. The powerful gas lamps illuminated the snow piled high where the road-sweepers had shovelled it aside. The route that would take us back to London should take two hours at this rate and no further snow had been forecast. I blew down the speaking-tube to alert my driver then, when he answered, urged him to make the best possible speed.
In part, I was anxious to put this strange evening behind me, to return to normality and my own duties and responsibilities. Nevertheless, there was something about the earnestness of Callaghan's presentation, and the mathematical logic of the approach he had outlined, which appealed to the intellect and academic in me.
The stack of machine-punched cards that had been presented to me before I left I still held in my gloved hand. I reached up and pulled down the blind which darkened the window separating me from the crew, then turned up the wick on the lantern in order to study their markings more closely.
The words themselves were clear enough, although evidently rapidly scribbled on the cards. The message they conveyed was terse, even staccato, but quite comprehensible for all that; they appeared to align with the more fluent elucidation provided by Callaghan, who presumably had rather more practice in interpreting the words of the Oracle.
When I arrived at the house in Bulstrode Street, lights appeared to be burning in every window and the place was in turmoil. I was distinctly alarmed, of course, but not so surprised that I did not have the presence of mind to think of Callaghan's predictions and to react accordingly. I handed the deck of cards to the stoker with a shilling and an instruction to place them immediately in the furnace of the steam car, and then to ensure that the car was returned to the engine shed immediately.
The servants all appeared to be a flap, dashing hither and thither without order or purpose. A pair of peelers stood inside the door, calm and steady, and who were in the company of a man not in uniform, but who nevertheless appeared to be in charge.
"What is the meaning of this?" I thundered, although my words were dampened by what I remembered of my encounter earlier in the evening.
"Professor Robert Stephenson?" the plain-clothes man said with deadly calm.
"Yes, I am he," I answered brusquely, "And who, Sir, are you?"
"My name is Eddington, from Scotland Yard, and I am afraid that I will have to ask you to accompany me to the station."
And so it starts, I thought, and so it starts.
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.