A Prelude to Shoplifting
Near the village of Thundridge, Hertfordshire, a stately Carolean country house stood on a quiet family estate, much as it had for the past 300 years. It was the residence of Baron Victor Sutton-Fiennes III, and had been for over a third of that time. Baron Thundridge's advanced age was not a product of clean living – how could one so old look scarcely over thirty – but of his unusual parentage. Victor was never sure who his true father was. John Sutton-Fiennes, the third Baron Thundridge, was a parent both in the eyes of the law and of his son in every way that mattered, save genetically. No one was any the wiser until Victor met a woman at Cambridge who revealed the fact that the lad's true father was in fact a deity – an honest to goodness god. The woman knew this because she was Athena and adopted him as one of her own. In doing so, she awakened the divine side of Victor's nature, granting him some most unusual abilities. For instance, he had powers of perception and a keen intellect that would make Sherlock Holmes appear merely average by comparison. He could pick up languages almost as quickly as a teen could learn the lyrics of a favorite song. The new association also granted him a lifespan far beyond any mortal.
Not that he couldn't be killed, of course. Two world wars and numerous engagements since nearly proved that. True to his benefactor's patronage, Victor was a wise warrior, serving as an army officer before joining "Special Branch" as an intelligence officer. Years went by, and Special Branch evolved into a compartment of MI6. To keep up appearances, he added numbers to his name at appropriate intervals, with government and his own cunning ensuring that all the paperwork was in order. Thus, "Victor Sutton-Fiennes III" was into his third life as a retiring nobleman, having been the fourth, fifth and now sixth baron of Thundridge.
On this pleasant May morning, Victor was ensconced in his wood-paneled study, paging through one of the several books that surrounded his laptop as if laying siege to the modern technology. He was writing a letter to a colleague, taking him to task for what he regarded as a sloppy error in his comparison of glosses in Farsi and Classical Sanskrit.
His mobile buzzed. After glancing at the screen, he picked it up.
"Victor." The voice came over with little inflection. If any of his other colleagues had answered in such a monotone, he would have braced for trouble. Elizabeth was different. She was a super-genius who could collate impossibly disparate motes of intelligence and assemble them into a big picture... but found it difficult to connect a person's facial expression with the proper emotion.
"How are you?" That was a close to small talk as Victor could manage over the phone, and only because it would lead directly into the reason for the call.
"I'm on leave for a few days."
"Would you like to get out of the city? You're room's always open."
"Thank you." There was a pause.
"Would you like a lift?"
"No, I'll take the coach. If it's on time I'll transfer in Ware and be at Thundridge at 1314." Chances were she had memorized the timetables some weeks ago.
"See you then." Victor hadn't expected a response, but waited until the line went dead before switching off his phone. Elizabeth's birth name was Victoria Melton; her father, John Melton, was a child of Athena, and very young when they served together back in the forties. His daughter, while brilliant, was a social cripple, and didn't enjoy the usual soirees and seasons that noble girls usually expected. In spite of this, the goddess adopted her as she had Melton and Sutton-Fiennes. Victor always thought of her as his niece.
The baron mentally reshuffled the next few days. Barring a call from Vauxhall, there was nothing pressing that couldn't be handled from home. He picked up the small radio from its charger on his desk, and tapped a number.
"Yes, your lordship?" a voice crackled from the handset.
"Yes, Thomas. Miss Tracey will be arriving this afternoon. She may be staying a few days. Can you see that her room is ready and Mrs. Garrett is informed?"
"I'll see to it, sir."
While she was a capable driver, Elizabeth Tracey preferred to take public transit when there was a choice. It wasn't because she liked the other travelers; they were confusing, loud, contradictory creatures who too often tried to strike up conversations or otherwise get in her way. No, she liked to be able to ponder with her whole mind – which was impossible while driving, as several near-wrecks had proved. She liked to think without distractions. Even her Spartan apartment in Bloomsbury suffered from an infestation of noisy neighbors that were never completely quiet.
That was why she often went to stay with Baron Sutton-Fiennes – Uncle Victor, as her father insisted she call him. After his death, the baron suggested she drop all titles and simply use his given name. His house had a superlative (and secure) internet connection, but with all the quiet one would expect from a country home.
Still, public transit had drawbacks. Today she had to wait an hour for the Roydon coach to leave. The passengers were terribly inefficient; they could have debarked at each stop in half the time if properly motivated. Clearly, they had nothing better to do than amble. As a result, the bus pulled to the curb in Thundridge at 1329 – a full fifteen minutes late. Still, she often struggled with accepting the unacceptable, and was slowly getting better at it.
Elizabeth sat on the bench, her small suitcase behind her feet, and waited. Unconsciously, she noted the cars in the lot across the road, their tag numbers, and which ones were occupied. She estimated the temperature and wind speed, and plotted the vectors and speeds of the pedestrians in her vicinity.
Among the scents of petrol , yesterday's rain, and the bed of flowers upwind of the bench, one scent gradually passed through her mental filters and garnered her conscious attention. Her inhumanly sharp sense of smell detected a faint, slightly sweet, almost fruity odor. She inhaled deliberately; the smell was there, but underneath was sourness, faint but growing stronger by the moment. She glanced around.
Two men and women, all mid-20s, had just trundled up to the bus stop. Their overstuffed rolling suitcases were propped against the back of the bench. She deduced from their faint sheen of sweat and elevated breathing that they had trotted some distance to the stop. That they were Americans was evident as soon as they spoke.
"No, that wasn't the Hereford bus," said the blonde man, rubbing his stubbled chin and looking through a sheaf of papers.
"Hertford," corrected the woman looking over her shoulder. She pronounced the word as it was spelled, not as the natives would say it.
"Whatever. It was going to someplace called Royston. It's the Hertford-Royston line."
"Well, it's coming back through, right?" the second woman, a short bottle-blonde, asked. The first woman began rooting around in her waist pack.
"I can call the B and B, see if they know," she said as she pulled out a phone and a ragged business card.
The fourth member of the group, a dark-haired man, looked…surly? Withdrawn? She couldn't be certain, but there was no doubting his slight tremor and pale complexion. The others looked tired, irritable, or both, but all looked healthy. Elizabeth was certain that the dark-haired American was the source of the odor, and all indicators pointed to a diabetic with a dangerous drop in blood sugar.
Elizabeth was torn. Within moments of her diagnosis, she had determined the most efficient course of action. She should walk up to the group and inform them that their companion needed immediate assistance to stave off an acute and potentially life-threatening condition. But this was a social situation, and her father and mentors drilled two imperatives into her. First, don't talk to strangers without good reason. Second, never tell a civilian something that another civilian couldn't determine based on the equipment at hand. To her, this was a good reason. But she was confident that even a doctor couldn't diagnose an imminent sugar crash based on odor, and from a distance. Her thoughts continued circling between what should be done and what she mustn't do. When she saw the trembling get worse, and the man's eyes begin to glaze, she realised that she was about to get another option.
Victor's business at the country club took longer than anticipated. Old Mr. Colton's request for a contribution to a scouting charity digressed into a ramble down memory lane. When he glimpsed the bus pulling off the A-10, he knew he had to cut it short. After a few more minutes, he politely extricated himself with a promise of a contribution and agreement that Hertfordshire wasn't what it used to be. He eased his slate blue Aston-Martin onto High Road and headed into the village.
As he pulled into the village hall parking lot, he saw Elizabeth. That she didn't seem to notice him was his first clue that something wasn't right. Rolling to a stop, he looked more closely. She was fidgeting, looking down, but sending quick, sharp glances at a group of tourists next to her. His keen eye and long experience with his "niece" told him she was clearly disturbed about something, but probably failed to reconcile what she wanted to do with what might be socially acceptable. Just before Victor shut off the auto, Elizabeth stood up and began walking very rapidly down the road. She had left her bag under the bench. No intelligence operative would do that – not in this day and age – without a very good reason. He whipped the DB9 around and pulled out into the road. Elizabeth turned as he pulled alongside. She yanked the door open and bundled herself inside.
"There's a – he's – I need juice!" she shouted. Bewildered, he nevertheless gunned the engine. Luckily, the village shop was only 100 meters away. As he once more braked to a halt, he heard her terse "Turn around!" as she bolted across the road and into the store. By the time she ran back out, he was in the near lane, ready to roll. Panting with exertion and excitement, Elizabeth hit the seat hard and slammed the door with her free hand.
"American... hypoglycemic... no one noticed yet." She held a Ribena box and a package of biscuits. The latter began to fracture in her nervous grip.
At the bus stop, Victor saw a figure sway and fall against another. When they pulled up, the dark-haired man was sprawled on the bench and thrashing weakly, with the other man and two women talking rapidly to him and each other. The baron stopped the car beside the bench.
"I'll handle this," he told his passenger, and got out and walked quickly around the car. Immediately he could smell, even stronger than the rising stink of fear, the sweet and sour scent that caught his friend's attention.
"Well, you seem to be having some difficulty," he said, affecting an air of the friendly, helpful official to both calm the panicking tourists and project some authority. Three voices answered back. He heard the words "collapsed," "diabetic", and "passed out" in the din.
"Low blood sugar, is it? I think maybe this will help." He turned back and took the juice and biscuits from Elizabeth's outstretched hands. Inserting the straw, he held it up to sick man; with the encouragement of everyone, the man took a few halting sips. Victor stepped back, pulled out his mobile, and contacted the rescue service in Ware.
"That's it, keep sipping it," he encouraged after ringing off. To the group in general, he added, "he should feel a little better in a few minutes, but I've taken the liberty of calling for an ambulance. If he can hold the juice down, give a nibble of biscuit." Each one thanked him earnestly for his assistance, but he waved it off. By the time a siren announced the ambulance's arrival, the patient had regained some of his faculties, though his wife and friends would not let him rise off the bench. Victor, his duty done, dropped the luggage in the boot, slipped into the car, and drove into the parking lot across the way. There he turned around, and waited until the emergency vehicle pulled up before sedately passing it and easing up the street.
"How do you think you did?" he asked at last, still watching the scene through the wing mirror.
She hesitated, replaying the last few minutes in her mind. "Well enough, I suppose. I couldn't tell him he was sick without the awkward questions. Still, I really should have acted sooner. "
"You figured out a solution in time."
"I didn't think I should carry my bag, should I? I mean, it would have slowed me down. And I needed my hands empty. And I was sure it wasn't a diversion. You want me to check for tampering? "
"No, Elizabeth. I think it was fine. Besides, I was there when you left. Really, it's fine. He would have been in serious trouble had you not worked it out. You did well." He smiled to reassure her. "Tell you what, if you like we can 'debrief' over tea. Mrs. Garrett is just..." he paused, as he noticed two people standing in the middle of the road ahead. One was pointing at them. It took another second before he recognised them as the local shopkeepers.
"Elizabeth, did you pay for those biscuits?"