I should have expected the noise of the descending floor to alert whoever waited below us, but even so, I experienced a wave of fear as we emerged into a vast arena and a crowd of expectant villains.
Maudie gave me a pitying smile and slunk away to join her comrades. Obviously, the threat of a Derringer held no sway. Nevertheless, I held onto my weapon, pointing it at the man in front of me.
‘Now then,’ I said. ‘Who’s in charge, here?’
‘That would be me, madam,’ said the man, smiling.
‘Ant me, of course,’ said the woman standing next to him.
I recognised her immediately, though of course her accent had reverted to her native German. ‘Ah yes,’ I said. ‘The kraut.’
‘I don’t zink zer’s any need for zat zort of talk,’ she said, looking as if I’d slapped her stupid face. ‘Zer name iz Klopp.’
‘Then I suggest you Klopp off.’ I walked forwards, keeping my eyes and my gun on the man next to her. ‘And you are …?’
‘Professor James Moriarty, Mrs Christie. At your service.’ He bowed. ‘I see you’ve already met our friend, Nurse Ratched …’ He laughed, mirthlessly. ‘Now, if you’d like to hand over your little pop gun …’
There seemed no point maintaining my stance as the vengeful warrior, so I passed it across to him. ‘So, what do you do here?’ I said, looking around intently.
The Professor laughed. ‘Oh, the usual—murder, mayhem, a little bit of intimidation, protection. You know the sort of thing.’
‘And these are …?’ I waved a hand at the assembled throng.
‘Comrades, minions, various arch villains—Doctor Fu Manchu, Colonel Sebastian Moran, etcetera, etcetera.’
Keeping a straight face, despite my surprise at the sheer quantity of rogues, villains and very bad people gathered in one place, I said, ‘And this moving floor business. What’s all that about?’
‘You’d like a demonstration?’ He seemed pleased at this, and I wondered if it might be possible to launch him into one of those fatal monologues that villains in trashy crime novels love so much, where they explain everything before killing the hero. If nothing else, it would fill in a bit of time.
Frau Klopp interrupted. ‘I don’t zink zis is necessary. Let’s just kill zem all now.’
Moriarty smiled at her. ‘If Mrs Christie wants a demonstration, let’s give her a demonstration.’
The way he said this gave me a start. I realised with growing horror that he meant something likely to prove extremely injurious—mainly to me.
‘Tie her up and place her beneath the library.’
A horde of white-coated henchmen surrounded me, and in a trice, they trussed me up like an out-of-season turkey. Hoisting me into the air, they carried me like a rolled-up carpet to an area at the far side of the hall where they laid me down. Far above me, I could make out the plan of the house—the rooms linked by iron struts leading to pulleys and gears and thence to a massive steam engine in the middle. The struts connected to the room above me stretched up to the sides of the library floor but were hinged in places to allow the whole thing to slide down on top of me without getting in the way. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be squashed flat. It wasn’t a scene I’d envisaged for any of my own characters, and I positively did not wish to see it played out for real.
Twisting my head, I could see Inspector Lestrade and an attractive, wonky-eyed woman, standing at the other side of the hall. Next to them stood Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (identifiable from the images used in The Times and Strand Magazine). Standing there and guarded by a white-coat with a gun, I stared hard, struggling to convey something of my fear in a way that might prompt them into one of their famous rescues.
But as Moriarty pressed a button on the steam engine, any hope I had of liberation slipped away like a lover in the night.
With a screech of gears, the floor began its descent.