Death Warmed Up
by Young Avenger
At nine o'clock precisely, Harry arrived at the building and slid through an open window. Not having been given any further instructions, he amused himself by wandering through the empty rooms until such time as his contact should deign to arrive. The foyer was deserted so he slipped into the back room. There was nobody there either, only an empty coffin. Returning to the foyer, he glanced at his watch; his employer was late. Harry hoped he was still coming. With the money he would make from this job, he would finally be able to retire after years of petty crime.
Suddenly he heard a voice calling to him from the back room. He dashed in, only to stop in shock. The coffin was now occupied. The figure was male and dressed all in black but Harry couldn't see his face. The voice spoke again.
"On the floor is a box. You will take it with you to Paris tomorrow. At midday on Saturday you will go to a café of your choice and have lunch. After half an hour you will swallow a spoonful of the powder and replace the box in your pocket. We will take care of the rest."
"But what about "
The sudden appearance of a gun answered his question. He would have to trust his employer.
"I think you should go now Harry. We wouldn't want anybody to wonder where you were."
Harry took the hint and set off home.
Everything went swimmingly until Harry started his rehearsal. Being a cautious man by nature, he always liked to do a dry run of any job the day before. Hence, this sunny Friday found him in Café Rouge, running through his task. He had pretended to swallow the powder and was replacing the box when a voice hailed him.
"Harry, old man, what on earth are you doing here?"
It was unfortunate for Harry that he didn't recognise the speaker, for the speaker had recognised him and promptly sat down at his table.
"What's this you're doing? Don't tell me you've succumbed to the pleasures of drugs, Harry!"
"Er, no, it's um," Harry quickly glanced at the bottle, "for my asthma."
"Didn't know you suffered from asthma, old man. Come on recently?"
"Yes," said Harry quickly, recovering his poise, "Look, I'm sorry, but I really don't know who you are."
"Don't worry about that. Why don't you come back to my place and we'll discuss old times."
Harry glanced down at the gun the stranger was pointing at him and decided he'd better agree.
"And I'll have that if you don't mind," added the speaker, pointing to the bottle.
Eight o'clock, ready to face the world if not especially willing. She was regretting going out to dinner with Steed last night; such dinners always ended in the early hours and she had known she had to rise on time the next day. Promptly at half past eight (for punctuality was one of the things Mrs Peel insisted on), the doorbell rang. Fluttering the eye's lashes, Mrs Peel peered through her peephole at the delivery men outside. Opening the door, she welcomed them in, watched them place the paintings against the wall and waved them goodbye. Grinning with glee at her new acquisitions, she removed the protective packaging from the first painting and stood back to admire the
fine lettering of the message:
No longer grinning with glee, but grimacing with resignation, she ripped the wrapping off the other piece to reveal the message:
"It's a box," commented Mrs Peel brightly, looking at the box Steed was holding up.
"It's for asthma," she added, reading the label.
"No it isn't," replied Steed.
"It isn't. It's a powerful compound normally used to slow down the heart if it is beating too fast."
"Didn't I read about that in a medical journal? A compound so powerful that it can kill if significant amounts enter the system; even if it's only inhaled. What's it doing in a box for asthmatics?" asked Mrs Peel.
"Aha, that's what we want to know," replied Steed, "One of our chaps in Paris spotted Harry in a café and wondered what he was doing there. They pulled him in and found this box on him. He's not down as an asthmatic so our man got the lab to run a check on its contents. This is what they found. As it still looked fairly innocent, he was released with a duplicate copy of the box and contents."
"But Steed, what can a small-timer like Harry possibly want with any of that? It's not even on general release because of its potency."
"Past tense, Mrs Peel, Harry is dead."
"And how came this to happen?" inquired Mrs Peel lightly.
"We don't know that yet, I expect to hear soon."
"Well, I suppose we'd better start by tracing the powder."
"That shouldn't be too difficult for you, Mrs Peel. There's only one place it can be bought."
"Goodbye, Steed," grinned Mrs Peel dryly, wondering how yet again Steed had managed to send her out to do the detective work.
After waiting several minutes, Mrs Peel entered through the open door. Glancing round, she couldn't see anybody; something that could easily be accounted for by the preponderance of jars, bottles, boxes, packets that covered every available surface. Hearing a loud clatter behind her, she turned rapidly and assumed a fighting stance before realising the source of the noise and breaking into a smile.
"Sorry to startle you, Madam," apologised the old man, "Just dropped one of my bottles. Wonderful new drug they've brought out you know, cures " He broke off in mid sentence as a puzzled look came over his face. "One minute, Madam, I'll just see what it was a cure for."
Mrs Peel's grin widened as he wandered off towards the rear of the room, muttering to himself. Curious, she followed him to the counter where he started unpacking another box.
"Hello, Madam," he began, "I don't recollect seeing you before. Never mind, I'm sure we'll be able to find a cure for your symptoms. We at Richards' Remedial Repository pride ourselves on our large selection of remedies. Now, what is it? A bothersome bunion? A sprained ankle or a strained muscle?"
Mrs Peel interrupted him in full flow as he seemed poised to list every condition in his medical dictionary.
"It's not me. It's my husband. He came to you with a prescription but he was given somebody else's by mistake."
"Oh, Madam, I'm sorry to hear that. If you'll just give me the name, I'll give you the correct prescription. Edward, would you search the ledgers for me please. Now, what name was it?"
"Steed, John Steed"
"And what was it for?"
"Champagne patches?" Richards looked up, astonished. "I'm sorry, I must have misheard."
"Champagne patches, to help him get over his early-morning grumpiness before his first champagne1.
While Edward, obviously an assistant, searched the records, Mrs Peel looked at him with interest. Odd for such a young man to be in a place like this, she thought. Before she could complete her train of thought, he got up and whispered in the old man's ear.
"I am sorry, madam," quavered the man in some distress, "We seem to have lost your record. I don't know what we can do."
"Don't worry, Mr Richards," she replied, "If you'll just give me the address of the person whose prescription my husband received, I'll find them and we can do a swap."
The look of relief on the proprietor's face was almost comical. "That's a wonderful idea, Mrs Steed. I'll search the records personally. If you'll just give me the box "
Mrs Peel watched, fascinated as he darted to another ledger, only to reappear some minutes later looking satisfied. "Fulbridge's Funerals, Madam. That's where your prescription will have gone."
As Emma walked in the flat, Steed was on the phone.
"Alright, thank you, I'll be waiting". Putting down the receiver he turned to his desk and got out a claret and a glass. Mrs Peel tapped her foot impatiently and cleared her throat.
"Oh hello, Mrs Peel. I didn't hear you come in. How did you get on today?"
"Our prescription was sent to Fulbridge's Funerals, Steed. How about you, have the Ministry phoned?"
"Yes," he replied, pouring out another glass for her, "That was them just now. They're just sending round the report. It should tell us the preliminary findings about Harry's death. But Mrs Peel, what would a funeral parlour want with a heart-stopping medicine?"
"I don't know, I should have thought that would be the last problem their clients had," she answered.
"Well then, I suppose you'd better..."
"Oh no you don't, Steed, it's your turn to do the leg work. A girl can't be expected to do everything. Anyway, you have been complaining that you feel like death in the mornings." She looked at him guilelessly.
"All right, Mrs Peel. I'll see you later."
As Steed entered the foyer a little man was assiduously polishing one of the coffins lining the hallway.
"Good morning, sir. Fulbridge of Fulbridge's Funerals. How can I help you?"
"I'm interested in making funeral arrangements."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, sir. I do hope it wasn't a close friend. Don't worry, we specialise in the fuss-free funeral for family and friends. We try to make it easy for you at such a sad time." As the man spoke he bustled through to another room, obviously assuming Steed would follow.
"But..." interrupted Steed, following with interest.
"Do sit down," he said, interrupting himself to gesture towards a comfy looking black seat. "Now, is the deceased male or female?"
"It's not. Deceased, I mean," added Steed seeing the expression on Fulbridge's face. "I'm about to be posted abroad on active service and I wanted to make arrangements, just in case anything should happen. You do deal with overseas clients?"
"Oh yes," replied Fulbridge, "In fact, we are the official suppliers of coffins to the French government. Whenever an English man dies abroad, one of our men dashes over to bring him back for burial. Rest assured, should you die in France, within the beat of a heart you'll be ensconced in one of our coffins and on your way home, so to speak."
"I'd be cared for personally, then?" asked Steed.
"Of course. As soon as the corpse is shown to be English we take charge. No red tape, no hanging around in mortuaries, just straight home. And if you register with us while you're still living, you can choose whether to return by plane, train or boat. Wouldn't want you to get seasick now, would we?" added Fulbridge with a little laugh.
"Er, quite" said Steed, wondering what Fulbridge would do if he said he wanted to travel back in the first class section of the plane. Reserve four seats next to each other and rest the champagne on the coffin, presumably.
"Now, sir, if you'll just give me your details..."
Some hours later Emma was sitting on Steed's settee reading a file labelled "TOP SECRET. TO BE READ BY ADDRESSEE ONLY."
"Good to see you obey instructions, Mrs Peel. I see the Ministry sent that file over for me," said Steed wearily as he laid down his bowler and umbrella.
"Yes, it makes very interesting reading. Where have you been all this time?"
"I have been arranging my funeral. You'll be glad to know that should I die, everything has been taken care of. Did you know that coffins come in ten lengths, widths and depths, that they can be made of fifteen types of plastic and twenty different woods? And that's before even considering the material which lines it. As for the headstone, wreaths and service..." Steed's voice trailed off in amazement at the momentous decisions he had
had to make.
"And which one did you choose, Steed? Lead bottom for extra weight with a side flap for emergency exits?2" queried Emma wickedly
"Nonsense, Mrs Peel. I chose Best of British, fitted exactly for my height and weight. They will check my dimensions regularly until I die in case I should put on weight. Now, what does the report say?"
"As I said, it makes very interesting reading," said Emma shrugging, "The preliminary exam showed that his heart had stopped, though they couldn't
find a cause."
"Yes, we know that, what was the real cause?" demanded Steed impatiently.
Emma pulled a face. "We still don't know. Somebody forgot to tell the French that we were taking over and the body was shipped home as usual, before we could investigate further. It's gone to..."
"Yes, how did you know?" inquired Emma, looking at him questioningly.
"They take care of any English people that die France."
"Ah, it's all becoming clear; you choose your man, kill him and ship him home," said Emma triumphantly. Then her face fell. "But why? Why not just choose anybody who happens to die in France? Why go to all the trouble of giving a certain person a pill that stops their heart?"
"I suppose it's easier, you know that no relatives are going to claim the body and it looks like natural causes so the cadaver gets shipped home without fuss. They were just unlucky that our man in Paris recognised Harry."
"So what do we do now? We still don't know why they're doing it, or for that matter who is doing it," pointed out Emma.
"Patience, Mrs Peel, is an admirable virtue? You get on to Records and look up the most recent corpses to be found on French soil. Meanwhile I think that funeral parlour definitely deserves another visit.
Steed stopped the Bentley just out of sight of the funeral parlour and crept up through the bushes. It was dark enough that the chances of his being seen were small but he preferred not to take unnecessary risks. Unnecessary risks got you killed and Steed had no plans to make use of his new funeral arrangements. From his vantage point he couldn't see anybody so he went up to the door and tried the handle. It was unlocked. Peering round the door he checked that there was nobody inside. Satisfied, he crept in and headed through the only door he hadn't been through earlier in the hope that it might yield something new. Unlike the others, which were full of wreaths, coffins and headstones, this one was full of filing cabinets. Sensing an opportunity Steed started to rifle through them.
"I think you had better stop that, Mr Steed," came a voice.
Steed turned round to see a figure pointing a gun "Harry," he said. "You're dead."
Ignoring Steed, Harry continued, "I saw you today, you know. I thought you were very interested in the French side of the business. Maybe the Chief will decide to let you try it out. Only you won't get the antidote. Maybe you'll get to use your new funeral arrangements." He laughed.
Back at Steed's flat Emma was getting rather bored. Records given her a list of the most recent English deaths in France but none of them could be attributed to natural causes. Quite a few English people had died in the food riots, and an inordinately large number had been stabbed in the back but there didn't seem to be any ordinary holiday makers who keeled over for no reason. Not even any day-trippers dying from overdoses of duty-free. Just then the phone rang.
"Hello, Mrs Peel. Colonel Robertson here. You were enquiring earlier about people dying in France?"
"Yes, have you got something?"
"Another one died this morning. Heart attack. He's been sent back to be examined by our own scientists. You can pick him up from the Fulbridge's Funerals."
Emma put the phone down thoughtfully. It might be interesting to see what happened when the corpses arrived.
Steed wasn't very impressed with Harry, having a feeling that almost dying had done odd things to him, but he had decided to follow protocol and do as he was told. Guns were such delicate things, so liable to go off without warning, and no amount of stimulation could revive a heart with a bullet in it. Besides, he might be able to find out more information if he met the Chief. He did wish he'd hurry up though - despite Mr Fulbridge's claims, the safe-journey coffin on display in the foyer wasn't that comfortable.
Sometime later another man arrived. After a whispered conversation, Harry slipped outside. From the Harry's deference Steed guessed that this was The Chief.
"Good evening, Mr Steed," said the newcomer, "I'm sorry for the delay but we have to wait for your coffin."
"What's the delay? Can't you find one that suits you here?" quipped Steed.
"I'm afraid your coffin will be no ordinary one. None of the coffins you viewed earlier were occupied. We still have to vacate your coffin before you can occupy it. Nothing personal you understand, but the authorities are expecting a body to autopsy and we'll have to provide them with one."
Steed fell silent and braced himself for another long wait.
Nevertheless, the newcomer seemed eager to prolong the conversation. "I expect you're eager to know why the coffin needs vacating before you can use it."
"Not really," replied Steed. "I assume somebody else has died' and you're going to revive them with the antidote to the drug they took in France. Seeing as how you work at Richards' Remedial Repository, it would have been quite easy for you to get access to both the drug and the antidote."
Edward looked put-out at having both his identity and half of his plan known. "But you would like to why I've been shipping cadavers' across the Channel, wouldn't you?"
"Alright then," answered Steed generously "do enlighten me."
"It's rather clever, really, if I do say it myself. You see, it's getting ever so hard to get things past customs these days so we provide a service. If you need to bring something into the country, we can arrange for it to be done. For a small fee, of course."
"Of course!" agreed Steed, looking shocked that it could be otherwise.
"We pick our men carefully, ones that want to give up their lives of crime behind and arrange for them to die' abroad. When they return, we revive them and give them new identities."
"Most generous of you."
"But best of all, but when we bring them back, we please our customers as well because..."
"Nobody would dream of checking the contents of a coffin"
Edward looked crestfallen. "Quite. Anyway, going back to what I said earlier, your interfering means that the authorities want to examine the next body, and I'm afraid we can't have that, so you will have to take his place."
As he finished speaking, Harry came back in and murmured a few words. "Excellent, excellent. If you will excuse us a few minutes, Mr Steed, your coffin has arrived."
No sooner had they left the room than Emma's head appeared from the back room. "Goodness, Steed, was it really necessary to try out your coffin?" she said, coming to his rescue.
"Mrs Peel, if you don't mind, these straps are very uncomfortable."
As she wrestled with the knots she murmured to him, "I don't know why they bother with such straps in a coffin, they're hard enough for the living to get out of, let alone a corpse."
"Ah, free at last. Thank you, Mrs Peel" he sighed as she finally undid him.
"It was my pleasure. But I wouldn't celebrate too soon, I think we've got company."
"That is correct, Mrs Peel," said a voice from behind them, "I must congratulate you on your detection, getting this address out of old Richards. It's a pity it won't be any use to you."
As Edward spoke he advanced on the pair, pointing them towards the back room with his gun. On reaching the door, Steed and Emma looked at each other then simultaneously jumped them. While Emma grappled Edward for the gun, Steed took on Harry. In the ensuing fight, Steed used all the dirty tricks he knew, only defeating his opponent when, in a careless moment, he looked round at the sound of gunshots and fell over one of the coffins that had got knocked over. Steed hastily sat on the lid until finding the key, he locked it. When he had finished, he looked up to see Emma leaning against the wall waiting for him. Beyond her, lying on the floor, face covered with a white powder, was Edward.
"What happened to him?" he asked, looking at Emma quizzically.
"You could say he had a taste of his own medicine."
When Emma came round to Steed's flat next day, the door would only open enough for her to squeeze through.
"Careful, Mrs Peel," cried Steed, "You'll knock the cases over."
"Steed, what's happened?"
"It's my cousin Jack. He's just died."
"Oh, Steed, I'm so sorry," she replied sympathetically, "How did it happen?"
"He was over in France on holiday, and just dropped dead, poor old chap. Dining at the George V, sipping a very old, very rare, sherry3 when he got hit by a flying cork4 from a neighbouring table. Shock was too much for him and his heart stopped."
"But what's that got to do with all the cases?" inquired Emma, looking at him suspiciously.
"Well, his was a very large coffin..."
1. In The Hidden Tiger, Emma describes Steed as being very grumpy in the morning before he's had his first champagne.
2. This is a reference to The Murder Market in which Steed has to kill Mrs Peel. As proof that he has done so he makes her lie in a coffin so that the body can be viewed. Unfortunately he then has to bury her. A little while later it is revealed that he thought ahead so the coffin had a lead bottom to give it weight and a side flap for an escape should she need it. And she needed it.
3. This is a reference to You Have Just Been Murdered when Rathbone goes to the bank to collect his money. Steed is most annoyed because Lord Maxted was just about to crack open "a very old, very rare, sherry".
4. This refers to Dial a Deadly Number in which Steed knocks out a villain with a flying cork.
© Young Avenger 2002
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)
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