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Eleanor J Prophet

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Astrid Darby and the Laughing Coffin
by Eleanor J Prophet   

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Books by Eleanor J Prophet
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Publisher:  Diogenes Club Press


Copyright:  April 3, 2012 ISBN-13:  9781622010011

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Diogenes Club Press
Diogenes Club Press

Now rogue from the Ministry of Defence, Agent Asher Key enlists Astrid to help him uncover the dangerous secrets behind Professor Julius Coffin’s private island, the Isle of Jules, and his daughter Julianna’s mysterious illness.

 Now rogue from the Ministry of Defence for his outrageous accusations against the renowned and well-connected Professor Julius Coffin, Agent Asher Key engages Astrid to help confirm that the professor is indeed responsible for the disappearance and suspected murder of no less than ten people. Despite her scepticism, Astrid concedes to facilitate his investigation, and they join the professor’s annual retreat to his private island, the Isle of Jules, an island rumoured to be home to mysterious and sinister forces. Amidst jealousy over Asher’s attention to their fellow reveller, the lovely Chanha Behari, Astrid’s own distraction by Chanha’s handsome brother, Imaron, and her young cousin Xander’s particular attachment to the professor’s frail and bafflingly ill daughter, Juliana, Astrid and Asher attempt to unravel the dark secrets of the island. The sudden disappearance of their man, Reinhart, persuades Astrid that something treacherous and terrible is truly afoot on the island. If they cannot discover whether their deadly foe be head hunters, exotic beasts, ghosts, vampires or their odd, secretive host, their island holiday could become something far more perilous, indeed. What they reveal about the island and its master, however, is far, far worse than their wildest suspicions could possibly conceive. 

A kaleidoscope of colours filled the brilliant blue afternoon sky as dozens of bulbous balloons lifted into the air with the softest hiss of hot air. The watching crowd erupted in a smattering of delighted applause, turning to their neighbours to commend the flawless ascent. The highly anticipated maiden launch of the revered Mr Thaddeus Rush’s Gertrude, a ship most highly venerated as a revolutionary mechanical achievement of steam and air, was scheduled for five minutes hence.
“Though my young cousin seems to have overcome his particular aversion to the flying beasts, I find my heart still justly flutters when I watch them lift off,” I admitted, turning my head to address Mrs Elisabeth Hawkins nee Weston at my flank.
The Lady Elisabeth smiled in a most conciliatory way. “I thought you might not relish the launch as much as your young cousin, who favours science and innovation above all things tender, but do try to enjoy yourself, Astrid. Mr Rush was most insistent that you accompany Sir Benedict and myself, so deep is his admiration for you since your work for his esteemed corporation several months past.”
She was all beauty and good humour, in her customary mode, and I found myself quite unable to resist the merriment upon her smiling countenance. “I assure you, Lady, I will be most delighted to see the good Mr Rush ascend safely into the heavens. I am unable, however, to rid my mind of the sad memory of my dear Nathaniel who, as you know, had most unfortunate luck in such a similar craft.”
“Ah. Astrid, I regret your loss deeply.”
“Thank you, Lady. I am most pleased, nevertheless, to see young Xander enjoying himself so thoroughly. I would have expected a lithe lad of his youth and good looks to value rather more unsavoury pastimes, but he remains as steadfastly dedicated to the science of invention as my late husband.”
“He is truly an extraordinary youth. But where is young Knightly? I have not laid eyes upon him since the tea.”
I laughed, lifting my lace-gloved hand to point towards the garish Gertrude, whose sheer size and stunning colour threatened to eclipse all but the most brilliant and distinctive dirigible. There, tethered to the podium, Gertrude drifted serenely over the plush, green courtyard, casting a swollen shadow across the gathering. Mr Thaddeus Rush, dressed in his most adventurous brown leather suit and flowing white scarf, his gleaming black hair flattened beneath a worn aviator hat and shining brass goggles, leaned over the side of his ship’s gondola. He was speaking animatedly to the young, black-haired youth at the foot of the podium, his dark eyes alight with the thrill of his exhibition.
Lady Elizabeth laughed. “But of course. Trust the lad to be in the thick of things. And I am sure Mr Rush highly values such a keen and intelligent youth to whom he might flaunt his cleverness and good fortune all the day.”
I snorted, covering my mouth delicately with my hand. “Now, Lady Elisabeth, that’s very ungracious of you.”
“Forgive me, Astrid. I do find him tiresome, though. When he comes around to call upon Sir Benedict, I admit I am most eager to find anything else to be doing, rather than listen to his endless espousing of his latest business deal or innovation. I am convinced the majority of his cleverest innovations have, in fact, been the work of eager young men such as your cousin. I should warn him away from the old fraud, indeed.”
I smirked. “Xander is not one to be so easily duped by a scheming charlatan. He is clever, my young cousin, and he is perfectly adept at looking after himself.”
A burst of fanfare from the chamber orchestra on the lawn signalled the commencement of Gertrude’s launch. The exalted spectators turned their attention to Mr Rush, whose raised arms and wide, indulgent smile suggested he intended to draw their attention to himself for what promised to be an elaborate and tremendously smug speech. “Oh, he truly is an appalling bore,” Lady Elisabeth whispered.
I covered my mouth to stifle my giggles. The Lady Elisabeth was always a charming companion, no matter the circumstances. “Mind your tongue, Lady, for I shouldn’t wish to witness the scolding you would receive, should your Sir Benedict hear you speak thus of his dear friend.”
Elisabeth laughed. “It isn’t his agreeable companionship but his cunning business avarice about which my dear Sir Benedict natters all the day. He would be hard-pressed to scold one who is speaking his own private inner thoughts. Oh, hello, Knightly.”
Xander bowed smartly to the Lady, but his brow was furrowed when he returned to my side to watch the launch. “Why the dreary countenance, cousin?” I asked cheerfully. “Has the venerable Mr Rush treated you ill?”
“What an absolute fraud that man is,” Xander announced in a low, disappointed tone. “It is quite clear to me he had absolutely no hand in the engineering and construction of his acclaimed vessel. When I asked whether he preferred a triple or quadruple burner configuration, he looked at me as if I had been speaking ancient Sumerian.”
I raised an eyebrow. “As would I have done.”
“Yes, but you are not claiming to have been the innovator of such a brilliant and esteemed aircraft, are you? “
“Yes, well, nor would I do, with you around to recognise my deceit, cousin.”
Xander smirked, and Lady Elisabeth leaned towards him with sparkling eyes. “You would do well to steer clear of the devious Mr Rush, young Knightly, lest he set his sights on you as his successive protégé.”
“I shouldn’t worry too much in that regard, Lady, for my dear cousin would hardly allow the desertion. She is quite jealous of my company and would scarcely permit me another mentor above her.”
“I sense you might be taking the mickey, cousin,” I said sourly.
“Now, Astrid. Your dear cousin is nothing but doting.”
A frisson of incredulity and anticipation shivered along my spine, and I closed my eyes, scrunching my face in exasperation. When I turned towards Agent Asher Key of the Ministry of Defence, however, my deportment was perfectly composed.
“Asher!” My treacherous young cousin spun to shake the hand of the roguishly dishevelled and unshaven man at our backs. Agent Key looked as though he’d lately braved untamed conditions and a few very strong winds. His sharp, strong jaw was rough with stubble, and his tousled dark blonde hair had grown down below the collar of his careless grey suit. Had the Ministry taken to employing their agents as brigands and privateers since last I had been in their camaraderie? I conjectured most uncharitably.
The slightly grotty look suited him, all the same, and my ire intensified. When his cobalt blue eyes fixed upon me with an amused twinkle, I pursed my lips in sheer pique. “By what egregious blunder did you find your way here, Agent Key?” I demanded. “I can hardly fathom what a person of your particular persuasion would be doing at such an event. I would not have taken you for a man of spectacle and skill.”
His eyebrows travelled upwards into his untidy fringe. “Astrid!” Lady Elisabeth scolded, sounding scandalised. “I hardly think that is an appropriate way to speak to someone in such a position of favour with the Ministry.”
Curiously, Asher’s brows drew together for an ephemeral instant, but he squared his shoulders to face me sternly. “Now, Astrid.” His voice was a low, honeyed purr, and irony seeped from every syllable. “Is that any way to treat an old friend?”
“Need I remind you that we are not, in fact, friends?”
“Why, I was under the impression that, after our charming reunion and subsequent shared defeat of a nefarious terrorist, not to mention the slight mishap with the unspecified former national landmark several months past, we had reached a sort of concurrence.”
My lips twitched, but I remained resolute. “I admit we might have been working in accord for a brief time, owing to a temporary common agenda, but that is hardly the thing. You must admit, your sudden appearance at such an exhibition is unexpected and thus worthy of inquiry.”
Asher smirked, flicking his fringe negligently from his eyes. “Be that as it may, it is hardly necessary to inquire in such an uncivilized manner, is it?”
I sighed. “Perhaps it was not entirely essential. Still, you haven’t answered the question, have you? What are you doing here, Ash?”
He smiled, and his eyes slipped away to watch the breathless release of Gertrude’s erstwhile anchor. Rush waved to his enraptured audience like a king upon his steed, and the envelope filled with hot, hissing air. “Off he goes,” Lady Elisabeth observed dryly. “And good journey to him. I shouldn’t be too eagerly anticipating his return to terra firma.”
Xander snorted, and I smirked, watching the vessel rise slowly and peacefully into the air. For a moment, I pictured the outrageous craft plummeting downwards upon the breathless crowd and winced slightly. It did not, however, and in scant moments, it was merely another brightly coloured globe in the cloudless blue sky. I had not realised Asher was at my side until he spoke so close to my ear, I practically jumped.
“And where is your most cherished confidant, Dr Ramsey, this fine day, Astrid? I haven‘t glimpsed him in the crowd. Surely this is the sort of event which he might be expected to attend.”
As if they sensed a storm in the air, the Lady Elisabeth and my young cousin moved away from us, to better view the Gertrude as it drifted towards the horizon. My response, however, was flawlessly even. “He’s gone off.”
Asher raised his eyebrows, and his eyes glittered suspiciously. “Gone off?”
“He’s accepted a post with a contractor, devising his own defence weapon. He left for Wales a fortnight ago.”
“A dreadful place.” His lips quivered slightly, and my eyes narrowed. “Now that his master is gone, he is the master, then?”
“Yes, well, it would seem as such. He requested Xander join him as his assistant, but, I am pleased to say, my cousin refused.”
“Ah, he remains devoted, does he? And such an opportunity, I shouldn’t wonder, despite the locality.”
“Yes, well, my cousin long since chose the life of an adventurer, rather than the humdrum existence of a lab rat. I reckon someone such as yourself can understand such a choice.”
His mouth twisted into a smile. “I understand all too well. I, as well, would choose to remain by your side. Were I young Knightly, of course.”
“Of course.”
“I suppose your doctor’s sent you a telegram a night, bemoaning his devastation over your indefinite division?”
My mouth tightened, but I lifted my chin. “We have not spoken,” I responded coolly.
“Oh? Did you have a particular falling out?”
I narrowed my eyes. “Do not trouble yourself over it; it is none of your concern.”
“No, of course it isn’t,” he replied cheerfully. “And how uncouth of me to ask such a question of a lady.”
“Ash, why are you here?” I demanded wearily.
He lifted his chin. “Astrid, your country needs your specific expertise in a very grave matter.”
I rolled my eyes. “My country? Cor, Ash. My country never pays properly, and I often find myself unnecessarily placed in the clutches of an injudicious tribunal, despite my invariably righteous intentions.”
He snorted. “That is gross exaggeration.”
I raised my eyebrows archly. “You mean to say the Ministry has forgiven me my previous trespasses and intends to contract me in a legitimate way?”
He sighed, and his eyes slid charily away. “You are too perceptive by half, Astrid. No. In truth, they are still a bit cross over the Parliament building you destroyed last spring.”

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