Harry’s brows lifted. “What the hell is going on, Cullip?”
“Among the items the Nagarajans brought for the Queen are a pair of rare animals . . . blue macaques . . . which are found only in the Nagarajan teak forest. They are to be housed at the zoological gardens at Regent’s Park. Evidently each macaque was kept in its own crate, but somehow one of them learned to pick a lock, and—”
“The devil you say!” Incredulity was rapidly crushed by outrage. Yet somehow Harry managed to keep his voice quiet. “May I ask why no one bothered to inform me that we’re harboring a pair of monkeys in my hotel?”
“There seems to be some confusion on that point, sir. You see, Mr. Lufton in reception is certain that he included it in his report, but Mr. Valentine says he never read anything about it, and he lost his temper and frightened a housemaid and two stewards, and now everyone is searching while at the same time making certain not to alert the guests—”
“Cullip.” Harry gritted his teeth with the effort to stay calm. “How long has the macaque been missing?”
“We estimate at least forty-five minutes.”
“Where is Valentine?”
“The last I heard, he had gone up to the third floor. One of the housemaids discovered what she thought might be droppings near the food lift.”
“Monkey droppings near the food lift,” Harry repeated, disbelieving his own ears. Christ. All the situation needed was for one of his elderly guests to be frightened into apoplexy from having a wild animal spring out from nowhere, or to have a woman or child bitten, or some other outrageous scenario.
It would be impossible to find the damned creature. The hotel was a virtual maze, riddled with hallways and concealed doors and passages. It could take days, during which the Rutledge would be in an uproar. He would lose business. And worst of all, he would be the butt of jokes for years. By the time the humorists got through with him . . .
“By God, heads are going to roll,” Harry said with a lethal softness that caused Cullip to flinch. “Go to my apartments, Cullip, and get the Dreyse from the mahogany cabinet in my private office.”
The young manager looked perplexed. “The Dreyse, sir?”
“A shotgun. It’s the only percussion cap breechloader in the cabinet.”
“A percussion . . .”
“The brown one,” Harry said gently. “With a large bolt sticking out of the side.”
“And for God’s sake, don’t point it at anyone. It’s loaded.”
Still gripping the foil, Harry raced up the back stairs. He took them two at a time, swiftly passing a pair of startled housemaids carrying baskets of linens.
Reaching the third floor, he headed to the food lift, where he found Valentine, all three of the Nagarajan diplomats, and Brimbley, the floor steward. A wood and metal crate had been positioned nearby. The men had gathered around the opening to the food lift, and were looking inside.
“Valentine,” Harry said curtly, striding up to his right-hand man, “have you found it?”
Jake Valentine threw him a harassed glance. “He climbed up the rope pulley in the food lift. Now he’s sitting on top of the movable frame. Every time we try to lower it, he hangs onto the rope and dangles above us.”
“Is he close enough for me to reach him?”
Valentine’s gaze flickered to the foil in his employer’s grasp. His dark eyes widened as he understood that Harry intended to skewer the creature rather than let it roam freely through the hotel.
“It wouldn’t be easy,” Valentine said. “You’d probably only end up agitating him.”
“Have you tried to lure it with food?”
“He won’t take the bait. I reached up in the shaft with an apple, and he tried to bite my hand.” Valentine cast a distracted glance at the food lift, where the other men were whistling and cooing to the obstinate monkey.
One of the Nagarajans, a slim middle-aged man dressed in a light suit with a richly patterned cloth draped over both shoulders, stepped forward. His expression was fraught with distress. “You are Mr. Rutledge? Good, yes, I thank you for coming to help retrieve this most important gift for Her Majesty. Very rare macaque. Very special. It must not be harmed.”
“Your name?” Harry asked brusquely.
“Niran,” the diplomat supplied.
“Mr. Niran, while I understand your concern for the animal, I have a responsibility to protect my guests.”
The Nagarajan glowered. “If you damage our gift to the Queen, I fear it will not go well for you.”
Leveling a hard stare at the diplomat, Harry said evenly, “If you don’t find a way to get that animal out of my food lift and into that crate in five minutes, Niran, I’m going to make a kabob out of him.”
This statement produced a stare of purest indignation, and the Nagarajan rushed to the opening of the food lift. The monkey gave an excited hoot, followed by a series of grunts.
“I have no idea what a kabob is,” Valentine said to no one in particular, “but I don’t think the monkey’s going to like it.”
Before Harry could reply, Valentine caught sight of something behind him, and he groaned. “Guests,” the assistant muttered.
“Damn it,” Harry said beneath his breath, and turned to face the approaching guests, wondering what he was going to say to them.
A trio of women rushed toward him, two of them in pursuit of a dark-haired girl. A small shock of recognition went through Harry as he recognized Catherine Marks and Poppy Hathaway. He guessed the third was Beatrix, who seemed determined to plow through him in her haste to reach the food lift.