~There's a Door Up Ahead, Not a Wall~
Driving slowly along Long Piddleton's High Street, Richard Jury found it oddly reassuring to find the village largely unchanged. It had snowed earlier, and the gumdrop-colored shop fronts looked like they were drizzled with icing from the snow. Holiday decorations added some sparkle, and almost disguised the CCTV cameras that had recently gone up.
Jury regretted that, but supposed even Long Piddleton had to adapt to the times. Although, as he remembered, those cameras wouldn't have been a lot of help to him during the Inn Murders all those years ago. If they served to keep Agatha in line, however, more power to them.
He passed the Jack and Hammer, followed the road past the Church of St. Rules, and on over the Piddle River, icy and half-frozen. It was a straight shot then on up to Ardry End, stately as ever swathed in its winter finery.
Jury had barely gotten out of the car when Ruthven appeared, hurrying forward to relieve Jury of his bag. “Very good to see you, Superintendent,” Ruthven said, allowing Jury to snag the tote bag resting in the passenger's seat.
“Good to see you too, Ruthven. Martha's well?”
“Quite well, Superintendent, thank you.” Ruthven ushered him on inside, telling him he'd have his usual room, and asking if he would care for any refreshment.
Jury, feeling refreshed already, declined, and inquired after Plant.
A somewhat pained expression flitted briefly across Ruthven's face and he had to discretely clear his throat before answering. “I am instructed to inform you that he is at The Pond, sir.”
“The Pond?” Was that some new pub in the area? It had been some little time since Jury's last visit here, but he thought Melrose would have mentioned something like that.
“The Pond,” Ruthven intoned once more, in the same way he might mention a house of ill repute. “If you will come this way, please,” he went on, clearly prepared to follow his instructions no matter his opinion of them. He led Jury back outside and some little way into the vast grounds, stopping at the start of a trail Jury didn't recall noting in previous visits. “You're to follow this path, Superintendent.”
“And Plant's at the end of it?”
The pained look made an ephemeral reappearance. “You must see for yourself, Superintendent,” was the succinct and diplomatic reply.
Somewhat mystified, but far more curious, Jury thanked Ruthven and proceeded along the path. It was a pleasant walk, hard-packed snow crunching underfoot. Cold enough for his breath to mist in the brisk air, but not uncomfortable, not yet. That would change fast enough as the afternoon dwindled down to dusk on this shortest day of the year. For now, discovering what Plant was up to now was sufficient distraction.
Was Plant making angels in the snow? Had he reverted to the Old Ways to celebrate the winter solstice? Or was he ice-fishing on this pond of dubious character? Jury tried picturing that but his imagination failed him. This previously unknown body of water must figure into matters in some significant way, however.
Impossible to anticipate. No matter what he thought of, Melrose would surprise him.
He walked on, warring with temptation. Fields of untrammeled snow beckoned to him powerfully, but he suppressed the urge and went on. There would be other days, and more snow.
The quiet was wonderfully soothing. Even the lone jet soaring by overhead was at such an altitude as to be utterly silent, only its wisp of contrail left to testify it had been there. A few birds, disinclined to migrate to warmer climes, chirped and twittered, but otherwise … silence. Jury had an irrational desire to absorb that hushed and peaceful stillness, as though he could breathe it deep and let it saturate his being.
While he stood contemplating ways to hold onto this feeling, an irritant began to poke at him. The quiet wasn't complete. Something was disturbing it, wafting through the air from just up ahead. Head tilted, he listened harder, identifying it as music, a rough voice singing:
Haunt me in my sleep
Promises to keep
I never should have made
I can't live up to this
I'm good for just a kiss...
Jury walked on, the music growing in volume. The pond came into view, ringed by a stone fence, and overlooked by trees that retained their majesty even with their branches stripped bare and dusted with snow. Its frozen surface was mirror-like, and might have made for a perfect picture postcard scene - at least, it would if Melrose Plant weren't currently gliding over its polished surface, on skates.
Jury paused just by a bench that sat close by, occupied by a portable CD-player, hands in the pockets of his overcoat as he nodded to himself. He'd been right: Melrose had surprised him yet again.
“You know you've mortified Ruthven, right?”
Carefully positioning his left foot behind him, toe turned out, Melrose gently dragged the blade behind him, coming to a stop before Jury. He then tried desperately not to wobble as all his weight was balanced on his right foot for the few precious seconds it took for him to casually catch hold of the fence.
Hoping he appeared tremendously cool, but rather doubting it, Melrose said, “It's not mortification; he's afraid I've gone eccentric.”
Jury's face and voice remained utterly mild. “I'm sure I can't think why.”
Melrose narrowed his eyes. “Oh, yes, Mad Lord Ardry at it again. It'll be Hell-Fire clubs and sacrificing virgins next.”
Frowning thoughtfully, Jury asked, “Did Dashwood sacrifice virgins?”
“I've no idea. Put your skates on,” Melrose said, and had the rare satisfaction of seeing Richard Jury nonplused.
Melrose indicated the bench. “Right there; I'm sure they'll fit.”
Looking just as certain that they wouldn't, Jury said, “Thanks awfully, but I'll pass.”
Melrose shifted position slightly, feeling more certain of his equilibrium. “Does Scotland Yard have a policy against it?”
Jury's broad shoulders lifted in a diffident shrug. “It's personal,” he said, voice terribly neutral.
Suddenly fearing he had committed a terrible faux pas -- a vision of Richard heroically trying, and failing, to rescue some innocent, a child, who'd fallen through the ice - Melrose ventured, “How personal?”
Another infinitesimal movement of shoulders. “Just don't fancy making an ass of myself.”
“Oh, well, if that's all…” Relief flooding him, Melrose swiftly firmed up his resolve. “Half the fun is making an ass of yourself, Richard,” he said, doing his best to make it sound like the jolliest lark ever. Seeing continued resistance in Jury's expression, he added, “It's not as if I'm videotaping it to show to Chief Superintendent Racer.”
“Why not get Trueblood and Diane down here? Or Lady Agatha?”
Because I don't want to lark about with them. Melrose didn't voice that thought, however. He wasn't entirely sure he understood it, for one thing. “Can you really picture Agatha on skates?”
Head tilted as thought trying to visualize it, Jury said, “I can, yes.”
By his expression, Melrose judged the image to be every bit the equal of the disquieting picture formed in his own mind. “It took several Old Peculiers to get it out of my head,” he said, and wondered at the source of Jury's enigmatic smile. “Come on, one turn round the pond - where's the harm?”
He could see Jury wavering, and knew he'd won the day when, the CD player starting in on Walk on the Wild Side, Jury heaved a much put upon a sigh and sat down on the bench to unlace his shoes and reach for the skates.
Hey, sugar, take a walk on the wild side
I said, hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side...
“See, nothing to it,” Melrose said, watching Jury's slow and deliberate progress along the edge of the pond - one hand hanging onto the fence at all times. He ignored the look Jury aimed at him that promised dire retribution.
“What put this bee in your bonnet anyway? Since when do you skate?”
“Why shouldn't I skate? You make it sound like I'm some layabout who doesn't poke his head out of bed before noon.”
Gray eyes leveled another meaningful look at him, eyebrows elevated for further emphasis.
Melrose sighed, pushing away from the fence and moving smoothly out onto the slick, hard surface of the pond. “I'll have you know whole winters of my youth were spent on the ice. Hans Brinker worked a powerful influence on me at an impressionable age. Put your arms out like this,” Melrose demonstrated, extending his own out just below shoulder level. “It'll help your balance.”
Richard's sigh, vaporizing in the frosty air, even looked long-suffering, Melrose thought.
“Now squat,” he said.
“Like this,” Melrose demonstrated again. “Just until you feel your knees start to bend. And keep your eyes looking forward; that's the key to not getting dizzy when you're spinning.”
Melrose lifted his shoulders with an air of casual élan. “It can happen.”
“It won't,” Jury assured him, rather darkly.
Well, spinning was, perhaps, somewhat overly ambitious.
Melrose skated close, saying, “Come on, one turn around the pond, see if you like it. Indulge me.”
“I'm out here, aren't I?” Jury said, his smile genuine. It wasn't, Melrose noted, one of those ultra dazzling ones that made any female in the vicinity turn to Jell-O, but Melrose found he rather liked it better for that; as though this was a smile meant just for him.
Unwilling to give that a closer examination at the moment, Melrose sought refuge in further instructions -- strong foot v. weak foot, slowing increasing ones strokes to glide along the ice - and then Richard was moving across the ice, tentative and wary, but slowly gaining confidence. Even when Richard fell, as must inevitably happen, his foot turning the wrong way, blade sending up a shower of ice shavings, there was no sense of disaster. Richard graciously accepted the gloved hand Melrose extended down to him, climbing back to his feet, with both of them hanging onto the other for support and balance, skittering a bit over the ice.
As they wobbled there a bit, holding onto each other's arms and shoulders, Richard gave Melrose another of those smiles, saying, “You think this is how Torvill and Dean started?”
Melrose laughed, picturing them reenacting one of the skating pair's more dramatic performances - Bolero perhaps.“What do you think the Russian judges would give us? One point?”
“They'd probably subtract points,” Richard said, his hands dropping to the small of Melrose' back - no, not dropping. Nothing so abrupt as that. It felt like those big hands glided from his shoulders down his back, burning right through the cashmere of his overcoat. “You okay?”
Melrose blinked, coming back to find those gray eyes boring straight into him. “Yes,” Melrose nodded, pushing off slightly, just to arm's length so they were clasping each other's wrists. “I was just thinking how Lou Reed's probably not the best music to skate to.”
“I don't know,” Richard glanced over at the CD player, up to Lou's Perfect Day now, “works pretty good for me.”
“You don't even like Lou.”
“I like Lou better than you like Coltrane.”
“To the best of my knowledge, I have never even heard Coltrane.”
“Proves my point.”
Melrose frowned. “That does not prove your point. My experience of Coltrane is nil; therefore I neither like nor dislike Coltrane. An entirely different point altogether.” He really needed to adjust his glasses, but that would require letting go of Richard, a prospect he found curiously unappealing.
Richard did it for him, reaching up to settle the frames more securely on the bridge of his nose, his hand then coming to rest on Melrose's shoulders.
It was one of those moments fraught with possibility, Melrose though. Standing there, so close, close enough to feel the warmth of each other's breath, anything might happen. Were Melrose to shift on his skates, just ever so slightly, for instance, they might - hit the deck, Melrose yelling, “Richard! Get down!” and grabbing him, pulling him down on the ice as Momaday let loose a fusillade over their heads.
“What the goddamn hell…!” Richard started to get up, sliding on the ice, but Melrose yanked him back down.
“He might not be done yet,” Melrose whispered, unwelcome images playing across his mind: Richard laying bloody, looking dead… Looking up, he could see Richard remembering too; buried memories digging to the surface, lurking like shadows in his eyes, draining some color from his face.
Melrose had been absolutely useless on that night - compared to Benny, compared to Sparky. Now, as if his actions might even have a retroactive effect, he kept a tight hold on Richard, whispering, “It's okay. There's no danger. It's just Momaday being a maniac.”
He felt Richard shift against him, Richard's head tucked against his shoulder for a moment, just long enough for Melrose to run a hand along soft chestnut hair, a shuddering exhalation of breath caressing his neck before Richard moved again, saying, “You call that no danger? He's a menace. I should clap him in irons.”
“Have you irons with you?”
Another deep breath that Melrose felt against his cheek, their chests rising and falling in rhythm. “Not on me, no. We could send to the village for Constable Pluck; I'm sure he could produce a pair.”
There, Melrose thought, that sounded more the thing - and something about that casually tossed off 'we' pleased him tremendously. Making a tsk-tsk sound, he facetiously reprimanded him, “Why, Superintendent, caught without your handcuffs? You never know when those might prove useful.”
Richard shifted again, meeting his eyes, searching them - for what, possibly neither of them quite knew.
Momaday chose that moment to come crashing through the undergrowth, crying out, “I've not shot yer, have I, m'lord? No, I was sure I hadn't,” he said, reaching the edge of the pond and spying them.
“Is it me,” Richard said as they disentangled from each other and sat up, “or does he sound disappointed?”
“Oh,” Momaday touched the brim of his cap in greeting to Jury, “I'd never shoot the inspector.”
“Superintendent,” Melrose corrected, releasing Richard's hand as, wobbling a bit, they reached the fence and each latched onto it.
“How's that, m'lord?”
“Oh never mind.” Melrose straightened his glasses, smoothed his coat, pointed an admonitory finger at the shotgun Momaday cradled, now broken open, in his arms. “You are to lock that away and give me the key and alarm the countryside no longer.”
Momaday only cradled the shotgun more protectively. “What about the vermin, then?”
“What vermin? Where is this vermin? Point it out to me this instant.”
“Well,” Momaday pulled a dour look now, “it's run off in't the woods, hasn't it?”
“Has it indeed?” Melrose sniffed, all too aware of Richard beside him, near to bursting with amusement. “Oh, very well, be about your business - but leave the gun.”
Momaday returned a look of defiance.
Melrose said, firmly, “Leave it,” and pointed to the bench.
“An' if I was t' come upon a badger in the woods, m'lord?” Momaday asked, placing the shotgun on the bench as if being forced to relinquish his first born.
“More luck to the badger.”
Momaday looked indignant, and stomped off into the woods, no doubt plotting dire revenge.
Reaching the bench and sitting down to remove his skates, Richard said, “If I find you dead in your bed I'll know where to start my investigation.”
“Him and Agatha,” Melrose could admit to himself it felt pleasant to remove the skates and slide his feet back into his shoes. “I'm sure they would be in it together.”
“You're not suggesting, I hope, that Momaday is Oliver Mellors to Agatha's Lady Chatterly?”
Melrose, halted in mid-step, smacked himself on the ear and turned an incredulous look on Richard. “Please tell me I imagined it and you didn't just suggest that?”
Unabashed, Richard said, “Stranger things have happened.”
“Never that strange. I may require an entire cask of Old Peculier to banish that image.”
As they gathered up skates and CD-player, Richard taking possession of the shotgun, and began the slog back up the path, however, Melrose knew he'd be a long time dwelling on certain other, recent developments. Glancing at Richard as they walked along, in fact, he found himself thinking that while a combination such as Agatha and Momaday had a host of things wrong with it, there were other pairings that, on the face of it, might appear unlikely but that upon further examination revealed a wealth of intriguing potential.
“I'm sorry I missed your birthday,” Jury said.
“I'm getting to the point where I wouldn't mind missing them myself.”
“Oh, yes, forty-five is quite elderly these days.”
“Thirty-five used to be middle aged.”
“Does that mean we had our mid-life crisis ten years ago, then? How depressing.” Jury didn't feel particularly depressed, however. For the moment, here in the library, well-fed and enjoying good company, his customary melancholia was nowhere to be found.
Rather remarkable, actually, considering his reaction to Momaday's gunplay earlier. He had been shaken for an instant there, memories flooding back that he had done his best to shove deep, deep down. Not difficult to figure out why it hadn't been worse, he thought, looking over at Melrose slouched down in an armchair.
“Anyway,” he rummaged beside the sofa for the bag he'd stowed their earlier, “I had an excuse.”
“A case, you said.” Melrose sat up straighter, giving Mindy an idle scratch on the head. “An interesting one?”
“Not especially. Disgruntled ex-wife paid her cousin five thousand quid to kill her former husband's new fiancée.”
“Only five thousand? Life's going cheap these days.”
Thinking about the case, playing out like a bad soap opera, Jury said, “You didn't miss anything, believe me. At least, not regarding the case.”
Melrose gave him an interested look, green eyes glittering. “What, then? And what are you doing?” He leaned forward to watch Jury's groping about the vicinity of the sofa.
“Looking for - ah, got it.” He dragged the bag out, held it on his lap. “The case was up near Masham, in Yorkshire, and as I happened to be in the area,” here he held the bag out to Melrose, “I picked up some souvenirs for you.”
“Souvenirs from Masham?” Puzzled, Melrose took the bag, comprehension dawning over his face as he saw the logo and printing on it, A Very Peculier Bag. “Theakston? You went to the brewery? Without me?”
“You weren't there.”
“You might have called,” Melrose said, the reproach mild as he was far more enthused with removing items from the bag. A pewter tankard, a zippered jumper with an Old Peculier patch over the left breast, a keychain, and a knit cap, also sporting the logo, that he immediately pulled down over his head. “Richard… I don't know what to say. Thank you.”
Jury had debated all day whether or not to actually give him the bag. He'd half-convinced himself against it, quite certain it was one of his more ridiculous impulses. Melrose Plant, Lord Ardry, Earl of Caverness - however much he may have renounced the titles - was hardly going to be delighted with a bagful of knick-knacks.
Except that he was, undeniably delighted with the items; his face lit up as though it was already Christmas and he'd gotten the present he'd always wanted.
Watching Melrose grinning over the items, putting them back in the bag, taking them out again as if needing to reassure himself they were real, Jury couldn't help smiling along with him. It was contagious. Plus, he was still wearing the cap.
“Are you going to take that off?”
Melrose shook his head. “I think I'll sleep in it.”
Jury rolled his eyes.
Sitting back with a contented sigh, Melrose said, “This really is the best gift I've gotten in…” He shook his head, casting about for a previous incident. “Quite a very long time,” he finished, voice gone soft, a bit wistful.
Jury didn't know what to say to that. “You're welcome,” he finally murmured.
“You thought of me.”
Jury shrugged, diffident. “Difficult not to, when the brewery was right there.”
“I can think of several people across whose mind the thought would not have crossed.”
That made Jury sad, knowing it was likely only too true.
They were quiet for a time; one of those comfortable silences that could only be shared with a rare companion. After a time, Melrose asked, “Would you,” he hesitated a moment, “change anything in this room?”
“How do you mean?” Jury looked around the library, seeing nothing out of order, nothing that needed improvement.
“You know, move things about, bring the décor up to date?”
“What on earth for?”
Melrose bestowed another pleased look upon him. “Everything suits you just as it is, then?”
Jury tilted his head back, gazing at the ceiling. “Well, I might do something about those cobwebs up there--“
“Oh bother the cobwebs.”
Jury grinned. “But yes, it suits me. For whatever that's worth.”
“It's worth quite a lot, actually,” Melrose said. Affecting an offhand manner, he went on, “It's just, that's one of the reasons I've never married. I've always thought she'd start moving things around and next thing I'd know it would be like an episode of that show, where you leave your perfectly comfortable house in the morning and return to find decorators have glued grass to your walls and hung swings from the ceiling.”
Trying to puzzle his way through all that, and feeling he was making little headway, Jury said, “I …,” he looked around the library, attempting to picture it with grass-covered walls and swings, “can understand your dilemma. Couldn't you put that condition on a pre-nup or something?”
“One could do, I suppose, but it mightn't be a guarantee.”
No, Jury supposed it wouldn't. “I doubt Vivian would ever want to glue grass to the walls.”
“Bea Slocum might.”
Jury slouched comfortably back on the sofa, long legs stretched out toward the fire. “You've given this some thought.”
“Birthdays are a time for reflection.” Melrose reached up to as if to run a hand through his hair, found he was still wearing the cap, and gave it a light pat instead. “One needs to take stock every now and then, don't you think?”
“I imagine so.” Jury couldn't say he was eager to conduct a similar inventory. He could only imagine the results to be very bleak indeed. “A summing up of one's life, is that it?”
“You don't have to say it like it's a prelude to an obituary. But yes, an assessment, an appraisal.” Melrose gave Jury a telling look. “I actually made a bit of a dry-run at it about a year ago.”
Jury shook his head slightly, not quite sure where this was going. “A year ago?”
“Sitting by your bedside, watching machines keeping you alive, trying to imagine you not there anymore.”
“Melrose…” Why did they have to come back to that?
“You wanted to let go, didn't you?” Melrose was watching him intently, seeing more than Jury'd meant him to. No surprise there, of course.
He shrugged, shook his head. “I … Yes; it would have been easy to let go. It had an allure.”
“Why?” Jury laughed, and didn't like the faint trace of self-pitying bitterness he could hear in it. “You have met me, right?”
“I have, and am rather extraordinarily grateful for it.”
Jury met his eyes, remembering the first time they had met, how one look at those glittering green eyes had told him this man was exceptionally sharp and insightful. Useless to try and keep anything from him now. “Extraordinarily?” he said, feeling a bit wary now, as though they were venturing out onto another patch of ice, one where the footing was a good deal less certain.
He watched Melrose get up from the armchair and come over to the sofa, sitting beside him, an air of gathering resolve in his manner. Impossible to anticipate what was stirring. Jury only knew that something was, and that it could be momentous.
“There's something the Americans like to go on about, they even write songs about it,” Melrose was saying, “about counting your blessings. Have you ever considered trying that?”
“Counting my blessings?” He shook his head. “Can't say I have.”
“Maybe you should. Maybe you'd be surprised at how many there are.” And here Melrose clasped his hand, searching his face. “I often wonder what happiness would look like on you.”
Jury smiled, at Melrose in the cap, at … he wasn't even sure. “Let me know if you find out.”
“Oh, I rather think you'll be there when it happens.”
“What?” He could feel himself floundering on that thin ice, feel it giving way beneath his feet, and braced himself for the knife-sharp cold.
“Come where?” They were scarcely inches apart.
“Here,” Melrose murmured, reaching out to cup a hand around his neck, fingers tangling in Jury's hair, drawing him across those last scant inches until their lips met, and the ice cracked and he fell … not into ice but warmth.
A thousand feelings jumbled inside him, zeroing down to just sensation, the astonishing rightness, of being kissed by Melrose Plant.
“I was right,” Melrose murmured as they parted for a moment, “it suits you very well.”
For a moment Jury wanted a mirror, to see what Melrose meant, but then he realized he could see it, reflected in Melrose's eyes. “Looks good on you too. That cap, however--“ He yanked it off.
“Hey! Give it ba--“ But Jury, emboldened, kissed the protest away and found the only mystery here was that he could have lived so long and not known this was what he wanted.
“What's that line of Virgil's you're always quoting?”
Jury raised his eyebrows. “Always quoting?”
“Fine: frequently quoting.”
Jury smiled. “I recognize the vestige of an old flame. What about it?”
They were in bed, clothes scattered across the floor as evidence of their eagerness to arrive there; rumpled sheets and still-ebbing twinges of pleasure testimony to the lovemaking that had followed - by turns awkward and shy, frantic and exhilarating, neither entirely sure what to do but working it out on instinct. Learning the feel of each other, the taste of each other. In the end, all clumsiness and uncertainty was erased and perfection achieved, astonished pleasure surging through them and taking any lingering doubt with it.
“I was just thinking,” Melrose shifted on his side, fingers stroking along Jury's chest, hesitating over scars, “that maybe that's why no one else ever entirely suited either one of one, because we recognized a vestige of an old flame in each other.”
Jury turned that over thoughtfully. “Makes as much sense as anything.” If this ever made sense. “Don't,” he said, as Melrose bent his head to kiss a scar.
Melrose looked up. “Does it still hurt?”
A distant hint of melancholia touched Jury's smile. “Not the way you mean,” he said - and gasped as Melrose kissed the scar again, lingering over it, taking all the pain away.
“Does it hurt now?”
“No, not now,” Jury said, gasping again as Melrose moved onto to the next one, reaching down to tangle his fingers in soft, golden hair, drawing him up so Jury could kiss his mouth.
For this moment in time, Jury could even believe it might never hurt again.
Oh it's such a perfect day
I'm glad I spent it with you
Oh such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on…