Douglas had a very slight case of nerves, he decided, as he looked down on the brightly lit lawn. Below his hotel room window costumed party-goers milled around the buffet tables under the marquee. He was late; a delay landing and then the long drive out here meant he was still to change while the supper was laid out. It wasn't a problem; in fact it might be easier that way.
That was obviously Kathy, still in her sleek black and white wedding dress, and that must be Mark beside her. Douglas had never met him; he'd not exactly kept in touch with this crowd, obviously. The invite had been a rather charming surprise. He'd slept on it for a couple of nights, decided what the hell. It had been months since he'd gone anywhere socially, and he'd always liked Kathy, a sweet girl with a sense of humour. Hence the wedding reception, Hallowe'en themed with fireworks, in the grounds of this rambling country hotel.
Fancy dress wasn't Douglas's first choice of attire, particularly not in these circumstances, but he had always thought he looked rather good in a cape and ruffles. Sufficient to enter into the required atmosphere, not overdone to the point of potential ridicule. From here it looked as if he'd judged it right; there were some people in highly elaborate disguises but most seemed to have been picked with an eye to practicality. He could safely leave the facepaint, brought with him just in case, in his suitcase.
Dressed, he ran his hands through his hair a couple of times, returned to the window. He was prevaricating, he knew. It was near impossible to recognise anyone except the bride from this distance and in costume. No way to know, until he went down there, who he'd meet again. Still, Kathy had wanted him here. On that reassuring thought he smoothed his hair down one last time and set off downstairs.
Some time later Douglas was satisfied that coming tonight had been a good idea. He'd kissed the bride, eaten some rather good food, found a whiskey tumbler for his water and chatted to some pleasant strangers. There had been the odd familiar face passing by from his time, but turnover in Air England was still high, and Kathy's new husband wasn't in the airline business; most people here didn't know him from Adam.
Everyone was spilling gradually out of the marquee and down towards the river to watch the fireworks getting underway. He walked down that way with a young pilot and his boyfriend, both dressed as zombies, strolling along a path through the rose garden lit by a string of coloured lanterns. The rest of the party was spread out across the formal gardens on their right, the lanterns in several long chains from house to river. A rocket exploded high above them, then another. It really was very pretty.
Douglas slowed, still talking, moved to one side as a group came up behind.
"There's a lot to be said for big companies. Opportunities, experience, training. But the romance of flying, the excitement; that gets lost somewhere in the scheduled runs and the corporate memos. Now a tiny charter outfit; it's the unpredictability that's the charm. Call of the wild, you might say. Wanderlust. And of course they really value my experience. Leaving AE was one of the best decisions I ever made."
The group from behind had pushed past them and stopped abruptly, turning round. One tall vampire-fanged man came forward to talk loudly and directly to Douglas.
"Of course, being caught with your hand in the fucking till had nothing to do with your decision, did it, Richardson?"
The young men laughed tentatively, taking it for an off colour joke. Douglas took a breath. "Neil. How delightful to see you again. Found something to drink already, have we?"
Neil gestured at the pilot. "Hey, Tel? Ever wondered why we're plagued with fucking on-board searches and bag checks? Because this thieving bastard screwed it up for the rest of us. Know what I think? They should have locked you up, not just thrown you out."
Douglas wasn't taking this moral indignation stuff from a chancer like Neil Fines. "Ah, right. They're making it too hard for you to skim anything now? That's your problem, I'm afraid, not mine."
The young men excused themselves hastily, scurrying off down the path, lit by a fountain of sparks. Douglas couldn't blame them. He glanced at the other two men hanging back, but both had painted faces and he couldn't place them.
Neil had come forward further, aggressively. "Don't call me a thief, you fucking... thief. You've got a fucking nerve, showing your face round here."
Douglas had thought there might be the odd snide remark at his reappearance. He hadn't expected anything this raw and was rather at a loss. He could argue rings round Fines, of course, but that probably wasn't going to help. The mortar boomed and he flinched, then flinched again as the shell exploded in red stars.
"I think it might be a good idea to take your friend somewhere to sober up," he said to the other two men, trying to sound calm and authoritative.
"I think you ought to piss off home and stay there," one of them retorted.
He knew that voice. "Oliver?"
Oliver had been one of his regular co-pilots. Much younger than him; a bit like a more confident Martin in some ways. Douglas had teased him and taught him things in about equal measure. They'd been friends. He spoke to the painted skeleton face. "I've only come to see Kathy married. I'm not here to make trouble. There's no need to be impolite, Oliver."
"Impolite?" The younger man's voice was shaking with anger. "Have you any idea...you told me you were innocent. I spent months while you were suspended trying to convince the company it had made a mistake. Months. I lost friends, got into trouble. And then you just vanished, and they said you'd admitted it all."
"Ah." Douglas didn't have a ready answer to that one. Of course he'd not been entirely truthful; he'd been trying to wriggle out of an extremely serious accusation at the time. He could hardly have been expected to come clean to Oliver, who would have been scandalised. Was scandalised.
"I'm grateful that you tried to help, Oliver. I wish I'd been able to be more honest with you."
"Bullshit." Oliver's response was succinct. "You're not honest, full stop. You used me, and now you think a bit of Richardson charm and I'll forgive you. Not this time, Douglas."
Neil lurched forward and Douglas stepped backwards, nervous. "Back off, Neil. Don't be an absolute idiot. You've drunk a little too much."
The third man had yanked down a loop of the lanterns, was pulling at the line, his foot on the cable. The string of lights flicked out abruptly, leaving the rose garden in darkness. For a moment Douglas couldn't see anything, then a burst of fireworks showed him the three men all intimidatingly close, nothing to be seen but the dark shapes and white facepaint.
This was utterly ridiculous; a bunch of airline pilots in fancy dress trying to scare him in the dark. Douglas opened his mouth to say so, the mortar boomed and a fist hit him hard in the stomach. He doubled over in sudden acute pain and someone kicked him in the shins.
After that he tried to run, but in every direction was blocked by rosebushes or men. The fireworks were in full display; his shouts were drowned by explosions and screams of delight from drunk spectators. It hurt every time they hit or kicked him and he was down, could think of no way to communicate with the inhuman faces seen in flashes of green and orange above him, to get them to stop. The long cloak tangled around a rose bush; for a second he thought the clasp would strangle him but it broke, leaving him on his knees in the dirt in the stupid frilled white shirt, one hand warding his face, the other lower. A kick aimed at his groin smashed into his wrist instead and he screamed, agonised.
Then another voice, effortlessly projected over the chaos of noise and blows. "They're coming to fix the lights. Time to be somewhere else, I would suggest."
"What about him?" Neil, out of breath and panicking. "He'll tell someone."
"Leave him to me."
Douglas, head sagging, felt a stab of terror at the confidence in that voice. He wanted to plead that he wouldn't tell anyone if they'd leave him alone, but he couldn't find his voice. This couldn't be happening. It was all a dark dream. Fireworks crackled and he could hear feet running away. Reluctantly he looked up at the one man left in front of him, his uninjured arm still up in useless defence.
The white pattern on the third man's face had been etched into his memory with the clarity of terror but this man's face, as the sky flickered, was clean. A fourth assailant, then, crooked wizard's hat silhouetted against the lights on the marquee. He struggled to put an identity to the shadow until the man made it easy for him by speaking again.
"Well, Douglas. This is somewhat unexpected." He dropped to his haunches. "Are you all right down there?"
Douglas breathed out, relieved beyond measure. "Hercules. Thank God. No. Everything fucking hurts."
"Ambulatory or ambulance?"
"I don't know." His right wrist hurt like hell but everything else seemed to be working. Herc offered a hand and he staggered up.
"In that case let's get you inside before your friends come back."
Douglas shuddered. "I can't walk though the lobby like this."
His reversed cloak covered his torn and filthy clothes. A plastic mask found discarded up by the tent hid the dirt and blood on his face. Douglas leaned on Hercules as he staggered through the brightly lit hotel. Herc was talking to someone; something about being drunk, but Douglas wasn't in any state to listen. A lift, then a short walk and Douglas collapsed thankfully on a hotel bed, cradling his wrist.
The fireworks had stopped, so what was the flash in Douglas's face? He opened his eyes. "What are you doing?"
"Evidence. In case you want to talk to the police."
Douglas has had enough of the police and Air England for one lifetime. "It's Kathy's wedding reception. No."
Herc took several more photos. "Still useful to have the evidence." He put his phone down, shrugged out of the bright-starred gown revealing plain black shirt and trousers. "No police, then. How about A&E? Is that wrist broken?"
Douglas moved his fingers slightly, cursing. "Maybe. I'd need an x-ray to be sure. Maybe just sprained I don't know. I ought to get it looked at, I suppose."
"Fifth November isn't the ideal night to turn up at the local hospital," Herc pointed out. "If you don't want to spend the rest of the evening in the company of small children who don't know which end of a sparkler to hold, I can get some ice and painkillers and take you there in the morning."
Douglas nodded, grateful that someone else was making the decisions. The thought of ice on his skin was making him shiver. Shock, he recognised, distantly. Hercules was rummaging in a bag.
"Here; paracetamol and codeine. Water. I'll get the ice. Back in two ticks. I'll lock the door behind me."
Douglas heard the key turn with a relief that he knew was irrational. He took a couple of deep breaths. How utterly crazy this was. Normal adult people- professional airline pilots- didn't attack him. They just didn't. What was the sense in it? People liked him. He was eminently likeable, after all. He was still staring down at the muddy hand cradling his wrist when Herc returned.
He lifted his head, slowly.
"Are you still with us?" Herc enquired.
"Good." Herc disappeared into the tiny bathroom. "Let's get that wrist clean and on ice, and then we can see how else your ex-colleagues saw fit to show their admiration." He reappeared, picked up the chair. "Here."
Douglas stood up awkwardly, hobbled to sit next to the sink. Herc started to cut away the lace sleeve.
"Now maybe you can indulge my curiosity. What in the name of all that's rational did you think you were doing coming here tonight, Douglas?" His tone was still conversational.
"Kathy invited me." Fingers brushed Douglas's wrist and he flinched. "I could hardly have predicted a lynch mob."
There was antiseptic in the water, stinging, the smell sharp. He let the other man gently clean the mud off his immersed arm, taking sharp breaths every time it jarred.
"I lost my job; one would have thought that enough for them. It was years ago and nothing to do with any of them anyway." Not even Oliver. Douglas hadn't asked him to get involved.
"Ah." Herc turned his wrist over carefully. "Surprising as it may seem, I think you have actually managed to underestimate your notoriety. Whatever you may in fact have taken and from whom, the stories that circulated had you preying rather unscrupulously on your colleagues as well as the company. I doubt that anyone believed all of them, but there were plenty to choose from."
He moved the clean arm onto a towel against Douglas's whimpered protests.
"AE's heavy handed response rather fanned the flames, of course. For a while it was all spot checks and audits and you were, somewhat more accurately, blamed for making all our lives a little more difficult than necessary. Most people got over it. It appears that some people haven't."
A roll of bandage appeared. "This will hurt a little."
Douglas swore and winced through a couple of agonising minutes as Herc neatly wrapped and compressed the slightly swollen flesh.
"Still wiggle your fingers?"
"Good." A bag of crushed ice was wrapped around the bandage. "We'll move that as little as necessary, but there's the rest of you to clean up. Starting with your face; it's bleeding. How are the painkillers?"
"Not killing anything," He was sore all over, body and soul; all the drugs were doing was making him woozy. "They just hurt me. It wasn't even a fight. They weren't even drunk. "
"No." Herc ran another bowl of water, started on the rose bush scratches on his cheek.
He took a long time over the application of water and soap and stinging disinfectant to sore and bruised bits of skin. Douglas was feeling too sedated and nauseous to talk much, or even to resist being undressed down to his underwear and wrapped in a clean hotel bathrobe.
"That's the lot. How are you feeling?"
"Sick." A worry crept across his blurred thoughts. "Concussion?"
"No." Herc was reassuringly definite. "Nothing hit your head. It's just the codeine and the shock. Apart from that wrist there's no worse than a few scratches and bruises. Best to sleep it off if you can."
"Back to my room." Douglas tried to stand up from sitting on the bed, found his head spinning and sat back gracelessly.
"I don't think you're in any state to go wandering around, and you're still persona non grata at this gathering. Do lie down, Douglas." Herc removed the ice, glanced at his watch. "I really ought to say goodnight to a couple of people. I vanished rather abruptly even for a magician. I'll be back in half an hour, by which time you will be asleep."
Douglas couldn't imagine how he could sleep but he lay down for want of an alternative, heard the door close, listened for the security of the lock sliding then heard nothing else.
Half asleep he shifted and his wrist protested, waking him. The room was in darkness but he could hear steady breathing from the other side of the bed. He ached, clear headed; the painkillers had worn off. He was underneath the duvet, still wrapped in the bathrobe.
For a while he tried to fall back to sleep again but he was too sore in half a dozen places, and he needed to visit the bathroom. Maybe Herc had left the painkillers out. He reached up for the light switch.
"Are you all right?" The deep voice was sleepy.
"i could use some more of those tablets about now." He pulled himself up, swung his legs to the floor.
Hercules sat up, barechested. Apparently they'd been sharing the duvet. "Sorry." He glanced at the bedside clock. "Not for another hour and a half."
"I'm not going to keel over from taking them a bit early. They're ridiculously over-cautious with their dosages. And I need them. It hurts."
"No." Hercules was definite. "They're much stronger than over the counter stuff, you shouldn't really have them at all without seeing a doctor first and I'm not having you turning into a duck or something on top of everything else. Carolyn would be more than usually cross."
Douglas glared at him in annoyance. It felt a little odd to do that while both sitting up in the same bed. "I presume you have no health and safety objections to my using the bathroom?"
"Be my guest." The man looked infuriatingly amused. It made Douglas realise just how bad things must have been the night before to keep Hercules serious.
He was stiff, hobbling across the bedroom floor, but everything worked. The drawn face that looked back at him in the mirror had a couple of deep red scratches across one cheek and a few shallow ones but nothing worse. His wrist didn't hurt too much if he didn't jar it, hurt like hell if he did. He suspected it was fractured, which meant all sorts of trouble and inconvenience for months. And more pain.
Douglas pulled the dressing gown open, took a look in the mirror at the dark red bruises on one hip and thigh, the purple red on the other shin. There were more bruises on his arms, he thought, couldn't get to them easily. Both hands and knees had stinging grazes with places where tiny amounts of blood had welled from deeper cuts. The night's disorientation had left him, the fear not entirely so. For the first time he decided that he was quite extraordinarily annoyed. Someone- three people- were going to regret this.
He tugged the bathrobe back around him awkwardly with his left hand, returned to the bedroom. Climbing back into bed with Herc was just a little too odd so he sat on the end of it instead, looked at the familiar bland face. Where normally he would have felt only irritation, this time there was a smidgeon of guilt. Herc had undoubtedly come through for him. He had to admit that he'd misjudged the man's superficiality.
"Painful as it is to say it, I am deeply in your debt for last night, Herc. Thank you."
Herc waved a hand, unconcerned. "It was no trouble. Anyone would have done the same. Much as I would like to have you owe me a favour, I can't claim one for that."
"Still, I'm grateful. And I can count on your discretion; this won't of course get back to anyone."
The man laughed. "Now that is a different matter. Bandaging comes free but discretion has a price tag. If I'm going to forego the pleasure of telling the tale I'm going to need to be appropriately compensated."
Douglas wasn't really in the mood to be teased. He ached all over. Still he tried to stay with the conversation. "Would that be liquid compensation, do you think? I imagine something rather nice might be liberated from Carolyn's talons."
"I don't think a stolen bottle of whiskey is going to save you this time,"
Douglas found that he couldn't read the man's smile at all now. Except that it was wider.
"I am entirely sincere about the fun I'm going to have spreading this story around. Why do you think I took photographs, Douglas?"
Oh God. The man might actually mean it. "Why?"
"Because you're still an arrant liar and a thief. You cheated AE and now you cheat MJN every chance you get, and boast about it. You waltz in here shamelessly among the people you let down and you start lying all over again."
Herc's deep voice was smooth and merciless, "I want Carolyn to sit up and take notice of the sort of crook she's hired. I want poor Martin to see past that smarm of yours. Ideally I'd want you too ashamed to hang around at all, but I don't see that happening, unfortunately. But this will be a start."