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An Ever-Fixèd Mark

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"I'll be just a moment, Sir Gerald."

"No need to hurry. Our table is for 12:30." Tucking the paper-wrapped parcel under his arm, Tarrant stepped out of the private lift and looked around the apartment with quiet contentment. The glowing colours of the Isfahan rugs drew him as usual, but then his eye was caught by a new small wooden figure on the corner shelf.

Barely as tall as his hand, the rosewood had been shaped by a master's hand into a woman's nude form. Balanced on one foot, her body twisted slightly, her head turned to gaze over her shoulder, she was all possibility captured in a frozen moment, ready to spring away or stand and fight.

Her resemblance to his hostess was unmistakable.

Tarrant brushed a single finger along the long line of her neck and arm, enjoying the smooth feel and the heady scent of the wood.

"Alex Hemmer sent it along," came a voice from just behind him. He turned and regarded Modesty Blaise with the same pleasure he'd shown the statue. She wore a light yellow cotton blouse tucked into a slim grey skirt. At her throat was a broach, a small but exquisitely wrought tulip, set with garnet, citrine and peridot. The smile in her eyes matched that on her lips.

"Modesty, my dear, you look like spring herself." Tarrant took her hand and gallantly pressed his lips lightly against the back. "And this is for you." He offered her the package. "It was delivered just as I arrived and I told your porter I'd bring it up."

"Oh, I've been hoping it would be finished before this weekend. Let me check it and then we can go." She took the package to the drum table in the foyer and slipped the paper off, revealing a sleek metal frame. "Perfect. Steve and Dinah Collier are coming to Benildon and I wanted this hung up before they got there."

Inside the frame, Tarrant could see a certificate of some kind. Looking closer, his eyes widened as he silently read the careful black printing on creamy parchment.

Modesty laughed. "Take me to lunch, Sir Gerald, and I'll tell you the whole story."

As the lift closed, Tarrant could not help but cast one last glance at the framed certificate on the table. Two names stood out boldly from the rest of the text. Spreading over Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin was what he had first taken to be an abstract design but then realized was one word stamped in red ink.

INCOMPATIBLE

******

"Don't be cruel to an old civil servant, Modesty." Tarrant had not pressed her during a spectacular sole meunière but now the table was cleared of all but coffee and his curiosity could no longer wait. "What in heaven's name were you and Willie doing at," he paused, summoning up the memory of the title on the certificate, "Miss Mariah Monarch's Romantic Retreat for Couples and Compatibility?"

"It's all Steve's fault, of course." Modesty lit a cigarette and gestured, the glowing end drawing a short curve in the air. "They were at Ashlea over the holidays and we all went down to the village fête. This romance course was one of the raffle prizes and Steve began going on and on how Willie and I were in desperate need of it. After all, he said, Willie can only pull a girl if Danny Chavasse is in another country and I am little more than a primitive cavewoman who clubs her chosen mate over the head and drags him back to her lair by his hair. Neither of us has any finesse or style and the world would be made brighter and happier if we could only attain a bare trace of polish."

She grinned, clearly enjoying the memory. "It was one of his finer performances. He cited his own thinning locks as evidence of my hair-pulling ways. By the end, he was somehow playing Danny as a pasha giving Willie formal permission to woo the lowliest of his concubines while at the same time acting out me dragging him off by his hair as Willie gave Dinah a blow-by-blow description of all of it -- she was egging both of them on at this point and you know how much Willie loves to hear her laugh."

Tarrant knew, of all of Willie's former girlfriends, the blind girl held a special place in the lives of both Modesty and Willie. She had faced terrible danger both on her own account and because of their friendship.

"So when the girls came around with the raffle tickets I bought one for Steve and Dinah. I told Dinah that I was so sorry she had a madman for a husband but that surely Miss Mariah Monarch could turn him into the romantic man of her dreams. Not to be outdone, Dinah bought one for me and Willie. She apologized for her madman but said that it was her wifely duty to stand by him."

Modesty shrugged her shoulders. "And then they pulled the winner. Willie was terribly upset. Said his ears should have prickled and warned him of the danger. Dinah told him to take it like a man. So, a few weeks ago we found ourselves at the Retreat, ready to learn the secrets of romance…."

******

"Welcome to the Monarch Romantic Retreat for Couples and Compatibility. I am Miss Mariah Monarch and for over thirty years I have counseled couples and helped them determine their compatibility, nurtured that spark, and assisted them in keeping the romance alive."

Miss Mariah Monarch was a small woman, though not frail, dressed in a slightly dowdy skirt and jacket of lavender that picked up the gleaming white of her hair and made it shine. A lace-collared blouse added to her air of an enthusiastic school teacher.

"Over the course of today, we shall go through a series of exercises designed to help you connect at the deepest levels, bringing forth your true selves. I will be monitoring you and determining just how compatible you are and helping foster the connections of those who belong together.

"As you can see, our Retreats are small and intimate, so that I may give each couple the attention they deserve."

The room they were gathered in was decked out like a sidewalk café. Two small tables were set out, a large covered platter on each flanked by two lit candles. Modesty and Willie Garvin sat at one. Modesty wore a simple shirt dress in apple green; Willie a suede sports jacket over an open-collared white shirt and dark slacks.

The second couple had pulled their chairs so closely together that the girl, probably no older than eighteen, was practically in the boy's lap. The boy himself was barely older than the girl.

They had introduced themselves as Mavis Henricks and Edmund Peterson but given the frequency with which they addressed each other as "dearest" and "darling" Willie reckoned it was even odds as to which they would actually answer to.

"Check out the walls, Willie," Modesty said.

He ran an eye over the murals around the room and snickered.

"Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Heloise and Abelard -- what kind of romance is she selling?"

"Excuse me." Miss Mariah had no problem projecting through the small room. "This is our first exercise. If you will please lift the cover in front of you…."

Willie and Edmund lifted the covers, revealing artfully arranged platters of cheese, crackers, fruit and chocolates.

"I want to you imagine yourself meeting for the first time, sharing a small, intimate meal as you get to know one another. Savor the delicacies before you as you savor the first steps toward life-long compatibility. I," Miss Mariah announced gravely, "shall be observing you."

"We can't let her hear how we really met. She'd keel over with a heart attack," Willie muttered. "Let's see, then. It's a fine spring day here in Piccadilly Circus when I first espy the girl of my dreams atop a dromedary -- that's the one with one hump, ain't it, Princess? Or am I thinkin' of the Bactrian?" Willie's eyes were full of mischief.

"Bactrians have two," she replied, topping a slice of pear with a bit off the crumbling wedge of Stilton. "But they both spit."

"Definitely a dromedary, then. 'Hold up there, miss,' I say. 'Have you a permit for this here mode of transportation?'"

Slipping easily into Willie's scene, Modesty answered. "I'm trying to get to Waterloo, but I fear I've made a wrong turn. And how handsome you are in your traffic warden's vest. Could direct me to the nearest shop where I might purchase an ABC? And I apologize for the dromedary."

"He has remarkable aim." Miming wiping a bit of camel saliva from his forehead, Willie continued the epic tale the perpetually-lost lady and the traffic warden. But it seemed that true love was about to founder as Modesty confided that she longed to give up the cut-throat world of underground camel racing and take up competitive tatting, while Willie dreamed of intrigue and excitement running the coconut shy booth in a travelling fair.

Their romance continued to go aground as Modesty suggested the first of an even dozen offspring a scant nine months after beginning wedded bliss, whilst Willie was adamant that he would not bring a single soul into this veil of tears "until I hear a nightingale sing in Berkeley Square with my own two ears."

With practiced ease, Modesty split her attention, keeping up with Willie's increasingly outré remarks while unobtrusively eavesdropping on the table next to them. The younger couple was embracing the assignment with a passion, much as they were embracing each other.

They consumed a steady stream of chocolates as they recounted their initial meeting -- a brief moment when Edmund's bricklaying father had visited Mavis's pipefitting father with an eye to a joint construction venture. Alas for the younger generation, their elders had not found themselves as compatible as Mavis and Edmund and a mutual antipathy had sprung up, seeming to doom the budding romance before it ever had time to bloom.

But Edmund and Mavis had persevered, stealing moments when they could and resolving that nothing would stand in the way of their fated romance. A flier advertising Miss Mariah Monarch's Retreats was surely the key to victory, for how could their families continue to deny their love after they had proven their compatibility?

Noting how Miss Mariah bestowed an indulgent smile upon the star-crossed lovers, a look far different from the pained expression she wore every time her attention turned to Willie and herself, Modesty inclined her head toward the nearest mural and whispered, "You called it, Willie love, Romeo and Juliet."

Willie idly plucked a few grapes from the platter and began tossing them one by one into the air and catching them in his mouth as he considered the modern incarnations of Montague and Capulet. "Don't figure them for the old poison and dagger route, though. More like over the anvil at Gretna Gree--"

"Willie?" Modesty saw that Willie was turning an alarming shade of red. Reacting instantly, she struck out with her right arm, the stiffened fingers driving up into Willie's diaphragm and pushing air out of his lungs.

He spasmed and coughed uncontrollably for a moment. Then a grape popped out of his mouth and sailed across the divide between the two tables, hitting one of the candles before careening off to the side and coming to a halt after striking Miss Mariah square in her lace-trimmed bodice and falling to the floor.

"He did it," Modesty said.

"She did it," Willie said at the same time.

******

Tarrant looked at Modesty sternly. "It's quite rude to be pointing fingers at other people, young lady."

"Well, it was his fault. I wasn't going to take the blame. Willie needs to learn to keep his grapes to himself."

Tarrant gave such a shocking lack of accountability the scant attention it deserved. "So how did the rest of the Retreat go?"

******

The rest of the Retreat continued in the same vein. No matter the exercise, their attempts to comply with Miss Mariah's directions produced only sighs and sad shakes of her head, while Mavis and Edmund could do no wrong.

They gazed deeply into one another's eyes and released the poetry of their souls -- Willie's soul offered up dirty limericks. Edmund quoted Keats.

They listed their greatest regrets and deepest hopes -- Modesty regretted never learning to tap dance and hoped to one day breed a three-hump camel and name the animal after her favorite uncle Fraser. Mavis spoke of a honeymoon in Minorca.

******

"My dear, I do hope you'll let me tell Jack about his namesake." Tarrant imagined Fraser's face upon learning of his cameo appearance in Modesty's surreal adventure.

"Oh, please let Willie do it. He's going to be upset enough as it is that I didn't let him tell you the story."

"As if I could wait after I saw that certificate. It's a wonder Miss Mariah didn't break down in tears, dealing with a pair of brats like you."

A wry smile twisted Modesty's lips. "Miss Mariah is made of sterner stuff than that. It took the day's final exercise to truly test her mettle."

******

Miss Mariah Monarch stood before them.

They were in the small cafe room again. The tables were pushed to the sides of the room and the late afternoon sun slanted through the windows at the back, lighting up the murals on the walls.

"This," Miss Mariah proclaimed, "is the ultimate test of compatibility. Would each lady stand facing me, with the gentleman behind her? Gentlemen, please take one step back."

"Oh, my sainted aunt. She's got us doin' trust falls?" Willie whispered in a voice that shook with suppressed laughter.

"And without a net, Willie love," Modesty replied.

"I shall count down from three," Miss Mariah was continuing. "When I reach one, ladies, you will fall backward, graceful as a swan, trusting fully that the gentleman behind you will reach out his arms and catch you up in his embrace."

She clapped her hands. "Three. Two. O--"

Before she could finish the word, the door behind her burst open and a screaming horde pushed into the room. The chaos resolved itself into two couples, clearly united in their upset. One woman, the spitting image of Mavis as a comfortable matron, clutched at the tall man beside her and shrieked, "Mavis!" as he bellowed, "Take your hands off my daughter!"

"Mummy!" Mavis cried out, throwing her arms around Edmund. "Daddy, I love him! We're totally compatible!"

"Get away from my son, you hussy!" The second woman pushed past Mavis's parents and shook her finger in Mavis's face.

Edmund squared his shoulders and turned slightly, shielding Mavis. "Mother, Father," he said, nodding to the last man, whose receding hairline did not bode well for Edmund's future, "this is Mavis, the woman I'm going to marry."

Edmund's mother grabbed Edmund's arm. "Randall, tell him he's too young!"

"We're not too young!" Mavis pushed at Edmund's mother.

"Young lady, don't you go shoving my wi--!"

"Peterson, get your son away from my dau--!"

It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Edmund and Mavis were at the center of a flailing, shrieking circle of parents, all intent on clutching someone to their bosom or tearing them asunder. Edmund's mother seemed to be winning, dragging him away from Mavis's feminine wiles, when Mavis's father, encumbered as he was by Mavis's mother, tripped over his own feet and went sprawling headfirst toward the floor.

Edmund, in a dazzling display of quick reflexes, caught him before he hit the carpet.

"Oh, Edmund!" Mavis exclaimed rapturously. "You're even compatible with my father!"

Wille took it all in, enthralled. "'Out of the mouths of babes.' Psalm 8:2. A regular soap opera, ain't it, Princess? Princess?"

The last few minutes flashed through his head. Miss Mariah counting down, the door flying open, a thump, the drama of the star-crossed lovers….

He looked down.

******

Tarrant stared at her. "He let you fall. Willie Garvin let you fall. Willie Garvin let you fall."

Modesty patted his hand. "You sound exactly how I expect Steve to sound when I tell him. Yes, Willie Garvin let me fall right on my bottom. Gave me a bruise this big." She held up her fingers to make a small "o" the size of a penny.

"Once she recovered from the disruption -- and Mavis's and Edmund's mothers recovered from hysterics -- Miss Mariah marched everyone off for a heart-to-heart. By the time she was done, Mavis and Edmund were officially engaged and both sets of parents were signed up as couples for the next Retreat.

"Then she turned her attention to me and Willie…."

******

Miss Mariah Monarch was terribly disappointed. She regarded the couple on the other side of her desk.

"I'm terribly disappointed. Miss Blaise, Mr. Garvin, the Monarch system has proven reliable for hundreds -- for thousands -- of couples. It has shown the compatibility of those couples, it has boosted that compatibility, and it has shown those couples how to keep the spark of romance alive.

"But it cannot introduce compatibility where there is none."

Her gaze settled heavily on Willie, who straightened to automatic schoolboy attention, then on Modesty, who stifled a giggle and did her best not to shift her weight to her newly-blossoming bruise.

"In all my years, I have never seen a couple so lacking in communication, in connection, in… in… in any level of compatibility. You seem incapable of relating to each other in even the most basic and fundamental of ways."

Miss Mariah Monarch stood up, pressing her hands flat on the desk. "Please, I implore you. It's not too late; you're both young and moderately attractive. Find other people."

******

"A week later, our certificate arrived. I was going to just send it to Steve and Dinah but Willie came up with the idea of framing it and putting it up in the bedroom they use at Ashlea. It'll make a wonderful conversation piece, don't you think?"

Tarrant sat back in his chair, drawing a shuddering breath and blinking away the tears of mirth that threatened. He marveled again at the good fortune that had somehow kept her in his life, despite the danger he had knowingly sent her into again and again. "Modesty, I am going to be terribly rude and invite myself down this weekend. I wouldn't miss their reaction for the world."

Her eyes lit up as she smiled, the tiny crows-feet at the corners somehow making her seem even younger. "That would be wonderful. You know you're always welcome."