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A Jolly Kind of Detective Game

Chapter Text

He noticed with that particularly galling sense of annoyance which comes from the shattering of some unimportant illusion that the paper and envelope were distinctive and expensive and the typewriter, to judge from its many typographical eccentricities, easily identifiable-- provided one knew where to start looking for it. He abandoned himself to aggrievedness. Criminals should at least try to preserve the pretence of anonymity, and not flaunt unsolvable clues before their victims.
Edmund Crispin
--------------------

"Need some help with that?"

Perched atop her bulging suitcase, legs dangling down past the edge of the bench, Hilary glanced up at her friend and groaned dismally. She felt like a small child seated this high up, and worse, they were veering dangerously close to missing their train. "This suitcase is older than I am. I'm afraid it's beyond help by now."

"Nonsense, there's got to be some way to get it to the train station at least." Amita abandoned her own luggage to crouch down in front of the bench and survey the damage; Hilary leaned forward to watch. "It's held together this long--I'm sure we can nurse it through one trip to London." She glanced around the crowded quad. "Aren't we meant to have a porter to help with this kind of thing?"

Hilary grimaced. "On the last day of term? We'd be lucky to find Lewis by nightfall. And regardless, why should the poor man suffer because I never remembered to buy a new suitcase?"

"True enough." Amita cast one last hopeless look around, as if hoping for Lewis to materialise by miraculous coincidence, and then pressed her lips together in thought. "I have a few belts I could dig out of mine, if you think those could keep it strapped together until this evening."

"That might do." Hilary shifted experimentally on her perch, and the suitcase creaked and distorted alarmingly under her. "Though I don't know if I feel safe getting down long enough for us to try."

They had almost managed to wrestle Hilary's luggage into submission when she caught sight of a tall, slim blond figure rounding the corner and heading straight for them. "Oh, hell," she blurted, looking hastily between Amita and their collective pile of bags and finding neither substantial enough to hide behind. "Not now. And I was so close to making it safely out of here."

Amita followed her line of sight and laughed. "Oh come on, surely he isn't all that bad."

Hilary jerked her suitcase savagely off the bench. It landed right-side-up, listed alarmingly to one side, and then swayed back to vertical with all its contents miraculously still inside. "He's not," she began, "but--" There wasn't time for her to explain herself before he wandered into hearing range, so Hilary sighed and resigned herself to a few minutes' further delay. "Lord St. George," she greeted, with a more-or-less sincere smile. "What brings you into St. Hugh's this afternoon?"

His smile was unmistakeably, inexplicably, genuine. "Miss Thorpe, Miss--"

"Kapoor," Amita supplied, hovering uncomfortably somewhere behind Hilary's shoulder.

"Miss Kapoor, a pleasure to meet you--" Lord St. George bowed slightly in acknowledgment without bothering to introduce himself. "You seemed to be having difficulties, that's all, and I thought I could be some use."

"You can't," said Hilary, patiently. "Thanks very much."

St. George tugged restlessly at his cuffs, thin veneer of formality vanishing, and produced a card from somewhere about his person. "Yes, well, if you happen to be in London any time soon--" He offered the card, and Hilary took it automatically and tucked it into a pocket of her skirt without looking at it. "I'll be staying there for a while before I go back to Denver. Just in case you want anything."

"I think that's rather sweet of him," Amita offered, watching him go with her head tilted.

Hilary hefted the handle of her suitcase and set off for the back gate, pleasantly surprised to find that the suitcase rolled along behind her for the moment without tipping or falling open or shedding any of its wheels. "I went to dinner with him twice. I even sent him flowers when he was in hospital a few months ago. You'd think that would be enough to satisfy his ego."

"Have you considered the possibility he might actually be fond of you?" Amita hefted her own bag over her shoulder and hurried to catch up.

Hilary had considered it, in fact, and found it profoundly unlikely. In fact, she could swear that by the time St. George had vanished from their view he'd already acquired the company of at least two other women undergraduates--not that she'd been watching. "I think he's just having trouble coping with the idea that a woman might not be attracted to him, poor boy."

Amita shrugged, folding her arms as they walked. "I still don't think he's that bad."

"He's not," Hilary granted, with a brief pang of unwarranted guilt. "He is very good-looking--" not that most of the faculty and students of the Women's Colleges hadn't worked this out already-- "and he's quite a considerate dinner companion, or I wouldn't have accepted to begin with. I'm just not convinced he's good for much beyond that and wrecking cars."

Her suitcase was heavy despite the wheels, and making itself increasingly difficult, and the train station, if they ever made it there, was going to be a nightmare all on its own. Hilary set her shoulders and put St. George out of her mind--for good, she hoped.

--------

She dozed briefly on the train, though the ride wasn't quite long enough for a proper nap, and was jarred awake by a minor commotion on the platform at Reading. Amita was only just settling back into her seat at Hilary's side, and offered a small greasy paper parcel, already half-unwrapped. "Sandwich?"

Hilary eyed the purported foodstuffs inside, then went back to craning out the window to see what was happening on the platform. "Think I'd rather not." Things seemed to have died down already, whatever they'd been.

"Your loss." Amita took a bite, hesitated, and grimaced. "All right, perhaps it isn't."

"It's no more than you deserve for buying food on trains." Hilary rolled her shoulders, trying to reawaken her brain.

"Waste of perfectly good small change," Amita observed, and set the package aside distractedly. "Look, Hilary, speaking of Wimseys--"

"How about this?" Hilary fumbled in her pocket. "I've still got his card on me somewhere, and you can look him up yourself, if you think so much of him. In fact, as long as you're in a skirt, I doubt he'll notice the difference."

"No, I mean--" Amita twisted up the paper from her sandwich and wrapped it around her finger with great deliberation; watching her, Hilary felt her brief irritation melt into worry. "Not St. George, his uncle. Lord Peter. It just reminded me about my summer job--it's not a very good connection, now I think of it."

Hilary looked up curiously; she knew Amita had found a place working as a solicitor's clerk for a few months, but Amita hadn't been terribly forthcoming about the details of the post. "Don't tell me you heard back from Sir Impey after all."

"Of course not," said Amita, and frowned. "It's the name that does it, you know. No one wants a coloured girl in their front office--they think it makes them look low-class. A good deal of the ones who bothered to respond said something like not a good fit for our firm, though a good deal more were much ruder about it." She sighed. "I sometimes wonder whether I mightn't have had more luck if I'd signed all my letters something nice and comforting like Miss Amy Carlisle."

"They'd find out as soon as you showed up in person," said Hilary, almost apologetically. "Perhaps when you've passed the bar it'll be easier? People can't very well argue with that."

"No," said Amita, though she looked sceptical. "I suppose not."

"Did you not find someone after all?"

"Oh no, I found someone." Amita looked distinctly unenthused. "And I don't believe he's particularly impressed by my education either."

Hilary blinked. "Oh, Amita, you didn't."

"I didn't realise," said her friend unhappily. "His office is in the neighbourhood where we lived when I was small, and it isn't a terribly posh area or anything, but I thought that was something, and I was so terribly relieved that someone wanted to give me a chance. But I went to Town a few weeks ago to interview with him in person, and he didn't much care about--about my marks, or anything I know about the law, or even my work ethic or that kind of thing. I think he just fancies having me about to look at and order about." Her voice grew steadily shriller and shakier as she went on.

Hilary wrapped a comforting arm around her friend's shoulders and did her best to sort through the situation. "I do suppose he is a solicitor," she suggested reluctantly.

"To the best of anyone's knowledge that lives in the neighbourhood," offered Amita, with patently false cheer. "I really believe he is a solicitor, just a terribly unpleasant person. God, he makes my skin crawl."

"Then don't work for him," said Hilary, without much hope.

"I haven't got another option, Hilary. I need work. It's that or go home to my parents until autumn, and I need the experience." Amita folded her arms and slumped back into the corner.

"You know," Hilary began, "I haven't found a place to live yet; I was going to take a hotel room for a few days until I could. I don't suppose you'd care to share a place? Or know of anywhere else where I could let a room in the neighbourhood?"

Amita nodded, pulling herself back together with a slight shiver. "Oh, I'm already sharing rooms with a friend of my sister's, that wouldn't work--but there's always Mrs. Bloom. She's a widow, you know, and always saying she's terribly lonely and going to let out the top floor of her house just for the company, and she never remembers to advertise so she never has; I'm sure she'd let you have it for not much at all."

"Do you think so?" Hilary smiled ruefully. "I wouldn't want to come barging in and interfering if I wasn't wanted. I just want to help out, you know. Just to be sure you've got someone there if something goes really wrong."

"Oh, I want you interfering--would you really?" Amita scrubbed sheepishly at her face. "Only I'll feel such an idiot if he really does turn out to be all right. And I can't just go home and tell my parents I was frightened out of a job."

Hilary nudged her shoulder gently with her own. "At worst you'll have found me a place to live. And anyway, my uncle’s making a dreadful nuisance of himself lately; he’s got some stocks or something he wants me to invest in, and he thinks he’ll have an easier time getting me to lend him money without Lord Peter around to interfere."

Amita laughed a bit; she was well accustomed to hovering on the fringes of conflict between Hilary and Uncle Edward. “So you’re looking to keep out of his sight for a little while?”

Hilary attempted a reassuring smile. “If anything, you’ll be doing me a favour.”

-------

It proved to be, at first blush, a very nice-looking place to live indeed. Mrs. Bloom's attic was big and airy, with a plentiful supply of windows and a bedroom separate from the sitting-room, and all furnished already; it was just about as pleasant a set of rooms as Hilary could have hoped for

"It's beautiful up here," she said, thoughtlessly astonished, and turned to Mrs. Bloom apologetically. "I'm sorry--I didn't mean to sound so surprised, only you did say the attic and Amita told me it had been ages since anyone's lived up here." She deposited her suitcase near the door and, finally relieved of worrying about it for the moment, went wandering delightedly through the space. "There's a little kitchen up here and everything."

"Not much of one, I'm afraid," Mrs. Bloom said modestly. "My old mother used to have boarders up here, when I was a girl, so it's all set up with its own stairs and all--practically a home of its own, really. If you want to do much cooking, you're free to use the kitchen downstairs."

"Oh, no, don't worry about it," Hilary said absently, poking her head into the other room. "I can't do much better than boil an egg or two."

"Well, perhaps it's time you learned," Mrs. Bloom suggested, and Hilary stepped back to look at the older woman, momentarily wary. "Even if it's only for yourself."

Hilary laughed in relief. "For a minute I was afraid you were one of the sort who think women ought to stay in the kitchen and out of the universities."

"Good Lord, no." Mrs. Bloom was appropriately shocked at the suggestion. "The Kapoors are really wonderful people, you know--always coming around to visit ever since they moved away, particularly your friend's sister--and I'm so pleased that you and your friend Amita have got yourselves such good educations. I just don't see that an education does a young lady much good if she's too hungry to use it."

"I can't argue with that," said Hilary, who had in fact just been contemplating going back out to locate Amita and scout round for a place to eat dinner. She hadn't eaten since breakfast, and even that sad excuse for a chicken sandwich was beginning to seem awfully appetising in hindsight. "How much rent were you asking?"

Mrs. Bloom named a figure that sounded, even to the ears of Hilary's extremely limited experience in such matters, absurdly low.

"I couldn't," she protested, horrified. "Why, at that rate you might as well be paying me to live here."

"Well, I wouldn't go so far as that." Mrs. Bloom chuckled. "But it isn't as if anyone else were looking to take the place, is it? And it'll be good to have someone living here. It never feels quite right, having this whole house all to myself."

"I suppose I don't have much of a choice but to take it, then." Hilary smiled and sat down on the sofa experimentally, finding it to be more than satisfactorily comfortable; it had been a long day, after all. "I was afraid I wouldn't find a place," she went on. "Not at such short notice--I thought I’d have to get a hotel."

"You were terribly lucky, at that; there've been some new people moving in lately, but I haven't any intention of offering room to them. Not like you--you're a friend of Miss Kapoor's, so I know you’re all right." Mrs. Bloom's good humour slipped suddenly off her face; Hilary was surprised by the strength of her feeling on the matter, but did her best to maintain what she hoped was an expression of friendly curiosity. "They're not our usual sort, you know, most of the new people. Not good honest folks--no good for anyone, if you ask me. I keep away from them as best I can; I suggest you do the same, if they let you."

Hilary frowned at that; she wondered whether this was Mrs. Bloom's personal disapproval of the people in question, or something more sinister. "What are they like, then?"

"You'll see," said Mrs. Bloom vaguely. "But a smart girl like yourself wouldn't give them much trouble, so they shouldn't give you much either. Best not to say too much more about it, really."

"If you say so," Hilary agreed readily, and forced herself back to her feet so she could locate her purse. "First week's rent all right?"

"Perfectly." Mrs. Bloom's good mood reappeared the moment the subject had changed. "And what did you say your name was, dear?"

Hilary hesitated; she felt a touch of guilt lying to the woman, and it probably wouldn't prove to be necessary, but it was the spirit of the thing, really--and she supposed you could never be too careful. Her uncle really was terribly persistent. Let him stew for a little while. "Caroline," she answered, after a moment. "Miss Caroline Hood."

-------

Amita wasn't precisely pleased with the thought either, when they re-encountered each other on the street outside. "I've told my family your real name before," she said anxiously. "In letters and things. And it does all seem a bit much."

"I'm sure they'll understand. I'll explain to them if we happen to meet." Hilary was, in fact, sure of no such thing; she was more or less thinking things up as she went along, but there was no need to confess that to her friend just now.

Amita hailed from a small riverside corner of London called Foxgrove; Hilary had heard a great deal about it in the two years they'd known each other, but--having spent her holidays in Fenchurch St. Paul whenever possible--had never had the opportunity to visit until now. She was given to understand that it was not an especially prosperous neighbourhood, nor an especially picturesque one, being populated primarily by artists, workers, and members of either group aspiring to join the other; but it seemed from what Amita had told her to be a fairly friendly and comfortable place to live nonetheless. Her impression of the place now, seen in person for the first time, was not substantially different; certainly, apart from the rather odd turn her conversation with her new landlady had taken, nothing seemed overtly wrong with the place. Hilary wasn't precisely sure what a street would look like where something was wrong, but this didn't seem to be it--all the same, still being bothered on Mrs. Bloom’s behalf, she deferred to Amita's far more expert opinion on the subject.

"It doesn't look all that different than usual," Amita opined, as they hovered on a street corner. "I don't know everyone, certainly, but no one seems horribly out of place or anything like that."

"But some people must be." Hilary peered around anxiously, half-hoping for a conveniently mustachioed villain or six to simply materialise out of the bustle of the sidewalk around them. If only it were that simple. "That's what Mrs. Bloom said--not our usual sort."

Amita shrugged half-heartedly. "I'll keep an eye out for anyone out of place, of course. But I do rather think there's something nasty up--nastier than Mr. Ames, if that can be believed."

Hilary pricked her ears up. "Why so?"

But Amita only looked around furtively and dragged them into the nearest coffee shop, and thence to an isolated table in the back corner, refusing to explain herself until they had ordered drinks and the waiter had exchanged greetings with her and vanished back behind the counter. "Gail was out when I arrived," she confided under her breath, though Hilary had already known this. "She owns this place, in fact, though I don’t see her now--but she left me a key under the mat and a note welcoming me home, you know, in case we missed each other. But I went to see what there was in the kitchen, and I found this shoved into the wastebin." Her hand brushed Hilary's under the table, passing over a folded sheet of paper.

It was a tricky business to unfold the paper and crane her head far enough down to see it without being too conspicuous about it, but after a moment's contortion Hilary managed it. The sheet of paper was thick and soft and not quite white--expensive, she guessed, as best she could in the poor light of the coffeeshop and without extensive knowledge of such things. The message, however, was brief and typewritten and all too easy to make out.

Talk to anyone and we will make certain you regret it.

- H

"Hm." Hilary swallowed hard; it was beginning to occur to her that she might be letting herself in for a very different situation than they’d thought, but backing out this soon would have meant abandoning her friend--and Hilary had absolutely no intention of doing any such thing. "This isn't good--well, obviously it isn't," she added, momentarily irritated with herself for stating the blindingly obvious. "But I promised I was going to help you and I'm going to do my best, all right? Even though this does all seem rather peculiar."

Amita managed a wan smile. "All right. It'd be just like solving a puzzle, isn't it? And you're good at puzzles." The thought seemed to comfort her, for she sat up a little straighter and leaned across the table. "I think I read in a novel somewhere that typewriters all type a bit differently--like fingerprints, even. Can't you do something with that?"

"I'd need something to compare it to," Hilary pointed out, and Amita sighed in disappointment. "This does seem to be awfully nice paper, though; I wonder whether it might be watermarked, if I take a look at it in the sunlight." She slid it absently between her fingers.

"That is an idea." Amita beamed in gratitude, and Hilary shifted in her seat, faintly uncomfortable. "You see, I told you you'd be good at this."

This line of conversation was mercifully cut short by the return of their waiter with tea and biscuits; it wasn't all that substantial as a late lunch went, or even for tea, but the fresh difficulty of the note Amita had found had temporarily distracted Hilary from her hunger. "Even if there is a watermark," she said cautiously, a few minutes later, "I'm not sure what that would tell us. It isn't as if we could simply walk into a stationer's and ask which of his customers' names might begin with H. There are so many H-names," she went on thoughtlessly. "It could be from me."

Amita snorted. "I doubt that very much."

"Still, though." Hilary turned a biscuit over and over in her fingers, thinking. "If we pretended to be potential clients--" She laughed even at the thought, and Amita joined her after a moment. "I doubt it'd go over for a moment."

"If we had someone much better put-together than us--" An unholy spark began to gleam in Amita's eye, and all Hilary's relief at seeing her friend cheer up flew straight out the window. "Come to think of it, you do, don't you?"

"No," Hilary said vehemently. "No, I most certainly do not."

"Of course you do." Amita sipped her tea, looking as hopeful and appealing as she knew how--which was, in Hilary's experience, quite a bit. "He said, just this morning, if you want anything--"

That morning and St. George had seemed like such a mercifully long time ago until just now. "I can't," Hilary groaned helplessly. "It's such a ridiculous thing to ask, and he'd never let me forget it, and--don't we know anyone else we could ask?"

"I certainly don't," Amita said, after far too little thought.

Hilary eyed her friend narrowly. "If you've gone and set up all this mystery just to make me phone him--"

"I haven't." Amita stiffened and frowned indignantly. "Hand to God, I haven't--I really do want your help. And if you need his, well." She shrugged. "I feel it can't hurt to push the idea a little. Hit two birds with one stone, you know."

"Some priorities you have," Hilary complained, and bit resignedly into her biscuit. "Though I really don't suppose he'll do it, in any case."

-------

St. George had a splitting headache; he might have at least remained mercifully asleep, and thus unaware of that fact, for a little longer if he had not been abruptly and rudely awakened by the jangle of the telephone in the next room. He rolled over with a groan, buried his head under the covers, and devoted a minute's serious thought to simply letting it ring until whoever it was--probably his mother, it was always his mother when he least wanted it to be, which was all the time--gave up and left him alone.

But the telephone kept ringing, and it was wearing increasingly on his nerves, so he dragged himself near-literally out of bed, not bothering with dressing gown or slippers, and found his way somehow or other into the sitting room and thence to the table where the offending object stood. "Hullo?" he grumbled into the receiver, not feeling quite awake enough, or comfortable enough in his own skin, to bother with courtesy just at this moment.

"Why, hello." The voice on the other end sounded familiar, but between St. George's headache and the deadening effect of the 'phone line he couldn't seem to place her just yet. She also sounded far too cheerful and alert for an obscene hour like--he looked around blearily for the clock--oh, one in the afternoon. When had that happened? "Had a rough night, have you?"

St. George pulled the 'phone away from his ear for a moment--partly because it was unconscionably loud, and partly so he could glare at it properly. He was half-inclined to believe, through his fog of fatigue and hangover, that his caller was not a flesh-and-blood woman at all but some kind of mocking demonic spirit. Or, more likely but also more prosaically, someone he had met last night who hadn't quite stuck in his head as well as she ought to have. "Might I ask," he managed, in a horribly inadequate parody of courtesy, "who is calling, please?"

"Erm," said the voice helpfully, and there was a moment's pause. "Sorry--sorry, it's Miss Thorpe, here."

"Good God," said St. George before he could stop himself, and made a mighty effort to wrench together some shreds of mental faculty. He recalled giving her his number--just yesterday, in fact--but it had been a formality at best; he had long ago given Miss Hilary Thorpe up as a lost cause, socially speaking, and he hadn't dreamt that she would actually be in touch with him, let alone this soon. "Good afternoon, I mean," he added hopefully.

"I was wondering," she said, sounding faintly anxious all of a sudden--though that could have been the telephone line too; there was really no way for him to tell. "I know this probably isn't what you meant when you said I could call on you, but I need a favour--or my friend needs one, really--and I wasn't sure whom else to call." Another awkward pause. "Part of it involves buying me lunch, if that helps."

St. George paid sudden, rapt attention, headache and all. "Suppose you tell me what the rest of it would be."

"I'm afraid it's going to seem rather ridiculous," she said, without sounding in the least genuinely apologetic. "But-- do you know Warcourt and Mills, the stationer's? They're in K----- Street, I think."

St. George thought it over. "No, but I could most likely find them. I think my great-uncle used to patronise them, once upon a time. What about them?"

She sighed, heavily enough for him to be able to hear it. "I need someone more respectable than I--more respectable-looking, at any rate--to try and find out who their recent customers are. Say you're thinking of putting in a regular order, or something, and you want to know whose company that would put you in-- they'd never believe that from me, is the thing."

"Find out who their other customers are?" St. George echoed, growing more and more interested by the second. "Am I permitted to know why you need to know this?"

"Maybe," Miss Thorpe granted, a bit sharply. "If you behave yourself."

"I'll do my best," St. George promised, rather meaninglessly. "And I'll even go ask them about it. What shall I do when I'm finished--put a little mark on my letterbox, or something?"

"Just call me back." She gave him a number, and St. George scribbled it down as legibly as he could in his current state of health. "And you can take me out to lunch and maybe I'll tell you all about it."

"I'll look forward to it," St. George agreed, seizing on the part of this conversation that seemed to make the most sense.

"Don't feel rushed or anything," she assured him, without any audible sign of actual sympathy. "You do sound awfully under the weather--better wait until you're feeling a little better."

St. George groaned, concluded the conversation with all possible haste, and went to see about putting on some clothes and dragging himself down to the chemist's. He could always worry about Warcourt and Mills after that.

-------

It wasn't as if St. George had meant to pursue Miss Thorpe, precisely; he wasn't sure something this half-hearted even qualified as "pursuit." Indeed, he hadn't even meant to ask her to dinner in the first place; he preferred not to make a habit of taking out women students, who were in his experience unkempt and argumentative--and, which was worse, disconcertingly prone to winning the arguments they started. He preferred his dates rather lower-maintenance, and there was always a ready supply anywhere of attractive, sympathetic young ladies who were up to spending a friendly evening together (and, on special occasions, the following morning). There had never, until just over a year ago, been any pursuit involved whatsoever.

But there had been moonlight when they had met, and for all her unkemptness and brains Miss Thorpe was quite extraordinarily pretty; he'd asked on a whim before he could think the situation through properly, just the way he seemed to do most things. And, recognising that the situation was rather different from the quasi-romantic settings to which he was accustomed, he had even done his best to be properly gentlemanly about the whole thing. It hadn't gone over so well, for some reason St. George had never been able to discern. They'd gone out once, and made another attempt a few weeks later, and the whole business had been very cordial and pleasant and entirely unproductive.

He had never quite given up hope of getting somewhere with her, that was all--not so much because of interest in Miss Thorpe specifically, but because his apparent failure to charm her irked him, and while he was not in the habit of putting any more effort into winning women than was absolutely necessary, he had the vague idea that this one woman in particular might be worth a little effort.

The long and the short of it was: a few days after they'd parted ways in St. Hugh's College, supposedly for good, St. George had already run a thoroughly inexplicable--and none too easy--errand for her and, with the results neatly copied onto a sheet of paper folded into his pocket, had agreed to meet her for lunch at a rather run-down-looking pub of her own choosing: the Stag and Swan, a nice solid old-fashioned sort of name, at any rate. He consoled himself, as he waited for her outside, with the knowledge that this endeavour might prove to be good for his pride in the long run.

Miss Thorpe was precisely punctual, of course; she always had been. At eleven-thirty on the dot by St. George's watch, she came round a corner and into view across the street, conferring quietly with another girl to whom he remembered being introduced the other day. They parted ways there, and Miss Thorpe crossed the street alone to meet him in front of the Stag and Swan; St. George made a peripheral note of Miss Kapoor continuing on her solitary way down the street, but the vast majority of his attention was devoted to Miss Thorpe, who smiled apologetically as she approached. "I hope you haven't been waiting too long."

"No, not long." St. George shrugged noncommittally even as he tipped his cap to her. "I've been waiting a few minutes--scoping out this new neighbourhood of yours. It's very--" He slid his hands into his pockets, trying to think of a word. "It's comfortable-looking," he said finally, and meant it. "It suits you."

"Do you think so?" Miss Thorpe brightened--genuinely enough, St. George thought, or preferred to think. When they had first dated she had worn her hair long and up, but at some point since it had become a short mass of red curls, and he rather thought that suited her too. "I'm really rather fond of it, so far, but I haven't had the chance to explore the place much yet. This particular bit of the neighbourhood, though--" she nodded into the Stag and Swan-- "has rather excellent shepherd's pie, if you like that."

"There are people who don't? What tragic lives they must lead." St. George received this information with the mild astonishment it deserved and offered her his arm. "I'm willing to trust your good taste, anyway."

Miss Thorpe looked sceptically at his proffered arm, then up at him; St. George took the hint and withdrew the offer without quite understanding why. "Come on, then," she said, a trifle more subdued than she had been a moment ago, and led the way into the pub.

The interior of the pub was long and narrow, a leftover slice of property wedged in between a cobbler's and a music shop, and the interior was just as cramped as St. George had anticipated from seeing the outside, if not even more so. Right now, in the middle of a weekday, there were only three or four people at the well-used bar--mostly, he assumed, the sort of people who had nowhere else to be. Miss Thorpe guided him unhesitatingly past the scattering of other patrons, through the haze that seemed to permeate the air in those kinds of places even when no one had been smoking, around the bar to a minuscule excuse for a snug where, presumably, they were most likely to be safe from eavesdropping. She had been tremendously secretive the past few days, both the first time she'd called him and when they'd spoken again yesterday to set up this meeting. St. George hadn't the faintest idea what she could have got involved in during so short a time, but he had high hopes of finding out about it soon enough--and, moreover, that it would be something interesting enough to merit all the curiosity he'd accumulated. At the very least, he reasoned, the fact that she'd thought to ask his help at all had to be a hopeful sign.

The man who appeared at the bar, looking rather bored with the place, was prompt all the same about exchanging two pints for St. George's money. "Pies'll be out soon," he announced curtly, and was gone again almost before they could murmur their thanks; Miss Thorpe shrugged and wedged herself into the corner with St. George.

"All right." St. George took a long, determined pull of his beer, decided he approved of it, and gave Miss Thorpe a look that he hoped would convey that he felt this was very serious business indeed. "So are you going to let me in on your big dramatic secret, or what? It's the least you could do, after getting me to shell out for this lot."

She smiled wryly. "If this place is breaking the bank for you, you might have some bigger things to worry about. But point taken, I suppose."

This sounded very promising indeed; St. George leaned forward encouragingly and folded his arms on the table in front of him. "Well?"

"First things first," Miss Thorpe said reprovingly, though she also leaned forward and lowered her voice slightly. "You did get what I asked you to, didn't you?"

"Of course I did. What do you take me for?" He retrieved the folded sheet of paper from his pocket and laid it on the table between them. "I'm afraid it didn't quite go according to plan, though. Your plan, anyway."

Miss Thorpe took it up and fingered it thoughtfully without unfolding it just yet. "It's the same paper," she said, half to herself and without explanation, but her lips pressed thinner; she seemed to have forgotten St. George's presence for the moment. In another few seconds she was back in the room with him, attentive as ever. "Whatever do you mean, not quite according to plan?"

St. George shrugged. "Well, old Mr. Mills the hundredth-or-so didn't precisely go for the line about me wanting to buy a load of notepaper from him--something about me just didn't ring true to him, I suppose."

Miss Thorpe nursed her glass of beer. "I can't imagine what."

"In any case--" St. George eyed her narrowly for a moment, but if she had a point she didn't seem in any hurry to make it. "I told him, very confidentially of course, that someone had been sending my poor baby sister some very unseemly sorts of letters, and the family was trying to find out who it was and deal with the matter in a nice quiet tactful fashion. That got me in his confidence pretty quickly."

"Your poor sister, indeed." Miss Thorpe laughed, though she stifled it hastily. "I hope Mr. Mills isn't the gossiping sort, or your sister is going to be very surprised to hear about those letters, sooner or later."

"Oh, he isn't." St. George was sure enough of that; he'd spent a lifetime running into one or another of Mr. Mills's sort, and most likely Mr. Warcourt's as well, wherever he was. "You don't get to be Mr. Whosis the hundredth-or-so in a respectable business like that by being the gossiping sort."

"If you say so," Miss Thorpe granted, though she still didn't look entirely convinced. She unfolded the list St. George had given her, but without looking down to read it just yet; her attention was still focused primarily, gratifyingly, on him. "I'm really not obligated to explain myself to you, you know."

"That's true enough, but it's pretty clear that you'd like to." St. George watched her right back and permitted himself, briefly, to speculate. "You have the air of someone trying to detect things," he concluded after a moment, "and I should know, given my illustrious family ties. Has Uncle Peter roped you into something seedy now he’s fled the country? I rather thought that as of late he'd given up wheedling help from innocent bystanders."

Miss Thorpe opened her mouth and shut it again, abruptly, as the barmaid appeared with two dishes of food, greasy and of entirely dubious character. "It's not nearly as bad as it looks," she promised once the woman had gone again; she'd read St. George's expression all too easily, damn her. "I thought the same, when I first ate here, but I promise you won't be disappointed."

St. George tried a small forkful, was indeed not disappointed, and privately damned her again just for the hell of it. "Was that meant to answer my question about Uncle Peter? Because if so it makes quite an intriguing answer, but rather an unsatisfying one nonetheless."

Her eyes went wide and fake-innocent while she chewed her own food, but once she was free to speak again her tone was perfectly brisk and matter of fact. "No, it wasn't; no, I can't speak to your uncle's recent taste in accomplices, should he have any besides Bunter and Miss Vane; and therefore no, this has nothing to do with him. We haven't even spoken in weeks. Will that satisfy?"

"Not in the least, and you know that." St. George hadn't bothered to take much of a look at the list he'd brought her, but it occurred to him now to do so; he half-expected Miss Thorpe to remove it from the table or cover it when she caught him craning to read it upside down, but to his surprise she noted his curiosity and let him make the attempt. Unfortunately, Mr. Mills's copperplate, while neat and elegant right-side-up, was near-impossible to decipher upside-down. "Don't tell me you've decided to strike out and go detecting on your own. Uncle Peter might not approve of your infringing on his publicity, you know; could get awkward."

"Uncle--" Miss Thorpe groaned, stumbled, corrected herself. "Lord Peter is not available; I'm sure you know that. I would much rather have consulted him, but since he isn't to be found, well, things do sometimes go wrong even in his absence, and I'm not even sure this particular thing is worth his time. It may be nothing at all."

"Anyone would think I was accusing you of doing something illicit, Miss Thorpe." St. George paused, a forkful of shepherd's pie halfway to his mouth. "Which I'm not, by the way; I'm only curious. And bored," he went on, rather more plaintively. "I do wish you'd let me know just what this favour is I've done for you."

Miss Thorpe's pie was already half-gone; she washed it down with a swallow of beer. "And here I always thought you led a life of perpetual glamour and excitement."

"Not at the moment; not until I've found a new bookkeeper, at least. The old one had to clear out of town in a hurry for some reason or other, you know--dashed inconvenient business, and I do hope it was nothing too unsavoury, because then Scotland Yard comes round to ask one questions and I doubt it'd make a bit of difference that my uncle is their superior officer, let alone that I knew nothing about it, assuming there even is anything to know anything about." He hastily curtailed this line of thought and applied himself to his own lunch, hoping that his silence would goad her into saying something; it was a rather clever strategy, St. George thought, but it bore no fruit. "...Well?" he conceded, after a few minutes. "Are you going to tell me what you're up to, or shall I pay for lunch and go quietly on home, with my curiosity forever unsatisfied?"

"Don't go," Miss Thorpe said after a moment, perhaps even a bit more sharply than he'd expected her to. She was looking now not at him, nor at the piece of paper now half-forgotten on the tabletop between them, but at the faint wink of light on her fork as she twirled it between her fingers. "You're right," she went on, "for once, though you needn't be so tragic about it. I could use someone else to talk to about this--someone who isn't involved, that is. Though I would prefer it to be someone a little more trustworthy, all things being equal."

"Trustworthy?" St. George echoed, rather hurt. "I've been called a lot of things by women, Miss Thorpe, not all of them entirely flattering--but never untrustworthy. I can keep my mouth shut, you know."

"I've yet to see much evidence of that since I've known you." But she was smiling again, if only faintly.

St. George abandoned his fork and his pint glass--which was near-empty by now, in any case--to prop his elbows raptly on the table. "You have my word that I can keep your confidence just as well as Mr. Mills can keep Winnie's."

"Your sister doesn't have any secrets," Miss Thorpe objected. "You made one up. But that'll do, I suppose," she added, seeming to remember that she was supposed to be direct with him now, and finally got around to explaining just what sort of favour she was here to do for her friend Miss Kapoor.

"It doesn't seem like much," said St. George cautiously, when she was finished. "A few nervous people and an anonymous note--it's hardly enough to make a murder case. Or even, I don't know, a burglary."

Miss Thorpe frowned. "It's not much, no. But it certainly isn't nothing, either. There's enough in it to frighten people, at the very least--and that by itself counts for an awful lot."

"People oughtn't to go around frightening other people," St. George agreed readily enough. "Jolly indecent of them. But that's really all you wanted of me?" He felt almost let down; the situation seemed so tiny and insubstantial compared to the half-baked scenarios he'd been concocting mentally to pass the last couple of days, and his involvement in it seemed to already be over. "Just that list?"

"Well, hang on a moment." She flattened the folded list on the table between them, and was even kind enough to turn it sideways so that they could both read it. "The note in Amita's wastebin was signed H--any H names on here?"

St. George craned around to read it sideways and might, in the process, have tilted his head in slightly closer to hers than was strictly necessary. "Mr. and Mrs. Bradford Hinkley," he read, and squinted; it was a long list in small writing, after all, and the light in the Stag and Swan was not meant for ease of reading. "Rather unfortunate name that, Bradford Hinkley. Miss Robin Harrison. Lord Hargrave--bet old M. and W. do a roaring good trade with him--"

Miss Thorpe, who had produced a fountain pen from somewhere and been ticking off the names of interest to her, paused and glanced over the table at him. "Why so?"

St. George blinked, momentum thrown off. "You haven't heard of him?"

"I'm afraid we can't all have so thorough an upbringing as yours." She went back to looking for names to tick off, eyes glancing back and forth between him and the paper. "Who is he?"

"Oh, I don't know him," St. George said dismissively. "He's just known generally as a funny old sort of bird. Does a lot of business both in Britain and on the Continent, or used to, I've heard, but every last bit of it by correspondence, so no one really ever knows where he is. The joke is that even his wife probably hasn't seen him in years--he just has a servant carry letters back and forth through the house. Just an odd hermitty sort, really, and most likely quite harmless. The name just struck a mnemonic chord, so to speak."

Miss Thorpe took all this in, watching him all the while with an air of such calm calculation that St. George shifted on his bench and sat up a little straighter under her gaze. "Just how many of the names on this list do you recognise?"

St. George took another squint at it. "Most of them, I should think."

"Well," she said, seemingly more than half to herself. "Well, that is rather a sticking point."

He frowned at her, suddenly lost. "What's so sticky about it?"

"Someone typed a pretty clear threat to the Kapoors on Warcourt and Mills paper," Miss Thorpe reiterated patiently, chin propped in her hands, "and signed it H. Perhaps we're being too narrow; perhaps it's not someone whose name really starts with H. Perhaps it isn't one of these people at all, but one of their servants stealing a sheet of paper from the master or mistress's writing desk--but even then it would have had to be purchased by someone on this list, originally."

St. George only frowned deeper. "That's quite a lot of suspects, Miss Thorpe. And not very much at all to go on."

"I know." She nodded. "Which is where it gets sticky, because I don't know anything about any of those people--except her," she corrected herself, startled by one name in particular, "she's my second cousin once removed, but she's the sweetest person alive and probably wouldn't even trust a typewriter. She thinks they bite." Miss Thorpe recollected herself. "At any rate, these aren't my sort of people at all, and they certainly aren't Foxgrove's sort of people. But they are, for the most part, yours."

St. George felt a smile split his face, abruptly delighted by the turn her reasoning had taken. "So, Miss Thorpe, you're saying that I might in fact serve a purpose?"

"Mmmm, I wouldn't quite go that far." She drained the last of her beer and set the glass neatly in the center of her empty plate. "But I'm beginning to suspect I might have some use for you, yes, if ever I get more to go on than this. Better two minds than one, and all that."

It was shameful, really, how appealing St. George was finding this prospect; then again, he really hadn't been lying about being bored. Or about having misplaced his bookkeeper, for that matter, but this could just conceivably prove adequate as a substitute form of entertainment until he had to go home for his birthday next month. "I'd have to take a false name," he said aloud, thinking it over, "if you have; it's only fair. And at that point I might as well just move into the neighbourhood with you, really."

"You are not," said Miss Thorpe, suddenly outright frosty, "moving in with me."

"Did I say that?" St. George countered, at least as outraged by the suggestion as she was. "I do have some common decency, contrary to what you seem to think. I only meant that, in order to really get into the spirit of the thing and make myself conveniently available as your assistant, and so on, I could rent a place of my own around here. It might even be rather pleasant," he went on, a bit wistfully, "dropping out of normal life for just a little while."

"I take it back," she said resignedly, but her posture had relaxed considerably. "I take it all back. The rumors are true; you're far more trouble than you're worth."

"I think I'll take that as a compliment," St. George announced, refusing to let her dent his cheer, "if you don't mind."

Miss Thorpe smiled thinly. "I do mind, but I doubt I can stop you."

"Hey, now." St. George perked up, impossibly, even further as another thought occurred to him. "If, in this instance, you're substituting in for Uncle Peter, does that make me Bunter?"

She thought this over, giving every appearance of solemnly deliberating the matter. "I'm fairly certain that no one but Bunter can ever be Bunter." She stacked both their dishes neatly between them. "However, since you are my assistant now, would you be so kind as to go up to the bar and buy us another round?"

St. George was still feeling uncommonly cheerful and obliging, so he got up without complaint, giving Miss Thorpe a small fussy bow just to make sure she appreciated all he was doing for her. "At your service, miss."

"Don't do that," she said irritably, but as she turned back to the list of names and bit absently at the end of her pen, St. George could have sworn she looked like she was trying to keep back a smile.

-------

Despite considerable misgivings, Hilary allowed St. George to walk her back to Mrs. Bloom's house. She consoled herself with the thought that it was not so much in the sense he might have done after a proper evening out, but only so that he could get a general idea of how the neighbourhood was laid out. She did her best to be informative along the way, but it didn't prove to be much use; Hilary had only lived there a few days herself and could only tell him so much about the neighbourhood, and St. George was in such an embarrassingly buoyant mood at the prospect of helping investigate a real live mystery that even if Hilary could have made herself useful, he would have been lucky to absorb one of every twenty words she said. This was precisely the reason why Hilary had had misgivings about asking for his help in the first place, and continued to have them even now that it was too late to retract the offer. She hadn't even wanted an assistant, just one lone favour done. And yet the conversation had spun out so quickly into this: more a partnership than anything else, a partnership with St. George, no less, who seemed to think this was all some sort of elaborate game concocted specially for his amusement.

It had been rather pleasant, though, having someone to discuss her meager beginnings of a mystery with over lunch, and. in his current mood, she was finding him rather more endearing company than she had upon any of the previous occasions when they’d dined together. In fact, it was positively relaxing in comparison; perhaps she would keep him around a little while longer, and hope he didn't make too great a nuisance of himself.

So of course, when they turned the last corner before Mrs. Bloom's house, they encountered the eventuality that Hilary ought to have anticipated if she hadn't been so preoccupied with St. George: the Kapoors themselves, without even Amita there to soften the blow. She'd only met them once, the day after moving to Foxgrove, and she stiffened into politeness almost by reflex, with only a single pointed glance to St. George that she hoped would keep him quiet at least briefly. It wasn't much of a hope. "Mrs. Kapoor," she said cheerfully. "Mr. Kapoor, Priya--lovely to see you."

"And you, Miss Hood, dear." Mrs. Kapoor beamed at them both. "And who's this--a friend of yours?"

"I've told you," Hilary said, as casually as she could manage, "please, call me Caroline. And this is--a friend of mine, yes." She looked at St. George again, hoping desperately he'd thought to provide himself with an alias by now.

Sure enough St. George spluttered briefly, though he covered it up by tipping his hat neatly to Mrs. Kapoor and Priya--with an extra-bright smile for Priya, Hilary noted, already tired--and offering a handshake to Mr. Kapoor. "My name's, ah, Christianson. Roger Christianson, and it's a pleasure to meet you."

Good enough, Hilary supposed. "Roger," she said brightly, "these are the Kapoors--Amita's family, I know I mentioned her to you. Mr. Alfred Kapoor, Mrs. Kapoor, and this is Priya; I'm staying right next door to them."

"I've heard a great deal about you," St. George said, politely and not entirely untruthfully. "It seems like a very nice place to live, Foxgrove--I've been thinking of renting a place here myself, you know."

Mr. Kapoor tensed up--just slightly, but Hilary still noticed it, and wondered whether her companion had as well. "Surely," he began, "a young man so well put together as yourself would prefer a residence a rather more reputable part of the city?"

"Yes, well, I'm flattered you'd think so." St. George glanced at Hilary for help. "But all the same--"

Hilary patted his arm comfortingly. "Roger's quite a successful businessman," she explained, still artificially chipper about the whole thing, "or was, until recently." St. George squinted down at her indignantly, but she only smiled; it served him right, really. "It really wasn't his fault--some people in finance really will do anything to get ahead, it's horrifying--but it was rather a setback nonetheless."

"And so," St. George interrupted, in what Hilary had to respect as a valiant effort to recover the situation, "I thought I might look into having some scruples, for a change. Take a walk on the simpler side of life, as they say--see what I've been missing out on. I've been thinking," he went on, to Hilary's complete stupefaction, "of taking up art. As a hobby, you know. Seems much easier on the nerves than trading stocks and things."

"Oh!" Priya had not yet spoken up, but her attention to him now sharpened. "I don't suppose--oh, no, I'm sure you wouldn't be interested," she finished, in no little confusion.

"I'm always interested," St. George said cheerfully. "What am I interested in?"

"There's a paper I work on--not even a paper," Priya said ruefully, "more of a rag, really, but we are so very proud of it. It's about worker's rights, you see--I mean, if you were curious about that sort of thing."

"Oh, don't worry about it," Mrs. Kapoor interjected hastily. "Young ladies these days, Mr. Christianson--they do get such ideas."

"They do," said Hilary, who rather fancied herself as the sort of young lady who got 'ideas,' "and I know I'd be interested to see it. But I'm afraid Roger has to go." She smiled up at St. George. "Didn't you say you had to see a man?"

St. George paused but, mercifully, didn't argue. "I do, actually--astonishing lot of work, moving out of a place and finding another. I'll telephone in a day or two, when things calm down a little," he promised Hilary. "Let you know what's what. And Miss Kapoor, I'd love to take a look--I'm sure it's an excellent paper."

"I'll look forward to it." On impulse, Hilary went up on her toes and kissed St. George on the cheek by way of farewell, if only for Priya's sake; this was a serious matter, and she had no intention of letting him take any more advantage of it than necessary.

He blinked at her in astonishment and seemed to forget, for a few seconds, to remove his arm from under her hand so he could lift his hat again. "Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Kapoor--Mr. Kapoor--Miss Kapoor. We'll--talk later, then, Miss, ah, Hood."

"That's a very nice young man you've got there, Caroline," Mrs. Kapoor observed, watching him go. "Mr. Christianson seems very anxious to reform himself."

"Oh, I haven't got him," said Hilary, rather disconcerted by the ready success of her own ploy. "We're only friends, honestly--though I do suspect," she added hastily, leaning in close to confide in her friend's mother, "he might be moving here so he can see more of me. It's only a suspicion, mind you." And not even a lie, most likely.

As an added benefit, it made Mrs. Kapoor and Priya both laugh understandingly. "You'd be a lucky girl, if that's so," Priya opined.

"Says you, who've only just met him," Hilary said, as lightly as she could manage given her fervent desire not to dwell on the subject. "How are you all doing, then?" They'd been too busy talking about St. George, she realised with renewed irritation, even to exchange courtesies.

"We're all right--though!" Mrs. Kapoor held up a finger, gathering her thoughts. "The girls were thinking of having a party tomorrow night--nothing huge, of course, it being a weeknight and all, just a gramophone-and-sandwiches sort of thing. It seems there's a doctor in the neighbourhood who's rather reclusive himself, but has a very nice house and lets the younger set hold parties there. We were wondering if you'd like to come--and bring your Mr. Christianson, of course. It'd be a chance for you to meet some people in the neighbourhood."

Hilary beamed, quite genuinely now. "Oh, that'd be lovely. I don't know what Roger'll say, of course, but I'd love to come--Amita keeps saying she'll show me round and introduce people but she never seems to have the time."

"That Ames man is already working her to the bone there," agreed Mr. Kapoor gloomily. "It shouldn't be allowed."

Hilary tutted sympathetically. "And what are the rest of you doing, this afternoon? You look like you're off to church." And they did, though it was in fact a Tuesday afternoon.

"Oh, we're very well." Mr. Kapoor gathered up his wife and elder daughter, one on each arm, and gifted Hilary with a small apologetic smile. "But--oh dear, I'm afraid we're late for a luncheon appointment--if you'll excuse us, Miss Hood?"

"Well, of course." Hilary turned to watch them go. "Say hello to Amita?" she called after them. "When she gets home this evening."

There was no response, though Priya turned to give her a quick smile and a wave farewell.

-------

"You told them I was what?" St. George stopped fussing with his tie--at least, Hilary imagined that was what he was doing, from the rustling noises produced--and his voice pitched indignantly higher.

Hilary finished strapping her shoes on and came back into the sitting room. "I didn't necessarily tell them anything. I said I suspected you were trying to court me. Which, to be fair, knowing you, is probably true."

"But courting sounds so serious." He had been fidgeting near her front door, as it turned out--though whether it had been with his tie or not, Hilary couldn't say--but he turned to grin at her as she came back in. "Suffice to say, I think I'd rather say you did it because you were jealous."

"As far as I'm concerned, I've just done a great favour for the rest of my sex." Hilary shrugged placidly. "I may have to sacrifice a little of my dignity in the process--" she hoped it would only be a little-- "but I'm sure you won't mind a bit."

He scowled. "I take it all back. You're not jealous at all; you're only spiteful."

Hilary took in a deep breath and let it back out, slowly. "Lord St. George," she said, as stiffly as she knew how, "I don't know what you think you're doing here, but I'm doing this because a friend of mine has been threatened. If you're here merely to--to accumulate women, I believe I can do without your help. And you without mine, for that matter."

"I'm not. I'll swear to it however you like." He looked so inhumanly earnest that she couldn't quite maintain the level of irritation she ought to have. "I still think it was an awfully low sort of thing to pull behind one's back like that."

"Perhaps it was," Hilary admitted. "Can't be unsaid now, though, I suppose."

"No. Although--" St. George cast his eyes up to the ceiling in thought; Hilary waited in trepidation. "We may be able to use this to our advantage."

They had a few minutes to spare; Hilary sat down on the sofa and folded her arms attentively. "I can't wait to hear what you've got in mind."

"I happen to have a great deal of experience in disguising my intentions towards women," said St. George, clearly affronted. "Though usually it's the other way 'round," he added, "and I'm not sure that sounded nearly as impressive just now as I hoped it would."

Hilary shook her head. "I'm afraid it didn't, no."

"Regardless." St. George folded himself over the back of an armchair with great dignity. "I do have a great deal of experience in the matter, and you--presumably do not. With women, at any rate."

Hilary found, to her chagrin, that there was no safe response to this. "Suppose you tell me what precisely your intentions towards me are, and then maybe we can get somewhere."

"But that would spoil so much of the fun, in the long term." St. George grinned at her, but Hilary didn't particularly mind at the moment; it wasn't as if they didn't both know how his mind worked anyway. "However, in the short term? I rather like the idea of letting people think I moved here chasing you. Especially if we let them think I've caught you."

Hilary couldn't tell whether he was being serious or not, so she chose to treat him as if he were. "It would give us a reason to spend time together." She did have to admit that much. "And you a reason to take excessive liberties with me in the name of a good cause, of course."

He held up his hands defensively. "No more than necessary to keep up the pretence. I'll swear to that, too, if you like--I'm not the complete lecher you seem to think I am."

"I wish I could believe that," said Hilary, but it was a tempting offer-- for the promise of a firm line drawn between them if nothing else, even if that line was a little thinner than she would have preferred. She got to her feet, smoothed her skirt quite deliberately, and crossed the room to offer a handshake. "If you try anything," she said, feeling suddenly optimistic, "you will be sorrier than you can imagine."

"I believe you," said St. George, and shook her hand with all due gravity.

"I should hope so." Hilary took a moment to recover both her hand and her detachment. "And I believe you are now obliged to tell me how I look tonight."

"You look lovely, of course." St. George smiled; he seemed sincere enough, at any rate. "But then again, you always do."

"Thank you." Hilary was startled into sincerity herself as she found her purse and opened the door to let him out. "Now shall we try actually detecting things, for a change?"

Nothing had changed, really. St George was probably no more reliable a partner than he ever had been; and yet, when his hand found the small of her back, she didn't mind the touch quite so much as she might have had he done it the day before. It was entirely irrational, but there it was.

"You really should call me Jerry," he suggested, as they went down Mrs. Bloom's back stairs to the street. "Short for both Gerald and Roger, you know--awfully clever of me to think of that, really, don't you think?"

"Certainly," Hilary said lightly, "if you really want me to believe you did it on purpose and not just because you grabbed for the first name that occurred to you."

"But it would be so much more impressive if I had," St. George mourned. "So I'd rather you thought that."

"You promised not to do that," Hilary warned.

"You're right," he said apologetically. "I did promise; I'm sorry. Won't happen again."

"All right, all right, I'll give you credit this time for trying. Just this one time, mind you." Hilary touched his arm soothingly. "While you're feeling clever, what have you got that'd be short for both Hilary and Caroline?"

"That's a tough one." St. George wrinkled his nose in thought, which might have been endearing on some people but only made him look particularly inane. "Lee could work, I suppose."

Hilary raised her eyebrows at him before turning to lock the back door behind them. "I can see Caroline, I suppose, if I really stretch. But how on earth do you get Lee out of Hilary?"

"Sheer raw talent," said St. George cheerfully. "Now you are jealous, admit it."

-------

Doctor Fitzmorris's house, not too far down the street, was already brimming with people; Hilary and St. George slipped subtly in and had a look round for Amita amid the dozens of strangers. Mercifully, it was her they found first, and not her sister or her parents; after ten minutes she appeared from nowhere and latched on desperately to Hilary. "There you are, I've been looking everywhere. Did you know Mother's invited everyone for miles, and this isn't even her party? I don't think she even does it on purpose, these things just always seem to sort of happen--what," she said in a suddenly different tone, as she spotted St. George, "is he here for?"

Hilary hugged her back, tightly. "To make a nuisance of himself--what did you think?"

St. George waited patiently until they had let go of each other, and then offered Amita a hand to shake. "Mr. Roger Christianson, at your service, and if anyone asks you've never met me before but Miss Hood here--" he put careful emphasis on the false name-- "has told you plenty about me. Completely mad about me, in fact."

"Stop it," said Hilary, tiredly.

He folded his arms. "I said she should say you were, not that it was true."

Amita choked back laughter, watching them. "Is that the excuse you came up with, for him being here? Honestly?"

Hilary nodded to St. George. "It was his idea--are you surprised?"

"Well, it's not as if you had a better one." He grinned. "And it would work better if you would lay off me for just a minute."

"Oh, I don't know," Amita said, eyes darting between them. "The longer you keep that routine up, the more inclined I am to believe in it."

"It's not--look," said Hilary, now thoroughly exasperated with them both. "You--" she indicated St. George-- "are at least pretending to be helpful, and I appreciate that. And you--aren't you supposed to be introducing us round the place?"

"Right, right, yes, of course. Come on." Amita hauled Hilary off by the hand, and St. George by proxy, towards what looked at least like the dining room. "I know exactly whom I'd like you two to meet."

"God help us," said Hilary. "Who is it?"

"Gail!" Amita announced, by way of both response and greeting to the woman in question.

This proved to be a woman who looked to be in her mid-twenties or so, short and well-padded with horn-rimmed spectacles. She beamed in greeting at all of them. "Hullo, Amita; have you tried any of this punch? It tastes quite weak, but I heard it was Carmon that brought it, so I'm terribly afraid it may knock me over any second without warning."

"This," said Amita apologetically, "is Gail--Miss Dougal. She's an old friend of my sister's and she's kindly letting me stay on her sofa for the next few months. Gail, this is my friend Miss Hood and, er--Mr. Christianson, an admirer of hers."

"That's a way to put it," muttered Hilary. "It's lovely to meet you, Miss Dougal."

"A pleasure," echoed St. George, beaming at her. "And I think I'll try some of that punch, if you don't mind; you've made me curious now."

Gail gave Hilary a friendly enough nod and a smile, but it was St. George who caught her attention. "Mr. Christianson, you said? Priya mentioned you two to me; she said you'd an interest in our newspaper. The Sentinel, I mean--we co-edit it, you see. She's about here somewhere--and there ought to be another Sentinel person about, too. Her name is Kathryn, and she said she'd be here, but she's really not terribly social, so I suppose I'll have to make shift all on my own this evening."

Hilary perked up. "I'd love to hear more about it--if you'd give me a moment?"

"Of course," Gail agreed, and glanced once more at St. George. "Shall we see about finding you that drink in the meantime?"

Hilary drew Amita aside, keeping one wary eye on the other two as they investigated the drinks table. "Am I going to need to worry about those two being a bad influence on one another?"

Amita laughed. "I shouldn't think so. Gail owns that coffee shop we went to--remember? It's a very nice little place, and she's got a couple of boys to help her out in the mornings, but she's quite run off her feet much of the time. I know she seems a little dim, but she hasn't much time for men or alcohol, if you ask me. I don't think you've got much to worry about."

"I'm not worrying," said Hilary irritably. "I don't think it'd even be worth the effort. This act was all Jerry's idea, but I doubt he can keep his attention on one woman for long enough at a time for it to be worth putting much stock into."

"I'm reliably informed you kissed him yesterday," said Amita, with such delight that she must have been waiting for the perfect opportunity to put this information to use.

Hilary folded her arms. "On the cheek. And purely for show. Why are you so determined to play matchmaker lately?"

"It's progress, all the same--and because it amuses me, of course." Amita smiled, sweet and innocent.

Hilary sighed. "Can't you just find a young man of your own? Perhaps you'd like some help with that in return."

"Of course not," said Amita haughtily. "I've got better things to do with my time."

"And I haven't?" Hilary glanced over. "Never mind, I suppose we'd better get back; I really would like to know about that paper, and I expect one of them is going to need rescuing from the other soon, though I must admit I can't decide which it's likely to be."

"I'm off to see who else shows up, I think." Amita patted her arm. "I know it's difficult for you, but please do try not to swoon all over him."

"I'm off to find some better friends," said Hilary, and batted Amita's hand away.

Gail and St. George, accompanied by two healthy-sized glasses of punch, had withdrawn to a nearby corridor. Nothing disastrous seemed to have resulted from their acquaintance just yet; in fact they were talking about film, a medium with which Gail was professing a profound impatience when Hilary rejoined them.

"Lee!" St. George exclaimed, spotting her and extending an arm in greeting. She had to give him credit; it was an absurd nickname, but he made it sound perfectly natural, seeing as he'd never once called her by it before.

"Have I missed anything particularly exciting?" Hilary managed, with a bit of strategy, to be steered nearer in what she hoped was a natural-looking fashion that didn't actually require his arm to land around her waist. As it was, St. George's hand landed on her forearm for a few seconds before falling back to his side.

"Not particularly." Gail shrugged. "No great secrets have been imparted--yet."

"How could you have?" said St. George, much too brightly. "Things are so very much more exciting when you're involved in them."

"You know." Hilary pressed her lips together, eyebrows high, and watched him a moment in thought. "I could like you so much better if you would only stop trying so hard to make me."

Gail looked round at them in interest at this, but before St. George could answer there was a shriek from outside; he took half a step back away from her and looked around. "What was that?"

"Some poor man just got slapped, no doubt," said Hilary hopefully, but the commotion was spreading; a few more people shouted, and partygoers were beginning to wander out into the back yard to see what was going on.

"I don't think I like this." St. George turned to follow the trickle of people. "Come on."

Hilary followed him into the alley behind the Kapoors' back yard, where a small knot of gawkers was already accumulating, and squirmed neatly through them to the clear patch of pavement at the middle, which was not in fact clear after all.

"He just appeared," a middle-aged woman Hilary didn't know was saying, half-hysterically, to anyone who would listen. "I came out to have a smoke and I turned around and there he was, I nearly stepped on him, my God--"

There was blood splattered on the woman's shoes, and a large pool of it on the ground.

"Oh," said Hilary weakly, "oh, damn," and stumbled blindly backwards again.

She ran up against St. George, who let out a strangled little noise and didn't so much catch her as clutch at her in return. He had gone sickly pale and his mouth slack; with his naturally light hair and pale eyes the yellow streetlights made him look very nearly corpselike himself in his shock. "What. Lee. What happened?"

"I don't know." Hilary groped for his hands and held on tight, both of his in both of hers; she felt as though without human contact, living human contact, she might just keel right over. "It's William," she said, trying desperately to think straight, or indeed to think at all. "Oh God, I know him, Jerry. He was the waiter, he served us tea the day we came down, and that was only last week and now he's just--that." She remembered her parents' funerals, one right after the other, and how horrible that had been--but this was an entirely different sort of horror. This wasn't disease, wasn't natural; someone had done this, someone had taken poor William, who had probably never hurt a fly, and stabbed him right here in a back alley. It was right in front of her, but it felt completely beyond imagination.

St. George's hands were shaking in hers. "We shouldn't," he began; his voice shook, and he gulped visibly. "I think," he tried again, "we ought to go," and nudged Hilary to turn away from the corpse so they could begin pushing back out through the crowd. "It doesn't do, just to stand around staring until the police get here, though I suppose people always do."

"There won't be any police," said Gail, appearing suddenly at Hilary's other elbow. "I've gone up to fetch Dr. Fitzmorris--he's all we need. A nasty accident, is all this is."

Hilary turned to stare at her, certain she'd misheard, though she kept a firm grip on St. George's hand. "He's dead," she protested in bewilderment, though the indignation at least gave her something to focus on that wasn't the corpse. "There's a knife in his heart. That doesn't happen by accident."

Gail was drawn and tired-looking, but immovable. "We don't bring police around here. Not for this, not for anything. You're both new, so I'll excuse you--but you have to trust me, we'll all be in far more hot water than it's worth. Best just to take care of it quietly, among ourselves; you'll learn quickly enough, most likely." She cocked her head, looking far less brave than she sounded. "Hear that? No police cars coming. No one's called them, and no one's going to--not even you."

"But," said St. George helplessly, "you can't hush that up. You've got to phone for the police. This isn't a family scandal or something; I daresay it's illegal not to."

"I said it was safer," Gail was beginning to sound oddly strangled; Hilary remembered that the boy had been her employee, and probably her friend. "Not right. But there's really no question of calling the police in, I promise you, and you will be prevented from it if we have to. I do hope it doesn't come to that--it has, before."

Hilary looked up at her companion uncertainly; there was keeping a low profile, and then there would be this. He shrugged back, looking anxious, and she gripped his hand even tighter and prayed. "We won't. Not--not yet, anyway. Not until you've told us why not."

A murmur rippled through the crowd, just then, and coalesced into the word doctor. Hilary couldn't see Dr. Fitzmorris from where she was, but people were shifting, making room for him to pass through to the center and what was left of William. The doctor's arrival seemed to bring Gail great relief. "You'd better talk to him," she said. "Dr. Fitzmorris. Not now, of course, but tomorrow. Soon."

"First thing tomorrow morning," said St. George with surprising firmness. "We'll be 'round to see him then--could you tell him? I want to get Miss Hood out of here--no place for a lady, and all that."

Hilary would have been offended, had she been paying full attention, but she had caught sight of something small and startlingly white on the ground, and disengaged her hand from St. George's to crouch and pick it up.

"I'll tell him," Gail acquiesced, apparently satisfied. "Now get out of here and keep quiet, do you understand?"

"We understand." St. George's hand brushed Hilary's shoulder as she stood up again, the small card tucked into her palm. "Let's go," he said against her ear, breaking through her distraction. "I think we've seen more than enough for tonight."

They made it as far as Mrs. Bloom's back stairs before Hilary sank down to sit near the bottom of them; she was beginning to shiver, and she set the card down next to her rather than drop it.

St. George slumped onto the stair below her and began to squirm out of his jacket. "Are you all right?"

"No, and neither are you." Hilary pressed her palms flat against her thighs. "And don't start," she went on, waving him away when he moved as if to put the jacket over her shoulders.

"I believe him." He wadded it into his lap instead and turned away from her to face front, shoulder pressed against Hilary's knee. She thought she might be able to feel St. George shivering too, but it was hard to tell. "That's the devil of it. I think the woman really has got a reason to be scared."

"I think so too." Hilary folded her hands with great precision and stared down at them. "It isn't right, Jerry."

"None of it is." St. George pressed a hair closer; for once she could be fairly certain it was due to genuine need for contact, and she very nearly envied him the courage to let it show while she was trying so desperately to seem collected. "Everyone is frightened and that poor boy is dead and we’re not even supposed to phone the police. I don't like this, Hilary. It's not what I signed on for. It's all twisted up."

Hilary lifted her head to look at the tired curve of his back. "There's still time for us to have a nice public row and you to get back to--to whatever it is you usually do on Friday nights."

"Not a chance." He glanced over his shoulder to flash a small, rueful smile, though his eyes were wide with trepidation. "You promised Miss Kapoor you would try to help, and I promised you. Someone's got to at least try to do something, and until Uncle Peter does us the courtesy of resurfacing I suppose we're the best option."

"Some option." Hilary was beginning to feel genuinely ill.

"Buck up, would you?" said St. George, entirely unconvincingly, and twisted round a bit further. "What's that you found on the ground, before? That looked promising."

Hilary picked the card back up and had a look at it, then passed it over to him. It was a plain elegant business card, and had been trampled by a dozen people before she'd found it, but underneath the footmarks it seemed clean and brand new apart from a splatter of blood which she was carefully avoiding touching. It read HARRISON INDUSTRIES, with an address in smaller type below that, and that was all.

St. George examined it; Hilary noticed that he, too, did his best not to touch it any more than absolutely necessary. "It isn't much," he admitted, after a minute. "Uncle Peter would probably know who the killer was by now. From the blood patterns, or something."

"Blast Uncle Peter," said Hilary, not very charitably, and St. George looked up in startlement at her language. She didn't care; she felt exhausted and sick and completely lost, and tomorrow they were going to have to go talk to Dr. Fitzmorris and God knew what else, and the thought of it made her feel even more tired. "He isn't at our beck and call--and why should he be? That card is all we've got, Jerry. We're all we've got. We're going to have to make do."