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Sweet Little Lies

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"I dream of the day when you've just returned from a trip abroad and I don't find you halfway drunk on my settee," said Pimm, pinning his cuff and pulling his coatsleeve down to hide an unfortunate and completely unremembered stain.

"You do no such thing," said Freddy. "You live for my returns. Your life would be hopelessly dull without me in it."

"I expect that's what you tell yourself when you're debating whether to impose on my hospitality or return to your own abode."

"And I may be on your settee, but you are the one who is halfway drunk. Besides which, my house is horribly stuffy," said Freddy. "I didn't get anyone in to air it out, and there's no food."

"I do nothing halfway," Pimm corrected him. "Am I feeding you as well now? You're like my housecat. Come and go as you please, and I'm expected to live for your whims."

"I am told I have somewhat feline features."

"More like porcine," said Pimm, which he felt was less insult than fair evaluation. "Have you been keeping up with the news, Freddy? I may not know what you've been getting up to, but I know you and you need to be more careful out there."

"Pshaw," said Freddy. "That ridiculous disorder? A bit of nonsense from abroad. You're too gullible, Pimm, old chap."

"I am anything but," said Pimm. "I've heard from sources of some reliability—"

"Meaning you fancy yourself a detective again."

"—sources of some reliability that it is a legitimate affliction. Do try to curb your natural impulses for a little while, Freddy? There may be more at stake now than escaping the clutches of a jealous husband."

"You say that as though I am at this very moment on my way out the door to find comfort in the arms of a young lady," said Freddy, "when you, in fact, are the one dressed to go out."

"I've got a meeting," said Pimm. "You remember Hugh Allen? From school?"

"Of course," said Freddy. "Bit of a nancy boy, always good for a drop of whiskey before I had to face our Latin tutor."

"He's in a spot of trouble and asked for my help," said Pimm. "I'd tell you to make yourself at home while I'm gone, but you already have. I shan't be long."

Freddy lazily waved him off, clearly uninterested in Pimm's business, or perhaps more interested in enjoying the comforts of Pimm's home and the luxuries therein. Not that Freddy couldn't have plenty of luxury of his own, if he paid more attention to the upkeep of his home and less on finding someone to keep him warm at night.

Hugh Allen was a slight man with spectacles and a hairline that had seen better days, despite his tender age. (Or at least Pimm liked to think it was a tender age, as it was the same as his own.) His lady friend, a Miss Kate Hastings, was at first glance perhaps too far out of his reach, but they were both bookish sorts at heart and when Pimm saw them together they quite easily found themselves deeply in conversation. It was perhaps not so much of a mismatch after all.

But the times they were together weren't what Hugh was worried about. It was the times they weren't together when Kate Hastings might have been seeking her company elsewhere. Pimm couldn't blame him for wondering, but at the same time couldn't help wondering himself just what sort of marriage could possibly be formed on a suspicious foundation such as that.

"Well, what have you?" he said anxiously, hands wrapped around a glass of whisky as though letting go might be the death of him.

"Hugh, old chap," said Pimm, his own drink loosely in one hand, and half empty, "if your intended has been in the company of a man other than yourself recently, she has done it so discreetly that even I saw not a sign of it."

Hugh's sigh was surprised, but grateful. "If you haven't seen it, it didn't happen, I'm sure," he said. "I hated to think of her...unsatisfied, with my company. My private company."

"Spare it no more thought," said Pimm. And spare him any further details.

"It's not that I'm mistrustful, you understand," he went on, as though now were the time for explanations, when his suspicions had been proven unfounded. "But these days a man can't be too careful. There are odd rumours floating about."

"I've heard them myself," said Pimm.

"I'm not sure I believe it," said Hugh, "but if it's even half true it's not something I want coming into my home."

"No, a permanent result of a frivolous liaison is a desired consequence for no one," said Pimm. "My sources tell me it's just the prostitutes right now, but of course..." It would not, and could not, stay that way for long if it was as easily transmittable as he had been led to believe.

"Well, I shall concern myself with it no longer," said Hugh, with the false cheer of a man who wanted his companion to believe his fears had been completely assuaged when in reality a whole new fear had begun to bloom. "We ought to stay in touch, Pimm. It's been too long."

"We'll have drinks one day soon," said Pimm, "with no business to attend to next time."

"But right now I think I shall call on my lovely Katie. Perhaps I'll be able to interest her in a game of chess."

"I'll take my leave then," said Pimm. His drink empty, he was in grand shape to move on. "Until next time."

He might've gone on drinking, there or at another establishment, but Freddy was at home and if there was anyone Pimm ought to be having a drink with tonight, it was him. For despite any squabbles or frustrations, the truth was there was no one in the world whose company Pimm currently enjoyed more.

Though sometimes he wondered why.

"Pembroke!" said Freddy amiably, as if inviting Pimm into his own home. "How good to see you again! You're back earlier than expected."

"I told you I wouldn't be long," said Pimm. "It was business, not pleasure. And now that that's concluded, you can tell me all about Paris. I presume it's still standing?"

"I left it as I found it," said Freddy, "although I can't promise I left all the women as I found them. Have you ever had a French virgin?"

"No," said Pimm shortly, "and if you paid for it, then neither have you."

"Oh ye of little faith," said Freddy. "I am an excellent conversationalist."

"Has it occurred to you even once that this outbreak means that the woman you bed down on any given night might formerly have been a man?"

Freddy seemed wholly unconcerned with that. "As long as she's got a soft body and a genuine appreciation for my own harder parts, what's on the inside can't be all that different."

"You're incorrigible," said Pimm.

"But since this affliction is almost certainly a fairy tale—"

"It is almost certainly not."

"—then I am not going to concern myself with that. A woman is a woman is a woman, and they are all a delight to me. Now tell me what kind of business has made you such a bore tonight."

"It's not the business," said Pimm. Though perhaps it was the business, at least to some extent. "Hugh asked me to follow his girl, Kate, to make sure she wasn't seeking companionship elsewhere. And do be discreet about that, Freddy; neither one of them needs it spread about."

"First, allow me to indulge in a moment of shock that Hugh's found himself a girl."

"His family set him up," said Pimm. "They get on all right, so far as I can tell. If she'd been unfaithful to him, it's not where I've been able to see."

"They get on all right?" repeated Freddy. "Well, there's high praise for the relationship. I can't imagine why anyone would be unfaithful in a relationship that's all right."

"Not everyone is you, Banks," said Pimm. "'All right' may not be enough for you, but it's a solid foundation for a marriage."

"You don't believe a word of that."

No, he didn't, though the rest of his family family seemed to. They had certainly been on his case in the same way Hugh's had, if for different reasons. "It's good enough for Hugh, and that's the what matters."

"Well, there's a simple way to find out whether or not she's faithful," said Freddy. "Lead me to the young lady and I shall put her to the test." Already he was rising from the armchair and looking about for his coat.

"Absolutely not," said Pimm. "That is a terrible idea and I'll have no part of it. I've already given Hugh the good news that his intended is faithful as the day is long."

"Where's your investigative spirit?" said Freddy. "You want to find the truth for Mr Allen. I can provide it for you."

"With no benefit to yourself, naturally," said Pimm. Freddy had one shoe on. "She's not the sort of girl who typically falls for your charms. For instance, to the best of my knowledge she doesn't charge by the hour."

"How little you know of my charms," said Freddy. "All the more reason a demonstration is required. Just because you choose to no longer pursue the fairer sex—"

"None of that," said Pimm, as he did with most conversations that might lead back to Adelaide or anywhere in the general vicinity of her memory. "You and your ugly mug always did get more attention than you deserved."

"Your first mistake," said Freddy, "is in thinking that deserving has anything to do with it." Shoes on, coat on, he was as prepared as Pimm to go back out into the night. "I shall go with or without you, and without would entail me calling on Hugh himself to discover the name of his lovely young lady. And if it's with, I'll buy you a drink."

"I have plenty to drink here at home," said Pimm, but the offer was enticing all the same; if it was more enticing than keeping Freddy out of trouble, it was only because keeping Freddy out of trouble was a losing battle. "Don't do anything to frighten Hugh away; you'd be surprised the sway he has with our classmates. If he convinces them to stop coming to me, I'll not have any cases at all."

"And would would you do without your little cases?" said Freddy. "He'll not hear a word to set him against me."

"Oh, I'm sure he's already heard plenty of those," said Pimm, "just no direct action if you please, and for God's sake don't identify yourself to Kate."

"Kate, is it?"

"If she's even at her usual haunt," said Pimm. "She might well be at home, enjoying Hugh's company."

"If she's not there, you'll still get your drink, and everybody wins," said Freddy. "So what have you got to lose?"

"Well, go on then," said Pimm, "while the night is still young and your plan still has some marginal possibility of succeeding. No need to summon a cab, it's a pleasant enough evening for a walk up the street."

And it certainly was, the air just crisp enough to make sure the both of them entered the establishment with a clear head. Kate Hastings was sitting with two of her closest confidants from school, head in close and laughing unabashedly after a particular story was told or observation was made.

"That's her, the fair one," said Pimm, identifying her as unobtrusively as he could. I shall be at the bar to console you on what I expect will be your eventual failure." For, if it was not, he would have to call on Hugh tomorrow with an entirely different bit of news than that he'd just given.

"You ought to watch," said Freddy, but Pimm did only out of the corner of his eye, and only because of his duty to Hugh, not because Freddy thought himself a sort of Don Juan.

It wasn't that Kate seemed bothered by his company, for Freddy was as charming as he claimed to be, and he got closer to her than any of the others Pimm had watched attempt that particular conquest. But the ultimate result was the same: Kate returned to her school chums, and Freddy returned to Pimm.

"I do so enjoy being right," said Pimm.

"I will concede this one to you."

"And I'll take that drink now."

Freddy was good for it, as Pimm had known he would be.

"I don't believe she cares for men at all," said Freddy, "which shows her to be a woman of good sense and excellent taste."

"Now Freddy," said Pimm. "Just because a woman doesn't fall for your charms..."

"In all sincerity," said Freddy. "Perhaps she is an excellent match."

"Yes, we all know Hugh does not delight in the fairer sex," said Freddy. "He has every reason to want to enter into a sham marriage, but not without his intended's full knowledge. There must be mutual consent to that sort of arrangement or it will never work. And if he has asked me to ensure her fidelity, then there is clearly no such arrangement."

"Then perhaps one more visit to our old classmate is in order," said Freddy. "Would it not be unconscionable to let things go where they stand?"

"Based on your instinct?"

"Based on our knowledge of Hugh, if nothing else," said Freddy. "It would be a delicate conversation, to be certain, but I believe you're the man for the job."

Pimm would sleep on it. And as he finished his last drink, he did look upon Katie Hastings one last time, as if it might somehow give him the necessary wisdom to move forward. But she looked like the same delightful, clever girl he'd met last week in Hugh Allen's parlour.

"Where to next?" Freddy asked him as they stepped out into the night once more. "Shall I fetch us a cab this time?"

"Haven't you about had your fill for one night?"

"Had my fill?" said Freddy. "One innocent bit of flirtation? I can hardly have had my fill without consummation, can I?"

Incorrigible. It was the only word for him. "Well, I've had mine," he said. "I expect I'll see you in the morning."

"Or perhaps the afternoon, if I'm lucky," said Freddy, tipping his hat at him before heading in the other direction. The last Pimm saw of him was the flash of his coat as he rounded a distant corner and vanished from sight.

In the afternoon indeed. And perhaps at that point they could have another conversation about a bit of precautionary abstinence. But then, the thing Pimm liked best about Freddy was his lack of judgement, so perhaps he simply needed to give him the same. Freddy was an adult, after all, as much as Pimm was. He was free to make his own decisions, come what may, and all Pimm could do was try to ensure they were informed ones.

And so, that settled in his mind, he set off for home, alone.